Sunday, June 19, 2016

Amalfi Part 1 - Sorrento and Capri

In order to try to get back on a somewhat regular habit of posting to the blog, I am going to break up our latest trip into pieces (we took well over a thousand and a half pictures) and also go with a simpler formatting.  Hopefully thus reducing the boring bits (fiddling with picture positioning) while still letting me do the fun part (bore people with stories about my vacation photos.)

After months and months of being back in the US, we finally made our triumphant return last month.  We had been discussing a trip to Amalfi (just South of Naples, on the Mediterranean coast) for years, so it seemed like a good first big trip now that we're back.

And ahh...what a trip!  Getting there was more difficult that we'd become accustomed to (no more 2 hour flights) but we still had a great time.

Our first few nights we spent in Sorrento, the heart of which is situated at the top of cliffs overlooking the sea, with two marinas connected by steep winding roads and staircases.


The main square was busy and bustling most days,though in the evening it's all shut down to motor traffic to better allow for the traditional evening stroll.  Have I mentioned lately how much I love Italy?

Our hotel was unusually close to the main square for us; we usually stay more on the outskirts of the old town.  It was on the smaller side, but ended up being quite nice despite being located over a frozen yogurt shop.

The first marina is basically a second small town situated outside of the city walls.  The focus here is has historically been fishing, and that's carried through to today.  (Sorry for the glare here, this trip has convinced me that I need some form of UV filter for the camera if we are going to visit sunny places.)

These days Marina Grande still has a neighborhood feel, with its own personality and vibe.  It was a bit more rustic overall, which tends to appeal to our sensibilities.  We had amazing seafood at one of the restaurants lining this stretch, and found ourselves drawn down here on many of our strolls.

The second marina is the "small marina", which despite the name always seemed the larger of the two.  The bulk of the waterfront is taken up by 'beach clubs' that are built on piers stretching out into the water, most of which are covered in brightly colored huts.

While it was warm or hot the entire time we were there, we are not really folks to spend a vacation sun bathing, so we didn't spend any real time at these.

This is also where the passenger boats depart from, and where we took a boat to Capri.

Capri itself is a very small island off the coast with just two cities (and a bunch of houses we could never afford.)  The port was bustling and confusing, though we did eventually find our way from our big boat to a small boat to take us to one of the island's chief attractions, The Blue Grotto.

Just getting to (and into) the grotto is an adventure in itself.  From our large boat from Sorrento, we got into one that could hold a dozen passengers and made our way to the entrance.  There we parked in a mass of boats ranging from huge yachts to tiny row boats.

Turns out, the tiny row boats were everyone's destination.  The entrance to the grotto (a sea cave) is a tiny hole in the cliff wall only accessible when the waves ebb out.  Not the tide, the waves.  The boat rowers have all their passengers lie down, then time their dash into the cave such that it happens during a trough and yank the whole shebang in using the chain on the side.

Inside, the cave is pitch black at first.  Once your eyes adjust, however, you find that the sun slanting in through the entrance reflects off the limestone floor, illuminating the entire thing in a ghostly blue glow.  This picture hints at how amazing it was, but it really does need to be experienced.  I had been a bit wary of it as a pure tourist trap, but man is there a good reason that it's the main attraction on the island.  Just stunning.

From there we headed to the second town on the island, Anacapri.

Another big attraction on the island is taking a chair lift up to the highest point for scenic views.  Mary did not look quite as relaxed as the lady in the painted tile mural, but as a lover of heights I thoroughly enjoyed the ride.

Going up lends not only a great view of both towns on the island (Capri and Anacapri), but also of the terraces that have been cut into the hill to allow for the planting of crops and gardens.

The top of the mountain indeed did not disappoint.  Here is a view over the bulk of the island.  The buildings down below us are from the city of Capri, and the land off the point of the island is the mainland of Italy.

Back down in Anacapri, we grabbed lunch (two caprese sandwiches, which are named after Capri itself) and then headed to a villa which is open to the public.  I want a villa!  I'd even open it to the public when I am at one of my other villas.  Alas, for now I shall gawk at this one.

The interior of the house was actually fairly modest, because most of the living was done in open galleries, courtyards, and gardens.  These outdoor spaces were amazing -- ornately decorated and immaculately kept.  They really gave a sense of the glamour of pre-war time in Europe (if you had the money and power to be a part of it.)

A ton of the pictures we took are views down over something lovely (often taken from somewhere lovely.)  Here is a view of Capri and the port taken from a scenic outlook at the villa.

