A Travellerspoint blog

Meeting Kindred Spirits in the Cloud Forest

Costa Rica's Monteverde has wild life, views, and volcanoes

overcast 83 °F

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Monteverde Cloud Forest

When I think back on some of my trips, it is the sights I remember most. On others, it is the scenery. On my trip to Costa Rica, it is the people.

I had planned a quick, three-day trip to Costa Rica on free tickets that a coworker at America West Airlines had passed along to me. I arrived late at night in the capital, San Jose. The next morning, I bumped, bounced and even slid my way on a bus through the jungle and hills to Monteverde Cloud Forest. The road there varied from modern blacktop to gravel to little more than soggy dirt. Monteverde, several hours north of San Jose, is basically a rain forest on top of a mountain range. Upon arrival, I was treated to the sight of tendrils of clouds drifting up the slopes around me, like ghosts on a slow, silent mission.

I found a hotel/hostel in the village nearby. It was there that I met the people who were to make Costa Rica so memorable for me. I was resting from my tour of a butterfly preserve earlier in the day (Costa Rica is known for its incredible number of butterflies), when I heard voices outside my window, on the pleasant hotel balcony. It was early evening, and the other guests had begun to collect on the balcony's chairs and benches. I got up and drifted in, as did others, all joining in the conversation. It was an international group -- German, American, Welsh, Scot, etc. Two girls from California were describing their day hiking the trails of the Cloud Forest. Since most of us planned on doing that the next day, we listened entranced.

Eventually, we noticed it was dinner time, and we all went down to the hotel restaurant together. It was a wonderful evening. We traded stories from our various international trips. The German, Dieter, told us about journeying down Central America from Mexico to here -- including an unnerving evening spent walking the deserted streets of San Salvador (El Salvador) alone at night, looking for a restaurant. Annie, the Welsh girl, told us about her visit to Angkor Wat, the stunning, jungle-clad ruins in Cambodia. We all talked into the night, kindred spirits. It reminded me of my youth hosteling days in Europe a decade and a half before. Four of us finished the evening making plans to share a cab to the Cloud Forest first thing next morning.

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Path through the cloud forest

We arrived at the entrance just past dawn -- before it even officially opened. Visitors are permitted to come early, though, to catch sight or sound of some of the wildlife active at that time. The grunts of Howler monkeys through the trees not far away were our first thrill. We quickly split up on the trails, each having different goals. Dieter crept slowly along the trails, hoping for sight of the resplendent quetzel bird. I was off to the scenic overlooks, deeper inside the park. At one point, the chirps and creaks around me suddenly cut off like a shut door. As I looked around the thick, green vegetation around me, it was eerily quiet. My mind raced. Weren't there jaguars in Monteverde? There was a rustling in the underbrush. When I caught sight of a tiny rodent scurrying along, I sighed in relief. It must have been ME that frightened the creatures into silence and my imagination that magnified a mouse into a stalking jaguar!

The day turned out gorgeous, and the scenery was green and striking. I had a great day hiking, and saw a fair amount of wildlife -- no quetzels, but spider monkeys, blue morpho butterflies, hummingbirds and the large Black Guano bird (I think that is what it was called...). In the evening, we reconvened on the balcony and recounted our experiences. My friends enlightened me on the strange, deep boom I'd heard off and on throughout the day. It wasn't thunder, like I'd guessed, but a nearby volcano. I had wanted to see one of Costa Rica's active volcanoes (my new friends assured me the night lava eruptions were spectacular), but my trip didn't include the time. At least I'd heard and felt one, though!

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View of San Jose

That night, we said our goodbyes. Next morning, I bounced back to San Jose on the bus and spent the day sightseeing in the modern city. The artifacts of the Gold Museum and the colonial architecture of some of the homes were the high points. For dinner, I indulged in a light-hearted tradition I'd begun a couple years ago: Pizza Hut in a foreign country. Some may laugh, but since it is almost always possible to pay by credit card, it is a good way to conserve your local currency towards the end of a trip. Afterwards, a rainstorm cloaked the city, and I wandered along the shop fronts. I missed the company of my traveler friends, but the Costa Ricans -- or Ticos as they are called -- are a warm people, too, and made me feel welcome.

Although I will always remember the sights and sounds of the Cloud Forest, it is thoughts of the kindred spirits I met in Costa Rica that bring my memories teeming to life, like the birds and monkeys in the jungle canopy.

Posted by world_wide_mike 13:26 Archived in Costa Rica Comments (0)

Plenty to see in a Quick Trip to Portugal

Castles from different times and pleasant towns make visit colorful

sunny 75 °F

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Moorish Castle in Sintra, an easy day trip from Lisbon

When Continental Airlines announced new service to Lisbon, Portugal, my globe-trotting coworkers and I hatched plans to fly there. Since it usually takes a few weeks for new routes to catch on, we felt there should be plenty of empty seats for us standby, airline employees. Our guess proved correct, and on a sunny Spring morning in 1997, we began our exploration of Portugal.

Overlooked by a castle on a hill, Lisbon is a pretty city with Mediterranean colors -- varying shades of white buildings with burnt-orange terra cotta roofs. The city trams proved easy to use, allowing us to range wide across Lisbon our first day. Along the murky blue waterfront, the Belem Tower is a signature landmark. It also proved an unintentionally amusing sight. The 12th century fortification guarding the harbor was encased in scaffolding, which itself was masked by a photo-like screen colored to look like the tower restored. From the distance, we hadn't noticed, and were fooled.

High above the city, the castle proved the "real thing." It was peaceful, pacing the walls and climbing its towers. Over the centuries, a grove of trees has grown up among the castle ruins, giving it a park-like atmosphere. The views of the city below were gorgeous.

The next morning, we took a commuter train 45 minutes north to Sintra. Its pastel-colored Renaissance era buildings were striking, but were overshadowed by the ruins of a Moorish castle brooding above it on a craggy, forested hill. Its slopes proved more difficult to climb than Lisbon's castle, but the sprawling, gray-stone castle was worth it. The outer walls rose and fell with the contours of the slope. Their triangular crenelations and narrow, frequent watchtowers matched the mood of the threatening gray sky above. It didn't take much imagination to picture helmeted Moors staring out across the countryside, standing watch in a warlike time for Christian raids. On the other side of the hill, the mood turned whimsical, with the palace of a 18th century Bavarian noble. Its gaudy colors and varied architectural styles showed Moorish, Germanic and even Ancient Egyptian influences. The two hilltop buildings could not have been a greater contrast.

