Handy tips on preventing illness overseas: Or why never to eat animal parts with hair

Grinning and bearing it while attending a game with the flu in 38-degree Frankfurt.

Grinning and bearing it while attending a game with the flu in 38-degree Frankfurt.

FRANKFURT, Germany — I just finished the worst road trip of my life, which is saying something after traveling to 101 countries and 47 states. That includes such backward rural outposts as Haiti, Borneo and Nebraska. This time I went to a very tame destination, one I’ve always enjoyed visiting and that has all the modern conveniences of every day travel.


No one gets sick in Germany. You get hung over in Germany. You don’t get sick. It’s as clean as Switzerland with funner people. But how bad was my magazine assignment to Germany? In five days, I didn’t drink one beer. I didn’t eat one sausage. I mean, what’s the point of going? It’s like going to Italy and consuming nothing but Pringles and water.

It proves my point: When you are sick overseas, even Shangri-la seems like the third circle of Hades. That’s where I just spent five days, curled up in a feverish pit in Hell where I barely had enough energy to crawl to a grocery store for food rendered as tasteless as last month’s Der Spiegel.

This marks my 40th year of international travel. I’ve been extraordinarily lucky. I’ve had very few illnesses overseas, but a lot of it isn’t luck. I know how to take of myself on the road. I get the proper inoculations. I know what preventative medicines to take and keep a keen eye on what food and fluids I ingest. Traveling primarily alone, I’m my own medicine chest/nurse/doctor/free clinic.

However, if you stay off the beaten path long enough, you’re bound to get nailed. It’s inevitable. Evil lurks in the unknown shadows of the world’s darkest corners. You won’t know what will hit you. You’ll just know when. However, if you try too hard to stay on that beaten path, for fear of eating fried tarantulas will upset your system, chances are you’ll be praying to the porcelain gods, too. I once met an American couple scuba diving in Mexico. The woman was so paranoid about the local food, she packed enough food to last her the whole week. She was violently ill in three days.

Overseas one must build an immunity system. Otherwise, any strange strain will invade your system like armed jungle bandits, all of whom I would’ve welcomed the one time I had typhoid in Northern Thailand.

For all those planning international travel in 2018, here are four key rules I’ve learned — the hard way.

Yangshuo, China

Yangshuo, China

DON’T EAT EGGS IN ASIA. I’ve been sick five times in Asia. Three times came from eating eggs. Eating street omelettes in Taiwan and South Korea left me retching in the streets before I even made it back to my room.

I once traveled 28 hours to the lovely Chinese lakeside village of Yangshuo. Arriving late at night, the hotel lost my reservation and they stuck me in a hotel out in the sticks, where dirt roads border rice paddies. The next morning, the crestfallen Yangshuo hotel owner felt guilty and came over with a free breakfast. That included eggs. Sometime about noon I finally stopped projectile vomiting.

In Asia, they often don’t refrigerate their eggs, and that region of southeast China in summer is hotter than the inside of a Buddha’s bowels. Heat plus spoiled eggs is not exactly sweet ‘n sour.

Buffalo salad in Vientiane, Laos.

Buffalo salad in Vientiane, Laos.

DON’T EAT ANY ANIMAL PARTS WITH HAIR ON THEM. This time last year I was in Laos where I woke before dawn to catch the Super Bowl at a U.S. Embassy annex. When it was over it was about lunchtime and I found a small outdoor place with an item loosely translated to “buffalo salad.” This “buffalo” was not the buffalo I enjoyed in hamburgers and stew in Colorado. It wasn’t the bufala mozzarella I eat with tomatoes and olive oil in Rome. This “buffalo” was the shin of a water buffalo. The chunks of buffalo skin featured little sprigs of bristly hair that don’t have the same palatable effect on a salad as say, oh, sourdough croutons.

The next morning, the symptoms of food poisoning came one at a time, like messengers welcoming me to Hell: “Good morning, sir. My name is diarrhea. Welcome to Laos.”

Buffalo skins in market

Buffalo skins in market

“Hello, sir, this is your stomach calling. Please empty my contents all over the toilet.”

“Hello, sir. My name is Migraine. And I’ll be accompanying you for all your waking hours today.”

“Good evening, sir. This is your fever. Try not to move too far off the bed.”

Fortunately, I was in the capital of Vientiane and the nice Lao woman in the pharmacy knew exactly what I needed and wasn’t surprised by my plea. I think she often gets cases of buffalo skin hangover. She sold me some Tylenol and Thai-made orange electrolyte powder and I was fine by morning.

TAKE PEPTO-BISMOL. They are little pink chewable tablets that serve as a contraceptive against stomach ailments. I eat two after every meal in the third world and my intestines are comfortably blocked up. You get a little constipated but that is much better than the alternative, particularly when taking an eight-hour bus ride through land void of bathroom relief.

Unfortunately, I didn’t take Pepto-Bismol in 1978 when I went trekking in Northern Thailand. I do remember eating stirfry from a street stall in the days leading up to the trek. I just don’t recall what was in the stirfry or where it was before getting fried. I learned quite painfully that if a pile of food has been sitting in the hot sun all day, it doesn’t matter how much they stirfry it. It’s going to explode inside you.

To this day, I am the only person I know who ever had typhoid. What is typhoid? It’s basically when your insides wake up and go, “FUCK IT!” and stop working. The list of symptoms could fill a medical dictionary: 103-degree temperature, vomiting attacks, diarrhea, migraine, severe dehydration, dizzy spells. I lost 20 pounds in eight days. I’m 6-foot-3. I was down to 138 pounds. I could put one hand completely around my bicep. I could put two hands around the top of my thigh. I looked like a ghost from Dachau.

When it happened I was two days hike from the nearest road. What did you do on New Year’s Eve 1978? I was throwing up my guts in a bamboo-thatched outhouse in Northern Thailand.

Yes, I did get a typhoid innoculation. Here’s the myth about innoculations: They don’t keep you from getting sick. They keep you alive. I put my head down and walked, without food, for two days to the nearest village. One bowl of soup resulted in a mad dash to a jungle outhouse where I got attacked by rats coming up from the hole in the floor. I made it to the major Northern Thailand city of Chiang Mai where they pumped me full of antibiotics, penicillin and glucose. No help.

I took a very painful overnight bus ride to Bangkok where I called my parents to say I was headed to the hospital the next morning. My mother was old enough to remember as a child when entire small towns in the U.S. were wiped out by typhoid. She immediately wired me $250 as I went to a local clinic specializing in VD.

This was 1979, pre-AIDS and I think I’m the only male alive to visit Bangkok and not have sex. I walked into this clinic and I made a zombie look like George Clooney. My eyes were bloodshot. My hair resembled a snake’s nest. My skin had a weird orange tint. My tongue was swollen. This Swede waiting to get treated for syphilis took one look at me and said, “My GOD! Who were YOU with?”

There is a happy ending here. After the clinic gave me another dose of medicine, the next day I didn’t vomit for the first time in four days. I built up enough strength to move on to Phuket, with my mom’s generous gift going to fresh seafood and beer. The typhoid also built up an immunity system stronger than a bank vault. I never missed a day of work due to illness in 40 years. Then came Germany and my new rule of the road …

Eintracht Frankfurt's Commerzbank-Arena.

Eintracht Frankfurt’s Commerzbank-Arena.

DO NOT, WHEN RACKED WITH FLU, SIT IN 38 DEGREES IN A SOCCER STADIUM FOR THREE HOURS. Part of my assignment was to attend a Bundesliga game and capture atmosphere in the best attended soccer league in the world. Eintracht Frankfurt hasn’t won a league title since the Bundesliga’s inception in 1963 yet still fills 50,000-seat Commerzbank-Arena almost every game. Cheap tickets. Beautiful stadium. Tradition. They all help. Also helping attendance is the kilometer-long road from the tram stop to the stadium lined with beer stalls. The walk to the stadium was one long frat party.

