Monthly Archives: May 2019

Bulgaria, Plovdiv – 2019 European City of Culture

Plovdiv is a charming town in central Bulgaria and worth visiting but I think it can be done in two full days. Plovdiv is remarkably the oldest inhabited city in Europe but it is also gently modernising.

The main shopping street in Plovidv

It consists of an old town with an excellent Roman amphitheater and we were lucky to be able to watch an orchestra play on a warm sunny evening. A special treat.

Listening to the music at the Roman Amphitheatre

Visiting the Old Town of Plovidiv is a must. Full of quaint houses, a few shops and people practising old crafts – it has a quiet vibe and is a great place to walk around – with comfortable shoes.

The charming old part of the City

The Old town also has many revivalist homes that allow you to see what life was like in the early part of the 20th century as modernization was taking hold and the Ottoman Empire rule was declining. These houses have been lovingly restored.

The inside of Balabanov House

The Ethnographical Museum also in the Old Town was a beautiful building but sadly no inside shots allowed.

The Ethnographical Museum (with pesky children having their lunch)

The city still has a large mosque which towers over more ancient Roman ruins and it is a mosque you can visit inside so we did – it was splendid. I do enjoy the way there are so many layers of civilization in this part of the world. The deeper they dig the more they find.

The Mosque in Plovdiv perched above the Roman Forum

The trendy and arty part of town is called Kapana and is where all the bars and restaurants are plus some street art. I think this is where most of the events linked to European City of Culture will be focussed as the summer season gets into full swing.

Street Art in Kapana

Some good restaurants in Kapana and we were especially enamoured of Tam’s House – the chefs were Bulgarian and Peruvian who trained at a Michelin starred restaurant in the Napa Valley and now they are in Plovidiv. The food was amazing as was the local wine and the cost was just AUD50 a head for a meal that was top class and would cost three times that in Melbourne.

Tam’s House – strongly recommended if you can find it!

Bulgaria (my 106th country) – a couple of days hanging out in Sofia and a day out to Rila Monastery and Boyana Church

One minute in Tel Aviv and a two and a half hour flight later we arrived in Sofia for the first part of a trip around Bulgaria.

First stop had to be the Aleksander Nevsky Cathedral – dramatically situated in the Centre of the city and a hive of activity on this particular Saturday evening as it was the weekend where most of the kids graduated high school – this seems to entail wearing long ball gowns and driving around town hooting their horns and counting to 12 (to reflect the 12 long years they have suffered in school!) Just wait until they start work!!

Actually Sofia has a multitude of spectacular churches mostly Bulgarian or Russian orthodox with exteriors and interiors (which often include brightly coloured frescos of the saints and religious events from the New Testament). Examples below.

And the church below tucked in amongst government buildings was built on Roman ruins.

We snuck into the Russian Orthodox Church below as a service was ending – beautiful singing and great pomp – but we then got told off for taking pictures!

But it is not all churches

There is also the 2nd largest synagogue in Europe (it is Sephardic) and a mosque that remains a mosque (many of the others remain from the Ottoman Empire but are are now churches which is why the exteriors often look mosque-like as that is exactly what they used to be before they were repurposed rather than pulled down.). Great recycling. Although not quite as close together as shown below they are only about 3 minutes from each other.

There are monuments – that’s Saint Sofia and the guards outside the President’s place of work; there is MacDonalds of course (but I have never seen it written in Cyrillic before) and also klecks- meaning “kneel” shops as below bottom right. After the communism era ended people wanted to become more entrepreneurial and because they couldn’t afford expensive real estate they converted their basements into shops which you have to kneel at to see what’s inside. Loved them, although some comfort cushions would be an idea for those of us with creakier bones!

There is shopping for local ceramics at the Ladies Market.

A popular day trip from Sofia is a visit to Rila Monastery (about two hours away) and the glorious Boyana Church (about 20 minutes from Sofia).

I loved the Boyana Church. It is tiny, in a peaceful forest and only 10 people can go in at a time. It dates back many hundreds of years and while simple outside it is the stunning frescos inside that give it the “wow” factor – even more special because they are in good condition and are painted in a real life style where people’s expressions are clear in their faces rather than the previously stylised approach to painting saints. Unfortunately they do not allow photos inside so I have swiped a couple of pics of the interior from the internet so you can see what I mean.

Then on to Rila Monastery – via some very pretty countryside – and a real rag and bone man!

Rila was a spectacular place although rather crowded on a Sunday so I had to include some people in my photos – Grrr. Only 7 monks live here now but visitors or pilgrims can stay over. It once housed 300 monks – times have changed and not many people want to be monks anymore hence the reduction in numbers. It is nevertheless right that it is being preserved so well and both Rila and Boyana are UNESCO heritage sights.

