My Journey to Jerusalem

“Oh Jerusalem, the city of sorrow
A big tear wandering in the eye

Who will halt the aggression?
On you, the pearl of religions?
Who will wash your bloody walls?
Who will safeguard the Bible?
Who will rescue the Quran?
Who will save Christ, 
From those who have killed Christ?
Who will save man?”

Nizar Qabbani

The feeling I had when arriving in Israel was one of curiosity. Knowing that this was the Holy Land and the birthplace of Jesus (In Islam: Prophet Isa) was something I felt blessed to be able to witness. However, I was also interested to know what was happening on this side of the world. To me, believing is seeing.

Our journey began and ended at Eilat. Immediately after we got our rental car, we drove to Dead Sea, which is located at the southern tip of Israel. The drive took us about four hours as we took the scenic route through the Negev desert.

Dead Sea

We woke up early for sunrise at Masada National Park. The queue already forming when we got there. The quickest and easiest way to the top is by cable car but we opted for hiking via the Snake trail to watch the sunrise. It took us 90 minutes before we reached the top.

The Snake Trail is a combination of hard dirt, some loose rocks and stone steps. It is a constant climb to the top, about 980 feet in elevation. It is strenuous, especially in the heat of midday, but to watch the views over the Dead Sea unfold as we steadily climb higher is rewarding. Phenomenal.

Masada is a Unesco World Heritage Sites. When I did my research, almost all the historical stories about Masada comes from the first-century Jewish Roman historian, Josephus. But there was also contradicting evidence from the Archaeology. Whatever it is, this ancient fortress Masada is worth visiting.

Ein Bokek is located right next to the hotel strip of the Dead Sea, and not far from the hotels’ shopping center and the Ein Tchelet Mall. We were impressed with the cleanliness of the beach. Floating on the salty water of the Dead Sea is a must do activity. Beautiful blue waters with salt build up at the shore are contrasted with the red earth and mountains.

On the way to Jerusalem, we stopped at The Ein Gedi Spa. You can’t visit Israel and not take a dip in the Dead Sea. Known throughout the world because of its high salt content, which allows visitors to float effortlessly, and for the therapeutic mud which forms at the edges of the water. 

The mineral baths and the solarium offer a fine and relaxing retreat from the turmoil of everyday life. It offers a chance, together with the Dead Sea mud, to renew oneself. There is a shuttle bus to the sea, heated pool, a swimming pool, restaurants and stores selling Dead Sea products.

JERUSALEM

Jerusalem is one of the oldest cities in the world. It is a holy city to the three most important monotheistic religions; Jews, Christians, and Muslims. It is home to the Western Wall,  the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, and two important mosques: Al Aqsa and The Dome of the Rock.

Streets of Jerusalem

We enjoyed wandering the streets of Jerusalem. There is no place in the world that could make you feel at peace and to live such a different experience in places with so much history in almost every corner. There are four quarters in old Jerusalem, Jewish, Muslim, Armenian and Christian. Each offered something different and they seem to blend extremely well given their differences. We let ourselves get lost in it, exploring the old, winding streets, wandered into the many stores, smell the fragrances, eating the beautiful food and snacks, drinking the most flavourful chai tea, and let the history seep into us.

Al Aqsa Mosque (Masjid Al Aqsa)

“Recite the Al Fatihah (verses of Holy Qur’an),” the Palestinian Guard said. One can enter the The Dome of the Rock and Al-Aqsa mosque only if they pass this elusive test among others, to prove one “Muslimness.” Non-Muslims cannot enter the mosque or the Dome but can wander around the Temple Mount site outside the buildings.

The inside of the Al Aqsa mosque was breath taking and serene. Al Aqsa is the third holiest site in Islam after Mecca and Medinah. I took my time in absorbing every detail that caught my attention. Beautiful recitation of the Holy Qur’an inside, and I get to meet the people of Al Quds and Palestine who were very warm and friendly. Watch the Video

The Dome of the Rock (Qubbat al-Sakhra)

The Dome of the Rock is something one has to witness himself or herself. Words cannot do it justice. This octagonal mosque structure with significant gold-coated dome is a breathtakingly landmark for Jerusalem. The interior artwork, motives, patterns and decorations are amazing, and it’s history even more so. Muslim believes this is where Prophet Muhammad (Peace Be Upon Him) ascended into heaven, where he met the earlier prophets, and eventually God (Isra and Mi’raj).

I walked downstairs to a quiet space where the famous rock is located and just sit, taking in the momentous occasion. After several moments of praying for families and friends, and paying homage to this holy place, I continued my stroll outside the compound.

“The Dome of the Rock is a building of extraordinary beauty, solidity, elegance, and singularity of shape… Both outside and inside, the decoration is so magnificent and the workmanship so surpassing as to defy description. The greater part is covered with gold so that the eyes of one who gazes on its beauties are dazzled by its brilliance, now glowing like a mass of light, now flashing like lightning.”              

Ibn Battuta (14th century travel writer)

Western Wall

The Western “Wailing” Wall, otherwise known as HaKotel in Hebrew, is one of the absolute must-sees on any visit to Jerusalem. The raw, emotional power of this huge wall (the only remnants of the famed Second Temple), blow my socks off, regardless of my own religious persuasion. Thousands of people journey to the wall every year to visit and recite prayers. Visitors to the wall have long followed the practice of wedging small slips of paper, upon which prayers and petitions are written, into the cracks between the stones.

The Church of the Holy Sepulchre

The Church of the Holy Sepulchre is a church in the Christian Quarter. The heartbeat of Christianity within Jerusalem can be found at this church. It contains two holiest sites of Christianity, the site where Jesus is believed to be crucified and his empty tomb where he had been buried. Watching other people reaction and worshipping is spiritually enlightening. Watch the Video

Mount of Olives

Located on the eastern side of Jerusalem, the Mount of Olives is the place to come for spectacular sunset views across Jerusalem and especially vistas of the Old City of Jerusalem. We walked up the hill and enjoyed the scenic view from above.

