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Wheels, water, and crampons

A day on the south coast of Iceland

sunny 45 °F

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Worldwidemike, brave Arctic explorer

So, did we see the northern lights on Sunday? Yes. Cross it off the "bucket list." That said, the nearly full moon washed out the display, and it was not the most impressive sight. Nevertheless, as the photo below shows, I did see the aurora borealis. Thank god I brought my tripod, otherwise I think I would have seen little. To the naked eye, the arc of the aurora across the sky looked like wispy gray clouds. On my 15-second exposure, you could clearly see the green, though. Many people come to Iceland and never see them, so I shouldn't complain.

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My admittedly weak northern lights photograph

We were up early once again the next morning to pick up our rental car. We wanted to see the south and west coasts of Iceland and renting a car was supposedly the most economical way. I'm always a bit daunted taking to the road as a driver in a foreign country. I'd much rather rely on public transport, which unfortunately is limited in winter here in Iceland. Excursions are fairly expensive, so we felt this was the way to go. As it turned out, we had zero problems on day one. A nice thing about renting a car is you can pull over nearly anywhere to take pictures of a scenic view that catches your eye. Plus, you can generally squeeze in way more sights than you ever could on public transport.

Our first stop was Skogarfoss waterfall. Yes, we'd gotten quite an eyeful at Gulfoss yesterday, but this one was smaller and more intimate. It was still impressive with a bright double rainbow gleaming in the day's sunshine, though. Plus, there is a set of metal stairs that climbs the hillside next to the falls, with several amazing viewpoints. Both of us were enchanted by it, and along with the perfect, yet relatively warm day, it was a perfect way to begin. Seagulls wheeled around it continuously, and the place was far less overrun with tourists than yesterday's sights.

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Skogarfoss waterfall

Next, we drove to our glaciar hike we'd scheduled. Neither of us had been out on a glaciar, so we were looking forward to it. Our hike included only six of us and a guide. She quickly taught us how to strap on our metal-spiked crampons for walking on the ice and we were off. The glaciar we were hiking on is only a few miles from the volcano that erupted last summer in Iceland for a month. So, it's surface is speckled with black, volcanic ash - making it look like a quadruple scoop of vanilla ice cream with crumbled Oreo cookies on it. It wasn't the pristine landscape of ice I'd expected. Nor was it an amazing frozen world of blue ice and tunnels and crevices. It was more like a hike across a snowy mountain slope. Yes, we saw sinkholes the ice dug into the glaciar's surface. Yes, we saw snow-edged crevices where the glaciar cracked apart as it flowed downhill. It was cool how slick and how vertical a surface you can walk on with crampons. All in all, though, I found myself slightly disappointed with the glaciar walk.

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Walking on a glacier in Iceland

Next, we drove to the rainiest town in Iceland, Vik. On the way, we experienced sun, rain, and sleet, but the skies cleared as we walked out onto Vik's black volcanic sand beaches. Some of Clint Eastwood's movie, "Flags of our Fathers" was filmed here to stand in for Iwo Jima. The sea was pounding, and made for an interesting mood with the black basalt columns looming off shore. Icelanders say they are the remains of three petrified trolls who were caught out in sunlight as they walked out of the surf after fishing. Our luck with the weather let up after we left, Vik, though. We crossed a causeway to the dramatic seascape of Dyrholaey. A rain squall closed in and then spun around, blowing onshore then back offshore - all the while refusing to leave. We could see sun and patches of blue out to sea, but the rain stayed with us, throwing showered of spray across the windshield as we tried to wait it out. Eventually, we gave up and headed back to Reykjavik, about two and a half hours away.

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Petrified trolls in the rolling surf at Vik, Iceland

During the day, we'd taken full advantage of being able to stop and photograph iceland's spectacular scenery along the way. To me, that was one of the best parts of the day - having total control of what I could photograph. I snapped nearly 100 photographs today, and hope to be able to do the same tomorrow when we head north and west to check out the tongue-twisting Snaefellsnes Peninsula. If you'd like to see more photos than I uploaded here to the blog, check out my photobucket album, here: My Photobucket Iceland album.

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Icelandic scenery not far from Vik

Posted by world_wide_mike 16:38 Archived in Iceland Tagged car walk glacier iceland vik renting skogarfoss crampons Comments (0)

A Beautiful Lady Named Snaefellsness

Day 4 in Iceland and a drive around a peninsula

sunny 46 °F

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I normally don't like photos of myse,f standing in front of places, but I could not resist this beauty...

So, there are two things I love when I travel: history and gorgeous scenery. Today was tops in the second category, as we drove our rental car around the Snaefellsness Peninsula. The peninsula is the westernmost arm of Iceland, and has a spine of tall, snow-capped mountains all along its length. Our plan was to circle the peninsula mostly along the coast. It would be a long day - taking more than 8 hours round trip from Reykjavik. We'd hoped for good weather and rewarded with the sunniest, warmest day in Iceland yet.

From the beginning, the image that captivated me most was the scattered homesteads, farms and villages, looking tiny - isolated by all of Iceland's towering wilderness. Again and again, I stopped the car to take a picture of a lonely farmhouse looking like a brightly colored doll house beneath a massive, snow-capped mountain range. Churches stood like shepherds by themselves, with sweeping views of the sea. Their bright primary colors contrasted sharply with nature's browns, blues, golds, and of course, the white of snow and black of volcanic rock. Here, the man-made structure, though it often looked lost on the landscape, was as much a part of the scenery as any mountain or lake. In fact, these houses with their bright blue, red and green roofs gleaming in the sunshine served as exclamation points on the peninsula.

