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The Dinosaur goes to Wales… again

Posted by marshal on August 28, 2017 in Dinologs |

The opportunity to visit our friends from Wales came up, and we decided to go to Raglan Castle again. Of course, we would stay in London for several days before going to Wales, but that’s to be expected. First, because London is an interesting city, and second, because of the Raglan Faire starts a couple of days after we would get to England. As most of the folks who follow the Dinosaur know, Patsy and I belong to the Society for Creative Anachronism (a recreation club, in a manner of speaking because we sometimes lean too heavily on the ‘Creative’ aspect of the game and indulge in things such as ice coolers, propane stoves, and such). Anyway, Raglan Faire is an SCA events and it is held at Raglan Castle. What a nice way to see friends and to fight with them.
A quick note on Raglan, it was the next to last castle Cromwell destroyed during the English Civil War, and was a fortified house as well as a castle, not that this makes much difference when you are holed up somewhere waiting to get overwhelmed. However, it makes it nice for us who just want to bung around with history and not actually do the messy parts (plague, famine, poverty, etc.).
The castle does not have much of the original wall intact, but the main keep is still there. It also has a moat filled with waterlilies and a drawbridge which is cool to look at. There is a fireplace large enough to roast an ox, and life-sized statues of what I suppose were the owners. Unless the figures are allegorical, there’s no reason to have someone else’s image above your fireplace on a cold winter evening.
I will get back to Raglan soon, but first we must get to London.
We flew Virgin Atlantic, in steerage of course. This is not as bad as it sounds, and certainly better than some airlines economy class. I mean, they gave us hot towels and free wine and beer. Also, because it was an international flight, they fed us a dinner and breakfast, plus water and pretzels for a snack. Because the weather was rather unsettled, we had some turbulence all through the flight, but nothing to rise to panic level.
On arriving at Gatwick, we ran the usual gamut of passport, customs, non-EU versus EU passport holders, and so on. When we were through all that, we caught a train to Victoria Station and looked forward to settling down for a spell.
We got to the station and climbed into the closest car which turned out to be first class. It really didn’t look that much different from… do I call it second class? Anyway, after we moved and the train got started, I noticed that the doors between first class and our car kept opening as we went around curves; which sort of negated the distinction between the two classes.
Once at Victoria, we picked up taxis rather than try to navigate the underground like we did last time. Not only did we have our suitcases, but we also had the Beast, a rigid golf bag weighing 42 pounds and full of swords. Last time we came here, we had the Beast and people on the underground kept helping us manage the thing because there were no lifts (elevators) just stairs. Even with the kindness of strangers though, we had a hard time, and so even though it would cost us more, we took the cabs.
The place where we were staying was in the Whitechapel neighborhood, which was the center of the Jewish community during the early 20th century, but is now mostly Muslim, so we stood out to a certain extent. Several blocks along Whitechapel Road have a sort of outdoor bazaar going on. Across the sidewalk from the regular stores, merchants set up canvas stalls, usually as an extension of the regular stores across from them. I suppose this is a hold-over from the Middle East countries the residents came from, but I don’t know, it just seemed strange.
Bill Bryson, in his book Notes From a Small Island, complained about the disappearance of the iconographic red phone booths. We saw several of them around, but almost none of them had telephones in them. In fact, one of the outdoor merchants along the street was using one booth to store his mops and brooms. How convenient, but I wondered why the booths were still on the streets if they aren’t used anymore.
Special note: Whitechapel is also the area where Jack the Ripper did his crimes, for those of us who are mystery fans. If you are not a mystery fan, this is still where he did his deeds.
The first time we came to London, someone was cleaning the coal soot and grime off many buildings. On this visit, we found that most of the older structures were somewhat cleaned but still had traces of soot in corners and crevasses.
Guy, our guide, tried to find a cheap place to stay so that it was easier for us to afford the trip. This meant that we stayed in a place that might be three or four-star accommodations, but certainly not ten-star, by which I mean there wasn’t a cockroach Congo line, nor a rodent infestation, but I would not eat something off the floor, ten second rule notwithstanding.
There was a playground right outside of our window, but that did not bother us; playing children make a joyful noise and besides they went inside when it got dark. Of coursed none of this mattered that much since we were out of the place most of the time. At least we were not dragging the Beast up three flights of narrow stairs this time (that’s a lie, but the stairs were better than before).
We stopped at a pub called The Blind Beggar for a quick bite. This is a small pub, notorious in its day, in fact, there is a bullet hole in one wall. The place seemed dark inside, but they had a patio with tables and chairs and some old church pews to sit in and enjoy a beer or a meal. For some reason, there was a large statue of Siddhartha in the corner. A bar cat could often be seen curled up in the statue’s lap when not out caging things from the patrons.
At the Blind Beggar, I had a sandwich made of grilled Spanish chorizo and greens, with a non-alcoholic beer. My current medications do not allow for alcohol, but there are things that just need a beer for company, like pizza, burgers, wings – in other words the basic food groups. My beer had a nice hoppy flavor and if I tried hard, I could convince myself it was the real thing. The problem is that I was drinking non-alcoholic beer in a land full of robust, interesting brews. Oh well.
\Day One:
Today started off with a visit to the Tower of London. I chose to stay in a courtyard and write while everyone else took the tour. We have been here twice before, and for me the “awe” factor has worn off. Besides, last time we were here, Daniel proposed to Lucia (friends along on the last trip) in the Crown Jewels room to the approval of everyone in the place. They applauded when Lucia said yes.
Since they won’t let us touch any of the crowns, and since we had to ride on a conveyor belt that took us past the jewels, and with no proposals in the offing this time, I decided to go for coffee instead.
The English have interesting taste combinations. At the restaurant, Patsy found a sparkling soft drink with cucumber, mint and apple flavors. Later, one of our party bought some roast chicken and thyme flavored potato chips. Try finding those things in the United States.
Patsy and I decided to have something to eat along with our coffee and soda. We had goat cheese and courgette (by which I mean a zucchini by a different name) tarts. If you had asked me what a courgette was before I looked it up, I would have said it was a small dog, the kind the Queen likes. Anyway, the tart was a piece of puff pastry topped with a layer of caramelized onions and zucchini, covered in baked goat cheese. I’m going to try to make this at home.
Alas, we did not totally escape going through the Tower. The rest of the group arrived for lunch and then decided that we had to go over the Medieval wall on the way out.
Stairs, and more stairs, and not just the regular step but those stairs that are wedge-shaped so you can climb up inside a tower. My poor old knees did not like stairs, even though they took me to interesting places.
We have seen all this before. The wall walk is next to a building that has a series of funny faces jutting out overhead. If a face or figure is used to direct water away from the roof, it is called a gargoyle, but if it is just a decorative element, it is called a chimera. All these chimeras (chimerae?) had goofy looks and bulging eyes, only God and the long dead artists know why. I got some fair pictures of many, although I did not have a telephoto lens with me so they are not that impressive. I think it’s one of those things that happen in life: when I don’t need a telephoto, it is just heavy weight and it’s not something I can use spontaneously, also the one I have does not work well for near-by subjects. On the other hand, when I run across something that requires a closer look, I generally find that my telephoto lens is back at home because I didn’t want to carry the extra weight. Oh well.
Once we were down and gone from the Tower, we headed for the British Museum, taking the underground to get there. More stairs. By the time we got to the museum, I was mostly interested in benches or chairs than looking at ancient Greek statues, but no matter. Naturally, there is a grand staircase leading up to the entry, just what I needed now.
Once inside, the museum has this incredible massive glass roofed rotunda, from where you can go to the different exhibits wings or gift shops (they have more than one). There are also small coffee and lunch areas as well… I think you can see where this will be headed at some point.
Back to the rotunda; it is dedicated to Elizabeth II, but I had to wonder. Since the museum is older than the Queen, was the rotunda once dedicated to someone else, say like George, her father, or even Victoria, (for whom everything else seems to have been named)? Well, it’s a British thing and they have their ways, so if there is a brass plaque with the current dedicatees name on it, and if the plaque has some easily removed screws, that’s how it goes.
By the way, a car came into the forecourt of the museum while we were outside and it was interesting to watch how the police handled it. They had a mirror gizmo so they could look under the car, possibly for bombs but it could have also been for people sneaking in without paying. There were no dogs, so I guess they weren’t looking for drugs or something like that.
We walked through several of the exhibits and saw something that bothered Patsy. Many of the statues had signs that said things like, “The hoof of the Centaur is on display at the foot exhibit.” Patsy wanted to know why, if they had the missing piece, they didn’t just stick it back on the sculpture. Good question, again one to which only God and the museum people know the answer.
At some point, my knees asked (begged in fact) for me to sit down. Patsy and I went over to a snack area that offered a bowl of ice cream and a cookie for X pounds (I still have not worked out the exchange rate in my mind. That will happen when I get my credit card bill at home).
Sitting is a competitive sport at the museum, one that requires a good eye and quick reflexes, none of which I have anymore. However, I did spot an opening at a bench where we could eat our goodies in comfort and rushed over to find the space was occupied by a teenager, bent over tying her shoe. Fortunately, another couple got up just then, so I claimed I got us there on purpose.
After our group finished with the museum visit, we climbed down to the underground, took the train back to Whitechapel, climbed an inordinate number of stairs back up to street level and made our way to the White Stag – another pub – for dinner.
The White Stag is much more open and bright than the Blind Beggar, but there was a hole in the window that looked suggestively like a bullet hole. Maybe that’s a thing around here.
I had a watermelon and asparagus salad with quinoa and grilled Halloumi cheese. I never knew there was a cheese with such a high melting point that you could put it on a grill, but there it was. Halloumi is a Turkish cheese with an almost meaty texture and quite delicious.
After dinner and a little conversation, we turned in and slept like the proverbial logs.

Day two:
Today we took the Hop On-Hop Off bus that also included a boat ride on the Thames. Our boat was one of those that had seating for a lot of people, including some seats that faced the door to the operator’s cockpit. It would be a drag to pay money just to sit and look at a door for a half hour while everyone else talked about the views.
Patsy and I sat on the outside and we lucked out with our choice because we saw the replica of The Globe, Shakespeare’s theater. Also after the boat turned around for docking, we got a great view of Parliament and the Tower of Big Ben, both wrapped with white fabric like something Christo (the guy who wraps things in colored fabric, for art) would do during a Black and White period. They are obviously doing some sort of cleaning or repair, but we had no idea what was going on, just that things were wrapped up.
The Hop On-Hop Off bus, or HO-HO if you like, took us around London so we could see a lot in a short time. I
We sat on the top level which is unfortunately open to the elements because we had a short but dense rain. Luckily, the HO-HO provides a rain poncho of sorts for the upstairs passengers (think trash bag with a hood). If I had moved a little faster, gotten the plastic unstuck and over my head sooner, I would have been a lot drier.
That pretty much took up our day. We did stop at a toy store named Hamley’s. This is six floors of play things, including one floor dedicated almost exclusively to Legos. There were even life-sized statues of Princess Kate and Prince Harry made of Lego blocks. As a project, they must have been complicated to design, time consuming to build, rather creepy when finished, but Legos nevertheless.
I guess I don’t have to mention that the six floors included five floors of stairs to climb. On the way down, we used the lift which, according to the sign, was only available to strollers, prams and wheelchairs. I lied and pretended that I was a wheelchair.
Dinner that night was again at the White Stag. Patsy and I shared a couple of appetizers, a hummus plate and a cheese plate, so not much was worth talking about, but the cheeses were great.
Here are some general observations about England: we rode the underground throughout the days we were in London and not riding the HO-HO bus. There are priority seats for handicapped people, pregnant women, and seniors. I did not notice that at first and was amazed at how many younger people got up to give me their seat. I thought I was looking more decrepit than usual and they were having pity on me.
I wanted to mention that I’ve always understood the British to be very reserved, but now I find that they are quite friendly, just that they do not originate conversations. Once you start them talking, they can become quite voluble.
One more thing: when you cross the road against the light (as so many people do), the motorists act as if you are fair game. If you plan to be a scofflaw you best be nimble on your feet.

Day three:
This morning we went to the O2 (properly, that is a capital O with a small 2 below it, like in chemistry, but I don’t know how to do that on my computer) to visit the Star Wars exhibit. First let me tell you about the O place itself. Imagine a super big, exceedingly large, giant tent made of heavy plasticized fabric. This tent is so large, it has two stories inside it, and a regular mall of places to eat, to spend money, and to drink beer, which is an essential pastime. Huge cables and beams support the big O, making it seem more like a bridge than a tent.
Inside, we went to the Star Wars Identities activity. This was something like a role-playing game in which you build a character and develop its personality. Visitors were given tour guide phone-like things to hang around the neck, with an earpiece to hear what was being said. At various places, there were short talks about professions, interpersonal relations, families, etc. that you needed to build a character. The result was that one knew what George Lucas thought and planned, but also had short explanations of human behavior explained to us. Once one listened to all the talks and made choices about what the character being built did, thought, who it hung around with and so forth, each of us was given a choice to either go to the dark side or to stay with the force and bingo! you had put together a character. The description and final analysis would be emailed to you, suitable for framing and sharing with friends.
After a quick lunch, we headed over to Kensington Palace, where I think Kate and William are staying. There is a front part of the palace being used as a museum, and a back part being used as living quarters. We weren’t invited to the back part. The palace was quite nice and well featured, but I have seen so many grand places by this time that I was slightly bored.
During the walk around, we encountered two women that we dubbed the Hyacinth Sisters. For those of you who don’t know who Hyacinth was, she was a character in a sit-com named Keeping Up Appearances. She had a sister named Rose, who found herself in serial relationships with married men (with almost any man actually), another sister named Daisy, the kind that finds things in the couch and who was married to someone whose main function in life was to watch the telly and drink beer while staying on the dole.
Hyacinth had a middle-class life with a middle-class husband named Richard Bucket, but she pretended to be upper-class and told people the name was French and pronounced Bu-kay.
The comedy came in as Hyacinth tried to bridge the gap by ignoring anything that got in the way, and generally bossing everyone around her. These two women were like that. They shoved their way through queues of people, made comments along the way, and were generally unpleasant, hence the designation of the Hyacinth Sisters.
When we were done with Kensington, we made our way back to the White Stag for supper. I don’t recall what I had, but Patsy ordered the baked camembert cheese platter. There was a round of cheese, about four inches across, plus bread and an apple chutney. It was very impressive.

Day four:
This would be the day we went to watch the Changing of the Guard at Buckingham Palace. Because of all the people that came to see the show, we were crowded behind barriers while mounted police rode back and forth in front to keep us orderly.
After an hour and a half, we saw the band and the red-coated bear-skin-hat wearing guards behind them, marching up the road. Suddenly, the air was filled with cameras and cell phones taking pictures. One person even put his elbow on Patsy’s head to get his picture.
Once the guards were inside the fence, we couldn’t see anything but we did hear the band playing some surprisingly jazzy pieces of music. After about half an hour of listening to sergeants barking orders (but not seeing them), the relieved guards marched off down a side street. Shortly after that, the Horse Guards came riding past with their shiny breastplates and red-plumed helmets. That took almost five minutes.
By the time we dispersed, we had spent almost two hours standing around and waiting for about fifteen minutes of action. I think next time I would be just as happy to watch the video.
From Buckingham, we went to Green Park and walked around enjoying the trees and flowers. Green Park is part of the Hyde Park/St. James Park complex. We spent our time there and then headed back to home. This was pretty much a down day.

Day Five:
Today was the most ambitious day so far. We had to get up early to meet a tour bus that would take us to Bath and to Stonehenge, stopping at the small village of Lacock for dinner.
Our first stop was at Bath, or as the Romans called is Aquae Sulis. This is a natural hot-spring that the Romans liked to use, along with so many others throughout the ages. Bath was The Place to be during Jane Austin’s time, in fact she lived there.
A grand enclosure has been built around the springs, although not as grand as the Romans built when they ran the place. As well as the healing water, they also built up a temple complex dedicated to Minerva, whom they identified with the goddess of the water.
It was fashionable to “take the waters” during the 1700s and 1800s, and some people still drink it. Apparently, the main spring feeds into a lead lined basin, so I don’t think drinking it would be all that good for you. But who knows, if I had gout or rheumatism I might drink it.
The main bath is a large square pool of greenish water, surrounded by pillars topped with statues of famous Romans. The water is not clear but has more of a pea soup look. Above the pool is a Georgian addition where one can drink the water without descending to the pool.
We had some lunch there and listened to the buskers play in the square before the church. The ones we heard were very good, in fact they could have played in lounges and small venues if not with a band.
We rode on for a while longer, when we came across a pub named The Three Kings. The sign showed King Kong, Elvis Presley, and Henry VIII. Interesting combination, and something you should Google because it’s fun to look at.
I must say the sense of distance changes in Britain, especially if you ae from the Southwestern part of the US. As I understand it, Stonehenge is about three hundred miles from London, about the same distance as from Las Vegas to Victorville. Today’s tour would take us much longer to get to the henge than going from Vegas to Victorville.
Although I would think everyone has heard of Stonehenge, let me mention what it is for those one or two folks that haven’t heard of it. It is a 5,000-year-old circle of standing stones (three circles, although it looks like just one). The stones in the outer ring are maybe sixteen to eighteen feet high, and some of them capped by other large stones across two of the uprights. These things weight in the several tons category, and come from either a quarry about fifteen miles away or further. Now just imagine transporting a multi-ton rock across fifteen miles of uneven terrain without a truck or tractors. Our tour guide said that several years ago, a group of high school kids decided to see if they could move a stone as large as the ones at Stonehenge, and how long it would take. They moved the stone from the quarry to nearby the Henge, but it took them six weeks to do it. By the way, henge is a word that describes a circular Neolithic structure with a ditch and bank, enclosing a flat area. Some of them have things like standing stones, while others do not.
Stonehenge is not the only structure like that on the Salisbury Plane, but it is the largest and best known. A gentleman travelling with us confided in me that there was another henge nearby, originally built out of wood and now called Woodhenge, which is true. I confided in him that there was one composed entirely of old doors, called Doorhenge. He didn’t speak to me again.
By the way, nobody knows what the purpose of Stonehenge was or why it was built, but it must have been terribly important. Although the Druids like to claim some connection to it, the Henge pre-dates Druidism by at least a thousand years. The structure was apparently made by the Beaker People, semi-nomadic tribes so named for the distinctive coffee cups found in their graves.
When we got to Stonehenge, it was getting on toward sunset and it was raining. Although this sounds like a bad thing, it was perfect and added to the mystery of the place.
Most people can no longer get near the stones, it has been roped off for some time, with security guards standing by. However, our tour had special permission and we went inside the monument to look around. Big warning: touching the stones can get you escorted off the site immediately.
We got back to London just before midnight which was good because our driver would have had to stop driving (there is a time limit on how long a bus driver can be on the road), and we would have had to sit there until another driver could come and take over.

Day six:
Up early again, this time to catch the train to Wales. Last time we were in the train station in Wales, the Welsh language was not that evident, but this time announcements were being made in that language as well as English.
It is hard to describe the spoken Welsh language other than it sounds vaguely like some German dialect, but the written language is easier to talk about. As a start, if an ‘f,’ an ‘l,’ or a ‘d’ is needed, the Welsh will use two of each, and in most cases the words will be much longer than their English translation. As an example, there is a town of some 3,000 souls with a name that everybody likes to talk about: Llanfairpwllgwyngyllgogerychwyrndrobwllllantysiliogogogoch. (The name means: Parish [church] of [St.] Mary (Llanfair) [in] Hollow (pall) of the White Hazel [township] (gwyn gall) near (go gear) the rapid whirlpool (y chwyrn drobwll) [and] the parish [church] of [St.] Tysilio (Llantysilio) with a red cave ([a]g ogo[f] goch). The name used to be painted on a station wall the last time we were here, but no longer.
We headed over to Penallt, which is a neighborhood or small town, depending on how you look at things. We were staying in two houses converted from a school and a chapel for the school. Lovely places, although I can’t imagine how much it cost to renovate them. The stone buildings were constructed during the early 19th century.
We met the owner/wife when we came in and then the husband the next day. She manages the rentals while he teaches architecture, which explains some of the details. Part of the high ceiling of the chapel were blocked off to make two bedrooms upstairs, both ‘en suite,’ but the painted glass windows where the altar would have been, were still in place. The back yards of both places were delightful places to sit and take coffee of a morning.
A lovely pub called the Boat Inn is near Penallt and is a favorite of the locals. It is within walking distance of where we were staying. The river Wye flows past it and there is a small dock so people can tie up their canoes and go have a beer. Not only do they serve some great beers but they also serve things like Cowslip Wine, Elderberry Wine, Scrumpy, and various meads.
The pub is also animal friendly although dogs must always be kept on a leash. We met a couple with two Yorkshire Terriers sitting beside them, the dogs behaved themselves quite nicely. As we were leaving a man came in with two brindle Boxers, who were ready to become life-long friends when they saw me. The owner had to pull them back from licking my face.

Day seven:
We had to take a miss today. Patsy was feeling ill and we did not want to repeat our Norway experience of being sick the whole time, so I don’t have anything to report here. I will however, take some time to describe the Welsh countryside. First, it is as green as you can imagine, maybe greener. There are trees everywhere, even some in an otherwise plowed field, and the narrow roads ramble between hedgerows. The countryside where we stayed had patch-work patterns of fields hemmed in by hedgerows or low bushes, with an occasional stone walls as well. We saw one stone wall so old, it had holes in it and you could see how weathered the stones were. Farmhouses and outbuildings were scattered around the countryside, looking picturesque from the distance.
Many of the fields were square, while others were oddly shaped and I wondered if this had anything to do with how fields and farms were divided up in the Middle Ages.
Some of the fields were dedicated to crops, while others had flocks of sheep and herds of cows in them, or a horse or two. The sheep outnumbered the cows, who in turn outnumbered the occasional horses. I don’t know the ratio of sheep to humans.
I have always liked the word bucolic because it summons up a quiet pastoral feeling, but it also means having sheep or cows, so I guess this part of Wales is bucolic.

