They call it citadel but it's an old circular city with remparts all around, the whole site being situated on a hill in the exact center of Kurdistan's capital.
Walking around the citadel is about the discovery of the souks, an extraordinary mosaic of sidewalks shops selling absolutely anything and everything.
Like in other souks, the merchandise is grouped by type so the walker passes sequentially into a bazar of shoes, T shirts, sunglasses, watches, belts, then spices, tools, paintings, books, agricultural machines and air conditioners!
The main square of Erbil's city center
The constructions at the foot of the citadel are built around a large square that includes a pool covered with glass walkways, although nothing is left of the latter's transparency.
Under the shopping arcades of Erbil's main square, one can expect any kind of edible and non-edible items, but fortunately no lawn mowers or plower machines like to the other side of the citadel!
Loud speakers flood the shoppers with pre-recorded noisy adverts repeating the prices a thousand times, in a desparate brain wash of the passer-by, whose chances to surrender (and buy) would then be amplified by this cerebral hammering technique.
In contrast, Erbil's "Big Ben" is so silent unlike the one of London's Palace of Westminster
One Million Colors
Textiles, souvenirs, handbags, scarfs, carpets and babouche slippers, a million items of a million colors; are these shops owned by magicians and do they sell flying carpets?
Are we inside an "Iznogoud" episode of the famous comic character?
Another million confectionery items and dozens of different honey kinds, not recommended for diabetics.
The Street Food of Erbil's Souks
Not all merchants of Erbil's souks like to sell a million item as some are rather "specialized" like the street kiosks offering fresh food on the go.
The kebab stands seem to be so popular and sell cheap and satiating sandwiches.
Not sure however if you'll loose your apetite before or after eating...
This trolley offers not less than a dozen types of oriental coffees, all prepared in brass and copper pots coming straight forward from the Bronze Age.
The design is unchanged but the layout of the bright utensils lets you believe you're in front of a coffee lab or factory, a kind of mobile plant operated and controlled by the smart phone of its owner.
Back to colors as fruit and fruit cocktail kiosks offer all kinds of juices, pulp or any combination of liquid and solid pectins.
Don't be lost however and make no confusion: if you're seeing a watermelon stand with a luxury car in the background, then no doubt you're in Erbil!
Cafe with a local Kurdish taste
At last a cafe where one can have some rest and order a coffee. I like the typical decoration and how the chairs all point to the same direction like in a theater. The movie is live before your eyes and tells the story of Erbil's daily open markets. Actors are no celebrities and the producer is totally unknown.
Finally, and in case you order a cappuccino somewhere, you may expect a specific decoration drastically differing from the classic Italian leaves. Don't let your imagination go far however, stick to geometrical oriental patterns and put aside the idea of a ...spider net.
Post scriptum: the element in the center is a fresh coffee bean.
Duba's fishermen's seaport
I had to relocate for work to the Western coast of Saudi Arabia and precisely the small and charming city of Duba located in between the flat Red Sea and the impressive mountains to the East, separating it from Tabuk direct surroundings.
With friends, we decided to walk at night Duba's fishermen's harbor area, which starts at these illuminated caves already denoting the touristical flavor of the coastal city.
A castle tower adds a bit of charm but a lot of mystery to Duba's caves as to their origins with no indication or sign of any kind. It's part of the game: walk, discover and imagine.
To the other side, Duba's fishermen's seaport, which beauty equals the ones of the Mediterranean. Traditional fishing boats decorate the harbor's enclosure and act like a brain stimulator. No doubt we were virtually transported to the wide sea in the wooden swinging feluccas, their purring diesel engines and that smell recalling we're in an oil rich country...
Stones have replaced asphalt with thanks on Duba's seaport road, so streets marry the beautiful old houses and their delightful doors. Candlestick style street masts light the walls under the amazing all-year-long "Christmas" colored lights.
A fountain sends water to the vertical dimension for those who are not satisfied with the flatness of the sea.
Around Duba's castle
Old houses made of mudbricks and mud mortar accompanied us in our walk towards Duba's castle which overlooks the seaport.