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Isolated farm house on the Snaefellsness Peninsula

We began our sweep around Snaefellsness on the southern coast. Our first real stop was the village of Beothir. It's black-painted church was more than three centuries old, and brooded amidst its graveyard, staring out to sea. The church sat surrounded by gnarled, lava rock fields that local legend says are home to elves. Most of the tombstones were from the 1800s. It seemed the village's population was slowly shrinking, because there were very few homes and farmsteads around. A signless hotel sat beneath the church, its large windows looking out on stunning views in every direction.

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The parish church at Beothir

Next, we stopped in the village of Arnastapi. It was composed of mostly rental cottages. Try as we might, we couldn't find a place open to use the restroom or buy a soda. The village seemed shuttered for the winter, though its quiet homes basked in a very springlike sun. Just down the road from the village, though, we came upon a magical place. A tiny turnoff from the road was perched above a panorama of ice, mountain and snow that would be hard-pressed to be topped anywhere. To one side, the row of mountains stretched their black and white fins towards the blue sky. For miles in front, though, was a sloping lava field covered in snow making it look like a massive bowl of vanilla ice cream speckled liberally with black chocolate chips. Behind us, the dome of the glacier Snaefellsjokull was decorated like a wedding cake with tiny snow-covered spires. The view was simply delicious, and I prayed my photographs would do the landscape justice.

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The icy scenery near Arnastapi, Iceland

We continued on, having the road and peninsula nearly to ourselves. The issue of a bathrooms stop was getting urgent, so we were getting a bit exasperated when we pulled into Hellnar and found it similarly deserted. Hotel Hellnar's front door was open, though nobody answered the desk bell when we rang it. So, we helped ourselves to their bathrooms, then drove down the road to the village's shuttered church. Perched on a hill overlooking the sea, its red and white colors were a bright stab of color against the clear blue sky. I wandered down to its tiny graveyard, drawn by the view those in their final resting place had been granted. If I had to choose a place to lie and peacefully contemplate the passing centuries, it would be hard to choose a more scenic spot. To one side, deep blue sea sparkled or dashed itself foaming against dark rocks. To the other, the spine of Snaefellsness' mountains brooded darkly down on the homes and farms far below them.

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Gravestones at Hellnar church by the seaside

The day passed by with similar sights. I think I exasperated Jenny with my frequent stops to dash out and take pictures of a scene that caught my eye. In Malarrif, a huge stack of volcanic rock stood on the shoreline like a stone giant, it's arms outstretched in horror. The coastline became even rockier, and waves hurled themselves against the shore again and again, only to have their efforts end in white spray and foam. The sea was a deep blue, and the basalt columns and rocky coast reminded me of similar ones in Cornwall, Wales and Scotland. Seagulls wheeled overhead or nested in tiny nooks they found on the cliffs.

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The sea shore and volcanic stack near Malarrif, Iceland

At one point, we rocketed past a scenic viewpoint only to nearly slam on the brakes. Unmentioned in either of our guidebooks was one of the best panoramas of the day. A wide, still lake reflected the curve of the snow-capped mountains that encircled it. Above the razor peaks, clear blue sky was similarly reflected on the quiet pool's surface. We'd inhaled hour after hour of incredible views to be stopped breathless by this one. Every angle I took to photograph it seemed inadequate to capture its beauty. Zooming in one the lake meant leaving out part of the sinuous curve of the mountains. Panning wide to capture the whole scene shrunk the lake's surface in the frame. It was like being asked to photograph the most beautiful model in the world, but being allowed to focus on only one feature. What to leave out?

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An amazing lakeside view near Grundarfjordur, Iceland

We capped off the day with a visit to the peninsula's largest town, Stykkisholmur. We'd seen many pretty villages and towns over the course of the day, but Stykkisholmur rightly deserves its praise as the fairest. We crossed the causeway in its tiny harbor to the giant basalt island that guarded it. The views from atop it were immense. Out to sea, islands stretched across the bay to the Westfjord Peninsula. In olden days, many of the islands were inhabited by tiny villages of fisherfolk. Farmers would supplement the sparse grazing land by loading their animals on boats and dropping them off on uninhibited islands to gorge themselves on its vegetation for a week or two. Looking inward, Stykkisholmur reclined up its hillslopes with its brightly colored homes shining in the light of the setting sun.

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The harbor at Stykkisholmur

It had been a wonderful day - my favorite of the trip, so far. Iceland had smiled on us, today. We'd seen one of her fairest regions, and in the warm sunshine the lady had flashed us her most dazzling smile.

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Posted by world_wide_mike 16:56 Archived in Iceland Tagged iceland peninsula snaefellsjokull arnastapi snaefellsness hellnar stykkisholmur beothir Comments (1)

Museum Day in Reykjavik

History, history, and guess what else?

overcast 38 °F

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Golden brooch in the National Museum in Reykjavik

So, to illustrate how the weather has cooperated so far on this trip, consider today. We had several museums we'd planned to visit, along with some other indoor sights. Every day prior to this one has been sunny, but today was cloudy with drizzle off and on. Perfect museum weather! We were able to sleep in a bit today, and didn't get out and about until after 10 am. We did find out that the free breakfast is packed with the "sleep in" crowd.

