Travel teasers

Lviv's locals joke about their city being the London of Ukraine. They are not referring to the cost of eating out. The city surprises you at every turn with its attractive restaurants, generously portioned dishes and reasonable prices. But to the rest of Ukraine, the city is known for its rain. A guidebook advised me to bring both my sunglasses and my umbrella, and in the event, I needed both.

Travel Before Coronavirus

Before Covid-19 hit, and even for a few weeks after it did (at the beginning of this year), I travelled to countries and cities I’d never been to. I produced various articles featuring these travels, that for one reason or another have not been published, and since the content has now aged quite badly in light on new travel restrictions, may never get published. So, I thought I would feature some of this writing here. I hope it piques your interest.

Incidentally, since the content was produced for a publication called Jewish News, you’ll notice some of the content is particularly oriented to travellers with an interest in Jewish heritage.

Lviv, Ukraine (October 2019)

Andrew Kaye indulges in the many cultural and culinary delights of Ukraine’s most tourist-friendly city

Lviv’s locals joke about their city being the London of Ukraine. They are not referring to the cost of eating out. The city surprises you at every turn with its attractive restaurants, generously portioned dishes and reasonable prices.

But to the rest of Ukraine, the city is known for its rain. A guidebook advised me to bring both my sunglasses and my umbrella, and in the event, I needed both.

Even a bit of precipitation didn’t deter me from a walk around the charming city centre, with its embarrassing riches of gothic, neo-Renaissance and art nouveau buildings. After the city suffered a fire in the sixteenth century, Italian architects spilled in.

For an early glimpse of its dreaming spires, Panorama’s (well, panoramic), top-floor restaurant is a brilliant place to start. I ordered the terrific varenky, which were oily, like the very best pierogi. It came with dollops of sour cream.

Speaking the very little Russian I do, I then ventured into the city’s warren-like alleys and streets. To fly only two-and-a-half hours and arrive in a city with its hundreds of Ladas and shops-signs in Cyrillic is instantly absorbing. I headed to the Galician Museum of Jews, a treasure trove at the back of the Hesed-Arieh Jewish Centre. It is a joyous pell-mell of chanukiahs and Judaica. I was especially touched by the photos of writers, artists and other Jewish personalities who were a major part of pre-war Lviv. Olga made for a generous and knowledgeable guide. She reminded me there isn’t a definitive number of Jews in the city, possibly just 1,500. Before World War Two, there were well in excess of 150,000 Jewish people living here, including many close to the old city arsenal. Today you can see a moving memorial to the Golden Rose synagogue, and a slightly schmaltzy Yiddish restaurant next door (which does serve a decent Chicken Soup).

She referred to her city’s many identities: Lemberg was what the city was called under Austrian-Hungarian rule, fondly remembered as a period of relative tolerance when the arts flourished. As authors such as Philippe Sands have written, this city was – and remains – a cultural crossroads, the very best of both Western and Eastern influences. Looking east, I indulged in a broth, peppered with paprika at a restaurant dedicated to Crimean cuisine, Krym. Some Crimean Tatars have settled only recently in Lviv, following the Russian occupation of 2014, but they follow Armenians, Greek Catholics, Poles and of course Jews in migrating here, leaving their footprint – and now their culinary fingerprints – in this pleasant part of western Ukraine.

Beyond the well curated tours of Jewish Lviv, I visited superb churches. St Andrew’s and the main Jesuit Church both boast fine baroque interiors. The most atmospheric church by far in the city, though, is the Armenian church, which you almost need to squint in, it is so old and dark. On my second night, I took myself not to a church but to the stately Opera House, named after one of Puccini’s favourite singers, Solomiya Krushelnytska. I managed to buy a ticket for the ballet, Giselle, and had a wonderful seat for just nine pounds.

I was buzzing and didn’t sleep much, but it was just as well. On my final day I spoilt myself in Lviv’s famed coffeehouses, which local, Pavol, introduced me to. I sampled six in total. One coffee was heated, Turkish-style, in a sand-filled pan.

It turns out I missed the annual coffee and chocolate festivals by a matter of weeks! But I overcame the disappointment with sacher cake in Virenka, a café where former hippies who came to gossip about independence in the early 1980s are still known to make an appearance. The city has known its dark times, but for now, it is beguiling.

One of my favourite coffees was with rose essence at Dzyga art center, where I listened to the Blues. I was handed a lucky charm. Pavol explained and told me, ‘Without trying, you cannot be surprised’.

