Tag Archives: Architecture

EUROPE SERIES/SILK ROAD EXTENSION: Berlin (D2)

After introducing the city in the last post, I feel obligated to complete the rest of my Berlin posts from 2016. Yes, it’s long, but for those interested it will capture a hefty dose of the sights and sounds of Berlin that should still exist today. The only downfall to me is that most travelers outside of Berlin are unable to experience the city’s treasures real-time today, in November 2020. Let’s hope we can do so by this time next year….

I’ve also included a quick trip to Berlin at the end of this post from Winter 2016 with daughter and pastry chef, Melissa. The upcoming and final post from Germany will be from Dresden.

Neues Museum

Aside from the pillaging of art treasures from their original sources, the collection was exceptional. Mostly from 2400-1200 B.C (Middle and Late Kingdoms). Queen Nefertiti’s head was here, but photography was not allowed. Exquisitely beautiful. Figures were lively and not as stiff as most representations of Egyptian art. They spark the curiosity and desire to learn and understand more. Enjoy the photos and captions where available.

Berliner Dome

The Berliner Dome, like the Berlin TV Tower, shares a prominent place in the city’s skyline. And, like the Tiergarten, this visit gave me a chance to slow down and absorb its inherent beauty . While it is a “Protestant” Church and not a “Catholic” cathedral, it nevertheless was highly ornate. In 1905, it was a last gasp for the Prussian monarchy. It was restored in the 1990s.

The main chancel apse had three impressive panels showing the birth, cruxifiction, and resurrection of Christ. A large organ in the niche to the left made me want to return to hear it one day. The basement was a bit creepy as it held the crypts of many of the Hollenzollern lineage, including that of King William Friedrich (1861).

I subjected myself to an adventure at the Comic Opera, where I saw Massenet’s “Cedrillon”. It was loosely based on the story of Cinderella, so a bit of a ho-hum with nice music. The cast was subtly baudy (if that’s possible). It reminded me of the opera-goers’ version of San Francisco’s Beach Blanket Babylon. The chorus or corps de ballet definitely provide the tongue-in-cheek comic element. Despite top-notch singing and a pretty good stage set, it’s not everyone’s cup of tea.

The opera house itself was worth seeing. It still conveyed the grandeur and aura of the past,  but sadly was a bit shabby and in need of a face lift. A surprise inspiration were large video screens in the lobby, that show current performances and cast lists. Cedrillon is replicated here. The last photo below shows the actual evening’s cast and curtain call.

Jewish Berlin

Berlin recognizes its Jewish history and the part it plays in understanding the city today. Our guide, Matthias Rau, started our tour of the area at one of three Jewish cemeteries in Berlin. A reproduction of the headstone of Moses Mendelssohn is located in the cemetery (see photos in slide show below). He was one of the major leaders of the Jewish community in Berlin in the 18th Century. If you are interested, you can read more about Moses Mendelssohn here: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Moses_Mendelssohn

Brass plated tiles with inscriptions of names of Jewish people who lived in the area are found throughout Berlin. Organized by a private foundation, this effort identifies individuals, their birthdates, where they died, and when. Most of the inscriptions we saw identified Auschwitz as the place of death. (We later noticed plates in Kreuzberg.)

1. Only some of the stonework with inscriptions were salvaged at the cemetery. The grave sites are covered with ivy.

2. The site of the “missing house” is used to identify Jews who had lived in the building. Tags on adjacent buildings indicate where each family lived and are stark reminders of the lives that disappeared.

3. A tribute to Regina Jonas, the first woman rabbi in Berlin. She was part of the Jewish liberal sector.

4, 5 and 6: The New Jewish Synagogue (1866, Oranienstrasse 30) was the center of the Jewish community (also wooden doorway from Entrance) .

7. Augustus Strasse, where the Jewish School (shown in photo on the left) was located. It now is used for community space, the Kennedy Center, and other public facilities.

24 hours in Berlin

On Saturday, a fellow German student from Dresden and I spent the day exploring Berlin together with the following schedule:

10:00: Met friends from the Berlin Goethe Institute for Brunch at Sud Bloc, a Turkish Restaurant in Cottbus Tor.

12:00: Instead of the the 9th Berlin Art Biennale, we chose to visit the International Design Festival, since the Biennale was around for another couple of weeks. This is certainly a fantastic city for art and artists. Below are a few of the displays that were presented at Kraftwerk, a huge warehouse/industrial building in Berlin Mitte near the Heinrich-Heine Station

14:30: Walked through trendy streets in the Mitte near Rosenthaler Platz. The KW Institute for Art, one of the Biennale centers, is located on Augustus Strasse. It parallels another delightful alley, Linienstrasse, that is sprinkled with cafes, one-of-a-kind handmade items, and art galleries. I had a red lentil and avocado sandwich with a German rose wine across the street from the old Jewish school. Melissa and I had seen the Kennedy Exhibition there in January 2016.

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16:00: Stop at my Air BNB on Brunnenstrasse for a cake and coffee break.

17:00: Visit the Bernauer Strasse wall exhibit (see posting from last week)

18:00: Alexanderplatz pit stop, with a Afrikaner Festival food and entertainment in high gear.IMG_2594

19:45: Performance of the Return of Tobias, an Oratorium by Joseph Haydn at the Elizabeth Church around the corner from where I am staying.

This was a bonus performance. I was debating about whether to go after such a full day. The performance was sold out, but seating behind the orchestra was available for 5 euros! I could enjoy the full choir, orchestra, and professional quality opera singers and kick my shoes off at the same time. The performance began with actors at the cemetery a couple of blocks away, setting the stage for the story. Everyone returned to the church, where the full story, singing, and beautiful music in an intimate setting unfolded. A delightful close to an exhausting day.

The following day’s activities started with alot of guilt-laden German studying, but in the afternoon I treated myself to a brilliant performance of “Tristan und Isolde” by Richard Wagner at the Deutsche Oper. The marathon performance lasted 5 hours, from 4pm until 9pm. (Only the Meistersinger at the SF Opera was longer at 6 hours). Needless to say, the German stiff upper lip in me kicked in. In classic behavior, when in Berlin, do as the Berliners do.

The opera was very moving and emotionally draining–one of the best I have ever seen. To top it off, there was a standing ovation. That was a thrill. First to see a heart-pounding performance, then to witness genuine, never-ever inflated gratitude offered by a hard-core, German audience.

By purchasing student rush tickets an hour before, I am able to procure the best seats available (5th row from the stage, 9th seat in from the end) for 15 euros (thanks to the Goethe Institute). The only minor inconvenience being so far forward is having to tilt my head up to read the double subtitles in German and English. That’s hardly a problem or complaint for what I am getting at these prices. The difference in cost of opera tickets pays for my four-week German class!!

For the next two to three days, I was completely free from my German Class military-style training and academic obligations. I raced around to the spots that I missed, then spent the final 24 hours on a day trip to Dessau to visit the historic Bauhaus Workshop, School and Houses.

48 Hours in Berlin

The Berlin Biennale was in full swing throughout Berlin. To catch up, I made a pilgrimage to Fasanenstrasse, a small, elegant street near the Zoological Gardens and Uhlanstrasse Station. A few of the galleries promoted in the Art Forum “picks” are located here, including the Galerie Kornfeld, that was showing “The End of Flags” by Hubert Scheibl.

The Bucholz Gallery, where Melissa and I visited in January, presented the work of Wolfgang Tillmans. He was born in Remscheid in 1968. His work covered photographs of his studio and the accumulation of paper.

Not particularly inspiring, but I found the gallery itself much more exciting. It is an historic, protected building with beautiful Art Nouveau tendrils on the ceiling, panels over doorways, and in the carved oak staircase in the vestibule.

Contrasted with the stark white walls, it was easy to appreciate the delicacy and the artistry in the original building decoration. Contrary to my altbau where I am staying, this is what I would consider a classy version. There are also some really elegant auction houses and galleries promoting collector books and Asian antiques, gorgeous art nouveau jewelry and beautiful period silver by Georg Jensen and Henry Van de Velde.

After walking down the street and looking for a memorial plaque for Essad Bey or Nussibaum, I was very happy to discover it directly across the street from the Cafe for Literature and the adjacent Museum for Kathe Kollwitz. The Berlin literati must have hung out in this neighborhood. It felt like the Montparnasse area of Paris, except more compact.

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Essad Bey was a journalist who was both Jewish by birth and Muslim by election. He had a fascinating life history that is chronicled in the New York Times bestseller by Tom Reiss, “The Orientalist”. I was surprised that my German teacher had read the book when I told him it was my favorite book.

