A Travellerspoint blog

Provence Outshines Paris for Scenery & History

South of France packed with sights and beauty

77 °F

Arc du Triomphe

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

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

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

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

Hilltop village of Gordes

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

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

Abbey Sennanque in fields of lavender

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

Seaport village of Cassis

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

Village of Cadenet

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

Pope's Palace, Avignon

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

Carved door, St. Trophesime

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

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

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

Sun Hiding in Rio, but Views Still Spectacular

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

overcast 79 °F

View of Rio de Janeiro from atop Sugarloaf in the bay

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

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

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

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

St. Teresa barrio, Rio de Janeiro

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

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

Igreja de Nossa Senhora da Candelariea

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

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

View of Rio from Corcovado

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

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

Cable car to Sugarloaf, Rio

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

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

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

Copacabana Beach, Rio de Janeiro

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

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

World-class Ruins Reward Explorers Who Journeys to Cambodia

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

sunny 89 °F

View of Angkor Wat across moat

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

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

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

Carvings of heavenly nymphs on temple walls

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

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

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

Bayon Temple

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

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

Jungle-choked Khmer ruins of Ta Prom

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

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

Battle scenes along temple wall

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

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

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

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

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

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

sunny 90 °F

Gate Guardian at Wat Arun

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

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

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

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

Wat Pho, Bangkok

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

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

Wat Arun, Temple of the Dawn, Bangkok

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

Wat Phra Kaew, Bangkok

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

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

Wat Benchamabophit, Bangkok

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

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

Wat Yai Chaya Mongkol, Ayuthaya

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

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

Wat Phra at Si Sanphet, Ayuthaya

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

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

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

Mayan Pyramids of Belize Soothe My Travel Itch

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

sunny 85 °F

Xunantunich, Belize

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

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

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

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

Bridge connecting San Ignacio to Santa Elena

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

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

Half-excavated pyramid at Caracol

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

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

Relief carvings on pyramid at Xunantunich

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

View from atop main pyramid, Xunantunich

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

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

Kids playing, washing in Mopan river

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

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

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

Welcome to my Travel blog!

Index of Worldwidemike's entries

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

Bhutan, July, 2019

Philippines, June, 2019

Singapore, June, 2019

Azores, March, 2019

Monaco, June, 2018

Curacao, March, 2018

Sri Lanka, June-July, 2017

Uruguay, March, 2017

Argentina, March, 2017

Philippines, July, 2016

Laos, June 2016

Singapore, June, 2016

Bosnia-Hercegovina, March 2016

Croatia, March 2016

Italy, June 2015

Ukraine, July 2015

Nicaragua, March 2015

Vietnam, June 2014

Taiwan, June 2014

Cyprus, March 2014

Iceland, March 2013

Karabakh, July 2012

Armenia, July 2012

Georgia, June 2012

Mali, February 2009

Aruba, December 2008

Denmark, November 2008

Peru, October 2008

Slovenia, May 2008

Malta, December 2007

Egypt, October 2007

Albania, April 2007

South Africa, October 2006

Lesotho, October 2006

Swaziland, October 2006

Mexico, March 2006

Syria, September 2005

Easter Island, June 2005

Jamaica, April 2005

El Salvador, October 2004

Spain, December 2004

Andorra, March 2004

Indonesia, March 2003

Myanmar, March 2003

Bulgaria, August 2003

Lithuania, November 2002

Kong Kong, September 2002

Macau, September 2002

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

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

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

Posted by world_wide_mike 08:06 Comments (0)

Rain Washes Away Plans for Scenic Day in Macau

Skipping the casinos and checking out temples and museums

rain 82 °F

Senate Square, Macau, China

For the beginning of this travelogue, see my Hong Kong entry

What was to be my final day of sightseeing, and perhaps Hong Kong's most popular "day trip," was a hydrofoil ride to the former Portuguese colony of Macau. It is popular with the locals because of the casinos and gambling. With tourists, it is a spicy blend of the Mediterranean and the Orient, with Portuguese style buildings and Chinese temples. Since I've been to Las Vegas numerous times, and I'd read the casinos of Macau are bland in comparison, I planned to see the history and scenery.

