Driving over the Steppes of Georgia
The drive from Tbilisi to Azerbaijan is quite stunning. The mountains are always hovering over you with the snow capped peaks soaring above the plains. To drive from Tbilisi to Baku, we decided to spend an overnight en route and visited a Soviet-era spa hotel. It was quite a treat – dreadful decor and awful food with zero charm but worth every minute of it. To get to the spa resort, we had to negotiate the steppes and switch vans to ride on a four-wheel drive truck that seemed to stay precariously close to the watch towers that are dotted along the Azerbaijan border.
The wild landscape, with the wind whipping across hundreds of miles of barren earth, was stark and unforgiving. The guys in the watch towers had their guns pointed at us, which was not entirely reassuring, but our drivers knew the boundaries and told us not to worry. Yeah right! We just couldn’t take photos! We visited a remote cave monastery in Davit Gareja dating from the 6th century before we headed to the Vashlovani National Park near the Azerbaijan border. The spa scene here was pure Soviet. Rough and ready with bright lights and gangsters. Georgia sits on the precipice of the oil rich Azerbaijan, but the border crossing was yet to come. And there as so far no sign of wealth in the Georgian countryside.
The Border Crossing and Baku
The town where the Georgia-Azerbaijan border sits is called Lagodekhi. It is basically a busy street with traffic and trucks rolling back and forth between the Caspian Sea port of Baku and the Black Sea town of Batuni. We had to get out of our Georgia vehicle and walk the 200 meters with our bags across the border to Azerbaijan. It’s a strange feeling. The crossing can take an hour and if you mention you have visited Armenia, it could take longer. We hadn’t, but if we had, there would have been a much larger hassle as they tend to go through everything. No love lost between the Azerbajanis and the Armenians! We still had to have an interview, showed our visas (necessary for Azerbaijan but not for Georgia), and then were walked across to a new vehicle on the other side. Then the slow descent to the modern and ancient city of Baku begun.
The drive was beautiful and the sweeping vistas down to the Caspian Sea were dramatic. This is the land of oil riches and caviar, if Georgia missed out on the oil, it also didn’t do too well on the caviar side of things. As we arrived in Baku, we were greeted by a skyline of skyscrapers and the iconic Flame Towers. We stayed in one of the pointed skyscrapers covered with LED screens that mimic huge flames throughout the night. It’s quite a sight.
Baku is famed for its medieval walled old city, which contains the Palace of the Shirvanshahs, a vast royal complex, and the iconic stone Maiden Tower. We drove past the stadium, a huge complex, as we headed out of the city, driving next to hundreds of oil rigs bobbing up and down like horses at the trough. It became obvious that this was a city of wealth. We saw the Mud Volcanoes and the Fire Temple outside of the city before getting back to Baku in time for a delicious dinner accompanied by….caviar.
Is Baku worth it? Yes, it is. It’s easy to get here too as you can easily connect back to the USA. We flew back on Turkish Airlines, stopping in Istanbul first, and then all the way to Boston. An amazing place to visit.
The Stalin Museum in Gori, Georgia is very bizarre. There is the train carriage, green and primitive, that used to cart Stalin all over the country. It’s where he slept and had meetings and almost certainly condemned friends and foes after some feel good strategic get together across the Caucuses. There are statues everywhere in the museum. Paintings adorn each room along with incredible photos and depictions of his life.
This guy was a big deal. Joseph Vissarionovich Stalin (born Ioseb Besarionis dzе Jughashvili in 1878) was a Georgian revolutionary and Soviet politician who led the Soviet Union from the mid–1920s until 1953 as the general secretary of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union (1922–1952) and premier of the Soviet Union (1941-1953), succeeding Lenin. They say he made 25 million people “disappear”. He was the most feared Soviet leader in the history of the Soviet Union. A small guy with huge statues to deceive his diminutive stature.
At the end of his reign and under Krushev’s new Soviet era, they rethought his contributions to the world of Soviet peace and reconciliation. On reflection, they decided he was a jolly bad person. And so the city of Stalingrad was renamed Volgograd in 1961. Although to celebrate the huge battle that effectively sealed the Germans fate in the second World War, Stalingrad made a comeback on the anniversary of the battle that claimed 2 million Russian lives. Rehabilitating Stalin has become quite a thing.
The museum shop here is one of the greatest understated museum shops in the world. Nobody cares, there’s nothing to buy, and you are much better going outside to the street sellers to buy your Stalin statue and trinkets. This place is so amazing I wanted to stay longer. However, we had a date at a restaurant to have Georgian dumplings filled with mashed potatoes and who would want to miss that?!
Tbilisi, Georgia is a look back to an era of Soviet rule. Stalin’s birthplace of Gori is not far away. He is celebrated throughout the country and several wineries even carry his face on their wines. Yep! Maybe he was not a perfect human being, but he was a lovely psychopath who every now and then weeded out large swaths of his enemies. A mafia-inspired dictator but absolutely beloved in Georgia.
