The Cayman Islands are a British Overseas Territory, three islands in the western Caribbean Sea: Grand Cayman, Little Cayman and Cayman Brac. They are believed to have been uninhabited before the first Welsh settlers came, in the seventeenth century. The smaller islands had been sighted by Columbus, and Sir Francis Drake landed on Grand Cayman. Early maps refer to them as Los Lagartos, meaning alligators or large lizards, But by 1530 this had become the Caymanes after the Carib word caimán for the marine crocodile. There must have been a lot of them. There were also plenty of turtles, which were quickly depleted, as they became the mainstay of the economy, for export and eating.
Alison and I have flown in to Georgetown, the capital of Grand Cayman (and the Cayman Islands), from Jamaica. As with Jamaica this is a revisit, as I’m not sure that half a day off a cruise ship snorkelling counts. Three hundred miles and it’s yet another world. Very flat. Pristine. A series of interlinked lagoons, especially in the west. Very American. Plaza after plaza. Lines of car rental shops. Huge neat car parks. Four lane highways. And signposts. Low rise apartment blocks pretending to be traditional Caribbean architecture. Incongruously, chickens run around squawking. They feature right across the island and are useful for hoovering up any scraps of food we drop, whilst we’re picnicking. I’m assuming no foxes here. The only predators are the many vehicles.
Cars stop at pedestrian crossings, if we show the slightest inclination to cross the road. They even stop to let you out at junctions. Best of all, a huge supermarket offering everything we couldn’t find in Jamaica. And just about anything you could want to buy to eat. Beautifully stocked meat and fish sections. Again, at a price. I fill two shopping bags with goodies - for 200 USD.
Georgetown is the largest town in the British Overseas Territories (BOTs) and a significant financial hub. There are almost 600 banks and financial institutions here. Plate glass office blocks are dotted around the edges of town (which spreads out a surprisingly long way across the island), spilling towards more traditional buildings in the downtown area. Some timber buildings could be correctly described as historical. More adopt the mock wooden Caribbean style, especially those around the cruise port (where every block is a mall). A few are actually made of concrete. This is where you find your Versace, Tiffany, and Gucci nestling alongside native vendors and craftsmen.
Restaurants line the wharf alongside the harbour. In between the boutiques, bars and cafes on the shore side are dainty churches, the parliament building, the site of an old fort (marked by a few cannons) and the island museum.
We pick up a rental car and navigate smoothly to our Cocoplum apartment at the bottom of Seven Mile Beach, just north of downtown Georgetown. We have a little heart shaped swimming pool in front of us, sunbeds (screwed down, so sadly, we can’t move them into the shade), and a view out to sea, across a wrecked boat. Glass patio doors lead onto this area. It’s hard to tell when they are closed, so I repeat my trick from Tunisia and walk headlong into the door. This time my glasses come off worse than I do. We also have a resident teeny tiny curly tailed lizard who is not remotely afraid of us. Even so, I have to check he’s not a scorpion, his tail is held so high.
The wreck, the Gamma, offers interesting snorkelling. It’s not the prettiest section of what doesn’t really qualify as a seven mile beach (in my humble opinion). To start with, it comes in at just under six miles in length. And the land fringing the long crescent disappears entirely at several points along this, the quieter end. We have to make use of the various alleys leading to and from the parallel West Bay Road, when trying to explore north. There’s a thin strip of sand and seawater channels, accessed by stairs cut into the exposed coral. I’ve read that storms have caused some erosion and there’s plenty of construction work along the shore here too.
Reefs more or less encircle Grand Cayman, which is why the islands are renewed for its snorkelling and diving. There are snorkelling spots all along seven mile beach right down to Georgetown, in the harbour and beyond. The one close to the Burger King is known as Cheeseburger Reef
Seven Mile Beach is yet another of those beaches that’s touted as best in the Caribbean, maybe twelfth in the world. It’s lovely, but not that amazing. As I’ve said several times before, these best beach in the world lists are way off . I don’t think the Bahamas counts as the Caribbean, but Anguilla and the BVI certainly do.
Another couple of miles further up Seven Mile Beach widens. Here, it is called Governor’s Beach, imaginatively named, as it’s right in front of the Governor’s House. There are signs in front of a low chain fence, requesting privacy. The Cayman Islands are more British than Great Britain. The governor presides over garden parties wearing one of those big cockaded hats. Even the Christmas decorations feature the flag of St George. It’s been created in wide banded satin ribbon along the wall of one tall block.
Here, the beach could rightfully be called beautiful. The sand is soft and inviting. The sea is a translucent swirl of contrasting blues, warm and shallow. There’s what seems to be the best snorkelling on Seven Mile, a few hundred yards off shore. It’s not fantastic, I hurry to add. More, mostly dead, coral, and there are a few shoals of vibrantly coloured fish. Some of them intrepid specimens, keen to eyeball us snorkellers.
Grand Cayman is an odd shape. The Georgetown area and Seven Mile Beach looks as if it sits on its tail. On the opposite side of the tail to the long stretch of beach are marinas with glitzy malls and restaurants. The most well known is Camana Bay.
At the top of the tail is the North End and West Bay. At West Bay. Cemetery Beach is, you guessed it, adjacent to an old cemetery (they’re all bedecked with artificial flowers here) with a narrowish strip of sand and a peaceful vibe. Shade is provided by casuarina trees . They’re gracefully atmospheric, but the needles make a patchwork on the sand and invade all your clothes and stick to your towels. Here, I meet up with Ron and Anne, who have just come from Negril in Jamaica, where I’m heading next. They live in Lindfield in West Sussex, where I used to have a house. It really is a small world.
Cemetery Beach has another reef, even further off shore. Ron is going to come in with me, but first his equipment all floats away on the swell, and then he discovers that his mask is too small. These are the sort of rolling waves that fill your swimsuit with sand, but you don’t realise until you go to the toilet and it all falls out. There’s a little purple fan coral and even fewer fish. Cayman might be one of the best snorkelling spots in the Caribbean but it’s not a patch on other parts of the world. If I remember correctly it’s better when you take a boat. Nevertheless, I mustn’t complain. It’s nice to able to snorkel off shore at all.
The North End is more quirky. Bestrewn with less pretentious homes, gentler, more rural and further away from the financial mecca. Though it hasn’t escaped hotels and apartments all together. There are quiet lagoons and a medley of limestone formations. One area named Hell is especially full of dark pinnacles. The locals have capitalised on this with a gift shop and a post office, where you can get Hell postmarks - if you’re so inclined. The formations meet the coast at Turtle Reef for scenic views, more snorkelling and some cafes. There are gorgeous wind swept beaches all along the North End coast to here and round the edge of Barker National Park, where horses wait patiently for clients to ride them along the sand. There’s a whole line of dune buggies next door. I'm unsure whcih is the safer option.
The key must-do in Grand Cayman is Stingray City and I went there on my last visit. Time to explore the island then. I’ve read that we should allow two hours to circumnavigate Grand Cayman. It takes us about three hours to work our way right round the coast to Rum Point and then Starfish Point, with frequent photo stops. The traffic in Georgetown, both ways, is incredibly heavy, despite the four lane highways and huge roundabouts. Nobody bothers to use the indicators on their expensive shiny land rovers And there are gargantuan American style trucks thundering by. Living with the rich and powerful isn’t always paradise, it seems.
Just south of Georgetown is Smith’s Cove, more exotically known as Smith’s Barcadere. Formed from the coral reef, it’s incredibly photogenic. And has really easy (straight off the sand ) fairly decent snorkelling alongside all the reef cliffs. There's even an exciting altercation with an octopus. I had no idea they could camouflage themselves so well against the coral. I would swear this one turned white and then brown depending on the light. I’ve read that they can change texture too, to match their surroundings.
Spotts Beach, on the south road, isn’t actually that easy to spot. We zoom past. Its accessed like all the beaches down public rights of way and its another gorgeous piece of palm backed sand. Though there’s a stiff breeze blowing off the reef in front.
Further along the south road, Pedro St James, is home to the oldest stone building on Grand Cayman. It’s actually called a castle, though it doesn’t look like one to me. William Eden, an Englishman, used slave labour to build it in 1780. You can buy tickets to go inside and visit and there’s a swanky gift shop and restaurant attached. We just peer at it from the road.
Bodden Town, the first island settlement, is the old capital of the Cayman Islands. (The first settlers were Welsh - the islands are thought to have been previously uninhabited.) The place is named after William Bodden, a government leader. It’s now the fasted growing district on Grand Cayman. Perhaps they’ve run out of space in Georgetown. Traditional buildings line the main road. The most notable is the Mission House, intended to depict life as it used to be in the islands, though its origins are murky.
The East End is where the real Caribbean begins. Mangrove forest, lakes, low subtropical forest and wild and windy beaches draped with sea weed and facing a vividly turquoise lagoon. There are blowholes in the raised coral. Gun Bay, as it’s name suggests, has cannons lining the road and Colliers Beach is gorgeously picturesque.
Turning the corner to the North Side of Grand Cayman, still more beaches running alongside the road. The sand almost disappears at Barefoot Beach, where the once lofty trees have succumbed to the winds, bending over at almost 90 degrees.
Rum Point, at the end of a straggling peninsula on a bay opposite Georgetown has still not reopened after Covid. There are major renovations underway and JCBs blocking the path. The area between here, a series of pools and lagoons lined with houses and apartment blocks is known as Cayman Kai.
Right at the tip is Starfish Point. It’s tranquil and exceptionally pretty – shallow waters, white sand and casuarina trees to bask under.
At least, it’s tranquil until all the tour boats turn up to admire the poor cushion starfish dotted, mainly solitary, under the dappled water. Loud music blares and the visitors munch lobster tails (it’s obviously an up market tour), as they splash around, asking if they can pick up the beleaguered echinoderms. Apparently, they want to make bikini tops out of them. The answer is no, they will suffocate out of the ocean. It doesn’t stop the intruders examining the creatures underwater. Some of the starfish beat a hasty retreat. The information boards say that their numbers have decreased rapidly over recent years. I wonder why.
The Queen Elizabeth II Botanic Park is advertised as having seven main attractions – the Visitor’s Centre, the Floral (Colour) Garden, an Orchid Boardwalk, a Xerophytic Garden (plants which need little water), a Heritage Garden (sand and a traditional house and yard), a Woodland Trail, and the Children’s Garden. We enjoy a leisurely wander along the mile long woodland trail - rainforest, jagged limestone pools.
Then, through all of the other areas, except the Children’s Garden. The floral garden is indeed bright and attractive, with huge versions of all those plants, marantas, crotons, philodendrons, that we try and grow in pots at home. The two-acre lake, on the edge of a buttonwood swamp is tranquil and a brilliant mirror for the palm trees jutting over it. It’s also home to small Central American turtles called hickatees who paddle over, in the hope of food, give us the once over and then drift off.
But all this is incidental. We’ve come to see the endangered Grand Cayman Blue Iguana. It only lives on this island and the Botanic Gardens run a conservation project. They tell us that 40 of the creatures wander the park and I’m determined to see one. After a quiet start, my wish is granted and several iguanas of various shapes and sizes make themselves known. as does a rare and shy agouti, for five quivering seconds.
It's been a great and contrasting week. Now we’re headed back to Jamaica.
Jamaica is synonymous with the Caribbean, the most African of these alluring island nations. It has a typical Caribbean tropical climate and topography of mountains, rainforests and reef-lined beaches. And it’s smack bang in the middle of the Caribbean Sea and so, was the centre of the slave trade. Runaways (called maroons) safeguarded the African traditions. Marcus Garvey founded the back to Africa movement here and Rastafarianism followed by reggae music (and Bob Marley), were born in Jamaica. (I’ve been to see the Bob Marley musical Get Up Stand Up to prepare. This is the home of jerk chicken, the world’s best coffee (apparently) and manatees, as well as the usual Caribbean white sand beaches and diving.
Jamaica’s main income is tourism, but it gets a mixed press. There is much poverty. And consequently, a more than average amount of hassle. Crafts, massage, jewellery and drugs. There’s ganja (and other unmentionable stuff) being hustled on every corner. (Despite the fact that possession is strictly illegal.) There are also warnings not to take photos of the marijuana fields.
More worryingly, Jamaica has the highest murder rate in the world for any country not at war. Most of the violence occurs in the ghettoes - I’m told. And a week before we leave, the news tells us that five parishes have been designated as state of emergency zones, due to escalating gang violence. I’m going to have to research where I venture very carefully.
Originally inhabited by the indigenous Taíno peoples, Jamaica came under Spanish rule following the arrival of Christopher Columbus in 1494. Many of the indigenous people were killed or died of imported diseases, after which the Spanish brought large numbers of African slaves to Jamaica as labourers. The island remained a possession of Spain until 1655, when it was conquered by the English. The country had been named Xaymaca "Land of Wood and Water" by the Taino, but this was anglicized to Jamaica. Jamaicans, however, refer to their home island as the "Rock".
Under British colonial rule Jamaica became a leading sugar exporter, with a plantation economy dependent on the African slaves and later their descendants. The island achieved independence from the United Kingdom on 6 August 1962, but the King of the UK remains head of state - for the moment.
This is a revisit, to Jamaica, as I’m not sure that half a day off a cruise ship in Ocho Rios counts. I’m travelling with Alison and I’m using my Air Miles. I keep reminding myself that the flight is free, as I’m squashed into a tiny seat, alongside a very large lady, who can’t help but overspill into my space. The flight is crammed with Jamaicans, returning home for a long Christmas break, before seat prices rise to extortionate levels. No-one has checked the amount of cabin baggage they’re bringing on.
It takes an additional hour to get everyone on the plane and all the overhead bins are overflowing. A stewardess has insisted I try to squash my backpack under the seat in front. Thankfully, it was agreed to be impossible to get it in there, as otherwise I wouldn’t have been able to flex any of my limbs. And the flight is almost 10 hours. ‘’It’s free, it’s free’. I repeat to myself.
Driving is also reported to be more than a little daunting. The roads are full of potholes and there are very few signposts. People buy licences, rather than taking a test. And speed limits are there to be ignored. It’s encouraging that the Jamaicans drive on the left, like we do in the UK. ‘De left side is the right side; de right side is suicide’.
