Monday, November 21, 2011

Beirut with Bodyguards

I've spent the last four days on a Beirut hilltop surrounded by high walls, guards and razor wire.  When looking out over the burned-out shell of the former embassy annex, I can see Beirut's harbor and its beautiful city center in the distance.  I was in the city for dinner on Friday evening, driven in an armored car with body guard. Although there were police and check points everywhere,  I was surprised at how beautiful downtown Beirut is, with elegant shops, an impressive clock tower, several beautiful mosques and churches, and even a synagogue. The French influence on Lebanese fashion and culture is obvious and I can see why it was one called the Paris of the Middle East. Many of the buildings have been restored or constructed since the bombings and the civil wars.  I also walked on the former green line which dividing the city during that time.
View of Beirut Hills

Beirut's Old City After Dark


Unfortunately, the name Beirut immediately brings to mind the 1983 bombings at the American and French embassies and the US Marine Corps Barracks. The US Embassy Annex was bombed 17 months later in 1984. A colleague from my first foreign service posting in Yaounde was killed in the annex bombing.  Ken Welch was with the Defense Attache' Office in Cameroon and was transferred to Beirut shortly before his death. His name is among many on a memorial at the Beirut embassy as well as on an online memorial (http://www.beirut-memorial.org/history).  When I asked a senior Lebanese associate whether he had known Ken, he told me that they had been on the phone together at the time of the attack. He had immediately gone to Ken's office and saw that he was dying. In addition to the Marines and many other Americans, several loyal Lebanese embassy employees also lost their lives in the three bombings. The father of this Lebanese colleague worked at the French Embassy and was killed in the bombing there. He saw the remains of his recently deceased father that evening on the TV news.  Despite his tragic personal experiences, he is optimistic that Lebanon will remain peaceful during the foreseeable future. All elements of Lebanese society, including Hezbollah, are represented in the government and in his opinion, no one wants further civil war.  While the parties often disagree on issues, he believes they are all determined to preserve peace. Following are a few links related to the bombings and the Civil War:


http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/1983_United_States_embassy_bombing

http://www.tanbourit.com/lebanon_war.htm


and here are a few links on Lebanese politics and government:

http://almashriq.hiof.no/lebanon/300/320/324/324.2/hizballah/

Despite Beirut's tragic history over the past 30 years, European and Arab tourists still visit Lebanon.  Beirut and the ancient ruins of Balbec are the primary draws.
http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Baalbek
http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Beirut

I will be leaving Beirut tomorrow to return home for Thanksgiving. I would love to come back to visit Baalbek.

Friday, November 11, 2011

Dushanbe in my last Stan




It's 11/11/11 and I'm in Tajikistan (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Tajikistan). I have now visited all of the world's seven countries with "stan" in the name -- five which were in the former Soviet Union (Kyrgyzstan, Kazakstan, Uzbekistan, Turkmenistan and Tajikistan) and which are largely unknown to Westerners. Afghanistan and Pakistan are the other two. In my opinion the two most interesting are Uzbekistan with its ancient and beautiful Silk Road cities of Samarkand and Bukhara, and Afghanistan which I visited in the mid-1970s and which included a trip through the infamous Salang Tunnel that passes under the Hindu Kush Range between Afghanistan and Pakistan. Those were the days when Afghanistan was a hippie paradise and before the Afghans drove out the Russians, It was long before the US got involved in the Afghanistan War.  There are many other stans in Central Asia that aren't countries, but regions. (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/-st%C4%81n#Countries).  For more on Uzbekistan see my posting on the Silk Road dated May 13, 2010. 

With regards to Tajikistan, you don't need to put it on your list of "places to see before you die" and I probably wouldn't have paid my own way here.  However the high mountains surrounding Dushanbe are beautiful and remind me a lot of the Salt Lake Valley at home. And like Salt Lake, Dushanbe also gets winter air inversions that cause pollution buildup until storms come along and blow it out. 

The majority of Tajiks are Muslims who don't seem to take their religion as seriously as in some parts of the Islamic world, perhaps because they were under the Russian atheist thumb for so many years.  The country also has a very visable minority Ismaili population who follow the Agha Kahn and who recently completed a new Ismaili Cultural Center in  Dushanbe (http://ismailimail.wordpress.com/2005/11/05/tajikistan-ismaili-resurgence).   Tajiks are very traditional with peasant women and girls wearing colorful homemade dresses. Ethnically, they belong to the Iranian group of peoples and the Tajik language is a derivative of Persian (http://www.angelfire.com/rnb/bashiri/Tajling/Tajling.html).   The architecture and the automobiles in Dushanbe are vintage Soviet and are nothing you will soon see neoclassical versions of.

Tajikistan recently celebrated 20 years of independence from the Soviets and the US recognized the new government from the beginning.  It was a difficult time for our first diplomats due to a civil war which was started shortly after independence by minorities who felt underrepresented in the new government  (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Civil_war_in_Tajikistan).  The few American diplomats lived quite uncomfortably in a large walled residence that the USG had initially purchased to be the embassy.  In 2006, a new embassy compound was completed to provide offices for a much larger staff, representing several US agencies.  Relations are cordial and the Tajiks I met were generally very friendly towards Americans and other Westerners.