I loved the colourful frescos and below there are some that show what happens if you go to hell compared to the prettiness of Paradise.

The floors with the carpets hanging from them are where people can stay over. I think the rooms are very basic!

A great start to my visit to Bulgaria.

Israel- Caesarea, Baha’i Gardens Haifa, Acre, Rosh Hanikra

My last tour in Israel was up to the northernmost part of the country.

First stop was Caesarea – originally built by my old friend Herod the Great. Like many places in Israel it has had lots of layers of ownership – Roman, Byzantine, Ottoman, Christian. As a result a lot of the old city is under water and I’m told this makes for some great diving experiences. The amphitheatre is in good condition and is still used for live concerts. The Hippodrome was used for early Olympic style Games and subsequently for chariot racing.

Then much later in the early 20th century after the city had fallen into disrepair with limited use, Baron Rothschild came over from the UK and developed the land so that it is now one of the most expensive areas of Israel to live in and is the home of one of the only two golf courses in the country.

Next a quick stop in Haifa to view the majestic Baha’i Gardens. The Baha’i religion started in Iran in the 19th century as a modern offshoot of Islam – they have strong social values eg. Equal rights for all and you can only join as an adult when you are able to make this kind of decision rather than being forced into it as a child. It has its international centre in Israel which dates back to the Ottoman period when the Baha’i leader was arrested in Iran and sent to prison in what is now Acre. He decided to stay and purchased the land for the gardens.

There are about 6 million Baha’i members worldwide and to actually tour the gardens you need to be of their faith or taken around by someone who is but it’s great to see the gardens from the view point. The area with the houses with red roofs is known as the German colony as they built it some years ago.

The gardens have 19 terraces. and when I zoomed in to the right I saw Seabourn Encore in dock. Ahhh.

Acre was next. One of the few places that Napoleon failed to conquer – although he tried hard! It has been used as a port continuously for 4000 years. Most recently it was built up by the Ottomans but recent excavations have uncovered a underground city dating back 900 years when the crusaders were actively present. The Hospitallers were a Christian group (like the Templars) who built hospitals and cared for the sick in this place. You can see the blocked arches which have yet to be excavated – there is a lot more to find and it is already huge. Unfortunately, in my opinion they have kind of Disneyfied the interior with cartoon videos and such like to explain where you are. It kind of detracts from the magnificence of what is there (secret tunnels too) and could have been dealt with a lot better. Oh well.

In Rosh Hanikra we visited the caves formed by the waves and the interior grottos.

This is the northernmost part of Israel and we were on the edge of the border with Lebanon where we could see the Israeli army border control and in the distance the UN peacekeeping force in their blue uniforms.

Israel, Tel Aviv – The hummus story and other food I enjoyed as I ate my way around the city.

Tel Aviv and Jaffa used to be quite distinct cities but now it’s hard to figure where one ends and the other starts. I am staying in an area of Tel Aviv called Neve Tzedek – which is great for getting to Jaffa Port either by walking along the sea front or cutting through the slightly more inland alleys. It is buzzing and life only really starts here around 11pm so if you are a light sleeper or not a fan of city noise – avoid this area. I like city noise – as I grew up with it and too much quiet freaks me out!

One of the reasons I was keen to visit this city is its reputation for food which seems to be growing by the day and of course as an Ottolenghi fan I have seen a lot of his TV shows plugging Israeli food. So the first thing we did was a five hour walking and food tour with our lovely guide Avi.

There are many local markets but we liked our local one Ha-Carmel – and you can see why. Even I might be tempted to cook more if fresh food always looked this good.

Avi wrote his thesis on the Hummus Wars and believes that while societal values in Israel are often proscribed top down that the impact food has is bottom up and that the local food scene was formed originally from poverty and necessity – you made the best of what you could get.

The hummus wars relate to Israel and Lebanon’s competitions as to who made the largest bowl and whose is best. At one point Lebanon sued Israel in the EU courts for cultural appropriation of their dish and while there is some commentary on the outcome – it is all a bit irrelevant since neither are EU members! I thing they decided it was a category of food rather than an actual dish – the word hummus does mean chick pea and the dish should just be chick pea, tahini, lemon juice and salt – and in Jerusalem they sometimes add garlic.
It used to be the equivalent of breakfast porridge for the farmers and is generally made by Arabs for consumption by Jews – for the Arabs this was something the could eat for free at home so why would they eat it in a restaurant? Also it is kosher, halal, vegan – so everyone can eat and share it.
In more recent times the Jews moved to making hummus a lunch dish and added things in the centre – meat in the middle or mushrooms. We visited Abu Hassan which has been around for years and generally wins the best hummus in the world competitions. As is typical in this part of the world – the father left his shop to his eldest son. The next two sons both opened rival shops opposite each other – the recipe is the same in all three – the sons are all suing each other – Go figure.
One the tour we also ate shawarma and cheese borek and falafel not to mention poppyseed cake, babka, Yemenite pancakes (from a hole in wall place near the market that Jamie Oliver visited recently – watch the show in September if you are in the UK) and Malabi – a kind of panacotta with rose water.

