The Paradox of Travel Blogging

You may have noticed a significant amount of inactivity from myself on Twitter and on the website during the last week. Since I left Florence I’ve been extremely occupied taking photos, running around seeing things, experiencing Italy and generally doing things that travelers do.

The problems with a travel blog is if you are traveling you aren’t blogging and if you are blogging you aren’t traveling. In fact since I’ve been running this site I’ve noticed something peculiar: the days I’m actually out doing stuff are the days which I get the least amount of traffic. The days I’m sitting at my laptop are the days I get the most traffic. In other words, traveling is an impediment to travel blogging. I would like to hereby name this phenomenon “Gary’s Paradox”.

This isn’t the first time this has happened, nor will it be the last. Some places just don’t lend themselves to easy internet access or warrant spending time at the computer. When I drove from Darwin to Perth in Australia, my updates on the site were very sparse because there were few places to update from in Western Australia. Likewise, early in my trip while in the Pacific my updates were only about once a week. When your choices are swimming or blogging, it is a pretty easy decision.

Suffice it to say today I’m Turin, Italy sitting in front of my computer and not really doing anything, hence the blog post.


The contest for the year subscription to National Geographic and Energizer Batteries is over. The winners of the subscription are Erik and Polara. The winners of the Energizer Batteries are Jen, Katie, and Doran.

A very photo intensive interview with me has been published on Wandering Educators. I was also interviewed for an article on traveling to dangerous places on

Finally, I did a lengthy interview with Craig Martin at the Indie Travel Podcast. It is about a 30 minute interview where we talk about my travels in the Pacific, guidebooks, long term travel and my future plans. Craig and his wife Linda have been producing their podcast for about as long as I’ve been running my blog. What I like about them is that, like me, they are doing all of this on the road having recorded podcasts all over Europe, Malaysia, Australia and New Zealand.

I highly recommend subscribing to their podcast on iTunes. Please also take a minute to give their podcast a review on iTunes. The more/better reviews they get on iTunes, the higher they appear in iTunes rankings, the more people can discover their podcast.

Old City of Jerusalem and its Walls

UNESCO World Heritage Site #63: Old City of Jerusalem and its Walls
Old City of Jerusalem and its Walls: My 63rd UNESCO World Heritage Site

From the World Heritage inscription for the Old City of Jerusalem and its Walls:

As a holy city for Judaism, Christianity, and Islam, Jerusalem has always been of great symbolic importance. Among its 220 historic monuments, the Dome of the Rock stands out: built in the 7th century, it is decorated with beautiful geometric and floral motifs. It is recognized by all three religions as the site of Abraham’s sacrifice. The Wailing Wall delimits the quarters of the different religious communities, while the Resurrection rotunda in the Church of the Holy Sepulchre houses Christ’s tomb.

The old city of Jerusalem is such a small place, yet on a square meter basis, it contains more history than perhaps any other city in the world. When you walk down the streets you can get lost and still run across things which have some historical or religious significance.

This photo was taken from the Mount of Olives across the Kidron Valley. I thought the barbed wire over the city conveyed the conflict and struggle over the city, which has changed control over 40 times in its history.


Old City of Jerusalem and its Walls

The Old City of Jerusalem and its Walls is a UNESCO World Heritage Site in Israel. This ancient city is home to many of the world’s holiest places, especially in the Christian world, but also for Jews and Muslims. The property known as the old quarters in Jerusalem is composed of 226 historical and religious monuments shared by Christianity, Judaism and Islam.

For the Jews, the Western Wall is the holiest of these places. For the Christians, it is the Church of the Holy Sepulchre. And for the Muslim, the Dome of the Rock is the most significant monument in Jerusalem.

This property was inscribed into the UNESCO list in 1981. However, it was cited as one of the UNESCO World Heritage Sites in Danger in 1982 due to religious violence and rapid urbanization surrounding these monuments.

About the Old City of Jerusalem

The Old City of Jerusalem and Its Walls is one of the most popular UNESCO sites in the world, not just in Israel. The Old City of Jerusalem is the primary attraction within this property since it is home to some of the most important historical and religious monuments in the world. The Old City measures about 0.9 square kilometers in size. It is a walled area that is located within the modern city of Jerusalem. This area is what made up the city of Jerusalem prior to 1860.

