The Splendor of Andalusia Part 2

On the way from Granada to Cordoba we stopped off at the town of Antequera to see the dolmens. This is a megalithic site featuring three monuments, Dolmen of Menga, Dolmen of Viera and Tholos of El Romeral. WE only saw two, but the brand new (free) little museum at the entrance to the site, explaining the discovery and explanation of the megaliths was really rather splendid. We very much enjoyed our brief stop.

Then we continued on our way to Granada. After the laid back seaside feeling of Malaga Granada had an altogether different feel to it. It seemed a bit like driving from Tel Aviv (happy, colourful beach city) to Jerusalem (heavy on tradition and history). We had rented an air bnb in the outskirts, about 30 minutes walk from downtown. But we had not counted on the intense heatwave, which made the walk there and back rather taxing. We strolled around the old part of town, the tiny streets around the Cathedral area, with the magnificent Alhambra and Generalife towering over us. We were suddenly very hungry and then discovered that between around 2pm and 8pm it is impossible to find a soul in the street, let alone an open restaurant. The siesta is sacred. Fortunately just as we were getting desperate, we found the wonderful Vega’s cafe serving the best fresh sandwiches and drinks, everything full of lovely vegetables and fresh fruits, the likes of which we had not seen since arriving in Spain. The bread was fresh and the service welcoming.

There seems to be nothing left of the Jewish presence in Granada, except a museum and a statue of Judah ben Saul ibn Tibon (much like the rest of Andalusia).

After walking around town a lot, we felt the need for some nature so the next day we drove up to the Sierra Nevada, where you can see snow all the year round, despite the crushing heat. The drive up to the small ski town was gorgeous and we stopped off at the Hoya de Pedraza Botanical gardens on the way. The view was stunning. On arrival at the actual town of Sierra Nevada we discovered it to be deserted. Apparently when it is not the season there are no people there whatsoever, let alone any coffee bars or restaurants open. We met a bewildered Singaporean couple also looking for a bite to eat. We gave up and on the way back down the mountain to the city we found a delicious cafe frequented by passing cyclists, where the surly waiter produced a perfect oven cooked pizza with all the toppings.

The following day we had booked a tour of the Alhambra, which I thought was guided but turned out not to be. We got up early and left at 6.30am hotfoot to the meeting point, up a massively steep hill of course. You really need a whole day to experience the wonder of the Alhambra and Generalife complex as it is enormous and stunning. I think my favourite part was the gardens of the Generalife which were just fantastic. I don’t have the words to do justice to the place, and the photos certainly don’t either.

Our last day in Granada we arranged to meet up with my very good friend’s son Guy, who has been living in Granada for a year to study flamenco guitar. He very kindly agreed to show us around Albaicin, the ancient neighbourhood where he lives, which is right beneath the Alhambra and has spectacular views over the city. Since we were feeling somewhat exhausted from the tour, and the walk into town is long (and Guy had warned us of the hilly nature of Albaicin) we opted to get a bus down from our apartment, which turned out to be quite easy, until the bus failed to follow the route on my app. Various kind ladies helped us get off at a convenient spot, and from there we puffed up (another) extremely steep hill to meet him. Albaicin really is very splendid and we enjoyed walking around there very much. There were several groups of school kids having historical tours of it too.

Our penultimate Andalusian city, Cordoba was I think my favourite. I was expecting to be blown away by Granada (and I was) but somehow when we arrived in Cordoba I felt that I was home. I just don’t know how to explain it but somehow a place just makes you feel that you belong, and that is exactly how I felt about Cordoba. We only had two days there, as opposed to 4 in Granada. But for me it was possibly the highlight. I knew that the guided tour of the Mezquita would be wonderful, but just hanging out in Cordoba was a joy and not just because there was a feria (or fiesta) going on there. The streets felt wonderful, the general ambience of the place was just spectacular. This was the only place that we stayed in a hotel (because all the places were booked up months in advance for the feria) but it was fine, as Hotel Oasis was clean and comfortable and only a 15 minute walk from the stunning Roman Bridge which I instantly fell in love with.

In Cordoba we wandered the old Jewish quarter, found a statue of Maimonides (the Rambam) who was born in Cordoba, and the old synagogue which is beautifully restored, and the Casa de Sefarad, containing a nice little museum of the Sephardic Jews before the Inquisition. It was all so wonderful.

The tour of the Cathedral Mosque known as the Mezquita was just spectacular. We booked an English speaking tour with Viator, fortunately for 4pm , when it was already not so sweltering. The guide, Angel was both knowledgeable and charming, and did not stop the tour after an hour but was available to answer more questions after the end. We were also able to remain inside the mosque until it closed at 7pm and get more of a relaxed impression of the place than is possible while you are following your guide around. It was just breathtaking. I think it is possibly one of the most beautiful buildings I have ever seen and it was clear that Angel loved it too. Again it’s impossible to take a decent picture of it. Even videos hardly do it justice.

On the way from Cordoba to Carmona , our final stop, we spied an imposing castle right on top of a hill . The signpost said Castillo de Almodovar so of course we had to check that out. After sweating up a steep hill we discovered we could have driven up the top. We didn’t really have time to explore inside but the castle outside and the surrounding views were quite splendid.

