Expedia | November 2018
The newest trend for vacation accommodations is all about character. It’s a buzzword that gets waved around, but just what are boutique hotels? And what makes them different than all the other vacation choices out there?
Characteristics of Boutique Hotels
First up, let’s break down the key elements that all boutique hotels have in common. These include:
In terms of size, boutique hotels hit the sweet spot between very small bed and breakfasts and medium sized hotels. They tend to have between 10 and 100 rooms. This means you can expect a more tranquil and intimate vibe, and a more personal approach from the staff.
Style-wise, they are the polar opposite of large hotel-chains, and can feature cool, contemporary design, or flamboyantly retro flourishes. Even the architecture can be eye-catching, as many are set within historic buildings, which have been lovingly refurbished or revamped for modern travelers.
Boutique hotels are often found throughout city centers, just steps away from hip bars and restaurants. Unlike hotel chains, which look and feel pretty much the same where you are in the world; boutique hotels often evoke the city or region they’re set in. With both artwork and design features that showcase thoughtful sourcing of local culture in the hotel aesthetic.
Why People Choose Boutique Hotels
Boutique hotels are popular with travelers who want more than just a room in which to rest up on vacation. The prospect of a unique aesthetic, and highly personalized service courtesy of friendly and thoughtful staff, means that a good boutique hotel will itself be as much a highlight of a trip as the local attractions.
Boutique hotels are frequently found in the most historic quarters of cities, and often immerse guests in a real sense of place thanks to their eye-catching interior design. This means they particularly appeal to visitors who want to feel like they have an authentic, local nook within their vacation destination.
One of the big perks for boutique hotels is that, unlike larger chains, they aren’t usually sticklers for set-in-stone rules and restrictions. Chat with the local staff about any particular favors or requirements, and they’ll likely pull out the stops when it comes to providing a customized experience that’ll make you feel like a visiting A-lister.
Boutique Hotels vs. Bed and Breakfasts
There’s certainly some overlap between boutique hotels and bed and breakfasts, when it comes to an intimate ambience and personalized service.
That being said, boutique hotels have superior dining options, often serving exquisite lunches and dinners as well as breakfasts. Unlike bed and breakfasts, many also boast cool cocktail bars.
Boutique hotels also have enviable locations within city centers, often within gorgeously restored historic buildings, which adds to their allure.
Examples of Boutique Hotels
Some of the best hotels can be found in London. The UK capital is studded with historic sites where you can stay. One perfect example is the Zetter Townhouse Marylebone, set within a Georgian townhouse in a district just a short walk from the shops and restaurants of the West End.
This unique accommodation is decked out in vintage furniture with a delightfully quirky sense of style. The cocktail bar is a destination in itself, with thrilling drinks whipped up by masterful mixologists.
Over in New York City, one of the most distinctive boutique hotels is the Wythe Hotel. It’s housed in a 1901 factory, with an industrial-chic ambience that is pure Brooklyn, along with a buzzing restaurant serving seasonal dishes.
Meanwhile, in Paris, there’s the super stylish Hotel Providence. Guestrooms in this 19th-century townhouse are adorned with decadent fabrics and opulent antiques. In terms of amenities, the rooms even come with their own cocktail bars, complete with instructions on how to mix up your own drinks with the shaker, strainer and ice provided.
Book your Perfect Boutique Hotel
In the mood for a vacation with a difference? Check out our listings and book a boutique hotel for a getaway filled with style and panache.
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BRE GRAHAM, ESCAPE
Forget everything you ever knew about breakfast — here’s how to start the day in Italy
The greatest thrill I have when travelling is when someone thinks that I could be a local.
There is nothing like a waiter in Spain talking to you all about the specials in Spanish or a French taxi driver trying to tell you a story before you have to stop and say ‘Je Parle Anglais’.
So, in order to really blend into Italy when I travel there, I have to forget sitting down for orange juice and eggs because, in Italy, breakfast means the bakery.
Follow your nose
In every big city in Italy, there are tourist trap cafes with pictures of the big English fry ups on offer or the ‘continental’ preferred by others trying to lure you in with a promise to cure your limoncello hangover.
However, if you avoid these I promise you there’s something better waiting. Just a few streets behind these cafes, if you follow your nose you’ll find a bakery that is bursting with the Italians all waiting to buy their breakfast.
