A Travellerspoint blog

July 2019

Welcome to my Travel blog!

Index of Worldwidemike's entries

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Thank you for checking out my travel blog here on Travellerspoint. I've created this entry to make it easy for you to find my entries. The little sidebar of countries may be overlooked. So, here are the entries, starting with the most recent:

Bhutan, July, 2019

Philippines, June, 2019

Singapore, June, 2019

Azores, March, 2019

Monaco, June, 2018

Curacao, March, 2018

Sri Lanka, June-July, 2017

Uruguay, March, 2017

Argentina, March, 2017

Philippines, July, 2016

Laos, June 2016

Singapore, June, 2016

Bosnia-Hercegovina, March 2016

Croatia, March 2016

Italy, June 2015

Ukraine, July 2015

Nicaragua, March 2015

Vietnam, June 2014

Taiwan, June 2014

Cyprus, March 2014

Iceland, March 2013

Karabakh, July 2012

Armenia, July 2012

Georgia, June 2012

Mali, February 2009

Aruba, December 2008

Denmark, November 2008

Peru, October 2008

Slovenia, May 2008

Malta, December 2007

Egypt, October 2007

Albania, April 2007

South Africa, October 2006

Lesotho, October 2006

Swaziland, October 2006

Mexico, March 2006

Syria, September 2005

Easter Island, June 2005

Jamaica, April 2005

El Salvador, October 2004

Spain, December 2004

Andorra, March 2004

Indonesia, March 2003

Myanmar, March 2003

Bulgaria, August 2003

Lithuania, November 2002

Kong Kong, September 2002

Macau, September 2002

For travelogs from countries not listed above -- and a complete list of all countries I've visited -- go to my original Worldwidemike travel website. Note that I am slowly re-posting them to this site, for eventual shelving of the original site.

Here's the alphabetical listing of all 90 countries I have visited

  • Albania
  • Andorra
  • Argentina
  • Armenia
  • Aruba
  • Austria
  • Azores
  • Bahamas
  • Bali (Indonesia)
  • Belgium
  • Belize
  • Bermuda
  • Bosnia-Hercegovina
  • Brazil
  • Bulgaria
  • Cambodia
  • Canada
  • Cayman Islands
  • Costa Rica
  • Croatia
  • Curacao
  • Cyprus
  • Czech Republick
  • Denmark
  • Dominican Republic
  • Easter Island
  • Egypt
  • El Salvador
  • England
  • Estonia
  • Finland
  • France
  • Georgia
  • Germany
  • Greece
  • Grenada
  • Guatemala
  • Honduras
  • Hong Kong
  • Hungary
  • Iceland
  • Ireland
  • Israel
  • Italy
  • Jamaica
  • Jordan
  • Karabakh
  • Laos
  • Lesotho
  • Lithuania
  • Luxembourg
  • Macau
  • Malaysia
  • Mali
  • Malta
  • Mexico
  • Monaco
  • Myanmar
  • Netherlands
  • Nicaragua
  • Oman
  • Panama
  • Peru
  • Philippines
  • Poland
  • Portugal
  • Russia
  • St. Lucia
  • San Marino
  • Scotland
  • Singapore
  • Slovenia
  • South Africa
  • South Korea
  • Spain
  • Sri Lanka
  • Swaziland
  • Sweden
  • Switzerland
  • Syria
  • Taiwan
  • Thailand
  • Turkey
  • United Arab Emirates
  • United States
  • Uruguay
  • Vatican City
  • Vietnam
  • Wales

Posted by world_wide_mike 08:06 Comments (0)

Mayan Pyramids of Belize Soothe My Travel Itch

Sticky heat and bumpy roads can't detract from an enjoyable trip

sunny 85 °F

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Xunantunich, Belize

It had been six months since my last international trip, and I had the itch. My planned Lithuanian vacation was still four long months away, so I signed into the computer system at work and hunted for a quick trip. Something to salve the bite of my travel bug.

The jungles of Belize beckoned, with their half-hidden Mayan temples and pyramids. Continental's flights from Houston to Belize City were open, so I read the guidebooks and searched the internet. I discovered the Aguada Hotel in Santa Elena, within easy distance of the acclaimed Mayan ruins of Caracol and Xunantunich. By e-mail I confirmed a shuttle from the hotel to pick me up at the airport on Friday afternoon, dropping me back off Monday, giving me the weekend to explore that corner of Belize.

On the hour and a half ride to the hotel, I met fellow guests Jill and Susan from Eastern Pennsylvania. The three of us peppered English-born Lenny Wragg, our driver and tour arranger, with questions about Belize, its sights, people, plants and animals. Lenny was just the first of the friendly Aguada staff to charm us.

Belize's heat and humidity were intense, overwhelming the van's air conditioning and necessitating an immediate shower once I checked into my room. For dinner, Jill, Susan and I took a taxi to next door San Ignacio, the district capital and informal traveler (not tourist) oriented town. We ended up at the popular Eva's Restaurant for burritos at an outdoor table, watching the residents, travelers and numerous archeology students pass by.

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Bridge connecting San Ignacio to Santa Elena

Say archeologist to me, and I picture a bespectacled and bearded man in his 40s and 50s. The ones I met in Belize were all college age and seemed to hunger for fun as much as historical discovery. We met more archeologists the next day on our guided trip to Caracol, Belize's largest Mayan site. The unpaved road to Caracol is brutal and bumpy, passing through a national park and pine and rain forest. It is a tribute to the skill and knowledge of our guide/driver, Everald Tut, that he can make the trip year round in a van, rather than the recommended four wheel drive vehicle.

Caracol was something new to me -- a living, breathing archeological dig. Although open to visitors, it is foremost a work site with tarps, wheelbarrows and mounds of freshly dug dirt scattered throughout. Although less picturesque than its pristine historical rival, Tikal (in Guatemala), it imparts a sense of ongoing discovery that is a flavor all its own. Everald had worked at Caracol and knew the archeologists and their local helpers. He pulled off the bright blue tarps to show us carved stellae or get a better look at lower levels of temples. He led us down into a tomb, nonchalantly disturbing its occupants (no, not mummies, just two skittish bats). Particularly exciting were two huge, recently excavated stone masks. With a chuckle, I moved aside the plaster spray bottle the archeologists had left behind, so I could photograph the mask without the bottle sticking out of its nose.

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Half-excavated pyramid at Caracol

The climax was undoubtedly the soaring, pyramidical Sky Temple. It was a long, hot climb to the top, but Jill, Susan and I had it all to ourselves. The 360-degree view of jungle and hills stretching for miles around was spectacular. The 1000-plus year old temple is still the tallest building in Belize.

On the way back, Everald led us through Rio Frio cave. A clear, green stream threads its way through stalagmites and stalactites dripping from the ceiling or oozing up from the knobby, rocky cave floor. Jill is a cave buff and was thrilled -- even a hole teeming with a swarm of bats didn't dampen her enthusiasm. Next, it was Rio On Pools, where the mountain stream forms a mini waterfall and widens out into rock rimmed swimming holes. Susan opted for the gentle pools, while Jill and I struggled across the uneven, algae-slick stones towards the waterfall. Both of us slipped more than once and crashed against unseen rocks. We made it, though, and stood up in the torrent which pummeled our shoulders and back like a cluster of nieces and nephews trying to gang tackle us. It was a perfect end to a humid, sweaty day of jungle exploration.

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Relief carvings on pyramid at Xunantunich

The next morning, the ladies went canoeing and caving while I was off to the ruins of Xunantunich. A hand cranked cable pulls a tiny ferry, big enough for one vehicle and perhaps a score of people, across the lethargic Mopan river. Once across, I hitched a ride with the tourist police in their pickup truck the final two kilometers to the hilltop site. For the first half hour or so, I had Xunantunich all to myself. Although I had enjoyed Caracol with Everald, Jill and Susan, there is something about wandering alone at a historical site that thrills me. My mind and spirit soars as I pace slowly about, imagining the place at its glory and soaking up the grandeur.

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View from atop main pyramid, Xunantunich

In Xunantunich, there is plenty to soak up, too. There are two main, grassy plazas, divided by a low, four-sided stone pyramid. The nearer plaza was bordered on its rear edge by a steep rise, which was topped by the ruins of a palace for Xunantunich's rulers. Their view must have been royal, with the valley stretched out beneath. They would have seen jungle, cultivated fields and smaller settlements in one direction, and the city in the other. At the far end of the city was the Castillo -- its tallest temple. My eyes were drawn to it, rising up into the clear blue sky. Shortly thereafter, I stood on its summit and admired an even grander view. Unlike Caracol, Xunantunich is fairly well excavated and laid out for visitors with cropped lawns and steps to its major buildings. I saw the nearby village of San Jose Succotz, the border town of Benque and beyond, the hills of Guatemala.

