Tag Archives: History

Surprises in Split

The last time I was in Croatia was 1987. We had taken a two-week vacation at a hotel north of Dubrovnik which was then bombed out of existence during the Yugoslav Wars. This time I had decided to drive from Sarajevo over a very pretty mountain road, onto a prairie-like plain that stretched for miles, and then down into the city of Split and along the coast.

Split was a fabulous surprise. It was Diocletian’s hometown and as any good Roman emperor would have it, he had a remarkable looking palace built. Situated along what is now a very cool and groovy promenade, it hosts restaurants and bars and at any point in time during a busy evening, musicians gather to perform in the open square.

Split is a lively town with a nightlife that seems to go on forever. The restaurants are very decent and in Croatia, the big dish is the risotto with blank ink squid. In my opinion, it is not quite as good as its Venetian heritage, but given the fact that this entire Dalmatian Coast was once part of the great Venetian empire, it was not that bad either. The white stone streets and the palace are constructed with Dalmatian stone and all hail from the same quarries that gave us St. Mark’s Square.

Croatia was the second country to successfully apply for EU citizenship after Slovenia – and it shows. There are EU dollars in these hills for sure. Split is a port, a beach resort, a party resort, and a historical heritage site.

The delight of the Croatian coast is that it never really faces the open sea but nestles itself in between beautiful islands that are never too far away. We drove to Trogir to take a boat ride to the Blue Lagoon. Trogir has a beautiful main square, lots of shops, and a great clock tower that reminded me of a mini San Marco. The influences of Venice are everywhere here. Another fun excursion from Split is to take a double ferry ride to Korcula. Both ferries are car ferries and it’s a fun way to experience the Adriatic coastline.

Interestingly, Korcula was the apparent starting out point for Marco Polo as he began his journeys to the East. It is a delightful town and on a beautiful day it’s well worth the visit. It’s Marco’s town after all! Every traveler should tred in the footsteps of the greatest traveler of all. The drive down towards Dubrovnik reminded me of some of the great drives in the world: Big Sur, the Corniche in the South of France, and the drive down to the tip of Cape Horn from Cape Town. It is simply breathtaking. There are lots of impressive places to stop off – the village of Ston being one place that comes to mind. Lots of signs for wild boar along the road although there is not much evidence of boar in the restaurants!

What we did in one day we could have spent a week doing. Eventually we lost the sun and ended up on a high cliff looking down into the Dubrovnik harbor as a huge cruise ship was getting ready to head out. It looked magical in the evening light and was as a tall as the mountains behind it. But cruise ships take their toll and that is another story.

A Day Trip to Mostar

If you are planning on doing a day trip from Sarajevo or Split in Croatia, there is really only one place you should think about, Mostar. We were based in Sarajevo for a few days so this was a natural break for our team. We also wanted to visit Tito’s Secret Bunker. Sarajevo to Mostar is around 2.5 hours – from Split it’s a little longer.

Tito’s Bunker

Who would ever guess that hidden in the forest around an hour away from Sarajevo near a town called Konjic, Tito, the former president of former Yugoslavia, was so convinced that the nukes would be flying that he decided to have a nuke-proof bunker made for him. The project started in the early 1950’s and was completed in 1979, one year before Tito’s death. It was built during the height of the Cold War and was designed to essentially withstand a bomb the size of Hiroshima. It ended up not being much good because by the time the bunker had been completed, the technology for nukes had far superseded the impact of the first iteration of nuclear bombs. Still, he was determined and so convinced there was going to be a war that he built a series of tunnels that could not be detected from the air. They were completely off the grid and this was a state secret that only became public knowledge after the breakup of Yugoslavia in the 1990’s. It is still guarded by the Bosnian military although today it is used as an art exhibition center and a fascinating look into a world that no longer exists. It literally is a time capsule. The people that built it almost certainly “disappeared.” In today’s dollars, it would cost around $26 billion. That’s an awful lot of money for an art installation! There was room for 350 people (family, friends, and military advisors) to live and work and enough food storage for six months.

