U.S. south 6: Tupelo, Lynchburg, Nashville and Memphis

Tupelo

Tupelo is the birthplace of Elvis Presley – otherwise, who would ever know it exists. The tiny town has a park with a big statue of Elvis, in case you want to take a selfie with the King, this is the best place. Beside the modest little house he grew up in, there is a big souvenir shop. I’m guessing true fans would benefit more from visiting Graceland (where he lived as a big star), but I prefer this intimate atmosphere where the masses don’t come. (I secretly still worship the pen I bought at the souvenir shop.)

Tupelo, Elvis Presley, birth house
The house Elvis lived in as a young boy.

We did drive up to Graceland later on – but decided not to enter. The entrance fees were over the roof and seeing all his wealth in which he died in, couldn’t be more satisfying than seeing the poor little cottage of his youth in Tupelo. I appreciate his music very much and I don’t need to think of him as a rich, slutty drug addict that he actually was.

Lynchburg – Jack Daniels whiskey distillery

After Tupelo, we drove in the direction of Nashville, but before reaching the city, we took a little detour. Lynchburg lies in Moore county in Tennessee and has a funny “mistake”. Moore County is a dry county (meaning no alcohol can be bought, no bars, no liquor stores..) and Jack Daniels built his famous whiskey distillery right here – in a dry county.

You can take a free tour of the distillery and the guides really take an effort to show everything, from burning wood for barrows to the end product – you can smell the whiskey in progress. The most interesting part of the tour are the details of Jack Daniels’s life. He was only 6 years old, when he decided to move out of his parents house because he didn’t get along with them. You can imagine his life was all but boring or ordinary.

whiskey distillery
Jack Daniels’s famous potion

Nashville

We drove on towards Nashville and we had some swimming in a nearby lake planned – but the “dry county” started pouring some heavy rains on us. Flash flood alarms started coming again so we did all the swimming right there on the road. It was pretty freaky and we couldn’t see 5m from the windshield, so we spent the night at the nearest motel in Manchaster. (Many little towns in the central US have weirdly familiar names (Athens, Venice, Normandy, Florence, Waterloo…).

Saturday is the best day to visit Nashville. That way you can see for yourself that partying can start even before noon. The famous party streets are Lower Broadway and Second avenue – and in the evening they close it for traffic to ease things up for the drinking crowds zigzaging from one bar to the next. We went to see the Johnny Cash museum which was nice but nothing special – pretty crowdy also. Then we just joined audience of L. Broadway street’s many live music bars.

Nashville downtown
It looks pretty empty – but when you walk through this huge park, a tiny street market appears and a band is playing some blues by the lemonade stand.

Memphis

The first thing we did in Memphis, was take a tour at Sun’s studio. I can easily say: best tour of my life! We had a tour guide Carla that made the whole thing fantastic as she knew every little detail about the big stars that started their music career here (such as Elvis, Johnny Cash, Carl Perkins, B. B. King, Jerry Lee Lewis). Elvis for instance , came to the studio when only 18 – brought his guitar and sang a slow love song (My endless love), and that recording was played to us so we could hear the frightened little Elvis trying to impress a record company. She played some other recordings to us – all with great stories to go with it. The Sun’s studio was the absolute winner of this part of the trip.

The Sun’s studio

Memphis downtown was quite empty (Sunday  mode I guess). We took a walk by the Mississippi riverbank and cruise around Mud island (residential area for the rich it seems).

Mississippi river
Recreational areas by the river.

Memphis didn’t impress me all that much – it was very similar to Nashville but much more quiet. It doesn’t have to be that way though – they have a whole street (Beale st.) reserved just for honkytonking (like Nashville and New Orleans).

Beale street on a Sunday evening.

U.S. south 5: Blues road (Mississippi)

After spending some time in New Orleans, we kind of needed to prolong the music experience of the deep south. I don’t exactly know where the original blues road starts, but for us the start was Indianola (about 280 miles north of New Orleans). That B. B. King museum was a treat and basically the only thing we went to see in this tiny little town. He died just about 2 months prior to our visit. The museum has a statue of a guitar at the entrance that looks totally cool. Before entering an older woman approached us and asked if we could take a photo of her by the guitar – she said she used to be his (B. B.’s) girlfriend. Now how about that!