I explored the ruined city thoroughly, striking out on its jungle paths to isolated clusters of buildings and grassy mounds, beneath which lurk unexcavated temple pyramids. It was a small city, perhaps a mere pawn in the ongoing struggle for dominance between Caracol and its rival Tikal. However, standing atop the Castillo, you got a sense of the greatness of the Maya's accomplishments. To build a city -- no, a civilization -- in the clasping heat and inhospitable jungle, surely ranks with history's most amazing efforts. Despite being thoroughly exhausted from hours of climbing and walking under the hot sun, I was also thoroughly elated.

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Kids playing, washing in Mopan river

I did some more exploring, visiting a Mayan art cooperative in the nearby village (where I bought a painted, three legged pot), took some photos of the river and also of San Ignacio (including its Brooklyn Bridge look alike that connects it to Santa Elena), cooled off with a beer in a shady bar, then finally headed back to the hotel. Through the waves of humidity, I could feel the Aguada's pool calling me. I spent the rest of the afternoon and early evening relaxing. I had a nice chat with Bill Butcher, the Delaware native who owns and runs the hotel with his Belizean wife Cathie. You can tell Bill cares deeply for Belize, and takes the smooth running of the local tourist industry seriously. He can imagine little worse than a visitor having a bad experience, so works tirelessly and selflessly towards everyone's enjoyment.

The staff of the Aguada and the Mayan ruins combined to concoct the perfect ointment to soothe the itch of my travel bug. And, as much as pyramids, rewarding travel is about people. Jill and Susan's companionship enriched my trip to Belize. I hope their memories of their trip are just as fond as mine. Now, I think I can j-u-s-t make it those four months until Lithuania rolls around...

Posted by world_wide_mike 13:54 Archived in Belize Comments (0)

Humidity, Heat & Crowds Don't Detract from Thailand's Temple

Seeing Buddhist temples by boat, tuk=tuk, and train is the way to go!

sunny 90 °F

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Gate Guardian at Wat Arun

As soon as I won the EVA Airways passes at the Christmas party, I knew where I was going: Thailand. I'd almost gone two years back when the Asian economic crisis first hit, and bargains on package tours were incredible. I'd held off, but had been eyeing the chance to go since then.

Both my mother and Sharon were nervous about my going, with the threat of terrorism and the war in Afghanistan. I'd long ago given up worrying about being the victim of either a plane crash or an act of terror. The chances are overwhelmingly greater to die in a traffic accident, yet you don't see people giving up driving to work, do you? I'd be lying if I said I never get nervous. I research my destinations fairly thoroughly. I simply feel that you can't wall yourself off from the rest of the world. All you're doing is shutting yourself off from experiencing Life.

One thing I was NOT eager to experience, though, was the 14-hour flight from Los Angeles to Taipei. Plus, you have to add in five hours on each end of that flight to get from Columbus to L.A., and Taipei to Bangkok. To compound the misery of more than a day in the air, I was stuck in a middle seat on the L.A.-Taipei flight -- ugh! My neighbors were also determined to win the war of the arm rests, too. Somehow, I managed to sleep some, so I wasn't too exhausted when I reached Bangkok. At least that is what I thought!

I'd booked my hotel on the internet through HotelThailand.com, and received a free airport transfer, which was waiting for me when I arrived. The Holiday Inn Crowne Plaza was a definite step up from where I normally stay. I'd won some money in Vegas the month before, though, and decided to treat myself to an upgrade. After a quick shower, I navigated Bangkok's busy, noisy streets to the much quieter riverside and found the Chao Phraya River Express. The express is basically a water bus, much like a Venetian vaporetto. It is an excellent, relatively peaceful way to navigate Bangkok, stopping near many of the city's main sights. And at eight baht per ride (less than 20 cents), it is a bargain.

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Wat Pho, Bangkok

I headed upriver to Wat Pho, one of Bangkok's largest and most elaborate temples. It was stunning. The colors on the statues, temples and towers were vibrant. Shining in the afternoon sun, the temple roofs gleamed gold against the clear blue sky. Elaborate, stone warriors stood guard over even more elaborate, gilded gates. Row upon row of bronze Buddhas meditated solemnly, draped in the orange cloth of a monk's robe. I was disappointed, at first, to see scaffolding surrounding the giant, 151 feet long Reclining Buddha. However, a good vantage point could be gained at the head and feet, allowing you to appreciate the statue's size.

As it was 5 pm, I decided to head back to the hotel, since most of the temples were closing. I laid down on the bed "just for a few minutes" before I went out for dinner, I told myself. The next thing I knew was waking up at 10:30 pm. I shook my head and decided to give up, and went to bed.

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Wat Arun, Temple of the Dawn, Bangkok

I got an early start, though, the next morning, heading off (appropriately enough) to Wat Arun, the Temple of the Dawn. Its soaring, riverside towers are encrusted in various hues of pastel-colored porcelain designs, flowers, figures, etc. Whereas Wat Pho's bright colors had been like the clash of cymbals, Wat Arun's muted tones were like the playing of a flute. I climbed the tall central tower, looking across the busy river traffic to yesterday's Wat Pho and my next stop, the walled complex of the Grand Palace and gilded Wat Phra Kaew. Descending, I peeked in at a nearby Chinese temple, admiring its giant, colorful guardian statues.

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Wat Phra Kaew, Bangkok

One thing I'd enjoyed so far about both temples were the lack of crowds -- there were more thronging the streets than inside. That ended abruptly at the palace and Wat Phra Kaew. It felt like my trip had died and gone to Tour Group Hell, as throngs of school children and guided tours elbowed me aside or swarmed across the sights. Wat Phra Kaew was incredible, from its gold plated chedi (shaped like a giant tea bell) to its ornate temple buildings and gilt-encrusted Temple of the Emerald Buddha. The palace buildings were equally gorgeous, although much more spread out than the claustrophobic Wat Phra Kaew. After the jostling at the temple, I enjoyed the breathing room. However, the sun beat down mercilessly and the humidity began to soar. I needed a break and took the river express back to the hotel for lunch and to recoup my strength.

After that, I took a hotel taxi (Note: Do NOT take the hotel's own taxis. Insist on an ordinary metered one, as the hotel taxis are three to four times as expensive!) to the Golden Mount, a Buddhist temple on a hill with a great view of Bangkok. It was closed, though, till late afternoon. I was told many of the smaller temples would be closed as well, since it was a Buddhist holiday. A couple friendly Thais suggested I hire out a tuk-tuk for the afternoon to see some of the more scattered temples around Bangkok. The price on Bangkok's signature, 3-wheeled taxi (looking like a cross between a golf cart and a motorbike) was unbeatable, so I agreed. Later, I found out why the price was so good.

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Wat Benchamabophit, Bangkok

The tuk-tuk took me on a several hour tour of a half a dozen temples. Sandwiched in between was a stop at "Government Export Store." As it turned out, the driver got a coupon for free gas from the store for every tourist delivered. I laughed and played along. It was fine, as long as it made my costs cheaper. However, I got a little annoyed at the second unannounced stop, a Tailor Shop. I did not come all the way to Thailand to buy a suit. My driver gleefully pocketed his second coupon and delivered me back to the Golden Mount, which was now open again. Then, he abandoned me -- without ever getting paid! I had to hire another tuk-tuk to get to my final temple, fighting off any attempts to be taken to any more stores.

After returning to the hotel and showering (it seems you need one within an hour of leaving it, with the humidity!), I walked down Silom Road to a highly recommended pub, O'Reilley's, for dinner. I swung through the market area on the way back, checking out the souvenirs. I chuckled at the bars and hostess girls trying to coax the male tourists inside, but my humor died when I saw the Osama bin Laden T-Shirts in the stalls. None of the vendors would catch my eye, so I couldn't tell them how it brought my blood to a boil. Maybe they were as ashamed of selling them as they should be.

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Wat Yai Chaya Mongkol, Ayuthaya

The next morning, I took a train a couple hours north to Ayuthaya -- the capital of Thailand during the Middle Ages. I negotiated with another tuk-tuk driver to take me around for the day. The ruins of the various temples and royal buildings scattered about the river and canal crossed town were tremendous. Massive, tea bell shaped chedis loomed here and there, along with soaring, Khmer-style prangs and towers. Giant gilt or bronze Buddhas sat serenely by the waterside. The effect was very otherworldly, as the strangely shaped architecture cast shadows under the glorious, afternoon sky.

