There’s a lot more we have to write about Europe as yet, but as we move on, I’m already missing some of the really interesting food and drink we had while we were there…so without any further ado, here’s my list of things I’ll probably be searching for in the USA! *in no particular order
Chin8, or Chinotto as it’s pronounced, is an Italian soda that has apparently been around since the 1950s. It’s flavored with a particular kind of orange, namely, the myrtle-leafed orange, which interestingly really isn’t an orange at all but a distinctly different citrus fruit. It’s a bitter enough drink that I think it’s a bit of an acquired taste–kind of a bitter cola flavor–but in the end, I just kept getting it. I think it works well as a digestif.
Gingerino is similar to Chin8 in being a pretty bitter soda, but it’s an attractive red color and comes in a cute little bottle, which is good for people like me who are like magpies. It’s local to the Veneto region we were near when we were in northern Italy, and gets its flavor from a mix of sugar, spices, and herbs–it would probably make a good mixer for cocktails, I imagine, with its color and similarity to some bitter liqueurs.
Such as the Aperol in an aperol spritz! Aperol’s been around since 1919, though it interestingly didn’t become popular until after the second World War. It’s similar to the maybe more well-known Campari in flavor, but it’s got a lower alcohol content. When mixed with sparkling white wine, it makes for a very pretty orange-red, very easy to drink cocktail that will still knock you for a loop regardless of the lower alcohol content. It’s perfect for happy hour! Or, aperitif hour, or, appy hour, if you will!
Cedrata is a lovely chartreuse soda that’s flavored with citron, a.k.a. that giant lemon-like fruit that you don’t really eat. It’s really refreshing and not-too-sweet, but also not-too-tart and not-too-sour; it’s a Goldilocks of lemony sodas. And, it comes in a classy unlabeled bottle!
On to Scotland…Dandelion and Burdock Soda
Dandelion and burdock soda is a dark drink that doesn’t taste anything at all like dandelion greens, which, in the end, I think is best for everyone involved. It may or may not taste like a burdock. I honestly have no idea what a burdock is; it may be an animal or mineral for all I know!
Oh! It’s a plant. It’s kind of like a thistle, or maybe a burr sort of thing. The more you know. Anyway, a new Scottish friend described it as “the gentleman’s Dr. Pepper,” and that’s pretty apt. It’s in the realm of root beer or sarsaparilla, but a lot more like bubblegum. While also being like those things. Look for a Fentiman’s to make sure you try it with natural and original flavorings!
Elderflower soda, like elderflower liqueur, has the most delightful, joyful scent to it, and unlike some things, that scent actually carries through into the flavor. It’s a sweet but-not-fruity flavor–it’s pretty unique and definitely one of my favorite flavors. I think it just makes people happy!
Tunnock’s Teacakes were introduced to us by our lovely friend Amy and her roommate Jess. It’s apparently a Scottish institution, which is pretty impressive for a marshmallow on a very thin biscuit coated in chocolate. It was also the centerpiece of the opening ceremony of a previous Commonwealth Games, in an apparently utterly hilarious way, which I simply could not do justice trying to describe as they did to us. It’s a nice little treat, though!
Irn Bru, or “Scotland’s other national drink,” is not, as we very quickly learned, pronounced like it looks like, ie, “rrrrn broo.” It is rather a funny sort of abbreviation of “iron brew,” which had to be changed because “brew” would indicate that it was a beer sort of drink, which just wouldn’t do. It’s a fun, radioactive sort of orange, and tasted like orange-cream soda when we first tried it in a restaurant, but then bubble-gum when we tried it in a can (so, in other words, get it on draft in a restaurant). It’s also known for some pretty funny advertising campaigns, eg, “It’s not a drink from those crazy Yanks, because it’s made right here you know it’s tougher than tanks!”:
Haggis is like…well I was going to say it’s like mujadara, but the latter doesn’t have heart, liver, and lungs in it. Either way, both are peasant sort of foods, for the salt of the earth, and both are–to me, anyway–solidly good, but not something I’d go out of my way to eat. I enjoy both of them, both have good, savory, spiced flavors and similar minced combination of things textures, but it’s not mind-blowing. It does usually come with the amusingly named neeps and tatties, or, rutabaga and potatoes, which is fun. And Bonnie enjoyed trying the vegetarian version, which actually seems just as common as the traditional meat one.
Okay, yes, these are in the States as well. And, though we didn’t try the fried Mars Bar that Scotland is famous for, we did try regular Mars Bars, and they were noticeably different than ones we’ve had in the past. Amy actually informed us that it’s because the chocolate in the UK is made differently than say, Australia or the USA, and doesn’t use anti-melting compounds. And it’s consequently more delicious! Points to the UK!
There are a great many permanent collections and installations in the museums and galleries of Rome, of course, but Bonnie and I also made a point of going to two temporary exhibitions while we were there. The first was the main reason we traveled to Rome at all; the latter, actually, was just because of an advertisement on a street corner by our hotel. Both were great, however!