Born in Lake Baku, where one of the first oil discoveries was made, Bey lived an early riches to rags life. His family escaped after the Bolshevik Revolution to Turkey, then Paris, and eventually he was educated in Germany.  He became a journalist, was writing histories of Hitler and Mussolini, fell out of grace, and then died a tragic death. It’s a fascinating book where fiction and reality are often obscured.

Later in the morning, I walked about a mile east to KDW, Berlin’s version of Harrods or Galeries Lafayette. The top floor is devoted to gourmet food, with stations that offer a variety of seafood, meat, and a host of regional specialties. Up until now, I haven’t put much (or any) focus on eating. This was my opportunity to catch up.

The cases proudly presented cheese, sausages, and brot (bread). I looked for anything unique from the other gourmet food halls, but could only find wiener schnitzel and kartoffel stations. If you are into German food, you can get the gourmet version here. I succumbed to the bratwurst, senf (mustard) and sauerkraut, just as a show of loyalty. While this wasn’t exactly a pilgrimage to the annals of gourmet dining, I could still enjoy the German culinary ernestness. I bought a sample of Niederegger’s marzipan from Lubeck after hearing about it in my German class.

The Bauhaus Archive in Berlin was high on my list of places to visit. The exterior was odd, with the north-facing skylights a prominent feature of the design of the building. Thankfully,  a new museum is underway. After 883 international entries, a Spanish architect won the competition and beat out an American. You can see the entries, if you are interested, here: http://c4c-berlin.de/projekte/bmd-de/

The existing exhibition still contained all of my favorite things: design philosophy and principles from inception to reality; creative thinking; and highest quality craftsmanship. I was thoroughly engrossed and listened to every post on the audio guide (not a small feat, especially since it was in the afternoon!). Again, it reinforced my passion and dedication to good design.

Berlin Biennale

The Ninth Annual Berlin Biennale, as mentioned earlier, is underway this summer. In addition to the KW Center for Contemporary Art, the main anchor is at the Academy for Art, just inside the Brandenburg Gate. The exhibition in combination with the interior of the building was crazy beautiful and disgustingly fascinating. I couldn’t decide which photos to include, so here is a mix-match of both exhibits and building features (renovated by Beynisch Architects from Stuttgart in 2005):

Click on the photos above to increase the images.

The terrace featured a virtual reality presentation. I stood in line for the 3-4 minute scene that was pretty entertaining and worthwhile. The scene showed the view from the top of Brandenburg Gate, fogged up, then dove to an underwater sequence. The person in the photo is bending over to look through the viewer underwater.

The evening was topped off with a final opera. The Deutsche Oper unveiled a new production of the “Die Entführung aus dem Serail” by Mozart. If you remember what a rogue and rock star Mozart was in his day (drinking, women, and wild living), this production really conveyed that. They brought the days of Mozart to contemporary status, complete with nudity, sniffing cocaine, and searching for home (a la ET).

Initially, I didn’t want to go, as I had seen an old video of this opera. It was very hoaky and racist. One of the opera students in the GI had seen a preview of the preview and recommended it to me. She emphasized that it had been updated and was worth seeing. She was right, but there were still a few questionable moments in the opera left over from Mozart that were hard to overlook.

The bare naked bodies were less surprising to me, as “Tristan und Isolde” had unveiled their own version of nudity to me earlier. I’m not sure it’s becoming a trend for opera, but I wondered how the old ladies at the opera regarded these scenes. They didn’t seem to raise any eyebrows, from what I could decipher. Everyone, including me, stayed WIDE AWAKE. If that’s one way to get a more alert audience, it definitely worked.

The story line is simple–a group of young people get captured by an extra terrestrial and are sent to a far away land. They try to find their way back. In the mean time, they are living a fast and senseless life with sex, drugs and videotapes. They search for a way back. It was a great production, very hip, and very well received. Look for this updated opera with fantastic music and even a few “Queen of the Night” arias sprinkled in for extra amusement.


Note: look for the curtain call with the scantily clad girls–some of them only put on underwear in the final scene!!

Winter in Berlin

The following post was written on a visit to Berlin in January, 2016, six months before I studied German there in June, 2016.

OK, this was an unplanned visit to my favorite adopted country. My daughter Melissa is between jobs and after contemplating Morocco or Mexico City, we agreed that Berlin was not a bad option for interesting food, art and culture.

Our first of two weeks revolved around a number of upcoming new restaurants, galleries that are open over the holiday break, and special performances.

After stalking many of Europe’s best venues, I learned that there are impresarios who descend on famous sites such as the Berlin Philharmonic. When the orchestra is off, they lease the facilities. Many of the promotions cater to local tourists from France, Italy and Eastern Europe.

The usual Swan Lake, Mozart masterpieces, and Strauss waltzes are offered, but are not part of the regular program. While we did partake in a Russian ballet company performance, it takes a bit of close navigation to understand who is producing what and when.

Nevertheless, we enjoyed seeing a bit of traditional ballet contrasted with a modern version by Duarto/Kylian, two contemporary choreographers. The latter audience was much younger and local, while the former was stocked with a mostly tourist audience.

There are museums and galleries galore here, probably too numerous to count. For that, Berlin beats Mexico City hands down. We tackled the Pergamon earlier over the weekend with friend Vladimir from Meissen with some difficulty, as the Museum Island is still being renovated and access to each museum is limited.

Yesterday we covered art galleries in the Prenzlauer and Kreuzberg areas that included the Institute for Contemporary Art and the Kunstraum Kreuzberg. Old schoolhouses have been repurposed for gallery use as well as after school music and arts programs. A decent cafe in each allows visitors to enjoy the environment while warming up to the cold chill (and now snow) outside.

The Kennedy clan are well known to Berliners, almost more than to Americans. Aside from JFK’s famous quote, he was known to protect West Berlin from succumbing to the Communists in East Berlin. A small but significant historical detail.

The Xmas Markets were fun to explore and finally experience. The “gluhwein” tastes better than it sounds, and is merely what we call mulled wine. And the stollen or Xmas cake leaves a bit to be desired, particularly when traveling with a pastry chef.

The hip new food fare here, however, has been delightfully innovative, inexpensive, and thoughtful. While not always successful (veggies a bit on the raw side), the intent on making food healthy, delicious and beautifully pleasing to the eye is very evident. While not a foodie myself, I am swept up by the company I am keeping. Traveling with one can cause you to get into the picture pretty fast. Take a look at some of the plates: my favorite was the avocado and red beets on toast. Easy enough to make me want to make it as soon as I return home..

For the wannaknows, we hit Lokal, Industry Standard, and Horvath.

On our last day in Berlin, we started the morning with breakfast at the Coffee House for Literature. Located in a pre-war building on Fasanstrasse just south of the Zoological Garden stop and near the Uhlanstrasses Metro Station, this famous coffee house rivalled that of the Cafe Einstein in Kurfürstendam, where writers, poets and intellectuals gathered over addictive coffee. We ventured into one of the Berlin galleries listed in Art Forum, but the exhibition was very tiny and not as fruitful as our visit to another recommendation at Kunstraum Kreuzberg on Marienplatz earlier in the week.

We made it just in time to Potsdamer Platz to attend a free noontime concert at the Berlin Philharmonic Concert Hall. The symphony was not performing due to the holiday schedule. Instead, we were able to listen to a short Mozart chamber music performance. On the program, parents are reminded that lunchtime concerts are not aimed explicitly at children, and therefore should only bring children who are able to remain “quietly seated for approximately 45 minutes”. That seemed very reasonable and successful as a message.

We battled the elements during most of our short visit to Germany and Holland, and this day was no exception. We decided to take a short walk to the Culture Forum, where the Gemälde Gallery of the Staatliche Museum of Berlin is located. It is a huge repository of art and it held major exhibitions on the Botticelli Renaissance and Albrecht Durer. Surprisingly, we found more Vermeers, Bosches, Brueghels, and Rembrandts here than those in the Rijksmuseum. We realized that the Dutch Masters were scattered throughout Europe and that the paintings by native sons were not necessarily displayed in their host countries.

The Botticelli exhibition compared many other artists’ work that emulated the classical Botticelli Venus. She served as a model and inspiration for many other artists, from Neo-Classicists such as Ingres to Elsa Schiaparelli, a dress designer. For me, I found the latter day 19th Century renditions by John Ruskin and William Morris, early leaders of the Arts and Crafts Movement in England, the most interesting. You can see the rich textures of the Morris tapestry already creating the signature pattern that later became so famous in the Liberty of London wall coverings.

I found myself particularly attracted to exhibitions that compare and contrast two different artists’ work. They seem to provide a lesson in comparative world history and painting that I otherwise wouldn’t discover. I am also becoming more comfortable with and more whetted to art museums as a cultural and intellectual experience. I have an opportunity to learn history in a visual way that is easy and interesting for me. The excellent curating and wealth of material certainly enhance these comparisons in the few museums we visited on this trip.

