Traveler’s Notebook: Jordan

December 31st, 2016

Writen in Madaba, Jordan

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The view from Mount Nebo, looking north towards the Jordan River Valley.

Yesterday afternoon, after standing on the edge of Mt. Nebo – where Moses is said to have finally seen the promised land before dying – we set off across the neighboring hills to find the ruins of a cluster of pilgrimage churches. We were quiet and introspective; I don’t think we had anticipated the effect that hillside would have on us as we curiously walked up the cement pathway, past a few monks, past commemorative signs, a declaration from the Pope that this was, in fact, Holy Ground.

I can’t say I know what it takes for a place to become spiritual and meditative. Is it the other tourists (or lack thereof) around you feeling the same thing, a sort of collective rising of consciousness? Is it the centuries of pilgrims who have walked and prayed before you, filling the air and ground with an intrinsic sense of stillness? Or has it always been there, drawing people in, silencing their hearts and minds, inspiring them to build churches and way-side rests in this place?

Perhaps, it was just this evening in particular, settling in early and chilled: golden pink sunlight softening the desert hills, glittering off the Dead Sea below and shadowing the hills of Israel and Palestine beyond.

Even living in Italy, even traversing the grandness of that epic Roman empire, we have been realizing that we are in the face of something more ancient to humanity than those columned temples and marble-paved roads. These hills have seen, cultivated and given more than we can contend with or imagine today. Life, crops, religions. Inevitably, war and grief. Perhaps this is what stuns and silences us, as well.

Before the sun fully set, as as the tour groups cluster along the cliff side which makes “Mount” Nebo a mountain rather than a quick fall to hundreds of meters below sea level, we leave to seek out one more nearby ruin that we’ve read about. The area surrounding Madaba is known for incredible, Byzantine-era mosaic floors which used to decorate homes and churches alike, remains of which are hidden throughout the hills and still being discovered. True, we’ve seen a lot of them in the last few hours, but nights are long this time of the year, and we want to experience as much as possible before dark.

We take a right off the main road – a two-lane paved street laced with potholes and with herds of goats and sheep grazing dangerously close to moving cars without a guardrail – and drive a few kilometers along a single-lane drive tracing its way across the top of the hillsides. We pass by a group of teenage boys setting themselves up to watch the sunset along a line of tall pines, a hookah and pot of tea balanced between them all. They wave as enthusiastically as little children, shouting greetings. We have been pleasantly surprised by the overwhelming hospitality of the people we meet here: the men who pull over on the highway and offer to take our photo as we appreciate a great view, the passersby who rush to assure us that the sounds we hear are not bombs, but fireworks celebrating the New Year, the many conversations about European football my fiance has with taxi drivers. There is a genuineness to the people here, an ease and openness that goes beyond the service industry standards which I do not often find when traveling. Probably, it comes with a culture sitting at the crossroads of the earth: nomadic desert folk who need to be opened to strangers in order to survive as a species. It has taken work for me to fight against an intrinsic fear I’ve been taught when the images of men in the traditional clothing of the Middle East are standing before me, going about their lives. There are constant reminders that this is just not a given, that taught fear wont serve me here or anywhere.

As we pull up to the farm at the end of the road, a Bedouin groundskeeper and his son appear, waving to us, then telling us he had closed for the day. We apologize and move to get back into the car, but he shakes his head and assures us “You are welcome, you are most welcome,” shaking my fiances hand.

He leads us to a covered cement structure, unlocking the heavy, bolted door. In the dim light, we can make out the mosaic patterns of what used to be the floor of a church. In the center, the colors are scared by burn marks, and he tells us that before the priests came and discovered the ancient workmanship, his family had used the convenient (and beautiful) flat surface as the floor of their tents when they arrived in the area. When the priests came to inspect the work, the paid for a proper home to be built for the family, as well as this structure over the mosaic to protect it.

After we leave the artwork, our guide catches my wandering eye and leads us to the crest of the hill to show us the neighboring ridges spotted with tents and ruins, even a sliver view of the Dead Sea, still reflecting the deepening sunset. Through broken English, he offers us each a cup of sugary tea which his son had already brought, then instructs us to sit down cross-legged together on the hilltop.

“Breathe.” He mimics slow, long intakes of breath with a pause between inhale and exhale. We all follow suit, in the same meditative silence we found on the top of Mount Nebo. The sounds of sheep bleating in the distance are drowned out as the final Call to Prayer of the day echoing through the hills. Our host mutters a few Arabic prayers as the sun slips below the horizon, the clouds become rosy and brilliant for a moment longer, and darkness starts to truly descend. The air becomes chilly, delicate.

We’ve finished our tea. We stand and his son takes our cups. As we linger a moment longer on the way to the car, the father stops, looks us in the eye and tells us that the real Muslims of the world are nothing like DASH (a regional name for ISIS). They are peaceful, welcoming and should not wish for warfare. My fiance and I nod. Syria and all the horrors being experienced there, is less than 75 kilometers away. It is strangely always the darkest, stormiest spot on the horizon: the north. It is a world away, yet always present. We don’t have enough shared language to discuss this, to speak to nuance. But we nod. We heard him, and will tell others. I think this is what he needs from us tonight.

As we drive back to the main road, the teenage boys are still sitting, smoking at the line of trees. When they see us approaching, they jump up, wave again, signalling us to stop and join them for a cup of tea. We smile and wave but keep driving: we’ve already learned that here in Jordan, if you stop for every cup of tea you’re offered, you probably won’t make it anywhere.

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For more reading on our trip to Jordan this winter, check out the full itinerary here, and tips for winter travel in the Middle East here.

A Two-Week, All-Jordan Itinerary

From relaxing on the Dead Sea, to exploring Roman ruins; from the ancient city of Petra to the magical Wadi Rum desert, there’s so much to fill your time in this small country, and this two week itinerary covers it all.

Yes, many people balked when my fiance and I told them we were planning a two week trip to Jordan, leaving the day after Christmas and staying into the new year. “The Middle East?” They asked. “Two weeks?” They questioned. “Is there even anything to do other than Petra?”

Beyond the most famous attractions, including Petra, the Dead Sea and Wadi Rum, there is so much to see and do: for the history buffs, to the adventure junkies and the spa aficionados. And after researching and planning a full two weeks, once we were on the ground, we found ourselves consistently amazed by what we experienced. In nearly every aspect, Jordan exceeded our expectations.