Alphonse Mucha is my favorite artist. I love the clean, bold, sinuous lines of his art, so much so that I even have a tattoo done in his particular art nouveau style (and probably future tattoos as well). Once a person sees his art, they usually realize they’ve actually known it for a long time, or at the least have seen other art based on his works. This is partly because of one reason Mucha was so famous in his day–he made art accessible to the common person by infusing fine art into advertisement and other public contexts. Though originally Czech, he spent much of his life in France along with well-known travels to Italy and the USA.
The exhibition we visited showcased works from all through Mucha’s life, all of it incredibly well preserved, ranging from sketches to examples of advertising-art (e.g., biscuit tins) to sculpture and jewelry. The audio guide was very helpful, especially because it had commentary from John Mucha, the artist’s grandson, who provided unique and intimate insights.
We greatly enjoyed both getting to see the art in its original forms and learning all sorts of new things I had never discovered in my reading on Mucha. I will note that the Complesso del Vittoriano is–however gorgeous and imposing an edifice–utterly confusing to get through; we managed to walk through the entirety of the building, asking directions the whole way, before finally finding the exhibition. We also heard “Mucha” pronounced about 5 different ways while trying to find the place.
Elmi dell’Impero Romano
We found this exhibition, mainly on the helmets of ancient Rome, by happenstance–we were walking to our hotel and saw a poster for it, and then happened to walk by the museum by accident. Nonetheless, I love Roman history, so it was a very lucky find indeed. There were essentially four aspects to the exhibition: helmets, the stadium ruins the museum was partially sited on, gladiator and sports equipment, and accompanying illustrative art. I actually enjoyed the art best of all, even though it was the most minor, complementing aspect; some of it had an almost high-end comic book style that really brought the battle scenes to life, and the rest was fascinating sketches of the uniforms and armor of legionaries throughout the centuries, which is something you don’t normally see.
In the same token, the helmets–whether original or recreation–served a similar task, and really brought history to life for us. Though, as Bonnie noted, it did seem that ancient heads were a lot smaller than ours. Also, sometimes, goofier, like helmets that had three feathers sticking out of the top. That said, we realized: if there was some fierce, angry guy splattered with blood coming at you with three feathers on his head, “goofy” isn’t necessarily the word that would come to mind, and the feathers really would be useful for spotting, say, your goofy friend who always wears three feathers on his head from across a chaotic battlefield.
The helmet exhibition was spread throughout the museum’s main attraction: the ruins of the Stadium of Domitian, which were…interesting, but the audio guide was one of those that just lists the dimensions of things and doesn’t tell you any more than the caption by the image does. But that note aside, we really did get a sense of the enormous (70,000 seats!) stadium and the many sports and gladiatorial combats that occurred there, in similar senses to the other recreations, originals, and art. It also helped us appreciate the Piazza Navona hugely more once we realized that the piazza is shaped in its peculiar way because it had metamorphosed directly from the stadium. Interesting stuff!
Bonnie and I have long realized a pattern in our travels where we pause for a moment and realize we’re the only English speakers for miles around. That is, what we usually look for often leads us to situations where we wonder how the hell we got into a given situation like that, but it has almost always turned out for the best. Rome, however, being the former center of one of the largest empires in the world, and then in subsequent centuries, the center of a whole lot of other drama (Christian stuff, papal orgies, barbarian sackings, etc.), has a whole lot of Big Name things to check out for the tourists in us, full of grandeur and beauty enough to make our jaws drop. One of those in particular was, of course, the Vatican Museums and within it, the Sistine Chapel.
The Vatican Museums house an overwhelming collection of art and archaeological objects, but before describing that at all: just getting to them was a little bit like being back in India. There are so, so many touts, all of them obnoxious in a smorgasbord of different, annoying ways. We’ve luckily built up our ignoring skills over the past year, but I would have gleefully body-checked any of them, even the cute British girl. Well, she was cute until she was sarcastic to us after thinking we didn’t speak English.
Point of all this is: just keep walking. Go past the touts (the ones that claim it’s closed or that you need to have booked tickets in advance), don’t acknowledge their existence, keep right on past the herds of tour groups, don’t mistake them for amorphous lines, just keep going forward following whatever signs you can for the museum, through the atriums where it definitely wasn’t necessary to buy any tickets online to skip any lines, all the way up to when you get to some placid staff in little glass kiosks who calmly take your money and let you on through quickly and efficiently.
From that point, there is gallery after gallery of art, from absolutely gorgeous ceiling panels to impressive and unique statues from Greek and Roman antiquity and massive, carefully preserved tapestries. It’s awe inspiring, especially when combined with the natural light cascading through each hall’s windows.
But each hall is absolutely full to the brim with people, turning the whole affair into a slow-moving, muddy river. It’s not the worst thing, to be fair (at least we weren’t getting stampeded by tour groups like back in Vietnam), but the constant holding of phones and cameras and iPads overhead to snap photos of every last object did end up feeling a little crass.
