Thursday, February 5, 2015

Aimless in Tunisia

I have already spoken about our not-so-recent travel habit of booking a flight and a place to lay our head at night (in Italy maybe not even these two) and then stopping the research cold. We have now done this for Sardegna, BrusselsKrakow and most recently for Tunis.  

Mint tea with pinoli. It was as good as it looks.
Usually between the flood of papers we pick up at the airport and the local tips we amass from friends before we leave, we fare quite well. As a back up, just walking around discovering it for ourselves usually bails us out. For this trip, though perhaps a bit like our Sardegna trip, our standard M.O. could have used some work.

Clock tower in Place 14 Janvier 2011
We got in on Friday at 8 pm and left Sunday at 6 p.m., so it was really only 48 hours to fill. If anything I was worried about not having enough time in Tunisia. But it being January, we knew that we would have to save some things for next time anyway: Tunisia has 810 miles of beautiful coastline. To visit these in the middle of winter would be like going to a well without a bucket; Hammamet and Djerba would have to wait for another visit.

Regardless, I was just excited to see a new country (one that is so close to Rome that it is shameful to ignore), to speak French, to drink mint tea (which they have in abundance) and to eat hummus (which, it turns out, they don't have at all)... My research could have probably told me this, had I done any.

St. Vincent Cathedral on Avenue Habib Bourguiba
However, our hotel was well located to the couple sites we did know to visit: Avenue Habib Bourguiba, St. Vincent's Cathedral, the clock tower, the opera house, and the souk. But at 8 pm on our first night, none of this information told us where to get a quick meal or that long awaited mint tea.

When the three brochures (one in German) that I had picked up did not guide us and texting a friend did not work instantaneously, we turned to our old reliable back up of walking. After an hour of that though, we ended up at the only real restaurant we came across, L'Orient, the one directly across from our hotel. Lucky enough it was not only one that serves local food but also serves wine (not common) and mint tea (very common). We had all three and were very happy with the results.

Antonin Baths and a photo of its former splendour
The next day in our cursory kind of way we visited three of the sites that make up the former Carthage, the Antonin baths, the amphitheater still used today for concerts and the former St. Louis Cathedral, now also used for concerts.

We then headed to Sidi Bou Said, a town outside of Tunis that is known for its exquisite blue doors and serenely white buildings. The whole town bathed in white and splashed with blue gives the effect that waves from the Mediterranean have swept over the city and colored pieces of the town themselves.

Sidi Bou Said
This is exactly the type of tourism that I love, wondering around admiring the beauty and details of a place without any particular slant on why it is or should be important. Just seeking out beauty for the sake of beauty.

After Sidi Bou Said, we were left to our own devices for figuring out what to do and we wandered in the car from small towns to small neighborhoods looking for cafes, restaurants, centers of activity or the like.

We did find some nice cafes to have more mint tea. We did not really find any centers of activities. We stopped in a mall just to see if that is were the people were. We found the name of one restaurant that was completely tucked away but apparently so popular that you needed to make a reservation at least a week beforehand. We ended up at the Movenpick lobby for a drink out of the cold and the rain. We were told it had a lovely view, but we had to just imagine it through the darkness of January's 7 pm.

Sunday we wandered through the souk and successfully purchased some things, bargaining but apparently not too well as we got a gift for buying a mirror. (This inevitably meant that we paid too much and the shop owner felt guilty). But I liked both the mirror and the "gift" and was willing to accept the fact that what we paid was fine by our standards even if it was too much by a local's. 

French gate at entrance to the souk
The rest of Sunday we kept wandering first by foot then by car: La Goulette, La Marsa, Gammarth, the Movenpick again. It was all very pleasant, the drives, the scenery, the random stops, but I did get the sense a little that we could have used some more direction. Did we miss out on a very important historic part of Tunis? Maybe. Did we skip over some hip, happening neighborhood? Most likely. Did we wrongly guess that things were closed because of the winter months and the slow down in tourism after the revolution? Probably. 