Historically, the Mount of Olives  was a site of great importance and considered the center of Jerusalem. The site is a location of holy pilgrimage for both Jews and Christians, with over 150,000 graves and a number of important Christian churches located on this amazing mountain ridge.

Bethlehem

We travelled to Bethlehem from the bus station across Damascus Gate in Jerusalem. There are plenty of taxis at the checkpoint but we have hired Abod, a Palestinian, who guided us. Bethlehem is part of the West Bank that forms the bulk of the Palestinian territories, the remainder of which is comprised of the Gaza Strip. Abod brought us to see real life Banksy’s famous works, the Flower Thrower and the Girl frisking the Soldier.

We then made our way to Manger Square where the Church of the Nativity stands. Abod spoke to the guard and we managed to escape the very long queue of pilgrims. The Church is one of the oldest churches in the world and was built above the cave where, according to the Bible, Jesus (Prophet Isa) was born. The church, a UNESCO World Heritage Site, is ornate and beautiful.

We descended the narrow flight of stairs into the crowded Grotto of the Nativity under the Orthodox side of the Church, after waiting our turn among the throngs of tourists. I am always overwhelmed by the significance of the major historical religious sites regardless of which religion they relate to and the birthplace of Jesus was no exception. It was an incredible moment to touch the star and the atmosphere in the Grotto was electric.

Our next stop is the Separation Wall that blew our minds. The tall concrete wall, lined with watchtowers, cameras and barbed wire, was a shock. It highlights the severity of the political situation and the reality of those who live under its shadow. The wall is covered with graffitis and messages, many of which are dedicated to the political situation between Israel and Palestine. We could spend hours checking out the walls if not for Abod. If we ever visit again, we would not take a guide so as to be free to explore on our own.

Aida Refugee Camp which hosts refugees from demolished villages. The entrance to the camp is marked with a right to return key, which signifies that the refugees have a right to return, and a right to the property that they left behind. To both of us who have the freedom to travel all over the world, it was difficult to comprehend life within the borders of Palestine. The constant tensions, frequent clashes and the realisation that many of the children have only known life within such a confined area is exceedingly difficult to comprehend.

Bethlehem is surrounded by so many Israeli settlements, which are visible from various vantage points throughout the city. The settlements are populated with Israeli civilians and are considered illegal in the international community. Watch the Video

Eilat

Eilat is located in the south of the Negev desert, on the top of the Gulf of Aqaba and has a border with both Egypt and Jordan. Eilat is a compact city with most activities centered along King Solomon Promenade. Being in such close proximity to the Dead Sea, the city is home to a range of unique items, from mudpacks to salt scrub.

OUR VIEWS

Before traveling to Israel, I was very apprehensive due to the situation of the country; the occupation, civil unrest and all the negativities in media. But once I got there, I was fortunate to not witness any aggression, and I felt very safe.

Israel is not a cheap country to visit but it is very special because of the unique landscape, the history of religion, the world-renowned and Unesco world Heritage Sites, and the wonderful weather. Very small, yet very diverse. This is a place we would want to visit again. And we wish nothing but peace and love in Jerusalem.

They say

If we love God most

We will love others best

But why oh why

Jerusalem oh Jerusalem

Intan
Tips & Suggestions:
  1. Dress appropriately
  2. Be prepared to be strictly interviewed at the Airport
  3. Currency
    • The currency in Israel is the New Israeli Shekel (NIS). ATMs are readily accessible in all major cities and most places accept foreign cards.
    • During our trip, the rate was: 100 shekel = €25 / SGD38
  4. Business Hours
    • Weekend falls on Friday and Saturday
    • Most restaurants, shops and public transport close on Friday afternoons and reopen late on Saturday (Shabbat)
  5. Transportation
    • We chose to hire a car for our trip.
    • Do not miss Eilat shuttle (Bus), which costs USD8 per person. As we missed the shuttle, we took a taxi to Eilat which cost €50
    • Eilat shuttle offers a cheap and easy bus between Eilat city, hotels and Ovda Airport.
  6. General etiquette and conduct
    • Being sensitive to cultural traditions and political tensions
    • Regarding photography, getting a camera out is generally not an issue in most places frequented by tourists, but be considerate and ask for permission.
    • Off-limits for photographers are military sites and border police at checkpoints.

Masada, Israel

Bethlehem

Belitung, Indonesia Ride

Laos #travelvideo

Myanmar #travelvideo

Myanmar ~ Making Buddha

Jerusalem – Church of the Holy Sepulchre #travelvideo

Jerusalem ~ Dome of the Rock #travelvideo

Bologna, Italy #travelvideo

Florence, Italy #travelvideo

Iran Escapades

 “Listen: this world is the lunatic’s sphere,
Don’t always agree it’s real,
Even with my feet upon it
And the postman knowing my door
My address is somewhere else.”

– Hafez, The Gift (Persian Poet)

When I posted pictures of Iran in social media, sharing opinions about how amazing the Iranians truly are, and the inaccurate facts of countries like Iran that potrays in medias, I received adverse responses by some friends. While most kind of agreed to my statements, a few started a debate and sent hyperlinks and news posted online of why I shouldn’t be kind towards Iranians. A friend, took it personally.

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Must visit: UNESCO World Heritage Site PERSEPOLIS

Iran is also known as Persia, and there are almost 82 millions inhabitants. 99% of them are Muslim (Islam) with nearly 90% Shi’a and about 10% are Sunni. The key theological differences between the two branches of religions are their beliefs over the successor of Prophet Muhammad (Peace Be Upon Him).

Sunnis dominate the Muslim world (more than 85% of the world 1.6 billions Muslim) and vast majority of the Shiites can be found in Iran, Iraq, Syria, Lebanon and Yemen. Although both share the holy book of Quran, they practice differently. Sunni Muslim mainly practice according on the Sunnah, and the Shiites rely heavily on their Ayatollahs (clerics, experts in Islamic studies).

