Cycling Costa Brava Slowly

A recent week long vacation north of Barcelona found us cycling the byways and bike paths of Catalonia, Spain.  While some might consider a cycling vacation a bit too strenuous to be considered  a “slow” vacation, to my mind, cycling is a wonderful way to leisurely experience and savor a little slice of Spain.  In the Costa Brava region of Catalonia stark coastlines where mountains meet the sea, green fields as far as the eye can see, vineyards, medieval villages, tapas bars, wonderful coffee, and fish so fresh it fairly jumped off the platter, all joined forces to making this a wonderful week and a memorable vacation.

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View from our townhouse

Our holiday booked with Cycle Catalan helped us with the legwork and made the technical parts of vacation planning simple. While they offer a variety of packages and trips, the one we opted for called “Cycle and Chill” included a week-long rental of a well outfitted, modern townhouse in Calonge, a medieval village just three kilometers from the coast.  The three-bedroom townhouse, had not only a private pool, full kitchen, and comfortable living and dining room, but also came with a bird’s eye view of the ancient castle and church spires that chimed the quarter hour, reminding us to enjoy every moment of our precious time in this part of the world.

"Our" living room for the week

“Our” living room for the week

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My bike resting (along with me) on a bike path in Catalonia

Alan, the friendly owner and proprietor of Cycle Catalan picked us up at the nearest train station, about an hour north of Girona, at the prearranged time.  Bringing us directly to our home for the week, he showed us  the 18 speed bikes outfitted and ready for us with side packs, front packs, and a computer.He then gave us a complete briefing including maps and detailed instructions of recommended bike tours for the days of our stay.  Alan was available for consultation over the course of the week, and provided drop off and pick up on several days, allowing us to go farther afield without worrying about a grueling return trip.  He served as excellent backup when we got a flat tire one day in the middle of nowhere.  Within 30 minutes, a replacement bike had us on our way and we carried on grateful that the day had been saved.

The cycling itself was glorious.  Well-signed bike paths crisscross Catalonia, and the days we spent biking allowed us a close up look at the land, the people, visiting out of the way places, secluded beaches, and quaint coffee shops and restaurants. The terrain is relatively flat making for easy cycling, and the bikes provided were excellent.

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The medieval city of Pals

A favorite day took us to the heart of the medieval villages that abound in this region.Beginning in the remarkably well preserved village of Pals, picturesquely set on a hillside, we explored the winding alleyways lined with stone houses, shops and restaurants. During the summer Pals is overrun with tourists, but on a late November morning, with the sun shining in a perfectly clear blue sky, we were the only ones about, and we were warmly welcomed in the one shop that was open displaying local ceramic ware alongside tourist souvenirs.

Leaving modern transportation behind and cycling from village to village allowed us to shed the cares of stress-filled lives, and to be present in the moment soaking up the atmosphere of an age gone by in villages that fire the imagination.Taking to the road, we pedaled our bikes through the countryside to Saint Feliu de Boadoa, another tiny village with a typical medieval square adjacent to the church, several ancient houses and working farms.  A stop for a cup of coffee at Can Joan hit the spot, and Joan, the owner himself, served us excellent coffee with a smile. Full meals are available there as well and from the look of the crowds on Sunday afternoon, the food must be excellent.

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Olive orchards at Can Solivera

Our penultimate stop for the day was Can Solivera, an olive plantation where the owners Hans and Daida, originally from Holland, set up shop in 1977, and since then have planted thousands of olive trees, producing exceptional extra virgin olive oil made from Arbequina olives.  Tasting the four different varieties of oil on offer, we quickly agreed on the one we liked best, and packed our purchase in my bright red saddlebag, continuing on our way to Peretallada, our final destination for the day. This charming town boasts a castle from the eleventh century, a moat, and city walls.  Walking through arched passages and alleyways transports you back to an earlier, simpler age.  Nevertheless, we were more than happy to see Alan at the appointed time and place for our ride home in 21st century transportation.

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Stormy seas at Calonge St. Anthony

Even when it rains, Costa Brava does not disappoint.  On the one truly stormy day we had, we cycled the three kilometers to the coast, and took a walk along the rugged coastline, enjoying the turbulent grey seas.  When the heavens threatened to open up once again, we took shelter in a seaside café, ordered coffee, and enjoyed our books until the rain let up.

35-kilometer bike rides might not be your idea of vacation, we found the flexibility suited us well, and enjoyed the simplicity of staying in one place and getting around on two wheels.  We were able to plan our days to our liking, deciding where to go, how far to ride, and how much chilling we wanted to do.  The wind whistling in our ears, as our legs churned the pedals, soaking up the sun, the scenery, and the sights, it just doesn’t get much better than this!

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High Holidays in Bali

After one week of total relaxation in Northern Bali, we encountered a new holiday, and began to understand an added layer to the word “relaxation.” Nepi, the Balinese New Year, this year celebrating the year 1938, is a day of quiet, reflection, and meditation. Lasting twenty-four hours from sun up to sun up, the airport closes, with no incoming or outgoing flights.  There are  no cars or motorbikes are on the road, no radio or television, no internet, and most importantly, no electricity.   While we had prepared for the day, laying in a stock of food, downloading movies, and readying ourselves mentally, our surprise, and initial dismay occurred when the air conditioner and fan that we sleep with each night, cut out at 6:24 AM. That was it for electricity.  We had understood that there would be electricity but that the Balinese would not use it, as in years past.  This year, it was decided from above that we would all be Balinese.

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Preparing for the Holiday

Nepi is preceded by months and weeks of preparation, reaching a feverish pitch the day and night leading up to the holiday.  Hordes of women hard at work arranging offerings of flowers, fruit, and rice, met me when I arrived at the beach side temple in mid-morning.  Mountains of white rice covered long trestle tables awaiting blessings and ceremonies.  Off on the side were groups of men chopping meat and coconut that would be mixed with the rice later in the day.  Most of the people, men, women and children, were hanging out, buying from the food vendors, catching some shade, and chatting with friends, reminding me of street fairs or block parties.

