Rum and chocolate in exotic Cuba

Drinking Rum

Leaving Havana to explore the rest of Cuba, starts with a good shot of rum at our first stop! The Forbidden Fruit  tourists seek, along with cigars, is produced from sugar cane introduced in Cuba by Columbus. And while the sugar cane production is now heavily reduced there is still sufficient to produce the famous Cuban Rumrum!

We did manage to crunch on some cane to savour the succulent juice in the Valley of Los Ingenios ( near Trinidad) and see the ruins of the sugar mills, slave quarters and watchtowers now an area with Unesco Heritage status.

 

Bailing dry riceOn the way, rather caught by surprise to see bales of rice lining the road ready for loading, the rice having spent the day spread out along the road for drying. The mind boggles to think of how the traffic manoeuvres in one lane….they must drive like Italians!! Let alone the flavour the asphalt may give to the rice!?

From Havana, our first stop was the Bay of Pigs – Playa Girón, and the museum dedicated to the disastrous invasion by USA of Cuba. An interesting video of the invasion from the Cuban point of view and other artefacts associated with the Revolution – the uniform of the volunteers teaching illiterate farmers, and the white shoes – symbol of what the Revolution brought to a teenager, whose mother was shot dead while protecting her during invasion.

Playa Girón Cuba

 

After that, a moment of relax, swimming at the nearby waterhole and in crystal clear water at the coral beach.

Cienfuegos - Palacio de Valle

 

 

Cienfuegos our next stop, a colonial town with neo classical architecture and wide avenues where we were treated to a cocktail on the roof terrace of the rather bizarre Palacio de Valle, an ornate Spanish, Moroccan, Italian mix.

 

Che Guevara museum - Santa Clara

On to Santa Clara the next day, to be immersed in the dramatic story of  Che Guevara in his Memorial and Mausoleum. Documents, photos and various memorabilia makes it a fascinating visit but unfortunately no photos allowed inside.

 

 

The next base is Trinidad, the most touristic of the cities outside of Havana and with good reason. A perfectly preserved Spanish settlement built on the wealth amassed in the past from the nearby sugar cane fields. Colonial mansions and cobbled stone streets lined with multi coloured houses. Salsa music every evening on the steps beside the Cathedral and traditional African dance performances. A Cuba -Trinidad Cowbay Cubanoteworthy Art gallery in the main square and  women in garish lycra chat in the streets or saunter past more classic car beauties or stray cowboys.

Waterfall Trinidad

A local hike to the waterfall in lush countryside provides a welcome break from the tourists on another day.

Camaguey instead had a much more local feel and a sweet grandma ran my homestay. Known as the city of clay pots for water collection and easily visited in bicycle rickshaws to see more colonial mansions,  artist galleries and the local market with food stalls and herbal medicines. Yet again Nightclubs and salsa venues for locals and tourists to add pizazz to their evenings.

Dancing Santiago

 

On to the chaos of Santiago the second largest city in Cuba and our home stays bounce to the blaring street music that only ceased with the electricity black out! And if you can’t beat’em it’s best to join in! Fidel's tomb - Santiago

 

 

 

A more sombre moment in front of Fidel’s tomb.

 

 

 

Travelling on through beautiful lush terrain and velvet mountains, bring us to the chocolate capital of Cuba – Baracoa, for our last few relaxing days. We can still see the damage left by the hurricane of November, with skinned Royal palms sprouting new growth and some roofs still to be replaced.

The atmosphere is layback, as is the music, and the place is exotic in both artwork and people.

Our cacao plantation visit is a highlight as we pile into another classic car ( a little less chic than those of Havana) with an erotic gear stick change that had to be photographed to be believed and a mad driver who has us laughing all the way!

The cacao plantation is a women’s cooperative and they are proud to explain the plant and process to produce some mouth watering chocolate that we are able to sample, oddly wrapped in leftover alfoil from the pharmaceutical company!

Baracoa beachThere is so much to tell about Cuba, a simple blog post cannot do it justice. 17 days of continuous stimulation and enjoyment, I loved it!