Day eight:
Today was our first day at the castle. It was what the Irish call a ‘soft’ day, meaning that it wasn’t actively raining as such, but it was raining. If there had been more water in the air, it might have been misty, or if there was enough, it could have been a real rain, however it was someplace in between those two states. It was like being cold, but not cold enough for a jacket although you would have liked the sweater, you know, the one you left at home.
The castle itself is quite a mass and I haven’t made sense of it yet. I have heard two opinions about it: that it was a grand manor house that got fortified or that it was a castle that got turned into a manor house. I can agree with the second of these conditions because you can see old roof lines but with arrow slits in the walls above them, which would cancel out the effectiveness of the archers. Either way, it is a grand pile and fun to be in.
There was not much in the way of fighting because the morning was given over to testing and authorizing, however, there was some longsword fighting going on. A longsword is like a rapier on steroids, more ‘Knightes of Olde’ than ‘Three Musketeers.’ It is a two-handed weapon and one wears extra protection such as metal gauntlets rather than soft leather gloves and metal body protection in place of thick cloth coats. For those of you who do not play this kind of game, I know it sounds strange, but really it is no different than a rousing game of tennis or racquetball… well maybe a little different.
I had a chance to fight with three Masters of Defense, the rapier version of a knight. In fact, during my last bouts with one of the masters, my sword broke and I was left holding just the handle in my hand. Imagine having three feet of metal sticking out in front of you at one moment and nothing the next. Flabbergasting.
After that, we sat around watching the guys in armor beat up on each other until it was time to go home.
Now, a further word about where we were staying. As I said before, it is an old school and a chapel built for the school. That the owner teaches architecture accounts for some of the nice touches such as plank doors with wrought iron door latches. The latches were flat pieces of metal that were raised by a handle on either side of the door. The door could be locked by merely poking a metal spike into the door so the latch couldn’t move.
There were some things that could not be explained, however. For instance, after an hour in the dryer, my jeans were still damp so I hung them over the towel warmer in the bathroom. A towel warmer, for those who have not encountered one, looks like a chunk of stainless steel ladder hanging on the bathroom wall. That would have been the perfect place to finish drying my jeans. I draped the pants over the rungs and went looking for the on-switch, which should have been at the base of the warmer or someplace nearby, right? As it turned out, the switch was behind one of the end tables beside the bed. Go figure.
Regardless of the oddness, this was a lovely place. It was interesting sitting of a morning, coffee cup in hand and looking at three tall, narrow windows depicting Christ with a lamb in his bosom and another of Him carrying a lantern to symbolize the Light of Salvation. I can’t say I’ve ever had an experience like this before. It’s as if my coffee and bagel were blessed, as though they were a sort of communion.
My first impression of the backyard was that it was an OCD park. Beautiful to sit and look at, but I felt as though whoever took care of it used a ruler to measure the height of the grass, how the ivy hedge was trimmed, and how the flowers in the pots scattered around the yard spread just a little beyond the edge and no further. There was even a life-sized deer statue supposedly munching on a pot of Hosta, which of course, grew just so far from the center of the pot.
What made this seem OCD was the playground next door. It had rough-cut grass, high weeds that waived in the air, and an ivy hedge that looked like it was preaching anarchy. Oh, and there was a play structure in the middle of the lot.
There were pots of flowers everywhere around our buildings. Bumblebees, almost as big as a little finger nail, bounced around the plants in an absent-minded fashion. Of course, being bees, they \were anything but absent-minded, they just seemed that way when they landed on a flower, took whatever nectar they could find and then came back to the same blossom a few moments after they had flown off.
One pot by the front door had a type of lavender in it that I had never seen before, surrounded by pink petunias. Now I haven’t seen every kind of lavender there is, but I have seen about eight varieties, so I was interested. Like any lavender, they smelled great.
I suppose I should also mention driving in Wales. There are freeways and they drive pretty much like any other freeway, just not with as many cars.
The side roads, especially the lanes, are a different story. They are generally hemmed in on both sides by hedgerows and often with trees arching over them, making it seem like driving in a tunnel. Since the cars are a bit smaller here, there is usually room for two cars to pass each other although it often doesn’t seem that way. Sometimes when two cars using the same road meet, one backs up in the first driveway available so the other can pass, some lanes were that small.
The road signage was both in English and Welsh (surprise, surprise) which was interesting. As I mentioned earlier, when one letter would suffice, the Welsh seem to use two. Some of the words don’t have vowels, and how does one pronounce ‘Cw?’
A family walked past us at the castle, speaking Welsh, even the little kids. It’s amazing how quickly the young ones pick up the language.

Day nine:
Today was supposed to have several rapier scenarios, but instead was given over to testing again. The fencing schools in the area had various levels of achievement, each of which had their own requirement for advancement. Today, the fighters had to show proficiency in a certain number of fighting forms, then hold the field against all comers for an hour. That put pretty much paid to any battle plans. By the time the testing was over, everybody just went off to take naps.
We went to the nearby cafe and had a lovely parsnip soup which I will try to find a recipe for and make at home.
Check this site: https://goodfood.uktv.co.uk/recipe/parsnip-and-carrot-soup-trecawl/
The heavy weapons guys (the ones who wear steel armor and beat on each other with clubs) were going to fight in the afternoon so the rest of us just mooched along, talking to people and reading books.
We found a great oak tree next to the car park (the term for a parking lot). Half of the tree was dead and hollow while the rest was live and popping out acorns. This was the kind of tree any kid would love to have. There were hiding places in the roots, and the hollow trunk would have made a great castle to be defended or maybe the crows-nest of a pirate ship, off to the Caribbean Islands.
Finally, all good things must come to an end. It was late in the afternoon and we needed to head back to the chapel. That night we went to the Boat Inn and had dinner. I had something called Pan Haggarty, which was basically scalloped potatoes and bits of bread, all baked in white cheddar cheese. I do not plan to make this at home.
Years ago, I read a book of poetry by Ronald Johnson, called the Book of the Green Man. The book was about a hiking trip he took up the Wye river. Ever since then I have wanted to see the River Wye. Imagine my delight when I realized the river below the pub was indeed the Wye and that I had seen it, here and when we went to Tintern Abbey on our last visit. Now I can check that box.
Day ten:
We were on our way back to the USA and normally I would end the tour descriptions here, but something funny happened at the airport. When we were checking in our luggage, the attendant at the ticket counter checked in the Beast and asked me what was in it. I replied, ‘sports equipment.’ She then asked me if that meant golf clubs, fishing gear, or a couple more choices. I told her that the bag held swords with bated ends. And therein began the funny thing.
I was told to take the Beast to a special place and that I would have to come back early the next day to pay for it, since it was an extra bag.
At 6:00 the next morning, I got a call from someone named Neil, who told me that I had to come to the baggage area as quickly as possible or else the swords would be stuck in England.
I made my way down to the baggage area and asked for Neil, but nobody seemed to know who he was, so I just paid for the extra bag and got my boarding passes (one for me, one for the Beast).
Now, a half hour before we were supposed to start loading on the plane, I got a call from Neil again, demanding why I hadn’t shown up as directed. I explained that I had gone to the special desk, asked for him and that a ticket agent had already given me my boarding pass.
As it turns out, that was not sufficient. Neil told me that an agent would be with me shortly and that I had to stand by with the Beast. So, with boarding time approaching, I stood, nibbling my nails and wondering how long it would take me to develop an English accent if they did not allow me to leave.
After about ten minutes, the agent showed up and had me fill out some paperwork. I was informed that the swords represented assault weapons and were being treated as such.
Now most of you know I have a weird sense of humor, and honestly, these people were feeding me straight lines right and left. However, I learned a long time ago that you do not make jokes in an airport, so I kept my mouth shut, even when they had me declare how much ammunition was in the bag. I almost said, ‘an infinite amount because I can keep on stabbing,’ but I didn’t.
Yay me.
We made it home in good time and although we left London at 10:30 in the morning, we landed at McCarren at 1:30 the same day. Marvelous.
Well, that wraps up another adventure. As ever, thanks for coming along on the trip. I hope you enjoyed the log and will tune in next time. Cheers.

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The Dinosaur goes to Norway

Posted by marshal on June 17, 2017 in Dinologs |

Some of Patsy’s ancestors came from Norway, and when we were looking around for another adventure, this one came up at a reasonable price. So, on to Oslo.

Day One:
The first day of a trip should not be an adventure, but sometimes it works out that way. This time, on the way to the park-and-ride, we got tied up with early morning traffic (poor slobs trying to get to work). We got to the place almost a half hour later than I had planned and the bus that would take us to the airport was about ten minutes late, and I started to feel nervous.

Once at the airport however, we learned that our flight to Los Angeles, where we would connect with British Airways on our way to Oslo, would be delayed for twenty minutes.
According to our itinerary, we had an hour and a half to land in LA, grab our suitcases, and scamper on over to British Airways. So now we had an hour and ten minutes to make the connection… still doable. For some reason, after we landed at LAX, our plane wasn’t inexactly the right space and we stood in the aisle for fifteen minutes; fifty-five minutes before our next flight was scheduled to take off.
We went to the baggage carousel where we found Patsy’s bag but not mine. She went on ahead to British Airways to find out what was happening while I waited for my bag to show up. After ten minutes with no luck, the carousel stopped moving. Damn! It was just a short wait, a mere five minutes, and my bag was the first to come down the chute, so now we had another forty minutes to get a boarding pass, clear security, and find our gate. Still doable.

Racing out of the main terminal, I asked several people where I would find British Airways. Two of the people just pointed off to the left, but a third told me that BA was about a half block away and upstairs, inside the Tom Bradley terminal. Once there, I asked someone else where to go and they said I could use either of two elevators or two escalators, to get to the second floor, each equidistant from where I was standing.

Unlike the donkey that starves to death in the old saw, I made a choice and set out for the one to the left… I should have gone right. Upstairs, I found a gallery with half a dozen various airlines, like the Emirates, Cathay Air, and so forth. It hit me that we had not made plans on how to meet up. Patsy had gone on ahead, but I had no idea where the heck British Airways was, and my forty-minute lead had shrunk to thirty. It was time to panic. All we needed was one TSA agent with a bad attitude and we would miss our flight.

Then I heard Patsy call my name. She signaled me to the right place, told me that our flight took off in an hour and a half, not thirty minutes, and we were okay for time. Life was good once more.
On our way to our gate, we passed an art installation of several tall, narrow lighted panels with pretty images on them and the sound of wind-chimes, just the thing I needed right then.

Once we were seated near our gate. we saw a big cluster of panels on the wall, arranged to look like the biggest television set you have ever seen. It was an interactive installation and set at a height that a child of ten could reach. When someone touched the screen, it popped up with a couple of bright blobs and then offers some choices of images. Anyone playing with the images could pull up pictures of plants or antique cars for instance, expand them, move them around, and shrink them back down again. We watched a couple of kids play with the screen for a while which was cool. (Okay, I played with it once or twice myself, but it was just to see how it worked and besides, I was a ten-year-old kid once)

Now that we had time, we needed to have a bite to eat, so I went looking for sandwiches. We ended up with a couple of airport salads that cost about the same as a full meal at Olive Garden, and had our lunch. Of course, we wanted a dessert; we had earned it and so I went looking for cookies. Here is a piece of advice for you fellow travelers: don’t be afraid to look at Starbucks in the airports. Yes, they will be a bit more expensive, but no, they won’t be as expensive as some of the other food vendors. I passed one stand that sold a single chocolate chip cookie for five dollars but then bought two cookies for the same amount from Starbucks. Who knew?

Our flight to Oslo would go through Heathrow in London and we were on a behemoth aircraft named Lee. I thought airplanes were given names like “Pride of London,” or maybe “Carrier of the Year” or something like that, but Lee?

When we deplaned, we passed down the aisle through business class. Not only did they have their own small cubicles, first class seemed to have their own private little rooms. Did I mention that there was a second story on this airplane? I got a chance to look upstairs and found that it looked a lot like our steerage section except with more legroom.

We chose to go with steerage to save money and with the optimistic belief that it was only ten hours and we could do that easily. What could go wrong?

Steerage had ten seats across, three on either side and four in the middle. We were on the outside of one of the middle four seats, so far back in the aircraft that they gave a separate door to come through. Leg room was generous enough so we didn’t hit our chins with our knees, but not enough so that we could stretch our legs should we get a charley horse (a real possibility at our age). This would be a ten-hour flight; I watched one movie and then napped as best I could. Patsy said that she did not sleep at all, which was not surprising.

Once at Heathrow, we asked about our gate, since there was nothing indicated on our boarding passes. The person at the counter told us we would have to check the announcement board to find out which gate we were supposed to go to. Looking at the board, I saw that the gate would not be announced until a half hour before our flight took off, but it would likely be in the direction of the A gates. Great; they were playing Russian Roulette with our gates.

As it turned out, the correct gate was nearby and we boarded with no problems. This was to the good as we were sleep deprived, running on raw energy, and not in the mood to play games. We were no longer optimistic about our resilience as we had been when planning the trip. After all, we were not in our twenties anymore – hell, we weren’t even in our sixties anymore.

Our last adventure was after we reached Oslo. We had planned to take a taxi to our hotel, but when we asked at the information desk, they directed us to the train kiosk instead. The train would get us near to our destination at about half the price. The only catch was, the kiosk did not accept cash and I did not have a code for my credit card (many countries are now requiring pin numbers for any credit card transaction). The clock on the wall said that I had ten minutes to go before the train left and I didn’t have a way to purchase the tickets! By the time I worked out that I could use my debit card (which already had a pin number), we had less than five minutes to get us to the train. By luck we got to the platform just as the doors to the car were closing; the woman in front of us was pushing a stroller, which took some maneuvering time. Bless her.

A couple of minutes later, a ticket taker came along and wanted to see our tickets. I asked her which station we should get off at, but of course she did not speak English, and of course I don’t speak Norwegian (Hey, I just barely get by with American). Anyway, through sign language and some pantomime, we figured out the station where we would get off the train. When we reached our station, she came back and made sure we were at the right one. Once we were on the platform, we could see our hotel. We had made it on time for the introductions and dinner.

Day Two:
We were up way too early, considering we had been flying, or waiting to fly, for some eighteen to twenty hours before, (Who can tell with all the time changes we had gone through) plus we had a bit of jet lag. However, we paid for adventure, and adventure we would have despite how much we would rather sleep.
Now a word about Oslo, or as much as we could say about it right now. The Norwegians at the hotel speak good English, in fact I complemented one, saying that he sounded as though he could come from California. The part of town we are in was full of construction because they are building an Art Museum across the street to compliment the National Opera House.

The opera house itself is just a few blocks away and is an interesting structure. It is huge, white, with a massive front window and a zig-zag pattern of ramps on either side of the window, leading up to the roof. People were walking all over the place and it would not surprise me if there was a restaurant or something like that on top. The building is supposed to represent an ice berg slipping down into the ocean. There is even a sculpture out in the water representing a smaller berg that calved off earlier, and we were told that people often dove off the opera ramp to swim out to the sculpture and back again. Yeah, like I could even imagine doing something like that, I mean, this is a fjord for heaven’s sake.

When we left Oslo the next morning, it was mildly overcast, not depressingly, but also not blue sky. Our first destination was at Eidsvoll, where the Norwegian constitution was signed in 1814. The building was a lovely structure with what we would come to see as particularly Norwegian touches. The flag out front was a three-tongued affair only flown in special places such as parliament or the royal palace.
An odd bit was I guess you would call an installation. On a well-manicured hillside, there were what I took to be old mill-stones, but it was actually one sculpture, representing the glasses worn by the man whose home was used for the constitutional convention. Go figure.

We traveled along the edge of a very large lake called Mjosa (with a slash through the “o”, which seems to give it an “aw’ sound. Our tour guide was called Oivind, which I made sound like a Jewish Irvin). The lake was a couple of miles across at its widest, and miles long. When we saw it, there were spaces of dirty ice and open water, but our guide told us people used the lake as the quickest route to Lillehammer when it was frozen over. That was an awfully large body of water to be frozen over.

By this time, we had passed through several tunnels and seen many waterfalls. I will talk more about these later.

Our next stop was at Lillehammer, the site of the 1994 Winter Olympic Games. We stopped at the ski jump arena behind the Olympic torch position. There was only a small patch of snow on the ground, but our guide told us that the run down-hill was covered with ceramic tile and the landing slope was covered with a net of nylon ropes. Wetting both these areas down with water simulates how they work when they are snow covered and so the ski jump is usable all year long. He did not mention what the skier would land in, however. Olvind also pointed out a tree high up on the slope and told us that he and a couple of buddies hid in this tree during the competitions, taking picnic lunches and beer with them, to watch the ski jumps for free.
On the way back to the bus, we passed the mascot for the games, a figure taken from a 5,000-year-old petroglyph of a man holding what was probably a club, but was now a torch. We would see the real thing the next day, high on a cliff above the fjord.

We were headed for a museum that featured a display of how Horak Horakson, a young boy, was brought to the north of Norway to be king in place of some petty tyrants who ran the place. Horak’s father had been a good king and the folks who brought his son north believed the son would grow up to be like his father. The only problem was that the petty tyrants wanted to kill the boy – the rescuers had to protect him while they skied north. Horak eventually became king of all southern Norway (directions get a little scrambled here) before the time of Harald Fairhair, and now there is a race now that takes place every year to commemorate the escape. Each skier must carry a 65-pound pack to represent the boy’s weight as they race for the crown.
There was a display of different kinds of period skis, some of which were covered in fur. Apparently, the fur helps when going up-hill, but don’t ask me. The only time I tried to learn how to ski, I fell over and got a Charlie horse in a place I was convinced had no muscles to cramp.

Along with other displays and exhibits at the museum, there is a collection of historic buildings on the grounds. It seems that a local dentist wanted to preserve Norwegian culture and so he located old wooden buildings and then arranged for funding to move them to the museum. One of the buildings on the site is a stave church, the earliest church style in Scandinavia, dating from the Dark Ages. One of the more interesting features of the church are the stylized dragons on the eaves that were meant to scare away any evil spirits.

The church was painted with a coating of creosote and lemon oil to preserve it. No one knew at the time that this was a lethal combination for anyone breathing the fumes when they painted the church. So much for the protection of dragons on the roof.

On our way to our hotel that night, we passed the house of Sigrid Undset, a Nobel Laureate in Literature. Our daughter’s name came from an Undset trilogy, Kristin Lavransdatter. We would have liked to take a picture of the house, but the bus did not stop long enough for that. We consoled ourselves with missing the opportunity, but also realized that we could take a picture of any similar house and claim it was Undset’s, I mean who could tell otherwise?

I’m sure we had a lovely Norwegian dinner, because just about every dinner we had was a lovely Norwegian meal, but the most memorable part of the evening was going to bed! It would take several days for us to get over the airplane ride and the jet lag.

Spoiler alert: some serious descriptions about Norway coming up.
I should mention right now that western Norway, which is where our tour took us, is very mountainous and is more rock than open soil (although we would see lots of farms along the way). Unless we were on a ferry, whenever we went to a new place, we would drive through several tunnels to get there. Oivind said the country had as many holes in it as Swiss cheese.

Because of the mountains and the cool air, there are many glaciers year around and a great deal of snow in the winter, which means there are waterfalls in abundance. Our trip was early enough in the year so we caught the snow-melt runoff. The types of waterfalls cover everything from tall, wedding-veil misty things that almost don’t touch the ground to squat masses of white water hell-bent on punishing the earth below. Almost any fold in the rocks sported some sort of waterfall or runoff. As well as the falls, we saw lakes, streams, creeks, and rivers all over the place. Many of these water courses are still home to Norwegian salmon, a boon to the gourmet dining world.

The Norwegians also realized that land farmed salmon tended to pick up parasites and diseases, and so they raise their salmon in net enclosures out in the fjords where they do not have to use antibiotics and pesticides on the fish. Along with the farmed fish, the multiple dams along the rivers have salmon steps so wild fish can swim upstream to spawn in their usual places.

Now, as to coastline and fjords, if you straighten Norway out, you get around 52,000 miles of coastline. Wow. Some fjords are salt water arms of the ocean, but others are fresh water, fed by the snow runoff. Almost all of them are deep enough to carry large ship traffic.

Something else the Norwegians have in abundance is wood. According to Oivind, farmers own not only the farm land but the forest behind it. The work seasons then are divided into farming and forestry care. The farmers are not allowed to clear-cut an area without replanting it, which is a marvelous idea. By the way, we were told that there were farms up on the mountain sides where young children had ropes around them to keep them from falling over the cliff edges. I’ve never run across that sort of thing, even in China.
Now you should have a picture of a mountainous country, riddled by tunnels and either covered in rock, trees or farms and lots of snow, with water, water everywhere. Our guide said he sees a day when Norway will be exporting water to the rest of the world.

I must also mention driving along hairpin turns with a bus. The roads take us from sea level to high in the mountains, usually with two-way traffic. Our driver, Martin (pronounced Mart’in), managed that thing like a large sedan. Oivind told us that the bus had rear-axel steering, but I don’t know about that. I do know that Martin went around some curves I would have taken a second look at while driving a car. But given how mountainous the country and how many tunnels we came to, coupled with the rise in elevation from sea level to maybe 5,000 feet or more, there was an abundance of hairpin turns. Of course, we all know that what goes up must come down… more switchbacks.

Day three:
We started off the day driving through thick forest and lush farmland. We were supposed to have passed a stave church along the way but did not stop, possibly because we had to catch a ferry. I may have missed it because I was napping, still trying to catch up on the elusive sleep.

