At last, the Alhambra

I’ve heard about this place for so long, with universal acclaim and now it was my turn to visit. I was not disappointed. Except that I wanted more. More incredible tile work, more carved plaster, more inlaid wood ceilings, more, more more!

It is glorious. And lots of people want to see it, and so there are lots of people everywhere. That’s life. Travel has become available to so many more people from so many more countries than ever before, and, except for the impact on the climate from all of the airplanes, it’s a good thing. As Rick Steves says, more or less, people need to get out and meet people from other cultures, see their sacred places, eat their food and the world will be a better place. My belief as well.

I do my part to get out in the world. Algeria, Spain and then Portugal before we go home on April 1.

We flew to Spain Monday afternoon from Algiers and, although our flight was nearly an hour late, we still were able to meet friends for dinner in Javea, where we were staying. Erica Meltzer is a good friend from my college years and she is married to a Scotsman, Sam Laird. They currently live in both Spain and France, where they have a house with an attached “gite” or self-catering apartment. I visited them there in 2010, just before they finished the renovations on the old barn which became the apartment.

Tuesday we “took care of business”, laundry, bank and phone. Then we drove to Ricki’s house about 15 min from us, and we three drove on to Denia to see Las Fallas events and have dinner.

Las Fallas is an old tradition in the Valencia area which involves a whole week of activities culminating in the sequential burning of lots of big sculptures and lots of fireworks and firecrackers.

Each neighborhood “builds” or has built, a huge, like up to 30 foot tall, sculpture. To me, most looked like variations on Disney characters, but that’s modern life I guess. They started out, historically, as wooden figures, built from odds and ends of carpenter’s stock. The event is related to St. Joseph, the patron saint of carpenters.

We walked through town, finding them at intersections. Some were small, the children’s Fallas, but most were huge. We also walked through a long, well lit and very clean, tunnel( which served as a shelter during the Spanish Civil War) that goes under the big hill with a castle on top that is kind of in the center of Denia. And from there, up and around and back to the Center of town. We had a drink while watching people, and then dinner. After dinner, the burning was starting and we were in the right place to see one near us. There were fireworks, a band played, and firemen came to set the fire and bring their hoses up close. As the gigantic thing started to burn, there were cheers and the firemen were skilled at aiming the spray from their hoses on the near-by buildings. But the awful black smoke rose up ( the things are made of polystyrene, which I don’t think is good to inhale) high into the sky. I hope everyone had their windows closed!

Wednesday was our 4th Anniversary, and Ricki and Sam invited us for a late lunch/early dinner at their new home in the village of Jesus Pobre, population about 400.We had a lovely relaxed afternoon with them and returned to our small hotel near the waterfront in Javea. Thursday we packed up and drove about 5 hours to Granada.

Tomorrow we go to Córdoba for just one night, then Sevilla for 2 nights.

Some pics, mostly from the Alhambra:

They make you carry back packs on your front! Bill carried my water and drawing materials. I did take some time to sketch a little bit. Would have loved more!

Tile work,on a pillar. Note how the colored shapes are inlaid into the base color. Amazing craftsmanship!
Published in: on March 22, 2019 at 10:34 pm  Comments (1)  

Leaving Algeria, with a sigh

This is a lovely country. Absolutely drop dead beautiful, from the lush green northern agricultural areas and the Mediterranean coast, to the unimaginable Sahara vastness. The people have been universally welcoming and kind, allowing me to try to communicate in my high-school French dredged up from the depths of my aging brain. I’ve enjoyed every moment ( except for a few moments, mostly in hotels to be honest).

Our third night in the Sahara was spent at a fancy resort kind of place called the “Gazelle D’Or” in El Oued, but not in the city at all. It is owned by some rich guy ( according to our guide, Sidi) and is quite eccentric both in layout and in service! We stayed in an area of “tents”, really small cabins covered in a sort of heavy burlap. Inside the one room has dark fabric covered walls. The bed was lovely, soft, smooth beautiful sheets. Yes! This part I liked! The bathroom was of such poor design that I wondered if anyone from the hotel had ever used one there? No place in the shower for soap, shampoo, etc. Leaky door. Terrible lighting. This is a 5Star place. And the service, Oy! It’s huge, really huge and the “map” they give you with your key is hard to decipher since no one bothered to note our actual location ( there are a great many “tents”in different areas). They said that there are carts circling around all the time, so don’t worry about getting to dinner, etc. Not exactly. We were to meet for dinner at 7, but the sunset over the dunes was at 6:45 so most of us wanted to meet at the bar and watch it with a drink, alcohol is not easy to come by here.

We chose to rest a bit, then called for a cart since they were not “circulating”. We waited, and waited, and waited. I called again, but no answer at any of the numbers listed on the information sheet.As it was getting dark so we walked back to the Reception area and had them call for the cart to take us to the bar/restaurant. Even then we waited at least 10 minutes. By the time we got to the bar the sun had set. The bar staff was rather unfamiliar with alcohol. I asked for a Campari and soda. After what seemed like a long time, a guy returned with a tiny amount of bright red Campari in a glass and a glass of orange soda pop! No, I said, plain mineral water with gas. Eventually he returned and I did drink it. At dusk, lights came on in the palm trees around the pool where we were having drinks. Pretty gorgeous!

Dinner was excellent and in a beautiful dining room, where we also had breakfast at 6:30 the next morning.

We checked out( the only time we stayed only 1 night) and headed in to the town to walk through the big daily market in ElOued, or OuedSu, as I heard from one of the policemen who accompanied us.