My head is still full of the music, the colour, the warmth, the vibrant atmosphere and fond memories of great laughs with wonderful travel companions.Cuba map

For those interested, I found the tour via www.responsibletravel.com  which linked to www.locallysourcedcuba.com and am very happy with both agencies.

Beach Trinidad

Cuba just do it….before it’s too late!

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Music, colour and classic cars – Havana Cuba

Havana street

Cuba – vibrant, colourful, exotic, brash and unabashed, a fantastic trip of the expected and unexpected, full of laughs and a joy to the senses!

The biggest difficulty has been sorting my 900 photos and to present a selection which renders a complete picture of Cuba: its warmth, humanity, starkness and contrasts.

So this is only part 1 on Havana and part 2 will focus on touring the island.

 

Classic cars from pre Revolution days abound on the avenues, filled with Classic car tourtourists waving and filming like VIP’s, or sit patiently waiting the next client in a quiet elegance. Exteriors and interiors are exquisite; hand stitching on sumptuous leather, some complete with a bar, and gleaming bodies in brash colours. Gorgeous, even to a non car enthusiast like me, and the drive a definite highlight of our tour. To think they have continued to maintain, restore and repair these old carcasses, despite the embargo, demonstrates Cuban ingenuity, resourcefulness and patience.

Havana Malecon - waterfront We soar past beautiful buildings from colonial days, elegant monuments to heroes of the past in stylish piazzas, luscious parks, fortresses that protected the city and housed the gold, before cruising the Malecon – waterfront.

In the old centre, an afro/salsa beat draws me along streets and past characters in colourful garb who pose or waylay tourists for a fee.

The air is full of energy and the place chaotic, where locals continue their lives amidst tourists squatting at a wifi hot spot or queuing for a bank, while they shop on the street, queue outside the pharmacy or pick up their monthly ration quota.

Havana street scene

In stark contrast to the elegant Colonial buildings, everyday housing is dilapidated although our various Case particolares – homestays, were comfortable, clean and gave a little insight into what lay beyond the crumbling facades.

Havana University

Amidst the chaos is the impressive University building, with a mix of old and new architecture and likewise the Contemporary Cuban Art Gallery housing a sophisticated selection of superb art works, rather unexpected. The Cuban Classical  ballet Company entertained us with a performance of The Nutcracker in the glorious Grand Theatre and we left spellbound by the atmosphere and costumes.

A testimony to the investment made in Health, Education and Culture during the Revolution, on which the country continues to survive by exporting its scientific expertise to Latin America and Africa. Over 30,000 Doctors in Venezuela still today.

Havana souvenir shopTourism obviously remains the second major income for Cuba with over 3million tourists per year and cruise ships were seen regularly in various ports. And while many have the idea Cuba will change in the post Castro era, so best to be seen now, my impression is that it will take years! So you still have plenty of time yet!Havana street art

 

 

The music will still be playing, the facades still crumbling and the classic cars still cruising. There may be more Coco taxi HavanaCoco taxis to take tourists around town, a cute recycled coconut chassis with a motorbike motor and 3 wheels as tourists seek cheaper options, while locals use the bicycle rickshaw.

I continue to savour memories of my coconut ice and churrito snack as I lapped up the sunshine  before returning home to below zero temperatures in Italy.

Part 2 Cuba on tour to follow……


 

 

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Out of the woodwork – Back on tour!

Rome Piazza Navona

Rome- Piazza Navona

I have been enticed out of retirement and will be back on tour in April 2017….oh my!?!     But not on my own fortunately, as it has been Angus Stewart, the ABC garden expert, who has lured me out of the woodwork to be his Tour manager on a proposed Garden tour around Rome and Southern Italy.  The tour leaves Australia on the 17th April and returns the 5th May, 2017.

Wow, I’m already excited!

Map Garden tour

 

As the tour brochure blurb reads:The Amalfi Coast is an area of coast line a couple of hundred kilometres south of Rome. The largest city is Naples (Napoli) whose landscape is dominated by the famous volcano, Mt Vesuvius, and of course Pompeii is a ‘must see’ attraction nearby. For gardeners the area to the south of Naples is the real attraction, with smaller towns such as Sorrento, being the places to spend your long lunches around visits to landmark gardens.