We were aimless, yes. But sometimes it is nice not knowing what you are missing. I just enjoyed tasting food that was very different than I expected, talking with the incredibly nice people, noticing the striking details in the architecture and witnessing the many similarities but also the large amount of differences between Tunisia and Italy, two countries that are essentially neighbors. 

In the end, this trip was a little Tunisian amuse-bouche, a taster of the country just beyond Sicily. Being only a 50-minute flight from Rome, I reassured myself that we could always go back.

So as we told our new friend from the souk, the slightly richer shop owner, we hoped that it was a la prochaine and not adieu to Tunisia. 

Maybe for the next trip we will do a little more research. Then again, maybe not. You don't always need a direction to enjoy the world in front if you.

Sunday, January 4, 2015

A very Roman holiday

One last holiday left in this season, La Befana on January 6 (or Epiphany/Three Kings day as it is known elsewhere), but for many of us, it is back to ordinary time, reality, tomorrow.

We used up all our vacation days between the wedding and our honeymoon in Sri Lanka and the Maldives. So this year, we spent the holidays in Rome. Quite honestly, it is funny that in the 8+ years I have lived here, I have never been in Rome for the holidays. But as I have written in other posts, to me, Christmas is very much about tradition, and my tradition is to be in Canada with family, playing our silly games and dressing in our silly hats or costumes or whatever the theme was of the year. I was sad to miss it this year.

But it was also our first year as a married couple and perhaps our last year in Rome, so we decided to start our own traditions and to really make the most of being in the Eternal City during the holidays.

This experience started by getting tickets to Midnight mass at the Vatican. When the traditional route of requesting them by fax 1.5 months prior failed, there was the back up plan of "who do you know" and a friend had a friend with extra tickets. So we were there at St. Peter's Square on 24 December at 18:00 for a 21:30 mass. Although, between the wait, the mass and the exodus we were there for 6 hours total, it was completely worth it to see this wholly (and holy!) unique, humble and unconventional Pope, Papa Francesco. I was personally honored to be able to sit in a mass celebrated by such a wonderful and refreshing leader of our church.

Though I have heard that many Romans never actually go to this mass, to us, it felt like a very Roman event indeed. So did la passeggiata in the Center to see this year's lights, and watching the array of fireworks around town from the Gianicolo on New Year's Eve. It felt like all of Rome was there with us.
With the crowds, this is best picture I could get
from New Year's Eve on the Gianicolo
We cooked Arabic and Filipino food for about 40 people when we had 7 coming over. I made gluhwein. We decorated our tree with purple ornaments, hung a purple wreath on our door. and our neighbor, perhaps more conventional than we, asked us if purple was a traditional Canadian Christmas color. We put up stockings and placed large Nordic stars, like we had seen in Denmark, in our windows. We ate panettone, torrone and way too much food and wine in general. And, as over-cooking and over-eating are some of the staples of the Italian holiday season, I think we succeeded in having our genuine Roman holiday. We will see where we are next year, but I hope it is a mix of our old and new traditions.

Tuesday, December 23, 2014

A Christmas Wow

Christmas time in Bruges
I don’t know about you, but it does not happen so often anymore that I have a "wow" moment. It is unfortunately natural or human that the more things you see, the fewer things become striking.

Of course as it is my mission and the mission of this blog to keep the wide-eyed “tourist” perspective, I still make it a point to live every experience as a new one and not take it for granted even if I may have seen something similar elsewhere. However, this deliberate awareness and intentional appreciation is not the same thing as a moment of “wow.” A wow by my definition is always uttered unintentionally, sometimes unexpectedly and often uncontrollably.

Decorated cupcakes are still adorable no matter how many times I see them!
My head submerged in Maldivian water and coming face to face with my first foot-long tropical fish, I uttered wow through a snorkel. After driving to the Grand Canyon in the dark and waking up on a January morning, I uttered wow as I got my first glimpse of these great crevices. These are places that don’t disappoint, but they are nonetheless somewhat obvious. It is not really unexpected to have wow moments in places like the Maldives and the Grand Canyon.