I visited temple ruin after temple ruin, reveling in the feel of history all around me. Now, I know this type of day is not for everyone, and most would have been happy after seeing just a few, but there was something very compelling about the ruins of Ayuthaya. They were so different than the ruins I'd visited in Europe or the Middle East, but lit the same spark inside me. I paced slowly about Ayuthaya, drinking it all in. Once again, I breathed a prayer of thanks for the opportunity I'd been given to visit the places of the world where history was made, where kings strove with their enemies, and people came to worship by the waterside. Even the long, slow train ride back to Bangkok did not dim my spirit.

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Wat Phra at Si Sanphet, Ayuthaya

I was so inspired I even tried a Thai restaurant that night! My sense of adventure does not extend to eating -- I normally do not have a burning desire to sample local cuisine. Tonight's meal was excellent, though. I came back two nights later to sample another Thai dish, after returning from my two-day trip to Cambodia.

The day in Ayuthaya, though, was a fitting finish to my sightseeing in Thailand, as well as an appropriate prelude to Angkor Wat in Cambodia. Thailand had been everything I'd hoped for. Its gleaming temples, friendly people and sublime historic sights were well worth the two year wait.

Posted by world_wide_mike 14:41 Archived in Thailand Comments (0)

World-class Ruins Reward Explorers Who Journeys to Cambodia

Equal to the amazing sights are the heart-warming friendliness of the Cambodians

sunny 89 °F

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View of Angkor Wat across moat

Ever since reading a fantasy epoch in the 1970s, whose opening scenes were set amid lost temples in the Southeast Asian jungle, I have dreamed of going to Cambodia. And when I discovered that Angkor Wat was real, and that you could explore this long-hidden city, the desire grew stronger. But the reality of war, civil strife and that country's desperate political situation kept me away.

Until now. Peace arrived in Cambodia three years ago, and I had been watching to see if it held, and the dream could come true. When I made plans to visit Thailand, I nourished the dream in secret. As my itinerary took shape I decided to go for it and booked a two day tour of Angkor Wat to fit at the end of my week's vacation.

The ruins of Angkor Wat did not disappoint -- they are extensive and marvelous. Ranging from immaculate, rebuilt temples that seemed to lack only a coat of paint and interior furnishings, to half-hidden ones tucked away in the jungle, their stone blocks being tumbled and squeezed by massive tree roots, Angkor's ruins were greater than my go-go-go two days could devour.

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Carvings of heavenly nymphs on temple walls

However, the biggest surprise was the Cambodian people. Amongst the forty plus countries I've visited, it would be hard to find a more uniformly friendly people who were truly happy to meet travelers. It seemed every man, woman and child whose eyes I met immediately broke into a wide smile. They were polite and inquisitive, asking where I was from. Many expressed sympathy for us after the September 11th tragedy. And this was from a people whose country had received little but misfortune at the hands of the United States.

Guides are mandatory in Angkor, and mine, Phay Sophy -- a history teacher at the local high school -- was the first friendly face that greeted me upon arrival. Sophy and the driver whisked me in our air conditioned car to the Salina Hotel in Siem Reap to check in. I quickly ditched my bag in the room and was soon bouncing along the town's dusty streets towards Angkor Wat, 15 minutes or so away.

I had looked forward to visiting Angkor for so long that I wondered if it would be a let down (especially after Thailand's incredible ruins at Ayuthaya, the day before). For the first couple of hours, I thought it might be the case. But slowly, Angkor's extent and majesty began to sink in. As I ran my hands along countless carvings of kings and dancers, admired the statues of guardian gods and demons, or stared up at the soaring, strangely-shaped towers, my wonder grew. Every great place has a "Wow!" factor: Some kick in right away, like the Colosseum or Petra. Angkor's came on slowly, after exploring temple after temple. It seemed every inch was decorated with nearly thousand year old inscriptions, bas reliefs and statues. According to my guidebook, Angkor is the largest religious monument in the world. Imagine every temple in Ancient Greece gathered into one area -- some hidden among the trees, others on hills or in the middle of artificial lakes -- and you get an idea of the impact.

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Bayon Temple

Sophy taught me to distinguish Hindu and Buddhist temples, to recognized some of the gods carved into Angkor's rock faces, and occasionally pointed out the best angles for pictures. Besides the main complex of Angkor Wat (whose temple gives the entire area its name), two of my other favorites were the Bayon and Ta Prom temples. Bayon was the very first we visited. The enigmatic, half-smiling face of Avalokiteshvara gazes down at you at every turn. The 54 towers have his face sculpted into them, each with four heads, looking east, west, north and south. The effect is haunting, as if the 200 plus images of Avalokiteshvara were watching you, making sure his moat-encircled temple is not violated.

Ta Prom is at the other extreme, hidden in the jungle amidst the screech of parrots and buzzsaw whir of cicadas. Centuries of jungle have overtaken the temple, dislodging stones and caving in walls with its mighty roots. Those who saw the recent movie "Tomb Raider" caught a glimpse of this eerie ruin. Without Sophy's guiding, it would have been easy to get lost in the dark, turning passageways and dead end courtyards. Although some scholars have criticized the authority's decision to leave Ta Prom in its jungle state, it is an atmospheric experience for travelers. You get a chance to step into the shoes of the early French discoverers of Angkor.

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Jungle-choked Khmer ruins of Ta Prom

The main temple of Angkor is a highlight we saved for the afternoon. Its five conical towers look for all the world like old-fashioned juice squeezers. A great, 200 yard wide moat encircles the walled temple like a medieval fortress. A wide causeway creates a processional entrance which lets visitors slowly absorb the temple's size. Detailed carvings decorate the wall of a galley that runs the length of and width of the building, telling stories from Angkor's history and myths. Soldiers, heroes, chariots, elephants, demons and gods battle on the intricately detailed walls. Sophy pointed out the Khmer (Cambodian) soldiers with their elongated ear lobes symbolizing a long life ahead, their sometimes enemy, sometimes ally Thais with their trident-like spears, and the enemy Cham with their elaborate headdresses.

He pointed out the Hindu pantheon, each god riding his particular mount. Especially prominent was the king's patron Vishnu, atop the mythical bird Garuda. Being a Hindu temple, Angkor Wat is laid out on successive levels, forcing visitors to climb as they move towards the interior. From the towers, you could look out on the maze of the temple complex stretching beneath you, the encircling moat (now used as a swimming pool by the local children), and the jungle all around. Angkor Wat ranks up there with the greatest of historical sights. Visitors who make the journey are rewarded with one of the world's Ancient, man made wonders.

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Battle scenes along temple wall

The nearby town of Siem Reap is being remade, as well. Construction seems to be taking place everywhere as the locals bank on word of Angkor Wat's wonders and Cambodia's peace gets out. Some automobiles zip along the rutted roads, but most Cambodians kick up dust aboard bicycles and motorbikes. And it is not just one to a bike, either. I saw families of four wedged onto a motor-scooter. Nearly every vehicle has at least one passenger clinging to the back or squeezed between the handlebars. Motorbikes are the preferred taxi, too, with some travelers hiring a young man for the day to bounce them along the roads from temple to temple, while they balance on back. There are even some motorized rickshaws like Thailand's famous "tuk-tuks."

In the evening, I joined the stream of footsore travelers headed to Siem Reap's numerous restaurants. A couple Cambodian boys plopped down next to me at my table at the Angkor Borey restaurant to chat. We discussed life in Cambodia, the United States, and the boy's hopes for the future. They read the postcards I was writing, eager to practice their English. Occasionally having to be a busboy or waiter called them away for a moment, but they always returned.

The Cambodians are a friendly, outgoing people, whom I sensed suffered during their country's isolation from the world. No visitors, no new friends to make. With peace's return, Angkor was again opening the door to the world for them. Those ruins are a mighty, world class sight. The people are of equal stature, their smiles and greetings as genuine as the temples.

Posted by world_wide_mike 15:00 Archived in Cambodia Comments (0)

Sun Hiding in Rio, but Views Still Spectacular

Post 9-11 trip to Brazil gives peek inside heartbeat of Rio

overcast 79 °F

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View of Rio de Janeiro from atop Sugarloaf in the bay

If you had told me I'd have only three hours of sunshine in my three days in Rio de Janeiro, I'd have wished for them atop the mountain with the statue of Christ overlooking the city. Alas, it was clouds on Corcovado. My next choice would have been at Pao d'Acucar, or Sugarloaf, the steep hill with scenic viewpoint rising out of Rio's harbor. But no, the skies were not sweet above Sugarloaf.