Our boat back to Sorrento departed from the marina pictured.

The final sight on Capri was a church whose entire floor is covered in a painted tile mural depicting the expulsion of Adam and Eve from the garden of Eden.  This painted tile is actually Spanish in origin, but based on what we've seen is common around the Mediterranean.  It's certainly a bit more busy than I'd like in my bathroom, but it's quite stunning to see it in this setting.

I encourage all readers to click on the image and get a load of the sheer approximate-ness of the elephant, which was clearly painted from a description in a book.  It really is a sight.

Up next:  Onward to Amalfi.

Sunday, January 11, 2015

Chicken Souk for the Soul

London is not a great place to spend Christmas if you have no family in the area. The city shuts down in a way that is hard to comprehend. All shops close. All movie theaters close. No trains run. No buses run. Going out on the street is downright eerie.

When we decided not to go to America for Christmas this year for logistical reasons, the next immediate question was "If not America, then where?" We applied a system that a cow orker of Mary's uses (visit Muslim countries during Christian holidays) and came up with Marrakesh.

When the French colonized the city, they actually made a conscious decision to leave the old town alone and to build outside its walls; because of this, it's divided into an old town (Medina) and new town. We spent almost all of our time in the Medina.

Our hotel was towards the northernmost part of the Medina, with the main square Jemaa el Fna about two-thirds of the way south in the Medina. Between us lay the souks.

This scene is from a square almost at the southern tip of the Medina, and gives a sense of the very slightly organized chaos that was traffic. Streets were a mix of pedestrians, mopeds, men and donkeys pushing and pulling carts, and -- where allowed -- cars and horse-drawn carriages.

Our hotel, thankfully, was a respite from the anarchy.

We stayed in a Riad, which is basically a bed and breakfast in a converted townhouse. Traditional homes in Marrakesh (and I believe all of Morocco) are built with a series of rooms all opening on to an open-air central courtyard. Traditionally the courtyard and some of the rooms off it would serve as the living/family/dining room.

Our Riad had three guest rooms, though each was large enough to accommodate a family of four (and the other two were doing so.) We had breakfast in the courtyard every day and had dinner there once as well. At night it dipped down into the 50s, so they had a few heat lamps to make things more cozy.

Because all Riads had been family homes, they tend to be down tiny winding alleys. This was true of ours as well, and I will admit that when we first arrived form the airport it was a bit disconcerting. Our cab stopped randomly on the street, at a point at which cars can not progress past. We were met by someone else, who lead us down ever narrowing and darkening alleys, at one point picking up a random group we passed who were lost and looking for a specific address.

Thankfully, the place itself was lovely and the path to it not hard to follow once you had done it a time or two.

Between the Riad and the main square stretched the souks. These are market stalls selling pretty much everything you can imagine. Many of them are aimed at the tourists, but we also saw some for general sundries and a whole section for selling live poultry. They are somewhat organized by what they sell, and we knew we were getting close to home when we started passing by the butchers.

There is a huge culture of haggling in Morocco, and walking through the souks could feel like reading through your spam folder: Everyone is trying his best to grab your attention and get you to buy their thing, and they are not always 100% honest about it. Early on we got a bit lost due to following some dubious directions, but once we knew our way and happily ignored the calls of "wrong way! wrong way! big square this way." we had very few issues.

In the end we skipped the hassle of haggling and bought our souvenirs in one of the state-run fixed-price shops. Between being amateurs at haggling and not knowing Arabic or French, we just didn't want to deal with the hassle. Based on what we read about the mark up at the state-run stores, we probably ended up paying less than if we had tried haggling anyway.

The main square in the Medina is Jamaa el Fna. This panarama was taken in the morning when things are pretty quiet, but the square does ramp up through the day and there is always something going on.

It's probably the largest plaza that we've seen in our travels, sprawling over several normal-sized city blocks. It's surrounded by cafes and hotels and covered in various stands and hucksters. There is a group of orange juice carts that we never saw closed, and in the evening vendors wheel in food carts that set up tents and seating ares to serve food until late at night.

As the afternoon wears into evening, the square starts filling up. People pack the benches of the food stands. The snake charmers clear out and storytellers and singers take their places. Everywhere is a spectacle of some form. It's a pretty amazing experience to walk through the crowds of people, checking out what each clump is watching or listening to and taking in the madness yourself.

We had dinner in the Jamaa el Fna twice, and both times the food was simple but very good. We got skewers of grilled meat along with the ubiquitous local flatbread and various salads of fresh and grilled vegetables. We also hit a pastry cart for a mix of cookies for dessert and found a few delightful honey-based ones that I want to track down online.