The B. B. King museum Indianola

The museum told B. B.’s story from a poor black boy (parents working on a cotton plantation) to his huge success as a musician.  There was an auditorium in the museum, where you could watch a short documentary about his life and at the end of the film, there’s a short clip from a live concert somewhere – gave me the chills (and I didn’t even like blues all that much.) Obviously changed my mind. Blues is the type of music that should (more than any other genre) be felt not just heard.

A few (about 30) miles to the east, you can visit a grave of another great delta blues artist Robert Johnson. He was a big womanizer and drank a lot, which (both) eventually got him to this graveyard. Allegedly a bar owner poisoned his whiskey, because he showed too much interest in his wife. Blues fans from all around try to console his restless soul by bringing whiskey to his grave. Yes, full bottles, just left there to evaporate (possibly in the direction of the cloud he is now riding).

Robert Johnson’s grave

Blues road is full of these little monuments that only true blues fans will really appreciate. But still.. I wasn’t a big fan at that time and the “pilgrimage” to these sites was just as interesting to me than my husband (a big blues fan always and forever).  In between these sites is a whole lot of nothing. Miles and miles of cotton or corn fields and always some terrifying weather ahead. Most of the time it looked like a tornado is going to form right in our direction (and possibly chase us around a bit just for it’s own amusement). Thankfully that didn’t happen.

Another 30 miles back to the west (I guess we were zig-zagging a bit) is another blues monument and this one is not to be missed. The Dockery farms is an empty old cotton farm where the delta blues sound began. Many famous musicians (also Robert Johnson, Howlin’ Wolf…) lived and worked here or in the near surroundings.  The place is completely abandoned but a big board with all the info on this place, invites you to push a big red button. And when you do that, delta blues begins playing from speakers placed all over the farm. Best idea ever!  Nothing ever creates a better atmosphere than music itself. How obvious. Just walk around a little and be glad you didn’t miss this gem.

The Dockery farms

The last stop on our blues road was Clarksdale. We spend the night at the fantastic Shackupin, where you actually sleep in an old style shack (but fully equipped) with an absolute must in these parts  – a front porch with two rocking chairs. Fantastic! Keep in mind, you need a reservation for this experience well in advance. The “hotel” is just a few miles from Clarksdale where all the action happens. We were there in June, so the action was actually at it’s lowest – it pretty much seemed like a ghost town. We could still find live music on two locations. The famous Ground zero (owned by Morgan Freeman) was full and loud while the rest of the town looked completely empty. Like a ghost town. The other live band (a really good one) was playing in a little joint called Club 2000 -i think. It was really hard to find and was probably “unofficial”. They didn’t really have a real bar or a stage or anything. Just a big room where we sat on plain wooden chairs and a lady of indeterminable age (really she could be anywhere from 26 to 65) brought you a beer. And she was dancing all the time.

Ground Zero club

Daytime in Clarksdale offers another picture. There’s some life to be seen outside these blues joints too. You can visit the Delta blues museum and the Rock’n roll museum (which is basically a ground floor apartment of a music enthusiast who will tell you all the juicy details of rock’n roll history if you let him).

Clarksdale ghost town

For the end of our music trip, we stopped by the Clarksdale crossroads. It’s a crossroad with two guitars pointed at different directions, where Robert Johnson supposedly sold his soul to the devil and now he’s haunting the streets of Clarksdale at night. As I’ve said before – it’s a ghost town at  night.

The Crossroads Clarksdale

U.S. south 4: Crazy New Orleans

To like New Orleans, you have to be a little crazy. I think the whole city is kind of crazy – they call it The big easy.

Walking through the center and suddenly the police has to stop all the traffic, ’cause some random parade of silly costumes and party animals decided to take the streets. As they passed by the traffic is open again and everything is back to normal – just like that. A parade of who knows what.