On every trip that I’ve ever taken to Italy, mornings spent in bakeries have always been the highlight for me. First I decide between an espresso or a macchiato, sipped slowly standing up at the counter usually wedged between men in suits reading morning papers. Even if there are two seats free, don’t dare sit as you’ll be
As I drink my coffee I look around at all the delights on offer under the glass displays. In Florence I look for the huge rosemary and raisin buns, Pan di Ramerino.
In Rome I devour slices of spinach pie that they serve around Easter and in Venice, I do as Venetians do and order cake. On all of these mornings in Italy, in huge cities like Rome or tiny towns on the Ligurian coast, I don’t think I’ve ever spent more than a few euros on breakfast.
Often after my coffee, I take my treats from the bakery and find somewhere pretty to go and eat them as most of the best bakeries in Italy don’t have seats. In Rome, go to the Forno bakery in Campo De’ Fiori.
Live like a local - Take away
As for where to eat your breakfast once you’ve made the hard choice of what to order, well the bakery is set on one of the cities most beautiful market squares.
In Florence, I really like Forno Pintucci. It’s all you imagine a classic Italian bakery to be. Get a biscotti with your coffee or a slice of focaccia and take a short walk down to the Ponte Vecchio to dine with a view.
Venice though is my favourite place to eat a proper Italian breakfast because like me, the locals love something sweet in the morning. It’s hard to go wrong here but the cream puffs at Pasticceria Rizzardini are a failsafe dream way to start your day. Take a few hidden in a paper bag down to the canal and watch the gondoliers row back and forth.
What it comes down to is that I travel to see how locals live and I travel to Italy to eat, so anytime I can combine the both, it is bliss.
From well-loved lands to off-the-radar wonders, Lonely Planet’s top ten countries for 2019 are primed to capture travellers’ imaginations. Prepare to expand your horizons – and your travel wish list.
Further information from the Lonely Planet Site
Sri Lanka is decidedly having its moment in the equatorial sun and change is coming swiftly. Already notable to intrepid travellers for its mix of religions and cultures, its timeless temples, its rich and accessible wildlife, its growing surf scene and its people who defy all odds by their welcome and friendliness after decades of civil conflict, this is a country revived. There’s now more than ever for families, adrenaline junkies, eco-tourists, wellness seekers and foodies of all budgets. Even the north and east, including areas previously off limits, difficult to reach or lacking in services, deliver new discoveries.
Germany has long been a powerhouse of innovation and has bestowed upon the world the printing press, the automobile, the aspirin and other milestones of invention. And 100 years ago, a little school in the Thuringian countryside kick-started an aesthetic movement so globally influential that its reverberations are still felt today: the Bauhaus. Join the year-long birthday party of this midwife of modernism that was founded in Weimar in 1919, flourished in Dessau and was quashed by the Nazis in Berlin in 1933. Sparkling new museums are set to open in these three cities along with scores of related events and exhibitions held throughout Germany.
While it may be known for making the headlines for all the wrong reasons, Zimbabwe has always been a country that travellers on the ground have raved about. Not only is it one of Africa’s safest destinations, it’s one blessed with ultra-friendly locals, Big Five-filled national parks, World Heritage-listed archaeological ruins, forested mountains and, of course, the mighty Victoria Falls. Although the controversial 2018 election may have dampened the unbridled optimism following the end of Robert Mugabe’s time in power, the sense of hope for what the country can become remains strong in Zimbabweans. And as always, a visit here is viewed by locals as a sign of support of them on their journey to a new dawn.
Welcome to the crossroads of the Americas. In Panama, north meets south in a fiesta of tropical biodiversity, celebrated at the world-class BioMuseo. East meets West through expanding world trade, with the world’s biggest cargo ships travelling the recently revamped Panama Canal. Darling Panama packs so many treasures into one small country – from white-sand beaches to tropical rainforests, misty highlands and indigenous culture – it is shocking that it’s somehow still under the radar. In 2019, Panama City pledges to party like never before, marking its 500-year history with one raucous jubilee that you won’t want to miss. ¡Viva Panama!