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Table Brimming with Rice

However, not everyone was at the temple.  Groups of young men, adolescents for the most part, with pierced ears and slick haircuts, had spent the better part of the month preparing Ogah Ogs.  These are huge figures, some mythical, some original, said to represent the Evil Spirits.  Made from styrofoam, papier-mâché, foam, and the like, these figures are painted in garish colors, attached to bamboo poles, and readied for the parade due to take place at nightfall. Loud rock music provides background for what looks to be a wonderful way to involve young folks in continuing tradition, and involving them in community.  Donations are collected from family and friends to underwrite the not inconsiderable cost of these scary creatures and I paid my dues.  Each village has its own parade, ending with a burning ceremony. Due to the proximity to the beach, in “our” village of Les, the burning takes place at the beach.   There were to be at least nineteen Ogah Og, human carried floats at the parade, and we previewed at least ten of them.

Coming back in the mid afternoon, the ad hoc parking lot that had been filled with motor scooters a mere three hours earlier, was empty.  My erstwhile guide, Comet, assured me that there were prayers going on, and urged me to don my sarong, the di riguer  dress in all Balinese temples. I peeked around the corner and saw a group of twenty five men, all dressed in the same costume, plaid skirts, white shirts and white headdress, sitting cross legged on the ground, chanting, with the chief sprinkling water in the direction of the beach.  Clearly, this was an important ceremony, and I had no business being here.  I urged Comet to leave, whereupon he brought me to Pura Dalam, the large village temple hosting the public ceremony.  As we entered, we were met with women bearing square, colorfully woven baskets filled with offerings balanced precariously on their heads.  I looked over the temple expanse.  Hundreds of beautifully dressed Balinese, men, women and children, sitting quietly, cross legged on the ground. Waiting. A smell of incense filled the air.  The air was heavy, humid, with the only breeze coming from women who were fanning themselves with woven baskets.  After about twenty minutes, far off in the distance three priests sprinkled what look like water on the crowd.  Apparently this continues for about two hours, but soon after we left.

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At the Temple

As night fell, we made our way to the main road with our local host.  We were greeted with people lining the street on both sides as far as the eye could see.  With excitement in the air, we chatted and waited patiently for the big event.  The beating of bamboo drums could be heard from hundreds of meter away, as the procession made its way from the main village temple down the main road.  Float after float passed by, accompanied by bands of bamboo beating youngsters. Torches flanked the parade, and the floats were lit by either electric generators mounted on the bamboo platforms or by the simpler, hand held flashlights.  Every float, held up high by at least twenty young men, received a rousing cheer from the crowd.

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Oga Ogh Parade

As the parade wound its way down to the beach, the noise subsided, and focused attention went to disengaging the huge figures from the bamboo sticks that carried them.  Gold and tinsel were removed and then the giant figures were set alight symbolizing the burning of the Evil Spirits, and ensuring a good year for all Bali.20160308_194856 (2).jpg

The Burning of Oga Ogh

Bringing us back to today, Nepi, the “Quiet Day,” is a day without background noise.  Nepi brings us back to ourselves, to nature, to a simpler way of life, to the very basics.  Celebrating this day with the Balinese and honoring their culture, allows me to overcome my annoyance at no internet, no air conditioning, no electricity, and appreciate the beauty of simplicity.  This is a day without achievement, without doing, without going.  This is a day of just being.  Grateful for every breeze sent from the heavens, appreciating the silence, slowing down, breathing, I pray, along with my Balinese friends for things that all human beings pray for: health, prosperity, and peace.

Link to more pictures

 

Slow Travel in Nepal:  Life in a Buddhist Monastery

Slow travel takes on new meaning  from the top of a green mountain overlooking sprawling, dusty Kathmandu.  I am at  Kopan, a Buddhist Monastery  in the Tibentan tradition.  Quiet permeates the air with an occasional eagle spreading its wings soaring overhead.  The mountains in the far distance are an ever changing tableau-variously swathed in gray clouds, hidden by white puffy ones, or shining clear in the aftermath of a monsoon rains shower. A golden temple looms in front of me, dominating the center of the mountain.  Peering inside, one can see an enormous  Bhudda, and ornate, colorful walls and columns.

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View from the Monastery

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Gardens at Kopan

The monastery, a mere thirty minute ride from the international airport is a world apart from the teeming, crowded streets and alleyways of third world Kathmandu.  Up in Kopan there are well tended paths, green gardens, flowering trees, ornate temples, and golden statues of Bhudda. The monks garbed in burgundy colored robes, with bright yellow shirts peeping out the top, gather before 6 AM for communal prayer that is strongly reminiscent of the familiar  prayer in the neighborhood synagogue near my house, with the welcome addition of mugs of hot tea and bread, that are past around to each person who has arrived on time.  Chanting is occasionally disturbed by the crashing of cymbals, the  ringing of  bells, and two horns vigorously blown,  creating a cacophony of noise that perhaps helps the prayers reach their intended destination.

Kopan Monastery is unique in that it offers courses about Buddhism open to all that are interested,  throughout the year. There are both beginners and advanced courses that include anywhere from days to weeks of silence.   Several times during the year, when there are no official courses taking place, the monastery welcomes what they call “private stays,” utilizing  the extensive guestrooms and generating additional income for the monastery.  During these private stays which can range from days to weeks, visitors are welcome to attend Dharma talks, an hour in length, that are offered by the local nuns and monks providing a general introduction to Tibetan Buddhism.  Dharma means “the way” and refers to the Buddhist way of life.

