Category Archives: around-the-world travel

DISPATCH FROM LIVING THE NOMADIC LIFE, A GLOBAL ODYSSEY: MALAYSIA TO CAMBODIA

Krong Siem Reap, Cambodia © Eric Leiberman/goingplacesfarandnear.com

By Eric Leiberman and Sarah Falter, Travel Features Syndicate, goingplacesfarandnear.com

Eric and Sarah are on a 6-month around-the-world sabbatical, joining a huge movement of young people who are choosing to live the nomadic life (at least for a time) and travel or work remotely, becoming immersed in local life and culture. They are filing these dispatches periodically. They previously reported about their adventures in Mexico, South Korea and Vietnam. Here’s their dispatch from Malaysia and Cambodia:

Salutations from the two-shower-a-day club! We both agree that if these last four weeks of our trip had a title it’d be “Never Not Sweating”. The combination of oppressive humidity and laundry machines that never seem to get our clothes fully clean nor fully dry (could definitely be user error, still unclear) make us think the clothes we brought will never smell normal again. BUT the lingering scent of delicious food past, present & future prevails!

Cat Ba island © Eric Leiberman/goingplacesfarandnear.com

Since our last update, our love fest for Vietnam continued a couple weeks longer with visits to Cat Ba island (including an epic stay on a houseboat amongst a floating village of 200+ dwellings), Central Vietnam (Hoi An & Da Nang for a change up of beach yoga, morning runs, and smoothie bowls), and Ho Chi Minh city before boarding our flights to Malaysia. We definitely squeezed out every last drop of our hard-earned 30-day visas.

Penang © Eric Leiberman/goingplacesfarandnear.com

Malaysia really surprised us in the best way. We immediately appreciated the multiculturalism and quieter calm of daily life, which was a pretty stark contrast to our previous month in Vietnam. The melting pot of Indian, Chinese & Malay populations with all the many permutations of ethnic and religious cultures within each group made for a wide sampling of options every meal. And we were reintroduced to traffic lights and crosswalks, adding the months back to our lives that we likely lost from the heart palpitations navigating the streets and highways of Vietnam.

George Town, Penang © Eric Leiberman/goingplacesfarandnear.com

 

Penang © Eric Leiberman/goingplacesfarandnear.com
Air Itam, Penang, Malaysia © Eric Leiberman/goingplacesfarandnear.com

The places we visited were a pretty broad sampling of western Malaysia. Penang, a gorgeous UNESCO World Heritage site, is a food stall mecca with funky street art woven throughout. It scores extra cuteness points for being home to the smallest national park in the world. Langkawi feels like how we’ve heard/imagined Kauai to be, amazingly lush and mountainous with lots of wildlife and white sand beaches. Here, we treated ourselves and balled out on Eric’s Marriott Bonvoy points at the Ritz Carlton, enjoying every free amenity the hotel had to offer and surviving almost solely on contraband fruit, cereal, instant noodles and turn-down snacks (hey, we’re on a budget y’all.. don’t judge!).

Penang © Eric Leiberman/goingplacesfarandnear.com
The Ritz Carlton, Langkawi, Malaysia © Eric Leiberman/goingplacesfarandnear.com
The Ritz Carlton, Langkawi, Malaysia © Eric Leiberman/goingplacesfarandnear.com
Langkawi, Malaysia   © Eric Leiberman/goingplacesfarandnear.com

And our last stop in Malaysia landed us in Kuala Lumpur, which has a cool hybrid feel of both East and Southeast Asian megacities with its traditional houses and stray animals juxtaposed next to sleek luxury skyscrapers (spectacular infinity pools with massive skyline views are a dime a dozen).

Langkawi, Malaysia   © Eric Leiberman/goingplacesfarandnear.com
Langkawi  Kedah, Malaysia © Eric Leiberman/goingplacesfarandnear.com
The Ritz Carlton, Langkawi  Kedah, Malaysia © Eric Leiberman/goingplacesfarandnear.com
The Ritz Carlton, Langkawi  Kedah, Malaysia © Eric Leiberman/goingplacesfarandnear.com
The Ritz Carlton, Langkawi  Kedah, Malaysia © Eric Leiberman/goingplacesfarandnear.com
Malaysia   © Eric Leiberman/goingplacesfarandnear.com

Malaysia   © Eric Leiberman/goingplacesfarandnear.com

In our experience, the only thing we found to be stronger than the infinity pool game in Malaysia was the army of monkeys. We encountered them pretty much everywhere we went – during both city and jungle explorations, on beaches, and even on our hotel balcony. It was cute and fun for a while, but it got personal when Sarah was peacefully enjoying her apple with peanut butter, only to look up (at first excitedly) to see monkeys gripping the balcony rails. This excitement quickly turned to terror as the gaggle of conspirators jumped to her, and one mother monkey with baby hanging on ripped the PB jar right from Sarah’s grasp (which is quite strong, not sure if anyone here has ever tried to take PB from Sarah). Sarah is trying her best not to now think of them as glorified rats, and has Eric to remind her diligently of our shared ancestry (monkeys are Eric’s favorite animal.. shocker). Yesterday, a new friend we met on the train told us a monkey recently ripped her pants attempting to get a snack from her pocket! No thanks. Sarah’s mind is set for now.

Krong Siem Reap, Cambodia © Sarah Falter/goingplacesfarandnear.com
Krong Siem Reap, Cambodia © Eric Leiberman/goingplacesfarandnear.com
Krong Siem Reap, Cambodia © Eric Leiberman/goingplacesfarandnear.com

Next, we skipped over to Cambodia to see the ancient temples of Angkor, just north of the town of Siem Reap. We were blown away to learn that this site was home to 1 million people at its height about 900 years ago (the largest pre-industrial city in the world, with 1/400 people on the PLANET living there). The temples throughout the 250 square mile archaeological park are in varying states of being consumed by the jungle due to a combination of factors over the years – namely neglect, war, vandalism and (thankfully) restoration efforts.

Krong Siem Reap, Cambodia © Eric Leiberman/goingplacesfarandnear.com
Krong Siem Reap, Cambodia © Eric Leiberman/goingplacesfarandnear.com

More fun factoids – the temples have changed hands (and actual coats of paint) between different religions over the years, based on the beliefs of whoever ruled at the time. Originally Hindu, then swapped to Buddhist, then back to Hindu again when the leading man embraced Brahmanism. Many of the Buddha statues were defaced in some way (missing a head or an arm). But can you blame the people?!.. sounds very confusing to be constantly switching horses on the path to salvation! -Editor’s note: Eric thought that was funny; Sarah thought offensive.

Angor Wat sunrise © Eric Leiberman/goingplacesfarandnear.com
Krong Siem Reap, Cambodia © Eric Leiberman/goingplacesfarandnear.com
Krong Siem Reap, Cambodia © Eric Leiberman/goingplacesfarandnear.com

Eric dragged Sarah out of bed at 4AM three consecutive days in a row in order to be at the Angkor temples for sunrise. But Sarah admits it was pretty special to be on the scooter on those dark mornings, slowly making our way through Siem Reap with the few locals and shopkeepers awake at that hour. It was also so worth it to escape the heat of the day and have many of the temples all to ourselves (our guide told us that pre-Covid this site could see 12,000-13,000 tourists per day, compared with 400-500 right now). We feel lucky to be able to tour the utterly magnificent sites with such freedom, but heartbroken at the economic impact the pandemic has had on so many in the tourism industry. Some we’ve met have lost their homes/homestays/hotels, and many changed their jobs entirely (to farming, fishing..) to make ends meet. They all vocalize that they can’t wait to see more and more tourists again. 

Krong Siem Reap, Cambodia © Eric Leiberman/goingplacesfarandnear.com
Krong Siem Reap, Cambodia © Eric Leiberman/goingplacesfarandnear.com
Kuala Lumpur © Eric Leiberman/goingplacesfarandnear.com

We went on to continue the whole not-really-sleeping thing for our first week in Indonesia, first due to an overnight layover at the Singapore airport, and then chasing first light for some epic volcanoes in Java. We’ll be making our way east in Indonesia over the next month, so please send over any/all recommendations! Sarah is 50/50 at this point in thinking we should do a week-long silent retreat.

See also:

DISPATCH FROM LIVING THE NOMADIC LIFE, A GLOBAL ODYSSEY: MEXICO

DISPATCH FROM LIVING THE NOMADIC LIFE, A GLOBAL ODYSSEY: SOUTH KOREA TO VIETNAM

_______________________________

© 2022 Travel Features Syndicate, a division of Workstyles, Inc. All rights reserved. Visit goingplacesfarandnear.com, www.huffingtonpost.com/author/karen-rubin, and travelwritersmagazine.com/TravelFeaturesSyndicate/. Blogging at goingplacesnearandfar.wordpress.com and moralcompasstravel.info. Visit instagram.com/going_places_far_and_near and instagram.com/bigbackpacktraveler/ Send comments or questions to FamTravLtr@aol.com. Tweet @TravelFeatures. ‘Like’ us at facebook.com/NewsPhotoFeatures

Dispatch from Living the Nomadic Life, a Global Odyssey: South Korea to Vietnam

For our Oxalis tour of the Hang Tien cave system we strapped on army boots (provided) and spent the next three days walking straight through rivers, jungle and caves © Eric Leiberman/goingplacesfarandnear.com

By Eric Leiberman and Sarah Falter, Travel Features Syndicate, goingplacesfarandnear.com

Eric and Sarah are on a 6-month around-the-world sabbatical, joining a huge movement of young people who are choosing to live the nomadic life (at least for a time) and travel or work remotely, becoming immersed in local life and culture. They are filing these dispatches periodically. They previously reported about their month in Mexico. Here’s their report from South Korea and Vietnam:

“This is the way so many of the great meals of my life have been enjoyed. Sitting in the street, eating something out of a bowl that I’m not exactly sure what it is. And scooters going by. So delicious. I feel like an animal. Where have you been all my life?” -Anthony Bourdain eating in Vietnam (and we couldn’t agree more). 

We write this second installment of our sabbatical dispatch from Phu Quoc, Vietnam (an island in the Gulf of Thailand very close to the Cambodian border).  We were very stoked to make it into Asia just a couple of weeks after border re-openings, and it’s been fascinating (and at times eerie) to be some of the first tourists here.

We spent our first week traveling Asia in Seoul after Eric was denied entry into Vietnam because he accidentally mistyped the entry month on his e-visa (*Note: if you want to read Eric’s best Aaron Sorkin impression in further documenting the gripping drama of being turned away at the border, see the PS). In South Korea we saw 100% mask compliance inside and outside everywhere we went (though those smoking cigarettes on the street get a nonsensical pass hehe), and never in our lives have we seen every single person in sight staring at their smartphone! It can look dystopian at times. Sarah happily embraced the quiet, introverted culture. Eric had to fight the impulse to chat up uninterested locals. 

Seoul © Eric Leiberman/goingplacesfarandnear.com

But, we came together in our love for chilly mornings spent at the market scarfing down some impressive form of dumpling/kimchi soup while seated on heated benches, saving room for lots of lunch/dinner Korean bbq (and in Seoul you don’t lift a finger when prepping your bbq–it’s all done for you by extremely impressive waiters who manage 8+ grills at once). We also checked out a local baseball game where cheering is technically banned because of Covid (cheer in your heart), though when a team scores, their fans impulsively scream anyway. To our delight, the stadium allows BYO beer/soju and fried chicken, all conveniently sold right outside.

 

Joining the fun at a baseball game in Seoul © Eric Leiberman/goingplacesfarandnear.com

Our second attempt at clearing customs in Hanoi went off without a hitch (thanks to Sarah triple checking all of Eric’s documents), and being able to finally taste the forbidden fruit made it all the more sweet! We immediately felt invigorated by the delicious smells coming from every direction, and having to be on our toes when crossing the street (the rushing river of cars/scooters never stop, they just, without fail, go around you). We loved figuring out that what seems like complete and utter chaos really has a very predictable and harmonious rhythm to it. 

Hanoi, Vietnam © Eric Leiberman/goingplacesfarandnear.com
Hanoi, Vietnam © Eric Leiberman/goingplacesfarandnear.com
Hanoi, Vietnam © Eric Leiberman/goingplacesfarandnear.com

Hanoi, Vietnam © Eric Leiberman/goingplacesfarandnear.com

In the food department, we quickly realized that the best meals come from street stalls with tiny plastic chairs and just one thing on the menu. The insane combination of unlimited chewy rice noodles, tangy broth, chilis, crunchy peanuts, and mountains of herbs make every dish a choose-your-own adventure of deliciousness. We could’ve been convinced that some of the street food we were eating for $1-2 came off a Michelin tasting menu – the Bun Cha and Banh Cuon were especially incredible. We also learned that the French colonial rule in Vietnam is what sparked the popularity of bread here, consumed daily by millions in Banh Mi, and re-invented with rice flour here. We’ve enjoyed the food scene endlessly, but there is also a hint of sadness in this reopening world. Many stalls/restaurants we research and can’t wait to try have no reviews the last two years, and, we come to find, have just disappeared. 

Continuing on in Hanoi (our favorite city in Vietnam) we were captivated by the Hoa Lo Prison, where French colonists imprisoned and killed Vietnamese political activists in the late 1800s through the mid 1900s, and this same location is where American POWs were incarcerated during the Vietnam War. Learning about the many generations of occupation that the Vietnamese have endured brought us deeper meaning and reflection as we thought about the US’s recent departure from Afghanistan and Russia’s recent invasion of Ukraine. And we also really enjoyed the Vietnamese Women’s Museum, where we learned how valued women are in the work and family unit in northern Vietnam, and that Vietnamese women even propose marriage.

With the constant beat of vehicle horns in the air in Hanoi, Eric was beginning to itch to get on a motorbike (no shock there). So, we hopped on an overnight bus north to Sa Pa and hired a motorbike guide named Kin- a pure soul, the same age as Sarah and a father of three. Kind Kin said yes to all of Eric’s crazy ideas and before we knew it we were motorbiking from Sa Pa to Ha Giang along the Chinese border (a total of about 500km over 3 days) stopping at small homestays on our scenic way. 

Settling in on the overnight bus north to Sa Pa, Vietnam © Eric Leiberman/goingplacesfarandnear.com
Motorbiking from Sa Pa to Ha Giang© Eric Leiberman/goingplacesfarandnear.com
Kin said yes to all of Eric’s crazy ideas and before we knew it we were motorbiking from Sa Pa to Ha Giang along the Chinese border (a total of about 500 km over 3 days) stopping at small homestays on our scenic way © Eric Leiberman/goingplacesfarandnear.com
Stopping at small homestays on our scenic way © Eric Leiberman/goingplacesfarandnear.com
Motorbiking from Sa Pa to Ha Giang© Sarah Falter/goingplacesfarandnear.com
Kin said yes to all of Eric’s crazy ideas and before we knew it we were motorbiking from Sa Pa to Ha Giang along the Chinese border (a total of about 500 km over 3 days) stopping at small homestays on our scenic way © Eric Leiberman/goingplacesfarandnear.com
Motorbiking from Sa Pa to Ha Giang© Sarah Falter/goingplacesfarandnear.com
Motorbiking from Sa Pa to Ha Giang© Eric Leiberman/goingplacesfarandnear.com
Motorbiking from Sa Pa to Ha Giang© Eric Leiberman/goingplacesfarandnear.com
Motorbiking from Sa Pa to Ha Giang© Eric Leiberman/goingplacesfarandnear.com
Stopping at small homestays on our scenic way © Eric Leiberman/goingplacesfarandnear.com

Eric did all of the driving while Sarah dutifully snapped pictures and videos from the bumpy backseat. The scenery was absolutely stunning-terraced rice paddies (which we learned are made that way for irrigation) every shade of green, heaps of green tea drying in the sun, and farmers markets where locals insist we sit down for “Happy Water”–Vietnamese moonshine–which Sarah does happily and Eric does also happily but with more responsibility because he is our forever DD. Lots of fog rolled in in the north, which made us appreciate the views when it did clear, even more.