It should also be noted that we felt safe while we traveled. The locals were extraordinarily friendly, engaging and respectful and the police and security presence was obvious, but not overwhelming. It should be remembered that the government of Jordan has a vested interest in keeping tourists safe and comfortable, and considering their neighborhood, they’ve done a fantastic job. I would recommend Jordan as a tourist destination to anyone who loves desert landscapes, history and cultural immersions.*

Laid out below, in all it’s detailed glory, is our FULL two week itinerary in Jordan, for you to copy or cut from as you like! If you don’t have that much time, you can still hit a lot of the highlights in just a few days, thanks to the small amount of miles between sites and the density of incredible places within this historic country.

*I would of course recommend keeping up with the news and current events ANYWHERE in the world you’re planning on visiting in the weeks leading up to your trip, and exercise caution and good judgement when you are in the country. This guide was written based on experiences and conditions in December 2016, and in this part of the world much is subject to change quickly. But don’t be afraid just because a place is different and the biggest risk you’re taking is breaking down prejudices. There’s already too much fear flying around for that.

Day 1 – 2: Arrive and Explore Amman

Land, get that passport stamp (be prepared for the 40 JD visa you’ll need to purchase upon arrival!) and catch a taxi to your hotel in the center of the capital (about 25 minutes away from the airport). Stretch out your legs as you up and down the steep streets (just like Rome, Amman was originally built upon 7 hills) and eat some hummus and falafel before sleeping.

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The remains of the hand of Hercules, a part of the ancient Citadel complex in Amman, the city sprawling out beyond.

On your first full day in the country, really explore Amman. It’s a sprawling metropolis which has grown incredibly in the last decades and is filled with modern, hip Jordanians, displaced Palestinians and, increasingly, Syrian refugees. Visit the historic Citadel and the Jordan Museum to get a sense of the wide array of history packed into this tiny country, walk Rainbow Street and sit in some smokey, exotic hookah cafes sipping espresso. There are plenty of traditional restaurants, as well as modern, internationally-inspired places that would seem outright American if you were dropped into them without context – English Christmas music playing and all!

On the one hand, Amman is where most Jordanians actually live, and by being here you get a sense of what life is like for those who live here. On the other, (and we happened to visit on a particularly cold, rainy day, which didn’t help us love the city) Amman is a little dirty, very chaotic and doesn’t exactly set the stage for all of the amazing sites and activities Jordan has to offer. But it’s a good place to kick your tour off.

Day 3: Jerash

On the morning of the 3rd day, pick up your rental car and head north. The city of Jerash lies 30 miles north of Amman and the main highlight of the town is the ruins of the ancient Roman city.

With the fertile Jordan River Valley nearby, the ancient city of Jerash flourished and was among the Roman Decapolis cities, allowing the inhabitants to build and maintain some truly incredible structures. With several temples still mostly erect, two theaters, a hippodrome arena (featuring costumed, historical re-enactments if you come at the right time of year) and an impressively-long Cardo Maximus (paved road lined with columns), this huge ruin is truly magnificent and should be on anyone’s must-see Jordan list.

Give yourself at least 3.5-4 hours to fully appreciate and explore these ruins.

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You can sleep in Jerash if you want, but there is only one hotel in town (right across from the ruins) and we opted to drive another half hour to the city of Ajloun for the night.

Day 4: Ajloun, Jordan Valley & Salt

There are many different ways you can spend your fourth day in Jordan. The city of Ajloun may not be the most impressive, but the Muslim-built castle atop the hill is absolutely worth a visit. This impressive fortress controlled and defended the trade route between Damascus and Egypt, and provides incredible views of the surrounding valley, to Israel, Palestine and Syria.

You can spent the day hiking at the Ajloun Forest Reserve, or if you’d prefer to take a driving tour and see more of the countryside, head towards the Jordan River Valley, stopping at the relatively un-excavated, but impressively ancient ruins in the village of Pella, then drive south along the river, through the heavily populated towns and markets in the fertile valley.

If you have time, stop for a few hours in the city of Salt, a pretty market town featuring Ottoman-era architecture.

Arrive in your hotel in Madaba, where you will spend the next two nights.

Day 5: Madaba and Mt. Nebo

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Part of the incredible mosaic map of the Holy Land on the floor of the Greek Orthodox church in Madaba.

Spend the morning exploring the pleasant town of Madaba, visiting the ruins of incredibly well-preserved Byzantine-era mosaics unearthed throughout the region, including a beautifully detailed map of the Holy Land from Jerusalem and the Dead Sea to Egypt and the Mediterranean on the floor of the church of Saint George. Also walk to the Roman Catholic Church of Saint John the Baptist and descend underground to the ancient well, then ascend the bell tower for views of the region.

Before the sun sets, drive 15 minutes to Mount Nebo, the place where Moses first and finally saw the Promised Land, a place he knew he was destined never to reach. and some more impressively preserved and displayed mosaics in the hilltop church.

 

During this day, if you really want to take a Biblically-inspired tour, you can also use the afternoon to head south to Mukawir, the site of Herod’s palace and the beheading of John the Baptist, or seek out one of the spring said to have emerged from a place Moses struck the ground with his staff.

Spend this night in Madaba again, sampling another of the many excellent restaurants in town for dinner.

Day 6: The Dead Sea

Make time to stop at the Dead Sea Panoramic Complex on your way to the Dead Sea resort of your choice. Even if you don’t need the geology lesson, the views of the lowest point on earth are worth it.

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All of that said, check into your resort (and yes, even budget travelers: it’s worth it to spring for a resort here!) on the Dead Sea as early as you can, and spend at least the whole afternoon bobbing in the water, relaxing in the pool and reading on the beach. That night, get yourself a spa treatment, or at least pop into the sauna.

Day 7: Bethany Beyond the Jordan to Dana

On Day 7, you can either spend another half day lounging as long as you can in the salty waters of the Dead Sea, or you can get up as early as possible and visit Bethany Beyond the Jordan, the site of the baptism of Jesus. For us, it was January 1st, and it was a bright, sunny morning and we just couldn’t tear ourselves away from the beach and pool: no matter how wonderful and worthwhile everyone told us Bethany Beyond the Jordan is.

This afternoon, drive south along the Dead Sea Highway, enjoying the spectacular views at 400-plus feet below sea level. At the southern end of the sea, you’ll head east and meet the Kings Highway, an ancient trading route lined with olive trees and clustered with towns and cities.