Luckily, the few free days that I had before beginning work on a post earthquake psychosocial intervention program with a local NGO, were available for private stays.  Sitting cross legged on cushions in a corner of the massive temple, during the morning Dharma talks we learn about the root of human suffering, the nature of anger, and the Buddhist way (literally the Dharma) to release ourselves from these and other ills that human beings are plagued with.  The two middle aged nuns who led these talks during my stay, were both Westerners and had “taken the robes,” the Buddhist expression for becoming a nun or a monk and renouncing the pleasures of the world, thirty to forty years ago. We laughed together about our similar haircuts, and one of the nuns actually did a double take when she saw me, confessing that she thought at first that I was one of them!  We agreed that this haircut, a basic buzz cut, is wonderful, indeed, requiring minimal care and attention, while always looking good. .  The nuns were friendly and down to earth, yet very earnest and sincere in their exposition of Buddhist precepts, and apparently very dedicated to their spiritual lives. They welcomed questions and conversation during mealtimes and were open for consultations and advice.

Looking back at my five days in the monastery, I sense that these were days taking place in a different dimension. This was time out of time.  I noticed that my mind was empty, blank.  No thoughts or worries occupied them.   I knew that my meals would be served (100% strict veg) and all I had to do was to show up. I had no “to do” lists, no tasks or things I had to do. The writing I intended to do I never got around to.  Reading, walking, thinking, breathing, meditating, journaling, looking at the breathtaking scenery and talking filled my days.  Yes, talking.  This was no silent retreat.  While there were people at the monastery who were “in silence”,  doing a private retreat, a group of us, were clearly not, and we happily spent mealtimes, enjoying each other’s company and conversation.  Mauritius, Iran, Germany, New Zealand, South Africa, Brazil, Holland, Australia, and USA, were some of the countries represented.  Much of our conversation centered on Buddhist thought and practice.  There were those who were well versed, in Buddhism and others that were new to this.  Many of the people came to the monastery searching for answers to life challenges such as lost love, choosing a career, and dealing with illness.  Others were spiritual seekers, looking for answers to the mystery of life. Yet others, like me were simply seeking a peaceful environment, away from the hubbub of life.

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Monks at Kopan

The atmosphere in the monastery was one of ease, order, interest, and yes, spirituality. Contemplating the lives of the monks and nuns, it occurred to me, that living a life without family, without responsibility for livelihood, spending large parts of the day in prayer, study and meditation, and living in a community of peers, is a life with far fewer stresses than most of us can imagine.  In this modern age of instant communication and the expectation to be immediately responsive and constantly reactive, our lives are far removed from the measured, ordered, peaceful lives of these monks.  Is it any wonder that the monks had an air of equanimity about them?  Equanimity.  That was the word that immediately came to mind observing the monks, and long before I learned that  Buddha directed his followers to cultivate equanimity (uppekha) along with compassion, joy, and loving kindness, considered the Four Great Virtues.

There is time here to contemplate the meaning of life, the very essence of our beings.  We learn about the basic emotions: anger, jealousy, hate, sadness, love, happiness.  We consider many of the 51 aspects of mental formations.  We learn that karma means cause and effect, and as such according to Buddhist thought, we can impact on what happens in our lives.  Our lives are not totally random, and things don’t just happen to us.  We have a part in them.  Life here in the monastery is pared down to the basics:  simple food and lodging, honest conversation, and straightforward interactions.

How do we take this back into our lives, I ask my favorite nun on the eve of my departure.  You don’t, she says.  You cannot take this experience back into your life.  You take the wisdom you have gleaned from your stay here back into your life.

I think about this.  What wisdom do I take with me?  Firstly, a rededication to slow travel, to appreciating the little things in life that make life worthwhile, to taking time to breathe and smell the flowers, to talk to people, to listen to the quiet.   I take with me an appreciation for how little we need, how things don’t make us happy, how anger is destructive, the importance of stopping and breathing, reconnecting to my body, and observing my mind.    These are the things I take, along with a souvenir picture of Kopan indelibly printed on to the pictures of my mind.  A picture that I can retrieve at a moment’s notice, with a mindful breath in and out, reminding myself that such a place exists in this world. Slow travel at its best.

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Entrance to Kopan Monastery


Stuck in the Mud: Really Slow Travel

There we were, a combined 153 years between the two of us, in a white 2007 Mazda, spinning our wheels, not proverbially, but actually.  We were thoroughly and completely stuck in the mud, not just any mud, but thick, brown, oozing, sticky mud. Now, if you have to be stuck in the mud (and that indeed is a philosophical question of epic proportions, which we will leave for discussion to a later date) choose a sunny day, world-class scenery and a good friend.  I did.

To round out a lovely visit with my dear friend A., we decided to drive among the fishponds to see what birds we might spot, and to enjoy the flowering bounty of spring.  After remarking on the lush green valley, thanks to abundant rainfall, and spotting many birds, we decided to make a detour into a fishpond to see if we could find the black stork, an apparently rare variety of stork that had recently been spotted in the vicinity.  After slipping and sliding cautiously on the narrow ring road, we were utterly marooned in the Bet Shean Valley, the Gilboa Mountains climbing off to the West, and the even taller Gilad Mountains soaring off to the East. Right next to us, thousands upon thousands of birds were circling overhead, swooping down and occasionally coming to rest a stone’s throw away at the edge of the fishpond.  There were enormous birds of all sorts- pelicans, seagulls, kingfishers, and yes, the black stork too!

By the side of the fishpond-the Gilboa Mountains off in the distance

By the side of the fishpond-the Gilboa Mountains off in the distance

 

To my mind, slow travel focuses on savoring the experience, the people, the culture of new places and foreign countries, in contrast to ticking off sites one has to see. Writing  a blog about slow travel for the last few years, I thought I had understood just what slow travel meant. Being stuck in the mud puts a very different spin on that concept.  Just how slow is slow?

