The ancient sites of north Africa and the Mediterranean are often overlooked, but they are a perfect antidote to our relentless winter, says John Gimletteby John Gimlette / December 14, 2011 / Leave a comment
Cappadocia in central Turkey. Its fabulous landscape was forged by volcanoes—the pinnacles of ash, also called fairy chimneys, can reach up to 100 feet
For those hoping to travel in the Arab world, it’s been a difficult year. Two of my favourite cities—Damascus and Aleppo—are now off limits, and it’ll be many months before anyone ventures back to Tripoli. Even Egypt makes us jittery, until we see all those soothing adverts on the Tube.
But does this mean I’ll change my habits? No chance. For the last 25 years, my wife Jayne and I have headed off, almost every January, for the Islamic world. We’ve visited most Arab countries, staying in caves, palaces and kasbahs, and collecting a houseful of oddities (including some slave’s shackles and a pair of Ottoman binoculars, dated 1915). We even got engaged in Aswan, and—since our daughter arrived—we’ve been taking her too. No one welcomes children quite like the Arabs. This month, we’re off back to Jordan.
Old certainties may have gone, but these will always be remarkable adventures. For us, the likes of Tunisia and Turkey are not just about proximity and winter sun. Rather, it’s about total escape, slipping away into a parallel culture. Often, it feels like a fantastical version of our own past; a world that values craftsmanship and community, and is unashamed of spirituality.
There are lots of regions I’d happily go back to, but here are three.
We were not the first foreigners charmed by this ancient Moroccan port. It exudes drama. Around the city runs a mountainous, bright orange wall. Within it is a honeycomb of alleyways, and, beyond it, there’s the desert, the furious Atlantic, and a beach as far as the eye can see. The Romans loved it. After them came Berbers, Jews, Frenchmen and hippies. To Orson Welles, Essaouira was the definitive setting for Othello. All he needed to do was take off the lens cap, and set the camera rolling.
It’s the extras who steal the show. This is a city of costumes—cloaks, fancy slippers, hoods and great ropes of amber and jewels. No cars are allowed, so lives are lived on the street. Every square is like a mini film set. A group of minstrels jangles past, followed by a man with a donkey. Then comes a tinker, a boy with a goatskin drum or perhaps a fisherman, with a giant eel…