Did I mention that our all day, (9 or so hours including lunch and delays ) driving across the Sahara, we had a military escort in front and behind our bus? At one point we had to wait for 30+ minutes at a nearly abandoned gas station for the next group of escorts to meet us, and I had time to talk to one of the guys who was interested in practicing his English. He knew about birds and identified one( can’t recall it’s name) that was singing on the top of a light pole near us. “He’s looking for a lady” the policeman said.

One set of our escort guards. They worry about Libyans and others coming in through the desert. DAISH ( ISIS) is active in Libya apparently.

Wall with door shaped opening, at gas station in the Sahara

Waiting for their replacements, the military policemen explored a bit in the desert

The market was fun, and while it took me while to figure out that the 4 guys dressed like ordinary Algerians were our police guards, I appreciated that they allowed me to engage in conversation when I could. They also helped us with the flashlight on their cell phones when we ascended a pretty tall ( about 3 stories) minaret to get a good overview of the market area.

View from the minaret in the mosque near the market

Man selling brightly colored something edible,not sure what. Maybe peanuts? They are grown here and are very popular as a snack.

Domes in ElOued, from the minaret

ElOued is known for its distinctive architecture ( brought from Yemen with the early Arab immigrants) using domes to help with air circulation. Houses and other buildings have one or multiple domes which allow hot air to rise during the day. At night it gets pretty chilly in the desert, so the warm air would be welcome back I’d guess.

We flew back to Algiers and to the El Aurassi Hotel. Some folks went with Sidi shortly after we arrived to see another historic hotel, but Bill and I chose to chill on our terrace with a view out to the Mediterranean Sea, order some room service and relax. We went to dinner with 2 other women ( from Florida and Seattle) to a simple place that had excellent seafood. Dinner was under $20 each, and about $4 each for a taxi back and forth. Algeria is an affordable country for a tourist from North America, if only you can figure out how to get here!

Yesterday we did some bus stuff, visited a 17th Century Turkish palace and the Monument to Martyrs of the Revolution and its Museum ( too much military music and adoration of war for me). And we had a terrific lunch in a small restaurant in the center of town after which we visited 2 stores selling silver jewelry and other locally made items that tourists or others might want. Not too many tourists, so locals must shop there, too. I bought some earrings in one and a necklace in the other. Not cheap, but Sidi assured me that the silver is real ( not marked in any way) and the enamel is nicely done. The Berber people who live north and east of here make this kind of jewelry, where the Tuaregs in the south and west and in Mali, make a more austere kind of thing. Silver and black beads, some black onyx and some carnelian stones are incorporated.

My new necklace, Berber silver and enamel

This morning, we are here still and enjoying our room with a view for the last few hours. I had a more ambitious plan to go to an Art Museum, but then I decided to start writing and the time just got away from me. And, honestly, sitting at a small table with my ipad, looking out at the Mediterranean with a cool breeze coming in the wide-open doors to our private terrace, I don’t feel any urgency to see just one more thing.

Last night we ate in the hotel, and a heard for the first time since we arrived in Algeria, distinctive American English. There was a table of about 6 people, 5 men and one woman. As they walked past our table after finishing their dinner I asked about who they were and why they were here. They are a group doing some sort of training at the US Embassy in Algiers for 2 weeks. The woman asked what we were doing here and we told her that we had been traveling around Algeria. Oh, she asked, we’d like to get out of Algiers on the weekend, where could we go?

So many options, we really enjoyed recounting some of the places we had been to see. I do hope they get out and see some of the country, it is a wonderful place.


Published in: on March 18, 2019 at 10:02 am  Comments (1)  

In the Valley of the One-Eyed Women

The M’Zeb Valley, where we spent the day visiting a few small towns, is populated largely by a branch of the Bedouin people who believe that women, when out in public, must wear a large white cloth covering their entire self, except for one eye. It is a disturbing experience to look at a figure looking back at you from one small opening in a white covering, with one dark eye.

We learned that once a woman marries this is how she must dress outside of the home. Before marriage, her face is exposed. I’m sure that helps with marriage decisions! ( I don’t know if marriages are arranged or made by the parties themselves).

Children wear either pink or blue smocks to school, and seem to play with great vigor on their way home in the afternoon. We saw a lot of young kids spilling into the warren of narrow paths through the towns. Sometimes we merely said “Bon Jour” to the kids, sometimes they asked our names, and we asked them in return.

I think the highlight of the morning for me was walking through the market in Ghardaïa. It was a classic middle-east market with vegetable sellers in one area, clothing and cloth in another, fish,(yes in the desert they sell fresh fish!). And herbs and amazing olives farther on. The market was along a very straight “street” with shops and stalls on both sides and it was full of people, and cats. Lots of cats. Some fighting with each other, some hiding out, some feasting on fish below the tables where the fish were displayed. The shoppers were predominantly men, which is perhaps expected here. We did see women, even women in those white cover-ups, shopping and talking with shopkeepers.

After that market we walked around the weekly market in a large open square where both regular shops and periodic vendors sell dates, books, wooden objects, clothing, leather bags, shopping bags and other things. The shopping populace included at least a half-dozen tall, thin Tuareg men in turbans and long robes. They reminded me of my trip to Libya in 2005 where I spent about 4 days with Tuaregs .

Getting to our designated lunch place became a bit of an incident, as it turned out. Sidi had been trying and trying to contact the bus driver to pick us up at the Market and take us to lunch, but he wasn’t answering his phone. In frustration, Sidi called upon some police –men nearby who were helping people cross the street, and asked them for help. The police then walked up to a city bus that was unoccupied at the moment and told the driver to pick us up and deposit us at the restaurant! And the driver did as he was told and, ….. we had a wonderful lunch!

We returned to the guesthouse/hotel for an hour’s rest before setting out for tours of two small villages nearby, Beni Isgen, and El Atturf. At El Atturf we met up with a local guide who led us up through the winding walkways, stairs and paths to the top of the town, and back again down flights of mostly shallow steps skirting a cemetery. We entered a traditional house and saw the main rooms and the bedroom floor above.

