September 24 Exploring Dublin

Catch-up posts from our trip to Ireland.  Most of these posts are quite lengthy, with a lot of detail that is important only to us, or close friends and family.  Feel free to cruise through at whatever speed suits your fancy. All the additional photos of the trip will be located on my SmugMug site eventually, but not just yet.

Ireland Day 4 Dublin

Exploring Dublin (35 of 94) I finally finished writing at 5:30 or so this morning, and was especially happy that I didn’t wake up again until almost 7:30.  Felt a bit groggy and was really looking forward to breakfast, Irish or not.  By the time we got downstairs, the restaurant wasn’t too full.  I tried the crepes this time, flavorless flat things heated up in the microwave with some kind of raspberry sauce that was inconsequential.  I managed two bites.  I hate to waste calories on bad food.  Settled once again on a yogurt and some grapefruit to start the day, but the coffee was actually really good.

I had planned this day for weeks, reading Lonely Planet, walking the streets via Google, measuring distance and routes and trying to decide what we could fit into one short day of sight seeing in this amazing city on our free day in Dublin.  Much of what we wanted to see had been covered yesterday by the Go Ahead tour guide, and the only thing we really missed out on were the tour prepaid tickets to get into Christ Church, The Trinity Library and the Book of Kells, and Dublin Castle.  As the day grew to a close, I was so happy that we were on our own time, our own schedule, and not tagging along with a group, but instead seeing what we wanted to see at our own pace.  Entry fees were a small price to pay for that privilege.Dublin Map

I would imagine that this was the longest day of walking that we will manage on this trip, with the rest of the time fairly well scheduled as we continue west and north circling the country along the coastal cities and towns and into Northern Ireland before we return to Dublin. On this day, the trusty Fit Bit logged 8.22 miles and over 17,000 steps.  Kind of nice to have a little pink device thingy to back up a good reason to be tired this evening.  Mo is at the moment napping, and we are both glad that we decided on a late lunch rather than evening dinner.  I supplemented my writing time here with chocolates from an excellent chocolate store we passed on the way home.  Not Belgian chocolate, but good enough to satisfy the craving.

Exploring Dublin (7 of 94) Before we started our wanderings today I had to look up the chronological history of Ireland, specifically the Republic of Ireland, the major part of the island in the south and west which is no longer under the banner of the United Kingdom.  Northern Ireland is not part of The Republic of Ireland, Protestant rather than Catholic, and still considers itself to be British.  I had memories of the IRA and the conflict in Ireland, referred to here as “The Troubles”.  It was all reasonably settled not too long ago, but reading over the centuries of Irish history was a bit sobering.  Not only was there the famous potato famine during the 1840’s, but there have been repeated famines quite often every few hundred years that have decimated the population and contributed to great emigrations from Ireland.  I am a result of those emigrations, with one of my ancestors coming from Ireland to Virginia in the early 1800’s.

Exploring Dublin (86 of 94) I also learned of the Viking invasions of Ireland in 800 or so, and the establishment of the city of Dublin by the Vikings because they wanted to develop shipping routes.  Eventually they were vanquished, and although I read all this just this morning, I have given up on remembering the dates and sequences except for the general knowledge that Ireland has struggled mightily to be an independent proud Irish country.  I guess I still don’t really understand the northern Irish part. It will be interesting to go to Derry and Belfast and see how much different it feels than Dublin and the rest of the Republic of Ireland.

Exploring Dublin (85 of 94) You cannot spend even one day in Dublin without having some sense of this long history.  There are monuments everywhere, statues and sculptures, and yes, the famous or infamous “Spire”.  It replaced a statue that was blown up by the Republican movement during “The Troubles”, and many folks seem to think it is a bit strange and ridiculously expensive.  Mary said yesterday that the street people can’t even get any graffiti to stick to its slick metal surface.

Highest on my list to see was Trinity College and the Old Library.  I wasn’t even that attached to actually seeing the Book of Kells, realizing that it was only visible under dim light, and only open to two pages of the famous manuscript.

Exploring Dublin (5 of 94)Exploring Dublin (6 of 94) As our morning began, we wandered toward the River Liffey via a few side roads from our hotel, finding a Dominican church every bit as ornate and beautiful as many cathedrals.  There are more than 2,000 Catholic Churches in Dublin, so it is fairly easy to get sidetracked by their gorgeous facades and beckoning interiors.  I knew we had St Patrick’s Cathedral and Christ Church on our list so we managed to ignore the other lovely churches along the way.

Exploring Dublin (8 of 94) Crossing the river via a footbridge into the Temple Bar area, we turned down a side street and there right before me was the red facade of Temple Bar pub.  Before we left home, I found the Earth Cam for Dublin which is trained on this view for live video and was tickled to find it so easily.  At only a little after ten in the morning, the district was fairly quiet, and it was also the middle of the night back home, so not a good time to text Melody and tell her to look for me on the webcam.  We will save that one for later.

