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.

Sunday, October 26, 2014

Hunting the Duck Ness Monster

Though Mary and I visited Scotland last year with my parents, we spent that entire visit in Edinborough. When my brother and his wife suggested a driving trip that took us through some more outlying and rural areas, we were in.

The agenda was aggressive, the car was manual, and the devolution vote was on our last day there; what could go wrong? It turns out, very little would.

We took the train up to Edinburgh late in the afternoon and spent the night there. The first stop the following day was Stirling to see their castle.

The castle was interesting, with sections built over different times having very different feelings, though much of what we saw were reproductions.

One thing that we saw the originals of was a series of bass relief carvings that were used to line the ceiling of the palace. They are now on display in a gallery, with replicas like these up on on the ceiling. These heads had been carved in the 16th century, and it's uncommon for us to see wooden relics from so long ago in such good shape.

After Stirling we continued on North and West, pushing into an area of rather great natural beauty. This picture is of Loch Lomand, one of a chain of lakes stretching across the country. This area reminded us quite a bit of our trip to the Lake District, though it was even less developed.

Mary and I were not aware of it, but apparently the "You take the high road, I'll take the low road" song is about (and named after) Loch Lomond. It seems that everyone but us knew this, which caused "You know, like in the song" to become a running joke between us.

Sprinkled throughout the mid- and high-lands are a large number and variety of castles, both ruined and intact. For some reason, it was the ruined ones that really captivated us.

This one was barely signed, and only reachable by a half-mile hiking track. Sometimes, the loch (which surrounds the small peninsula it's on) floods the area, and this path becomes a causeway through it.

The castle itself was mostly done-in by time, though a rather significant lightning storm was blamed as the final straw in its decline. You can't see them in this photo, but there was a flock of sheep grazing in the grass by the castle, which just lent it an amazingly gothic and romantic feeling.

After spending the night at an inn close to not much, we pressed on into Oban. This is a coastal town with a rare in-town scotch distillery. Mary and I were keen to go on a distillery tour while on the trip, and this was our chance.

The tour was fun and informative, and involve several quite tasty samples. Also tasty were the seafood lunches we ate on this pier, procured from a stand that gets its fish fresh from the boats that dock there. Scotland has a lot of seafood thanks to its position in the North Sea and it did not disappoint.

From Oban, we drove North to the highlands through Glencoe pass. This is a stretch of road through a quite breathtaking section of the highlands, surrounded by craggy hills and almost entirely devoid of trees. Here and there streams cut through the rocky ground, and many trails tempted us to go off on an adventure. Sadly, we didn't have enough time to get too far off the main road here, but I could definitely imagine spending a few days just hiking around this area, discovering it's desolate beauty.

We spent that night in the small town of Fort Agustus, which is located where the canal linking two lochs lets out through a series of locks. Loch locks.

What are you seeing here is almost the entirety of the town, but I was quite taken with it. We visited the small canal museum, and in the morning went for a walk in the mist to watch them open the locks for the various boats passing through.

Perhaps the highlight for Mary was that the loch Fort Agustus is on is....

...Loch Ness. Most of this day ended up being spent along the shores of this very long lake, which stayed covered in mist until well after midday.

We had no Nessy sightings, so I had to come up with an artist's rendition using a picture of a duck that we took later in the day.

Further up the coast of Loch Ness lay Urquhart Castle. This was another ruin, though a much more popular one (with a visitor's center!) It covered a rather large plot of land and had very good signage explaining its history and how it grew and changed over time.

Though the picture here is quite dour, the weather improved greatly while we were visiting and we ended up with full sun. With the fog burned off you could appreciate the stunning (and strategic) setting on Loch Ness.

The final city of the visit was Inverness. Inverness is more of a working city and transportation hub than a cultural city, but it does have a fantastic if small pre-historic site: Clava Cairns. This is a small set of 4000 year old stone circles which were used in burial rituals.

Unlike other stone circles we have been to, these ones are actually built-up stone donuts with narrow passageways leading to the center of them.

They were also not swarmed with tourists like some circles (I'm looking at you, Stonehenge) so it was a lot easier to imagine the spiritual draw the sites must have had on the people who used them.

So what about that Devolution vote? All through the trip, we saw the marketing materials for both sides of the argument, often on the same sign posts.