We had planned on stopping in Karak to tour the crusader’s castle here. Unfortunately, there had been a recent standoff here between locals and police and we opted to avoid stopping in town.

As you drive south, the landscape becomes increasingly more desertous and you start to appreciate how important the fertile Jordan River valley really is to the region. Plan to arrive in the village of Dana before the evening settles in and find a spot along the dramatic cliff side to watch the sun set.

Day 8: Dana Wildlife Reserve

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Get up early and enjoy a big breakfast before descending for the day into the main wadi of the Dana Nature Reserve. The picturesque village of Dana perches upon the side of a cliff which looks down into this dramatic valley and a local revitalization project is aiming to bring villagers who left in the past decades back and rebuild the town. In the reserve, there are plenty of hikes, the most distinct follows the clear path that switchbacks up and down into the valley.

As you walk, keep an eye out for shepherds, wild animals and hawks.

Just remember: unless you’re going all the way to the Eco Lodge 16 kilometers on the other side of the valley, however far you go down, you’ve got to go back up!

It’s about an hour drive from Dana to Wadi Musa, the village outside of Petra, and if you have time and energy, make a stop to explore the crusader castle in Shobak.

Day 9: Petra

There is so much to say about this incredible Wonder of the World, and it deserves a post all on it’s own.

Here’s what’s most important: Prepare yourself for the 50 JD entrance fee (only 55 JD if you’re staying an extra day and going back into the ruins). Get up early to walk the kilometer through the cavernous Siq and see the sun rise over the Treasury, then give yourself at least a full day for exploration of the ancient city. There’s a lot of steps and a lot of walking involved in exploring Petra, so don’t plan to be anywhere other than your hotel in Wadi Musa for a hot shower and a relaxing night once you leave the ruins.

Day 10 – 12: The Red Sea

The drive between Wadi Musa and Aqaba takes about 2.5 hours and is incredibly barren. In fact, all of the landscape right up to the shoreline of the Red Sea are disconcertingly desolate, making the unbelievable diversity of the reef just below the surface that much more impressive.

Spend the afternoon of the 10th day relaxing by the sea at your hotel in the city of Aqaba or Tala Bay (slightly more remote, and closer to the reefs, which was what we opted for), enjoying that now you can see not only Israel, but also Egypt and Saudi Arabia from your window. On the 11th day, hire a guided snorkeling or diving tour, or rent wet suits and flippers and explore the array of aquatic diversity in the reefs here. We snorkeled from the Japanese Garden south about a kilometer to our hotel and saw some incredible marine life.

Day 13: Wadi Rum

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Wake up early and drive one hour to Wadi Rum village, where you’ll meet with you pre-arranged tour guide for a day and night in Wadi Rum. This dramatic desert landscape was first given notoriety by Lawrence of Arabia and has been at the crossroads for the nomadic Bedouin tribes who still live here for centuries. On a one-day tour, you’ll hop in the back of a jeep to see interesting rocks formations and ancient petroglyphs featuring camels and directions to springs, climb dunes and hike through canyons. At night, you’ll head to a traditional Bedouin camp for tea and stories around the fire, dinner and music into the night. Take some time to stand outside and appreciate the incredible night sky once the sun has set: there’s truly nothing like this landscape at night.

Day 14: Depart

The overnight tours of Wadi Rum should bring you back to the village early in the morning (check with your tour provider before booking, if you have doubts or a flight to catch), and it’s about a 4-hour drive on the relatively smooth Desert Highway back to the airport near Amman. You can fly out that evening, or opt to spend your final night back in Amman – or quieter Madaba, as we did. On our final morning, we purchased souvenirs and stretched our legs a bit more before heading home.


No matter how much time you can spend in Jordan, and no matter how you choose to spend that time, this small country – so full of history, culture and adventure – is sure to enchant and excite travelers, no matter their interests!

Did we miss your favorite spot in Jordan? Is there a better way around? Tell me about it in the comments!

Jordan Itinerary

Touring Morocco, From Marrakesh On (Part 1)

For a long, long time, I’ve given Morocco a high place on honor on my bucket list of travel destinations. I’d been drawn in by a host of temptations: flashes of rich colors and complex designs, hearing people sigh and nod meaningfully as they remembered their own time in this North African nation and the promise of setting foot on my 5th continent. So when I needed to slip in and out of the Schengen Zone for a few hours – which I allowed to turn into a week – to let my tourist visa renew, I decided to grab a cheap (yay for Easyjet) plane ticket to Marrakesh to see what exactly had been calling to me for so long.

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The patterns and sights of the Marrakesh Medina.

I know how this sounds, but I’ve been ready to go somewhere that felt truly new to me for a while now. The truth of the matter is, we as humans rely on a complex web of novelty and routine to keep our brains exercised and dopamine flowing. After 2 years of exploration, I have in my own way grown used to Europe. Just a year ago in Sicily, as I looked over yet another ancient temple with Greek-style columns, I head myself say, “I think I’m ready for another part of history.”

And my god, I found that in Morocco. Between a complex mix of Arabic, nomadic North African and Mediterranean cultures, an impeccable attention to colorful details and the always-present promise of surprise, I found what I was looking for here.

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The ancient passageway in the heart of the Medina that I’d follow every day to arrive at my hostel.

The thing about Morocco that I perhaps loved the most was that the interesting, historical and richly adorned streets I would spend my days wandering through were not just a small section of the city, more or less left alone by locals for tourists to check off their list and photograph. There was not a single street that exemplified the architecture, one place where everyone took the same photo before the mirage faded into “real” life. No, the whole country was truly a rich example of the way life has been and is being lived.

Between the affordable prices, variety of adventurous activities and cultural richness, as well as the relative safety of the country given the region, I would recommend Morocco to anyone, really. I saw families with children, other women traveling alone and couples who got engaged (congrats Kris and Will!) in the week I traveled the country. For the adventurous at heart, Morocco is certainly manageable, and utterly unforgettable.

Here’s more of the nitty-gritty of what I actually did while I was here.

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My Moroccan Tour

October 6 – 13th (I would highly recommend traveling here between October and April, when the days are only like 80-95 degrees F, not 110+ as in August, and the nights cool off considerably.)

