Tuesday, 26 May 2015

Northern Cyprus - Coastline, Castles and Donkeys

We arrived on Saturday, rested Sunday and went to the local market on Monday. By Tuesday we were ready to explore. We took the local bus to Famagusta on the east coast below the panhandle of Karpaz. It is an old walled city with some interesting ruins. There is an old cathedral, which was converted into a mosque (Lala Mustafa Pasha Mosque), something fairly unique. And whether you look at it as a church or a mosque, it's a lovely building. We had an expensive but superb mixed grill lunch followed by the best baklava in our travels so far. It was a  fun excursion and we were back by early afternoon and well in time for the marina’s social event - movie night at 8PM… bean bag chairs, free popcorn and “Fast and Furious 7” playing. The movie was heavy on testosterone and light on plot, but the bean bags and popcorn were great! :)

We rented a car mid-morning the following day and drove the northern coastal road to Girne (Kyrenia). We walked along the small quaint harbor front, had a bite in a local kebaperie, then headed from sea level up to the mountaintop and St. Hilarion Castle, a full on fairy tale castle, perched on top of vertical cliffs overlooking the coast and hillsides. This castle is said to have been the inspiration for the wicked witch's castle in Disney's Snow White animation. 

We made the most of our 24-hour car rental and headed to the east end of the Karpaz peninsula early the next day to see more of the countryside and to visit the wild donkeys that roam free there. They aren’t so much “wild” as they are “liberated”, since they were supposedly domestic critters before the Turkish invasion of Cyprus in 1974. When the Greek Cypriots living in the area had to flee to the south, many donkeys were abandoned and left to fend for themselves. They seem to have done an exemplary job of it. They were adorable and we made fast friends with several, who were happy to be bed, patted and photographed... but mainly to be fed.

with Equanimity and Joy

Wednesday, 13 May 2015


It is a magical place, no doubt about it. The old city is such a unique mixture of architectures, that's referring to the people as well as the buildings. The fabric and texture of the city itself dazzles - from ancient stone stairs worn and smooth from thousands of years, to modern shops and cafes in every nook. With the religious significance rooted here for so many and with such a long history, the energy and importance of the city is clearly felt. For Jews, Temple Mount is the most sacred of places, location of the first and second temples. Yet it is also a most holy place for Muslims and Christians, each for their own reasons. It's multidimensional and multicultural, and no matter what your background or religion, it simply takes your breath away. As tourists for a only a short visit, we didn't feel any of the still-present political tensions, but when speaking with several locals from both the Muslim and Jewish quarters, it was clear that there are heated emotions and much to resolve.

view from our room
We stayed at the Jaffa Gate Hostel, inside the wall and across from the Tower of David, in a room with an unexpectedly beautiful view over the old city. And as crowded and bustling as it is during the day, full of tourists, pilgrims and locals, we were surprised to enjoy the quiet and peacefulness of the nights.

We started with a free walking tour, which gave us an overview of the four quarters (Armenian, Jewish, Muslim, and Christian) and the highlights not to miss: the Tower of David museum, the Western Wall and underground tunnel tour, view from the rooftops, the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, and Via Delarosa, to name a few. We visited all of these and they were all amazing, but possibly the best part of our trip to Jerusalem was simply walking around and absorbing the sights, sounds, and smells. On Thursday in the Jewish quarter a day when the Torah is read, we witnessed (and were almost carried away by) multiple Bar Mitzvah celebrations with clapping processions and horns, dancing and cheering.... unbridled joy and enthusiasm compared to the solemn prayer at the Western Wall just beyond. We had lunch at an outdoor shwarma bar selecting a table out of the way, and watched the pandemonium from a safe distance.

Tomb of Jesus in Church of the Holy Sepulche
Tower of David
The underground tunnel tour was excellent, allowing us a glimpse into the earlier eras and buildings of the city. We didn't realize how much exists underneath the streets and buildings of the Muslim quarter, along the north side of the Western Wall.