Tuesday, November 8, 2011

Cairo: Mother of the World



 I'm back in Cairo again and it almost feels like home. Gertrud and I lived here for three years in the mid- 1990s and I have been here many times over the years.  It was the favorite of our seven Foreign Service postings, not because it was the most comfortable, but because we were so stimulated and broadened by the experience of living here. No place on earth has as many interesting layers of culture and history to be pealed back and examined, whether it be Pharaonic, Ptolemaic, Christian, Mamluk, Islamic, Napoleonic or other.  It is the largest and most important city in the Middle East and Africa and one of the world's oldest. Historians and writers have often called Cairo "Mother of the World" which I think is apt. http://www.yale.edu/iforum/Spring1996/cairoSpr96.htm

My first trip To Egypt was in the mid-1970s, following the Yom Kipper War (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Yom_Kippur_War).  Egypt had been badly beaten by the Israelis and the US Government was in the process of re-establishing diplomatic relations. Hermann "the German" Eilts, a Kissinger protégé, was the colorful and gregarious charge d'affaires and soon to become ambassador. I was working for the Congress on a GAO team that was trying to help determine how the US could best contribute to Egypt's recovery.  The US Navy already had mine sweepers in the Suez Canal to clear mines and other ordnance so that Egypt could again start collecting the badly needed tolls which has long been it's biggest source of foreign exchange. PL-480 food aid was also arriving at the port of Alexandria and USAID was in the early stages of starting a development program. We also saw significant war damage, with the hulls of burned-out tanks and military vehicles still standing in the streets of Port Said and Ismailia.  Even today one can see the rusted hulks of tanks and vehicles in the Mitla Pass where one of the most decisive battles of the war was fought.


This visit is my first since the Arab Spring.  It is also the 3-day Eid al-Adha or feast of the sacrifice when many sheep, goats and cattle will be slaughtered and eaten around family tables in celebration. (http://matadornetwork.com/bnt/photo-essay-eid-al-adha-the-muslim-festival-of-sacrifice-graphic) 



           A Sheep waiting for throat to be cut during Eid Al-Adha

Outwardly things seem normal, although Tahrir Square still reflects the results of the long demonstrations and the nearby headquarters building of Hosni Mubarak's National Democratic Party is a burned out shell.  (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/2011_Egyptian_revolution)

Tahrir Square after demonstrations, with burned-out shell of former NDP HQ in rear.  Egyptian Museum is center right.





Although most Egyptians are happy that Mubarak is gone, they are apprehensive about elections later this month. The Muslim Brotherhood will no doubt be heavily represented in the new government but isn't expected to be in the majority. The fear of secular-leaning Muslims and minority Christians is that Sharia law might be imposed.    

During our three years in Cairo, Gertrud and I had an apartment in the World Trade Center, which overlooked the Nile and the densely populated Island of Zamalek.  From our balcony we were able to observe much of the tapestry of Egyptian life including ancient felucca sailboats catching the Nile breezes and young Coptic garbage collectors, navigating the heavy and noisy traffic in donkey carts along the Cornish. Five times a day we also listened to muezzins call the faithful to prayer from surrounding minarets. In the beginning the prayer call in Arabic was clatter, but after a few months it became an endearing part of our daily life and we actually missed it when we left. In those days the call from each minaret was quite distinctive with some off on their timing by a few minutes. Here is a typical prayer call, comingled with the noise of the traffic (http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=eMxUGB-lSqo). 

Nile view from apartment of friends in Doki
A few years ago the Egyptian Government announced that to limit din and disruption, it would soon initiate a computerized, uniform pray call throughout the city, which would be at exactly the same time from all the minarets.  Today's prayer call does seem less noisy and hectic, so the plan must have been implemented. And many muezzins must have joined the ranks of the unemployed.

In this blog, I don't intend to give space to the pyramids, the Sphinx or the Valleys of the Kings and Queens, which are fully described on the Internet. However I will mention a few lesser-known places to illustrate how deep the culture is.

Many don't realize that some of the earliest Christians lived in Egypt and that the country is home to some of world's oldest monasteries.   Among them is Greek Orthodox St. Catherine’s, the best known due to its Mt. Sinai location and its reputation as the site of Mose's "burning bush."'http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Saint_Catherine's_Monastery,_Mount_Sinai).  St. Paul's and St. Anthony's Coptic monasteries in the Eastern Desert are from the same era, as are several in Wadi Natrun between Cairo and Alexandria ( http://whc.unesco.org/en/tentativelists/1827).  Wadi Natrun's Monastery of St. Marcarius the Great purports to have the head of John the Baptist among its relics. (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Monastery_of_Saint_Macarius_the_Great).
 
