A Travellerspoint blog

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)

Short Trip to Budapest Shows Off City's Sights

Two towns of Buda & Pest combine for a good city break

sunny 75 °F

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View across Danube to Pest

When I got the telephone call Sunday night, I knew our trip to Hungary would not go as planned. Scott and Gale were to fly the next day on Malev Airlines, while Mike and I traveled to Budapest on Austrian. Scott phoned with the news that Malev had canceled their flight, though. As it wound up, after delaying our trip one day, Mike and I went on without them.

I was compensated with an eagle-like view of Budapest as we flew in -- I could clearly see the city's layout and several landmarks. After we touched down, a late afternoon rain set it, cloaking the city in mist. We did get to walk around a bit, admiring the sprawling Parliament building and having dinner in a riverside restaurant (called the Columbus Pub, of all things!). We turned in early, though, knowing we had to cram all our sightseeing into tomorrow.

The next morning, we retraced our footsteps along the banks of the Danube River until we came to the massive Chain Bridge (site of the first permanent span across the river). Here, we crossed from flatter Pest to hilly Buda -- historically, two separate towns. We rode a funicular car up to the summit, admiring the city stretching out beneath us. We toured the Buda's Old City -- the Royal Palace, St. Matthias Church with its brightly-patterned roof tiles, the seven towers of the Fisherman's Bastion, and the quiet, cobbled streets and pastel-colored, centuries-old homes.

From there, we crossed to Margarita Island (Budapest's "Central Park"). We then took a cab to what I call a "fake castle." It was pretty, with tree-lined moat, towers and walls, but was a modern construction. We walked to Independence Square, looking up at the statues of the Magyar horsemen and all the kings of Hungary. The sun was slowly sinking as we returned to the Danube, and climbed to the top of domed St. Stephen's Cathedral, enjoying its views. From there, we strolled Vaci Utca, Budapest's shop-lined pedestrian boulevard. We lingered by the Danube's bridges and watched the sun set.

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Chain Bridge at night, Budapest

Dinner was a chance to continue my Pizza Hut tradition! I would estimate I've eaten at dozens of these "tastes of home" in various countries around the world. Why? Who knows? Just a light-hearted tradition. Our dessert was a picturesque night-time stroll along the Danube, with its bridges, churches and palaces brightly illuminated. Their golden glow reflected in the water, which rippled like molten brass as it passed beneath the shining buildings. It was almost as if the city was apologizing for our shortened trip -- wishing us to keep only golden memories of Budapest.

Posted by world_wide_mike 08:17 Archived in Hungary Comments (0)

Dubai is a Taste of the Exotic in a Tiny Country

Mishap with lost bag doesn't spoil the sights or experiences

sunny 90 °F

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Dubai Waterfront, called "The Creek"

Shopping for underwear in NOT how I like to begin a trip to a foreign country.

Yet, there I was, in Dubai on a Saturday morning -- wearing the same clothes I'd put on Thursday afternoon, looking for a new set. In London, Emirates Airways had forced me to check my lone bag (a carry-on) because it was too heavy. Too big, I'd heard before, but never too heavy. And surprise, surprise, it wasn't on the bag belt Friday night when I finally made it through customs. I'd figured it'd been stolen since it took me more than an hour to clear passport control. By the time I filed my claim with the airline, the hotel driver had left, figuring I'd missed the flight. So, it was well after midnight before I got to bed -- not a good start, to say the least!

The first day was a tad painful, at times. I'd worn my dress shoes on the flight, planning to switch to my walking shoes during my stay. My itinerary, culled from my Lonely Planet guidebook, called for a lot of walking. However, both guidebook and walking shoes were in the bag. Thank God I'd pulled my camera out before checking it!

Lest anyone think the United Arab Emirates was a "trip from Hell," it actually wasn't. I saw quite a bit of the city of Dubai that first day. A "free trade port," Dubai is kind of like a Middle Eastern Singapore or Panama. An ocean inlet (called "The Creek" for some reason) twists like a river through the city, dividing it in two. The crowd of modern skyscrapers looming over the old-style, wooden boats along the water front is quite picturesque. It seemed an Arabic town in only the vaguest of ways. More like a cosmopolitan Eastern city with Arab spices -- mosques, traditional wind towers to catch breezes and funnel them down into the building, and occasional walled, sand-colored, century-old sheik's homes.