The weather had other plans for me, as it turned out. I shared a cab from the ferry port to Senate Square with a German traveler, then set off to wander the streets (which is what my guidebook recommended). Since the overcast skies and occasional sprinkles foretold rain, I wound down towards the southern tip of the island, where the highly-rated Maritime Museum was located. Bigger raindrops began to fall as I entered the museum, which was excellent, by the way. When I finished exploring the museum, I walked across the square to A-Ma Temple. The sprinkles turned to a drizzle, which was a nuisance for taking photos.

The round gate to A-Ma Temple

From the colorful A-Ma Temple, I walked back north to Penha Hill, which was supposed to have the best views in Macau. Gray curtains of mist partially hid the view from me, but I could see the outlines of what should have been an excellent panorama of sea and shore, city and hill. The drizzle became rain as I trudged back into the center of town, looking for a bar or restaurant to wait it out. All I could find was a Juice Bar, of sorts, so I plopped down, ordered a fruit cocktail for lunch, and wrote some postcards. Outside, the rain began to rage and turned into a full fledged storm.

Rainy day in Macau

Eventually, I realized, it wasn't stopping. If I wasn't going to spend the rest of the day in Macau in a juice bar, I was going to have to venture out. I zipped up my rain jacket, pulled my soaked cap down tighter on my head, and hunched out into the rain. Macau should have been a colorful, scenic island, with plenty of forts, hilltop views and intriguing colonial buildings to explore. Instead, the foul weather ruined it. Even ducking into another museum was little relief. The Chinese insist on setting their air conditioning in public places at the Arctic level, which only makes it more miserable to someone who is already soaked to the skin.

Misty view of Macau shoreline from Penha hill

So, basically, the rest of the day sucked, and I eventually packed it in and took a ferry back to Hong Kong an hour earlier than I'd planned. The ferry terminal and boat ride were freezing, of course, like the museums. On the way over, I have to admit, I'd looked down my nose at those coming over just to gamble. I was there to see the cultural sights and natural beauty, I puffed. On the way back, as they sat dry in their seats, and I dripped, I knew who was looking down their nose at who, now.

But then again, it merely followed the theme of the trip. China seemed to have a way of deflating the pompous, and teaching us lessons.

Posted by world_wide_mike 07:55 Archived in Macau Comments (0)

Philosophical Ponderings in Densely-packed Hong Kong

Temples, and searching for the perfect mix of touristy and authentic

sunny 85 °F

Hong Kong harbor

Angry and depressed, I sat in my hotel room in Hong Kong, looking out the window. I was cursing the $600 I'd just spent on a full fare airline ticket to get home. The flight I'd missed today had empty seats and would likely have plenty tomorrow, too. Instead of putting on standby passengers like me on this route, Continental Airlines crams on as much freight as it can every day. It doesn't care that it strands its workers, their parents or unsuspecting employees of other airlines. Money rules in this "to the last pound" efficiency.

Damn my luck, I thought.

Shack atop Hong Kong high rise

Suddenly, a movement caught my eye. I'd been looking out over the row upon row of 30-plus story apartment high rises. Atop a nearby one, I noticed a plywood shack had been constructed. A man was scrubbing his shirts in a bucket and hanging them to dry high above Hong Kong. Unlike the regular apartments beneath it, I could see this home had no air conditioning, and perhaps little in the way of plumbing. I didn't want to think about how hot that shack got on a humid, tropical day. As the man took a break from his washing, he lit a cigarette and leaned on the rail, seeming to ponder the world below. Was he mourning money lost on a quick, overseas jaunt? Hardly. Any woes of his were probably of a more dire, necessity kind. In an instant, my viewpoint changed and I ceased to worry about the $600. My own problems seemed pretty small.

