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, Vietnam, Malaysia and Cambodia and Indonesia. Here’s their dispatch #5 from the Southern Hemisphere: Australia, New Zealand, Chile.
We took an overnight flight Bali → Melbourne (actually we flew separately though our flights were minutes apart–cheaper!). Food costs in Australia brought us straight back to SF living, at >$20/meal, but we managed to find $1 oysters our budget can always accommodate!
In the colder Melbourne climate, Sarah expanded her small wardrobe when she realized for the first time she doesn’t just fit into Eric’s tops, she fits into his pants too! A whole new world. Feeling fresh in Eric’s khakis, we spent our few days there wandering hipster neighborhoods, catching an AFL game, exploring a winter food fest (including fake snow), and laughing our arses off at a comedy show (we def missed some local references, but Sarah howled when they mentioned anything Bravo-related). We reckon it was a pretty good time.
NEW ZEALAND Lake Hawea, Wanaka
We arrived in New Zealand just in time for winter holidays, which meant that our serendipitous trip planning had met its match. When we began our search for an accommodation just three days before arriving, we knew we’d made a mistake – everything was booked solid. One shout out to friends and we were connected with Jack & Cass – our saviors! Jack and Cass showed us their beautiful town of Lake Hawea, South Island, where we hiked around, marveled at views of the humongous lake, drank flat whites in the morning and craft beers in the evening, and got real local watching the All Blacks (rugby) at a local pub.
At the Mount Iron Track, we got some gorgeous views of South Island mountains, lakes and ski fields 🙂 Did ya’ll know that the only native land mammal in NZ is the bat? Everything else came with the humans…wild. And still to this day, there are no big scary predators or poisonous snakes in all of NZ…paradise. And did we mention the public bathrooms everywhere are beautiful and spotless!? Again, huge shout out to Jack & Cass for showing us their home and such a good time. It was a massive highlight of our whole trip!
Skiing in summer (or actually, our summer, their winter!) was a huge bucket list item. So to round-out our time on the South Island, we hit the slopes at Cardrona ski field with lots of borrowed gear and some thrift store finds Eric couldn’t resist ($8 for a helmet, goggles & gloves?!). It was basically a white-out all day on slippery ice, but Sarah only fell once, whined twice, and we were truly stoked to have the chance to ski on this sabbatical.
When the opportunity came about to ski again at Remarkables a few days later (about an hour south near Queenstown), Eric jumped at it and lucked out with a bluebird day. Sarah audibled and jumped at a local jewelry-making class.
We caught a flight from Queenstown → Auckland, but squeezed in time to explore this charming, twinkly-light town right on the lake. Our Airbnb gave us ghost vibes, so we skipped about town as much as the frigid temps would allow. Notably, we nommed some delicious (and massive) fish n’ chips, and washed it down with fried kiwi for dessert (!!).
Van Life – Coromandel Peninsula
We zipped up to North Island to begin our week-long van life extravaganza. We hit the road after stocking up on pb&j, chips & craft beer. First stop: Coromandel Peninsula. We were treated to neon greenery, the salty ocean, and cool fog (but thankfully little rain despite the forecast!). Also, no road trip is complete without Taco Bell, and Eric wants everyone to know that TB in NZ is unparalleled – perfectly crispy tortilla, succulent pulled pork & it weighed approx. 1KG. Watch out, San Francisco burritos..
Van Life – Rotorua, Taupo
We continued south in the van, coming to find that NZ is bubbling with thermal activity– especially in Rotorua & Taupo. Geothermal steam oozes from ponds at local parks and Eric veered off the road for any and all opportunity to hop in a thermal bath – his favorite being the Hot N’ Cold river where two rivers converge (one piping hot, one ice cold, as the name suggests). It was his dream come true – a natural version of a hot tub and cold plunge!
Our campsite in this region was chosen for us when we got our van thoroughly stuck in the mud. Thankfully a lovely Kiwi helped us MacGyver a way out in the morning:) Sarah also tried mountain biking here for the first time, and basically screamed the entire way down.