Anyway, we began with the Reykjavik City Museum. They have taken a Viking era farmstead that was uncovered in downtown Reykjavik and designed a museum around it. The ruins lie in state, with only bare minimal reconstruction by archeologists. You walk around the outer edge of the bowed out rectangle. On the outer walls are exhibits and computer reconstructions of what the area or the farmstead looked like at that time. Towards the center are the actual ruins themselves, with explanations and strategic spotlights that point out what the text is talking about. Sound effects play, so you hear sheep bleating, bird calls, and even the graphic death throes of an auk - a flightless bird the Viking settlers quickly hunted to extinction. It was a high tech, clever exhibit. I wished it was brighter, though. It was so dim down there it bordered on out and out dark. Pictures were impossible - even if they were allowed (I never found out).

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Viking era horns from the National Museum in Reykjavik

The best museum of the day was the next - the National Museum of Iceland. It covers the history of Iceland on two sprawling floors. My favorite parts were from the Viking era of course. In addition to weapons like you'd expect, they had actual graves, tools, carved wooden doors, church vestments for when they converted to Christianity, and much, much, more. The most amazing part was looking at my watch around 2 pm and realizing how much time I'd spent in there already! The upper level contains most of the 1800s to modern era exhibits, and was less interesting to me. There were lots of computer and video screens throughout the exhibits with audio-visual presentations on Viking halls, political infighting in the Viking age, and other interesting topics.

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Viking swords and axes in the National Museum in Reykjavik

After lunch, we stopped in the Domkirkjan, which used to be the city's main church until they outgrew it. The inside was pretty, as our guidebook promised. From there, it was on to the Cultural Center, which has an exhibit on medieval manuscripts. The layout is very cool, with massive enlargements of manuscript pages, illuminated drawings, and other visuals. The second room had the actual book pages themselves, and because of that, no photos were allowed in the exhibit, of course. It focused mainly on the Icelandic sagas, but also dealt with medieval bibles, later reproductions of the sagas and other fictional versions, and so on. Visually, it was a very well done and cool exhibit. I know it wouldn't necessarily be everyone's cup of tea, but I liked it. I am certainly inspired to read the sagas, now (which I had wanted to do before I came here but ran out of time). I bet the online Gutenberg Project has online versions of them I could download for free.

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interior of Domkirkjan church in Reykjavik, Iceland

We did a little souvenir shopping afterwards, but didn't buy much. I'm going to pick up some inexpensive stuff to give as prizes for my students. I thought about getting my Mom an Icelandic wool sweater, but if she found out I spent $200 on one (the going rate) she would NOT be happy. Tomorrow is our last day in Reykjavik, and we plan to visit one more museum, but aren't sure what to do for the rest of the day.

Stay tuned to see...!

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Medieval era bible from the National Museum - not the Cultural Center's manuscript exhibit (where no photos were allowed)

Posted by world_wide_mike 12:42 Archived in Iceland Tagged museum national medieval iceland reykjavik manuscript exhibit settlement Comments (5)

Prowling Around Reykjavik

Day Six in Iceland

overcast 46 °F

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Colorful homes in downtown Reykjavik

I don't understand what force is at work, but it seems that every country I visit springs an unexpected and bizarre holiday during my trip to mess with my plans. Today is - get this - a holiday in honor of the day Jesus washed the apostles feet. So, the bus schedule we were depending upon to get to the Viking museum that has a reconstructed longship and lots of cool exhibits was non-existent. No biggie, really. I saw the Viking longship museum in Denmark, but Jenny was a bit disappointed. Still, I cobbled together a half-day sightseeing tour in the morning to replace it.

We had a good day waking around Reykjavik, checking out cool buildings and seeking out scenic views. We started off checking out the harbor area where we hadn't been, yet. Probably the most interesting building was a brand new concert hall and convention center right on the waterfront. It is constructed of tinted glass panes and its five stories are full of interesting views of the city and the building itself. A number of other travelers were doing the same, prowling around in search of cool angles and photos.

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The modern concert hall and convention center in the harbor of Reykjavik, Iceland

From there, we climbed a short hill to a statue of the first Viking settler in Icekand, Ingolfsur Arnarson. The hill marks the spot where supposedly the wooden hall pillars he'd tossed overboard on his longship washed ashore. While we wer in a sculpture mood, we walked along the waterfront to the Sun Voyager. This metallic, stylized Viking longship is sited in a gorgeous spot with view of the bay, colorful buildings along the shore, and snow-capped mountains looming over them. It has become a "take your picture in front of it" kind of place. I resisted the temptation, but Jenny - in a tradition begun millennia ago by Eve, succumbed to temptation.

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The Sun Voyager sculpture on Reykjavik's waterfront, meant to bring to mind a Viking longship

We also did some souvenir shopping, though neither of us made a bit purchase. My splurge was $10 for an ice blue pair of sunglasses. Not only will, it remind me of the glacier ice, it will make me match my car....ha, ha! The rest of the day was spent wandering around Reykjavik looking for iconic photos. It was a low key day, for sure. After 5 days of go-go-go, though, it is nice to have these once in awhile.

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This one is for my friend, Keith. LOOK, Keith! Trees....in Iceland (He insisted before we went that Iceland had none)

Tomorrow we head to the Blue Lagoon to soak for a couple hours before our flights home. They have a really cool package that takes you there, gives you a place to store your luggage, then shuttles you to the airport. Should be a nice, soothing time before being cramped in an aircraft seat for hours.

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Icelanders love their colorful graffiti!

