Libya — The lost cities of the Greek and Roman Empires

This is subscriber only post.
Get one year of online-only access — only $15!
Below is a sample of the article.
Please login or subscribe to ITN to read the entire post.

The search begins
Archaeologists used to be in the habit of taking home what they unearthed in their excavations, so we started our search in London’s British Museum, a prime repository of the more spectacular finds from all over the world.

The museum has such a surfeit of exquisite art that parts of their collections have to be stored in basement vaults, including the Libyan sculptures. By special permission, the underground treasury was opened for us and we were guided through rows of stunning marble busts and statues of gods and goddesses and of the kings and queens whose original homes we were going to visit in Libya.

Our own “archaeologist in resi­dence,” Jocelyn Gohari, an Englishwoman from Cairo who would accompany us on the entire trip, gave us an overview of the origins of the Greek and Roman settlements in North Africa.

What I didn’t like about our 2-day stopover in London were the prices. A pot of chamomile tea and two scones at our good, but by no means luxury, hotel cost $20. Right then and there I was ready to leave for North Africa.

On to Africa
The next day we exchanged the dreary London fog for brilliant African sunshine and the costly Jurys Great Russell Street Hotel for Tripoli’s luxurious Corinthia Bab Africa Hotel. The hotel’s architecture and decorations were a curious mixture of traditional Arab and African design, but the comforts were strictly Western modern (except no alcohol was permitted on the premises).

At first sight, Tripoli didn’t seem very exciting, but behind the steep seawall of the castle and the huge, omnipresent posters of Muammar Gadhafi (Qaddafi) emerged a fascinating city, with glistening white public buildings left by Italian colonizers and narrow lanes leading to ancient markets and mosques.

The Roman city of Oea has long been lost underneath the modern city of Tripoli, but the splendid Arch of Marcus Aurelius still stands, a proud reminder of that distant past, on a grassy plot next to the excellent Althar Restaurant, where we dined on couscous and chicken on our first evening.

The Jamahiriya Museum of Tripoli displays a wealth of magnificent Greek and Roman statuary as well as Byzantine mosaics from different archaeological sites throughout Libya. On our visit, there was no time to visit the fourth floor of the museum, which is devoted to the Revolution of 1960 and Gadhafi’s life, but we did see the old, robin’s-egg-blue Volkswagen that once was driven by the young revolutionary and now stands guard at the entrance to the old classical museum — a reminder of modern Libya’s reality.

Sabratha
It was 105°F when we arrived at Sabratha, the ruins of an ancient Roman city west of Tripoli, but the air was dry, and a constant gentle breeze from the Mediterranean Sea made the heat bearable.

Sabratha was beautiful. Against a cloudless blue sky and an aquamarine sea stood slender columns, the remains of temples, baths and villas dating back to mostly Roman times, although the site was earlier inhabited by Carthaginian and Greek settlers. The remains of the huge theater, which could seat 5,000 people, included 96 massive columns that still stood three stories high as a backdrop to the stage.

Close to the sea is the impressive amphitheater, the largest in Roman Africa. Partly hewn out of the rock, the amphitheater was constructed of huge blocks of stone from a nearby quarry. The honey-colored sandstone took on a rosy tint as the sun started to slip into the sea, adding to the magic of the site.

Leptis Magna
East of Tripoli lies Leptis Magna, one of the largest and best-preserved Roman cities in the world, protected for hundreds of years by the shifting coastal sands. The sheer size of the site was overwhelming. We wandered for hours along ancient avenues flanked by lofty temples, the largest baths outside of Rome and an amphitheater that could seat 15,000 people.

After hiking for more than three hours in the merciless sun, we were looking forward to lunch in a shady spot. White-clad musicians accompanied us to a colorful tent, where we sat on pillows to be served grilled chicken and lamb, couscous, salad and fruit.

Ghadamès
Next we headed southwest toward the Jebel Nafusa, the western mountains that reach into Tunisia, on the way to Ghadamès, the jewel of the Sahara. Berbers have lived in this area since time immemorial, building their houses into the mountains to keep warm in the harsh winters and cool in the blazing summers. However, the current government has largely relocated them into less insulated but more modern housing.