I sat in my press seat coughing so much I couldn’t have asked a question in the mixed zone afterward even if the one American on the team, Timotny Chandler, deemed me worthy to grant an interview. After the game, I had to weave through seemingly an entire nation of drunks. Women helped steady plastered friends onto the sidewalk. Men yelled obscene songs where translation was not needed. Fans stumbled horizontally on the dark sidewalk, glass beer bottles waving dangerously in hand. At the tram stop, I saw a man wheel an adult with severe cerebral palsy onto the edge of the platform. The man in the wheelchair was spilling his beer all over his lap. Even he was drunk!

For two days prior to the game, I laid in my AirBnB and stared at the ceiling, too weak to read, eat or move. The flu epidemic that has hit the U.S. has hit Europe, too. Alone, in pain and frustrated, I alternated between shakes from chills as if I sat in the stadium naked and sweats from a fever that made me think I was back in the jungle in Northern Thailand. I managed to take a tram to the train station pharmacy where they gave me menthol lozenges. They offered temporary relief but not enough to counteract a trip home that seemed like a return from Jupiter.

Part of RyanAir’s poverty-level discount fares is a bus connection from the Frankfurt airport to Cologne, 115 miles to the north. An airport shuttle bus took me to the FlixBus terminal on the fringes of the airport. The FlixBus terminal has no lobby and the lone seats are on a cement, uncovered platform, a lovely place to spend 90 minutes with the flu in 38-degree weather. How’d I stay warm? For 90 minutes I sat on the floor of the heated bathroom like a stray dog. In my delirium I asked myself, Where the hell am I? Rural Kazakhstan?

When I finally managed to land in Rome that night, Marina was there to greet me — with the flu. I happened to land in a two-hour window where she had enough energy to drive. We hacked and sniffled and shivered all the way back to my place where she dropped me off and went home to sweat out her own illness.

We’re fine now. Good pizza, pasta and wine are great Italian medicine. So don’t let potential illness discourage you from venturing into strange unknowns. When I sit around with fellow travelers, the best stories don’t revolve around museums, hotels and beaches. They often center around travel tales from hell, feverish hikes and strange clinics and foods of questionable origin. To truly travel, one must truly suffer. It’s the nasty little side effect of adventure. So is one other symptom.

I am dying for a sausage and a beer.

Where to go in Italy in 2018? Here’s my annual off-the-beaten path list

Eating breakfast in the garden courtyard of Procida's Albergo La Vigna was one of the highlights of our year. Photo by Marina Pascucci

Eating breakfast in the garden courtyard of Procida’s Albergo La Vigna was one of the highlights of our year. Photo by Marina Pascucci

So you’re sitting at your desk and you can’t decide whether to continue your mind-numbingly boring project or kill your boss? Your last three Internet dates looked straight from the cast of “Night of the Living Dead”? It has snowed so much you’re questioning your commitment to global warming?

What photo do you put on your computer to keep you motivated? The Grand Canal in Venice? The Ponte Vecchio in Florence? Piazza Navona in Rome? How about just a damn pizza from Naples?

I have a better idea. In fact, I have 10 of them. If you daydream about Italy, go where few others go. Here is a list of 10 highly recommended off-the-beaten-path places I’ve been, mostly last year, during my combined 5 ½ years living in Italy.

Print this list (including links to expanded blogs of destinations), written in alphabetical order, and post it on your laptop instead of that gondola photo. My 2017 list received a tremendous response. I’m hoping this list will produce the same.

And maybe I’ll even save some boss’ life.

Porchetta truck in Ariccia, the birthplace of the suckling pig treat.

Porchetta truck in Ariccia, the birthplace of the suckling pig treat.


It’s one of 14 towns in Castelli Romani, a series of villages in the picturesque Alban Hills southeast of Rome. At one time, they were used as defenses against an NFL lineup of foreign invaders and now offer some of the best views in Italy.

Ariccia is where Romans go to get away from the summer heat. It’s notably cooler in the hills and the town’s center is lined with restaurants specializing in porchetta. That’s the rich, sizzling, suckling pig you see served all over Italy. Seemingly every shop window in Ariccia has a giant pig, its eyes thankfully closed, laying prone with a meaty butcher carving huge slabs off it.

Leading you into town is a long suspension bridge with a beautiful view of the deep valley 60 meters below. It also has an eerie reputation. So many people committed suicide, the town built steel netting on both sides. At least now if you want to throw yourself onto the jagged rocks below, you have to work at it.

Ariccia can be reached by taking Rome’s Metro subway A line to Anignana then the COTRAL bus 40 minutes, getting off at Largo Savelli. Cost is 2.50 euros.

Where to stay (All prices based on two adults for one night June 1. Numbers are without the country code 39): This is an easy day trip. However, I highly recommend spending the night in small Italian towns. You’ll meet more locals at night. Try the three-star Hotel California, Via Quanto Negroni, 46, http://www.hcalifornia.com/, 06-934-0122, 55 euros including breakfast. A simple but clean hotel a short walk from the commercial center and highly rated.

Where to eat: Dal Brigante Gasperone, Via Borgo S. Rocco 7, http://www.fraschettabrigantegasperone.com/, 06-933-3100, 6 p.m.-midnight. An amazing antipasti plate including porchetta, bufala mozzarella, ricotta bufala, three different sausages (including horse), pancetta, prosciutto, salami, bruschetta and bruschetta with spinach. If you have room, order the pappardelle cinghiale, wide, flat noodles with wild boar sauce.

Piazza del Popolo in Ascoli Piceno. Photo by Marina Pascucci

Piazza del Popolo in Ascoli Piceno. Photo by Marina Pascucci


In 2002, I threw a felt pen at a giant map of Italy on my wall and visited wherever the pen landed. It hit Ascoli Piceno and I couldn’t have had better aim. It’s a charming small town of about 50,000 on the Le Marche-Abruzzo border only 15 miles from the Adriatic coast.

Le Marche is Tuscany light. It has everything Tuscany has — beaches, vineyards, hill towns — at about half the price and a quarter the tourists.

Ascoli Piceno is so cute you’ll want to wrap it up in a doggy bag along with it signature dish, the olive all’ascolana: olives stuffed with breaded veal then fried. It’s served from Sicily to the Alps but nowhere is it better than its birthplace. You also must try the fiori di zucchini con mozzarella e acciughe (zucchini flowers with mozzarella and sardines), cremini (fried cream puffs) and agnello fritto (fried lamb). Come during its annual Frito Misto (Mixed Fried) festival April 21-May 1.

Walk it all off by prowling the 9th century Piazza del Popolo, which may be the prettiest piazza in Italy

Where to stay: Il Decumano B&B, Corso Giuseppe Mazzini 335, 348-339-9592, 70 euro. A simple but charming B&B on quiet Corso Mazzini lined with some of the prettiest buildings in town.

Where to eat. Del Corso, Corso Giuseppe Mazzini 277, 07-362-56760. Just down the street from the B&B, the scowling owner wasn’t enough to spoil spectacular seafood fresh from the nearby Adriatic. Try the fish soup.

Cala Azzurra on Favignana.

Cala Azzurra on Favignana.


I liked this little island off the west coast of Sicily so much I went there twice last year with my girlfriend, Marina. The Weather Channel made Favignana famous in 2016 by ranking it 13th on its list of bluest water in the world. Go in the fall when the Italian tourists have left and the water is still warm.

The butterfly-shaped island, formerly a major tuna fishing outpost, is only 14 square miles and the main mode of public transportation is bicycle. Rent one and cruise along the lonely roads, trying different beaches at every stop. Don’t miss Cala Azzurro (Blue Beach), which earned Favignana the spot on The Weather Channel’s list.

Leave enough time to hang out in Piazza Madrice where the locals go to drink Nero d’Avalo, Sicily’s signature red wine. Favignana is only a 70-minute flight from Rome to Trapani and then a 30-minute hydrofoil ride to Favignana.

Where to stay: Albergo Isola Mia, Strada Punta Marsala 18, http://www.favignanaisolamia.com/, 09-2392-2116, 333-310-0154, 120 euros. Run by rocking musician Jose Tammaro, the single story bungalows have nice porches, a great breakfast spread and is walking distance to the main village.

