Malaga In January – A Pleasant Surprise

Seville, Granada, Cadiz … these are the cities that spring to mind when you talk about southern Spain in winter. Cities with rich architectural history, stunning old towns, vibrant cultural attractions and a charm guaranteed to steal your heart.  Malaga? Not so much. Unless, that is, you’re on the hunt for ugly cement resorts, overly crowded beaches, shady tourist restaurants, and an old city swallowed long ago by the forward march of industry and excessive tourism.  At least, that’s the Malaga I expected. My lazy Google pre-trip search did little to assuage my concerns. Photos from above showed me a modern city with beaches and a skyline marked by the jarring sight of ugly hotel elbowing its way in front of ugly hotel.  A perusal of a few top 10 things to do in Malaga lists further cemented my plan to use Malaga and more specifically its airport as a cheap way-station to get into and out of as quickly as possible.

Scottish Museum at Night – Friday’s Weekly Travel Photo

Edinburgh_Museum_Night_Scotland

Late on a crisp Scottish summer evening I set out to explore the capital city of Edinburgh. As I wandered the city’s storied streets I eventually found myself standing before a beautifully lit Museum. The museum is built and styled in traditional Greek form with beautiful doric columns and white marble. The museum is situated where the old loch once sat which was drained more than 100 years ago. More recently the area has been replaced by beautiful parks, the central train station, and importantly several museums and monuments.

Would you like to see previous Friday Photos? View past travel pictures here.

Friday’s Weekly Travel Photo – A Flower in Bloom in Oslo

Oslo Cultural Museum - Oslo, Norway

Norway has a reputation as one of the world’s most beautiful destinations.  The majestic fjords, stunning waterfalls, and inspiring vistas of massive snow capped mountains have come to define the country.  Yet, there is an added richness that goes beyond that – small details which add to Norway’s charm and make it an ideal destination for a variety of other reasons.  This photo captures one of those charming aspects. Taken on the outskirts of Oslo at the Museum of Cultural History, this photograph features a beautiful flower in bloom along an old wooden fence in front of a traditional Norwegian farmhouse.   The museum, which has a large out door component, is home to wonderful old Norwegian buildings, horse drawn carriages, and cultural performers playing traditional music.  It is well worth a visit!

When you think of Norway, what image or memory comes to mind?

Would you like to see previous Friday Photos?  View past travel pictures here.

Hagia Sophia and The Sultan Ahmed “Blue” Mosque

Hagia Sofia at Night

Hagia Sophia

Every art and architecture student has studied the beauty and wonder of  Hagia Sophia. It is a premier example of Byzantine art and construction. This fortress-esque structure has stood as a testament to human ingenuity since 537 AD.  That’s not a typo.   This massive sprawling citadel to God is just under 1,500 years old and has played a pivotal roll in human architectural history.  Some reports suggest that it also held the title of largest cathedral in the world for nearly 1,000 years.  No small accomplishment.

Hagia Sofia in the Snow

Amazingly the entire structure was built in less than 10 years, reportedly by a work crew of some 10,000 people, by the decree of Justinian I of Constantinople. It was the third basilica to be built in the location and the largest of the three. Unfortunately, the structure was severely damaged less than 20 years after it was completed by a series of earthquakes which collapsed the main dome. Resiliently, the dome was re-built, re-structured and raised some 20+ feet. These enhancements were completed quickly and done by the year 562.

Hagia Sofia in the Snow

The church stood as a shining example of Christiandom until 1453 when the Ottoman empire conquered Constantinople. The church was immediately converted into a mosque, a process which resulted in the removal of most of the holy relics, altars, and bells. Interestingly, instead of removing the old Christian mosaics, the Ottomans decided to paint over them.  The interior was re-decorated to serve as a mosque and the building’s four large minarets were added.  The majority of the building’s interior (as seen today) dates back to this period, with the exception of several large christian mosaics which were recently uncovered.

Hagia Sophia (Recovered)

The building served as one of the largest and most impressive mosques in the Muslim world for the next several hundred years. The mosque’s design and appearance was mirrored in other Ottoman mosques and served as inspiration for Istanbul’s numerous structures. It served as the key model for the Sultan Ahmed Mosque, which is now commonly known and recognized as Istanbul’s Blue Mosque.  In an interesting turn of history, Hagia Sophia ceased to be a mosque in 1935 when the then newly elected President Ataturk decreed that it be converted into a museum.

Hagia Sofia in Istanbul

The interior of the structure is truly fascinating.  The sheer scale of the open space in the main area will leave you feeling tiny.  The mosaics are beautiful and reflect the periods in history during which they were created. The mixture of cultures, religions and periods in history is evident in all aspects of the structure creating an eclectic mixture that while somewhat cold, still manages to be very rich and engaging.   Stay tuned for video from inside Hagia Sophia in future posts.  Beyond that, you’ll just have to visit yourself!