Exploring Dublin (12 of 94) Like many great cities, Dublin appears really huge on a map until you actually start walking the streets.  Also, like many European cities there are small side streets that almost look like alleys and large boulevards that have been converted to pedestrian only malls.  It is a great city for walking. It is a great city for people as well, and in spite of English being the common language, I heard a plethora of languages being spoken from all over the world.

Exploring Dublin (18 of 94) Within minutes from Temple Bar we were on Fleet Street leading directly to the famous Trinity College Campus.  I imagined a quiet courtyard, but as we entered the gates, we were surprised to find it filled with canopies, students, noise and signs everywhere.  Seems it was Fresher week, when the nearly 200 extra curricular societies on the campus vie for the students.  Exploring Dublin (25 of 94) A very gracious young man explained all this to us when I finally asked what in the world was going on and was the college courtyard like this every day.  He said being part of the various societies is a huge part of attending Trinity college and sometimes students do forget that they are here to actually get a degree.  The oldest society was the Philosophers Society, established in 1683.

Exploring Dublin (28 of 94) We found out where the Old Library was located and discovered that instead of waiting for a tour, we could simply pay the entry fee to the library and go in without a guide.  I had heard that if you paid this lesser fee of ten Euros, you would see the library but not the Book of Kells.  Not true.  The beautiful, informative, and very crowded display called, “Turning Darkness into Light” is situated at the entrance to the Treasury where the Book of Kells is housed, and once through the Treasury, stairs lead to the main floor of the Old Library.

I wanted to see the library, but was quite happy that our tour also included walking through the Treasury, viewing the two open pages of the “book”.  The Book of Kells is an illustrated manuscript of the Four Gospels, created by Irish monks on the island of Iona around AD 800 before being brought to Kells.  It is one of the oldest books in the world and undoubtedly one of the most beautiful.  Around 850 years after its creation, and protection from the Viking looters, it was finally brought to the Trinity College library. It was once a single book, but has been divided into the four gospels, two of which are on display at any one time, with the other two in safe keeping.

Book-of-Kells3-1920x750px What made the display more haunting were the large illuminated reproductions of the pages on the walls, big enough to see clearly and appreciate the incredible artistic detail painstakingly rendered by lamplight and swan or goose quills of calfskin vellum pages.  Rather incredible.  I am so glad we didn’t miss it.

If you have a desire to see the Book of Kells without going to Ireland, Trinity College has made it available for viewing online at the library’s digital collections website.Exploring Dublin (38 of 94)Exploring Dublin (36 of 94)Exploring Dublin (34 of 94) Exploring Dublin (35 of 94)  Still, it wasn’t even close to the breathtaking moment when we stood at the entrance of the great hall of the Old Library.  Here there are more than 200,000 of the oldest of the more than 3 million books housed by the Trinity College Library.  I was a bit overwhelmed, and overjoyed when I saw that photographs were allowed without flash.  A reminder that culture exists in the world beyond the internet, computers, and instant gratification.  We lingered a long time, just absorbing the history and feeling of the place, remarking over and over to each other how incredible it was to be able to experience it.

Exploring Dublin (55 of 94) Out into the sunlight, through the square, and south toward St Stevens Square was next on our list.  Just a few more blocks, but between Trinity College and the square is Grafton Street. 

Exploring Dublin (49 of 94) Melody, you would have loved it.  Much like the Ringstrauss in Vienna, with all the high end stores and fabulous looking people looking at fabulous stuff.  We ambled along, noticing the few people walking slowly were obviously the tourists, like us, trying to keep from getting overrun by all the locals walking with purpose.Exploring Dublin (59 of 94)

Exploring Dublin (57 of 94) Exploring Dublin (60 of 94) Exploring Dublin (64 of 94) The beautiful St Stevens Square opened up beyond the impressive entry gate to a lovely respite of gardens, shaded pathways, gentle silky pools of water on the pond, and almost quiet.  There were many people lounging on the park benches at the center of the square, enjoying the gorgeous sunshine, and we found a nice little cement bench to sit and rest our bones, which by this time were getting a bit weary.  What a people watching place!  As we left the square, we discovered that the bench where we were sitting was dedicated to a Quaker couple who were pioneers of Irish feminism.  Perfect.

Exploring Dublin (65 of 94) Leaving the park, we once again entered the busy sidewalks, taking an alternate route from Grafton Street west toward the Cathedral district. Our goal was to see both St Patrick’s Cathedral and Christ Church, the official Cathedral of the Anglican Church of Ireland established in 1050 under British rule.

Exploring Dublin (70 of 94)Exploring Dublin (72 of 94)Exploring Dublin (73 of 94) Ever hear that thing, “Oh, one more cathedral..sigh..” ? I know we won’t get back to Dublin, but the the day was extending, we were tired and hungry and a pub sounded much better than paying more than 10 Euros to enter each church and possibly not be allowed to take photographs anyway.  I peered into the doors, noting that the interiors were not as ornate or fabulous as the ones we saw in Malta and decided that exterior views would suffice.

