In a Continent Far Far Away

In early December, London is freezing; the weather has never been one of the perks of this city. Nonetheless, I am experiencing one of the most astonishing and incredible periods of my life. After the nightmare I went through during my Ph.D., I had a great year, and December seems to be the icing on the cake. Just one week has passed, and so many things have happened; it’s strange that it’s already time to leave. Yeah, because December, usually one of my favorite periods of the year when Christmas comes, still had a lot of surprises.

This has been a long-desired trip, and I was enthusiastic when my colleague and friend, Robert, proposed to go together to Australia. He’s from Melbourne and wanted to go back there for the summer. Yeah, because while London freezes, Australia is embracing the warm summer atmosphere. We left the office Friday evening; as usual, train strikes made it difficult to reach the airport, where a 23-hour flight (with a stop in Abu Dhabi) was waiting for us.

I was quite lucky; in the second flight, the longest one, while the plane was fully packed, my row was empty, and I could sleep like a baby. On the other hand, I used the first one to watch the whole Matrix trilogy, which I don’t recommend to anyone.

We arrived in Sydney on Sunday, where we parted as I went to the house of some friends of mine, Davide and Luana, whom I’ve known since I was 14. They just moved there. Ironically, when I moved to London, they were the first to visit me, and now, totally unplanned, I am the first to visit them in their new place in the southern hemisphere.

I was well-rested, so we could immediately go out and visit the city. Sydney looks to me like a very large vacation village. Many things carry names of places you can find in London: Hyde Park, Paddington, Covent Garden, etc., but the city is not at all similar to London or any other European city. There are not many historical monuments, as it’s a very modern country. The Cathedral, even though it tries to emulate the Gothic-medieval style of European churches, has clearly been built in the last century, so in the end, it is an example of Gothic revival architecture. Parks and green zones are abundant, and one thing that immediately struck me was the massive presence of ibis around the town. We went towards the opera house, probably the most relevant and only well-known monument of the whole country. The most amazing thing about it is its position, right on the sea!

Then we had a typical Australian lunch, as expected for every first lunch on a trip, a pizza at an Italian stand in the nearby food street festival. We took a walk along the sea, in the Barangaroo reserve, definitely my favorite part of the city. Full of restaurants and clubs and a wide walkway with quite a view of the Sydney harbour and skyline. We concluded our day with a dinner with Robert, his girlfriend Kelsey, and his cousin’s family, again at a very typical Mediterranean restaurant, where I could try a “scrumptious” dessert called tiramisu, which has nothing in common with a real tiramisu…

The day after, Monday, Davide went to work, blessing me with a kiss on the forehead before leaving, and Luana and I, on the other hand, started our day with the facilities present in their building: gym, swimming pool, sauna, and spa, before having avocado toast for breakfast. We then spent the morning discovering the city; in particular, we visited the inside of the Cathedral where a replica of Michelangelo’s Pietas can be found. We joined Davide for lunch in Hyde Park, just in front of his office before heading to the Taronga Zoo, on the other side of the harbor. Usually, I don’t like zoos; I feel animals suffer in those, but here, in Sydney, animals live in large “open” enclosures. There are a bunch of experiences every day to let people come into contact with the animals and learn about them. It also has a prominent role in the preservation of the local Australian fauna. In addition, I only found here some of the animals I have been able to stare at on this new continent: Tasmanian devils, dingos, quokkas, and platypus, as well as my little cousin’s favorite animal, the Capybara. I also bought him a plush of the aforementioned for Christmas (with hindsight, definitely his favorite 2023 Christmas present). One more reason to go there is that it has an amazing view over all Sydney’s Bay.

The day after, I had my first, and only for now, surf lesson, at Manly Beach. The tide was low, which is quite good when one has to learn. Our teacher was a very extroverted Japanese guy, which was surprising for me! It was a lot of fun, but I don’t think I have been able to remain on top of the board for more than two full runs, one of which is proudly reported here. Robert had a much higher success rate. I also burned myself as I did not use any protective cream while surfing.

Last day in Sydney, started as usual, with Davide leaving for work and blessing me in the usual way ahah, me and Luana went on a long walk along the whole costline, from Cooge Beach all the way down to Bondi Beach. It was fun, but incredibly hot. Some incredible houses are built on the coast, and it was interesting to observe the presence of cemeteries, adorned with banana trees, instead of cypresses at the very top of the cliffs. I concluded my last day in Sydney with a steak in a restaurant on the harbour at Barangaroo, with Davide and Luana, and then a scrumptious gelato from an italian ice cream shop.

Me, Robert and Kelsey left Sydney with a rented car; our final destination: Melbourne, Robert’s home town. But before that, we planned a road trip and various camping.

Firs stop was a cave in a mountain, with stallatites and stallagmites. Actually, the beginning of this road trip didn’t go as planned! As Robert forgot that the reservation for the cave was the day before. Anyway, Australians are very kind and they modified our reservation without cost. I am not sure this would have been possible in UK. Lucas’cave was nice, temperature inside the mountain are very low, at the end I was feeling cold with just a T-Shirt. There are some really astonishing rooms, such as the cathedral room and some calcareus formations shaped as curtains which were enchanting. One of the room had also an excellent acoustic, and our guide asked Kelsey to sing in front of everybody.

During our road trip, we always slept in a tent, either in proper camping areas or in the forest. I was surprised that I couldn’t find any giant spiders, black widows, or large snakes during these days. My expectations, raised mostly thanks to Instagram reels, were quite deluded on this point. The closest thing was the track of a snake in the forest, but I must admit I can find them also at the Mercadante Forest near Bari. Anyway, the places where we camped were astonishing, usually next to shores, and the music was adapted to the trip, such as the mostly iconic Australian songs (my favorites were Slim Dusty’s ones, above all “Duncan” and “G’Day G’Day”) and Christmas songs, the latter were obviously chosen by me. Sometimes we had dinner on the shore at sunset and stared at the southern hemisphere starry night.

The following days were spent between small villages and nature, walking along immense beaches where I could also draw a heart with Robert and Kelsey’s initials within it and a much more insightful pictorial description of Riemannian integrals. We hiked inside a natural park, where we could see Kangaroos, Wallabies and Emus.

Before reaching Melbourne, we stopped at Phillip Island. Here we walked inside a natural reserve and observed Koalas in their habitat. These are the perfect animals; they eat and sleep, and that’s it. They sleep 20 hours a day, something I often crave. At night we went to the beach, facing the Pacific Ocean to stare at the Fairy penguins’ parade.

Fairy penguins are the smallest penguins in the world; they are around 30 cm tall and are kind of cowards. Their predators are large birds and seals, and even if there weren’t any of those nearby, they may still get scared by seagulls, which, on the other hand, are not interested in them.

Every night they come back from the ocean to their nests, just beyond the shore. They march in groups on the shore, but if a seagull makes some unexpected movement, they immediately revert and run back to the ocean. Getting back home is a long process, and we had to endure rain to see it completed by some groups. But it was definitely one of the best, if not THE best experience of the whole trip.

Finally, we arrived in Melbourne. The first thing we did, without even going to the apartment, was going to a climbing gym. Robert was suffering from his abstinence. I “learned” roping, and I had some very frightful moments while climbing (even with the rope), as I suffer from vertigo, and I was more than 10 meters from the floor.

Melbourne is a city to live; there is probably nothing to visit. I went around the city, and it has some nice zones, like St. Kilda, next to the sea. The seafront was also enjoyable. There is a model recreating the solar system in scale along it, so if you run near the sea, you can claim to have run between Mars and Jupiter. Among the many activities we did: I tried my first escape room, and we had dinner in a sort of “Little Italy” part of the city, a street with only Italian restaurants. I must admit it was good. We had a tris of pasta, and ravioli were the absolute winners of the dish. In Melbourne, I also tried the Pavlova cake, whose origin is contended between Australia and New Zealand, and we had an orienteering challenge. Kelsey is a professional orienteering athlete, and she convinced us to do it. Anyway, I don’t think I will repeat it anytime soon. We concluded our trip with a barbecue on the Yarra River, just in front of the Rod Laver Arena, where the Australian Open takes place. It was known that the winner of the Australian Open had to dive in the Yarra river soon after the victory. We had Kanga-Bangas, namely kangaroos sausages, on equipped grill areas provided freely in parks in Melbourne.

I only visited a small fraction of Australia, so the conclusion is that I will need to come back and see the Quokkas smiling in their habitat on Rottnest Island.

Uzbekistan Unveiled: Central Asia’s perl

Crossing the border from Turkmenistan has not been easy. A lady was stopped because she was bringing too many fabrics and carpets than allowed. My travel mate, Jasir, also had problems, as he bought a book written by the first president of Turkmenistan about how to be a good person in this world, a kind of a bible for Turkmens. The problem is that the book was in Russian, and he doesn’t know Russian. Anyway, we managed to speak with an officer in English and went through. Also, the picture on my passport caused some issues, but given that only half of the face was visible, instead of taking the front picture of my face, the officers at the border decided to take only a profile picture, for the half-visible side. Luckily, the sergeant was an AC Milan supporter, therefore being an Inter Milan supporter was partially useful this time: we managed to divert the discussion towards football.

