Quick stop in Bologna

The plan was to get to San Marino, the 5th smallest country in the world, and landlocked inside Italy. The closest Italian city is Rimini, but with no direct flights from where we live, mum and I decided to fly to Bologna instead, a further 68 miles up the coast.

Neither myself or mum had been to the World Heritage city of Bologna before, so we decided to stay for 1 night, before travelling south onward to San Marino.

We landed early morning, giving ourselves one and a bit days to explore the capital city of the Emilia-Romagna region, known as the Fat, Red, and the Learn’d City, because of it’s rich food, red roof tiles and is home to the oldest university in the western world.

After dumping our bags at our hotel, the centrally located and friendly Hotel II Canale, we set off to explore and almost immediately found ourselves walking underneath the famed porticos, that define this city. There is nowhere else on earth that has as many of these extravagant porches as Bologna, they were built to extend living spaces, in part because of the large number of students attending the university, as well as the increase in people that moved into Bologna from the surrounding countryside. They originally were made of wood, until 1568 when it was announced they were to all be rebuilt in stone and brick, therefore ensuring they are still standing strong today.

We wandered aimlessly through as many of the portico’s that we came across, but there are lots of guided tours available if you want to immerse yourself in the history further. Just make sure you don’t miss the longest one (Portico di San Luca), the tightest one (Portico Via Senza Nome) and the most painted one (Portico Via Zamboni).

Next we ventured inside the Bologna Cathedral,  this grande Baroque style building dedicated to Saint Peter was finished in the 17th century, and features some well preserved fresco’s, a cedar wood crucifix and ‘La Nonna’ an incredibly heavy bell atop the bell tower, which you can climb if you have the stamina (we didn’t“).

As we wandered towards the unmistakable two towers of Bologna, we spotted an inviting cafe and went in for lunch and had the most delicious coffee, we had truly arrived.

Only one of the towers is opened to the public, and you needed to book in advance, so we had to skip that, plus at almost 500 steps to climb to reach the top, it wasn’t something either of us fancied straight after lunch. But, we had fun peering into more shop windows, watching chefs preparing pasta for the oncoming evening and explored more Porticos, finding a rare wooden one on Via Marsala.

After a peek inside the Basilica of San Domenico to view some of the artwork inside, including an early Michelangelo, on mum’s insistence we had to visit the university.

I admit, visiting a cities university isn’t top of my list when I’m on my travels, with the exception of that time I visited Princeton, but it is a must when visiting Bologna. The University of Bologna, or UNIBO is the oldest university in continuous use in the world, incredibly it is said to have opened its ancient doors in 1088, although didn’t grow large enough to technically become a bone-fide university until about 100 years later, regardless that still makes it 850 years old!

The highlight of any visit will be to see the beautiful and huge library, full of shiny wooden bookcases carefully labelled and organised into subjects such as zoology and astronomy, and any spare space of wall was covered with elaborate coats of arms of the previous instructors who have taught over the years.

Everywhere you turned there was something to investigate, another gem was the anatomical theatre, once used for medical lectures, its wooden walls adorned with famous physicians of the time, such as Hippocrates.

When we visited mum and I just turned up and were able to enter the buildings without a booking, but while researching for this blog post, it appears the situation may be currently different, possibly due to Covid, in that you had to book a slot or a guided tour prior to arrival. This is the link for the most up to date information should you fancy it.

One thing that you may not associate so much with Bologna is the canal system. Mainly hidden from view if you are just staying within the confines of the city centre, the Canal Navile provided an important job transporting goods too and from Bologna Port, from Medieval times up until the port was dismantled in 1934. But there is a place where you can spot this piece of history, and that is at Finestrella where you can open a small window situated on the Via Piella and look down on the Moline canal gently flowing beneath you. If you walk one block east to Via Giovanni Brugnoli, you get an even better view as you peer through the love-locked gate and see the canal continuing to flow, nestled between the striking orange buildings on its way to the Adriatic.

For dinner, we were spoilt for choice, each window invitingly advertising their speciality, of course in Bologna the most famous dish is ragù alla bolognese and I think that’s what mum had, but I went for a delicious veggie pasta dish and we shared a gluttonous dessert.

