Tag Archives: travel

Medieval Magic by the Sea

Great writers have a talent for placing their stories in spectacular locations that stand up to the masterful mix of words they are attempting to blend on a printed page. They use their imaginative powers to construct a town that serves as the canvas for the conversations and actions of their characters. The setting of a well told tale is sometimes as important as the stories themselves and can even become a character itself.

It’s likely they set their story in an ancient storybook of a town nestled tightly by a beautiful blue sea. The sea should be warm and calm and dotted with luscious islands colored dark green by thick foliage. Steep hills of jagged rock should rise sharply along the shore from the crystal waters. These rocky hills should show the wear from ions of storms that shaped them into perfect swirls that protect the land beyond. The cliffs should have tiny turquoise bays interspersed among them to provide easy access to the sea. Behind these cliffs the mountains should climb abruptly to great heights topped only by great puffs of perfectly white clouds in clear blue skies.

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St. Blaise Church

 

Perhaps a castle or walled city should rise above the cliffs. The walls of the city should be tall and broad and have angles that display confidence and strength. Immense bastions should anchor the corners and together with the castle stand ominously above the tiny sheltered bays and make a foreboding presentation to anyone with threatening ideas. Inside the walls, there should be grand stone buildings of intricate designs and great creativity. Churches, palaces and royal houses should line the steep staircases that provide access inside the walls. Marble streets that shine in the day and reflect the moonlight in the darkness of the evenings separate the buildings and provide a grand promenade. Fashionable people should make their way along the well-worn marble avenue and music should be heard around any corner.

Outside of these walls, through arched passages and across tiny bridges, we should find whitewashed houses made from cut stone. Mounted sturdily along the cliffs, the houses are topped with red tiled roofs that stand in severe contrast to the richly blue colored skies. The houses are surrounded by strongly built rock walls, palm trees and colorful bougainvillea. Lemon and orange trees, full with colorful ripened fruit fill every garden and open space. Tiny roads route throughout the tightly placed structures and all terminate eventually in the picturesque harbors they surround. Boats of every shape, size and color should transit these harbors, carrying goods and people to and from far off places and thusly enrich the people, both monetarily and culturally.

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Dubrovnik

 

These talented authors could imagine this setting after long hours in a dimly lit room or they could do as we did and spend a month in gorgeous Dubrovnik, Croatia.

We rented a small apartment in a 15th building just a stone’s throw from St. Blaise Church inside the walls of the Old City. The square is just inside the Ploce Gate, the eastern entrance to the Old City. It is flanked by the church, Sponza Palace and the Rector’s Palace and is the main gathering point for any events that happen inside the city walls. Although the majority of the huge crowds that swarm the narrow streets in summer were gone, it seemed there were a never ending variety of activities taking place just outside our 2nd floor windows. So much so that we rarely needed to go far to find our days entertainment.

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Sunset Views

 

Dubrovnik puts on a winter festival which brought decorations to the streets and squares. We went out one morning to find the entire Stradun, the main street of the Old City, decorated with lighting displays and a giant Christmas tree in the square. Small, decorated food booths lined the Stradun and each served some type of tasty traditional food or drink. Speakers were mounted and played soft music for the hundreds of tourists and locals who spent chilly evenings celebrating the season along the ancient boulevard.

Popular bands, choirs and folkloric musicians often gathered on the churches steps to entertain. Dancers in colorful traditional costumes entertained frequently, showing intricate footwork and highly choreographed movements. Crowds of many sizes gathered in the square and along the street according to the popularity of the performers and the time of day or night.

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Ploce Gate Bridge

 

The cities beauty has been discovered by filmmakers as well as authors. Hardly a day went by when we didn’t discover camera crews set up somewhere in town. Of course Game of Thrones has become a massive international hit and many come to visit the familiar settings they have seen in the fictional “Kings Landing” location of the show. The soon to be released latest episode of Stars Wars shut down activity along the Stradun and other locations for weeks as major filming took place. A large temporary medieval village is under construction just outside the walls for an upcoming major release called Robin Hood: Origins set for 2017. We spent a good portion of 2 days following the filming of a Bollywood music video that worked its way around different locations near our house. We were surprised how close we could get to the major Indian celebrities who certainly would have been mobbed in their own country.

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Fort Minceta

 

We were lucky to see the Croatian President when she came to town to commemorate the 25th anniversary of the bombing of the Old City during the 1991 conflict. Few remnants of the attack remain inside the walls of the city. The damage is most apparent when viewing the red tiled roofs of the town. Buildings that were damaged during the war have shiny new tiles instead of the more worn originals. More than 75 percent of the buildings inside the walls were damaged or burned during the shelling.

We took advantage of easy transportation outside the walls to make excursions to the new part of the city also. The crowded summer beach season is over and the cruise ships have mostly departed, so we had the beaches, boardwalks and pedestrian promenades to ourselves. Although the water was a bit chilly for swimming, walking along the rocky beaches gave us spectacular views over the crystal water bays and rocky shorelines. It was a little bit of a shock walking between the huge modern hotels after spending a few days immersed inside the ancient Old City walls.

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Picture Perfect-Dubrovnik

 

Visits to nearby towns and islands were easy and equally as quiet during our stay. Especially nice was a day trip to the tiny town of Cavtat just south along the so called Dalmatian Riviera. Recently discovered by Hollywood celebrities and music stars, the town surrounds a beautiful bay and serves as a much smaller and quieter version of its more famous northern neighbor.

The best and most popular way to see the city is by walking along the ancient walls of the city. A circular route runs all the way along the ramparts and allows unparalleled views over the houses, fortresses, streets, churches and harbors of the town. It is very easy to conjure the cities medieval past. Visions of a mighty medieval city filled with worldly residents takes little imagination when viewed from any of the majestic towers that rise above the monumental fortified walls.

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City Walls

 

Dubrovnik is certainly a city which justifies its reputation as one of the world’s most picturesque. It is obvious to see why so many authors and filmmakers have been enchanted by its beauty. Few places that we have visited could visually compare and certainly this city deserves its place among the destinations that everyone should put on their must see lists.

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Learning to be Lost

We were sitting on a bench in Campo Santa Maria Formosa, one of the larger squares in Venice, when a very stylish couple set down on the bench next to us. The man pulled out a map and began studying it intently. To make conversation, I mentioned to the lady that I thought I spent way too much time studying maps myself. She surprised me by telling me that she never bothered reading them at all!

Perhaps she didn’t have to be bothered with maps because her husband did most of the work, or possibly she had come upon a travel philosophy that I had not put into practice very often. After a few minutes, her husband folded the map up neatly and they generally walked off in the same direction as they had come from. They seemed to be content to know where they were, but weren’t much interested in where they were going.

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Venice Canals

 

I thought about it afterward and decided that Venice was the perfect place to try out this new travel strategy. Could you entertain yourself in Venice without having a specific agenda? Could you use your map just to identify where you were, and not where you were going to? Venice is an island and in truth if you come to the water you can simply turn around and go the other way. You really can’t get too lost.

We had already spent our first week or so in Venice making plans and setting out to see specific items along the way. Rialto Bridge, Piazza San Marco, the Rialto Market, the Arsenale, various museums or some of the beautiful palazzo on the Grand Canal. While we learn our way in new towns quickly and generally have a pretty good sense of direction, I can’t say getting everywhere went smoothly. Venice was a city that was set up to be transited by boat, not land. Traversing from one island to another through narrow passages, over bridges and across plazas with no clearly marked streets is how you get around. Having to consult a map every 5 minutes when you first arrive is normal routine.

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Venice

 

To be honest, it gets a little frustrating. I love the maze-like setup of the town. The small squares, beautiful churches and hidden courtyards create a magical ambiance that I have rarely seen elsewhere. However managing them easily is no small task. Perhaps letting the streets take you where they want and worrying less about the destination would solve the problem.

We packed a lunch one day and set off with not much more than a general direction to explore. Signs are conveniently found throughout town with general directions on them. “Per San Marco” or “Per Rialto” meaning the direction “for Piazza San Marco” or “for Rialto Bridge”. If you have a basic understanding of where the big landmarks are, you can wander toward them in a general direction and not get too lost. When you get tired of walking, simply head back towards home. Not too difficult for us, as we live directly between the Rialto Bridge and Piazza San Marco, the two places with the largest amount of signs directed at them.

