The Garden Kingdom of Dessau-Wörlitz

It’s a warm afternoon in June. I’m walking along a narrow path in a park in the town of Dessau. In the state of Saxony-Anhalt, once part of the now defunct country DDR, the German Democratic Republic, better known as East Germany.

This is not just any park, though. This is Georgium, an 18th century English landscaped garden, with a palace, various neoclassical buildings, an educational zoo, statues. Here and there I stumble across a little folly, a pavilion or an 18th century version of a Roman temple. Wouldn’t expect anything less in a garden commissioned by a prince, specifically Prince Leopold III Friedrich Franz of Anhalt-Dessau.

On this fine Monday, I have the path all to myself for quite some time, until I come to a glen where three kids are playing football, and a dog is running around. That’s it: 1 dog, 3 kids, 1 football, and yours truly.

I carry on for quite some time yet again. Kids and dog are no longer in sight, or even within earshot. It’s just me, myself and I. For a very long while. Were they perhaps merely a figment of my imagination? Have I in fact somehow entered the twilight zone?

Ah no! Here’s another human! Phew!

This human is guarding two stone lions and an edifice with a golden dome, the Mausoleum of Herzog von Anhalt, it turns out. The dukes of Anhalt. The guard jokes she probably won’t have a grave like that. And it is quite impressive for a grave: 46 m long, 38 m wide and 43 m high, with the dome diameter a mighty 14 m. I suspect I won’t have a grave quite like this either. Anne-Sophie wouldn’t be enough. I would probably need at least two more names for that. And a number.

But not all fun and games for the dukes either, at least not in death. Remember I said this used to be within the borders of DDR? Well, aristocracy wasn’t exactly revered in communist East Germany. One night in 1958, in a so-called Nacht-und-Nebel-Aktion, their coffins were removed and the bones dumped in a mass grave.

Next, I pass the princely palace – or small classicist country house, as the website calls it, home to an art gallery, the Anhaltische Gemäldegalerie. I don’t go inside, as this Greek god leaning casually on a plinth is enough art for me for one day.

UNESCO garden Germany
Hm… maybe not so casually leaning. Bit of a poser, actually. 

The Garden Kingdom of Dessau-Wörlitz is a series of gardens, spread out over about 25km. In addition to the Georgium, you’ll find the Muskigau and the Luisium here in Dessau. Wörlitz Park, Kühnauer Park, and Oranienbaum are a bit out of town, and there are several little ornaments along the way as well.

According to the inscription:

The Garden Kingdom of Dessau-Wörlitz is an exceptional example of landscape design and planning of the Age of the Enlightenment, the 18th century. Its diverse components – outstanding buildings, landscaped parks and gardens in the English style, and subtly modified expanses of agricultural land – serve aesthetic, educational, and economic purposes in an exemplary manner.

Dessau is also home of the Bauhaus Meisterhäuser! That’s two world heritage sites, not bad for a town of 80 000 residents. And two very different ones at that; neoclassical gardens and modern architecture.

Unless you have a particular interest in gardens and parks, you may be content with seeing just one or two of the six. If so, you can see both of Dessau’s world heritage sites in one day; it’s a nice daytrip from Berlin. As usual, I’m a poor planner. (I will learn one of these days. I will.) And even though I must have passed right by on the way to the Meisterhäuser – and despite this very visible sign near the railway station – I completely missed the delightful Georgium on my first visit in Dessau. Which meant another daytrip the following year. How’s that for dedication…
 

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Garden Kingdom of Dessau-Wörlitz is a UNESCO World Heritage site. Here are more UNESCO World Heritage sites around the world.

11 things you’ll love about Geneva – in 60 snaps

If a picture paints a thousand words, prepare for 60,000 words. That’s in addition to the actual words, ca 2,500. In fact, this could easily be loads of separate posts, but I’m in the mood to do one massive one. So here we go, all in one place.

What do you think of when you hear Geneva? Money, perhaps? ✓ It is one of the world’s most important financial centres. Diplomacy? ✓ Peace? ✓ This is where the powers that be have come through the years, to negotiate peace in Lebanon, Balkans, Afghanistan, Syria… A city of expats? ✓ Nearly half are expats, who enjoy a high quality of life, very many with yearly salaries at USD 200,000.