There are a couple of ‘must see’ gardens that showcase perfectly the borrowed landscape of the plunging cliffs and slopes that border the spectacular sea views. We visit Villa Cimbrone, the picturesque village of Ravello, the volcanic island Ischia filled with beautiful villas and gardens and home to a botanically themed garden called La Mortella. This tour offers a rich and inspiring window into the art of Mediterranean gardening……..

Angus Stewart is a professional horticulturist and plantsman. He has turned his lifetime Taormina gardensof horticultural experiences to good use to lead tours to some of the great gardens of the world. Angus is perhaps best known for his work as a gardening presenter on the ABC, both with Gardening Australia for the last 11 years, and on ABC 702 radio station in Sydney where he has been answering gardening talkback questions for around 25 years.” 

 

As you can imagine it’s not just a tour about gardens, but an immersion into the culture and specialities of Southern Italy’s cosmopolitan melting pot in fabulous Spring weather. To tempt you – the over-the-top stunning baroque of Ortigia-Syracuse, Sicily

Taormina

Taormina theatre

 

 

And fabulous Taormina – Sicily, with spectacular views, staying in the magnificent San Domenico Palace hotel a 13th century ex monastery! Not to be missed!

 

For the itinerary and cost click here on Opulent Journeys

So it will be “Buongiorno Possums” all over again, without of course stealing Angus’s thunder and sunshine as Tour leader!

Sorrento

View of Sorrento

 

I’m looking forward to the tour despite having been so many times to the Amalfi coast and Sicily as there will be new gardens for me to see as well as some old time favourites like La Mortella and Ninfa gardens.

 

 

 

Come join us and don’t forget to tell Opulent Journeys you are clients of mine!             For info and bookings contact Tony Phone: 1300 219 885                                         Email: tony@opulentjourneys.com.au

Positano

Positano – Amalfi Coast


 

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An Aussie in Oz

Melbourne Portsea beachAs an Aussie back in Australia, I was delighted and surprised by so many things that are still so peculiarly Aussie. Even kangaroos grazing just outside Tullamarine airport on arrival!

It was hard not to make comparisons at what some locals take for granted.

First day on the tram to the city, I Public transport staffwas confronted by a large roadworks sign and three (not one!) transport staff eager to explain the problem and the proposed bus alternative which for the inconvenience would be free of charge for the entire week to 10 days. Free!!?

“Good morning, how are we all? Good? And who’s wearing that lovely coconut perfume? Is it you dear? I’d keep using it, ’cause it smells just lovely. My name’s  George and I apologize for the roadworks and will get you into the city as soon as I can…….” That was the banter the bus driver greeted us with….can you believe it?

In Melbourne there are groups of volunteer tourist information staff in booths or literally on the street corners, with engaging smiles and ever so keen to be helpful.Tourist Information staff Even more delighted to pose for a  photo for an ‘International blog!’

While it’s hard to identify tourists as no one is traipsing around behind a guide’s flag, some tell-tale signs did appear with the queue outside the Hopetoun Tea rooms….that must be in a Lonely Planet guide book.

Kangaroo road signRoaming the countryside I relished the road signs and even saw a kangaroo near one but not in time to catch him on film.  Did manage to catch what looked like multi coloured kangaroos crouched grazing, only to find they were ‘pick your own strawberry people’ munching into scrumptious strawbs. Strawberry pickers

 

 

 

I overdid photos of local flora and fauna – galahs, cockatoos, kangaroos, kookaburras laughing, Flowering gumand oodles of gorgeous flowering gums.

 

 

Will WolseleyWineries with fantastic views, layback music from Disco Rockers, great wine and even pizza made by an Italian! Wineries with the quirkiest names – Jack Rabbit, Ten minutes by Tractor or named after the owner, Will Wolseley Winery, or simply Italian at T’Gallant so I didn’t get homesick!

T'Gallant winery

T’Gallant winery

 

 

T'Gallant winery

 

 

 

 

 

Wolseley winery

Empty beer cans being put to good use on the vine posts so the anti-bird netting doesn’t tear. A rather nifty idea. Fortunately Italy has no need for the nets or the beer cans and dare I add screw tops!

