Taj Mahal of Agra India – New 7 Wonders of the World

Taj Mahal Mausoleum in India

My trek through India was truly EPIC.  One of the most interesting and amazing trips.  The assault on the senses was so intense fascinating world of spice.  Some of the oldest cities on the earth are in India.  India is the second most populated country in the world, but driving across the country you wouldn’t know it. The Indus of 3000 BC had a written language, a complex society.  In a country with 1.2 Billion people with one of the richest cultural destinations in the world, I highly recommend India for the adventure seeker, the world traveler, and for those looking to find themselves.  The eat pray love movie suggested that Bali and India are great destinations for getting at your soul.  Trying to find your inner being.  I agree.  India is fantastic, and the wonder the Taj Mahal is the most impressive display of love in the world.  You haven’t seen India, until you’ve seen it the way I have.

Incredible India

This post is in an Adventure Travel Series on the “New 7 Wonders of the World”

Bikaner Holy Rats

I wrote about my experiences with the holy rats of Bikiner.  That one incident was culture shock like no other.  I definitely dove head first and loved it.  I throw out everything I have ever known about rats, and listen to the kids and humble followers that told me to remove my shoes and walk among the rats barefoot.  They say no one has ever even gotten sick from these special rats.  Hundreds, thousands, maybe hundreds of thousands of rats in the temple.  That was my real introduction to India and while an extreme it prepared me for what I would experience through the nearly 5000KM trip across India and ultimately to Kathmandu, Nepal and up into the Himalayas and up around Mt Everest.

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The Gates of Jodhpur, the Pink City

Three dips in the Ganges the dirtiest but holiest river in the world as well, was a fascinating experience that made me really consider the healing effects of water and help me appreciate and respect the faith of all people.

Amazing old city of Varansi

The Gattes… steps to the Holy Ganges river

The Gattes of the Ganges

As these men hosed down the steps into the water, not far pilgrims were drinking the holy water

Floating in the Ganges

Dipping in the Silty powerful Holy Ganges River

We drove nearly straight for 3 days across the Rajasthan province of north western India through the the most amazing cities of Jaipur (The Pink City) and Jodhpur (The Blue City) [map].

mehrangarh fort in jodhpur

Mehrangarh Fort high on the high on the hill in Jodhpur

Jodhpur Blue City

Above Jodhpur the Blue City!

Jaipur Floating Palace

Floating Palace near Jaipur

It was after seeing these awesome examples of great kingdom with palaces and forts, that I arrived in Agra the home of the Taj Mahal.  I had already been in India for about a week by the time I arrived.  We parked outside of the site, and walked.  It was a pretty good hike.  In our visits across Agra and even in the south in Pune and Chennai we hadn’t seen many tourists, but here we weren’t alone.  Here we across our trip we saw more tourists than we had seen in total.  I try to avoid tourist spots, but I also have to see the wonders of the world.  They draw me in.

Taj Mahal

The Taj Mahal Mosleum – Designed for the Favorite Wife of the Emperor Shah Jahan built in 1632–1648 as a tomb

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India has such a rich culture.  Amazing people filled with joy, sadness, and a rich history.

From Taj Mahal, side buildings at Sundown

Watching sundown from the Taj Mahal

World UNESCO Heritage, Wonder of the World, as a true legend of eternal love of an Emperor for his favorite Queen!  It is an amazing story.

Though he spent much of his time subduing Hindu kingdoms to the south, Shah Jahan left behind the colossal monuments of the Mughal empire, including the Taj Mahal (his favorite wife’s tomb), the Pearl Mosque, the Royal Mosque, and the Red Fort. The Taj is an immense mausoleum of white marble, built in Agra between 1631 and 1648 by the Mughal emperor Shah Jahan in memory of his favourite wife.  It is the jewel of Muslim art in India and one of the universally admired masterpieces of the world’s heritage.

Cappadocia Turkey Underground Cave Cities


It was while watching a SCI FI Ancient Aliens show I first heard about the underground cities of Derinkuyu, Kaymakli and Ozkonak.  These and the other 200+ Underground Cities are a huge mystery that may never come to full light.  Everything we know is just from what has been found in excavating what remained.  This could be remnants from those who were last there, as these caves could be much much older. There really are so many cave systems and underground tunnels and essentially full cities underground that it may never be fully excavated.  These cities contained wineries, stables, churches, school, cellars, storage rooms.  The largest of the underground city of the in the Derinkuyu district in Nevşehir Province, Turkey.  It’s only been open to visitors since 1969 and less than half of what has been excavated is accessible to tourists.  At peak this city could have supported 20,000 residents and was up to 85 Meters deep!!!  According to the Turkish department of culture the cave is 8th to 7th century possibly built by the Phrygians either for religious purposes or refuge. 

Derinkuyu Yeralti Sehri

 

Now if you’re looking to visit this region, Goreme, Turkey is a great central location and really setup well for tourists where you can sleep in your own cave, but not part of any major tunnel system.  Goreme has shuttles to and from the airport.  Warning: If you are planning on not renting a car (which you shouldn’t need to do), you need to make sure you arrange ahead of time with one of the shuttle companies, the small airport in Kayceri has no ticket desk for shuttles and the taxi ride is pretty steep comparatively.  I was denied entry into a shuttle bus even after offering to pay him his price.  The driver won’t take money, it has to be pre-arranged.  I ended up catching a ride with an older couple that was headed into the city.  Really I got lucky, I didn’t want to pay the high price of the taxi, and there were no bus options that were convenient.  It was going to be a long walk and an inconvenient trek to the bus station, and who knows how long I may have had to wait.  WIth as many tourist shops and vehicles as there are in Goreme it was amazing to me how there was really NOTHING at the airport.

 

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On the surface you really wouldn’t even know it was down there, save the entrance sign and a few air vents that look like wells.

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Based on the size of the 500KG door that’s only able to be opened from the inside, I can definitely imagine it being used for refuge and for hiding from someone or something.

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There are some spaces that are very wide open such is just outside the church which makes the shape of a cross, underground, or the very tight spaces that is speculated as being a doorway that forces the person to be penitent.  They must go onto their knees to enter.  The self inflicted punishment is they would go around and around through the small tunnel to learn humility, kind of like the hail Mary or doing rosary beads.

When inside unless you’re claustrophobic, you feel very safe.  The walls seem very solid and there isn’t any crumbling rock.  There are some areas where you need to bend over to avoid hitting your head, but the hall near the church has a lot of room, and supports really large gathering of people.

You can take a virtual tour of the caves at http://www.muze.gov.tr/derinkuyu

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Look closely at these boards and you have one of the primary tools used to carve the stone with much sharper stones.  The would drag the board across the softer stone and it would essentially carve away the stone.  In this way they could remove the stone in large swaths.  For smaller areas, they would use smaller tools.

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Those who speculate that it was designed to be very temporary need to explain the graves in the area called the Morgue.  Here the rooms in this section of the cave are designed to handle the dead… Is it possible these graves were temporary holding places for the dead until they could find peace long enough to bury their dead.

 

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Yes, it was very dark 7-8 stories down.  The little lights are wired up and brought in through wires attached to the wall.