The Old City, as this walled area of Jerusalem is referred to, features many sites of religious importance. During the earlier times, it was also divided into four uneven quarters: Christian Quarter, Muslim Quarter, Jewish Quarter and Armenian Quarter. The monumental walls that surrounded it were constructed sometime in early to mid-16th century.

Walls of Jerusalem

Old City of Jerusalem and its Walls

During the time wherein Jerusalem was still part of the Ottoman Empire, the then Sultan Suleiman I commissioned for the old city walls to be rebuilt. It took four years to complete building the walls of Jerusalem. The entire length of the wall measures at over 4,000 meters with an average height of 12 meters. Meanwhile, these walls are roughly 2.5 meters thick! In total, it has 7 main gates and 34 watchtowers.

When it was built, the walls served to fend off its intruders. Today, it is one of the main attractions among tourists who visit The Old City of Jerusalem and its Walls.

List of Important Monuments

When you plan on visiting the Old City of Jerusalem and its Walls, here are some of the most notable monuments you cannot afford to miss:

Church of the Holy Sepulchre: This church is located within the Christian quarter in the Old City of Jerusalem. In fact, the quarter was developed around it and there are up to 40 other holy Christian sites surrounding it. But this church is highly important to Christians as this is believed to be the site where Jesus was crucified and buried.

Old City of Jerusalem and its Walls

Dome of the Rock: This structure sits atop the Western Wall and is a building that is open even for non-Muslims. This Islamic Shrine is located at Temple Mount and was opened in 691 AD. Aside from being of religious value to Islam, it is also notable for its unique architectural style that blends Ottoman, Islamic, and Byzantine influences.

Western Wall: This one is one of the most important monuments in the Jewish Quarter of Old Jerusalem. Its connection to the Temple Mount is one of the reasons why it has been deemed as sacred by the Jews. This is an ancient limestone wall that is the only one left standing of an ancient retaining wall.

View the complete list of UNESCO World Heritage Sites in Israel.

View the list of all of the UNESCO World Heritage sites I have visited on my travels.

Last updated: Aug 1, 2017 @ 6:48 pm


UNESCO World Heritage Site #62: Masada
Masada: My 62nd UNESCO World Heritage Site

From the World Heritage inscription for Masada:

Masada is a dramatically located site of great natural beauty overlooking the Dead Sea, a rugged natural fortress on which the Judaean king Herod the Great constructed a sumptuous palace complex in classical Roman style. After Judaea became a province of the Roman Empire, it was the refuge of the last survivors of the Jewish revolt, who chose death rather than slavery when the Roman besiegers broke through their defenses. As such it has an emblematic value for the Jewish people.
It is also an archaeological site of great significance. The remains of Herod’s palaces are outstanding and very intact examples of this type of architecture, whilst the untouched siegeworks are the finest and most complete anywhere in the Roman world.

The Masada complex, built by Herod the Great, King of Judaea, who reigned between 37 BCE and 4 CE, and particularly the “hanging” palace with its three terraces, is an outstanding example of opulent architectural design, elaborately engineered and constructed in extreme conditions. The palace on the northern face of the dramatic mountain site consists of an exceptional group of classical Roman Imperial buildings. The water system was particularly sophisticated, collecting run-off water from a single day’s rain to sustain life for a thousand people over a period of two to three years. This achievement allowed the transformation of a barren, isolated, arid hilltop into a lavish royal retreat.

When this natural defensive site, further strengthened by massive walls, was occupied by survivors of the Jewish Revolt against Roman rule, it was successfully besieged by a massive Roman army. The military camps, siegeworks and an attack ramp that encircle the site, and a network of legionary fortresses of a quadrilateral plan, are the most complete anywhere in the Roman world. Masada is a poignant symbol of the continuing human struggle between oppression and liberty.

MasadaMasada is in the middle of nowhere, but it was really in the middle of nowhere thousands of years ago. The dry conditions and the remoteness of the location have preserved some elements of the area extremely well. From the top of the mountain, you can clearly see the wall (berm) the Romans created to encircle the mountain, the areas set up for their camp, as well as the ramp they built up the mountain.