The historic town of Carmona, 20 km from Sevilla airport, was where would spend our last two days. Here we stayed in a wonderful apartment Casa en la Juderia at the brilliant address of 1, Jewish neighbourhood street (Calle de la Juderia). We had a slight problem getting the key when we arrived but the host answered us promptly on Whatsapp and we were soon ensconced inside and free to wander around the town, which is chock -a -block with historical wonders, amongst others a Roman Necropolis and theatre ( lovely little free museum) and a lovely old town wall with ancient gates that reminded us of Jerusalem.

The visit to the Roman Necropolis and theatre , a 15 minute walk from the Juderia ,was lots of fun as there were several groups of schoolkids on trips there, dressed as Romans reenacting various historical scenes with explanations by guides dressed as centurions. It was all rather endearing and the museum guides were extremely helpful too. WE thoroughly enjoyed our days in Carmona, and finished our trip with wonderful tapas at Bar Goya next to the main square of the Juderia. And with this our amazing time in Andalusia drew to an end. Our sense of the sheer amount of heritage and history in this area was incredible. Now I feel I need to do some more reading up to absorb what we have seen. Stay tuned for next adventure!

The Deep South

The lowest art gallery on earth

I have never been a big fan of Eilat- the glitzy, southern town of Israel on the Red Sea, bordered by Egypt to the South and Jordan to the East. It has always seemed a bit like the Israeli version of Southend (with, admittedly much better weather ).

The last time we visited was in 2009. It is the stuff of shiny tax-free shopping, people frying themselves on the beach and then retreating to their package deal hotels and swimming pools before they hit the noisy nightclubs. Definitely not my thing. But then last year it was arranged that there was to be a reunion of WUJS , the movement that brought me to Israel back in 1979. The members coming from abroad would stay at the Ketura Kibbutz guest house, a 20 minute drive from Eilat, and would come together for various activities and meetups. We all booked rooms hoping that Covid would be over by November 2021. And then it wasn’t. Tourism only opened up here on November 1, by which time the overseas attendees had cancelled their rooms. But we kept ours, since the hosts in Ketura, Avigail and Noah , are great friends of ours, whom we have stayed in touch with over the years. So we decided not to cancel our booking and to spend a couple of days down south. On the way down to the Kibbutz I wanted to stop off at the Dead Sea, a bona fide tourist spot, being the lowest point on the planet, boasting unique geological features and a strange climate said to be good for various ailments and thus popularised by health tourism. It’s another place I don’t visit often.

We drove down to the Dead Sea, wondering as the scenery changed from our Sharon green, with its citrus groves and then through the green wooded hills of the Jerusalem area, and suddenly morphing into the desert scenery south of Jerusalem, before the true biblical desert area around Kalia, our first stop at the Dead Sea.

Our first point of call was the so called minus 430 Gallery, which is not exactly an art gallery in the traditional sense of the word. The self declared lowest art gallery on Earth is actually an impromptu gallery of graffiti art, on a bunch of abandoned buildings. Originally these buildings were barracks of the Jordanian army, which abandoned the buildings after the Six Day war, and were then occupied by Dead Sea Industry workers. They too abandoned them, and various artists moved in to decorate them. And they are actually rather fetching I think.

Each artist has a different style and message, and the stark contrast with the blue sky and the desolate landscape is really quite striking. I assume that, like all graffiti, these images are constantly changing. In any case it was all rather interesting. We met a pair of Austrian tourists on their way from Bethlehem to Jericho, and chatted a little with them, since we had just returned from 10 days in Austria, and discovered that coincidentally, one was from the Kitzbuhel area and the other from Graz! (see previous post)

As one heads on down south, the mountains tower over the road in ever changing strange shapes and caves, including the Qumran caves where the famous Dead Sea Scrolls were found. You can see all manner of strange figures, including the supposed shape of the Biblical Lot’s wife, turned into a pillar of salt. The Dead Sea area is constantly changing, and the sea is shrinking. In recent years the salt deposits have formed strange mushroom shapes in the sea, very popular among the Instagram crowd. We stopped off at the beach behind the Herod’s Hotel, which has a large free beach with sunshades and chairs, and also showers and toilets. The whole area has many more hotels than last time we were there, and has a nice promenade running the length of the northern part of the sea.

Herods beach

After spending a peaceful few hours sitting by the Dead Sea and reading we continued on to Kibbutz Ketura to check in and meet our friends Avigail and Noah for dinner in the kibbutz communal dining room and chat at their place over tea until bedtime.

Next day we got up and set off for Eilat and the Red (not Dead) Sea. We decided to go to the Coral Beach, which is part of the Nature Reserve and therefore requires sign up but doesn’t cost any money entrance if you have your Matmon Nature parks card (which we do). The beach is very quiet and has a lifeguard and shaded areas, free plastic chairs, toilets and a kiosk. There is a roped off area you can swim and snorkel in without disturbing the coral.You can also do diving courses nearby. It is apparently a very famous place for snorkelling and diving (about which I know very little). It is rather cool to see the mountains of Jordan opposite. We even saw a Jordanian flag in the distance.

After spending a very pleasant day on the Coral beach, we wandered around in Eilat town. If you are so inclined you can rent a glass bottomed boat, or visit the Underwater Observatory, or even swim with dolphins. We did none of these but we did book a place in The Last Refuge fish restaurant, recommended to us by Noah, and very splendid it was too.