I wandered through the Souks, or bazaars, smelling the exotic spices, looking at racks of gold jewelry and bundles of multi-colored, shimmering textiles used to make traditional clothing for the large Indian community. As a matter of fact, I'd estimate half of the population of Dubai is NOT Arab. Besides the numerous Indians, there are Pakistanis, Bangladeshis, Afghanis, Orientals, Europeans and Africans. While strolling amidst this polyglot crowd, twice I almost purchased a pair of sandals to wear for the remainder of the trip. I held off, hoping my bag would show up.

Later that night, the hotel said Emirates thought the bag might arrive on the 9 pm flight. Phone back at 11 pm, they said. After an excellent Chicken Shish kabob at Pumpy's Restaurant, I went to bed, setting my alarm to phone Emirates at 11 pm. My spirits climbed about 11 notches when they said they had it, and would deliver it that night. The next morning I was so happy to see my bag. It reminded me of a time in O'Hare that Sharon hugged her suitcase after it finally showed up on the belt following a several hour wait. I almost did the same.

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Al Khandaq Fort, Oman

So, it was in my good walking shoes, armed with guidebook, that I set out the next morning for the town of Al-Ain. Built upon a desert oasis, it straddles the border with the neighboring country of Oman. No visas are needed to cross over, so I was a neat way to get a taste of another country (and another flag to put on my apartment bannistar!). The Al Khandaq fort in Oman proved to be the highlight of the day. Its 400-year-old walls and towers have been extensively restored. I roamed the battlements and climbed the ladders to the top of the towers. No other visitors were there -- I had the whole fort to myself! The view of the oasis from atop the towers was great.

The Souk in Oman proved to be a disappointment -- mostly food and household items. I was hoping to find one of those curved, Omani daggers to put on my wall. The difference between the Oman side and the UAE side of the town was striking. It is the emir of Abu Dhabi's hometown, and he has lavished money on the UAE side, turning it into a garden town, with flowers, green grass, and ornamental sculptures in the middle of the traffic circles. The Al-Ain museum is very large and modern, too, for so small a town.

I had an interesting taste of Gulf Arab culture when I bought stamps at the post office. It took a half hour to get to the front of the line, mainly because of the multitude of line jumpers. Arab women are encouraged to walk immediately to the front. The wealthier native Arabs do the same. The rest of us riff-raff foreigners must simply suffer it.

Upon returning to Dubai, I finalized my arrangements for Monday's desert safari. Since the company wouldn't be picking me up till 3:30 pm, I had quite a bit of time to polish off my Dubai sightseeing. I shopped at the Gold Souk, took a boat ride up and down The Creek, and photographed some of the mosques.

The hotel manager was VERY accommodating. Since my flight to London left at 2:45 am the next morning, he let me wait till 3 pm to check out, then said he'd give me a room to shower and change when I returned from my safari -- at no cost for the day. I was in the lobby when the Toyota Land Cruiser arrived to pick me up for the safari. I immediately hit it off with my three companions -- an Englishman and a young, Scottish couple. Our driver/guide promised four-wheeling up and down the sand dunes would be a blast -- and it was. I'd been hesitant about the safari, feeling it might be too touristy. It was awesome, though.

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Camel Farm, U.A.E.

A couple of times, when we bounced to the crest of a dune, and looked down the steep, sandy slope, we all gasped, "No way!" An automobile couldn't make it down without flipping or rolling! Yet we did. Sometimes, the driver would let off the gas and we would slowly slide down by ourselves -- gravity and the slippery sand doing more of the work than the wheels. It was more like skiing than driving. The scenery around us heightened the experience -- the sun sinking in the west, the occasional camel plodding past, the wind-rippled surfaces of the dunes. It was quite memorable.We stopped at a camel farm, where racing camels are trained. I'd always heard that they were ill-tempered brutes, but these were docile as sleepy dogs. You could pet them, hug them, pose with your face next to theirs, mimicking their ridiculous expressions, and they just stood there placidly.