So, why go to Georgia? The country sits with its western shores on the Black Sea and has holiday resort towns like Batumi. It is in constant awareness of its Russian neighbor. In fact, Russia invaded it once and simply held onto the northwestern piece. It’s called Abkhazia, a closed-off and fairly impossible to enter sovereign state that is barely recognized except for by Russia. But Georgia is an extraordinary country. Medieval castles, beautiful spas, national parks, and tall mountains as high as 20,000 feet. And Tbilisi, its capital, is home to a blend of cultures. The old town, with its cathedral, mineral baths, and delightful cobblestone streets, is quite beautiful in the evening, and the center is a lively scene. Views of the city from the hilltop accessed by the cable car are stunning and the food is really remarkable as well.
Not to mention the wine in Georgia. The ancient tradition of wine making actually began in Georgia. It is highly recommended to get outside Tbilisi and visit a winery. The roots of Georgian viticulture have been traced back by archaeology to when people of the South Caucasus discovered that wild grape juice turned into wine when it was left buried through the winter in a shallow pit. This dates back to 6000 BC. To this day, Georgia still maintains the old tradition of burying the wine underground in clay kvevris for storage. When filled with the fermented juice of the harvest, the kvevris are topped with a wooden lid and then covered and sealed with earth. Some may remain entombed for up to 50 years! I wouldn’t really recommend drinking that stuff!
The wine tastes different to something you might be used to – it’s a little bizarre, almost like sherry if you are drinking the white wine. But you adapt to the taste. It’s sort of historical realignment; an homage to the history of wine making. After a while you get used to it. Nowadays Georgia also boasts modern day wine making techniques. Still, you have to try this stuff. I brought back some bottles but haven’t touched them yet. I need to wait for a proper Georgian feast to accompany the wine.
To get to Tbilsi easily, I suggest having a stopover in Istanbul. Turkish Airlines has great connections to the Georgian capital and why not grab a couple of nights in Turkey at the beginning.
I have been to Istanbul quite a few times. I love the buzz of the ancient city and you can feel its history hanging in the air. I always go to Mısır Çarşısı, the spice bazaar, and the Grand Bazaar, which is the main bazaar in the city. What I like about the spice bazaar is that it is right by the ferry terminal and next to the Galata Bridge and Tower. It’s just relaxing and so different from its counterparts in Morocco. The colorful stacks of spices make a wonderful photo opportunity and the smells of saffron and cumin float through the air. It’s never too crowded and there are always bargains and fun to be had here.
From here you can walk to most places and certainly walk across the bridge to the other side of Istanbul. Restaurants near Taksim Square are not bad and the Besiktas Stadium, where the main soccer and basketball clubs play, is only a 10-minute walk away.
Down towards the Bosporus, there are lots of restaurants which liven the waterfront. Everyone that visits Istanbul must do a cruise of the Bosporus. It takes you under the great bridge that connects Istanbul to Asia and all the way to the Black Sea. It’s the best sightseeing tour in Istanbul as it escapes the clogged streets of polluted traffic. It’s cheap to do and you can book directly at the port terminal by the Galeta Bridge.
And in the meantime, go see the Blue Mosque and the Hagia Sofia, visit the Basilica Cistern, a sunken palace and one of the largest of the ancient cisterns, and of course take some time out to visit the beautiful Topkaki Palace with its stunning views across the Bosporus. Finally, end your visit at the Grand Bazaar. One of the world’s most famous souks, comprising of more than 60 streets brim full of anything and everything. So much shopping to do and so little time.
If you are a US citizen, you will need a visa to get into Turkey. It costs $35 and can be purchased on line. The great news now is that the old airport is closed and the new one open which is about a 45 minute taxi ride from the city. The new one is HUGE – so big in fact that it can take 30 minutes to walk to your gate so be aware! Istanbul is a city with so much to see and ancient reminders of old civilizations. The old city of Constantinople is everywhere. Turkey is one of my favorite destinations.
From Kyoto, Hiroshima is a must-see day excursion on the shinkansen train. It takes about 1.5 hours on the train and nothing can quite prepare you for how beautiful this city is and how extraordinary the full day excursion including Miyajima Island and the Hatsukaichi Temple are. Hiroshima was the first city, Nagasaki the other, that were obliterated by a nuclear bomb in August 1945 which effectively ended the second World War. 200,000 people were killed.
