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Photo found at http://www.cagalogluhamami.com.tr/

I’ve run across two schools of thought with regards to visiting a bathhouse or hamam in Turkey: it’s either a must-do activity or something akin to torture. Or it’s both: I had a friend enthusiastically implore me to take the plunge while simultaneously describing the experience as being “scoured”. It left me curious but apprehensive. So on my last day in Istanbul, I tentatively made my way over to the Cagaloglu Hamami, fully intending to try something new, but knowing I could turn chicken and run at any moment. I am so glad I didn’t succumb to nerves!

The idea of the public bathhouse dates back to ancient Greece and Rome, and the practice continued to thrive throughout the Ottoman Empire. While it was primarily for hygienic purposes (at a time when household bathrooms were unheard of), it also served a social function: inevitably, you’d run across your boss, your cousin-in-law, your neighbour. Business deals would be made, and much gossiping spread.

The traditional bath has multiple stages. First, you undress and are given a pestemal, a thin cotton towel to wear. Bathing is usually done in the nude (go figure), but due to the influx of Western tourists and the opening of co-ed bathhouses, you have the option of wearing a bathing suit. You will also be given a pair of clogs to wear – a lot of bathhouses have marble floors and there is water everywhere – however, you can wear your own flip-flops instead (I did; I found them easier to walk around in). These are public hamami, so there will be others sharing the facilities with you, but if you can handle showering in a locker room, you can handle this.

You’ll be led (so you don’t slip) to an area full of extremely warm air and steam, where you’ll sit for about a half hour – anyone familiar with a sauna will be comfortable with the idea of sweating the toxins away and opening the pores of your skin. Once you’re good and sweaty, you’ll be lead over to a bench where an attendant will bathe you. Warm water will be poured over you and you’ll be scrubbed down – everywhere – with a kese, a rough cotton glove. Depending on how sensitive your skin is, you could find this part uncomfortable, but I didn’t think it was any worse than using a loofah or exfoliating gloves found in most drugstores at home. The next step is a massage, after which you are brought to another room to cool down and relax.

This was the best thing I could have done for myself on my last day in Turkey after an enjoyable but packed two-week tour. I would do it again in a heartbeat. It doesn’t hurt that the hamam I went to was over 350 years old and absolutely gorgeous (it’s on the list of 1000 places to see before you die). However much I want to encourage everyone to go, there are plenty who have gone and wish they hadn’t. You’ll be breathing in steamy air for a considerable time (at least an hour), and your attendent will get personal with parts of you that few others do.

As much as I love travelling, it can be exhausting and overwhelming at times. This was indulgent and relaxing, and I felt fantastic when it was all over. I need to remember to do more of these kinds of things when I’m away.

Photo from http://www.cagalogluhamami.com.tr/

Death Valley Junction, California, is a very tiny town located near the border with Nevada. It’s surrounded by the Mojave desert and contains more abandoned buildings than people. A hotel and restaurant display the only signs of life should you happen to drive by it on the highway.

I stopped here briefly on my way to Death Valley National Park, and this speck on the map was the highlight of my day thanks to the Amargosa Opera House and the inspirational story of Marta Becket.

Once a busy location for borax mining operations in the 1920s, the town was in full decline in the late 1960s when Becket, a dancer from New York City, stopped in Death Valley Junction to fix a flat tire. Seeing possibility in a run-down meeting hall, she rented the space and began performing her own one-woman shows there.

In the beginning, audiences were small, but Becket performed three shows a week whether there was anyone there to watch her or not. She painstakingly repaired the theatre with the help of donations and painted permanent audience on its walls, albeit one that would fit better in Shakespeare’s time than modern-day California.

The king and queen sit in a royal box at the back, surrounded by courtiers. Nuns attend the same performance as the ladies of a bordello. Actors and dancers wait in the wings for their turn to join the action onstage.

In time, word of this unique theatre and the entertainer whose vision transformed it spread and seats began to fill up on a regular basis. In 2009 when I visited, more than 40 years had passed since she first settled there, and Becket was still dancing for sold-out audiences, many coming from long distances just to see her.

Stepping into the opera house for the first time is an experience, as you come face-to-face with what one person can do with an idea and some determination and guts. Becket created a space for herself to do what she most loved to do in the craziest location.

Death Valley Junction is even now practically a ghost town, but the Amargosa Opera House saved it from its inevitable fate. With Becket now in her late 80s, I hate to think of that charming little building left to crumble in the sand and wind of the desert. Here’s hoping her vision lives on.

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Have you noticed that colour always seems so much richer when you visit a new place? It’s as though all synapses are firing at full power and your senses come alive. Pop, pop, pop – eye candy everywhere.