CHILE Santiago, Valparaiso
The direct flight from Auckland → Santiago, being loosely in the direction of home (California), was what ultimately led to the decision of concluding our adventure in South America. We touched down in Santiago and immediately had to gear our stomachs up for cream-sauce & mayo-covered-everything (Eric was ready). Sarah’s dad, Joel, joined us for the Chile leg, and we spent the first couple days at parks, drinking pisco sours, and consuming “completos” (local version of a hot dog).
Eric also squeezed in one more day on the slopes of Valle Nevado (ya know, because he had to maximize the return on the thrift store ski gear he picked up in NZ). Then we scooped up a rental car and drove west to Valparaiso, a graffiti-filled port town. We wanted to love Valparaiso, but lots of warnings of crime plus stray dogs and their doodoo on every inch of the street left us feeling a tiny bit meh. Joel did find a really cool hat at the market though——->
We continued on with a stop in Casablanca (wine country) where we sipped some delicious (and inexpensive) vino, ate pizza, and slept in a tiny house overlooking vineyards. We loved the much more chill and less elitist vibes of the wineries we visited (compared to Northern California).
And to round-out the road trip, we visited the mountains of San Jose de Maipo. We stocked up on food and took the hosts 4×4 van up the steep and rocky road to our Airbnb. The cute cabin had one furnace, so Eric and Joel got to practice the manly skill of fire building 24/7, and we all slept in four layers of clothing. We spent the days cooking meals and going for lots of walks with mountain views (the neighbor’s sweet dog accompanied us wherever we went).
Last stop in Chile: The Atacama Desert, the driest and one of the highest deserts in the world. Lots to see in this vast dryland, which often felt like another planet – salt flats, sand dunes, lagoons with flamingos (did you know flamingos are born white, and their diet of exclusively sea monkeys turns them pink!?), multicolored canyons & geothermal springs.
At one point we were locked out of our car in the middle of the desert, but thankfully we are small humans and were able to climb in through the trunk back to mobile safety. After the panic subsided we were treated to a herd of llamas trekking alongside our car for 30 minutes. This desert oasis has an added bonus– a Death-Valley-meets-Albuquerque boho-chic little town called San Pedro de Atacama. Lots of funky cool souvenir shops and live music to check out.
Now off to Peru and Ecuador for trekking and wildlife viewing, the grand finale of our six-month odyssey.
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, Vietnam, Malaysia and Cambodia. Here’s their dispatch (#4) from Indonesia:
Oddly enough, we write this from basically our last day of summer, as we wrap our 3 months of traveling Southeast Asia and head south to Melbourne, Australia tonight where deep winter awaits. If ya’ll are wondering how we are possibly spending every minute of every day together, the answer is our deep, eternal bond and newfound zen mentality. JUST KIDDING, the answer is podcasts, we listen to a lot of podcasts.
We kickstarted the month of June with an overnight layover at the Singapore airport, which we were somehow excited for (what is wrong with us?). Perhaps because we expected that we could make our experience at least as good as glamping at this airport-from-the-future. We peacefully strolled the airport’s mall and butterfly garden, and even peeped into the medical center and movie theater (sadly no movies during the pandemic), all the while unknowingly giving up any and all of the free sleeping pods. The airport hotels and spas were grossly out of budget, so when 10 PM rolled around, cut to Eric on the floor with his trusty eye mask and earplugs, and Sarah curled up on a hard chair with a true-crime podcast to lull her to sleep.
A short plane-ride later we touched down in Java, Indonesia’s most populous island, where we encountered probably the most difficult language barrier of the trip thus far. We also found ourselves consuming some form of fried rice or noodle, sprinkled with egg, meat and veggies for breakfast, lunch, and dinner. But our main mission here was tackling two volcano treks.