The next morning after meeting Avigail for breakfast and saying goodbye, we checked out and headed for home. But on the way we stopped off at a kibbutz called Neot Smadar, which I had heard of and even seen a documentary about. The documentary had made me most curious, but I understood that the current kibbutz is now completely different to what I had seen in said documentary. The place now houses about 200 people, who mostly do art and make cheeses and wines. The arts centre is open to the public for a small fee. You cannot just drive in though. You have to call a number from the gate and fill in a payment form and then you can enter. I think they just don’t want strangers barging into their kibbutz, which is fair enough. They also do various residential art workshops. The place was quite extraordinary and very photogenic. We had a guided tour of the Arts centre complete with short video explaining the history of the place, the winery and saw the goats. It was very enjoyable.

We then drove home “tired but full of impressions” as the Israelis say. The deep south was certainly interesting.

Stay tuned for our next adventure, now the summer heat has broken and rain is on the way…

Haifa on the Hill

View of the city from upper balcony of the Bahai Shrine

I have always had a soft spot for this city, which seems to me to combine the best of Jerusalem and Tel Aviv. It has plenty of history, with a downtown German colony built by the Templars to rival the Jerusalem one; it has a reputation for being a city of cultural harmony, where Jews and Arabs live peacefully side by side, and where lots of intercultural events are put on (The Haifa Film Festival, the Festival of Festivals), it’s the only Israeli city with a subway, the Carmelit, ( actually more a funicular than a proper subway) and it has wonderful views of the sea from the top of the Carmel. Haifa is a city with very distinct parts- the downtown port area, the middle level of the Carmel and the very top – Yefe Nof (literally beautiful view) , where the houses perched on the summit of the Carmel mountain look down over the bay. Bear in mind that walking around the city would involve a lot of going up and down the mountain, hence the subway, which is built on the slope. Now there are also two cable cars to make going up and down less arduous.

We had visited Haifa some years ago right after the terrible fires that raged on the Carmel, when our travel organisation Servas.org hosted a walking tour during the Christmas/Hanuka period. At this time Jews, Christians and Muslims in Haifa celebrate together and there are usually lots of activities going on all over town. It was great fun, ( especially the Santa Claus parade through Wadi Nisnas and the ensuing hummus in the local restaurants) and it left me with a feeling that we would return to the city again. As the summer heat, mostly over 35C during the day, means no hiking for the moment, a quick look at the blissfully air- conditioned Haifa Art Museum seemed in order.

We arrived before the museum opened so we went for a quick look around the Wadi Nisnas neighbourhood right behind the museum. I had remembered that it was an area where there were various art projects encouraging coexistence, and we saw something called Poetry Lane, and found various art projects on the walls.

The Art museum now open, we returned to take a look. Although rather unimpressive from the outside, the three storey building originally the site of an Anglican Girls’ school, was packed with interesting stuff, and you could use an audio guide (in several languages) from your phone by scanning a QR code. In any case the exhibits were very clearly labelled in Hebrew and English. Some rooms had works by famous artists, such as Yehiel Shemi and Yair Garbuz, and there was even one by Diego Rivera. The current exhibition commemorates 70 years of the museum’s existence, and all artists are in some way connected to Haifa and the North.

Work by Yair Garbuz
Another work I liked, although I forgot the artist’s name

After we had finished at the museum we went up to the top of the Carmel to look at the famous Bahai Shrine and its gardens. Unfortunately the gardens were closed, as it appears it is necessary to register for an organized tour, but the view from the top was as always, spectacular and there was a lovely breeze.

Interesting gate on the way to the Shrine
View of the gardens and the bay

So from the Shrine we zipped up to the top of Stella Maris, another place we love in Haifa. Stella Maris has a 19th century church and Carmelite monastery. The church can be visited ( and even boasts a cave said to be that of Elijah underneath its altar) but we skipped it this time and just strolled around outside looking at the view of the bay and Haifa port. The Madonna statue outside the monastery ,erected by the people of Chile, is rather fine. From here there is a cable car going down the mountainside to Bat Galim seaside promenade.

Madonna statue
The wild boar wandering around are no joke

We finished our fun day by driving to Hof Dor Habonim beach, which is the most amazing beach inside a Nature Reserve, which we had visited before. We were not looking for a walk this time, due to the heat, but just wanted to chill out and have a quick dip in the sea, which was extremely rough. The beach is extremely beautiful and highly recommended. In the winter we will return to walk along the shore and revisit the beauty of the coastline here.

Habonim beach

A bit of culture in Old Jaffa

view from the Promenade

After a couple of months of not going anywhere or doing any hiking, due to the extreme heat (over 30C most days) and it being school holidays in July and August, and overcrowded everywhere, I finally decided it would be a good idea to check out a nice air conditioned museum. Many museums are popular with families making them not ideal when trying to avoid people,( found this out while visiting the new Steinhardt Natural History museum in Tel Aviv a couple of years ago), but I eventually hit on the perfect solution.

We went off to Jaffa, parking in our favourite place right opposite the Etzel Museum and Neve Zedek. From there it’s only a 15 minute walk down to Old Jaffa. Walking along the Charles Clore Promenade there is a wonderful breeze from the sea, and I was only sorry I had not thought of doing this weeks ago. Anyway Jaffa turned out to be just as charming as I remembered, surely a place one can visit again and again.