However, when my three hours of southern hemisphere sunshine did finally arrive, I had to admit, it came at the best possible time.

Thanks to a business class upgrade from Continental on my nine hour flight to Brazil, I was refreshed and ready for Rio when my plane landed. I'd made my hotel and airport transfer arrangements online with Cybercity.com, and Cristina Cotrin was waiting and quickly whisked me to the Oceano Copacabana Hotel.

The weather was cool and the skies gray when I ventured outside a short time later to begin my exploration. I zipped from Copacabana to Central Rio on the metro and found the Nova Cathedral. This odd, conical building looks like a cross between a Mayan pyramid and a massive concrete teepee. Inside, it was spacious and airy, though, with four gorgeous stained glass panels stretching nearly from ceiling to floor.

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St. Teresa barrio, Rio de Janeiro

I then hopped aboard one of Rio's antique trams, which rattled and bounced me high into the hills overlooking the city. I stepped off in the none-too-wealthy barrio of Saint Teresa, with its almost Mediterranean-looking houses. Clinging to the rich, green hillsides, many of the homes are built on stilts. Most have million dollar views of the bays and buildings of Rio laid out beneath them. My guidebook had warned me repeatedly of Rio's crime rate and the need to be careful where you wander. However, I never felt threatened or worried, even though those I was around were definitely closer to poverty than wealth.

That night for dinner I took one of Cristina's recommendations and ate at a grill where you are charged by the weight of the food you heap on your plate. I selected grilled steak, chicken, potatoes, salad and bread from the cafeteria style layout. The steak was a tad gristly, but everything else was great. Oddly, I was reminded of Las Vegas' buffets. The price was cheaper, though, coming out to less than $5 (including my beer).

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Igreja de Nossa Senhora da Candelariea

The next morning I awoke to more gray skies. Since I was saving Corcovado for sunshine, I took the metro downtown again to sightsee. The church Igreja de Nossa Senhora da Gloria de Outeiro, on its hill overlooking the harbor, was my first stop. Next would be the grand, domed Igreja de Nossa Senhora da Candelariea. The most interesting of the churches was the Mosteiro de Sao Bento. When I arrived, a huge crowd was exiting (likely there for the Gregorian chant service). I slipped past it into the dimly lit interior. The interior was lovely. Carved wood decorated every inch of the walls and pillars, coated with gold paint that gleamed with a warm dusky glow. I listened to one of the monks explain various aspects of the church as I wandered the dark, rich interior.

When I stepped outside, it looked like my prayers were being answered, as the clouds overhead seemed to be breaking up. I took the metro back to Copacabana, then a cab up to Corcovado. The patches of blue were gone by the time I got there, though, and the mountain was shrouded in clouds. The city below, and at times even the statue of Christ, were hidden in a thick, cottony fog. I settled in to wait. Eventually, the fog began to lighten. Suddenly, it was like looking out a window through gauzy sheers -- I could see the shape of Sugarloaf and the faint line of the bay. Then, as if the flimsy curtains were yanked aside, Rio de Janeiro was laid out beneath me in all its glory.

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View of Rio from Corcovado

I'm sure on a stunning, clear blue day, the view is more striking. However, the panorama from atop Corcovado was spectacular even when painted in shades of gray rather than blue. Down in the bay, Sugarloaf's hump rose dramatically, dwarfing the high rise office buildings and apartment towers. The shoreline snaked backwards and forwards, exposing the gleam of the cream-colored beaches Flamengo, Copacabana, Ipanema, and others. I stood there for more than hour as the view came and went with the clouds rushing up the slopes of the hill. I decided to take the long way home, though, riding the cogwheel train down the hill and a local bus back to Copacabana.

Later that night, there was an art show and flea market along beachfront Atlantic Avenue. I browsed for quite some time, picking up a set of agate drink coasters for myself, and a gift for Sharon, as well. I was tempted by some of the art, but held off, as I have more souvenirs and enlargements of photos from my trips than I do wall space.

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Cable car to Sugarloaf, Rio

My final morning in Rio dawned -- you guessed it -- gray and cloudy. I was first in line for the cable car to Sugarloaf when it opened at 8 am. I expected Sugarloaf's less lofty height meant it would be less stunning than Corcovado, despite the fact my guidebook said everyone should visit Sugarloaf. Lonely Planet was right, I was wrong. The view from atop Sugarloaf is amazing. You get a much better feel for the mountainous terrain that Rio is built around from up there. It's easy to see the peaks jutting up around and in the middle of the city, dividing Central Rio from Copacabana, or northern Rio from downtown. Over all, the Christ statue juts skyward, seeming to top the cityscape off perfectly, like a flag atop a pole or an angel perched on a Christmas tree.

I was deeply moved by the panorama of nature and city. Rio has been lauded as having the most spectacular natural setting for a city. Atop Pao d'Acucar, I came to agree with the judgment and spent long moments gazing out at the mixture of sea, mountains and city that seemed to go on forever. The early morning gray seemed to give it a primal quality -- like it had just been created out of volcanic fire or a wizard's smoke. A deep sigh of thanks rose from me as I knew I'd been given another gift; another opportunity to see a special place of beauty in the world.

So, when did the sun finally arrive? Well, Sunday in Rio means that one side of Atlantic Avenue alongside Copacabana Beach is closed to traffic and instead overwhelmed by walkers, joggers, bicyclists, skaters and dogs. I jogged the length of the beach and more, and it was at that moment, the sun began to peek out. The heat rose steadily and I was given my first glimpse of the beach culture that citizens of Rio seem to embrace fervently. After showering and packing, I returned and staked out a seat to watch the parade of beachgoers pass by. I spent my last three hours in Rio bathed in sunshine, reading a book and sipping cold beers.

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Copacabana Beach, Rio de Janeiro

Had the sun not come out, I would have missed this vital glimpse of Copacabana and Rio de Janeiro. And despite the clouds, I'd still enjoyed the views of Corcovado and Sugarloaf. So, sometimes it's better to let nature make the choices, especially in stunning Rio de Janeiro.

Posted by world_wide_mike 13:35 Archived in Brazil Comments (0)

Provence Outshines Paris for Scenery & History

South of France packed with sights and beauty

77 °F

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Arc du Triomphe

I'd read in one of my travel magazines that Paris is the most visited city in the world. And I knew that in recent years Provence was becoming increasingly popular as a vacation spot, with foreigners snatching up villas and farmhouses all across the country. So, when Sharon's Dad generously offered to take me along on the family vacation to France, I jumped at the chance. The plan was to spend three days in Paris, then a week in Provence.

So, was Paris up to its billing as the number one tourist city in the world? If you're an aficionado of art museums, perhaps yes. If you are like me and more into sights and scenery, then definitely not. I think it was when we had climbed to the top of Sacre Coeur -- a church on a bluff overlooking Paris -- that it first struck me. With the cityscape spread out beneath me, I decided Paris is not a pretty city. The line of the Seine River is hard to trace and the buildings appear haphazardly arranged. They do not follow the curve of a bay, are not molded by hills, nor do they cluster around a centrally-located Old Town. Even the next day from the Eiffel Tower -- the giant metal asparagus as the Parisians once called it -- I did not feel any awe looking out over Paris. Aesthetically, Paris is blasé.

This is not to say there were not parts I enjoyed, though. My favorite area was around the Ille de France -- the island in the middle of the Seine River. It is connected to the banks by graceful bridges and bristles with historic buildings like the Notre Dame Cathedral. The Louvre Museum was interesting, as well, although I felt I should have prepared myself fro the visit better. It is not set up for idle browsing as well as, say, the Vatican Museums in Rome.

Which brings me to another point: Paris is the number one Tourist City, right? People from all over the world have been coming here for years. And the Louvre is the signature museum in Paris, right? They why are the placards and descriptions of the various artworks not written in any other language? No German, no Spanish, no Japanese, and of course, no English. Now, don't get me wrong -- I'm not one of those travelers who feels everyone should speak English all across the world. I spent $150 on an eight week French course at Ohio State to prepare myself for the trip. The Louvre seems willing to take tourists' money, but don't appear to care to make their visit more informative.