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Marrakesh – My trip centered around this historic, culturally unique city. There are plenty of other amazing cities to visit in the north, but I don’t think anyone’s trip to Morocco is complete without having spent an evening in the chaos of Jamaa el-Fnna, getting themselves lost in the Medina or marveled at the intricate adornments of the Bahia Palace and Ben Youssef Madrasa.

Read more about my time and impressions in Marrakesh here.

East to Zagora and the Draa Valley

It was not hard to find a 2-day 1-night tour from Marrakesh to the Sahara desert. Whether I had waited to book my trip in Morocco itself or found one online before I arrived (as I did), the price and experience would have been more or less the same.

It’s a long, long drive through the hairpin turns of the High Atlas Mountains, then down to the ancient, cinematic village of Aït Benhaddou in the desolate desert, through the Anti Atlas Mountains, descending into the palm oasis-filled Draa Valley where Berber villages hug the road and largest river in Morocco. Through the city of Zagora, you emerge into the dunes of the western Sahara, hop on a camel (I make this sound easy, but after years of riding horses with control and comfort, finding my balance atop the lumbering gate of a docile, gassy camel was not as pleasant as it sounds once the first romantic minutes wore away) and ride out to a Berber camp for a night under the stars.

If I had booked a 3-day 2-night tour (the more popular version which I’d recommend if you have time), we’d have traveled to bigger dunes the next night and seen more of the area. But instead, we turned around and made the same drive back to Marrakesh.

My expectations were not through the roof for this particular adventure (I paid less than $75) and I didn’t get anything more than expected, which was basically a ride with stops at places providing tourist-safe food and some historic sites. What I did get was the chance to see more of the countryside, including glimpses of villages were the locals rode donkeys through the streets, markets were flourishing, and people were maintaining an ancient lifestyle in a harsh landscape. If you like desert landscapes, this drive provides an excellent and interesting example of the subtle changes in a desert ecosystem which you can see as you move east.

Essauoria

Just a few hours to the west of Marrakesh is the windy port city of Essauoria. For a second, you might wonder if you’ve made your way to Greece, with the white walls and blue doors of this town, but you are in fact still in Morocco. With sunlight that shines forcefully and hot, a busy fish market and much less intensity in the Medina, Essauoria is a great escape from the intensity that can overwhelm in Marrakesh.

There is a large beach, but the wind here renders it poor for swimming. Wind surfing is the top activity. (Head a few hours south to Agadir for better swimming conditions). I came to Essauoria for just a day, taking the three hour bus to and from Marrakesh ($8 each way) through more ever-changing desert landscapes to groves of argon trees along the coast featuring herds of goats reaching nimbly up for a bite of the leaves.

Staying in Essauoria is a little more expensive than Marrakesh, and I certainly felt like I saw more or less the entire old city in the 4 hours that I spent there. But if you need a breather and a great ocean view, it’s a great place to rest and see a different side of Morocco.

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The port of Essauoria

These three cities are just the beginning and only a snapshot of what this country offers to a traveler, and I would certainly recommend others expand their adventure to gritty Fez, the blue village of Chefchaouen and any number of other adventures this diverse landscape has to offer. I know that I certainly plan to in the future.

For my tips about making your way through Morocco with relative ease, as well as my impressions of being a blonde girl traveling alone there, check out Part 2 of my Moroccan blog stories.

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Traveler’s Notebook: Moroccan Daydreams

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I went to Marrakesh for many reasons. I went because I needed to leave the Shengen Zone of the European Union for at least 24 hours. I went because it was a cheap plane ticket and cheap cost of living. I went because I’d been tantalized by the colors, lamps, patterns, cushions and architecture which I’d seen recreated in prom and themed parties my whole life. I went because I knew it was a place I had wanted to go for a long, long time, even if I didn’t really know why.

Until I got there.

dsc00223Marrakesh is a dream. A hot, smokey, magical dream. Wandering through the mess of souks that is the Medina is like stepping into another world. You’re dodging motorbikes and donkey carts, passing under dusty slats of sunlight that slip through the ancient or makeshift roofs, looking over shops with leather goods, lanterns, scarves, wooden camels, golden lamps that might as well be hiding genies and a million other treasures. It is a city rich in life and history. Rich in smells – the very human, the very exotic, the very enticing and then suddenly the very familiar and intimate: the musty, leather, cigarette smell of my father’s office. Rich in sounds – the flutes of snake charmers, the drums of Berber dancers, the bells and clinks of horse-drawn carriages, the raspy shouts of the call the prayer, the merchants all around you trying their luck at guessing your mother tongue with, “Bonjour! Hello! Ciao! Excuse me! Ca va?”. Rich in history and intricate beauty: no detail goes unnoticed in the ancient architecture of Marrakesh, from painted ceilings to flowing script across walls and mosaic designs, you cannot trust a dusty, unremarkable building not to be hiding splendid treasures within the inner courtyard.

From Marrakesh, I went east, then west. East on a 10 hour bus ride over the beautifully-named Atlas Mountains through the ever-changing desert to the edge of the Sahara. There we spent the night in a Berber camp. We sat around a campfire under the stars listening to traditional (and some not so traditional) music, rode camels into the hot sunrise and explored ancient mud-caked cities and gigantic palm oasis along the caravan roads crossing the imposing landscape.

West, I went to the Atlantic, to the windy city of Essaouira where I wandered the 18th Century ramparts, looked down into the heart of a busy harbor and fish market, got a little less lost in the Medina and ogled amazing woodwork and a plethora of argon oil products. I cannot remember a time when the sun shone more brilliantly than in this port town of white-washed, blue-tinged buildings, not even in the Sahara just days before. Gulls flooded the air and the street cats looked remarkably happier than in the pandemonium of Marrakesh.

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But at the heart of it all was Marrakesh, an evocative place that sometimes overwhelmed, but mostly inspired me.

Begin in Jemaa el-Fnna (“The Assembly of the Dead”), the sprawling, oddly shaped square at the center of the ancient, walled city. By day, it is a passageway, an entry point, or an “oh, thank god I know where I am again” point. You’ll find henna artists, fresh orange juice hawkers, snake charmers, monkey handlers, musicians and acrobats vying for your attention and change. Past a line of horse-drawn carriages for rent, you can see the Koutoubia Mosque, who’s minaret has stood watch over the market since the 12th Century and reminds us of the importance of detail and a compass: the mosque which was originally built there had to be destroyed and rebuilt because it did not properly align with Mecca.