Hong Kong has a way of making you feel that way, though. Its millions of people are squeezed into a small, geographical area. Picture New York City's skyscrapers clustered along the shore of a jungle-clad, mountainous island in the South Seas, and you have Hong Kong. Some would argue that when you look at Hong Kong, and the way it builds upwards for lack of space, you are looking at the future of our cities on Earth. Will we all one day live in Hong Kongs as our planet's population grows?

View of Hong Kong from Bank of China building

As bleak as my lead-in to this travelogue sounds, Hong Kong itself is anything but. The city works -- its masses go to their jobs, eat, sleep and play in a relatively clean, efficient urban environment. Transportation is a breeze, from its subways speeding beneath the city, light rail hurtling to the hinterland and ferries skimming to neighboring islands, it is all smooth sailing, so to speak.

I used most of Hong Kong's transportation means during my visit, too, beginning with the tram to the top of Victoria Peak for a scenic overlook. Only a clear, blue sky could have improved on the spectacular view. As it was, the mists and grays still gave it a subtle beauty. Walking through the busy city streets afterwards, I took in several of the intricate markets, and picked up some souvenirs despite myself. When, at noon, I'd checked off most of my day's list of things to see, I decided to visit one of the outer islands. A quick ferry ride plopped me ashore on Lantau Island, where I caught a bus to the Po Linn Monastery. We rode through Polynesian landscapes to the hilltop site, where the world's largest, bronze outdoor statue of Buddha gazed down at us. There was a surprising horde of tourists there, though, but I imagine at night (after they've left) the serene setting is perfect for metaphysical contemplation.

Po Linn Monastery, Lantau Island

Day two saw me on a bus, again, heading north into the "New Territories," towards the mainland China border. My guidebook's description of an ancient, walled village with its fortifications still intact, had intrigued me. I stumbled upon the village almost by accident, though, as it is surrounded on all sides by a growing town. Inside the walls, the streets were single-file narrow and the houses squeezed together so tight that porches were rare and courtyards nearly nonexistent. The inhabitants are known as Hakka, and appeared to be mostly old women. Upon sighting me wandering their streets, they grabbed their distinctive, sombrero-like hats and closed in, shouting, "Picture, picture! Ten Dollar!" Obviously, they were used to posing for the few tourists that venture up here for the roughly $1.25 U.S. equivalent. I humored one of them, then tried my best to shoo off the rest.

All in all, though, Wat Hing Wai was a disappointment. Its trademark walls are unvisitable and surrounded by garbage, and its interior layout so claustrophobic you couldn't get a feel for it as a whole. It was the real, living thing, though, not a commercialized creation. Afterwards, I stopped by a walled village (Sam Tung Uk) not far from my hotel that had been turned into a museum. It was informative, well reconstructed, and well...too much in the other direction! I'd have enjoyed a more happier medium: A place still lived in, but one where you could walk the walls, peer through arrow slits, etc.

Old Hakka woman, Kat Hing Wai walled village

The mix was perfect at the Chi Linn Nunnery, later that afternoon. The setting was immaculate and gorgeous. The monks padded silently through the hallways, the statues of Buddha glistened with burnished gold, fountains bubbled, and the deep brown wood shone in the sunlight. The Nunnery was rebuilt recently in its original Tang Dynasty style, which uses no nails, all the wood fitting together with dowels. Chi Linn is sited on a slight rise, perhaps only a baseball throw away from a multilevel shopping center. However, it was still the proverbial island of peace in Hong Kong's sea of motion.

