Monday, 16 January 2017

Hvar: island of the senses

Hvar has everything I expected from a Croatian island: it's covered in pine forests, lavender fields and olive groves, it has beautiful secluded pebble beaches and a gorgeous historical centre. Moreover, the ferry from Split took me there in less than a couple of hours.
It has picturesque marble-paved streets full of flowers and trellis, and its main square looks out onto the sea, with countless smaller islands ready to be explored. Woods grow just behind the square, offering a perfect postcard picture. Hvar is one of the most visited islands in Dalmatia, so it's rather busy in the summer months, but it still shows its charm in the backstreets and quiet corners.

The main square in Hvar

Wednesday, 4 January 2017

Pai, backpacker's heaven or hell?

The small town of Pai, in north-western Thailand, is very popular among backpackers who visit Thailand. Lured by their ravishing tales, I decided to give it a go.

There is nothing special about Pai itself. There are no amazing temples, the food is mediocre and as in the infamous Khao San Road in Bangkok, the place lost its authenticity long ago. There are more guesthouses, souvenir shops and trekking agencies than private houses, not to mention more Western food that in any other parts of northern Thailand. On top of the that, the 4-hour minibus drive from Chiang Mai is a nightmare of 700 turns where you'd better not look out of the window.

Relaxing in Pai
Yet tourists keep flocking to Pai for the laid-back atmosphere: hippies, yoga enthusiasts and 20-somethings devoted to smoke weed, but also some hiking enthusiasts decide to visit this relatively remote corner of Thailand close to the border with Burma. Oh, and tons of Chinese tourists, to the point that some of the accommodation especially caters for them.

Saturday, 24 December 2016

Touching the sky: the monasteries of Meteora

Meteora has a place in every tourist brochure of mainland Greece, and for a reason. These huge monolithic pillars and the surrounding hills, located in the region of Thessaly in central Greece, were definitely worth the long hours I spent on the buses to reach them (3 hours from Thessaloniki and 6+ onwards to Delphi).

The landscape looks like that of an old-fashioned videogame, with a character jumping on top of a mushroom. On the background there are mountains that I kept on thinking they couldn't exist in the real world. The atmosphere is surreal, magnetic, almost spiritual. Needless to say, it is one of  my favourite places in Greece.

View of Meteora

Sunday, 9 October 2016

The exotic in Europe: Malta

If you drew a line from Gibraltar until the other end of the Mediterranean Sea, on the northern coast of Syria, the middle point would fall very close to Malta. With a Semitic language but firmly within Europe, besieged by the Turks but never conquered by them, this small island country can be considered a dividing point between Europe and North Africa, not to mention between the Western and Eastern Mediterranean.

A downhill street in Valletta
For the European visitor Malta is exotic and yet familiar. The architecture resembles that of North Africa, with cream-coloured houses and flat roofs, except that there are Catholic churches everywhere. Imagine a mix of cultures that rarely speak together: Italian, Arabic and a sprinkle of British. A British phone booth with on the background  a palm tree, or a Sicilian cannolo sold next to a fish and chips restaurant. Not to mention the typical and incredibly photogenic Maltese balcony, a sort of southern European version of the British bow-window.

A phone booth in Marsaxlokk
Invaded by many countries and once home to the multinational Order of the Knights of Saint John, Malta is used to mixing cultures and languages in a natural way. In Malta there is a lot of history, ranging from incredibly-fascinating prehistoric temples to opulent Baroque churches, but also natural beauty and a rich food culture. The island is small but it is ideal for a relaxing holiday, where you can throw in a little bit of everything, from beach days to museums and even a little bit of hiking.

The  Azure Window in Gozo

You never need more than one hour to reach any place on the island, even if you use the excellent public buses. This allows you to base yourself in one place and then explore with liberty. The tiny capital of Valletta is a treasure hunt for cultural sites, from Caravaggio paintings to the knight's armoury. The ancient capital of Mdina, nicknamed the silent city, is full of picturesque corners, while the smaller island of Gozo - easily reachable by ferry - is  famous for its natural beauty and more relaxed atmosphere.

A church in Gozo

Malta is an ideal destination for a varied holiday, and moreover it is easily reached with a Ryanair flight, it has euro and everybody speaks English. In spite of the proximity to Italy, I discovered an extremely rich culture and a history that I almost completely ignored. Did you know, for example, that Saint Paul got shipwrecked in Malta and personally started the evangelisation of this island? Or that the Order of Saint John, founded at the time of the crusades, established itself in Malta and successfully managed to stop the Turkish invasion of the island in what is called the Great Siege of Malta?