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Obidos Castle

On our third and final day, we rode the train north to the walled medieval town of Obidos. Here was the essence of Portugal. Bright flowers spilled over the walls and gardens of all the interconnected white homes of the residents. Moss clung to the walls of the excellent town castle, and the terra cotta roof shingles were every shade from light gray to new orange to weathered brown. The cobbled streets were narrow and worn smooth by the traffic of the years. From atop the extensive, tan-colored stone walls, you could look out and trace the line of a disused Roman aqueduct stretching past olive groves and a crowded cemetery. It was a peaceful, scenic place to wander around for an afternoon.

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Traditional Homes, Obidos

Three days was too short of a time to see Portugal, of course. However, the sights were memorable and the colors bright in our memories. Much like the country's signature liquor, Port, which comes in small glasses -- our trip to Portugal had a rich, pleasing flavor that left us wanting more.

Posted by world_wide_mike 06:36 Archived in Portugal Comments (0)

Rain in Ireland More of a Mood Setting than Annoyance

Hiking amidst green scenery and lots of History

rain 70 °F

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Monastic ruins at Glendalough

I had planned on leaving Saturday, but the angry ghost of Christopher Columbus again made things difficult for me. America West cancelled our 1130 Chicago flight (the one I was going to leave on). Which meant we sent all our passengers over to Southwest (my backup) overselling them. Our next flight wasn't until 4:30 pm, so since I had to transfer to O'Hare, I felt I wouldn't make it in time for my Ireland flight.

So, I gave up, and went Sunday instead. No problem that day, and I landed late morning in Dublin. I took the bus downtown and decided I would head straight to Glendalough in the Wicklow Mountains. A light mist was falling -- something I had better get used to, it turned out.

I arrived in Glendalough, a beautiful wooded valley with a couple lakes, around early afternoon. I found a B&B, checked in for two nights, and went to explore the valley. There is quite a scattering of monastic ruins in Glendalough -- including a 120' tower built in the 12th century, the fairly complete ruins of several churches, tall standing stone crosses, "beehive-type cells" the monks stayed in, etc.

The sun even came out for a couple hours while I was exploring the valley. Little did I know it, but it would prove to be my only glimpse of it during the trip. Anyway, it was a pleasant day -- wonderful scenery, cool ruins, waterfalls, you name it. I ended the day with dinner and a Guinness Stout in one of the two local restaurants.

The next day was my major hiking day. I planned on hiking the Wicklow Way, which runs along the hilltops thoughout the region. I would go as far north as I could get, then take the bus back. It was a drizzly, misty day as I started tramping north. The trail was easy to follow, matching up exactly with my Ordnance Survey map I'd purchased.

The scenery was neat, but I figured my pictures would suffer from the omninpresent drizzle. As it turned out, it "rained" all day. I was never soaked -- it was too light a fall. However, it was good "mood weather." Some views that were nice would have been spectacular in the sun.

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The Wicklow Way

Just when I was getting to the steepest and most remote portion of the Way, I lost my way. I backtracked, doublechecked the map, but still couldn't find my way back on the main path. Somehow, I'd missed a turnoff and was being led downhill and east instead of uphill and northeast. I wasn't worried, though, I knew I'd end up on the road. Which I did. I think caught a ride down to the village of Roundhill, ate lunch and a Guinness in the pub, and decided my feet were sore enough for one day. I figured I hiked a good 15 miles that day. I caught a ride back to my B&B (yes, this was hitchhiking, something I hadn't done since Scotland years and years ago). Despite the (still) rainy weather, it'd been a good (if tiring) day.

The third day I rode the early bus back to Dublin and then went to the town of Trim. There is another handful of medieval buildings there, including the largest castle in Ireland. It was drizzling again (and would prove to all day long). The castle was cool. It is the one that appears in Mel Gibson's "Braveheart." They used once face of it as York for the siege scene, another side as Edinburgh and still another as Longshank's castle in London. They are restoring it, so you couldn't go inside the main keep, but could walk around the outer walls. I saw the other various ruins of churches and nunneries in the area, ate lunch in a pub, and headed back to Dublin.

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Trim Castle

After finding a B&B and some gifts, the drizzle turned it up a notch. My explorations were cut short as the skies opened up for the first real hard rain I'd seen the whole trip. I took refuge in a pub (with a Guinness, of course) The next morning I returned home. No problems on any of my flights this time, and I spent that evening in my own bed. A short trip, but a good one. I now know there is a country on this planet where it rains more than it does in Scotland!

Posted by world_wide_mike 08:08 Archived in Ireland Comments (0)

Walks in Wales are beautiful, with castles & abbeys galore

Week's weather is rainy in England, but sunny in Wales

semi-overcast 76 °F

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Chepstow Castle, Wales

(Travelogue begins in and ends in England)

Two things worried me as I shouldered my red and black-backpack again, and headed off to London. How hectic would things be in the city? How crowded, with Princess Diana's funeral scheduled for the day after we arrived? The other was a worry that meeting up with my brother Brian (who was to arrive 12 hours later and at a different airport) might run into difficulties.

London did not seem to be in too much of a boil, I quickly noticed. It was touching to see all the people getting on the "tube" clutching their bouquet of flowers to take to Westminster Abbey. The tabloid-like English newspapers seemed sincere -- the nation truly mourned their "people's princess."

After Brian finally arrived several hours late, we set off to the Tower of London. The Beefeater tour guide seemed a tad bloodthirsty, relishing the tales of various beheadings that took place in the vicinity of the tower. But then again, red meat was his namesake and business, so we shouldn't have been surprised.

The Crown Jewels looked like, well, a crown and some jewels. I guess diamonds and the like don't make my eyes glitter. The Tower Bridge was next, then Soho, dinner, and getting tickets for our morning train to York. Shortly after, Brian's transportation jinx kicked in, again. We were headed to a Pub Walk when every subway train going our direction decided to break down. We were delayed, missed the walk, so decided to amble on our own towards a pub. The 11 o'clock last call caught us by surprise, so we called it a night.

