Tag Archives: tradition

Nicosia: the last divided capital

I decided to take the 2-hr bus journey from Pafos to Nicosia (cost: Euro 7) mainly because I wanted to cross the Green Line, the border between the Greek part (South Nicosia, Lefkosia) and the Turkish part (North Nicosia, Lefkosa) of the capital city of Cyprus. The idea of a capital city still split between two countries – so many years after the end of a similar situation in Berlin – sounded very interesting.

As most tourist, I reached the border via Lidras (or Ledras) Street, a pedestrianised area in South Nicosia full of the usual high street stores and cafes. Passport checks were quick and relaxed, and within a couple of minutes I was on the other side.

"Green line" Nicosia Cyprus
The sign at the border between Greek and Turkish Nicosia

It was a very surreal experience, though: the vibe in North Nicosia is very different from the South, it is very Arabic/Turkish and it reminded me of Marrakech. Apart from the border crossing area I didn’t see many tourists and the streets and narrow alleys of the Old City were largely empty.

I wandered around for a few hours, checking out the main sites of Lefkosa but also losing myself in the alleys of the old town, soaking up in the atmosphere.
Here is what I saw:

Büyük Han – considered one of the finest buildings in Cyprus, it was built in the 16th century. Originally a caravansarai, it was restored in the 1990s and is now a thriving arts centre, with galleries, workshops, cafes and souvenir shops.

Selimiye Camii (Mosque) – also known as the Cathedral of Saint Sophia, this is now an unusual mix of Western cathedral and mosque, with landmark minaret towers that can be seen from most of Nicosia. The building is a beautiful example of a Roman Catholic cathedral, built mostly in the 13th century. Taken over by the Ottomans in 1570 it was then converted into a mosque and the minarets were added to the building.

The Bedesten – another example of a church that was converted to a mosque during the Ottoman period, and is now a cultural centre.

Belediye Pazari (also known as the Bandabulya) – for a lover of traditional markets like me, this was quite a disappointment. Apart from a few grocery stalls, where most locals gathered, the market was largely empty and only a handful of souvenir shops were open. I was quickly out of it, not before having bought a silver ankle bracelet, though!

The Venetian walls – initially built in the Middle Ages then rebuilt in the 16th century, they surround Nicosia and are very well preserved. They also contain eleven bastions and three gates.

"North Nicosia" Cyprus "Kyrenia Gate"
Kyrenia Gate in North Nicosia

I stopped for lunch in one of the local kebab houses, where I joined lots of locals enjoying their meals sitting outside and I tasted a traditional Cypriot dish: sheftalia kebab.

Walking along the Green Line from the Armenian Church back to the Lokmaci gate, the atmosphere was a bit eerie, a lot of buildings here have been destroyed and hardly anyone walks around, while frequent signs remind you that this is still military zone and photography is not allowed. I didn’t see police around but thought it was better not to take chances and didn’t take any photos…

I really loved North Nicosia and when I crossed the border back into the Greek part, the tourist crowds and the shops of Lidras Street made this part of the capital city quite disappointing. I ended up catching the bus back to Pafos without exploring any further, also partly due to the odd bus hours and the long journey back.

Top tip if you visit Nicosia:
the Turkish part of Nicosia doesn’t belong to the cheap European roaming/mobile data plans that apply to its Greek counterpart. As soon as you cross the border, you will incur hefty charges on your smartphone, unless you switch roaming and data off. I forgot to do that and saw my £15 balance disappear in about an hour just by having internet switched on!

A visit to the dyers souk in Marrakech

“I am the souk of a thousand and one colors, but they come at a cost: the hard labor of the Sebbaghine dyers”

Your visit to Marrakech won’t be complete without a trip to the Souk Des Teinturiers.  Also called Souk Sebbaghine, this is Marrakech’s colourful and photogenic dyers’ souk, where wool and fabric are dyed and left hanging across the alleyways to dry.

A narrow alley leads you into the small main square, where you will be surrounded by bright colours: the dye powders arranged in bowls, the drying wool hanging over your head, the fabrics sold in the shops. You can also watch skilled men dipping wool into large metal vats of hot dye. When you get close, you may feel like you’ve just walked into one of the circles of Dante’s inferno!

A curiosity about the dyes: green powder dyes fabric red, red powder dyes things blue, and yellow powder dyes things purple. Isn’t this magic?!

At the “Festa de l’Unita’ “

ItalyPhotogallery_021

When I was a child, for me and my friends “Festa de l’Unita'” was synonymous with: summer, evenings out, food and dancing.

ItalyPhotogallery_022Despite its political connotation – it used to be organised by the Italian Communist Party, and now by the Democratic Party – the Festa de l’Unita’ is seen by most as a big annual social event. Together with the myriad of festivals that characterise Italian towns in summer.

In the Emilia-Romagna region of Italy all towns and villages seem to have their own Festa de l’Unita’ during summer, and all local events culminate in a main final event that takes place in one of the major cities (like Bologna) in late August-early September.

But for us children, politics was of no interest. All we were interested in was the opportunity to be out until late (well, later than the usual 6-7pm), eat lots of traditional food like crescentine and tigelle, perform our own version of polka, mazurka and waltz at the live music events, and buy raffle tickets in the hope of winning those nice toys that were on display.

During a recent visit to Italy I went to a Festa de l’Unita’ with some friends. It must have been at least ten years since the last time I attended one of such events. The village hosting it was small. The event was quite large. Nothing seemed to have changed since the 80’s.

