Belize – When Iguanas Fall from Trees, Head South

“Welcome aboard, folks. Our flight time to Belize is two hours and ten minutes. The weather is expected to be a balmy 80 degrees Fahrenheit today when we land,” the pilot announced as we were buckling in. Then continued with “As you know the National Weather Service has issued the very rare ‘Beware of Falling Iguanas Weather Alert’ for Miami and South Florida this morning.”  As funny as this sounds, it actually happens when the temperature dips into the thirties in Florida.  Cold blooded animals, the iguanas slowly stiffen as the temperature drops and eventually lose their grip on the tree branches they have been sleeping on and fall to the ground, stunned, where they lay immobile until the temperature rises.  Iguanas can grow quite large and may cause serious injury or death if you are unlucky enough to get struck by one of the falling frozen reptiles. It sounds like something out of a zombie apocalypse movie – be careful out there. We were delighted to be heading south again to a warmer climate after a cold and rainy November and December in Italy, which was followed by a warm-hearted, but very frigid Christmas with our kids in New Jersey.

On our final approach for landing the wing of the plane dipped to reveal a beautiful azure sea outlined with dense green jungle and brilliantly white sand beaches – and not much else – as far as the eye could see.  It was still much like it was several millennium ago when a prosperous Mayan civilization flourished, supporting an estimated population of 500,000 – 1,000,000 in the region. Columbus sailed by without stopping and landed in Honduras during his last voyage to the Americas in 1502.  Navigator Juan Diaz de Solis did not mention a landfall or discovery during his expedition in 1507 sailing from Panama to the Yucatan. Several theories suggest that the 190-mile-long Belize Barrier Reef, the largest in the northern hemisphere, was too difficult to navigate through so the Spanish fleets sailed past. We witnessed this difficulty once from the deck of a cruise ship as the captain left a snaking wake as he steered a serpentine route through the underwater obstacle course.

The first European to arrive in Corozal literally washed ashore as a survivor of a 1511 Spanish shipwreck. To stay alive, conquistador Gonzalo Guerrero offered his skills as a soldier to Mayan Chief Na Chan Kan at Chactemal, (now Santa-Rita, Corozal Town). He proved his skill as a warrior and married the chief’s daughter, Princess Zazil Há. The children from their union are recognized as the first Mestizos of Central America; theirs was the first Mayan liaison recorded by Bernal Diaz de Castillo in his memoir “The True History of the Conquest of New Spain,” written in 1568.

Guerrero defended his adopted homeland against conquest in 1531 when he helped Chief Na Chan Kan defeat the Spanish army in a battle near the Rio Hondo. Today the river is still Belize’s northern border with Mexico.  Spain never established any permanent settlements in Belize.  Gold and silver were discovered next door in Guatemala and Honduras. Belize was absorbed into the Spanish empire of Central America by its proximity to its larger neighbors, but was never colonized until the British subversively entered the territory.

The riches of the new world didn’t go unnoticed for long, but by the time English and Scottish pirates arrived on the scene in the mid-1600s, the treasure-laden flotillas destined for the Spanish crown from central America had been replaced by shipments of logwood.  Native to northern Central America, logwood or bloodwood was used by the indigenous tribes of the region to produce a vibrant red-orange dye. Mixed with other ingredients, a full spectrum of colors was possible. It grew abundantly and was exported to Spain where the cheap natural resource revolutionized the textile industry and afforded commoners a chance to have colorful wardrobes, which before was only afforded by the nobility. Gone were the days of fabrics dyed gray with soot. 

Gold or wood – it didn’t matter. Pirates were pirates and willing to steal your cargo regardless of its content, as long as there was a profit to be made, and the English textile mills were demanding logwood.  After plundering large Spanish merchant ships that sailed across the Gulf of Honduras, the pirates found safe refuge for their smaller vessels in the shallow waters behind the Belize Barrier Reef amidst its 450 cays and atolls, where they could hunt for food, get fresh water, and repair their boats.  In 1670 England and Spain signed a treaty banning piracy in the Caribbean.  The days of the infamous pirates of Belize, Edward Lowe, Captain Charles Johnson, Bartholomew Sharp, Captain Henry Morgan, and Blackbeard, were waning.  By this time English pirates had discovered Belize was full of logwood and many ex-privateers became legitimate and wealthy logwood cutters and exporters after buying African slaves to work in the miserable conditions of the mosquito-infested jungles.  Though Spain considered all of Central America as part of their empire and occasionally harassed the British logwood camps trying to evict them, the Spanish crown never established any settlements in Belize. 

In 1763 Spain signed another treaty allowing English subjects the “privilege of wood-cutting,” but still retained sovereignty over the region. Possession is nine-tenths of the law and Belize finally became the English colony of British Honduras in 1862. Mahogany had replaced logwood as the major export. Conflict with the Mayans escalated as settlers moved farther into the interior exploiting the regions mahogany forests, and forced the indigenous population from their lands by burning their villages and crops. The giant cut logs were floated down the country’s rivers to the coast and where rivers didn’t exist, small logging railroads were built to satisfy the European demand for this beautiful hardwood that was favored for fine cabinetry, furniture and shipbuilding.

Disenfranchised and oppressed, the Mayan revolted in what is called the Caste War against their colonizers. Led by Marcus Canul, a Mayan chief,  his people demanded the British pay for the crops they burnt and for the land they occupied.  In northern Belize, Canul’s freedom fighters attacked and occupied the garrison town of Corozal. The movement lost its momentum when Canul was killed during an unsuccessful assault on Orange Walk in 1872.  Long considered a rebel and criminal, he is now regarded as a Belizean hero who fought against ethnic cleansing. The deforested jungles were replaced by sugar cane, ranching and agriculture plantations.

Belize finally became independent in 1981, though The British Army still maintains a jungle warfare training facility in the country to help deter Guatemalan aggression in an unresolved border issue. Aldous Huxley once wrote, “If the world had any ends, British Honduras (Belize) would certainly be one of them. It is not on the way from anywhere to anywhere else. It has no strategic value. It is all but uninhabited.”

Today the tiny country of 400,000 supports a diverse culture descended from Mayans, Mestizos, African slaves, Garifunas, Europeans and more recently immigrants from Lebanon, Germany, the East Indies, Asia and North America with an economy centered on tourism and agriculture.  English is the official language of Belize, but it is not the first language of many with Spanish, Belizean Creole and Q’eqchi’ Maya primarily spoken, depending on what part of the country you are in.

The barrier Islands and cays where pirates might have hidden treasure now sport popular resorts on their white sand beaches. Scuba divers can explore shipwrecks, the Great Blue Hole (a marine sinkhole that is visible from space,) and the exceptional marine life found along the Belize Barrier Reef which is now a marine reserve and UNESCO World Heritage site.  Ashore the jungles and mountains continue to reveal the extent of the Mayan civilization in Belize with over 600 known archeological sites discovered so far, ranging from ceremonial caves to towering stone pyramids.

We are on the other end of the tourist spectrum and wanted something very lowkey, inexpensive and relaxing for a month. We headed to Corozal! Located on Chetumal Bay, it is the northern most city in Belize and only 16 miles from Chetumal, Mexico. It was founded in 1848 by Mestizo refugees from Mexico fleeing Mayan retribution from the Caste Wars there. It prospered exporting mahogany logs when there were still enough trees to support the timber industry. Sugarcane now fuels the economy. 

In 1955 Hurricane Janet, a category 5 storm with winds of 175mph, flattened ninety-five percent of Corozal and left 8,000 people homeless.  Surprisingly one of the few buildings left standing on the waterfront, fully intact, was the home of lumber baron John Carmichael.  It was built in the 1880’s using only mahogany.  The house is still used today as a Catholic mission. The pre-1955 wooden structures have been replaced with concrete block houses now, mostly two stories high, except the four-story Mirador Hotel, the tallest building in town.

Our ah-ha moment happened after the two-hour, inland drive from the airport, when we entered Corozal and saw the enticing turquoise waters of Corozal Bay on our way to our Airbnb rental. We drove a mile along a still bay bordered by a low battered seawall and numerous public parks dotted with palm trees.

Turning onto 2nd St. North our driver stopped in front of a flowering bougainvillea-covered wall, less than 200ft from the water, that hid the Villa Imperial Loft Apartment, our home for the next four weeks.  Our host Oscar wasn’t home at the time, but had made arrangements with Sue, another guest, who graciously led us through the flowering garden, complete with a resident mama cat and her kitten, and up the back stairs to our studio apartment. She enthusiastically answered our first questions about Corozal.

The large room was brightly painted and pleasantly decorated with an eclectic mix of antiques, reminiscent of visiting our grandparents.  A wall of windows facing east offered a glimpse of the bay, and any storms approaching, through the neighbor’s tree. Best was the kitchen across the landing at the top of the stairs. It was enclosed on three sides with just screened windows, covered with louvered shutters. In stark contrast to the apartment, it was very rustic with the feel of an old lake cabin. But we soon realized it was the perfect spot to observe the wide varieties of birds that visited the trees in the backyard, and we thoroughly enjoyed cooking and eating there.  Birding over the next month while walking along the waterfront was one of the highlights of our stay in Corozal. Spotting just a few of the 590 bird species in Belize, we saw sandpipers, great kiskadee, white-collared manakin, yellow-throated euphonia, tricolored heron, kingfisher, lineated woodpecker, great egrets, couch’s kingbird, crimson-collared tanager, black and white warbler, and the outrageously raucous plain chachalaca, which you’ll hear well before seeing them.

For many travelers visiting northern Belize, Corozal is just a brief stop on their way to or from Mexico or Guatemala, or a transfer point to catch the two-hour Thunderbolt Ferry or a flight on Tropic Air from the Corozal Airport (CZH) to San Pedro, on the barrier island, Ambergris Caye.  The town doesn’t have a beach, which has probably helped keep it off the beaten path for most tourists that visit Belize. Access to the shallow water is from stairs in the 1.5 mile long stone seawall that has not fared well against the surges of the ocean. We had read that the district has a sizeable expat community, that likes to avail themselves of all the big city options, mainly a Walmart and Sam’s Club that are across the border in Chetumal, Mexico.  But from our experiences we only encountered a handful of North Americans, surely not surging numbers that would indicate it was a sizzling hot spot for vacationing or retirement that would change the character of the town. And that’s a good thing. The joy of Corozal for us was its tranquility; there really was not much to do there aside from chilling and the occasional dip in the gentle waves of the bay.  The serenity of the seascapes compensated for the lack of activities.

We were enjoying the tropical 80-degree weather of Corozal and re-embracing our slow travel philosophy by immersing ourselves in the daily flow of life in this small coastal town. It was wonderful to see parents accompanying their uniform clad children to school every morning. Some parents drove, others walked along or bicycled with their kids. Routinely at the end of the school day an older couple pedaling a three-wheeler sold homemade popcorn to the kids or the youngsters lined up for ice cream on the porch of a home that doubled as an ice cream parlor. The kids waved to us if they noticed us bobbing in the bay across the street.

Our daily walks led to discoveries all across town, mostly culinary in nature. We were eager to find the best places to buy groceries, interesting places to eat and quench our thirst.  Most importantly, our craving for good coffee was easily satisfied directly across the street at the top of a colorful flight of tiled stairs. Here Oscar’s nephew Rudi runs the LVDM Coffee Stop on the porch of his home and makes what are easily the best cappuccinos in Corozal. He also rents two rustic villitas in his backyard. 