Exploring Dublin (74 of 94) Exploring Dublin (75 of 94) Exploring Dublin (76 of 94) Hungry and tired as we were, we didn’t want to miss Dublin Castle, another magnificent structure with amazing history and a hefty entrance fee for the required tours.  I know visiting the interiors of any of these historic places would be wonderful, especially so if a visit were longer than a single day.  It would be great to see one or two a day, and spend a couple of weeks just hanging out enjoying the history of this amazing place.  Exploring Dublin (77 of 94)Much like landing in a port for a single day on a cruise, we couldn’t begin to touch the wonders of Dublin in a single day.  Dublin is home to world class incredible museums, including the National Museum, the Archaeology and Ethnography Museum, and the National Museum of Ireland Decorative Arts and History.  Dublinair, near Christ Church is an experiential museum in the Medieval part of the city that celebrates the Viking heritage of Dublin.  Much like visiting the Smithsonian, you need many more days that the one we had to absorb all this art and culture.

This day made me especially appreciate how Mui and Erin are seeing Italy, with two full weeks in Rome to actually see all the sights, and even so they are feeling as though they are missing so much.  A great city deserves great time.  Who knows if I will ever have the chance to see Dublin again with my years getting shorter and so many places yet to see.  Still, if any of you kids get a chance to go to Ireland, maybe you can do it in a way that allows more time. And Melody, when you talk of Paris, make it at least two weeks, staying in some little apartment, with lots of time on your own to really experience the city.

Exploring Dublin (80 of 94) I had hoped to see Mulligan’s Bar, which turned out to be all the way back west of the Trinity College campus, or at least return to the Temple Bar area for a pint and some pub food.  Instead, with a bright idea, I approached one of the policemen in Dublin Castle and asked for his recommendation.  With is kind eyes and sweet voice he suggested the “Marechents” down by the river.

Exploring Dublin (78 of 94) With a bit of wandering, we did finally find O’Sheas Merchant Pub and settled into a cozy table for my first pint of Guinness and Mo had a Smithfield IPA from County Cork that was incredibly tasty.  Our beer accompanied Irish pub food, comfort food for me of roast beef and mashed potatoes over some more amazing squash veggies that were crisp and soft at the same time and truly delicious.  Mo’s sandwich was really good, and the big fat fries, … chips…were to die for, thank you Mo for sharing!

pub food at Osheas mo pub food at Osheas  With free wiFi in the pub, I texted Melody telling her that we would be showing up within view of the Dublin Temple Bar WebCam by 3:30 our time, 7:30 AM pacific time.  She texted back that she had the app already downloaded, installed and ready, and she said, Mom, I can hear people so be sure to call me the way you did when I was a kid.  I could holler “Melll-iiiiii-deeeeee” and could reach her anywhere.

sue and mo at OsheasSure enough, at 3:30 we were once again in view of the Temple Bar pub, walking around the corner, waving at the webcam, and laughing with the ladies waiting on the bench for the same thing.  Everyone seems to get a kick out of this.  Melody said later that she heard me call her name and she even took a video and screen shots of us waving at her.  It was silly fun.

Melody saved the video of us waving but it is a bit grainy, so I didn’t attempt to upload it, but if you want to check out the webcam for fun, the link is here.

IT was all just enough fun to propel me the rest of the miles back to the hotel, although even my tired body couldn’t stop me from stepping into the Butler’s chocolate shop for some treats.  I suppose that little bit of chocolate is why I am able to sit here and write rather than being all conked out and sleeping as Mo is doing at the moment.

Some time tonight we will pack up our suitcases again, set them outside the door by 7:30 AM, have a bit of Irish breakfast…ick….and then the tour bus will leave Dublin precisely at 8:15 heading west toward the Royal Stud, Killarney Castle, and our evening destination will be the coastal town of Waterford.

It feels as though we have been here forever, but we have barely begun.

Here is a link to my SmugMug gallery photos of our day in Dublin

Coming Next: County Killarney, Killarney Castle, the National Irish Stud and on to Waterford.

Tour Day in Vienna ends with a Police Escort October 9

morning sunrise from the hotel room window The sunrise this morning was gorgeous.  More so because of all the clouds, I am sure, and it was clear that our day ahead might be a bit dreary. After a long night of being pretty darn sick, even with the medicine, and the frustration of trying repeatedly to get the WiFi to work, I wasn’t feeling very happy. Our breakfast buffet downstairs in the dining room was huge and very crowded, but the breakfast was good.  I still found some good yogurt and muesli and there were lots of fruits and pastries available.  I tried one, but it wasn’t that exciting, not like the croissants in the much less fancy hotel in Budapest.