With more time on my hands, I rode the light rail north to Shattin and its Temple of 10,000 Buddhas. The temple is also a resting place for the ashes of cremated Buddhists. It is built atop a steep, wooded hill, and my guidebook mentioned something about 500 steps. Modern Hong Kong is efficient as ever, though, and an escalator whisks you up the shady slopes. The temple itself was a bit of a let down after Chi Linn, but still interesting. The 10,000 Buddhas are hand high ceramic statues painted a dusky gold and set in niches along the temple walls. Since I felt I hadn't breathed my daily quota of incense, yet, I headed back to Hong Kong for one final temple. Wong Tai Sin was bursting at the seams with worshipers, all waving handfuls of incense (or Joss) sticks. It was a carnival atmosphere, with some praying, some snapping photos, and others just stepping back and absorbing the chaos. The temple buildings were colorful with mint green tile roofs, many of them guarded by adorable little stone lions. Eventually, the clouds of smoke drove me from the temple -- now, I'd had my daily fill!

Wong Tai Sin Temple, Kowloon, Hong Kong

See my entry for Macau for the conclusion of this travelogue!

Posted by world_wide_mike 07:40 Archived in Hong Kong Comments (0)

Winter's Surprise Arrival Doesn't Spoil Visit to Lithuania

Lots of Churches, Castles, and City Sights Take the Edge off the Cold

snow 36 °F

Church of SS Peter and Paul, Vilnius

It took seven years and three attempts, but I finally made it to Lithuania. The only unpleasant surprise awaiting me when I finally landed in my star-crossed destination was an early November snowstorm.

Of course, knowing how far north the Baltics are, I should have expected as much. That and the roughly eight plus hours of daylight at this time of the year. However, the photogenic snow dusting the church steeples and trees of Old Town Vilnius made up for it, and my complaining about the bitter wind was only half-hearted. My travel companion, coworker Scott Thomas (who is of Lithuanian descent), and I plunged right into the sights shortly after landing in the early afternoon in Vilnius.

Our hotel, Mikotel, was on the edge of the Old Town, and we bundled up against the chill and struck off from there in the direction of the Center. We entered through the whitewashed "Gates of Dawn," pausing to look behind us at the very popular Catholic shrine overlooking the gates. I'd read that rising above nearly every block in Old Town were the domes or towers of churches, and it seemed true. Along with the pastel colored buildings and the fresh powder sugar snow on everything, it made for a scenic wander.

We were surprised how quickly dusk fell, but had a nice time picking our way through the winding Old Town streets. If we had a theme or plan, it was "church-spotting," and we managed to take in a good number of them before cold and growing hunger drove us inside to find a restaurant. Those who know me are aware that food is not one of my priorities while traveling, but Scott is a bit of a gourmet, so we made an effort on this trip to dine reasonably well. And no, I did not find a Pizza Hut (but did talk Scott into pizza and beer at a local place one night!).

Trakei and its charming lakeside views

The next morning we were off to the old Lithuanian capital of Trakei, which is built on a peninsula surrounded by three lakes. Upon our arrival, the gray skies slowly softened and broke up into patches of blue, throwing an enchanting light on the lakes and the snug-looking cottages that lined its shores. Many of the homes are traditional wooden buildings, painted bright greens and yellows. Scenic as they were, it was the castles that drew me to Trakei. The first one we visited was on the peninsula itself, and was mostly in ruins. The walls, gates and scattered buildings that still stood stretched scenically across a wooded and hilly Winter Wonderland.

We then continued down Trakei's main street, stopping at a souvenir shop for some of Lithuania's trademark amber. The town's most famous site, the Island Castle, was next. As if scripted by Hollywood, the sun broke through just as we approached it. Its warming rays shone on the rich, reddish-orange of its brick walls and towers. The approach to the castle is equally dramatic, as you walk across two footbridges from the mainland to the island it is built upon. Reeds and trees line the banks making for a wonderful setting for the well-restored, 1400s-era castle.

Island Castle, Trakei

For the first time in Lithuania, we actually saw other tourists there (we could count them on our fingers, but they were there!). The interior of the castle has been turned into a rambling museum with displays on just about every aspect of Lithuanian history, recent and Medieval. The best part about the display rooms for me was they were heated! Actually, I enjoyed roaming the interior of the castle, especially the three level main keep built around a chilly stone courtyard. I wanted to climb to the top of the circular, brick towers, but they were closed off, perhaps a disadvantage of visiting in the off-season.