The city was nearly deserted as we boarded our train to York the next morning -- they were all down at the funeral. We'd talked about going. It would be a historic event to have attended, after all. However, we figured it would be best to avoid the crowds. My jinx at weather was getting warmed up as the occasional rain that had greeted us yesterday settled in for the day up north. Our walk around the medieval walls of York was neat, though. The fortified gates, the views of York Minster Cathedral and the other scattered ruins were much more to my liking than any queenly baubles.

The next day we were off to Wales, writing off the day and its six hours of trains to "travel." We did get a peek at Cardiff Castle and we enjoyed a pint or two of the local brewery's "Brains" brand ales. I resisted the temptation to e-mail everyone from a cyber cafe, and Brian resisted the pull of the Cardiff casino. The morning soon chased any lingering clouds away -- as it turned out -- for good for the next three days. Our first hike began at awesome Chepstow castle. I had not expected much from it, but the remarkably complete walls and towers loomed over the river Wye (which we'd be hiking along) very satisfyingly.

Our Wye River Valley Trail hike turned out to be a complete misnomer. It would have been better called, "Woods along the River Wye Hike" as the trees blocked our view of river valley for nearly the entire trip. Basically, it was a four hour march through the woods with glimpses of the Wye river curling along the valley floor beneath us. The hike ended at the picturesque Tintern Abbey, which was set in a wooded hollow in the hills. The ruined abbey walls and pillars were imposing, especially considering how remote they were from any towns. It was fun to wander among the ruins, imagining this huge abbey as it was in the middle ages, "lost in the woods" as it were.

Despite what some may call my reasonable experience as a traveler and trip planner, Wales proved that sometimes I'm not very bright. We spent five days there -- three of which were to be hiking. Wouldn't it seem reasonable to space these out to give your feet a chance to recover each evening? Nope. The walking fools set off early the next morning to the Gower Peninsula coastal path. At first, the path was easy to follow, as it meandered from the shoreline up into the hills overlooking the steeper cliffs. Then the true or false test became multiple choice. There seemed to be at least two trails to follow most of the time.

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Coastal scenery, Gower Peninsula

Bold, travel-wise Mike led the way...into adventure! I am sure as Brian clambered along a narrow ledge, eying the hundred foot drop to the rocks below, he was praising my skills as a pathfinder. His Reeboks were beyond a doubt the perfect foot apparel for the crumbly dirt and rock of the path. Personally, I never felt in danger, but I was a little worried about him. We quickly switched to the paths that took to the High Road after that.

The scenery was magnificent. The cliffs stood sometimes 500 feet above the sea, their brown sides and bright green tops undulated along the coast. The rocky soil, sheep and deep blue sea all around made us feel like we were wandering through a U2 video.

We were headed for more of the same the next day as we did the train and bus journey to the westernmost part of Wales, the St. David's peninsula. The coast walk there proved every bit as beautiful, with the waters being deeper blue and graced by the oily brown forms of seals swimming among the rocks. St. David's Cathedral was a multistory surprise in the tiny town, and the ruins of the "Bishop's Palace" were a joy to wander among. You could almost see the medieval monks wandering among the rooms and feasting in the spacious halls.

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Tintern Abbey

The next day we were to bid goodbye to Wales and the clouds gathered expectantly. They held off as we stopped off to visit Caerphilly castle near Cardiff. The elaborate set of water defenses and towers proved it to be one of the most unique and thrilling castles to visit. Everywhere, placid brown waters surrounded the deep gray stone of the castle. Two fortified bridges leading to the castle "island" had been reconstructed, but the rest of the defenses were in good shape.

As we crossed the borders into England, the rain quickly began to fall. The weather tally would proved to be 5 sunny days in Wales, three out of four rainy in England. For Britain, though, I count that a victory. We unpacked our things in Salisbury next. The next morning we were taken on the most winding, circuitous, going-the-longest-possible-way public buses to Stonehenge and Avebury. For example, at the end of the afternoon, we left Avebury for Salisbury, less than 20 miles away. It took an hour and 45 minutes.

It was cheap, though, and Brian and I palled around with a young Canadian girl who was doing her best to give her mother a complete head of gray hairs. She was taking three months off after high school to travel, somewhat aimlessly, throughout Europe (mostly the British Isles, though). Alone. It reminded me very much of what I did when I graduated. Anyway, she was a history buff, so we talked Bronze Age stuff while Brian looked on a bit mystified. She was headed to Cornwall next, so I gave her a report on what I'd done there a few years ago. Kids. Ya gotta love their spunk!

To atone for my sin of filling her head with more grandiose travel schemes, I dragged Brian to Salisbury Cathedral when we got back. We sat in on a service listening to the beautiful voices of the choir float among the soaring stone arches of the building. Another night in a pub washed away in good the experience had done.

Finally, it was back to London. A mob scene of tourists at Westminster Abbey was a disappointment. However, the sight of Big Ben minus the scaffolding I'd seen it in years ago was a surprise. Its polished golden sides complimented the bright blue skies it stretched towards. We ambled past the impressive Halls of Parliament, then went to Buckingham Palace. Heaped against the gates was another heart-tugging tribute to Princess Diana. Flowers, more flowers, teddy bears, photos, poems, notes, paintings, balloons all clutched at your throat as you scanned the mounds of them.

We ended our trip with one of the London Walks we'd tried to make it to the week before. The "Jack the Ripper" walk was not the tacky, sensational thing I feared -- but an informative, interesting walk among the buildings, pubs and alleys he stalked. I was pleased with our guide -- a friendly English woman genuinely interested in teaching us about the era, not some overly dramatic fop in a cape.

Posted by world_wide_mike 13:41 Archived in Wales Comments (0)

Caribbean Cruise Good Way to See Many Islands

Stops in Puerto Rico, St. Thomas, Guadeloupe, Grenada, St. Lucia & Dominican Republic

sunny 83 °F

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Our Carnival ship, the Inspiration

Despite having read numerous articles about them in travel magazines, I had never taken a cruise before. Sharon had just received a nice gift of money, so we decided to put some of it towards a Carnival Southern Caribbean cruise. The islands in this particular sailing were interesting -- a mix of standard and somewhat off the beaten track sights: Puerto Rico; St. Thomas; Guadaloupe; Grenada; St. Lucia; and the Dominican Republic.

