A Travellerspoint blog

May 2013

Luxor

Luxor attained the coveted title of “Liam’s favourite destination in the Nile Valley”, although I suppose visiting just three fails to qualify as a comprehensive survey. As the modern incarnation of the ancient capital of Upper Egypt, the city provides an exceptional base from which to explore and absorb the country’s historically glorious civilisation. The fabled city of Thebes was situated on the East Bank of the Nile and was considered the “city of the living”. The gargantuan temple complexes of Luxor and Karnak are the surviving monuments which emphasise Thebes’ importance and power. The West Bank of the Nile was conversely labelled the “city of the dead” and the internationally famous tombs and mortuary temples in the area constitute what is colloquially referred to as the “world’s largest open-air museum”. Scattered beside the Nile for hundreds of kilometres north and south of Luxor are magnificent preserved temples from the New Kingdom and Ptolemaic dynasty eras. The city of Luxor itself exudes minimal charm and was surprisingly much smaller than I had anticipated. These characteristics were not necessarily unwelcomed however as the city provided a sample of the modern Egyptian society prevalent in Cairo but on a comparatively microscopic and far more manageable scale.

Apparently in Egypt children are taught that if they annoy relentlessly an adult they will eventually be rewarded for it. Unfortunately (or perhaps, fortunately) my talents in such endeavours are wasted in Australia. In Luxor, some of the children are behind the reigns of horses pulling carriages and they replicate the behaviour of their male role models by hassling incessantly the foreign visitors. “(Feigning interest) Where are you from?” “Australia/New Zealand/Quebec/China (depended on my mood).” “Do you want a carriage?”. “No thank you.” “You want to know how much?” [No response]. “Five pounds (with a tone that suggests that I should be bowled over in amazement)… only five pounds… good price… I’ll take you anywhere in Luxor… the money is just to feed my horse… not for me… only five pounds… ok two pounds… only two pounds!” “No thank you, I want to walk.” “It’s only five/two (depending on what stage of the “conversation” we have reached) pounds though!” “No I just want to walk.” “Ok, ok, I’ll wait for you to finish walking around, then I’ll take you back to the hotel for only five pounds (they seemed determined to restrict us to the hotels).” “No, that’s not necessary.” “No problems, I wait (actually stalk; once I had an amazing time of stop-starting and watched the carriage in my peripheral vision as it mimicked my movements). (Developing a semblance of sympathy that the adult/child is wasting their time) “I’m not taking the carriage.” “But the price is only five/two pounds.” “No.” “You’re a bad man, a very bad man.” So very true.

Accommodation is rarely discussed in Globo Trip, but I’m making an exception for Bob Marley House in Luxor, which was undoubtedly my best hostel experience for the year. The hostel is owned by a Belgian woman and (pardon the implied cultural discrimination) it is inexpressible how relieving it was to stay somewhere with a Westerner manager. She was unbelievably knowledgeable about the Ancient Egyptian monuments in the region and thus provided invaluable advice. I had become accustomed to distrusting any recommendations made by Arabs in North Africa (unless, on the rare occasion, they were female), even staff members at the hostels/hotels I was staying at, because they all seemed to potentially have a vested interest in my movements. The Belgian manager asserted that as a European and since she was catering for European clientele, European standards needed to be enforced. Consequently, the premises was exceptionally clean, there were atmospheric communal areas and service was efficient and friendly; all of which are rather foreign concepts in this region! Instead of the usual cheap bread, packaged croissants and sachet jams that you receive for breakfast in most hotels in the region, the hostel actually provided real food with descent bread, real jam, fruit, yoghurt, an omelette and piles of a salty and creamy Egyptian cheese which is addictive. The best attribute of the hostel was that it did not have the contrived feeling that is merely just a business as the Belgian woman and her Egyptian husband were always eager to talk to guests between cigarettes and shisha. Luxor was incredibly hot and so most guests followed the same routine of sightseeing in the morning, chilling in the communal area in the afternoon and then braving the weather departing again once the sun had gone down. It was fascinating to hear the experiences and opinions of someone who has lived in Egypt during the Revolution years from a Western perspective. It was also the cheapest place I stayed at in all of Africa, aside from Casablanca Airport.

The Belgian woman described Abydos and Dendara as “the forgotten temples of Egypt”, which seemed to be a poignantly accurate assertion after I had visited these stupefying structures on a daytrip with French Michele. Unjustifiably, neither of these temples commands the attention of tourists and rarely do they feature on travellers’ itineraries. The Belgian woman’s emphatic endorsement of Abydos and Dendara instigated Michele and I to hire a taxi to visit the sites as the furthest town was nearly three hours away. The temple at Abydos was constructed by Seti I and his son Ramses II and unfortunately I’ve forgotten its dedication. It was assembled more than three thousand years ago and yet the structural integrity of the building remains; although I suspect that substantial refurbishment and reconstruction has occurred in the last century. Nevertheless, the temple boasted the most impressive detailed decoration that I saw in all of Egypt. The visitor enters a series of two cavernous hypostyle halls that consist of columns with the papyrus motif. The columns and the walls feature intricate carvings in Egyptian stylization. Numerous rooms and halls jut out from the main areas where even more detailed, colourful and better preserved decoration can be seen. One of the rooms was ornamented with depictions of each of the pharaohs presenting an offering to the gods; with the exception of the two female pharaohs, Tutankhamen and one other. We then travelled to Dendara to see the Temple of Hathor (goddess of numerous things), which was constructed during the Ptolemaic dynasty (Macedonian) in the third century BC. The temple’s preservation was flabbergasting and its lack of fame was completely incomprehensible. The massive temple consists of a trapezoidal prism configuration and monumentally high ceilings. The structure is supported by colossal columns that each features the face of Hathor on all four sides. The walls, columns and ceilings in the two primarily halls are elaborately decorated and vivid blue paintwork remains. We explored the surroundings rooms, halls, terrace area above the sanctuary below, which boasted astonishing designs of falcons and crocodiles in alabaster. These two temples utterly annihilated my faith in the World Heritage list as neither one has been included to the prestigious list. Muburak has been blamed for such a cataclysmic oversight, but I also harbour suspicions of a European or Christian conspiracy as each are disproportionately represented on extreme levels.

The West Bank was the site for the ancient Theban necropolis and thus dozens of Egyptian pharaohs, royal family members and nobles were buried there. Consequently, the West Bank features hundreds of tombs that are located in different clusters, with each representing different levels of hierarchy. Gigantic mortuary temple complexes, which were only used during the seventy day mummification process for a pharaoh, are strewn throughout the arid area. For the first of my two days of visiting the West Bank, I joined a tour to avoid the hassle of exploring the constituent sites. The Valley of the Kings, as the name implies, was the valley in which the pharaohs of the New Kingdom were buried in tombs that were constructed throughout the duration of their reign (and thus were never completed as work halted once the Pharaoh was dead). The landscape of the Valley of the Kings is hostile in its aridity, desolation and searing temperatures and thus displays no indication whatsoever of the hidden royal tombs within. Of the tombs which have been rediscovered in the valley, only a small portion of them are open to the public at any given time. The four tombs which I visited each consisted of sloping passageways which led down to the burial chamber. The walls and ceilings of the tombs featured blindingly vivid colours with white backgrounds and detailed religious depictions in reds, blues, yellows and black. The tomb of Ramses VI retained the huge stone coffin the pharaoh once rested in. While the Valley of the Kings is the West Bank’s most famous site, the mortuary temple of Queen Hatshepsut is the most iconic. The temple consists of a series of vast platforms that exude horizontal monumentality and gradually ascend to a cliff. The final area accessed by the connecting ramp is guarded by numerous statues, most of which still survive. The mortuary temple for Ramses VI was my highlight attraction of the West Bank. The sprawling complex was surprisingly absent of the tourist crowds at the aforementioned sites. The temple is sequentially explored by passing through the colossal pylon entrance, two spacious courtyards that are bordered with arcades and concludes at a hypostyle hall that is now mostly destroyed. The temple is renowned for the particularly deep carvings of hieroglyphics, which has induced the pigeon problem that plagues the precinct.

