Sunday, 23 July 2017

Appreciating a glimpse of Dutch countryside in Zaanse Schans

I love cities, but when I travel I also like to see something different. Big cities are not usually very representative of a country, so it's a good idea to venture outside and see how the rest of the country looks like. That's what I did when I was in Amsterdam last March.

The village of Zaanse Schans is located only a few minutes away from central Amsterdam. I took a local train leaving from the Central Station that in just 17 minutes and 7,20€ (return ticket) took me to another world. In Zaanse Schans there are working windmills, the air is fresh and you get to see a glimpse of Dutch countryside. Compared to Amsterdam Zaanse Schans is relaxed and quiet.



Zaanse Schans village

I think it was the turning point in my trip to Amsterdam. Somehow I couldn't connect to the city and the country, so I spent three days sightseeing without getting particularly excited at anything. While the city was certainly interesting and full of inspiration, certainly different from most European cities I had visited before, Zaanse Schans offered a different point of view and an interesting insight on the country. It made me get away from the hype about coffeeshops and red-light districts and see that there is a lot more to the Dutch identity than that.



Lanscape around Zaanse Schans

There used to be a chocolate factory in the area, so as soon as you get off the train you will smell roasted cocoa beans. A few panels explain the importance of this area for both the industrial and cultural heritage of the Netherlands.

The first windmill that you see, even before getting to the village on the banks of the river Zaan, is maybe the most picturesque. It is called De Bleeke Dood (which means "the Pale Death"!) and it was built in 1656. It was restored a couple of times and is still used to make flour.
 
"De Bleeke Dood" windmill on the way to Zaanse Schans


Wooden clogs, windmills and tulips are all part of the world you enter in Zaanse Schans. Several mills were moved to this area in the 1960s to preserve them for future generations. They are surrounded by extensive meadows, and just to see the sails slowly turning from a distance make you feel like you went back a few centuries, when life was simpler and things like oil or flour or were produced locally.

Windmills along the river


Zaanse Schans is certainly touristic: there were plenty of tourists, especially Asians, with big cameras and selfie sticks, and the windmills now work almost exclusively for them. In spite of that, it is interesting to learn about their several uses: to mill and saw wood for sure, but also to make the pigments used by Dutch painters. For a few euros you can enter them and get to see how they work, then climb the stairs and have a look at the landscape from the top.

One of the mills along the river
 
 
There is an abundance of museums in Zaanse Schans, so if you feel like exploring traditional crafts, you could spend there the whole day. There is even a small museum that relates the history and the craftsmanship behind wooden clogs. Moreover, there are demonstrations of traditional crafts, hot chocolate for cold rainy days and a few restaurants.

The best thing about a visit to Zaanse Schans, however, was simply taking the leisurely walk from the train station to the village and then stroll on the water's edge, admiring these huge wooden creatures dating from another time. I spent there a couple of pleasant hours, thanks to the perfect weather. I had to plan really well when to go, looking at the weather forecast a lot, because not all the days I had there were as sunny with clear blue skies. 
 

Wooden clogs

Wednesday, 12 April 2017

Walking through enchanting Ohrid

Ohrid is quickly becoming one of the highlights of a trip to the Balkans, and for a good reason. Leaving quirky Skopje for quiet and pleasant Lake Ohrid made me feel as I had crossed yet another border of former Yugoslavia. Yet Ohrid, with its elegant ancient architecture, is in Macedonia, the same country as bombastic Skopje with its huge statues and its kitsch neoclassical architecture.

Sveti Jovan Kaneo
Let me begin from the best Ohrid has to offer. The church of Sveti Jovan Kaneo is like a perfect postcard. It's just a small 13th-century church on a cliff overlooking the lake, but what makes it so special is the quiet atmosphere. No wonder that in the past it was used as a place for meditation.  The beautiful roof shaped like an half-folded umbrella is one of my favourite features of this church and it indicates an Armenian influence. Just think of the mix of cultures in this small corner of the world. For example, the part of the town on the hill used to be Christian, while the part on the flat land was Ottoman. 


Another picture of Sveti Jovan Kaneo


I reached the church after a short and pleasant hike from the old town. After a gentle bend I saw the church appear in the distance. There weren't too many people (it really depends on the moment of the day) and I spent some time on the hill above the church looking at the perfect view and reading. A woman was painting and every now and then a small group of tourists would come, admire the church and leave after a short time. 


Sveti Jovan from the bend in the road
Nearby there is also a small beach with a couple of restaurants: just the perfect place to chill out. As Ohrid is dotted with monasteries and ancient churches, I kept exploring: I discovered that the church of Saint Penteleimon hosted the first students of the Glagolitic alphabet, which in time became the Cyrill script of Macedonian and other Slavic languages. 