Sultan Ahmed Mosque in Snow

Sultan Ahmed “the Blue” Mosque

The Blue Mosque was completed in 1616 and sits immediately opposite Hagia Sophia.  The mosque embodies the epitome of Byzantine-influenced Ottoman construction. It relies on heavy inspiration from Hagia Sophia, but the building’s lines and domes are enhanced while simultaneously integrating a series of six minarets into the original design.

Sultan Ahmed Mosque in Snow

From the start, the goal while creating the Sultan Ahmed Mosque, was to create one of the greatest mosques in the world.  The structure was built on a massive scale and can accommodate 10,000 people during prayer.  It was created to be a purely Muslim structure, in contrast with Hagia Sophia which had a mixed heritage.   It was also fairly controversial initially due to its 6 minarets, which was a violation of accepted policy at that point in time-typically all mosques outside Masjid al-Haram in Mecca were limited to four minarets.

Blue Mosque

Unlike Hagia Sophia, the Blue Mosque is still in active use and faithful are welcomed to attend for daily prayer.  However, don’t fret – the mosque remains open most of the day for tourists, who are welcome into the mosque and given free roam of just under half the ground floor.  If, that is, you’re willing to leave your shoes at the door and have made sure to dress appropriately.

Interior of the Blue Mosque

The mosque’s nickname comes from the beautiful blue tile work that decorates its interior. This is accentuated by more than 200 blue stained-glass windows.   The tiles and beautifully painted calligraphy work has made the Blue Mosque one of Istanbul’s leading tourist attractions.

Interior of the Blue Mosque

Every inch of the building’s interior is covered in rich, padded carpets, beautiful stained-glass windows, or intricately decorated Islamic decorations and calligraphic script. The amount of time and energy that went into these decorations is staggering and an amazing testament to the might, wealth, and glory of the Ottoman Empire at its peak.

Interior of the Blue Mosque

For people familiar with calligraphy, many of the tiles depict beautiful flowing script, which are verses from the Qur’an and were created by Seyyid Kasim Gubari – one of the greatest calligraphers in his era.

Sultan Ahmed Mosque in Snow

The interior of the Blue Mosque is absolutely gorgeous.  However, it is also slightly overwhelming making the structure feel somewhat smaller and significantly more cozy than Hagia Sophia.  If planning a visit to Istanbul, I highly suggest visiting both structures and dedicating ample time to each. While it is easy to assume that the two will be very similar, the reality is that the experience varies significantly from one to the other.  The Blue Mosque will awe you with its beauty, with its polished architecture and wonderful lighting.  Hagia Sophia will captivate you with its size, scale, and odd mixture of religious and cultural history.

Mosque in Istanbul

Other Mosques Abound

As a first-timer to Istanbul I expected that the Blue Mosque and Hagia Sophia would be the only two large religious structures in the city.  Especially after seeing the incredible size and scale of the structures it made it hard to imagine that the city could have ever supported a third, fourth, or fifth building of similar scale and scope.

Istanbul at Sunset

So, perhaps you can understand (and share) my surprise at discovering that Istanbul’s skyline is decorated by the impressive domes and needle-like forms of towering minarets from at least half a dozen large mosques.

Have you visited Hagia Sophia and the Blue Mosque?  What were your favorite parts?  What surprised you?

**Bonus – While visiting Hagia Sophia, there is a free (and separate) series of tombs which can be accessed from the external side of the building.  These serve as the eternal resting place for a number of the region’s influential rulers and religious figures, in addition to boasting their own wealth of beautiful tile and mural work.

Exploring Oslo – Longships, Vikings and Stave Churches

Oslo Cultural Museum - Oslo, Norway

The sight that greeted my bleary eyes was a frustrating one. I silently cursed myself for not spending more time taking photos of the city the night before. The previous evening’s blue sky had been replaced by a solid, overcast gray.   I sighed. Oh well – nothing to be done about it.  I could only hope that it held to the usual coastal pattern:  Cloudy mornings burned away by the mid-day sun.

By 10:30 Sten and I were up and ready for our whirlwind tour of Oslo.  I’d singled out a few must see points (the Viking Museum and an old Wooden Stave Church) which Sten planned to complement with a local’s insights into the culture and city at large.  We set out from the house with a light spring to our step and quickly wound down towards the closest city tram stop. Along the way we paused briefly at a freestanding 7/11 so I could pick up a 1 day tram pass.

Viking Ship Museum - Oslo, Norway

Our first stop was the Viking Ship Museum. Located on a peninsula with several other museums, the facility houses three large ships (two of which are mostly intact) as well as several smaller artifacts (carriages, axes, clothing etc.).