And then the Sistine Chapel: yep, the one with God playing E.T. with Adam right in the middle of the ceiling. Kidding aside, it is a magnificent, warehouse-sized work of art, made even more fantastic in that it was almost entirely created by one individual. Bonnie was clever enough to download an audioguide for us that we could play on our cell phone, so we were able to understand the intended meanings behind each of the parts of the immense paintings, from the multi-story day of judgment wall to the story of creation across the ceiling, and all the prophets in between.
All while, that is, pausing for the guards to tell people to be silent over PAs as they chatted away, periodically yell at people for taking photos (because it’s the one place in the Vatican Museums where photos aren’t allowed), and while milling amidst enough people to fill up the entire floor of the chapel. Again, not all that bad, but by the end of it, we were flatly done with being around people for a while.
Parco degli Acquedotti
On the other hand, we also stumbled upon the Parco degli Acquedotti while looking for a good place to slackline in Rome. It was a solid metro ride out of the center of town, but absolutely worth it. It’s a very large park, full of open, grassy areas dotted with a variety of types of trees that all happen to provide great shade. As we strolled past the Acqua Felice, a smaller and more modern aqueduct that lines the park closest to the streets, we started to catch glimpses of the bigger and more ancient Aqua Claudia across the park.
It’s an imposing structure, stretching up in graceful, almost delicate arcs from fields of yellow and scarlet wildflowers crisscrossed with streams. We marveled that ancient engineers were not only able to construct such a thing, even if it had been worn down by the centuries to a series of disconnected fragments, but that they were also able to do it with such precision as to carry water over miles and miles with the gentlest of slopes.
As we wandered to the base of the aqueduct, we stepped out of the way for a couple bicyclists, and paused to watch dogs playing gleefully in the streams. The only loud noise was a small class out on a field trip, and the only other people we saw were sporadic joggers and couples taking slower strolls along the paths, which, incidentally, were lined with fruit trees, wild flowers, and even calla lilies.
We found a good spot to slackline just meters away from the smaller aqueduct, and when we were done and ready for lunch, we stumbled across a tiny pizzeria on the way back to the metro. The staff was friendly and the pizza (vegan for Bonnie) and supplì were delicious enough that we went back for thirds!
Long and short of it, I don’t think I need to provide ham-handed commentary; both Roman places are great in their own ways, just, they’re very different ways.
Bonnie and I have been looking forward to this part of our travels since we left almost a year ago: we got to visit our friends Cinzia and Alberto in northern Italy! We also had the pleasure of meeting their adorable son Valentino and the rest of their family over the course of most of a week. The room that Alberto’s nonno and nonna lent to us was the best one we’ve had in months, and we had homecooked Italian food almost every night–grazie mille, Cinzia e famiglia!! Also, after finding the original letter I’d replied to Cinzia with, Bonnie pointed out to Cinzia and I’s mutual surprise that we’d been writing to each other for eighteen years. Holy crow.
Cinzia and Alberto were also kind enough to guide us around their region–here’s some of the things we got to experience!
Ferrara is a smaller town, but it’s also a UNESCO World Heritage Site, and thus was a great way to start the more tourist-aspect of our Italy travels. We got to explore history directly in the Castello Estense, ducking through low passages and even into the prisons beneath, which would on occasion flood and drown the prisoners when the waters of the moat ran too high and spilled into their windows (how’s that for some Game of Thrones detail?). It wasn’t all gruesome medieval history, though–many of the rooms were decorated with art both old and modern, the latter in the case of a gallery exhibition and a room more recently painted in 1919 (which was my personal favorite). The Ferrara Cathedral was the first church we visited in Italy, and it left us with dropped jaws. The immense space inside, combined with the immense pieces of art were gorgeous–it’s definitely worth visiting! Cinzia also showed us the Jewish ghetto area, but unfortunately, the historical sites have been closed since they were damaged during the earthquake a few years ago.
In Adria, we visited the National Archeological Museum of Adria. Besides a kind of random but perfectly nice exhibition on ancient China, we saw lots of ancient Roman pottery, vases, and other small archeologica (I’m just making up that word, I think, just roll with it), including a Celtic chariot complete with horse skeletons, almost all excavated from tombs in the immediate surrounding area. I loved the tiny glass containers for perfume best–I’d read about them in books, but never seen any in person before!
Once a maritime, mercantile superpower unto itself, Venice is still a beautiful city, unique in its nature of being constructed upon a tight web of islands and canals. For travelers, it does have a reputation for being exorbitantly costly (when we bought sandwiches for lunch at a local market before leaving for the city, the clerk correctly guessed with a happy smirk that we were going to Venice), but just walking around and taking in the romantic canals and tiny narrow roads makes for a perfectly pleasant outing. The Piazza San Marco contains a huge amount of history in its small space alone, and also has a beautiful view to another portion of the city across the lagoon. We also visited the Museo Ebraica di Venezia, a small museum of Jewish history in the historical ghetto. The metalworking detail in the historical Judaica was astounding, and we were intrigued to learn the about how Venice was a nexus for several different Jewish cultures to intersect.