In Shiraz, I was unexpectedly thrown a question by a stranger, “What do you think of Shia?” In my own personal opinion, our faith is what we make it, to say one belief is more evil than another is absurd. “There is no compulsion in religion” (Holy Quran Al Baqara: 2/256).

For decades, sanctions against Iran has jeopardised and hurt the core sectors of Iran economy. And despite being miserable and disgruntled, I only see smiling faces in Iran. To me, beliefs are made for humanity. 

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UNESCO World Heritage Site: Naghsh-e Jahan Square @ Shiraz

Three decades ago, the shah of Iran was overthrown by an Islamic uprising, the Iranian revolution. With the new government, the country was known as Islamic Republic of Iran. There were immediate and drastic changes to the way of life of the ordinary citizens. Women suddenly have to cover their hair while in public, regardless of their religion or nationality. Stricter laws were enforced.

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UNESCO World Heritage Site: Golestan Palace @ Tehran

Despite these laws, there isn’t much of a culture shock as I might have think before visiting this country. For example, there are more conservative Muslims in Singapore and Malaysia, than in Iran. Iranians, especially the youth, are trendy and stylish. As a matter of fact, I saw some beautiful ladies wearing sleeveless and hair uncovered in the plane. And like the tourists, by the time we landed, we had our hair and arm covered.

According to the international reports and social media, Iran’s human rights record is exceptionally poor and the regime is undemocratic. I was at first in fear when Nicola decided that we travel to Iran. However, after returning from this country, I find that my concern was baseless. Iran is one of the safest countries, and Iranians are kind and gentle. We were approach by many Iranians that were just curious, wanted to take pictures together, or strike up a friendly conversation with us. It was easy to take photographs everywhere we go, than for example, Morocco, and I remembered lamented, “If only more places were as welcoming as Iran.”

After oil, Iran is most famous for its Persian carpets. We make friends with an Iranian, Reza Abashi, who is an expert in carpets being his family business for years. He educates us about the different types of carpets and their values. Iranians have woven beautiful carpets for over 2,500 years and they often make mistakes intentionally. “There is a beauty in imperfections,” Reza said.

While in Isfahan, Reza brought us to a wonderful lunch at Malek Soltan Jarchi Bashi. The restaurant was previously an old bathhouse (hammam) and it was turned to a beautiful restaurant with an amazing atmosphere and delicious Iranian cuisines. For the total paid per person (500,000 IR = 3.30 euros), this is by far the best value meal of the whole trip, at least for me.

Iranian (Persian) food has much in common with middle-eastern cooking. Traditional Iranian food combines the savory of saffron, cardamom, turmeric, herbs, and merges it with the sweet of pomegranate, dried raisins and rose water.

We had almost the same breakfast routine every single morning. The combination of feta cheese, honey, jam, yoghurt, and Persian bread (noon-e sangak, noon-e barbari), served with Persian tea is unforgettable. In some hostels, we had boiled eggs and omelettes, salads and Haleem, a stew.

Nicola and I spent almost a month travelling Iran (Tehran – Kashan – Isfahan – Varzaneh – Yazd – Shiraz), and we’ve definitely formed our own opinion. While we were overwhelmed at the beauty, hospitality and friendliness we encountered during our travels, that don’t put Iranians as superhuman. In Isfahan, a fellow traveller had his phone stolen. There is always a black sheep in every flock. Never let your guard down, anywhere in the world. That being said, Iran is an incredible place and I would love to visit again someday.

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Beautiful Iranians – World Peace

“The world is a book

and those who do not travel, read only one page.”

~ St Augustine

Click on Video: Beautiful Iran

 

Tips & Suggestions:

  1. Dress appropriately

Female :           Wearing a loose fittings clothes, hair must be covered

Male :               No shorts

  1. Bring Cash you need for the travel
  • Iran is a cash country as foreign card won’t work in any ATM and you cannot pay by credit or debit card.
  • Iranian Rial is an official currency but all prices are in toman (1 Toman = 10 rials).
  • Bring Euros, not US Dollars.
  • During our visit, we had the best exchange rates at Tehran (1 euro = 150 rials). We spent a total of 250 euros for our stay (all inclusive without flight and visa).
  • DO NOT change money with the taxi drivers or black markets which usually refer to the bank exchange rate online (XE.com) (1 euro = 48 rials).
  • Change your money at the hotel or the official money exchange rate.
  1. Get Iran Visa at the airport

Visa on arrival can be issued at major international airports in Iran. You cannot get this visa on the land borders. The passports of foreign tourists visiting Iran will not be stamped. During entry, you will be given a paper containing your personal details that you must keep with you and return it during exit.

Countries whose Nationals do NOT NEED a Visa to Iran:
Armenia (90 Days), Azerbaijan (30 Days), Bolivia (30 Days), Egypt (20 Days), Georgia (45 Days), Lebanon (30 Days), Malaysia (15 Days), Serbia (30 Days), Turkey (90 Days), Venezuela (15 Days).
Countries whose Nationals CAN Apply for the Iranian Visa on Arrival (30 days):
Albania, Australia, Austria, Bahrain, Belarus, Belgium, Bosnia Herzegovina, Brazil, Brunei, Bulgaria, China (People’s Republic), Croatia, Cuba, Cyprus, Denmark, Finland, France, Germany, Greece, Hungary, India, Indonesia, Ireland, Italy, Japan, Kazakhstan, Kuwait, Kyrgyzstan, Luxembourg, Mexico, Mongolia, Netherlands, New Zealand, North Korea, Norway, Oman, Palestine, Peru, Philippines, Poland, Portugal, Qatar, Romania, Russia, Saudi Arabia, Singapore, Slovakia, Slovenia, South Korea. Spain, Sweden, Switzerland, Syria, Tajikistan, Thailand, Turkmenistan, Ukraine, United Arab Emirates, Uzbekistan, Vietnam.
Countries whose Nationals CANNOT Apply for Iran Visa on Arrival:
Afghanistan, Bangladesh, Colombia, Iraq, Jordan, Nepal, Somalia, Afghanistan, Pakistan, Sri Lanka.