Choose any of the streets leading off of the north end of Djammar el-Fna and you are quickly swallowed into the Medina. An ancient mess of alleyways that snarl like a spool of thread unwound and left in a heap on the ground, you haven’t visited Marrakesh until you’ve been lost in these shops. Suddenly you’ll find yourself in the pungent tannery, watching leather being dyed, or the handful of stands devoted solely to olives, then among opulent carpet sellers, then a butcher surrounded by hungry cats, then emerge into the florescent-lit tourist souks where faux guides will offer you unsolicited advice and directions. You come upon small squares filled with local produce for sale, or hit a dead end and retrace your steps, twisting back until there’s another road to follow. Dark sunglasses were my best friends here, even when passing under ancient archways or the covered souks, so my eyes could wander without catching anyone’s attention.

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                                It is impossible to capture the energy and magic of an evening in Jemaa el-Fnna in a photo, but this might be a taste.

Return to Jemaa el-Fnna and watch the sun set from a terrace while sipping sweet mint tea, because once evening sets in, the real magic happens here. I think the true spirit of Morocco was most clear in this place in the busy nights: here you can realize that it’s not just a show for tourists. Yes, maybe the snake charmers and the people hawking magnets under florescent lights in the Medina are aiming to get the non-locals to stop by, but as the evening approaches and the final calls to prayer silence the music momentarily, lines of open-air restaurants are constructed, the air fills with the smells and smoke of frying meat, the snakes and monkeys are packed away and the cross-dressing dancers – yes, the men wear makeup, a hijab, skirts and clinking belly dancing gear while they shimmy around – and the storytellers show up.

The thing about Marrakesh that made my heart sing loudest was that every night you could watch ancient traditions come alive as the storytellers would arrive with a bench and a lantern, set up shop and wait. Quickly, crowds would gather around them, leaning onto one another, pushing into the heart of the circle to listen.

I longed to understand Arabic, just for one night, to be able to join in these circles.

Of course, in hindsight, things all look glossy and delightful. In the midst of the magic and sensations, I also find myself challenged as a traveler; truly thrown out of my comfort zone for the first time in a while. There were a lot of overwhelming moments, when the heat, the crowds the maze of covered roads, the approaches from the locals all got to be too much as I wandered alone. But, I would, one way or another, find my way back to my riad, and relax in the courtyard for awhile. And really, I was ready to challenge myself a little, to see another side of history and corner of the world and expand my inner map’s borders.

This short tour was not nearly enough to so much as taste the rich Moroccan culture and beauty, but luckily for me, it’s one of the boyfriend’s favorite places in the world, so I can trust that we will most certainly be back

 

Back roads in the Andes: An Inca Trail Recap

5:00 am. We’re waiting – hundreds of us – huddled in a line before a dimly lit check point. It won’t open for a while yet, and no one is sure on the exact time. So we play games to amuse ourselves, 20 Questions (which proves a little hard with slight variations of the English language between the Americas, Brits, Irish, South Africans and Australians in our group) and Never Have I Ever. We’re chilly: the smoke rising from our lips is illuminated in each of our headlamps, but the excitement of the moment keeps the discomforts at bay as we glance ahead. The last three days of labor and hiking have lead up to this: we’re going to reach the mystical city of Machu Picchu as the sun rises.

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After an hour of waiting, the line starts to move and we scramble to our feet, pulling out passports and the trail passes we’ve been carrying for the last 40 kilometers, up and down the Andes. Our group is one of the first to go through: Rosa, our guide, woke us early to get as close to the front of the line as possible. The final campground of the Inca Trail is the size of a small village. Other nights we staked out an area more or less to ourselves. But on the last night of the trek all 500 people allowed to start climbing the trail on a given day (including guides, porters and cooks) sleep in this closest campground to the ruins together.

We’ve been hiking for 3 days. We are disheveled, unshowered, most of us a little  sick to the stomach or light headed, but once we make it through the check point, we all but run the trail, making a snake of headlamps midway up the mountain. In the valley below a train can be heard, carrying tourists from Cuzco. We reach the monkey steps: a set of stairs at a nearly 90 degree angle from the ground, which you must climb all all fours like you would a ladder, and at the top our guide waits, shaking our hand and congratulating us as we walk through the Sun Gate.

Below sweeps a dramatic view, and perched upon a small mountain, dwarfed by those that surround us, is the ancient, mysterious Inca city of Machu Picchu.

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About an hour after we crossed through the Sun Gate, the sun slowly receded beyond the mountains.
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The beginning of the Inca Trail, the 43 kilometer road through the Andes to Machu Picchu.

I don’t remember exactly when or how the idea of climbing the Inca Trail, or even to visit the ruins of Machu Picchu city first piqued my interest. But when I decided that Peru was where I’d spend my summer vacation in 2013, I knew I didn’t want to just see the popular, unfinished UNESCO World Heritage Site. I wanted to take the three day trek through the high altitude Andes in order to reach the city via the stone-paved road built by the Incas. I wanted to camp and to wander the ruins of waysides and smaller cities all along the way. To follow the path the Spaniards never reached when they were warring against the last Inca (emperor) in Ollantaytambo and were lead away from Machu Picchu into the heart of rain forest.

Much has been written about Machu Picchu, and I’m in no way an expert on Inca history. I remember bits and pieces of what we do know about the culture that met it’s match when the Conquistadors showed up. But I wont try to relay any of that here, since it seems trite and beside the point. The point is that when you are actually wandering this back road of the Andes, walking along the stairway built specifically for this journey, all of the details the guide tells you at each resting point create such a tapestry of history and culture against the dramatic mountains, it is more real than any history classroom or museum in the world.

Up and over Dead Woman’s Pass (4,215 meters or 13,828 feet), down the Gringo Killer stairs, through fields of llamas and bypassed by local women carrying huge colorful bundles upon their backs, the Inca Trail is as iconic and difficult as I imagined it to be. The sun is strong and the nights are cold in July, and the oxygen gets thin all the way up there – beginning from the moment you land in Cuzco. Returning to Cuzco five days later is a victory: the knowledge that you crossed those mountains on your own two feet – slept in them, sagged against them, sweat upon them – is buoying.

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Cuzco, the capitol of the Inca Empire, is literally layers of conquerors covering one another: the Spanish built their colonial buildings atop the foundation of the city they destroyed.