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Burano

 

This day we headed off toward the train station as a direction, “Per Ferrovia”. We knew that the old Jewish Ghetto was on the way. The art deco train station is an attraction in itself. The huge church of Saint Giovanni and Paolo was something to see. If we let our imagination go and curiosities guide us, what else might we discover?

It didn’t take long to discover Libreria Acqua Alta. In English, the High Water Bookstore. Venice has periodic flooding throughout the year known as Acqua Alta. Because the bookstore is located on the first floor of the building, the books are susceptible to water damage several times a year. The multi-lingual character who owns the store, Luigi, has organized his books throughout the store on shelving made of different types of boats. Everything from tiny model boats to giant full size gondola. He has created many humorous displays in his store that is full of well-fed, obviously spoiled, cats. While talking to him about Venice, I asked him if many famous people ever stopped in his store. He said, “Of course, all the time”. I ask him who they were and he informed me “I don’t know any of their names.” How did he know they were famous? He explained, “Everyone is famous“! A unique character and a most fascinating store.

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Venice Sunset

 

Later during our wandering day, we stopped in the quaint Campo Santi Apostoli to eat our sandwiches. The shops in the square were closing for lunch and workmen from the neighborhood were stopping to eat. Because the day was nice, many mothers and fathers were going for an afternoon walk with their young children. A man was playing an accordion for tips nearby. Many of the always present fur coat wearing older Venetian ladies were socializing in the square. Another man crumbled bread in his hands and gave a unique whistle sound. Small brown sparrows came from everywhere around. While the ever present pigeons were of course interested, the sparrows were going absolutely crazy. They seemed to encircle his entire body. I wondered how long it must have taken him to “train” the wild birds.

It is hard to be in Venice long without noticing the orange colored drinks that seem to be on everyone’s table each afternoon. We ask and found out they are called a Spritz. It is a mixture of Prosecco Italian sparkling wine, Aperol orange flavored aperitif and sparkling water. Normally served with an olive and a slice of orange, they are seemingly on every table during happy hour. We had never had one but promised we would try one before leaving Venice. After finishing our lunch in the Campo, we saw the perfect place to try one in.

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Burano

 

So many of the bars in Venice are really only meant for tourists. The prices are way above our means and frankly rather exorbitant for anyone. This was definitely not that kind of bar. One table for 2 in the front, 3 tables inside and the requisite standing only bar inside. Old pictures of Italian families and ancient sports teams decorated the walls. You got small plates of salami to go with your drink. Only one older man sat at a table near the bar. No music and no television present. We ordered and grabbed a table. 2 other older men entered and greeted everyone. They obviously knew the other man at the table and started a very loud, very theatrical and obviously passionate conversation in Italian. I have no idea what they were saying but to watch their conversation was as interesting as any play I have ever seen. Other customers or employees were immediately included in their show and we stayed thoroughly entertained while we enjoyed our drink.

We never really got to any of our planned destinations that day, but it really didn’t seem to matter. It was a wonderful day in Venice and it seemed that a new surprise was just around each corner. Travel and life will always be about schedules, appointments and staying on course. We are rewarded for being punctual, organized and efficient. Maybe once in a while we have to remember to just wander a little and see what can be discovered without a map.

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Grand Canal

 

We will be leaving Venice in a few days. It is hard to believe it has already been a month since we arrived. It has been one of our favorite places to visit ever. Everyone needs to put it on their list of places to see. The city itself and the surrounding islands of the lagoon at times seem to be a museum to some romantic moment forever captured in time. I hope it can always be here for everyone to enjoy.

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A Timeless Story of Love, Beauty and Dedication

This is a story of love, beauty and dedication. Like the sea, the wind and the land, it goes on forever and cannot be changed by the passing of time. The tale must be read to the end, or you cannot understand. The narrative has taken years to write, but will only take minutes to read. It is a timeless drama that many others have experienced and no doubt have shared on these pages before. Hopefully you have, or will, experience a similar tale in your travels and more importantly in your life.

There is a land, far away, where the mountains rise directly from the sea. Somewhat barren and rocky, they tower over the azure sea, majestically rising to granite peaks a thousand feet above. The August sun warms early and angrily blisters the land as it rises. It is hot, too hot, and refuge from the intensity is sought by everyone and everything as the day passes. On good days, cooling breezes flow across the Bay of Kotor and provide some relief from the onslaught. On bad days the air flows from the rocky inland and punishes all who contact it.

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Herceg Novi

 

 

A town sits by this calm sea, no doubt founded by those who found their lives intricately interwoven with the rhythms of the sea. Houses rise from the shore and follow the rocky ridges upwards. Built of cut stone from the surrounding hills, they follow the natural curves of the land. The hills are steep, aggressively steep. Directions are not given by compass coordinates, but rather with a fleeting finger pointing simply upwards or downwards. Down to the cooling seas where white sailed boats ply the harbor, or up to the tiny plazas, simple churches and shady cafes that await strong legged visitors with tasty delicacies from the sea. Two ancient forts anchor the town. One high above the Old Town, and one overlooking the crystal bay, shining beaches and winding oceanfront promenade. The forts stand as evidence of the need to protect this paradise from intruders in bygone days.

A main thoroughfare winds upwards through the town. It follows a serpentine path upwards and is perhaps the only route that was possible for the early residents. How it was carved centuries ago from the rock face is difficult even to imagine. Automobiles have made their way to the road and improvements have been made. It is best to use the mind’s eye to view the scene as it was in the past, and not as it is today. Stories of ancient days are easier to imagine as you traverse the narrow stairways that run aimlessly between the tightly woven houses. Seeing visions of medieval fisherman, merchants, craftsmen and perhaps pirates come effortlessly as you slowly meander the countless winding paths.

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Herceg Novi

 

Sun kissed children wander the streets unsupervised. Their skin is brown and their hair faded by the summer sun and endless days spent swimming in the ocean. They play soccer energetically on cement fields narrowly cut from the mountainside in the morning and move retiringly slow in the afternoons when swimming and sun have drained their bodies of their near endless reserves of energy.

Older residents are found gathered early in the main square centered on the ancient church. An old woman sells vegetables and flowers from handmade baskets in the shaded corner that catches the early breeze. She leans against the cool marble stone and wears a loose fitting, faded and colorful dress. The lines on her coffee brown face announce a life of soft smiles and warm embraces. Men passing through the square greet each other heartily, all baritone voices and hearty laughs. All stop to drink of the cool water that flows freely from the ornate fountain that anchors the square. Legend says that its waters assure health and vitality to all who drink from it. No one passes without a sample of the magic.

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Savina Monastery- Herceg Novi

 

Soon enough, visitors fill the narrow streets, stairways and passages between the stone and pastel colored facades of the city. They dress in brightly colored swim attire; all floppy hats, cover-ups and sandals. A few well-heeled travelers forsake the beach and choose to spend the day shopping in the trendy boutiques that line the central promenade. They of billowing dresses, high heels and exactly arranged hairstyles covered with the perfect hat to complement their purses and pearls. Much less interesting than the residents, the visitors move rapidly and interrupt the tranquility, peace and pace of the gentle morning. It is time for the smart traveler to return to tiny apartments for cool drinks and long lunches.

Evenings are spent on sea view balconies overlooking unkempt gardens. Shiny pomegranates, peaches, figs and pears ripen in the bright sun. An arbor of purple grapes fills an area of morning sun, its fruit hanging low on the timeworn vine as it matures slowly. Plump, deep red tomatoes of the most amazing color, sit fat with flavor on vines that need to be tightly braced against the weight of the perfectly developed fruit. Olive trees and citrus fill the rest of the garden with full foliage and magic aromas that promise delicacies that will be enjoyed in seasons to come.

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Hilly Streets of Herceg Novi

 

Swallows fly crazily in the moments before sunset, working aggressively to remove the insects from the air. Distant boats cross the calm sea below, their wakes forming perfect V’s as they follow their course through the flat bay. Bats arrive magically from their hidden places and fill the air above to remove whatever last remnants of intruding insects were missed by the swallows. Lightning flashes in the far distance from some storm that will never enter this glacier cut bay paradise of sand and sea. An Italian love song plays in the background and provides a melodic melancholy that enchants the night as faint whispers of lovers mix with the innuendo of the gentle breeze. Wine glasses can be heard, tapping together. Memories of a lifetime are being created everywhere around me.

