Sicily Part 2: To Cefalu and Palermo – Wandering Through the Centuries

The weather in mid-November was still nice; most of the days were sunny, but cooler.  Sometimes a damp dreary, grey day snuck in and reminded us that winter did come this far south as was the occasion when we started our drive to Cefalu. It was honestly just plain yucky! On the wet roadtrip south, we passed two men selling roasted chestnuts and plastic, one-liter bottles of Vino Novello, young wine, or the Italian version of Beaujolais Nouveau, made from an accelerated fermentation process that eliminates the aging normally associated with vinting wines. With a quick u-turn and purchase our spirits were immediately lifted, as the aroma of the freshly roasted chestnuts filled the car. They took the chill off the day.  The bottles of wine would wait until Palermo.  This continues a tradition started years ago, stopping at roadside stands for any type of food, craft or wine purchase.  Some days we made very slow progress indeed.

Heading inland from the coast road we followed the A19 west across the desolate, mountainous interior of Sicily past sporadically placed hilltop villages of various size.  Calascibetta was particularly impressive from the road; its recorded history dates to its Arabic settlement in 851 AD. An area of 300 rock-cut tombs, Necropoli di Realmese, and a warren of cave dug dwellings at the Byzantine Village of Vallone Canalotto called for further exploration. “Next time,” we agreed as we raced to spend the afternoon in Cefalu.

On the Sicilian list of most beautiful villages, it is also thought to be one of the inspirations for the coastal village “Vigata” where our favorite fictional detective, Salvo Montalbano, created by Andrea Camilleri, enjoys quietly eating his beloved Sicilian dishes on his patio overlooking the beach. A step above the typical crime novel, Andrea Camilleri’s inspector Montalbano critically confronts Italy’s difficult political and social issues.

A graceful, curved beach, with ancient stone homes built to the Tyrrhenian Sea’s edge, under a bold headland defines Cefalu’s beauty. Offshore lie the Aeolian Islands, a volcanic archipelago.

The town’s first settlement was atop the nearly inaccessible 1200ft tall promontory that dominates this spur of land that protrudes into the ocean like a bent knuckle. A new town was established on the coast under the cliff face when the Normans captured it from the Arabs in 1063 and proceeded to anchor the new village with a cathedral that was built to fulfill a promise to the Holy Savior by Roger II, the King of Sicily, upon his survival of a vicious storm at sea that cast him ashore at Cefalu.  Started in 1131, the fortress-like church, with Arab influenced architectural elements, took over 100 years to construct and was finished in 1240.

A handful of tourists sheltered under the tent of a café on the plaza in front of the Cefalù Cathedral, trying to ward of the November chill with coffee or wine.  Unfortunately, the church was closed and we were unable to view its Byzantine mosaics. A trailhead on Via Pitre leads to the top of the massive promontory that towers over the town.  Paths connect the ruins of a Greek temple dedicated to Diana that dates to the 9th century BC, as well as a Saracenic castle.  The panoramic views of the Cefalu and the Sicilian coast are phenomenal.

A plastic curtain at the restaurant shielded us from a sudden downpour as we sat enjoying pizza, just above the gentle lapping waves.  By the end of lunch, the rain had lessened to a misty drizzle and we ventured forth, with our umbrellas at the ready, down slick cobbled lanes to a wide, curved stone staircase.

Legend says the waters of the Cefalino River that feed the The Lavatoio Medievale, a medieval washhouse, were created from the tears of a nymph mourning the loss of her lover.  The waters originate six miles away in the Madonie Mountains near the village of Gratteri and flow under the streets of Cefalu before reaching the sea. Lion-headed spouts filled a series of stone basins that the town’s women used from their construction in 1665 until the last traditionalist scrubbed clothes there in the 1990s. An ancient stone plaque at the top of the stairs is inscribed with the saying “Here flows Cefalino, healthier than any other river, purer than silver, colder than snow.”

Our stay on Via Bara All’Olivella, a street known for its Opera dei Pupi, puppet theatres, was on the edge of Palermo’s historic district and near the classical Massimo Theater. Craftspeople carve and dress the puppets with fine cloth and metal armor, and their workshops can still be visited along the lane. The shows, which can last two hours and have three acts, re-tell the legends of medieval Christians kings, chivalric knights, damsels in distress, and Saracen nobles, with a supporting cast of sorcerers, witches, dragons, giants, and various other evil doers. Sicilian puppetry is a dying art and has been recognized by UNESCO an “Intangible Cultural Heritage.”

Sicily and Palermo have a long, convoluted history with the city as the capital of the Kingdom of Sicily when the Normans ruled.  Later it was a sister city to Naples when it was part of the Kingdom of Naples. Eventually the distinct regions finally agreed to be called Kingdom of the Two Sicilies in 1816, until the unification of Italy in 1870.  The prestige of both cities is seen in the wealth and the number of their churches.  And there really are a lot of them.

Like Naples, this large urban center has fallen on hard times in recent decades.  In the historic center the landmarks have been maintained, but the remaining residential areas have been allowed to deteriorate to the point where the crumbling buildings seem to cry out for restoration.  With oases of beauty scattered about between gritty and raw neighborhoods, Palermo stands in stark contrast to the experience of Cefalu and Taormina.  This doesn’t mean that it wasn’t enjoyable and interesting. On the contrary, along with being fascinating and different, it was a very urban experience!  Plotting our routes between churches exposed us to high culture and art along with the rough-and-tumble ambience of the city, sprinkled with graffiti, as we wandered the streets.

Only a few blocks away from our lodging, we started our morning at Chiesa di San Domenico. It has under undergone many incarnations since the Dominicans commissioned the first church in 1280. The Baroque façade and interior are the result of an expansion in the 1700s. With the burial of many notable Sicilian artists and politicians within its wall, it is recognized as the “pantheon of illustrious Sicilians,” and continues this tradition with modern heroes, most notably the tomb of anti-mafia prosecutor Giovanni Falcone, who was assassinated by organized crime in 1992, and which still receives tributes.

Somehow, we ended up on the top floor of the department store next to the church. Surprisingly, it had a nice café and patio with a view of the Colonna dell’Immacolata on the piazza and the gateway to the La Loggia quarter, one of the original Palermo neighborhoods.

The colorful Vucciria Market on Piazza Caracciolo and the decaying remnants of past glories on the surrounding streets led to the fountain on Piazza Garraffello.  Built in 1591, its beauty was overshadowed by the street art on the grim encircling buildings and haphazardly parked cars that nearly obscured it from view. The area was very quiet when we strolled through but is known for its raucous nightlife that lasts until morning. 

Across from the port a heavenly aroma emerged from a small storefront that was doing an active business. The place got its name from its specialty, Pani câ Meusa – Porta Carbone, a street food sandwich famous in Palermo that is made with boiled and then fried cow spleen and cow lung, grated caciocavallo cheese and lemon, served on a sesame roll.  We thought its strong and rich flavor was a taste that might take a lifetime to acquire.

Two blocks away, the Giardino Garibaldi’s stately centuries-old specimen trees anchored a neighborhood of fine palazzo now functioning as museums and university buildings. 

Around the corner a large, tall-wheeled float shaped like boat, called a Carro Trionfale, was on display in front of the municipal office. On top was a statue of Santa Rosalia, a 12th century hermit who is credited with saving the city from the plague when a relic of the saint was paraded three times around the city in 1624.  The highlight of her weeklong festival, held every July, is the procession when the carro is pulled through the streets by teams of men from the Cathedral of Palermo to the waterfront.  Every year a different district gets the honor of hosting the carro until the next festival.