In town there were any number of Asian-owned grocery stores that all offered the same staples. We tended to prefer a shop called the Central Supermarket, because they were the closest place to carry our recyclable beer bottles. Diagonally across the street the city’s daily market had numerous fruit and vegetable stands, an open-air butcher, and clothing vendors. A twice weekly farmers market was held outside of town, across from the cemetery.  Fortunately, this location did not reflect negatively upon the quality of produce sold there. At a much greater walking distance, it didn’t offer any real advantage over the produce sold for the same price at the daily market. Shopping there was an early morning event and the atmosphere was very vibrant. It was here we got the first glimpse of the country’s Mennonite farming community, easily identifiable by their conservative dress and spoken Pennsylvania German. Since 1958 when they were invited to settle in Belize by the first Premiere of the country, George C. Price, the community has grown to 10,000, and they have contributed immensely to Belize’s agriculture self-reliance.

Surprisingly, even though Corozal is located right on the bay, we could not find fresh fish and had to purchase locally caught frozen fish, conch and lobster from Frank’s, a great butcher shop that makes their own sausage and offers a wide assortment of fresh beef, pork and poultry.  Directly across from Frank’s on the other side of the civic center field we found Vivi’s for wonderful meat pies.

On one of our walks, we did meet a young brother and sister team carrying a five-gallon bucket on the handlebar of their bicycle. It was full of lobster and conch, caught by their father earlier that morning.  They were going door to door in the neighborhood, selling it so they could buy their school uniforms.  Of course, we purchased some, and it was delicious.

The town does not have a marina for boats, but there are spots along the bay where fishermen pull out their ancient mahogany boats for repairs.  Called sandlighters, many of these traditional sailing vessels were built across the bay in the fishing community of Sarteneja and are over eighty years old.

There were several small bakeries in town, each offering different specialties.  The Y Not Bakery, to the detriment of our waistlines, was the closest and created the best temptations. Another favorite was Caramelo Bakery across from the high school and down the street from Belcuisine, a spice factory that produces flavorful Belizean Recados mixes.

Corozal really was a rewarding foodie’s destination with numerous small taquerias and enterprising folks offering roadside barbeque. Many businesses were operated from the windows of homes, like Ruby’s, who prepared delicous ceviche then sold it through her living room window for take-away.

The only option for eating out was casual dining. We found June’s Kitchen and Mar’s Caribbean Garden for homecooked meals.  Directly across from the bay, Scotty’s Crocodile Cove was a relaxing spot with thatched roofs; it was an enjoyable place for a refreshing Belizean brewed Belikin beer and large burritos that could easily feed three people.  The Tortuga Grill, across from the waterfront Rainbow Park, and the Wood House Restaurant, adjacent to Miami Beach, both offered good food and views of the bay.

Corozal enthusiastically supports its art community and one Saturday a month, in the town’s Central Park, holds the Art in the Park event where local artists and craftspeople display and sell their work. It was a fun time, with live music and delicous Belizean food. It’s held between 5pm – 9pm to avoid the heat of the day.  If City Hall is open make sure to check out the fantastic wall mural depicting the history of Corozal, painted by Belizean-Mexican artist Manual Villamor.

The blank concrete block walls of homes and businesses across from Miami Beach were the canvases for street artists invited to participate in the Corozal Graffiti Festival. In 2020 street mural artists from Belize, Cuba, El Salvador and Mexico were invited to enliven the walls with an “Ancient Chactemal” theme. It was a lively event with a music stage, art and crafts for sale, body painting and food vendors. On the beach, the Corozal sailing club was offering catamaran rides on the gentle waters of the bay.

There is an abundance of civic pride displayed in this small, well-kept community on Corozal Bay that is endearing. We barely scratched the surface of places to explore in Belize and were perfectly content “Snow Birds” with our choice of Corozal for a month’s worth of lazy rest and relaxation.  We’d definitely return to explore the surrounding area more fully.

Till next time, Craig & Donna

Bergamo – Cathedrals, a Flat Tire and a Bell Tower

Somewhere along our route on the A4 motorway to Bergamo the tire blew. It wasn’t an obvious blowout, the car still handled well, but the car felt different.  Our dilemma was, if we stop on the shoulder of the highway to call for assistance how do we explain our location in our non-existent Italian, or do we keep driving to the next exit. We kept going. In the time it took to stop and pay the toll the tire totally deflated, and we limped off the highway on three wheels. Luck was with us we when we rolled into the gas station at the top of the exit ramp.  They didn’t offer any repair services, but did have a small café, and it being Italy, they served excellent cappuccino and pistacchio pasticcino.  With the barista’s help our exact location was given to the roadside assistance agent, and we settled in for what we thought would be a very long wait. Surprisingly, we were back on the road again in less than one hour.

Bergamo was a well-established ancient village before it became a Roman town in 49 BC and today is a hub of industrialization in the Lombardy region.  The newer portion of the city, Citta Bassa, or lower city, is a smart looking collection of contemporary buildings along tree-lined boulevards and pedestrian malls worthy of exploration. Though we were here to wander around the narrow lanes and ancient churches within the 16th century Venetian defensive walls of the Città Alta, the high city. The historic upper center of Bergamo was strategically located on a rock promontory with commanding views of the surrounding region.

Completely pedestrian only, the old town is connected to the new town by a funicular  that runs up the side of a steep hill through an ivy-covered channel. We knew the old town would be full of history, but soon realized it was an unexpected foodie’s delight when we were faced with a gauntlet of gourmet food stores that started as soon as we got off the funicular.

With each shop window more tempting than the previous, it was a challenging task walking along Via Gombito to Piazza Vecchia, the historic center of Bergamo.  It was the last week of November now and even though the days were sunny there was a definite chill to the air. Fortunately, the cafes on the piazza were still in full swing with outdoor dining and had heavy lap blankets available to ward off the chill.  The ambiance of the old town is wonderful and there’s plenty to absorb just by wandering around, but if you are short on time concentrating on the historic buildings that line Piazza Vecchia is rewarding.

Dominating the piazza is the Campanone, the town’s clock and bell tower. When it was built in the 12th century it was the private residence of the wealthy and influential Suardi family.  With admission there is an elevator that will take you most of the way to the top.  Interestingly at ten o’clock every evening the town keeps an ancient Venetian tradition alive by chiming the bells of the clock tower 100 times to signal the closing of the city gates. It was cloudy after lunch so we decided to delay our tower visit till later, hoping that the weather would change, and the sun would come out. Next to the tower stands the Palazzo del Podestà e Museo del Cinquecento a wonderful, high-tech, multimedia and interactive museum housed in a Renaissance era palazzo that highlights Bergamo’s history.

The Cattedrale (duomo) di Sant’Alessandro, the Bergamo Cathedral, is almost hidden away behind the arched portico that separates the Piazza Vecchia from the Piazza Duomo.  Majestic in scale, the duomo dates from the 1400s and has undergone many alterations over the centuries that has evolved the church into a treasured, religious art-filled sanctuary that is the Bishop of Bergamo’s seat.  An important center for Christianity since the religion was accepted by the Roman Empire in the third century, Bergamo has had a bishop since the fourth century. Underneath the Presbytery the Bishops’ Crypt of The Cathedral Of Bergamo holds, in a semi-circle, twelve tombs of bishops who guided the See in the 19th, 20th and 21st centuries.  Strikingly, the façade of the crypt, in my opinion, could pass as the entrance to a retro café; it just had that feel.

The highlight for us on Piazza Duomo was the Romanesque Basilica di Santa Maria Maggiore with its intricately designed marble façade and ornate gilded interior, and the Cappella Colleoni, a separate 15th century funerary chapel with a frescoed ceiling that seamlessly stands next to it. Founded in 1137, like so many other churches in Italy, it was built over the ruins of an earlier 8th century church and an older Roman temple. 

To our delight the church organist was practicing during our visit, and we stayed for twenty minutes and enjoyed this impromptu concert.

Just wandering around, we eventually arrived at the Torre della Campanella, the bell tower and arched gate entrance to Piazza Mascheroni and the Visconti Citadel which guarded the western entrance of the city from invasion, and protected the Visconti family from civil rebellion. The citadel is now home to the Civic Archaeological Museum and the Bergamo Science Museum. 

Remarkably, the buildings adjacent to the gateway still have faded remnants of renaissance era frescoes adorning their exterior walls.

Outside the city walls, the landscape opened to vistas of rolling hills, still holding the fading colors of fall.

Back at Piazza Vecchia the afternoon sun was beginning to break through the clouds when we decided to head to the top of the Campanone. 

The elevator stopped short of the top and we had to navigate a narrow passage to reach the highest level.

Each corner of the tower offered an amazing bird’s eye perspective of the ancient city, from soaring above the cathedrals on Piazza Duomo, to cityscapes of red tiled rooftops with smoke wafting from their chimneys, to distant still green hills.

The city is full of potential, and you won’t be disappointed if you spend two nights here to fully explore the Città Alta. But Old Town Bergamo is the perfect size to entertain you for four or five hours, on your way to or from Milan or Verona, either by train or car, without feeling you might have missed something.

Till next time, Craig & Donna

Verona – Courtesans, Hermits and Grappa

Occasionally, I will suggest we return to a place we have visited before, to relive that good time and explore the things we missed previously, or if it was a super affordable destination.  “The world is so big. I’d rather go someplace new,” is often Donna’s response, said with a sweet smile.  But “the rule” doesn’t apply to Italy! – the land of her people.  I’ve lost count of the number of times Donna has been there, but I maintain I’ve followed along often enough to receive honorary citizenship. Let’s face it, Italy is a great place to explore, which led us to Verona, again, for a night. Anyway, it was sort of on our roundabout way to Milan.

It was late afternoon when we arrived at the budget friendly Accommodation Verona, (yes, that is the correct name) on the edge of the historic district. We double parked while the proprietor took our bags upstairs. He then hopped in the passenger seat to show the way to the underground car park and the hotel’s newly purchased garage spaces, with overhead doors to totally secure your wheels, which he was immensely proud of. It was a bit of a hike from the hotel, but the car was safe in the parking garage equivalent of Fort Knox.

The sun was brilliant on Verona’s ancient colosseum while we sipped Aperol spritzes and shared a pizza at an outdoor restaurant on Piazza Bra, as shoppers strolled amidst the nearby Christmas market. Gone were the fake gladiators and other street entertainers who left when the weather turned colder.

It was a vastly different dining experience compared to our first dinner in Verona years ago.  Travel novices then, we were constantly referencing a travel guide by an American, that recommended sights, hotels and restaurants. With book in hand that suggested the restauranteur would treat us well and offer special prices to loyal readers of said guide, we found a delightful place on a quiet lane lined with outdoor tables and twinkling lights.  “Who?” was the response when we mentioned the guidebook. A large antipasto, charcuterie board, wine and “special price” were all agreed upon. Or so we thought.