But what about Geneva as a tourist destination? Thinking of Geneva for your next weekend break, and wondering what to do, what to see, where and what to eat? Look no further.

1. Free public transport

That’s right, free!

We’ll begin at the arrivals hall at Geneva Cointrin Airport. Not the most exciting airport in the world, but little Cointrin has a very friendly way of wishing you welcome: free transport into town. Go to this machine in arrivals:

Not a bad start, is it…?

As if that isn’t enough, when you stay at a hotel, hostel, or campsite, you’re entitled to a free transport card for the duration of your stay. Très sympa!

2. Ladurée

Perhaps you’re hungry? Just arrived in town, ready for a spot of lunch or maybe afternoon tea – and don’t want to walk far for it?

It’s not particularly Swiss, in fact it is from the country just a few miles away, but Ladurée in Geneva manages to be both chic and cosy, and the food is delicious and just the right size portions.

From the railway station, cross the street and walk down pedestrian Rue du Mont-Blanc, and you’ll find it at the corner of Hotel des Bergues, across the street from Lake Geneva. The food is creative, beautiful and delicious. Here’s a melt-in-your-mouth burrata with basil and radishes, and a strawberry millefeuille.

(Rest assured, more foodie pics will be forthcoming.)

3. Free public spaces

One of Europe’s greenest cities, little Geneva has more than 20 parks for you to lounge about in and do, well, essentially nothing. Love that! Many of those are along the promenades of Lake Geneva, or Lac Léman in the local lingo (i.e. French).

Lake Geneva plays the lead role here, with the famous Jet d’Eau (at 140 metres, it’s the tallest fountain in the world), boats on the lake, life along the banks… And there’s the flower clock in the English Garden; a homage to clock making – we’re in Switzerland, after all. 6,500 flowers in the dial!

Me, I’m especially intrigued by a statue of Sissy, Empress of Austria, whose dramatic life ended just here one September day in 1898, the random victim of an Italian anarchist who was out to get any royal. He stabbed her to death with a homemade, sharpened needle file.

 Sissy

Geneva things to do

Famed romantic poets, Lord Byron and Percy B. Shelley, hired neighbouring cottages along the shores of Lake Geneva in 1816. And Shelley was inspired to write Hymn to Intellectual Beauty

…Love, Hope, and Self-esteem, like clouds depart, And come, for some uncertain moments lent. Man were immortal, and omnipotent,…

(Notice how he writes love, hope and self-esteem, not love, hope and faith?)

Even better-known words were inspired here. You see, Byron, Shelley and Shelley’s wife, Mary, competed amongst themselves: who could write the best ghost story? And you probably know who won. Mary’s famous story about young Dr. Frankenstein who created a fantastical monster was inspired in – and set in – Geneva.

Less, shall we say, charming pieces, were also inspired here at Lake Geneva. One Vladimir Ilyich Ulyanov, better known as Lenin, spent time here in exile and wrote One step forward, two steps back, where he bitches about political rivals.

And these are just a few of the notables who have lived and loved along the shores here.

Lake Geneva and the Jet d’Eau, seen from the tower of Cathédrale Saint-Pierre in the old town

4. Geneva Girls’ Guide

Women: it pays to get a Geneva Girls’ Guide, for eating out, shopping, beauty, wellness and trip tips – and not least, freebies all about town: gifts, discounts, and more. We had free champers at this cool spot on, or I should say, in – the River Rhône, Halles de l’Île. You can pick up a Girls’ Guide at the Tourist Info Centre (also on Rue du Mont-Blanc) for CHF 16. But only if you’re a girl.

5. Geneva’s charming old town

Geneva’s old town is from Roman times and is anything but flat, the inclines offering surprises around every corner: little boutiques, bistros, medieval fountains, and just all-in-all cosiness. Lots of ancient sights as well, including the 15th century City Hall, as well as an old arsenal, where you can see Julius Caesar arriving in town in 58 BC. Well, a mosaic of it anyway. Also, do climb the stairs to the 4th century Cathédrale Saint-Pierre, especially for the views!

