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

A traveller at home

Nearly all of my posts here are about travel to other countries. But what is there to stop us being tourists at home too? Looking at places in our own country with that carefree, curious eye as we do when we travel? This got me thinking that maybe I should also post about places at home in Israel, which other travellers would enjoy. The occasion was afforded when we hosted friends  Fiona and Anton from Krakow who just stayed with us for a few days. We wanted very much to show them the country. They spent a few days in Eilat and Jerusalem before coming up  here and had glorious weather. It was just our luck that the day they arrived here the temperatures dropped and it became cold and extremely windy. Undaunted, we decided to take them to visit Caesarea, a Roman city with a fascinating history that is only 30 minutes drive from our house.  I reasoned that if the rain was too strong we could visit the Rali Museum there too. I had never been to this museum but it was free, open on Saturday and was reputed to have a wonderful collection of Spanish and South American art as well as a lot of Salvador Dali sculptures.

The museum was indeed wonderful and had a wealth of interesting pieces. I will definitely return as we didn’t have time to see everything, because we also wanted to visit the Roman Aqueduct and Amphitheatre located in the Caesarea national park. As we arrived at the Aqueduct we were assaulted by gale force winds, making it practically impossible to stand up straight. But it was all worth it to see the impressive waves beating the rocks around the aqueduct. It was a very impressive place. From there we continued to the National park.

The National park houses a multimedia museum and impressive Roman amphitheatre and an extensive site of the once resplendent city port built by Herod in around 25 BCE. It is well worth the entry fee, and the port area is full of shops and restaurants which we didn’t try due to the aforementioned stormy weather. We did however enjoy the short audiovisual presentation which explains a bit of the history and was in English and Hebrew (with Chinese subtitles). Usually you can walk along from the main site to the amphitheatre which is still used for huge rock concerts, but the road is currently damaged from recent flooding, so it’s just a 5 minute drive along.

So if you are into archeology  you should definitely look up this place.

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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!

Chopped Liver and Klezmer- a week in freezing Krakow (or is it Cracow?)

This post comes with a consumer warning- this trip was not our usual happy jaunt to foreign climes, to savour native cultures and escape our everyday life. I thought it might be that, but once the visit to Auschwitz materialized on the itinerary, everything changed.

It all started when (like many other fellow Israelis) we happened upon appealingly cheap flights to Poland. I knew nothing of Gdansk, or Poznan, but I knew that Warsaw was flattened during WWII and rebuilt, but that Krakow remained mostly intact. I like old European cities, so  chose Krakow over Warsaw- the shopping mecca of the modern Israeli. I looked up what there was to do in Krakow and basically there were three things: the Medieval Town centre, the Jewish Quarter of Kazimeirz and the Ghetto and a visit to the Salt Mines. But every tourist website I explored offered a day trip to Auschwitz Birkenau. Okay, clearly if you are going to Krakow for a week, that has to be on the itinerary. I know that most Israeli school high kids get taken there but I had never really thought about what a trip to that terrible place would mean to me as an Israeli and a Jew, and as a human being. It just didn’t seem right to be in Krakow and not make that trip. We had visited the Killing Fields in Cambodia, and the American war Museum in Saigon, and also the DMZ in Korea. It was time to face our own history.

Therefore, this blog will be ( as befits a week before Pessach) different from all (my) other blogs, and the content may be heavy. You have been warned.

The flight ( Ryanairm arriving  at a horrible 23.59 )was enhanced by a chat with a Polish journalist called Anton who is now my Facebook friend and will hopefully be visiting us in December. On arrival,  fortunately our Ryanair transfer guy was waiting at the airport to take us the 30 minute drive to the Jewish district of Kazimierz, where we stayed at the comfy but slightly worn Kazimierz II hotel.

The staff were still there as promised and we quickly got ensconced in our room. The next morning after a hearty complementary brekky (brazenly UNKOSHER) we set off to explore the centre of old Krakow. We tried to join a free walking tour, but that did not depart, as there were not enough people. So we made our own  way through winding cobbled streets to Wawel castle to tour by ourselves. There we chanced upon a different free walking tour company and joined the end of their tour. We didn’t actually enter the castle because the first available tour involved a 2 hour wait. In any case it didn’t look like Versailles. The free guide was good and so I noted that his company (called Walkative) had other tours including one of Jewish Krakow, and the guide said that their tours went in all weather and regardless of the number of participants. We had a lovely cappuchino and chocky cake in the old city and went home for a rest. We had dinner in the Jewish quarter near the hotel at a very excellent restaurant  Kuchina Domowa ,that was exceedingly tasty and cheap, like many restaurants in Krakow. We at first went in to the one next door, Sasiedzi, which had been recommended to us by some girls at the hotel, as appearing in the Michelin guide, and which boasted Hebrew over the doorway. But it was more expensive and fancy looking and we were very satisfied with the one we chose. In the evening we went to a meeting of Couchsurfers in a pub called The Legend, which was a bit hard to find. The event was fun and we talked to people from Italy and Spain as well as local Krakovians.