It was one of those long, delightful European dining experiences, where the table was ours for the evening. The dinner and ambiance were great! Eventually our amiable host, carrying the largest bottle of grappa we’ve ever seen, presented a small wooden box containing the bill. “Please enjoy as much of the grappa as you like.” Drink this to ease the shock of the bill, would have been a more accurate invitation.  Grappa is a regional pomace brandy, distilled from the seeds, stems and skins left over from the winemaking process. Production is centered nearby around the aptly named village of Bassano del Grappa. This is strong stuff that, in a pinch, Italian farmers have used to fuel their tractors. A good dent was put into that bottle of grappa, as we were eventually the last to leave. Fortunately, our hotel was a short, though not very straight, giggly walk away.  Sleep was unjustly cut short the next morning when at sunrise, the glass recycling truck in the alley under our hotel window loudly emptied a dumpster of wine bottles to haul away.  The brash rattling sound of glass bottles crashing was excruciating and reverberated off the narrow alleyway’s walls for what seemed an eternity.  Thank God for espresso and Saint Drogo, the patron saint of coffee baristas. (I do not make these things up!)    

Normally hidden in deep shadows, Renaissance era wall paintings decorating ancient buildings were now revealed in the last of the afternoon’s light. Likewise, the lowering sun highlighted the fine relief sculptures adorning many of the city’s ancient buildings.

By dusk we were standing along the Adige riverfront watching the last rays of the day’s sun color the sky above the arched 14th century Castelvecchio Bridge.  Attached to the Castelvecchio fortress, the bridge was intended as an escape route for the feudal lords to flee across in case of a popular uprising or coup d’état to seek safety in the Tyrol mountains, north of the city, and for the prince’s courtesans to discreetly exit the castle.

The lights of the city’s Christmas tree shined brightly through the twin arches of the Porta Borsari; built by the Romans in the 1st century AD, it was the main entrance to this once walled city. Nearby, Caffè Borsari beckoned, with its extensive list of creative coffee beverages. Maestros of the espresso machine, the baristas here are artists.

The next morning was overcast as we drove across the Adige River and made our way up a serpentine road through a forested hillside, to the esplanade in front of Castel San Pietro for the panoramic view of Verona, and its iconic Ponte Pietra bridge below.  A wonderful feat of ancient engineering first crossed in 100 BC, it has had a troubled existence, with multiple collapses caused by flooding over the centuries, and intentional destruction by the retreating Germany army in WWII. Through the various reconstructions, the builders have remained faithful to the original Roman design of five different sized arches with apertures above the pilings. The present castle on the hill was built by the Austrians in 1851 as a barracks, replacing a 400-year-old fortress blown up by Napoleon’s army in 1801. For the hearty, there are stairs from the bridge that lead to the mirador, or the Funicolare di Castel San Pietro that will whisk you to the top of the hill, should you wish to avoid the muscle aches.

The dull sun barely broke through the clouds, but the filtered light created a serene scene reminiscent of an impressionist painter’s pastel hued landscape, soft and atmospheric.

Rounding a curve on the SS12, as we headed north, we caught our first glimpse of a snow-capped Mt. Baldo, brilliantly white against a clear blue sky. Our destination was the remote and isolated Santuario Madonna della Corona.  A pilgrimage site since 1522, legend holds that on the eve of the Ottoman invasion of Rhodes, with 400 warships and 100,00 troops, the sanctuary’s statue of the Madonna was carried miraculously by an angel from the Mediterranean island to a shallow cave on a Mount Baldo cliff edge, home to a hermitage for holy men, for safe keeping.

Spiazzi, the village above the sanctuary, was nearly a ghost town when we arrived mid-week in November. We found the empty parking lot for the church and high-season shuttle bus that was not running, but aside from that there was no other signage pointing the way. Taking a guess, we turned down a very narrow country lane and headed down hill, stopping when we reached a farm stand where a stoic woman, bundled up against the cold, was selling alpaca wool, sheared and spun from her flock which was corralled nearby.  Stopping, we asked if we were headed the right way and how long she would be open. A little farther on we came to the first Passion of Christ station on the Sentiero del Pellegrino, the Pilgrim’s Path.  The series of life-sized bronze sculptures depicting the stations of the cross took the devoted Italian sculptor Raffaele Bonente thirty years to create.  Whether you walk along or drive the paved road or hike the steep staired path, the stations are positioned where the routes intersect. 

In the off-season, without any other vehicles on the road, it was easy to stop and take photos of the church that tenaciously clings to the cliffside, between heaven and earth, 2539ft above the Adige Valley. In high season the turn-around at the church is reserved for the shuttle bus, but off season we parked next to one other visitor.

The original dangerous path along the cliff edge has been obscured over time through multiple improvements and the approach to the terrace in front of the church is now through a rough-hewn tunnel carved into the cliff. Tranquility reigns here. The views across the valley were phenomenal and accompanied only by the sound of a gentle wind rustling through the forest below.  The spiritual devotion and shear physical effort to build a church in such a difficult spot attests to the deep faith and dedication of the builders. For hikers, the Sentiero del Pellegrino continues down the slope, through the valley to the village of Brentino.

Following the same route back to Spiazzi, we stopped at the alpaca farm and purchased some much-needed heavy weight alpaca wool socks, to help keep our feet warm.  Early on in our two-year journey Donna decided to start crocheting in the evenings. Wool has been purchased for various projects, mostly gifts, in Ecuador, Guatemala, Portugal, South Africa and now Italy, from an off-the beaten-path farm stand on a remote mountainside.  It was late afternoon now, but fortunately the Albergo Trattoria Speranza, located at the crossroads of Spiazzi was still serving food and has rooms if you want to stay overnight in the hamlet.  A good meal restored us for the drive to Lake Garda.

With night drawing in earlier now we reached the lakeside village of Garda at twilight.  Sunset colors lingered in the sky as we walked along the marina. A few fishermen were still casting, hoping for that last bite, and small boats gently rocked on the ripples of Lake Garda. 

The lights of a Christmas market set up along the lakefront drew us further down the promenade.  Wonderful aromas drifted from the various food stalls, making what to choose for dinner even more difficult. Mulled wine and porchetta sandwiches capped the evening.

Till next time, Craig & Donna

Omo Valley Part 2: Generation Poles and Dry Faucets

After getting some up-close shots of warthogs feeding on the lawn in front of our room, we loaded our bags into the Landcruiser and headed south to the Konso region with our guide and our driver. IMG_9593The highlands area is home to the Konso people who are renowned for their ringed hilltop villages, fortified with stone walls. They have developed terraced farming techniques to survive in a semi-arid, rock strewn and hilly territory for almost seven-hundred years.IMG_0083As we entered the town of Konso, bundles of candles miraculously appeared from under our guide’s seat and we stopped to donate them to a young man collecting offerings in front of his Ethiopian church.  This was the guide’s ritual when we changed territories and it continued throughout our trip. It was a common sight to see small groups of parishioners walking along the road holding up a picture of a beloved saint and umbrellas for shade.

The main street through town was lined with bustling shops. Their services and merchandise almost spilled into the street.  A rutted dirt field served as the bus depot and on the day we passed, a large crowd danced in undulating rhythm to see off newlyweds.  As remote as southern Ethiopia is, it has a rural minibus system that connects distant villages. The buses are always jammed full of folks, while their belongings are haphazardly tied to the roof.

The creative hand of man was clearly evident in the sculpted terracing we could see from the road leading to the Gamule Konso Cultural Village, a UNESCO World Heritage site.  Staple crops of barley and wheat are grown along with crops of maize, chickpeas, beans, yams, taro, turnips, coffee, tobacco and cotton.  The terracing tames a once inhospitable terrain into productive farmland.IMG_1769As we walked to the center of the village young children following us jumped from rock to rock, along the tops of the tall walls built to protect the village, as we made our way along the path below.

Set on a hilltop the village, called a paleta, is ringed with six concentric, high stone walls.  Each ring was added as the population of the village expanded downhill. Within these defensive walls are fenced family compounds with pens for a small number of animals and sturdy huts and granaries constructed of tree branches, adobe and thatch along with moringa trees, from which the foliage is an important and delicous food source. IMG_9817Each ring also has a community area called a mora; this is a large thatched roof structure with an open lower level and an enclosed upper platform where the married men and bachelors of the village sleep.IMG_9868 More importantly it provides a shaded meeting place where men play gebeta.  It’s considered the oldest board game in the world and is played simply with stones, beans or seeds being moved around holes in a board with the goal to capture as many of your opponent’s pieces as possible.  Each village is also divided into two zones and a man born in one zone must always have his homestead in that zone.IMG_9767The Konso also erect generation poles, called olahita, which are raised every eighteen years. The olahita are made of cedar trees taken from the kala, a sacred forest. Gamule village had eighteen olahita which dates the village to be nearly 400 hundred years old.  Sadly, the oldest central poles have succumbed to termite damage and rot over the centuries. The oldest village in the Konso region is Dokatu which has 43 olahita. Near the olahita was the village ceremonial daga, a large rock, that teenage boys lift over their heads to prove their manhood and eligibility for marriage.  The Konso also carve waka, grave makers, in rough likeness of the deceased.  These were originally placed at the grave sites in the sacred forest, but have now all been brought back into the village to deter looting.  Each village is surrounded by a dina, or grove of trees, which acts as a buffer between the village and agricultural terraces. This buffer of trees was meant to inhibit attack on the village and provide an area close to the settlement where folks could forage for firewood. There are 36 paletas, with populations ranging from 1,500 to 3,000 in each village, scattered across the Konso territory.

Nearby outside the Konso village of Gesergiyo there is a unique landscape nicknamed “New York.” It’s a dramatic red sandstone canyon, that looks like it was violently carved from the earth, with deeply scarred walls and tall pinnacles created from millennium of erosion. Legend says Waga the Konso Sky God created these as he searched for a buried sacred drum. IMG_9980We didn’t really see the NYC comparison, but the landscape was interesting in that it contrasted sharply from the surrounding terrain.  And the encompassing territory is beautiful with vistas of rolling hills.  Driving away a group of young men were perched on a lone boulder, just passing time.IMG_0064We arrived late in the afternoon to the Konso Korebta Lodge, situated high on a hill. It was a relatively new complex with attractive, circular stone huts topped with steep thatched roofs and beautiful plantings of bougainvillea.  Desperately needing showers, we were flummoxed when the tap was dry and headed to reception to see what was up. Unbeknownst to us it’s common practice at hotels throughout the countryside to only turn on the electricity and water between 6:00 – 9:00 in the morning and 6:30 – 10:00 in the evening to conserve resources.IMG_9245 Thankfully, the staff called the owner to get permission to start the generator early for us. Back seat driver that I am I thought our driver drove fast, safely but fast to cover the great distances we had to travel.  So, we were surprised the next afternoon when he was tootling along very slowly to get back to the hotel.  Evidently the hotel owner made it very clear to our guide that he would not turn on the generator early again.

Later we traced the aroma of barbeque to a small garden area where the staff was grilling goat skewered on small tree branches over a fire pit dug into the ground.  It was in preparation for a wedding party that was due to arrive.  With military timing it seemed, suddenly the parking area in front of the hotel’s restaurant was full of honking minibuses discharging joyous celebrants.  It was a short indoor-outdoor event that climaxed with song, dance and well wishes for the couple.IMG_2028Market days are huge events in the rural areas and folks from various tribes travel for miles to attend them. IMG_2314Not just to buy or trade supplies; it’s also a cherished opportunity for men and women to socialize with friends and extended family from other villages, often in raucous beer halls which could be in a makeshift shed or more often a spot under a large shade tree that serves a local brew.