Farther afield, our wanderings took us down blocks that seemed to retreat further back in time with every step. We saw contemporary street art on urban housing projects within steps of a ghostly unfinished renaissance cathedral, the Santa Maria Dello Spasimo. Started in 1506, it was never completed and now is used as an open-air theater and concert venue.  The juxtapositions of the treasured and the forgotten in Palermo are stunning.

The warren of narrow lanes off the Il Capo district between the Massimo Theater and the Cattedrale di Palermo were ripe for exploration.  Off Via Volturno, two stone columns with decorative capitals, Porta Carini, grace the entrance to the Mercato del Capo, one of the oldest outdoor markets in the city.  Built before 1310, the columns symbolize the neighborhood’s grand past that’s difficult to visualize amidst the colorful canvas awnings of the raucous street vendors.

Nearby is the site of the brutal assassination of Carabinieri General Dalla Chiesa, an anti-mafia investigator, his wife and a police escort. They were murdered by AK47 wielding gunmen on motorcycles one night in 1982. This vicious event epitomizes the Mafia war or Mattanza, the Slaughter, that gripped Palermo and the whole of Sicily from the 1970s to the 90s with thousands of homicides of rival mafioso foot soldiers, journalists, politicians and judges.  Fortunately, things are vastly different now.

Farther along, the street narrows enough that from their balconies, neighbors can easily talk to one other across the lane. At Piazza Domenico Peranni haphazard stalls, some with trees growing through the roofs, house a permanent flea market filled with dusty curiosities.

Every seat of power in antiquity had a triumphal arch to signify its greatness, and Palermo’s is certainly unusual with its columns depicting turbaned Arab slaves. The Porta Nuova gateway was reconstructed in 1570 to celebrate the 1535 triumph of Charles V, Holy Roman Emperor, over Ottoman forces in Tunis. Landing in Palermo after his victory, the monarch paraded 14,000 Arab slaves through the city. Standing next to Palermo’s Royal Palace, the Palazzo dei Normanni, the 140ft tall monument was part of the defensive wall that once surrounded the city.

When the Normans won Palermo in 1072, it is believed they found 300 mosques in the ancient city and proceeded to change them all to churches, many sponsored by baronial families. Grand, lesser and forgotten, it was nearly impossible to avoid the churches as we walked through the historic district. Many were closed, but the larger ones still open to tourists were all different and magnificent.

The Cathedral of Palermo is definitely one not to miss. It was constructed by the Normans in 1184 over a mosque that was built atop the ruins of an earlier Christian church.  It’s undergone many architectural alterations over the centuries, embracing Arabic, Gothic and Renaissance influences which have combined to create a visual compelling architectural façade with numerous interesting details. 

The cavernous inside is rather plain in comparison to some of the richly decorated interiors of other Palermo churches. The piazza in front of the church is perfectly scaled for viewers to appreciate the grandeur of the church behind it.  The roof, tombs and treasury of the cathedral are all accessible for a fee, while entrance to the church is free.

If you are short of time head to the Quattro Canti (Four Corners) intersection of Corso Vittorio Emanuele and Via Maqueda. It is the heart of Palermo’s historic district.  A short walk took to us to the fanciful Fontana Pretoria, a tiered fountain from the 1500s, which is bedecked with mythological figures.

Beyond it three ancient churches ring Piazza Bellini, and back-to-back visits of all three then required Bellini cocktails to loosen our stiff neck muscles afterward to reground us after this celestial bliss.  The Church and Convent of Santa Caterina d’Alessandria was originally built as a hospice in the 1300s.  Its caverneous, highly decorated Baroque interior, with every surface sculpted or painted with cherubs, angels, saints and martyrs celebrating the heavenly kingdom, was built for the cloistered Domenican nuns from wealthy and noble families who arrived a century later, only to close the hospital and open a bakeshop, “i Segreti del Chiostro – the secrets of the cloister,” instead. Hey, everyone enjoys a good cookie, and the nuns are still turning out traditional Sicilian baked marzipan sweets like frutta di Martorana today, from the convent’s original recipes. Near the entrance to the convent its original ruota, a small wheel-like door, is still in use. Through it the cloistered nuns can pass baked goods while remaining unseen, and poor mothers could anonymously leave babies for adoption. The last nuns left the monastery in 2014 and it was opened to the public in 2017.

Across the piazza stands Santa Maria dell’Ammiraglion, named after the Norman admiral, who commissioned it in 1143.  Its exterior is a hybrid of Baroque and Romanesque styles with Arab influences. Inside, golden Byzantine mosaics cover the walls, arches, and domes.

The Arab-Norman architecture continues next door with the fortress-like Church of San Cataldo. The smallest church on the square, its austere block shape has three red bulging domes of Arabic style on the roof.  During the 18th century it was unceremoniously used as a post office until its façade was restored in the 19th century and the building annexed to Santa Maria dell’Ammiraglion.  Without clues to its original interior decoration the inside has been left unadorned, just bare stone.

We only scratched the surface of places to explore on an island that we found enchanting and fascinating.  It could take a lifetime to experience all it has to offer – an interesting idea. We hope to return one day. 

The wing of the plane dipped one last time to reveal the turquoise waters along the Sicilian coast as we headed for Northern Italy.

Till next time, Craig & Donna

Puglia: Alberobello – Trulli, Troglodytes and the Sea

One of the characteristics we most appreciated about traveling through Europe was the ready availability of a cup of delicious coffee, even in the most unexpected of places. The bar on the ferry from Dubrovnik to Bari came through with two tasty cappuccinos the morning after our overnight passage in a windowless cabin. As a hazy sunrise dawned over the Adriatic Sea, we sipped our revitalizing espresso and milk while the ship docked in Bari, capping an otherwise uneventful crossing to the Puglia region – “the heel of Italy” or the “spur of the boot.” 

Behind the wheel of our rental car, we passed through verdant olive groves in the Valle d’Itria, alternately known as the Valle d’Trulli or the Valley of Ancient Olive Trees. Olives trees are celebrated for their age in the region, and several top two thousand years old.  One ancient millennarian called the Elephant is 3,000 years old. The orchards on either side of the road were busy with workers covering the ground under the trees with collection nets in preparation for the olive harvest.

A little aside – we are olive aficionados. All things olive we enjoy. We have even brined our own, ordering California olives, then scoring and soaking them for three months in salt water to remove the extremely bitter oleuropein.  As tasty as they are after this process, they are downright vile beforehand, which has always made me wonder how it was determined that they were edible.  Did a starving hunter-gatherer pluck a floating olive from a salt marsh and make the discovery of a lifetime?

Farther along we sped past a farmer selling yellow melons from the back of his three-wheeled Piaggio Ape, a small truck that is ubiquitous throughout the farmlands of Italy. We did a quick U-turn to buy two from him, and they were delicious.  Our progress slowed through another small town as a brass band led funeral mourners across the road ahead of us.

Our destination was Alberobello, to meet up with three of our sons and especially to live in a trullo for a week.  This was the culmination of a decades-long desire ever since becoming aware of these enchanting, whitewashed dwellings capped with conical-shaped stone roofs with a pinnacle at the top.