Our campsite for our Oxalis jungle trek-caving trip © Eric Leiberman/goingplacesfarandnear.com
For our Oxalis tour of the Hang Tien cave system we strapped on army boots (provided) and spent the next three days walking straight through rivers, jungle and caves © Eric Leiberman/goingplacesfarandnear.com
For our Oxalis tour of the Hang Tien cave system we strapped on army boots (provided) and spent the next three days walking straight through rivers, jungle and caves © Eric Leiberman/goingplacesfarandnear.com
Trekking through the jungle to get to Hang Tien caves © Eric Leiberman/goingplacesfarandnear.com
Trekking through the jungle to get to Hang Tien caves © Eric Leiberman/goingplacesfarandnear.com

We moved south to central Vietnam so that Sarah could realize her bootcamp potential, signing up for a multi-day jungle trekking & caving tour. The caves in Phong Nha, Vietnam, are otherworldly. In fact, the world’s largest cave is here (Hang Son Doong–first discovered by a farmer by accident just three decades ago, and so big it has its own rainforest!). We found availability on a tour of the Hang Tien cave system with the tour company Oxalis (highly recommend), so we strapped on our provided army boots, and spent the next three days walking straight through rivers and caves (fully clothed in long layers to protect against plants and insects), and then scaling rocks up and down in order to capture some incredible Vietnamese nature. Our group of 10 (5 domestic and 5 foreign travelers) bonded Birthright style during the tentside hangouts, and we were fed constantly (and deliciously) which kept us smiling 🙂 despite the unrelenting heat and humidity.  (https://oxalisadventure.com/ contact@oxalisadventure.com)

Exploring the Hang Tien cave system with the tour company Oxalis © Eric Leiberman/goingplacesfarandnear.com
Exploring the Hang Tien cave system with the tour company Oxalis © Eric Leiberman/goingplacesfarandnear.com
Exploring the Hang Tien cave system with the tour company Oxalis © Eric Leiberman/goingplacesfarandnear.com
Exploring the Hang Tien cave system with the tour company Oxalis © Eric Leiberman/goingplacesfarandnear.com
Exploring the Hang Tien cave system with the tour company Oxalis © Eric Leiberman/goingplacesfarandnear.com
Dining al fresco inside the cave © Eric Leiberman/goingplacesfarandnear.com
Exploring the Hang Tien cave system with the tour company Oxalis © Eric Leiberman/goingplacesfarandnear.com
Exploring the Hang Tien cave system with the tour company Oxalis © Eric Leiberman/goingplacesfarandnear.com
Our campsite in the Jungle during our Oxalis jungle trek-caving trip © Eric Leiberman/goingplacesfarandnear.com
Our campsite in the Jungle during our Oxalis jungle trek-caving trip © Eric Leiberman/goingplacesfarandnear.com

After a desperate shower and laundry session we made our way to Hue, also in central Vietnam. Eric wasted no time seeking out a tailor for his absolute favorite–custom clothes. His request was so specific, that our amazing tailor Bo (we really have met people unbelievably patient with Eric here) offered to take us to the fabric market to pick one out that she didn’t carry at her shop. One scooter ride together and a couple of hours later she nailed it! Sarah also got her first custom clothing with Bo and agrees, it is really fun. Another highlight of Hue-the salt coffee. Each region of Vietnam highlights a unique version of their rich coffee, but our favorite variation is this one–salted cream that perfectly compliments the strong black coffee blend creating an almost caramel taste. 

Picking out fabric for our custom-made clothes in Hue © Eric Leiberman/goingplacesfarandnear.com
Done! Custom-made clothes © Sarah Falter/goingplacesfarandnear.com

We now find ourselves on the beach in Phu Quoc, southern Vietnam. Sarah is wrapping up book number three and Eric is taking the hotel’s paddleboard about 100 times further than the buoy’s limits. The hotel seems to be approximately 10% full. Seeing as we now recognize every fellow guest were living out our White Lotus moment giving them all backstories and deciding who will get murdered (just kidding!! and watch the show White Lotus if you haven’t yet!). We continue to thrive on almost strictly street food–we went to a nightmarket the other night with a German couple from our cave tour and to Eric’s delight, found Banh Mi with steak and runny white cheese a la the Philly Cheesesteak, and sea urchin with herbs and peanuts. No food is left untried. And while Eric has been brave enough to weigh himself this week (somehow lost weight!?), Sarah continues on in ignorant bliss. 

The beach in Phu Quoc, southern Vietnam © Eric Leiberman/goingplacesfarandnear.com

* * *

PS – So there we were..3 flights and 36 hours of travel from Mexico City to Hanoi (by way of Dallas and Tokyo). It was 11PM. We were beyond exhausted because we had to wake up at 2:30AM in Mexico City to return our rental car and get to our first flight. We slept but a wink on the planes, but the in-flight viewing of the Anthony Bourdain and Alpinist docs (both must-sees btw) sustained us and we were stoked to have touched down in Asia. 

BUT NOT SO FAST the travel gods said. At immigration in Hanoi, Sarah lifted her bucket hat and mask, flashed her million dollar smile and breezed right through to the promised land. But the immigration officer looked longer at Eric’s documents. “You have to go over there,” the officer said after a few minutes of scrutinizing the documents. A lot of back-and-forth with immigration officers and airline attendants facilitated by the Google Translate app ensued, and Eric came to realize that the dates on his e-visa were wrong – it was for a May 9th entry, not April 9th. An hour of pleading for a date change on the existing visa or the issuing of a new visa on arrival fell on deaf ears. “You need to get on this plane back to Tokyo now,” the officers forcefully told him. “But my partner is on the other side,” he pleaded.

The airline officer ran to retrieve Sarah while Eric placed dead end calls to the US embassies in Vietnam, Korea and Japan. Pleading to let us book different flights to countries that were newly open to US tourists like Thailand, Singapore or Korea (instead of Japan, which was still closed, and we expected once we got there they’d tell us we needed to go all the way back to the US) didn’t work either because these countries, while open, still needed processing time for visa/Covid paperwork.

After fortunately being reunited at the boarding gate (and Sarah’s last attempt at pleas to stay), the officers forced us onto the plane for Tokyo stating our passports were now being held in the cockpit and that we’d be blacklisted from ever entering Vietnam if we didn’t board the plane NOW. We felt beyond exhausted and defeated, but quickly fired up our laptop for the 6hr redeye flight back to Tokyo to investigate our options.

Thanks to persistence and a lot of help from our travel savvy family, we were able to show proof of flights and visa documentation in Tokyo to ensure we could enter Korea and wouldn’t need to be forced all the way back to the US (and btdubs for future reference, when something like this happens, you are responsible for paying whatever the flights costs which is astronomical because of the same day booking rate; so tl;dr don’t be like Eric and always quadruple check the dates on your visas!)

© 2022 Travel Features Syndicate, a division of Workstyles, Inc. All rights reserved. Visit goingplacesfarandnear.com, www.huffingtonpost.com/author/karen-rubin, and travelwritersmagazine.com/TravelFeaturesSyndicate/. Blogging at goingplacesnearandfar.wordpress.com and moralcompasstravel.info. Visit instagram.com/going_places_far_and_near and instagram.com/bigbackpacktraveler/ Send comments or questions to FamTravLtr@aol.com. Tweet @TravelFeatures. ‘Like’ us at facebook.com/NewsPhotoFeatures

Dispatch from Living the Nomadic Life, a Global Odyssey: Mexico

San Miguel de Allende, a 3-4 hour drive from Mexico City, is a very charming town, known for its colonial architecture which drew many artists in the 20th century © Eric Leiberman/goingplacesfarandnear.com

By Eric Leiberman and Sarah Falter, Travel Features Syndicate, goingplacesfarandnear.com

Eric and Sarah are on a 6-month around-the-world sabbatical, and are filing these dispatches periodically. Here’s their report after a month in Mexico before moving on to Asia.

We finally did it–rented out our house, packed a tiny sliver of our possessions into four packing cubes inside a large backpack, strapped on our water shoes and hit the road for the adventure of a lifetime–six months of uninterrupted travel! We have now been traveling together for exactly five weeks and we’re delighted to share that we still like each other!!

 

Setting off on our six-month, around-the-world sabbatical © Eric Leiberman/goingplacesfarandnear.com

After visiting our beloved family in LA and NY, we spent the first month of our trip traveling throughout Mexico.

We began in Mexico City (for a brief bit, then later returned), where the ridiculously long lists of food recommendations did not disappoint. Then to Oaxaca with our travel bestie Julie, where colorful winding streets all lead to delicious mole. We did an awesome Airbnb experience where we learned about all seven types of mole and that the labor intensive process + cost of ingredients dictates when they are consumed (for example verde every day after school, up through negro, which can take a week to prepare for special occasions like weddings). And we tried this very delicious treat in Oaxaca called a Tlayuda!?!? It’s like a giant pizza/crepe layered with beans, cheese, lettuce, meat, and then folded and roasted over an open charcoal oven (enjoyed with a multitude of salsas). And speaking of SALSA, Sarahs new obsession is salsa macha. It’s a deep and bold, sharp and spicy salsa, and its made with crushed PEANUTS (kind of like the Bitchin’ sauce of salsa, IYKYK!)!? It is divine and we ordered it with pretty much every meal from that point forward.
Our food odyssey in Mexico © Eric Leiberman/goingplacesfarandnear.com

Our food odyssey in Mexico © Eric Leiberman/goingplacesfarandnear.com

We’d come to learn that this sort of deep, bold and soulful flavor was uniquely Oaxacan, and was pervasive throughout their history, cuisine & art. They have a fascinating history of protest and human rights advocacy that permeates the art all throughout the city – from the large format street murals to the gallery walls in fine art museums. It is dark and expressive with lots of skulls, fire, protest depiction & political symbols. Learning more about this history brought new meaning to the intense flavors of mole and mezcal.

Our food odyssey in Mexico © Eric Leiberman/goingplacesfarandnear.com

We continued our journey on a 7-hour drive almost entirely on mountain roads with dramatic switchbacks to the coast of Oaxaca (Eric drove and Sarah passed out on drowsy Dramamine). Over the next week, we made stops at three beach towns: Puerto Escondidio, Mazunte, and Playa Bocana. Puerto Escondido prevails for its cliff-like coast line and amazing street entertainment (imagine our surprise when a man with a guitar and an amp shows up on the beach, usually a nightmare scenario at any Bay Area park, and ends up providing the most perfect sunset vibes)! 

Off beaten track beaches in Mexico © Eric Leiberman/goingplacesfarandnear.com

Mazunte gave us some good laughs because its “hippie” vibe is out of control and almost cartoonish; you’re weird if you actually wear shoes around town/on hikes, and if you don’t like acai and bulle proof coffee you need to get your ass out of there. But, thankfully, we (gladly) dabble in some aspects of the hippie lifestyle, so the vegan nomz, acai bowls & a two-hour (very stinky) yoga class were a welcome change-of-pace. Eric even bought a turquoise pendant (maybe a Buddhist symbol? We’re not sure; we’re posers) there that he wears most days now as a lucky charm 🙂 

Off beaten track beaches in Mexico © Eric Leiberman/goingplacesfarandnear.com
A sunrise swim © Sarah Falter/goingplacesfarandnear.com

And the last stop on the Oaxacan beach tour was La Bocana; a true surprise gem. It is a tiny town with just two restaurants, one boutique hotel and several local women who provide mud scrubs (with the special mud from this beach) daily.

Our Oaxacan beach tour takes us to La Bocana, a tiny town with just two restaurants, one boutique hotel and several local women who provide mud scrubs (with the special mud from this beach) daily. Our AirBnB is a mere 50 yards from a spectacular long stretch of beach that feels like it is all ours © Eric Leiberman/goingplacesfarandnear.com

Our cute little airbnb was a mere 50 yards from a spectacular long stretch of beach that felt like it was all ours. And when we started exploring the beach, we’d come to discover that a 15-minute walk up the beach led to the intersection of a gorgeous river with the ocean; which was utterly picturesque and made for a best-of-both-worlds situation of enjoying the beach while swimming in the calm of the river. During our short stay at La Bocana beach, we made both sunset and sunrise pilgrimages to this beautiful spot. Anyone who knows Eric knows he can’t resist a sunrise/sunset swim. And we ate delicious camarones a la diabla (shrimp in spicy sauce) and fresh langosta from that river basically every meal there, happily.

Our food odyssey in Mexico © Eric Leiberman/goingplacesfarandnear.com

The return to Mexico City was a happy one because we were excited to spend more time exploring and Sarah’s mom Marci came to join for a week! Major highlights included visiting a Luis Barragan house, discovering more neighborhoods/parks & going to the Mexico vs. El Salvador World Cup qualifying futbol game (where we tried nearly every food item sold in the stadium.. even Cup of Noodles with shrimp & hot sauce which yes, is cold and soggy by the time they sell it to you at your seat!)

Enjoying the Mexico vs. El Salvador World Cup qualifying futbol game © Eric Leiberman/goingplacesfarandnear.com

Another gem we discovered in Mexico City is the weekly shut down of major streets on Sundays (up to 50km we learned) to promote safe and uninterrupted biking/running/roller blading. We stumbled upon this by accident in our first CDMX stint, and were so excited to show Sarah’s mom! We went basically the entire route out to the big park, down to the neighborhood of Coyoacan, and back. Mexico City is truly as lovely and vibrant as everyone says it is. It’s like the best of both worlds of East and West Coast US cities; it has the serendipitous cosmopolitan feel of NYC with the wide open green spaces of LA/SF. Everyone is in love with Mexico City these days and it’s obvious why.

Last stop on the tour landed us in San Miguel de Allende, a shorter 3-4 hour drive from Mexico City. San Miguel is a very charming town, known for its colonial architecture which drew many artists in the 20th century. It’s a must to find a terrace to enjoy the sunset, taking in the gorgeous pink church and red rooftops while obliging every other couple’s request for a photo (Eric is a hot commodity because he takes multiple angles and never skimps on the portrait mode). Eric did finally succumb to the first round of food poisoning of the trip here (which is shocking given what he’d eaten in the previous 4+ weeks), though he recovered in a day and we’re happy to report that Sarah’s stomach of steel is still going strong (knock on wood).

San Miguel de Allende is a charming town, known for its colonial architecture which drew many artists in the 20th century © Eric Leiberman/goingplacesfarandnear.com
San Miguel de Allende is a charming town, known for its colonial architecture which drew many artists in the 20th century © Eric Leiberman/goingplacesfarandnear.com
San Miguel de Allende is a charming town, known for its colonial architecture which drew many artists in the 20th century © Eric Leiberman/goingplacesfarandnear.com

Eric and Sarah in San Miguel de Allende, get ready to continue their around-the-world odyssey in Asia.

At the present moment, we’re in Seoul after a failed attempt at Vietnam entry (and over 50 straight hours of travel), but were super stoked to begin the Asia chapter of our travels, where Sarah’s love for headbands and bucket hats is bound to flourish. It’s crazy and refreshing how “home” has become having each other, and our backpacks….

__________________________________

© 2022 Travel Features Syndicate, a division of Workstyles, Inc. All rights reserved. Visit goingplacesfarandnear.com, www.huffingtonpost.com/author/karen-rubin, and travelwritersmagazine.com/TravelFeaturesSyndicate/. Blogging at goingplacesnearandfar.wordpress.com and moralcompasstravel.info. Visit instagram.com/going_places_far_and_near and instagram.com/bigbackpacktraveler/ Send comments or questions to FamTravLtr@aol.com. Tweet @TravelFeatures. ‘Like’ us at facebook.com/NewsPhotoFeatures

Global Scavenger Hunt Turns Into Personal Odyssey Following Route of Jewish Diaspora (Part 3: Iberia-NYC)

Take a walking tour of Porto, Portugal to discover vestiges of Jewish heritage © Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com

by Karen Rubin, Travel Features Syndicate, goingplacesfarandnear.com

I was surprised to discover during a Global Scavenger Hunt mystery tour around the world in 2019 that I was actually on an odyssey of the Jewish Diaspora.  It wasn’t my intention or my mission but it seems that everywhere we touched down (we only learn where we are next going when we are told to get to the airport), I found myself tracing a route set by trade (and permitted occupations), exile and refuge.

It started in Vietnam and then just about every place we traveled: Yangon, Myanmar, where I visited the last synagogue in that country (it’s a historic landmark and still serves a handful of congregants); in Athens, where I discovered the site of a synagogue, serving a Jewish community that had existed in Athens at least since the 3rd C BC and possibly as early as 6th C BC, near where the world’s first “parliament” would have been. In Petra, Jordan, I learned of a connection to Moses and the Exodus (the first Diaspora?). Then the ancient cities of Marrakesh and Fez in Morocco, which has only recently established full diplomatic relations with Israel, and on to Gibraltar, which made me feel I had been deposited in Brigadoon. From Gibraltar, I walked into Spain and took the bus to Seville, where my Jewish odyssey continued:

Seville, Spain

This part of my odyssey is like going to ground zero for the Jewish Diaspora, at least in the past 600 years, when Jews were forced to convert or be expelled, in the Inquisition in 1492 (many who stayed practiced in secret, as Marranos).

Las Casa de la Juderia, once the Jewish Quarter of Seville, Spain © Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com

At some point in my walk-about in Seville, I find myself in front of a gate with a sign on the wall that says “Juderia,” which, I later learn was the old Jewish Quarter (before Spain evicted Jews, in 1492, known as the Inquisition). It has been converted into a hotel, Las Casas de la Juderia, comprised of a vast complex of interwoven dwellings, a city within a city, a sprawling maze of 27 houses and two palaces, restored to their 15th century glory, literally in the shadow of the Cathedral and the Alcázar (https://www.lascasasdelajuderiasevilla.com/en/).

“Unmistakably Spanish, the family-run hotel is an alluring retreat hidden right in the heart of the city,” writes Trafalgar, a tour company which features this “accommodation with a story” in its Seville program.