The Parco Giardino Sigurtà was entirely new to us, but it was one of the best gardens either of us had been to before. They cover a huge amount of ground near the city of Verona–and I mean a huge amount. Like, the botanic gardens in Singapore were huge, but these were big in a different sense, with swathes of preternaturally green and rolling hills made for rolling down…which, of course, we and many visiting school kids did. I don’t think I’ve been that dizzy in years. There was also a teaching farm which included–to Bonnie’s delight–a baby goat, and of course the tulips for which these gardens are especially famous. They’re also the oldest gardens we’d ever been in, with a history stretching all the way back to 1407–very impressive!
Big Ice Cream! And Aperol Spritz!
We also got to try a couple local favorites–one was utterly massive ice cream sundaes! Mine even had–get this–an espresso in a waffle-cone cup plunked right in the middle of it. And, it being Italian espresso, needless to say it was delicious. There were almost too many kinds and combinations to choose from, but we dove right in with pleasure.
The other thing we got to try was the famous Aperol spritz. Alberto took us to a happy hour with friends and family at a local bar that also happens to be part of a gas station–as Bonnie pointed out, just like in Montana! Italy’s bar snacks blew any we’ve had in the US out of the water, though; there was everything from pickled garlic to tiny salami sandwiches to chips to nuts…the real star, however, was the Aperol spritz, a combination of Aperol (a bitter and slightly sweet liqueur) and sparkling white wine. It was so easy to drink that we were quite unexpectedly tipsy very quickly…I think it helped our Italian, though!
A bit of context: Neve Shalom/Wahat al-Salam is technically, by many views, not really on Israeli or Palestinian land, but rather on a political limbo zone; we’re literally on top of the Green Line. The land was owned since back when by the neighboring Trappist monastery (they make such good fortified wine), and leased and then sold to the village, but otherwise they haven’t really gotten involved in politics in any way.
While Ramallah isn’t as old as some of the places that claim more biblical origins, it’s still been around for a good long time. It’s said to have been founded by Christians fleeing from the east after a snafu resulting from a misunderstanding over a mixed Christian/Muslim betrothal, but whatever the true story of its origin, it’s been there since the 1500s. As it stands, in visiting I guess we were just bringing the whole mixed marriage concept back–closing the circle! For most of Ramallah’s history, it was predominantly Christian, but more recently, its population has become more Muslim with a still-sizable Christian minority.
Nowadays, it’s grown to be the largest Palestinian city, and moreover is the de facto capital of the Palestinian Territories; it’s also often called the “Tel Aviv of the West Bank” because of its comparable nightlife and culture. Regarding the more political aspects of recent history, I’ve started and then read more and then started again trying to write about them…I’ll have to come back to that, though. Even in the few labels I’ve already typed, I suppose I’ve pegged on a certain stance, but there’s a lot more to the very complex situation that encompasses Ramallah than I want to get into right now.
So, I’ll focus on what’s most important to me about it: it’s where my amazing mother, Najwa, grew up, along with her wonderful siblings, Grace, Nuha, Raja, Saleh, and Maha. And following that thought, Bonnie and I finally got to go there, which is a fantastic cap on almost a year of travel abroad!
practical notes for other travellers
That is, because we wholeheartedly recommend others go to Ramallah–it’s one of our favorite places that we’ve been to. Our public transportation adventures and foibles in just getting to Jerusalem from our village aside (though I do have one question for the Orthodox part of Jerusalem…why are your hats so small?!), getting from there to Ramallah is pretty straightforward. Except on Friday. Which is when we were there. It was still fine–you just hop on a bus at the bus terminal in East Jerusalem, near the Damascus Gate, which would normally take you into the center of Ramallah, but on Fridays it only goes to the Qalandia Checkpoint. Luckily, we met an utterly adorable Muslim couple who guided us through the bus, checkpoint, and sharing a service taxi the rest of the way to our destination, but it would have all been doable to figure out…just less pleasant and efficient without our new friends! On the way in, you just walk across the border–no check or anything. Leaving is pretty easy too; when we did it, we just stayed on the bus as a couple soldiers came on and quickly glanced at paperwork and our visas in our passports (didn’t even seem to look at the info page). All we got was a raised eyebrow of the perfectly neutral, “…huh,” but they did mysteriously take away one Palestinian teenager.
Regarding lodging, we definitely recommend Area D Hostel. It has a fantastic location a couple blocks away from Al Manara square and almost literally across from the bus station, and it has the bar-none best views of any hostel we’ve been in throughout our travels. It’s also quiet, spacious, and has a full kitchen available, plus, a witty name if you’re up on West Bank political geography. We also learned some interesting details about things you just don’t hear about in Israel from unobtrusive books and postings around the hostel, like how only 17% of the water from the West Bank’s aquifers goes to Palestinians; the other 83% is pumped to Israel or directly to settlers.
practical stuff aside, back to family history
Modern Ramallah, I should note, is very different than the very small town that my mom described growing up in. Nonetheless, we were determined to find out what we could that might remotely be the same. The first thing we looked for were my family’s old houses–we had several landmarks to orient ourselves by, schools and churches and the like, and to look for pink stone, and so we headed into Ramallah’s Old City and started peering around. We did find many old houses amongst the newer apartment complexes, but there were a lot–we’re excited to go through with our relatives and see if any are recognizable, though. We did get glimpses of the hills around Ramallah as we explored, which was nice especially because it’s the first place that’s rivaled Sapa for such gorgeous valley vistas.