6. Carouge

Bohemian Carouge is my favourite Geneva quarter, or really another town, across the river. It’s often referred to as Geneva’s Greenwich Village; I think it’s even nicer. Heaps of quirky boutiques, cafes, artisans’ studios, and, not least: colour. And street art.

Blue Balloon Coffee Dealer is rumoured to have the best coffee in town, roasted just right, ground just right, served just right. I can’t vouch for that, as I didn’t try it. Also, I’m not really a connoisseur. Loving the name, though: hats off to Blue Ballon for making selling coffee interestingly suspect…

7. Street art

To lessen the problem of unwanted (read: ugly) tagging/graffiti on utility boxes and the like, the city has commissioned artists to make them more beautiful. There are those who think public authorities shouldn’t sanction street art. I think it is a constructive measure for combatting a problem.

Street art is all over the place, but particularly in Les Grottes district, just behind the railway station, where we found this Pink Panther bus and this Reggae mon.

 

8. Social housing

Les Grottes, by the way, is a neighbourhood I wouldn’t mind living for a bit. Very central, and interesting things on offer: vintage shops, theatres, cinemas, dance classes (even a pole dance studio), lively night life. Just my style. And if I were to live there, it would be in this creative complex known as the Schtrumpfs buildings, the Smurf houses. Reminiscent of Hundertwasser’s exciting housing complex in Vienna (not to mention his whimsical public toilet in New Zealand), and also of Gaudi, here’s 170 apartments with city-subsidised rent. Not sure how I’d go about finding an available one, but I’ll let you know if/when I do.

9. The world’s longest bench?

Well, perhaps not. This bench, stretching along La Treille Promenade in the Old City, is 120 metres long. And it’s not a new invention either, as it was built in 1767. Rumour has it, there are longer benches in Marseille, Barcelona, Moscow… But I’ll wager this is the longest bench with the best view – of the Salève and Jura Mountains. Plus, you can play rodeo nearby.

10. Non – oui?

The OUI/NON-sculpture in the city’s shopping district is created by Markus Raetz. The artist probably had a nobler purpose in mind, but local guide Ursula has a more interesting explanation: in this cosmopolitan city, many an international delegate bring their husband/wife/boyfriend/girlfriend along – and they might want to do a spot of shopping while their S.O. is busy in long meetings. Here’s how that little chat might go:

– h/w/b/g: Lend me your credit card, honey?
– S.O.: Non!
– h/w/b/g: If you’ll lend me your credit card, … (whisper)
– S.O.: Oui!

11. The UN

You may have visited the UN building in New York; here’s UN in Geneva. Can’t tell you how many hours I’ve spent in meetings here at Palais des Nations in my former civil servant life. It’s enormous, with miles and miles of hallways, above and below ground. And let’s not forget the little coffee shops all about the place, where most conclusions are actually reached, compromises made, then rubber stamped in the meeting halls. These days, with sinister people in charge all over the place, the UN is more important than ever.

Guided tours are available, don’t forget to bring your passport. And don’t miss the Council Chamber where you see José Maria Sert’s stunning golden murals, showing humanity’s progress and our struggle for peace. 

12. The broken chair

Across the street from the Palais des Nations, is this evocative sculpture, reminding us of the horrors of land mines. More about the 3-legged chair in this post.

13. Gandhi

From Place des Nations, we head up the street for our next stop – but first, a quick look at this sculpture of Gandhi in Ariana Park on the way. It’s lovely. That’s all.

Being the change

14. The Red Cross/Red Crescent Museum

If you see only one thing in Geneva, this should be it. I remember visiting it during a long lunch break at the UN (interpreters had 1.5 hours break for lunch, very well deserved), and thought it one of the most thought-provoking museums I had ever seen.

Just now, and until 25 November 2018, there’s a temporary exhibition on, showcasing first class photo journalism with refugees in focus; more than 300 photos taken by photographers from the Magnum cooperative: Henri Cartier-Bresson, Robert Capa, Maria Eisner; the world’s top photo journalists.

The permanent exhibitions include three areas, representing three current challenges: defending human dignity, restoring family links and reducing natural risks.