Our road took us up to 5,000 feet for a view from the Dalsnibba lookout point before descending into the valley on our way to Geirangerfjord for a trip down the fjord. Looking down over the mountain, we could see the kind of road Patsy and I used to joke about by saying, “Sure glad that’s not our road.” We don’t make that joke anymore since we have found ourselves in rough terrain more than once. Fortunately, we had Martin.

The ferry ride along the fjord would take us past the Seven Sisters Cascade. I counted them as we went by and only saw five waterfalls, so I suppose two of the sisters were out having coffee or something.
We docked at a town called Hellesylt where we took a picture with a giant troll statue. Trolls are an interesting phenomenon here in Norway. According to Oivind, every child is given a troll, usually a hand carved figure, when they are baptized. Trolls are supposed to guard the child although how this happens our guide didn’t say. He did tell us that he still had his, though.

According to the statue and others we would see along the way, trolls have very long noses, show big gap-toothed grins, are sort of pear-shaped and have ears like small elephants. They wear something like overalls for the men trolls, and have a tail stuck out the back, with a tuft on the end.

Norway is a Lutheran country, it’s the state religion, and yet they give trolls to infants for protection. Go figure. On the other hand, the landscape, with all its dark forests, waterfalls, and high snow- covered peaks seems to inspire things like trolls. If the creatures lived anywhere, it would be here.
We stayed that night in a town called Lom (no line through the O).

Day four:
During our trip, we had one or two days with any blue sky showing; most of the time the sky was slightly overcast, not to the point of being depressive, but also not sunny. This morning we woke up to what Oivind called “Trollish” weather. Everything was misty, there was some light rain, and the forest seemed darker than usual.

Patsy and I were suspecting that we might be coming down with colds, but nothing too dramatic yet. We decided to go and get something for our sniffles.

We crossed cobblestone streets that even though they were very old, still seemed to have pedestrian crossings marked out in stripes. We found a Boots pharmacy (something we knew from the UK and Australia) and got something the pharmacist assured us would knock out the cold quickly. Fat Chance; whatever we had held on like our own personal trolls.

After leaving Lom, we drove along the shoreline of the Nordfjord toward the Jostedalsbreen glacier, Europe’s largest glacier. Our guide let us spend some time there, but cautioned us not to go too near the glacier. He said a few years back, a French tour guide took her group up near the foot of the glacier. While the guide was getting ready to take a tour photo, a piece of ice broke off and crashed down, killing half the group.

I saw no reason to walk all that way to get next to a gigantic block of ice.

After our visit to Jostedalsbreen, we visited the glacier museum and saw a 5-screen movie presentation about the glacier and about climate change. We also saw a diorama of Otzi (umlaut or double dots over the “O”, which gives it sort of an uhh sound) the mummy found in 1991. The man had probably lived around 3,300 BCE (Before Common Era), and maybe died around 3,239 BCE. Otzi was found near the border of Austria and Italy, if he had died in Norway, we probably would still not know anything about him because he would still be snowed in. We saw a display of the kind of clothing he wore, what tools he had with him, and his tattoos. These were primarily straight lines, possibly for either religious reasons or for medical reasons. His clothing looked remarkably like clothing worn by modern day Eskimos.

That afternoon, we took another ferry ride along the Sognefjord and Naeroyfjord (the slash through the “O” is not used in the word fjord) to Gudvangen and on to Stalheim, high above the Naeroydal valley.
As I understand it, the hotel burnt down a couple of times in the past. Nevertheless, they had some fine antique furniture and weapons including swords, pikes and halberds. There was a lovely statue of the Virgin Mary and the Christ child that luckily escaped the burning.

Again, it was raining lightly, and I was feeling less than prime, but we had to go outside to look at a German WWII machinegun nest on the hotel grounds. The nest was open so people could go inside, but I was not all that interested. Besides, looking over the edge of the cliff, I could not see an effective field of fire, unless maybe the Germans were expecting to be attacked by large birds. However, the view outside the nest was lovely.

Day Five:
By this time, Patsy and I were not feeling well at all. Our bus was for forty-one passengers, but we only had twenty-one and so we sat in the back of the bus where we would not be coughing all over other people. (Joke: what’s the definition of coffee? Someone who gets coughed on.)

Here is an insight I had about Norway: it is a tidy country. The only graffiti we saw, and there was some, was in the larger towns. The rest of the country looked like people painted their houses just as soon as it stopped raining or snowing. The Norwegians also used some nice color combinations, like light green walls picked out with a darker green around the windows and doors. I wish I could attach photos to these logs, but I don’t know how (remember I call these Dinosaur logs?).

Anyway, the color combinations aren’t as lively as say, the Caribbean, but they do make the effort.
We saw many old buildings along the way. Traditional food storage buildings are set up on blocks to frustrate rodents and such. Quite a few of the buildings had what we call ‘soddies’ rooves, that is, they have grass sods in place of shingles, which helps to insulate the building. But there are other roof materials such as glazed tiles (Oivind said these come from the Netherlands), slate and shingles. When slate is used, the builder seems to either turn the pieces so they for diamond shapes, or cut the slate to look like fish scales. Patsy likes the fish scale design the best.

We were on our way to ride the Flam railroad, which would take us high into the mountains for more breathtaking views. (Yes, there is a tiny ‘o’ over the ‘a’, which again gives it the ‘aw’ sound. If they wanted it to say ‘aw,’ why didn’t they spell it that way?) The Flam is an electric train and has some twenty tunnels (this is Norway, remember), and one bridge. It is the steepest rail line in Europe and takes you over some of the most striking landscape.

I keep wanting to say ‘pretty’ but Norway doesn’t do pretty, as much as breath-taking or dramatic. Even the painted houses I keep mentioning are stronger than the word ‘pretty’ implies.

But I digress. It was snowing lightly while we were in the station and I thought about trying to catch a snowflake on my tongue. I have heard people do in snow country and this might be my only chance to try it. Then I stopped and thought about what it would look like; an old codger walking around with his tongue out, and forgot about it.

Down below the station were two houses that were the kind I was speaking about earlier. They both looked like doll-houses. The first was painted a custard color, with red trim around white window frames. The roof was the slate diamond pattern. Right next to it was a small house painted apple green with the same custard color around the windows and doors, again more stalwart than pretty. On this house, the tile was cut to the fish scale pattern; you can probably understand what I meant about neatness.

The Flam rail took us up to a town called Stalheim where we stayed for the night at a ski resort that I think they opened just for us because we were the only people in the place, which was a tip-off. Since it was a ski lodge, they had plenty of snow around the place, but we were warm inside.

The hotel walls were picked out in red with white around the doors and windows, and there was a great fireplace inside. Near the fireplace, they had one of the fanciest things I have ever seen: a Hardanger Fiddle. If you get the chance, please Google this thing, because not only is it difficult to describe, but it is also played differently than a regular violin, but let me give it a try.

At the outset, this thing looks like something someone with a lot of time on their hand would make. The violin had a floral pattern engraved around the top of the body and the stringboard had mother-of-pearl inlays. The string pegs (more than the usual four) were also decorated with either bits of m-o-p or bone, and the tailpiece, the long bit that holds the strings after they pass over the bridge, was inlaid as well. The violin had nine strings, the usual four, with a series of sympathetic strings and drones. I know that I am going on about the instrument for a while, but really, if you see it you can understand why.

Our dinner that night was special, with fish of course, but also chicken and soup. We have fallen in love with the Norwegian goat cheese, called Gjetost, and plan to try to find it back home. It is brown, soft, and nutty in flavor. If you can find it, buy some and try it; if you like cheese at all, this stuff will become a favorite. Every meal, including breakfast, had a cheese spread, not to mention salami, fish of some sort, and sometimes liver paste.

Yet another observation about Norwegians: all the ones we met spoke good English. The train conductor that I mentioned earlier did not speak it, but everyone else we met did, including a counter-woman at a little hole-in-the-wall place we stopped by for a sandwich. Almost none of them has much of an accent, either. We used to listen to A Prairie Home Companion on NPR, and I thought we would hear more of a sing-song pattern to the speech, but most of what we heard spoken could have passed for someone who came from Ohio or Kansas. Martin did say that he had a hard time learning Norwegian because of some vocal emphasis. We have that too, think of the difference between ‘THIS is really big,’ and ‘This is REALLY big.’

Day Seven:
Today we would head for Bergen, once the capital of Norway from around 1030 until 14th century. Bergen (or Bryggen) was a Hanseatic League port, the Hansas were merchants who controlled the dried codfish trade in Europe, along with other forms of commerce. I particularly wanted to visit the Hanseatic museum in Bergen, but didn’t get the chance.

Bergen is a UNESCO World Heritage Site because rows of buildings that had been fish merchant housing during the Hansa period are still in use. We walked along the waterfront past the fish market, which was much like Fisherman’s Wharf in San Francisco. Several of the booths offered tastes of their wares – in particular, one that sold eels. For some reason, eels have always bothered me, and I was tempted to try a bit, but chickened out.

Further along the shore of the fjord, we walked through wooden alleyways where you could touch both walls with your fingers if you stretched your arms out, and where there were still open spaces used by medieval merchants to inspect whatever was being offered and to haul their purchases up into warehouses over their living quarters.

There was a sailing ship named Sorlandet (slashed o) docked in the harbor when we were there. It is the oldest full rigged ship in the world still in operation. The Sorlandet is now a sea going school, offering high school and university studies as well as techniques of sailing. Anyone who has ever watched movies about Tall Ships would recognize this lovely old vessel. It is steel hulled, carries three masts, and looks like an explosion in a laundry when in full sail.

Day Eight:
On the way to Telemark, our next big stop, we dropped in at the Steinsto farm (slash through the o, but instead of a full slash, they penciled in some leaves at the top of the o and put a dimple at the bottom, so it looks like an apple lying on its side), a cider producing farm owned by the same family for eight generations. Wow.

Apples grow quite well here in Norway, and we were happy to stop and sample the wares at Steinsto. Along with the cider, they also produce a hard cider that was warm, but deceptive; it could rock your clock if you weren’t paying attention. There were several pieces of folk art on the walls, including some samples of folk embroidery, which Patsy took pictures of.

We had another ferry trip across the Hardangerfjord through orchard country, and past Latefoss (no slash, but a little ‘o’ over the a), across the Hardangervidda mountain plateau to Telemark (I know these names don’t do anything for you, but they are fun to use, just don’t get involved in trying to pronounce them)
Two things about Telemark: it was the site of a ‘heavy water’ plant which during WWII, the Germans needed to produce an atomic bomb; it is also the site of one of the biggest hydroelectric plants around. Heavy water is just regular water with a larger than normal amount of the hydrogen isotope Deuterium. That acts as a brake in nuclear reactions, but otherwise, nothing special; you could drink heavy water if you wanted to without any problems, so we were told. The Deuterium is a by-product of artificial fertilizer production, and apparently, the Norwegians were stock-piling the stuff for the United States. If the Germans had gotten the heavy water out of Norway, they could have produced atomic bombs way before the US, and used them to end the war. Imagine if London or Moscow had been hit with an atomic bomb.

Anyway, a group of saboteurs sank the ferry that was used transport the water to Germany. if you are interested, there is a movie called “The Heroes of Telemark” about that them saboteurs went through.
Let me digress for a moment to talk about the hydroelectric thing. Imagine a large white building at the base of a tall cliff, with many steel tubes coming down the face rather than the usual waterfalls. The water contained in the pipes pushed large turbines and made electricity which was the source of power for the plant.

Hydroelectric power is also one of the things to understand about Norway. Yes, they have oil, but more than half their energy production is hydroelectric. Given the number of waterfalls and rivers we saw, this would be no surprise to us. Oivind said that Norway is looking to supply much of the rest of Europe with power in the future.

Now this next thing is really a hoot. After we left Telemark, we travelled down through the Vestfjorddalen valley, through the small town of Rjukan. Because of the narrowness of the valley and its orientation, the town is without sun from October to March. Talk about your Seasonal Affective Disorder, this would be the place for one. However, in 1913, a bookkeeper came up with an idea of using giant mirrors to reflect light down into the town. Well, he couldn’t get it done, but in 2003, someone did do it, and now they have year around sunlight in the main plaza. We saw the giant mirrors up high on the mountain, reflecting light down into the valley. This is the kind of stuff Disney World might come up with and try to convince us it was real, but here it was.

If going to Telemark and seeing the mirrors of Rjukan wasn’t enough for the day, we stopped at the Heddal Stave Church on our way back to Oslo. This is an enormous wooden church that was started in the 13th century and is the largest stave church in Norway. The term ‘stave’ refers to the pillars holding up the walls. These pillars are massive wooden posts that were grown for their purpose. According to the historian who spoke to us about the church, the trees selected for posts had their tops cut, but the remaining trunks were left alone to grow for several years until they got to be the size needed.

When the church was built, the state religion was Catholic, then changed during the Lutheran Reformation. I don’t know much about Lutheranism, but I think there are still some Catholic relics in the church, notably a large depiction of Christ on the cross over the transept, and I think there might have been a Mary statue over the altar.

A couple of observations: men and women sat on opposite sides of the church and entered through side doors leading off a passage or gallery that lead around the church from the front door. There were dragons over the men’s entry, but not over the women’s. Our historian said that he thought it either meant that the men were the protectors of the women and therefore the dragons, or they needed the protection and the women didn’t. This drew a few chuckles from the women in our group.

The other thing was there were stab holes in the wall, not large enough to be apparent, but our guide said that the men would jamb their daggers into the walls so they had a place to hang their hats.
Legend has it that the church was built in three days by a mountain troll, who made a bargain with one of the Christians: he would build the structure, but the Christian had to give him the sun and the moon, give the troll his Christian’s life’s blood, or guess the troll’s name within the three days. Quite by accident, the Christian overheard a mother troll talking her son and she called him Finn. The next day, the Christian called the troll by his name and escaped having to die.

I really recommend looking Heddal Stave Church up on Google, it is well worth it, and you get more of a sense of what I am talking about. This is one enormous structure. (Smart aleck comment: along with all the other stuff in the church, there is an ornately carved bishop’s chair. A bishop’s chair has arms and is called a cathedra (Latin for chair with arms), so in effect, this church could have once been considered a cathedral, it certainly is large enough.)

After Heddal, we went back to Oslo. On the way there, we stopped at another ski jump, Holmenkollbakken, but this jump was a bit different from the one we saw at Lillehammer. Imagine if you will, a very steep hill about five hundred feet high, with a ski jump along its front. Seen from the ground, the ski jump looked a lot like a firetruck extension ladder. Now, get rid of the hill but visualize the ladder still in place, stuck out like firemen were trying to rescue someone from a very tall, very invisible building. This is Holmenkollbakken, a ski-flying slope.

Ski flying is different from the Olympic ski jumping. While Olympic ski jumping is evaluated according to the distance traveled and the style performed, the object to ski flying is to hang in the air after a take-off as well as style. If I am reading the information correctly, the record is 139.5 meters, or close to 440 feet in the air. Again, wow!

Along the bleachers area below the jump and the pathway around it, people were doing things like using roller skis (something like small ski shaped skateboards with the wheels outside the board), which allow a person to mimic skiing without snow. I also saw a woman jumping up and down between levels of bleachers and thought she was crazy until I realized she was practicing jumping off moguls. My hips hurt just watching her.

Outside the bleacher area there is a statue of the Norwegian king, Olaf V, skiing, along with his dog running by his side.

Oivind said that he met the king one time while out skiing. He said that the king did that often so that he could meet the citizens of Norway. Supposedly, someone asked the king if he didn’t feel the need for protection and he supposedly answered that he had over three million people to protect him.

That night, we had dinner at a place whose décor included strings of dried codfish fillets near the roof. The fish looked like big white wedges with tails. I can’t say these were the real thing or not, but you get the idea.

Day nine:
We started off the morning with a visit to Frogner Park outside Oslo. This is a large park filled with the work of Gustav Vigeland, who was Norway’s most famous sculptor (b:1869 – d:1943). He made a deal with Oslo: in exchange for a house and a park to display his work, all subsequent pieces of art work would belong to the city. There are 212 bronze and granite sculptures in the park.

Vigeland modeled all his work in clay and then turned molds of the sculptures over to bronze casters and stone sculptors to compete. Every piece except for the frieze of small panels around the base of the central monolith are life sized, all nude, and are doing almost everything from playing to fighting. One sculpture has a woman on her hands and knees with a small boy and girl riding her back, the boy using her hair braids as a bridle. Another statue is of a boy, maybe two or three years old, angry and stamping his foot.

I especially liked two pieces that stood near each other: first was a group of four young girls, leaning over and looking at something, laughing (Oivind said he thinks the girls are looking at some young boys). Right behind the girls was a statue of a man and a woman with their shoulders on the ground and their feet in the air, facing each other. God only knows why they would do such a thing, but both these two groupings made me laugh. (You can see this as well as other sculptures by Googling.)

The central item in the park is the 46ft high Monolith, made up of 121 human figures adult men and women, young people, children and babies, all spiraling around each other and rising towards the sky. It is carved from a single piece of granite. Amazing.

Next on our list of places to visit was the Viking Ship Museum, or Vikingskipshuset for those in the know (Oivind pronounced Viking with the ‘e’ sound, Veekeeng, and used the word as both a noun and a verb).
Inside this hall, which looks like a ship turned upside down, is the Oseberg Burial Ship, built around 820 CE. It was an exceptionally fine ship, had room for 30 oarsmen, and had been dragged on shore and buried in a pit as a burial monument for two women. No one knows who they were, but they must have been very important to have such a grave.

There was a burial chamber behind the mast which had been filled with tapestries and other fine things including sleighs and a cart, tools, ship equipment, and cooking utensils. There were also some horses, dogs and a couple of cows. This was some big to-do, let me tell you.

The prow of the ship is carved with interlaced animal figures and rises upward into a curled serpent head. Since some of the carving on the prow would have been below the water level, this ship must have been made for special purposes and not just to go Viking.

Along the walls were various exhibits, including four heavily carved animal heads, approximately the size of a softball or maybe a bit larger. Their use is unknown, but whatever it was, they are beautifully carved and required a lot of time to make.

After our visit to the museum, we went to the Kon-Tiki Museum (Norwegian: Kon-Tiki Museet), a museum on the Bygdoy peninsula in Oslo.

The museum houses the Kon-Tiki, a raft built of balsa wood logs, along with the maps used on the 1947 expedition. Thor Heyerdahl sailed the Kon-Tiki from Peru to the Polynesian Islands because he wanted to determine if people from Peru could have crossed the Pacific Ocean. (Hey, it was something to do.) Those of us who are old enough may remember the exciting news clips in theaters about the voyage.
The museum also houses the Ra II, a reed boat built along the lines of what might have been used in ancient Egypt. Heyerdahl had this built also and then used it to sail from North Africa to the Caribbean Islands in 1970. He wanted to prove that it was possible that Mediterranean people visited the New World and influenced the people there. Incidentally, RA I got waterlogged and sank before it could be used for the voyage.

Of course, it is impossible to prove either of these ideas were true, since there are no written accounts of such exchanges, but Heyerdahl showed that it could have been done.

When you first see either of these two boats, you think that maybe they would be good on a local lake or some other place like that, but not on the open ocean, especially when Ra I sank.

After the museum visits, we had a short break and then went to our farewell dinner at the Engebret Café, a famous gathering spot for artists and politicians in the 1890s. Both Henrik Ibsen, the author who wrote the play Peer Gynt, and Edvard Grieg, the composer who wrote the famous music based on the play, used to meet friends at the Engebret, so we had dinner at a famous place as the end of our tour. I wish I could tell you what we had to eat, I do remember it was fish, but after that, who knows.

The next morning, we were up at 4:00 A.M. to go to the Oslo airport. Our trip home was l-o-n-g and uneventful, although we did have a four-hour layover at Heathrow, and again they played around with our flight, not posting the gate information until a half hour before we were to start loading.

Since we were heading west, we gained hours as we passed through different time zones (example: when it was 4:00 A.M. in Oslo, it was 3:00 in London, our next stop). We got back to Las Vegas at midnight on the same calendar day we left Oslo, so who knows how long we were awake again, it was enough that we did it. I have no interest in calculating the hours of misery we went through getting home.

We were both in the “just shoot me” stage of our colds and would have been miserable in first class, much less in steerage, where we were. Finally, though, we were home and we could cough and blow our noses without worrying other people.

Wrap-up:
I usually have a running commentary about food and beer in these logs, but we were under the weather and I didn’t take good notes. I will tell you that there was a selection of cheeses at every breakfast, and that smoked peppered mackerel is probably not the best thing to have first thing in the morning, especially if one is inclined to burp now and then. We could have other things as well, including waffles. Norwegian waffles are soft, thin, and divided into six petal-like segments, not much like thick crunchy Belgian waffles.

Oivind mentioned Cloudberry Jam as his favorite thing to put on waffles, but we never found any of that. I did learn that the berry is used to flavor Akvavit (a Scandinavian liquor that can cauterize your throat), so if someone is curious enough about this berry, they can try drinking Akvavit. Good luck on that.
Well, that’s my log for our Norwegian trip. Thanks for coming along, I hope you had some laughs and that I gave you some idea about Norway.

Until next time, so long.

