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Into Every Life

The rain finally falls in Ukraine

rain 76 °F

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St. Michael's Monastery in Kiev, Ukraine
It is only appropriate that I am looking out my 13th floor window, watching a beautiful, golden-orange sunset, as I write about the last two days of my Ukrainian adventure. I had a day and a half to wrap up the sights I wanted to see in Kiev. I'd arrived back in the capital around 9 am after an uncomfortable night train from Kamyanets-Podilsky. The hotel let me check in early for a fee, and I caught a few hours of sleep to make up for what I didn't get on the train. After showering, I sat down with my guidebook and maps and made a checklist for the day.
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St. Volodymer's Cathedral and its golden interior
There were a number of churches on the list, but also a museum and a quaint, riverside section of Kiev I had not visited, yet. My first stop was St. Volodymer's Cathedral in the University district. I loved it's yellow facade and starry, blue domes, but the trees all around it frustrated getting a good picture of its exterior. The inside was very atmospheric, and the golden glow of the mosaics was equally photogenic. Although the church is less than 200 years old, the mosaics give it a very Byzantine feel -- like Kiev's St. Sophia (which had my favorite interior). Volodymer was the Rus ruler who arbitrarily decided his kingdom would become Christian. As saintly Dark Age European rulers tended to do, he forced his subjects to convert at the point of a sword.
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St. Michael's domes gleaming in the afternoon sunlight
From there, I walked to an even newer church -- the one with my favorite exterior in Kiev. St. Michael's Monastery has those shiny, golden domes you think of when you envision Orthodox churches. It was built in 2001 to replace one the Soviets decided to tear down when they ruled Ukraine. Determinedly atheistic states can make policy decisions like that, trying to un-convert the populace at the point of the bulldozer. I actually visited St. Michael's a second time the next day, because the sun was shining and I wanted pictures of those domes against blue sky rather than the gray, overcast afternoon I was having today. The interior was brightly colored with frescoes, but couldn't hold a votive candle to St. Sophia's medieval masterpieces.
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Scythian armor hangs in the National Museum of Ukrainian History
The next hour-plus of the fading afternoon was spent at the sprawling National Museum of Ukrainian History. Monday is free entrance day, I was happy to discover. Even more thrilling were the comprehensive English language labels on the four floors of exhibits. Some of the more modern items were labeled only in Ukrainian, but the old stuff -- my favorite Ancient and Medieval history -- was covered. The museum even allowed photography, which these days is a rare bonus. I particularly liked the artifacts from the Scythians, Greeks, Avars, Sarmatians, and Rus. There was some really cool stuff in there, like a set of Scythian scale armor made from horn. Equally inspiring were the Viking swords and helmets -- the "Rus" were nothing more than Swedish Vikings plying Eastern Europe's rivers like the Danes and Norwegians did the North Sea. That is partly why you see so many blonde haired and blue eyed Russians and Ukrainians. The museum is so huge, and it's exhibits go on and on, that even me -- a History teacher -- was crying "Uncle!" near the end. A common feature of Ukrainian museums are the elderly (usually female) attendants in every single room. I think it is a carryover from the 100% employment of the Soviet days. When I tried to take a shortcut and skip a room that didn't look interesting, I was scolded. Chastened, I made a show at checking out the fascinating collection of 19th century, hand-held fans.
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Andrew's Descent begins to wind it's way down to the neighborhood of Podil
I eventually escaped their clutches and took a walk down the winding, cobblestones of Andrew's Descent, as the sloping way to the riverside is called. This took me to Podil, an artsy, eclectic neighborhood of gorgeous buildings and interesting churches. Souvenir sellers and painters set up stalls along the way, and there are lots of restaurants and cafes. I spotted my first brewpub in Ukraine, and checked out its posted menu, vowing to return for dinner. I stopped to take pictures of the architecture and some interesting murals on the buildings.
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Surrealistic mural in Podil
The first stop was the walled and gated grounds of the Florivsky Monastery. I noticed there were lots of cats sunning themselves or prowling the 15th century grounds. "What's with all the cats?" I wondered. The white churches and bell towers with their green domes were simple, and blended well with the well-manicured flower gardens and trees inside the complex. When I watched one, stern nun chew out an old lady, who had obviously broken some rule, I remembered it was a convent -- home to nuns -- not monks. As I ducked inside the church to avoid the nun's eye, it dawned on me. Despite being in a holy place, it was all I could do to restrain myself from laughing. Single ladies, many of them older...now I knew why all the cats! It was a convent of crazy cat ladies!
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Orthodox service going on in St. Nicholas Neberzhny
At this point, the churches began to blur together. I visited the Church of Mytola Prytysk, as well as St. Nicholas Neberzhny. The coolest part of coming in early evening was that all of them were having some sort of service. I love the sound of the Orthodox call and response music. The priest will chant verses in an almost Gregorian sound, and then the choir of ladies will sing a response. It is very beautiful. The male and female parts play to the strengths of their voices and blend together in a lovely religious duet. As I'd checked off all my sights, it was time to close out the evening with a delicious dinner in the brewpub. I was not disappointed with either the food or the beer.

"Into every life, a little rain must fall," we say. I had been exceedingly lucky so far on my trip. Yesterday, it had been sprinkling as my train pulled into Kiev. It stopped by the time I awoke from my nap, though. This morning, I looked out the window as I was waiting for the elevator and noticed people far below carrying umbrellas. I dashed back and grabbed my rain jacket. It was only sprinkling as I walked to the subway. I was headed to what is billed as Ukraine's most holy site: the Kyevo Percherska-Lavro Complex. My guidebook described it as a "feast for the eyes" with its gold domed churches on a hill above the river. Even cooler, I thought, were the caves -- a catacomb beneath the churches where the monks are buried, their clothed corpses inside their coffin on display in glass and wood cases. Sounds amazing, right? Well, the Lavro area would be my only real, major disappointment of the trip.

As I emerged from the subway, I noticed the rain had picked up. I should have changed into my hiking sandals when I grabbed my rain jacket, I thought as I tried to thread a course that avoided the growing puddles. My pants were soon soaked, and my shoes and socks would follow shortly. At the entrance, the helpful cashier directed me to the caves. I wanted to hit them first before the accumulating crowd made them into a claustrophobic nightmare. At the entrance, I bought my candle and shuffled in behind the line of pilgrims visiting the caves. There are two sets of caves, one of which is open to the public and the other only to legitimate, Orthodox pilgrims. The Nearer Caves, which I visited, were probably the biggest letdown I've ever experienced at a historic sight. Picture a roughly finished stone basement, with whitewashed walls, and those were the "caves." Yes, there were coffins here and there, often with a painting of the monk above it. Yes, some pilgrims left candles in offering, prayed there, or kissed the glass. It obviously meant a lot more to them than to me. I made the circuit in perhaps five minutes. It never felt like a cave to me, and I didn't feel the History there. As sacrilegious as it sounds, it felt like a tourist trap in the basement of a church. As a Historian, I understand this is a deeply religious site for Orthodox Christians. But I would caution visitors who do not have the religious connection to reconsider a visit there -- or at least research other's opinions.
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The Dormition Cathedral at Kyevo Pechersk-Lavro complex
As I emerged, the rain turned into a downpour. I also discovered that I had arrived on the day I'd a huge, religious event at the complex. A half dozen TV cameras were set up in the square in front of the Dormition Cathedral. I could hear there was a service going on inside, and the square outside was packed with people who arrived too late to fit inside. Even more, there was a line stretching back to the entrance of people waiting to get into the square or cathedral. There were a handful of small lecterns set up, each staffed by a monk or priest, who appeared to be hearing confessions from the visitors. It was a mob scene -- an orderly, respectful one -- but a mass of people nonetheless.
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Part of the Gold treasure found in a Scythian burial mound
I retreated to the Historical Treasures Museum, which had an awesome collection of precious artifacts from the people who have lived in the area of Ukraine. The highlight was the hoard of gold jewelry found in burial mounds left by the Scythians, a steppe people from the time of the Ancient Greeks. I was the only visitor -- everyone else was attending the service. I took my time and wandered through the museum's two floors. There were several paragraphs in English posted at the entrance to each room, plus some of the items in the cases were labelled in English, as well. The museum is set up very well, and it was cool to see treasures from people I'd read about in history books. Often, a mannequin was clothed in recreated dress of the people, with the golden treasures on their headdress, belt, or whatever. The thrill of seeing these artifacts temporarily made me forget how big of a washout my visit to the complex would be. I left shortly afterwards, and made my way back to the subway and my hotel, completely drenched.