As our flight lands after dark, we’ve booked a taxi to take us to Ocho Rios (where my first landing was made, though I’m not sure it equates to that of Christopher Columbus in 1494). The driver’s WhatsApp greeting sets the mood. ‘Blessed Love,’ he declaims. Sadly, the warnings about dangerous driving turn out to be true. This observation, coupled with the traffic jams through Kingston (rush hour seems to last from 3 till 9 – and why is it called rush hour ?), is bad enough for me to abandon my original plan to drive a hire car for a couple of days. We strike a deal with (Blessed Love) Kenroy instead. Yeah Man. Aw man.
But first, a very welcome couple of days on the beach at Ocho Rios. Our apartment has sea views and is just five minutes walk from Mahogany Bay. This little sandy cove is worn round the edges - collapsing wooden sunbeds round the old swim up bar in a little creek. But it’s shabbily charming, with its channels and canary yellow humped bridge. A few shops. Bright clothing draped over bushes, in the hope of attracting custom from tourists on their way to the small jetty, for boat trips. There's a gigantic Royal Caribbean liner looming over the horizon and big excitement amongst the vendors at Mahogany Bay anticipating, a large number of clients. They even wheel in a limbo dancer to entertain the crowds waiting for their catamaran cruises.
Other than the cruisers it’s thankfully quiet at this time of year, so we can bag an umbrella and two sunbeds in a prime spot by the water. There’s a somnolent dog under almost every lounger. Waders stalk by and the sea here is crystal clear, shallow and balmy. The beach vendors are friendly and it’s a very soft sell, not too persistent. We can also get high, free. The air reeks of ganja.
When I say quiet, I mean not very busy. There’s reggae music blaring from the beach restaurant, which boast huge speakers and a resident DJ. Every so often, the moored catamarans enter into competition turning on their own sound systems. And the bay features on the local boat trip repertoire. We’re intermittently subjected to a loud commentary, as a group of tourists are encouraged to admire us and our environment from the water. It’s like being an exhibit at the zoo.
We’re having a splendid time until we set off down the coast road into downtown Ocho Rios. Ochi (as the locals call it) continues the Caribbean ramshackle vibe and is best described as having character, rather than being pretty. The bays either side of downtown are more upmarket. Mick Jagger has a house here, which he lets out at exorbitant prices. But then he has a house in many places, including Mustique.
Lines of yards, concealing paint and tyre shops. Tourist markets. Everything branded in Jamaican colours. Miles of overhead cables. It’s thronging. We’re marked out and accosted with varying degrees of civility as we bump up and down the ledges on the sidewalk. Everyone wants to know our business and issue offer an opinion. Whatever we say, it is safe to expect that we will be judged to be doing it wrong. 'Turtle Beach is not the same thing as Ocho Beach, even if the internet says it is.'
I finally make it through the centre of town, to the bay that is the main beach (and apparently not Turtle Beach), as I want to retrace the steps of my earlier visit. But we’re not allowed through the gate. ‘The beach closed at four’, snarls the hefty female attendant. (We’ve been told it closes at five). I beg Stern Faced Lady, for just 2 minutes. She eventually relents. 'But you can’t use a camera in there. Just a phone. Just one phone.' Alison is not permitted entry. I admire the powdery white sand and recall my trip down the cruise ship pier in solitary splendour. Surely, the guard has to be making all these rules up. Perhaps it’s the Jamaican version of the doctor’s secretary.
To the supermarket to buy something easy for dinner. But it’s the same story as in Anguilla. Deli doesn’t seem to exist. No coleslaw or salads, no cooked meats. So it’s frozen meat and fish or cans and packets. I’ve got crisps and a can of corned beef for dinner – again. And even that makes a huge dent in the wallet. Food is far more expensive than in England. On our return to our apartment I look up delis in Ocho Rios on the internet and am deluged with pictures of bakeries.
Our 'condo', in a quiet part of town 'with ocean view', seems perfect, despite the dozen assorted pots of artificial flowers displayed artfully on chests, tables and in every alcove. It seems to have every convenience, once I’ve reset all the controls on the three TVs. We retreat from an early night, still jet lagged, but I emerge from my bedroom to find we’ve now got an indoor swimming pool. A huge flood in the middle of the living room floor. Needless to say, no-one is available to deal with it and its origin is a mystery. Though the recently used washing machine seems to be the prime suspect.
Alison mops and I helpfully hum a hornpipe. There’s half a bucket of dirty water collected. A plumber calls next day and can’t find anything wrong, but I’m not sure how hard he looked. I refused to spend my holiday time waiting around for him to come. And he didn’t take up the sodden rug, which is now best described as stinky.
Kenroy turns up, as agreed, almost punctually to take us to Montego Bay, as agreed. Respect. 'One Love'. Fist bumps in fingerless gloves. There’s a huge whiff of hydrogen sulphide in the air. I had attributed it to a local drains problem, but at least part of the noxious smell seems to be coming from the engine of his car. The bonnet is propped open and the battery is steaming. It's definitely not the same vehicle he picked us up in, on Monday. ‘Licence expired’. he raps. ‘Dis my brother's’. I’m not convinced Kenroy’s brother’s car is going to make it to Dunn’s River Falls, a few kilometres up the road, let alone all the way to Montego Bay, at the western end of the island.
Kenroy is confident however and we set off. I’m even more alarmed when I notice that the fuel gauge arrow points to empty. Kenroy agrees that he will sort out the problems with the car, whilst we 'Enjoy da falls, man'.
Dunn’s River Falls are Jamaica’s number one tourist attraction. This is at least partly due to the fact that they are within easy driving distance of all the main cruise ship ports – Montego Bay, Falmouth and Ocho Rios.
I should have heeded the advice I got last time I was here. The falls are not especially exciting. There are a couple of pretty cascades, which we are fortunate enough to see before the cruisers arrive. The main attraction here is to terrify yourself by clambering up the smooth water covered rock. The climb has to be done with falls guides (distinguished by their tee shirts), who insist that everyone link hands and shout 'Ra-ra-ra', before they start each part of the ascent. The falls are soon bestrewn with lines of would be mountaineers. We’re not convinced that some are fit enough to make it. We’re not even going to try.
The area has been cleverly turned into a park, to justify the 25 USD entrance fee. There’s a zip line, a pretty golden beach and several viewing platforms. But these are all closed due to pre Covid damage, not yet repaired. It seems that Jamaica has only just begun to emerge properly from the pandemic, though it opened up last year.
There’s also a tranquillity garden. Sadly this is not so quiet as I had hoped. The gardeners want to take you on tours to explain the purpose of the various plants - for tips of course. There are also lines of souvenir shops and stalls, with exit signs carefully placed to lead you past (it’s a bit like being in an outdoor Ikea), instead of directly to the car park. Small carved turtles are pressed on us ‘as presents’, as we search for the escape route.
Kenroy isn’t waiting when we emerge from the falls, so I call him – no answer. He eventually meanders across the car park, munching from a polystyrene take out box and announcing that he now needs to go back into Ocho Rios to buy a new battery and fill up with gas. What’s more we’re paying. We swiftly disabuse him of this notion and remove our gear from the vehicle. ‘What about money for my gas?’ he wails. ‘Respect’. I point out that turning up with a car that isn’t roadworthy isn’t exactly respectful and we walk away. Though more panic struck then we are admitting. What now? Our plans for the next two days are all in shreds.
We’re standing forlornly in the car park. I’m waving my fins around. Some waiting taxi drivers eventually act as the Fifth Cavalry. They summon friend Oliver, who arrives complete with minibus to take us to Montego Bay. Smiley Desmond then volunteers to do duty the following day.
So now we have enough space for 12, and can try out all the different seats. Oliver is a reassuringly careful driver and an informative guide, as we take the westerly highway. Running to the south, limestone escarpments and low peaks. before long the road is actually hugging the coast. It’s not the most attractive Caribbean shoreline I’ve seen. There are some lovely beaches and cerulean bays, with waving palm trees, juxtaposed with enormous container ships, moored on crane lined piers. They’re being loaded with bauxite from the trains (only cargo tracks still operate here) and conveyors that carry the red ore down to the harbours. It’s one of Jamaica’s most lucrative exports.
There’s Runaway Bay (from which all the slaves disappeared) and Discovery Bay, where Christopher Columbus first landed. There’s even supposedly, the ship that he sailed in, though it’s being renovated and we can only see a tip of mast. Rio Bueno (Good River), so named as it was the closest decent drinking water they could find. Oliver stops to show us the memorial plaque on the Queen Elizabeth Highway. The late queen opened the road in 1953. Falmouth Bay is prettier, lined with silvery sands. But there are huge cruise ships moored up there.
As is common with colonial destinations, there are a plethora of UK place names. Jamaica is divided into three counties (Middlesex, Surrey and Cornwall), which run in sections north to south dividing Jamaica like a vertically striped flag. Each of these are subdivided into parishes. We’ve just crossed from Middlesex into Cornwall.
Nearing Montego Bay, dilapidated gives way to designer. Very recent hotels have appropriated the prime coastal spots and there is new construction ongoing in any gaps. There are larger fancier supermarkets and plate glass fronted shops on pink plazas that wouldn’t look out of place in Florida. Signs even promise delis.
Up on the hill to our left, as we approach the city, Rose Hall, the most well known of the great Jamaican plantation houses, dating from the 1700s. It was owned by the Palmer family. One of their number, Annie (the wife of owner John) was famed as a witch. According to legend Annie came from Haiti, where she learned voodoo and magic. She murdered not only John, but two subsequent husbands, becoming rich in the process. Then she engaged in liaisons with her slaves and murdered them too, when she tired of what they had to offer. She came to a bad end, when she encountered a more powerful magician, a slave called Takoo. who disposed of her, in her turn. Rose Hall (named after the first Palmer wife) fell into disrepair in the 1960s, but has now been renovated and opened as a historic house museum.
Montego Bay is the second city in Jamaica, founded on sugar cane. It’s very much a place of two halves. There are ghettoes, poverty and gang violence. One area is included in the latest state of emergency declaration. And then there’s the ever expanding Hip Strip. A line of the most upmarket, boutiques, hotels and manicured beaches. Doctor's Cave Beach is a gorgeous stretch of sand - paid entry of course - with scarlet Baywatch emulating lifeguards, every 30 metres or so. It’s named after a doctor (who was followed by an osteopath, sometimes the two are conflated), who used to direct his patients to bathe in the springs that bubbled into the bay. In those days you had to enter through a small cave, which has now collapsed and disappeared.
There are reefs (mostly dead, but there are some live pockets) and a few fish wandering around in the warm turquoise water. The best snorkelling in the world, or even the Caribbean, it is not, but it’s an entertaining and relaxing way to pass the time. Unless you want to bounce up and down on the circular striped trampolines that dot the bay.
Sangster Airport, at the end of the Hip Strip is also being extended (more JCBs in action) to facilitate the transport of tourists to all those new hotels. It’s already the busiest airport on Jamaica.
If Oliver was good, then Desmond turns out to be an absolute treasure, totally atoning for all Kenroy’s misdemeanours (at a price). Even if he does include Yeah Man in (literally) every sentence. He has been tasked with taking us into the famous Blue Mountains, home of the world’s best coffee ( they boast) and then to the Bob Marley Museum in Kingston, before delivering us back to the airport at Kingston for our flight to Grand Cayman. He starts by avoiding the toll highway to Kingston (built by the Chinese) and taking to the delightful mountain roads. First, through rainforest proper in Fern Gulley. Magnificent dappled vegetation, tall, tall trees, lianas dangling and giant figs. The roots of one such are so huge there’s a murky cave underneath.
Colgate and other mountain communities give a real flavour of life in the Jamaican countryside, as we criss-cross the new main road. Roadside stalls, jerk centres, salted cod cooking on coals. Folk waiting at bus stops and taxis ferrying children to school. Education is not free in Jamaica and no transport is provided either. The route is much more interesting than the highway and good for Desmond, who doesn’t have to fork out for the 32 dollar toll. We are surrounded by manic drivers, determined to overtake, come what may. Unlicensed cars, freshly delivered are a particular hazard, they’re uninsured and totally uninhibited. Desmond says these drivers are known as CJs - Crazy Jamaicans.
Eventually, the road drops into Spanish Town, the Spanish (hence the name - it was originally Villa de la Vega) and British capital of Jamaica from 1534 until 1872. The town is home to sepia brick government buildings and white porticoes, falling into disrepair. The old governor's residence is just a façade. There are numerous memorials, the national archives, and one of the oldest Anglican churches outside England. Some what misleadingly it still bears a Spanish name, Cathedral of St. Jago de la Vega.
Through the edges of Kingston and then a very winding climb up to the ridges of the Blue Mountains. This is St Andrew, (now we're in Surrey), where the rich and famous, like Shaggy and Usain Bolt (though he went to school near Montego Bay) have their villas. There’s a gorgeous, if hazy, view back across Kingston. The valley walls plummet and the whole is covered in the lushest of emerald vegetation. Vines lace the mountainsides.
Right up top, Craighton Plantation (perhaps surprisingly founded by a Japanese) offers coffee tours and more stupendous outlooks. And there’s food and still more panoramas to be had at the Strawberry Hill Hotel or the Crystal Edge Café. We partake of jerk chicken and rice and ‘peas’ at the latter.
The Bob Marley Museum is the other tourist must see in Jamaica. There are two of them, in fact. Bob Marley’s mausoleum is at Nine Mile, at the house where he was born (to an English father and Jamaican mother). I’ve read that it’s mainly a place to hang out and smoke grass. My sources say that the museum is more interesting. This house, on Hope Road, in bustling Kingston, was gifted as part of his Island Records deal. It was previously owned by producer Chris Blackwell.
The museum is small. Downstairs is stuffed with memorabilia, record album covers and the recording studio. Upstairs, his bed (he had twelve children by nine different women, including his wife) and the kitchen where he mixed cocktails which were supposed to assist in his many sexual endeavours. Out back, the main kitchen area with the framed bullet holes that mark the assassination attempt that failed. The garden walls are covered in bright murals. It’s a worthwhile visit. Though I learned more about this complex icon from the stage musical, and from the Booker Prize winning novel - The Seven Killings of Bob Marley.
The traffic in Kingston is still moving very slowly. ‘Friday is market day’, says Desmond, winding up the windows and instructing us to hide our valuables. Past more colourful plazas. Millionaires’ Corner, where three very wealthy Jamaicans built mansions, in the late 1800s. The most notable is Devon House, constructed by George Stiebel, Jamaica’s first black millionaire. It was declared a national monument in 1900 and is now a park with shops and a bakery. Next, the presidents’ residence (we’re not allowed anywhere near that).