And without trying Lviv, I would have missed one of the best surprises of all.

Andrew’s travel tips

Andrew flew with Wizz Air, for £25 pounds in one direction.

A hotel for two nights at the Panorama hotel can cost £180. * Cautionary and updated note as of August 2020 – the UK is currently in the “Green Zone” for Ukraine travel, meaning that self-isolation or quarantine upon arrival in Ukraine is not required. This is subject to change, potentially at short notice.

Oaxaca State, Mexico (November 2019)

Oaxaca has menus quite unlike any seen in UK franchise Wahaca, named after and inspired by the cuisine of the city. Think fried grasshoppers. I tried some (reluctantly) and they made for a salty starter at El Restaurante Casa Oaxaca, overlooking Santa Domingo cathedral.

However, when they appeared in my cheesy omelette at breakfast the next day, I had second thoughts and decided to stick to the more familiar fare of huevos rancheros, corn tortillas and eggs on top.

The region of Oaxaca boasts some of Mexico’s most traditional, daring – and internationally recognized – food and drink. The alcoholic drink mezcal is made from the agave-plant, which is often recognizable from its mint-blue hue. You can indulge, smug in the knowledge you are drinking the pure stuff, at many of Oaxaca City’s rooftop bars.

Sabina Sabe is one place ‘locals in the know’ go for a tipple. My favourite was a Mezcal made from the espadín species of agave, which is especially common to Oaxaca. It has a refined finish, but if you are tasting for the first time, take it slowly – after all, some types of mezcal have a worm languishing at the bottom of the bottle!

There are Mezcal tours in and around Santiago Matatlán to the south-east of the city and one of the most fascinating but surprising facts I stumbled on when touring the distilleries, was the Jewish connection to Oaxaca’s seemingly sacred cacti plants and the cochineal insects that parasitically cling to them.

In pre-Columbian times, the Mesoamericans but later – after the Spanish arrived – Jews who settled here too, used the crimson-coloured dye that the cochineal insect produces in trade with the Old World. Nevermind that it would take 70,000 dried insects to make a pound of dye; tons would be shipped. Jews apparently played a central role in trade that at one point ranked second only to silver in terms of exports.

The deep scarlet effect the cochineal produced was much coveted, in textiles and even artists’ paint boxes. It was later found to have been used in Rembrandt’s work, The Jewish Bride.

Oaxaca is a strategic base to explore the Central Valleys, with its colourful local markets and the ancient Zapotec and Mixtec ruins of Monte Alban and Mitla. In the city itself, the streets are awake with middle-aged women dancing with pom-poms, artisans selling finely weaved rugs; and the waft of spiced hot chocolate, stirred with cinnamon.

Puebla, conveniently en route to Mexico City has extraordinary churches, some filled to the rafters with startling relics. They wouldn’t look out of place in St Petersburg, with their improbable shades of pastel. Without exception, they are ornate and the very best in Baroque showmanship. Their Talavera style exteriors were modelled on the work of 17th century Spanish ceramicists, quickly revealing this was a city the Conquistadors made their own.

Colonial townhouses are there to be explored as well, and indeed one – Casa Del Deán – dates back to late Renaissance times, housing what might even be the oldest fresco in the Americas. Strikingly, it features a Hebrew, her eyes covered, in contrast with the mythological characters around her who are all seers of Jesus Christ. The embarrassing cultural riches of the city don’t end there. The Museo Amparo has a superb collection of pre-Hispanic art while the Biblioteca Palafoxiana dates back to 1646.

Puebla is the home of the Mole Poblano, so after working up a sweat as culture vultures, my partner and I worked up a sweat tucking into this chili-based dish. As we sat down to eat and reflect, we realised there were hardly any tourists around. Mexico has been in the news lately (and not for good reasons) but Puebla feels like an extremely safe and welcoming city. With the towering Popocatepetl volcano in the distance and the city’s chirpy sounds of the harmonipan musical instrument ringing in our ears, we left very much relaxed after our perfect pit-stop.

Andrew’s Travel tips

A double room in Hotel Cartesiano Puebla can cost £150 a night and a double room hotel at Casa Oaxaca can start from around £100. Aeromexico flies from London to Mexico City for £560 return. *Cautionary and updated note – travel to Mexico as of August 2020 is subject to entry requirements and the UK Foreign and Commonwealth Office advises against all but essential travel.

Southern Morocco (January 2020)

I have the Jewish Museum in London to thank.