New orleans, French quarter
Looks peaceful but wait for the night to kick in

NOLA night life

At the evening, the happening really starts – it’s like a never ending party wherever you look. A brass band comes from somewhere, marching through the street, playing some cheerful music and picking everyone with it. You just join the dancing squad and go wherever they go. The crowd is getting bigger and everyone is dancing … again, a parade of who knows what. And you are suddenly a part of it  and it feels like you just got adopted by the city.

The atmosphere is fantastic – the nights in NOLA are just one big party. They close the traffic on whole Bourbon street early in the evening, just so the party troopers can march from one joint to another. All the bars have live music and there is a special tradition of throwing beads necklaces from the top balconies of every joint. And the party mass flowing the Bourbon street down below has to catch them. I read somewhere that a woman is suppose to show her cleavage to get a necklace, but now days they just throw them all around (otherwise I can’t explain how my husband got one and I didn’t – his cleavage could definitely not be the reason).

New orleans, Bourbon street
The nights are busy here

French quarter and the Mississippi river

After such hard work during the NOLA nights, you have to take it easy during the days. There is a lot of sight seeing to be done but don’t exaggerate – remember, you are tired, hungover and need to be well rested for another night of Bourbon street madness.

The French quarter is the highlight of the city. The architecture here is quite unique – low buildings with french balconies, all of different colors. I felt like I was in the Caribbean somewhere.

New orleans
French quarter architecture

Nola has a rich history of voodoo activity and you can check out the Voodoo museum, but it’s pretty basic. Just a few small rooms of voodoo dolls and witchcraft accessories. You can take a walk by the Mississippi river where the famous long distance swimmer Martin Strel from Slovenia (yap, my homeland!) finished his swimming through the Mississippi river. He jumped into the river in northern Minnesota and did a few swings (like for about 2300 miles) and crawled back out (68 days later) in New Orleans. His energy allegedly comes from rich greasy food and sour Slovenian wine. (He swam the entire length of the Amazon river and the Danube as well – a lot of wine went down that drain.)

New orleans, Voodoo museum
Even a voodoo doll caught a necklace
New orleans
The mighty Mississippi river

You won’t be hungry in NOLA

The Mississippi riverwalk is nice and it takes you directly to a shopping mall, where you can cool of a bit (july is not a good time to be in Louisiana). Right by the river is the famous Cafe du monde where people stand in long lines to get coffee and a special pastry Beignets.

There’s lots of opportunities to try the local cuisine like gumbo or jambalaya. And of course, lots of crawfish and shrimp dishes – not my favorite so I can’t say much about it. My absolute favorite though, was a a desert – a praline made from pecan nuts. We bought a little extra for our friends back home, but our bash didn’t even last us to the Mississippi border.

Outside the city

There are many opportunities to see the swamps east and west of the city. Airboat tours at the Honey island are suppose to be the best.

We drove in the direction of Baton Rouge where the road between the two cities is called the plantation alley. Some of the old plantation houses are turned into museums and they offer a unique picture of the not so distant past. We stopped at the Oak alley plantation where the entrance fee was quite high, but we got a tour guidance from a true southern dame all dressed up in an old time fashion crinoline. She walked us through the main mansion and explained every room or slave torturing device speaking in a barely understandable southern accent. I felt like I was in a TV series North and south, playing a visitor form Europe who doesn’t really understand their language.

You can see the main house and the slave cottages and of course the main attraction of this estate – the spectacular line of huge ancient oaks in the garden. Every photographer’s wet dreams.

New orleans, plantation
The old oaks at the Oak alley plantation

The Cypress swamp (Natchez)

The best looking swamp (the most photogenic one) was definitely The Cypress swamp in Natchez trace parkway. The whole route through Natchez was pretty scenic and very peaceful – not much traffic.

The swamp was peaceful also.. until the mosquitoes noticed some fresh blood wondering around. They didn’t even notice us for the first 15 minutes, so we had enough time to admire the wonderful trees growing out of green soup-like water. Shrek would like this place – it’s perfect for solitary ogres …and mosquitoes. Eventually we had to run out of there if we didn’t want to be the main course on their feast.

