Sunday, March 15, 2015

Another Fuzzy Border

Perhaps because of my feelings about visiting a country at war, and also to ease the worries that my family back in Italy had, I decided use some of my time in the Middle East to go and experience an island right across the water from Tel Aviv: Cyprus.

Planted in the middle of many civilisations, the island looked incredibly enticing. So we flew there for a  week-long diversion. Right on the plane we met a nice Portuguese man who gave us some suggestions about what to eat and where, so we ended up dining out with him. We had a meal that I thought I knew from the many middle eastern restaurants in the Bay Area but nothing really can prepare you for an authentic seafood Mezze in the old port, Larnaca.

That was only the first of a series of fantastic meals that made me completely reconsider my appreciation for Greek food. Fresh seafood, cooked simply but with great flavours, such as olive oil and lemon. Refreshing salads with a remarkable amount of fresh, sweet onions, something that I tried replicating with disastrous results on my taste buds here in San Francisco.

Since we were on an island, seaside is a great place to explore on all sides. We got to indulge on known resorts, and we were able to hike, off road drive, relax and bask in the sun on very remote beaches.

A dancing Venus and a bathing one. Cyprus is considered to be the birthplace of the goddess of beauty and love.

But Cyprus also has vineyard-dotted hills, where agriculture and livestock complete the picture of a tourism driven economy. Cyprus is quite a destination for foodies, thanks to the variety of landscapes you can find in its confined space. Their wine is not bad, but their own version of Grappa, a liqueur based on distilled grapes, is extraordinary, and it is called Zavania. Food up there is more hearthy and Mezze tend to excel in the meat department.

Up in the mountains, there are lots of charming small medieval villages that bring you back hundreds of years. The slow pace of life there felt really regenerating to me.

As I mentioned, Cyprus is in the middle of many civilisations, and its history has been haunting the place until very recently. We landed on the Greek side, but leaving Jerusalem only a few days earlier made us more sensitive to fuzzy borders across uneasy neighbours. We were unable to cross to the Turkish side, both because of time constraints, and because it is more involved than we wanted. It is not simple to cross on a car, but it is possible to walk across the border in the capital, Nicosia (Lefkosia). I definitely want to see the other side next time I go.

It is interesting to see the many different religions here too. Orthodox, Catholic, and Muslim buildings are easily found all over the island, with a very mediterranean architectural flavour to them. Most Mosques were actually built by the Turks, but since the invasion in 1974, you won't find many Turkish Cypriots in Greek Cyprus. Algerians, Tunisians and Moroccans are the main frequenters of such Mosques. 

Despite their rampant patriotism, Cypriots are very warm and welcoming people, and that has attracted an increasing number of expats. I can see the appeal. A warm, affordable semi-independent country right in the Eurozone, with a great mix of historical and natural beauty. And food, don't forget about the food.

Monday, March 9, 2015

The Cradle of Religions

It took me a while to decide. In fact I went back and forth on this for several months. My emotions were strong in both directions... I really should go. No, really, I cannot, it's not right.

My girlfriend has a mixed background, half Chinese, half Middle Eastern. Part of her family is from Jerusalem and she even spent several years in Israel.

The time had come for her family to go visit, and they expectantly invited me to join them. On one hand, it should have been a no brainer. Uncles, aunts, grandparents, and cousins were looking forward to meet me. Mayah felt strongly about it and I, as you probably figured by now, love traveling. Oh and I love culinary traveling even more. 

I hope you remember though, this was Summer 2014. Israel was leading a very polarising campaign against Hamas, in Gaza. I won't pretend I took no position. I see why Israeli civilians felt unsafe with rockets falling periodically on their current territories. They wanted to put an end to it. But what the Israel government, and parts of the military, ended up doing in Gaza, as well as what it does every day, is wrong, and I could not condone it. Also, I am Italian. Europe doesn't feel the need to almost unconditionally support Israel as much as the US does. Really there are whole books written about this. I won't get into it too much. My only point is, it took me a while to decide.

What follows is a snapshot of the little Israel I was fortunate to see, as well as a few places across the border. 

The first place we visited was Jerusalem. One of the most beautiful cities I have ever visited.

I guess I identify as freely spiritual at best, but I was born into a moderately Catholic family, and grew up with the classic movies about Jesus, set in Rome occupied Jerusalem. All the way from colossals like Ben-Hur, to Monty Python's Brian's Life. Seeing it in person tickled that part of my child mind that had all those images memorized, and it weirdly felt like coming home.

Jerusalem is an intensely spiritual place. It is a pivotal place for three of the major religions (with all their variations and flavours) in the world, and the result is that the old city is split into quarters. The Jewish one, the Christian, the Muslim, and one that is more historical and cultural than religious: the Armenian.

Millions of tourists and pilgrims flock into the City and the Holy Sepulchre every year. We had to squeeze through dense crowds to be able to catch a glimpse of this holy place.

Even as a culturally detached person as I am, it made a certain impression to see the Via Crucis, the places I was taught about so much, where the passion of Christ took place. It is now a bustling market in the Old City, where people of diverse backgrounds sell their specialties. 

The smell of spices, bread and turkish coffee impregnate the air, and the foodie in me could not help stopping and marvelling at all the delicacies.

Oh... the bread...

Turkish coffee... I could get used to it

A mountain of spices

As I said, this was a family vacation, and Mayah's family really made me feel welcome and put efforts in trying to show us as much as they could in the short time we had.

Family feast in Bet Shemesh 

We were able to visit Bet Shemesh and Tel Aviv as well as Yafo, the medieval coastal town. Bathing in the warm waters of the Mediterranean sea at sunset is something I hadn't done in many years, and it will always be in my heart.

performers in Tel Aviv old train station
We swam in the Dead sea. It is amazing to float so high in the water. Pro hint: don't shave. The salt will not be kind to your micro cuts. Also, pay attention to the currents, the water seems calm but but it can drag you far away from the shore, and it is impossible to swim fast with most of the body floating up. 

We also climbed the Masada mountain, an impressive fortress on the cliffs, where a whole mass suicide took place. Read: a relative majority voted to have everyone (men, women and children) murdered except for a couple of survivors who managed to hide. The event made an impression on the sieging Romans, and for some twisted reason it has been hailed as heroic through the generations, all the way to today.

the Dead Sea Scrolls

Almost a year later, I haven't changed my mind on the constant conflict in the area. But in the end, I am glad I went. Not just because I had a great time, and it was way more peaceful and safe than the US media made it appear. But rather because I got to see how gritty, weird, complex and diverse Israel is, with all of its idiosyncrasies. In many ways, it is more real. And to me, that is more relatable and endearing.