Tag Archives: tourism

Best of Israel – Part II, off the beaten path

In “Best of Israel – Part I”, I got as far as Caesarea, having reviewed my favourite spots in Jerusalem and Tel Aviv. In Part II, I want to take you to the roads less travelled, and into the wild, showcasing parts of Israel that are less frequently exposed.

  1. Mount Carmel
    The Carmel ridge is rising above the coastal plain, starting at Caesaria, and stretching all the way to Haifa, where it dramatically cascades to the sea at the Bahai gardens. It is a green, lush hilly area, carved by deep valleys and full of wildlife. The Carmel is one of the centers of the Druze population in Israel  and a visit to their communities is a culinary delight. An exceptional site is the Mearot stream, a UNESCO-heritage listed property, where prehistoric Homo Sapiens made his first works of art over 250 000 years ago. And maybe ate some Neanderthals, too.
    Panoramic view from the southernmost tip of Carmel ridge
  2. Acco
    A sleepy provincial town, that accidentally is one of the places with the longest running history of human settlement anywhere on Earth. Acco has a small coastal village charm, with its little fishing harbour and seaside restaurants. But beneath (sometimes literally) this humble facade there is a historical record of epic proportions. Acco has Crusader underground tunnels that would impress Indiana Jones, fortifications that defeated Napoleon himself, the residence and burial compound of Bahá’u’lláh, an exiled prophet that founded a whole new religion, a prison where Bahá’u’lláh was held and where both Jewish and Arab rebels against the British rule were executed, a mosque that houses a hair from the Prophet’s beard. Its a wonder Acco doesn’t crumble under the weight of its own heritage.

    Crusader wall remains in the harbour of Acco

    Crusader wall remains in the harbour of Acco

    Acco seaside restaurant

    Acco seaside restaurant

    Acco's harbour

    Acco’s harbour

  3. Nimrod Castle
    All the way up North, sitting on top of a mountain, is Nimrod Castle. It commands the valley below, offering stunning views, and is situated in an area of exceptional beauty. The hiking and other outdoors opportunities here are too many to number. Whatever you choose to do, you can conclude with a meal in one of the many countryside restaurants and overnight in a local B&B.

    Flowers - best part of Nimrod's castle

    Flowers – best part of Nimrod’s castle

    Nimrod's caste massive walls

    Nimrod’s caste massive walls

    Nimrod's caste - with secret passages and all the other castle's must have's

    Nimrod’s caste – with secret passages and all the other castle’s must have’s

  4. The Samarian hills
    Most of the time I spent in Israel I lived in Ariel, in Samaria. I still have many friends living in the area, and I of course visit them when I am in the country. The gentle rolling hills, some covered in olive groves, others barren and rocky, with thorny bushes are genuine, true and pure Biblical landscape. I think it is impossible to get a feel of Israel without a first-hand experience of these hills, where so many stories of the Bible are set.

    Classic Biblical landscapes in Samaria, the heart of Israel

    Classic Biblical landscapes in Samaria, the heart of Israel

  5. Ramon Crater
    I have spent a significant amount of time in the Negev – Israel’s desert. And I’m lovin’ it. For me, the summum of the Negev is the Ramon Crater, a huge hole in the ground which is actually an erosion cirque. Besides the “usual” thousands of years of human history like prehistoric dwellings, ancient water storage systems and Nabatean Incense Route, Ramon Crater is jam-packed with geological sights. Pretty much everything about how the Earth was formed can be seen here, right on the surface. And since its the desert, there are few of those bore-some plants obscuring the view of the beautiful rocks. OK, I’m a geo-nerd, what’d you expect?

    Ammonites are common in Ramon Crater

    Ammonites are common in Ramon Crater

    Ramon Crater is desert in classical Western style - ol' school

    Ramon Crater is desert in classical Western style – ol’ school

  6. Timna valley
    Almost all the way down to Eilat, just 25 kilometres from the Red Sea’s coral reefs, lies a magical, mystical valley. Here at Timna lie the copper mines, where the metal for the copper treasures displayed in the Israel Museum (see Part I) was mined. This valley is as barren as it gets, and it is astonishing. Thousands of years of copper mining left here traces of pretty much all ancient religions. And the wind and water have eroded spectacular structures in the sandstone – King Solomon’s Pillars, The Mushroom, The Arches – if that doesn’t make your blood run faster, I don’t know what else will. Nearby kibbutz Elifaz offers lodging in comfortable air conditioned rooms or on a campsite in huge communal tents or in your own tent.