Trullo comes from the Greek word for circular domed construction, tholos.  But it is thought the “a secco” style, without mortar construction technique, was brought to Puglia by North African invaders when Sicily was under Arab rule in the mid-800s or even earlier. As the Valle d’Itria surrounding Alberobello was deforested (albero bello translates as “beautiful tree”) to make way for cultivated crops and olive orchards, the building material of choice was the abundant limestone rocks removed from the fields or the wells dug beneath their homes.  The flat stones, called chiancarelle, are precisely pitched so that rainwater runs off the roof and the interior remains dry.  Their local design was firmly entrenched in the 14th century when the King of Naples granted the desolate Alberobello region to the first Count of Conversano as reward for service during a crusade. 

In a ploy to recruit tenant farmers from neighboring regions the feudal landlord offered trulli with the caveat that when the king’s tax collector visited the area, homes would be destroyed by the count’s horsemen using a rope to pull the pinnacle, a key stone, from the roof, collapsing it.  The homes could then only be rebuilt when the tax collector was safely far away.

This miserliness inflicted upon the already hard lives of the peasant farmers was to avoid payment of “new settlement” taxes by the feudal lord.  No wonder there were constant peasant uprisings. This threat literally of “the roof coming down on your head” was used to intimidate or evict rabble rousers and farmers who didn’t pay their crop share to the landowner.  As peasants’ rights changed over the centuries the homes became more permanent, though tenant farming was common in Italy until the end of WWll.

Our Airbnb trullo was located on one of the narrow, steep lanes of the Monti district not far from the Church of Sant’Antonio with its steeples mimicking the stone roofs of the surrounding homes. It was a compact space with two small bedrooms and combo kitchen/living room area.  When the front door was closed it felt like a snug cave, but fortunately the entry had a classic beaded curtain over it as a privacy screen that let in plenty of light and air when the door was open. 

The charm here was a vertical ladder that led to a hatch which opened to a rooftop patio with a grapevine, chairs, a table, and a clothesline. It was delightful and we made daily use of it, bringing coffee up the ladder in the morning and then wine to enjoy while watching the sunset. Immersing ourselves totally in the local lifestyle, we flew our laundry from the clothesline, like a proud flag symbolizing our occupation. 

It took the better part of a day to coordinate the arrival of our tribe; Craig and Gary stayed with us, while Jack and his partner Brian stayed near Matera. The plan was to tour Alberobello, visit Matera in the neighboring Basilicata region together and then spend a day in Lecce with our friend Giulia, whom we met at the very beginning of our journey, fourteen months earlier in Ecuador.

Many visitors savor all of Alberobello’s magic in one day, but if you don’t like changing hotels frequently, like us, it was also the perfect spot to base further exploration of Puglia, which is what we intended to do.

There are over one thousand trulli in the Monti district spread across seven narrow streets that twist and turn in an enchantingly confusing way, yet the area was small enough that we were never really lost.  Early in the mornings or late in the day the neighborhood had a unique ambience, with its cobbled lanes, whitewashed walls and pointed stone roofs painted with various religious, astrological, or folkloric  symbols. The latter were meant to ward off evil or ensure a bountiful harvest. Similarly, there are different thoughts about the meaning of the various shapes of the pinnacles atop the roofs. I prefer the theory that they represent the ancient stone mason’s calling card. Most of the trulli have now been converted to shops, restaurants, small inns, and rental properties. 

Across the main road at the bottom of the hill we climbed a shallow slope to a second, smaller borghi, or neighborhood, equally charming but with a more residential flavor than the Monti. The Aja Piccola is comprised of about four hundred trulli.

Farther afield on the outskirts of town we walked through Alberbello’s central cemetery.  Spanning centuries with classic tombs and modern mausoleums, the graveyard architecture presented a strikingly distinct dichotomy to the rustic trulli.

It was backroads through farmland most of the way to Matera, past larger trullo with multiple rooms, each represented by its conical roof. Some along the way were abandoned or used as barns, while others were pristinely refurbished and doubled as the farmer’s home or agrotourism business.

Matera sprang to notoriety in 1945, at the end of WWII, with the publication of Carlo Levi’s novel about his political exile to the region, Christ Stopped at Eboli, when Mussolini was in power.  He described the squalid conditions in which peasants lived together their farm animals: they inhabited caves, without electricity or running water, and diseases ran rampant.  The Italian government was internationally embarrassed by the neglect the sassi of Matera received, and in a restitution effort, relocated the entire population of some 16,000 cave dwellers from 1,500 sassi, small caverns, to a new town built on the plateau above the honeycomb of caves.

Archaeologists have determined through excavations that Matera grew from a series of water-eroded caves along the walls of the Gravina River canyon, which were first inhabited sporadically 9,000 years ago during the Stone Age.  Permanent populations have existed here since 3,000 BC, making it one of the oldest continuously inhabited settlements in Europe. 

The Romans declared Matera a town in 251 BC. Centuries later the safety of cave dwellings appealed to many during the turbulent dark ages and the populace grew as folks expanded the natural caves and randomly dug new sassi, above and below their neighbors, from the soft rock of the canyon walls.  During the Middle Ages the prosperity of the city supported many churches and convents.

In the 1200s the Cathedral of Saint Mary ‘della Bruna,’ Saint Eustace, and the Church of Saint John the Baptist were built on opposite sides of the ravine.  Prosperity continued in this area into the early renaissance.  The exterior of the some of the sassi were squared off and ornately carved with columns, while others were expanded with additional rooms and vaulted ceilings.   

Political intrigue over the centuries put Matera on the losing side of several rebellions against the various Kings of Naples. The coup de grace came in 1860 after unification with the Kingdom of Italy, when many of the lands and properties owned by the church in the Basilicata region were confiscated and sold off to wealthy aristocratic families. With support from the church, peasant opposition to the broken promises of the new Italian government grew and soon the countryside was controlled by roaming bands of brigands.  The province was too dangerous to travel through, further isolating Matera even though it was the capital of Basilicata.  Many decades of governmental neglect followed and pushed Matera into major decline.

For three decades the sassi were an abandoned no-man’s-land, the caves used as drug dens and warehouses for smugglers until the first gentrifications began with several small boutique hotels in the 1980s.  During years of renovation and exploration, 150 cave churches, 90 wine cellars and numerous cisterns have been rediscovered after the removal of debris and muck from their last use as barns and stables.

The uniqueness of Matera’s “spontaneous architecture” as it is officially called was recognized in 1993 when UNESCO named it a World Heritage site.  Further interest followed, after Matera was used as a film location to double for ancient Jerusalem in several movies: The Passion of the Christ (2004), King David (2005), and The Nativity Story (2006.) Even some scenes from the 2017 Wonder Woman were filmed there. In 2019 Matera received distinction as a European City Capital of Culture.  Today sixty percent of the sassi of Matera have been restored into small hotels, shops, galleries, and digital workspaces.  

When we arrived in Matera the historic area was hidden from our view by the buildings of the new town on the plateau above the Sassi district. We made our way to Piazza Vittorio Veneto while searching for stairs down into the ancient district. There was a tremendous WOW! factor when we emerged from a narrow alley onto a scenic panorama above the old town, the city’s silhouette frozen in time.

Around the city large surrealist sculptures by Salvador Dali stood in wonderful, whimsical juxtaposition to the surrounding monochromatic walls of the city. One day was not enough to uncover all the mystery that Matera had to offer. Hopefully, we will return in the future. 