Many folks look and dress their best as it’s also a chance to find a future husband or wife.  The Alduba market was exceptionally large, spanning both sides of the main road, and it attracted folks from the Ari, Bena, Hammer and Tsemay tribes. Recently the government constructed a bricked wall corral at the market to show tribespeople that the government was interested in their wellbeing and that local folks are actually part of a greater Ethiopia.  And at the same time it started to collect taxes on every head of cattle sold.IMG_1956We were able to take many candid photos as we followed our guide through the market to its various parts. Ceramic pots, handmade tools, ropes and leather goods produced by different tribespeople were available as were pots, pans, cloth and sandals produced in China.

One older woman shared with our guide that she was in her seventies and walked six miles to the market to replace a ceramic cooking bowl that had recently broken.  Often, we would stop and ask a person if we could take their picture.IMG_2117 Many folks were very receptive to this and our guide would negotiate a fee.  And even though we paid for the privilege to take their photo, they seemed pleased that we admired their style. A few, however, angrily waved us away.

Later in the day we headed to Jinka, the largest town in the region, slowly getting closer to the Omo Valley with every move.  Traveling through a xeric landscape, we had a long stretch of dirt road to ourselves.  IMG_1803Pulling over occasionally to take photos from scenic overlooks along this isolated track, we were always surprised when, in the middle of nowhere, a young man selling souvenirs would emerge from the shade. Later we would come across an enterprising group of young stilt walkers urging tourists to stop for photos – and of course we did.IMG_4431Entering Jinka, we noticed signage for the International Airport (BCO, though we are pretty sure you can only fly in from Addis Abba.) We might have arranged our trip differently if we had known this previously as it would have eliminated two eight-hour drives from and to the capital. Note: if you fly into Ethiopia on a ticketed Ethiopian Airways flight you are able to purchase discounted domestic flights .  Our guide booked this discount for our us on our Addis Abba to Lalibela flights.

The Orit Hotel offered very basic accommodation, but it had a wonderful garden restaurant, good food and cold beers.

The next day we would head into Mago National Park to visit the Mursi tribe.

Till next time,

Craig & Donna

 

 

 

 

Ethiopian Adventure Part 1 – Elephant Huts and Singing Wells

Background:

Why Ethiopia?  After 14 months of continuous, slow travel, spent mostly exploring cities, we were ready for a change of pace and a more raw or “authentic” experience, for lack of a better phrase. We had planned to visit Ethiopia originally just to see the hand-hewn rock churches of Lalibela.  But, with a tough spousal negotiation, we reached détente: three months in the land of her people, Italy, and for me, 12 days bouncing on backroads and possibly camping a night or two in a tribal village, and a cross country adventure through the Southern Nations, Nationalities, and People’s Region which includes the Omo Valley. An exciting itinerary with Ephrem Girmachew of Southern Ethiopia Tours fit the bill and our budget.  I’m not sure who got the better deal, but somewhere along our journey we coined the phrase “shaken tourist syndrome” to reflect the road conditions we encountered for hours each day.  IMG_8498 The area in the northern part of the Greater Rift Valley, known today as the Omo Valley region of Ethiopia, has been at the crossroads of humankind for many millennia. In 1967 Dr. Leaky discovered fossil bone evidence, recently re-dated by scientists to be 195,000 years old, of early Homo sapiens near Kibish, Ethiopia, several miles west of the Omo River near where the borders of Sudan, Kenya and Ethiopia meet.  The first migrations of early man out of Africa occurred 60,000 years ago as they followed the Omo River north through the Great Rift Valley to the Red Sea. At its narrowest point, where it meets the Gulf of Aden, they crossed to continue their migration through Arabia and eventually into Europe and Asia.  The region was once rich with African wildlife, and Arab towns along the northern East African coast of Somalia and Kenyan were sending hunting parties into the interior for elephant ivory, rhino horn and unfortunately slaves since around AD 1000.

It is thought that the Mursi and Suri tribes developed lip plates and scarification as a way to discourage Arab slavers from taking their women. The first European contact with the region is credited to Antonio Fernandes, a Portuguese Jesuit missionary, who was sent by Ethiopian Emperor Susenyos in 1613 to find an inland route, that avoided all Islamic territories, to Malindi, a Portuguese port at the time, on the Indian Ocean.  The next reported western explorers to the region were Antonio Cecchi in the 1870’s and Vittorio Bottego in 1897. Bottego was the first European to follow the Omo River all the way to Lake Turkana, at a time when Italy was trying to become a colonial power and expand its Italian Eritrea territory into Ethiopia.  By the early 1900’s teams of cultural anthropologists from various Europeans countries were viewing the area as the “last frontier” and beginning to study the “cultural crossroads” aspect of the tribes of the Omo Valley.

A harsh, vast territory, the semi-arid Omo Valley is home to 13 indigenous groups that are seminomadic pastoralist. These tribes also practice flood retreat cultivation along the banks of the Omo River, to produce crops mostly for subsistence or occasional trading in the local markets.  Very remote and undeveloped, the area resisted Ethiopian Orthodox influence from the north of the country for centuries.  It wasn’t until the 1990’s, when a fledgling tourist industry began to emerge, and violent cross-border conflicts with various nomadic tribes looking for better grazing or to rustle cattle, that the government began to exert influence over the area.  Some nomadic tribes along the border were encouraged to settle down and farm and fish along the Omo River for their livelihood. Government interest in the area was intensified again when the decision to build two dams on the Gibe River, a tributary of the Omo River, were built to supply hydroelectric power to Ethiopia.  Later, the massisve Gibe lll dam, completed in 2016, was built to supply irrigation water to foreign owned sugar cane and cotton plantations on lands that were seized by the Ethiopian government from the indigenous tribes of the Omo Valley. Consequently, as the natural cycle of the river flooding was stopped, the centuries old practice of flood retreat farming is failing as there is not enough rainfall in the area to support crops. This has increased tensions amongst tribes already competing for limited grazing and fertile farming lands due to climate change. IMG_6730Things change, but the proud peoples that live in the Omo Valley are trying to retain their way of life amidst external influences they can’t control, as tourists and construction crews course across their territory.  Tempers flare when trucks and buses carrying supplies and workers to the agricultural plantations strike and kill cattle.  Drivers are required to stop and immediately pay the herder for his loss, but many never do.  Consequently, the local tribe will block the road and demand payment until the issue is resolved.

The Beginning:

It was immediately apparent as we were landing that Ethiopia was different. Addis Ababa is a thriving city of almost 5 million people, with gleaming skyscrapers, a new sprawling economic development zone, and high-speed rail line connecting the city to Djibouti. With no suburban transitional zone, the city was an island surrounded by an ocean of farmland. IMG_8308A good night’s sleep at the Jupiter International Hotel Bole (they have the best front desk staff we’ve encountered) made an early start bearable. Meeting us punctually, an amiable Ephrem introduced us to Gee and his trusty Toyota Landcruiser.  We could tell from the beginning that they were friends and had worked together for years.  Even before leaving the city limits, we met our first of the ubiquitous cattle herds, donkey carts and tuk-tuks slowing our passage.

Our first day would be the longest with over eight hours of driving to Arba Minch, that included a stop at the archaeological site of Tiya Stelae. Here a large field of stelae were adorned with carvings of spears; the number of spear heads on a stone is thought to represent the number of enemy killed. Other stones that dotted the landscape contained symbols that were more difficult to interpret. Nothing is really known about the people that created these monuments and there are no other sites in the area to help archeologists explain their mystery.

Further along, we stopped at an explosion of color and activity that represents an Ethiopian local market, our first of many. Coming from our last stop in parched Zimbabwe, this landscape was unexpectantly and refreshingly green.  We passed farmers plowing theirs fields with oxen, the way it has been done for centuries.IMG_6410 The 2019 rainy season was good; unfortunately, this is often not the case. There was no water infrastructure in most of the small towns and villages we passed through, forcing folks to gather water from local streams and rivers.IMG_8299 It was a constant sight: women carrying yellow water jugs along the side of the road back to their homes, or if they could afford it, having it delivered by donkey cart.  The terrain varied tremendously, with full rivers on one side of a mountain range and dry on the other side. These conditions forced people to dig into the riverbed in search of water.

Closer to Arba Minch workers piled just-cut bananas onto trucks, from plantations that lined the road.IMG_8266Since Ethiopia is close to the equator, the daylight hours do not vary seasonally.  The sun rises quickly in the morning and seems to drop from the sky at the end of the day.  By the time we reached the Paradise Lodge  in Arba Minch darkness was falling.  It was a long walk to our room, and signs along the path warned of baboons and warthogs.  A mosquito netted bed welcomed us under a single light bulb dangling from the ceiling.  A dramatic dawn the next morning through clearing storm clouds revealed the hotel’s placement on a cliff edge above a lush, dense forest that was part of Národní Park Nechisar that surrounds the perpetually brown Abaya Lake and Chamo Lake off in the distance below. IMG_9584At breakfast we watched thick-billed ravens in aerial combat as they rode the thermals just off the restaurant’s terrace.  Nearby a staff member stood ready to chase away baboons if they got too close to the customers’ tables.

After breakfast we headed into the highlands northwest of Arba Minch to visit the Gamo tribe in the Dorze village.  The Dorze, Doko and Ochello are the three clans that comprise the Gamo people. Rising slowly to an elevation of 8200ft, we traveled through heavily forested slopes that opened to patches of verdant farmland, and occasionally passed small groups of children dancing to earn spending money from passing tourists.IMG_9440 As we entered the village, compounds ringed with woven rattan walls held back tall Enset plants, better known as false banana, also called the “tree against hunger.” This plant is an important staple that is drought resistant and can be harvested year-round. Starch from the plant is scraped from its fibers and fermented in the ground for three months or longer and used to make kocho, a type of flat bread. IMG_9478Fibers from the plant are used to make rope or coffee bean bags, and the leaves are fed to farm animals.  We arrived on market day, and an entire hillside about the size of three football fields was covered with activity. From a distance it looked like an animated impressionistic painting, with undulating dots of color dancing under a blue sky. IMG_8996Sellers of charcoal, sugarcane, vegetables, and a multitude of other goods all had their wares spread out on cloths covering the ground.  Men played foosball or ping-pong under the few shade trees that ringed the field.

The Dorze are known for the family structures they build, called elephant huts, and the fine weavings that they create from the cotton they grow.  Constructed of hardwood poles, bamboo, thatch and enset, the huts get their name from the symmetrical vents at the top create a silhouette that resembles an elephant’s head. These towering huts can last eighty years, and when the bottom of the main poles become termite-infested they are cut off and the hut is then lifted up and moved to a different spot in the family compound.IMG_9211Men of the Dorze tribe traditionally do the weaving, while the women are responsible for spinning the cotton that the family grows and uses.   The colorful textiles they create are highly prized all over the country.IMG_9504-2Back in Arba Minch we stopped at the Lemlem restaurant for a lunch of local lake fish before checking out the crocodiles on Chamo Lake.  The lightly fried fish were served whole, while the sides were scored into squares which we picked off with our fingers. It was delicious.  Another side of the restaurant served freshly butchered, grilled meat.

The road south of Arba Minch cut through farmland.  Stately fish eagles and traditional Ethiopian honeybee hives dotted some of the trees along the road.  The elongated beehives are made from hollowed out logs and wrapped with woven bamboo strips, and then suspended in the trees.