By the end of the day, we were pretty wiped. Nevertheless, my professional food guide was relentless and targeted a German restaurant as gesture to my insatiable appetite for things German for the finale. Sadly, it was closed for the holiday cleaning! We went to the next best, an Austrian restaurant famed for its Wiener Schnitzel. If you look closely at the photo above, you will notice that the regular fork looks out of scale with the schnitzel on the plate. That’s because the schnitzel was super-sized!

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The day before, we beat it back from Amsterdam to hit a local Kreuzberg Turkish restaurant.

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Ich bin eine Berlinerin

My month’s stay in Berlin was quickly drawing to a close, and I had a confession to make. Dresden is no longer my favorite city. Berlin has definitely topped it. I can cite all the reasons, but I feel guilty. Up until this point, I didn’t want to mess with my determination to be true to only one love. But Berlin has been so seductive, that I can’t help but declare a new winner.

There are the obvious elements: the culture, the energy and vibrancy of the city, the opportunity and capacity for more. Berliners have a very honest and understanding perspective on their history, and are intelligent about the many competing facets of politics, economics, and social responsibility.

Aside from sweeping generalizations, let me give you a couple of examples. Going into the Natural History Museum (Naturkunst), you feel like you are entering a cave of mankind, with the stodgy old building, guards who predate the DDR, and an air of the old mensa in the canteen. Yet the displays for both adults and children were among the most illuminating (literally and mentally) that I have seen in any museum. They brought to life the complicated story of mankind and got you excited about being one of billions of living organisms on earth.

The fastidious art history guide who led our Goethe Institute visits to museums was very checked, efficient and to the point. When she came to meet the group on her bike, she walked it through the crowded streets of Berlin and escorted us to the museums a mile away. It demonstrated the commitment the locals have to logical living. She was a 50+, so it was particularly nice to see older people staying fit.

Speaking of being fit, I had promised one of the trainers at UCSF that I would investigate the healthy living differences in Europe for her. There isn’t any better place to do that but in Berlin. Germans see it as part of their life style and holistic way of living–you are what you eat, you do it in as responsible a way as possible, and you keep life and everything around you in balance. More people are into nuts and fruits, expensive bio-produkts, and health than most Americans. And there are many discussions about work-life balance, deep breathing, and yoga mats.

All of my German classes devote units to fitness and health, so I may be getting an extra dose because it is a language course. Maybe all language courses, by time you get past introductory vocabulary, have to start tackling more challenging subjects to keep students engaged with contemporary topics. Yet I found the extensive recycling descriptions that cover all the different types of waste in German more intriguing to me and a cultural commitment above all else.

Combined with the general German focus on living a sound and healthy life, there is an emphasis on kids and education. True, kids are becoming a scarce resource in Germany, and therefore not surprising to see Angela Merkel embracing immigration. But kids historically from the “kinder garten” to  free Waldorf schools to free University-wide education is amazing to me. One of the Italian students comes here to do her Ph.D. because the education is free if she gets placed. WOW!! Where are all the American students who want to study abroad! Going to Canada???? I wish I had known this before.

I hope I have provided a few convincing arguments. These have little to do with what I have been writing about in terms of art, music, and culture. But they permeate all the different little decisions that go into the creation of those higher, more ethereal and less accessible elements of society. In Germany, there is a deeper appreciation of one’s history and a need to share it. It will still take generations to amend the past, but it is on the road to recovery.

While these differences don’t make the case for Berlin over Dresden, it’s probably just the size and proportion factor that gives way to my new-found fascination. Berlin as a city has many treasures yet to be found, while Dresden, like an old shoe, has been very comfortable and always willing to serve.

Europe Series/Silk Road Extension: Berlin (D1)

In case you haven’t been following the flow of my posts over the past several months, I have been reposting travels around the world from Mongolia in the Far East westward through countries along the Silk Road. Uzbekistan, Iran and the Caucasus are seldom traveled but contain countless UNESCO World Heritage sites and fascinating histories. If you missed them, please check these posts, republished since the advent of COVID-19 in March of this year.

While the Central Asian countries along the Silk Road have been my primary focus, I also spent many months studying German in Germany. Including the European countries I visited in the last five years is an extension to the Silk Road travels.

These countries are presented in the path of travel rather than in chronological order I was there. I’ve stitched them together so you can compare and contrast each country or city along the chain. In the case of the German cities, the order began with Munich, Schwäbisch Hall, Düsseldorf, and now Berlin. (I’m saving my favorite, Dresden, for last, but admittedly out of sync!)

Despite the COVID-era doldrums for fellow travelers, I hope you will, like me, enjoy revisiting prior travels like those in this series. Please share your thoughts and memories—we’re all in this together!

Please bear in mind that these edited posts on Berlin were originally written in 2016–a mere five years ago. Observations may already appear dated, but they could also be forecasts for what we see now.

Burling into Berlin


IMG_2272Above: the Berlin Tower with a new base

Currently the place where I am staying is known as an “alt bau”, or an old building. I had imagined it as an old Baroque building, finely tailored and detailed, but renovated with modern conveniences. Not. I am in an old building. It will take a bit of getting used to, but it’s going to be fine.

Berlin is wired, both on coffee and devices. Everywhere, at least in the Mitte, people sit outside once the good weather appears. They pull out stools and tables from inside their coffee houses, the laundry or offices.  The coffee and the laptops follow, and nothing less than a Macbook Air. Germans like sturdiness and quality. People sit staring at an open laptop and do double duty with a smart phone in front of their computers, just like we do in San Francisco. The only difference is that they can do it in plain sight and en plein air.

Sports shoes are the hot new fashion statement. Every shop in Mitte where I am staying seems to have a full array of snappy looking shoes with white bumper guards, for not a lot of money. It does feel as if design is a high priority here, with more quality and variety in clothing and furnishings. Mitte feels like an up-and-coming St. Germaine-de-Pres. It will soon become too pricey to afford. I’d give it two to five years at the most.

My first day of class at the Goethe Institute was Monday, and I am already fully immersed. There are 12 students in my Intensive, 4-week Intermediate level class, and Herr Göbels is a mature and native German speaker. After nearly five hours of class in the afternoon from 1:15-5:45 including precious breaks, we are pretty wasted.

Above: Photos of the oldest church in Berlin, the Heilig Geist, with an artistic expression at the entry to the church.

The extensive cultural programs for students focus on the different neighborhoods in this diverse city. The first tour this morning was Berlin Mitte and the oldest section of the city. An evening lecture provided an overview of the cultural city of Weimar. Having just been there, I learned much more about Schiller, Goethe, Nietzsche, Liszt, and Wagner. Liszt had conducted Wagner’s Lohengrin in Weimar, and Richard Strauss wrote “Thus Spake Zarasthustra” based on Nietzsche’s book by the same name. There are planned field trips to Potsdam, the opera, ballet and museums, so I am a happy camper!

However, it’s back to the grindstone. I have homework and audio assignments to finish before class tomorrow! I enjoy the focus, learning about the host country, and meeting a wide spectrum of students from many countries. I highly recommend a similar program for any language learner.

The Deutsches Historical Museum

The new wing showcases the architecture of I.M. Pei. He also designed the East Wing of the National Gallery and the prominent entrance to the Louvre. (As an architect, I am always glad to recognize the work of world-famous architects, but especially proud of Asian and women architects!)

Potsdamer Platz

The story of the Berlin Wall  was displayed in posters at Potsdamer Platz. After going to the Stasi Museum in Leipzig, I was more curious about the events that led to Reunification in Berlin. The story is told in these words and pictures and includes a healthy (?) supply of bubble gum stuck to the old wall relics. Click on each image to increase the size and readability.

Berlin Street Art (excerpted from post in June, 2016)

The Goethe Institute’s Berlin Program treated students to a leisurely afternoon walk through Kreuzberg and adjacent Friedrichshain area where a solid core of artists live and work. A river divides East and West and served as a natural boundary in the city, so it was natural for many political and artistic statements to be expressed on both sides of the divide.

Its easy to lose one’s bearings in Berlin. Streets swirl around in circles, crooked alleys, and curvy swerves around bumps. The Berlin wall never seems to be far from sight, and the meandering boundary keeps you guessing which side you are on. Both today and yesterday are often spoken in the same breath, and for that it makes living here fascinating.

The guide shared a very balanced view of the rights and liberties taken by the street artists. While not all were political in nature, they certainly were aware of the limits of their art and how to deliver it. Street art is different from graffiti art. The former is planned and presented for others to enjoy or experience, whereas the latter is intended for groups within a circle or group.