To work off some of the calories of our delicious dinner, we took another walk through more porticos, and soaked up the atmosphere around Piazza Maggiore, the square lit up all around the perimeter with musicians playing and cafe’s bustling.  Then it was a short walk across the Piazza Netunno to see the Fountain of Neptune all aglow and less crowded than earlier in the day, the statue casting a powerful shadow on the wall behind him.

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The next morning, we started our day with an espresso, it would have been rude not too, then we checked out of our hotel, took a last walk around the main square, and headed to the train station.

Along the way we passed a curious looking ruin, which turned out to be one of the original gates to the city, leaving me thinking there was definitely a lot more to explore here, as well as more pasta to eat, and as we boarded our train to Rimini, I made a mental note to return someday.

EATS – We were only in town to enjoy one evening meal and randomly picked Osteria della Orsa. But the town is famous for its stuffed pasta dishes such as Tortellini, its sausages, cheeses and hams as well as the renowned Ragu Bolognese, meaning you are overwhelmed with choice on where to eat. If we had more time, we would have explored some of the food markets, always a great way to eat well and on a budget.

COFFEE AND CAKE – Again, it was such a whistle stop tour, I didn’t have time to sample nowhere near as much as I wanted, but I had an incredible coffee and cake at Pappare  and they had lots of delicious plant based dishes too, I suspect I would have gone again if we’d had time. Speaking of next time, I’d love to visit Stefino in the Bolognina district to sample some of their vegan ice cream!

TOP TIP – Bologna has a superb location in Northern Italy and coupled with a great train network, you can easily travel to Milan, Modena, Palma, Florence all within 90 mins. We took the train south to Rimini taking 1hr 25 mins and costing just under €10.

ALWAYS BE POLITE – Ciao – Hello, Per Favore – Please, Grazie – Thanks

 

 

Sarandë and Butrint, adventures on the Albanian coastline.

Lured by photos of beautiful beaches, UNESCO world heritage sites and inexpensive restaurants serving incredible food, it wasn’t long before I had planned a trip to this lesser visited south eastern European country back in 2018.

With no direct flights from NW England where I live I needed to do some research, and found direct flights to Corfu, Greece, which is so close to this diverse country that you can pick up an Albania phone signal in various spots on the island. There are multiple daily sailings from Corfu Port to the Albanian town of Sarandë, varying from a 30 min fast ferry to a more leisurely 1hr 30 minute crossing. Direct Ferries is probably the best website to find the most accurate information and for less than £40 for a return foot passenger fare, it was too good to turn down.

With a hotel booked overlooking the sea, it was only a 10 minute walk from Sarandë Port once mum and I arrived, after a quick uneventful check at passport control. Accosted by a few eager taxi drivers standing outside the port exit, we knew we didn’t have far to walk, and with our directions already saved in our phone, it wasn’t long before we had checked into our accommodation at the Hotel Pini and we were drinking in the views of a new country and its gorgeous coast line.

Keen to get exploring, we headed for a walk along the seafront, visiting the many little market stalls lining the promenade. Albania has a rich history of craftwork, such as leather, wool and jewellery, and with its ideal coastal location and warm climate has an abundance of olives, garlic, figs, nuts, lavender, herbs, the list goes on.

The smells and sights of all the incredible fresh food on offer gave us an appetite, so we got some of the currency LEKE from an ATM machine, found a lovely beach side cafe and stopped for some coffee and cake.

We then spent the rest of the day exploring the seafront, finding little coves and monuments, road side shrines, petted the local dogs of which there were many and had some good old fashioned chill time on the beach.

After watching the sunset across the Adriatic, we headed back out along the promenade and had a delicious dinner at Rustico, which had local wine and a pretty decent selection of vegetarian meal options too. As it was mid September when we visited, the Mediterranean climate didn’t disappoint and so we ended the night sat out on our adjacent balconies with a book and another small wine.

The next morning, after a delicious strong coffee overlooking the seafront, we headed back in the direction of the port, locating the bus stop by the large roundabout with a big tree in the middle. We were off to Butrint, and although you could get a taxi, the bus takes about 45 minutes and costs about 68p, so we just had time to grab a pastry in a nearby shop, and we were off down the coast.