After a thorough exploration of the Island Castle, we slowly headed back through the snow-carpeted streets, pausing to take photos of some of the town's attractive churches. We then caught our bus back to Vilnius (heat is used quite sparingly on the public buses, we'd found that morning). Since lunch time had come and gone while sightseeing, we dropped by a local tavern near our hotel and enjoyed the special of the day (pork cutlet with cabbage salad, and uh, beer). Scott's command of Russian came into handy, yet again. He found more people seemed to speak Russian than Lithuanian in Vilnius. My ability to smile and nod in hopes that I guessed what they were talking about proved universal, as usual.

That evening, Scott wanted to check out "New Town" Vilnius. The wind was brisk, but we walked a wide arc through the area surrounding the Old Town. Scott seemed pleased, but I am more of a historic or scenic sights kind of guy. One row of apartments or modern buildings pretty much looks like another to me. Then again, Scott is an urban living kind of guy, so probably is able to appreciate such sights more. It was in his happy and weakened condition (from the day's walking) that I was able to talk him into pizza and beer for dinner. It was excellent, and remarkably inexpensive ($8 between us for a pizza and large beer each).

View of Cathedral Square from Higher Castle, Vilnius

The next morning, our final one in Vilnius, was slated for the Old Town sights. We took up where our first day had left off with more church spotting. Many had services going on, which let us slip inside and enjoy the rich, decorative interiors. Particularly noteworthy was the baroque Church of SS Peter and Paul, with more than 2,000 stucco figures carved along the walls, columns and ceilings. Definitely one of those churches were your neck gets sore from pacing slowly along, head straight up, breathing, "Wow..."

Another highlight of the day was the hike up the small, conical hill in the center of town to the remnants of the castle overlooking Cathedral Square. The view from the windswept tower atop the hill was a swirl of pastel, snowy whites and cloudy grays -- as if a master painter had time to detail a few areas of the panorama, splashing bits of color in other places on the canvas to suggest more. Doubtless on a clear, warm summer day, it would look like a vibrant postcard. And on a cloudy Winter day, it would probably look bleak and cold were it not for the pinks and yellows glinting on the Old Town buildings. Either way, it was an interesting vantage of Vilnius.

Our original plans had been for a full week in Lithuania, with a side trip to Latvia. However, the flights on LOT Polish Airlines were once again not cooperating, booking up around the time of our planned return. This forced us to trim our trip with a Thursday return (the only day that there seemed to be plenty of seats). In turn, this meant that we had to take an overnight bus from Vilnius to Warsaw. Let me say this: Never again. Unless you're are a masochist, I do NOT recommend this route, as it was uncomfortable, cold and featured a more than 90-minute border crossing between Lithuania and Poland, complete with Soviet era "efficiencies" such as drunk border guards, misplaced passports and inexplicable delays. I have crossed more than my share of borders in my travels, and this was without a doubt the worst. Enough of that. If at all possible, fly. Do not cross borders by bus in this area of the world.

Despite the red star that loomed over our border fiasco, I found Lithuania was definitely worth the seven year wait. I wished I'd had time to see more. I'd definitely return again, one day...by plane...and in warmer weather!

Posted by world_wide_mike 16:37 Archived in Lithuania Comments (0)

Bulgaria's Historic Sites are a Medieval Gem

Monasteries, Castles, and Roman ruins don't disappoint here

sunny 75 °F

Alexander Nevski Church, Sofia
A couple years ago, I read an article in a travel magazine about Bulgaria. It described the country's beautiful, historic monasteries tucked away among forested hills like hidden gems of Medieval Europe. I vowed to go see them, one day. When the appropriate airline passes came my way this summer, I began to plan my pilgrimage to Bulgaria and its monasteries.