Sometimes the boundary between the two are unclear. Graffiti art is illegal by nature and therefore must be executed very quickly, without being caught or discovered in the act of the execution. Street Art teams often do likewise. They plan and execute the art, so HOW it is done is part of the excitement and danger. Art placed at the tops of buildings require complicated suspension systems, mirrors, bravado, and demonstrate the skill of artists.

While onlookers marvel at the daringness of graffiti artists, street art is much more deliberate and varied. As shown in the photos, there can be paint, stencils, applied images, and many other creative forms on buildings. In either case, the government and building owners have a say in whether the art stays or goes. For political and aesthetic statements, artists have to consider whether public opinion will be swayed to support their cause, or if it will suffer its own demise by being painted over or cannibalized by graffiti.

This type of public art may not be everyone’s cup of tea, but it certainly gave me more reason to appreciate the courage and abilities of the artists who choose this medium to express themselves.

Hip Berlin
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At the end of the tour, we ended up near Warschauer Strasse, a flea market and large industrial zone with old warehouses buzzing with locals. It was a very “hip” place with innovative food and drinks offered both inside and outside. I was glad that I had a map to quickly check my bearings and to not rely solely on the guide’s directions.

Central Berlin

Yesterday’s tour to Potsdam and Sans Souci Palace was more tame but just as challenging. We spent the better part of a day in the blazing sun and walked over 6 miles from the local train station to the town center, the new chambers of King Friedrich the Great, and surrounding gardens.

The end of the day was capped with a Deutsche Oper performance of “Il Troubadour” (more commonly known as “Il Trovatore”). Got one of the best seats in the house for 15 Euros, compliments of the Goethe Institute. Below is a view of the attendees enjoying the summer-like weather before the performance at the outdoor terrace.

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EUROPE SERIES/SILK ROAD EXTENSION: Switzerland

(Note: Apologies for this lengthy post, a compilation of three earlier ones.)

As part of the European extension to the Silk Road, we are revisiting a trip to Switzerland taken in 2015, at a time when life was COVID-free. Zurich, Basel, and Sierre were the highlights. It took awhile to decipher the dual French-German place names, but eventually it was fun guessing on top of a heavy Swiss-German dialect.

Zurich’s Riches

A street parade was taking place, and there were floods of tourists, mostly young, clad in costumes and wigs, and ready to tackle hundreds of music venues spread throughout the city. Many of the party-goers appeared to be from within Europe–Italians, Dutch, and Eastern Europeans.

A curious contingent of Asians were in one of the small squares with yellow T-shirts promoting democracy. I thought that was a bit strange but learned afterwards that they were Malaysian students and residents, protesting against their prime minister and demanding for his resignation. He apparently was dictatorial and had mis-managed funds. Another group in yellow T-shirts were just getting out ahead of the parade and entertaining tourists on the street.

Switzerland is frightfully expensive, so I am staying on the outskirts of town. The location feels like the South Peninsula, with many new internet and bio-tech firms concentrated in the area among spanking new housing. I noticed that the housing includes heavy metal louvers over each window as a standard. (even on my hotel window). It definitely helps provide shading from the strong sun as well as good riot protection if ever needed.

There was also a playroom in this new housing development. American architects have studied ideal housing in Europe consistently, yet I still do not see this level of integration for children in public or private housing in the U.S. It would be perfect if housing can incorporate activities for seniors such as a mutual support system for day care within the same development. Time to consider this approach and how we can get it to happen.

My do-it-yourself city tour of Zurich on Saturday morning had me breaking a sweat by 2pm–it was well over 90 degrees. At the end of the day, I had to beat it to the supermarket before it closed on Sunday. Americans look like a bunch of workaholics who can’t get their lives together to avoid food shopping on Sundays. Or else we just eat so much we run out of food every day.

Valais (Wallis)
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The next few days, I traveled by train through the beautiful countryside from Brunnen on the shore of the Vierwaldstättersee near Lucerne to the French speaking area of Valais near Sion.

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A car train took us through a deep tunnel in the mountains and emerged into the spectacular views of the valley. Also known as Wallis in German, Valais is a serious wine growing region with a patchwork of vineyards etching the south-facing sides of the valley and with flatter terraces facing the north side. It was in the middle of the Autumn harvest, and the vineyards provided a lush green carpet for the eyes and infinite pleasure for the palette.

I spent a much appreciated day “at home” at my friend’s house built with 2′ thick haybale walls for natural insulation. No air conditioning or heating is required inside, and it is built like a bunker to withstand any natural or man-made disasters.

The next day, I met Marie, who was working in the French speaking area. Marie’s friend was visiting from Der Wolf in Belgium, so the three of us went to the medieval castle on the hilltop in Sion. Afterwards, we had a delicious late lunch al fresco at Restaurant L’Enclos de Valère. At the end of the afternoon, I took the bus back to Sierre, then halfway up the hill near the resort area of Montana to Helena and Hans’ home.

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Later that evening, Hans, Helena and I drove two hours by car to Gstaad, to attend a performance by world-famous opera diva Cecilia Bartolli. The tiny church was maxxed out for two hundred guests. Cecilia sang some beautiful music by Vivaldi and others. It was performed by I Barocchisti, an orchestra specializing in baroque music and original instruments from that period.

Basel, a Center for Architecture

On a day trip from Lucerne, Helena and I took the architectural tour of the city. Many of the buildings were designed by Swiss architects Herzog and Meuron. Basel has bragging rights to a number of world-famous architects, including Zaha Hadid, Frank Gehry, Richard Meier, Tadao Ando and another of their own native sons, Mario Botta.

Both Botta and Herzog and De Meuron designed museums in San Francisco. They are known in Switzerland for many other building types. Many of the buildings featured on the architectural guide housed biotech companies such as Roche and Novartis. American architects may have become known in Europe by partnering with biotech firms to create research hubs in this area.

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The vertical extension of the Basel Museum of Culture was designed by Herzog and De Meuron. The textural pattern of hexagons reflected the irregular shape of the plaza facing the museum. They were in both convex and concave shapes. The gently swaying giant hanging plants at the entrance reminded me of the seaweed forest at the Monterey Bay Aquarium.

The De Young Museum in San Francisco, also designed by Herzog and De Meuron, is one of my favorite buildings. The mottled effect of the exterior copper panels cast on the inside of the building imitates the light coming through trees in Golden Gate Park. The huge canopy at the entrance also reminds visitors of the deep shadows in the park. I love this firm’s bold conceptual thinking and superior design execution that makes them one of the world’s most eminent and respected architects.

The Basel museum featured an exhibit on opium that sparked a lively conversation with Helena. My grandfather had died in China in 1925 from an addiction to this deadly plant. The museum collection included the history of opium, plant production, and implements used for taking opium. A section featured famous figures influenced by opium. I was surprised to find Lin Biao mentioned–of my relatives!

The saddest part was that opium was grown in India, transported to China, and then sold illegally to force free trade in China. It caused two wars, between 1839-42 and from 1856-60. The exhibition was very thought-provoking and a moving educational experience for me.

Swiss Raclette
Swiss Cheese, Salad, and Potato for Raclette
Swiss Cheese, Salad, and Potato for Raclette

Our final evening was topped by the famous Swiss specialty “Raclette”, a fondue-like dish of Swiss cheese toasted with onion and spices on a grill, then spread with a miniature wooden scraper onto the top of sliced potatoes.

Next Week: We’re on to Austria, the land of Viennese Coffee, Waltzes, and Freud. Don’t forget to let me know how you are finding these visits to European cities–a bit off the beaten Silk Road track but nevertheless the eventual drivers and benefactors of intercontinental trade between Asia and Europe!

EUROPEAN SERIES/SILK ROAD EXTENSION: Italy (#1B)

Venice, along with many other Italian cities, are rethinking their tourist program and how they often inundate and devastate their environments. It’s a very tough call-between economic vitality and sustainability for its residents. Italy’s attempt to address these major issues was evident in our trip to Matera (last week’s post), where the local authority is trying to convert an overlooked, crumbling historic area to zero impact tourism.

Puccini’s Lucca

Lucca is one of those uniquely protected walled cities, that tells you to go away. Unless you’re inside, of course. It took a bit of battling to get in, with a car (restricted) to an albergo with private parking privileges. You are acutely aware of harming the environment when you drive a car in this remarkable city. We were thrilled at how we were able to drive through one-lane paths and found out later…with a whopping huge parking ticket. (I am learning to read Italian now).

Everyone moves at a slower pace, tourists and residents alike. Bikes have their place, although scooters are allowed. You wish life could be this way in your part of the world. Everything seems magical–the ice cream shops, the antiquaries, the magnificently preserved churches. Maybe it wasn’t Disney who spread gold dust here, but he must have visited and discovered the qualities that gave him ideas for his magic kingdom.