One of the great things about this museum is the interactivity, the hands-on experience. There’s power in touch. Twelve contemporary witnesses bring it to life. I sit down and listen to a prisoner from Guantanamo Bay. It’s as if he is talking to me personally. So much so, I get angry hearing what he has been through.

15. Food, glorious food

Finally, you say. Food! Geneva has everything in that department. There’s fondue, of course. And raclette. Can’t get much more Swiss than that. And if you’re here in April, with fresh asparagus in season.. Mmmmmm…

In our neighbourhood this time, we spotted this gem, L’envers du décor.

with a delicious selection of… well, everything.

However, as we’re in Geneva, I can’t miss an opportunity to visit Café de Paris, one of my favourite eateries anywhere – despite offering only one thing on the menu – and despite that one thing being meat and me practically a vegetarian. I just adore the atmosphere, the attitude, the eavesdropping on such interesting conversations… So much do I enjoy Café de Paris, this is the only place in the world you’ll ever see me eat blood-dripping steak. (I mean, if you’re gonna eat steak, you don’t want it cremated, do you? Ruins the experience.) More about Cafe de Paris and the minuscule menu in this post.

La Halle de Rive is one of several food halls in Geneva. You’ll find everything you need for a picnic:

And Swiss luxury supermarket chain Globus has a selection of delicacies out of this world. Go in and devour all the gorgeous goodies with your eyes.

16. Modernist architecture

You’re not surprised I’m including a world heritage site, are you? On the list of 17 Le Corbusier sites in seven different countries, Geneva has two of the genius architect’s modernist structures. In the centre, not far from the old town is Immeuble Clarté, an apartment building. According to UNESCO, the 17 structures are a testimonial to the invention of a new architectural language that made a break with the past. I’ll be on the lookout for more of Le Corbusier’s work.

Next time?

A. Mount Saléve

Even after all my visits in this city, I’ve not exhausted the sees and dos. On my list for next time is Saléve, the mountain you can see in the background in the long bench photo above. A mere 5 kilometres from the city centre, it’s reachable by bus, then a few minutes by cable car. The views must surely be stunning.

B. The Large Hadron Collider

I’ve been at CERN before, about 12 years ago. I made a point of visiting, in the hope that I would get to see the mythical Large Hadron Collider, the world’s largest particle accelerator, stretching for 27 km underneath Switzerland and France. But the LHC was off limits to the general public, even then. Unless you’re a physics student or perhaps Dan Brown, it is simply very difficult to see this tube where the unsolved mysteries of physics are tested on a daily basis.

But I’m not giving up. In fact, if I find a way in, I’ll make the trip to Geneva specially. I’ll switch around whatever I’m doing and just go. And I will of course let you know.

C. Out of town

Another draw with Geneva is its proximity to other delightful spots, both inside and outside Switzerland. Going eastwards along Lake Geneva, Lausanne is but a half hour away, and magnificent Montreux a further half hour (don’t miss that fabulous sculpture of Freddie!). In between is Swiss wine country, as well as the marvellous medieval Château de Chillon, where the young Lord Byron used to hang out in between visits to Italy.

30-40 minutes south is appealing Annecy, with its winding canals and colourful houses. One hour south-east is Chamonix. Venue of the first ever Winter Olympics in 1924, this is still a winter sports destination, but nice also in summer. You might want to take the cable car up to Aiguille du Midi. At 3,842 metres above sea level, if you’re not a rock climber (or live in La Paz), this might be the highest you’ve ever been. Remember to pace yourself on the top – no running, or you’ll be sorry.

If you venture even further, you can go to Neuchatel (1.5 hours from Geneva) and to the Jura mountains. Distances are short in Switzerland. Interlaken, and the Jungfrau Massif, Wengen and other famous spots are within easy reach.

This time, I spent a sunny April Saturday in lovely Lucerne. A bit long for a day trip perhaps, but I thought it was worth getting up early for the 3-hour train journey, to wander around this sweet little town. Post will follow.