“At Las Casas de la Juderia, you‘ll tread in the footsteps of nobility and even royalty. Over the centuries, Christopher Columbus, The Duke of Bejar and The Count of Villamanrique have all stayed here. In fact, after returning from America, Columbus’s men all resided in these houses. Perhaps most compelling of all is the network of subterranean tunnels connecting houses commissioned by former owner, the Duke of Segorbe. You can wander through these today; in fact, breakfast is taken in the captivating underground Hall of Mirrors.” (https://blog.trafalgar.com/2018/02/26/stays-stories-sevilles-las-casas-de-la-juderia/)

Seville, Spain © Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com

I learn later that Jews had lived in Seville since the 6th century BCE. Though persecuted by Visigoths, Jews were protected under the Moors. Persecution began again in 1391 under Catholics – the Jewish Quarter was burned down. The Inquisition began in earnest in 1381, all Jews who did not convert (and some continue to practice secretly) were expelled by 1492. About half of the 300,000 Jewish Spaniards left, writes Fiona Flores Watson (https://www.andalucia.com/history/jews.htm), who suggests visiting the Centro de Interpretación Judería de Sevilla to learn more about the history of Jews in Seville.

It bears reminding that Columbus set out on his voyage of discovery of the “New World” in 1492, the same year as the official start of the Spanish Inquisition. Many believe that Marranos – secret Jews – were among his crew and founded the first white settlements in the New World, on Caribbean islands like Jamaica (one imagines that Jews missed the opportunity to claim the New World, but oh well.)

“The year of discovery in 1492 was also the seminal year of the Sephardic diaspora, when Spanish Jews were required to convert to Catholicism or to leave Spain.  Much of the population moved on to Portugal or found homes on the Mediterranean littoral. Columbus’s first crew included several conversos, or Spanish-Jewish converts to Christianity, notably the interpreter, Luis Torres. Importantly, three conversos in the Spanish court were influential in securing royal approval for the controversial expedition.” http://brown.edu/Facilities/John_Carter_Brown_Library/exhibitions/judaica/pages/geography+.html

Columbus’s letter to the Court of Spain, outlining the importance of his discovery, was addressed to Santangel, the chancellor of Aragon, one of three important conversos in the royal court. Others were Gabriel Sanchez, the royal treasurer, and Juan Cabrero, the king’s chamberlain. Additionally, Jews were responsible for the technology that made the explorations possible: Abraham Zacuto developed astronomical tables, almanacs, and maps, while Levi ben Gerson is credited with the invention of the sea-quadrant or Jacob’s staff, used to guide marine courses.

Seville, Spain © Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com

The theme of this part of my journey could well be exploration. I had not realized that the first trip to circumnavigate the world originated from Seville: in 1519, Ferdinand Magellan began his voyage from the very spot where I stand on the bank of river; crossing the San Telmo bridge, you can see the armillary sphere that commemorates mile zero of that voyage.

“Seville in the 16th century was the mercantile center of the western world, and its river was the main maritime route for Atlantic traffic for more than 200 years…Seville was known as ‘the city where the world’s heart beats’. Its maritime activity permeated commerce, population, culture, and its own urban development, making it unique,” the visitor bureau notes (www.visitasevilla.es/en/history/guadalquivir-river).

See: GLOBAL SCAVENGER HUNT: SEVILLE TO PORTO TO COMPLETE TOUGHEST LEG OF 23-DAY AROUND-THE-WORLD MYSTERY TOUR

Porto, Portugal

Like Spain, Jewish heritage in Portugal is complicated. Jews lived here from 5th to 15th centuries – 1000 years before being expelled. After being kicked out of Spain, many Jews went first to Portugal, but Portugal adopted Spain’s Inquisition in 1496 in order to consummate a politically-advantageous wedding. Like in Spain, many Portuguese Jews pretended to convert to Christianity but remained secret Jews.

At one end of Praça da Liberdade, Porto’s elegant Belle Époque main square, is Porto-Palacio das Cardoas Hotel, the first luxury hotel in the historic city center. It was opened in 2011 after being converted from the 18th century palace home of a wealthy Jewish merchant, Manuel Cardoso dos Santos, who bought the property from an order of monks when they were forced from the city. It was originally built as the Lóios Monastery.

Praça da Liberdade, Porto’s elegant Belle Époque main square © Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com

According to the New York Jewish Travel Guide: Porto, Portugal’s second city, is home to one of the oldest Jewish communities in the country. The city was spared the destruction of the 1755 earthquake that destroyed much of Lisbon. Porto remained largely intact so you can see the narrow streets and balconied houses of former Jewish quarter with street names like “Rua Monte Judeus,” “Escadinhas do Monte dos Judeus,” and Pátio das Escadinhas do Monte dos Judeus.” 

The main synagogue stood on the Escadas da Vitória, a place still locally called “Escadas da Esnoga,” meaning “stairway to the synagogue.” A plaque that marks this site.

Balconied houses, Porto, Portugal © Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com

Nearby, there is an ancient Jewish cemetery at Passeio das Virtudes.  It was there that the largest numbers of Conversos (also known as Marranos), descendants of Jews forced to convert to Christianity during the Inquisition but secretly practicing Judaism, lived.

But the Jewish experience here in Porto – I am surprised to learn – is relatively modern: in the 1920s Porto became the center of a modest Jewish cultural revival led by an army captain, Arturo Carlos de Barros Bastos. A Converso, Bastos converted to Orthodox Judaism at the age of 33. He became known as the “Portuguese Dreyfus” because he was dismissed from the Army for being a Jew.

Basto established a Yeshiva in Porto, which ran for nine years educating more than 90 students. This is what brought him to the attentionof the government, especially after an estimated 10,000 families across Portugal admitted to practicing Judaism in secret. False charges were brought against the Captain and he was court-martialed, stripped of his rank and was forced to close the Yeshiva. After leaving the Army, Captain Basto established a synagogue in Porto.

As the congregation grew he moved into a new building donated by Elly Kadoorie, a wealthy Sephardic Jew. The Kadoorie Mekor Haim Synagogue was built on property bought and donated by Baron Edmond de Rothschild of Paris.  

The Hebrew part of its name, “Mekor Haim,” means “Source of Life,” while “Kadoorie” is the surname of Hong Kong-born Jews who donated  the funds to complete the building, in honor of a deceased family member, Laura Kadoorie, who descended from Portuguese Jews. Her husband, Sir Elly Kadoorie, died in 1944 and is still the Honorary President of the Israeli Community of Oporto, the New York Jewish Travel Guide reported.

Remnant of Jewish community in Lisbon, Portugal © Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com

The Kadoorie Mekor Haim Synagogue, built with donations from Jews from all over the world and with décor that blends Art Deco and Moroccan,  was inaugurated in 1938, at a time when synagogues were being burned in Germany. It is the largest synagogue in the Iberian Peninsula and one of the largest in Europe.

Indeed, I learn that during World War II, Portugal gave refuge to thousands of Jews escaping Nazi persecution. Their existence has been legal in Portugal since 1912, and today there are Jewish synagogues in Lisbon, Porto, Trancoso and Belmonte (https://www.visitportugal.com/en/content/jewish-legacy).

You can take a Jewish Heritage walking tour of Porto

New York City

How fitting that our next and final stop on this 23-day, 10-country around-the-world mystery tour is New York City, where many of these displaced descendants of Iberian Jews wound up, generations later from Holland, Brazil and the Indies.

Indeed, there is some suggestion that secret Jews (Marranos) were on board Columbus’ ships, and established the first white settlement in the New World, on the island of Jamaica.

Congregation Shearith Israel, the first Jewish congregation established in North America, founded in 1654; the present building dates from 1897 © Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com

You can still visit Congregation Shearith Israel, the first Jewish congregation established in North America. It was founded in 1654 (just 34 years after the Pilgrims landed at Plimoth) by 23 Jews, mostly of Spanish and Portuguese origin, who had been living in Recife, Brazil. But when Portuguese defeated the Dutch for control of Recife, bringing the Inquisition to Brazil, the Jews left. Some returned to Amsterdam where they had originated; others went to Caribbean islands including St. Thomas, Jamaica, Surinam and Curacao. The group that came to New Amsterdam arrived in 1654.

“They were not welcomed by Governor Peter Stuyvesant, who did not wish to permit Jews to settle in New Amsterdam.  However, these pioneers fought for their rights and won permission from the Dutch West India Company to remain here in 1655,” according to the synagogue’s historic notes.

The original synagogue was in the Wall Street area. As New York City continued to grow and the population moved northward, Shearith Israel opened its present building in 1897 – the congregation’s fifth building – on 70th Street and Central Park West, on a plot of land that was previously a duck farm.  

The architect was Arnold Brunner, an American-born Jewish architect. The building was designed by Louis Comfort Tiffany, who created the extraordinary glass windows and planned the interior design and color scheme.  (I’ve attended a Purim service there, and walk by it often, on Central Park West.)

On this last day of the Global Scavenger Hunt, still in hunt mode, I walk up to the Metropolitan Museum of Art where the task is to find artifacts related to the places we have been. I find myself in an extraordinary exhibit, “The World Between Empires,” which interestingly serves almost as a summary of all the places we had gone, all the cultures we explored, while fitting in some missing archaeological pieces from places like Petra, Jordan.

“The compelling works of art in this exhibition offer a view into how people in the ancient Middle East sought to define themselves during a time of tremendous religious, creative, and political activity, revealing aspects of their lives and communities that resonate some two millennia later,” stated Max Hollein, Director, The Metropolitan Museum of Art, in a video that accompanies the exhibit.  “Further, in focusing on an area of the world that has been deeply affected by recent conflicts and the destruction of sites, monuments, and objects, this show also engages with complex questions about the preservation of cultural heritage.”

3rd C biblical wall paintings discovered in the Dura-Europos synagogue were exceptional because they demonstrated that early Jewish art included figural scenes. Metropolltan Museum of Art, New York City © Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com

The exhibition evokes a journey along ancient trade routes, beginning in the southwestern Arabian kingdoms that grew rich from the caravan trade in frankincense and myrrh harvested there and used throughout the ancient world. Camel caravans crossed the desert to the Nabataean kingdom, with its spectacular capital city of Petra, which I have just visited, walking through very much as the caravan travelers would have.

Ossuaries, 4th Century BCE, Israel, on exhibit at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York City © Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com

“From here, goods traveled west to the Mediterranean and north and east through regions including Judaea and the Phoenician coast and across the Syrian desert, where the oasis city of Palmyra controlled trade routes that connected the Mediterranean world to Mesopotamia and Iran and ultimately China. In Mesopotamia, merchants transported cargoes down the Tigris and Euphrates rivers to the Persian Gulf, where they joined maritime trade routes to India. These connections transcended the borders of empires, forming networks that linked cities and individuals over vast distances.

“Across the entire region, diverse local political and religious identities were expressed in art. Artifacts from Judaea give a powerful sense of ancient Jewish identity during a critical period of struggle with Roman rule. Architectural sculptures from the colossal sanctuary at Baalbek and statuettes of its deities reveal the intertwined nature of Roman and ancient Middle Eastern religious practices. Funerary portraits from Palmyra represent the elite of an important hub of global trade. Wall paintings and sculptures from Dura-Europos on the River Euphrates illustrate the striking religious diversity of a settlement at the imperial frontier. And in Mesopotamia, texts from the last Babylonian cuneiform libraries show how ancient temple institutions waned and finally disappeared during this transformative period.”

Dead Sea Scroll, on exhibit at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York City © Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com

Among the astonishing artifacts that I come upon is the “unique” Magdala Stone, discovered in a first-century synagogue at Migdal (ancient Magdala) with imagery that refers to the Temple in Jerusalem and wall paintings from a church in Dura-Europos that are the earliest securely dated images of Jesus.

The Magdala Stone, 1st Century, Migdal, Synagogue, on the Sea of Galilee. The stone, whose exact function is uncertain, dates to a time when the temple in Jerusalem still stood. One short side features a 7-branched menorah – the earliest such image known in a synagogue – flanked by amphorae and columns. The Migdal synagogue would have been in use during the lifetime of Jesus, whom the Gospels describe as preaching in synagogues throughout Galilee © Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com

From my visits in Athens and Petra, particularly, I appreciate this synergy between trade, migration, environmental sustainability and technology (in Petra’s Archaeology Museum, you learn how the ability to control water supply was key to the city’s development) and the links to economic prosperity and political power, and the rise of art, culture, and community. (I recall the notes from the National Archaeology Museum in Athens that made this very point.)

Happening upon this exhibit made the travel experiences we had to these extraordinary places all the more precious.

It is a humbling experience, to be sure, to go to the origins of the great civilizations, fast forward to today. How did they become great? How did they fall? Greatness is not inevitable or forever.  Empires rise and fall. Rulers use religion, art and monuments to establish their credibility and credentials to rule; successors blot out the culture and re-write history.

For additional information visit GlobalScavengerHunt.com or contact GreatEscape Adventures Inc. at 310-281-7809.

See also:

FEELING LIKE A FOREIGNER IN MY HOMETOWN: GLOBAL SCAVENGER HUNT ENDS IN NEW YORK CITY

GLOBAL SCAVENGER HUNT TURNS INTO PERSONAL ODYSSEY FOLLOWING ROUTE OF JEWISH DIASPORA (PART 1: Vietnam-Athens)

GLOBAL SCAVENGER HUNT TURNS INTO PERSONAL ODYSSEY FOLLOWING ROUTE OF JEWISH DIASPORA (PART 2: MOROCCO-GIBRALTAR)

______________________

© 2021 Travel Features Syndicate, a division of Workstyles, Inc. All rights reserved. Visit goingplacesfarandnear.com, www.huffingtonpost.com/author/karen-rubin, and travelwritersmagazine.com/TravelFeaturesSyndicate/. Blogging at goingplacesnearandfar.wordpress.com and moralcompasstravel.info. Send comments or questions to FamTravLtr@aol.com. Tweet @TravelFeatures. ‘Like’ us at facebook.com/NewsPhotoFeatures

Global Scavenger Hunt Turns Into Personal Odyssey Following Route of Jewish Diaspora (Part 2: Morocco-Gibraltar)

Marrakesh’s Jewish cemetery, Beth Mo’ed Le’kol Chai, founded in 1537, has 20,000 tombs including 60 saints © Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com

by Karen Rubin, Travel Features Syndicate, goingplacesfarandnear.com

I was surprised to discover during a Global Scavenger Hunt mystery tour around the world in 2019 that I was actually on an odyssey of the Jewish Diaspora.  It wasn’t my intention or my mission but everywhere we went (we only learn where we are next going when we are told to get to the airport), I found myself tracing a route set by trade (and permitted occupations), exile and refuge.

It started in Vietnam and then just about every place we touched down:  in Yangon, Myanmar, where I visited the last synagogue in that country (it’s a historic landmark and still serves a handful of congregants); in the ancient desert city of Petra, Jordan, I learned of a connection to Moses and the Exodus miracle (the first Diaspora?); in Athens, where I discovered a synagogue, serving a Jewish community that had existed in Athens at least since the 3rd C BC and possibly as early as 6th C BC, near where the world’s first “parliament” would have been.

Then on to Morocco, a country that has just established full diplomatic relations with Israel. The news was particularly interesting to me because Morocco has a long-standing tradition, going back centuries of welcoming Jews, harboring Jews and even today, protecting the cemeteries and the few remaining synagogues, as I discovered for myself during the Global Scavenger Hunt:

Marrakesh

Entrance to Jewish Quarter, Marrakesh, Morocco © Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com

Before it gets too dark, we make our way through the souks to find the Mellah, the Jewish Quarter and the synagogue (which happens also to be one of the scavenges on our around-the-world mystery tour).

We weave through the maze of alleys – asking people who point us in a direction (just as we are supposed to do under the Global Scavenger Hunt rules) – a kindly fellow leaves his stall to lead us down narrow alleyway to Laazama Synagogue, which is still a functioning synagogue but also serves as the city’s Jewish Museum.

The Laazama Synagogue, founded in the 16th century, in the Jewish Quarter of Marrakesh, Morocco © Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com

After Jews were expelled from Spain by Queen Isabella and King Ferdinand in 1492, Rabbi Yitzhag Daloya came to Marrakesh, notes describe. He became president of the court and head of the “deportee” community in Marrakesh and founded the “Tzlat Laazama,” Synagogue of Deportees”, shortly after his arrival.

But the Moroccan Jewish community is much older than the Spanish Inquisition, actually dating back to King Solomon and the Roman period. Marrakesh was founded in 1062 by Joseph Ibn Tasifin, ruler of the Halmorabidim, who allowed Jewish settlement in the city. The Jewish community was “renewed” in 1269, headed by Rabbi Yahuda Jian, originally from southern Spain. The Atlas Jews remained the majority of the community even after the Jews from Spain and Portugal settled in Marrakesh.

The situation changed in the 16th century when Marrakesh became a major center for Marranos (secret Jews) who wished to practice Judaism openly. Spanish and Portuguese Marrakesh Jews lived in their own neighborhoods until all local Jews, some 35,000, were collected by order of the King, in 1557, and resettled in the Mellah (a walled community). In the 19th century, the population increased in the Mellah after refugees from the Atlas Mountains arrived, becoming the largest Jewish community in Morocco. At one time, there were 40 synagogues here.