Viking Ship Museum - Oslo, Norway

The museum houses artifacts from Tune, Gokstad (Sandefjord), Oseberg (Tønsberg) and the Borre mound cemetery.  The most obvious of which are the large viking vessels which dominate the museum.

Viking Ship Museum - Oslo, Norway

I was particular taken by the artistry evident in the ships’ woodwork.  The image above highlights the level of detail and craftsmanship which went into every square inch of the vessels.  The sweeping designs, inlaid nails, and carefully aligned planks made it easy to see why the Vikings developed such a powerful reputation as masters of the sea.

Viking Ship Museum - Oslo, Norway

I was also somewhat surprised by the ship’s size and openness. While still sizable vessels, it’s an amazing thought to consider that Nordic explorers found their way to the Americas in vessels similar to the one’s I was standing in front of. A trip that even on a modern cruise ship can seem arduous at times. Truly their curiosity, dedication, and toughness was the stuff of legends.

Oslo Cultural Museum - Oslo, Norway

Eventually we wrapped up our exploration of the Viking Ship Museum and set out to find the wooden stave church. The stave churches are a-typical in that their design is completely wooden and has a uniquely Scandinavian appearance.  Our search led us down a gorgeous country lane (most of the island is still affluent/residential), before we found a small side path which cut along a fence toward what looked to be a church tower.

Oslo Cultural Museum - Oslo, Norway

The tower itself ended up being a dud (just an odd, modern church) but it set us on the right path.  Before long we’d spotted the roof of the stave church, but found our path blocked by a fence.  A little more investigation revealed that the church itself sat within the Norsk Folklore Museum.  It turned out that the Museum was a sprawling facility with a wide assortment of buildings from Norway’s history which had been dismantled, re-located and re-constructed. In fact the Museum was founded in 1894 and claims over 150 buildings.

Oslo Cultural Museum - Oslo, Norway

We grudgingly paid the entrance fee, not sure what to expect, and then made our way into the compound.  It was alive with a wonderful assortment of old/modern buildings, people in period dress, music and small era-centered museum spaces.

Wooden Church at the Oslo Cultural Museum - Oslo, Norway

The church had originally been built in Gol, the Folklore Museum’s website notes, “The stave church at Gol was built in the 12th century. From the 1600s to early 1800s, the structure went through several renovations and alterations. In the 1870s, however, the congregation had become too large, so the old church was replaced by a new and bigger church.”

Wooden Church at the Oslo Cultural Museum - Oslo, Norway

I’ve seen a lot of cathedrals over the years and while each one is unique in its own way, the Stave Church from Gol was one of the most unique ones I’ve seen in a long time.  From the wooden materials used to build it and the Nordic ornaments on the roof to the unique internal layout, the church stands apart as something that was completely new and different from what I’d seen before.  It was small, beautiful and definitely interesting.  If you find yourself in Norway, make sure not to miss it!

Oslo Cultural Museum - Oslo, Norway

As we explored the rest of the complex, I was constantly surprised by the a-typical architecture which marked many of the traditional buildings.  The stone chimneys were of course to be expected as were the sod/green/live rooftops, but the buildings themselves were often quite unique.  Most had the living quarters raised significantly up and off of the ground.  Some (like those pictured above) used ladders to gain entrance to tiny doorways, while others (as the building below) featured large earthen ramps met by miniature drawbridges.

Oslo Cultural Museum - Oslo, Norway

The design itself makes sense for a variety of reasons.   Small doors to preserve heat which doubled as a defensive measure.  A crawl space underneath to house livestock. The small draw bridge to keep the building up out of the snow while also providing an added level of defense/safety, etc. – and yet it was a fascinating design element.  One which I’m surprised was never regularly used in the colder regions here in the US.

The Harbor - Oslo, Norway

After an hour or two exploring the exhibits we set off to explore the city proper.  Though our route back into the city would be a bit different – Sten explained that our tram pass was also good on the local harbor ferry, which left from somewhere nearby.

The Harbor - Oslo, Norway

The ferry ride was great.  The weather was cooperating – the sun had returned – the temperature was perfect, and the view of downtown Oslo from the sea was gorgeous.  The City’s town hall is an odd building.  It is massive, intense looking and austere in a way which should be ugly, but ends up growing on you.  The end result is a memorable building which you can’t quite assign a time period or culture to.

The Harbor - Oslo, Norway

The harbor area itself is great.  An eclectic mixture of old and modern buildings with expensive yachts tied-up out front and a long waterfront promenade wrapping around 2/3 of the U-shaped harbor.  The walkway is alive with foot traffic, outdoor cafes and bustling restaurants.  Add a few outdoor musicians and the 10-15 tall ships (old sailing vessels) tied up nearby and you’re greeted with an absolutely delightful area full of life, history and a constant stream of eye candy.