If you were to cast the vote by the number of each side's signs we saw, then it looked like splitting off was in the lead, though in the end the 'no's took it.

Interestingly, beyond the signage and one instance of someone cycling through Inverness shouting "Vote Yes!" we did not see or hear anyone openly discussing the vote. Maybe they didn't want to scare off the tourists.

Ultimately, it was a good trip with no drama.

My brother did a great job with the wrong-side driving, and we were able to apply the hard lessons learned on our driving trip in Italy to help making escaping the larger towns less stressful.

The countryside was lovely, and we saw many great things while still leaving with the desire to return. Really, what else can you ask from a trip?

Saturday, September 13, 2014

Salzburg: Title Redacted At Request of Spouse

We are just about to head out on our next trip, which means it's do-or-die time to write up the last one! Said last trip was to Salzburg, and it was a few weeks ago in late August.

To get there we flew into Munich then took a train over the Austrian border to Salzburg. On the Sunday we were there we then did a day trip to The Eagles Nest, which meant taking a bus back over the border (this time the Southern one) into Germany. The Eurozone meant that we didn't get any extra passport stamps out of it though. Stupid Euro.

Salzburg is located quite near the alps, and is nestled in between a river and a cliff. This gave it a highly defensible position during times that was needed, but also restricted its growth quite noticably. The scenic old center of town is quite compact, and the fortress built on the cliff above looms over it all.

Mozart was born here and, as we found in Vienna, they are much more cultured than I am. While we were there they were showing free operas projected on a large screen in one of the squares and every seat was taken.

The town center itself is very Italianate due to the egos of the rulers. They were important, and wanted to look the part. They brought in craftsmen from Italy to design and build many of the squares and fountains, and it definitely has that feel.

The main center is a series of connected squares with small roads running off higgely piggely. This view is actually of the largest square looking into a second one (the two buildings in the background are pinching the intersection between them.)

When you live next to a giant cliff, sometimes you need to get creative. The stone of the cliff was quarried and used for building materials, but they also would build some things right into it. This is a very old portion of a church (labeled catacombs, but I believe more like a monastic home) which was carved into the face.

In general we have found our trips in Austria to be a bit less church-filled than some of our others in Europe, but we did quite like this one. Graves in the cemetery (see the cluster of markers in the bottom left corner) were all very well kept and elaborately planted with vibrant flowers. The church also has a bakery that's been around for hundreds of years, so how could we not love it?

As per usual when in Europe and near a tall thing, we were compelled to climb it. In this case though, it was the cliff rather than a church tower. The top of the cliff is covered almost entirely by a series of interconnected parks, with some museums and restaurants punctuating them. We had coffee at a very fancy place one afternoon to enjoy the view, then had dinner another night at a much more casual joint where we sat at cliff-side picnic tables and ate weird bread dumplings with delicious meat stews.

The views over the city from up here are just amazing, and I could not get enough of them. I literally took hundreds of photos, most of which I am sparing you.

Back on the ground, we took a strange statue tour of the city.

These two are no doubt from an opera (most of the statues in town seem to be,) but because of the staining from the trees behind they are super creepy. There was a whole series of these statues, and they were amazing in their un-intended spookiness.

Next up for odd statues was the "dwarf garden" at the palace. You might naively think that this would be a garden with smaller varieties of plants on display, but no. This was a garden with life-sized statues of the dozen or so dwarfs that served in the court of the Prince Archbishop.

They are apparently significant because their clothing is known to be incredibly accurate to the period where they were sculpted, but it's a bit hard to get past the grotesquerie of it. This guy had a goiter and is shown throttling a bird of some form, and almost every statue was carved disfigured in some way.

As I mentioned above, Sunday was given over almost entirely to a trip to the Eagles Nest. This is a tea house that one of Hitler's advisors built for him, high above his house in Bavaria.

The trip started with visiting some of the bunkers that the Nazi's used, which were a series of caverns and tunnels spiderwebbed under the entire area. It was interesting to see the scale of them, and to also compare them to the Churchill War Rooms in London. Whereas the ones in London had been preserved with the original furnishings, these had been stripped bare after the war.

Getting from the bunkers to the nest involved a bus ride up a winding, one-lane road that clung to the side of the mountain. I have learned, as husbands must do if they wish to survive, that poking my wife and saying "Wow, look at that drop off!" is not a good thing to do. I found it exhilarating and stunning, but was smart enough to keep that to myself on the drive.