Alas, that will not be my memory of this enchanted land. You see, for the first time in 5 years, I am travelling alone. These are memories that can only be created together with a loved one. True memories of romantic lands and faraway places can only be captured in hindsight when shared together, long after the moment has passed. I promised you a story of love, beauty and dedication, and thus you will have one. Not this regular story of times in faraway places where dreams came true for others.

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Bay of Kotor

 

My story is of a love that was created 30 years ago, thousands of miles from where I find myself tonight. It is a story of careers, children and hard work. It is a story of celebrations, accomplishments and shared fulfillment. It is a story of a love between two people that transcended difficulties, strife and unpleasantness. The love flowed onward and eventually carried us one day to an impetuous decision to add an extra dimension to our shared memories. To travel the world to see and experience all that it had to offer.

This is a story of the beauty of world that we found together. Spectacular sunsets over verdant mountains. Endless rivers that flow through thick jungles where men have rarely passed. Astounding skylines of cities so beautiful, it did not seem possible that men could have created them. Astonishing monuments built by kings and queens and common people who only sought to leave the world more beautiful than they found it. We have seen beauty in the people of all colors, religions and ages that populate this tiny earth. The beauty of people who have helped us, despite our inability to communicate, when things seemed hopeless. The magic beauty of a mother who allows us to hold a smiling child at the perfect time when all the world seemed a foreign place.

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Montenegro

 

It is a story of the dedication of a wife who followed her husband’s dreams to see all the exoticness, color, intrigue and fascinations that might be found across a good part of the globe. While we have shared on these pages many glossy photographs and sometimes poetic prose of many of the moments of the last 5 years, let it be known that you saw our world from only one side of a carelessly focused lens or rapidly scribbling pen. You could not have seen the dedication it took to spend countless nights on hilltops fleetingly waiting for a sunset to develop so the “perfect” photo could be taken. You could not have seen the dedication it took to spend hundreds of sweaty nights in uncomfortable beds with unexplained noises filling the night so your husband could spend a few days in some oddly alluring venue. You could not see the dedication it took to spend thousands of hours spent looking for a supposed paradise-rainbow at the end of a distant third world road. You could not have seen the abundant laughter and unfortunate tears that filled the time between our infrequent posts.

Too many days pass without me saying how much I appreciate the company, compassion and comradeship my wife has displayed towards my crazy ambitions, not just in the last 5 years but during our entire 30 years together. Tonight, as I close my eyes under a crescent moon in a land far away, I find myself dreaming of the days ahead, spent with the person who hopefully knows how much she means to me.

From a Window High Above

The tiny room is only slightly lit by the pre-dawn sky. Outside the window, two cruise ships have moored in these last few minutes before dawn. The ships are lit like giant Christmas trees against the grey Rio Tejo. The sky to the east of the river begins to develop a faint orange band along the horizon. The bright white buildings that flow down the hillside to the river reflect the early light and begin to glow with the warmth of the early morning. The red terra cotta roofs, the tiles still wet from the mist of last night, begin to shine. With the growing light of day the maze of tiny alleys and interlinked stairways become visible. The river begins to glow red now as the scattered clouds reflect the first rays of the rising sun. Another day has begun in the Alfama neighborhood of Lisbon, Portugal.

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Lisbon Tram

 

The small café across the alley has set up its tables already. The smell of pastries and coffee fill the air. The regulars are arriving. They have voices that fit their faces. Lyrical, expressive, passionate, energetic with a small wrinkle of humor. They talk in normal volumes but the sounds carry loudly between the narrow walls of the cobblestone street. The men have voices that sound of cigarettes and sea air. The women’s emphasis on certain syllables makes them understandable in any language. Most voices sound of worry, work and struggle. This is the fisherman, boatmen and shopkeepers of the neighborhood. The latest generation of the hundreds of generations of working poor that have lived here since before recorded time. People who live in a world where there isn’t enough for everyone and you have to stay aggressive to get your share.

Returning to the view from the window over the river, the day begins below. The sun rises and the light becomes white again. The gas man carries the heavy bottle up the narrow stairs for an early delivery. Windows open to let the fresh salt breeze clean the night air from the ancient houses on the hills. Soon laundry will fill the lines. Summer has gone and drying will take longer. Practiced hands deftly apply the wooden clothespins in the perfect patterns to catch the breezes. The women wear house dresses and have conversations across the alleys from the tiny windows of the small houses. Rough laughter and animated voices. Your coffee is ready and you take your first sip. The fresh air and caffeine work their magic. The night clears and another opportunity for adventure begins.

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Lisbon Tram

 

 

Perhaps the adventure today takes you on a trip throughout the city. There are many distinct neighborhoods and areas to be explored. Called a “City of Seven Hills” for a good reason, Lisbon presents a challenge for the legs no matter which way you travel. Thankfully Lisbon has a network of trams and funiculars to take you up, over and through the hills with ease. The noisy and crowded cars are a cacophonous introduction to the populous of this busy city. The tram routes look serpentine when viewed on a map for the first time. The map doesn’t do justice to the excess of hills, cliffs and valleys that need to be crossed to get from one neighborhood to another. Perhaps the only route that visitors need to know is that of the famous Tram 28.

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Rio Tejo

 

Starting from the hills on eastern side of town near the castle, number 28 winds its way below and around the hill the castle is built on. It is a steep walk up the hill from the tracks to the castle but well worth the effort to see the views from the impressively restored ramparts. Two beautiful miradouros (lookouts) are easily accessed and also provide wonderful views over the city, especially at sunset. The tram narrowly clears both buildings and pedestrians along the narrow streets. Occasionally it stops to allow trams from the opposite direction to pass. The streets do not always provide room for parallel traffic. You can tell the difference between tourists and locals by their reaction to the narrow misses.

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Lisbon Tram

 

 

Number 28 continues its journey above the Alfama neighborhood with its gorgeous views towards the river. Tall white faced churches tower above the tiny red roofed houses of this oldest of all Lisbon neighborhoods. Continuing down the hill you pass the ancient cathedral called the Se. It is possibly the oldest building in Lisbon. Building began in 1147 but recent excavations underneath have found remnants of Moorish, Roman and even Visigoth settlements from long before the Portuguese arrived.

Finally (but only briefly) you reach the level part of town called the Baixa. After the 1755 earthquake and tidal wave destroyed the city and killed 80,000 people, Lisbon had a unique chance to totally redesign itself almost from scratch. The citizens did a wonderful job. The Baixa has grand boulevards and squares lined by ornate buildings. Some streets are blocked from traffic and covered with wonderful hand cut black and white stone blocks. The blocks are laid to create graphic patterns that add unique beauty and perfectly compliment the shops and restaurants that fill the area. Look for star shaped patterns as they are said to protect from earthquakes.

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Lisbon Nights

 

Starting back up hills on the western side of the Baixa, the trolley strains as it navigates the tight turns and steep streets that lead upwards towards the Chiado neighborhood. The tram is now packed to standing room only and hopefully you have a window seat view. Signs warn to watch for pickpockets. Fat wallets of unsuspecting tourists excitedly enjoying the views of the opulent stores and sumptuous cafes of the area make easy targets for unscrupulous types. Chiado was the grandest part of town in days past. The facades of the cafes and shops are ornate and the day is still passed shopping for the latest fashions in the well-heeled boutiques.

We end our day’s adventure with a ride down the famous Bica to the waterfront. Built in 1892 it climbs steeply from the near the Mercado on the riverfront to the Barrio Alto area high above. Climbing nearly 700 feet up the side of the steep hill, the tiny funicular must have seemed a miracle to people who made a daily journey down the hill to find groceries in times past. The sun is beginning to set along the river as we make our way back towards our tiny Alfama home. The sun paints the sky orange behind the 25th of April Bridge which looks like a twin sister of the Golden Gate Bridge in San Francisco.