After walking around a bit in the beautiful winding alleys of Old Jaffa we arrived at the Ilana Goor Museum, right next to the Uri Geller Museum (which I had never heard of before). The main entrance appeared to be closed, but a nice man let us in through the back door, which led us through the almost overwhelmingly packed gift shop. For the princely sum of 25 shekel each we were then treated to a leisurely wander through a magnificent collection of sculptures and paintings, some by Ilana Goor herself and some from her very eclectic collection of artworks, including portraits of her by other artists, and even one Henry Moore.

Suddenly the lady herself appeared from behind a private door, and we had a short chat with her. She was an elegant 85 year old, very gracious and interesting.

Young Ilana Goor Portrait

Many of the exhibits were examples of the way the artist incorporates unusual elements such as animal hides and skulls into her work. The furniture was particularly unusual. I am not sure it was all to my taste but it was certainly interesting. There are several floors and the open balconies and the roof sculpture garden with the view to the sea were especially lovely. You can sit in the roof garden and eat your sandwiches to admire the view. The artist has lovingly restored the old house (one of the oldest houses in Jaffa, which originally served as a hostel to Jewish pilgrims ) and now lives there herself. The kitchen is particularly striking, with its blend of old samovars and modern fridge and sink. I must admit to having taken far too many pictures, which makes it hard to select the ones I will post here.

The views from the window and the roof garden

After enjoying the gallery we went for a little mosey around Jaffa and rounded off the morning with a quick delicious hummus and falafel at Yfrach restaurant.

Highly recommend this area, and I am sure we will be coming back again soon.

An explosion of colour

This week’s walk was very different from our previous hikes in nature. We finally made it into the city- Tel Aviv, which we have not frequented for over a year. It is now opening up and as we are double vaxxed we decided to head off to do a self-guided graffiti tour of the Florentin neighbourhood, squeezed between hip, gentrified Neve Zedek and multicultural picturesque Yaffo. Florentin is famous for grunge, garages and carpentry. It is inhabited by many young people, and is well known as the graffiti hub of Tel Aviv. So we signed up for a tour which one can follow on a mobile phone, and comes with maps, audio and video explanations, and walking directions. You can do it at your own pace and you only need one for your group. It was great, as it took us to places that we had never heard of, and would have had difficulty finding alone.

We started off at a park called the Tractor Park,which I had never heard of before. Here we sat on a bench and heard an introductory video about what graffiti is, and what is the difference between graffiti and street art. We were also reminded that as graffiti is dynamic and changing, it was possible that we would find different paintings in some locations. I was amazed not just by the sheer quantity of the paintings, but also the quality and variety of them. As a friend remarked, it’s like being in a free outdoor gallery. It is hard to choose which paintings to show with you ,as there were so many wonderful ones.

Some places had recurring names of artists, which we started to identify. One artist incorporates braille in her paintings, stating that the blind cannot see the paintings, and the seeing cannot mostly read the braille…

Braille above the graffiti

Some areas had more poems and words incorporated into the painting, and some were more visual . At one square, we came to a huge wall painting reminiscent of San Francisco in the 1960s, complete with flower painted cars, and people lounging around listening to music next to a fountain. There were other places where the synagogue had wall paintings with stars of David blended into the works.

We finished off our tour with a meal in a Vietnamese restaurant called Kanu, right next to the wall of the largest wall painting by an artist called Dede and his partner. This work is made of recycled bits of lumber from furniture and is dedicated to women murdered during 2020. From there it was a short walk back our beloved beach promenade, for a quick look at the sea before we headed home. I would happily do another of these self guided tours. WE saw people in groups doing a regular guided tour, and of course the advantage of our tour was that we could stop wherever we wanted and take our time to look at the paintings. You can also do the tour several times during the 14 days it is available, if you like. The company has similar tours in other locations, which I would like to check out. So stay tuned for more walking adventures…

Huge wall art by Dede and Nitzan Mintz, in memory of women murdered during 2020

The last part- Hakone and back to Tokyo

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Sensoji

It’s funny, isn’t it, how the places you anticipate before the trip turn out so differently in reality, and often the ones you had no expectations of just blow you away. Well that is how it was for us with Hiroshima vs Hakone. Hakone is touted as a super relaxed calm spa town surrounded with onsens (hot springs) and amazing views of Mount Fuji which you are meant to see by using a combination ticket of ropeways, cable cars, buses, trains and even a pirate ship that crosses lake Ashi. People come from all over the world to stay in resort hotels, languish in hot baths and hike in the lush mountain greenery. In autumn, the foliage would be at its most stunning. As I have said, Hiroshima knocked us out because we had absolutely no expectations about it. Hakone was totally underwhelming and this is why.

I had worked hard on the Hakone part, checking all the transportation around the area, and saving articles about what to see there- the Open Air Museum, the Lake, Owakudani Geothermal valley, Kowakien Yunessun Hot Springs, and many other places in the area, which appeared to be chock full of exciting things to see and do .I booked two nights in the cheapest place I could find which was not super luxurious, but had private bathroom.  It still cost nearly $300 for two nights, much more than any other place we stayed in Japan. Many places were booked up six months in advance and I felt happy to secure the Emblem Flow Hakone right next to Gora station.  (It also had a restaurant which was good as I had heard that many places around close very early because people book accommodations with full board in fancy expensive restaurants and don’t go out to eat) . This turned out to be most fortuitous as we shall see.