The Ottoman construction is the main attraction of the square and dominates with its imposing remparts. No one can resist moving up the street before the historical castle.
A hotel facing Duba's castle offers an unusual façade for what is typically found in Saudi Arabia, with a welcome touch of style that continued to remind us we're tourists on that night.
Abandoned heritage mud houses added one more time stamp to the plaza behind the castle. No doubt we're in the old city.
The lights and colors of Duba's North corniche
The walk continues to where Duba's North corniche is located, a 4km long nicley paved and finished walkway. Amenity lights combined to this "tunnel" of magenta colored arcs, illuminated our passage.
Those bizarre structures, not exactly umbrellas, not exactly jellyfish, not exactly mushrooms populate the seaside terraces of Duba's corniche and its horizon.
The passer by's mood keeps changing with the fountain's colors, operated on demand by its guard, each time kids or their parents beg him to push the button of the huge pumps.
The North corniche ended with more seas and more skies, virtually extending our promenade towards the Sinai Peninsula, eventually crossing Suez Canal for those of us with the most fertile imagination.
Riyadh by night - Al Olaya district
Leaving a hotel room at Al Olaya, the "quartier chic" of the Saudi capital, leads to a colorful walk between the buildings of the financial center. Riyadh's icon, the Kingdom Centre or "Mamlaka" dominates, being visible from almost anywhere. Its design is repeated on the nearby bush cuts like a 1/100 scale reproduction of the remarkable yet simple architecture.
Palm trees have been arranged all along streets like straight linear oases but skyscrapers replaced tents as a modern remake of desert life.
Banks and hotels occupy most of Al Olaya skyscrapers, with a consequent intensive use of glass. The flat material is given a less boring appearance when combined to curved architectural elements and angular lights pointing to the wide sky of Riyadh.
At some time, the walker feels like being in any modern district of a Western city. Al Olaya shop windows remind you of Barcelona or Milano as long as you don't let your eyes escape to the third dimension.
Walking down Al Olaya street
You won't meet people when walking Al Olaya street unfortunately. The use of cars is overwhelming and the extra wide walkways are empty. The only encounters are those buildings that point out each time a gap is left between the constructions around you. Hamad tower showing its plumage...
...Al Faisaliah tower, lit with white, a rare color at Al Olaya.
And finally, the astonishing Narcissus hotel with is contrasting look, like if relocated from Warsaw. Is it still Saudi Arabia?
Al-Disah valley and its Oases
We left Duba on the Red Sea coast of Saudi Arabia on the way to Al-Disah, climbing from Al-Amoude towards the thick dark mountains to the East. No doubt a few minutes only elapsed before the mountainous landscape started transporting us into another world, the one of the numerous wadis and their scattered acacia trees.
After an hour of driving, we reached something different, a whiter sand, with various species of oasis trees. Singing exotic birds invited us to leave our vehicle and hide beneath a large acacia for a coffee break.
We were wondering where to move next when a passer-by told us to follow the road till the end, you "mafi maaloum" he said? "Don't you know that you have to go there? Just keep driving till the road ends"...
And suddenly...Al-Disah mountain passage
The paved road ends for sure, with no vehicles other than off-roaders daring to continue towards the appealing valley. Our vehicle was no off-roader however, and we decided to continue walking when a safari style open roof 4x4 appeared out of nowhere; on its door: "Tabuk Tours"! Yes, it was a 1970 Toyota Land Cruiser with two rows of open air seats offering a 7km trip till the end of the drivable path. The 45 years old vehicle, worth a scrap value and driven by the 75 years old Abou Majed who's humor matches the best of the solo performances, adds to the charm of the inestimable trip!
Here we go inside Al-Disah magic mountains.
Kids on horses offer an alternative ride to those who fear the breakdown of the dismantled yet brave vehicle and were pleased to give us a free trotting show.
A few meters after the start of the escapade, locals sell hot drinks and snacks under a thick oasis. The welcome is warm, the faces smiling and a loud "hallow, how are you?" escapes from everyone's mouth making us return the same salute, denoting the victorious arrival of the first tourists, in a country where no such activity ever existed. Saudi Arabia or KSA if you prefer, is changing.