Downtown - Oslo, Norway

We disembarked and poked around the old harbor before cutting in a few blocks towards Norway’s Parliament Building.   As was the case with the City Hall, the Parliament Building has its own unique feel and style.   The building had a very approachable feel, set as it was at the start of a long green which stretch down toward the old National Theater and which eventually ended at the Royal Palace.   As is the case with just about any patch of green grass in Norway during summer, the whole area was covered with people relaxing and enjoying the sun.  Sunbathers at rest, families eating and even, Sten informed me, a somewhat famous local girl recording a TV piece as she kicked a soccer ball around.

Downtown - Oslo, Norway

After a quick pause to enjoy the square, architecture and insights into Norwegian culture we began to make our way towards the main market street, pausing briefly along our way when we were approached and harassed by an American missionary.  Annoyed, embarrassed and disgusted I rattled off a few quick questions, before we continued or walk.

The main market street was teeming with life and traffic.  Every block or so a different street performer had set up shop.  From the usual jugglers and musicians to a puppet master, the streets were alive with activity.

Starving we cut down a side street before pausing for lunch at a hip little cafe Sten recommended. The food was good and the view great as we sat on the front patio and watched the locals wander by.

From there it was another quick walk down to the College/Immigrant district, which had an entirely different vibe.  Full of music and 2nd hand stores, the area was alive with fun little shops, students and a surprising number of muslim women in burka’s.  We interrupted our walk briefly to pause in one of the local park cafes where we grabbed a beer, surrounded by blooming roses, sunbathers, and wandering street musicians before striking off towards our last destination for the day.

The Opera House - Oslo, Norway

Our final stop was Oslo’s new Opera House.  The building, located on the harbor, is a beautiful creation.  Designed with maritime inspiration, the large blue glass and white marble facility is build on a sweeping angle which slides straight down and into the harbor in an unbroken line.   The building which is completely accessible by foot offers fantastic roof top views from the of the city. Its views of the harbor are particularly memorable.

Footsore and tired we decided to head back to the apartment.  It had been an incredible day.  Truly, Oslo is a delightful city – an experience made that much more memorable by a local’s insights into city culture and history. My thanks to  Sten for all he had shared with me throughout our walk.

Madrid Part II

As time rushes by the adventure has continued to be an absolute delight. After finishing my last post I set out into the city. In usual form I was more focused on the voyage than the destination. With my map stashed in my back pocket I picked a direction and began to roam. Through small alleyways, along major two lane thoroughfares and beyond I wound my way north across the city. The weather has been delightful, a little crisp but far from too cold. I’ve also been blessed with sunny weather and a total lack of rain. Eventually I found myself in downtown Madrid’s bustling tourist and business center. With beautiful old architecture thrown seemingly at random between new signs for major chains and newer buildings, the city was vibrantly alive with life.

I eventually found a large, beautiful park. I absorbed the beauty of fall-kissed trees, enjoyed the clean crisp air, and breathed in scents coming from all the vegetation. As I neared the center of the park, I came across a number of gorgeous cats who had seemingly laid claim to a small Galapagos monument. Walled away from the people by large wrought iron fences the cats had free reign of a fun, small set of pools and bushes. As I was relaxing and watching the cats frolic an old woman came up with a stroller. To my amazement, in place of the usual child the stroller held a cat strapped into an adorable little vest sitting regally in an unzipped jacket turned quilt. Though tied by its leash to the stroller, the cat was obviously far from interested in wandering off. As he sat there relaxing and watching the birds his mother pulled out a number of cans of cat food, began feeding the strays, conversing with each and calling them by name. The whole thing was adorable.

I watched the cats play in the bushes and harass the local pigeon population before I continued into the center of the park which was based around a small lake. The lake was surrounded by walkways on two sides, with the Galapagos monument on the third, and a large war memorial on the fourth. The memorial was a beautiful thing with a large central pillar, statuary and steps that led down to the water’s edge. Eventually I made my way around the lake’s edge and spent an hour or so napping, reading, and relaxing in the afternoon sun at the base of the steps near the water.

Rested and relaxed I continued my exploration of the park and eventually found a large, beautifully manicured garden which lead me down towards the Prado Art Museum. Despite painfully sore feet, I decided to make every moment count and picked up a ticket. The museum had a wonderful collection, all beautifully displayed. In addition to a number of the usual famous pieces, I found countless less renown works from masterful artists. Most memorable was a fantastic statue created in the 1400 or 1500s that had rich, pure colors and appeared to be almost 3 dimensional. The other pieces that really caught my attention were a series of stunning inlaid tabletops. The tables impressive in their weight to begin with, had tops that were completely covered in inlaid motifs depicting animals, wildlife, patterns, and flowers all created with gorgeous precious stones. One of the more impressive ones was also supported by 4 large beautiful lions.