Ten years ago, the museum hosted a stunning exhibition on the Jews of southern Morocco. The photos on display captured a mystical world which awoke my interest in this ancient part of the Maghreb.

It also afforded me an opportunity to learn about the old ‘mellahs’ of the Atlas mountains – not ‘ghettos’ in the 20th century sense of the word – but nevertheless enclaves, where Jews were permitted to live and work.

There is something about the foreignness of Jews in Morocco that has compelled artists to seek out and survey Jewish life ever since, both in shul and on the streets. Boutique travel options have proliferated to take the 21st century traveller direct to where the action is.

A trip to the exceptional Maison de la Photographie de Marrakech helps you to get up close and personal to postcards depicting historic Jewish life.

A few hours from Marrakech, where around two hundred of the country’s remaining 2,500 or so Jews live today, the ‘Gateway to the Sahara’ in the south provides a profound, even spiritual experience. After the frenzied souks of Marrakech, the southern oases are distant enough to feel a peacefulness that is only ever fleeting in the ‘Red City’.

The famed Tizi n’ Tichka pass represents the ultimate experience in imagining the old caravan routes that traders used to take to Timbuktu. They would set off for the fifty-two-day journey to Mali by camel or donkey. Nowadays, you can take the rather more comfortable Supratours coach. A short plane journey is another possibility, but with snowy peaks and crags the colours of Walls’ Neapolitan flavoured-ice cream, driving through the Atlas corridor is a sight to behold in its own right.

Ouarzazate is the best strategic base to locate yourself. For hundreds of miles around, you are spoilt with the quality of views David Lean sought out to film Lawrence of Arabia, and which more recently, Ridley Scott has come back, time-and-again to use for his film locations, notably his epic, Gladiator.

Riad Ksar Aylan prepared us a memorable dinner. There is luminescent olive oil and plentiful honey to coat warmed bread with, before a lamb tagine gets served. The team can also organize day trips, which my friends and I took full advantage of.

Omar, (a Berber), was the perfect guide to take us to our first fortified castle, or ‘Kasbah’, located in Telouet. The rocks to the side of the road resembled the grainy Harsha bread generously laid on at our Riad for breakfast.

Omar grew emotional at one point. He got out of the car and asked us to look at the canyons below. “Jews are Moroccans” he told me. It almost came out of nowhere.

He remembered how he and his community cried when Jews, his neighbours, left in 1963. He remembered how they made finely crafted shoes – ‘babouches’ – the popular slippers tourists take home as gifts today.

He next drove us to a Zaouia [much like the shrines for Islamic reverence]. It marked the tomb of a man who I could only assume was a saint. Pilgrims come to pay their respects, far-away from their new homes in Canada, France and Israel.

Local shepherds walking with hay spoke to Omar and told him they remember the elders that Jewish people return to sanctify. There were apparently two hundred tombs in this cemetery alone.

The wonderful guide who took us to Aït Benhaddou and then showed us Jewish shrines, Zaouia. His name was Omar.

We smelt herbs along the shepherds’ path and spotted distant mud-mounds that resembled a giant tortoise, its small head rising out of the land, with its enormous shell behind. To finish, we went to postcard-perfect Aït Benhaddou, which is the most superb Kasbah of all.

Determined to take the best photos, Omar pointed to a walled off cemetery to the north. “Jewish,” he added, with a hint of pride. He was also keen to point out the many menorahs and even old window shutters with Magen David designs, which were being sold on the way back to our car.

My non-Jewish friends asked me if, before travelling to Morocco, I had known all of this would be here to discover.

“Not quite,” I replied.

I knew there would be history to touch and see. Most important for me personally, it is a poignant poem to Morocco’s Jewish past. Sadly, there might not be so many people in future to recite it; who can remember the history first-hand. For now, there are Berbers, like Omar, in his seventies. Mistaking me for a Russian, he told me to go home and spread the news of this place and how for generations, Jews called it their land.

Andrew’s travel tips

A double room at Riad Ksar Aylan in Ouarzazate starts from 55 pounds a night. A return flight from London to Marrakech, depending on season, can start as cheaply as 105 pounds. A return coach trip with national coach company, Supratours, from Marrakech to Ouarzazate, costs around twelve pounds. *Cautionary and updated note – August 2020 – many cities in Morocco are currently under lockdown and travel to Morocco is not currently advised by the UK Foreign and Commonwealth Office.

If you are interested in reading more of Andrew's blogs and other published work, do take a look here.