Monday, August 20, 2012

North Cyprus Sea Turtles

North Cyprus is home to the endangered Green + Loggerhead sea turtles. In all of our travels we had yet to see a sea turtle and our visit was carefully planned to coincide with their hatching and release. Each summer students come to North Cyprus to help the preservation and studies of these sweet little creatures.

Up and down the coast there are many little screened white cages to protect them from predators. While the mother comes ashore in search of the perfect place to lay her clutch of eggs volunteers carefully monitor things. As she goes into a trance each nest is outfitted with high tech thermometers so data can be collected within each nest during the gestation. The higher temperatures (and global warming) creates more females than males, which is unsettling. Even just a couple of degrees difference will make the entire nest female (warmer temps coincide with higher female populations).
Also problematic is the detritus and litter along the beach (notice the cigarette butt right near the cage in the photo above). I could not believe the waste on the beach, which was both left behind and washed ashore. Many sea turtles return to lay their clutches of eggs on the very beach they were born. There was so much plastic, which left me bewildered. I tried to do my part to pick up the multicolored plastic around our beach towel, but it was virtually impossible. Alagadi is one of the main beaches of the turtle nesting, which is just up the coast from a power plant, so the turtles also are dealing with the light pollution in an otherwise very dark area.
In most any other country I would think these beaches would be completely closed to the public, however people sit amidst the cages throughout the day. Those working with the turtles' preservation patrol the beach through the day and night. As often is the case, nature and the animals are forced to persevere and work around people.
If a nest begins hatching at night, the volunteers monitor the turtles making their way to the sea and dig a trench to make their journey a bit easier.

The next day they go in to excavate the nest, help the stragglers who are still fighting their way out, and counting the unfertilized eggs, unhatched eggs, and those that are empty which resemble ping pong balls. Surprisingly even ghost crabs have been known to attack these little guys as they make their way to the sea pulling them into their holes for a meal. In several photos their tiny nails are visible, but generally they are pretty peaceful and defenseless.

Some come out flapping away and ready swim, while others are a bit more lethargic after using up so much energy to get out of the egg chamber.

Since the glaring mid-day sun is a bit too intense and make the turtles more susceptible to predators they are collected and released under the moon light after the beach has closed.

The best way to know if there will be a release that night is to call the "goat shed" promptly at noon. Sometimes the phone lines are very busy, so if you're in the area it helps to stop by in person.
We were able to take part in a release and hold a little turtle before they made their journey to the water. For a release one of the workers will stand in the ocean with a headlamp acting as the moon to guide them, but several still got distracted (like the one above). The only light permitted, except for the one volunteer's headlamp, are red lights, which don't distract the turtles from starting their journey into the water.

As I held my little matchbox sized sea turtle her little feet were flapping in the air ready to swim. I told her to grow big, strong, and come back with her own babies. Then I set her into the sand and watched her scurry into the water. She was the fastest of the bunch. It's a really neat experience to be a part of.

We did not see any loggerhead hatchlings during four excavations, but we did adopt a green sea turtle, so we can track him/her as long as the tracking device doesn't fall off.

If you are also planning a trip to see the sea turtles, you may find the following links useful:
SPOT - Society for Protection of Turtles
How the divide in Cyprus affects the turtles

North Cyprus

I've always been intrigued by Cyprus, which piqued my interest further when I read the book The World Without Us back in 2008.

Shortly before our trip, this article was published in the New York Times: On Cyprus Beach, Stubborn Relic of Conflict.
We didn't visit Famagusta, but we did visit both North and South Cyprus this month. They have been divided since 1974. There is an eerie and fascinating dynamic to this country, which has the only divided capital city in the world - Nicosia. It's part European, part Middle Eastern, with the Greeks and Turks living divided from one another by the UN Green Zone, except for in the small city of Pyla.
Driving across the island can be done in a matter of several hours, however there is a strict border crossing put in place by Turkey, who is the only country that recognizes the Northern section as "The Turkish Republic of Northern Cyprus". This makes me curious how much the North is entitled to EU taxation and assistance.

There's some difficulty in getting car rental companies to explicitly agree that you can take their cars North of the border, especially because their insurance does not cover accidents or car troubles once past the green zone, so third party insurance must be purchased at the border for 20€. Getting a rental car to bring South is impossible, which creates a large amount of taxi services to transport those who aren't crossing the border by walking.