The Specs

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Prepping for lunch one afternoon: warm water and soap was provided to wash our hands, chairs, table cloths and napkins shaped like swans waited in the tent.

I traveled with the adventure travel group GAdventuers. It is required that any traveler on the Inca Trail have a permit and travel with a valid tour group. To put it simply, I loved traveling with GAdventures. The guide was informative, helpful and genuinely loved her job (it was almost her 200th time walking the Inca Trail – in 2013! According to Facebook, where we’re friends, she’s still doing it). I loved the company so much, I traveled through Turkey with them a year later – but that’s a different story. GAdventures really went above and beyond just a hike from the beginning to the end of the trail as well: with tours of the Sacred Valley in the days leading up to the hike, comfortable accommodations and great food- they carried a bottle of wine for us to toast the two(!!) couples on their honeymoons and even prepared a cake on the trail for a birthday!

Though it’s not such a problem any more, there was pretty strong porter and resource exploitation in the past. But at the check points mentioned above all porters bags are weighed and travelers are counted, so everyone on the trail today should check out.

The tour was 7 days, with 3 on the trail and 1 hiking the final few kilometers and finishing with a day-long tour of Machu Picchu. We gathered in Cuzco, toured the Sacred Valley and stayed in Ollantaytambo before beginning the hike. We visited village co-ops where we learned how traditional dies and handcrafts are made, and were able to purchase them directly from the women who made them. The price included the entrance fee to the historic site, as well as the train ride back to Cuzco.

Tents were included in the cost of the tour. We were able to rent camping gear (sleeping bags and mats) as well as hiking poles for very affordable costs. Food on the trail was included, but not for the days spent off the trail.

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Learning about local handcrafts firsthand on the way to start the trail.

Pro Tip: Carry an extra (charged!) battery and sim card for your camera, because you are going to take a million photos in the three days on the trail, and the last thing you want is to have no more battery left when you get the chance to take that money shot with Machu Picchu behind you, or to be scanning for other photos to delete to make room.

A Word on Porters: Yeah, I felt super weird and colonial about this before I started. I read the description of the hike and thought “I’m strong. I’ve backpacked. I’m walking the trail. Why is someone else carrying my stuff for me? Can I get away without it?”

The short answer is no, and not just because they won’t let you get away with it (by this I mean, you can’t not travel with an authorized guide, and all of the tour groups provide porters). I learned very quickly that even though I had trained for this trip, even though I was a mountain-climbing woman myself, the altitude hit me in a pretty rough way, and if I had had more than my day pack on my back, there’s no way I would have made it.

I also realized once I was on the trail and met our awesome group of porters and cooks, that this is a pretty good job, given the area’s economic situation and the regulations passed to protect their interests. My impression was that they make good money given regional options, have a solid community among the group and take pride in their ability to dash past all the struggling tourists, carrying five times as much as them.

Can You do it? Yes. Absolutely yes you can.

Yes, I did do a lot of hiking and a fair amount of training before this trip, and sure, you should be in decent shape before embarking upon something like this. But the fact of the matter is, you’re not hiking that far every day (the most is about 12 kilometers, or about 7 miles, and you have all day to cover the distance). And no one, not even the most fit, can account for how the altitude will affect them once they are on the ground – or really close to the sky, as the case may be. I was horrified when I started getting as sick as I did, and perturbed by the man who hadn’t done a day of prep for the trek and was able to walk up the steep mountainside no problem, but such is life. There were all age ranges in our party, and many fitness levels.

And even if you do get sick, so sick that you are literally vomiting off the side of the mountain, so sick that you force your body to walk five steps up before you sit down on the next step and gulp for breath for several minutes before you can do five more… Even if the guide has to lay you down on those steps and give you give you five minutes of straight oxygen from a small tank she’s been carrying (something she will inform you with a careful smile she does very rarely), you’ll make it up that mountain and back down the other side.

I promise. This exact thing may or may not have happened to a… ahem, *friend* of mine.

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On the final full day on the trail we passed through this ruin. Completely inaccessible except by the Inca Trail, you pass through many more hidden treasures by taking the long way.

As we walked through Machu Picchu, suddenly surrounded by tourists who had woken up that morning in Aguas Calientes (the town at the base of mountain), taken showers and gotten their makeup just right before arriving to pose for their photos, I didn’t at all wish that I was one of them. It wasn’t exactly a spiritual experience for me to have walked through those mountains, as it may have been for the Incas who built the trail and city, but it was a massively rewarding one.

And if it’s one that piques your interest, it’s most definitely the way you deserve to experience these incredible mountains and the history hiding within them.

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Second Impressions: Springtime in Milan

I can’t be sure if it’s the spring time, the daylight or the fact that I have not been visiting other European cities for the last six months and over-saturated myself, but I am finding that I like Milan a lot better the second time around. The first time I was here, it was January 2015 and The Boyfriend and I spent just a few hours one dark evening in the Piazza del Duomo and surrounding streets. I wasn’t expecting much, and left without much of an impression, headed toward grand sunsets over the Dolomites, extravagant Venician bridges and the rolling hills of Tuscany.

For a while now, in fact, I’ve felt pretty meh about Milan, without being entirely sure why. Probably the amount of Italians and other travelers shrugging when mentioning the industrial and fashion powerhouse in the flat, fertile flat lands below the Alps has damped my expectations. And it’s true, Milan doesn’t have the picturesque, colorful houses, the seasides, the vineyards, the hilltop charms most people jump to when they think of Italy. When I think about moving here in August, I’ve been reminding myself of how central to the rest of Europe the city is, how comparatively easy it is to fly into from the states. I think about the multi-national nature of the city, the large University and the language schools which will provide me a place to begin looking for a community. I’ve been optimistic, though cautiously so.

But it would be hard not to find delight in any city within the first weeks of spring, especially coming off a Minnesotan Winter, which drags it’s heals and throws last fistfuls of snow at you throughout March and April. And spending the last two weeks roaming around the different parts of the historic center of Milan has proven to be much more fruitful than expected.

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Side street near the fashion district

I can’t put a pin into what makes Milan Milano yet, in the way other cities’ essences have planted themselves immediately into my consciousness. It stands apart from all the other spectacular Italian villages and cities I’ve wandered through in the last year, feels foreign and outside of my experiences in this country. At one moment I feel as though I’m in New York City, then Madrid, then London. Then I turn another corner and of course I’m in Italy: look at the scooters, look at the laundry and flowers hanging from balconies, smell the espresso!