Initially, I wasn’t sure what to expect. Hiroshima is a vibrant, modern city with wide boulevards and beautiful parks. We took the shuttle bus to the Peace Memorial Park and Museum. After a short walk from the stop, we saw the mangled structure of the Atomic Bomb Dome. Preserved in a sea of rubble and surrounded by the beautiful Peace Memorial Park, it is a melancholic and beautiful place to walk around. The bridge close to the dome carries two pieces of the original bridge. It is then a short walk to the Peace Memorial Museum where the tour of the museum takes 30-40 minutes. It is one of those places that you enter with apprehension, you see the after effects of a nuclear explosion, and you come out understanding why it is called the Peace Memorial Museum.
We then took the train back to the main station and connected to Miyajima – a completely different experience from the heavy heart of Hiroshima. Now we were back to the temples and a beautiful stroll through a town filled with deer freely moving throughout the streets and walkways. There were eateries and food stores that tumbled into the lanes.
Eventually we caught sight of the beautiful torii gate there that sits in the water with a 14th century temple that sits in the background. Sadly for us, the breathtaking torii gate was under wraps as they were sprucing it up for the Olympic games this year. But even so, walking out at low tide and looking at this incredible structure sitting in the sea, was enough. Looking back at the shrine also sitting in the sea, was breathtaking. This place was one of the great highlights of my tour to Japan and it is something that everybody should do.
Frankly, after a couple of hours of weighing the value of nuclear power, it was refreshing to get back to a little bit of Shintoism. We then took the train back to Kyoto in time for sushi and miso in the Gion area.
Nothing really prepares you for Kyoto. This is the ancient Japanese capital which then moved to Tokyo in the 19th century. It is by far and away the most unique and amazing slice of Japan that you will ever see. Kyoto is teeming with people dressed in kimonos, and geishas and maikos jumping from house to cab to evening performance. If you happen to see a maiko walking through the streets, you literally stop in your tracks. There is nothing more beautiful than the sight of one of the geishas-in-training mingling with the crowds. Kyoto is home to the original royal palace, Nijo Castle, with its beautiful gardens, stunning gates, singing floors, and the replicas of the seated shogun and his gang.
On the surface, Kyoto is a small city dissected by a river that has restaurants and shops alongside. There is a modern area with department stores and an indoor central market that houses the main food market, Nishiki. This is an endless market of delicacies, spices, raw fish, and culinary delights. Nishiki is packed with ramen and sushi bars with lines of people waiting to get in. This is Japan after all where people queue and food stands tend to not have many seats.
Kyoto has more than 1,000 temples. But if you are temple and shrine hopping, you definitely have to visit Kinkakuji, also known as the Golden Pavilion, just outside of the city center. It has spectacular gardens, and yes, a golden temple. It is staggering in all seasons but likely most beautiful in the autumn and winter when it is engulfed in golden leaves or is covered with snow. There is a delightful walking path here and a great souvenir shop where you can buy things that do not even look touristy.
But the area that carries the entire buzz of the city is Gion. It stretches alongside the main city street and is peppered with tiny alleys and houses. This is the geisha area of the city. From the tiny outpost of Gion, you can walk towards the famous Kiyomizu-dera Temple. The walk along the street leading up to the temple, and the temple itself, is probably one of the most stunning walks you will do in the world. It is a street lined with colorful kimonos, green tea ice cream, mochi, and fish on a stick.
From there, you can walk all the way down through the narrow and winding streets of Gion, passing possibly the most extraordinary Starbucks you have ever passed; a beautiful, pure ryokan-style shop that you will never see anywhere else in the world. There are beautiful tiny shops lining the street that sell incense, crafts, and Buddhas. You eventually spill out to a main square area with men that sell rickshaw rides and a giant Buddha looming in the background. You can rent colorful kimonos in any number of places here. Eventually you get to the Yasaka-Jinja Shrine before heading down the main street in Gion where the geishas and maikos live.
Probably the most famous sight in Kyoto, apart from seeing a geisha, is the Fushimi Inari Shrine with its kilometers of bright red torii gates winding uphill and downhill. It’s a magnet for tourists and locals and people wearing kimonos walking hand-in-hand to the top of the hill. There are even wild monkeys here. This has to be accessed via metro or car as it is just outside of Kyoto. On a beautiful day, it is one of the great highlights of any trip to Japan.
Kyoto is also a hub city with a huge train station that provides access to all parts of Japan. With the ease of the shinkansen train network, Kyoto is not only beautiful but a great base to “hub and spoke.” I had purchased a 7-day JR Rail Pass. From Kyoto, there are short trips to Osaka, Nara, Himeji for the castle, Atami for the hot baths, Mt. Fuji if the weather is good, and Kanazawa for the spectacular food. Hiroshima is an easy day trip. All good as excursions.
There are plenty of steps and lots of walking needs to be done throughout Kyoto. But the walks are breathtaking, the sights are amazing, and if you are lucky enough to catch a geisha, you will have seen it all. But the highlight of Kyoto for me was being there during the New Year festival in the Gion area. I bought a palm leaf that was blessed by a maiko, caught a maiko and geisha at a food stand idly chatting, and played Konpira Fune Fune with a maiko, a drinking game that inevitably requires coordination, talent, and rhythm. Predictably, I lost big time.