The Laazama Synagogue, founded in the 16th century, in the Jewish Quarter of Marrakesh, Morocco © Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com

The synagogue is beautifully decorated with tile, a courtyard ringed with study rooms, a music room, living quarters. There is a video about history of Jewish community in Marrakesh. The photos on the walls are interesting – the faces of the Moroccan Jews are indistinguishable from the Arab Moroccans.

Moroccan Jews have largely left the country – the Moroccan Jewish Diaspora counts more than 1 million members in four corners of the world, “a diaspora that continues to cultivate ties to their homeland, Morocco.” (Morocco’s diplomatic and trade alliance with Israel should help.) Indeed, we come upon a woman with her sister-in-law and mother who left Marrakesh first for Casablanca and now lives in Paris; her brother is still a member of the synagogue’s leadership – she shows us his chair. Her grandfather is buried in the nearby Jewish cemetery.

From the synagogue, we walk to the Jewish cemetery, Beth Mo’ed Le’kol Chai, which should have been closed, but the guard lets us in.

Marrakesh’s Jewish cemetery, Beth Mo’ed Le’kol Chai, founded in 1537, has 20,000 tombs including 60 saints © Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com

Founded in 1537, the cemetery spans 52 hectares and is the largest Jewish burial site in Morocco, with some 20,000 tombs including tombs of 60 “saints” and devotees who taught Torah to the communities of Marrakesh and throughout Morocco.

The arrangement of the graves is “unique” to the city of Marrakesh. There is a children’s section, where 7000 children who died of Typhus are buried; a separate men’s section and a woman’s section while around the perimeter are graves of the pious, the judges and scholars of the city who are believed to provide protection for all those buried.

See:  UNRAVELING MARRAKESH’S OLD CITY MAZE BEFORE TACKLING THE GLOBAL SCAVENGER HUNT 4-COUNTRY CHALLENGE

Fez

Fez, Morocco © Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com

Cautioned that the Fez is a complete maze that requires a local guide, we set out with Hamid, theoretically licensed by the local tourist office. At our first stop, at the golden doors to the palace, he relates how Jews made refugees when expelled from Spain and Portugal in 1492 were invited by the sultan to settle in Fez in order to develop the city, and settle the nomadic Berbers. The sultan gave them land adjacent to the palace and promised protection. To show appreciation, the Jewish community created ornate brass doors for the palace with the Star of David surrounded by the Islamic star.

Fez, Morocco © Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com

He takes us to Fez el-Jdid (the “new part of the city”, which is still a few hundred years old) to visit the Mellah -the Jewish Quarter. The oldest Jewish Quarter in Morocco, the Mellah of Fez dates back to 1438, though very few Jews live here today, most having moved to Casablanca, France or Israel; there are some 80 Jews left in Fez, but live in the new city, Ville Nouvelle.

This community continued even into World War II, when the Sultan gave Jews citizenship and protected them from the Nazis. Indeed, Morocco’s Jewish population peaked in the 1940s but since the 1950s and 1960s, following the establishment of Israel, shrank to fewer than 5,000 today.

Hamid leads us through winding narrow alleyways to the Ibn Danan synagogue. The synagogue was restored in 1998-99 with the help of UNESCO, American Jews and American Express. From the top floor, you can see the Jewish cemetery. 

Nearby is al Fassiyine Synagogue, which a plaque notes, “belongs to the Jews (Beldiyine) Toshabirg, native Jews who lived in Fez before the arrival of the Megorashimns, the expelled Jews from Spain in 1492. The building, covering 170 sq meters, was built in the 17th century. It includes a small entrance hall which leads to a prayer hall housing some furnished rooms on the mezzanine level. It has been used successively as a workshop for carpets and then a gym. Despite these different uses and the degradation of its state, it still keeps its original aspect.”

Ibn Danan synagogue, Fez, Morocco © Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com

The synagogue was restored in 2010-2011 through the efforts of Simon Levy, former general secretary of the Judeo-Moroccan Heritage Foundation, the Jewish community of Fez, Jacques Toledano Foundation and the Foreign Affairs Ministry of Germany.

Jewish cemetery, Fez, Morocco © Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com

Morocco’s Islamist Prime Minister Abdelilah Benkirane inaugurated the reopening of the historic synagogue on February 13, 2013, in which he conveyed the wish of Morocco’s King Muhammad VI that all the country’s synagogues be refurbished and serve as “centers for cultural dialogue.”

Hamid tells me that an adviser to the King and the ex-minister of Tourism were both Jewish.

The tourism minister had a lot to do with putting Morocco on the map as an international tourist destination.  The king, who studied at Harvard, in 2000 set a goal of 10 million tourists.

“Morocco has no oil or gold. It had no highway or airport and didn’t exist except for hashish,” Hamid says. “The king opened Morocco to foreign companies, giving them five years duty-free. They were drawn by a peaceful country, a gateway to Africa. Foreign investors rebuilt the road to Marrakesh, turning it into an international city for the wealthy, like Europe.” Fez also seems to be benefiting – there is lots of restoration and new construction, at Riad el Yacout where we are staying.

Indentation on doorposts where a Mezuzah would have been, indicating a Jewish home, in the Fez el-Jdid, the Jewish Quarter Fez, Morocco © Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com

As we weave through the alleyways, he shows us the indentation on the doorposts of houses where a mezuzah would have been placed, now the home of Muslims (Jews apparently weren’t evicted from these homes, rather, they moved to the suburbs; what Jews remain in Fez live in the new city, Ville Nouvelle).

See: GLOBAL SCAVENGER HUNT: ENTRANCED BY THE MYSTIQUE OF FEZ, MOROCCO

Gibraltar

Arriving in Gibraltar from Morocco, it is almost culture shock to instantly find yourself in a British Brigadoon – back in time. It is all the more surprising to learn of Gibraltar’s sizeable Jewish community in a population of only 36,000.

Walking the trail on The Rock, Gilbraltar© Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com

I wrongly assume that Gibraltar’s Jewish heritage goes back to the Spanish Inquisition – after all, it is but steps away from Spain – but Gibraltar’s Jewish community actually traces the same route that I have come, from Morocco. Jews were readmitted to the tiny peninsula on the southern tip of the Iberian Peninsula after the British took the territory from Spain in 1704. By the mid 18th century, the community comprised about one third of the Gibraltar’s population. Today, the Gibraltarian Jewish community numbers around 600, many of whom are Sephardim whose roots go back to Morocco. (https://jewish-heritage-europe.eu/united-kingdom/gibraltar/)

On The Rock, which is literally the plateau on top of Gibraltar where many of the historic and nature sites are found, you can follow a trail to Jew’s Gate which leads to the Jewish cemetery tucked away behind trees that was in use up until 1848; it offers “a fascinating piece of history that reflects the important role the Jewish people have played in molding Gibraltar’s history”). I find four synagogues:

Gibraltar’s Great Synagogue © Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com

Sha’ar Hashamayim – Esnoga Grande or Great Synagogue, the main synagogue in Gibraltar, originally built in the 1720s, was destroyed during heavy storms in 1766 and rebuilt in 1768, then destroyed again by gunfire during the Great Siege of Gibraltar, May 17, 1781, and reconstructed again, after a fire in 1812; Ets Hayim – Esnoga Chica or The Little Synagogue, dating from 1759; Nefutsot Yehoda – Esnoga Flamenca or Flemish Synagogue, opened in 1799 and rebuilt after serious damage from fire in the early 20th century, in the Sephardic style; and Esnoga Abudarham – Abudarham Synagogue, established in the early 19th century by immigrants from Morocco.

From Gibraltar, I basically walk from my hotel, The Rock, into Spain, where I take a bus to Seville for the next part of the Global Scavenger Hunt and my Jewish Odyssey.

See: GLOBAL SCAVENGER HUNT: A DASH THROUGH GIBRALTAR REVEALS A MODERN-DAY BRIGADOON

Next: Jewish Odyssey Continues in Seville

______________________

© 2021 Travel Features Syndicate, a division of Workstyles, Inc. All rights reserved. Visit goingplacesfarandnear.com, www.huffingtonpost.com/author/karen-rubin, and travelwritersmagazine.com/TravelFeaturesSyndicate/. Blogging at goingplacesnearandfar.wordpress.com and moralcompasstravel.info. Send comments or questions to FamTravLtr@aol.com. Tweet @TravelFeatures. ‘Like’ us at facebook.com/NewsPhotoFeatures

Global Scavenger Hunt Turns Into Personal Odyssey Following Route of Jewish Diaspora (Part 1: VIETNAM-ATHENS)

Channels cut in the siq leading into Petra, Jordan, provided water to the desert city. It is believed to be the place where Moses performed the miracle of drawing water from a stone during the Israelites’ exodus in the desert after leaving Egypt. Archaeological evidence comes from the fact that the chasm was named Wadi Musa – Valley of Moses © Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com

by Karen Rubin, Travel Features Syndicate, goingplacesfarandnear.com

Morocco has just established full diplomatic relations with Israel. But the news was interesting to me because Morocco has a long-standing tradition, going back centuries of welcoming Jews, harboring Jews and even today, protecting the cemeteries and the few remaining synagogues, as I was surprised to discover during a Global Scavenger Hunt mystery tour around the world in 2019.  Each destination was a surprise (we only learn where we are next going when we are told to get to the airport), but most surprising was to find myself on an odyssey of the Jewish Diaspora. It wasn’t my intention or my mission but everywhere we went, I found myself tracing a route set by trade (and permitted occupations), exile and refuge.

It started in Vietnam and then just about every place we touched down: in Myanmar, where I visited the last synagogue in that country, in Yangon, (it’s a historic landmark and still serves a handful of congregants); in Athens, where I discovered evidence of a synagogue that served a Jewish community that had existed in Athens at least since the 3rd century BCE and possibly as early as 6th century BCE (probably dating from the Babylonian Exile in 598 BCE), near where the world’s first “parliament” would have been; in Petra, Jordan, I discovered a connection to Moses and the Exodus (the first Diaspora?).

Moses, Jewish Museum of Greece, Athens © Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com

On to Morocco, in Marrakech and Fez, where I learned that the king literally invited Jews expelled by the Spanish during the Inquisition, and the monarch hundreds of years later stood up to the Nazis during the Holocaust; in Gibraltar, a British territory of just 36,000 inhabitants, where Jews continue to make up 2% of the population and where there are four active synagogues dating back hundreds of years; then on to Seville, Spain and Porto, Portugal, where Jews after living in Iberia for hundreds of years, were expelled in the Inquisition.  

And finally, coincidentally this around-the-world mystery tour concluded in New York City, where many of the descendents of Jews expelled from Spain and Portugal ultimately settled, and where you can still visit the synagogue of America’s oldest congregation, Congregation Shearith Israel, founded in 1654.

This Global Scavenger Hunt around-the-world mystery tour turned out to be an unexpected journey following in the footsteps of the Jewish Diaspora in unexpected places. Come along with me:

Vietnam

Vietnam, under the rule of Vichy France in 1940, the French Governor implemented the “Statute of Jews”, limiting Jews to specific professions, dismissing government employees and workers in other professions and expelling Jews from schools. © Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com

I learn that, though Jews have been in Vietnam and Judaism practiced in Vietnam since the late 19th century during French colonization,  there are only about 300 Jews left in Vietnam, most of whom are expatriates (or descendants), with virtually no native Vietnamese converts. By 1939, there would have been about 1,000 Jews, but under the rule of Vichy France, in 1940, the French Governor implemented the “Statute of Jews,” limiting Jews to specific professions, dismissing government employees and workers in other professions and expelling Jews from schools. After the war and French expulsion, these limits were overturned, and the Jewish population increased to 1,500. In 2006, Chabad opened a center in Ho Chi Minh City and in 2014, in Hanoi.

Myanmar

Musmeah Yeshua Synagogue, Yangon, Myanmar © Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com

I learn of the last remaining synagogue in Myanmar while looking at a tourist map of Yangon on the flight back from my Global Scavenger Hunt sojourn that took me to the temple-city of Bagan and villages-on-stilts on Inle Lake. I race to visit before it closes at 2 pm (open daily except Sunday).

By the time I get here, it is 1:40 pm. It is a lovely synagogue in the Sephardic style, built in 1896. The Jewish community in Yangon numbered as many as 2500 before the mass migration of World War II; today, there are only five families (about 30 people). The Samuels, one of the last remaining Jewish families, has maintained the synagogue for generations, a plaque notes. Getting there is interesting, going through street markets with sounds of chickens (for sale), live fish (one almost got away), and the scent of spices.

Musmeah Yeshua Synagogue, Yangon, Myanmar © Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com

Perhaps not surprising, a short distance from the synagogue is Bogyoke Aung San Market, which since 1926 has been the city’s major marketplace.

See: GLOBAL SCAVENGER HUNT, LEG 3: BACK IN YANGON, MYANMAR

Jordan

With time constraints and a mad dash to Petra from Amman, and lack of top-of-mind mission, I don’t specifically seek out Jewish sites or history in Jordan, but suffice to say, the Jewish heritage is a layer of Jordan’s landscape going back 4,000 years, back to Biblical times. It is linked, also, to the Roman occupation, and we get to visit Roman ruins in the heart of Amman. Though there are no legal bans on Jews, there are currently no Jewish residents, either.

Channels cut in the siq leading to Petra, Jordan, provided water to the desert city. It is believed to be the place where Moses performed the miracle of drawing water from a stone during the Israelites’ exodus in the desert after leaving Egypt. Archaeological evidence comes from the fact that the chasm was named Wadi Musa – Valley of Moses © Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com

Petra, an archaeological jewel, I later learn, has a remarkable  connection to Moses and the Exodus from Egypt: the siq – that 1.5-mile-long stony cleft you go through to enter the ancient city (which made it defensible), is believed to be the place where Moses performed the miracle of drawing water from a stone during the Israelites’ exodus in the desert after leaving Egypt. Archaeological evidence comes from the fact that the chasm in which the city was built was named after Moses himself—Wadi Musa, or Valley of Moses – and is believed to be the source of water that supplied the desert city, making habitation possible. As you walk through, you can see where a channel system to direct water had been carved in the stone (https://arzaworld.com/israel-travel-guide/israel-travel-destinations/city-of-petra-jordan.aspx)

Channels cut in the siq leading to Petra, Jordan, provided water to the desert city. It is believed to be the place where Moses performed the miracle of drawing water from a stone during the Israelites’ exodus in the desert after leaving Egypt. Archaeological evidence comes from the fact that the chasm was named Wadi Musa – Valley of Moses © Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com

See: ANCIENT CITY OF PETRA IS A HIGHLIGHT OF GLOBAL SCAVENGER HUNT IN JORDAN

Athens

We are only in Athens for a day, and  I retrace some of my steps from a previous trip when I took a Context walking tour with a guide, Vassilas. We had met in the district known today as Monasteraki, but as we walked through the flea market area, he mentioned it was originally called Yusurum, named for a Jewish family of tradesmen who built a store in the area. Athens did not have a “Jewish Quarter” per se, he told me, sensing my interest, but just a few blocks away, there once were a few Jewish synagogues, only one that is still in use today.

There is limited information about Jews in Athens during antiquity; most of the Jews who lived in Greece up until modern times came after the Spanish Inquisition, in1492.

In the Agora of Athens, the site of what was ostensibly the world’s first Parliament building. Near here would have been what is believed to be an early synagogue © Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com

But as we walked through the Agora, the ancient marketplace and political center where humankind had its first House of Parliament, he pointed to where it is believed to have been a synagogue, serving a Jewish community that had existed in Athens at least since 3rd C BCE and possibly as early as 6th C BCE (very possibly dating from the Babylonian Exile in 598 BCE). This is based on finding a sign etched in marble – in essence, a sign for the synagogue, which comes from the Greek words “synagein,” meaning “to bring together” and the same root word as “agora” which means “a place of assembly.” (Context Travel’s “Everyday Greeks in Ancient Times” walking tour, www.contexttravel.cominfo@contexttravel.com, 800-691-6036)

This way to the synagogue – 3rd century BCE. A replica of an ancient marker taken from the Agora, walking distance from the Jewish Museum of Greece in Athens © Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com

He pointed me to Athens’ Jewish Museum, where I found a reproduction of that original stone sign. There I was surprised to learn that the Greek Jews is the oldest Jewish community in Europe. (Jewish Museum of Greece, Nikis 39, Athens 105 57. Phone: 210 32 25 582, e-mail: info@jewishmuseum.gr, visit www.jewishmuseum.gr.)

On another walking tour, with a local guide, through the city’s free “Athens with a Native” program, Constantine E. Cavoulacos, whose family has a prominent real estate development company (his uncle was an engineer on the Jewish Museum building) also sensing my interest, brought me to Ermou Street where two synagogues – old (Ete Haim) and new (Beth Shalom) face each other. It is a quiet street, set off from the busy neighborhood only a couple of streets beyond, but near (as it turns out), the Agora. Also close by, is a Holocaust Memorial – a star exploding under a small grove of trees, with the name of each Greek city where Jewish communities were cut down. (www.thisisathens.org)

“Old” Synagogue Athens, Greece © Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com

In Athens, Jews did not live in a Jewish Quarter, like in Corfu, Rhodes or Thessalonki, but lived around Athens, though they tended to live near the synagogue.

