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!
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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.

Karen

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!

K

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!

K

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 sfslater.com 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.

Karen

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!

Karen

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

A bit of Baku center city,a quest

Saturday morning, Shabbat for the observant , means going to the synagogue. So, some of the group did that and some of us broke into small groups and headed out to explore the central areas of Baku. I was in search of old or “antiq” jewelry as souvenirs. In Iran and in Turkey I had found places that had odds and ends of old, usually silver-ish traditional style necklaces and earrings. This sort of thing is perfect to bring home- low intrinsic value, small and light. Baku being a very old city gave me hope that there might be a source of interesting stuff. I was ready for the hunt.

Three of us headed out to explore the Old City area, where our hotel is located. It is a hilly part of Baku, but not far from the Caspian Sea. I had asked everyone I encountered about where to look and one after another I got a vague wave of the hand and the comments “in the Old City”, somewhere. There are quite a few small shops selling souvenir craft stuff, ceramics from Turkey, small machine made carpets and shiny fake-looking jewelry items. One guy had some old stuff, but it wasn’t really anything I’d use and his price was way too high ( $150 for one that needed repair). I kept dragging my small band from shop to shop. They were patient and understanding – a quest is important when traveling, it gives you a focus for asking questions and interacting with people.  

As we walked along music started, and we walked a bit faster towards the sound. People were standing on a section of wall dancing with their arms in the air and wide smiles on their faces! Down the slope a bit there were more people dancing to the music, in a long line. It started, and then it ended and everyone left. I have no idea what it meant, but it seemed joyous and that is always good.                

I did manage to find a guy who sold me some silver bangles with interesting inscribed patterns. He said that they were “old” but the lack of signs of wear left me unconvinced. Still, my quest was somewhat resolved,not totally satisfactorily. Oddly enough, it was time for lunch and one of my small band had researched food options in Baku before leaving for the trip and suggested a place not in the Old City but not far away. We encountered another small group and decided to head out to lunch together. The kebab place turned out to have excellent food and we enjoyed ourselves. On the way back to the hotel there was a distraction- a shop selling knock-offs of famous designer clothes and accessories. Some of us were more drawn to this display than others, but somehow we all managed to be entertained by the bright colors.

Back at the hotel, the schedule said that at 3 the group was walking to the Carpet Museum and Modern Art Museum, but when we arrived back at 2, much of the group was assembled in the Atrium listening to a woman who apparently was from the office of the President talking about  religious freedom in Azerbaijan. I ducked out and headed to my room to reconnect with Bill who had been out walking along the Caspian for a few hours. We decided to take the rest of the afternoon off and hang out in the sunlit atrium of the hotel and catch up on writing and reading. After a bit, I felt like some tea and walked over to the small cafe off of the hotel lobby. I asked for two cups of tea and maybe a piece of their version of baklava. The waiter brought it to us ,including a plate of 4 pieces of the nutty delicious cake(that’s how it comes, apparently).  We didn’t mean to, but he brought it and we ate it!

Dinner was at a converted caravansary down the street and then we were going to experience celebrating Purim at the “European” synagogue, a bus ride away. A caravansary was a particular kind of building which was designed to function as  a stable for camels, a hotel for the traveling traders and a kind of hall for trading goods from their caravans.I first saw a caravansary in the south desert area of Iran, out in the middle of what seemed to be nowhere. The color of the stone from which it was made was just the same as the desert all around, so it blended in to the surroundings very well.

This caravansary is different , in a city rather than the desert is a very big difference. On a high part of the Old City, and about a quarter mile from the Caspian Sea, I could imagine a string of camels trudging up the cobblestones and under the archway into the courtyard of the caravansary. Our dining room was down in a stone basement with an arched ceiling. A long table was set for our large party of 30+. The evening took a detour due to the celebration of the birthday of one of the founders of the Sisterhood of Salaam Shalom which included a delicious cake and surprise musicians. They had local instruments and also sang. Everyone got involved in dancing to Hava Nagila deep under Baku! With a lot of good energy surging through our group, we descended the hill and boarded our bus for the Purim celebration.

The synagogue is Orthodox, with a central bima, or raised platform for reading from the Torah, and a balcony for the women. Not my cup of tea, but for Purim, women were allowed downstairs, with screens were erected lest men see women dancing and enjoying themselves. We arrived while the Megillah, the story of how Esther saved the Jews of old Persia and defeated the evil advisor to the King,by the name of Haman was still being read. The tradition is that each time the name Haman is read, the assembled crowd boos and bangs on things and tried to drown out his name. And there can be drinking involved.And then, there is loud music and dancing. I hadn’t been to a Purim celebration since my sons were young and it was fun, for a while.

Bill and I retired to the waiting bus and met up with a few others who had decided that enough was enough for that evening. Another day in Baku. Tomorrow we go to meet the “Mountain Jews” in Quba.

Karen
  

Published in: on March 13, 2017 at 4:25 am  Leave a Comment