It’s a dangerous livelihood, fishing the muddy waters of Chamo Lake, as attested to by the size of the Nile crocodile that swam alongside our tour boat.  He was frightfully as large as our 18ft vessel.  Crocodile hunting hasn’t been allowed in the lake since 1973, so there are many big old crocs in its waters. Every year fishermen are killed while standing in the lake casting their nets.  Those who can afford to, buy boats to fish.  Full immersion baptisms are performed by some churches in Chamo and Abaya Lakes, and tragically, in 2018 a Protestant pastor was snatched by a crocodile and killed in front of his congregation during a baptismal celebration.

“Tomorrow we drive to Kenya,” Ephrem offered. Really? That wasn’t expected! “We will stop before we actually get to the border to see a Singing Well of the Borena tribe, and then head to Chew Bet, an extinct volcanic crater lake where the tribe takes black salt from its water.”IMG_8449“Sorry for the late pick-up, but the road was full of tuk-tuks carrying families to the university stadium up the street for a graduation ceremony,” Ephrem offered as he bundled us into the Land Cruiser and handed us large bottles of water. “It’s hot where we are going today.”

Crossing a small mountain range as we headed south from Arba Minch, we left the green landscape behind us and descended into a semi-arid savanna of acacia trees and thorn scrub that held ostrich and huge termite mounds. Soon we encountered our first herd of camels being prodded along by young herders. In Yebelo we stopped to pick-up a local Borena guide who accompanied us for the rest of the day.  Now speeding toward the border, we passed isolated huts and folks seemingly in the middle of nowhere walking to unseen destinations.  We abruptly u-turned when our guide spotted the dirt track we needed to follow to the tula, a centuries-old deep well that continues to be dug deeper into the ground as the water table drops.IMG_0474We trailed a young Borena girl herding a small group of cattle down a slowly inclined, dusty trench deeper into the earth. It was impossible to avoid cow patties as we steered clear of an exiting herd.  Thirty feet below the surface, the trench ended in a bowl shape with a water trough where cattle were drinking.  Rhythmic voices emerged from a shallow cave behind the trough.  Climbing worn stone steps, we came to a narrow landing above the trough, where below us men sang to set a pace to their work. (Click the preceding link to see the video.) They lifted heavy buckets of water over their heads to others above them who then dumped the water into the trough for the cattle to drink.  The acoustics of the cave increased the sound of their songs.

This was the wide, higher part of the well. At the back of the cave there was a hole, only as wide as a man with a bucket, that descended straight down another sixty feet into the earth where more tribesmen worked in unison to lift water up from the bottom of the shaft.  Every day for centuries, teams of men have worked in thirteen tulas spread across the Borena territory to keep the tribe’s cattle alive in a harsh land where there is very little surface water.IMG_0884Imagine one of the most inhospitable places on earth and you might envision the village of Soda, located on the rim of the mile wide El Sod crater.  Aside from raising cattle, goats and camels, some Borena tribesmen have given up their pastoral life to dive into the depths of the El Sod Crater Lake to collect salt, which is then dried and traded or sold across southern Ethiopia from Somalia to Sudan and down into Kenya. It takes the salt divers an hour to descend the narrow track to the lake surface, 1100 ft below the crater’s rim. After scraping 50lbs of wet salt from the lake bottom, they bag it and load it on donkeys for the 1.5 hour walk out of the crater, only to turn around and do it again as many times a day as they can. Black and white salt along with crystals are gathered in the lake. Crystal salt is the most valuable, and black salt, used for animals, is the least.

Each diver works for himself and it is a tragically difficult livelihood. Many of the divers suffering from loss of hearing and sense of smell, tooth decay, eczema and blindness from spending years in the highly concentrated, corrosive salt water.  No eye protection is worn and nose and ear plugs are rudimentarily, made from plastic bags stuffed with dirt. At the crater rim the salt is sold to middlemen who dry it in slatted wooden shacks before reselling it. Trucks have now replaced legendary camel caravans which once crisscrossed the savanna to remote villages.

After lunch and our first Ethiopian coffee ceremony, we headed to the Yabelo Wildlife Sanctuary, a 1600 square mile grassland preserve that is mostly home to Grevy’s and Burchell’s zebra.  Walking with our local scout, we were able to slowly approach a small herd of zebra.  Some of the females were heavy with calves soon to be born.IMG_1161A short drive away, our last stop of the day was a well-kept Borena village surrounded by an ochre landscape under a perfect blue sky.  Women do the heavy lifting in the villages, building the huts, tending children and crops, and spending a substantial amount of time foraging for firewood and gathering water from far off sources. While the men spend their days moving their cattle across different grazing lands.IMG_1234Women rule their homes and determine who can enter, even prohibiting spouses.  “If her husband comes back and finds another man’s spear stuck into the ground outside her house, he cannot go in,” our guide conveyed.

Away from the village as we headed back to Arba Minch we spotted both Grant’s and giraffe-necked Gerenuk gazelles.  The latter rises on its hind legs to feed on higher vegetation.

Old ways are changing as the Ethiopian government shows more interest in the south, and while Animism is still practiced, Christianity and Islam are making inroads into the region.

Till next time,

Craig & Donna

 

 

 

 

Cape Town Part 4: Sea Point

One of the nice benefits of our slow travel philosophy is that we immerse ourselves more deeply into an area than if we were just passing through.  Our three months in Cape Town allowed us to explore the city fully and discover things that even our local friends were unaware of.IMG_8552After our last apartment in the “Mother City,” on Bree Street, we moved to the Sea Point neighborhood and as its name suggests, it hugs the coastline under Signal Hill and Lion’s Head Mountain.  Finding the ideal apartment for our last 30 days in Cape Town required a bit of detective work on our part though.  One of the draw backs of using Airbnb is that it does not provide the specific address of a property until you actually book it.  So, while the interior photos of a listing might be charming, its exact location could be anywhere within a five-block radius of a dot on the map, unless the host gives hints in the apartment description.IMG_1475 In Sea Point this could mean on the water or nowhere near it.  But with a little sleuthing regarding our final three choices, we were able to determine which one was right on the waterfront.  Our reconnaissance of the neighborhood paid off and we booked a sixth-floor one-bedroom apartment with a terrace, that had an ocean view for dramatic sunsets and inland views of the paragliders launching from Signal Hill. IMG_1596It was the perfect location across from the Sea Point promenade.  The lively Mojo Market, with numerous food stalls and live music seven nights a week, was just around the corner.  Here we enjoyed the best fresh oysters and mussels in sauce at The Mussel Monger & Oyster Bar while sipping South African wine or local craft beers as the nightly band played.IMG_2283It’s actually possible to walk along the promenade from the V&A Waterfront all the way to the Camps Bay Beach.  It’s a little over six miles in length, but it’s a popular stretch of sidewalk, which locals call the Prom.

It follows the coast past the iconic Cape Town Stadium, Green Point Lighthouse, multiple art installations and the Sea Point Pavilion Swimming Pools before passing the Clifton beaches and ending by the tidal pool in Camps Bay.

With surf crashing against the shore on one side and views of Signal Hill and Lion’s Head on the other it’s a dramatic and visually rewarding pathway that’s a destination for walkers, joggers, bicyclists and folks that just want to chill by the ocean.  There are numerous places to rest and grab some food along the way.  Timing our days to watch ships sailing into a setting sun or surfers catching the last waves of the day as the sun sank and set Camps Bay aglow were highlights of our time in Sea Point.IMG_0539Weather permitting, paragliders seemed to launch in rapid succession all day long from Signal Hill, first riding the thermals along the ridge towards Lion’s Head before turning back and gracefully spiraling down over the rooftops of Sea Point to land in a grassy park next to the promenade.IMG_2614We transitioned easily into our new neighborhood, finding three grocery stores and Bentley’s Bread, probably the best artisanal bakery in Cape Town, within easy walking distance on Main Road.  With Bentley’s, the key was to go early; otherwise we’d miss out on their sumptuous daily specials which would always sell out quickly.IMG_8657Cape Town artists will paint anywhere and the walls of the underground parking garage at the Pick ‘n Pay – Sea Point were the perfect canvases for some incredibly talented street muralists.  Sadly, we don’t think enough folks see these hidden works of art.

There aren’t enough superlatives to describe the abundance of stunning coastline around Cape Town.  And there’s definitely a shortage of scenic pullover spots, but we felt compelled to stop at each one we passed on day trips to Hout Bay, Chapman’s Peak, Simon’s Town and the Cape of Good Hope.  The views are just that awesome.  One of the best things about Cape Town is that there are so many interesting activities and places to go within an hour or two of the city.IMG_6562In Hout Bay, time flew by at the World of Birds Wildlife Sanctuary & Monkey Park where we spent a fantastic morning observing a wide variety of South African birds. If you are a bird photographer this is a wonderful place to hone your skills.

Afterwards we cruised cautiously along the breathtakingly twisting and beautiful Chapman’s Peak Drive, a toll road, before heading for dinner at one of the celebrated weekend markets on the other side of Hout Bay.IMG_6581Bay Harbour Market is a vibrant and lively mix of food stalls, shops, artists and musicians under the roof of what was once a fish factory, across from the harbor.

For the longest time the Cape of Good Hope was thought to be the African continent’s farthest point south.  That distinction belongs to Cape Agulhas, 136 miles to the east.  Feared by ancient sailors for the turbulent seas that surround it, the allure of this dramatic spit of cliff-faced peninsula jutting into the ocean still stands.  Entering the park, it’s a beautiful drive through a rolling fynbos landscape that hides a small number of elands, zebras, and ostriches, to the lighthouse that commands the cape’s point at 860 feet above sea level.

From the parking lot we took the Flying Dutchman, a funicular named after a 1680 shipwreck, to its upper station where a final set of steep stairs met us.  It took every ounce of our strength to plow through the roaring winds that ripped around us, but it was worthwhile for the views at the top. IMG_6839The wind was so strong it made it impossible to hold the camera steady.  We soaked in the views as long as we could before the buffeting winds forced our retreat.  Sitting outside at the snack bar we were astonished to witness a baboon snatch an ice-cream cone from a young boy and then gobble it up with great delight.IMG_6870We revisited the Simon’s Town area several times, because to see all the spots that interested us required more than one day.  The big draw to Simon’s Town was the Boulders Penguin Colony.  This is a restricted reserve where visitors must stay on the boardwalk in the viewing areas. Our timing was perfect as penguin chicks had recently hatched and could be seen at the nests snuggling against their parents for warmth.  The beach was full of activity, with different groups of penguins doing their best Charlie Chaplin struts into or out of the turquoise waters of the bay.

The boulders along the coastline here create beautiful seascapes and secluded coves where smaller colonies of penguins live.IMG_5875One morning in late July we opted to try a whale watching tour again, this time from the Simon’s Town waterfront, hoping to see some tail slapping or breaching action that was elusive in Hermanus earlier.  Alas, we only viewed one tail slap on this trip.  As much as the tour operators want you to believe July is a good month for viewing whales, based on our disappointing experiences we’d suggest waiting till later in August or September for more certainty when larger whale pods return to the waters of False Bay.  But it was a smooth day at sea, cruising along a dramatic coast and we did get to view a large colony of sea lions on some offshore rocks.

Most of the waterfront in town is devoted to Naval Base Simon’s Town which is the South African Navy’s largest base. The country’s frigate and submarine fleets sail from this port and it also serves as a training base for navy deep sea divers.  Surrounding the pier from which the tour boats depart are several restaurants, with outside dining that overlooks the water. At the end of the pier there is a commemorative statue to the South African Navy “Standby Diver,” a rescue diver that keeps watch over those in the water.