It’s not just colour – everything feels so much more when I’m away. Foods burst with flavour and smells are sharper; my pillow could be soft as a cloud or hard as a rock  – either/or but never in between. All I want to do is see, touch and taste everything (though I have learned the hard way, some things are better left unsmelled).

One of my most distinct memories of Turkey is standing on the top of a hill with miles of Cappadocian countryside stretched before me as the noon call to prayer began warbling from the loudspeakers of a nearby mosque. These two, the awesome sight of the landscape and the incomprehensible (to me) prayer, are so linked in a sense memory that I can’t imagine one without the other.

It’s not as though we don’t have blue skies, green grass or purple flowers at home (though we don’t have bodies of water that are turquoise, which is why I took approximately 500 photos of various beaches, inlets, harbours etc. along the Mediterranean coast). Still, I find myself entranced by fields of poppies; ripe fruits and vegetables; and textiles, pottery and jewellery that never quite have the same impact as I’m unpacking them from my suitcase upon my return home.

And so I will pull out my trusty camera in the hopes that I can somehow capture how beautiful those bright blue glass “evil eyes” looked embedded in the white mortar of that one building I saw. Sometimes, if I’m lucky, I can, but sometimes all I’m left with is a spectacular memory and that’ll do.

I first discovered the tales of ancient Greek gods and goddesses as a child; right from the start, I was engrossed (and I continue to be long into adulthood). Many stories revolved around the Underworld, the realm of the dead which was located directly under the ground. For most, there was only one way to enter the Underworld, but on a few occasions, people from the “upper world” travelled there by way of a special passage.

During my visit to the cave system located in Postojna, Slovenia, I couldn’t help but imagine that this was what the Greeks had in mind for their Underworld. Equal parts spooky, fascinating, and otherwordly, these caves are like nothing I’ve seen before or since.

The entire cave system stretches about 20 km, but only a fraction of that is accessible to the public. Its existence was known locally for hundreds of years, but beginning in the early 1800s, explorers discovered new and more amazing caverns within and Postojna started a new life as a “show cave”. Railway tracks were installed inside the caves later in the century and then electric lights, making it even easier for visitors to come and it soon became a popular tourist site for travellers.

The various caverns are huge (so claustrophobics need not fear entering this Underworld), with stalactites fairly dripping from the ceilings and great stalagmites rising up like pillars from the ground. Over millenia, water from the nearby Pivka River has dripped into the caves, despositing new layers of limestone upon existing ones, and the result is that much of the rock looks like it’s been frosted or like puddles of melting ice cream (in fact, I had a desperate craving for some gelato as I picked my way along the trail). Considering all the moisture required to create these caves, most find it quite cool and damp inside so a sweater is essential to have on hand for exploring.

One large cavern within has become home to the Concert Hall, with standing room for literally thousands of people. The accoustics in this cave are stellar and there are regular performances by various symphony and musical groups.

Surprisingly to me, the caves are also home to quite a thriving ecosystem, including fish, bugs and small rodents. The most famous inhabitant is the olm, otherwise known as the “human fish”: a type of blind salamander with no pigment in its skin, who survives on shrimp (though apparently can live for years without eating anything) and with a similar life expectancy as humans (check out the link for a great photo and an interesting article from Wired magazine about these unusual animals). I’m sure if Hades, god of the Underworld, had kept any pets, the strange and creepy-yet-cute olm would have been his favourite.

“What made you decide to go there?” That’s a question I’ve been hearing a lot the last couple of years. No one ever asks you that when you’re planning a trip to France or Italy, but it was the first thing anyone asked me when I talked about my trip to Iceland last year (and it’s come up again recently since I’ve decided to visit Turkey this spring). For true adventure travellers, none of the places I’ve been to are especially exotic, but many people choose to spend their holidays closer to home at cottages up north or in tropical locations like Cuba or Mexico.

I don’t have a long “bucket list” of places I want to see before I die, and in the few short years that I’ve been able to travel outside of North America, I’ve crossed a number of them off the list (the timing has just never been right to go to my number one spot, Greece). Truthfully, many of the places I’ve been to so far were never on that list and I haven’t added many new destinations to it either. I do have a few countries on my “maybe someday” list – it would be nice to go to Australia or Thailand or Peru someday, it’s something to keep in mind for next time.

And yet, when it comes time to make a decision about where I want to go, like a magpie drawn to sparkly objects, I find myself distracted from such lists – by a random photo I stumble across or a kernel of an idea planted by talking to someone or just simply from a golden opportunity knocking at my door. Before I know it, I am counting down the days until I step foot in a country I’d never given much thought to before and it’s the most exciting thing ever.

