Honestly, when planning this trip, more than anything, I wanted to spend a good chunk of time on the beach: swimming and sunbathing. The first portion of the “lazy beach life” – Las Coloradas – was more than satisfactory. For concluding days in Yucatan, I have chosen another coastal town called Chuburna. Similarly to Las Coloradas, Chuburna has white sand beaches and good conditions for swimming (no dangerous currents, etc.). Also – like Las Coloradas – Chuburna is situated on a very narrow peninsula facing Gulf of Mexico on one side and lagoon (formed by the river estuary) on the other. Yet, it is more developed than Las Coloradas, because of its proximity to Chelem and Progresso – two towns which are very popular with expats living there (especially, Canadians) and numerous Mexican tourists. Hence, when you go to the beaches in Chuburna, you will almost inevitably see either other people
Or some sort of beach-front houses.
Speaking of these (relatively recently built) seafront homes, some of them were quite interesting. Look at this one (the picture is taken from the opposite to the beach side): it looks almost like a small fortress (or bunker) with solid metal fences, massive walls and no windows. I wonder who live there?
I was very happy with my accommodations. Through AirBnB, I found this cheerful pink cottage surrounded by lush tropical vegetation. It had a sense of peaceful seclusion and yet it was only 4-5 min. of walk to the beach. And for $20 a day, it was a real steel. Further, when booking it, I did not realize how lucky I was with my hostess, Martha. I will say a few words about her later.
Unlike more touristy Chelem and Progresso, Chuburna has very limited selection of shops and places to eat. But one restaurant definitely stands out in both variety of seafood-based dishes and their quality. It is called Christo Ray and is run by an extended family which includes both fishermen (hence, the reliable supply of high quality fish and other seafoods) and people who actually manage the restaurant.
Here are just two small fragments from their menu (divide all prices by five in order to get price in US $)
Speaking of seafood, Chuburna (and neighboring towns) is one of the best areas in Mexico for getting fresh pulpo (octopus) which is my favorite. Not surprisingly, while in Chuburna, I ordered almost every night some octopus-based dish. And they all were inevitably good.
There was one interesting meeting in Chuburna. One day, walking on the beach, I found this huge off-road yellow truck.
Somewhat surprisingly, it had French license plates. So, I approached and began conversation. Long story short, a French family was traveling in this truck from Canada (they brought the truck there by boat from Belgium), through the North, Central and South America. The estimated duration of the entire journey was two years. Here is their website with description of all adventures.
After three nights in Chuburna, I was laying peacefully on the beach preparing mentally to leave, because my return flight to US was scheduled for the next day.
And then I got SMS from Volaris (the air-company) informing that my flight was “modified,” but not telling how exactly “modified.” SMS provided both US and Mexican phone numbers to call and obtain all details of the changes. Neither of numbers – when I tried to call – were working numbers. Through Google, I found correct numbers (did Volaris sent wrong numbers on purpose) and yet it has taken about one hour to get an agent on the phone. She explained that my flight has been canceled and changed for one day later. I complained, but was I really unhappy? Not at all: I was glad to extend vacations for one more day. And yet, the day come to say Good Bye to Chuburna, my pink cottage and my wonderful host, Martha.
Being originally from the capital, Mexico city, Martha lived in different places in Mexico, had a very colorful life and worked in different occupations: aerobics trainer, massage therapist, owner of high-end spa, and much more. Being essentially retired and living in Chuburna, she never “stops:” she is trusted home sitter for wealthy expats and desirable private massage therapist. Needless to say that I used (and enjoyed) her massages. And we also shared couple of dinners sharing our life and travel experiences. Thank you, Martha, for my time in Chuburna!
Last word and advice for Americans returning home from Mexico to the USA and Canada. Both countries require presently a negative COVID test before permitting to board the plane. Don’t worry about it. Both international airports in Yucatan (Cancun and Merida) offer this service. It takes only 30 min. to get results and it cost only about $32. Granted, when heading to airport I was a little nervous, but…it looks that I am good to go home.
Homun is a dusty town situated about 40 km east of Merida, the capital of Yucatan state. It takes about one hour to come here and the cheapest way is by colectivo (shared van): 28 pesos / less than 1.5 US. The colectivo station in Merida is on Calle 52 and between Calle 65 and 67. The reason why people come to Homun is to visit many cenotes surrounding this town.
A cenote is a natural pit, or sinkhole, resulting from the collapse of limestone bedrock that exposes groundwater. Often in cenotes the sections of cave roof have collapsed revealing an underlying cave system. In Yucatán Peninsula, the ancient Mata have used cenotes for both water supplies and sacrificialofferings. The term “cenote” derives from a Mayan word tsʼonot to refer to any location with accessible groundwater. Water in cenote is normally very clear, as it comes from rain and filters slowly through the ground. Naturally, cenotes are popular among both locals and visitors to Yucatan as good places to swim while enjoying unusual geological formations.
In short, if Yucatan is the best Mexican state to explore cenotes, then Homun is Yucatan’s capital of cenotes. There are dozens of them here: of all kinds, sizes and degree of commercialization. Some have even been converted into luxury resorts with boutique accommodations and fine restaurants (Santa Barbara is a good example), while the others remain relatively undeveloped being situated on a private property of some local farming family. One can easily spend in Homun couple days going from cenote to cenote: exploring, swimming in their cool (but not cold) waters, and taking pictures (some cenotes feature impressive stalactites and stalagmites).
I stayed in Homun in a simple but very comfortable hotel called Hospedaje Papa Grande (Grandfather’s Hotel). It is run by super friendly and welcoming Don Hector and his nephew Ivan. I highly recommend this place.
On the evening of arrival day, upon my request, Don Hector arranged an excellent massage (300 pesos / 15 US $ per hour) and suggested a good place to eat: restaurant at the hotel Santa Maria. But first I walked to the main town square and looked at different small “tiendas” / shops.
A huge red structure looming from beyond town square attracted my attention. From the distance it looked like a grain elevator. But when I approached, it turned out to be a fairly ugly but impressive size-wise church
I asked later Don Hector about it and he explained that the church was built about 300 years ago by Spaniards who were keen to convert all local Mayans into Christianity. Their idea was that the new Christian churches replacing traditional old Mayan temples and sacred places should be as impressive as possible. Hence, the size of this church. Regrettably, the Spaniards also used for church construction the stones and blocks from old Mayan religious structures.
But back to cenotes. The best way to explore them comfortably and efficiently is to hire a local guide with motorized tricycle. Don Hector recommended a young fellow named Daniel and this was another excellent recommendation. The deal was: for 200 pesos (10 US $), he will show five different cenotes. The entrance fees to each (typically 50 pesos) were on top of it. I asked in advance to take me to less commercial and touristy places – the cenotes where “the locals go” – and Daniel did great job accommodating this request.
The first cenote – actually most commercial of all – was called Canunchen
One of requirements in commercial cenotes is that you should wear a safety jacket. So, I complied…
Canunchen is a fairly big cenote: you can really swim – not just “splash” – there.
Then we went to cenote called Hool Kosom which was a pleasant surprise. I actually wanted originally to go to this cenote (based on reviews from other people), but Google maps indicated that it is “permanently closed.” As if reading my mind, Daniel brought me there and…it was perfectly open. I liked very much swimming in crystal clear waters and under bright light coming from almost ideally round natural “window.”
The next cenote was a very special experience. It is called Nu’ku’uch Tzo No Ot. Here is entrance:
And this was the only picture that I was able to take in this cenote, because I did not have a water-proof camera. Let me explain. After descending these steps, you need to swim through a very short (no more than one yard) underwater tonel. And then you arrive in a nicely lit cave which is entirely disconnected from the outside world and has an array of beautiful stalactites and stalagmites. A young fellow named Alejandro was “in charge” of this cenote: he accompanied me into underground cave and explained that it was a sacred Mayan place.
The next cenote was Tza Ujun Kat. The entrance into it did not look very appealing.
However, after descending into cenote, I realized that this is my favorite of all visited on this trip. Some decorative tropical plants were in the middle of a big arena-like grotto and there were many chirping birds coming in and out of cenote through the big opening in cenote’s ceiling. This place really “smelled and sounded” very good.
The water surrounded cenote’s walls so that it was possible to swim full circles.
But most importantly, this cenote had an array of impressive stalagmites and stalactites.
I stayed here for at least 40 min. Honestly, visiting four cenotes, descending into each, swimming, getting out, etc. felt like “enough is enough.” But – o human grid! – I paid for five and was absolutely decisive to visit five. Luckily, the last one – called Pool Unic – was just couple hundred meters away. And I did not regret going there: somehow it felt very cozy and intimate. Probably because of particular lighting.
There was an additional benefit from visiting Pool Unic. The lady who run this cenote also had a small shop selling a variety of traditional Mayan ointments and I bought a jar of anti-inflammatory cream.
And this was the end of my visit to Homun. Tomorrow, I planned to leave for Chuburna – another coastal village with good beaches and thriving fishing industry. More in the next post.
First thing first: where are Las Coloradas and why to go there? The village is situated on the coast, on the very tip of Yucatan peninsula, about 20 km from the popular tourist destination – the town of Rio Lagartos. Las Coloradas is a new settlement. It did not exist until 1950s and in fact you won’t be able to find it on the maps until late 1980s. Why? Because originally it was created as a “ranch” which produced salt and was owned by a company Industria Salinera de Yucatan Sociedad Anónima. There is a colorful, tragic and somewhat violent story of the company’s workers who eventually were able to organize themselves in a very strong trade union, negotiate best conditions of work, and – most importantly – “buy out” their homes and land so that they would not be owned by the company anymore becoming instead a real town. This is how main street of Las Coloradas looks now
Las Coloradas is situated on a narrow strip of land about 2 km wide. On one side it faces the Gulf of Mexico. The other side of the village is exposed to a chain of lagoons. And this is where the salt ponds are built and salt harvested.
On this side of the town, you will also find stunning cotton-candy pink lakes filled with salt. The vibrant color is due to red-colored algae, plankton, and brine shrimp that thrive in the salty environment. Further, as the water evaporates (which is part of the salt production process), these organisms become more concentrated, glimmering pink in the bright Mexican sunlight. Day-tourists come to Las Coloradas to wander around the lakes and absorb the beauty of these unusual landscape and color combination.
Want to hear a cool fact? The reason flamingos are pink is because they eat these pink creatures. Normally their feathers are white: they change color after eating this stuff! Speaking of flamingos, these graceful birds are the second reason to visit Las Coloradas. Here you will find hundreds of them.
Unlike other tourists, my choice was to stay for a few days in Las Coloradas. Via AirBnB, I found a modest, but very comfortable home (yes, there was hot shower and decent Internet connection). And it was right next to pink lakes.
Special thanks goes to my hosts: Juan Alberto Parra and his mother. Juan Alberto is the nephew of the charismatic leader of the local trade union, Arturo Castillo Dzul. It was Arturo Dzul who in the late 1970s managed to organize disenfranchised workers into a strong trade union and initiated the process of lands and homes’ transition from being a property of salt company into the property of town and people who live there. I was impressed, for example, by the fact that ordinary workers are now paid here about 300 US $ a week plus health insurance plus paid vacations. Not all doctors in Merida (Yucatan’s capital) make this type of money.