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Nevşehir Province has several other underground cities and Derinkuyu itself connects to Kaymakli via an 8 km tunnel. The deepest cave city is Derinkuyu and the widest is Kaymakli.  You can’t travel the tunnel between them.  Derinkuyu is about 30 minute drive from Goreme, which is the city where most of the hotel and tourist support is.  Access to these cities is no longer open to local residents without going through the main entrance. They remain generally unoccupied. In excess of 200 underground cities containing a minimum of two levels have been discovered in the area between Kayseri and Nevsehir.  Some 40 of those contain a minimum of three levels or more. The troglodyte (underground) cities at Kaymaklı and Derinkuyu are two of the best examples of habitable underground structures.  Reaching Derinkuyu or Goreme and the underground cities and cave churches, one can purchase a domestic ticket on Turish Airlines to Keyseri or Nevsehir. There are overland bus routes as well from across the country with flying being the shortest and not a bad way to reach the city.  Turkey is a big country so plan accordingly.

 

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Why you need to visit Cappadocia the Underground Cities and Cave Churches

There are so many incredible things to see in Cappadocia that you could spend a weeks here and still discover new places. The main ‘must-see’ attractions are the open-air museums which are essentially groupings of caves, cathedrals and homes and the two best underground cities. At the same time it wouldn’t make sense to go this whole way and not see the incredible Rose Valley, the Ihlara valley which has many of its own small cave churches, but even just outside the Goreme Open Air museum is one of my favorite cave churches.  What you’ll find when you arrive is there are many tourist companies that have organized the tours into the blue route, and red route, and so on, to group the various activities for those with limited time.  As well, don’t forget to get up as high as you can to check out the valley, this may be in a hot air balloon or on a hike to the top of the canyons.  One thing you must do is explore.  There’s so much to see and not everything is behind closed doors.  Even just hiking the valleys, you’ll be amazed to find abandoned caves.

  • Goreme Open Air Museum: cave churches with frescoes
  • Zelve Open Air Museum: an empty cave town with churches
  • Kaymakli Underground City: the largest underground city
  • Derinkuyu Underground City: the deepest underground city
  • Ihlara Valley: the deepest gorge of Anatolia
  • Uchisar: Roman rock-cut castle. You’ll see it driving back and forth.  Very cool looking. 
  • Ortahisar: Roman rock-cut castle.
  • Pasabag: mushroom-shaped fairy chimneys, monks valley
  • Devrent: animal-shaped fairy chimneys, imagination valley
  • Hacibektas: center of Bektasi sect of Islam
  • Gulsehir: first settlements in Cappadocia

I shared some of my stories on the Open Air Musuem, the Ihlara Valley and Monestary in “Early Cave Churches of Cappadocia Turkey” and more on the “Underground Cities

Christian Cave Churches and Monasteries in Cappadocia Turkey


Iconic Early 5th Century Christian Cross

As a traveler one of the thing that really stands out in digging in to understand a people is how much of culture is influenced by faith and religion.  In Europe you must visit the cathedrals because it was the center of the universe for the people.  In Istanbul you must visit the Blue Mosque and Hagia Sofia or you haven’t seen Istanbul. I have found Israel, Jerusalem, Bethehem, and Jordan to be quite amazing.  Even Cairo had places that reminded me of Moses and the red sea.  I have found the cathedrals across Europe to be quite amazing, even Ireland had some amazing history as it relates to early Christianity.  Rome and the catacombs.  Early Christians in Ireland, or Monserrat in Spain… incredible.  These early Christians driven into caves and into the mountains the hermits of Bulgaria and Macedonia are fascinating and must see.  The monasteries in the cliffs of Meteora where they survived from decimation for more than 500 years.  I love thinking about Thessaloniki or the Thessalonians.  My visit to Armenia and connecting with locals and making friends the thoughts and attitudes of the people cannot be separated from their faith as a people.  Mount Arrarat and Noah’s Ark and God’s dealing with the Armenian people is so deeply ingrained in their art, their life and spirit.

A One trying to understand the mind of the pre-Nicean church can do much study the rich art and paintings captured on the walls of the hundreds if not thousands of painted caves now abandoned art work of Cappadocia.  The cave paintings while much has been destroyed have preserved a lot of history and messages through the images.  I find it quite inspiring and very peaceful.  In some of the churches that you pay to see one with no cameras allowed.  I could easily spend an hour staring at the ceiling and unweaving the thoughts in the heads of these early christians.  Their faith, their perspectivies, their stories.  Much of the tradition has been preserved, but a lot has been lost as well.  Lots of contemplation are required to understand not just the story, but the perceptions of the artist.

Cave homeMary the mother of Jesus

This photo is not a direct photo, but actually a photo of what I saw, but photographed from a book at the gift shop, or a post card.  You can see how much color is still in the images.   The color alone is quite the story as the paint was made from pigeon poo.

My travels took me to Goreme, in central Turkey.  These natural occuring ferry chimneys are amazing.  I’ve only been in a few places in the world where they have these, Utah’s Goblin Valley, and Bryce Canyon, but what those places don’t have are the primitive Christian churches and the underground cities.  The Tuff left from the volcanic ash turned rock helped provide a substance that was very easy to carve, but also very strong, like a more dense pumice.

Goreme Open Air Museum Entrance

There are multiple locations in Cappadocia where you can find these cave churches.  First the largest collection in a small area is the Goreme Open Air Museum.  There are lots of great cave hotels in Goreme.  I recommend staying in a cave at least one night.  It’s a unique experience and it’s quite affordable.

Unfortunately nearly all of the churches would not allow photography or video cameras at the Open air musuem.  You could take pictures outside, but definitely not as  compelling.

high cave churchThe Snake Church

There were a few select churches that they allowed photography in.  The names of the churches come from the art work inside.  Apple church, snake church, etc…

Christian Column Inside the cave church

While these may look impressive, the reality is these were pretty bare.

On a walk through the various churches you’d mostly get directed at the various figures and stories from the bible, but it was stories like the animal below that represents paganism that really caught my interest.  I was interested in the explanations of what was different and how they lived and what they believed.  Like can you believe that most of the well preserved cave paintings have the eyes of the people carved out.

Pagans

I was told the local muslim people felt threatened and the eyes alone could convert.  So you have these scary pictures where the eyes are carved out.

Greek Influece on Caves in Turkey The Hive of Caves

Not only were the churches carved into the stone, the people as well lived in caves in stone where archways could be fancied up.  On the left you have the homes of displaced Greeks in Turkey.  Most of them moved back to Greece.

Next we travel to the Ihlara Valley were over a dozen caves were turned into churches.  One of the most amazing hikes… Combines peaceful walk along a stream with basalt canyon walls like the snake river valley in Idaho or, and pillars of the Giants Causeway in Ireland.

Ihlara Valley Map

As you can see by the little yellow dots along the slides of the river in the Ihlara valley, for miles along the river, caves were turned into places of worship.  If you were simply walking along the river, you would have really No idea this was happening.  It’s Fantastic!!

Ihlara valley cave churchesPainted Cave

Do these caves above look like they might contain this… image to the right.