While reading other traveler's experiences in Bulgaria on the web site Igougo.com, I saw a post from Krassi, a Bulgarian native. I e-mailed him some questions, and in the course of our conversations, he offered to be my guide during my visit. All I would have to pay for would be the gas we used, entrances to the places we visited, and $25 a day "pocket money." That price for a private driver/guide interpreter was unbeatable. Not to mention that I had read that most signs -- especially in bus or train stations -- were NOT in English. Bulgaria uses the Cyrillic alphabet, which could make relying on public transportation a challenge.

I landed in Sofia in the early afternoon of a sunny, pleasant September day. As my Lonely Planet guide book advised, I bypassed the men asking, "Taxi?" and walked to the official airport taxi stand and hopped in. The Bulgarian Lev is approximately 2-to-1 to the dollar, making it simple to calculate that my 6 lev taxi ride to the hotel was a bargain. After checking in, I changed clothes and headed out to see the Bulgarian capital's sights (which are compact enough to see in a leisurely, several hour walk).

The afternoon ripened into an absolutely gorgeous one. The gold domes of the Alexander Nevski Church blazed in the sun, providing dramatic contrast to the clear blue sky. Nearby, in a tree-roofed park, the domes of the St. Nicholai Russian Church also shone in the sun. Its colorful mosaics and tiles flashed brightly to passers by. As scenic as the outsides of Sofia's various churches were, the frescoes painted on the inside walls and ceilings were just as beautiful. Most were hundreds of years old -- some approached a thousand. Gazing up at images of the saints and churchmen, I was stirred to think I was seeing the same sight Bulgaria's kings, nobles and untold generations of its citizens looked upon. I noted the influence of the Byzantine art in the large eyes of the saints and their placid expressions. They seemed to exude calm, urging me to slow down and realize all is in God's hands.

My guidebook's map was excellent, and even though I never saw a street sign I could read (all really was in Cyrillic!), I got around fine. I met a couple people who spoke English -- mostly collecting my entrance money at the various sites! Bulgaria is fairly inexpensive, though. I think the most I paid to visit a church or museum was 5 Lev (about $2.50). Many were free, but none were crowded. It was pleasant to wander around them, looking up at the man-made beauty.

President's building, Sofia

After I'd checked off the sights I'd planned for my half day in Sofia, I decided to go on a scouting mission. The next morning, I would take a bus to Plovdiv, where my guide Krassi lived. He would pick me up at the bus station, and from that point on, I wouldn't have to worry much about directions. Anyway, I thought it might make things go smoother if I sorted out the bus station ahead of time. So, as the sun was setting, I tromped over to see just how confusing "the most disorganized in Bulgaria" could be.

The bus station abuts the train station, and to be honest, it was hard to tell where one began and the other ended. The giant board showing city names and times was a squirming mass of spaghetti lettering to my eyes. After about five minutes of looking, I finally found the Cyrillic spelling of "Plovdiv" on the board. Then, I couldn't tell what days those times were good for. Was one side weekdays and the other holidays?

My impression of Cyrillic is that roughly a third of the characters are ones that we don't use in Latin letters. Maybe another third are same as the ones we use, but correspond to a different letter ("B" is the Bulgarian "V"). For example, Plovdiv has seven letters in both Latin and Cyrillic. The Cyrillic P looks vaguely like the Greek (or math) symbol for "pi." The L is an upside down V (like the Greek "lambda"). The O is the same. The V is B, remember, and the D was a really odd-looking beast like a TV perched atop a wrinkled carpet. The I is a backwards "N," followed up, finally, by another B (which, as you now know, means a V). Confused? I sure as Hell was!

Now, by the end of the trip, I got a lot better with the letters. Initially, it is quite a shock, though. And the guidebook was right: It is a rare thing to see Latin letters anywhere near public transportation. Oh, want something else that threw me the entire trip? Yes and No. When a Bulgarian is saying Yes (or "da," like Russian, which it is similar to), he shakes his head like we do for No. When he is saying NO (or "ne"), he inclines his head, like we would when we agreed or understood something another was saying. It seems simple but it threw me for the entire trip to hear a Bulgarian saying yes and seeing him shaking his head no.