17. Place du Molard

Let’s finish up by bringing it back to Geneva, and little Place du Molard, just because, well… I like it. The atmosphere is especially lovely at night, when the little square is lit up with luminescent tiles in the pavement, wishing you a good day, good night, see you soon, etc, in the 6 official languages of the UN: Arabic, Chinese, English, French, Russian, and Spanish.

So, again I obviously don’t know when to stop. 17 things you’ll love about Geneva, then. And a few more. Enjoy!

 

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The Architectural Work of Le Corbusier, an Outstanding Contribution to the Modern Movement is a cross-national UNESCO World Heritage site. The Immeuble Clarté here in Geneva is one of 17 sites spread out in seven different countries. Here are more UNESCO World Heritage sites from around the world.

 

Disclosure: I’ve been in Geneva numerous times in the past, almost always for work and with too little time to look around. This time, I was here as a guest of My Switzerland. As usual, this has no bearing on what I write – or even if I write anything at all. That’s the way it has to be. Otherwise, this makes no sense.

Plantin-Moretus publishing house: a 16th century amazon.com.

Plantin-Moretus Museum Antwerp Belgium

In Belgium’s second city, you’ll find the Plantin-Moretus Museum, a fascinating 16th century printing shop, publishing house and residence. Antwerp, then a city of 100 000 residents, was one of Europe’s leading cities for printing and typography, with 140 bookshops, printers and publishers. Among these, Christophe Plantin was the most famous – a 16th century Amazon.com, you might say. Though Christophe was much more than that!

Add to that his impressive workshop and home, and you have world heritage.

Once inside, I leave the 21st century behind and am now in 1575. I see a very productive publishing house (and it’s going to remain so until 1867). In addition to printing presses (the two oldest surviving in the world!), I see dies, metrices, and various other typographical equipment.

Type cases with lead letters. Each has an entire alphabet in a given size and font. Christophe had 90 fonts! Did he have Comic Sans, I wonder…

Books are naturally the heart and soul of this place. Hundreds of them, wonderfully old and dusty, including the Biblia Regia, a polyglot Bible in five languages!

Through Labour and Perseverance

Here in 1575, I walk through the home of Christophe Plantin, where he lived with his wife and daughters.

The bed is tiny by modern standards. For sleeping in a sitting position, rather than lying down? It is better for the lungs. It is also narrow and enclosed. Not sure whether I’d feel safe and snug – or claustrophobic.


As I walk across the creaky old wooden floors, I hear others creaking on the floor above. Bit ominous that; sounds like the ceiling might crack anytime.
Here are more than 30 rooms, many with gilded leather walls. And family portraits by Peter Paul Rubens! Not too shabby, considering Christophe built the business from scratch. A self-taught 16th century entrepreneur. A man who feels very strongly that books and education are important to society. And a man who speaks and writes several languages and has friends all around Europe. Network marketing has nothing on this guy.

He is very religious and also interested in science (see, it is possible). A pie chart shows 35% of the books he publishes are about religion, 35% about humanism and 10% about science. Sounds a balanced soul to me.

Notice the gilded leather walls?

This is a family business in every sense, with Christophe as the undisputed head. The five daughters who make it to adulthood (a sixth daughter and a son sadly didn’t) get a proper education, learning how to read and write (not a given for women in the 16th century, remember), so they can help out. In a letter, Plantin writes that he teaches his daughters fear of God, King and Magistrates first. Second is helping Mum with the housework. Third is this:

…how to read and write properly, so that between the ages of four or five and twelve, they were able to assist with proofreading in any language or any alphabet

As if that isn’t enough, any idle time should be spent not being idle. The family also runs a lace and linen shop. (Didn’t think diversifying your income streams was a 21st century phenomenon, did ya?):

I organised sewing lessons for them so that they were capable of making shirts as well as collars and handkerchiefs or other merchandise for the linen trade. During all that time I observed them carefully, so that I could decide for which future job they would be eligible.

After this, Plantin’s motto comes as no surprise:

Through Labour and Perseverance.

About Sophie

Me? I’m exhausted just reading about the lives of these girls: Reading and writing properly – check. Proofreading in any language or any alphabet – check, even at the age of 4 or 5. Pretty cool, actually! But fear of God/King/Magistrate, housework, sewing lessons – nope, nope, nope! Marguerite, Martine, Madeleine, Henriette, Catharine… perhaps just as well Sophie isn’t amongst them. I appreciate idleness too much.