The first complication we had was that  the special Hakone Tozan Railway, which was meant to bring us  from Odawara station to Gora station, was damaged in the Hagibis Typhoon, and the website said it would not be running for several months. This concerned me somewhat as we were arriving at Odawara Station from Hiroshima. This Tozan Railway, a super steep train taking one through the stunning mountain scenery was something I had waited to see. The Japanese, in typical efficient style, laid on a replacement bus between Odawara and Gora that ran pretty much along the same route. SO that problem was solved. But once we reached Gora we found it to be a tiny little place with hardly any shops, restaurants or anything whatsoever to do, and it rained steadily for the two days we were there. After settling into the hotel we went for a small wander around and found pretty much nothing to do in the drizzle. WE arrived at around 4.30pm and things tend to close at 5pm. All the museums and other activities finish by then. My Japanese friends told us to do the hot springs. But getting all my kit off in front of strangers in the rain did not really appeal to me. (Maybe I have not grasped the fascination of this hot springs thing) So we returned to the hotel, which had a fantastic dinner of curry, had a beer and called it a day. I forgot to mention that we very fortunately  did get a glimpse of the elusive Fuji san from the train as we were arriving at Odawara station, me waking D up so we could get a few fleeting shots. This again turned out to be a great stroke of luck.

So having purchased our Hakone Free pass at Odawara station which covered the train and bus to Hakone, the ropeway, the cruise and reduced entrance to various museums, we set out the next day to do the Hakone Loop. It poured with rain. Visibility was nil. On the cable car before the ropeway the commentary breezily noted that on our right we could see Mount Fuji on a clear day. The Filippina girls in our pod giggled. We all giggled. At the bottom of the ropeway we saw the pirate ship but not the far side of the lake. We got back on the ropeway and went back to Gora. WE tried to go round Hakone Park which was free with our JR pass, but it was all outdoors, and pouring. We went back to the hotel. The whole thing was a washout. Never mind. The next day we were returning to our beloved Tokyo for a whole five more days.

We returned to Tokyo on a fast train which took about 45 minutes. We stayed in the same Asakusa district but a different hotel, not particularly recommended, as the Red Planet was full. Anyway we loved being back in Asakusa, and being now familiar with the neighbourhood was great. We had made a booking for  Tokyo Free Greeter to meet us and take us around somewhere for a couple of hours. Our greeter, Takuya Hayashi , in his email complete with photo, told us to meet him next to the Hachiko Dog Statue  ( if you don’t know the dog story click the link!) in Shibuya. Having walked around Shinjuku and Harajuki the previous day, we said we would like to go to Shinjuku Park, which had been closed . But as we exited the train station it was raining again so walking around the park didn’t seem such a great idea. So Takuya suggested we go to the Tokyo Municpal Building which affords a free view of the city from the 45th floor (as opposed to the Tokyo Tower or the Sky Tower both of which cost money) . We said great. He also took us to a Starbucks which affords a view of the famous Shibuya Scramble crossing purported to be one of the busiest in the world. To me it just looked like a zebra crossing, but maybe we were there too early.

We returned to Odaiba area which we had visited previously ( where the fake Statue of Liberty is) to go to the Borderless Teamlab Digital Museum, something I was afraid would be another tourist trap and letdown, but was in fact well worth it and quite enjoyable. Lots of people love it because it is extremely instagrammable. We loved it because it was fascinating, weird and ultimately very Japanese. WE were also lucky enough to stumble into the building across from Borderless called  Megaweb Toyota city Showcase. It seemed to have some kind of fair going on. Apart from the display of Toyota cars there was a display of samurai dancers and  loads of stalls with food samples from all over Japan, and huge mascot dolls who wished to hug you and have your photo snapped with them for some reason! Another thing we did was to walk a lot. Specifically to see the Tokyo Illuminations, which are all over the city in late November. The Japanese love illuminations, and they do them very well. Practically every plaza and shopping mall is full of them.

To wrap up our trip we met up again with Aki and Mayumi, as we had promised to take them out for dinner, to thank them for being such amazing hosts. They were joined by Endo, another Servas host whom we had not met before, as he had just had a new grandchild when we first came to Tokyo. They took us to an izakaya, sort of pub/restaurant, where we sat on the floor at low tables, and proceeded to order dish after dish of  fish and vegetables, washed down with sake, and some other alcoholic drink. It was all amazing, even the fugu. I told Aki he had to eat it first, and if he didn’t fall down dead I would try it. Frankly it just tasted like fried fish, nothing that exotic. The Japanese at the table behind us were all totally rolling drunk, their ties unknotted and their suit jackets who knows where. It was all a great adventure. Japan was a great adventure. It will take some time for it all to sink in. Hope you enjoyed it. Stay tuned for our next trip…

 