It is a popular vacation spot for Israelis, especially for boys having their Bar Mitzvah. There is a hostel at the base of the mountain which mostly caters to large tour groups and an excellent museum with an interpretive center.


Masada is an ancient fort that is located in Israel’s southern district. It is a cultural site that was inscribed into the list of UNESCO World Heritage Sites in Israel in 2001 during UNESCO’s 25th session. The fortification is located atop a rock plateau that is somewhat similar to a mesa. Masada is located at the edge of the Judean Desert with an overlooking view of the Dead Sea.

The building of the fortification in Masada was commissioned for by Herod the Great. It is just one of many structures and palaces that he had built in Israel from 37 to 31 BCE. It is also one of the most popular tourist attractions in Israel.

Masada: UNESCO World Heritage Site


Masada is one of the properties that were recognized into the list of UNESCO World Heritage Sites in Israel. It is one of the most unique cultural sites in Israel for its remote location within a harsh environment and climate. Despite of that, the site has been well preserved considering that it has been around for over 13 centuries by the time it was discovered in 1828. It is not just the archaeological site that has been considered well-preserved, but also the wilderness that surround it.

There are traces of human settlement near and around Masada. These settlements have been buried by layers of sand. To this day, archaeological excavations are still ongoing at the site. All that had been excavated so far are currently on display at the visitor center and the museum at the foot of the rock plateau to which the fortification has been built on.


Since Masada was declared as a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 2001, there has been a significant rise in tourists who visit the area. The Masada Museum in Memory of Yigael Yadin was also opened at the site in 2007. This is where tourists can visit to view some of the archaeological findings at the site on display. Many of these artifacts were unearthed by Yadin and his team of archaeologists from Hebrew University of Jerusalem. Most of these excavations were done in the 1960s and helped establish the cultural value of the site until it was named as a UNESCO property.

The archaeological site is located within the Masada National Park. All tourists who wish to visit and explore the site must pay an entrance fee (even for hikers). There are two hiking paths within the site and both are for advanced hikers only due to the steep climb.

For tourists who want to enjoy the views of the landscape, you can also take a cable car ride (although more expensive) so you can conveniently reach the top of the mesa. The cable car ride is located at the visitor’s center and museum.

Tips for Visiting Masada


Masada is a popular tourist attraction in Israel – probably one of the country’s most popular! Therefore, lots of tourists visit the site each year. To make the most of your experience, here are some tips you need to keep in mind:

  • The park opens around sunrise. If you want to avoid the crowd or the intense midday heat (which can reach 43-degree Celsius in the summer), you might want to go an hour before sunrise.
  • Hiking paths might be closed in the summer due to the heat. Make sure you check before you set out to hike Masada.
  • The base of the cable car ride or the hiking path is located within the visitor’s center. There are shops in there where you can buy essential items such as water and snack. Make sure you stock up enough essentials so you can have something to drink or snack on.
  • The cable car ride to the top of the mesa is more expensive. However, it can save you time on going up to the mesa. It opens at 8 AM.
  • For hikers, there are two hiking trails to choose from: The Snake Trail and The Roman Ramp Trail. In Snake Trail, you can enjoy the “Masada experience” (especially when you hike at dawn) as you traverse the eastern side of the mountain with a view of the Dead Sea. Meanwhile, Roman Ramp Trail is very steep and is accessible via the western side of the mountain.

View the complete list of UNESCO World Heritage Sites in Israel.

View the list of all of the UNESCO World Heritage sites I have visited on my travels.

Last updated: Aug 1, 2017 @ 6:48 pm

The Tourist of Venice

After my tiny two day adventure in the tiny country of San Marino, I arrived in Venice where I have been for the last day. Venice is an amazing city. The moment you leave the door of the train station you are hit with the Grand Canal and every stereotype of the city you’ve ever heard. The city is a giant maze. I’ve taken several walks around since I’ve arrived and am still pretty clueless as to where I am. The city also really stinks at low tide due to the algae which is growing on the surface of everything.

Venice today seems 100% devoted to tourism, yet unlike some other places I have visited, the mass of tourists doesn’t seem to distract from the city as much. You can walk around and be pretty oblivious of everyone around you. Take away the gelato stands and the tourist traps, and the city looks like it would have several hundred years ago. Being a photographer in Venice is like being a kid in a candy store.

