Rome in 3 days

Last week I spent three amazing days in Rome. If I could have had a couple of extra days however, I would have, to spread out the sightseeing as covering them all in pretty much 48 hours was exhausting.

I say 48 hours because the first day we didn’t do a lot of sightseeing we mainly just walked around Rome. That’s an experience in itself. I noticed everyone seems to smoke there and your lucky to get a seat on a bus. There are also striking statues dotted around such as that of Pope John Paul II, so your eyes are always busy even just walking around the romantic city.

For a matter of two days we did an impressive amount which included the Colosseum, Spanish Steps, the Vatican, St. Peters Basilica, the Pantheon, the Garden Of Villa Borghese and my favourite the Trevi Fountain (at night). We also managed to eat some incredible pizza which has now made me not want to eat pizza in England anymore because it was just so good and some delicious gelato which had somewhat of the same effect.

I’d say that overall three days in Rome is not enough but if you don’t have a choice for whatever reason that may be, don’t fret, you’ll definitely be able to see a lot and you can use this blog post as proof and motivation. Just make sure that you wake up early, that you’re well rested and to drink plenty of water because Rome is one of the most tiring cities I’ve visited not just because of our time constraint but because of all the walking!

To see some of my photographs from Rome please click here: https://mehrnazkarimi.wordpress.com/photography/

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The land of the falling lakes

There’s more than just ‘looks’ to Croatia’s largest National Park.

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Croatia, Plitvice Lakes                                                                         Photography by: Mehrnaz Karimi

Founded in 1949, it is not just one of the oldest parks in Southeast Europe but it is the oldest park in Croatia and it is the country’s largest.
Visitors would find it hard to believe that Plitvice Lakes had any involvement in the civil war which took place in Plitvice on March 30 1991. The park was torn apart and taken over by rebel Serbs who took control of its headquarters. It was kept by the rebels for the entire duration of the war and was not regained back by the Croatian army until 1995. Despite this however, the park looks untouched and so it is believed that it healed itself naturally over time.

As a result of its cultural and physical significance, the national park was included on the UNESCO list of World Natural Heritage sites in 1979.

It is located halfway between the capital city of Zagreb and Zadar on the coast, but no matter where you are staying in Croatia, the lakes are a must see. This is why there are excursion coaches going from all over the country to the national park, no matter what the distance.
I travelled from the city of Pula to see the National Park which was a three hour coach journey. The journey to Plitvice Lakes was just as beautiful as the National Park itself, with acres of tall trees surrounding the bendy roads. There were locals on the route selling goods to passersby, each with their own unique stories to tell. One of them was an elderly woman who sadly lost both her husband and son to war. She was standing behind a stall selling jars of homemade jams, marmalade’s, honey, cheese and liquors, offering tasters to those who stopped. Her stall has become so popular that excursion coaches stop for tourists to have tasters and make purchases. She was stood just a yard away from another local who was also selling homemade goods.
Tourists travel from all over the world to see the mystical beauty that is Plitvice Lakes, giving the locals the opportunity to give tourists a real taste of Croatian hospitality. This makes the journey to the park all that more enjoyable.

Running parallel to the Dalmatian coast, each season brings its own beauty to the park, reshaping according to the time of year. In the winter it is a white wonderland that is unrecognizable from its appearance in the summer. The colour of the water goes from clear blue to grey but the snow topped woodland that labyrinths around the pools makes the park look just as stunning. Some of the native animals struggle to survive the harsh winters that hit Plitvice Lakes, but the strong waterfalls battle the cold and continue to flow.
It is a kingdom ruled by water and in the summer the first thing to be noticed is the colour of it. The water can only be described as crystal blue, with sixteen pools of lakes connected up by the waterfalls that attract millions of visitors every year.
The colour of the lakes is said to be ever changing, depending on the angle of the sun and the amount of minerals that are in the water which is dependent on the weather. It has however, been described as azure, green, grey and blue during different seasons.
The park is recognised for its picturesque waterfalls that keep the water flowing from pool-to-pool, and the formation of these cascades is just as fascinating as the sight of them. The ongoing biodynamic process of tufa formation which happens under specific hydrological and ecological conditions is the reason for the waterfalls. Tufa is a porous carbonate rock formed from the sedimentation of the calcium carbonate in the water, which builds barriers in rivers and streams. This formation is a constant process that happens at all times of the day. To the ignorant eye, one waterfall may look like the next but every single cascade is different. Taking new routes, the water picks up its speed and as temperatures change, new travertine barriers are formed, making it ever changing.