A day at the beach, more like a day on the cliff above the beach, drew us to Polignano a Mare on Puglia’s Adriatic coast.  It’s a picturesque town known for its dramatic buildings balanced on a cliff edge that follows the sea, thirty feet below. 

The rock face is incredibly soft and over time sections have fallen into the sea creating grottos, under the homes above, that can be toured by boat.  White-pebbled Lama Monachile is a classic, small Italian beach nestled between cliffs, from which the brave dive into the calm turquoise waters of the cove. 

The quaint historic district is relatively small, and homes are painted in cooling colors which echo the sea. Alleys meander to small piazzas above the water, each with a unique view of the cliff and just large enough to support a small café with a few outside tables.  It was a brilliant sunny day, pleasantly uncrowded, and the weather was gentle enough that we could dine outside in a sunny spot during our November visit. 

Till next time, Craig & Donna

Kotor Part 3: Herceg Novi – Serenading the Ghosts

The days were noticeably cooler now, with a morning mist hanging on the water as we sped around Kotor Bay on the local bus to Herceg-Novi (€3 one way) for the day. The narrow two-lane road hugged the coastline and in spots jutted out over the water to circumvent a sheer rock face.  When the landscape widened enough, houses were built on every patch of useable land in small clusters or standing alone.  At the farthest end of the bay we watched oyster farmers raft between their rows of buoys that marked the submerged delicacy growing in the depths below.

Further along the Lepetani – Kamenari Ferry (€4.50 per car, €1 for a bicycle, people free) offered a shorter and faster route that bypassed Kotor for travelers wanting to stay along the highway that hugged the Adriatic coast from Albania to Croatia.

Unlike Kotor and Budva, which were both built on flat coastal terrain, Herceg-Novi was built on a steep slope that runs many miles inland to the summit of Mount Orjen. The mountain, part of the coastal Dinaric Alps, is Montenegro’s tallest peak, which at 6210 ft is 500 ft taller than the more famous Mount Lovćen (5738 ft).  The town existed as a small fishing village for several hundred years until its first defensive walls were raised in 1382, making it one of the youngest and most fought-over fortified cities along the Adriatic coast. 

The old town is long and narrow, climbing up the hill from the water’s edge like an index finger poking out of the sea, making it a much harder city for the Omis pirates to attack.  Let’s face it, Mediterranean diet or not, it’s much more difficult to properly sack, pillage and plunder a city when you are exhausted from running up steep flights of stairs.  Though it wasn’t always the pirates that folks worried about.

The Turks built Kanli Tower on the highest point in the city after they defeated the Byzantines in 1482, only to be ousted by the Spanish for a brief stint of gentrification in 1538 when they quickly constructed Hispaniola Fortress higher up the mountain, to no avail; the keys of the city were returned to the Turks two years later.  The Venetians had their turn also, strengthening walls and building towers that survived until the devastating 1979 earthquake.  Its turbulent history also included the Austrian, Russian, French and Germans, all battling for beach chairs along the Herceg-Novi riviera.  Fortunately, the communists didn’t see the need to impose their minimalistic architecture on such a beautiful swath of earth and left it alone.  The people of the communist block were not as fortunate.

We were only an hour from Kotor when the bus pulled into the station above old town Herceg Novi, the last stop before the border with Croatia.  Walking downhill, we came upon the daily market, Gradska Pijaca Herceg Novi, and took the opportunity to purchase the makings for a picnic lunch. Bread, cheese, figs and a huge pomegranate filled our knapsack.  Old Town is of course surrounded by the apartment buildings of the new town, a pretty gentrification which has sprawled horizontally between the sea and the highway above town, hugging the hill for views of the bay.

The lane ended in Nikole Đurkovića Square in front of the ancient Sahat-Kul clock tower and gate, built by the Ottomans in 1667, that leads into the historic district.  Once through the gate, the dark passage opened onto palm-treed Belavista Square lined with cafes and umbrella tables. St. Michael Archangel Church anchored its center.  The style of this relatively modern church, built in 1911, is defined as Eclecticism, after its incorporation of architectural influences that reflected Herceg Novi’s diverse history.  Byzantine, Gothic, Romanesque, Islamic and Serbian Orthodox inspirations all blend seamlessly together. 

The old town was very quiet, and we had the narrow alleys and stairs to the Sea Fortress, the first fortification in Herceg Novi, practically to ourselves.  At the old town’s southernmost point, the massive stone wall of the fortress protrudes several stories high from the sea, like the bow of a cruise ship.  Its canons are quiet now, but during the summer tourist season it hosts citadel-top concerts and a film series from the spot where the guns once guarded the bay. 

We chose not to walk down to the harbor, saving our strength instead for the longer one-mile walk to the Savina Monastery. The monks sure did know how to pick locations for inspiration. The first stones of one of three churches were laid in 1030, and the setting above Kotor Bay is glorious. 

Being a Saturday, it was wedding day and we arrived just in time to watch a flag-waving crowd and brass band escort the bride and groom to their get-away car.  Moments later another wedding party arrived to celebratory horns. 

Next to the cathedral where the weddings were being held, the smallest and oldest church, Sveto Uspenje Bogorodice (St. Falling into Sleep of Holy Mother of God) has fascinating, ancient frescoes depicting the life of Christ.  Stairs in the hillside led to a cemetery above the monastery with beautiful views. 

The route back was relatively flat and took us through a pretty neighborhood filled with flowering shrubs to a smaller gateway into the old town, nearer the stairs to the Kanli Kula Fortress or Bloody Tower.

Built by the Turks in the 1500s, it was also believed “that the door to the castle opens only one way – to leave it alive was impossible.” Even with walls sixty feet wide in some places, the fortress was damaged in the 1979 earthquake that ravaged Montenegro.  During reconstruction, its courtyard was converted into an amphitheater with 1,000 seats for concerts and theater productions; perhaps the music soothes the restless souls of the ghosts still wandering the dungeon. Name and reputation aside, the views from the fortress walls were beautiful.

Walk a little, café, walk a little more. Today a long climb back to the bus station awaited us after that last sip of espresso.

Till next time, Craig & Donna

Kotor Part 1 – Water and Mountains, Ancient and Enchanting

Twenty-four hours out of Africa we were finally unloading our bags from the taxi, under tall palm trees across from a beautiful harbor. In front of us stood the Sea Gate, the 16th century arched entrance through ancient stone fortifications and the winged lion of St. Mark.  Both were constructed in 1555 when this port city was under Venetian rule.

With little difficulty we found our host and followed her through the ancient portal under a relief sculpture of the Madonna and Child, flanked by St. Bernard and St. Tryphon, the town’s patron saints.  There was a small rectangular slit underneath the stone carving where prayers were once placed. “Now it’s used as a complaint box by local residents!” our host joked. 

The archway perfectly framed a quaint plaza, The Square of the Arms, lined with shops and restaurants set dramatically under the backdrop of St. John’s Castle, Kotor Fortress, which towers protectively over the city.  Within the walled city it’s a wonderful pedestrian-only maze of narrowing alleys that weave about.  Our second-floor apartment was at the intersection of several of them and overlooked a view of the restaurants on Plaza Tripuna. 