Stuff I learned on this trip: If you have two people traveling with 2 SLR’s, 2 iPhones, and one iPad to process it all, the photos will become very close to unmanageable.  If I ever go to Europe again, the SLR will stay home and I will use a nifty point and shoot.  Even with the SLR, my photos this time are still more about content than the kind of quality I can get with the SLR over a point and shoot.  The weight isn’t worth it to me unless I am going to someplace that is incredibly scenic and I actually have the time to take some serious photos. But back to the day at hand.

commuting to Vienna across the Danube It is dreary, overcast, and the temperature feels a bit chilly today.  I decided to wear a jacket and my warm sweater, and carry just one stick instead of two, but then thought better of that idea. I also am wearing my Cotton Carrier for the camera, but by the end of the long days, I feel like I am in a straight jacket!  Still, I couldn’t manage it any other way, since it gets incredibly heavy around the neck and over the shoulder doesn’t work at all.  I love my Cotton Carrier.

Tour Day in Vienna 10-8-2012 11-32-24 PM After breakfast we met downstairs for our morning bus tour with another new local guide, a snarky and completely entertaining man named Gearhart. He has a bit of an “attitude” I would say about the socialist government of Austria, and told some really funny stories. He had an interesting perspective on the local culture and I loved his humor.  Some of the women on the trip later made the comment that he was more focused on being “cute” than on imparting information, but I didn’t agree at all.  I learned so much from him about the history of Vienna in relation to the rest of Eastern Europe. He stated specifically that Vienna is what it is today because the United States made the decision to save Vienna from the Soviets. Vienna was on the very edge of the Iron Curtain, and according to Gearhart, the rest of Europe didn’t care much about the little city out there in the east.  Even though Vienna had to be rebuilt after the war, there was a huge difference in what happened to Vienna compared to what happened in Budapest and Prague, and he attributed that directly to the United States and its intervention.

commuting to Vienna from Danube City, with St Stephens Cathedral dominating the skyline As we rode across the Danube toward the city, we could see the spire of St Stephen’s dominating the skyline.  The central part of Vienna is a large circle with the church at the center and surrounded by the Ringstrasse, a large beautiful boulevard that circles the city.  He encouraged us to use the Metro, and to walk the city because it was almost impossible to get lost.  Look for the church, walk the opposite direction to the Ringstrasse, and you know where you are.  Our bus did quite a tour of the city, impaired now and then by one of the hundreds of horse drawn carriages filled with tourists, and gave us the opportunity to see where we might want to go later in the afternoon in our free time.

Tour Day in Vienna 10-8-2012 11-33-54 PM First on the tour was the Hundred Waters House. We emerged from the bus to a long wall of tourist shops filled with inexpensive goods that Gearhart dissed with one of his snarky remarks.  We all laughed, but I did notice that on the way back to the bus, many of us were buying some of those inexpensive goods, including a truly lovely scarf that Melody found.  Cheap is not always a bad thing! Hundertwasser House is down a pedestrian mall and is hard to even describe.  If you are interested in environmental buildings and a true greenie and creative artist, read about Hundertwasser. Quoting from Wiki:

“Hundertwasser’s original and unruly artistic vision expressed itself in pictorial art, environmentalism, philosophy, and design of facades, postage stamps, flags, and clothing (among other areas). The common themes in his work utilised bright colours, organic forms, a reconciliation of humans with nature, and a strong individualism, rejecting straight lines”.

The Gardens at Schonbrunn Our next stop on the tour was the summer residence of Maria Theresa (Theresia in some texts), the Schonbrunn Palace. Schonbrunn is a UNESCO World Heritage site, and is supposedly the most visited site in Austria. Owned by the Habsburgs for centuries, following the downfall of the monarchy in 1918 it became the property of the Austrian government. A bit of trivia ~ John F Kennedy and Nikita Krushchev met here in 1961.

Tour Day in Vienna 10-9-2012 2-29-030 Even though we were arriving early in the day, the tour groups were already gathering in the courtyard in front of the palace for their entry times.  Our guides were all paranoid about being at the gate at exactly the right minute for our entrance.  I guess it is another time when it was OK to have guides to deal with all this.

The Gardens at Schonbrunn Styled to imitate Versailles, the house is imposing and somewhat sterile from the front entrance. Once inside, however, it was breathtaking.  Of course, we were not allowed to take ANY photos at all, not a single one of the interior, since of course they want to sell their expensive picture books in the gift shop.  We didn’t buy any.  The tour was accompanied by reams of information about the Habsburgs and about the Empress Maria Theresa, who was an incredible ruler who had great armies and knew how to use them to control a very large part of the world.  She did all this while having 16, yes 16 babies!  It was important to these royal families to reproduce, since they had unhealthy children that often died and passing on the monarchy was of utmost importance.

Tour Day in Vienna 10-9-2012 1-33-26 AM Another little tidbit.  If someone was called “The Good”, instead of “The Great” or “The Strong”, it probably meant that they were sickly and would die fairly young.  These families repeatedly married first cousins to keep the royal blood pure.  Epilepsy was a severe problem in the family and grew worse over the centuries.

Once we finished the tour of the interior of the house, we were given just half an hour to find our way back outside to the gardens. There was a lot to see here, and once again, our timing was much too short.  Melody walked as fast as she could all the way to the sculpture at the far end of the garden while I tried to have enough time to appreciate the perfectly symmetrical hedges and trees and take some photos.  Even in the overcast light, the gardens were beautiful.

