Maronites, Circassians and Druze- a trip to the Western Galilee

Looking over into Lebanon

You will find this entry rather different from our previous trips. The first thing will be a lack of decent photos and the reason for this is that this was an organized trip, but more of that later. (Heck I didn’t even get to photograph a Druze in traditional gear! )We booked a one night package through the Israel Youth Hostels Association marketed as a “Hamshush”, Israeli slang for a weekend break beginning on a Thursday. The deal was for 540 shekels per couple, which included overnight at the Youth Hostel in the Druze village of Pke’in, breakfast and two tours, one on Thursday night and one on Friday morning. Usually I avoid organized tours, which I feel are rushed and don’t allow one to peacefully contemplate the scenery. This tour, despite being quite pleasant, confirmed my opinion, and that is why there is a paucity of photographs. The guides were extremely knowledgeable, and had a wealth of information to impart, but the group was large and we rushed from place to place. It just meant that I could mark these places on my Google Map and return at leisure on a later date.

We stopped off at our favourite beach (Lavnun) at the Kinneret on the way up to Pke’in, and were thrilled to find it relatively empty and not too hot, considering we are in the midst of the summer holidays. After a pleasant time there we continued on to the Youth Hostel and checked in extremely quickly .The room was not at all what I remembered about youth hostels, despite no double bed, it was spacious,ensuite , and had a tv, aircon, wifi, tea and coffee with a kettle and a fridge. This is more than we have received in many overpriced hotels around the country. There was even a view from the window.

Lavnun beach, Kinneret

We drove into Pke’in village to grab something to eat before the evening walking tour. I had picked a random restaurant called The Village Restaurant, but after finding the main square and parking, a friendly guy approached us and guided us to his restaurant, The Mulberry Tree, which he said had “the most likes on Facebook”. A couple already sitting at a table assured us that the food was excellent so we sat down. We were offered an oral menu only which consisted of all the traditional Druze and local Arab dishes, Hummus, Labane, stuffed vegetables and so on. We chose two Druze pita and Labane and a plate of stuffed vine leaves. These were accompanied by some home made pickles and then a large plate of bulgur wheat . Everything was delicious. We then returned to the Youth Hostel.

After a quick cup of tea and rest in the room we went to the lobby for the evening tour. We met up with the two guides who divided us up into two groups. This then got complicated as we were offered a choice of walking or driving into the village to a viewpoint and a short introduction to the village. After a vote, most opted to drive, and went with the other guide, and our guide led about 20 people on the walk, stopping here and there to explain things about the Druze community and beliefs. Both guides were Druze, and it was interesting to hear about religion and customs, regarding marriage, burial and changing attitudes to the independence of women. We saw the main square and the spring, and the Synagogue, and learnt about the coexistence of Druze, Christians and Jews in the village.

Synagogue in Pke’in

Unfortunately since it was already dark I didn’t get a chance to photograph the many gorgeous houses around the village, but we will undoubtedly visit again another time. Along with another couple , we got slightly lost on the way back to the hostel, the guide strode ahead at a pace and was not really concerned if he lost a few people on the way. (this was one of our main gripes with this tour, that not enough time was spent at any place, and we felt continually hurried).

Next morning we had a magnificent breakfast at the hostel before meeting a new guide , Rassan, also Druze,( from the village of Hurfeish), and setting off to see Mount Adir, up on the Lebanese border, Gush Halav (Jish), a Maronite Christian village, and finally Rehaniya, a Circassian village. This was all by car, and we drove in long convoy, meeting up with the others at the entrance to each site.

Hazy look at Lebanon from Har Adir

After a short walk we reached the lookout point on the mountain which was unfortunately not clear due to heat haze. The surrounding views on the way up were however spectacular. This part of the Western Galilee is really beautiful and warrants a longer visit. There are many places to stay in the villages and kibbutzim around. We only spent a few minutes in Gush Halav and frankly I did not learn anything there. It was all too rushed. We got a potted history of Christianity in 2 minutes and a glimpse of the Church which was closed. The writing over the door is both in Arabic and in Aramaic, and apparently many of the Christian Maronites are claiming to be descendents of the people of Arameans , and trying to revive that tradition, including the language. They, like the Druze, serve in the army and are loyal to the State of Israel.