At the peak, you are faced with stunning views of the Alps and some of the towns in the valley floor below them. We had some clouds, but they came and went and really only served to add to the majesty of the place. Despite its dark history, it really is amazingly stunning.

It was also here that I discovered the three things that my wife has in common with Hitler: She is mildly afraid of heights; she is mildly claustrophobic; and she has walked the halls of The Eagles Nest. She is also unwilling to have a blog post titled "Three Things My Wife Has In Common With Hitler", though I'm not sure where Adolf would have fallen on that one.

Back in Sazlburg, we spent some quality time back up on the cliff and in the fotress. It was strategically placed to be very well protected, and is immensely imposing. It also means it can require a lot of cardio to get there.

The museums there were only ok, but the setting and the views were spectacular enough that it could not have mattered less.

Overall it was a great visit to a fairy tale setting with wonderful food, and we loved it.

Sunday, August 3, 2014

Dextrous Dexter's Lake District Adventure

After a bit of a lull in travel thanks to The Incident, we are back in the saddle. We've done one or two country walks outside of London. While they were lovely they didn't quite manage to get a post, but they did inspire a trip to the Lake District in northern England.

For a change, this post has almost no buildings in it and also features pictures of humans. Weird!

This picture pretty much sums up the Lake District, minus the lakes (and sheep.) Large open hilltops with woods at the base, small one-street towns, and green grassy grazing lands. And stone walls.

This particular town is Grassmere, which is known for it's unique style of gingerbread which you can only get there. It is possible that we took the bus an extra thirty minutes just to try it. Worth it.

Hikes in England are not like hikes in America. Almost all of them lead through private farm lands on permissive paths. Usually, these need to cross the boundaries between fields, which means getting through (or more often over) fences. It's common on most of our walks to see stiles, which are a kind of half-ladder, half-stairs contraption.

With so many stone walls I was curious to see how they managed this here. Wall stiles! Notice the sign asking you to keep near the wall: these guys aren't cemented together, so they need all the help physics can give them.

This is pretty much just a stone wall glamour shot for my mother-in-law. Hi Pat! Click on the picture for a larger view!

These walls went pretty much everywhere in the area. No matter how far up a hill or into what felt like unpopulated land you got, you could rely on there being a stone wall to reference. It was both scenic and quite useful.

As expected, the area had a lot of outdoorsy tourists. Unexpectedly, it also had an amazing number of visiting dogs. This one is Dexter, who was very excited to climb the Cat Bells but not as excited to get on the boat that took us there. He ended up getting carried onto (and off) the boat, but had no problems with the rocky scrambles up the hill. He made better time than us.

Here's Mary part-way up the Cat Bells. Just to the right of her head is the low peak, which was our terminus. Behind that is a higher peak, which we'd like to do on a return trip when we actually plan for a nine-mile walk (the low peak is a three-mile one.) This hike had some noticably steep bits where we had to scramble over rocks to get up, but the views were great.

And here's that view. I have been playing around with the panorama feature on my phone in hopes that it would better capture the sweeping majesty, though somtimes it's just really good at capturing odd visual effects (the distortion on the woman up the path, the orange smear that was her son) and Mary trying to duck to not get captured. Still, it manages to show the beauty of the lake (Derwent Water) on the left and the farm valley on the right.

On the same day as the Cat Bells we also hiked up Walla Crag. This was a less popular, but no less stunning climb. Once we got up into the hills a bit, it was easy to feel a million miles from everywhere.

From the peak we had a nice view down over the same lake as above, this time from the other side.

Here is that view without a doofus in the way. In the top right corner you can just make out the small buildings of Keswick where we stayed.

We will know that we are done with England when we stop being amused by sheep. Sheep are all over here (well, not in London) and we see them on almost every country walk we do.

The Lake District took this to an extreme, and we even saw them in the towns grazing in church yards. The English folks I know feel that sheep are pretty pedestrian and boring, but for us they are still adorable and new.

On our final full day there, we did a six-mile walk which turned out to be a ten-mile hike. Oops! This walk took us almost the entire length of Ullswater (seen here in distort-o-rific panorama,) which is further South in the region.