Documents required for Visa on Arrival:

  • A valid passport with at least 6 months validity period.
  • A confirmed return ticket (within 30 days).
  • Travel insurance valid for Iran (Nicola was asked for this, but not me. He bought his travel insurance in Italy. My travel insurance (Singapore) do not cover Iran and I was ready to purchase at the airport but as I was not asked for it, I took the risk of traveling without insurance).
  • Visa stamp fee, which is payable to the Iran Visa & Passport Office at the airport (75 euros for Singaporean and Italian).
  • Hotel Reservation Voucher and Travel Itinerary.
  • A photo is not needed for the Iran visa application form (We have the photos ready but was not asked for it. They take a copy of our photo contained in our passport).
  1. Buy a prepaid SIM Card with Data

There are SIM card booths at the airport, but I bought mine at Seven Hostel for 150,000 rials (2 GB). As I did not access Facebook or Youtube, the data is more than enough to stay connected with families and friends.

  1. Imam Khomeini Airport Taxi

Beware of “taxi drivers” that wanted to rip you off. Take the official Imam Khomeini Airport Taxi services just after you exit the custom. You can even book a ride in advance at this website www.irantts.com.

  1. Make a copy of your passport

Hotel receptions will keep your passport and give them back upon checking out. Make sure you always have a copy of your passport printed with you wherever you go. We were stop by policemen at Taleghani metro station, and the passport copy came handy.

  1. VPN is needed to browse internet freely

Do note that Facebook, Twitter and Youtube are blocked in Iran. You’ll need to install a VPN (virtual private network) in order to access them. Download multiple VPN before you arrive (OpenDoor, Hotspot Shield, Cloud VPN, Psiphon, Hide Me). We survived our stay with the minimal (Whatsap, Instagram).

  1. Stay in Traditional Houses or Guesthouse

We enjoyed the beautiful setting of traditional houses and guests house. Nevertheless, the hostels we stayed are equally wonderful. The cheapest room (dormitory) costs 5 euros per night. You can try negotiating with your host (smile and be nice).

  • Tehran – Seven Hostels Tehran  sevenhostels.com
  • Kashan – Ehsan Historical Guest House  ehsanhouse.com
  • Isfahan – Ragrug Hostel
  • Varzaneh – Varzaneh Traditional Guest House
  • Yazd – Yazd Friendly Hotel
  • Shiraz – Niayesh Boutique Hotel
  1. Iran is Safe

Contrary to negativities portray in media, Iran is safe. I actually felt safer in Iran than some parts of Europe or Morocco. Iranians are kind, friendly and helpful, and random strangers would go the extra mile just to help you out. I never encountered people being so nice and helpful anywhere in the world. On this trip, we forged good friendships with Iranians.

 

Useful Links

 

 

 

 

 

Beautiful Iran

 

 

A week in The Netherlands

Visiting Netherlands after my trip to Morocco, was refreshing. The people are very polite without exxageration.

While making a query at the train station, I said “Hi”. The girl behind the counter educated me to say “Good afternoon”. I was taken aback but never offended, knowing that she bears no ill meaning behind that. The Dutch says their mind.

For a week Netherlands trip, we spent equal times in Amsterdam, Rotterdam and The Hague. I would say it was a very relaxing trip and the weather was perfect too.

Netherlands is the bicycle capital of the world. There are too many bikes and I wish Singapore aspire to follow suit. We need a cycling paths for green environment, healthy and safety reasons. I wish cycling is normal, part of our everyday life, and people to be considerate and gracious like what I’ve witnessed in Netherlands.

Amsterdam

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Walking is indeed the best way to see the city. We walked a lot during this trip and Nicky has to get a massage from sore legs. We did not spend too much time visiting museums since we wanted to explore the cities as much as we can. We board a canal cruise and enjoying the unique architecture along the way.

The next morning, we took train to Zaanse Schans, a neighbourhood in the Dutch town of Zaandam, near Amsterdam. This place is interesting with historic windmills and distinctive green wooden houses of an 18th/19th-century village.

I enjoyed the cycling and roaming around the area. It was lovely seeing those old historic windmills, and visiting interactive exhibits on bakery, rare handicrafts such as wooden clog carving, barrel making and pewter casting.

We also visited Haarlem, a photogenic medieval city of cobblestone streets and gabled houses. It’s the center of a major flower-bulb-growing district, and famous for its outlying tulip fields, art museums and hofjes (almshouses built around leafy courtyards).

Rotterdam

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Rotterdam is a major port city in the Dutch province of South Holland. Some of the interesting places we visited were the Cubic Houses at Blaak station, markets, Erasmo Bridge and surroundings.

We also travel to Kinderdikj, famous for its 19 authentic windmills. Another interesting cycling trip and beautiful windmills. As we arrived late, we only have an hour to wander the places but it is worth a visit.

The Hague

Ambassade Arena Aparthotel is the best hotel we stayed in Netherlands. The room is spacious with a cooking facility. The view from the top is amazing and the tram-station is just outside the hotel. The Scheveningen beach, casino and musical-theater are just in walking distance. I love the atmosphere at the beach, it is definitely more than a beach.

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Delft is a beautiful city that enjoys a worldwide reputation due to its connection with Johannes Vermeer, Delft Blue earthenware and the Royal House. I enjoyed wandering along canals, churches, mansions and courtyards.

The Netherlands is not known for its cuisine, but they have fresh produce. Haring (oily silvery-colored fish) or ‘Hollandse Nieuwe’ is probably the most famous Dutch food. The cheese, Gouda and Edam, is also known all around the world. I was excited to see so many Indonesian restaurants, and I went there couple of times to satisfy the crave of spicy foods.

Entering a “coffee shop” in Amsterdam is quite an experience. Official “Coffee shops” which have a green and white licence sticker in the window are a place where one can legally smoke weeds. There is a long menu list at the counter where one choose the kind of “coffee” they wish.

I was impressed with The Netherlands. The trains are efficient, frequent and reasonably priced. The canals are clean and appealing. The extensive bike trails network, historical buildings and architecture are interesting. The people were also friendly, non-judgemental, and helpful. I love to visit again, perhaps during tulips season.