Where to eat: Trattoria da Papu’, Piazza Madrice, 324-532-1497. The best seafood on an island known for it, Papu’ has a nautical theme with fish nets and seashells hanging from the walls. Order the busiate, western Sicily’s trademark thick twisty pasta, great with seafood. Reservations a must.

Hotel Lenno

Hotel Lenno


Lake Como is my favorite lake in the world and Lenno may be my favorite town. Quiet and unpretentious, it’s lined with casual lakeside eateries for afternoon aperitivos. The lake is surprisingly warm in the summer and there’s even a small sandy beach for sunbathing.

Don’t join the throngs ogling George Clooney’s mansion in nearby Laglio. You can see it well enough when the ferry passes it on its way to Lenno. Instead, take a tour of Balbianello, built in 1700, one of the many astounding villas in the area. You can also climb to the top of 1,700-meter Monte Tremezzo for great views of the cobalt-blue Lake Como.

Where to stay: Hotel Lenno, Via C. Lomazzi 23, 0344-57051, http://www.albergolenno.com/, 170 euros. The four-star hotel is across the narrow street from the dock and has a gorgeous swimming pool and lakeside seating for drinks.

Where to eat: Al Veluu, Via Rogaro 11, Tremezzo, 0344-40510, http://www.alveluu.com/index_full.html, noon-2:30 p.m., 7-10 p.m. I don’t remember if the food was any good. No matter. It’s up on a hill in neighboring Tremezzo with a spectacular panoramic view of the lake. Lit by candles and adorned with white tablecloths, it’s no place to go alone — as I did. Shut up. It’s not funny.

Matera's cathedral at night. Photo by Marina Pascucci

Matera’s cathedral at night. Photo by Marina Pascucci


It’s hard to classify a place that gets 400,000 tourists a year “off the beaten path” but Matera is so far out of the way — yet so worth it — only the hearty make it here. It’s the world’s third-oldest city, a dead ringer for Old Jerusalem. That’s why 25 movies have been filmed there, including “The Passion of the Christ” in 2003.

It’s a seven-hour bus ride from Rome to Matera in Basilicata, Italy’s forgotten region between Puglia (heel of Italy’s boot) and Calabria (the toe). Basilicata has only 570,000 people, making it one of the most rural in Italy.

Walk the narrow, windy streets between the stone houses of a city that has been continually inhabited for 9,000 years. Look inside the sassi (caves) where people lived until the neighborhood was abandoned after World War II. It stayed that way until the 1980s when a reclamation project brought it back to life.

You can also take a two-hour hike across the gorge for fantastic views back to the town.

Where to stay: La Dolce Vita B&B, Rione Malve 51, 08-35-310-324/328-711-1121, http://www.ladolcevitamatera.it/, 80 euros. Vincenzo Altieri is Matera born and bred and has a great B&B in the heart of the old town. He’s a wealth of knowledge.

Where to eat: Soul Kitchen, Via Casalnuova 27, 368-328-2232, http://www.ristorantesoulkitchen.it/, 12:45-2:45 p.m., 7:30-11 p.m. Picture elegant cave dining, maybe the finest in town. Try the potato ravioli stuffed with bufala mozzarella and covered in pesto and tomato sauce.

Orvieto's Duomo

Orvieto’s Duomo


Instead of hustling from Rome to Florence, stop halfway in Orvieto. It’s a nice hilltown in oft-overlooked Umbria where the wineries are much less crowded and cheaper than neighboring Tuscany.

Orvieto is perched atop a volcanic rock above vineyards and olive groves. Its duomo, a giant confection of white marble with an outrageous facade, is one of the prettiest in Italy. It should. It took 300 years to build. Take a tour of Orvieto Underground, a series of 440 caves used as bomb shelters during World War II.

Better yet, just wander the narrow streets and listen to the soft jazz wafting from various restaurants. Orvieto’s annual jazz festival, Dec. 28-Jan. 1 this year, makes a stop worthwhile during the holidays.

Where to stay: Hotel Posta, Piazza del Popolo 27, 0763-341-909, http://www.orvietohotels.it/en/, 56-69 euros. Roomy, homey lobby with cast-iron bed frames in nice rooms right on the beautiful main piazza.

Where to eat: Trattoria del Moro Aronne, Via San Leonardo 7, http://www.trattoriadelmoro.info, noon-2:30 p.m., 7:30-9:30 p.m. Wednesday-Monday. A simple trattoria near the piazza specializing in Umbrian dishes such as carbonara with fava beans and bacon.




This former fishing village has become an offbeat beach destination in Puglia for those tired of the more popular Bari and Lecce. Some of Italy’s best beaches are only three miles from the city center, all accessible by public bus starting in June. In the off season, you can rent a bike for an easy, flat ride along the beautiful coastline. May is ideal as the Adriatic is already warm enough to swim and Italian tourists are a long way from arriving.

The charming port is a great place to stroll at sunset or have a glass of Puglia’s trademark Negroamaro wine in one of the many restaurants with views of the sea. For insight into Otranto’s bloody history, check out the 11th century cathedral where on display in glass cases are the skulls of 700 locals, courtesy of a Turkish invasion 600 years ago.

Where to stay: Balconcino d’Oriente, Via San Francesco da Paola 71, 0836-801-529, http://www.balconcinodoriente.com, 80 euros. A short walk up the hill from the harbor, this B&B has an odd but cool African-Middle East theme in the rooms. It’s also close to local restaurants.

Where to eat: Peccato di Vino, Via Rondachi 7, 08-3680-1488, http://www.peccatodivino.com/, closed Tuesdays. A romantic, candlelit, elevated, outside dining area is the perfect place to enjoy Pugliese cuisine such as the trademark orecchiette with sausage and shaved provolone cheese. Don’t lose your appetite with the 700 skulls just across the alley.

Porto Ercole

Porto Ercole


Like art? If you like art, you must study Caravaggio. If you like Caravaggio, you must visit Porto Ercole. This is the idyllic, seaside village in Tuscany where the great Baroque master died. His death remains a mystery (Madness? Malaria? Murder?) but his intriguing life comes together in this lovely town sticking out on the end of a jetty.

A 90-minute drive from Rome, Porto Ercole has a Piazza Caravaggio, a Via Caravaggio and La Locanda Del Caravaggio. “The Master of Darkness” is everywhere. His presence in the forest near the beach is marked by a small white statue, his face contorted in a silent scream.

The town wraps around a lovely harbor lined with nice restaurants, bars, crafts stores and high-end apartments. The Spanish, who ruled in these parts 500 years ago, built forts on facing hills.

Where to stay: Hotel Don Pedro, Via Panoramica 7, 05-64-833-914, La Locanda Del Caravaggio, http://www.hoteldonpedro.it/, 100-120 euros. I only came to Porto Ercole on day trips but this three-star hotel has beautiful views of the harbor.

Where to eat: La Sirena, Via Caravaggio 89, 05-64-835-032, noon-2:30 p.m., 7-11 p.m. Just off the harbor, it serves fresh seafood such as squid and prawns with excellent service and fair prices. Reservations recommended.

Marina and I on a port-side bar in Procida.

Marina and I on a port-side bar in Procida.


Forget Capri. Next time, avoid the crowds and come to Procida, 10 miles to the north. It’s what an Italian fishing village was like in the 1950s. That’s where “Il Postino” was set when the charming love story was filmed in 1994.

Procida is an island only 1.6 square miles with just 12,000 people. Its curved harbor with pastel-colored buildings is a perfect place to eat a neapolitan pizza or have a glass of wine. Take a cheap bus to the fine beach on the north end where you can also while away an afternoon at one of the many harbor bars.

It’s only a 70-minute train ride from Rome to Naples then a 30-minute hydroplane ride to Procida.

Where to stay: Albergo La Vigna, Via Principessa Margherita 46, 08-1896-0469, http://www.albergolavigna.it/, 130-180 euros. It’s set in a vineyard with remarkable views of the Bay of Naples. And don’t miss the spa which you can reserve for a private hour. (Wink!)