When you are stuck, as we were, and all you can do is wait for someone to come and pull you out, you have time to look around, savor the view, laugh with your friend, and enjoy the sun.  There is absolutely nothing, nothing we could do to extricate ourselves, except for what we had already done, which was to phone for help.  Enjoying the minutes as they slowly ticked away, my 93 year old friend A. assured me that this was not the first time this had happened to her, and she has always gotten out.  Thus far. I decided not to worry.  Why worry? With a sparkle in her eye, she told me that she had actually arranged for this to happen so that she will remain unforgettable.  Dare I say she has succeeded?

The first truck arrives to extricate us but is unable to make it up the slippery slope, so he calls for reinforcements in the shape of my friend’s son riding shotgun on a tractor.  After failing to find a place to connect my car to the tractor from the front, the tractor lumberingly turns around and makes the long and muddy approach from the back. The tractor is slipping and sliding in the mud and I wonder whether he will get close enough.  My friend’s son takes over the driver seat as I gratefully buckle myself into the back.  Getting pulled out along the narrow, muddy path, with the fish pond plunging down to the left, and an equally deep gully on the right, I screwed my eyes shut and prayed. I could feel the car slithering over the mud, and the seconds tick by.  We are holding our collective breaths.  Ten more seconds and we are home free.

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Our Saviours

 

A few minutes later as we drive to the garage to spray down the car and do a damage assessment, we fast-forward into real time, and the pull of everyday events.  There are things to do, commitments to keep, and people to meet.  Gone are those few magical moments when there was nothing we could do so all we did was wait, look at the birds, the scenery and each other. Gone but not forgotten.

So Close Yet So Far:  Scuba Diving (Slowly) in Aqaba

After a whirlwind month filled with transatlantic travel, family visits, and a trip to New York City, it is time to reconnect with the kids, with nature, with myself and scuba diving down south seems to fit the bill.  Since diving in the Sinai is tricky these days due to an unstable political situation, and the Great Barrier Reef is half way around the world, we settle on a three-day diving safari to Aqaba, Jordan, a three hour drive from home, that hosts some pretty terrific Red Sea diving.

Our uneventful drive south through the predawn darkness is subdued, each one of us wrapped in thought. Will I remember how to put on my gear?  Will I have enough oxygen?  How cold is the water?  Who will be our dive instructor and what will he be like? How long will it take to cross the border?  What did I forget to pack? How are we doing on time? The road seems endless as my mind meanders.

Arriving at the border and parking the car in the empty lot, I feel my stomach clench, and my heart beat faster.   We have done this before, yet each time I cross the border into a neighboring country that was once at war with us, I sense that we are leaving the safety of home  and are crossing into the unknown. Aside from a wary peace treaty and a border, we have much in common with our Jordanian neighbors to the East.  We share scenery, climate, the Dead Sea, and the Red Sea, to name just a few. When it snows in Jerusalem, it snows in Amman as well. However, in the day to day, Jordan is far removed from our consciousness in the day to day, and Jordanians remain a mystery.  The cold peace we partake in has endured for decades, and while I don’t feel that Jordanians are “the enemy,” I am not entirely sure they are friends.  Pulling my suitcase on wheels from the Israeli side to the Jordanian side, a mere ten meters away, we are greeted by a uniformed guard who smiles and wishes us, “salaam alyekum,” peace be on to you. The driver is waiting to help us through Jordanian passport control, and it looks like it is going to be a good day.

By 9:30, we are drinking instant coffee at the Sea Star dive club, located in Tala Bay, just south of the city and across the narrow bay from Eilat. We struggle into our black wetsuits, and are fitted out with first rate equipment, briefed and ready for our first dive by 10:30.  The sky is deep azure, not a cloud in the sky, but the brisk winds feel cool, actually downright cold.  Entering the water slowly, weighted down by my full tank, and 11 kg weight belt, my heart is hammering.  Is it the exertion or the anticipation? I spit into my mask to prevent fogging, and rinse it before placing it over my head.  The instructor, Taher, a compact, wiry man of about 40, gives us the thumbs down signal to descend, and within seconds, the splendor of the underwater world unfolds in front of us.  I clasp my hands in front of my body (you don’t swim with your arms when diving ) and stretch out my yellow, flippered feet to start a slow, relaxing, flutter kick.

Me - 21 meters below

Me – 21 meters below

Diving is at once familiar and exciting.   In my rational brain, I know that there is an entire universe just below the sparkling surface of the water.  Yet, each time I descend with a tank on my back and become part of the world below, it is as refreshingly surprising as the first dive.  We slowly circle the soft beige corals that undulate in the currents, watching the the tiny bright blue fish with spots of yellow, swim in and around, looking for tasty morsels.  I watch as Taher approaches the coral, and it immediately contracts, moving into defense mode against unknown predators, as the fish swim quickly away.

We spot an enormous green sea turtle close by,at least a meter and a half long  lumbering along with open mouth, waiting for a delectable feast that is unwittingly swimming its way.  The turtle echoes something prehistoric, and reminds me of a picture from a dinosaur book I used to read my son long ago.

Sea Turtle

Sea Turtle

Our slow circuit continues as we make our way along the coral reef, allowing a close-up look at the coral abundance, shades of pink, blue, purple, beige, green, each one shaped differently from its neighbor.  Like snowflakes, I think, all alike but each one unique.  We eagerly seek out the more unusual varieties of fish spotting the gloriously colored clown fish proudly displaying its fluorescent blues and oranges and the patrician striped black and white fish, sporting a splash of yellow for contrast.  We are careful to give wide birth to the lionfish, stonefish, and sea porcupines, so as not to arouse their poisonous venom.    A large pink coral is home to at least fifteen full sized lionfish, peeking menacingly out of the crevices.

Coral Reef - Aqaba

Coral Reef – Aqaba

The slight danger merely heightens the experience, similar, I think to myself later in the day, to walking through the streets of Aqaba. Feeling like a tourist in a foreign country, there is that heightened sense of excitement, again. As Israelis, we usually need to take an airplane in order to arrive in “hutz la’aretz,” that place that engenders feeling of being far from home. Here I am, a mere three hour drive from home, yet the sensation of being abroad is palpable.  The language is familiar, the smells recognizable, as we walk through the market in a very matter of fact sort of way, belying the feeling of being in this country, so close, yet so far away.