I changed clothes, had lunch, and ventured back out a few hours later when the rain stopped and the sun broke out. It was nice to walk Kiev's main drag, again -- Kreshchatyk Street -- do some last-minute shopping, and take some more photos. The sunshine felt like Ukraine was smiling at me, again. We'd had our little spat, but now she wanted to make up. Like a beautiful lady, Ukraine at its best is hard to resist. I strolled Kiev's streets one final time, remembering all the good times we had on this trip together. Then I headed back, to write my final account, and pack my bags to return home.

Posted by world_wide_mike 13:00 Archived in Ukraine Comments (0)

Spring in La Sernissima

Easter in Venice

semi-overcast 58 °F

Have you ever taken a roundabout way to get somewhere because it is cheaper? Like a LOT cheaper? Well, with only a week plus a few days for spring break, time is a precious commodity when you're traveling internationally. I really, really wanted to see Croatia. In fact, I've been wanting to visit the coastal Eastern European country for decades. Looking at airfares, they were all $1,400 or so. On a whim, I checked the fare from Toronto, because every city I looked at departing from in the U.S. had ridiculous prices. Half price...less, actually! Would I be willing to drive 5-6 hours to Toronto to fly to Croatia? You betcha!

So, now you're saying how does Venice fit into this picture, you big cheapskate? Well, it was even cheaper to fly into Venice and simply drive to Croatia, which isn't far away. So, the trip would start off with two nights in Venice, and end the final night there, as well. To me, Venice is the most beautiful city in the world. This would actually be my fourth trip there. Last year, I led a group of 22 students and parents there as part of an educational tour. If I can save money by traveling through Venice, I'll seize the opportunity and chance to visit one of my most favorite places in the world. So, it was slightly groggy from 6 hours in a car from Columbus to Toronto, and another six or so by air to Paris, and finally to Venice.l

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Hello, Venice, my old friend....

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Here's how you park your "ride" in Venice...

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Public transport in Venice...

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Near the Rialto Bridge

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Venice's beautiful churches, like this one -- the famous St. Mark's cathedral

Posted by world_wide_mike 14:03 Archived in Italy Comments (0)

Why I Love Venice

A Photo Love Affair

sunny 60 °F

"La piu bella citta del monde" -- the most beautiful city in the world, is how I have always described Venice. It is an artist's dream. Every corner is picturesque...a blend of pastel-colored Renaissance era buildings, quaint arching bridges, and panoramas of sky and sea catching your eye at every turn. No traffic sound of horns, gargling engines, or holed mufflers. Just the swish of the water and the dull throb of boat engines moving people and products about this bustling city.

Venice does not have a "laundry list" of sights to see like its older sister Roma does. Instead she unabashedly flirts and shows off her loveliness at every turn of street and canal. This little sister took over and flexed her muscles as her elder declined, becoming one of the medieval era's most powerful cities. She was rich beyond the comprehension of her dowdy European cousins, Paris, London, Bruges. She inspired a love amongst her citizenry that made them fiercely defend her against Christian and Muslim Turk rivals. History slumbers on every corner as you walk through Venice.

So, without further ado, this History teacher and former art student presents you with his pictorial dissertation on why he loves Venice....

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A misty start to an early morning...

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Churches reign regally on the seascape that is Venice...

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The Queen of queens, St. Mark's Cathedral...

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Dusky, gold-flecked, mysterious...the sonorous interior of La Serenissima's greatest church...

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Brought back as booty by the callous veterans of the 4th Crusade, this bronze four-horse chariot team, is a 2,000 year old masterpiece of Greek style art...

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The sun strikes a rosy glow from the pink stone of the Doge's (Duke's) Palace, next door to St. Mark's...

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The gilded interior of the Ducal Palace, that sumptuous tribute to the world's most unabashed oligarchy, where the rich rule...

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The armory inside the Doge's Palace, replete with weapons used to defend the Republic from the bladed medieval era to the days of gunpowder

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The Bridge of Sighs, that passageway from the Ducal Palace to the prisons, that elicited an outburst of longing for that last glimpse of their beloved city from condemned prisoners...

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Your vehicle of choice if you live in Venice is a boat...it can be overstated enough how soothing a city's sounds can be when no automobiles are around...

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The modern jostles elbow to elbow with the past in this panoply of energy, commerce, and beauty along the seacoast of northern Italy...

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I hope my visual dissertation has swayed your heart to consider Venice for a visit, one day...yes, it is expensive...yes, it lives and breathe to make euros, those modern day ducats...but it is a rare glimpse of the poetry that was the European Renaissance, and is well worth a visit...

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

Driving Down Dalmatia

On the road in Croatia...

rain 58 °F

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Croatia's gorgeous coastline along the Adriatic Sea, facing Italy

With cheap air fare to Venice, and The Croatian border only a little more than an hour away, a fly/drive Italy/Croatia combo was a natural combination. The only problem was that the part of Croatia that I wanted to see most -- the walled, medieval port of Dubrovnik -- was clear at the opposite end of the country. I'd been wanting to visit Croatia for decades, so we decided it was worth the drive time. We would do the drive in two stages, stopping off to see some sights on the way. The middle part of the trip, the meat of the sandwich, would be two days in Dubrovnik.

Our first driving day involved some serious chewing to get through the bread, so to speak. We detoured onto the Istrian Peninsula, a bit out of our way. The reason, and our first sight in Croatia, was the Roman Arena in Pula, Croatia. It had been cloudy throughout most of our drive there, even threatening rain a few times. However, the sun broke through just as we pulled into Pula. It was as if the travel gods were saying, "Yes, this place is worth the trip."

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Awe inspiring, the Pula Roman Arena -- Croatia's Colosseum

The arena was huge, and its outer walls were even more intact than the Colosseum in Rome. Instead of five stories tall, this one appeared to be three. About one third of the stone seats had been restored, while the rest of the interior was in a more ruined state. The arena floor was dirt -- no subterranean section here. But this meant you could walk out to the center of the oval and turn slowly, 360 degrees, and imagine the cheering and jeering crowds. It took all I had to not raise my arms and shout, "Are you not entertained?" in my best Maximus voice. It was a truly amazing sight to see the soaring stone archways enclose you, looming above, mute testament to the engineering power of Rome. I had never even heard of this place before planning my visit. How many places did that mighty civilization leave its imprint upon? Nearly 2,000 years later, the arena could still evoke awe and wonder in the sparse crowds visiting it that day.