It was dark when we arrived, so we didn’t get to see that the towering cement factories on the airport road are sitting on the water’s edge. Kingston lies on a huge bay, Much of the capital is very industrial. Warehouses, manufacturing plants, depots. Not to mention the areas where no one enters, unless they have a pre-arranged appointment with the men in charge. And we definitely don’t.
Next stop, Grand Cayman.
Our plane lands over an hour late, when we return from Grand Cayman. That’s given the traffic in Kingston plenty of time to build up, on another Friday afternoon. So, the last two hours of our journey on the south coast are dark and terrifying, as the CJs speed past us on the narrow country roads. But we do get a chance to admire the ridge of the central mountain chain that hovers above us, as we venture west. And we catch a glimpse of St Elizabeth Parish. The garden of Jamaica is found in the long valley here. The south provides the island with all of its vegetables and much of its fish.
Today, we have driver Maurice. He is not a CJ, but he informs us, somewhat worryingly, that he can be when he doesn’t have any passengers. We stop for spicy beef patties and fried chicken. The Jamaicans boast that the KFC is much better here. Spicier. I’m sure it is, but I’m opting for the local version. Juici. It’s delicious.
We’ve saved the best till last. Negril is stunning. We’re on another Seven Mile Beach and this one really is seven miles long and really could be a contender for best beach in the Caribbean. I still think Anguilla and BVI are better, but this stretch is truly lovely. A crescent of beautiful powdery white sand backed by sea grapes, palms (none of them bent though) and casuarina trees. True, it’s also backed by resorts, restaurants and bars. But these are all low rise, set back from the sand and generally add to the gentle beach vibe. The sapphire and azure bay is sprinkled with small boats touting for business, glass bottoms, para sailing, snorkelling, banana boats.
We have a timber ‘cottage’ at Nirvana Resort, just behind one of the widest stretches of sand on Seven Mile Beach. It’s charming (at a stretch), with shutters and ceiling fans. It’s marketed as private and secluded, which is relatively true during the day. This is carefully worded advertising. At night, we can hear the drinking bouts and games in the other cottages continuing until late. On Saturday evening there’s ‘a boogie night’ on the Wavz Beach lot, right next door. It starts at 7.30 and goes on until almost 3.30 a.m. The sound stage is right next to our cottage. The bass is so strong that the whole building vibrates. The windows rattle, the bed shifts and my chest pounds. Ear plugs are not going to cut it. Nirvana it is not.
Next morning, I complain to Errol, the security guard. He says he could hear the noise up on the top of the cliffs, right at the end of the bay. Errol has a mess of gold teeth that seems to move around in his mouth. He could audition to play Jaws in James Bond movies.
Hawkers march up and down the strand, but the beach is broad enough to maintain a distance and the selling is not overly oppressive, though I’ve had one too many an arm hoisted around me. A massage might relieve the stress of no sleep. I arrange with a beach vendor waving a price card that she will collect me in the afternoon. She arrives whilst I’m dozing under the sea grapes (beset by mosquitoes). Five minutes down the beach and she tells me we’re taking a taxi. I’m only wearing my bikini. No shoes. I inform her that we are not. She says she will use a friend’s facility instead - there are plenty of little massage tents under the trees - and shoots off into the distance. Friend’s place is, predictably, shut. Tomorrow? I don't think so.
I find another masseuse asleep on her couch. She’s happy to oblige, when she's woken up.
I’ve had little more luck with booking a boat ride. The first guy doesn’t return to follow up on the deal. The second agrees a 2 pm departure and doesn’t show up. Finally, the third, Captain Mike's Glass Bottomed Boat, takes us both in a glass bottomed vessel with space for 25 and we have a great trip, across the bay to the limestone cliffs. The hotels and apartments here have ramps and stairs down to rocky pools. There’s interesting, if not great, snorkelling in the many caves and a spotted ray accompanies me, to liven up proceedings.
Rick’s Café is the must-visit venue here, where all the boats pile in. The foolish fling themselves off the cliffs into the pool below - if the lifeguards judge them to be fit enough. They also buy drinks in the soulless, crowded bar and burger restaurant. The original owner has cashed in and moved on.
We’re still searching for really good food. Negril is not as expensive as Ochi, (though definitely not cheap), but the menus look identical. Jerk chicken, jerk pork, rice and ‘peas’, fish, shrimp curry, conch (pronounced conk) curry or fritters and fried plantain. So far, the patties are winning in the taste stakes. Jerk corn rolled in spices and coconut is also pretty good.
We wander up the beach trying the different restaurants. Then it’s a toss up, as to which route to take home in the dark. We’ve been warned not to walk on the beach at night. But does that mean later on or now? The coast road - Norman Manley Boulevard (Kingston's airport is also named after this prime minister) - is deemed to be safer. And there are pretty Christmas lights to admire on the way. But there are also some deserted patches where we need a torch. And there’s the constant horn honking of taxis determined to remind us of their presence.
Last night in Jamaica - barbecued lobster on the beach. It’s a shame it rains.
From Kurdistan to Socotra – an island in the Arabian sea, off the horn of Africa and one of those places which elicits the response’ ‘where?’ when you tell people where you’re going. It is part of Yemen, currently governed by the UAE-backed Southern Transitional Council, a secessionist participant in Yemen’s ongoing civil war. (So is politically Asian and geographically African).
When folk have worked out where Socotra is the next comment is, ‘Aren’t you brave?’ So then I start to worry that I should be worried. Socotra is deemed safer than mainland Yemen (much of which is totally off limits for reasons of safety and politics), though still coloured in red on all the government advisories. It’s on the main shipping routes, accessible to Somalia (and therefore Somalian pirates) and the risk of kidnap is said to be high. Though I’m not sure what the odds are, they don’t give those sort of statistics.
There are actually four islands in the archipelago, but the island of Socotra represents around 95% of the landmass of all of them. The main island is just 78 miles long and 28 miles north to south. It‘s mainly a limestone plateau with karst topography, surrounded by narrow coastal plains, with gorgeous white sand beaches, rising to the Hajhir Mountains.( 1,500 metres).
We catch a charter flight out. You have to come to Socotra for a week (or multiple weeks), as the planes only go from Abu Dhabi, every Tuesday. I've arrived there for Erbil in Kurdistan. It's very strange to see groups of tourists with leaders. Summer dresses. Straw hats. I’m hoping the island is big enough to absorb its once a week cargo. I’m with guide Ana for the third time this month. Fortunately for me, she’s lovely. Perhaps it's less fortunate for her. We are a group of eight this time, with local guide Ali and three drivers in charge of their beloved Land Cruisers. 4WD is entirely necessary on this rough and arid terrain. The drivers are also very good natured cooks, guides, camp attendants, furniture arrangers and general factotums.
Socotra is astonishingly wild and beautiful. The climate of Socotra today is classified as a hot desert climate bordering on a semi-desert climate. The mean temperature is 25 °C,but it feels much hotter. It’s very humid. It’s the northeast monsoon now (from October to December). No mosquitoes, hallelujah, and though it’s the wet season, it very cleverly tends to rain at night (over the clothes I have invariably laid out to dry on the railing outside my room). The online weather forecasts are spectacularly inaccurate. I suspect they are just guessing. The southwest monsoon season (from June to September) brings strong winds and high seas. The shipping routes then are referred to as the “Sikotro Sinh”.
The women in Socotra are dressed in black abayas with full niqab. Shy, and very camera averse. The menfolk are the opposite. Most (but not all) of the tourists are dressed fairly modestly ( as they say piously) though the women for the most part have their hair uncovered. Guide Ana asks us three women to wear headscarves when in town. She says it’s respectful. So we do, though the other tour groups do not. And the men in our group have an interesting take on appropriate costume. One guy is wearing mid thigh length shorts and knee supports. I’m not sure if he thinks that these lengthen the shorts (there’s a gap in-between) or whether he has joint problems. Maybe that accounts for the mixed reception from the locals. It varies from cheery welcomes ( schoolchildren from behind barred windows),, to surly looks and no response to our shouted salaam alaikums.
The buildings are mainly stone, the older village houses small and lumpy, like the sort of houses children make with pebbles. More modern buildings are rendered - the UAE and Saudi Arabia vie in their support – Saudi schools in their typical ochre Arab style and UAE buildings in more traditional, but flat faced stone, plastered with UAE flags.
There are goats everywhere. Millions of them, foraging in the rubbish. They threaten the precious Socotran fauna and hoover up any left over food. They also enjoy paper apparently, stealing tissues when they can. It’s kidding season and mothers with attendant babies skip across every 100 metres of road with impunity.
The north coast capital of Socotra, Hadibo, has a population of about 8,000. And is accessed by some of the few paved roads. There are heaps of rubbish. Rubble. Unfinished buildings. Colourful patterned wrought iron gates. Market stalls with scarlet canopies. And shops where the goods inside are beautifully and colourfully arranged on painted shelves. Sometimes, the signage depicts the goods that are on sale with simple drawings. It’s very reminiscent of Somaliland. Unsurprisingly.
The Summerland Hotel is the best hotel on the island - many would say it’s the only hotel on the island. It's directly opposite the mosque, so there are calls and preaching through the tannoy early in the morning and throughout the day. The rooms are basic, with wooden furniture and clean, if you don’t look too hard. We’re told to leave our key, if the room is to be serviced whilst we are out, but the bins aren’t emptied, the towels aren’t replaced and the toilet paper isn’t replenished. Neither is the leaking pipe in the bathroom fixed.
There’s hot water, if you’re quick and Wi-Fi if you’re the only one using it. The manager is very sweet and tries to find me a better connection via his mobile. He also tracks down a missing shoe that has gone over the edge of the balcony.
In the same way that there is only one hotel on Socotra, there’s only one restaurant, which we patronize most evenings. Fish, fried potatoes, fried chicken and goat, with lots of rice and beans. It’s tough for vegetarians. Ellen, who’s remarkably fit and has climbed The Seven - the highest peak on very continent, douses everything with hot sauce in an attempt to give it some flavour. But there are some yummy fruit juices. Our table is outside and we’re joined by cats, who hide under the table and miaow for titbits, and goats who have no table manners. They climb up onto the chairs, front hooves clomped on the table and snaffle our bread. Huge rounds of it.
The drivers/cum chefs offer an almost identical menu during the day. They set up fires to cook, fill their water carriers from the creeks (I’m trying not to think about the goats here) and wash the dishes in the same streams. Driver Fouad strips off and sits in there with the pans, singing. Our dining rooms are the most luxurious part of the trip. Either stone built shelters with thatched roofs on the beach or a tent/gazebo. The drivers even bring trestle tables and fold-up chairs and offer platters of fruit and dates. I can’t really complain.
Most importantly, Socotra is a naturalists' haven. A split off from Gondwanaland island, that is the Arabian Sea’s answer to the Galapagos. Well almost. A third of the flora species here are endemic. Almost 700 of them. The coast road gives us a taste of this with bottle trees emerging from rocks. Socotra has been described as "the most alien-looking place on Earth’.
But, according to Jonathan Kingdon, 'the animals and plants that remain represent a degraded fraction of what once existed.' The first century A.D. Periplus of the Erythraean Sea reported crocodiles and large lizards. Until a few centuries ago, there were rivers and wetlands on the island. Now, the long geological isolation of the Socotra archipelago and its fierce heat and drought have combined to create a ‘unique and spectacular endemic flora’, with most of the island UNESCO recognised.
The endemic fauna, includes six species of birds, such as the Socotra starling and sunbird. There’s only one endemic mammal (a bat), but 31 endemic reptiles (skinks, legless lizards, and one species of chameleon. And I haven’t even started on the invertebrates (especially the freshwater crabs and spiders). The plants are endangered by the non-native goats and the birds by non-native feral cats.
In ancient times, Yemen was the home of the Sabaeans, a trading state that included parts of modern-day Ethiopia and Eritrea. Islam spread quickly in the seventh century, but only on the mainland. In 1507 the Portuguese fleet commanded by Tristão da Cunha, with Afonso de Albuquerque, landed on Socotra, captured some land and attempted to set up a base on the strategic route to India. But they abandoned the attempt four years later for lack of a decent harbour and infertile land.
The Mahra sultans took control of Socotra in 1511, and the inhabitants were (mostly) converted to Islam during their rule. In 1834, the East India Company stationed a garrison on Socotra, and flirted with idea of buying the island. But the sultan, to their astonishment refused and they encountered, in any case, the same problems that had been faced by the Portuguese. They centred their efforts on Aden instead.
Yemen was divided between the Ottoman and British empires in the 1800s and in 1876, in exchange for a payment of 3,000 thalers and a yearly subsidy, the Sultan of Socotra was persuaded to pledge 'himself, his heirs and successors, never to cede, to sell, to mortgage, or otherwise give for occupation, save to the British Government, the Island of Socotra or any of its dependencies."
The Zaydi Mutawakkilite Kingdom of Yemen was established after World War I, leading to the creation of the Yemen Arab Republic in 1962. However, South Yemen, including Socotra, remained under British control, as the Aden Protectorate until 1967. It then became, first, an independent state with the Mahra sultanate abolished. Next, as a Marxist-Leninist state, the South Yemeni government allowed the Soviet Navy to use the Socotra archipelago as a supply and supporting base for its operations in the Indian Ocean from 1971 to the late 1980s. (Lines of Russian tanks rust along the shores as testament to these times). Eventually, the two Yemeni states united to form the modern Republic of Yemen in 1990.
Since 2011, Yemen has been in a state of civil war and violence, first instigated by street protests against poverty and unemployment and now a focus for Middle Eastern geo politics. Iran backs the Houthi rebels and the Saudi Arabians have intervened, aiming to restoring President Hadi's government. Consequently, Yemen is currently thought to be the country with the most people in need of humanitarian aid, about 24 million people, or 85% of its population. As a result of the civil war, the island of Socotra became economically isolated. Fuel prices especially, spiked, causing residents to turn to wood for heat, exacerbating deforestation even further.
We set off in our Land Cruisers to explore the beaches and coastal plains. Wrecked ships give testament to the violence of the cyclones around here. In 2015, Cyclone Megh wreaked devastation, but such events are fortunately,, not very frequent. Salvage costs are too high to have the boats removed.
Delisha Beach, half an hour from Hadibo is tranquil and blue, with one massive sand dune slope rising above the limestone formations that decorate the sand here. A natural fortress. A kid munches the khat scattered around the vehicles when we are parked up. A driver has been handing it out liberally (and chewing himself of course).