Natchez
The Cypress swamp

 

U. S. south 3: Creole Nature Trail and the amazing Avery island

On the 7th day of our cruising through the south of the U.S, we reached Lake Charles (Louisiana) – the gambling paradise in the Gulf of Mexico. We skipped the gambling part (not our thing) and went for the ultimate Louisiana prize – the swamps.

Creole Nature Trail

After Austin and San Antonio, this was more my kind of sightseeing.  Nature, wild animals and swamps. Creole Nature Trail starts somewhere in Lake Charles, where the personnel in a huge park info calms you down  and assures you that the alligators are super friendly and don’t jump on everything that comes in sight. (Especially us – since we both put together don’t reach 130 kg, we are apparently not worth the chase/hassle.) If you are not used to meeting big animals, this should be your start point, otherwise just drive in.

Alligator, Louisiana
The residents of Nature Creole Trail

The trail is full of swampy areas and very popular with bird lovers and fishermen. We didn’t do any of that, we just drove by in a car which was sufficient to see the beautiful nature and more importantly – how man and nature can live together in respect. I didn’t see any fences around the houses to keep the animals away – and this is the alligator paradise. People don’t harass the animals and they don’t seem to cause any problems for the people. How cool is that! – my part of the world is not so understanding.

I really wanted to see a live alligator and eventually a really big one did come our way. He swam by as ignorantly as he could and wouldn’t pose for a photo.

The whole trail was really scenic and the houses built in this area are sometimes incredibly tall – I’m guessing the floods come often here.

tall house Louisiana Creole nature trail
Houses in Gulf area

Avery island

Our swamping tour ended at Avery island which really was a special treat. A spicy one. It’s a salt dome where the McIlhenny Tabasco company is located and you can take a tour of their factory. Beside seeing how Tabasco hot sauce is made, we got plenty of mini hot sauce samples to go – the “put in your purse” type little bottles (just in case you need some extra heat in this oven-like  climate).

Avery island hot sauce
The McIlhenny Tabasco factory

Right next to the factory is (in my opinion) the best part of this whole southern Louisiana area. The complete picture of everything to see in the south – in just a few square km. The jungle gardens. You have to pay an entrance fee but it’s well worth it. You can walk through the paths or just drive by with your car as we did – not because we were to lazy but because of the scorching heat. The AC in the car was a life saver. The gardens beautiful, full of old oaks and ponds where alligators are just laying around free and catching the sun. There’s a whole map of attractions to see in the park (bamboo, Buddha chapel …) and at the end of the park there is a huge bird nesting sanctuary (built by Ned McIlhenny – the son of the Tabasco sauce founder Edmund McIlhenny). The birds seem to appreciate it – it was packed full.

Avery island, Jungle gardenss
The ancient oaks
Avery island, Jungle gardens
Green pond with a Buddha statue in the temple
Avery island, Jungle gardens
The bird sanctuary

 

U.S. south 2: Austin & San Antonio (Texas)

Austin

The capital of Texas has a weird reputation. Literally. Their slogan is “Keep Austin weird.” All the weirdness was avoiding us I guess, and we weren’t exactly trying too hard to find it either. We had a bit of misfortune on this part of our big road trip through the South of the US. We got some food poisoning (yes, here in Austin) and it kind of ruined our Austin and San Antonio experience a bit.

Austin Capitol downtown
Austin from the Capitol window

Before our “running” troubles started, we took a day tour of Austin’s downtown. After a short walk through the streets, we decided it was too damn hot to be outside. We went to the city capitol to cool of and lucky us – a tour was just starting, so we joined in. (The tours are free :).)

It’s a very impressive building and since everything is bigger in Texas – they made a special effort to beat the White house in Washington in height. Supposedly every US state’s capitol should be faced in the direction of the White house – but Texans had a better idea. Let’s show them our ass. And they did. Austin capitol is faced in the opposite direction of Washington and therefore showing them their ass. These tours can sometimes be so rewarding.