Carrying on … ooh, here’s a cabinet with secret drawers! (Yes, I’m easily distracted.)

Carrying on, I enter the drawing room and my eyes are drawn to an instrument: a combination of a harpsichord and a spinet. Only four of these unusual contraptions exist in the world, I learn.

Did I ever tell you I used to play the harpsichord? Millions of years ago. When I was 17. Bach’s f-minor concerto was my favourite. I kinda want to go and play… just a little. I really shouldn’t, though… But no one is here… If I play ever so softly… just for a few seconds… after all, we are allowed to play with the printing press here…

Prints, globes, maps, and good days for bloodletting

Leaving my inner dialogue, I continue to the shop. Printing books, publishing books… the next logical step is selling books, no? Back in 1575, I’m pretend-buying a book. Unbound!

Did you know books were sold without covers? You bought the pages, then took them to a bookbinder.

 

I can also buy prints. And maps and globes! And almanacs. Here’s info on an almanac written by none other than Nostradamus. The signs in the almanac are explained: good days for sowing, good days for planting, the day for the annual market, and so on. Curiouser then, are the signs letting you know which is a good day for bloodletting. And not only the good days, but also the better days and the best days. For bloodletting. I’m kinda loving my wacky 1575 existence.

Index Librorum Prohibitorum

Back in the 21st century, I walk past another…, let’s call it ‘highlight’: The Index of Prohibited Books. Courtesy of the Catholic Church. From 1559 until 1966.

1966!!!

There’s authors with all books forbidden, authors with some books forbidden, and forbidden books by unknown authors.

The Index Librorum Prohibitorum includes all kinds of delightful titles, some well-known, some less so. It makes me want to take a year off and read through this list. Here’s a small selection:

  • John Milton: Paradise Lost
  • John Locke: An essay concerning human understanding (the Reasonableness of Christianity, as Delivered in the Scriptures)
  • Daniel Defoe: The Political History of the Devil
  • Giacomo Casanova: Memoires
  • Alexandre Dumas: La question du divorce
  • Simone de Beauvoir: The Second Sex

Curiously, Marquis de Sade’s Juliette used to be on the list, but was later removed… Ah, what’s the occasional orgy and bestial murder amongst friends anyway…

After plugging in ‘Holy See’ in this database, I get a list of 4327 banned books.

While you’re at it, play with a few other countries as well. This is interesting stuff. 78 entries for the US. Karl Marx’ Das Kapital was banned during the 1950s. No surprise there. But Hemingway? Huxley? Mark Twain? The Canterbury Tales? Every book by Oscar Wilde?

36 books were banned in the UK, including Shelley and Shakespeare! Thomas Jefferson is to be expected, I suppose. That rabble-rouser. In Norway – not counting the more than 9000 books and articles banned during the years of Nazi occupation – a few books have been banned, as well.

More interesting stuff on challenged books can be found on the website of the American Library Association.

The interactive Plantin-Moretus Museum

In the Plantin-Moretus you’re allowed to touch stuff. I like that in a museum. Work the press. Make a bookmark. Try a spot of mirror writing. Take a selfie while doing it. (I don’t, cause, you know, I’m so modest…).

PS – the harpsichord: was playing allowed? Never found out. Did I do it anyway? That’s best kept a secret.

PPS – wondering about the Moretus bit? That’s after Jan Moretus, Christophe Plantin’s son-in-law, who took over the business after our friend died in 1589. Didn’t I mention his daughters’ husbands worked in the print/publishing shop? Well, you’re not surprised, are you?

 

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Plantin-Moretus House-Workshops-Museum Complex is a UNESCO World Heritage site.

Here are more UNESCO World Heritage sites from around the world.

On Damascus. And trust.

As I’m scribbling this, I’m sat at FRA, probably my least favourite airport. Doesn’t help that I’ve had 3 hours sleep, and that my fave Eurovision tune (Ireland) ended up at 16th place, right behind my second favourite at 15th (I’m Norwegian, after all). But – I’ll give you a proper look-over another time, FRA. Maybe you’ve changed. Hidden gems and all that.