Posted by world_wide_mike 10:52 Archived in Iceland Tagged sun concert center harbor voyager hall iceland convention reykjavik Comments (0)

Soaking in the Lagoon

Last Day in Iceland

sunny 48 °F

Our final day in Iceland was probably more like a "typical" American's spring break than any of the others. We were taking advantage of a service where the FlyBus will drop you off at the famous Blue Lagoon and store your luggage. After a few hours soaking, they will then shuttle you to the airport for your flight.

The Blue Lagoon is a man made pool of sorts, made to resemble a rocky bay. The milky bluish water comes from one of their geothermal plants nearby. Much of Iceland's heat and electricity comes naturally, from setting on a volcanic rift that is the cause of its frequent volcanoes and geysers. So, even though the water comes from a power plant, it IS natural, in a sense. There is also a silica that is produced that Icelanders insist is healthy to rub on your skin. When it dries, it looks like you've been the unfortunate victim of a pigeon dropping his load on you!

So, when you enter the very modern facility, you are briefed on the procedure. They give you a plastic bracelet with a magnetic chip in it. It is a combination ID bracelet and credit card for purchases. It allows you to use on of the lockers which are included in the admission. Men and women have different locker areas. I don't say of course because Scandinavians are known for their liberal views on those types of things! Scandinavians also tend to be particular about how to stay clean, so visitors to the Blue Lagoon are instructed to shower before they enter the water. I was able to navigate the lockers, showers and such, and was soon ready to go.

The day was sunny and relatively warm, so the brief walk in the open air before getting into the lagoon wasn't that bad. Still, steam rose off the water, which is heated to essentially "hot tub" temperatures. We found a little cove sheltered from the wind and kicked back and relaxed...and people watched. I'd say about one in four were smearing the white silica on their faces or heads. Being the bold adventurer, I chose not to do it. The idea of slathering myself in chemicals that looked like bird droppings didn't appeal. After awhile, we made a circuit of the lagoon, finding the main heating area which put out very, very warm water.

As I said, it was a more typical spring break day than walking on glaciers or hiking along sea coasts in 30-40 degree weather. Soaking in warm water and watching people wading through the water with beers or umbrella drinks in their hand fits more what the rest of my countrymen on spring break were probably doing! It wasn't long before it was time to shower, change and head back outside to catch our shuttle to the airport, though. We'd been able to print all of our boarding passes for our flights home, and the process went very smooth. Reykjavik is an easy airport to fly in and out of, compared to most European gateways.

Our biggest worry of the day, though, was our relatively short connection time in Boston. If we missed our USAirways flight from Boston to DC, we'd be spending the night in Paul Revere's very expensive city. Icelandair did us a huge favor, though. Not only did they move our seats near the door we'd deplane through, the flight attendant moved us and our luggage to the seats right next to the door and made sure we got off first. That, and the short passport control and customs lines made it a snap to make our flight with time to spare. I'm writing this on the 1-hour flight to DC. Assuming no problems ahead, we should make an easy connection home to Columbus.

Iceland was a gorgeous destination. I saw amazing sights, and had great experiences. It IS an expensive place to visit, though. I would encourage anyone not traveling alone to rent a car, though - rather than take the expensive excursions. You have to really be aggressive in seeking out bargain eats, though. Be prepared to research and walk around Reykjavik and check out the menus in the windows. It says something about their cuisine that our best meal was in a Pakistani restaurant! When your traditional dish is rotted shark meat, well, unless you are a seafood aficionado, prepare to be underwhelmed by the food. The people were friendly and polite on the whole, though. In an entire week, we only had one problem with not being able to communicate. So, if you've been considering Iceland, I highly recommend it! It is not as cold as you think, and much more beautiful than you imagined!

Posted by world_wide_mike 12:00 Archived in Iceland Tagged blue lagoon iceland icelandair keflavik Comments (0)

At long last...Cyprus!

Flying towards the Mediterranean island I've yearned to visit for years...

sunny 64 °F

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Most people seem to know vaguely that Cyprus is somewhere in the Mediterranean, so I thought I'd include this map. I have been wanting to visit the island for years. History's greatest civilizations washed over its shores, nearly all of them leaving behind relics that can be visited today. As some of you know, the island is divided into a southern Greek half and a northern Turkish one. Technically two separate countries, and even featuring a UN peacekeeping force, war has long since disappeared here. In 2003, the Turkish side opened its border to Greek Cypriots and there was a spontaneous to reconnect with their northern Turkish brethren. The Cypriots on both sides were, by their actions, telling their governments they didn't like being divided. The wealthier Greek Cypriots began to take weekend trips up to northern Cyprus, where they were warmly welcomed. Ever since then, there really hasn't been a need for a UN force. Doubtless, it is the easiest and most sought after posting in the United Nations! Sure, hard liners on both sides of the border can probably be found. Heck, there are anti-government separatists in America!

So, all this really means is I'll be visiting TWO countries on this short, Spring break trip. And for the curious, that will bring my total to 81 nations. For me, though, it means a chance to immerse myself again in Greek, Roman, Crusader, and Turkish history. Jenny and I will spend 5 days on this beautiful, warm island. The posts that follow will hopefully show why this island has been in my dreams for decades, but now will be part of my waking experiences.