Chatting with my host was a unique experience: Juan Alberto is an excellent source of the local oral history and knows literally everyone in the town. As for his mother, well…here is just one example. Breakfast was not part of my accommodations arrangement, but I woke up in the morning from the knock on the door and was presented with delicious meal.
Speaking of food, Las Coloradas has a decent selection of places to eat. Nothing fancy, but very good quality. Further, for people who like fish and seafood, this is a right place to be. My favorite was cafe called Lalo’s. On first night, I ordered a portion of shrimp ceviche (for about 10 US $) and this is what was served:
Why I decided to stay in Las Coloradas for a few days? First, I wanted to have an experience of being for a while in an authentic Mexican village with people unspoiled by mass tourism. And in this respect Las Coloradas exceeded all expectations. I felt being truly welcomed into this community. Just a small example. No matter how many times a day I would pass the same house walking the same street, but its inhabitants would say again and again: “buenos dias” (good day) or “buenos tardes” (good afternoon). Many homes in Las Coloradas still look like traditional Yucatan houses.
Second, Las Coloradas has AMAZING white sand beach which – hard to believe – I had entirely to myself. The waters are calm and there are no dangerous currents: excellent place for swimming.
My only company were birds: gulls and pelicans.
The original plan was to be in Las Coloradas for three nights and to go afterwards to Chichen Itza – the most important Mayan archeological site of Yucatan. Guess what? I canceled visit to famous ruins and extended my stay in Las Coloradas. But then it was nevertheless time to say “Good bye” and move to next destination: the town of Homun which is probably the best place in Yucatan to visit cenotes of all kinds: commercial and not, fully enclosed in caves and open to the air. This will be in my next post. I left from Las Coloradas early – at time of sunrise, around 6 am. And, of course, my hosts – who made me feel truly like at home – Juan Alberto Parra and his mother were awake to say: good bye and come back soon!
Normally, in January/February I go to Hawaii to visit friends and to get a healthy portion of suntan and swimming. But this year with required COVID test or self-quarantine upon arrival, this option looked complicated. Instead, I decided to go to Mexico and check out Yucatan. First, let’s make it clear: there are two “Yucatans.” There is Yucatan state and Yucatan peninsula. The latter incorporates three states: Campeche, Quintana Roo (this is where famous Cancun and Playa del Carmen are), and Yucatan itself. I was interested in the latter – the Yucatan state which is mostly known for beaches and numerous sites of ancient Mayan civilization (Chichen Itza being the most famous one). As you will see later, Yucatan has much more to offer. And the good news is that – at this point – Mexico remains one of the few countries which not only allows Americans to visit, but also does not require any COVID tests or quarantine. And so for $213 I took American Airlines flight from San Francisco to Miami, 50 min. transfer and then one-and-half hour flight to Cancun.
First Destination: Colonial Town of Valladolid.
Yes, there is “original” Valladolid in Spain, but there is also a well preserved and very appealing Valladolid right in the middle of Yucatan state. It is a perfect base to stay if your time is limited and you like to explore many things in Yucatan. The best way to get to Valladolid is to take a comfortable and easy two hours ride by ADO bus company from the downtown Cancun station. In Valladolid, my recommendation is to stay either in a hotel or some AirBnB on the street called Calzada de Los Frailes. This semi-pedestrian, cobblestone street with nicely restored houses is full of small art shops, cafes, restaurants. It is only 5 min. away from the main town plaza and yet it is quiet and relaxed. Here is a picture which sort of captures the sense of Calzada de Los Frailes.
If you follow Calzada de los Frailes in North Eastern direction, you will come to the historical center of Valladolid. But I first walked in exactly opposite direction: my destination was former Franciscan monastery: Convento de San Bernardino de Sena.
Before going inside or getting any tourist information, I first simply walked along its facade and was mesmerized by the texture of stones and intensity of colors of the monastery’s walls.
As it turned out, both the history and location of St. Bernardino convent are quite interesting. First, technically it is situated not in Valladolid, but right beyond Valladolid city limits and in adjacent neighborhood called Sisal. When the convent was built by Franciscan monks (1552-1560), Sisal was a fully independent indian town which existed until the end of 19 th century side-by-side with Valladolid controlled by Spaniards. By building monastery in Sisal the Franciscan monks pursued two goals. The first was to organize and oversee the conversion of the Mayan population right from the middle of their settlement. The second goal was to stay as independent as possible from the Spanish colonial authorities who controlled Valladolid.
The name Sisal is also Mayan. It derives from Ziiz-Ha which translates as Cold Water, because of a huge underground natural water reservoir which was under the monastery. The monks – not Mayans – were able to construct a reliable well and use the water to grow fruit orchards.
The monastery is open for visitors and I highly recommend to check it out: simply wander around and relax (there were no other visitors, when I was there). The architectural complex has many patios, courtyards, galleries, rooms with ancient vestments, etc. There was this feel in the air that “the monks just left” (although the monastery was secularized in 1755). I spent a good hour there enjoying tranquility of this place.
And then I walked back into Valladolid (it takes maximum 20 minutes from monastery to the center of the town).
Valladolid of Yucatan was named after Valladolid in Spain, at that time – the capital of Spanish Empire. Interestingly, but originally (1543), Valladolid was founded in a different location – at a lagoon called Chouac-Ha in the municipality of Tizimín. However, Spanish settlers complained about the mosquitos and humidity at the water and petitioned to have the city moved further inland.
In 1545, Valladolid was relocated to its current place and built atop a Mayan town called Zací or Zací-Val, whose buildings were dismantled to reuse the stones and to build the Spanish colonial town. In 1705, there was a revolt by local Maya; the rebels killed a number of town officials who had taken refuge in the cathedral. When the revolt was suppressed, the cathedral was considered irreparably profaned, and was demolished. A new cathedral was built the following year that still exists on the main plaza. And it looks quite stately.
If you like small boutique shops, local folk arts and handicrafts, small cafes, etc., you can easily spend couple days enjoying Valladolid. For me, it was more of a base to explore the area, but I liked a lot main square (especially, by the time of sunset)
I also discovered two “hidden gems” which are highly recommendable. One is an unassuming from the outside panaderia/ bakery called Panaderia La Especial
Whatever I tried there, was outstanding in quality and they have wide selection of various baked goods. And the price is a fraction of what you would pay in US.
My absolute favorites were their cheesecakes: much lighter in fat and less sweet than American version.
The second surprise expected at Mercado Municipal – town market. It is open every day from morning until 4 pm. I went there to buy a supply of fresh fruits and some other locally made foods and spices. What I did not expect to find there were dozens of stalls selling a variety of local handicrafts. I ended up buying a turquoise pendant. And – for about 8 $ – who wouldn’t?
I still had most of the afternoon and decided to visit EkBalam – the local smaller version of Chichen Itza – the ruins of an ancient Mayan city. Best way to get there is by collectivo – a shared taxi fir four persons. This would cost you 50 pesos – about $2.5. But it was already later in the day and waiting for three more riders was long and boring. And so, I “splurged” and paid for entire taxi: 200 pesos/ 10 US $. If seriously, this is ridiculously cheap, because it takes about 35-40 min. to get there. Granted, Ek Balam is much smaller than Chechen Itza, but it has two advantages. First, it does not attract such crowds (2.5 mln. people visit Chechen Itza each year). Second, Chechen Itza is build on the plain. Differently, the remains of Ek Balum are in jungles which – to me – feel more romantic. I wondered around ending by most impressive structure – the acropolis
And then I climbed on top of it which is totally permitted here, but not in Chechen Itza. The view was more than satisfactory.
All this time I was just by myself – no other visitors. And it was afternoon. I took advantage of this situation and great location and used the rooftop of acropolis for my siesta. Only after about 30 min. of peaceful sleep, other tourist couple arrived. They woke me up, but this was also my chance to take a picture of myself.
Another ten bucks for taxi, back to town, good dinner in a decent restaurant and back to my AirBnB. Tomorrow is a big day – the day of exploring cenotes.
Enjoying Cenotes near Valladolid
Many people visit Yucatan specifically to see and enjoy cenotes. So, what is “cenote?” Pronounced seh-NO-tay, they are water-filled sinkholes that naturally occur in limestone rock when an underground cave collapses in on itself and exposes the groundwater underneath. Some of cenotes are fully enclosed in the caves while others are either fully or partially exposed to an open air. People come to cenotes to relax and swim in their cool and crystal clear waters. There are hundreds of cenotes dotted around the Yucatan Peninsula and some of them are extremely popular with locals and tourists alike. In Mayan times a number of the cenotes were used for sacrificial purposes and objects such as gold, pottery and even human and animal remains have been found at the bottom of some cenotes.
Here is a great website which tells you about and helps locate cenotes of different kinds and all over Yucatan. The bottom line is that the most appealing cenotes have become commercial enterprises. That is Ok with me: I don’t mind to pay a few dollars for pleasure of swimming in some charming cave. Problem is when a certain popular cenote gets crowded, because a tourist bus has arrived. General recommendation is simple: go and visit early. Then there is a good chance that you will have the entire place for yourself. And so I rented a bicycle (many places in Valladolid offer bikes for rent) and explored three cenotes. My favorite was cenote Oxman (about 5 km. from Valladolid). It costs 7 US $ to enter and it has very nice facilities: showers, changing rooms, restaurant. It looks like this from the entrance
When I approached cenote, just couple of other people were already splashing and having fun.
I went down and…it felt like being in a real paradise.
And this was my day of cenotes. Tomorrow I am heading to a small coastal town of Las Colorades – the town of white sand and pink (yes!) beaches, flamingos and salt mining. Luckily, Las Colorades remains – as of now – untouched by mass tourists. I will tell more in the next post.
By the end of 2020 September I was exhausted of staying in Berkeley where everything was closed (gyms, restaurants, swimming pools, many stores) and the entire town seemed to be “lifeless,” because the students never returned to the university due to the COVID. Usually this time of year I go somewhere in Europe, because the weather is still nice but the summer tourists crowds are gone. This was not the option, however, because European counties closed their borders for Americans. And having my second, Russian, passport was not helpful either. Among fairly limited options in terms of holiday travel, Turkey (fully open for tourists with no restrictions) appeared to be the best choice. Fast forward. What started as a 10 day trip to Turkey has evolved into more than two months journey through five countries: Turkey, Malta, Germany, Spain and Portugal. I repent: on this trip I was not disciplined enough to write daily posts. What follows is the post-trip summary of the highlights and experiences.
First Country: Turkey. September 28-October 12, 2020.
‘The plan was to fly to Istanbul, meet there my brother (who came from Moscow), pick up the car, and drive to Antalya: essentially exploring the Western coast, but also visiting some places inland. The direct flights from San Francisco were expensive and I chose to transit through Munich, Germany. Wow: as we began our descent, the landscape was so “green” that it felt almost as a spring rather than fall.
I waited four hours in Munich airport (nearly deserted) and then boarded Turkish Airlines flight to Istanbul. As we were ready to take off, the captain made repeated announcements about the need to keep “social distance” which was both ridiculous and fun, because the plane was totally full.