The cooling of was successful and we were able to walk through the city a little bit more. My husband (who is a big gourmet) located a well known chef who recently started a barbecue business. The best ribs in town, he said. The place was a food truck with no toilets or running water to wash jour hands. And ribs are eaten by hands. We should have known better. That was a lesson well learned. In the evening, when we were supposed to go out on 6th street, where the non-stop party and live music is – my husband was camping in our motel toilet . As a woman, it took me a little longer to properly absorb all the bacteria and I didn’t get sick until we reached San Antonio two days later.

music Austin guitar statue
Austin is also known as the “live music capital of the world”.

So the next day, he was all sick and useless for any sight seeing and I was still full of energy (not knowing that my guts are just preparing the big attack). I took my excess energy shopping to the nearest shopping mall. Since I don’t like driving in those 6 lane highways, we agreed he picks me up a few hours later. He had quite a fever that day and that resulted in a couple of really close calls on the road and a grinding sound of our rented car chassis rubbing on a concrete block. Thankful that nothing really bad happened, we decided to leave Austin and head further south to San Antonio.

San Antonio

Due to some really heavy rain, we were constantly getting alarms of flash floods on our mobile phones. The road was more suitable for boats than cars.

river
San Antonio riverwalk

We were very happy to arrive in sunny San Antonio downtown. The Riverwalk is an absolute top attraction here. Cafes and restaurants below street level, following the river are a world of it’s own. Pure romance.

fortress San Antonio
The Alamo

The fortress of Alamo was our next stop, but where the brave Texas soldiers fought for their independence from Mexico, that’s where I collapsed. Texans were defeated by Mexico at the Alamo and I was defeated by my own body. A short recovery at our motel was needed and I was good to go (more or less). We decided to try our luck in downtown again but as soon as we parked the car, the rain started pouring and flash flood alarms stared coming in every half an hour. We sought refugee in a nearby shopping mall, because no umbrella was big enough for that doom’s day weather.

San Antonio rain
Pouring rain at the shopping mall on riverwalk

Shopping mall was nice (I’m a woman, what can I do), especially the bottom floor with food court right on Riverwalk.

There was nothing else to do but leave Texas to it’s crazy weather and head east to Louisiana.

U.S. south 1: Forth Worth (Texas)

Texas style

Forth worth was on our itinerary only because our plane happen to land there – otherwise we wouldn’t include it in our trip because we have never even heard of it. And what a shame that would be.

Texas has a certain western-cowboy sound to it but other than Forth Worth I didn’t really see them trying too hard to connect with that. Forth Worth was an exception.

 

Downtown on a lazy Sunday afternoon

They have a nice and modern downtown, similar to all the other downtowns across the US. Clean, peaceful (maybe because it was Sunday) and meeting all the southern cities requirements – a main square with a water fountain (the sprinkler type) where kids can cool off in the summer heat.

Oh yes the heat! If you are heat sensitive – choose any other season but summer. It’s like an oven (and if you can read this, you are obviously not a turkey).

One of the “refreshing” centre squares

Forth Worth also has a completely other side of town that couldn’t be more different – the Stockyards. It’s a part of town dedicated to the old style Texan life: cowboys, honkytonking, longhorn cows and old saloon style buildings. Even if it’s all just a tourist show – it really takes you back to the past. Everything is old stye, including the restaurants and shops full of cowboy hats, boots and other souvenirs.

 

Taking cows for a walk.

And yes.. They have a rodeo show every Friday. If you are an animal activist – don’t go. If you are not – go. The atmosphere was amazing. (No animal was killed or harmed, but they still poke them a little just for your fun so I guess it’s not very pleasant for the animals.)

Twice a day they move a herd of longhorn cows from one part of the main street to the other – with cowboys on horses and with whips and everything. It’s just a show for tourists but it’s still a good show.

