I have been contemplating how to initiate 2021, after a three-week hiatus from posting Travels with Myself and Others. The uncommonly normal existence in New Zealand seems awkward and inconceivable in light of the unprecedented events taking place in the U.S. Perhaps it is best to acknowledge what has allowed our privilege to be here possible.
The New Zealand government, along with a few other island countries like Japan, Korea and Taiwan, has overcome huge obstacles to protect its people from the spread of the COVID-19 virus. In this tiny country of 5 million people, the government has been as transparent and straightforward as possible in its approach to the pandemic.
It also maintains stringent control over non-native flora and fauna. Travelers are unable to bring in foreign species such as fresh fruit and vegetables. Even sun-dried goods such as herbs, mushrooms, sausages and dried meat may contain microscopic live organisms. These items are confiscated and require zapping in high temperature ovens before being released.
Similar to these protections that have been in place for decades, the government takes special precautions against incoming biohazards and diseases such as COVID-19. In going through the agricultural area of Te Puke in Tauranga, signs along the highway remind everyone to protect its local kiwi fruit production.
New Zealanders are aware of their special circumstances. They are grateful for the government’s efforts in being vigilant. They read the news headlines and follow international developments closely. They follow the rules. Everyone knows about the thin line separating them from most of the rest of the world. In the end, no one is separable.
There was talk about creating a bubble for travel with Australia, where 75% of expatriate New Zealanders live. However, breaches in Melbourne, Sydney and where the new COVID-variant is detected, widening the net seems unlikely at this time.
New Zealanders have been very understanding and compassionate, as they hear distressing stories from other countries rampant with COVID-19. They want to make sure that New Zealander living abroad are able to repatriate and be comfortable during the two weeks in the managed isolation facilities.
New Zealand has done the right thing. With good leadership, good policies and practical thinking, it is one of the safest places to be on earth at the moment. We are fortunate to be here and hope that it will remain this way.
Mt. Ruapehu National Park
Everyone was more than ready for 2020 to end. With a few strategic choices and decisions, we were able to fulfill our goal of reuniting our nuclear family in New Zealand. Our last few weeks were filled with joyful holiday activities among close family members and a new addition to the family. We traveled from the North Island to the South Island.
We celebrated our Christmas holidays in Ohakune, at the edge of the UNESCO dual World Heritage Tongariro and Whanganui National Parks. During the off-peak season, we were able to enjoy one of New Zealand’s popular winter destinations with few or no crowds. (It is summertime now). On New Year’s Day, we took the gondola ride up Mount Ruapehu, the largest active volcano in New Zealand and the highest point in the North Island (over 9,000 ft).
Volcanic activity in the area restricted a 2 km radius area, but fortunately it wasn’t in the gondola’s path. New Zealand is unleashed when it comes to extreme sports such as bungee jumping, zipping, and hair-raising climbs. Being liability free, New Zealand is a hearty land for adventure travelers. Seismic and volcanic activity along the ring of fire further increases the potential danger and drama. Some tourists were killed last year when the volcano at White Island near Tauranga erupted.
Overnight in Wellington
We stopped to visit friends and the Te Papa Museum in a brief overnight stopover in Wellington on the way to Christ Church. Filled with a variety of classic and modern art, history, and natural history, the museum had plenty of material to teach and inspire visitors of all ages.
The Wellington Sunday Market in the Central Business District offered summer fruits and vegetables that seemed brighter, fresher, and larger. I was drawn to the pattern, shape, and form of each product. After a delightful and leisurely evening with a close relative, we managed to slip in a dim sum lunch the next day in the center of the city before heading to Christchurch.
Ohakune Forest Walks
Earlier in the week, we took one more hour-long forest walk in Ohakune before heading to Wellington. We had a chance to appreciate the gorgeous display of famous New Zealand ferns.
Middle Earth is a reference to Peter Jackson’s famous Lord of the Rings. Much of the filming took place between Auckland and Tauranga, but it seemed like a more appropriate name for the middle of the North Island. I haven’t seen the series yet, but I am inspired by being here.