Beautiful art still remains on the walls.  Much has been destroyed or defaced.  Eyes of the saints in the pictures are scratched out.  One guide told us that the people were worried about how the beautiful icononic art might convert them.  The watching eyes were just too powerful.  So much so that for much of what you see there are few eyes you’ll find.

The Three Magi

Below the three magi or wisemen and their gifts for the birth of the savior minus their eyes.  If you look near the hat you can see names in Greek.  It looks like the names of the magi were added afterward. The shape of their hats is interesting.  It brings a historical understanding.  Studying this brings much more understanding of the early 6th century church.

Mary on a donkey

Mary on the Donkey… Did you know the reference to Mary riding a donkey is actually not found in the bible, but in apocryphal writings in the text the Infancy Gospel of James?  This may be one of the earliest paintings that exists showing Mary on a Donkey.

The dome in pigeon poo

It is very incredible to think of the condition that these paintings were made.  These were painted many many years prior to the crusades, and the spread of the ottoman empire.  These were made at time when the Christians were hiding in caves.  The paint was made from pigeon droppings.  To think about that part of it it’s really very remarkable much remains at all.

Open Air churchesGoreme

When in Goreme and surrounding you’ll find that you need at least 2 to 3 days to simply race through everything.  4 days to a week will allow you to take a slower pace to really enjoy the valleys and take more in.  The tours are very inexpensive, and they are organized into the blue tour, the red tour and so on, and they really are packed with places to see and visit.  One morning you need to do the balloon ride for the adventuresome.  If you are thinking about the balloon, don’t wait till the last day because they are frequently cancelled due to weather conditions.

Goreme from above

View of Goreme from the top of the hills.

Abandoned fairy homes

The Fairy chimneys… turned home and now abandoned. A honeycomb of mystery and intrigue.

The Messiah scratched out

The Messiah, with a scratched out face…

Selime Cathedral

For more adventure… On one end of the Ihlara valley is the Selime Cathedral.  Walking to simply get to this Cathedral makes you feel like you’re rock climbing.  It isn’t for little old ladies or old men.  This requires a little bit of skill to navigate across the rocks, through tunnels and a bit of scrambling…

Selime Cathedral

But the payoff is big.  Huge rooms with archways and columns still remain while much of the artwork is destroyed and soot covers the ceilings.

Selime Cathedral

If you look closely you can still see remains, of what was once majestic.

Cappadocia Central Turkey Valleys and the all seeing eye

If there was any doubt that this valley wasn’t backed with mystery, intrigue and wonder… I hope a few of these picture have opened your mind.  Goreme and Cappadocia still remains one of my favorite destinations and the my appreciation for the early church and their cave dwelling days has shaped what we think of even as a catheral or church.  We have much to share in appreciation for these devoted follower of central Turkey.

Traveling Ireland’s Ancient and Natural Wonders

Cross in Ireland

Ireland has been inhabited for thousands and thousands of years.  For Eons and Ages, Ireland has constantly been inhabited and has a rich culture of folklore, myths, and a myriad of megalithic structures scattered across the country marking structures from these older ages.  Early man left evidence from the mesolithic, neolithic, stone, bronze, and iron ages. I love traveling to Medieval and Neolithic sites.  The ancient world history is fascinating to me.  From the pyramids and temples of Egypt to Avebury & Stone Henge and on to the Nazca lines and the underground cities of Goreme and Cappadocia.  I’m absolutely fascinated with it.  So much of what we know is so little.  We talk about these places like we know all about them, but honestly it’s pre-historic and we know very little and are still learning.

History in Ireland started in 400 AD with the spread of Christianity.  It’s amazing to think of it spreading so far and wide.  There are some amazing structures to see in Ireland.  Within a short drive from the beautiful city of Dublin, you can be at amazing places.  I recommend Wicklow for an afternoon at Glendalough.  Glendalough is a glacial valley in County Wicklow, Ireland. It is known for its early Medieval monastic settlement founded in the 6th century by St Kevin, a hermit priest.  It’s a beautiful drive and history itself unfolds as you walk amongst the graves, churches, and stone archways.

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Like these ancient sites.  Very easy to connect with nature and get a feel for what it was like in a village.  This tower entry reminds me of Rapunzel.  The entry to get in the tower is twenty feet off the ground.  Apparently the monks would climb up a latter and then pull it up.  They could drop rocks or oil and fire on the invaders.

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These ancient rock churches are beautiful, but not an uncommon site in Ireland.  They have lasted well through the ages.  You can see how important faith was through the ages.

Glendalough is home to one of the most important monastic sites in Ireland. This early Christian monastic settlement was founded by St. Kevin in the 6th century and from this developed the “Monastic City”. Most of the buildings on the site today date from the 10th through 12th centuries. Despite attacks by Vikings over the years, Glendalough thrived as one of Ireland’s great ecclesiastical foundations and schools of learning until the Normans destroyed the monastery in 1214 A.D.

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Amazing structures, history from an ancient time… you can feel it in your bones.

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Walking through the graves and the amazing Celtic crosses makes you feel an appreciation for the deep faith of the people.

Older than the Pyramids or Stone henge, Newgrange was an amazing find.  I was amazed to find such an ancient megalithic structure that I hadn’t heard of with such importance.  Driving north from Dublin straight north in the small town County Meath, Ireland on our way to Belfast and Northern Ireland, we saw a sign for this ancient site.  I was intrigued.  What is this Neolithic site I’ve never heard of?  Newgrange is a large mound in a circular shape with a stone passageway and decent sized chamber inside (no pictures inside).  On the tour they told us that during the 70’s some hippies were inside when it lit up during the winter solstice.  Apparently they really didn’t know what it was used for prior.  There’s still some confusion, but essentially this mount is not isolated.  There are a lot of them in a small area.

New Grange

This stone mound is surrounded by large stones with Neolithic carvings that still show up reasonably well.  I absolutely love the swirls.  It reminds me of the tail of the monkey in the Nazca lines.  What you don’t realize is just how old they estimate this place.

These megalithic structures are called portal tombs (a chamber consisting of upright stones with one or more large flat capstones forming a roof) or passage graves or dolmen often there is often no human remains. There are 40 of these passage graves near Newgrange.  The carvings on the rock are one of the largest collection of megalithic art.

megalithic artNewgrance megolithic

Incredible examples of one of the largest natural collection of Megalithic art… Newgrange is part of the Brú na Bóinne UNESCO World Heritage Site.

solstice lottery

On the tour, they simulate the light, but there is actually a lottery to be able to be one of the lucky handful who can be in the chamber when the light enters.

In Northern Ireland is one of the great natural wonders of Ireland.  The Giants Causeway.  This basalt has dried in amazing formations on the sea side.  It’s like Black Chrystal formations.

Giants Causeway beach, Northern Ireland

Giants Causeway, Northern Ireland

In the Giants Causeway with my sons.  I’m lucky to be able to travel with my family on occasion.  Ireland is a good family destination.  Very family friendly destinations, and accommodations. They really enjoyed Ireland as well, and to think I was afraid there wasn’t that much to see.  Incredible structures, incredible history, and very fun people.  I’d be happy to go back to Ireland… anytime.  So much more to see.

Travel Back in Time – Smell the Mint Tea of Morocco


I am entranced with Morocco.  There are few places in the world that do such an amazing job of preserving life as it was hundreds even thousands of years ago.

