Slow Train to Slovakia

IMG_5829How exciting to get invited to an international school in Bratislava, Slovakia. We had never been to this country so we looked forward to visiting a new place.

How do you get to Bratislava? To fly there from Switzerland, we discovered we’d have to spend a fortune and fly via Dubai. Not a very economical way to go. So we ended up flying to Vienna instead. I’ve always wanted to see Vienna but there was no time. We had to take a bus to Bratislava right away and found the school, tucked away in a residential neighbourhood, with the help of a taxi. I do enjoy traveling in Europe where each country has such a distinct culture, architecture and atmosphere. You can often see where borders used to be but no longer need passports.   While many countries use Euros now, some countries still have their own currency. All have their own language, stamps and other ways to remain unique within a European Union. IMG_5842

A kind teacher hosted us in her home in the nearby village of Borinka, near the town of Stupava. This way we got to see more of the countryside. I liked the yellow churches with their characteristic steeples. The language in Slovakia is something else – some word are easily recognized (like technológie, taxi and centrum) but other words are beyond guesswork (zastávka is stop; predajňa means shop).

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Bratislava’s Blue Church

Many apartment buildings in the city are still old Soviet buildings. But these get spruced up with more cheerful colours and balconies. The border with Austria is where the Iron Curtain used to be and we wondered how Austrians must have felt to see these concrete cities going up but not being allowed to cross or visit. Apparently they did put up radio towers in an effort to help the people on the other side of the Iron Curtain to help listen to the rest of the world. I was surprised by the number of large factories providing employment here: Samsung, Kia, Volkswagen are all here to have products manufactured in Slovakia.

While I worked in school, Kees explored the countryside and nearby towns by walking until some dogs chased him. He climbed the hill sides and sampled Slovak beer despite the cold wind. We also enjoyed sampling traditional dishes with meat, potatoes and lots of cheese. 

thumb_FH1During our last weekend, we stayed in a funky hotel in Bratislava (The Film Hotel with Oscars at the door, we were in the Bruce Willis room…) and walked all over downtown. The castle towered over the small town with its white walls and red roofs.

We visited squares, statues, fountains, fine buildings and a gorgeous Blue Church. 

IMG_5837One of our favourite statues here was ‘Men at Work’. 

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Slovak bread

Our favourite restaurant was The Slovak Pub. This rinkydink old wooden building had many rooms, each with a theme related to the country’s heritage and history: poets, freedom fighters, heroes. The food was fabulous. We sampled Slovak dumplings with bacon, traditional bread and great soups.

IMG_1364Leaving Slovakia, we boarded the train from Bratislava to Prague. Confusing reigned since many travellers had assigned seats but the other half did not. A nice group of young Czech men ‘adopted’ us and gave us their seats. “Ah Canada, good!” they cheered when they heard where we were from. Then they told us they had spend the national holiday weekend going to Slovak to taste wine. In the fall, you can do ‘wine walks’ here, walking from winery to winery and visiting wine cellars. They pulled out the bottles of wine and past them around and around. “We are from Pilsen,” they said, explaining that they all work in the Pilsner breweries in Czech Republic. It was a jolly train ride to Prague!

http://www.filmhotel.sk

https://slovakpub.sk/en/

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A Slovak poem

Pompeii: City of the Dead

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The city of Pompeii

240 KM south of Rome is the city of Naples. As soon as we step off the train, we realize that this is a whole different world from northern Italy. Naples is chaos: an anthill of houses and streets and people. We’ve been warned about increased crime and plenty of pickpockets. Street vendors swarm everywhere. Garbage is overwhelming, as is dog poop and cigaret smoking….

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Eating on the street

We are happy to discover that the hotel we booked here, is a beautiful, modern apartment. On the outside, Palazzo Settembrini is a historic building in a narrow, busy street. Laundry decorates the opposite houses, there are little shops all around. But inside, the building has a modern lobby and an elevator. Our apartment has gorgeous stone flooring, a spacious living room with kitchen, a bathroom and large bedroom with crisp white linens. It is also very, very quiet if we keep the windows closed. It’s lovely to have this much space for the price of an ordinary hotel room. The lovely couple that run the place, point out the bakery, the supermarket and nearby restaurants. One night we eat around the corner, on the street. The local food is great and we feel very authentic, sitting under the city wall’s gate while mopeds zoom nonstop by our table…. Another night we try to find one of the classic pizza places. After all, pizza was ‘invented’ in Naples. But a large mob crowds outside, waiting to get in. So we sit down at a pizzeria across the road. How could pizza be any better?

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Pizza originated in Naples

Naples might have gorgeous cathedrals and other historic landmarks but after Lucca, Siena, Florence, Rome we’ve seen enough cities for a while. But Napoli is where pizza originated so we can’t wait to try authentic pizza here. Also, an Italian friend recommended porquetta – slow cooked, stuffed pork roast, thinly sliced. And it does taste beautiful. Italian coffee is served very strong in tiny cups. I have to laugh when we ask for a larger coffee and get the same tiny bit, just in a larger cup!