    The Mushroom rock formation in Timna Park (photo by Tiia Monto)

  7. Masada
    OK, this is not exactly off-the-beaten-path, as it is one of the biggest tourist attractions of Israel. But any “best of” list of Israel has to have Masada on it. Here’s why:A mighty king builds a magnificent palace in the desert, to serve as his refuge, a last resort, his ultimate fortress. After his death, the country rises in rebellion against his masters, the most powerful empire the world has ever seen. Rebels take the palace and make it their stronghold. The empire strikes back (they really do), sending its best generals and strongest legions to crush the rebellion. The rebels are defeated, their country is in ruins as they retreat to the desert fortress. The empire’s legions lay siege on the fortress but the rebels hold out. Eventually, the sheer numbers of the empire’s soldiers win and the rebels are facing an imminent defeat. On the night before the final battle, which the rebels know they will lose, they choose to die as free men rather than live as slaves. The empire’s soldiers storm the palace, only to find the dead bodies of the rebels, and just 3 survivors who tell the horrible tale of that last night.
    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=hWl1HrmWhV0This is not a Hollywood scenario. This is Masada. And this is Israel – stranger, stronger, more fantastic than any fiction can ever be.

    2000 years old camps of Roman legions around Masada are well preserved in the desert air

    2000 years old camps of Roman legions around Masada are well preserved in the desert air

    Masada's Northern Palace

    Masada’s multistore Northern Palace

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Amsterdam is a cycling hell

As of recently, I have a new side-gig – I am writing for Bike Citizens Magazine. Bike Citizens develops its own cycling-related products and offers a platform to the community of urban cyclists. To celebrate this latest development in my writing career, I wrote the following summary of why Amsterdam is a cycling hell.

Amsterdam has a reputation of a cycling paradise. In the 12 years I live in the Netherlands, I’ve been to Amsterdam countless times. Yet I have never been tempted to cycle in the Dutch capital. Because Amsterdam is not a cycling paradise – its a cycling hell. Let me tell you why.

Cyclists

Yes, cyclists in Amsterdam can be a part of the problem, too. Its just that the amount of cyclists in the city is absolutely staggering – over a million of them! They blatantly disobey traffic laws and park their bikes on every possible (and impossible) spot, contributing to the traffic mayhem. In Amsterdam, cyclists actually make it worse for themselves.

Bicycle parked - check! But where are the pedestrians are supposed to walk?

Bicycle parked – check! But where are the pedestrians supposed to walk?

Cobbles

The cobbled streets look nice on pictures. But cobble stones are the reason why the Paris–Roubaix race is famous and feared. Cobbles are a bicycle-killer. Amsterdam is full of stone pavements, and they are not fun at all to cycle on.

Cobbles look good on picture, but are a nightmare to cycle on

Cobbles look good on picture, but are a nightmare to cycle on

Scooters

There are tens of thousands of scooters in Amsterdam. Theoretically, they are allowed to use bicycle paths if the scooter is restricted to 25 kph. In practice, the speed restriction is easily removed and enforcement is lacking. The result is that scooters that are 2-3 times heavier than the cyclists, are also 2-3 times faster. Since the formula for kinetic energy, as you undoubtedly remember, is E=1/2 mv^2, scooters have about 10 to 30 times more kinetic energy than cyclists! Consequences of even minor collisions can be devastating.

Taxi drivers

Taxi drivers are a plague for cyclists everywhere, in busy capital cities most of all places. The ones in Amsterdam are (understandably) especially frustrated by the million bicycles constantly cutting them off in the narrow streets. Taxis and cyclists are engaged in a decades-long struggle for control of the streets of Amsterdam. Trust me, you really don’t want to get into that fight – it is a fight that has only losers.