Next day we did some more exploring around the main square downtown, including the famous medieval Cloth Market, and the streets around it including St Mary’s  Basilica and the Jagiellonian University building. In the evening we went to a lovely concert of Chopin music in the Chopin Gallery.

Next day we took an organized tour to the Wieliczka Salt mines just outside Krakow. I was a bit apprehensive about this as I had heard there were 800 steps down, but in the event, despite having a problem knee that morning I managed to do it slowly and surely.

The steps were not steep, well lit and with a handrail all the way. The guided tour including bus pickup cost 120 zloti per person and an earpiece so that you could hear the guide (Konrad- “Konrad’s group please join, please follow”)  and it  was very interesting. The statues carved out of salt with the chandeliers of salt crystals were great, and the pièce de résistance, the huge chapel at the end of the tour was staggering. Apparently locals can hire it for weddings and other events. There are also a bar  and restaurant down in the mines.

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St Kinga’s Chapel, Salt mine ( wikpedia Image)

 

Next day we took a free walking tour of the Jewish neighbourhood Kazimierz and its synagogues with Walkative. The tour began right by our hotel  in front of the Old Synagogue    and continued to the other places connected to the Jewish life of that neighbourhood which was completely wiped out in the Holocaust. This was where the trip started getting very weird. I continually felt that vast amounts of money are now being made on the backs of a whole community that has been totally  eradicated. Everywhere there are bars and restaurants, profiting from displaying Stars of David and Menorahs, and by selling gefilte fish and chopped liver. Everywhere you see posters for Klezmer music being played by non Jews (cultural appropriation?) The place was thronging with tourists. Poland is cheap, and the beer is plentiful. Of course this is all completely natural  but somehow it felt jarring. For example, from the free tourist map I was given:

Hevre- once a Jewish prayer house, now a hip bar, with peeling original frescos and DJ parties in the basement on weekends. “

“Sababa: this covert cocktail club offers signature drinks served by sharp-dressed barmen in a low key lounge setting with weekends DJ sets”

I don’t know – it just made my skin creep. But more of this dislocated feeling anon.

Back to the tour- we saw the beautiful Old Synagogue, now a museum, which we returned to on our last day, another Synagogue which is now a bookstore, and the Remu Synagogue and cemetery where we had to pay 10 zloti each to visit (despite the fact that there were some Hassidim from Bnei Brak praying inside, next to the jean- clad French teenage tourists). The tour then crossed over the Vistula river to the Ghetto and the horrifying Ghetto Heroes Square. (  70 empty  bronze chairs – One  chair for each 1000 people murdered)  The tour finished up outside Oscar Schindler’s Factory, where we were offered a paid tour inside what is now a museum. WE opted to queue outside for 45 minutes to visit independently. Our guide pointed out that all the commercialization of Kazimierz district began only after the movie Schindler’s List, which brought the world’s attention to Jewish Krakow. Before this time, he said, the district had become run down and the derelict houses, abandoned by their Jewish owners ,were inhabited by the poorest of Krakow’s residents. Then gradually tourists came and people saw a marketing opportunity in all things Jewish.

The Schindler Factory Museum was interesting but extremely crowded and it was hard to focus on the wealth of information on display there. We made a valiant effort before returning to the hotel to have dinner and steel ourselves for the following day- Auschwitz- Birkenau.