One of the most bizarre things that you can see and buy in Japan, are plastic replicas of food. There are shops that specialize in selling these as gifts. Believe it or not, they are so artistically revered that they were exhibited in the Victoria and Albert Museum in London. It all really started in the 1920s when Japanese artisans and candle makers developed displays of food that made it easy for people to order at restaurants without the use of menus which were completely uncommon in Japan. These things are so sought after by restaurants and by tourists that the market has been growing and growing. The level of detail in creating a display or a dish is extraordinary. Restaurants spend far more money for beautiful displays of their offerings than they do on the actual food itself. The plastic food manufacturers compete for an industry that conservatively runs at billions of Yen per year.
I brought back a piece of fake tuna sushi which is now beautifully displayed on my colleague’s desk. Honestly, it looks so good that every time I walk by I want to throw some soy and wasabi on it. The good news is that they last forever. You just need to keep them clean. They never fade, they rarely break, and they make great souvenirs!
Shinjuku Station in Tokyo is the busiest railway station in the world. It carries multiple train lines, including the metro and an above ground railroad, and is used by an average of 3.5 million people daily. It has a subterranean shopping mall and street that stretches for miles. It is teeming with people and it seems impossible that chaos would not be pervasive here. But, this is Japan and Japan is super organized and super functional. So it works.
The metro is clean and logical, and once you get the hang of it, you can get from one end of this vast city to the other in no time. All signs use the Japanese and Roman alphabet so you can pretty easily figure it out even if you do not know Japanese. Getting tickets at the automatic kiosk is a piece of cake and there are so many people that seem to work at the metro who can help you that nothing seems impossible to figure out. So you will never feel stranded. Ironically, nobody really speaks English. The culture is kind and forgiving and they are pretty good at sign language.
And then there are the Shinkansen trains. The bullet trains. Faster than any train on the planet – they rule the train world. They are awesome to ride on plus they are frequent and always on time. They travel around 225 mph and transport you across Japan in super elegant fashion. Nobody takes flights inside Japan when it simply makes sense to just take the train. Imagine this…Boston to Washington is currently 8 hours on our Acela trains. But on the Shinkansen it would be 2 hours. It’s extraordinary and perfectly configured. First class has a green cross to mark the carriages. Second class is barely second class and feels like first class in any other country. The doors of the carriages pull into the station precisely in sync with the openings marked on the platform.
The trains stay for maybe a minute and then they are gone. But the next one arrives within four minutes. There are six trains to Tokyo from Kyoto within 24 minutes. There are different types of Shinkansen trains and the faster they are, the more extraordinary the front of the train looks. And guess what? They are building a new one, the Maglev, that should be ready shortly and it travels at speeds over 300 mph. So, Boston to NYC would only take 40 minutes! City center to city center. I had a dream! You can buy weekly train passes (7, 14, 21 day), called the Japan Rail Pass, in either first or ordinary class travel. They have to be bought outside of Japan and it’s a fantastic deal. Traveling by train in Japan is one of the highlights of traveling in Japan. And it’s about to get even better.
Imagine the lunch that you bring to work every day. A microwavable pasta sauce, a Lean Cuisine, maybe your own concoction of carrots and hummus, or a granola bar. And then there is bento – Japanese lunch boxes. They are found practically everywhere in vending machines, but most impressively, they are found mostly in train stations where people race for the train and can grab their lunch box to-go. They are beautifully presented in colorful boxes with a perfect depiction of all of the amazing ingredients inside. They are almost too good to eat. Walking through a bento food stand and looking at the various options is almost as thrilling as eating them. There is eel, sushi, sashimi, chicken with rice and seaweed, roe, and noodles. You name it. All perfectly compartmentalized with the perfect sashay of soy sauce and wasabi (real wasabi) with a pair of chopsticks of course. Grab a drink and you have been fully “bento-nized”.
Bento boxes are different wherever you travel. Outside of Tokyo, the bento will represent the local cuisine and ingredients of that city or town. Then there are holiday bentos such as the specially prepared boxes for New Year’s packed with poached tiger prawns, root vegetables, roe, and chestnuts. A bento is an amazing meal. The origin of bento comes from Makunouchi which literally means “between acts”, as they were originally packed for a light meal to be enjoyed between intermissions of lengthy kabuki plays.
Honestly, Tokyo is not a city of great sights. Yes, there are palaces and significant shrines here and there, but it’s more or less a city of feeling. Of foreignness and touch. With taxi cabs where the drivers wear gloves, where the car doors open for you, and where the interiors are immaculate with sometimes lacey curtains. Where citizens might not speak English but are nonetheless polite, courteous, and bow to you. There are crazy train stations that work and are reliable.