Tourists

If you see these - run for your life (these ones are cycling against the traffic, too)

If you see these – run for your life (these ones are cycling against the traffic, too)

First of all, tourists are the worse cyclists. When you see a bunch of them coming at you on those rented bikes – run and hide! For some reason, they think cycling drunk and/or stoned along the deep canals in the chaos of Amsterdam is a safe and enjoyable activity. Pedestrian tourists, who are not used to the amount of bicycles are a menace, too. And I don’t need to explain you why in all likelihood a Darwin award will soon be issued for the use a selfie-stick while riding your bike.

Even the famous canals are not safe from cycling tourists

Even the famous canals are not safe from cycling tourists

Trams

Don’t get me wrong, I love trams. But for cyclists in Amsterdam, trams are a nightmare. They are fast and furious, and are relatively quiet – in the busy city traffic, you don’t hear a tram coming until the last moment. Trams use a big chunk of road space, pushing cars into the bicycle lanes. Most unfortunately, tram tracks are a death trap for a bicycle – not only are they slippery when wet (and its often wet in Amsterdam), they are of exactly the right size to catch you by the wheel when you least expect it.

Amsterdam traffic mayhem in a nutshell - cars, trams, cyclists and pedestrians all move at once

Amsterdam traffic mayhem in a nutshell – cars, trams, cyclists, scooters and pedestrians all at one picture

The good part

Let me finish on a bright note – its not like ALL of Amsterdam is a cycling hell. There is some truth in the city’s reputation as a great place for cycling. Its just the downtown that is a horrible place to pedal. On the whole, Amsterdam is over 200 square kilometres. Of these, only the city centre, just 10 square kilometres, is filled with taxis, trams and tourists. Outside that small area, cycling in Amsterdam is every bit as fun as you can imagine.

 

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Am I practicing what I preach? Hell yeah!

I have written on a number of occasions how I find it strange that people who travel are in such a rush. As an alternative, I suggested taking the time, going to less places and staying longer in one destination. But I wondered whether I practice what I preach? To check whether I follow my own recommendations, I looked at a recent example – the Grey Wave camper vacation in Western Europe, and at an older one – the big Round-the-world trip.

“Grey Wave tour”

Our trusty camper

We’ve spent a whole week on this camping and would have stayed longer but they were closing for the winter

Let’s start with the recent trip. In September of last year, we rented a camper van and traveled for 3 weeks, going to Belgium, Germany, Luxembourg and France. Four countries sounds like a lot, but its less than it seems. Firstly, we’ve been to all these countries before, so we were under no pressure to see as much as possible. Secondly, we stayed mostly in the border region of these countries, which limited the travel times.  All in all we stayed in 5 different locations – on average, that’s 4 nights at a place. So not bad, for a short trip to familiar places, I would say.

Our route for 3 weeks

Our route for 3 weeks

Our big Round-the-world trip took us to 4 continents, 15 countries and countless destinations over a time span of about 10 months. But we managed to stay calm and never (well, almost never) rushed around.

First leg – Europe and the Middle East

Starting with a day in London, just to board a plane, we went to Ukraine, spending almost two weeks spread between Crimea and Kiev. From there we went to Israel for a few days with the family and crossed to Jordan just to see Petra. Excluding the week in Israel, where we were on a family visit and basically just dragged along, we’ve been to 4 ‘destinations’ in two weeks.

Second leg – Indian subcontinent

After a few days in Delhi to acclimatize, we went for a couple of weeks to Rajastan (Bikaner, Jaisalmer and Jodhpur), and then to Rishikesh. From Rishikesh, we went on a trek to Hemkund and then left India, going to Nepal. In Nepal we mostly hiked (Around Annapurna and Annapurna Base Camp treks), and spent the remainder of our time in Pokhara, Kathmandu and Chitwan. We then returned to Delhi for a few more days, before flying out to Bangkok. All this took us 3 months, with a total of ~13 ‘destinations’, depending how you count them.