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As we headed back toward the main highway south through Croatia, the rain that had threatened earlier fulfilled its promise. We had a good road map, but we're depending mostly on our smart phone Mapquest app to navigate. I'd purchased a SIM card in Paris on our layover, and it provided service like my research showed. We lost signal when we went through the dozens of mountain tunnels -- some up to three miles long! No exaggeration, I think I went through more mountain tunnels in Croatia than the rest of my life combined. Croatia stretches like a pork chop along the coast of the Adriatic Sea across from Italy. The coastline is famous for its beauty, though we were seeing little of that on the gray, rainswept mountain highway. Eventually, after we lost Mapquest for the umpteenth time, I switched to the Apple Maps app, and that worked so much better. It guided us to the door of our hotel accurately and easily. And on a dark, rainy night in a foreign country, that is a good thing!

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We'd paid our time in Purgatory, apparently, and our continuation of the drive the next day's was under sunny blue skies. We abandoned the mountain highway and took the coastal road. Here was that amazing coastline for which Croatia is famous. Wow! Blue, blue sea, white-walled and terra cotta roofed villages and towns along the way...and overlooking them all like a stern grandfather were those enormous granite mountains we'd driven through yesterday. These mountains are the bone in the Croatian pork chop, and run the length of the country, never very far from the sea. Their peaks seemed shrouded in clouds, so doubtless other drivers up there were having yesterday's weather while we basked in sunshine.

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Sun drenched, a symphony of sea, coast, mountain, and sky, Croatia's Adriatic seashore is a sight to behold

We stopped frequently to take photographs of the stunning seascape. They are a painter's dream. I can imagine a landscape painter venturing into Croatia a young man and not coming out till he was old and gray. If I were driving we perhaps never would have made it to Dubrovnik that day. Instead, I was navigator....a job that usually matches well with my anal retentive, perfectionist personality. I switched off Apple maps after an hour or so, having the road network down by that point. We would not turn it on again until it was time for it to guide us -- expertly, as usual -- to a parking lot near the old town. In the meantime, we enjoyed the show that Croatia's coastline staged for us.

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One oddity of the pork chop that is Croatia's geography is the nine kilometer "Neum Corridor." When the politicians were drawing the lines of the countries that made up the former Yugoslavia, they decided that Bosnia-Hercegovina should have access to the Adriatic Sea. Thus, a nine mile section of coast containing the town of Neum, became A Bosnian toe that poked through Croatian territory dipping into the sea. Since then, a resort has obviously blossomed. There were more resorts and hotels in Neum than any area along the coastline except for Dubrovnik and the Croatian second city of Split. We had to drive through a passport control station at both borders. No traffic backups, the customs agents examined our passports, the Croatians stamped them, and we drove on. Later on, I Googled the Neum Corridor and read that 92% of the inhabitants are Croatian. Hmm, I wondered...how do they feel about becoming Bosnian so that they have an access to the sea? On our drive through, we noticed one language of the dual language traffic signs was spray-painted over. Was that Croats angrily whiting out the Bosnian script? It would be interesting to delve deeper into this.

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The miles to Dubrovnik kept counting down, and soon we were within sight of this fabled city. We were staying in the walled, Old Town, which is an entirely pedestrian zone. So. We had to park outside and walk to our hotel. This went very smoothly. We telephoned our contact at our apartment room we were renting, and they were waiting there for us when we rolled our bags up to their door. The Old Town looked like a movie set, it was so authentically medieval, with its cobble stoned streets, matching yellow stone buildings and gleaming terra cotta roofs. In fact, we discovered we had just missed the filming of Star Wars, which was using the Stradun, or Main Street of Dubrovnik for one of its scenes. We already knew that many scenes from HBO's Game of Thrones were filmed there. We looked forward to our exploration of its sights. It was time to unpack from the long, two-day drive and set out!

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Posted by world_wide_mike 12:10 Archived in Croatia Comments (0)

Dubrovnik: Worth Waiting Two Decades For!

Medieval seaport is a brilliant marriage of History and scenery

sunny 70 °F

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Me on Dubrovnik, Croatia's medieval walls

For decades I had been wanting to see Dubrovnik. This fortified, medieval seaport was Venice's rival throughout the Middle Ages and Renaissance. Known as Ragusa back then, the city made alliances to stay independent of the mistress of the seas, Venice. Most importantly for the traveler, her walls remained intact through the centuries and her location on the gorgeous Dalmatian coast had captured my imagination from the moment I first saw photographs of her gleaming walls and terra cotta roof tiles. During the violent breakup of Yugoslavia in the early 1990s, Serbian artillery rained down on this UNESCO world heritage sight. The Croats resisted, though, cut off from the rest of their countrymen. The damage has been repaired, and the Old Town greets visitors with shining walls and even freshly scrubbed slick, stone streets.

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In fact, Dubrovnik looks so pristine it has been used by Hollywood to film a number of movies over the past few years. I knew that the city is a stand-in for King's Landing in the HBO Games of Thrones adaption. We were surprised, though, to hear we had just missed filming of the next Star Wars installment by a week. Though it would have been cool to be there during the filming, in hindsight, that would have meant closed sights, blocked off streets, and other inconveniences. So, best to miss it, we surmised.

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Our exploration began on the Stradun, the pedestrian main drag through the compact, walled town. After checking into our hotel, we walked maybe 50 yards, and there we were! It LOOKED like a movie set, it was so pristine. Had they given the walls and streets a thorough scrubbing for Disney? Perhaps. We didn't ask. We checked out a few of the sights, including the Sponza Palace, built in the 14th century and elegantly remodeled during the Renaissance. Not much of it is open to visitors, but there is a photo exhibit in one room honoring the city defenders who died holding off the Serb army. Facing the palace across the square was the Church of St. Blaise, which we ducked inside to see a service going on. Though they were speaking in Croatian, my Catholic upbringing and its ritualistic mass meant I could tell what they were saying.

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As we wandered up stairs and around twisting Medieval streets, we could see most of the city's buildings were made with same light, yellowish stone. It gave the buildings a unity of appearance and made them glow with luster when the sun struck them. Over the next day and a half, we also visited both the Franciscan and Domenican monasteries. Each had similar cloisters surrounding gardens, with carved, stone pillars capped by interesting capitals. We declined to visit the museums in each, as we wanted to save the bulk of our time for Dubrovnik's greatest attraction: walking the circuit of the city's medieval walls. We were biding our time, keeping an eye on the sky. We wanted the best possible lighting for Dubrovnik's premier sight. When the sun broke through in earnest, it was time to begin our assault.

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The walls were built in the 10th century and improved three centuries later. As we climbed higher and higher, the panorama of terra cotta roofs spread out beneath us. Many of the tiles were a newer, brighter orange, replaced since being damaged during the 1990s struggle. Some were relics from further back, and their darker and duskier tones intermixed with the new ones. The colors shining back at you looked like swatches from a paint store's selection of oranges. Rearing up through the ocean of tiles were church bell towers, like giant stone sea creatures, grazing and passively watching the smaller life swim by beneath them. Out to sea, the blue Adriatic sparkled like gemstones, parted by the prows of ferries, tour boats, and speedboats. Beyond the landward walls, green hills rose up like an amphitheater to enfold the city on two sides. White walled houses shined back down at us, their view doubtless the equal of our's atop the walls.