Brussels Artsy District
Yet, this is partly why I felt so surprised to have one of these moments in ... Brussels, of all places. Not that I ever had anything against Brussels, but I know of a lot of people who do and sad to say, I guess I didn’t expect much of the city. Based on this we even figured that Brussels might not be worth the 2 short days that we had scheduled in the country. So we split our weekend between Brussels and Bruges. Bruges, by contrast, had oodles of compliments from people we knew.

Bruges Christmas market

But, in addition to my lack of expectation about Brussels, the truth is that I was also not in a mood to be wowed. Still kind of recovering from the highs, hype and hysteria of the wedding and honeymoon, I have been quietly stewing in the lull of the aftermath, satisfied in seeking recovery. So the truth was, I didn’t even want to go on another trip that weekend, even if it was for the Christmas markets... a truly odd emotion for me.

Brussels Christmas markets
Christmas markets have always been my thing and I have been like the annoying child tugging at the coats of the adults to try to get others to go with me over the years. Some years I succeeded like 2012 when we went to Copenhagen, some years I did not like last year when Piazza Navona with its generic carnival games and cheap Christmas-related junk had to do. This year, it was my husband who was keen to go; he had caught my bug and I half-willingly complied.

So maybe this reluctance of even being in Brussels was part of my surprise of how I felt so moved. But that night in Brussels after returning from a day in Bruges, a city that is quaint and cute but certainly not up to the hype, we walked aimlessly without plan or direction following the ebb and flow of the crowds.

We knew nothing about the events, or the layout of the festivities, having only based our decision about Brussels on an article in some magazine saying that it had one of the nicest Christmas markets in Europe. We didn’t even know where the market was on the city map that we got last minute from the hotel. Yet, we walked with the idea that we would surely come across it.

What we came across instead was the entry to their main square, La Grand Place, and as we walked in, it exploded with color. The parliament was fire red then melted into a white glow then iced over into wintery blue and then warmed into a deep purple, all the while accompanied by a surround-sound of classical, Christmas music.

On all four sides of the square, buildings were consumed with color, fading in and out along with the pace of the melody. And the grand place, being indeed grand, made onlookers feel that much more petite in its presence as it gave its show. Towering buildings at every corner, 80-foot Christmas tree in the center and a manger the size of a small house in the center of the square- all came alive for those fifteen minutes, all quieted the audience with its song, all stopped you in your tracks to make you feel the awe that music and light can inspire and the majesty and magic that this season holds. And as I, indeed stopped in my tracks, I whispered, maybe only loudly enough for me to hear, an unintentional, unexpected and uncontrollable: wow.

Thursday, December 4, 2014

Living like married tourists: Honeymooning in Sri Lanka & the Maldives

I just couldn’t. I couldn’t be a bride and a blogger. I couldn’t do anything but be a bride... well a bride and a wedding coordinator... and a travel agent... and a logistics center. I wanted to. But that is what it was.
Wedding present from a great friend
So apologies. I still plan to reminisce about the cultural findings I obtained as a foreign bride in Italy, but that’s for another time. Let’s fast forward a minute to the more recent and less contentious adventure: the honeymoon!

Honeymoons are the best invention ever. We left behind the chaos of 9 months to escape to Sri Lanka and the Maldives. There was no specific logic or rationale to these choices: I vetoed Antarctica. He vetoed Capetown. We both said it would be novel for us to try out a do-nothing beach holiday. Yet, we simultaneously agreed that we could probably only stand it for a couple days. (I said 4 days, he said 2 so we chose 3). So we settled on a direct flight from Rome to Colombo, Sri Lanka where we could spend 9 days of touring ancient ruins and temples, ambling through old colonial cities and encountering wildlife and then 3 days in the Maldives where we would be forced to do nothing because the resort is really the only thing on that particular island.

View from Dambulla Caves
For knowing very little about our choice of Sri Lanka, it all of a sudden seemed like every person we talked to had been there and endorsed it: The food is flavorful. The landscape is lush. The ancient cities are a marvel, the beaches a paradise. We got so many recommendations that we packed our nine days with 6 different cities and 5 different hotels. We had an excel sheet itinerary were we had to slot in nap or relax. Classic type A travelers.