Third leg – South-East Asia

Here we’ve been a bit more mobile, going to no less than 5 countries and a variety of destinations I will not bother listing (“the banana pancake trail”). Sufficient to say we’ve spent about 3 weeks each in Thailand, Cambodia, Vietnam and Laos. With a few days in Singapore, I count ~17 ‘destinations’ in 3 months, which is a bit busier than our time in Nepal but we were certainly not in a rush.

Fourth leg – Oceania

Most of our 3 months in Oceania we spent in New Zealand, where we drove a lot around, camped on remote beaches and hiked a variety of tracks. After New Zealand we spent three weeks on a remote atoll in French Polynesia, and stopped by at Easter Island. The ‘destination’ count does not really work on this leg, but I can tell you we were in absolutely no hurry.

Pearl farming

Pearl farming can feature on Discovery Channel’s “Dirty Jobs”

Fifth and final leg – Peru

Originally our plan was to make a brief stop in New Zealand and spend more time in South America. We chose the comfort and safety of New Zealand though and cut our final leg down to Peru only (hurray for flexibility!). Our two weeks in Peru were split between Cuzco and Lima, with side trips to the Nazca lines and Macchu Picchu.

 

Sure, we sometimes stayed in a place just for one night and moved on. Overall though, we usually spent between 3 days and a week in a place, taking day trips and/or longer tours before coming back to the “base camp”.

Conclusion

Having critically reviewed my own travel habits I can now safely claim to live according to my own preaching. Of course, sometimes I do travel at a faster pace. But most of the time, I do my best to slow down a bit. I’m not saying this gives me the right to claim moral superiority or something. But I think I can safely say I know what “slow travel” means. Its not like I avoid the tourist highlights. I just not limit myself exclusively to them.

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The price of Europe

The Euro is in a free-fall vs the US dollar, sparking much debate about the macro-economical consequences. And of course about how cheap it is for (American) tourists to visit Europe. How expensive is Europe really? MoveHub, a website dedicated to “help you make an informed decision about wherever you want to move” has recently published a handy infographic showing the of costs of living around the world, compared to the cost of living in New York used as a 100% benchmark. Since I’m only concerned with Europe here, I took the liberty to crop that part out:

Relative cost of living in Europe (from www.MoveHub.com)

Relative cost of living in Europe (from http://www.MoveHub.com)

Compared to the cost of living in the US (based on the same infographic), there are several types of countries in Europe:

  1. Bloody expensive – Norway, Iceland, Denmark and Switzerland
  2. Quite expensive – UK, Ireland and Luxembourg
  3. Just expensive – Sweden, Finland, Netherlands, Belgium, France and Italy
  4. “Average” – Germany, Austria and Cyprus
  5. Slightly cheaper – Russia, Estonia, Slovenia, Spain and Greece
  6. Rather cheap – Latvia, Lithuania, Belarus, Portugal, Croatia, Slovakia and Azerbaijan
  7. Really cheap – Poland, Ukraine, Czech Republic, Hungary, Romania, Serbia, Bosnia-Herzegovina, Montenegro, Albania, Bulgaria, Armenia and Turkey
  8. A total sell-out – Moldova, Macedonia and Georgia

It is immediately obvious that the general trend is for countries to be cheaper towards the South-East of Europe. But that’s nothing new. The interesting part is in what this map does not show. And its quite a lot.

First of all, the numbers come from Numbeo, which is a collaborative database. This means that the prices are provided by individuals and are not verified. But with hundreds of thousands of users providing millions of statistics, I’d say it is as reliable as it gets.

Secondly, a map of the local purchasing power index is much more useful if you’re going to live in a country. Prices are high in Switzerland, but so are the salaries.

Thirdly, even if you are a visitor, the prices you are interested in may not be the ones that are taken into account when making this inforgraphic. After all, why would you as a visitor care about the price of a Volkswagen Golf or of a membership of a fitness club?

Finally, the biggest disadvantage in this map is that it presents averages per country. And the differences may be quite significant. For example, Berlin is about 20% cheaper than Munich.