The sands are wide, silver and gorgeous. But they have to be treated with caution. The beaches around the island are littered with the corpses of dead puffer fish, tiny in their deflation, with staring eyes. Their skeletons are covered in small thorns, painful to tread on and sharp enough to penetrate beach shoes, I discover. No-one has an explanation for their demise.
But a swim, as the sun goes down, definitely is delicious. The sea is balmy and the waves are just high enough to allow for some relaxing bobbing. We don’t realise that there’s also a current wafting along, until we finally emerge from our warm bath onto the beach, to discover that we can’t find our clothes in the dark.
Up into the mountains. Great views of azure water. Pretty beaches. Prehistoric etchings and petroglyphs on the ground at Eriosh. No one quite sure what they are or where they came from.
Then the highlight of the trip, for me. The Diksam Plateau -bottle trees- frankincense (boswellia), cucumber trees (the endemic Dendrosicyos socotranus) and the fabulous dragonblood trees. These are spreading umbrellas, supported by intricately patterned branches. The crimson resin from the trees (the dragon’s blood of the ancients), like frankincense, is extracted to use for cosmetics and to burn like incense. The locals are generally camera shy, but one young entrepreneurial resin vendor is happy to pose and is rewarded by several sales. There is a nursery too, nurturing the endemic aloes, used medicinally, desert roses and cucumber trees. It really is an awesomely alien world.
Derhur Canyon is the most spectacular limestone landscape feature on the island. The gorge drops vertically to the valley floor. Bedouin houses cling to the edges. A precipitous ride along the canyon rim and down to the stream at the bottom. Onto the lush canyon floor, home to Bruce’s green pigeons and laughing doves. And a couple of pools deep enough to wade in
Bottle trees fill all the niches on the wall. A Socotra gallery. The drivers skin and chop a goat to stew, whilst Egyptian vultures circle. There’s even a gazebo to provide shade. The meat is tough. There hasn’t really been time to cook it enough and at home the wives do all the cooking. But the flock of eagerly waiting vultures are happy to mop up all the leftovers.
On the far side of the canyon, a clamber up for a view over Fermhin Forest, the last remaining dragonblood woodland. A canopy of inside out parasols. It’s a photographer’s paradise, and others in the group clearly think so too. There’s an Indian guy with two grown up sons and a Frenchman with his Polish lady friend. Both sets spend inordinate amounts of time photographing each other in every possible premutation, at every possible opportunity. It’s horribly time consuming. And irritating when they wander obliviously into all my shots too. It’s Where’s Wally times five.
Camping is on offer at night, but the toilet block is 100 metres from the minuscule tents and I decline the invite. I’m even more glad about my decision when it rains heavily all night. But American Australian Diana and I are punished with a six o’clock start, in order to meet the others on the beach near Qalansyi, the westerly second town of Socotra.
Then, a boat trip along the coast to Shuaab. Some spectacular coastal scenery, cliffs and caves, cormorant covered crags. Spinner dolphins put in a welcome appearance, leaping out of the ocean in trios. No quarter is given in the camera department. I’m going to have to a lot of cropping out of people’s hats and cameras from my pictures. When we arrive, there’s another gorgeously long sandy beach and a mangrove area.
Back to Detwah Lagoon, more dunes and swathes of sublime sand dappled with small azure pools. Hermit crabs scurry in their hundreds. The water is heavenly. Terns wheel overhead, anxious that we avoid their nests. Ana and Ellen collect litter, flotsam and jetsam. A thankless task with no end in sight.
South, through the mountains, bumping alongside and through a long winding wadi, visiting small tumbledown villages along the way. The colossal silvery sand dunes of Hayf and Zahek have been squished up against the mountainside by seasonal winds. There’s a great view across the small sand sea and a little excitement, dune bashing in the Land Cruisers to get there.
Another beautiful, endless stretch of sand and more clear waters to wave jump in. The itinerary tells me that this is the Indian Ocean. Google says it's still the Arabian Sea.
Above the dunes, Dagub Cave with its many stalactites, stalagmites and pools of water that have seeped through the rock over time. And a colony of bats, lone rangers wheeling overhead..
East again, to Qaria, the largest lagoon on the island. It’s a pretty view and guide Ali says he’s going to build a house in the village here. It’s apparently home to flamingos, herons and greenshank, but none are putting in an appearance today.
The itinerary also doesn’t mention the steep hairpin bends and sheer drops involved in the ride up to Homhil. Though it’s not as long or as high as the one to Fairy Meadows in Pakistan. Our walk here is described as mainly flat, which isn’t entirely accurate and there’s some inelegant slipping over limestone grikes. Downhill, (so a return up the slope) to yet another magnificent viewpoint, where there is a natural (but totally dry) ‘infinity’ pool overlooking a village and out to dots of islands and the turquoise sea. Frankincense trees and a welcome sprinkle of dragonbloods decorate the wadi, as we scramble down.
On, to Arher, where more sand dunes have been piled up against the sheer rock face. Another glorious beach and more swimming. At the eastern tip of the island, the Arabian Sea nd the Indian Ocean meet, ostensibly.
To the east, again, Dihamri Marine Reserve is an excellent snorkelling area. The local equipment rental guy provides a welcome escort, as I scoot through the waves to the headland and back. There’s a good variety of exotic fish, all the usual suspects: parrotfish, tans, grouper, trumpet fish layered like a Jenga tower, tuna, angel fish, sergeant majors, shoals of zebra fish just below the surface. A turtle, graceful as always, a leopard eel with magnificent markings, peeking out of a hole, two octopuses lurking beneath rocky craters and plenty of live coral of assorted hues. It’s a brilliant little aquarium.
And now. sadly, it's time to go home.
I've flown from Basra in the south of Iraq, to Erbil the capital of Iraqi Kurdistan. And beam me up Scottie.
Modern buildings English signage, neon lights, western style restaurants. The scenery in the north of Iraq is almost green. Khaki to sage maybe. And there are mountains, gorges and amazing views from on high. Clothing is more relaxed than in the south, with many woman flaunting their hair. Folded foothills with herds of sheep, arable land, potatoes, tomatoes and millet. Geese and turkeys meander across the road with the goats.
Some things don’t change. The buildings may look new. Most of them are, as the area was ravaged by Sadaam Hussein. But much is faulty or simply not finished. The hotel in Erbil, stinks of kerosene. Fire alarms chirp relentlessly in hallways.
There’s still plenty of litter, especially plastic. Water bottles are ubiquitous throughout Iraq. They're delivered to the table with gay abandon, alongside any meal. The menu is almost identical to those in southern Iraq. Mezze and kebabs, kebabs or kebabs. I’ve picked up a horrible bug and vomited all day.
And, here, in Kurdistan the striped Iraqi flag is emblazoned with a yellow sun. And everyone is still very friendly. ‘Welcome to Iraq’.
Now the group are six. All but two of the old crew from my Iraq tour have have left and the new folk know each other already, so life is much quieter for me on the bus. I still have guide Ana. Our Kurdish guide, Omar, and driver Mohammed, are two cool dudes. Like all Kurdish men, they are incredibly dark and hirsute and pay great attention to their hairstyles and clothing. But they have no idea where the monasteries we are due to visit around Erbil today are, as they are Christian sites and therefore unimportant. They have to ask for directions at the checkpoints. There are still a lot of those.
The roads are either smoothly busy highways or hair-raising single carriageway routes, badly in need of repair. There’s a continuous game of chicken on the latter, as cars zoom across to our side of the road, not caring that there is a minibus careering towards them. And on the better routes we still have to U turn across countless dual carriageway barriers, as there are no overhead slip roads and very few crossroads. Traffic lights and roundabouts are almost non-existent.
So car buying in Iraqi Kurdistan go car shopping is a problem. A hardy vehicle, maybe with 4WD for rough roads or a sleek saloon for in town and the major highways? The latter might be an Obama. The Kurds can't pronounce western marques very easily, so they've given most of the major makes nicknames. An Obama is a Chrysler. A Toyota Land Cruiser is a Wanawsha. She's a sophisticated Kurdish actress and singer. (It used to be called a Monica, after Monica Lewinsky.)
All the petrol stations here are individually owned, with different names. And for the first time, an encounter with the traffic police. They don’t have them down south and we can tell they mean business by the sour look on their faces. It seems that, heat notwithstanding, buses are not allowed to have curtains. Ours are all removed and a fine is duly issued.
The roadside stopping areas feature gaudy to kitsch stalls with lurid coloured drinks. The lemon and lime glows so much it could be radioactive. And the bus also smells of the gas it runs on. My nose streams the whole time.
The Kurds have had a rough time of it. Geographically, Kurdistan (with its language and distinctive culture and dress) roughly encompasses the north-western Zagros and the eastern Taurus mountain ranges. It includes regions in four countries: south-eastern Turkey (Northern Kurdistan), northern Iraq (Southern Kurdistan), north-western Iran (Eastern Kurdistan), and northern Syria (Western Kurdistan).
The Kurds have been consistently denied the opportunity to form a united independent country, although this was referred to in the Treat of Sevres, when France and Britain divided up the spoils, as the Ottoman Empire was disbanded, after World War I. The British took over Iraq including Kurdistan, The main excuse given for not following through was instability. There has been ongoing rivalry and conflict between various Kurdish tribes and political factions. But the discovery of oil was also, almost certainly, a factor.
British rule saw the beginning of a series of wars and insurrections by the Kurds, which lasted until the U.S. invasion of Iraq in 2003. First, in 1919 Mahmud Barzanji attempted to establish an independent Kingdom of Kurdistan, with himself as monarch. Then, there were several rebellions led by various members of the Barzani family. (no relation to Barzanji). culminating in two Iraqi- Kurdish wars (1961-1970) and 1974. In fighting - between the two Kurdish factions the KDP and the PUK did not help. (these erupted again in the 1990s).
After the Kurds supported Iran in the Iran-Iraq war. Saddam's Ba'athist authorities reinforced large-scale displacement and colonization projects in North Iraq, aiming to shift demographics and thus destabilize Kurdish power bases. This was followed by a genocidal campaign, ( Al-Anfal), with an estimated 50,000–200,000 casualties. A chemical attach on Halabja resulted in the creation by NATO of a no fly zone and resulting autonomous state.
There has been continuing turmoil, civil war, disputed land areas (with Iraq) and ISIS to deal with but Kurdistan has maintained its autonomy. Many Iraqi Kurds today take the view that they are safer within the protective confines of Iraq, where they are able to exist as an autonomous state.
Erbil, (Kurdish name Hawler) is the largest town in Iraqi Kurdistan and its capital. Some sources claim that this is one of the oldest continuously inhabited cities in the world. It dates back to the fifth century BC, which is ancient. but apparently there was no urban life until 2300 BC. (The title is hotly disputed but generally thought to belong to Byblos.) Its story is told in one of the museums in the citadel, perched above the modern city. This in its turn, is home to surprisingly western style restaurants, cafes and bars. We're also able to photo bomb some pre wedding photographs.
Lalish Temple is the holiest pilgrimage site for the Yazidis, an ethno-religious minority of northern Iraq. thought to be Zoroastrian descendants. (Some consider them to be the original Kurds.) The Yazidis were persecuted over long periods for their religion. (The last time was the 2014 genocide by ISIS.) Consequently, many Yazidis now live as refugees in Germany and other European countries. The shrine is built around the tomb of Sheikh Ali (12th century AD) but Yazidis claim that the original building is several thousand years old.
At least once in their lifetimes, Yazidis are expected to make a six-day pilgrimage to Lalish to visit the tomb and other sacred places. Many of the visitors are garbed in their best clothes, Bejewelled, with hooped earrings. Sadly, I send most of my time there vomiting in the latrine block, but I do get to see some impressive turret like towers and doze in the guest room. Children in frilly party frocks queue up to converse, even though I have my eyes shut. And I get to meet the Yazidi leader, who is visiting with his family. ‘UK good.’ he says.
St. Matthew’s Monastery (Mar Mattai) dates back as far as 363 AD. The monks lived in caves then though. It’s a veritable fortress. high on the hills above a vast plain and it’s prettier up close than it looks from a distance. It belongs to the Syriac Orthodox Church (an Oriental Orthodox church that branched from the Church of Antioch) and the Liturgy is sung in Syriac (a Neo-Aramaic language; it has its own alphabet).
Another monastery is to be attempted briefly, before we reach Dohuk, but the checkpoints have again flexed their muscle. We’re not allowed that way. It’s closed. It’s certainly beyond dusk now, but the monastery is not supposed to shut for another 30 minutes.
Like Erbil, Dohuk, the third city of Iraqi Kurdistan is bathed in gaudy lights . A line of them run up a long slope, marking the gondola track. It’s been inhabited for thousands of years: Kurds, Assyrians, Yazidis and Arabs. The governorate currently hosts over 300 000 internal displaced persons in refugee camps, mostly Yazidis and Assyrian Christians (since the ISIS advance).
Our hotel vies for bottom of the gradings in accommodation on this trip. The cistern is faulty and tries to fill all night, the extractor fan rattles and the fridge whines. When I turn the valve to replenish the cistern the bathroom floor floods with water. Mysteriously, the toilet paper is mounted by the sink on the opposite side of the bathroom to the toilet. But it’s better than a tent.
A brief stop at Dohuk Dam, for a walk across the 60 metre high wall. It's an earth-fill embankment on the Duhok River just north of Duhok. Here, the soldiers demand the selfies, but we’re not allowed to include their equipment. And there's a view of the lake from above.
Back to the Assyrian Christian village of Al Qosh we were going to visit yesterday. Today, after some debate they let us in. There’s the Monastery of Rabban Hormizd, founded in 635, the tomb of Jewish prophet Nehum, a Chaldean Catholic Church and a delightful little open-air museum.
Up the windiest of hairpin bends, above Al Qosh, this monastery has another spectacular setting. though it's so well camouflaged, built out of stone from the mountain that I can't make out the actual building, until we've almost arrived. There's a warren of caves for the monks, up scrambly precarious paths and a church that’s locked up.
The monastery is named after Rabban Hormizd (rabban is the Syriac for monk) of the Church of the East, who founded it in the seventh century. He was venerated as a saint by the Chaldean Catholics - another Syriac branch of the Church of the East, the result of several schisms of the Catholic Church. It has its own patriarchy and the site, served as the patriarchal residence and burial site from the sixteenth to eighteenth centuries. The building was revived as a monastery and seminary in the nineteenth century.
Al Quosh is, unsurprisingly, a very Christian village. There's even a house completely covered in nativity frescoes. The museum comprises rickety old buildings, a delightful little domed church, sundry wheels and more great views across the valley.