In the background, you can see the minaret of...

...the Koutoubia Mosque. Traditionally these mosque towers were used to call the faithful to prayer throughout the day. The Muezzin now use loudspeakers to avoid the climb, but thankfully the towers remain.

This tower is actually the twin of the one we climbed in Seville, though because Mosques are only open to Muslims we were not able to climb it to get shots from above. It's quite odd for me to not sort through dozens of skyline shots looking for the perfect one, but alas.

Each neighborhood in town has its own mosque, and hearing the calls to prayer coming from across the city is quite beautiful. I find the call quite mournful, and to hear it rising and falling from the various mosques, slightly out of sync, made it sound like sad songbirds calling to each other and responding. Beautiful and haunting.

While we could not enter the mosques, we could enter the Ben Youssef Madrasa. This was a site where students would come to study the Koran, and it remains open today as a historical site.

The student's rooms are quite dark and plain, but the central courtyard and prayer hall are elaborately carved, tiled, and plastered. This type of over the top geometry is central to Islamic art, and I love it. Despite visiting many sites decorated in this style, it just never gets old to me. The patterns are intricate and interesting on their own, and mesmerizing when taken in en masse like this.

Every time we visit a site with any Islamic or Moorish art, my doodles get much more interesting.

Lest all this majesty seem too permanent, we visited El Badi Palace. This was a huge palace built by rulers in 16th century which is now home to many feral cats and storks. About a hundred years after its completion, a new ruling family came in and stripped it of all its finery to create another palace elsewhere.

The giant shell still stands, and while the decorative tile and carvings are long gone, the sheer scale of the thing is amazing. To me it was reminiscent of some of the castles we had seen in Scotland, which were tiny cities unto themselves.

Back in the world of elaborate carving and tilework, we visited the Museum of Marrakesh.

This museum focuses on the arts and crafts of Morocco, and describes the regional differences in those crafts. In French. Even without knowing the language though, we could appreciate this former palace for its aesthetic beauty. Also, it was a great chance to make Mary roll her eyes at me taking a panarama,

While it's on the edge of the Sahara desert, Marrakesh itself is an oasis. Literally! It's built atop natural springs which feed not only its water supply, but also its many gardens.

Even in December, we found things in full leaf and in many cases covered in fruit or flowers. We visited a few of the gardens, and they are quite ordered and calm. This shot is from the "Cyber Park", which was originally built in the 18th century. Recently, the local telecom company installed wireless in the entire area, making it very popular with youths. Despite the kiosks for web browsing, it was still a lovely and lush getaway from all the hubbub.

We also strolled the lanes of the gardens behind the Koutoubia mosque and even peeked into some around the royal palace where the current king lives. All were lovely.

Overall, we had a fantastic trip.

The food was great, the people were lovely (if a bit pushy on the selling), and the sights amazing.

As expected, it was by far the most foreign feeling place that we've visited. Whether getting passed by a donkey cart, walking down a street with shop fronts full of men working leather into goods, or looking at the outside of a building and realizing that it used to be the inside of a building (a surprisingly common sight) we were constantly surprised and taken out of our element.

It's probably not a good destination less experienced travelers, but man did we have a blast.

Thursday, January 1, 2015

Marketing Christmas

Germany takes Christmas seriously; Towns not only have multiple Christmas trees, but also have multiple Christmas markets. We wanted to experience this particular holiday madness, so we headed to Cologne for a long weekend.

As we've noticed in previous visits to Germany, there is a wide mix of new and old due to bombing during World War Two. Most of Cologne is more modern architecture like the museum in the foreground of this shot, with a few older buildings (like the Cathedral) sprinkled in.

While we do like the cutesy older parts of town, I also quite like the blending of newer, older, and newer-but-made-to-look-older that we encountered.

We climbed the Cathedral tower (as we do) and had a great view down over the modern city.

We also got an areal view of this market, which snuggles up next to the Cathedral and is one of the larger ones in town. From above it appears to have a semblance of order, but when you're in it it's a total maze.

And here is that market at night. The tree is giant and has a wide skirt of lights that is lit at night and covers the center of the market. It's a bit hard to make out the crowd in this picture, but it's jam-packed with people.

The sun sets pretty early in the winter so by 5:00 pm it was feeling quite late. That didn't stop huge crowds from showing up for hot spiced wine and fried foods.

Other than breakfast, all of our meals came from food stands in the markets, and it was fantastic.