At the top of the town, there is a cemetery. In the local tradition, there are no fancy carved headstones with names. Instead there are rocks at the head and foot of the body, and there is a formula for the number of stones placed depending on the sex of the deceased ( and if a female, if pregnant). Mostly it looks all brown. But there are a few 4 pointed white painted structures that really stand out. Those are burial places of holy men.

The Cemetary at El Atturf

Bill in the very old house in El Atturf, the bedroom floor.

We followed a path down from the top of the town, sometimes it was stairs, sometimes just dirt all the way to near where we had started our trek. At the bottom was another mosque, this one quite open with windows facing all directions insuring light all day long. It, too, was very old, nearly 1000 years.

There was yet another village in the M’Zeb valley to visit, Beni Isguen, not far away. We were deposited there and Sidi went to the City Hall (Mairie) to find the guide to take us around. In both villages, guides are required. We had a nice older man and began following him. At the point that the visit involved yet more stairs up, and up some more, two other women and I bowed out. I was tired from a long day and really, it didn’t seem all that much different from the village we had just visited. So, we stopped at a little shop and bought some snacks ( I alway enjoy interacting with people, the other women not so much) and then chatted with a young man re-opening his sewing shop after the break, and then I stopped once more to buy some packets of tissues. Another chance to talk with people. We waited for our compatriots to return from the hike, and then we all went back to our little hotel/guesthouse for dinner.

Dinner was outside, next to the pool. It was chilly, but fun to be out there.

To bed, early rise. Lots of hard work on this trip, but it’s so interesting to see this country now as it begins a new era.

Beni Isguen mosque. Note the tapered tall minaret, from a different angle you can see how it leans, towards Mecca.

Published in: on March 15, 2019 at 9:03 pm  Leave a Comment  

Finally, I meet some local women! And we fly to the Sahara

(Preface- I’m having trouble this evening with getting photos moved to the iPad from my phone. Today most of the pics were on the phone instead of the camera. If it doesn’t work, I’ll add them in a day or two when I can.)

Not that I haven’t been enjoying most of the trip so far, but I have missed having time to interact with actual Algerians, other than Sidi, our guide.

This morning, our first stop after leaving the unsatisfactory Protea Hotel in Constantine, was the Cirta Museum, a combination of art and local history collections. As we entered, and I must say I was reluctant to enter having seen lovely shopping streets in the city center and desiring contact with local people, a museum was not what I was looking forward to.

I glimpsed some paintings in a small room next to the entrance. But,I was about to follow the group in the other direction when one of our police “minders” gestured that it was OK for me to go into that room rather than follow the group. So I did.

The room contained an exhibit of artwork, mostly paintings and some mosaic on glass, by local women artists. As I entered, another woman, rather short, rather round, entered also. She smiled and spoke to me in French. After a few moments, I think I started to understand her. The old creaky wheels in my brain where the French language is stored are starting to move again. She told me that she was one of the artists whose work was on display! I somehow responded to her that I was also a painter and I was interested in her work. She explained that the clothing in her paintings was the local traditional dress of the Constantine area.

At this point, another woman, a bit younger, wearing hijab, and with her young daughter, entered the gallery room. She was very friendly and spoke some English.She is a journalist and was very interested to talk with me about Algeria. Her brother ( or cousin) works at the Algerian Embassy in Washington. And then a 3rd woman entered the room, another of the artists.She spoke no English and despite my attempts to explain that my French is severely limited, she continued in rapid bursts to tell me about her art. I got maybe 10% of what she was saying.

The first woman went out of the room and returned with some spiral bound small books, actually calendars, with her paintings reproduced in them. The daughter, who told me she was 12, took me to see one of the large classic paintings upstairs, at the request of the first woman.

I was having such a great time! My little bit of French was increasing by the minute and I felt a sense of joy at communicating with these women!

I gave them some of my stock of postcards of San Francisco, with my name and website info written on them. I think the journalist may eventually contact me. I might have a pen pal in Algeria!

The group left the museum headed for the large suspension bridge- to walk across it while looking down at the river gorge below ( about 175 ft down). We were walking, about half-way, when 2 teen-age girls came up to me and asked where I was from. I told them “Etats Unie”, San Francisco. They were very excited to meet us, and spoke English rather well. Both girls wore hijab, but were quite adventurous about making contact with me, not reserved at all! We had a lovely moment, I took some pictures and we had to go. Our police escort was patient but was expecting us to meet up with our van/bus on the other side of the bridge. Also on the bridge was a woman, from the police. She had arrived just as we were starting our walk and was behind us.

We got to the bus and joined our group. I was feeling so happy! I realized that I felt, and the word that came to me was, “empowered” after my successful interactions. I was no longer a passive tourist, going where I was told to go and having no sense of my own agency, to use a popular term.

We stopped next at a huge Monument to the First World War dead up on top of a hill that is visible for a long way. I wasnt’ too interested in the Monument, but the Chief of Police was there too and I finally got up my nerve to talk to her. She is a young-ish woman, maybe in her 40’s with very red lipstick and red flats. Very approachable as it turns out. I asked if in fact she was the Chief and she answered yes. I asked her about the cafe scene and why it is all men. She said, it was tradition and actually ” We have a problem with men”. We both smiled and I said, “tout le Monde!” , she smiled at that.

Our flight to Ghardia, in the central Sahara, was at 2:30, so we had an early lunch at a really excellent Syrian restaurant, and the police escort, 4 of them including the Chief, were with us ( at a separate table). I asked her if she would take a picture with me and she said yes. (It’s on facebook) They accompanied us to the airport and up to the Security screening. We waved good -by and waited for our flight.