I returned to the West Bank the following day with French Benjamin as we explored some of the remaining sites independently. We visited two clusters of tombs in the Valley of the Nobles, which you may have intuitively guessed was the resting place for important members of the public (such as prime ministers, mayors and scribes) that would qualify as being described as nobles. The decorative designs of the tombs were quite individualistic and certainly featured different stylization to the tombs in the Valley of the Kings, which were more inhibited by the need for religious connotations. The tombs of the nobles present depictions of their roles in the royal court and promote their importance to the pharaoh. The paintwork in one of the tombs included figures of African fauna, including a giraffe, leopard and elephant. The ceiling of another tomb was covered in grapes and their vines. We also visited the mortuary temple of Ramses II, which is now mostly in ruins. Enough of the structure remains however to appreciate the enormity of the complex. We completed our excursion before being vaporised by the afternoon sun by perusing through several tombs in the Valley of the Queens, which (perhaps contrary to your logic) consists of numerous tombs for princes in addition to the queens. Most of the tombs exhibited the vivid colouration we had seen at the previous tombs though their designs were less intriguing.

Two of the largest temple complexes of Ancient Egypt are located on Luxor’s East Bank and both are exceptional examples of monumental Nile-side architecture. Luxor Temple is situated beside the Nile at the centre of the modern town and is dramatically illuminated by light in the evenings. There is a parade of sphinxes which led to the great pylon entrance to the temple. The visitor then traverses through a series of hypostyle halls, each of which are composed of different column orders. The temple complex of Karnak was arguably the most important religious institution in Ancient Egypt. The constituent building, the Temple of Amun, is regarded as the largest religious structure ever built anywhere in the world that could have enclosed ten average European cathedrals (according to Wikipedia). The temple was dedicated to the most venerated Theban god , the sun deity Amun-Re, and thus the priests at Karnak commanded great power in society. The entrance to the temple and the transitioning from one space to another are marked but massive pylons. There are several gargantuan courtyards and the great hypostyle hall is the largest in the world, with unbelievably immense columns. Towering obelisks and imposing statues are scattered throughout the precinct. Despite boasting perhaps the most breathtaking ruins in Upper Egypt, by Karnak I was suffering from “temple-fatigue”.

Aside from the aforementioned cheese provided at breakfast, intriguing culinary experiences were somewhat limited in Luxor. The cartoons of mango juice I was guzzling down in the afternoons remain the most vivid memories of consumption. I did have a delicious “moussaka”, which was a rich eggplant and capsicum stew that was cooked in a terracotta pot and served steaming.

Particularly because of the hostel’s hospitality, I extended my intended stay in Luxor by three days in order to see everything I wanted to in the region without feeling rushed. I thoroughly enjoyed chilling out from the oppressive heat in the afternoon while still feeling as though I had achieved something that day with the sightseeing in the morning. Luxor certainly provided the best opportunity to experience Ancient Egyptian history.

That’s all for now,

Liam

Posted by Liamps 23:56 Archived in Egypt Comments (1)

Aswan

The foreign visitor is paralysed by boundless wonder of the visual tranquillity that Aswan exudes, especially after experiencing the chaotic inferno that is Cairo. I went to bed amid the incessant ugliness of the sprawling Giza suburbs and woke up to views of paradisiacal Nile-side landscape. Upon exiting the train station, I was astonished by the dramatically contrasting condition of the Nile and the imagery of its surrounding vegetation and landforms. Aswan is a relatively small city that primarily occupies the East Bank of the Nile in Southern Egypt. Numerous islands of varying size are scattered throughout the river in the Aswan locality. The West Bank is virtually uninhabited and features towering sand dunes that descend precipitously into the Nile. Aswan is the first settlement after the High Dam and consequently the water of the Nile is unexpectedly pristine. It is plied by literally hundreds of feluccas (the traditional Egyptian sailing vessels) and is bordered by thickets of reeds and palms that are bursting with vibrant shades of green. Accumulatively, the phenomenal spectacle is most beguiling, considering that the scenery can be enjoyed directly from within a modern Egyptian city. To remind you though that Aswan is very much a modern Egyptian city, the foreign visitor is followed by the irksome hasslers from Cairo.

Immediately opposite the waterfront of Aswan’s East Bank is spear-shaped Elephantine Island, which is the largest and most populated of the area’s islands. It was historically occupied by the region’s most important settlements, including a Nubian town on the Southern end of the island. I visited the skeletal remains of the town’s foundations as my concentration and consciousness gradually deteriorated in the searing heat of the Aswani afternoon. Please refrain from convincing yourselves that I perpetually complain about the weather because generally I find that hot temperatures provide satisfactory conditions. Over 40 degrees Celsius in the harsh desert environs with minimal semblances of shade exceeds my tolerable thresholds. My exploration of the ruins basically comprised of pouncing between large stone blocks or pillars and hiding behind them from the blazing sun. One of the more intriguing aspects of the site was the Nile-o-meter, which the Ancient Nubians utilised to gauge the height of the river. This comprised of a wall that surrounded a body of water that was connected to the Nile presumable by a pipe or some sort of opening. The water-level was thus equal to the river, from which they could measure the height from existing indicators on the wall. I was too frazzled to comprehend anything else I saw. I also learnt my lesson and did not attempt sightseeing in the afternoon for the next week in Upper Egypt.

The constituent reason why most travellers take the fourteen hour train trip to Aswan is to join the four hour police convoy escort to Abu Simbel, near the Sudanese border. Local Egyptians inform that the convoy exists merely because of the previous regime’s rhetoric about the threat of terrorism from groups such as the Muslim Brotherhood. Even if truthfulness existed in such assertions, the security measure seems rather insipid since there are only police cars at the head and rear of the convoy and it probably exacerbates the threat by establishing a reliably known time of departure and route for all the tourist vehicles. Nevertheless, the convoy worked in delivering me to the iconic statues without a terrorist in sight. The temples of Abu Simbel were constructed nearly three and a quarter millennia ago during the reign of Ramses II who is widely regarded as Ancient Egypt’s greatest pharaoh. The temples were carved from mountainside facing the Nile and were situated in the Southern extremities of the Egyptian Empire. They are guarded by the famous colossal statues of Ramses and his Queen Nefertiti, which are incredibly imposing and demonstrate the power of the pharaoh to would-be invaders. The statues and the temples were painstakingly relocated by UNESCO, block by block, to higher ground in the 1960s because of the creation of Lake Nasser, the world’s largest artificial lake, from the construction of the Aswan High Dam. The remarkable feet of engineering effectively inspired the foundation of the World Heritage list. There are four statues which guard the entrance to the large temple (three of Ramses and one of Nefertiti) and each of them are extraordinarily well preserved except for one which has lost its head. The interior is elaborately decorated with ornate carvings and the vivid colouration of depictions has survived. There is also a small temple which is guarded by a series of statues I won’t pretend to identify and features a similar interior. Since we departed ridiculously early at 3:30am in the morning, the visit to Abu Simbel was effectively over by 9:30am; leaving me to ponder for an entire day as to why my sleep needed to be so ruthlessly sabotaged.

Despite my exhaustion, I admirably adopted the attitude that I should shun comfort and contentment and courageously sought to make the most of my time by partaking in the quintessential Aswan experience of riding a felucca. I hired a boat that was captained by a local Nubian who acted exactly as I expected him to by demanding more money than the 40 Egyptian pounds we agreed upon. This occurred because the fare of was for one hour, which I negotiated unbeknownst that the journey would actually take closer to three. He performed an ultimately unsuccessful hissy-fit as I handed him 60 ponds once I had disembarked. The voyage itself was a pleasant and serene experience, if also frustratingly slow. The captain asserted that the water in Aswan is safe enough to swim in, but with extreme difficulty I managed to employ precautionary restraint and only stuck my legs in (so I have at least “touched” the Nile). The trip circled Elephantine Island which afforded exceptional views of the dunes and reeds on the West Bank. The felucca briefly stopped at Kitchener Island so I could visit the Aswan Botanical Gardens. This was established by the British in the late 19th century and is a manicured, lushes and tropical oases in the middle of the desert. It was surreal to see a vast and healthy river flowing through the harsh desert, a phenomena best experienced in Aswan.