Posted by world_wide_mike 07:06 Archived in Cyprus Tagged travel roman greek cyprus Comments (1)

Navigating our way around Cyprus

Sunshine, Roman and Greek ruins, mosaics...all add up to a beautiful first day!

sunny 72 °F

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Driving on the "wrong" side of the road is one of the few drawbacks of visiting Cyprus. I had my initiation last night, driving our rental car home from the airport in the dark, in an unfamiliar palace, and with a GPS that was speaking Russian to us. Today was Jenny's day, and she did great. We left Limassol on a beautiful, sunny morning and drove West towards Pafos. We navigated just fine, though "Natasha" babbled at us from time to time and provided no enlightenment. Jenny swore she had changed the language to English, and it wasn't until later that afternoon that I figured out that language and "voice" were two separate controls! Goodbye Natasha, and hello "Jason" (yes, Jason M, that was his assigned name!).

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Our first stop was the Rocks of Aphrodite, a formation of limestone stacks off the coast. As we swung onto the coastal road, we noticed a military rescue helicopter practicing land and sea rescues. We weren't the only car pulled over to snap photos of it. We pulled off the road at a few spots to take photos of Aphrodite's Rocks, then continued on.

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Our next stop was a gorgeous 9th century Byzantine church. It's five domes are in a cross shape and were a beautiful oasis of peace in the town's hectic traffic. Inside, frescoes on the wall depicted Saints' lives and Biblical scenes. It was a lovely church, and I didn't even even resent that I couldn't take photos of the frescoes. Then it was on towards the west coast town of Paphos. This is a favorite retirement spot for Brits, and you could tell the town did a good job of catering to foreigners. Cafes line every street, and everywhere you go, someone is willing to sign you up for a boat cruise, snorkeling, car rental - you name it! It helps that the archeological ruins there are a UNESCO world heritage site. Our first stop was the Crusader castle guarding the harbor. From its rooftop, we got our bearings for our exploration of Paphos.

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Paphos' highlight is the archeological park with a half dozen Roman era homes with stunning mosaics preserved. The homes and buildings themselves were often a jumble of toppled walls and columns, but the colorful mosaics with tiny stones depicting various scenes from Graeco-Roman mythology, were in excellent condition and brightly-colored. The best mosaics are under wooden or other rooftop coverings to protect them from the elements. Thankfully, there were no photo Nazis, and you were free to take pictures of them to your heart's content....which I did (big surprise!).

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We spent several hours there, wandering the ruins of the homes, as well as exploring the Roman theater, another Crusader fortress, and simply enjoying the bright flowers adding splashes of red and yellow to the sandy colored stones underneath the vivid blue sky.

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After a late lunch, we journeyed on. Our next stop was the Tombs of the Kings. These rocky tombs in various states of disrepair were built during the Hellenistic age. That was when much of the Mediterranean and Asia was ruled by descendants of Alexander the Great. it was cool to wander the rolling, scrub-covered hills, listening to birds and the gentle rush of the ocean surf below us, while exploring the rocky tombs.

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Next,, we took in the lovely view from a hilltop village, and then drove up and over the hillsides to the northwest coast of Cyprus. We zipped along what was supposed to be a very scenic stretch, but found restaurants, hotels, and vacation homes squatted on all the best viewpoints. We stopped to hike through a botanical garden to the Baths of Aphrodite. Cyprus is supposed to be the birthplace of the Greek goddess of love, so a number of sites are sacred to her on the island. Frankly, it was a bit of a disappointment. It was nothing more than a tiny, wooded pool underneath a trickle of a waterfall.

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Our drive back to Limassol and our hotel started out as a bit of an adventure. "Jason" steered us off the main road onto what turned into a dirt road that Jenny swore was someone's driveway. His help was problematic, at best. Add that to the GPS' non-intuitive interface, and the fact that every place in Cyprus has 4-5 English spellings of its name, and you have a navigational aid that often doesn't. We are a bit worried about how it will do in the Troodos Mountains, when we go to check out a bunch medieval monasteries. We'll pray for the best, though, and hope that our "wrong" driving stays limited to the side of the road...!

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Posted by world_wide_mike 13:38 Archived in Cyprus Tagged ruins tombs roman greek cyprus kings aphrodite mosaics paphos Comments (0)

Trekking through the Troodos

Mountain Monasteries, and man replaces machine

sunny 74 °F

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It was a day of winding mountain roads, hairpin turns, and sublime medieval frescoes. Jenny and I pointed our rental car towards the Troodos Mountains with a handful on the dozens and dozens of Troodos monasteries picked out to visit. We put our trust in our GPS "Jason", who had performed with mixed results yesterday. Before the day was out, Jason was fired and sequestered in the glove compartment. Man (me) replaced machine after Jason misdirected us, was horribly confused by every turn, and essentially proved himself worthless as a navigational aid. In all honesty, the signs on the road, combined with the map our hotel had given us that morning, proved sufficient. I'm pretty good at finding my way around, and once I got my bearings right after we locked Jason away, did a flawless job of navigating...if I must say so myself - ha, ha!

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With our first stop, Pedoulas and the Archangel Michael Church, we found that these medieval churches are a lot smaller than you'd expect. Despite its lofty name, this clay tile roofed stone building was smaller than my house. The inside was stunning,,though. Every bit of wall space was covered with frescoes painted on the walls. They depicted not only scenes from Jesus' life, but hosts of saints stared back at us as we slowly paced through the church. Like most churches with medieval frescoes, no photography was allowed. In Armenia a couple years ago, that had been the case except for one enlightened priest who realized no flash equals no damage to them thousand year old paintings. Would fortune smile on me today like it had in Armenia? I could only pray that it did.