I also ran into the ruins of a fortress, Car Samuil, with an  impressive view, and later into an ancient amphitheater. There is so much to explore that you if you like history like me you'll not get bored. The weather was exceptional and every two minutes there was something to stop for: a nice view, a historical site or a scene of everyday Macdonian life.


Landscape in the old town
The town itself is crumbling in places, but incredibly fascinating. Here old Ottoman traditions meet the Christian Orthodox world. Its cobbled streets all lead to the main square, with a huge tree that is said to be 900 years old. The menus in the restaurants around the square and the bazaar included stuffed peppers, shopska salata, sarma dumplings and other Macedonian specialities.


Charming Ohrid

Ohrid is a small town, so on the second day, having explored every nook and cranny, I decided to take a day trip to Sveti Naum monastery. There is a ferry that leaves at 10 in the morning from the pier and for 10€ takes you there, then comes back after lunch. I discovered that Lake Ohrid was one of Tito's favourite parts of Yugoslavia (he had a villa here) and in the meantime I observed the less developed Albanian side of the lake. 

When I was around Sveti Naum there was an important wedding and even the president of Macedonia was present. The entry to the monastery was 100 dinars (1,60€). It is tiny and dark, as it is inside Sveti Jovan Kaneo church, but the frescoes were somehow fascinating.


Sveti Naum monastery
There were peacocks in the courtyard and some girls were rehearsing a traditional folk dance for the wedding.  There is also another newer church that I liked, some hiking trails, a spring and a couple of restaurants and souvenir shops. It's a nice trip but maybe it would have been better to couple it with something else to fill up the rest of the day.

The newer church near Sveti Naum


I reached Ohrid with a three-and-a-half-hour bus ride from Skopje. If you're planning to visit this beautiful lake keep in mind that it's tricky to continue on to Greece, and in my experience it was easier to get a bus back to Skopje and then another one to Thessaloniki. If I remember well there is more than one company that servers the route Skopje - Ohrid, so one stand could not be able to tell you the timetable for the other company and try to sell you their ticket only.

A view from behind the fortress

Monday, 20 March 2017

Four enchanted places you should visit right now

1) Chefchaouen

Believe me when I say that I love Morocco, but I must recognize that in big cities like Fez or Marrakesh you can easily feel overwhelmed. The strong smells and the chaos of the medina, the touts, or simply the amount of people walking down the street can make you feel like you've already had enough of this country. In that case a good idea is to spend a few days in Chefchaouen, a small quiet town nestled in the hills of northern Morocco.

A quiet street in the medina
There I just walked around, taking ridiculously gorgeous pictures, and shopping for Moroccan slippers or scarfs without feeling the pressure of the vendors in bigger towns. The walls of the medina are painted a deep blue and even the doors, the stone stairs and the furniture are often blue. 



Men wear the traditional djellaba and look like mysterious wizards, as if they were the last of a disappearing population of magical beings. In Chefchaouen I found people to be extremely welcoming and I appreciated the fact that children could play happily on the quiet streets and small squares. 


Add that to the fact that there are great hiking possibilities all around and you have your perfect Moroccan getaway from the bustling city life of Moroccan cities.

Read more about Chefchaouen in this post from April 2015.


2) Bled

Did you ever wonder what the place where Snow White and Prince Charming come from might look like? I think it must look like Bled.

Lake Bled
If you've never heard of this lake, maybe it's because it is found in a tiny and relatively unknown European country called Slovenia. Other than being the birthplace of Melania Trump, this Alpine country is little known. In a novel by Paulo Coelho a librarian from the capital Ljubljiana decides to commit suicide after reading an article in a magazine about her country, making people believe that she did it because people don't even know where Slovenia is.

Lake Bled seen from the castle
I have a plan to visit Bled in every season: in winter with snow, in autumn with yellow leaves and in spring with flowers in bloom. I have already been in the summer and it is gorgeous: I cannot think of a better country than Slovenia to breathe some fresh air and rest your eyes with a palette of colours unlike that of any other country.

Read more about Bled and Slovenia in this post, which is actually the first one I wrote on this blog.


3) Sintra

In "Journey to Portugal" Saramago described this small town a few kilometers from Lisbon: as an "English folly, paid for by the cloth trade ...  a monument to an age that had every taste imaginable, but never really defined any of them ....  eclectic to the point of eccentricity .... As empires dominated the world economically, they amused themselves with alien cultures". 

Palacio da Pena
Sintra resembles the dream of a king that went slightly mad  at the end of his life.  Several royal palaces dot the hilly landscape, each one slightly crazier than the other. Some elements are Gothic, others call back to traditional Muslim architecture, or to the Portuguese Manueline style. As if this wasn't enough, mysterious gargoyles look at you from weird angles.


Palacio da Pena

The most charming palace according to me is Quinta da Regaleira, especially the Gothic-style gardens. I spent a couple of hours exploring the grottoes, the statues and the ponds, wondering what the upside-down staircase might mean and feeling that every pinnacle and gargoyle has a secret to reveal.