The Gardens at Schonbrunn Our guide again mentioned that all these sites are actually owned by the Austrian government, including the famous Opera House, and there are more than 60 different operas performed there in a year.  You can come for a week and see a different opera every single night.  Of course, this is all paid for by the state, meaning the people’s taxes, and Gearhart made another snarky comment about thinking that maybe the government could make do with 40 different operas per year instead of 60.  He told us that children aren’t very popular in Vienna, and people also hate to pay taxes, and the cost of living is very high.  Somehow the equation doesn’t add up and he wonders just how long Austria can continue the way it is going with no children coming up to pay the taxes to support all this government supported “stuff”. It was interesting to hear.

Tour Day in Vienna 10-9-2012 4-13-42 AM Our tour part of the day ended in the center of town at the great cathedral of St Stephens. As we toured these cathedrals, it became more and more clear that a Cathedral here is most often a very large cemetery, with chapels filled with crypts and graves beneath the stones in the floors.The group returned to the hotel for the afternoon, but we chose to stay downtown, and Ellen and Roger decided to stay with us.  Melody wanted to see the catacombs beneath the great St Stephen’s Cathedral, and we found the group tour was beginning within the hour.  It gave us just enough time to walk around the square a bit and marvel at the architecture.

St Stephens Cathedral A soft spoken young man gathered the tour group and began speaking in German.  UhOh.  Is this tour going to be all in German?  German has always seemed to me to be a somewhat harsh language, but his voice was musical, lyrical and soothing.  I didn’t care if it was German, or if I understood a word.  Then, he started speaking in lovely English, explaining to us softly that the beautiful copper pots surrounding us were filled with the entrails of the Habsburgs and some had the very special donation of a Habsburg heart which I guess all the cathedrals coveted.  The room  was quite tight and small.

As we moved deeper into the depths below the church, we heard stories of all the royalty entombed there, and then the stories of the plague and we found the bone rooms, where hundreds of dead plague victims were thrown because there was no time for burial.  Later the bones were stacked like firewood and as we looked into the room, it took a minute to realize that the walls were made of human bones.  To me it was interesting, to Melody it was devastating. She burst into tears and as we emerged from the church she said that all she could think of was that those people had lives and families and they were nothing more than bones in a wall.  Even with the photos and the exhibits at the House of Terror, I don’t think Melody has any idea of what she would see in the Holocaust Museum in Washington DC.  She might have to get a bit older and a bit more jaded before she visits that place.

Tour Day in Vienna 10-9-2012 3-51-34 AM By the time we came out of the church, it was late afternoon, and we decided that Lorena’s suggestion of “a cawfee” in Vienna was a great idea.  The four of us found an outdoor cafe on the pedestrian mall, with nice big patio heaters going strong in the canopy above us.  I ordered an Irish Coffee and I must say I have never had one quite so strong!  And I am not talking about the coffee part! Roger had a Pilsner, and Melody a Viennese Cappucinno and Ellen had some kind of tall fruity thing that looked wonderful but cold!  We all tasted each other’s goodies, and Melody and I switched!

Tour Day in Vienna 10-9-2012 3-55-25 AM We are all tired, and this evening is a special extra tour (an extra fee of course) to the Prater Ferris Wheel and the hills west of Vienna for a special local dinner in the area where there are a lot of vineyards.  It was time to find the Metro, which was just a few feet away beneath us, figure out the tickets and the stamps, and be sure that we got off at the right stop on the other side of the Danube.  It was simple and fast, and within fifteen minutes we at the Metro exit just a couple of blocks from the hotel.

Tour Day in Vienna 10-9-2012 6-03-28 PM I knew that the Prater Ferris Wheel would be a delight and it was.  The Prater has a wonderful history, beginning in 1766, when Emperor Joseph II donated the area to the Viennese as a public center for leisure. We arrived at the magical evening hour when the light is just beginning to wane and you can see the lights of the wheel and the carousel even though it isn’t dark yet. The Prater Ferris Wheel was destroyed at the end of the war in 1945 but the city knew how important it was to the people and it was rebuilt in 1947. The ride only lasted 15 minutes, with the special dining car just below us and the view of the city in the distance.  I loved it. 

Tour Day in Vienna 10-9-2012 5-54-48 PM One of my favorite moments of all of Vienna was here when we were back on the ground at the base of the wheel.  There were people eating cotton candy, there was a “hammer” and people screaming, and the ferris wheel was turning above me.  Behind me were the bumper cars with kids yelling and all this was accompanied by music across the loudspeakers from the Vienna Waltzes.  Somehow bumper cars and symphony music just seemed so incredibly wonderful there in the park. 