Fez Medina Donkey Travel

Fez, has truly captured life as it was 1000 years ago.  The Medina or urban center is the gated old city in Fez.  The only transportation in the Medina is by foot, or by donkey. No cars.  I have seen a scooter or two, but the preference is no motorized vehicles.  The narrow old streets couldn’t support a car anyway.  It is amazing how well preserved the the traditions, culture, and structures are in Fez.

Narrow Alleyways Vegetable alleyway Morocco Metalwork

You see water being hauled in for drinking, common community ovens for cooking bread, hammam or bath houses, and common tanneries and more.  The beauty of this gem of the desert is most precious.

 

Riad Fez .

I stayed for a couple of nights in Riad Fez – very beautiful feel to it.  The wood is so intricate, and the tile beautiful with color.

Fez Metal Work

This chandelier the size of a VW bug is hand made stamped metal.  Morocco is known for the lamps and chandeliers.

Moroccan Coke Donkey

In Fez, this Coca Cola delivery donkey is the same as a Coke Truck.  Fez, now preserved as a UNESCO heritage site.

The Medina of Fez was founded in the 9th century and is home to the oldest university in the world. Fez reached its height in the 13th–14th centuries when it replaced Marrakesh as the capital of the kingdom. Much of the infrastructure in the city dates from this period.

Mosque in Fez Water Delivery by Donkey

The Medina of Fez is considered as one of the most extensive and best conserved historic towns of the Arab-Muslim world. The unpaved urban space conserves the majority of its original functions and attribute. It not only represents an outstanding architectural, archaeological and urban heritage, but also transmits a life style, skills and a culture that persist and are renewed despite the diverse effects of the evolving modern societies.

Moroccan Tannery

15th Century Tanneries of Fez from a neighbor balcony

You just have to imagine the sounds and smells of the tanneries.  Here they start with sheep, camel, goat and various animal skins.  Here they soak them to remove the wool with lyes, and then move to drying and dying.  You can then purchase a huge assortment of hand made leather goods.

Much of Morocco is still very local.  I worried I would see tons of tourists in the cultural capital of Morocco.  I didn’t see a single tourist until I reached the square.  Going through the narrow labyrinth of the Medina was awesome.  While I would have preferred to simply get lost in the streets, the locals all really want to help.  At some point it is easier to allow someone to be a guide than continue to be bothered.  There are official guides and hotels can arrange them, but the students love to help as well even if they may be restricted to their routes.  Don’t let someone tell you they can’t take you somewhere.  There is much to see and experience.

acrobat gathering in fez

Instead the squares are full of locals who browse the flea market style spreads of clothes and shoes.  One doesn’t have to feel like a tourist.  You can try to blend in.

the square in Fez

Unfortunately, in a crowd watching an acrobat it’s still tough to blend in.  Reality sets in.  Of course, they need to see a tip.  Make sure you have lots of small bills and coins on hand to keep the entertainment going.  Asking for change with this crowd doesn’t work.

Jewish Cemetery in Fez Morocco  Jewish Cemetery in Fez Morocco

This Jewish cemetery in Fez reminds me of the scattering of Israel and gathering of Israel.  Amazing how far the Israelites were spread across the world.  Ethiopia, Georgia, and across Europe and even Argentina and Mexico city.  Amazing stories abound of how the King would keep the Jews as advisors, ambassadors, and tax collectors.  Apparently 15% of the current state of Israel or 1,000,000 Israeli Jews are of Moroccan descent, while only 35,000 Jews remain in Morocco.  Jews have 2000 years of history in Fez.

There isn’t just one amazing city in Morocco.  There are many.  I love Marrakech and Meknes as well.  Do not judge Morocco based on a brief visit to Tangier.  I highly recommend you spend time in the Atlas mountains.  They are magical.  They themselves contain the history of the world.  Incredible fossils have made their ways across the globe.  Rock hounds will find heaven.  Those wanting to see a simplier life will see the mountain people with their goats and sheep walking on trails thousands of years old.  If you can… escape to Ait Ben Haddou.  As a child when I imagined visiting Jerusalem, a visit to Ait Ben Haddou is closer than the real thing.  It’s in many of the biblical stories.

Ait Ben Haddou - Kasbah

From Ait Ben Haddo, Oaurzazate is a quick trip and the great Sahara is nearby.  The gateway to the Sahara with a variety of multi day excursions with Berbers into the sand and mystery of the desert.  I found this the beginning of another world.

Simple and pure I found many people who willed life itself to slow.  While many vendors simply want to show you their wares, and the children want to put you on the backs of their donkeys and horses, the simple life is pure.  Tourism has left some scars, but there are ways of finding the past and connecting with time gone by.  Slow down, sip the mint tea and relax and listen to the stories of the desert.

Bahrain – Top 5 Things to See and Do


  Bahrain Architecture

Formula one

Bahrain is your oyster.  You’ll likely start your travels of Bahrain in the capital of Manama.  Manama means “Sleeping Place” and while it may seem quaint, there is some fascinating places to see and visit.  Bahrain has changed a lot in the last decade, and is poised to change even more in the decade to come in competiting with it’s neighbors to be the Next Dubai, or compete for fans of Forumula one.  People come to Bahrain to relax and have fun.

Many may plan their trip to Bahrain around a race, or football competition.  The stadium is huge, and the infrastructure is designed to host a very large crowd.  There’s also a lot of international food places that will surprise you that they’ve got.  You likely didn’t know some of these places made their way to a place like Bahrain, but that’s also important in understanding the future of Bahrain.  Once you think you’ve got it figured out… it will surprise you.  There will likely be more struggles in this country in the future, it is a place of change.

1. Manama Souq

Manama Souq, known for it’s pearls and gold in the warren of streets behind Bab al-Bahrain.  The souq is the place to go for electronics, bargains, spices, sheesha bottles and a other Bahraini essentials.  It definitely isn’t just a tourist destination.  You’ll see all types of people shopping Most shops in the souq are open from about 09:00 to 13:00 and 16:00 to 21:00 Saturday to Thursday, and after evening prayer on Friday.  It’s a great way to people watch and see a great variety of people from the well dressed upper class Bahrainy to the working class folks.  May I even entertain the idea that you can see Shiite and Sunni doing business together in the market?

2. Mosques: National Mosque – Al-Fatih Mosque

Muslim Mosque GuideBahrain National Mosque

The national mosque is open to visitors.  Happy to share information about the life of the Muslim and more of the faith of Islam this grand mosque has very informative guides. The Al-Fatih Mosque is the largest building in the country and is capable of holding up to 7000 worshippers. The mosque was built with marble from Italy, glass from Austria and teak wood from India, carved by local Bahraini, and has some fine examples of interior design.

 

 

National Mosque of Bahrain

3. Tree of Life

The Tree of Life BahrainTree of Life

Before and After pictures of the Tree of Life… out in the desert.

Located in the middle of the desert, the Tree of Life, a 500 or 800 year old mesquite tree, stands alone. It is a mystery as to how it stays so green and alive in the waterless desert.  Standing alone in the desert about 1.2 miles (two kilometers) from the Jebel Dukhan.  It’s quite large and has huge branches. It looks too old, but the leaves still fresh green…

The tree source of water remains mystery, some others believe that it gets nourishing from the underground but no one knows why this tree still surviving.