There is, of course, the spectacular Gothic Duomo, the fifth largest cathedral in the world, dripping upwards with hundreds of spires holding saints who peer down, and more than 3,000 statues along the naves and every level of the church to admire. There is the Castello Sforzesco, an impressive fortress which is perhaps the closest thing to the image I had of a castle before I came to Europe. There is the fashion district, which houses all of the stores you imagine it does, has tuxedo-wearing doormen and possibly too-artsy window displays (shoes and handbags in a fake crate of raw fish, Dolce and Gabbana? Really?). Given a few more days to take my time in the city, I’ve appreciated more and more details of Milan. Wandering through the many grey, slightly grungy metropolitan side streets, suddenly one find’s herself  upon an elegant, tree-lined  boulevard, filled with cafes flowing out onto the sidewalks, flower shops and newsstands. In the distance, you can see the sun glinting off the sleek skyscrapers rising above the historic old town. As you pass under the slightly parted curtains of luxurious flats, suddenly you get a glimpse through an opened garage door into a spectacular garden, tucked within the courtyard of one of these finely detailed buildings. Here are ancient canals, certainly no Venice, but surrounded by bars and buzzing with night life. And hidden behind the most bland exteriors are spectacularly painted churches, chapels made with the bones of pauper graves and Da Vinci’s The Last Supper, if you know where to look.

Milan is a city of smells, but not the typical, deeply human stenches of other major cities. No, Milan is scented in the most spectacularly fabricated way: everyone who walks by you is wearing their own perfume or cologne, while cigarette and cigar smoke floats from every corner and doorway. It’s not exactly a food haven, like so many other Italian regions, but you can’t go wrong with risotto, and, heck: it’s still Italy.

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From the spectacular terraces on the roof of the Duomo, you can get a Saint’s-eye view of Milan.

Maybe the reason I cannot put a finger on the essence of Milan is that it is so different than my assumptions and predictions. Just like the first time I showed up on Hollywood Boulevard, wandering the streets of this metropolis did not turn out to be the overwhelmingly glamorous, opulent stroll through gold and diamond encrusted streets (in a manner of speaking) that I imagined would make me feel exposed as a kitschy, silly Midwestern American girl. Rather, it is a city, like any other, with normal cement side walks, stupendously fancy Italians and everyday people going about their lives, dodging tourists with selfie sticks. At the same time, it is robustly elegant, glamours and perhaps in need of a good wash down in some corners. It doesn’t have all of the sorts of charms one expects from Italy, but entirely it’s own.

Like Los Angeles, Milan is one of the last places in the world I ever thought I would be living – even visiting. But that last twist in the road I thought I was walking lead to three of the best years of my life in Southern California, and I am optimistic about the way home will continue to shift and change as I settle in here.

And luckily, by the looks of things, I have a lot of time to try to nail this city down.

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The opulent galleria just beyond the Piazza del Duomo.
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Castello Sforzesco is an impressive fortress, leading into generous public gardens.

The long way around Sicily

In some ways, it feels like too much time has passed since I visited Sicily last August to write about it now. I certainly planned to. Lots of people have asked me when I’ll write about it. I’ve started a dozen times. The time has passed though, and I realized that there is something to be said about picking things up again a few months later. I’ve been working on a (new!) big project lately, which involves a lot of memoir travel writing, and (with a healthy dose of help from my journals from the trip itself) I’m enjoying the process of living these moments again, of seeing the culmination of emotions, the way that events shape and fold into each other, have ultimately lead me to bigger things. Both in re-writing them for myself and in sharing them with others, the adventures live in. And in the coldest months of Minnesota, adventure can be especially good for the soul.

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Stunning cliff faces in north-western Sicily, near Palermo.

One of the reasons I’m a little overwhelmed by writing about Sicily is that it’s a loaded topic, in general and, increasingly, for me personally. I’m not going to even attempt to crack away at the actual history or tangled cultural roots of this region at the center of the Mediterranean in this blog post. There is truly so much to tell, even from what little I do fully understand. I feel like the place to start, though, is with the most common association people have with Sicily: the Mafia. When I first met my boyfriend Gabriele, and he told me he lived in Milan but his family is Sicilian, I said something offhandedly about the Mafia. His face clouded and he explained to me his frustration that this is all most people know about his homeland. I can understand having a swift and poignant frustration when everyone’s first reaction to your home is “Oh, I can see why you wanted to get out of there!”, and the more the told me about Sicily, the more excited I was to see the region. In fact, having been there, it’s shocking to me that this is not one of the top tourist destinations in Europe, given what it has to offer.

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Our hotel along the lush foothills of the heart of Sicily: the Etna volcano.

On our first day, as we drove from the Palermo airport to our hotel near Trapani, Gabriele described the landscape as a mosaic of agricultural activities. This is absolutely true – astoundingly so: I saw deserts, pine forests, vineyards, olives, and pistachios, in just a few hundred kilometers – but what struck me as we traveled was how much of a mosaic the island is in every other way. With it’s location at the center of the Mediterranean and it’s relative fertility, Sicily has been home and prize to generations of conquerors and cultural influences. From Greeks, to Arabs, to Romans, to Spaniards, to Normans, to a major front of WWII, you can see bits of each of these groups everywhere, and in a single day visit an archaeological site from each era. Like most of Italy, it is also a mosaic of mouth-watering cuisines and extraordinarily local specialties. I was told in the northern central part of the island that I should probably not eat any pasta norma, because that’s typical of Catania, about 150 kilometers away as the crow flies, and won’t be very authentic. (Don’t even ask about when I wanted some carbonara, which is from Rome of all far-flung places!)

The ruins of two Greek temples at Selinunte, one in crumbles and the other standing.
The ruins of two Greek temples at Selinunte, one in crumbles and the other standing.
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One of the last traditional salt works in the Mediterranean, where salt water is concentrated, evaporated and salt harvested by hand.
The gold mosaic-decorated courtyard of Monreale
The gold mosaic-decorated courtyard of the Duomo in Monreale, completed in 1182 by the Normans.