At the exit of the border, many taxi drivers were waiting for the people coming out. There is no public transport, and the Dashgouz-border is far from any city. Here, taxi drivers ask for a huge amount of money, but the true price is around 10 Euro. We managed to exchange the money in Uzbek SOM before crossing the border (1 Euro = 12850 SOM at the moment of writing), and that was a huge improvement in the negotiations. People here do not know English; they only know Uzbek and Russian, so the only way to talk is with gestures (Italian for deafs), a few names of cities, and money in your hand; the latter is the most convincing. We managed to enter a taxi for 100K SOM, but after five minutes, the taxi driver turned his phone with “200K” written on it. At that point, I wrote on his phone the agreed number of 100K, and he turned around and brought us back to the border. There we started to negotiate again with other taxi drivers, with a lot of patience, the main ingredient needed during the negotiations. In the end, we managed to enter this taxi shared with other 4 local people.

One of the things I am scared of is cars whose engine has been converted to a gas engine. We were seated in an improvised seat just against the gas bottle present in the trunk, our luggage were tied on top of the car. The position was very uncomfortable, and the travel lasted more than 1 hour as we first had to go to Urgench to drive these people who were with us. They were living in Soviet-style buildings in the neighborhood of Urgench, with peeling paint and broken windows along the stairs. During the way, we also stopped by a mechanic to inflate the tires of the taxi. At that point, I was already missing Turkmenistan, with our white comfortable jeep (a Mitsubishi V6) capable of safely running along the desert. But, once arrived at the hotel in Khiva, where we reunited with two other friends of mine, Greta and Samu, I completely changed my mind.

We stayed at the Caravan Hotel, and the owner is one of the kindest people on Earth. He knows to speak English, and he is always there for you to fulfill any possible request. Greta asked to have longer sheets for the bed, and she got them. We asked for hot milk for breakfast, and he went out to buy it. Also, he noticed from my passport that it was my birthday, and when we came back from dinner, we found a huge cake for me at the reception of the hotel. The day after he led us to the Bazaar where we bought some local honey, fruits, and nuts. He also paid for the taxi to go to the bazaar and also for our taxi to the station when we had to leave Khiva. I usually don’t like to use names of places on this blog, but when the places are so outstanding, I cannot avoid recommending them.

Khiva is an incredible city; the old town is an open-air museum with tiled decorated minarets and domes. The typical orange color of the buildings and the blue tiles produce surprising and delightful light effects. When night comes, the buildings get lit, and the atmosphere is magical. The food is also exquisite, mostly based on beef, lamb, and chicken. The pumpkin soup in this period (October) is also a must. Many madrassas and mosques can be visited with one single ticket, which can be obtained at one of the main gates of the old town. There are merchants all around the old town, and there is also an indoor bazaar, with shops for silk, fabrics, games, carpets, hats, and many other amenities; you should always remember to negotiate, but never be too harsh. Asking for half the price may interrupt the negotiation abruptly with no way back as people may feel offended, so give the proper value to everything.

From Khiva, we then took a night train (even if it was 9 in the morning) to Bukhara. The train has cabins where you can sleep, and the beds don’t seem very clean at first, but officers will bring you cleaned and sealed sheets to cover them, so the trip will be very comfortable. Also, if you take the train in the opposite direction, you may get the chance to sleep during the night hours. Once in Bukhara, we noticed that the station is not really in Bukhara, and one needs a taxi to go from the station to the town. The station is in Bukhara 1, while the old town and the citadel are in Bukhara 2. Actually, there is a station in Bukhara 2, but it was temporarily closed, so the trains now stop in Bukhara 1.

The main language here is Tajik, and only second comes Uzbek. The city looks bigger than Khiva, but with fewer things to see and visit. The old town has a couple of mosques, a mausoleum, and is full of madrassas, namely schools where religion, philosophy, and other subjects were taught in the past; some of them are still working today. The Mir-i Arab madrass is one of the most attractive, in my opinion, and it just stands in front of the greatest mosque of the town. The old town buildings stem mostly from the sixteenth century when the Uzbek tribes came to power. It was also conquered by Genghis Khan, but one of the few buildings that remain from the period before the conquest is the Kalyan minaret. It also lays in the square between the madrass and the mosque, sometimes this elongated building is also known as the Tower of Death. Indeed, the minaret was used both for calling the believers to prayer and for public executions. The crier first announced the crimes of the accused, and then the prisoner was thrown out of the 45-meter-long tower. Executions were often held during market days so that as many people as possible could attend. This practice has been continued even under the following kingdoms; it was only when the Bolsheviks came to power that both the prayers and the executions were halted. In the old town, mosaics with smaller and bigger tiles adorn most of the walls of the buildings. Shops and merchants crowd the cobbled streets, and negotiations can be heard at every step. Here in Bukhara, we could try the Borscht, a typical beetroot soup with beef and cabbage as well, served with bread and sour cream on the side. The main dishes are still all based on beef and lamb, but soup and vegetarian options are more available than in Khiva. Near the Bukhara’s Ark, the entrance to the citadel, there is a coffee spot, Coffexona, where you can try the Raf, a typical coffee created in Moscow during the Soviet period and named after the customer who asked for “something different” at the bar, Rafael Timerbaev. Raf is made of coffee, condensed milk, and vanilla syrup; even if I don’t drink coffee, this one was pretty good.

From the citadel, one has an overall view of the city from above. A panoramic point of view both on the old and new city, but nothing more than that. We didn’t stay long in Bukhara, just one day. Then we took a train to Samarkand. This travel was a pleasure for people who love trains. We moved from one city to another on board of different carriages, with beds, cabins, or just normal seats. The panoramas along the way vary from the desert to fields, villages, and steppe.

Samarkand, once the capital of the Timur’s Empire, a huge empire spanning from the Black Sea to India, with many vassal territories depending on it, nowadays is a magical city full of history and art. Its name became famous thanks to Amir Timur, also known as Tamurlame, because he was lame to one leg. His military campaigns in the second half of the 14th century created this large kingdom, and its name still echoes all around this town in the present days. Mausoleums, mosques and statues have been built to honor him. Here, he is considered the most victorious general, having won 18 out of 18 battles he fought. He also had 18 wives, and one of them built the greatest mosque in Samarkand for him. This majestic building can still be visited, just outside the main bazaar. The legend about this building is that the master in charge of the construction fell in love with the married woman, who on the other hand wanted the building to be finished before the return of Timur from one of his campaigns. The master proposed an agreement to the lady: if she would let him kiss her on her cheek, he would finish the building on time. She refused at first and told the master that he could have any of the beautiful women in her court, but he was completely infatuated with her. So he rejected the offer, and in the end, the only option remaining for Timur’s wife was to accept his offer. The master finished the mosque on time, but his kiss left a mark on the woman’s cheek. When Amir Timur returned to Samarkand, he was astonished by this enormous building built in his honor, but nowadays there is still no trace of what happened to the master after the king noticed the mark on his wife’s cheek.

We went into the bazaar, where we bought some souvenirs, as well as rare spices and sweets to carry back to Europe. We also visited a carpet factory, where carpets are still handmade. We had the chance to observe the whole production process and to learn how to distinguish a machine-made from a handmade carpet. This particular factory won many prizes, as the owner said, not because they are the best at producing carpets, but because they don’t use child labor, and the process is all human-centric, with no aid of machines. The farm has been visited by various statesmen, and there is a wall with pictures of them, from Germany’s president to Russian Federation’s president Vladimir Putin, passing from Kofi Annan, Turkmenistan’s president Gurbanguly Berdimuhamedow, etc…

Whish I could work with the same dedition

The main square of Samarkand, Registon square, is bordered by three buildings, two madrassas, and a mosque. One of the two madrassas was built by a heirs of Timur, one of the most famous Uzbeks of all time: Ulugh Bek. Ulugh Bek wasn’t as good a general as his grandfather, but he was passionate about science. He built many madrassas in his kingdom, where five subjects were taught: Mathematics, Physics, Geography, Astronomy, and History. He also built an observatory and wrote treaties about celestial bodies. He is considered one of the fathers of astronomy, and many craters on the moon (as well as other planet’s satellites) have his name. Obviously, all the buildings in Registon square have been decorated with the usual mosaics of blue tiles. In front of his madrassa, there is another one, built by the people of Samarkand, to teach religion and philosophy, which were two subjects missing in the program of Ulugh Bek’s school. It is well known that Islam forbids the depiction of any man or animal, but one peculiarity of the latter school is that on its facade, there seem to be figures of animals. Those are actually mythical animals, so technically not forbidden by religion. There are two tigers which represent the students who are eager to learn; on their back, there is the sun (this is the feature making them mythological) representing the teachers who light their way. In front of them, there are hunted reindeers, or at least something similar to these, which stand for the knowledge the tigers are chasing. The last building is the mosque, in the center of the square. One thing not to miss here is the light show happening every night at 9 pm in the square. The square is also used once every 2 years for an international music festival. The whole city is a UNESCO World Heritage site, and the food is amazing. We tried the Samarkand Pilaf, a dish based on rice, beef, chickpeas, raisins, carrots and quail’s eggs. Another very typical dish is Samsas, a kind of savory pastry filled with beef and lamb, served with a tomato and oil sauce to be garnished while eating.

One curious fact about Uzbekistan, that anyone will note easily, concerns the cars. 99% of them are Chevrolet, usually white. Talking with locals, we understood why. Imported cars are taxed at an 80% rate, while Chevrolet has a farm in the northeast of the country. This pushes everyone to possess only such brand of cars.