It was quite the trek out of the city to go track down the tree, and I was disappointed to find someone had tried to burn it, and vandalized it.  I found a lot of what’s going on in the region in the appearance of the tree and it’s treatment.  It seems to represent life.  It’s undergone some rough times, and this tree has seen a lot and despite all of that it has continued to persist.

While we were out there looking at the tree, we could see a group of tanks doing military exercises.

3. Dilmun Burial Mounds – A’ali Burial Mounds

Bahrain Burial Mounds Archeologist dig

As far as the eye could see, thousands and thousands of mounds dating from far back as 4000 years ago.  Not the size of the normal burial plot, but the size of a small house.  Over 350,000 ancient burial mounds covering spanning over 1000 years.  Some think it’s where Adam and Eve came from.  Could be the largest pre-historic ancient burial plot in the world covering many square kilometers.  There are so many that even today the locals are debating what to do with it.  If they excavate they can reuse the land, but some debate there isn’t much in them beyond pots and modest means, but some have copper and bronze weapons, jewelry, pottery that could tell the story of Dilmun civilization, an ancient trading hub that connected Mesopotamia, South Arabia and India, is believed to have inhabited Bahrain during the Bronze Age.    While I was there I saw an archeological team digging, finding bones, and pieces of pots, and so on.  The national museum has an exhibit on these strange mounds.

If you think there are a lot of mounds now, there’s only 1/5 of what use to exist, cleared for housing or already looted.  UNESCO has considered adding some of the burial mounds to it’s list.

4. Bahrain National Museum

Burial Mound

The most popular destination is the National Museum.  (It’s nearby where the Pearl Monument was located were recently (Mar 2011) it was destroyed during the civil unrest in uprisings that occurred there.  Bahrain is still known as one of the more liberal countries in the Persian gulf.)

This Museum Bahrain National Museum is the best place to start for an intriguing, well-labelled introduction to the sights of the country.  It’s also walking distance to the waterfront. The museum showcases archaeological finds from ancient Dilmun and includes beautiful agate and carnelian beads and earthenware burial jars – used for the body as well as its chattels. It also outlines the local history of pearl fishing including information on the boats the dhow, complete with pearl divers.

Read more about this and other attractions on Lonely Planet guide to Bahrain.

5. Fort, Bahrain

Fort Bahrain

A UNESCO World Heritage, Fort Bahrain is a remnant of a former time when the port was controlled by the Portuguese in the 15th and 16th centuries.  This was during the times when they dominated trade routes in the Indian Ocean  One of the more important historic buildings on the island, the Bahrain Fort (or Qala’at al-Bahrain in Arabic). This fort is one of several built in Bahrain and around the Persian Gulf to protect these trade routes.  You can climb all over it and there are great views of the water from there.  Nearby there are some more ancient ruins (4000 years ago) of the Dilmun capital referred to in Sumerian writings (bronze age) surrounding the fort.

There are a couple of other forts as well in Bahrain worth seeing if you liked this one:  Arad Fort (near airport) and Riffa Fort (near Riffa).

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As you explore Bahrain you will continue to find things to see… there are some older sites to see including this ancient Mosque no longer has its roof and a few remaining walls.  You can still climb the minaret in the old mosque from 1400’s.

Enjoy exploring this fascinating country that isn’t going to stay still… it’s a progressive place and modernizing like crazy.  Expect Bahrain to be the place to be with the likes of Doha, and Dubai.

10 Must See Attractions In and Around Copenhagen Denmark the City of Cyclists


Copenhagen CyclistsCopenhagen bikes

One of the best ways to see Copenhagen, Denmark is the way the locals do.  On the seat of a bike.

Bicycles play a major role in the life of any local in Copenhagen. The bicycle is transportation for work, school, even night on the town with a date or night at the opera.  A special bike famous from Copenhagen is designed for transporting construction materials or appliances, bringing children to kindergarten, going for a ride. No matter what the purpose will be, the bike is the answer.Why do they pick a bike over a car or public transport?  It’s the fastest way of getting around in the city!

Nyhavn houses and bikes Nyhavn bridge

1. Nyhavn

One of my favorite parts of town is Nyhavn.  These beautiful buildings have so much color and character.  First you must stroll along this street either on the seat of a bike or strolling along on a walk.  There are canal tours for those who want to see it from the water side as well.  Great food along there as well.  I often ended my day along Nyhavn.

Nyhavn Panorama of the Canal

If you’re in Copenhagen for a conference, or cruise, or a holiday.  You will find plenty to do to fill your 24 hours in beautiful Copenhagen.

Amalienborg Palace Changing of the Guard

2. Amalienborg Palace

Amalienborg Palace is the Danish monarch’s winter residence on the waterfront in Copenhagen.  It’s in Copenhagen, so not hard to get to. Time your visit to watch the changing of the guard.

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3. Frederiksborg Castle

is a palace in Hillerød, Denmark part of the . It was built as a royal residence for King Christian IV.  Heading out to this place could be part of a day trip.

It is on the Castles tour from Copenhagen: North Zealand and Hamlet Castle tour There are multiple tours, so you’ll need to decide what you want to see most.

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4. Carl Bloch paintings

If you like religious art. I highly recommend tracking down the Carl Bloch (very famous Danish Painter) paintings in the Carl Bloch’s paintings in the Frederiksborg Palace collection.  They are very moving and are considered some of the best in the world.

royal courtyardamazing rooms Inside the palace

After I got home and started looking through all of the pictures from my castle tour I noticed I couldn’t tell which photos where from which palace.

Elsinore Castle - Kronborg Castle

5. Kronborg Castle

complete with moat, in Helsingor known as Elsinore Castle from  Shakespeare’s Hamlet.  This castle is a couple hours outside of Copenhagen.  Ask about it in relation to a castle tour.  Lonely Planet details: Hamlet Castle Tour

If you do have multiple days and looking at day trips out of Copenhagen, consider Malmo Sweden.  It’s an easy train ride over a very long and fun bridge.  There are a few things to see, and easy to make an afternoon out of it.

baby angels pipe organ Columns

The halls are so ornate I ended up taking hundreds of photos of columns, and gold and amazing sculptures and art work.  My first trip to Copenhagen was one of my first trips to Europe, and hence blew my mind in terms of seeing so much history and royal wealth.  It was mind numbing to see multiple days worth of palaces, castles, and cathedrals with so much history.  My eyes are now much more trained to recognize the history.  Now when I look at a marble column that doesn’t match I can imagine that it was likely borrowed from an earlier time period likely from a pagan temple.

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There are quite a few palaces, parliament buildings, castles, and historic buildings within and near Copenhagen.  Consider a Castle tour or two. Your head will be spinning with ancient places that you’ll be wondering what it was or what it is.