Afterwards, we bounced in our land cruiser to our camp site, where we'd have our Bedouin Barbecue. The camp was set in a tiny valley surrounded by high sand dunes and a circular wooden fence. First off, we tried our hand at sand boarding, which is exactly like snow boarding, except you do it down the dunes instead of ski slopes. We warned to fall backwards if we felt ourselves tumbling. In our group's various trips, only one of us made it down all the way without falling. I made it very close before pitching forward and promptly forgetting the warning. Sand was in my hair, my ears, my face, my neck -- everywhere. It was a blast, though!

We celebrated with a few Heinekins, and a camel ride around the stockade. I was disappointed no Arab boys ran up shouting, "El Lawrence! El Lawrence!" Next, was the belly dancer and the barbecue under the bright desert stars. All in all, it was an excellent evening.

On the trip home, I was glad of the shower, for the flights seemed to drag. From the time I left for the airport, till getting home, it was 31 hours. I took three flights through nine time zones. This time, my bag rode with me the whole way, though. So, upon arrival, shopping for new underwear was mercifully not required.

Posted by world_wide_mike 08:17 Archived in United Arab Emirates Comments (0)

A Visit to Jordan Tugs at Your Heart Strings

Ancient ruins & beautiful scenery bring delight at a sad time

sunny

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Roman ruins, Jerash

We heard the news shortly after we landed. The King was dead. How would this effect our trip to Jordan? This thought, along with sadness for the passing of a great man, a peacemaker, was foremost in my mind.

Its first effect was to force us to dig into our backup passes. The El Al flight from Tel Aviv to Amman had filled up. As we were given the last two seats on the Royal Jordanian flight, we were asked if we, too, were journalists.

The night was chilly and wet when we landed in Amman's Queen Alia International Airport. Despite switching flights, we were still pretty much on schedule. Our tour representative, Hassam (a very Western-looking Arab), ushered us through Customs. He then introduced us to our very Middle Eastern-looking driver/guide, Mohammed. His head wrapped in a traditional red and white checkered khafeyah, he seemed a slightly ominous presence. Driving through the night along streets lined with assault-rifle-armed soldiers only heightened the feeling. Mohammed introduced himself and welcomed us to the Hashemite Kingdom of Jordan. We expressed sympathy for his nation's loss. That first night, Mohammed seemed a solemn man who chose his words carefully.

Our hotel was Western style and way, way above the standard I usually stay in. Four star, was my guess. After settling in, we had a beer in the bar and watched Jordanian television show scenes of the mass outpouring of grief by the crowds in the streets. The only other occupants of the bar were a half-dozen Arab men in suits, who also watched entranced, speaking to one another softly.

The bright gray sky the next morning dispelled my worries of the night before. Today, our sightseeing began in earnest. A much more talkative Mohammed picked us up early and we drove about 45 minutes north to Jerash. He regaled us with a history of Jordan, from the Stone Age to present. History would prove to be a favorite topic of his. And as he parked the car near the ruins of the ancient Roman city of Jerash, History came alive.

Our first sight was of Hadrian's Arch - built in honor of the Roman emperor's visit. I paced through it, slowly drinking it in. Next door were the tumbled remains of the Hippodrome's oval chariot track. Past these, another arched gateway marked entry into the Roman city proper. I could have wandered for a day or more. The great Roman street, the Cardo, stretched away into the distance. Its surface was paved diagonally with large stones, its edges lined with columns, some capped by carved lintels. Great staircases lead up from the street to various temples, shops, fountains and other less identifiable remnants of buildings. I stood at the center of the stage of a 3,000-seat Roman theater, listened to the perfect acoustics carry voices to the far reaches of the upper deck. I crouched inches from a colorful, intricate mosaic floor in a 6th century Byzantine church. On the high points of the city's rolling hills, I gazed out over the ruins and imagined the city as it once was. Next to this, Italy's own Roman cities of Pompeii and Herculanaem paled. A staunch Romanophile, my heart soared.

A light drizzle began to fall as we drove further north, into the hills that ran all the way to the Syrian border. The Arab castle of Aljoun awaited us, sited majestically on the highest peak in the area. Its stones were slick and its interior damp as we poked through hallways and caverns. Once atop the battlements, we looked out on a foggy sea of clouds. Aljoun's famous views were shut to us, but a castle in the mist is hardly a real disappointment. It had been built to fence in the expanding Crusader realm to the south. It fell to the Mongols a century later, but was rebuilt after an Arab victory chased them out.