However, worn-out-post-wedding-me was already starting to get anxious that our honeymoon would be run the same draconian way as our wedding planning. Day 1 in congested Colombo and Day 2 of 5 hours on the road behind cows, tuk-tuks, stray dogs and bold humans didn't help. I became a little dubious about our choice. Luckily from Day 3 onward, we were in the heart of Sri Lankan countryside and it was marvelous.

You’d think we would be sick of ruins, living in Rome and all, but the ruins of Polonnaruwa were so vastly different that it didn’t feel like we were just experiencing the eastern version of the Roman forum. Aside from fascinating temples and statues, I was equally enthralled by what felt like was untouched nature everywhere. Living in a city where cats are the main wildlife, coming to Sri Lanka was like taking down the bars at a zoo.

Monkeys are to Sri Lanka what cats are to Rome and I photographed them as much as I do Rome's felines. In addition, hawks, lizards, monitors, brightly colored birds and bugs, and butterflies of every color kept me entertained like a kid in a candy shop… or well, a kid in a zoo. 

We saw elephants too of course. We were told that there are still many wild elephants; however, we only saw them in captivity. I was weary of going to visit them having heard that some of these orphanages or rescue centers are just ploys to get tourist money and that the elephants are no better treated than those in a circus. Reading about the bigger ones, we decided to go to the Millennium Elephant Foundation. It is definitely a place that happily accepts money from tourists (and a large amount of it- entrance is 35 dollars each). However, it seemed fairly legitimate that they did in fact care for maltreated or injured elephants. After hearing their story from a knowledgeable guide, I relaxed a little and realized that the elephants did seem to enjoy their baths given to them by the mahouts, i.e. elephant handlers, or by tourists, like my husband for example (see below).

Millennium Elephant Foundation
I also relented and we took a mini tour on the back of a 35 year old female elephant. As a 35 year old female myself, I felt a kinship with her and thanked her for the ride. I like to think she appreciated the gratitude.

Another highlight was our climb up Sigiriya rock fortress. We were too skeptical and perhaps too stubborn to ever hire a local guide, so we based our limited knowledge of any of these sites on a lonely planet book I had gotten as a gift two days before departing.

Sigiriya Rock Fortress
The little we learned about Sigiriya was that though there is a widespread legend that it was built as a palace for a prince who killed his father the king and fled to this site, nature's perfect fortress. There is no actual evidence that this was a palace. They know it was a monastery at one point, but despite the feeling of grandeur inspired by the gigantic lion paws guarding the staircase, the extensive complex of buildings, the natural moat and the alluring frescoes of bare-breasted women (supposedly the king’s mistresses), there is no concrete evidence that any of this was royalty-related. So the legend lives on and each believes what she will.

We then went to Kandy, the second largest but a very undersold city it seems to me, with its beautiful serene lake encircled by promenade along its perimeter. Granted there didn’t seem much to see aside from the gorgeous and extensive Botanical gardens and the Temple of the Tooth, which is p.s. the holiest Buddhist site in Sri Lanka. However, it seemed like Kandy could be nice setting for a longer stay in Sri Lanka.

Kandy lake
We stopped at one of the many advertised spice gardens and tea plantations along our drive to the south. Both are wonderfully organized tourist traps, with the informative part of the tour falling very secondary to the sales pitch of what you could buy from their very own shops. 

Galle Fort
Galle, an old dutch colonial city by the water in the southern tip of Sri Lanka, was our last stop. Aside from the Old Dutch hospital which they recently revived with new businesses and with a sense of community, I was not so impressed with this rundown city that seemed to now only house expensive hotels, chain souvenir shops and very few locals, but a walk along the cities walls was worth it for the view of the ocean and the impressively clear water.

Mirissa Beach
We also spent 3 hours at Mirissa beach, renting chairs at the obliging Paradise beach club hotel. The Indian Ocean is not calm, especially compared to the lazy and placid Mediterranean sea. I was taken back to 18 years of summers along the Atlantic ocean where waves were just as big and tides just as powerful. I used to dive into the biggest waves with total pleasure. Now I watched them from a beach chair. Was this me getting old or me turning Italian? Our beach time was just about to start though so I didn’t feel too bad about my whimpiness.