Butrint is situated on a peninsula about 11 miles south of Sarandë, it’s an ancient port, an historic Roman city, and designated UNESCO world heritage national park. In other words, it’s a popular cultural destination with many good reasons to put it on your itinerary. Although we were there towards the end of the summer season, it wasn’t massively busy, probably because like Albania itself, it’s still a lesser discovered holiday destination.

There is so much to see, once we arrived we got a map from the visitors centre and set off to explore, taking shade when we could among the trees. Wandering around the ancient city ruins, you quickly become aware of how huge this once bustling port must have been. Some ruins date back as far as the 8th Century BC in the area around the Acropolis, with the more recent Venetian tower and castle being built between the 14th to 16th century, and so much more in between. The mosaic floor of the baptistery and the large basilica as well as the Roman theatre were definitely highlights.

Because of it’s location stuck out on a small peninsula, surrounded almost on all sides by water, the wetlands have been given special international recognition. With over 800 plants to be found here, including some rare and endangered, along with 246 species of birds and 105 types of fish, as well as exploring the ruins, experiencing the National Park for its natural beauty is another joy of the area, the views all around were outstanding.

It was then time to head back to Sarandë for a late lunch and crepe sandwich in a seafront cafe and then a chill out on our balcony in the shade. It’s just nice to stop and rest sometimes, something I am guilty of not always making time to do.

Once the main heat of the day had past, we ventured back out to see the remaining sites in the town, stopping to chat with the local cats and dogs, of which there were many friendly faces. Interesting spots we found were a military war bunker and the ancient remains of a synagogue just a couple of roads back from the seafront.

That evening we took another lovely leisurely walk along the prom and then settled on Gerthela for dinner near our hotel, finding room for a final sugary, sweet Albanian pastry for dessert, delicious!

We could have spent another day really in this lovely coastal town, there were a few things that were just on the outskirts, too far to walk, and would have needed a taxi or further investigation of local bus routes to get there, like the Monastery of 40 Saints and the Blue Eye Spring. But something tells me that although the following morning, we took the ferry back to Greece, I wasn’t done with Albania yet, someday I hope to return, what a magical country.

EATS – Being a coastal resort, there are lots of sea front restaurants, that you will be spoilt for choice, lots of places specialise in seafood, a lot with Greek and Italian influences too we found. I loved Rustico Taverna from our first night, as there were some good vegetarian options and located a couple of streets back from the seafront and with upstairs seating you have a great viewpoint of the action below.

COFFEE AND CAKE – There weren’t many if any options for none-diary milk, at least at the time of my visit in 2018, so I made do with strong black coffee, which did the trick. As for pastries, there are loads of little bakeries ‘furrë buke’ all selling both sweet and savoury local delicacies and for only a few pence, we visited quite a few during our short stay and none disappointed.

TOP TIP – If you are just visiting for the day, you can pay for things with Euro’s, although you will get a better rate if you use the local currency. There are ATM’s everywhere, so you wont have any trouble getting Lek on arrival.

ALWAYS BE POLITE – Përshëndetje – Hello!, Faleminderit – Thank You, Mirupafshim – Bye.

 

The mountainous microstate of San Marino

In February 2019, mum came along with me to tick off another microstate of Europe, this time the 5th smallest country in the world, and landlocked by Italy, the beautiful San Marino. Like the other European microstates, of which I have now visited all of them, it has no airport, it also doesn’t have a train station, so other than driving there yourself, your best option is to get the bus from the nearest I`talian city, which is Rimini.

After catching the train down from Bologna, it was a short walk outside Rimini train station to the easily marked bus stop on the opposite side of the street. You can buy a ticket on board the Bonelli Bus or at the kiosk by the bus stop, taking about 40-45 minutes till the bus reaches its final stop, which is right in the centre of this tiny country.

The first thing that struck me as we alighted from the bus was the most incredible mountainous views. The capital, also known as San Marino or locally known as Città, sits atop the ridge of Monte Titano and is the highest part of the country, so the views from up high were breathtaking. It’s part of the Apennines mountain range, which spreads across the horizon to the West, whilst on the Eastern side the land slowly descends towards the Adriatic Sea. I think for the first half an hour or so, once we had checked into our hotel, we just stood mesmerised by the dramatic landscape.