We left Samarkand for our last destination, the capital city: Tashkent, on board of a train. We shared our cabins with a family with a small kid. We started the trip by listening to Uzbek lullabies, which had an effect also on my travel companions, but after some time, the kid woke up, and the trip wasn’t so relaxing anymore, but he was kind of fun anyway. Tashkent is an expanding city, but still has a Soviet footprint. Talking with taxi drivers, we discovered that up to 10 years ago, the main language in the city was Russian, and if anyone from the rest of the country wanted to move there, they had to know Russian, and some companies were also requiring a language test. Now, this has changed, and the main language is Uzbek. We did not have much time in Tashkent, but we were able to pass through the bazaar. Here, the market is huge, and one can easily get lost in it. Merchants are more stubborn and active than in other parts of the country.

My travel-mates on board of the train while I am writing this article

I may have also upset one of them when, in an attempt to free us from him, I said I didn’t like his pieces of patisserie after tasting some of them. There is one part of the city that is completely uncorrelated with the style of other buildings, the latter being mostly offices, residential, or political buildings. It is called Magic City, and it looks like Disneyland. It is a small village inside the town, and part of its buildings are replicas of different cities in Europe, from Amsterdam to London and Barcelona. There is also a replica of Casa Batló and the Big Ben. This was surely an unexpected discovery in this country.

This country has actually been full of surprises since the very first day. For me, it was unimaginable that a thousand years ago this part of the world was the intellectual center of it. Ibn Musa al-Khwarizmi, a very famous mathematician from the 8th century, came from this part of the planet and is known as one of the fathers of Algebra. In Greek, he was known as Algoritmi, combining al-Khwarizmi and arithmos (which in Greek means number). Thus, the word “algorithm” comes from him. He also wrote one very well-known book at his time: “Algebr Wal Muqabal,” translated also in English as “The Compendious Book on Calculation by Completion and Balancing,” which described his two methods for simplifying equations and gave the name to the subject: Algebra. One thing that contributed to the flourishing of this region was paper, invented in China around the first century and further developed in what today is modern Uzbekistan. In Samarkand, the production of paper was refined by using cotton cellulose. The craftsmen here produced paper that was thinner and cheaper, becoming the primary exporter of paper to Europe. The Silk Road passing through this country also contributed to its development, making these places a magical melting pot of cultures and people. We went back home to London with a baggage full of memories, both material and spiritual, as well as the unfaltering magnets for my aunts.

An unattainable country

The first act of this journey can be called: “Fighting against destiny.” I arrived at Gatwick airport significantly earlier than my usual half-hour before departure. Calmly, I approached the Emirates Airlines desk, and that’s where the problems began. I showed my passport, which, due to an unfortunate event (rain in the UK, very likely but also unlucky), had my picture partially ruined. Nevertheless, I had never had problems flying with it and crossing borders so far. This time, however, I was blocked from entering the plane. Nothing could change the Emirates’ ground attendants’ minds, not even my Letter of Invitation from the Turkmenistan Government, endless explanations that I was only transiting in Dubai (where I was supposed to meet my friend Jasir), or the fact that every security check had access to the Interpol system where they could see my original picture.

At that point, there was no time for panicking. I knew the only other airport connected to Ashgabat, the capital city of Turkmenistan, was Istanbul. Thus, I went straight to the Turkish Airlines desk. There, I asked whether I could fly to Istanbul and then to Ashgabat with my passport. They also cast doubts, but they told me that with an ID card, I could have flown to Istanbul. From there, I would be on my own, even though my ID card was expiring just three days later. I summoned my strength and decided to go there. In the meantime, Greta, one of the friends I was supposed to meet in Uzbekistan (after Turkmenistan), called the general embassy of Italy in Istanbul. They told her that I might have more than one problem once at the Istanbul airport if Turkish Airlines there wouldn’t sell me the ticket to Ashgabat. Indeed, with an ID card expiring so soon, I couldn’t leave the airport.

While already on board and flying over Europe, my mother was fortuitously in Rome to a conference where the Turkish ambassador in Italy was also present. Without any hesitation she went to him to ask for help. In the end, I didn’t face any problems in Istanbul because the Turkish Airlines desk sold me the ticket to Ashgabat for the day after. In conclusion, the morale is Turkish Airlines >> Emirates. I would have arrived one day later in Ashgabat, but I had the chance to visit Istanbul, a bridge between the East and the West. Walking around, crossing the Bosphorus, staring at the millions of mosques and minarets, and listening to the Ottoman band celebrating some historical event of the Ottoman Empire was undoubtedly excellent compensation for all the troubles I needed to go through to get there.

The Blue Mosque in Istanbul

I then visited Topkapi Palace, the imperial palace, with its luxurious rooms, where sultans administered the empire, decorated with colorful carpets and tiles, the harem, the treasury, and the reliquary. The latter contains everything one can imagine about religion: the staff of Moses, the sword of David (the one used to fight Goliath), a box that belonged to Abraham, the beard hair of the prophet Muhammad, footprints of the prophet Muhammad, letters of the prophet Muhammad, and swords of the prophet Muhammad. The Ark of the Covenant was the only thing missing there. I must admit, I have doubts about the authenticity of all these reliquaries. Anyway, the palace also had an incredible terrace overlooking the Bosphorus, dominating both the Asian and European sides. After that, I attempted to enter the Hagia Sophia mosque, but there was an incredible queue, longer than 1 km. Given my limited time, I decided to skip it and just admire it, along with the Blue Mosque, from the outside.

Nevertheless, I have been able to visit the underground basilica, a Roman cistern used to store water for the imperial palace, incredibly similar to the mines of Moria in the Lord of the Rings for its dark atmosphere. A fascinating statue of Medusa is hidden in one of the corners, projecting her shadow on the wall and petrifying the observers from her beauty. I concluded my brief trip in Istanbul by walking through the Grand Bazaar and the Egyptian Bazaar. These are huge markets, as large as a whole village, where merchants from all over Turkey and nearby countries sell jewelry, fabrics, sweets, food, games, perfumes, and everything the human mind can think of. I like merchants, and I love observing them in the art of selling as they are truly the engine of every country, with their industriousness and enthusiasm.

Turkish people are very friendly, and I had the sensation that they appreciate Italians. I have been stopped many times, and people walked with me along the Bosphorus or in the streets and alleys around the city, talking about our countries (sometimes also about women) and cultures. I have also been invited to share a beer. Even though I was alone visiting, I never felt alone in this town. Unfortunately, I couldn’t enjoy this beer because I had a flight waiting for me (this time for real). While in my taxi to the airport, looking at the sun setting over the city, one thought filled my mind: I need to come back to Turkey; it deserves much more than a single day.

I arrived in Ashgabat, Turkmenistan’s capital city, late at night. It was 3 am, actually. I had a COVID test inside the airport, but it was really just a formality; the swab was never truly inserted into my nose, just softly touched it. I had to go through the visa process, where they issued a visa for me, and then I paid for my visa and COVID test. After the passport control, there is also a luggage check at the airport exit. My flight was full of local people, and one thing that one can immediately notice (especially if one comes from the UK) is their inability to queue. They just amass in front of the desk and push and pull until it’s their turn.

The airport from the outside has the shape of a white eagle made out of marble. I was carried to my hotel, an avocado-shaped, astonishingly luxurious palace, where, unfortunately, I could only spend 4 hours. My friend Jasir was waiting there (actually sleeping). We were supposed to meet in Dubai, but life is sometimes surprising. Early in the morning, we were picked up by our guide to visit the capital. One immediately gets struck by the extensive presence of “White” everywhere. All the buildings are white, cars are mostly white, and if not, they are gold or silver-colored. This is not by chance. The government aimed to achieve many world records, including something like the whitest city in the world. So cars are only allowed to be of those colors, and buildings are all made with marble (the fanciest ones with Carrara marble from Italy). Cars not from Ashgabat must be left in one of the huge car-parks just outside from Ashgabat.

We visited the largest indoor ferris wheel in the world, the monument to the constitution, the monument to independence from the USSR, a monument to liberty, and a monument to a book. Apparently, the first president of Turkmenistan wrote a book about how to be good in the world; they translated it into countless languages and also made a statue for it. We went in front of the presidential palace, but it is not allowed to take pictures of it. Surprisingly, the Department of Physics and Mathematics was located in front of it. In my whole life, I have never seen such a fancy department. Usually, my department was always relegated to the corner of towns. We were supposed to visit the fortress of Nisa, an ancient Parthian fortress from the third century before Christ, at the border with Iran, but the Turkmen secret services blocked us because a “delegation” was visiting it at that point.

We went to eat in a local cafe, where we had Pilaf and dumplings, typical of this region. After that, we aimed for the desert, to the north of the country. The road soon after leaving Ashgabat wasn’t a road anymore; it was a mined field. Many camels crossed it freely; they are the real owners of the road in the desert. After 2 hours, we stopped inside a village to buy food for the night. Villages in the desert are poor; you can spot USSR trucks left there and used by the locals. The mini-market was selling unpackaged pasta and biscuits without any brand. The Coke wasn’t the original one, but there was everything one needs for immediate needs. We also bought a Turkmen beer to celebrate my birthday, which would have been the day after. We visited two craters, the result of Soviet gas excavations in the 1970s, one filled with water and another with mud to stop the gas from leaking, before reaching the Gate of Hell.

Bubble of gas methane and propane are visible as a foam on the surface of the water

The Gate of Hell is a crater, which was also created by Soviet scientists while looking for gas in the soil. The ground collapsed due to a void underground, and gas started leaking out. In the beginning, no one cared, but after some time, the nearby villages started to smell it, and one night, two shepherds with their sheeps were found dead near the crater. Therefore, the Soviets decided to light it in an attempt to stop the leaking. They calculated that in a few days, maybe weeks, the crater would run out of gas, but 40 years later, the crater is still burning, and one cannot be if not astonished by its effect. I had the chance to read and study next to the crater while looking into its burning flames, and this is an image that will always stay with me.