Tivoli at nightTivoli Gardens in Copenhagen

6. Tivoli Gardens

(Left – above at night, right from SAS Raddison Blue hotel window)

Tivoli is ancient and modern at the same time.  The structure and property has been an old amusement park from 1843.  It is world famous and shows up in many movies and may be the most famous places to visit in Copenhagen. Inside the garden you’ll find amusement park rides, activities and exhibits.  In the winter it becomes a winter wonderland decorated with lights and mechanical elves and Christmas decor.  I use Tivoli and the Train Station as a landmark when I’m walking around the city.  As well I will often try to book hotels close to Tivoli as it’s very central to downtown Copenhagen and walking distance of all of the good stuff including the Stroget walking street.

Strøget – The Strøget is 1.1 kilometers long and claims to be the world’s longest urban pedestrian zone.  It’s a very enjoyable walk with interesting high street shops.  You may find this is the best route from place to place on your bike or strolling along.

We did end up going up the round tower Rundetaarn at night.  It was interesting. It has specific time periods where it’s open.  Apparently it’s the oldest observatory in Europe.  It is worth tracking down.

Frederiks KirkeMarble Church domeFrederiks Kirk

8. Frederiks Kirke (The Marble Church)

this stately building is well worth a visit (above)

Speaking of churches. There are some other great churches in Copenhagen.

Church of our Lady Copenhagen

9.  Church of Our Lady

This church has a very special feel with amazing sculptures. This church is all focused on a greater than life sized Christ and his apostles grace the church.  As well a massive pipe organ plus a second story filled with columns in a very bright white church.   It has a very strong spirit about it.  This church is in Copenhagen and easy to walk to and open till 5pm most days.

Christus CopenhagenBertel Thorvaldsen's Sculptures

All of the sculptures were designed by Bertel Thorvaldsen.  If you like his work. There is a museum dedicated to his works next to the Christiansborg Palace.

Speaking of sculptures.  There’s one statue that most guidebooks will tell you that you can’t miss.  It’s the Hans Christian Anderson Little Mermaid Statue in Copenhagen.  It’s become quite the icon for the city.  She’s also loved to be hated.  She has gone through some rough times herself as she often gets chopped up and stolen.

Little Mermaid at Night - Copenhagen  Little Mermaid Copenhagen Denmark

10. The Little Mermaid

This isn’t the only statue in Copenhagen, but she is the most famous.  Since she’s by the water there are multiple ways to view her.  She is out near the old fort.  It’s quite a walk from downtown, but not impossible.

If you like art and statues.  Be sure to take it in.  There is a lot of variety around the city that is worth checking out.

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EAT!!

The Main CourseVenison fancy salad2 forks

Traditional meatballs and potatoesThey love to eat in Copenhagen.  The Danish are known for their food.  They have very elaborate long sittings with a variety of wines, beers, and non alcoholic drinks as well, I tried a rhubarb drink.  Often when you sit down to dinner at a nice place in Copenhagen, you’re sitting down for a 4+ or up to 6 course meal.  I think I had 5 forks in one meal.  They keep bringing out plates and plates of different little dishes of food for you to eat.  There’s a lot in the presentation.  The portions are small in the fine dinning arena.

Then there’s the traditional meat and potatoes.  Often meat balls and some small vegetables.  You can also get open faced sandwiches.  Copenhagen does have a variety of food, but in most cases you are committing yourself to relaxing and enjoying yourself.  If you’re use to American style, where you are there for the food and not the ambiance, you may have to let your waiter know when you need them.

Christiania Beer  Art of Christiania

10. Christiania

Alternative living… was founded in 1971 when a group of citizens knocked down the fence to an abandoned military area and set up a new hippie community, completely independent of the Danish government.  In 2012 the Christiania fund bought the land.  It’s now a bunch of artists, but they’ve gotten creative.  They now have their own beer.

This place is unique in the world.  It’s a bit of burning man every night.  It’s a place that means different things to different people and the expression that comes from it has a wide variety as well.

– Real freedom of different types to different people: Check your politics and biases at the door.

– Anarchy – No RULES! Well, this has definitely changed over time.

– Shared living, shared everything.  Those hey day are over.  Now you’ll find there are businesses and art studios, where years ago anyone would be obliged to share.

– A place to do drugs in peace without the law.  There are still soft drugs a plenty.  Be careful with your camera.

– While capitalism was what they were trying to get away from, there’s quite the little cottage industry from the artists during the day, and at night it’s the bars and cafes

There has been spouts of violence in the past, but this is really a unique place.  I have really enjoyed my time there, but it’s not or everyone.

Vor Frelsers Kirke - The Church of our Saviour

Vor Frelsers Kirke (The Church of our Saviour)

is located at Christianshavn and was built in the years 1682 to 1696.

I hope you enjoyed this story among some of the others that I have posted.  I put this post together for my sister, Tamra who is doing a cruise from Copenhagen.  I hope she enjoys it.  She has a passion for travel that’s contagious.  Please like or rate the post, and I definitely welcome feedback.  As a traveler I love telling the stories and pointing out places to see or things to do.  I’ve been to Copenhagen twice, most recently in January and the first time with my wife.  I loved it both times. I’m sure you’ll love it too.

Joel in Copenhagen

Walking tour of Quebec French Canada: 5 Things You Can NOT Miss!

Chateau Frontenac

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Canada’s Castle – Chateau Frontenac

5 Things Not to Miss in Quebec City!

1. Chateau Frontenac – top of the hill. In all the pictures… this is the big amazing castle.

castle panorama

2. City Hall and Parliament building and and the nearby Wall with various entrances to the old city

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3. Gates/Wall/Stronghold The Plains of Abraham – site of battle during the 7 years war or French & Indian War (great museum Musée de la civilisation nearby with interactive exhibits)

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4. Notre-Dame-des-Victoires Church –bottom of the hill in Old town great walking area.

church panorama

5. Ice Castle at the Winter Carnival/Ice hotel first ice hotel in the Americas. The hotel has a four-month lifespan each year before being brought down in April – The city is must see during the winter.  It’s a winter wonderland from what I could see.  If you like ice sports, check out Crashed Ice a downhill ice cross world championship with high vertical drops high speed and sharp turns.  During the summer it’s the music festival… so there really is something here all year round.  4 great seasons… never too hot.  Looking for a something different?  Go on the haunted tour and hear a different set of stories completely.  I ran out of time, but know that old town would be fascinating to see in dark with stories.

nt side of the history.  For kids I also recommend tracking down the old cannon ball in the tree.  It’s weird history! cannonballtree

One story says that the cannonball landed here during the Battle of Québec in 1759 and overtaken by the tree.  Another story says that it was placed here on purpose to keep the wheels of horse-drawn carriages from bumping the tree when making tight turns. Frommers Includes it on their walking tour of Quebec City.

Here are some additional impressions of the city and some of what I learned about this beautiful amazing historical city…

1608 Quebec City is one of the oldest cities in North America. The old stone walls surrounding Old Quebec (Vieux-Québec) are the only remaining fortified city walls that still exist in the Americas north of Mexico, and declared a World Heritage Site by UNESCO in 1985 as the ‘Historic District of Old Québec.  I spent a few days there and learned so much.  One of my favorite cities in North America… Amazing walking city, the old town is really one of the most beautiful.  Interestingly, all I can think of that’s comparable is another former French city which I love to visit, and walk around… New Orleans.  It has the charm of the old world, but has an incredible history that goes back to the founding of the Americas when the Europeans invaded or discovered or both.