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The Dinosaur goes to China

Posted by marshal on December 1, 2016 in Dinologs |

Prologue:
China is a very large, very ancient country. We would not see most of the country, nor see most of the varied ethnic groups who live in China. Since we were only in the country for a short time, this log is almost a snapshot of a snapshot if you will. This is not a definitive work, just my impressions of what we saw while there.
Chapter one:
I suspect that most of us get Travelzoo in our e-mail – you know – the one that offers you three days and two nights in downtown Tucson for only $125.00, and deals on other exotic places. Patsy got a promotion for a trip to China through a Canadian company named Sinorama. China has always been on my to-do list, not my bucket list, but on a list somewhere. The deal Sinorama pitched sounded great and so we went for it.
An interesting thing about the Sinorama people is that they are very helpful, however we would have an occasional communication disconnect when I worked with them. Once or twice, I thought I asked straightforward questions, but got unusual answers. Persistence pays off, so I kept asking the same question in different ways until I had the information I needed. I will say that they are a good deal, their program is exceptional, and their system of guides is very professional. I would use their services again.
Logic would say that, living in Las Vegas, we should have contacted the Chinese Embassy in Los Angeles for our visas. We were prepared to drive down there and stay with some friends while we got our paperwork done. However, and this is a big however, when I went on-line to get the address of the embassy, I found that people living in Las Vegas must go through the embassy in San Francisco.
It that bothered me that we would have to send our passports off to get our Chinese visas. I get antsy when we have to ship our little blue books somewhere so that we can enter another country. I start to worry that maybe somewhere someone is passing himself off as me by using my identification. How would I defend myself if the Feds came after me for some fraudulent international escapade unknown to me? Nevertheless, we had to do it and so we entrusted our passports and our identities to FedEx.
Apparently, there are companies whose sole purpose in life is to obtain visas for other people, at a price, of course. I thought their fee was a little high in this case, although not as expensive as traveling to San Francisco and the cost of spending time there. I will say that the company we chose got the job done in short order and we had our passports back with our brand-spanking new Chinese visas. I looked at my visa several times and wondered if it would be impolite to casually show it off to friends, or even to strangers standing next to me at the market. They would be amazed I’m sure, however, since this might have been a little over the top, I refrained.
The next step of our adventure began with a miscalculation. We had planned to use one of those free park-and-ride places next to the airport and fly down to L.A. for our connection to Vancouver, Canada. There was a snag to all this however: we needed to be at the airport some 90 minutes before our flight, and the bus service from the park-and-ride place did not even start until after the time when we should have been checked in. When I realized that we had a problem, I had visions of us running down the airport concourse, dragging our carry-ons, and elbowing people out of our way. Even then, the airline people probably would have been calling our names and warning us that the plane was in its final boarding stages.
Fortunately, we had friends who came to our rescue; they picked us up and ran us out to the airport at 4:45 in the morning. These are real friends. We got to McCarran Airport on time, checked through TSA, bought expensive cups of coffee, and read for a while.
When we fly, Patsy likes to sit next to the window, which puts me in the middle seat and I usually find myself next to a Sumo wrestler who promptly falls asleep. This time I was in luck, sort of; the plane was one of the smaller ones and I had an aisle seat. Although I didn’t have to squish over against Patsy in order to be comfortable, the legroom on the aircraft was short – I had to straddle the seat in front of me with a knee to either side. Thankfully, the person sitting there did not drop his seat back.
We spent the night in L.A. because our flight to Vancouver was very early the next morning. What is it with these flights that require one to get up before dawn?
The next morning we were up at 4:30 again and headed for the airport on our way to Canada. My luck held on the flight to Vancouver! There was ample legroom and while I still sat between my lady and another passenger, this time it was a small woman who might have weighed 90 pounds if you handed her a couple of bricks.
We got to Vancouver with an hour layover, but I misread the gate information and we had to move out smartly to find the right one. Too bad, because the Vancouver airport is pretty and we could have spent some time looking at all the artwork instead of hustling down the concourse.
Our flight from Vancouver to Beijing was on a Boing 737, called a ‘Dreamliner,’ and it is in some ways. If you are in first class, you get these sort-of booth compartments instead of the usual side-by-side seating. However, back in steerage where we were, all we got was more legroom. More leg room was fine with me, especially after someone told me how much it would cost the two of us to go from Vancouver to Beijing first class.
I thought I was in luck again, because although I was still in the middle seat, sitting on the aisle was a young Asian girl wearing an extremely short skirt and rhinestone high heel sneakers. I figured I would have no problems getting out when I needed to, but I was wrong. When we reached cruising altitude, the girl kicked off her shoes, put a pillow down on the pullout table in front of her, and promptly went to sleep. I was trapped again!
Fortunately, the airline fed us every couple of hours, so between getting food served to us, plus the occasional help from a flight attendant who spoke her language, I made it through the flight with no “pressing” needs.
Let me tell you that they do feed you on international flights. We had two full meals, a couple of snacks, and a sandwich during the sixteen hours it took to fly from Canada to China. We also had lots of water, which is why the sleeping beauty next to me was of such concern.
The flight itself was calm, with some turbulence, but not too much, and we got to Beijing on time. The airport there is very large and very hectic. We thought the New Delhi airport was confusing, but at least there, many people there spoke English. In Beijing, the most common phrase we heard was ‘no English.’
Patsy and I retrieved our bags and tried to find the exit, but since we do not read Chinese, we almost found ourselves on a domestic flight into Shanghai instead.
Normally, in these logs, I talk about the food we eat and/or the beer encountered along the way, but not this time. It would be some five or six days into the tour before I could transcribe my notes. By then we would have eaten so much Chinese food with various meats and vegetables, that if you asked me about any one particular thing, for instance pork, I would only nod my head and say, “Yup, had some of that.”
The same thing holds for my notes. I usually jot things down in a small notebook which, of course, I forgot to bring it along with us this time. I had been writing things down on scraps of paper that I cadged from the hotels where we stayed, and then I stuck them into wherever I find a place, in books, pockets, suitcases, and hoped for the best. At one point, I considered using toilet paper, but refrained; not only would the paper tear and the ink spread, but also my handwriting is sketchy at best. Writing down something like “Enclosed houses, grey bricks,” could have been interpreted as, “Encroached mouse, grey licks.” Please, as you read these notes, if something doesn’t make sense, be creative with your reading.
As for the beer, I won’t comment except to say that once we were on the tour, we had a glass of Tsing Tao beer as part of almost every meal except for breakfast. If we wanted more than the one glass of beer, we had to pay about $5 for a bottle of Tsing Tao. (Note: I am covering this after the trip, so I don’t remember if this is $5 Chinese, US, or Canadian.)