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Mount Vesuvius

To us, Naples is the jump off point to visit nearby Pompeii and Mount Vesuvius. The trains throughout Italy are not bad. They are very reasonably priced and pretty much on schedule. The little train from Naples to Pompeii, however, is a different story. Be warned: reaching Pompeii or nearby Herculanum on your own is not for the faint of heart. We found the special platform at the very end of Napoli Centrale. It’s a small company that runs this train: Circumvesuviana. The signs on the platform did not work. There was no indication whatsoever which train would go to where, or from which platform. Through word of mouth we finally figured out where to wait. A train did not show up for an hour. Apparently they kept getting canceled. When a train finally came, you could not have fitted another body onto the platform. We all squeezed into the, already full, train to the point of suffocating. It was a half hour, with about 20 stops, to get to Pompeii. There are no announcements at all about your next stop. And to make it worse: all signs at stations’ platforms are completely covered in graffiti so that it is impossible to read the name of where you are. Not a pleasant journey! The up-side is that it only cost 2 euros.

IMG_5553Once in Pompeii, it is not clear that all the signs ‘tickets’ are not the official ticket sellers for the site. We were glad we had read lots of information beforehand and walked straight down until we reached the official entrance where we bought 15 euro tickets to enter Pompeii.

One of the best things we had discovered, during our research, is the free audio tours by Rick Steves. We listened to the entire soundtrack prior to going and then played it again, on our phone, while we walked through Pompeii. His information was perfect. It told us where to walk, when to turn off the track, etc. It saved us about 15 euros each for a rented audio tour. Rick Steves’ tours are available throughout Europe, for most cities and sites. The app is free and so are the downloads. Highly recommended!

Pompeii is fascinating and eery. An entire city of 20,000 people with streets and squares and intersections. In your mind’s eye you see the merchants, the women, the scholars. They walk along the sidewalks while chariots rush down the roads, their wheels leaving ruts over the ages. There are busy shops and food places, there’s a pub, a brothel.  A large home from a well-to-do merchant, a poet’s house.

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This was a food shop with bowls fitting into the rims.

The public bathhouse had ornately painted ceilings and heated floors. The city had a good water supply system with reservoirs and leaded pipes. They were so advanced! The ceilings had ruts to prevent dripping. 

These people had no idea at all that the mountain near their city was a volcano. They had no way of knowing because Vesuvius had not erupted for 1,200 years. Suddenly, in August of the year 79 it did blow. It completely took everyone by surprise.

IMG_5561The nearby resort town of Herculanum (Ercolano) was covered in lava.

Pompeii was smothered in ash and gasses. 2,000 people died. Both towns were effectively sealed and preserved, to be discovered by archaeologists 

more than a thousand years later… When they found human remains, they poured plaster in the cavities and made perfect moulds of the human bodies in the positions in which they died…. Eery but also fascinating.IMG_5547

https://www.palazzosettembrini49.it/en

https://www.ricksteves.com/watch-read-listen/audio/audio-europe

http://www.oraricircumvesuviana.it/fermate

https://www.pompeionline.net/pompeii/

Rome-ing Around

IMG_5301All roads lead to Rome… and so does the Via Francigena. We traveled the last bit by train since we did not feel like hiking through suburbs and industrial areas.

We found a quaint ‘hotel’ – the large room is a bit bare, like a hostel but  with a private bathroom. It’s in a historic building that was likely an apartment building until it was converted to hotel rooms. There’s a lush green court yard, a wrought iron gate, even breakfast of coffee and a croissant. And we’re less than a 10 minute walk from Roma Termini, the main train station. Once we arrived by train, we simply walked here and settled in.
With an old fashioned paper map, we find our way around to all the main attractions of Rome. The very first thing we want to see is the Colosseum. It’s late afternoon and the sky is grey. But we walk for a few kilometers and suddenly, there it is – the famous curved walls on which the Vancouver Public Library is based. We walked all the way around it to see it from all angles as well as to the Roman Forum. We try to take the Metro back but the machines are out of change, or the printer doesn’t work, or it just doesn’t feel like helping the hordes of tourists lined up for tickets. In the end, we walk all the way back while the skies burst open. The first rain we’ve had on this trip.

We are constantly aware of pickpockets since we keep getting warned about them. On our one rainy night, we walked huddled under one umbrella, when suddenly I felt a hand in between us. I slapped the hand and a young man jumped away behind us. Somehow he tried to get into Kees’ pocket right in between us. To no avail but it brought home the message again. We leave all valuables in the hotel and carry only a bare minimum. 

IMG_5328The next day is blue sky again and this time the Metro ticket machines work fine. In fact, there was a country wide transportation strike announced. We were told it might be hard to take the Metro. But, instead, we find an almost deserted station and mostly empty trains that rush us to our destination: Vatican City.