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It was easy to get lost in the past, climbing up the stout towers and pacing along the battlements. The quiet, contemplative stroll was suddenly interrupted when a huge high school group of French students burst onto the bulwarks like an invading army. Shouting, laughing, and taking selfies, they marred the dreamlike quality for awhile. Thankfully, they descended the walls at the halfway point, though I cringed the rest of the day when I heard the "musical" (read nasal) tones of French being spoken. One of my favorite things to do when I visit a historical sight is to slowly wander through it. Dubrovnik's walls are perfect for that. I stopped to take dozens of photos -- every set of steps you climbed or medieval turret you peer through is an amazing view. The wedding of the magical Dalmatian coastline with the martial splendor of a medieval walled city has given birth to a world-class sight.

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To gain another perspective, we rode the cable car to the top of one of the hills that overlooks the city. Tourists pointed their "selfie sticks" -- one of the more annoying inventions of recent years -- every which way. We were elbowed aside several times by a Japanese tour group, but what could you do? Under sunny blue skies, on a warm Spring day, how could you really get angry? It took a bit of doing to find a view of the city below that wasn't partially blocked by the cable car towers and wires. When we did find it, I couldn't resist a smug satisfaction that the tour group was nowhere around, and seemed to miss out on that secret. I felt less guilty about my feeling when the tour group pushed in front of us and ditched us in line, forcing us to wait 15 minutes or so for the next car.

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Once down on street level, we grabbed ice creams and ate them on a bench overlooking the harbor. We then moved to the breezy sea promenade and sat on another bench, marveling at the glorious weather and view. I felt myself dozing off, contented and satisfied. At this point, we'd seen the top sights we'd come to see. We flipped through our guidebooks to figure out how to finish out our second afternoon in Dubrovnik. I picked out the Maritime Museum, which was a mistake. When a History buff is bored, you know it is a poor museum! Next, we decided to take a sightseeing boat tour to get a chance to get a new perspective on the city. It was about a 45 minute cruise in a small boat with only a dozen or so of us. The captain gave us occasional commentary -– the most interesting of which dealt with the millionaire hotels along the coastline leading back to the harbor. I recognized the gardens of the one which had been used in Game of Thrones filming.

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We finished out the afternoon watching the sun sink slowly into the Adriatic Sea from a seaside cafe located just outside the walls. Although they were sold out of virtually everything, they had plenty of Croatian lagers. I had worried that only two days in a city I had waited two decades to visit would not be enough. It had turned out fine, though. Sure, I could have taken an excursion to one of the islands in the area with a third day, but that wouldn't have been Dubrovnik, would it? Two sun-soaked, Spring days to visit this medieval relic of the Middle Ages were without rival. I looked forward to spotting places I'd visited in Hollywood productions for years to come.

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Posted by world_wide_mike 13:07 Archived in Croatia Comments (0)

Splitting the Day in Croatia

Last two cities on our visit

sunny

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Roman carvings adapted to be part of the decoration of a Christian church (formerly the Roman Emperor Diocletian's tomb)

On our final day of sightseeing in Croatia, we would drive from Dubrovnik, stop in Split, and then continue on to Zadar for the night. The following morning would simply be our drive back to Venice, so this was our last day to chance to see things. Hopefully, we'd have enough time to see places we'd picked out in both cities, but we weren't 100% sure how long it would all take.

Split is Croatia's second largest city after its capital of Zagreb. The city grew up around a seaside palace that the Late Roman Emperor Diocletian built for himself there. He was a native of Illyria, as that region was called by the Romans. After seizing control of the empire, he stabilized it with a new idea. The empire was too big for one person to rule effectively, he decided. There were too many invading barbarians, and giving lots of troops to generals often led them to launch their own coups to take over. Since, the emperor couldn't lead the army in two places at once, what Rome needed was two emperors. So, he split the empire into Eastern and Western halves, giving his trusted friend Maximian the other half. Then, he decided to fix the succession problem by having each emperor, or Augustus, name a junior emperor (a Caesar) as their successor. So, Rome went from one emperor to having four of them! However, even my middle school History students can spot the problem with the Tetrarchy: It requires four leaders willing to share power. Although Diocletian reigned for more than two decades, the system fell apart after his death.

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The walls of Diocletian's palace became a part of the medieval city of Split

Diocletian built his palace in Split on the model of a legionary marching camp. It was walled, square, and bisected by an East-West and North-South road. Since it was a permanent settlement, he built temples, offices for his administration, and even a mausoleum for himself when he were to pass away. The palace was kept in use by his successors, but did not grow into an actual town until centuries later. When the nearby town of Salonica was sacked by invading Avars, many residents of the town fled to the walled palace and took up residence behind its compact walls. Around this nucleus, a medieval town grew -- renovating the palace to turn it into homes, and the temples into churches. Humorously, Diocletian -- who had persecuted Christians mercilessly -- was even evicted from his mausoleum and its squat octagonal structure became a church. Had he known, I'm sure he would have rolled over in his grave! Sorry, couldn't resist that one...

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The area in the center of town called the Peristyle has rows of Roman columns that were formerly part of ancient temples

The core of Split is a curious mixture of Roman and Medieval relics. In some places, like the Peristyle, you can easily see the Roman side. Rows of columns enclose paved courtyards. The four gates piercing each wall look like Roman ceremonial entranceways. In other parts, Split resembles the jumble of Medieval homes and churches, with terra cotta roof tiles. You can see the walls, though, that enclose the square core of the palace grounds. For the best view, we climbed the church bell tower attached to Diocletian's former mausoleum. Here, you could clearly see the walls delineating the original Roman square.

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The walls define where the original medieval city built around Diocletian's Palace grew up

I found Split to be a bit disappointing, though, like it was neither fish nor fowl. Not Roman enough for me to lose myself in that reverie. Nor was it medieval enough, I guess, being a living breathing city. People still are crammed higgedly-piggedly in every nook and corner in Split. So, perhaps the coolest thing about Split is simply the idea of it. Refugees cramming a former Roman emperor's retirement palace, squatting in it, building new walls to subdivide it into homes, and then having this metamorphosis grow for centuries into a thriving town. And though it is free to enter the "palace," you are charged for every sight -- bell tower, churches, and the cavernous substructure underneath. It was interesting to wander around the town and see the various courtyards, balconies, etc., that had been added on as the town grew. After only about two hours of sightseeing, we were ready to leave and drive on to Zadar.

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The ceremonial gate leading to the walled seaside town of Zadar, Croatia

We were staying at the same apartments/hotel as our earlier night-time stop here. Many of the "hotels" in Croatia are called apartments, instead. Considering you can rent them for one night to one week to one month, I'm really not sure why they are not called hotels. Perhaps it is because the owners do not staff a desk 24 hours a day. Instead, they will contact you to see what time you are arriving, so they can meet you and check you in. Although that may sound like poorer service, the Apartments Lavandula in Zadar were the nicest placed we stayed in during our spring break trip to Croatia and Venice. The staff we met were professional and helpful.

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The Byzantine-style Church of St. Donatus with fragments of the Roman forum in the foreground

After checking in, we walked into the Old Town part of Zadar. This town was a pleasant find. Compact and easily walkable in the Old Town, it had a number of quality sights. Like Dubrovnik, it is a walled, seaport with roots in the Roman times. My favorite sight was probably the Byzantine-style, 9th Century Church of St. Donatus. It is a wide, cylindrical stone building nestled amidst the ruins of Zadar's Roman Forum. Column fragments, capitals, and even tombstones are spaced in rows in a grassy area adjoining the town's main square. I liked how the city kept them out in public for citizens and visitors to see every day and enjoy. Yes, they'd be better preserved in a museum, but here they get so many more visitors. Behind St. Donatus was the bell tower of the town cathedral. Unfortunately, like most of the other sights in town, it was closed for the evening. We did get to walk around and photograph the exterior of the churches and towers, so all was not lost. It was a cool, pleasant evening and the sinking sun bathed the stones of the buildings with a golden glow.