I will be here another two or three days before I head off for a brief stop in Milan before going to France. I might take a day trip to Padua from Venice because it is so close by train. I’ve heard good things about the tour of the University (the 2nd oldest in Italy).

My internet access is limited here. The internet connection at my hotel isn’t working so I have to rely on internet cafes.


UNESCO World Heritage Site #61: Petra
Petra: My 61st UNESCO World Heritage Site

From the World Heritage inscription for Petra:

Situated between the Red Sea and the Dead Sea and inhabited since prehistoric times, the rock-cut capital city of the Nabateans, became during Hellenistic and Roman times a major caravan centre for the incense of Arabia, the silks of China and the spices of India, a crossroads between Arabia, Egypt and Syria-Phoenicia. Petra is half-built, half-carved into the rock, and is surrounded by mountains riddled with passages and gorges. An ingenious water management system allowed extensive settlement of an essentially arid area during the Nabataean, Roman, and Byzantine periods. It is one of the world’s richest and largest archaeological sites set in a dominating red sandstone landscape.

The Outstanding Universal Value of Petra resides in the vast extent of elaborate tomb and temple architecture; religious high places; the remnant channels, tunnels and diversion dams that combined with a vast network of cisterns and reservoirs which controlled and conserved seasonal rains, and the extensive archaeological remains including of copper mining, temples, churches and other public buildings. The fusion of Hellenistic architectural facades with traditional Nabataean rock-cut temple/tombs including the Khasneh, the Urn Tomb, the Palace Tomb, the Corinthian Tomb and the Deir (“monastery”) represents a unique artistic achievement and an outstanding architectural ensemble of the first centuries BC to AD. The varied archaeological remains and architectural monuments from prehistoric times to the medieval periods bear exceptional testimony to the now lost civilizations which succeeded each other at the site.

PetraPetra was recently named one of the New Seven Wonders of the World. I can’t help but think that part of the reason it was picked was because it was a filming location for one of the Indiana Jones movies. I say that because there is usually only one photo of Petra which people every see, and that is the Treasury Building. While the Treasury Building is the most well preserved of the carved structures in Petra, there is a lot more to the location. You can spend a full day exploring Petra and be very tired at the end. Not only is it big, there is a lot of vertical distance to climb.


The ‘Lost City’ of Jordan. That is what Petra is most known for. This city was a thriving community thousands of years ago but it has now been left abandoned. Nonetheless, the structures and sights that make Petra so unique and popular remains strong to this day.

Petra is located within the Ma’an governorate in Jordan. The entire city of Petra measures at 264 square kilometers with an elevation of over 800 meters. According to historical data, the city has existed since around 5th century BC. There are more than half a million tourists who visit Petra each year. It was included into the list of UNESCO World Heritage Sites in Jordan in 1985.

How to Get Here


There are two international airports that are located close to Petra. You can therefore book an international flight to either Aqaba Airport or Wadi Araba. Once you are in Jordan, there are several transportation options to get to Petra and it will depend on how much you want to spend or how much time you want to allot for the travel.

You can take a bus to Petra – there are ordinary buses and ones organized by tour companies – via the Desert Highway. The cost of a round trip bus ticket from Amman to Petra (and vice versa) is 20 JD. The trip will be for the entire day so you can explore the site for an entire day before heading back to Amman.

As an alternative, there are also mini buses that are available to ride for a cheaper price (about 7 JD). The total travel time to get to Petra is 2 hours.

If you are looking for other transportation options, you can hire a taxi. However, you must haggle a price with the taxi driver since they will have to wait around for you (up to 6 hours) so you can ride that same taxi on your way back from Petra to Amman, or some other parts of Jordan you are staying in.

Important Structures

The Amphitheater

Petra has become a symbol of Jordan – partly because it is one of the most visited tourist attraction in the country. It is best revered for its historical and archaeological value. Plus, the water-conduit system and rock-cut architecture are impressive for being ahead of its time. Due to the color of the rock to which the various structures have been carved into, Petra has also earned the nickname the “Rose City”.