 

Australia’s equivalent of the Nike slogan ‘ you can do it! ‘ encompassed in Blundstone boots tagged ‘Let nothing hold you back’  still a great Aussie icon produced in Tasmania!  Blundstone boots

Endless beaches, magic white sand, surf  tossing kids about and tugging at my bikini as even I braved the cold water to take an exhilarating tumble. Beach umbrellas serve as cover to the hoards that spilled out of the Portsea pub on Saturday afternoon, not as a line over sun lounges on a typical Italian beach scene.Portsea pub

Sorrento

Sorrento

 

 

 

Aireys Inlet

Aireys Inlet

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Night markets boasted food stalls from the world over and International buskers crooning and swooning onlookers.Sth Melb night market

Even one of my favourite buskers Matsumoto Zoku were entertaining Melbourne yet Matsumoto Zokuagain in Bourke St.

 

 

 

 

Aussie laments of too much traffic ( 3 cars in a queue is too much??) and no place to park (there’s space for at least two Fiat 500’s and a Vespa in there!) fell on my deaf ears. Still a worry the road rage, and somewhat pig headed determination to not budge an inch, makes me feel Melbourne drivers could learn a lot from Italian drivers …..except for George!

Hiking in the wilds around the Great Ocean Road I felt very pampered by the superb designer wooden benches and eloquent wildlife information plaques, orderly paths and well equipped look out points. The so Aussie sounds of the bird life woke me in the mornings and the crashing of waves rocked me to sleep.Sorrento Surf Life savers clubAireys Inlet surfer

 

 

 

 

 

I enjoyed many of the Tennis cup matches, if only on Tv; loved to see the surfers out or at least studying the waves, and abseilers scooting across the bay or hovering above the water (was I seeing things?) on the new Flyboards.

Criket coolerBowled over to see a great Aussie combo of cricket stumps and cooler in Bunnings. Only Aussies couldVegemite think that up!  And comforted to see Vegemite is still Australian made and bought a big jar  to take home.

 

Luna ParkAussies, lap up your good life, you have it made!

What did this Aussie miss from Italy ?…..slow dining, a  good extra virgin olive oil and a bidet!!?

Melbourne city

Melbourne sunset

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Being a bookworm at Mantua

 

Mantua

The Renaissance charm of Mantua  is the perfect setting for a 5 day literature festivalpalatial buildings, cobble stoned streets, elegant porticos and spacious piazzas. It becomes a abuzz during the festival with people attracted worldwide to listen to words of wisdom, heated discussions, poetic readings and relaxing music.

  Mantua residenceA mini Verona, where it would not be a surprise to find Romeo and Giulietta hand in hand gliding across the piazza or furtively meeting in a secluded garden declaring their long lost love.

Are you bored? Open twitter. Are you bored? Open facebook. Are you bored? Open the fridge. Are you bored? Open a book. You'll not be bored anymore

Are you bored? Open twitter. Are you bored? Open facebook. Are you bored? Open the fridge. Are you bored? Open a book. You’ll not be bored anymore

 

 

 

 

 

Mantua

 

 

 

 

There is something for everyone; bookworms meeting their favourite writers expounding the virtues of their latest book, to seminars discussing more current issues like immigration, the sharing economy, world hunger, and climate change to name just a few. Even something for the kids!Child's playRichard Flanagan

Joseph O'Connor

 

 

 

 

 

As my godfather said recently, “Curiosity is the Noblest form of Intellect, and the best way to keep the brain stimulated.” My 5 days at Mantua were a constant stimulation, a teasing out of ideas, a confrontation of opinions,  a dialogue between experts and the public and  a marvellous opportunity to meet one of my old time favourite writers – Richard Flanagan. The program was extensive, and interpreters  translated with artistic perfection, giving due emphasis even to the asides. Beautiful palazzi, churches and courtyards for the presentations, regular book readings in the garden and crooning music in the piazzas to relax to at the end of the day.