With thanks to our pastry chef daughter, we shared the joy of cooking with our beloved family between Christmas and New Year’s. We concocted, baked, glutted ourselves with special meals and dishes and challenged each other’s intellectual skills on a hand-made Scrabble board.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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!
The day before, we beat it back from Amsterdam to hit a local Kreuzberg Turkish restaurant.
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.
For those of you just joining, my travels around the world included many UNESCO World Heritage sites in Uzbekistan, Russia, China, Mongolia; Morocco, Iran, Azerbaijan, Georgia and Armenia. Each year, I traveled to Germany to study German language for about a month. I continued to or traveled from China, Korea, Japan and Vietnam before finally returning home to San Francisco.
Many posts from these countries have been reposted since the advent of the COVID pandemic over the past four months since March under SILK ROAD ADVENTURES. Now, I am including European countries I visited as an extension to the Silk Road travels. These posts are compilations of multiple posts, so please beware: they are long!! You can find original posts by doing a search or looking in the monthly index.
I have condensed the photographs into slide shows, so be sure to click on the forward button to the right of each image to see more.
The Cultural Program at Vienna’s Goethe Institute
The Vienna Goethe Institute has an excellent cultural program, perhaps the best of any educational program I have joined. We started with a general city tour that gave us a good orientation to the center of town. Intriguing alleyways and amazing historic buildings are tucked behind major thoroughfares, so a guide is helpful to finding these hidden gems.
Fourteen students, most of whom are German language teachers, come from Ireland, China (Souzhou and Hangzhou), France, Belgium, England, Russia and Norway. I am the only American in the class and I am very happy that it turned out that way.
We have spent most of our time getting accustomed to the class environment. A full program of free guided tours of the city, museums, historic sights, and concerts are offered before and after classes. I am glad that I chose Vienna to study German! My only problem is that I am exhausted at the end of each day and have not had any time to sketch.
A word about my German C level class for my German language buddies. I don’t know how I did it but I was put in an advanced class. I figured the director got a promotion for enrolling more students in advanced levels. If nothing else, I got to experience what an advanced level class is like!
Accommodations, in true Viennese style, are generous and adequately stocked. You can see the view of the modern studio apartment below, that costs about $33 a day. It’s a great deal including the cultural program provided in the course.
There aren’t as many tourists, thankfully, as in Lisbon. We were only spared for a short time in the morning until we hit the center of town at noon. The St. Stephan’s church was the crowning glory and has been completely renovated for googling eyes and ears. Concerts are held on a regular basis here for eager tourists who take in the musical history of famous composers like Mozart, Schubert and Mahler.
Vienna’s history is shrouded in the Hapsburg reign from about the 13th C.-1918. Thirty Years’ War, religious battles between Protestants and Catholics, Napoleon, and the plague set the backdrop for a violent past. Marriages between royal families in Europe sealed the Hapsburg rule for nearly 800 years, one of the longest standing regimes in history.
The main history of Vienna is focused near the Royal residences and the churches in the area. In addition, the Spanish Riding School where the famous Lippizaner Horses are trained, and the National Library with its fabulous collection, are located in the same vicinity.
An excellent introduction to three historic and beautiful churches on the second day was even more fascinating and helped us to understand the extent of power controlled by church and state. Austria was primarily Protestant in the countryside but Vienna was controlled by the Catholics and the royalty. The powerful relationship prevailed at the expense of the majority. It seemed to be another sad lesson to today’s world politics and the division between the haves and the have nots.
According to tradition, many of the Hapsburg family have buried parts of their bodies in three separate locations. Hearts in Budapest, innards and bones in two other locations in Vienna. The family followed this creepy ritual. The guide savored telling the English pun: “May the emperor rest in pieces”. You can read more about the Royal family’s whereabouts here: https://en.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/Imperial_Crypt.
You would be completely missing out on Vienna if you only saw St. Stephan’s in the center of town, the Opera House, and Mariahilferstrasse, the main shopping street. Just like we scoff at tourists in San Francisco who only go to Fisherman’s Wharf, it’s not what locals do. However, the center of town is useful in getting one’s bearings for the rest of the city’s bright and newly minted cultural activities.