==Puerto Rico==

We flew in late morning in Puerto Rico, checked in aboard the "Inspiration," and headed back out to explore Old Town, San Juan. The El Moro fortifications were fun to clamber around on, with brilliant blue views of the sea all around. A huge field on the approach to the castle was alive with hundreds of kite flyers. The sky above danced with all shapes, sizes and colors of kites. They spun, whirled and dove across the grass -- startling more than one casual stroller as they flapped abruptly towards them. The streets of the Old Town were quieter, with pleasant shady squares tucked in between bright colonial homes.

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View of St. Thomas' harbor

Our next stop was St. Thomas -- a well-traveled standby of the Caribbean circuit. We'd planned to do a little snorkeling here, so took a cab to Megan's Bay Beach. Gray skies and intermittent rain dampened the excursion, though. The water was choppy, which churned up silt and reduced our visibility underwater. So, the snorkeling was somewhat of a disappointment. As a consolation, though, we got a wonderful view as we crested the hills on the return trip and St. Thomas' harbor was laid out beneath us. Back at the docks, we shopped a little and found the "Shipwreck Tavern," where we enjoyed cold beers in the afternoon heat.

==Guadaloupe==

Guadaloupe was our island where we'd planned to do a little hiking. We rented a car (despite parlez vous-ing only a bit of French) and drove to La Soufriere Volcano. The trail to the top was supposed to be "do-able," and afforded excellent views of this lush, green outpost of France. Well, to get lush and green, the island needed a lot of what? Rain. This fact completely slipped our minds and we were unprepared for the deluge that greeted us on the slopes of the volcano.

With no ponchos and no boots, our clothes and tennis shoes quickly became soaked as we sloshed our way upwards on the trail. The clouds and mist occasionally parted to tease us with a hint of the views we could have had, but the rains always returned. So did we, after getting only two thirds of the way to the summit.

Thank goodness my navigation and driving along Guadaloupe's roads was good -- otherwise my reputation as the experienced, international traveler might have been washed away.

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Grand Anse Beach, Grenada

==Grenada==

When Sharon and I planned the cruise, we picked an activity or theme for each island. St. Thomas had been snorkeling, Guadaloupe hiking, and Grenada was simply "beaching it." Grand Anse Beach in St. George, Grenada's capital, was supposed to be one of the Caribbean's better ones. It was. Other than a 15-minute rain shower, Sharon and I enjoyed relaxing on the beach (with me constantly reminding the sun goddess to put on sunscreen).

We also enjoyed the town. It white or pastel-colored buildings with their orange, terra cotta roofs, ascended the hills overlooking the harbor. When most Americans hear "Grenada," they think of our invasion of that island. Our memories of beach, water and sun are doubtless more pleasant than those our troops came away with.

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The Pitons, St. Lucia

==St. Lucia==

Both of us agree that the highlight of the trip was our day in St. Lucia. The theme was scenery, so we hired a cab and saw quite a bit of this lush, gorgeous island. We drove through tiny harbor villages, banana plantations, visited bubbling sulfur pits, toured a tropical garden complete with waterfall, and saw St. Lucia's trademark sight -- the Pitons. These two tall, conical hills dominate the coastline, making a gorgeous backdrop for the rain forests, beaches and harbors towns that make up St. Lucia.

The weather was great, too. Our cab driver was incredibly helpful and friendly -- buying us fresh bananas and coconuts to sample. We topped the day off with some of Sharon's favorite activities: shopping; French Fries; and drinks (in the "Pink Elephant Grill and Bar"). To most people, St. Lucia is a relative unknown. To us, it was tops of the trip.

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Castle, Santo Domingo

==Dominican Republic==

The theme for Santo Domingo and the Dominican Republic was "History." The castle, cathedrals and churches from the colonial period in Santo Domingo's Old Town were clean and immaculately kept up. Their pale, blond-colored stones contrasted sharply with the tropical greenery and brilliant blue sky.

I'd read that you must be careful or the person you might be talking to at one of the sites (thinking they were an attendant), suddenly turns out to be a freelance guide, and requests payment. I pride myself, though, on being able to spot such scams, but the fellow at the castle was so smooth that it took me 15 minutes to catch on. We quickly sent him on his way with a fraction of what he expected, and continued our exploration at a slower, more thorough pace, guidebook in hand. Monuments to Christopher Columbus are the main emphasis here, which made it a somewhat appropriate place for two Columbus natives to wrap up their tour.

So, did the cruise match the descriptions in the articles I'd read? Generally, yes. We did not take any of the packaged excursions offered by Carnival, setting off on our own, instead. For the independent traveler, this is the route I recommend. Would I take another cruise? Certainly! There is something to be said for unpacking once, sleeping in the same bed each night, but taking a different "day trip" at each port.

Our islands were a nice mix, too. The cruise turned out to be a fun (and romantic) vacation.

Posted by world_wide_mike 08:23 Archived in Grenada Comments (0)

Wonderful Weather, Incredible Sights, Spain is Sumptuous

History is rich here, with man-made beauty on naturally beautiful land

sunny 85 °F

Click here for my Winter 2004 trip to Barcelona

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The city of Toledo -- guidebooks guarantee you will get lost in its old town!

It is an odd feeling, for me, to be flying transatlantic with an actual, paid ticket. So much of my travel is standby that I made it a point to sit back, relax and enjoy the flight. Everything went smoothly until my brother and I landed in Madrid and began our hotel search. None of the owners spoke English. Weird. I'd figured a country that had been the destination of pilgrims and tourists for nearly a 1,000 years would have a more multilingual hotel industry. Oh well, I was glad I brought a Spanish phrase book!

The first day featured an abbreviated sightseeing schedule -- a little walking around Madrid and the Royal Palace. Layered thickly in room after room of the palace was giltwork, carvings, paintings, chandeliers and absolute luxury. I was glad we took a guided tour (a rarity for me). Otherwise, we would have missed distinctive features of the rooms as it was easy to get numbed by the richness.

A major disappointment was the noisiness of our hotel room that night. Our window looked out on a nightclub which was obviously THE place to be that evening. I'd heard that Madrid night life goes on and on till morning. It did. Never was I so glad to have brought earplugs (even an extra pair for Brian). Shouting, horns honking, music blaring -- it was insufferable. It was still going on when we left that morning for our day trip to Toledo.