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Mosaic floor, Mt. Nebo

As we returned home, the clouds began to vanish. It was only early afternoon when our day with Mohammed ended, so after watching the solemn funeral on the television for awhile, we hopped into a taxi. We headed downtown to Amman's largest ancient site -- its huge Roman amphitheater. Built to hold 6,000, it dwarfed the ones at Jerash. We clambered around it for awhile, then stopped at a few more sights downtown. Then we hailed a taxi to take us to dinner, but Amman was a ghost town. All the shops and restaurants were closed in honor of the funeral. So, we settled for dinner at the hotel, and an early evening.

Tuesday, we proceeded south on the King's Highway -- a route already growing old in the biblical times. Mohammed pointed out Old Testament sights. Here was a valley the Israelites trekked through on their way to their land of milk and honey. There was a hill town they had to defeat to pass. In Madaba, the floor of a Byzantine era church was one giant, 1,000-year-old mosaic map of the Holy Land. Mohammed pointed out Jerusalem, Jericho, the Jordan River and other places. On Mount Nebo, the traditional burial place of Moses, we saw what the prophet saw when God showed him the Promised Land. The Dead Sea shimmering in the haze as a panorama of rugged hills with occasional lush green spots unfolded on three sides from the hill.

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Kerak Castle

Miles to the south, we came upon the Crusader castle of Kerak. The cliff it was built upon dominated the town below, unapproachable on three sides. We wandered through the castle's maze of caverns, tunnels and dungeons, then climbed its towers and keeps. Kerak was crumbling into a romantic decay, semi-ruined. As I stood on the walls, it was easy to imagine myself lifting the visor of my helm and scanning the hills below for signs of Saladin's Arab army. We ended the day in Wadi Musa, gateway town of the fabled Petra.

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The Treasury, Petra

It was Petra that brought me to Jordan. Written descriptions, photographs and video of the ancient Nabataen city carved out of red sandstone awoke a yearning in me to see it, much as a Muslim pilgrim thirsts for Mecca. We prayed that night for a day as sunny and beautiful as the last. In my mind, the colorful rock faces of its temples would not be as lustrous without the sun. What would Petra -- the city lost in the desert for a 1,000 years -- be without a wide open sky and blazing sun? I rushed to the window the next morning, tugged it open, and looked outside. No clouds. A chill morning, but clear.

And Petra was everything I'd imagined. Much larger than I'd guessed, it sprawled from canyon to canyon. The cliffs stared back down at us, the black eyes of their tomb entrances staring out from their ruddy faces. Mohammed guided us through the main sights of the central area for about four hours. We clambered up the sandstone seats of its theater, climbed carved steps to grand temple entrances and poked among the columns of ruined buildings on the valley floor. Mohammed then waved us forward to explore the nooks and crannies of Petra on our own.

We hiked a half hour to the monstrous temple face of Ad Deir -- largest in Petra (its facade bigger than London's Westminster Abbey). We climbed over the spine of hills into a less-touristed valley of tombs and temples, then spiraled our way up and up to the High Place of Sacrifice -- highest point in Petra. I shinnied up the rocks high above the Treasury for my own private view of Petra's most famous monument. There, I caught my breath and thanked the heavens for the gift I'd been given of being able to see the wonderful places of the world. Foot sore, we trudged back to our hotel, our hearts sated.

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Cliff faces in Petra

We began the final day of our trip driving south into the desert. Pausing to admire the view at the lip of Wadi Rum, we soon plunged down towards its tall, oddly-shaped granite spires and red-tinted sand. The dark-faced Bedouins who lived here did lucrative business taking tourists out into its surreal scenery. Guides could lead you afoot, by camel, or by jeep. Our tour called for a quick plunge into the Wadi's red sands, bouncing in the back of a Bedouin jeep. I would have liked a couple days to hike the area, where "Lawrence of Arabia" was filmed, but had to be content with a few hours. I could only imagine what fire the setting sun would spark in the colors of the sand and rocks towering above.

However, by sundown we were back at Queen Alia airport for our three-flight, 20-hour journey home. As we touched down in Columbus, I saw a much different color than Wadi Rum red -- the white of snow-covered roads, cars and rooftops. It was chilly and wet, but inside, my heart was still warmed by the sun of the Hashemite Kingdom of Jordan.