In addition to their rather sizable art collection, the museum also had small, beautiful sets of Greek and Roman statues, and a number of marble slave masks that were infused with an amazing degree of expression and emotion.

After leaving the Prado I found my way back to the hostel where I rested for a bit before setting out to find some food. As I roamed hunting for a tapas or kebab shop I stumbled into a bustling market street lined with butchers, vegetable stands, and the like. A little further down it I found an entrance into an a large, two story market full of individual produce, fish, meat, olive, and sausage stands. The smells, colors, and assortment of food was absolutely fantastic. As I roamed, trying to decide what to pick up for dinner, I eventually picked up a persimmon and several tangerines. Not in the mood to cook meat, and unable to find seafood prices that fit my budget, I elected to continue my quest for a kebab shop. Eventually, kebab in hand I settled in back at the hostel for another night meeting new friends.

After a few hours spent in the hostel common area meeting, greeting and getting to know each other we set off to explore the city’s night life. As we meandered our way through the city and hopped from bar to bar, we eventually ended up at a fun downstairs club. The entrance was a small staircase where I had to watch my head, but the club itself was a narrow set of basement rooms with a vaulted brick ceiling. The place looked as though it had once stored wine casks. Eager to enjoy the evening, we danced, relaxed, and explored the particularly flavorful and peculiar club which was populated predominantly by locals dancing, smoking, and drinking the night away. By about 4:30AM we decided to call it a night and made the trip back to the hostel. The city at night is beautiful with vibrant lights, people wandering the streets at all hours, and a constant hum of activity.

The following morning I woke up early, explored the area around the hostel a bit more before hopping the tube up to the train station. The train station is a large, beautiful structure, with fun elements and a very flavorful style. One of the large common areas within the station has an indoor garden in the center of it with large palm trees, all sorts of vegetation and even a decent sized pool full of lilies and turtles. After taking it all in, I snagged a quick bite to eat and then made my way to my train. Interestingly I had to put my backpack through an x-ray machine. I then boarded the train through a terminal, as you would at the airport. An all around new process I hadn’t been through before.

I enjoyed Madrid thoroughly, though it´s without question a large city and lacks a lot of the charm of a smaller town. The people were friendly, but in a big city sort of way. The streets while beautiful are somewhat sterile and modernized, not to mention, land-mined with dog nuggets. That said, I enjoyed it immensely and my stay was fantastic, but the city cannot compare in any way, shape or form to Seville which I will write about soon.

Athens Part I

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Audio Transcript: Athens Part I

The ferry sucked, it smelled bad, I got one hour of sleep and was thrilled to get off when we pulled into port about 15 minutes before dawn. I could go on for a number of lines… but for the sanity of all involved…We disembarked, looked at our guide book and then set out in to the pre-dawn gloom. When you arrive in Athens by boat, you actually land at the port city of Piraeus, which is a 15 minutes metro ride outside of the city. To that end our first objective was to find the metro stop. Unfortunately, we misread our location on the map, failed to ask for directions and walked for about 15 minutes in the wrong direction through some incredibly shady, desolate areas around the docks before turning around and getting pointed in the right direction. Marginally surprised that we had not gotten mugged…we pushed on to the metro following several sets of confusing and poorly given directions before eventually stumbling upon it. We scratched our heads, figured out how to buy our 1-way tickets and jumped on a tram hoping it was going the right way. Whomever was in charge of making the city tourist friendly failed fairly badly. Parts are decent, but most of it is a confusing, poorly marked disaster.

We eventually found our way to the hostel, checked in and quickly collapsed into a long nap. When we eventually woke up and dragged ourselves out of bed it was almost noon. We introduced ourselves to our new roommates…an American couple from Colorado…then set out to explore the town. Eager to take things easy we spent several hours wandering aimlessly and taking in the sights. We found a few bookstores and restocked on reading material for downtime during our stay and in preparation for our flights back to the states. We scrounged up some food then headed back for another nap and a wash up.

When we finally awoke we ate a nice dinner, then made our way to a nearby hostel which dominates the traveler scene in the city and has a cheaply priced bar. We grabbed a few drinks, met some people and then eventually headed out at 11:30 when the bar closed with a large group of Philipinos and one of the off-duty barmen to an irish pub. Later we hit a night club where in typical form, with the help of a few of the Philipino girls, we took to the dance floor and got the club on it’s feet. We danced until 2. As we were resting one of the bartenders told us if we were not going to order a drink from him right at that moment that we couldn’t sit at the barstools. Pissed off we left him a two cent tip and left. We were effectively responsible for the dance floor being busy and probably most of the business that had stayed as a result /shrug. We wandered around a bit, exploring the packed, grungy bar scene before eventually making our way back to the hostel in a controlled-semi-lost sort of meander. As I reflect on it, it’s really pretty surprising the only conflict we have had was the one incident in Naples. The shady streets, with steel storefronts pulled down, covered in grit and graffiti were definitely a bit intimidating in places…areas that just seem made for trouble. Perhaps it’s luck or perhaps it’s presence. Who knows!