A peaceful corner of Mdina, the old capital

Sunday, 25 September 2016

The Tiger Cave temple in Krabi

The Andaman coast of Thailand is famous for its beaches and karst formations, not to mention for paradise islands like Koh Phi Phi and Koh Lanta. The dilemma then is what to do after a few lazy days spent by the beach, when you feel the urgency to saviour a little bit of Thai culture, almost invisible in the touristic heavens of this area. 
Unfortunately, the Andaman coast is not a particularly good place for temple-hopping, because a part of the population is Muslim. There is, nonetheless, a Buddhist temple that is really worth visiting, a mere 8 km from Krabi Town (the main town in the area and a transport hub): the Tiger Cave Temple (Wat Tham Suea).

Top of the shrine of Tiger Cave Temple
I reached it by negotiating a tuk tuk ride from my accommodation in Krabi Town, but I guess you could go there from Ao Nang as well. The reason for the name Tiger Cave Temple is uncertain: some say that a huge tiger was seen roaming inside a cave where they also found tiger paw prints. The most astonishing and fascinating part of Wat Tham Suea is the shrine on top of a staircase of 1,237 steps. It is quite a challenge to reach the top and I must warn you: it is definitely not for the faint-hearted. Some of the steps are quite high and uneven, and because of the heat some people give up even before they are half-way through.

Made it to the top

I was really sweaty and panting, but I finally reached the top. I think it was one of the best experiences I had in southern Thailand. At the top there is a big golden Buddha statue, but the real reason to get there is the view. You can see all the karst formations in the area, and all of Krabi at a 360° angle. Wat Tham Suea is not an ancient temple, as it was built in the 1970s, but it has turned into a place for meditation and retreat for Buddhist monks.

View from top of Tiger Cave Temple

At the bottom there are monkeys who love to play with fruit and any food that they might find. As usual, a temple in Thailand is made by different pagodas and stupas, so it's worth exploring a little bit more the area. For me, it is always fascinating to see different religious practices. Usually these temples are tourist attractions, but they are also used by the local population, so you get the chance to see the local offerings. Sometimes local people offer flowers or rice, but it's interesting to see offerings of money or candy bars. Apparently, Buddha likes chocolate  too!

A pagoda of the Tiger Cave Temple

Sunday, 28 August 2016

The Las Vegas of the Balkans: Skopje

Skopje is probably the strangest city I have ever visited. Let's begin by saying that the capital of Macedonia is mostly new, because the city was almost completely destroyed in an earthquake in 1963 and also because most of its monuments were built in the last 6 years.
As a matter of fact, in 2010 many new statues, monuments and museum buildings were built thanks to a big project called "Skopje 2014". Most of them share a pompous neoclassical style that seems to mock Macedonia's neighbour, Greece. There are so many statues of famous Macedonians that local people laugh and say that every Macedonian by now has a statue somewhere in Skopje.

Statues in Skopje

The project was intended as a way to revitalize the city centre and make it more monumental, but it failed to gain consensus from the local population. Some of the new monuments (like the triumphal arch, a bad-taste imitation of the Roman ones) got hit by paint balls in protest against the corrupted government. The monuments and museum buildings intend to build an identity for a country that has almost never been independent in its history and whose name and symbols are not recognized by Greece.
Skopje's art bridge and the archaeological museum by night
The most famous and controversial monument is a 22-metre statue of a warrior on a horse sitting on top of a marble column and surrounded by fountain jets that are lit up at night. Most visitors recognize him to be Alexander the Great, a historical figure claimed by Greece as its own and that Macedonia uses freely (even the airport is called after him). This politics, sustained by the political party in power, is known as "antiquization" and it claims that ancient Macedonians were not in fact Greeks. According to  this theory, modern-day Macedonians, even though Slavic in language and culture, descend from the ancient Macedonians who once had an empire that reached India.

The huge statue of the Warrior in Skopje
As a result, the modern part of Skopje is kitsch, a sort of Las Vegas reconstruction of ancient Greece gone wrong. There are so many statues that it becomes hard to pay attention to any of them. In spite of this, or maybe because of this, Skopje is a unique and interesting city to visit. Contributing to this amusement-park atmosphere are the Chinese-built red double-deckers that you can see everywhere, an exact copy of the London ones.
In Italy macedonia is another name for fruit salad, a mix of very different elements, as Macedonia is, a meeting point of different cultures and religions. While walking on the southern bank of the Vardar river and passing by these huge new monuments, I was in an unmistakably Balkan city, even though the façades of Socialist buildings have been cleverly covered to give them a new look. 
This is  the area of the city where you can find trendy cafés and shops, but also Mother Teresa's memorial house, built in the place where she was baptised. Born in Skopje in 1910 of Catholic Albanian parents, Mother Teresa of Calcutta embeds the cultural mix of this city. The memorial house is free to visit and a new church in a curious neo Byzantine style is being built here.
Memorial house of Mother Teresa
To add to this mix, everywhere in the city you can see Roma families, with children playing in the streets. As a matter of fact, Skopje hosts one of the largest Roma settlements in the Balkans. I realized how much more of a mix it must have been in the past with Macedonian, Albanian and Roma people living side by side with Turkish, Greek, Armenian and Jewish people, of whom little is left in present-day Skopje aside from plaques and small museums.