Meanwhile, I’m waiting for LH1306. I keep looking at the flight info screen: BEY. Never been before. I’m stoked. As the young’uns say. And ask myself, what’s the closest I’ve ever been? Then I remember Beirut Road. 40-50 km from the border. And so, with 2 hours to kill, I dig around amongst my pics on flickr, and find these scanned snaps from an analogue time.

Damascus Syria

Damascus 1987. An easy place to travel. Even as a single female. Kind people, good sense of humour, high level of trust. In my experience, at least.

I lost my passport. Somewhere in the Al-Hamidiyah souq, I reckoned. Inside the old city walls. No idea where. Must be at least half a km long that market!

Ever walked through the snazzy Galeries Royales Saint-Hubert in Brussels? Then, picture a Middle Eastern version of that.  Same tall, arched roof; but less snazzy. Busier, more frayed, more colours, more fun. By a light year or so. A veritable treasure trove, that souk. Silks, soaps, scents, spices, sweets. An abundance of merchandise, and even more, an abundance of life. And mint tea!

It would have been an easy place to lose, well… myself. Calling from the hotel to say I would need a new passport, that’s what I told the embassy secretary. And could I pop over now? She understood. And yes, of course. Have to report a potentially stolen passport to the police, though. Then wait three days.

Three days!! I had a flight home in two. From Amman!

Argh… should have thought of that before losing the passport. I said that to me. She didn’t. She told me to come on over. The embassy had been temporarily relocated from war-torn Beirut. I’d find it in the Meridien Hotel.

On my way, about to leave the lobby, the receptionist calls out,

‘Miss Redisch, Miss Redisch…’

Standing next to him is a dishdasha-clad man, red and white keffiyeh on his head. Just like Yassir Arafat’s. I recognise him from the souk. Bought an ice cream from him earlier that day. Exchanged a few pleasantries. In French, in his limited English, in my even more limited Arabic. Shared a few laughs.

I remember now. Freeing my hands to dig out coins from my pocket, I put the passport and wallet down. (I know, I know!) Easy to forget about passport and money and focus on the ice cream under the searing hot… so very hot… Syrian sun. I’d only noticed when next I wanted to buy something. Must have been an hour later. At least.

Inside the wallet, amongst various currency notes, credit cards, receipts, assorted odds and ends, was a card with the name and address of the hotel, written in Arabic, handed to me in case I got lost. Smart move.

He had closed his shop to come find me. To return it. Passport, wallet, everything.

Souk entrance: through the ruins of the Roman Temple of Jupiter

Damascus 1987. A captivating place. Not all fun and games for Syrians back then either, probably. Yet nothing compared to the seven years that have passed since the Arab Spring. Nothing compared to now! But Damascus has been around for 11000 years. The world’s oldest continuously inhabited city. Jericho and Aleppo might argue that point. Oldest, second oldest, third oldest – whatever. Eleven thousand years! Damascus has stood the test of time.

Damascus 1987. Captivating people. My friendly ice cream seller from the souk. The woman with her shopping. The man on his mule. Those kids, with their easy smiles for a stranger with a camera… I wonder where they are these days.

Wonder how they are…

Wonder if they are…

 

The souk? I hear it’s still standing. That’s at least something.

 

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Ancient City of Damascus is a UNESCO World Heritage site. Here are more UNESCO World Heritage sites from around the world.

Day out Tbilisi: Ananuri Castle and Kazbegi Mountains

Along the Georgian Military Highway

If you’re following this blog – and reading this, chances are you’re interested in the world’s slightly more obscure places. You might for example have visited Georgia, or perhaps you’re considering it for your next Euro/Asian jaunt. (Is the Caucasus in Europe or in Asia? The answer isn’t clear cut).

Any which way, if you’re spending hot summer days in charming Tbilisi (and why wouldn’t you…), perhaps you’d like to get out of town for a day – get some fresh air?