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Tram 28

 

Arriving back in Alfama we make our way through the tiny maze of alleyways and steep stairs, pausing just briefly to catch our breath. Perhaps we refresh ourselves with one of the favorite local snacks. Pasteis de Nata is a Portuguese custard-like egg tart with just the right amount of sweetness to replenish energy from climbing hills all day. Or perhaps a stop at the local Ginjinha stand to ease your aching muscles. Ginjinha is local liquor made from pouring alcohol (maybe brandy) over top of a local sour cherry. Add large quantities of sugar and maybe cinnamon and drink from shot glasses. Available from a local lady who makes and sells the concoction from behind a split level door in her living room, a couple of shots will go a long way to easing tired muscles.

To finish the evening perhaps you may want to attend one of the many music performances in the tiny Fado clubs found everywhere in the Alfama neighborhood. Fado is a traditional Portuguese music that first appeared in the 1850’s. It is said to be the ultimate expression of the Portuguese emotion called “saudade”. Saudade is a yearning for something no longer at hand or something impossible to attain. Sailors feel it at sea and emigrants feel it for those left behind. It’s saudade that fosters the tightly knit Portuguese communities in the world’s cities and saudade that brings migrants home after long periods away. Fado is the music that expresses the emotions they feel when they are away.

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Alfama Sunrise

 

Standing at the window where the day started many hours before, the sounds of Fado can be heard drifting over the roofs and alleyways of the maze like streets below. The cruise ships left long ago and the churches are lit over the hills of the Alfama. The evening has turned cool and the melancholy sounds of the singers voices carry from below and mix perfectly with the smell of the salt air and wonderful memories of an excellent day exploring the beauty of Lisbon.

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Lisbon Night

Choosing Sides in Jerusalem

Throughout my travel life I have always felt that it was important to maintain, as best as possible, an observational attitude towards the places I have visited. I don’t feel it is my place to interject my personal feelings towards the customs, culture or political and religious climate of the places I have chosen to visit. After all, I think one of the wonders of travel is seeing things that are different from your own world. It is what makes travel such a rewarding thing for me. Most travelers would agree that the world is becoming too generic. Inserting your own beliefs or customs can only alter the local culture and contribute to global sameness.

I say observational and not objective because it is not always possible to be objective. I know that some things are wrong. I have seen poverty, racism, class division and a host of other things that were uncomfortable to observe and at times outright offensive personally. I think that most people have an ingrained desire to help others that they perceive as less fortunate or treated unfairly. I understand the desire to help children or animals or anyone that is a natural underdog. However it is my belief that at some point you are practicing activism, not tourism. I often have to remind myself that I am an outsider and because I do not have to live with results of the actions that are taken in a place I am visiting, perhaps I should not interject my opinions.

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Damascus Gate

 

At the same time I have always had trouble with tourism that alters the reality of a place so that we don’t have to see what is really happening. It seems to take away the general purpose of travelling. I’m not sure that living in a gated community or staying in some fenced off all-inclusive resort that does its best to hide the reality of an area serves a visitor well. Frolicking in some white sand Margaritaville that was created solely based on some Disneyesque version of reality is not for me either. It is true there is an Eiffel tower in Las Vegas. It is attractive and fun to see, but you can’t be confused that it is the true item. I do understand that suspending reality for a few days could be seen as just taking a break from your normal routine. I enjoy a few nights disguised as a high roller in Vegas or a couple of nights of room service in an enchanted palace-like hotel pretending to be a Raj era sultan as much as anyone.

I find that by attempting to remain observational you often begin to see an issue from both sides. It has served me well and has created learning experiences from some unpleasant situations. It helped us get through and not feel overwhelmingly frightened in our last few days in Istanbul. We were involved in a tear gas incident near Taksim Square during a protest. A major suicide bomb attack that killed several German tourists happened literally 20 feet from a bench we had lunch on just a week before. I understood a good number of the reasons these things occurred which made them easier to comprehend. I still found them unpleasant and regrettable but because I understood the situation, these experiences gave me a unique opportunity to see the world from a different perspective. Because I stayed observational, I was better able to control the fear and panic that might have overwhelmed me otherwise.

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Mount of Olives

 

We arrived in our new city of Jerusalem after an adventurous, but short journey from Istanbul. Security was strong in Istanbul but even more so at the Tel Aviv airport. Guns are displayed everywhere in the airport. The wall that separates the Palestinian Territories from Israel is clearly visible along the road from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem. Much of the conversation between the tourists in the shared taxi (called a Sherut) was about the recent increase in terrorist attacks throughout Israel. I was well aware of ongoing troubles in Israel but, to be honest, I was not familiar with the recent stabbings of Israelis that have taken place almost daily in the last few months.

We found our new apartment just after dark after quite a search. The neighborhood is old and not well marked and locating our address in the fading light was not easy. We had not put too much thought into where we were going to stay in Jerusalem. We basically selected an apartment based on price and location within walking distance to the Old City. We live in the Musrara neighborhood about one block from the original division line between Palestine and Israel. The neighborhood was originally founded in the late 1800’s by wealthy Arabs who wanted to live outside the confines of the Old City’s walls. When Israel was founded in 1948 battle lines were drawn between East and West Jerusalem in this neighborhood and most of the original occupants moved out. Since the 1967 Arab-Israeli war both East and West Jerusalem are one area under Israeli control. Many of the once grand houses have been transformed into apartments and the neighborhood has a bit of an art colony feel.

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Jerusalem Alleys

 

Walking through the neighborhood the next morning, bullet holes were clearly visible in some of the cement block houses near ours. Scars from the past no doubt. The ultra-modern tram line marks a clear line between predominantly Arab East Jerusalem and predominately Israeli West Jerusalem. West Jerusalem is much nicer developed with modern stores and apartment buildings. Sidewalks are wide and cafes are busy with well-dressed people enjoying their day. East Jerusalem is much poorer in appearance. Stores are smaller and cafes are less trendy. The streets are dirtier and the streets and sidewalks are not well kept. There seems to be a clear economic division between the communities.

We spent our days wandering the Old City. The relatively small walled area is holy ground to 3 major religious groups. We enjoyed visiting the highlights from each over our days. Visiting the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, considered by many Christians to be where Jesus ascended to heaven was amazing. Seeing the Temple Mount where the Dome of the Rock and Al-Aqsa Mosque are located gave us a unique look into the lives of Islamic residents of the area. It was awe inspiring seeing the Jewish people worshipping at the Western Wall, which is as close to the location of the Solomon’s First Temple as they can be, and considered their most holy spot on earth. All of these areas are within a 5 minute walk of each other.

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Old City Walls

 

The Old City is divided between four quarters, Jewish, Armenian, Christian and Muslim. There are no signs to distinguish the different areas but they are easily identifiable. The Jewish area is nicely constructed with recently renovated buildings surrounding nicely excavated sites of Roman Era ruins. The Armenian area is smaller and mostly walled from tourists. The Christian area is filled with businesses and religious organizations. The Muslim area seems rougher and not as nicely restored with tiny alleys and tiny houses stacked in every formation on top of each other. The ancient markets are located here as well as most of the tourist souvenir shops.

The city is filled with soldiers at many corners. They are heavily armed and number in groups of 2 to 10. We saw our first uncomfortable incident when the soldiers grabbed a young looking Palestinian teenager and proceeded in roughly searching him. It was difficult to watch as it did not seem provoked and went on for some time. An older Palestinian man commented to us while shaking his head that “they treat us like animals”. The boy was sent on his way.

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Muslim Quarter

 

A couple of days later we were sitting outside the Damascus Gate enjoying the late evening sunshine with families and shoppers in the area. We went up the steps when suddenly many soldiers went running past us toward the gate. Sirens went off and it was apparent something had happened. We continued on our short walk home as more sirens blared as police rushed to the area. We looked at the news and saw that an Israeli teen had been stabbed by two Palestinians right in front of where we had been sitting just moments before. It was difficult to imagine such a peaceful scene getting so bad in only seconds after we had left. Luckily the young man was only slightly injured.

We were having our lunch next to the Western Wall on a sunny Friday afternoon. A local Jewish man was explaining to his visiting family that the reason so many soldiers were present was that the Muslim prayers were taking place on the Temple Mount and when they were through the worshippers needed to be “controlled” so they wouldn’t start a riot. It was disturbing because of the contempt that he said it with, especially since children were in his group.

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Old City

 

We have had many discussions in the evenings about the situations that we witnessed in the short time we have been here. It seemed like each day we witnessed something that left us feeling uneasy. The tension in the city seems palpable. People appear and act uncomfortably. Smiles and laughter are not common. We asked an un-busy cab driver we were talking to on the Mount of Olives when tourist season picks up. He told us sadly that it never gets busy anymore. The tourists don’t come now.