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Accommodation:

Amsterdam      2 Nights: Hampton Hilton (Arena Boulevard)

Rotterdam        2 Nights: Hotel Bazaar

The Hague       2 Nights: Ambassade Arena Aparthotel

Schipol Airport        1 Nights: NH Amsterdam Schipol Airport

3,000 km road trip across Morocco

“Fly out or you will be in jail,” the female custom officer said.

OMG. I always thought I hold one of the strongest passport in the world and can stay almost everywhere without a visa. I’ve just learned that a Singaporean can only stay 90 days out of 180 days in Europe (Schengen countries). So, in order not to overstay, I need to spend some days at a non-schengen countries.

There are some places I love to visit. After some thoughts, I decided to visit Morocco.

MOROCCO

Driving Map across Morocco

Morocco is a North African country bordering the Atlantic Ocean and Mediterranean Sea. The population is distinguished by its Berber, Arabian and European cultural influences, mainly French.

We started and ended our journey in Tangier. Our first stop was Chefchouen. It was a 2.5 hours drive to our first riad. A riad is similar to a Bed and Breakfast, a traditional Moroccan house with an interior garden, courtyard and/or roof terrace. Staying in a riad which usually located in the medina is a unique experience, but it is not for everyone.

My opinion of Riad:

Pros: Unique beautiful experience, easy access to medina, shopping and restaurants

Cons: Usually small and compact, not sound proof – can be noisy for light sleeper, no private parking, no amenities

CHEFCHOUEN

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Chefchouen is a beautiful blue city. We enjoyed getting lost at the medina and the square of Plaza Uta El-Hammam. Life moves at a slower pace in this city. It’s a perfect place to wander and take photos.

I had my first taste of Tangine for lunch. Tangine is the slow-cooked dish of Morocco and revered for its sweet and savoury flavours. Tangine can be cooked up from almost anything; lamb, chicken, beef or even fish.

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In the evening, we had our next tangine dinner at La Lampe Magique restaurant. The scenery was beautiful and the call to prayer, azan, provide beautiful sound to the ears.

MEKNES

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On the way to Meknes, we spotted a Sunday market near Laghdir. Lucky day! To me, a visit to local market is an efficient way to immerse ourselves into one’s culture. It was so interesting to get a sense for the locals, their products, food, and how they live their life.  I bought olives, fruits and a colourful Berber hat.

Meknes has its charm on its own. Some of the main attractions are Volubilis, Moulay Idriss and Bab al-Mansour. We admired the ornately decorated gateway of Bab Mansour, the city square, and the many winding streets of the city.

FES

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The drive to Fes is only an hour journey but the difficulty we had were finding the parking. A Moroccon guy in a scooter spotted us looking for direction and approached us to follow him. As naïve as we were, we followed. He showed us a private parking place, showed us our next riad, and convinced us to take “a professional tour guide” that will show Fes for five hours.

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Fes medina is beautiful, with medieval architecture, vibrant souks and old-world atmosphere. Some of the places we visited are the Couwara tanneries, 14th centuries Madrasa Bou Inania and Café Clock.

MERZOUGA (SAHARA DESERT)

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The drive to Merzouga was the longest but we enjoyed the journey. Beautiful scenery along the way, and the road except in very few places is well maintained. We spent about eleven hours on the road, including stops. We stopped at Azrou for coffee, the cedar forest for the monkeys, and village Timahdite. We had our lunch at Zaida town in the Midelt province.

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The camel trekking across Sahara desert was an experience of the lifetime. With a group of thirteen, we talked and laughed, looking out over the vast of Sahara desert, swaying with the beats and sounds of drums, and staring at the night sky. Beautiful stars.

OUARZAZATE

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Ouarzazate is a city in the south of Morocco’s High Atlas mountain known as a gateway to the Sahara Desert. It is a huge Taourirt Kasbah, home to a 19th-century palace, and has the views over the rugged local landscape, which features in several movies such as The Mummy, Gladiator, and the recent ones, Prison Break.

We had our lunch at Todgha Gorge, the limestone river canons located at the eastern part of the High Atlas mountains near the town of Tinerhir. As recommended by the riad host, I had my first Hammam. The Hammam itself was a nice experience but the massage was mediocre. I had better in Singapore.

KELAAT M’GOUNA

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Watch Video : Morocco’s Festival of Roses 2018

When we planned our visit, the dates for Rose festival were not confirmed. Some websites mentioned that it will be on first week of May. We booked our stay for second week.  We just hope that our dates coincides with the festival week, which they did. How lucky we are!? We were so fortunate to experience the Rose festival which include the visit to Rose valleys where the roses are harvested. The exhibition, flea markets, and traditional musical performances were interesting. We also watched the parade with the selection of the annual Rose Queen. The smells of roses fills the air at el Kelaa M’Gouna.

MARRAKECH

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On the way to Marrakech, we visited Ait Ben Haddou, the red-earth city. My favourite movie of all time, Gladiator, was filmed here. It was a wonderful place but we were too tired to explore more grounds.

It was not good getting lost in medina. We got so confused with the streets, panicking, and an ‘angel’ demanded Dh200 (equivalent to 20) for showing us a public parking. “Do you think this is China?” he said when I gave him Dh100. It  makes my blood boil! A local taxi in Morocco charge around Dh20 – Dh100.

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In the evening, we enjoyed siting in the terrace of Le Grand Balcon du Cafe Glacier, which has an incredible view of Jemaa el-Fnaa, the bustling courtyard and market place. We had to pay Dh20 per person (exchange with a soft drink).

ESSAOUIRA

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Essaouria is a laid-back alternative to Marrakesh. We heard plenty of stories about Jimi Hendrix in Essaouira. This is another city that I enjoyed the most, together with Chefchouen. The time in the souks was pleasant. I enjoyed the fresh air, walking to Skala du port for the picturesque views over the fishing port.