Below are some of the notable structures that you must check out while exploring Petra in Jordan:

The Amphiheater – The Amphitheater in Petra is one of the most archaeologically important sites in the area. It features Hellenistic design and was estimated to date back to 1st century AD. The seating design that extended to the orchestra is exemplary of Hellenistic design and architectural style.

The Monastery – The Monastery is one of the most iconic rock-cut structures within Petra. This structure is so huge that even the main entry doorway measures at several stories in height. Experts say that the name ‘monastery’ is inaccurate since they believe it was a Nabatean temple.

The Treasury – The Treasury, also known as Al-Khazneh, is a sandstone rock face monument that is the most recognized structures in Petra. It was originally built in the 1st century AD as a crypt and mausoleum.

Petra Today


Due to the fact that the structures, monument and rock hewn sculptures have been around for several centuries, the threats to the property exists. For this reason, naming the site as a UNESCO World Heritage property can aid in pushing conservation efforts of these structures. Improper water drainage and erosion due to flooding are just some of the serious sources of threat to these structures. In addition, unsustainable tourism is also adding to the damage.

The Petra National Trust was established in 1989 in order to focus solely on the conservation of these ancient sites and to reduce impact from any of the aforementioned threats. The trust has also collaborated with many other organizations dedicated to preserving various world heritage sites.

View the complete list of UNESCO World Heritage Sites in Jordan.

View the list of all of the UNESCO World Heritage sites I have visited on my travels.

Last updated: Aug 1, 2017 @ 6:47 pm

Visiting Wadi Rum

The Seven Pillars of Wisdom
Road into Wadi Rum. As always, click on the image for a much larger version.

In my humble opinion, the greatest movie ever made is Lawrence of Arabia. Shot on location in Wadi Rum on 70mm film, a forerunner of IMAX, it is a fantastic story with amazing acting, directing, and cinematography. It tells the story of TE Lawrence and the Great Arab Revolt in WWI against the Turks. I’ve probably seen Lawrence of Arabia about a dozen times and couldn’t wait to go to Jordan to visit Wadi Rum and to walk where Lawrence and Auda ibu Tayi walked.

Tents at bedouin camp
Tents at bedouin camp

As it turns out, TE Lawrence never lead the Arab armies through Wadi Rum. They actually went around it when they attacked Aqaba. Nonetheless, it made a great location to film and the fact that history wasn’t quite like the movies didn’t dampen my desire to visit.

Getting to Wadi Rum from Aqaba isn’t easy considering it is one of the larger tourist attractions in Jordan. It is about an hour drive from Aqaba and your options are to either take a cab or try to grab a mini bus. There are no organized buses which go to Wadi Rum. I did meet some people who hitchhiked to the highway/Wadi Rum crossroads I took a mini bus along with ten Wadi Rum locals and a former wrestler from Ukraine. The Ukrainian guy was the most frugal traveler I’ve ever met. He managed to spend 45 days in Egypt and only spend $300. He ended up walking through Wadi Rum alone and slept outside, something I thought was pretty dangerous given the conditions in the desert and the fact he only had one bottle of water.

My desert transportation
My desert transportation

I arrived at the Wadi Rum visitor center not having any reservations or any idea of how things are done or what there was to do. Thankfully, the visitor center is very organized and is set up to take care of tourists. There are several Bedouin camps in Wadi Rum which are run by locals in the area. The visitors center acts as a booking agent for the Bedouins. You can just show up and they will radio one of the camps and set you up, as well as arrange transportation. Most people only stay one night in the camps but I stayed two so I could go explore some of the nearby desert during the day.

I took a jeep tour of the area around Wadi Rum as went out to the camp. It wasn’t worth it as I would have been driven out to the camp for free. The stops we made weren’t that great and the photos I got from it were pretty poor due to the lighting conditions. I was able to see some of the camel watering stations and some ancient script written on some rocks, but beyond that it wasn’t much more than I would have gotten just driving to the camp.

The Seven Pillars of Wisdom
The Seven Pillars of Wisdom

I ended up staying at the The Bedouin Meditation Camp, which really has nothing to do with meditation. The man who ran the camp was Zidane al Zilabieh who was a really nice guy. The camp was his family business and he went out of his way to treat all his guests well. The tents were Bedouin style, or at least what passes for a Bedouin tent in the 21st century. The walls of the tent were heavy black rug/blanket type cloth with rugs covering the floors. There were beds, matresses and heavy blankets for everyone so you don’t have to sleep on the ground. The first night I was there it was very cold and windy in the desert and I was kept very warm.

