2014 Travel Blog − Europe & North Africa

December 16 to 24 − Merry Christmas from Barcelona

Welcome to my travel blog for 2014.

At Thanksgiving, my son Dan said "Let's go to Barcelona." It took me about 20 seconds to consider his suggestion, and about 20 minutes more to book my airplane ticket online. So, this year's adventure starts in one of Europe's most colorful, amazing, exciting, and romantic cities. Ah ... the inspiration of Gaudi, the flamboyance of Dali, the vision of Picasso! After a week here, I've added Barcelona to my list of Favorite Places In The World.

The Ramblas

La Sagrada Familia

East entrance

West entrance

The social center of Barcelona is a pedestrian avenue, known as The Ramblas. This is where you'll find the sidewalk cafés, the street vendors and the buskers. But for me, the architecture of Gaudí is one of Barcelona's biggest attractions. So, I booked a homestay through AirBnB just around the corner from the Sagrada Familia for the sheer pleasure of being able to view this incredible, artistic monument at all times of day. The last time I was in Barcelona was 1981. The progress towards the anticipated completion of the cathedral in 2026 is nothing less than miraculous.

Spiral staircase

Casa Batlló

La Pedrera

Güell Park
Gaudí's creative genius can be seen throughout the city. His apartments and parks are open to the public and are well worth the cost of admission. Two of Barcelona's other noteworthy sites are the Museu Picasso and Dalí's Teatre-Museu (which is an easy day trip by train to Figueres)

Children in the park

Neighborhood wine shop

The gothic quarter
Of course, Barcelona isn't just a collection of touristic attractions. It's a vibrant city full of color, food, music and people. Simply walking around this city is a pleasure to all the senses. A week in Barcelona is too short a visit. I could have stayed for a month or more.

Christmas candles

Barcelona cathedral

Catalonian carolers
Being here the week before Christmas was especially good timing. The streets are full of happy shoppers, all sorts of vendors of foods and handicrafts, and Christmas music sung by both modern and medieval choirs. As an added bonus, the weather has been sunny and warm − actually, low 60s. But it feels great to be able to go outside without a hat and to enjoy real sunshine under cerulean skies.

Dan & Christmas presents

Seafood paella

Hot chocolate
From Barcelona, I'll be heading south towards warmer weather. Stay tuned for this continued adventure. Enjoy time with your families and have a very Merry Christmas!

December 25 to 31 − Happy New Year from Andalucía

The last time I was in Spain was 1981. Back then, public transit was antiquated and sometimes slow. Today, one can cross Spain from Barcelona to Málaga in 5 hours, via trains that glide along at 300kph. The buses are equally modern and smooth. I’m posting this blog from a wifi connection aboard a bus that’s carrying me through Spain's Sierra Nevada. When I see how easy and comfortable Europe’s public transit systems are, I’m puzzled that the United States still hasn’t gotten with the program.

Hi-speed trains

Port of Málaga

Streets of Málaga

On Balthazar's lap
Málaga, on Spain’s south coast, is a sunny vacation destination for many Europeans who want to escape their cold, dark winters. So, at Christmas, the streets of Málaga are full of revelers enjoying mild evenings, welcoming sidewalk cafés, and late-night shopping. It was here that I was reminded that, while Spain celebrates Jesus’s birth on December 25th, the giving of presents doesn’t occur until 12 days later, when the wise men get to Bethlehem. Of the three wise men, Balthazar is the bringer of gifts to children. So, in shopping malls and department stores, children sit on Balthazar’s lap to tell him what they want for Christmas. Thus, in Spain, Santa is tall, thin, clean-shaven and black.

Málaga has a lot to recommend it, such as ...

  • Ancient Roman walls and an amphitheater.
  • A Moorish fortress (the Alcazaba) that overlooks the harbor.
  • The birthplace of Pablo Picasso and his museum.
  • The center of Andalucía’s flamenco culture.
  • Lots of street entertainment.
  • Beaches and sunshine!

A flamenco show

With Pablo Picasso

Bicycle-powered carousel

La Costa del Sol
Thanks to a gypsy I met five years ago in Rajasthan, I was invited to attend a Christmas fiesta at a gypsy camp near Málaga. (If you travel for long enough, you start bumping into people you’ve met in other places. Coincidentally, a week later in Granada, I met a former UMUC student from Japan.) My two days eating, singing and dancing with the gypsies were a glimpse into the passion, magic and color of Andaluzian culture − unforgettable!

Gypsy Christmas

Home-made bread

My host family in Granada

New Years in Granada
I didn't have to spend New Years Eve alone either, thanks to my wonderful AirBnB host family in Granada. They insisted that I join their clan for a traditional New Year's Eve dinner. In all, there were 20 at the table, including the aunts, uncles, nieces and nephews, plus a few significant others. I was the "random foreign person". Good practice for my Spanish! Note: In January 2013, I was learning Spanish in Granada, Nicaragua. I ended 2013 in Granada, Spain.

Most tourists come to Granada to see the Alhambra, a magnificent 14th century monument to past kingdoms and chivalry. This is a place of legends, treasures, romances and ghosts. According to Washington Irving’s Tales of the Alhambra, some of the stones used to build one of the Alhambra’s towers were taken from the pyramids of Egypt. This site is well worth a day to wander through exquisite 14th century Moorish palaces and manicured gardens, Traveler’s note: If you don’t book your ticket on-line in advance, be prepared to stand in line at 7:00am to buy your ticket.

The Alhambra

Courtyard of Lions

Palacios Nazaríes

Generalife gardens

Alhambra at sunset
The Alhambra towers over picturesque and charming Granada. I could have spent weeks wandering the cobblestone streets, stopping in at the shops and cafes. One of my favorite haunts was a chocolateria beside the cathedral, where ancient dark wood paneling and a ceiling that looked like a Tiffany lamp created a warm glow. This was where I liked to end my day with a rich hot chocolate while making notes in my journal.

On the road for two weeks now, I’ve adjusted to a daily rhythm. There’s a meditation that comes with solo travel. It’s a clean and clear mental state. Every moment is lived in the present. I focus on where I am and the people who surround me. There are no issues more significant than deciding which sidewalk café for my next meal, or how many days to spend in one place. I have no plans to settle down until I’ve seen everything − and that may take a while. So, stay tuned for the next installment.

Meanwhile, I wish everyone a healthy and happy 2014!

Backstreets of Granada

January 1 to 15 − Travels in Andalucía

I’ve now spent three weeks in Andalucía. I could spend three years here enjoying the colors, the history, the food, the music, the culture and the lifestyle. The people are genuine, earthy and hospitable. Almost everyone here is smiling or laughing. They have good reason to. This part of Spain is wonderful.

Córdoba is two hours by bus from Granada. This fertile plain on the banks of the Guadalquivir River was a trading post for Greeks and Phoenicians for a few centuries, until the Romans made it the capital of Hispania Ulterior in the 2nd century BC. During 600 years of Roman rule, Córdoba was famous for its luxurious residences and theatres, as well as the philosopher Seneca. Córdoba survived as a Roman outpost after the fall of the Empire, until the city was overrun by the Visigoths in 572.

In 711, Córdoba was conquered by the Arabs for whom this city became the capital of Al-Andalus. While the rest of Europe suffered through the Middle Ages, Córdoba was Western Europe’s economic and cultural hub. It had a population of about one million and was home to the world’s largest library at that time.

In 1236, this city became the fortress of the Christian monarchs, and in 1492, the headquarters for the Spanish Inquisition. From here, the discovery of America was masterminded. Kingdoms were conquered and won back and kings were born.

Córdoba gave me lots to think about. A thousand years ago, this was a center of learning where Moslems, Christians and Jews were educated side by side, and worked together to create the finest city in Europe. And yet, a few centuries later, the Spanish Inquisition crushed all these ideals. If we have any hope for World Peace, we mustn’t let this sort of devolution happen in the future. We need to learn from our past.

The view of Córdoba
from the Alcazar

La Mezquita &
el Rio Guadalquivir

The cathedral
inside the mosque

Christianity & Islam

A forest of
10th century arches
The centerpiece of Córdoba is La Mezquita. This amazing building is a gilded cathedral consecrated by Ferdinand and Isabella, constructed inside of the largest mosque in Europe, built on top of an early Christian temple containing relics of a 3rd century martyr, beneath which can be found the Roman ruins of a temple to Zeus. That’s a lot of religious history in one spot. I made three visits to this wondrous and hallowed space: Once, to stand and gawk in silence, once to take photos, and once to say a few heartfelt prayers for all the people in my heart.

Royal palace gardens
and fountains

Ferdinand & Isabella
meeting with Columbus

Horsedrawn carriage
on cobblestone streets

Concert violinist
and bicycle
While re-learning Western Civilization history, I’ve been enjoying an extended Christmas season. In Spain, the Christmas holidays continue until the Three Kings reach Bethlehem on January 6th, a national holiday known as Dia de los Reyes. This is celebrated all across Spain with parades, candy and gifts. The bearer of gifts for the children is Balthazar − who isn’t fat, elf-like, bearded or white. And instead of reindeer, he arrives by camel. Excellent fun!
Parade of the kings
Seville was next on my tour of historic Andalucía. In the 16th century, the Spanish crown granted Seville an exclusive trade monopoly with the New World. Because the Guadalquivir River was navigable from the Atlantic all the way up to Seville, this city became the shipping hub and commercial capital of the Spanish Empire. Europe’s first stock market was formed here. The gold and silver plundered from America was off-loaded from Seville’s docks. Seville built the world’s largest gothic cathedral, which today houses ostentatious gold and silver altars and religious treasures, as well as some of the bones of Christopher Columbus. The Spanish kings built their largest tobacco factory here, where Carmen worked. (Today the factory serves as a campus of the University of Seville.)

Cathedral of Seville

Tomb of Columbus

Plaza de España

Reales Alcázares

Castle cisterns
Seville has lots of monumental buildings to look at, but the best part of this city are all the neighborhood fruit stands, sidewalk cafes and friendly pubs. It’s a grand city to enjoy a few beers, to sample some tapas, and to practice one’s Spanish.
Gibraltar isn’t Spain, but I was close. So I hopped a bus and came down here for a day to see the world’s largest free-standing outcrop of limestone, as well as Brits who drive on the right, miles of underground tunnels (both natural and man-made), and lots of cannons, seagulls and tail-less monkeys. Hiking The Rock, from one end to the other, is good exercise.

The Rock of Gibraltar

The Great Siege Tunnels

St.Michael's Cavern

400m above the Mediterranean

Local resident of The Rock

Another resident of The Rock
Cádiz claims to be the most historic city in Andalucía. In fact, the guidebooks say that Cádiz is the oldest continuously inhabited site in Western Europe. Indeed, there are archaeological diggings here dating back to at least 800 BC, when the Phoenicians established a substantial port on this strategic peninsula. As with the rest of Andalucía, the Phoenicians were followed by Romans, Visigoths, Muslim and finally Spanish. By 1680, when the Guadalquivir River began to silt up, Cádiz replaced Seville as Spain’s trading center and gateway to the New World. This era of being a trading center is still evidenced today by the hundreds of watchtowers on the tops of buildings all over the city.

Cádiz old city

The esplanade at dawn

Cathedral of Cádiz
Last year, I visited many Spanish forts in the Caribbean, such as Cartagena, Havana, and Santo Domingo. It’s interesting to see how similar the coastal defenses in Cádiz are to those of the Caribbean. It's no wonder, of course. They were built by the same architects during the same time.