First up: Mount Bromo. We set out on the sunrise trek to the viewpoint of this beautiful volcano at 3:30 AM. Along the way we’d come to understand that treks in Indonesia have accessible peaks by many means-jeeps, motorbikes, horses, and even human carts (yes, you can pay approx $35 USD to have three men push you in a rickshaw/adult stroller up the extremely steep face of a volcano).
At first, Sarah found the many options beyond hiking really cool from an accessibility standpoint (you can take the OT on a sabbatical, but you can’t take the OT out of the OT on the sabbatical.. or whatever). But, we came to find these avenues (including the cart) are utilized by fit people, even dressed in hiking gear (!?). The views were incredible, and we were proud of ourselves for earning the trek, but the peaks were super crowded.
Second, we journeyed to Mount Ijen in far east Java. Mount Ijen is unique in that it is home to one of the last sulfur mines still mined exclusively by hand, and the most sulfuric lake in the world (with a pH of 0.2). Sulfur vents burn neon blue flames in the middle of the night, which is what we were aiming to see when we woke up at 1 AM and motorbiked up the dark and steep winding mountain roads to begin the trek at 2 AM.
The trek itself involved hiking up to the top of the crater, then down into it (with gasmask in hand because of the sulfur fumes) alongside the sulfur miners who do this backbreaking trek with 150–200 lbs of sulfur bricks multiple times a day (!!). We cheaped-out and didn’t hire a guide, so we stuck close to a guided group during the crater descent for some free information. The one thing we heard: “Be careful this water is very hot” as we came upon a creek. But uncoordinated and distracted Sarah (remember the part above about the murder podcasts?) stepped on the first rock jutting out of the stream, immediately panicked, wobbled, and stepped off her rock, one foot, then two.. *SPLASH* right into water more acidic than battery acid. She quickly scampered to the side, gritted her teeth, and waited for her feet to dissolve. BUT PHEW, by some good fortune, absolutely no harm was done.
The blue fire was cool but Eric was sure we were doing lifelong damage to our eyes and lungs so we snapped some pictures and got THE HELL out of there. We walked back up the crater rim to see the sunrise, and chivalrous Eric lent his dry hiking socks to Sarah before we scurried down the mountain to try to beat the rickshaws.
We went home to crash at our accommodation down the hill from Ijen–a bamboo hut with curtains instead of walls–which looked quite dreamy online, but the constant ripping from sleep by the sound of critters scurrying around, and in, our hut (and Eric’s accompanying yelps) made this a true instagram-vs-reality situation. The hosts were very sweet, but we were excited to get THE HELL out of there (again).. we packed our bags and took the $1 ferry east to Bali.
Indonesia as a whole has a Muslim-majority population, but the island of Bali is predominantly Hindu. We observed their appreciation and respect for nature when they’d place offerings of flowers, fruits, and leaves on their doorsteps each day to nourish the gods. North Bali felt largely untouched by mass tourism, and we took serious advantage of the empty beaches and $5 fish dinners (for two).
Once we made our way south to Ubud, we were transported to another world of pre-pandemic travel. Streets full of tourists flocked to cafes where the most popular item on the menu was something like Buddha Bowl, or Keto Kale Bowl. We dabbled in many different yoga classes (even accidentally signing up for 90 minutes of breath work), and ate smoothie bowls to our hearts’ content.
Further south in Canggu and Uluwatu we sat on many-a-beach watching absolutely insane surfer talent, on literally every wave. Though we must admit the beaches weren’t the best for the non-surfers; sticky sand, lots of rocks, and strong currents.
In very Bali fashion, we lunched next to surfer Kelly Slater in west Uluwatu. Unfortunately, it was at this spot that Eric’s burrito fell apart as soon as he picked it up. As he was putting it back together, he spotted a worm crawling through the lettuce. Eric plucked it out and we watched it inch across his hand. We had to act cool in front of Kelly of course, so we just made pity faces at each other and shrugged. Eric blissfully chewed on while Sarah stared off in space, thinking about all the bugs we’ve likely consumed, buried in street food this trip.