The next morning we woke up and decided to dedicate the day to the archeological museum. After catching the metro we wandered around the area before eventually making our way into the museum which unfortunately closed at 3:00. We managed to get there by noon and dedicated the next 3 hours to exploring the statues, frescoes, artifacts and vases from Ancient Greece. It’s truly an incredible experience. In Europe there are two museums that you need to see. Once you’ve seen those, the rest are icing on the cake but more local flavor than necessity. The British Museum is one (mainly because they stole everything important from everywhere) and the Athens museum (mostly because they got almost all of it back from the British, lol).

The artwork is incredible, the famous pieces (Athena, Poseidon, Pan and Artemis, Agamemnon’s mask etc.) were all captivating. I think my favorite is without a doubt the statue of Artemis and Pan though it’s so hard to pick a favorite. The level of detail, animation and the beauty that comes through in most of the Greek statuary and art is incredible. It’s a shame it would harm the artwork to touch it, as I’ve always found that things like statuary seem to be better appreciated when explored with multiple senses. It brings out the life in them and perhaps anchors the experience making it seem more real, instead of a surreal moment looking at what your mind tells you must just be another photograph.

In addition to the famous pieces, several that really stood out that were slightly less common: Beautiful bird/dragonesque heads made out of bronze and oxidized a blue-green, a 3-4 foot tall vase with a gorgeous Greek war helmet in black relief with a tan background, a set of beautiful daggers and a remarkable near-black bronze face.

The heads had initially been placed on some sort of large container, their falco-dragonesque features were somewhat square with curved beaks and heavy eyebrows. The image is one that captivated me, and I think I’ll look into tweaking and using at a later date for some sort of emblem or project. Perhaps as a logo for my various projects or personal website? Hard to say.

The vase (wrong name perhaps?) was a larger version of how I always picture Greek vases…Slightly wider in the middle, it was black except for the tan area surrounding the side view of an intricately detailed, artistically plumed war helmet.

The daggers were stunning. There were 3 with blades that had turned into gnarly rusted out blue pieces of metal, but, the inlaid engraving on the blades was still visible, unlike the rest of the blades it had not rusted – so I presume it was silver. The imagery on the blades depicted lions battling, sea animals and soldiers. The style was intricate with a realistic leaning. It romanticized the animals portraying them slightly blockier than life which ended up being profoundly flattering. There was also an amazing jade dagger on display. The tip of the blade was gone, however, the lower half of the blade and the hilt were still intact. The thin, deep green jade blade was fascinating and perfectly accented by the gorgeous pommel.

The face was interesting. It was about the size of a soccer ball with a gnarly beard that flowed into wild and slightly curly hair. The face was that of an old man and may have been Zeus or Poseidon. In addition to a powerful example of bronze statuary, it was made all that much more impressive by the eye. On the dark metal the eyes were inlaid in ivory with jet black pupils creating a piercing, penetrating gaze that not only followed you but felt almost alive. It was amazing…deep white orbs that sucked you in and transported you back thousands of years to a different time and place.

With tired feet, exhausted eyes and a sore back I eventually met Lander outside of the museum and from there we wandered and explored for another hour or two before finding a cheap internet cafe to get caught up on some things. After a mandatory nap we set out again and met up with some randoms as well as a few of the girls we had met the night before. We had a quiet evening at the hostel bar and a small lounge down the street dodging the rain as long as possible.

Which brings me to today – it’s been a beautiful one. After last night’s rain we half expected the day to be a oppressive and cloudy. When we first woke up a bit after 8, it was. Not in the mood to fight the weather we went back to bed and as it worked out, by 10 when we checked again the rain was gone and quickly replaced by a cloudless blue sky. We had heard a rumor that all of the museums were free – so eager to take advantage of the reduced (free) admission we set off to the Acropolis. Before long we found ourselves passing by the amphitheater and minding our way up a slippery marble path toward the Acropolis. After a few minutes walk through old olive trees whose bases were surrounded by thick sheets of dark green clovers and grass we reached the Acropolis, walked in unimpeded and began to explore.

Unfortunately, most of the Parthenon was surrounded by a latticework of pipes and scaffolding. They do renovation which replaces old structural improvements with modern marble instead of iron bars. If not for the well-preserved temples we had seen in Paestum Italy (of all places ehh?) we would have been a bit disappointed. Because of the rain there was almost no smog and we were presented with a beautiful 360 degree view of the city as it sprawls out and away in every direction. From the mountains to the port, we could see it all. While the Parthenon was covered in scaffolding the other main structure (the Erectheum I think – the one with the female caryatids) was in beautiful shape. It was the highlight of the trip up to the Acropolis. The figures were stunning, the backdrop gorgeous and the building they are attached to was also really impressive. As we walked around it, several of the old windows framed the sky and cityscape in the valley around us.