Dinner was cooked Bedouin style in a pit covered in sand. Food was chicken, rice and potatoes; simple but good. They also served tea before sunset. They had some old seats from cars set up on a dune where you could watch the sunset while drinking Bedouin tea, which is actually really good. The tea table was used in my May 2009 desktop wallpaper photo. The stars in the desert are some of the brightest you will see anywhere on Earth. What I saw was on a par with the stars I saw in the Outback of Australia or on islands in the Pacific.

Sunset in the desert
Sunset in the desert

The next day my primary activity was to go on a three hour camel trip through the desert to take photos. We left at 10am and my guide walked the entire time, which I sort of felt bad about. I had assumed that he would be riding a camel as well, not walking. If he was going to walk, I could have saved the money and just walked myself. My camel riding experience was oddly enough helped by Lawrence of Arabia. There is a scene where he is told to wrap his legs around the saddle so you don’t ride like you would on a horse. It worked well and was much more comfortable than letting your legs swing on either side. It also turns out that taking photos in the desert during mid day isn’t very good. Of the 240 photos I took, probably less than 10 were worth uploading, and those were just photos of the camel or odd rock formations. The light is just way to harsh.

I left Wadi Rum for Petra which is a much easier trip than coming from Aqaba. There is a bus every morning which goes from Petra to Wadi Rum village and back. The bus was mostly empty and reasonably priced. The trip to Petra is about 90 minutes which includes stops to pick up and drop off locals.

I highly recommend Wadi Rum if you are going to Petra. If you can, stay overnight in a Bedouin camp rather than just a day trip where you drive around and drive back to Aqaba. Even though the scenery is breathtaking, the Bedouin experience is what really makes Wadi Rum worth while. I had luck just showing up at the park, but if it is peak tourist season, you might need to reserve a place at a Bedouin camp ahead of time.

First Impressions of Florence

Dome of the Florence Cathedral
Dome of the Florence Cathedral

Rome’s heyday was back in the days of emperors and gladiators. While many of the current structures in Rome were constructed around the time of the Renaissance, most of that talent and money to create those structures came not from Rome but from the north of Italy, in particular Florence. While Florence’s history does trace back to the Romans, it earned its place on the map as the center of the Renaissance. This is the city of Michelangelo, Galileo, Dante, Machiavelli, the Medici Family, and hundreds of other artists. Compared to Rome, Florence is a relatively modern city.

The moment I got off the train I was able to sense a difference between Florence and Rome. Florence is much smaller. The pace here seems slower. The people and the stores seem a bit more…..classy. There isn’t as much graffitti. While it clearly makes a living off of tourism, it doesn’t seem nearly as overrun with tourists as Rome.

Putting the art back into street art
Putting the 'art' back into street art

After finding a place to stay, as is my normal routine when I arrive in a new city, I set off with my pocket camera to get a feel for the place. While I was able to walk to most of the attractions in Rome, it would often take a while and at the end of the day my feet would be killing me. Walking around Florence is easy. You can get to all the major attractions in just a few minutes time. While there is car traffic, you get a feel that the city hasn’t changed all that much in the last several hundred years.

The biggest feature of the city is the Florence Cathedral. Its reddish/orange dome dominates the city skyline. It is said to be the 3rd largest church in the world after St. Peter’s in Rome and St. Paul’s in London. It is however much older than either of those churches with construction having begun in the 13th century, as opposed to the 16th and 17th century for St. Peter’s and St. Paul’s. The interior is downright bland compared to any of the major basilicas in Rome. Given how many artists came out of Florence, I expected it to be filled with art. The most notable artwork in the building is the painting on the dome which shows a scene from the last judgment.

Rub the snout for luck
Rub the snout for luck

From there it was a quick walk to the Piazza della Signoria where you really get the feel of being in a Renaissance city. The clock tower, the coats of arms and the sculptures, including a replica of David, thrust you back into the 16th century. Even though I’m a big fan of ancient Roman history, I got a bigger thrill being here than I did anywhere in Rome.