Tokyo is a city that sprawls for miles and miles with huge skyscrapers and narrow, compartmentalized houses side-by-side. It is a city of small, ancient bars juxtaposed against giant skyscrapers. This is no more dramatically illustrated than in the Shinjuku area of the city. Here, the Golden Gai District, an architectural relic, is a cluster of six alleys connected by even smaller passageways, with over 200 tiny bars, often with room for only six people, that burst into life at sundown. This is where you can pick up a bowl of ramen, some sushi, or a beer before the unenviable prospect of a 1.5 hour minimum commute to the outskirts of this sprawling metropolis of 9.3 million. Tokyo is even where the busiest intersection in the world is. No kidding. It is a series of zebra crossings that literally buildup with people who wait diligently and patiently for the red light to turn green. By the time that the light has turned green, there are thousands of people crisscrossing across multiple different streets. Traffic waits until their light signals that they can go again. In Japan, order is everywhere. There is no jaywalking and no jumping lights.
Tokyo is a fashion show with its elegant strip of designer stores and cafes for people watching in the Roppongi District. It has more style than any other city I have been to in the world. And Tokyo is a city that hits you in the face. If you are sightseeing, you’ll go to the Imperial Palace Plaza, you’ll visit the Meiji Shrine and Atsakusa Temple, and will certainly see the second tallest building on Earth, Tokyo Skytree. And sometimes, you might just be walking through shopping malls, and yet it does not feel like any old shopping mall. You are almost certainly the only Western person walking through this mall.
I went to the Tsukiji outdoor fish market and ate ridiculous amounts of raw fish. Even though the indoor fish market has moved from this original location for wholesale purposes, it left behind a vibrant bunch of small stores and sushi places that serve fresh seafood and those delightful steamed buns that you see everywhere in Japan. There is always a line outside of the best places. It is easy to get there on the subway. Contrary to popular belief, you do not need to get there at 5:00 am anymore because the wholesale market has moved to the suburbs. But the outdoor market is quite content for you to show up at 10:00 am or later.
I saw Japan in both the fall and in the winter and both times I was blown away. But Tokyo for me was about the buzz, the pace, the order from chaos and the sheer size of it all. It was an adventure and at one point I thought how much it looked like New York – but then I blinked and it simply couldn’t be NYC. There is too much order, it is too clean, and it feels too foreign in its absolute homogeneity. The colors, the skyscrapers, the tiny bars, the traffic, the fashion, the lines outside of popular lunch spots. Trust me, this is like no other place in the world. Hop on a plane, fast!
In the fifth century, the whole of Europe was swallowed up by the various tribes who lived outside of the Roman Empire – Visigoths, Huns, Vandals, Saxons, and Franks. Barbarians. They had not been “Christianized” but they were militarized and they took a crumbling Roman Empire and turned it inside out.
1,619 years later, they would return in the form of Liverpool and Tottenham Hotspur fans! They were to invade the Holy city of Madrid for the weekend. They would come by plane, car, vans, busses and trains. They drunk alcohol like nobody had ever seen. They sang songs and they dressed in their respective war colors of red and white, they were fearless and frightening!
Madrid was unable to defend itself against the hordes. Their goal – the Champion’s League trophy. Their destination – the Metropolitano Stadium near the airport in Madrid. The day was hot, the enemy barely knew what hit them. Liverpool won the battle; the Spurs were sent reeling and the Madrieleos regained their city after total occupation and devastation. It was victory for all except the Spurs fans.
Liverpool fans are called scousers. The word “scouse” is a shortened form of “lobscouse”. It refers to a stew commonly eaten by sailors. In the 19th century, poorer people in Liverpool and its surrounding area ate scouse as it was a cheap dish, and familiar to the families of seafarers. Outsiders tended to call these people “scousers”. Now they are the modern-day barbarians who support Liverpool Football club. Known for their famous anthem, they barely know that their national anthem is “You’ll Never Walk Alone” from the show Carousel by Rogers and Hammerstein.
The other barbarian fans rooted for the Tottenham Hotspurs. Hotspur is a reference to the First Earl of Northumberland who attempted to overthrow King Henry IV at the end of the fourteenth century! His name was Henry Percy but he was referred to as Haatspore by the Scots for the speed of his attack. He was fast and sped into battle sometimes recklessly, to the amazement of all around him. He would get his horse to move faster by using his spurs. However, he met his match and was slain by the army of King Henry IV. Today, Tottenham Hotspur carries with it this piece of very cool history referenced by Shakespeare in Henry IV Part 1. As Hotspur was slain, so were the modern-day Spurs.