The next major market was in the old town. It stretched along the length of this part of the city and was a block wide and a dozen blocks long.

The markets are full of stalls that sell various Christmas and non-Christmas related trinkets. We picked up a bunch of ornaments and small decorations, and had a nice time of it.

Each market also had a nativity scene, which we naturally were comparing and contrasting. The old city market had our favorite: The entire scene carved out of logs and tree trunks.

The old city market also had a gnome theme going. These fellas showed up on signs for booths, signs pointing to areas with specific types of vendors, even signs pointing to the toilets. It turned into a bit of a Where's Waldo thing, trying to spy all the ways the little fellas were used.

The third large market we went to was the angel market.

It had a starry night theme, and they strung the trees with star-shaped lanterns. The decorations were pretty cool, and hanging out there in the evening and night was neat.

This picture gives a sense of the crowds that we encountered. It was high season for the markets, so things were packed well into the night. Thankfully earlier in the day things were a bit quieter so we were not constantly assaulted.

We didn't just wander the markets on the trip, we also visited a few museums.

Mary indulged me and we paid a visit to the modern art museum. They were having a display on pop art, which included these boxes on the wall.

Mary and I got into quite the discussion about whether this qualifies as art at all, which to me is a marker of art. Mary remains unconvinced.

Regardless of the art-i-ness of the boxes, we both quite enjoyed the museum.

Overall we had a great time in Cologne and enjoyed both the markets and city. We will definitely do another market trip next year around the same time, though we may branch out on the town. We hear Nurnberg is nice...

Monday, December 15, 2014

Irish Springs (Come From Irish Rain)

Ireland! It's a quarter of my heritage and half of Mary's, but we've made it almost two years in without a visit. The time had come to change that.

Considering that it was Ireland in November, we had pretty decent weather. Mornings were consistently rainy, but the evenings cleared up and even brought some sunshine.

Since we had geared for it, the rain wasn't much of a challenge and we still had a fun and full journey. It did impact picture quality a bit, as grey-sky shots tend to come off a bit dour. It allowed me to get all artsy-fartsy with things reflected in puddles though, so at least we have that.

While we were based in Dublin, we spent most of our time elsewhere. The first day was all about Kilkenny.

Kilkenny is known for their castle and their beer brewery, both of which we visited.

As with most castles, theirs started small several hundreds of years ago and then grew and changed over time. Some rooms were done up with replicas of Victorian furnishings, which was roughly the last time it was occupied. Unlike many castles, this one is owned by the town thanks to the former owners recognizing that they could not afford to restore it and selling it for fifty pounds.

In the castle we got to see the second-longest room in Ireland, which was fun for us since we love qualified extremes.

The brewery tour ended up being a bit cheesy and touristy, with Disney-style animatronics and videos. We had hoped this would be a bit more process-focused like the scotch tour we did in Scotland, but twas not to be. If you ignored the cheesey bits there was some neat history though, so we did manage to have a good time. Good beer, too.

Our second day was spent in Howth. This is a small town on a peninsula sticking into the Irish Sea North of Dublin. And when I say small, I mean it had roughly two streets, stretched along the coast by the busy harbor.

For tourists there are two sites: The rocky coastal hiking path and the radio museum.

The museum was supposed to be closed due to it being off-season, so we headed for the trail. The coast here is very rocky and blustery, and it was amazingly beautiful. Probably a quarter of the photos we took were from the few hours we were on this walk, because it was just so striking. The rocky coasts, views back of the tiny town, and crashing surf on rocks really spoke to us.

Back in town, we made a glorious discovery. It was Science Week in Ireland! This meant that not only was the Radio Museum open, but the admission charge was waived. This is the kind of tiny, hyper-focused museum that Mary and I love (see also: Pencil Museum, Canal Museum, the Postcard Museum Betrayal.)

The museum is located in an old tower on a cliff above the town, which was built to fend off a Napoleanic invasion that never came. It consists of two rooms stacked floor to ceiling with radios of every shape and form. We saw some built into small picture frames to hide from occupying armies, elaborate fancy ones, and plain-old work-a-day models from basically the entire history of the device.

It was exactly what we wanted from this kind of museum, and we were so very lucky to have had it open.

On the final day, we spent some time in Dublin proper. We visited the museum of archeology, the highlight of which was of course the bog mummies. We've both heard of and been fascinated by these, so to see them in person (they had four on display) was pretty amazing. What gets preserved (hair, leather) is astounding. Very neat.