Once darkness arrived, the temperature in the desert fell steeply. So, we went back to our camp and prepared our Yurt, a typical West Asian large tent where we would spend the night. It is very comfortable and also had a wood heater inside. We heated our food next to a fire that the camp guardian lit to cook food for some other tourists. They also shared two baked potatoes with us. In turn, we gave them some Turkish delight I bought in Istanbul to celebrate my birthday, happening that night. After dinner, we went back to the Gate of Hell to enjoy it during the night. The atmosphere is completely different, and the crackling and popping of the flames filled the air. I offered the Turkish delights to a couple of Mexican tourists there and exchanged some words before heading back to the camp. When walking back, we lost our way in the desert, just at the moment when we were talking about the fact that if anyone were to be lost, they could always spend the night next to the crater where the temperature was higher (I would say around 30 degrees Celsius). Luckily, the Mexican tourists and their guide were still there at the crater, which emits a reddish light when looked at from a distance, so we reached them and went back to the camp together.

Our Yurt was a sauna at that point because of the heater, but 2 hours later, by midnight, the fire ran out, and it started freezing inside. The sleeping bags were warm enough, but when one needed to get out of them for any reason, the suffering was real. I woke up around midnight and went outside the Yurt to stare at the starry night. Nights in the desert are amazing. There is no point in the celestial sphere left unlighted. Stars completely fill every corner, and the Milky Way crosses the dark like a river through the fields. Whenever I look at a sky like that, I wonder about the questions that the human race has been asking since the beginning of time: why are we here? Are we alone? Is all of this created? Why is there something instead of nothing? What is time and space? What is my role in all of this?

I started getting anxious, and I had the sensation that I wasn’t doing anything worthy with my life. But at that point, the cold was biting me, and the survival instinct took over, driving me back to the Yurt. The night at that point didn’t pass so smoothly, and when Mercury decided to lead the sun out from the dunes of the desert, we finally woke up and had our quick breakfast. It was 3/4 degrees, and the shivers were uncontrollable.

In the end, we jumped in the car and headed towards the border with Uzbekistan. After a double passport check, a passage on top of a Soviet-era bus, some troubles with my passport, and some small talk about Italian football (which helped me divert attention from the passport; sometimes being Italian has its perks), we managed to cross it. Although there were many problems to reach Turkmenistan, this trip has been one of my favorites, and I would like to go back to Ashgabat to explore it more than I was able to do. Now, let’s enjoy Uzbekistan though.

Svalbard: A cool escape

78° 13′, just less than 12° from the North Pole, there are very few lands at this latitude: Greenland, the October Revolution Island in Russia, and the only place you can easily reach by plane: the Svalbard Archipelago. This set of islands is so remote that nature reigns supreme here. Join me on this summer trip around the islands to discover the mysteries of this archipelago – you will be surprised by what can be found here.

This trip was proposed to me by a newfound friend, Jasir, whom I got to know after moving to London. I was delighted to find someone who shares my passion for extreme trips (and cheese as well).

The main city is called Longyearbyen, named after the American businessman, Longyear, who visited the islands during a cruise in 1901. Seeing the abundance of coal, he recognized the potential for business development in mining, and five years later, he founded the city, hence its name (in Norwegian, “byen” means “city”). This is the northernmost community in the world, and here you will find the northernmost of many things: the northernmost supermarket, the northernmost university center, the northernmost bus stop, and so on.

We landed on the only runway the airport has, with flights coming exclusively from Oslo. After leaving our luggage at the Svalbard Hotel Polfareren, we headed straight to explore the community.

The economy here is driven by coal mining and tourism. The village consists of the main road, lined with shops (the northernmost shops in the world), bars, and pubs, and several other streets mainly dedicated to residential areas. There is also a zone called Beverly Hills due to its resemblance to the more famous one. Near the sea, on the fjord, you’ll find the industrial zone, home to various companies and farms. Here, you can also visit the university center, the Svalbard Museum, which showcases exhibitions about the incredible natural life and interactions between humans and the environment in the archipelago, and the North Pole Expeditions Museum, mainly focusing on the Umberto Nobile and Amundsen’s expedition on board the airship.

On a small hill to the left of the main street, there is the church. The town has everything needed to support human life: a cinema, a sports center, a mall, a hospital (although it seemed closed from the outside with no one working in it), a post office, a supermarket, bars, pubs, restaurants, and cafes. The first thing that struck us was the sign at the entrance of every indoor place, forbidding the entrance with guns and rifles. It is not uncommon to see people walking around the village with rifles on their back. Additionally, no one is allowed to leave the village without a rifle or a guide who possesses one. This is because the real danger outside the village comes from polar bear attacks.

The population on the islands is about 2600 people, while there are 3500 polar bears, making them the majority on this land. Polar bears typically feed on seals and walruses, and occasionally birds, but they view humans as prey, making it risky to venture out of town without protection. In 2020, due to the presence of a polar bear wandering the streets, nobody could enter or leave the archipelago. As a curious fact, neither the cars nor the houses are ever locked. If anyone finds themselves in trouble due to a polar bear, they can always seek shelter in any nearby car or house. Polar bears can run at speeds of up to 30 km per hour, with peaks reaching even higher speeds of 60 km/h. Outrunning them is impossible, so the only ways to survive are to find shelter or scare them away with warning shots. Killing polar bears is not allowed, as they are a protected species.

Another interesting feature we noticed was the position of the post boxes. Instead of being located next to each house, they are gathered together in small cabins on the main streets, providing better protection from snow and ice during the long winter and easier access for postmen.

On the same night we arrived, we fulfilled our first mission: to observe the midnight sun. It feels very strange for those not used to it, sitting in a pub at midnight or 1 a.m. and watching the sun move horizontally high in the sky, as if it were 11 in the morning. One of my favorite pubs in town is Kroa, where the atmosphere inside is very cozy, but I would not recommend trying their pizza…

With the sun so bright at night, one doesn’t really feel tired, and we felt like we could live the “night life” all night long, even though we couldn’t afford it, as the next day was already waiting for us. So, we closed the windows and went back to sleep.

In the “morning,” if we can really call it that, we went to the Husky’s cafe to have our “morning” coffee (well, not me, as I don’t drink coffee). Here, the dogs and huskies can “work,” and they have proper turns since some of them cannot work together due to incompatibility. They probably do one of the best jobs on the planet – going around the tables to be cuddled by clients.

Afterwards, we headed for the beach near the harbor and decided to brave the frigid waters of the Arctic Ocean. I knew it was a bold move, not really because of the temperature around 4°/5°, but because I knew my friends would be upset as I don’t like bathing at the sea, even in Apulia in August, because the water is too cold for me. I also knew they would use this episode to convince me to go to the beach with them afterward. Anyway, the entrance to the water was hard, but then I started feeling the effects of hypothermia and tried to enjoy it. Just kidding, the bath didn’t last more than a few seconds, as soon as I entered, I lost feeling in my legs.

In the afternoon, we went to the entrance of the World Seed Vault, a special facility located on this island that stores seeds from all over the world. Its purpose is to maintain the biodiversity of plant species in case of natural disasters or war. Countries from all over the planet can send their seeds here to be safely stored in the cold. The vault is located inside a mountain at a certain height to safeguard the seeds in the event of a rising sea level scenario. It has already been utilized by Syria when their seed bank was destroyed during the war, and they withdrew their seeds from the World Seed Vault. We were unable to enter, so we stopped by in front of the facade. During the winter, the artwork on the facade reflects the light, creating the illusion of the Northern Lights. However, in the summer, it appears as just a grey passage inside a mountain. Nearby, there is also the Arctic Data Centre, another facility used to safely store world data. The entirety of the Github code is stored here, as well as data from the Vatican and other types of data. The only way to see it is by visiting Mine number 3, as the World Data Centre lies inside the mountain.

Later, we went hiking with a guide on the mountains near Longyearbyen, where we observed a couple of reindeer filling their bellies to survive the long winter. At the top, we were able to taste the typical blackcurrant syrup with Norwegian biscuits.

The next day, we boarded the “Polargirl” for a boat trip to Pyramiden because when you are already north, you can sometimes go even further north, even if only slightly this time. On the boat, we met several people, including a Svalbard guide and entrepreneur who first settled on the island in 1964. I made him stand up every time I went out to observe animals popping out, and although he might not have liked me at first, we eventually started laughing about it. There was also a group of very energetic Germans who grew louder as the trip went on; they had been drinking since they stepped on the boat. During the journey, we observed a walrus, many puffins, Belugas, a Minke Whale, and even a polar bear, which is very rare to spot, especially in the summer.

Finally, we arrived at Pyramiden, a village named after the shape of the mountain next to it. Pyramiden is a Soviet ghost town that was once a mining village, but now only hosts a hotel and a bar. A total of 15 people live here, working in the hotel or as guides. The city remains intact thanks to the cold, and one can truly feel the Soviet atmosphere in this frozen-in-time village. There are still USSR flags, and a Lenin statue dominates the main street, named after the 60 years anniversary of the October Revolution. Inside what used to be the canteen, the school with the gym and the swimming pool, and the social building containing a theater, a library, and a leisure center, we observed the mine, residential buildings, and hospitals from outside.

