I was delighted to be invited to review Cumin, Camels & Caravans: A Spice Odyssey, the new book by the eminent food historian and ecologist Gary Nabhan. It’s a fascinating read for anyone interested in the history, culture and food of the Middle East and Europe, and was published in the September 2014 of History Today, the history magazine which has been going strong since 1951.
As one of TIME’s regular travel contributors I was asked to write a small piece on a well-kept travel secret. I suggested a few of the more exotic and remote places I’d been, including Wahiba Sands in Oman, Bardsey Island in North Wales and Ta Cenc in Gozo. But the idea they liked best was one closer to home: a quirky cricket ground on the lawns of a country house picturesquely set in the Howardian Hills in North Yorkshire. Scroll to the third one down in the article to read it.
Hovingham Hall, North Yorkshire, with a cricket match on the lawn
In June last year I spent a few days in Hebron, Palestine, meeting some of the extraordinary glassblowers who work in searing temperatures to practice their craft in the centuries-old way. Hebron, lying on a crossroads of ancient caravan routes, and with the necessary minerals nearby, is famed for its glass – as well as its ceramics and leatherwork. With the occupation – and virtual strangulation – of the city by extremist Israeli settlers life has become very difficult for these craftsmen, whose ancestors for centuries exported their wares throughout the world.
With me on the trip was the photographer and film-maker George Azar who took some gorgeous photos of the glassmakers, their wares and the old city of Hebron (recently nominated for UNESCO World Heritage Status). Here’s our story about them.
Traditional glassblowing in Hebron © George Azar
I was very pleased to be asked by TIME Magazine to write a piece on Christmas in the Holy Land (Palestine and Israel), based on interviews with prominent citizens there. My priority was to talk to people representing the three Abrahamic faiths, each of whom in some capacity work at bringing the different religions and communities together.
After much research and avid networking I managed to find five such individuals, from Nazareth (in Israel) and Bethlehem, East Jerusalem and Ramallah (in Palestine) including the president of the Palestinian Authority, Mahmoud Abbas, and the first female mayor of Bethlehem, Vera Baboun, who were kind enough to give me some of their precious time despite being hugely busy with national and international commitments. I really hope you enjoy reading their thoughts.
And here’s the PDF version, which has better photos.
Sunset in Bethlehem, from the roof of the convent of Brigettine Sisters
© Gail Simmons
When I was invited on a press trip to the Arctic Circle in February to witness and write about the famous Northern Lights, I didn’t hesitate for a moment. Norway has always been one of my favourite countries. One side of my mother’s family comes from Norway, and we spent many happy holidays there when I was young, visiting relatives and staying at a pretty basic hytte (hut, or chalet) in the mountains north of Oslo where we’d spend long summer evenings collecting bilberries. But I’d never been to the north of the country, to Arctic Circle and the magical Lofoten and Vesterålen Islands. And yes, I did see the Northern Lights, and plenty more besides…
Northern Light hunting. I’m the one in the red coat.
© Oystein Lunde Ingvaldsen
I will never forget my first view of Petra’s Treasury (el-Khazneh), glimpsed one early morning over seven years ago after a long, winding walk through the ancient city’s famous Siq (canyon). I have returned many times since, and the view never fails to swipe my breath away. This view of Petra is an iconic one, and has hardly changed since the Nabateans carved their city out of the sheer rockface of the spectacular Shara mountains of southern Jordan around the first century BC. Then, two hundred years ago this year, on 22 August 1812, young Swiss explorer Johann Burckhardt also experienced the same breathtaking view when he entered Petra after it had been lost for many hundreds of years. The city is now celebrating its rediscovery, and my piece for TIME Magazine, giving Five Reasons to Visit Petra, was published to coincide with the events. (If you are not a TIME subscriber you can read the PDF version here).
- The Treasury, Petra, as viewed from the Siq
© Gail Simmons
When in Ramallah, I was lucky enough to be offered a stay at the new five-star Mövenpick which has recently opened up in the city. It was a gorgeous and opulent hotel, as you’d expect from this luxury chain, and in any other part of the world, its existence would have been unremarkable. But the fact that its opened in a city which suffers from so many economic and other restrictions is testament to the enterprise of its people, and the vision of the Mövenpick hotel chain. As the general manager, Michael Goetz, told me: “To the Palestinians this is not only a hotel it’s a monument, a symbol of a new start, a good future, economic stability, of hope and peace.” Part of the interview I did with him was published as a ‘Letter From … Ramallah’ in the Sunday Telegraph’s SEVEN magazine (scroll down the page to see it).
The well-stocked bar at the Mövenpick, Ramallah
© Gail Simmons
One of the most interesting (of many very interesting) characters I met in the Norwegian Arctic Circle in February was a Saami lady, Laila Inga. Along with her husband, Arilde, she ran a reindeer farm and was attempting to carry on her traditional, semi-Nomadic life helped by the technological aids of the modern world (skidoos in stead of dog sleighs, for example). But along with improvements in technology, life in the 21st century also brought her challenges, such as the fear that her kids would not want to carry on with the hard life of an Arctic reindeer herder. A very small part of my interview with her was published in the Sunday Telegraph’s magazine, SEVEN.
Laila Inga and her husband, Arilde
When in Gozo a few weeks back I got into conversation with a taxi driver. Joey Xuereb was interesting, rather melancholy man with a baseball cap and thick Bronx accent who had recently returned to Gozo from new York where he worked as an elevator mechanic. So when the Telegraph’s SEVEN magazine asked if I had any ideas for contributions to their ‘Letter from’ series I thought of Joey…
Recently I was asked at short notice by Oryx, the excellent magazine of Qatar Airways, to write a little piece about visiting Petra for a weekend from Amman (and here it is in the May edition of the e-magazine, p. 22). I’ve visited Jordan many times, and travelled along the very ancient King’s Highway often, so was able to write it up from previous experience. It’s always nice to be asked to do a piece of work rather than have to pitch an idea, and always good to be able to oblige. And it reminded me why I love travel writing so much: it allows me to retrace a favourite journey in my imagination as vividly as if I were still there in real life.