Although that why-don't-we-get-started-already remodeling project has us sidelined for now, Bob and I are fascinated with Mediterranean travel. I'm voting we go to Italy, Bob's love of baklava has him looking at Greece and, as you'd expect of classic movie buffs like us, we're both curious about Grace Kelly's Monaco (who wouldn't wonder about a country smaller than Central Park that attracts the super-rich?).
So we were genuinely intrigued by Behold, The Mediterranean (Alka Press International, March 2011; $22.95). Its 480, information-packed pages discuss the history, politics, current events and not-to-be-missed sites in the 15 nations surrounding the Mediterranean Sea: Morocco, Algeria, Tunisia, Libya, Egypt, Israel, Lebanon, Syria, Turkey, Spain, Low France, Monaco, Italy, Malta and Greece.
Since that's covering a lot of ground for The Brief, we asked international journalist and author Mark Weisenmiller "What would you see if you could make only three stops near the Mediterranean Sea?"
That's a tough question considering the Mediterranean (easily the largest inland sea on Earth at 965,000 square miles) spans three continents: Europe, North Africa and the Arab lands of the Middle East. But here are his picks:
Jema al Fna Square in Marrakech, Morocco
Marrakech (or Marrakesh), located near the picturesque Atlas Mountains, has much to see. There are leather tanneries; numerous gardens and a fourteenth century palace. Yet the only thing you MUST see is the Jema al Fna Square during the evening hours.
As day begins here, shopkeepers remove the wooden shutters from their businesses (metal shutters are too expensive and would make the shop interiors too hot in the scalding North African temperatures), vendors put out their products under rickety tents (to protect them from rain or any other meteorological calamity) and people begin strolling about the large square (which, to be more accurate, is actually shaped like a triangle). But Jema al-Fna (which means "the assembly of the dead" in Arabic) doesn't really come alive until sunset.
When day melts into night, Jema al-Fna becomes its most stimulating. Small controllable and containable fires are lit giving the entire place a golden glow. And the square --- rather, the triangle --- takes on three lives: part all-purpose sales department (where you can buy anything from a camel to a shirt), part circus (there are both individual and group novelty acts --- jugglers and that type of thing --- all over) and part restaurant (Arabic and Moroccan cuisine dominate).
In this triangle, which is about the size of a New York borough, you'll see many peoples of many cultures and religions, all interacting. There are Arabs (who favor multi- and bright-colored clothing), Jews (who tend to dress mostly in black), Chleuhs (a tribe that prefers bright blue clothing) and sometimes even Sudanese (many of whom are barely dressed at all).
The activity continues all through the night. Then as dawn approaches, many businessmen and vendors pack up their goods, drag them home, climb into bed and go to sleep. About an hour before sundown, they return to the triangle to begin the process again --- daily, monthly, yearly.
Turkey's Bosporus Bridge
This bridge connects Europe to Asia, and vice versa. And for tens of thousands of people (maybe even hundreds of thousands of people), it is a symbol of freedom, of escaping one's past and starting a new life into an uncertain future.
On the "European side" of this bridge, we find ourselves in Istanbul. With a population rapidly approaching 14 million people (if, indeed, that marker hasn't already been passed), it is the fifth most populated city in the world.
The Bosporus (sometimes spelled Bosphorus) is a strait that, as Dogan Gumus described in his 1987 book entitled Byzantium, Constantinople, Istanbul "measures 32 kilometers from the Sea of Marmara to the Black Sea. The narrowest passage, 660 km. wide, is between two fortresses; the widest, 3 km., is near Buyukdere (in Turkey)." If you keep reading Gumus' book, you discover that "the sea channel has an average depth of 50 meters, and there are two strong currents, the upper one flowing from the Black Sea to the Marmara Sea, the lower one in the opposite direction."
The importance of this last sentence cannot be emphasized enough. You should always travel with at least one person (or better yet, a group of people) if planning any type of excursions in or near the Bosporus. This body of water can, and often does, kill animals and people that have the misfortune of finding themselves in the water.
Back to the bridge: it is known as the First Bosporus Bridge, to differentiate between it and the Faith Sultan Mehmet Bridge (or Second Bosporus Bridge). What makes it something special for travelers to see is that it is a suspension bridge. Begun in 1970, it took three years to complete what would become the fourth longest suspension bridge in the world.
This magnificent structure measures 105 feet high, 128 feet wide and 4,954 feet long. At night, it is illuminated by a system that projects different colors onto it, giving it the look of a futuristic piece of architecture.
Six lanes (three in each direction), plus one emergency lane, keep automobile traffic and people on the bridge moving. When at its maximum capacity with people, animals, cars, trucks, this bridge actually sags (up to 35 inches) in the middle span. Money collected from its 13 toll booths helps to defray the costs of its upkeep and maintenance.
All sorts of odd and unusual things have happened on this bridge: an annual marathon race, a tennis match and a Formula One race car moving full speed from one side to the other, to name a few.
The Colosseum in Rome, Italy
Rome's Flavian Ampitheatre, "Il Colosseo" as the Italians call it, is located at the southeast end of the Forum between two of the seven hills on which Rome was built.
Considering the fact that the man who commissioned the building of the Colosseum in 72 A.D., Emperor Vespian, was a former fulltime soldier, it's not surprising that combat bouts between gladiators were the first form of entertainment held here followed by staged battles between all sorts of animals.
The Colosseum was to the ancient Romans what Yankee Stadium is to New Yorkers:
· Large (it had seating for about 55,000 people compared to Yankee Stadium's 58,000 capacity)
· A source of civic and athletic pride for local residents
· A place where power deals were made by politicians and businessmen and
· A type of icon which reminds us that all buildings eventually become ruins.
In the nineteenth century, this four-story, 617-feet by 512-feet Roman oval had so many different climates that you could find about all sorts of flora and fauna in it. It includes a surprising large, underground area designed to hold the cages for the animals which would fight for sport in the arena and numerous trap doors.
In July 2010, administrators told the Italian media and press that they were actively looking for corporate sponsorship for the Colosseum. Yes, an advertisement can now legally be placed on the exterior of the Colosseum. When in Rome, do as the Romans do --- or do not.
Mark Weisenmiller is a Florida-based reporter for The Economist and China's Xinhua news agency. Behold, The Mediterranean, his fourth published nonfiction work, profiles the history, people, places and politics of the 15 North African, Middle Eastern and Southern European countries which ring the Mediterranean Sea. This is the first in a series of books Weisenmiller plans about the countries and regions of the world he has reported from and visited.
To order Behold, The Mediterranean, call 1-888-537-6727, ext. 1409, or 1-800-442-3170.