Gabriele and I are doers when we travel. He wanted to share with me as many of the millions of sides of Sicily as he could. So looking back, I can’t begin to describe every city, village or historical site we went to and why they were all fascinating. Maybe later a few highlights of the more than 2,500 kilometers we criss-crossed are in order, but not today. (Considering it’s less than 350 kilometers across the entire island, you might get an idea of how much we drove in 2 weeks.)

The overall experience of Sicily, though, was something I felt deeply and resoundingly. Before I came, Gabriele would almost nervously try to explain things to me, as if apologizing in advance for the ways in which which this place would be different from Northern Italy where we’d traveled before. Granted, I’ve traveled in a lot of places that are not Western Europe, so I wasn’t horrified by the country streets which were sometimes lined with garbage, or the gradual appearance of decay in a lot of the cities. The description he gave me which fits best is, “Sicily is the most Italian place you can go, in all of the best ways and in all of the worst ways.” You can truly go from some of the most industrial, or just plain ugly sites to the most spectacular vistas in a few meters. There is a rich tapestry of culture, history and modern intrigue, but it’s also an economically poor place – made clear by all of the “For Sale” signs hanging from windows in every city center. Honestly, if I did not have a tour guide and a car at my disposal, I cannot imagine being a tourist here: most people speak Sicilian, which is distinct from Italian (and very few speak English), there are poor train and bus systems between even the major cities, and hardly any easy tourist infrastructure in the center of the island. Not to mention nearly every roundabout is a mess of street signs pointing to villages and cities, including the least direct routes, that would take even a local a pause to decipher.

The other comment that seems to capture the spirit and difficulties of Sicily in my mind is when we were discussing what we’d do and I asked if we’d spend time in Palermo or Catania, the largest cities, and Gabriele said “Well, we could, but they are so full of interesting history, museums and things to do, we’d never see it all in the time we have. Also, I don’t want my car to get stolen.”

The winding streets of Cefalù, mid-day.

Right now, Sicily remains a warm, fast moving mosaic of sensations in my mind. Cities made of the lava of Etna, cities who’s white and narrow architecture transplants one just across the channel to Northern Africa, villages carved into cliff sides. The tastes of real canoli, granita (lemon flavored shaved ice) on a hot day and greasy arrancini from a street vendor. Churches studded and covered in gold, cathedrals build upon the ruins and columns of Greek temples, where you can pray to statues of Saints between the marbles pillars which certainly saw very different worship in their younger years. Counting the crumbling towers which line the coasts of the island. Layers upon layers of salt water and sunscreen across my skin. Walking hand-in-hand in the hot afternoon sunlight, when no one else was out, through twisted alleyways under balconies heavy with laundry. Then evening would come and the town square would fill for an elaborate talent show-like concert for all of the locals.

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The main road to the central square of Gabriele’s town.

Gabiele’s mother’s family is from a small town (about 10,000 people) in the south eastern part of Sicily, near Ragusa. Though his father was also of Sicilian origin, they still have a home on the same street where his mother was born, in a row of similarly unpainted homes that seems desolate and imposing in the middle of the day, but where every neighbor waves from behind their barbed wire fence and waves “buonasera!” to you by name as you pass once it’s cool enough to be outdoors. Most of the residents of the village work early mornings and late evenings in the kilometers of green houses with surround the city, and, as of recent years, a growing number are Tunisian migrants. Once the mid-day sun has stopped hitting the central square directly, it fills with local men, mostly over 50 years old, who sit on benches or pace in groups. Sometimes they talk, sometimes they appear to be thinking deeply. No women are present, and you get the distinct feeling that if one showed up, or an outsider decided to walk through, it would throw off the equilibrium of the village.

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The Duomo of Ragusa Ibla, the old quarter of the regional capital.

Ragusa province felt to me like it was on the cusp of something. It’s apparently called the “stupid province” because there is no Mafia presence there – though this may not be the worst thing in the rest of the world’s eyes. Close to the provincial capital, the city of Ragusa, are Scicli and Modica. You could spend days in these two spectacular Baroque cities, admiring stone carvings along buildings and eating chocolate in the traditional way the Spanish brought from South America when their kingdom included Sicily – an art still kept alive at a very fancy chocolate shop where you can sample all you want. Nearby is the city of Noto, another Baroque jewel, and Siracusa, one of the most elegant Sicilian cities and one of the many incredible sites of Greek ruins on the island. I can’t say for sure, but I could see tourism taking off and sticking here, if the right people start showing up.

For now, it remains cheap, sleepy and incredibly real, which I’ll admit, are three things I long for when traveling.

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Scicli, an amazingly detailed Baroque city in southern Sicily.

This trip was different for me than any other I’ve taken. On the one hand, I didn’t feel any of the rush I usually do when traveling: the need to not waste a single moment on the road, to see everything I possibly can because who knows when or if I’ll be able to be back. In Sicily, I felt utter confidence that I’d be back, and many times in my life. So it did not feel like a loss when we didn’t go to Agrigento’s cluster of incredible Greek temples, or I didn’t feel totally present in Siracusa – which people tell me is one of the most amazing cities in Sicily – because of the hot Scirocco winds blowing up from the Sahara, topping the temperatures at over 100 F in the incredibly powerful sunlight. I feel so much confidence – and excitement – that I’ll be back, that this place will continue to expose itself to me, shape me and become a part of my own story.

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Overlooking the hillside-covered houses of the city of Modica

The other reason this trip was so different was that it was truly an experience of learning about another person, one whom I happen to be madly in love with, through the exploration of a place. One of the things Gabriele and I realized about each other early on was that we share not only a love of maps as home decoration tools, but a similar passion and appreciation for the place where we each grew up. Being able to explore Minnesota with him is such a gift to me, because I can truly see his understanding of me growing by seeing my home, and it was the same for me in Sicily. There may not be two more different places in the world than deeply southern Italy and Northeastern Minnesota, we would laugh as I wilted in the heat, but there is something below the surface of the wild differences that ties us together, turned us into two people who could see and love one another so deeply.

I hope to be one day knowledgeable enough of the places and particular histories to write with confidence about how this incredible place has become what it is, and I hope that I can also in my life bear witness to some of the economic and political changes that would make Sicily a better place to live and explore. But I feel lucky for the intimacy with which I was able to begin this journey, and the knowledge that I will be back to witness and learn more.

I believe this to be the most Sicilian photo I took the entire trip, and I'm not sure how to explain why, either.
I believe this to be the most Sicilian photo I took the entire trip, though I’m not sure how to explain why.