Yesterday was our worst day yet. At Jaffa Gate we decided to go on the Rampart Walk along the Old City walls. The route leads from Jaffa gate around to Herod Gate on the northern side of the walls. It was a pretty day and we were enjoying the excellent view from the top of the wall. As we neared New Gate we began to hear lots of sirens. We could hear gun shots followed by explosions from the direction we were going. Within second more sirens could be heard coming from nearly every direction. We continued on toward Damascus Gate. The roads outside the walls were being blocked and police and soldiers were everywhere. As we continued, it was apparent that that everyone’s attention was focused outside the gate. Guns were drawn everywhere and people were blocked from the area.

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Old City Graves

 

As we continued to approach we could see from our birds eye view the tragic scene below. 3 Palestinian youths were lying on the ground in pools of blood. A young female soldier was being rushed to an ambulance. Hundreds of police were everywhere and photographers were hurrying past us on the walls to get the best views. Hundreds of bystanders were gathering in the street below and curious residents were peaking from nearby apartment windows. To be honest, we didn’t know what to do. We stood and watched the scene from above. I can’t really say we were scared. It just seemed unbelievably sad. The three dead boys looked so young. They didn’t look evil. Later we learned that the soldier girl had also been killed. She didn’t seem old enough to be in uniform, much less to have lost her life.

I have read the story of what happened. I suppose the conclusions are different based on who is telling the story. I understand the issue from both sides. I feel compelled to pick a side. I am having a hard time being observant. What I saw was tragic and someone must be to blame. Someone must be right and someone must be wrong. What I do know is correct is that 4 very young people are not going to live full lives and that is very sad.

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Dormition Abbey

 

Much of the current troubles in the world seem to radiate out from this area of the world. I am trying my best to be a good traveler and stick to my goal of being observant. It is hard to be objective. I see wrong on both sides. It is difficult for me to see any good in any of this.

I do know that Jerusalem has a unique opportunity to set an example of how the rest of the world could live. If they could figure out how to get along within the tiny confines of the walled Old City then surely the rest of the world could use them as an example and find a way themselves. I know that the situation is difficult and we all feel as though we must pick a side. I hope for the young people here that the people in charge at least make an effort.

As I write this, many sirens are passing outside our house and are headed toward the old city again. It doesn’t seem as though they have figured it out yet.

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Jerusalem Old City

Spirits from the Past

There is an apartment in Seville. It is at the end of the callejon, past the tiny bodega where they have futbol and cups of good wine. The tiny alley is narrow and the smell of food drifts from the kitchens of the houses that line it. The days of the fish stew are the best with intense aromas that yield a mixture of sweet and sour. At the end of the alley you find a heavy framed metal gate with artistic flourishes that leads to the courtyard. The courtyard has a stone fountain and marble floor that feels cool to the touch even on the hot days, as it most always is.

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Santa Cruz

 

Three flights of stairs are climbed to reach the apartment. The stairway is accented with the famous blue azulejos tiles. The building is unusually quiet most times. In the right time of day you hear the man practicing his flamenco guitar, strumming endless chord progressions, accompanied only by the gentle tapping of his foot. The pretty girl across the courtyard leaves early in the morning and comes home late at night. She dresses well and must have a good job. She sometimes wears a flower in her hair, usually a color to match her dress.

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On the Avenida

 

Above the apartment is a terrace where the laundry is hung to dry. It is painted white to reflect the sun’s rays and is intensely hot. The residents hang the clothes early to avoid the sun themselves. As the breeze picks up during the day, the clothes blow in the wind like the sails of the wooden ships that left the port here many years before. This is the hottest city in Europe and the cloudless blue skies dry the clothes faster than any machine could. They dry stiff and feel starched and will need to be lightly ironed before they can be used.

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Plaza Espana

 

The sun rises late, after eight, so it is easy to start the day early. In the days before you adjust to the time change it is a pleasure to walk the streets while it is still dark. The lights are on and it feels romantic and slightly mystical as you make your way through the narrow cobblestone streets. With little effort you can see visions of Carmen leaving the tobacco factory to meet her bullfighter or Don Juan returning from late night liaisons with an unnamed lover. You are keenly aware of the history the ornate walls have witnessed. Columbus and Magellan walked here while planning distant voyages to exotic lands. The Catholic kings ruled here and before them the Moors and before them the Romans. Each group left their marks and with only the slightest imagination they are clearly visible in the early light of day.

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Seville Sunrise

 

Breakfast is eaten early and quickly. If your breakfast is in a café you will probably have juice and toast and a thickly rich coffee. On Sundays you might satisfy your cravings for sweetness with the churros and decadent hot chocolate from the small shop with the large line. Everyone sits outside at the casually arranged tables. The conversation is muted as many read newspapers or chat quietly. Everyone seems to smoke, perhaps daring fate itself, as many spend their lives doing here on the southern tip of Spain.

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Plaza Espana

 

If you choose to shop for yourself and time is not critical it is better to find each item of the meal separately. Visit the carniceria for meat, pescaderia for fish, panaderia for bread and maybe a small vegetable market for whatever is in season. After three visits they will remember you. People eat what is in season and what is fresh. Most visit markets daily. The best of the old style mercados have been preserved in the neighborhoods of Triana, Macarena or Arenal. They have been refurbished but have kept the original style of small owner operated stalls filled with delectable goodness. Beautiful tiles tell the vendors name and what his specialty is. Olives, oils, spices and cheeses fill jewel-like glass cases. Delicious Iberico hams and cured sausages hang as advertisements to entice the hungry. Vegetables are arranged in artistic displays of color and flavor.

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Triana Market

 

Life centers on the many plazas. One size plaza does not fit all needs. Some are large and surrounded by designer shops showcasing the latest styles. Some are filled with tourists who look hot and uncomfortable and hungry. Some are more residential and filled with children with soccer balls and bicycles. The best plazas have popular bars and restaurants filled with customers throughout the day. It is said that the tapa was invented in Seville. El Rinconcillo bar is one of more than 1000 places serving tapas in the city and credited with having invented the tapa. It has been turning out food and drinks since 1670 and may be the oldest restaurant in Spain.

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Plaza del Toro

 

Our small Seville apartment sits just outside of Plaza Alfalfa. Plaza Alfalfa is the perfect combination of all the plazas. This is where the Romans settled before there was a Spain. Surrounded by local merchants and tiny cafes it has the perfect mix of humanity to make for the best people watching. Old ladies, babies in strollers, teenagers with their first loves, diners passionately discussing subjects over large cups of sangria or small glasses of beer. The plaza is filled from early morning until late at night. It has tall trees to provide abundant shade and is blocked to traffic. Dancers often practice and a constant game of soccer goes on throughout the day, the players changing as they are called to do other things. Children on bicycles and skates play in the evening after school and before dinner. They easily weave between passing tourists following maps and looking for hard to find street names. Later in the evening diners fill the tables to enjoy drinks and tapas from one of several restaurants that all have outside tables. Everyone seems to know each other and no television could compete with the entertainment found here.

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Puente Isabella II

 

Days are spent here touring the city. It is a city built for walking. The buildings are tall and built close together to provide shade during the heat of the day. The Moors brought orange trees to the city and they line streets everywhere. They provide a wonderful smell in spring and cooling shade all year long as they keep their leaves in all seasons. Perhaps cursed by the vanquished Moors, the oranges are sour and not good to eat. Mixed with enough sugar they can be used for marmalade that the English like.

Seville has its share of world class sites. The Cathedral is the third biggest in the world and the Alcazar that housed first Moorish kings and then Spanish royalty is filled with intricate passageways and formal gardens. La Giralda stands above everything and can be seen from everywhere in town.

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Sevilla Nights

 

I believe the essence of the city is found while walking along the Guadalquivir River in the evening as the sun is setting. Couples hold hands as they walk past the bullring. The breezes are cooling and the air is refreshing. The colorful buildings of Triana reflect in the water. The lights on the Isabel Bridge come on and a magical ambience overtakes the city. Perhaps the spirits of the artists, adventurers, kings and queens of different cultures take over the city again and lead the people on journeys of their own through the streets. Spirits of bullfighters and flamenco dancers abound and help the inhabitants, tourist or local, find a true passion that life was meant to have.