Tour Day in Vienna 10-9-2012 5-53-42 PM Back on the bus for our tour to another part of Vienna, up a bit in the hills, to our restaurant for the evening. It was still cool and rainy, and the tourists that usually fill this small street were much fewer than during the summer months.  The restaurant was warm and friendly and there were local musicians singing and playing folk music.  Another large group of tourists were in the back room singing and dancing along with the band and having a great time.  I wondered how many local people actually frequented this restaurant, famous for its winery.

Tour Day in Vienna 10-9-2012 6-47-24 PM The dinner was family style with a couple of glasses of their wine and included salads of cucumbers and tomatoes and pickles, and then huge platters of roasted pork, ham, and roasted potatoes along with some amazing tasting sauerkraut with finely minced vegetables.  The glasses of wine were big pints, like beer, and by the end of the evening we were all feeling pretty warm and fuzzy.  The life stories started coming out again, and the jokes and laughter were raucous and fun.

2012-10-09 18.59.55 On our way home, our great bus driver Paul, somehow hit the wrong exit and ended up trapped with the big bus right at the entrance of a big parking garage.  UhOh!  Within a minute there was a car of mean looking policemen trying to figure out what he thought he was doing.  Lorena came to the rescue, leaned over Paul, and batted her big brown eyes at the policemen while she explained our predicament.  Those guys just melted, and gave us a police escort while Paul backed the big bus out to the freeway again.  Lorena laughed later, and in her imitable Argentinean accent said, “I know how to play blond when I need to!”

2012-10-09 20.52.53 I’ll close my story of this day with a little note I got from Jeanne after she read my last blog post about the Weiner Schnitzel.

2012-10-09 19.14.16 hey sue—i am with melody about the schnitzel!   i grew up on the stuff– mom made it a lot, since she grew up with an austrian father. of course we loved saying WEENER! i have never really liked it. what is so special about flattened meat coated with bread and fried??? personally i think austrian food is terrible. ha ha ha. have eaten plenty of it and i have spent some time there too, visiting relatives and skiing. i do still love spaeztle though. and my grandpa used to make some really good things my mom called “peasant food”. i think it was stuff dirt poor people would eat. one was called “ribble” and was basically old hot cereal fried in butter with sugar on top. the other was “kaiser shmaren” which means kings mess. we would save old bread ends in the freezer, then you tear it into bits, soak it in egg and fry it in butter and put sugar on top. kinda like french toast nuggets. and finally, “gruba” (no idea how to spell these things) which was a big chunk of fat, cut into bits, salted and broiled to make mini fat crispies. yum!

Photos from our first day in Vienna are posted online here

Day 3 or First Day in Istanbul

The Blue Mosque

It’s amazing what sleep will do for you! The room is tiny the beds very narrow, firm (another word for hard), and low to the ground. But the water is hot, and not brown as I had read in some of the reviews, and we both slept really well until about 2am. I guess that was around 4 or so in the afternoon back home so maybe to be expected. There is even a window that opens and we listened to hard rain and thunder, expecting the day to come to be challenging. Imagine our surprise when we woke again to brilliant cool sunshine!

Breakfast in the hotel is a buffet, an interesting one, if not exactly superb, but there were good breads, goat cheeses, many kinds of yogurt and muesli, apricots and olives, and the coffee was strong but not thick and bitter as traditional Turkish coffee is rumored. As we dressed for a cool and possibly rainy day in Istanbul, I felt my spirits rising with the sun.

The bus is big and comfortable with huge windows and open space, so even though I am the seasick/carsick prone one, it didn’t bother me in the least. We began our morning with a trip back through the “new” part of Istanbul, Taksim Square, the location of our hotel, to the “old” part of the city, across the Golden Horn, a brackish water inlet estuary, and to the ancient portion of the city called “sultanamnet” which contains some of the city’s most significant monuments. We first stopped at the Hippodrome, where a gigantic stadium once stood at the heart of the city. Istanbul means nothing in Turkish, and the story is that it was once called only “the city” However the turks couldn’t speak the greek words meaning the city, “is stan” and it morphed into Istanbul, really meaning nothing at all. It was really the only city in the beginning. Most cities in the Byzantine era were smallish and in this city in the 3rd century the population was already a million. So people from the entire known world considered this place “the city”. The Hippodrome was the center of this culture, and we saw the Egyptian Obelisk brought in from the Luxor tomb in Egypt and the Serpentine Column brought in from Delphi in Greece, dating from 479 BC. It’s amazing to see that this obelisk has stood for more than two millennia, even with Turkey being right in the midst of 3 tectonic plates that generate huge earthquakes.

We walked from the Hippodrome to our first piece of magnificence, the Blue Mosque. The history of this building in incredible as well, and the name is simply taken from all the blue tiles from Iznik that decorate the interior. Suleyman, our guide, gave us some fascinating background on Islam, and mosques as houses of prayer only. A Muslim doesn’t belong to a particular congregation, he simply goes to a mosque to pray with like minded people at the proper times. The mosque was commissioned by a Sultan during the time when the Ottoman empire was declining, and there was controversy then about the 6 minarets which were said to be a sacrilegious attempt to mimic Mecca. It was huge, and gorgeous, and incredible, no matter. A bit overwhelming.