Surrounding the lakes, are woodlands, where tour guides do not usually venture. This natural phenomenon is home to bears, fish, deer, birds and other forms of wildlife including wolves and otters. Although the Park attracts millions of visitors every year, there is little human interference with the wildlife in the forest. Ancient trees lay where they fall and it is rare for tourists to see certain animals on a visit.
The woodland area has been referred to as the ‘land of the wolves’ after it was recorded a decade ago that the number of wolves there had increased.
According to studies, the wildlife within the park consists of 321 recorded species of butterflies, which can be seen flying over the 18km footbridges and pathways that lay over and across the beautiful water. There are 161 recorded species of birds, 21 species of bats, 1267 species of plants (including 75 endemic plants and 55 different species of orchids).
The number of brown bears (Ursus arctos) is currently unknown and sightings of bears are unheard of, as they tend to stay within the woods. There is enough food within the forest to keep the animals where they are, and with lakes flowing through, it makes it the perfect home to many species. However, with an increase in the number of wolves, there is an imbalance of the predator and prey ratio in the woodland areas, meaning that they are turning to eating rodents as well as larger animals such as wild boars.

The park has a surface area of 294.82 km² and it takes an estimated time of around six hours to explore the lakes alone on foot. This can be cut down however, by making use of the free boats and buses that take you to the different entrances of the park. A half day in the park is not enough time to see everything, so a full day is recommended. Having a good standard of physical health is also worth mentioning as there are a lot of steps to climb.
Tourists are not allowed to get into the water in case of pollution and disturbance of the natural habitat but they are welcome to walk the wooden footbridges and pathways that snake around the lakes. In fact, the only human contact allowed in the water is on the boats which are used to take visitors from one area of the park to another. Rowing boats are also available for tourists to hire out if they wish to.
Some of the foot paths are narrow and so there have been cases where visitors have fallen over so care is required when venturing around the beauty. Tourists are advised to follow the rules and stick to the footpaths, so that they do not disturb the animals or put themselves in danger to potentially dangerous wildlife. This is also advised to ensure that tourists do not find themselves getting lost. With the many visitors that go to the park, it would be difficult to seek assistance if you are not with a tour guide as visitors have the option to go with a guided tour or on their own. Due to the sheer size of the park, it would be easy to get lost, as it is divided up into seven sections, known as the upper lakes, the lower lakes, the Plitvica stream, Korana river, Supljara cave, Karlovci and Corkova Uvala.
There are small cafe’s and food stalls located in certain sections of the park and tourists are allowed to sit anywhere they wish, as long as they do not leave any litter. They are welcome to sit in front of the water where boats pick visitors up from to enjoy the view of the hungry ducks that swim not too far away from the tourists, hoping for a crust of bread. Tourists are of course advised not to interfere with any of the animals by feeding them.
Due to the fact that the park is so beautiful, it is against the rules to damage the trees in any way, or to pick or damage any of the flowers.
Tickets to enter the park can vary anywhere from 55 kuna to 180 kuna, depending on the time of year, with the summer months being the most costly. A percentage of ticket proceedings are put towards the protection and maintenance of the park.
There are hotels located nearby and camping spots for those who love the outdoors. These camping spots are not located within the park itself.
No matter how long your stay is in Croatia, Plitvice Lakes will be one of the highlights of your trip. It may also be one of the most beautiful sights you will ever see in your life.

For more photos of Plitvice Lakes, please click on my photography page on this website to see more!

The black tongued dog

The history behind the Chinese Chow Chow & how it came to having it’s unusual tongue colour.