The Pharonic Temples at Abu Simbel are probably less known that the temples around Luxor although they caught the world's attention in the 1960's during the construction of the Aswan High Dam. The German construction company Hochtief, moved these 13th Century B.C. edifices block by block out of the bottom of a valley that would soon become Lake Nasser and reassembled them at a higher site that would be on the edge of the new Lake. The evening sound and light shows at Abu Simbel to the music of Aida are very impressive. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Abu_Simbel_temples

The vast Siwa Oasis, near the Libyan border in the Western Desert is off the beaten path of most tourist itineraries but has an extremely unique and interesting culture, preserved over the centuries by its isolation. We observed strapped-on donkeys walking in circles to turn ancient presses that were squeezing oil out of local olives. Much of the Siwa olive oil as well as dates and bottled drinking water are sold in the markets of Cairo.http://www.siwaoasis.com/

Leaving ancient Egypt behind and turning to more contemporary memories of our Cairo years: they included a day and a night as guests of the US Navy on board the Aircraft Carrier Theodore Roosevelt while it transited the Suez Canal.  It was amazing to spend time on such a large ship and we were treated royally. Gertrud and I were among the lucky winners of an embassy lottery that was set up when the Navy invited 50 embassy staff to join them on this passage.  The men spent the night sleeping in bunks 4 levels high and the women slept in the dispensary. (http://www.navsource.org/archives/02/71.htm)

A visit to the battlefield of El al Amein where the Allies defeated General Rommel during WWII was certainly sobering. (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/El_Alamein). The British, Australian, Greeks, Germans and others maintain large cemeteries and memorials there and there is also an outstanding museum about the battle. The remains of Americans killed were transported to the US for burial.

In the 1990s, we could still drive from Cairo to Israel which we did a couple of times. On our first trip with Gertrud's brother and sister-in-law, we missed the turn towards Gaza and Tel Aviv after crossing into Israel and ended up on a military road running along the Egyptian border.  We were taken in tow by an armored Israeli military vehicle, which held us for about an hour while awaiting instructions.  It was late on a Friday afternoon and our escorts seemed a little anxious because Shabbat was quickly approaching. When guidance came, they quickly escorted us to the edge of the Negev Desert and turned us loose. It was a good time to have had a US diplomatic passport.

From Cairo we also traveled to Jordan to see Petra and Jerash and to Syria to visit Damascus, Aleppo, Palmyra, Krak de Chevalier, Malula and Homs. The latter has been much in the news lately due to the Syrian Government's harsh crackdown on uprisings.  

And to end this, we got to know the Egyptian actor Omar Sharif although I am not claiming we became good friends. While he spent most of his time outside Egypt, he lived in a nearly World Trade Center apartment when in Cairo and shared the same fitness center and pool.  There were a few times when he and Gertrud were the only ones in the gym, which opened up an opportunity for recognition and conversation.  A few days before we left Cairo, I was chatting with him at the pool.  When I told him that we would soon be moving to Barbados, he reminded me that he and Julie Andrews had made a movie together there called "the Tamarind Seed."  We had not seen it but we of course checked out the DVD later.   

Sunday, October 30, 2011

Adventures in "Budapescht"

Greetings from Budapest, my favorite East European Capital, where I'm enjoying 5 pleasant days -- mostly work, but with some time for pleasure. The following link provides an entertaining musical introduction to the city, especially if you speak German or Yiddish:  (http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=HtrQFVw_8Ag).

Although not as beautiful as Prague, I find Budapest more enjoyable because it doesn't have the constant tourist herds Prague has become famous for.  Also, a favorite aunt was born and raised near Hungary's Lake Balaton before immigrating to the US in her teens.  When I was a kid, she told us stories about her early years in Hungary which no doubt peaked my interest. Gertrud and I were also here about 5 years ago and enjoyed the major tourist sites and the city's ambiance together. 

But, since arriving in Budapest last Wednesday, I have been thinking back to my first trip here in 1964 from Salzburg where I was on a semester abroad.  A favorite professor arranged for several International Relations majors to take a three-day trip to Budapest over the April 4th Hungarian Holiday when we would be hosted for an evening by a group of students from the Communist Students League.

Our meeting on the first evening was with about 20 student leaders in the Communist Student Club.  A few spoke English and were surprisingly open with their opinions when their adult supervision was distracted.  They were especially interested in hearing about our lives in the West and solicited our frank opinions on Eastern Europe.  During our free time on the following two days, we Americans were supposed to stay with our official "instate tourist guide" who would take us to the authorized tourist sites around the city.  However, the Hungarian students encouraged us to try to slip away and they would meet us for more open discussions in the city park. A few of us succeeded on one evening and it really opened the eyes of a young student from Utah.

April 4th is still when Hungary celebrates its liberation from the Nazis but in the Cold War days of the 1960s, the Russians were central to the holiday and were of course touted as the liberators. The primary focus was one of those large military parades the East Bloc was so famous for.  Marching soldiers, tanks and other military equipment passed by for hours with planes flying overhead. A few of us again slipped away from our official guide. We initially had a hard time viewing the parade because so many heads were in the way.  But we soon noticed that there were empty seats on a controlled-access viewing stand that had some Hungarian and foreign student leaders on it. To get to the seats, we observed that they simply showed the guards a variety of picture IDs issued by their home countries.  We decided to try to bluff our way to the seats by showing our American student IDs, which we assumed they couldn't read and that they would simply consider us to be from another bloc country. It worked and we had a fascinating time sitting among communist students watching a parade of propaganda directed against "the Western Imperialists."

This visit was also the first time that I had ever been in an American Embassy.  Our professor arranged for us to receive an embassy briefing on US policy towards Hungary and Eastern Europe and on the roles of the State Department and the Foreign Service abroad.  I had no idea then that I would one day become a Foreign Service Officer myself.