Charsteen Cave is attained via another up hill scramble. It’s the site of a Zoroastrian fire temple, for the deity Anahita, dating from the first millennium BC. It has four carved stone pillars surrounding a fire altar. Fire, water, soil, and air, were the four sacred elements in Zoroastrianism. Perhaps more interesting is the visiting class of excitable. teenage schoolgirls. Selfie, Selfie.
On, to the ancient Assyrian city atop a high plateau. It features the Great Mosque of Amedi (built in 1177), the Bahdinian (Mosul) Gate, the cemetery of Bahdinian princes (they ruled the area from 1376 until 1843) and the Bahdinian madrassa.
Our hotel, on a windy road in a mountain resort, has great views across to Amedi, but old sheets on the bed. The replacement sheets are also dirty. Apparently, Iraqi tourists don’t expect to sleep on clean linen. The manager says he’s been busy working all day . No soap no toilet paper. And a hole in the floor toilet, shared with Aussie/American Diana. It’s an ideal place to have another upset stomach.
The Shanidar Cave is fascinating for its antiquity. It was home to nine Neanderthal skeletons, astonishingly ancient (between 65000 and 35000 years suggesting very long continuity of use), found here in the 50s and 60s; parts of two of them are in the Iraq museum in Baghdad. One of them had healed bones, another was buried with flowers.
Barzan is the home of the Barzani family, Kurdish leaders mentioned above. This is where the fabulous mountain scenery and gorges of Kurdistan begin. Dore Canyon, with its famous bends, snakes along to the small town of Soran. Barzan is also home to two imposing monuments of the Barzani victims of genocide, in the Anfal campaign during the 1980s. They're on hillsides with magnificent views.
The Rawanduz area features more incredible peaks and a canyon with precipitous drops and numerous view points. Some spots are marked with memorials and statues. Hopeful stall holders brandish scoops of honey. Though I'm going to have to crop the litter lining the edges out of my pictures.
Down below, running through mountains that were once considered impregnable, is the Hamilton Road: built by Archibald. Hamilton, a New Zealand born engineer. in 1928-1932. It ran from Erbil to the Iranian border. and has since been replaced with a modern road - Kurdistan’s Scenic Highway. Todays it's quiet and overgrown, except for the a group of Iraq picnickers, complete with fan assisted barbecue.
Korek Mountain Resort, in the Rawanduz area, was built in in 2011. A hotel, villas and a couple of restaurants. We take the gondola up, to explore. It’s supposedly popular with Iraqis from the whole country (Arabs like to come to experience snow in winter), but today it's fairly deserted. At the top, far reaching views of the mountains, rugged and barren and a postage stamp of ski slope.
Waterfalls in the Middle East tend to be resorts rather than tranquil places for relaxing. Cafes, illuminations and food stalls feature and Rawanduz's offering, Bekhal, is no exception.
Shaqlawa is another popular, if gaudy hill station resort, famous for fresh air, honey and nuts. It sits at the bottom of Safeen Mountain. The winding main street is lined with food and souvenir stalls: lokum, dates, figs and brightly coloured sweets.
Lake Dukan is an artificial water reservoir, also used for irrigation and hydropower. It's prettily blue, surrounded by some spectacular arid mountains. Assorted motor boats are lined up along the rocky beach, their owners idling under a canopy. Negotiations for a short ride come to a swift halt when it becomes clear that they won't interrupt their slumbers for under a hundred USD.
The Red Prison (Amna Suraka) once served as the headquarters of the Ba’ath (Saddam's) regime. It was used as a prison and place of torture for the Kurdish population. Today, it is left preserved as a museum and memorial to the thousands of Kurds imprisoned and killed there. The centrepiece is the astonishing Hall of Mirrors, which contains over a hundred thousand shards of glass. One for every victim of Saddam’s reign of terror against Kurdistan.
Like all these places, it’s almost unbearable. Yet another reminder of man’s inhumanity to man. Row upon row of photographs of those who have died either from the Kurdish genocide perpetuated by Saddam Hussein’s Ba’ath movement or later by ISIS.
The torture chambers are particularly gruesome, with no holds barred descriptions of the types of torture, the scenes bizarrely depicted with plaster cast mannequins.
The schoolgirls visiting here wear belted trousers and tucked in white blouses so the shape of their bottoms is exposed. Some also daringly flaunt their ankles with cropped legs. Their chatter and smiles not entirely appropriate for the occasion mitigate the horror somewhat.
The Road from Erbil to Sulaymaniyah is poor. Ostensibly, because the two cities hate each other and want to prevent interaction. Sulaymaniyah is the cultural capital of Kurdistan, but the smaller city of the two. It's the home of poets, writers, historians, politicians, scholars and singers, such as Nalî, Mahwi, and Piramerd.
Sulaymaniyah is also full of bustle and character. And the bazaar is another fascinating wander. The men, out for their pre-weekend relaxation, wear the traditional Kurdish costume, baggy boiler suits cinched in at the waist with patterned cummerbunds and embordered round caps or turbans. They don’t flinch at all at the approach of the camera and wave benignly over their tea. 'Hello. Where are you from?'
In the evening, the whole of the city turns out to wander around, eat from the many fancy food stalls lining the main thoroughfares, sip coffee and people watch.
At Halabja, there’s another memorial for the 5000 victims of the chemical bomb attack perpetrated on the town by Ali Hassan al-Majid under the direction of Saddam Hussein, on March 16th 1988. He earned himself the nickname “Chemical Ali”.
It's a fitting and sobering end to our trip in Kurdistan. Next up, Socotra.
The Cradle of Civilisation, in modern day Iraq, has been on my Bucket List for a long time. This is the land where writing and the wheel were invented. During ancient times, (as we were taught at school), the lands that now constitute Iraq were known as Mesopotamia -'Land Between the Rivers'. Wealthy, because it comprised much of what is called the Fertile Crescent. Here, Sumer gave way to Akkad, then Babylon, and then Assyria. Next, subsumed into the Persian, Greek, and Roman Empires, before becoming a central part of the Islamic world in the seventh century. I’m going to be working my way backwards in time on my tour, it seems. And I'm hugely excited. The Tigris and Euphrates were a big feature of RE lessons at school - it will be amazing to actually see them.
Recent history of Iraq has been even more turbulent than it was in ancient times. The modern nation-state of Iraq was created, following World War I, from the Ottoman provinces of Baghdad, Basra, and Mosul, ruled by the British. Iraq technically gained independence as a kingdom in 1932, the monarchy was overthrown in 1958, and 10 years later the Baʿath Party came to power, in a bloodless coup. Oil brought immense wealth (proven oil reserves second in the world only to those of Saudi Arabia), ambitious projects were financed and a huge well equipped army developed.
The new leader, Saddam Hussein, needs little introduction. He ruled with an overly firm hand, oppressed the Shia majority (he was as Sunni) and the Kurd minority and engaged in various disastrous military adventures, most notably war with Iran, and then the invasion of Kuwait. Hussein had been provoked by the Kuwaitis undercutting of oil prices, but his actions led to worldwide condemnation and the Gulf War. His regime was overthrown during the ensuing Iraq War ,which lasted from 2003-2011. Since then, Isis (Daesh) have been and (hopefully) gone.
The whole country is coloured red on the FCO map and there are scary government advisories warning of violence and kidnapping. Those who work here confirm the need to be careful. 'Don’t go to the wrong areas', they advise. So I’ve opted for a tour and even the thought of that is giving me butterflies. I do hope the organisers know which the wrong areas are.
Arrival at Baghdad airport is fairly straightforward, except that no UK airlines fly direct. You can get a visa on arrival. No-one is remotely interested in what you write on the visa form. You hand it in to the little office by immigration, wait till they come back out with your passport and you give them the 77 USD, which is the point of the whole exercise. 'Welcome to Iraq', smiles the immigration man in his glass booth.
I’m travelling with what turns out to be a great group of ten people. Guide Ana, who’s Slovenian, and local fixer Raad, who looks just like Saddam Hussein. He has a great bushy moustache. but then so do all the Iraqis. Raad says that the women demand it. Most of the men also have their plentiful dark hair cut into fades or attention grabbing (to say the least) pompadour styles. Raad worked with the US military for six years during the Gulf War and his English is more than peppered with expletives. Every other word begins with f or s. But he has a big ego and a strong personality and gets the job done well.
It’s a challenge navigating the many checkpoints swiftly (they sometimes scan each passport, email it off to HQ and wait for approval before we can move on). As is getting us into sites that are deemed to be shut or off limits. He’s good at adjusting the itinerary if necessary, though we don’t always get told it's happened until we notice we're in the wrong place.
We’re touring in a Big Yellow Bus, so Beatles songs with suitably rearranged lyrics soon fill the air. The roads aren’t great - but not as bad as I’ve seen elsewhere and there are some three lane highways to compensate for the ridges and bumps. On the worst sections the bus sways from side to side.
Most of our hotels are comfortable, maybe even edging towards luxurious. But I’m reminded where I am by the constant (maybe 30 second duration) power cuts.
Changing money is problematic. I’ve been advised that GBP are okay to bring, but the local money changers don’t agree. And the ATMs are quick to decline my card too. So in the end Raad changes my cash for me, looking up the rate on the internet.
Women are advised to wear ‘modest attire’, fully clothed to the wrists and ankles. Bums covered. The men of course, just have to be careful not to show their knees. The locals don’t seem exceptionally bothered by what the tourists do – tolerant rather than offended, except at the shrines. Though too much exposure definitely draws stares.
Toilets aren't generally an edifying experience. Mostly hole in the floor types, some with plumbed water, some without, some clean some decidedly not. Some with piles of rubbish and cracked porcelain littering the floor.
Most of us have constant sniffles – colds, allergies or just the dust and dry air? Who knows? And nearly everyone has a dodgy stomach by the end of the trip.
Food is cheap. Meals cost about £5 . The choice is always the same. Kofta kebab, lamb kebab or chicken, with rice, flat bread and a fish shaped pitta bread that is sliced open to fill with salad or falafels. Platters of humous, a sort of raita yogurt with cucumber and other odd sweet salads with apple and syrupy mayonnaise, a sort of sweet brown sludge that hasn't been named, tomatoes, cucumbers and flat leaved parsley. If we are lucky mashed aubergine and tabbouleh also feature. Plastic spoons are provided, but the locals eat with their fingers. Aryan salty yogurt drinks and lashings (as Enid Blyton would say) of tea. We generally eat on the male section of the restaurants, but occasionally on the other side, with the families.
Iraq’s capital, Baghdad, a very ancient city, became the capital of the Abbasid Caliphate in the eighth century. At that time, it was the largest city in the world and the centre of Islamic culture. Later, it was sacked by the Mongols and only regained importance with independence Today, it's the second largest city in the Arab world, after Cairo.
We’re staying in an unexpectedly nice hotel, the Baghdad, no less, with a swimming pool, balconies with views over the infamous Green Zone, where local protests against living conditions have been held. (it’s out of bounds but we can at least see it) and a lavish breakfast buffet. It’s also a popular wedding venue. There are up to 60 celebrations a day with attendant photographers, bows on doors and balloons spilling out into the corridor.
We’ve been given strict instructions about dress and respect for the locals so, in the mroning, I turn up in the dining room in my black abaya. The waitresses however, ,are all togged up in short, tight mini skirts. 'Am I visiting a religious site?', they inquire, looking astonished.
Baghdad is vibrant but in need of some TLC, rough round the edges, tumble down buildings. Baghdad (and the whole country) is still dealing with severe infrastructural damage due to the Iraq War, a substantial loss of cultural heritage and historical artifacts. There's still considerable poverty and attendant unrest.
Battered cars and the odd horse drawn cart. Along the sandbanks and palms of the Tigris River, past a multiplicity of flea markets, goods strewn on tarpaulins. Some photo stops. The mosque on Firdos Square, where Saddam Hussein’s statue was toppled by the Americans in 2003. Roundabouts with assorted sculptures from Scheherazade’s One Thousand and One Nights. The Freedom Monument at Tahrir (Freedom) Square. Another setting for recent protests, especially in 2019. There is related graffiti all along the main underpass highlighting unemployment and living conditions. Raad says the situation is even worse now.
American Monty is a pun meister, so we’re in competition. Where’s your Bag Dad? As in many cities, services and equipment are grouped together by area. We bump along a road lined with garages and decorated with vehicle parts, sometimes whole cars on the roof. We dub it Park Avenue.
Across the Tigris River, to explore Old Baghdad. Alongside the water is a madrassa, Al Mustansirya restored in the 80s, and the imposing Quishleh Ottoman Palace, with its colonnaded façade and lush gardens boasting statuary, and a clocktower.
We whip through the souk to bustling Ar Rashid Street. A cinema converted to a shop, all manner of bric brac on trestles and the Shahbandar Coffee House. This is a renowned meeting place for local men who sip tea and smoke their hookahs. It soon becomes selfie central as we are accosted, politely, from all directions, whilst we sip our delicious hot lemon tea.
Another stop in a small bar for ginger cake and raisin juice. Thousands of calories and thousands more selfies. We’re creating a sensation as we wander past all the stalls. Olives, kebabs, books spread on carpets .'Hello, welcome. Where are you from? Selfie selfie.
Back through the book market on Al Moutanabbi Street. Volumes spilling over plastic covered low tables. It would take all day to peruse every one.
There are plenty of mosques in Baghdad of course. Amongst the most interesting, the Sufi mosque of Sheik Abdul Khader Algilani (twelfth century), with a subterranean tomb - the oldest tomb in Baghdad. And the Abbasid Sitt Zumurrud Khatoun tomb (end of twelfth century ) has a spiky minaret which leans slightly to the left. Inside the minaret, the spiky forms become gorgeous muqarnas.
The coffee houses are atmospheric, some highly decorated and gorgeous with a warren of rooms, balconies, divans and ornate coffee pots.
One lunch at a small cafe - Al Serai. It’s kubbeh - ground meat wrapped in Bulgar wheat, to form dough balls with very tomatoey soup to pour over them and very sour green pickles of unidentifiable origin. It’s extremely heavy on the stomach and the taste is with us all afternoon, sadly. In complete contrast, another lunch at the Bloom Hotel with plate-glass rooftop views and eager waiters. The menu is the ubiquitous, chicken or lamb kebab preceded by houmous heavy mezze.