Castillo de San Sebastian

The Atlantic Ocean (on a calm day)
Traveling alone gives one the chance to learn new things every day and to make friends along the way. Traveling solo also gives one time to pause and reflect. While in Gibraltar, I learned that one of my best friends died this week. I sat in the cathedral in Cádiz thinking about him. He was someone I’ve known from childhood. I'm reminded that life is fragile. Life is short. We must live our lives to the fullest. Know what you want in your life and go after it. Have goals and vision. Follow your own path and don’t let others divert you from it. In order to have the life that you want to have, you may have to make difficult decisions. But anything less is not a life.

January 16 to February 6 − The Canary Islands

There's a café on the cobblestones outside my apartment. At noon, a young man plays classical guitar in the brilliant sunshine under a cloudless, blue sky. Nearby, the Atlantic slaps against the wharf. On the other side of the plaza, there's a white-washed 15th century cathedral, built up against a towering wall of volcanic basalt. Today's menu is paella, with fresh prawns and mussels, accompanied by a hearty red wine. There are other tourists at the café, speaking German, Dutch, French, Swedish and British English. Yet surprisingly, in three weeks in these islands, I haven't met anyone from the US. Americans are missing out on one of the world's loveliest vacation destinations.

The Canaries are seven volcanic islands, located on a continental plate boundary, just west of Morocco. The first inhabitants came here from north Africa about 2500 years ago. They lived in caves, used stone tools and had primitive agriculture. It's remarkable to think that, at the dawn of Europe's Renaissance, there was a stone-age culture only a few days' sail from Spain.

Inevitably, the natives were eliminated when the Europeans arrived here in the 15th century. For Spain, these islands became the "launching pad" for the New World. In this way, Canarians became experts at ship-building, fishing, and hosting travelers. Today, as they have been for five centuries, the wharfs are busy with yachts, cruise ships and ferries, the seafood is excellent, and the hospitality is as generous as ever.

Gran Canaria

My tour of the Canaries began in Gran Canaria. This is the most populous of the seven islands. as well as the home of good friends Javier and Susana, with whom I toured the Galapagos in 2010. Javier and Susana ensured that I saw their island, ate the local foods, visited the most important archaeological sites, and learned Canarian Spanish. For example, in the Canaries, a bus is a guagua. Thank you, my friends, for a wonderful welcome and introduction to the Canaries!

The Cathedral on
Plaza de Santa Ana

Las Palmas from
atop the cathedral

El Cenobio
de Valerón

La Cumbre
Gran Canaria

Carlos, Javier,
Susana & me


My second stop was the big island of Tenerife. At the north end of Tenerife is San Cristóbal de La Laguna. the ancient capital of the Canaries, founded in 1496. As a UNESCO World Heritage Site, the old town is well-preserved. Walking through the plazas and pedestrian streets, I noticed that the city seemed to have a familiar layout. Later, I learned that La Laguna served as the model for Cartageña (Columbia), Antigua (Guatemala), Havana (Cuba) and San Juan (Puerto Rico). An interesting connection.

If you should happen to visit La Laguna, be sure to stay at the Casa Rural La Asomada del Gato, a 17th century B&B, located in the heart of the old town, complete with high ceilings, creaking wooden floors, and charming hospitality.

Bell tower of Nuestra Señora

Musicians in La Laguna

A favorite restaurant
40 minutes down the north coast from La Laguna is Puerto de la Cruz, a quaint port with seaside resorts and cafés. Besides being a picturesque beach town, Puerto de la Cruz is a good place to catch the morning bus to the biggest attraction on Tenerife: Mount Teide.

Puerto Cruz harbor

Fresh fish to market

Surfing at sunset

Ermita San Telmo

Mount Teide, 3718m
Mount Teide is Spain's highest mountain, and its most visited national park. From its base on the ocean floor, Teide is the third highest volcano in the world (after Mauna Kea and Mauna Loa in Hawaii). It's active, too, with its most recent eruption in 1909. The park includes a visitor center, a cable car almost to the top of the peak, and miles of trails through the colorful caldera.
Los Roques de Garcia y el volcán

A hotel in Playa de las Americas

Ein Tag am Strand

Surfing school

Multi-lingual menus
Coming down the south slope of Mount Teide brought me to the mega-resort city of Playa de las Americas. This is Europe's version of Miami Beach or Waikiki. Winter brings a deluge of northern Europeans to bake in the sun, learn to surf, eat and drink under umbrellas, splash around in hotel swimming pools, and party until late at night in noisy bars. More German is spoken here than Spanish. I didn't spend much time in this place, except to watch the Un-Superbowl at a sports bar. My main reason for coming here was to catch ferries to the three most beautiful Canary Islands.

La Gomera

This island is shaped like a giant juice squeezer. The central plateau, Garajonay National Park, is the pointed part, while the radial ravines running down from the center are the grooves that the juice runs down. Almost all the water on this island comes from the droplets that are "squeezed out" of the perpetual mists which are blown through the dense laurel forests on the island's peaks. There are well-marked trails through this cloud forest, which has several plant species which exist nowhere else on Earth. The farmers of La Gomera have created terraced fields and elaborate irrigation systems to make as much use of this "horizontal rain" as possible.

San Sebastián harbor

Terraced hillsides

La Laja village

Rare species
La Gomera has a unique language. The original inhabitants of this island, the Guanches, developed a way of communicating across deep ravines, known as barrancos, by means of whistled speech called Silbo Gomero. I had the opportunity to hear some examples of this whistling, and I can attest that these whistles can be heard clearly at distances of at least 3 kilometers. This whistled language has been documented since Roman times. Silbo Gomero was adopted by the Spanish settlers in the 16th century and survived after the Guanches were entirely assimilated. When this means of communication was threatened with extinction in recent years, the local government made Silbo Gomero a required course in the island’s schools. It is said that the study of silbo may help understand how languages are formed.

When La Gomera's mists clear, the views back to Tenerife are gorgeous.

Degollada de Agando and its barranco

Rainbow over Tenerife with
Mt.Teide peeking thru clouds on the right

La Palma

Santa Cruz de la Palma is my favorite town in the Canaries. I rented an apartment at Apartamentos La Fuente and made myself at home. I explored the island by bus on three of the seven days that I was there. On the other days, I just enjoyed the atmosphere of this marvelous historic town.

At the local museums, I learned what a huge impact the Canarians had on the development of the New World. In the second half of the 19th century, more than 50,000 Canarians emigrated to Cuba to escape oppressive Spanish rule. These same Canarians later became the catalyst for Cuba's revolution against the Spanish. Also, the ukulele (aka the 4-string timple) was invented here − not in Hawaii.

Santa Cruz was the last port of call before Spanish galleons crossed the perilous Atlantic to the New World, as well as the first piece of dry land en route back to Mother Spain. There's a church here where the sailors prayed for safe passage. If you look closely, you'll see that the Virgin de Buen Viaje is holding a sailing ship in her left hand.

I ate at the wonderful Restaurante el Casino so many times that I was adopted. This is an example of the hospitality of these islands. The food was delicious, too.

A perfect spot for lunch

Maritime museum

Virgin Buen Viaje

My favorite chefs
La Palma has 850km of well-maintained hiking trails that lead through cloud forests, steep canyons, breathtaking peaks, unusual waterfalls, and volcanic wastelands. There are 2000-year-old petroglyphs and cave art in some areas. The circular and spiral designs are not understood, although they're assumed to have religious or calendar significance. In the center of the island is Caldera de Taburiente, which is a massive depression 8km wide.

The cloud forest

A precipitous trail


Caldera de Taburiente

Barranco las Angustias

Cascada de Colores

Los Volcanes de Teneguía

Massive landslides
La Palma is one of the more geologically active Canary Islands. Volcán Teneguía's last eruption was in 1971. One of the biggest geologic concerns on this island is its steep north slope, which may have exceeded its natural angle of repose. This area could be due for a major mass movement, which has the potential to generate a tsunami towards the east coast of the US.

El Hierro

This island is the least populated of the Canaries. From its misty peaks to its dramatic coastline, this is simply a beautiful gem of an island.


La Restinga harbor

Cave dwellings

Hidroeólica Proyecto
El Hierro hopes to become the world’s first island to depend entirely on renewable energy sources (wind, water and solar), and to promote organic farming. Currently, El Hierro produces 11.5 megawatts through an ingenious wind-hydro system.

Punta de la Sal

Playa Arenas Blancas

The end of the world

At the "West Pole"
Until 1492, El Hierro was the end of the known world. Nothing was thought to exist west of here. In the 2nd century, Ptolemy's maps designated the western tip of this island as the zero degree meridian, such that all longitudes were measured in degrees of east longitude from this point. Thus, the western tip of El Hierro was historically the "west pole." (Note: In the 19th century, the Prime Meridian was relocated Greenwich, England.)

Transportation in the Canaries

Traveling around in the Canaries was a pleasure, thanks to excellent public transit systems.

  • Every island is served by one or both of the local ferry companies. Ferries run daily and on schedule. The terminals and ferries are sparkling and luxurious. Tickets are cheap and can be bought on the day of travel.
  • The guaguas (buses) are comfortable, inexpensive and frequent, with schedules that are easy to understand. Best of all, the bus drivers are kind and friendly. They go out of their way to help tourists, answer questions, and give advice on which stops to get off at.
  • The north end of Tenerife has a light rail system that connects the ferry terminal with the old town of La Laguna, every 15 minutes. It's impressive to have a light rail system on an island of this size.

Navias Armas ferry

Fred Olsen Express

Tenerife Tram

Inside the ferry terminal

Inside the ferry

Inside the tram

Typical bus station
In three weeks on these islands, I met several people who spend a few months here every winter. I can understand why. The Canaries are fantastic. If I didn't have other places to go, I'd stay here, too. Next stop: Casablanca.

February 6 to March 4 − Morocco

It takes a month to see most of the sights of this colorful, historic and exotic country. Morocco has sprawling modern cities, like Casablanca, and compact medieval towns, like Fez and Marrakech. There are wide sandy beaches on the west and north coasts, snowcapped mountains in the center, and oases and sandy deserts to the south. Arabic, French and Berber are the native languages. English is spoken here, too, for the sake of the tourists. Kingdoms have risen, fallen and risen again here for more than 2000 years. The food's good, too.

As a traveler, there are two things that I especially appreciate in Morocco:

  • Convenient transportation − Trains connect all the cities north of the Atlas Mountains. Buses run regularly throughout the country. The trains and buses run on time. Buying tickets is easy.
  • Excellent lodging − I discovered early in my visit the joy and comfort Morocco's riads and kasbahs. A riad is an older home that has been converted into a b&b. Often the architecture is exquisite. The service is consistently excellent. Riads are located in the middle of the oldest parts of the cities, which is where you want to be. And the price is right. If I were to visit Morocco again in the future, I'd stay at these places again:

    Rabat Riad Kalaa or Riad Azahra
    Meknès Riad d'Or
    Merzouga Hotel Kanz Erremal
    Boumalne du Dadès Kasbah Tizzarouine
    (ask for a cave room with a view)
    Marrakech Riad Balkisse


Casablanca is Morocco's commercial capital and primary international airport, so this is where my journey began. The #1 attraction in this city is the Mosquée Hassan II. Inaugurated in 1993, it's the 3rd largest mosque in the world: An impressive building, with worship space for 25,000. Its 200m tall minaret is the highest structure in Morocco. The retractable roof slides back to let in fresh air on hot days. There are 41 fountains in the ablutions hall.

I arrived at this imposing complex at 2pm on a Friday afternoon. I allowed myself to be swept along by a throng of several thousand Moroccan men. As we entered the building, we took off our shoes and carried them with us in plastic bags to sit on luxurious, thick carpets that covered the marble floors of the prayer hall. For the next 30 minutes, we listened to an imam speak in vitriolic tones. (I don't speak Arabic, but I think I got the message.) When the imam was finished, I joined the other men standing in straight lines 2 meters apart. For 15 minutes, we stood, knelt, touched our heads to the floor, and mumbled various prayers. Then, everyone picked up their shoes, took photos of each other with iPhones, and walked out the door. I learned later that non-Muslims are forbidden from entering mosques, especially during services. This was an excellent way to begin my visit to Morocco!