After taking in the Acropolis we made our way down into the ruins in the large park around the base of the mountain. There we found a small museum in a long re-constructed forum-like building as well as a small temple building in near immaculate shape. As we wandered through the area we also paused briefly at a tiny ancient church built in the classic style. Though scarcely the size of a house it was beautiful and sandwiched between a palm tree and old olive tree. After stopping for a photo we continued our wandering through the ruins and eventually made our way down into the flea market.

We had waited to explore the market hoping to maximize the experience. While the daily flea market area is massive, on Sundays it overflows onto nearby streets and is supplemented by anyone and everyone with a blanket and something to sell. Where the regular vendors tend to be overpriced and a bit more organized, the Sunday warriors are vastly different. Most have a sheet with random things literally dumped out of boxes into mounds. From pounds of old notes, coins and phonecards to beautiful old watches, jewelry, clothing – we even saw old motherboards piled in one spot. It’s a boiling mass of humanity and chock full of incredible things.

As we walked along exploring I found several items I had been looking for. Two of which I was able to purchase for 10 and 15 Euro respectively and which I later price-checked very similar objects at more established vendors for 75 and 150 euros respectively. We explored, saw tons of wonderful things and found a few more small items before grabbing lunch, making our way back to the hostel for a nap, pausing to spend a Euro on a bag full of beautifully ripened tangerines that came apart in our hands as we peeled them. Back at the hostel we napped briefly before heading down to the internet cafe where I’m writing this e-mail. From here we will hit up the hostel bar again and see where the night takes us.

Time to continue the adventure…until tomorrow!

Berlin – Walking the City’s Streets

Berlin, Germany

Whew, it’s amazing how easy it is to get behind and how hard it is to get caught up! That said, this should hopefully do it. Also, if there’s something you’re curious about, or would like to hear more about – post a comment with what that is and I’ll do my best to answer the question/include the info.

Right now I’m winding down after a good day spent walking around Berlin, during which I saw Checkpoint Charlie, a long stretch of the wall, a war/fire ruined cathedral, and some random parts of East Berlin.

But first – My last few hours in Amsterdam were fairly uneventful. I woke up, scrambled to get everything ready, made the brief walk to the train station, then sat around and waited on my train. The train ride was about 6 hours and about what one would expect. Beautiful countryside, very little leg room and a lot of people. I finished the Four Hour Work Week (awesome book – I highly recommend it) and began on the new Lord of the Rings book which I also have with me.

Upon arriving in Berlin real culture shock set in. While most people (even the occasional brat vendor) speak English the signs etc. are almost all in German. Exit signs are now green instead of red, the bathroom is exclusively called the WC and everything is significantly different. I made the mistake of not having a German – English dictionary, so it was sink or swim time and all 100% up to me. Feeling slightly overwhelmed I did the best thing I could think of – I ate….at Burger King of all places. I was starving and grumpy from the train ride, needed a second to get my bearings – so why not find the one place that was familiar, grab some food, and figure things out.

Berlin, Germany

With a full stomach, I set to the task of finding my way to my hostel – which with the aid of the gentleman who sold me my bus ticket became doable. After standing on the wrong side of the street for a few minutes (in the rain of course) I eventually realized my mistake and found the right stop. Much to my relief the bus stop itself was pretty clearly marked and the bus was even better. It told you, both audibly and visually, what the next stop was…which, given my complete inability to understand anything that was said was probably a good thing.

After getting dropped off, I found a map tied to the subway (didn’t have a Berlin map either at this point…lol) I memorized the route I needed to take to make the 5 or so minute walk to my hostel. The hostel itself was great, nice, clean, good shape, friendly people etc. in fact before I even made it up the elevator to my room I met a Canadian (Ian). As it turned out he was also in my dorm. He immediately invited me out on the pub crawl he and his two traveling companions were planning later that night. I agreed readily.

I got settled, got some food, took a shower, then geared up for the quick trip on the U bahn (Tube) to where the tour started at 9. We were a good 15 minutes late, but found them right away at the bar. I’d say there were a good 30-40 people on the tour mostly foreigners, but a few locals mixed into it. The tour had a few guides, the chief one among them a burly bald-headed German. The guy just oozed character. He reminded me in a lot of ways of an early barbarian. He had a few piercings (including a tongue ring), and a big fur-lined coat. You can drink on the streets of Berlin – as a result about 1/3 of the crawlers had drinks in their hand, even when moving between pubs. Our guide was no exception only he was double fisting 3 large bottles of vodka which he’d pour freely every time we paused at a light, park, you name it. It was reminiscent of a mother sow, chased by thirsty babes.