I met my brother Vladimir at Istanbul and we drove about about 400 miles / 6 hours to Cesme – a coastal town in Turkey‘s westernmost end, on the tip of peninsula of the same name (about 85 km west of Izmir). It is a popular coastal holiday resort, but rather “low profile” and mostly preferred by Turks – not so much international visitors. The name “Çeşme” means “fountain” and possibly refers to many fountains that are scattered across the city. Cesme is also known for numerous natural hot springs which are used in medical purposes and around which various hotels and and “spa resorts” are built. We stayed couple nights in Cesme Termal Otel and were probably the only foreigners there. Very inexpensive place (about $50 per night for two) with two big and really warm pools (which are cleaned and refilled daily from the natural hot springs) and with possibility to “jump” from the pool into much cooler Aegean sea (the hotel is right on the coast).
Our intention was to find some nice local restaurant, but the food served at the Cesme Termal Otel was soo good that we ended up having all out meals at the hotel. Look, for instance at this “dream breakfast” which was included into the price of accommodations. I “played” half an hour each morning combining various cheeses with different jams and sauces…
There was only one exception from our “eat at the hotel” rule. Turkey has great bakeries with amazing variety of various breads and pastries. One was right opposite our hotel and we stopped there several time a day to try something new. The folks who worked there did not speak anything but Turkish and we essentially pointed out randomly to whatever was appealing: everything tasted great.
The beach at our hotel was Ok, but there was a much better choice nearby: the Delikli Koy Beach. The combination of white sand, limestone formations and deep blue sea made this beach our instant favorite. Besides, if you go there, there is a good chance to meet some interesting people, because this beach attracts hippy-like travelers with their vans and campers.
After two nights in Cesme, we drove to a sacred and mysterious place called Gerga. It is a sanctuary or cult-site hidden in the Latmos Mountains of Caria (also known as Bespark Mountains). This stunning area with its out-of-this-world boulder rock formations is reason enough to plan a hike here. Very little is actually known of Gerga, Various sources of information define Gerga as a ‘Carian-Hellenistic’ village, a necropolis, or a sanctuary, and it may be a bit of all. Walking around, you will find the name of the place over 20 times, carved in the rocks and buildings. The inscriptions are mostly in Greek and Latin, and appear as Gerga, Gergas, and Gergakome. The name is a topic of discussions among researchers. In ‘Two Carian Notes’, Richard P. Harper claims that the name Gerga means “The Sanctuary of Kar”, connecting it to the nearby site of Alabanda and the myth of Alabandos, son of Kar. He also believes that this place has evolved over different centuries, explaining why there are several hypotheses on the name and the nature of this place.
Whatever are the name and the history of this place, its atmosphere is fully absorbing: one can easily stay for hours there. The beauty of Gerga is enhanced by huge ancient trees and shining marble boulders reflecting sun with changing colors.
Finding Gerga and getting there is not easy. But then this is exactly the reason that the place remains untouched and rarely visited. We knew that there is a trail which begins from the mountainous village called Alabayır and the village is easy to reach by car. However, despite having descriptions for finding trailhead, we were totally lost among the houses spread haphazardly on the slopes of the mountain. We ended up knocking on one door and trying to ask for the trailhead location. Without saying a word, an elderly man jumped into our car and began giving driving directions. We were somewhat mystified, because we drove (following his guidance) out of the village and then for several kilometers on barely visible tracks nearly ruining our small rental car. As it turned out, instead of taking to trail head, he directed us to the place right above Gerga (hence, you can also drive there, sort of) and we walked just a few hundred meters down to the site. When we returned later to the village and brought back our “instant guide,” we gave him some money and wanted to leave, but this was not an option. He called his wife and served delicious tea and some snacks. We ended up staying with this couple for over one hour and it felt remarkably comfortable despite the fact that we were absolutely unable to verbally communicate.
Our next destination for the same day was lake Bafa and we arrived there perfectly in time for gorgeous sunset.
I bet you never heard about lake Bafa and, indeed, this place still attracts few tourists except…Germans. Somehow folks from Germany discovered this exceptional area and many of them, in fact, bought houses in the surrounding villages living there some permanently and some a few months a year. What is special about lake Bafa? It combines everything: pristine nature, ancient sites, rock tombs, birds sanctuary, mountains and a beach.
Bafa Gölü (Turkish name) is situated between Milas and Izmir. Besides being a historical site, Bafa is also a Natural Park thanks to the vast variety of wildlife and flowers. The Beşparmak Mountains (5 finger Mountains are an impressive backdrop. Besides the fact that they look as an extensive collection of piled up boulders, they also hide old Greek monasteries and even pre-historical wall paintings. Bafa lake has several islands to which you can take a boat trip, visiting the remains of the monasteries that were built on them. It is hard to describe the atmosphere at Bafa, but the place has a unique vibe and energy. On top of everything, this is an excellent place to experience authentic Turkish village life. We stayed in Kapikiri in the Pansyon (Bed and Breakfast) Yasemin. In fact, we had our very own and nicely restored traditional house.
We would come to Pansyon itself (just 50 meters away) for our breakfasts and dinners which were included into price and which were inevitably delicious.
The fun “social part” of the meals served at the Pansyon Yasemin was that it also functioned as a local “restaurant” (with very good reputation for quality of cooking) where one can observe the locals rubbing shoulders with German expats living in the area.
Pansyon Yasemin is owned by a local fellow: Adil Duran. He bought and beautifully restored several houses in his home village and launched a full-fledged local tourist business. In addition to offering comfortable accommodations and delicious meals, Adil is also an excellent tour guide who takes people to various historical and natural sites: some local and some quite distant (of course, he can arrange transportation as well). Needless to say that I and my brother used his services and greatly enjoyed our time together with Adil.
The current village Kapıkırı is built on the remains of what used to be the ancient city of Herakleia. Our full-day tour with Adil around the lake (first hiking and then taking a boat) included both impressive historical sites and beautiful natural spots.
It was a long and outstanding day. But then we returned to Kapikiri and spent pre-sunset hour simply enjoying the very peaceful lake and village atmosphere.
Next morning it was time to say “Good Bye!” to Adil and his wife who literally “adopted” us into family for these two days.
After leaving Kapikiri, we drove just a few kilometers to Golyaka village – the place where the hiking trail to Yediler Monastery (also known as “Seven Monastery” and “Kellibaron Monastery”) begins. In short, if you like stunning (and easy) hikes to magical places, then put Yediler Monastery on your Turkey bucket list! Yediler Monastery is a Byzantine-era monastery located in the sacred Latmos Mountains. It is believed that the monastery complex was established in the late 10th century, with more structures added later and fully completed in the 13th century. The monastery complex was enclosed by walls, some of which are still standing today. You will find remains of two chapels, a cave with an apse (arguably also used as a chapel in the southeastern side of the big courtyard), a well preserved and well protected upper castle, vaulted cell rooms and much more. For me, however, most important was not archeological or architectural value of this monastic complex, but the entire setting with the boulder-dotted Latmos Mountains as a background and Lake Bafa and its islands as a backdrop.
Despite temptation to linger longer at Yediler monastery, we needed to go with Datca peninsula being our final destination for the day. Datça is the place where Mediterranean and Aegean seas meet each other. And it is also the place where one will find the beauty of coastal Turkey in all its aspects: pine forests, dramatic cliffs, deep blue sea, excellent beaches, pristine hidden coves and much more. Driving around Datça peninsula is an experience on its own: almost all drives are scenic, whether you take the coastal route or one of the small and narrow mountain roads.
Most visitors to Datca go to visit Knidos – the ruins of an ancient Greek city situated at the very tip of Datca peninsula, exactly at the “meeting point” of Aegean and Mediterranean seas. It is, indeed, an impressive archeological site. But it would have taken a good part of our only one day in Datca and, therefore, we decided to skip Knidos. Instead, we hiked to Aquarium beach (Akvaryum Koyu in Turkish). Aquarium beach is located in pristine, well protected (from waves) and difficult to reach cove. The easiest way to get there is by boat and in summer time many local tourist operators bring there visitors to enjoy the scenery, swimming and sunbathing. We visited Datca in early October and the tourist season was over. So, how to get to Akvaryum Koyu without a boat? We drove to Cennetkoy Beach and Restaurant. From there, a narrow and rocky path will first take you up the hill, then it will zigzag along coastal line, and finally it will “drop” into Aquarium Beach. The path is not well marked and initially we took a wrong turn and hiked about 40 min. in wrong direction. But…who cares, when the air smells of pine forest and the scenery is like this:
Eventually, we found right way and approached the cove. Yes, hard to believe, but it is down below and there is a way to get there.
When we arrived, the whole place was “for us only,” but then a very serious visitor arrived: a private mega-yacht.
Despite the size of the boat (and obviously some crew onboard), only two persons appeared and “descended” into the sea: a woman (in yellow kayak ) and a man. And then…I have never seen such a “device” before: it looked like a surfboard, but with some sort of powerful motor which kept the man literally flying above the sea.
And this was pretty much our lazy day in beautiful Datca…
After Datca peninsula, our next destination was Kabak Valley – a great place on the coast, south of Fethiye and Oludeniz: a bit later I will tell more about Kabak Valley. But first and en route we decided to visit Dalyan – the coastal town in Mugla province, between Marmaris and Fethiye. Dalyan attracts plenty of tourists and there are at least three reasons for this. The first is Iztuzu beach – a narrow and long (4.5 km) spit of land, which forms a natural barrier between the fresh water delta of the Dalyan river and Mediterranea sea. Hence, when visiting the beach, you can take a nice swim in both salt and fresh water. But the most important thing about Iztuzu beach is that it is one of the main breeding grounds for loggerhead sea turtles (Caretta caretta). Therefore, it is also often referred to as Turtle Beach. The second reason to visit Dalyan are the ruins of the ancient trading city of Kaunos and Lycian tombs dating back to circa 400 BC. Their facades are cut into the sheer cliffs above Dalyan river which is the third reason to visit Dalyan. Indeed, the river flows through the town and then splits into many channels surrounded by swamps and forming the river’s delta. Taking a small ferry boat from Dalyan is the best way to check out all three major attractions: to visit Iztuzu beach, to see the facades of the tombs and simply enjoy the ride through the swamps and channels. We decided to splurge and, instead of going with the group of other tourists, hired our very own vessel.
I was frankly disappointed with the beach: too crowded to my taste despite the fact that it was off tourist season, but the boat ride itself was very (!) pleasant.
And the view of the facades of the Lycian tobs was a nice “icing on the cake.”
Back on the road, we headed for Kabak Valley. Kabak is a relatively little-known paradise some 15km south of famous Ölüdeniz. It is too small to be called a village – more like a beach-colony. People come here for stunning views, nice beach, and the laid-back atmosphere. Hippie folks, yoga folks, any alternative life-style folks – you will find all of them in Kabak. Getting into Kabak Valley is part of adventure. Unless you have a powerful jeep, you need to leave the car in parking area above the valley and then either hike down or ask your accommodations to send four-wheel auto to pick you up.