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899240_10151647952363783_628300677_oI spent a few days in Quebec, but it was a huge history lesson of North America that made me realize I really didn’t learn anything about Canada in school and there is a lot more to early pre-America/pre-Canada history when France, England and Spain where figuring things out with the various native tribes.  Interesting you’d think there would be a comparison between James Town 1607 (First permanent English settlement? According to Canada it’s St Johns in Canada 1583 the oldest English-founded city in North America) and Quebec City but according to wikipiedia it’s Santo Domingo that is the oldest continuously inhabited European established settlement in the Americas in 1498.

Jamestown 1607 the first permanent English settlement in the Americas (in 1618).

St. John’s 1583 is the oldest English-founded city in North America

Quebec City 1608 is one of the oldest European founded cities in North America

I found this article on Wikipedia to be fascinating in showing the real oldest cities in North America incorporating all of what the Spanish were doing, but also incorporating the age of what was already in place listing Kaminaljuyu Guatemala as the oldest at 1500BC, but doesn’t appear to be continuous… still a great list.

Here are a few stereotypes I had heard up to this point.  Canadians were the ones that didn’t want to flight the revolutionary war and ultimately were a liability.  I really didn’t know much about French Canada at all other than that they were French and somehow in the middle of Canada which didn’t make sense.    There really is so much of US history that you need to learn from outside of the US.  I’m serious.  I learned a ton.  Castles in Canada?  Yep, Quebec City is the last remaining walled city in North America, north of Mexico.

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This map shows which tribes were aligned with the blue as French  and the red as English

I had to look up more.  I wasn’t ok with 1607 vs. 1608… who was first?  I think we need a history debate. St. Johns vs. Jamestown…896571_10151647761853783_467293664_o “Referred to as "North America’s Oldest City", St. John’s is the oldest settlement in North America to hold city status, with year-round settlement beginning sometime before 1620 and seasonal settlement long before that. It is not, however, the oldest surviving English settlement in North America or Canada, as is often believed, as it was preceded by the Cuper’s Cove colony at Cupids, founded in 1610, and the Bristol’s Hope colony at Harbour Grace, founded in 1618. In fact, although English fisherman had begun setting up seasonal camps in Newfoundland in the 16th Century, they were expressly forbidden from establishing permanent settlements, hence the town of St. John’s not being established ’til circa 1620. As Jamestown,Virginia also, did not exist ’til 1619 (prior to that, its settlers were obliged to live within James Fort), St. George’s, Bermuda (strictly-speaking, not in the Americas at all, but an Atlantic oceanic island), established in 1612, is claimed to be the oldest continuously-inhabited English town in the New World, and is also suggested to have been the first.”  — Crazy.  What you learn in History class appears to not be consistent.  Must depend on Canadian or US History class…  Cause you could argue that French explorer Jacques Cartier built a fort at the site in 1535, where he stayed for the winter before going back to France in spring 1536, but please don’t rely on me for the history of Quebec City and Canada.  I’m still soaking it in.  Lots to learn.

What happened in the US prior to the revolutionary war is best learned in…. Canada.  Sounds crazy, but did you know where George Washington learned how to be a good General?  He led troops against the French in Canada fighting for the British

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Beautiful Old Town: Amazing little shops in really old buildings.

I also learned that the French built strong relationships with the individual tribes to create alliances.  They paid off the Indians (First Nations/Native Americans), and that’s why they fought for the French in the French and Indian war against George Washington.  Now it kinda makes sense why the early Americans weren’t so happy with the native tribes.  For me it filled in a few blanks.  I still won’t begin to understand why the trail of tears, all of the mistreatment and poor handling since.  Visited an indigenous group in Panama recently and wished there was still groups living like they did in the old west and prior.

Man amazing how political this post already is, but that’s what went though my head. 

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Pictured: Quebec National Assembly

895824_10151647930013783_68076590_oQuebec independence has played a large role in the politics of the province. Referendums for sovereignty in 1980 and 1995 both voted down by voters with the latest in a narrow margin. In 2006, the House of Commons of Canada even passed a symbolic motion recognizing the "Québécois as a nation within a united Canada."

Pictured Left: View of Old Town Quebec City next to the St Lawrence River

Most people live in urban areas near the Saint Lawrence River between Montreal and Quebec City

Nicaragua: Historical Gem in the Rough

Granada Historical Cathedral

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Cathedral in Granada

Nicaragua is one of the poorest/cheapest countries in the Americas.  It’s been an underdog for a couple of decades.  As a tourist attraction it’s easily overlooked for Panama or Costa Rica or Guatemala.  Many may not even consider it.  Nicaragua is really under the radar as a tourist destination, and as someone who loves discovering places off the radar where they knock your socks off and they haven’t been discovered I LOVE Nicaragua.  I actually had doubts about writing this because some who have made Nicaragua as their home away from home or for their escape may not want extra attention, but that hasn’t stopped me in the past.  I’ve been to Nicaragua twice and love loved both times.  The first time I did a bunch of research.  In my pursuits I came across a lot of warnings and enough to really scare you.

“Armed robbery attempts have increased in popular tourist destinations where armed, and sometimes masked, assailants emerge from roadside locations to stop vehicles and rob passengers. One common tactic is for assailants to place rocks, tree branches, or other large objects along roads and wait for cars to stop. When the driver gets out of the vehicle to remove the obstruction, assailants come out of hiding to rob victims.  Criminals posing as Nicaraguan traffic police occasionally target visitors. The imposters conduct traffic stops and rob vehicle occupants at gunpoint.”

One post I read was an expat from the US that runs a white water rafting place, they had moved from central Oregon.  In the post, they went on to explain that Nicaragua gets a bad rap that it doesn’t deserve.  They compared the crime rate in the worst city in Nicaragua with an average city in Oregon and explained it was worse in Oregon.  Looking again there are horrible warnings designed to scare you.  In my research the crime rates are comparable to the US and in many cases worse.  Compare Numbeo country crime rates of Nicaragua 41.93 and US 53.44 a higher crime rate.  Hey, I’m a fan of Costa Rica and Nicaragua, they both have a lot to offer and shouldn’t be compared since they are so different in terms of what they have to offer.  Costa Rica has the beaches, and Nicaragua has the big lake and historical colonial cities.

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The cost of living is one-third cheaper in Nicaragua. Tourists are very concerned about safety, so it is necessary to look at crime statistics. The homicide rate per 100,000 inhabitants in Nicaragua was 12 in 2005, 13 in 2011, an increase of 8%. The homicide rate in Costa Rica in 2005 was 7.8, with a 32% increase in 2011 to 10.3.  The ten most violent US cities each have more homicides than the whole country of Nicaragua.  Chicago a city I wouldn’t even bat an eye to visit had 50x the homicide rate.

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I hope you notice the HUGE lake, the largest freshwater lake in Central America, and really the largest islands in freshwater in the world.

Nicaragua, officially the Republic of Nicaragua, is the largest country in the Central American isthmus, bordering Honduras to the north and Costa Rica to the south

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In Nicaragua it’s about the lakes, volcanoes and natural beauty.  Lake Granada has hundreds of small islands in addition to the big volcano islands.  Beautiful personal islands with one house.  Jump in the water, it’s nice all year round.  I have heard about the fresh water sharks, but they don’t hang out near the city on the Granada side.  Catch a ferry over to Ometepe, and stay on the island.  I went on a kayaking excursion.  Amazing views.