As we return to the sea the next day, and re-discover an entire universe below the surface, I am struck by how we live in parallel worlds most of our lives, focused on ourselves and little else.  In my daily routine I rarely think about Jordan or Jordanians, nor about the universe waiting right under the surface of the sea.  My family, my career, my health, and various and sundry details like how much milk is in the fridge, and did anybody fold the laundry occupy my thoughts.  Travel, and slow travel in particular, allows that delicious peek into these parallel universes, blowing wide open the opportunity to both learn about others and perhaps more importantly, look at our own lives from a distance.

In contrast to that heightened sense of perspective, while diving, each of us is ensconced in a mask, breathing through a regulator, disconnected from the world.  Underwater, my focus narrows to the screen of my mask, and the dial connected to my oxygen tank. The only way to communicate is by sign, and every few minutes the guide signs the OK sign, questioningly, as we pick up our hands in response, forming the O with thumb and forefinger.    Aside from these periodic breaks,  I am alone with my breath, hearing each inhale whoosh through the regulator, and each exhale, bubble out into the deep blue.  I am present, deeply and fully present.    My eyes scan the watery scenery as it unfolds, marveling at the greatness of God and his world, the colors, the shapes, the flora and fauna in all their glory.  The slower I move, the more I can see, appreciate, and marvel. Under water, all sense of getting somewhere and accomplishing something disappear.  I simply am.  Certainly, this is slow travel at its best.

The Fabulous Four - The Kids and Me

The Fabulous Four – The Kids and Me

The ABCs of Bruge

An extended layover on a recent cross Atlantic trip gave us the perfect excuse to spend a day in Bruge.  But who needs an excuse for a city that boasts the ABCs: atmosphere, beer and chocolate?  Many cities will tell you that they are famous for these three things but Bruge truly is.

Starting at the top, Bruge is a perfectly preserved medieval city with buildings dating from the twelfth, thirteenth and fourteenth century.  It is a compact city and easy to sample in a day, but a genuine slow traveler would more likely enjoy two or three days to partake in more of its pleasures.

We set off from the international airport of Brussels, and after an uneventful trip on two trains, we arrived after 90 minutes at the Bruge Central Station.  A quick walk down a treelined boulevard crossing several canals brought us to our first stop, a local taphouse.  We figured that liquid refreshment was in order, considering that Belgium is home to 300 different brews, and at any given bar you can find at least ten local brews on tap, ranging from pale ales to the more hefty trippels and even quadrupells.  As home brewers, we considered this part of our “continuing education.”  We limited ourselves to two very good brews, and thus outfitted we were ready to see the city.

IMG_20141126_132116 IMG_20141126_132514We found ourselves in Market Square, the medieval town center, flanked by two large palaces, one of them with a belltower of 300 steps that you can climb should you choose to do so.  We passed.  IMG_20141126_141933The picturesque square is lined at this time of year with Christmas fairs and booths selling wares of all kinds, mostly food and gifts.  This was our favorite booth.

IMG_20141126_141036One of the more remarkable features of Bruge is the number of chocolate shops that line the medieval city streets.  The sweet smell of chocolate is everpresent, like a cloud hanging over this wet, gray city.  We counted more than fifty shops, but I am sure that we didn’t seen them all.  Chocolate in various shapes and forms abound, each shop with its own specialty. One of the more remarkable ones we saw featured houses formed of chocolate.  Fortunately for us, there were no free tastes.

IMG_20141126_165752Wondering why one small city is possibly both  the chocolate and beer capital of the world, we considered the misty, grey sky, the startlingly short winter days, and the penetrating cold and decided that both chocolate and beer would be exceedingly good  “pick me ups,” and therapeutic indeed for those suffering from SAD- seasonal affective disorder.

We continued walking through the city, crossing canals, lined with charming row houses, perfectly maintained since the 17th century, soaking up the atmosphere, the chocolate smells, and considering which beer to drink next.

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We came across the eighteenth century fish market still active today, however our timing was off and all we met were the clean up trucks hosing down the stalls, and the fishy smells.  A quick look around brought us to the fresh fish store across the street sporting a mound of fresh matjes in the window.  Who could resist?

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We rounded out our visit with a beautiful harp concert in the St. John’s Hospital (no pics to show), and a visit to the Half Moon Brewery.  By the time we got to the Brewery the tours were over for the day, but they were more than happy to serve us their justifiably famous brews.

Ending the day in Bruge full and happy, with early twilight descending, and a faint mist turning into cold rain, we alighted the train back to Brussels and the continuation of our trans Atlantic trip.

 

 

 

 

Driving the Dalmatian Coast, Slowly….

Travelling the Dalmatian Coast from Dubrovnik to Split with my daughter Shoshi could hardly be considered Slow Travel. Or could it?  Weighing in on the plus side is the fact that in the week we spent in Croatia we focused on one relatively small area, the 163 kilometer (101 miles) stretch from Dubrovnik to Split.  Although we considered driving to the world famous Plitvice Lakes, a mere eight hours from Dubrovnik, and almost went to it’s smaller and less famous sister the Krka National Park, we bagged them both and decided to slowly enjoy the drive.  What might seem to indicate that this trip was less than Slow Travel was the fact that Shoshi kept me on the move and we slept in  a total of six different beds in the seven nights that we spent in Croatia.