A dinner at Al Baghdadi restaurant on the Tigris. Mazgouf - grilled carp prepared on an enormous flaming barbecue, the fish arranged on foil plates around the edge of the circular fire. This one is delicious.
The Iraq Museum is not to be missed, but we are body searched twice before we are allowed in, and again on the way out. Presumably to make sure you haven’t pinched anything, though it wouldn’t be very easy to break into those heavy glass cases. It's perhaps not surprising, It was looted during and after the 2003 Invasion of Iraq. Despite international efforts, only some of the stolen artifacts have been returned. After that it was closed for many years for refurbishment. Neither will they accept USD, so Raad has to go in search of local currency before we can purchase tickets. He’s obviously done too much exchanging currency.
There are 24 chambers and a convoluted system of arrows pointing the way through huge galleries and up and down stairs. They trace the history of Iraq from Paleolithic times (Stone axe/tool heads from 100000 BC and Neanderthal skulls from the 45th century BC). There’s a huge amount of extraordinarily ancient pottery. (5000 years BC so 7000 years old ) and displays covering the various empires up to the Islamic era. But the best hall, by a mile is the one dedicated to the Assyrian Empire, with its amazing friezes and gate statuary from Mosul and Hatra. Needless to say, I lose the rest of the group in the labyrinth. And I still can’t escape the demands for selfies.
On the edge of the city, are the striking turquoise half domes of the Martyrs' Monument (Nasb Al-Shahid). It was built in 1983, dedicated to the victims of Iraq-Iran war and now also symbolises the Shia and Kurdish victims of Saddam's regime. Beneath are cases full of artefacts and moving rows of portraits of the dead.
Equal time here is devoted to Ana’s heroic rescue of a pigeon stuck in the foaming waters of the underground fountain, which falls to the ground with some ferocity. Both emerge soaked, but otherwise unscathed.
Most of our day trip to Samarra is taken up with sitting in traffic jams. Several roads out of Baghdad are blocked ,as protestors are expected and the army is out in force. We follow the Tigris River north on the route to Mosul. The road is lined with black Shia flags and posters of the missing Mahdi. And litter But it’s a good opportunity to get to know my fellow travellers. I’ve discovered that Monty has a journal. He has written a biography of each person and guessed their age. His estimates are not always hugely flattering.
Samarra has only recently been made accessible. It’s an important Shia site and security in the area is heavy. It was actually in the hands of ISIS for a short while, but survived unharmed. There are multiple checkpoints and we have to leave our passports at the last one and pick them up on the way back.
Samarra is a UNESCO world heritage site and former capital of the Abassid Caliphate. Though it wasn’t the capital for very long. They built the iconic spiral minaret and adjacent mosque, lived there for about 50 years and then moved the capital back again to Baghdad.
There are six stages on the 52 metre spiral, if you count the cap shaped top and it’s a dizzying and windy ascent. There is very little in the way of handrail on the outside, just a sheer drop to the ground for the most part. Again ,we’re welcomed with smiles, waves and demands for selfies. The mosque is sadly out of bounds, though peeping through the surrounding heavily buttressed walls seems to indicate that there isn’t now, a great deal to see. It was the biggest mosque in the world when it was constructed.
There are souvenir stalls laden with miniature golden minarets. Spanish Xavi is delighted to buy one.
Then onto the Caliphal Palace, the primary residence of the Abbasid caliph al-Mu’tasim and several of his successors for a period of nearly fifty years during the middle of the ninth century/third century AD. This is one of the largest and most extensively excavated Abbasid palaces, although only a tiny fraction of the site has been uncovered. It’s actually a whole complex of palaces, part of the city that included barracks for his soldiers, administrative bureaux, horseracing courses and grand boulevards.
The Dar al-Khalifa is relatively remote from the city and has sweeping views over the Tigris and its floodplain (they’re now enjoyed by an army post). Perhaps scenery trumped over practicality for a short while. Extensive reconstructions were begun under Saddam Hussein (as the many plaques tell us). There are gardens, huge arched gates and a large circular pool, situated by the harem, for the use of the Caliph’s ladies.
The itinerary says that we are also to visit a ziggurat on the way back. These are unique to Mesopotamia, from approximately 2200 until 500 BC. Pyramidal brick stepped temple towers with a core of mud. But it’s closed. The programme is definitely a moveable feast (very reminiscent of Saudi Arabia), depending on the will of the authorities.
Babylon is iconic and not just because of the Bony M song. It features heavily in the Bible through its two most important periods:
The main sights of Babylon are:
As to the fabled Hanging Gardens of Babylon, one of the Seven Wonders of the Ancient World? No one has any idea where they actually were. Sadly, there's even a suggestion that they were just mythical and might not even have existed.
Above the Euphrates and Babylon, with a grand view of both, sits one of Saddam’s huge palaces (he built more than 100 of them all over Iraq). It’s derelict and graffiti covered. We’re told there are plans to make it into a museum - one day.
Iraq is home to Shia Islam’s most important shrines. Raad says that they are hugely more significant than Mecca and Medina, although other sources disagree with this. Whatever, the centres at Karbala and Najaf attract 30 million visitors a year, many of them Iranian . They generate an annual revenue from pilgrims of about 2 billion USD. 14 million come for the Karbala weekend festival, as opposed to 2.5 million for hajj (I’m told). People also want to be buried in these places.. corpse traffic is big business.
Karbala (or God’s Temple) is the site of the Incident of Tuff ( the most important event in Shia history) between Hussain (ibn Ali) and his family and Yazid's army (representing the Umayyad dynasty) in 680. 72 of their family members were massacred, including Hussain and his half brother and standard bearer, Abbasi. (72 is now a magic number in Islam). They have since been regarded as martyrs. The tombs of Hussain and Abbasi are the foci of the two shrines, here at Karbala. The commemoration of the massacre is known as the Day of Ashura. Self-flagellation is often involved, though it was banned for 30 years under Saddam, (it restarted in 2004). Arba'een, 40 days after Ashura is one of the biggest gatherings in the world. 15 -25 million Shia pilgrims walk from Basra or Baghdad to Karbala and Najaf.
Karbala is Blackpool in the desert. A holiday atmosphere, ritzy hotels, illuminations, souvenir shops and restaurants carrying out a roaring business. The shrine of Abbasi is a glitzy palace, with huge overhead chandeliers and glittering muqarnas. This branch of Islam isn't known as Shiny Shia for nothing.
And there’s also an assault course built in. Us females are not allowed in the men's section of course. Black clad women shove, push, wail and brandish feather dusters in their efforts to get through the various halls to the tomb. It’s a veritable tidal wave of bodies that threatens to turn into a football match like riot. I’m black and blue. We’ve been made to purchase hideous flower patterned cotton abayas with tiny T-Rex like sleeves that cover us entirely. The most unflattering garment ever. Even so a few tendrils of hair escape. A woman admonishes me. She has one whole breast exposed, as she is feeding her baby.
The tomb of Hussain is similar, but deemed to be more important. He was the son of Ali, the first Shia Imam and Mohammed's daughter Fatima. A fervent Lebanese lady shouts out her adoration for Hussain, with Hitler like arm salutes and tears in her eyes. The ongoing pilgrimage to Karbala is live streamed on TV and, we discover, prime viewing at many of the roadside restaurants in Iraq.
We’re supposed to be visiting Ukhaider Castle, but it’s off. Instead we are clambering up a rocky outpost on the shores of Lake Razazah to some of the At-tar Caves. There are several hundred caves containing burial places from the second millennium BC, (but mostly from 300 BC-300 AD).
Well, I thought we were climbing to the caves, but you can only them from the ground and we are instead admiring the view of some sandstone hoodoos. There are overhangs and it is literally a headbanging experience.
Next up, Al Kifl, where abayas are required again to visit the shrine/tomb of Ezekiel/Dhul-Kifl, (now named An-Nukhailah Mosque). Ezekiel is important in both Jewish and Muslim religions, as a Jewish Old Testament prophet when the Jews were in exile in Babylon. It was a big Jewish site of pilgrimage from his death and especially in the fourteenth century. The Ottomans rebuilt the shrine in 14th century. And it has both a leaning minaret and a spiky minaret, above the shrine. We can see the courtyard and the mosque, but not the shrine. It’s closed.
And a short amble, following Raad through the authentic old souk, barrow boys selling tea.
At Najaf we’re ensconced in the (great name) - Zam Zam Hotel. My toilet doesn’t flush, as the cistern isn’t filling (there’s a leak and they’ve disconnected the pipes) and the fridge whistles. And we’re off (clad yet again in the unflattering abaya garment) to the second most important Shia shrine. Ali, the cousin and brother in law of Mohammed is recognised as the first Shia Imam, stabbed by his servant in Kufa in 661. He is buried here, as that is where the camel bearing his body finally stopped, exhausted. .
The cemetery here is the biggest in the world. There are between six and seven million graves, with photographs on hoardings, marble and domes. Shrine trade became difficult when the water ran out, but supplies were restored via a canal in the 1800s. The Ali shrine is just as glittery, but more relaxed than the two in Karbala. There are even women with a little hair showing – though there are even more feather dusters.
South eventually, past oil fields and herds of camels. It’s very, very flat semi arid desert. But we never entirely lose the green. Low hills and small wadis. Grey cuboid houses, black flags fluttering.
Further back in time, to the late fifth millennium BC (until the seventh century BC, when it was deserted for lack of water and because of Arab destruction) to Sumerian Uruk. This is where writing began (excitingly, there’s a sign, though I doubt it marks the exact spot) and the wheel was invented. Cuneiform script (it means wedge shaped) on clay tablets was used to document sacrifice and gift to the gods. The wheel was (big surprise) first utilised for pottery making.
A whole series of subsequent civilisations followed: Ur, Babylonian, Achaemenid, Seleucid, and Parthian Empires. In the fourth millennium BC, this was the largest city in the world (the title later went to Baghdad). Uruk was the political and religious centre of Mesopotamia, home to 50-80 000 people.
There were 10 kilometres of city walls built by King Gilgamesh – famous for the Epic of Gilgamesh, the oldest written story in the world. Sources are vague about where the tablets are now. As far as I can ascertain One - the Dream Tablet - was imported into the USA and eventually returned to Iraq. There were copies too, stored at Nineveh. The eleventh of these tablets is in the British Museum.
The most obvious sights are the ziggurats of the deities Anu (male sky god) and Inana (female). These temples were once covered in Afghan lapis lazuli. Today, they are serviced by an old railway line. Stacks of cone mosaics decorate the paths, their purpose unknown. A welcome wind mitigates the fierce heat. Only 5% of site has been excavated, by German archaeologists (1912-1970s). There have been no excavations since then - but the site is protected with 14 kilometres of fence.
The desert disappears far way at the horizon, like the sun.
Nasiriyah is a city of some 500 000 inhabitants, founded in 19th century by the Ottomans. And this is definitely the worst hotel of the trip. Is it finished? Equipment hangs off the wall and wires dangle. A bird tone sounds incessantly from the hallway. And diarrhoea has caught up with me.
We’ve come forward slightly along our timeline now. Ur replaced Uruk as the great capital of Sumer in the 27th century BC. It was excavated by Sir Leonard Woolley in the 1920s & 1930s (Both Ur and Uruk, are, of course, UNESCO sites). Here, there’s another ziggurat, built by king Ur-Namu in the 22nd century BC (known as the Renaissance period) and rebuilt by Nebuchadnezzar II in the sixth century BC, a Royal Palace and Royal Tombs. we're allowed to clamber up the ziggurat and take turns capturing pictures of each other, with the view behind.
Ur was also known as the city of Abraham, but his supposed home is, guess what, closed. For renovations. The city was captured by the Persians in 539 BC, and deserted in 4th century BC. As is so often the case, lack of water could have been a .factor. Uruk was built on the banks of the Euphrates, which, over the passing years has moved 10 miles away.
So far, we’ve been the only tourists around, except for a group of Portuguese, who we encounter astonishingly dressed for any destination ,in flimsy knee length shorts and weird transparent tops. We’ve spotted their bus approaching, as we leave the checkpoint close to the arkeological site at Ur. It’s annoying to think that our solitary wanderings might be disturbed. But they don’t have a Raad on board. They’re still held up at by the passport checking officials as we depart.
The marshes of southern Iraq cover an area of about 10000 square kilometres along the floodplains of the Tigris River, stretching to the Euphrates. This is the edge of their confluence – where the two rivers become the Shat al Arab. It was once the largest wetland ecosystem of Western Eurasia. home to the Marsh Arabs, descended from the Ur, Sumer and Babylon civilisations. They have developed a unique culture tightly coupled to the landscape – harvesting reeds and rice, fishing and herding water buffalo.
But draining of portions of the marshes began in the 1950s for land reclamation and oil exploration. The work was expedited by Saddam Hussein in an attempt to to flush out his opponents and army deserters hiding there, By 2003, the marshes were drained to 10% of their original size. Since 2004 they have been partially restored, but are still threatened by the lack of water in the rivers. This is a problem throughout the country, as the Turks, Syrians and Iranians have all been damming the upper reaches of both rivers.
There’s not a great deal to see on our boat ride through the dry reed mace. Water buffalo grazing and one local with a cattle shed. Replica reed houses. A shiny silver domed monument forms the background. Very little bird life. A couple of pied kingfishers and oxpeckers on the back of the buffalo. But it’s tranquil and there’s a welcome breeze, wafting hydrogen sulphide past us.
A little further south, to Al Qurna, and another boat ride to see the actual confluence of the Tigris and Euphrates. There are steps, a smaller version of the ones at the Deutches Eck (German Corner), on the Rhine in Koblenz. From here, the Shatt al Arab flows 200 kilometres to the Persian Gulf. The area used to hold the largest date palm forest in the world. 17–18 million date palms: an estimated one-fifth of the world's 90 million palm trees in the mid-1970s. By 2002, more than 14 million of the palms had been wiped out by the combined factors of war, salt and pests.
We also find out that today Iraq got a new president. They haven’t had one for 13 months. The president has to be a Kurd. Now he has to try to form a government. There was a small rocket attack over the Green Zone in Baghdad this morning, to celebrate.
Basra is Iraq's main port, famously right in the south of the country, on the Shatt al Arab, close to both Iran and Kuwait. It's consistently one of the hottest cities on the planet. 45 degrees is not unusual. It dates back to the ninth century. We wander around old Ottoman Basra (the Ottomans were here from the late 17th century until the outbreak of World War I). We’re told it was then known as 'The Venice of the Middle East', but it’s hard to imagine. The canals are filthy, full of rubbish and reek. The sewers are being rebuilt. Most of the house are in a sad state, though a couple have been renovated. Other potentially grand timber dwellings are swathed in scaffolding. And there’s a museum/café with assorted items, mainly from the last century.