Rocks, iron, copper, the Al-Disah colors
The trip occurs between massive mountains of a reddish appearance, colored by iron, possibly copper and probably other metals and minerals expelled by the ancient volcanic activity. A thin water stream flows all the way and all the time bringing some freshness to Al-Disah microclimate.
Rains sculpted the mountains and created forms that resemble everything on planet Earth, whether nature or man made.
Some are man made for sure like these holes in a rare white and smooth rock.
For a while, I remembered "The land of black gold", that Tintin episode happening in similar mountains where Emir Mohammed Ben Kalish Ezab hid from Bab El Her insurgent. I was just expecting to encounter the cheetah...
The trip ends at this diamond shaped window, ideal for a selfie.
At last, remember to find the indestructible, uncomfortable, breezy, noisy, vibrating and charming tour operator's vehicle to enjoy this experience and make it memorable. Don't go there with a Lexus!
Alma El Chaab (Shaab)- South of Lebanon
We were driving back from Ain Ebel taking the road down to Naqoura at the southern border of Lebanon when we crossed this picturesque village which beauty was completely unknown to us. We immediately fell under the spell of this house, its magical garden and the astonishing natural stone fence that borders the street all the way inside the village of Alma El Chaab.
The tiny streets with traditional Lebanese houses invited us to continue driving inwards with a new charming discovery at each and every crossing.
Alma El Chaab is built with the same stones, of the same age, and with the same mortar!
It's homogeneity and uniformity are like it is coming out of a mold or a 3D print.
Many churches are there but we encountered two of them:
The National Evangelical Church (left)
The Mar Elias El Hay Church, initially built in 1880 and entirely renovated in 2000.
"Mar Elias" is Saint Elijah the Prophet whose story is told in the Old Testament and to whom hundreds of churches are dedicated in Lebanon.
Although most houses were closed during our passage by Alma El Chaab, we noticed they were maintained as attested by the flowers, plants and trees.
Other gardening leftovers like fertilizer bags and tools gave us the impression we just missed to meet the homeowners.
The few abandoned houses simply increase the overall charm of the village like this way beneath a wooden roofed arcade or this stair which is missing on purpose a few of its steps.
This was a safety trick not to let anyone climb to the roof while the homeowners use a wooden ladder to reach the first step.
The lower right image demonstrates the thickness of the stone walls.
Finally the last house to say goodbye simply rivals with the beauty of the first, confirming the outstanding beauty of Alma El Chaab or if you prefer "Alma The People" (Chaab means people in Arabic). We tried to search the exact meaning of "Alma" with no convincing interpretations found unfortunately.
It took us less than 15 minutes to reach Naqoura when continuing downwards on the Ain Ebel - Naqoura road. The superb blue and green colors of the crystal clear sea brought us to level zero down from the some 350m of alitude of Alma El Chaab.
Naqoura's cliff is of a white rock that reminds you with no doubt that Alma El Chaab's churches were built on that rock!
Yanouh's Christian Basilica of the 5th Century
At Yanouh in the heart of the Lebanese mountains, the first Christian Basilica dates back to the end of the 5th century. Yanouh's Basilica architecture was made of three naves separated by columns, a baptistery and a protruding semicircular apse. The floor was paved with flagstones.
The below picture shows the remains as found nowadays. Locals say a project to reconstruct the Basilica could see the light within the next few years.
The Basilica is part of a wider Roman site at an altitude of 1200m expanding from Byblos into the heights of the Lebanese mountains and Nahr Ibrahim's upper valley.
The site of Yanouh contains various temples and buildings of the 2nd century B.C. and up to the 12th and 13th centuries. But Yanouh remains most known for being the ancient Maronite Patriarchate of the Early Middle Ages.
Yanouh's Maronite Patriarchate
Cross the road from the Roman site, and you will find The Church of our Lady Mother of God which was completely reconstructed in 2017.
It is more than a church however...
Here's a brief history of Yanouh's Maronite Patriarchate:
Saint Maroun (also Saint Maron, died 410 AD), founder of the Maronite Church, sent his disciple Ibrahim to Mount Lebanon to preach the Gospel. Ibrahim settled in Joubbat Al-Mnaitri and became the Bishop of Kouroche, known as Ibrahim Al-Kouroshi.