After six weeks of continuous travel we were looking forward to being rooted for a while in an apartment, returning to our immersive travel philosophy. With a spacious living room, kitchen, hot water, and live saxophone music six nights a week, we were ready for this month of R&R in Kotor.  Though by the third night the saxophonist had played the identical repertoire each appearance, without changing its sequence. We were doomed to a Bill Murray-like Groundhog Day scenario, until he took three days off and was temporarily replaced by a young violinist.  She was a breath of fresh air.

But, with any new destination there is the urge to explore.  Outdoor dining was still in full swing and perfect, since the hottest days of summer were long gone by mid-September.  After lunch our first mission was to find a grocery store to get some basic essentials – wine, coffee and some breakfast items for the next day before we crashed from a long travel day.  Through the North Gate and across the Scurda River we found Voli and Aroma grocery stores.

The second, lone mission, was to find the laundry service as our cloths were about to walk away on their own in protest.  Before our host departed, she confirmed there was a laundry service, but wasn’t sure exactly where, as she didn’t use it, only that it was outside the city walls somewhere along the road that followed the bay. She waved vaguely in the general direction of the South Gate. It was a pleasant walk past the vegetable vendors in the daily market, outside the city walls, laden with fresh fruits and vegetables and FIGS!! (Our decision to call Kotor home for a month was instantly reinforced by this discovery.) Further on there was an Idea supermarket and the Sladoja mesara meat shop and grill restaurant. I walked all the way to the bus station and back tracked without spotting the laundry. Not one to accept surrender,  I asked a woman exiting an apartment building with my laughable Serbian, praonica? (laundromat in Serbian.) I also showed her a slip of paper with it spelled out, just in case. Saint Jude must have been watching. She not only spoke English, but happened to work there and was returning from her lunch break. Nearing home, I found the only bakery within the old town just around the corner from our apartment and was able to pick up some wonderful fresh breads and baked goods at very reasonable prices. This became a regular stop during our stay.

Instead of ticking off destinations and sights within a short period of time, it was good to be back on track with our slow travel approach to seeing the world.  Yes, we still want to see everything a locale has to offer, but at a reasonable pace with a walk a little, then café style repeated throughout the day. This approach allowed us to enjoy the Adriatic lifestyle by immersing ourselves into the ambience of Old Town Kotor for a month.

Surrounded by its ancient walls, the village really was the perfect size, impossible to get lost within and full of interesting finds and eateries.  If we started our day early enough, we caught pleasant glimpses of parents walking their children through the ancient gates to school, and vendors delivering the day’s supplies by pushcart down the tight, cobbled lanes, hard work for sure.

Exploring the alleyways that twisted through the town, we found unique architectural details, remnants from past empires and seafaring wealth.

The alleys led to small intimate plazas with umbrellaed tables and entertaining street musicians. Caffe bar Perper on Pjaca od Salate made very good cappuccinos and every morning two singers sang a medley of Balkan folk songs with a sprinkling of western tunes thrown in.  Across the plaza Konoba Scala Santa, the oldest restaurant (1931) in Kotor offered regional specialties and a rustic interior with a fireplace on those rainy fall nights that chased us inside. 

After coffee one morning we followed the steep stairs off Pjaca od Salate past old stone homes (wondering how folks do it when we saw a baby stroller on a landing) built into the hill to the entrance of Kotor Fortress.  1350 steps to the top –  we could do it! Fortunately, we chose a cool day. It was a challenging trek over a rough stone path and stairs still in need of repair from the 1979 earthquake that struck the city. 

Fortifications have loomed over Kotor since Illyrian times, 4th century BC until 167 BC, with additions made by Roman emperor Justinian I in the 6th century.  The Venetian Empire expanded the fortifications further in the 16th century.  It’s their stones that we were tripping over.  Our effort was rewarded with spectacular views of the city, bay and old caravan trail from the serpentine path that twisted all the way to the top. 

As formidable and imposing as the fortress looked, it has been seized several times during conflicts with the Ottoman, French and English. Good walking shoes and water are a must for this going.  650 steps up the Church of Our Lady of Remedy marks the halfway point and is a good place to rest and enjoy the view for a while.  The small chapel was built by survivors of the 1518 plague to honor the Holy Mother.

In 1979 an extremely destructive magnitude 7.0 earthquake devasted old town Kotor and many similar towns along the Montenegro and Albanian coastline which was then part of Yugoslavia, leaving 100,000 people homeless. All the stone buildings suffered some form of damage and the city was closed to the public for ten years during its restoration. Some signs of the earthquake damage are still visible, most noticeably block-long 19th century Austrian Prison that has large cracks in its exterior walls and the sky visible through its roof. 

The churches in the historic center also suffered extensive damage. Their facades have been fully restored, but their ornate interiors were destroyed beyond repair. The interiors are noticeably less ornate than similar era churches in Europe, with only fragments of relief carvings and frescoes remaining, hinting at their former beauty. Priče o Potresu / The Earthquake Stories is a 2020 documentary by Montenegro director Dusan Vulekovic about that destructive natural disaster. Severe earthquakes also struck Kotor in 1563 and 1608.

The one drawback of Kotor is that it’s a busy cruise port with four or five large cruise ships disgorging thousands of passengers between 10am and 3pm every day until the end of the cruising season. But they followed a limited circuit and if we planned around them, they were barely noticeable. By October first only one or two cruise ships were anchoring in the bay each week.

Often referred to as Europe’s southernmost fjord, the walls of Kotor bay are so high and steep that they cast shadows late into the morning and early in the afternoon over the city. This is a tremendous help in moderating the heat of the Adriatic summers.  Its unique geography makes it the most naturally protected harbor along the Adriatic coast, providing safe anchorage for sailors since the beginning of boat building, several millennia ago. 

There were a variety of water tours available and we opted for one that took us to Our Lady of the Rocks and Perast.  The legend of Our Lady of the Rocks starts in the 15th century when two brothers, fishermen from Perast, found an icon of the Virgin on a rock protruding from the center of the bay. Fulfilling the Virgin’s request of them to build a church in the bay, they began transporting stones by boat from the shore and dropping them in the bay. Soon others followed. Today there is a small Catholic church on the island and a festive boat procession every July called Fasinada that keeps the tradition alive.

The views from the bell tower of St. Nikola Church over the quaint village of Perast and the open expanse of Boka (Kotor) Bay were tremendous.  It was a wonderful, beautiful day on the water that ended hours later in agony, as we both succumbed to food poisoning from lunch.  Fortunately, Donna found a visiting Doctor service that provided an English-speaking physician who made house calls.  After a midnight knock on the door and a short consultation we were advised to hop in his ambulance for an intravenous treatment at the local clinic.  It turns out that we had visited this clinic ten days earlier for treatment of a sinus infection and pinkeye that Donna caught before we left Ethiopia. After our hour and half treatment, we felt one hundred percent better and were discharged at 1:30AM onto a deserted sidewalk with no assistance offered to get us back to town.  It was too far out of town to consider walking and considering we were still recovering, we waited patiently as the occasional car sped past Finally a taxi zoomed by and, hearing my booming shout of “TAXI!” the driver hit the brakes and did a U-turn.

Our travel insurance covered the hospital visits, though the claims were cumbersome to file. (Keep your airline tickets for proof of travel.) Amazingly, the hospital treatment, including transport by ambulance, was only €50 each – extremely affordable compared to medical care in the United States.  Likewise, the prescriptions we filled the next day were easily paid for out-of-pocket.  It is worthwhile to compare the cost of drugs that you regularly purchase in the United States with what they cost overseas when traveling. There is an outstanding difference, with foreign prices being much lower and many not requiring a doctor’s prescription.  Just check Google for the correct name of the drug for the country you are in.