It is not known how many Jews lived in Greece at its peak – during the Holocaust, archives were burned. But prior to the war, Thessaloniki had 70,000 Jews; there were 29 communities.

Holocaust Memorial, Athens © Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com

Today, there are 5,000 Jews living in Greece – 3000 of them in Athens (a tiny number compared to the population). There are nine communities that are most active, with Jewish schools.

See:

JEWISH MUSEUM IN ATHENS HONORS THOUSANDS OF YEARS OF HISTORY IN GREECE

ATHENS WITH A NATIVE: VOLUNTEER GUIDE PROGRAM GIVES INSIDER’S INSIGHT INTO ANCIENT CITY’S PRESENT DAY

Next: Jewish Odyssey Continues in Morocco

______________________

© 2021 Travel Features Syndicate, a division of Workstyles, Inc. All rights reserved. Visit goingplacesfarandnear.com, www.huffingtonpost.com/author/karen-rubin, and travelwritersmagazine.com/TravelFeaturesSyndicate/. Blogging at goingplacesnearandfar.wordpress.com and moralcompasstravel.info. Send comments or questions to FamTravLtr@aol.com. Tweet @TravelFeatures. ‘Like’ us at facebook.com/NewsPhotoFeatures

Memorable Meals in World’s Best Restaurants Remind How Restaurants are Mainstay of Community, Magnet for Travelers, a Doorway to Appreciating Culture, Heritage

Master sushi chef, Okane, Japanese gastropub, in San Francisco’s SoMa district © Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com

by Karen Rubin, Travel Features Syndicate, goingplacesfarandnear.com

with Dave E. Leiberman, Laini Miranda, Eric Leiberman, Sarah Falter

Restaurants are not just a mainstay, a staple, for a community, they also are a magnet for travelers – experiencing food has become a top priority for travelers who plan destinations and itineraries around it. Restaurants are vital to a local economy.

But at this point in time, they are among the most endangered of species as a result of the coronavirus pandemic.

“Local, independent restaurants are the backbone of our communities, tourism, and redevelopment in every corner of the U.S.,” writes the newly formed Independent Restaurant Coalition (IRC), formed to lobby Congress for the interests of the more than 500,000 independent restaurants across the country. (https://www.saverestaurants.com/)

“We directly employ over 11 million people across the country, and indirectly employ hundreds of millions of workers up and down the food supply and delivery chain — from growers, packers, fisherman, linen services, delivery people and more — who depend on the continued revenue of restaurants to stay in business.

“We contribute $1 trillion to our economy, and represent 4% of our GDP. With the COVID-19 pandemic, we are closed for business. As of today, up to seven million people have been laid off, and millions of our suppliers will have their bills go unpaid, creating an unprecedented trickle down effect of economic damage to local restaurants and the small businesses that rely on them. We are the lifeblood of our economy and our communities, and we need help.”

The restaurant industry is also an industry that is singularly dependent upon human resources, with products and services that are perishable and cannot be stored on the shelf for a half-price sale months from now, vulnerable to the ebb and flow of cash flow.

“Independent restaurants are small businesses. But, unlike many other small businesses, our cash flow is completely dependent on current business. The bills from 45 days ago are paid with revenue earned today. If there is no revenue, those bills go unpaid. Independent restaurants estimate that there needs to be a minimum of $150 billion cash flow just to pay our current bills, rent, and taxes — and that’s before we pay our employees, who are the front line of service in this hospitality industry and the backbone to the local economies our businesses sustain.”

A Doorway to Savoring Heritage, Culture

Travelers especially appreciate food as a doorway to appreciate heritage, society, the ecosystem that forges a culture. The foods, the ingredients, the seasonings, the preparations, and the ambiance of restaurants – these forge sensory memories. Indeed, “food” has become one of the top factors for travelers when they choose a destination. Food is the front door into a culture, a community, a neighborhood – in fact, one of the tips travel experts offer is to find the best restaurant by simply asking a local, perhaps the Uber driver, for their favorite restaurant.

Remembering some of my most memorable dining experiences brings me back:

Shaving truffles onto rissotto at Restaurant RiziBizi, Portoroz, Slovenia © Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com

Restaurant RiziBizi, with Eric in Portoroz, Slovenia, capping our eight-day Venice-Croatia self-guided bike tour, specializes in truffles and serves one of the sensational meals that you remember forever. The restaurant has a tasting menu (from 50 to 60 E). We opt for a la carte: tuna tartar with zucchini, wasabi-reduced plum; truffle soup, the chef sends over pate, served on sticks in a plant; risotto with Adriatic scampi and truffles (the waiter brings a dish of black truffles to table and shaves them onto the dish); duck breast with wine sauce. All the selections are based on locally sourced produce. I can imagine the most devoted foodies getting on planes and coming to Rizi Bizi just for the truffles. And they should. This is a world-class restaurant and the dining experience has been truly memorable, with selections that uniquely reflect the local produce, exquisitely presented. The restaurant is exemplary in every way – we dine on a patio with a view overlooking the hillsides down to the sea; the service is impeccable. (Restaurant RiziBizi, Villanova ulica 10, 6320 Portoroz, Slovenia www.rizibizi.si).

I’ll never forget the meal we shared on the last night of our bike trip on the Danube Bike Trail, in Vienna. David and Eric found one of Vienna’s most famous restaurants on yelp: Figlmueller has been a popular restaurant since 1905 – so popular there are two locations on the same street and both are full. We go to Wollzeile, right behind St. Stephen’s Cathedral, inside a small alleyway. David manages to talk his way in – on the wall is a New York Times review with a photo of then-Senator Al D’Amato of New York on the page. The flagship restaurant is often referred to as the “Home of the Schnitzel”.

Figlmueller boasts Vienna’s best schnitzel, which comes as an enormous round, bigger-than-the-plate, breaded pork pancake pounded impossibly thin. It is delectable with a light, delicate, tender texture. The waiter tells us that four men do nothing but pound schnitzel all day long – 1,600 schnitzels each day. The secret to the delectable taste is using only the best light vegetable oil for frying. Only a few schnitzels are fried in the pan at a time. Then the vegetable oil is changed which means that each month several thousand liters of oil make their way in and out of the kitchen at Figlmüller; they are processed into biofuels. “To ensure that each schnitzel turns out tender and crispy we do not take any chances with the frying temperature of the vegetable oil. It takes 3 different pans to make the perfect schnitzel.” It is a memorable dining experience in every way, and a perfect way to celebrate the end of a perfect trip. (figlmueller.at)

Another memorable meal was a highlight of my around-the-world in 23 days Global Scavenger Hunt: at the Riad el Yacout where we stayed in Fes, Morocco, I savored a fantastic dinner  of chicken tagine and chicken couscous – the food and the atmosphere – amid the stunning tiles, fountains, patterned textiles, sheer perfection. Riad el Yacout was built in 1347 for Professor Laharchi, philosophy who taught at the famous Al Qaraouvine university and the house stayed in the family until 2000, when it was converted to a 33-room guesthouse (www.riadelyacoutfes.com/en/)

A memorable dinner at Riad el Yacout in Fes, Morocco of chicken tagine and chicken couscous © Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com

Another unforgettable dining experience was a dinner at the Castello di Verrazzano (the explorer’s actual family home, 1,500 years old), a vineyard and winery making fine Chianti wines, where you it can dine at its Farm restaurant, offering meals produced with raw ingredients from the farm and locality, including the wild board they raise here. The Castle became the property of the Verrazzano family in the VII century. Giovanni da Verrazzano, the navigator and discoverer of the bay of New York (the bridge was named for him in 1964) was born here in 1485. (They also recently opened “Foresteria Casanova, lodging, right in the midst of the vineyard).( Hosteria della Cantina, Via Citille, 32A Località Greti 50022 – Greve in Chianti (FI), Tel: +39 055 854243, https://www.verrazzano.com/en/the-place/)

Sea urchin, a specialty of Okane, a SoMa neighborhood izakaya (Japanese gastropub), flown in specially from Tokyo’s famous fish market © Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com

As astonishing find in San Francisco was Okane, the hip, casual sister restaurant to the more upscale, sophisticated Michelin-starred Omakase restaurant literally next door. Okane, which opened in 2015, by 2017 had been rated a Michelin Bib Gourmand. Okane is a SoMa neighborhood izakaya – a Japanese gastropub – serving traditional and refined Japanese “comfort” food and contemporary sushi.  Many of the selections would be common in Japan but are rarer to find in a Japanese restaurant in America. We dined on items that had been freshly purchased at Tokyo’s famous fish market and flown in that day. (Okane, 669 Townsend Street, San Francisco, CA 94103 415-865-9788, www.okanesf.com).

I can still taste the revelation of the sweetest, most succulent lobster, prepared over open fires on a secluded beach on Maine’s Penobscot Bay, a feature on every Maine Windjammer cruise on historic sailing ships (sailmainecoast.com).

Steaming fresh lobsters on a secluded beach, a highlight of a Maine Windjammer cruise aboard a historic sailing ship in the Penobscot Bay © Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com.

Our globe-trotting correspondents Dave E. Leiberman and Laini Miranda offered their international favorites:

O Camilo, Estr. da Ponta da Piedade, 8600-544 Lagos, Portugal, +351 282 763 845, https://goo.gl/maps/n1CKYth49Tk27Rt8A

Tiger shrimp at O Camilo, Lagos, Portugal © Dave E. Leiberman

Punta Corcho, Avenida Rafael Melgar SM 01 MZ 6 Lote 01-01, 77580 Puerto Morelos, Q.R., Mexico, +52 998 206 9105, https://goo.gl/maps/vsfzyDJUxgZVW4X16

Punta Corcho, Puerto Morelos, Q.R. Mexico © Dave E. Leiberman

Les Bacchanales, 247 Avenue de Provence, 06140 Vence, France, +33 4 93 24 19 19, https://goo.gl/maps/nFgeymrduQB41BLU6

Les Bacchanales, Vence, France © Dave E. Leiberman

Pou Kitchen and Café, 136 Steung Thmei, Krong Siem Reap, Cambodia, +855 70 716 969, https://goo.gl/maps/nxTtoojW1mks4z6M7

Club culinario toscano da Osvaldo, Piazza dei Peruzzi, 3/r, 50122 Firenze FI, Italy, +39 055 217919 https://goo.gl/maps/6mGpSW9sZey5JJAt7

Moran’s Oyster Cottage, The Weir, Roymore, Kilcolgan, Co. Galway, Ireland, +353 91 796 113, https://goo.gl/maps/uynTUXjNR8g2tSN97

Bacchanal Fine Wine & Spirits, 600 Poland Ave, New Orleans, LA 70117, 504-948-9111, https://goo.gl/maps/6i2vAFghD6WXVx2i8

Hell’s Backbone Grill, 20 UT-12, Boulder, UT 84716, 435-335-7464, https://goo.gl/maps/UihaCLLbafLnkY1f7

Pappy & Harriet’s, 53688 Pioneertown Rd, Pioneertown, CA 92268, 760-365-5956, https://goo.gl/maps/FAGatwLWgqMEvpta6

Peck’s Arcade, 217 Broadway, Troy, NY 12180, 518-326-3450, https://goo.gl/maps/MSZvH1j81tDindC57

In the tradition of omakase, Doma Sushi, San Francisco, gives the chef creative freedom and the customer a memorable dining experience. You watch him create his masterpiece right in front of you © Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com

World traveling gourmands Eric Leiberman and Sarah Falter shared these “top of mind” favorites:

Verjus, 52 Rue de Richelieu, 75001 Paris, France, +33 1 42 97 54 40, https://goo.gl/maps/c9SeBBtg9Yw6pKMLA

Matey Hut, Ella, Sri Lanka, +94 77 258 3450, https://goo.gl/maps/x7D4j2xvnVxBZYW89

Kyuyam-tei Shimokita-sou, Japan, 〒155-0032 Tokyo, Setagaya City, Daizawa, 5 Chome−29−9 ナイスビル, +81 3-6450-8986, https://goo.gl/maps/Sqsuuecx93s5AYgm9

Miznon, 22 Rue des Ecouffes, 75004 Paris, France, +33 9 71 34 53 84, https://goo.gl/maps/QzSo4Bpu8SvLSWpG7

Hungarikum Bisztró, Budapest, Steindl Imre u. 13, 1051 Hungary, +36 30 661 6244, https://goo.gl/maps/PfKwQEsFLsLEVUFV9

Memedof Balık Restaurant, Yalıkavak, Gerişaltı mevkii Çökertme cad. No:42, 48400 Bodrum/Muğla, Turkey, +90 252 385 46 46, https://goo.gl/maps/gAYc9eY1cSTn635w9

LİMON GÜMÜŞLÜK RESTAURANT, Gümüşlük, 10. Yıl Sk., 48970 Bodrum/Muğla, Turkey, +90 554 740 62 60, https://goo.gl/maps/vBFYD6N5zsq6ui4D6

Apoala, 97000 Calle 60 #471 x 55 Local 2 Portales de Santa Lucía, Centro, 97000 Centro, Mexico, +52 999 923 1979, https://goo.gl/maps/1DtAJhDXvgjsGEgA8

Doma Sushi, 433 Precita Ave, San Francisco, CA 94110, 415-648-4417, https://goo.gl/maps/3fS86STAujFqd8WP6

Doma Sushi, San Francisco © Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com

Restaurants can transport you, and bring the world to you, as well. Here in New York, we have a United Nations of culinary experiences, so you can travel the world without even getting on a plane.

On one wonderful evening, I found myself in Peru for the first time in Greenwich Village at Llamita, the sister restaurant  (80 Carmine St, New York, NY 10014, 646-590-2771, llamitanyc.com). (It is the sister restaurant to the popular Llama Inn, 50 Withers St., Brooklyn, NY 11211, 7183873434.

Shalom Japan, “authentically inauthentic Jewish and Japanese food in South Williamsburg” marries two cultures, just as the chefs Aaron Israel and Sawako Okochi are also married. Aaron hails from Great Neck, Long Island (a 2000 graduate of Great Neck North High School), and Sawako is from Hiroshima Japan. Not just a gimmick. Aaron’s flavor combinations are astonishing, a sensory surprise. (310 South Fourth St. Brooklyn NY, 11211, 718-388-4012, info@ShalomJapanNYC.com, ShalomJapanNYC.com).

At Shalom Japan, Brooklyn, which marries “authentically inauthentic Jewish and Japanese food), a Jewish blintz has artistic Japanese flair © Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com

It is likely that New York City and surrounding suburbs will be among the last to be able to reopen, and even then, will only be able to reopen with reduced capacity, social distancing, and such. But here are suggestions how they can stay economically viable.

In the first place, restaurants can play a vital role in staving off the epidemic of hunger that is accompanying the collapse of the economy. Depending upon circumstances, restaurants could be contracted by government or nonprofits to supply meals to shut-ins – better to spend the money that way than on unemployment – and needy families, as well as supply food pantries and kitchens.

In this current phase, as one of the IRC founders, “Top Chef” judge Tom Colicchio, told Fresh Air’s Terry Gross on NPR, turn restaurants into community food centers, “Restaurants turned into community meal service. That would keep the ecosystem of the restaurant – employees, suppliers – intact, and feed a lot of hungry people.”

Restaurants might also create pop-up market in the morning and midday non-mealtime hours.  You can support them by ordering take-out, pick-up, and also pre-purchasing gift cards.

When restaurants can reopen, for the foreseeable future (that is until there is a treatment or better, a vaccine), they will have to provide greater distancing (versus arbitrarily reducing capacity by 25-50 percent), test employees, and even give customers a temperature check upon entering. How to stay economically viable, when restaurants already operate on very thin profit margins?

They might consider 1) taking reservations and giving people specific times to arrive; 2) charging premium prices for eat-in dining with a more limited, even pre-ordered menu (to avoid waste) and 3) offering curbside pick up and delivery for menu items at reduced (that is, present) rates in order to keep up volume.

As the rules become a bit relaxed, allow restaurants to set up tables for social distancing (not arbitrarily cut capacity 25-50%), allow dining outside (close off streets in “restaurant zones” to parking, traffic; have seating by timed reservation and pre-selected menu (to avoid waste and unnecessary overhead) with premium pricing, continue take-out and delivery options at regular pricing.

If landlords are smart, they will help support the restaurants, as well – perhaps lowering the rent, or even taking rent as a portion of sales until the rent is paid off. 

The federal government should treat restaurants in a separate category, not lump together with small businesses, and take into account the specific issues related to restaurants (high overhead, labor-intensive, perishable products and services). And state and local governments can do their best to lower overhead – perhaps with tax rebates or tax holiday, refinancing credit and loans at the ridiculously low interest rates that banks are getting.

