White city: The brevity of my trip forced me to give up a poetic train trip to the city of Udaipur and take a mundane, one-hour flight instead. Udaipur’s historical district is famous for its breezy location on the sloping shores of Lake Pichola. No wide boulevards could fit there, merely steep and narrow streets, some of them accessible only by tuk-tuk. That is how I also traveled, with my luggage, to the guesthouse where I stayed in a haveli, one of the cozy, multi-story townhouses on the lakeshore. The top terrace had a restaurant with panoramic views of the city, the lake, and the surrounding mountains. Udaipur receives more rain than the rest of the state, which makes the landscape surprisingly lush for Rajasthan.
Rajashan’s beauty comes from the seamless melding of culture and nature. It is sprinkled with old and colorful cities, royal palaces, fortresses, temples, mountains, lakes, deserts, and national parks. Calling Rajasthan “colorful” is such a cliché, but since I traveled there right after Holi, the festival of colors, I think it right to use “colorful”. Unfortunately, I missed the Holi festival, and, on top of that, I only managed to set aside five days to sweep through this vast state at the far northwestern edge of India. Perhaps that made the Rajasthan experience even stronger.
The flight from the U.S. to Cartagena lasted only three hours, but those were excruciating hours for me. Confined between chattering snowbirds on the one side and excited youngsters on the other—they were headed for either a bachelor or a birthday party—I had difficulty concentrating on my novel by Gabriel García Márquez. Who could blame my wayward passengers for going to Cartagena, though? It is the second oldest Spanish outpost in South America and the most picturesque city in Colombia. Its center is covered with a web of narrow, colorful streets and lively plazas, protected by its iconic defensive walls, which occasionally are whipped by sea waves from across the road. The Caribbean is pleasant to swim in and the locals revel in their luck: “Here, you got only two seasons—summer and hot.” Despite the year-round high temperatures and the seemingly indestructible blue skies, the Caribbean coast of Colombia does have its climatic quirks. Tropical downpours come during rainy seasons, and if you meet a visitor not fond of Cartagena, chances are the extreme humidity was the deal-breaker.
It used to be hard to get to Granada. In 1829, Washington Irving described the roads as “little better than mule paths,” winding “along dizzy precipices.” Even in our century, visitors had to submit to longish rides by trains or buses since Granada sits at the foot of the Sierra Nevada mountains, deep in the interior of Andalusia in southern Spain. Despite the inconvenience, nearly three million made the journey to Granada every year, lured, of course, by the exotic scent of the Alhambra, the Islamic-era fortress that overlooks the city. The comfort of the journey improved dramatically in 2019 when a new high-speed train arrived in Granada. Even so, Granada, Spain has always been worth the distance. The visitor numbers, which already made the Alhambra the second most visited site in Spain, were destined to grow even further. But they did not because the pandemic struck.
“The journey is too fast, it passes too quickly; what a yearning I have now for long journeys!” proclaimed Franz Kafka in his European train travelogue. If you board Amtrak anywhere in the United States, not even for a moment will you feel deprived of a long journey. In fact, a mellow, meditative state of mind is all you need to revel in the leisurely and lengthy routes that Kafka yearned for. Feeling sufficiently mellow after months of the pandemic, I jumped on a train in the most important railway junction in California that you may not know —my adopted hometown of Martinez in the San Francisco Bay Area. Aboard Amtrak’s Coast Starlight, the train would take me to Los Angeles along the most scenic route in California. Without any transfers.
In June 2021, Italy opened its borders to tourists from a range of countries, including the U.S., and allowed the vaccinated arrivals to skip quarantine. Soon afterward, I flew straight into Rome because after all, who knows how long the window of opportunity may last. After eighteen months without an international trip, I walked out of my guesthouse at Piazza di Spagna, and began staggering around the hot streets of Rome, not knowing how to travel anymore. Should I immediately start taking photos as usual, or should I run to the Colosseum just to cross an item off a list? The confusion began to feel like a hangover after a long and thorough delirium. The kind of hangover, which makes you want to start a new life. With that, I made a decision—no return to the pre-Pandemic way of traveling; no hunt for pictures considered iconic; no visiting of the famous sites, or at least, not only the famous sites. I was in Rome, and I was craving to feel it, explore it, and learn from it. But how to turn the lofty sentiment into reality? Maybe by turning the trip into a search for the most underrated places in Rome, even perhaps for what I came to term Hidden Rome.
Story and Photos by Libor Pospisil. Like any other monastery in Armenia, Sevanavank occupies a spot that is dramatic and definitely Instagram-able. The 9th-century monastery sits on a rocky hill overlooking the gigantic Lake Sevan with mountains in the distance. That was the panorama that made me fall under Armenia’s spell. But to get to that spell bound state, I needed to escape the Soviet-era boulevards of Yerevan, the country’s capital. Unlike some other travel destinations, Armenia does not serve up its treasures on a silver platter. Instead, I had to look for them inside the un-glamorous buildings of Yerevan. But just a few-hour drive away, the reward was worth it.