Mosquée Hassan II

Fountains & arches

The main prayer hall

Mosque baths


Rabat is the political capital of Morocco. After Casablanca's big city energy, Rabat was a calm place to relax. Here, I became acquainted with my first medina. A medina is an old city with narrow streets, crumbling houses, street vendors, and markets that look as though they haven't changed in 1000 years. Medinas are what make Morocco so colorful and exotic.

Kasbah des Oudaïas

Modern public transit

Rabat's medina and souks
Rabat has been a strategic port for two millennia, so it has lots of history. There are Roman ruins and walled fortresses to see. But the best part about being here was simply to soak up the sights, sounds and smells of this place.

Main gate of the Chellah

Storks nests on the royal tombs

Breakfast at the Riad Azahra


A short train ride from Rabat brought me to Meknès, a former capital of Morocco. Again, more castles, more narrow streets filled with food and animals, and another beautiful riad to stay at. By this time, I was getting used to the daily rhythm of being called to prayer at 5:00am.

Gateway to the
Ville Impériale

Entrance to the
royal palace

Mausoleum of
Moulay Ismail

The sitting room
at Riad d'Or
After having spent six weeks in Catholic Spain, I found the clean geometry of Islamic mosaics and archways to be a refreshing contrast from gory crucifixes and dark oil paintings of saints. It also occurred to me that, while I'd stood in long lines in Andalucía to see some well-preserved Moorish art and architecture, one can see the same things in greater quantity and variety in Morocco.

The olive market

Traffic on narrow streets

Moulay Idriss

Springtime wildflowers
February turns out to be a good time to visit Morocco because it's springtime here. There are wildflowers everywhere and the almond trees are all in bloom.


Volubilis is an easy day-trip from Meknès. Two thousand years ago, this was the westernmost outpost of the Roman empire. It's easy to see why Rome would have wanted to establish a post in this fertile land. In Roman times, this valley was a major olive producing area. The hills to the south were the source of lions used in the Coliseum. The Barbary Lions are extinct now, but the olive groves are still here.

Triumphal Arch

The Roman forum

2nd century mosaics


Fez is Morocco's most exotic and colorful city. The medieval medina is truly labyrinthine. Without my Garmin nuvi 50LM (loaded with the Africa mapset), there's no way I could have found my way home to my riad each night. Yet, I still managed to get happily lost a few times in the endless maze of twisting streets. In Fez, one can take an engrossing six-hour walk without leaving the inner city.

Fez panorama

Inside the medina

A calligrapher

Madersa Bou Inania
Naturally, the medina is a place for shopping. There's something for everyone here, whether you're one of the quarter million residents of the medina, or you're just a tourist. (In contrast to Marrakech, Fez didn't seem to be overrun by foreign tourists.)

A rainbow of scarves

Shoes for every outfit

Magic brass lamps
Rugs are sold everywhere, especially in Fez. Even though I'm not a shopper, and I don't have someplace to bring home a Berber carpet or a brass lamp, the shopkeepers were quite hospitable and invited me in for tea and to see their wares. In my five days in Fez, I made friends with locals and was twice invited into homes for dinner. Moroccans are fun and light-hearted people − most of the time.

Carpet loom

Rugs drying in the sun

Rug salesmen

The Atlas Mountains

Two east-west cordilleras divide moist northern Morocco from its dry southern half. These are the Middle Atlas and the High Atlas Mountains. The Middle Atlas are rich with waterfalls and cedar forests, as well as wildlife, including the Barbary Apes, which aren't really apes. They're tail-less monkeys. These monkeys are the same species as those found on the Rock of Gibraltar. Yet, unlike their cousins in Gibraltar, the Moroccan monkeys, though somewhat accustomed to humans, are living mostly in the wild. Finding them in their cedar forest, digging for food in the fresh snow, was a real highlight of this trip.

Farmer's market

Route de Cèdres

Barbary Apes

A sunny spot for a chat
Between the Middle Atlas and the High Atlas Mountains is a high, dry, cold plateau. These two mountain ranges create a rain shadow beyond which weather systems rarely pass. It's mostly desert south of here.

The High Atlas Mountains

The Sahara

Southern Morocco is practically a different country. This is the home of the nomads and the camels. Instead of olive orchards, there are groves of date palms. Berber has replaced Arabic as the primary language. Ancient caravans from Timbuktu used to cross the desert to come to the oases and kasbahs of this region.

A rest stop by
a southern oasis

My view of the Erg Chebbi Dunes
from Hotel Kanz Erremal

Monkey's Fingers
Dadès Gorge

Aït Benhaddou
Southern Morocco has a lot of remote locations that aren't served by bus routes. So, I opted to hire a car with a driver to show me the sights ... including one interesting surprise: Morocco has some major outdoor film studios, which have been used for films like Lawrence of Arabia, Seven Years in Tibet, Blackhawk Down and Gladiator. As expected, on my 30-minute studio tour, I felt as though I'd seen all these places before.

Atlas Corporation Studios, Ouarzazate
Temple of Karnac


After three weeks, I made it to Marrakech. (Clearly, I wasn't riding on the Marrakesh Express.) My impression of Marrakech is that this is where all the foreign tourist come. Consequently, this is where all the Moroccan vendors and guides are waiting to offer their wares and services. I was glad that, by this time in my tour of Morocco, I'd learned how to say "No, thank you" in Arabic. (La, shokran.)

What I found engaging and entertaining about Marrakech is the Jamaa el Fna. This great plaza in the middle of the medina offers an endless source of food and entertainment from early morning until late at night. You don't have to buy anything. Just walk around and watch the snake charmers and the jugglers. Listen to the music. Watch the dancers. And enjoy some spicy beef kabob right off the grill.

The Jamaa el Fna at dusk

Markets, markets, everywhere

Dining in the Jamaa

The Atlantic Coast

Morocco's Atlantic coast is a contrast to the rest of the country. These cities cater to European tourists who come here for sunshine and surfing. After Agadir was destroyed by an earthquake in 1960, the city was bulldozed and completely rebuilt with wide streets, sidewalks and monotonous apartment buildings. Farther south, Laayoune has been created in recent decades by the Moroccan government in an effort to establish a foothold in the disputed Western Sahara territory. Neither city has much charm, but they were comfortable places to pause and wrap up this part of my journey.

The beach at Agadir

Downtown Laayoune, Western Sahara
While in Laayoune, I've been asked unusual questions by the Moroccan security forces. They seem concerned that I might have plans to travel into areas disputed by the Polisario. I suspect that additional adventures south or east of here will be problematic. Stay tuned for further news.

March 14 to March 30 − Mallorca & Menorca

An ancient legend tells a story about four small islands off the coast of Spain, inhabited by happy, naked fishermen, without gold or silver, whose only treasures were wine and women. Legends often have some truth to them. So, this seemed like a good reason to visit the Balearic Islands.

Getting to these islands from Barcelona by ferry is fun and easy with Balearia, Iscomar or Trasmediterranea. I sailed first to Mallorca. After a week on the north shore of Mallorca in the 13th century town of Alcúdia, I cruised over to Menorca to the ports of Ciutadella and Mahon.

Charming towns

There are at least four remarkable towns on these islands:

Mallorca Valldemossa Idyllic hilltown where Frédéric Chopin and
his lover George Sand spent the winter of 1838-39
Alcúdia Medieval, walled city on the north coast with easy
access to beaches and the Formentor Peninsula
Menorca Ciutadella Former home to Catalonia's nobles, with cobblestone
streets, a 17th century fortress and traditional markets
Maó (or Mahon) The 2nd largest, natural deepwater port in the world
(after Pearl Harbor). An 18th century British stronghold,
and said to be the origin of both gin and mayonnaise.




Maó (Mahon)
Mallorca is a holiday destination for about 10 million Spaniards, French, Germans, Italians and Brits every year. Happily, most of the island remains undamaged by tourism and is breathtakingly beautiful, amazingly diverse and highly cultured.

The majority of Mallorca's hotels (and hence tourists) are on the south and east coasts of the island. With this in mind, I headed for the northwest corner of the island, where I settled into an excellent AirBnB apartment in Alcúdia.

City Hall in Ciutadella

Catedral de Santa Maria

Plaza des las Palmeras

Sant Nicolau Castle
Menorca gets far fewer visitors than its larger neighbor Mallorca. Consequently, its fishing and farming villages seem unchanged from how they must have been 100 years ago. My favorite town here was Ciutadella, at the east end of the island, where there's another excellent AirBnB apartment, just a 5-minute walk on cobblestone streets from the docks and the fish market, which has been located in the same building for more than a century.

Fish market

Scorpion and monk fish

Tapas bar in Mahon

A perfect snack

Stunning scenery

March is an excellent time to visit these islands There are meadows full of wildflowers − and almost no tourists. And though the Mediterranean is a bit chilly for swimming this time of year, the weather is great, the sun is warm, and the hiking trails along the cliffs and down to the beaches are as beautiful as ever.

Spring wildflowers

Cala Murta, Mallorca

Punta Nau, Mallorca

Cala d'Algariens, Menorca

Faro de Cavalleria, Menorca

Cap de San Paret, Menorca
I left Mallorca and Menorca reluctantly, but take with me wonderful memories of ..
  • Deep blue skies and sea breezes
  • Fresh, organic fruits and vegetables
  • Delicious farm-fresh cheeses
  • Lighthouses on tops of breathtaking cliffs
  • Restaurants and cafes where you're welcomed as family if you visit twice
  • Smiling people who are genuinely happy to have visitors
After only a short visit to these beautiful and friendly islands, I'm now wondering how I might find a way to come back here to live.

Soft sand and blue water

Fishing boats at sunset

April 3 to April 7 − Andorra & Montserrat

Travel isn't merely about going to foreign countries, visiting historic sites, and seeing beautiful scenery. It's about experiencing cultures different from your own. To me, this means three things:



Of course, eating delicious food, learning languages and meeting interesting people often go together and lead to excellent adventures. In Barcelona, I met some delightful and hospitable folks who extended an invitation to join them for a weekend in Andorra. Naturally, I accepted. Below are a few photos of a beautiful little country that I knew nothing about until now.

En route to Andorra

12th century village

Pablo & Vani's cabin

La Massana, Andorra
The principality of Andorra has a population of less than 100,000 and an area of 468 km2, which makes it about the size of Norman, Oklahoma − but that's where the similarity ends. Andorra is Europe's highest country. It consists of a steep and narrow Y-shaped valley surrounded by the snow-capped peaks of the Pyrenees. Andorrans have been an independent nation since the 8th century, when Charlemagne granted them independence in thanks for their help in halting the Moorish invasion into France. (These days, the Andorran army consists of 12 men, all officers, with an annual military budget of about $5.)

Today, Andorra is a prosperous European microstate, thanks to 10 million visitors per year, who come here to ski, shop and enjoy Andorra's tax haven status. Andorrans have the world's 3rd highest human life expectancy at birth (84 years), perhaps due to the sparkling clean water, the fresh mountain air and the healthy food.

Andorrans enjoy locally-produced meats and vegetables, grown without fertilizers or pesticides. With these ingredients, they combine the best of French and Spanish cuisines with their own traditions to create sumptuous meals. Thanks to my gracious hosts, every night was a feast.

Vallnord ski park

Mountain stream

Andorra la Vella

Nancy, Brent, Vani, Pablo
Andorra is 200 km north of Barcelona. On the road from Barcelona to Andorra is Montserrat, a remarkable Benedictine Monastery, founded about 1000 years ago.