The final port of call, Rehaniya is home to a small community of Circassians. We were given a time of arrival to meet at the entrance to the village, but after stopping off to buy a sambusak and use the “faciilities” at the charming Nalchik restaurant ( at the recommendation of the guide), we returned to the village entrance and could not find anyone there (we were 5 minutes late, after waiting for the sambusak to be ready). Since it was about 30 C we decided not to schlepp around looking for them, but to head for the beach in Nahariya. So we drove to Galei Galil beach, Nahariya where we relaxed for a while before heading home.But first I have to mention the amazing Nalchik restaurant, which houses a small exhibition of Circassian folklore, complete with costumes, and many photos, and shows a loop of Circassian folk dancing on the tv. In the room there were rows of plastic chairs, where I believe talks about the sect are given. The charming Daniel who served us said that his uncle does guided tours and lectures on the Circassian people ,and gave us his card. We may take him up on this at a later date.

So there you have it. A village where Jews, Christians and Druze live together in harmony. What more could one wish for on this day when suddenly rockets are again whooshing over both sides of the border down south? How sad that we are so far away from achieving this peace in the rest of our area.

Stay tuned for next installment….

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!

Austria Part 3- the last leg

Splendid Graz

There is always a point at the beginning of the trip when you feel like it stretches endlessly ahead of you, and then you blink and it’s nearly over. This happened as we sadly left our wonderful guesthouse in Kirschberg and headed towards Graz. We would spend two nights in Graz before spending the last night near the airport, as we had an early flight. Another consideration was getting our PCR test 72 hours prior to the flight home; I figured that being in a city would make that easier to achieve.

Another consideration for staying in Graz was a chance to meet a Facebook friend. Marjorie and I somehow became friends, through mutual acquaintances in the FB English teachers’ community and I thought that having a local show us around would be fun. So we would spend our first day exploring alone and the second day we would meet her. How exciting to meet someone you have only chatted to on the Internet, right? Anyway we arrived in Graz and headed to my first address for getting the free PCR. There was nothing at the address.. nada.. zilch. Ok we’ll head for the next one- a shopping mall called Murpark. After finding the way in to the parking lot we easily found the testing centre. Sadly, though, and contrary to my information, this test was only free for locals, not for tourists. There was a free testing centre, the nice lad said, but it was somewhere downtown, where we would need to pay for parking. Never mind, we decided to get the stupid test done, despite the cost and get it over with. I really wanted to get the result back before we left Graz. The lad very kindly escorted us to the pharmacy where we had to pay, which was in another part of the mall, and waited with us to take us back again. A half hour later it was done and dusted so we headed back to the car park and thence to the wonderful NH City Graz, recommended by Marjorie. Slap bang in the centre of old Graz, and with a half price parking arrangement.

We settled in to our room and then went out to explore the town. A few minutes’ walk from the hotel we found what D was to refer to as “hot dog square”, the main Hauptplatz, with all the wonderful historic buildings and little alleyways. We found a splendid place to eat dinner too- a little Italian place where we had excellent pizza and pasta, and a fine glass of wine. I don’t remember the name but there are lots of lovely little restaurants just off the main square. It was even warm enough to sit outside.

The next morning we were going to explore some more, before meeting Marjorie for the afternoon, to get our insiders’ view of Graz. We kicked off with a splendid breakfast in the park right behind our hotel, at a splendid place called Das Promenade

Breakfast at Das Promenade

We then decided to head towards the river, which is always a good thing to do in a city. So we walked gradually in that direction, admiring the wonderful buildings all around, till we reached the river, and crossed over a bridge, past the very strange Art museum building, to the area near the Mariahilferkirche. We enjoyed the walk, the views and the whole ambiance. There was lots to see and enjoy- the area across the bridge felt more laid-back, studenty and offbeat than the downtown area near the hotel. We also enjoyed walking across the Murinsel, a strange floating structure in the middle of the river.

We found a little market square and then as we turned back to the river direction again, we saw the incredible sight of the Uhrturm, the medieval clock tower perched up above the town, and knew we had to climb up. Well, it’s only 260 steps up after all, not much to get a splendid view of the town on such a beautiful day, right?

The climb was really not bad at all, with lots of places to pause and revel in the fantastic view.