Ducal palace

Ducal Palace

Standing in the queue for the presentation on the ‘System of Corruption’ a fellow ticket holder politely asked me in English if I was in the ‘right’ queue as the presentation was very much an ‘in-house’ argument! When I responded in Italian and explained my years of stay in Italy, he added “Well then, you know we have some real experts here!”Mantua

Nonetheless I was not deterred nor disappointed. Each of the various socio – political – economic presentations that I had selected gave food for thought on a positive note, rather than wallowing and going nowhere with problems that seem unresolvable. And a varied international and well informed audience had their own questions and contributions to share at each workshop.

Mantua piazza

Wole Soyinka

 

 

 

 

 

The power of the African voice came from Okey Ndibe talking of the stories that must be told. Wole Soyinka Nigerian playwright, poet, and political activist spoke of the need for global policies which recognise the ‘Dignity of Existence’ to avoid the tragic deaths during immigration.

 

A revered Stefano Rodota`, University professor, jurist and politician with Luigi Zoja, psychoanalyst and writer, discussed ‘Solidariety’ which Europe appears to have put aside, and how the new social networks have anaesthetised our sensitivity to the current dramas in the world.

Acclaimed scientists and researchers on atmospheric changes, debated the increasing efficiency of renewable energy and the need for the decarbonisation of society. Naomi Klein and Jeremy Rifkin had been here in 2014 to present their new books (both of whom I follow with great interest) and some of their protégés were present, continuing their line of thought.

But it was not all intellectual stuff, although I crave that sort of intelligent debate, I was also very entertained by a sleazy crime book reading by author Massimo Carlotta accompanied by a blues guitarist/vocalist and jazz saxophonist/flautist. Massimo CarlottoCarlotta had made good use of his time in prison to write florid accounts of eccentric characters using ‘The Alligator’ private detective to delve into rather dodgy stories.Mantua theatre

 

 

 

And then there was Mantua to explore: a theatrical tour of the old and new theatres,  and a must do visit to the Ducal palace, the prestigious residence of the Gonzaga family.

And Prince Gonzaga’s ‘playhouse‘ ,Palazzo del Te, where he found ‘intellectual restoration’  offering lavish banquets and recreational activities! And last but not least, a personal tour by the Gallery Director of the Ligabue exhibition.

 

I came home from Mantua with a stack of  treasured books with personal dedications and a new yearly appointment to pursue so I never lose my curiosity.

Mantua bus

“Better crazy than boring!” Written on the side of the bus.

 

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Natural history in the hills of Tuscany

Spring flowersSpring is the perfect time to be hiking trails, especially in such beautiful spots as Tuscany. The sweet rolling hills inspired me to join an Environmental guide and discover some of the stories when man was more in tune with Nature.

We start at a little known village of Gerfalco – ‘the bearer of the hawk’ a reminder of a common noble pastime, in the province of Grossetto, disputed for centuries by great noble families for its natural resources.

 

Medieval arches

And while those are not medieval pants flapping in the breeze, some of the local buildings boast very important facades.

 

Others instead unconventional tile decorations.

Tuscan house

Chestnut grove

 

 

Secular chestnut groves welcome us as we hike along the trail. ‘Well looked after’ as our Environmental guide – Beppe had us note. The ground has been cleared beneath them, and they are not showing any signs of the dreaded bug which has infected so many of the chestnut trees in other areas. Roasted Secular chestnutchestnuts, chestnut cake ‘il castagnaccio’, chestnut jam, chestnut pancakes ‘i necci’, being very much a part of the mountain inhabitants diet and equally sought after at Autumn festivals nowadays by city folk. Rich in minerals and vitamins and lower in fat than other nuts, many claim they help reduce disease, create stronger bones and are a definite energy boost. Survival food during harsh winters for our ancestors, and locals are wise in caring so well for the 300-400 year old trees we hike by.

‘Ginestra’ – This particular variety of Broom was also important in the past as its square shape frond was critical to the charcoal maker ‘il carbonaio’ as it could be easily thatched together to cover the stacked wood that would burn down to produce charcoal. Again a common practice in the mountain areas of Tuscany.

Etruscan white violets

Etruscan violetsBut on and upwards, as we had a mountain to climb! And before we idly place our hiking boots on some delicate violets, Beppe has pounced to tell us they are rare Etruscan violets, a protected species and difficult to find!