My favorite vegetable is aubergine or eggplant so I was delighted to try one of Tel Aviv’s favorite dishes – Sabich – again from a renowned place. Line outside the door for wholewheat pita with thinly fried eggplant, tahini, hard boiled eggs, potato and loads of spices and salads and pickles. Delicious. I also tasted a very delish eggplant melanzuna (on a bed of fresh tomatoes and tahini) for breakfast one morning. Swoon

We also got to eat at some of the new restaurants in Tel Aviv and particularly liked Kitchen Market at Tel Aviv Port – not cheap but super delicious, well designed food and great view to boot. The pretty appetizer are tiny rolls of raw tuna, carrot, beet root etc with the most fabulous picante sauce on top. The meat is pressed lamb. The dessert is upside down cheesecake.

In Jaffa – where our food tour started we also got to see a lot of the old city and walked a lot which is just as well given how much we ate. The views back to modern Tel Aviv show how close Jaffa Port is to the modern city but it also has plenty of history and a mish mash of Islamic and Jewish architecture – plus a bit of Roman.

It was just after Eurovision too so it was fun to see the posters about the event and a very cool of last year’s winner from Israel made out of beer bottle tops. She is a bit of an icon here and grew up around Jaffa I’m told.

And look – in my neighborhood near the nice boutiques on Sahzabi Street – I found another Banksy. He does get around.
Finally it was great fun to meet up with some relatives by marriage who live in Tel Aviv – that’s Ran bottom right (sorry the waitress chopped off half his face!) and his wife Aliza, his daughter and two grandchildren plus one boyfriend. I definitely had a “blonde moment”:). Lovely to meet this group for the first time.Thanks for dinner Ran and for following the blog.

Israel, Jerusalem – the Israel Museum

I started my visit in Jerusalem in one museum and ended it in another – this time the amazing Israel Museum which has something for everyone. We got onto a free tour which lasted two hours and was fascinating. The docent managed to cover the history of mankind (really, she did!) as she took as around the evidence from archaeological digs to the first signs of man to their move from hunters to settlers and farmers to developing thought processes to plan for the future. She was brilliant and was able to carefully cover the perspectives from the bible and clarify what people believe to be true, what they have proved to be true and also said that a lot of unanswered questions still remain.

For instance on the top right below is what is believed to be the remains of the very first fire place (first sign of people staying put and starting to farm and eat food in one place) and the remains on the bottom left is a girl cradling her dog (first sign of domestic animals). Note whenever you see bones they are casts of original bones as Jewish people do not believe in showcasing real bones of people.

Below top right is the oldest known fragment of the written bible. It predates the Dead Sea Scrolls which is the oldest known complete written bible. Top left is one half of the fortress gate at Hazor during the time of King Ahab. Below right – the gorgeous sculpture of a head was only found in 2017. It is an elegant style so they know it must be a distinguished person – probably a king but it was found on the border of 3 different kingdoms – they just haven’t figured out who yet BUT they do know it dates back to the 9th Century BC.

And then humans very early on began to like aesthetics – how things looked had to be just right – and this was well before the selfie era! This is reflected in the intricate carvings on the mummy, the first known use of gold (about 6000 years BC) – probably a form of ingot rather then jewellery but very pretty nevertheless and also as people started to stay put they realised the importance of things like weather to their ability to survive and so amulets started to appear for good luck and protection.

The docent then took us to a fabulous section of the museum on Judaica – where the best of the best is on display from Jewish communities all around the world. Some of the clothes worn on special occasions from Eastern Europe and the Levant and Arab world are below.

The museum also has four synagogues in it – 3 in very good condition that have been shipped over and reconstructed in the museum. I loved the fact that they came from very different parts of the world and have adapted their design to that used in the country they were created but as the pointed out the contents of the Torah never change – she described it as “Same prayer, different melodies”.

The two synagogues below are from Italy (baroque style abundant) and India (Cochin) where the Indian woodwork design prevails. And when the Indian one was built they were into listening to females speak publicly so the upstairs section has a place where they could read from the Torah!