We had just reached the top when Marjorie texted to say she was on her way over. Perfect timing. We made our way back down (it seemed a lot easier than up) and in 10 minutes we were back at the hotel- D even managed to get his sought after hotdog, in “hotdog square” of course. He pronounced it “okay, but not as good as the Viennese one”.

We met up with Marjorie in the hotel lobby and she then very kindly took us to see some interesting spots around town. First we saw an inscription in Hebrew of a 14th century tombstone ( of the the merchant Rabbi Nissim bar Aharon who died in 1387 ) on the wall of the federal government building.

Tombstone

Next we saw the famous double staircase in the municipal buildings. And then we stepped inside the magnificent Graz cathedral with its baroque interior.

Then we took a lovely walk through the park, which was really lovely, stepping in to a few lovely courtyards along the way. We really enjoyed Graz very much, and can totally see why Marjorie enjoys living there.

We had a short walk around town again the next morning before departing to our extremely odd airport hotel, the Moxy which was more like a cross between a youth hostel and a “house of ill repute” than an airport hotel. I understand it was trying to cater to the young, hispter crowd. I found it loud,both in volume and decor, and the room had some kind of weird mauve disco lights on the side tables and even under the bed, with a huge screen tv, but no telephone, complimentary soap or kettle. In the morning at 6am when we departed, one lift had a “do not use sign ” on it but refused to stop going up and down, whilst the other one refused to move at all. Despite all these faults, it was 800 m walk to the airport terminal, so that was fine.I omitted to mention a slight scare we had on returning our car to the extremely patient Gabor. First we could not find how to drive into the hotel car park where we had arranged to meet him, so I texted him that we would deliver the car in the Billa supermarket parking lot. Then after we found him, D seemed to think he had lost his mobile phone, only to discover after a frantic 30 minute search (in which we BOTH failed to see it) , it was retrieved lurking under the dashboard all along. All’s well that ends well, eh?

Going home

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…

 

Oaxaca

The last day in San Cristóbal, after eating out at a fancy restaurant (not at a street tacos stall) I was visited by Montezuma’s Revenge. This is something that happens to every traveller who spends any time at all in Mexico,, at some point or another. It happened to me the day before we were due to take another long, 12 hour bus journey from San Cris to Oaxaca City. Fortunately for me, after a couple of pills of Immodium, I was fine, and actually the bus ride to Oaxaca was pretty enjoyable. We left San Cris at 10.30 am and arrived in Oaxaca about 22.15 to be met at the bus station by our Air Bnb hosts!

I have to say that I love this website more and more. We got to stay in cheap, self-catering places and we met charming, kind local hosts, and found it that much more pleasant than staying in impersonal hotels. So if you are not familiar, go ahead and sign up! You can use this referral to join.

Anyway so the lovely couple at our place picked us up in their car so we would not get lost late at night, and drove us to the apartment, which was small, clean and had everything we needed including a small kitchen, charming patio where we ate breakfast every day, and a parrot (in their place not ours) which continually shouted “Hola!”

Next morning we got up to explore Oaxaca, and by lunchtime we had decided that we really liked it a lot and were going to extend our stay there. We had intended to go on to Puebla after Oaxaca, on the way to Mexico City. But we decided to skip Puebla and stay in Oaxaca for another week. There seemed to be so much to see and do there, but the pace of the place made us feel like we wanted to just relax and “be” there,, not necessarily charging around from site to site. Since our friends Renee and Barry had recommended the place, we started to see the charm of it right away.

If San Cristobal had been the “musicians’ city” , Oaxaca was the artists’ city. Everywhere we saw beautiful artwork, galleries, museums, and street art. The vibe felt relaxed, despite the fact that Oaxaca was about the most political place we went in Mexico. And when I say that, I mean that there were armed police everywhere downtown, and the Zócalo had at least 3 demos or political gatherings going on at any given time. Nevertheless, the place had a distinctly artistic feel to it and we enjoyed it a lot. As to what we did there, mostly just hang out, walk around and photograph the beautiful buildings and squares and eat and drink  the delicious Mexican chocolate. We did take one tour from Oaxaca, which was to Monte Alban, the Pre- Columbian Zapotec site, which was wonderful. The tour was combined with a place where they demonstrated weaving and dying yarn with natural colours, Mitla, another important Zapotec archeological site, and with Hierve el Agua , an incredible rock formation that looks like a frozen waterfall. We also got to see how the local liquor, called mezcal,  is produced from the agave plant, and of course to taste several varieties of it.