The medieval city of Toledo is tucked into a bend in the Tagus River, high on a bluff overlooking the countryside. Its walls shone pale orange in the slanting morning sun as we crossed the footbridge over a gorge into the city. The streets wound back and forth, climbing or descending steeply. We made our way to the main plaza, then veered off to the cathedral. It was an awesome spectacle inside. The domed roof was artfully pierced so shafts of light struck bright color from ceiling frescoes. Gold glimmered dustily on statues, crosses, ornamental carvings, chalices -- you name it.

From there, we wandered towards the Alcazar, which is Spanish for castle. This particular alcazar is more modern fort than anything historical. The building is mostly reconstruction. The only thing worthwhile is the great collection of swords, from 16th century wavy-bladed two-handed swords to corroded green bronze ones from 500 B.C. and before. We followed the visit with lunch outdoors in the main plaza. Then we wandered around Toledo a bit, checking out the thick, bastioned medieval gates, the walls, a former mosque now a church and the racks and racks of famous Toledo swords for sale in the shops. I resisted the temptation to add another one to my apartment walls.

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The castle in Segovia, my favorite city in Spain

The next day we took the morning train to Segovia. An icy breeze greeted us as we steeped off, but it soon warmed up into a third gorgeous day. We bought a walking guidebook to the city and began at the cathedral. It was not as ornate inside as Toledo's, but more striking outside. We followed the guide's text along the streets toward the castle, stopping where it described interesting churches, facades, and carved, ornamental entrances along the way. The castle itself was impressive with pointy-roofed towers, tall main keep and a commanding view of the surrounding plains. It rises up from the leading edge of the ridge the city is built on like the prow of a ship. Also, inside the castle was an interesting collection of actual medieval and renaissance artillery -- bombards, mortars and such, as well as halberds, swords and armor. We made our way back through town, stopping where the guidebook pointed out the frequent churches, towers and nobles' halls. Many were six or seven centuries old.

After lunch, we made our way to Segovia's star attraction -- the Roman aqueduct. Built nearly 2,000 years ago, this bridgelike structure spans the valley from a nearby hill towards the town. Its arches rise higher and higher as it nears the walls. Its huge, gray stone blocks were joined together without mortar or cement -- and it still stands complete today. As I ran my hand along the ancient stone, my soul stirred. The Romans are my favorite civilization from History. This had been built by them, their legions had marched alongside it, and here I was, marveling, as I walked beside it. It was like touching History.

After that, it was down the steep hillsides into the plains below the city. We visited a church built by the Knights Templar -- warriors from the Crusades who were also monks. It was a strange, 12-sided building with another tiny, two-storey structure in its interior. We also poked through a nearby monastery, another church, and finally, I climbed a hill for an awesome view of the walled city rising up in front of me.

The next morning we took the bullet train to Seville. After finding a room, we walked down to the city center in the steadily rising heat. The Royal Castle was a gorgeous Moorish-style palace. The walls and ceilings were encrusted with intricate carvings of vegetation or abstract patterns. The palace was packed with tourists, as could be expected. We made it a point to put off seeing the nearby cathedral until later in the day to avoid some of the crush. We walked around the city after lunch, taking in a Moorish tower, the river, the bullfighting ring, etc., before finally tackling the cathedral. It is the largest in Europe, with an interior as ornate as we'd come to expect from Spanish cathedrals. As a matter of fact, Brian and I confessed to being a little "churched-out" by this point.

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The Alhambra, Granada

On the way back to our room (in the mid-90 degree heat), we spotted a restaurant/bar advertising NFL football that night. We came back for dinner and watched the first half of Brian's favorite Broncos beating up on the Cowboys. It was a good time, despite not being a Spanish-style evening like Flamenco or a bullfight. My guidebook claims that fewer and fewer Spaniards approve of the sport, and it is becoming tourist dollars that support this cruel spectacle. In addition, since authentic flamenco is spontaneous and doesn't break out till well after midnight, we chose to skip the staged, tourist offerings, too. If I missed some crucial experience here, then I suppose I will have to live without it.

Another train ride took us to Granada, our final city on the trip. I liked Granada quite a bit. On one side, the wooded hill of the Alhambra picturesquely rises, crowned by the massive, walled palace complex the city is known for. Climbing up the other hill is the Albacin -- the old Moorish quarter with its square white houses, twisting streets, laundry fluttering in the breeze and Arab charm. We chose to wander through it first (after getting our room), saving the Alhambra for the less crowed late afternoon. We were also debating which of two hiking excursions we would take tomorrow. We made our decision over an outdoor lunch in a square.

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Village in the Alpujarras

We took the mini-bus up to the Alhambra in the late afternoon. When you buy your ticket, you are given a half hour time slot for the Moorish Palace part of the complex. This is to keep down the crowds in the main attraction. Ours turned out to be for an hour and a half later, so we began our tour with Charles V's Palace, the walls and the dramatic views of the city the towers commanded. All this paled, though, when we entered the Moorish Palace. Picture an intricate, well-decorated wedding cake with multiple swirls and flourishes. Now blow that up to the size of a room, and that is what every chamber looks like. Every inch is carved, patterned or tiled. Walls, windows, floors -- everything. Much like the Royal Castle in Seville, you just tilt back your head and say, Wow!

If the Alhambra was man-made beauty, our destination the next day featured nature's beauty. The Alpujarra region (basically the southern face of the Sierra Nevada mountain range), is known for dramatic hills and valleys, with tiny, white villages clinging to their slopes. We took a bus to the highest of these and spent several hours strolling downhill through the various other villages. Since we were walking along paved road, it was hardly hiking -- but the scenery was excellent. The Arab-type villages were a delight -- many of the square, flat-roofed homes sported flowers beneath windows and decorative ceramic plates embedded in their white stucco. Granada was a fitting climax to our trip, allowing us to sample a far different flavor of Spain from Madrid.

On our final, full day in Spain, I spent several hours shopping for souvenirs in Granada before boarding the train north to Madrid. The cabin window provided a gorgeous view into the heart of the Andalusian region of Spain. Arid plains and hills, olive groves, rocky gorges, abandoned farms -- all flitted silently past. I'd read that this was a poor area, and the crumbling adobe walls and empty homes confirmed that. However, at our stops, entire families turned out to greet or bid goodbye to travelers on our train. Where life was, here, it still beat strongly.