A few blocks further and I was at the New Market where they have the famous bronze statue of the pig. You can rub his snout for good luck, which given how shiny it is compared the rest of the body, it gets rubbed quite a bit.

There are two food items I was told to try while I was in Florence: Florentine steak and gelato. I’d had plenty of gelato in Rome and elsewhere, so I didn’t think it could be all that different in Florence, and it isn’t. The only thing I noticed is that the gelaterias have giant mounds of the stuff which look like something Richard Dreyfuss would have built in Close Encounters of the Third Kind. I did order and eat a Florentine steak, which I learned is just another word for “porterhouse”. Nonetheless, it was one of the better steaks I’ve ever had and it was HUGE. I’m now sort of curious to find out how a steak became associated with the city.

Tomorrow I’ll be seeing the sites properly with more time and taking photos. The next few days I plan on taking day trips to Pisa and Sienna. From there I’ll figure out how to get to San Marino and then Venice. My first impression of Florence are very positive. I can see why so many people have fallen in love with the city and have been so vocal about it on Twitter.

Goodbye Rome. Hello Florence!

I’ve been in Rome a few days longer than I had planned, but honestly could stay here two weeks longer and still not see everything. I think this is definitely one of the cities I’ll be coming back to at some point. During the last few days I made a trip out to Ostia Antica and another trip to the Vatican today to climb the dome on St. Peter’s Basilica and to go into the grotto where the popes are buried.

I also stopped in and saw the Capuchin Crypt which was one of the most macabre things I’ve every seen in my life. There is a very fine line between honoring your fallen brothers who have faithfully served the Lord and the Texas Chainsaw Massacre House. Making arts and crafts out of the spines and bones of hundreds of dead people is really, really, really, really spooky. I’d hate to think that one day my corpse might be used for decoration somewhere. If it is my fate, please at least prop me up like the Fonz giving a big thumbs up…..

Just like when I arrived in Rome, I could use some help for what to see in Florence. My current plans are pretty simple: a trip to Pisa, photos of the skyline, visit the Uffizi Gallery, and of course going to see Michelangelo’s David at the Academia Gallery. If you have any other suggestions, please let me know. I don’t plan on staying in Florence as long as I did in Rome. After Florence I have to decide on how to get to Venice and San Marino. I might have to backtrack a bit.

McKosher: McDonald’s in Israel

Kosher McDonalds Sign
Kosher McDonald's Sign
There was an obvious question about Israeli McDonald’s I had before I entered the country: were they kosher? I had read that there were non-kosher McDonald’s Israel. In fact, the Internet told me, most of the McDonald’s in Israel were non-kosher. During my entire time in Israel I did not see a single non-kosher McDonald’s. Part of this might be due to where I’ve seen them: in a mall in Eilat, in a mall in Beer Sheva, at the bus station in Beer Sheeva, in Jerusalem, at the Ramat Aviv Mall in Tel Aviv, on the beach in Tel Aviv and the Ben Gurion Airport. All of these have been kosher McDonald’s. It could be that I just saw the ones in popular locations and those happen to be kosher. That’s just fine, because for the purposes of this article, I’m just going to focus on the kosher ones because they are the most interesting.

McDonald’s in Israel, especially the kosher ones, are some of the most unique in the world. For starters they are the only McDonald’s in the world (other than Argentina) that cooks their burgers over charcoal instead of frying them. I have no idea why they are allowed to do this, but as far as I know, there are no dietary laws that would prevent frying. The signage and branding of McDonald’s in Israel is different than the rest of the world. Some of the kosher stores are allowed to use a blue background instead of a red one. They don’t serve cheese in the kosher McDonald’s and don’t even serve ice cream in the same area. They have a small door which separates the dairy from non-dairy sides of the restaurant. In the Ramat Aviv mall, I noticed that the girl working the ice cream machine was Muslim.

Unlike McDonald’s I’ve seen everywhere else in the world, the menus were not in English. Usually they are in both English and whatever the local language is, but in Israel they were only in Hebrew. I had no clue what was on the menu until I saw the McDonald’s at the airport where it was in English as well. They have a McKebob sandwich which looks very similar to the McArabia I saw in the rest of the Middle East. It was a regular hamburger bun wrapped in flatbread.