Despite seat assignment on our boarding passes, we were told that really the seats are first come first serve. Everyone managed, and the flight was fully loaded.

About 1. 1/2 hours later, flying over increasingly brown land, we arrived at the Ghardia airport, the only aircraft there. Nonetheless, it was a long wait for luggage, and then a long wait for our transportation.

The place we are staying is really a kind of guest house. A traditional structure in the style of the area, stone and stucco with small windows and thick walls, it has charm if not luxury. The floors are covered with weavings of questionable cleanliness, the bathroom has a shower with no enclosure and tiny towels. But it’s so dry here I suspect a body needs less help from the towel, I hope so because I need to wash my hair tomorrow morning! ( no hair dryer either, a natural look for the next few days).

We met with Sidi at 6ish in the dining room. It is cool and well lit with uncovered light bulbs ( as is our bedroom). The floors have layers of multi-colored weavings and there are lots of local artifacts and old photos of the area on the walls. To me, it is charming and authentic and a welcome change from chain hotels. But, it’s not for everyone, not even everyone in our group.

Our dinner here was quite good. Delicious soup, good French bread, chicken with mushrooms flavored with saffron and some other mild seasonings. And fresh oranges and mint tea. The only complaint at the end of dinner was the seating – on low divans, or floor cushions or those camel seat things. As a group of aging and aged travelers, some found the low seating difficult to rise from.

We leave at 8am tomorrow, for the nearest town where there is a market, then lunch at some restaurant there, Sidi is heading out to find one for us tonight. After lunch we will visit 2 small villages in the area which sound quite interesting.

It was a good day. I’m hoping to sleep well, but not confident. Still, I’m back in the Sahara and I’m happy about that!


Published in: on March 13, 2019 at 8:40 pm  Leave a Comment  

More driving, less hiking

So today we started out with a visit to the Palace of the Bey of Constantine, Ahmed Bey. He occupied it for a relatively short time in the mid-19th century, but he created a lovely space. It has two large interior gardens, one named the “Orange Garden” and the other the “Palm Garden”, and a marble lined pool where his wives would bath on hot summer afternoons with coffee drinks all around. If you were rich, it must have been a pretty nice life.

(I have to interject to report on the real news of the morning. I totally lost it over breakfast. We went down to the dining room at 8am, expecting to have a quick breakfast, return to the room briefly and be ready at 8:30. Instead, we found every table had dirty dishes and napkins and crumbs. The selection of food was minimal since it seemed that no one was refilling anything. No one seemed to be working there, although several staff people drifted through occasionally. I had to ask, no, demand, a cleared table, a knife and spoon, and cafe au lait. It made us late and in the lobby I told Sidi and he had me tell the hotel front desk staff. I’m glad I did, but it made me mad to have to do all that extra effort just to get a mediocre bit of breakfast.)

Then we walked through the Kasbah of Constantine,again a steeply sloping area,but unlike Algiers ( or what we saw of the Algiers Kasbah) it was largely and busily commercial. Every kind of business was there, from shoemakers, to bakeries, gold jewelry stores, lots of fabric stores and baskets and electronics. Most streets are pedestrian, but there are some areas where cars can fit through ( with no stairs).

We ended up at the elevator to the pedestrian bridge that crosses the ravine through which flows a narrow but fast flowing river. It’s a very deep ravine,and you can see remains of two Roman bridges way down closer to the water. Lots of people cross it to shop or work.

From the other side of the ravine, we boarded our van again and headed out of town to the south to our goal of the Roman city ruins of Timgad.

Lunch was in Batna in a small hotel that served us a very traditional menu with an unusual soup with some sort of wheat in it, and meatballs. Then a fried meat -filled pastry, then a sort of stew with stuffed vegetables in a broth. The veggies, zucchini and peppers and potatoes, all seemed to have the same stuffing which was the same as the meatballs and the filling in the fried pastry. It was pretty good, if not exciting, and certainly different from the previous two lunches of grilled meat and fries.

Back in the van/bus we drive for another hour, at least, to the first part of the Timgad site, the military camp. One large structure, large stone walls with a lot of arches, has survived relatively intact for nearly 2000 years. All around it is a huge field of bits and pieces of stones that made up barracks and other buildings for the Roman soldiers.

At this point, I had no idea that there was more to “Timgad” than this and really wondered why it was worth driving for hours to get here.

Back in the van/bus I learned that there was still more to come of the place known at Timgad, another 45 min away. By the time we arrived at the site, after visiting a small museum in the town and the larger museum at the site, it was after 4. Yesterday was exhausting but stimulating. The Djemila site was exciting to experience. Today, my energy just wasn’t up to another spread out ruin. I walked up the Roman road for a while, enjoying the sensation of walking where those Romans had walked thousands of years ago, but I’ve enjoyed that same sensation in Libya, Morocco, Sicily, England and Italy. The Romans really did a bang-up job of building cities wherever they conquered territory. So, I kind of went on strike, but not alone. I was joined by another woman and then by an older couple who really can’t walk that much. Three other women had chosen to return to the bus already. So really only about 4 people ended up fully exploring the site, including Bill.

The drive home was highlighted by the changing “escort vehicles” which preceded us all the way to and from Constantine. The first ones, which changed with every administrative alternation, were relatively low-key. Later on ,the police decided that flashing lights was a good idea, so we were led back to Constantine as if in police custody! It was 8pm by the time we returned to the hotel and despite my pledge not to eat dinner there again, we did. Sidi had read them the proverbial “riot act” and they did manage better service and decent food.

We’ll see how breakfast goes, but we are out of here tomorrow morning. And then in the afternoon we fly from Constantine to Ghardia in the middle of the country.