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The bell tower of Zadar's Cathedral that we were hoping to be able to climb, but alas, it had just closed

One curiosity that made Zadar a YouTube sensation is the sea organ. An incredibly clever person designed a network of pipes connected to the ocean, with hollow organ-like passages leading up to the point where the town promenade meets the sea. The effect is that as waves push into the tubes, they force the air up through the openings like an organ. The waves do not strike the tubes in a regular or repetitive pattern, so you get a variety of sounds issuing forth from the pipe chambers as you set and look out to sea. In effect, the sea is playing music for you! What's more, a circular area of solar panels next to the tubes soaks up the sun's rays throughout the day, converting them into electricity. At night, this circular area lights up. Sensors in the pipes relay the information to the display, which appears to assign a different color to each new wave pattern that comes in. So, not only does the sea provide music for you in Zadar, it also gives you a psychedelic dance floor to enjoy it upon (with a little help from humans)!

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Zadar's Sea Organ at night, with different colored lights representing each new wave that strikes the organ tubes

As night fell I definitely felt I could have used more time in Zadar. I would not give up Dubrovnik to visit it, but I actually enjoyed diminutive Zadar more than sprawling Split. I would love to have gone through its city museum, climb the bell tower for a view of the walls and ancient town on a sparkling day, and explore its churches. I knew my time in Croatia would be short from the planning stages, though. Spring break is only a week, and with poor connections and expensive flights dictating our use of Venice as a departure and arrival point, the time was cut even shorter. However, Croatia lived up to my expectations. It was worth the decades of waiting to enjoy its sun-soaked coastline and its Roman and Medieval relics. Though I didn't have all the time I hoped, Croatia waited for me before. Her charms will still be there when I return!

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The Captain's Tower, part of Zadar's fortifications, and the ancient wells that provided water to the city

Posted by world_wide_mike 12:47 Archived in Croatia Comments (0)

Bosnian Bonus: Does this count as "visiting" the country?

Driving through the Neum Corridor which splits Croatia into two

sunny 68 °F

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Bosnia owns a nine kilometer stretch of the gorgeous Dalmatian coastline

So what counts as to "seeing a country?" You could set some sort of standard, say, visiting a certain percentage of a nation. But what about the United States, where I have lived for 53 years? There are huge parts of it that I have never seen. So, that can't work. What if you go to the other extreme? You could say all you have to do is be physically in the country -- standing on its soil. But then you could count every country you connect through in an airport. That's hardly visiting a county. The key -- to me -- is the word visit. To say you've visited a country, you have to go there specifically to see or do something. That's the mental definition I've been using to get to the 79 countries I've visited, so far.

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Lots of coastal development has occurred in the Neum Corridor, as Bosnia can pour its money into a geographically smaller stretch of coastline

For example, when I was in South Africa, I took a day trip to Lesotho. I count that because I specifically went there to see its sights, albeit briefly. The same when I was in the United Arab Emirates. I visited neighboring Oman because there was a really cool medieval Arab fort across the border that I wanted to see. Which brings me to country #80 -- Bosnia-Hercegovina. For spring break, we flew into Venice, spent a couple days there, then drove to Croatia. To get to the southern, coastal city of Dubrovnik, you have to drive through Bosnia. I debated whether to count it or not.

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I was expecting to see mosques rather than churches, but considering that most of the inhabitants are actually Croat Christians, I should not have been surprised

The "Neum Corridor," as it is called, is a nine kilometer stretch of Bosnia that pokes through Croatian territory, separating it into two parts. The idea, no doubt, was to give Bosnia access to the Adriatic Sea. Without that, it would be landlocked. So, the town of Neum became Bosnia's biggest (and only) Adriatic resort. It was easily the largest development we passed through along the Dalmatian Coast, excepting Split and Dubrovnik. We would cross through it twice, once going to Dubrovnik, once returning.

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Vandalized dual language signs in the Neum Corridor

We'd already noticed that many signs in Croatia were dual language -- Croatian and Italian. However, in the Neum Corridor, they were in Croatian and Cyrillic script, doubtless Bosnian. Many of the signs, though, had been vandalized. The Cyrillic script was spray painted over. This got my curiosity up, so I read up some on Neum. It turns out that when they handed this territory over to Bosnia, the Croatian residents weren't too happy. In fact, I read that 92% of the residents of the corridor at that time were ethnically Croatian. I can only assume the more displeased of those are the ones who vandalize the signs.

Like the rest of the Dalmatian coast, the Neum Corridor is beautiful. We made it a point to stop in places to take some pictures. We also shopped for souvenirs. I decided that this allowed me to "count" Bosnia as my 80th country. I know it is kind of stretching my previous definition, but hey! There are plenty of others who use even more ephemeral and flimsy stop offs to count as visiting. So, there you have it! A little bit of recent history, a little bit of Philosophy, and a few pretty pictures! That is my visit to Bosnia, though I hope one day to return to really do it justice!

Posted by world_wide_mike 14:12 Archived in Bosnia And Herzegovina Comments (0)

Singapore - So Much More Than Just Another Big City

What to do on Day 1? Why, a "Death March," of course!

sunny 94 °F

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Statue of Stamford Raffles, the Brit who won the rights to build a trading base in what would become Singapore

Before I began researching it, I guessed that I would need 3-4 days to see the sights I wanted to in Singapore. I mean it is just a big city, right? There would probably be one or two museums I'd want to hit up, a few historic sights, a couple nice views, and then I'm done. Right? I'm not necessarily a big city guy. I've never wanted to live in L.A., fuggiddabout it New York, and I really only like Chicago because of its pizza! Boy, was I wrong about Singapore!

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As I was compiling my list of things to do, it kept growing and growing. So many amazing temples or religious sights from a half-dozen faiths. Outstanding nature, great museums, History -- my notes kept doubling in size. I came to the realization I should have budgeted a lot more time when I purchased my plane ticket. I decided I would simply make do, and check off as much of the things I wanted to experience as I could. Those who know me realize what that means. And those who have traveled with my were probably breathing a secret sigh of relief that they wouldn't have to endure that interesting -- but potentially excruciating itinerary -- the Worldwidemike Death March. Toss in the 90+ degree Southeast Asian heat and you're talking serious potential for injury!

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A few days before I began my 30 hours and three flights to get from Columbus, Ohio, to Singapore, I had one of those moments when I thought: "Wait a minute, did I...?" The question was, since my flight arrived after midnight, did I book my first night's hotel for the correct date? Even though I technically arrived on the 23rd, I would need to reserve a room for the night of the 22nd. After more than a solid day of travel the last thing I would want to do would be to cool my heels in a hotel lobby for half a night! I checked. Nope. Booked it to start on the 23rd. Sigh. What's more, my awesome deal for the normally $200 a night Hotel Village Katong (for just over a quarter of that price!) was no longer available. Oh, they had rooms, but they'd charge their normal rate to extend my reservation a day forward. So, I ended up instead at the $50 a night Noble Hotel in the Little India neighborhood, finally checking in at 3 am.

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Whimsical bronze statue of children playing along the waterfront

You'd think I'd sleep half a day, but I was awake and couldn't get back to sleep by 8 am. Checkout wasn't until noon, so I went through my list and marked what was nearby in Little India. As it turns out, today would be my Temple Day. I began at the Daoist temple, Leong San See. The smell of incense filled the air, and Daoist music played from hidden speakers. I love the look of Eastern temples. The statues, the gold, and the tiny offerings and devotions of the worshippers. There was an inner sanctuary beyond the first room, all of it gilded and colorful. My guidebook pointed out the carved wooden beams, but frankly, I would have missed them amidst the splendor.