Hiroshima- not what you thought

Of course Hiroshima was high on my list of places when I planned a trip to Japan. The sombre heavy thought of what happened on that terrible day , August 6, 1945, is etched in the memory of anyone born in my generation.But what was it really like to have been there? What did the eyewitnesses feel and see? And how did the city rebuild itself? I had only ever seen pictures of the famous dome, and never seen anything else about the city. So armed with this lack of knowledge, and many questions we boarded our train from Kyoto to Hiroshima, changing at Shin-Osaka. As we arrived in Hiroshima it began to rain. I had found that our hotel, The Park Side Peace Park, was, logically enough a short walk from the Museum and Peace Park, which is served by a loop bus which circles all the main tourist sites, beginning and ending at the  Shinkansen Train station, and is free with the JR pass. Perfect! After asking at tourist information we easily found the bus and scrambled on board. It did indeed stop at the Art Museum, the Castle, the Atomic Dome and somewhere else I forget before stopping at the Peace Park. The hotel was one block away from the river which runs right by the Peace Park. We checked in and walked around a bit (in the rain) to get a feel for the place. My first impression was of a wide boulevard (called the Peace Boulevard) tons of tourists swarming around the museum and park, and lots of groups of uniformed schoolkids (like at Yad Vashem in Jerusalem) but also of a city with a positively calm vibe to it. There was bustle but not like Tokyo. There were crowds, but not like in Kyoto. WE immediately loved the place, but it was hard to define exactly why. There were trams clanging around, pedestrian streets with a food festival being set up right at the back of the hotel, and all in all a feeling of a city just getting on with the business of living.

Next day of course we started off by visiting the Peace Park and Memorial Museum. These were as sombre as one would expect but we felt that the emphasis was less on “oh how poor we are and how terrible it all was” but more on “Let’s achieve world peace by making sure nobody has nuclear weapons”. In other words it was less about the Japanese and more about humanity. Outside the museum we were interviewed by some kids for their school work and we also saw the folded paper cranes that are sent to Hiroshima from all over the world as a committment to world peace. Everywhere in Hiroshima people give you folded paper cranes.  From the museum we went walking right along the Peace boulevard up to Fujimidai Observation point, which I had noticed on the map and thought would be fun. The layout of the city is such that you are always walking along near the river, as the island on which the Museum is built is between the Kyobashi River and the Motoyasu River, so you continually see bridges, something which I had not known. The walk was most enjoyable and the views at the top of the hill very nice, also enhanced by a can of hot coffee from a vending machine. This is something great about Japan, that wherever you are you can get a hot can of coffee from a machine for 130 yen. Heaven!

From there we walked on to the Shukkien Gardens which were simply superb. I will probably put in too many pictures because the fall leaves there were just so spectacular, as was the walk along the river bank to get there.

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Shukkien Gardens

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Bamboo grove in the gardens

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Some nice ladies who took our photo

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Walk up to observation point

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Next day we took a day trip out of Hiroshima to visit Miyajima Island which had been recommended to us by pretty much everyone who had visited Japan. Even though the famous “floating torii” gate was being repaired and under scaffolding we were assured that the island was still worth the trip . And anyway it was a short train and ferry ride from town, all included in our JR Pass. We got on the train and about 30 minutes later reached the port. It was easy to see where to go, just follow the crowds. The 10 minute ferry ride was pleasant and the sun was shining. After we disembarked, most of the tourists ran off to climb the peak and take the cable car. So we ambled slowly through the small port town, enjoying the sunshine, the beach and the many deer that wandered around hoping to snitch an ice cream cone or some chips off the tourists, and occasionally succeeding. It was all very pleasant. Climbing up the peak to the ropeway was also pleasant as the foliage was really at its best. WE opted not to do the ropeway as it was expensive, crowded and we felt the view was fine just as it was. (but who knows,maybe it would have been amazing). After eating something in a tortilla (egg?) we wandered around some more, talked to some Japanese girls on a day trip just like us, and returned to the city, to wander around some more.

At night we walked once again along the Peace Boulevard, where a long row of illuminations had been placed, mostly fairytale characters, witches, pirate ships and castles, but so many we could not photograph all of them. We departed the next day, feeling that Hiroshima, like the Phoenix, has risen beautifully from its ashes and is doing a good job of showing the world how to live peacefully.

Japan Jaunt Part 2 – Kyoto- gets its own section

Right, before we continue our tour let us take a moment to consider culture shock. Because, of course, a journey is not just a geographical jaunt but also a cultural one. This is especially true when you live in the Middle East and you go to the Far East. How shall I put this? The Japanese are good at respect. They love order. The Israelis…. less so. Order and respect are not high on the list of adjectives that spring to mind in the Middle East. It seems that everything in Japan was designed to make you feel respected, or at least  comfortable. This applies to the uncanny quiet on a crowded subway train, where nobody speaks in a loud voice on their mobile phone. They don’t walk and eat. There are designated places in the food market where you should eat (because … no trash cans anywhere). Similarly  the orderly lines of people waiting to cross at a busy intersection and being careful not to knock into anyone. And in the  ubiquitous  convenience stores (konbini) where there are footprints and arrows on the floor showing you where to line up. Wherever we went locals were quick to come to our assistance whenever we paused to examine Google Maps. They bowed profusely when addressing us.  The station guards, bowing, are happy to direct you politely and not ignore you. The newsreaders bowed on TV. And the toilets! Oh my god, the TOILETS are just awesome. They play music so as you won’t feel embarrassed by your bodily noises. They are heated and they squirt water at you from all angles. All of this was a cause of constant wonder. And so to Kyoto.