An important historical cold war incident also highlighted that visit.  Those of a certain age will recall that Hungarian Catholic Cardinal Josef Mindszenty, a well-known spokesman for religious freedom and against communism, was convicted of crimes against the state and took refuge in the American Embassy before he could be tried. He lived in the Embassy for 15 years before being released and transferred to Vienna. Although we didn't meet him, we knew he was living in a room in the Embassy while we were there.  (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/J%C3%B3zsef_Mindszenty).


Here is a panoramic viewer for Budapest that you can maneuver in all directions with the buttons on your computer (http://www.360cities.net/area/budapest-hungary). Don't miss virtual tours of the Buda Castle District, the Great Synagogue, the Szent Istvan Bazilka, the Vaci Shopping Street and the Hungarian Parliament.  And also take a ride on the castle funicular!

Paul

Tuesday, October 25, 2011

Ceaușescu - the Gaddafi of Romania



This week I'm in the Romanian capital of Bucharest.  I've been here several times before, but on this visit I'm seeing things in a much different light due to the recent death of Muammar Gaddafi.  Nicolae Ceasusescu, Romania's former head of state, lived a life much like Gaddafi's and also died a violent death at the hands of his countrymen. Here is a 1982 youtube time warp covering a state visit by Gaddafi to Romania (http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Q16gLhh9gKg&feature=related).  It's not in English and is not worth watching very long, but it does document an interesting snippet of history. The following links on Ceausescu are actually much more interesting:

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=zBdaH9d1NFI&feature=related
http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=XsRQP7TifME&feature=related
http://movies.nytimes.com/2011/09/09/movies/autobiography-of-nicolae-ceausescu-by-andrei-ujica-review.html


I've had several opportunities during the past few days to talk to Romanians about the country's past and present.  And it reminded me that I indeed had a fortunate birth.  Most Romanians say that life has improved but that the Ceausescu legacy will burden the country for many generations to come.  Although the country now holds membership in the EU, it exports very little and most of its citizens struggle with daily life.  I have seen progress in the nation's infrastructure over the past few years (probably financed by the EU), but most Romanians say they must leave Romania to realize their dreams, unless of course, one is a corrupt politician or businessman -- and there are many here. 


From a tourist point of view, the so-called "People's House" is what one usually remembers most about Bucharest. Ceausescu had it built near the end of his reign and it houses the Romanian Parliament and a few other government offices.  It has several floors below ground and is supposedly the world's largest office building, even larger than the Pentagon. The architecture is appropriately dictator style and ghastly.



                               
Transylvania is supposedly the nicest part of Romania and worth a visit.  Of course the Dracula legend spices it up and the farming communities created by several generations of German settlers are said to be picturesque and quite prosperous.  


                                            http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Bran_Castle
 
Isn't it amazing that Germans always seem to do well, even after their fall from grace during the Nazi years.  Yes, the Marshall Plan helped, but their engineering genius and their determination to keep exporting is what really keeps their economy going.  Today, they seem to be the only country holding the EU together.  A couple of Romanians shared this sentiment with me and one even said he wished Romania had been annexed by Germany or Austria. Obviously he wasn't a Jew or a Gypsy!


Here are a few more links on Romania for anyone interested:


http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Bran_Castle



Thursday, June 23, 2011

In Saxony

Greetings from modern Saxony (Sachsen in German) (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Saxony) where Gertrud and I have just spend a very enjoyable week with friends. The Saxons were one of the best known of the Germanic tribes and had significant impact on Northern Europe and on the British Isles.  Ancient Saxony was much larger and included parts of today's German states of Westphalia, Lower Saxony, Saxon and Saxon-Anhalt the last two of which were created in the 1990's after German reunification.  Cities visited on this trip have included Dresden, Leipzig, Meissen, Moritzburg and Halle an der Saale.


Dresden, Saxon's capital, is best known today for the heavy and extremely controversial bombings it suffered from American and British Forces towards the end of World War II (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Bombing_of_Dresden_in_World_War_II).   It had long been a cultural center of Northern German.  For most of the war, the Allies had not considered Dresden as strategically important and seemed hesitant to destroy it.  What caused them to carry out these bombings at war's end is still the subject of much speculation.  Estimates of the numbers killed range from 35,000 to 135,000 which included many refugees moving westward to avoid the advancing Red Army.


But like the legendary Phoenix, Dresden has risen up from its ashes to again become one of Germany most beautiful cities. Restored buildings include the Zwinger Palace (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Zwinger,) Das Grüne Gewolbe, which houses many treasures of Saxon's rulers (http://www.skd.museum/en/museums-institutions/residenzschloss/gruenes-gewoelbe/index.html), and the exquisite baroque Frauenkirche (church of our lady) (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Dresden_Frauenkirche).  Gertrud and I were in Dresden in June 2004 and were able to watch as large cranes lifted the new cupola onto the top of the church, completing its restoration.  The cupola was a gift from the British as a token of restored friendship between the two countries.