The old town is also famous for its colony of “Kotor Cats,” descendants of ratters taken to sea by sailors to control rodents on board their ships.  As we walked around town, we noticed small trays of cat food placed about for them.  Kotor Kitties is a non-profit organization started by an American visitor to Kotor several years ago that provides food, veterinarian care and neutering for the famous felines.  

Our wanderings expanded to include longer treks along the picturesque roads that followed the shoreline of the bay. Walking only minutes from old town along Put I Bokeljske Brigade on the bay’s eastern shore put us in a more relaxed world with pebbled beaches, small marinas, waterfront restaurants, private homes and small boutique hotels along the water.  Though the bay water was still warm enough for swimming, the area was very quiet at the end of September, with most of the small hotels posting “rooms available” signs in their windows. Many of the beach facilities pulled in their cabanas and rental kayaks with the end of the cruise boat season, which coincides with the beginning of the rainy fall season.  Fortunately, the restaurants were still open along this route and several of them enticed us enough to revisit this seven-mile roundtrip walk to the village of Dobrota weekly. 

The western shoreline along the bay was equally enticing with its small coves that sheltered yachts at anchor, and the historic churches of Crkva Sv. Ilije in Gornji Stoliv and the parish church of Prcanj, Bogorodicin Hram, offered wonderful views of the bay from the top of its monumental stairs leading to the church.  There were also some nice quirky finds along this route: props that looked like they were once used in a local carnival.

Montenegro is a small country; besides being known for its fabulous Adriatic coast, it has an equally impressive mountainous interior only a short distance inland from Kotor that can be visited on day trips.  There were numerous tour operators around town that all offered basically the same excursions. We chose one to Durmitor National Park that included stops at the dramatic Most na Đurđevića Tari bridge that spans the turquoise waters of the Tara River. Visits to Black Lake, Lake Slano and the cliffside Ostrog Monastery would round out the day. 

It was late September now and the chill of fall was in the morning air. Optimistically I wore sandals, anticipating a warm and sunny afternoon as it was the day before. As we drove into the mountains, the clouds thickened and the temperature dropped to the point were when we stopped at a small shopping center for a rest break I ran into a shoe store to buy a pair of heavy socks, much to Donna’s amusement. 

The mountain vistas along the drive to Djurdjevica Tara bridge were fantastic and we arrived in time for some in our group to zip-line across Europe’s deepest canyon (4300 ft) and the turquoise waters of the River Tara – the “tear of Europe,” below.

An easy hike through old growth forests around Black Lake followed lunch at a waterside restaurant.

The last stop of the day was at Ostrog Monastery which expanded around a cave church that was built high into the mountains in the 1600s by Vasilije, the Bishop of Herzegovina and later known as St. Vasilije, to escape Ottoman raiders.  Upon his death his body was entombed in the church and legend says his mortal remains have miraculous healing powers.  Over the centuries, the monastery has become a pilgrimage site for Orthodox Christians, Catholics and Muslims, drawing 100,000 visitors annually. Additionally, the monastery is also known for its unigue religious frescoes, which were painted directly onto to the surface of the cave, following their natural curvature.  Our guide had timed our visit perfectly to coincide with the 5:00 PM mass. It was a moving experience to hear the liturgy sung and projected from loudspeakers out over the valley as the sun was setting. 

The last stop of the day was at a scenic overlook above Kotor Bay. Montenegro packs a magnificent amount of beauty into a small country and should be on everyone’s radar for an affordable, budget friendly destination.

A week later we rented a car to explore parts of Montenegro on our own.

Till next time, Craig & Donna  


Omo Valley Part 6 – The Arbore, Grasslands & Flamingos

Leaving the Buska Lodge, we turned east to cross the rugged Humu Range. Our eventual destination in three days’ time was Addis Ababa, but today we had one last tribe to visit: the Arbore tribe, whose ancestral homeland extends to the Weito River and Lake Chew Bahir.

Not far from the lodge, the compacted dirt road deteriorated into a rock-strewn obstacle course, the result of a recent rockslide caused by torrential rains earlier in August.  We coined the phrase “rattled tourist syndrome” here – after a couple of hours on this road, we felt like we had suffered brain damage!  Rounding a bend, we got our first glimpse of Lake Chew in the distance, before the road descended to a dry riverbed which we followed out of a canyon to the flood plain along the western shore of the lake.

When the shallow lake is full, its water covers an area 40 miles long by 15 miles wide and extends into northern Kenya.  It’s been drying up slowly for more than a century, and today it is mostly a papyrus-filled marshland. Its fertile shoreland is now farmed, and the papyrus reeds are cut from it by the Arbore to construct their huts.  Plots of land along the lake are redistributed yearly by the elders of the tribe, so no one family always has the best parcel.  

A short while later, under a threatening gray sky, we entered a small village. Here and there, women were involved in daily chores. Off to the side some children were tasked with rounding up a few young goats scampering about, while the married women of the village were attending to various chores in front of their huts.

The young, unmarried women of the clan were recognizable by the black cloth, a symbol of virginity, they draped over their shaven heads to protect themselves from the sun. Cattle-centric like most of the Omo Valley tribes the Arbore, which means land of the bulls, add a new dimension to it with the men joining the names of their favorite cows to their wives’ names. 

The Arbore are well respected by the surrounding tribes, the result of an ancient enduring legend in which the tribe defeated the devil in a battle.  Consequently, they have a centuries’ old “don’t mess with us” reputation that ensures a peaceful coexistence with their neighbors and fosters inter-tribal marriages and sharing of grazing lands when there are droughts.  

With the onslaught of the expected rain we were invited into a tribeswoman’s hut.  It was larger than some made by other tribes, with a second room where two small children were asleep on goat skins.  The front was roomy enough to shelter three of us and five villagers, sitting and standing, from the downpour outside.  It was a dark but dry enclosure. The colorful beads the women wore were illuminated by the only light source, the short entryway to the hut.

There are not any convenient alternate routes between points in the Omo Valley which meant we backtracked on roads previously driven as we worked our way towards Konso and Arba Minch.  We arrived late in the day to the Paradise Lodge, and the view from their terrace was spectacular as the sunny sky brightened the verdant jungle that separated Lake Abaya from Lake Chamo in the distance.

“The next time you come, we will go to the Bridge of God. It’s on the peak of that mountain that separates the two lakes.  There is a wonderful track through the jungle that takes you there,” our guide promised.

In the morning we set north to Lake Awassa, and the route was humming with activity. Folks walking, charcoal and dried chili vendors, tuk-tuks, donkey carts, herds of cattle and buses all jostled peacefully for space on this artery of commerce.

Before spending the night in Awassa, we detoured into the Senkele Wildlife Sanctuary, a 13,000-acre reserve established to protect a herd of 700 Swayne’s hartebeests, an endangered antelope. 

At the ranger station we parked our truck next to a large acacia tree, where to our delight a colony of weaver birds were frantically darting to and fro, constructing their intricate hanging nests. 

The guide drove us deep into the surrounding grasslands until he spotted a herd, and then encouraged us to walk across the plain with him.  Just exiting the vehicle made a huge difference in our appreciation of this gently rolling, beautiful landscape. 