We got a fast train to Kyoto, but not the fast train we were meant to get. We had a short connection at Nagoya and I was so worried we would miss it that we belted on to the platform, stood at the correct place (marked so you know which carriage you are boarding) and hurried to our seats that were occupied by two Japanese gentlemen. I showed them my tickets and one shook his head sadly and said “Wrong train”. Aha. But this train IS going to Kyoto, right? I asked nervously. Yes he said, Nozomi. The Nozomi is the SUPER fast train not covered in our JR Pass because it is faster than the REGULAR fast train. A young guard hurried up when he saw our confusion and said that we could just walk through the carriages to the first one where the non reserved seats are, but by the time we found a seat we were arriving in Kyoto, 20 minutes before we were supposed to. Never mind. I learned a new thing, that the trains have names ( Sakura, Hikari etc) and that it was not enough to know the time, the platform, the carriage and seat number but one also has to check the name of the arriving train before boarding.

Our arrival in Kyoto was D’s birthday and to celebrate we went up the top of the Kyoto tower at night which was quite a lot of fun. We then repaired to a nearby izakaya and ate stuff.

 

Kyoto is a bit difficult to tackle because it has become a victim of its own success. By that I mean that it has hundreds of temples, but the really popular and famous ones are overrun with tourists so if you want to see them you have to get there at the crack of dawn. And Gion, the geisha area, is totally overrun with tourists at any time of the day or night. WE only tackled a few of the popular temples because after a while one gets pretty overwhelmed. SO we first picked Kiyomizu-dera which was pretty bearable when we arrived and totally packed by the time we left. It was nevertheless very impressive, even when swamped with tourists and school children.

WE then walked along the river bank up to Gion Corner, where we met an Israeli tour guide called Shimrit, from Kfar Saba, who is  married to a Japanese guy and lives somewhere near Kyoto. She directed us to the Geisha area, where we observed NO geishas. Moreover there are now signs up barring photography ,since the geishas are fed up with rowdy tourists shoving cameras in their faces when they try to enter a tea house or a taxi.There are countless police and guards trying to maintain order. The main street of Gion was so stuffed with tourists that you can hardly move and is not an enjoyable place in my opinion.  We beat a hasty retreat and set off for Nishiki Market which was utterly wonderful, and full of all manner of exciting things, both edible and whimsical.

Our next touristy site was next morning,Fushimi Inari, a short train ride from the train station near our guest house. This site, I had been warned, is highly popular with the Instagram brigade, so if you want to see it in its glory, be there early in the morning. We arrived there at around 8 am, which seemed to be early enough. The instagrammers, however were there and snapping away, with and without selfie sticks. There were also some school kids who asked us some questions. We then visited Tofukuji where the entrance to the gardens cost money but as you see was well worthwhile.

Another “must see” I had read about is called Arashiyama and it boasts a very widely instagrammed bamboo forest, a river with a “romantic train and cruise” and numerous temples. Again we set off early to avoid the hordes. Arashiyama was my first experience of being underwhelmed in Japan. Since Japan is such a highly tourist destination, there are many “must sees” and not all of them are what they are touted to be. For us Arashiyama was one such. There is a bamboo “forest” but it is more of a grove and no great shakes. The “romantic train” was packed and we could not get on it until 3pm ,so we gave it a miss. The area was ok but not wildly exciting. We returned to Kyoto city and decided to give Gion another try, but on the way we found Maruyama Park which was far more rewarding.

Day 5 of Kyoto (we allocated it 6 days because there is such a lot there) we headed for Nijo castle. Not overly crowded and rather lovely. Shoes were removed and photography not allowed inside, but the beautifully landscaped gardens were certainly worth a shot or three. Thankfully not the instagrammers were not in abundance.

We rounded off our time in Kyoto with a far less touristy site, in fact we were totally alone there. It was a rather quirky place, quite a long way from all the hot spots, mentioned online as “Monster Street”. There were not a whole lot of monsters, but hardly any people either which was a blessing. We rather liked it there.

And so to Hiroshima…. stay tuned.

Sizzling Sicily part 2

We arrived in Trapani to our best stay of the whole trip. As we drove up to the Air bnb I was a bit nervous. The area of the city looked a little run down and slummy. It was about 15 minutes drive from the historic centre and did not look promising. The actual street was narrow, but I had already checked with our hostess that free street parking was available (always a big issue in Sicily). I had Whatsapped the hostess 30 minutes before arrival and she was outside waving at us and showing us where to park. What was hidden behind the modest exterior was astounding. The spacious apartment with fully equipped kitchen was quite lovely. But the glorious garden with fruit trees and tortoises roaming around was just delightful.

Teresa showed us how to use the a/c , the hot water boiler, the mosquito zapper,and directed us to the nearest minimarket, 5 minutes walk away. Everything was perfect. And all this was achieved through Google translate, she didn’t know a word of English.

After settling in and walking round to the store to get stuff for supper and breakfast we went into Trapani centre to have a mosey around. The centre was about 15 minutes from the air bnb, and there was paid parking on the main square. We found a lovely little , mostly pedestrianized old city full of lovely churches and surrounded by sea views. It was very quiet but there was a long main street with restaurants and coffee bars, and it was all much less touristy than the other cities we had visited. We enjoyed it very much.

 

The following day we drove to the interesting Salt Museum about 20 minutes drive south along the coast from Trapani. It was quite interesting, with a good English guide who described the process of anicent salt harvesting and transportation to the mill. It was staggering to think that workers had to transport the salt in baskets on their heads in sweltering heat. We could hardly stand up it was so hot!