The perfect spot we found to admire our surroundings was over in Freedom Square, or the Piazza della Liberta, from here there are spectacular views west across to the mountains and the valley down below. It was also here where we stopped for a beer and some snacks in Osteria La Taverna one of the restaurants lining the square, tourist friendly and not the cheapest, but it was worth it for the views and to soak up the atmosphere of this curious little country, no regrets.

The square is guarded by the white marble Statua Della Liberta, draped in a flag and wearing a crown featuring the 3 towers that stand proud on the surrounding 3 peaks of Monte Titano. It is such an important symbol of the history of the country, that she is featured on their 2 cent coin.

Behind the statue of liberty is the Palazzo Pubblico, or town hall where all the official state ceremonies take place, as you would expect it’s smaller than your average for a ‘capital city’, but its still worth a visit. The exterior looks like a mini tower, with battlements, a clock face and the national flag, whilst inside you can explore various state rooms filled with coats of arms, busts of important figures, and a beautifully painted facade featuring Saint Marino, the Croatian stonemason who founded the country after making this mountain his home in 301AD.

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It was then time to explore down the narrow streets, climb up the city walls, peer over at some breathtaking panoramic spots and window shop in the unnerving amount of weapon stores, featuring guns, bows & arrows and samurai swords, the country has some of the most relaxed gun laws in the whole of Europe we later found out.

The entire city centre and Mount Titano is a UNESCO world heritage site for many reasons, all apparent as you wander around this unique place, including all the fortifications, stone walls, gates and towers. We were constantly getting distracted and diverted off the main alleyways and streets as we paused to investigate what was up a wall, inside a tower and behind a gate, leading to lots of fascinating discoveries and ever changing vistas.

With our feet starting to get a bit weary, we had one last port of call before heading for a rest, the tourist information centre. We already had a local map from our hotel, but this was for something even more important, a passport stamp! It’s the only place where you can get one, there are no border checks, or passport offices as you enter and exit the country and although the stamp itself is just a tourist stamp and nothing more, the San Marino authorities consider it to be official, I think it cost about €5 and I couldn’t think of a better souvenir to take home.

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That evening, there was only one thing we fancied eating, and that was pizza`! We found Ristorante Cacciatori and dived into the pizza menu as well as sampling a local red wine too.

The next morning, revived with a delicious espresso, it was another cloudless blue sky that awaited us, rewarding us with more endless mountain views.

Our main aim for the day was to walk to the 3 peaks of Mount Titano and visit all 3 of the towers that are located atop them. But first, we stumbled upon St Quirinus’s Church along with the Capuchin Fathers Convent (Convento dei Frati Cappuccini), and although it has been modified over the years, there has been a Roman Catholic church on this spot since 1549. It’s worth a visit, although it has a simple interior, the walnut altarpiece is beautiful, along with the statue of Madonna of Lourdes, casting an ethereal look as she is surrounded by candles and blue light.

As we slowly meandered our way to Tower number 3, (we were working backwards to Tower 1) , we came across a rather harrowing statue of a screaming boy. On further inspection we learned it was erected in memory of those who died in the Beslam school massacre in Russia back in 2004, I’m not sure if there is a specific connection to San Marino, but it definitely brought a little sober reflection to our morning walk.

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Montale is the third of the towers and stands on the smallest of the 3 peaks. It’s a 14th century tall, thin tower with its door 7 metres up from the ground as it used to be a prison. It’s the only tower that isn’t opened to the public, so we didn’t hang around too much, except to admire the view and then we continued to make our way along the foot path to tower number 2.

Tower 2 or Cesta is located on the tallest of the 3 peaks, this 13th century tower was built on the site of an old Roman fort and also houses the Saint Marinus museum, this tower you can investigate both inside and out and is well worth it.

Tower 1, the Guaita fortress is the most well known and oldest of the 3, built in the 11th century, you can also visit this one inside too, look out for the coat of arms in stone, the bell tower and a display of artillery from the 2nd world war.