Day 1:
Eventually, our guide found us, and after a wait for the last of our group to arrive, we headed to our hotel. The drive should have taken forty minutes, but traffic was so heavy that it took us almost two hours to make the trip. Our guide explained this was the Beijing rush hour and that it lasts from seven in the morning until seven in the evening.
I should probably mention that our guide told us he spoke Chinglish, and that we would encounter Chinglish along the way. Much like Spanglish, the Chinese we met spoke good English, but they often put the em-fah-sis on the wrong syll-ah-bul. We would also see signs with unusual phrases like, “Wet step, slide carefully.” Our guides tended to repeat the last word or phrase they said, along with the word, ‘yeah.’ For example, they might say something like, ‘word, yeah, word.’ Having said that, I couldn’t imagine what we would come up with if we tried to speak or write Chinese.
Now back to the tour.
At the hotel, we turned in our passports, got a key for our room, and then went off for dinner. The hotel offered a buffet of Chinese food, but with nod to Western tastes as well. By the time we ate and got back to the room, we had been mostly awake for twenty-four hours, so we slept like babies. (Note: we understand there is a Chinese saying that we slept like dead pigs… I don’t know if I like that comparison or not, but we did it anyway.)
I should also mention that while we stayed in some nice hotels, it seems the Chinese like to watch people bathing. There were large windows between the bed areas and the bathtubs, and all the showers were glass enclosed as well. This probably doesn’t mean anything, but I thought it was worth noting.
By the way, since I am on bathrooms, I should mention that all the hotels had western style toilets, but elsewhere, we were likely to find squat toilets. One of our later guides said that this is healthier than sitting on a stool. She suggested that if we only used the western toilet, we really didn’t know squat.
Day 2:
We found out some things about our guide. Not only did he meet us at the airport, but would be with us throughout the tour. He told us his name was Jeff Wei, and then he told us his Chinese name… Jeff was an okay name for us.
All of our guides would have English names as well as their Chinese names. Apparently, taking an English name is part of what they do when learning the language. Our guide took his name from an instructor who he admired.
Jeff told us he would be our main guide, although there would be other local guides as well. After this introduction, he gave us a short lesson in Chinese, and showed us some basic Chinese characters. China is the Middle Kingdom, and the pictograph for Middle is a square with a vertical line drawn through it, simple, huh? Another character often goes along with this one, and together they say China (or Middle) Kingdom. The second character looks like three stacked horizontal lines with a vertical line down the middle of them, and a little tick at the end of the bottom line. The name China comes from the Qin dynasty (221-206 B.C.), but to the Chinese, the name has always been Zhongguo, the Middle Kingdom.
Like western lettering, there are block pictograms and those drawn in a cursive style. There are also different styles of lettering, some more blocky, some more relaxed. In western style letters, these are called fonts, but I don’t know if this term applies to pictograms.
I got good at recognizing some of the symbols. (Side note: this ability fell off rapidly. I learned the symbols for entry, exit, and bank, but never for toilets, which would have been more useful. Thank God, most of the important signs have English sub-titles.)
Beijing is large city of some 10 million people. My first reaction to it was that there were a lot of tall buildings, high-rises in fact, but even the tallest ones had some interesting architectural details so that the city wasn’t just Legoland on steroids. My second reaction to the high-rises was that once the architect settled on a design, the builders repeated it four, five, or six times.
What I think of as Chinese vernacular, that is the curved eaves with fancy end caps, was still around, but those places seemed to be the exception rather than the rule. Mostly what we saw were the blocky high rises. There were exceptions to this however, such as the building with two towers and a four or five story bridge connecting them so that it looked like an upside-down ‘U,’ or another building with a swirl on top, like a soft ice cream cone.
Even though there was some very exciting architecture spotted around the city, the majority of the buildings seemed to be the high-rise apartment type. When you have 10 million people in a city, they all have to live somewhere.
By the way, there were cranes everywhere and I mean the lifting kind, not the feather bearing ones. Jeff told us the crane is the national bird of China, and then pointed to a cluster of the lifting type hovering on the skyline.
He went on to tell us that the government owns the land and that people can buy the apartments or live on the land for 70 years, but then they must pay a tax and get permission to stay longer. A farmer can build a house if he applies for permission (and later on, we saw a lot of these). He still has the 70- year rule, but I think there is some sort of dispensation. One of our guides said that the 70 -year rule is has been in effect for almost that long and she thought the government would change it soon.
I started to get an appreciation of the problems associated with providing food and shelter for 1.5+ billion people. A small town in China may have between 400,000 and 1.5 million people in it, while many of the larger towns have 20 million residents or more.
Paulo Solari, the architect, suggested that we create people hives, which is not the same thing they have done here, but the effect is similar. According to Solari, it is better to go up rather than to sprawl all over the place, using up arable land best used for growing food. Unfortunately, they don’t understand this concept in places where farmland and orange groves give way to shopping malls.
Beijing has a park-like feeling, with lots of trees and gardens. We saw this park-like look repeated in all the cities we visited. Everything seemed neatly trimmed, which must take a huge number of gardeners to accomplish. Someone pointed out how, with 10 million people already living in the city, and with who knows how many kids leaving school every year, someone must find work for all these people. Maybe that’s the reason why there were so many parks: being a landscape worker was probably the default job for people who have not trained for something else.
One of our local guides told us that there is unemployment insurance, but that people are embarrassed to apply for it. I found this interesting because I thought everyone would have a job in a nominally Communist system.
There were a lot of colorful bits to the city, things like fanciful gates brilliantly painted with dragons, or bright red lanterns swinging under upturned eaves; things that would be hokey in someplace else but were right at home here. I saw one noble looking gate standing in front of a parking lot. In Las Vegas all you would see at a parking lot is a post telling you how much it costs to park there, and maybe a magazine rack on the street. Since I don’t read Chinese, the gate could have had parking information on it too, but I wouldn’t know.
We started out by learning how to say good morning. I think I remember it being ‘ne hao,’ and we were supposed to reply ‘ding hao’ or if we really felt good, ‘ding, ding hao.’
We had a printed itinerary, but our schedule shifted around as needed, so that we visited several places besides the Great Wall today. The Wall was one of the things we really wanted to see.
We made a brief stop along the way, where we had a lecture on pearls. This sounds boring but wasn’t. Although pearls have nothing to do with the Great Wall, they have everything to do with the tourist trade. Stopping at places where people can buy things helps to pay the bills and makes these cheaper tours possible.
I was surprised to learn that there are so many colors of pearls, including a gold color. Here is an interesting tit-bit: you can test pearls by rubbing them together. If they are real, you will find a little bit of white powder, even from the black pearls.
After the pearl presentation, we were off to see the Wall.
At our first sighting of it, the wall looked like a wandering line across some very rugged hills. As we got closer we could see the Wall was composed of dressed rocks topped with bricks, maybe fifteen or twenty feet tall. The tops were crenelated, which means there are regular gaps where archers can hide while they pull out the next arrow. There were carved openings spaced along the bottom of the Wall for drainage, but I suspect hot oil or even boiling soup could have been poured through them onto the invaders.
There were watchtowers or guard blocks spaced along the way. This is where soldiers would live while serving their time and where they could signal to the main army that things weren’t going well at their particular location and reinforcements would be a welcome thing.
Although the Wall did have some success, it did not work as well as intended; then again, most walls don’t. Hadrian’s Wall on the Scottish border certainly didn’t keep the Picts out of England. I thought about Robert Frost’s line, “Something there is that doesn’t love a wall”… in this case, the ‘something’ in this case were the Mongol hoards.
The Great Wall goes up and down some very serious terrain. We started walking, but soon found ourselves huffing and puffing before too long. Patsy and I fought our way through crowds of people until it was too much for us. We were still tired from the airline trip and so we walked/climbed a goodly distance that included two guard towers and then gave up.
I was amazed to see the amount of graffiti on the bricks. While not all of it was in Chinese, thankfully not all of it was in English either. Writing names on walls seems to be a human thing. We even saw graffiti in the Taj Mahal, and although I did not see a lot of it in Beijing, it was there. I did see a sign that said ‘No Scribbling,’ which I hoped sounded a bit stronger in Chinese. I could imagine what an American tagger could make of that sign.
The countryside near the Wall looked a lot like parts of California when there isn’t a drought going on. There were trees everywhere, although they looked evenly spaced, and the hills behind them seem to have terraces like the livestock paths one sees on hillsides. However, what might have been animal paths were too evenly spaced. I asked Jeff about this and he told me that during the Cultural Revolution of the 1970s, for some reason, they cut down all the trees on the hillsides, but then someone realized this was not a good idea. He said they were now replanting the trees. He didn’t tell me why they cut down the trees in the first place, but it did account for why they were so evenly spaced. I suspect the terracing helped cut down on erosion.
After visiting the Wall, we headed back to the Ming tombs, but made a stop at a cloisonné factory first. Cloisonné is a more complicated art than we realized. Each color has its own copper ‘collar’ or cell that holds liquid enamel in place until it dries. After the base is prepared by attaching the cells to the piece, an artist paints the color into its proper place and then fires the item in a kiln. When the piece is fired, a worker dips each one into a bath of molten metal to keep the copper from eroding and then fires it again. Afterwards, there is a long polishing process until everything is perfect. Wow!
Our next stop was at the tombs of some 13 emperors of the Ming Dynasty (1369-1644), plus their wives and concubines (read ‘girlfriends’). The most important of the emperors was Zhu Di (or Judy as it sounds in English), the third emperor of the Ming Dynasty. His was the largest tomb and the first of the lot.
When they replanted the hills around the tomb area, they included flowering trees, some that bloomed with pink blossoms while others were white. When we got off our bus, white blossoms were floating down like snowflakes.
There were many colored flags along the way, which, along with the flowering trees, added a festive look to what is basically, an up-scale graveyard.
I took several pictures at the tombs, but on looking back to what I shot, I was obviously impressed with the dragon-headed gargoyles, because I have half a dozen shots of those. I did get a shot of the great red gate, the entry into the tombs, and another of a large pink tomb, but mostly it was dragons. My fascination must be because we learned our Chinese Zodiac signs while on this trip, and mine was the Dragon.
There is a tour inside the tomb of the 13th Ming emperor, but we were out of time and did not go inside. We did take a walk past some of the animal carvings that line the way into the site, but those darned dragons got all my attention.
That night, we had a nice dinner at our hotel and turned in early because it had been a long day in very heavy traffic.
I need to say something about Beijing traffic. It is every bit as chaotic as that which we encountered in New Delhi, with drivers trying to merge lanes in front of our bus, trying to push their way past everyone else, and little three wheel buggies that tried to fill in any gaps. In India, they call these buggies ‘Tuk-Tuks,’ but in China, they call them ‘Boom-Booms.’
I should also mention that, given the amount of traffic, the air in Beijing was not nearly as polluted as I expected. I had visions of dark days and darker nights, but it was more like what we have experienced in LA. In addition, the people we saw wearing masks seemed to have them only covering their mouths and not their noses, so I suppose they were trying to guard against coughing or something.
Day 3:
Our highlights for this day were a visit to Tiananmen Square, a visit to the Forbidden City, and a performance at the Beijing Opera. This would be our most ambitious schedule and by the time we were done, we would have walked some eight miles.
Tiananmen Square is the largest square in the world. I would agree with that, although I have not done a comparison with other squares around the world. There is a flag raising ceremony at the square in the morning and a flag lowering ceremony in the evening. When we drove past the square the night before, there were people lined up on both sides of the road, waiting to see the ceremony.
Because of the heavy traffic, our schedules shifted around a lot. For instance, the Great Wall visit should have been on the second day and the Forbidden City, the first. However, I digress.
Tiananmen Square has Mao Se Tung’s tomb in it, and his portrait hangs over the main gate to the Forbidden City. There are some heroic statues at the edge of the square, honoring the Long March when Mao led his Red Army away from the east and Nanjing, to the north and the Wall in 1934-1935 to escape Chiang Kai-shek’s Nationalist Army. The two enemies joined forces during WWII, but resumed the civil war afterwards.
There is a saying that one is not a hero unless one has been to the Great Wall. Again, this refers to the Long March. Since we had already seen the wall, and indeed strode upon it, Patsy and I might be somewhat heroic. This also explained the enterprising merchant on the edge of the shopping area at the Great Wall who offered to transcribe your name into Chinese characters and give you a Hero Certificate for a price; however, we modestly decided to keep our heroics private.
At Tiananmen, our tour group got together for a photograph before heading off to the Forbidden City. For those who do not know, this was the emperor’s palace, strictly off limits to commoners. The last emperor’s mom was a strong old bird they termed the ‘Dragon Lady,’ and like Elizabeth I of England, ruled for a long time, cutting off any, and all, opposition. I thought she must roll over in her tomb every time some of the unwashed masses trooped across her courtyards.
The roof tiles of the palaces are a golden color, which was strictly reserved for the emperor. Before we got to see those, we stopped at the Temple of Heaven. This is a magnificent structure with many levels to the outside staircase. Jeff told us that the emperor would stand at the top of the staircase, surrounded by enormous incense burners that made it look as though he was standing in clouds. Each level of the staircase had a landing holding a couple of these incense burners, reinforcing the idea, while the lesser folk stood in the courtyard looking up. Each landing also had to have a drain or gargoyle if you will just in case it rained, and of course, they were dragon shaped. I sensed a pattern here.
We walked past the temple and on into the palace grounds. The walls of the temple and of the palaces were mostly red in color, which I suppose was another one of those important ideological things with emperors and such. There were strings of animal figures at the end of the upturned eve – Jeff said they have something to do with water animals. Since the roofs and much of everything else was made of wood, it was wise to ask heaven to weigh-in and not let things burn down. Along those same lines, there were some huge pots for water set along the sides of the buildings, just in case a fire did break out and heaven was distracted at the moment.
There was a pattern of metal stud decorations on each of the big doors going through the gates. People have rubbed their hands over the studs so much that any paint or plating on them has worn off. Maybe the rubbing is for good luck or something. I noticed all the Fire Dog (dogs that look something like a lion) and other brass statues have shiny places on them from people rubbing them as well.
By the way, Fire Dogs are probably more common than dragons as decorations.
You see them outside hotels and banks as well as palaces. You can tell which one is female and which is male by looking at their front feet. The female dog has a pup under her paw while the male has a ball. It also turns out that the female is always on the right side of the gate, i.e. the gate’s right side.
Besides the dogs and the dragons, another common statue often seen is an animal with deer-like antlers, long teeth, and scales, but I think it is mythological. I suppose I should also mention the turtle with fangs although it was not as common… everything seemed toothy around there.
After we got through the Temple of Heaven, we were not finished by a long chalk. We had the emperor’s teahouse to get past, and various smaller palaces for his wife and concubines, not to mention other buildings associated with the palace (i.e. support staff). By the time we reached the meeting place for our bus, I had used up all my “Awe” for now and was just looking for a way out. We missed going into a beautiful pagoda because of time constraints, which was okay by me, I could not have climbed anymore stairs today.
I can’t recall our dinner this night; it was supposed to be Beijing Roast Duck, but we had that the following night. I have a special reason for remembering this, which I will tell about later.
Except for breakfast, when we ate a meal, we all sat at round tables with giant lazy-Susan turntables in the middle, loaded down with several dishes, usually seven, or eight. This led to some interesting times when person A wanted item B, while person C wanted item D. Sometimes A would start to take a portion of B, when C pushed the turntable along and moved B out of range. There was plenty of food, however, and nobody went hungry unless they chose to do so. We knew that the meal was over when the waiters brought us plates of watermelon slices.
Even though we didn’t have the duck dinner, we did visit the Beijing Opera, and as God is my witness, I believe this was a spoof. The Opera is supposed to be something the emperors enjoyed. Mostly it consisted of a central character wearing a beard that looked like something from a third rate Halloween costume shop, and standing on one foot much of the time. When he did that, he also managed to turn himself around with his other foot, sometimes more than once. We got to know the sole of that shoe quite well; I believe I could pick it out from a line-up of shoe soles.
What I could make of the story told was that a siege was going on somewhere, with big guns off to the side and an army on the other. Of course we never saw the guns, just heard the character sing about them while standing on that one foot. Fortunately, we did not have to stay for the whole performance.
Day 4:
We visited the Summer Palace, a lovely spot on a manmade lake. I replenished some of my “Awe” overnight and so I could appreciate the beauty of the location and the artwork. Patsy and I made our way along the bank of the lake and down through a structure billed as ‘the Long Corridor,’ which it was. There were people sitting around all over the place doing things. Some people used big paintbrushes on long sticks and dipped in water, to write Chinese calligraphy on the paving stones. Senior citizens sat on the steps or straddled the balustrades to play cards or dominoes, to crochet and to play a game I did not recognize. The game is Xian qi or Chinese Chess, and looks like some version of checkers but with a bad attitude.
There was a place where singers performed karaoke near the lake. We had a ‘battle of the bands’ going on for a while, with the a cappella singers by the lake trying to drown out a woman who sang accompanied by a flute and a two string violin type instrument.
While we were standing on the bridge, a young girl came up and asked if she could have her picture taken with me. This would happen several times again during the trip, and I was always surprised when it did.
Now we come to an interesting part of the story: I can tell you this was the evening of the Beijing Roast Duck dinner.
Patsy and I were going through the Long Corridor when we heard music and singing going on up the hill from where we were. It sounded so nice that we decided to go see what was happening. By the time we got to the top of the hill however, the music had stopped and the musicians were packing their instruments down the hill. We decided to go back to the Long Corridor and the lake. The musicians were going down a ramp, and we decided that was easier than the way we had come up, so we followed them. This was our first mistake.
Instead of coming back to the lake, we found ourselves outside of the palace grounds. That didn’t seem like too big a problem – all we had to do was follow the road around to the entrance. Yeah, like it was going to be that easy.
We passed what we later came to realize was the main entry to the palace, but didn’t recognize it as such at the time. This is where we made our second mistake; we should have called Jeff, however in the end it would not have made any difference. He had given us his cell number and had us write it on the back of our identification cards. However, the noise level around him was so great when we did finally call, that he couldn’t hear his phone.
Although we did not recognize the entry to the palace grounds, we did see the bus parking lot across the street. By careful observation and a whole lot of stupid blind luck, we located our bus. Of course the driver did not speak English, why should he? It doesn’t take multilingual skills to drive a bus, just some common sense, nerves of steel, and an eye to opportunity.
Anyway, by some pantomiming and gesturing, we got it across that we wanted him to call Jeff and tell him where we were. Naturally, Jeff did not answer because the equivalent of a German Polka Band was holding forth near him about the time the bus driver called.
Now we made our third mistake. I thought we had about forty minutes before we were supposed to meet with the group. Since we knew where the bus was, it was just a hop skip and a jump to our assembly point and if for some reason we missed the group, we could always come back here. Why spend all that time just sitting in the bus, right?
We made our way back to the place where we were supposed to meet just a couple of minutes after Jeff and the rest of our crew left by another entry. We did not have forty minutes to get back to the site, we had no time at all, but I digress again. We were going into the grounds through one gate about the time the rest of the group was coming out a different one.
We waited at the no-longer-meeting-spot for a half hour and did not see anyone anywhere that looked even remotely like our group. It seemed like a good idea to go back to the parking lot and wait for everyone else. Of course, when we got back to where our bus had been, it was gone. So there we were, two senior citizens stranded in a country where not only did we not speak the language, we couldn’t even figure out what the symbols meant.
We walked over to a young man in a police uniform, standing in front of a police kiosk to ask if he would call Jeff for us. Not only did he not have a cell, he wasn’t even a real cop. He had the uniform and stuff, but when we tried to talk him, he got all flustered. A real cop doesn’t get flustered when an old person talks to him. He might get annoyed or even belligerent, but not flustered. The young man gestured toward the parking lot gatehouse and then turned away.
We finally asked the parking lot attendant to make the call. Jeff told us to stay where we were, that he would come to get us in a taxi, and we were saved.
We got to the restaurant in time for lunch, which featured a fungus soup and fish fries (they looked like French fries, but were actually thinly sliced fish. I have seen them advertised in this country, but never tried them here).
Now, how does all this relate to the Roast Beijing Duck you might ask; well, there is more to the story. After lunch, we were supposed to take a rickshaw ride to visit an old Beijing Hutong, which is a traditional enclosed neighborhood. We left the restaurant and walked to the place where we were supposed to meet the bus. The street crowds caused us to string out and separate at a traffic light.
When we got to the bus pick-up point, it was almost a three-ring circus. People tried to sell us Red Army fatigue caps or $10 Rolexes, and blind musicians wandered around playing on the two-string violin. Each musician had a person to help guide him while begging for money. I forgot to mention there was also a hawker who wore a derby hat and sold inflatable green moustaches. The moustaches were rolled up in a ball until you blew into a mouthpiece, then they extended out about a foot on either side until you stopped blowing on the mouthpiece, then they rolled back up into a ball. The seller caught my attention because I never saw anyone else selling these. When I told Patsy about it later, she asked me why I hadn’t bought one of those, and for the life of me, I didn’t have an answer.
We all stood around until it was almost the time when the bus either had to move or pay a fine, and that was when we realized another couple was missing. We waited as long as we could and then had to leave for the rickshaw ride into the Hutong. On the way to our next location, Jeff got a call from the absent tourists. There was no way that they could hook up with us because we were a long way from the original pick-up point and we were on a schedule, so they went directly to our hotel while the rest of us went forward.
Here is how I know about the duck dinner. We went to the restaurant and had the much heralded dinner. Afterwards, I saw that Jeff tried to make it up to the missing party by taking some of the food to the hotel with us. There, that was easy, wasn’t it?
Now that the tale of the duck dinner is out of the way, I should probably say a few words about some of the other stuff mentioned above. First, one of the two blind musicians and his crippled wife looked like something right out of a de La Tour painting, except that this blind man played a violin and de La Tour’s subject played a hurdy-gurdy.
The second musician was Muslim and he had something written in Arabic rather than Chinese on his skullcap, probably a Koranic verse. He didn’t play as well as the first man and his assistant was not crippled. Perhaps this was why the second team seemed less successful in their begging than the first.
We got to a place where a string of rickshaws waited for us. Our driver was a sturdy young man who could have played front line on an American football team. We had taken a rickshaw ride once, in New Delhi, and there I had to help the driver get his bike up a hill, but unlike there, this one did not need my help, although he was puffing a little toward the last. I fear that with all the rich food we have been eating, I am more of a man than I used to be.
The traditional enclosed Hutong has a wall around it; this one also sported a decorative gate with up-turned eaves. The houses shared walls between each other much like the Hopi pueblos. Grey brick was the building material of choice. As we rode past them, we saw many people sitting outside on their stoops, talking to one another. I think there was at least one small shop as well as the homes, although I can’t remember what it sold.
A woman called Mary waited for us in front of her house. She took us inside to give us some idea of what a Hutong home looked like, and gave us cups of Chinese tea. She showed us around the house and then took our pictures before escorting us back to our bus. She also gave us all small red Chinese good luck knots.
This would be our last night in Beijing. The next morning we flew from Beijing to the ancient capital city of Xi’an. At least this time we would fly at a decent time in the morning… well sort of. I think we had to be at the airport at about seven in the morning, which put us out of the hotel around five thirty, to beat the Beijing traffic.
Chapter two
Day 5:
Our first local tour guide was named Sarah. She told us about the history of the city and then about the local dialect. She spoke several words and phrases in Mandarin and then explained how people would say them here. The Xi’an dialect was much harder, more abrupt, and sounded angry to me. I bet that made a big difference when one whispered sweet nothings to one’s honey.
Xi’an is important for several reasons. First, the Emperor Qin’s large tomb is the one surrounded by the famous terra cotta army. Qin unified the whole of China around 210 B.C. by subjugating the other smaller states that had been warring against one another for a long, long time. We had seen a Nova special about all this, so Patsy and I were not totally in the dark. It seems Qin used advanced technology to defeat the other armies in that he armed his troops with mass produced crossbows. These weapons were much easier to master than the long bow, and so he had more of his soldiers shooting at the enemy from a longer distance than he would have otherwise.
As I said near the beginning of this log, the name China comes from Xi’an (I know, it doesn’t look that way, but it’s because we are using an alphabet rather than pictograms). The other thing is that Xi’an was the starting point of the famous Silk Road, where trade with the West brought new wealth to the emperors.
Before going to see the emperor’s tomb, we stopped to look at the Great Wild Goose pagoda and at the statue of the monk Xuan Zang, who went west to collect Buddhist scriptures. He convinced the emperor to build the pagoda to house the sutras and then spent the rest of his life translating them from Sanskrit to Chinese. We didn’t have time to go into the pagoda, nor was I in the mood for climbing more stairs. Instead, we went to sit outside in the sunlight, away from the ‘Madding Crowd.’ We had been going at a steady pace for the last four days, gotten up much too early to make our flight to Xi’an, and still hadn’t really recovered from the twenty-four hour airplane flights from LA to Beijing. By this time Patsy and I were feeling frazzled, but we knew we would eventually have to suck it up. We didn’t sign up on this tour to just sit around, even though that was what we were doing at the moment. Heck, we could have stayed home and done that
A small garden near Xuan Zang’s statue had a number of interesting stones that caught our attention. The Chinese use stones as important elements in their gardens. Throughout the tour, we would encounter oddly shaped stones in gardens, stones as monuments, and even large stones with poetry carved into them. I have to say the white and grey stones here were not particularly large, but lovely to look at and the right height for sitting, which we did for a while. After a short rest on the stones we retired to a near-by Starbucks.
There are so many American companies here in China, that sometimes it feels like we are still at home. The people using the Starbucks looked just like they do at home – young people texting on their phones, using their computers, reading, and just hanging out with their friends. One could even order a soymilk, salted caramel Frappuccino here if so desired. We were just happy to have regular coffee at the right time and the right place. (Note: along with Starbucks, there are McDonalds, Burger Kings, and especially Kentucky Fried Chicken stores here – they are everywhere. KFC is so common that I believe Colonel Sanders has developed a slight Asian look to him, but then that could have been my imagination.)
Next to the Starbucks there was a rather intriguing place named “Mr. Prawn’s Holy Soup.” The shop wasn’t open yet, and it was too early for soup anyway even if it was a spiritual delight, so we could not report if it was ‘holy’ or not, but we did need the coffee.
When we got back on the bus to go to the tomb of Qin, Sarah told us that the reason for the terra cotta army was that the emperor originally planned to bury real soldiers alive. His advisors told him that if the soldiers learned about that, they would no longer fight for him. Instead of burying the soldiers themselves, the advisors suggested making the terra cotta army as guards for his after-life. (Note: My own thought was that there were some drawbacks to letting a bunch of heavily armed men know you plan to bury them alive.)
I think the argument worked okay for the soldiers, but I didn’t see any references to terra cotta concubines, so it might have sucked to be the emperor’s girlfriends.
On the way to the army, we stopped at a store where they sold jade and made replicas of the soldiers – everything from small desktop sized figures to full-sized pieces. There were a couple of life sized soldier bodies standing out in the courtyard. These had no heads on them, but there was a step behind them. People could stand behind the partial soldiers and put their heads on the statue’s shoulders for a novelty photograph. This was a lot cooler than the old stick-your-head-through-a-plywood-cutout.
Our store guide told us about the importance of jade and jadeite to the Chinese, she also told us that there were more colors to jade than green. Patsy and I thought that jadeite would be the lesser of the two stones, but as it turns out, is the more desirable because it is the harder one and therefore more durable. Behind the speaker were statues and other things made of stones, including fine, translucent bowls.
We watched as artists worked with various stones including jasper and agate as well as the jade. There was one artist making the balls inside a ball thing. I didn’t get to see it all, but I have often wondered how they cut the stones away from each other so that the balls can move independently inside one another.
After our lecture, we were free to look around and purchase anything we wanted. I thought it would be cool to have one of those life-sized soldiers, but couldn’t figure out how I would get it into my suitcase, so we passed on that one.
(Note: I think the Chinese are missing something here. In India, whenever we stopped at an outlet, they gave us booze, which made it easier to sell us stuff. Dumb purchases make more sense when you have a buzz going.)
After our break, we moved on to see the army.
Three buildings shelter the terra cotta soldiers. The first and largest is about two football fields in length and looks like an airplane hangar. A walkway extends around the pit where the soldiers were standing in ranks, so you look down at them. There were large sections where the statues were in good shape, while in other places the cover above the soldiers has collapsed into a mixture of bodies, armor, and shelter material. This unreconstructed bit gives the viewer an idea of what the discovery first looked like. Teams of archeologists had pieced together the statues that were on display.
There are still large sections of the pit waiting for excavation, but you can tell that something is under there because the archeology teams have removed several feet of topsoil down to a ropy looking layer. The ropy look made me think that perhaps some sort of heavy woven mats, like Japanese tatamis, covered the timber supports under the dirt. Anyway, the ropy level is what remains of the cover meant to protect the soldiers.
By the way, there were horses in the pits as well. I suppose once the emperor agreed not to bury real soldiers he decided not to bury real horses either. This was good news for the horses.
Some of the interesting things about this army were that while the sculpted clay armor may have had a basic form, there were details such as arming ties, scarves, or belt buckles that made each suit a little different. Remarkably, each head had a different face, as if they represented the real soldier. So far, they have uncovered 8,000 statues. We understood that it originally took 36 years to make all of them, which sounds about right.
The statues were once polychrome, but some of the mineral colors reacted with the surrounding soil, while others broke down after exposure to light and air. A chemical analysis of statue surfaces determined which pigments were on each part of the statue. Based on that information, several restored statues have their original glorious color. The army must have been an amazing sight to see.
We stopped at all three pit sites, but the crowds were so thick that we decided to see what we could and then get out of there. I was not mentally prepared to fight my way through a bunch of people to get a glimpse of some of the displays in the museum, not to mention getting a decent photograph. This is not to say that people were rude or anything, it’s just there were so many of them, all wanting to see the same things.
Several signs asked people not to use flash when they took pictures. We could read the signs easily by all the flashes going off.
Since it was very warm and the air humid, and after we fought our way through the crowds, Patsy and I decided to have some ice cream while we waited for our next move. I did not ask her what her treat was like because it looked like a standard paper-wrapped cone such as we would find back at home. My cup was a little different. The ice cream had an odd texture to it, like a cross between ice cream and whipped cream from a can. The main body of the treat was more or less vanilla, but around the edges it tasted like butter rum. This was something new to me and I wondered if this was typical of Chinese ice cream. The next time we had ice cream , it was at a Häagen-Dazs, so I never did have anything to compare it with.
After visiting the terra cotta army, we headed back to town.
That evening we enjoyed a Tang Dynasty Dancing Show while we feasted on dumplings. The dinner was very nice, especially if you like dumplings (which we do). Some of them looked like what was inside them – for instance, the fish dumpling skins had wide fantails and green peas for eyes. The duck dumplings were a little less convincing, however… they looked vaguely like Hershey Kisses made out of white dough.
The show was colorful with lots of pretty girls swirling long silk sleeves into loops that they danced through. An excellent percussion group had things rocking for a while, but they were not the only musicians on the bill. One Chinese instrument sounds like a split reed, but otherwise looks like a soprano saxophone. A musician in Tang costume played two of these, alternating between them and a bird whistle he held in his mouth. He played a melody using one or the other instrument and interrupting the song with the bird whistle, smiling a goofy grin when he did. Overall, he was very funny.
Day 6:
The traffic Xi’an was not as heavy as in Beijing, but it had its own peculiarities. For instance, there was a heavy truck driver hauling a trailer, who cut off our bus just so that he could make a left turn from the right lane. Another car sped up and drove on the sidewalk to get around the car in front of him. The scattering pedestrians were less than thrilled.
We noticed that there were quite a few rooftop gardens on the tall buildings, which I thought was very cool. I’ve always been a fan of small gardens and things like rooftop oases. I wondered if they had early morning Tai Chi classes up there. The rooftop gardens also fit in with the pattern we had already seen in Beijing – a city full of parks.
On the way to the airport for the next leg of our tour, again way too early in the morning, Sarah sang us some songs. She had a very pleasant voice and taught us some Chinese verses to sing along with her. There is no way that I would remember the words after we left the bus, but they were fun to sing at the time.
Our flight this morning would take us to Chongqing where we would see the panda bears in the zoo, after which we would go to our boat for a trip down the Yangtze River. We had a snack of water or juice and some cream crackers on the plane. Cream crackers for those who don’t know, are about like Ritz crackers, and if one does not know about Ritz crackers, there isn’t much else to say except that it was an odd snack.
Chongqing is a city of 32 million people, but that includes outlying areas as well as the city itself so it technically wasn’t as large as Beijing. It is hard for me to get my head around some of these figures.
There were the ever-present tall Legoland buildings and the very pretty, very neat parks. Our local guide here called himself David, although part of his Chinese name included ‘Poo.” David was good enough for us.
David told us several things about the Pandas, how they were dying out in nature due to loss of habitat (they eat large quantities of bamboo, and when the forest becomes a housing development or a factory, the bears have to move on). There is also some difficulty with breeding them in captivity. David told us about how they use Panda porn to show the males what they are supposed to do when the females are in season, and said that the zookeepers were even experimenting with giving the males Viagra. (At this point, I had a vision of two Pandas sitting in bathtubs, holding paws, like in the Cialis commercials.)
A sign at the zoo told us that the animals are solitary except during mating season, so maybe the male Pandas are the equivalent of the Norwegian Bachelor Farmers that Garrison Keeler talks about on “A Prairie Home Companion.”
The zoo was large and we did not have time to take in much more of it than the Panda exhibit. However, there was an intriguing sign pointing to a Dinosaur section. I felt a certain affinity to this, being a bit of a dinosaur myself, but when I looked toward where the sign was pointing, I only saw shrubs trimmed like topiary dinosaurs.
There were both the black and white Panda Bears as well as Red Pandas at the exhibit. The Red Panda is no relation the Bears, and actually looks like an oversized rusty colored raccoon, complete with a long striped tail. Although originally classified as related to raccoons, Red Pandas aren’t related to them either, even though they look that way. I think this is good news for the raccoons.
Surprisingly, at least to me, the big bears are not completely white where they are not black. They do have white bits but also some dirty areas on their fur, which makes sense. I mean there are probably not Panda washing facilities in the wild, so why would there be at the zoo? Besides, if you sit a white furry object down onto the ground, it’s going to get dirty, and even if someone cleaned the bears daily, they would still get dirty.
Anyway, our first Panda sighting was of a large bear making himself comfortable in a tree (Does a Panda… nap in the woods?). For the rest of the time all we saw were Pandas napping, although we did catch one eating bamboo.
After the zoo, we went to the boat, grateful for some down time. We were on the move every day so far, touring or flying, and we were all looking forward to a little rest. I also hoped for some writing time to transcribe my notes since I seemed to be taking very sketchy ones and those that I had taken were crumpled and messy. I told myself that I would do better as I went along, but knew that was a lie.
