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mercoledì 30 novembre 2011

Turkish delight

I am not talking about the sweet, which I don't particularly like, but about the amazing time I had in Turkey, more specifically in the Eagean region between Izmir and Dalaman. One of my closest friends is from Istanbul and we manage to see each other somewhere in Europe every year or so. This time she offered me to join her and her friends for a week in an area of Turkey I had never been before. How could I ever refuse? It was one of the greatest vacations I have had, even because with a local guide like my friend I discovered places I wouldn't have found by myself. I was for one day and a half by myself in Izmir, which is not particularly attractive even because everything was destroyed and has been reconstructed. I had a terrible sciatica those days so I have quite a blurry recollection of the place since I was on pain killers and sleeping all the time . The temperature was unbearable : the heat was destroying me so I basically went out in the morning then went to sleep in the afternoon and then went out in the evening again. The hotel was extremely confortable and cheap although it was an Hilton (splurge splurge) so I didn't really mind. Hilton Izmir. You can go to visit the market which is one of the main attractions and it's worth seeing (even if the heat there can basically kill you) and going to one of the only original buildings in the city called Asansor which is a tower where you take a lift and go to the top where you can have a nice view of the city. There is also a nice restaurant where to have lunch. When the heat cooled down I took a stroll on the promenade by the sea where there was a very pleasant wind and had dinner in Deniz one of the most well known restaurants. Well it was one of the best dinners I've ever had believe me. Check out the review I wrote on Trip Advisor. For a cheaper alternative you can go to Kirçiçegi where you can have wonderful pides (local pizza),soups (try the lentil one:it's delicious)and kebabs for very little money.
Leeches at Izmir market
View from Asansor
Baloon shooting on Izmir promenade
Later my friends took me to a lovely, lovely , lovely place which is almost unknown to foreign tourism and it's the Turkish Saint Tropez. Its name, very difficult to pronounce for us Italians, is Alacati (pronun. Allcct ). Well apart from some pictures and the overall consideration of it as a wonderful place I would recommend that you read the post on this place on my friend's blog:Alacati on Travelmind. We stayed in a very pretty guesthouse called Adacati guesthouse which is a great bed and breakfast (and what a breakfast that is: see for yourself).
Breakfast at Adacati
Adacati's dining room
Outside view of Adacati
Basically we went to the beach during the day and have fancy dinners in the evening. There are many beaches around :very nice and clean waters and very organized facilities. A little expensive but we know that fancy costs money. In the evening we went to many places , the names of which are all in my friend's blog: one better than the other. There is also something really nice about this place and in general of all the places I have see during my trip. There are a lot of street dogs and cats: the dogs are all fixed and microchipped so the municipality can keep them under control. Besides they don't suffer from hunger 'cause everybody feeds them and even the inhabitants leave water outside their houses for them. All around there are signs on every wall inviting people to do so and compared to other countries I saw locals were very compassionate towards animals and this is something I really appreciate.
Seaside near Alacati
Asma Yapragi restaurant
Dinner with friends
Alacati by night
... and by day
After that my friend brought us to another place which resulted to be secluded and quiet for perfect relaxation. A great oasis of peace and tranquillity set on the outskirts of Karaburun.This town is not at all pretty in my opinion but the hotel Lypsos Ata'nin set just outside is fantastic. It is built right on a peebles beach and furnished a little bit like a ship or an old place by the sea. In the morning breakfast is served in the dining room and in the evening dinner is served on the terrace outside just by the sea. I probably repeat myself but the food freshly prepared and made with genuine ingredients is divine. Everyday there will be a selection of cold meze made of fresh vegetables and yogurth and then the freshest fried calamari and the fish brought directly from the fisherman on a boat. What more can you ask from life ? Also in this case check my friend's blog Travelmind Karaburun.