You would? Then join us for a (very) short hike in Kazbegi National Park. We’ll also see a stunning castle and a church / monastery appearing out of the mist, straight out of a fairytale: now you see me, now you don’t. We’ll drive along the Georgian Military Highway, we’ll try some home-cooked country cuisine and learn how to make the national favourite Khinkali dumplings. Come, come…

Ananuri Castle and Kazbegi National Park Georgia

Just 70 km from Tbilisi is the 13th century Ananuri Castle, located on the oh so green Aragvi River, once seat of the mighty Dukes of Aragvi.

Got to hand it to the medieval Georgians: they knew how to choose clever spots for their castles. A gorgeous location to be sure, but also a good place to spot the enemy. Not that it was always helpful. Ananuri has been the scene of numerous battles and drama; in 1739 the dukes were massacred by rival dukes, and the castle set on fire.

For us it’s a first chance to stretch our legs, pose on a rock (to show off the river, of course), climb stairs along a narrow vertiginous ridge, and see it on the inside looking out.

Walls and bars they surround me. But, I don’t want no sympathy. No baby, no baby, All I need is some tender lovin’. To keep me sane in this burning oven. 🎶  Oddly appropriate lyrics. But I digress.

 

Climbing up the ever-such-a-little spine-tingling stairs to see the stunning Ananuri Castle from the inside – and the gang in the courtyard. Our guide, Beqa, climbed up on the ramparts to snap this photo, so although I look even sillier than normal here, I’m posting it, to reward his effort and risk-taking. Focus on my beautiful friends instead, why don’t you – and the equally beautiful surroundings. From left to right: Anél, Andrew, Adrian, a hanger-on, Ingunn, a lovely Swedish/Indian couple under a yellow umbrella, and Tom.

Continuing along the Georgian Military Highway, we reach the town of Stepantsminda, a mere 10 km from the Russian border, or specifically North-Ossetia, one of the autonomous, often troubled, Caucasian republics you hear about on the news. Can’t really explain why, but I find the thought of being just down the road a little thrilling.

In Stepantsminda, we’re welcomed into a local home, where we learn how to make Khinkali, a traditional Georgian mountain dish. The dumplings are stuffed with meats, herbs and spices (veggie ones also available), then boiled in a salty broth.

Here’s Ingunn giving it a very good go, under the watchful eye of Beqa:

Then lunch; just a selection.

My fave, garlic-cheesy-stuffed mushrooms:

(Garlic-cheesy-stuffed… and you wonder why I’m not a food blogger)

Next, the hike. Ingunn and Beqa climb the many long, steep hills to the top – from Stepantsminda at 1 740 metres height to 2 170 metres, that’s a respectable ascent. The rest of us give up after one (also verrry long and verrry steep) hill, then wait for a 4WD to take us the rest of the way. A variety of excuses, mostly valid ones: not feeling well, not the right shoes for mountainous terrain, bit dizzy – and perhaps one less valid: just feeling lazy (me)…

Who do you think wait for us at the top? Their arrival will no doubt have been the more rewarding one.

Also waiting for us is this remarkable view: the Gergeti Sameba – Gergeti Trinity Church – rising up through the mist. Just a church and a bell tower, really. Heart-stirring simplicity. Almost enough to make you religious. Or, at the very least, in awe of those intrepid souls who built it in the 14th century.

Tips – and a few words of caution

This is an area where it pays to keep a watchful eye on your footing, especially in foggy, low-cloud conditions, which seem to be the normal here. The paths can be treacherous. And be aware if you’ve a severe fear of heights. Going back down the hill in the 4WD will shake your inner organs about. Also, expect a bump or two on your head from hitting the ceiling. Other than that, it’s all good.

If you’re a keen trekker, and don’t mind steep inclines, you can continue up the dormant volcano, Mount Kazbek. It’s normally a six-day climb, ending at just over 5 000 metres height.

Our day out in Kazbegi National Park was with Envoy:tours. Some versions of this tour also takes in Jvari Church and Mtskheta; a little weather-dependent, I think.

Waiting for the usual disclosure? Nope, nothing sponsored here. All paid for by my own ever dwindling bank account. As this is the third of Envoy’s tours I’m recommending, I thought I should point that out.