The souk, on the other hand, is huge and very friendly. It’s a brilliant way to spend a couple of hours. Xavi has to be forcibly extracted from a souvenir shop that sells 'nicer’ Samarra minarets. The Shia influence extends to the trinkets which tend to gold and shiny and are sometimes even gloriously encased in snow domes.
A third boat ride brings the tour to a fitting close. The sun goes down behind the port and yet another of Saddam’s huge palaces (now mainly government offices), as we chug up and down the Shatt al-Arab.
Next stop, Erbil, the capital of Iraqi Kurdistan.
Capital city Madrid is an elegant place: manicured parks, boulevards, the Baroque Royal Palace and Armory, museums and galleries including the renowned Prado Museum (El Bosco, El Greco, Goya, Velázquez and other Spanish masters) and churches (of course). The old centre, with the Plaza Major at its heart is known as El Madrid de los Austrias, It was built during the reign of the Habsburg Dynasty (1516–1700), the House of Austria. Madrid is situated on an elevated plain, about 190 miles from the closest seaside location and therefore has hot summers and cool winters. Apparently, it's not true that 'the rain in Spain falls mainly in the plain'. The wetter areas are on some of the coasts (not all of them - the Almeria area is very dry) and in the north.
One more fact: Madrid has the oldest restaurant in the world. the Casa Botin, opened in 1725,
Last time I was there I whipped round on a bus tour, in the dusk.
Spain is a tourist paradise - one of the most popular destinations in all of Europe and apparently the second most visited nation on the planet. Beaches, (681 Blue Flag beaches, the most of any country in the Northern Hemisphere), islands (lots of them), historic cities, iconic buildings tranquil mountains, art (El Greco, Velázquez, and Goya, Picasso, Dali, Miro, Gaudi and so on ), great food (tapas means cover - they were originally intended to cover your drink on small plates between sips) and vibrant nightlife. ( Wine of course, and more bars than any other EU Country). And the festivals - the Running of the Bulls, in Pamplona or La Tomatina, the world’s biggest food fight (throwing tomatoes) .
I've travelled a lot of Spain (there's still a great deal left to see). You can read posts on:
The majority of Bulgaria was incorporated into ancient Thrace, but the area fell first to the Persians and then to the Romans followed by the Byzantines. The Byzantine dominion was invaded by first by peaceful hardworking Slavs and then belligerent proto Bulgarians who beat the Byzantines in battle (as the emperor went off to bathe in the springs to treat his gout and the soldiers thought unsurprisingly that he had run away). In 681, the first official Bulgarian state was created. This period is sometimes called the Golden Age of Bulgaria because it was a time of wealth, education, art, culture, and literature. The Proto Bulgarians under King Asperuh had signed a peace treaty. However, they studiously ignored it and were eventually reconquered by the Byzantines.
Three Bulgarian brothers led another successful revolution in 1185 and moved their capital to Veliko Tarnovo. There were multifarious plots against them, but the youngest Kaloyen, survived and punished all the traitors. The Ottomans were the next to invade and stayed in control until the Russian supported Liberation. The Treaty of San Stefano, signed at the end of the Balkan War, gave Bulgaria its independence from the Ottomans, as a separate monarchy.
The Bulgarians supported Germany during World War I, resulting in some loss of territory. After World War II, Bulgaria came under Communist rule and was a satellite of the Soviet Union (what is now Russia) until 1989. After the fall of the Berlin Wall, the Communists allowed the country to elect leaders of their own choosing. Bulgaria today. is governed by a president, prime minister, Parliament, and a Council of Ministers.
Bulgaria is a member of the European Union, the Council of Europe, and NATO.
Bulgaria has become much more stable in the years since communist rule. Its wealth is above average in terms of world rankings but it’s still one of Europe’s poorest countries and the poorest in the EU.
Read what I did here.
I’m revisiting Bulgaria as I came here once skiing a very long time ago and my photos haven't survived. I was going to travel on my own, but I saw this very cheap trip advertised - Landscapes and Traditions of Bulgaria. So here I am, with nine others. on a circular tour of western Bulgaria.
My hotel in Sofia is in the shopping precinct - very handy. The room is about as spartan as it gets - bare cotton sheets and a window you have to stand on a stool to look out of. And just to compound my grievances - others have a kettle. Still, I’m only here for one night. Things can only get better?
Out to explore Sofia, the capital of Bulgaria, framed by Vitosha Mountain. It’s a whistle-stop tour, umbrellas at the ready and s there's a torrential downpour. Guide Ani marches ahead at pace, pauses for explanations and then is off again. Photos are taken on the fly.
Most of the sights of Sophia are historical remains, reflecting the city’s history. Sophia has Thracian heritage (associated with the poet Orpheus), but the area was named after the Celtic Serdi tribe, and became Serdica when it was a Roman city. It is replete with Roman remains, some only excavated a year ago. Sophia has been destroyed and rebuilt four times, but the city retains its sixth century Byzantine form. Two key Byzantine buildings remain - St Sophia’s Church on the highest point of city dates from the sixth century. The round Church of St. George is one of oldest churches in the world, dating from when Constantine and his mother Helen adopted Christianity in the 4th century. It was originally part of another imposing public building, perhaps baths or an imperial reception hall. It has five layers of frescoes.
There are few relics of the Ottoman empire and only one remaining mosque, the Banya Bashi. Most of them were destroyed by the Soviets. The Mosque of the Baths was designed by warriors conscripted from the villages by the Turks and designed to rival the mosques of Sinan. In the Central Square, close to the Banya Bashi Mosque are the thermal springs that give it its name. There’s a yellow and red Ottoman style building that housed the baths and was utilised during Soviet times. It since been restored as a museum.
Much is made in Bulgaria of the Russian Liberation from the Ottomans in 1878 and monuments abound. The most famous are the Russian Church and the Alexander Nevsky Cathedral. The Alexander Nevsky Cathedral is extremely grand. The domes are covered in real gold and have recently been redone. There are copious amounts of marble and onyx and the walls are adorned with hosts of icons painted by the foremost artists, mainly on canvas. One especially popular with visitors is deemed to be miraculous. There are three naves, the patriarch's throne and the king’s throne, which is naturally much grander. The frescoes are murky due to candle smoke but there are no funds for restorations of these at the moment.
Alexander Nevsky is a Russian Saint from the 11th century a warrior, chosen to commemorate the travails of King Alexander in removing the Ottomans. A lady in her late 80s climbs 220 steps daily to ring the bells of the cathedral. She's has been performing this ritual for 30 years and is on You-tube.
Although Serdica was an important Roman city Sophia did not become capital of Bulgaria until this period. Opposite the historic covered Central Market Hall (closed) is the synagogue, a 1905 copy of the one that was destroyed in Vienna.
There are plenty of relics of the Soviet occupation. The main draw is the oddly Baroque and newly renovated Central Soviet Square with its Parliament, Presidency, ministries, Sheraton Hotel (only for Soviet dignitaries), underpasses and Louvre like glass domes. The buildings to one side shelter the St George Rotunda.
What else do I remember from my Route March? The National Theatre and a very noisy rock festival in the park behind the central Square - the police have even closed the road.
Last time I was in the second oldest city in Europe it was Christmas Eve. It was charming. It was snowing and there are small decorated stalls set up around the main square and gilt onion domes of the Aleksander Nevski Cathedral. The locals were buying cards, baubles and Christmas trees, hoisting the latter onto their shoulders to carry home. Pleasingly atmospheric and delightfully uncommercial.
Today we’re off on our clockwise tour of Bulgaria. Our driver is called Angel. East and slightly north, through the oak and beech covered Balkans Mountains. Hayricks, cheese shops and stalls stacked with wooden implements. The vendors sit sour faced on their stools. It’s not encouraging.
First stop is the Troyan monastery, with its chalet style monks cells. It’s home to a miraculous three handed Madonna icon, a copy of an eighth century icon left here by a monk in the 14th century. His horse kept tripping as a signal that he should leave it behind. So the story goes. The additional hand commemorates St John of Damascus who wrote in defence of icons during the Islamic influence, when such representation was discouraged. Emperor Leo was not impressed. He forged documents implicating John in insurrection and the Caliph of Damascus decreed that his hand should be cut off. The deed was done, but John prayed, the hand was healed and in remembrance an additional silver hand was stuck to icons. This eventually became a third 'proper' hand on all copies.
The monastery only dates from the sixteenth century so I’m totally confused as to how the dates for the icon work and I can't find any information that clarifies things. But the building is delightful with its profusion of trailing red flowers over the timber balconies and the minuscule church. This is heavy with incense, replete with suspended candelabras glistening gold and every inch of wall covered in paintings. Visitors line up to touch the icon and at the altar the priest is conducting a baptism.
Veliko Tarnovo was the capital of Bulgaria during its first empire when Asperuh became the first ruler of Bulgaria in 681. There’s a sprawling Tsaravets fortress topped by a Russian church. It’s all been heavily restored by the Soviets. They used mortar in the walls and decorated the inside of the church with dramatically disturbing monochrome murals depicting the history of Bulgaria. There’s a castle with great views across the modern city. The excavations stretch across to the adjacent hill. It was some capital. One of the towers in the lengthy walls was used as a prison for Baldwin of Flanders, who got permission to cross Bulgaria on his way to the crusades but then formed his own empire in North Greece and ungratefully attacked Bulgaria. He was captured and restrained for the rest of his life.
Arbanasi, just up the road was the chosen home for aristocracy of Greek heritage who built houses here in the seventeenth century under Ottoman rule. It was a lawless time and the uncultured Turks were not inclined to protect Christians from bands of robbers. The restored house museum of Konstantsalieva is heavily defended with thick walls, stout wooden doors and steep staircases. There’s even a panic style store room for food. Apparently brigands still got in and murdered the householder when she had been left on her own by her husband.
The rooms contain exhibits demonstrating what life was like in those times-apart from weird and terrifying. The kitchen has three ovens - one for making yogurt.
The hotel is over the road from the restored house museum. It’s got wooden chalet style rooms and a swimming pool. But all that glitters is not gold. The bedside lights don’t have any sockets to plug into.
Food in Bulgaria has a strong Greek and Turkish influence. It consists of a great deal of fresh bread rolls, flatbreads, salads like shopska (tomato and cucumber with cheese grated on top), bean soups, marinated meat, chips and fried cheese. Most of the meat is chicken. Pork features occasionally. Lamb is unusual - maybe in the spring - and beef doesn’t generally feature. Cattle is only reared for dairy products. The Bulgarians claim to have invented yogurt and that turns up with the salad, or as dessert at most meals. Other desserts are very sweet, pancakes with syrup and nuts or baklava like pastries.
Last time I was here, my hotel stuck to a bland (on good days) ‘international’ menu. On Christmas Day we were served something unappetisingly dry and very dark brown. I inquired what it was. ‘Turkey, of course,’ replied the waiter smiling.
The local firewater is rakia, often made from plums. There’s vodka also of course, due to the Soviet heritage. Whatever my first day’s eating doesn’t agree with me and I spend most of the night in the bathroom. I’m tempted to spend the day by the swimming pool, but I’m also terrified of missing out, so I sneak a pillow out to the bus and commandeer the back seat.
Today, another fortress Cherven, contemporary with the Tsaravets fort of yesterday. But this one is not restored. It's a puff of a hike climbing two hundred or so steps for an up close view of the ruins (mainly just one tower some walls and several ruined churches) along the magnificent gorge in the Rusenski Lom Nature Park.
Then two rock monasteries. Up more steep paths in the park, with more gorgeous views. The frescoes depicting Jesus’ life in the UNESCO protected rock churches of Ivanovo date from the fourteenth century and are semi restored. The monasteries were occupied by a hermit monk order who focussed on silence and the spirituality of light - Hesychasm. Another monastery, Basarbovo, closer to the city of Ruse, was founded by a shepherd, Dimitar Basarbovo and he was buried there. But when they tried to transfer his relics to Russia via Romania many people were cured of the plague en route and so they kept his bones in Bucharest instead.
Bulgaria’s third city of Ruse for lunch, in a rooftop restaurant with views over the Danube. Then a very quick wander round the main Svoboda (Liberty) Square and adjacent buildings of note. There’s the Baroque Profitability Building - as the name suggests it was intended to make some money. Then the Palace of Justice, Opera House and in the centre the Monument of Liberty, celebrating the Liberation from the Ottomans. Up the road the impressive gold domed Pantheon of National Heroes, an ossuary, with the bones of 453 war heroes from the uprising against the Ottomans.
The jury is out as to whether I would have had a better day by the swimming pool.
South west through the Central Balkans National Park and beech forests climbing sluggishly over a long pass. We stop for a view across to a monument to the Russian liberation, thus arousing the ire of (maybe) 500 dogs barking in unison. The other side of the pass we stop to admire the Russian Church at Shipka, also a monument to the battle that took place here. It has a very ornate carved spire and the usual gold onion domes. The Bulgarian crosses have Islamic crescents underneath the Russian double crossed I.
Through the Thracian Valley of the Kings (or roses), liberally scattered with tombs. The Thracians enjoyed wine and fighting each other. The tombs contained objects that are deemed to be useful in the afterlife. Wine, armour, even horses. According to Herodotus they also buried the favourite wife with the warrior. The ancient kingdom of Thrace spread across southern Bulgaria into Greece and the European finger of Turkey which is today known as Thrace.
In the centre of Kazenluk is a UNESCO recognised Thracian tomb accidentally discovered in 1944. But no one is allowed in that as exposure has damaged the frescoes. So there’s an exact copy just up the Funerary Hill with a dome and painted murals of chariots and music that you can pay to visit instead.
At Kazanluk there's also there's the Museum of Roses. Here we learn that they in the main grow the damascene pink roses here, which are best for oil. The petals must be picked before dawn, when there is the largest proportion of oil in the petals before they open.. Distillation vats on display. 3000 kg petals produce one kg of rose oil. Rose was first water brought to Europe during the Crusades, but rose oil devloped here as major export in in the nineteenth century.
There’s even a stop off at a Bulgarian country house at Tyzha with a dramatic mountain setting - Mount Bothev. We get a tour of the garden: vines, corn, tomatoes, peppers, pumpkins, other fruit and a very friendly dog. We are fed filo cheese pastries rakia aryan ( salt yogurt) figs and pears.