While 163 kilometers, or 101 miles may seem a paltry amount, the road that borders this most picturesque of coastlines is a narrow, two lane highway, following the winding contours of the coastline where the mountains abruptly drop off to the sea.  The 60 km speed limit, along with the temptation to make frequent stops at the quaint fishing villages meant that it took us two days to drive up the coast and another two days to drive back.  But more on that later.

a preview of the coastal road

a preview of the coastal road

Let’s start at the beginning.  Shoshi and I decided on Croatia rather last minute, after we found inexpensive charter flights to and from Dubrovnik, allowing us a full week to explore.  I had recently enjoyed being in Slovenia with Mike (see my report on Slow Slovenia), and was eager to continue exploring this region of the world.  That coupled with the fact that the flight was direct (2.5 hours from Tel Aviv) and inexpensive made it an easy decision indeed.

We arrived in the middle of the night (who says charters fly at convenient times??) at the Dubrovnik airport, located actually 20 km outside of Dubrovnik near a charming seaside village called Cavtas.  We booked a room in Cavtas, and after picking up our rental car, and examining it for scratches with the proprieter by the light of a cellphone (I guess that’s how they do it in Croatia), we made it without incident and with the help of the indefatigable  Waze, to our first bed of the trip.  When we awoke in the morning we were pleasantly surprised to note that if we craned our necks at a 90 degree angle we could get a view of the Adriatic Sea.  Clearly we would not be staying in the apartment any longer than necessary.  It had served its purpose.

We set out to explore Cavtas, and after a quick cup of coffee and granola bar (remember this isn’t quite the slow travel we have been accustomed to…) we drove to the center of town with Cavtas spread out in front of us, and the sparkling blue of the Adriatic beckoning. We found the bike rental store and procured the last bikes available.  We set out on the recommended 45 km adventure in the hills above Cavtas and fortunately the higher elevations provided cooler weather, and we even got drenched in a quick but fierce rainshower.  Unfortunately I left my camera behind that day so we have no photos of the quiet churchyard where we stopped for a picnic lunch or the ancient flour mill we came across with running water streams, and two lovely restaurants shaded by large, leafy trees, placed directly over the running streams.  We of course stopped for a drink and not only was our thirst quenched but all of our senses were refreshed as the result of this lovely stop.  We resumed our ride and made it back to Cavtas by 6 PM, allowing enough time for a stroll around the inlet, and our first dip in the Adriatic.

It turns out that the Adriatic beaches are all rocky, no sand to be found.  In Cavtas they have built cement decks to allow for easy entry, and we happily took advantage of the ladders leading into the water.  The water.  Ahh, the water.  The Adriatic is absolutely amazing. Clear to the bottom, soft and gentle, salty, and cool but not cold.  Actually, as perfect a body of water as I could possibly imagine.  Our swim that evening cooled off our sweat drenched bods whereupon we set out to find a place to rest our heads for the night.  We found a room for rent with a fabulous porch overlooking the sea and enjoyed our picnic dinner with this world class view.

view of the Adriatic from "our" porch in Cavtas

view of the Adriatic from “our” porch in Cavtas

Day two dawned bright and early, as we set out for our road trip.  Destination: Omis, a town about 30 kilometers from Split.  We slowly wound our way up the coast, and to a rafting adventure on the Cetina River.

Rafting the Cetina

Rafting the Cetina

The Cetina was perfectly clear, clean and refreshing, due to the lack of industry in Croatia which has preserved the rivers, lakes and the sea as well. While this may not be good for Croatia, it is wonderful for us tourists.  We continued to Omis after a wonderful trip down the river, and after finding a tiny room with air conditioning that worked only if you paid for it (gulp!) we enjoyed the sunset, a swim and the general ambiance of a vacation village on the Adriatic.

Omis

Omis

The next day took us to Split, second largest city in Croatia, and home to a temple of the Roman Emperor Diocletian from the third century CE.  We had booked a Jewish tour of Split with a wonderful young tour guide, Lea, and we explored the palace finding menoras carved into the castle walls, indicating the presence of Jews in this far flung province of the Roman empire as early as the third century.

Menora Etched into Palace Wall - Split

Menora Etched into Palace Wall – Split

Castle - Split

Castle – Split

We got an insider’s view of the little used but beautifully maintained synagogue of Split.  There are Friday night social  gatherings during the year, that are suspended during summer time, and there are services for the high holy days.  We found the inscription above the bima, “hineh ma tov uma naim shevet achim gam yachad,”  most unusual and interesting, possibly the result of the melding of ashkenazi and sefardi communities into one.

Split Synagogue

Split Synagogue

After visiting the synagogue we made our way up to the old Jewish cemetery.  When we got there we found this:

Inscription at the Entrance to a Pub!

Inscription at the Entrance to a Pub!

It turns out that the Jewish community decided that in order to raise funds they would rent out the funeral home adjacent to the old cemetery neither of which was still in use.  They added one proviso to the rental contract.  The renters were not allowed to cover over the Hebrew inscription, and thus, this must be the only bar in the world that has the inscription, Tziduk Hadin (follow the link for more info).  We drank a le’chaim with this bird’s eye view of the city, and prayed that all the neshamot (souls) buried hear would have an “iluy”(uplifting).

View from the Pub-Split

View from the Pub-Split

We began the return trip on the Coastal Road, and even though we were retracing our steps, each turn in the road brought a beautiful new vistas into view.

Coastal Road

Coastal Road

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We arrived in the town of Brella as the sun was beginning its descent, and after checking into our room, we quickly made our way down at least 100 steps to the sea, where we caught our daily dip.  Have I told you how refreshing the water was?  As we shook the drops of water off of us, we walked down the boardwalk, and found what turned out to be our evening adventure.  A ferry was departing in five minutes time to the nearby beach town of Makarska where a local festival was underway.  Without a second thought, we signed on figuring that we would find some clothes in Makarska.  We enjoyed the beautiful sunset from the boat, and then spent two hourse wandering Makarska, enjoying the crowds and the festival.  And oh yes, we found some clothes!