Where to eat: La Lampara, Via Marina di Corricella 88, 08-1896-0609. Impossibly romantic location above the harbor. The seafood ravioli, stuffed with shrimp and ricotta cheese, was the best ravioli of my life.

Terme dei Papi in Viterbo.

Terme dei Papi in Viterbo.


This walled hill town is 40 miles north of Rome and can be done in a day trip. However, after spending all day in the Terme dei Papi thermal baths, you don’t want to sit on a bus. The outdoor baths, with different temperature pools, have been around since Michelangelo and Dante Alighieri used them and are still popular with Romans today.

Wander the Old Town behind the Roman walls. The window shopping is wonderful but stop in Ejelo, a local wine and cheese shop where the owner will ply you with local Nettaro di Confini wine and wild boar sausage.

To get here, go to the Roma-Nord train station outside the Flaminio subway stop and take the train to Saxa Rubra. From there take a bus to Viterbo and get off at the Porto Romana stop.
Where to stay: La Meridiana Strana, Str. Cimina 17, 347-0173-5066, http://www.lameridianastrana.com/uk/prima_uk.html, 60-80 euros. A charming 19th century farmhouse just outside of town seven kilometers from the spa, it features a swimming pool.

Where to eat: Felicetta, Strada delle Terme 5, 07-612-50420, https://www.facebook.com/TrattoriapizzerialaFelicetta/, 7 a.m.-11 p.m. The little country inn not far from the thermal baths has what’s considered the best gnocchi in Italy. Go on Thursdays, Italy’s “Gnocchi Day.”

Lithuania: The Baltic Tiger still smiling through gritting teeth from a bloody past

The town of Birstonas (pop.  2,800) sits atop a giant mineral spring along the Nemunas River.

The town of Birstonas (pop. 2,800) sits atop a giant mineral spring along the Nemunas River.

BIRSTONAS, Lithuania — Vytautas Mineral Spa sits between a manmade lake and the meandering Nemunas River deep in the forests of central Lithuania. It’s a giant white monolith looming like a mother ship over this small spa town of 2,800 people.

I walked into the spacious, airy lobby and immediately felt warmth from the sun pouring in through floor-to-ceiling windows, protecting me from the mid-30s temperatures outside. I walked among people in long white terry cloth bathrobes and slippers. Some had towels over their shoulders; others sat down chatting as if they were in their own living room. I descended a flight of stairs to see elderly ladies swimming — slowly — in a two-lane lap pool while elderly men slepted in lounge chairs along the side. In a room lit by mere candles, a woman sat motionless with her eyes closed and her mouth slightly ajar, as if in a trance of eternal bliss.

One of the bevy of beautiful young desk clerks told me in perfect English syntax how to reach a contact and handed me a slick brochure for the year-old spa. I quickly rifled through my cell calendar to see when I can fit in a Swedish leg massage.

Vytautas Mineral Spa was built last January. Photo by Booking.com

Vytautas Mineral Spa was built last January. Photo by Booking.com

The Orange County Register in Southern California recently sent me to Lithuania to report on a basketball story. It was about a comically loud and proud father pulling his two teenage sons from school to sign them up with a Lithuanian pro basketball team. The Ball family is getting mocked and praised in equal measure and I hopped on a media bandwagon that seemingly held the world’s entire free press.

But I was one of the few who went to Lithuania to cover the brothers’ debut. I was one of the few to experience the story’s beautiful backdrop, of a country that made following the dad’s babbling megaphone for three hours all worth it. Lithuania is one of the many jewels of Eastern Europe. It’s a country of rich woods and reconstructed cities, of really good basketball and very independent people who suffered as much as any in the old Soviet Bloc. But the former “Baltic Tiger,” labeled for its huge economic growth in the 1990s, has slumped into an economic malaise where it’s losing population annually and struggling to keep 30 percent of its population above the poverty line.

But first, let’s take a bath.

The town of Birstonas (BEER-shtone-us) sits on a plain over a vast reservoir of natural mineral water. Vytautas is one of three spas in this town that can be crossed in about the time it takes to swim a couple laps. How ironic is it that so much of the old Soviet Bloc, where suffering and stress were part of the population’s DNA, had so much soothing natural, warm mineral water right below its killing fields? I have traveled to western Czech Republic where towns are made up entirely of spas. Two years ago I visited Budapest which has seven huge spas open to the public. Now here I am in this forest village where you can start your day with a body scrub with Dead Sea salt.

The lap pool at Vytautas Mineral Spa. Photo by Booking.com

The lap pool at Vytautas Mineral Spa. Photo by Booking.com

I’d been to Lithuania before. I came in the fall of 2002 for a travel story on the capital Vilnius and Riga, its sister capital in neighboring Latvia.

Back then Lithuania was changing every day. Twelve years after it became the first Soviet Bloc country to achieve independence, it was rushing toward a future of tourism and reconstruction while the long lines for food and the Soviet Union’s dark shadow were still fresh in their memories.

When I returned this month, Lithuania practically has an entire generation that doesn’t remember communism any more than American kids remember the Korean War. I saw the new Lithuania in Bir. Bur. Bar, seemingly the only bar in Birstonas but ambitiously hip. I don’t know why they left off the period after the third word in the title but it looked subtly cool.

Bir. Bur. Bar sits above a supermarket and could pass for any small-town sports bar in Iowa. It served inexpensive tap beer, a food menu right out of “Happy Days” and a TV with the channel soldered to whatever sport was being televised at the time. As I walked in to the softly lit, roomy bar, some people presented the young, fit wait staff with a birthday cake to celebrate the bar’s one-year anniversary.

I ordered a Svyturys Extra, their most popular beer, and talked to Artiom Trettjak, a muscular, 25-year-old bartender. As a Norwich City-Chelsea soccer game from England played on the TV, I asked him about the new Lithuania and this area.

“It’s getting alive,” he said with barely an accent. “It’s a very different town. There were a lot of abandoned buildings but businesses are getting money from Europe to rebuild houses and spas. Five or seven years ago it was really quiet. Not it’s really popular in Lithuania.”

I asked him what he learned about communism in school and from his parents. He gave the question a bored shrug. I felt as if I asked a stupid tourist question that he hears a lot. Actually, I ask this question a lot.

“It wasn’t so good and it wasn’t so bad,” he said. “If it was so good, it’d still be communist.”

Trettjak started a pattern that held true through my five days in Lithuania. Every person under 30 spoke fluent English. Hardly anyone over 40 could speak a word. I remember in 2002 when I saw language schools popping up all over Vilnius. People rushed to get trilingual. They were tired of Russian. English has now become Lithuania’s second language. American movies may soon come with Lithuanian subtitles.

Over their pretty passable, slow-cooked barbecue ribs, I asked another bartender about English fluency. Italy has been a republic since 1861 and the number of people fluent in English today could fit in a chapel in St. Peter’s. He said kids study English now for 10 years.

“My brother went to England for eight years,” he said. “When he came back and I showed him what I was doing he said I was studying stuff professors there do.”

Lithuanians are notoriously friendly. I noticed that on my first trip. Except for the no-neck, ex-Soviet hitman/doorman at my hotel’s gentleman’s club, everyone was so helpful with directions, language and history. Lonely Planet called them the “Italians of the Baltics.” All Lithuanians should take that as the ultimate compliment. Italians remain the nicest people I’ve ever met.

Sometimes it comes out of nowhere. Each day I took the seven-mile, 70-centesimi bus ride to Prienai, a town of under 10,000 where the poorly funded local basketball team hitched its wagon on the Balls’ back, hoping the publicity would earn them some financial breathing room. I made a beeline to Tango Pizza which made The New York Times two weeks earlier by displaying on their electronic message board: “TANGO PIZZA WELCOMES BALL FAMILY TO PRIENAI CITY!!!!!”