After this week of sleep,sea,wonderful food and relaxation my other friend from Turin and I, after saying goodbye to my Turkish friends, decided to rent a car and drive all the way down to Dalaman where our flight would depart in a week. So we visited Ephesus and surroundings which is just one hour away from Izmir airport. Of course you will find loads of tourist buses and millions of people int he archeological site but this is the way it is with such places. We went there in the afternoon when the heat was a little less and to see it at dusk is a really nice experience. Then we decide to spend the night in Sirinçe a village situated on a hill half an hour away from Ephesus, which as Lonely Planet also says is a really nice place but in the evening, when all the crowds of tourists leave the village in its quiet and fascinating atmosphere. Before leaving we also went to see Meryemana the place where the virgin Mary was said to live after the death of Jesus which is very interesting and I would suggest to visit if in the area.
Celsius library- Ephesus
And then we went to the Bodrum peninsula. The peninsula itself is very nice but I would definitely not recommend Bodrum city. We only went there for one night and it's a place where you actually go to party so I would suggest just to go to Bitez instead or a little further up to Gumusluck, which is a lovely place in the north. In Bitez everywhere is concentrated around the beach where restaurants and bars put out coloured cushions to lie on for free. The only problem is the loud music but if you want more quiet and a little more quality you should go to Sarniç Beach a very nice place with a good cafè. In the afternoon they also serve Turkish tea and cake for all guests. In Gumusluk there are plenty of places but we chose one which was very well advertised (by themselves) in a very funny way. It's a quiet and cozy place right on the sea. The peculiarity of the town is an island in front where you can walk to in the sea. So you will see a line of people just walking to the island and back like a pilgrimage.
Night out in Bodrum
Sarniç Bitez
Advertisement for restaurant in Gumusluk
Coloured cushions in Bitez
Our last stop was Oludeniz but on the way we stopped in Koyceziz on a lake:the hottest place I ever been in terms of boiling heat but a is a very peculiar place and people are very friendly and kind. We stayed at Flora Hotel, a very funny place where the owner has a eco-project and takes tenants into the forest to go bird watching. I had been in Oludeniz in 1995 and what I found was not at all what I remembered. I guess back then it was just starting whereas now it is a booming place with loads of people mainly British. You an get that from the menu in all the restaurants where they serve Yorkshire pudding and steak and kidney pie(!). Also Oludeniz can get unbearably hot and steamy especially in summer so to refresh yourself you can go to the fabulous Blue Lagoon which now is a natural park where you pay an entrance fee and you can find sunbeds and umbrellas kiosks and bars. I have to say that even if it's not just a free beautiful beach anymore and is built up it still has that natural spot flare. Another thing you can do is to go to Butterfly valley by boat which is very beautiful : it's a basically a semi-incontaminated beach situated in a valley where if you like camping you can also stay the night in a tent or a bungalow in a very hippy -like atmosphere. I actually don't particularly like it so we were staying in probably the nicest hotel amongst the medium price range (compared to Italy I would call it low) which is a little oasis in the crowd and the noise. It has bungalows in beautiful garden hidden from the street and it also has a very good restaurant. I would surely go again there if back in Oludeniz. Oba Motel
Butterfly Valley
Oludeniz blue Lagoon
Another place which I absolutely recommend is Kayakoy the ghost town so called because "after the Greco-Turkish War, Kayaköy was largely abandoned after a population exchange agreement was signed by the Turkish and Greek governments in 1923. Many of the buildings were damaged in the 1957 Fethiye earthquake. Its population in 1900 was about 2,000, almost all Greek Christians; however, it is now empty except for tour groups and roadside vendors selling handmade goods and items scavenged from the former village. However, there are a selection of houses which have been restored, and are currently occupied" (Wikipedia). I read in a website that the place is strange and unsettling but for me was extremely fascinating. It might give you the shivers at some point but it is also very suggestive. There's where I had my last Ayran of the journey(one of the most refreshing drinks you can have: basically yogurth and water but very tasty) and with my eyes on the sunset behind the ghost town I felt this sadness mixed with urge to return here. Gule Gule Turkyie:you'll definitely see me back.

