A Travellerspoint blog

Short Trip to Budapest Shows Off City's Sights

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

sunny 75 °F

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.

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

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.

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.

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


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.

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.

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.

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.

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

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.

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.

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

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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.

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.

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!

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.

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.

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.

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

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.

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!

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)

Sunshine Brings Out the Colors in Bermuda

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

rain 79 °F

Front Street, Hamilton, Bermuda

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Cannon, Fort St. Catherine, Bermuda

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

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

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

View from Gibbs Hill Lighthouse, Bermuda

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

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

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

Church's Cove Beach, Bermuda

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

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

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

Savoring Prague's Gorgeous Cityscape

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

sunny 70 °F

View of Prague Castle

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

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

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

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

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

Tyn Church in Old Town Square

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

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

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

Charles Bridge

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

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

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

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

Vlatava River and Charles Bridge

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

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

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

Mayan City of Tikal Captivates Hearts of Visitors

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

sunny 82 °F

Convent of the Capuchin Nuns

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

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

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

Our Lady of Mercy Church

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

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

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

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

Temple II, Tikal

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

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

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

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

Great Plaza, Tikal

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

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

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

'Star Wars view,' from Temple IV

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

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

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

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

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

Lakeside view, Flores

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

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

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

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