Published in: on March 12, 2019 at 10:15 pm  Leave a Comment  

A long day of driving with a whole lot of hiking around ruins

Our start today was set for 7am, post breakfast. Our bags were loaded into the van(including the rear seat) and we left for the eastern , but not too Far East, we don’t want to get too close to Libya, side of Algeria. It was very chilly and very foggy as we headed towards Djemila, our main activity of the day, aside from driving.

We stopped at around 10:30 for a bathroom and snack break at a lovely new roadside complex, similar to what one finds in parts of Europe and that we saw in Turkey. Gas station, cafe and food shop along with decent toilet facilities. I had some actual English-style tea ( with milk and sugar) and bought some almonds.

Another couple of hours and we arrived at Djemila, high up in the mountains and absolutely beautiful! We first visited the museum where a great many mosaics now reside which previously were on the floors of various buildings in the adjacent Roman site.

Then we started out for the ruins, a large area, again about 150 acres.After a relatively short while, our group of 11 was reduced to a group of 6 plus Sidi. The terrain was really difficult to maneuver if your mobility was even a bit impaired. If I wasn’t with Bill, I would have probably opted to wander a bit by myself, avoiding some of the more difficult areas. Bill very sweetly offers to be my “on-call, mobile and adaptable walking assistant”. There are times when the slope is greater than my sense of balance is comfortable with, or the step down is higher than my left knee is happy with. Bill is right there holding my hand and encouraging me. I did it all, but my knee is mad at me!

The city included some typical but still amazing Roman technologies, such as heated marble walls in a bath house, underground sewers, communal toilets ( with water running beneath each hole) and a fountain that used water pressure from the source of water high in the mountains to provide a spray from the top of a tall pointed stone!

We walked all over, with Sidi trying his best to explain it all to us. There was so much information, sometimes it was overwhelming. But the day was sparkling, blue sky with a few clouds, low to mid 60’s, and gusty winds. The gusts kept everyone alternating our outer layers of clothing, too hot, no the wind picked up and it’s cold!

After at least 90 minutes of clambering over huge stone steps and down onto Roman-laid paving stones, into structures with original intact roofs and out into yet another bath ( those Roman must have been very clean, given the importance they placed on bathing) we returned to our van and we all drove off into the town for a simple lunch.

Back to the highway on on to Constantine, but this time with an “escort”. Apparently the Algerian government insists that tourists from most countries have a police escort to protect them. Clearly, Sidi thinks it is highly unnecessary, but compliance is required ( except that we didn’t have an escort yesterday or this morning). So, with several changes of the guard, we finally arrived in Constantine.

Exhausted as we all were, there was one last stop before arriving at our hotel. We visited the enormous mosque of Emir Abdelkader. It has been under construction, on an off, for 75 years. It is white on the outside,and inside are Moroccan mosaics, Czech stained glass and Egyptian stucco work. It is magnificent. But we had to, of course, wear headscarves, remove our shoes and, most unusually in my experience, don some ugly brown long robes over our clothes and jackets to satisfy some man’s idea of modesty.

Honestly, we were all at least 65 and none of us was about to excite anyone! It was annoying and unnecessary but that’s what so many Muslim women must deal with. It’s always the women’s responsibility to control men’s “urges”, the poor dears can’t possibly manage to control themselves!

Finally reached the hotel, checked in. Had dinner downstairs, which was pretty unsatisfying and poorly managed. Tomorrow’s dinner will be better, I don’t know how, but I am not leaving it up to anyone else!


Djemila is on a slight slope with high mountains in the background – even some snow on the highest peaks ( about 3500 ft).

Published in: on March 11, 2019 at 9:00 pm  Comments (1)  

Day one in Algiers, things go a bit off plan

Our small group is being driven around in a Mercedes Sprinter van, maybe it’s a stretched one, but it has 2 seats on one side and 1 on the other and can carry maybe 15 people, we are about 10, or maybe 11.

First we drove to the upper end of the Kasbah area, and walked slowly, stopping at various houses and palaces, until we reached the bottom, nearly at sea level. The “streets” are pedestrian only, with steps of various kinds everywhere. Much of it is in a state of neglect, especially the walking areas, but then the houses are in pretty bad shape too.

Sidi, our guide, told us that in many of the houses, whole families occupy what were once bedrooms and share bath and kitchen facilities. They all have electricity and most have running water ( apparently not all, we saw a few public water spigots and Sidi said that there are some people who need to get their water from them , still).

Lovely tile, sky-lit central atriums and lots of stairs are the recurring elements in these buildings. I really love to enter them and find it possible to imagine how it would be to live in them ( not sharing with other families, of course. I’d be rich!) But visually it was a real treat. Some of the fancier places sport imported Dutch tiles, with sailing ships and flowers. It must have been a sign of wealth, like women carrying crazy expensive handbags or men fancy watches and cars. Everyone likes to show off, I guess.

As we made our way down, stopping often to appreciate the views, to enter small shops, and to pet cats ( Bill, not me!) it seemed that there were not all that many people out and about. And many shops were closed.

The news in the US may not be covering it, but it appears that many thousands of Algerians took to the streets today in Algiers to protest the plan of the president to run for a 5th term. He is 80+ and quite ill, having spent the last month in Switzerland for Medical a treatment. He had a stroke a few years ago and has not been seen in public since. The young people, apparently supported by a great many others, want a new leader. We saw a small group of mostly young people walking through a downtown square, no weapons, not even sticks or masks. In every direction were police. Many of them in riot gear, in large groups, staying behind buildings, in narrow alleys, trying to be ready for action. It seems that the protestors are determined to stay peaceful and if violence does occur, it may well be the police or other military that we saw as we left the city, who precipitate it.