Kunst Historisches Museum
This huge repository for the Italian and Flemish masters is an incredible collection of European art. The slide show includes the following in order of appearance below (but not chronicalogically): Breughel, Vermeer, Durer, Raphael, and Rembrandt
If you were wondering where all the artifacts from early Mediterranean civilizations had gone, you could probably find many of them here, like those in the “mummy” room:
Of course, no visit to the Kunsthistorisches Museum would be complete without a visit to the cafe for Viennese coffee and Apfelstrudel.
The Museum Quartier
The Museum Quartier, tucked behind the Volks Theater, was an eye opener and inspiration for a visitor to this historic city. It’s alive with young people enjoying the balmy summer evening, amidst theater, dance, art, spontaneous outdoor performers, and of course, food establishments galore.
Originally a series of small villages, the district has been tranformed into a string of happening event spaces. Outdoor dining seems to be the order of the day. What’s amazing is that these are primarily locals enjoying their new-found urban spaces, with perhaps a dose of savvy tourists to keep the economy thriving.
My last-minute museum fix was to the Leopold Museum. Leopold was a private philanthropist who decided to collect art after he saw the collection at the Kunsthistorisches Museum and became a patron of the arts.
I was swept away by the entire collection. The “Modern” section told the story of the Vienna Werkstatt. Architects, artists, literary figures, and designers all gathered together to form the “Vienna Werkstatt”, that preceded the Bauhaus. Here are some of the exquisite design pieces from the period around 1900, in the Jugendstil:
Primarily led by Klimt, the group seceeded from the conservative Vienna Kunsthaus. The group then later became fragmented and Klimt and others left the Secessionists. He was also embroiled with the University of Vienna’s administration over the paintings, “Philosophy, Medicine and Jurisprudence“.
We read and discussed this argument in our German class. Klimt was criticizing his benefactors. The faculty considered the nude figures pornographic and removed them from the ceiling where they were located.
This would not be so earth-shaking today, as many artists push their boundaries. Names like Ai-Wei-Wei came up. It was interesting to note, that while most of the European studentswere familiar with his name, none of the Chinese students knew of him.
Egon Schiele was an artist unbeknownst to me. He donated his collection to the Museum, so it may explain his prominence here.
I was drawn to the graphic nature of his work, powerful compositions, and emotional content. Being an aspiring artist, I studied his choice of color, figure drawing skill, and architectural themes intently. If you are interested you can read more about him here: https://de.wikipedia.org/wiki/Egon_Schiele
Salzburg Music Festival
You may remember the Salzburg Music Festival from the film, “the Sound of Music”, where the Von Trapp Family made their debut. This weekend escape served as a finale of sorts for my travels. The ultimate purpose was to see “Adriana Lecouvreur” starring Anna Netrebko, Yuri Eyvazov (her husband), and Anita Rachvelishvili.
These are superstars in their prime in the opera world. I don’t know if there ever will be such a dynamic combination of singers performing such a highly dramatic opera.
The story takes place in 1730 and is about a theater actress, who became involved in a three-way triangle. There are many twists and turns about actresses playing their roles so well that they forget about their own lives and vulnerabilities.
This was Anna Netrebko’s greatest artistic challenge, not only as a singer but as an actress. You could only imagine what she is feeling after her own marital tribulations, on top of singing to her current spouse!!
Anna Netrebko, who did not respond to immediate audience approval at the end, was just recovering from her own performance. She was so immersed in the role, that she had forgotten that she was only performing! I could see how audience applause nearly destroyed the moment she was feeling. To jolt her out of one intense emotion of dying over spurned love (she won the battle but lost the war), the instant accolades were at first irrelevant. I could only imagine that feeling as it took some time for me to recover myself (from the performance, not spurned love!)
Earlier in the morning. I attended a Mozart concert. It was the usual Mozart fare offered by the Mozarteum Orchestra (who coincidentally played “Adriana Lecouvreur” at the Salzburg Festival.