Then to Plovdiv, the second city of Bulgaria and an ancient Roman town, with narrow cobbled streets and medieval and eighteenth/nineteenth century houses. There’s a tower dating back to the third century AD, in the walls of ancient Philippopolis, as it was called (after Phillip of Macedon who founded the city). Under the Romans it became the capital of Thrace named Trimontium, as it was built on three hills. Marcus Aurelius built the wall round the city.
The old walled town is a gathering of pastel coloured jettied buildings stooping precariously to leave the prescribed street width – enough room for two donkeys to pass. The city has expanded like Rome to cover seven syenite hills. One disappeared, as they quarried all the stone, but the other six all propose great view points.
As you drop down from the old town into the new, passing the very well preserved ( with some help) first century roman theatre and there’s a beautifully multi domed mosque. The modern city intertwines with the old nicely. A Roman stadium semi revealed and accessed by plate glass staircases beneath the main shopping street. At the other end of this elegant promenade are the two sections of the plate glass enclosed Roman forum. The avenues are lined with pavement cafes and fountains.
I clamber up Danov Hill on the edge of the main shopping street in the new town, for views in all directions. There are so many different routes to the top I’m giddy trying them all out. The Balkan Mountains to the north, the Rhodope Mountains and the ski resorts to the south; two more hills, one of which has Soviet martyr monuments. The old city on its three crags and the modern sprawl below. There’s a clock tower on top that chimes and an ugly satellite tower.
My room in Plovdiv is noisy next to a seat on a park, so Angel is a real angel and swaps with me. He also takes me and Ani out to dinner. Though conversation doesn’t exactly flow. He doesn’t speak English.
South to the Rhodope Mountains through the city of Asenovgrad famous for its wedding dresses then stopping at a Byzantine Fortress restored by king Asen in the early fourteenth century and ultimately destroyed by the Turks. There’s not much of the Fortress left but there are gorgeous views of the mountains and down to the church built there after a very slippery climb up marble steps.
Beautifully framed by the mountains, another UNESCO monastery, Bachkovo, the second most important in the country. Originally founded in 1083, most of the current buildings date from the sixteenth to nineteenth century. Three churches and again in a an almost Buddhist style, wooden balconied terraces on the first floor for the monks cells. Incongruously, there are also satellite dishes.
One small St Nicholas Church has grotesque Doomsday frescoes of torture and richly clad (recognisable nobles it seems), being punished in hell, as they had refused to give the artist Zahari Zograf the money he had requested for a school for artists. There is the usual miraculous icon, the Virgin Mary Eleusa from the fourteenth century. It was hidden in a cave, but rediscovered as it emitted light in the forest. People thought it was a fire. They rescued the painting, but on three nights consecutively it returned itself to the cave. The monks eventually negotiated with the icon, who agreed to live in the monastery with them provided she was returned to the cave once a year. This is done in an annual procession.
The icon is hung prominently close to the doorway (according to her wishes) in one of the other two main churches, the Virgin Mary cathedral dedicated to the ‘Falling Asleep Mother Mary’. She is depicted on what I assume is her death bed. The decoration in here is extraordinary. It’s a cornucopia of icons, candelabra, frescoes and gilt. It’s so complex it ought to look completely overdone, but somehow it results in an incredibly spiritual experience. At least it does until someone begins a loud conversation, or a mobile phone trills out.
The mountain road up to the monastery is lined with stalls – refreshments, pottery, wooden utensils plenty of chopping boards and statues, amongst which garden gnomes are prominent.
The road now leads through larch and pine clad slopes and along snaking passes, to the ski resort of Pamporovo. Tall aparthotels and triangular prisms that are modern chalets. Last time I was in Bulgaria I was skiing at Borovets. It was cheap and I wanted to visit Bulgaria. A double whammy. As I’ve discovered before, cheap can be problematic. The slopes were hard packed snow and icy, not the most well-tended I’ve ever attempted to plummet down. And we were also a little dubious about the lift system. The story going round reported that ski lifts were built new in Switzerland. Then they were sold second hand to France and Italy. When they reached the end of their useful life there they were sent to Bulgaria. Ani says that the opposite is now true. Her friends go abroad, as it's cheaper to ski in the Alps than in Bulgaria.
The scenery is stunning, as the way winds on through stone built hamlets. We have lunch in a Rhodopian speciality restaurant in the village of Sharoko Loko, a virtual open air museum of timber and stone houses, churches and cute bridges. We are fed potato pancakes - patatniks - made with cheese and coriander.
Almost to the Greek border, through immense gorges, and uphill to the Devils Throat Cavern. There’s a great deal of climbing on wet steps with rusting rails that would absolutely not be allowed in England. Below us a gorge, with supposedly the largets underground waterfall in Europe. though I'm struggling to glimpse it. There's a small waterfall once we emerge.
The best surprise of the day is our hotel outside the village of Trigrad, still further up the mountain from the cave. Here the slopes are swathed in spruce, there are a whole herd of horses in the pasture and I have somehow ended up with a suite and balcony that overlooks the whole wonderful panorama. I’m celebrating with an extremely large gin and tonic. It helps to mitigate the bag pipe playing at dinner. The bag pipes are huge, made out of goatskin.
First thing in the morning it’s pretty chilly. Another cave, Yagodinska, up yet another pretty curving and nausea inducing climb. This cave has a three levels, with one concrete path of just over a kilometre open to tourists. There are a few flights of rusty stairs up and down bringing it back to almost the same height. It has railings most of the way and isn’t too skiddy. And here there are mineral infused speleothems (my new word for the day): stalactites, stalagmites, stalagnates (columns where both meet) and cave pearls (layers of calcium carbonate round grains of other materials in strange nest like clusters).
Thankfully, there is little in the way of gaudy lighting, though the custom has not been entirely eradicated.. The highlight is the New Year Cave where local speleologists gather to spend the festivities. There’s even a Christmas tree that stays carefully preserved with all its decorations. Alongside, is a platform for celebrating weddings. But no photos are allowed that’s why there aren’t any here !
The scenery just gets better and better as we navigate the pine clad slopes to Dospat for a stunning view of the artificial lake and Turkish style pot stew lunches with potato, cheese and a little beef, (no pork for the local Muslim population of course).
Now west, almost to the Serbian border and there’s a dramatic change of scenery. It’s still spectacular, but in the Pirin Mountains now, there are high sheer stone peaks, the valleys are flatter and the trees are deciduous again. And there are vines. Melnik is a wine making village (officially the smallest town in Bulgaria). It's impossibly picturesque. And extraordinary in that it is surrounded by 150 metre sandstone pillars or pyramids.
The hotel rooms in Bulgaria have been 'interesting'. Most very basic, foam mattresses, cotton sheets. Wi-Fi of various levels of acceptability. Sockets parting company with the wall. The room in Melnik is pretty with pine furniture and am iron bedframe. But this one still follows the pattern of light bulbs that don’t work. Half of the dozen bulbs here are dead. And that includes the main light in the bathroom. Perhaps it’s a Bulgarian tradition
We started our trip in the rain in Sophia and we've finished in the rain. At least that means there are no other visitors here at Rila, Bulgaria's' most famous monastery. St John , the most prominent Bulgarian saint, established a monastery here further up the mountain but it was repeatedly destroyed and the site was moved in fourteenth century. The only part of that monastery which survives is a defence tower. The rest was destroyed by fire. The remaining UNESCO monastery is the best example of revivalist (post Ottoman) architecture in the country (I'm told).
There are more frescoes by Zohari Zograf depicting scenes from the Bible. The interior is even richer than those we have already inspected. It’s bigger and wooden, much darker and there are a plethora of gold stands, candelabra and vivid paintings surrounded in gold filigree. But for me, although beautifu,l it does not have the same allure as the Bachkovo Monastery. The monks cells here are on terraces, with pretty painted stone arches and balustrades.
This is probably the earliest and freshest I ’ve ever eaten lunch real time. Trout from the fish farms that lie alongside the mountain streams beneath us in a Rila restaurant. We have to be at the airport at 12.20 for the return journey home. The plane is delayed, of course.
Read more about Bulgaria here.
Burundi is one of only eight countries I haven’t visited. I’ve been through the airport at Bujumbura when I visited Rwanda but in those days the country was torn by internal conflict and deemed to be too dangerous to visit. I have to go back if I’m to reach my target of Every Country in the World. But I’ve got mixed feelings. Burundi is ranked as the poorest country in the world by GDP. Wikipedia cites 'poverty, corruption, instability, authoritarianism, illiteracy, and more’. One of the smallest countries in Africa, Burundi is densely populated and employment chances are grim, so young people emigrate in search of opportunities elsewhere. This has also been rated the unhappiest country in the world. Let’s see.....
I’ve travelled from Uganda. Both countries are in the central, Great Lakes of Africa region, The Heart of Africa. Burundi lies along the second deepest lake in the world, Lake Tanganyika. And I’m going to be exploring Burundi with smiley guide Justin and handsome young driver Sammy. They talk to each other in Kirundi, the sole national language.
Bujumbura is strategically important, as the largest port on Lake Tanganyika. It’s also the biggest city and economic capital of Burundi. So, there are government buildings in differing states of repair, lots of small shops and a few monuments. The monuments are surrounded by iron railings, painted in the national colours. You have to pay an arm and a leg to enter and this includes an obligatory guide, who recites speeches you can read from the sign boards. I peer through the enclosure at the Park of Presidents and talk to some ladies filming a video at the Unity Monument.
The Unity Monument was erected in 1991, by Tutsi President Pierre Buyoya, as part of the effort to defuse ongoing tensions between the Tutsi and Hutu tribes. So, this seems like a good moment to introduce a little history. Twa, Hutu and Tutsi peoples have lived in Burundi for at least 500 years. As with Rwanda, the relative ethnic proportions are roughly 85% Hutu, 15% Tutsi and 1% Twa (the indigenous pygmy forest dwellers).
Burundi was an independent kingdom, until 1899, when Germany invaded and it became part of German East Africa. Following the First World War, the League of Nations "mandated" the territory to Belgium. After the Second World War, Burundi was amalgamated with Rwanda and designated a United Nations Trust Territory, named Ruanda-Urundi . It was jointly ruled by the Germans and Belgians.
Burundi gained independence in 1962, initially as a monarchy, but the regime quickly became unstable. A republic and a one-party state was established in 1966, but internal conflict continued. Horrifyingly, civil wars and genocides resulted in hundreds of thousands of deaths. The situation is slowly stabilizing, but the country is still described as being in political and economic chaos.
There are great views across the city from the monument. It's reached after a hill climb through some extremely affluent villas mansions and embassies, which stand in stark contrast to the low rise tin roofs down the valley.
Just outside Bujumbura, at Mugere, is another, not-to-be missed, monument. This marks the spot where Henry Morton Stanley is supposed to have caught up with David Livingstone in 1871 - I presume. They've added statues to the original etched stone erected by the Belgian colonists. Very sadly, this is another claim that turns out to be untrue. The famous meeting actually took place in Ujiji in Tanzania on 10 November 1871, as Stanley' himself, writes in his book, "How I Found Livingstone". The pair did visit Mugere, a few days later, by canoe from Ujiji, exploring rivers which might flow out of Lake Tanganyika.
Along the lakeside, beyond the port, are myriad beach hotels and restaurants. The Atrium does lovely food and you can watch the waves rolling from your table. But, with main courses at ten GBP it’s extortionately expensive for Burundi. Justin takes me in there, but refuses to order food for himself.
For lodging, I've been sampling one of the best five star establishments, The Club du Lac Tanganyika. I've a lake view from my room, which is comfortable and pleasant enough, with ethnic fabrics. It would be nice if the TV worked, the entrance hall light would stop flickering and the shower didn't instantly flood the bathroom. (And yes the staff do rectify it all after a reminder). There's a large blue 'semi Olympic ' swimming pool with peeling paint on the bottom, a gym, conference facilities and a restaurant with beach outlook, friendly staff and slow service.
There's a national park to the west of the city ( and almost at the Rwandan border), where the Rusizi River wanders into the lake. Red churning waters contrast nicely with the vast sparkling blue expanse of Tanganyika. It’s a good spot for another tranquil boat trip, with bloats (apparently that’s the correct collective noun) of hippo keeping their usual wary eye on us, bobbing up and down, and a sole crocodile. I'm not sure if this is Gustave, a Nile crocodile, rumored to have killed 300 people here. He's big enough. And there are numerous pelicans and other water fowl. The boatman has a guide book and insists on showing me each species we come across.
The Burundi countryside is beautiful. Justin says this is 'The Country of 1001 Hills'. One more than Rwanda. The roadside towns have small crumbling brick built shops and stores. The markets are utilitarian and crammed with shoppers spilling onto the tarmac. The Burundians are fervent Catholics. Their homes might be small and in need of repair, but each village has an enormous brick built church, many of them modern. And I’m told the priest often has to conduct several services a day, to cater to demand. On the way, a stop at a huge church at Ijenda, built in 1941. A crowd gathers to gape as we try to take pictures of storks nesting in a tall tree.
Bujumbura is home to a million people. The remainder of the eleven million population live off the land. At first glance this doesn't feel like the poorest country in the world, or the unhappiest. For the most part it's tidy and clean. There is little litter. The men are clothed in neat western dress and the ladies are beautifully turned out in bright printed fabrics and headscarves. The baskets they carry on their heads are often beautifully woven and decorated.
The people sometimes wave and smile - calling ‘mzungu’. There aren’t many of us Europeans around especially in the deep south. At others, the Burundians are quiet but not hostile. They don't want their photos taken unless money changes hands. The myth still persists that I will sell their picture to National Geographic for a lot of cash. A few small notes do change hands at times. I don't know if it’s good to encourage this attitude, but the recipients are very grateful rather than hassling.
The poverty is evident, however, in the streams of villagers trudging the roadside wielding hoes or carrying water. Subsistence farming and the development of plantations has led to deforestation, soil erosion and habitat loss. The main crop is coffee, followed by tea. But only the government is allowed to grow for export. There are also maize, cassava, bananas and pineapple. Its thought that Burundi has some substantial mineral wealth: nickel, copper. But there aren't the resources to find out.
There are few vehicles other than bicycles loaded to the gunnels with provisions (for sale or just bought or exchanged). It takes three or four people straining, to push them up the many slopes. On closer examination much of the clothing especially on children is ragged and in need of a wash. Queues for petrol stretch three cars wide round the block in Bujumbura. Sammy has filled up in the middle of the night.