I’m dazzled by places that I haven’t seen thousands of pictures of beforehand. I am continually surprised and charmed by places I knew little about prior to visiting. The thrill of discovery is addictive and I am bubbled over with enthusiasm when I return home and spread tales of my travels.

I’ve heard amazing things about the Algarve in Portugal, and with the World Cup coming to Brazil in 2014 that might be the perfect time to go south and cross Iguazu Falls off my bucket list. If I really want to torture myself, I’ll pore over the list of World Heritage sites. Oh, if only money was no object, I’d have all the time in the world to go any place I’d ever want to.

“What made you decide to go there?” I don’t really have a good answer to that question, other than it’s there and it sounds awesome. However, I’m always interested in good suggestions: where would you love to go and why?

A few years ago, I read the novel Perfume: The Story of a Murderer, by Patrick Süskind – the main character, Grenouille, finds himself at one point in the story working for a perfumer, Baldini, whose store is one of many buildings located on a bridge over the Seine in Paris. I’ve since been intrigued by the idea of such bridges with multi-floor buildings on them, common in medieval times and surely bustling with people and commerce, indistinguishable from any street on shore. The famed London Bridge was another such example; like most others, it was eventually torn down to make way for newer structures.

Naturally, I was delighted to see the Ponte Vecchio in Florence, Italy – one of the few remaining (if not the sole remaining, I wasn’t able to confirm) medieval bridges still housing merchants within. As you walk along the cobble-stone paved  (pedestrian only) bridge, you pass jewellery store after jewellery store lining both sides. The story goes that one of the de’ Medicis who ruled Florence at the time tossed out the butchers that used to be located on the bridge in favour of gold merchants – either because the smell of meat bothered him or he just wanted to class the joint up a bit.

Midway along the bridge, room was left for an open terrace with arches that offer a view of the Arno River – it’s the first reminder since stepping onto the bridge that you’ve left shore. Above the shops is a passageway built by another de’ Medici that connects the main town square to the Pitti Palace, supposedly so that he could travel between the two without mixing with the plebes below.

Closer look at the de' Medici passageway and the terrace at the centre of the bridge.

The Ponte Vecchio is also the first place I came across a modern tradition that has started to plague many destinations: young lovers locking padlocks to any of the various railings at each end or somewhere along the bridge and tossing the key into the river, symbolizing their everlasting bond (gack). It seems like a silly, romantic kind of thing to do, but it creates a real eyesore in the places where people have taken to doing this and a hassle for city officials who must continually remove them and repair the damage caused by this practice. You can’t pass a post that doesn’t have hundreds of old locks crammed onto any available spot in a jumbled mess, a sad fate for such a pretty piece of history.

And so with that, I’ve taken the Wiccan Rede as my travel credo and hope that more do the same: An it harm none, do what ye will.

It’s winter – cold, snowy, and grey – and I am longing for the return of patio season. After six months or more cooped up inside, nothing feels better than to spend time outdoors and restaurant patios here in town are packed full of people on warm summer nights. I love a good patio, and Dubrovnik was the ultimate place to hang out outdoors with a coffee or gelato and soak up the sun. But Dubrovnik at night is the main reason I hope with all my heart to go back and visit again.

We had spent almost a full day driving down the coast of Croatia and arrived in Dubrovnik in late afternoon. After settling into our rooms and cleaning up, we headed out towards the old walled city to find somewhere to eat. It had fallen dark at this point, and we could see a part of it, all lit up and looking gorgeous, out our window. It’s always very exciting to arrive at a new place and discover its charms, but I swear when we walked through the gates and into main square, I was blown away. I felt as if I had stepped into a fairytale world.

The city has a long and storied history, and between earthquakes and wars, it’s amazing that so much of it is still preserved. The stone streets are worn smooth from years of pedestrian traffic, and the architecture is typically Old Word, classic with ornate touches, all topped with those iconic red tile roofs. Hanging from every building are electric lamps shaped like lanterns that give off a bright warm glow.

For me, coming from a much newer city with not many buildings older than the 1930s and asphalt streets which are flooded with fluorescent lights, the effect was breathtaking. Great effort has obviously been made by the city’s caretakers not only to preserve this piece of history, but to ensure that it still has life. People still live and work and hang out within these walls, much as they did 500 years ago – some things have changed, of course, but the rhythm of life continues on in Dubrovnik. A modern city has sprouted and spread out around the walls, but the heart definitely still beats within.

And so we found a place to rest, drink a little wine, and have a bite to eat – the only soundtrack was the chatter around us. It was a perfect evening, and though we could not wait to explore the city the next day, nothing could quite top our first glance of the square, glowing and full of history and magic.

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