Aswan: our introduction to Egypt

Aswan, seen from across the River Nile, from amongst the Tombs of the Nobles

Aswan was our introduction to Egypt.  It introduced us to heat – forty degrees plus, but dry, much like I remember South Australian summers growing up, albeit with a lot more sand.  It introduced us to the up-close-and-personal wonders of visiting the world’s archetypal archaeological destinations – the ones you’ve always associated with exotic far-off lands;  the ones you don’t really imagine as things you could stand beside, or inside, or staring in the face of.  It introduced us to an unreasonably large number of trips to McDonald’s – if only to get a salad we could trust had been washed in water that wouldn’t make us sick.  (Of course, given that we were there, it seemed silly to pass up the opportunity for a side of burger, chocolate milkshake and sundae.  Possibly two sundaes.)  It introduced us to Egyptian drivers’ novel use of headlight and horn as a method of communication – at times seeming as though we were witnessing some complex courtship ritual conducted entirely via the flashing of lowbeams.  And it introduced us to the utter desperation of locals trying to survive in a country almost entirely dependent on tourism, but which has seen tourist numbers fall off a cliff over the last two years, since the beginning of the revolution.  That introduction basically consisted of being hassled mercilessly and constantly every time we ventured onto the street.  But more about that in another post.

We were in Aswan for Abu Simbel.  That despite the rather blatant fact that Abu Simbel isn’t in Aswan – it’s a four hour drive away.  But it’s four hours’ drive in the direction of Sudan, through a part of southern Egypt that’s not generally considered a great place to be.  Which is made obvious when you get up at 4am to meet your minibus for the daily police-escorted convoy, all off to see Ramesses the Great’s famous monument to himself and his wife.  (Well, one of his wives.  He was a pretty popular guy, it turns out.)

Once we got past the bizarreness of that convoy – and the early-ness too, for that matter – we got on with gaping and gawking at the history sitting right there in front of our noses.

The main temple, dedicated to Ramesses the Great, at Abu Simbel

Abu Simbel is two temples carved into the rockface built to face (and overawe, presumably) Egypt’s potential invaders to the south.  One temple for Ramesses II (aka Ramesses the Great), and one for his wife Nefertari, of whom he was evidently rather fond.  (Moreso than one imagines were the slaves tasked with the more menial aspects of demonstrating Ramesses’ devotion, anyhow.)

In front of a statue of Ramesses the Great in the façade of the Small Temple

The pictures will convey the impressiveness much better than any descriptions I can give…

The façade of the Small Temple

… except for one thing the pictures don’t show:  the temples are not where Ramesses had them built.  There’s a dam there now.  So in the 1960s, while building said dam, they also relocated Ramesses and Nefertari en toto.  Quite a feat, which the visitor’s centre impresses on you well.  Then you realise that you’re being impressed by the job they did in the late twentieth century.  With, y’know, bulldozers and cranes and stuff.  Carefully relocating an original that was built three and a half thousand years earlier.  With, y’know, slaves and little rock hammers that these days don’t have much greater utility than to test your knee reflexes.

The Great Temple, seen from in front of the entrance to the Small Temple. Yeah, looks like a bugger to relocate, doesn’t it.

Other than Abu Simbel, we did little in Aswan other than acclimatise to the heat and to the wearyingly relentless attempts to sell us this, take us for a ride on that, and generally find a way, any way (legitimate or otherwise), to get as much money as possible from my pocket into someone else’s.  We did get a boat across the river to explore the Tombs of the Nobles – that was before Abu Simbel, and was interesting both as our first live experience of Egyptian history and because it also offered some good views across and up the Nile.  But other than that, once our police convoy safely delivered us back from our meeting with Ramesses, we relaxed and got ourselves ready for a train ride up to Luxor.  Job done, next bit of history, please…

A falluka sailing down the Nile, in front of the Tombs of the Nobles

Sunsets aplenty in the Greek Islands

The Greek islands were our last stop in Europe before moving on to tackle Egypt and the Middle East, Nepal and south-east Asia.  This was my third trip there, all within a year:  the first was a much-needed and thoroughly enjoyed holiday in the form of a sailing jaunt with my parents, the second a long-anticipated birthday celebration for an Australian friend.  Both of those occasions had been a blast, so I knew I was unlikely to find any way not to enjoy my time in the sun and the water and the whitewashed guesthouses and cafés and tavernas.