Leipzig (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Leipzig) has regained much of its pre-WWII luster as a center of trade fairs, education and culture.  Johann Sebastian Bach is buried in the city's Thomaskirche where he also spent many years as the church's cantor. Other personalities who performed or preached in the Thomaskirche were Mozart, Richard Wagner and Martin Luther. (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/St._Thomas_Church,_Leipzig). In the late 1980s, weekely monday demonstrations emanating from Leipzig's Nicolikirche became a major factor in bringing about the collapse of the former Communist Government of East Germany (http://en.wikipedia.or/wiki/Monday_demonstrations_in_East_Germany). We also had dinner in Leipzig's famous Auerbach's Keller 
(http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Auerbachs_Keller) which played a key role in Johann Wolfgang von Goethe's novel Faust.  And as a final comment, one of Germany's largest monuments, the Volkerslacht Denkmal
(http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Monument_to_the_Battle_of_the_Nations) commemorates Napoleon's 1813 defeat at Leipzig. Approximately 600,000 troops fought in this battle and an estimated 90,000 died in the surrounding fields. 


Halle was founded in the 9th Century and is the birthplace of Georg Friedric Händel. Meissen is often called the "Cradle of Saxony" and is famous for its porcelain. (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Meissen).  Moritzburg Castle was built in the 1500s as a hunting lodge (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Schloss_Moritzburg).  

Tuesday, June 14, 2011

Grüsse aus Franken

Gertrud and I are currently on our annual "pilgrimage" to Franken, or Franconia in English (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Franconia).  It is in the Northern part of the State of Bavaria in Germany and is her heimat\homeland where she still has family and friends.  While this area is not as famous as Munich and the Alps of Upper Bavaria, we think Franconia's medieval cities are much prettier and more interesting than those in the South.  This year we have been joined by American friends Reed and Carol Warnick on visits to Bamberg (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Bamberg) which Bill Clinton said was the most beautiful city he had ever visited; the baroque Basilica and impressive Catholic pilgrimage site of the Vierzehnheiligen (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Basilica_of_the_Fourteen_Holy_Helpers); reconstructed Nuremberg which was badly bombed and is well known for the Nazi trials held there (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Nuremberg) (http://www.thirdreichruins.com/nuernberg.htm); Bayreuth, famous for its annual festival of Wagnerian Operas (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Bayreuth); Würzburg with a Prince-Bishop Residence dubbed by Napoleon as the nicest parsonage in Europe (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/W%C3%BCrzburg_Residence); and the UNESCO World Heritage City of Regensburg (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Regensburg) which is not really in Franken but which is nearby and feels like its Franconian.


We also spent two nights at Pastorius Haus (http://www.pastoriushaus.org) in Gertrud's home town of Bad Windsheim.  It is named after Daniel Pastorious, a native of the area and a founder of Germantown, Pennsylvania, one of America's earliest German settlements.  With Bad Windsheim's close proximity to Germany's famous Romantic Road (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Romantic_Road) we also visited Dinkelsbühl, Rothenburg ob der Tauber, Nördlingen and other beautiful villages and towns along it.

Tuesday, May 24, 2011

If its Tuesday, it must be Belgium!

Did you ever see this film from the 1960's staring Suzanne Pleshette?  It's about a group of American tourists trying to see Europe in 12 days. Gertrud and I are now in Brussels, the last of 7 stops on my European business trip,  and I feel we should be characters in this movie. 
http://www.imdb.com/title/tt0064471/



I don't have much to say about Brussels even though it is often referred to as the Capital of Europe due to its status as the seat of the European Union.  As a tourist destination, it can't begin to compare with Paris, Madrid, Rome, Prague or Berlin. However it can certainly compete in the culinary sphere and in my opinion has some of the best restauruants in all of Europe.  Its seafood is especially good and it has better options for French food than one can readily find in Paris.


Belgium's top tourism destination is the ancient trading city of Bruges(http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Bruges) which we visited over the past weekend.  As a canal city, we prefer it to Amsterdam because it is much less crowded and the bicycles are much less threatening.

Friday, May 20, 2011

Unrest at Madrid's Puerta del Sol


Well it appears we made it out of Spain in the nick of time.  We just spend a week in Madrid and could feel the pressure building in the city's plazas for some major demonstrations just before this weekends Spanish elections. Currently Spain has a 21 percent unemployment rate, with 40 percent among the youth. This could be a recipe for serious violence in the coming days and weeks.

But we won't let this detract from our overall wonderful week and we have decided that Madrid is now one of our favorite cities. It is clean, has good weather, an excellent transportation system, great restaurants and cafes, beautiful plazas and elegant shops.  And there are lots of stimulating things to see and do in the city and in the region. For starters there are its two world famous art museums -- the Prado  (http://www.museodelprado.es/en) and the Thyssen-Bornemesza  (http://www.museothyssen.org/en/thyssen/home) which were open in the evenings (thank goodness, since I had to work during the day).

On the weekend we immersed ourselves in Spainish history and culture by visiting El Escorial (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/El_Escorial), Segovia (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Segovia), Avila (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Ávila,_Spain) and

The highlight for me was Segovia with an impressive 2000 year old aqueduct crossing through the city center, a Moorish alcazar, parts of which are said to have been copied in the castle at Disneyworld, and an imposing cathedral which towers above the city. 