Before leaving the island of Bali, we followed a friend’s recommendation of spending an evening at The Istana: a luxury wellness and “biohacking” center on the edge of a cliff. After locking up our phones, per policy, we explored the various hot/cold pools and chatted with the characters (mostly expat locals) who frequent The Istana. Along the way we met Poppy, a ~12 year old girl (?? she didn’t actually know how old she was) who was born to British and Swedish parents on a sailboat in Panama when her parents were living at sea for 6 years. She told us she goes to forest school in Uluwatu with 4 other expat kids in her age group, and that her older brother (who sounds like he’ll be a professional surfer) was pulled out of school because his parents thought he was being taught “too many sad things”. Hippie parents take on entirely new meaning in Bali.
Our last stop in Indonesia (where we write this dispatch) is the island of Flores, a plane-ride east of Bali. This leg of the trip started great – we spent 3 nights on a remote island living in a beach hut, playing ping pong and attending movie nights & bonfires with the same 30 people every day (essentially Jewish summer camp). But when we got back to mainland Flores, things took a turn..
We didn’t intend to spend an entire week at the port-town of Labuan Bajo, but we did. Did we like Labuan Bajo? Let’s just say we ate pizza for four consecutive nights and our highlight each day was going to Starbucks and ordering an iced matcha/espresso hybrid (the classic coffee is tragically bad in Indonesia-mostly instant coffee or pour-over in your mug that’s watery and gritty, which while drinking Eric constantly remarked, “HOW IS IT SO BAD, THEY GROW IT RIGHT THERE?! [points to any mountain in the vicinity]”).
This town is known basically for one thing, and that is its proximity to Komodo National Park, a boat ride away. Eric be-friended (then be-enemied) all of the local guys in town running the racket of booking boats. We’d come to learn that the dozen of them are all in cahoots, upselling while funneling you to the same 1-2 boats actually in the harbor. Our boats were confirmed, deposits paid, and then canceled the night before for varying fabricated reasons, keeping us in the vortex of this mind-numbing town for more days than we’ve spent in any single town on this trip (read: gut-wrenching). We finally got a boat on our last day in Indonesia, and saw the elusive Komodo, which exists in the wild only here (it’s a carnivore and cannibal, mothers even eat their own babies so the little ones hide in trees for the first three years of their lives- WTF). Our boat also plopped us on an island with a pink sand beach for an hour, so we left happy 🙂
Onward to the depths of winter – first in Australia, then New Zealand then closing out this crazy adventure in South America.
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!
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.
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.
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!).
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).
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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 about500km over 3 days) stopping at small homestays on our scenic way.
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.
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/ [email protected])
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.
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.
* * *
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!)
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!!
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.
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)!
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 🙂
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 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.
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!)
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).
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….
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:
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).
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/)
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.
The theme of this part of my journey could well be exploration. I had not realized thatthe 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).
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.”
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.
“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.”
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.
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.
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:
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.
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 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.
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.
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.
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.”
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.
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.
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).
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.
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:
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.
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?).
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:
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.
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.
Perhaps not surprising, a short distance from the synagogue is Bogyoke Aung San Market, which since 1926 has been the city’s major marketplace.
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.
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)
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.
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.com, [email protected], 800-691-6036)
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: [email protected], 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)
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.
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.
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:
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/)
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/)
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).
Our globe-trotting correspondents Dave E. Leiberman and Laini Miranda offered their international favorites:
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, [email protected], ShalomJapanNYC.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/
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.
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.
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 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,
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.
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
I had not realized thatthe 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.
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).
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.
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.
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.
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.
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/).
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.”
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.
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.
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).
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.
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.
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.
wind through what seems a maze of rooms and courtyards and porticos:
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.
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.”
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.
most spectacular room in the Palacio is the Salón de Embajadores (Hall
of Ambassadors) which originally was Pedro I’s throne room.
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
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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, 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.
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.
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
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.