Posted by world_wide_mike 08:01 Archived in Jordan Comments (0)

Short Cruise Stops in Sweden Leaves Visitors Wanting More

So much to see in Sweden, but so little time!

sunny 74 °F

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Viking longship in Stockholm harbor

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

We were supposed to have most of Sunday and half of Monday to sightsee in Stockholm, before our cruise began. However, our aerial misadventures on Northwest and KLM cheated us out of the first day. So, Sharon and I had four hours to see everything we wanted.

Impossible, of course. However, we gamely began in Gamla Stan, the Old Town. Built on a series of islands and linked by bridges, Stockholm is a picturesque city. Pastel-colored Medieval or Renaissance-era buildings crowded together around narrow alleyways and cobbled streets. We peeked inside the Royal Palace a bit, but opted out of the detailed tour due to time. We then strolled to Stortorget, where the Stockholm Stock Exchange building presides over a colorful square lined with cafes and a fountain replete with water-spouting gargoyle.

We also walked along Vasterlanggatan, which appears to be the main tourist street, with souvenir shops clustered along it. Sharon bought a couple things, then we crossed the bridge to Ridderholmen (Island of Knights). It had a more stately air, with the Grey Friars Monastery and the Swedish High Court building. However, along the waterfront, it was peaceful and pretty. There were nice views across the water to the other islands of the city.

Time was running short, though, so we cut back across the Old Town, past the palace again, and through one of the medieval gates. We stocked up on soft drinks and bottled water (Holland America, in what I think is a senseless policy, charges for these, but not food, coffee or tea). Back aboard the M.S. Maasdam, we took up seats on one of the stern observation decks for a different kind of sightseeing. Our Baltic cruise began with a sail through the Swedish archipelago. Under brilliant blue skies, we watched Sweden's shores drift by. The hilly islands were thick with trees and nearly every rise had a brightly-painted cottage perched on top of it. Maroon walls with white trim seemed to be the most popular style. This crisp scene was a perfect tonic, washing away the disappointment of the previous day's traveling.

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Medieval houses, Visby, on the island of Gotland

We were off to Estonia, Russia and Finland. Five days later, though, we were back in Sweden, when our ship stopped at Visby, on the island of Gotland. Visby is known as the Town of Roses and Ruins, and is a gorgeously-restored medieval city encircled by 13th-14th century walls. With its historic buildings and flower-bedecked homes, every street is picturesque.

I bought a walking guidebook and we traced its route down streets of tiny, colorful homes, garlanded with red, yellow and pink roses, inside gray stone churches and abbeys, climbed into circular towers overlooking the walls, and across charming squares lined with pastel buildings and sun-drenched cafes. Sharon was reminded of Massachusett's Nantucket Island while walking around Visby. Both are immaculately kept up, both have a nostalgic feel. The houses on both islands seem to be more summer homes or retiree's nests, rather than a town with a workday rhythm. As such, Visby is a popular vacation spot for Swedes.

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View of main cathedral, Visby

We explored Visby at a leisurely pace, and ended our visit with a late afternoon beer in one of the cafes. Although Sharon and I did not have a lot of time to see Sweden, like the beer we drank, we enjoyed our taste of it. One day, perhaps we call again in its ports, and stay longer.

Posted by world_wide_mike 09:13 Archived in Sweden Comments (0)

Finland in Summer is a Delight

Helsinki's parks and cafes encourage the visitor to linger

sunny 72 °F

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Helsinki's Lutheran Cathedral, Senate Square

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

Ever since meeting a group of Finns when I worked on a kibbutz in Israel nearly 20 years ago, I have wanted to visit Finland. Two years ago, I had my backpack ready and was waiting in the boarding area of JFK, but there'd been no open seats (the curse of the standby traveler). This time, though, I'd get there for sure: It was a scheduled stop on our Baltic cruise.

With only one day to see Helsinki, Sharon and I began our sightseeing walking from the dock to the harbor area, stopping on the way to see the red-brick Russian Orthodox church. From there, the outdoor market was lively and interesting -- a blend of tourist items and everyday things for the city's people. They were lined up a dozen deep at the fishing boats, buying the morning's fresh catch. Being summer, we couldn't force ourselves to pick up any of the gorgeous sweaters or Winter wear. However, Sharon did grab a couple T-shirts and we made a mental note to come back and buy sandwiches here for lunch.