But every day we walked down town from our apartment we felt relaxed, whilst never quite knowing what we would see. One day, there was a wedding with huge puppets representing the bride and groom, and all the guests dancing in the street; another day a load of parades (political demos?), another day we came across some kind of municipal festival in a huge open air amphitheatre, with lots of stalls, and free tastings of food, and local dances. One day, as advised by our “Oaxaca guru” Renee, we went to the public lending library for a language exchange, where I tested the limits of my Spanish, and D met a man whose mother tongue was not Spanish but the Zapotec minority language. It was all great fun. Oaxaca is a city where you can walk around and continually be surprised.

Oaxaca is such a pleasant city that  it’s hard to really sum it up. I can say that the market is a great place to eat and sample the special cuisine they have, and that there are many lovely squares where you can sit, eat, drink and people watch. It is highly recommended to try the local chocolate, which is not like any other chocolate I have ever tasted. You can pop into art galleries and chat to the artists everywhere you go. And in the evening there is (as in everywhere else we went in Mexico) live music of all kinds to go with your beer or mezcal. We found a lovely restaurant-bar called Praga, which had live jazz every evening, and lovely quotations from poets all over the walls.

Of course there were also many churches, museums and galleries to see in Oaxaca. But just hanging out there was really the thing I will remember most about our stay there.

One day on one of the main parks, El Llano, we saw a VW bus painted like the Magic Bus, from which a woman,a  blond girl and two dogs emerged. They were from Patagonia, in Argentina, and were travelling from Patagonia to ALASKA in this bus. The girl had been born on the road. They were financing the trip by selling a book and T shirts. When we asked them when they would get to Alaska, the woman said, “It doesn’t really matter, but it won’t be this year!”.

As hard as it was to drag ourselves away from Oaxaca, we knew we had to be in Mexico City by a certain date to fly home, and we didn’t want to miss the main sites in the capital, so we gave ourselves a week to be in DF, as it is called, before our flight, so eventually we had to book our Airbnb in Mexico city and buy a bus ticket, for our final ADO bus to the capital, a mere 8 hour trip. So stay tuned for the Mexican finale, DF, the Mexico City bit….

A very cultural week

*** Warning! Long blow-by-blow post. Please feel free to skip as necessary!

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The gorgeous Belvedere Palace

As I wrote in my last post, the trip to Vienna was booked before we  knew that were going to Sri Lanka. But in any case of course Vienna and Sri Lanka are going to be very different experiences. We had never been to Austria before, partly because of my bias against the German language, but we decided it was worth a try.

So we packed up and flew off to our lovely air bnb care of one Anton Herzl. We got the airport bus to downtown for a cheap 13 Euro return (being careful not to lose the return part of the ticket!)

The flat was very well located, 5 minutes walk from the U-bahn subway station and a leisurely 20 minutes do the city centre along the Danube canal. We mostly walked down and travelled back by subway when we were exhausted. U-bahn has a flat rate of 2.20 Euro and is easy to negotiate, and all the machines are in English as well as German.

The first day we ventured down town and just wandered around to see what we could see. WE saw the Parliament buildings (which are very impressive, but didn’t take the organized tour) the  City hall or Rathaus building, and the huge Museum quarter. Everywhere there are statues, and highly ornate neo-classical, baroque and a few art deco style buildings. IT’s all rather ovewhelming, and it’s hard not to constantly stop and take pictures. We then walked back through the gardens of the Rathaus and around the area of the Imperial Hofburg Palace.

On our second day we first went to find the ticket office to collect our ticket for the Vienna Boys’ Choir, which we would hear the following Sunday in the Mozart Mass at the Imperial Palace Chapel. After this we visited the Albertina Museum for the fantastic Chagall to Malevitch and Monet to Picasso exhibitions. Then we hit the Naschmarkt open food market and partook of our first proper Schnitzel. Actually it was hard to decide where to eat as there were so many lovely looking restaurants, but we finally picked one, and then wandered around a bit (taking more photos of course) There was a nice Asian place where the waiters were all Chinese, so we chatted a bit to them and came back there the next day.