Entering down the 900 feet through the labyrinth is a bizarre experience. Everything is exactly as it was with the old phones and the Telex machine (it looked a little like our office in 1979!), there were pictures of Tito on the wall, and giant refrigeration and heating generators. Even today, you need to have a pass to get in. There is a security officer that controls the flow of tourist traffic (incidentally there is hardly any) and you need a guide to walk you through the tunnels lest you get stuck in there and everybody goes home for the night. This was a trip, literally. Room after room reminded me of a grandiose version of Churchill’s War Rooms. I loved it but I could not wait to leave. I was getting claustrophobic and we still had to get to Mostar. It’s a must see.

The City of Mostar

The journey to Mostar through wine country was beautiful but nothing could quite prepare us for the walk down to the Neretva River. There was the famous bridge, the Stari Most. According to popular legend, the name Mostar actually means ‘bridge keeper.’ The bridge was built under the auspices of Suleiman the Magnificent in 1557 and replaced an older wooden suspension bridge that was, allegedly, pasted together with egg whites and pins. Anybody that dared to walk over it risked their life. During the Croat-Bosniak War, the bridge sadly became a victim of warfare. As it was such an iconic site in the city, it was reconstructed using the same local stone that the original bridge was based upon. The entire area of the town on both sides of the bridge including the old bazaar was also reconstructed.

The bridge is one of the great sites of the world. Bizarrely, it’s also famous for its diving competitions and the Red Bull diving competition has taken place on this bridge. It’s scary. We had set up an arrangement with the local dive school in Mostar. There is an annual local diving competition held yearly in mid summer where it’s traditional for expert divers to leap off the bridge. It is 60 feet high and the divers dive into a relatively small, deep patch of freezing water where it’s only 12 feet deep. The complication for divers is that it’s cold, it’s high, and you have to shallow dive otherwise it’s bad news. We had organized with one of the divers to show off his expertise and it was quite a breathtaking moment to see this guy in a wetsuit making the jump.

More than 2,000 people lost their lives in the conflict in Mostar. The constant bombardment was one of the most intense outside of Sarajevo during the Yugoslav Wars. Walking through the reconstructed bazaar today is a delightful shopping expedition. There are restaurants that cling to the cliffs with incredible views back across the bridge. One of the most spectacular views of the bridge is from the top of the mosque. But because the stairway is tiny, it can be super claustrophobic. The best thing to do is to have a small person go up and have them take a picture for you if you happen to be A) Claustrophobic or B) taller than 5’10”.

This is a great town to hang out in, shop, take lunch, but if you can overnight here, it’s super cool because literally the daytime tourists spill out. And there are lots of daytime cruise tourists coming in from Split.

Sarajevo’s History and Haunting Beauty

I am not sure why Sarajevo sounds so haunting but it simply has a beautiful lilt to the name. Nestled in a valley, it is one of the most extraordinary places you can imagine. The country of Bosnia and Herzegovina was one of the last dominoes to fall in the once powerful Ottoman Empire. Its strong Muslim culture is very much alive and vibrant today. The mix of history in this city is extraordinary, almost overwhelming. Imagine this – the first world war started here on the tiny crossroads in the center of town by the Miljacka River at the end of the Latin Bridge. That was in 1914 when Archduke Franz Ferdinand of Austria and his wife Sophie, Duchess of Hohenberg, were assassinated. That was one bad turn! You could say that the first world war begot the second world war and the second world war begot the expansion of the Soviet Union but more importantly, the emergence of Yugoslavia as a country. As the disintegration of the Soviet Union took place, so did the disintegration of Yugoslavia. Then all hell broke loose during the Yugoslav Wars in the 1990’s.

Sarajevo, the Olympic city of 1984, became a city under siege from 1992 until 1996. It was the longest siege of any capital city in the history of modern warfare. The siege lasted 1,425 days and about 14,000 people were killed, including over 5,000 civilians. It took the tragedy of the Markale marketplace massacre in 1994 for NATO to become involved and ultimately for the siege of Sarajevo to be ended. This was in 1996 – only 21 years ago. Now Sarajevo is one of the fastest growing cities in Europe and is ranked as one of the most popular destinations for tourists in 2017.