We noticed several people walking around town, carrying bamboo poles over their shoulders. David told us that they were itinerate workers and that they were called the ‘Bamboo Army.’ Mostly, they were people displaced by various civic projects or by bumps in the economy. They came to the city to earn some money, but apparently, they don’t have permits to live in the city. This meant that they had to come into town, pick up whatever they could, and be gone at the end of the day.
Our guide said that we would see some down at the loading area, offering to carry our bags and even ourselves to the boat. The bags were already on the boat and there was no way I would let someone carry our small bags or us so we didn’t help the Bamboo Army much.
By the way, we weren’t sure how to pack for the weather. I packed three tee shirts and three long sleeved tees, but the weather was so warm that the long sleeved things were not that comfortable. I soon found myself the proud possessor of a bright red tee with a golden dragon on it and a black tee featuring a picture of a terra cotta archer.
Day 7:
Our boat glided along the Yangtze River – the third longest river in the world – through the famous Three Gorges. The Three Gorges are the Qutang the Wu, and the Xiling gorges. The combination of narrow canyons among high mountains with several turns in the river makes this a beautiful area. There is a place called the Chalk Wall, where there are Chinese characters carved into the rock, some of them dating back to the 900s.
The Three Gorges Dam has raised the water level in this portion of the Yangtze, so that the river is wider and the mountains appear lower. However, they still tower above the river and the gorges continue to offer spectacular views.
Our room on the boat had a small sitting area outside so that we could sit there and watch the scenery, which was very cool. The last time we had something like this, it was on another tour and the sliding door wouldn’t open. Even after the repairman fixed the door however,, we realized the balcony was only for looks, not for sitting.
We saw farming settlements along the banks of the river, with terraced fields and small orchards. There were also staircases that sometimes lead to villages, and sometimes to unseen places.
Because the gorge is narrow, there are regular channel markers that take the form of small rowboats supporting lights for nighttime navigation. At first, we weren’t sure what these were and why there were boats out there with no one in them. Finally, after seeing a dozen or so of these, the penny dropped. Back home, we would have had a floating ball of some sort, the folks here used a boat.
We visited the Shibaozhai (Stone Treasure Fortress), and the famous Red Pagoda built into the cliff on the north side of the Yangtze. A temple sits at the top of the pagoda. The name Stone Treasure came from a legend of a hole in temple wall that trickled out enough rice daily to feed the monks, until one greedy monk tried to enlarge the hole so more would pour out. The rice stopped flowing at that point. We saw the basin where the rice was supposed to have fallen, and of course, it was empty.
On the approach to the pagoda, we came across some bronze zodiac signs. People have polished them all to a high sheen by rubbing them for good luck.
The pagoda is indeed red, with black, upturned eves. It is nine stories high and leans into the side of the cliff to make the climb to the cliff top temple easier. There is a grand entry gate to the staircase, all yellow and quite colorful, with the requisite firedogs and dragons guarding the entry of course. The same theme repeats at the entry to the temple on top of the cliff.
(Note: I get that building things on top of hills gets them closer to heaven, but it would be nice if the builders had an eye out for the eventual tourist trade as well. A smooth ramp or even easy riser stairs would have been nice.)
We managed to climb all the way to the top, although it was rough going at some points. The staircase was odd; some of the shorter stairs were so steep they might as well have been ladders. Fortunately, there were stops along the way so we could catch our breath.
Statues of various gods and their attendants were on several levels of the pagoda. The statues were heroic in size, and brightly painted. This is when I wished I had a better camera, because the flash on mine no longer worked, and I was in a dark place, but I took pictures of the statues anyway.
Before we even got to the pagoda, we had to pass through a row of very hopeful merchants, climb a hill, and cross a very shaky footbridge. The bridge was not very narrow, maybe three people could walk abreast, but there were periodic signs asking people not to rock the bridge. Also, one needed to keep an eye on the boards making up the bridge as they were not all nailed down at both ends. It’s interesting to watch someone step on a board in front of you, have it rock up, and find yourself looking at the stream several hundred feet below you.
Near the top of the pagoda, there was a well of sorts. That is to say, the shape of the structure was like a well, but with a triangular hole in the bottom so that it cannot hold water. They called this the Duck Well because supposedly, if you dropped a duck down this hole, it would appear on the river sometime later on. No one explained why anyone would want to do this; perhaps the monks got bored and were looking for diversion. In any case, the local duck population did not support the idea.
Off to the side, there was what looked like a cannon, but with most of its muzzle gone, almost as if it blew up when fired. Why there would be cannon up here was a puzzle to me. Although it was a fortress, it just didn’t look like one. Maybe the pagoda kept me from seeing it as it had been hundreds of years before that addition.
We came to a tiny garden with a small pond and a humped bridge over it, in front of the temple. Each couple in our tour group took turns climbing up the bridge, the women on one side and the men on the other, and then kissing when they met in the middle. I don’t know if this was a tradition or just something someone decided to do as a photo op. We were often behind our group and sometimes missed any plans; maybe someone thought this would be fun. In any case, and despite the steep sides of the bridge, we climbed our sides of the bridge, met at the top, and I got my kiss from Patsy.
Going up the pagoda had been a real climb, what with the steps being narrow and steep. However, going back down was easy because there was a wide staircase with regularly spaced steps and a comfortable railing on the open side of the cliff. I suppose we could have come up this way, but it would have been less of an adventure.
On the way back to the boat, we passed some of those large streaked limestone rocks carved with poetry and, of course, dragons.
Chapter three
At this point, I have to make an addition. While we were in Beijing, we visited a most interesting place called the Hall of Prayer for Good Harvest. The building is 130 feet across, and rises in three levels, each covered with blue tiles to symbolize heaven. What makes this particularly interesting is that no nails are in the construction. I can only blame our residual tiredness for excluding this marvelous building from the earlier account.
Now, on with the current timeline:
Day 8:
Today we floated down the Yangtze on smaller boats into an area called Shennv Stream for a more intimate experience of the Three Gorge landscape. Our boats were small things with yellow roofs and dragon entwined pillars (more dragons!). The interior reminded me of the cable cars in San Francisco; all polished wooden slat benches.
Shennv Stream was a beautiful, primitive area (by the way, I have no idea why Shennv ends with a ‘v,’ it just seems to). The cliffs here were primarily white limestone, but their faces were streaked with black mineral run-off where not covered in greenery. While the beauty of the landscape does not have the grandeur of the Grand Canyon, it was lovely to see.
A constant mist hangs over the river, so that there was a dreamy quality about things. The gorge looked very much like an ink drawing.
Buildings with a similar, blocky sameness about them among stood among the terraced fields close to the river. Most likely the sameness was due to the many small towns that were flooded out when they built the Three Gorges Dam – they had to relocate a lot of people in a relatively short time. I think I heard that the project relocated more than a million people. The sheer numbers involved in this project boggled my brain. Every time I think I have come to grips with the size of this country, another figure comes up and I am amazed again.
As our boat drifted down the river, we saw an unusual thing – a light hung over the middle of the river. Our guide told us that this was for fish. At night, the light attracts insects, the fish rise to feed on the bugs, and the fisher-folk collect the fish. This is easier and probably cheaper than chumming.
The guide also pointed out some tea trees on top of the ridge and told us that the higher up the hill, the better the tea. (That would be interesting to remember when we visit a tea plantation later on in the trip.)
Besides the light hanging over the river, another interesting sight was a pair of wooden coffins in a small crevice high up on a cliff. During the Bronze Age, the Ba people put these coffins up there. Our guide had no explanation as to why people would go to that effort. Since the Ba people were conquered and absorbed into the Qin Dynasty over a couple of thousand years ago, perhaps nobody knows why they did it.
There were odd, rather grotesque algae or moss growths on the shaded side of the cliffs. Whichever it was, it created a thick mat that stuck several feet out away from the cliff, following water that ran down the side of the rock. I wondered if anyone had a use for this stuff since there was so much of it and the folks along the river seemed to use whatever came to hand.
After our river ride, we returned to our boat and learned that we would pass through five locks during the night. Not being all that interested in locks, I went to bed early. However, getting on toward midnight, there was a tremendous squealing noise that made me sit up in bed! The sound was the noise of our going through the locks. It happened several times later on, but after the first time, I just ignored it.
Day 9:
We visited the Three Gorges Dam. The Three Gorges Dam was an important project because the Yangtze had devastating floods that killed people, wiped out buildings, and swept away livestock about every ten years. When I first heard of the project, it was at home. Like many folks, I thought it was another dam on another wild river just because engineers do that sort of thing, not realizing how wild the river was. There were also many ecological concerns, including reservoir-induced earthquakes, loss of unique and rare habitat, and so on. However, none of this stopped the project. The Three Gorges Dam is currently the largest hydroelectric dam in the world (no pun intended).
I thought the idea of damming the Yangtze was a new one, but Dr. Sun Yat-sen, the first president of China, came up with the idea in the 1920s. Chairman Mao also wanted the project done, but did not live to see it happen.
We disembarked and walked to a grand building entry flanked by those deer/dragon things. (The term for our group being ‘all together’ sounded like “Two Dollah” Also, Jeff, our guide, liked to call us ‘sticky rice’ when we stayed together the way he wanted us to do.) When we were ready, Two Dollah, we strolled down a merchant area all covered in red awnings and surrounded by lots of things we could buy as souvenirs.
We took a bus up to the dam and the visitor center. There is a large model of the dam in the center lobby, and our guide used a laser pointer to draw our attention to different features of the project. Something the guide mentioned was that the Chinese government purchase several turbine generators from Europe and Canada, but with the stipulation that the technology on how to make the turbines came with them. Now, not only does China make its own turbines, Chinese engineers have improved on the designs by making them air-cooled rather than by water.
I found it interesting that the Chinese have gardens everywhere. There were even formal type gardens down in work areas as well as in the more public places. The lower gardens were not for casual visitors but for the workers. We saw a crew unloading a whole truckload of flowers when we arrived at the dam. Obviously the landscapers renewed the beds frequently, like they do at casinos. Can anyone imagine a flowerbed at Caesar’s Palace with dead or drooping flowers?
Something else that reminded me of a casino was the fountain in the plaza that featured a large inverted pyramid of black stone with something etched on its surface. The fountain had dancing waters (those things with timed water jets that jump up and make a pretty display) that splashed across the stone. I could imagine a fountain like that in front of the Bellagio or some other place back home in Las Vegas.
Many of the flowerbeds we saw had low borders made of split bamboo used to keep people from walking across them. It not only protected the beds, but also added a folksy touch to the neatly trimmed grass. (I almost said ‘barbered’ lawns, they were that neatly clipped.)
Like most big projects, there were heroic sized friezes and carvings celebrating the construction at the observation area. This seems to be another human thing; if you do something big enough, you need to make a statue or frieze to celebrate it
When we left the dam, we went back through the same shopping area where merchants again tried to sell us all sorts of things. One item for sale that aroused my curiosity was the fried fish, heads and all. I had no idea who the cooked fish were for, but there they were, toasty and ready to go. Could you imagine one of us munching a carp-on-a-stick while riding back to our boat? I have no idea why we always encountered food merchants at these places, we just did. Beer merchants I could understand, but who was going to buy a fried fish?
Several of us were standing outside, talking about nothing in particular, when our boat passed through the locks and headed down stream again, off to the next sight. One moment we were level with the top of the lock, the next, the boat started to drop down to the next level. It’s a strange sight to feel no movement at all, but to see the wall next to you rise.
After lunch, we took a special boat tour to see the Tribe of the Three Gorges. I first thought the community was a monastery because of the way the buildings that faced the river linked up together. They were all in the Chinese Vernacular style I keep mentioning – the upturned eves with fancy endings, the rounded tiles with ends that look like rolls of coins, and the funny animals along the end rooflines. I wondered if this was standard DIY roofing material you can get at a Chinese Home Depot (they must have Home Depots; after all, they have a ton of KFYs).
The row of buildings marked the entry to an enclave built along both sides of a stream that emptied into the Yangtze. There were three or four fishing boats in front of the village, their junk-type sails hoisted but allowed to flutter in the gentle breeze. When we disembarked, we saw a young girl dressed in red, standing in the bow of a small boat. Further up the stream, there was a young man dressed in blue pajama-like clothes, and playing a flute to attract the girl.
The banks of the stream were heavily wooded and very pleasant to walk through. Along the way, we saw houses and walkways on both sides of the water and more fishing boats, some with nets drying on their masts.
A sign along the path warned us to ‘be careful of that monkey.’ I was not sure if we could tell which one was ‘that’ monkey, but I was hoping we would luck out and meet a different one. Speaking of monkeys, we did meet a family of them along the trail where someone was selling peanuts to feed them. We probably didn’t have anything to be careful about, but you never know.
There were two young girls sitting on the far side of the stream from where we stood, washing clothes and singing a song. Our guide told us this is something young girls did to attract the attention of boys. It was all very pleasant, but I was suspicious: things couldn’t be all this peaceful. I mean, there were even some ducks quietly swimming past where the girls were working, acting as though no one ever threw something at them. However, I had to take it all at face value, because who knows, when you live next to a heavily forested stream, surrounded by ducks and monkeys, maybe things were this peaceful.
Further along the path, we stopped to listen to a young woman dressed in very fancy robes and playing a horizontal harp or Zheng (think large zither, like the Japanese Koto). This was more of the pastoral ‘forest and stream effect’ we experienced. I felt like we had stumbled into the land of the Lotus Eaters.
At the end of the walk, we looked at some particularly lovely waterfalls before returning to a show planned for us – we were going to witness a wedding ceremony. At the start, a series of pretty girls dressed in heavily embroidered red dresses came out and sang a song for us. Then, the headman of the village came out, greeted us in English, and never spoke another word of the language after that. He made a speech I figured was a welcome, since this is where that sort of thing would fit in the program.
After the speech, one young man from our group volunteered to act as the groom; he wore a dark blue robe and a fancy hat. A matchmaker dressed in a heavily embroidered robe and wearing large dangling earrings came out, made a long speech in Chinese, and introduced the couple. The girl went off and came back a few moments later, dolled up in wedding finery. The couple exchanged gifts, took a sip of liquor, and departed hastily up some stairs. A shadow play on the bedroom window curtain let us see the young bride strip the robe off the young man and then pull him down with her below the window sill.. Later on, when the ‘bridegroom’ joined us, he had a sheepish grin on his face.
When the show was over, we went back to our tour boat and had supper. We were supposed to have a passenger talent show that night, and I know Jeff had hoped someone in our group would join in, but it was not to be. It wasn’t until sometime later that I realized I could have sung “The Eggplant That Ate Chicago,” but by then it was too late.
(Here is the back-story about the song: we were having dinner in Shanghai – this would be after the “Tribe of the Three Gorges” trip – when the server brought a dish to the table. One of our fellow passengers asked what it was, and someone else said it was eggplant. The first person said that it didn’t look like any eggplant she had before, which brought the song back to mind, and so I sang it. Everyone was amazed… well, sort of)
Okay, now on with the tour.
Day 10:
The big event today was the visit to the museum and the ancient city walls of Jinzhou. The walls at Jinzhou are only some 500 years old, young for much of this country even though they would be rather old for the United States.
There was a guardhouse over the city gate with a statue of a local emperor (there were a lot of these mucky-mucks around at one time or another) and some of his buddies, all of them about three times life sized. The walls were similar to the Great Wall, complete with crenellations and places suitable for dumping things on the enemy.
Interestingly, there are four gateways, each of them with double gates. Lowering both gates at the same time would trap the invaders in between them. However, I did not see a ‘murder-hole,’ which is an opening in the roof of the gateways where archers could pick off the unfortunate soldiers trapped between the gates. This is standard feature in most Medieval European gated cities. Maybe there was a hole but someone patched it up or something, because the opportunity for a good rousing slaughter would be too much to pass up.
On top of the wall were statues of soldiers, only 1.5 life-sized, and in full living color so people could take pictures of themselves with the troopers. There was even a life-sized statue of a horse with mounting blocks standing next to a soldier. People could climb up on the horse to have their picture taken.
When we were finished with the wall, etc., we headed over to the museum. The museum looked like a cross between a great hall and a pagoda, fronted by a pond. The building was white, with a green tiled roof. There was a small container garden in front of the pond with a rather large tree growing in it. The tree and container are too big to be considered bonsai, or (Penjing, in Chinese), but the effect is similar: ten pounds of whatever in a five pound bag.
The tombs excavated around Jinzhou had especially exquisite lacquer-ware in them, much of which was on display, but the main attraction in the museum seemed to be the 2,000 year-old man. He rested on a platform below floor surface so that we looked down at him. He looked remarkably fresh for someone of his age. Our guide, Jeff, said that the body had been incased in two coffins, which we saw at another location, had liquid mercury between them.
Earlier, my hearing aids gave out and so I was not hearing everything said, but I think that Jeff told us someone painted the man’s body with cinnabar as well (cinnabar is just the raw form of mercury). Either way, he told us the man’s joints were still flexible and his muscles resilient. Apparently, someone performed an autopsy on the body and removed the organs, because they were on display next to the body. I, for one, would not want mess with a 2,000 year-old man, but hey, it’s a dirty job and someone had to do it.
(Side note: my camera had crapped out on me earlier. Any pictures I got after that point were either very blurry or under-exposed. I wondered about my personal technology: my hearing aids were gone, and now my camera followed. What was going to go next, I worried. Maybe my knees or something worse… it didn’t bear thinking about.)
Now, back to the museum displays
There were excellent examples of lacquer ware and bits of furniture in the showcases. In another room, there was one model of a funeral procession, with several mourners leading a chariot, which in turn held the deceased. Surprisingly, these weren’t as nice as some of the other works on display. The effigies were almost simple blocks of painted wood. I thought this was interesting because there were some nicely carved pieces in other display cases. Maybe they were not for viewing but for representing, much like the paper money that the relatives of the dearly departed burn at funerals.
That night was our last on our boat, so the captain threw us a bang-up dinner. Our waitress, the one that I had privately dubbed our ‘coffee goddess’ normally wore the standard waiter/waitress uniform of a white shirt and black skirt. Tonight she was all dolled up in one of those heavily embroidered dresses, called Cheongsam, the Suzy Wong style dress with the high necks and slits up the side. Instead of our usual turntable, we had individual services. All of this added to the feeling that the night was special. Our boat captain gave us a toast and went back to the bridge while we all sat down to dinner.
(Side note: So far, I haven’t been saying much about clothing, but I’m going to take a moment to do so now. Generally, people wore the same clothes we would expect to see in the United States, although many of the girls seemed to favor Madonna as their clothing model.
I guess I thought we would see a lot of Mao jackets or something like that, but no. Tee shirts and baseball caps were very noticeable. Many of the tee shirts were the standard logo things like Tommy Hilfiger, but others had messages on them that fell into the Chinglish category. (I wondered if the Chinese character tee shirts and tattoos we get here in the United States are Chinglish.)
(Yet another side-side Note: I had a whole list of funny tee shirts, but like several of my notes, they have disappeared. You have to take my word that there were some very strange legends on some of the shirts)
The folk costumes we did see were generally bright; we mostly saw blue or red, and blue, often with lovely embroidery. We only saw the Cheongsam that once at the captain’s dinner, and we saw some colorful headgear on workers elsewhere. However, no Mao jackets, and the only Red Star caps we saw were the ones hawkers tried to sell us along the way.
Now, back to the tour
Chapter four
Day 11:
This may have been the morning the hotel would not be open early enough for breakfast, but Jeff improvised by bringing us bacon and egg breakfasts from McDonalds. We ate while we traveled to the airport for yet another flight, this time to Shanghai. Once again, we appreciated having a guide with us every step of the way because if nothing else, airports are very confusing.
Because our one guide, Sarah, sang to us on the way to the airport, we asked if our current local guide was going to sing to us as well. We all joined him in singing “You Are My Sunshine.” It’s nice to know we share a folk song with the Chinese.
Shanghai is one heck of a city. It has the 4th and 13th highest buildings in the world, as well as some well-preserved famous landmark structures including the 19th century Russian Embassy that looks like it did when the Czars were still around.
We had time to go to the park and walk around, looking at local attractions such as the Hero’s Monument. This is where we had the eggplant lunch mentioned above.
It is one thing to bandy about terms like fourteen million people in a city, and another to be out amongst those fourteen million. The park was jammed to the gills (this was the start of the Mayday holiday and many people were on vacation). While we were there, two very charming young tweens asked if they could take my picture. Before I let them, I said I had to take their picture as well. I still haven’t figured out the attraction, because I am not famous nor am I very special looking. Perhaps it’s because I look like a Caucasian version of a Shar-Pei dog, you know, the one with all the wrinkles.
That night, we had dinner in a place that reminded me of a high school gymnasium, but the food was as good as ever. Afterwards we went to an acrobatic show that featured human pyramids, a couple who did an aerial ballet using long streamers hanging down from the ceiling, a Globe of Death (the one where six motorcycles whirled around inside a large wire cage),and various other feats of strength and daring-do. Of course, no show would be complete without one of those people who can put their butts on top of their head. The woman who did this was beautiful and as sinuous as expected, but she made my back hurt just watching her. After that, we were off to the hotel (again, one with a window next to the bathtub).
Day 12:
We had rain while we were in Shanghai. We should have gone to the museum there, however, what with the rain and the crowds standing in line, we voted to give it a miss. Instead, we went to a silk factory where we saw the worms before they started to spin their cocoons, and then on to the final cocoon stage.
Silk is interesting stuff that has had a profound effect on the cultures of China and the various European countries that dealt in the fabric. The Silk Road (or roads, because there were many routes) was the main trade route between East and West. The ‘road’ still exists, but it is now more of a tourist destination than its original purpose.
A guide at the facility showed us a spinning jenny that unraveled many cocoons at the same time, and at a high rate of speed. She let us feel the silk fibers as they unspun. The individual strands are so fine that you can hardly see them. (I started to say they were delicate but they are not at all, just very fine.)
Apparently, each cocoon can hold one or two silkworm pupae, but the threads from a double are much coarser than the single. Our facility guide showed us how workers turn the heavier thread into mats for heavy use. Mattress covers, comforters and pillow covers come from these stretched mats. The finer singleton cocoons produce fabric for clothing and such.
We could buy comforters and other large items at the retail part of the factory. These things are bulky, and I wondered how anyone would get their purchases home. However, the factory compressed the otherwise unwieldy objects into nice tight bundles, no bigger than carry-on luggage. Again, silk is some special stuff.
(Side note: I had always heard that ancient Chinese cavalry wore silk cloaks during their Middle Ages. Since the cloak did not tear, a rider shot with an arrow could use the silk to work the shaft out of his wound. I asked the guide about this, and she said that the story was true.)
When we were done with the silk factory, we went directly to the Nanjing Road shopping district. This was another mixing into the crowds; literally, a sea of people walked through the mall. Since we were not interested in shopping, we made our way to the friendly neighborhood Haagen-Dazs store for ice cream.
When the rain stared coming down hard, the street bloomed with umbrellas of all sizes and colors. The umbrella salespeople made out like bandits. People were buying umbrellas as fast as they could give the salesperson their money. I liked the transparent ones because you could keep them down over our head and still see where you were going.
The Shanghai folks take their rain seriously. Not only did a gully-buster rain not stop people from walking in the mall, there were even people riding on bicycles and scooters on the nearby streets, wearing ponchos that covered themselves and their vehicles. By the way, I have no idea what the Chinese word is for poncho, but I bet it isn’t poncho.
Later on in the afternoon, we took a boat ride along the Huangpu River to see the best panorama of the city. The tallest buildings were in the clouds, which was pretty, but I’m not sure I would have wanted to be in one of them at that point. It’s one thing to have your head in the clouds and another to have the floor beneath your feet in there as well.
A sign on the boat asked us not to climb on the railing. The sign read, “Non ClimBing.”
The Bund is the main boulevard in Shanghai that faces the port. The park we walked along, where I got my picture taken and which was awash with people, stands between the Bund and the port. (Bund is an Anglo-Indian word meaning an embankment.) I thought Bund was a German word, but apparently, the name dates back to the Sino-British Opium war of the 1840s, a rather complicated affair. The English wanted to push opium in China but people objected to outsiders turning their country into a doper’s heaven. By the time resistance broke out, there were an estimated 20 million Chinese addicted to opium.
(The British outgunned the Chinese and forced the empress to capitulate, which eventually opened the country up to the West. This was an early example of the market place reshaping society.)
There are some beautiful and historic buildings facing the port. The Chinese government refurbished many of them a couple of years ago and now they almost looked new. This was especially true of one that sported a naked man partially covered with a carefully draped cloth and a young woman, not so carefully draped. The building might have been in London, an Admiralty building perhaps, or something like that. The naked man could have been Poseidon, while the woman a sea-nymph. Either way, the man and woman above the entry to the building were ‘Art.’ However, you know if a real person tried to walk around in public like that… well you get the picture.
We visited another shopping place, this one with narrow streets amid Chinese Vernacular buildings. This may have been the Huaihai Road and Former French Concession area, I did not catch all that information because as I mentioned, my hearing aids were out. I just know the place was very crowded.
Two interesting things happened while we were here. First, I was standing with Patsy next to a bridge when I felt something touch my shoulder. I turned and saw a young woman having her picture taken with me, so I posed with her as boyfriend took the photo. After that, he gave the camera to the woman and stood next to me while she shot another picture. Thankfully, nobody asked for autographs.
The next interesting thing happened while I looked around the square. I saw some statues on the eve of one building and decided to take a picture of them when I noticed a police officer looking at us from one of the second story windows. He kept his eye on us the whole time we waited there. I don’t know why he would keep watch on us, who knows, maybe he wanted a picture with me too.
I don’t recall what we did that evening, but it might have been an early one, because we had to fly out again the next morning, on our way to Guilin. This tour was becoming very ‘flighty.’
Day 13:
Guilin would turn out to be one of our more interesting stops. It is in Karst country, which means the mountains are limestone, but somewhat softer than what we had seen in the Three gorges. They were just as tall, the tree cover just as thick, but instead of more or less blocky mountains, these have a softer, more pointed look to them. Imagine if you will, that a giant child took a pile of sand and let it trickle through its fingers to form soft cone-shaped mounds. The landscape has that kind of odd look to it.
However, the Karst-type mountains are not the only thing that made our trip to Guilin interesting; it just laid the groundwork so to speak (no pun intended).
On the way to our hotel, we stopped to visit a tea plantation. It was raining, but only slightly, much like what the Irish call a ‘soft day.’ At the plantation, our host handed us wide bamboo hats to wear. He talked us about the tealeaves and told us what we should look for. Then we went out into the field to collect leaves. For those of us who thought tea only came in bags, this was quite an experience.
We watched a woman ‘wither’ the tealeaves we had gathered; after that, she shook them in a bamboo basket to make them oxidize better. These were steps I had no idea were necessary. Some tea is allowed to ferment (another step I did not know about) while other types are unfermented. We learned that tea can be green, yellow, Oolong (and white), and black, all from the same plant – it depends on which leaves are plucked and how they are handled as to what they will become. No one mentioned Orange Pekoe, by the way.
We stepped into the tearoom where our host would serve us different kinds of tea and explain what flavors we should look for.
The room was a long white walled space with a high ceiling and what I suspect was a poem on the forward wall, written in elegant calligraphy. Our host’s low wooden table had all sorts of utensils on it because his making tea would be somewhat different from my making tea (again, I use bags). There were several low benches arranged around the room, with a number of polished tree stumps behind them. The benches were tree trunks split in half, but otherwise left in their natural state except for a little polish and some stubby legs under them. All the slight twists and bumps the trees had when they were alive were still there.
Our host made a joke: he told us he could tell we had never been in a tearoom before because we were sitting on the tales! What we thought were benches were actually tables – we should have been sitting on the polished stumps.
When we sat down properly (me with my knees almost to my shoulders), our host proceeded to show us the correct way to brew tea. There are different kinds of pots to use for each type of tea. This blew away my experience that you just dropped the bag into a cup of hot water and giggled it up and down a couple of times – you didn’t need a stinking pot to do it, either.
After the lecture and tasting, we had time to buy the tea and some of the utensils, such as cups, if we wanted.
I forgot to mention that blocks of compressed tea were available. Tea blocks are for long-term storage and easier transportation. Although it was tempting to buy some of that, we didn’t have that much room in our suitcases. In addition, I thought about how it might look to a TSA agent if I came through customs with a compressed block of some dark substance and tried to explain it was only tea.
After the presentation, we had lunch and then went to the hotel for some down time. The rain followed us for most of the week, but it finally cleared up by evening, which cheered us greatly.
The reason we were happy about the weather was that we were going to see a very special show outdoors, and the producers would have cancelled it if it rained. In fact, they cancelled the show the night before because of rain, and would again the night after we were there. Patsy and I are usually lucky about weather and this time the whole team profited by our good fortune. (Yes, we are lucky, but don’t try to rub our tummies.)
That night the extravaganza we went to see was “Impressions of Liu San Jie.” Liu is the man who put together the opening for the China Olympics. The only way to describe what we saw was spectacular; although to get the full effect, you should say it like this: spec-tac-u-lar! (The number of exclamation points after this would depend on how much one liked the show)
We sat in an open-air amphitheater that could hold hundreds, but even so, there were people standing along the staircase. In front of us was a large lake or reservoir, backed by some of those soft Karst mountains. We could just make out people rowing boats (rafts actually) out on the lake as the sun went down. The traditional way to row in China appears to be standing up; that seems to be the only way it’s done here. Even in regularly shaped craft using two oars, we saw boatmen row standing up.
We could just barely make out six or seven men standing on their boats, moving out away from the shore. Suddenly, when the night was very dark and we were getting restless, spotlights hit the cliffs on the far side of the lake and some nearer ones that acted as proscenia. Imagine if you will, a mountain hundreds of feet tall and almost a mile away, light up and reflected in the black water of the lake. The cliffs near us were not as tall as the central backdrop and not as close as they first appeared, but in contrast, they seemed more intimate.
Now we could see the men rowing the boats clearly. They were dressed in black high collar jackets and wearing large straw hats. This was a subtle beginning to an extravagant display of lights, music, and coordinated people. There were also low platforms that came up out of the water as needed, and sank back down again when they were not. This would give the impression that people were walking on the water.
Shortly after the lights came up and the boatmen made their appearance, some twenty or thirty young girls dressed in colorful native costumes ran out on a platform to sing us a song. Things were starting to pick up.
By the time the show was finished, we had seen some eight or nine long rows of boatmen holding cables draped in red plastic that stretched clear across the lake. The fishermen lifted and dropped the plastic sheets in coordination with music, making them look as if they were waves of water.
A huge crescent moon floated on the lake behind them like a giant child’s night light. A young woman in a flowing outfit danced on the moon and sang to us.
Nearer, some dozen or more young women swayed on one of the platforms that came up out of the water, and sang to us as well. Then a woman singer drew our attention to the front of the lake.
As her song progressed, some of the swaying women came to the solo singer and stripped off her dress. She wore a body stocking, so she appeared nude when they did this. After stripping her, they dressed her in the same kind of red wedding dress we had seen at the earlier show in the Three Gorges. When she was dressed for a wedding, all of the swaying women stripped off their own dresses and continued to dance. They were all wearing the body stockings as well. When they did this, the young woman dancing on the moon also stripped off her clothes, so we saw what appeared to be a number of very flexible naked women swaying in the night air. After a further moment or two of swaying, the women also put on red bridesmaids dresses.
While the swaying and singing was going on, another group came down one side of the lake and sang as they held torches. Finally, the young woman, the soloist, stepped into a covered boat where she met a young man and the two of them sailed off. On analysis, I think what we saw was supposed to be an allegorical wedding and the singers were celebrating the young lovers.
(Note: if this seems disjointed and skipping all over the place, it is because the show did the same thing. We had fishermen walking across the front of the stage, carrying poles with cormorants sitting on them, only to walk off stage without any reason except to show us they had birds. I mean, how ‘skipping all over the place’ was that. )
While all this was going on in the foreground, the spotlights on the mountains would come on and then go off to reinforce what was happening on the lake or to draw our attention to something else. The finale was a long line of singers and dancers, all lit up with red lights, crossing and re-crossing the lake on the submersible platforms. While the long serpentine line seemed to go on and on, fishermen rowed their boats around in the foreground.
Overall, there were over 600 performers, and now they were all on stage together. The only thing that could have made this even more overwhelming would have been if someone rode a zip line between the mountains, crossing over the lake while holding a torch in their teeth. This may happen in the future, who knows.
It started to sprinkle slightly when we made our way out to the bus parking lot. Even so, there were people coming in to see the show. We hoped for their sakes that the rain did not come down hard enough to stop the performance.
One more interesting thing was that the producers used real fishermen from around the area, which gave them, the fishers, an extra income. Later on, we would see some very nice houses that belonged to these fishers-cum-actors, so the extravaganza did help the local economy.
Chapter four
Day 14:
It was raining lightly once more when we started on our day’s adventures. We walked past a school where we heard children singing their lesson. As usual, we walked through a merchant area on our way for a boat ride along the Li River. I took photographs of the details carved on a bridge next to the water. There were all sorts of little embellishments on bannisters, pillar bases, and places where you might least expect them.
Our boat this time was a large thing that almost looked like a floating restaurant (we would visit one of those later). Along the banks of the Li we saw the traditional rafts the fishermen use, and some that were not so traditional. The basic raft was made of five or six giant bamboo poles lashed together, with the front end tilted up slightly. I suppose like most organic things, these rafts eventually rotted out, so we also saw rafts that were made of large diameter PVC water pipe, sealed at both ends and again, with the forward end tilted up.
We passed some other enclosed boats that were larger than the rafts but smaller than ours were. We thought these boats were for tourists because they were decorated up with large dragonheads on their bows – fishermen would probably not bother with all that.
A small building that looked like a pagoda stood at the boat loading area, but was really just a viewing area. We sat inside it while we waited for our boat.
As we sailed along the Li, we saw some very nice houses along the banks. Our local guide told us that these belonged to the fishermen who worked at the light show. Their extra income allowed them to build these nice houses.
After our cruise on the river, our next stop was at a farm village. Two elderly men greeted us, leading their water buffalos so we could take pictures of them and their animals. Since this was part of the tour, we understood that the men wanted something for that. It was okay with me, since these folks obviously did not have much, unless they were part of the lightshow, of course.
While we watched, one of the farmers led his buffalo down to a rice paddy where the animal relieved itself. Two things; first urine is ammonium nitrate on the hoof some to speak, Mother Nature’s own fertilizer, and second, you cannot imagine how long a water buffalo can whiz! This animal must have produced five gallons of nutrient! We could have taken a National Geographic type movie and people would have had time to go make popcorn before the clip ended.
Along with the buffaloes and the usual team of ducks, there were multi-colored chickens running free. I had to take a couple of pictures of them, because why not? Chickens came from Asia, and these could have been direct decedents of those original jungle birds. (When you think about that logically, I suppose they were.)