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Ceramic statues in the Daoist temple, Leong San See

Next up was a Buddhist temple I just happened to see while I was walking towards the one I'd picked out to visit next. When I peeked inside and saw the massive, brightly-painted, sitting Buddha, I had to check it out. The temple loans visitors a laminated card, which goes into great detail to explain the decorations. It was fascinating reading, and explained everything I was seeing. There were quite a few more worshippers than at the Daoist temple, and as always, I was carefully to stay out of there way and be as unobtrusive as possible. Besides the 45-foot tall statue, my favorite part was the story of the life of the Buddha told through more than 20 dioramas with painted, 2-foot tall statues. The temple even had a relic -- a piece of the tree under which the Buddha sat when he attained enlightenment. I'm sure historians would scoff, much as they do about the pieces of the "true cross" that Crusaders found 1,000 years after the crucifixion. Still, it is belief that makes a religion -- not peer-reviewed sources.

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Towering seated Buddha in a Singapore temple

A Hindu temple was next, the first of two I'd visit that morning. Sri Srivinasa Perumal Temple was built in the 1850s, and features one of those towering gopurams that make Hindu temples so colorful to visit. What's a gopuram? It is a tower carved with layer upon layer of brightly-painted statues from the Hindu pantheon of gods and goddesses. This temple's tower was 60+ feet tall! and the temple was dedicated to Vishnu the Preserver -- one of the three main gods. An interesting aspect of Hinduism, which many say is the world's oldest active religion, is that all of its hundreds of deities are actually considered to be aspects of one overall God -- Brahman. The individual gods and goddesses are just avatars of how he manifests himself on our world. I explain it to my students to think of him as the giant video game player in the sky, and Vishnu, Shiva, Ganesh and the rest are just his "characters" he's created to play this game called life.

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Slightly-faded statues along the roof of Sri Srivanasa Perumal temple

The coolest and most colorful Hindu temple I'd see in Singapore was my next one -- Sri Veeramakaliamman Temple. It was dedicated to the goddess Kali, who Indiana Jones gave a really bad reputation to in "The Temple of Doom." She is a somewhat gruesome goddess, usually depicted trampling or killing some unfortunate soul, and wears a necklace of skulls. I didn't see any priests pulling beating hearts from sacrificial victim's chests, but both Hindu temples I visited had active worshippers making offerings, praying, and wearing traditional garb. I loved the statues encrusting the roof and walls of the building. Kali was there, along with my favorite -- a lion-headed God roaring his ferocity. The sun shone on them brightly, and against the backdrop of the blue sky, they were an awesome sight.

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The Hindu goddess Kali reigns in her intimidating glory at her temple in Singapore's Little India neighborhood

I changed gears next, with a 20-minute walk to the Muslim Malabar Jama-Ath mosque. The Malabar Muslims are from the southern Indian coast, and were some of the first of their religion to settle in Singapore. The interior was very plain, and devoid of worshippers, since it wasn't during one of the prayer times. I was actually disappointed, as there was very little decoration and the blue tiles my guidebook described were nothing compared to the exquisite, Persian-style mosques I'd seen in the Middle East. I had to cross the street to get a decent picture of the mosque, and then left soon after. Checkout time was at noon, and I hurried back to finish packing and take a taxi over to my main hotel.

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Village Hotel Katong was gorgeous, easily a four-star hotel (above what I normally stay in, but hey, when hotels.com gives you a great deal, you take it)! I'd booked the entire vacation's worth of nights through hotels.com. I really like how you can read reviews, look at the map view and compare the hotel's location to what you want to see, and make your decisions at your leisure. I unpacked, and relaxed and enjoyed the cool air conditioning. I dug out my map and guidebook and planned my afternoon sightseeing. This is where the "death march" know kicks in, for those who aren't familiar with how I travel. The closest metro station was a 30-minute walk away (tomorrow, I'd learn how to take the bus there). Along the way, I wanted to check out some of the Perankan-style homes. The Perankans are the community that grew up from Chinese immigrants who had intermarried with the Malay locals. There homes are two-story, brightly-painted homes known for the upper level terrace which can be closed off with wooden shutters. The homes are also elaborately carved with columns, animals, and sometimes bright tiles inlaid in the walls. I took lots of pictures, and would notice this style of home throughout my stay in Singapore.

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Perankan homes, colorful and ornate, line many of Singapore's streets

After my circuitous route, it was after nearly an hour's worth the of walking under the bright sun and humidity before I arrived at the metro station. I had purchased an EZ-Link card from a convenience store, which you merely tap on the reader to have it automatically deduct the fare for any public transport you take in Singapore. The metro was air-conditioned and modern, with a lighted display board showing exactly where you are on that line. Announcements in English and Chinese detail each stop, along with a British-style reminder to "mind the gap." I alighted at the Raffles Place metro station, found my bearings, and headed towards the waterfront. My first stop would be the Asian Civilizations Museum, which my guidebook quite rightly raved about. I took my time wandering the three stories of exhibits. Everything was thoroughly explained in English, with pamphlets available in each room translating it into other languages. If I neglected to mention it before, English is the official language of Singapore. So, it you're looking to explore a Chinese or Asian culture, Singapore is an excellent introduction for the beginner. It is modern, efficient, friendly, and packed full of sights -- just like this museum. What's more, you are permitted to photograph the exhibits. Some of my favorites were the stone, Southeast Asian style temple carvings. I also enjoyed the intricately carved wooden boxes and furniture, and the brightly-painted porcelain. One really interesting part of the museum is the room containing the cargo hold and relics recovered from a Tang Dynasty ship that had sunk on its way to the Middle East. It was a fascinating treasure trove.

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I wandered along the waterfront for awhile, taking pictures of the massively tall skyscrapers that stretch towards the heavens from Singapore's central business district. Many had interesting or unique silhouettes, or shiny or unusual facings. I was reminded of Dubai and its intriguingly shaped modern buildings. After a fountain soda to cool off, I navigated my way to St. Andrews Cathedral -- completing "Temple Day" with Christianity's most important religious site on the island. It's ornately-carved, pure white spire rises nearly 200 feet above the ground, but still is dwarfed when you compare it to Singapore's skyscrapers.

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Some destinations have the iconic "thing" you have to do if you're a visitor. For Singapore, it is to head to Raffles Hotel and have a drink at the Long Bar. The Singapore Sling was invented here, and the hotel does brisk business with tourists bellying up to try one. I stuck with a pint of the local Tiger Bear, instead. I was surprised to find bags of peanuts on the bar for patrons to crack and munch on, tossing the shells onto the floor. It seemed somehow un-British to toss your refuse on the floor. I indulged, though, chiefly because I hadn't eaten all day except for two small chocolate buns that were complimentary in my morning hotel. Oh, that's another aspect of one of my death marches -- an almost ascetic, self-denial of food. I honestly think fasting can hone your senses. Plus, airlines tend to over feed their passengers, and it is also partly in attempt to right the balance that I eat little in my first day or so. The peanuts hit the spot, and I would actually go to bed that evening having eaten no meal all day.