The best meal I ate in Egypt was beside the Nile with a panoramic view of the river, Elephantine Island and the West Bank behind. I had a delicious babganouj (eggplant dip) to start and a richly flavoured fish tajine, which was cooked in a similar way to the Moroccan equivalents but with different flavouring. While in Aswan, I also had a brilliant Egyptian-style pizza which was similar to a pie as the filling was enclosed with a thin and flaky pastry the whole way around.

Aswan boasts an exceptionally beautiful setting and the views from the rooftop balcony will forever be seared in my memory. The heat though was rather prohibitive which compelled me to ditch plans to visit other attractions in the area like the temple at Philae.

That’s all for now,

Liam

Posted by Liamps 15:29 Archived in Egypt Comments (0)

Cairo

While pusillanimous souls quiver violently in terror when the term “Middle East” is merely uttered, I adopted ambivalence to such qualms and eagerly anticipated travelling through this region. Unfortunately, the tabloid media and political rhetoric in the West has produced a panicked public perception of all things Arab and an irrational and generalistic [new word] judgement of the safety in visiting Middle Eastern countries. Granted, its probable that unabashed naivety is only evident on a collective scale in the American “fly-over” states (which isn’t so comforting since that constituency’s political power could potentially engineer the extermination of the entire region). Nevertheless, there are many supposedly educated and sensible Australians that exhibit inherent and perpetual fear in relation to the Arab world. Upon discovering my intentions to visit a minuscule and highly touristic pocket of the Middle East, one person afflicted with this problem was compelled to repeatedly e-mail me snippets from the Australian Government’s Smartraveller website for the respective countries; falsely suggestive that I ignorantly disregarded reading the issued advise. For me though, this nonsensical ploy was the actual epitome of ignorance. Obviously such irritating actions would only be performed by one’s own mother. I think Mum should at least be appreciative that I have resisted “doing a Sean” Stevens, which involves intentionally providing exceptionally vague plans and contacting home once every three months. I have much preferred Peter Stevens’ approach in sending random recommendations for places to visit, knowledge that was likely acquired from his Arab-dominated football club (I believe the ironic nickname of “Saints” has recently been abolished (ironic because of the religious contradiction, not because I’m implying a racial slur!)). This ostentatious diatribe may have risked jinxing my experiences in the Middle East. However, while the incessant hassling increasingly irks and my detestation for motorcycles solidifies, I have thus far felt completely safe in Egypt and less threatened by the prospect of theft than in Western Europe.

Cairo is an absolute disaster of a city. I suppose there must be some tourists that revel in the cacophony of mayhem and find it charming, but a touch of insanity would be necessary for this perspective. Cairo enlightened me that mega-cities of developing countries are probably not my cup of tea. Cairo is ridiculously overcrowded and a densely populated metropolis of nearly 20 million residents (although the Cairanese seem to have a penchant for exaggeration as I was told estimations of 25 million, 30 million and even 50 million. I only trust the most reliable source available, Wikipedia). As the day progresses in Cairo, market stalls gradually manifest on the footpaths and on the sides of the roads, which severely complicates pedestrian movement considering the crowds. In the evenings, virtually the entire road system is diabolically congested with cars and motorcycles that uniformly spurn civilised traffic laws (if they even exist). Piles of rubbish abound throughout the city and they are occasionally set on fire. The urban layout lacks any logical order, save only for a few major roads that incise through the tangle. The air is dusty and polluted, the streets are implacably heaving with people and the buildings are generally ugly and dilapidated. Policemen are ubiquitously sighted but they are untrustworthy and uncooperative in warding off hasslers. Worst of all, considering the corruption and inefficiency that constrains Egyptian society and the physical magnitude of the current city, I struggle to conceptualise how Cairo will ever develop at least a semblance of order; its trajectory is surely to become busier and more chaotic. However, this depiction of Cairo is not intended to discourage visiting the city as the overwhelming and confronting experience was exceptionally memorable and educational. It is also necessary to stay in Cairo to see some of the world’s most outstanding ancient monuments and finest Islamic architecture.

The Islamic quarter defies the unpleasantness that the rest of the city pervades. This district was where the Fatimid dynasty established their new capital in the 10th century AD and ultimately founded the Islamic city of Cairo. The Fatimids were patrons of a Shi’a sect of Islam and thus they are now reviled by the predominately Sunni Egyptian population. The recent suggestion by Dr Morsi that Iranian tourists may soon be permitted entrance into the country has triggered pandemonium; and I even read one article which claimed that such a policy would risk Egypt being swept by Shi’as who would return it to the dark days of the Fatimid dynasty. Nevertheless, the Fatimids left an astonishing legacy by constructing breathtaking mosques, minarets, medersas, mausoleums and palaces. The Mamluks, who were originally a slave-soldier caste, and the Ottomans each ruled Egypt for three centuries and added to the legacy by constructed numerous buildings in their own architectural styles. Consequently, Islamic Cairo now brims with monumental structures that exhibit a plethora of design motifs. I assumed that Islamic Cairo would be similar to the medinas of Morocco and Tunisia, where even important buildings seldom display grandeur on the exterior. I was therefore shocked by the imagery of Islamic Cairo with the phenomenal concentration of imposing structures and was particularly stricken by the countless number of pencil-shaped minarets that protrude into the sky. The area is roughly defined by one thoroughfare which the most significant buildings are located on and the network of bazaars branch out from. Non-Muslims are permitted to enter the courtyard area of mosques in Cairo (from which the prayer room can be viewed anyway), so I visited two of the largest mosques in the area and both were heavily crowded with studying students. The Al-Hakim Mosque featured a huge courtyard surrounded by cream-coloured arcades and green curtains and was blindingly bright in the midday sun. The Al-Azhar Mosque, one of the most important in the Muslim world, had intricately decorated surfaces and several stunning minarets. I visited several medersas and mausoleums and some of which featured cavernous spaces while others displayed exquisitely detailed embellishments. Bab Zuweila, the Southern entrance to the area, was my favourite structure. The gateway consists of two incredibly tall and slender minarets that almost resemble space rockets.

The Great Pyramids of Giza are the oldest and only surviving Wonder of the Ancient World and are also perhaps the most iconic structures on the planet. So where are all the tourists? The massive desert plateau that bizarrely rises out from the suburbs of Giza has no lack of hasslers; they just have few people to hassle. Therefore the unfortunate souls who do visit the Pyramids are inundated by an unthinkably endless barrage of hassling. It starts in Central Cairo before you even enter the Metro to reach Giza, as everyone in the city seems to know someone that owns a camel and can take you for a ride (for an “Egyptian” price). It continues immediately after exiting the station, where people generously advice that you should enter through the “Egyptian” entrance which is apparently much cheaper and nicer than the tourist entrance. I was most amused when one man (who was supposedly catching the same bus as I was because he lived in the area) concluded his rant about the virtues of the “Egyptian entrance” with “So which entrance will it be? Egyptian entrance or tourist entrance?”, to which I enthusiastically responded “the tourist entrance!!!” The “friendly” man then walked off, without catching the bus. Even as you ride the minibus to the Pyramids, people call out to you from the streets. When exiting the vehicle, you are almost deafened by the mass of screeching hasslers and need to vigorously fight through the throng to reach the official entrance. Most depressingly though, the worst hassling I have ever experienced occurred after I had entered the precinct. Egyptians with camels or donkeys or postcards or water or cola or worthless figurines relentlessly (I cannot stress that word enough. Usually my writing employs severe exaggerations, but in this I am conveying the uncompromised truth of the situation!) pursue and harass the Western visitor the entire time they are there. If I received one Egyptian pound for each time I was asked “Hello, where are you from?” then I would only need to spend one hour at the Pyramids to fund my entire trip! Ok, maybe that was an exaggeration. Everyone there is after “baksheesh” (tips) for the smallest things; even the corrupt policemen are in on the act. Apparently annoying someone incessantly should earn you a tip in Egypt. Obviously this tainted my experience of visiting the Pyramids, although I was at least afforded some respite when I wandered through the utterly deserted cemetery for the nobles. This account focuses on the hassling aspect because I cannot provide original content about the Pyramids that people would not already know. Just in case extra-terrestrials are reading this blog, the Great Pyramids at Giza are three square-based pyramidal structures that were constructed more than four and a half thousand years ago (the time between the Pyramids’ construction and the suicide of Cleopatra is more than the suicide of Cleopatra and the modern-day. Isn’t that flabbergasting!!!) by the Egyptian pharaohs Khufu, Khafre and Menkraue to be used as colossal tombs. There is also a gigantic sculpture of a lion with a pharaonic head that guards the plateau and is known as the “Sphinx”. There are no superlatives that can adequately describe the experience of seeing the Pyramids or how impressive the Ancient Egyptians were to construct them.