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Spring is supposed to be the best time to visit Cyprus, and we were rewarded with the the gossamer blush of cherry trees in bloom near every village. The views from mountain top and valley were stunning. We were blessed with wide spots or places to pull off the road in the best vantage points, too. It seems others appreciated a good a panorama, and there were obvious places others had pulled off the narrow roads, and we followed suit when the urge to snap a photo took us. After our initial, nauseating drive from Limassol to Pedoulas, the other legs from one monastery to another seemed to go quicker. Of course, I'd like to take credit with my navigating, but I realize it was our longest stretch, with the most climbing....!

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Our second stop was at Kykkos Monastery, which is the largest and wealthiest in the Troodos Mountians. The monks throw open most of the complex -- including the gold-mosaiced hallways outside their rooms (hard to call the "cells" in such a magnificent building!). We wandered its corridors, which were the most crowded we'd see all day. The amount of mosaics on the walls was stunning. Every inch seemed to have a depiction of some saint or scene from the Bible. As crowded as it was, we were one of the few visitors who paid the 5 Euros to see the museum. As I slowly paced through the dimly lit, but treasure-packed rooms, one thing kept coming back to me. I remembered what I tell my 7th graders when I am explaining medieval Christian monasticism. In particular, I dwell in my instruction on a Mona's vows. I even have them recite a monk's vows , then spend a silent day in my classroom scriptorium creating an illuminated manuscript. But as I looked at glass case after glass case full of gold-plated crosses, censers, reliquaries, and elaborate, colorful vestments, the Vow of Poverty kept coming back to me. I acknowledge this is less excessive than the Vatican's treasure rooms, but it is a monastery! Poverty does not exist at Kykkos, and wealth was everywhere you looked. Before any Greek Orthodox challenges me on this, I do understand the difference between church and individual property.

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Our next stop proved difficult to find. We navigated to the village all right, but where inside Kalopanayiotis was it? the guidebook siad the three stone buildings were "clearly visible", but it took us awhile. Once again, no photos were allowed inside the actual church. The frescoes were every bit as gorgeous as those at at Archangel Michael. The church at Kykkos, by the way, was relatively modern...it had burnt down several times in its existence, the most recent in the 1800s. There was quite a bit of construction going on in the village. Many Cypriots come here from the plains and coasts to escape summer's heat. Some renovations were clearly going on at the monastery of Agios Ioannis Lampedistis. I imagine if I came back in 5 years I'd have a hard time recognizing the place.

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Our final monastery on our itinerary turned out to be the best. It was the most remote -- out in the countryside, miles away from a farm village. Our guidebooks had said that if you can visit only one to make sure you saw Agios Panagia Forviotissa. It was our favorite, too, though I doubt that is what Forviotissa stands for...! The frescoes and subjects painted were so obviously medieval Byzantine. I recognized the clothing, armor, hair styles, and especially the deep, soulful eyes that appear on Byzantine art. After we had reverently paced our way through the tiny stone church, Jenny and I both remarked we'd seen nothing about photography not being allowed. We asked I the elderly attendant and he waved us onto snap pictures to our hearts content. I doubt he expected us to break out the tripods and camp out for 45 minutes like we did. We weathered the storms of other visitors, holding off on our shots while they visited (though most came in went within a few minutes). The pictures we got were amazing, inspiring, and simply made our day.

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We drove back to Limassol content and with beatific, monk-like smiles on our faces. We also had a much smoother trip...with Jason securely locked away in the glovebox. Earlier in the day, we had burst out laughing when his voice came out from the glovebox recommending a change to my route -- after I had hit the "sleep" button. Our route seemed much smoother under MY navigation. But, after all, "Michael" means "like unto The Lord" in Hebrew. Don't believe me? Look it up!

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Posted by world_wide_mike 22:21 Archived in Cyprus Tagged cyprus monasteries michael troodos archangel kykkos pedoulas Comments (0)

One for the History Books

7th grade Social Studies in a Nutshell

sunny 78 °F

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One of the reasons I came to Cyprus was the wealth of historical sights from my favorite periods of history. The Egyptians were there, the Greeks, Romans, Byzantines, crusaders, and Arabs and Turks. Essentially, Cyprus is my 7th grade Social studies curriculum in a tiny, island nutshell. Today's itinerary would bear that out. We would begin with a Crusader castle, move on to Greek and Roman ruins, drop back 6,000 years to the Stone Age, and then finish with the Middle Ages.

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Although it was my turn to drive, we decided to not mess with success and keep the Jenny Driver, Mike Navigator, tandem. It would work to perfection. We were never lost, and even navigated our way through the crowded, one-way streets of Larnaca flawlessly. We started with a couple sights in the area of our base of Limassol. First up was Kolossi, the most intact Crusader fort in Cyprus. When I travel, I usually try to get an early start. I'm not talking crack of dawn, but if I'm not on the road by the 9 o'clock hour, I'm disappointed. My usual payoff - and it held true today - is you avoid the crowds. Most of the tour bus crowd lingers over breakfast and coffee and you can at least beat them to your first destination.

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And so it was. Jenny and I had the castle to ourselves for the first half hour or so. Although there are no furnishings or decorations in the rooms themselves, it was easy to populate them in our mind with torches, tables full of ale and food, and raucous knights. The castle initially was built by the crusaders who accompanied Guy of Lusignan, who took control of the island in 1194 A.D. Later it was passed into the hands of both the Knights of St. John (also known as the Hospitallers), and the famous -- or infamous -- Templars. When that order was suppressed by the Pope, the castle went back into the hands of the Hospitallers. From there, it was seized by the Italians and finally the Turks. The spiral stone staircases, echoing halls, and arrow slits along the walls transported you back mentally to the medieval world. It was cool to pace slowly around the amber-colored stone rooms and soak up the atmosphere.