The Stockyards are definitely the thing to see. And in the evening you can go dancing to the most famous honky tonk joint in Texas – Billy Bobs. We came in a little early so we had to pay a small entrance fee (if you come at the evening there is no fee, because you supposedly came to party, but the early birds like us who come during the day are more or less just “sight seeing” so they charge a fee). It’s a big bar, lots of lights and decorations – everything in style of course. Even though we were just the “sight seeing” tourists, we sat down for a drink and later danced alone on an almost empty dance floor. That was really nice. We should have stayed longer in Forth Worth.  

Supposedly they have a really nice Botanical garden pretty close to downtown, but we just didn’t have the time for that (we were playing cowboys in Stockyards too long and kind of ran out of time for many other things that Forth Worth has to offer.)

Forth Worth turned out to be the full package – everything you want to see in Texas.

 

Havana (Cuba)

Havana Cuba cars yank tank
Yank tank (old American cars are very popular and every local big shot has to have one – even if only for display because it’s not drivable anymore).

Cuba was our honeymoon destination but we decided to go there even before the actual wedding. That could wait a little – Cuba not so much. As I come from an ex communistic country, I wanted to see how that old regime is holding on at the other end of the world.

Che Guevara

To be honest, we were a couple of years too late. Yes, Cuba still has communism, but it is so obviously dying out. Two different currencies (money for locals and money for tourists) make you see that things are really going downhill. Normal jobs (doctors, scientists, government workers…) are paid in local currency (CUP) which is worth next to nothing, so they are desperately poor. On the other hand, everyone who works with tourists (taxi drivers, room rentals, all sorts of guides) get paid in tourist currency (CUC). That has approximately the value of an EURO. Why would anyone want to be a doctor who can barely survive, if he can be a taxi driver and earn a monthly doctor salary in a single day?

We landed in Havana where we stayed for a few days before renting a car and heading for a short road trip east and west.

We had a room reservation in an old colonial casa particular in the suburbs of Havana. The house was huge and no one spoke english. (Neither did anyone else later through out the trip.) Luckily I used to watch some Mexican soap operas and I could speak a little Spanish. (Now here’s a lesson: soap operas are actually not a complete waste of time.)    

colourful streets Havana Cuba
Havana downtown

On our first day, we decided to take a walk to the centre of Havana. That turned out to be a mission impossible. We don’t really look like cubans (skin too pale) and a biketaxi driver spotted us immediately. He wanted to drive us to the centre and we couldn’t shake him off. Eventually we caved in and climbed on his back seats. Now, that’s a funny device. A front part of a normal bike is attached to a double car seat at the back and with a little roof for so needed shadow. I have to admit that travelling this way is really nice, but we weren’t comfortable because we felt like some rich lazy lords taking advantage of a poor taxi biker. It was hot and he was pushing the pedals driving our (luckily very low weight) asses to the centre. He even made an effort of pointing all the main attractions that we drove by. We paid him more than generously and the feeling of being an rich exploiter faded away when we later realised that the amount was about an average month salary. Not much for us but a lot for him and his family. Eventually you start to see thing differently.

A biketaxi (very eco friendly – fuelled by beans as we like to say here in Slovenia).

One of the first things we went to see in Havana was Lennon park. A park dedicated to John Lennon and his statue is sitting on a park bench waiting for tourists to seat next to him and take pictures. When we tried to do that a security guy came to us and we thought we were in some kind of trouble. But no, he just came to put some glasses on Lennon’s nose and explained that if he leaves them on, they get stolen on regularly bases. So he just waits for tourists to come to the statue and brings the glasses and when they are done, he takes them back again.

John Lennon park Havana Cuba
Meeting with John Lennon at Lennon park

The centre of Havana was very lively and colourful. Full of little parks and flowers (it was march) and it seemed quite neat and tidy. Later on we walked a few blocks away from the centre and you could see the difference. The streets were not paved anymore and there was more dirt and trash everywhere. We were the only tourists walking there and you could tell that this was the real Havana. But despite the obvious poverty, the happiest kids I have ever seen where just there. Playing baseball on a muddy street, with a wooden tree branch and a bottle cup for a ball. And biggest carefree smiles ever.    

sugar cane
This is a “device” that smashes a sugar cane pole to a very sweet water to which they add some rum – and you have a cocktail.
Havana Cuba side street
Off the beaten paths.