McDonalds Sign in Eliat
McDonald's Sign in Eliat

I had the opportunity to be in Israel during Passover and was able to observe some of what observant Jews go through to keep kosher for Passover. I’m a gentile from the Midwestern United States. My knowledge of kosher laws consists of “don’t eat pork”. I knew there was a special kosher for Passover, but I had no idea what it was. It was just another symbol you’d sometimes see on food packages. I also didn’t know much about Halal dietary rules in Muslim countries before I arrived in the Middle East. I made it my mission to find out what all these rules were about.

I should make it perfectly clear up front that I’m not a student of Jewish or Muslim dietary laws. I think I’ve managed to figure out the gist of it, but I’m sure there are some details that I might miss or get wrong. If that is the case, please feel free to correct me in the comments.

So pork isn’t kosher. I knew that, but I didn’t know why. According to Jewish law, an animal (not including birds or fish) is only kosher if it a) has a cloven hoof, and b) chews the cud. Pigs are eliminated on the basis that they do not chew the cud. However, there are a host of animals which also fall under this umbrella that I never thought about. Horses aren’t kosher because they don’t have cloven hooves. Rabbits aren’t kosher either. Basically the only mammals which are kosher are cows, goats, sheep and deer. I also read that a group of rabbis also declared that giraffes are kosher, not that anyone is going to be eating them anytime soon. Bison are also kosher by the same rules.

All reptiles and amphibians are not be considered kosher, so no frog legs. Also, with the minor exception of a particular species of locust, insects are not kosher, so escargot is off the menu. Fish is OK so long as it has fins and scales. This means clams, oysters, shrimp, octopus, squid, and every other good thing you can get at a sushi restaurant is right out. There is also some debate as to the kosherness of catfish, because they don’t have scales. Birds are all right so long as they are not predators. Chicken, duck, goose and turkey is acceptable but if you want to grill an eagle for the 4th of July, forget about it.

This house is a chometz free zone
This house is a chometz free zone

Outside of meat, the other big kosher no-no is mixing dairy and meat in the same meal. That means no cheeseburgers, no chedarwurst, no milk with dinner, and no ice cream for desert. There is some debate as to how long you have to wait until you can eat dairy products. I’ve read between 1 and 6 hours depending on how strict you want to be. That is why they keep the ice cream machine in separate area at McDonald’s.

If a utensil comes in contact with something non-kosher, it is considered unclean and makes anything it comes in contact with non-kosher. This can set off a whole chain of events rendering food which is normally kosher to be non-kosher. The solution is to have a kosher kitchen, so you have a self contained area where everything non-kosher is kept out. There is much more to being kosher than what I’ve outlined including removing all blood from meat, the condition and health of the animal at slaughter, and the method of slaughter. However, I think those are the major parts of keeping kosher.

Kosher for Passover basically involved avoiding leaven bread. That sounds simple, but in addition to not eating it during Passover, you can’t possess it. You can’t have any crumbs in your house, so you have to really clean everything before passover starts. Many restaurants and Israeli institutions like prisons and universities give power of attorney to a rabbi for all their leaven bread (called chometz) who then sells it to a Muslim Arab for the duration of Passover.

This means that every bakery and pizza parlor pretty much shuts down for the 9 days of Passover in Orthodox neighborhoods. McDonald’s that I saw did not keep kosher for passover and sold hamburgers with buns. Burger King, however, is very kosher and was certified kosher for Passover. Their menu was very limited selling only fries, salads, chicken wings and hamburger patties without buns.

Muslim halal rules are much simpler than kosher laws. Pork is excluded by name in the Koran, so most non-kosher meats could be considered Halal. The biggest part of halal is the method of slaughter, which requires the animal to be killed by slitting the throat with a sharp knife while saying a prayer. For the most part (depending on which Muslim scholar you listen to) kosher food would also be halal, but the opposite is not true. The biggest example of this would be camels. Many Arab countries will occasionally eat camels, but they they are strictly non-kosher because of the hoof/cud requirements.

So if you are ever in the Middle East and go past a McDonald’s give a few seconds of thought to what goes into making it kosher/halal. Keeping a kosher ain’t easy.