My favorite thing we found, though, was my family’s old church. The inside is gorgeous, albeit dark for photos, but filled with a icons, stained glass and a beautiful altar. Best of all, though, was that we were able to obtain a copy of my mom’s birth certificate, and get it certified by the priest! That felt like quite a coup, and helped us with our next attempt, which we’d been encouraged to do by our village co-workers…
…trying to find family connections amongst the people living in Ramallah. Although most people we encountered spoke English very well, it was still helpful to be able to show them the birth certificate. The attempt did lead us what felt like a bit of a wild goose chase, though, admittedly–for example, from a tourist information center to an electronic store to a pharmacy to an apartment where a woman who didn’t speak any English eventually called her son, wherein we eventually figured out that his great-grandfather might just maybe have been brothers with my great-grandfather. Well, it was amusing, at any rate.
We found a couple great places to contribute to the local economy, also. Dar Zahran Heritage House is placed within the historic house of a mukhtar, or local leader. It has historic photos, rotating art by Palestinian artists, and a very affordable shop with jewelry, art, and more made by local artists. And: free Arabic coffee!
The other shop we actually just stumbled across during the aforementioned wild goose chase–Abood Food. It’s a small shop, but it has a fantastic selection of every sort of tea, jam, honey, olives, and other foodstuff we could think of, also all grown and harvested in the West Bank.
stuffing ourselves silly
If we’re honest, the main thing we really did besides looking up family history was, well, eating. And loving every bite–we went to a bakery by our hostel three times in two days, getting spinach pies and bread stuffed with grilled halloumi cheese and za’atar. And, we tried two different places for the famous Palestinian ice cream, which uses Arabic gum to create a unique, taffy-like texture (check out this NPR story on the one we preferred, Rukab’s). And then we went back to Rukab’s, because we liked it so much.
Also of note: the shawerma shop who’s name we’re not sure of, but it was the first shawerma I’ve had since the Lebanese restaurant that no longer exists at the University of Arizona more than ten years ago that I was actually excited about (so naturally, we went there twice). Bonnie tried falafel, which was quite different than the Israeli style in that the toppings were simpler and the falafel itself is shaped more like a log than a ball. We also tried Stars and Bucks which sounds as goofy as a Starbucks spoof can be, but it’s actually a pretty nice sit-down place for breakfast. At Ziryab, we enjoyed freekeh soup, fatoush salad, vegetarian fukhara and beer from Palestine’s only microbrewery, in a cozy, low-light and tapestries environment. During the day we were given free oranges at the market at the foot of the hostel’s building, and Bonnie picked up some sesame seeds in a small shop for mind-boggling prices; we also snagged some green almonds from a street vendor, just like my mom used to buy us at the Arabic store in Tucson! And, we were happy to discover La Vie Cafe, where they grow most of the food they make on their rooftop–we were able to enjoy limonana while sitting under the lemon tree they used to make it!
definitely visit Ramallah!
We certainly weren’t the only Westerners by any stretch–we saw plenty while walking around, even more than in many places we traveled in India–so don’t feel shy about heading there on that count. Ramallah is a bustling city with more good restaurants than we knew what to do with, great views, and very friendly people. Check it out!
About halfway through our walk to work, we’re presented with one of the more wide-open vistas I’ve ever seen. In the distance we can see the towns of Modi’in (check out the link for photos of the bizarre, Stonehenge-like apartment complex that dominates it) and Ramla, and on especially clear days, even Tel Aviv way out on the coast. Closer in are gently sloping valleys blanketed with fields and vineyards and orchards, and where not cultivated, colorful meadows bursting with anemone and daisies. Right in the middle, though, is another hill to match the one that our Neve Shalom/Wahat al-Salam perches on; a tall church spire peeks out from its other side, and a lonely little ruin sits atop it. This is Latrun, and through it we’ve learned a huge amount about the often violent history of our area.
Back in Biblical Times…
Which, we well know, are meticulously historically accurate, right? Anyway, supposedly this valley was the place where Joshua and the Israelites fought the Amorites, a biblical people apparently based on the similarly named historical Amorites, which have a much more extensive Mesopotamian history. The biblical ones, interestingly, are billed to have had “the height of cedars,” and yet curiously there is no mention of how good they were at basketball.
Back in Ye Olden Times…
Or, you know, “antiquity” if you want to be all fancy, and with somewhat more verifiable accuracy, there was another big ol’ battle. This time, it was between the Jewish semi-geurrilla forces of Judah Maccabee and the Seleucid Greeks, a.k.a. people from one of the many successor states that sprung up after Alexander the Great’s rambles.