A special treat for the artistic souls is a little street called Callejon de Hamel, which is quite short but very colorful. Poetry written on bathtubs built in wall-fence and things like that. It’s also the location of many local art galleries (just basement-style like galleries – don’t expect a professional curator to guide you through some famous art collection).

Cuba Havana artistic street tubs wall
Callejon de Hamel

A big part of the sea shore of Havana is Malecon – sort of a seaside promenade but without a beautiful sandy beach to it. (For nice beaches it’s best to go a few kilometres east of Havana.) Malecon was pretty empty when we were there (during the day) – but somebody warned us that at the evening everything comes to life. Sadly most of the happening is prostitution. (We saw the popularity of that on the beaches near Havana too.)

Havana Cuba Malecon shore
Malecon

A few km east of Havana sandy beaches start and don’t stop all the way to Varadero (a fancy high end resort for rich tourists that locals can’t even enter unless they work there). We settled in a small local town of Guanabo where we were the only foreigners. It was a complete opposite of the rest of our trip trough Cuba. Nobody harassed us for anything (taxis or or any other services) and that was the most peaceful 4 days in Cuba. They had only one restaurant but it was incredibly cheap and we even found a local store that had some chocolate bars. In all of Cuba this was the only place we saw chocolate (on our last day) and for a chocoholic like me, those two weeks of Cuba was like an involuntary  detox.   

Havana Cuba beach Guanabo
Never ending sand beaches east from Havana
Pope visit Cuba Havana
Special decoration (light effects) on a church for greeting the Pope.

Although the traces of revolution were still present on every step (revolutionary and patriotic graffiti, pictures of El Comandante and Che Guevara..), there was a lot of hustle around the  pope’s visit which was about to happen in a few days. Communism doesn’t go very well with religion, so the pope’s visit was really a big deal. At that time Fidel Castro was still alive (April 2012) and he and the pope apparently had a great time together, since Castro immediately announced a new holiday (Good Friday). That was a new work free day for Cubans and a big problem for us. That Friday was our last day on Cuba and on that same morning our landlady told us about the new holiday. All the banks were closed and ATM’s on Cuba don’t really exist, so we had no money for food. Luckily we paid the room in advance. We spent our last day chewing snack leftovers and peanuts we found in our pockets and bags. Despite that, Cuba left a nice exotic Caribbean taste in our memories.   

Fidel Castro Havana Cuba building
Fidel or Che are watching your every step. (As Castro recently died, they are probably having their first postmortem communistic meeting somewhere in another dimension – maybe in the Twilight zone 🙂

 

Istanbul (Turkey)

Many flavours of Istanbul

Istanbul is not the capital of Turkey – but that’s only a formality. The real capital Ankara lies in the desert central part of Turkey and most travellers prefer the coastal charm of Istanbul.

It’s a huge city – about 15 million residents – some say between 12 and 19 million (19 probably if you count in the numerous stray cats that wander round the streets). It lies on two continents (Europe and Asia) that are separated by a narrow stretch of sea that connects the Black sea and the Mediterranean Marmara sea (the Bosphorus strait).

Because of it’s rich history (as a Roman colony and then the center of Ottoman empire) the cultural monuments are practically on every corner.

Most of the attractions are on the European side of the city so the Asian side is a little less invaded by tourists. The best way to travel across the strait is a short ferry ride.

The residential areas are very crowded and steep.

We stayed at a small hotel in a very narrow and steep street near Taksim square (one of the main squares in Istanbul). Most of the streets are very steep so I’m guessing the locals are in a very good physical condition because of all the uphill hiking.

One of the streets that leads to the Taksim square is Istiklal avenue – most lively street in all Istanbul. Shops, street vendors, bars and restaurants can keep you busy as long as you have some money left to spend. And when the night falls – Istiklal street becomes the center of night life. Every little pub in the tiny side streets of Istiklal has live music. If it was busy on a Monday night, I can only imagine how a Saturday night might look.

Istiklal avenue is always busy.