Apparently, people living there say that when you want an alcoholic drink, you are supposed to have the same amount of alcohol in it as the latitude of the place you are in. Thus, in their bar, they serve a typical drink called the “78°40′,” which is 78% alcohol. I had to try it, but I cannot really tell how it tastes because for me, it was like fire in the mouth.

On our way back, we stopped by one of the many glaciers they have. Going closer than 200 meters to the glaciers is prohibited, as doing so could result in a fine and the loss of the boat license, as the glaciers must be preserved in any possible way.

Let me just pause a bit on their food. Fish and meat are at the base of their cuisine; cod, salmon, and the Arctic trout can be easily found anywhere, as well as reindeer, which is one of the most common and traditional foods of the islands. By the way, it tastes like a normal steak to me. If one is really into trying every possible dish on the planet, they can find some delicacies that are inaccessible elsewhere, namely the meat of whale and seal. Also, in Longyearbyen, there is the northernmost brewery where they produce their own beers, which you can try in the various pubs and bars on the main street. Most of their beers take the name from the most famous animal there, the polar bear. The brewery aims to extend and become a distillery as well.

This is a place that strongly changes with the seasons, so one should visit it several times. We both agreed that we need to come back during the long winter and even in spring. There are still so many experiences that need to be done, like running a dog-led sleigh on the ice, sleeping in an ice cave, bathing in the Arctic Ocean during the winter, observing the long night, watching walruses, seals, whales, and even the Arctic fox (which changes color with the season, switching from winter white to summer grey/brown and unfortunately, we couldn’t spot during this trip, but they are so cute). Living the Longyearbyen life during winter and, if lucky, observing the Northern lights.

In the end, we need to go back.

My Big Fat Greek… Conference 

Everybody, at least in Italy, when asked about Greece, replies that the first things that comes up to mind are the sea and the islands. This time I am going to talk about mainland Greece, which we discovered, surprisingly, to be at least as cool and interesting as the islands.   

As for every good adventure in my life I was accompanied by incredible travel mates, just like Don Chisciotte and Sancio Panza. This case is no exception, as I left from the port of Bari with my colleague and friend Matteo. We carry research on Supergravity (some weird extension of General Relativity) at the University of Padua, and our destination was the XXIX conference on Supersymmetry and Unification of Fundamental Interactions in Ioannina. The cold and windy night we spent on the last deck of the boat that carried us from Bari to Igoumenitsa did not prepare us for the luxurious hotel the conference organizing committee chose for us in Ioannina. The arrival was expected at 5:30 in Igoumenitsa, but we did not know that Greece was in a different time zone than Italy, so we slept no more than 4 hours (this is something you should take into consideration when planning a trip to Greece). Arriving so early, we decided to take the panoramic road to Ioannina. Apart from some unexpected pebble streets, I did not regret driving on those paths, staring at the sun while it comes up the shoulders of the hills, so typical of the Greek inland landscape.   

Arrived in Ioannina, we took the chance to explore around the city. The town lies on the shores of Lake Pamvotida, where people can run, enjoy the views of the other banks or live the night-life in the various restaurants, bars and pubs located in that zone. Indeed, at night the view is even better, with all the lights coming from the island at the centre of the lake, where some monasteries lie, and from the houses on other banks, looking as candles floating all over the dark water of the lake. The night life in Ioannina is not only restricted to the shores of the lake, there are also many suggestive streets and alleys near the old town, filled with restaurants and bars, where losing ourselves was a pleasure both for the eyes and for our mouths. The food in Greece is renowned all over the world (Gordon Ramsey also admitted that he prefers Greek food over Italian cuisine, BTW he likes to be controversial, so I would take his statement with a grain of salt). In mainland Greece one can usually find a lot of different types of meat: pork, chicken, lamb, etc., but cheese lovers like me should try saganaki cheese (it’s just fried cheese, but it is scrouptious) and then obviously the choriátiki saláta (the Greek Salad) with feta. We also had the chance to eat a typical dish from the island at the center of the lake, which is frog’s legs (fried), I did not like them and I can state that they reminded me the taste of chicken, but you should go for it at least once if you have the chance to pass by Ioannina.

We couldn’t explore more around in the neighbourhoods of Ioannina, due to the conference, but we had great times learning about various aspects of this marvellous symmetry that should describe our Universe in one of its phases called Supersymmetry. What better place to discuss about Physics than Greece? The land which gave birth to Mathematics, Physics and Metaphysics… We had the chance to meet new people, and a lot of new friends (PhDs from other nations), among them also some native people who pointed us to the right places to eat and buy some food to bring home with us, what best souvenir than some Greek cheese? Sharing lunches and dinners with our new friends has been one of the greatest pleasures of the time spent there. Getting to know new cultures and traditions from people coming from Chile, Germany, Perú, Poland, Brazil, Japan or Taiwan all together in front of some souvlaki (skewers of meat) on the shores of the lake is the kind of emotion I would always look for. Remember to conclude dinners with Tsipouro, a typical Greek liquor, and if you are with Japanese people do not say “Cin Cin” when you toast, as Italians usually do, as it means penis in Japanese. Even though most days we were busy learning about Supersymmetry, we managed to visit Meteore, which literaly means “in the middle of the air”, and are suggestive monasteries built on top of rock formations in the 13th and 14th century. One can only reach them by walking uphill along the mountains and the views one gets once there is exceptional and enveloped in the mystical atmosphere only belonging to sacred locations. We have also been able to visit the village of Vikos Gorge in the North of Ioannina with its monastery’s ruins and the typical round arches bridges. 

After so many beautiful experiences we had to leave Ioannina and – sadly – our new friends, but we had time for one more small adventure. We got into the car with a Greek friend of ours, who we met in Padua some months before, and we had a small road trip to Athens. The panorama along the road is astonishing, and incredibly various, one passes next to mountains and hills and then finds the sea and then again cliffs. During the trip, discussions about life, relationships and physics made the time fly by, everything surrounded by “Rembetiko” music, a typical Greek music genre that goes back to the 1920s (suggested artists: Markos Vamvakaris and Vasilis Tsitsanis). Arrived in Athens in our room with a marvelous view on the Acropolis we visited Syntagma Square where we could attend the change of guards in front of the Parliament and then we moved to grab some beers in “Exarchia” and “Metaxourgio”, two unconventional districts of Athens, where among bars and pubs one can easily finds buildings belonging to anarchists and banners and posters exalting freedom and peace. It is nice to see how these areas of the city form a peaceful continuum with the main centre and different residential zones. We also had the chance to pass by the National Academy before going back to sleep. Once in Athens, it is inevitable to visit the Acropolis and its museum (even though British stole the most beautiful pieces of art from Greece). Even though there is plenty of pictures of it on the web, one is never really ready for the magnificiency and impressiveness of the Parthenon. At the Acropolis, one can really feel the weight of history. Walking in the same places where Themistocles, Pericles, Plato, Aristofanes, Sophocles, Eschilo, Euripides, and other eminent personalities of the past used to walk, discuss, present their comedies and tragedies made me feel insignificant yet also proud to be part of this species which achieved so much during the centuries. 

With this last experience, the conference and the trip were really ending. Greece gave us a lot in term of knowledge (as usual), fun, hospitality and friendships and I hope to be back soon. Let me conclude with a quote from Heraclitus, which was also the motto of the SUSY2022 conference and gave us a fruitful source of reflection (I hope can be the same for you): “The one follows from everything and everything from the one”.  

“Albeit it does not moves”

People, nowadays, are so stuck up in their frenzied, hysterical routine that it is almost impossible to stop one second and think: “Why am I living this life? Was this what I wanted? Am I pursuing my ideals?”. 

These questions are though, most of the time they remain un-answered, but the last one… the last one is maybe the hardest one and it is also the driving question. Answering it can probably change the life, it can make us leave our routine and start living the life we always dreamt.

This may seem something for millennials and Gen-Z-ers, but it actually isn’t. People who followed ideals have always existed, and we all used to look up to them: leaders, commanders, messiahs, entrepreneurs but also common persons. Ideals are not a property of sensitive people or a generation, they cross generations and ages. 

Principles and beliefs don’t need to reflect any common accepted morality, ideals and dreams can be detached from sense of good and usefulness for the community. Lev Tolstoi used to say: “It is not possible to live without an ideal, even the vilest, vanity, greed, but that it is placed as an ideal”.

Following an ideal is not so easy, life hits hard, or can smoothly lead us to forget our principles and living the routine, which is much easier. Humans are lazy in general, the question is: is this really living? Or is it simply surviving? 

Once we start to realize what we want to be and take steps towards that direction, no matter what the difficulties are, we will be living in those moments, and even if struggling with the world, we will be truly living. Hard times will pass and once they do, we discover that it was better to have felt those emotions than the routine.

Martin Luther King, murdered following his dreams

Struggling and following principles is what we call INTEGRITY, and we should always prefer living for those principles. Ask yourself: do I prefer having relationships with people of ideals and principles or someone who has nothing to fight for? Usually, the former communicate openly and honestly, they lead by example, and stay calm and positive. 

Billionaire Warren Buffet, considered by many insiders the best and most famous investor in recent times (he is also Bill Gates’s best friend), said: “We look for three things when we hire people. We look for intelligence, we look for initiative or energy, and we look for integrity. And if they don’t have the latter, the first two will kill you, because if you’re going to get someone without integrity, you want them lazy and dumb.”