Kyrgyzstan’s moment on the world tourism stage seems to have come following huge buzz from the 2018 World Nomad Games, Central Asia’s competition dedicated to its traditional (and quirky) regional sports. The time to visit has never been better – more than 2700km of newly marked trekking routes; a countrywide push of community-run tour products; a revamped national highway system cutting transit times immensely; and a simplified e-visa programme for those not on the list of 60+ visa-free countries – but do it now: Kyrgyzstan is quickly becoming an in-the-know favourite for independent travellers seeking unspoilt natural beauty.
Have a taste for adventure? Here’s a new recipe: find a path 650km long and set aside 36 days (42 with rest stops) to hike it; throw in a mindblowing Rift Valley landscape crumpled with canyons and made green after flash floods; add vistas of the lowest point on Earth (the Dead Sea) and of biblical catastrophe (Sodom); season with wildflowers strewn over crusader castles; combine with a healthy pinch of irrepressible Jordanian optimism and there you have it – the Jordan Trail, the country’s latest signature dish. Be ahead of the pack to sample the highs and lows of this epic route.
Indonesia is as diverse as its span is long, from new eco-resorts offering orang-utan encounters in Sumatra to the tribal traditions of Papua. More than 17,000 islands make up the medley of cultures, cuisines and religions across the archipelago, offering a kaleidoscope of experience. Earthquakes recently struck some parts of Indonesia, which is located on the volcano-lined Pacific Ring of Fire. The response to these natural disasters is ongoing, but much of this sprawling country remains safe for visitors. Thanks to substantial investment in new air, land and sea connections, plus recent visa-free access for nationals of 169 countries, it has never been easier to explore this tropical country. Go now, before all its secrets are uncovered.
Long a beacon for those seeking the obscure, Belarus has quietly become cool on the back of relaxed visa requirements, a sneaky-good art and cafe scene, and locals who party like it’s 1999. Minsk is the hub and where you must arrive and depart to take advantage of a new 30-day visa-free regime. In its impeccably restored Old Town, centred around the graceful ratusha (town hall), evening revellers erupt out of bierstubes and fashionable cocktail bars to join raucous summer street parties. Minsk has also become a hub for global events and summits. Next up: the 2019 European Games.
Intrepid explorers have always searched out places to boldly go where no one has gone before. This is a rare chance for you to visit a place few other travellers have even heard of. The two-island nation of São Tomé & Príncipe – found floating in the Gulf of Guinea – is now calling. Don't make the mistake of ignoring it. Surreal landscapes climb dramatically to the heavens, tropical waters kiss its empty beaches and jungles consume everything from colonial sugar, cocoa, and coffee plantations to sobering relics of the island’s past role in the slave trade. And whether trekking through the forests, climbing the mountains or snorkelling in the waters offshore, you’ll discover many untold treasures here.
Its Caribbean coast is fringed by the world’s second-largest barrier reef; its interior is riddled with some of the most extensive and accessible cave systems in Central America; and its people are an exotic mix of Maya, Mestizo, Garifuna, Creole, Mennonite and expats. Yet many travellers struggle to place Belize on the map. However, the tide is turning. The government is moving to fully protect its unique marine environment, new eco-resorts are taking advantage of the country’s stunning cayes and jungle hideaways, and travellers are discovering a slice of Central America that’s relatively untouristed, safe and tantalisingly easy to reach. Get here before the inevitable crowds do.
By Peter Redrin - MyExpatsworld
The usual collection of travel quotes tend to focus on inspiration and reflection. These, however, are meant to tickle your funny bone, and remind you of the inherent humour of the journey.