I flashed back to one of my favorite movies, “Amadeus”. This came up in our class and was dismissed as “Hollywood”, implying that it wasn’t an authentic interpretation of Mozart. I defended the industry by indicating that the film launched the career of Milos Forman, a Czech.
As for differences between Europeans and Americans, awareness of the environment is one of the biggest contrasts to me. Europeans are more advanced in using public transportation and relying less on cars. They seem to live more modestly within their means, and are less focussed on themselves. I can still recall eavesdropped conversations between bratty entitled Americans that would make you regret being American.
On the other hand, the European food markets demand perfect quality produce. An article in the NY Times last year reported on food waste in Europe. It was evident here, pristine and among the most beautiful, even in run of the mill supermarkets. Perhaps their denial of GMO’s has to do with the cost, supply and demand.
Institutionalized Ethnic Food
The Currywurst in Germany started the downhill spiral, and now every immigrant dreams about his or her own ethnic take-away. Yesterday I bought my Japanese-style chicken teriyaki and rice from a hawker, who spoke in broken English but actually was Chinese. The fast food the vender was selling gave a mixed message—sell processed ethnic food that is predictable and a reasonable facsimile of food imagined from 50 years ago. Don’t worry about authenticity.
It wasn’t cheap—10 Euros. I can rationalize the overhead needed by families to make up for sacrifices in education, income and risk to reestablish in a new country. Perhaps gradually, authentic ethnic food will be appreciated as customers become more sophisticated.
This material was excerpted from two posts in July, 2019.
(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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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!
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.
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.
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.
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)
High Renaissance Rome
The food and the architecture are self-explanatory, right?!?
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.
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.
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 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.
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!
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
On arrival back in Izmir, we couldn‘t resist returning to the lokanta in the Bazaar where we had eaten earlier in the week.
It‘s a Wrap!
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!
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
If you were traveling along the ancient Silk Road from Samarkand or Bokhara to Istanbul, you would undoubted stop in Tehran, Iran.
Our itinerary, in case you missed it on the map and on the World Travels 2018 page of https://travelswithmyselfandothers.com, started with our guide in Tehran, then south to Shiraz. From there, we plied our way north by car with our guide through Yasd to Isfahan, and back to Tehran. There is so much to see! I am splitting the adventure into two parts for this Silk Road series. This is the first part (A), to be followed by the wrap-up (Part B) of Iran in the next post.
With all my worldly possessions-and a precious visa to visit in tow, husband Gee Kin and I have just arrived in Tehran, the capital of Iran. We left behind the globalized world of Starbucks, KFC and Macdonalds, to one with brewed tea, fast food chicken legs roasting on an open fire, and lamb kebabs with bread made with pebbles for dimples. We passed tantalizing corner stores filled with pistachios and dry fruits that you buy to take to a friend’s house. Hospitality means alot here, and we can already feel it in the air.
Our hypothetical Silk Road route started westwards from the outer reaches of Mongolia and Beijing, China, past the outpost of Turpan in Northwest China through Samarqand, Bokhara and Khiva ( today’s Uzbekistan). But in actuality, I took this segments was undertaken in 2018 separate from this route. Here is the post.
Having just completed a marathon flight in 19 hours (San Francisco-Washington DC-Vienna-Tehran, I was glad to hit the end of the day with a hearty meal of lamb stew macerated at the table and mixed into a tomato based soup, with chicken and lab kebobs, saffron rice, yoghurt dressing, a vinegar-based eggplant sauce on the side, and bread.
After a few days of jet lag, weather changes, and internet hell, we resparked our curiosity and thirst for the unknown. We visited museums, mosques, and even a madrassah, but no mausoleums yet. The last three m’s defined Islamic architecture during my visit to Uzbekistan, but each building type was not fulfilled until we saw Hafez’ tomb or “mausoleum” in Shiraz.
At the Golestan Palace in Tehran, a World Heritage Site, the pre-Pahlavi royalty (within the last 150 years) displayed their wealth and were over-the-top ornate. Most of the public rooms including the ceilings were covered with intricate mirror mosaics and made you feel like you were inside the Hope Diamond.