For dinner, I continued a decades-old and time honored traveling tradition for me. Yes, that can mean only one thing -- Pizza Hut! Much to my surprise, though, they did NOT take credit cards (like every other Pizza Hut I've visited in the world). And that would hold true for much of Bulgaria. Very few places take credit cards, so if you go, plan on not being able to use them.

Plovdiv's Roman amphitheater

The next morning I discovered my scouting trip of the evening before was useless, as it took me another good 15 minutes of wandering and asking before I found the bus to Plovdiv. Once I discovered what time it left, I had to call Krassi to let him know. A friendly, unemployed Bulgarian helped me out, and even let me use his own phone card. I paid him back by buying him a coffee and slipping him some cash for his help. I think that was his "job," really -- helping out foreigners and (in the mildest way possible) begging some cash from them. The day before, I had to shoo off a half dozen not-so-mild beggars on the steps of the churches or on the streets. I got the impression business is NOT booming for all Bulgarians. It is not the poorest country in Europe, but it seemed to have its share of people down on their luck.

The bus ride went by quickly and Krassi was waiting at the bus stop. He took me to my hotel to check in, then we set out to explore Plovdiv, Bulgaria's "second city." We started in the Old Town, which is quite beautiful, with cobblestone streets, colorful 19th Century houses with intricate woodwork, and a seasoning of nearly 2000 year old Roman ruins. The signature sight is Plovdiv's Roman amphitheater, which is in great shape, and is used for concerts, plays and operas. Perched on a hill overlooking the city, its dramatic views doubtless enhance the performances. I wandered around the seats, soaking up the ancient heartbeat of the place.

Old Town, Plovdiv

Krassi was a good guide, pointing out spots for photographs, and explaining the history of places. In Plovdiv, he is a web page designer and internet entrepreneur who yearns to earn enough to buy his travel agent license. It felt good helping him out. I'm sure there are professional tour guides whose knowledge and store of anecdotes is greater. However, seeing the city with him was like seeing it with a friend.

After a bite to eat in a cafe, we drove about 20 miles south to Bachkovo Monastery. Like advertised, it was nestled peacefully among forested hills. Clad in their black robes and hats, the brother monks milled in and out of the monastery's church, bowing and praying before the icons and altars. One burly bearded fellow reminded me of Gimli the Dwarf from Lord of the Rings. I was struck by the expression on his craggy face when paused in front of the silver-plated icon of the Virgin Mary. It was the smile with which you greet an old friend with whom you share many secret memories. The monastery grounds were gorgeous, with well-tended flowers and trees surrounding the fresco-covered walls of the buildings, which had been rebuilt more than once since its founding in 11th century.

On the way back to Plovdiv, we stopped by the ruins of a hilltop castle and its accompanying church (which unlike the castle was still in good shape). The views up the valley towards Bachkovo and down towards Plovdiv were resplendent with green trees, broken by the tawny scar of the granite hillsides. As light faded, we stopped by the Monument to the Soviet army, which sat atop Plovdiv on a commanding hill. The Bulgarians have a different view of the Soviets than we do as Americans. The Russians had long been there allies, and their help was instrumental in freeing Bulgaria from Turkish rule.

The next morning we drove three hours or so northeast, over two mountain ranges and through the "Valley of Roses" to Veliko Turnovo. Billed as the heart of Medieval Bulgaria, it is a town scattered on various sides of a gorge that encircles and slithers amidst a series of hills. The Tsarevets Fortress commands the highest ridgetop, its walls encircling a triangular shaped plateau. We headed straight there and I was immediately in my element, walking along the walls, peering from the guard towers at the dramatic views of the town rising up on the opposite slopes and examining the ruins of churches and buildings scattered across the grounds. I think I walked poor Krassi to exhaustion as I clambered all around the ruins, losing myself in the views and sense of history.