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Hilltop village of Gordes

Well, enough of raining on Paris' parade (which id did on me for two of the three days)! On to the good stuff -- Provence! Simply put: Provence is spectacular. It has charming countryside, gorgeous panoramas and castles and history as thick upon the land as its numerous vineyards. Toss in an idyllic pace to life and you begin to learn why it is growing more and more as a popular destination.

Our first morning in Provence began with a drive to the Sunday market in L'Isle-sur-la-Sorgue. The streets of this canal and river-crossed little town were jammed with tables holding everything from food to clothing to antiques to miscellaneous household items. The colors of the tablecloths, shawls and clothes were bright with rich yellows, blues and greens. After a couple hours shopping and a cafe lunch, we checked out nearby Fountaine de Vaucluse -- a startlingly clear green pool in the hills from which springs a series of waterfalls and rapids that are the source of the Vaucluse River. Finally, we wound our way along hilly roads to the Abbey de Senanque, which is picturesquely set amid fields of lavender. This was the high point of the day for me. The circular gray stone towers, with their quiet church and halls, made for a perfect centerpiece to the lush valley.

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Abbey Sennanque in fields of lavender

The next day we drove north to Roussillon -- one of Provence's many hilltop villages. To me, these dramatically sited clusters of terra cotta roofs, church steeples and golden stone buildings are the true essence of Provence. Most have a castle or chateau looming high above and are often surrounded by medieval walls and towers. As we drove through Provence, we'd catch sight of them shining across the valley in the perfect sunlight we were blessed with daily. One of the best panoramas was the village of Gordes, whose houses seemed stacked on top of one another competing to be the highest. Roussillon is famous for the red ocher rock which colors many of its buildings. From there, we returned to our home base of Cadenet, stopping in neighboring Lourmarin and touring its chateau.

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Seaport village of Cassis

Our third day began with a quick stop in Aix-en-Provence (which was also holding a market day), then southwards to the Mediterranean and the town of Cassis. Originally a charming fishing port, Cassis has grown and sports many condos and vacations homes snuggled together, all craning for a glimpse of gorgeous Mediterranean blue. This was Sharon's favorite stop. We all felt that Provence was gorgeous, and that by adding water it became Heaven. Our boat trip along the coast, nosing into the fjord-like, rocky calanques was stunning. The water was a turquoise rivaling anything the Caribbean offers. People of every nationality soaked up the sun on the white rocks, beaches and sailing boats, exposing as much skin as fit their whim. Sharon resisted the temptation to cover the eyes of her 12-year-old son, Alex.

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Village of Cadenet

We decreed Wednesday a day of rest for all of us, but especially her father, Gerry, who had the difficult task of driving our large van among the narrow streets and sinuous roads of southern France. We all split up and explored our village of Cadenet. Sharon, Alex and I climbed to the top of the hill and crawled among the ruins of the 11th century castle atop it. The ruins were fairly extensive, with remnants of towers and walls sprawling across the wooded top of the hill. The view was idyllic and pastoral, with the orange of Cadenet's terra cotta roofs stretching out to meet the green of the farmer's fields. We took our time strolling back into the village, stopping at the church, cemetery and museum covering the local craft of basket weaving. We finished off the afternoon with a dip in the villa's pretty pool, and lingered in the sun on the patio.

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Pope's Palace, Avignon

On Thursday we drove to historic Avignon, home to the Popes for much of the 14th century. Their massive palace -- part cathedral and part castle -- dominates the medieval, walled town. We toured its inside, then wound our way through the streets to Pont St. Benezet, Avignon's trademark "Half Bridge." The medieval era bridge over the Rhone extends only halfway across the river, now, part of it washing away centuries ago. After lunch, we crossed the river to massive Fort St. Andre. It was built by the French to guard their border with Papal lands, and its towers give excellent views of Avignon. After the crowds at the Pope's Palace, the deserted fortress with its monastery inside was peaceful. I enjoyed climbing the spiraling steps and imagining the castle during its medieval heyday.

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Carved door, St. Trophesime

I took a side trip to Arles on Friday, while Sharon and her family visited a couple nearby villages. Arles is a Roman town, whose showpiece is its massive Arena, or Coliseum. Today's inhabitants of Arles have erected metal bleachers inside the Ancient stone ring and hold bullfights in the Arena. I was of mixed opinion as I paced around its circle. I think it is great that something the Roman built is still being used today, but I felt the modern bleachers marred the Ancient atmosphere. However, I cannot fault them for putting townsfolk ahead of tourists. Also still in use are the Ancient Theater, with its columns and towers. Around the corner, the Cathedral of St. Trophesime was gorgeous, and I took my time pacing its interior and adjoining Cloister. Its doorway entrance is richly-carved with figures of angels, saints and sinners. Arles is packed with sights, though, and I had to hustle to take in the late Roman era baths and cemetery.

As a matter of fact, all Provence is packed with things to see and do. I felt we barely scratched the surface. It would be easy to spend "A Year in Provence," as Peter Mayle's books enjoins, and still not see everything. I was extremely grateful to Sharon's Dad for bringing me along -- his generosity was equal to Provence's bounty of beautiful sights. So, although Paris is not "Number One" on my list, Provence is certainly near the top.

Posted by world_wide_mike 06:24 Archived in France Comments (0)

Mayan City of Tikal Captivates Hearts of Visitors

Short trip to Guatemala is a "Lost World" type thrill

sunny 82 °F

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Convent of the Capuchin Nuns

Reading of Mayan pyramids deep in the jungle lured me south to Guatemala. I had pressed on even after my two companions lost heart, backing out the week of our departure. And as I stood overlooking the Great Plaza in Tikal, with its twin pyramids facing each other across a green expanse of grass and jungle foliage, I knew it was journey I'd remember.

The trip began on a February Sunday when I left Columbus' cold air and flew Continental Airlines to Houston, then further south to Guatemala City. As our plane banked for landing, shuddering in the 45 mph winds, I chuckled to think how Julio, one of my erstwhile companions. would have reacted. With his fear of flying, he might have had a heart attack on the spot! I rank Guatemala City, set amidst the mountains, as one of my "white knuckle" landings.

I was met at the airport by Carla Molina, the travel agent from Ecotourismo, who'd arranged some things for me. She kindly saw me on my way to my hotel, Posada Belen, which her material described as in "The Heart of Guatemala City's Historic Center." To that I say a big, "Yeah, right!" Oh, don't get my wrong -- the hotel was nice (an old, family-run hotel with bright, if slightly worn, furnishings). Its location was awful, though. Picture any inner city blight across the world with boarded up buildings and bars on all the windows and you have Posada Belen's neighborhood. No conveniences were nearby -- no restaurants, shops or sights of interest.

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Our Lady of Mercy Church

As it was early afternoon, I decided to escape Guate (as the locals call it) and head to nearby Antigua -- a colorful, cobble-stoned, colonial town. I navigated my way to the bus station, noting at night these street corners could be dangerous. My ride to Antigua on the local (or "chicken" as travelers call it) bus was full of color and charm. Of course, some people's charm doesn't include three adults wedged onto one bench seat of a garishly-painted U.S. school bus!

An hour and a half later, I stepped off in Antigua, but not before confirming the last bus back to Guate left at 7:30 pm. Antigua is perched high in the cusp of three volcanic peaks. It is a paradise for the international backpacker crowd -- I recognized their massive packs and slightly scruffy look. The sight is always nostalgic, as that was me more than a decade ago. Anyway, Antigua draws them with its cheap rooms and bars, colorful churches and ruins, and nearby excursions like climbing the slopes of a still-smoldering volcano.

The park in the town square was thronged with travelers and locals, listening to free music as they ate ice cream and soaked up the sun. Being Sunday, many sites were closed, but I did get to wander around the atmospheric, centuries-old ruins of the Convent of the Capuchin Nuns. From its rooftop, there were nice views of the town and countryside. I spied the lemon-yellow Our Lady of Mercy Church and marked it as my next stop. The church's exterior was gorgeous with intricate white and yellow swirls and carvings winding all along its facade. In the church's shadow, I also discovered a place to call Sharon and let her know I'd arrived safely.

After dinner, I hurried back to the bus stop only to be told the last bus had left at 6:30 pm (it was now 6:45). I checked with a couple others to be sure, then high-tailed to a travel agency I'd seen advertising shuttles. I plopped down $20 for a ride directly to my hotel, and my slowly rising panic subsided. It ended up having plenty of time to subside, as I hit the Sunday evening traffic jam as weekenders headed back into Guate. What should have been a one hour trip took twice as long.