There we follow the tall stone wall (boy, Romans liked to build walls in the olden days) and follow it until we find an opening: the entrance to the Vatican Museums. This time we have booked an online tour, directly with the Vatican City people which was much cheaper than via tour operators. We walk through the museum exhibits, which are mostly things collected by popes and the church. 

Through court yards, past statues and fountains, we go through the papal apartments. Impressive halls ornately painted. Michelangelo lived here while he worked on the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel.

Ultimately we make it to the Chapel. It’s very different in reality, at least from the way I pictured it. The Chapel itself is a rectangular stone building. From the outside, you’d never guess it was special. We approach via  endless corridors and rooms with paintings, carvings, collections and fabulous, gigantic tapestries from the Middle Ages woven in Belgium.

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The Sistine chapel is a colourful sequence of painted stories. I try to imagine Michelangelo working here on his scaffolding, day after day. He felt that he was a sculpture, not a painter and tried to decline the job. But the pope insisted in hiring him to paint this ceiling. I like how our guide explained how he learned about proportions as he went, changing figures that are too small, too detailed to larger figures in the next scene. It really looks like the very first graphic novel – the stories unfold in wordless pictures. What really floors me is that he put himself in the picture as an empty skin in The Last Judgement. Did he have a sense of humour or was he a morbid thinker?

After the Chapel we walk through the Papal Corridor where the cardinals walk as they go into conclave when a new pope is selected. We hear the story of the white and black smoke – traditionally produced with leaves but now with a moveable, mechanical chimney. Even the Vatican adapts to time.

IMG_5371The hallways eventually connect and we approach St. Peter’s Cathedral. Our guide explains how Peter was one of the first Christians, shortly after the life of Christ. He was killed on the spot which is now the center of the square where an obelisk marks the spot. Once Christianity caught on in Rome, an alter, and then a church was built on the site. St. Peter’s Cathedral is now the largest church in the world. And it is large! Its capacity is 60,000 people! The pillars inside are immense. The marble statues are amazing, especially The Pieta, carved in 1449 by Michelangelo of Florence. IMG_5378

After roaming through the church, we climb down and exit via the grotto where many popes have been buried over the ages. St. Peter’s Cathedral an impressive, special place to visit with an almost palpable history.IMG_5389

Rome’s Most Creepy Crypt

Rome, ItalyWe have all heard of Rome’s main attractions: the Sistine Chapel, the Spanish Steps, St. Peter’s Cathedral. But have you ever heard of the Museum and Crypt of the Capuchin Friers? 

This is a fascinating, if somewhat creepy, chapel underneath the church of Santa Maria della Concezione dei Capucchini. For 8.50 euros you can take a tour.

Here, for several hundred years, the Franciscan friars, in their infinite wisdom, decided that the bones of their dead colleagues would make a great reminder of our mortality. And so, with likely nothing better to do, they started to use their bones to decorate. Yes, to decorate. Over the years, they used some 4,000 dead bodies. That’s a lot of bones: shin bones, finger bones, everything…

They even gave names to the different rooms they decorated and in which they displayed their morbid exhibits: the crypt of skulls, the crypt of legbones, and (my favorite) the crypt of pelvises. The displays in each room are… well, bare bones.

The dimly lit rooms have chandeliers made from human bones. Mummified arms hold the Coat of Arms (no pun intended). Apparently by the early 1900’s they were told to stop their lurid practise.

capuchin-bone-monk-cryptThe crypt’s website warns ‘don’t go if you’re queasy about such things as furniture made of human bones’. It also states that after the tour of the crypt, you will enter the Gift Shop. I’m afraid to ask what’s for sale there…

These Capuchin friars are the same guys for which your favourite drink is named: reminiscent of their brown habit with pointed hood, or cappa, the word ‘cappuccino’ allegedly alludes to the colour and ‘peaked finish’ of coffee. So, as you sip your next cappuccino at Starbuck, you may contemplate these cheerful guys’ motto, as displayed on a plague on the wall in this creepy crypt: “What you are now, we once were; what we are now, you shall be.” 

(And just in case you wonder, no I have not actually visited even though it is almost Halloween.)

https://archaeology-travel.com/italy/capuchin-crypt-rome/

Abu Simbel: Traveling Back in Time

IMG_2530Egypt. Fabled land of sphinx and pyramids, of the river Nile and Cleopatra. I didn’t think I’d ever visit here. But – thanks to my books My Librarian is a Camel, the story of libraries around the world, and thanks to Stepping Stones, the story of a refugee family – I received an invitation from an international school in Cairo to come and do author presentations for the students.

Of course, that was an opportunity to plan some travel in Egypt. But where do you start and what is possible?

We started by getting books from the library, including travel guides. We also borrowed several DVD’s, even a copy of the classic Cleopatra movie with Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Burton. We visited the Egypt exhibit in the BC Museum and read many nonfiction books.