Elba Island, Napoleon’s Island Exile

We were on Elba Island for a wedding, the purpose of our trip to Italy. After connecting flights in Paris from Yerevan, Armenia, we spent a couple of days in a luxurious villa as our base. Getting to and from the island was another story, but we made it to the wedding in plenty of time.

We treated ourselves to dinner at the hotel’s well appointed facilities, including the original villa’s main house. Needless to say, food here as in everywhere in Italy is a major undertaking and form of entertainment. Here are just a few dishes that refreshingly attacked our palettes:

As mentioned earlier, this European Series is an extension of the Silk Road Adventures. As we ply through Central Asia via Uzbekistan, Iran, the Caucasus, and Turkey from China, I decided to include European as part of the string of countries beyond the Silk Road. I did not travel them in this order, but they have been reordered so you can get a sense of the huge breadth of cultures along the route. These countries made use of and benefitted enormously from the ancient route of the Silk Road.

We are heading over the Alps toward Switzerland and Austria next, as if we were traveling overland. I hope you follow and enjoy this route as we head deep into the German-speaking countries and my favorites.

EUROPE SERIES/SILK ROAD EXTENSION: Italy (#1A)

Marco Polo’s father and brother set off from Italy in 1260 on their first adventure through the massive conjoined continents of Europe and Asia most likely along the Silk Road, then a common highway overland. They traveled through Bokhara, one of my Silk Road stops described earlier. Later, on return to Italy, they organized a second trip with Nicolo’s son, Marco.

The second trip took a different course through Persia to join Kublai Khan’s court in Beijing. Marco Polo was gone from Italy for 26 years, and when he returned, he was barely recognizable or believed to be Marco Polo himself. His clothes were worn and tattered, and he barely could speak his native language.

Before March 17 this year, we were able to go to Italy much easier without having to devote half a lifetime to getting there. Hopefully we won’t have to wait as long as Marco did! While the COVID-19 Pandemic still rests heavily on our minds, these reposts hopefully inspire us to look to future travels and savor the past.

In early 2019, we took advantage of Pastry Chef/daughter Melissa’s winter work break and hit the food scene in Italy. We stayed in the Testaccio neighborhood in Rome as our base and traveled to Matera and Naples from there. Here are two posts in case you missed it last year, condensed into one.

Sassi di Matera Hill Town

An inexpensive flight to Bari at the heel of Italy enabled us to visit Matera in a dawn-to-dusk trip. After a one-hour drive from Bari, we reached Sassi, two ancient hill towns straddling a deep valley. This UNESCO area was designated a major destination in 2019, to showcase sustainable tourism and environmental protection of treasured and not-to-be forgotten settlements.

A World UNESCO site dedicated to restoring hill towns with little or no environmental impact

Elena Ferrante’s Napoli

Famous Pizza and the Opera House drove us to Naples, but we couldn’t help but think about the stories written by Elena Ferrante in her four book series about scrappy Neapolitan life. (She has a new book out!)

We stopped at the Archaeological Museum, one of the country’s top sites holding treasures from Ercolano and Pompeii. Porn was thriving in Pompeii, as witnessed in this museum, along with other artifacts that are no longer available at the sites. Between the museum and a Nutcracker at the historic Teatro di San Carlo, the local food won hands down. (See below)

Famous Pizzeria da Attilio, Napoli: Pure, straight, and to the Oven

High Renaissance Rome

The food and the architecture are self-explanatory, right?!?

St. Peter’s Baldacchino by Bernini and Michelangelo’s Dome,
in the most magnificent interior space in the world

Grand opera is closed during the Christmas season, but we were able to catch holiday favorites Swan Lake Ballet in Rome, and the Nutcracker in Naples at the local opera houses.

Delightful Swan Lake Ballet at the Opera Theater of Rome
First Night in Rome with Daughter Melissa at Trappazino, Rome

Next week we will continue this European Series, linking Europe to the transcontinental Silk Road from Asia. It’s a compilation of travels with myself and others from the last six years. I hope you will enjoy revisiting these treasured moments with me! There will be another post on Lucca and Elba in the next post, followed by trips to German-speaking countries. Don’t forget to send your thoughts and comments!

Two posts are consolidated here and were originally posted in January 2019.

Silk Road Adventure #7: Turkey

Turkey may seem like the end of the line for the Silk Road, but it certainly was a crossroads between the Near East and Europe. Traders probably traveled from city to city along the route, rather than along the entire length of the Silk Road. The Turkic people came from the steppes of Central Asia and settled in this part of the world after traveling westwards, so their links eastwards were often refreshed and renewed.

We came to Istanbul twice, and stayed in a great Air BNB near the Pedestrian shopping street, Istikal Caddesi, where we could find plenty of restaurants. One of our favorites was a simple schwerma fast food hangout. We knew something was afoot when we saw savvy Asians making their way to this establishment, toting the insider guide “Istanbul Eats”.

For the price of a Macdonald’s burger, you could get freshly grilled meet, chopped to fit each bite in your mouth perfectly, with sensations of cabbage and lettuce lightly sprinkled with spiced sauce and evenly distributed into a grilled pocket. Perfect taste and texture to delight the tongue and the palette!

The food is so delicious and inspiring that it overshadows tourist attractions like the Grand Bazaar, the Blue Mosque or Hagia Sophia. Each meal is a discovery of familiar foods cooked with alot of creative flair. The Baklava may seem too sweet, but when it is made with fresh honey it does not have the dry intensive sugary taste as much as it is a saucy complement to the fresh flaky pastry and nuts.

One evening, we indulged in a performance of whirling dervishes that at first seemed a bit touristy but it was totally fascinating. The ancient Sufi religion promoted this form of spiritual cleansing and aspires those to reach the ultimate. You can read more about them here: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Sufi_whirling

Cappodocia

Cappodocia was so captivating that I came here twice. A UNESCO World Heritage site in the middle of the country and a couple hours’ flight from Istanbul, Cappodocia has some of the most unique and bizarre land formations anywhere in the world. The fairy tale cave dwellings have been occupied since early Christian times when believers fled the cities to be able to worship and escape persecution. They lived in the tufa cave dwellings and prayed in the mountain hideaways.

We discovered from our trip to Georgia that Nino was born in Cappodocia around 320, so the secret churches we first saw in Goreme suddenly became relevant and inspiring. You can read further about her here: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Saint_Nino. You can see the entire area in a hot air balloon, providing you are willing to get up at 5am in the morning and brave the traffic jam of baskets.

Goreme is the small town that is used as the base camp for travelers to this area. It includes an outdoor national park that houses many of the cave dwellings. Hotels are in the park so you can wander around the neighborhood easily yourself.

We stayed in the boutique cave hotels Kolubek, or Butterfly Hotel. The tufa rooms have pitched roofs and other buildings are built of stone organically around the sloping hillsides. You can’t help but wonder in the back of your mind whether the dust particles from the tufa might affect your lungs, but it was still worth the short-term risk.

The food in the hotel was delightful–a refreshing spread of fruit, nuts, cheese, bread and vegetables. We were inspired to take a cooking class in town. The hotel helped us to arrange a guide to take us shopping before joining a mature woman, who taught us how to prepare a Turkish meal in her own home. We then ate the food that we prepared with her for lunch and invited the guides to join us.

Ismir and Ephesus on the Western Coast

Our visit to the ancient city of Ephesus in January, 2020 required an overnight stay in Izmir. Although we had a chance to get acclimated, we immediately took to the streets in search of lunch. Thanks to Pastry Chef and Daughter Melissa, her intrepid search for the tastiest food in any country and her Googling skills, we traipsed through the town’s nearby grand bazaar and after numerous twists and turns, tracked down a renowned locanta populated by Turkish locals.

Izmir Locanta
Izmir Bazaar Favorite among locals

Locals dine regularly here on some of the heartiest meals made with the freshest ingredients. We savored the sardine soup recommended by the gentleman sitting across from us. It’s one of those diners where you point to the big vats of steaming concoctions or decorated casseroles in order to get your meal put in front of you quickly!


Stewed Eggplant
Ephesus

The short 40 minute drive from Izmir to Ephesus jolted us into realizing how ancient the land in which we were traveling is. From biblical figures like John the Baptist, Mother Mary, and their pilgrim followers, to the largest civilization outside of Rome at its peak, it was hard not to be impressed by the significance and grandeur of Ephesus.

Once inhabited by 250,000, Ephesus is a UNESCO world heritage site and was carefully restored and brought to life. It is a relatively late-bake on the list, as its discovery is fairly recent and only a fraction of it has been uncovered.