We then walked across the square to the Hagia Sophia, a much older building, once a Christian church when it was built in the 6th century. At the time, there was nothing in the world of its stature, and it was a place where people came from all over the world to worship. Later it was converted by the Ottoman sultans to a mosque, and much of the Byzantine art mosaics that depicted people, saints, Mother Mary and such, were covered up because images of people are not allowed in Islam. In the 19th century it was restored and some of the mosaics are now visible. It is a place of great wonder, and I overheard one gentleman whispering to his wife, “This has been on my list since college!” I also remember reading much about this particular place in art history classes as an example of Byzantine art, and one of the beginning places of art and culture in the world. Another amazing experience.

For me, though, sensory person that I am, the highlight of the day came as we were leaving Hagia Sophia at prayer time, and the Muzzein call to prayer echoed throughout the squares across the city. It was a moment in time, of really feeling the essence of a place, and knowing that you are in a spot that isn’t on the list of everyday. I am in Istanbul. Istanbul.

We had lunch at a great little place called the Pudding Shop, which as a cafeteria style eatery filled with amazing looking food. I had cheese stuffed zuchinni, a stuffed pepper of some kind with delightful sauces. There was a photo of Bill Clinton on the door, and the owner standing there was very proud that Clinton had been there not just once, but twice. We walked along the streets after lunch, smelling the great smoky smell of roasted chestnuts coming from the street carts, and watching all the people. The place is filled with people and full of life and energy, even though it’s Sunday and some things aren’t open.

The last stop for the day was the Topkapi Palace, palace of the Sultans, on one of the 7 hills of Istanbul, Seraglio Point, where the Golden Horn, the Sea of Marmara, and the Bosphorus straits come together. In Byzantine times, monasteries and public buildings were on this site, and later it became the residence of Sultans for more than 400 years. It is now a rambling museum, filled with glittering collections of the royal treasury including an 84 carat diamond, a collection of sultan’s robes and other treasures. The views of the Bosphorus from the terrace were wonderful, and we looked across from Europe to Asia just across the water. The Straights of Bosphorus are the narrow channel between two continents. Once we leave Istanbul, our travels will be in Asia until we return at the end of the trip to this amazing city that sits in two continents.

Mo and I decided to skip the organized “Istanbul by Night” dinner and dancing and do our own thing instead. After resting for just a bit in our room, we dressed again in something a bit warmer and headed for Taksim Square, and the “pedestrian mall”, the hub of activity in this part of the city. The square is huge, and marked by a MacDonalds and Burger King, but once you are walking down the street, everything changes. We decided to follow our guide’s advice and had dinner at a nice restaurant called “Haci –Baba”, where we had lamb shish and meatballs from the grill and kabob menu. It was refined and delicious, but after we left there we walked down the streets with the throngs of people and saw food that was beyond anything I ever imagined. Especially fun is the way that they have all the cooks making the food in the windows of the restaurants, smiling and laughing with you, and smells wafting out the open fronts of the shops. I read somewhere today that there are only three unique kinds of cuisine in the world, French, Chinese, and Turkish! I am going to have to explore that whole concept a bit further, but for today I just thoroughly enjoyed the wonderful food and incredible atmosphere of this very energetic, cosmopolitan, ancient and fascinating city.

I told Mo today, a couple of times, I do really love this place, it’s incredible. I felt a moment of wonder as we crossed back over the Golden Horn with the mosques and minarets silhouetted against the skies and thought how incredibly lucky we are to have a chance for this kind of experience. It’s like pinching myself, reminding myself, I am in Istanbul. Istanbul!

Exploring Valetta

Today we planned to join the group walking tour of Valetta. Our tour guide, Stephan, is Maltese and has lots of good inside information about the country. He wears really gorgeous scarves tied up European style and very tight pants. Ha! During our walking tour with the group we saw St John’s Cathedral and the Michelangelo Carraveggio painting of “The Beheading of St. John”, hailed as one of the finest paintings in the world. The cathedral was truly magnificent and I bought photo postcards to remember the details since flash photography wasn’t allowed in the interior.

We did a tour through the Grand Master Palace of the Knights of St John, another very ornate and heavy building, done in the Victorian and Rococco style so popular here in the late 19th century. The “armory” was just that, a large room filled with displays of heavy armor. Somehow when I go to the “armory” in Medford for an antique sale or something I don’t think of something like this, but I will now.

The troupe dispersed and Mo and I wandered off to the Caffe Cordine for Irish coffee and cappuccino and I had my first really good pea pastizzo, a traditional Maltese street treat.