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Temple II, Tikal

It was still dark the next morning when the shuttle arrived to start my journey to Tikal. We drove to the airport where I boarded a flight to Flores, the closest town to the ruins. Since I was staying at the Tikal Inn, one of only three hotels actually on Tikal's grounds, I was by definition part of a package tour. Those who know me are aware I detest guided group tours. However, it was the only way to spend the night at Tikal, so Carla had signed me up. It seemed many of the others in our group felt the same, so perhaps it wouldn't be so bad after all.

Our guide Hector explained things during the one-hour ride to the hotel. We would begin our tour immediately upon arrival. After four hours, we'd return for lunch, then we would have the rest of the afternoon, evening and next day to ourselves.

A light rain began to fall as we left the hotel. Hector's tour got off to a slow start, as he explained Tikal's rainwater storage system (no nearby rivers or lakes), then went on to somewhat laboriously point out a half-dozen or more plants and trees along the jungle path. It was at least 45 minutes before we saw our first Mayan pyramid. The rain had ceased and the sun blazed down, drawing out the jungle's moist heat. I will spare readers a blow by blow of our tour, and instead, summarize my impressions.

Tikal was simply amazing. The sight of the sun shining on the temple pyramids surrounded by lush green jungle was almost mystical. Ranged in front of most pyramids was a row of stellae (carved vertical slabs of stone taller than a man), each with a round disc of a sacrificial altar in front of it. The pyramids themselves were often arranged in pairs, facing each other across a plaza. They are in various states of restoration. Some are fully reconstructed and you can climb their tall stairways (steeply spaced, as if the Maya were a race of giants). Others are partially cleared, but have their lower portions or one or two faces still cloaked in jungle vegetation. The final type are untouched and appear as conical mounds of jungle growth. Beneath them, though, lies a pyramid.

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Great Plaza, Tikal

The full impact of Tikal's beauty hit me as Hector led us atop the North Acropolis, overlooking the Great Plaza. Two massive pyramids (Temples I and II) face each other across a wide green space. The other sides of the plaza were lined with stairs leading to the ruins of palaces, temples and other buildings. Toucans flitted from tree to tree in the surrounding jungle foliage, which closed off your view of the rest of Tikal's site. The effect was of winding your way through a wooded path and suddenly finding Ancient Rome in a clearing. You feel you've found a hidden city. It is the essence of Saturday afternoon movies and Indiana Jones: Something great, something magical, some mystery you've discovered. The feeling of wonder bursts from your heart and you either utter, "Wow," or shake your head or stand speechless.

I nearly raced to the top of Temple II and stood and gazed around me. The view from atop was every bit as grand as my first sight of the plaza. Beneath me, I saw the less sure of themselves ascending or descending crabwise. Nearly the height of a football field, these pyramids are TALL. Even those who claimed no fear of heights got wobbly-legged going down. Temple II's twin across the plaza is closed to climbers precisely because somebody did fall to their death a decade ago.

The sights only became more tremendous when we ascended partially cleared Temple IV (thought to be the tallest Mayan pyramid found). The view is truly other-worldly. Miles and miles of jungle spread out before you, merging with hills and clouds in the distance. Poking through the green canopy, though, are the tops of four other pyramids like gray stone islands in an undulating green sea. The rest of Tikal remains hidden. The view is so out of this world that the movie "Star Wars" used it back in the 70s as an alien world. For the curious, it was the rebel base from which they launch their attack on the Death Star. When I reached the summit, I immediately recognized the view, nodding, "Yep, this is the scene..." Others on the pyramid steps agreed. Although Hector had allotted us 15 minutes to enjoy Temple IV, by mutual consent we all lingered, savoring the panorama.

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'Star Wars view,' from Temple IV

We saw a good portion of Tikal in the four hours plus of the tour. Some of the group were more exhausted than others, but we were all ready for lunch at the Tikal Inn. I'd hit it off fairly well with another solo traveler, Andy, from Charlotte, NC. We'd both read that sunrise from Temple IV was supposed to be awesome (if it is not foggy). Hector told us to also check out sunset from the Great Pyramid in the Mundido Perdiddo complex (yes, that means Lost World -- although we saw no dinosaurs, the setting was perfect for them).

So, a short time later, Andy and I trekked back into the jungle. There we got our first lesson in how tricky the trails and terrain of Jurassic Park, er Tikal, were. Of course, we only had our maps from the guidebooks we'd brought with us. A true disappointment of the guided tour was their failure to give us ANY map of the park. The only park guidebook I saw for sale was an overpriced picture book. Andy and I blundered about, but eventually made it to the pyramid. About 20-30 people ended up crowding atop its flat summit to watch the sunset. Clouds moving in from the west ruined the show, though.

Returning to the Tikal Inn, we once again took a wrong turn or two, so by the time we made it back, we both had our flashlights out. Dinner was pleasant at the Comedor Imperio Maya, that our guidebooks recommended. We swapped travel stories over beers, and even talked college football. We finished the evening with one final cerveca at the Tikal Inn, watching the brilliant stars come out. Shortly after 10 pm, the electricity at Tikal Inn flickered a couple of times, then was shut off. Yes, to "save electricity," it is on only from 10 am - 4 pm and 6 - 10 pm. Oh, and there is hot water for showers only in the evening. Other than that, it was a nice hotel, and even has a pleasant pool with attractive thatched bungalows alongside.

At 5:30 am, Andy and I each stepped outside of our rooms into a wall of blackness. It was DARK! We made it to Tikal's gate, where a nervous Dutch couple joined us. We refused to purchase the services of a park ranger to guide us to Temple IV. Andy and I had been there -- we knew the way! We thought. Third time is a charm, so we charmingly got lost on the trails once again, taking twice as long as we probably should have to find the temple.

The sunrise? Well, it was foggy. The mist was a definite disappointment, but on our return trip through the Great Plaza, it was an unexpected bonus. I'd said before Tikal was mystical in the sunshine, it was positively mysterious looking in the fog. Once again, my heart thrilled to Tikal's magic.

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Lakeside view, Flores

After breakfast, I returned to the park, alone this time. Andy was off to Flores to check out that island town before his flight. The mist had turned to a gentle rain as I wandered the jungle trails, taking in a few parts of Tikal we'd missed yesterday. I love Ancient ruins, and being alone among them heightens the experience for me. So, I savored the temples, palaces, and of course, drank in the awe inspiring sight of the Grand Plaza one last time before leaving.

Since my flight didn't leave till after 6 pm, I was also able to squeeze in a couple hours in Flores. The island town, often described as a mini-Antigua, is connected to the mainland by a causeway. The international backpacker set had overrun the town. One of every dozen buildings was a hotel, it seemed. I shopped for souvenirs for awhile, then took a taxi to the airport. As pleasant and colorful a town as Flores was, with its pretty lake views, it seemed an anti-climax. I walked the cobblestoned streets, examining the brightly-painted buildings. No matter how I tried, though, I couldn't get excited about Flores, though. My heart was still on the jungle trail, my soul still soaring among the pyramids of Tikal...

Posted by world_wide_mike 13:14 Archived in Guatemala Comments (0)

Savoring Prague's Gorgeous Cityscape

Like good Czech beer, Prague's Old Town is rich in atmosphere

sunny 70 °F

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View of Prague Castle

Having heard and read rave reviews of Prague, I'd been saving a visit to the city in my back pocket, so to speak. So, when our trip to Cyprus fell apart, I whipped out plans to visit the Czech Republic instead. My travel companion, Delta employee Tim Price, agreed to the last-minute change. So, we flew our separate ways to Prague, meeting at the Opera Hotel.

I'd arrived a couple hours earlier, so did some preliminary scouting in the Old Town as dusk was falling. One thing I'd spotted was the nearby Imperial Cafe -- a gorgeous, atmospheric gathering spot decorated in ceramic tiles. Tim and I thought a good way to begin our Prague experience would be with a couple of Czech beers. I'd read beer was cheap and tasty here, but my jaw dropped when I saw the price. Twenty-five coronas for a pint of Gambrinus -- or about 60 cents!

We chuckled as we unwound from our flights, imagining what various friends would do in a place where beers cost less than a dollar each. However, nothing on the dinner menu jumped out at us. Instead, we promised ourselves authentic Czech cuisine tomorrow. Tonight would be expediency.