In the 12th century, Berbers constructed unique fortress-granaries, one of which still stands at Qasr al Hajj. Four stories high, the circular, completely enclosed building served as a communal storage place in peaceful times and, in periods of unrest or war, as a fortified refuge. Huge bolts still secured the strong doors made of palm trunks.
Our drive south crossed an arid desert plain. It took a while for me to realize that what looked from a distance like exotic desert vegetation weaving in the breeze was, in fact, green, black and white plastic bags caught on rocks or thistles.

Garbage disposal seemed to be a problem all over Libya. Shallow gullies were filled with empty bottles, cans and plastic containers, and it was not uncommon to find unsightly heaps of trash on the roads to some of the most wonderful antiquities in North Africa.

The oases of Ghadamès used to be an important caravan stop and trading center; gold, silver, ivory and precious stones were later replaced by slaves. When the slave trade was abolished in the 19th century, the city lost its main source of income and slowly sank into oblivion.

The Old Town of Ghadamès, now a Unesco World Heritage Site, dates back about 800 years and doesn’t seem to have changed much since it was built on the remnants of older settlements. We walked down a short ramp and through a graceful arched gate, entering a warren of narrow covered lanes.

The brilliantly whitewashed 2-story houses were made of gypsum and sun-dried mud bricks, with ceilings of palm trunk. The first story of each house was partially underground, and the top floors had small doors connecting each to the neighboring houses so that the women of Ghadamès could cross the whole city without being seen by the men below.

The houses, mosques and markets are still in reasonably good shape, but in the early ’80s the inhabitants were encouraged to move out into more “civilized” (albeit rather ugly) housing blocks provided by the government. Individual families still own their houses in the old city, and some move back during the summer heat, when the thick walls are better protection from the extremes of the desert than the modern air-conditioners that, no doubt, are prone to periodic breakdowns, as we witnessed in our hotel.

A spring and two wells still bring water to the city, but the once-lush enclosed gardens are now overgrown with weeds, and date palms have been left where they fell. It is a dead city now, without a soul or life. I missed the children chasing each other around dark corners, women gossiping on roofs, and men smoking their pipes in the shade below. The only sign of life we found in the silent city was a small teahouse serving hot tea and cool sodas under old palm trees and flowering shrubs.

Pleasant impressions

In the “modern” part of Ghadamès, we found a shoemaker busy putting together the hand-embroidered red shoes that the city is famous for.

Berber jewelry, leather work and pottery were among the few tourist wares displayed in a couple of dusty shops. Browsing through them was a very different experience from shopping in other North African countries. There was very little bargaining and no harassment by anxious shopkeepers trying to hold on to customers; instead, the merchants were polite and attentive but did not pressure us.

Nowhere did beggars or little boys asking for pens or candy approach us. Nobody made a fuss over us; only in Tripoli were we approached once by an old veteran who told us how happy he was to welcome us to Libya and what great respect he had for the American people.

And nowhere did we get caught up in any large crowds. A country almost three times the size of Texas with a population of a little less than six million could feel eerily empty at times.

In the late afternoon, jeeps took us out into the desert to watch the sun set behind the great sand dunes. We labored up to the crest of one of the star dunes, but a fine haze fell over the red orb as it sank into the sea of sand and obscured the dazzling colors.

Touareg tribesmen performed traditional dances for us to the rhythmic chanting and clapping of a group of tribal women. We watched the men bake desert bread in the hot sands of the Sahara. Consisting only of flour and water intensely kneaded, rolled and patted, it tasted delicious.

Just a few of us had enough energy left late in the evening to drive out into the desert again to watch the starry night sky. There was a deep quiet in the vast empty space surrounding us. A slight wind blew up, moving the sand across the dunes like waves. The wind had become stronger by morning and soon became a full-fledged sandstorm. With time-honored gestures, men pulled the ends of their turbans or headdresses, women, their headscarves, across their faces for protection. However, we got sand in our eyes, ears and mouths.

It looked like our chartered plane would not be able to come down from Tripoli to pick us up, but by 1 o’clock in the afternoon our two Russian pilots decided that they could land their ancient aircraft on the desert airstrip north of the city.

In less than an hour, we disembarked at what used to be the American-run Wheelus Air Force Base in Tripoli. There was just enough time to have dinner before we boarded another plane for Benghazi, the capital of Cyrenaica, Libya’s easternmost province.

Benghazi
The Hotel Tibesti in Benghazi is memorable mainly because of the damp sheets and towels and the icy water dripping from the bathroom walls in spite of, or perhaps because of, a noisy air-conditioner.