Our flight arrived late in Pafos/Paphos, a small city the southwest of the island. We met with our car rental agent and repeated the fact we'd be crossing the border to make sure they were aware. The next day we were off to the first half of our trip in the North, which is the Turkish side. All rental cars in Cyprus have red license plates, so it's easy to spot others who are likely tourists.
The handy GPS that we had rented with our car stopped working at the border. The roads were mapped, however the names were completely missing. Since the cities are called different things in Greek, Turkish, and English, it made things more complicated, but thankfully I planned ahead and that made following the signs much easier.
The largest city in the North is Κερύνεια, Kyrenia, Girne. The coast is being built up with many British and Russian expats relocating and retiring in the area, so there's another interesting cultural mix going on. We rented a beautiful little sea side apartment and were able to talk with the agent about her experiences and how much the area has changed in the past few years.
The area is developing quite a bit, but it still has a rustic charm, unpaved streets, and ancient ruins. One day some shepherds brought goats perilously close to the end of the cliff.
At the market we even bought homemade hummus and carrot cake, which the owner said his wife and mother made. I loved that. We ate a lot of halloumi, hummus, and olives and spent most of our time exploring the coast and enjoying the beaches.
At night we loved sitting on our balcony and looking up at the stars. With little light pollution there is so much visible above and it's mesmerizing. 
Here are some helpful sites that I used while planning this trip:
Navigation mapping
Visit Cyprus
Cyprus Car Rental

Tuesday, July 31, 2012


The Valensole Plateau is filled with rolling fields of lavender that seem to go on for ages. The smell is incredible, the color is so vibrant, and perhaps it's the aromatherapy, perhaps it's just the way of life, but everything feels so relaxed. That is certainly one thing I think the French have a knack for - enjoying life and taking time to appreciate the seemingly small everyday details.
Since it wouldn't be a proper mid-July without markets and festivals, there was also a lavender festival in Valensole.

We watched a man distill lavender oil on the town square, they gave free bundles of lavender to visitors, and lavender was used in a variety of foods available for purchase from chocolates and ice cream all the way to pâté. There was even a parade and group of people dressed in lavender, which is a sight you don't often see. They clearly take it seriously and it made me wonder where they are able to find so many uniquely colored accessories.

My favorite purchase was some edible lavender oil, which can be used in cooking (or making ice cream).
Before our trip I wasn't aware there is also something called lavandin, which is a cheaper species, but we were schooled in all of it. All of the fields have a steady hum of insects.

As we drove through the fields we stopped to take photos (thanks to our gorilla pod and remote)... kind of like nature meets photo booth.

Both of these also came in hand later in the evening, because we stayed in Allemagne-en-Provence and there were galaxies visible above with the naked eye. So many stars! There were things moving high up there and it made me feel very tiny. I don't really have great lenses for night photography, but with my trigger release I could at least capture some of it.

The home we stayed at was gorgeous - complete with a beautiful pool. It was a bit chilly when we arrived, so we just dipped our feet in. It was the perfect setting to make me think about cashing in city life for a fleeting moment.

Monday, July 30, 2012

Bonnieux + Cucuron

If you've ever seen the movie "A Good Year" you'll recognize some of the beauty of Provence. Outside Bonnieux is the home where it was filmed, which is a functioning winery, however they certainly used some good camera angles or different vineyards to make it look much more sprawling. It was a Sunday, so it wasn't open for tastings and visits, but I'm sure it is gorgeous.
The square of Cucuron is also featured in the movie. We stopped through both villages - Bonnieux for a walk through their steep streets and to visit their flea market and Cucuron for a lovely lunch.

Grab a bottle of rosé, some goat cheese drizzled with honey and thyme, and a great baguette to watch the movie and be transported to the beautiful area. Provence is one of the most picturesque and relaxing places I think we've ever been. Just wait until you see more of those lavender fields! 

Sunday, July 29, 2012


Aix is home to the biggest Bastille day celebration in the area, so we drove down to see how people celebrate. It's nice to visit a place during local holidays, especially when there's a patriotic twist.
It was a rather warm evening, as proven by this adorable French bulldog who was cooling off in the fountain. Random fact of the day: did you know they have to be born through a caesarean section?
We wandered the streets and enjoyed the ambiance. I was happy to visit area landmarks: the Place des Quatre Dauphins and Cours Mirabeau. Along the way there were picturesque movie theaters and people enjoying a quiet evening with friends and family.

Once again we were charmed by the city and the food. We stopped for an early geriatric timed dinner and stumbled upon La Tomate Vert, which proved to be an excellent choice. Even though it was fully booked for the evening sometimes it pays to eat like old people.

We both opted for the menu, which is a 3 course prix fixe. Stefan ordered a steak that came with the very best French fries I've ever had in my life.

 My favorite dish of the evening were tomatoes filled with shrimp. While at the restaurant we picked up the Carnet Gourmand. It profiles other restaurants with similar standards and I'm looking forward to putting it to use again. They also have an app, if you're on the way to France and would like a copy.