Alkazar of Segovia

Segovia Cathederal

Aqueduct of Segovia



The principal attraction of Avila is the ancient wall that completely surrounds the old city.

City Wall of Avila
A visit to Toledo is essential to an understanding of Isabella and Ferdinand and their honored place in Spanish history.  From a purely Spanish and Catholic point-of-view they were the force that united modern Spain under Catholicism and for which Isabella was granted sainthood.

Toledo

They were also the ones who financed Colombus' voyage to America but who also carried out the Inquisition and drove the Moors (North African Muslims) and the Jews out of Spain with a commensurate loss of lives.  Here are a few links on Isabella and Ferdinand and on Spanish history for anyone who may be interested.


The past two weeks in Iberia have been extremely educational and nicely suplemented trips we had previous made to Andalusia and Catalonia.  But it would take many more visits to this peninsula to really understand the great impact that its people have had on the history of the world.


Wednesday, May 11, 2011

5 days in Lisbon


Lisbon isn't Paris but it does have some interesting tourist and culture attractions. The best known are the UNESCO world heritage sites of St. Jeronomo Monastery where Vasco de Gama is buried, and Belem Tower, a monument to Portugal's maritime history which stems from the 16th Century.

 
The inner city suffers from urban blight during the day and badly needs renewal. However the bars, nightclubs and restaurants come alive at night with the primary draw being Fado, the Portuguese version of the blues which developed in Lisbon's poor neighborhoods. We had dinner one evening while being entertained by fado singers  We like it ok but a little goes a long way when you don't understand Portuguese. Ironically, Gertrud and I first heard fado about 5 years ago at an outdoor international folk festival in Salt Lake.  The singer was a tall blond named Maritza who had a stunning stage presence and who it turns out is one of the biggest name in fado and known throughout Portugal.  Here is a youtube link with Maritza singing fado. 



On Saturday we visited several towns outside Lisbon including Sintra where the royal family spent its summers when it ruled Portugal.  Sintra Palace is the first palace I've seen with chimneys as the dominant feature. 

We especially enjoyed Cabo da Roca, the most Westerly point in Europe which is covered with some of the most beautiful wild flowers we have ever seen.  We also visited the elegant beach resort of Cascais and the spa of Estoril.  All of these places are within an hour of Lisbon and serve as bedroom communities for businessmen and officials who work in the city. 

On Tuesday, while I was working, Gertrud took a tour (no, not a pilgrimage) to Fatima, one of the most visited Catholic pilgrimage sites for the worship of Mary.  I took the same trip 5 years ago and was quite amazed by the devotion. The tour bus also make stops in the medieval seaside village of Obidos, in the fishing village of Nazare and the Batalha Monastery. 


Friday, May 6, 2011

Paris in the Springtime

This afternoon Gertrud and I will be departing Paris after a most wonderful week.  We have been here several times before but have never enjoyed it as much, probably because we didn't feel the pressure to see everything on this trip. Instead we took the time to relax (me, after the end of my work day) and to savor the city's ambiance and joie de vivre.  Paris in the Springtime has been a theme of writers, poets, painters and musicians for centuries, and with the flowers and trees now in bloom and the sidewalk cafes and restaurants full, we have certainly been inspired too.


Gertrud in a Paris cafe

Much of our enjoyment can be attributed to the location of the lovely boutique hotel we stayed in on Rue du Mont Thabor which is only short walks away from Place Vendome, the Opera, Place de la Concorde, the Champs Elysees, Place de la Madeleine, the Louvre, Notre Dame, the Orsay Palace, etc. On one warm evening we even walked to a restaurant near the Eiffel Tower for dinner which was only 45 minutes away.


Lobby of our hotel - Renaissance Place Vendome


     
On Saturday we saw Paris from the top of a double-decker bus, and on our only excursion outside Paris, we took a half-day tour to Giverny in Normandy to see Claude Monet's home and the gardens which provided the themes for many of his famous impressionist paintings. The gardens were as beautiful as we had expected http://giverny.org/gardens/fcm/visitgb.htm.


Monet's Garden
Monet's Garden







Note to our French friend, Joelle:  yes, we now agree with you that Paris is the world's most beautiful city, especially in the Spring.

Sunday, April 24, 2011

Easter in Yerevan

Today is Easter in Armenia.  This year, Orthodox Easter, which is based on the lunar calendar, happens to fall on the same Sunday as in the Catholic and Protestant churches.  A further coincidence is that it is also on April 24th which is Armenian Genocide Commemoration Day, which by itself would be one of the most important days on the Armenian Calendar.  When I was here five years ago, an Armenian American couple told me that younger Armenians aren't very religious but that the Armenian Church is the center of their history and culture and this, together with the Armenian genocide, is what binds the Armenian Diaspora together.

This morning I decided to walk a few blocks from my hotel to an old Armenian Church to observe the Easter service. Around the church were many elderly women selling candles which were not carried into the church, but instead were lit and then consumed in fires near the entrance in remembrance of Christ.  The thought occurred to me that in previous eras the candles were probably burned inside the church but that the smoke made it difficult to breath and that it also discolored the walls and ceiling.  Some enterprising patriarch probably decided to move this ritual outside for reasons of health and historical preservation.  In Western Europe, many churches now have electric candles for the same reason and one simply pays a few cents to light the artificial candles. From an outsider perspective, the Armenia service wasn't significantly different than a Catholic Easter service, with the devout lined up in front of the priest to be blessed and to receive the sacrament. When finished, many walked around the inside of the church touching statues and paintings of the saints and crossing themselves.