Sunset over the Adriatic from the Boat

Sunset over the Adriatic from the Boat

Huge Pita Filled with Spinach  Cooked Over Open Fire- Makarska

Huge Pita Filled with Spinach Cooked Over Open Fire- Makarska

Finding a place to stay for Shabbat, the following day,  proved a bit more challenging than we expected.  We wanted to stay somewhere off the beaten track and decided that Braca was the place.  We held our breath as we drove 2 kilometers on a narrow road bordered by water on both sides until we reached Braca.  Thank God we did not meet any cars coming in the other direction.

Road to Braca - Note the water on either side

Road to Braca – Note the water on either side

Unfortunately there were no rooms to be had, and so we had to make the return trip on the same 2 kilometer road.  Again, we were fortunate not to meet any other cars.

Eventually we struck paydirt and found a place 30 minutes away  also on the Peljesac Peninsula, at an isolated cove in a town called Kabli,consisting of about 4 houses.  We were hosted by Ivica who farms mussels and clams, and supplements his income with renting out his house which is a stone’s throw from the water’s edge.  He took us out in his boat to show us his “farm,” and was disappointed that we did not want to partake in his treasures.  We assured him they looked delicious and loved the boat ride and insider’s view of life in a Croatian fishing village.

Ivica's Farm

Ivica’s Farm

Ivica at work

Ivica at work

Kabbalat shabbat on the porch overlooking the water was memorable, and the entire shabbat was relaxing allowing us to catch up on sleep, eat  good food, and chat with Ivica and some other guests from Poland.

Sunday brought us to Dubrovnik, but that deserves a post all of its own, and this is getting awfully long, so here is just a quick preview to keep you interested:

Shoshi and I on the walls of Dubrovnik

Shoshi and I on the walls of Dubrovnik

 

Slovenia, Slowly


Our recent trip to Slovenia was the essence of Slow Travel.  After spending a quick overnight in the city of Graz, and visiting the infamous synagogue that had been dynamited on Kristallnacht, and rebuilt and dedicated on November 11, 2000, 62 years after Kristallnact, we made a beeline for Lake Bled where we spent six glorious days.  That was followed by three more days at a Slovenian spa in Rimske Toplice, but more on that later.

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Graz Synagogue

Lake Bled, an hour’s drive from the capitol of Lublijana, is a shimmering blue gem, with surfaces that are so still, they reflect the lush trees surrounding the lake.  We had originally anticipated renting an apartment with a panoramic view of the lake for six nights.  Little did we realize that the apartment was situated directly above the road ringing the lake, and aside from the view we would be treated to cars, buses and motorbikes switching gears right under our panoramic window.

Lake Bled

Lake Bled

We quickly bailed out, and luckily our landlady manages another property about 3 kilometers outside of Bled, with the perfect apartment just waiting for us.  This one bedroom newly constructed apartment sported a balcony looking out over a peaceful meadow, with the sounds of a running river not far below.  It was situated at the end of a tiny village Bodesce, and about a five minute drive from Bled.  Amazing what five minutes will bring you!  Peace, quiet, tranquillity.  Everything we were looking for in this Slow Vacation!

View from "our" porch

View from “our” porch

Once our suitcases were unpacked and the refrigerator filled, we were ready to set out.  First stop was a bike trip in the countryside.  We rented bikes in Bled and set out on the recommended 35 km route, on empty country roads that included rolling hills, small villages, and outstandingly peaceful scenery.  We stopped at a small restaurant for a drink and conversation with some local school kids that were gearing up for summer vacation.  The cycling trip ended abruptly when Mike’s gears froze on a fairly lonely stretch of the road.  Fortunately, Slovenian people are outgoing and ready to help.  Within ten minutes a man driving a van appeared out of nowhere, loaded our bikes into his van and took a 30 minute detour from his ride home to get us back to the bike store in Bled.  Talk about serendipity!

Mike on the bicycle

Mike on the bicycle

Our saviour

Our saviour

The next day we set off for a road trip to the Julian Alps.  Alps might be a misnomer, for these mountains rise up only 2800 meters at Mount Triglav, but the scenery is outstanding and the ride was beautiful.  We stopped several times to snap photos, and  enjoy the views.

Julian Alps

Julian Alps

Mount Triglav

Mount Triglav

We made our way down to the Socha Valley, and enjoyed crossing over the Socha River, sometimes called the Emerald River ( you will see why) on rather shaky suspension bridges.

Socha River

Socha River

Me on the shaky bridge

Me on the shaky bridge

From there we crossed into Italy making our way home via an excellent cup of coffee (finally!) and an Italian supermarket.  Those Italians know a thing or two about food that the Slovenians could learn.IMG_3565

Sunday brought us to Lake Bohinj, a thirty minute drive away from our apartment.  We once again rented bikes, and this time set out on a 25 km bike ride to the lake through thankfully flat countryside.

Me on the bike

Me on the bike

We took a break from biking to take a cable car ride up to Mt. Vogel, a ski resort, enjoying a beer and the beautiful views at the top of the mountain.

View of Lake Bohinj from Mt. Vogel

View of Lake Bohinj from Mt. Vogel

Monday we sadly bid goodbye to our apartment with the wonderful porch and headed towards Lublijana and on to the Rimske Toplice Spa, but more on that in the next post.

So why, you might ask, is this “slow travel”?

“It sure sounds like you were running around alot,” you say.

In fact, we did move around a bit, but we didn’t do more than one site each day.  We never rushed.  We started out each morning after waking up without an alarm clock, enjoying a leisurely breakfast, sometimes learning or reading for awhile, and only then packing up to go out.  We came back each evening and enjoyed preparing and eating dinner, watching movies on TV and reading.  We never felt that we had to “accomplish”, “get to”, or do anything in particular.  We took our time, and decided day by day, hour by hour, what was next.  For me, this is the essence of slow travel.