In a more cheerful vein, I met a small group of 13 yr old girls as we walked through the Kasbah. We said hello, they said hello. I engaged them in conversation about their language studies, why they were not in school ( one girl told me that the PE teacher did not come today, so they had free time ) and a little about the political scene. They seemed to agree that their President was too old and sick to govern, and we all agreed that our “President” Trump is a terrible man. Nice to have something to bond over!

As we waited for our van to arrive, two of the girls appeared out of nowhere with a plastic bag for me, a gift they said. And then we kissed ( once on each cheek for each girl) and they ran giggling off! What was in the bag?- a spray can of “eau de parfum deodorant”! I don’t think it was a subtle hint, they really didn’t get that close! more likely they ran into a shop and just grabbed something pink!). I was so surprised and moved by the gesture!(I’ll leave it for the room cleaner).

Then, we got in our van and Sidi relayed the information that the downtown area where we had planned to spend the afternoon was largely shut down for the protests. The Museums were closed, the restaurant we were going to was closed. He suggested that we exchange our plan for a part of the plan for next week and drive to Tripasa, a site of Roman ruins about 1 1/2 hours west. We agreed, because what else could we do?

We drove for some time, then stopped at a restaurant for lunch . More driving and then we walked all over the Tripasa site. It is really wonderful! It covers about 60 hectares, or about 150 acres of a spectacular site on hills above the Mediterranean.

It is largely untouched, at least since the French left in the early 1960’s. Which makes it simultaneously “natural” and difficult. There are few paths, so there is a lot of climbing up and over and around. It doesn’t seem as though archaeologists have worked at re-setting any of the parts of structures that have fallen down in the past 2200years. Lots of column tops laying around and un-protected mosaics.

Very romantic (except that one has to keep ones head down to look carefully at where one is stepping to avoid tripping) setting. Today the Mediterranean was a superb light indigo, or maybe a bit more green. Sunny, breezy and in the low 60’s.

By the time we returned to the hotel,my plan of going out to a recommended restaurant ( remember Dr. Lemine from yesterday?) were out the window. I had just about enough energy to put on a clean top and hit the down button on the elevator to check out the Italian restaurant on the lowest level. It was fine , but that was good enough tonight.

Tomorrow we have to be ready to board the van at 7am. .

Published in: on March 11, 2019 at 1:28 am  Comments (3)  

In Algiers, different than I’d expected, naturally

After about 20 hours in transit, we arrived in Algiers around 5:30pm Saturday March 9. As promised, Sidi, our guide, met us at the airport and drove us to our hotel. The hotel is worth a paragraph all for itself, later.

We drove from the airport, east of the city I think, into the central part of the city. ( the sun was descending behind gorgeous cloud formations ( purples and grays and some pinks, too) so it seemed like we were going in a westerly direction. As we drove, Sidi make an occasional comment about the area , “this is the new part of the city” or “this was a French-built area”. There is a lot of new housing and I asked whether it was built by the government or by private developers, government was the answer, all government.

I’m excited to actually focus on seeing the city tomorrow, especially the Kasbah area. From our 8th floor hotel room, we look out to the Mediterranean Sea, with oil tankers sitting at various locations. Algeria has a lot of oil and natural gas and other sought-after commodities, according to Sidi. So far, it doesn’t look impoverished.

The hotel is the El Aurassi, a huge structure sitting on a hill meant for conferences perhaps. It has over 400 rooms and lots of floors of shopping and restaurants apparently. We haven’t done any exploring yet. I don’t know when it was built, probably 1980’s, guessing from the general decor (not bad, but not much). The lobby area has huge high ceilings, maybe 20+ feet tall and minimal signage. If Sidi hadn’t directed me to the right side of the lobby I’m not sure I would have ever found the “reception desk”. There is a guard at the hotel’s front door and a metal detector, which I’ve seen at other hotels in countries with political/social unrest, and everyone was friendly.

Our room is large, with a split bath arrangement that makes a lot of sense. A toilet and bidet and a sink in one area and a sink and tub/shower in the other small room. But, the carpet is dirty and poorly vacuumed. The closet has exactly 3 hangers ( it’s those awful kind that fits into the permanent rigs on the hanging bar) The walls have very little hanging on them to relieve the coldness of the space. We do however, have a lovely balcony!

We were on our way to try the fancier “Algerian” place a few levels down when our plan was altered by a man with whom we shared the elevator. Tall and outgoing, he asked about our visit and offered his opinion that the buffet was better than the place we thought we were going to. Since I like to talk to strangers whenever possible, I engaged with him and we went back up in the elevator. Dr.Lamine is Algerian but lives in Paris, and apparently he stays at this hotel when he is in Algiers for work. He led us into the Buffet restaurant, introducing us to the maitre’d and a waiter with the instructions to “take care of my friends”. The dinner was all right. He encouraged us to enjoy the fresh vegetable salads and dismissed my concerns about the relative safety for us of the water used to wash the produce. I chose to stick to cooked veggies anyway. No point in starting off the trip with tummy issues!

We saw him again in the lobby as we were heading back to our room after dinner. This time we got a bit more personal and he told us that his wife, back in Paris, is also a doctor and is Jewish( with Polish heritage). We exchanged information ( gave him my art website which links to my blog). He gave us his phone numbers in Algeria and in France, if we need anything. And a restaurant recommendation for local cuisine, with the name of the head waiter, to assure us excellent service!

By now both Bill and I were on the verge of collapse right there in the lobby, so we begged off and returned to our room. With the sliding door a bit open, the temperature is lovely and the view is amazing.

More tomorrow.


Published in: on March 9, 2019 at 8:48 pm  Leave a Comment  

Heading out once again.