Day 1 – Off to Delphi
As a confession, in Greece, I have been to Athens and quite a few Greek islands – Mykonos, Paros, and Symi, my favorite in the Dodecanese – but I have never been to the Peloponnese Region. Which means, rather tragically, that I have never been to Delphi, Mycenae, Epidauras, Olympia, or the island of Hydra. So, in a situation like this, when you find the need to catch up on stuff that you should have done but never did, there’s only one thing for it…jump in a car and go travel.
The drive from Athens to Delphi is around an hour and a half. Shame on me as it is so close. It becomes quite dramatic as you get closer to the ancient site. Actually, there is a ski station, Fterolakka/Kellaria, not far away and there was snow up on Mount Parnassus. Something peculiar in mid-May as the climate across the world shifts its shape and twists and turns. It is strange to look up and see snow and signs for alpine wear this time of year in Greece. Incidentally, one of the coolest areas in Paris, Montparnasse, is related to this mountain! Go figure!
So, on we went to Delphi. The view across the valley is something extraordinary. It’s quite a climb to the top. I can’t imagine what it is like climbing up on a hot day, but the view once you get there is the view of the ages! You start to get the whole picture and you also wonder how they got those stones up there. It’s always better to be a strategist rather than a worker! The museum in Delphi reminded me of the Acropolis Museum in Athens, but less state of the art. It was very well laid out, easy to navigate, and bloody awesome. My advice to anybody going to Delphi is to find a tree, sit under it, and try to imagine that this incredible landscape has remained unchanged for 2,500 years with a whole lot of history in between.
We grabbed some water and headed out; there were other fish to fry today. We drove across the Peloponnese to the western shores of the Ionian Sea and took in the sunset at a hotel by the beach near the ancient site of Olympia. The sunset provided us with a dramatic view of Cephalonia; a beautiful island with a tragic history in World War II. This was the island that the book, Captain Corelli’s Mandolin, was based around. Day 1 was finished,and we had barely started.
Day 2 – Olympia to Hydra
The hotel we were staying at, Aldemar Olympian Village, was an all-inclusive resort where you had to wear a thing around your wrist to get breakfast and dinner. We had done the customary inspection of the hotel, rooms basic but ok, and not much decision making to make on the culinary timetable. It wasn’t really my cup of tea, but it was inexpensive in May and the beach looked quite nice. We had an early meeting with a guide in Olympia and we had to move fast this day because we were taking in a lot of sites.
Olympia is one of those places that everyone should go to. It was a city of peace in a sea of war. The city, located on the western coast in the magical valley of the River Alpheus, was dedicated to Zeus. It’s a city where divinities were worshipped, where the Olympic Games were born, and where the idea of harmony of body and mind, fair play, and the symbol of the humble crown of the wild olive for the victor were created. Pretty impressive credentials.
The Olympic Games were organized around 800 B.C. The ancient games sadly didn’t survive the rotten Romans and were officially banned by the Roman Emperor Theodosius in 393. What a killjoy! In the good old days, there were no gold, silver or bronze. No anthem. Winner takes all was the deal and if you won, you got a statue and a podium. Losers walked away with nothing! The Modern Olympic Games were not reintroduced until 1896. During the ancient Olympics, there was an establishment of a sacred truce; a cessation of war that would last the duration of the games. These were bad times, lots of violence and pretty much non-stop war. How strange and ironic that once the whistle had blown, the fighting would stop before starting again once the games ended? I thought of the Olympic games in Berlin in 1936. Literally, three years later the world would be at war with the host nation for five years. How tragic.
We stayed at the site of Olympia for a while. It was fun to watch some local children run the original Olympic track. 200 meters long and host to the ancient sports of the time – running, jumping, discus, javelin. The tunnel to the old track reminded me of the tunnel used in soccer games today. I tried to imagine how amazing this would have been. We were racing too and thanked the guide who was wonderful and jumped back in the car.
Next stop was Mycenae. This city was built during the last phase of the Bronze Age and signals the beginning of our ancient civilization. This was where it all started nearly 3,500 years ago – engineering feats we cannot imagine, mathematics, and writing. It all started right here. It’s strange when you travel through this part of the world. You feel the gods around you. You feel history unleashed from the confines of museums. It’s scattered in the ancient fields, a column across the ground that once stood tall, marble with ancient scribe on it, and the vistas – hauntingly unchanged.
We continued on to Epidaurus to see the famous amphitheater. I sang a song in the center of the great auditorium and climbed to sit on the top stone of the ancient theater and looked out across the countryside. I imagined the same view preserved through the ages. Exactly the same view in this same amphitheater where performances played out nearly 2,500 years ago. Imagine under the beautiful soft Aegean light how extraordinary this must have been back then. Today, the theater is still used because of its remarkable acoustics. In its heyday, it held 13,000-14,000 people. Art encourages wellbeing. The Greeks knew this. They were right. Never give up!