Story and Photos by Libor Pospisil. The Loire River passes slowly through Amboise. The old houses, the stony bridge, and, above all, the stunning Renaissance chateau on the cliff create an outrageously harmonic scene. Amboise is one of the small towns in the Loire Valley, the cultural region about three hours south of Paris. It attracts millions of visitors every year for its chateaus, wines, and bike paths. But the bucolic vibe of the Loire Valley, made up of calm waters, mild hills, lush forests, and golden fields, should not deceive our eyes. This is not a provincial outpost. Modern France emerged right here. At the end of the 15th century Paris lacked its current grandeur and the small village of Amboise witnessed more than its fair share of historical events, including royal births, weddings, and deaths. No wonder the Loire Valley was named a UNESCO World Heritage Site.
Story and Photos by Libor Pospisil.
Just one day left in the country – as usual. Going to the Kruger National Park, the ultimate place for a safari in South Africa, was out of the question given its remoteness. I feared I had to get ready for a small reserve, fenced like a zoo, if I wanted to see animals. Only after more research did I find the Pilanesberg National Park. This little brother to Kruger lies within a day-trip distance from Pretoria where I was staying. Unlike other small reserves, Pilanesberg is a vast natural park. One concerned remained: if Pilanesberg did not have the fame of Kruger, how many animals could I actually see?
Story and Photos by Libor Pospisil.
According to Elie’s plan, which I did not want to destroy, just expand, our first stop would be Anjar, followed by Baalbek. That made a lot of sense given that we were headed for a day tour of ancient ruins in Bekaa Valley along the eastern end of Lebanon. The citadel of Anjar and the temples of Baalbek are the most scenic sites in the valley (both on the UNESCO heritage list). But I was trying to utilize my five days in Lebanon as best as I could.
Story and Photos by Libor Pospisil.
“What is there to see?” That was the most frequent question when I told people about my upcoming trip to Georgia—the country—and T’bilisi, its capital. This sentiment is understandable given that Georgia began to emerge on travelers’ maps a mere fifteen years ago after the Rose Revolution of 2003. The unique beauty of the country had therefore become a well-kept secret that leaked to the West only sporadically. In one such case, John Steinbeck reported from his Eastern European tour in 1948 that people were describing to him “the country in the Caucasus and the Black Sea…” as “…the second heaven.”
Story and Photos by Libor Pospisil.
As I was sitting on the second floor of an open-air café, I looked out of a stony arch at the Plaza de Armas and needed no explanation as to how Arequipa earned its nickname, “The White City” (La Ciudad Blanca.) The Plaza, with its uniform rows of arches on three sides and an unusually wide cathedral on its fourth, was built completely from the local volcanic stone called sillar that happens to be… well, white. On the other hand, one should not jump to conclusions about Arequipa. Things usually turn out to be a little more complicated in Peru’s second largest city than a label might suggest. I realized that right in the café, where I had just ordered a local dessert, queso helado (cheese ice cream.) It has a sweet refreshing taste but no actual cheese—its deliciousness comes from coconut, vanilla, and cinnamon, none of which are in its name. “Queso,” referred only to its appearance.
The walk toward the now-famous house was supposed to be just my early morning stretch. I left the place where my friends and I were staying in the Roma Norte neighborhood of Mexico City and headed for Roma Sur. I was off to see the city’s new pilgrimage spot: the house where the Oscar-nominated Roma film was shot. While I had seen the movie before our four-day trip to Mexico, I had not planned for the trip to be Roma film themed. Rather, we were there to see a few sights, enjoy several of the city’s neighborhoods, and taste Mexican food and drinks. Only after I left Mexico did I realize that the house was not the sole Roma film related location that I encountered in the city. In fact, the movie tells the story of the entire city and how it came to be the bustling metropolis it is today.
Story and Photos by Libor Pospisil. When I stepped onto the wooden viewing platform on Cerro Chaman, I could see the deep, wide valley right below me, covered with countless vineyards. The valley, surrounded by long ranges of dry hills and heated by the March sun, meandered off into the distance. No wonder this part of the Colchagua Valley supplies the photographs that are used for promoting Chile as a wine destination, but I discovered it is not only for wine-sipping.
Story and Photos by Libor Pospisil. Many places in the world claim to sit at some kind of crossroads. Malta, a small island in the middle of the Mediterranean, surely deserves that designation more than most. Due to its proximity to major naval routes that connect three continents, and thanks to its unique culture protected by blue waters on all sides, Malta has long been a refuge for travelers, and even outlaws. Including some famous ones! Saint Paul stayed there after being shipwrecked on his way from the Levant to Italy. Lord Byron had a brief layover in Malta on his trip from England to the Levant. Another visitor arrived on the island in July 1607, to escape murder charges in Italy. He was an artist, born Michelangelo Merisi, but known as Caravaggio, after his hometown. Already famous for having almost single-handedly invented Baroque painting, the 35-year-old Caravaggio came to Malta to turn his tumultuous life into a blank canvass, onto which he could paint anew.
Traveling through Norway by train, I boarded the coach at Oslo’s Sentralstasjon (Central Station) and made myself comfortable in a cushy seat. But shortly after we departed, I realized that I would not be able to simply relax because I could not to stop looking out the window. The train began to pass by large lakes, then hills, meadows, lakes again, mountain plateaus, and, ultimately, glaciers. Every new panorama beat the previous one, establishing a pattern that kept the passengers in suspense. In fact, one fellow visitor told me after the journey that despite her severe jet-lag, she was afraid to fall asleep because she might miss some of the great views.