In the small plaza above the restaurants there is an interesting sculpture of a dog, Able Seaman Just Nuisance, a beloved Great Dane and the only canine “to be officially enlisted in Her Majesty’s Royal Navy” during WWII.  Sailors gave him the name Nuisance because he used to block the gangplanks to the ships.  Surprisingly, his grave on the mountain above Simon’s Town, at the old SAN Signal School, is marked on Google Maps.  The drive there offers some impressive views of the coast.

Several of the best seafood dinners we had in South Africa were at the Harbour House in Kalk Bay.  A couple we met at the Bastille Day Festival in Franschhoek gave us this tip and they were right on target with this recommendation.  Located dramatically on the edge of the ocean, great waves crashed against the rocks under the restaurant and the spray reached the windows of the dining room on the second floor.  The seafood was excellent with a myriad of complex flavoring that was truly delicious, and which encouraged us to return a second time later in the month.

Dozens of colorful fishing trawlers lined the piers of the working harbor, just outside the restaurant.  And dockside fish mongers had an eager audience of very large, well fed sea lions waiting for scraps to be thrown their way.

Itching to see more of the Western Cape, early one morning we embarked on the two-hour drive to Paternoster and the Cape Columbine Lighthouse.  But first we had to detour to Sunset Beach for an iconic view of the city.IMG_4437Once outside of Cape Town the R27 cut a desolate track through a rolling landscape of open fynbos with scarcely a tree to be seen.  Every so often the head of an antelope or ostrich could be seen emerging above the bushes on either side of the road.  The heather clad landscape eventually gave way to pastureland speckled with sheep and wheat fields.IMG_5533Paternoster is one of the Western Cape’s oldest fishing villages, dating from the early 1800s, and is said to have gotten its name from Portuguese sailors who evoked the Lord’s Prayer to save themselves from shipwreck off its coast.  The area was first explored when Vasco da Gama landed nearby in Helena Bay, in 1497.  By then the area had been inhabited by the indigenous Khoisan for thousands of years.  Hunter-gatherers, they harvested dune spinach, an local vegetable, from the beaches, and shellfish from the area waters, and they left behind middens that have been estimated to be 3,000-4,000 years old.  The harvesting of the ocean’s bounty continues, with fishermen still launching their small boats into the sea from the beach and returning with fish and lobsters.  As you pull into the village it’s not unusual to see fishermen selling their day’s catch from five- gallon buckets at the town’s intersections, where they hoist live lobsters aloft and yell “kry hier kreef!”, Afrikaans for “get some lobster here.”  Aside from the picturesque whitewashed and thatched roofed fisherman’s cottages along a white sand beach dotted with boulders, there’s not much to this sleepy fishing village, except for some reportedly excellent seafood restaurants that were unfortunately closed the winter day we visited.IMG_5494A short way out of town we followed a dirt road to the Cape Columbine Lighthouse.  Built in 1936, on an outcropping of boulders called Castle Rock, it’s one of the last manned lighthouses in South Africa.  “Seniors are free,” the lighthouse keeper, a senior himself, announced, as he pointed us to a set of stairs that eventually led to a very tall, steep wooden ladder.  The panoramic view from the top was brilliant and, as expected, breathtaking.  Getting down was a little more challenging than getting up.  It was a kind of “make it or break every bone in your body if you don’t” situation.  We’ve found in our travels around the world that folks in other countries can do all sorts of risky things, that in the states wouldn’t be allowed for safety concerns.  Overseas it’s all about being responsible for your own safety.  “See you at the bottom,” Donna said as she agilely maneuvered on to the ladder.  “One way or another,” I grimaced in response.  For me, with a fearful respect for height, it was all about that first step down.

There was a wonderful remote campground on the ocean’s edge at the end of the dirt track in Birthday Bay that’s popular with folks overlanding across Africa.  Signs of early spring were beginning to show with colorful wildflowers dotting the dunes.

We finished the day in Saldanha with a late lunch on the water at the Blue Bay Lodge and a walk around its gardens and a visit to the Hoedjieskop Museum, a small cultural museum with an interesting display of photographs and memorabilia from the surrounding coastal fishing communities explaining the area’s history.

The setting sun filled our rear-view mirror and cast a warm glow across the fynbos as we headed home to Cape Town.

Till next time, Craig & Donna

 

 

 

 

The Garden Route Part 1: Cape Town to Addo Elephant National Park

Between apartment rentals, we explored South Africa’s famous Garden Route which runs along the southern coast of the country. There’s actually no official route; basically it’s an area that starts at Heidelberg, four hours east of Cape Town, and follows the N2 into the Eastern Cape and ends around Stormsriver.  In between there’s roughly 200 miles of inland scenery and gorgeous coastline at the bottom of the continent.  It’s dotted with small towns and villages, and endless recreational possibilities to satisfy your interests. We mapped an elongated, seven-day road trip that started in L’Agulhas and would end with a safari on a private game reserve, followed by a visit to Addo Elephant National Park, before returning inland to Cape Town via Oudtshoorn and Montagu to satisfy our wanderlust.

The Cape of Good Hope, as some mistakenly believe, is not the farthest point south on the African continent.  That distinction goes to L’Agulhas, where a lighthouse and monument marks the collision of the cold South Atlantic and warm South Indian Oceans, creating some of the fiercest storms for sailors to navigate through.IMG_8646Here gale force winds that blow in from Antarctica and colliding warm and cold currents build ferocious waves that can tower to 100 feet high.  These seas have claimed over 140 ships since the Portuguese first sailed here in the 1500s.  Within sight of the lighthouse, the most recent wreck of a Japanese fishing trawler from 1982 lies on the beach rusting away.IMG_8709We stayed the night at the Agulhas Ocean House, a modern B&B across from the ocean run by Allan & Sheryl, a retired couple from Cape Town.  The hosts were warm and gracious and provided a wonderfully comfortable room with an ocean view and delicious breakfast the next morning.  It was a tremendous value in the off-season.  (We found this also to be true of the other hotels we booked for this trip as well.) IMG_8693The next morning we stopped at Struisbaai Harbor, to try to catch a look at the resident stingrays, the most famous of which is named Parrie . Our hosts told us it was easy to spot these monsters because they were not afraid of people and liked to hang around the shallows and snag snacks from the fishing boats. IMG_8737Afterwards we headed toward Wilderness (the town not the idea,) along a route that traversed barren farmlands and coastal pine forests before skirting the coast again at Mossel Bay. We arrived in time to watch the sunset from our balcony at Beach Villa Wilderness another contemporary inn with spacious, modern rooms set above a wide, flat sandy beach that stretched for about 5 miles. IMG_9141Our room was luxurious and larger than several of the apartments we had rented on our round-the-world journey so far. We were hoping the owners, Leane & Deon, would adopt us. On our sunrise walk the next morning we only sighted a few other folks enjoying the quiet of this vast stretch of pristine beach during the winter season. We noted the considerably warmer weather, a result of the Agulhas Current which swoops warm Indian Ocean currents along the bottom of South Africa and wonderfully moderates the temperature. IMG_9110 After breakfast we backtracked on N2 to the pullover above the Kaaimans River Railway Bridge.  For railroad enthusiasts this was a destination for many years to watch the Outeniqua Choo Tjoe, the last continually operating steam train in Africa, cross the tidal estuary which slowed settlers’ advance along the rugged coast.  The line stopped operating in 2006 when landslides destroyed an extensive stretch of track. Today it’s an interesting photo-op. IMG_9168 Further up the gorge at Map of Africa View Point, raging waters over the eons have eroded a bend in the river to resemble the African continent when viewed from the overlook on the opposite side of the chasm.  The sky was empty mid-week, but across the road hundreds of paragliders launch from the grassy slope on the weekends to catch fantastic thermals and awesome views of the coast below.

SANParks Woodville Big Tree, off the fittingly named Seven Passes Road, was our next stop, to of course visit the appropriately cited Big Tree. A shaded trail led us deep into the Knysna forest to a more than 800-year-old yellow wood that towered 108ft into the canopy, with a 10ft diameter trunk and a 115ft wide crown.  Few of these majestic giants remain, having been over-harvested in the past for their valuable hardwood which was used for ship building, furniture making and construction. IMG_9215After spending hours rattling along dusty back roads we rejoiced to be on Route 2 again. A little while later we pulled over and enjoyed a late lunch and sunny afternoon on the outdoor deck of the Cruise Café, which overlooked Knysna Bay. IMG_9274We weren’t yet synched to the rhythm of life outside of Cape Town in the off-season and were surprised to find the restaurants and grocery stores in Plettenberg Bay closed when we arrived.  Fortunately, we had a wonderful room with an ocean and lagoon view terrace, right on Lookout Beach, at Milkwood Manor.  We were in luck, we had wine and snacks with us, so we had a picnic on the balcony, watching the high tide come in and lift small boats from their sandy berth while darkness fell. IMG_9295 The sun rose quickly the next morning from behind the Tsitsikamma Mountains, across the bay, filling our room with light.  We spent the early morning slowly sipping coffee and savoring the view.  Upon checkout we were delighted to find a sparkling clean car.  This was a wonderful service the hotel provided for guests, and an easy way for the gardener to earn some extra money.IMG_9322We kept to a strict schedule, and limited our stops for photos today, because we  needed to be at Schotia Safaris Private Game Reserve just outside of Port Elizabeth after lunch for an afternoon game drive.  We chose Schotia for their proximity to Addo Elephant National Park and its herd of 600+ elephants, which is second only to Kruger for elephant viewing.  Unlike the parks in east Africa where you can drive cross country in the pursuit of wildlife, the national parks in Africa restrict all tours to the roads.  But at the Schotia reserve, with a guide, we would have the opportunity for some overlanding to get closer to the animals, during morning, afternoon and evening game drives over the next three days. IMG_0250Three guides and three open-sided 4×4 Toyota safari trucks, each capable of seating 16 people, were waiting for their respective groups at the reserve’s headquarters.  Wonderfully, it was mid-week in the off-season, and we had Edward, our guide/naturalist, and truck all to ourselves, while the other two trucks left with groups of six each.  Schotia’s 4,000 acres of gently rolling hills, bush and forest shelter approximately 2,000 animals from 40 mammal species and its’s amazing how difficult it can be to find them. IMG_0123 But that was our goal as we rattled along the rutted paths to a high vantage point within the reserve, that provided distant views of the terrain surrounding us.  Scanning the vista with binoculars, Edward was searching for elephants, giraffes, antelopes and zebra.  “The animals are constantly on the move. We’re never really sure where they will be,” Edward offered. He seconded with, “There’s clouds of dust being kicked up over there. Can’t tell from here what they are, but let’s go investigate.” And our overlanding began, chasing a cloud of dust that turned out to be a small herd of white faced Blesbok, a stunning antelope species we weren’t familiar with.IMG_9525

A few minutes later the reserve’s massive bull elephant the “Boss” rambled up the track toward us and came within touching distance as we quietly sat in awe!  IMG_9473Sightings of impala, kudu, wildebeest, warthogs, cape buffalo, zebra, hippos and crocodiles rounded out the afternoon.