Easily my favourite excursion in Egypt was to the pyramids and archaeological sites at Saqqara and Dahshur. I visited the sites with a Kiwi couple I meet on the plane from Tunis and who are travelling through Africa for at least a year. The small towns, in close proximity to each other, are located around 45 minutes from Central Cairo and beyond its sprawling and chaotic suburbs. They are surrounded by lushes palmeries and fields of agriculture that are irrigated with water from the Nile. The paradisiacal green scenery abruptly ends with the commencement of the desert and the endless nothingness, which is where the pyramid fields and mastaba tombs are situated. The first known monumental pyramid ever constructed was the Step Pyramid of Zoser at the Saqqara necropolis, by Imhotep who is considered to be the first architect and engineer in history if Wikipedia can be believed. Imhotep published an encyclopaedia on architecture which was used as a guide for Egyptian construction for thousands of years. The structure has been relatively well preserved, although it was covered in wooden scaffolding when we were there. The Saqqara necropolis also features dozens of mastaba tombs which are trapezoidal shaped and almost camouflage into the desert landscape. Inside them, the walls are decorated with exquisitely detailed carvings of people, animals, flora or scenes in Egyptian stylization. Some even retain the vivid colours of the original paintwork, despite being more than 4600 years old. Now I’m far less impressed by the preservation of the frescoes at Pompeii! The pyramids at Dahshur, within eyeshot of Saqqara, are among the most captivating sights that I have ever seen. The Red Pyramid was the first “true” pyramid constructed and was consequently the prototype design for the structures at Giza. It is magnificently well preserved and in the absence of other people and hasslers, it was easier to appreciate this wonder. We were able to enter the pyramid, though this was not necessarily an endeavour I supported since it required ascending and descending a narrow, sloping and almost infinitely long passageway (not conducive for tall people who like to complain a lot). The dark and relatively small tomb within is shaped like a triangular prism and features a black surface. Walking between the Red Pyramid and the Bent Pyramid was a tremendously surreal experience, as we were completely alone in the desert and surrounded by nothingness; except for two gargantuan and otherworldly objects. As the namesake implies, the builders failed to achieve structural perfection in constructing the Bent Pyramid; yet its almost entirely preserved and is unique to have retained the smooth sandstone surface that has disappeared from the other pyramids. Remarkably, there were only a handful of other visitors at the Saqqara necropolis and literally no one else at Dahshur (I’m discounting the tourists who arrived by car and stayed for only three minutes), even though, in my highly revered opinion, these attractions are the best in the Cairo region.

The Egyptian Museum provided absolute confirmation that I am simply not a “museum person”. I anticipated that an entire day would be required to explore the building, based on the many glorifying reviews I had heard (specifically of the collection, not of the woeful presentation). However, even the most outstanding and extensive collection of Ancient Egyptian artefacts failed to command my attention for two hours. I first visited the room displaying the treasures found in Tutankhamen’s tomb, which were quite extraordinary to see. I was mesmerised particularly by the intricate detail in the design of his golden mask and attempted to find defects which I expected would exist considering it was produced more than 3000 years ago, though I was unsuccessful. I then began a chronological tour of the museum, moving between rooms that displayed statues, coffins, jewellery and other ornaments from the Old Kingdom through to Roman rule. I find it incomprehensible how the stylization of Egyptian art remained in essence unchanged across two millennia from the Old Kingdom to the New Kingdom (at least to the untrained eye); especially in comparison to the monumental changes in Western art that have occurred across the last two thousand years. The galleries displaying art from the Ptolemaic and Roman periods provided a dramatic contrast to the monotony of the previous halls. Unfortunately visitors needed to buy an additional ticket to view the mummies of the pharaohs so I skipped that area since I was already losing interest. I was able to view mummies of animals, which included an unbelievably preserved six metre crocodile. After two hours, I realised that was walking around aimless with my mind in another place, so I quickly escaped the facility.

The Coptic area of Cairo was quite an anticlimax and it certainly doesn’t feature the spectacular architecture that its Islamic equivalent does. Coptic Cairo is an infinitesimal area in the context of the broader metropolis, consisting of a cluster of churches, small monasteries and souvenir shops. Most of the buildings are accessed from a pedestrian footpath that is below street level. Coptic churches are substantially smaller than Catholic churches and seem to provide a more intimate and homily communal experience. They are absent of lavish ornamentation and employ timber heavily as a decorative motif, which creates a more ambient atmosphere. There is also a synagogue in the area and armies of security guards.

I accompanied a group from the hostel on a felucca trip along the Nile, the first time that I had seen the mighty river. The Nile is one of those “things” where the enormity and wonder of it is completely intangible. While I couldn't really distinguish the uniqueness of the river, I did enjoy the pleasant ride on the traditional Egyptian sailboat. Later in the evening, we visited a local tea house where an Egyptian was singing/screeching Arabic songs. The music was shocking noise the locals seemed to like it and so it was quite a cultural experience.

Egypt does not boast one of the Mediterranean’s most intriguing kitchens, but I stilled enjoyed some appetizing dishes in Cairo. Probably the most popular meal in Egypt is “kushari”, which consists of macaroni noodles, rice and lentils mixed together with tomato sauce, fried onions, lemon juice and chilli sauce (chickpeas are also sometimes added). Kushari is incredibly inexpensive comfort food and also very filling. I sampled Egyptian-style pizza, which is characterised by the flaky pastry-like base and the thin layer of topping that allows it to be rolled up and eaten like a souvlaki. The four month absence of dip from my diet (dip is normally constituent staple) was finally broken in Cairo and I concluded that the dip the Egyptians excel at best is babganouj (eggplant dip). Fuul, the pureed bean dish that Egyptians often eat for breakfast, just looked like a pile of poo whenever I saw it so I didn’t trouble myself with sampling that dish. I savoured the opportunity to eat falafel, although I suspect that there are superior varieties in perhaps Lebanon and Turkey as I don’t believe the Egyptian offering superseded falafel that I’ve eaten in Australia. I happened to be in Cairo during Coptic Easter and since many people in the city celebrate the occasion regardless of their faith, the hostel generously hosted a traditional feast. The colourful display primarily consisted of fresh vegetables, salads and (very) salty herring, the latter of which is only eaten on Easter. The most delicious item I ate while staying in Cairo was a ridiculously cheap flat-bread pocket sandwich of falafel, stewed eggplants, feta and tomato salad and tahini.

What an incredibly overwhelming time I had in Cairo, its certainly not a place where boredom can develop. I was incredibly relieved to be departing Cairo when my train for Aswan left Giza Railway Station, but now that I reminisce about the city I’m finding the prospect of returning quite appealing! It was undoubtedly one of the most memorable periods of the trip.

That’s all for now,

Liam

Posted by Liamps 09:55 Archived in Egypt Comments (0)

Tunisia III

“Those Romans, they were a cluey bunch.” Since I departed sub-Saharan Africa, I have travelled to eleven countries spread throughout the Mediterranean Region. Remarkably though, this entire duration has been spent within the frontiers of the Roman Empire; which has compelled me to apply to the imperial office for a visa extension before my three months expires. This unintentional quirk in my itinerary is testimony to the incomprehensible power of the Empire during Antiquity. Vestiges of Rome’s incredibly advanced civilisation are evident in most major cities in Western Europe and certainly every nation that borders the Mediterranean (except perhaps Monaco). Tunisia, once the homeland of the mighty Carthaginian Empire, is now an open-air museum of Roman ruins as it was one of the eternal city’s most important provinces. The third largest colosseum in the Roman Empire was constructed at El-Jem while the World Heritage listed Roman town of Dougga is located amidst the picturesque Tunisian countryside. Visiting these sites was the constituent aspect of the final component of my journey through Tunisia.