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Photograph by: Mehrnaz Karimi

One of the most ancient dog breeds known to man is the Chow Chow.
Often compared to a bear or a lion, the Chow has a number of characteristics that makes it stand out from other dog breeds, one of which is the blue/black tongue. There are only a few dog breeds in existence that share this unusual trait, one of these is the Shar Pei, but even this dog is related to the Chow and is often referred to as its cousin. So what is the reason behind this phenomenon that has so many of us fascinated?

When Chows are born their tongues start off pink and don’t start to change colour until around eight to ten weeks of age. They usually start off by having a blue spot which spreads, eventually covering the entire tongue.

Markings in Chinese pottery dating back to the Han Dynasty reveal the dogs originated from Northern China over 2000 years ago. This makes it one of the oldest dog breeds known to man.
Chinese emperors and merchants used them for working purposes including hunting, pulling sleds and guarding.
The Chinese believed that the reason behind the colour of their tongues was for warding off evil spirits and as a result of this they were used as guard dogs outside of temples in China.
Others believe that at the beginning of time when God was painting the sky blue, a Chow licked up the drops that fell from the brush.

Whatever the reason behind this trait may be, the first thing that needs to be examined is the dogs blood line.
The exact descendants of the Chow Chow are still unknown but there is a theory that they are descendants of the Simocyon, a now extinct animal which scientists have confirmed is related to the red panda. The Simocyon has also been compared to a lion just as the Chow has although it is believed that they were the same size as a mountain lion. This draws suspicion because of the size difference between the Chow and the Simocyon but it could explain why the Chow is so often compared to a lion with their proud manes. The exact colour of the extinct species tongue is unknown however which suggests that even if it is a blood relative of the Chow, it is not necessarily the animal they inherited their tongue colour from.

The colour may seem unusual because of the fact that most canines have pink tongues but there are a number of other animals that share the blue/black characteristic. Could the Chow be a descendant of one of these? Other animals to have this feature include the polar bear, giraffes and the blue-tongued lizard.

The next to be explored is the science behind how these animals have come to have such a distinctive similarity. Research into why some animals have evolved to have tongues this colour suggests that it is because of the fact that they contain melanin which is the same pigment that causes a human’s skin to darken when in the sun. (Their dark tongues have more melanin in to protect them from getting burnt by the sun.) This makes sense for giraffes and the blue-tongued lizard because their natural habitats are in hot climates but for the polar bear and the Chow whose natural habitats are in freezing conditions it does not. However, those who are familiar with snow sports such as skiing and snowboarding, will know, it is just as easy to get sunburned in the snow where the sun’s rays reflect back onto the skin causing the same effect as it would in a hot country. This makes more sense because everything about the Chow shows that it has evolved to withstand freezing conditions, from their excess skin to their thick fur. The weather in Northern China, where the dogs originate from can reach sub-zero temperatures after all. Despite many of them now living in various types of weather conditions, their blue tongues are a trait that has remained throughout the generations of the breed. It is a gene that is clearly dominant as the majority of other dog breeds that are mixed with Chow’s often retain the tongue colour.

It is not just the physical form of the Chow that makes them stand out; it is their personalities which are very different to any other dog breed on the planet with characteristics that many owners compare to domesticated cats. Their behavioural traits include aggression and they have been found to be quite territorial, which could also be linked with their guarding backgrounds. Chow’s are not recommended for first time dog owners due to their unique characteristics, they can be trained but patience is a must as they will typically only do ‘tricks’ for treats. They are not recommended for owners who have small children but like any dog if they are raised right, they will behave right and can actually be great family pets. Don’t except to play fetch with a Chow Chow, they are generally quite laid back and are not particularly active. They do require regular walks however and can become quite restless if they are not appropriately exercised.

All that is known for now is that Chow’s share a great similarity to bears and extinct animals. The exact descendants of the Chow Chow are still unknown but through further research into the bloodline of the Chow, it won’t be long before the mystery is solved.

Genghis Khan’s greatest weapon

The Mongolian Horse
23770886841_77d0d9e4cd_bA Mongol without a horse is like a bird without its wings.