I was able to reflect on the trip during the uneventful flight home. First, Spain had simply the best weather I had ever encountered. Every day was sunny and in the 80's (except Seville's 90-plus frying). I think we saw a total of five hours of clouds the entire week. With its historical sights, Spain had fulfilled my expectations. The people were friendly, for the most part, and I began to understand why travelers have come here for a 1000 years.

Posted by world_wide_mike 16:47 Archived in Spain Comments (0)

Netherlands Should be Known for Scenery - not "Red Lights"

Canals, waterways, and plenty of history make for a great substitute destination

rain 75 °F

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Windmill in Netherlands

Finland? Nope, no "midnight sun" for me this trip. The flights were full, and I was left stateside when the plane took off to plan what I would do instead. I saw that I could get to the Netherlands, and never having been there, decided that would be my new destination.

Continental Airlines upgraded me to business class for the trip over, so I didn't even mind the three hours sitting on the ground in Newark after we left the gate. I was mildly concerned I would miss my connection in Birmingham, England, to Amsterdam. However, that didn't happen, and Thursday afternoon I stepped out of the train station into the rain of downtown Amsterdam.

I splashed off towards a couple hotels my guidebook had recommended. Both were full, as were several others. So, I went back to the Tourist Information Office and booked a room through them. Hotels in Amsterdam are expensive, I found. After unpacking, I dozed off for a few hours. Slightly refreshed, and the rain having slowed to a drizzle, I went out to explore the city.

Amsterdam is a very beautiful city. The old town area where I stayed is ringed and cross-sectioned by a network of canals. This makes every other street a "riverwalk" of sorts. The curving waterways, their arching stone bridges, the three storey Renaissance-era buildings with their fancy facades and roof gables leaning over them, all make Amsterdam a scenic city.

Like all tourists, I had to walk through the "red light" district to see the prostitutes in their windows. I felt slightly embarrassed to be there, but I'm sure most of the others around me were sightseers like me -- not actually window shopping. The women are a mix of attractive and worn-looking, and they were wearing various types of lingerie. Interesting, but a bit unfair that such a scenic city is more known for this instead.

Friday morning I took the train to Arnhem, site of the famous WWII "Bridge Too Far" from Operation Market Garden. First, I went to the nearby Open Air Museum, which has rural buildings that have been brought there from all over Holland. The farmhouses, windmills, barns, drawbridges, mills, etc., are all from the last three centuries and are arranged among the rolling hills and woods into little villages. It was very interesting, and a nice way to see traditional, rural Holland in a short amount of time. After several hours there, I went to the Airborne Museum with its displays, exhibits, etc., from the famous battle. There were tons of photographs because a British combat photography team had made the parachute drop behind the German lines with the rest of the troops. I'm a big military history buff, so this was fun. Plus the sun came out and it turned out to be a great day. Of course, I had to walk out onto the actual Bridge. It, uh, wasn't too far...

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Cathedral, Delfft

The next day it was off to the scenic Dutch towns of Delft and Leiden. With canals, boats and lively street scenes, these were both picturesque. My second day of magnificent sunshine didn't hurt either. In Delft, I climbed the circular stone stairway of the Neiue Kerk (new church) tower. It was dusty, musty, and full of pigeon feathers. It was also very high -- which is why a good number of the tourists give up. Being the bold international traveler that I am, I persevered, and was rewarded with some incredible views.

That night I joined the throngs of Dutch soccer fans in Rembrandtplein (the square where my hotel was) to watch the world cup game against South Korea. It was fun, and reminded me a lot of our college football type crowds. The Dutch won, which brought plenty of spilled beer to the bars.

The next day I took the bus to the fortified town of Naarden. It is completely ringed by two moats and elaborate earthworks in the form of six-pointed star. The brick-faced bastions are in good shape, and the floating islands of the "ravelins" in between each star point are also easily seen. The town itself is also really cool, with lots of Renaissance era buildings, cobblestone or brick streets, and plenty of Old World atmosphere. The weather in Holland continued to shine on me, so that only added to the enjoyment.

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Waterfront, Linden

The next morning I left Amsterdam. My flight was delayed, so I ended up missing my connection home in Birmingham. I'd figured this was a possibility, so shrugged it off and went to look for a B&B. After much knocking on doors in Marston Green (a suburb of Birmingham), I finally found one. Then I took the train to Coventry for some sightseeing (really cool Cathedrals and medieval buildings). Returning to the B&B, I ended up watching England's World Cup Soccer game with the owner and his dog. We downed quite a few beers and had a good time. It was a good finish to my trip.

Business Class awaited me again on the flight home, which was good, and a huge air traffic control delay leaving Newark for Columbus, which wasn't good. I didn't get home till nearly 11 pm. My girlfriend Sharon was there to greet me, which was a nice surprise. Kind of like Holland itself was!

Posted by world_wide_mike 06:39 Archived in Netherlands Comments (0)

If History and the Exotic Entice You, Go to Istanbul

Problems of flying standby can't mar Turkey's sights

sunny 79 °F

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Built by the Emperor Justinian in the 6th Century A.D., the amazing St. Sophia Church, Istanbul

Many people are awakened Monday mornings by an alarm clock. Last Monday, mine made a much more eerie, exotic sound. At 6:14 am, the mullahs began their call to prayer for the Istanbul faithful. It echoed across the quiet, sleeping city, half song, half chant. It was a beautiful sound.

We had arrived in Turkey a day later than anticipated -- the flights from Newark, Boston and JFK had been full on Saturday night. So, our first decision was an unpleasant one. We pared Izmir with its nearby ruins of Ephesus and ancient Pergamun from our itinerary. We flew directly to Istanbul and spent all three days there. We stayed in the"Sultanahmet" quarter -- the old city -- within the old Byzantine city walls.

The first afternoon we spent orienteering ourselves, then visiting the Hippodrome (no stadium left, but several obelisks), the old sea walls and the ruined Palace of Boucephalon. Night fell very quickly, we learned, as it was dark by 6:30 pm.

The next day was our "big sights day." We started at the Aya Sofya, or former Byzantine church of St. Sophia. The huge dome was amazing, even more so when you realize it was built in the 6th century AD. Some of the mosaics the Ottomans plastered over had been restored, but it still looked like a mosque with the oriental decoration. Of course, the four minarets added on by the Turks after they took Constantinople helped, too. It was neat to pace around its dimly-lit interior, knowing that this was the place nearly all Byzantine emperors had prayed. And it was where the final emperor held mass before he marched out to his death as the city fell. Very humbling.