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Ometepe Island in Lake Nicaragua

Colonial Towns Granada – Ometepe holds the distinction of being the largest island in a fresh water lake in the world. It is also full of pre-Columbian history, statuary, and other relics, plus two magnificent volcanoes.

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Granada is a very historical city.  Nothing compares with it across central america, the closest is Antiqua, Guatemala.  Incredible beauty.

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At night go out on the closed walking streets and be serenaded with incredible food from around the world.

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Managua has the big man in the hat on the largest hill in the city.  Great views. You may not agree with the politics, and some local friends of ours are waiting for change, but it’s amazing.   I personally would recommend spending your time with Granada as your base.  Don’t hang out in Managua.  It doesn’t have much to offer.  Get out to the lake and you’ll feel the relaxing atmosphere.  As a non native Spanish speaker, I still found enough people who spoke enough English to get around.  You will want to have a few words.  One of my friends only used USD while in Nicaragua.  Even the ATM provided choices for USD or local.  Our hotel took credit cards.  You likely will want to make sure you have cash before you take the ferry out to Ometepe.  On the islands things are pretty spread out and the roads are pretty rough, but that’s part of the adventure.

Road Less Traveled: Top 5 Travel Destinations of Armenia

Crazy Foot bridge

Rickety Old Foot bridge

Armenia view Mt. Ararat, the site where Noah’s Ark landed, according to Genesis 8:4. In addition, Armenia has the distinction of being the first country to adopt the Christian faith (301 A.D.) and being evangelized by two of Jesus’ apostles (Bartholomew and Thaddeus). The landscape is dotted with ancient churches and monasteries.

Armenia may not currently be a top of tourist destination due to the challenge of getting there, but my experience is there is a lot of hidden gems and may be one of the top emerging religious tourist destination yet to be discovered, it’s off the radar for most.  It’s definitely an ancient kingdom that has been passed from empire to empire until it gained it’s independence from the Soviet Union.  Since that time it’s had a hard time with a couple of it’s neighbors.  There’s some disputed Territory that was a gift from Stalin to Azerbaijan and another to Turkey.  The Turkish relationship isn’t as strained it appears, but the Azerbaijani relationship is still strained with land disputes.

Khor Virap Monestary

(Above: Khor Virap Monestary)

There are some amazing destinations in Armenia.  The history of Armenia is fascinating.  I do think it’s worth visiting and not one to overlook in your visit to the former soviet union and in your visit to the Caucuses.  You really have to plan your routes through this region of the world.  For example simply flying into Armenia is a challenge.  We found getting from Georgia to Armenia was a great way of seeing the region and there were many more flight options into Tbilisi such as through Istanbul (one of my favorite cities for extended layovers).  Both Georgia and Armenia are Christian nations.

1. Where Noah landed the Ark – Mt Ararat viewing from Khor Virap Monastery – The Khor Virap Monastery is a 17th century Church provides a spectacular and majestic view of Mount Ararat and one of the most visited church and tourist spot of Armenia.  Saint Gregory was imprisoned in a pit for 13 years and as the story goes came out and the miracle of surviving this pit resulted in a conversion of the King and further prostylting led to the country converting to Christianity in 301 AD.

Khor Virap - The pit

The Pit – Climbing down these steps is a freaky experience.  It feels like the latter isn’t straight up and down.  It feels like you’re leaning backward.

Khor Virap in the shadows of Mt Ararat

Khor Virap Monestary with the Bible famous Mt Ararat in the Background.  There were some farmers burning their fields that day, so the mountain isn’t as looming in this photo.

2. Garni Temple – The oldest and best preserved Pagan temple in the world.  This building plays a significant role in the establishment of Armenia as a country and hence has been preserved where a lot of pagan temples around the world were destroyed with the rise of Islam and Christianity.

Garni Pagan Temple in Armenia

The nearly 2000 year old temple has some older structures around it including some interesting mosaics and likely one of the most incredible views of river valley which remind me of the Ihlara Valley in Turkey and have similar looking basalt columns of the Giants causeway of Ireland.

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(View inside of the Garni temple)

While we were there, some pagans were holding a ritual for one of their members who was off to join the military.

3. Etchmiadzin Cathedral is the oldest state-built church in the world.  While meditating in the old capital city of Vagharshapat, Gregory had a vision of Christ’s coming to the earth to strike it with a hammer. From the spot rose a great Christian temple with a huge cross. He was convinced that God intended him to build the main Armenian church there. The Etchmiadzin Cathedral is the oldest state-built church in the world. The original vaulted basilica was built in 301-303 by Saint Gregory the Illuminator with the Kings help when Armenia became the first officially Christian country in the world.He renamed the city Etchmiadzin, which means “the place of the descent of the only-begotten.”  This UNESCO herritage site is a 4th Century church with a rich history of the Christian nation of Armenia.

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Courtesy Wikipedia

There was construction going on on the turrets while I was there so my photo didn’t turn out this great.  The church is part of a greater complex of religious buildings including religious seminaries.

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Above: Seminary Students and Armenian Priests in the greater complex

4. Armenian Genocide Complex – Memorial Complex of Tsitsernakaberd

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Right near the national stadium is the Genocide memorial with an eternal flame and a pillar pointing toward heaven.  My friend Marvel told us stories of his families making the experience very personal.  The Government of the Ottoman Empire ordered the  destruction of Armenians in Anatolia (Eastern Turkey) in an organized expulsion and extermination of Armenians. Women, children and elderly were from February 1915 sent on death marches towards the Syrian desert.  Some 1 million to 1.5 million died.

Apparently there is controversy in the use of the term “genocide” as Turkey and Azerbaijan choose to say these events were part of the war.  It’s very sad.

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Armenian Genocide Memorial 1915-1922, the flowers pile up in a circle around the flame.  Online there’s a 3-D video of the Armenian Genocide complex including the ability to place flowers.

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5. Yerevan Republic Square – The Republic Square is the place where ceremonies and meetings are held. The statue of Lenin used to be located in the southern forehead of the square, but when Armenia regained its independence, the statue was brought down.  Now you’ll find dancing fountains in the summer.

The square is surrounded with seven major buildings:

  • The National Gallery and the History Museum building (north).
  • The Ministry of Territorial Administration (north-east).
  • The Government House: holds the main offices of the Government of Armenia (north-east).
  • The Central post-office of the Republic of Armenia (south-east).
  • The “Mariott Armenia” hotel (south-west).
  • The Ministry of Foreign Affairs (north-west).
  • The Ministry of Energy and Natural Resources (north-west).

Republic Square Yerevan

Republic Square Yerevan

Christmas in central republic square

Vernisaj Market in Yerevan Armenia

Vernisaj Market in Yerevan, this is a must see on the weekends.  Lots of fun things for travelers.  Lots of crafts involving Noah and the local landscapes.

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This is the Old Yerevan Restaurant Band.  There were tons of fun.  Lots of great food to eat.  The food was one of my favorite things about Armenia.  Lots of great food.

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