Then we delved into travel sites like Tripadvisor to read about other people’s experiences. We like to travel on our own rather than with a tour group so we started by counting the days we had to decide where to go. 

IMG_2522Arriving in Cairo, we connected immediately to a flight to Aswan, in the south of Egypt. We knew we would arrive very late, around midnight. After much research I found the perfect itinerary: booking.com showed a Nile cruise of 4 days leaving Aswan on a Wednesday and ending in Luxor. The rate was very reasonable and so I booked it, even though a Cairo travel agency insisted there was no such cruise from south to north. Research paid off.  

Prior to sailing, the boat offered an excursion to Abu Simbel, ancient temples in the very southern tip of Egypt on the border with Sudan. We really wanted to see that sight so we booked it but would be picked up at 5 AM. Since we arrived at midnight, I searched for a cheap hotel and found one for about 30 euros. It was cheap but clean and they even had a breakfast box ready for us when we left. The van for our trip south showed up early, at 4 AM when we were still sleeping, so it was a mad dash.

But soon we found ourselves on our way south through the western reaches of the Sahara Desert. After the Aswan Dam the road was long and boring. We dozed for 3 hours but by the time we arrived it was light and still relatively cool. We walked around a mount and suddenly there were there: four gigantic statues, 20 meters tall, the sitting figures of Pharaoh Ramesses II, carved more than 1,200 years before Christ. IMG_2490The sheer size and precision of the decorations is awe inspiring. The temples are dedicated to Ramesses and his wife Nefertari, (our guide called them Ramsex and Never-tired because they had something like 42 kids…) who is shown here in the same size as him, a big exception. In most places the females are depicted much smaller than the males. Besides the incredible exterior, you can enter the temples. I had always pictured these ancient temples as small and dark. But on the contrary, they are huge and light. At 30 meters high, the ceilings and walls are entirely covered in hieroglyphs. Having seen cave paintings in Australia and many other places, I imagined that hieroglyphs would be the same: a few found here and there, small and faded. But no – these hieroglyphs look as if they were carved yesterday. They cover the entire walls and tell stories that jump right off the ‘page’. Even if you can’t read the letters and words, the pictures are clear: they pay tribute to the good life of the pharaoh and what he did. You see people fishing, specific fish that are recognizable to this day. They carry pots and fruits. They dance and pray. You can see the clothing they wore and who they met. It is incredible. IMG_2516

These temples and statues at Abu Simbel would have been lost forever when the dam was build that now forms Lake Nasser. So, thank goodness, the authorities had the entire site moved from down below to up high. With painstaking precision, with cranes and helicopters, the sandstone was secured and hoisted up to a level that would be well above the water level.

The lake was created and now is home to some 30,000 crocodiles. But Abu Simbel’s temples continue to stare across the land, more than 3,000 years after they were conceived.

We were lucky to be assigned an amazing guide from Abu Simbel to Luxor. His name is Mr. Hamed. He is a master egyptologist, can read hieroplyghs like we read our alphabet. He knows everything and taught most guides here. If you ever come to Egypt, book him: masteregyptologist@gmail.com

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Oracles and Miracles

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Road to Delphi

I wonder if the Oracle of Delphi could have predicted that we would show up, unplanned.

We got up at 5 AM (!) to follow our days in Athene with a ferry ride to our first island: Mykonos. We had carefully researched and selected three of the nearly 2,000 Greek Islands. Our choices were based on geography: they had to be near Athene because of our limited time. We watched travel shows to find a variety of size and landscape. 

As we had arranged with our AirBnB hosts, we left the key on the table and pulled the door locked behind us. We stepped into the still dusk alley and walked over, with our luggage, to a hotel around the corner from where we hailed a taxi to take us to Piraeus, the busy harbour of Athens. 

“No ferries!” announced the taxi driver, “National strike!” I had heard rumours of a one day strike on Monday but this was Tuesday. Surely our ferry would take us to the island? But no, inside the hotel our fears were confirmed. So if the ferries don’t go, you can’t reach the hotel you booked. And thousands of other tourists can’t leave so hotel rooms will be at a premium. What to do?

In cases like this I find that the ‘Serenity Poem’ always works: ‘grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change.’ Or, in the words of our Greek guide we would meet later: “things ghahppen that will ghahppen”.

First we decide to ensure that we have a place to sleep in Athens for the next two nights and book a hotel via Orbitz. No problem.

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Delphi

Then we take a taxi to that hotel, leave our luggage (because it was only about 8 AM, too early to check in), use their wifi and walk to the travel agency through whom we had booked our Greek ferries. Thank goodness I had decided that booking it myself was too complicated. We always book everything ourselves but this time we are grateful we didn’t. AFEA Travel was amazing. They wasted no time in cancelling our first ferry ticket, hopefully to get a refund. They contacted our hotel in Mykonos to confirm we couldn’t make it. They re-booked a ferry for a few days later from Athens to our next island: Naxos. And then they booked us for a full day excursion to Delphi. All is well again. We are grateful that so many people here speak good English and that all we encounter are kind and helpful. (www.afea.gr)

That night we marvel at the sight of the Parthenon, as the sun set over the Aegan sea, and look forward to a totally new plan: learning all we can about oracles and mythology.