Riding horses to Mongolians is like breathing, they are said to be born in the saddle and raised on horseback. They are taught to ride from the tender age of two, by being literally tied into the saddle.
The Mongolian horse is just as important to the country today, as they were generations ago during the times of Genghis Khan. They have been described as largely unchanged since these times and are sometimes mistaken for a pony due to their small size. Their size however, didn’t stop them from carrying Mongol warriors across half of the world. They were paramount in making it possible for Genghis Khan and his soldiers to create an empire that stretched from the Pacific Ocean to the centre of Europe. This could be one of the reasons why they have been referred to as Genghis Khan’s greatest weapon.
In western society, Genghis Khan is remembered as being a ruthless barbarian but in Mongolia he is a national hero, with a 131ft 2in tall statue of him seated in the saddle of a horse just 54km east from the capital city of Ulaanbaatar.
The Mongol Derby recreates the trail taken by Genghis Khan and takes place every year, with around forty competitors all trying to win the Derby crown. The race is undertaken by professionals, semi professionals and enthusiastic amateurs. It has been regarded, as being the toughest and longest horse race in the world. The race requires riders to weigh no more than 85kgs which includes the weight of their clothes due to the small size of the horses. They are even encouraged to travel light with just 5kg of essential survival equipment. The horses which are used for the race belong to local nomadic herding families and breeders. Fourteen hundred of them are selected in the months prior to the race and they are then put through training to prepare them for the derby.
As well as the famous derby, Mongolians compete in family horse races which are considered to be a big deal amongst the Mongols’, attracting people from miles away who arrive with their families and ‘best horse’. These race meetings can happen up to four or five times over the summer. Children are the ones who ride the horses in these races as the Mongol’s believe that the smaller the jockey the faster the horse. Before the race, each horse has to be blessed with milk taken from the mares known as Irag which is stroked onto them by women using spoons. It is believed that singing Buddhist Mantra helps give the horses speed. The family of the winner is rewarded with a valuable horse, while the runner up is given a sheep and although the other participants are given smaller gifts, everybody gets something.

Mongolians have kept in tradition since the times of Genghis Khan, where the horses are concerned, as they still use metal studs that are located on the wooden saddles which sit on the horse’s backs. These metal studs were originally put on the saddles all of those centuries ago, to encourage men to stand up whilst riding.
The journey that these horses went on to reach Europe shows just how tough they really are and this toughness has not worn down over the years. The native horses survive extreme temperatures of minus forty degrees in the winter and over thirty degrees in the summer with little interference from humans. They survive on the natural sources around them, eating hardly anything but grass and drinking water wherever they find it. The natives around them rarely provide extra food for the animals. They are also seldom shod due to the fact that they naturally have very tough feet. Mongols’ only seek veterinary care for their prized horse, with the outlook of ‘survival of the fittest.’
The male horses are used for transportation and racing while the females (mares) are rarely ridden as they are used for milk and breeding.
Although it is said that Mongolians see horses the same way that people in other societies see cars, these horses are more than just transportation for Mongolians. They are also used for their resources, such as their milk which is used to make a drink called ‘Irag.’ The milk is also used in traditional Mongolian dishes. It is difficult for them to grow fruit and vegetables so the milk is their only source of Vitamin C. In the summer, the horses are milked every two hours (up to six times a day) and this is only done by the women.
In the western society horses are taken care of and kept secure in fenced fields and stables, but in Mongolia they are merely left to leave if they wish to. They are treated with such respect by the Mongol’s, it is said, that they choose to stay.

Having a large number of horses is seen as a symbol of wealth and status amongst Mongol families. The older and quieter horses are usually ridden by the children and women. Children are also put on the backs of foals and weanlings to help break them in for work. Some Mongol’s tie the foals to a line where their toddlers can help ready them for human interaction. Many of them are herded from birth so that when it comes to riding them, the process is sped up. Despite this, they are still considered to be free and wild animals which could be why the riding style varies greatly from western horses. Mongolians do not expect to have complete control over the animals, and put their trust in them to complete tasks themselves. This is why westerners who ride Mongolian horses are advised beforehand to not expect full control over them as this will result in the horses rebelling.