We drove back to Apt just in time to catch the fireworks, because in the morning we had several stops to Bonnieux, Cucuron, and Valensole to finally see some serious lavender fields.

[Side note: there's a really incredible app called iFontMaker, which allows you to make your own font with your handwriting, like I did here. Hands down one of my favorites.] 

Saturday, July 28, 2012


One place not to miss in Provence is Roussillon and Le Sentier des Ocres for some striking natural beauty. There's evidently a rather violent legend explaining why the earth is colored with vibrant reds... it entails love, a blood bath, and now we can all appreciate the beauty of the iron hydroxide 110 million years later.
The contrast between the orange and red tones and the green trees and foliage is beautiful. I'd be curious how much it changes during the Autumn and Winter months.
Roussillon is another of "Les plus Beaux Villages de France" and it's as if the entire city has been splashed with terracotta paint. If you visit, make sure you stop at the ice cream shop right near the entrance and try the lavender ice cream - it's fantastic!
The vibrate colors are incredible and stained everything from the feet of several children who were running through to canvases of tourists who could purchase the pigments at nearby shops.

Friday, July 27, 2012


As luck would have it there was a Saturday flea market in nearby Saint-Saturnin-lès-Apt, which took up the entire city.
While strolling through the streets I debated on getting several of the large classroom maps - one even had Munich on it, but with no specific place to put them I decided to leave them behind.

I would have also wanted to take the adorable Bernese Mountain pup back home, but he already had a family. We're really looking forward to the day when we can get a dog and we have a short list of names, but the frontrunner is Isar (the river that flows through Munich). 

Thursday, July 26, 2012

Villages of Provence

Along one of our afternoon drives we visited Gordes, which is a popular city due to its picturesque cliffside terraces and homes.
While it is a charming city, it is better viewed from one of the nearby view points to get the full effect.
Impressive, right? 
Not far away and down another very steep hill is the Abbaye de Sénanque, which is one of the most photographed lavender fields. We seemed to have arrived at the perfect time - between tour busses and when the light was shining in just such a way that it appeared to be glowing.
As we walked through the field we noticed the subtle hum that is the background noise of the insects hard at work. I also read to be cautious of snakes hiding at the base of the lavender plants, however we didn't see any during our visits to several fields.
We concluded our day with one of the most spectacular meals at a working goat and pig farm. It was a communal style dinner with about 20 guests.

I was anxious to see how this would work out, because I had called for reservations several weeks prior. I stumbled through my broken French only to discover the man on the other end spoke Italian, as he uttered "Mama Mia!" and promptly handed the phone to someone else. Struggling to get through the it without hysterically laughing at how ridiculous a phone call without a common language is, I said, "Treize" and then "Tredici - Tray-dee-chee!" as Stefan looked on. We hoped for the best and considered asking our native speaking friends to make reservations next time.
It was all worth it in the end, because hidden down a dusty dirt road is this adorable little place. We were fortunate that one of our fellow dinner mates was a German woman who speaks nearly every language under the sun so she was able to give us some history on the place. It just so happened she was a writer for a French men's fashion magazine years before and had done a piece about the farm. She fell in love with Provence and later moved to the area.

Evidently the owner came from Southern Italy with next to no money and stumbled upon this place, which was in ruins. At that time the French government was heavily subsidizing farmers, so he was able to purchase it for 1 franc, provided he would raise animals. She claimed he was a real ladies man and that the quality of both the home and food changed depending on the woman in his life.
The whole thing was very much a family affair, complete with a couple of little boys pulling up a seat to enjoy their dinner alongside guests. Stefan also had a dinner companion in the form of a cat who sat carefully perched next to him on the bench, which I found comical given how well he and cats usually get along.
The meal consisted of endless sangria, red wine, bread, paprika peppers, ham, pork, potatoes, three types of goat cheese, and tiramisu for 30€. The goat cheese was absolutely incredible and I ate way more goat cheese than I care to admit, however I still dream about it to this day.
As the night went on, and the red wine was flowing, people were getting more talkative. The former magazine editor was curious about us and assumed I was the German and Stefan was from the US.

One of the farmer's grandsons was showing me two lizards he had caught in a small package and chasing kittens around until a couple of foxes arrived in hopes of rounding up some table scraps. The German woman was fearful the foxes would take a kitten, so she and her partner ended up taking one home.
We arrived back to the village with some pre-Bastille day festivities going on just around the corner, so we joined the fun with some music, Pernod, and red wine. Apt comes alive with their Saturday market, so we were able to go to sleep and have it waiting at our doorstep the next morning. 

It was one of those incredible days that only solidified my love for the area that much more.