I love being in the very place where Zeus ruled the world, where Apollo reigned and where Hercules flexed his muscles. History is tangible here, the ‘story’ part of the word being especially applicable. Everything is stories.   Where we come from, what it looks like, how it was. Even the language is rich in history and meaning.

Did you know that you speak Greek every day? Words like forum, gymnasium, marathon, spartan, stadium, atlas, even the word phone all come from Greek. And well known brand names, too, like Nike, Amazon and Olympus all come from Greek.

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Delphi is the ‘navel’ of the earth

On the way to Delphi, our guide tells wonderful stories about battles with giants and cyclops, about gods and their confusing offspring, one of them marrying his own mother. Delphi is a two hour drive north of Athens on the mainland, in the mountains and was believed to be the navel of the flat earth. We drive through green fields, sparse forests and picturesque villages. 

Delphi was a bustling place about 2,500 years ago. The original artifacts that have been found around the remaining ruins are now housed in a nearby museum. The marble statues, gold decorations and bronze castings are impressive and represent the humans who lived and worked here so many thousands of years ago. 

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Oracle of Delphi….

The Oracle was fascinating. Apollo ruled here as god and the female oracle was believed to be his direct connection to the people. I find it much better to buy into this belief than to think of the more realistic alternative: the woman selected to be the voice of the gods, was kept high on methane and chewed intoxicating leafs. Her incoherent mumblings were interpreted by three poets who tried to relay them as sensible, poetic lines.

Really? The future of the world was determined by a woman who was stoned and by three men who liked words?

But despited being high, the Oracle was apparently able to predict future events. She was consulted, and proven to be correct, by many travellers from far away. The way she predicted what would happen, make it sounds like Delphi was a kind of CNN or BBC headquarters of the ancient world.

However, they had a kind of a blanket statement that meant ‘use these predictions at your own risk’ – whatever the Oracle told you, you had to use your own common sense to interpret it. One god was told he would destroy a mighty land. He did, but hadn’t realized it was his own land…

No matter how you look at it, the Oracle of Delphi is an impressive part of the history of mankind. 

What I find particularly fascinating, having traveled to many interesting places, is that all peoples throughout history, in far flung places, seem to have come up with very similar stories. The cave paintings of Australia’s aboriginal people, the stories of the Aztec, those of the Haida, the carvings at Angkor Wat, all resemble similar stories. Here in Delphi we learn about a Greek myth about rain that washed away mankind except for two whose task it was to repopulate the world after their boat stranded on a mountain top and the rains receded….

Perhaps the saddest story I learned today was the fact that Aesop lived here. He was a slave but earned his freedom by his amazing storytelling powers. We saw names of people carved in marble, listing those who obtained their freedom, apparently his name was recorded here, too. Aesop happily went on telling stories as a free man. Until the Greeks decided they did not like the tales he told and pushed him to his death from a mountain top. So much for freedom of speech and censorship.

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From Athena to Zeus: sightseeing in Athens

IMG_2119Even though we are pretty experienced travellers – Greece is my 52nd country – planning our time in Greece has been daunting. In most countries or cities there are a few major attractions that you know you ought to see. 

But the sights of Greece are pretty overwhelming… In a country with this kind of history, what do you want to see in a few days? And how do you get around?

Our base for planning this trip was a three day conference in Athens. We decided to follow the conference with two full days in Athens to see the Acropolis, the Parthenon and other major sites in the city. And then we would select 3 islands for a taste of island hopping.

We checked out a pile of Greece guides: Lonely Planet and other books, Rick Steves’ DVD’s, fly over DVD’s that showed all the attractions. And we got even more overwhelmed… How do you decide which islands to visit when there are 1,800 islands?

IMG_2209We decided to determine the Athens sightseeing once we got there, which turned out to be a good move. In the books, I couldn’t even find out the difference between The Acropolis and The Parthenon. Maybe that is obvious once you’ve been here, but not while you are planning… We needed Athens 101 advise…

We started by booking an AirB&B close to the conference center. It turned out to be walking distance, easily reached by Metro from the airport, and very close to the heart of the city. For less than half the cost of a hotel room, we had 2 rooms and a kitchen in a very quiet apartment building: https://www.airbnb.ca/rooms/19603934 Next door was a lovely taverna where we sat outside on the balcony under the grape leafs to enjoy wine, Greek salad and freshly grilled chicken for 11 euros.

We soon learned that the Metro is easy to use: you buy a 90 minute ticket for E1.40 and clear maps show you how to reach your destination, from the airport to the port of Piraeus and many stops in between. Two stops from “our” Metro station was the Acropolis and the old city part called Plakka. https://www.hop-on-hop-off-bus.com/athens/combo-hop-on-hop-off-classic-tour-of-athens_29715

The Metro is fast, efficient and cheap. The ticket machines have buttons for many different languages that talk you through the process. But beware: pick-pockets hang out in the Metro. A friend from Canada had his passport and wallet stolen on his first short ride!