A Place Where Dreams Came True

There is a place where dreams are captured in real life. They drift inland on cool breezes across choppy turquoise seas tossing beneath pink clouded skies. They are captured by the rocky green hills that rise straight from the sea. The hills, worn by time and weather, stand as silent witnesses to a culture of hard work and dedication and a desire to create a visual masterpiece, a perfect mixture of nature’s harshness and man’s desire for not only sustenance, but beauty.

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Manarola

 

The hills are terraced as they tumble to the sea from high above. The mortarless walls of the terraces, built over centuries by masters of stone craftsmanship, are perfectly shaped to capture the soft morning light. The fertile earth yields everything necessary to not only sustain life, but to nurture it. The terraces are covered with ancient olive trees and carefully tended vineyards. Lemons and other citrus grow in small groups of fragrant color. The sweet smell of the bright yellow lemon trees fills the senses with hope. Basil and rosemary grow in small herb gardens, seemingly wild, their fragrance perfectly complimenting the freshness of the lemon.

A few small boats are tied to brightly colored buoys in the tiny harbor. The sea is rough today and most of the brightly painted boats have been removed from the water. The salt air is crisp, summer still a distant dream. Seagulls hover and dive aggressively above, testing the breezes and currents. They seem to fly for fun and not for food. Speeding with the wind, they bank sharply before hovering and lightly touching down in the chilly water. They are healthy and well-groomed from proper diets. No scavengers here. A fisherman mends a net nearby, his practiced hands neatly weaving the repair of a recent tear.

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Tellaro

 

A cobbled thoroughfare winds through the town from the tiny harbor that hides behind the stone seawall. It follows the path of the stream that provides fresh water for agriculture and people. The rush of water from recent rainstorms is clearly audible through grates along the path. At different points along the way, tiny waterfalls are visible along the exposed black rock. Carefully placed stonework channels water into glistening pools that feed the houses and gardens along the path.

The architecture compliments the land. Red tiled roofs cover hand-hewn houses with iron balconies and brightly painted shutters. The powerful salt air peels the pastel colored stucco walls, sometimes to the brick below, in perfect patterns from the multistoried buildings. The mottled result blends perfectly with the rough landscape. The houses cling precariously to the gorge that was carved over eons by tiny streams that flow from distant snowcapped mountains, unseen behind the terraced hills.

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Vernazza

 

Narrow passageways lead through shadowy gaps between the tightly packed buildings. Worn brick arches form magic gateways through which the townspeople make their way upwards. Unrailed staircases twist their way up the steep hillside. Tiny plazas, terraces and secret viewpoints await those who make the climb. Every open space is used for a purpose. Where houses can’t fit, gardens are built. Where fruits and vegetables won’t grow, flowers are planted. A few ancient trees grow behind natural stone walls that contain rare patches of greenspace.

On the thoroughfare, a tiny vegetable market displays its produce on tables placed along the street. Striped canopies extend above the brightly colored fruits and vegetables, many grown locally. The land provides the necessities of life, but not without incredible effort. Many vendors sell locally grown wine or olive oil. Fresh herbs from tiny gardens nearby fragrantly scent the air. An assortment of delectably aged local cheeses looks appetizing in a refrigerated open display inside.

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Corniglia

 

A small fish market across the way exhibits a wonderful assortment of the silvery catch of the day. Octopus, shrimp and a variety of shellfish fill out the display. They smell of salt water and sea air. Most were in the ocean just a few hours before.

A nearby bakery smells of sweet flour. The smell of heated sugar permeates the air. Colorful sweets are displayed in the small glass case near the window. An ancient espresso machine shines impressively behind the counter. The smell of rich coffee mixes with the aroma of sweetened fruit and demands a brief stop. It is one of few shops open for visitors in these last days of winter.

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Portovenere

 

The ingredients seem so perfectly paired that, when combined together simply, they create a cuisine so delicious that it could only have been created by nature itself. Tomatoes, garlic, basil, olive oil, fresh seafood, lemons and local cheeses. Focaccia, farinata and pesto were created here. Combined with wonderful local wines, a simple, deliciously healthy diet sustained the activity necessary to create this region of work and wonder.

Higher up the hill, a tiny church stands open for visitors. A bell in the tower rings out for all to hear. Black and white stones are equally spaced creating a striped façade which is unique to this area. Inside the hand painted statues are not gaudy or overly elaborate. They display a simple beauty that compares easily with the more ornate places of worship built by rich patrons in places far away. The design here suggests closeness to a faith formed by the recognition of how much man and nature depend on each other to survive.

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Portovenere

 

Three old women sit on a bench near the tiny square next to the church. They wear aprons and happily chat to everyone who passes. People greet each other heartily and with good cheer. No new baby can pass without everyone gathering around to make cooing sounds and wiggle a toe or tiny hand. A one eyed cat sits laconically on the tiny stoop. He seems to know that the sun finds its way here at this time every day. His face tilted upward to the beam of light, he seems to be content with his fate.

The cemetery at the top of the hill provides the perfect final resting place. Well-tended flowers mark the shiny polished white marble crypts. The view across the never-ending terraces, along the road through the town, above the colorful houses, further to the harbor and finally to the amazingly blue sea is amazing. The perfect place to spend eternity. A few boats are visible on the horizon. As if on cue, the sun peeks from behind the parting clouds. The rays of light that shine seem perfectly focused to highlight the achievements of people who have worked hard to create a place of amazing beauty and abundance. The natural curves of the land are perfectly complimented by the man-made additions of years of unending dedication.

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Vernazza

 

Smiling photos of the townspeople’s faces mark the graves. They show a handsome, humble people who lived a life of work and care. They are faces that look out over all they have created with all the satisfaction, achievement and contentment of a life well lived in a beautiful land where their dreams really did become reality.

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Portofino

The Heat of Penang

The heat is oppressive, unrelenting, surreal. It takes your strength, appetite and will. You can’t fight it, there’s no reason, you can’t win. It’s a thick heat, the humidity is so high.The moisture peels the paint from the walls and then peels the stucco until the red brick shows. You tie a ribbon on your fan so you’re sure it’s still moving. You try to sleep, but the heat gives you strange dreams. Dreams of jungles and strange voices you can’t understand. Your clothes stick and you dread walking. You learn to survive in the morning before the sun comes or in the evening as it subsides. You learn to find relief in anything cool, a breeze, an umbrella, a cool drink. Anything to survive for a few more minutes. You curse the people who block the covered sidewalk and make you walk from the shade into the sun, even for a brief moment of time. You avoid streets that are exposed to the sun and don’t have breezes. It seems it will never end. This is Penang.

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The sun is setting as you leave your hostel on Muntri Street. The sun is finally easing, casting an orange and purple glow on the ancient houses that line the alley. The clouds are coming and you hope for rain. Thunder is heard in the distance mixed with the eerie sounds of the Muslim call to prayer. Several sticks of incense burn nearby. The neon signs of restaurants and hotels are lit already, some flickering in the thick air. Swallows fly in and out of the top floor of a nearby abandoned building where they have made their home. You think it is abandoned until you see the blue light of the lonely television casting shadows on the old watching in their chairs. A dog watches you from behind the gated door, too lazy and hot to bark or even stand.

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A small breeze catches you as you round the corner onto Love Lane. Love Lane, where the rich kept their mistresses in days gone by. Love Lane that has warnings of potential evil deeds late at night. The sky is now completely dark, and you are glad for it. You walk closer to the middle of the street, leery of the shadowy covered sidewalks, trying to keep the breeze in your face, a couple of street lamps in the distance casting the dim glow as your pace picks up trying to avoid the broken covers of the half open sewers.

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You hear Chulia Street before you get to it. Busy with cars and scooters and trishaws and smelling of food simmering or grilling on the street. Music from backpacker bars and flop houses, now frequented by the young and adventurous or the old and staid. Before the backpackers, there were sailors. Sailors from the navies of the world. Sailors from merchant fleets of the world plying the Malacca Straits on the lucrative shortcut trade routes from China to India. Shortcuts like Chulia Street itself, which takes you to the docks and jetties farther down. The street is lined with things the sailors needed, bars, laundries, cheap rooms, food. The same thing the backpackers need. Sailors made the way for the backpackers. Chulia is not the street of the wealthy Straits Chinese, the Baba-Nonyas, or the British merchants. It never was.It’s a utilitarian street that provided services for the working classes and those passing through.