Support the restaurant industry’s lobbying efforts. The industry is asking for $120 billion in funding and business-friendly rules. Sign the petition at https://www.saverestaurants.com/

_________________________

© 2020 Travel Features Syndicate, a division of Workstyles, Inc. All rights reserved. Visit goingplacesfarandnear.com, www.huffingtonpost.com/author/karen-rubin, and travelwritersmagazine.com/TravelFeaturesSyndicate/. Blogging at goingplacesnearandfar.wordpress.com and moralcompasstravel.info. Send comments or questions to FamTravLtr@aol.com. Tweet @TravelFeatures. ‘Like’ us at facebook.com/NewsPhotoFeatures

Global Scavenger Hunt: Seville to Porto to Complete Toughest Leg of 23-Day Around-the-World Mystery Tour

A couple enjoys the sunset over Gualdelquivir river, Seville, Spain. © Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com

by Karen Rubin, Travel Features Syndicate, goingplacesfarandnear.com

I am overwhelmed by the beauty of Seville, Spain. The bus ride from Le Leigne de la Conception in southernmost point of Spain (the closest bus stop to Gibraltar) as I continue on this leg on the Global Scavenger Hunt that began in Marrakesh, Morocco, has been absolutely beautiful, providing glimpses of farms and villages and graceful wind turbines. As the bus turns into the city, the exquisite architecture, the vast green parks, the bike lanes, the atmosphere is just breathtaking. Even the bus station is magnificently decorated.

Wind turbines along the highway from Le Leigne de la Conception to Seville, Spain © Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com

I have booked Apartements Hom Sevilla through hotels.com, choosing a place that seemed closest to the city center (0.2 miles) and The Cathedral which seemed the major landmark (0.2 miles) that also was within the budget allotted by the Global Scavenger Hunt (under $100 since my teammate, Margo, went directly to Porto from Gibraltar instead). It is a delightful 15 minute walk from the bus station that literally transports me.

Even the bus station in Seville is beautiful © Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com

 It is the late afternoon and the Cathedral that takes up much of Avenida de la Constitution is bathed in golden light. A tram moves smoothly, virtually noiselessly down the boulevard; cyclists stream by, pedestrians meander by. The hotel is right in the midst of this historic district. The manager, who has been texting me while I was on the bus asking when I expected to arrive and giving me walking directions, is (thankfully) still on duty when I arrive. He shows me how to use the espresso coffee maker in their lounge/lobby (the hotel is self-service after hours) and offers suggestions on how to get around, gives me a map of the city and suggests places to go to restaurants that are less touristic, more typical, and where to get the bus to the airport the next day.

The Cathedral, Seville in the golden light of late afternoon © Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com

 The hotel is absolutely lovely – a modern, chic boutique apartment hotel. I am beyond delighted and  think how clever I am to have chosen this ideal place. (Apartamentos Hom Sevilla, Calle Fernández y González 13B, Sevilla, 41001, Spain)

I rush out to catch the remaining light and am treated to an amazing, flaming sunset. I find myself drawn to the historic Torre Del Oro (Tower of Gold), built in the 13th century (1220-1221) during the reign of the Taifa Kings, a time when Spain was invaded by the Moors, to prevent attacks from Christians. Restored in 2005, it apparently got its name because it was covered in lime and straw mortar which would have given it a golden reflection. Over the centuries, the tower has been used as a fortress, a chapel, a warehouse, a prison and even as the Guadalquivir River Company main office. Today it is the Naval Museum and an iconic symbol of Seville.

The Torre del Oro (Golden Tower), an iconic symbol of Seville, was built by the Moors in the 13th century. © Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com

I wander along the river and across the San Telmo Bridge over the Gualdelquivir, which I learn is the only navigatable river in Spain and “has played a leading role in many of the city’s historic moments: sieges, defenses and conquests have been fought on its waters, and exploits and crossings have been forged from its shores.”

I had not realized that the first trip to circumnavigate the world originated from Seville: that in 1519, Ferdinand Magellan began his voyage here; crossing the San Telmo bridge, you can see the armillary sphere that commemorates mile zero of that voyage.

“Seville in the 16th century was the mercantile center of the western world, and its river was the main maritime route for Atlantic traffic for more than 200 years…Seville was known as ‘the city where the world’s heart beats’. Its maritime activity permeated commerce, population, culture, and its own urban development, making it unique,” the visitor bureau notes (www.visitasevilla.es/en/history/guadalquivir-river).

Seville, Spain © Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com

The lights of the city come on, reflected in the cobblestone streets; there are couples along the river bank enjoying the scene. Seville is one of the most beautiful cities I have ever seen. It is a dream.

Seville, Spain © Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com

I delight in just walking around, taking in the exquisite architecture, the colors and textures and shapes, the peace of this place. There is such a wonderful feeling that even a fellow riding his bike is singing.

The Cathedral, Seville, Spain © Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com
Seville, Spain © Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com
Seville, Spain © Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com
Seville, Spain © Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com
Seville, Spain © Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com
Seville, Spain © Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com

Unfortunately, under the Global Scavenger Hunt challenge, I am only here through early afternoon the next day – having elected to fly out to Porto, rather than take a nine-hour bus ride through Faro and Lisbon to Porto, in order to arrive by the deadline on Friday, 11:30 am. The deadline is pretty firm because we are taking the 3:55 pm flight to New York City, our final stop of the 23-day around-the-world mystery tour. (Those teams that are still in contention are not allowed to fly to Porto; instead, they have to take bus and/or train, a 9-hour proposition from Seville, with stops along the way to do scavenges.)

I plan the morning carefully – getting up extra early to arrange my bags (to avoid paying baggage fees on Iberia Airlines) – and stroll over to the Parque de María Luisa – one of the prettiest parks I have ever seen. It is comparable to Central Park in New York City, the Golden Gate Park in San Francisco and the Ueno Park in Tokyo, in that in addition to being an urban oasis, also contains important cultural sites.  

Parque de María Luisa, Seville, Spain © Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com
Parque de María Luisa, Seville, Spain © Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com
Parque de María Luisa, Seville, Spain © Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com

Among them is Plaza de España, the most extravagant of the building projects completed for the 1929 Exposición Iberoamericana (this is reminiscent of Palace of Fine Arts, built for San Francisco’s 1915 Panama-Pacific exhibition). This is a vast brick-and-tile structure features fountains, mini-canals, and a series of tile pictures depicting historical scenes from each Spanish province (one of our Global Scavenger Hunt travelers found her family’s province). Archeological Museum and the Museum of Folk Arts and Traditions. There are row boats and bikes to rent.

Seville, Spain © Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com

At some point, I find myself in front of a gate with a sign on the wall that says “Juderia,” which, I later learn, turns out to have been the old Jewish Quarter (before Spain evicted Jews, in 1492, known as the Inquisition). It has been converted into a hotel, Las Casas de la Juderia,  comprised of a vast complex of interwoven dwellings, a city within a city, a sprawling maze of 27 houses and two palaces, restored to their 15th century glory, literally in the shadow of the Cathedral and the Alcázar (https://www.lascasasdelajuderiasevilla.com/en/).

Judeira, once the Jewish Quarter of Seville, Spain, is now a family-run hotel © Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com

“Unmistakably Spanish, the family-run hotel is an alluring retreat hidden right in the heart of the city,” writes Trafalgar, a tour company which features this “accommodation with a story” in its Seville program.

“At Las Casas de la Juderia, you‘ll tread in the footsteps of nobility and even royalty. Over the centuries, Christopher Columbus, The Duke of Bejar and The Count of Villamanrique have all stayed here. In fact, after returning from America, Columbus’s men all resided in these houses. Perhaps most compelling of all is the network of subterranean tunnels connecting houses commissioned by former owner, the Duke of Segorbe. You can wander through these today; in fact, breakfast is taken in the captivating underground Hall of Mirrors.” (https://blog.trafalgar.com/2018/02/26/stays-stories-sevilles-las-casas-de-la-juderia/)

Seville, Spain © Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com

I get lost walking to the Real Alcázar, the major attraction in Seville and for my limited time here, which costs me dearly. By the time I arrive at 9:38 am (it opens at 9:30 am) there are what seems 1000 people ahead of me on the line for people (like me) without pre-purchased tickets, and a guard who only lets in a handful of people every 20 minutes. At first, I don’t understand the sign that says (“Limited access, 4-5 hours wait”) for those without pre-purchased tickets (recommended to purchase online, they give you a time to come, or visit in the afternoon, https://realAlcázarsevilla.sacatuentrada.es/en) who go in on a separate line. As it turns out, my wait is 3 ½ hours, but It is touch-and-go as to whether I would get in with enough time to see the Alcázar before having to get back to the hotel, pick up my luggage, and get to the bus to go to the airport.

Real Alcázar, Seville, Spain © Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com

Finally, at 1 pm, just at my absolute deadline, the guard lets me in to the Alcázar and I take advantage of the senior rate (3E versus 11E, so even the limited time is well worth it; Mondays offer free admission). I have to be out by 2:30 pm.

Though you take loads of photos, none can do the Alcázar justice because the beauty is in the exquisite details of architecture, pattern in the decoration, the symmetry, the delicacy and grace, the ambiance, how you are constantly surprised by beautiful images and scale. You look up at magnificent ceilings, at the gorgeous archways, the passages that lead on and on. I think I have seen it all in about 45 minutes, only to discover two other palaces and gardens. (A separate ticket is required to visit the personal apartments still used by the royal family when they visit Seville).

Real Alcázar, Seville, Spain © Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com

The Alcázar royal palace complex that was originally developed as a fort in 913 was built for the Christian king Peter of Castile by Castilian Christians on the site of an Abbadid Muslim fortress, destroyed after the Christian conquest of Seville and reflects the mix of the different architectural cultures. The palace is a preeminent example of Mudéjar architecture in the Iberian Peninsula and renowned as one of the most beautiful. 

Real Alcázar, Seville, Spain © Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com

It has been built and rebuilt and modified many times in the last 1000 years, most spectacularly in the 14th century when King Pedro added the Palacio de Don Pedro. I wonder how many people waiting with me on the long, long line have been intrigued to visit because the Alcázar was featured as a location for the Game of Thrones TV series. The Alcázar has been a UNESCO World Heritage site since 1987.

Real Alcázar, Seville, Spain © Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com

A guided tour would be helpful here, especially since there do not seem to be any notes or guided material, and I have to go quickly through, just taking in the stunning visual images and details. I reconstruct the details later from various sources (See www.lonelyplanet.com/spain/seville/attractions/real-alcazar/a/poi-sig/411802/360736)

We enter through the Puerta del León (Lion Gate) on Plaza del Triunfo, to the Patio del León (Lion Patio), which was the garrison yard of the original Al-Muwarak palace. The Sala de la Justicia (Hall of Justice), with beautiful Mudéjar plasterwork and an artesonado (ceiling of interlaced beams with decorative insertions) was built in the 1340s by the Christian King Alfonso XI. It leads to the Patio del Yeso, part of the 12th-century Almohad palace reconstructed in the 19th century.

You wind through what seems a maze of rooms and courtyards and porticos:

The Hunting Courtyard was where hunters would meet before hunts with King Pedro. The Casa de la Contratación (Contracting House) dates from 1503 to control trade with Spain’s American colonies. The Salón del Almirante (Admiral’s Hall) houses 19th- and 20th-century paintings showing historical events and people. The Sala de Audiencias (Chapter House) is notable for its tapestries.  

Real Alcázar, Seville, Spain © Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com

Palacio de Don Pedro, also known as the Palacio Mudéjar, “is considered Seville’s single most stunning architectural feature. King Pedro, had an alliance with the Muslim emir of Granada, Mohammed V, who was responsible for much of the decoration at the Alhambra. When Pedro decided to build a new palace in the Alcázar in 1364, Mohammed sent many of his top artisans, who were joined by others from Seville and Toledo. Drawing on the Islamic traditions of the Almohads and caliphal Córdoba, the result is a synthesis of Iberian Islamic art.”

The Patio de las Doncellas (Patio of the Maidens) is surrounded by beautiful arches, plasterwork and tiling. A sunken garden was discovered by archaeologists in 2004 from under a 16th-century marble covering.

The most spectacular room in the Palacio is the Salón de Embajadores (Hall of Ambassadors) which originally was Pedro I’s throne room.

Real Alcázar, Seville, Spain © Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com

I come upon the breathtaking formal gardens with pools and fountains. From one, the Jardín de la Danza (Garden of the Dance), a passage runs beneath the Salones de Carlos V to the Baños de Doña María de Padilla (María de Padilla Baths). I find myself in the vaults beneath the Patio del Crucero with a grotto that replaced the patio’s original pool.

Above the gardens is the Galeria de Grutesco, a raised gallery with porticoes fashioned in the 16th century out of an old Islamic-era wall. There is also a hedge maze that adds to the romance and mystery of the Alcázar.

Real Alcázar, Seville, Spain © Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com

The Alcázar is still a royal palace. In 1995 it hosted the wedding feast of Infanta Elena, daughter of King Juan Carlos I, after her marriage in Seville’s cathedral (another magnificent structure to visit which was too crowded for me to fit into my too brief visit). The Cuarto Real Alto (Upper Royal Quarters), the rooms used by the Spanish royal family on their visits to Seville, are open for guided tours (€4.50; half hourly 10am to 1.30pm). Highlights of the tours include the 14th-century Salón de Audiencias, still the monarch’s reception room, and Pedro I’s bedroom, with Mudéjar tiles and plasterwork. Unfortunately, I don’t have the time to visit myself.

Seville, Spain © Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com

Mindful of the time, I walk back to the hotel along the beautiful promenades, get a coffee gelato as my lunch, and get myself to the bus station for the airport.

(More information at www.visitasevilla.es)

Porto, Portugal

I arrive in Porto at about 8 pm after changing planes in Madrid (by now I am second-guessing whether I should have instead taken the nine-hour bus from Seville to Porto). Coincidentally, I meet up with two other teams from the Global Scavenger Hunt at the airport who are following the same route.

They take an Uber from the Porto airport to the Sheraton Porto Hotel; I hop on the Metro, amazed at the convenience and speed of the service and low cost (just about $3 to get into town about 20 minutes from the airport). The hardest part is figuring which way to walk from the station which happens to be quite dark, but a kindly person points me in the right direction. It’s about a 15 minute walk to the hotel.

Porto, Portugal © Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com
Porto, Portugal © Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com

I get up early to hop on the Metro again for the 12 minute ride to Center City. I just want to absorb the gorgeous ambiance and color of Porto before having to meet the deadline of 11:30 am for the Global Scavenger Hunt. We will be taking the 3:55 pm flight to New York City, our final leg of our 23-day, around-the-world mystery tour, and the crowning of the World’s Greatest Traveler.

Porto, Portugal © Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com
Porto, Portugal © Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com

Porto, which I visited much more extensively years ago (the Lello Bookshop and Majestic Café which J.K. Rowling frequented when she was writing the “Harry Potter” books are now overrun with tourists who queue up and pay admission), is absolutely lovely. I just want to immerse myself in the ambiance, wandering around the boulevards to take in the gorgeous “exuberant Baroque style with some Rococo touches” of the buildings, the colorful tiles facades.

Porto, Portugal © Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com

I wander to the port where the Port wineries are located (popular for tours and tastings) and a cable car, walk across the bridge, before getting back to meet the group.

Traditional boats on the Douro River, Porto, Portugal © Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com
Porto, Portugal © Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com
Porto, Portugal © Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com
Porto, Portugal © Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com
Porto, Portugal © Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com

Visitor information is available from Porto & Northern Portugal Tourism Association, portocvb@portocvb.com, www.portocvb.com, www.visitportoandnorth.travel.

The results for this most difficult leg of the Global Scavenger Hunt (our “final exam” as world travelers), that took us to four countries (Morocco, Gibraltar, Spain and Portugal) in just five days:

In third place having completed 92 scavenges, 5 bonuses and amassing 5310 points, Order & Chaos (the doctors from San Francisco).

In second place with 102 scavenges (that’s 20 a day), 7 bonuses and accumulating 5680 points, Lazy Monday.

In first place with 105 scavenges, 7 bonuses, and 6110 points, Lawyers Without Borders, putting Zoe and Rainey Littlepage of Houston, in great position to win the competition for “World’s Best Traveler.” (See Zoe Littlepage’s blog, https://zoeandraineygreatescape.blogspot.com/2019/05/gsh-2019-rock-seville-in-spain-and.html).

We’re off to New York City, the last leg of the Global Scavenger Hunt, when we will learn who will be crowned the 2019 “World’s Greatest Travelers.”

The Global Scavenger Hunt is an annual travel program that has been operated for the past 15 years by Bill and Pamela Chalmers, GreatEscape Adventures, 310-281-7809, GlobalScavengerHunt.com.

Dates have just been set for the 16th annual edition of The Global Scavenger Hunt, April 17-May 9, 2020, Applications for the around-the-world travel adventure competition that crowns The World’s Greatest Travelers are now being accepted at GlobalScavengerHunt.com
________

© 2019 Travel Features Syndicate, a division of Workstyles, Inc. All rights reserved. Visit goingplacesfarandnear.comwww.huffingtonpost.com/author/karen-rubin, and travelwritersmagazine.com/TravelFeaturesSyndicate/. Blogging at goingplacesnearandfar.wordpress.com and moralcompasstravel.info. Send comments or questions to FamTravLtr@aol.com. Tweet @TravelFeatures. ‘Like’ us on  facebook.com/NewsPhotoFeatures

Global Scavenger Hunt: A Dash through Gibraltar Reveals a Modern-Day Brigadoon

Gibraltar’s Barbery Macaques frolic on the taxis that carry tourists up to The Rock. © Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com

­­­­­by Karen Rubin, Travel Features Syndicate, goingplacesfarandnear.com

It is clear why Bill Chalmers, the ringmaster of the Global Scavenger Hunt, inserted Gibraltar on the “final exam” in which we need to get ourselves from Marrakesh to Fez to Gibraltar to Seville to Porto in five days – it is a challenge to figure the logistics and prove ourselves as world travelers, let alone chalk up points by fulfilling the scavenges.