It was another glorious, beautiful Summer day in the Baltics (every single day of our cruise was sunny and in the 70s!). The Finns were out in force sunning themselves in the parks and cafes. As it turned out, Helsinki would be Sharon's favorite stop on our cruise. We agreed that that the parks, streets and buildings were very clean and pretty. I felt if I had to pick from all our stops where I'd want to live, Finland would win easily. That morning, we saw the Presidential Palace (Sharon enjoyed the fact that the current president is a woman), Senatorial Square with its simple, green-domed Lutheran Cathedral presiding, and then detoured to see the impressive Train Station and National Theater.

We had lunch in a jam-packed outdoor cafe (the market had closed early, so there went our sandwich idea!), and narrowed our choices down for the afternoon's sightseeing. We could either take a ferry to Suomenlinna -- Helsinki's 18th century fortress built across several islands, or take a harbor boat cruise (which would sail by it and other sights). Sharon was leaning towards the harbor cruise, so I didn't want to inflict another military history sight on her. The harbor tour was a fairly extensive one (two hours), that went past the numerous wooded islands that pepper the harbor.

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Summer homes, Helsinki harbor

Along the shores of these islands were the summer homes of the wealthier citizens -- each with a tiny sauna by the water side. For the Finns, the sauna is an obsession. I'd been told by Finns that they don't really feel clean if they simply shower. First they must sweat in the sauna, THEN shower to feel truly clean. Plus, it is a form of recreation for them to sit for hours in there with family and friends, making frequent trips to the cold waters of a lake or harbor, then dashing back into the sauna. To me, it sounds like a recipe for pneumonia! That is one of the neat things about traveling, finding out these tidbits about other cultures. And the Finns ARE a unique people -- not really Scandinavian, per se. Other than Estonian, the closest language is Hungarian. Hearing Finnish spoken is an unusual sound. All their words seem to be a dozen letters long. They are an attractive people, though, typically with wide faces, high cheekbones, and almost Asian eyes.

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Suomenlinna, Fortress of Finland

Sharon really enjoyed the harbor tour, although the breeze was quite chilly once out on the open water. It was neat to see the Finn's summer water playground, and get good views of Helsinki from the water. In retrospect, I'd probably had preferred to spend time on Suomenlinna, instead. Later in the evening, when our cruise ship left Helsinki harbor, we sailed right past it. From the top decks, I got a good view of the stone, star-shaped fort and was impressed. It looked like a place I could spend hours wandering around. However, I had not waited 20 years to see Finland only to be satisfied with a one-day visit. I will doubtless be back. There is the lake country to see, Lapland, and of course, Suomenlinna.

Posted by world_wide_mike 09:03 Archived in Finland Comments (0)

St. Petersbug's Lavish Sights Worth the Visa Splurge

Two-day cruise stop allows you to see most of the Russian city's highlights

sunny 75 °F

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

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St. Isaac's Cathedral

I'm sure for many one of the big selling points of our Baltic cruise was our two-day stop in St. Petersburg, Russia. It also presented Sharon and I with a dilemma -- shell out the money for Holland America's overpriced, guided tours, or pay a premium for a Russian visa. With a visa, we could travel independently. Without it, the only time we'd be allowed off the ship during the two days was when we were taking part in a pre-purchased tour.

I convinced a reluctant Sharon we would be able to get around fine by ourselves. I'd read numerous guidebooks -- all said St. Petersburg was safe. You simply needed to exercise the same caution you do in any large city. At the end of our two days there, Sharon admitted I'd been right. We had a great time and saw many wonderful places.

Our sightseeing got off to a bumpy start, though -- literally! The taxi ride from the ship (once again, Holland America docked "in the boonies," far away from the center of town) was a bouncing, jarring roller coaster across terrible roads rutted with tram lines and construction. We quickly got our bearings, though, and saw the golden dome of St. Isaac's Cathedral gleaming in the morning sun. From there, we walked to the Admiralty -- Russia's historic Naval Headquarters. After that, the wide open spaces of Palace Square beckoned us. On one side of the square was the long, lime green Winter Palace of Catherine the Great. Outside, its white trim shone in the sunlight, but inside it was the bright glitter of gold leaf that lit its spacious rooms.