1. “When you come to a fork in the road…take it” – Yogi Berra
2. “Kilometers are shorter than miles. Save gas, take your next trip in kilometers.” – George Carlin
3. “If you’ve seen one redwood tree, you’ve seen them all.” – Ronald Reagan
4. “I’ve been to Paris. And it ain’t that pretty at all.” – Warren Zevon, from the song Ain’t That Pretty At All
5. “Too often travel, instead of broadening the mind, merely lengthens the conversations.” – Elizabeth Drew
6. “Another well-known Paris landmark is the Arc de Triomphe, a moving monument to the many brave women and men who have died trying to visit it.” – Dave Barry
7. “The major advantage of domestic travel is that, with a few exceptions such as Miami, most domestic locations are conveniently situated right here in the United States.” – Dave Barry
8. “Thanks to the interstate highway system, it is now possible to travel from coast to coast without seeing anything.” – Charles Kuralt
9. “The worst thing about being a tourist is having other tourists recognize you as a tourist.” – Russell Baker
10. “You can find your way across this country using burger joints the way a navigator uses stars.” – Charles Kuralt
11. “You got to be careful if you don’t know where you’re going, because you might not get there.” – Yogi Berra
12. “Do not insult the mother alligator until after you have crossed the river.” – Old Haitian Proverb
13. “Canada is the vichyssoise of nations — it’s cold, half French, and difficult to stir.” – Stuart Keate
14. “On a New York subway you get fined for spitting, but you can throw up for nothing.” – Lewis Grizzard
15. “Gaiety is among the most outstanding features of the Soviet Union.” – Joseph Stalin
16. “San Francisco is like granola. Take away all the fruits and the nuts and all you have left are the flakes.” – Unknown
17. “France is the only country where the money falls apart and you can’t tear the toilet paper.” – Billy Wilder
18. “Boy, those French. They have a different word for everything.” – Steve Martin
19. “Climbing K2 or floating the Grand Canyon in an inner tube. There are some things one would rather have done than do.” – Edward Abbey
20. “There is science, logic, reason; there is thought verified by experience. And then there is California.” – Edward Abbey
21. “If you are going through hell, keep going.” – Winston Churchill
22. “I told the doctor I broke my leg in two places. He told me to quit going to those places”. – Henny Youngman
23. “Two great talkers will not travel far together.” – Spanish Proverb
24. “Why buy good luggage? You only use it when you travel.” – Yogi Berra
25. “I dislike feeling at home when I am abroad.” – George Bernard Shaw
26. “I had a prejudice against the British until I discovered that fifty percent of them were female.” – Raymond Floyd
27. “Living on Earth is expensive, but it does include a free trip around the sun every year.” – Unknown
28. “When preparing to travel, lay out all your clothes and all your money. Then take half the clothes and twice the money”. – Unknown
29. “Knock Knock! Who’s there? Tibet! Tibet who? Early Tibet and early to rise!” – Aha Jokes
30. “Go to Heaven for the climate, Hell for the company.” – Mark Twain
By Viktoria Baranyai - MyExpatsworld
Most of us don’t want to know how long we will live. However, there are some countries where most of us would like the answer to that question. This list is based on data provided by the World Economic Forum. Out of 137 nations included in the study, the top 10 countries with the highest life expectancy are all in Asia or Europe. Those in the bottom 10 (not mentioned here) are all in Africa.
1. Hong Kong SAR – 84.3 years
2. Japan – 83.8 years
3. Italy – 83.5 years
4. Spain – 83.4 years
5. Switzerland – 83.2 years
6. Iceland – 82.9 years
7. France – 82.7 years
8. Singapore – 82.6 years
9. Sweden – 82.6 years
10. Australia – 82.5 years
No need to move if you don’t happen to live in one of these countries. There are plenty of good tips here that we can incorporate in our daily lives no matter where we live.
By Alma - MyExpatsWorld
Probably everyone would agree, pasta is Italy’s pride. Let’s educate ourselves more about this delicious product!
Eating with a spike
Making pasta in Naples
The first pasta factory was opened in Venice
Italians eat 13 million tonnes of pasta a year
Shape has meaning
Pasta can be sweet
The benefits of pasta
Top Tips from our currency partner FairFx
Whenever you travel it’s always a good idea to watch out for companies trying to rip you off. We’ve exposed these 2 major dirty tricks:
Exploring Ethiopia’s Simien Mountains, one of the most spectacular landscapes in the world.
When the boy arrives with our firewood and squats down on the dust-covered floor to escape the hailstorm raging outside, I can barely tear my eyes from him.
It’s not only that he’s five years old and all alone or that he’s wrapped Jedi-like in a threadbare grey blanket, or that he has materialized through the maelstrom accompanied by a retinue of six drenched cows. Neither is it the fact that, with the fire burning, he spends the next hour motionless, glowering, crouched like a mute boulder with steam coiling off his sodden clothes. When he gets up to leave, he stops at the doorway to empty his Wellington boots of the pooled water he has been crouching in the whole time.