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You pass the Hong Kong Bar, which served the sailors before they quit coming, before the fire that ruined the memories. The backpacker bars nearby do more business now. They have reggae names and posters of Bob Marley and Che. The backpackers don’t have sea stories to tell and share. They tell stories of where they are going, not where they have been. They huddle together, their smart phones and computers dimly lighting their tired faces. The light makes them look thinner and paler than they are. The bars sell expensive beer, a cruel trick of a government that charges high taxes on the one thing that might make the heat tolerable.

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You’re appetite returns with the cooler air. You start to look for something to eat as you make your way down the last block of Chulia before you get to the junction of Penang Road. You pass the hookers hiding in the shadows and the used bookstores selling last year’s bestsellers. Travel agencies selling cheap tickets for onward travel to places you haven’t even heard of before. You haven’t eaten since the heat started and that was just the toast and jelly (with free coffee!) at the hostel earlier in the day.

You reach the Penang Road junction. It’s where the tourists from the cruise ships and the Eastern and Oriental turn around. The road is lit differently on the other side, the hotels taller and newer. Tall enough to steal the breeze from Chinatown where it is most needed. You see the Line Clear sign. It’s a restaurant in an alley open since the 1930’s, making one product. When you do it right, you don’t need two. NasiKandar, basically a dish of rice covered with a mixture of curries and your choice of meat spread on top. It’s been open 24 hours a day, every day in the same alley. It’s raw and gritty. The pace increases when you enter. Everybody eats here. People in suits and people with no shoes.Celebrities that everyone knows and people who don’t want their name known. The famous get their picture on the wall, everyone else gets good food.

4

 

They ask you if you want it spicy. You say yes. You know the spice makes you to feel cooler. After the curries go on the rice they put the magical ingredients over that. You want that. Get the chicken from the pot, it’s been cooking for a while and the flavor has soaked in just right. The lights are glaring near the counter; it’s where you want to sit. Watching the experts order, a little more of this, none of that, each plate different than the last. Infinite combinations possible.Watch the hands that dish the food rapidly and with the confidence of having done it thousands of times. The chop of the knife making the meat into perfect bite size pieces. It’s magic and they do the same trick over and over and you don’t get bored of it.

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Leaving towards home, turning right onto Leith towards the Blue Mansion and the Red Garden, you feel cooler, as if hope has returned. Maybe it will be different tomorrow, even though you secretly know every day is the same here on the equator. Only two seasons, hot and really hot. Maybe tomorrow you’ll get rain, maybe not. You have to have hope. This is Penang.

9

 

Maybe, Istanbul

Maybe it will happen when you are standing on the Galata Bridge. The bridge crosses the Golden Horn from Karakoy to Eminonu where the Ottoman Sultans ruled for more than 500 years. The bridge will be busy, as always. Throngs of pedestrians mingle with fisherman and vendors for space on the wide sidewalks. Boat traffic of every size and variety vies for the narrow space below as they have since time was recorded. Occasionally a fisherman will have luck and pull a sardine sized fish from the gray waters below. Vendors sell steamed mussels and small bait fish to all who pass.

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Hagia Sofia

 

 

Rising up from the bridge on either side, the hills climb sharply from the water. At the base of the hill on the “old” side of town several gaudily decorated and heavily rocking boats are loosely tied to the pier. They sell fried fish sandwiches, probably mackerel, to crowds of devoted fans. The cooks work at unbelievable speed to turn out the sandwiches for the never ending line of hungry patrons. Cement stairs serve as benches to enjoy the simple and simply delicious snack. At the base of the “new” side of town, a busy fish market sells the latest catch to the bargaining masses gathered to find the best choices. Vendors constantly sprinkle sea water on the shiny silver fish to keep them fresh and delicious. The famous Istanbul cats wander everywhere looking for sneakily gained snacks.

It is best to be here when the sunset call to prayer begins. Like a massive, medieval battle of the bands, the call beckons the faithful from amplified speakers on every mosque in the area. The sound is exotic, chaotic, alluring and even a little frightening as it echoes for several minutes off the hills and through the narrow streets of the area. For the perfect end to the show, the sky glows a burning orange behind the giant Suleymaniye Mosque atop the tallest hill to the west as the sun retires after another glorious day.

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Golden Horn

 

Maybe it will happen to you when you are in the Egyptian (Spice) Market not far from the New Mosque. If it is a Saturday, the crowd will reach a critical mass where movement is barely possible. The excited voices of the crowd mix with the shopkeeper’s calls to enter their shops and sample all that they have on offer. Taste, Smell and Sight are all pleased here. Towers of colorful spices of every variety, piled high to perfect peaks are beautifully displayed. Every color of the rainbow from blue to purple and yellow to bright red are all here. A feast for the nose as much as the eyes, the aromas are as various as the colors. Magical blends, pre-mixed for the visitor make easy work of creating delicious treats at home.

Teas of every variety are the specialty of another shop. Black, White, Green, Herbal, Hibiscus, Rose, Mint, Ginger and Chamomile are only a sampling. Exotic blends with names drawn from the faraway places of your travel imagination. Teas to help you stay awake, sleep better and live longer are all advertised under the glaring lights.

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Istiklal Avenue Tram

 

As you slowly make your way, stay within the vendors reach. They will provide samples of delicious treats as you go. They pass trays of dried fruit, exotic nuts and all sorts of honey covered goodness. The best of all are the many varieties of everyone’s favorite, Turkish Delight. This legendary sweet made from a gel of sugar and starch is flavored with everything from rosewater to lemon or orange. Filled with dates, pistachios or hazelnuts and sprinkled with powdery sugar they make a delicious treat to remember your visit to this exotic wonderland.

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New Mosque

 

Maybe it will happen as you walk down famous Istiklal Avenue. High atop a hill in the Beyoglu area of the city, Istaklal is a people watchers paradise. Three million people walk this mile long pedestrian avenue from Taksim Square to the Funicular near Galata Tower every day. They pass boutiques, art galleries, cafes, bookstores, patisseries and restaurants, all housed in gorgeous multi-storied buildings from the late 19th and early 20th century. When Istanbul is called the Paris of the East, this is the boulevard they are speaking of. Roasted chestnut carts are positioned well and a restored historic tram rings its bell to warn walkers of its proximity as it makes its way through the middle of the crowd. Guitar, horn, violin and even bagpipe players entertain along the way. Musicians dressed as Native Americans, a gypsy woman selling an armful of roses and even a man walking a group of geese are included in the group.

The side streets nearby can offer quiet respite if needed. Lined with seafood restaurants, galleries, Turkish baths called hamams or simple tea shops where you could even partake in smoking a nargile or Turkish water pipe. The smell of apple scented smoke is prevalent in the early evenings as students from nearby schools mix with tourists to enjoy a warm drink and a scented smoke. Wonderfully restored hotels offer rooftop terraces where commanding views can be had all the way to the Bosphorus.

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Istanbul Cat

 

Maybe it will happen as you take the ferry from the busy harbor along the Golden Horn. The 20 minute ferry ride across the Bosphorus to Asia costs less than 1 dollar and provides unparalleled views of this massive city of 14 million.

Passing the Topkapi Palace where Ottoman Sultans kept court at the tip of the peninsula, it becomes clear why this city was the perfect spot to center an empire. Istanbul rises on seven hills above the Golden Horn, a narrow body of water that provides a natural harbor and perfect protection from invaders on three sides. Istanbul straddles both sides the Bosphorus Strait which provides the only path between the Black Sea and the Sea of Marmara (and the Mediterranean Sea beyond). Controlling Istanbul meant controlling the riches of trade between Eastern and Western civilizations. Roman, Latin, Byzantine, Ottoman and finally Turkish rulers have held this as the center of power for their empires for more than 2500 years. The capital has moved on to Ankara, but the spiritual and financial heart of Turkey still resides here.