And now the good news. One of the biggest expenses for both a visitor and a resident is in having a place to stay. And that’s where the differences tend to be highest! It is a rough indicator still, but if you look at the price per square meter to buy an apartment in Munich and notice it to be twice as high as in Berlin, be prepared for significantly higher hotel prices.

All-in-all I can say that this map is a very good match to my personal experiences around Europe, and I would seriously recommend using it as a start in your budget planning, whether you intend to move to a European country or just visiting.

What would you say? Does this map match your experiences and/or expectations? How about maps of your continent? Share your thoughts!

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Will Crimea be the last straw for Russia?

By now it is pretty obvious that Russia is taking control over Crimea. The naval base at Sevastopol is essential to the Russian Black Sea Fleet, but is taking control over Crimea and risking a war with Ukraine really the best way to safeguard it? The invasion of Crimea is yet another in a long line of Russian involvements in post-Soviet conflicts. In many cases, these involvements resulted in “frozen conflicts”, leading to the establishment of separatist regions supported by the Russian government – regions like South Ossetia, Abkhazia, Transnistria and Nagorno-Karabakh. Far apart, and each with a different background these regions share one common feature – if it wasn’t for Russian military back-up, they wouldn’t exist in their current pseudo-state form.

A Russian Navy vessel is being towed out of Sevastopol harbour

A Russian Navy vessel is being towed out of Sevastopol harbour

Over the years since the break-up of the Soviet Union, Russia has been involved in a growing number of conflicts, mostly in the Caucasus but also in the Balkan, in Tajikistan, and more recently, in Syria. The gas-generated cash flow has fuelled the Russian appetite for rebuilding the Empire. While the Russian army achieved limited successes in the 2008 war with Georgia, the scope and nature of that conflict were very limited. However useful for propaganda purposes, these limited successes blind the Russian leaders and Russia’s population to the real capacities of their armed forces in a serious conflict. The bloody Chechen war has illustrated the shortcomings of the Russian army with brutal accuracy. That conflict still drags on, and Russia keeps losing men, money, strength and face in the Caucasus while achieving nothing.

So what will happen in Crimea? It is unlikely that Russia will fully annex Crimea or that the region will move for full independence. Based on past Russian involvements, the creation of yet another pseudo-state with limited to no international recognition seems the most probable outcome. Unfortunately, that would lead to a lose-lose situation for everyone except a couple of Russian generals.

Crimea's economy is largely dependent on tourism, and a military invasion is not going to be good for business

Crimea’s economy is largely dependent on tourism, and a military invasion is not going to be good for business

Already bankrupt Ukraine will be drawn into a low-intensity civil war and will lose its territorial integrity. The Crimean Peninsula is essentially an island, connected to the mainland only at Perekop, a strip of land only a few kilometres wide. In case of a conflict, the 2 million Crimeans will be cut off from all supplies, and will be dependent on Russia to provide them with all they need via the sea. Russia may have the capacity to block Crimean airports, but it is unlikely that it has the capacity to sustain the population through a blockade. The suffering Crimeans will seek refuge in Russia, adding to the millions of refugees from older conflicts already living in Russia. That’s not the end of Russia’s worries – taking control over Crimea from crippled Ukraine is easy, keeping it might prove a whole different story. The peninsula is populated not only by Russians. Ukrainians are a quarter of the population and another 1/8th are Crimean Tatars, Muslim people with a long record of bad blood with Russia. Anyone thinking that they will accept the de-facto annexation of Crimea by Russia is in for nasty surprises.

Many Crimean Tatars are reduced to a cheap tourist attraction

Many Crimean Tatars are reduced to a cheap tourist attraction

The Russian economy is already strained to the limit by epidemic corruption, runaway military expenses and lavish spending on luxury projects like hosting the 2014 Winter Olympics and the 2018 FIFA World Cup. All-in-all, it might just be that the burden of a conflict over Crimea with Ukraine, Russia’s biggest European neighbour, will be the last straw for Russia. If you have any investments in Russia – now is the time to start worrying.