The exteriors demonstrated the integration of gardens and fountains that are famous in Iranian architecture and design, as well as the intricate mosaic work and marble carving on doors and walls.
The National Museum of Iran contained some of the most precious relics of the ancient world. The statue of Darius I (Xerxes I, from which an opera is based!) and a panel from the Achaemenid Period in Persepolis are shown below. For those interested, you can scale up the text included in the adjacent photos.
The bazaars in both Tehran and Shiraz contained endless boutiques in a Walmart-sized atmosphere with limited and inexpensive goods from copperware to aromatic spices.
We bonded with our local guide from Shiraz after he passionately described Iran’s native son and poet, Hafez. His elegant poems are beloved by all Iranians and transcend cultures. F. Scott Fitzgerald and Goethe were known to quote his poetry. It was enough for me to determine to read some when I get home.
As we stood in the garden of the tomb of Hafez, Abdullah, our guide, explained that Shiraz is known for its wine, women, and roses. Many of us will recognize the famous wine namesake that comes from this region.
In the evening light, Abdullah pointed out the abundance of young couples strolling in the park, with flowers intoxicating the warm breezes. Knowing a little or a lot about the poetry of Hafez is enough to start amiable conversations and the start of a promising relationship, Abdullah surmises (maybe from experience?)
While Abdullah waxed poetic, we observed that families were out selfying just like any other society, enjoying a delicious evening, and lingering among crowds of friendly visitors.
There seems to be tremendous respect for fellow humans in Iran. So far, we have found the urban environment remarkably quiet. We stayed on busy streets in two cities on and found the traffic unusually quiet. Being highly sensitive to noise, I am finding the calm, lack of noise shattering to my ears.
People glide about the streets, smiling at one another with eyes and lips, and salaam each other without exception. I’m not sure our guide has coopted us, but we sense the immense pride and confidence in the people.
Just outside of Shiraz, on a wide open plain, lies the ceremonial center of Darius. Before him, Cyrus the Great created and led an impressive empire. The wooden ceilings of buildings and both palaces of Darius and his son built around 518 BC were later razed to the ground by Alexander the Great (around 330 BC), but the massive stone structures with priceless carvings remain.
After just having seen the great empires of Rome, Greece, Inca at Macchu Picchu and Aztec in Teotihuacan, it’s hard not to be impressed by the volume and quality of artwork in situ at Persepolis. We could not believe how much of its splendor is still present for the whole world to appreciate.
Were it not from my earliest art history lessons on ancient civilizations and curiosity on its context and meaning, I would not have made this trip.
Everything begins to fall into place, as the pieces of the puzzle assemble. My scant preparation for this trip, thanks to Francopan’s Silk Roads, a New History of the World, captures the whirlwind tour through the rise and fall of Eurasian civilizations. Iran, and more fondly, Persia by the same name, stands prominently at the helm of the Silk Road.
The artwork at Persepolis chronicles the peaceful arrival and acceptance of the local inhabitants to the new ruler. Darius followed shortly after Cyrus (within 40 years), and while not a direct descendant, they were related. Although the local Medians were conquered by Cyrus and the Archimineads, he managed a peaceful settlement and was respected for his accomplishments as a capable ruler. Darius culminated the dynastic rule with his grandiose and impressive complex at Persepolis.
Within the ceremonial entrance and grand reception areas are magnificent stone reliefs of warriors supporting the king on his throne. Rows of roundheaded conquerees alternating with the conquerors proceed to meet the king, hand in hand. Offerings from 23 nations include food, treasures and animals from surrounding areas and those as far as India.
Other friezes demonstrate the high quality of craftsmanship that preceded the Greek and Roman periods revered in history. In a splendid exemplary frieze, a bull and cow signify the end and beginning of the new year.
The symbolic meanings of birds, rings and flowers stem from the ancient monotheistic Zoroastrian and Mithras religions. They did not have a concept of God as a human, but that he lies within each of us.
Individually the symbolism of the characters presented are less significant than the collective splendor of the human mind that is left behind for all of us living creatures today to ponder.