Anantara Dhigu resort, Maldives
We flew to the Maldives the day after and landed in one of the world’s most fragile, fabulous and frivolous places. Paradise exploited could be the subtitle for the Maldives, but don't get me wrong, it is undoubtedly and unmistakably PARADISE. It sets the standard for clear turquoise water and white snowy sand. You can’t be in the Maldives and not, at one moment in your time there, think I will quit my job and live here. How can you not want to be surrounded by that much natural beauty all of the time? Of course, then there is the reality that the cost you are paying per night and per meal is enough to eat up 1-3 months of salary and you realize that beauty is fleeting and not cheap.

So you are just thankful that you could enjoy it at all and you take a million photos to remember the water, the sunsets, the tropical trees and fruit, the ripples of the wind on the water and sand, the brightly colored exotic fish that makes you realize that God is a painter, the hammocks, the sunshine and the peace of being on a tiny island with no city, with no cars, with no real connection to anything else expect via boat.

How marvelously different from the day to day rhythm of real life in a city. A different pace and way of life – maybe that is what you really go to see… with the sunsets and setting as the icing on the cake. The Maldives were definitely the icing on an already very sweet honeymoon.

Friday, August 8, 2014

Making the most of Roman summers: Another list!

Another August and I am remembering my post (and list) from last year about striving not to miss out on Roman summers by living in a haze. So this year, I am waking up earlier and have added some new ideas to last year's list.

Plus now, there is a Estate Romana 2014 App sharing all the summer events, so I have no excuse to miss out on anything! 

So here is the 2014 Make-the-Most-of-Roman-Summer List:
  1. Lungo il Tevere Festival: The traditional bancarelle along the Tevere: 
  2. Gasometro Festival: Kind of like the alternative cousin of the Lungo il tevere festival: 
  3. Villa Pamphili or Villa Ada - Some of Rome's biggest and loveliest parks set up stages and host concerts:
  4. Terme di Caracalla Opera - When the Roman Opera house moves outdoors
  5. Aperitivo at La Singita on Fregene Beach - The tradition of aperitivo also goes to the beach: 
  6. Granita di Caffe from Tazza d'Oro - Caffeinated Ice. How marvelous! The famous Caffe Eustachio also has a great one. Both are near the Pantheon.
  7. Gelato -  Not just for summer of course, but summer is a great excuse. Take your pick of places. Everyone has their own theory about the best gelato. I say to each his own on that one. However, for the flavor cioccolato fondente, mine is still Gelateria della Palma, crowds and all.  Tony's gelateria in Monteverde came pretty close this year though.     

  8. Limoncello - a great, refreshing after-dinner drink (with a kick!)
  9. Hotel Minerva Rooftop for drinks. Lovely view of the Pantheon.
  10. Notte delle Stelle Cadenti (Night of the falling stars) at the beach on the festa di San Lorenzo (August 10)
  11. Beaches - The bread and butter of Italian summers. You might have to fight for your spot or learn to live without personal space, but mainly still worth the trip. Sperlonga is a jewel if you can handle the aforementioned.
  12. Paddle boats at Bracciano lake - Lakes are good beach-alternative and a well-kept secret in the summer. Trevignano is a great city on Lake Bracciano.
  13. Watermelon Stands - What is summer without watermelon?
  14. Campari and/or Aperol Spritz - Prosecco mixed with campari or aperol. Summer in a glass. You can get a 14 Euro one at Harry's Bar on Via Veneto, but I would suggest just sitting outside on a regular outdoor terrace and paying the normal price of 5 - 8 Euro. It tastes the same. 
  15. Grattachecca - Stand selling icy dessert (the granita's cousin) 
  16. Castel Sant'Angelo Festival: You can apparently go in the Passetto, a site that has thus evaded me:
  17. Piscina delle Rose - Olympic sized, 50-meter outdoor pool with lanes for real swimmers and aqua gym for fitness buffs:

Other Roman summer suggestions? Send them over if you have them!


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