In an age where human values are slowly being erased by the ideas of prevarication, competition and struggle for survival, integer people are trustworthy, and when you choose who you want on your side (as partners, friends, best friends, colleagues and so on), always ask yourself what you really want from them. Do you want someone who talks openly? Do you want someone who practices what he preaches? Do you want someone who is accountable? And in the meantime, try to be an integer person yourself. 

Towards Santiago

Pawns are usually considered the least important pieces in a chess game. By itself, a pawn is doomed to die, but their strength lies in the cohesion with each other. We arrived in Redondela after 43 km of walking in just one day, exhausted, our legs were drained, but we met new pilgrims on the way, who would have shared the walk with us, and just like pawns we instilled force into each other. This metaphor became even more fitting, when, once we sat in a Bar to have Breakfast, before starting to walk, we were approached by a strange man who wanted to play chess with us. So, we started the day playing chess and discussing about German philosophers and writers, before effectively begin what we planned. In the end, despite waking up early, we left Redondela relatively late, but this is also the “Camino de Santiago”.

There was nothing special along the way from Redondela to Pontevedra, but I would like to stress out the matter of the equipment. We were surprised in the middle of the forest by heavy rain, and walking in the mud with non-waterproof shoes is not properly like a thermal mud massage.  So, if you plan to do the “Camino” I strongly recommend to bring very good and comfortable shoes (Hiking boots are an overkill for the Camino but there are some shoes which are something in the middle between hiking boots and sneakers that are excellent on these types of grounds).

Arrived in Pontevedra all wet and dirty, we took some time to visit the city. This small medieval helmet is a precious piece of jewellery nestled on the Ria de Pontevedra, and it is probably the most characteristic city we met along the road. Of course, we started from the “Iglesia de La Virgen Peregrina” (church of the pilgrim Virgin). Its round façade is already peculiar by itself but entering is even more impressive. The statue of the virgin dominating from the Chancel above the altar, with her orange coat, the pilgrim’s hat and the stick is there to tell the pilgrims that they are at a turning point in their itinerary. It is also very suggestive to walk down in Praza da Estrela and have a glance at the “San Francesco Convent” where we had the opportunity to attend the mass during the Holy communion. I also recommend to get lost in the cobblestones paved streets and little alleys, maybe in this wandering, you’ll have the chance to reach the Praza Da Lena or the Ruinas de San Domingos and remain enchanted by the charming and warm atmosphere the city can offer. 


The day after we walked down the ancient “Ponte do Burgo” bridge, and we decided not to continue on the traditional way but to pick the so-called “Variante Espiritual”, a special variant of the “Camino Portugues” which passes by monasteries and allows the pilgrim to travel along the Rio Ulla on a boat, reliving the last trip of Santiago, when its ashes  were delivered to what now is called Santiago de Compostela by his two disciples: Atanasio and Teodoro. Passing by the swampland of “Parque da Seca” we reached the small town of Combarro.  

This city has a peculiarity: it is filled with some structures resembling little temples, the Horreo, even though these are not real temples. These structures, which are typical of the Galician region, are just warehouses for wheat. They are built in this peculiar way because Galicia is a very rainy area, so it is useful not to have the wheat on the ground and in addition they feature breaches in the walls so that the wind can keep it dry. From Combarro the route climbs up the hill. The atmosphere that day was evocative thanks to the fog we met during our climb in the forest to the monastery of Saint Mary of Armenteira. 

We spent one night in Armenteira and apart from the monastery there is nothing around. However, there is the possibility to assist to the mass in the monastery where the priest together with the nuns pronounces the blessing to the pilgrim. Attending it is strongly recommended. Even though the spiritual variant is not chosen by many pilgrims, in the small hostel we got the chance to know many new wayfarers and meet again some old faces. 

Leaving Armenteira at our shoulders, we traversed the “Ruta da Pedra e da Auga”, a spectacular route which follows the flow of the river “Rego Da Armenteira”, trough musky trees, small waterfalls and leaps where the water gushes fast streaming down the hill passing below the watermills that crowd the path. Along the way, we even found a village made of stone, with its bakery, the church, farmers, animals and an unavoidable Horreo. 

The path leads to Vilanova de Arousa, a little village lying on the Ria de Arousa. Here you can try the mussels and other kinds of shellfishes, which are typical of this region. Indeed, the Ria de Arousa is thronged with platforms for the farming of mussels. The Zamburinhas are strongly recommended, taste it if you pass by this region!!

Finally, the last day of “Camino” arrived. We boarded the ship which would have brought us from Vilanova to Padron along the only Via Crucis on water existing on earth. Crossing Vikings vessels (yes they arrived until these remote places) and small islands and patch of lands surmounted only by crosses drowned in the fog we reached the city where Santiago’s disciples landed. In the Padron’s cathedral, there is “El Pedron”, this Roman votive altarpiece of granite which, according to the legend, represents the piece of land where they made landfall bringing with them the rests of the Apostol. 

We arrived quite early in the morning there, but we could not miss the chance to taste the “Pimientos de Padron”, so we had our breakfast with this typical plate of fried green peppers which have a peculiarity: the majority of them is not spicy but some of them are. In Spanish, there is the saying: “Pimientos de Padron unos pican Y otros no”, namely one is spicy and the other not. 

After this light breakfast, we slowly approached our destination, roughly 25 km separated us from our goal. It was emotionally intense when, from far away, you could look ahead and see the town of Santiago de Compostela in all its splendour. 

But even more heart-rending, was the arrival in “Praza do Obradoiro”, the majesty of the Cathedral provoking intense sensations in the pilgrims who arrive there and release their joy with chants and shoutings. In the square, the melting pot of the “Camino de Santiago” shows itself in all its glory, with a mixture of languages and sounds filling the air. The atmosphere is fantastic, absolutely astonishing, set in the marvellous frame of the French neoclassical palace, Pazo da Roxoi facing the cathedral. Exactly at its basement, we lied down, backs against the columns, bags hurled at our feet, the tiredness in our legs and our faces, but jet the happiness of living that moment. Looking at the cathedral’s façade we took the chance to free our thoughts and relax for a while. The spirits of all the pilgrims filling the square are almost palpable and the emotions cannot be described by words. 

In the end, we collected the “Compostela” an official document of the catholic church, completely written in Latin, even our names were translated, certifying that we accomplished the Camino. Usually, in the afternoon there is mass for pilgrims where the “botafumiero”, an immense incense burner, is swung from the ceiling in the central nave (in my opinion to cover the pilgrim’s smell). Unluckily, the cathedral was under construction and so we could not attend this spectacular event. Luckily, we still had the possibility to visit San James’s tomb, our final goal. 

Finally, after taking off the pilgrims’ cloaks, we enjoyed the nightlife in Santiago with a special Galician dinner and the “Queimada”. The latter was the last surprise this trip reserved us. It is a typical drink, prepared in Galicia, garnished with sugar, lemon, and orange peels. But the peculiarity stands in the fact that it is served inside a cauldron, the waiter sets fire to the liquor, mixes it and pours it in the cauldron while the customers have to pronounce a sort of magic spell to ward off the devil. For us, it was a farewell ritual, but even if my legs hurt and the ligaments disagree, I hope it was just a goodbye to Santiago. Because the Camino will always remain in our souls, and I am quite sure it will call us back to Santiago again in the future.

Camino Portugués de la Costa

Yes! This is not a word I would use ordinarily. But “Yes” was my answer when one of my best friends, Edoardo, proposed me to do the Camino De Santiago. We were super-excited to start this adventure, and when the Pandemic spread all over Europe, I was worried the whole trip was going to have to be cancelled. In the end, we managed to arrive in Porto and to start this experience, often considered an initiation route by young Europeans. 

Starting from the Sao Bento station we headed west, to reach the coast, passing by some of the suburbs of the city. It was definitely not the prettiest landscape we encountered on the route, but it had some nice houses. Once reached the coast, in Matosinhos, we met a fellow that would have accompanied us for a big part of the journey: the Atlantic Ocean. Glancing at its vastity after more than one hour of walking in the suburbs filled our souls with joy and enthusiasm. We walked on a wooden gangway on the sand, which was almost perfect. I say almost, because at the very beginning, just after the lighthouse of Matosinhos, the gangplank is surrounded by the sea on the left and by a giant refinery on the right. 

Besides this little inconvenience, the landscape is absurdly enchanting. After passing through small villages of fishermen with their little, colourful houses on the shore surrounded by ingenious lobster cages, crossing wooden bridges, and walking by native houses transformed in museums of traditional arts and craftmanship, just before arriving at our first destination, we decided to walk the last kms directly on the shore. We took off our shoes and let the sand massage our feet. Leaving our talks for the day and our tiredness behind us, together with our footprints. Every new beginning makes a person euphoric and guided by this euphoria we walked for 39 km on the very first day. Maybe, thinking about what would have happened later, it was not the best choice, but yet we arrived in Vila Do Conde, where the grandiose Santa Clara’s convent welcomed us at the entrance of the village, just past the Ave river.

Vila do Conde is a nice small village and the only attraction is an old vessel in the port. From Vila do Conde, crossing wheat fields while waving at and chatting with farmers and breeders we moved to a very tiny village, next to the sea, Marinhas. Here, apart from our hostel, there was only the church of “San Miguel”. Fun fact: we arrived there right on the day when, according to the Catholic church, the Archangels are celebrated, so the only two streets which composed the village were lightened for the celebration. 