Carlino plant

Carlino plant

As we madly take photos, and are surprised again by Beppe’s “watch out, you almost stepped on the Carlino plant!” A spiky cactus like plant known for its medicinal qualities from the Renaissance period when Charles VIII of France, riding through the area used the plant to ease his stomach pains. Since it worked they named the plant after him!

And it’s not the only mixture of legend and fact that Beppe relates. As we pass by a walnut tree he points out that nothing ever grows under walnut trees and for this reason they were often considered to be the home of witches and therefore planted near the farmhouses to keep the witches outside!

Yet we are still not at the summit, and no point having a break until we reach the top where we are treated to a magnificent view towards the Tuscan coastline and a well earned rest.Tuscan summit

 

 

 

 

 

 

We say goodbye to Beppe, our fabulous guide and storyteller and head for home. All this hiking has worked up an appetite and on the way back we can hardly resist the homemade roadsign for “fresh cheese”. We turn down the drive to a lovely Tuscan farmhouse, now made into an “Agriturismo” (Farm holiday resort) yet still continuing its farming traditions.Cheese maker

Two cats come to greet us, rubbing up against our legs, while the guard dog rolls in the gravel for a tummy rub!

Inside they have everything – ricotta, fresh pecorino (sheep’s cheese), to the more mature tastier version, homemade salami and sausage. Who can go past that?Tuscan farmhouse

It’s the end of a great day hiking and I’m off home to cook up a ‘spaghettata’ with ricotta and zucchini, while the others can enjoy their sausage and salami.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Nature Walking guide

Silvia Napoleone

If you are going to be in Tuscany contact Silvia Napoleone, she’s a great Nature Walking Guide and speaks English!

 

 

 


 

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Persepolis – the Pompeii of Iran

Persepolis bulls

Persepolis would have to be the highlight of my trip to Iran. The Pompeii of Iran, and far more impressive. Founded by Darius in 518 BC it is a massive archaeological site boasting beautiful capitals, fantastic animal friezes and a thousand impressive figures from various areas of the Persian Empire bringing gifts and paying homage to the Shah at New Year. We are fortunate to still see it as during the revolution Khomeini threatened to destroy it and locals lay on the street in front of the bulldozers in protest.

 

Seen from the tombs above, it looks like an enormous factory sight, a large shady forest leading up to its doors, which also houses our bungalow accommodation for the night.View of PersepolisTomb Persepolis

 

 

 

 

 

 

Nearby is another magnificent archaeological site of Tombs elaborately  sculpted with Victory scenes.

Tomb 1TombTombs of Naqsh-e Rustum

Persepolis panorama

 

This is not the only gigantic site in Iran, as can be seen by the Isfahan main square – 500m x 150m, the second largest  in the world  after Tiananmen square. It is awesome, absolutely magic, and the photos hardly do it justice!Isfahan main squareIsfahan main squareIsfahan mosque

 

 

 

 

Isfahan square

 

From luscious garden squares, more elaborate mosques and palaces surrounded by locals picnicking we move on to our hike amongst the desert castles and salt lakes of Kerman.Kerman Castle desert

 

Kerman desert

Kerman desert

 

 

 

Kerman desert and me

 

 

 

Salt lakes – Kerman

Salt lake Kerman salt lake

 

 

 

Hike to the Maiden CastleQal’eh-e-Doktar

Maiden castle

Maiden castle

Maiden Castle

 

Back into civilisation to stop for lunch in the market

Yadz  Hotel

Our Yadz hotel

Caravanserai bedrooms

Caravanserai Bedrooms

 

 

 

 

 

 

And onto explore the various Caravanserai – traditional roadside inns, some of which will be our accommodation.

Our Kashan hotel

Our Kashan hotel

Caravanseria

Local girls

 

 

Local girls are embarrassingly attractive. Super made up, and as our guide  related often retouched with plastic surgery that is cheap in Iran. Veils sit well back now on bouffant hairstyles and their long sleeve jacket cover ups can be flashy colours, very slinky, like a second skin hugging leggings  or over stove pipe stretch jeans.

Forty (40) is used to mean lots, as Italians would use ‘mille’ (thousand). The old fable of Ali Baba and his 40 thieves or the Palace of 40 columns only means there were lots of them….columns and thieves!