RABAT

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Rabat is Morocco’s capital of Islamic and French colonial heritage. We witnessed many quarrels and shouting in Rabat. Maybe it was the starting of the fasting month, which testing one’s patience. Or maybe that’s the way it is in the north.

We visited Kasbah of the Udayas, the city oldest quarter, built during the Almohad dynasty in 12th century which has a beautiful garden. We also visited Chellah (old fortress) and Hassan Tower (incomplete mosque) during Friday praying.

TANGIER

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The city of Tangier is located at the western entrance of the Strait of Gibralta, where the Mediterranean Sea meets the Atlantic Ocean. Some tourist especially those coming on motorcycles adventures, take ferry from Spain with a sailing duration of one hour.

Overall, I would say that Morocco is a very beautiful country and urge friends to experience themselves. There are many cool sights and contrasting experiences that is unforgettable. We met some nice people and appreciate their warm and kindness. We also met some interesting characters that testing one’s patience. This is why researcher says that traveling is good for mental health.

Written By: 

intansg

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SUGGESTIONS AND TIPS:

  • Do your homework and plan carefully especially if you intend to self-drive.
  • Staying in ‘Riad’ is a good experience, but for a less stressful events, book a hotel with own private carpark.
  • If you are ‘lost’, keep calm and call the hotel for direction. Do not allow anyone to take advantage of your situation, they will demand loads of money.
  • There were many police stops, ensure that you abide to the speed limit. If not, they will ask for coffee money (DH200 – 20) and cigarettes.
  • Hiring a Guide in Morocco is NOT necessary.
  • There are many tourist scams in Morocco, special mention Fes and Marrakech. Some work in groups. I understand that these people are trying to make a living but the events will scare off tourists who are genuinely interested in visiting this beautiful country. Something need to change.
  • Be firm when being approached by the ‘friendliest’ man in the street. Say ‘La Syukran’ (no thanks) for any offers to help or showing places. Our own experience – we were greeted by a friendly man who said we should take pictures from the cafe terrace. “It’s free and has nice view”, he said. From the terrace, he brought us down to another exit which is a shop! He became very aggressive when we told him that we were not interested to buy anything. In the end, we were forced to buy dry dates for Dh100 (which were the “cheapest” in the shop), so as not to create chaos.
  • Stay away from ‘chocolato’ – drugs.
  • Stay away from Henna ladies unless you wanted a henna tattoo.
  • Communication barriers in many parts of Morocco as most speak only Berber, Arabic and French. Best to learn some basic.
  • Take small notes with you. Some vendors pretended they do not have enough change.
  • Be extra careful when taking photographs. Most Moroccon do not like their photos to be taken, or they will demand for money or the camera.
  • In the airport, the immigration queue is long and slow. Make sure to have ample time to arrive at the airport.

ACCOMMODATION:

Chefchouen 1 Night Accommodation: Dar Z’man Guesthouse S$50/night

*Public Parking near Riad Madrid -30 dirham-

Meknes 1 Night Accommodation: Riad Hiba Meknes S$45/night

*Public Parking along the street -20 dirham-

Fes 1 Night Accommodation: Dar Bouanania S$32/night

*Public Parking Bab Boujlad -30 dirham-

Merzouga 1 Night Accommodation: Auberge Le Petit Prince S$40/night

1 Night Accommodation: Sahara Desert Camel Trekking

*Private own parking -no charge-

Ouarzazate 1 Night Accommodation: Dar El Nath S$70/night

*Public Parking -30 dirham-

Kelaat M’Gouna 2 Night Accommodation: Kasbah Tasseurte S$40/night

*Private own parking -no charge-

Marrakech 2 Nights Accommodation: Riad Jnane Mogador S$60/night

*Public Parking across the medina -60 dirham-

Essaouira 2 Nights Accommodation: Ryad Les Sultanes S$40/night

*Public Parking -60 dirham-

Rabat 1 Night Accommodation: Riad Meftaha S$90/night

*Park car in Street of Iran, next to the riad -no charge

Tangier 1 Night Accommodation: Hotel Continental S$60/night

*Private own parking -no charge-

 

 

Saving the Planet – Stop Littering

 

First time in Greece – 12 nights

I have always thought of myself as an independent and organised traveller. For my trip to Greece, I didn’t plan much, except in figuring out the general routes. I wanted to experience traveling like hippies. But this is not my style.

It turned out that it was more expensive to purchase ferry tickets and hotels on the go. And it was very stressful to figure out how to go from one place to the other. We spent two nights in Athensthree nights in Santorinitwo nights in Naxostwo nights in Paros, and three nights in Nafplio. On our last day, we took early bus from Nafplio to Athens, stored our luggage, and explored Athens for the last few hours.

ATHENS

Staying at a hotel next to Monastiraki station is the best choice. Monastiraki neighbourhood is near to many iconic landmarks, restaurants, flea markets, and direct metro to and from Athens airport, and Piraeus Port for island hopping.

Monastiraki Square is lively and provide a very nice experience. I love hanging out in Monastiraki and Plaka, and soaking in the ambience. Athens streets are picturesque, full of graffiti, with views of every day life accompanying by soothing Greek music in the background.

We climbed the Acropolis hill and had our first view of the Parthenon, the iconic temple dedicated to the goddess Athena. Once we’re done with the sacred rock, we headed to the Acropolis Museum before stopping for a lunch-Greek style.

We visited Syntagma Square to see the changing of the guard in front of the House of Parliament. It was rather unique. Their uniforms and movements were so interesting and they have the greatest tassels on their shoes.

 

In the evening, we went to Mount Lycabettus to enjoy the sunset and panaromic view at the top of the hill. Indeed it was beautiful.

During our last day in Greece, it happens to be a Sunday where Athens flea market is opened. We visited the bustling and quaint market and have a late lunch accompanied by live Greek music.

SANTORINI

As soon as I arrived Santorini by ferry, I was overwhelmed by it’s beauty. I was in awe. Everything about this place is stunning.