By the time I arrived, they had edited it to the more anglicized “PRIENAI GOT BALLS!!!!” Inside is some pretty good pizza and husband-wife owners who couldn’t have been nicer if they ran a bed & breakfast. Janius Malisauskas, 36, gave me a ride to the arena on game night and back afterward to my AirBnB in Birstonas. That’s due to the game’s late finish and that Prienai’s lone public transportation is one cab driver who sometimes is just plain busy.

Malisauskas also is a pretty good social observer. As a small business owner, he’s seen how the steady exodus of people has hurt the Lithuanian labor pool and the economy. On our drive back to Birstonas, he told me Lithuania’s biggest problem is insecurity.

Like many former Soviet republics, the confetti hadn’t been cleaned up from their celebration of independence when they were hit with the jarring realization that they were on their own. Mother Russia wasn’t there to prop up the local factory. Before they had money to buy things but nothing to buy. Suddenly, they had things to buy but no money to buy them.

Birstonas city hall

Birstonas city hall

“Insecurity comes from a lack of confidence foremost,” he told me. “And how can we have a self confidence when our country is independent for so short time and had a bloody history because of us being so small? …
The youth know less and less about it but more and more about capitalism and democracy, enough so they would know they sure don’t miss it at all.”

Evidence of communism can still be seen around rural Lithuania. Prienai (PREE-ah-nay) Arena, where Birstonas-Prienai Vytautas plays, is down a long, windy road past a yellow, crumbling, Soviet-era storage shelter. You can also see it on the people’s faces. While the youth greeted me with smiles and handshakes, the elderly Lithuanians glared. They just sat there and glared. Tired, beaten down, haggard, only their decent clothes separated them from the sad, grainy photographs I saw of Eastern Europe during Soviet occupation.

I’d sit at bus stations and old wrinkled men and women would look gloomily into space as if the weight and memories of communism didn’t leave when the tanks did. They’d stare at me, with their eyes narrowing and their mouths forming a slight sneer, like I was ghost of KGB past. I looked down to see if I was wearing jackboots.

My problem is I remain obsessed with communism. It has been 28 years since it died on these frozen fields and rivers and villages. Yet every time I visit a former Soviet Bloc country I look for left over traces, like a grave robber searching for skeletons. It might be an old blockish apartment building. Maybe a boarded-up factory. Even the ol’ reliable trams that plod across capitals make me think of the proletariat who stood where I did.

I grew up during the Cold War. The USSR was our enemy and while my University of Oregon’s sociology department was mostly Marxist, I had more sympathy for these countries than my professors had admiration. How does one live in a country with walls, with food lines, with more prisons than newspapers? How do they handle that suffering when I stressed over not finding a date for my fraternity house dance?

It’s why to this day I admire those people more than any others. I love the men’s resiliency, the women’s independence, the capitals’ restorations. Next to Italy and the Caribbean it remains my favorite part of the world.

The river walk in Birstonas.

The river walk in Birstonas.

They try so hard. A five-minute walk from my wonderful AirBnB, where I had practically an entire house for 25 euros, I came to the riverfront. Birstonas had built a wonderful jogging/bike/walking path along the Nemunas River that stretched past modern hotels, apartments and playgrounds then curved into a dense forest before emptying at the Vytaunas Spa. New, wooden benches were evenly spaced along the walk. I could’ve been in Aspen and not just because I was bundled in a hooded parka and gloves against the 30-degree temperature. Then an old man with a crude fishing pole walked down to the river to catch, what, dinner?

About 30 percent of the Lithuanian population lives on the verge of poverty, according to government statistics. No wonder Lithuania has lost population every year since 1992, with a record number of 50,000 leaving in 2016. Once the borders opened, Lithuanians left, leaving the country with a labor shortage.

Downtown Prienai

Downtown Prienai

The government is trying to lure them back. I met with Prienai mayor Alvydas Vaicekauskas in his modest office in a big, modern building on Prienai’s drab main drag, lined with retail stores, small apartment buildings and a couple of kabob shops. He sheepishly told me Prienai still doesn’t have a proper restaurant. Haute cuisine in Prienai remains Tango Pizza.
Bald and bespectacled in a sharp blue suit and red tie, Vaicekauskas greeted me with a smile as if I was his long, lost son. He, along with his town, could not be happier with all the attention the Ball family have brought them. Before they arrived, causing a media frenzy at the airport similar to the arrival of Elvis, Prienai’s biggest claim to fame was hosting the world gliding championships.

What they don’t talk about much is Aug. 27, 1941. That’s when the Nazi murder unit called Rollkommando Hamann came to Prienai and murdered 1,078 Jews. They were among the 60,000 Lithuanian Jews killed by the end of 1941, part of the 80 percent of the Jewish populace that was exterminated.
Vaicekauskas has lived in Prienai since the ‘80s and the past is long gone. He wished more people realized that.

Me and Prienai mayor Alvydas Vaicekauskas

Me and Prienai mayor Alvydas Vaicekauskas

“People who emigrated from Prienai region, they come back and do not recognize Prienai,” he said through an interpreter. “We have renovated houses, renovated streets, the environment also renovated. I’m sorry there is much and much less people in Prienai but that’s also the problem in Lithuania.”
I finished my trip with an afternoon in Vilnius, and the two-hour bus ride through the beautiful forests revealed some of Lithuania’s soft underbelly. Run-down wooden homes. Broken-down farm houses. Yellow paint chipped to reveal wood on abandoned buildings. Broken fences. These are the places in rural Lithuania that democracy missed.

Then I arrived in glittery Vilnius. I remembered it well from 2002 when I spent a few hours in the not-so-subtly named Museum of the Genocide of the Lithuanian People. It’s the former prison that covers an entire city block and was used until 1991. I remember standing in small torture rooms proofed for sound to muffle the screams. I saw straitjackets used to prevent suicides.

Then I walked a block and had potato pancakes topped with salmon in a cozy cafe that looked 19th century but was instead built in the 1990s. This time I sought Lokys, established in a merchant’s house in the “Old Town” in 1972 as a “hunter’s restaurant.” It serves quail, game sausage, venison and wild boar in cranberry sauce in small, warm rooms with patterns of climbing vines on the walls.

Beaver stew at Lokys in Vilnius.

Beaver stew at Lokys in Vilnius.

I ordered the beaver stew, very gamey meat inside a circle of farm-cut potatoes and sprinkled with small leaves. With a glass of Lithuania’s signature red berry wine, I contemplated where in the world are there beavers in Lithuania. I’m from the Beaver State, Oregon, and never saw a beaver there, either. Shallow thoughts after five days of deep contemplation before heading to the airport. But after five days in lovely Lithuania, where the girls are as tall as I am and the people are much stronger, I knew where I wanted to head instead.

A spa.

Four years in Rome: An anniversary ode to my favorite city in the whole world

Four years ago today I arrived in this city and never plan on leaving.

Four years ago today I arrived in this city and never plan on leaving.

I went to my 101st country last year. Iceland blew my mind and wallet with equal explosiveness. Laos, No. 100 on my list, was a paradise I never knew. But No. 1 in my world remains the country where I live. And its capital is still my favorite city.

Today marks my fourth anniversary of moving to Rome. Much has changed since I arrived with a duffel bag, two backpacks and a roller bag. I’ve met the woman I hope to spend my life with, my Italian has improved to where I naturally speak it before English and I’m bitching about Rome’s lousy public services.

But no, the honeymoon hasn’t worn off. I still wake up and take my cappuccino to my terrace and get weepy thinking how lucky I am to live in this paradise.

Then I see a dead carp on the bank of the Tiber and come back to reality.

I never want to fall into the trap of being a whiny expat. That’s why every Jan. 11, my anniversary, I jot down all the little things I love about living in Rome. Read them. Get inspired by them. Dream about them. Because the reality of living in Rome is better than the dream:

Centro Storico has so many alleys and crannies, every trip in is different.

Centro Storico has so many alleys and crannies, every trip in is different.

I love driving the narrow alleys of Centro Storico with the windows down and feeling the warm summer breeze then emerge in front of a 13th century church, all back lit like a monument.