Tim was a good sport and indulged my international dining tradition. Friends of mine know what that means, for in my wandering, I had spotted -- you guessed it -- a Pizza Hut! As a connoisseur, I would rate Prague's Pizza Hut fairly standard. There were no strange local twists on pizza (like the Brits with their corn). However, you can't go wrong when good pizza and a pitcher of beer costs only a couple dollars. Afterwards, we were fairly tired, and returned to the hotel to rest from our traveling.

The next morning we began our exploration. As we walked, the clouds slowly disappeared and the sky brightened into a beautiful, crisp Autumn day. Others have said it, but Prague is simply gorgeous. It seems every building you pass is garnished with carvings, statues, mosaics or decorative architectural flourishes. One of our first stops, Old Town Square, shone in the morning sun. The palaces and fine Renaissance-era buildings around the square glowed pink, bright yellow or pastel blue or green. Even the blackened, multi-spired towers of the Tyn Church, which dominates the square, glinted with gold decoration. Gold crosses also gleamed from atop the greenish domes of St. Nicholas Church.

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Tyn Church in Old Town Square

From there, we wandered along cobbled streets towards the magnificent, must-see Charles Bridge. Stout Medieval towers guard each end of the pedestrian-only bridge. Every dozen yards or so, statues of saints, heroes and nobility from Bohemia's rich history look down upon the throngs of passers-by. Some of the stone figures are clean and bright -- adorned with gold halos, others were sooty and dark, seeming to glower from their perch above the Vlatava River. Artists, musicians and souvenir stands lined the way as well, each adding to the local color.

Stealing the show, though, was the view across the river to Prague Castle. The golden-toned buildings beneath the castle were reflected on the river's surface, while high above, the towers and spires of St. Vitus Cathedral inside the walls were outlined against the blue sky and cottony clouds.

Crossing the bridge, Tim and I slowly worked our way past some of Prague's interesting sights. We marveled at the interior of yet another St. Nicholas Church, then climbed a twisting street up to the Strahov Monastery. From its hilltop grounds, we admired the brownish view of a late-Autumn Prague. We also stopped by the Loretta Church, then made it just in time to the castle for the noontime changing of the guard.

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Charles Bridge

Prague's castle is a sprawling complex of palaces, towers and churches -- the gem of which is St. Vitus Cathedral. Its Gothic towers soar skyward and are encrusted with carvings and statues, bringing to mind English-style churches like Westminster Abbey. We drank in the Medieval feel of the cathedral and the nearby Old Palace. The views from the balconies towards the heart of town were kingly, with greenish domes, church spires and the sea of orange roof tops separated by the various bridges spanning the river.

Afterwards, we wound along the path downhill, turning to walk along the river and checking out souvenirs in various stores. Recrossing the Charles Bridge, we worked our way towards the shopping mecca and gathering place of Wencelas Square. More of a boulevard lined with hotels, shops and restaurants than a square, Wencelas thronged with people. As the sun, seemed to be sinking quickly, Tim and I found a cafe for more cheap Czech beer. After a few that seemed to go too quickly, we returned to the Opera Hotel and freshened up. I pored through my guidebooks for a restaurant, settling upon "Restaurace MD Rettigove," not far from our hotel. It was a good recommendation -- both Tim and I enjoyed our dinners.

The next day dawned a little cooler, but was even more sunny. Before leaving the U.S., I'd checked an internet weather forecast for Prague which had predicted rain showers for the whole time. It proved blessedly wrong. We began our final day of sightseeing in the Jewish Quarter, tracing our way through the numerous synagogues and the impressive walled, Jewish Cemetery. Centuries of tombstones were all but stacked upon each other in this crowded burial ground. My guidebook said the graves themselves ARE stacked up, as in times past, new layers of earth were added to allow for more burials. The walk through the cemetery was solemn and slightly spooky, threading among old trees bent over rows of even older tombstones. It was a much brighter atmosphere inside the gorgeous Moorish-style Spanish Synagogue. The intricate, colorful patterns and decorative swirls on every surface of the interior brought a mosque more to mind than a synagogue.

From the Jewish Quarter, we made our way back to the Old Town Square to watch the late-Medieval era Astronomical Clock strike the hour. Its parade of animated statues of saints and sinners is a popular attraction, and crowds gather beneath it each hour to watch its show. We also climbed to the top of the tower and enjoyed its exhilarating view of Prague. The bright sun picked out the artful details of the churches and buildings. We lingered awhile, high above the city, savoring the man-made beauty all around us.

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Vlatava River and Charles Bridge

The rest of the afternoon was fairly low-key -- wandering back across the river, stopping for beers in a cafe and browsing the multitude of shops. Tim finally decided upon a glass vase, veined in violet color, for his girlfriend. I bought Sharon garnet earrings that sparkled with red fire. From my reading about Prague beforehand, and our two days of exploration, I decided it was more of a "wandering" kind of town. Its atmosphere was its high point -- not a check-off list of sights to see methodically. To think of it in terms of Italy, Prague is more Venice than Rome.

Since our flights home left very early the next morning, we resisted the temptation to linger too long in a bar that evening. Czech beer is excellent and the price hard to resist. Similarly, Prague is an easily accessible city for the visitor, but with an excellent savory taste that lingers in one's memories.

Posted by world_wide_mike 14:47 Archived in Czech Republic Comments (0)

Sunshine Brings Out the Colors in Bermuda

Rain, on the other hand, can dampen a trip no matter where you are

rain 79 °F

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Front Street, Hamilton, Bermuda

During our first day in Bermuda, the words to a song by Styx kept running through my mind:

You've been working and saving for your Jamaican dream,
Paradise is waiting across the sea,
But when your plane lands,
Montego turns to monsoon,
You've got the Island Blues

Yes, we were in Bermuda, not Jamaica, but as the rain was pouring down, the sentiment was the same. It rained all Saturday afternoon and evening (our first day), and right up till around noon Sunday. Then, the sun came out, and it was pretty much gorgeous weather until we left. We essentially experienced two Bermudas, and I like the second one a heck of a lot better!

Our trip itself was a last-minute substitute. Coworkers Gale, Julio and I had planned on visiting Peru and Macchu Picchu. However, for various reasons, that didn't work out. Since Gale and I had already dropped and traded away numerous days, Bermuda was our hasty replacement destination.

We got off to a stumbling start, too, as Fordham Hall Guest House (our Bed and Breakfast) screwed up our room. We were given a musty, tiny room (#5) with one bed instead of our double. It took an hour and a half to sort things out, but to their credit, they fixed it. We each got separate single rooms for the evening (I got unlucky #5) and moved into our nice, comfortable double room (#1) the next day. I was amazed at the world of difference between two rooms. Gale pointed out it is the exact opposite of the airline business: Airlines charge varying amounts for the same coach seat, while hotels charge the same amount for varying levels of accommodation.

After unpacking, we sloshed through the rain to downtown Hamilton, the island's capital and largest town. We found an excellent British pub for dinner, The Hog Penny, that was to prove our regular stop each evening. After a Shepherd's Pie and a few ales, and it being Saturday night, we decided to check out the night life of this tiny town. Whether it was the rain or what, there was little going on that attracted us. We wandered the damp streets, finally ending up in The Colony Pub in the massive Hamilton Princess Hotel. After the Hog Penny, this hotel bar seemed a little forced and artificial. We called it a night after one more beer and turned in.

The next morning, we went to Monty's Restaurant -- Gale wanted to try the national Sunday breakfast, Cod Fish and Potatoes. Those who know me will quickly realize I did not partake of this (I hate fish; nothing that ever swam makes it onto my plate!). Gale pronounced it good, though, but a bit of an odd taste for breakfast. After a long linger, hoping the rain would stop, we stepped out into the rain and caught the bus for St. George.

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Cannon, Fort St. Catherine, Bermuda

St. George is the former capital, and a colorful town chocked full of historic buildings. Many of the museums and sights were closed (being Sunday), but we had a good time nonetheless. The arrival of the sun brightened things immensely. We followed the suggested itinerary of my Lonely Planet guidebook, seeing the Town Hall, churches, and brightly-painted homes that historic St. George had to offer. We also took in nearby Fort St. Catherine, which guarded the northern tip of Bermuda with its ramparts and cannons. The magazines and tunnels make an excellent tour, with informational displays, signs and audio presentations. The sighting of the fort was excellent, too, looking out over the clear, blue Atlantic. We hoofed it back to St. George and caught the next bus. On the way home we stopped off at the Swizzle Inn -- home of one of Bermuda's national drinks -- the Rum Swizzle. Naturally, we had to try one!