According to our sources here, the Jews were able to use the same hills we look out from to spy out the larger Greek army, and work out how best to out-maneuver them. Given the disparity in arms, armor, and people, the Jews did a pretty solid job of standing up to the invaders. They didn’t quite throw off the yoke, however, and while they gained their own Judean kingdom, they still generally had the Greek arm resting heavy over their shoulders. Till the Romans came along and took over, anyway. #personalhistoricalfav
Back in Crusadin’ Times…
There was a little castle! It sounds like it was adorable. As much as a fortified military fortress used by religious fanatics for invading and conquering can be, anyway. In any case, it was relatively small, and was basically a single tower surrounded by some walls. Notable residents did apparently include the Templars, which does inspire a minor urge in me to search for conspiracy clues.
Not much at all survives today–there is the the little ruin we can see from our village, of course, but it’s worth making the hike to get a closer look. After bulling your way through the thistles and nettles, even! It looks like there’s a more modern structure attached, but one would be hard-pressed to find easier access to ruins like this, like those of a lower storehouse area and the foundations of the various walls that circumscribed the hill.
Back in Steampunk Times…
Okay not really, but times that could have been steampunk times, if, you know, people were more into clockwork and monocles. But whatever. Sigh. Anyway, more Europeans came along towards the end of the Nineteenth Century, while the Ottomans had dominion. Namely, Flemish, German and French Trappist monks, here to set up a monastery dedicated to Our Lady of Seven Sorrows. Hashtag, Catholics get the coolest names for religious things.
As time went on, there were was a bit of a lacuna when the Ottoman Turks took exception to the monastery and, well, destroyed it, but the monks were successful at bringin’ it back and rebuilt in the 1920s. While they didn’t make any of the famously tasty Trappist sour beers, they did get right on making a large variety of wines, proving that Trappists aren’t one-trick ponies. Pony-monks. Ponks, if you will.
Back in the Chaotic Last Hundred Years or So…
During British occupation and the Arab Revolt, a Tegart fort (a military police fortifcation) was built nearby. Man, everyone wanted to get in on these crazy big vistas! Of course, with the advent of more modern forms of reconnaissance, being able to see a long distance wasn’t quite as important, but nonetheless there was now a very important road between Tel Aviv and Jerusalem, so Latrun was still important to keep hold of, and in this case, also to use as a prison for Jewish and other resistors to occupation.
Later, in during the 1948 and 1967 Arab-Israeli wars, there were some pretty hardcore throw-down battles at Latrun. We learned a lot about them when we visited the Palmach Museum and were able to say in startlement, “hey, we live there!” Without getting into the tactical ins and outs, those years around Latrun were something of a slugfest between the opposing forces, but the Israelis, like Rocky Balboa, just kept picking themselves up and coming back for more. While in the interim between the two wars Latrun was controlled in the main by the Jordanians, it was still a contested area (to the detriment of the Palestinian residents who were consequently kicked off their land); after 1967, though, the Israelis took it back.
And, Recently Up Till Today!
The monks were nice enough to lease some land to the creators of Neve Shalom/Wahat al-Salam, and though there’s been some rocky history between the two, things have settled and are very friendly nowadays, or so we gather through the village grapevine. So after all that back and forth, there’s at least our little village with different cultures living and working together–progress!
We’ve also taken advantage of the monastery’s grapevines, with my personal favorite being their mistelle (a sweet, fortified wine), though we also have a cabernet sitting on our shelf. Just staring us down. Like, “Drink me. Do it. Do it. Drink me!” You know how Cabernets are.
The other fun thing we discovered during our hike to the monastery was how hopping it is! There was a fantastic jazz band playing in the hall above an arts and crafts fair, the church is simple and gorgeous on the inside, and the wineshop was bustling and run by Israelis, contrary to our expectation of a sleepy, dusty little counter run by a monk. But best of all: there was an amazing falafel stand that also sold pita Druzi (laffa bread with labeneh and za’atar)!
And so, to sum up everything we’ve learned, Latrun = great falafel. Yep.
Haifa is a gorgeous city in northern Israel, cascading down the slopes of Mt. Carmel, with the Baha’i Gardens as the crown jewel among the pleasant seaside architecture. Leastways, until you get to the harbor area, where the city’s industrial and port-town roots are readily apparent, but between the rest of the city being picturesque and the infusion of gentrification brought along with international tech-company heavyweights, it’s still a great place to visit. Hence, our highlights! In no particular order, as per usual.
We stumbled across this tiny bakery on our way from the German Colony neighborhood (which centers around a long street of restaurants with lovely patios, and includes the bizarre, staff-less guesthouse we stayed in) to an Ethiopian restaurant that was never open or available, despite our multiple attempts at trying it.
That said, Teta’s Bakery was always open, always delicious, and always astoundingly affordable! We went three days in a row, and even got free Turkish coffee…not even because they recognized us, just because they wanted to give us coffee!
Haifa Museum of Art
I don’t get modern art. At all. Some of it was interesting, though, and I guess feeling engaged by it in some way is all one can really ask for. But the archetypal blocks of flat color…I’ll pass. We did have one particular favorite, though, of which this is only a tiny, representative part:
The Baha’i Gardens
The Baha’i Gardens are easy to see from the German Colony part of the city–in fact, they continuously draw the eye, especially with the changing light of the day. Stretching almost the entire slope of the mountain, one of the Baha’i religion’s holiest sites is an imposing…er, sight. That sentence was poorly constructed.