At the outskirts of Benghazi lies the well-kept Commonwealth War Graves Cemetery. Neat rows of Christian, Jewish, Hindu, Sikh and Muslim gravestones are marked with names and religious symbols, some labeled as “Known to God only.” Pink oleander bushes brightened the somber atmosphere.

An hour and a half farther east lies the site of Tolmeita, the antique Ptolemais. A very early Greek settlement, it is noted for the magnificent Palace of the Columns. Parts of a small theater, the Odeon, could be filled with water for nautical games, while large underground vaults below the gymnasium were used as cisterns to store the water brought to the city via an aqueduct.

After our lunch under shady trees, there was an abundance of leftover grilled chicken that attracted a whole tribe of orange-and-white cats. A tiny little kitten that could not eat solid food yet was meowing pitifully. When no mother cat responded, I went in search of some milk. One of the men in the restaurant went off and came back with a tin of evaporated milk. The kitten drank and drank until his little belly was full and round, then he contentedly licked his paws, rolled over on his back and fell asleep.

When I offered to pay for the milk, the owner of the small restaurant said, “Oh, no, I won’t charge you for feeding the kitten. It made you happy to do it; that is enough.”

Cyrene
In the 1950s, two ancient Byzantine basilicas were discovered at Qasr Libia. Their exquisite mosaics, dating from the earliest Christian period, are now displayed in a small museum. Fifty individual panels depict birds, beasts, fish, boats, human figures and buildings. One panel shows the Pharos Lighthouse of Alexandria; on another panel I could just make out Orpheus with his lyre, while the Tigris and Euphrates rivers were clearly discernible on a third.

Next, we were off on the road to my favorite site, Apollonia, the port of Cyrene. It is named after the god Apollo, whom the early Greek settlers considered to be their ancestor.

The walk along the coast the next morning to the site was a thrilling experience. The slender columns of a basilica were etched against the deep-blue sea, and white-crested waves formed the backdrop for an ancient amphitheater.
After a picnic lunch, our bus took us east to two impressive early Christian sites. The 3-nave church at Ra’s Hilal stands at one of the most spectacular spots on the coastline. At the Byzantine basilica of Atrun, crosses have been carved into the tall Corinthian columns.

Our exploration of Cyrene started with the imposing Temple of Zeus. Built in the early fifth century B.C., this temple is larger than the god’s main sanctuary in Olympia. The Roman emperor Augustus restored the temple around the time of the birth of Christ and dedicated it to Jupiter. An earthquake in A.D. 365 reduced the sanctuary to rubble, but today many of its Doric columns are standing upright again, painstakingly reconstructed by Italian archaeologists.

From the Temple of Zeus, Cyrene slopes gently down the hill toward the now-distant Mediterranean Sea, covering an enormous site that contains four theaters, a huge gymnasium used for military exercises and athletics, several temples and great houses.

Under the umbrella of lovely old pine trees, some young men had set up stands to sell the honey that Cyrenaica has always been famous for. It was hard to choose one after tasting several different kinds, some light, some dark, some tasting of wildflowers and some of pines.

At my hotel in Cyrene, Hotel Almanara, I appreciated the little balcony off my fourth-floor room. I could sit there till late at night, looking out over the calmly breathing Mediterranean Sea to where it met the velvety dark sky.

Stylish sendoff
After returning to the Corinthia Bab Africa Hotel in Tripoli, I said good-bye to my 20 fellow travelers, our American tour guide, Susan, and Abdu, our Berber guide. While the group was headed for Jocelyn’s last lecture on modern Libya and a grand farewell dinner that evening, I had arranged to leave a day early and so, in exchange, I was handed over to a guide who was going to drive me to the airport for a flight to Germany. This new driver, Said, was like a breath of fresh air in old Tripoli. He offered to give me a private tour of his city, but first we had to stop and have tea.

The teahouse was quite a surprise, with polished dark paneling, comfortable overstuffed sofas and chairs, shiny glass cases full of exquisite pastries, the aroma of fresh-brewed coffee — the sights and smells of an elegant Viennese café in the middle of African Tripoli.

Well-dressed women with loosely tied head scarves and men in smart Western suits made up the clientele of the stylish establishment. The pastries tasted as scrumptious as they looked.

The price for my 14-day tour was $5,780 per person, including all transportation, accommodations and three meals a day (except in London). Additional costs included $100 for a visa, a $94 fuel surcharge from the airline and an $890 single supplement.