The library at Ephesus

Highlights include the odeon, a theatre; an amphitheater, an agora, terrace houses, and a library. You can download Rick Steves’ Audio Europe app for free and use it as you walk the site. All the details of what we saw were based on his excellent instructions. I highly recommend trying it out, and he certainly covers the major features. This fascinating site was once a thriving port city before the Persians, Alexander the Great, and the Goths each had their go at destroying it!

We decided to hire a car for a day to get from Izmir to Ephesus and Ephesus to Bodrum, our final destination. The only catch was making certain that we could call the driver after he dropped us off at the carpark at the top of the entrance to Ephesus. He was to meet us at the bottom of the hill at the exit 90 minutes later. Minor details: he had our bags in the boot!!

We needed a backup just in case we could not find the driver. After a bit of cell phone finagling, conversations with hotel personnel, and a lot of good faith—we managed. Where we spent on the driver, we saved on time and the cost of a tour and guide. Just a reminder on how you can travel the way you want, with just a few creative tricks and determination to be a traveler and not a tourist.

Boviera

Known as “Boviera”, sparkling Aegean resort towns along the Western Turkish coast include Bodrum. It’s off-peak and chilly presently, but well worth the quiet solitude and even threats of rain to avoid the throngs of English-speaking tourists.

As close as you can get to the creatures being served at your table before they are caught!
Anchovies, artichokes with pineapple, cheese and walnuts, and squash in yogurt

Note: due to traveling light and leaving my Macbook at home for this brief trip, I am using my Iphone to compose and post photos. The capabilities are limited, but I hope you will still enjoy the material the same as regular posts!

More Turkish Food! Food! Glorious Food!

Delicate bits of chopped morsels are packed with texture, flavor, and color to delight the senses. You swear you could eat like this every day, convinced of the variety and healthy ingredients.

Dolmas, eggplant spread with pomegranate and pumpkin seeds, and artichoke with mustard sauce
Bodrum to Izmir

The four hour public bus from to Izmir to Bodrum followed the coast, was a safe and comfortable trip, and cost us each a hefty $6. In true Turkish hospitality, they even served tea and cookies! We gazed at the stark countryside, lit by the low winter sun behind turbulent clouds, as olive and tangerine groves slid past.

View of Mountains and farmland from bus
Bizim Lokanta

On arrival back in Izmir, we couldn‘t resist returning to the lokanta in the Bazaar where we had eaten earlier in the week.

Tongue soup, bulgar with fava beans, and cabbage rolls with thick, creamy yogurt
Kudos on two walls of this vest-pocket diner were self-explanatory
Bazaar Fun
It‘s a Wrap!
(Meatless) Kale and Cheese Wraps for a pittance

It‘s always bittersweet leaving a country, especially after such a short visit. But the food focus, imperial demands, abundance of land, and Mediterranean climate requires one to succumb to Turkey‘s finest features.

As this Silk Road Series draws to a close, look for the Fall Series, which will feature Italy, Germany, and the U.K. in the final paths of the Silk Road! Let me know your thoughts and comments about both series!

SILK ROAD ADVENTURE #6C: Armenia

We have been traveling through the Caucasus —with stops in Azerbaijan, Georgia, and now Armenia.

The Haghartsin Monastery and Churches range from the 10th-13th Centuries, and are a fascinating example of early medieval/late Byzantine architecture. The heavy basalt walls protected the churches from earthquakes, but a considerable amount of renovation and restoration work was still needed.

The thick walls supported small chapels with heavy domes made of stone. Nevertheless, the simplicity of the structures provided a timeless quality and soothing relief to the 90+ degree weather. The main church is dedicated to St. Gregory. You can read more about it here: https://www.advantour.com/armenia/tavush/agartsin-monastery.htm

Along Lake Sevan, one of the largest fresh water lakes in the world, the Sevanarank Monastery was built in 874. It’s surprising to find these early examples of Christian architecture that never made it into the art history lectures. Our Eurocentric focus has neglected the early beginnings of ecumenical architecture.

I am now customizing my own studies of architectural history and history. By visiting the trans-Caucasus countries, I realize how little we have learned about these countries and the significant roles they played during the “Dark Ages” in feudal and medieval Europe. We could have been learning about what was developing in other parts of the world, especially where it was not “dark”.

Want people?

Followers have noted that my photos are strangely absent of people. I’m not sure whether it is a blessing or a curse, but I do tend to avoid inadvertent passers-by to preserve my architectural shots. It takes some patience but basically a stealth-bomber approach as soon as the coast is clear. That doesn’t mean that I don’t get distracted by interesting people who are the subject matter themselves. And don’t be misled. There are plenty of tourists wandering around everywhere, so I may in fact be distorting the scene. The good news: we have run into very few Americans along our route.

Groups of Tourists descend from the Cascade Monument, Yerevan, Armenia

You will notice in one of the above photos our guide, Agii, from Mongolia. This was three years later and an unplanned encounter! Agii was visiting the Caucasus with her S. African husband to investigate potential countries for a permanent residence. They chose this part of the world over the U.S. or Europe, so it says alot about the stability, inexpensive living, and relatively reasonable standard of living. We found their mission for visiting the Caucasus fascinating, and even more enthralling that we met them completely by accident!

Food for Thought

With a bit of effort, delicious healthy food such as vegetable plates with presentation flair are inexpensive and available.

Cafesjian Center for the Arts

As part of the “Cascade”, an outdoor stairway system that ascends halfway up a steep hill in the middle of the city, an art museum is located adjacent to the escalator system serving the stairs. Sculpture is placed in layers as one moves along the escalators and views artwork at an enjoyable pace. The Cascade Monument was erected to commemorate the 2780th anniversary of the founding of Yerevan with an equal number of stairs.

Genocide Museum, Yerevan, Armenia

No visit would be complete without learning about the Armenian Genocide in 1915-20. An estim 600,000 and 1.5 million people were systemmatically killed by Turks in three phases: first by forcing men into labor groups without means of survival; next, by decapitating intellectuals and leaders of Armenia; and third, by rounding up women and children and sending them into the desert. The Turkish government has yet to acknowledge its responsibility in causing so many deaths.

All Armenians (3 million) and the Armenian diaspora (approx. 8 million) know about this tragedy. Funds for public and private projects such as the Cafesjian Center are sponsored by Armenians living outside of Armenia to help support the country today.

Armenia was the first countries to adopt Christianity as a state religion. Unless you majored in Religion or Theological Studies, you probably would not be familiar with the numerous stories fron the Old and New Testament quoted when visiting the early Armenian Christian churches. They helped to shed light on the activities of about 1100 years between the 3rd C CE and the 13th C. CE of devout Christian belief and that continues today.

Coincidentally, Gregory “the Illuminator” had a lot to do with the designating of sites or inspiring a number of them.

The Holy See of Armenia was the residence of the head of the Armenian Apostolic Church, a monastery, and cathedral. It contained a museum in which the hierarchical aspects of the Catholica, archbishop and bishop, such as vestments, decorative items and tapestries were preserved. One of the most interesting was a reliquary covered by a piece of petrified wood purported to be from Noah’s ark.

Zvartnots Cathedral

What appeared from a distance to look like a version of Stonehenge, the ruins of this round cathedral served as the holy see, until an earthquake collapsed the stone dome above it. Only the arches and columns remain, as well as remains of the dormitories for monks and communal spaces.

Geghard Monastery

This UNESCO listed monastery and church complex was started in the 3rd C CE and was partly carved into the mountain. Many small caves behind the monastery were used by the monks for individual meditation.

We’re very sad to leave this part of the world behind. The wealth of UNESCO world sites speak for its significance in the development of mankind and societies. Politics reign above all and challenge our knowledge of these misunderstood countries. While we were only able to digest a few statistics and a small portion of its legacy, we are inspired to pursue further studies about the Caucasus.

Our next and final stop along the Silk Road will be Turkey. Although it is not normally thought of as part of the Silk Road, it certainly has over various stages in time been a destination point at the end of a very long journey westward from China.

originally posted 6/29/19

SILK ROAD ADVENTURE #6B: Georgia

Sandwiched between Turkey, Armenia, Azerbaijan, and the Russian Federation lies the country of Georgia. We nearly crossed the entire country in a day trip east to west, stopping in a couple of significant Georgian Orthodox churches and towns along the way.

Gelati Academy

Built by King David the Builder in the 12th Century, this UNESCO protected pilgrimage site served as a scientific and spiritual life in Georgia. The church has been rebuilt with private funds after the earthquake.

Mtskheta Cathedral

The robe of Christ is purported to be buried here, after a Jewish monk purchased the garment and brought it to Georgia. Many pilgrims come here to worship and consider this 12th Century Cathedral a sacred place. The impressive Byzantine frescoes told the story of Jesus and his disciples on the walls of the main apse. The Mtskheta religious buildings are designated a UNESCO world heritage site.