Some of the rules are relaxed for this, the most arduous of travel legs (a par 6) of the 23-day around-the-world mystery tour – the top 4 teams in contention for “World’s Best Traveler” are allowed to team up together but only for one country; can rent a car but only once and in one country (not cross-borders); can use their cell phone for information and GPS. We are given an allowance to purchase transportation and to book the three hotel nights we will be on our own (there are extra scavenger points for booking an AirBnB and for the cheapest hotel night).

We are out of the Riad el Yacout in Fez, Morocco, at 9 am to catch the 10 am train to Tangier, where we will get a ferry to Algeciras, Spain, and from there get to Gibraltar, though we haven’t quite figured out that part yet. As it turns out, there are three teams (six of us), following this same itinerary (not a coincidence – since none of us are in contention any longer, we are allowed to share information and travel together).

This day, the third in the Par 6 challenge, is all about travel. Again, the train through Morocco is comfortable, fast, and provides a wonderful view of the country.

But it seems unnecessarily difficult to figure out which of Tangier’s ports to go to for which ferry. There are four different ferry lines, but two different ports. The group overrules me and decides to taxi 45 minutes to the Tangier MED port – a major cargo shipping port – instead of going to the Tangier Ville port just a few minutes taxi ride from the train station, where the ferry would have taken us to Tarifa (about 50 minutes away from Gibraltar, compared to 20 minutes from Algeciras).

Gibraltar © Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com

The taxi ride along the coast is gorgeous – reggae music is playing as we speed along coastal road to new port (this is a popular beach destination, after all).  But the port is less suited to passengers than cargo. The immigration process takes forever. What we believe to be the 5 pm ferry leaves at 6 pm ferry (the way they handle or rather don’t handle the baggage is a riot). The hour-long sail is a pleasant enough followed by a literal riot to recover our luggage from the POD everyone has stuffed it in. Because of the hour time difference, we arrive at 8 pm.

Then we have to figure how to get from Algeciras (Spain) to Gibraltar (an overseas territory of Great Britain), which, we discover, means the taxis can’t cross the border.

A bus to Gibraltar border is a 15 minute walk and would leave at 9:30 pm so we decide to take the taxi, where, the driver tells us, we can walk across and get another taxi or a bus to The Rock Hotel. Sounds good, right? The cab drops us, we exit Spain (having just entered at the ferry terminal), and enter Gibraltar (darn, no passport stamp! You have to go to the tourist office!), but no taxi, no bus. We start walking about 1 ½ miles to the hotel – across an actual airport runway as it turns out.

Gibraltar © Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com

We have arrived so late, though, the small town (the whole country only has 36,000 residents) is shuttered for the night. Eventually, when we get to the heart of the village, we find one cab and two of us continue walking to the hotel.

The walk is absolutely charming – and also culture shock – having come from Fez, Morocco in the morning, put a toe into Spain, and now plunked down into this patch of Great Britain. There are red telephone boxes, Bobbies, English pubs. It almost looks like a movie set, and in fact, is not much bigger – or Busch Gardens Colonial Williamsburg.

Red telephone box, Gibraltar © Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com

But walking in the quiet of the night through this place evokes in my mind an image of Brigadoon, a town from long ago that emerges from the mist.

Our hotel, The Rock (which another team found and I booked through hotels.com), is majestically set on the foothill of Gibraltar’s famous rock with panoramic vistas of the Bay, the Straits of Gibraltar and the Spanish mainland.  It’s quite elegant – formal even, which I suspect is casual by British standards – and well situated, just opposite the Botanical Gardens, a very short walk to the main street. In fact, The Rock Hotel is a Gibraltar landmark, the oldest luxury hotel here, built in 1932. Its most recent refurbishment enhanced its colonial heritage and art deco style with contemporary comforts of a first-class hotel – it even has a pool. I can attest to the hotel’s elegant and sophisticated ambiance and warm, personalized service. Ours, along with each of the other 94 guestrooms and suites, has a gorgeous view.

View of Gibraltar from our room at The Rock Hotel © Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com

The hotel is filled with history. A Wall of Fame displays the royalty, world leaders, artists and TV, and film stars who have stayed here, most notably, Sir Winston Churchill, Errol Flynn, Alec Guinness, and Sean Connery as well as John Lennon and Yoko Ono when they married in Gibraltar.

The Rock Hotel is a Gibraltar landmark © Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com

The Hotel has a fine dining restaurant serving Mediterranean cuisine – which was really handy since we all arrived very late when every other restaurant in Gibraltar, it seems, had closed. I find the rest of our Global Scavenger Hunt teams in the lounge, enjoying the hotel’s signature cocktail (what else?) Gin on the Rock. There is nothing more quintessentially British than Afternoon Tea and The Rock Hotel offers this tradition daily.

I only have until early afternoon here to explore Gibraltar before having to push on to Seville, and then on to Porto, Portugal, to finish this leg of the Global Scavenger Hunt.

Cable Car ascends to the Top of the Rock, Gibraltar © Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com

Early in the morning, I set out on an easy walk, through the Botanical Gardens, to the cable car that takes me to The Top of the Rock. I purchase a combination ticket (34E; senior rate is 25E) that gives me the ride up and entrance to the Nature Reserve as well as most of the key attractions that are all located along the road and trails from the top, hiking down to the village (the hike takes about 1 ½-2 hours, plus time to visit the key attractions; I give myself about 3 hours).

The cable car ride takes 6 minutes and immediately brings me to one of the highlights of Gibraltar: its Barbary Macaques (tailless monkeys). (I soon realize why the hotel concierge told me to wear my backpack in the front, watch for pickpockets and guard my passport.) They are there greeting tourists, even jump on people’s heads, and display antics (in fact, I don’t find any in the “Ape’s Den” which is supposed to be their habitat).

The Barbary Macaques were said to have come to Gibraltar through a subterranean passage under the Straits of Gibraltar that supposedly linked the Rock of Gibraltar to Africa.

Barbary Macaques jump on tourists at the Top of the Rock, Gibraltar; be careful to stow your passport from these pickpockets © Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com

The Top of the Rock, it turns out, is an entire preserve with a series of Gibraltar’s major attractions, and its entire, dramatic history spread on along its roads and walking paths.

A Barbary Macaque enjoys the view from the Top of the Rock © Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com
Gibraltar’s Barbary Macaques frolic on the taxis that carry tourists up to The Rock. © Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com

There is evidence of humans on Gibraltar going back 2000 years, and Gibraltar has been visited by mariners since the 9th century BC. The Muslim invasion of Europe started in the Bay of Gibraltar in 711; Gibraltar was under Moorish rule for over 700 years until Christians briefly took it over for 24 years in the early 14th century. Christians recaptured Gibraltar in 1462, and King Ferdinand and Queen Isabella secured The Rock for Spain in 1501. Gibraltar was ceded to Britain as a consequence of the War of Spanish Secession (1701-14); the Treaty of Utrecht formalized Gibraltar as Britain’s territory. But that did not end the bloody conflicts by Spain to retake The Rock.

The Moorish Castle, first built in 1160, you climb into the tower of Homage that dates from 1333 when Abu’l Hassan recaptured Gibraltar form the Spanish. © Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com

According to Visit Gibraltar (www.visitgibraltar.gi), “In 1779 Spain and France began the longest and bloodiest siege in Gibraltar’s history, ‘The Great Siege, 1779-1783’. In 1782 work began on the famous ‘Great Siege Tunnels’. The Battle of Trafalgar was fought close to the Rock in 1805.

“The 19th century was Gibraltar’s heyday, as a staging port on the vital route to India. Another series of tunnels were completed during the Second World War. Gibraltar became home to the Royal Navy’s ‘Force H’ and the focal point from where Eisenhower controlled the North Africa landings in 1942. During the Franco era, Spain attempted to revive her claim for the reversion of the Rock to Spanish sovereignty, which culminated in the closure of the border for 13 years in 1969.”

All of this history unfolds as you walk from the Top of the Rock, along its roads and paths spiraling down to Casement Square, once a site of public executions and today the hub of activity.

St Michael’s Cave has a plaque commemorating the visit of Queen Elizabeth II in 1954 © Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com

There is a whole chain of things to see and in the course of two hours I explore: St. Michael’s Cave (way too touristic for my taste, it was developed in the 1950s – there is a plaque noting the visit of Queen Elizabeth to the caves in 1954- and used as a great theater since the 1960s, but the Lower St. Michael’s Cave offers a much more intense experience, I later learn), Great Siege Tunnels that dates from 1779-83 to defend against the Spanish), World War II tunnels (I peek inside but I don’t have time for the 45 minute tour of what amounted to an underground city that could accommodate 16,000 with enough food to last 16 months; there was also an underground telephone exchange, a power generating station, water distillation plant, hospital, baker, ammunition magazines and vehicle maintenance workshop; separate admission is 8E; it is recommended to pre-book tours at naturereserve@gibraltar.gov.gi).

There are also various military batteries, Gibraltar A City Under Siege Exhibition (set in one of the first buildings constructed by the British in Gibraltar, there are re-creations of scenes from 1726 as well as graffiti by bored soldiers from then) and a Moorish Castle, first built in 1160 (you climb into the tower of Homage that dates from 1333 when Abu’l Hassan recaptured Gibraltar form the Spanish).

Gibraltar: City Under Siege Exhibition © Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com

I don’t have time to really explore the Lower St. Michael’s Cave. I learn that while the upper section of St Michael’s Cave has been known for over 2000 years and used for various purposes such as a hospital during World War II, it was only in 1942 that Lower St Michael’s Cave was accidently discovered. The cavern is notable for the size of the main chambers, the profusion and variety of calcite formations and a lake of crystal clear water, nearly forty yards long, estimated to hold 45,000 gallons. There are organized tours into Lower St Michael’s Cave that normally last around three hours, but because there is some scrambling and minor climbing with ropes involved, duration times may vary. The cave is totally in its original natural state (although it is fully lit).

You can also climb the Skywalk, 340 meters directly above sea level, where you are treated to 360-degree views spanning three countries and two continents. Skywalk links to other sites within the Gibraltar Nature Reserve, Upper Rock including the thrilling Windsor Suspension Bridge and the famous Apes’ Den via a series of walking trails. Built on the foundations of an existing WWII base structure, the Skywalk is designed to withstand wind speeds of over 150km/hour and can carry the weight of 5 Asian elephants, or 340 people, standing on it at the same time (visitor numbers will be limited to 50 at any one time). The floor and balustrade panels are made up of 4 layers of laminated glass (with a total thickness of around 4.2cm). Laid out side-by-side, the 42 glass panels would cover more than 750m², roughly the equivalent of 4 tennis courts. The walkway is 2.5m wide and projects a maximum of 6.7m from the main structural support point. 70m of rock anchors and 30,000kg of steel secure the Skywalk to the Rock.

Gibraltar Macaque Experience is the only opportunity in Europe to spend time with a habituated troop of free-living monkeys in a natural setting, away from other tourists © Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com

There’s a lot I don’t have time to get to which is interesting because before I arrived, I had thought I could just breeze through: The Military Heritage Centre in Princess Caroline’s Battery. I am really upset that I do not have time to explore UNESCO Gorham’s Cave Complex which contains evidence of Neanderthal and early modern humans. There is also a Gibraltar Macaque Experience, the only opportunity in Europe to spend time with a habituated troop of free-living monkeys, in a natural setting, away from other tourists. (Blands Travel, travel@blandstravel, www.blandstravel.com)

I take the road down but there are also many nature trails that meander through the extent of the Reserve. These combine the Nature Reserve’s natural beauty and stunning views with some sites of historic interest that are much less visited. There are themed routes: History Buff, Monkey Trail, Nature Lover, Thrill Seeker. Notable trails include Mediterranean Steps, Inglis Way, Royal Anglian Way and Douglas Path.

May Day Rally in John MacIntosh Square, Gibraltar © Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com

I make my way to the charming historic district. It’s May Day and I come upon a labor rally in John MacIntosh Square. I can easily imagine the same speeches (Privatization. Nonconsultation. Unfair Distribution.) being made in New York City.

I am also surprised to learn of Gibraltar’s sizeable Jewish community. On The Rock, you can take a trail to Jew’s Gate which leads to the Jewish cemetery tucked away behind trees that was in use up until 1848; it offers “a fascinating piece of history that reflects the important role the Jewish people have played in molding Gibraltar’s history”). I find four synagogues, including the Great Synagogue on Engineer Lane, one of the oldest on the Iberian Peninsula, dating back to 1724, and Flemish Synagogue.

Here in the town there is Casemates Square, Gibraltar Crystal Glass Factory, an American War Memorial, the Gibraltar Museum, Irish Town, Trafalgar Cemetery (where soldiers who died at the Battle of Trafalgar are buried), King’s Chapel and King’s Bastion can be visited (I don’t have time).

I linger over lunch outside a pub, watching the world go by despite really chilly winds.

Gibraltar © Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com

My brief time here has been really enchanting.

I’ve never walked an entire country (okay, territory) in a single day, before. Or for that matter, literally strolled through centuries of history in such a compact space.

I make my way back to The Rock Hotel to pick up my things, hastily write out postcards I purchased in town, which the kindly hotel staff mail for me.

The hotel, which has provided me with the information for the bus as well as a time schedule, calls a taxi which takes me to the Gibraltar border (still no one to stamp my passport and the tourist office is closed for May Day!). You have to allocate extra time for the taxi in case an airplane is landing on the air strip.

(The Rock Hotel, 3 Europa Road, Gibraltar, reservations@rockhotel.gi, www.rockhotelgibraltar.com)

 See more at Visit Gibraltar, www.visitgibraltar.gi/

I walk the few blocks from the Gibraltar border to the bus station across the border in Spain in La Línea de la Concepción. (My difficulty in arranging travel from Gibraltar to Seville was not realizing that you couldn’t travel directly from Gibraltar to Seville and I didn’t know the name of the city to get the bus. It is an exceptionally pleasant bus ride through southern Spain into Seville, enjoying the lush landscape, the magnificent farms, and the hilltops dotted with wind turbines.

Still Seville and Porto to go before finishing this leg of the Global Scavenger Hunt.

The Global Scavenger Hunt is an annual travel program that has been operated for the past 15 years by Bill and Pamela Chalmers, GreatEscape Adventures, 310-281-7809, GlobalScavengerHunt.com.

Dates have just been set for the 16th annual edition of The Global Scavenger Hunt, April 17-May 9, 2020, Applications for the around-the-world travel adventure competition that crowns The World’s Greatest Travelers are now being accepted at GlobalScavengerHunt.com
________

© 2019 Travel Features Syndicate, a division of Workstyles, Inc. All rights reserved. Visit goingplacesfarandnear.comwww.huffingtonpost.com/author/karen-rubin, and travelwritersmagazine.com/TravelFeaturesSyndicate/. Blogging at goingplacesnearandfar.wordpress.com and moralcompasstravel.info. Send comments or questions to FamTravLtr@aol.com. Tweet @TravelFeatures. ‘Like’ us on  facebook.com/NewsPhotoFeatures

Global Scavenger Hunt: Entranced by the Mystique of Fez, Morocco

Bab Boujeloud, the Blue Gate,entrance to Fez el-Bali, the Medina, the walled city Fez, Morocco © Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com

by Karen Rubin, Travel Features Syndicate, goingplacesfarandnear.com

The sun has yet to rise as we settle ourselves in the first-class compartment of the train from Marrakesh to Fez on our mad-dash on the Global Scavenger Hunt that will bring us through Morocco to Gibraltar, Spain and Portugal for the most difficult leg of the 23-day around-the-world mystery tour. The train pulls out of the modern train station exactly on time. The 6 ½-hour journey flies by as we roll through Morocco’s countryside and villages – farms and rolling hills on both sides.

The compartment seats six people very comfortably. During the course of the trip, people come and go and we engage in very pleasant conversations. A stop or two away from Fez, two fellows come in to the compartment the conversation that ends with the one fellow saying he knows a guide for us to hire to take us through the Medina – the massive gated city of thousands of alleyways which we have been strongly advised to explore with a guide. Sure enough, by the time we get off the train, the guide has arrived. And there is a taxi as well.

Welcome to Riad el Yacout, built in 1347 for Professor Laharchi, philosophy who taught at the famous Al Qaraouvine university, which stayed in the family until 2000, when it was converted to a 33-room guesthouse, Fez, Morocco © Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com

We make our way to the Riad el Yacout, a guesthouse, where we are greeted by Hadisha, a young woman who is the daughter of the owner, recently returned after spending eight years studying in Madrid, China and the United States. I can easily imagine her running a huge hotel chain at some point.