On the third day, the way tilted a bit upward, but in order to start properly the day, we had a little break for breakfast. We stop by at the bar “O Lampao”, which in my opinion is a must-see for anyone who attempts the “Camino Portugues de la costa”. Filled with pictures of Ernesto Che Guevara (and sometimes also of Fidel  Castro), with a world map on the wall, where you can see the countries of origin of the pilgrims who visited the place (there were even some from Greenland!!), and decorated with symbols of the Camino and a strange 3-wheels bike at the entrance (always accompanied by a Cuban and a Bob Marley flag), the bar is already a tidbit all on its own. The owner is also a very kind person, always available to help you, and if he can’t satisfy your requests, he will find a way to ensure you’ll be happy during the stay. 

After this small stop, we kept walking, passing by old churches on the top of hills, small villages, and strange works of art made with shoes to show the way. After passing a long steel bridge designed by Gustave Eiffel, we arrived in one of the finest hamlets we found on our way: Viana do Castelho. 

A small sore point here, the Albergue dos Peregrinos, where usually one can find accommodation for 5/6 euros, costed 20 euros per person and was not even among the best we found along the route. 

The cost of these “Albergue Municipal” raised because of Covid-19, but usually it was among 6-8 euros per person. This was maybe the only big mistake we did during the holiday. However, in this hostel we met our very first stranger on our way. I had been wondering where other pilgrims were since the first moment, because we didn’t meet any, but soon after my first complaint we met two other French pilgrims, who were coming back towards Porto. As soon as we spotted them, one of them collapsed to the ground, she fainted!! We tried to help them and called the medical aid, but after that I stopped complaining about the fact that we did not meet anyone else along the route. 

Anyways, in the Albergue de Peregrinos in Viana do Castelho, we had the pleasure to meet a young woman from Berlin. We had some nice chat, even though she criticized the way I used to compute the expenses, and we started living the real spirit of the “Camino de Santiago”: the sharing and communion. We had a beer in the historic centre of the medieval village, where she introduced us to other pilgrims she met on her way. It was astonishing to see how at the same table we could speak Italian, French, English, German, a bit of Hungarian and when the waiter was with us even a bit of Esperanto (according to him, it was Italian). We were deeply saddened when the morning after we had to leave this marvellous village. 

But the way in front of us was still too long to think about ceasing our march. We started very early in the morning, the sun still had to raise (Edoardo loves walking in the freezing cold of the morning, I hated it and him in those moments), left the city centre and headed towards the coast, and walked along the sea, through shores and fields brushed by the fog, which, similarly to a ghost, was gently escaping after the appearance of the first sunrays. On our way to Caminha we encountered another travel companion, the rain, which caught us not so inadvertently. 

I have been a scout for 11 years, and Lord Robert Baden-Powell, the movement founder, used to say: “There is no such a thing as good or bad weather, but good and bad equipment”. Well, we did not have the right equipment, we could only protect the backpacks and the upper part of the body, but our shoes weren’t waterproof. But B.P., as the scouts call their founder, said a much more important quote, which also became the movement’s motto: “Be Prepared”. And we were prepared for it, we knew it would have arrived sooner or later, as Dante said “The arrow, seen beforehand, slacks his flight”, so, in the end, it was not a big problem for us.

We managed to arrive to Caminha and take the boat to cross the Minho, the river which separates Portugal from Spain. The boat takes 15 minutes to cross it, but thanks to the time zones it took 1 hour and 15 minutes to us, so keep it in mind if you are planning to do the Camino Portuguese da Costa, because you can happen to find the hostels on the other side closed. Crossing the Minho, you pass from Portugal to Spain, from Francesinha (if you don’t know what it is, read my previous article) to “Pulpo a la Gallega”, from Obrigado to Gracias and from SuperBock to Estrella. Also the environment started to change, there are more forests and meadows. For the night, we slept in A Guarda, near to Castro de Santa Trega, a Galician Fort build in 100 B.C.

Castro de Santa Trega

On the fifth day, the due stop-over should have been Mougas, at 20 km from A Guarda. However, we arrived there relatively early at 12 a.m., and we were welcomed by the stone in Mougas signalling the way, surrounded by thousands of pebbles, some of them painted with cartoon characters and symbols. Since we didn’t want to waste a sunny day perfect for walking, we decided to keep on going and arrived in Baiona, 15 km after. Note that if you plan the trip with google maps, you’ll be very wrong and underestimate the distances. The Camino does not follow the algorithms Google suggests, and usually, it takes more time and more km to walk along the Camino. Another thing to keep in mind, above all in this piece of the way, is that the Camino is in general well signalled, but just like the staircase in Harry Potter, the arrows like to change. It can be useful to download the app “Caminotool”. In Baiona, we had the chance to taste another Galician’s speciality: the Zorza, a marinated diced pork loin, topped with paprika.

Always because of lack of time, the day after we were forced to put toghether two stages of the walk, thus left Baiona early in the morning and through the Romanic bridge of San Pedro de la Ramalosa we headed towards Vigo. Vigo is the biggest city in Galicia and indeed it took us more than 2 hours to cross it. But it deserves a stop-over, it is a lively town on the sea, with its energetic and vivid nightlife, and a lovely historical centre. Unfortunately, we could not stop there, due to lack of time, so after lunch we kept going in order to reach Redondela.

In Redondela, there is nothing very special, but before arriving there, the Camino passes by a viewpoint, called “The Best bench in Redondela”. This is a small green bench, for maximum two people, nested on a rock at the top of a mountain. It has a 180 degrees view on the “Ria de Vigo”, a huge river where Vigo sits on, and it should be astonishing to just sit there and rest the feet and the eyes with such a view. Unluckily, we arrived to the bench in the exact moment when heavy rain started. We were unable to see anything, due to the presence of clouds, fog and rain, but trust me, if the weather conditions allow it you should go there.   

Luckily, though, the surprise did not finish for the day, and in the hostel, we met two German guys, who became our friends along the route. Similarly to what happens during life, in the Camino you sometimes cross your path with people who will join you for part of the way. This is what happened to us. After many days of walking, we had two new companions, two new friends who were living the same adventure, and this is much better than watching a splendid panorama from a bench with good weather. Friendship is something that can last a lifetime or few days, but in the end, no one will regret about that good time spent together.  

Coimbra and Porto

Left behind the capital city of Portugal, we headed towards Coimbra. The fourth-largest city in the country, it provides an outstanding example of an integrated university city with the feet firmly planted in the tradition and a gaze to the present. We arrived in the evening and, after a quick dinner, we took the chance to go around and have a look at the night-life. To be honest, I have been surprised to notice that the city seemed a bit dull for a student city. There were not many bars and pubs open, and the few ones available were almost empty.  A bit disappointed we retired in the hostel, but yet confident in the many discoveries the city would have reserved for us the next day. We began our day in one of the numerous patisseries this country has to offer (Portugal has plenty of desserts and everyone should try them!!), “Pastelaria Briosa”. Besides the ever-present Pastel de Nata, unavoidable for each meal, and even outside the meals, we tasted the “pastel de Tentugal”, created by the nuns of the monastery do Carmelo de Tentugal, and the “Arrufada de Coimbra” which is very similar to a sweet pan-brioche that can be filled with ham or cheese on request. 

After breakfast, we directly went up the hill to visit the University, one of the oldest universities in the world, dating back to 1290. The Baroque Library “Biblioteca Joanina” absolutely deserves a look. The exterior entrance is adorned in baroque style with a Latin inscription encouraging to use books as weapons towards wisdom. Moisture, temperature and insects are the most dangerous enemies for the books, but FUN FACT: there are two colonies of bats, that live and have lived there for as long as 2 and half centuries, who help with pest control. Then we moved to the “Capela de S. Miguel”, the chapel of the university. This is one of the only two remaining royal chapels in Portugal. The white and blue-tiled walls are a distinguishable mark of this chapel. The impressive baroque organ, with more than 2000 tubes, was meant for another much larger church and this is the reason why it is so disproportionate with respect to the chapel, but yet beautiful to see.

 Passing by the “Salas das Armas”, the armory (which contains heldberds still used today during academic ceremonies such as the awarding of Honoris Causa doctoral degrees and the swearing of the Rector), one can reach the corridor which runs along the “Salas dos Capelos”, the Great Hall of Acts. Once used as the Throne Room, when the University was used as a king’s Palace, the memories of the glorious past can be still noticed on the walls, where there are portraits of some of the Kings of Portugal. On the benches in the hall only people with doctoral degrees can seat, during academic ceremonies. They have to wear the “borla”, a small hat representing wisdom, and the “capelo”, a hood symbolizing science.

The public can assist these ceremonies from the lower level. The hall is used as well for the defenses of doctoral theses. Before leaving the building, you’ll pass by the “Sala do Exame Privado”, where the exams used to take place. Only the commission composed by professors and the student were admitted to this room during an exam. The students were examined one at a time.

Before leaving Coimbra, we stopped by the new and the old Cathedrals. The facades are really impressive, the Romanic old one resembles a fortress for the defense of the city, the new one with its baroque style is still used today but we could not enter because of a marriage going on. In the end, we left this amazing village to reach Porto. But before that, we couldn’t resist and we tried the typical dish of the zone near the Igreja de Santa Cruz (Another Baroque masterpiece this city has to offer): the Francesinha. The idea is the one of a toast, but inside it contains whatever meat you could imagine: a steak, ham, sausage, bacon, and then cheese, topped with a fried egg and immersed in a sauce of tomatoes and beer. I thought the Portuguese diet was light, more or less like my Mediterranean diet, well I was totally wrong!