The Colosseum of El Jem is demonstrative that the number of tourists at a site is entirely dependent on its location. If the Romans had constructed this phenomenal structure in modern-day Spain, France of Great Britain, it would probably be among the most iconic and visited attractions in the world. Seeing the Colosseum of El Jem closely after staying in Rome did not undermine the experience but rather reinforced impressiveness of the Empire’s achievements. The Colosseum is estimated to have accommodated 30,000 spectators, which is more than the population of the surrounding town. Consequently, despite being nearly 1800 years old, the structure towers imposingly over the urban landscape. The dimensions of the Colosseum’s arena are not dramatically smaller than Rome’s and the shape is more elliptical. The architecture is also different with a more prominent use of arches. Unbelievably, this well-preserved structure was almost completely devoid of other tourists when we visited. Patrons have the opportunity of wandering around the arena surface (not possible in Rome), along the surviving platforms and seating areas of each tier and the underground tunnels where animals were housed and gladiators prepared for battle. If it were not for Liam’s ingenious realisation that we would still have sufficient time to detour to El Jem after five separate shared taxi rides across the country in the same day, Nadia may have missed the Colosseum entirely.

She did entirely miss the ruins of Dougga however. After Nadia returned to work in cold and bleak Northern Europe, I visited the Roman town in the scenic rolling green hills of the Tunis (capital) hinterland and was treated to magnificent sunny weather. The area was desolate of tourists, which made it a furthermore enjoyable afternoon for me. Dougga is situated above a gently sloped and wide valley of verdant green pastures that are occasionally interspersed with fields of poppies. Similar to Pompeii, the lower portions of most structures continue to exist, which provides a brilliant outline of the layout and perception of the form of the Roman town. Random elements of structures, such as grand door frames, have survived and form intriguing subjects in photographs. Astonishingly, the portico and defining walls of the Capitol are almost completely untarnished and consequently I consider that building to be the most impressive structure I’ve seen at any Roman ruins, including at Pompeii. The Capitol’s authoritative positioning at the centre and pinnacle of the town aides in the visual spectacle. The amphitheatre was also stunning, particularly with the view provided from the seating areas of the town and the valley below.

Not everything in the final stage of the Tunisia trip was Roman. On the penultimate day of Nadia’s break, we explored the coastal town of Mahdia which was founded by and served as the initial stronghold of the Fatimid dynasty. The Fatimids eventually established a Caliphate that ruled across North Africa and the Middle East. The dynasty however relocated their court and built a new capital on the Nile in the geographical heart of the Arab world, Cairo. For such a historically significant town, I was bemused to discover its absence from what I think is becoming an increasingly compromised list of the World Heritage sites. Ok, I recognise that few traces of the Fatmid era survive in Mahdia, but that’s usually sufficient for any site with Roman, Christian or (European) colonial origins to be listed. The medina of Mahdia is situated on an incredibly narrow islet that juts from the mainland. The town was thus strategically located for defensive purposes because of the outstanding fortification the natural geography provided. Remnants of the Fatimid wall scatter the shore and form a picturesque scene with the Mediterranean in the background. The infinitesimal medina is still quite pleasant to peruse with the faded whites and creams of the buildings, even if it takes just five minutes to walk around.

“All good things must come to an end” and with that Nadia’s journey unfortunately concluded when we returned to Tunis from Mahdia. Nadia was an excellent travel companion as we experienced no tension related incidents but laughed at many comical incidents (usually related to Nadia’s clumsiness). Complimentary to my many existing talents, I discovered that I’m also a brilliant English teacher as Danish Nadia learnt a whole range of new words, phrases and meanings. These included “slob”, “touch wood” and how “theatre” can be used to describe a room where operations are performed. The lesson for the latter came after an amusing exchange with a rather unthoughtful Kiwi. Nadia was explaining how as a nurse she works in an operation room, to which the Kiwi responded with “Oh, you work in the operation theatre!” Utterly flabbergasted, Nadia exclaimed that she is not a stage performer but rather a nurse! Derrr… of course the word “theatre” might be slightly confusing in that context for someone that speaks English as a second language. Actually its confusing for me who speaks English as the only language! Thank you Nadia for the brilliant week in Tunisia and I’m looking forward to Denmark!

I spent the last few days of my trip in Tunisia back in the capital. Other than being hassled incessantly, stalked by a psychopath, have an old crone grab my wallet pocket and have a group of dodgy youths screaming after me in the back alleys of the medina, nothing especially exciting happened. I explored the medina in greater depth than when I arrived in Tunisia, though I failed to discover any new and interesting aspects. I lunched at one of Tunisia’s most coveted restaurants, Dah Slah, where I enjoyed a three-course meal for only $12. I was served a feast of dishes for entrée, including a traditional peasant dish of “merguez tajine”, which consisted of round lamb sausages cooked in a spicy tomato sauce. I had the best couscous with lamb I’d eaten during the trip and drank the lemon juice concoction that is ubiquitous in Tunisian eateries and very refreshing. I sampled a desert unique to Tunisia, Zagougou, which is custard that is coloured black from the seeds of pine trees and served with whipped cream and crushed nuts. In Tunis, I was most frustrated by the illegality of departing the country with local currency and the inane policies of the banks to disallow exchanging Tunisian Dinars for a foreign currency (only possible at the airport). While I haven’t necessarily had any education in economics to lend credibility to my opinions, the “closed currency” pissed me of so I’m classifying that as idiotic dogma.

Although I only spent eleven days in Tunisia, I am thoroughly satisfied with that duration since I saw and experienced essentially everything that I was interested in. Tunisia boasts a variety of intriguing landscapes, some exceptional man-made attractions (namely the Great Mosque of Kairouan, the Colosseum of El Jem and Dougga) and a surprisingly awesome cuisine. However, I don’t think its recommendable for Australians to make the substantial and complex journey to just exclusively visit Tunisia. The country is though a worthwhile destination as part of a broader trip in the region.
Egypt is next. Well actually I’m already through half of that trip.

Happy Mother’s Day,

Liam

Posted by Liamps 10:39 Archived in Tunisia Comments (0)

Tunisia II

Without Nadia’s dramatic intervention, I may have restricted my travel through Tunisia to the country’s famed Northern cities and tragically neglected on visiting the South. Fortunately though, Nadia’s self-invited participation in my journey and her dictatorial command of the itinerary resulted in us discovering probably the most appealing region in Tunisia. The South is sparsely populated and it features a variety of intriguing dry landscapes. The isolated Berber communities of the region have built unique structural forms and created distinctive architectural motifs. Vast salt “lakes” and sublime mountain ranges abound while the mighty Sahara sweeps over most of the territory. Exploring the wonders of this area was certainly the highlight of my Tunisian experience.

Prior to Nadia’s emphatic and relentless campaign of coaxing me to travel South, I had never previously heard of the town of Tozeur (a diabolically embarrassing oversight in my supposedly thorough preparations). Tozeur is an unusual but very pleasant rural town located in the South-West of the country and very much isolated from other cities. The urban fabric is widely dispersed across a vast area, which is understandable since there is no lack of space as Tozeur is surrounded by effectively utter nothingness. While Tozeur does not boast any buildings of historical significance, the town’s unique architecture is quite intriguing. The buildings are composed of pale cream bricks and some of the bricks exude from the façades to form geometric patterns. The town is surrounded by an immense and lushes palmerie that was much more densely packed with trees than the oases I visited in Morocco. The most fascinating attribute of Tozeur though was the town’s collection of ATM’s, as one plays music for its customers and another apparently takes toilet breaks when it signals, “back in a few minutes”.