All in all, Sunday was an excellent day. Bermuda in sunshine is a completely different place than Bermuda in the pouring rain!

Monday morning we were presented with a decision: Rent mopeds or sightsee by bus? We chose the moped, which is kind of the national form of transportation on Bermuda. Each family is allowed only one car. So, when another family member is using it, everyone buzzes around the island on these instead. We loaded our mopeds on board the ferry to the Dockyards, on the western half of the island. The Dockyards is kind of a megaplex that Bermudian business is investing heavily in -- shops, movie theater, historic museum, craft store, etc. It was another glorious sunny day, though, so after a cursory look around, we zoomed out of there and onto the open road.

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View from Gibbs Hill Lighthouse, Bermuda

I have always enjoyed sightseeing by moped. The ability to pull over whenever you wish, yet cover lots of ground while smelling the air and hearing the surf or whatever, is just an excellent combination. Referring to my host of maps, I made frequent stops to orient ourselves and check off sights I'd wanted to see one by one. Of course, I also pulled over when the beauty of the seacoast simply demanded I stop. We saw quite a bit this day: quaint Somerset Bridge (world's smallest drawbridge -- opens only 18 inches); hilltop Fort Scaur, with its earthworks and lovely views of both coasts; Gibbs Hill Lighthouse, for more stunning panoramas; isolated coves with their beautiful beaches, like Church's Cove and the incomparable Horseshoe Bay. Although we lingered at Church's Cove, enjoying its isolation ("This is my idea of paradise," Gale said), the pink sand and clear blue waters of Horseshoe Bay demanded we put on our suits and go bathing. As we zipped back into Hamilton, with daylight fading, we made one last ride out to Spanish Point. Its pleasant, grassy park with views across the water to the Dockyards would be a great place for a sunset. We'd missed it by perhaps half an hour, but still lingered to watch the colors dim.

Monday had also seen the arrival of two cruise ships in Hamilton's harbor. The streets were a bit busier, we noticed, as we walked towards The Hog Penny. However, that didn't translate into packed bars, though. It seemed the bulk of the passengers must have been eating dinner and having drinks on board. We called it an early night, though, as we wanted to do some early zipping around on our mopeds before they were due back.

Tuesday morning continued our run of glorious weather. We rode to another portion of the island we hadn't visited -- ritzy Tucker Town, most of which is owned by a private resort/club. We saw the natural stone arches by the seaside, though, then stopped off on the way back at Spittal Pond. The name is not appetizing, but it was an idyllic, woodland setting, favored by birds and waterfowl. On the way back to Hamilton, I pulled over for a few photos of the brightly-colored homes of Bermuda's residents. The colors leap right out at your eyes -- pale blues, purples, pinks, lime greens and blinding whites. With Bermuda's pink beaches and turquoise waters, the residents must feel obligated to try to match the beauty of nature with their buildings.

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Church's Cove Beach, Bermuda

We finished off our stay in Bermuda with a final walk through Hamilton along bustling Front Street. I had been hoping to find a sweater for Sharon, but prices were outrageous. The cheapest sweater I saw in "The Pringle Store" was more than $350. As much grief as I give her about spending money on clothes (guys have to do that kind of thing), I felt I couldn't bring myself to do it.

Which brings me to the cost of Bermuda itself -- this is NOT a cheap island. You will be hard-pressed to find rooms under $150 a night. Beers are more than $5 each, and a dinner under $20 can only be found in a few places (like The Hog Penny). So, work and save for your Bermuda dream, just don't go expecting bargains! However, if you happen to be there when the sun is out, go expecting beauty!

Posted by world_wide_mike 17:43 Archived in Bermuda Comments (0)

Talinn is a Gem of a Medieval City

Stop one on my Baltic cruise is a great beginning

sunny 75 °F

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Alexander Nevsky Cathedral

This travelogue is part of a Baltic cruise, including Estonia, Russia, Finland, and Sweden. Read each entry for the whole tale!

Twice before I'd attempted to go to the Baltics, but cancelled flights had prevented me. This time, I went by sea and that proved to be the key.

Tallinn, Estonia, was the first port of call on our Baltic cruise, and I was looking forward to it quite a bit. When I walked down the gangplank and caught sight of the spires of the Old Town's cathedrals and towers, I knew I wouldn't be disappointed. It is everything you picture in a medieval city -- a stone wall circling the town, defended by 29 towers (all with pointy red tile roofs), dotted with numerous cathedrals, and streets of pastel-colored buildings with ornately carved, wooden doors.

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View of Old Town, Tallinn

Sharon and I began our exploration in the town square, Raekoja Plats. The town hall was covered in scaffolding, but the rest of the wide square was ringed with Renaissance-era buildings in bright shades. Cafes were set up on one side of the square, and Sharon mentally marked down this place for lunch in a "cute cafe." I led her up and up the streets, headed for the Upper Town, or Toompea. We passed by the St. Nicholas church, whose tall, blackened spire we'd seen from the ship. The last 50 yards or so were stairs, but once atop them, we were rewarded with the sight of the Alexander Nevsky Russian Orthodox Church. Its onion-shaped domes were black, smoothly contrasting with the building's white walls. Inside, it was ornate with gold and icons crowding the walls and pillars. A service was going in one corner, with worshipers lighting candles and praying quietly. Across from the church, the Parliament building gleamed pinkly in the morning sun.

We circled the church and walked along the base of the high wall guarding the Upper Town. We admired the solid, square "Virgin Tower" and the tall, cylindrical Kiek in de Kok (or "Peek in the Kitchen" -- so named by the medieval German mercenaries who joked they could peek into the kitchens of the Lower Town residents from its heights). The tower wasn't open, yet, so we made plans to return in the afternoon. From there, we explored the Toom Kirk (Dome Church). On the inside, Toom Kirk was festooned with heavy wooden crests of various Baltic nobles. There were so many that more than a dozen had been taken down and put into a storage rack at the back of the church. Many notable Estonians were buried in the cathedral, which tended to give Sharon a case of the "willies."

We then made our way to a scenic overlook on the ramparts that gave a great view of the Lower Town. It was warming up to be a bright, sunny day, and the breeze blowing across the walls felt great. Beneath us, we could make out the row of towers leading from the Toompea to the medieval town gates. Their quaint red roofs shared the skyline with the black spires of the cathedrals of the Lower Town and the burnt orange terra cotta roofs of the buildings. After a short rest, we plunged down the sloping, cobblestoned Pikk Jalg (or "Long Leg") street which led down into the Lower Town. We walked along, admiring the buildings until we came to Fat Margaret Tower, which guards the town gates. From there, you are supposed to get access to the walls, but unfortunately, we'd arrived on the way day of the week it was closed!

Disappointed, we circled outside, looking for a way up to walk the town walls. We were unsuccessful. Sharon was ready for a break, so we wound our way back towards the town square. As we sat in our "cute cafe" (a nearly-daily habit on the cruise), we watched the tourists and residents of Tallinn parade by. We were both glad we were seeing the town independently, rather than taking part in one of the ship's organized tours. There is little I detest more than shuffling along in a mob, all jostling to hear the guide or take pictures of the same thing before scurrying after the guide, again. Tallinn is an easy town to get around in, and a guided tour is quite unnecessary. The Estonians didn't seem to mind the mob of tourists, though, and were friendly. They also seemed to be making a conscious effort to make up for their years of Soviet-enforced drabness. Bright colors and sexy clothes were the rules of the day, at least for the young. Sharon griped that all the women were skinny and wore tight clothing. I wondered how much I could agree without getting swatted. I thought to myself the Estonians were a very attractive people, with their high cheekbones and blonde hair. Like I said, I kept it to myself -- Sharon is not shy about slugging me if she thinks I've done something to deserve it!

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Talinn's medieval walls and towers

After lunch, we returned to the Kiek in de Kok, climbing the tower. The inside was a museum, as well, with displays on the military history of the area (which I enjoyed), and some modern art (which I did not). I'm not quite sure what the nudity and pictures of slaughtered pigs have to do with a medieval tower, but it probably goes back to that breaking out of the Soviet mold they'd been confined in for so long. The views from the tower windows weren't bad, but I didn't see anyone cooking in their kitchen. Afterwards, we shopped a little, then returned to the ship.

They say the third time is a charm, and my third attempt to visit the Baltics did prove charming. Our weather had been excellent -- sunny all day -- and the people were just as bright and friendly. Tallinn is a gem of a little medieval town -- well worth three tries to get there!

Posted by world_wide_mike 08:34 Archived in Estonia Comments (0)

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