WE had originally planned to visit the camps independently, just taking the museum guides for the tour inside (outside guides are not allowed). However on discovering  that the next day would be -6 wind chill effect -20, we decided to forgo getting there under our own steam, and booked a tour bus that would pick us up from the hotel, and take us directly to Auschwitz I , provide a tour guide and then continue on to Birkenau (Auschwitz II). It was odd as there were no other Jews/Israelis on the bus and it felt a bit bizarre. The whole day was extremely odd. I can only direct you to the wonderful article written by teacher Adam Boxer, which really puts a finger on how I felt for the rest of this trip. What Mr Boxer says is spot on. I sometimes felt that the guide was being overly defensive, for example, by pointing out that the camps were in fact built to exterminate Poles and not only Jews (true, but 90% of the victims were Jews, both Poles and from other countries).  Then she said that inmates claimed the “Jews had it easier” because they were exterminated immediately on arrival instead of being tortured by camp life. This may be true, but it’s a funny way of putting it. She also said that in comparison to Auschwitz II , Auschwitz I was like a 5 star hotel ( brick barracks, toilets, beds) Again this is effectively true but just sounds awful. In terms of content, I believe she was 100% accurate. It was really the tone that bothered me. The tour of Auschwitz was about 2 hours but felt like eternity. In our 4 layers of clothing it was impossible to fathom how anyone could have survived there wearing pyjamas and no shoes. As the guide said, you could be punished for wearing another layer underneath your prison pyjamas.

From there the drive to Birkenau (Auschwitz II) was about 10 minutes. Again, Mr Boxer’s account is spot on. The camp was horrifying in its barrenness, as the Nazis destroyed most of the camp before the allied forces arrived, leaving only the crematoria. We toured the wooden huts that have been reconstructed there. Then the guide said she would continue on across the vast snow covered field to the crematoria. Those who preferred could return to the bus. D went; I caved in and returned with a few other women to sit on the bus and try to digest what we had seen.

 

The next day was our last day in Krakow and it was still bitterly cold, so we just popped down to the old city to see the last of the downtown area. We happened upon the strange “Underground Museum” which features a history of Medieval Krakow underneath the main square. Then after an amazingly cheap and tasty curry at Indus, we returned to tour Kazimierz again and enter the synagogues which we had not done on the walking tour. I leave you with some photos of those. Next stop Iceland.

Australia Part 2-Beautiful Brizzy

I continue with our drive up from Sydney to Cairns, which mostly consisted of stunning beaches one after another, and I apologize that I didn’t note down the names of all the beaches. We tried stopping off at a couple of points where locals assured us we would see whales, one of these was Woolgoola Headland, and you could just about see them with binoculars. But this just whetted our appetite – see Whale- watching later on.The one place that we spent a couple of days in and enjoyed immensely was Yamba at the mouth of the Clarence River Estuary. We stayed in the cute Yamba Beach Motel, which had everything that one needs for a comfortable stay and was reasonably priced by Australian standards. We then just wandered around the tiny town (lots of huge hills leading to the lighthouse) and took a book to read on the various beaches( one was called Pippi beach). Highly recommended. WE also had a very nice pint at the Pacific hotel, which has a splendid bar  overlooking the sea, and touts itself as “Australia’s best sited hotel”. Could not argue with them.

One final place I would like to mention that we enjoyed on the Central coast before we reached Brisbane was Dorrigo National Park. 

This lovely place is a short drive from Coffs Harbour and we spent a few happy hours strolling through the forest paths which are clearly signposted and not overly taxing. There is a short boardwalk at the beginning of the park and then a  few circular paths of varying  lengths, with waterfalls and so on. There is also a visitor centre where you can watch a short movie on the flora and fauna in the park. Our only problem was discovering that our car battery was flat when we returned from the walk (and of course it was a Sunday, our phone had no reception, which is common in isolated areas of Australia, and there was no internet reception either.) Fortunately a lovely couple in the car park came to our aid with jump leads and got us started up again.

It is really hard to get a sense of the rainforest from the photos, because the trees tower above and all around, so the photos really don’t capture the vastness of the experience.

On the way back to Coffs Harbour, the motel owner had suggested we stop at a quaint little town called Bellingen which we were passing through anyway. He specifically used the word “quaint”, adding that since I am from the UK I will understand. The town,set in farm land, with lots of horses and cows dotted around, was indeed quaint, with many interesting old buildings, and a museum, which sadly we did not manage to check out.