The last leg of our journey was to the coast. We drove through tiny villages and the road twisted and turned. There were lots of sleeping dogs suddenly awoken by our car and we had to get directions from some locals playing cards when we took a wrong turn. An old fishing boat was waiting for us at a remote location that would take us from the mainland to the magical island of Hydra. It was like an old James Bond movie!
Hydra is a place to be visited and to spend the night when all of the tourist ships have gone and all of the donkey rides have been taken. The charm of the harbor and the island itself synched with a beautiful sunset is enough to take your breath away. There are no cars on Hydra, lots of donkeys and boats in the harbor. The island has some nice hotels and great restaurants. The horseshoe harbor is stunning at sunset. It’s a great place to set down, relax, read and take some wonderful walks. The nightlife is buzzy, and as everything is clustered around the harbor and its backstreets, everything is very accessible. It is just a short ride on the ferry back to Athens. I recommend spending at least two nights here. Nearly enough time to let the world pass by. The hotel I stayed in was the Bratsera Hotel. A wonderful hotel tucked just away from the hustle and bustle of the harbor. Breakfasts are amazing there!
I am embarrassed to say that there are a few things out there that I should’ve done that I haven’t done, and of course there are a few things that I have done that I shouldn’t have done!
On a recent trip to Athens, a city I had not been to for several years, I fell in love with the place once again. Athens has a great beat to it, and it was super cool staying at the top of the Plaka by Syntagma Square at the Hotel Elia Ermou. The traffic was insufferable, but once the sun dropped down, the city became a magical place that had a skip to its step. We ate at some great restaurants (including rooftop ones), I became further addicted to grilled octopus and Greek salads, and I even fell back in love with moussaka. I got to have lunch at the Benaki Museum with a wonderful friend and ex-art teacher that now lives in Athens, the delightful Polytime Costes.
The highlight of the whole visit was taking a sunset Segway ride around the top of the Plaka and along the pedestrian walkway that leads to the Acropolis. The Segway is a strange machine – in part because the guy that invented it had an accident on his Segway and died! Yikes! So everyone, including me, felt a little trepidatious! Once you get the hang of it though, it is an empowering experience. It literally turns on a dime, it has a decent speed to it, and it enables you to move with the walkers and ride with the bikers. Sightseeing on a Segway is just about as good as it gets. We all wore helmets in case you are wondering!
When I think of great cities, I always think of that perfect view – like the Alhambra in Granada from the Sacromonte and Palatine Hill in Rome from the Aventine – but in the end, there is nothing quite so dramatic at sunset on a clear late spring evening before the heat of the summer takes over as the view of the Acropolis. The most dangerous part of the journey was climbing off of the Segway and clamoring up the slippery stone hill to get the last dramatic shot of the sun across the limestone temple with all of Athens below and Mount Lycabettus in the distance. Stunning.
On the journey back, the lights had turned on and the Acropolis treated us to another view. In some ways, it is even more spectacular than the sunset. We passed by the Acropolis Museum at the foot of the hill which is a must-see museum for everyone that goes to Athens. I stood on my Segway and peered through the glass exterior and looked at the collection of statues and heads and faces inside. I swiveled the Segway and looked up at the Acropolis. An amazing moment. Antiquity at its best.
I had been to Slovenia once many years ago when I was in Venice for a couple of days. We had spent an hour in Trieste before driving to the Slovenian border. The border was long gone but the thrill of crossing over into the former Yugoslavia was amazing. Slovenia was incorporated into the EU in 2004 and adopted the Euro in 2007. I remember that we drove to the Postojna Caves but they were closed. We spent a bit of time there and then returned to Venice. The most thrilling part of the day was crossing the border.
Honestly, I never thought much more about Slovenia. A few people I know had visited Ljubljana and loved it, but I had never returned. That is, until my son met a wonderful woman from Slovenia and they decided to get married. So, off I went again with new purpose and renewed interest! A return across the border and a chance to see a little more of this tiny country.
First of all, Slovenia is easy to get to. The capital, Ljubljana, has its own airport with frequent services to and from most European airports. There is a decent train hook up and if you rent a car, it is a short drive from either Trieste or from Venice. The journey time to Ljubljana is about 2 and half hours from Venice. The border is invisible, but you do need to buy a vinjeta. The vinjeta is a 15 Euro toll sticker that substitutes the awkward toll booths in Italy. It is easy to find – all motorway auto stops have them – and you simply stick it on your windshield. Without this little thing, a hefty fine awaits you!
The roads are great, even better than Italy in fact, and most people on the border speak perfect Italian as well as English. All roads lead through Postojna (where the famous caves are) and Nova Gorica on the border. Everything is well sign posted and the countryside is incredibly beautiful.