Next we crossed to the Sultan Ahmet or "Blue Mosque." This was a "working" mosque, unlike Sofya, so we had to remove our shoes to go inside. Where Sofya had given a feel of gray stone all around you, this was a much more colorful, luxurious feel. The wall to wall Turkish carpets were plush, and the decoration on every foot of the inside was ornate. As you padded around the interior in your socks, it gave the feel of walking through a wealthy family's unused, over-decorated living room. Despite the throngs of people, there was a feeling of rest and quiet.

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The Blue Mosque, across the street from St. Sophia, Istanbul

After that, we were off to the Byzantine cisterns. They are underground, lined with columns, and constantly dripping water. The level in the cistern is only about a foot, now, and wooden planks meander a path through the maze-like interior. Up until recently, they played classical music with colorful lights in the cavern, but some apparently felt that was too tacky. Now, it is a modern art exhibit, of sorts. Several screens showed a weird clip of someone blowing up a balloon (with the camera inside it, and close-ups of their mouth). The speakers made the hiss of air echo throughout the cistern, mingling oddly with the ever-present sound of dripping water.

Then, we were off to the Covered Bazaar -- another cavern of sorts. This one, though, was thronged with people, the lights of the shops gleaming on the gold, ceramics, inlaid boxes, swords, leather, carpets and myriad other things they were selling. It reminded me of the old markets of Jerusalem, Mexico, Greece -- you name it. The shop owners enticed passers by with offers of bargains, and the scale of the place overwhelmed the senses.

Next, we took a quick cab to the old Byzantine city walls. This was my traveling companion's favorite part, and it struck my history nerve deeply, too. We wandered around on them for an hour or so, climbing up towers, admiring the view of the sea and city. I pictured myself as a Byzantine soldier, pacing along the walls, looking out at the empire's enemies -- Persians, Slavs, Bulgars, Arabs -- none of them pierced the walls.

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City Walls, Constantinople

From there, we crossed the harbor to the Galata Tower. The view from the tower was impressive -- the Asian side was a haze pierced by the slender barbs of minarets, while the old city was clearer. I could identify Aya Sofya, the Blue Mosque, and several others we visited that day.

Our final day began with a wander through the grounds of Topkapi Palace, which is on the tip of the Golden Horn -- as the peninsula the old city was built on is called. Most of the palace is a museum with clothes, jewelry, porcelain, arms, paintings, etc., behind glass. I did get to see the sword and bow of the Prophet Mohammed, which was neat. The grounds were the best part, though. The luxury of the sultans could be easily imagined as you moved from ornate room to even more gilded ones.

Next, we took a small boat tour of the Bosporous, the strait that separates Europe and Asia. It gave a good picture of how far along the banks metropolitan Istanbul sprawls. We landed at a small, rather touristy village on the Asian shore (allowing my companion to stake his claim to visiting Asia), too. The best part was seeing the bustling waterways of the city, and the views from the water of the city, with its hills and their crowning mosques.

Finally, it was back to the Covered Bazaar for our required souvenir purchases. I think I wore my friend out as I pursued the ultimate bargain for more than an hour. I enjoy the haggling over prices, and set a (cheapskate) amount I'm willing to pay for an item. It takes awhile before I find a store willing to sell the item for that amount, though.

Our flight home the next day was not worry-free, though. We got the last of several open seats out of Istanbul, had to twist the arm of the Lufthansa agents in Frankfurt to let us fly to Chicago instead of Boston, and then nearly got stranded in Chicago! My lovely airline, America West, canceled one of its flights to Columbus. The extra passengers then filled up all the other airlines' flights, plus some. However, they sent too many (as it turned out) to O'Hare to ensure everyone got there, which left a few empty seats on the final Columbus flight of the day. We gladly took those, and ended our 24 hours of flying at about 11 pm, Thursday.

All in all, it was a great trip. Istanbul was modern and accessible. My few words of hastily-learned Turkish were completely unnecessary. The city does seems to drip with history and exotic sights. And if those things are "calling" you like the mullahs from the minarets, I highly recommend it.

Posted by world_wide_mike 19:25 Archived in Turkey Comments (0)

Third Time in Italy & Still a Charm

Rome & Venice are highlights, but Ravenna and San Marino impress, too

sunny 82 °F

Other trips to Italy:
Summer 2015 Educational tour with my students
Solo trip to southern Italy (solo)

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Arch of Constantine, Rome

My most recent trip to Italy, I figured, would be smooth sailing -- no surprises. This was my third time there, but the first for my girlfriend, Sharon. The bulk of our time would be spent in Rome and Venice, which I had visited before. As it turned out, this was to be a vacation of surprises.

The only unpleasant one, though, occurred right away. Due to weather delays in Chicago, we couldn't fly out Sunday night as planned. Our Monday afternoon departure forced us to compact our time in Rome.

Our hotel was near The Vatican, which we would visit the next day. Our first was spent touring Rome's antiquities -- the Colosseum, the Forum, etc. As we emerged from the Colosseo subway stop, Rome's landmark stood before us, basked in sunshine. Its size stops you in your tracks, so we paused, drank a bottle of cold water, and admired it. Sharon was amazed at the contrast of modern traffic buzzing by the nearly 2,000 year-old structure.

Once inside, I was pleasantly surprised to find the upper tier was open (last time here, it'd been closed). As you walk around various points of its oval, the views were impressive. Nothing funny happened on our way to the Forum, our next stop. At first sight, the Forum is an incomprehensible clutter -- a ruined building there, just a couple of columns here, rubble in other places, and temples that were turned into Christian churches. With a guidebook and time to let it sink in, the heart of ancient Rome takes shape around you. Some of the buildings and monuments were closed off or encased in scaffolding. Unfortunately, this included Titus' Arch and the House of the Vestal Virgins, two of my favorite Forum sights. We did see the Arch of Constantine earlier, though, by the Colosseum. It remained impressive.