The gardens of Quinta da Regaleira

If palaces are not your thing in the small town the charming yellow-trimmed houses are a pleasure for the eyes, and the streets bear the names of the writers and artists who tread and wrote about this place, including Lord Byron. 

Read more about my trip to Sintra in December 2015 here.


4) Ait-Benhaddou

I know, I'm listing Morocco twice in this list, but it's merely because that country of djinns is literally bewitching. Moreover Ait-Benhaddou is one of the most incredible places I have been to.
Ait Benhaddou
You may have seen it as the location for countless movies and TV shows, including as Yunkai in Game of Thrones. It is usually portrayed as a city made of sand that appears like a mirage in the middle of the desert. And that is actually what it is: a particularly good-looking ksar that is not completely abandoned and that is at the edge of the desert. The Touareg guides in blue turbans lead the way into a magic world, where you may find anything from Ali Baba's lamp to an ancient amulet.
A berber guide in Ait Benhaddou
This was one of the highlights of my trip to Morocco. It is a perfect stop on the way to the Sahara desert and it is a good opportunity to learn about the ancient trade routes that pass through this part of the world.
Souvenirs in Ait Benhaddou

Monday, 6 March 2017

Exploring the Big Mango: 4 days in Bangkok

"There it was, spread largely on both banks, the Oriental capital which had yet suffered no white conqueror…" - Joseph Conrad
I've already written a Bangkok survival guide, but I would like to go more in detail about this incredible city.

The temples

I literally love temples and history so I just couldn't miss the emerald Buddha inside Wat Phra Kaew and Wat Pho, located at walking distance one from the other. The former is inside the grounds of  the Grand Palace, which is the only tourist attraction in the city that has a steep entrance fee: 500 baht (13,50€). It also closes early, at 3:30 pm,  so I had to schedule the visit carefully. Wat Pho was equally beautiful and at 100 baht (2,70€) was more affordable. Another plus it that it is open until 6:30 pm so I had no excuse.

A stone giant in Wat Pho

Tuesday, 14 February 2017

Places not to miss in Malta

It never takes more than an hour to get anywhere in Malta, even with the public transport. This is why with just 8 days I was able to see many different things, on different parts of the island. Here's my personal top five of places not to miss in this charming  and fascinating Mediterranean country.


A street in Valletta

Sunday, 29 January 2017

A taste of the new world: the colonial heritage of Tenerife

Tenerife, the biggest of  the Canary islands, is famous for all-inclusive resorts where tourists get drunk and enjoy the year-round sunshine, experiencing nothing of the island. Locals insist that the real Tenerife is elsewhere, and especially in the north of the island, where the charming towns and the incredible landscapes will leave you agape.

Tenerife is rich in culture and unique in its diversity. A volcanic island off the coast of southern Morocco, it is home to a biodiversity that is comparable to that of Gal├ípagos. To the tourist it offers a variety of sceneries, from the volcanic lunar landscapes of Parque del Teide to the lush forests of the Anaga mountains, or the golden beaches with sand imported from the Sahara. Because of the microclimates of the island, Tenerife is green in the north and arid in the south.
 
The Anaga Mountains, on the north-eastern tip of Tenerife

Monday, 16 January 2017

Hvar: island of the senses

Hvar has everything I expected from a Croatian island: it's covered in pine forests, lavender fields and olive groves, it has beautiful secluded pebble beaches and a gorgeous historical centre. Moreover, the ferry from Split took me there in less than a couple of hours.
 
It has picturesque marble-paved streets full of flowers and trellis, and its main square looks out onto the sea, with countless smaller islands ready to be explored. Woods grow just behind the square, offering a perfect postcard picture. Hvar is one of the most visited islands in Dalmatia, so it's rather busy in the summer months, but it still shows its charm in the backstreets and quiet corners.

The main square in Hvar

Wednesday, 4 January 2017

Pai, backpacker's heaven or hell?

The small town of Pai, in north-western Thailand, is very popular among backpackers who visit Thailand. Lured by their ravishing tales, I decided to give it a go.


There is nothing special about Pai itself. There are no amazing temples, the food is mediocre and as in the infamous Khao San Road in Bangkok, the place lost its authenticity long ago. There are more guesthouses, souvenir shops and trekking agencies than private houses, not to mention more Western food that in any other parts of northern Thailand. On top of the that, the 4-hour minibus drive from Chiang Mai is a nightmare of 700 turns where you'd better not look out of the window.

Relaxing in Pai
Yet tourists keep flocking to Pai for the laid-back atmosphere: hippies, yoga enthusiasts and 20-somethings devoted to smoke weed, but also some hiking enthusiasts decide to visit this relatively remote corner of Thailand close to the border with Burma. Oh, and tons of Chinese tourists, to the point that some of the accommodation especially caters for them.
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