For more information, contact Distant Horizons (Long Beach, CA; 800/333-1240, www.distant-horizons.com).

Please login or subscribe to ITN to read the entire post.

The search begins
Archaeologists used to be in the habit of taking home what they unearthed in their excavations, so we started our search in London’s British Museum, a prime repository of the more spectacular finds from all over the world.

The museum has such a surfeit of exquisite art that parts of their collections have to be stored in basement vaults, including the Libyan sculptures. By special permission, the underground treasury was opened for us and we were guided through rows of stunning marble busts and statues of gods and goddesses and of the kings and queens whose original homes we were going to visit in Libya.

Our own “archaeologist in resi­dence,” Jocelyn Gohari, an Englishwoman from Cairo who would accompany us on the entire trip, gave us an overview of the origins of the Greek and Roman settlements in North Africa.

What I didn’t like about our 2-day stopover in London were the prices. A pot of chamomile tea and two scones at our good, but by no means luxury, hotel cost $20. Right then and there I was ready to leave for North Africa.

On to Africa
The next day we exchanged the dreary London fog for brilliant African sunshine and the costly Jurys Great Russell Street Hotel for Tripoli’s luxurious Corinthia Bab Africa Hotel. The hotel’s architecture and decorations were a curious mixture of traditional Arab and African design, but the comforts were strictly Western modern (except no alcohol was permitted on the premises).

At first sight, Tripoli didn’t seem very exciting, but behind the steep seawall of the castle and the huge, omnipresent posters of Muammar Gadhafi (Qaddafi) emerged a fascinating city, with glistening white public buildings left by Italian colonizers and narrow lanes leading to ancient markets and mosques.

The Roman city of Oea has long been lost underneath the modern city of Tripoli, but the splendid Arch of Marcus Aurelius still stands, a proud reminder of that distant past, on a grassy plot next to the excellent Althar Restaurant, where we dined on couscous and chicken on our first evening.

The Jamahiriya Museum of Tripoli displays a wealth of magnificent Greek and Roman statuary as well as Byzantine mosaics from different archaeological sites throughout Libya. On our visit, there was no time to visit the fourth floor of the museum, which is devoted to the Revolution of 1960 and Gadhafi’s life, but we did see the old, robin’s-egg-blue Volkswagen that once was driven by the young revolutionary and now stands guard at the entrance to the old classical museum — a reminder of modern Libya’s reality.

Sabratha
It was 105°F when we arrived at Sabratha, the ruins of an ancient Roman city west of Tripoli, but the air was dry, and a constant gentle breeze from the Mediterranean Sea made the heat bearable.

Sabratha was beautiful. Against a cloudless blue sky and an aquamarine sea stood slender columns, the remains of temples, baths and villas dating back to mostly Roman times, although the site was earlier inhabited by Carthaginian and Greek settlers. The remains of the huge theater, which could seat 5,000 people, included 96 massive columns that still stood three stories high as a backdrop to the stage.

Close to the sea is the impressive amphitheater, the largest in Roman Africa. Partly hewn out of the rock, the amphitheater was constructed of huge blocks of stone from a nearby quarry. The honey-colored sandstone took on a rosy tint as the sun started to slip into the sea, adding to the magic of the site.

Leptis Magna
East of Tripoli lies Leptis Magna, one of the largest and best-preserved Roman cities in the world, protected for hundreds of years by the shifting coastal sands. The sheer size of the site was overwhelming. We wandered for hours along ancient avenues flanked by lofty temples, the largest baths outside of Rome and an amphitheater that could seat 15,000 people.

After hiking for more than three hours in the merciless sun, we were looking forward to lunch in a shady spot. White-clad musicians accompanied us to a colorful tent, where we sat on pillows to be served grilled chicken and lamb, couscous, salad and fruit.

Ghadamès
Next we headed southwest toward the Jebel Nafusa, the western mountains that reach into Tunisia, on the way to Ghadamès, the jewel of the Sahara. Berbers have lived in this area since time immemorial, building their houses into the mountains to keep warm in the harsh winters and cool in the blazing summers. However, the current government has largely relocated them into less insulated but more modern housing.

In the 12th century, Berbers constructed unique fortress-granaries, one of which still stands at Qasr al Hajj. Four stories high, the circular, completely enclosed building served as a communal storage place in peaceful times and, in periods of unrest or war, as a fortified refuge. Huge bolts still secured the strong doors made of palm trunks.
Our drive south crossed an arid desert plain. It took a while for me to realize that what looked from a distance like exotic desert vegetation weaving in the breeze was, in fact, green, black and white plastic bags caught on rocks or thistles.