martedì 22 novembre 2011

Good morning Vietnam

Who doesn't have an idea of what Vietnam looks like after seeing dozens of war movies? We all know about the green fields with water buffalos,the wonderful sunsets, people walking around with the typical Vietnamese hat. We mostly remember images of that disgraceful war though, and of all the pain and sorrow it caused. I chose this video because it combines extracts of one of my favourite Vietnam war movies (Full metal Jacket) and another great one (although not one of my favourites) (Forrest Gump), accompanied by a great song sung by one of the greatest voices of rock. (John Fogerty when he was with CCR). I actually think the best war movie about Vietnam of all times is Apocalypse now followed by The Deer Hunter. With these considerations in mind a few years ago I decided to explore the country given my deep love for South East Asia at the time.
So I arrived in Saigon (Ho Chi Minh City) and I have to say it was a little shocking at first. The noise, the motopeds, the dirt, the moltitude of people were almost unbearable and the place where I ended up (with my sister at the time) was very squallid (although highly recommended by Lonely Planet)with neon lights and suffocating rooms in a not so central area. I remember the first impact with Saigon during a stroll at night was a fast race with a rat as big as my cat Sofia, which even ended up fighting with a dog of basically the same size. Not very pleasant I can tell you... So we decided to change accomodation and ended up in Huong Sen hotel in the center. Huong Sen where at breakfast me met a few Italian couples who had come to Vietnam to adopt their children and it made me think about how retrograde our country is in this respect, since in order to be eligible for adoption you have to be married for three years. Therefore if you are just a couple living together or a single parent you are banned from applying. I guess this is what you get for having the Vatican at your doorstep. In general I didn't really like Saigon although it has some highlights I really enjoyed. For example all the Pagodas: Giam Lac , Jade Emperor Pagoda, Quan Am,Phuoc An Hoi Quan and many others.
Then the War Museum originally known as ""The House for Displaying War Crimes of American Imperialism and the Puppet Government [of South Vietnam]." Later it was known as the Museum of American War Crimes, then as the War Crimes Museum until it changed its name to War Remnants museum. It shows all the military equipment of the war plus pictures "covering the effects of Agent Orange and other chemical defoliant sprays, the use of napalm and phosphorus bombs, and atrocities such as the My Lai massacre. Curiosities include a guillotine used by the French and the South Vietnamese to execute prisoners, last in 1960, and three jars of preserved human fetuses deformed by exposure to dioxin "(Wikipedia), which, trust me , is not at all a pretty sight. We were really shocked, coming out of there, but then again as I pointed out in my previous post about Cape Town, respecting freedom of choice of course, I believe when in a country also the unpleasant things have to be seen , since they are part of their history. Coming to food, Vietnamese is a very particular and tasty cuisine and my favourite place was Huong Lai Everybody working here is a street child as they point out on the menu, and the owner supports the local orphanages also by giving them meals regularly. From there you can take a taxi or a train and go to the Mekong Delta. I didn't really see that much of it when I went there but you'd better stay for a few days and enjoy it because it's a place that needs to be seen properly. I remember I had an interesting conversation with a guide about how disgusting some European and Japanese food is since: while in Vietnam they eat, amongst others, dog, cat or mouse meat (I know i know.. I just makes me want to cry) us disgusting Europeans eat raw meat and the disgusting Japanese eat raw fish......(what's there to say?) We took a five hours bus ride to see what the Lonely Planet calls a " must see" a place in the mountains called Dalat. Well, you know how some guides are more reliable than others also amongst the ones by Lonely Planet. The one about Vietnam is not in fact at all reliable in my opinion . Dalat turned out to be a real let down so I would suggest not to go there at all. Plus it was cold and humid which didn't make it any better. From the pictures it may look nice but I think that can be misleading.
From there we took another bus ride to go to Nha Trang on the sea side and that was also not worth it. We found a really nice Italian restaurant owned by Marinella a woman from Bergamo, who had been living there for many years and it was a really nice experience. La Bella Napoli.