I love the bite of the salami piccante pizza at Pizzeria Remo down the street and how the lusty fresh tomato sauce makes it one of the greatest food combos known to man.

I love how you can swap recipes with an Italian buddy and no one thinks it’s gay.

I love watching the old couples gossip in my Piazza Santa Maria Liberatrice, even though I don’t know the old Romanesco dialect and have no clue what they’re saying.

Photo by Marina Pascucci

Photo by Marina Pascucci

I love having lived here four years and never having a bad bottle of wine.

I love knowing I could live here 1,000 years and never try all the wines in Italy.

I love how the fishmonger at my Mercato Testaccio sees me and automatically says with a knowing smile, “Tonno? Centottanta e quindici,” meaning “Tuna? 180 degrees and 15 minutes” which I always order and always double check how to bake.

I love that Radja Nainggolan, my favorite player on A.S. Roma, turned down more money to stay in the adopted city he loves like I do.

I love escaping a rainstorm in Piazza del Popolo’s Chiesa di Santa Maria del Popolo and seeing a Caravaggio masterpiece over my head, totally free as I dry off.

I love getting up early for a conchiglia, the triangle-shaped puffed pastry named for the seashell it looks like, when it’s warm and gooey at Caffe In on my piazza.

I love how the cash register at L’Oasi della Birra, my local beer bar and enoteca, is surrounded by designer Italian chocolates to tempt you as you leave with a healthy buzz.

I love how I can wear a designer suit to a casual aperitivo when the sun’s still out and I fit in just fine.

Piazza Navona at dusk.

Piazza Navona at dusk.

I love strolling through Piazza Navona just after dawn in winter, before the tourists pour in, when fog settles in just above Bernini’s Fontana dei Quattro Fiumi.

I love how Marina, and all Italian women, think sexy high heels are casual wear, too.

I love how every wine region in Italy comes to Rome to push their product in one room during wine tasting events in tony hotels.

I love Rome-Palermo 56 euros round trip on Alitalia.

I love the grilled calamari at Amelindo in Fiumicino, the town known more for Rome’s airport than boasting the largest collection of affordable, fresh seafood restaurants in Italy.

Blow Lounge

Blow Lounge

I love the Blow Lounge.

I love reading books about Roman history in the summer with my terrace door open and Andrea Bocelli filling the air.

I love how grated parmesan cheese gives fresh pasta the cheesy flavor it has and then topped off with a pile of parmesan on top.

I love how no cafes in Rome offer coffee in paper cups.

Marina Pascucci

Marina Pascucci

I love how Marina never complains about my Italian but always encourages me to get better.

I love how no Italian woman wears Birkenstocks.

I love going through Campo de’ Fiori in the morning just in time to stop at Forno Campo de’ Fiori for its ungherese, a big fat toasted dough ring covered in white icing.

I love standing in the Olympic Stadium’s press tribune and hearing “Grazie Roma” right before AS Roma and its opponent marches onto the field.

I love that my Testaccio is one of the few neighborhoods in Rome that still honors pausa, the afternoon break when everything closes from 1-3:30 or 4 p.m.

I love how Italian leather shoes feel as comfortable on Day 1 as they do on Day 100.

I love SportWeek’s photos of Italy’s beautiful women athletes.

I love looking down at my courtyard from my fourth-floor kitchen window and seeing cats sunning themselves in the morning sun before it disappears behind the building.

Marina and I on Terrazza Borromini.

Marina and I on Terrazza Borromini.

I love the view of Centro Storico at sunset from the top of Terrazza Borromini while clinking wine glasses with total strangers in overstuffed couches.

I love Marina serving me espresso in bed with her cat, Coco, asleep near my feet.

I love a cold Italian craft beer at 8 percent alcohol outside on a hot summer day with nowhere to go and nothing to do.

I love Sicilian takeout.

Tiburina Island

Tiburina Island

I love talking to people from around the world on Tiburina Island as whitewater rushes by us during an Expats Living in Rome Meetup.

I love how Italian has no word for “hangover.”

I love the Roman dialect profanity “La mortaci tua!” meaning “Your family is dead!”

Abbey Theatre Irish Pub

Abbey Theatre Irish Pub

I love sitting upstairs in Abbey Theatre Irish Pub with our private room full of romanista dining on the best pub food outside London and watching AS Roma beat the mortal piss out of another opponent.

I love Marina’s father was a member of Italy’s Communist Party and loves Barack Obama.

I love that Italy’s Communist Party was pro labor and not pro Stalin.

I love eating my prized pasta amatriciana, covered in parmesan, on my terrace with cold clementines while looking out over the calm Tiber River on a warm spring day.

I love leisurely Sunday mornings outside at my Linari cafe, with my chocolate cornetto, cappuccino ben caldo (extra hot) and Corriere Dello Sport, and dig into Rome’s best pastry and 30 pages of soccer news.

I love AS Roma 2, Lazio 1, Nov. 18, 2017.

Me at a Roman cistern. Photo by Marina Pascucci

Me at a Roman cistern. Photo by Marina Pascucci

I love getting thirsty in summer then taking a draw from the ice-cold cisterns that have graced Rome for nearly 150 years.

I love how only one-third of all Italians are overweight compared to two-thirds in the U.S.

I love the romantic walk along Via dei Vascellari, the narrow cobblestone alley in Trastevere on my way to Trattoria Da Enzo, home of the best carbonara in the city that invented it.

I love how Federico my macellaio (butcher) wears a white fedora, not like the thousands of tourists who parade around idiotically with them but as an ode to macellai who wore them in the early 20th century.

Marina with friends.

Marina with friends.

I love how Marina’s fantastic pictures of us in Rome make me more grateful for living here than I did when I first arrived.

New Year’s Eve in Morocco: A call to prayer for all mankind as Islam beckons

Once Morocco's capital, Fez has long settled into being its cultural and religious capital. Photo by Marina Pascucci

Once Morocco’s capital, Fez has long settled into being its cultural and religious capital. Photo by Marina Pascucci

FEZ, Morocco — Marina has a good sense of adventure but it has limits, like a girl losing her nerve at certain roller coasters. At least, I thought it did. That ended over the summer when she made a surprise suggestion for our now annual New Year’s Eve getaway.


I was startled. I said, “I thought you were afraid to travel to Islamic countries.”

“No,” she said. “I was afraid to travel to Islamic countries with an American.”

Fair point.

Fez's medina is the largest in the world and home to 155,000 people. Photo by Marina Pascucci

Fez’s medina is the largest in the world and home to 155,000 people. Photo by Marina Pascucci

I come from a country where hating and distrusting Muslims has become part of many Americans’ DNA. That’s thanks to a president who doesn’t ban guns but does ban six Muslim countries. That DNA isn’t in me. I’ve traveled all through Islam and have met some of the most wonderful people in my life. I went to Tunisia a year after 9-11 and had half a dozen Tunisians offer their condolences.

I thought this angle would make a good travel piece: American travels to North Africa and shows America the peaceful people of Morocco. COME STROLL THROUGH A MEDINA! LEARN SOME ARABIC! BUY A CARPET!

Then I researched.

Turns out, according to The Guardian, 1,600 Moroccans went to Iraq and Syria to join ISIS. About half were killed. Most of the others returned to Morocco once ISIS’ footprint began shrinking. Moroccans have been linked to terrorist attacks in London, Paris, Barcelona and Brussels. Abdelhak El Khayam, head of the Central Bureau of Judicial Investigation (Morocco’s FBI), claims his organization has broken up 167 terrorist cells since 2002. They’ve arrested 2,720 suspected terrorists and foiled 276 terrorist plots.

What kind of fireworks is Morocco planning for us anyway?

A body oil salesman in the medina. Photo by Marina Pascucci

A body oil salesman in the medina. Photo by Marina Pascucci

As it turns out, this is the lasting impression I had from five days in Morocco: I had just purchased a Christmas gift (not belated but for 2018) from a man in a long gray, hooded djellaba and was walking out of the medina, one of Morocco’s famed labyrinthian marketplaces. A man yelled at me, “MEESTER! MEESTER!” Tired of merchants trying to sell me everything from carpets to hookahs, I kept walking. He followed me. “MEESTER! MEESTER! PLEASE!” I ignored him.