In the evening we attended a meeting of Vienna Couchsurfing at a small bar, and met people from Vienna, Spain, Colombia, Finland and even Syria and Palestine. It was fun but hard to talk to everyone as there were so many people. When we left it was pouring with rain so we took a taxi home, as we were not sure how to negotiate the tram.

The third day was spent entirely at the amazing Imperial Palace the Hofburg, which has several different parts, and it is difficult to see everything if you don’t want to be “castled out”. As rather limited animal fans we passed on the Riding school, but if you are a horsey person you can do that. We saw the Silver collection and the Sissi Apartments, which show a peek into the lives of Franz Josef and his young wife Elizabeth (the Sissi of the movie fame) and it was a very interesting experience and made me want to brush up on my history. Everything was fascinating and beautifully laid out.We then returned to the Naschmarkt for supper to get a bit of Stir fry and practise our Chinese on the waiters.

The next day being Holocaust Day in Israel we identified by visiting both Holocaust Museums in Vienna. We found them rather underwhelming after all the grandeur of the Hapsburg palaces, especially as the museums themselves are not very well laid out or labelled, or even that easy to find. The first one in Judenplatz was particularly uninspiring, and had a temporary exhibition of documents relating to Simon Weisenthal. The second one was better and had a special exhibition on the contribution of Jews to modern music, and this had a very good audio visual commentary accessible by smart phone.In the evening we had tickets to a Mozart concert held in the Sala Terrena, one of the (many) houses occupied by Mozart during his time in Vienna. The concert was lovely but even more impressive were the decorations in the hall itself,which were just gorgeous.

Day 5 was a visit to the incredible Belvedere Palace. It was hard to choose where to go, as there is also the Schonbrun Palace, which we were told is completely different and also amazing, but one can’t see everything,right? Anyway the Belvedere was indeed lovely, and quite easy to get to on foot,by walking through the lovely Stadpark. Fortunately the Stadpark had a food fair going on that day, so we had a great Viennese hot dog on the way as an added bonus. On arrival at the Belvedere, we noticed some workers erecting lots of scaffolding and a small stage, and decorating everything with flowers. There was no seating so it wasn’t a concert. We discovered that the place had been hired by a very rich Indian family for a wedding, to which 1,000 guests had been invited. Apparently this is a “thing” now. There are two palaces, actually the Upper and Lower, and the gardens. Fearing exhaustion we chose only the Upper, where the famous “Kiss” picture by Klimt is housed, and were not disappointed. There are rooms upon rooms of gorgeous artworks and it just goes on and on… Anyway the visit to the Belvedere, with its ornate rooms and galleries was another wonderful day out in Vienna.

Dan wanted to have a glimpse of the Danube proper and not just the Canal, so the next day we walked via the Karmelite market towards the river. The market, in Leopoldstrasse, a Jewish neighbourhood of Vienna, was quite nice but nothing amazing. But on our way to the river we walked through the Prater amusement park which was nothing short of splendid. I am not usually a fan of these things but the big wheel was indeed impressive and the whole place had a sort of yesteryear charm to it which was quite lovely, added to the fact that the sun was shining. We reached the Danube eventually, which was, as I had feared rather disappointing. There were no restaurants or cafes along its banks, as there are along the canal, and frankly nothing at all to do there. SO we decided to head back to the area around the Stefansdom, the iconic church set in the Stefansplatz, and the beating heart of the Innere Stadt. There we went up to the top of the spire in the lift, and enjoyed a view out over the city.

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D on the Danube

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Amusement park at Prater

There were still a few more surprises for us in Vienna. We had tickets for the Vienna Boys’ Choir singing the Mozart Mass in the Imperial Hofburg Chapel. I had not realized this would be a “proper” Mass and not just a concert. This was a rather weird anthropological experience for us good Jews, never having attended Mass before. I was rather worried they would call us up to do whatever it is you do with the host and the wine, but fortunately we didn’t have to do that. The choir was of course outstanding and the accoustics were incredible. The whole experience was very special. Our final musical experience was actually devoid of music. We did a tour of the Opera house, which was very interesting, but didn’t attend a performance, as we couldn’t get tickets, and I didn’t fancy queueing up for 3 hours to stand through something that we didn’t know well, and there were only performances of less well-known operas on, so we decided to pass.