He succeeded in his mission and founded a large Maronite community.
The Bishop then built the Church of our Lady Mother of God in Yanouh, at the center of Joubbat Al-Mnaitri, with the help of builders coming from Antioch.
When the fourth Maronite Patriarch Jean-Maroun II was elected, he could not throne in Antioch due to the persecution of Christians; he then settled in Yanouh between a strong community of some 5,000 believers. He lived in Yanouh's Church of our Lady Mother of God and Saint George church that was built by Emperor Constantine over a roman temple.
The Church of our Lady Mother of God became then the Maronite Patriarchate and remained as such during 500 years. The consecutive Patriarchs succeeded in building good relations with the West and Rome. The Popes asserted Yanouh as the seat of the Maronite Patriarchate.
The architecture is typically Phoenician Antiochian and Syriac with the existence of an altar, a nave, an apse, the Bishop throne and its bema (bima).
Original Christian cross as found on a stone and used as is during the reconstruction of the church of Yanouh:
A little escapade to the nearby "Saidet Al Habs"
At a 10-minute drive from Yanouh, you can visit the Lady of "Habs" site which is located at the beginning of the village of Akoura.
The Virgin Mary statue was airlifted by a Lebanese army chopper and is accessible by walking on a small footpath from Akoura. but it is more interesting to climb the thousand steps stair from the road between Mejdel Akoura and Akoura.
There are two statues that can be visited when following the suggested trail, the old "Saydet El Habs" Virgin Mary statue placed on a balcony and accessible to all after a few hundred steps (picture to the left) and the newer one, with the Virgin Mary holding Jesus on its shoulders and that needs a further effort to climb the stairs of several hundreds steps.
The stairs are like part of the cliff and offer a breathtaking view and experience.
The steps are uneven and of unequal height which adds more fun to the climbing adventure.
A breathtaking view from Saidet Al Habs on Akoura's picturesque village, its numerous irrigation ponds, and the superb upper Nahr Ibrahim valley.
Yanouh's Apples and Wine...
Akoura is famous for its red apples which you can buy locally if you're visiting in September and the same extends down to Yanouh.
A wine tasting at Chateau Wadih is perfect for ending this Christian history trip and for remembering Jesus first miracle in the Southern village of Cana in Lebanon when he turned water into wine during a wedding.
I hope you enjoyed reading and discovering Yanouh.
An apple tree and a walnut tree as seen nearby the Church of our Lady Mother of God:
Chateau Wadih's caves:
We left Jezzine heading towards the Bekaa valley and reached Mashgara after crossing the beautiful landscapes of South Lebanon. At first, we were disappointed by the newly built houses of this famous village of the West Bekaa but soon discovered this tiny street that takes you up to Mashghara's church and its surroundings, where the stone walls of old Lebanese houses and the stairs in between them invite you to stop the car in this almost pedestrian zone and take a walk in the picturesque district.
This is how you discover how the charming front doors and windows of the renovated houses of Mashghara rival with the sadly abandoned ones that will let you build your own version of the past and present of the owners.
And then, we reached this vegetable garden, with its perfect arrangement of the plant rows. Others have planted grape vines, trees and flowers to decorate their terraces.
This abandoned house of Mashghara offered us a delightful color palette! The thick white plaster left its orange earth clay, the ageing of the wooden roof created a mix of grey and brown shades and the green paint of the door and shutters proved to be stronger than the UVs.
Daily exercising is not an issue for the lucky homeowners of Mashghara. They simply climb back the stairs after each visit to the grocery store...
Thanks for reading and sharing, Lebanon is a beautiful Mediterranean country with an astonishing history and mix of cultures.
A collection of front doors from Italy
Tivoli's visit near Rome in Italy is a mandatory passage for reaching the famous Villa d'Este. The picturesque tiny streets of Tivoli's city center offer to their visitors a collection of front doors that have aged just enough to be at the top of their charm...
Fortunately, no one fixed the paint scratches.