Garbage disposal seemed to be a problem all over Libya. Shallow gullies were filled with empty bottles, cans and plastic containers, and it was not uncommon to find unsightly heaps of trash on the roads to some of the most wonderful antiquities in North Africa.

The oases of Ghadamès used to be an important caravan stop and trading center; gold, silver, ivory and precious stones were later replaced by slaves. When the slave trade was abolished in the 19th century, the city lost its main source of income and slowly sank into oblivion.

The Old Town of Ghadamès, now a Unesco World Heritage Site, dates back about 800 years and doesn’t seem to have changed much since it was built on the remnants of older settlements. We walked down a short ramp and through a graceful arched gate, entering a warren of narrow covered lanes.

The brilliantly whitewashed 2-story houses were made of gypsum and sun-dried mud bricks, with ceilings of palm trunk. The first story of each house was partially underground, and the top floors had small doors connecting each to the neighboring houses so that the women of Ghadamès could cross the whole city without being seen by the men below.

The houses, mosques and markets are still in reasonably good shape, but in the early ’80s the inhabitants were encouraged to move out into more “civilized” (albeit rather ugly) housing blocks provided by the government. Individual families still own their houses in the old city, and some move back during the summer heat, when the thick walls are better protection from the extremes of the desert than the modern air-conditioners that, no doubt, are prone to periodic breakdowns, as we witnessed in our hotel.

A spring and two wells still bring water to the city, but the once-lush enclosed gardens are now overgrown with weeds, and date palms have been left where they fell. It is a dead city now, without a soul or life. I missed the children chasing each other around dark corners, women gossiping on roofs, and men smoking their pipes in the shade below. The only sign of life we found in the silent city was a small teahouse serving hot tea and cool sodas under old palm trees and flowering shrubs.

Pleasant impressions

In the “modern” part of Ghadamès, we found a shoemaker busy putting together the hand-embroidered red shoes that the city is famous for.

Berber jewelry, leather work and pottery were among the few tourist wares displayed in a couple of dusty shops. Browsing through them was a very different experience from shopping in other North African countries. There was very little bargaining and no harassment by anxious shopkeepers trying to hold on to customers; instead, the merchants were polite and attentive but did not pressure us.

Nowhere did beggars or little boys asking for pens or candy approach us. Nobody made a fuss over us; only in Tripoli were we approached once by an old veteran who told us how happy he was to welcome us to Libya and what great respect he had for the American people.

And nowhere did we get caught up in any large crowds. A country almost three times the size of Texas with a population of a little less than six million could feel eerily empty at times.

In the late afternoon, jeeps took us out into the desert to watch the sun set behind the great sand dunes. We labored up to the crest of one of the star dunes, but a fine haze fell over the red orb as it sank into the sea of sand and obscured the dazzling colors.

Touareg tribesmen performed traditional dances for us to the rhythmic chanting and clapping of a group of tribal women. We watched the men bake desert bread in the hot sands of the Sahara. Consisting only of flour and water intensely kneaded, rolled and patted, it tasted delicious.

Just a few of us had enough energy left late in the evening to drive out into the desert again to watch the starry night sky. There was a deep quiet in the vast empty space surrounding us. A slight wind blew up, moving the sand across the dunes like waves. The wind had become stronger by morning and soon became a full-fledged sandstorm. With time-honored gestures, men pulled the ends of their turbans or headdresses, women, their headscarves, across their faces for protection. However, we got sand in our eyes, ears and mouths.

It looked like our chartered plane would not be able to come down from Tripoli to pick us up, but by 1 o’clock in the afternoon our two Russian pilots decided that they could land their ancient aircraft on the desert airstrip north of the city.

In less than an hour, we disembarked at what used to be the American-run Wheelus Air Force Base in Tripoli. There was just enough time to have dinner before we boarded another plane for Benghazi, the capital of Cyrenaica, Libya’s easternmost province.

Benghazi
The Hotel Tibesti in Benghazi is memorable mainly because of the damp sheets and towels and the icy water dripping from the bathroom walls in spite of, or perhaps because of, a noisy air-conditioner.