We had a week to relax and just enjoy where we were:  no big-ticket tourist sites to navigate, no running around with careful plans to fit the most we could into each and every day.  Just a nice spot to chill out.  That’s not to say that we didn’t do anything:  just that we didn’t have to.  The most detailed plan that we had for each day was typically “where should we watch the sunset from tonight?”.

A beach in Parikia (Paros) as the sun begins to set

We divided our time on the islands between Paros and Santorini.  For all our laziness, we actually explored each of them pretty thoroughly.  We spent a day hopping on and off local buses, making our way around the small, quaint white-walled villages and quiet sandy beaches all over Paros.  Through Lefkes, in the centre, with just enough time before the next bus came to walk a circle around town and fit in an iced coffee (or was it a milkshake?) and the most sugary-looking of the cakes in the bakery window.  On to Piso Livadi, to enjoy a lunch of fried seafood by the beach, in a scene that’s just begging to be called ‘splendid’.  On foot around the point to see what beaches we might find, before bussing a little farther around – again in search of beaches – and then back to Parikia for sunset.

See, ‘splendid’, no?

And we followed that up by then ferrying across to Paros’s smaller sibling, Antiparos, to explore its (not especially interesting) cave, to wander around its sleepy harbour, and to amuse ourselves watching the kitesurfers flitting back and forth between Paros and Antiparos.  (Note to self:  must learn to kitesurf, it looks awesome.  Note to self and everyone else:  if you’re looking for somewhere to put your feet up in the Greek islands for a week or so of doing not much, it looks like you could do a lot worse than the small resort-like places on the northern tip of Antiparos.  Not that we had any complaints about Parikia, which was also a great spot.)

One of many stunning vistas from the walking trail from Fira to Oia, on Santorini

Santorini we explored with quad bikes as our trusty steeds, roaming across the crater of an island, checking out the beaches (nothing special), the archaeological site at Akrotiri (pretty boring), and the various vantage points around the island (definitely worth hunting out).  And in my case, at least, the survey of Santorini also featured a decent chunk of footwork:  walking the trail from Fira to join my somewhat lazier comrades (they took the bus) at Oia for possibly the world’s most famous sunset.

A part of the walking trail from Fira to Oia, on Santorini

(This was the second time I’ve been to Santorini, and the second time I’ve wandered my way along that trail:  it’s a charming – and quiet – walk along the cliffs, through the towns, and over the hills, and it has easily the best views of the island, if you ask me.  A welcome escape from the tourist crowds across much of the rest of the island.  A few hours well spent, and I’ll happily do it again if I ever find myself back there.)

Sunset at Oia, Santorini

Other than that, all that really remained was to spend our evenings looking out across the sea, watching the sun disappear beneath the water, or behind the islands, or behind a town, depending on where we’d picked for our viewing spot that particular night.  Not a bad way to spend a week.

Yet another of many spectacular sunsets in the Greek Islands

Secluded monkery in Metéora

Some destinations you visit for the culture;  some you visit for natural beauty;  some you might visit for a particular activity or maybe for the nightlife or beach scene.  Some, you visit just because they’re something a little different and perhaps a little more obscure than most typical round-the-world big-ticket items.  So we found ourselves a few hours’ drive north of Athens, in the relatively unremarkable town of Kalambaka, for one night only, to spend a morning exploring the lonely monasteries of Metéora, atop their giant sandstone plinths.

Approaching Metéora: the Holy Monastery of Great Meteoron perched atop its sandstone pillar

Evidently the monks of the area, centuries ago, decided that they weren’t really big fans of contact with the rest of us.  Escaping political and religious conflict, they built their new houses of God in the most inaccessible locations they could, and retreated to a life separate from the world below.  They weren’t completely cut off – monks could and did climb up ropes from the ground below, either directly on the rock face, or in a cage or net drawn up by a crane in the monastery.  (The story goes that they wouldn’t repair or replace the ropes when they frayed, even to mere threads, instead trusting to God to decide who should fall when they eventually broke.  Bunch of geniuses, it sounds like.)  But in their isolation, they built something quite special, which we thought were worth a look.