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Mosque

 

Children laughingly feed seabirds that fly along with the ferry as it crosses calm seas on the short journey. While most use the ferries as transportation to their homes in distant parts of the city, it seems that many are, just like us, enjoying a sunny afternoon on the water in mid-December. The return trip provides stunning views of another beautiful sunset and opportunity to view the city as the lights turn on like millions of stars on a crystal night.

It happened to us as we entered a seemingly ancient ruin of an old building called Buyuk Valide Han (Great Mother Inn) not far from the Grand Bazaar. We passed through the cavernous arched doorway hidden by a green tinged ancient metal door. The doorway led to an inner courtyard filled with tiny shops not meant for the tourist trade. An ancient stairway, its steps well worn by millions of users over hundreds of years, drew us to a dimly lit second floor where dark and dusty stone passageways lead to tiny shops where craftsmen labored over open fires creating glass and metal creations of great beauty. It was as if we had entered a time hundreds of years before present day.

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Blue Mosque

 

A grizzled old man stood in the shadows of a corner. He showed us an ancient set of rusted keys and conveyed that he wanted to show us something. His smile and excitement were contagious enough that we followed him to a tiny, nearly hidden door nearby. He unlocked and opened the door and motioned for us to enter.

We climbed the twisting stairs that had no rails and were curved from centuries of wear. We nervously moved toward the light coming from above, reassured only by the sounds of faint laughter drifting from somewhere near, and finally arrived on the roof of the ancient building. As we passed on to the roof the most glorious view imaginable awaited us. The entire city seemed laid out below. The Golden Horn, Galata Bridge and Tower, Bosphorus and multiple immense mosques with towering minarets seemed to fill the horizon. Well-dressed teenagers who knew of this enchanted place were busy taking “selfies” with the incredible backdrop behind them. A couple of backpackers arrived soon. We spent nearly an hour enjoying this spectacle as the clouds seemed to magically part and what had been an overcast day became sunny with just the perfect white clouds to provide contrast. We had found our corner of Istanbul.

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Ortakoy Mosque

 

Istanbul is often described with the clichéd phrase, “City where East meets West”, but it is much more. It is a city where opposites not only attract, but also collide to create a truly special and unique destination that everyone should see. Young meets old, modern meets ancient, quiet meets boisterous, intellectual meets physical and artistic meets practical. It is a city filled with friendly people who have hosted visitors for centuries. Maybe you will find what you are looking for in one of the places that we have seen or maybe you will find your own special place in another corner of this fascinating city. Istanbul is now and always has been a place of discoveries and adventures and it won’t disappoint if, maybe, you decide to visit this incredible destination.

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Istanbul

Stranded on an Undeserted Island

What is it that inspires us to travel? What motivates us to leave our comfortably routine workaday life, cast off the lines and sail toward some unknown horizon? What far-off call beckons so loudly that we can’t quiet it without further investigating its source? How bright does the sunset at the end of the distant road or just over the farthest mountain have to be before we drive towards it in an attempt to make it last just a moment longer?

Perhaps we derive inspiration from colorful words arranged on a page in such a way that our wanderlust is aroused. We simply can’t live without seeing if the vision our mind created matches the scene the author describes. Perhaps the smell or taste of some exotic food carefully prepared in an ancient way by a well-practiced chef inspires us to follow our hunger toward the simmering pot of goodness that waits to be sampled in a faraway kitchen. Perhaps we harbor a secret doubt that the combination of colors captured in a photograph of a rainbow filled sky could actually exist in a distant land just beyond our own?

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Procida, Italy

 

How intense does our minds creation need to be before we decide to find out if there could be a reality that lives up to our imagination? How vivid do the colors, smells and sounds in our head need to be for us to cast care to the wind and follow that vision, no matter how long it may take to find? What do we need to visualize before we are motivated enough to deviate from our normal path?

What did we imagine?

Did we imagine crowded ferries quickly loading and unloading impatient passengers at busy terminals? Ferries that ride on choppy, aqua water destined for tiny islands with famous names. Islands that appear on horizons as small dots under large, darkening clouds. Larger ferries for cars and fare conscious passengers. Fast moving hydrofoils that carry tourists and those who think time is money. A group of skyscraper teenage models drink espresso and pick at pastries at a large table. Anxious photographers hover nearby, obviously having noticed the clouds that threaten their productivity and pocketbooks. A burning smell of your carelessly prepared panini drifts from the toaster as the indifferent young cook pays more attention to the models than your first food of the day.

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Santa Margherita Church

 

Did we imagine being greeted on arrival by a blinding rainstorm so strong that it didn’t seem possible that amount of water could be held in a cloud? Water that seemed to come from every direction, including up. Wind howled hard through nearby sailboat masts creating a dreadful moaning sound that seemed frighteningly human. A race with heavy bags to a nearby fisherman bar filled with a rough cast of characters straight from a Hollywood movie. Enjoying a well-earned beer from the self- serve cooler next to the bar. Listening to the sailors tell stories you knew were bawdy even though you couldn’t understand even one word.

Did we imagine cobbled roads that wind through peeling stucco buildings designed centuries before there were thoughts of modern transportation? Roads designed to carry wares between the two main marinas of the island. Tiny streets filled with pedestrians, scooters and cars competing for space at speeds that don’t feel comfortable to newcomers. The cars with side mirrors turned back or broken off entirely, surely from earlier battles with the well scuffed walls. The sides of the cars show scratches of many colors, no doubt matching a scratch on another car, somewhere else on the island. Feeling like you should be wearing white clothes and red bandanas in Pamplona as you hurry from tiny doorway to doorway to avoid the honking metal bulls. Your fear turns to embarrassment as you hurry past two young mothers with carriages casually having a conversation knowing that the cars have just enough room to pass.

4
Marina Corricella

 

Did we imagine views of secret courtyards behind ornate wrought iron gates with designs of centuries past? Grassy yards behind 10 foot walls that surely keep the road noise at bay. Untended grape vines beneath waxy green trees with lemons so large they could be grapefruit. The fruit has wrinkled skin, thick pith and a sweet taste that is rightfully famous. Developed to keep the islands sailors healthy on long sea journeys of the past. A delicious lemon salad is served in most restaurants and homemade limoncello is popular at any local gathering.

Did we imagine living in a house on the highest point of the island? A terrace that sits above every other building on the island and provides 360 degree views of the entire 4 square kilometers of volcanic land below. Taking in distant views of Pompeii, Sorrento, Capri and Vesuvius as your laundry dries in the warm breeze of a late October afternoon. A nearby church that was founded 1000 years ago by monks and now has beautiful bells that sound perfectly throughout the day. A house that sits inside the oldest settlement on the island, surrounded by ancient walls. Walls built first to protect the religious and the wealthy from far away intruders. Later the walls held prisoners in the classic punishment of seeing all the lights of civilization from behind the bars of your drafty island cell.

Did we imagine strolling along the marina amongst the tiny houses built in a way that no mad architect could ever have imagined? Houses with such a vast pastel palette they appear to rise from the sea like scoops of fruit flavored summer gelato piled one on top of another. Ancient fisherman mending nets in the afternoon sun. A man, perhaps channeling his own Pablo Neruda, writing in a journal while sitting in the dockside inn made famous in the movie “Il Postino”. Stairways climb steeply from the harbor to the church above. Stairs so steep that they take your breath in equal parts from exertion and from witnessing the beauty of the view they provide over the tranquil harbor.

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Terra Murata

 

Did we imagine the everyday sunsets and sunrises so intense that it sometimes appeared the sky was on fire? Viewed from the lookout high above Marina Corricella or from the belvedere in Terra Murata the brightly colored clouds made each morning and evening something to look forward to.

Did we imagine the spine jolting bus ride through the narrow streets and up the imposing hill to our walled mountaintop villa? Cursing the rattling and bouncing ride we memorized each bump along the way. Climbing the steep hill to our house twice daily while the bus was being repaired for several days, making trips to the market into grueling, lung busting marches. Being ever thankful and promising never to criticize the bus again as it carried us up the hill after its return from repairs.

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La Corricella Sunset

 

It’s difficult to say if our month long journey to our tiny island in a faraway sea lived up to the vision we created in our imagination. This was never going to be the classic trip to the deserted island in an endless sea that many dream of. Far from that, it was a month spent in a place far from tourism. We lived as locals on a tiny island in the middle of an ancient land far away from our own home. While not everything we imagined, it will still be remembered as more than we should have hoped for.