While I loved the cliff-side setting with sharp drop-offs beside us (Amazing views! It feels like you are walking on nothing!) Mary found it a bit more harrowing. Between the drop offs and unexpected length it was a little stressful, but it did end up being gorgeous.

At the end of the Ullswater walk, we walked a little on a very well-paved path to see the Aira Force waterfall.

After the unexpectedly long first hike, we were pleased to have one that was a bit more level and even. The falls were beautiful, as were the bridges and rapids around them.

Overall we had a fantastic trip, and would highly recommend the area to anyone looking for a nice get away in England. We had worried a bit about our ability to get around just by bus, but in the end it was a non-issue. We're hopeful that we can sneak in a trip back before we return to America, but time will tell. There are still so many places to go!

Monday, May 5, 2014

Duck Fight!

While I haven't posted about them yet, we've actually been taking some long walks in the outlying areas of London this summer. This Saturday we had great weather, so we headed to Oxford to do a walk along several of the canals and to check out the colleges.

The canal walk was lovely, if a bit muddy. We saw canals, pastures, really narrow houseboats, ducks fighting, and an abandoned nunnery (alternative suggested title for the post: Get Your Nun On! Get Your Nun On!)

This walk wasn't as scenic as our last which was through a river valley, but it was level and we had great weather so I am not complaining too much.

We had lunch at a pub in Wolvercote, where we also spied this awesome thatched roof cottage. Thatch holds a kind-of mythical quality of English-ness for those of us from America, though we almost never see it.

Back in town we visited a few museums. The first was this one, which seems perfectly normal from the outside, but opens up into glass-ceilinged splendor once you enter.

The collection was a hodge-podge of fossils, stuffed animals (including a dodo!), and other samples. It was a very classical idea of what a musuem should be.

Further back, one reaches the ethnographic collection which I can only describe as straight out of Indiana Jones. It's a jumble of glass-fronted cabinets in one huge, dimly lit hall, with tiny passages winding between them. The cabinets have loose themes (models of housing, animal representations) and are jam packed with samples from many different regions. It's an amazing thing to see, though sadly none of my photos came out due to the light.

The colleges themselves were also nice. I am still trying to get my head around how education works in this country, and having been to both Cambridge and Oxford now hasn't really straightened that out at all for me. Still, nice buildings.

We were there a touch too late to tour any of the interiors of the colleges or the main church, so we ended up grabbing tea and heading out. All in all, a lovely day trip.

Update: Mary pointed out that I neglected to record our adventure coming home. We got to the Oxford station just in time to catch one back to London, and then had it stop repeatedly due to a door sensor. We went one stop and then the conductor made a hard to hear announcement that caused everyone to exit the train. This was a rare case where following the herd was a good idea, as we ended up on a faster (and actually running) train home. Also, we got to have this conversation over text (we were seated separately after the train swap):

Bill: There is a woman on this train with a guitar painted on her face that totally looks like a cartoon penis.
Mary: Next to you?
Bill: On your 11:00
Mary: Ha ha
Mary: Oh yes I see it
Bill: Boy is she going to feel silly when she looks in the mirror.
Mary: The guy looks like he has one too.
Bill: He's blocked by the seat.
Mary: Or a bandage
Mary: Over his eye
Mary: I am trying not to stare
Bill: Hers is a painting, his is a penis face tattoo
Mary: Nope it's painted.
Bill: Why would he paint a bandage on?

Sunday, April 27, 2014

Easter in Seville

Last year for Easter we were finally feeling settled in here and didn't do much, so this year we wanted to take a bigger trip for it and travel for the full four days we had off.

We choose Seville in Spain, since it's a very Catholic country and we figured it'd be a sight to see. It did not disappoint.

One thing that Seville is known for is tile, and you can see it all over town. I was quite enchanted by it and have dozens of photos of entryways and floors which I will spare the internet.

Nowhere is the tile more the focus than at the Plaza de Espana. This was the site of a worlds fair for Spanish-speaking nations years ago, and it has been maintained as a tourist site and park since.

The main building has a series of alcoves with tiled displays of each of the regions of Spain. We saw many people getting their pictures taken near the alcove of the region they hailed from, which was a lot of fun.

A big part of Easter in Seville is the processions , which run all of Holy Week.