Porto did not reserve us the warmest welcome: once arrived it was rainy and windy, cold bit our ankles and wrists, but Porto had the ability to change a bad first impression with a series of unexpected discoveries. Indeed, it is no wonder Porto is called “The Capital do Norde” and the country inherited the name from this city. We had only one day and a half so we started our tour immediately by walking through the “Avenida dos Aliados”. At the beginning of this street, there is the elegant town hall, dominating the “Praça do General Humberto Delgado”. Walking down, this flamboyant route, skirted by buildings adorned with different styles, from neoclassical to French Beaux-art, we reached the station of Sao Bento. The baroque façade and the side walls are dressed up with azuleyos depicting the Battle of Arcos de Valdevez and the Conquest of Ceuta. Inside the station, turning your head left and right and up and down you will remain astonished by the triumph of azuleyos that cover the walls and the ceiling. There are about 20 thousand tiles all over the station. These little pieces of manufacturing are very common all over the city and in the whole country, you will get used to them walking in the little alleys. Before going for dinner at one of our friends’s house (Portuguese people are incredibly hospital) we took the chance to have a glimpse of the river Douro from one of the Miradouro of the city: “Miradouro Vittoria”. Even though it was cloudy, the sight was enchanting. 

Waking up after a dinner spent with nice company and good wine it is not always easy, but knowing there were still too many things to try, taste or visit, the mood was flying. The first thing we visit was the “Livraria da Lello & Ivrao”. Rumors are that this place inspired J.K.Rowling for one of the most famous places where she set her novel: Diagon Alley. But this seems to be just a legend and the author publicly denied having ever been in that library. Nonetheless, this place deserves for sure a visit. With its curvy handrails and stairs, the colorful glassy ceiling illuminating all over the books and the old-looking shelves this library will likely bring you in a magic world, and maybe remind you where Harry Potter used to buy his cauldron, wand and gown, and where some of you may have lived their childhood.

Leaving behind this fairy tale place, our feet lead us towards the bridge Dom Louis I. This is surely one of the symbols of the city, it has been built by one of the students of Gustav Eiffel and it sits enthroned above the Douro. Crossing it you’ll actually be in another city, but it’s right on the opposite side of the river where you can sit at one of the bars and taverns, tasting a glass of the finest Port wine produced in town. For the wine lovers, you can even try the tour of the wine cellars, but considering the high alcohol percentage of Port wine, you would probably end up not seeing anything else in Porto after that. We did not try the latter, we just tasted a glass of this vermillion wine. 

From the bank, we climbed the hill to reach the “Jardim do Moro” where we took some time to stretch out and relax, glancing at the red-tiled covered roofs of the city on the other side, with its tangle of alleys, lanes and boulevards climbing up the hill and reflecting on the calm surface of the river Douro. We then visited the Cathedral, with its majestic façade, dominating the town, remembering a glorious catholic past and another symbolic church: “Sant’Idelfonso”, an example of the skilled use of the art of azuleyos. 

Something surprising was the visit of the “Palacio de Bolsa”, the old stock market. From outside, it just looks like an old grey building where melancholic businessmen following a formal dress code used to spend their days. But, once inside, you can notice how refined was the taste of these ancient businessmen. The spacious and airy entrance hall brings to your mind the images of a lavish past where powerful men used to meet and discuss about affairs under the enormous glassy dome illuminating each corner of the lobby. The dome is framed by a series of coats of arms, each one representing a country which had trading relationships with Portugal.  On the second floor, one can visit the decision room, more or less like a tribunal, the telegraph room which was used to communicate with other stock markets around the globe, some chamber of delegation, and in the end the flagship of the building: the Arabic room. This is a sumptuous hall, all adorned with arabesques and geometric forms, just like a mosque. With its gold friezes and wise use of the light thanks to colorful balconies and rose windows the room seems always decorated for parties. Indeed, we discovered that it is always possible to rent one of the halls of the Palacio da Bolsa, for concerts, events and private parties. The renting for the entrance hall, the biggest room available is 10 k euro, while for the Arabic room, which is obviously the most requested one, the price is lower, going down to 7.5 k euro. Think about it for your next birthday…

Before going to dinner, we conceded ourselves a brief stop at the Majestic Cafè. Finally, Harry Potter’s fan like me will be delighted to discover that this city still contains some tracks of the most famous magician in the world. In fact, her majesty, J.K. Rowling spent a couple of years in Porto teaching, and she used to spend time in the Majestic café where she started writing the legendary saga that everyone knows. The place is amazing, and I could understand why she picked that place as her laboratory, eve though it is a bit pricy. 

Do not leave Porto without trying the Oporto fashioned octopus or tripe. Before going to bed we decided to go one last time in Praça da Ribeira, on the river Douro to get something to drink. We also found some street performers entertaining us with music, rendering the atmosphere absolutely enchanting. One last advice, if you get tired about SuperBock, the most common beer in Porto, try the ginja in the chocolate glasses, a true stylishness, you won’t regret. But we did regret leaving Porto the day after. I can certainly affirm: I will come back!

Lisboa and Sintra

The plane took off, the beginning of a new journey, it is always exciting when you embark on a new adventure. The team is small, just me and a long-time friend. We reached Lisbon early in the morning and after leaving the backpacks in the hostel we began our visit of the city. Compared to other European capitals, Lisbon is not so extended, the population is about half a million and it lays on an area of 100 square-km of extension. Nonetheless, there is plenty of things to do, buildings to see, alleys to discover and bars, small restaurants, and clubs to try.

Our hostel was in Rossio, one of the central quarters of the city, we started our tour by walking down Rua Augusta, a cobblestone street where you can lose yoursevels among the shops and restaurants while heading directly to the marvellous “Arco da Rua Augusta”. Crossing the latter, you will be looking at one of the most amazing squares in Europe: Praça do Comércio. This is a magnificent place, on one side there is the Arc and the beginning of Rua Augusta while the opposite side faces the river Tagus, the other two sides filled with bars and restaurants. In one corner, you can get a glimpse of the castle of St. Jorge. 

Praça do Comércio

The castle was our next destination, we headed up the hill; to be honest, this building did not generate in me the feelings a fortress should evoke. After walking around its walls, we stopped in two of the various “Miradouro” the town has to offer. Those are panoramic viewpoints where one can observe the red shingle covered roofs of the houses, which like a mosaic compose the urban texture of the city, the Tagus and the city of Almada on the other side of the river. Two of these amazing viewpoints are the Miradouro de Santa Luzia (this is especially beautiful thanks to the presence of Azuleyos on the walls surrounding it) and Miradouro das Portas do Sol. After a brief passage from the gothic cathedral we walked to a very special place.

Outside the traditional tourist’s circuits, there is this tidbit called LXFactory. In the remaining of what used to be an ensemble of industrial warehouses and hangars, numerous local artists and art collectives, shops and restaurateurs give new life and a hipster vibe to this fascinating place. If you pass by Lisbon, I strongly recommend to take some time to visit this astonishing example of art and craftsmanship. Once there you absolutely CAN NOT miss the “Livraria Ler Devagar”. This old book shop, besides the tall shelves where books and vinylis are exposed near an old original machine to print newspapers, was the set for an unexpected yet extremely fascinating encounter with Pietro Proserpio. 

This old guy, that many consider being the guardian of the library, is an Italian inventor and craftsman who lives in Lisbon. Once in the Livraria Ler Devagar, he will lead you to the second floor of the shop and, just as a tour guide, show you around the various inventions and creation he builds: electrical and mechanical piece of arts, interactive compositions built from scraps that he will explain to you, from the inspiration behind each single creation to the story that this works want to tell. Once there, you enter a new dimension, forgettingwhat’s happening outside, your problems and diving in the ocean of imagination and creativity where Pietro  with his tireless smile will conduct you. 

One of Pietro’s creations: “The Dreamer”

After this fascinating experience, we moved to the symbol of Lisbon, the Tower of Belem, where sailors raised anchor to discover new lands and live new adventures. Not too far from the tower we stopped by the “Padrao dos Descobrimentos”, a monument to the explorers, who left from Portugal to reach the Americas. Following their footprints, we started this trip with the best auspices. 

On our way back to the center, we couldn’t help but entering in the “Pasteis de Belem”, probably the most famous pastry shop in the city. In the end, I don’t regret it and I strongly recommend to taste one of their pasteis, a typical Portuguese dessert based on puff pastry and eggs.

Our visit of Lisbon ended with a dinner in one of the numerous restaurants which occupy the streets of the “Barrio Alto”, where we tried their specialities based on bachalau (codfish),  and a drink at the “Pavilhao Chines”, a fancy bar completely filled with knick knacks. Each room is styled following a theme and this, together with the music, makes the atmosphere perfect for chatting with friends in front of a glass of beer; we of course choose the trains room (I love trains).

Friendship+Trains: What else should I need?

On our second day, we left Lisbon heading towards Coimbra, but before getting there, we conceded ourselves a stop in Sintra. In this village, the kings and noble families from all over Portugal used to go for their buen retiro. This colourful city hides so many surprises. The “Palacio National da Pena” and “Quinta da Regailera” are a total must-see. Due to time-constraints we had the possibility to visit only the latter. The spectacular garden of this palace contains fountains, benches, wells, grottos, lakes and towers, in a labyrinth of paths and ways through a luxuriant vegetation.

It takes a couple of hours to visit it completely, but it is totally worth the time. You will be left speechless by the sight of its gothic façade already from the street, way before entering the palace, with its gargoyles, pinnacles, capitals, the octagonal tower and its unique style. There’s no need to mention the interiors, worthy of a king. This is a must see of any visit to Lisbon and Sintra.