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One Last View of the Julian Alps

 

 

 

 

Graceful Greece

 

Can a four day adventure to Greece be considered slow travel?  The answer is a resounding yes if you are lucky enough to stay at the Costa Navarino about one hour south of Calamata, in the southwest Pelleponnese, the southernmost peninsula off the Greek mainland, and four hours south of Athens.  This area is world renowned for its olive trees, olives (hence Calamata olives) and extra virgin olive oil.  In fact the bus trip to the hotel introduced us to the lush foliage, the rolling hills of olive orchards and grape vines, and beautiful wild flowers.

Olive Orchard -Messina

Olive Orchard -Messina

Arriving at our hotel we were thrilled to see the view from our porch door, allowing us to hear the crashing of the waves on the shore night and day, and enjoy the spectacular views, the windsurfers and the birds.

IMG_3248

To better understand what I am talking about have a look at the video below:

We just couldn’t soak up enough of the porch and the natural beauty surrounding us, thus we decided not to sign up for the variety of bus tours offered under the auspices of the medical conference we were part of, and opted to enjoy a few “slow trips” on our own, making sure we had plenty of time to explore at our own pace and return to our room to enjoy “our”
view.

The first trip we took was to the town of Pylos, about a thirty minute bus ride from the hotel.  Pylos is an ancient town, built on the side of a mountain, and highly reminiscent of the Amalfi coast that we recently had visited.

Pylos

Pylos

While walking around the streets of Pylos, enjoying the fine weather, the friendly people, and the beautiful sites, we chanced on an elderly woman who threw us a greeting.

Throwing us a Flower

Throwing us a Flower

We climbed up to the newer fortress, from the 16th century and learned about the troubled history of the Greeks, particularly as they fought off the Turks.

Castle at Pylos

Castle at Pylos

Aside from the nineteenth century cannons and cannon balls that flew here, we enjoyed the expansive vistas and beautiful views.

cannons and cannon balls

cannons and cannon balls

Top of the Castle

Top of the Castle

View from the Castle

View from the Castle

Our second outing consisted of a 20 km bike ride to the Voidakillia Beach famed to be the most beautiful beach in Greece.  It is shaped like the Greek letter Omega, and because of the natural breakers, the water is very calm, albeit still quite cold.

IMG_3334

Voidakillia Beach

The bike ride also took us around the Gialova Lagoon, which is a beautiful nature reserve.

Panorama View of Bay

Panorama View of Gialova Lagoon

If you look carefully at the picture you can actually see Mike on his bicycle on the far right.

This adventure was just four days long, yet undoubtedly it was a slice of slow travel.  While we didn’t meet many Greek people, and the only word we learned in Greek was thank you – “ef̱charistó̱”, we enjoyed the scenery, the feta cheese and olives, the relaxation, the sun, the wind, the beach and most especially the crashing waves of the Ionian Sea.

 

Kosher Italy

Travelling kosher in Italy can be either frustrating or fun, depending on how you decide to look at it.  Outside of the cities of Venice, Milan, Florence and Rome where one can find kosher restaurants, there is virtually no ready made kosher food to be had.  That can leave one on the outside looking in on diners enjoying their wine and pasta or pizza at sidewalk cafes or classy restaurants.  Alternatively, if you plan it right, kosher eating can be an adventure indeed that leaves you feeling both satisfied and right in the swing of things.

Our last trip to Southern Italy was a perfect example of the latter.  We chose to stay in apartments with fully outfitted kitchens and our clothing shared space in our suitcases with kosher wine, cheese, crackers, tortillas, coffee, tea, one frying pan, one pot, a knife and some disposable dishes and cutlery.  Thus when we arrived in the early evening at our first apartment in rural Saint Agate high above the Amalfi Coast with a bird’s eye view of Sorrento, we were ready to hit the local shops and start preparing dinner.  By the time we set out the only store that was open was a fruit and vegetable market that had some basic groceries as well.

What fun it was to explore the local produce, some of which looked vaguely familiar, while other items were totally new.  We picked some of each, and enjoyed in particular the red raddicio which added beautiful color and crunch to our salads.  We of course purchased local virgin olive oil, and olives, as well as coffee for the espresso machine (non-electric) that we found in the kitchen.  Eggs, lentils and barley rounded out the shopping list.

Radicchio

Radicchio

Coming home that first night we enjoyed wine, cheese and olives while the spinach frittata was cooking.  The next morning following my friend Sara’s advice, we made a hearty lentil/vegetable soup that cooked while we were eating breakfast and getting ready for departure.  What a treat to have supper waiting for us at the end of our long day of touring the Amalfi Coast.

We made sure to eat hearty breakfasts each morning that would hold us for most of the day.  One day it was omelettes, another day quesadillas using the tortillas and cheese from home with sauteed onions and mushrooms.  Yum.

When the local market opened we were able to find Barilla pasta, and buffalo mozarella (made from cow’s milk)  and these both enriched our menus and made us feel like we were eating Italian fare along with millions of tourists and locals.

Buffalo Mozzarella

Buffalo Mozzarella

We spent Shabbat in Naples in a beautiful apartment with views to Mount Vesuvius and the Bay of Naples and we arrived on Friday afternoon just in time to kasher the oven, bake challah, and cook the pasta and fresh salmon that we had bought along the way.  Friday night was a feast!

When we realized on Saturday night that the “kosher” pizza we were hoping for wasn’t going to happen in Naples, we made our own, using the leftover challa, tomato sauce and … buffalo mozzarella. It was an okay substitute but the pizza the following night in Rome’s Jewish Ghetto was far better.

In addition to pizaa we enjoyed eating the local Jewish specialty of fried artichokes at  BaGhetto restaurant.  It’s what I would call an “interesting” experience that need not be repeated, but the food there was very tasty and the waitress was lovely. We enjoyed kosher Italian chianti with our dinner but were happy that most of the wine we had imbibed during the week came from Israel.  While it was lots of fun to eat out and celebrate the end of our trip, to my estimation, our home cooked food was at least as good, if not better!

Some additional information you may find useful:

A list of kosher restaurants

List of kosher foods in Italy

Another kosher list for Italy