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As I left Raffles, dusk was settling in on Singapore's bustling streets. I headed for the bay to get pictures of the skyscrapers lit up at night. My feet were getting sore, as I'd been walking for more hours than I cared to think about. I was rewarded with a delicious panorama of the city lit up by night. It was also my first real look at the Marina Sands Hotel, a building that should feature in a Star Wars movie. Three futuristic hotel towers are topped by a gleaming boat-like structure that is home to gardens, an infinity pool, restaurant, and of course, observation deck. I would visit it later on the trip, but it rose out of the bay like a science-fiction model, and is surrounded by similarly futuristic looking buildings. The lights of the city skyscrapers gleamed brightly, reflecting on the water. The mirror images of the buildings were sliced apart periodically by boats cutting wakes across the placid surface of the bay. I always carry a tiny, collapsible tripod with me for moments like these. I circled the half moon of the waterfront, taking pictures along the way and savoring the view.

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Finally, it was time to head back to the hotel. I limped a bit, having foolishly warn my Teva sandals rather than walking shoes. It would turn out that I had developed and torn a blister on my left foot. After the uncomfortable half an hour walk from the metro station, I picked up a package of Band-AIds to wear for the next few days. Having a shoppingi center -- including a supermarket -- in your hotel is a handy thing. After a refreshing shower, I thankfully settled into bed and slept away the rigors of one of my signature death marches.

Posted by world_wide_mike 21:57 Archived in Singapore Comments (0)

Stormy Skies, Scenic Views

A slower paced day two & day three

storm 89 °F

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My second full day in Singapore began early. I was awakened by the sound of a howling wind outside the sliding glass door to my balcony. It sounded like a typhoon blowing between the skyscrapers. I sat in my bed and listened to its banshee shriek for awhile. Then, a torrential downpour began. I opened the door and stepped out onto my balcony to watch sheets of water falling. I crawled back under the covers, hoping the storm really wasn't a typhoon, and the rains would end by morning. I woke up late in the morning, and checked outside. Rain was coming down hard enough that I postponed any sightseeing until after lunch.

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When I finally did venture out, I decided to add the local bus system to my repertoire. The front desk of the Village Hotel Katong graciously explained what bus I needed to catch to reach the Metro station -- saving me a 30-minute walk in the rain. Singapore's buses are every bit as organized and easy as the Metro, and air conditioned, too! I was headed to the Changi Chapel and Museum, and found it with no problem. Each bus stop has a name, and by taking a picture of the route sign with my smart phone, I could look at the window and follow our progress. It reminded more of a train or tram travel than a city bus line.

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Changi Museum is built on the site of a chapel that WW II POWs built for themselves after they were captured by the Japanese, following the surrender of Singapore. The museum's signs are all in English, and do a great job setting the scene of the British blundering defense of the island they considered impregnable. The attacking Japanese were outnumbered 3-1, but did have air superiority and much better equipment. All of the allied prisoners were rounded up and interned in various overcrowded and inadequate camps. Even European civilians were imprisoned and squeezed into cells, the men kept separate from the women. One of the best features of the museum's audio guide were the recorded oral histories of various prisoners. The gut wrenching account of a Chinese woman tortured for passing messages for the allies brought tears to my eyes. There are numerous letters from former prisoners or their children, spilling their feelings and telling their stories as a form of catharsis. I was disappointed that no photographs inside were allowed, but you could take photos of the reconstructed chapel outside.

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I actually took it very easy on day two, partially to let my blisters I'd worn into my soles on yesterday's death march heal. I took advantage of the supermarket in the hotel's shopping center to buy some nice, waterproof band-AIDS, which would come in handy until my foot healed up. And they were actually feeling much better the next day, when it was time to explore more of Singapore.

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With the sun shining again, I decided to start at the top, literally. I rode the Metro down to the Marina Bay Sands hotel. It is a futuristic looking building that I could easily see featured in an upcoming Star Wars movie. It is composed of three modern hotel towers topped by what -- for all the world -- looks like a giant hovercraft. It extends past all three towers and contains an observation deck, restaurant, infinity pool, restaurant, bar, and garden. All of Singapore is laid out beneath you as you stand atop it, 56 floors up. It was a beautiful, sunny day, and you could see for miles in every direction. Even though it was a weekend, the observation deck was not crowded. The other visitors and I wandered slowly around, enjoying the panorama, and taking pictures. One of the things that struck me was the multitude of cargo ships in the bay, moored, or waiting to dock. It looked like the movie scenes of the allied fleet at D-Day, gray ships receding into the distance. The next thing that strikes you are the towering skyscrapers. All the of them are sleek and modern, and they dwarf the tiny two to three story, more traditional buildings of Singapore's earlier history. There are numerous stadiums, including a twin pair nicknamed "The Durien" after Asia's notorious, spiky-skinned fruit. To me, they looked more like an aluminum spiky brassiere, discarded by some titanic Madona. There's even a floating field in the bay that can be used for sports or concerts. The view was amazing, and that would prove to be the theme for the day.

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Descending, I crossed back to the main island on the pedestrian Helix bridge. The walkway is encapsulated in a gleaming aluminum structure looks like a monstrous DNA strand. There are four observation platforms along the way, each providing wonderful views and massive selfie opportunities for strollers, their cell phones, and social media. Speaking of which, anyone who thinks the obsession with our phones is an American thing has not been to Singapore. There are just as many faces glued to miniature screens on subways, in restaurants, and even walking down crowded streets. It is a world thing, now. We are all captivated by our connection to the Internet and our friends and family. I retraced my steps from day one's night time stroll along the waterfront, this time enjoying it under blue skies. I wanted to visit the Merlion, a massive fountain of a hybrid fish-lion. It was here that I truly ran into throngs of tourists. Many of them were doing my all-time, least-favorite thing: posing so the jet of water issuing from the statue's mouth appeared in their friend's camera to fall into their cupped hands, mouth, whatever. The Singapore equivalent of "holding" up the Leaning Tower of Pisa. Bleh. I took some photos and moved on.

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After a brief stop to get photos of the giant, mirrored balls (think a half dozen, spherical versions of Chicago's famous bean), It was off to Chinatown. I know, it seems odd to me that a city of mostly Chinese descent would have a specified Chinatown. However, the island is on the tip of the Malay peninsula, so there is a significant population of Malaysians, Indian immigrants, British, and more. Along the way, I stopped at another Hindu temple, Sri Mariamman. Even though it is billed as Singapore's most colorful, I actually preferred the Kali temple from day one. The temple was thronged with worshippers in colorful garb, offering sacrifices and praying. The afternoon sun beating down was getting intense, so I backtracked to a pub I'd spotted on the walk here and enjoyed an ice cold water before savoring an excellent Archipelago Irish Ale. It hit the spot and fortified me to push on in the heat.

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Next up was the five-story Buddha Tooth temple. This modern, gleaming building with its gray-green, pagoda roofs was air conditioned, airy, and spacious. Hundreds of statues from the Buddhist pantheon of every size lined the walls. Worshippers and tourists made a circuit, one lighting joss sticks and bowing in prayer while the other admired the beauty and took pictures. Coming here, I'd noticed several streets with market stalls, so I spent some time roaming them, looking for souvenirs. I did find a lapel pin of the Singapore flag for my map at home, and was intrigued by the lacquered wood screens painted with various scenes. I really liked the one with the Great Wall, and mentally made a note to keep an eye out for more like this in other shops. I was actually killing time with my shopping, waiting for the 6:55 pm Lion Dance which would be performed on the streets. From the picture, it looked like one of those cool, multi-person costumes the Chinese are famous for using in celebrations. When I headed back to get a good viewing spot, I noticed the fine print on the sign: "Cancelled today"...d'oh!