Kudaishi Market

Sandwiched between a visit to the local food market, we were able to stop along the highway to try Georgian homemade bread and cheese. Earlier, we tasted wine in the famous Georgian wine at Khareba Winery in the massive valley that bisects the country.

Soviet era mural outside the market

Our car slammed its brakes to stop in time for bread and cheese being sold along the highway. Bread stuck on the sides of concrete ovens took about 15 minutes to cook. Wheels of fresh sheep’s cheese were wrapped in plastic bags ready for purchase. Our second roadside stop was another version brushed with honey and egg before it was covered with an old coat and blanket and cooked.

Georgian Dishes may leave the culinary skills behind flowery English descriptions. Our order for “Mushrooms in Clay Pan” was….mushrooms in clay pan. Fruit plates are….fruit plates. No inflated language necessary.

Master Cooking Class in Tbilisi

Our master cooking class at the Tabla Restaurant introduced us to a few classic Georgian dishes that we had already tried. Starters with walnut paste rolled in red pepper and eggplant were supplemented by walnut paste patties mixed with beet leaves, leeks, and spinach

Architecture and the Streets of Tbilisi

The huge time expanse transcends everthing from the 4th C. BC to the present-day, so many buildings appear to be dilapidated, neglected, or poorly maintained. There are a healthy addition of modern buldings that are flamboyant and daring to contrast with the crumbling old ones.

It didn’t help that there was a major earthquake of about 7.0 in 2003, leaving many of the cracked brick structures in the Old City crumbling and in dire need of attention. Owners and their descendants hold out for the big hotel developer to make them an offer to make them rich for the rest of their lives. In the mean time, the neighborhood suffers with blight and tenants who continue to risk their lives for cheap rent.

With over 1 million people, Tbilisi is home to nearly one quarter of the country’s population of 4 million people. There’s much work to be done to develop the city, and I remind myself not to expect all the conveniences and solutions of more well-developed countries.

We are able to see the country before major developments take over. And yes, there are still many evident flaws and cracks in the system such as broken sidewalks, collapsed structures, and traffic accidents. The Georgians have suffered from failed and impovershed governments.

Georgia has been bombarded with invasions and systemmatic loss of its borders at the whim of leaders inside and outside the country. It is a small country that has been used as a political football for its neighbors. The capital city of Tbilisi has been sacked 27 times since it was moved from Mtskheti. Despite that, its people look to its future and hope that Georgia can soon join the EU and NATO. You can read more about this fascinating country in https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Georgia.

Addendum: We had been hearing about the active protests against the government after the Chairman of Georgia’s Parliament allowed a Russian MP to sit in his seat and deliver a message in Russian. Georgians were protesting the government for succumbing to Russian influence.

originally posted 6/25/19

SILK ROAD ADVENTURE #6A: AZERBAIJIAN

Tracing the steps along the Silk Road– Samarkand, Bokhara, Isfahan–the namesakes of Oriental carpets–has formed the basis for my travels through Central Asia. Throughout Azerbaijan, the trail of the ancient route is evident, as traders plied the same track we are traveling, between Dagestan (part of Russia) and Iran.

We traveled through the baby Caucasus mountains northwesterly towards Georgia. Because of border disputes between Armenia and Azerbaijan, neither jurisdiction will allow direct access across their border. Tourists must transit through “neutral” Georgia to the other country. What’s bad for Armenia and Azerbaijan is good for Georgia.

Silk Road Caravansary

Similar to those in Iran and Uzbekistan, the caravansaries were stopping points for traders along the Silk Road. Camels were housed on the lower floor and provided heat for travelers who lived above. The central water fountain was used for cooling the space and was connected to the ventilation system. Traders could set up instant pop-ups to sell and barter their wares, before moving onto the next station.

In the nearby town of Lahij, local items made of wool, herbs, and copperware are sold similar to those traded along the Silk Road in the 5th Century.

Petroglyphs, Gobustan National Park (a UNESCO World Heritage Site)

from the Neolithic period, these petroglyphs may not be as elegant as those in Alta Mira or Lascaux, but the 6,000 petroglyphs in this area certainly were evidence of man’s need to communicate. Animals being hunted, a focus on females for child bearing and men hunting were typical images carved into the sandstone rocks where they lived.. I was excited by the chance to see these markings by our ancient artists, carved en plein air in a spectacular setting.

Yanardag Mountains

For several hundred years, natural gas burned openly and continuously in the Yanardag Mountains. It’s not surprising that religious rites sprung from man’s early encounter with these unexplainable phenomenon. In the town of Surakhany, the Ateshgah Temple was used for fire worshippers. Zorastrians and HIndus travel from India to visit the temple. You can read more about it below.

This temple reminded us of our first introduction to the Zorastrian religion in Iran (Thus Spake Zarasthustra!) as well as the Fire Temple in Yasd.

Juma Mosque

Considered the largest mosque in Azerbaijan, its sandstone walls were a contrast to the blue mosaic decorations more commonly used in mosques I visited in Iran and Uzbekistan. The mosque was rebuilt after earthquakes and fire damaged the building.

Miscellany

originally posted 6/23/19

SILK ROAD Adventure #5B: Isfahani Style (Cont’d from Part A)

From the last post, our itinerary started in Tehran, then south to Shiraz. In this second half of travels to Iran, we are visiting Isfahan, then plying our way north to Yasd, Isfahan, and back to Tehran.

Isfahan

Isfahan represents one of the great architectural cities of the world, and now I know why. The magnificent scale of site planning, building design and decoration are fully integrated. Many of the civic buildings surround what used to be a polo field and display the pride and beauty of Persia. (Yes, Persia and Iran is used interchangeably).

In the 16th Century, the Safavids defeated the Ottomans. During this triumphant period, Shah Abbas developed this square, which is the largest in the world. Islamic art and architecture flourished with distinctive elements. The public Mosque with twin towers dominates one end of the square. The architect’s signature is written on a tile discreetly placed to the side of the building. It avoids the front face and competing with the orientation towards Mecca. If only all architects were as humble!

After designing and building the Mosque, which is now a UNESCO World heritage site, the architect went away and returned after six months. He managed to convince the king that he was waiting to see whether the massive structure, with all its solid stone, brick and tilework, would cause settlement. (Yeah, right!!)

Everyone was relieved that it hadn’t, and the architect could still get his tea in Isfahan. Maybe the architect and structural engineer for the Millennium Tower in San Francisco were taking their sabbaticals before they got the bad news.

To the side is the private mosque, known as the Shah’s mosque. Daylighting illuminates verses on walls. As the sun rotates and casts light on various exposures, appropriate poetry is spotlighted naturally. The inside of the dome is also decorated with flecks of gold to cleverly simulate a spotlit tromp l’oeil effect.

This is only a glimpse of the many beautiful buildings with intricate floral tilework and awe-inspiring domes that are signatory to Isfahani architecture. The Shah’s Palace contained a music room with deep cutouts that made you feel as if you were inside a gigantic violin. And the Entertainment Center for the Shah displayed beautiful period paintings. While depiction of human figures was not allowed, these paintings represented non-Muslims such as Georgians or Indians. Some faces on the paintings were later marred or removed.

Persians enjoy strolling in the world-famous gardens built on the desert oasis and along the Zayandeh River. Sadly, the river is dammed to provide water to Yasd and farmers in the desert and as a result it runs dry. The Khaju Bridge that originally spanned the river is used as a leisurely stroll for Isfahanians. Local singers gather under the bridge to spar with other talented folk opera afficinados.  Here’s a short video of one of the talented regulars:

While I normally focus on historic architecture and museum artwork, this trip has engaged me in taking more photos of people in the streets. I have not been shy about asking for posed photos of strangers, because they are universally handsome and graceful in their poses and demeanor. You can’t help but want to capture some of this spirit that delights visitors to Iran and endears you to the people.

Where We Didn’t Go

Apparently the hottest place on earth is in Iran. Fortunately, it wasn’t on the menu. We got the details from our guide as he drove us from Yasd to Isfahan. A year ago, he took a couple of people out to see sand towers that appear like high rises. He reported to the police before entering the desert and notified them that he and a tourist couple were entering the zone. If you go missing after an hour, they come to get you.

They each brought a bottle of water to drink. On arrival he began to feel faint and told the travelers that he had to leave right away. He found out afterwards that you need to drink water every few minutes in order to stay hydrated. Food shrivels once it hits high temperatures of 76 degrees C. (equivalent to 167 degrees!!)

Driving through in the car reduces some of the effect until you get out. Abdullah had the AC on but the wife insisted on having full effect of windows open. He tried not to think what would happen if his car broke down as he seldom saw anyone on the road returning.