Friday ! SF-Paris-Algiers

Bill and I leave Friday afternoon, heading to Algeria for a tour organized by Caravan Serai  Travel, from Seattle. I have heard good things about this company and look forward to exploring again in North Africa. I have loved my prior trips there, to Libya and Morocco. The landscape, architecture, food and people draw me back to that region.

I have been reading the news out of Algeria recently and I want to assure all of my readers that I have no role in the current political unrest! The long-serving President is ill and yet is planning to run for re-election for yet another term. He is offering to serve only long enough to establish a “national dialogue” resulting in a new election that he promises not to contest. No one has seen him since 2013, so who is actually promising what is certainly a reasonable question.

In any case, I’m sure our trip will be little affected and we will have a great adventure in Algeria!

From Algiers, we fly to Alicante,Spain on the 18th. We will rent a car and spend the next 2 weeks driving in southern Spain and then into Portugal, flying home from Lisbon on April 1.

We will visit with a friend of mine from my Beloit College days, Erica Meltzer, in Spain where she lives part of the year with her husband, Sam. Otherwise, we are expecting to meet people and see new places every day!

I can’t wait! Just have to get packed first. My carry-on bag always looks so small until I start organizing things, then if I do it right, I’m good to go with everything in rotation and mixing well with the others. I do laundry in hotel rooms and always return home amazed at how comfortable I have become with less. But I do love my stuff, so minimalism isn’t my long-term strategy. At least, not yet!


Published in: on March 3, 2019 at 10:29 pm  Comments (5)  

Summarizing some thoughts on my week in Azerbaijan

I last wrote about the long day trip to Quba, and the feeling of being hijacked. More about that in a bit.

Monday the group went to see the Fire Temple and its surrounding Zoroastrian Museum, of a sort. The place is a bit out of central Baku and is quite a large complex. The Zoroastrians who are still a practicing minority in several countries,but probably not in Azerbaijan, are adherents of the earliest kind of monotheism, which exalts a deity known as Ahura Mazda, known for wisdom. The place itself is a large courtyard with small rooms, or cells all around the outside and, in the center, a kind of temple with a fire burning constantly. The Zoroastrians  see fire as the way to spiritual wisdom and fire is always burning at places of worship, as I saw on my trip to Iran in 2008.

I don’t think there are many Zoroastrians in Azerbaijan today, certainly none were in evidence at the Temple or Museum and I forgot to ask. But there was no mention of them in the present tense.

Our lunch was in the restaurant on the compound and it started with a cooking demonstration of making a kind of stuffed pancake, with either herbs or ground lamb. Small balls of dough were ready to be rolled out, filled and folded in half before being cooked on a very hot dome shaped metal grill. The results were delicious! Another filling lunch followed the demonstration and then we were off to meet some more official types.

The bus took us back into central Baku, but this time to a different type of neighborhood. Very steep streets with broken sidewalks and litter led us eventually to our meeting with yet another government official. First we visited a beautiful, large,colorfully decorated mosque which is unique due to its origins as a donation from a woman. She was an “oil Baronness” and gave the money for this mosque from her earnings. The meeting was supposed to be with the woman who is the highest ranking female in the Moslem religious hierarchy, but actually most of the talking was from a man who is her superior. A great deal of yawning went on, and I did some interesting doodling on the allocated pad of paper at each seat around yet another huge conference table.

We walked down hill again and eventually back to our hotel. The streets in this area were not the perfect, European-looking white stone structures we had seen so much of. Here the buildings were old, gray, chipped and graffitied. They had the overhanging wooden balconies on the upper floor, some with laundry visible hanging where there are the most breezes. More young women wearing hijab, too. This was what I imagined Baku would look like, finally!

That evening our dinner was at a lovely restaurant on the top floor of a commercial building in the pedestrian shopping area not far from our hotel. The food was good, as usual. Afterwards I left a bit early with a few other women, before the tea was served!! Bill was staying behind, not feeling well and I wanted to see how he was doing. He is a stoic guy and seldom admits to physical infirmity, but he had been experiencing abdominal discomfort. He seemed better and I was relieved.

Tuesday morning we met our new friend Arzu for breakfast and we went to a place very near our hotel, along the wall of the Old City. It specializes in tandir cooking, very much like a tandoor in the north of India. At breakfast, we had freshly cooked bread straight from the tandir, along with cheeses, an herb and egg frittata like dish, eggs with tomatoes  and eggs with honey, both egg dishes were unusual and excellent.I had never liked eggs with tomatoes before ( like in Greek omelette) but this was different and delicious.

The conversation was even better and I believe that we will remain friends. She is a lawyer in Baku but went to graduate law school in the US . With 3 children and a very demanding job, she is a busy but warm woman who is very aware of the politics in the US and the impact of it on the rest of the world. I look forward to maintaining a correspondence with her.

The highlights of the rest of the day were a lunch in a place which, in the warmer months, must be magical! A high wall surrounds a large garden with small cabins and covered pavilions where families come in the summer for delicious lunches cooked over open fires. We enjoyed our lunch indoors, but the concept of the place was inviting. Then on to the Zaha Hadid designed Heydar Aliyev Expositon Center. It is an extraordinary work of design, swooping up and down with curves supposedly inspired by Marilyn Monroe’s famous photo of her dress billowing up over a subway grate. Inside, it feels very disorienting with uneven stairs and hard to find elevators to many levels. The first level is dedicated to the life of the “great leader of Azerbaijan independence” Haydar Aliyev himself. Other exhibits, especially one of musical instruments were more engaging.

One last stop of the day at the enormous new Heydar Aliyev mosque ( seeing some patterns here?). It is impressively large and I mean BIG! The portico at the main entrance must be 60-80 ft tall and that is half the height of the dome. Inside it is all white, with patterns in the plasterwork. Impressive, yes. Emblematic of a need to indicate power and control, maybe.