Tsarevets Fortress, Veliko Turnovo

In the center of the plateau are the castle-like ruins of the Royal Palace. Veliko Turnovo is called the City of the Tsars, as many of Bulgaria's Tsars and Kings ruled from here. On the hill's highest point is the Patriarch's Complex. Its spire commands the view from town, but the interior of the building is a disappointment. Instead of ancient frescoes or austere stone, there are modern art murals on the walls, with distended, impressionistic figures illustrating Bulgaria's history -- bleah! It felt as out of place as a shopping mall.

We took a break at the cafe to enjoy the fortress' wonderful views of the town -- and to rest Krassi's feet. It was another glorious, sunny day, and the small handful of other visitors to the fortress basked in the sunshine. Krassi thanked me, though, for convincing him to come to Veliko Turnovo. Like many people across the world, he hadn't been to one of their country's stellar sights! We took one more walk along the walls to Baldwin's Tower -- named for a deposed emperor who was imprisoned there -- before leaving the fortress.

We then drove to St. Peter and Paul Church, in the gorge below, that had splendid murals from the 14th - 17th centuries. The caretaker was an enthusiastic women who apologized when her English gave out as she took us from fresco to fresco, explaining each and its significance. I noticed that many of the saint's portraits had their eyes gouged out, and asked why. My thought was perhaps they were defaced during Turkish rule. Her explanation was a fascinating step into the Medieval mind. It seems that the phrase "The eyes are the windows of the soul" exists in Bulgarian, too. Well, the local inhabitants -- who had no hospitals or medical clinics to visit -- naturally had to make their own medicine. They felt if the potion or poultice contained a part of the Saint's soul, recovery was guaranteed. So, they would chip a tiny portion of the eyes of the saint off the mural and mix it with their medicine. Toss in centuries of this practice, and you have a church wall with saints' eyes gouged out.

View of the town from the walls of Tsarevets

We wanted to squeeze in one more sight, so drove to the quaint hilltop village of Arbanasi. Nearly all of the village buildings are hundreds of years old and built in the traditional style, surrounded by their own individual walls. This made it difficult to appreciate as almost none are open for visitors. However, nearly all were open for business, with a table set out in front selling souvenirs and crafts. I found it too touristy, which upon reflection, was exactly what my Lonely Planet guide book had said, too.

We then made the long drive back to Plovdiv. Krassi is a disco fan, and I'd been listening to it for two days. He must have felt sorry for me, though, as he changed it to a rock station for most of the drive back. The sun was setting as we climbed through the Shipka Pass, site of an intense battle in the 1800s between the Turks and the Russians with their Bulgarian allies. The Russo-Bulgarian victory against four times their numbers is commemorated by the delicate golden onion domes of the Nativity Memorial Church on the southern slopes, and a stone monument at the top of the pass. On the way here in the morning, we'd stopped and struggled through fierce winds and cold to the stone monument. On the return trip, the weather looked much more benign, but we didn't have time or the energy for another try.

Bachkovo Monastery

Once back in Plovdiv, we had a couple drinks in a cafe on the main pedestrian "drag." Krassi explained that the locals saunter up and down the street, doing what the Italians call "La Passegiata" -- checking everyone out. None of the Bulgarian women (who are quite good looking -- not the stereotype Olympic weightlifter that seems to be the assumption in the U.S.) seemed particularly interested in a dusty, travel-worn American traveler, unfortunately. I thanked Krassi for all his help, and wished him luck on his ambitions in the travel industry.

The next morning, he drove me to Sofia airport. During my planning back home, I'd wished I'd given myself more days here. As I boarded the plane, I knew my pilgrimage to the monasteries, churches and historic sights of Medieval Bulgaria had been too short. But then, sometimes all we can afford are the small gems, and remember they sparkle none the less for their size.

Posted by world_wide_mike 16:08 Archived in Bulgaria Comments (0)

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