We walked by the town hall and library that was destroyed in 1992 by Serbian forces. Most of the important manuscripts and books were burned beyond recognition. Today it has become a monument to regeneration and reconstruction. To walk through the streets of Sarajevo, you are always reminded of the siege. We visited a tunnel by the airport where supplies were secretly shipped into town outside of the Serbian perimeter. It was the only way that the city could maintain its food and ammunition supply. The entire city was literally cut off except for this extraordinary tunnel link that the Serbian forces never found.

We stayed at Hotel Europe, delightfully central and reasonably priced, did an incredible walking tour with a local guide, and visited the old bazaar, Bascarsija. Sarajevo is unique in that in the same neighborhood, you can visit a Catholic cathedral, a mosque, an Orthodox church, and a synagogue. You can hear the call to prayer while walking through the city and listening to the church bells. Essentially, it is the story of the great Ottoman Empire. When you walk through the streets of Sarajevo, you can almost feel the pulse of tragedy, rebirth and the imprint of the centuries that have been left behind.

Switzerland Peter Jones Pietro Place

The Strange Country of Switzerland

Let’s face it – it’s a strange place.  Encircled by beautiful mountains, Switzerland is famous for its scenery, cheese, watches, chocolate, skiing, drugs, and corruption…oops, I mean banking.  A small bottle of water costs $5, a sandwich is $15-$20, and they think that they are doing you a favor!

It has a slightly dubious history.  In World War II they pretended to be neutral but it was really a friendly outpost of Nazi Germany.  Up until two years ago, most people kept a private bank account in Switzerland that was not traceable in any other country.  It was thus a tax haven for the rich.  It is the home and headquarters of football (soccer), the Olympics, and the Red Cross.  It is also where Charlie Chaplin chose to live the remainder of his life after being kicked out of the USA for being a communist sympathizer. The Great Dictator! One of the most brilliant anti-fascist movies of all time.

So, why do I keep coming back to Switzerland?  It is because I like the efficiency of the place.  There are trains that climb up mountains on cogs, trains that you can put your car on to that hurtle you through insurmountable mountains and save you hours of driving, and toilets that are very clean compared to most of their neighbors.  But most of all it is such a damn beautiful place with famous mountains jutting up above the clouds like the Matterhorn and the Eiger.  It is just so stunning.  Driving through the tunnels that have been beautifully carved in the mountains, I am aware that Swiss tunnels are the cleanest tunnels in all of the world, like they have a team of cleaners coming in at night to spick and span the walls.  Not a wink of graffiti and the streets are clean.

So I guess that I have a bizarre love affair with the place.  When I ski between Italy and Switzerland, I confess to loving the rösti, the raclette, and the fondue (really good for the cholesterol) a little more than the pasta.  Yikes – what I am I saying?!

Every year I ski in Switzerland.  I love the comfort of the place, the width of the slopes, the guaranteed snow, and I guess the Swiss are not that bad after all!

James Smith and Sons Umbrella Shop Pietro Place Peter Jones

Raining Cats and Dogs in London: Umbrellas, Then and Now

London weather is a strange phenomenon.

As blue as the sky is at any moment in time, there always is at least a 50% chance that the weather will turn for the worse.  Furthermore, it will almost certainly end up as rain! Then it stops and starts and rains some more.

In England it rains – so much so that English people have a national obsession about the weather. “How’s the weather love? Bit hot today. It hasn’t stopped raining. We will need an arc if it carries on like this.” They even have words for varying degrees of rain. Spitting (yes, spitting!), drizzle and rainy spells (as if it’s some magic trick)! Cloudy with a chance of…some rain. Not rain but some rain!

I was thinking of this the other day while I was walking through Covent Garden and had to stop at the store Muji, a place where I always buy great pens, to grab a reasonably dependable short umbrella.  Fact is that you simply cannot be without an umbrella in London.  The whole city is geared towards terrible weather (there even are signs inside of the Underground stations telling us to shake our umbrellas Outside of the station in order to avoid slippery surfaces) and in stores people leave their umbrellas at the umbrella parking space by the door. Truthfully, if you are armed with a short umbrella which you can stick in your pocket, you can kind of go anywhere. It is a liberating feeling!