We joined a day tour of the nearby villages of Mides, Tamerza and Chibeka, all of which were abandoned in the late 1960s after a flash flood rendered their structures uninhabitable. Also on the tour were an old Kiwi couple and American Bryan (his claim-to-fame is having started the first internet café in Ecuador in 1997; although by 1999 there was a café on every corner so he was forced to leave). None of us could comprehend how the floods could so catastrophically destroy these communities, since the villages were situated on slopes or minor peaks above the valley floors in this mountainous area. Nevertheless, their skeletal remains and their surrounding palmeries formed picturesque vistas within the vivid landscape. The arid region is composed of dramatic mountains, gorges and jagged rock formations that exude a multitude of colours including creams, oranges and reds. Most beguiling was its existence beside the endless monotony and flatness of salt lakes. The group had the opportunity of hiking between the first two towns through Mides Gorge. The locals convinced us that we required a guide, though that was unnecessary since it was virtually a casual stroll through the flat and sandy terrain of a dry river bed which featured an obvious route. We also visited a serene waterfall that contrasted substantially with the surrounding dryness.

Nadia was delirious with excitement and anticipation that we would be seeing the gargantuan salt lake of Chott el Jerid in Tunisia, which was the fundamental motivation for her ambition to send us South. Nadia had the misfortunate of being in Bolivia during one of the rare occasions when the salt pans there were inaccessible; while on the tour in Africa, the Makgadigadi Pans were flooded. Third-time lucky was the theory, but my impression was that the salt lake was as monumentally uninspiring as Carthage considering the build-up. We viewed Chott el-Jerid from the minibus we caught between Tozeur and Douz, which travelled along the causeway that bisects the vast lake. The Chott is relentlessly and almost unimaginably flat, although the appearance of the surface changed intermittently from smooth earth to dry and cracked mud. In the heat of the day, the salt crystals can initiate mirages that are occasionally sighted on the horizon. Disappointingly though, the surface of the salt lake wasn’t utterly covered in salt crystals as expected, it was only peppered with them (pun intended).

In Douz, we arranged our overnight excursion to an isolated oasis in the Sahara. After consulting several dodgy establishments, we settled upon an agency unusually operated exclusively by sub-Saharan Africans (I was just intrigued to see people of another ethnicity working in an essentially mono-cultured society, particularly in the South). This was when Nadia provided perhaps the most comical moment of our trip, during the briefing of the excursion with the manager. He explained that we could select between two routes to reach Ksar Ghilane and utilised the Tunisian map to outline them, which was clearly demonstrative of the huge distance we needed to cover. One of the routes traversed sand tracks across the desert dunes and Nadia unwittingly asked whether that was “on camel-back?” A deafening silence instantly transpired in response to the ludicrousness of the question. The manager and I exchanged glances, as I was sympathetic to his requirement to answer the diabolical question while he was sympathetic for me to be stuck with someone that would make such ridiculous queries. The answer, obviously, was “No. That would take five days.” Our driver actually claimed it would take six. The most befuddling aspect of that event was that the manager did not seem amused at all, as we descended into hysterics. Another amusing experience in Douz was our lunch in a local restaurant, where the shopkeeper pulled the most bombastic and fascinated expressions in response to our nationalities and other answers.

We collectively agreed that the highlight of our trip through Tunisia was the four-wheel drive journey to Ksar Ghilane (on the route with sand tracks). Immediately after departing Douz, we were surrounded by a flat landscape that was covered in fine white sand, which made it appear as though we were driving through an endless beach. Since we were driving through windy conditions, particularly during this early stretch, the sand was blowing all over the place which created quite a surreal spectacle. The desert quickly changed to a sea of relatively small and undulating sand dunes as we entered the imperious Grand Erg Oriental. Only around one-ninth of the Sahara is composed of sand dunes, although that still equates to a larger area than every country in Europe excluding Russia. “Ergs” are the Desert’s massive seas of dunes and the Grand Oriental is one of the Sahara’s largest. The tip of the Erg covers the entire far south of Tunisia and it extends deep into the massive territory of Algeria. For me, it made Erg Chebbi in Morocco seem infitisimal as I could at least see the edges of the erg from the top of a dune. On the track to Ksar Ghilane, we were definitely able to have a superior appreciation of the unrelenting endlessness the Sahara can exude. We arrived at the mirage-like Ksar Ghilane in the late afternoon and surprisingly found the oasis featured all modern amenities including bars and mobile-phone reception. Nonetheless, Ksar Ghilane provided tranquil environment of lush palm trees and exceptional views over the Sahara’s dunes.

No trip to Tunisia would be complete without visiting at least one of the country’s numerous Star Wars locations, although I was slightly ambivalent about bothering despite being a moderate fan of the franchise. After Ksar Ghilane, we departed the Sahara and drove through arid and rocky scenery. Within this mountainous landscape are the underground houses famously used for the home of Luke Skywalker in the first Star Wars scene. We visited one which was carved from the side of a slope and featured a courtyard with “holes” surrounding it that led to cavernous rooms. In the town of Matmata, we also spotted several crater-like holes, which of course turned out to be more Berber houses. These featured circular courtyards which the below-ground rooms connected to with small openings.

Tunisia continued to deliver in the culinary stakes. On the road to Tozeur, we enjoyed a selection of ultra-sugar-loaded but ultimately delectable sweets, such as the previously mentioned makhroudh, baklava, triangle pastries with nuts, a soft cake-like dessert soaked in rosewater and honey as the filling among others. I assumed that Tunisia would just be a sample of sweet things to come in the Arab World, but Egypt has failed dismally to replicate Tunisia’s high standards. On our first night in Tozeur, we had a delicious and richly flavoured stew that was cooked in pot with the lid sealed in wax. The stew consisted of lamb, camel (not particularly special, just chewy), vegetables, rosemary and a tomato-based sauce. On the second night, we ate the best meal of the trip through Tunisia. For entrée, we had a simple yet amazing Tunisian salad of tomatoes, capsicum, garlic and olive oil with fresh bread and harissa. We then shared chakchouka, the best dish in Tunisia and a Berber specialty of the South. It consisted of chicken, chickpeas and a rich sauce that was served with a savoury pancake. We also had a delicious stew with salty fish, chickpeas, beans and lentils. In Douz, I had another brilliant couscous dish with lamb and a spicy sauce. Part of the four course meal we had in Ksar Ghilane was a different version of brik, which was like a deep-fried samosa.

Thus concluded what I would define as the southern component of our trip in Tunisia. Once more, I should reiterate that my sarcasm regarding Nadia should be taken with a grain of salt (I would claim that that’s a pun) as we had heaps of fun on this leg of the journey and probably laughed the most since the Africa tour.

That’s all for now,

Liam

PS I hate Hawthorn.

Posted by Liamps 06:39 Archived in Tunisia Comments (0)

Tunisia I

Finally somewhere in the Mediterranean that uses chili in their cooking! Tunisia surprisingly provided some of the best culinary experiences of the trip and it was a welcome relief to eat spicy food once more. Oops, there I go again! Descending into discussion about gastronomy as usual! Its no wonder that I’m bemusing some readers with my detailed descriptions about the food and posting of the corresponding photographs. Such is the ludicrousness of even mentioning any form of sustenance that certain members of the readership have apparently resorted to mocking and scornfulness (I’m not directing accusations to anyone specifically, relatives of the Stevens family). Consequently, I must choose between either terminating the culinary discussions or arguing for their legitimacy. And when have I ever thought it possible that I could lose an argument? That was a rhetorical question by the way. I can understand why abuse is hurled at people that post photographs on facebook of dishes they've created or ordered, because often they’re purely egotistical endeavours. However, photographing dishes that you’ve ordered overseas is indisputably (don’t try it) justifiable as it might be the only occasion that you’re ever likely to sample those dishes or at least experience their quality and authenticity. When you’re spending as much money as I recently have on food because you can’t at all be bothered cooking, a photograph seems to aide in the acceptability of the expense. The food eaten in a foreign country should surely constituent an integral part of one’s experience there, unless the person has the misfortunate of travelling el-cheapo or visiting New Zealand (just ignore that rebuke, Kiwis). Thus I must continue to discuss food in order to convey my experiences in a destination wholly.