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From there, we drove to the day's highlight: the Graeco-Roman ruins of Kourion. This site sprawls along the gorgeous deep blue Mediterranean coast, within sight of the famous Rocks of Aphrodite from our first day of sightseeing. They have tumbled down homes, temples, churches, and public buildings from the Greeks, Romans, and early Christians of the Dark Ages. There are several huge villas that have been excavated to uncover not only the bases of the walls, but extensive mosaic floors. A number of these are covered by modern wooden roofs with boardwalks suspended overhead for visitors to view the protected floors and ruins. You can't accuse Kourion of being overly reconstructed (except for maybe the semicircular stone theater). It has been made VERY accessible to the visitor, though. Clearly defined gravel paths direct you and signs inform you of what you are looking at. And though the sun beat down on us making it a hot, hour-long walk through the ruins, we were never left scratching our head or mystified at what we were visiting.

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The Kourion ruins are fairly spread out, too. It takes awhile to walk their extent, which generally mean the package tours disgorging from their tour buses can't visit all of the site. For Kourion, that meant we had to put up with the 50-strong German tour group only at the theater. So, for most of our wanderings at the site, we encountered only a couple of others here and there. Jenny and are we're amused by the American guy with his svelte, blonde trophy wife who insisted on getting her picture taken posing in front of every scenic view. All in all, though, our visit to Kourion was awesome, and we had much of it to enjoy by ourselves.

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After filling up our rental car with gas (Yikes...55 Euros! About $70...), we headed east on the interstate. We pulled off at Choirokoitia, which was definitely off the beaten tourist track. This hilltop Stone Age settlement began in 6500 B.C., and is still being excavated. The dwellings are grouped in clusters of four tiny, round, stone huts. One was used by a family group for sleeping, another for cooking, and yet another for grinding grain, and so on. The scientists have built a cluster of replicas at the beginning of the site, and you see the stone remains of the originals when you climb the steep hill to the community's defensible site. It was definitely not as exciting as Kourion or the castle of Kolossi, but still fascinating for a history buff.

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Next, we drove into downtown Larnaca, and much to my amazement, navigated the one-way streets and divided roads to our destination without hitch. We parked the car and walked through Larnaca, as most of its sites are not far apart. First, we visited the church of St. Lazarus...yes, the same one from the Bible miracle, "Lazarus, come forth!" The story goes that Lazarus moved to Cyprus and preached Jesus' teachings there. In the Middle Ages, his tomb, inscribed "Lazarus, dead 4 days and friend of Jesus" was found beneath the church dedicated to his name. The interior is a really cool melding of the gold-encrusted, elaborately decorated Byzantine style and the soaring stone Frankish or Gothic styles. Icons bedeck every open space in the church, many with votive candles glowing beneath them or enclosed within polished silver frames. Candle light gleams from gold and silver everywhere you look. You can duck down into the crypt and view the tomb of Lazarus. You could even look at his bones, partially enclosed in a carved silver box which is taken out and paraded through Larnaca's streets during festivals. And most miraculous of all (okay, and just a t-a-d sarcastically), photography was not prohibited...at least not that I could see!

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Just a short walk away was the Larnaca Medieval Fort and "Museum". I put museum in quotes because that was the weakest attempt at a medieval museum I've seen in 80 countries. More than 3/4's of the displays were grainy black and white photographs -- many of places most tourists would visit during their stay on the island. There was one small glass case of medieval weapons (all from what *I* would term the Renaissance), and a couple cases of pottery cups (wow...how exciting). The fort was okay, though. The best part was its position right on the beach in the center of town. Looking over its walls, you see the waves breaking on the shore. It didn't come near capturing Kolossi's mystique, though.

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Next, Jenny wanted to kick back and gaze out at the Mediterranean. So, we grabbed a couple Strongbow English ciders and sat on a bench and relaxed. We laughed at a dog and his master romping on the beach, and people watched. As we whiled away the time, it ticked steadily away. By the time we got in motion again, every place we wanted to visit was closed. It had been a long, sun-drenched day, though. So, we were content to make our way back to the car and begin the drive home. We had one more full day of sightseeing left, and there was nothing wrong with being rested up for it! Plus, we found a great pub to sit in, enjoy some beverages, and check out the photos we'd taken. Day 3 in Cyprus was one for the history books, and after all, that was why I was here...!

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Here is me posing in front of ancient Cyprus' most famous philosopher, Zenon of Kition, who invented the idea of Stoicism. Do I look stoic enough?

For more photos, check out my Cyprus Photobucket site: http://s721.photobucket.com/user/mikedemana/library/Cyprus%202014?sort=3&page=1

Posted by world_wide_mike 12:00 Archived in Cyprus Tagged ruins church roman greek cyprus limassol larnaca lazarus kolossi kourion choirokoitia Comments (1)

One Day in the North

Nicosia and "Turkish" Cyprus

overcast 70 °F

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The plan for today was to drive north and cross the border into Turkish Cyprus. Luckily, we'd found what appeared to be a good map the day before in Larnaca. All the tourist agencies seem to either all but deny the existence of North Cyprus, or claim to have no answers to questions about travel there. We woke early because we knew we had a lot to cram into one day. We were headed first to the Greek half of the capital city of Nicosia. It is a divided city, with both countries having their own slice of it, separated by UN troops. The plethora of one-way streets and divided streets made finding a way in challenging, so we opted for a parking lot just shy of the walls.