I finally exited the medina and felt him grab my arm. I turned around, angry. The merchant in the gray djellaba was with him. The man who followed me said, “Sir! You paid this man 70 euros (about $85) instead of 70 dirhams (about $8). He wants to give you your money back.”

Feeling lower than Morocco’s lowest beggar, I apologized in three languages and instead of giving him 70 dirhams, I gave him 100. It should’ve been more.

Moroccan bread is fantastic and dirt cheap. Photo by Marina Pascucci

Moroccan bread is fantastic and dirt cheap. Photo by Marina Pascucci

Making it more remarkable is 15.5 percent of Moroccans live on $3 a day, according to the World Bank. In November, 15 people died in a stampede during a food distribution in Marrakech. Unemployment is over 10 percent and the country spent billions during the Arab Spring to calm protests over the current state.

Morocco isn’t on Donald Trump’s banned list but every American should experience what I did before judging an entire religion. It’s why I come to Islamic countries. It’s why we came to Morocco.

We picked Fez, not only because it’s a direct 2 ½-hour Air Arabia flight from Rome but it has the world’s largest medina. No place on earth is there a larger car-free zone than Fez’s 540-acre medina where 155,000 people live in a maze of twisty, narrow alleys that seemingly never lead to an exit.

I’d been to Fez before. Morocco was my first third world country when I backpacked around the world for a year in 1978-79. Back then, Fez’s medina was a dark, dusty, scary cauldron of aggressive touts, beggars and thieves. Locals told me don’t go in without a guide. I did but only took right-hand turns along the surrounding wall. I returned taking left-hand turns.

A renovation in the '90s cleaned up the medina. Photo by Marina Pascucci

A renovation in the ’90s cleaned up the medina. Photo by Marina Pascucci

A renovation in the 1990s transformed the medina. Today the dust is gone and the stone pavement seems too clean to be real. It’s well lit with many wide-ranging restaurants and while the signage still makes it a confusing maze, I had no trepidation descending into its bowles without leaving a trail of rice to find my way back.

The medina is not antiseptic. It still makes you feel as if you’re in a chapter of “Arabian Nights.” We passed old men in older djellabas hunched over wobbly canes. We sampled dates and olives and almond griouats, the sugary, too-sweet-to-be-true almond treats from huge baskets sitting in front of tiny shops. Five times a day we heard the adhan, the Muslim call to prayer, scratching through a loudspeaker. I had the same feeling I had nearly 40 years earlier.

Fez is as different as any place in the world. It crushes your sense of normalcy, like a splash of ice water on a winter day. You can’t sleep in Fez. Your eyes are always open.

The medina still has the little fresh orange juice stands where small boys squeeze you a delicious glass for 30 dirhams (1 euro). The carpet shops remain a center for some of the best products of the Arab world but nothing for a budget traveler. The bargaining merchants today are only a little annoying. In other words, they follow you screaming rapidly reducing prices for only 100 meters and no longer to your hotel.

A Moroccan stands in Bou Inania Madrasa, one of the top schools of the Koran in Morocco. Photo by Marina Pascucci

Fez is a special place to Moroccans. The name comes from the Arabic word fa’s, meaning “pickaxe.” Legend has it that Idris I, founder of the Idrisid dynasty which ruled Morocco from 788-974, used a pickax to create lines of the city when he founded Fez in the 9th century. It replaced Marrakech as the capital and remained until 1912 when the French invaded. General Hubert Lyautey, showing French snobbery isn’t a recent phenomenon, didn’t like Fez’s anti-French stance and moved the capital to Rabat.

Today, Fez remains Morocco’s spiritual and intellectual capital and home to the world’s oldest university, Al-Karaouine, founded in 859. Unesco made Fez’s medina a heritage site in 1981, meaning its foundation must be preserved.

Marina and I traveled with Paola and Saverio, a couple who live down the street from me. Neither speaks English, let alone French or Arabic. I brushed up on enough of my old Arabic to at least earn big smiles from locals if not big bargains.

Bab Bou Jeloud (Blue Gate), one of the 14 gates to the medina. Photo by Marina Pascucci

Bab Bou Jeloud (Blue Gate), one of the 14 gates to the medina. Photo by Marina Pascucci

We checked into the Zalagh Parc Palace, a five-star hotel with a pool that meandered around the hotel like an oasis. It was as cold as the Baltic in daily temperatures that dropped from the 60s to the 40s. A sexy bar and brilliant breakfast buffet made up for an indifferent staff, sketchy Internet and long, dark hallways that moved Marina to tell me, “This reminds me of that movie about the hotel in Colorado.”

So every time I walked to our room at the end of the hall I saw the two little twin girls from “The Shining” staring at me. Thanks.

We started our trip with a walking tour of the medina. Walking tours in strange cities can be screamingly frustrating even with GPS and Lonely Planet. In Fez’s medina, it’s like you’re a rat in a lab maze with no cheese to lure you around the right corners. I told myself to revel in the mindless meandering. That’s good because we were lost in 10 minutes.

Marina and I at Bou Inaina Madrasa.

Marina and I at Bou Inania Madrasa.

We did find our way to Bou Inania Madrasa, built from 1350-57 and one of Morocco’s top schools for the Koran. We walked inside a large square lined with beautiful hand-carved walls. I walked by a small side room where a young man in a green skull cap knealed, facing east, muttering a prayer in Arabic.

Fez is a deeply religious city of 1 million people. While covering their heads isn’t required as in Iran and Saudi Arabia, many Moroccan women choose to do so. Some even wear the full burqa by choice. I arrived bound to respect Fez’s customs favoring modesty. I temporary lost my mind when I leaned over and kissed Marina, wearing comfortable shoes and red cords.

Then I heard a male voice. Oh, no! I’ve been kiss caught.

“NO PROBLEM!” yelled a young man loud enough to ring down the street. “GOOD! KEEP KISSING! IT’S GOOD TO SEE A MAN KISS HIS WIFE!” He came over and shook my hand. Maybe he was jealous. Then again, maybe he was just friendly. In other words, maybe he was just an average Moroccan.

The camel burger is better than it sounds.

The camel burger is better than it sounds.

Parts of the medina are a bit of a tourist trap. I saw very few Americans but many French who can communicate with the bilingual population. I veered us to one of the medina’s biggest drawing cards. The Cafe Clock has been around only 11 years but it has evolved into a must on the Fez to-do list. Located down two narrow alleys past walls of brilliant artwork, Cafe Clock is a five-story restaurant with a narrow staircase leading to a rooftop view of the medina. The bottom floor where we found a table had a very French feel with a skylight illuminating us all.

I ignored the total lack of Moroccan customers and ordered the signature dish: the camel burger. I’ve eaten strange animals before: zebra and hartebeest in Kenya, rat and dog in China, yak in Nepal. But this camel burger beats them all. It had little fat and was a little sweet, like the buffalo I often ate in Colorado. It’s made even better sandwiched between two pieces of fresh, homemade bread found all over the medina. And yes, the waiter assured me, Moroccans do eat camel.

Dates in the medina. Photo by Marina Pascucci

Dates in the medina. Photo by Marina Pascucci

Locals shop in the medina, too. Photo by Marina Pascucci

Locals shop in the medina, too. Photo by Marina Pascucci

Walk through the medina for just 10 minutes and even non shoppers get itchy wallets. I’m one of the few men who likes to shop. Thus, to me, Fez’s medina is like a meth lab to a junkie. I Christmas shop all year round. I buy something in every country I’m in. By the time the third week of December rolls around, people are frantically power shopping while I’m standing on my terrace drinking a glass of Montepulciano and listening to Bing Crosby Christmas carols.