This got me thinking about umbrellas in general.

What is the story with umbrellas?  Where did they come from and how did they evolve into what they are today?  Funny enough, the basic umbrella was invented around 4,000 years ago and even appears in ancient wall drawings.  The umbrella was made with paper and used as a shade from the sun.  Hence, the name umbrella which comes from the Latin word umbra meaning shade.  Leave it to the Chinese to figure out a way to wax the paper umbrella and lacquer them so that they can be used for both sun and rain.  Then we fast forward a few thousand years to the 19th century when James Smith and Sons Umbrella Shop opened in London in 1830 to serve middle- to upper-class people a parasol for the rain.  Working classes used their cloth caps or just got wet! The shop on 53 New Oxford Street is still there selling high end umbrellas to tourists and wealthier clients alike.  England even invented a word that is used everywhere today – brolly.

So where was my tiny umbrella from Muji made?  Muji is a Japanese store and my pens most certainly are made in Japan – but you guessed it, my umbrella has gone back to its roots and is made in China.  This likely is also where every single short version umbrella in any city sold by any number of people comes from.  When you dash into a store or buy an umbrella from a guy that just happens to show up because it is raining (and let’s face it, you need it), remember that he is simply following a 4,000 year old custom practiced over the years and built to perfection for an English climate. But if you fancy a high end experience, go to James Smith and treat yourself to the real deal – a brolly for the ages.

 

 

Israel Crossing Pietro Place

Bad News Returning to Israel

The news was bad.  The rains had washed away the border crossing and so there was no way back to Israel at the southern crossing.  Instead, we had to drive north to the Allenby Bridge crossing and we had to leave our hotel at 3 am.  It was sort of exciting because that particular crossing required a visa from Israel because it originated in the West Bank and there had been some issues at the crossing before.

We stopped along the Dead Sea on the Jordanian side at an awful café where I had a falafel and a coffee and was convinced I would have dysentery within the hour.  I laced my coffee with a Pepto-Bismol to ensure I made it.  I popped into the bathroom but simply could not stay.  It was dreadful and I felt myself longing for the souvenir shops with the toilets the day before.  Jordan was no Israel and I realized we had to get to the border crossing.  It was our only hope!

We organized a VIP status at the crossing and that expedited most things.  Again, it was as if we were in a spy movie – passports were exchanged, we said goodbye to our Jordanian guides, jumped into a neutral vehicle, crossed over, and our Israeli taxi driver was waiting for us.  We drove across the King Hussein Bridge and there was a primitive bunch of roadblocks with nails to stop anybody from hurling themselves into Israel.  The actual drive across the Jordan River seemed to last forever.  We spilled into Jericho and then drove past the settlements, through the West Bank, and into Jerusalem for a late stroll and another plate of hummus.

I was beginning to like hummus with a cappuccino. Am I really saying that? We were back in Israel and the toilets sure looked good to me.

Israel Crossing Pietro Place Israel Crossing Pietro Place

Petra Pietro Place

Petra

It was cloudy when we left Aqaba but all of the forecasts predicted that rain would cease around midday when we were set to arrive in the ancient city of Petra.  Situated in the Wadi Musa, Petra was established by the Nabateans around 400 years before Christ.  In its heyday, it was home to 30,000 people.

What happened here?

The Romans came and colonized and built their amphitheaters, baths, and shopping colonnades and then the earthquake took care of the rest. It was a well-kept secret for over 1,000 years until a Swiss explorer rode into the city disguised as a holy man.  The game was up and it was on the tourist map.  But this is no ordinary place.  Cut into the sandstone and chiseled into huge blocks of pink and red cliff, this place has everything….except decent places to grab a bite to eat and a cup of tea!

Standing by the main palace entrance, walking into the tombs, or wandering down the narrow, towering vertical walls are some of those extraordinary moments in travel when you pinch yourself. Running through the Siq is one of the great walks of travel. It is a walk of anticipation that was made into a sacred way by the Nabateans who had their eye for a dramatic moment or two clearly.