Montserrat monastery

The inner courtyard

Inside the basilica

Lamps at twilight
Montserrat is a mountain retreat, accessible by cable car and funicular. The abbey's world-renowned boys' choir performs every day. The hikes through the towering sandstone peaks are breathtaking − well worth a day's visit next time you're in Barcelona.

Sant Joan funicular

View from Sant Jeroni (1,236 m)

On top of the mountain
From Spain, I'll continue east to discover more new foods, languages and people. But of these three things, the most memorable are the people I meet in my travels. When I return to Barcelona some day, it'll be because of the friends I've made here. This blog is dedicated to all the kind and generous people who've helped me along my travels during the past six years. To all of you, I wish to say a big THANK YOU!

April 9 to April 13 − Malta

Of Europe's six microstates, Malta has the richest and most colorful history. Because of its location in the sea-lanes of the Mediterranean, this island nation has been a strategic target for centuries of warfare and occupation. The earliest evidence of human occupation dates back 7000 years.

5000BC First inhabitants
3600-2500BC Construction of megalithic temples and burial chambers
800-480BC Colonization by Phoenicians
480-218BC Controlled by Carthaginian Empire
218BC-395AD Rome defeats Carthage and takes over Malta
60AD Apostle Paul is shipwrecked and introduces Christianity to Malta
395-870 Malta falls under Byzantine Rule
870-1090 North African Arabs occupy Malta
1090-1530 Norman monarchy rules Malta
1530-1800 Knights of St John make Malta their headquarters after being granted the island by Charles V
1565 Malta survives the Great Siege and repels the invasion attempt by the Turkish fleet
1798 Napoleon's fleet invades Malta and establishes a garrison
1800 Maltese overthrow the French with British assistance
1800-1964 Britain establishes Malta as a crown colony
1942 Malta survives bombardment by Italy and Germany. (See Malta Story (1953) starring Alec Guinness for a romantic tale about Malta's defense in WWII.)
1943 Malta serves as the operational headquarters for the Allied invasion of Italy
1964 Britain grants Malta independence, with Queen Elizabeth II as its head of state
1974 Malta becomes a self-governing republic
2004 Malta joins the EU
2008 Malta adopts the Euro as its currency

A tour guide told me that Malta has more history per square centimeter than anyplace else in the world. The same guide also explained that Malta is the original European Union. I have to agree that this country is a fascinating and historic mix of many cultures:

  • The Knights of St John came from all over Europe, including Italy, France, Provence, Auvergne, Castile, Aragon, Germany and England.
  • The Malti language sounds Arabic, but is sprinkled with Italian, French and English words.
  • The Maltese are staunchly Roman Catholic, with mighty churches towering over diminutive villages. Yet, because of their Malti language, they pray to "Alla".
  • Maltese cuisine has Sicilian and Middle Eastern flavors, while making use of local ingredients like honey and rabbit.
  • Malta has a British legal system, and they drive on the left.

Grand Harbor Valletta

Balconies everywhere

Balcony details

Traditional transport
The capital of Malta is the fortified city of Valletta. The city is well-preserved from its violent and chivalrous past. Valletta retains the drama and beauty of its 16th century forts, palaces and architecture.

In spite of being occupied by foreign powers for almost 3000 years, the plucky Maltese have persevered through many invasions, repelling attacks by Turkey, France and Germany. When Malta became a republic in 1974, it was the first time since prehistory that the country had been ruled by native Maltese and not by an outside power.

Knights of St John

Grand Master Pinto da Fonseca

Palace interior

Procession for Our Lady

St.Paul's Cathedral

Streets of Mdina

Brass dolphins

Fresh fish, fine wine

Ħaġar Qim

Daisies and poppies

The Blue Grotto

Inside the Grotto
Outside of its cities, Malta has beautiful scenery and ancient ruins, including the oldest surviving free-standing structures in the world. Ħaġar Qim is a mysterious archaeological site where stone blocks up to 50 tons form temples dating from between 3600 and 2500 BC. (This predates Egypt's pyramids by about 1000 years.)

When it's time to take a break from Malta's history and culture, there are hikes along the tops of breathtaking cliffs and boat rides on the sparkling blue Mediterranean.

I continue to be amazed by exotic, beautiful and charming places like Malta. I keep asking myself "How come nobody ever told me about this place?!" Well, now YOU know about it because I've told you. Your next step is to go there. Malta is not expensive:

The experience was priceless.

April 13 to April 21 − Sicily

Come for the mountains. Stay for the food!

The best way to travel in the Mediterranean is via one of the many European ferry services. Comfortable hydrofoils make the 90km trip from Valletta (Malta) to Pazzallo (Sicily) in less than 2 hours.

My primary reason for visiting Sicily was to see Mt. Etna, Europe's most active volcano. To get as close to the mountain as possible, I rented a little Fiat from EuropCar. and drove to a comfortable AirBnB home in Linguaglossa, on the northeast flank of the mountain.

Although Sicily's biggest mountain erupted 11 times in the 20th century, scattered ash across northeastern Sicily just last October, and produced a lava flow in January 2014, Mt. Etna did nothing more than let off some steam during the week while I was there. Darn! Still, I had some satisfying hikes on the lava flows, got to know the quintessential Sicilian village of Linguaglossa ... and ate very well.

Trinacria, symbol of Sicily

Virtu Ferries hydrofoil


La Chiesa Madre

Mount Etna, 3329m
Founded on a lava stream in 1566, the name Linguaglossa literally translates to "red tongue". Blessed with Mt. Etna's rich, volcanic soil, this part of Sicily produces some of Italy's most flavorful vegetables, olive oils and wines. Sicilians instinctively know how to make the most of these natural treasures. Salvo Lo Castro, owner and overseer of 3DC Gradi, has mastered this skill. I spent a few evenings enjoying the creations from his kitchen, perfectly paired with wines from his extensive cellar. Salvo himself is a gracious and generous host. The other customers and I could not have felt more welcome.

An evening at 3DC

Lively entertainment

Fresh and delicious

Sicily is a mystical place to be at Easter, when one is reminded of its deep religious traditions. Every town has its own unique decorations, costumes, processions and celebrations during Settimana Santa (Holy Week). Linguaglossa is no exception.

Processione degli incappucciati

Processione dei Misteri

The Godfathers

La Madonna Vasa
Linguaglossa is a good base for day trips to the surrounding area. 30 km away is beautiful Taormina, which was a strategic port for 2500 years. Today, it's an archaeological paradise and a popular beach town. 20 km in the other direction is charming Randazzo, a 13th century town with city walls and cathedrals carved from blocks of basalt.

Greek theatre at Taormina

Taormina beach

Church in Randazzo

Via degli Archi
Driving through the interior of Sicily took me to fishing villages on the Tyrrhenian Sea, and through mountain villages that time forgot. When I left Sicily, I took with me about 5 extra pounds − but no regrets!

Fishing boats at Bagheria

Succulent seafood

Cerami, central Sicily

Ferry from Palermo to ...
This Sicilian road trip ended in Palermo where I caught a ferry to my next adventure. To find out where, stay tuned for the next installment of this blog.

April 22 to April 25 − Tunisia

I've spent a lot of time in planes, trains, buses and cars. But by far, my favorite way to travel is via ferry. Ferries are a civil and unhurried way to get from one place to another. On a ferry, you always have enough legroom. There are entire decks to explore, and lots of fresh air. There's often more than one restaurant, bar or coffee shop. And you depart from and arrive into scenic harbors. Next time you need to go from one port to another, take the ferry!

From Palermo (Sicily) to Tunis (Tunisia), Grimaldi Ferries provides comfortable overnight service for this 12-hour journey. Since April isn't yet tourist season, the ferry was less than half full. Most of my fellow passengers seemed to be Tunisian truck drivers, plus an assortment of families (with pets ... another benefit of traveling by ferry) and businessmen. Together, we sailed from a volcanic island full of pasta, fish and wine, to a sunny oasis on the edge of the world's largest desert.

Tunis is a metropolitan area of about 2 million. The population is a mix of traditional and modern. Men do business and socialize in sidewalk cafes, drinking coffee and smoking cigarettes, while their wives go shopping, covered in shawls or burkas. Meanwhile, their children hang out in pedestrian malls, looking stylishly European or simply casual in jeans and t-shirts.

Tunis has a convenient light rail network that connects the suburbs with downtown. In the center of the city, there's a classic Arab medina full of the smells, colors, and noise that are part of the active trade that's been going on here for centuries. Tunisia reminded me of Morocco, but slightly more European and a little grittier. I enjoyed speaking French again and brushing up on the Arabic that I learned in February.

Tunis's landmark clocktower

The youth of Tunis

Waiting for the train
Tunis, together with neighboring Carthage, has always been a strategic port on the North African coast. Positioned in the middle of the Mediterranean, the Bay of Tunis was a transport hub and a naval base for more than one civilization: The Phoenicians arrived here first, followed by Carthaginians, Romans, Vandals, Arabs, Berbers, Turks, Spanish, Algerians, and French. Tunisia finally declared itself an independent republic in 1957. Needless to say, archaeologists have plenty to do here. (Note: Contrary to the train station photo above, the Vandals invaded Carthage in 439AD − not 2007.)

Main salon Bardo museum

Virgil and his muses

Fishing in Roman times

Roman emperors
If you go to Tunis, you must see the Bardo museum. It has the world's finest collection of Roman mosaics, but is one of those rare museums which would be worth seeing even if stripped of all its contents. The building is the former Bardo Palace, home to the Beys or Regents of Tunis. There has been a palace on this site since the 13th century. The present Moorish building dates back to the end of the 17th century, and has been a museum since 1888.

The walls of Carthage

2500 year old pottery

A goddess

Roman theatre
The other "must see" in Tunis is Carthage. It's an ancient ruin, of course. The Romans made sure of that when they razed the city in 146BC − and then built their own Capital of Africa on top of the rubble. Archaeologists have pieced together the glorious cities that were on top of this hill. It's easy to see why empires built palaces, theatres, forums and temples here. The view's not bad.

View of the Gulf of Tunis

Sidi Bou Said

Traditional door & window
Two metro stops beyond Carthage is Sidi Bou Said, a colorful resort town where all the buildings are painted blue and white. in Mediterranean tradition.

21st century Tunisian ceramics

Spicy couscous

Flower stand
After touring the historic sites, it was time to visit the medina, where I found that Tunisians are still doing good trade in ceramics, the local couscous is spicy, and flowers grow here all year round. Tunisia is a country that I had never given much thought to, yet I'm glad I passed through here.

P.S. Regarding the Arab Spring in Tunisia: In my three days in Tunis, the only signs of political or social unrest that I noticed were rolls of barbed wire in front of a government building in the city center. There may have been more obvious demonstrations of conflict in southern Tunisia, but I didn't see them. Tunis seemed relaxed and open for business.

April 29 to April 30 − Qatar

Sometimes you have to go somewhere in order to get somewhere else. My next destination is Ethiopia. Qatar Airlines offered a great price on a one-way flight from Barcelona to Addis Ababa ... with a catch: A 23-hour layover. So I booked a hotel in Doha and started reading up about Qatar:

  • Much of Qatar consists of a low, barren plain, covered with sand.
  • The economic growth of Qatar began in 1940 and has been based on its petroleum and natural gas industries.
  • Qatar's proven reserves of natural gas are the third-largest in the world.
  • Qatar has proven oil reserves of 15 billion barrels.

  • In 2012, Qatar retained its title of richest country in the world (according to per capita income) for the third year in a row.
  • With no income tax, Qatar (along with Bahrain) has one the lowest tax rates in the world.
  • None of its population of 1.9 million lives below the poverty line.
  • Approximately 14% of households are dollar millionaires.
  • The unemployment rate in June 2013 was 0.1%.