Statue of Mother Teresa

On the northern bank of the river lies Çarshia, the old bazaar, which is known by locals as the Albanian neighbourhood (here Albanian is almost synonym with Ottoman). 20% of the population of Skopje (and 25% of all Macedonia) is of Albanian heritage and all official plaques are in both Macedonian and Albanian. I wandered for a couple of hours through reconstructed caravanserai, old mosques and Turkish baths, some of them reconverted as art galleries or museums. The Çifte Hamam, for example, now holds the national gallery, with plenty of contemporary paintings and installations from Macedonian artists.
Çifte Hamam
The Kurşumli Han is one of the few remaining caravanserai (the roadside inns of Ottaman times) in Skopje and it now hosts the modest Museum of Macedonia. A world apart from the opulent new museums, this area is more traditional, even though little is left of old Skopje and all the shops sell modern goods. While you walk though its paved streets, you can always spot the minaret of a mosque.
Old Baazar, Skopje
The two worlds - the Slavic and the Albanian - run virtually parallel one to the other and sadly there is not much interchange between the two. To divide these two parts of the city there is the 15th-century Stone Bridge, one of the few things left from the time of the Ottoman empire.

View of Skopje and the Stone Bridge

Monday, 15 August 2016

The coast of Montenegro (Kotor aside)

Even though I was planning to stay in Montenegro only  a few days, I was determined to see something aside from Kotor. When I was on the bus that took me from Dubrovnik to Kotor, we passed by several small towns in the fijord-like Bay of Kotor. These villages all look somewhat lower-key compared to Kotor, but also enchanting.
From Kotor I hopped on a local bus that in about 15 minutes (and for only 1€) drove me to a small town called Perast. The main thing to do here is to take a boat tour to the islet just in front of the town: Gospa od Škrpjela (which means literally "Our Lady of  the Rocks"). It is an artificial island (the only one of its kind in the Adriatic), and the legend says that it was created by seamen after finding an icon of the Virgin on a rock in the sea. Every time the seamen came back from a successful voyage they threw a rock in this place, thus the island gradually emerged from the sea.     
The island of Our Lady of the Rocks
The boat (5€ for a return ticket), leaves you on the island for enough time to visit the church built in 1452 and the small museum on the island. More than its historical or artistic value, what makes this place special is the atmosphere and the view of the surrounding mountains. The Bay of Kotor looks more like a peaceful lake than a stretch of sea: there are woods everywhere, and practically no beach.

The church of Our Lady of the Rocks

There is another small island in front of Perast, Sveti Dorde, which hosts a 12th century Benedectine monastery,  but the boat  tour does not stop there. Back in Perast, I walked its cobbled streets and felt the history unfolding all around me. The town is wonderfully preserved, and it has many old churches and palaces, all cramped in a narrow stretch of land before the mountains rise up. As a matter of fact, in the past Perast was a prosperous town under the Venetian flag of the Serenissima. 

A church in Perast

Another place that is popular along the coast of Montenegro and that is very easy to reach from Kotor is Budva. In spite of being one of the most famous tourist destinations in Montenegro, it was a bit disappointing. The beach is just a regular  sandy beach, crowded, with plenty of ice-cream shops and the usual children toys for sale. The old town is pleasant, but it could have been any small town with some Venetian influence along the Adriatic sea.

A church in Budva

I walked through its streets, trying to find something interesting among the trendy cafés and souvenir shops. I am fascinated by Orthodox icons, these simple, yet artistically fascinating works of art. There are several in Budva, if you look in the corners of the smaller streets.

An Orthodox icon in Budva

Religious image in Budva

From Budva, it was fairly easy and quick to find the bus stop to go to Sveti Stefan. This islet, connected to the mainland by an artificial narrow isthmus, appears in most of the tourist brochures of Montenegro together with Kotor. In the 1960s and up until the 1980s it was a playground for the rich and famous, with stars such as Elizabeth Taylors or Sophia Loren enjoying its glitz and village atmosphere.

The island of Sveti Stefan
Unfortunately, Sveti Stefan is now a luxury hotel, so it is not permitted to go to the island, unless you have a reservation for its expensive restaurant, so I took a walk. There is another resort nearby, the Hotel Kraljičina Plaža, but it is permitted to walk along the well-maintained beach. There are caves to explore, created by the karst rock formations, but the best thing to do is just walk along the sandy beach and along the pine-covered paths.

A beach near Sveti Stefan

Unfortunately, I didn't see the interior of Montenegro, with its famous mountains where bears can still be found, but what I have seen of this small but welcoming country left me with a desire to visit again and explore more.
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