To get a better idea of the attractions and their locations, we bought a two day pass for Athen’s Hop-On Bus. For 14 euros we could ride unlimited and get guided walking tours. First we took the bus and simply stayed on it for the two hours it took to drive its loop around the city. Map in hand, that gave us a clear idea of what was where and what we wanted to see. 

IMG_2156Then we strolled all over the myriad of cobblestone alleys that is old  Plakka, enjoyed lunch on a shaded green square (it was 36º each day in September!) and watched the changing of the guard at the Government Building. We didn’t realize til later that we were very lucky to see this on a Sunday: the guards wear their traditional Greek outfits with white skirts only on Sunday. We walked through the National Gardens and visited the stadium where the first of the modern Olympics were held in 1896.

The next morning we left our apartment early. Rather than take the Metro (2x 1.40 euro) we took a taxi which dropped us off at the path that leads up to the Acropolis for 4.50 euro. Taxis are cheap in Athens, and plentiful. Most of the drivers speak English. They have to use their meters and will give you a receipt.

In the cool of the morning we set off to walk the slopes of the Acropolis. You need to buy a ticket to do so. The 20 euro ticket was the most expensive we paid for any admission in Greece but also contributes to the mind blowing renovations of this thousands years old attraction. We learned that The Parthenon is the iconic rectangle of pillars on top of the mountain. The entire site, including smaller temples and what used to be a city, is referred to as the Acropolis. IMG_2218

Going early in the morning helped to not have crowds in our photos. We were able to take many photos without hordes of tourists obstructing our view. We walked all the way around the top of the mountains and enjoyed reading the interpretive signs. We were back down by 11 AM and then went to the modern, air conditioned Acropolis Museum. This houses many of the original statues and tableaus that were removed from the Parthenon and are being renovated here. Gorgeous museum with great views of the real site. Entrance fee is 5 euros. If you go later in the day, it is a good idea to buy your ticket online to avoid wasting time by standing in a long queue: https://www.theacropolismuseum.gr/en

After lunch in Plakka, we took the Hop-On bus to the National Library. Unfortunately it was closed due to a move.

When visiting Athens, be sure to wear comfortable, flat shoes. You’ll do lots of walking, up and down hills, and the sidewalks are often broken and uneven. They are also very slippery because much of it is slabs of marble or smooth tiles.

IMG_2271The Greek word graphein means “to scratch, draw, write”. Wall writing is  found in many ancient places, but the habit was especially popular among the Romans. No wonder then that Athens is the capital of graffiti! I have never seen so much graffiti in any city! At times it seemed that every available square inch that can be reached from the sidewalk, is covered in paint. Often this graffiti is art – but it does seem a bit much when every wall, door, lamp post and sign is covered in swirls and letters. IMG_2275

Food is expensive in tourist areas like Plakka. But as soon as you venture into a regular neighbourhood where locals live, there are plenty of little supermarkets and fruit stands. You can buy amazing tomatoes, peaches, nectarines and grapes. And of course Greek yogurt and cheese is the best for a simple, affordable lunch.

One of my favourite nights, so far, was spent eating on the rooftop of a hotel and watching the sunset. Slow as molasses, it turned the Parthenon from yellow to orange to pale beige. Then we watched as, slowly, the lights came on and the ancient temple towered over the city in orange and green light.

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Quick – spell Equinox at Quito, Ecuador!

Following our trip to the Galapagos Islands we flew to Quito, Ecuador. At an altitude of almost 10,000′ this city is surrounded by green peaks of volcanoes. After the heat of the Galapagos it was nice to be in a much cooler, almost cold, place. img_4513
From our hotel we did a city tour of old Quito, a Unesco World Heritage site because of its old Spanish buildings, cathedrals and other buildings. The area is prone to both volcanic eruptions and earthquakes so much of the old city is low buildings.img_4523 Perhaps daily life has lulled people into some complacency because the outskirts of this city of 2.5 million people has highrises built right on the edges of cliffs – in my eyes a disaster waiting to happen. img_4551The old city squares felt very Spanish and we enjoyed strolling along, watching women in black felt hats and long skirts sell strawberries and other fruits and candies.

We’re a bit churched-out after our time in Spain, but visited a large cathedral as well as an amazing smaller church completely decorated in gold.

But the highlight was our visit to the Equator. Here the invisible line dividing the northern and southern hemispheres creates for some fun science experiments. Now, upon coming home and writing this blog, I decided to do some research so that I could explain what we saw on the equator: water flushed through a sink – either going straight down (on the equator), swirling down the drain clockwise or counter clockwise depending on which side of the line we were on… We were most impressed with what we saw. However… in checking Google, I read nothing but articles posted on science websites, in the Huffington Post and so on, that explain that all this is a hoax! I was baffled. I replayed the video I took. Then I went to the sink and poured water in the same manner. Indeed – I can make it go down clockwise or counterclockwise. It seems that the thing we enjoyed most in Quito was a simple hoax. I guess the young man who showed us around care nothing about the truth and fooling people. All that mattered was the income derived of unsuspecting tourists…

 

img_4541We tried our hands at balancing an egg on the Equator. Because it is pulled one way and the other, it took a lot of patience but Kees earned a certificate for a skill he never knew he had! Another equatorial hoax…

The museum here displayed some local native history: an enormous boa constrictor (stuffed!) and several shrunken heads. To our amazement we learned not only how to make a shrunken head but also that this practiced happened as late as the 1990’s. Tourism likely improved once they stopped this practice.

We ate at a restaurant that specialized in Ecuador cuisine: empanadas with shrimp, cheese and avocado.  And a fabulous soup eating together with a thick paste of peanuts and bananas.

We asked many questions about the education system (mostly free), about politics (elections this weekend and lots of unhappiness about corruption and broken promises), about religion (many young people turning away from the church and traditions) and also about why Ecuador is not called Equador is it is named after the important line running through the country. The answer: it is the Spanish spelling. Ta-da!

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Rocking Gibraltar

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Salt Spring Island, where we live, is a small rocky island in the Pacific Ocean. It measures 74 square miles and has a population of 10,000.

Today we spent the entire day on the rock of Gibraltar, a small rocky outcrop in the Atlantic Ocean. It measures 2.5 square miles and has a population of 30,000.

I can’t image how people spend their entire lives living on this tiny rock, so crowded with houses, narrow roads and steep edges.

img_2409We researched Gibraltar a little bit before coming here but the online information on sites like the official tourism website, Lonely Planet and Tripadvisor, was confusing. I tried the website for the cable car – but nowhere could we find out the exact answers to our simple questions: how much is a one-way ticket? – can we buy a one way ticket that includes the nature reserve? – how long is the way back to walk and is it marked? So we hope to give you that information here, to help you plan your trip to Gibraltar.

It is an interesting place with a unique history. This rocky toe that Spain hesitantly sticks into the Atlantic Ocean, at the point where the ocean turns into the Mediterranean Sea, really ought to belong to Spain. History, however, claimed it for the British. Reminiscent of Hong Kong, this strategic harbour was claimed by the British in 1713 already. To our surprise, the local Spaniards we talked to felt that it was a good thing. “Without the British here, Gibraltar would just be another rock in the ocean,” they told us, “Now it is an attraction, an oddity that brings us jobs and a good economy.”

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Walking across the runway

We found an AirBnB literally a stone’s throw from the border. Just a small bedroom in a crowded apartment building, but it offered a safe parking place inside a garage. We managed to get inside (both us and the car) – very complicated because they don’t seem to have street addresses and all the bloques of apartments looked the same – and walked across the border. It is possible to drive across the border but at rush hour you face long line-ups. Plus, worse, once you get into Gibraltar, there is no place to park. You might as well walked all the way. The first thing you walk across is the almost none-existing border patrol. A bored official waved us across without looking at a passport. Then you walk across…. the airport’s runway! If a plane comes in, you’ll have to wait. But without planes, you just cross the runway under the air traffic control tower. A weird experience.

Once across the border, people speak perfect English, cars have GBZ on the license plates and prices are in pounds rather than euros. However, you can pay with either. One button on the cash register converts the price for you.

img_2421Rather than taking an organized tour, we hopped on a city bus and, for 1 euro, rode it across the entire length of the island to Europa Point, the southern most point of the rock. From here you can see the mountains of Morocco. It’s nice to see a Roman Catholic church right next to a mosque. Further on the island we noticed a synagogue next to a Hindu temple. A local assured us that all people, of all races and religions, get along just fine on this rock.

We walked back for about 8 KM to town, along narrow roads with not many sidewalks. Most noticeable was the lack of signage. No signs towards ‘downtown’. We often had to ask which road to take. We ended up in town by the cable car station.

The signs there still did not answer our questions about options and costs and I overheard several others in line commenting on the confusing prices. In the end, we had no option to buy a one-way ticket and dished out about 60 dollars (or 45 pounds) for 2 tickets to the top. The way back was included even though we wanted to walk. The ticket also included caves, tunnels and a nature reserve. If you want just one of these, you had to buy a ticket that included them all. You can buy a simple cable-car-only ticket but then you can’t visit any of the sites at the top. I find this price a bit “over the top” (no pun intended) for a 6 minute cable car ride. The views, of course, can’t be beat as you look out over southern Spain, the ocean and towards Africa. img_2429

Jumping monkeys aiming for backpacks were included in the price. The nature reserve wasn’t terrible well defined but I hope that a portion of our money helps to protect plants or birds, somehow. There were absolutely no signs at the top telling us which way to go. We asked a few times before finding the right path down.

img_2459It was a good hike until we came across caves. We hadn’t read much about the caves before but since we had paid for it, we decided to go in. And we were pleasantly surprised. The caves were well worth the visit. Huge cavernous spaces filled with stalactites and stalagmites, created over thousands of years. Ever changing lights turned the caves into quite a light show.