The Armenian Church is one of the original Christian Churches, having arisen from underground and with Armenia having become the first state to officially adopt Christianity in 301 A.D. Since then the country and its faith have been inseparable. Also, Armenia, together with Georgia and Russia formed the Eastern frontier of historic Christianity.
 
On my previous visit I had a weekend for sightseeing, which included a half day at the "Mother Sea of Holy Etchmiadzin," the equivalent of the Catholic Church's Vatican, which I found extremely interesting. The key information about Etchmiadzin is on the Church's website at the following link: I especially recommend the pages on the Church's history and on the 132 Catholicos or patriarchs that have succeeded Gregory the Illuminator, who founded the church  http://www.armenianchurch.org/index.jsp).

On my last trip I also visited the ancient Hellenic Temple of Garni, built in the 2nd Century BC and nearby Geghard Monastery which stems from the 7th Century which are described in the following links:

Friday, April 22, 2011

Life in the former Yugoslavia


This week I've been in Belgrade, capital of what used to be Yugoslavia and now capital of Serbia.  I've been in the region many times before but the political boundaries have changed so often in recent years that it is difficult to keep up. Whereas the entire area was formerly the country of Yugoslavia, today it is Serbia, Croatia, Slovenia, Bosnia and Herzegovina, Montenegro, Macedonia and Kosovo with their respective capitals of Belgrade Zagreb, Ljubljana, Sarajevo, Podgorica, Skopje and Pristina. (http://www.cftech.com/BrainBank/GEOGRAPHY/FormerYugoslavia.html). You have no doubt heard the term Balkanization: well this is what it means. The last three of these countries, plus Belarus, are the only European countries I haven't yet visited.

All of the Balkan countries are struggling to varying degrees to throw off the shackles of their former dictators and their communist economic systems. Most soviet-era factories stand empty and free market principles are still trying to take hold. Most people still reside in large tenements apartment and would either like to move elsewhere or are hoping that things will miraculously change overnight at home.

While Belgrade has a few charming areas and a lot of construction going on, the overall impression is still gray and drab. Old buildings which could be grand, look tired and are in need of plaster and paint. Sidewalks need repair and most shops don't entice.  The primary tourist destination is the Kalemengan Fortress (http://www.belgradeeye.com/kalemegdan.html) which overlooks the confluence of the Sava River into the Danube and is quite interesting.  For cafe society, common throughout the Balkans, the downtown pedestrian zone has some appealing tables where one can sit, sip, chat and ogle for hours for only a few dinar. And the Skadarlija bohemian area has some good restaurants and an upbeat atmosphere with numerous small orchestras playing Gypsy and Eastern European music for tips.

But there are other cities and areas in the former Yugoslavia that I much prefer to Belgrade. The most attractive cities for tourists are of course those along the beautiful Dalmatian Coast of Croatia such as Zadar, Split and Dubrovnik.  Tourists swarm from Northern Europe to these ancient cities and nearby resorts that begin in Istria just Sourth of Trieste and run all the way down to Dubrovnik.  And well-healed Europeans, and even a few Americans I know, have their eyes on Dalmatian properties for their retirement years, and are thereby driving up the prices.      


Slovenia has had the greatest success in becoming main stream Europe and its Alps are a great holiday destination for lovers of mountains and nature.  Gertrud and I spend a week there last summer and fell in love with Bled.  We were in a wonderful small hotel with a balcony overlooking Bled Lake and had a hard time leaving because it was so romantic and tranquil. 


Lake Bled from our hotel window

In 2002, shortly after I retired from the Foreign Service, I was asked to return to the service for two months to fill a staffing gap at Embassy Sarajevo.  I thoroughly enjoyed this short working vacation and became very attached to Sarajevo which had such a proud history of religious tolerance before World War I (Sarajevo is where Prince Ferdinand of Austria was killed to start the war) and such an unfortunate history after the break up of Yugoslavia  (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Sarajevo). Both Serbia and Croatia coveted Bosnia and Herzegovina to further their own national ambitions.  Lovely Mostar in Herzegovina with its famous bridge is also a wonderful city that has apparently risen up out of the ashes of the war.  Gertrud and I visited it during the late 1960s shortly after we were married and I visited it again from Sarajevo in 2002 to see the war damage to the city and bridge. 
 

Saturday, April 16, 2011

The "Turkish Republic of Northern Cyprus"

Yesterday, in conjunction with work in Nicosia, I made my first ever visit to "the Turkish Republic of Northern Cyprus" which is only recognized as such by Turkish Cypriots and the Country of Turkey.  The rest of the international community considers the entire Island to be the Republic of Cyprus (ROC), evidenced by the fact that the ROC has been granted membership in both the United Nations and the European Union. Most Cypriots simply refer to the disputed area as "the North" which comprises about a third of the country and which depends heavily on Turkey for political, military and economic support.   However an estimated 30,000 Turkish Cypriots commute between the North and Greek-speaking Cyprus each day and are paid in Euros. 