(This post was created on April 17, 2018 and edited April 22, 2018).
From Northwest China you can take the high-speed train from Dunhuang through Hami and on to Urumqi. From there, you can fly direct to Tashkent. My real Time travel comments are included below, along with newly added site descriptions.
The first day of this segment has overwhelmed me with history, jogging my brain and challenging all of those connections between Alexander the Great, the Mongols, and Tamir. Some of you may know this better, but for me, it’s learning on the job.
Lets start with Tamir and work back. Tamir was from Samarqand and made a campaign to conquer India. His grandson was the scientist and developed an observatory and promoted a lot of concepts developed by the Arabs and and the Chinese. I now can connect the mythical opera “Turandot” to its history, where the Chinese iron princess met and fell in love with Timur’s son, Calef who sang “Nessun Dorma” to her.
When the Mongols struck in the 13th Century, they basically burned every town and village they encountered to the ground. Many of the relics predates this period, but the buildings are no longer standing. Alexander the Great conquered this area, but there is still some debate where and how long he ruled. He was physically here in the area with his army.
There are magnificent, UNESCO World Heritage sites completely restored but unnoticed. Only the curious and far-flung will seek out these treasures that defy architectural history. It’s shocking how little we in the Western world know about the treasures of the Non-Christian world. Islamic architecture had its interpretations of religion and certainly rivals the European and Asian counterparts in grandeur, functionality, and organization.
I trained myself to differentiate the three M’s: madrassah (an educational institution), mosque (for religious purposes), and the mausoleum (monuments to the prominent).Registan Square-Monument to Medieval Architecture
The most impressive buildings in Samarkand are the complex of educational institutions in Registan Square. The three separate buildings surround a courtyard and each included a library, classrooms and a place of worship (the “Mosque” is included in the madrassah complexes.)
The madrassahs were built in two different periods: the Ulugbek Madrassah, with the two towers, was completed in 1420 and the Sher-Dor and Tilla-Kori Madrassahs from around 1660. The two later buildings were intended to form a symmetrical triad of buildings, but the domes are not symmetrically placed. Architects during this period played alot with balancing symmetrical and asymmetrical elements. The visual site elements are much more interesting and challenging to deciper that way.
During that time, Christian, Hindu, Muslim and Judaic religions parallel-played. Sayings in Arabic on the entries to the building welcome all religions but only believers. These were sacred places of education held in high regard, and the eight major faculties each had their own rooms. And believe it or not, in those days women were encouraged to learn in these institutions.
Extensive reconstruction of the tile work and buildings were made in the last few years to enhance its UNESCO classification. A bazaar that used to be in the courtyard has been relocated to preserve the structures.
The Shakhi Zinda Necropolis
The steps leading to a series of mausoleum complex helped to increase the drama and anticipation of peeking into each prominent family’s tribute to one of their dearly departed. Separate buildings align either side of the stepped pathway. While much more harmonious and magnificent, these buildings reminded me of mini-monuments I remember seeing in a Catholic Philippine graveyard, where families could spend the day while displaying the family’s wealth and prominence.
Needless to say, the architecture and mosaic work were intricately designed and worth marveling over the skill and craftsmanship.
You can read about the Sogdians, the original inhabitants that helped to form the Silk Road as traders, and the history of Samarkand here:
The museum was contained an original mural of the Silk Road traders who came from China through Sogdiana. This treasure is in the process of being further restored. It outlined the figures as a guide and was a moving display of travelers and traders plying the Silk Road.
So what am I thinking? It’s hard to squeeze it out when (traveling solo) you can keep your thoughts to yourself, private and without judgment. Since we are social animals, we have the need to share and communicate, so here are a few of my thoughts:
Looking back, I regret not taking the History of Architecture class on Islamic Architecture. There are so many things to learn–not just the types of buildings (madrasah, mosque, and mausoleums) and their functions, but many of the basic universal design principles come from this part of the world: presence and soothing effect of water, gardens for life, and patterns for texture and interest. On top of that, you get the confluence of all religions here–an encyclopedic understanding of Islamic, Judaic, Christian, and Buddhist principles, not to mention the sub-religions such as Sufi (remember the Whirling Dervishes), Zorastrian, Baha’i, Jehovah’s Witnesses, Sunni, Shi’ite, etc. need to be readily available for this type of travel.