In these, devout locals dress in robes and funny hats and take over the streets. The processions happen throughout the week, with the main focus being Thursday night through Saturday, and at their peak run from midday until two or three in the morning.

Each group starts at its home church and walks the city, passing the main cathedral at some point, and generally ending up back at the starting point.

There can be up to sixteen hundred people in each group, and with narrow streets they stretch for miles.

Each group carries one or more floats, which are candlelit at night. These mostly are dioramas of Mary surrounded by flowers and candles and wearing a long cape, though you do run into the odd Jesus as well.

It's quite a delight to chance upon them enroute to some other destination.

There is a brochure handed out which gives rough times and locations for each of the groups, but as it was in Spanish and used some local names for locations, we mostly winged it when on the hunt.

Once coming home from dinner we managed to get to a three-block area surrounded on all sides by parades. A bit disconcerting, but still a cool experience.

We also, as we do, visited (and climbed) the main cathedral in town. The tower of the cathedral actually dates from a mosque that used to be on the site. The climb has almost no stairs, but rather thirty five or so connected ramps spiraling up the tower which allowed the Oman to ride his horse up to could sing the call to prayer. So cool. Of all the climbs we have done, this was the least cramped and most brightly lit thanks to windows the entire way up.

Within the cathedral were a number of cool sights. This one is the tomb of Christopher Columbus, who hailed from the region.

We read that they had done DNA testing to verify it was him, and Mary and I immediately asked each other "Who did they compare it to?" It turns out that he has surviving heirs all these years later, living in Puerto Rico and Spain. Who knew?

Another major site in town is the royal palace, the Alcazar. This palace was designed for Christian kings, but in a Moorish (Islamic) style. And what style!

I've really only recently encountered much Islamic art, but I find it completely enchanting. One of the tenets is a representation of God's infiniteness in complex geometric patterns, which I find both aesteticly and intellectually pleasing. It is both a gorgeous pattern to the eye and a representation of God as math and order.

The entire public space of the palace is decorated elaborately, and I have literally hundreds of pictures of its floors walls and ceilings.

Outside are extensive gardens which also delight. Closer in to the palace there are more structured gardens and as you get further from it they get more rambling. Thankfully they are full of cover to shelter one from rain, should they be unlucky enough to vacation at the same time as us.
Seville is a city of soul. It's a city of flamenco. Flamenco comes from a blend of Andalusian and gypsy folk music and dancing, and Seville is a center for it. In Vienna you can't swing a Sacher Torte without having a man dressed as Mozart offer to sell you tickets to a classical concert; in Seville it's a flamenco show.

Our guidebook had a few suggestions for slightly more authentic shows, so we went for it. It's a very cool thing to see, very soulful and at turns mournful and aggressive. We quite enjoyed it. Our book also suggested a few bars we could go to late at night to see spontaneous flamenco break out, but we really don't think that's a thing.

Oh, bullfighting. Bullfighting is in many ways an integral part of the area's culture, if a controversial one. I actually feel somewhat ambivalent about it -- I can see how it's cruel and unfair to the animals, but on the other hand I know full well where my steak comes from and have no problem with that. Is bullfighting that much more cruel than raising cattle for food?

We didn't go to a match, but we did go to the museum at the arena. While the event sprung from a similar tradition to jousting, the arena reminded us a lot of the Colosseum in Rome. The museum was informative and well laid out, but I don't think it resolved my feelings on the sport.

The food in Seville was great, though we did struggle a bit to acclimate to the hours. Lunch is from one to four with kitchens opening at eight for dinner, but we kept finding ourselves in need of a snack at 5. Very frustrating. Thankfully, most of the pastry shops stay open all day. We tried many local specialties, including cookies made with "hair of the angels" and a special bread pudding with honey they only make during Holy Week -- all were great.

We also enjoyed the tapas again, especially a place we went on the last night. It was a bit dauntingly filled with people who actually knew Spanish, but we managed to order and consume some great food. We also witnessed the waitress and a patron singing together, which made us think that we may have been wrong about that spontaneous Flamenco thing.

Overall it was a fantastic trip, full of experiences that felt very unique to the place. As always when visiting a locale like this I came away with a renewed desire to live in a place with casual attitude and indoor/outdoor living. And, as always happens, I immediately walked myself through all the impracticalities of that as a life for us. Oh well, we'll always have Seville.