The net used to bring up supplies to the Holy Monastery of Great Meteoron, Metéora

While a number of the monasteries are still monastic (or now nunnified, or whatever the appropriate adjective is), others are open to the public, and some are both.  They seem to have become somewhat of a tourist magnet (albeit perhaps not for the type of tourists we normally run into on our ‘let’s go see the world’ gap-year-like travels) – and perfectly reasonably so.  They’re a good wander through, but really, it’s the location and the simple fact of their existence that’s the drawcard, rather than any particular detail of the monasteries themselves.  The views from one to the other, and out among the sandstone hills, make Metéora well worth a short trip, to see something that little bit different.

The Holy Monastery of Varlaam, as seen from the Holy Monastery of Great Meteoron, Metéora

The Holy Monastery of St Stephen in Metéora, looking out over the town of Kalambaka

Kotor: Montenegro’s mini-Dubrovnik

Leaving Sarajevo, we had a few days to spare before our flight out of Belgrade, and we’d loved every bit of the Balkans we’d visited so far.  So why not get in another country?  By all reports, Montenegro was a good option for some time by the water – so it was just left to pick a city, really.  A combination of bus timetables (both from Sarajevo, and to Belgrade), Wikitravel pages and Google image searches helped us choose Kotor.  There may have been some coin tossing involved as well – I can’t really recall.

Montenegro, ahoy, why not.

The bus trip into Herceg Novi, and then the connection on to Kotor, more than adequately demonstrated the picturesque beauty of the Montenegrin coastline, and confirmed for us that our choice to fit an extra destination into our allotted time in the region had been a good one.  And having made it that far, past the (living, moving, grazing) bovine obstacles that seemed to litter stretches of the Bosnian highway en route to Montenegro in the first place, the drive around the Bay of Kotor was like the geography of Montenegro advertising to all and sundry:  ‘see, we have such excellent coastline that it seemed only reasonable to include a stunning natural harbour, just to have that much more waterfront to share with the world.’

The spectacular Bay of Kotor

And once we were done admiring the journey there, we found a lot to like in Kotor itself, as well.  It’s selling the city short somewhat to describe it as Dubrovnik-lite, but that’s a good start nonetheless.  It doesn’t have quite the crowds that Dubrovnik does (yet) – the cruise ships that grace its harbour are fewer and smaller.  It’s a more petite city, too;  but with that, it’s possibly more charming than the sometimes-impersonal Dubrovnik.  (Kotor has its swimming spots as well – and I imagine kayaking is just as possible here – but in that respect the Dubrovnik-lite moniker is accurate more in that they didn’t have quite the spectacular enchantment that we’d experienced weeks earlier in Croatia.  Still, you can’t have absolutely everything…)

Like Dubrovnik, the fortifications are a major attraction.  In Kotor’s case, this is a climb up the walls which run up the hill to St John’s fortress, for an amazing view out over the city and across the Bay of Kotor.  The climb is hot and hard work, granted, but the view from the top, and the fortress itself, are most definitely worth it.  Montenegro being not yet a nanny state, you can still explore the fortress and climb on its walls, without a forest of unsightly barriers – nor a team of spoilsport babysitters – preventing you from going anywhere interesting.  An afternoon well spent, enjoying the stony feel of history, marvelling at the view, and basking in the sunshine.

The fortifications of St John’s fortress, above Kotor

Once you’re back down, the fortifications make for a nice view from below, too.  We happily spent far too much time one evening trying for (but failing to get!) the perfect photo back up the hill as the sun set.

The best I could do trying to get a post-sunset shot of St John’s Fortress, above Kotor. The walls are pretty, yeah, but I feel I could have done better. Sad face.

With not much time in Montenegro before we headed back up to Belgrade, but with a mid-afternoon departure, we had time for one more energetic pre-bus climb.  Across the Bay from the Old Town of Kotor is a walking trail to the top of the hill on the other side.  Aside from some more spectacular views, the climb also offered the attraction of a World War I era Austro-Hungarian fort:  Fort Vrmac.  The fort is abandoned now, but not yet derelict, and perfectly accessible and open for exploration.  Bring a torch, or spend a while letting your night vision adjust, and you can wander through and onto and over it all, playing quite the intrepid explorer.

Fort Vrmac, an Austro-Hungarian fort on the top of the hill by the Bay of Kotor

And then, once done, climb back down as we did, and reluctantly watch the beautiful scenery roll by on your way out of this spectacular country.  As you promise yourself you’ll be back.  And soon.

Revisiting Sarajevo

I’ve been to Sarajevo twice now.