We mostly ate at local casual places outside of the old city, which we really enjoyed, but we also had a nice meal inside the Jaffa Gate at "Sam's", where the pitcher of minted lemonade (an Israeli specialty) was freshly made and absolutely delicious!

Church of Dormition and Tomb of King David

There is so much to see and do, we had to leave a lot for the next trip. We opted for the Tower of David museum over the Israel museum due to time and location. We wish we would have had a few more hours to spend there as it was exceptionally well-done, guiding you through the history from the first and second temple periods through to the British Mandate, with a variety of multimedia exhibits to bring everything to life.

Since there isn't any public transportation on Shabbat and we already had our return train tickets, we decided not to extend our stay another day or two. Sunday was Jerusalem day, celebrating the "reunification" (for some, and "occupation" for others) of Jerusalem in the aftermath of the 1967 six-day war. We didn't want to be there with the crowds and possible friction. Besides, we were invited to join new friends at their home for Shabbat dinner! Thank-you so much to Boaz & Sigal!!! We hope to return in the fall to see you again.

with Equanimity and Joy

Wednesday, 6 May 2015

Shalom Israel!

We didn't know whether or not we'd visit Israel until two days before we arrived. We are very glad that we were able to get a berth for a few weeks at the lovely and modern Herzliya (or Herzliyya, or Herzelia, or Herselia, depending on which sign you are looking at) Marina. What a treat to meet with Dan here after promising to visit by sail two years ago.

We rented a car after resting up a bit and took a five-day driving tour of much of Israel. We thought we'd save Jerusalem for a separate trip using public transport since you don't need (and probably don't even want) a car there.

We headed north to Caesarea and explored the ruins. This ancient city and harbor was built by Herod the Great in about 25-13 BC.  There are remains from many periods, including Crusader fortifications, a Roman theater and a hippodrome (for chariot racing and other forms of brutal entertainment... think Christians vs. lions). One of the most impressive parts of ancient Caesarea was its harbor. At the time it was built in the 1st century BC, it ranked as the largest artificial harbor built in the open sea.

We continued to Nazareth, where we spent the night at a hostel just above the old city market and directly on the “Jesus Trail” a 65km path that Jesus (may have) walked. Beautiful stone stairs took us down to the city center and narrow alleys twisting and turning this way and that, ensured we would get lost (even equipped with GPS!), all part of the Nazareth marketplace experience. We found our way to the Basilica, Church of the Annunciation, where Mary received word she would give birth to the son of God. We enjoyed being here and decided on a second night's stay largely due to the hostel's exceptionally yummy brekky. 

We drove out the following day to Tsippori (or Zippori, or...) just 10km away, and was amazed at the beautiful mosaics, especially the famous "Mona Lisa of Galilee".

Then on to Akko (Acre), north of Haifa, where we checked out the small marina and meandered through the open market and old city walls, before continuing up to the very north at the Lebanese border. We turned inland and followed scenic route 899, winding through hills and forests, through Safed, over to the Sea of Galilee and down the western side to Tiberius. Since it was Shabbat, most everything was closed. We just wanted a light dinner and managed to find a small mini-market on our street with a shwarma stand in front. We joined a couple already sitting at the only table and shared travel tips and experiences... good fun.

The following day we drove around the eastern side of the lake, up through the Golan Heights and further north towards the borders of Lebanon and Syria. There is quite a lot of agriculture, and we stopped at a scenic outlook near the Syrian border to have a stretch and a better view. We looked out at a UN facility and in the distance we could see smoke from rebel fighting, though not the IS we were told. 

Further along the way we spied Nimrod's Fortress, sitting high on the hill and decided to explore. It is located on the slopes of Mt. Hermon atop a ridge at an altitude of 815 meters. The fortress is magnificent, though much of it was destroyed in an earthquake in the 8th century. Back to Tiberias for the night and then south for a visit to the new Vipassana center before continuing on to Bet She'an, another ancient city with beautiful Roman baths and a well-preserved theater. The amazing ancient architecture throughout Israel is dazzling and fascinating. 

With Equanimity and Joy,