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Our first stop was the Cyprus Archeological Museum. This is supposed to be one of the best in the country, and it did not disappoint. Lots of artifacts are displayed in glass cases, labeled in both Greek and English. Larger statues and other objects stand free on pedestals. The exhibits cover the history of Cyprus from its earliest stages to about the end of the Roman era. With our early start, we had the museum to ourselves. It was nice to be able to freely wander here and there, picking which displays to linger over. There were so many Bronze Age and Stone Age artifacts, if we tried to read every single word, we would eat up half a day! Just as we got ready to leave, a tour bus disgorged its contents into the museum. The bustling crowd chattering excitedly made me thankful once again for our early start.

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Next, we wandered through the Old Town a bit, visiting the Bishop's Palace, the town cathedral, and the Venetian walls. An obligatory stop at the tourist information office provided us with the location of the checkpoint to drive across into Turkish Cyprus. We retuned to the car, got our maps ready, and headed for the border. The crossing was quick and painless - unless you count the 20 Euro car insurance needed to being a rental across the border. We also snagged another map from a tourist info display while waiting for our passports to be stamped. This ended up being very helpful because its town names matched those on the road signs. The larger map we bought in the south had the Greek names. And you can not always tell which Greek name corresponds with which Turkish one. That is a problem, in general, in Cyprus - both halves. Nicosia, for example, is called both Lefkosa and Nicosia by Greeks. Limassol can also be Lemesos. Some are less obvious than others, but you have to be careful when you're reading signs.

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It took a lot less time than we'd expected to arrive at our first site, which would prove to be one of the best of trip. The castle of St.Hilarion sprawls across hundreds of yards of rocky, forested mountain top. The drive up there was through a "Prohibited Zone," where no stopping or photography was permitted. The reason for that was the unsmiling soldiers guarding oth the UN military post and the Turkish army base. Not really sure what the UN soldiers had to be grim about, though. Cyprus had got to be the easiest posting in the world! No shooting, the sides at peace, and a sunny Mediterranean climate. Would they rather be posted in war-torn jungles of The Congo?

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St. Hilarion is not for the feeble or asthmatic, though. From the moment you arrive, you are climbing upwards, ever upwards. The castle is built in three sections, going higher up towards the mountain peak. The outer walls and gate and watch towers are on the lowest level. The garrison stayed in the second level, above that. Finally, the royal apartments have a stunning panorama at the very top. The castle was begun by the Byzantines, and added to by the Crusaders, then finally abandoned when the Italians and then Turks took over the island. There are so many nooks and crannies to explore -- a watch tower here, the ruins of a Byzantine church there, the shell of a dining hall or a line of battlements. And all of them have incredible views, many of the seaside town of Girne (also called Kyrenia) far below, its white houses framed by the curve of the deep blue sea. This is the type of romantic ruin to wander and daydream.

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We spent a couple hours slowly working our way through the rambling castle grounds. The air became cooler as we climbed, and our breathing became deeper. This was definitely our most strenuous workout of the week. The sky clouded over from time to time as mist rolled ip the slopes -- moist sea air condensing as it rose. St. Hilarion is one of the most stunning settings for a castle that I've ever visited. Panoramas of mountain, sea, and crumbling stone walls cry out to be photographed everywhere you turn.

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Our original plan was to check out some other sites in the area, but we decided to change on the fly. We pointed the car east toward the coast and the ruins of the Ancient Greek city of Salamis. No, not the Salamis of the naval battle of the Greek-Persian Wars -- that is in Greece itself. This is a town with the same name that survived through the Roman era into the Dark Ages, before being abandoned. Most of the ruins are from the Roman era, much of it from when the emperor Constantius rebuilt it after an earthquake...and did what all monarchs love to do -- renamed it after himself!

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Here at Salamis you see how much less the Turkish side is set up to exploit tourism. Although there are signs and maps set up throughout the site, there are almost no barriers of any kind. You were free to go anywhere, climb on anything, and run your fingers along that marble statue or tile floor. It is like stumbling, all alone, upon a lost city in the wilderness. The feeling of immersing yourself in history is so much stronger than it was pacing along the wooden walkways with the crowds at Kourion or Pafos. You enjoy both, yes, but here you get to not only see, but touch, climb on, and get right next to living history. You can't help wondering about the risks of this approach, though. If the north ever saw the tour bus hordes that the south does, would Salamis survive intact? Or would thoughtless visitors pry off pieces of tile flooring, mosaic stones, or damage fragile relics? Without a doubt, I enjoyed seeing Salamis this way much more than the efficiently-delivered and almost antiseptic sites of Kourion and Pafos. I don't think it is sustainable, though. Eventually, as crowds increased, barriers would have to go up, and valuable or fragile items would disappear into museums, rather than sit out under the Mediterranean sun. It is not that the island of Cyprus is off the beaten tourist track, right now. Far from it. However, few Americans do seem to come here. Hordes of Brits come to retire or vacation, along with plenty of German and other European tourists.

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I had waited many years myself to finally make the visit. Both the southern Greek half and northern Turkish half were great. I would have enjoyed more time, of course. Maybe then I could have slowed down a bit more. I knew all five days would be a cram going on, though -- just as our last day in Nicosia and the north. Still, the sights I saw over the entire trip were every bit as fantastic those last ones on our only day in North Cyprus.

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Posted by world_wide_mike 16:12 Archived in Cyprus Tagged st. ruins castle roman greek cyprus nicosia lefkosia hilarion crusaders salamis lusignan Comments (0)

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