The second time, he accompanied two male travelers who wanted to get their thrills as extreme sportsmen. Once they got in, they encountered a sandstorm, that can last anywhere from 20 minutes to an hour. Fortunately, they were on the edge of it and after it blew past they were able to see what they wanted. They tried dripping water on the stones to watch how fast the water would be sucked dry. Others were frying eggs.

He has returned the second time to be ready to escort any of you for his third foray to a place that’s hot (literally) on the adventure trail. Sorry that this is only a second-hand story, but if you are interested in more, you can go to https://www.livescience.com/19700-hottest-place-earth.html for another great story about the Lut Desert in Iran.

Speaking of water and lack thereof, here’s a picture of the water bottle we recently purchased. Being a Muslim country, Iran does not allow liquor to be drunk or sold. This plastic bottle is shaped like a flask of liquor, or even worse, it makes me think of some toxic lighter fluid or cleaning alcohol. Its shape can’t be understood, but it seems to make sense for grasping (or gasping) purposes. Maybe drinking from cases of these will be part of the desert ritual as the Rime of the Ancient Mariner searches for those precious drops.

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Only 2 days left of blissful travel in a clean country with exceptionally kind and handsome people with a deep sense of their history and humanity.

Here’s a bonus video of delightful young, uninhibited girls playing in the evening. They capture the spirit of a safe and secure life. This was taken in a shopping area around 10pm at night. I feel far safer here than any country I have ever visited.

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(This post was created on April 18, 2018 and edited April 22,2018.

Kool in Kashan

Midway between Tehran and Isfahan lies Kashan. One of the UNESCO World Heritage sites, the Fin Garden highlights traditional Persian landscape design with fountains, channels and reflecting pools. These design principles trace back to the 6th Century and Cyrus the Great.

Local tourists love to visit these parks. On a particularly busy “weekend” Friday, the sites were crowded but the feeling was festive. Persians are courteous and never pushy, so it always seems like you are part of the public experience, not against it. Each person, including you, is entertainment material.

We stopped for lunch at a restaurant where large divans or platforms shaped like a huge sofa surrounded by a low back/barricade offered guests an alternative to traditional tables. The design defined a semi-private space, where groups or families could sit cross legged, enjoy the food, but not miss out on the activity outside their spaces.

The nearby town housed merchants who became wealthy from the textiles, carpets and tile produced in the area. Door knockers on a pair of entry doors differentiated men from women arriving by the sound of the knock. That was a pretty ingenious communication device!

The local bath house was an important community space and lavish design details encouraged members to use the club’s facilities!

I couldn’t help but to continue a few of my forays into people pictures. I was starting to get really comfortable doing this, again because the faces of the individuals are so engaging and CALM. Young girls may be a bit giddy, but overall everyone whose pictures I took were inviting, elegant and never intimidated or negative.

Below, here’s a video of the adorable little girl shown above:

(This post was created on April 20, 2018)

Iranic Irony in Tehran Terroir

Iran can be considered as a country of contradictions. We certainly experienced many of them, but certainly not without challenging our own values and assumptions about what it means to be a citizen of the world, of one’s country, and about human beings and their treatment towards each other.

Iran currently produces no wine. But like wine, the struggle to survive, the endurance, and the flavor come from the people. As mentioned in earlier posts, the most remarkable takeaway was the unique character of Iranians. They are proud. They are animated. And they are a kind and gentle people.

Everywhere we visited, people were not only good to us, but good to each other. There is a high value on the family. In the streets of Tehran and elsewhere, there’s no jostling, little noise, and a graceful poise.

Naturally, as travelers in a foreign country, we notice the aspects that are different from what we consider normal in our own countries. But being in Iran has had a profound effect on how we think about human interaction.

Maybe it’s because life is tougher in many ways, and there’s so much misunderstanding about the country.  But there appears to be a genuine friendliness that is inherent in Iranians. Hospitality is in the DNA of every Iranian. There is an elegant flow in body language, facial expressions, and greetings to one another.

The newest gesture we learned is placing your hand over your heart to express many words:  “I’m thankful”, “I’m sorry”, “I feel for you“, “I’m happy that you’re happy”. It was an unfamiliar gesture of hand to heart.  We tried it out and found that it was a quite natural act to put your hand over your heart, especially meaningful between strangers.  We hope we won’t lose this stress-reducing contribution to the world. Our guide taught us. After studying his natural behavior, we wanted to do it too. These habits could certainly be considered by others, where the “in your face mentality” is the new normal.

The Iranian’s sense of history is profound. Had it not been for the depth of it and my obvious ignorance, I probably would not have ventured here. Indeed, it’s all here, in its raw, all-inspiring splendor. From the earliest settlements around 2,000 BC that predated the Greek and Roman civilizations to the latest shopping mall outside Tehran (complete with fast food outlets sans American chains), Iran is country that is proud of its history. It is one that has had to become self-sufficient. It is stifled by political, cultural and economic events.

This is a country of very handsome people. We stare at their faces, and see the lines of character and beauty that appear from nowhere. My imaginary pen draws each face, each feature, with love and affection. Clothing shrouds the natural beauty of the women, so exceptionally high value is placed on their facial features and how they manage them.

Within a very short duration of time, we were hooked on Iran. It wasn’t expected. It’s definitely not what the media world tells us. After a short overnight layover in  St. Goarhausen ( in second home Germany) and a few days in Manhattan, we have come back to recover our thoughts and perspective on Iran. Like our own, a country like Iran is full of contradictions. We wish the people well and a hopeful future.

Below are a couple of galleries of people and places that capture our fanstastic experience:

Iran can be considered as a country of contradictions. We certainly experienced many of them, but certainly not without challenging our own values and assumptions about what it means to be a citizen of the world, of one’s country, and about human beings and their treatment towards each other.

Iran currently produces no wine. But like wine, the struggle to survive, the endurance, and the flavor come from the people. As mentioned in earlier posts, the most remarkable takeaway was the unique character of Iranians. They are proud. They are animated. And they are a kind and gentle people.

Everywhere we visited, people were not only good to us, but good to each other. There is a high value on the family. In the streets of Tehran and elsewhere, there’s no jostling, little noise, and a graceful poise.

Naturally, as travelers in a foreign country, we notice the aspects that are different from what we consider normal in our own countries. But being in Iran has had a profound effect on how we think about human interaction.

Maybe it’s because life is tougher in many ways, and there’s so much misunderstanding about the country.  But there appears to be a genuine friendliness that is inherent in Iranians. Hospitality is in the DNA of every Iranian. There is an elegant flow in body language, facial expressions, and greetings to one another.

The newest gesture we learned is placing your hand over your heart to express many words:  “I’m thankful”, “I’m sorry”, “I feel for you“, “I’m happy that you’re happy”. It was an unfamiliar gesture of hand to heart.  We tried it out and found that it was a quite natural act to put your hand over your heart, especially meaningful between strangers.  We hope we won’t lose this stress-reducing contribution to the world. Our guide taught us. After studying his natural behavior, we wanted to do it too. These habits could certainly be considered by others, where the “in your face mentality” is the new normal.

The Iranian’s sense of history is profound. Had it not been for the depth of it and my obvious ignorance, I probably would not have ventured here. Indeed, it’s all here, in its raw, all-inspiring splendor. From the earliest settlements around 2,000 BC that predated the Greek and Roman civilizations to the latest shopping mall outside Tehran (complete with fast food outlets sans American chains), Iran is country that is proud of its history. It is one that has had to become self-sufficient. It is stifled by political, cultural and economic events.

This is a country of very handsome people. We stare at their faces, and see the lines of character and beauty that appear from nowhere. My imaginary pen draws each face, each feature, with love and affection. Clothing shrouds the natural beauty of the women, so exceptionally high value is placed on their facial features and how they manage them.

Within a very short duration of time, we were hooked on Iran. It wasn’t expected. It’s definitely not what the media world tells us. After a short overnight layover in  St. Goarhausen ( in second home Germany) and a few days in Manhattan, we have come back to recover our thoughts and perspective on Iran. Like our own, a country like Iran is full of contradictions. We wish the people well and a hopeful future.

Below are a couple of galleries of people and places that capture our fanstastic experience:

Swivel-Chair Pop-Up: Join us for a Zoom Party with Sara Ishikawa, former UC Berkeley Professor of Architecture, and Peter Basmajian, AIA, of Richards Basmajian, Hong Kong, for a crazy, 40-year delayed world catchup— with Iran as the backdrop—on Saturday, August 7, 8pm (PST). Send me an email at vifongit@gmail.com and I will send you the link!

CORRECTION: THE DATE IS SATURDAY, AUGUST 8, AT 8PM!