Anyway, we learned a few things in attempting to explore the gardens themselves:
- if you try to access them from the bottom…well, you can’t really, not more than a single terrace or so
- you can get into the middle portion where the Shrine of the Bab is if you go in the morning, and a small portion of the surrounding gardens
- if you want to see a larger portion of the gardens, though, you have to start all the way at the top, and you have to go with a tour; the only English tour is at noon, but get there early because the spots fill up quickly, and know that it’s either a NIS30 taxi ride from the bottom or an hour of uphill walking. We chose the first option.
All that said, I think the Baha’i Gardens are my number one religious site out of all the ones we’ve visited while traveling (followed by the Kali temple in Singapore and the Sikh temple in Delhi), both in terms of inherent beauty and for religious principle–the Baha’i seem to be, bar none, the most progressive, modern, and pleasant of the major world religions.
We were excited about visiting LiBira in a general sense because we hadn’t been to a microbrewery since Ho Chi Minh City, and after our epic run of microbreweries on the States’ West Coast, that was quite a drought. So to speak.
More specifically, their menu looked amazing, and so, as our lovely friend Stephanie is wont to put it, we were total map dits for an evening. We got: a flight of beer to share, unlimited olives as a bar snack, a foccaccia appetizer, portobello sandwiches (I got smoked goose breast on mine because I’ve been wanting to try goose ever since I took a course on Chaucer in college), free cosmopolitan shots from the awesome bartender, and a coffee/stout creme brulee for dessert.
Their beers were pretty solid and had quite complex flavors; moreover, after all the cheap beers and truly awful cocktails in Asia, they were refreshing in a more meta sense than literal, even.
Honorable mentions: Falafel Michel, Fattoush, and Faces
Falafel Michel: not the greatest falafel out there, contrary to guidebooks’ belief; as Bonnie points out, a good falafel pita is at its core about the construction (in addition to needing good falafel balls, of course)–this one was not constructed so well. Wadi Nisnas, the Arab quarter of Haifa in which the restaurant is home, however, was fun to explore. And I guess they give you a free falafel ball when you walk in, so there’s that.
Fattoush: perfectly fine food with large portions, but it was all about the atmosphere; we sat in a lounge/kitchy gallery/makeout den. Also we got to try some house-made limonana!
Faces: we didn’t get anything too fancy–shakshouka and stuffed mushrooms–but dang if it didn’t taste incredibly fresh and high-quality. Well done, chef!
And that beginning goes way, way back
There are references to the Dead Sea stretching all the way back to the fourth century BCE from such little-known commentators like Aristotle, Pliny and Galen. An actually little-known people, the Nabateans, collected bitumen from the surface of the sea to sell to the Egyptians for use in mummy-making. And other significant figures, both historical and biblical, have made use of the area as a place of refuge–including Jesus, John the Baptist, Herod, and even King David.
For much of its history, however, the Dead Sea was avoided as a probably unhealthy or even haunted place, and was generally uncharted until the US Navy team moseyed along and explored in 1948.
So what is it, really?
Known as Yam HaMelach, or the Sea of Salt in Hebrew, and Bahr al-Mayit, the Sea of the Dead in Arabic, the Dead Sea is a body of water located at the lowed point on the surface of the earth, at 428 meters below sea level. It is ten times more salty than the ocean, and becoming even more so as it dries up…95% of the water from the Jordan River that once fed it is being diverted to agriculture in surrounding countries.
This creates an interesting issue where one part of the sea is shrinking about five meters per year, making it recede from structures and hotels built formerly closer to the shore, whereas another part of the sea is actually rising due to the accumulation of salts, and threatening the nearby buildings in a completely opposite way.
Also, the salty water is supposedly pretty good for you!
But not jewelry, as it turns out–it’ll turn silver jewelry black and corrode other metals. And if you’ve shaved recently or have small cuts from landscaping (like we did), there’s a chance it can sting something fierce. And if you aren’t careful and get it in your eyes, it can sting something really fierce.
Also it tastes awful if you get it in your mouth. But, like, in a way that could grow on you, you know? It does feel silky on your skin, in a way that is also kind of suspiciously oily, kind of like a used car salesman who you don’t want to be charmed by but feel unaccountably attracted to nonetheless.
Back to the point at hand, though! Supposedly a soak is good for a variety of skin conditions, psoriasis especially, and that can be augmented by painting the grey-black mud all over yourself. The bromines in the water can have a slight sedative effect, supposedly, relaxing you, even to the point of there being apocryphal stories of people sleepily floating all the way across the sea to the Jordanian side.
Interestingly, because of the different air below sea level, it’s also harder to sunburn at the Dead Sea because of ultraviolet rays being filtered out before they get to your sensitive, tourist skin.
Still, you could go the route of some Muslim women and wade in fully clothed and wearing a headscarf, which presents quite an image as said ladies have a conversation with a woman in a thong bikini.