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Why some businesses are a success while others are not

Bangkok, Thailand

Bangkok, Thailand

While travelling, I’ve read quite a few books. Usually I was able to swap them in hostels or buy cheaply at second-hand book stores. As a reader I am not very picky, and will go for anything printed. Especially when on the road for months on end. So not everything I’ve read was of high grade. However, every now and then I was able to get some quality books. Like “The Wealth and Poverty of Nations”, a book that discusses the burning topic of Why Some Are So Rich and Some So Poor. The main point of the book is that climate, natural resources or luck are just not enough to answer that question. Culture, ethics and science are all involved as well. Of course, all the basic principles that contribute to the wealth of nations apply to businesses as well. The main factor in success is knowing your customers, and being ready to go the extra mile to provide quality service. Here’s an example of how it should be done.

We stayed in Bangkok for just a few days, before embarking on a classical SE-Asia tour through Vietnam, Cambodia and Laos. From Laos we went back to Thailand, for a couple of weeks of diving at Ko Phi Phi, but not before we’ve spent a day on Khao San Road, getting massages and doing some shopping. We’ve arrived on a night train from Laos, and were rather dirty and tired.

We went to Donna Guesthouse, where we’ve stayed two months before, hoping we’d be able to rent a room for the day, just to store our bags and use the shower. We never got the chance to ask. The owner immediately recognized us (mind you we were there more than two months before, for just 3 or 4 nights, and its in Khao San Road, the most touristy place in Thailand!), asked how our trip was, and for how long we were going to be in Bangkok.

When he heard we were leaving the same evening, he offered us to store the bags at the place and use the shower, refused to receive money for such a minor service and insisted to provide us with towels as well. In essence, he treated us as friends rather than as a chance to earn a couple of coins. Its been almost two years since, but I remember that small encounter as one of the most positive things I’ve experienced while travelling and if anybody asks me about a tip for a good place to stay in Bangkok I say without hesitation – Donna Guesthouse.

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Museum run

Many European cities offer some kind of a visitors pass – a one-day or multi-day ticket that gives you access to major attractions, public transport and some discounts. I like these visitors passes as they allow my to do what I call “museum runs”. You see, I’ve been in so many museums that I sort of lost the patience for the slow strolling around that for some reason is the normal pace of museum-goers. It hurts my feet to shuffle around from one prolonged gaze at a painting to another. That’s why I sometimes revert to the museum run.

European cities usually have their (numerous) museums packed into the compact city centre or a convenient museum quarter. The high density of museums and the public transport access given by the pass allow me to squeeze as many museums as I can handle into a single day. On such a day, I do “cherry-picking” – in no way do I feel obliged to see the whole collection of a particular museum, but I rather head straight to the section or exhibition that I find interesting, skipping the rest. This way, and by walking in a normal pace (considered sacrilegious by the other visitors, judging by the dirty looks they always give me), I spent an average of half an hour per venue, and I can go to up to 10 museums in a day.

The fun part of a museum run is that I get to skip all those badly painted Madonna’s with baby Jesus (who is always painted as a 4-year old rather than a newborn), and focus on the stuff that I like. And get a varied museum experience, skipping from Indian painting of the 19th century to a tram museum to modern installations exhibition. I mean, I enjoy seeing Indian paintings of the 19th century, but after half an hour they become more of the same. So switching themes helps me to stay sharp in my consumerism of culture. And if a museum is boring, or not what I have expected – I just skip to the next one, without hard feelings.

On my museum runs I often shut myself from the world outside by playing some high-bpm audio content in my headphones. The music helps me ignore the other visitors (especially handy on Sundays) and I can also concentrate more on the visual perceptions – museums are mostly about seeing, not hearing.

The museum of crazyness in Haarlem – also free with the museum card

Since I live in a country with the highest museum density in the world,  the opportunities for museum runs are endless here. With an annual museum card, I have  free access to most of the museums and I’m doing my best to put it to good use.  I’m not a multimillionaire, so I can’t buy a Rembrandt or a Vermeer. But I pay the taxes that sponsor the museums, and I have the museum card so its just as if I own them – I can go see them every day. Which reminds me – I should check on some of my favourite paintings. And since I live in a small European country, they’re not too far away.

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