Monday, April 19, 2010

Cycling in Djerba, Tunisia

Many, including myself, have come under Djerba's spell. Perhaps even Ulysses. After all, this Mediterranean island has long been suffused with mythology. In Homer's Odyssey, Ulysses and his crew were said to have been seduced by the sweet fruit of lotus flowers -- most likely it was a fermented beverage that intoxicated them -- that they had difficulty heading back to their ships. No wonder this isle is sometimes dubbed the "Isle of Forgetfulness."

What I found was equally intoxicating from an atmospheric point of view. This petite lush Tunisian oasis that's trimmed with sandy beaches is a perfect place for bicycling: an almost year-round sunny land that's as flat as it can be, aside from a few minor hills. (For those not wanting to work up a sweat, the bus network is extensive or you can rent a scooter or a car.) But, for me, cycling allows for more of an intimacy with the land.

And though there are not the tantalizing lotus flowers -- or whatever fermented fruit they may have consumed -- that are said to have tempted Ulysses and his men, there is the sweet perfume of flowering fruit trees.

The golden swaths of sand is what attracts most everyone who steps on Djerba's shores. In fact, the northeast coast with its clutter of resorts and private beaches sees most of the tourist traffic. Instead, I headed further south towards the causeway where I found more solitude along the sandy stretches.

But, a much more magical landscape awaited inland where the scape is dappled with gnarled olive groves and tall date palms. Once I left the sandy coast, I found quiet country lanes where donkey carts rolled by, fields of grazing sheep, and even a young boy herding camels.

Djerba's villages dramatically sparkle in the sunlight, their whitewashed facades in stark contrast to their azure-blue trim and the colorful surrounding fields planted with a cornucopia of fruits, from pomegranates and apricots to mandarins and grapes. Each village displays the island's distinctive white-washed domed buildings. Even the mosques have an unusual architecture, more fortress-like than you might've expected if you're accustomed to the ornate Ottoman embellishments.

Many of the island's villages are noted for different artisanal goods: whether its hand-woven baskets from Fatou or straw hats from Sedouikech. And Saturday morning brings crowds to El May flocking to their colorful market. For generations, the village of Guellala in the south has been turning out pottery and ceramics that's still made the traditional way, on the potter's wheel, with the clay dug from small quarries just outside of town.

One morning, I wandered the vibrant souks in Houmt Souk, the island's picturesque capital that's brimming elaborate silver filagree jewelry, palm leaf-woven baskets, camel hide bags, boldly hued Bedouin belts.

My retreat was the snowy white village of Er Riadh with its network of narrow lanes. There I found the Hotel Dar Dhiafa, a boutique property that's fashioned from centuries-old houses. This is an idyllic place to walk through the tiled courtyards, past pools and niches where bougainvillea are draped and candles cast a warm glow. Plus, they have some of the best cuisine around, North African dishes with French accents.

One of the most surprising findings here is that a Jewish population has called this village home for some 2,000 years. In the modern-day synagogue, El Ghriba, North Africa's oldest, beyond the blue-trimmed white facade is a sun-speckled interior bedecked with ornate mosaics and painted pillars and archways.

Even if Djerba is mostly flat, it's nice to know that weary muscles can easily get some relief. That's because Djerba has become a center for thalassotherapy, spa treatments that revolve around sea water and seaweed treatments that are said to be especially rejuvenating. A firm massage or a soothing wrap could very well be as seductive as the beverage that once captivated Ulysses.

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Friday, April 9, 2010

My Secret Reykjavik Tips

Iceland is one of my specialties and I've blogged about it frequently.This endearing country, especially the tiny capital city of Reykjavik, is a wealth of treasures, though many tourists simply stop off at the Blue Lagoon after they arrive at Kevlavik Airport, spend barely a day in the city before heading off on the Golden Circle or other tours of pristine parks, gushing geysers and cascading waterfalls.

But Reykjavik has so much to offer. I've spend at least 4 to 5 days in the city each time I visit and I always find plenty of culturally interesting and active adventures as well as gourmet delights. These are some of my favorite little-known activities in Reykjavik. Check it out and next time you head for the land of fire and ice, save some time for these.

1. 871 +/- 2: The Settlement Exhibition, is a curious name for a museum. But it makes sense, considering that’s Iceland’s approximate settlement date. Located on the exact spot where they found the ruins of a 10th century longhouse, this archeological museum stands beside a major hotel. If you steer clear of archeologic museums, be warned that this one is hardly chock full of dull exhibits. It’s quite interactive with holographic-type images and sounds of the time, from knife making to cowbells.

2. Not far away along the quay, the Reykjavik Art Museum - Harbor House features the pop oeuvre of noted Icelandic artist, Erro. But the museum also regularly hosts temporary exhibits that are quite innovative. (This is one of the three Reykjavik Art Museums in the city and each is worth visiting for the pastiche of often colorful abstract works as well as inspired landscapes on display.

3. Nearby is a warehouse that’s home to the Saturday morning flea market. It’s bric-a-brac laden but it’s the food court that’s worth visiting. Often, you can sample some of the typical food items found in every Icelander’s home, including potato bread, rugbraud (malt bread), dried catfish and the infamous fermented shark meat. I was warned to avoid the latter but accidentally sampled a small cube that was offered to me on a toothpick. After finding it tasteless after initially chewing it, the full power of the ammonia-laden meat became overwhelming.

4. I’m not necessarily a big fan of visiting cemeteries but Reykjavik’s is reminiscent of a botanical garden. The 19th century Holavalla Cemetery is dense with foliage and ancient gnarled trees towering over ornate headstones.

5. Walk towards the city’s towering landmark, the church named Hallgrimskirkja, and you’ll find the Einar Jonsson Museum with its postage stamp-size sculpture garden. As you explore the allegorical works, you’ll notice that he was very much influenced by mythological and religious themes.

6. Take a long pleasant walk or a short cab ride to get to the Reykjavik Botanic Garden located in the Laugardalur area. There you can wander twisty paths and inspect the plants that come from all over the world, including New Zealand and Asia. It’s interesting to see so many trees here in a country where tall evergreens are a rarity. Housed in a greenhouse laden with flora, Cafe Flora — a perfect lunch spot — is aptly named.

7. Certainly, one of Reykjavik’s most famous features is the Blue Lagoon with its series of geothermal pools and rejuvenating silica mud where you could luxuriate for most of the day. But, its location midway between downtown and the airport, hardly makes it convenient. You can choose from an array of mud and other spa treatments at their downtown location that’s not far from the Botanic Garden. If you choose a treatment, you also have access to the mega health club (Hreyfing) that’s in the same building. Or simply opt for a day pass to the health club.

8. And, if you can’t get enough of the water, Reykjavik even has a beach, but, like so much in the city, it’s hardly ordinary. Nautholsvik, a petite half-moon bay that’s easily accessible by bike, bus or cab, is geothermally heated and man made: the sand was trucked in. And if the water isn’t hot enough for you, there are hot tubs located just offshore and on the coast beside the sand so you can bake. Pick a sunny day to visit and you’ll find dozens of Icelanders soaking, lying on the sand, or playing volleyball.
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Friday, April 2, 2010

Radio Show: Travel Treasures in Cyprus

On my recent trip to Cyprus, I blogged about the wealth of treasures that would make me return to this tiny country. Now, Pat Boyle at the Travel Show on KPAM 860 Radio in Portland, Oregon interviewed me on my journey. Listen to this interview and you'll learn why the Cypriots are known for their hospitality, what was my favorite castle, and why mealtime was so special.

Listen to my interview on Cyprus by clicking on the audio player below:

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