The riad (which is a traditional two-story house where the rooms are built around a courtyard) is absolutely enchanting. The riad was once the home of Professor Laharchi who taught philosophy at the famous Al Qaraouvine university. Built in 1347, the house passed generation to generation until 2000 when her father bought it.

Riad el Yacout, Fez, Morocco © Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com

He spent five years restoring it as a 33-room guesthouse (it is actually three houses that have been linked, with a pool; and there are plans to build a third floor and add a rooftop pool). The mosaics, decoration, furnishings are exquisite – all the rooms set around the most magnificent interior courtyard. The design, facing inward, is meant to maximize family interactions. The riad has already attracted important people – two years after opening, in 2007, Bono stayed for six weeks; Queen Noor of Jordan also stayed here (Riad El Yacout, 9 Derb Guebbas, Batha, Medina, Fez).

Hadisha strongly advises us against using the guy from the train and instead hiring an approved guide and driver from the tourism office. We only have the afternoon and evening here to see Fez, and even Bill Chalmers, our Global Scavenger Hunt leader, has told us to hire a guide to go through the Medina – the largest, with some 11,000 alleyways with no addresses.

The price seems fair and we only have the afternoon, and it proves a great way to see Fez in such a brief time.

It is interesting that two other GSH teams who are also staying at the Riad and come after us (they went on a balloon ride in Marrakesh, one of the scavenges before catching the train to Fez), happened to meet and hire the same guide we were introduced to by the guy on the train (turns out the second guy on the train was his son, who I spot while walking in the Medina – what are the chances? Actually it is less coincide and more a scam – the fellows get on the train a stop or two before Fez, find a seat in the first-class compartment and begin the grift. If you are keeping count, altogether four of our Global Scavenger Hunt teams all had either met the guide (us), or used the guide or the son. And everybody was satisfied.

Even though we realize that only four teams out of the original 10 have a chance of winning the Global Scavenger Hunt and the title, “Worlds Best Travelers,” we still pursue the challenges, albeit at a more relaxed, less frenzied pace, because they basically bring us to the places we would or should visit, places or experiences we never would have thought of, and give us a much more immersive, interesting and connected experience.

Fez el-Jdid, the Jewish Quarter

My teammate, Margo, and I set out with our guide, Hamid, the fellow sent from the tourist office (having told the fellow from the train we made other plans). At our first stop, at the golden doors to the palace (and this is before he makes the connection between “New York,” and likely Jewish person)– he relates how Jews made refugees when expelled from Spain and Portugal in 1492 were invited by the sultan to settle in Fez in order to develop the city, and settle the nomadic Berbers. The sultan gave them land adjacent to the palace and promised protection. To show appreciation, the Jewish community created ornate brass doors for the palace with the Star of David surrounded by the Islamic star.

Palace, Fez, Morocco © Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com

Our guide takes us first to Fez el-Jdid (the “new part of the city”, which is still a few hundred years old)  to visit the Jewish Quarter, the Mellah..

Gold doors presented to the Sultan by the Jewish community of Fez, Morocco © Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com

The Mellah of Fez dates back to 1438, the oldest Jewish Quarter in Morocco, though very few Jewish people live here today, most having moved to Casablanca, France or Israel; there are some 80 Jews left in Fez, but live in the new city, Ville Nouvelle.

Hamid tells us that this community continued even into World War II, when the Sultan gave Jews citizenship and protected them from the Nazis. Indeed, Morocco’s Jewish population peaked in the 1940s but since the 1950s and 1960s, following the establishment of Israel, shrank to fewer than 5,000 today.

Ibn Danan Synagogue, Fez, Morocco © Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com

He leads us through winding narrow alleyways to the Ibn Danan synagogue. The synagogue was restored in 1998-99 with the help of UNESCO, American Jews and American Express). From the top floor, you can see the Jewish cemetery. 

Nearby is al Fassiyine Synagogue, which a plaque notes, “belongs to the Jews (Beldiyine) Toshabirg, native Jews who lived in Fez before the arrival of the Megorashimns, the expelled Jews from Spain in 1492. The building, covering 170 sq meters was built in the 17th century. It includes a small entrance hall which leads to a prayer hall housing some furnished rooms on the mezzanine level. It has been used successively as a workshop for carpets and then a gym. Despite these different uses and the degradation of its state, it still keeps its original aspect.”

The synagogue was restored in 2010-2011 through the efforts of Simon Levy, former general secretary of the Judeo-Moroccan Heritage Foundation, the Jewish community of Fez, Jacques Toledano Foundation and the Foreign Affairs Ministry of Germany.

The reopening on February 13, 2013, was presided over by Morocco’s Islamist Prime Minister Abdelilah Benkirane inaugurated the reopening of the historic synagogue in which he conveyed the wish of Morocco’s King Muhammad VI that all the country’s synagogues be refurbished and serve as centers for cultural dialogue.

Hamid tells me that an adviser to the King and the ex-minister of Tourism were both Jewish.

Indentation on doorposts where a Mezuzah would have been, indicating a Jewish home, in the Fez el-Jdid, the Jewish Quarter Fez, Morocco © Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com

The tourism minister had a lot to do with putting Morocco on the map as an international tourist destination.  The king, who studied at Harvard, in 2000 set a goal of 10 million tourists. “Morocco has no oil or gold. It had no highway or airport and didn’t exist except for hashish,” Hamid says. “The king opened Morocco to foreign companies, giving them five years duty-free. They were drawn by a peaceful country, a gateway to Africa. Foreign investors rebuilt the road to Marrakesh, turning it into an international city for the wealthy, like Europe.” Fez also seems to be benefiting – there is lots of restoration and new construction, at Riad el Yacout where we are staying.

As we weave through the alleyways, he shows us the indentation on the doorposts of houses where a mezuzah would have been placed, now the home of Muslims (what Jews remain in Fez live in the new city, Ville Nouvelle).

Zellige, Traditional Tile Making

Since we have a driver, we also visit a traditional tile factory, set on a hilltop overlooking the Medina.

Fez was the Moroccan birthplace of the beautiful tile work known as zellige. Introduced to the area by Moors fleeing Andalusiatiles were initially chiseled into small pieces to create mosaic-like geometric patterns. The decorative and highly skilled tile work had become especially popular by the 14th century.

Artisans create zellige, the traditional tiles of Fez, Morocco © Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com

We go through various workshops and watch the various artisans as they chisel the pieces and set them into their patterns that we see in the stunning buildings of the Medina and the riad where we are staying. The colors come from natural material – mint for green, indigo for blue, saffron for yellow.

Artisans create zellige, the traditional tiles of Fez, Morocco © Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com

The tiles are different, Hamid explains. “Every other city uses terracotta; Fez has volcanic clay). They use olive pits as well as old furniture to fire up the kilns that heat the tiles.

Fez, Morocco © Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com

Fez is Morocco’s third largest city, with a population of 1,275,000 – half of them in the Medina. It was under the French from 1912-1956.  It was Morocco’s capital for 300 years before the French moved the capital to Rabat, on the ocean.  The most remarkable part of the scene from the hilltop is how every roof of this ancient place has a satellite dish – Hamid says they were given for free by Al Jazeera. “Even a Bedouin tent in the desert will have a satellite dish.”

A forest of satellite dishes in the Medina, Fez, Morocco © Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com

Fez el-Bali, the Medina

The driver drops us at one of the many gates into Fez el-Bali, the Medina (which means walled city) and we follow a route that takes us through the Medina. It is described as the world’s largest car-free urban space – 11,000 alleyways and no addresses – and is a UNESCO World Heritage Site (since 1983). The Medina is the oldest walled city, dating from 900 AD, and the largest in the Arab world. We find ourselves walking through 1,200 years and losing all sense of time or place – except when jarred back to the 21st century by the motorcycles coming through. It is one of the holiest places for Islam (Jerusalem and Mecca being the other two). There are some 272 mosques.

The Medina of Fez is the oldest walled city, dating from 900 AD, and the largest in the Arab world, at one point, Fez, Morocco was the largest city in the world. © Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com

He points out how the homes are simple on the outside, with heavy doors (to keep out pirates); they are two-stories high, but very, very tall. The buildings are designed so if pirates came, they could pour hot water down. Hamid warns that an outsider can only go into the Medina during the day. “It’s not safe in the evening, not even for us.” Hamid says he was born in the Medina and lived here for 35 years, but moved to the New City to send his children to school. “Here, they first teach crafts; if they have more than 10 or 11 kids, they may send them to school.”

Fez, Morocco © Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com

He tries to explain that women – the mother of the house – is the family’s bank; that the artifacts like carpets and ceramics are its financial security, “like diamonds and gold. If the family needs something, they sell something.”; a mule was like a Mercedes.”A carpet to sell is like an ATM; a wife who is an artist is like insurance.” He explains that the people of the Medina have no health care, no insurance and pay no taxes. “It’s like the 8th century.. If a wife doesn’t save money, the family is in trouble. Once a year, they will show off it they have a real wife at the Ramadan holiday. The mother chooses a wife for her son; a daughter goes off to live with the husband’s family. “A mother who has 8 sons is like a Queen, insurance guaranteed. If a family has no sons, they will adopt a nephew as a son. That system from the 9th century is still in practice in the Medina.”

Garbage is still collected by donkey; the sewage system is Roman. The French introduced a water system and electricity – up until then, they used candles and oil lamps. Homes still don’t have refrigerator.

Fez, Morocco © Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com

An important stop is al Qaraquiyine (Karaouine) mosque, university and library, founded in 859 by Fatima al-Fihri, a woman who had fled her homeland of Tunesia. The madrasa became one of the leading spiritual and educational centers of the Muslim world. It was incorporated into Morocco’s modern state university system in 1963. It is considered the oldest existing, continually operating institution of higher education in the world. Hamid tells us that the university spans 5 hectares.

Fez, Morocco © Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com
Fez, Morocco © Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com

I later learn that in addition to being Muslim, prospective students of the Qarawiyyin are required to have memorized the Qur’an, medieval Islamic texts and Maliki law, and have a very good command of Classical Arabic. And while most assume the university is open only to men, women have been admitted into the university since the 1940s.

Qarawiyyin Mosque, Fez, Morocco © Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com

The libraries contain important documents dating from c. 780 A.D. including the Al-Muwatta of Malik written on gazelle parchment. The libraries may soon be open to the public.

Fez, Morocco © Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com

Fez was founded in 789 A.D. by Moulay Idriss II, the son of the founder of modern Morocco, according to Journey Beyond Travel. It wasn’t until 817-18 A.D., when around 800 refugee families from Cordoba in Spain settled in Fez, followed a few years later by over 2,000 families from Tunisia, that Fez really began to grow. Apparently, settlements fought each other for over 300 years, until the arrival of the Almoravid empire in 1070 A.D. installed stability peace.

Fez, Morocco © Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com
Fez, Morocco © Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com

The city took form under Almoravid rule when the walls which still form the outline of today’s Fez El-Bali were erected. By 1170 A.D., Fez was the largest city in the world with a population of 200,000. Fez was an important trading hub, serving Africa and Europe, the gold route from Timbuktu, and because of  its tanneries with a reputation for making leather shields.

Fez, Morocco © Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com

When the Merenids took control of Morocco in 1250 A.D., they made Fez their capital. This is when Fez el-Jdid, the “new” city where the Jewish Quarter is, was built with wider streets, gardens, and administrative centers. This is also when Fez became established as a cultural and intellectual hub and the “Fassi” style, a mix of Andalusian and Almohad traditions, began. One of the best examples of this architecture is the Medersa Bou Inania with its green-tiled minaret.

Fez, Morocco © Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com
Fez, Morocco © Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com

“Today, Fez is known as the ‘Athens of Africa’ and the “Mecca of the West” for its history and role as the spiritual and learning capital of Morocco.” (www.journeybeyondtravel.com/morocco/fez)

Fez, Morocco © Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com

We see the beautiful tile work of the mausoleum of Zaouia Moulay Idris, built in the Alawi architectural style, beginning in 1717 while Moulay Ismail was alive and finished in 1824. It is an important pilgrimage site, and one of the many sites that are closed to non-Muslims.

Fez, Morocco © Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com

During the course of the afternoon, we visit various craftsmen and artisans including embroiderers, carpet makers and weavers.

Fez, Morocco © Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com
Fez, Morocco © Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com
Carpets, Fez, Morocco © Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com

One of these is the Widows Coop, where women weave carpets and scarves. Hamid explains that women who are divorced or widowed have little opportunity to remarry, and in the past, had few opportunities to earn a living besides prostitution. The Widows Coop gives these women a means for self-sufficiency. “Ladies with golden fingers.”

The final stop is the Chouwara tannery which has absolutely exquisite leather items for sale, and a fantastic view from its roof down to the vats of dyes.  We learn that they use lime, salt and pigeon droppings to make the ammonia to tan the leather; the skins soak for a week, then are put into a wheel and turned every day for two weeks, then bleached for a week, then washed for three hours, then put into a vat to dye.

Tannery, Fez, Morocco © Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com
Tannery, Fez, Morocco © Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com
Tannery, Fez, Morocco © Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com
Tannery, Fez, Morocco © Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com

The shop is exquisite (even after getting this glimpse of how the sausage is made) – I have never felt such soft leather. Margo, who protested shopping, falls under the spell of a jacket, but it needs some tailoring. They take measurements and promise to deliver the jacket that evening. Sure enough, a completely custom jacket is delivered to the riad. It is stunning.

Leaving, we drive alongside the walls of the Medina and pass by the famous Bab Boujeloud  known as the “Blue Gate”.

Fez, Morocco © Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com
Fez, Morocco © Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com
Fez, Morocco © Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com

(As I reflect on this guided tour, I am disappointed because as can be expected, we spent most of our concentrated time at the tile factory, the weavers, the carpet makers and the tannery – all designed to have us spend money, but did not get to properly see the Blue Gate, which I “grab” as we are driving or Medersa Bou Inania, two of the Medina’s most important sites. I have trouble reconstructing what we saw.)

Back at Riad el Yacout, we meet up with the other two teams and discover that all of us have followed pretty much the same itinerary.

Dinner at Riad el Yacout, Fez, Morocco © Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com

We have a fantastic dinner at the riad – chicken tagine and chicken couscous – the food and the atmosphere sheer perfection. (Rian el Yacout, 9 Derb Goebbas Batha, Fes Medina 30200, Morocco, riadelyacout@gmail.com, www.riadelyacoutFes.com).

We still have to get from Morocco to Gibraltar to Seville to Porto by Friday on this most challenging, Par 6 leg of the Global Scavenger Hunt, our “final exam.”

I have been unable to figure it out online. It turns out we need to take a ferry to the Spanish city of Algeciras, and then get a cab to the border of Gibraltar (my mistake was trying to input Tangier to Gibraltar). But there are two ferries and two different ports. Which one?

Breakfast at Riad el Yacout , Fez, Morocco © Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com
Riad el Yacout, Fez, Morocco © Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com
Riad el Yacout , Fez, Morocco © Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com

The other two Global Scavenger Hunt teams who are staying in the riad (they were the ones who found it) seem very sure of knowing which train to take and say they will figure out which ferry when we get to Tangier, so, after a fantastic breakfast set out early for us, at 8 am, served in the gorgeous courtyard, we pile into cabs for the $1.50 ride to the train station.

We purchase ticket for the 10 am (first class) train to Tangier Ville. The 4 ½ hour trip is very pleasant, rolling passed lovely landscape, farms, towns and villages, stopping perhaps six times to pick up passengers. A cart of refreshments comes by (tea costs something like 6 cents).

Team NEXUS (aka Ali & Michael) from Ontario, Canada; Team Ying 2.0, father and daughter Alan & Emory from Texas; and Team MargoPolos (Margo from Connecticut and Karen) on the train to Tangier © Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com
Scenes of Morocco from train, © Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com
Scenes of Morocco from train, © Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com
Scenes of Morocco from train, © Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com
Scenes of Morocco from train, © Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com

We are on our journey to Gilbraltar.

(Zoe and Rainey Littlepage, Lawyers Without Borders, the team leading the Global Scavenger Hunt, published a brilliant blog documenting how they fulfilled dozens of the scavenges: https://zoeandraineygreatescape.blogspot.com/2019/05/gsh-2019-from-minurets-in-morocco-to.html )

The Global Scavenger Hunt is an annual travel program that has been operated for the past 15 years by Bill and Pamela Chalmers, GreatEscape Adventures, 310-281-7809, GlobalScavengerHunt.com.

See also:

Unraveling Marrakesh’s Old City Maze Before Tackling the Global Scavenger Hunt 4-Country Challenge

4 Days in Morocco: Desert Adventure from Marrakesh to the Sahara

________

© 2019 Travel Features Syndicate, a division of Workstyles, Inc. All rights reserved. Visit goingplacesfarandnear.com, www.huffingtonpost.com/author/karen-rubin, and travelwritersmagazine.com/TravelFeaturesSyndicate/. Blogging at goingplacesnearandfar.wordpress.com and moralcompasstravel.info. Send comments or questions to FamTravLtr@aol.com. Tweet @TravelFeatures. ‘Like’ us at      facebook.com/NewsPhotoFeatures