Once we made it back down to lower ground, we ventured into the Basilica di San Marino, the main church of the country, dedicated of course to its founder Saint Marinus. The neo-classic style building with adjoining bell tower, has an impressive entrance of wide steps and eight columns across the front, whilst inside another 16 columns frame the interior along with a statue of Mary Magdalene.

Needing refreshment, we got a Piadina to take out and sat in the beautiful Giardino dei Liburni close to the national gallery, easily recognised by its unique sphere shaped fountain. Once we were replenished we spent a nice half hour exploring some of the many pieces of Italian art inside the gallery both classic and modern.

For the rest of the afternoon, we headed out of the ‘big city’ and to the country’s 2nd largest town, Borgo Maggiore. We were curious to explore another part of San Marino, that maybe the tour buses don’t get too, but also because the quickest and easiest way to get there is to take a cable car down the mountain, which is always a fun idea!

The upper station is situated close to the Basilica San Marino and the service runs every 15 minutes, costs vary, but start at €2.00 for a single journey with a Tutto San Marino Card. We had the card and bought a return for €3.50. The views from the car as you would expect down the mountain were outstanding.

Once at the bottom, we wandered around the streets, to catch a glimpse of the every day happenings of the local Sammarinese, of which they make up 4/5ths of the population, with the remainder being mainly and unsurprisingly Italian. How amazing I thought to be part of such a small population of only 33,000 living aside a mountain, surrounded on all sides by Italy, but still retain your own culture and identity. We just had time for a peek inside the Church of Saints Antimo and Marinus close to the lower cable car station, before heading back up the mountain before sunset.

For our final night in the country, we had a lovely meal with incredible views at Ristorante Spingarda followed by a local beer and a final evening walk round the streets and through the city gates, soaking up the views for one last time.

The next morning, we caught an early bus back down the mountain to the Italian coastal city of Rimini for the next part of our adventure . .

Eats – Not surprisingly San Marino cuisine is very similiar to Italian. We ate some delicious pasta and pizza at Osteria La Taverna, Ristorante Cacciatori and Ristorante Spingarda.

Drinks – Despite its small size, San Marino does produce its own beer, wine and spirits, all of which are served in the local restaurants. We sampled the beers Spingarda beera bionda and birrificio abusiv as well as the red wine, Rosso dei Castelli Sammarinesi. Delicious coffee too was to be found everywhere, we had one close to the Giardino dei Liburni at the Galleria Caffe.

Top Tip – We got our free TuttoSanMarino Card from our hotel, giving us lots of discounts around the city, including the reduced cable car fare.

Always be polite – Buongiorno – Good Morning, (Mille) grazie – Thank You Very Much, Arrivederci  – Good Bye

 

 

Christmas Eve Bansky hunt in Palestine

I am a big admirer of Banksy, the British street artist/political activist and have been to various spots around the UK to see his art. I had heard that he had opened a hotel in Bethlehem, that also housed a museum, art gallery and restaurant, so I eagerly started planning my visit once our flights to the region had been booked.

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You can book specific Banksy tours over in Palestine, taking you to some of his work found around the area, as well as to the hotel, but we decided to make our own way on public transport and enter Palestine on foot via the notorious Checkpoint 300.

When you tour Palestine on a tour bus you are let through the border without any hassle, its quick, safe and easy, but a privilege that actual Palestinians don’t have. Having had that tourist friendly experience earlier on in our trip, I wanted to make the journey on foot this time and experience it as a local would.

We boarded the 234 bus from Damascus Gate in Jerusalem which stops right outside the Checkpoint on the Israeli side, it takes about 25 mins to get there and costs around £3.

I didn’t take any pictures as we made our way through the border checkpoint, maybe you weren’t allowed, but also, out of respect for all those who aren’t free to wander between the two countries like I did with my British passport.

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When you arrive on the Palestinian side you are greeted with a combination of Israeli Army personnel and lots of eager taxi drivers. We avoided both, as its only a short walk from the checkpoint to the hotel, but we arrived about an hour before the hotel opened for our Christmas Eve lunch on purpose, so we had lots of time to walk alongside the separation wall, which in part has been turned into a ‘museum’.