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Salt fields

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Salt Museum

 

The next day we walked to the Funivia station (about 20 minutes away ) to take the Cable car up to visit Erice, a medieval town which is on the hill overlooking Trapani.

The views were wonderful, and despite the heat , a short walk around Erice and the gardens was quite lovely.Not surprisingly, considering the heat, the place was almost deserted. The most impressive part was the view of Trapani from the Gardens and the view of the castle, which didn’t look worth visiting inside, but the outside was great.

 

In the evening we went back to walk around Trapani again and said it farewell, as the next day we were continuing ( a little regretfully) on to Palermo.

To say that I was disappointed in Palermo would be an understatement. The capital of the island, a city full of history, and beautiful buildings, I found it to be dirty beyond belief. We had seen mounds of plastic bags full of garbage strewn all along the highways, especially in the rest areas, all around Sicily. But driving in to Palermo we felt the pollution reached a new high. After walking around the streets for one day, my sandals were covered in mud, and I really don’t know where it came from. The buildings down town were indeed beautiful, but the overall feel of the city was not overly welcoming. I don’t know why this was exactly, but it felt as we had felt in Catania but there we had not spent a lot of time. I did enjoy the area around the Cathedral, but otherwise I don’t feel that my photos really convey how I felt about the city. We took a one hour tourist train around and saw little of interest. The main pedestrian drag also was not overly fascinating, despite being packed with great architecture and tons of churches. Maybe in the winter time it has more to offer. The Norman Palace (we did not venture inside) is of course a wonderful building. The Catacombs were gruesomely fascinating. These are my main impressions of Palermo, where we spent only two nights.

After two nights in Palermo we continued on to another faboulous stay at Villa Rosa b and b in the village of Castelbuono. This place was maybe even more wonderful than Trapani. The view reminded us a lot of the Galilee or the Jerusalem hills. Lots of olive trees and vines dotted the hillsides. The house itself was divine, with a hill view and a beautiful garden where we had the most amazing breakfast of our 18 day stay. Rosanna ( who spoke French) made us home made croissants, with home made lemon and pumpkin jam, omelettes with home grown herbs and everything was just perfectly serene.

In the evening we drove into the village of Castelbuono to have a pizza. Big mistake. The thing that had worried me was finding the turning back into Villa Rosa at night. I took a screenshot, I noted it on the map etc. The thing I had not foreseen was that driving out of Castelbuono was impossible! The Google Map navigation took us around and around the village and twice took us into a no entry street. The second time a woman who was trying to drive out of the street, stopped and, despite having no English attempted to help us find the way home. She called someone on the phone who spoke English. He directed me to the highway by way of the cemetery. Apparently because of the one way system and the narrow alleyways you have to drive below the village to then drive above the village, if you see what I mean. Anyway we eventually made it back.

After only one night at this wonderful place we continued on to the last leg of our trip, Milazzo.

I had booked 3 nights at Milazzo because one full day was intended to be a trip to the active volcano of Stromboli, on the island nearby, which is reached by taking a full day boat trip (until at least 11pm) . I booked a place with a pool so we could also relax after the walking we had done in the heat. On the way to Milazzo we passed stunning coastal scenery, including the town of Cefalu and the amazing vistas at Castellamare Del Golfo.

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Castellamare del Golfo

In the event, we decided that 70 Euro a head for the day trip to schlepp around some other islands in 35 C to wait for Stromboli to erupt was not really what we felt like doing. Imagine my amazement when after returning home, my friend informed me that the exact day we had intended to go (there was only one possible day available) was the day of a huge eruption which killed one climber, and caused vacationers to jump into the sea to escape the steaming lava!  I am so happy that we decided to spend that day lounging by a pool (with no other guests) eating and reading. So we concluded our Sicily tour without seeing either Etna or Stromboli in all their glory, but with many fine experiences and memories. Hope you enjoyed this. Stay tuned for Japan in November!

Visit to Leifeng Pagoda,Hangzhou

Yesterday was another beautiful sunny day so we decided to go off to Hagnzhou and explore again. Since it is warmer outside our apartment than in it we tend to do this at the weekend. Also we are trying to figure out how to get around Hangzhou by bus instead of taxi as we want to feel less touristy.(joke) Anyhow we got to the bus station and after one attempt at getting the no. 8 bus in the wrong direction(driver did not let anyone get o ) we got the correct no. 8 and reached the Pagoda which is reconstructed as the original one from the 10th century got destroyed.The view from the top was magnificent and we had the usual “Please take our picture with you” from curious locals.We are now used to feeling like Robert Redford and Julia Roberts. We then walked a bit around the stunningly beautiful West Lake and then went to Omar’s Indian Restaurant for  lunch. (Real Indian food but sadly no Nans or Chapatis till evening )As we were going into the restaurant we ran into my student Chris and Miles,the Canadian who used to teach at ZAFU but because of the 5 year maximum rule had to leave and is now teaching at another university in Hangzhou.

We then got the number 8 back to the bus station to go home but unfortunately got stuck in the rush hour and the journey back home was otherwise uneventful.This morning it is Danny’s 65th Birthday and we are feeling more and more as if we are on a second honeymoon. I was going to write about Danny’s experience as a judge of a speaking competition but since this is my blog I will leave that until I join him in the next round.

Leifeng Pagoda

View of Hangzhou from top of Pagoda