Electrical wires enter and leave the thick plaster at any place and for any reason while the almost vertical wall lights are fixed to different heights.
The brown doors with half-circle transom windows are an Italian classic widely found in Tivoli.
Simply over-charming planters hanged near this basement door at the street level.
No doubt they are a better indication of the entrance than any sign or arrow.
Note the wooden beams that hang out of the rough wall and that support nothing; an additional decoration that adds to the overall appeal of the house.
Flowers on all doors with no exception...
These elevated front doors accessible by stairs are simply perfect...unmatched charm.
Finally, this wall has it all: beautiful window shutters, the picture of Virgin Mary, an attractive mid-age front door, hanged flower pots, planters, a unique mailbox and indeed visible electrical wires!
Just a walk from the train station towards the center of the village and you will be surprised by an unexpected itinerary in the gardens of the Villa Gregoriana from where you can have a beautiful view of the Temple of Vesta and the village.
The walk in the Villa Gregoriana park is mainly in the refreshing shadow of a pine forest with several points of interest like the Neptune grotto or the waterfalls. It's an hour of easy hiking route.
The grand waterfall as seen from a close access within the hiking circuit will impress you by its height and consequent loud noise or sound if you prefer:
The Villa Gregoriana site of Tivoli includes two waterfalls, the largest being the most impressive (pictured here from a lower access point) while the smaller offers a quiet journey in mother nature.
Tivoli's hill offers nice views to the Roman plateau each time a gap between its colorful buildings and picturesque houses allows you to throw your eyes as far as it is physically possible. The walk in its tiny streets is of great interest with many architectural details to discover.
Suddenly, you reach the grand square where the market takes place.
The contrast with the almost desert streets is there: street meetings, gatherings, grocery bags in each and every hand...life!
And indeed, one cannot pass through Tivoli without noticing the unique South-Italian Christian ornaments, enough to feel blessed at almost each and every building's corner.
A touch of Italian leather to put some colors in this relaxing Tivoli environment.
Yet, we did not visit the magnificent Villa d'Este!
The Castel Gandolfo - Nemi - Frascati trip
If you plan to rent a car and visit Rome's surroundings in a day or less, this could be a good trip rich in sightseeing, history, relaxation and fun.
The three villages of Castel Gandolfo, Nemi and Frascati are near each other at about 30 minutes drive from Rome then some 15 to 20 minutes to go from one location to the other.
They let you pull away from the crowds and enjoy tourist attractions at a reasonable frequenting, with no queues or excessive numbers of people.
This picturesque village offers many sightseeing points to the lake Albano.
The superb blue lake formed in a ancient volcano crater.
Once you cross the main gate, you can visit both the castle and the village which large square invites you to savor an espresso or cappuccino during a break.
The Pope's summer residence includes the portraits of previous Popes and an audio guide system allows you to listen to the individual story of each of them. The old Pope's vehicles, limousines or papamobile are exposed at the castle's entrance.
The castle's windows all offer a superb view to the azure lake.
The Pope's residence rooms are each a piece of art on its own, walls and ceilings being completely covered with paintings and ornaments while the marble floor's luster completes the picture reminding you you're no doubt living the magnificent and surreal period of the Renaissance.
Nemi - Lake Nemi
That's a smaller lake than the lake Albano with the same azure blue color however and again another picturesque village at the ancient volcano crater, Nemi.
Nemi is at a 10-minutes drive from Castel Gandolfo, the ideal place to have lunch after having visited the latter. The view is breathtaking every time the lake appears in between Nemi's colorful houses.
Nemi's main street is so colorful, the roof tiles so old and the south Italian details like satellite dishes, antennas and hanging clothes bring the picture to a complete charm.
Don't forget to taste the delicious berries to which the area is famous and that will help you digest the overwhelmingly appetizing mixed grill served at one the local restaurants.
Frascati is reputed for its berries and wine but you can also enjoy its main church in a quite large and beautiful square from where you can walk the tiny streets all around and have a cappuccino in one of the numerous trattorias.
Frascati's visit should be extended to the Byzantine-Greek abbey at the edge of the village which hides a beautiful Eastern style church.