The air was fresh, and an earthy aroma rose from the ground.  Farther down the track the ranger turned a blind eye to a young herder quickly moving some cattle through the reserve.  And to everyone’s surprise we spotted a rare Ethiopian wolf, which was stealthily shadowing a dik-dik.

Our destination the next morning was the Hawassa fish market, next to Amora Gedel, the smallest national park in Ethiopia. The market is a daily open-air event where fishermen paddle anything that floats, in order to eke out a living from the over-fished lake and its dwindling stock of tilapia, catfish, and Nile perch.

It was a colorful, chaotic affair as the fishermen gutted and filleted the freshly caught fish on the ground as soon as the nets were emptied.  It attracted a huge number of birds ready to swoop in to scavenge the scraps when the activity died down. 

There were a large number of ugly marabou storks, with their peculiar scaly heads, but we also saw hamerkop, ibis, pelicans and cormorants waiting patiently.   Ringing the parking lot, there were food shacks that prepared fried fish and a fish soup that is popular locally for breakfast.

Afterwards we headed to Abidjatta-Shalla National Park, which is known for its two large alkaline lakes surrounded by hot springs and flocks of flamingos, as well as a vast variety of bird life that favors the encompassing savanna.  We hired a ranger at the main gate and followed him along an unmarked path through the open woodland.

Soon we spotted a go away bird, warthogs and our favorite blue-eared glossy starlings.  Farther on we crept slowly up to a dominant male ostrich watching over a small flock. Our guide wanted us to go home with spectacular photos, so he instructed my wife to give him her camera, and to approach the large ostrich.

“It will be good photo,” he said in his broken English. “Closer, closer, closer.” My wife eyed the massive claws and muscular legs of the beast, and uncomfortably crept closer to the ostrich than she thought wise to do, the guide motioning her on all the while. “Stop!” the guide suddenly whisper-screeched and began snapping. He was right – they were pretty dramatic photos. Seconds later the ostriches were spooked by an unexpected antelope bounding through, and trotted off.

Back in the truck, our ranger guided us across the park to the shore of Shala Lake where we observed lesser flamingos feeding on cyanobacteria, abundant in the lakes’ alkaline water. 

After cresting a small ridge, we were overlooking a hot spring that bubbled up through the earth in a gully several hundred yards from the lake shore.  Surprisingly, there was a good size makeshift camp around it, supporting folks doing laundry and cooking food in the hot water.  Farther downstream people were bathing in ever cooler pools before the water emptied into the lake.

After soaking our feet in a suitable pool, it was time to return to Addis Ababa for our own day of laundry and rest before the next part of our Ethiopian journey, the rock churches of Lalibela.

Till next time, Craig & Donna

Omo Valley Part 5: The Devil’s Doorstep and Whipping Scars

Below us, down an extremely steep embankment, a dugout canoe waited to take us across the Omo River to visit the Dassanech tribe.  “If we trip, we are going for a swim,” I mentioned to our guide. “Don’t worry, the crocodiles are further downstream, closer to the delta,” he replied with his dry sense of humor, as several people helped us down to the water. 

Sitting low in the water, the dugout canoe was stable like a kayak and large enough for three of us. Standing on the stern, a tribesman poled us upstream for a distance before letting the current take us across the river to the equally steep, opposite bank. 

At the top of the riverbank freshly tilled fields, bordered with narrow irrigation canals, gave way to a flat dry landscape that extended to the horizon. The Dassanech are the southernmost tribe in the Omo valley, and their territory extends south to the Kenyan border at Lake Turkana and west to South Sudan.  Even with the river and lake nearby it’s a dry inhospitable terrain that has suffered from years of extended drought and climate change.  The temperature often exceeds 110°F. Consequently, as cross border tensions over diminishing grazing lands have increased, the Ethiopian government has discouraged the nomadic ways of the Dassanech.  In exchange for reducing the size of their cattle herds the government is helping them farm along the banks of the Omo River by providing resources and irrigation pumps.

We entered the village through an opening in the corral that encircled it. Roughly made of tree branches, it serves to keep cattle in and hyenas out at night. Low dome-shaped huts called miede constructed from foraged branches, twigs, river reeds and leaves used to be covered in cowhide for protection from dust storms and infrequent rains.  Now corrugated tin is used instead as there are fewer cattle to slaughter.

The huts must be roasting hot inside! Children hoop rolled an old bicycle tire along the irrigation canal while others played with empty water bottles tied to sticks as tribeswomen sat in the meager shade provided by huts.

The more plentiful shade of the few large, ancient trees still standing by the river is reserved for the men of the village and is off-limits to women and children.

This unforgiving environment created the atmosphere of a desolate refugee camp whose tribespeople were awaiting an unknown future.  To borrow a phrase, it felt like “the doorstep to hell.” I don’t say this to be derogatory, but to describe the intensely harsh environment. It’s remarkable that roughly 20,000 Dassanech can survive in such brutal, extreme conditions.  In such an environment, people wear very little clothing except when going to town. 

Visiting the Dassanech gave us a new understanding of the effects of climate change and the desire to migrate as a consequence of it. As we left the village, some of the tribeswomen had gathered to display their crafts. There is a social contract that, aside from paying for photos, tourists should purchase handcrafts from the villagers. It’s an additional way to help.

Back across the river, we stopped for a late lunch at a small place along the road, before heading to a Hamar village near Turmi. Outside the restaurant was a small collection box for the local church. 

Just a little aside: we had no intestinal issues with the food during our time in Ethiopia. The pit toilets, on the other hand, were truly frightening and we are convinced that they could only be mastered if you grew up with them. The privacy of a “bush toilet” behind a large termite mound was the more sanitary alternative.  And bring hand sanitizer!  (Surprisingly, after a year on the road, we only succumbed to food poisoning when we were back in Europe.)

A brief torrential rain dampened the dust and cleaned the air as we headed for the afternoon’s destination.

The golden hour was quickly descending when we arrived in the Hamar village and we only had a short time to work our way around the village before the sun disappeared behind a cloud bank. 

We were supposed to camp overnight in the village, an activity my adventuresome, good sport of a wife reluctantly agreed to when we planned this portion of our tour. “It will be fun!” I reassured her at the time. But seeing our pup tent set up in a small corral surrounded by dried cow dung and imagining how we would deal with a bush toilet in the darkness of the savanna, I had my doubts. I had imagined more of a glamping experience. Thinking of our aching backs in the morning from sleeping on the ground without any kind of padding, we asked our guide for plan B. 

Since the guides would have been participating in this camping adventure with us, they didn’t put up much argument about changing plans. This brought us to a comfortable room at the Buska Lodge, an eco-inn isolated in the thorn tree-studded savanna outside Turmi.  It was an oasis after a long and hot day. By the time we arrived the generator and water had been turned on.  At dinner we discussed returning to the Hamar village the next day, but early enough in the afternoon to give us enough time to enjoy the tribe and their village.

Early the next afternoon, before we entered Turmi, we crossed a dry riverbed where several teams of men were digging deep into the sand to find water. Towns without any water infrastructure rely on these hardworking and enterprising men to fill the ubiquitous yellow jerry cans with water and deliver them by donkey cart to people’s homes. It was another sign of climate change that reinforced its dire consequences.