Young men are required to do military service, or they will not be given a passport. There is no access to Internet products as there are no credit cards linked to any external banking system. Tourists pay in local currency, as it is rare to be able to use a credit card, and Euro or other foreign currencies are generally exchanged in the black market. School

Children learn at least 1 language at school, and if studying overseas need to leave a deposit ( approx Euro 4,000) to guarantee their return.

Local Sport centres continue to train athletes in the traditional method used to train ancient warriors.

And martyrs from the Iran – Irak war are encased in tulips (Islamic emblem of self sacrifice) or on posters in each village.Matryrs

 

Athletes tarining

Pahlevani and zoorkhaneh Sport rituals

 

 

Martyr

 

 

 

 

Iran is a very genuine country, well preserved, feels completely safe and the people give a warm welcome. It has an extraordinary mix of architecture, old and new and very refined with an eclectic cultural flexibility that reflects the ancient Persian Empire, one of the oldest and richest in the world.

Belt makerKashan mosque(2)

 

 

 

 

 

 

If you get the chance to go there, I guarantee you will not be disappointed!


 

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Iran – flowers, fountains, mosques and more

Iran was definitely a place of surprises! “Hello, how are you? Where are you from?” Iranians everywhere stopped us in the street to chat, or waved from their cars or tooted their horns as we crossed the street. Tehran tulip gardenA favourite pastime is to picnic anywhere; in the luscious gardens, next to archaeological sites or along a desolate road to nowhere. And they were more than happy to share their home cooked meals with us.Esfahan bridge

 

 

 

Water is the source of life and fountains bubble and spray in the squares and garden settings, as locals sit nearby enjoying the music of the water.Wind tunnel Yadz

Garden KermanReligious leaders rest from their teaching in the shade of orange blossom that saturates the air and inebriates us.Religious leaders

 

Shiraz kidsKids play in modern sculpted furniture, while we play with the mannequins outside the Fortress of Shiraz.

 

Fortress ShirazShiraz fortress

 

 

 

 

After some relaxing time we move amongst the crowds to explore the labyrinth of corridors in the bazaars and catch a glimpse of local foods and handicrafts.

A pick me up of street food – falafels, samosas, kebabs,rice stew, or a simple fruit or vegie shake keep us going for a while longer.Street stallFruit shakes

Kebabs

 

 

 

 

 

And lead by our faithful guide we begin the first of our many mosque visits. Geometric and floral decorations are spectacular, as are the stained glass windows which pour a magical light inside as well as help to keep the mosquitoes at bay. Shiraz sanctuary of light

Shiraz mosqueAnd between mosques we visit local bath houses – Hamman, also elaborately decorated.

From the smallest rural mosque tended by nomads to the glorious Sanctuary Of Fatimah in Qom where the Khomeini revolution began, each had it’s own charm and splendour.

A dazzling wealth of gold and silver blind us in the sun, a vivid contrast to the simplicity of the rural mosques and local lifestyle, and we stand out like sore thumbs, struggling to keep our chador from slipping off as we try to photograph the massive Sanctuary.Sanctuary of Fatimah

Cahdor - Qom

 

 

 

 

And this has only been part of our adventure as we put our feet up in a local tea house in Shiraz.Shiraz tea house

Shiraz Tea house

Shiraz Tea house

 

 

 

 

 

Later we take a sunset stroll through the Poet Hafez (1310-90) garden and tomb mingling with locals who revere him as a Saint.Poets tombPoets garden

 

 

 

 

 

Poet Hafez tomb

Poet Hafez tomb

Some curious contemporary facts shared by our guide:

1 in 3 marriages end in divorce.                               Most are not practicing Muslims.                               The Supreme leader wants to double the population so abortion and contraception are only available illegally.                                                    Most have a parabola to see outside news, which every so often is confiscated.                                 There is an active black market to access alcohol                                                       And apps to  access facebook and twitter which are publicly blocked.

Tehran Freedom tower

Tehran Freedom tower Designed by 23yr old local architect

There is still so much more to tell about Iran – of amazing Archeological sites, hiking in the desert and to the Castle of the young maidens, the gigantic square in Esfahan, the caravanserai……but that will have to be in another post!