That night was one of the highlights of the trip for me. It was the first of the big public celebrations of the start of Nowruz, the ancient Persian Zoroastrian New Year- Spring holiday. Right outside the gate of the Old City, nearest our hotel, workers had erected a large platform. I just arrived in time to see some camels ridden by people in costumes pass through the gate into the Old City and continue up the steep street past the restaurant where we had breakfast that morning. Just outside the gate several horse drawn wagons passed by in the opposite direction. By then a huge bonfire was sending sparks and cinders and smoke out over the large crowd gathered around the platform. Fire is central to the Zoroastrian belief system and is an important part of the Nowruz ritual. Music was played loudly and various groups performed traditional dances, sang traditional songs ( I’m assuming the traditional part here, having no one to consult). I observed  many young adults in the crowd spontaneously breaking into traditional ( again I’m assuming) dance – men with men- in small groups in the crowd. And families with young children, some women in hijab, most without. Maybe I’m an optimist, but what I saw gave me hope the the younger generation in this country will hold onto some of the traditions of their ancestors. All too often “western culture” arrives and dominates and pushes out more traditional values and rituals. I hope it will be different here. It felt like a 4th of July party, but in March and without the patriotism. Nowruz seems like everyone’s favorite time of the year and everywhere I went I saw decorations – hanging over the pedestrian areas, in store windows and on street corners. All hotels are booked for the next week with tens of thousands of Iranians, and I’m sure many others, coming to really “get happy” in Baku for Nowruz!

So, what was this trip all about? The idea as I understood it,was to observe how the Jewish and Muslim communities co-exist in Azerbaijan and to learn from this. What I learned was that yes, in this small country bordered by three powerful countries, Iran to the south, Russia to the north and Turkey to the west, religion seems to not be the greatest concern to the people or to the government. Consistently I heard, from official sources and from individuals, that no one cared what religion anyone else followed. For the first time in a Muslim majority country, I did not hear the call to prayer . ( maybe once, to be honest, but that was not in Baku but in Shecki). Relatively few women wear hijab. Education from K-12 is compulsory and free, if not exactly up to the contemporary standards of individualized educational planning. Getting along with their neighbors is very important, since they could not defend themselves from any of them militarily. Learning to accommodate is perhaps the “secret sauce” of Azerbaijan.

Still, despite the assurances of the nice guy at the Diplomatic University, I had a feeling that free speech was not easy in this country dominated by one family. The current president is the son of the first president and he recently named his wife a first vice-president. The guides we had all refer to her frequently in adoring language, referring to her talents in everything from politics to cooking. No one openly comments on the government’s policies on anything. Even the woman representing the Jewish women in Quba spoke what sounded like a government pleasing complaint about Armenians rather than anything about her own community’s concerns.

Our detours to take in monuments to Armenian atrocities and the repetition of the complaints about the 1991-92 “massacre” by them in Karabach felt like an imposed narrative. It did happen and it was a terrible event, but there must be other things to talk about. Oil prices? Iran and Russia and Turkey as neighbors, how does that feel?

So why did we get this slant on our trip? Was it simply the way that the country deals with tourist groups from western countries? We had as one of the tour organizers a woman from Azerbaijan who has lived in Houston for many years. She is a passionate promoter of all things Azerbaijan. Her contacts made the trip possible- she seems to know everyone. I learned that she has developed a “sister city” relationship between Houston and Baku and helps to bring people of different sorts to Houston to meet locals there in similar businesses. One of the young women who came to the Shabbat dinner was a lawyer who had spent some time in Houston thanks to our friend. She in turn invited several other women, including the woman we had breakfast with on Tuesday.

At times, as I understood more of her role, I began to feel that our group was, in a way, pawns in her larger plan -To increase her importance in Houston somehow and in the Azerbanjani community of wealthy oil business related people, or something like that. Her insistence that we meet with lots of government institutions puzzeled me. What really did they offer us, other than modest gifts of books, tea, a tee shirt and a scarf?  Platitudes was what we heard from them, one after another.  How did that further the goals of the Sisterhood of Salaam Shalom? I don’t believe that anyone from our group actually learned anything about religious acceptance and inter-faith  cooperation that was new. Since that is not a problem in Azerbaijan, they did not offer us examples of how they dealt with it.

But a group of Americans whose presence could be interpreted in any way that was useful to the government, that is more interesting. We were photographed, filmed and written about by a variety of guys during the trip. No one explained who the guy was who appeared on the bus for our trip to Quba. “A journalist” he told me, free lance. He was nice enough and I chatted a bit with him at our late lunch that day, but really how important was our visit to Azerbaijan to the government? We represent only ourselves, not in any officially sanctioned manner. But given that the media is controlled by the government, what spin they put on our visit is anyone’s guess. Lending legitimacy to a government known for exceptional corruption ( ranking 123 out of 176 countries in 2016 according to Transparency International) may have been our lasting legacy in Azerbaijan. I don’t know that this is true, I’m speculating. Any other interpretations of our trip are very welcome and I may be corrected by anyone who has another viewpoint. This is only my opinion based only on my experience in Azerbaijan and in other countries with less than free press ( Iran, Cuba, Libya, way back in 2005 under Ghadaffi). I just don’t like being used, and that is how I ended up feeling.

Given all that I have said, I thoroughly enjoyed the experience and am grateful to the organizers of the trip from the Sisterhood of Salaam Shalom and all the others who worked so hard to make everything go smoothly, most of the time. But a perfect trip would be boring and who wants that? Go to Azerbbaijan and see for yourself!


Published in: on March 19, 2017 at 8:20 pm  Leave a Comment