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A quick Metro hop brought me to the day's final stop, Clarke Quay -- Singapore's river walk of restaurants and bars. Boats leave regularly to cruise along the waterfront, and at night it colorfully lit up with lights. After a couple days of Asian food, I was looking forward to more choices. I ended up having shish kabob at a Middle Eastern place. I finished the day off with a Tiger beer at a cafe along the waterfront, watching the boats cruise by. Although much less packed with sights than day one's overdose, day three was a pleasant way to wrap up my first half of this trip. Tomorrow, it was off to Laos for a week. I'd be returning here again later, before I flew back home.

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Posted by world_wide_mike 17:04 Archived in Singapore Comments (0)

Lost in Luang Prabang

Navigational failures don't mar visit to amazing temples

sunny 94 °F

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When I was researching Laos, Luang Prabang was praised universally by the guidebooks. The medieval capital of Laos, it is home to dozens and dozens of wats, or Buddhist temples. A highlight of my three days would undoubtedly be experiencing them, and marveling at the gorgeous ornamentation. My flight from Singapore to here utilized two budget Asian carriers -- NokScoot and AirAsia. There was a pretty long layover in Bangkok, but the flights went smoothly,,and my hotel's van was waiting once I'd cleared immigration. The guidebooks kind of let me down on this, I should have brought a passport-sized photo and found the paperwork for a visa on arrival to clear even quicker.

My Dream Boutique is located across the river from downtown Luang Prabang, and is an oasis of quiet. The staff is incredibly gracious and accommodating, and always greet you with a smile and "Sabadee" (Lao greeting). It was early evening when I arrived, so after unpacking, I decided to have dinner at the hotel. The hotel got rave reviews on hotels.com, and they praised the food, as well. One drawback of tropical, outdoor dining, though, are the mosquitos. They started to chew me up pretty good, and I was thankful for the double protection of the sealed, air conditioned room and graceful mosquito netting surrounding my bed. As it turned out, that was the only bad experience with mosquitos in Luang Prabang.

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After dinner, I decided to walk into town and find the Night Market, which was supposed to be spectacular. I didn't take the map the hotel gave me, preferring to depend on my Smartphone's map feature. The fastest way into town is across the bamboo bridge, about ten minutes walk away. Somehow, I found the stairs leading down to it in the humid, inky blackness of the night. The bridge is not quite an Indiana Jones rope bridge, but it only about one step up. It was a thrill to walk across it, hearing the river chattering just a few feet below you. During the daytime, a Lao family collects a small toll to help with its upkeep. Once on the other side, and after climbing the stairs to the street, I pulled out my phone to get my bearings. Oops. I had yet to buy a Lao SIM card, so once I'd left my hotel's wifi, the maps feature was useless.

I made a right turn, walking along the main road alongside the river. Unwittingly, I was going the long, long way. Luang Prabang is built on a peninsula created by the Mekong River and a tributary. I crossed about halfway up the peninsula, and my right turn set me on a looping course to the far end of the peninsula and back down the other side. Eventually, I realized my error, all the while marveling how much bigger this town appeared than on the map. It wasn't to be my first -- or worst -- navigational error in Luang Prabang, though. After cutting off the river road towards what looked like the center of town, I eventually found the Night Market. The gorgeous fabrics, carvings, jewelry, lamps, and other souvenirs were spread out on tarps beneath temporary cloth awnings. Each evening, vendors stake out a spot along the main road, next to the National Palace Museum. The market has essentially two rows, and stretches for about about a quarter of a mile. This would be just a scouting mission. I'd come back to shop another evening.

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After breakfast the next morning, I took the alternate way into town. This railroad, scooter, and bicycle bridge also has a separate section for pedestrians. Beneath me, the river ran a muddy brown, with the long thin boats of fishermen poling across its surface. A short walk brought me to Wat Visoun, the first temple on my list to visit. Built in the 1500s, it is the town's oldest. Inside, centuries old Buddhas lined the walls. Signs explained what each of the poses means in Buddhist myths, from the "praying for rain" to the "stop fighting" aspects. The main Buddha image was golden, and at least 20 feet high. An altar of smaller Buddhas and offerings lay at its crossed legs. Facing the temple was what is known as the watermelon stupa (for the shape of its top portion), a solid brick structure covered in weathered, gray stone facing. A stupa differs from a temple in that it is usually solid, with no inside, and contains a relic of the Buddha. They are usually bell-shaped, tapering to a point at the top. I was surprised to have to pay a fee to enter, as the temples in Singapore that I'd visited were all free. This would prove to be standard for Luang Prabang. Virtually every Wat charges a small admission fee, usually 20,000 kip (just under $3).

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Adjacent to Wat Visoun was Wat Aham. It's whitewashed exterior is guarded by two crouching Buddhist deities, one green faced, the other red. Both leered colorfully at visitors. Inside, it was the opposite of Wat Visoun's dusty, somber feel. The walls of this temple were brightly painted with dozens of scenes from Buddhist mythology. Some colorful paintings depicted the life of the Buddha, others scenes of torture and suffering in what I assumed was the Buddhist version of Hell. The vivid colors reminded me of Caribbean paintings of town life -- especially the bright blue skies.

My next stop was in the Dara Market to obtain a SIM card for my Smartphone. I think it is upon leaving the market where my mind became turned around, as far as directions go. I was using the hotel map and navigating fine, so far. However, I proceeded to march off in the exact opposite direction I needed to go. Referring to the map function on my phone was no help, for once. It simply did not have enough landmarks or streets programmed In to orient myself. I steadily became more frustrated, and hot, in the 90+ degree humidity. Finally, I gave up and paid a tuk-tuk driver to take me back to the hotel. I needed to rest, cool off mentally and physically (a dip in the hotel pool was the cure I needed), and then set out again.

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When I ventured out again, I used the bamboo bridge to head into town. My first stop was Wat Sene -- a Thai-style temple. Contrary to what my guidebook said, the main sim (temple) was closed, but the grounds were open. Wat Sene was a red and gold beauty. The stenciled golden images of warriors on the deep red walls and pillars was striking. A number of temples lined the street heading up from Wat Sene, but I hurried to one of the most impressive, Wat Xien Thong.

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This is a large, walled complex stretches all the way to the river bank, and contains a library, monk's quarters, drum pavilion, small chapel, and even a building to house a funeral chariot built to carry a king's body to his cremation. Of course, it also contains a gorgeous main temple or sim, decorated on the inside in striking black and gold designs. The outside was gilded, colorful, and blazing in the afternoon sun. It was easily the coolest temple I would see in Luang Prabang. Locals consider it the country's most important religious site.

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After relaxing with a cold beer in a breezy cafe, I was fortified to continue my travels under the hot afternoon sun. Make no mistake: Southeast Asia can be brutally hot in summer for sightseeing. I arrived at the National Museum complex -- formerly the Royal residence -- after it closed. Many sights in Laos close early, it seems. I was able to get some nice pictures, though, by climbing the slopes of Mt. Phou Si, a hill that rises up on the middle of the peninsula. I did not count the 328 steps that lead to the top, but the view from up there was spectacular. Trees blocked the view of the main town, but the surrounding countryside was laid out in full glory. Though an invigorate climb, it was well worth the effort.

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Strangely enough, this concluded the sightseeing portion of the day. The heat, combined with my navigational mishap earlier, subtracted a lot of the sights I'd plan on cramming in on "temple day." Still, Luang Prabang did not disappoint. My first two days in Laos were living up to expectations.

Posted by world_wide_mike 08:35 Archived in Laos Comments (0)

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