In terms of places to stay, Kabak has all: boutique mini-hotels, boho camping and simply glamping sites. There are only few restaurants, but most accommodations prepare decent (and some – excellent) meals. We stayed at Kabak Valley Camp – a smattering of very simple bungalows plus the main terrace-like building with restaurant on the first floor and relax/viewing area on the second. And the view was indeed great
I found Kabak Valley Camp via AirBnB and – despite apparent simplicity of accommodations – was instantly attracted by many reviews praising the welcoming feel of this place and genuine hospitality of the owner. Turhan (the owner) is one of the old-timers in Kabak. He opened his camp 15 years ago and at that time there were only three places to stay in Kabak. I never regretted this choice: the food was delicious, people working at camp took great care of the guests, and Turhan himself turned out to be a delightful and very interesting person to talk to. Turhan is in the middle on the picture below.
We stayed here three nights and could very easily spend all time simply hanging around as most visitors to Kabak do (in fact, some remain there for weeks). But there were two destinations on our bucket list: both easily doable from Kabak. The first was a hike to what is called “hidden waterfalls.” They are located well above Kabak Valley and to get there you first drive to Lissiya hotel, park there and then hike (the trail is relatively easy to find). Essentially, it is a half-day adventure. The waterfalls are absolutely delightful.
And the entire hike to the waterfalls was one perfect view after another.
There was also a little bit of mystery encountered during this hike. Right next to the trail and literally in the middle of nowhere we found a well kept and apparently frequently visited (there were some folding chairs next to it) grave. I tried to find out who this person was, but without any luck.
The second destination to explore from Kabak valley is more distant: it will take one and half hour to drive to the impressive ruins of ancient Pinara. Pinara was one of the six principal cities of Lycia and it is perched high up on a mountain. Despite its size and beauty, Pinara remains off the beaten path destination and is typically overlooked by people traveling to Turkey and visiting nearby Xanthos. No one else was there when I and my brother visited Pinara. After driving up the twisting road, the discrete signs opposite the parking lot are the only indication that something might be worth seeing. A small walking path takes to the entrance of the cities’ necropolis, hidden behind a forest. Pinara combines picture-perfect panoramas over Xanthos valley with the remains of temples, a theater and hundreds of tombs. Old olive and fig trees, plus the pines filling the air with their fragrance create an amazing natural setting.
We stayed three nights in Kabak Valley and the highlight of each day was the evening swim under the sunset.
Back on the road after Kabak, we headed further south along the coast. A couple of hours later we arrived at famous Kaputas Beach. Indeed, its sand is super fine and the waters are super transparent, but (similarly to Iztuzu beach) it was too crowded for me.
A few more hours on the road and we were in the village of Cirali. It was time to part with my brother: Vladimir needed to go back home. Next day we drove to Antalya (about 80 miles / 120 kilometers) where he took a plane to Moscow. But I returned and stayed four more days in Cirali because of one special reason (about which I will write later). Regardless of this particular reason, however, Cirali is a very good place to spend a few days or even the entire vacations. The village is close to the well-known and upscale resort towns of Kemer and Tekirova, but it is much more low-profile and laid back. There are no giant resort hotels in Cirali: accommodations are bungalows (some are quite boutique though), cabins, tree houses or simply campsites. In short, Çıralı is the perfect escape from hectic and noisy resort towns and it is also your ultimate cocktail of sea, sand, mountains, and some major cultural attractions!
First, the beach: Cirali beach (or Çıralı in Turkish) is a glorious (long and wide) stretch of sand adjacent to Olympos ancient site with scenic mountains as a backdrop.
Second, Cirali is the place where you will find the remains of the ancient city of Olympos – one of the six largest cities of the Lycian League along with Xanthos, Patara, Pınara, Tlos, and Myra. You can easily visit the site simply by walking to the Southern end of Cirali beach.
The natural setting of Olympos is so pretty that the whole visit feels like one long-stretched wow-effect. You will find explanatory boards near ruins and buildings, but there is no suggested path to systematically walk through the city: simply wander around and discover many houses and temples – some in the plain view and some hidden in the lush vegetation. In short, Olympos is a deliciously enchanting site to discover because of combination of location, a variety of ruins and antiquities and the untouched natural surroundings.
One more thing that should be on your list when visiting Çıralı is a night hike up Mount Chimera (also spelt Chimaera) to see Yanartaş flames. These eternal flames on a rocky mountainside above the ruins of the temple of Hephaistos are a fascinating natural phenomenon: they are emitting from the rocks with no apparent fuel to sustain them. In reality, the flames are burning methane gas that has been venting from the earth on this rocky slope for thousands of years. In ancient times, mariners passing by the coast below used the bright flames as a landmark on their voyage. These flames inspired the Greek myth of Bellerophon and the Chimaera. Predictably, each night many people go there to “camp” around the flames. You will not find this place for yourself only, but it is definitely worth visiting.
Despite being a low-profile tourist destination, Cirali offers a very good selection of restaurants with both international and traditional Turkish cuisines. My favorite was the place called Ceylan Cafeterya. Here is the picture of one of the dinners at this restaurant. The nicely marinated and grilled calamari were exquisite, the selection of local cheeses was impressive, but I was most impressed by the desert which I never tried before. It is called Kanafeh (or Kunefe). Kanafeh is sweet and savory cheese pastry. It is made from a stretchy, unsalted fresh melting cheese called hatay foun – mozzarella would be the closest Western analogue. The cheese is coated in syrup-soaked and shredded phyllo dough and fried until crisp. Its appeal is the contrasting textures of the crunchy exterior against the soft, melty interior. It can be topped with pistachios or ice cream—or simply eaten on its own, preferably while still piping hot.
I stayed in Cirali in a very unassuming place called Chimera Camping & Bungalows. In fact, there were only two bungalows (I had one): most of place was occupied by people who camped in their own tents. I loved the vibe and location of Chimera Camping instantly. An additional pleasant surprise was delicious food prepared upon request by the mother of camping’s owner. I did not go to eat out one evening and wonderful home made meal was delivered to the doorsteps of my cabin.
Chimera Camping is just two minutes away (by walking) from the beach and I went there every morning for sunrise (left) and evening for sunset (right).
Believe it or not, but I brought a “piece of Cirali experiences” back home to California. And here is how it happened. I love massage and found in Cirali a good place run by young but very experienced massage therapist named Birkan Arslan. The walls in his house were decorated with many water colour paintings and I asked who the author is. Turned out that he has a girlfriend who is professional opera singer (leading soprano) in Antalya opera. However, as many genuinely talented persons, she is also good at drawing and painting. I asked to meet Merig Karatas (her name). She told me that she never sold any of her works, but simply gave them away as presents. I loved in particular one of her works inspired by old French movie “The Red Balloon” and…I became a first person who bought her painting.
This is the end of the story of the visit to first (Turkey) of the five countries on this two months long journey. Recall, I mentioned earlier that there was one particular reason to stay longer in Cirali? The thing is that this summer and fall the holders of American passports were not allowed to visit European countries due to COVID restrictions. But I found an interesting legal loophole to get there. Malta (which is part of European Union and “borderless” Shengen zone) recognizes Turkey as a “safety corridor” and allows to enter Malta after you spent 14 days in Turkey. And so my ticket to Malta was booked for October 12. But this will be the next story.
Second Country: Malta. October 12-14, 2020
I have never been before to Malta and, probably, wouldn’t go there, if not for the reason I already wrote about: Malta was for me a “gate” into Europe. Americans can currently visit Malta after two weeks spent in Turkey, and then – because Malta is part of borderless European Shengen zone – they can proceed to other European countries (which otherwise “closed” their doors for the holders of American passport because of COVID). Technically, I could change planes the same day and fly out of Malta right away, but I decided to stay for couple of days and explore. This was 100% right decision. In fact, I could use more time and see more things on this tiny island nation in Mediterranean sea which is situated about 80 km / 50 miles south of Italy. Malta consists of three inhabited islands (Malta, Gozo, Comino) with about half million total population and the territory of 316 sq km / 122 sq mi. The first appearance of Malta’s capital, Valetta, from the air was quite pleasant.
Before going to Malta, I learned a few things about this country which could be useful for other travelers. The national language here is Maltese, which has descended from Sicilian Arabic, while English serves as the second official language. Italian (especially, its Sicilian version) also previously functioned for centuries as official and cultural language and a majority of the current Maltese population can converse in Italian.
Malta has been inhabited since approximately 5900 BC. Its location in the center of the Mediterranean had historically great strategic importance as a naval base. Accordingly, during centuries and millennia Malta has changed hands many times. The rulers of Malta included the Phoenicians and Carthaginians, Romans, Greeks, Arabs, Normans, Aragonese, Knights of St. John, French, and, finally, British Empire (Malta was British colony since 1813). Malta gained independence from the United Kingdom in 1964: first as the State of Malta with Queen Elizabeth II as its nominal head and then, in 1974, as a republic. Consequently, all these foreign influences have left their marks on the country’s population and culture.
Having only two days in Malta, the choice of where to stay was obvious: in capital, Valetta. Valetta – with about 7,000 inhabitants and the territory of 0.61 square kilometers – is the smallest capital city of the European Union. It may be the smallest in size, but it is also one of the prettiest European cities that I have seen. Many of Valletta’s 16th-century buildings were constructed by the Knights Hospitaller. Overall, the city is Baroque in character, with elements of other architectural styles. In 1980, UNESCO recognized Valletta as a World Heritage Site. Valletta is also somewhat similar to San Francisco as it is built on several hills and one can see the sea from many places and streets.
The historical military importance of Malta is also very visible in Valetta’s: you will find here a lot of fortifications consisting of bastions, curtains and cavaliers.
Quite frankly, however, this military architecture is not my cup of tea. But I totally felt in love with traditional ornamental Maltese balconies.
I mentioned that Valletta itself is fairly small, but it is only a part of a much larger surrounding urban area consisting of several other towns. Geographically, Valletta is a finger-like peninsula. To visit other adjacent towns (and they are worth visiting, because each has a very unique character and charm), the best option is to take one of the ferry boats. In fact, if you look at the map of Valletta and its surroundings, the whole area is somewhat similar to Venice. To the west of Valletta are Sliema and Gzira.
And to the east of Vallletta are Vittoriosa, Senglea and Conspicua which are known under one name “Three Cities of Malta.”
Predictably, local tour operators offer numerous harbor excursions by boat, sunset cruises, etc. Don’t waste your money. Simply take various regular ferry boats: they circulate frequently from early morning till midnight and – for couple Euros – you will get a lot of fun and scenery.
By the end of the day, after exploring Valletta and the nearby towns, I was very hungry. The good news is that Valletta has plenty of good and very affordable (by American standards) restaurants. I went to the place called King’s Own Band Club. And indeed, it is both a restaurant and sort of local neighborhood club. While enjoying the dinner, I observed the local social scene. The food choices for this evening were obvious. I love octopus and Malta is a good place to have fresh octopus. But Malta is also known for various rabbit-based dishes. Accordingly, as appetizer I have chosen rabbit liver cooked in sherry wine.