The Sufis had a major center here and while they professed to not ever promote religion for material gain, they were highly intellectual and sought to purge themselves of all materialism. They strived to reach the point of connection with God analogous to becoming a drop of water sprayed into the ocean, as my guide informed me. At that point of annihilation, they become one with God. All the battles, campaigns and failed attempts are enough to remind you how interconnected the world has been. The winners and losers needed to visit the Dresden Military History Museum to be reminded that everyone loses in war. Keeping track of the huge expanse of time is disorienting, so I am concentrating on three periods to keep myself straight: Alexander the Great, around 300 AD; the Mongol Invasions that swept through and destroyed everything in its path around the 12-13th Centuries, and the Timur Reign around 1400. That is helping me to put events and building design in perspective. I am satisfying my curiosity, and if anything it has raised a huge list of further reading and to-do lists. If anyone is interested or knows something about any of the above, let’s talk! On money changing: no need to count your Soums( the local currency, called that for a reason); the locals will automatically calculate it for you in USD. If you don’t trust them do the math: (1 Soum=0.00043USD). I had to bring a briefcase in the local currency to pay for lunch today.
Weather is manageable, but need all of the following before stepping out of the hotel: A. Sunscreen 50 count, thanks to good German biotechnology. I hate the stuff as Gee Kin will attest on my behalf, but it’s needed for the scorching heat that hit over 100 deg. F. Midday). B. Shawl for mosque but also needed for Early and late evening Mistral-like breezes) C. Sunhat for low angle sun in early morning D. Sunglasses E. Umbrella for unshaded walks–despite my black umbrella not to be found elsewhere on the street, it was a lifesaver. Needed to contend with gusty winds. F. Lots of band aids for blisters, again compliments to the German supply system. G. Map Once I was prepared, fumbling around with all of this paraphernalia was the next challenge. Had to think hard to avoid a Bridget Jones moment. oh, and of course I had to take pictures on top of it all! The people of Bokhara are known to be warm and friendly. Best of all, everyone has black hair! No bleached hair in sight. Girls like wearing their hair long, straight, and shiny or tied up in buns. The young women look very svelt and have beautiful dark eyes. Seeing swarms of students in uniform at their first day of school on Tuesday after the National Holiday reminded me what Russians brought to this country: education for all.
As for languages, if you speak a second language, it’s probably Russki. English was for the Colonials, remember? Food service: when ordering a pizza, step back. They will roll it out, let the yeast rise, and fire up the oven. It’s fresh, you just gotta wait.
This tiny gem of a building was built at the end of the Ninth Century as a crypt to the Samani family. Islam did not allow later monuments to be built over Muslim tombs, but the caliph at the time made a special exception to the rule so others followed suit. Fired brickwork was just introduced to the building industry so the designer went wild experimenting with different methods of shape and form.
Kiva is an ancient fortress city surrounded by walls that is now part of the open air State Historical Archaeological museum. About 300 families live there to promote local crafts. One of the more intriguing experiences was a group of tourists from the Ferghana Valley near the narrow passage between Uzbekistan an Tajikistan. They still wore their traditional dress and are a Persian tribe distinct from local residents in Uzbekistan.
Very refreshingly simple but tasty would be my description of Uzbeki food. As the bread basket of Europe, Uzbekistan grows fruits and vegetables in a Mediterranean climate similar to California’s Central Valley. The Tashkent Market was one of the largest in the world.
After my travels to Uzbekistan, I discovered an Uzbeki restaurant perched on the outskirts of New York City. I couldn’t resist going and even enticed world traveler and NYC resident David Craig to follow our find in Brooklyn. It is probably the only Uzbeki restaurant in the U.S. He and his family agreed it was unique and delicious! You can find his guest review of the restaurant here: