Seasons in the backyard.
And the Saga Continues: ENGLAND 2017
And the Saga Continues: Cartagena, Colombia, Panama Canal, Puntarenas, Costa Rica, Mexico: Puerto Chiapas, Huatulco, Puerto Vallarta, Cabo San Lucas, Los Angeles, California May 2014
First off, the good news was that I was not the fattest old man on that ship. The bad news was that I was an old, fat man on that ship. If that ship was a microcosm of a macrocosm, there definitely an epidemic of obesity among older Americans. And that goes for the women, too.
We sailed out of Miami on the Norwegian Sun, a middle size liner carrying about 1200 people. For me, that was about 1000 too many. It was a big white ship painted with bright orange and red stylized suns and sun bursts. We had a very nice stateroom on Deck 8 AFT with a balcony large enough for two chairs and a table. Just to have that balcony was worth the extra cost because when I wanted to get away from the crowds, I would go out there with a book and read. In fact, I read two novels: Dan Brown’s The Inferno, and Alan Folsom’s Day of Confession. I recommend both.
I must say that the entertainment was Broadway quality and included Jeri Sager who played Esmerelda in Cats, Fontain in Les Mis, and Evita in Evita. She could really belt out a song. There was a great award winning comedy-magician named Matt Marcy, a tribute to Frankie Valli & The Four Seasons, a great comic named Troy Thirdgill, and two aerial ballet artists, Yriy and Iryna from Kiev, Ukraine. There was also a Grammy nominated classical guitarist named Fabio Zini, and a wonderful troupe of talented young performers who, along with an excellent group of musicians, performed Las Vegas type shows in between the acts listed above. Each evening after dinner we listened to a concert pianist named Peganini who studied in Moscow, and a young troubadour with guitar who played mostly his own music and a few classical folk songs.
We had two days at sea to explore the ship and meet some people. The first night we asked to sit with a group of people hoping to meet others who might make the trip more enjoyable. We did, and for the next fifteen evenings, we met Donna and Terry who owned a cattle ranch in the south western part of England. The conversation was always interesting and never stopped. We did a lot of laughing, and we have vowed to stay in touch. Already sent them pictures.
Cartagena, Colombia was our first port after two wonderful days at sea. I had some reservations and some pre- conceived notions about the city because of the reputation Colombia has, but I found out that it is quite safe, especially if you are on a guided tour. In such places, we take guided tours. Cartagena is a walled city divided into the old city with its two story houses and balconies covered with radiant bouganvillia flowers, and a gleaming white, modern city with towering skyscrapers embracing the bay. Wonderful contrasts. Our tour began with a drive up to the top of the mountain where we toured the convent of Santa Cruz de la Popa which overlooks the city. The central court yard also has the bouganvilla climbing up to the second story balustrade that circles the second story as well as a central stone well and a variety of tropical trees and plants. Very peaceful and pretty. One of the wall frescos depicts a pagan ritual were there is a golden bovine on an alter being worshiped by natives which was reminiscent of the Biblical story in Exodus. I wondered at the similarity. Our next stop was the very impressive stone Fort Felipe de Barajas where woman, colorfully dressed in yellow, blue, and read frilly dresses holding baskets of fruits on their heads offered themselves for pictures for a dollar. Some were pretty aggressive. The men selling hats, pocketbooks, fans, etc. were less so, but you know that it was a real hustle because of the competition for the tourist dollar was fierce. One very disturbing stop was the Palace of the Inquisition. One interesting thing I learned about the Inquisition was that the African slaves and the indigenous populations were not put to the “test” was because the church believed that these people did not have souls and therefore did not need to be saved. The tour of the place and the leaders description was chilling, and the horror was underscored with the actual objects used in the “evaluation” process. It boggles the mind to imagine that so many thousands of people had to die over centuries for the simple idea that they did not believe or behave as the church demanded they believe and behave. Of course the problem was compounded with the law that the property of those found guilty would be forfeited to the inquisitors so you can just imagine the corruption and the targeting of the wealthy innocent. I took pictures of the instruments of torture, but did not print them. There were even ovens where they burned the bodies. Hitler once bragged that he was merely continuing what the Church had begun. But enough.
The walk through the town past the balconied homes, some painted pastel yellow, orange, or pink with white outlining the doors and windows, the intensity of the flowers, shop after shop proffering multi colored dresses, hand bags and the like, jewelry stores offering the emeralds of which Colombia is so well known, native crafts, and the street performers in the Plaza de Bolivar, all was a feast for the eyes. Of course there was the omnipresent central colonial church built in 1622 dedicated to St. Peter with its marble alter, stain glass widows, and dome depicting the life of Jesus also in stained glass. This, too, had a lovely cloister with a stone well, tropical plants, trees, and bells.
The Panama Canal: Of course the reason for this trip in the first place was to transverse the Panama Canal. The waterway was cut through one of the narrowest saddles of the isthmus that joins North and Sopugh America. The locks function as water lifts and rais the ships from sea level to the Gatun Lake which is above sea level. The ships do not sail through the canal, but are pulled through by six engines, three on either side. Only inches separate the ship from the sides of the Canal. The water used to raise and lower vessels in each set of locks comes from the Gatun Lake by gravity; it comes into the locks through a system of main culverts that extend under the lock chambers from the sidewalls of he center wall. One other interesting thing I noticed was that built into the walls of the Canal are bridges. Once a lock closes, the bridges come out of the wall to meet, and the traffic waiting can now transverse from the Gulf of Mexico side to the Pacific Ocean side.
The process works like this: A ship is guided into the lock. The lock closes behind it and it fills with water. The ship rises to the next lock and is pulled into it. The lock closes again and the ship is raised up to the next level. This happens three times. Then it enters the lake and continues to a fourth lock where the process is reversed so the ship can be lowered to sea level.
I also found out that some 13 to 14 thousand vessels use the Canal every year, there is a work force of nine thousand people, the Canal operates 24/7, and all vessels of all nations move through it without discrimination. We could see Panama City in the distance. No buildings exist along the entire length of the Canal, so all you see is jungle. There is a cut off called the French Canal which was begun but abandoned when people starting dying of Yellow Fever and Malaria. It was not until Dr. Walter Reed became involved in the American effort that the swamps were drained of the mosquitos that the project could be completed.
Puntarenas, Costa Rica was our next stop, and here, Toby and I signed up for an aerial tram and canopy adventure which involved zip lining over the rain forest. On our way, we could see alligators sunning themselves on the river banks below a bridge. I was surprised at the extreme poverty we saw from the bus window, and the garbage that was ever present on the sides of the roads and the streets of the town. Perhaps the Gulf side is better cared for.
We were driven by bus into the forest and there met up with a team of young men who put us into harnesses and demonstrated how to control our movements after being hooked onto these two thick cables. Each of us were issued a helmet and thick gloves. We were then put on a gondola and we rode up the mountain and through verdant trees where occasionally we saw an exotic bird or a huge wasp nest. We were then ushered onto a wooden platform and attached to the cable. Happily, you could always see the next platform, and you were never on the cables with anyone else. There was also a devise that the assistant on the platform could send out to stop you if he perceived you were coming in too fast. It was very safe. These men were always moving ahead of us so there was always someone at the next platform to assist you onto the next set of cables. Toby and I would alternate so we could take pictures of one another zooming across the tree tops. We were totally comfortable and totally without fear of this exhilarating experience.
Puerto Chiapas, Mexico was next. We did not take any tours of this place, but did get off the boat because there was a huge palapa under which was a huge market. In the center of the market was a large pit in which there were a dozen folkloric dancers arrayed in vivid costumes depicting floral appliques of bright red, orange, purple, and yellow flowers on true blue skirts. The men were dressed in dark blue outfits with multicolored sarapes and red headbands. Around the sides of the palapa were dozens of shops selling local artwork, Maya art, jewelry, blankets, hammocks, and decorative pillows. After the dancers, there were two people playing an xylophone for our entertainment just to keep the spirit of the place going. Of course, there was food, but in Mexico, I am leery of street food.
In Huatulco, Mexico, is a town that is relatively new as far as Mexican towns go. It seems that the plan was to make Huatulco the Cancun off the Pacific Coast, but when they began to explore the region, they discovered a variety of animal life and plant life that was unique in Mexico, so they set aside most of what was to be this resort as a preserve and built these hotels on a fraction of land. But there were Mexicans living on where they wanted to build, so a new town was created for them and they were relocated. Our tour was to include the highlights and the beach. We made a scenic photo stop at Santa Cruz Bayand headed to La Crucecita for a walking tour of the downtown area, the local church which by the way has the largest painting of the Virgin of Guadalupe painted on the entire ceiling, and the Central park. As in all other places, there are stores selling tequila, chocolate, coffee and much more. Our next stop was at Bahia Chahe, a private beach club located at Playa Santa Cruz where we expected to swim in the Pacific. That’s why we signed up. But when we got there, there was a red flag on the beach which indicated that the undertow and currents were too dangerous for swimming. So we waded in the Pacific. Near our beach chairs was a young man who was something of a lifeguard. In my limited Spanish, I questioned him about how often the red flag was up (bandana roja) and he told me it was always up. We were moderately incensed that we signed up under false pretenses and were give back 25% of the cost. A letter is going to Norwegian and we hope to recoup the rest. While we were there, we were treated to a weaving demonstration which began with the carting of the wool, the spinning of the wool into treads, the dying, and the weaving into intricate rugs and blankets. We sat in the park having no interest in shopping and watched the townsfolk and tourists pass by until it was time to get back on the bus.
Puerto Vallarta, Mexico, the port where the Love Boat sit come was placed was the next stop. I would go back here in a heart beat. Sitting up against a beautiful old town is the promenade of pavers that seem to run on forever. And all along this walkway are palm trees and tropical plants. When we entered this space, we came upon a circle of enormous, highly stylized bronze statues that might have been designed by Dali on an acid trip. Similar statues punctuated the promenade for its entire length. Opposite from the ocean side were very nice restaurants and boutiques with rather avant guard art. Once restaurant greeted its guests with a flying cow. Another with a giraffe. One place that I particularly enjoyed was a jewelry store that was made to look like a opal mine. Mexico is famous for its opals, and this store had them imbedded in the walls. All sorts of precious and semi-precious stones were for sale. Interestingly, if you buy a piece of jewelry, you pay duty on it, but if you by a unset stone, its treated as a mineral and there is no duty on it. The Cathedral of the Lady of Guadalupe dominates the old city and sits up on a hill. The central bell tower is topped off by a filagree crown, and it is flanked by two smaller bell towers. The interior is painted white with large fluted columns soaring to gold painted capitals that support the arches that support the roof. The central alter is embraced by a white cloth with red stripes descended from the ceiling. In the center of the alter is a painting of the Virgin. This area has managed to conserve some of the quaintness of a Mexican village with its white-washed tile roofed houses and stone-paved streets.
From there, we were taken to a hacienda where tequila was the product. We were taken through the steps of the process from the cutting of the plants all the way through the bottling of the drink. Naturally, there was a tasting for no less than six different tequilas. I liked the silver tequila, and the orange flavored tequila. After that, there was a fiesta luncheon where four talented young people, in very brightly outfits, danced for us and one very beautiful young girl pulled me out of her chair to dance with her. That’s when I learned that my la cucaracha is not what it use to be. My feet just wont do what my brain tells me I can still do. I was also in a taco making contest, but I did not win. So the other guy got to pick first, and he did not pick the bracelet I wanted for Toby, so in losing, I won.
We did make one small purchase of a dragon made by one of the Huichol Indians. These particular people fled from the Spaniards and have successfully maintained their ethnic integrity. They are one of the few indigenous groups in Mexico who still speak their native language and have succeeded in preserving their customs and traditions. The Huicholes sell sell their work directly to the public. They are mainly figures of their gods as well as protective amulets with exotic designs, mostly of animals, in brilliant colors and materials like glass beads, yarn, wool, and leather.
Cabo San Lucas, Mexico introduced itself to us by showing off the wonderful rock formations that jut out into the ocean and stand proudly a sentinels protecting this lovely port. These are called Los Frailes or The Friars which for the tip of the peninsular. To get to the wharf, we had to be tendered in by small boats because the port is not deep enough to welcome ocean liners. But Cabo does not lack for the smaller yachts lined up. We didn’t take a tour, but had a leisurely day on the boat and then went into port where we found the exact same shops and the same wares as we saw in all the other ports. Dominating the port is a huge frog peeking over the edge of chain of Mexican restaurants called Senor Frog. Hotels and condos punctuated a cloudless blue sky. This is a big area for game fishing port, so there are pelicans and other sea birds all over the place.
Los Angeles, California’s temperature was pushing the mercury into the upper nineties when we arrived in Seal Beach. Cousin Bruce offered us the use of his beach house there, and we were very appreciative because hotels in the better part of LA are prohibitive. As far as the touristy sights, we didn’t get to see them, but we did have the pleasure of visiting the Getty Villa in Malabu, and the Getty Center in LA. One other stop found us on the famous Santa Monica Pier where several films have been shot including “Lost Boys.”
John Paul Getty’s money enabled him to travel the world and collect some wonderful pieces of art that is his legacy to us. For his impressive collection of Greek, Etruscan, and Roman art, he, in 1968, decides to re-created a first-century Roman country house, the Vill dei Papiri, had a Villa constructed in the style of one that was uncovered in Herculaneum at the foot of Vesuvius. He never lived to see the building opened, but stepping onto the property is like going back in time to the first century of the common era. There are perfectly manicured gardens filled with bronze and marble statues. There are porticos with small marble pool, and nooks with splendid statuary of gods and goddesses. I am happy to say that I could have been the docent on the tour, because my background in art and literature provided me with the information she was giving plus. She knew her art, but I knew how the mythology of which she spoke was used by poets throughout the ages to enhance their poetry. For example, when she pointed out a sculpture of Leda and the Swan and told the story, I was able to recite, passages from the poem Leda and the Swan. "... A shudder in the loins engenders there, The broken wall, the burning roof and tower, And Agamemnon dead." When she told of the Judgement of Paris and his choosing Aphrodite who promised him the most beautiful girl in the world, I was reminded of Marlow’s words in Dr. Faustus, “...Was this the face that launched a thousand ships, And burned the topless towers of Illium. Sweet Helen, make me immortal with a kiss.” There were other examples. I’ll tell you there is nothing better for enjoying Western Civilization than a great liberal arts background that allows you to identify the world around you and to see the relationships of one art form to another.
The following day we met Amy, a dear friend’s daughter, and her daughter. Amy was a former student of mine. We met up at the Getty Center which is on top of a mountain 881 feet above sea level, and provides wonderful vistas of the city. The several building making up the center were designed by Richard Meier, and the central garden was designed by Robert Irwin who called it “a sculpture in the form of a garden aspiring to be art.” To get to the top, we were in an electric, cable-driven system; the frictionless cars ride on a cushion of air. The lower gardens are a series of out door rooms and Getty’s modern sculptures including Bronze Form by Henry Moore, delight the eye. The outsides of all the buildings Meier designed including the exterior paving are organized in a grid composed of 30-inch squares. All the stones on the buildings and beneath your feet are white travertine from Italy. It creates a wonderful harmony.
The art collection beginning in the Romanesque and Medieval Periods, moves through the Renaissance, and the decorative arts end with the art of the last French King, Louis XVI. There are four pavilions for displaying these excellent pieces. In one room you might discover Van Gogh’s “Irises,” in another Rembrant’s portrait of himself as a young man. I was delighted to see a painting entitled, “Man With A Hoe” by Millet because I have used this painting when I taught a poem with the same title as the picture. The poem was by E. Markham: “...See how he leans against his hoe, the emptiness of ages in his face...” The poem is a warning of impending revolution if we do not take responsibility for the downtrodden of the earth and raise them up. Wonderful piece of literature.
That evening we met my best buddy from high school and his wife at the faculty dining hall of UCLA. Norman had taught in the law school for years before going into private practice and Sheila I believe is the Chair of the Department of Education. It was wonderful seeing them again.
The trip back to New Jersey was happily uneventful as all plane trips should be.
And the Saga Continues: England, Wales, Ireland, and Scotland May 2012
Globus Tours offered a “taste of Britain” and we decided to take a nibble even though we had been to a few places in England prior to the trip. So in the ten days we were treated to London, Stonehenge, Salisbury, Bath, Cardiff, Wales, Waterford, Kilkenny, Kildare, and Dublin Ireland, Belfast in Northern Ireland Edinburgh, and Hadrian’s Wall in Scotland, York, Stratford-upon-Avon, and back to London, England. We have vowed never to make such a trip again. Each day it was bags out at 7:00 and on the bus at 8:00. The trip was exactly what they said it would be, but as you know, the devil is in the details. In this case, the devil was in the reality. I think it boiled down to the packing, the unpacking, and the getting up early. The lengthy bus rides really didn’t bother me probably because the country side in all of Britain is consistently beautiful with cows and sheep lazily grazing among the carefully constructed hedgerows and stone walls that box the landscape like an irregular checker board. I imagined I was on a land cruise rather than a river cruise which is my preferred mode of travel. We traveled with Ben and Diane Malin.
The reason I like touring at my age is that I’d rather be picked up and put down than adventuring out on our own. So we were picked up at Heathrow and put down in the Hilton London Metropole which is the busiest hotel in London though not the largest. We had a free afternoon and evening and we took a stroll down Edgeware Road to Marble Arch where the famous “Speakers Corner” is located. The change in the area was astounding. The first time I had been there was in the early 60's, and London was pretty much a white Anglo Saxon city. Now it is diverse in the extreme to the point that little English was actually heard and most of the people there seemed to be from the Middle East, Africa, and India. All signs on the stores were written in both English and Arabic and some only in Arabic. All restaurant with outside seating provided water pipes for their predominantly male clients even though a few woman were also smoking. When I was a kid, we were taught that “The sun never set on the British flag.” It would seem that that planted flag became an open invitation to all those around the world to come to England. We dined in a very nice Lebanese restaurant called Fatoush.
The first day took us first to Stonehenge. Stonehenge does not change, but there are new discoveries all the time about this 3,000 year old means of measuring the movements of the sun and the seasons. It was not constructed by the Druids, because they came along 1,000 years after the Sarsen and Bluestones were raised. Modern Druids, middle aged flower children, and all types of people espousing New Age religious beliefs, still gather during the Summer Solstice to watch the sun rise over the heel stone and see the shadow that is cast straight to the heart of the circle. I’m not sure what religious experience is gained from this, but I can tell you that a very sophisticated people understanding both arithmetic and astronomy raised these pylons.
Not too far away is Salisbury, a pretty, Medieval town that is home to the Salisbury Cathedral which is a fine example of early English Gothic architecture. Its spire is the tallest in England and often appears in the paintings of John Constable. In the Chapter House is a copy of the Magna Carta which is written in a very small Latin script, and not as impressive as one would imagine considering its importance. I learned that it is called a Chapter House because the monks who met there to discuss church business would read always read a chapter from the Bible. Surrounding the Cathedral is the Close which is something of a spacious park containing schools, hospitals, theological colleges, and clergy housing.
Bath is a city I’d like to explore for a few days. At one point in its history, the 18th century to be exact, it was a very desirable destination for both royalty and the most fashionable people in England. This happened for two reasons. First, there were the Roman Baths that reputedly had healing powers. The second reason was due to two brilliant men named Jon Woods (the elder and the younger) who were both architects and who designed the beautiful Palladian-style buildings, of the Royal Crescent and the equally beautiful Circus. The Royal Crescent is composed of thirty houses and considered the most majestic street in Britain. Interestingly, they designed only the facades, and those who purchased the facade had to design the houses themselves. While the front shows harmony, no two houses are alike. Sadly, the bus sped by these quiet and dignified Georgian beauties, and took us directly to the Roman baths built in the 1st century, Bath Abby, confronts the tumult of the old abbey church yard with street musicians, shoppers, and tours waiting their turn to get into the visitors center to begin the tour of the baths. The baths were built around a spring and dedicated to the goddess Sulis Minerva who combined the attributes of the Celtic water goddess Sulis and the Roman goddess of wisdom. The Romans were smart to accept and adopt into their pantheon the gods of those conquered to ease those conquered into obedience. The only place in the Roman Empire where this incorporation did not calm the citizenry was in Judea. The Jews wanted nothing to do with the pagan gods, and whenever Rome attempted to upset the religious balance, the Jews revolted and were mercilessly put down. But along with Romes legacy of brutality, blood, and subjugated people, they never the less left us with some remarkable engineering feats such as the baths of Bath, Roman juris prudence, and monumental architecture.
I looked into the famous Pump House Restaurant which is an elegant and expensive eatery. We did not go into Bath Abbey Church. The facade was very unusual because going up both sides of the building were ladders with angels going up and down. I recall someone telling us that the architect saw this in a dream, but to my way of thinking, the architect was depicting Jacob’s dream in Genesis. That makes more sense than him depicting his own dream in stone.
Our next stop was Cardiff, Wales, and I found out that the pretender to the throne of England is always called the Prince of Wales because one on the early British kings had the son of the King of Wales killed, and as some sort of compensation, the title was created to honor the Welsh prince and keep the Welsh happy. The center piece of the trip was Cardiff Castle which started off as a Roman fortress and passed over the centuries into the hands of powerful families who added to it. Ultimately it fell to the Earls of Bute, and the 3rd Marquess of Bute employed an eccentric genius named William Burges who created an ornate mansion which is rich in medieval and romantic details. The most remarkable fantasies are found in the clock tower which was a bachelor pad with a summer smoking room and a winter smoking room. It’s hard to describe the ornamentation or colors but the details are amazing. Each room has a fireplace more elaborate than the one before, and the murals depicting children’s stories in the nursery, and the murals detailing the history of the family, are brilliantly executed. In the library, above the fireplace, are carved figures personifying the ancient scripts of the Greek, Assyrian, Hebrew, and Egyptian alphabets. Crowning this beautiful edifice is a Mediterranean type roof garden with decorative tiles, a central fountain, and the depiction of a romantic incident in the Book of Genesis. On the south wall of the castle, there are animal figures as symbolic guardians. I don’t recall much more of Cardiff, except for the lovely hotel and the pretty garden with the coy pond.
Our next stop was Ireland, and we got there by taking the ferry from Pembroke across St. George’s Channel to Rosslare in the Emerald Isle where we proceed to Waterford. The trip took about four hours. Waterford sits on the River Suir and was a Viking stronghold. The Anglo Normans also conquered it and the remaining round tower they built, Reginald’s Tower across from our hotel has walls that are ten feet thick. Our only stop there was at the Waterford Crystal Factory where we were able to follow all stages of production. It started with a man taking molten glass out of the oven, blowing it, and shaping it. It is passed from craftsman to craftsman. Each one is a master, and the final products are on view in the showroom. One very interesting piece was a crystal tribute to the fire fighters at Ground Zero. Another specially designed piece was Cinderella’s coach drawn by four horses. Beautiful stuff.
We drove through the city on the way to Kilkenny City which sits on the Nore River. We spent most of the time there walking through Kikenny Castle which was a Norman fortress above the river. It was built in the 12th century and has the medieval drum towers and solid walls. Behind the castle is a large French neo-Classical garden popular in the 18th century. Across from the castle is the Kilkenny Design Center which originally was the stable block. Now it is a craft center with an excellent reputation, and in the shop were wonderful woolen fisher knit sweaters and crafts of all kind. Excellent quality. As one moves down The Parade which is the name of the street in front of the castle, you find yourself on High Street with its brightly painted two and three story buildings housing clothing stores, book shops, a clinic, a cleaners, restaurants, and bars. There are about 80 official pubs. I enjoyed the lone street musician standing under the arches of the Tholsel which I believe is something of a city hall. It has a very unusual clock tower.
I would really like to have been able to spend more time in these places. While this was just a taste, you never had any time to get the feel of the place or meet anyone other than those on the trip. By the way, the people on the trip were really very nice. I like these trips because I get to meet people from such exotic places as Idaho, Kansas, Texas and Kentucky. And I love listening to the accents and listening to whatever stories they have to share. And while I’m talking about the people, I have to tell you that our guide, Christina, had an exceptional knowledge base and a beautiful British speaking voice. She also was on top of every event we shared so as far as I knew, nothing on the trip went wrong. If it did, we didn’t know about it, and that attests to her skill and professionalism.
From Kilkenny we traveled to the Irish National Stud Farm and Japanese Gardens in Kildare. We walked the expanse of this place and we saw the prize stallions in stalls that were separated from one another. It seems that stallions are fiercely combative and jealous. They also seem to know why they are there and their worth. One horse earns 164 thousand pounds a pop, and is expected to cover 50 mares a season. No wonder they seem to be smiling. The more his offspring win races, the higher his fees. In other pens are the mares with their foals. The foals stay very close and both remain undisturbed for a few days after birth. The farm has its own forge, saddlery, and museum.
The entry ticket to the farm entitles you to visit the Japanese garden which is both beautiful and unusual. The garden takes on the form of an allegorical journey through life beginning with the Gate of Oblivion and ending with the Gateway of Eternity which is a Zen rock garden. I followed one path into the cave of something or other which was very dark, very damp, and not a place I would venture into again. But life is filled with dark, dangerous places in which we often find ourselves so the cave, as a metaphor, was true to the creator’s vision.
The bus took us to Dublin, and there we stayed two days though I would have like five. It is a wonderful city of young people, and I sometimes felt I was the oldest person on the street. I might have been. The first memorable stop was Trinity College to view the Book of Kells which is a most remarkable medieval illuminated manuscript done by scribes who embellished these Gospels with intricate interlacing spirals as well as animal and human figures. It’s a mystery as to how they could even creat such detail without the use of magnifying glasses. The Book of Durrow, another Celtic masterpiece is also on display there.
We walked from Trinity College down Nassau Street to see the Rynhart statue of the well endowed Molly Malone, hawking her fish. This energetic area is filled with street musicians and street artists and seems to be a major shopping street. It’s a very colorful place, and I’d love to get back there one day to absorb more of it. Just being in Dublin conjured up images of such literary greats as James Joyce, Oscar Wilde, Sean O’Casey, Jonathan Swift, Bram Stoker, and George Bernard Shaw. I think I would like to be in Dublin on any June 16th to celebrate Bloomsday and see a performance at the Abby Theater.
One evening, we took a tour to the Guinness Storehouse. It is housed in the original brewery and completely remodeled and the four acre floor space surrounds a huge pint glass atrium. The interactive display allows people to see, feel, and smell the ingredients that go into making Guinness, and you can also see the early equipment that was used in the process. There is an exhibit on Arthur Guinness, the founder, the story of how it is transported world wide, and the symbols and popular advertisement campaigns that have been used over the years. “Guinness is good for you!” was the motto. You finish up the tour in the rooftop Gravity Bar which is a 360 degree glass enclosed space overlooking the city of Dublin. You are invited to watch how Guinness must be poured and how it must be sipped. And your Guinness is free with the tour.
As you might have guessed, Ireland is filled with pubs, and pub food is my food of choice when in Britain. We found a particularly good one called Sheehan’s on Chatham Street where I had Shepard’s pie, fries, salad and a local beer that I asked the waiter to choose for me. Sadly, they were all out of fresh Shepard so none could be sprinkled on my meal. At the Harbour Master Bar I had fish, chips, and a beer. Another restaurant in Edinburgh called the 1780 on Rose Street, also boasts as serving 50 Scottish ales. I and my buddy, Ben, had delicious lamb shanks. I don’t recall what Toby or Diane had. Oddly enough, with all the sheep in the fields, there is nothing like lamb or mutton offered on the menus. This was the only time I saw it.
The hotel in which we stayed was right on the Liffey River, and we were not far from a bridge that was in the shape of an Irish harp. Also with in walking distance was a reproduction of one of the famine ships that carried the starving out of Ireland in the mid 1800's. There is a devastating memorial to these people consisting of a half dozen gaunt life size statues in bronze and treated in such a way that each seems gouged and rusted. Each appears haggard and emaciated with hollow death like eyes. All are dressed in rags. There is even a dog there whose bones stick out beneath its coat. Some people feel the British during the years of the Irish Potato Famine could have done more, and some I’ve heard view it as a deliberate genocidal act.
I found the people friendly and convivial, the pubs colorful on the outside and burnished with history on the inside, the music, joyful, and the architecture depicted an interesting array of centuries. There was one sign we past that was humorous yet poignant. It read: “Offices to Let.
Pay what you can afford!” Economically, things are tough in Ireland, but Ireland and her people did not disappoint despite their financial situation. We did travel though Belfast in Northern Ireland on our way to the coast. Belfast is where the Titanic was built, and we were informed that there will be a museum opening shortly on the site of its construction. Belfast is a very beautiful city, mostly in the Georgian style with lots of Palladian windows, lots of Greek columns, and lots of open green spaces with commemorative statues to British and Northern Irish heroes.
We crossed the North Channel to Cairnryan and continued to Edinburgh. The hotel in which we stayed was called The George Hotel and it was quite elegant and situated in the heart of New Town which evolved in the mid 18th century. The area is contains Britain’s finest concentration of Georgian buildings. The hotel sat next to a Georgian church with a multi tiered steeple much like the ones designed and executed by Sir Christopher Wren in London after The Great Fire. Not far from our hotel was a large park with a large Trafalgar type column towering over the sun bathers but I don’t recall what or who it commemorated. And across from the hotel was a neo-Classical building, originally a bank that was now called the Dome and converted to one of the most elegant eateries I have ever seen. I’ve added this building to my heaven in the event I wish to entertain guests.
Our first evening was spent on a tour that took us to another hotel where we had the opportunity to see and hear Scottish music performed by the master of ceremonies, Bruce Davis, an elderly and remarkable bag pipe player, three very pretty young ladies doing the highland flings, and a brilliant award winning violinist. Here, we also had the opportunity to eat a delicious meal of slices of tender beef, root vegetables, and potatoes. But to start us off, we were treated to the ritual of the haggis. It was brought in on a silver tray decorated with antlers. It may have been flaming, but I don’t recall. Mr. Davis took out the knife which is part of the kilt ensemble and, with great drama, cut into the haggis. Now if you don’t know what haggis is, it is spiced sheep’s innards, mixed with oatmeal and possibly fried or baked. It is served with rutabagas and finely mashed potatoes. It was delicious, and I finished mine as well as Toby’s. It was something like stuffed derma but tastier.
Happily, we stayed for two nights in Edinburgh so we had some time to sight see. The bus took us up to Edinburgh castle which sits high on a rocky bluff. It’s an assemblage of buildings dating from the 12th century to the 20th and reflects its role as a fortress, royal palace, military garrison, and state prison. It holds the Scottish crown jewels. In the same place were the jewels are on display, Mary, Queen of Scots, gave birth to James VI. The oldest building is the St. Margaret’s Chapel dating from the 12th century. One highlight was the Great Hall with its open timber roof and the armaments displayed there. Since the room was restored in the Victorian Period, there are a few things installed that seem anachronistic to this 15th century meeting place of the old Scottish parliament. There was a very nice lady who gave a talk about the history of the room and of Mary, and at one point invited people from the audience to help her reenact some piece of history. Ben volunteered to be the king and he was wildly applauded.
After the castle, we walked down the Royal Mile which is also Castlehill. Originally it formed the main thoroughfare of medieval Edinburgh linking the castle to Hollyrood Palace. This section is call The Old Town because it is confined by the wall of the city so people had to build up. I was told that some tenements rise 20 stories. Now, it is a wide avenue that has shops selling cashmere, knits, harris tweed, kilts, street artists, and all things Scottish. It was very colorful with lots of tourists and a few kilted school boys on their way home. Dominating the street with the tallest spire in the city is the Tollbooth Kirk, but it is now an arts venue. As we continued down we passed but did not go into the Lady Stair’s House which is a museum dedicated to the lives and works of Burns, Scott, and Stevenson. (By the way, elsewhere, we did visit the memorial to Sir Walter Scott, which is pure Neo-Gothic so popular in the Victorian period.) We saw in the distance St. Giles Cathedral which was the place where John Knox led the Scottish Reformation. I would love to return to Edinburgh not only to see all the things we didn’t see, but also to be part of the Edinburgh Festival which runs for three weeks in late summer.
On the way back to England, we stopped at Hadrian’s Wall, a wall that defined the northern most point of the Roman Empire. It’s original purpose was to keep out the marauding northern tribes, and it undulated 73 miles. While much of it still remains, in the place we visited it was only about two or three feet high. Forts were built every five miles but we did not see any.
We then went on to York. Cars are banned from the center’s cobblestone streets, and the narrow streets of this very Medieval town are protected by a conservation order so the timber and plaster houses that seem to lean over the streets will always be there to delight the tourists. Certain sections, especially the one called the Shambles is a living museum so one can imagine how it was centuries ago. I’ll stick with imagination because the Medieval period is certainly not one to which I would want to return. I was personally reminded of this in our first encounter as we passed by Clifford’s Tower which had a commemorative plaque in front of it attesting to the 150 Jews who took refuge from a mob and chose to die rather than be forcibly converted or murdered by the good folk of Medieval York in 1190 C.E.
This was originally a Viking stronghold, and I learned that anything ending in “gate” comes from the Danish word “gata” meaning street or way. We walked through The Shambles along Pertergate to York Minster which is England’s largest medieval church begun in 1220. The minster’s western towers have elaborate pinnacles, and the stained glass is amazing. Most amazing was the Great East Window which is the size of a tennis court depicting Creation. In York we were treated to really narrow streets with wooden timbers exposed, interesting iron work jutting out over store fronts advertising leather, shoes, woolen items coins and medals etc. There was also the town market that had been in the same place for centuries. All in all, it was very picturesque.
The stop in Stratford-upon-Avon for me was most enjoyable. I was last there in 1963 and I’m happy to say that the important places that I’ve carried in my memory have not changed though I don’t recall it being quite so crowded with tourists. We made a brief visit to Ann Hathaway’s cottage and the beautiful gardens in the front of the place. She was married to William Shakespeare. Our next stop was Henley Street where we were welcomed by a statue of a dancing fool from one of Shakespeare’s plays. We spent our limited time walking this broad pedestrian street and visiting Shakespeare’s birth place which has been refurbished in Elizabethan decor after having been used as a public house. As we waited on line to get in, there was a lovely young woman who was entertaining us by reciting the “When in disgrace with fortune and men’s eyes” sonnet. I mouthed the words as she spoke, and she noticed and came over. She invited us to come into the garden behind the house to hear several scenes enacted by her and an equally talented young man from the Royal Shakespeare Theater Company. After she finished the mad scene from Macbeth, I asked her if she would do the murder scene with me beginning with the lines, “I have done the deed.” She was happy to partake in my fantasy, and so I can proudly say that this old English teacher actually performed a scene with a professional actress from the RSTC in Shakespeare’s back yard. It was a highlight of the trip. Perhaps I will return and spend more time there. I’d certainly love to see a full performance as I did back in the early 60's.
Since we decided to take a late flight, we had another day in London with our friends, Ben and Diane, so we made a pilgrimage to Harrod’s with its 300 departments and its spectacular Edwardian food court where the highest quality and most expensive foods can be bought. The decor here is wonderfully fanciful, especially the mermaids on the scallop shells in the fish department. Parts of the ceilings are covered in huge swaths of what appears to be green metal ivy leaves. Harrods is a world unto itself with it’s Egyptian motifs in one area contrasting with sleek chrome and mirrors in another. The ceiling at the top of the store depicts the Egyptian constellations in relief embedded on a navy blue sky complete with blinking stars and gold rays crisscrossing and connecting all figures.
We were able to meet up with my cousin Maurice, and each time we see him, we are introduced to a piece of London that is off the tourist path. This time he took us to the Coram Foundling Museum. His beloved wife, Doreen who was a brilliant and well known artist, passed away last year and a tree was planted at the museum to commemorate her life. She and Maurice co-founded a charity to help families with disabled relatives back in 1969 in Coram’s Fields opposite the museum. It is named after Thomas Coram, the founder of the foundling hospital back in the 18th century.
Thomas Coram himself was a foundling, and when he was very young, apprenticed to a ship’s captain and sailed the world. He ended up in America and became well off himself as a sea captain. At one point he returned to England and lobbied the king to help him set up a foundling hospital since England was the only civilized country at that time who had no accommodations for such children. At this time, he was befriended by two important people namely, George Frederick Handel and William Hogarth. An original copy of the Messiah is on display there and it was first performed as a fund raiser for the hospital. Not only are the satirical engravings mocking Georgian society are on display, but also Hogarth’s wonderful paintings which I had never seen before. In fact, exhibiting these paintings brought the request of other contemporary painters to request that their works also be displayed. Thus the first art museum was born, and the proceeds went to the hospital. It’s a small yet beautiful collection, and there is also a museum detailing the hospitals origins, the education the education the children received, the attempts at good nutrition and hygiene, and letters of thanks. It was time well spent in this hidden gem.
Our final sight was the British Library which I imagined to be as somber and imposing as such buildings often are, and yet we encountered a very modern and open building and an enormous court yard space in the heart of bustling London. In the center of this lovely plaza was a huge bronze statue called Newton that was modeled on a picture by William Blake of a naked man bending over holding a compass on a piece of paper. I imagined it might have been G od creating the universe, but I found the original etching on exhibit in the Philadelphia Museum and it did say Newton.
Then we went home.
And the saga continues: Eastern Europe : The Czech Republic, Austria, Slovakia, and Hungry
And the saga continues: Amsterdam
And the saga continues: China
And the Saga Continues: Mediterranean Cruise to Spain, France, Italy, and Croatia.
And the Saga Continues: London, Brussels, and Bruge
The Saga Continues: Israel
The Saga Continues: Cancun
The saga continues: The Northern Capitals of Europe
And the saga continues: Spain and Portugal 1998
We decided to take a chance on ABC Tours, a group that takes you as a group and basically leaves you free to explore whatever city you are in on your own. We like that kind of freedom in countries that are not too exotic. We are also glad we booked with them because when we got to the airport in Newark, we met a fantastic couple named Gil and Barbara who live in Margate. What drew us together was that we both had the exact same luggage and the same pieces. We figured that they’d eventually get mixed up so we might as well become acquainted before the trip began. I’m so very glad we did because we started to laugh and laughed for the entire trip. In fact, we hit it off so well, that the following day in Madrid, we could not imagine that we had not been friends for years. Of course there were other very nice people on the trip and we formed a band of about five or six other couples and basically partied each night. It seems everyone had brought along favorite snacks that we each were willing to share and wash down with sangria.
Madrid was the first stop, and I think it was my third time there. I have a great affinity for Spain because I like to think that my family may have originated there and moved out as the Inquisition was getting started. I have seen the names Bermao and Bermani associated with Spanish explorers and artist, so I like imagining that my ancestry was a bit more dramatic than Ukranian peasants.
None of our merry band spoke any Spanish, and I was elected to be the intrepid leader because I had taken Spanish in high school. I knew enough so we were able to purchase round trip tickets, order in restaurants, and get us all back to the hotel. I also became the tour guide because I had been there before and knew which land marks were must sees. Of course there were those whose main purpose in coming to Spain was to purchase Lladros to be shipped home, and some took off shopping while we went to the Prado.
Every major city has a major museum and The Prado is the star of Madrid for classical Spanish art. Here are rooms dedicated to Velasquez, Goya, El Greco, Raberia and others of that stature. I especially like the Goyas, because he was something of a rebel and did not gloss over the underlying character in a person’s face, so even the kings and queens can be seen in all their glorious condescension and unattractiveness. Here are also his Dark Painting that he did at a particularly bad time of life. His Witch’s Sabbath is a prime example of his state of mind, and depicts a group of tormented hags encircling a creature with horns. These all came out of his home, and I’m glad the Inquisition did not destroy them because of their content.
I also saw Picasso’s Guernica that had been returned to Spain after spending decades at the Museum of Modern Art in Manhattan. I think they were waiting for Franco to die, because it depicts the destruction of the town of Guernica under his Fascist rule. On a more humorous note, I was very excited to be able to see El Greco’s View of Toledo, only to discover that it is the Metropolitan Museum of Art in N.Y. Also interesting to watch are the artist painting copies of the masters probably for sale to some patron.
After the museum, we went over to Plaza Major, the great square which is surrounded by interesting shops, restaurants, and cafes. Like all other great squares, it’s great for people watching if you have the time to sit and take in the sights. Above the shop level are homes that once belonged to the Spanish elite as well as offices. These look down on a large bronze equestrian statue of one of the kings. I could imagine such dignitaries looking down from their wrought iron balconies on the people being burned in the auto da fe for heresy.
There is a large stone staircase that takes you down to a street called Cava San Miguel. I have a particular fondness for this particular street because back in 1963, my first trip to Spain, I stayed in a hostel called La Macarena which is at 8 San Miguel. Midway down the steps is a tavern called Las Rejas were they make wonderful tapas, and at the base of the steps is a tavern called Las Cuevas de Luis Candales, and there use to be a man dressed as an 18th century bandit who hustled people in. That tavern was here I was introduced to sangria, and became so inebriated that I was literally bouncing off the walls. Happily, by bed was just across the street.
Passing a bar that proudly states that “Hemingway Never Ate Here,” we arrived at a restaurant that Hemingway and other famous people ate in all the time, and this restaurant, the oldest continuing running restaurant in Europe, is called Casa Botin which was established in 1725 and is located at 17, Calle De Cuchilleros, Madrid 28005. When I wrote for reservations, I addressed it to Senor Gaonzalez Gomz who was the administrator in 1998. It’s very famous, and I was looking forward to dining there after about forty years. So I made reservations for dinner because it is only at dinner time that the troubadours dressed as Medieval students come out to entertain. I had kept a menu from 1963, and was surprised that they served the exact same dishes. Only the prices had changed. We were greeted at the door by name and ushered to the wine cellar. On the way, we passed this amazing wood burning oven that were beautifully embellished with 17th century tiles. In the oven was their signature dish called conchanillo assado or roast suckling pig which looked absolutely succulent. This I did not order this time around.
The wine cellar is a long and narrow room with limited seating but great atmosphere. Dusty bottles of wine line the walls, and the walls, ceilings, and floors are made entirely of these small bricks. The furniture is rustic. Part of the room had been taken over by a very noisy party, but I didn’t care because I was back! We ordered a pitcher of sangria, gaspacho, (a cold tomato soup), our entrees, and later, purchased the pitcher as a memento of the visit. And the troubadours sang for us, too. The palace is somewhat unique in Europe because no revolution or war ever destroyed it, and the monarchs have lived there continually. So it is furnished as it was furnished back in the 1700's and it is really wonderful to see how Spanish royalty lived and what they acquired from their pillaging and slave trade. It’s a massive structure with a beautiful church flanked by twin bell towers. It’s hard to define the architecture since it has elements of the Baroque and of the Renaissance styles. Not far is this huge park which was probably the kings special hunting domain in centuries past. There is a large lake and at one end is this Baux Arts colonnade with a large equestrian statue of some king standing above equally large bronze statues of allegorical and mythological creatures. Steps lead down to the water, and many people were dangling their feet to cool off. It was over one hundred degrees. As one strolls around you find people of all sorts playing music, reading taro cards, just sitting, or eating. There is a museum in this park, and several fountains, the most interesting being one of Satan falling out of heaven. This statue is I believe only one of two of the subject.
Part of the fun of being in the old city of Madrid is just wandering around, going into shops, and finding little bistros were you can have some tappas and sangria, and listen to the ubiquitous singers playing their guitars. One day we happened on the monument to Cervantes which is a large white stone structure with Cervantes sitting in a chair overlooking two bronze statues of Don Quixote and Sancho Panza. This is in modern Madrid.
The following day we went over to Atocha which is the main train station in Madrid and bought tickets for Toledo which is not too far away by train. Happily, none of us knew how to read the Celsius Scale, because if we did, we would have known that 114 degrees was not good. So it was hot, but as we later rationalized that it was a dry heat. So six of us took off for Toledo, this wonderful Medieval city that had been the home to a large Jewish population for centuries until the Christians drove out the Muslims and the Jews. In fact, while Europe was going through the so called “Dark Ages” the light never dimmed in Spain, and historically, Jews refer to this same time as “The Golden Age” where the arts, music, and literature flowered.
Up until their expulsion, the Jews of Spain were very much involved in the sciences of astronomy, mathematics, and exploration (Abraham Zaccuto developed the astrolab used by Spanish and Portugese explorers, the Crescas brothers created the maps, etc.) and many of them were skilled in finances and importing and exporting. Little did Ferdinand and Isabella know that by expelling their Jews, they were initiating the downfall of Spain and the rise of the Netherlands, because that’s were many of the Jews found a sanctuary. (A little known fact is that Ferdinand and Isabella did not finance Columbus’ trips by selling her jewels. The trips were financed by two wealthy Converso Jews in the court, one being named Santangel).
It was really hot, and the train station is not in the city. Had we realized how far it was, we would have taken a bus or taxi, but we walked. The views were amazing, and these we would have missed so we compensated ourselves with that. As I said, it is a Medieval city so it is surrounded by walls with arched bridges leading to the several gates. Sitting atop of the town is the Alcazar which is a four or five story castle/fort constructed out of beige and orange stone. In each corner of the structure is a large tower capped by what looks like lead or bronze caps with finials. I think it’s the Talgis River that runs by. It’s a very pretty sight. I counted four entrances and each entrance seemed to reflect a distinct period of time. It was easy to pick out the Medieval gate and the Moorish Gate. One seemed to be from the Baroque period.
Like most cities of this type, the streets are narrow and lined with wonderful little shops and stalls specializing in copies of El Greco paintings printed on canvas, beautiful colorful pottery, Toledo steel cutlery, and a particular type of jewelry and nick nacks made of steel with silver and gold etched into the designs. Since this once housed a large Jewish population, I was eager to see what if anything was left, and I was happy to note that there was quite a bit. We started at a narrow street called Calle de Samuel Levi, which led to Senor Levi’s home which became the home of Demitri Theotocopolus better known as El Greco, the Manerist painter. The house is two stories high built in the style of the period so the upper tile covered balconies look down on a central open patio filled with plants. The outside of the house is a series of sculpted flower and vegetable gardens. The portals of the doors leading onto the patio are heavily sculpted in the Moorish style.
The building is devoted to the works of El Greco, but I did find out that many of the paintings are excellent copies of originals that hang all over the world. His masterpiece, The Burial of Count Orgaz can be seen on both canvas and tiles. We did see the original in a Church.
From the El Greco Museum, we found our way to Santa Maria Blanca which originally was a large synagogue built in the Moorish style whose roof is sustained by dozens of beautiful white Moorish arches resting on carved sandstone capital, themselves resting on hexagonal columns. This synagogue was saved by it being turned into a church. The other synagogue we visited is called El Transito, and this was also in the Moorish style, but unlike the other with all those columns supporting the roof, this one is a cavernous room with exquisite and intricate incised decorations covering walls that are intermittently punctuated by arched leaded glass windows between alternating ochre and white columns. These embrace the second story walls, and beneath these running around the entire sanctuary are carved Hebrew prayers. It is truly a magnificent structure. Attached to this beautiful hall is the Jewish Museum of Spain detailing the history of the Jews beginning in Roman times. Sadly, nothing is written in English so we could only enjoy seeing the displays without knowing what we were seeing.
Our next stop was the massive Gothic church with its spectacular bell tower. The wealth of the Spanish colonies in the new world is evident here as it is in other churches we visited. Lots of gold and sliver.
Seville was one of our stops and we spent several hours in Luisa Park which I believe was built for some major commemoration like a world’s fair. The largest building which must have been an exhibition hall are flanked by two massive towers called Ferdinand and Isabella, and throughout the park are these wonderful areas for seating composed of brightly colored Spanish tile that celebrate Spanish cities. The intricacy of the patterns and the details of the pictures depicting great moments in the city’s history are truly amazing.
Seville, a typical medieval city is surrounded by a massive wall with unique crenelations that are capped. These run around the entire top of the wall and were meant to protect the defenders. Above the entrance to the old city is a depiction of a lion holding a cross. We wandered through the narrow alley ways which was once the Jewish quarter, and happened upon a tavern where I had my first taste of Amantillado wine. Ever since reading that Poe story back in high school called The Cask of Amantillado, I wanted to taste it.
One evening we attended a performance of a re-inactment of the last ruler of Moslem Spain before the Christian armies overwhelmed him. It was done in Spanish, so much had to be surmised from actions and tone. It was in the courtyard of a Moorish palace and very dramatic. Prior to the play, there was a bazaar set up with people dressed as Medieval Arabs demonstrating writing skills, selling food, flowers, telling stories, and dancing. Very picturesque.
The church in Seville was also quite lavish filled with ornamental chapels that glistened in gold. The high altar’s decoration was again a reflection of the wealth and power Spain and the Catholic Church once had in the world. The massive bell tower which gave a wonderful view of the city was originally the minaret of the original mosque that stood on that spot. The minaret was expanded and large church bells installed.
One exhibit inside the church is really interesting. It is a triangular coffin supported by four poles that rest on bronze statues of four Spanish kings. They are dressed in flowing gilt robes and support the remains of Christopher Columbus. But there are other such monuments in other churches in different parts of the world also claiming to have the bones of Columbus. So who is to know? (As a side note, there are no less than a dozen churches in Europe claiming to have reliquaries holding the foreskin of Jesus.)
The night before we left Seville, we went to a small theater and were treated to flamenco which I think originated in this part of Spain.
“Granada, I’m falling under your spell. And if you could speak, what a fascinating tale you would tell.” That’s how the song begins, and it was on my lips as we traveled to that fabled city that was the capital of Moorish Spain and is the site of the Alhambra. I knew about the Alhambra because the 19th century author, Washington Irving wrote about it in his Tales of the Alhambra, and it was something I wanted to see directly. It is a magical place. I think the word “symmetrical” is a good place to start since perfect harmony is established by the balance that is throughout the palace. The most dramatic section I think is the open air colonnade of slender double columns that support very detailed rounded arches. These columns entirely surround a garden in the center of which is an unusual fountain supported by twelve stylized lions that was reportedly a gift from the Jews of Spain to the Caliph who ruled here. As you move around this covered patio, you find nooks and crannies that are beautifully decorated with brightly colored and patterned tiles and wooden and stone screens that allow the sun to make equally beautiful patterns on the ground when it filters through the screens. In a dry country such as Spain, wealth in those days was revealed though water, and the Alhambra is filled with beautiful fountains and reflective pools that duplicate the delicate art of the building in the still waters. Happily, the Catholic monarchs found the structure worthy of saving and made it their court, so the buildings are intact and beautifully preserved. And the Generalife Gardens surrounding the palace are equally spectacular.
Again, this is an old town surrounded by large walls with crenelated towers. Orange trees dot the city streets and the architecture is dramatic and embellished with medieval images such as gargoyles. Again, the massive church has Gothic elements but is also heavily Baroque in its ornate and heavily carved decorations. And of course, everything is embellished with burnished gold and gold leaf.
One additional piece of interest are the streets in the most ancient part of the city that are made of small rounded stones set in patterns. Again, we went to a little theater called Los Trantos that was long and narrow with white washed arched walls and a small raised stage at the end. There we were treated to flamenco dancers and musicians. It was crowded and hot, but worth it.
I know at one point we found ourselves in La Mancha which is an area of Spain that was made famous by Cervantes’s Don Quixote. The thing I most remember are the stark white and royal blue walls and the beautiful tiles set in the walls that recounted the adventures of the man who tilted at windmills. By the way, we did see windmills there. There were also some wonderful wrought iron gated windows and the tables and colorful jars surrounding them seemed to become works of art in the way they were placed. There were statues of the local fictional hero for sale and lots of pretty pottery.
Approaching Torremolinos, we went through amazing field of sunflowers that stretched as far as one could see and were abruptly stopped by mountains in the distance. I had never seen such a sight. Torremolinos is on the coast of southern Spain, and a welcome respite. I believe the area is called Costa del Sol.The setting is quite lovely with palm trees lining the white sandy beaches with the blue Mediterranean calmly resting under a pale blue, cloudless sky. This is a vacations spot so the main street is flanked by restaurants and souvenir shops. Large hotels with balconies abound. We did go into one shop and a sign on the wall read, “Credit will only be given to persons over 85 years old if accompanied by both parents.” The shop was devoted to the Lladro statues so some of our group were really happy. I did see a statue of Moses that I really would like to have owned, but the price was prohibitive so I took a picture of it. It seems I take a lot of pictures of the things I cannot afford to own. Like that area in La Mancha, the white washed walls have brightly colored tiles inserted into the walls that tell stories or depict scenes of daily life long past. As you walk along you are treated to pretty gardens behind iron gates. And the party continued on the beach.
While on the Costa del Sol, we visited a little town called Mijas which was set at the base of a mountain. The buildings were all white with orange tiled roofs. Some tourists explored the town on horseback and on donkey carts. The major sight to see here was a small one story bull ring that was built in 1900. No bull fight was in progress so I bravely entered the ring and pretended I was a matador posturing and doing passes with a white handkerchief. I would have liked to see a bull fight there. Years ago, I had attended one in Madrid featuring Paco Camino, Santiago Martin known as “El Viti,” and Manuel Benitez also know as “El Cordobes.” These were the major stars of the 1960's. In each case, the bulls lost the fight.
(Back in the 60's I also visited Pomplona for the running of the bulls. What a hoot that was. On that trip I visited the Caves of Altimira where early man painted the ceilings and walls as part of sympathetic magic rites. In those days you could actually go into the caves. On the way I went to Santa Anna del Mar which is a Medieval town that Hurst wanted to dismantle and bring to San Simeon. But the Spanish Government put a stop to that and declared the town a national monument so nothing has changed there in centuries. Here you see only Romanesque architecture because this little town predates the Gothic style by centuries. A visit to Segovia also took place on that trip. Back in junior high school we had a text entitled, El Camino Real in which there appeared a picture of a Roman aqueduct that I dreamed back then of one day seeing. It was indeed an amazing structure when I finally did see it. That and the amazing potato chips vended on the streets are the two major recollections of that city.)
Our last stop before heading into Portugal was Ronda, town high up in the mountains that I think was originally a Roman outposts. The view from the town is of an expansive plain dotted with what might be orange groves and olive trees. The plain stretches to purple mountains in the distance. There is a huge gorge there that is transversed by an equally massive stone bridge that is composed of four arches and as probably as high as a ten story building. You can see it from the several lookout points that have been built. These lookout points have gazebos for shade and pretty flower gardens. The town itself are made of cream colored or whitewashed stone and covered again with the ubiquitous orange tile roofs. And there is also a small bull ring with bronze statues of matadores flanking the entrance. Like most towns here, the narrow streets are of patterned rounded stones and the sun makes shadows that become quite dramatic against the stark white houses. There is a lovely small church there whose outer walls are composed entirely of orange, white, and blue tiles in alternating diamond patters. A single bell hangs in a small belfry was stark against an azure sky. Again, beautiful wrought iron gates separate the streets from quiet interior gardens of private homes.
Our first stop in Portugal was the Algarve which is one of their shore communities. It is very modern with high rise hotels and large beaches. Our hotel was right on the water so we had the benefit of the pool as well as the Atlantic. We spent most of our time at the pool laughing, talking, and drinking. Mostly, I remember the laughing, and it is here where the bond with Barbara and Gil was solidified. The older sections of the town were very much like that of Spain’s with whitewashed walls and orange tiled roofs. Portugal is noted for its Port wine, and I picked up a few bottles.
When we arrived in Lisbon, we were happy to discover that the World’s Fair was going on, so we took a day to visit it. It was called Expo ‘98. Personally, I thought the 1964 World Fair in Queens, N.Y. was much better. There was a parade of the strangest floats that I had ever seen. They were avant guard in the extreme, and some of them resembled Rub Goldberg constructions. Strange seemingly extra terrestrial creatures followed these in a parade. If this is European sophistication, I find it somewhat bazaar and off putting. And the one group of Portuguese folkloric dancers we watched were less than perfect in their performance. We did go into many pavilions which were interesting. We stayed till evening because there was an open air show featuring high wire acts, a magician, and a singer who was reportedly to be the best fado singer in Portugal. We stayed and were not disappointed.
You could purchase a passport for the fair because each pavilion would stamp their county into it. On dizzy dame on our trip used her own passport for this activity, so she he had in her official passport countries like Lybia, Cuba, etc. I have no idea what they said to her at customs.
Lisbon proper is nice and much less hectic than Madrid. In fact, you get the feeling that something that was happening there was abruptly stopped and never started again. Of course, it was once the hub of exploration, and the wealth that was brought to the city in those centuries enabled the rulers to really embellish the streets with wonderful sculptured flat stone work, a huge open square that is embraced on three sides with covered a colonnaded walk way protecting shops, a massive attached triumphal arch that welcomes you to the city, and the obligatory bronze equestrian statue of a king astride a horse in the square’s center. But the city proper seems to be poor, and there is too much graffiti, although the tile work embedded into the wall and behind the fountains are amazing. Portugal is known for its tile work.
The streets are narrow and winding and slopes upward but happily, there are funiculars that will take you up to the upper city for a small fee. From the upper level, there are wonderful views of the city, the ocean and the surrounding country side.
The following day, we toured the landmarks. Our first stop was the massive Mosteoiro Sao Jeronimo that was built sometime in the 16th century which were the glory days of empire and of exploration. It is structurally Gothic, but the decorative style is something called Manueline. In this style, every inch of space is covered in decorative sculpture motifs in gray stone. The decorated columns are very slender and reach up the Gothic style fans that inform the stone roof. The thick walls are punctuated by skillfully crafted stain glass windows depicting stories from the bible, and buried there in ornately carved sarcophagi set in niches are well known explorers such as Vasco de Gama. Because it was a monastery there is a very large cloister with delicate tracery and richly carved images that decorate the arches and balustrades that surround the garden. These open arches simulate great windows. The covered walk ways around the garden are dark and cool with stone benches set in walls if one was of a mind to sit and contemplate.
Our next stop was the Monument to Exploration which is a relatively new monument as European monument go. It sits on the water looking out towards the horizon. It is in the form of a stylize sailing ship with a huge cross carved into its rear. There is a ramp moving up the side of the monument that is visible only from the land side and on this ramp are a procession of secular, religious, and seafaring characters who were all involved in the Age of Exploration. At the forefront of this group is Henry the Navigator holding a sailing ship in his hands.
Opposite this structure is a small building called Belem Tower commissioned by Manuel I that is also in the style that bears his name that looks like a small fortress. It was built in 1515 and once stood in the middle of the Tagus River as the embarkation point for the navigators setting out to find new trade routes. The real beauty of the tower is found in the exterior decoration with its stone carved ropes, open work balconies, Moorish watchtowers, and battlements in the shape of shields. There is also a Renaissance Loggia inspired by Italian architecture of the period that adds a lightness to the serious nature of the building itself.
(Also back in the 60's I had visited a pretty fishing village up the coast called Nazzare where the fishermen wore these large plaid baggy pants and all the women seemed to be dressed in black. Lots of activity mending nets on the beach. Also recall visiting Sintra, the playground for the Portugese nobility.)
And that pretty much covers our trip to the Iberian Peninsular.
Florence, Rome, Venice, Pompeii, Palermo, Tunis 1997
Bella Firenze, beautiful Florence, is a remarkable experience for anyone who loves the art and architecture of the Renaissance, as well as anyone who delights in the creativity and invention of the human mind. It is a majestic place on a small scale, like a wonderful museum without walls. Everywhere you go, there are sights seen only here. Dominating the style are Romanesque structures covered in multi-colored marble of wonderful geometric patterns. Most notable of this style are the churches of Santa Croce, and the Piazza del Dumo complex consisting of the baptistry, the bell tower and the church itself with the Brunelleschi dome, the forerunner and inspiration of all domed buildings that followed it.
The first place most people visit is the Piazza del Duomo but the church itself is so large that it is impossible to get a photo of it in such close quarters. It was typical of the Florentines to want to dominate in all things, and no other building is taller in the city. While a Renaissance city, there is a very definite Medieval feeling to it with its narrow roads and hidden lanes. Happily, the Piazza is closed to traffic. One of the highlights in the area is the Baptistry whose eastern doors by Lorenza Ghiberti are called “The Gates of Paradise.” These doors are so different from Florentine Gothic art that they are considered the first effort of the Renaissance. Not far is the Bargello which was originally the city’s town hall but was made into a museum housing famous pieces of sculpture such as Michelangelo’s Bacchus, Giambologna’s Mercury, and Donatello’s David. Also in this area is the church of Santa Croce built in the late 13th Century and is the resting place of such greats as Galileo, Michelanglo, Machiavelli, and Bruni. I remember collecting money at the school to help restoration of the art after the flood of 1966.
The next major tourist destination is the Piazza della Signoria which has been the heart of Florentine politics since the 14th Century. It is also an out door sculpture garden once being the home to Michaelangelo’s statue of David which is now in the Academy. The building called Palazzo Vecchio is built something like a Medieval fortress, with a crenelated roof and crenelated bell tower dominating the square. Near is the Neptune Fountain and across from the fountain is the Logia dei Lanzi. Housed here are the famous statues of Perseus by Cellini, Donetello’s, Judith and The Rape of the Sabine Women by Giambologna.
The treasures of the Uffizi Gallery are beyond belief. Giottos’ altarpiece displayed a mastery of perspective that had not been seen before. Botticelli’s Birth of Venus moves the focus of art from the religious to the profane. Michelangelo’s, The Holy Family breaks with all prior conventions in its depiction of the family and introduces color is such a vibrant way that it inspires the Mannerist movement in art. Raphaels and Titians also abound.
The Church of San Lorenzo was the parish church of the Medici family so no expense was spared on its interior decoration. Brunelleschi, rebuilt the church in the Renaissance style, but for some reason, the exterior was not finished. Michaelangelo designed the staircase to the library as well as the Medici Tombs. In the chapel are two monuments, one to Lorenzo the Magnificant, and the other to Giuliano de' Medici. The settings for each is perfectly symmertrical with each larger than life size statue seeming to look at the other. These are set into marble niches flanked by marble pilasters with Corinthian capitals. To balance, false windows are on either side. Below each statue is a marble sarcophagus holding the remains. Atop each are allegorical statues such as Night and Day.
The Ponte Vecchio, built in the middle of the 14th Century was the only bridge spanning the Arno River to survive WWII. It is unique in that it has shops on either side of it and filled with portrait painters, street traders and tourists. Views of the city, especially at sunset, are particularly pretty.
It’s always good to return to Rome because it is so big and one can never see it all in one visit. The cruise ship docked at Civitavecchia which is north of Rome, and because we were there for two days, we decided to take the train to the city and not go on a guided tour. We didn’t have to worry about getting back to the boat on time. So Toby and I made our way to the train, bought round trip tickets using my hesitant Italian, and arrived safely in the Eternal City where we were able to get on the “on and off bus” which is convenient and frugal. That day, the ticket takers decided to call a strike, but we were assured the buses would run. So we got on because there was no one was there to collect the fares, and the bus driver, who was not on strike, took us to the high lights of Rome.
Our first stop was the Roman Forum which in its hay day was a chaotic place with temples, the Senate House, brothels, food courts, law courts and the business center for the city. Centuries after the destruction of the city, illiterate people actually believed that the monumental structures whose ruins are found there today were built by giants. The expanse attests to the once glory of the Roman Empire. Of particular interest to me was the Arch of Titus which was erected by Emperor Domitian to commemorate the sack of Jerusalem and the destruction of the Second Temple by his father, Vespasian and his brother, Titus in 79 C.E. A bas relief on the interior of the arch depicts the Romans carrying the spoils of the temple but here there is one oddity. The gold seven branch menorah is not of the design described in the Torah. There are many ruins of temples such as the one dedicated to the Vestal Virgins. Some statues remain. The largest remaining arch is that erected by Septimius Severus. The columns from the Temple of Saturn are all that remains. Only those original buildings that were incorporated into churches are there, but the marble was striped centuries ago.
Not far away is the Colosseum, probably taking its name from the colossus of Nero that once stood near it. The inaugural games in 80 C.E. saw 9,000 animals slaughtered. The building could hold 55,000 people. Recent scholarship indicates that it was built by Jewish slaves carried out of Judea in 79 C.E.and this building and the beautification of Rome was paid for by the treasure taken from the Holy Temple. The building is now dedicated to the Christian martyrs who died there.
We stopped at the Piazza Navona for lunch. The way this is laid out seems to indicate that at one time it may have been a race track because of its length. At either end of the elongated oval are two Baroque fountains with one in the middle. This middle fountain has an obelisk in the center and is surrounded by four allegorical statues representing the major rivers of the world. One of the statues is holding his had up in fear that the facade of the church which faces the fountain will fall down. It seemed that the artist who created the fountain lost the commission to design the church. The place teems with artists and hawkers of posters and souvenir trinkets. There are some lovely bistros there and cafes for people watching.
On our walk over to the Pantheon, we went through the Piazza della Minerva which has one of Bernini’s sculptures of an elephant supporting an Egyptian Obelisk on its back. The Pantheon, a temple to all the gods, is the best preserved ancient building in Rome because it was turned into a church. It’s an amazing building, and you can see just how much of Renaissance art came from the Roman influence. In front of the temple is a massive portico supported by massive Corinthian columns. I do believe that the bronze that once graced the ceiling of the portico was taken down and used to create Bernini’s elaborate canopy called the Baldacchino above St. Peter’s tomb in the Vatican. A circular opening, the oculus, lets in the only light. No statues of the gods and goddesses remain. Now the church is used as a burial place for Italian monarchs.
The Piazza di Spagna and The Spanish Steps are crowded all day and in the summer all night. It’s the place where handsome young Italian men wait to meet pretty and not so pretty foreign girls. The steps were built in the 1720's to link the square with the church of Trinita dei Monti which stands above. Whenever I’m there, I pay silent homage to John Keats who died in 1821 in a house overlooking the steps. The house is now a museum honoring English Romantic poets.
Did you know that The Vatican, only 106 acres large, is the smallest state in the world? It is ruled by the Pope who is Europe’s only absolute monarch. Most of the great architects of the Renaissance and Baroque periods had a hand in it. Michelangelo designed the dome but never lived to see it finished. It is Bernini who gives us the visual splendor of its decoration with his canopy above St. Peter’s tomb and his statues honoring the popes. It is the Bernini colonnade that encompasses St. Peter’s Square with the statues of angels above that first welcomes the visitors. After waiting on line for a considerable length of time, we were led to a staircase up to the museum that was designed in the form of a double helix consisting of two spirals: one for going up and one to walk down. You have to go through the museum to get to the Sistine Chapel and the famous Michelangelo frescos depicting stories from the early chapters of Genesis. But on the way, you pass through the Raphael Rooms where you see frescoes like The School of Athens and sculpture such as The Apollo Belvedere. The Sistine is absolutely breathtaking and they ask that there be no talking. It’s hard not to voice admiration as you look at the ceiling and at the Last Judgment.
The first work of art the visitor sees when he goes into St. Peter’s itself, is the Pieta by Michaelangelo in a niche off to the right. His full name is sculpted into the ribbon on the virgins cloak because one of his contemporaries thought the piece was done by someone else. I recall seeing this piece at the World’s Fair in 1964 when it came to the USA. You can still climb to the top of the dome where the view is amazing. When I was first here in 1963, I did but not this time.
Years ago, I had visited the Villa Borghese and wanted Toby to experience that totally unique museum. It sits in this wonderful park with ingenious fountains, an exotic grotto with artificial rain, and secret gardens. And of course, what would be a trip to Rome without throwing coins into the Fountain of Trevi. It works. I've been to Rome at least four times.
Naples is not as bad a city as one might have you believe. Yes, there are thieves there as there are in any city, but if you don’t display your wealth, you are pretty safe. I did recently hear of a man who was held up and his Rolex and rings were taken. But who brings a Rolex and flashy jewelry to Naples? The city itself is crowded, noisy, and the traffic jams are horrendous. We were standing on one corner waiting for the light to change and a man on a scooter jumps the curb, almost knocks us over, and takes off up the side walk. Like in Rome, traffic signals are merely suggestions. You don’t want to drive in Naples.
The city is famous for its pizza, and the traditional one is made with a thin crust with marinara sauce, cheese and a sprig of basil. It’s the colors of the Italian flag and named for a queen whose name may have been Margaret. To get a sense of the city, we took the on-off bus and rode up to the top of the city for a wonderful look at the bay of Naples with Vesuvius in the distance. I cannot imagine how the vast numbers of people who live in the city and the area near this volcano will escape if it erupts again.
Of course, we visited Pompeii at the foot of Vesuvius. We’ve been to may old ruins, but the story of Pompeii’s destruction is so well known and the streets and homes so well preserved, that it creates a feeling different from walking on say, the Acropolis. It’s especially poignant to see the plaster casts of the people who died from the poisonous ashes and were covered by them in 79 C.E. You walk the paved streets, and see the graffiti still on the walls. There is even a tiled floor warning to “Beware of the Dog.” At one time, only men were allowed to visit the brothels and see the frescoes, but now anyone can. It is quite a place.
Palermo in Sicily is really an exotic city because of Sicily’s strategic location at the foot of Italy. It has been conquered and re-conquered over the centuries so the architecture left by the Greeks, Romans, Arabs, Normans as well as the Baroque and Art Nouveau styles, make this city unique in Italy. There are some remarkable fountains, palazzos, as well as beautiful churches most having been rebuilt after being devastated during WWII. The damage is still able to be seen on some of the buildings, and because it is a very poor city, many of the public buildings and fountains are in need of sand blasting and repair. It’s a very bustling city much like Naples, and it, too, sits under Mount Etna which unlike Vesuvius, continues to spew smoke. It must take a great deal of courage and love of place to live in the shadow of an active volcano. I imagine that the character traits of those living here and in Naples have to be connected to the ever present threat to their lives. Of course, no expenses are spared to maintain the churches and related gardens.
There are many contrast here. There are cavernous, narrow streets where little sun shines in and people hawk their wares in makeshift markets selling everything from shoes to brikabrack. Then there are the open sun lit plazas with well dressed people enjoying themselves. It's a city of contrasts.
Of all the cities in Italy, I would first return to Venice. It is magical and visually beyond description. It seems to have been caught in a time warp that spans the 12th to 14th Centuries because its glory comes from those centuries when it was queen of the Adriatic and had exclusive trading rights with the East. So the dominant architecture is Byzantine which of course has a strong Arabic influence. Like all other tourists, we started at Piazza San Marco. If you enter from the front where the gondoliers implore tourists to see Venice from the water, you pass between two large columns. On the top of one is a winged lion which is the symbol of St. Mark, and atop the other is a saint slaying a dragon. It may be St. George. We began with St. Mark’s Basilica which has four wonderful bronze horses above the main door that the Crusaders took out of Constantinople. The church sits in front of a massive colonnaded square that Napoleon described as “the most elegant drawing room in Europe.” Over each door are mosaic depictions of religious figures, and the interior of the church also has Byzantine style mosaics covering the walls and domes. There’s a sense of mystery in the church because of its Byzantine flavor. Across from the church is the massive Campanile or bell tower which I am too old to climb.
Opposite the bell tower sits the Palazzo Ducale which was once the home to Venice’s rulers and offices of State. It is a Gothic building but for me I think it is heavily influenced by Eastern motifs like the church. The interior is spectacular with massive rooms. On one wall of the vast hall is Tinoretto’s huge painting called Paradise. It is possibly the largest painting in existence. Connecting the palace with the prison is a covered bridge called The Bridge of Sighs because of the expressions of those being led to trial.
There is just so much to see, and the best way of doing it is catching a vapretto which is a water bus. It is very inexpensive and one is rarely if ever asked for a ticket. One day we got on, went to the front of the boat, sat down and just enjoyed the entire route. I took amazing pictures of the palazzos, the houses of the wealthy, that boarder the grander canals. Such homes were how the Medieval merchants and nobility showed off their wealth and they are lavishly decorated. We got off at the Rialto Bridge which spans the Grand Canal. It is a Mecca for tourists and crowded day and night. There is also a constant flow of river traffic under the bridge. Like the Ponte Vecchio in Florence, the Rialto also has shops on either sides of the walkway.
One of the stops made was to the Jewish Ghetto, the first of its kind in Europe. It was originally where the iron works were and that’s what I think the word ghetto means. Of course now the word means any confined space where a particular group of people live either by choice or by economic or social conditions. There are certain places called “golden ghettos” where very rich people of one ethnic group might live. There is a vapretto stop, and the entrance to the ghetto itself is through an undistinguished, narrow alley that does not really indicate you are about to enter a very different world. But you are. As you move through the alley, you pass by a kosher restaurant set up by Chabad, and David’s Judaica shop where we purchased Murano glass kiddish cups for each of the grand children, mezzuzot and wine stoppers to give as gifts, and some jewelry.
Because the Jews were confined here and only a limited space was allotted, they had to build up. So the building here go up six and seven stories and are the tallest apartment houses in Venice. These buildings boarder a very large square with a well that provided water, and house in several buildings are small, bet beautifully appointed synagogues all designed by Renaissance architects and as beautiful as any church of the period you will find anywhere else. Chabad is trying to reestablish a Jewish presence in Venice, and a few of the synagogues are functioning, but only one or two have heat so most are not used. The Ghetto itself has become quite fashionable as an address.
The gondolier who took us through the canals told us that when he was a child he lived near the Ghetto and played with the Jewish children there. His parents shopped there also. When the Nazis marched in, they demanded that the gondoliers ferry the Jews to the train stations or be killed. His father was forced to do this, and never fully recovered from the experience. I took this man’s address and sent him a photo of us, but he never responded. I had hoped to establish a friendship as I have with other people I’ve met during our travels.
Murano, like Venice, consists of a series of islands connected by bridges. The glass industry for which it is famous once was housed in Venice, but because of the fear of fire and the smoke, it was moved off shore. The glassblowers here are known for their exquisite renderings of brightly colored glass into all manner of utilitarian or decorative pieces.
Tunis was a different experience all together. It is the first and probably the only time I shall step onto the African Continent. Situated on the northern part of the continent and on the Mediterranean, it is an Arab nation that has for centuries interacted with the Mediterranean community but not at all inflenced by Western Civilization. The only hint of such an influence come from the ruins and artifacts found there from the Roman period. In this area was the location of Carthage, Rome’s nemesis. It was Hannible and his elephants crossing the Alps that were a serious threat to the Roman Empire, and after Rome defeated Carthage, the Romans salted the ground and wiped the country out of existence. (Today, the extreme Left here and abroad in concert with some Muslims are trying to do the same thing to Israel today through the United Nations.) A few centuries later, many Jews, choosing not to be murdered or forceibly converted to Catholicism, fled to this area of Northern Africa during the expulsion in 1492 when the Catholic monarchs of Spain defeated the Muslims.
There is something timeless about it. Nothing is too large and everything seems to speak to an time before the advent of modern technology. Of course, we are tourist and see only the touristy parts. I learned something interesting. Most of the doors and shutters are painted blue because for some reason mosquitos and flies don’t seem to like the color and stay away. Few Jews live there now, having thought better of staying after Israel was declared a state and pressure was put on them. But there are vestiges of a once large Jewish presence and Jewish artifacts are in at least one museum we visited. That museum also boasted many mosaics that were taken out of Carthage. Here we visited the shuk or closed market. It was crowded to say the least with everyone hawking their wares and produce at the same time. I bought a drum to be used at the Passover seder, and the young man who sold it to me was willing to trade my watch for it. I declined. Because it is an Arab country, the decor is typically intricate and quite lovely in places of wealth and power as such places are in all countries. I recall that it was hot, our personal spaces were assaulted by vendors to a point of being uncomfortable, and there were no western toilets. It was " exotic," and very different from the cities western cities of Italy.
Greece: Athens and Delphi 2000
Toby and I, along with our traveling buddies, Gil and Barbara, decided that this time we would strike out for the Eastern Mediterranean. I hadn’t been in Greece since 1963, but the images were as vibrant and as sun bleached in my memory as they were so many years ago. Years ago, when I first began teaching, I hit upon Greek mythology as a way of connecting with Brooklyn street kids by inviting them into the fantasy of monsters, gods, and heroes, and I taught myself quite a bit about the subject. And beyond that, for a humanities teacher and consultant, what could be a better place than seeing where the arts, philosophy, and sciences that gave Western Civilization its impetus, began. Things really come alive when you look at an artifact or a building and know its story.
We were going to be in Athens for several days before the cruise, and I knew exactly what I wanted to see and where I wanted to go. Now I have to say that Athens is not the nicest city we’ve been to even though they were getting ready for the Olympics, and the Athenians are not the nicest of people. We had several unpleasant encounters with hostile people including one cab driver who not only ripped us off with the price he charged us, but told us that the streets were blocked to our hotel because of a parade and left us off several block away to walk there in an oppressive heat. We sensed hostility from lots of people which is strange because so much of their economy depends on the good will of travelers. Perhaps they feel that they have what people want to see so they don’t have to be courteous. I have only two nice memories of meeting people here: George, our driver, and a nice lady at the museum. Still, we have resolved not to return to Athens again unless absolutely necessary. But if you do go, there are four sights that everyone must see: The Acropolis and the remains at its base, The Plaka, The Agora, and the National Archaeological Museum. Once you see these things, leave even if there are other places of interest.
For someone enamored of the ancient Greek culture, walking up to the Beule Gate which is the first portal one goes through to get to the Acropolis, through it, and then up to the Propylaia, a multi-sided building that is the entrance to the Acropolis itself, one can imagine the spirits of Perikles, Socrates, Aristotle, and all those guys wondering why the hell all these foreigners are climbing all over our sacred spaces? The Propylaia was more than a gate, and among other things, it was also was an art gallery. Can you imagine the pictures that must have hung there that are lost to time?
To the left, jutting out on a kind of promontory is a small temple dedicated to Athena Nike. I recall the temple has something to do with victory, and the goddess is depicted without wings so victory will never fly from Athens. Ahead is the Erectheion, the place where Athena and Poseidon vied for the city. According to legend, Athena won with her gift of an olive tree and there is one still there. It’s a beautiful building with three spaces in the Ionic style, but it’s the Porch of the Maidens or Caryatids that gives the building its uniqueness. These are six statues upon whose heads rest the ceiling. The Parthenon, built in the 5th century BCE is one of the world’s most famous buildings, and was built to house the forty foot cult statue of Athena which was sculpted by Pheidias in ivory and gold. The building itself is a remarkable feat of construction that gives the illusion of perfection because every aspect of it was built on a 9:4 ratio to make the temple completely symmetrical. Every four years there was a festival where there was a procession called the Panathenaia. At this time, the great statue was adorned by a robe made by the women of the city. A depiction of this procession was depicted in bas relief that ran as a frieze around the inner wall of the building. For a close look at what this frieze (also designed by Pheidias) looked like, go the the British Museum in London and visit the Elgin Marbles. Lord Elgin purchased the frieze and other pieces of sculpture from the pediments from the occupying Turks. A controversy has raged ever since. Also, there is a replica of the Parthenon in a park in Nashville. It’s smaller than the original, but the statue is an exact replica in size.
If you walk over to the walls of the Acropolis, you can look down on the Odeion which is a first century Roman theater that has been reconstructed and used for concerts. Further to the left you can see the Theater of Dionysos which was built in the 4th century BCE and the birthplace of Greek drama. The last place of importance to see on the Acropolis is the museum which is devoted to displaying the different centuries of art found during excavations.
We wandered down to the base of the Acropolis to the Tower of the Winds which is an unusual octagonal structure built as a water clock and a weather vane. Around the top filling each face of the octagon are allegorical bas reliefs of the different winds.
The Agora, the market place. was the heart of ancient Athens where “democracy” was
practiced if you were male, free, Greek, and a land owner. There were five slaves to every one Athenian. Here were theaters, schools, the city mint, and the courts of law where Socrates was tried, found guilty of causing young people to think, and forced to drink hemlock in the state prison also located here. Also located here is the Stoa of Attalos that was reconstructed with funding from John D. Rockefeller Jr. in the fifties. Interesting little story: When I was here back in 1963, I purchased a replica of a terra cotta drama mask which I was not able to take with me when I was invited to leave my home back in 1982. So here I was hoping that I might make that same purchase again. The mask was still being sold and I asked if I might purchase one but was told that they are only sold at the museum. Happily, we were going to the museum the following day. Over looking the Agora is a 5th century temple dedicated to Hephaistes, the god of the forge. It is the best preserved original building on the site..
The next day we were going to the museum and I was excited because I was eager to see the treasures of Mycenae that Heinrich Schliemann uncovered when he excavated the site. Of course what he thought was the golden death mask of Agamemnon, turned out to date from 1500 BCE, centuries before that Mycenian king led the Greeks against Troy. Also there were the Cycladic sculptures from the third century whose minimalistic lines influenced such early 20th century artist such as Henry Moore. I really was surprised that a world class collection such as the things displayed here were displayed so poorly and unimaginatively. It was also hot. A museum of such world wide importance is not air conditioned. Perhaps they were going to do something to perk it up for the Olympics, but I don’t know. It’s a poor country and presenting their heritage to the best advantage, may not be a priority. Happily, the museum shop was not only air conditioned, but brand new. I saw my mask on the wall, and I went over to the lady behind the counter and asked for one. She returned empty handed, telling me that there were non others and the one on the cabinet was the sample. I heaved a great sigh of disappointment and proceeded to explain how I had bought the mask thirty-seven years ago, lost it in the divorce, and how for years I dreamed I would one day return to get another. My story must have hit a nerve because she took the sample off the wall and wrapped it up.
I said there were two nice people we’d met. The second was George Kokkotos, a man we contacted while still in the states because we wanted to go to Delphi and thought a personal driver would be a better deal. And it was. He picked the four of us up in a brand new Mercedes sedan that was happily air conditioned and we headed off. But before we left, Gil found that something was wrong with his camera, so George took us all over until we found a place that could service it immediately. It was the first and last time Gil got serviced that quickly without begging. George also took us up to a place where the entire city of Athens lay out before us with Lykavittos Hill in the distance.
The drive to Delphi was quite pleasurable with lots of laughter and good conversation. Delphi was the spiritual center of ancient Greece being the home to the famous oracle who gave responses that were so cryptic and open to such interpretation, that “a Delphic response” entered the language. She sat in the Temple of Apollo on a tripod above some sort of gas that put her into a hypnotic stupor. Individuals and city states paid a lot of money for this service.
Delphi is situated on the side of a mountain, and a paved street called the sacred way winds up past the monuments put up by grateful individuals, past the Temple of Apollo, past the treasuries where the city states kept their gifts to the gods, up to the theater set high above the valley with a commanding view that if I’m not mistaken included the Gulf of Corinth and sat 5,000 people. Above the theater was the track and field were the games were played. I recall it being very hot, and very few people were there. Right at the entrance to the Sacred Way is a icy spring of water that people would wash themselves in as a rite of purification if they were on a religious pilgrimage. Lord Byron, the British Romantic poet jumped in believing the waters would enhance his poetic talent. Back in 1963, I knelt and also took a drink.
To cool off, we went into the museum which houses the treasures that the archaeologists uncovered. As you enter, you find the Omphalos or navel stone. According to legend, Zeus sent two eagles in opposite directions, and where they met after flying around the earth became the center of the earth and that’s where Delphi was set. The stone is the navel of the world. The most popular is the charioteer which is an original made of bronze with lifelike onyx eyes. The chariot and horses are missing, but one can imagine its beauty. So many of the bronzes were melted down for arms. Happily, we do have Roman copies that give us some hint of the originals. There is also a wonderful sphinx from Naxos done in the archaic style of the 6th century, as well as several male and female koros. In these statues, heavily influenced by the Egyptian style, one can still see the glimmers of what will develop in the next centuries. Before going back to Athens, I walked down the path to the marble quarry where there is a sanctuary to Athena and the tholos, a round structure whose original purpose is still a mystery. Only three columns of the rotunda stand having been set up to provide some hint of the building’s former beauty. We stopped in town for lunch at a taverna. We sat at a table by an open terrace that looked out over the valley. It was a wonderful lunch and a wonderful place to be.
Before getting back, George took us to a grocery store and suggested we buy several bottles of local wine for the ship. They were only a few dollars and quite good. We told him that we were on our way to Rhodes, and he said he could call his cousin and have him pick us up on the dock for a tour. This we happily agreed to do.
I guess most people have heard of Rhodes because on of the Seven Wonders of the Ancient World was the Colossus of Rhodes that stood 131feet tall and commemorated a victory. It was of the sun god Helios and made of bronze and silver. A bronze doe and stag on two huge columns guard the harbor entrance where it is believed the colossus once stood. That’s all I knew about the island until I got there. Actually, there are two towns, the old and the new. The harbor is the hub with lots of yachts and a 15th century fortress which is now a lighthouse. There is a massive stone fortress build by the Crusaders to defend against the Turkish invaders, and right beyond it is a Romanesque church that is a replica of the Knight’s Church of St. John built in the 1920's. The Byzantine frescos on the walls are quite beautiful if you like Byzantine iconic style art.
There are several elegant Renaissance style buildings put up in the 1920's when the Italian fascists where in power: the post office, the law courts, the police station, and the national theater. Further on is a mosque with a very graceful minaret. The mosque is named after some Turkish admiral who was killed during the siege of Rhodes. One thing one quickly learns is that this island over the centuries has had many masters who left their mark in the architecture, foods, and arts.
The harbor is backed by the new market with its Moorish domes and cafes. Like all Turkish type shuks, this one is filled with food stalls, gift shops, small souvlaki bars, rug stalls, spice stands, etc. and is a popular place for meeting people who come to the city. In the open part of the market are row after row of sponges being sold.
The Palace of the Grand Masters was built by the Knights Templar and retains all its massive medieval grandure with its broad stone steps leading to upper stories and its Romanesque archways overlooking its large central court yard is close by. There is a sound and light show which tells the story of how the Knights were over thrown by Suleiman the Magnificent in 1522.
We were delighted to discover a small synagogue on a narrow side street that dates back many centuries when there was a thriving Jewish population here. There was a finely crafted wooden bimah in the center of the shul, and the reading platform was flanked by two matching bronze menorahs. Four Sabbath lamps hung to illuminate the for corners of the bimah, and though oil originally, I do believe they may have been electrified. Large chandeliers hung from the ceiling, and small sconces with crystals were fasten onto grey stone pillars with ornate Romanesque capitals. Turkish carpets covered the floors. The Jews of Rhodes were taken away by the Nazis and murdered in the camps, and I don’t know if there are any Jewish people left to pray in this small sanctuary. It is a museum.
This is a town built of stone. The houses are stone and the streets are cobble stone and very narrow. Our car barely was able to pass through some of them, and if we had to stop, it would have been difficult to open the doors. Across these narrow roads there are arches that support the houses. Shops open onto these narrow streets and people hug the walls as they move from the market to their homes. It’s all very pretty and quaint.
George's cousin took us to two outlets, one selling potery and one selling leather and suede coats. Going to outlets as a tourist is part of the package, and I'm sure he recieved a commission on whatever we purchased. Toby bought a beautiful leather and suede coat and we bought a plate to commemorate our trip to Rhodes.
On the way back, we stopped a Lindos which is on the water and also has a large acropolis that we could see in the distance. We stood on a clff near a ruin overlooking this small bay that had several sail boats glistening in the water as people, obviously very well to do, frolicked in the water and picnicked on the sand. It was an idyllic spot.