Sharon wanted a glimpse of the Vestal's house, so we climbed the Palatine Hill, which looms over the Forum. The wooded slopes blocked most of the view, but we did find another surprise atop the hill. Sprawling across the slopes were the massive ruins of the Palace of Domitian. How I missed this on my last visit, I don't know. Off the beaten track, and hidden amid the trees from the hubbub of urban Rome, the ruin has a desolate beauty. The westering sun struck a red glow from the rocks and ankle high grass. We finished a busy day with stops at Trajan's Column, the Trevi Fountain and the Spanish Steps.

The next morning we made our pilgrimage to St. Peter's, and joined the crowd tiptoeing through the massive church, gazing up in awe at its gilded splendor. Sharon was deeply moved by its beauty and majesty. Next, we strolled through the Vatican Museum, examining classical sculptures, paintings, artifacts (including Egyptian mummies) and other treasures that the church has collected through the ages.

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Grand Canal, Venice

Then, we flew to Venice -- the stop Sharon most looked forward to. I had told her that Venice is the most gorgeous city in the world. As we slowly curved our way through the Grand Canal aboard a vaporetto (water bus), and the rows of palaces, domed churches, striped piers, and gondolas revealed themselves, I saw her face light up. I knew she agreed. We had timed it perfectly, too. The evening sun caused the pastel shades of the stucco facades to glow neon colors, and the water to sparkle as the busy boat traffic cut patterns in it. Venice was our city to take it easy and relax. Although we did see St. Mark's Square, went to the top of the Campanile for the view, and climbed the Rialto Bridge, we did it slowly, savoring the city. I still say Venice, La Serenissima (Most Serene), is the most beautiful city.

Sadly, the time to leave Venice came, and we chugged southwards by train a couple hours to Ravenna. The glory days of Ravenna came around the fall of the Roman Empire -- one of my favorite periods of history. A half dozen churches, baptisteries and mausoleums contain 1,500-year-old mosaics. We were stunned by their color and liveliness. The colors looked as fresh as if they were mixed on a palette this morning.

One mosaic, inside the Basilca San Vitale, had a scene I recognized from a couple of my books on the Byzantine Empire. When I saw it, immediately identifying the Emperor Justinian and his guardsmen, I nearly jumped at the thrill. I hadn't realized this mosaic was in Ravenna. Later, we had our best dinner of the trip at the Ristorante Gardelia in the city.

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Tower, San Marino

The next day was one of the true disappointments of the vacation. The weather turned very cold and very rainy for our day trip to the Republic of San Marino -- a separate nation located completely inside Italy. It is a couple hours south of Ravenna, and is built on a towering,craggy hill. The mist closed in on the city and we saw little of its famous views from atop its castles and towers. We shivered through most of the day, getting only occasional teases of what it would be like, when the rolling mist cleared in the valley, and we saw the villages far below.

The next morning came too early, as we took a 5 am train to Milan for our flight home. It had been a fun week, which went by way too fast. However, in every city there had been surprises, contrary to my expectations. It just shows that Italy is a land so thick with sights and wonders, that three times three trips there would not be enough to have seen it all...

Posted by world_wide_mike 07:56 Archived in Italy Comments (0)

Malaysia is a Pleasant Surprise & More Than Expected

Chinese, Hindu, and Malay blend to create a modern yet traditional city

sunny 93 °F

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The KL Towers, Kuala Lumpar

Towering, sleek, modern skyscrapers, colorful, intricate Hindu temples, spacious, gleaming mosques. It seemed strange that the images of Kuala Lumpur could be so many things, but still not quite what I pictured. Neither Gale (my traveling companion) nor I expected Malaysia to be so modern and accessible.

Yet there we were, plopped down in front of the Coliseum Hotel and Restaurant, after more than 20 hours in the air. It was hot -- much more so than I expected. And when the rooms at the hotel didn't live up to our expectations, it was hotter still as we walked the streets looking for a place to stay. After much backtracking, we found the Noble House Hotel and checked into its cleaner (and air conditioned) confines. After refreshing showers, we were revitalized -- ready to explore the streets of Kuala Lumpur.

We saw quite a bit that first day, too. The brightly-painted Hindu temples were a joy to explore. Every square foot was decorated with statues or carvings from the Hindu pantheon: blue-skinned men; elephant-faced deities; shaven-headed priests; archers; heroes; and princesses. This colorful bit of history contrasted sharply with the sight of the modern, twin KL Towers, gleaming like two spires of golden steel in the setting sun. The view from the observation deck we found overlooking the towers and the city was superb, giving a hundred-mile panorama of the city.

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Hindu temple carvings

The next morning, I took a bus a couple hours south to Melaka, with its Dutch colonial background. This used to be the main city on the Malay peninsula until recent history and was resplendent in historic buildings. Chinese temples, Dutch churches, a stubborn stone gate tower (all that remains of Melaka's once-impressive fortifications), and gilded palatial homes of Chinese merchants made for hours of colorful walking. A boat trip along Melaka's river exposed the waterfront origins of the town, along with rows of traditional homes built on stilts. I even glimpsed a monitor lizard as it waddled out of the murky green water and up onto the bank.

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Gate Tower, Melaka

That night, I met Gale (who'd taken a day trip to Singapore) back at the Coliseum restaurant for Tiger beers and its signature, savory steak dinner. The juicy meat is plopped down onto a metal platter in front of you, then a bubbling broth is poured onto it. A hissing cloud of steam arises, diners shielding themselves from the heat by raising the edges of the tablecloth. The steam bath is the final touch, creating one of the best steaks I've ever eaten.

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Hindu Caves north of city

On our final morning in Malaysia, we took a taxi north to some limestone caves that were the site of a Hindu holy place. A wide staircase, decorated with carvings, leads to the top of the inner cave, which is partially open to the sky. Monkeys prowl the red steps, hoping for a handout. Sometimes, when disappointed, they take matters into their own, tiny hands. Gale was startled by one he named "Little Bastard" who leaped off a railing and snatched a bag of birdseed from him. The thief quickly retreated atop a post to enjoy his ill-gotten gains undisturbed.

Monkeys aside, those we met in Malaysia were friendly and helpful. The country is a mix of several cultures -- Malays, Chinese and Indians. The legacy of British colonial rule made it easy for us English speakers to get around. To this day, I'm not sure what I'd expected in Malaysia. I only know it exceeded them in color, richness and warmth. Twenty hours in the air was a small price to pay for my memories of Malaysia.

Posted by world_wide_mike 16:52 Archived in Malaysia Comments (0)

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