At the outskirts of Benghazi lies the well-kept Commonwealth War Graves Cemetery. Neat rows of Christian, Jewish, Hindu, Sikh and Muslim gravestones are marked with names and religious symbols, some labeled as “Known to God only.” Pink oleander bushes brightened the somber atmosphere.

An hour and a half farther east lies the site of Tolmeita, the antique Ptolemais. A very early Greek settlement, it is noted for the magnificent Palace of the Columns. Parts of a small theater, the Odeon, could be filled with water for nautical games, while large underground vaults below the gymnasium were used as cisterns to store the water brought to the city via an aqueduct.

After our lunch under shady trees, there was an abundance of leftover grilled chicken that attracted a whole tribe of orange-and-white cats. A tiny little kitten that could not eat solid food yet was meowing pitifully. When no mother cat responded, I went in search of some milk. One of the men in the restaurant went off and came back with a tin of evaporated milk. The kitten drank and drank until his little belly was full and round, then he contentedly licked his paws, rolled over on his back and fell asleep.

When I offered to pay for the milk, the owner of the small restaurant said, “Oh, no, I won’t charge you for feeding the kitten. It made you happy to do it; that is enough.”

Cyrene
In the 1950s, two ancient Byzantine basilicas were discovered at Qasr Libia. Their exquisite mosaics, dating from the earliest Christian period, are now displayed in a small museum. Fifty individual panels depict birds, beasts, fish, boats, human figures and buildings. One panel shows the Pharos Lighthouse of Alexandria; on another panel I could just make out Orpheus with his lyre, while the Tigris and Euphrates rivers were clearly discernible on a third.

Next, we were off on the road to my favorite site, Apollonia, the port of Cyrene. It is named after the god Apollo, whom the early Greek settlers considered to be their ancestor.

The walk along the coast the next morning to the site was a thrilling experience. The slender columns of a basilica were etched against the deep-blue sea, and white-crested waves formed the backdrop for an ancient amphitheater.
After a picnic lunch, our bus took us east to two impressive early Christian sites. The 3-nave church at Ra’s Hilal stands at one of the most spectacular spots on the coastline. At the Byzantine basilica of Atrun, crosses have been carved into the tall Corinthian columns.

Our exploration of Cyrene started with the imposing Temple of Zeus. Built in the early fifth century B.C., this temple is larger than the god’s main sanctuary in Olympia. The Roman emperor Augustus restored the temple around the time of the birth of Christ and dedicated it to Jupiter. An earthquake in A.D. 365 reduced the sanctuary to rubble, but today many of its Doric columns are standing upright again, painstakingly reconstructed by Italian archaeologists.

From the Temple of Zeus, Cyrene slopes gently down the hill toward the now-distant Mediterranean Sea, covering an enormous site that contains four theaters, a huge gymnasium used for military exercises and athletics, several temples and great houses.

Under the umbrella of lovely old pine trees, some young men had set up stands to sell the honey that Cyrenaica has always been famous for. It was hard to choose one after tasting several different kinds, some light, some dark, some tasting of wildflowers and some of pines.

At my hotel in Cyrene, Hotel Almanara, I appreciated the little balcony off my fourth-floor room. I could sit there till late at night, looking out over the calmly breathing Mediterranean Sea to where it met the velvety dark sky.

Stylish sendoff
After returning to the Corinthia Bab Africa Hotel in Tripoli, I said good-bye to my 20 fellow travelers, our American tour guide, Susan, and Abdu, our Berber guide. While the group was headed for Jocelyn’s last lecture on modern Libya and a grand farewell dinner that evening, I had arranged to leave a day early and so, in exchange, I was handed over to a guide who was going to drive me to the airport for a flight to Germany. This new driver, Said, was like a breath of fresh air in old Tripoli. He offered to give me a private tour of his city, but first we had to stop and have tea.

The teahouse was quite a surprise, with polished dark paneling, comfortable overstuffed sofas and chairs, shiny glass cases full of exquisite pastries, the aroma of fresh-brewed coffee — the sights and smells of an elegant Viennese café in the middle of African Tripoli.

Well-dressed women with loosely tied head scarves and men in smart Western suits made up the clientele of the stylish establishment. The pastries tasted as scrumptious as they looked.

The price for my 14-day tour was $5,780 per person, including all transportation, accommodations and three meals a day (except in London). Additional costs included $100 for a visa, a $94 fuel surcharge from the airline and an $890 single supplement.

For more information, contact Distant Horizons (Long Beach, CA; 800/333-1240, www.distant-horizons.com).