I suppose I need to correct something here. Some of the farmers did have money, since they either lived in houses made of fired bricks, or were building houses of the same material. However, there were also adobe brick buildings painted over to protect them from the weather. For those who con’t know, adobe is mud mixed with straw or other vegetable material to hold them together into sun-dried blocks.
There was a small shrine near the entry to the village, which was probably a funerary monument. We would see many of these later on in our trip. One of those large, oddly shaped stones we saw from time to time, marked the entry to the village. There were Chinese characters carved into the stone, but I did not ask anyone what they meant. Who knows; they could have been the name of the village or maybe even that this road had no exit. Either way, I have a picture of it and may someday ask someone who reads Chinese to tell me what it means.
On our way back to town, I noticed that many of the bicycles along of side our bus had umbrellas over them, with a long tail to cover the rider behind the cyclist. Imagine if you will a circle with a square attached to it. We had seen ponchos used earlier, but here was a new way of dealing with the rain.
That afternoon, we visited another pearl museum/store, where we learned about salt-water pearls. Since I am not a fan of pearls, I found their coffee bar more interesting than the merchandise. In my defense, I have to say we were steadily moving almost the whole tour. An occasional quiet sit down and a good cup of coffee were welcome breaks.
Along with displays of regular oysters that produce the pearls, there were several giant clamshells in cases around the lobby (you know, the kind that Tarzan gets his foot caught in and then has to wrestle free.) This was strange because clams don’t produce peals, but hey, why quibble – the shells were interesting to look at.
That afternoon we had some time to kick around the city before took our next flight to Guangzhou. Naturally, we had to go to a merchant area. One cannot have too many tee shirts or chopstick sets.
Patsy and I took a walk around and looked at the Sun and Moon pagodas out on a lake, then went back to our hotel.
Day 15:
Today’s adventure would be to fly to Guangzhou and see the Chen family Ancestral Hall. Jeff, our regular guide, told us there were only about one hundred names in China, so we should not be surprised to see the same name over again. Chen was a prominent name.
The 72 Chen clans built the hall in 1894 to give a place for their junior relatives’ to stay while preparing for their imperial examinations. The examinations ended in the early part of the twentieth century, but the family still used the hall until the Guangzhou City People’s Committee appropriated it as a City preserve In 1957. It is now a cultural center/museum with classrooms for teaching art.
The original carved prayer table or alter sat in the main hall, with a wall behind it that once held the names of Chen ancestors. The government removed the names when the hall became the People’s preserve; otherwise, the whole complex was intact.
There are some nineteen buildings in the complex, all highly ornamented and with their own garden areas. One of the small gardens held a number of Penjing or Bonsai trees, lovingly cared for. Many of the trees looked old, but who knows how old they really were. If well done, even young bonsais look ancient.
The usual motif of dragons and Fire Dogs writhed and threatened all over the place. There was even a small ornamental carving of what looked like a frog exhaling a cloud of something. I didn’t know that frogs smoked, but maybe they do here in China.
After visiting the Chen Hall, we had an afternoon free. Normally, Patsy and I are not big fans of shopping, but we did some here. We wandered into an enclave of shops and watched a woman doing tablet weaving in front of her shop. The work was lovely and Patsy bought a shawl one of the women had on display.
We started back toward the hotel, but passed a shop full of large black pots with red cloth tied around their tops. They looked intriguing, so we went inside. The smell immediately told me we were in a wine shop. Each pot must have held thirty or more gallons of wine, but they were large ceramic things, not stainless steel or glass, and sealed with the red covers and not with corks or screw tops, so we were not sure what we were seeing right at first. I don’t think they could have made corks or screw tops that would have fit anyway.
We returned to the hotel Starbucks. Patsy went on with her reading and I tried to catch up on my notes.
Day 16:
Our next stop was the ferry that would take us to Macau. Along the way to the port, our bus passed many small fish farms and rice paddies mixed in with freeways and other modern structures, which made for a time jumble – a mixing of old and new. Most of the fish farms had small rustic huts next to them, with tall stacks of poles. Our guide said that the pole stacks helped in drying fish, which made sense.
We got to the port and took the ferry to Macau. There were so many people crammed on the ferry that we wondered about how safe it was. The boat was wall to wall with people; I had to stand between four people who were sitting down on a ledge, and a bulkhead. One hears about the huge numbers of people lost when a ferry sinks, and now we could see how this could happen. Fortunately, the trip only took a few minutes, but hey, how long does it take for a ferry to tip over and sink?
I am pleased to say that we arrived in Macau safely. As an interesting note, we off-loaded next to the headquarters of a fireworks manufacturer. I hoped that this was not an omen.
We must have bused down to Colane Village where we visited the A-Ma Daoism Temple. (I say ‘must have’ because my sense of direction isn’t working as well as it might. I thought we sailed in almost a straight line to Macao, but according to a map, we probably sailed at an angle to the south before landing.)
The temple stood on a hill, and as we climbed the steps to the pink buildings, we noticed large sand trays filled with smoking incense. Some of the incense sticks were small, maybe a bit larger than we might use at home, but other sticks were as thick as ballpark hot dogs and several feet long.
After walking around the temple, we walked back down to a small tree shaded plaza and stopped at a place that sold cookies and cream tarts. I saw some cookies that looked as though they had chocolate dripped across them. I started to buy them when our guide told me not to buy chocolate while I was in China. I pointed to the cookies and she said they were not chocolate. Puzzled, I took one of the sample cookies off the counter and tried it. What I thought was chocolate was seaweed wrapped around the bar… so much for that.
Macau is on a peninsula where the Portuguese set up as a trading post in the 1550s, when they rented the colony during the Ming Dynasty. Portugal returned it to China in 1999.
We visited the Fortaleza do Monte, one of the old city fortresses, and walked around looking at Banyan trees and out cannon ports. Below, we saw what looked like the very fancy front of a church, but with no church behind it. Later on, we would learn that this is the front of Sao Paulo, or St. Paul’s church which burnt down first in 1601, and again in 1835. The second fire also took out an adjacent college and library. There was some interest in rebuilding the church, but nothing ever came of that and now there is only the lovely front.
Macau is famous as a tourist/casino town. Indeed, one casino building, the Grand Lisboan, looks like a giant feather duster exploding. There is a lot to see in the old town; therefore, our main interest in the casinos was where to find washrooms. The one we most visited was the Venetian, and I have to say it was not nearly as grand as the Venetian Hotel in Las Vegas. I suppose this was a copy of a copy with something left out after each copy.
We visited St. Paul’s to take pictures, and then moved on to the old town. In old town Macau, there are streets with swirling mosaics of black and white patterns. The street names were on tiles set into building walls, written in both Portuguese and Chinese.
The day was warm and we had some down time, so we all sat around a small park on Largo de S. Domingos Street. On our way to here, we paused by the statue of Luís Vaz de Camões, the chief warrant officer in Macau around 1556 or so. Although I had never heard of him before, I learned that many consider Camões Portugal’s greatest poet. Some say he ranks up there with Shakespeare himself, which is high praise indeed.
We had to wait for a while at the park until we could go to our bus. Since it was a hot day, we wanted something cool to drink. I spotted a nearby McDonalds down the street so I went there to get something and immediately ran into a couple of problems: first, the counter person started asking me things in Chinese, and second, all the money I had was Chines Yuan. I had to return to our group and beg for some Macau money. When I went back to McDonalds, the young man who wanted to help me patiently watched me as I went through some pointing and other hand gestures. Finally, we arrived at my buying two chocolate covered sundaes even though our guide said not to buy chocolate in China. If you can’t trust McDonalds, who can you trust?
Macau and Hong Kong currency is different from Chinese and from each other, which is troublesome since they only accept their own. I liked the one-dollar coin because it had frilly edges. Since money flies away, as it does, why not make it look frilly?
The McDonalds offered two specialties you most likely won’t find in the States: a black and a white hamburger. The black burger was on a bun darker than pumpernickel, while the white was on a bun that looked like a Dim Sum dumpling. I have no idea what these tasted like, but their descriptions were in both Chinese and English. I read that the white burger came with a choice of special sauces, one of which was a crab sauce… I don’t think we will see either of these at home anytime soon.
After a wait made longer by the hot weather, we caught our bus to the port for our trip to Hong Kong. We had to show our passports as we were technically leaving China. Hong Kong is a Special Administrative Region, like Macau. Why we did not have to present our passports when we went to Macau, I don’t know, but we didn’t. Special Administrative Region means that they can elect their own government for the time being. However, the Chinese Government has to approve list of candidates for office.
(Side note: since this has come up, I thought the Party had tight control over everything, but apparently, at least according to two of our guides, the Party only controls about 30% of things. In fact, we saw a public demonstration in Macau, well, one man protesting anyway. Our guide didn’t explain what he was against, but just that he often had posters and a loudspeaker out in the plaza. She also said that people thought he was crazy because he was always protesting something.)
Now back to the tour
We made our trip to Hong Kong on a very sleek, very fast hydrofoil. I guess I should actually call it a jetfoil, since it uses jets to rise up out of the water. Rising out of the water cuts down on drag and allows the boat to go faster. Once it gets up and starts moving, the large catamaran cruised at about forty miles an hour.
We were not in Hong Kong for very long before we noticed dealerships for Mercedes, Lamborghini, Ferrari, and other high-end cars. Not only were there showrooms for these expensive machines, there were several dealerships for each. We already knew there was a lot of money in Hong Kong, but this was more than I expected.
Our local guide who was a real comedian, his patter kept us laughing all the way to our hotel, the L’Hotel Nana Tower. (Note: Although the name is Nana Tower, singular, the hotel consists of two towers.)
Our guide told a joke as we passed the local racetrack, he explained about how they cared for the horses there. He said that, as a Buddhist, he believed in reincarnation and that because of the way they pamper racehorses here, he wanted to come back as one. Then he rubbed his shoulder and said he always got a twinge in his left arm when the tours passed by the track. He wondered if maybe he had in fact been a racehorse in a former life, and if he had broken his leg there or something. He went on to say that if that were the case, he had re-incarnated into a guide for Sinorama, and maybe the exchange hadn’t been worth it.
We finally reached the hotel to check in. The first tower at L’Hotel was 41 floors high. We had to take the elevator to this floor and cross over an enclosed bridge to the second tower, which was some 80 stories high – our room was on the 59th floor. Now we wondered what was happening lower down in this tower that we couldn’t just take one elevator up to our room. I will say more about that later, but first an observation.
One has to understand that Hong Kong, like the rest of the east coast of China, is in the “Ring of Fire,” the Pacific earthquake zone. The next thing one has to understand is that much of Hong Kong sits on fill, i.e. dirt and rock taken from one place and put into the harbor to make more land. Finally, that our very high hotel stood on landfill. We asked several people about earthquakes, but they all denied quakes ever happened here. I think those same people had a bridge in Hong Kong they might want to sell me.
Now, on to our hotel:
We found that there was a whole world under our feet. An escalator rose from the lobby to a multi-level shopping mall complete with upscale shops and places to eat, which was okay with us. However, the next day, when we got off on a lower floor than the ones dedicated to food and shopping, we wandered into a massive meat store, with butcher shops working at high capacity. How many hotels have you ever stayed in that had both shopping malls and butcher shops in them? This explained why we couldn’t take an elevator directly from the lobby to our room… we might have had to share it with a side of beef.
I believe we went up to Victoria Mountain the next morning because I have a picture of me kissing Patsy on a city over-look. If so, we went to the top of the mountain and visited… the shopping area there.
Victoria Mountain is named after Queen Victoria (this used to be British territory, remember), as was the harbor and a couple of streets. Our guide pointed out several mansions along the way, including one that belonged to his very close and personal friend Jackie Chan (ba-da-dum).
He told us that the higher up the mountain we went, the more the mansions cost. It must have been true, because when we were at the top of the mountain, the air smelled like money (okay, not really, but you get my point). This was Ex-Pat country, and as we stood around looking over the hillside, a couple who looked like they stepped out of a Jordache advertisement ,came walking past us, leading one of the largest dogs I have ever seen.
Day 17:
We went to Aberdeen Harbor to ride around looking at the boats. There are whole communities that live on the boats in the harbor, some in smaller ones while the larger ones looked as though they could go out to sea. As we passed a dry dock where a boat was in for repairs, I wondered what the family that lived on the boat did while it was there. Did they go to a floating motel or something?
After our tour, we went to have lunch at the Jumbo Floating Restaurant, which as the name implies, is on a very large raft. The restaurant is several stories high and rests on piers so that we did not feel any motion of the water.
Very large dragons, twisted around multi-colored pillars, greeted us at the entryway along with peacock wall murals and lots of gold trim. Oh yes, a small hostess met us there as well.
We climbed up the stairs to the third floor where a sumptuous lunch awaited us. The décor of the place was just as over the top as expected. Red lanterns hung everywhere and the dining room seemed to be as long as a football field.
After lunch, we returned to the island on our ferry (decorated with dragons that spit water from their mouths) and on to some free time.
Day 18:
Patsy and I walked down to a small park in front of the hotel before we started our journey back home. A woman was there, sweeping the street with a broom made of bamboo with twigs. I tried to get a picture of the broom because I had seen that sort of thing used elsewhere, but the woman turned just as I pressed the button. I did get a shot of her very large hat that could almost double as a tent.
That afternoon we got to the airport with very little difficulty, and flew back home.
There is not a whole lot more to say at this point except that our Canadian friends told us Air Canada hands out free drinks even in steerage, something I did not know before. Suffice it to say, I had to test this out. It is true, and our flight home was much pleasanter than our flight to China.
Oh, there was something else… I mentioned that things had fallen apart and I was worried that more things might follow. During our flight to Vancouver, I got up to use the lavatory and had to go back to stand near the flight attendants’ area. As I was talking to one of them, the left lens of my glasses fell out of the frame. Fortunately, the screw didn’t come out as well, and I put everything back together more or less. At least my efforts got us back home before the lens came out again.
Well, that is the Dinosaur log for our trip to China. I hope you all enjoyed the somewhat long and rambling dialogue. I also hope I will be able to post my photo album so you can see some of the things I have mentioned. Until the next time, have a safe trip wherever you go.