Nha Trang
Then, determined to go north we tried in vain to take a flight and instead ended up getting a train. Now here's a suggestion : I have travelled by train in many countries including Malaysia,Thailand, Morocco and South Africa . I have to say I'm not a fan of long journeys anyway and if I really choose to take them I would like to have a little comfort especially now that I'm older. This is to say that if you have to travel in Vietnam by train for 16 hours (which turned out to be 22 in fact since the train broke down) maybe you shouldn't take anything else but first class. Anything lower will be: six bunkbeds all crammed together with a dirty floor and people who smoke in the compartment throwing everything they eat on the floor, a newspaper put into the only hole for the light and air which makes you feeel like being in a box, wake up call with fish soup cart in the morning at six even if the train is due to arrive at 3 in the afternoon and of course a terrifying common toilet in the corridors . At least this was my experience. I can only tell you that when I got to Hoi An at 4 in the afternoon we went for a walk in the city and went to sleep at 7 p.m. Now, Hoi An is a very beautiful place and it makes you feel like you're back in time since it's an ancient city with gravel roads and ancient buildings. Before collapsing into bed we tried the local delicacy : Cao Lau i.e. vermicelli noodles with pork, herbs and rice crackers. Delicious (at the time I was still eating meat).
Another thing we did in Hoi An was to get clothes made for us in about half a day. There is an area where you're basically dragged into and your measures are taken with an impressive precision within seconds in order to have whatever you want which can be tailor made . I chose an Ao Dai Vinh the typical Vietnamese dress which you see all the time especially on school girls.
Ao Dai Vinh
Hoi an
Hoi An by night
Then we went to beautiful and ancient Hué where you can spend a few days wondering around the majestic remains of ancient history. I would not suggest to go in August as I did because the heat was really unbearable. Nevertheless it was an amazing experience. We were taken around by motorcycles (two amongst the 2 millions you find everywhere in Vietnam) and were guided by these locals who did not speak English but somehow made themselves understood. We were also taken to a temple or pagoda where there were only women monks (or nuns?) and we followed the ceremony, which was really interesting.
Buddhist female monks
Then we flew to Hanoi, which I really enjoyed and liked much more to Saigon. That's the place where I noticed some things I neglected before, like being awaken at six o' clock by political propaganda coming out of the loud speakers in the streets, or the manic traffic all over the place, or the public aerobics classes in the park at night.
There I remember this very good restaurant called Brothers Cafè where you can go and have a nice and fancy meal. A good thing to do, if you are not too fussy is to sit in the street and have Pho Bo a beef noodle soup, or vietnamese Spring rolls. Or you can just sit in a cafè and have a Vietnamese coffee(Ca phe). If you never had one and you're a coffee lover then it's a MUST.
Vienamese Spring rolls
Ca phe
Hanoi is very fascinating and very different from the rest of Vietnam. There are a lot of expats working in embassies and a lot of places you can go and have great experiences. I would suggest three things: 1) go to a hairdressers and plan to spend there a couple of hours: not only do they wash your hair, they will give you a shampoo massaging your scalp for half an hour, then they would give you a face massage and then a neck a shoulder one for (at the time) as little as 5 Euros.We went into a local one (there are many for tourists) and it was great.
2) Have some tailor made clothes - same thing: go to a local tailor where quality is better: I had two shirts, a skirt, and a dress (all in silk )made for 60 euros.
Us and our Vietnamese Tailor friends
3) Take an organized trip to Halong Bay for two or three days on one of the typical boats they use. This is what it looks like.
Halong Bay
I have to say Vietnam is not an easy trip(at least it wasn't for me) compared to other countries in South East Asia is definitely more difficult since it one of the few communist countries left and it has been opening to tourism later than the others. However, it's a beautiful destination with all its differences and all its contradictions and difficulties, the roughness of the people and a very painful past. You may feel uncomfortable at times or even annoyed but hey that's the beauty of travelling. You'll see that at some point the smile of a Vietnamese child will surely cheer you up.