As was alluded to in my previous blog entry, I was somewhat stressed about the process of entering Tunisia as an Australian citizen. I decided that I was reasonably confident of obtaining a visa upon arrival, so I boarded the overnight and twelve-hour ferry from Palermo to Tunis (capital of Tunisia). While all other nationals cruised through customs (pun intended), I was escorted to a border security office to purchase a visa. Despite being one of only two visa “customers”, the incompetent legion of staff took more than an hour to process it. I was dumbfounded to learn that the visa would cost 400 dinars (approximately $250), which was ten times the amount that the websites I had perused had indicated. I was rather sceptical about the accuracy of that price and suspected that perhaps the border security officers were dabbling in a spot of corruption; though I later discovered that the Tunisian government adjusted the cost for Australians and Kiwis only a few weeks before. Frazzled by the unexpectedly heinous cost for the visa and already late for the agreed meeting time with Danish Nadia, I overpaid a fake taxi driver to take me to the entrance to the Tunis medina where we were supposed to rendezvous. Readers may remember Danish Nadia from my earliest entries as we travelled together on the tour from Cape Town to Victoria Falls. Nadia was fortuitous to have one week scheduled without work and because of a coincidence of dates, she decided to opportunistically gate-crash my trip to Tunisia. After I disembarked the taxi at the medina’s entrance, I was unable to spot Nadia and freaked out that the driver had delivered me to the wrong destination. That fear was quashed however when the blonde-haired Dane in an all-blue uniform emerged from the starkly contrasting Arab scene.

Some of the more geographically handicapped members of the readership may benefit from a brief description of the country for context. Tunisia is a North African nation located on the Mediterranean Sea and is directly south of the Italian peninsula. The northern component of Tunisia has thus been a historically strategic region for naval power in the Mediterranean and was where the mighty Phoenician city of Carthage was situated. Arabic and French are the dominate languages in this small country of 10 million. While the revolutions of the Arab Spring were initiated in Tunisia, the country does appear to enjoy a much higher level of development and stability than I had at least expected in North Africa.

During the opening afternoon in Tunisia, Nadia and I interspersed conversation about the contentious topics from the Africa tour with exploration of the Tunis medina (another tick for my World Heritage count). The medina’s buildings are almost uniformly painted white with blue trimmings, a stylization that I had previously seen in Essaouira, Morocco and that I had only expected to find in coastal towns. I should note that while the Tunis metropolis is ostensibly coastal, the ancient medina is situated a substantial distance from the sea and separated from it by a series of lakes. The medina’s commercial areas seem to exclusively cater for Western tourists with an endless selection of useless trinkets, similar to Marrakech. The layout of the medina was reminiscent of Fez, with incredibly narrow and congested thoroughfares that are often covered by vaulted ceilings that support additional rooms in this congested space. Consequently, I would describe the medina of Tunis as a hybrid of the medinas of Essaouira, Marrakech and Fez; though its better than known of them. The medina’s constituent building is the Ziyatouna Mosque, an ancient though reconstructed structure that all roads seem to lead to. We were amazed to find that at around 6:30pm, the medina suddenly and completely shuts down and that the greater city of Tunis effectively becomes a ghost town in the evening.

The ancient Phoenician city of Carthage was constructed on the coast near present day Tunis. Despite establishing one of the greatest empires of the Ancient World, Carthage seems to be remembered most prominently for the Punic Wars with Rome and their ultimate defeat; so I have some sympathy for their lost civilisation. We visited the uninspiring remnants of this once glorious city, which are bizarrely disconnected and scattered throughout a wealthy residential area. Personally, I found the ruins were furthermore disappointing because the few structures that are at least partially preserved were buildings constructed by the Romans (there are many superior Roman sites anyway). Nadia was so unimpressed by the ruins of Carthage that she subsequently complained ad nauseum for the rest of the trip about my insistence to visit the World Heritage site and contended that it was an utter waste of time. She neglects to acknowledge however that my determination to visit Carthage was responsible for her enjoying the (rather shallow) highlight of her trip; drinking a “date juice” in Sidi Bou Said. This pristine blue and white suburb is located near the archaeological ruins and is a major tourist drawcard in Tunisia. Not that I have any comprehension of why, because Sidi Bou Said is not an outrageously scenic area and there was absolutely nothing to do. Still, simple things amuse simple minds and Nadia was thoroughly satisfied with her smoothie.

Nadia introduced me to yet another game that I would come to master and totally dominate (is there any that I don’t? No, should be your answer); Yahtzee. I can’t understand how I was never exposed to this brilliant game that I seemed to be so naturally talented at. Yahtzee quickly became the default activity that would occupy our times awaiting transport and meals and I happily enjoyed sweeping the floor on all but two freak occasions.
Kairouan, considered to be the fourth holiest city in Islam, was the second destination of our trip in Tunisia. Kairouan thankfully lacked the strict conservatism that we thought may exist in a city with such a reputation as many women walked through the medina without headscarfs or any traditional clothing (don’t misinterpret that, they were still wearing clothes of some variety). The medina of Kairouan exhibited the same blue and white stylization that we saw in Tunis, which I thought was even more peculiar since the city is located hundreds of kilometres from the sea. I later discovered that blue and white are the historical colours of Tunisia. The medina’s atmosphere was surprisingly very relaxed, the main (and virtually only) commercial thoroughfare was spacious and the medina was generally without the congestion I’ve found in every other medina I’ve visited. Walking through the residential areas of the medina was enjoyable too because of the visual intrigue stimulated by the decay of buildings’ façades and paint. Kairouan is famous for producing carpets (you know the things that are perpetually on clearance at the showgrounds?) and we were obliged to listen to two exhibitions of these items. Surprisingly, once we had adamantly established that we had no intentions to purchase anything, the salesmen let us leave without difficulties or grudges.

Seven visits to the Great Mosque of Kairouan are apparently equal to one pilgrimage to Mecca, but I’m satisfied with a solitary visit. The Great Mosque though was undoubtedly one of my highlights from Tunisia and certainly the most impressive building that I had seen until that point in North Africa. The Mosque was completed in 670 AD, which I thought was a remarkably long time ago considering the complex remains completely functional and well preserved. The Mosque’s imposing walls surround a massive courtyard which precedes the prayer hall; and the characteristic and almost pyramidal minaret is identifiable from all over the medina. Fortunately, non-Muslims are permitted to enter the courtyard and even more fortunately, students enter for free (though Nadia bitterly was unable to enjoy this luxury). It was somewhat of a surreal experience to wander inside a mosque for the first time and it was equally awesome to explore a building of such immense spiritual and architectural importance (the mosque became the prototype for the design of mosques and particularly minarets in the Western Islamic world) with no one else there (well, aside from the trip-crasher).

Now for my supposedly favourite topic, food! I had limited expectations of the food in Tunisia and thought the cuisine would be similar to Moroccan or Middle Eastern; though inferior to both. I was pleasantly surprised to discover that Tunisia has a distinctive and flavoursome cuisine and we were really impressed with almost every dish we had in the country. While they serve basically everything with harissa (no complaints from me), we were particularly struck by how varied their gastronomy is. I loved how at every restaurant an overflowing basket of bread (decent by Australian standards but apparently not for the Danes) was served with a plate of harissa and olives to start any meal. Couscous is a fundamental component of the Tunisian kitchen but they employ less delicacy and subtlety in the compilation of the dish than in Morocco. Instead, they generously splash the couscous with a fiery sauce of bold flavours, which I much preferred. Brik is a ubiquitous entrée of egg, tuna and potato that is enclosed in a thin pastry and deep-fried; delicious with harissa. The first of a range of delectable salads we had in the country was Mechouia, which is more like a paste of crushed peppers, chili, garlic and maybe something else. There is a prominent street-food culture in Tunisia and one of the commonly available items is fried bread stuffed with proper mayonnaise (French influence), harissa, potatoes and olives (delicious). Incredibly sweet sweets that are almost always soaked in honey are inexpensive and moreish.

That’s part 1 finished,

Liam

Disclaimer: Do not take my sarcasm related to Danish Nadia too seriously. She was tremendous company in Tunisia and I thoroughly enjoyed travelling with someone consistently again.