The part of the day I enjoyed most was a Museum of Archaeology. The real “Sleeping Lady” resides here. She is a small sculpture found in the Hypogeum from Malta’s prehistory, but she is stored here in this museum for preservation. She is quite small, just a few inches, and is held in a heavy bullet proof glass case with dramatic lighting. I have included here a link to the Wiki post for the Hypogeum and Hal Saflieni, the resting place of the Sleeping Goddess for more detailed information on this magical spot, a World Heritage Site, one of several in Malta.Ħal-Saflieni

I have always loved this sculpture and have a replica I kept beside my bed for years. I called her my “dreaming goddess”, and when I knew I was going to Malta, it was with a deep inner delight that I knew I was going to see the place where she was originally found.

It was another blustery day, but the clouds parted enough to give us a beautiful sunset from the upper Barraca Gardens while waiting for the Christmas lights to come on in Valetta. We wandered the narrow streets of Valetta, watching all the Christmas shopping, and enjoying the lights. After dark, we took the bus home to try for a dinner at LaVigne once more. This time it was open, but the owner was very quiet and slow and the meal wasn’t the least bit memorable. Some others of our group were there as well. Most people in our group tour seem to be quite interesting, diverse, and intelligent, and I think that may have something to do with the focus of Malta being more on history and culture rather than just “vacationing”. Of course, we picked Malta because it was in the Mediterranean and that seemed as though it might be a nice place to go in December. Ha!

Northern Malta, Mosta, and Naxxar
We woke up in the middle of the night again, listening to the sounds of the Mediterranean and talked for a couple of hours, too wound up and excited to sleep, and maybe still on US time as well. Finally we fell back to sleep, but woke up just in time to dress for breakfast and leave for our Northern Malta Tour with the group by 8:45.

The day was truly beautiful, sunny and clear, not too warm. The big tour bus is such a cliché, but it still is a good way to see a lot of a country in the first days of unfamiliarity. We traveled to the northern part of the island, driving north through St Julian and other coastal towns to go to the Sanctuary of Our Lady at St Paul’s beach in Mellieha. The sanctuary has been a holy place long before Paul and Luke were there, a place where the local people worshipped their goddesses before Paul christianized Malta. St Paul healed a Roman official when he first arrived to preach Christianity on the island in 60 AD. He was actually shipwrecked on this beach and was stranded in Malta for 6 months! The chapel is carved from a limestone cave and the local people have pilgrimaged there for centuries honoring “Our Lady”. It is always interesting to follow the history of these cultures as they move from their feminine face of God to accepting the western version of God as a male figure, yet keeping the Virgin and Our Lady so dear to their hearts. The presence of the Virgin in Malta is everywhere, and the people love her and honor her, and the many images of Mother and Child are lovely. The grotto was beautiful, with a restored painting of the Virgin holding Jesus in her right arm instead of her left as is the usual tradition in these kinds of paintings, and seemed to be of great significance artistically. The painting was supposedly done in the 1st century, but later studies have placed it somewhere aroune 1000 AD.

Back to the bus to continue through the countryside to Mosta, where we visited the cathedral hit by a bomb during WWII. Miraculously, the bomb landed in the center of the sanctuary during a mass but didn’t explode. The church was newer than most and very ornate. There is a museum in the church where the unexploded bomb is displayed. I would imagine it’s been deactivated somehow, but it looked fairly ominous.

Back on the bus to the town of Naxxar where we toured the Palace Paridisio and gardens, a dramatic feat of Victorian and Rococo style, very ornate and heavy and a bit overwhelming. The palace cat was a treat, however, and she even came down to join us for a light “snack” in the cafe which was as big as any lunch we have had so far, including dessert!

The late afternoon trip back to the hotel was through very heavy traffic into Sliema, which made us both very glad we weren’t driving. It’s a little bit disconcerting to be one of “them” high up on the tour bus overlooking life going on so far below. Riding along the narrow roads we could see life happening on the roofs, where the water is stored in big cisterns and delivered to the houses by gravity. A woman hanging clothes in the brilliant cool light, looked down on our bus and waved at us.

After returning to the hotel, we napped a bit and then went to the Maltese language lecture at 4:45. English and Maltese are both official languages in Malta, but Maltese is unique in that it is somewhat of a mixture of several languages of the various countries that have occupied Malta. It is the only Semitic tongue officially written in the Latin alphabet, with 30 letters , which makes it a bit easier to read as well. The most interesting fact about Maltese is that it was a spoken language, and thought to be common, spoken only by the lower class, and never was a written language, since the higher born Maltese people tried to emulate the English, and encouraged their children to speak English. Only since the 1970’s have the Maltese people taken back their pride in their langauge, and developed it as a written language.

Malta was settled first by the Phoenicians, followed by the Carthiginians, the Arabs, and in 1530 by the Knights of St John. The history of the Knights of St John is incredible, and too complex to write about here, but they came from several European countries, and most of their languages left an influence on the Maltese language, but to me it still sounds like a soft sweet mixture of Hebrew and Arabic, with Italian overtones. I loved this language, love the intonation, and really enjoyed speaking it as much as possible.

After the lecture, neither of us could drum up the energy to go out and eat supper so we just rested, ate nuts and yogurt, and drank our wine from the local Tower Supermarket and went early to sleep to prepare for the next day of adventures.