You don’t know whether to put your camera down or just keep hitting the shutter.  Then you spill out onto the masterpiece called the Treasury. It is like a movie set.  It is a movie set and the tour has not really begun.  We spent the best part of six hours there.

The houses carved into the cliffs go on and on.  You can get lost as you wander down that valley.  Imagine that this place was practically shut down for 1,500 years?  No water (the aqueducts were broken) and no civilization.  Just a few Bedouin’s holding one of the great secrets of time. Somehow most of it hung in there.  If you have never dreamed of going to Petra, go!  We came in on a horse and we left on a camel.  Incidentally, it was only an hour ride on the camel but it felt like a month.  I had so much more respect for Peter O’Toole than ever before!

Back to Aqaba for an evening dinner and an early departure.

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Aqaba Pietro Place

A Night on the Town, Aqaba vs Eilat

If Eilat is a sprawling, disco inferno, dance until dawn, restaurant-infused, party machine, then Aqaba is not.  There is a bazaar, a few terrible restaurants, a pub called the Rover’s Return named after the pub on Britain’s long running soap opera, Coronation Street, for some reason, and a scattering of Chinese restaurants.  Finding any place that accepted credit cards or served fish was going to be challenging.  Of course, alcohol was often in short supply.

So this is the Jordanian Riviera – a sparkling mosque, some run down restaurants, and a couple of hotels that looked out of business.  Tomorrow it would be the Wadi Rum and the day after Petra.  But this evening, it would be a dodgy Chinese restaurant and a warm beer.  How I long for the lights of Eilat.

Aqaba Pietro Place

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Update on Cuba Pietro Place Peter Jones

What Cuba Needs

What Cuba Needs

My Israel and Jordan post is coming soon (check Facebook for live updates!) but right now Cuba is everywhere.  2015 is set to be a record breaker in terms of visitors welcomed to the island.  There will be 2,000,000 arrivals between January and July alone; this is a 16% increase year-on-year.  3,000,000 visitors came in 2014.  For the first time in its history, and with the relaxation of rules for Americans, this trend is going through the roof.  Between January and May, over 50,000 Americans legally visited Cuba.

Good news all around?  Well, sort of.  Here is the problem. It begs the question of what Cuba needs. One word – infrastructure.  It is cute to drive in a ‘55 Chevy but there are only so many ‘55 Chevy’s to taxi us around.  Unfortunately, hotels cannot support the boom and they cannot build efficiently and fast enough to absorb this increase.  So what happens? Logjam.  As everything has to go through those old, commie agencies, it’s triple logjam.  This is all before they figure out the non-stop air services from USA cities.  Right now, the island of Cuba could not support a 4,000 passenger luxury cruise line docking in Havana Bay.  There are not enough buses to do the sightseeing, not enough guides to take you around, and not enough restaurants to feed you.

So dear Cuba…please.  You have a great island and probably the most fascinating and beautiful in the Caribbean.  Let’s get organized.  Tourism is great.  But right now, you are too pricy and you have no space.

What Cuba Needs Pietro Place Peter Jones What Cuba Needs Pietro Place Peter Jones What Cuba Needs Pietro Place Peter Jones What Cuba Needs Pietro Place Peter Jones

House of Lords

The Town and The Gown

The Town and the Gown

A friend of mine is a Baroness – I have classy friends! Anyhow, she had invited me over for tea at the House of Lords, and I, ever keen to add this to my resume of drinking spots thought no more than a second before finalizing the time. “Meet me at the Peers entrance,” were my instructions.  I took the tube to Westminster (it seemed the right thing to do), to balance out the afternoon, to ride with the masses ( “the commoners”), to alight under the shadow of Big Ben, walk right by the House of “Commons” – no need to go into that place, and head on to the Lords itself.

It’s quite dramatic really, there are TV guys outside by the Commons waiting for politicians and several policemen mind the store outside which gives the visitor this sense of self-importance (completely undeserved).  I was sent to the wrong place first, but eventually found my way to the inner sanctum where I was dutifully screened, assigned a photo badge and waited to be greeted by my friend. Eventually we met up, took tea in china cups and I saw the odd famous face as I caught up and spent an absolutely delightful hour in the belly of the beast.