Our last day in Vienna we returned to Stefansplatz a bit( quick glass of white wine and marching band!) and then walked along the canal again to just chill out and try and take in all the sights. We were blessed with gorgeous hot weather, and chanced upon a cafe restaurant, amusingly named Tel Aviv beach, complete with sand, deck chairs, hummus and pita (which we didn’t eat) and a great view of the canal.

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Imperial Box at the Opera House

Thus ended our week and we now have a month to get ready for the next adventure- Sri Lanka! Bring it on…

 

 

The beautiful North

After showing our dear friends Renee and Barry around Jerusalem and the Dead Sea area we took a trip up to the North of Israel to attend the Jacobs Ladder Folk Festival and to show them a bit of the North of the country. On the way up I had to work in Yaffo,so D showed them around the Ancient Port of Jaffa,and then we jumped in the car and set off,stopping en route to have lunch on the beautiful beach front of Natanya. We ate sandwiches looking at the sea, and marvelled at the blue sky and warm weather,despite it being December.

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Natanya Sky

On arrival at the site of the festival, Nof Ginossar we settled into our rooms in the Village,signed in to the festival, and checked out the performers. The festival runs over Friday evening and all day Saturday, and is a wonderful mix of folk,rock,blues and jazz music in a great atmosphere.Our family has been going for many years and we love the informal feel and the whole experience of being detached from TV,radio,politics and the like for a whole weekend.It is truly refreshing. The venue,perched on the Sea of Galilee, is always attractive.You can stroll around the kibbutz and check out the Jesus Boat which was found onsite. The next morning we really enjoyed the massive breakfast,and the whole festival was a blast.

Breakfast at Nof Ginosar Kibbutz Hotel
Breakfast at Nof Ginosar Kibbutz Hotel

Once the festival was over, on Saturday afternoon we drove round the Sea of Galilee to Yavne’el a small village in the Galilee area where we had booked an Air BnB place for the night at the house of Lesley, a place called Tuscany in the Galilee.The place was a little hard to find,but Lesley’s baker husband Menny directed us to the place over the phone.We found the most charming house built on a hill which had a superb view of the whole area from our balcony window.We chatted a bit with Lesley and went to bed.The breakfast,which Lesley (from Colchester in the UK) had apologized the night before would only be “continental” was in fact a superb spread of freshly baked cakes,croissants and foccaccia, served with freshly squeezed orange juice from the oranges on the neighbour’s tree,and fresh coffee.It was all just too wonderful,just look!

Breakfast in Yavne'el
Breakfast in Yavne’el

View from the balcony,Yavne'el
View from the balcony,Yavne’el

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View of Yavneel

Lesley explained that they run a coffee place in Ramat Gan,and every week,Menny comes home to do the baking and then takes everything down there to sell.On our last day up north we went round the Sea of Galilee again and up north to Katzrin,the Capital of the Golan since Biblical times.We visited the ancient Synagogue there and then went on to do a guided tour of the Katzrin Winery which was both interesting and tasty.WE saw the whole of the wine production process and got to taste 3 different wines at the end.

The Katzrin Winery
The Katzrin Winery

We would have loved to show Renee and Barry some additional sites in the North, such as Rosh Hanikra on the Lebanese border,or Pekiin, a village where Jews and Arabs have lived together peaceably for generations,but it was beginning to get late and we had a long drive ahead of us back to Jerusalem.So there is always more to see next time.

Partying with the Boy

This weekend felt like we had been hit with “party whirlwind”.Our elder son arrived for a visit to China,part business and part pleasure. He wanted to meet potential leads for his new business Shapedo,but of course also to play the tourist a little,and spend some time with us.We have really not spent a lot of time together since we have been in China for the last 3 years, and have only been back on short visits.So naturally we were pretty excited to have him come up to Xiamen, He flew in to Hong Kong and spent a couple of days with an old friend of ours who lives there. He seems to have been wined and dined there.Then he went over to Shenzhen to check out a makers fair there. The original plan was for him to get a train up to Xiamen from there. We had already taken into account the long Holiday weekend of May 1st here in China, and that was why the plan was for our son to stay put over that time and not attempt to travel.It is well known that the holiday weekend is mayhem here,due to the large numbers of Chinese on the move.However, there were no train tickets to be had.So he finally flew in to Xiamen Airport following a mysterious 2 hour delay,caused by “military activity” in Fujian province (who knew?)