 

From Yamba we continued up the Pacific Highway to Brisbane. We had expectations of Melbourne and of Sydney, but Brisbane was a city about which we had heard very little. And we were blown away by it. Since we saw that we had plenty of days of our trip to make it up to Cairns, and had decided not to continue driving but to get there by plane, we decided to extend our stay in Brisbane and chill out a bit there, as moving every one or two days gets tiresome. As soon as we walked around in central Brisbane we felt at home. It’s hard to say exactly why. Our air bnb was in a wonderful quiet neighbourhood called Hawthorne, and came with a kitchen, garden, a swimming pool and a dog called Oscar. It was also 5 minutes walk from the Hawthorne Citycat Stop. Citycat is a ferryboat service that plies up and down the Brisbane river and is a far more useful form of transport than the bus.It runs frequently, and up until after midnight 7 days a week. All you need to use it is an electronic  Go Card that you top up with money as you go. It is the same card for buses, trains, ferries and trams. You can just get on it and go all the way up one end of the line and then back again for about $6.

We immediately bought our Go card and started exploring. The first part of the city that we discovered was the central area of the Queen Street Mall which we returned to many times during our stay. It was both relaxed and buzzing, full of life and great for people-watching but not in the way that large cities are. It was always fun to sit on a bench and watch people, and we also took a tour later on with a Brisbane Greeter, (volunteer guide) who introduced us to some less well-known corners of the city.

There are lots of things to see in Brisbane- we particularly enjoyed the Southbank area and the Parklands- a long riverbank promenade that was built after the World Expo of 1988 and consists of a cultural precinct (Museums, art galleries, concert halls, theatres) a Nepali Peace Pagoda, grassy areas and free public swimming pools. There is also an Epicurious garden, where fruit, vegetables, herbs and flowers are grown by volunteers, and distributed free to people. The Southbank was the location from which we watched the fantastic Riverfire firework display at the end of the Riverfire festival which happily coincided with our stay in Brisbane. This display was preceded by air displays by army helicopters and jets. It was a great day, no less impressive in that the crowds dispersed in a quiet and orderly fashion at the end. The festival also included lots of free performances all over the place, which added to our stay. We also enjoyed walking around Roma Street Parklands, another park area near to the second place we stayed Spring Hill Apartments. We wanted to add more days at the Airbnb but it was no longer available, so we took the apartment for a week, which was a bit pricy but also included a washing machine and dryer! The only drawback to this accommodation was that it was indeed at the top of a hill. But there was a free bus that stopped right outside the apartments, and deposited us in the city centre in less than 15 minutes. So as the Ozzies say “No worries”.

Other places we loved in Brisbane were the Botanical Gardens and the old Regent Theatre which is now a tourist office, but part of the interior of the old theatre has been preserved. Just travelling on the ferries up and down the river and looking at the iconic Story Bridge from different angles was great fun. WE were continually amazed that every time we went down town something was going on- one day they were distributing free ice cream in Queen Street; another day there was a farmers’ market next to Victoria Bridge; there were lots of free performances in the Mall area too- one day we saw a display of Aboriginal dancing there. Our stay was also enhanced by meeting up with our friend Steve from Virtual Tourist, and then Gary and Roger from Servas, all of whom came out for dinner with us. WE also made new friends in Vera and Paul, a lovely couple we met on a Saturday morning when we went to the Farmers’ Market at the PowerHouse  and who also met us for dinner another evening. All of these meetings impressed on me that nice as sightseeing may be, the really memorable parts of our travels are always the personal contacts we make with locals. The openness and warmth we received from all the Australians that we met was just phenomenal. So thanks Ozzies!

Then there was one of the highlights of our whole trip- whale watching at Redcliffe. After a lot of humming and ha-ing we decided to go for it. It’s after all one of those “once in a lifetime” things right? It’s expensive but definitely something to remember. I checked out various companies and found that the most highly recommended one was called, strangely enough, Brisbane Whale Watching , and it had tons of recommendations on Tripadvisor. They guaranteed that we would see whales. But I was not prepared for how many! We bought a package which included a pickup from a location near where we were staying, transfer by minibus to the cruise jetty, the hour or so  trip out to the bay near Moreton Island and a buffet lunch. We even had a brief look at Beegees Alley before boarding our boat.

Very soon after reaching the bay we immediately started seeing humpback whales and some even jumped up right near the boat.It was truly amazing, and it was important to stop taking pictures (most of which missed the whales jumping) and just look at these lovely creatures. I still did manage to get a few good shots though! Each time there was a sighting, the crew shouted 11 o’clock, or 3 o’clock, and everyone rushed to the appropriate location of the ship to see the whales. There was even a mum and baby but I didn’t manage to get a picture.

Finally it was time to leave wonderful Brisbane- so I will just leave you with a few more pictures before we head for our last stop in the trip- tropical Cairns, and the Great Barrier Reef.