Two ladies handing out stickers welcomed us at the entrance.  They always give you a sticker when you enter a Festa de l’Unita’.  You get labelled.

Next was the funfair. Not a big one but enough to keep kids and teenagers entertained for a bit. I was tempted to pay a couple of Euros and throw plastic rings around the necks of very colourful plastic swans, but the idea of using my money to buy food seemed more appealing…

Food. One of my main priorities during any visits to a Festa de l’Unita’ as a child. This has not changed with time.  Who can resist some crescentine fritte, freshly made in front of you? They may almost drip with oil, but they are delicious! So of course I had a couple.

 And then there was the live music. There was a large dancing area, a stage and a band playing. The female solo singer was pretty good. But the music was the same as 30 years ago. Ballo liscio, with its polka/mazurka/waltz, dominated the scene. Some group dance songs from the 60’s featured too. The dozens of people dancing seemed to have loads of fun, though!
Looking at how well prepared they were, how in synch they moves appeared, and how no one ever seemed to miss a step, I wondered if the locals spend the whole year taking dance classes with the only purpose to show their abilities at the Festa de l’Unita’ over one week in summer…

We left before the end of the evening, with the feeling that some things have never changed and probably never will.

A photo from my archives: Doors in Dublin

Dublin, Ireland, 2009.

The colourful doors, typical of Georgian architecture, are one of the most popular landmarks of Dublin. Elegant Georgian homes featured in Dublin starting in the early 18th century, a time of prosperity for the city. These homes were built according to strict architectural guidelines and were therefore very similar. To set themselves apart, residents of Dublin started painting their front doors of different colours and adding ornate knockers, elegant fanlights and wrought iron boot scrapers.

The result is the very colourful appearance of the Georgian homes!

Unfortunately from the 1950’s most of these houses were demolished as part of redevelopment plans and replaced by office blocks and government buildings. Many still remain, though, and can be seen in several neighbourhoods of Dublin.

Luang Prabang: not only temples

Since 1995 Luang Prabang, in the north of Lao, has been listed as UNESCO World Heritage site thanks to its high concentration of beautiful Buddhist temples mixed  with European-style colonial buildings.LaoPhotogallery_025

Located at the confluence of the Mekong and Nam Khan rivers, Luang Prabang is a charming town and very easy and pleasant to walk around. When I visited the unbearable heat after 10:30am was not ideal for sightseeing, yet other options were available for the rest of the day.

So here’s my random list of things to do/see in Luang Prabang:

  • If you visit at mid-April, be prepared to get soaked in the New Year celebrations (see my blog post here).
Buddhist temples
Buddhist temples
  • Visit some Buddhist temples: there are many beautiful ones but definitely not to miss are: Wat Xieng Thong and Wat Mai.
  • Pop into the Traditional Arts and Ethnology Centre: they have very interesting displays and information about ethnic groups in Lao.
Old Quarter in Luang Prabang
Old Quarter in Luang Prabang
  • Stroll along the streets in the Old Quarter and enjoy the colonial architecture.
  • Wake up at dawn for the Alms giving ceremony (see my blog post here).
  • Visit the Royal Palace/National Museum: probably not the most interesting I have ever seen, but worth an hour of your time.
The National Museum
The Royal Palace, now National Museum
  • Cross the bamboo bridge over the Nam Khan river and go for a stroll in the village on the other side. Then stop at the Dyen Sabai restaurant and chill with a drink while enjoying a view over the river and the surroundings.

    The bamboo bridge over the Nam Khan river
    The bamboo bridge over the Nam Khan river
  • Go to the Library and buy some books for the children in the villages. This is in collaboration with Lao Kids. You may also find students or monks who want to practice their English. (You can do the same at Big Brother Mouse, whose presence is all over the internet. I went there too but I preferred the Library).
  • See a performance of traditional Ramayana dance. During the New Year celebrations there were free performances every day. During the rest of the year, shows are on at the Royal Palace complex.
  • When it’s too hot, go to the swimming pool. La Pistoche is the place to be for both tourists and locals. Nice place for a day of splashing and chilling!
  • When you have exhausted all options above, there are dozens of spa/massage places where you can get pampered for an hour or two at superlow cost. I had a great one-hour foot massage for US$5!

And now you can enjoy more Luang Prabang photos!

Alms giving ceremony in Luang Prabang

If you can get yourself out of bed before 5am, then the alms giving ceremony (or Tak Bat) is for you.
To be honest after all the effort for the early rise it was a bit disappointing but it’s still something of interest.

What is the alms giving ceremony?

Every morning between 5:30-6:30am monks in Luang Prabang walk in procession along the main road to collect alms of rice and fruits from people. Their orange robes create a colourful row that snakes along the road. People offer them rice, biscuits and fruits. The monks in turn give some of the offerings to  local poor kids, who have gathered in the area with boxes and baskets.

Unfortunately this venerable and picturesque tradition has turned into a full-on tourist attraction. Minivans off load dozens of tourists right in the main area where the procession takes place.  Not only the tourist numbers are really high but also the majority of them stand right next to the monks trying to take close-up photos. Not to mention the use of flash in the monks’ faces. How about using a long lens and taking photos from the distance?!?!?!

There are actually a series of ‘behaviour guidelines’ for those who wish to attend the alms giving ceremony (i.e. dress appropriately, stand at least 3 meters away from the monks, do not give them food bought in the streets, and so on) but they don’t seem to be followed much.
This is what is sad and annoying about this traditional ceremony.

But overall it is something to see in Luang Prabang. The orange line of monks walking in the street is quite nice to watch.