My plan for the second day in Malta was very ambitious: I had in mind three very different destinations. But first about the question of “how to get around.” Unless you plan to spend a lot of time in rural areas and on country side, I do NOT recommend renting a car. That is for several reasons. First, adopting British system, Maltese folks drive on the “wrong side” of the streets. Second, there are a lot of cars in Malta and the roads (especially in towns) could be congested. Third, parking in popular tourist destination could be a nightmare. I traveled around Malta using three ways of transportation. First, Malta has very extensive public bus system which “penetrates” all parts of the island. After downloading the local bus App on smartphone, navigating this bus network was easy. Second, Malta has rider sharing service called Bolt which is similar to Uber except that you pay drivers in cash (but the price is indicated in advance as it is with Uber). Bolt is affordable and given small size of Malta, I used it without second thought whenever waiting for bus was too long. Third and finally, twice I was in situations without Internet connection on the phone and could not use Bolt or inquire about buses. On both occasions I hitchhiked and it was easy.
First destination were Dingli Cliffs, a dramatically beautiful area in southern part of the island. I spent there couple hours simply walking and absorbing scenery.
After Dingli Cliffs, I went to Rabat. The town has interesting church and secular architecture, but it is especially known for catacombs of St. Paul and of St. Agatha. These catacombs were used in Roman times to bury the dead as, according to Roman culture, it was unhygienic to bury the dead in the city. The Catacombs of St. Paul is the place where Apostle Paul stayed for three months when he was shipwrecked on the island in 60 A.D.
Christianity was brought to Malta by Apostle Paul and he is regarded as one of three official patron Saints of Malta (the other two are St. Agatha and St. Publius). According to tradition, St. Paul was being taken to Rome to be tried as a political rebel, but the ship carrying him and some 274 others was caught in a violent storm and wrecked on the Maltese coast. All aboard swam safely to land.
The welcome given to the survivors by the locals is described in the Acts of the Apostles (XXVIII) by St. Luke: “And later we learned that the island was called Malta. And the people who lived there showed us great kindness, And they made a fire and called us all to warm ourselves… “ As the fire was lit, Paul was bitten by a poisonous snake but he suffered no ill effects. The islanders took this as a sign that he was a special man. This scene is depicted in many religious art works in Malta. Then, the Apostle took refuge in a cave, now known as St. Paul’s Grotto in Rabat. During his winter stay, he was invited to the house of Publius, the Romans’ chief man on Malta. Paul cured Publius’ father of a serious fever. Publius then have converted to Christianity and was made the first Bishop of Malta. The fact is that Malta was one of the first Roman colonies to convert to Christianity.
My last destination for the day was Meridiana Wine Estate. Wine – as pretty much everywhere in Mediterranean area – was produced in Malta for centuries, but until recently the quality of Maltese wines was mediocre. Regrettably, most tourists interested in tasting Maltese wines still end up in Marsovin Winery in Valletta which is the largest wine producer on the island. However, being largest Marsovin is definitely not the best. I opted to visit Meridiana, because – established in mid 1990s – it has pioneered the production of premium quality wines. And I was not disappointed – not at all.
The next day I was planning to fly to Germany to visit several friends. They all appreciate good red wines. And so I left Meridiana Wine Estate with a few bottles of Fenici – a delicious blend of Merlot, Cabernet and Syrah grapes.
Third Country: Germany. October 14-October 30, 2020.
Germany is the country which I visit regularly and know well. I speak German and have many friends there. Hence, my travels to this country are not so much for “sightseeing,” but primarily for getting together and having fun with friends and relatives. Nevertheless, here are a few memories from the most recent trip which could be interesting for the readers of this blog. My favorite airport to arrive to Germany is Munich. If you fly from the south (as I flew from Malta), you will enjoy truly gorgeous scenery from the window of your plane: the Alps.
I have a Russian-German cousin who lives near Munich: Olga Boehme. Being originally from Russia, Olga married a German fellow. Now the entire family (Olga, Olaf and two lovely kids, Yasmin and Alex) lives in Erding, a suburb of Munich which is internationally known for Erdinger Therme, the world’s largest spa, thermal resort and sauna paradise.
By the way, if you are interested in various “alternative healing practices,” take a look at Olga’s work: www.light-land.com She works both with German and international clients/patients and uses a variety of methods to help people to deal with their health issues. Anyway, I met Olga and her cheerful daughter Yasmin and we drove 6 hours to one of my very favorite historical German towns, Bacharach am Rhine. As the name suggests, it is located on the bank of the Rhine river (frequently referred to by Germans as “Father Rhine”). Bacharach is one of the best preserved medieval towns in Germany. It has also dramatically beautiful natural setting: in the Rhine Gorge (Upper Middle Rhine Valley) and near mysterious Lorelei Rock. Bacharach is surrounded by vineyards and it is one of the best places in Germany to enjoy and buy high quality German Riesling wines (Riesling is my favorite white wine varietal).
Predictably, Bacharach has many “Wein Stuben” (wine cellars) where you can enjoy local wines and traditional regional dishes. But relatively few of them offer big choice of wines by the glass (without purchasing the entire bottle). If you like to try several Rieslings (from various producers and vintages) and in a very cozy atmosphere, go to a place called Kurpfaelzische Muenze: this is the place where the locals go as well.
I come to Bacharach regularly since 1993, but there is always something new in the town. This time I discovered a newly erected interesting monument. Honestly I do not see much connection between these three poets (Heinrich Heine, Victor Hugo and Clemens Brentano), but the sculpture definitely looks very cheerful and inviting to join for a glass of wine.
From Bacharach, you can explore many historical medieval towns and other tourist attractions located on and near Rhine river. You can do this by car, local railway (two lines go along the river on both sides of Rhine) or, in summer time, by cruise boat. As a day trip, we went to Ruedesheim am Rhein, another well-preserved wine-making town in the Rhine Gorge. By the way, in 2002, UNESCO designated Rhine Gorge (Upper Middle Rhine Valley) as a world heritage site for a unique combination of geological, historical, cultural and industrial reasons. Perhaps, the major attraction near Ruedesheim is Niederwalddenkmal (Niederwald Monument) – a giant (38 meters / 125 ft) statue built in 1871-1883 in order to commemorate the Unification of Germany and the founding of the German Empire.
Even if you don’t care about German history and sculptures, Niederwalddenkmal is worth visiting simply for the commanding view of Rhine Valley.
You can hike to Niederwalddenkmal, but much more fun and scenic option is to take Seilbahn (gondola lift) from Ruedesheim. And this was what I and Olga (on picture) did.
Niderwalddenkmal is located on the top of the hill of the same name (Niederwald) and at the edge of the dense forest of oak and beech. There is a very pleasant and short (2 km) hiking trail through the forest which leads to another chairlift. This one will take you down to another charming town called Assmannhausen.
Assmannhausen is only 5 km away from and is connected by rail with Ruedesheim. Our car was parked in Ruedesheim and we took a short train ride to return there. But…not right away. We were hungry and a little bit cold. What is the best remedy? A piece of warm traditional “Apfelkuchen” (Apple pie) in a local Baekerei (Backery).
After Bacharach, my next destination was Pfalz (also known as Palatinate) – the region in southwestern Germany on the borders with French Alsace. If someone would ask what is my favorite part of Germany, the answer would be “Definitely Pfalz.” I love here abundance of small cozy towns (each having some sort of annual festival) and medieval castles (some in ruins and some fully intact), excellent and diverse wines (the famous German Wine Route – or Deutsche Weinstraße – passes through the Pfalz), very distinct Pfalz cuisine, and, of course, the nature. One-third of Pfalz is covered by the Palatinate Forest (Pfälzerwald) which is Europe’s largest contiguous forested area. Pfalz is also real paradise for people who love hiking and cycling.
Having a number of good friends in Pfalz, I headed first to see the family of Wilker. Monika and Juergen have a winery (Weingut Wilker) situated in the small town Pleisweiler Oberhofen and with truly deep historical roots: the building of winery dates back to 1597. If you are not sure what type of wines/grape varietals you like, make sure to visit Wilker’s winery for tasting, because they produce great variety of wines: both whites and reds. I have known Wilkers for over a decade and observed their two daughters (Emily and Antonia) growing and becoming first teenagers and then beautiful girls. During this visit, only Antonia was home, because Emily went to the USA on high-school exchange program. An interesting aspect of this fact is that despite new COVID rules which ban Europeans (including university students) from entering USA, this high-school exchange program was exempt from restriction. And here are remaining “three-quarters of the family.”
Both Wilkers and I love good food and we all love to cook. Predictably and as always, we spent some certain portion of our time together preparing and sharing delicious meals.
It was already late October when wines are turning into red and gold and when hiking through the vineyards is almost like visiting art gallery which specializes in landscape paintings.
Monica proudly showed me her new big project: planted recently – and quite sizeable – fruit garden. I asked her what type of trees does she have and how selection was made. The answer was interesting. Apparently, the local state authorities would give you for free seedlings and even assist with planting under one condition: there should be certain – defined by them – combination of various plants. The idea is to create a healthy and self-supporting ecosystem. Hopefully, on the next visit, I will sample not only Wilker’s great wines but also their very own fruits.
Only about 50 km (35 miles) away from Pleisweiler Oberhofen there is another Pfalz town called Forst an der Weinstrasse, where I have good old friends: Katja and Michael. The area where they live has many interesting and visually very appealing hiking trails and we used good weather and enjoyed being outdoors as much as possible. One day they took me to the place called “Fuerstenlager” near town of Bensheim. It is a big park and formerly the estate and summer residence of the Grand Duke of Hesse
After half day of hiking we went for lunch to the well known local restaurant Alte Dorfmuehle (Old Village Mill). At certain point I went to use restroom which was nicely decorated with wall paintings depicting some sort of folklore stories and figures. One fragment instantly attracted my attention: “Really, did they also have COVID then and were required to wear the masks?”
In the afternoon, we visited Heppenheim – a well preserved town built in Fachwerk style. “Fachwerk” essentially refers to the timber-framed buildings with timber frames being visible on their facades. In the past, this style of construction was used for centuries and in many countries, but Germany and Alsace undoubtedly have now the largest number of still existing Fachwerk houses.
When visiting Pfalz, I always use this opportunity to enjoy Flammkuchen – the specialty dish of both Pfalz and neighboring Alsace which is also called in French “Tarte Flambee.” Flammkuchen is somewhat similar to pizza, but the dough is rolled out very thinly in the shape of a rectangle or oval and then covered with fromage blanc or crème fraîche (both similar to sour cream), thin-sliced onions and very small pieces of bacon. While the name could be translated as “pie baked in the flames,” in reality tarte flambée is not flambéed but is baked in a wood-fire oven.
As noted, the original and traditional Flammkuchen is covered with creme fraiche, chopped onions and small pieces of bacon. Today however, you can find a lot of other versions: savory and sweet, with bacon/meat or vegetarian. Together with Michael and Katja we went for Flammkuchen to the restaurant called Weinstube Petersille (Wine Cellar Parsley). My ultimate choice was Flammkuchen with blue cheese and pears and with the side of cranberry sauce.