The tour itself took us to 4 walking distance pubs, then we all got on the tube together and headed to a fun night club which was in old East Berlin. The club was huge, located in a maze of rooms under the railway. It had a giant techno room, modern top 40, then a classic room, as well as 3 or 4 other smaller secondary rooms. In addition to the three Canadians from the dorm, I met a few other travelers – particularly two of the other taller guys on the trip, one from the U.S. and another from New Zealand, and a group of 3 girls from Spain. The 1 (mother hen) kept to herself, but the other two Anna and-I forget the other girl’s name -were super friendly. Anna and her friend made a fun mix. Anna was taller, thin and attractive … her friend was super short, with a little stockier build, bright eyes and a quick smile. The three of us talked, danced, and wandered off and on throughout the night, until my hostel mates and I decided we’d best head home. I bid my new friends adieu and headed out. We got back to the hostel around 3:30 and crashed right away.

Germany - Berlin

After sleeping in a bit, taking a nice shower, and a good bit of water I headed into the city to explore. The girl at reception recommended I see the Museum Isle, which I headed to first. There I walked through a fun flea market, before finding myself in front of the Bode Museum. Not really having a clue what I was doing, or what it was about (it looked pretty, and seemed interesting) I wandered in. I found out much to my surprise that a student day ticket for the entire island was only 6 Euro and decided to explore.

Germany - Berlin

Well, turns out I guess that the Bode is kinda important…so guess it was a good decision. The Museum itself was gorgeous and in it there were a number of beautiful pieces of art as well as a pretty interesting coin exhibit. I have to admit though, that a lot of the stuff was from cathedrals and religiously oriented. After the 5th gilded depiction of Jesus on the cross, I got a bit bored and moved through to the older sculpture.

The following were the ones that really stood out: A marble dancer mid-step. This was a larger piece located in the center of the room, the life-size carving was of a beautiful, robed woman with arms upraised with cymbals on her fingers. The position, flow, and composition of the piece reminded me of a belly dancer mid-dance.

A sequence of small bronzes – about the size of a cat-were incredibly realistic, detailed, and beautifully cast. They ranged from depictions of a beautiful woman and fawn holding each other to a mighty lion with a bull in its maw as the two fought.

Berlin, Museum Island

From the Bode I wandered down and off the island briefly (no other option) before coming to a bridge back onto the Isle that dumped me in front of a building based heavily on greco-roman architecture. Though most of the exterior columns were wrapped in scaffolding the building still struck me as incredible. In fact the whole island is pretty awesome. Not sure – but I have a hunch if you pull it up in Google Earth you’ll see what I’m talking about. Fascinated by the architecture I walked into the plaza, scratched my head and decided as far as museums go that this one seemed as good as any other. Turns out, it was the Alte National Gallery. Had no idea about the Alte part, but was able to figure out the National Gallery bit. Turns out they had a big French exhibit going on right now.

Berlin, Germany

In the National Gallery the most captivating part was again a beautiful marble of a woman with angel’s wings. This life size crystalline masterpiece was captivating. The emotion, presence, and beauty of the sculpture was fascinating. The wings in particular were beautifully worked and the statue itself was positioned next to/under a window which accentuated it.

Germany - Berlin: Dancer

Beyond that the paintings were fun, some were beautiful, some were ugly, others were just odd. I’m not a big impressionist fan, so the vaguely outlined paintings depicted with smeared paint and random brush strokes for the most part didn’t really hold me. They did however, have some fantastic realist pieces which were incredible. I forget names, etc. but a number of the large wall-sized pieces were fantastic. It was also fun to see pieces by a number of the more famous artists.

From there, more than a little tired I wandered through Berlin a bit more before finding my way back to the hostel where I wrote the other updates, took a nap, and eventually made an easy night of it.

Berlin, Germany

Today I woke up and headed to a stretch of the East-West border that I’d been told had a large chunk of the wall still intact. While the wall was intact, and a lot of the graffiti was still visible, it was hard to tell what was new, what was old and what was significant. The wall itself was impressive, and the difference between the east and west definitely is something else. From there I crossed the bridge and wandered a bit, before finding lunch and a tube station that would take me the rest of the way to Checkpoint Charlie. CC was a tourist trap and the line for the Museum was too long to make it worth bothering with, so I saw it, looked around, then moved on pretty quickly.

My next-final destination was the Zoo Garden area and the famous pillar-monument square, which is centered around the golden lady and her pillar. I started in the middle of the park or so, which resulted in a long, beautiful walk through the forest/garden along a canal, before eventually finding my way to the pillar.

Monument Square and Museum Isle were both really impressive. They are so organized and gigantic in scale! It seems like it’s one of the few places post Rome where things like that have been done.

On that note, my fingers are tired and it’s time for some more food, and to finish booking my next destination – Frankfurt.