It is, quite simply, that he is the first thing I have seen all day that hasn’t seemed impossibly huge and unfamiliar. Outside are the Simien Mountains, where encountering anything small is a rarity.
Spending time here, I am already discovering, gives you a pretty good impression of how Jack must have felt on that first expedition up the Beanstalk.
Looming high among the volcanic outriders of the Great Rift Valley in northern Ethiopia, is nature with a serious case of gigantism: a basalt escarpment 40 kilometers long, staggered between altitudes of 11,000 and 15,000 feet, populated with super-sized plants and armies of monkeys 500-strong. In 1978, UNESCO dubbed it “one of the most spectacular landscapes in the world,” and consecrated the Simien Mountains National Park in its very first batch of World Heritage Sites, alongside Yellowstone and the Galapagos Islands.
Until recently, however, outsiders have not always been able to walk its high plateaus. From 1983 to 1999, while Mount Kilimanjaro — Simien’s rival for the “Roof of Africa” title — was elbowing its way onto the pages of every ‘Things To Do Before You Die’ tome in the bookstore, a tragic combination of famine and regional warfare was grinding the Simien’s tourism potential into dust.
In recent years, however, a steady trickle of infrastructural improvements and foreign investment — epitomized by the opening of the up-market Simien Lodge, dubbed “Africa’s Highest Hotel,” would seem to point towards a promising future. I have come here to find out whether this epic tableland might one day become the most coveted pin on the trekker’s map of Africa.
Setting off from Sankaber — the classic trailhead for a trek in the Simiens — marks my introduction to a world of unrestrained visual overload: walking over broad tundra patrolled by the spiky fronds and 10-foot high flower stems of giant lobelias; staring into endless skies crisscrossed by squadrons of huge raptors; and moments spent lying in the dust, belly-down to quell the vertigo, watching streams spill over the escarpment rim, plummeting hundreds of meters before fishtailing into clouds of vapor. By the time a big-billed raven — twice the size of its European cousins — swoops down to croak for the crumbs from my packed-lunch, the Simiens have taken my lofty expectations and dropkicked them off the cliff.
Yet this is all a prelude, and it’s on the second morning that the show really begins. It finds me at the Gich campgrounds, one of three tracts in the national park set aside for camping, where I’ve been dozing top-to-tail with Dawoud ‘Chigger Yeh-Lem’ [No Problem] Suleyman, an infectiously enthusiastic guide, and Alemu, the obligatory rifle-toting scout.
All three of us are still damp from a run-in with some table-country weather, after our arrival last night was greeted by a welcoming committee of bruised clouds and marble-sized hailstones that thwarted our best efforts to pitch our hired tents. In one corner of the field stands a ‘lodge’, “but it is crap,” Dawoud had assessed bluntly, deploying for the first of many times the vernacular he picked up during a year studying at a college in Chichester, England. Further inspection revealed little more than a mud-spattered shed. We ended up seeking sanctuary in a communal open-sided roundhouse, crescented around the embers of our evening fire.
After the night that followed, which was largely spent avoiding leaks in the grass-thatched roof, it is comforting to know that our next stage is a short one. We are following an itinerary suggested by the National Park HQ staff in the nearby one-road town of Debark and today — a circuit of the plateau north and back to Gich — the going will be almost pancake-flat, affording me maximum gawping time along some of the park’s finest vantages.
The sun is still an extra-planetary smear on the horizon, the lobelia scattered across the moorland a triffid-like army just landed. We set off at a trot — to beat the dawn and to stave off the morning chill — across ground still spongy from last night’s rain.
Somewhere to the north, I hear a chorus of chirrups: the gelada monkeys, this region’s tousle-haired icons, are clambering out of their cliff-face caves to join us on the tableland. These gelada are the star-turns in a charismatic cast of creatures unique to the Ethiopian highlands.
Over the course of our trek, I will run into them time and again. But this morning the wildlife is a sideshow. For now, it’s all about the views. After an hour’s walk, with stomach-turning abruptness, the ground drops away below me for a vertical mile.
The trail slithers out from the plateau onto a narrow spine of splintered rock, ending in a knuckle of boulders known as Imet Gogo. It is the park’s most celebrated viewpoint and with good reason. Looking north from its 12,000-foot apex, I see a pair of rock incisors standing in sharp relief, their jagged tips snagging curls of mist. Beyond, vast arid plains start to coalesce through the haze, rising up into ranks of buttes and mesa-like mountains swathed in mineral colors.
This is the sort of view — all friable plains and pinnacles — that the Simiens are famous for. Travelling here in the 1920s, this landscape inspired poetry in the British adventuress Rosita Forbes. “When the old gods reigned in Ethiopia they must have played chess with these stupendous crags,” reads a passage of her 1925 travelogue From Red Sea to Blue Nile.
But now the chess-piece metaphor seems too genteel. The shapes I see are violent: the ravine behind me is the blow of a battle-axe; the table-peak in the distance the anvil from a blacksmith’s forge; the ephemeral abutments disappearing into the haze are the raised scar-tissue of a subterranean skirmish, remnants of a Titan’s war.
After an hour’s walk, with stomach-turning abruptness, the ground drops away below me for a vertical kilometer
Such impressions are not too far from reality: science’s explanation is no less traumatic. The clue is in the buttes: they mark the locations of long-extinct volcanic vents which, a few dozen million years ago, pumped out a superheated ooze of lava that solidified over time into a gargantuan igneous dome of basalt more than three kilometers thick. Five million years ago, with Ethiopia’s early hominids still a glint in evolution’s eye, an ice age added the finishing touches, as mighty glaciers kickstarted the process of gnawing away the cliffs that now fall away all around us.
One American visitor, reeling off shots by the dozen, sums up the end-result rather well: “A bit like half the Grand Canyon,” he says. “Only grander.” The panorama pretty much shut everyone up after that.
All the while, three lammergeyers — relatives of the vulture — pull figure-eights overhead, taking turns dropping in on cow femur bones scattered on the rocks to get at the marrow within, maneuvering without a single wing-beat even though I cannot feel a breath of the wind they’re riding.
Some of the park’s residents are more elusive but — with the exception of the weather, which for the duration of my visit breaks into a pell-mell of precipitation each afternoon — everything is going my way. The next morning, after another cold and soggy night at Gich, a local boy helps me catch a glimpse of the most elusive of them all.
“My name is Tazo. Have you seen the fox?”
He is a child-herdsman — spindle-legged, barefooted, half-mummified in a maroon cowl — who appears apparition-like as I crest a bluff on the trail. “Over there!” he points. I follow the line of his stabbing finger to where a statuesque beast with a slender muzzle and flame-colored fur is ghosting across the frosty landscape some 200 feet away. This is a special privilege, to encounter an Ethiopian wolf, the world’s most endangered canid (or ‘dog’ if you are not a taxonomist). This lanky shadow is one of an estimated 550 of his species still alive in the wild.
A simien fox, the world’s most endangered canid.
“Blimey!” says Dawoud, joining us on the ridge as the specter spies us and canters away. “We hardly ever see them.”
It is an auspicious start to a day spent mostly on the move — at 11 miles, our longest kick. Bypassing Imet Gogo, the trail turns east through the full spectrum of the Simiens landscapes, first edging along the green-walled void of the Meflekeaw Ravine; next passing over a golden prairie rumpled with the filigreed headwaters of a phantom stream; then climbing for 2,000 feet through a gnarled forest of heather trees, where the rain has unleashed the scent of wild thyme.
Along a winding track, over steady terrain, the kilometers fall away behind our boot heels with Dawoud up front, me in the middle, and Alemu, aquiline and fierce, bringing up the rear in vigilant silence, a burlap sack full of our accumulated litter slung over one bony shoulder and antique bolt action rifle — which never leaves his side, even in slumber — on the other.
“To warn away the kids,” Dawoud claims, when I ask why the gun is necessary, although when we next encounter some back among the high grasslands, their presence is hardly intimidating. On an outcrop, nearing our trek’s 13,000-foot high point, some entrepreneurial children have gathered to hawk cow-horn goblets and eucalyptus crooks to anyone filing over the summit.
For the Amhara pastoralists who live within the park’s boundaries, selling trinkets to tourists is a recent diversification from an otherwise ancient way of life. As the journey progresses, the opportunity to spend time with them becomes as integral a part of the Simien experience as the extraordinary landscape they call home. Seldom does an hour pass without some sight of a tukul — the mud-walled roundhouse with conical thatched roof seen throughout Ethiopia’s highland communities — or a chorus of high-pitched hellos assailing us from the top of a distant hill.
One family invites us into their tukul to shelter from a squall. Ducking under the low lintel, I am greeted by a cacophony of bleats and mews. As my eyes adjust to the gloom, I make out a veritable menagerie: little platoons of chicks skitter over the earthen floor; four goats and a tethered calf shelter beneath sleeping platforms rough-hewn from eucalyptus branches. A kitten lies catatonic by the fire, beneath walls decorated with zigzags drawn in charcoal. We sit down on low stools. The father — slender, with a delicate beard — offers us stiff and stodgy barley bread.
“It is taboo for them not to offer us something,” whispers Dawoud in my ear. While the daughters winnow barley in a corner, a little saleswoman appears in the doorway, catching my eye and revealing a single hen’s egg from the folds of her headscarf. I swap it for a jar of honey that I picked up in Lalibela. She scampers off, giggling victoriously.
Beyond, vast arid plains start to coalesce through the haze, rising up into ranks of buttes and mesa-like mountains swathed in mineral colors.
While the men catch up on local gossip, the mother prepares an impromptu coffee ceremony. Beans are roasted on an iron plate, frankincense is burned on an upside-down saucepan lid, and the mud-thick brew is served to those gathered — three cups each, as is the custom. She does all this with a baby goat-skinned to her back, and a small glowering boy with a Mohican haircut clasped to her belly.
“He is afraid of faranjis [foreigners],” says Dawoud, and you can hardly blame him. Like mountain pass and lowland plain, we are worlds apart.
Back on the trail, the clouds have become dark and ragged, and we scurry to beat the weather to Chenek camp: a few ranger huts strewn along a ledge and two shelters positioned on a lobelia-studded slope beside a stream. In the 1980s, this area was a refuge for the Tigray People’s Liberation Front during its uprising against the infamous Derg regime. The rebels had a stronghold at Chenek and hideouts in caves that perforated the mountainsides. Today, however, things are a lot more hospitable. The lodge here is less crap than the one at Gich, if only for the fact that there is a pretty girl inside with a crate of warm Dashen beer.
An unpaved road — the only one to penetrate the national park — runs through Chenek, and the hour of our arrival coincides with a commotion further up the hillside, where a tour agency’s four-wheel drive has become lodged in a ditch.
This road is the most obvious manifestation of the changes being wrought here due to an upsurge in tourism that shows little sign of slowing.
“We are hoping that the growth of visitors doesn’t become a curse,” says Dawoud after we’ve joined in the heave to extricate the jeep. “When I started guiding a decade ago, we would only see a few hundred visitors a year. Today we get up to 200 arriving every day in high season.”
“Isn’t that good for the area?” I ask, thinking of the new hotels I’d seen being flung up in Debark, of plans to resurface the Gonder road, of jobs and tourist dollars.
“Of course it brings in money and employment opportunities, and it gives the government a reason to rehabilitate wildlife and vegetation — investors are starting to realize that this could be one of the big natural attractions of Africa. But the benefits haven’t reached the people who live within the park boundaries.”
Dawoud goes on to explain that the Ali family, whose hospitality we’d enjoyed earlier, are some of more than 3,000 Amhara pastoralists living in these highlands. But their relationship with the surrounding land is an uneasy one. In 1996, soil degradation caused by centuries of overgrazing catapulted the Simien Mountains National Park onto UNESCO’s List of World Heritage Sites in Danger. Although the conservation picture is improving — a 2010 report found that the local population of Ethiopian wolves has risen fivefold since the mid-1990s — the region’s highlanders remain pegged for resettlement, and may not be here much longer.
She serves the mud-thick brew to those gathered — all this with a baby goat-skinned to her back, and a small glowering boy clasped to her belly
“When I was a child people used to wear beautiful traditional woven clothes, but you don’t see it today. My grandmother used to provide milk for local villages in calabashes. Today you can hear the children asking tourists for plastic bottles to use instead. They end up as litter…” Dawoud tails off ruefully, stricken by the classic development versus culture dilemma.
If the time I spend at Chenek is anything to go by, the Simiens face a battle to keep the hordes away. Beyond boasting more eye-popping views, Chenek is also home to some of the park’s most unabashed gelada herds. Each morning they clamber up onto the escarpment, before gathering in groups of a dozen or so to graze and groom, shuffling around on their backsides and picking through the tussock-grasses that surround the camp.
To say that gelada sightings are guaranteed would be to undersell the reality, which is that I can sit and observe them in close proximity for hours. The monkeys, exhibiting the chutzpah of a species that has evolved in isolation, hardly pay us a second glance.
“They are the only monkeys to eat almost nothing but grass,” says Dawoud as we crouch near a particularly insouciant group that evening with our Dashen beers. The herd before us, he explains, comprises several “harems,” each bossed by a dashingly accoutered alpha male with leonine incisors and rockstar-worthy mane. The troublemaking groups of young males who strut about in smaller posses are bachelor-pretenders, their barks and leaps a “strength display” designed to test the alphas’ resolve.
The Simiens have long been a favorite of the natural history filmmaker’s lens, and these are scenes straight from naturalist David Attenborough’s archives. My experience brings to mind those 10-minute diary segments at the end of nature documentaries: camera crews returning from some inhospitable wilderness with straggly beards and a few seconds of never-before-seen footage in the can. Here, by contrast, the phenomena are playing out before me: the Discovery Channel live, and on-demand.
Some trekkers use Chenek as the base camp for the onward push to scale Ras Dashen, Ethiopia’s highest peak at 15,157 feet. But for once the egocentric drive to bag a summit does not grab me, its lure overridden by the urge to sit and let the images soak in. I spend the last couple days taking shorter walks out and back, skirting the crags that ripple eastwards, and scouring the cliffs for rare glimpses of walia ibex, a mountain goat with extravagant scimitar horns that’s unique to this region, and the last creature on my Simiens checklist.
Indeed, as I prepare to descend the Beanstalk, the ibex is the only member of the cast that has not spoiled me rotten. That is until my final afternoon, when Dawoud comes running into the tukul with some news: “Come and see… the ibex… more than 20 have come right into camp to graze!”
Except by now, of course, I’m not surprised at all.
Author: Michael Hardy
Luca Campigotto counts Ridley Scott’s Blade Runner as one of his greatest aesthetic influences. Look at the Italian-born photographer's images and it's easy to see the impact. His lavishly produced books of nighttime photography like Gotham City contain visions of what the 1982 sci-fi classic might've looked like if it took place in present-day New York instead of the Los Angeles of the future. But a few years ago, while in China working on his latest book, he got the opportunity to photograph a city unlike any he'd ever captured before.
"I met a guy who asked if I wanted to go to Chongqing," Campigotto recalls. "I said, 'What is Chongqing?' He said, 'It’s the biggest city in the world.'"
Officially created in 1997, Chongqing sprawls across 950 square miles of Sichuan Province and has a population of over 30 million people, making it by some measures the world’s most populous city. But it’s also just one of China's 15 or so megacities—urban centers of 10 million or more—that have sprung up, in some cases almost ex nihilo, over the past few decades. They’re the result of one of the biggest human migrations in history wherein hundreds of thousands of Chinese citizens are moving from the countryside into cities.
Campigotto documents Chongqing, along with dozens of other locations across China, in his recently published book Iconic China. His reason for choosing China may have been mundane—"I was 54, and I felt guilty that I’d never been"—but the photographs are anything but. Using a large-format digital camera, Campigotto captures stunning images of sites ranging from the glowing Shanghai skyline to claustrophobic Hong Kong apartment towers to Beijing’s futuristic architecture.
To his surprise, Campigotto was never hassled by the police, as he has been in nearly every other country he’s visited. The only time he had a problem was when he tried to shoot from the top-floor observation deck of his Shanghai luxury hotel, which prohibited him from using a tripod.
Campigotto came away from the project with ambivalent views about China. "The cities have incredible architecture and unreal locations," he says. "The thing that disappointed me is that, whenever I travel, whether it’s in the Middle East or South America, I always look for something genuine. In China I didn’t find anything genuine. Everything is brand new, renovated, shiny."
The one exception, ironically enough, was Hong Kong—the original "city of the future" and one of the inspirations for Blade Runner. "It was the newest city 20 or 30 years ago," Campigotto notes. "So now it actually looks a little old."
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