 

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On a magic carpet ride to Iran

My visa came through today so I am off to Iran for 2 weeks tomorrow!

Persian carpet

1880 Riding a Flying Carpet – Viktor Vasnetsov

I have made my own coverall jacket  and have been practising various veil techniques that cover both hair and neck, and that don’t slip off!

The tour is to cover the major sights of Iran, ancient mosques and shrines, archaeological sites, including a hike across the desert amongst the sand castles of Kerman. I’m expecting exotic architecture, elaborate decorations, colourful bazaars, and friendly people. We start in Tehran and move on to Esfahan, Yazd, Kerman, Shiraz and Persepolis and there will definitely be a post on it on my return!

Iran map

Reproduced with permission from Lonely Planet. © Lonely Planet, 2011

 


 

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Love is in the Air!

Valentine day rose Valentines day is almost here and roses will disappear quickly from the florist shop to bring a smile and tender kiss from a loved one. While celebrated worldwide, few really know how the day began, so I will let you in on the secret that I learnt from Giuseppe – my local Umbrian guide.

Saint Valentine was born in Terni, Umbria in the 3rd Century. As the Roman army was about to come through the town he quickly married off the young men of the city knowing that the  Romans would have forcibly taken them as soldiers. His way of protecting them, as Romans only took single men into their armies. So we could say the boom in marriages is why Valentine’s day is considered so romantic. Arena Verona And let me talk more about“Amore” as I spent the weekend in Verona, home to the most famous love story in history – Romeo and Juliet. It is such a beautiful, stylish city, and cannot but invoke romantic thoughts. I can hear Juliet’s plea from her balcony “Romeo! Wherefore art thou Romeo?”, a plea to have him change his family name since he belonged to her family’s enemy. Not as mistakenly is understand, a query as to where he is! But whatever one remembers of the famous story it is kept very much alive here in the centre of Verona, tempting thousands of visitors to stroke Juliet’s breast as they stand below the famous balcony or visit the museum. It keeps the volunteers of Juliet’s Club busy responding to the thousands of letters that arrive each year addressed to Juliet.

Juliet's Balcony Verona As I stroll the city I am surprised at the amount of ladies still flashing furs and can only hope they are fake, or from grandma’s époque! While I have been many times to the city I still find it alluring and happily re-tread old ground to see for the umpteenth time Juliet’s balcony, trying hard to block out the graffiti and hordes of scribbled love notes pasted to the entrance gallery.Juliet's statue

 

 

The tacky chewing gum used and Juliet’s left breast rubbed shiny do lower the tone inside the 13thC courtyard.

ChocolatesA chocolate aroma wafts from the Venchi shop nearby and in this cold I am seriously tempted to a hot chocolate, while admiring the rest of the delicacies on offer – chocolate crepes, toffee apples, and chocolate coated strawberries…Yum!

 

That leads me to Piazza Erbe where locals are out having an aperitif before lunch, like lizards seeking the sunshine, even looking bronzed but maybe that’s just my sunglasses or the reflection from the Spritz they are sipping.Piazza Erbe Verona

 

 

 

 

Romeo's home

I wander past the home of Romeo, often ignored, and not open to visitors anyway.

 

 

Then on to where the tomb of Juliet is housed and the atmosphere is decidedly different and more in keeping with such a romantic story. Curiously even China has got in on the act by donating a rather lovely statue of two lovers – Liang and Zhu, depicting their legendary love story, the Romeo and Juliet of the Orient.Juliet's tombChinese love story

 

 

 

 

Back to the centre of town I have to admire the famous Arena from the 1st C AD, home to the Summer Opera season and many other dance and concert performances. It’s glorious, and its pink and white limestone blocks so striking. In fact most of the main streets are paved in the same elegant coloured limestone, worn smooth from the thousands of tourists attracted to the city each year. Arena

 

 

 

 

There is still so much more to see and tell of Verona, but I will save that to another post.

Valentines Day

 

So who will be your Valentine this year? Or more importantly who will be mine?!

Happy Valentines Day!

 

 


 

 

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