From there, a very precarious rocky trail led downwards, with broken railings and no signs.

We made it back to town, were we had a well deserved coffee and apple pie at the Trafalgar Pub. It seems a bit out of place, in this southern part of the continent, to hear the Queen’s English and see British pubs with fish and chips. We strolled back through Main Street, past tax free shops and Irish pubs, red mailboxes and English telephone booths. Back across the runaway and into Spain. A fun, interesting day full of contradictions that, somehow, get along. Just like the people that call the Rock of Gibraltar home. img_2475

Three Days Portugal

…  is not nearly enough! But we wanted a little taste, hoping to get a small impression of what Portugal was like.

img_2211We entered Portugal from the city of Badajoz, Spain. We had a rental car and drove the A6 highway, a toll highway, to get from the eastern boundary almost to the west coast of Portugal quickly. The road was deserted despite the fact that this was a holiday. At regular intervals along these toll roads, are rest areas with a gas station, store, restaurant and sometimes even a picnic site. We were able to buy a good Michelin map as soon as we drove into Portugal. The toll roads in Portugal had a ticket booth and a place to pay at the point of exit. Some toll roads only had photo sites so we expect to get the bill when we drop off our rental car. But the total toll to drive from east to west in Portugal was 13.50 euros.

img_2231Once we reached the western side of Portugal we got off the main road quickly and found bumpy back roads full of potholes. We followed the coast south as much as possible but did not really get to see the shore since the roads run more inland. We did spot the occasional, iconic Portuguese windmill!

We loved the small villages with white stucco houses. Each had a red tiled roof, often a blue band around the base and windows. Signs on houses and street names were almost exclusively made of painted tiles. img_2221

The Portuguese language looks quite similar to Spanish in writing, with some words even easier to decipher. But as soon as people started speaking, it sounded completely, different. First we thought that the waitress must be Romanian because of the harsher, more guttural sounds
. Then we figured the other people in the restaurant must be her family and speak the same, eastern European language. Until we finally figured out that everybody spoke that way and it must be Portuguese!

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Because the roads did not hug the coast, and because we wanted to see the Atlantic shore of Portugal, we decided to drive to the western most point on the southern coast: Sines. We hoped for a glorious coastline. And the natural coast line was, indeed, rugged with rocks and low shrubs. But Sines was a large city with oil refineries, its port clogged with oil tankers. All we did is walk along the path by the shore, get back in the car and circumnavigate south again.

We had high hopes for Faro, on the south coast.

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Cork tree

The most fascinating thing we saw, besides the white washed villages and friendly people along the way, was the huge number of cork trees.

Next time you pop that cork from your favorite bottle, think about where it came from! Portugal produces about half of the world’s commercial cork. Cork is the most important Portuguese export product. Cork comes from the bark of the cork tree.

Wikipedia says:

“Cork is extracted only from early May to late August, when the cork can be separated from the tree without causing permanent damage. When the tree reaches 25–30 years of age and about 24in (60 cm) in circumference, the cork can be removed for the first time. However, this first harvest almost always produces poor quality cork. Bark from initial harvests can be used to make flooring, shoes, insulation and other industrial products. Subsequent extractions usually occur at intervals of 9 years, though it can take up to 13 for the cork to reach an acceptable size.”

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Cork

We noticed huge orchards of cork trees, many with shiny dark red trunks of which the cork had recently been removed and piled for shipment to some of the 500 cork factories in Portugal, employing over 20,000 people.

We continued to follow small winding roads south until we reached the southern coast at the city of Lagos. From there we continued east hugging the shore as much as possible, avoiding big cities and highrises – until we reached Faro. Any hopes of a quaint Portuguese fishing villages were dashed when we saw the towering highrises. However, we had booked the perfect place to spend a few nights on the coast: a small AirBnB apartment on Praia de Faro: a long strip of beach full of low beach bungalows and apartments, surf shops and hippy cafe’s. We had a view of the Atlantic ocean and enjoyed walking the length of the island. We also enjoyed a Portuguese dinner of langostinos smothered in garlic butter.

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Faro Beach AirBnB

After leaving the Faro area, we again took the smaller roads we could find, staying close to the coast. In this way we discovered Praia do Barril and the tiny town of Predras del Rei with a lovely white bungalow park – a place we might just return to some day. Here we walked the long path through a nature reserve – spotting an exciting hoopoe bird, a kind of woodpecker. After another long walk on an endless white sand beach, we drove the last few kilometres in Portugal to, once again, reach Spain. Next time, we would like to explore all the rest of Portugal – including Lisbon!

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Praia do Barril