The North is separated from the rest of Cyprus by a buffer (called the green zone) which also runs through Nicosia  The North's flag is usually flown in tandem with the Turkish flag. There is a large replica of it on one of the mountains in the Kyrenia Range where it can be seen from long distances to serve as a symbol of Northern pride.

The only routes in and out of Northern Cyprus are via boat or plane from Turkey or through one of several crossing points from Southern Cyprus. I crossed at the Nicosia check point and expected that it would be much like it was to cross from West Berlin into East Berlin at Check Point Charlie in the 1980s.  It turned out to be much easier, perhaps because I was in a vehicle with US Embassy plates. When we approached the barrier we simply held up our passports and they waved us through. The North looks pretty much like the South with the most obvious differences being the flying of the Northern Cyprus and Turkish flags and shop signs with Turkish language and Turkish Lira prices.  The North has some beautiful mountain trekking destinations and beach resorts which are popular with Turkish tourists. The following link discusses the problem of Cypriot identify for ethnic Turks and contains a photography of the gigantic replica of the Northern flag

http://www.cafebabel.co.uk/article/33063/national-identity-cyprus-turkish-greek-facts.html

Since the Internet contains a great deal of information on the wars and politics of Cyprus, I won't bother to go into it and will instead refer yo to the following links. The first one from YouTube focuses is on
the buffer zone and shows some of the ruins still there from the 1974 war.  The US Government still has ownership claims on some ruined properties in this area.

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=H7CbIYGhWSA&feature=related

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Northern_Cyprus


https://www.cia.gov/library/publications/the-world-factbook/geos/cy.html
With regards to the history and culture of the island, I was here about 5 years ago and had time to visit some of the island's ancient sites. Among the highlights were communities in the Trodos Mountains where there are 10 Byzantine churches on the UNESCO world heritage list.  Kykkos Monastery, the best known of the many Greek Orthodox monasteries in Cyprus, is also located in these mountains.  Former Archbishop Makarios who was also the first president of Cyprus, was an apprentice priest in this monastery and was buried at Throni which overlooks Kykkos. The island's combination of beautiful beaches and fascinating history makes is a beloved tourist destination for many Europeans, especially the Greeks and the British who colonized it in the 1800s at the behest of the Ottoman Government. Below is the official tourism site for Cyprus.


http://visitcyprus.com/wps/portal

Thursday, March 24, 2011

A winter break in Puerto Escondido

Gertrud and I are in Puerto Escondido, Mexico visiting our son, Chris and family who have lived here for several years.  Although we have been here many times before, we have a special purpose this time, which is to get to know little Zoe, our new granddaughter, who just turned 7 weeks old. What a pleasure it is to spend time with her and the family in their beachfront paradise.  

Chris and Zoe


Chris and Family at home in Puerto Escondido

Puerto Escondido (simply Puerto to the locals) is a fishing village in the State of Oaxaca on Mexico's Pacific Coast. It has a pretty harbor filled with colorful boats and with seafood restaurants and food stands along the water front. In the afternoons it is very enjoyable to sit at the harbor and watch the catch come in and the nets being unloaded with the fish being sold to waiting customers.  

But what has really put Puerto on the map is Playa Zicatela, Puerto's surfing mecca, famous worldwide for gigantic waves called the Mexican Pipeline.  This and the town's low cost of living draw young surfers from all over the world as well as a few old snowbirds who ogle the young firm bodies and talk about the good old days.  Ten years ago, Zicatela was very rustic and fronted by a dirt road and a few small hotels and shops.  Today the road is nicely paved and all of the buildings along it have undergone major face lifts.  There are also many new restaurants directly on the beach.  The city has worked hard to retain some of the rustic charm and to keep it from becoming another Cancun. It has not allowed any major hotels to be built along the water front, although there are a few large hotels outside of town on cliffs overlooking the ocean. 

Take a look at the following video of Chris and friends catching a few of Puerto gigantic waves.



And here is a picture of Chris waiting for just the right wave:


Chris surfing at Zicatela


Nature in the area surrounding Puerto Escondido is extremely interesting.  There are several coastal lagoons in both directions that contain brackish water due to flooding by high tides.  These lagoons are surrounded by mangroves and are home to a wide variety of exotic birds and plants.  Sea tortoises hatch eggs on the beach at a lagoon near our son's home and there are always a few carcasses and shells of old turtles that come onto the beach to die and are being devoured by vultures.  In December and January we have often seen large flocks of pelicans flying south along the coast.  They typically fly in tight formations skimming the surf for a lift to help them on their way. They are often humorously called the Mexican Air Force.  

One of the most fascinating experiences we have had in the area was during a guided tour of a lagoon about half an hour to the North of Puerto.  We came upon a small community of Africans living on a sandbar. They are descendants of slaves that were being transported to South America when their ship ran ashore.  The have a couple of open air cafes for tourists and served us cold drinks while we were on their sandbar.  Here is a link about one such group.



Check out these links if you would like to know more about the area:

Information on Puerto Escondido:

Click here for a selection of pictures of Puerto Escondido from Google:
Information on the Mexican Pipeline