The Isles of Greece: Santorini
Santorini is an island that was originally called Thira and now uses that name for its capatal, was colonized by the Minoans in about 3000 BCE. The Minoan ruled from a large island called Crete. Theirs was a very sophisticated civilization with multi-level palaces, light wells that let in air and light but kept out wind, heat, and rain. They also had an amazing water gathering system that captured and stored the rain. I was in Crete in 1963 and walked among the ruins much of which was reconstructed by Sir Arthur Evans. Well, in or around 1450 BCE, the island of Thira which was an active volcano, erupted in one of the most cataclysmic eruptions known to humanity, destroyed the island itself, and sent out such massive tidal waves throughout the Mediterranean that it also destroyed the Minoan Civilization on Crete itself. In fact, the eruption was so strong, that it was felt all the way to Egypt, and coincidentally, paralleled the story of the Jews and their exodus from Egypt. Modern studies of volcanic eruptions and the effects they have on the environment point to the idea that the plagues in the Bible, the column of smoke and fire, the death of the first born, and the drowning of Pharaoh’s army may have been the direct result of what happened on Theira. If these verifiable scientific facts are applied to the Exodus, then the events actually did happen as the Bible reports. Scientists have shown that pumice from Theira did reach Egypt, and is certainly possible that that layer of pinkish ochre pumice coated the rivers and marsh lands in the area of Goshen which is on the water making the water look like blood and choking off the oxygen causing the frogs to leave etc. Hot pumice becomes the hail that burns the flesh causing boils. Frogs and fish die and rot causing disease. The eruptiion left a huge crater, or caldera. The ruch of water into the void created a tidal wave, or tsunami, that devastated the surrounding islands and reached all the way to Egypt. Water from the Nile Delta may have been pulled away and then came back with a vengeance as tidal waves tend to do. This is what may have drowned Pharoaoh's army after the Israelites crossed the Sea of Reeds while the water was pulled out. Anyone seeing this would have definitely concluded that it was a miracle. It is an interesting theory.
Thira was changed to Santorini and it is a spectacular place to visit with its terraced volcanic cliffs cradling white and blue domed churches, its barrel-roofed cave houses, its hotels, bars, and restaurants all clinging to the lip of the caldera enjoying magnificent views and sunsets 850 feet above the sea. To reach the top one can either take a cable car, a mule ride, or walk up the 580 steps. We took the cable car up to a wonderful white washed town with narrow cobblestone streets that are wide enough for a mule to pass. Tourism runs the economy, so there are dozens of shops selling all sorts of nice things especially, jewelry. Because everything is whitewashed, the colors of the scarfs, pottery, etc. especially vibrate with life. It is interesting to note, that there is no water here and it must be imported. And because water is so dear, there is little agriculture but we did see unusual grape vines that are grown in a tight circle with tiny grapes. It produces a very distinctive wine so I am told.
We did take one side trip to the ruins of Akrotiri, a Minoan outpost on the southwest tip of the island and a remarkable archaeological site. The site was unearthed in 1967 and was wonderfully preserved for 3500 years under tons of volcanic ash. Frescoes were discovered here in the same style as those discovered in the Palace of Knossos on Crete and most are now in the museum in Athens and some are in the museum in Thira. Some of the houses found were three stories high, and the drainage system was as sophisticated as that on Crete. A bridge enables you to get of view of the city and one of the storage facilities that house the large pithoi or huge ceramic storage jars that held oil, grain, and flour. No animal or human remains have ever been found such as those found in Pompeii, so it is likely that perhaps they escaped. But even if they escaped to Crete, it is likely that they, too, were washed away by the tidal wave.
Back in ancient times, Ephesus was an important Greek city and the home to one of the Seven Wonders of the ancient world: The Temple of Artemis (Diana). It then became a major Roman city and a major port. Finally, it became part of Turkey. Ephesus, as a Roman city played an important role in early Christianity as one of the alleged homes of Mary and the community being the recipient of Paul’s letters. It was a very cosmopolitan city being the home to people of many cultures and many faiths. On some marble stones there are menorahs incised and the ruins of a large synagogue.
Our boat docked at Kusadasi which is close to the ruins. We did visit the city because we were on a tour and had to make the obligatory stop at a carpet factory. The town was clean, and everyone who was selling anything did speak English. There was something of a bazaar, and like all of them, colorful and filled with exotic sights, smells, and sounds. The people were very friendly. But since we had only one day, the ruins were the draw.
It was a bright, pretty, and warm day and we walked along the broad stone roads past columns that had been righted and restored, and past those still on the ground. Evidence of both Greek and Roman civilizations were all around us, and two large theaters. one Roman in decent repair built up from the ground with stones, and one massive Greek theater set into a mountain side much like the one in Eppidarus on the Peloponnesus that sat thousands. With such a theater, one had to imagine that this was a very large city with a huge population. The center piece of the ruins is the two story library whose facade still stands in all its marble glory. Three doors on the ground floor are flanked by niches in which are remains of several allegorical statues identified by Greek letters underneath. One was a statue of Sophia, or Wisdom. Eight marble, Corinthian columns on the steps leading up to the structure support the second story which also has eight similar columns supporting the capitols. At one time pilasters between the three doors supported statues that are no longer there. The marble details around the niches and above the capitals are beautifully incised with what seems to be leaves, and vines.
As we wandered around we came to the public toilets which definitely a communal experience, and as we walked the ruins, we found that it was pretty well preserved. Cranes were lifting columns, and the broad streets seemed completely paved with their original stones. Up on a hill was a medieval fortress built by crusaders, and in the same area were the ruins of a church that had suggestions of the Romanesque style in the columns left. In this church was also what seemed to be a cut out in the floor that was once used as a baptism pool. The Temple of Diana had been completely destroyed by fire, and I could not help but wonder how much of the temple’s marble was used in other structures. Pieces of the Colloseum are all over Rome, and I'm positive that the Church of the Holy Seplucher have marble columns taken from the Second Temple in Jerusalem.
Istanbul is a very exotic city because of its Byzantine architecture and arts and also because of its Islamic architecture and arts. The combination of the two makes the city a feast for the eyes. It is a large, crowded city with bazaars and vendors everywhere you look. The people are very friendly and helpful. For almost a thousand years, Constantinople was the richest city in Christendom filled with great palaces, churches, places for entertainment, and a massive wall that the Emperor Theodosius built that wasn’t breeched until the Ottoman conquest in 1453. Water was brought into the city from the mountains via the Valens Aqueduct built in the 4th Century, and there are underground cisterns for storage.
Our first touristy stop was the Blue Mosque, called that because of the wonderful blue tiles that dominate the decor of the interior. It’s located in the Sultanahmet area along with the Hippodrome, The Basilica Cistern, and Hgia Sophia. The Blue Mosque is a huge structure with six minarets, and from the outside, the numerous domes seem to cascade down from one another like stone water falls. No cost was spared in the decoration of this mosque. Before one enters, there is a place where the faithful must wash their feet, and beyond this is a huge interior square with a hexagonal ablutions fountain. Within the mosque was looks up at domes that have mesmerizing designs painted onto their interiors. There is also something called a minbar which is an intricately carved white marble staircase leading to the an equally intricately carved enclosure from which the Iman addresses the faithful. Gil and I had to leave our shoes outside and cover our shorts with a blue wrap around. I guess it has something to do with modesty. Women prayer space is also separated from the men’s just like in an Orthodox synagogue.
The mosque was near the Hippodrome which was a the main stadium the place where chariot races were held. The only remnants left are the central line of monuments that include two large Egyptian obelisks. There is also a stone pillar that was part of an arch from which all road distances to all corners of the empire were once measured.
Hagia Sophia, the church of holy wisdom, was designed as a mirror of heaven and is the greatest church of Byzantium. It’s over 1400 years old. From the outside, it looks somewhat strange because over the centuries it has been buttressed to keep it from falling down. We were awed by the huge interior that is covered by a dome reaching 184 feet. It is well preserved because in the 15th Century it was converted to a mosque though now it is a museum. As a mosque, the Byzantine Christian frescos and mosaics were plastered over and crosses were chiseled out leaving ghosts of the originals. Much has disappeared, but one can still see some of the original 6th Century in some of the vestibules. Some of the original art has been revealed once the plaster was removed. Original structures such as the baptistry are now tombs of sultans, other mausoleums have been built along with a library, an ablutions fountain, and minarets.
The most unusual tourist spot is the Basilica Cistern which is a vast underground water cistern and a remarkable piece of Byzantine engineering. It was built by Justinian and remained hidden for centuries until people starting bringing up pails of water and fish from holes in their basement floors. Three hundred and thiry-six columns each 26 feet high. Classical music is played as you carefully walk down slippery ramps and steps. One column rests on a massive stone sculptured head of Medussa indicating that structural materials originated in other monuments.
We went to the Seraglio Point area specifically to stand on the promontory overlooking the meeting point of the Bosphorus and the Sea of Marmara. It is quite a site and beyond the beauty of the spot, a very strategic point. Today it is the cite of a complex of fanciful buildings known as the Topkapi Palace, the residence of the Ottoman sultans and the women of the harem for 400 years. It is a huge museum displaying lavish apartments and glittering collections of jewels and other treasures. It’s a series of pavilions built around four enormous courtyards.
The first court yard is very dramatic with its Ottoman palace walls, the wooden houses, and the soaring Byzantine church that was never turned into a mosque. This was once a service area housing the mint, a hospital, a school, and a bakery. The other three courtyards contain the Harem which is an labyrinth of exquisite rooms where the sultan’s wives and concubines lived, the Circumcision Pavilion, the imperial cluncil chamber call the Divan and a host of beautifully designed buildings with wonderful tile work. One museum, the Treasury, exhibits a diamond encrusted chainmail suite, the amazing bejeweled Topkai dagger, an 86 caret diamond, and a gold plated throne. Two other places I wish I could have visited in this area of Istanbul were the Archaeological Museum and the Cagaloglu Turkish Bath.
One of my personal favorites was the Bazaar Quarter. This is a city at the crossroads of world trade, and no where is that more evident than in this area where this warren of narrow streets, hidden courtyards, and archways reveal goods of every description and color, tumbling out onto the streets. At the center of all of this is a labyrinth called the Grand Bazaar, and there is nothing quite like it on earth. Its narrow lanes are covered by painted vaults, and lined with thousands of booth like stalls from which people relentlessly invite you to buy the fantastic assortment of products. It is very easy to get lost here despite the signs. Carpets from all over Turkey and Central Asia are displayed everywhere as are the wonderful copper and brass, hand etched and hammered house wares that make great souvenirs. We bought a small drum and barbeque skewers. Jewelry made to your own choice of designs can be gotten here, too.
From there we decided to walk over to the Spice Bazaar which we mistakenly thought to be close by. To get there we followed directions given in broken English and found ourselves the only non Turkish people among throngs of Turks who spoke no English. But we were laughing to hard to be frightened, and felt quite safe among these people. We wandered through this outdoor market where potatoes, sea food, vegetables of all sorts, carpets, peanuts, shoes, olives, brass and copper ware, etc., etc, etc., were hawked. Women wearing head scarves and fully covered negotiated with vendors all of whom seemed to have mustaches. Men sat in small cafes sipping Turkish coffee which I tried but would not try again. We met a European woman who was also on her way to the Spice Bazaar and we followed her. We were not disappointed. This L-shaped bazaar was built in 1660 as part of the New Mosque complex which dominates the waterfront. The amazing variety of colors and the vivid smells leave an impact on the senses that are not easily forgotten. Spices, mostly from the Orient, are displayed in barrels and they are tented for presentation. There was one sign under one spice that was called “Turkish Viagra.” Stalls, in addition to spices, also stock herbs, honey, nuts, sweetmeats, dried beef, and caviar from Iran.
Also in the Bazaar Quarter is the Suleymniye Mosque which was not only a place of worship, but a charitable foundation. It is surrounded by its former hospital, soup kitchen, schools and bath house. It provided a welfare system which fed over a 1,000 people of all faiths a day. We were there towards evening because I had heard about this restaurant and its unique setting and made reservations while still in the states for dinner. We were greeted warmly and led to a lovely courtyard which was surrounded by columns supporting rounded arches and domes. The staff was very welcoming and the food quite good. I think we went there for our last meal in Istanbul. I wanted it to be memorable.
We were there before they changed the money, so we were walking around with literally millions of Turkish lira. Turkish bills range from 50,000 lira to 5,000,000. Coins range from 500 lira to 50,000. But this doesn’t mean you are rich. It means that you will have a lot of fun figuring out a bill, a tip, or how much you need to pay for the toilet.
One last thing about Istanbul before leaving it. We made at point of getting on a ferry to sail up the Bosphorus because we wanted to see what was there and we wanted to set foot in Asia. The Bosphorus is the body of water that connects the Sea of Marmara which is part of the Mediterranean with the Black Sea. There is a wonderful theory that the Epic of Gilgamesh, the story of Noah, and most flood stories harken back to the time when the land bridge that once connected Europe and Asia gave way and the Bosphorus formed when the Mediterranean burst through and cause an inland lake to become the Black Sea. All along this river you see the elegant villas called yalis built by grand viziers and other distinguished people. There is also the Dolmabahce Palace which replaced the Topkapi Palace, a beautiful mosque with two minarets, and the Fortress of Europe opposite the Fortress of Asia, which controlled the Bosphorus and cut off trade to Constantinople by Mehmet the Conqueror, and any number of fishing villages. From here you can see the Black sea in the distance with Europe on one side and Asia on the other. Our final stop was at Anadolu Kavagi which is the last stop on the trip on the Asian side. We had lunch there and bought a plate to commemorate our stepping onto Asia.