Although Michael and Katja are very different from Juergen and Monica in terms of their occupation (MIchael is medical worker and Katja is tour guide), the two families have yet many similarities. And similarly to Wilkers, Michael and Katja love good food and enjoy fairly sophisticated cooking. On the my last evening with them, Katja made my other favorite German dish: Zwiebelkuchen (Onion Pie) which is somewhat similar to Quiche but with onions being major filling component. Traditionally, Zwiebelkuchen was eaten in the fall and with young (sometimes still fermenting) white wine. Hence, while visiting Katja, Michael and their son Oliver in the late October, Zwiebelkuchen was very appropriate choice.
I love cycling and Germany is a good country to ride a bike: both in terms of nature/landscapes as well as good trails designated for cyclists. Not surprisingly, cycling is popular in Germany and most my friends there enjoy it as much as I do. After Michael and Katja, I stayed in another historical town Buedingen (known for its well-preserved, heavily fortified medieval town wall and half-timbered houses) visiting my friends Wolfram and Petra. It was sunny Sunday and our choice for the morning was obvious: let’s go for a ride.
The lunch was simple, delicious and very “fitting” into this time of year: home made pumpkin soup.
And then there was a surprise. It turned out that one of Wolfram and Petra’s friends has apple garden with overabundant harvest this year. Hence, we spent afternoon picking apples in a very appealing natural setting.
Fast forward, I spent a few more days in Germany, but it was getting colder and colder. Besides, it looked that Germany is heading towards another lockdown. On October 30, I boarded plane and flew to Lisbon, to stay for more than one month in sunny Portugal. But this will be the next story.
Fourth and Fifth Countries: Portugal and Spain. October 30 – December 2, 2020.
When I flew to Lisbon from Munich on October 30, the tentative plan was to stay a week or two. But the journey evolved into more than one month adventure.
Lisbon is built on several hills and certain parts of the city offer amazing views. I rented an AirBnB in the area called Graca on Rua Monteiro Damasceno (look on AirBnB listing for Monteiro Terrace Room 1). It is one of the Lisbon’s oldest neighborhoods which is located on top of the city’s highest hill, a few blocks north-east of the Castelo de Sao Jorge (Castle of St. George). Being a truly historic neighborhood with well preserved appealing architecture, Graca is also popular with young people visiting Lisbon from different countries and it offers abundant choice of open-air cafes, restaurants, small shops, galleries, etc. Needless to say that Graca has several “miradouros” – view points. The most popular is the Miradouro de Santa Graca, which offers view on the entire central Lisbon and the Castle of St. George. But I did not need to go there, because my AirBnB apartment offered exactly the same view and I sat for an hour on balcony perusing nicely-lit city.
There is no shortage of restaurants and cafes in Lisbon which can satisfy all tastes and budgets (generally Portugal is cheaper than most other European countries), but then there are still well-hidden “gastronomic gems” which are known to locals but not tourists. On previous trip to Portugal (read my earlier blog from May 2020) I stumbled upon such place called Ti-Natercia – a tiny cafe with just four tables. The lady who owns this place is both cook and server and she is quite a character. She speaks Portuguese only and, essentially, expects her customers either converse in Portuguese or simply accept her own choices of what she would cook and serve. Take a look at Google’s reviews on Ti-Natercia and you will get a picture. Well, I was prepared for the challenege and said that I like “polvo” (octopus). She did not ask any further questions as to how octopus should be prepared, but simply run to the kitchen. About 20 min. later she served the best octopus salad that I ever had in my life which was accompanied by surprisingly good house-wine. Combined with soft young sheep milk cheese (you need to scoop it with bread), the dinner was heavenly delicious. And the tab? About 10 Euros ($ 12).
The plan for the next day was to drive to the very north of the country, to the region called Minho which lies on the borders with Spanish Galizia. It takes about 6 hours and I decided to have an early start. But not before enjoying the sunrise over Lisbon from my balcony in AirBnB “Monteiro Terrace Room 1.”
The next few days I spent in Minho, Portuguese region on borders with Spain. Many people define Minho as the area where Portugal as a country was born and there is a legitimate reason for such claim. One of the principal cities in Minho is Guimaraes. Settled in the 9th century, Guimarães played a key role in the foundation of Portugal. Indeed, Portugal’s first King, Afonso Henriques, was born there in 1106 and the Battle of São Mamede (which is considered the principal event for the foundation of the Kingdom of Portugal) was fought in the vicinity of the city in 1128. Therefore Guimaraes is often referred to as the “birthplace of Portugal” or “the cradle city” (Cidade Berço in Portuguese). UNESCO declared Guimaraes a World Heritage Site for being an “exceptionally well-preserved and authentic example of the evolution of a medieval settlement into a modern town.”
Located in the northwest of the country and surrounded by mountains, Minho has substantial Celtic influences and shares many cultural traits with neighboring Spanish Galicia. Because of its natural setting, Minho gets significant amount of rain through the entire year which makes this region very lush and green in appearance. If someone would ask me to describe Minho in just three words, these words would be: beautiful, captivating and mysterious.
By the way, these chapel-like structures on the lower right picture are not chapels. These are traditional granaries used since medieval times (one per household) to store food supplies and protect them from the rats and other animals. These granaries are very typical for the villages in both Spanish Galizia and Portuguese Minho regions.
I have two good friends in Minho and both of them live near the town of Ponte de Lima which is officially recognized as the oldest town of the country. To be more clear, Ponte de Lima was the first town in Portugal which was given a municipal charter in 1125. Its name comes from the long medieval bridge (ponte) over the Lima river that runs through the town.
One of my friends there is Nancy Pereira. How should I describe Nancy? A charming fairy, talented naturopathic practitioner, excellent massage therapist and also very creative artist – all these definitions are about her. Nancy grew up in this area, studied naturopathy and herbal medicine and then extended her education into many other areas related to natural medicine. She is inspired by ancient mystic Celtic culture and travels often to neighboring Spanish Galizia to gather various medicinal plants and simply “recharge spiritual batteries.” Her traditional old house is in a village called Estoraos and visiting her is like stepping into a very different world.
She likes to play music by using instruments made by the nature (sea shell, for instance).
And she uses rainy and dark winter days to create her artwork based again on various natural components (dry plants, insects, etc.)..
After visiting Nancy, I drove to Ponte de Lima and stayed there a few days with my other good old friend Susan. Unlike Nancy, Susan is American, but for more than 30 years she calls Portugal home. Susan’s house and land are on the top of the hill with great view into valley. She loves animals and “adopted” two wounded horses who seem to be very happy to live with Susan.
Most my friends are “foody” people who appreciate good meals, cooking and trying new things. And Susan is not an exception. I mentioned previously that I like octopus and there is a restaurant in Ponte de Lima which prepares it by way of baking in the oven, in a ceramic dish, together with potatoes and spinach. And this was our ultimate and exquisite choice for dinner.
We made together with Susan several day trips. Two were especially memorable. The first was to the mountain remote village called Val de Poldros. The centuries old stone houses in this village were literally built into the rocky landscape.
The second memorable trip was to the town Castro Laboreiro which is known for breeding dogs of the same name: Castro Laboreiro Dogs (also called Portuguese cattle dog or Portuguese watchdog). Despite many legends, the exact origin of this livestock guardian breed is not known. There are mentions of the Castro Laboreiro in the 19th century but none before 1800. Camilo Castelo Branco in his novella A Brasileira de Prazins (1882) mentions “the dogs of Castro Laboreiro, very fierce …” And they are believed to be especially ferocious against wolves. It is generally accepted that the origin of Castro Laboreiro dogs was in Mesopotamia where modern sheep and goats were domesticated. All scientific theories aside, it was fun and joy to visit kernels and watch puppies.
After few days in Minho, I needed to go back to Lisbon to meet my Russian-German cousin Olga (I wrote about her already) who decided to fly from Munich and join me for a few days in Portugal. When I stepped out of Susan’s home on the day of departure, it really felt like the fall has finally arrived.
Lisbon was my destination, but along the road and over the course of two days I visited a number of places. The first was an exquisite Bussaco Palace Hotel near the town of Luso (which is also known as thermal resort and spa town). In the past, the Bussaco Palace was one of the most luxurious royal retreats. The palace was commissioned in 1888 by King Charles I of Portugal and it is surrounded by many gardens, ponds and a tranquil sea of green forest with miles of hiking trails. The 250 acres of woodland which are part of the palatial complex were originally planted by Carmelite monks. I spent several hours at Bussaco Palace exploring both inside and outside.
Hiking at Bussaco Palace made me hungry, but I had already a good plan for both lunch and also getting some “food supplies” to take back home to US. The next destination was the town called Rabacal. The whole area around Rabacal is known for production of various cheeses: mostly made out of sheep and goat milk. But there was an unexpected and very pleasant surprise on the way from Bussaco to Rabacal. The last portion of the N-347 road, a few kilometers before Rabacal, turned out to be a real “visual paradise.”
After visiting several creameries in the area (they all produce good and inexpensive cheeses), I ended up having lunch at the Prado de Sico in the village of Ansiao, because this place also had a good cafe with many cheese-related dishes.
The days are short in mid-November, but I still had one destination in mind: Talasnal. Talasnal is one of those picture-perfect villages which attracts plenty of tourists, but off-season I had the entire place for myself only.
After Talasnal and fairly full day, I spent the night in Tomar. Tomar (also spelled Thomar) is one of Portugal’s architectural and historical jewels and, yet, it remains overlooked by most tourists visiting Portugal. Tomar was born inside the walls of the Convento de Cristo, constructed under the orders of Gualdim de Pais, the fourth grand master of the monastic order of Knights Templar in the late 12th century. In fact, it was the last town to be commissioned for construction by the Templars (the order was disbanded by a Papal decree in 1312). Tomar became especially important in the 15th century when it was a center of Portuguese overseas expansion lead by Henry the Navigator, the Grand Master of the Order of Christ, successor organization to the Order of Templars in Portugal. Many myths surround Tomar until present including the rumor that the world’s greatest Templar’s treasure is hidden here.
History and legends aside, Tomar is a well preserved medieval town with many architectural monuments (castle, churches, noble homes) to see and to visit. I was planning to spend half a day in Tomar and walk around, but the plans were ruined by extremely heavy rain with strong wind. Being outside was out of question. The only place that I visited before the rain was the Church Santa Maria dos Olivos (by the way, Tomar is well known for production of high quality olives, hence the name). It was built in 13th century to be a burial ground for the Grand Masters (heads) of the order of Templar Knights. The administrative status of Santa Maria dos Olivos within the Roman Catholic Church is also quite interesting. It was not a part of any local diocese, but under direct supervision of the Pope. Further, in 15th century, at the peak of Portuguese colonial expansion overseas, the Order of Christ (successor to Templars) was charged by the Pope with the task to be responsible for Christian mission in all lands conquered by Kingdom of Portugal, Simultaneously, the Church of Santa Maria dos Olivos has become a cathedral and See (Center) of the “DIOCESIS nullius” which included all parish churches founded by the Order of Christ in Asia, Africa and America.
Because of the bad weather, I was about to leave Tomar early and drive to Lisbon, but then a lady at reception in my hotel suggested to visit a place which was not mentioned in any guidebook about Tomar: the Museu dos Fosforos (Matchbox Museum) which turned out to be the biggest private matchbox collection in Europe. I spent good two hours wandering through eight rooms filled up to capacity with matchboxes from all countries and epochs.