After snacks and a short rest at the reserve’s traditional lapa, a thatched roof structure supported on wooden poles, we headed out into the twilight for an evening game drive to spot some lions on the prowl.  IMG_1427

Hard to spot during the day, lions are even more difficult to find at dusk.  The three teams and guides spread out in different directions while staying in touch with their walkie-talkies to share information.  The radios were quiet for quite a while until a lioness was spotted hunting in some grasslands on the other side of the reserve.  The last blue of the twilight sky was almost gone when we joined the other groups watching the lioness eat her fresh kill in the semidarkness.  IMG_1274On the way back to the lapa we encountered the hippos we had seen earlier, now grazing far from their waterhole.  Large black masses, they were barely visible when out of the headlights.IMG_1234Glasses of wine and a large, warming fire greeted us when we returned to the lapa for dinner.  Inland the temperature fell quickly, and the warmth from the flames felt good.

We hadn’t realized when we planned this road trip, but tonight was the first anniversary of a year on the road.  No home, just two suitcases and each other – oh dear.

Dusty after a full day of game drives, we were sitting on the porch of a small cottage sipping wine in the middle of a private game reserve, in South Africa, reminiscing about our first nomadic year.

“It’s hell, I tell you!” My heart sank, but I quickly burst into laughter when I saw a wry smile across Donna’s face as she finished her complaint. “I only have three pairs of shoes with me.”

IMG_1265Darkness covered the countryside early in June, the beginning of South Africa’s winter season.  Our guide had just lit the oil lamps a few minutes earlier, handed us a walkie-talkie and said, “Use this to call the owner if there’s an emergency, you’re the only folks here tonight.’’ The owner lived somewhere on the other side of this vast reserve. There were no other lights around except for the moon.  The bush has a life of its own and sounds totally different in the darkness.IMG_9793We didn’t plan on being the only folks at the game reserve during the middle of the week, but that’s one of the benefits of off-season travel.  Following spring-like conditions around the globe, we’ve been able to avoid hot, humid weather and the crowds, while managing to have some wonderful experiences along the way.  Tomorrow, Edward would guide us through Addo Elephant National Park.IMG_0358The eastern cape was once home to tremendous herds of elephant which were hunted by the Xhosa and the Khoe (Khoi) tribes for sustenance, and much like the American Plains Indians and buffalo it did not end well.  As colonization spread across the region in the 1700 and 1800s the tribes succumbed to smallpox and were pushed into different regions, and the elephants were slaughtered to near extinction for their ivory and to protect farming interests in the region. With the killing of 1400 elephants in 1919, public opinion slowly turned.  Only eleven elephants remained when Addo Park was established in 1931 with 5600 acres. IMG_0901 The park was enclosed with an elephant proof fence in 1954, to protect the surrounding citrus farms from their rampages, when the size of the herd had rebounded to 22 elephants.  Today the park is the third largest in South Africa and encompasses 1,700,000 acres.  Home to over 600 elephants now, the reserve has expanded its mission to protect a growing number of mammal species within its borders.IMG_0993We could have done a self-drive tour through Addo, but we thoroughly enjoyed Edward’s knowledge of wildlife and the region.  It was a good decision.  Sitting up high in an SUV provided better visibility into the bush, where in our small rental car we wouldn’t have been able to see much.  And his timing was perfect in getting us to a waterhole just as a very large herd with calves was creating a trail of dust as it emerged from the surrounding dry bush.IMG_0936We witnessed elephants smiling as they drank.  It was a tremendous experience.

Till next time,

Craig & Donna

 

Cape Town Part 1: Vibrant, Complex & Beautiful

After spending a month in Bulgaria, we headed to South Africa at the end of May, to continue our pursuit of budget-friendly and interesting places with moderate weather to avoid the heat and humidity of a European summer.  The seasons are reversed in the southern hemisphere, so we stayed for three months to take advantage of their mid 60sF (16C) winter weather, which is extremely mild in comparison to the winters of the northeast United States.  So temperate in fact that most homes and apartments are not built with central heat, relying instead on small, portable electric heaters.  Mostly, folks just layered up, and on those gale force, windy days we were amused to see people in fur-trimmed hooded parkas, more suitable for the Alaskan wilderness, than walking around Cape Town. IMG_3489This would be Donna’s fourth trip to Cape Town and my first. Back in 1993 she visited friends she had made while attending Princeton Seminary, and a year later in 1994 she volunteered to be an International Observer for the first free and fair democratic elections in South Africa.  In 2016 she returned to a city humming with positive energy and a growing economy.  Unfortunately, this situation did not continue, and by 2019 the governance and economy of South Africa and its neighboring countries had stalled.  The city was still beautiful and growing as a tourist destination, an amazing coffee culture had been born, but shuttered construction projects and an increasing homeless population were evident, and across many different socioeconomic groups, people were feeling disenfranchised. A multi-year drought exasperated many infrastructure problems that were being neglected.  Fortunately, exceptional winter rains broke the severe drought and replenished the city’s nearly depleted reservoirs.IMG_4658We immersed ourselves quickly into the neighborhood  around our first apartment on Buitenkant Street, just a few blocks away from the District Six Museum, steam punk themed Truth Coffee and the Jason Bakery.  One block over we followed Harrington Street, past some great street art, to Bootleggers for more coffee and the best peri-per chicken livers in CPT.

A little further along, Nude Foods sold everything by weight and encouraged us to reuse our bags and refill our olive oil and balsamic vinegar bottles.  Around the corner Charly’s Bakery, an institution in CPT with an interesting creation story, would make our sweet tooth ache.  We had a memorable evening beginning with dinner at Dias Tavern, a Portuguese restaurant, followed by a performance of Kinky Boots at the Fugard Theatre across the street. IMG_7384On the edge of the City Bowl and Zonnebloem districts, formerly District Six, our high-rise apartment building had a rooftop gym with fantastic views of the city, a 24hr doorman, gated parking and balconies with beautiful views of Table and Lion’s Head mountains.  But the area immediately around us was in transition, without enough residential housing to call it a neighborhood.

After work everyone vanished and the streets were nearly deserted.  The multistory construction project adjacent to our balcony was abandoned.  While this offered privacy it had an unsettling, post-apocalyptic vibe that deterred our enjoyment of an otherwise sunny space.  First world whining, we know, but we felt the Airbnb host was deceptive for several reasons regarding the apartment and surrounding area.  Around the corner folks were sleeping rough on the street.  We made a habit of carrying our loose change in our coat pockets to easily give it to the unofficial “car guards” and panhandlers. We had a nice room to enjoy nightly, and plenty to eat. How could we just pass them by?   We walked all over the city, even at night, and never felt unsafe during our time in Cape Town, but using common sense is in order.  During the weeks that we didn’t have a rental car we utilized Uber, which was very affordable, to cover greater distances around town.

We liked to joke that “you know you’re a local when you sign-up for the supermarket discount card.”  Part of our weekly ritual was walking up Buitenkant Street towards Oranjezicht, an upscale neighborhood, with many fine examples of Cape Dutch architecture, to The Gardens, a multi-story shopping and residential complex with Pick-n-Pay and Woolworths grocery stores.  On Prince Street the Hurling Swaaipomp Pump House still stands.  Slaves pumped spring water for the surrounding homes here until the mid-1800s.

The cost of groceries and dining out in Cape Town was extremely favorable.  Grocery items generally cost half of what they would typically cost in the states. A dinner for two with wine, dessert and coffee would run less than $40.00.  Seafood was abundant, as you would expect in a coastal city, and inexpensive as well.  We took full advantage of this, enjoying grilled octopus, sword fish, mussels and the best oysters on multiple occassions. Sautéed ostrich filets were a tasty meal we prepared for ourselves.  Disappointingly, wild game was only available at restaurants. The Western Cape Winelands, around Stellenbosch, just outside Cape Town, covers a vast area and produces some exceptional vintages that are budget friendly.  Winery tours of the area are a must and with over 200 vineyards the possibilities are endless.IMG_4663We had to find a dentist also, as just before our flight into Cape Town one of my crowns broke.  Fortunately, South Africa is recognized for good medical and dental care and is slowly becoming a medical tourism destination.  I found Dr. Ramjee on Google Maps, checked his reviews and made an appointment at his office which was within walking distance of our apartment.  With his jovial and comforting manner, I instantly felt at ease.  Though only a one dental chair office he had a state-of-the-art digital x-ray machine, a dental assistant and a receptionist.  Besides the broken crown, I needed a root canal as well – what fun!  My experiences with Dr. Ramjee were excellent and I raved so much about him Donna decided to use his services when the need arose for an emergency root canal and crown also.  Unexpected expenses that in the states would be costly, even with insurance, were much more affordable and payable out of pocket here.  The savings were tremendous.

Avoiding the past is difficult in Cape Town, with remnants of slavery’s legacy scattered about the city, even on the way to the dentist’s office.  Just across from his door a concrete medallion marks the spot of the Old Slave Tree, where slaves were sold until their emancipation was declared in 1834.  Around the corner the second oldest building in Cape Town – the Slave Lodge, a euphemism for a small pox-plagued, prison like structure for 500 slaves, still stands.  It was built in 1679 to house the slaves owned by the Dutch East India Company that worked in the Company’s Garden, a farm.  Today its mission as a museum is to explore the history “Slaves at the Cape: Oppression, Life and Legacy.”

IMG_8198You just can’t walk enough miles along the coast or up and down Loin’s Head to keep the calories off in this foodie-oriented city. The Saturday- and Sunday-only food markets didn’t help, but they are a treasured tradition, throughout the region, that brings family, friends and tourists together to enjoy live music and good food.

Our favorite in Cape Town was the Oranjezicht City Farm Market down by the V&A waterfront.  There’s also The Neighbourgoods Market, located at the Old Biscuit Mill in Woodstock.  The Bay Harbour Market in Hout Bay, Blue Bird Garage Food and Goods Market in Muizenberg, the Elgin Railway Market in Grabouw and the Root 44 Market in Stellenbosch. All were enjoyable destinations beyond the city.IMG_6238On the lower end of Buitenkant Street, the Castle of Good Hope, a 17th century pentagon-shaped stone bastion fortress, stands surrounded by city streets, its cannons now pointing toward skyscrapers instead of enemy ships.  It was originally built on the water’s edge of Table Bay by the Dutch to protect the harbor from the British.  After a massive waterfront reclamation project in the 1930s and 1940s reshaped Cape Town’s waterfront, the castle now stands far inland.

It houses a military and ceramic museum along with the William Fehr Collection.  This is a controversial exhibit today because the collection only depicts colonial history with no representation of the indigenous KhoiSan people who were the true first inhabitants of the western cape long before the Portuguese stepped ashore, followed later by the Dutch and British. It’s been 25 years since the first genuinely representative government of South Africa has been elected and only four statues of early indigenous leaders who fought colonization, and were imprisoned in the fortress, stand outside.  Yet the lopsided narrative of this collection has not been addressed and many wonder why.IMG_4534In early June the castle hosted the 2019 Cape Town Coffee Festival which celebrated all things caffeinated with growers from across the continent, barista workshops and pop-up coffee stands.  If you ever wanted to see thousands of folks ricocheting off the walls from too much free coffee, this was the place to be.