The synagogue immediately below is from Suriname and designed in the Dutch Protestant style (as they were colonising this part of the world at that time) and it has sand on the floor – something I had seen in Caribbean synagogues – and no-one knows why for sure. The least good condition synagogue was the one from Bavaria which is where my mother came from so I immediately recognised the style of adornment.

They also have some beautiful embroidered coverings and wedding gifts in this section of the museum.

Outside the main buildings – and there are a lot of them – is a full scale model of Old Jerusalem as they believed it to be during the time of the 2nd Temple – using a scale of 1:50 – really fun to walk around having been to the real thing (sadly without the 2nd temple of course). On the right is the place called the Shrine of the Book where the Dead Sea Scrolls are housed – no inside pics allowed.

Aside from all the anthropological and historical and Judaica items – the Isreal Museum has a pretty good selection of international and Israeli art. I chose these four Picassos.

And the building and gardens around are impressive and house some excellent modern and contemporary sculptures including Anish Kapoor’s Turning the World Upside Down.

If I come back to Jerusalem I will definitely return to this museum. We stayed nearly 5 hours without a break.

Israel, Masada, River Jordan and the Dead Sea

And back to the bible – this time it is the River Jordan and the spot where John the Baptist is believed to have baptized Jesus. Back in 2012 my friend Beth and I visited Jordan and we saw this site from the opposite side looking back at Israel so it was great to now see it from the Israeli side looking back at Jordan. The river is very narrow and is in fact an official border between the countries but there is no official crossing here. People come to be baptized here and also to collect water to take home for baptisms. Due to climate change the water levels of the river are dropping substantially.

From Jordan in 2012

From Israel in 2019

Then we headed to the Dead Sea – the lowest point on earth and you can feel your ears pop as you descend from well above to 430 meters below sea level. Once again climate change is impacting the scenery – those holes you can see are giant sink holes caused by the continued reduction of water in the Dead Sea. It means these areas are also no longer able to be used as beaches. Real shame.

We then “mudded up” and enjoyed a bit of floating in the Dead Sea. It is a very strange experience as the sea is 30% salt compared to 5% in most oceans and you cannot even stand up with your own propulsion once you are above your knees in the water – you just have to float and try not to giggle too much as this is NOT good stuff to swallow. Getting out again involves dragging yourself along the bottom with your hands until you get to a point where you can stand up again.

The pics below show how climate change has caused the evaporation of a lot of the water and in fact the Dead Sea is now two seas as a portion has dried and created a land mass in the middle of the Sea.

Next we headed to Masada – a very special place both as the location of one of the many palaces that King Herod built and then later as a citadel. King Herod – who I tended to think of as the guy who wanted all the first born killed as he heard a rumor there was to be a new King of Jews born – was actually a huge influence in this part of the world as he was a great builder and loved to use all the latest techniques to do so. He rebuilt the 2nd Temple in Jerusalem and Masada was one of his palaces where he had all the latest mod cons.

He built this one on top of a high mountain (because he could) and we ascended to the top by cable car. We walked around for 90 minutes in 39 degree heat but it was well worth it as the place is in very good condition and extensive.

The subsequent period of importance was when this became a Jewish citadel during the Roman Empire period. The Romas held the city under siege for 2 years and when the Jewish populace realised that the wall was going to be breached and they had no chance they decided to commit suicide rather than be slaves. In the Jewish religion suicide is forbidden and means you cannot be buried in the cemetery. Therefore they decided that the men would kill the women and children and when the last 10 men were left they picked lots to decide which one would kill the next until only one was left – so they reduced the number who had to commit the sin of suicide (although quite why murdering their kin was not a sin is a mystery to me!). When the Romans walked in the next day they found the place full of dead bodies except for two women and a few kids who had rather sensibly decided that they would rather live – and of course that meant they were around to tell the story of what happened.

Having said all that there is a lot of debate about whether the whole story is really true and they are still reviewing the archaeology to see if they can be sure it is. Thats the thing about Israel – everything we understand about the past is constantly changing as we get smarter in understanding the evidence that is found.

Back to Herod

Israel, Jerusalem – the King David Hotel

Today I am devoting my blog to the iconic King David Hotel in Jerusalem. All the good and the great (and not so great have stayed here over the years. And many of the famous residents have signed their names on a long row of floor tiles that mark one end of the main lobby corridor to the other.

The lobby is elegant and the staff impeccable and the flowers gorgeous.

There is loads of space both inside and out to just hang around and relax – whether on the outside terrace or the lobby lounge or slightly more private lounge area. And I love the ceilings which have been restored splendidly.

The pool area looking back on the classic building design is pretty special too and great for a brief respite after all that walking in the heat.

And the flowers in the garden areas are kept in impeccable condition too.

At night you can see the old City and watch the sun go down.

A very special treat to stay here.