We pretty much spent the whole time he was here with friends,partying and eating.He was keen to sample the “strange foods” he had heard about in China,and was certainly not shy to give that a go. He had various kinds of seafood (sea cucumber,oysters) and even some frog.Actually I gave that a go too and it was pretty good.Maybe some of those seafood things are not so unusual but in Israel they are hard to come by.

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Baby lobsters?

 

One evening we had dinner with our upstairs neighbour Alex at a new HotPot place that just opened across the street- 45 RMB for unlimited hotpot serve yourself from the moving carousel and drop items into the bubbling sauce of your choice.

We also had dinner with our student friends at XMUT- a group of people that  we have become very close with since we prepared them for Speaking competitions here over the last two years.I think it was really a good experience and a lot of fun.

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Dinner with Shirley,Witty,Judy,Daniel and Edison

 

We also had dinner with another very good friend,Daniel Chen.He is a guy from Taiwan whom we met on our way to Taiwan last year,when he  helped us out with our ferry tickets.Since he lives and works here in Xiamen very near to us we spend a lot of time with him,and he loves to take us out for dinner and drinks.He insisted it was his turn to invite us out,and took us to a Western style restaurant downtown.We were joined by a French guy called Gilles who is also in the 3-D printing industry.He wanted to meet our son so we asked Daniel if it was okay for him to join us at the restaurant.

 

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Later we went to a bar at Haiwan Park called La Havana, and were joined by our lovely friend Hamburger.

But maybe the highlight was the Farewell Party for our Italian friend Celeste.She is a teacher of Italian at Jimei University who is going to Beijing for a couple of months,and by the time she returns to Xiamen we will be gone.She invited some friends to party with her at her apartment,and we figured that there were people from at least 8 different countries speaking  a babble of Chinese,English,Italian,French and Hebrew there. Celeste regaled us with Spaghetti bolognaise and other Italian delights and of course the alcohol flowed freely.(An enebriated Hamburger singing with a bottle of Qingdao Beer as a microphone was part of the entertainment). We all had an amazing time.We realized how many friends we have made in our time here and how much we are going to miss the people and the lifestyle here.

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Celeste’s Farewell Party

We did do a little sight-seeing too.We showed our son the beautiful campus of Xiamen University,the Nanputuo Temple nearby and our friend Hamburger who works as a tour guide sometimes took us around.We also spent a day going around Jimei,to show him the less touristy side of Xiamen.

 

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tan Kah Kee Monument,Jimei

 

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Campus of the Famous Xiamen University

So now those amazing 5 days are over,it’s back to work (but only for another 4 weeks) and our son has departed for the delights of Shanghai.We will teach here till beginning of June,which is the end of the semester and then will be off to Thailand and Laos.Stay tuned…..

Winding up and heading out…

I have not blogged for a while, as I have been busy testing students for their final oral exam,and filling in grades and doing paperwork.We have now done everything and have just 2 more classes tomorrow in which I show the students a movie and say goodbye.

Also we seem to have started a sort of English Club at a nearby Cafe called the Green Cafe,owned by a Chinese Dude called,strangely enough Cohen. We started off by having a sort of meeting of Couchsurfing people from Jimei area who were all students of course.So we met at Green bar and Cohen gave us drinks for free and supplied a guitar.We wended up teaching them to sing “Two Chinese with a big violin” (Israeli silly song) which they translated into Chinese.It was pretty hilarious. Now every day the kids are asking me when we are coming back.We have been kind of busy but are in daily messaging contact with them and Cohen also helped me to find a dry cleaners’ Anyhow Green bar has become our local haunt and hopefully we will drop in there a lot next semester too.

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The Orchestra

We have had a few fun outings recently-First we were invited to a (free) concert by the Xiamen something Orchestra to commemorate 30 years of International cooperation. There was a quartet from Germany (actually each player was indeed from another country) then the Chinese orchestra and for the finale all the musicians together. Works were by Brahms,Mozart,Gershwin and some Chinese composer.It was lovely and we enjoyed it immensely.The university took us from our apartment and returned us home afterwards. Then one day we went out for dinner with our friends Hamburger,Jenny,Bree to celebrate Jennifer’s birthday.We discovered that “KungFu Noodles” are noodles made next to your table with KungFu moves,and then the noodles are deposited in your soup.
All very exciting. This Sunday we will have a “See you Later” party in our apartment for Jen who is off to do her Masters Degree in Connecticut.It is sad to say goodbye to her,hence the choice of name “See You Later”.