Slovenia has a wide compendium of landscape. From the vineyards in the Tuscan-looking rolling hills of the Friuli area, to the mountains that peer over Lake Bled in the north. It’s really a perfect country for a short break or an adventure break. There are plenty of opportunities for hiking, biking and sightseeing. Famous chefs abound as well. The world’s top female chef is Ana Ros, chef of restaurant Hisa Franko. The food has all of the great influences of Italy – as does the white wine with a strong background of Austrian and Slovenian tastes. It’s a gourmand’s delight. There are probably more top-quality restaurants in Slovenia per square mile than any country in the world.
In addition to meeting the in-laws, we had in mind to see a variety of places with only three days at our disposal. The “must-see” things you must see are Lake Bled and its 1,000-year-old castle, the Postojna Caves, the second largest limestone cave formations in the world, and of course, the capital Ljubljana. In between, there is a tiny piece of coastline with beautiful Piran as its centerpiece and the fascinating border town of Goricia and Nova Gorica. The only walled city that divided East and West after the second World War. In the Friuli area that borders Italy, beautiful towns like Šmartno are tucked into the rolling hills.
The city of Ljubljana is so picture perfect that you have to keep pinching yourself. It’s a charming Austro-Hungarian town with the famous Ljubljana Castle overlooking the city. The river that runs through the town hosts mini boat cruises and the bars and restaurants that line the banks are full of action and fun. Bicyclists are everywhere and there is a new pedestrian zone that has just been opened and adjoins the old town. If you can spend three days here, you will know it well. A few more days to taste the cuisine and drink the wine and you will be overjoyed. It is a fairytale town tucked into beautiful countryside; clean and picturesque with great food and lots of things to do outside the capital.
We didn’t stay long enough. A short drive back to Trieste for an overnight before heading home. However, new connections mean more visits. You never know, we may even get the hang of Slovenian!
Early in the day on Monday, April 15th, I had been visiting groups and snapping pictures around Notre Dame. It was a lovely day and the cathedral was as beautiful as ever. The crowds were out in full force and the line to the cathedral entrance was as usual snaking its way across the square. Everyone was in good spirits. The air was cool but the sun was shining. It felt like spring.
Before that, I had walked down from the Luxembourg Gardens. People were playing tennis and the spring plantings of colorful flowers was breathtaking against the backdrop of the Palace. After lunch I had grabbed an electric scooter from Lime. One of the students I was chatting with had told me what to do and I easily loaded the app onto my Phone. I sailed across town and had one of the greatest rides around Paris. I left the scooter by our office and locked it through the app. It was so cool. Paris never looked better.
That evening I was with a lovely school group who were interested in fashion. I marched them through Bon Marche to scope out all the top designer names. I’ve never taken a group through there before…and probably never will again, but it was a trip! The faces on the chic and wealthy clientele was to die for. But then we came out of the store and saw the smoke in the sky.
We were over in the left bank near St Germain which is when I got a notification on my phone. Notre Dame was on fire. At first, I thought they were speaking about the Indiana school, Notre Dame University. And then another beep on my iPhone, then the kids got them too, and suddenly social media took over and we all realized that “the” Notre Dame was really on fire and that smoke in the sky was coming from the cathedral. It was serious.
We walked to a crepe place in Montparnasse and in every bar the TVs were turned on to the news. The smoke was pouring into the evening sky. The fire was out of control. The noise of the fire trucks was everywhere. The city literally froze and was transfixed. We went up to the Montparnasse tower to get a look. It was heart wrenching. In the near distance a huge fire with flames soaring into the night sky in the center of the city. It was tragic. But with just a turn of the head, Paris was glittering and was stunning (as it always is) as I looked west towards the beautiful Eiffel Tower.
Later I grabbed a Lime scooter and headed down to the end of the Boulevard St. Michel where a huge crowd had gathered. The police had cordoned off the access point to the cathedral, but you could see the north and south towers clearly. Still the glow of a fire was evident. It was after midnight by this time as the crowd began singing a beautiful prayer. A fire truck came rolling out, the crew exhausted, and the crowd cheered. Les pompiers. They saved the north tower and risked their lives. And in all of this I realized that Paris had experienced a beautiful moment wrapped in tragedy. They had come together very humbly and sang together and were respectful. You saw the power of this old lady of Paris; 900 years and not going away.
I hung out for a while to watch. The towers were in the distance but the spire and most of the beautiful interior that I had walked around earlier was long gone. Thankfully, nobody had died, and all of our groups were safe. Soon the reconstruction will begin. The foundations and the shell of the cathedral had been preserved. The towers are still there – not sparkling white as they were in the morning sun but strong and resolute. The bateaux will pass by along the Seine as they do every day and night and we will all remember it as it was. Notre Dame de Paris.
In the meantime, Paris will have its fair share of monuments to see. Travelers will keep on traveling and slowly we will be witness to a rebirth of this great lady of Paris. Travel changes lives.