This ‘museum’ comprises of 270 stories pasted onto the wall, recalling tales from local Palestinian women and children, telling the daily struggles they face living inside the walled off region. It gives a human face to the conflict, and a narrative usually missing from world news reports, it made a somber reflective morning walk, but it was an important part of why I wanted to visit. If I just wanted to enjoy sun, sand and sanitised safe tourist spots, I would have just stuck to the Spanish coast for my holidays.

We continued our walk, alongside the wall, taking in all the art and stories, spotting some of the more well known pieces of graffiti, including ‘make hummus not war’, a alternative New York subway transit sign, a possible sighting of a Banksy rat and the Angels, which is a certified Banksy.

If you keep following the direction of the wall from the checkpoint with the wall to your right hand side, its probably not more than 10 minutes to walk to the hotel, but of course if this is your first visit, like it was for us, it will likely take you a lot longer to walk there, as you take in all the messages and artwork on the concrete.

Soon Banksy’s hotel came into view, called ‘The Walled Off Hotel‘, a play on the famous Waldorf Hotel, as well as by means of its location as it’s effectively ‘walled off’ from the rest of the world. Opened in 2017, this boutique hotel has 10 rooms, varying from presidential suite, to no frills budget room with shared bathroom, all with the worst view in the world, the 8ft concrete wall outside.

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The hotel is open to none-residents from 11am – 10pm daily, wanting to make sure we would get a table for our Christmas Eve brunch, we arrived just as the doors opened. On arrival you enter straight into the Piano Bar, fashioned on an old colonial style dining room, you can sit down for food or drinks, surrounded by many of Banksy’s works as well as a haunted piano, playing works recorded specifically for the hotel from musicians such as Flea and Trent Reznor.

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We ordered a ‘walled off salad’ with some dips and bread and whilst we were waiting a camera crew walked in, only the day before a new Banksy installation had been put on display in the hotel, some friends had even texted me from home about it. So overwhelmed and excited to be in the hotel, we had walked straight past the ‘Scar of Bethlehem’ in the entrance, a take on the Nativity scene, which instead of taking place in a straw laden manger, takes place beside the concrete wall, complete with bullet holes.

By the time we had finished our brunch complete with virgin cocktails, the camera crew had left, so we had space to investigate the piano bar further, along with the nativity scene, the place was packed with Banksy paintings and installations, including my favourite Flower Thrower.

Upstairs there is an art gallery to visit, this time no Bankys here, this space is purely for Palestinians, some known artists such as Suliman Mansour have their work on display here, as well as a temporary area for rotating new and up and coming work. There was some really cool stuff on display and we felt lucky to have been able to see artwork that due to restrictions you wouldn’t normally get to see outside of the country.

Back downstairs is a museum dedicated solely to the separation wall. It’s a really modern interactive space, as you would expect if Banksy was involved along with the help of a British university professor. There’s lots of information about the history of the wall right up to present day with little films, audio, military artefacts and a camera on display from the incredible Oscar nominated Five Broken Cameras, which I really recommend watching. The plan is for the exhibit to be expanded as more artefacts are collected over time, but it was a thought provoking, humbling experience to see and hear how this wall has changed the face of the landscape and its people on both sides.

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Final stop was obviously the gift shop, where we were lucky to chat to the manager of the hotel. A lovely man called Wissam Salsaa, he was keen to know where we had travelled from and what we thought of the hotel, in short I told him, if we were to return to the area, I would absolutely plan on staying here next time around.

There were a few Banksy items for sale in the gift shop, and I did think long and hard about a £70 keyring, which was the cheapest item for sale that was certified by the artist. But then the frugal part of my brain kicked in and I just bought postcards and a couple of tote bags instead, realising I could use that £70 for another flight somewhere instead (not realising Covid was about to happen and I wouldn’t get away for almost another 2 years!).

I desperately wanted to stay for longer, but we had really explored every part of the hotel that is open to none residents, also we were conscious that it was Christmas Eve and the tourists would be flocking to the centre of Bethlehem for the celebrations. So we headed back to Checkpoint 300 which was practically empty as we passed back through, the security guard barely looking at our British passport, and the local bus was waiting ready to return to Jerusalem on the other side. With so many places I still have to see, I rarely make plans to return to a visited place but Palestine makes that list and hopefully one day I can return, whether the political situation will be any calmer, I’m doubtful.