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Yesterday we went downtown to have coffee with a Chinese English teacher at XMUT called Laura.She lives on Xiamen Island with her French husband.Her English is wonderful and we had a very pleasant morning with her.We then went to the Seashine Department store to spend the 2000RMB that the school Labour Union kindly gave us  as a present.

On June 20th we fly to South Korea for a holiday,and then to Hong Kong for a few days before we fly home.The Servas lady who is hosting us in Seoul says we can leave our big suitcases with her,so that is wonderful

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Cref’s Class -one of my favourites

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Hanging out with Laura

Finally we had a terrible accident here in XIamen last week when a BRT bus exploded,it is not yet clear whether this was indeed caused by some guy committing suicide,or whether it was a police coverup of a safety accident,as some Chinese netizens are claiming.  Whichever,,it was a horrible accident in which 47 people were killed,many of them students returning home after the national GaoKao examination. Don’t want to dwell on that,as these terrible things happen everywhere,as was proved today after everyone had self righteously rolled their eyes at the baby discovered in the toilet pipe.Today Sky News published that a 24 year old mother in Birmingham threw her 5 days old  kid down a garbage shute and caused skull fracture and brain damage.

But I digress.this is not my usual blog-style -SORRY!

Stay tuned for South Korea….

Not so great things in China-post for my critics

Lots of people keep saying “It can’t all be so great-you are only describing the wonderful things and leaving out the bad things” and I admit that I have a tendency to do that,being an optimistic person(though not according to Mr Piglet). So here goes with the things that can be taxing,trying or downright disgusting in China.

Of course the first one everyone is thinking about is toilets.Yes I know you all envision horrid holes in the ground and so forth. Now for me this has been a real eye-opener. I mean yes they are all squats,and no you don’t get toilet paper and towels.But actually I have found the squats to be frequently a lot cleaner than public toilets back home and frankly now I am used to it and go everywhere with tissues and wipes in my bag it really is not an issue. Plus,public toilets are in abundance in China unlike the West,and they are mostly cleaned on a regular basis. Compare that to France (5* hotel with crappy facilities out back) or our beloved Tahana Merkazit in Tel Aviv.

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People fall asleep all over the place -just about anywhere

Spitting and other weird public “waste disposal”-okay I admit this one still grosses me out.I mean it’s not even so much the spitting but more the accompanying hoicking noise which I really hate. also little kids peeing in public I find a bit harder to take.

Pavements- (or for my US readers “sidewalks”) tend to be disastrous in China. I don’t know why they insist on having the guidelines for the blind down the middle of the pavement when I have yet to see a single blind person walking down the sidewalk using it to navigate.It is just bizarre.

Shoddy building and plumbing- buildings have no insulation and therefore get too hot and too cold,and frequently have an unfinished feel to them.The plumbing doesn’t work and of course the tap water is undrinkable,and here in Xiamen has a weird colour. Of course all these things have solutions,but this seems to be something that is hard to fix in China. I am not sure why.

Fireworks- well this doesn’t really bother me but some people find it hard to take,things going bang at all hours of the day and night especially Saturday morning 7am.

Language- well of course being a foreigner here and not being able to read anything or make yourself understood is a serious drawback.It can sometimes be frustrating, difficult and really annoying to feel like an illiterate idiot.But I can hardly blame China for that one,right?

Overcrowding and pushing- well again here there are SO many people it is really not the fault of the Chinese that there are so many of them and they are trying to fix this problem.

But the upshot of it is that when you go to get on the bus or train there tend to be a lot of other people there doing the same thing,not to mention at festivals and holidays when travelling is really not recommended.

Weird foods- well of course for me one of the attractions of travelling is trying weird foods. But in China some of them just don’t appeal to me- in fact breakfast here sucks in my humble opinion. Eating chicken feet,stinky tofu or durian fruit just don’t do it for me.

I am sure there are many other things that would bother others here,for me those are the main things.Hope this has enlightened and made you realize that i am not turning into a brainwashed Commie or anything. Stay tuned for the New Years’ Eve bash.

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Weird sign on Gulangyu ferry boat -not entirely sure what they mean!