One of our favorites was a Senegalese coffee prepared by Khadim, a pleasant and engaging expat.  It’s a strong sweet coffee, served with a long dramatic pour.  We enjoyed it so much that we visited his shop, Khadim’s Coffee, repeatedly. So good was the java and food prepared by Khadim that his shop became our de facto rendezvous point for meeting friends in the city.IMG_6322The coffee festival coincided with the Red Bull Cape Town Circuit where their F1 Aston Martin Red Bull racing car roared down Darling Street at over 150mph, passing the spot where Nelson Mandela addressed the nation upon his release from Robben Island, and turning the stretch in front of city hall, lined with bleachers, into a high-speed drag strip.  At the intersections, souped-up street cars burned rubber and spun donuts while the Red Bull Air Force performed aerial acrobatics over the city.  It was a raucous day that we could hear from our apartment.

Closer to the city center the District Six Museum tells the story of an atrocity, an afront to dignity that should never be forgotten.  In 1867 the sixth district in Cape Town was formed as a neighborhood of immigrants, merchants, artisans, laborers and freed African and Asian slaves.  It was close to the port and provided the muscle Cape Town needed to grow.  It was home to ten percent of Cape Town’s population and thrived as a community for decades until 1966 when the apartheid government, seeing prime real estate under Table Mountain, declared it a whites only area.  The district’s 60,000 residents were forcibly relocated with superficial notice into segregated townships 15 miles away, or further, from central Cape Town. IMG_5735Families and neighbors were intentionally sent to different communities to break the spirit of the people.  The apartheid government was so vile it “regarded the district as both physically and morally tainted by miscegenation, wholly unfit for rehabilitation” and flattened every building except for Churches.  Even the original streets were destroyed, and new roadways were created so folks couldn’t find their homes, now vacant lots, that they legally owned.  Much of the area still remains abandoned. The District Six Museum commemorates this tragedy and the lasting heartbreak of this cruelty.

The Company’s Garden was only a few blocks away.  Originally a farm that supplied passing ships with food, it now is a wonderful urban park in the city center with old growth specimen trees, gardens, and café. Adjacent to the entrance of the park, Desmond Tutu used to preach from the pulpit of St. George’s Cathedral, an Anglican Church.  And across the street a section of the Berlin Wall stands in remembrance of the struggles people are willing to make for freedom around the world.

At the far end of the gardens two museums grace the grounds and are perfect for a rainy-day exploration.  The Iziko South African Museum is a natural history and science museum with a planetarium.  It has wonderful collection of early aboriginal tools and rock paintings along with a large compendium of pre-historic fossil remains.  There is something for everyone here and we found it to be fascinating.   Outside, various street performers entertained visitors to the park.

Across the way the South African National Gallery has an eclectic collection of contemporary and tribal art from South Africa and the rest of the continent.  The art scene is thriving in Cape Town with many galleries providing exhibit space to young, talented artists.  The museum’s collection reflects this vibrant art scene.IMG_3471Despite our apartment’s faults, we enjoyed our time on Buitenkant Street.  Watching the brilliant sunrises and the flat clouds – the tablecloth of Table Mountain – cover the summit and then spill down the side like a waterfall. The street life below spanned the gamut from groups of tutu-clad race walkers one day to noisily protesting sex workers or Fridays for Future demonstrators the next.

It would be superficial of us not to address the painful past of this relatively young democracy; apartheid and race are still underlying issues.  Despite this, Cape Town, South Africa, was a wonderful experience: at once contemporary and traditional; challenging, progressive, and hope-filled, it captivated us for three months.

Stay tuned for more as we work our way across the southern tip of the continent.

Till next time,

Craig & Donna

Bulgaria: UFO’s, Rustic Villages, and a Dragon’s Tail

Discussing our plans at breakfast, our host suggested we stop at the Alba Grups Rose Plantation, a rose oil distillery near Kazanluk.  “It’s interesting and it’s on your way to that monstrosity on the mountain,” he said, referring to the Buzludzha Monument, the abandoned Soviet era conference center built to celebrate the achievements of communism.  It was too early for roses to be in bloom, but we had visited the Alba Grups store in Sofia and the idea of everything roses was tempting, so we added it to our itinerary.  At the end of the day we would spend the night in the historic village of Tryavna.IMG_1128Heading north on Routes 64 and 6 we drove past fallow farmlands waiting for their Spring tilling, and forgotten industrial sites as we worked our way north towards Stara Planina, the Balkans Mountain range that runs east to west for 348 miles and divides Bulgarian into northern and southern regions.

Soon the 7,795 ft summit of snowcapped Botev Peak was visible behind the quiet villages we passed.  The region seemed to be sparsely populated.  On an isolated backroad we stopped across from a rusted Mig jet set high on a plinth in front of what appeared to be an abandoned military site.  I was only able to take one photo before a lone guard emerged from a derelict watch post and waved us away.  Further on there were many larger than life sculptures championing the communal worker.

The area around Kazanluk, south of the Balkan Mountains, is considered Bulgaria’s rose valley and Rosa Damascena, chosen for the quality of oil and high yield, have been planted in Bulgaria for oil distillation since the 1400’s, when the Ottomans introduced the plant to the region from Syria.  Today Bulgaria is the largest producer of rose oils in the world.IMG_1157Turning down the long driveway of the Alba plantation, we spotted the silhouette of what looked like the Statue of Liberty.  This is great we thought, new entrepreneurs celebrating a free market economy, that was long denied them under communism.  But first impressions can be deceiving; more detail was revealed the closer we got.  We were dismayed to see that it was indeed Lady Liberty with a dragon tail, standing atop a sphere of the world covered with chains and pierced by arrows.  We asked one of the guides the significance of this and he offered that it was the owner’s interpretation of the negative influences of Western/American culture on the rest of the world.  Ironically, the young restaurant staff was loudly playing a soundtrack of American music from the 90’s. We smiled.  World vision aside, they make wonderful products that are very reasonably priced. IMG_1232On a wintry, cloudy afternoon the silhouette of Buzludzha Monument loomed like an inter-stellar space craft wrecked on an inhospitable planet, as threatening clouds built behind it.  Its deteriorating hulk was majestic in its isolation on the 4700 ft mountain ridge. We’ve known about Buzludzha Monument for years, having seen it mentioned in various media as a fascinating abandoned place, but never thought we would get to see it up close.

In 1891 a group of radicals met on the peak of Buzludzha Mountain, where the monument now stands, and formed the Bulgarian Social Democratic Workers Party.  In 1971 the Bulgarian Communist Party wanted to pat itself on the back and celebrate the success of communism.  Others who drank the Kool-Aid hoped it would be a “monument of the people.” Not wanting to put a financial strain on the country’s budget, Bulgarians were encouraged to “willingly donate” money and labor to the project. Georgi Stoilov, a young partisan in WWII, who received his degree from the Moscow Architectural Institute, was chosen to design a timeless memorial.  He cites the Roman Pantheon, 1950’s science fiction movies and the works of western architects Gropius, Le Corbusier and Mies van der Rohe as inspiration for Buzludzha.  It was completed in 1981 after seven years of construction by crews working around the clock in shifts, from May to September every year to avoid the sub-zero temperatures and    fierce winter winds of the mountaintop. Inside the sphere, glass and stone mosaics lining the walls celebrated the communal worker and communist party leaders.  The communist red stars in the 230-foot-tall tower were reported to be the largest in the world at 39 feet across and were visible from the Romanian border in the north and the border with Greece in the south.IMG_1219At the opening ceremony in 1981, tribute was paid to those who had gathered there ninety years earlier. “Let the work of sacred and pure love that was started by those before us never fall into disrepair.”  Buzludzha was a huge success and a point of national pride for eight years, hosting communist party congresses and educational events.  Schools and businesses booked tours for their students and employees.  Foreign delegations were paraded through to witness socialism’s success.  But then in 1989 the Berlin Wall fell and communism collapsed like a fighter jet breaking through the sound barrier.  The monument to socialism was suddenly ironic, irrelevant and abandoned.  In 1999 the security guards protecting it were removed and the building was left open to the public and it was looted. Anything of value quickly disappeared, and the rest was left to vandals and frustrated citizens who were known to take their anger out on the building with sledgehammers or spray paint.  The red stars in the tower were shattered by gun shots.  Soon the glass skylights broke and water damage from rain and the winter elements hastened its structural decline, and the building was eventually shut tight to protect folks from injury.  The day we visited there was a lone security guard, suffering as he made his rounds in the bitter wind, protecting this crumbling modern ruin from a handful of visitors.

The Balkan Mountains, naturally dividing the country into northern and southern regions, have been pivotal throughout Bulgaria’s history.  Not far from Buzludzha during the Russo-Turkish War (1877–1878) a combined Russian/Bulgarian force seized control of Shipka Pass from the Ottomans.  This victory was a significant milestone towards liberating Bulgaria from Ottoman rule and monuments attesting to that triumph now mark the battlefield.IMG_1385As we continued our journey north through the mountains on Route E85, the picturesque Etar Ethnographic Outdoor Museum and Sokolski Monastery called for brief detours.  Set along the banks of the Yantra River, the ethnographic museum recreated a working mountain village from the mid-1800s with water-powered workshops and colorful timber and stone homes in the Bulgarian Revival style of the time.IMG_1567 Woodcarvers, weavers and other craftspeople dressed in period outfits helped further to transport us to a simpler era at the beginning of the Bulgarian industrial revolution.  We visited on a quiet day, but the museum has an extensive twelve-month calendar of events with many festivals listed that would have been nice to observe. IMG_1457Traveling along an isolated background road we worked our way towards Sokolski Monastery, known for its cliffside chapel overlooking the northern slope of the Balkan Mountain range.  We weren’t disappointed; the church is stunning with its colorful exterior frescoes contrasting with the natural environment surrounding it.IMG_1405 Built in 1833, the monastery has played an important role in Bulgarian history.  During the April Uprising of 1876 eight freedom fighters took sanctuary there.  Later captured by the Ottoman army, they were thrown to their deaths from the cliff behind the chapel.  The short-lived April Rebellion was brutally repressed, but a year later Russia would help the Bulgarian rebels defeat the Turks at Shipka Pass and begin the march towards freedom.  In the courtyard of the monastery an octagon-shaped water fountain was built with eight spouts to commemorate those fallen heroes.  Legend states the fountain has never run dry and its cool water holds healing powers. IMG_1437We made it to Tryavna just in time to have dinner at the restaurant next to our hotel. Enjoying a hot meal after a long chilly day, we were entertained by the waitress trying to keep a determined stray cat from entering the restaurant every time the front door was opened.IMG_1744Generations of skilled woodworkers have lived in the Tryavna River Valley, turning trees harvested from the deciduous forests on the slopes of the Balkan Mountains into furniture and ornate wood carvings.

Abundant sheep farms provided wool to the water-powered textile mills along the banks of the river at the beginning of the industrial age.  While other villages in rural Bulgaria have suffered a population exodus, Tryavna has embraced tourism, providing employment for the town.  As one of Bulgaria’s prettiest villages, it is a picturesque escape from city life, with shops, museums and outdoor recreational opportunities nearby. History is literally underfoot in the area, since part of a trail leading to the mountain village of Bozhentsi follows the remnants of an old Roman road.IMG_1522Crossing the footbridge over the Tryavna River at the clock-tower, the pleasant whiff of wood smoke came to us on a chilly Spring morning.  Large woodpiles are essential in this region and we saw plenty of homes with the winter’s firewood neatly stacked, as we wandered around the village, with its parks filled with sculpture and tulips in bloom.