  • In January 2013, the country's population was estimated at 1,903,447, of which 1,405,164 were males and 498,283 females.
  • The four largest ethnic groups are Arab 40%, Indian 18%, Pakistani 18%, and Iranian 10%.
  • Of the remaining 14%, the most prevalent ethnicities are Nepali, Filipino, and Sri Lankan.

  • Migrant workers comprise 94% of the workforce.
  • Qatar does not have national occupational health standards or guidelines.
  • Many cases of ill-treatment of immigrant labor have been observed.
  • Workplace injuries are the third highest cause of accidental death.
  • The Nepalese ambassador to Qatar, Maya Kumari Sharma, described Qatar as an "open jail".

  • Shari'a Law is one of the primary sources of Qatari legislation.
  • In some cases in family courts, a female's testimony is worth half a man's and in some cases a female witness is not accepted at all.

  • Qatar's media was classified as "not free" in the 2012 Freedom of the Press report by Freedom House.
  • The Al Jazeera television network is headquartered in Doha, Qatar.
  • Criticism of the Emir in the media is illegal.

  • Qatar has had the highest per-capita carbon dioxide emissions in the world, at 49.1 metric tons per person in 2008.
  • Qataris are some of the highest consumers of water per capita per day, using around 400 liters.
  • In 2012, Qatar was ranked near the bottom of the OECD countries participating in the PISA test of math, reading and skills for 15 to 16 year olds, comparable to Colombia or Albania.
For more information about Qatar, see BBC's recent article Has wealth made Qatar happy? by Matthew Teller.

Doha skyline on a "sunny" day

View from my hotel room

A dhow at anchor
So, what to do with a day in Doha? Visit the Museum of Islamic Art. What the heck? It's free. It was a short walk from my hotel. It was designed by a famous architect. And according to Wikipedia, this museum is regarded as one of the great museums of the world.

Museum of Islamic Art

Interior of the museum

Sultans of Qatar

A horse in armor
I dedicate this post to my Nepalese taxi drivers, the Filipinos at the hotel reception desk, the Indian fellow who helped me with my wifi connection, the Sri Lankan who cooked my spicy omelette, and the Pakistani doorman who greeted me with a smile every time I went in or out of the hotel. Next stop Ethiopia.

May 1 to May 20 − Ethiopia, Part 1

One of the first people I met in Ethiopia was a young man named "Internet". Asked how he got his name, this is what he said:

Before I was born, my father had a shop where he sold many strange things like toothpaste, deodorant and books in languages that no one could read. One day, a visitor came to our village saying that he needed to check his email. My uncle took him to the post office. The man explained again that he wanted to check his Eeeee-mail and that he needed INTERNET. So, my uncle took him to my father’s store.

My father showed the man all around his store, but the man wasn’t satisfied. "Where is the internet?" he kept asking. My father apologized and told the man that he had just sold the last one that morning.

From that day on, whenever visitors came to our village asking for internet, they were brought to my father’s shop, hoping that there might be some internet available that day. My father didn't really know what an internet was, but he understood that it must be a wondrous and marvelous thing that everyone in the world loved and wanted. So, that’s why he named me "Internet".

Ethiopia is a land of shortages and surprises. People make do with what they have. Ethiopians are generous, resourceful and intelligent. When they're not working hard, they know how to sing, dance and laugh.

Lion of Judah
Symbol of Ethiopia

Downtown Addis Ababa

People & animals

The bus station

New light rail system
Ethiopia has the fastest growing economy in Africa, and it shows. Addis Ababa, its capital and largest city, is one huge construction site. Buildings are popping up on every block. New highways are being tunneled underneath old marketplaces. A light-rail system is being added, while the defunct intercity railway system is being replaced. The number of schools will double in the next few years.
Many of these construction projects are being coordinated by Chinese construction firms. The labor is being provided by Ethiopians, but the equipment, engineers and crew bosses are Chinese. I'm not sure what the relationship is between China and the Ethiopian government, but I've seen similar "economic colonialism" taking place in other parts of Africa. Note that in the photo below, the Chinese flags are larger than the Ethiopian flags. Hmmm ...

Chinese flags everywhere

Enthusiastic students

St.George Cathedral


Firfir and tibs
There's plenty to see and do in Addis. On the hilltop in the middle of the city is St.George's Cathedral, and its holy of holies. I paid my respects to Lucy (3.2 million years old), and many of her famous cousins at the National Museum.

In Addis, I became familiar with Ethiopia's national foods and drinks. The most common dish is fried or steamed meat served on injera (a sourdough pancake). It's not bad. But I'm fonder of my morning macchiato. Ethiopia is, after all, where coffee originated, so you know it's got to be good.

From Addis Ababa, tourists often travel north to follow what's called the Historic Circuit. This is a 2500 km loop through Ethiopia's ancient capitals. I traveled by bus and hired car some of the time. But for the longer hops, I flew Ethiopian Airlines. The first stop is the town of Bahir Dar on Lake Tana, Ethiopia's largest lake and the source of the Blue Nile. Ethiopia is a land-locked country, so Bahir Dar is its only beach town. Not exactly the Riviera.

Lake Tana, source of the Nile

Blue Nile car wash

Martyrs Memorial

Vervet monkeys
May is the end of the dry season, so the lake was low when I was there. So was the river. It's hard to imagine that this muddy stream is what feeds and sustains Sudan and Egypt. In May, it's just a bit of water where folks wash their pickup trucks. Look closely in the thick underbrush beside the river and you'll see monkeys and an occasional crocodile.

Debra Berhan Church

Palace of Iyasu I

Emperor Fasiladas' Palace

Fasiladas' Bath

Cherubs on Debra Berhan's ceiling
On the north side of Lake Tana is Gonder, the capital of Ethiopia's last great empire. While the 17th century palaces are worthy Unesco-restored ruins to be explored, the church and the great bath are still in use. Once a year at Timkat (Epiphany), a nearby river is diverted to fill Fasiladas' Bath and it becomes a gigantic swimming pool for thousands of pilgrims.

Gonder is the starting point for treks into Ethiopia's Simien Mountains. Unfortunately in May, these mountains were too shrouded in mists to view the fabulous peaks, but I did manage to get close to some interesting wildlife.

Simien Mtns (almost)

Gelada baboons

Male & two females

The next stop on the Historic Circuit is Axum. This city is said to have been the home of the Queen of Sheba in the 10th century BC. Axum may also be home to the greatest treasure of all time: The Arc of the Covenant, containing the original Ten Commandments given to Moses by God. This object is carefully guarded and concealed. No one is allowed within 50 meters of the building in which it's hidden.

Axumite obelisks

The Arc of the Covenant?

A tourist & Sirak Bahre
Archaeologists estimate that less than 10% of the Axum site has been uncovered and that priceless tombs, treasures and other artifacts are just beneath the surface waiting to be revealed. To learn about the mysteries of Axum, it's essential to have a good guide. I recommend Sirak Bahre, shown above with one of his satisfied customers. (Yes, that's W in the photo. He and Laura visited Axum in March.)
Public transit in northern Ethiopia is almost non-existent, and many of the sites I wanted to see can only be reached by car. So I hired a driver for three days and headed east across a somewhat wild and desolate landscape.

The road east from Axum

Eritrea in the distance

To Debra Damo

A monk and his sheep
Two hours east of Axum is the monastery of Debra Damo. Located at the top of a tower of sandstone. Debra Damo is accessible only by climbing a rope up a sheer cliff face. On top of this mountain, 350 monks live quiet, pious lives in a self-sufficient village. Their monastic lives are so strict that they keep only male sheep, goats and cattle in their corrals. Consistent with this rule, only male tourists are allowed to visit this remote place.
Throughout the northern province of Tigray, there are more than 100 Orthodox churches carved into living rock. Many of these claim to date from the 4th century, when Christianity first came to Ethiopia. Visiting one of these churches is like coming into someone's home. Each church has its own unique relics and rituals. Each has its own priest who keeps the key, protects the site, collects the entrance fee − and poses for the photograph.

Assorted priests

Medhane Alem Kesho

Abraha We Atsbeha

Interior frescos
The landscape of northern Ethiopia reminded me of Utah, with high tablelands bisected by deep canyons. I'm told that when the rainy season comes in June, July and August, these dry-looking plateaus will turn bright green, and waterfalls will cascade down the cliff faces.

An ancient fig tree

Candle Mountains

The Gheralta Mountains
Carved inside the cliff faces of the Gheralta Mountains are several churches which are so well-hidden that they weren't known to the outside world until the 1960s.

View from the Gheralta Mountains

Daniel Korkor entrance

... and frescos

Sandstone pillars
The highpoint − literally and figuratively − of my visit to Gheralta was Abune Yemata Guh. This is a tiny but exquisitely frescoed church carved halfway up a sheer rock pinnacle. To get here, one has to climb up a 200 meter almost-vertical face. There are reliable handholds and footholds carved into the rock, so the climb is doable without pitons or ropes. But the final 20 meters of tiptoeing along a ledge got my heart racing. Why would anyone carve a church in such a remote location? For protection, of course. The fact that this site is perfectly preserved after many centuries is proof of how well-protected this site is.

Handholds & footholds

The wooden bridge

200 meters up!

The entrance, at last

Inside Abune Yemata Guh
My guide told me that no one has ever died on this climb, thanks to God's protection. The view from the top was a religious experience.
On my return to Axum across northern Ethiopia, my driver dropped me off at the Great Temple of Yeha. Dating from about 700BC, the Temple at Yeha is the oldest standing structure in Ethiopia. The museum contains a collection of beautifully incised Sabaean inscriptions. Here is yet another ancient civilization that I never learned about in school.

Northern Ethiopia

The temple at Yeha

Archaeological treasures
The last stop on Ethiopia's Historic Circuit is legendary Lalibela. Experts and locals disagree about how many years it took to carve these monolithic churches from volcanic tuff. Some say the churches were created during several kingdoms spanning the 12th and 13th centuries. Others say the work was completed almost overnight by angels. But everyone agrees that these structures are magical and beautiful, similar in scale to Petra in Jordan, or Ellora and Ajanta in India.

Bet Giyorgis

Bet Amanuel

Yimrehana Kristos

Mountain village
If you should visit Lalibela, a guide is essential to finding your way through the maze of passageways that interconnect all these churches. I recommend my excellent guide Hailemariam Wubet. He's easy to reach at hailemariamwubet@gmail.com.

Saturday morning market in Lalibela

Crowds in colors

Cattle market

Raw salt for sale
Lalibela is known world-wide for its rock-hewn churches. They astound for their beauty and size. What most tourists miss is Lalibela's lively Saturday market. Like a country fair, it's a bustling circus of color, smells and sounds. Sheep are bleating. Goats are running between tents. Donkeys carry heavy loads of goods along crowded paths. And children chase after the animals and each other. Except for the ubiquitous cell phones, this market, its products and its vendors probably haven't changed in 1000 years.
Oats, hops and barley

Bride & groom

Father of the groom
In Lalibela, I expected to visit the touristic sites, and then move on. However, the son of the owner of the excellent LAL Hotel, where I was staying, was getting married. The owner, Mr. Tewabe, invited me to be a guest at his son's wedding. I said "yes", of course.

The wedding was huge. There were at least 1000 guests. The cooks made 1300 injeras. They slaughtered 3 cows, 5 sheep and 1 goat. The food, the music, the dancing and the alcohol flowed from noon until 11pm. The evening ended with a bonfire and a lamb roast. Everyone danced around the fire until we were too tired to dance any more.

This was my first real experience to get to know Ethiopians, and to be treated as an equal in a social setting. I like these people. They're confident, intelligent, joyous and generous. There is none of the oppressed African mentality here. Ethiopia was never anyone's colony, and it shows.