In Fez, I got a third of my family Christmas shopping done 51 weeks ahead of time. I could’ve done more but I doubt pointy Ali Baba shoes go over well in Eugene, Oregon. The medina’s sidewalks are lined with everything to decorate your home, from your living room to your bathroom to your closet. Hard scents of musk and lavender. Body oils made from olive trees all over northern Morocco. Oil paintings of everything from Berber nomads to veiled women. Ceramic shops filled with multi-colored dining and tea sets. Long-elegant kaftans in every color of the rainbow. Leather coats and belts and bags. Elaborately decorated jewelry boxes big enough to store a family fortune.

Embroideries are big in Morocco. Photo by Marina Pascucci

Embroideries are big in Morocco. Photo by Marina Pascucci

The smells of leather and musk and olive oil and fresh bread fill the air and make me want to shop, eat and bathe all at the same time.

Shopping in Fez, however, requires skill. Price tags are merely for decoration. Bargaining isn’t just accepted, it’s expected. I’m a very good bargainer. It comes from my past as a budget backpacker where I counted every penny. Every lower price meant another night on the road. I was ruthless.

I still am.

One rule in Fez: You can not insult a Moroccan with your price. It’s impossible. The more they feint pain, the more they cry, the more they respect you. I always offer a quarter of the price tag. In the ‘70s, they said, “That’s a donkey price.” Last weekend when I bargained for a painting, the young merchant said, “That’s a Berber price,” proof of the discrimination this minority suffers in this part of Morocco.

Fez at night. Photo by Marina Pascucci

Fez at night. Photo by Marina Pascucci

The rules are simple. Find something you like and pretend you don’t. Offer a price one quarter of what’s listed and wait for the merchant’s theatrics to meld into a counter offer. Stick to your guns. Wait for him to lower. He’ll be down to half price in no time. Go up a bit to show respect. If he doesn’t match it, walk out. He’ll chase you down with your price and pretend he didn’t really make 80 percent on the deal.

Marina didn’t have a clue. She’d jump up and down, gasp and pull something off a shelf and ask the merchant, “How much?”

“MARINA!” I’d gasp as the merchant’s smile grew into a smirk.

She learned the rules and Paola and Saverio were old pros. I left with a ceramic bowl for my parmesan, a belt and an orange painting of two camels in front of a yellow sunset. The others came away with oils, tile house numbers, bags, coasters. No problem if your luggage doesn’t have room.

Just a buy another bag in the medina.

Paola, me, Zakaria and Saverio in Sefrou. Photo by Marina Pascucci

Paola, me, Zakaria and Saverio in Sefrou. Photo by Marina Pascucci

But what makes Morocco special are the people. In 1978 I met numerous Moroccans who studied abroad and returned home with college degrees to help their country. On New Year’s Eve day we took a road trip to Sefrou. It’s a city of 80,000 people 20 miles south of Fez. It’s known for its historical Jewish population and annual cherry festival, not to mention terrific views of the snow-capped Atlas Mountains in the distance.

Sefrou’s medina is Fez light. It’s for locals only, where you can feed your family but not buy it Christmas presents. We wandered the alleys as the only Westerners and emerged hungry, having no tips on where to eat. A man selling scarves off a wooden table in the street pointed us up the road where we found a hole in the wall that won’t make any guidebooks.

It was Morocco out of central casting. An old man worked a grill behind a musky window showing diced rows of chicken, lamb and beef. The smells of grilled meats waifed through onto the broken sidewalk. Smoke filled the inside of the open-air restaurant, reminding me more of a boxing gym in Vegas than a dining spot on vacation. A woman in the back ladled huge pots of rice and soup filled with chunky vegetables and beans.

We took four plastic chairs and the food kept coming. Lamb kabobs. Beans. Soups. Rice. All were washed down with sweet mint tea. Soon a man with a prescribed limp, short, grayish hair and missing most of his upper front teeth came to our table. Usually the rule on the road is if a local approaches you, he wants something. If you want to meet locals, you approach them.

Fez's Jewish Quarter, the Mellah, was once home to 250,000 Jews. Now there are only 70-80. Photo by Marina Pascucci

Fez’s Jewish Quarter, the Mellah, was once home to 250,000 Jews. Now there are only 70-80. Photo by Marina Pascucci

Zakaria Naccri was different. He spoke very good English after only three years of university many years ago. He said his father fought with the French against the Nazis in Southern Italy at the end of World War II and in Indochina in 1954. He’s still alive, an old man with diabetes at home in Sefrou.

Naccri, 52, spoke whimsically of French occupation. He contracted polio at age 2 before the French eradicated it from the country. When a flash flood nearly buried Sefrou in 1950, the French dug the river deeper and built a bridge. The town had 25 hotels. Today there are only four.

“Jewish. French. Berbers. Arabs,” Naccri said. “There was tolerance. The French bought the Berbers land and animals. When the French left, it all went back to the Arabs.

“I like Jewish. French. Arabs. Berbers. I like all people.”

“So you’re not Donald Trump?” I asked.


He led us back to the taxi stand, along the way pointing out a 99-year-old man still working, selling wicker brooms and looking surprisingly healthy. We had some of the best tea of our lives in a sprawling cafe where men watched a Moroccan league soccer game and Bob Dylan’s “Blowin’ in the Wind” played on a loudspeaker.

When we parted, we collected about $5 worth of dirhams, promising we’d look him up if we ever returned. This time I meant it.

One reason we chose Morocco for New Year’s Eve is Marina and I don’t like New Year’s Eve. We wanted to avoid Rome on the one night of the year Romans get drunk. They have this nearly Pavlovian response to rare hammerings by throwing empty beer bottles. In Fez, few places sell alcohol. Drunks would be non-existent.

While Moroccans don’t drink much, they have learned the fine Western art of price gouging. Most of the restaurants I called from Rome had fixed prices of 75-80 euros a person. I was tempted to tell them I thought anal sex was a sin in Islam but I merely hung up. I had some restaurant recommendations in the medina but Marina wanted nothing to do with the medina at night. I tried to reassure her.

“The medina is safe,” I said, acting like an American. “There aren’t any guns.”

She steadfastly refused. So I went to the front desk to get my confirmation.

“The medina is safe at night, isn’t it?” I asked.

“No,” the desk clerk said quickly.

“Huh? Why? What happens?”

“Everything. Don’t go after 6 p.m.”

The Palais Faraj hotel, home to L'Amandier restaurant, was one of the many that price gouged on  New Year's Eve. Photo by Marina Pascucci

The Palais Faraj hotel, home to L’Amandier restaurant, was one of the many that price gouged on New Year’s Eve. Photo by Marina Pascucci

We called around town and found one restaurant with its normal menu. Zagora is in Fez’s new town, just west of the medina and where you find supermarkets and retail stores. We passed crude, neon-lit nightclubs with pulsating music already at 9 p.m. Zagora was set back from the street and lit up in red neon. I felt like I was entering a brothel. I might still have. It was empty. Not another table was occupied — on New Year’s Eve.

We tentatively took our seats and my fears faded when I saw the menu. Ever play the parlor game: What meal do you order the night before you’re executed? Mine was on the menu.


It’s a dish made of chicken, egg, cinnamon and almond surrounded by filo dough and covered in powdered sugar. I fell in love with it in Moroccan restaurants in the U.S. but in Morocco it’s usually reserved for special feasts. Zagora had it and it was as good as I’ve ever had. We ate in front of bored waiters and a concerned owner who no doubt wonders if price gouging is the way to attract Western travelers on New Year’s Eve.

The Berber band on New Year's Eve. Photo by Marina Pascucci

The Berber band on New Year’s Eve. Photo by Marina Pascucci

We repaired back to the safe sanctity of the hotel bar where a group of 10 Berbers in green djellabas played scratchy music that made me want to take a souvenir dagger and dig out my eardrums. I heard this music once before and it’s tolerable in a Tunisian desert — off in the distance. In a hotel bar right out of “Casablanca,” we had to take refuge in a ballroom with dance music.

Still, every American should visit one Muslim country. If they had, we never would’ve invaded Iraq. Think about it. No ISIS. No Donald Trump. No fear. A new year dawns. Too bad more Americans aren’t chased down by Moroccan shop keepers.