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Catherine the Great's Winter Palace

The Winter Palace housed in The Hermitage, Russia's answer in spades to France's Louvre museum. We'd read that there is so much art that if you could stand in front of each piece for one minute it would take you seven years to finish. Not having seven years, Sharon and I figured we could take maybe a couple hours of shuffling through a museum. We ended up spending more than three hours there. More thrilling (in our opinion) than the Van Goghs and Monets, were the gilt-encrusted, chandelier-lit, positively palatial rooms they were housed in. Catherine the Great's palace was sumptuous, and we didn't want to miss a room of it!

Afterwards, we crossed the Neva River to the arrow-shaped spit of land called The Strelka. There were nice views of the palace and across the river to the Peter and Paul Fortress. Up and down the banks, pastel-colored 18th-19th century palaces and mansions crowded close to the water. In between them, Venice-like canals could be glimpsed, accentuated by arcing foot bridges. We recrossed to Palace Square and began a stroll along the St. Petersburg's main thoroughfare, Nevsky Prospekt. At Sharon's urging, we found a "cute little cafe" -- her preferred lunch stop. While we dined, I watched the Russians walk by. They looked like any other Europeans, I thought, especially their clothes. The current hot color among Russian girls was bright, chartreuse green.

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Cathedral of the Saviour of the Spilled Blood

Following lunch, we took a boat cruise up and down the Neva. An especially pretty sight that left us wanting to see more was the Smolny Cathedral. Its golden domes shone in the late afternoon sun, while its white towers and pale blue trim gleamed softly. Back ashore, we explored Peter the Great's Summer Gardens, enjoying the classical statues and the czar's subdued yellow summer palace. We hiked past the incredibly ornate Cathedral of the Savior of the Spilled Blood, easily the most stunning church we'd see on the trip. Its domes were ice cream-like swirls of greens and blues, its outsides covered in mosaics, coats of arms and bright patterns. Every inch was decorated, it seemed. I shook my head in wonder -- it was simply gorgeous. We saved touring its interior for the next day, though. Instead, I let Sharon rest her aching back and weary legs in a cafe -- beer in hand.

The next morning, we were right back at it, though. We peeked inside St. Isaacs's (which had been closed yesterday), then marched off to the Peter and Paul Fortress. When the Russians seized this area in their war with Sweden at the dawn of the 18th Century, this was the first thing built. It is an earth and stone, star-shaped fort guarding the Neva River. Sharon enjoyed touring its later era prisons, used by both the czars and Bolsheviks. Nowadays, the St. Petersburg citizens use it as a sunbathing spot.

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Peter and Paul Fortress

Then it was back to the the cathedral where we finally toured its interior. Colorful mosaics encrusted the walls, pillars and ceilings. It reminded me a bit of St. Mark's Cathedral in Venice -- especially where the sun glowed off the golden mosaic stones. For me, the Cathedral of the Savior of the Spilled Blood was my favorite sight of the entire Baltic cruise. Afterwards, we wandered over to the flea market to shop for souvenirs. I did a fair job of bargaining for Sharon's two lacquered boxes and my own birch wood one.

Then, it was back to the ship, where we watched the Maasdam carefully pick its way out of the crowded harbor. Later that evening, though, the sea served up a strange, otherworldly sight. It was the Summer Solstice -- the longest day of the year -- and the sun didn't set till after 11:30 pm. The Baltic Sea slowly became a rippleless calm. As the sun sank, both the sky and the sea turned a dim, dusty blue. The line of the horizon vanished in the gloom and it was like sailing through a featureless, blue fog. Other ships, lit up with tiny white lights, passed by going the opposite direction. They seemed to float in silently out of a fog, and just as smoothly disappear. It was a ghostly place, one that I know was not on our cruise itinerary, but one I'd never forget: Near the top of the world in a blue gloom, on an evening where night never came.

Posted by world_wide_mike 08:49 Archived in Russia Comments (0)

Talinn is a Gem of a Medieval City

Stop one on my Baltic cruise is a great beginning

sunny 75 °F

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Alexander Nevsky Cathedral

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

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

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

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View of Old Town, Tallinn

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

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

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

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

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Talinn's medieval walls and towers

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

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

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

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