Dancing for hours

Lunch for 1000+

Roasted goat

With the hotel staff
Traveler's Note: If you get to Lalibela, be sure to have dinner at sunset at the Ben Abeba Restaurant, the coolest restaurant in Ethiopia, with stunning 360 degree views. The architect must've been inspired by Dr. Seuss.

May 21 to June 1 − Ethiopia, Part 2

Traveling as a tourist is indulgent. Visiting historic and scenic sites with a camera in one hand and a guide book in the other can become tedious. Dining in restaurants, alone or with strangers, night after night loses its romance eventually. Whenever possible, I try to find a real reason for going somewhere.

Through Mercy Hospital in Muskegon, MI, I learned about Soddo Christian Hospital in southern Ethiopia. This rural hospital has 120 beds and serves about 30,000 patients per year. The senior staff are a handful of volunteer doctors from Norway, the Netherlands and the US. Their mission is to provide the health care that's desperately needed here, while training Ethiopian doctors in OBS/GYN, surgery and general medicine.

Soddo Christian Hospital

Dr.Karl in radiology

Dr.Jeremy in the server room

Chez Dr.Mark & Allison

Dr.Bob in his garden
The friendly folks pictured above welcomed me into their homes, fed me, gave me a nice place to stay ... and put me to work. They needed someone to create an inventory database in MS Access to manage their pharmacy, fixed assets, consumables and donations. So, that's what I did. Working 12 hours a day without distractions, I completed their system in about a week. I'm thankful for this opportunity to serve a good cause, and to work with some of the most vibrant and generous people I've met in a long time.

Emergency transport

Hospital compound

The "streets" of Soddo

My tour guides
I started this month touring the world-famous rock-hewn churches of northern Ethiopia. However, what I'll remember most about this country will be the work I did and the friends I made in Soddo. This was the real reason I came to Ethiopia.

Soddo's nearest airport is 2 hours away in the town of Arba Minch. I paused here at the upscale Paradise Lodge to enjoy lunch and the view of the Rift Valley. I made a mental note to return here someday for a few days. Nice place!

The view from Paradise
Ethiopians like to tell animal fables. Here's one of my favorites:

One fine day, a dog, a goat and a donkey went for a ride on a bus. The eager dog didn't have exact fare, but he wanted a window seat. So he hurriedly gave the conductor his money, planning to collect his change later. The wise goat knew that Ethiopian buses often break down, so he said he'd pay when the bus got to where he wanted to go. The tired donkey paid his fare, took a seat, and went to sleep.

When the three animals arrived at their destination, the dog forgot to get his change, the goat ran off without paying, and the donkey yawned and got off the bus. This is why these animals do what they do. Dogs chase buses, to get their change. Goats run in all directions when they see buses, so they won't have to pay. Donkeys stand in the middle of the road, looking as though they just woke up.

The moral of the story is ... take the plane!

I've never seen a country that has more animals − and people − in its roads than Ethiopia. Furthermore, the roads have potholes large enough to hide crocodiles. It's no wonder that traffic fatalities have overtaken malaria as the third most common cause of death in Ethiopia. Meanwhile, Ethiopian Airlines continues to have the best airline safety record in all of Africa. Traveler's note: If you buy either an inbound or outbound international flight with this airline, all your domestic flights are half price.

Mango season
My final stop in Ethiopia was the ancient city of Harar. Founded in the 10th century, this city was the capital of an independent Islamic nation for more than 900 years, until it was captured by the Ethiopian empire in 1887. The Hararis still maintain their own ethnic identity, language and culture.

While the rest of Ethiopia is mostly Orthodox Christian, Harar is about 60% Islamic. With its many ancient mosques and tombs, some claim Harar to be the fourth holiest city in Islam (after Mecca, Medina and Jerusalem).

Streets of Harar

Tomb of Emir Nur

One of 82 mosques

Islamic scholars

500 year old Qur'an
The unique Harari culture is reflected in their homes. I had the pleasure of spending three nights at the Zubeyda Waber Guest House. The cushioned room with all the handicrafts on the walls was where I ate breakfast and sipped coffee each morning.

One of Harar's most famous residents was the French poet Arthur Rimbaud, who lived most of his adult life here. In the 1880s as well as today, Harar is a place where someone could disappear to and not be found for a long time.

My guest house

Arthur Rimbaud Center

Harar market in 1888 and in 2014

Feeding the hyenas
The appeal of Harar is that little has changed here in centuries. Even today's markets look much the way that they did a century ago.

The Hararis have an unusual custom. Every evening, just outside the city gates, the locals give meat and porridge to wild hyenas. This practice started many years ago to prevent the hyenas from attacking the livestock and children. Today the tradition lives on as a tourist attraction.

June 2 − Djibouti

I had an 18-hour layover in Djibouti en route to Istanbul. In all fairness, I can't say much about this place except:

  • It's nice to be someplace where I can understand the language, i.e. French.
  • From the air, this country looks rather dry and desolate.
  • Djibouti City is a dusty shipping port.
  • Last night, I had my first taste of seafood and white wine in a month.
  • It's uncomfortably hot and humid here. I miss the cool high altitudes of Ethiopia.
  • 18 hours is a good amount of time to spend here. Any more would be unnecessary.

Djibouti City from the air

June 2 to June 10 − Istanbul

A unique problem of traveling a lot is that one's passport gets filled up. I ran out of pages in 2011 in Tanzania, and had to deal with frustrating bureaucracy at the American consulate in Dar-es-Salaam. Last week, when Djibouti claimed an entire page of my passport with their overpriced visa ($60 for a transit visa!), it was time to either stop traveling or get more pages.

First, I had to go online to the Istanbul American Consulate website to schedule an appointment and print out my bar-coded reservation. Two days later, I took a tram and bus 45 minutes to the high-security, windowless fortress on a hill where the consulate is located. I presented my passport and appointment slip, and went through metal detectors and pat-downs three times. Finally, I got to the multi-layered, bulletproof passport window, where I submitted my passport, application, and payment of $82.

The man at the window verified that my documents were in order and explained that my passport would be mailed to me on Monday. I said that I was planning to leave for Cappadocia on Saturday. He said "Hang on a moment" and disappeared for a minute or two. When he came back, he asked "Can you come back after lunch?" to which I nodded yes (because the microphone was turned off). "Good. Here's your pass to let you back into the consulate." He slid a piece of paper through the slot to me.

I exited and found a nice place to have a leisurely lunch (photo at right) where I watched big ships sail in and out of the Black Sea. I returned at about 1:30pm. I went through all the same security that I went through before and to get to the bulletproof passport window. The fellow said "Hi", slipped me my passport with 24 new pages added, and I was on my way. Yay!

Lunch outside the consulate
How's that for service from our government? I don't think I've ever had a more pleasant and easy transaction with the US bureaucracy − especially not with the folks at Immigration control, have you?

Ferry on the Bosphorus

The Asian side of Istanbul

June is cherry season

Galata Bridge
Istanbul is pleasant and easy in many ways. For a city of about 14 million, this is an easy-going, relaxed place. Perhaps it's because of the good weather and the beautiful, blue Bosphorus running right through the middle. There's a unified transit system. With an Istanbulkart you can hop on any tram, bus or ferry and go anywhere you want day or night. The service at restaurants and bars is excellent. The food's great, too. I'd planned to spend only 3-4 days here, but ended up staying more than a week just to enjoy the atmosphere.

In the Old City, within walking distance of the museums and famous sites, there's a cluster of moderately priced boutique hotels. I stayed at the ALP Hotel. The staff and location were great. If the ALP is full, try any of the other hotels in this neighborhood. They're all good.

Istanbul skyline

The Blue Mosque

Blue Mosque courtyard

Blue Mosque interior
The Blue Mosque's real name is the Sultan Ahmed Mosque. It's nicknamed the Blue Mosque by western tourists because of the predominantly blue tiles in its domed ceiling. I liked this mosque for three reasons. It was built to be a mosque and it's still an active mosque. Tourists are allowed to go inside. And it's free!

The Blue Mosque and Hagia Sophia are the bookends for a pedestrian mall with fountains, shade trees and vendors. This makes downtown Istanbul a nice place to walk around at night.

The mosque at night

Sultan Ahmet Park
& Hagia Sophia
Hagia Sophia is one of the world's most beautiful buildings. From its construction in 537 until 1453, it was an Eastern Orthodox cathedral and the seat of the Patriarchate of Constantinople. Then, it was converted into an imperial mosque. Today it's a museum. It's remarkable to see well-preserved Byzantine mosaics of Christian saints mixed together with Islamic texts and symbols.

Hagia Sophia

A minbar instead
of a pulpit

Rooftop dining

Topkapi Palace

Sultan's meeting room

Inside the harem
Topkapi Palace occupies about 700,000 m2 of Istanbul's Old City − which makes it almost as large as Beijing's Forbidden City. Within its halls, harems, treasuries, fountains, pools and gardens are some unbelievable treasures:
  • Abraham’s saucepan
  • Joseph’s turban
  • Moses’ staff (the one he parted the Red Sea with)
  • King David’s sword
  • John the Baptist’s skull
  • Mohammed’s cloak, sword, beard, bow and footprint, and
  • The keys to the Kaaba in Mecca (before the locks were changed)
These items were all brought to Istanbul when the Ottoman Empire conquered Egypt in 1517. Having recently seen where the Ark of the Covenant is stored in Ethiopia, I feel as though I've now visited most of the important relics of western religions.

Basilica cistern

The Grand Bazaar

Turkish ceramics

Baklava & dried fruits
Istanbul’s largest surviving Byzantine cistern was built in 532. It was forgotten by city authorities and was rediscovered in 1545 when local residents reported miraculously obtaining water (and even catching fish) by lowering buckets into a dark space below their basement floors. A nice place to visit on a hot afternoon!

Istanbul's Grand Bazaar would be an excellent place to do one's Christmas shopping. Everything is sold here. Of course, there are no marked prices, so be prepared to negotiate.

It would've been easy to just stay in Istanbul, soak up the atmosphere and eat fine foods day and night. But it's time to move on and see the rest of this marvelous country.

June 11 to June 21 − The Turkish Riviera

Boats and trains are a civilized way to travel. From Istanbul, you can cross the Sea of Marmara on an IDO ferry. In Bandirma, the ferry terminal is adjacent to the train station. Twenty minutes after docking, you'll be on a modern train rolling towards the Turkish Riviera. Turkey's coastline along the Aegean and Mediterranean Seas has more than a thousand kilometers of sparkling blue waters. Because of the color of the sea, this region is also called the Turquoise Coast.

My first stop was Selçuk to see Ephesus, described as Europe’s most complete classical metropolis and the capital of Roman Asia Minor. The most photographed monument at this site is the Library of Celsus, built in 120AD to store 12,000 scrolls. It was destroyed by an earthquake in 262AD. Only the façade survives today. What really impressed me was the great theatre, with seating for 25,000.
Library of Celsus

The Great Theatre at Ephesus

Ongoing restoration

Ayasuluk Fortress

Basilica of St.John

Temple of Artemis
Selçuk is one of the most visited tourist destinations in Turkey. In addition to Ephesus, there's a lot to see here:
  • A Byzantine / Ottoman fortress dating from 14th century
  • The tomb of John the Apostle, around which Justinian I built a basilica in the 6th century
  • The remains of the Temple of Artemis, one of the Seven Wonders of the Ancient World
  • The humble home of Jesus' mother

Mary's House
Pamukkale is famous for its mountain of gleaming white calcite shelves overrunning with warm, mineral-rich water. Above these travertine pools is Hierapolis, once a Roman and Byzantine spa city. These ruins evoke life in a bygone era, in which Greeks, Romans, Jews, pagans, Christians, and spa tourists peacefully coexisted. Hierapolis became a curative centre when founded around 190 BC by Eumenes II of Pergamum. It prospered under the Romans and Byzantines, but recurrent earthquakes eventually brought disaster, and Hierapolis was abandoned after a 1334 tremor.