Being the native of Russia, I especially enjoyed the collection of matchboxes commemorating Russia’s classical movies and famous actors who played in these movies.
What a cool idea: the matchbox which can also be used as calculator.
After Tomar, I arrived to Lisbon in time for dinner and went to another (like Ti-Narcia) hidden “gastronomic gem.” Several neighborhoods of Lisbon have social clubs (“sociedade de boa unidao”). Local residents come to these places to gossip, to drink, to play pool, to watch football on TV and also to eat. The food served in these quasi-restaurants is simple but high quality and very inexpensive. Everyone can go there (not only locals), but the tourists do not know about their existence. For me, sociedade de boa unidao is a great place to both have a good meal and absorb the local social scene. And so I went to one located in Alfama area (most historic part of the city) and ordered a dish called Bacalao a la Brasa. “Bacalao” is dried salted cod fish which is widely used in both Spanish and Portuguese gastronomy. “A la Brasa” is a way of preparation when the cod is covered with roasted sliced potatoes and quickly baked in the oven. And it was a very good evening…
Because my cousin from Munich, Olga, joined me, I rented via AirBnB the entire apartment on the top floor of the building right in the middle of Alfama, Lisbon’s oldest neighborhood. Similarly to my AirBnB in Graca, the new place also offered a great view from its very own rooftop terrace (if interested look for Alfama Rooftop 360 Degree View listing on AirBnB site).
Next morning, I and Olga, met with Dasha, the owner of Nashi Tours Lisbon tour company. The native of Russia, Dasha discovered Portugal as a tourist a few years ago, felt in love with the country and eventually moved to live there. She developed several tour itineraries (in English and Russian) either for individual clients or small groups and became an excellent (and very entertaining) guide who knows all “in and outs” in Lisbon: both in terms of the history and realities of current life. I first met Dasha on the trip to Portugal in May 2020 and seeing her again was like getting together with an old friend.
The full-blown tour of Lisbon (on feet) lasted several hours. I will not bore you with all stories and facts presented by Dasha. Below is just a sample to give you a taste. But let me say first that the greatest pleasure of exploring Lisbon is not visiting “sites,” but simply wandering around and spontaneously discovering beautiful streets, buildings, views…
Exploration of Lisbon is ABSOLUTELY incomplete unless you take a ride on one of these streetcars – the best (and sometimes only possible) public transportation to navigate narrow, windy and steep streets of the city. Arguably, the route 28 is the most scenic.
We visited Santo Domingo Church which has a somewhat grim history. In 1506, about 2000 Jews were executed in front of this church by inquisition. The event has become known as Lisbon massacre. In 1959, the fire broke and the church was devastated. Miraculously, however, the ceilings not only survived but became much brighter colored in pinkish tones. Some saw this as a sign to remember medieval mass execution of Jews. A decision was made to only partially restore the church and leave many columns covered with ashes and soot.
Of many churches in Lisbon, my absolute favorite is Basilica da Estrela. It is somewhat outside of city center and right next to the gardens of the same name (Jardim da Estrela). The painting of church’s wall and ceiling with dominating blue tones is incredible. And (not many people know about this) you can go to the church office, ask for the keys and visit the rooftop terrace with the great view of the city.
Normally, people do not think about graffiti as a particular category of attractions, but the walls of buildings in Lisbon have such outstanding examples of this “people’s painting” that a separate tour could be organized simply to enjoy them.
Lisbon is stretched along Tagus river flowing into the Atlantic about 12 miles west of the city. One of the Lisbon’s suburbs on the banks of Tagus and close to the ocean is called Belem. You should go to Belem (by taking a street car there) for at least three reasons. The first is St. Jeronim (Jeronimos) Monastery Constructed between 1501 and 1601 (yes, it has taken one hundred years), it is one of the most prominent examples of the Late Gothic Manueline style of architecture in Lisbon. It is classified a UNESCO World Heritage Site.
The founder of the monastery, King Manuel funded the project with money from the Vintena da Pimenta, a 5 percent tax on all commerce from Africa and the Orient which was equivalent to 70 kilograms (150 lb) of gold per year. With such financing, the architects were not limited to small-scale plans. Manuel I also selected the religious order of Hieronymite monks to occupy the monastery. Their sole role was to pray for the King’s eternal soul and to provide spiritual support to navigators and sailors who departed from Portugal to discover new lands and colonies around the world. The monastery was designed in a manner that became known as Manueline: a richly ornate architectural style with carved in limestone complex sculptural themes incorporating maritime elements and objects discovered during naval expeditions. Inside monastery’s main church, there are several mausoleums with burial places of the members of royal dynasty and several prominent public figures (including, Vasco de Gama, the first European who reached India). Combined with monastery’s gardens, you can easily spent couple hours exploring Jeronimos Monastery.
Just a short walk from St. Jeronim Monastery, right on the bank of Tagus river there is Padrao dos Descobrimentos, an impressive monument dedicated to various Portuguese maritime explorers, sailors and conquerors. One can argue about its artistic value, but the view from the monument along the Tagus and towards Atlantic ocean is beautiful.
Finally, you should come to Belem in order to try the most iconic national Portuguese desert which originated from Belem: Pastel de Nata. It is egg custard tart dusted with cinnamon which – ideally – should be eaten hot: right from the oven.
The pastéis de nata were created by Catholic monks at the nearby St. Jeronim Monastery. In the past, convents and monasteries used large quantities of egg-whites for starching clothes and religious habits. Egg-whites were also widely used in building construction as ingredient of mortar. Hence, a lot of egg yolks were left and the monks eventually created Pastel de Nata which proliferated through the entire country. In 1834, the monastery was closed and the recipe was sold to the owners of the nearby sugar refinery who opened the Fábrica de Pastéis de Belém in 1837. It exists up to present and this is the place to go and try the very original Pastel de Nata.
After the day of exploring Lisbon, I and Olga were exhausted, but we still had big plans for the evening: to go to listen Portuguese traditional fado music. Fado appeared during the early 19th century in Lisbon, in the city’s port areas such as Alfama, Mouraria and Bairro Alto. There are numerous theories about the history of fado. Some trace its origins to the Medieval “cantigas de amigo” (song of a friend), some to ancient Moorish influence and the chants of Africans sailing at sea, but nothing is known for sure. Today, fado is commonly regarded as simply a form of song which can be about anything, but must follow a certain traditional structure. In popular belief, fado is also characterized by mournful tunes and lyrics, often about the sea or the life of the poor. It is infused with sentiments of resignation, fate and melancholia. You can listen fado in a lot of places in Lisbon (bars, restaurants, clubs) with huge range in quality of performance and price. I personally have two favorites. One is small restaurant called Sr. Fado. The owners, Duarte and Ana Marina, are both cooks and performers. For 45 Euro, you will get a great meal with wine and then Duarte and Ana Marina (and their daughter and some other performers) will sing and explain the nature of fado.
This night we were served seafood cataplana, a rich stew of shellfish and fish prepared in a special dishware (hence, the name). The cataplana is traditionally made of copper and shaped like two clamshells (hinged at one end) which can be sealed, enabling the vessel to function as a crude pressure cooker. And then we had a great fado performance in the home-like atmosphere.
The second place where I go to listen fado in Lisbon is restaurant Sao Rafael. Most tables are outside on the street, and (unless the weather is bad) fado is performed in front of the restaurant. Hence, you don’t even need to pay and can stay nearby and listen to a few songs. The main reason to go there, however, is not free music. The owner of this restaurant, Henriqueta Baptista, is rumored to be the queen of the Lisbon’s fado mafia. Regardless of the rumors, she is a talented and charismatic fado singer. You are in real luck (as we were) when she sings at Sao Rafael (the other performers there are also quite good).
Olga was desperate to go to the seaside and have a swim. Yes, it was mid-November, but the daily temperatures were still above 70F/20C. Obviously, in Portugal, you have a choice of west and south coasts. Both of them face Atlantic ocean, but they are very different. West coast is more dramatic in appearance with high cliffs, big waves, significant differences between high and low tides. The south coast, in the province of Algarve, is more gentle with many sandy beaches and protected calm coves. If you are surfer, then west coast is your choice, but for lazy sunbathing and swimming the South of Portugal is better. It takes less than 3 hours to drive straight from Lisbon to Lagos which is kind of “holiday capital” of Algarve, but we decided to also explore on our the a few beaches along the west coast. Our favorite was Praia do Vale dos Homens – a very wide sandy beach baked by dramatic cliffs.
In Algarve, we stayed with friends in a town called Luz which has one of the largest/widest beaches on the south coast.
However, we went for swimming to my other favorite beach which was discovered on previous trip in May 2020: Praia do Camilo. It is situated in a very well protected cove (the water stays calm and warm) and it is surrounded by very unusual rock and sand formations.
Two days were sufficient to satisfy the thirst for the ocean and we drove inland to visit the towns of Monsaraz and Evora in central-eastern Portugal. Monsaraz is one of those well preserved hill-top medieval towns built right next to a castle which are typical of eastern Portugal (in May 2020 blog about Portugal I wrote about similar towns of Monsanto and Marvao).
There is an interesting place near Mosaraz: Cromeleque do Xarez (Xarez stone circle). It is a Neolitic stone circle with a remarkable column in the center.
Compared to Monsaraz, our second destination, Evora is much bigger: in fact, it is a significant regional cultural and economic center. Evora has many interesting museums and nicely kept historical center (partially enclosed by medieval walls). The deep historic routs of Evora are manifested in a Roman Temple which is still intact. Not surprisingly Evora is classified as a UNESCO World Heritage Site and is a member of the Most Ancient European Towns Network. If visiting Portugal you will search for some interesting medium-sized town/city to make it a base to explore the area, Evora would be a very good choice.
And there is one attraction in Evora which is truly unique and somewhat creepy: Capela dos Osos. The entire interior of this chapel (walls, etc.) is covered with human bones and skulls. The chapel was built by Franciscan monks: an estimated 5000 corpses were exhumed, and then used by the Franciscans to decorate the walls of the chapel. According to legend, these bones once belonged to soldiers who died at a major battle, or were the victims of a plague. At the roof of chapel, a quotation from the Bible is written: “Melior est die mortis die nativitatis (Better is the day of death than the day of birth)” (Ecclesiastes, 7, 1).
On the eve of Olga’s departure back to Munich, the question was how to spend the last day and where to stay the last night? Lisbon would be an obvious option, but Olga wanted to be last day again at the ocean. Our ultimate choice was Parque Natural da Arrabida as a place to visit and Setubal as a town to stay overnight (it takes only 30 min. by car from Setubal to Lisbon international airport). At the beginning of the 20th century, Setúbal was important center of Portugal’s fishing industry, particularly specializing in processing and exporting sardines. Today, well equipped maritime port, beautiful natural environments, variety of hotels and restaurants make Setubal a desirable destination for both domestic and international travelers.