Posted by Liamps 16:41 Archived in Tunisia Comments (0)

Sicily

I am ambitiously endeavouring to compile the next few entries of Globo Trip in rapid succession as I am utterly fed up with being behind in the various projects I’ve tasked myself with (the blog being the most time consuming). Hopefully this will be achieved without compromising the quality of the entries, although I will attempt to avoid my penchant for descending into excessive detail. This plan is not intended to undermine Sicily as a destination as I had a brilliant week on the island that was very different to my experiences in the rest of the country. However, there wasn’t any particular town that I visited in Sicily which was distinguishing enough to deserve its own entry, which consequently aides to the acceptability of my decision to clump the whole island together. My expectations for Sicily were that the island’s settlements would be similarly under-developed like Naples and that they could potentially be rather unsavoury places because of the Mafia influence. Perhaps there are some truths to those assumptions; however it was undetectable for the visitor. Sicilian towns are organised, modern and at least appear to be safe and stable. For me, the most appealing aspect of Sicily is the island’s natural scenery, with its beautiful beaches and rolling hills with dry landscapes, as the man-made attractions cannot compare with what exists in Northern Italy.

The journey to Sicily involved a six hour train ride from Naples. On the carriage, my intention to write a blog entry was hijacked by several old Sicilians who attempted to converse with me through whatever means possible (since there was no common language). Before the trip, I was most intrigued by the great mystery of how the train would cross the Straits of Messina, since there is no bridge from the boot to the ball. Unexpectedly, the train was transported from Reggio Calabria to Messina on a ferry! This was understandably quite a beguiling sight.

I should premise this discussion by noting that Sicily was a key region of Ancient Greek civilisation and some of the colonies established there (particularly Syracuse) became some of the most powerful cities in the Classical World. Sicily was shortly controlled by the Carthaginians before Roman conquest. The Muslim Arabs had a brief foray on the island and bizarrely the Normans did also. More recently, it was controlled by the Spanish royal houses before it was incorporated into the Kingdom of Italy.

My first destination in Sicily was Taormina, located close to the volcanic Mt Etna. The small town is perched on the top of steep hills that descend dramatically to the turquoise waters of the Ionian Sea below. Taormina consists of one main thoroughfare that runs along the length of the town and features several small squares that afford brilliant views of the coast and Etna. Small streets cascade down the slope from the main thoroughfare and are lined with cafés, restaurants and souvenir shops. The town is entirely composed of attractive small buildings and is laden with Mediterranean flora. It takes around 15 minutes to walk down the slope through picturesque vegetation to reach the beaches. The crystal clear waters were extremely enticing to enter in the mid-20s weather, but one toe in what was essentially melted ice numbed the foot and sent me back to the stony shore. Twice I visited a café in Taormina to eat their delectable and refreshing granites; a dessert that Sicilians happily consume at any hour of the day. It consists of a sorbet like mixture that is made with fresh fruit and often served with whipped cream. The café I frequented concocted their mixtures fresh each morning and I sampled their strawberry and lemon flavours (awesome). Taormina is an expensive town and appears to exist purely for the tourist trade, but these did not compromise the exceptional scenery and it was certainly my favourite place to visit on the island. It was also the first time in Europe that I had stayed overnight somewhere other than a major city, which was bigger relief than I had anticipated. Taormina: done.

Syracuse fell substantially short of the expectations I had perhaps unfairly bestowed upon it. The literature I previously read suggested to me that Syracuse is Sicily’s most prominent tourist destination and I consequently developed the impression that it would be in the same category as Italy’s more famous Northern cities. This was not an accurate assumption and the three nights I booked in the city were quite excessive. The central area of Syracuse commands no interest at all since it is entirely composed of modern buildings. The town’s primary draw-card is Ortygia Island, located just off the mainland. The island effectively functions as Syracuse’s “old town”, with winding streets and layers of different architectures moulded across the centuries. Most of the buildings on the island are pale in colour, which creates an attractive contrast with the azure blue sea and forms intriguing shadow displays in the latter part of the day (and I suppose the morning too though I’m never up for that so I wouldn’t really know). The most interesting building on the island is the cathedral, which uses the monolithic columns from the ancient Temple of Athena as part of the structure. The façade is distinctly Baroque while the interior is the darkest and most austere that I’ve ever seen in a church; a very unusual synthesis. Located on the outskirts of Syracuse is the Archaeological Park, which features the famous amphitheatre from Greek civilisation. Unfortunately when I was there, much of the amphitheatre was covered in temporary seating and a stage and didn’t think the amphitheatre appeared to be all that impressive anyway. I was more interested in the landscape of the area which was remarkably different to what I saw in Northern Italy. The landscape is reminiscent to what I imagine Greece to appear like, with dry grasses, wild herbs and stark coloured rocks. I also visited the Archaeological Museum where I had an epiphany that I don’t generally like museums and nor am I able to pay attention in them. So from now on I’ll be limiting museum visits to the really exceptional ones. Syracuse: done.

I visited the small town of Noto on a daytrip from Syracuse. Well actually it was only for two and half hours, since the last bus to depart the town was ridiculously early at 2:30pm. Not that I needed any more time to explore this piddly town in the Sicilian countryside, as I was compelled to twiddle my thumbs for entertain by the end. However, it was definitely worth visiting exceptionally attractive Noto which famously exhibits Sicilian late Baroque architecture. The town was reconstructed/founded (I can’t remember the story) in the late 17th century and consequently most of the buildings in the central area express this architectural style. All the buildings were constructed with the orange-hued stone that creates an impressive spectacle particularly against a clear blue sky. Unfortunately most of the buildings, including the cathedral and churches, were closed for unknown reasons so I wasn’t able to see the interior spaces. Noto: done.

I stayed in Agrigento specifically to visit the Greek Doric temples and since nothing else really happened there, that’s all that I will bother discussing. The archaeological park features the ruins of five temples, one of which is remarkably well preserved considering its approaching 2500 years in age. The temples are majestically located at the top of a hill that overlooks scenic Sicilian countryside. Also at the park, I visited an ancient garden which today exhibits plants originating from all over the Mediterranean. These included dozens of varieties of orange trees and since the oranges were free to eat, I consumed possible a dozen. Agrigento: done.

I switched panic mode on in Palermo as I went into complete meltdown from the discovery that Australians require a visa to enter Tunisia (unlike most other Westerners). This was most disconcerting as Tunisia was to be my next destination after Palermo and I was meeting Danish Nadia from the tour there. I like to think though that as I manically charged around Palermo, from the ferry terminal to the closed consulate to the airline office to the hostel to use internet and to call the embassy in London back to the ferry terminal and to the banks to unsuccessfully exchange money, I still managed to see most of the city (even if the tourist office claimed there were 300 sites to visit and rudely exclaimed that “Its not like Australia”. Palermo is a well organised city that features relatively wide streets (for Europe) and a layout that almost resembles a grid. The Arab and Norman influences are clearly identifiable in many of the city’s most important buildings. They exhibit a unique hybrid of architectural styles, which is most prominently realised at the city’s cathedral. Palermo is apparently the world’s third best city for street food, though I have serious reservations over the accuracy of such a claim for while the city’s famed street markets were pleasant to amble through, they didn’t strike me as being particularly bountiful. Palermo: done.

I enjoyed some excellent food in Sicily which was fortunately cheaper than the mainland. Arancini was of course omnipresent, inexpensive (only 1 euro!) and always delicious. I had a Sicilian-style spaghetti dish which featured a “sauce” composed of breadcrumbs, tomatoes and sardines. Sicilian cuisine seems to be dominated by the humble cherry tomato, which is added to virtually every savoury dish and has completely replaces the larger variety in their cooking. Sicily’s most famous culinary exploit is the cannoli and you haven’t tasted the real deal until you’ve visited the island.

Sicily: done. Italy: done. And most importantly, blog: done!

Palermo was the only town large enough to be ranked and it scored rock bottom.

1. Rome
2. Barcelona
3. Florence
4. Porto
5. Amsterdam
6. Venice
7. Lisbon
8. Turin
9. Granada
10. Seville
11. Madrid
12. Naples
13. Brussels
14. Palermo

Thank you and goodbye!

Liam

Posted by Liamps 04:31 Archived in Italy Comments (0)

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