Pamukkale terraces

Travertine shelves

Healing waters

Bacchus and friends
Further along the Turquoise Coast, Fethiye’s natural harbor is said to be the region’s finest. The harbor is tucked into a corner of a broad bay scattered with pretty islands, so picture-perfect that the sailing scenes from the James Bond film Skyfall (2012) were filmed here. The nearby coast is ideal for day trips as well as 4-day excursions known as Blue Voyages, which allow passengers to enjoy living aboard locally-built gulet type schooners, visiting ancient cities and snorkeling in crystal blue lagoons.

The Gulf of Fethiye

Gulet type schooners

Perfect day for a sail
In the past decade, Fethiye has become a magnet for British citizens. With 7,000 British ex-pats living in Fethiye, plus another 600,000 British tourists per year, the Turquoise Coast is a region where one can function quite easily speaking only English. Nevertheless, it's fun to learn some of the local language. One day, I sat on a bus next to a patient primary school teacher who taught me to count in Turkish.

1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 9 10
bir iki üç dört beş altı yedi sekiz dokuz on
10 20 30 40 50 60 70 80 90 100
on yirmi otuz kırk elli altmış yetmiş seksen doksan yüz

Kaş, population ~8000

The Sunken City

A Lycian tomb
Kaş is a picturesque beach town, fishing port, and starting point for a popular day cruise to the island of Kekova and The Sunken City. These famous ruins are the result of a series of severe earthquakes in the 2nd century AD. Across from Kekova is the village of Kaleköy, where you'll find a hilltop Crusader fortress, ruins of several temples and public baths, and many strangely-shaped Lycian tombs, both onshore and in the water.

Kaleköy and its crusader fortress

Quiet anchorage

Busy restaurants in Kaş
My last stop on the Turquoise Coast was the city of Antalya. With a population of almost one million, this is the largest city on Turkey's south coast. It's both classically beautiful and stylishly modern, with a well-preserved, all-pedestrian Old City, a Roman-era harbor, and excellent restaurants and bars. I spent only one night here but wished I'd stayed longer.


Intercity bus

Turkish breakfast
Turkey is an easy country to travel in, especially for a solo traveler with little luggage and a flexible schedule. I haven't needed to buy bus tickets or book accommodations ahead. As for where to stay and how to get there ...
  • Transportation − Turkish buses run frequently in all directions. The buses are inexpensive, comfortable and often include wifi. I enjoy bus rides because it's a good way to meet people. I'm glad not to be renting a car here as gasoline costs $9/gallon.
  • Excellent lodging − Every town seems to have an excess of hotel rooms, although this may change in July when it's high season. On this leg of my journey, I've stayed at a network of casual family-run B&B's, each one having been recommended by the previous one. The standard breakfasts are fresh and healthy. If I were to re-visit the Turquoise Coast, I'd stay at these places again:

    Selçuk Homeros Pension & Guest House
    Derviş and family ensure you're well-oriented.
    Fethiye Duygu Pension
    Breakfast on the rooftop is spectacular.
    Kaş Santosa Pension
    Dennis will organize any boat or land tour you desire.
    Antalya Pansiyon White Garden
    Great location in the middle of the Old City.

June 21 to July 4 − Kurdistan

Of Turkey's total population of about 78 million people, 15 to 20 million are Kurdish. Kurds originated in Iran and India. They speak a language similar to Iranian. Legends describe Kurds as being descended from King Solomon's angelic servants (djinn), or of being the first descendants from Noah and his tribe. In contrast, Turks and their language can be traced to the Eurasian steppes, where, according to legend, the first Turks were the children of a great grey wolf who taught them to smelt iron.

Most Kurds today live in the contested border areas of Turkey, Syria, Iran and Iraq, with an additional 2 million living abroad. (The United States is home to about 15,000 Kurds, 3/4 of whom live in my hometown of Nashville, Tennessee.) In all, there are about 30 million Kurds worldwide. Kurds are the largest ethnic group in the world who do not have a state of their own. They are also some of the friendliest and most generous people I've met in seven years of travel.

In the map below, the white numbers indicate the approximate locations of seven Kurdish areas that I visited during the past two weeks.

1 − Diyarbakir

Situated on the banks of the Tigris River, Diyarbakır has been inhabited by humans for about 10,000 years, and has been home to some 33 civilizations throughout its history. This city's most striking feature is a 6-kilometer circumferential wall built of basalt, one of the largest intact wall structures in the world. Though it's not known exactly when the wall was first constructed, it was restored and extended by Roman Emperor Constantine II in 349 A.D.

Huge walls around the city

Shops and restaurants

An invitation to lunch

Hotel Kervansaray

Fresh fruits
Compared to Istanbul, Diyarbakir is a city in a different country. I heard a language spoken here that I hadn't heard before. A man on the street was pleased to teach me how to say "Thank you" in Kurdish. "Zor spas" is what he said. For the next two weeks, I said "Zor spas" whenever appropriate. This simple phrase helped me travel from one place to another, and got me invited to many delicious meals. ("Thank you" is the first and most important phrase to learn in any language.)

2 − Mardin

80km south of Diyarbakir is the fortress town of Mardin. This ancient city is built upon a limestone outcrop that towers 500 meters above the Mesopotamian Plain. This city was an important garrison just as it is today.
The mythical Şahmaran of Kurdistan

Syria below

A drone overhead

Donkeys in the streets
In Mardin, I became aware of the political tensions in southeastern Turkey and of this city's strategic location. Syria is less than 20km away and is easy to see from Mardin's high vantage point. One morning, while enjoying a quiet breakfast on the roof of Ipecyolu Guesthouse, I was buzzed by a drone. It was unarmed, but it had a camera which it pointed at me. I posed with my coffee in hand − and then took its photo as it cruised up to the military post on the top of the hill.

In contrast to the high-tech surveillance going on here, Mardin is a living museum with many of its old customs and habits intact. There are beautiful stone-carved buildings. The cobblestone streets are too steep for cars, so donkeys are used instead. On the walls of homes and hotels, one sees the Şahmaran, a creature of Kurdish folklore. This is a wise and benign woman from the waist up, and a magical serpent below. Her scales contain all the secrets of the world.

3 − Şanlıurfa (Urfa)

Another of Turkey's legendary cities. Urfa is said to be the birthplace of Job and Abraham, as well as the city where the Armenian alphabet was invented. For 50 cents, you can take off your shoes and enter the cave where Abraham was born. Nearby is manicured Gölbaşı Park whose sacred ponds contain holy carp. According to the Qur'an, the evil King Nimrod sentenced Abraham to be burned on a huge bonfire. When the bonfire was lit, Allah transformed the fire into water and the firewood into fish. Today, you can row a boat on the ponds or toss bread crumbs to the carp while you eat kabob and drink tea.

Abraham was born here

Gölbaşı Park, with holy carp

Sacred pool Balıklı Göl

Göbekli Tepe
The main reason most tourists visit Urfa is to take a tour of nearby Göbekli Tepe. This archaeological site is believed to be the world's first place of worship, estimated to date back to 9500 BC. And this is no legend. This is verifiable by carbon dating. What interested me about Göbekli Tepe is that the T-shaped pillars look a lot like the neolithic T-shaped pillars I saw in Menorca earlier this year. Hmm ... could there be a connection?

4 − Nemrut Dağı
National Park

Concluding my tour of Turkey's oldest sites, I hitched a ride with new friends, Nur and Olli. We drove to Nemrut Dağı National Park to see a dozen giant stone heads on top of a mountain 2150 meters high. The archaeologists say that these heads were commissioned by a megalomaniac pre-Roman king who wanted to be remembered after his death. Judging by the number of tourists who come up this hill every afternoon to photograph his head at sunset, I'd say he got his wish.

Nemrut Dağı

Settlement of Çayönü

Karakuş Burial Mound

Nur & Olli
Near Nemrut Dağı, you'll find other ancient sites. The settlement at Çayönü is estimated to have been inhabited as early as 7200 BC.

5 − Lake Van

Not going to Iran today
Near the Iranian border of eastern Turkey is a vast lake surrounded by snow-capped mountains. At 1640m, Lake Van is almost as high as California's Lake Tahoe ... and seven times larger. The water of Lake Van is crystal clear and great for swimming. But as Lake Van has no natural outlet, the water is slightly salty, due to evaporation.

Perched on an island near the south shore of Lake Van is a marvel of Armenian architecture. In 921 AD, Gagik Artzruni, King of Vaspurkan, built a church here whose carved walls are still in good condition and whose interior is decorated with frescoes. Akdamar Island makes a nice day trip from Van.

Lake Van, elevation 1640m

Akdamar Island

Akdamar Kilisesi, 921AD

Mile high swimming

6 − Van

I came to Lake Van to escape the heat of southeastern Turkey, which becomes a furnace in June when dry desert breezes blow north from Mesopotamia. At the east end of Lake Van, I found the Kurdish commercial center of Van, cooler weather, and two remarkable oddities.

Urartian Castle in Van, 800-600 BC

View from the castle

Van cats really look like this

Van Cat Center
Between the city and the lake is a fortress built about 2700 years ago, by the Iron-age Urartus, also known as the biblical Kingdom of Ararat. This kingdom rose to power in the mid-9th century BC, but was conquered in the early 6th century BC. The heirs of Urartu are the Armenians and their successive kingdoms.

Native to Van is an unusual domestic cat, called simply the Van Cat. The Van Cat is a landrace (naturally occurring variety), not a formal breed of cat. According to Kurdish folktales, this cat was one of the many animals housed in Noah's Ark. When the Ark landed on Mount Ararat, the cats exited the ark and made their way down the mountain to the city of Van. The legend claims that the auburn patch of hair sometimes found on these cats' heads is a result of being blessed by Allah as they left the Ark.

Van cats are often "odd-eyed" with one amber and one blue. The cats have water-repellant white coats and are known for swimming in Lake Van with their owners. The Van Cat is a mascot of the Kurdish independence movement. The photos shown here were taken at the Van Cat Breeding Center on the campus of Yüzüncü Yıl Üniversitesi.

7 − Doğubayazıt

Next stop Doğubayazıt. Although this town has a handsome Ottoman palace, it's most famous for being at the base of Mount Ararat, which is ...
  • Turkey's highest peak
  • A dormant volcano (inactive for ~5000 years)
  • The biblical resting place of Noah's Ark
  • A highly-prized part of Kurdistan

İshak Paşa Palace (1685-1784)

Palace interior

Mount Ararat, 5137m

The slopes of Ararat
Then the ark rested in the seventh month, the seventeenth day of the month, on the mountains of Ararat. And the waters decreased continually until the tenth month. In the tenth month, on the first day of the month, the tops of the mountains were seen. Genesis 8:4-5

Doğubayazıt is a center for Christian groups in search of Noah's Ark. Chatting with "arkaeologists" at the Hotel Ararat, I learned that five different international teams claim to have found Noah's Ark, in five separate locations. (Did Noah have a fleet?!) I also heard stories that these discoveries are hoaxes designed to raise funds from churches overseas, and that local guides and farmers have been paid to bury old boards and wood scraps on the mountain so that they can later be "discovered" for well-planned documentaries. The carbon-14 dating is done in Iran, where desired results can be obtained for a fee.

In spite of the archaeological hoaxes, Mount Ararat is a stunning peak, and a worthwhile and challenging climb. Guides and permits are required. If you're interested in climbing Mount Ararat, an old friend runs a trekking service that I'd recommend: Mount Ararat Trek.