The main attractions of Istanbul are the mosques. The highlight is the famous Hagia Sophia which was built as a greek orthodox christian church at first but many years later (due to the “new sultans in town”) transformed to a mosque. Since it’s not serving religious purposes anymore (it’s a museum), you can check the architectural masterpiece in and out. But first you will have to stand in line for a ticket…it may take a while. A reputation like that has it’s price.

All the other mosques (like the Blue mosque) are also worth visiting as they are just as magnificent – but some of them are still used for prayers and therefore limited for visitors. Women will be given a scarf to cover their head before entering.  

Hagia Sophia

The Tokapi palace is a huge estate where many sultans lived and used as their fortress. It lies on a small hill by the sea and is surrounded by a beautiful green park. Today it serves as a museum and you can explore the sultans quarters and harems (where all his many wives lived) yourself.

Beautiful park at the Tokapi palace

It would be unfair not to at least mention some of the culinary delights of Istanbul. The best breakfast was waiting for us on the Taksim square every morning. A street vendor was selling this round bread-like pastry called simit. Simple and delicious. Turks are known for their special sweets such as Turkish delight (not really my favourite) and baklava (very sweet baked pastry filled with walnuts or something similar – to sweet for me). My favourite dessert was chocolate filled with pistachio seeds which I bought in one of many chocolate stores on Istiklal street.

And there were many kebabs of course – but that doesn’t really need introducing.

 

   

 

Jajce (Bosnia)

To really see Bosnia and Hercegovina, a road trip is the best way. Roads in general are in good condition, especially between all the larger cities.

The city of Jajce (Literally Jajce means Egg – who know’s why they named a city that way.)

The first stop was the city of Jajce, which lies in central BIH (Bosnia and Hercegovina). It’s not a big city, but for visitors from other countries of ex Yugoslavia it has a certain nostalgic note to it. Namely the second  session of the Anti-fasist council for the national liberation of Yugoslavia was held here in 1943 and it was sort of a beginning of communistic Yugoslavia. Many people (all ages) from all parts of ex Yugoslavia came to this meeting by foot – as a pilgrimage. For example: the shortest way from Slovenia’s  capital Ljubljana to Jajce is 361 km and Google maps says it would take 76 hours of (non-stop) walking. (And since Google knows these things pretty well, we should believe it to.)

However you feel about political past of ex Yugoslavia – it’s still a part of our history and it put the city of Jajce on the map. Otherwise you would hardly think of a good reason to stop here, even though it’s quite a nice little town.

The main attraction these days is a waterfall in the city center. You can actually walk all the way to the edge of the waterfall and stand right over the point where the water breaks and falls about 20m down. It’s called the Pliva waterfall, because here the river Pliva joins the river Vrbas.

The Pliva waterfall

 

The old part of town offers a nice walk. Beside the waterfall, there is a giant rock formation and some local businesses (a flowershop, cafe,..) are carved right into the rock – only their entrances are on the outside of the rock.

Standing on the edge of the breaking waterfall

We took a short walk through the town’s picturesque streets and ended the tour with an absolute Bosnian must. Burek – or the most typical (and signature) food of all Yugoslavia, especially Bosnia. Burek is a meet or cottage cheese pie (very greasy and absolutely delicious) which was brought to Bosnia by the Turks in the middle ages. For inventing such a masterpiece as burek, the Turks shouldn’t get a Michellin star for culinary achievements – they deserve a Michellin solar system. Honestly, I have never met anyone who didn’t like it.

You can get many different types of burek through all ex Yugoslavia (meet, cottage cheese, potato, zucchini, spinach..) and they will probably upgrade the variety even more.

Enough said about burek – if you go to BIH you must try it.

About 3 km west from Jajce lies a lake (Pliva lake) with a special treat for all history fans. There are several water mills on the lake, dating back to the middle ages. They are all shaped like little wooden houses with no windows. Beside the site seeing, the lake offers lots of sports activities and camping.

Bosnian landscape – You shouldn’t sleep in the car – you would miss the fantastic landscape passing by.