The other main site we visited in Dublin was Trinity College. Shown here is The Long Room, which is the first-longest room in Ireland. It's the library, but the real highlight was the display on The Book of Kells.

The Book of Kells is an illustrated manuscript from around 800 AD. That's a long time ago. The book is at the end of a very well laid-out exhibit, which really goes into detail on how the book was made as well as the significance of its iconography. It was a fantastic visit, and I strongly urge anyone in town to check it out. Sadly, no photos are allowed.
Overall, we had a great time on the trip. The sites were cool, the scenery amazing, and the food well above what we expected. Toss on those wellies and mackintosh, bust our your brolly, and head to Ireland!

Sunday, November 23, 2014

Czeching Into the Xander Zone

After many travels around Europe, we finally pulled the trigger on Prague. We've been wanting to visit this historic city, as everyone we know who has been there has loved it. Turns out we love it too. We even ended up with mostly great weather, despite traveling a bit past the shoulder season.

Prague is the rare city in Europe that was not heavily damaged during World War II. Because all of its industry was well outside of town, very little bombing happened near the city center.

Even the Jewish quarter with its ancient cemetery remained, though for a chilling reason -- Hitler planned to use them for his Museum to the Extinct Jewish People. Because of this, he kept not only the structures intact but also the the artifacts within them.

The cemetery is a maze of tumbledown headstones packed in tighter than seems possible. It's quite the sight to see, though the flood of tourists can lesson the impact a bit (says a tourist.)

We toured a few memorial sites in the Jewish distrct, as well as this building near the cemetery which documents Jewish burial rites.

It was informative to see a Jewish Quarter so intact, even if the history of why it's that way is dark.

Turning to brighter things, this is the astronomical clock on the old town hall. After reading the instructions in our guidebook on how to read it, I can honestly say I still have no idea what it says. There are dials for date and season, for the sunrise and set, for the time in multiple formats, and even to tell you who the saint of the day is. Convenient! Now if only I could read it.

Every hour, the bells chime and a series of apostles parades by two open windows.

And here they are! We toured the city hall and climbed the tower, so we actually got the see the hour chime from inside. Mary was dismayed to discover that the apostles had no legs (only the torsos are visible to the viewers below) but I found it rather delightful.

From the tower you could really get a sense of how attractive the old city is. The buildings are a mix of gothic, baroque, and art neuveau.

It's quite a pleasure to just walk the streets, since you are almost guaranteed to come across elaborately decorated facades, often in bright contrasting colors.

Meanwhile, beneath the city...old Roman roads! In ancient times, the city was prone to frequent flooding from the river that runs through it. To solve this, they raised the entire town, burying the much older Roman city below thirty feet of earth.

Many of the buildings in the oldest part of town were built atop the old ones and still use the old houses as cellars. In some cases even sections of the old Roman road were covered and kept as well. Neat!

Another major site in town is the Charles Bridge. This (now) pedestrian crossing serves as one of the busiest public squares in town, with tourists and craftspeople selling their wares jammed together.

The bridge connects the town with the castle, and serves as a lovely vantage point at all hours of the day.

It also served as the setting for the finale of the landmark of cinema Triple X, which I noticed without prompting from any guidebooks. I resisted the urge to photoshop in a solar-powered submarine, though we did have to watch it when we got home. Brilliant as always.

Rather than being one building, the castle is actually a complex of them perched on a hill across the river from town. This includes government buildings in old palaces, several beautiful churches, and striking views of the old town.

It's a bit of a hike up to it, but well worth it.

While much of the joy of Prague is from simply wandering its streets, we did see some sites as well. One interesting one was the Museum of Communism.

Here they tracked the rise of communism, daily life during it's reign, and it's eventual fall. The Czech Republic (then Czechoslovakia) was under communist rule from the end of World War II until the late 80s and from the interesting and well laid out displays, it didn't seem like much fun.

Visiting the museum made me realize how little I really know about the history of communism and socialism in Europe.

Another site was the Mucha Museum, and this window in the main cathedral by Mucha. He was a Bohemian-born artist who championed the Art Neuveau movement and mostly worked on large posters.

We recognized his posters from various other places, but seeing his work presented and interpreted in the museum was very cool. It was also awesome to see many of his stylistic touches (spirals, framing of figures, striking color and line work) on display in the stained glass format.

Overall Prague was a great city, and a great trip.

It was such a joy to walk and wander, and the city felt vibrant and alive, even late at nights after dinner. It may have taken us a while to get there, but it won't take as long to get back for another visit.