It is not corny to say that these kinds of experiences are remarkable: the history, everywhere, drips through the woodwork – it’s not difficult to imagine this place 100 years ago. In fact…it’s all about tradition. Ironically, just that day the labor party under Ed Milliband had introduced the idea once again of abolishing the Lords as an institution.  I have never really been a great fan of the lords, but given the very limited influence they have, it would feel very un-British to not have such an institution part of a government that is constituted by a monarchy that has no power, but is an anachronism that has been more or less a continuous part of the system in England for over a thousand years. And anyway, where would I go for a cup of tea and a crumpet in the afternoon.  It beats Starbucks.

The Gems of Mallorca

Today’s highlight was the antique wooden train that rides on a narrow gauge track and has been rolling along since 1912 across the 27 kilometers from Palma to Soller. This old timber-paneled bone shaker winds along Palma’s streets before heading through gorgeous countryside that reveals rows of olive trees with tiny ochre colored villages in the distance; all nestled in the surrounding mountains. The occasional curves in the track offer a wonderful look back at the port of Palma below. There are a series of tunnels that present themselves before eventually we arrived in a clearing across a viaduct and then one last tunnel entrance before the slow roll down into the absolutely charming town of Soller.

Soller Mallorca Pete on wooden train 2 061014

In Soller, it is time for a café cortado and a wander through the charming streets that spoke out of the central plaza. Then we grabbed the tram that took us all the way down to the port. How charming the port was with its beautiful beach, the promenade with lovely restaurants, and spectacular views across the bay with the promise of more isolated beaches on the other side. At this point, it is possible to take the boat to Salobra and then head all the way back to Palma by sea. However, we elected to take the bus to the towns of Deià and Valldemossa.

Deia Mallorca staff 061014

The drive to Deià was spectacular, adding to the Gems of Mallorca. There were a series of sharp turns against the mountain backdrop of the Puig des Teix. The rocky landscape is terraced with dry stone walling and there are miraculous groves of citrus fruit, almond trees, and olive trees.

We headed to La Casa de Robert Graves – a beautiful three-story stone house sitting amongst colorful gardens which serves as a museum of the writers’ works. The home is also a fascinating look at the home interiors, his writing studio, and a compelling video of his life of works that spalls endlessly as part of the show.

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Graves moved to Mallorca in 1929 and abandoned the house in 1936 due to the Civil War. He then moved back 10 years later to find that his housekeeper had kept it perfectly intact as if he had simply popped out to the store. I could have stayed there longer. This was the house where “I, Claudius”, one of my favorite books, was written. However, the day was running out on us and we had yet to visit Valdemossa.

Valldemossa is another gem on this beautiful island. The Real Cartuja de Valldemossa, the monastery, dominates the town and all of the cobble streets point towards it.

We had picked up our guide in Soller amidst groans from the group. Although he was fairly unspectacular, I had grown to ignore him and replaced his droning of dates with fanciful images of a time gone by in this beautiful place. As is the case with so many guides, he was not cut out to present facts and figures in any way, shape, or form that would make it interesting or curious to the casual bystander. On the contrary, he was determined to drone on about dry stone walling and the Moorish invasion that took place in 1906! We were not sure if he was talking about immigration problems or if he had slipped up by a 1,000 years! But he was happy and we did not question it.

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As we walked through the monastery, it was easier to imagine and discover for oneself this place where Frédéric Chopin and George Sand stayed during a particularly bad winter in 1838. Even though George Sand wrote unfondly of her time there in the book “Un hiver à Majorque,” the town has made its name on the basis of the miserable six months that they spent there.

Her unkind words have been translated into millions and millions of tourist dollars as the town makes the most of the composers name and honors him each year with a festival. You can even visit the monastic cell that the two bohemians stayed in during that time. It was quite the scandal and sadly they did not stay to enjoy the gorgeous summer months that surely would have prompted a more positive book called possibly “Un étè à Majorque”! Oh well!

History has a way of righting itself and we had to get back to Palma for another 10:00 pm dinner with a drink and conversation along the waterfront. Such is life in the Balearic Islands.

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