The men of the village were still out with the cattle herds, but we were greeted by a throng of women and children.  The Hamar are known for their tradition of “bull jumping” or “bullah,” a purification and rite of passage ceremony for young tribesmen to prove their worthiness for marriage. It’s a complex ritual that culminates with the young man jumping over the backs of 10 bulls, which are smeared with dung to be slippery, four times without falling. If he falls he will have to wait a year until he’s allowed to try again.

We did not witness a bullah; what we did see were the results of the whipping ceremonies that precede the bull jumping. Displayed on the bare backs of the women of the village were large raised scars, which were inflicted by the men; the women receive the beatings as a show of loyalty.  Before the bull jumping, the sisters and other female relatives of the initiates from the surrounding villages gather, and with sorghum beer brewed for the occasion dance, sing and blow horns.  As the dancing intensifies the women are said to ask, beg, or provoke the maza, young men who bull jumped but haven’t married yet, to whip them with long birch branches called miceres.  This act of scarification is a visual reminder of the women’s loyalty to the young man about to bull jump and earns them the right to his help in the future should they ever need it.  “If your sisters, female cousins, or aunties need your assistance in the future your debt to them is sealed. You can’t ignore their requests, period. After all, they nearly died for you!” 

By western morals this is a brutal practice, but with the Hamar it’s an ancient ritual that has been performed for centuries. They have a saying, “Women with scars are as strong as lions!”

The Hamar tribeswomen are also very distinctive with their dress, wearing long goatskin garments adorned with cowry shells and beads.  The first wife of a tribesman wears an iron neck ring with a protruding knob on the front, called a binyere, that visually distinguishes her status as the first wife, above two esente, simple iron collars, that she has worn since her engagement.  The collars are permanently placed on the woman by the village blacksmith and only removed by her husband upon her death. Additional wives only wear simple metal necklaces to indicate their lower status.

We stayed late into the day, wandering through the village watching children play atop the cattle corrals while waiting for the herds to return and the sky slowly deepen to darkness.

Till next time, Craig & Donna

Omo Valley Part 4: Headrests and Visiting Stools

Turning off the packed dirt road at Turmi, we headed into a xeric savanna along a sandy vein, barely visible on Google Map’s satellite view, our destination the Kara tribe’s village of Korcho.  Occasionally, we would pass a tree with pink flowers, called a Desert Rose (Adenium obesum), which brightly contrasted with its surroundings. 

Numerous red earthed termite mounds rose from the plain. “What do you think they look like?” our guide queried as we stopped to photograph a large, fluorescent blue agaminae lizard climbing one.  Not sure how to politely reply, we hesitated with a response.  “Dicks, they look like big dicks!” our normally reserved guide chuckled out before a round of laughter filled the truck.  Hey, we know how to have a good chuckle in the bush.  Obviously, we were traveling with the “Benny Hill” of Ethiopia.

Picking up on our interest in wildlife our driver, who was excellent at identifying birds, stopped every time he spotted something.  Thanks to his eagle eye, we were able to photograph red and yellow barbets, white crowned shrikes, guinea fowl, and red billed hornbills along with a dik-dik and an Arabian bustard.

The track ended in the Kara village of Korcho, located on a high embankment, above a curve in the Omo river – it was a stunning view. The Kara are the smallest tribe in the southern Omo Valley. Their population was decimated in the late 19th century during a sleeping sickness epidemic spread by the bite of the tsetse fly.

With an estimated 1500-3000 people left in three large villages, they are trying to keep their bloodline pure and have strict rules forbidding intermarriage with the surrounding tribes.  Traditionally pastoralists, they prefer goats over cattle, as their grazing lands have been reduced by conflicts with larger neighboring tribes; also, they now practice flood-retreat farming and fish in the Omo River. 

The Kara are also famous for their body painting.  Using designs inspired from nature, they apply local chalk and clay, iron ore, charcoal, and ground yellow mineral rock in intricate designs. They paint themselves or each other as there are no mirrors.  Done for beauty and ceremonial reasons, the body painting also helps to keep insects away and reduce sunburn. 

Men and women also make a single piercing below their lower lip and insert a single thorn or carved twig for decoration.  Scarification is practiced by the men to commemorate a courageous act, while women lash themselves because the raised welts are viewed as a sign of beauty on mature women.

Visiting stools called, borkotto, double as headrests and are carried by tribesmen wherever they go.  Courageous Kara tribesmen are entitled to wear a red and grey colored, clay hair cap which is decorated with a large feather. This symbol of honor can last up to six months and is ritually protected every night when sleeping by using the headrest to protect it from the ground. 

We were invited by a tribeswoman to have coffee in her hut. The Kara build relatively large huts, sturdily constructed of branches and thatch with a small low entrance.  We followed a small group, who dipped low and slid inside gracefully.  I, on the other hand, to the amusement of onlookers, resorted to crawling on all fours through the portal. The knees just don’t bend the way they used to.  Over an open fire our hostess was preparing a coffee beverage, more like a coffee tea, called buno which is made by steeping the dried husks of coffee beans in hot water.  The drink was passed around in a hollowed-out gourd which we all drank from.

Later that day we headed to visit part of the Nyangatom tribe living near the Omo River.  They are thought to have migrated into the Omo Valley region from Uganda in the mid-1800s.  The Nyangatom are semi-nomadic agro-pastoralists, though some members of their tribe that have lost their cattle now farm and fish along the Omo River.  Their permanent villages feature tall huts with a distinctive, pinnacled thatched roof.

Inland other clans drive large herds of zebu cattle, along with some goats and donkeys (as pack animals) through a large arid grazing area that extends west to the Sudanese border and north to the Suri territory. In times of drought they dig deep wells in the dry riverbeds so they and their animals can drink.

The Nyangatom name their generation groups. The oldest have names like the Tortoises, Mountains and Elephants.  The youngest generation is called the Buffaloes. Every fifty years the older generation steps aside for the younger one to rule. 

Nyangatom tribeswomen are recognized by the elaborate bundle of colorful necklaces they wear and never take off. The first strand of beads is given by a girl’s father. Every year after she adds another strand, mounding pounds of them up under her chin over her lifetime. 

Some traditions never change, but as we were leaving the village, we noticed a small solar panel atop one of the huts. Probably just powerful enough to recharge a cell phone or run a light bulb.  

Till next time, Craig & Donna

Lalibela Part 2: Holy Water and Thumbprints

There is not a definitive count, but it’s thought that there are nearly two hundred rock churches scattered about the remote northern highlands of Ethiopia. The highest concentration of eleven in one locale, collectively known as the “Rock Churches of Lalibela,” is the most famous. In the immediate rural area surrounding Lalibela there are several additional rock churches and ancient monasteries worth seeking out.  Asheten Mariam Monastery is perched at 11,500 ft on a lower ridge of Mount Abuna Yosef, (at 14,000 ft Ethiopia’s sixth highest mountain) and St. Na’akuto La’ab Monastery behind a waterfall, both located southeast of Lalibela. Farther afield, to the north of Lalibela, St. Yemrehana Krestos and Bilba Kirkos Church lie in remote farmlands.  All four required a little more physical effort to get to, but were well worth the effort.IMG_5573We started our day listening to bird calls and watching the morning clouds burn off from the valley below our hotel as the sun rose higher into the sky. The Mountain View Hotel Lalibela was the perfect spot on the outskirts of town, with extensive views and a wonderful variety of birdlife in the trees outside our room.  Farther along the ridgeline was an odd, futuristic structure that looked like it was a tower for a water ride in an amusement park.