Arrabida Natural Park is small (108 square kilometers / 42 square miles), but it offers plenty of things to do for a day or two. First, when visiting Arrabida, you should take a scenic drive along the mountain road N-379-1. Each curve reveals dramatic coastal scenery and the glimpses of the beaches which you can explore later. A very good viewing spot in opposite (from the ocean) direction is Miradouro do Norte. From here, on a clear day, you can see across the valley and over to Lisbon. On the other hand, Miradouro Portinho da Arrabida is an excellent option to absorb the view of the coast and ocean. Also, Miradouro Portinho da Arrabida is popular by paragliders to jump into the air and fly. Further along the road there is a Franciscan monastery Convento de Santa Maria da Arrabida: call them in advance and make appointment to visit. All above are mentioned in various guidebooks about Arrabida, but here are two tips which you will not find there.
First, find on Google map a spot called “Brecha da Arrabida” (it is right on N-379), drive and park the car. A 10 min pleasant walk on the trail leading through the bushes and up the hill will take you to what is called “Pedreira do Jaspe.” This is old quarry with interesting rock formations, but most importantly it is a great observation point of the coast in both directions.
Then keep driving descending slowly towards coastal town of Portinho da Arrabida. Your goal is to find (on Google maps) the place called “Lar de ferias da casa do Gaiato.” On the opposite (from “Lar de ferias…”) side of the road there is a trail leading to the stairs which descend steeply towards the ocean.
What awaits at the end of about 15 min. hike down is Lapa de Santa Margarida – a small underground chapel inside a natural cave with opening into the ocean. That is, you can descend into the chapel by the stairs, walk past the altar and through the cave to this opening, sit on the rocks and watch the waves rising and falling right in front of you.
We stayed at Lapa de Santa Margarida for about an hour, climbed back to the road, and finally drove to the ocean. Of several beaches, our choice to spend last couple of hours before sunset was Praia do Creiro.
Next morning I brought Olga to airport. It was Friday and I needed to decide where to spend the weekend. Because of the rising COVID rates, all 196 municipalities (“concelhos”) of Portugal were divided in several categories by the level of danger. About 2/3 of them felt into “red” categories and were essentially shut down (restaurants, cafes, non-essential shops closed) between 1 pm on Saturday and Monday morning. Hence, I was choosing among remaining “green” concelhos and decided to go to Alandroal, the town and municipality in eastern part of Alentejo province.
Alentejo is south central Portuguese region which stretches from Atlantic coast in the West to the borders with Spain in the East. It is often described as the heartland of the country where the life proceeds at the pace of the wind. Mostly rural and provincial, Alentejo offers inevitably compelling scenery: wheat fields and miles of nearly deserted white beaches on the western coast; walled hilltop towns with castles and Roman ruins, hills dotted with cork and olive trees and vineyards in central and eastern Alentejo. If anything, Alandroal turned out to be exactly this quintessential stereotypical Alentejo: scenic, pastoral, and welcoming. This is the type of scenery you will discover approaching Alandroal:
Fast forward, during this weekend I felt in love with Alandroal and returned later twice to the town. Founded in late 13th century, it was named Alandroal because the area used to be teeming with oleander (aloendro). Here are a few glimpses into what you will find when visiting Alandroal.
Almost each town in eastern Alentejo has a castle and Alandroal is not an exception: in fact, the whole town began from this gothic fortification built by a Moorish architect. What I liked about Alandroal castle was that it felt very naturally incorporated into today’s town: not a polished tourist attraction, but slightly worn out and yet fully intact complex. Alandroal’s main parish church (Our Lady of Conception) is part of the castle. If you are in Alandroal on Sunday, go to the castle, walk around (there is an excellent pathway on the top of the walls) and listen to organ and choral singing from the church.
About 10 km south of Alandroal there is another town called Terena (it is part of Alandroal municipality): approaching Terena, you will get one of these picture-perfect views of Terena’s castle and the town on the slopes of the hill.
But the major attraction of Terena is about 1 km out of the town and in an entirely natural setting: Santuario de Nossa Sra. da Boa Nova (Our Lady of Boa Nova Sanctuary). Built in the 14th century, this church-fortress has very austere and rugged exterior which feels being totally at odds with elaborated and rich interior: mannerist altarpiece, side altars, ceilings covered with frescoes, painted vault depicting the Apocalypse of John. When you arrive to the church, it will probably be closed. No problem. The caretaker lady lives in a small farmhouse right opposite. Simply knock on the door and ask for the keys.
Another town in Alandroal municipality which you absolutely should visit is Juromenha. It sits on the bank of Guadiana river which is a border between Portugal and Spain. Juromenha is very small (just a few streets), but the ruins of the Juromenha fortress are both imposing and captivating. I said “ruins,” but many buildings inside the fortress are intact: the Main and Miserecordia churches, jail, cistern, old Town Hall (the town began from the fortress) and foundations of old village. Sitting on the top of the steep river bank, Juromenha fortress offers great views.
On my very last evening in Alandroal, I returned here for the sunset: first spending some time in meditation in the abandoned church and then saying good bye to this day and my time in Alandroal.
Speaking of fortresses, if you are one of those persons who love to visit them, then about 35 km / 25 miles from Alandroal there is a town called Elvas (it is in different municipality). Elvas is home to Forte de Nossa Senhora da Graca. Built in 18th century, this huge pentagonal fort on a top of the Monte de Graca/Grace Mountain (with panoramic views and many historic exhibits) is the largest fortress on Iberian peninsula.
Visiting Elvas, I knew about Forte de Nossa Senhora da Graca, but I was amazed to also find a huge Roman aqueduct (Aqueduto da Amoreira) literally dividing the town in two parts
In Alandroal, I stayed in a hotel called “Alandroal Guest House” and was very lucky to find this place. It is a boutique Bed and Breakfast: with own swimming pool, nice patio, individually decorated rooms, gourmet buffet breakfast, etc.
Upon entering guesthouse through the main entrance, I instantly noticed two interesting objects: a small scooter and much more sizeable custom-made motorbike. Both were clearly displayed on purpose. I asked the owner and he explained that they belong to him and, in fact, he built up the motorbike. The project has taken him 9 years, but the outcome was impressive: he won the first place in all-European contest of the self-made motorbikes.
Our conversation continued and I learned that the owner of guesthouse, Alberto Forte, was born in Mozambique (former Portuguese colony), grew up in South Africa and then worked most of his life for various mining companies all around the world (including a stint in Siberia in former Soviet Union). He visited total of 128 countries and from each brought some object of art. Alberto walked me through several rooms in the private part of his house and I was very impressed seeing his eclectic and beautiful art collection.
Naturally, I asked what has brought him to Alandroal. Alberto said that after retiring, he traveled more than three months visiting different parts of Portugal. Once he came to Alandroal, he felt instant connection with the town and entire area and opened here his business. I shared with him my own (similar) feeling and he replied that Alandroal attracted a good number of people from other parts of Portugal and some foreign expats who now call Alandroal their home.
Despite being a small provincial town, Alandroal has a decent selection of restaurants. Alberto suggested to go to a place called Adega dos Ramalhos. Both service and food were outstanding. The main course – tomato and bacalao (cod) soup – was not only tasty, but fun to eat: you need to mix the components yourself (vegetable soup, cooked cod and scrambled eggs) as the meal progresses.
Alandroal also has its own queijaria, a cheese-making creamery which specializes in various goat cheeses. One day I had a very simple dinner of the fresh goat cheese with pumpkin jam (so it is often eaten locally) and accompanied by the well aged wine from the nearby winery.
The story about visiting Alandroal will be absolutely incomplete without mentioning two more places: Rocha da Mina and Castro de Castelo Velho. Both places are related to the ancient, pre-Christian inhabitants of this area.
Castro de Castelo Velho was once a hill fort and settlement existing from 3000 B.C. through the 10th century. The ruins cover an extensive area and you can literally see different historical layers of occupancy. The trail to Castro de Castelo Velho begins from the village of Hortinhas near Terena town. It is a relatively short (about 30 min) hike if you know where to go. Problem is that the trail is not well marked. It has taken me three attempts to find Castelo Velho, but the reward was well above my expectations: gorgeous scenery plus the feeling of total seclusion and immersion in long gone civilizations.
The second place is Rocha da Mina: a pre-Roman sanctuary located in a very distinct natural setting. Similarly to Castelo Velho, you will need to hike about 30-40 min. From Alandroal, take EN 373 road towards Redondo. In about 9 km and on the left side of the road, there will be a small wooden sign for Rocha de Mina. Turn there, drive about 1 km along dirt track and park at the old farm. The old man running this farm is very friendly and if you ask something (either in Portuguese or via Google Translate) he will do his best to satisfy your curiosity.
The trail from the farm to Rocha de Mina is easy and delightful. With shining streams and the sounds of chirping birds, the nature seems to be truly “alive” here.
Finally you arrive. The sanctuary and sacrificial altar are built on the top of a rock overlooking a secluded canyon and remains of schist walls which testify to the existence of an ancient settlement. At Rocha de Mina, you will feel fully disconnected from the modern world and absorbed by the energy of this place. People come there to meditate and to think through their life questions.
When visiting Alandroal, I learned that my good high-school friend, Irina, moved to live from Russia to Alicante, the city on the Mediterranean coast in southeastern Spain. I haven’t seen Irina for nearly 30 years and was already practically on Spanish borders. And so, instead of driving west to Lisbon and flying back to the USA (which was the plan), I drove in the opposite direction, through the Spain and to Alicante. The journey was about 750 km / 500 miles and has taken about 9 hours. It was touching experience to see my old friend and walk with Irina on the beach in her new home-setting which is, of course, very different from what we both left behind in Moscow.
Next day, we went on a small road trip. We drove first inland to the medieval hill-top town of Bocairent. This part of Valencia (the province where Alicante is located) used to be a flourishing agricultural area. But then young people began to move from the internal rural parts of Valencia to more prosperous and economically viable coastal regions. Many farms were abandoned and went into full dilapidation. Like this one which we saw on our way to Bocairent.
Unlike many small local towns and villages, however, Bocairent retained its vibrancy thanks to the visual appeal which attracts many tourists and because of historic and architectural importance.
In and near Bocairent, there is a sprawling cave system. Some of them are natural, while some were constructed by the local residents and used for living, as storages or even in religious purposes (including one cave convent). The town has more than dozen churches and chapels. One of them is Santo Cristo (Holy Christ) chapel. It sits on the top of a hill overlooking Bocairent and attracting both religious pilgrims and tourists (roundtrip hike from Bocairent takes about 3hr). The legend goes that in 1536 two young men dressed as pilgrims approached Bocairent. Gazing upon the looming hilltop, they thought it was ideal for laying out a Calvary footpath and exclaimed to everyone around them: “What a wonderful hilltop you have here to make a Calvary way.” Then they left, but three brightly shining lights appeared in the very same place where the chapel stands today. Local residents thought that these men were heaven-sent angels and built the chapel with the footpath and the Stations of Crosses. Born out of this legend was the local “Festival of Lights,” a celebration held every September.
Besides, churches and chapels, Bocairent has many appealing plazas (squares) and fountains, bridges and aqueducts, and, of course, medieval houses. Add to all of these several museums, scenic Clariano river, nearby Sierra Mariola natural park and you can easily spend in Bocairent several days. Unfortunately, we had just couple of hours and simply walked around enjoying fresh mountain air and overall atmosphere of the town.