Wait, wait, wait, so why’s it so funny?
Well, because I dare you to go into the water without bursting out laughing in delight. It’s the strangest thing–if you lift your feet off the bottom, you literally don’t sink at all, but just sit there bobbing like a cork. Glance over and you’ll see someone on their belly looking like they’re pushing themselves over ice. Look back the other way, and you’ll see someone else entering the water for their very first time and bursting out laughing at the ridiculousness of it, and you start laughing all over again. I’m actually kind of chuckling even as I type this.
It’s wacky and weird, like a subtle amusement park gimmick mixed with a chemistry project. It’s also beautiful, as the unusual air and odd water make for uncannily clear reflections of the surrounding mountains. Thus, even if you don’t go in, it could well be worth visiting, but I heartily recommend wading in–the laughter is probably just as good for you as the salts.
Is up on a really big hill. Mountain? What separates a hill from a mountain, anyway? Is there a dividing height, or steepness? What if most of the mountain is below sea level, as this one is, being on the shore of the Dead Sea? If you go up in elevation from that shore, where the oxygen concentration can be a good 5% higher than the rest of the world, do you…just get back to normal air? So is there no altitude sickness like there is on other mountains? Would that make the mountain more of a…dry island, if most of it is below where the ocean would be?
As ever with our travels, mysterious mysteries abound! Luckily, questions aside, the terrain of the area is gorgeous in a spare desert sort of way that made me a little homesick for Arizona, especially the north around Lee’s Ferry.
But back to the topic at hand
Anyway, Masada is a pretty historically significant…oh, it’s a mesa. That makes sense. Ignore most of the previous paragraphs. In any case, way back when, there was a pretty nice Roman palatial settlement that covered most of the mesa; it was actually probably pretty gorgeous, I’d say, and even had a nice set of Roman baths. It was built by a Jewish client king of the Romans named Herod…yes, that Herod, who could probably use an entire blog post or two himself. But more on that when we visit Jerusalem.
About seventy years after the whole Jesus thing went down, though, there was the Great Jewish Revolt against the Roman Empire. Interestingly, if you happened to see the recent, excellent movie Sicario, that’s where the eponymous Mexican word for “hitman” comes from…the Sicarii, or Sikrikin in Hebrew, were Jewish zealots who were known for assassinating other Jews–who weren’t living up to their zealous standards–with a curved dagger known as a sica (in Greek–how’s that for a lot of cultures intersecting in a single word?).
Towards the end of that revolt, Jews had overpowered Masada’s Roman garrison and taken it over as a last refuge; they lived there long enough to put some of their own touches on the settlement, including converting one building into a synagogue and installing a mikvah. The Romans, however, in the full flush of burdgeoning empire, couldn’t let revolts of any sort stand without making an example out them, given the myriad states and cultures under their overextended aegis.
The Tenth Legion (Legio X Fretensis), under Lucius Flavius Silva, were thus tasked with taking Masada, facing the remaining Sicarii under Eleazar ben Ya’ir. They surrounded the mesa and put it under siege–the locations of their various fortified encampments are delineated with piles and rows of rock for the modern visitor to see–and eventually put the famous Roman engineering talent to work in constructing an utterly massive ramp up the back side of the mesa, so large it alters the topography of the mesa itself.
After fierce fighting involving a siege tower and billowing flames, the walls were finally breached…but in the evening. The attackers withdrew, expecting the logical conclusion of a surrender with the next dawn. When they again ascended their assault ramp, though, they were met only with silence and ashes.
The zealots had chosen ten men by lot to kill the women, children, and then themselves, burning supplies and weapons along the way–around 960 people in all. Only two women and five children survived, to live on to an utterly unknown fate, and entirely unknown feelings about the event (though given they chose to hide from the mass murder-suicide, one can speculate a little). The Romans celebrated their victory over the revolt-entire by constructing a victory arch, the Arch of Titus, which would later inspire the famous Arc de Triomphe in Paris–yet more cultural intersection!
So what’s it like nowadays?
In modern times, there is an interesting contrast to Masada’s violent past. There is a big, clean visitor’s center with a parking garage and gourmet shops and a little food court with pretty solid falafel. There’s a quiet, graceful cable car that whisks tour groups in their matching baseball caps to the top of the mesa, and another gift shop at the top.
One can hypothetically walk up the remains of the Roman assault ramp, but it’s about a 70 kilometer drive out of your way to get around the mesa. The visitor’s center, however, is at the base of the “snake trail,” so named for obvious, switchback-y reasons, which takes about forty-five minutes to an hour to climb (as opposed to the Roman ramp’s fifteen minutes, wherein one can see why they’d go to all the trouble to build such a thing). Luckily there are Tristram’s starlings to keep you company as you walk with their eerie wolf-whistle calls and bullet-buzz swooping.
There are various ruins scattered about the mesa top, most partially reconstructed to varying degrees. Thankfully there are a few scale models to more fully imagine the small town that Masada kind of was, because even with the reconstructions it takes a fair amount of imagination. The views are still amazing, regardless, and one easily can see why someone would have wanted to put a palace way up there.