From Santorini port, we took a bus to Fira, and changed another bus to Oia. Oia is a charming, bustling village and has plenty of exciting places to dine. We witnessed the beautiful sun set over the caldera as the town literally lights up into wonderful shades.

 

Oia village is the most popular spot for sunsets, and we were happy with our choice of stay. We wandered at the boulevard at anytime of the day and able to take good pictures without any other people in the frame.

During our stay, we rented a car and explore the island. We visited the ancient Akrotiri, Pyrgos, Emporio, Ancient Thira, Kamari Beach, and Perissa Beach.

 

As we were short of time, we didn’t complete the full trail to Ancient Thira. It was worth the hike up to the top of the hill to see the ancient ruins and the entire island from a bird’s eye view.

We were fortunate to experience Easter in Pyrgos village. The prayers, chanting, and the lightings were spectacular. The entire village glows ablaze, it is a true magical sight not to be missed.

NAXOS

The first thing we noticed when we arrived Naxos is the unfinished Temple of Apollo (also known as Portara), that has become the postcard for Naxos. The view was amazing especially as the sun goes down between the columns.

We were looking for our place of stay, but got confused with the little alleys. Greek people are warm, friendly and eager to help. The lady walked with us to our destination, we were so grateful.

I rated Pension Irene as the best value for money accommodation we had in Greece. It really is such a great place to stay! The rooms include a kitchenette with a mini fridge, stove top, and kettle. The location is ideal and the host is wonderful.

 

We rented a car and enjoyed wandering around the island. Naxos is a big island in the heart of Aegean sea. A very interesting place that we can experience variable activities. One needs at the minimum three nights to explore, and we had only two.

The church of Ayios Nikolaos is peculiar and the surrounding environment is full of nature. We also visited Halki, Apiranthos, Filoti, Koronos and Koronida.

PAROS

Upon arrival at the port, we couldn’t find our hotel host. It turned out that Andreas has waited for us the previous midnight,  mixing up the ‘am/pm’ as they use 24 hours time format in Greece. Nevertheless, we enjoyed our stay at La Sellini.

Parikia is the main village and it was wonderful. It has everything; shopping, eateries, bars, castle, beaches, and lovely locals who go out of their way to make you feel welcome and special.

We rented a car and drive around the entire island. We wandered through beautiful traditional villages like Naoussa. Naoussa is a charming and colourful village, where the ruins of a Venetian fortress stand at the entrance to its beautiful small harbor.

 

Lefkes is a quaint village in the middle of the island with lots of little nooks and crannys. The Byzantine church is beautiful with a breathtaking views of the sea.

The island itself has some nice beaches with sand and clear blue waters, some great mountain and sea experiences.

NAFPLIO

Upon reaching Piraeus port, we bought bus ticket at the Nafplio ticket desk (across the road), crossing back, and took bus 420 to Kiffisos bus terminal. From there, we took a bus to Nafplio.

Located in the eastern Peloponnese, Nafplio is a seaport town with it picturesque bougainvillea streets and lovely sunny squares. We are forever thankful that a friend, Gio, is kind enough to let us stay at his cozy and beautiful place near the main square.

While we can take taxi to Palamidi fortress, we enjoyed the climb up to 999 steps. The views were spectacular and we had plenty of stops along the way to catch our breath and taking pictures. The site provides a great vista to see the surrounding area and other castle ruins dotting the neighboring hills. It gives you the sense of what it was like to live in those times.

On Saturday, we visited farmers’ market that stretches from Kyprou Street to Martiou Avenue. There were plenty of fresh fish, vegetables, cheeses, fruits and daily stuff. We paid €1 for 3 kg of oranges! Maybe the old lady likes us or just wanted to clear her produce. Whatever it is, the oranges that came straight from her farm were sweet and juicy.

 

On one of the evening, we visited Bourtzi, another fortress on an islet west of the old town. The boat sails along the coast and we enjoyed the beautiful view of the sunset. We also enjoyed relaxing at the lovely Aarvanitia beach with white pebbles and aqua water. The view was spectacular.

 

We encountered some greatest food moment while in Greece. We enjoyed the food at Lotza, Oia – Santorini, Relax Pizzeria at Naxos overlooking the port, and Bairaktaris Tarvena at Monastiraki Square in Athens.

Relax Pizzeria at Naxos. What a view!

Greece has many islands to discover, and is a fantastic country to visit all the year through. This country has plenty to offer and we truly enjoyed the picture-perfect scenery, fascinating culture, the friendly people and cats, and the food.

 

SUGGESTIONS AND TIPS:

  • Be sure to plan ahead – plan and book early.
  • Purchase ferry tickets online. The tickets were sold out fast even in the month of April. Blue Star Ferries – www.bluestarferries.com
  • Stay in Oia for an exclusive view to the sunset, comfort and serenity.
  • Rent a scooter or car to explore the villages. Like everywhere else, we suggest you to take pictures and videos of the vehicle before signing the dotted lines. In Santorini, they wanted to charge us for a small dent on the car, which we seriously did not commit.
  • Travelling between the main towns is easy on the comprehensive KTEL bus network – www.e-ktel.com
  • Do not flush toilet paper.
  • Be culturally sensitive – bring scarf to cover shoulders when visiting holy places.

ACCOMMODATION:

ATHENS           2 Nights Accommodation: Cecil Hotel Athens www.cecilhotel.gr

SANTORINI      3 Nights Accommodation: Pension The Flower http://flower-santorini.com

NAXOS             2 Nights Accommodation: Pension Irene II https://irenenaxos.com/home-2/

PAROS             2 Nights Accommodation: La Sellini http://laselini.com

 

Morocco’s Festival of Roses 2018

Portovenere – the Gulf of Poets

“Why are there so many English flags here?” I asked. I’m so confused seeing St. George’s flags being worshipped in Portovenere, Italy. They were hanging everywhere.

Lorenzo explained that St. George’s flag is originally the flag of Genoa, a province in the Liguria region of Italy. Portovenere became part of the Republic of Genoa in 1113, and the flag is still used in Genoa today. The St. George’s flag was “borrowed” by England to benefit from the protection of Genoese fleet, and they later adopted it. It was also believed that King Richard (the Lionheart) adopted the flag during his crusades. How could I not know about that? It was satisfying to learn more about the world when we travel, it shows how travel is the best education we can get.