The first time was a few years back, in my first year living in London, on a ‘hey, why not’ two-day side trip while I was visiting my friend Laura in Zagreb.  I think it was probably the first place where I remember being surrounded by sounds of the Muslim call to prayer each day.  Certainly it was the first where I’d seen real evidence of recent death and destruction – bullet holes in the side of the apartment block down the street (and the one the next street over, and three more down there, and a handful around the corner), burnt out buildings by the river, and a city clearly trying to remember and deal with its past without being defined solely by those years under siege.

I was a nerdy kid growing up, and while I certainly wasn’t sophisticated enough to have any real understanding of world affairs in my early teens, I was at least capable of understanding that watching the news was a thing that you were supposed to do if you wanted to think you were clever and well educated, and so I knew of Sarajevo.  I knew of it as a place on the other side of the world – far, far away – where bad things were happening.  And wasn’t it terrible;  everyone agreed it was.

Actually visiting Sarajevo that first time was an unexpected conflict of two completely different feelings.  First, the sobering and distressing force of understanding that this wasn’t something that happened on a TV screen in your living room, to be discussed at a distance as a dispassionate demonstration of your compassion and intellect.  Second, the realisation that this place that was so distant and foreign is a place you can actually go and touch and grapple with in the flesh.  First, a feeling that you are small and there is more to the real world than you so far understood.  Second, a feeling that the world is small, and that if you will, you can go out there and grasp it and try to understand it.

Probably the centrepiece of recent Bosnian history in Sarajevo is the Tunnel Museum:  a home on the other side of the airport which housed the exit of the ‘tunnel of life’, which was the tunnel under the runway which connected the besieged city to Bosnian forces on the outside.

A preserved section of the Sarajevo “tunnel of life”, which connected besieged Sarajevo and the free Bosnian forces on the other side of the airport

I will always associate Sarajevo with my memory of visiting that museum with my Croatian friend and also with two Serbian girls staying at the same hostel, the four of us guided by the Bosnian hostel owner, from whom the siege had stolen a significant portion of his teenage years.  The four of them discussed their relationships to the region’s wars:  growing up as Yugoslavia fell apart, all four with family involved in the conflict, all four immediately affected, but not all four on the same side.  I listened quietly (and hopefully respectfully), wrestling with a complete inability to even begin to comprehend what it would be like to have lived that childhood.

The bullet-ridden house which hid the exit to the Sarajevo “tunnel of life” – now the Tunnel Museum

So my second trip to Sarajevo had a lot to live up to.

It is still a city of bullet-riddled apartment blocks.  The Tunnel Museum is still an incredible reminder of a tragic horror (although our guide this time – again a local who grew up in the besieged city – was perhaps a little more out there with some of his conspiracy theories than the carefully considered view I had from our guide the first time around).  And the Bosnian capital is still a beautiful city, full of amazingly friendly people, good coffee, and mouth-watering food.

The remains of two cups of Bosnian coffee, thoroughly enjoyed in Sarajevo’s old town

A little more well-travelled now (and travelling through in summer rather than winter), this time I noticed the touristy influences more:  Sarajevo is on a lot of must-see lists (not least with a vigorous recommendation from Lonely Planet), and there are a lot of people must-seeing it.  Except for the minarets, much of downtown Sarajevo could easily pass for any other European capital, too, such is the extent to which it has recovered from its suffering in the early nineties.

This time we also made the effort to go out and find some of the old 1984 Winter Olympic venues – a bunch of abandoned and semi-abandoned sites not far from the city centre, presided over in their emptiness (well, empty except for the two carwashes which somewhat randomly flank one of the stadiums) by what can only be described as a very concrete Olympic-ring-topped monument.  With more time than my first visit, we explored the fort on the hill above town, as well as a selection of the city’s museums, too.  (The Historical Museum of Bosnia and Herzegovina has excellent coverage of Sarajevo under siege, and is well worth an hour or two, so long as you’re not afraid of being overwhelmed by photographic evidence of what the city went through.)

The Olympic rings towering unimpressively over a disused stadium from the 1984 Sarajevo Winter Olympics

And this time I saw in the city the remaining political divisions which I hadn’t noted on my first trip:  this time we bussed in from Belgrade, so arrived in the bus station in the Serbian (Republika Srpska) half of the city, over the hill and – geographically and politically – thoroughly separate from the (main) Bosniak half.

Leaving, this time, I remained firmly of the opinion that Sarajevo is a truly fascinating city.  And that they really do have some fantastic eateries in the old town especially, incredibly touristy though it may now be!