A home-cooked Kurdish meal
To me, the best part about Doğubayazıt is its vibrant Kurdish community. This is a happy frontier town where generosity and good humor flow easily. I learned some Kurdish here (partly out of necessity because few people speak English) and was frequently invited for tea and meals.

Nevertheless, this part of Turkey has a dark history in its relationship with Ankara. Here are a few articles about routine discrimination and harassment of Kurds by the Turkish government:

Turkey's Slow Recovery Six Months after Van Earthquake
Prisoners on Hunger Strike for Kurdish Education
The Kurdish View of the Kurdish Issue
Appeal to Secretary of State John Kerry on his Visit to Ankara
Three Reasons the PKK Should Lay Down Arms
Who wiped Van off the map in Southeast Turkey?
Turkey’s Kurds demand answers on Roboski Massacre
The linguistics of smuggling oil into Turkey: Roboski vs. Erbil
Why There Are No Toilets On Mt Ararat
Turkey: What Is the Kurdish Question?
Agri, June 1: 7 Ways to Win an Election
Friends have emailed asking what it's like being in an Islamic country during Ramadan. Ramadan started on June 28th. During this lunar month, Muslims are forbidden from eating, drinking or smoking between sunrise and sunset. While Turkey is usually quite tolerant of alcohol, for the month of Ramadan, all bars and liquor stores are closed. So how does this affect me, or the typical tourist?
  • On the first morning of Ramadan, while sitting in the waiting room of a bus station. I took a sip from my water bottle. A well-dressed older gentleman sitting across from me smiled, shook a finger at me, and said something about Ramadan. I apologized in Kurdish and put my bottle back in my pack. Before his bus left, the gentleman shook my hand and wished me safe travels.
  • Hotels and guest houses serve breakfast until 10am to all their guests, as usual.
  • If your hotel has a restaurant, you can have dinner before sunset, including wine or beer. However, the waiters may seat you in an area separated by a curtain from the Muslim seating areas.
  • During the day, restaurants and tea shops are officially closed. In practice, this simply means that the doors are closed and the shades are drawn. However, one can slip into almost any tea shop and enjoy a refreshing glass of Çay or a snack.
  • Grocery stores and markets are open with normal hours. If I get hungry during the day, I buy fruit, bread and other snacks to eat in my hotel room or in a quiet park.
  • In some towns, fireworks are set off at sunset to let everyone know that it's time to eat. If you think you're hearing gunfire, this can be a little unsettling.
  • The best part about Ramadan is that public spaces are smoke-free during the day.
  • The hardest part about Ramadan has been watching the World Cup without beer. With patience and the help of a local guide, it's often possible to find a bar or restaurant who will serve food early and provide beer. In one case, the waiter discretely poured my beer into a paper cup in the kitchen so that no one would know what I was drinking.
Eastern Turkey, where I'm currently traveling, is the more conservative half of this country. I expect that the rules of Ramadan are less rigorously observed in and around Istanbul, where most of the tourists are. I'll soon find out if this is true because I'm heading in that direction in the next few days.

July 4 to July 16 − The Black Sea & Central Turkey


From Mount Ararat, I went north to verify that the Black Sea is not black − except in the harbors. Trabzon is the north coast’s largest city, a major transit hub, and a base for visiting the Sumela Monastery, a Greek Orthodox monastery built in 386 AD. Located 46km south of Trabzon, the monastery clings to a sheer rock wall above an evergreen forest full of birds and waterfalls.

A harbor on the Black Sea

Sumela Monastery

Inside the monastery

13th century frescoes


Mustafa Kemal Atatürk (1881-1938)
A few hours west of Trabzon by bus is Samsun, another major Black Sea port. This city is the starting point of the Turkish War of Independence. On May 19, 1919, Mustafa Kemal landed here aboard the steamer SS Bandırma to begin the national struggle that led to the establishment of the Republic of Turkey, in 1923.

SS Bandırma (May 1919)

Amazon women in battle

Amazons after battle
Samsun is said to be the homeland of the Amazons, a matriarchal nation of all-female warriors who lived in this area from 2000 to 1000 BC. As described in Greek mythology and Homer’s Iliad, the Amazons adhered to principles of freedom and dignity as they fought under the command of their beautiful Queen Penthesileia in the battle of Troy in 1200 BC. During the Turkish War of Independence, Turkish women fought alongside their fathers, husbands and sons with the same spirit as their Amazon ancestors.

From Samsun, I rode a leisurely train south to Amasya. This beautiful, mountain town was a military stronghold and a center of Islamic studies for centuries. Here are a few things that make this town unique:


  • Harşena Castle and Palace constructed in 320 BC. Attacked and rebuilt many times under the rule of the Persians, Pontics, Romans, Seljuks and Byzantines.
  • Tombs of the Pontic kings, carved into rock cliffs more than 2000 years ago. These tombs were used for cult worship of the deified rulers, and later as prisons and torture chambers. The largest cave tomb is 15 meters high.
  • A fairy-tale collection of 19th century Ottoman mansions, complete with jewelry, clothing, furniture, rugs and kitchenware. Many are restored as B&Bs and offer the chance to stay in atmospheric half-timbered mansions. I loved staying in the beautiful, 200-year-old Ilk Pension.
  • On summer evenings, the riverside boulevard is closed to vehicles so that families can stroll beneath the trees, enjoying music, food and the cool night air.

The Yeşilırmak River

Ottoman homes by day

... and by night

Ottoman interior
In 46 BC after a victorious battle near Amasya, Julius Caesar famously boasted VENI, VIDI, VICI (I came, I saw, I conquered). After three days in Amasya, I would say VENI, VIDI, NON VULT EXIRE (I came, I saw, I did not want to leave).

Cappadocia / Göreme

My next stop was Cappadocia, one of Turkey's most visited sites. Tourists flock to Cappadocia for its moonscape of curvy valleys, fairy chimneys, and rock-carved monastery complexes, with frescoes painted more than 1000 years ago.

During the 6th and 7th centuries, Byzantine Christians extended and enlarged Cappadocia’s network of underground cities, thought to have first been carved out by the Hittites. When Persian or Arab armies marauded through, Cappadocia’s Christians would hide in these subterranean vaults for months at a time. In some of these cities, you can go seven or eight levels underground, to find churches, kitchens, wineries, food storage, living rooms and natural air ventilation. The largest of these underground cities is Derinkuyu.

Göreme is recommended as the best base for exploring this region.

Fairy castles

Tokali Kilise

Karanlık Kilise

The area around Göreme has scenic canyons, colorful rock formations, swimming holes, and clusters of cones. The 16-km-long Ilhara Canyon is honeycombed with rock-cut underground dwellings and churches.

The Ilhara Canyon

Swimming in Ilhara Creek

Pigeon Canyon

Pottery sculpture
Cappadocia is one of the best − and most popular − places in the world for hot-air ballooning. Flight conditions are favorable, and the scenery is spectacular. It’s a truly magical experience. Many travelers I spoke with said it was the highlight of their trip to Turkey. Flights take off at dawn.

Firing up the balloon

Our balloon pilot

Just after takeoff

Sky full of balloons

Whirling dervishes
After ballooning and hiking all day in Cappadocia, you may want to take in a Whirling Dervish performance in the evening. My head is still spinning.
Cappadocia is swelteringly hot in summer. I slept at the refreshingly cool Kismet Cave House. Faruk, the on-site owner, was an excellent tour coordinator, host and cook.

A cave hotel


Turkey's capital city has no Ottoman palaces, cave tombs, or archaeological diggings. Instead, it's a 20th century city filled with tall buildings, students, foreign embassies, and monuments to Mustafa Kemal Atatürk, who made Ankara the headquarters of his resistance movement and later Turkey's political center.

Ankara skyline

Ankara Citadel

The Anitkabir

Mustafa Kemal Atatürk

Partitioning of Ottoman Turkey according to the Treaty of Sèvres (1920)
This map shows what Turkey looked like in 1918 after World War I. The Mudros Armistice reduced the Ottoman Empire to a fraction of its previous size. Lands that had been formerly Turkish were occupied by England, France, Italy, Greece and Armenia.

Turkey was a defeated nation. Its sultan capitulated to the demands of the Allied forces in exchange for preserving his wealth and status; while the Turkish people lived with poverty, famine and disease.

In this moment of history, Mustafa Kemal emerged as Turkey's heroic new leader.

In the center of Ankara stands the Anitkabir, which is both mausoleum and museum for the Father of modern Turkey. From 1919 to 1923, Atatürk negotiated and fought to restore Turkey to its current boundaries. Then, from 1923 to 1938, he transformed Turkey from a backward, impoverished country to the modern, industrial nation that it is today. Written on the walls of the museum are a few quotations which sum up what sort of a national leader he was:
  • I do not order you to fight, I order you to die. In the time which passes until we die, other troops and commanders can come forward and take our places. (Gallipoli, 1915)
  • Nations who don't find their national identities are doomed to be the prey of other nations. (1923)
  • Science and technology are the most reliable guides for everything in the world, for civilization, for life and for success. (1924)
  • Teachers are the one and only saviors of nations. (1925) (I especially like this one!)
Atatürk believed that Turkish society would have to Westernize itself both politically and culturally in order to survive in the 20th century. Here are some of the sweeping reforms which he accomplished during his 15 year presidency.
  • Abolition of the Sultanate. This allowed the Turkish nationalist government in Ankara to become the sole governing entity in the nation.
  • Abolition of sharia courts. Turkey's new legal system was modeled after the Swiss civil code.
  • Closure of religious convents and dervish lodges.
  • Traditional costumes and headgear were abandoned. European dress codes helped remove 19th century values in society.
  • Women were given equal civil and political rights, including universal suffrage. Female judges were appointed. 18 female MPs were elected to office in 1935.
  • Polygamy was outlawed.
  • Women allowed to serve in the military. Ataturk's adopted daughter became the world's first female combat pilot.
  • Thousands of new schools were built. Primary education was made free and compulsory.
  • The Turkish language was standardized, with the adoption of the Latin alphabet and the purging of foreign words. Literacy rates rose from 9% to 33% in just 10 years
  • Establishment of a railway system to move goods and people throughout the country.
  • Turkey adopted the Gregorian calendar and a standard Time zone.
  • The Western numbering system replaced Arabic numbers.
  • The national weekly holiday was changed from Friday to Sunday.
  • Turkey switched from its ancient (and unique) system of weights and measure to the metric system.
  • All Turks were to have surnames.
After six weeks of visiting archaeological sites, it seemed appropriate to spend my last day in Turkey learning about Turkey's 20th century. From time to time, every country needs a hero to right wrongs and to rebuild the national spirit. India had Gandhi. China had Mao. South Africa had Mandela. Turkey had Atatürk.


I've enjoyed traveling on Turkey's punctual buses and trains. Service is convenient, comfortable and inexpensive. Buses run from every city to every other city, and often include on-board wifi. Bus terminals in big cities are like airports. Bus companies provide free shuttle service from the terminals to the downtown areas.

Ankara bus terminal

Typical bus interior

Boarding a train

Fields of sunflowers


It's easy to get a delicious meal in Turkey. I often ordered dinner by pointing randomly at menus, and was always pleased. My only complaint was that, during Ramadan, it wasn't easy to get a meal before sunset − and impossible to get a beer. But this is a minor complaint. As a traveler, one has to learn to accept and enjoy local customs.

Turkish seafood

Turkish breakfast

Dried fruits for sale

Fresh comb honey

Güle güle!
(bye bye)

Now I say goodbye to one of my favorite countries. Not once did I meet a Turk who was unfriendly or who tried to take advantage of me. Turkey is beautiful, engaging and hospitable. I hope to come back to this part of the world soon.
Attractive people

Sunset over Ankara
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