Portovenere is not one of Cinque Terre, but it is located strategically on the Gulf of Poets, formally known as Gulf of La Spezia. This city was built by the Romans, and during that time, Portovenere was a small fishing community. The town was later used by the Byzantine Navy as a base. When we were sourcing for a place to stay in Cinque Terre, Nicky thinks that it is better to explore a place that is off the beaten track. Portovenere is equally beautiful and much less touristy, and it was much convenient to park our vehicle here.

The first thing we noticed when we arrived at Portovenere was the bright colorful houses perched on a rocky shore, and beautiful boats docked by the beach. Portovenere is a UNESCO World Heritage site and was made famous by poets and authors who have been struck by its beauty and sought inspirations for their many creative works. Grotta Byron bears a plaque honoring the English poet, Lord Byron, who swam across the bay of Portovenere to meet his fellow muse, Shelley, in Lerici. Lord Byron is believed to have written his poem “The Corsair” in the grotto.

“Oh! too convincing–dangerously dear–
In woman’s eye the unanswerable tear!
That weapon of her weakness she can wield,
To save, subdue–at once her spear and shield.”
Lord Byron, The Corsair (1814)

Despite its small size, there is a lot to do in Portovenere. This town is a definite destination and a hidden treasure among other destinations in Italy. We enjoyed the walk through the lovely typical narrow streets, where we explore the steep staircases, houses, churches, castle, and shops. We walked on the waterfront, watching people sunbathing, swimming, and small children playing in the water. The promenade along the harbor is a pedestrian-only zone, and like the rest of the people, we admired the magnificent sea and many caves in front of us. The scenery was mesmerizing.

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On Sunday, Lorenzo accompanied us to explore the beautiful Doria Castle, which remains a landmark in Portovenere. We climbed the steep and narrow stairs to the top and our effort was well paid off by the amazing panoramic views from above. Doria Castle belongs to the extremely wealthy and influential Doria family from the 12th to 16th century. The ruins of the castle structure give us a glimpse of how amazing this castle was centuries ago, with the breathtaking view over the typical Ligurian black and white church of San Pietro, and the sea. The place was well taken care of, the fruit and vegetable trees look lovely. The figs were so sweet with a soft, smooth texture.  Nature perfumes the air with breezes that drift through the plants and added to the delicate charm of Portovenere.

Suggestions and Tips:

How to go?

By Car

We drove from Verona, where we stayed overnight in Pisa, with a lunch stopover at Lerici, a lovely seaside town with wonderful Ligurian feel. Once we reached Portovenere, we parked our vehicle at “Il Golfo” (top of the hill of Portovenere) which cost only €10 for the weekend (Friday, Saturday, Sunday).

By Boat

There is a ferry service between La Spezia, Portovenere and in four of Cinque Terre villages (Riomaggiore, Manarola, Vernazza, and Monterosso). Other stop includes Lerici, Levanto, and other interesting islands.

By Train & Bus

La Spezia train station is connected to cities across Italy which includes Florence, Milan, Venice, and Rome. Italian trains are incredibly efficient and relatively inexpensive (www.trenitalia.it).

In La Spezia, take bus 11/P at The Mercato Nord Bus-stop. You need to buy a ticket prior to your trip; tickets are normally sold in Tabaccheria (tobacco shop). Buses run frequently to Portovenere, about every 20 minutes from 7am to 11pm. After 8pm, it runs once every hour. In Portovenere, you can get your bus tickets at the shop near the bus stop. It is possible to buy tickets from the bus driver, however, the price will be double.

Bus stop at Portovenere

In Portovenere, bus tickets are sold at the shops behind the bus-stop.

Where to stay?

As per our previous Blog on Cinque Terre, we would suggest separating the stay between Cinque Terre (three nights) and Portovenere (two nights). It would be good to explore and enjoy this amazing places without rushing through it all.

I would definitely recommend Lorenzo’s apartment for those who wanted to experience a beautiful home that is close enough to the main bars, restaurants, and the sea. Lorenzo made the booking process very easy and he could arrange everything (directions, information, and place of interests). He even let us borrow his scooter for a ride to Cinque Terre. If the weather is right, you can join him for a fishing trip.

Our stay at Lorenzo’s apartment was amazing. Everything felt so cozy and the house is beautifully decorated. The bedroom was quiet and peaceful with a private balcony. Having breakfast while looking out to the charming sea of Portovenere was an experience I will always remember.

If B&B is not your thing, the four-star Grand Hotel Portovenere located nearby looks promising. It is centrally located near the bay with bars, restaurants, and supermarket and bus stop just around the corner. This hotel has a charming character with a beautiful view.

What to do?

History says a lot about this wild bay being a place of inspiration for Poets and Writers. The key element to visit Portovenere is relaxation, enjoying time with loved ones while being inspired.  Take your own sweet time to explore its beauty and timeless picturesque village. I would suggest spending two nights in Portovenere. It would be nice to enjoy the beach, sunbathing and swimming too. If the weather is good, take a boat trip to the Three Islands. Or even go kayaking or fishing.

  • Doria Castle – It costs 5€ to visit, but with two charming Italians beside me, we paid nothing
  • Town Gate and Tower
  • Grotta Byron
  • Churches of San Pietro and San Lorenzo
  • Sunbathing and Swimming
  • Boat trip to Three Island (Palmaria, Tino, and Tinetto)
  • Walk the island of Isola Palmaria
  • Hiking to Cinque Terre – there is a trail from Portovenere to Riomaggiore (5 hours)
  • Explore the tiny lovely streets and offset alleyways of Portovenere
  • Eating and Drinking – Walk around the tiny street, and don’t miss trying delicious Ligurian street food and having romantic dinner on promenade
  • Buy Souvenirs – Pasta, Foccachia & Pesto Sauce, yummy!