 

 

 

 

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That first book

Posted by marshal on July 23, 2016 in Thoughts |

When I retired, I was all fired up with plans for the future.  I was going to learn Spanish, even though I had demonstrated a total lack of linguistic ability when I was in college.  I wanted to learn to play the guitar and ended up with perhaps the worst teacher in the world.  He started me out trying to play Lighting Hopkins “Boom, Boom, Boom,” when what I really wanted to do was learn how to strum a few melodies while drinking a beer on the back porch.

I did accomplish writing three books, two of them, Blossoms of Sin and The Amargosa Blues were finished quite quickly.  Again, having no background in writing, I didn’t know what I should be doing.  I hired a professional editor, and on the advice of my publisher, also not the best choice, ordered two hundred copies of that first book, then set out to make myself an author.  I have about 175 of the books still in the garage.

My mistake was that there are two types of editors: grammar and content.  No one told me this, and the editor I hired was a grammar editor.  It wasn’t until I sent a copy of Blossoms to a friend who was also an editor and who did both grammar and content, that I discovered the difference.  In the parlance of the time, my friend “tore me a new one.”  I got back a critique of my work almost as long at the book itself.

I took the critique to heart and have been working on the corrections in a slap-dash manner since then.  Sometimes I get inspired to work, other times the book sits moldering, as if something can molder on a computer

I have played around with writing by trying to maintain a blog and generally not succeeding.  I have two partial books written, although they may never see the light of day.  I also write travelogues under the title of Dinosaur Logs, but that’s about it.

Tonight, I am sitting here with a glass of wine playing with my brain and trying to fire up that enthusiasm I had so many years ago.  This is a time when I have started to work on Blossoms again with the vague hope that I can correct the book enough to have my editor give it a passing grade.  If that happens, I would like to re-issue it under a different title.  Since I had no background, I took the first title someone suggested to me when I finished Blossoms; it was a line from Hamlet and it seemed to fit the theme.

Maybe I will succeed this time,but only time will tell.

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The Dinosaur Goes to Texas/New York/The Danube

Posted by marshal on June 16, 2016 in Dinologs |

DSC00244

Day One (sort of)

And the adventure started.  Mike, our ride to the airport, took us a way we had never gone before, but said it would cut out a lot of traffic. Unfortunately, a traffic light had gone out after he came to get us, and we had a delay… still no problem.  However, once we got to Tropicana Road, we found that there were new traffic cones closing down the inside lane.  Still no problem.  The signage at the airport was a little misleading, but we eventually found our way to terminal 3 with loads of time to spare.   We went through TSA with no hold ups until we got on the other side to reassemble ourselves; then there was a problem.  Patsy had set her passport down at the end of one of the baskets used to pass stuff through the TSA screening.  The passport was almost the same color as the bin liner, so when we got over to the benches, she didn’t see her passport.  Now we had a problem, especially since we would be leaving the country in a week and a half, with no time to order a new passport.

 

Now people have much to say about TSA, most of it not complementary, but two TSA people went through all the stacks of bins until the young lady helping us, spotted it.  Problem over, situation back to normal.

 

This does not sound like much of adventure until you understand that Patsy is the organized one in the family.  I spend most of my time looking and acting like an unmade bed.  If the organized one falters, the center collapses and we are doomed! Doomed I tell you, doomed… well maybe that’s a little overboard, but not by much.

 

We made it to the airport in plenty of time, in fact in m-o-o-o-r-r-e than enough time.  We were supposed to leave at 11:30, but there was an announcement that our departure was delayed due to a mechanical problem.  Just the sort of thing one wants to hear.  Anyway, after two hours, we boarded the plane, got comfortable, and waited as we taxied toward the runway.  There we sat while the airline attendant explained about the seatbelts and the air masks, etc.  Funny thing, the attendant went through all the motions while an upbeat jingle sang about what she was showing us.  It was like being in a multi-million-dollar elevator, but with seats.

 

After we learned to stay buckled up during turbulence and snapped our fingers to the catchy line about how the air mask would drop down, the captain came on the intercom and told us that the problem was indeed not fixed, and that we would go back to the terminal just as soon as they could find an entry.  Our flight was cancelled!  Bummer, although not as much a bummer as hearing the same announcement mid-way in the flight.

 

The folks at Virgin Airlines were cool and offered to put us up at Alexis Park Suites.  We decided to take then up on the deal because it would be too confusing asking someone to come pick us up at the airport, take us back home where we would have to displace Tara, our house sitter, and then have someone drive us back to the airport.

 

One consolation to all this is that we heard they had a tornado warning for Dallas, with hailstones even.  Lucky us.

 

Virgin America put us up at Alexis Park Suites and gave us meal vouchers.  Dinner was okay, nothing to write home about, but I saw ‘Beer Can Chicken’ on the list and ordered that.  Beer can chicken is prepared by shoving an open can of beer up the appropriate orifice of a whole chicken and popping it into the oven.  I have always thought it would be fun to try this, but I never have.  As I was falling asleep later on, I wondered if you could get one of those great big cans of Foster’s or Sapporo and perch a turkey on top of the can, but I could not figure out how to get the bird and beer can in our oven at home; there would not be enough room.  There must be some way of doing this though, the photo opportunity alone would be worth the effort.

 

Day Two

We got our motel reservation in Dallas taken care of but had to go through a lot of hassle to change our car rental at the airport.  I finally got that taken care of, hopefully.  We will find out should we ever reach Dallas.

 

We woke up to a very rainy day, but being in Las Vegas, we knew it wouldn’t last… sure. (Note: the weather report has us socked in for the entire day.) The storm was what Patsy’s cousin calls a frog strangler, rain so heavy and so fast that the frogs can’t get out of its way.  I don’t quite believe that, but then again, what do I know about frogs?

 

I got a text message on my phone that our flight would be delayed for an hour and wondered if that an omen.  Would we end up being cancelled again?

 

Even so, we went to the airport on faith that we would actually go this time.  As it turned out, our faith was rewarded, and we left… an hour later than we were supposed to, but we left.  Right at first, I was worried because a couple of technicians flew with us and they kept opening things and peering into them. I hoped it wasn’t anything critical, such as a computer going out, or snakes in the luggage compartment (I never saw the movie, but maybe it could happen).  As it turned out, the on-board entertainment system did not work, and that was why the technicians.

 

The flight was pleasant with very little turbulence, which was unexpected, because it was cloudy all the way to Dallas.  Patsy and I weren’t sure what to do about lunch, so we ate something at the airport.  Little did we realize they would feed us on the plane.  When it came time for the meal, we were stuffed and passed, but we did take the dessert – something called the Eton Mess.  It was a dish of lemon curd, clotted cream, a few slices of fruit, and a topping of what I thought was compressed powdered sugar.  Our flight attendant, Mark, introduced me to a new treat – chocolate chip cookies and jasmine tea.  These are best consumed at 30,000 feet in the air.

 

As I said before, the flight was more or less uneventful, which was okay with me.  I don’t like eventful flights.

 

We met Morgan and Sandee, our son and his wife, at the airport.  They had picked up a car earlier and so we were on our way.  Once again, the drive was uneventful, and again, that was okay with me.  We did stop and have a bite at a place called Zoe’s, which was a Mediterranean sort of place with a slight Texas twist.  The hummus was made with hot sauce, not paprika.

 

We stayed with Patsy’s cousin Ron and his wife Monica.  Their house was lovely, and backs up to a greenbelt, which explained what we saw from the air.  Apparently, Texas has a lot of greenbelt areas.  As we were coming into Dallas, we saw whole areas of woods (I don’t want to say forest, because that brings up other images) mixed in with the houses.  Right at first, I thought there were just a lot of golf courses in Dallas, but if all the wooded areas were courses, every man, woman and child, including homeless people, would have to play golf to justify the number of them.

 

Even with all the travel and fuss, we were still wound up, so we spent several hours talking and drinking wine until we decided it was time to get to bed.  Naturally, I couldn’t sleep, but somehow or other, it was 2:00 in the morning, and then it was 8:00.  Strange how things like that happen.

 

Day Three

We started off the morning with a great breakfast of scrambled eggs with chives, English muffins covered with sausage and cheese (see recipe below), and fresh fruit.  About the time I felt like things could not get any better, Monica produced a tray of freshly baked cinnamon rolls.  I fear my diet is out the window (yeah, like I’ve ever been on one of those).

 

After breakfast, we went to the Lindon B. Johnson Library.  I have to confess I was an anti-war student during his time as president. I was less than enthusiastic about Johnson, but looking back at all the things he accomplished, like Medicare or the Voting Rights Act, I have changed my mind.  I always thought he just completed things Kennedy started, but learning about the things he felt passionate about, in retrospect, I think he was probably one of our greatest presidents.  I will probably read more about him after we get back home.

 

We took a long drive through Austin, around to a BBQ spot down by the Colorado River.  This is not the same river we know in Nevada, Utah and Arizona, but it still shares the name.  We had a barbecue lunch, I had pulled brisket tacos.  by this time, I had consumed more calories than I normally would for an entire day, and we still had dinner to look forward to.  Oh my.

 

We went to Mt. Bonnell after lunch.  This is one of the highest points around Austin, in fact you get a great panoramic view of the city from the top.  Two things I found really great about the walk up to the top of Bonnell were the smiling faces of so many different kinds of people on the trail, young and old, men and women, grandparents and young people with lemon colored hair, and all sorts of races.  The smiles, the joy, that was what I found so great!  This was America!

 

Oh the second thing that was really great?  I didn’t trip on my way back down the path

 

Heading back to Ron and Monica’s house, we went through Austin and passed fields of wildflowers.  Monica said that Lady Bird Johnson was instrumental in reestablishing the wild flowers here in Texas.

 

Monica’s Muffins

2 pkgs English muffins (6 count each)

2 sticks softened but not melted margarine or butter

2 jars Old English Sharp Cheddar spread

1/2 teaspoon cayenne pepper

1/2 teaspoon garlic powder

dash salt

1-pound hot Jimmy Dean sausage (or Owen)

 

directions

 

Cook crumbled sausage until well done.  Drain on paper and cool.  Blend margarine, cheese and spices, the add sausage.  Place slit muffins on cookie sheet and spread with filling.  Bake in 400 deg. oven for 10 to 15 minutes.  Note: you can freeze these after spreading the muffins with the sausage mixture.  Just put the cookie sheets in the freezer until the muffins are frozen, then pop them into a Ziploc bag and they will keep for good long while.  You don’t have to thaw them to bake, just put them into the 400 deg. oven until they are nice and bubbly.

 

Day Four

This was a transitional day.  When we woke up, it had rained in the night, so things were cool and fresh.  Monica fed us some great breakfast burritos, fresh fruit, and of course cinnamon rolls (does this woman never stop?).  We took our time getting out of the house so that the rush hour traffic into Austin would be over by the time we left.

 

Ron and Monica live in an area that backs up to a greenbelt.  Apparently there are some caves with a rare insect living in them, and so the greenbelt cannot be developed.  When we look out the back door, what we see are Live Oak Trees, tall grasses, and here and there a cactus plant.  This morning, there were five deer resting in the trees behind the house. They were so close that I could have hit one of them with a rock were I so inclined (and if I didn’t throw like a girl).  Monica said that she thinks the does are pregnant and getting ready to drop fawns.  She also said that the deer in the greenbelt behind their house like to have their young near the houses, maybe as a way to protect them against coyotes. Anyway, the scene was very… what?  Should I say pastoral?   I can’t say bucolic because that refers to cows, and I think I would have been less than impressed if there were five cows in the grass behind the house.  Maybe I’ll leave it at pastoral, but whatever, it was nice to watch the deer lying down in the grass that close to the house.

 

We drove into Austin, which was a pleasant twenty-five-minute drive, and found our motel.  I believe this is the Texas Hill Country we have heard much about, a land of rolling hills covered with grass and wild flowers with stands of Live Oaks.  The country is a lot like northern California during a time of good weather.  These low hills would be good horse country because we didn’t see much to obstruct a running horse except for the occasional stream.

 

We understood that Lady Bird Johnson was instrumental in reviving the wild flowers, so applause to her.  Ron told us that this had been a dry period for them.  If so, the recent rains must have done a marvelous job, because it was green, green, green.

 

After we checked into our motel, we drove over to the Metro station and bought tickets for the Metro train and headed into downtown.  We walked around scoping things out and then had lunch at a small coffee shop before heading back.  We planned to do somethings the next day, especially since it will be the only one we will have to explore Austin before we head to San Antonio.

 

The Metro train is a sleek thing and very clean.  There are hooks on one side of the coach, where bicycle riders can hang their bikes while they ride.  I don’t know how new these trains are, but they are the cleanest we have seen in any of the places we have used trains.

 

Austin seemed to be an off-beat place.  We might have found ourselves in a gay part of town, but nothing overt, that is to say there were no cross-dressing queens out directing traffic, just people walking around, holding hands and being people.  The bulletin board in the coffee shop where we had lunch also made us think we were in the gay area; one poster advertised a Queen’s Soiree, while there were others advertising various events and openings.

 

When we went to the coffee shop and when we came back, we passed a busker on the sidewalk and both times he was hunched over next to a one-man band set-up that was covered with messages like “God is love,” and so forth.  He was eating something, so maybe he was taking a lunch break.  I hoped he would be playing on the next day, because I sort of like one man bands.  Don’t ask me why, because I also think they are corny, but there is something about them that I just enjoy.

 

Day Five

This was our day to see Austin.  We went up to the capitol and looked around.  If you have never been to Texas, the state capitol looks sort of like the Capital Building in Washington D.C., but it’s a lot smaller and tan colored rather than white.  There is a statue on top of the dome, much like the statue on top of the Capitol.  Here in Texas, it is a woman holding a star rather than the Capitol Building Statue of Freedom, who holds a wreath in her left hand and has her right hand resting on the hilt of a sword.  A surveyor’s theodolite (that thing surveyors look through that looks like a spy glass on a tripod), is set up so you can see the statue’s face.  I didn’t look through it, but Morgan did and he said that she looks surprised.

 

We passed the one-man band set-up again, and he still wasn’t plying, so maybe he was waiting until night time, when tourists would be out looking for fun.  The only busker we saw was a man who played the trumpet almost well, sitting in a doorway, but that was it. We did see some other fun things though, like a sign in front of a bar that said you can’t buy happiness, but you can buy wine, and that’s almost the same thing.

 

Like most cities that have been around for a while, Austin has a mixture of original buildings and modern ones.  We took pictures of some of the old buildings and one very tall new one that looked like an ice sculpture a clock in the middle of it.  Most of the older buildings were built with limestone, however there were also some brick mixed in there as well.  As expected, the more modern buildings used a lot of glass, I tried to take pictures of both types and will have them up shortly.

 

Meanwhile, we enjoyed a lunch at The Driskill 1886 Cafe.  I had a small salad as part of a soup-and-salad combination (see recipe below); the salad was paired up with a lovely cheddar soup.  Of course, there had to be a beer to go along with all this, so I chose a Convict Hill Stout (yes, I know I should have chosen something lighter, but I wasn’t in the mood for an IPA or a Hefe, which were the other two choices of local brews).  The stout was a nice dark color, almost like black coffee, with tones of espresso and chocolate.  So, all in all, I came from what I thought was going to be a light meal, to one that left me feeling replete.  I fear this whole vacation is going to be “replete.”

 

Salad ingredients: greens, shredded cotija (a Mexican cheese similar to feta), pepita (pumpkin seeds), roasted corn, roasted poblano peppers, bits of chicken and bacon, all dressed with a buttermilk cilantro pesto… whew, it almost wore me out listing the ingredients.

 

Dressing Ingredients

1/2 cup buttermilk

1/4 cup fat-free plain Greek yogurt

1/4 cup light mayonnaise

1/4 cup fin

4 teaspoons prepared basil pesto

1/2 teaspoon ground black pepper

 

Directions

 

In a medium bowl, whisk together all ingredients. Chill, covered, for at least 2 hours or up to 24 hours.

 

1886 Cafe and Bakery Cheese Soup

Driskill Hotel, Austin

1/4 cup butter

1/2 cup onion, minced

1/2 cup carrot, minced

1/2 cup celery, minced

1/4 cup flour

1 1/2 tablespoons cornstarch

4 cups chicken stock

4 cups milk

1/4 teaspoon baking soda

1 pound grated Velveeta or mild cheddar

1 teaspoon dried parsley

1 dash cayenne or to taste

1 dash paprika or to taste

1 teaspoon salt or to taste

1 teaspoon white pepper or to taste

 

Melt butter in a heavy saucepan. Over medium-high heat, sauté the onions, carrots, and celery until translucent and tender, about 3 to 5 minutes. Stir in flour and cornstarch. Cook about 3 to 5 more minutes. Add stock and milk gradually, blending until smooth, and reduce by 1/4. Do not allow to boil at any point. Add baking soda and cheese and stir until melted and thickened, about 10 minutes. Add parsley, cayenne, and paprika. Keep soup warm over very low heat or in a double boiler if not using immediately. Season with salt and pepper to taste. Serves 6 to 8.

 

See more at: http://www.texasmonthly.com/articles/1886-cafe-and-bakery-cheese-soup/#sthash.R07KhZNH.dpuf

 

Day Six

We started out for San Antonio, but first we waited for a while to let traffic thin out (Yes, Virginia, they do have L.A. type rush hour traffic in Texas).  By waiting, we were able to sail down to San Antonio with little to no problems, except for the changing speed limits, of course.  No speed limit was less than 60 mph, but often the limit was 75 or 80.

 

I always thought long horn cattle were something of a rarity until I saw on television, a herd being pushed to high ground in Huston during the recent storms.  So you can imagine my surprise when we saw eight or nine of these things in a field along the route.  Imagine also my surprise when we realized that the long horns were just models!  Is nothing sacred?  The statues were very realistic looking, especially with the tall grass around their feet, but when we realized that none of them had moved a muscle, we decided they were just statues… of course they could have all been stoned or something, but I don’t think cattle do that sort of thing

 

At any rate, we got to San Antonio with no problems and were able to check into our motel right away.  I have to digress here for a moment.  For some reason, I made reservations with the Red Roof Plus motel.  My reason must have been that the Red Roof was so near the Alamo and the River Walk, because the room was clean and the bed was comfortable, but there wasn’t a closet.  The only plus we saw was the staff who were always friendly and helpful.  Breakfast was not included in the fare, not even a continental one, although they did have a machine you could buy breakfast stuff from and then pop the whatever in the microwave.  We even had to pay for parking.  My reasoning was lost in time since I made the reservations back in February, but I don’t plan to stay in a Red Roof again.  Now, back to the narrative.

 

Since we arrived early enough, we went over to see the Alamo.  We learned a great deal about what prompted the battle for Texas independence in the first place.  It was apparently a struggle between a Federalist form of government and a Centrist, almost a state’s rights sort of thing.  Santa Ana overthrew the Federalists and took command of the government, which did not sit well with the Texicans (I hope I got that word right).

 

On the way to the Alamo, we passed an old hotel that had a couple of really cool chimeras tucked up above one window.  A chimera is a grotesque figure used for decorations. Some people think of them as being gargoyles, but they don’t have a drainpipe in their throats which is what makes a carved monster a gargoyle.

 

Now, on to the Alamo.  Texans take this place V-E-R-Y seriously.  I don’t know how places like Boston (site of the Boston Massacre) or Yorktown (as in Battle of) deal with their past, but you really cannot mess with Texas when it comes to the Alamo.  There is a garden area behind the mission called the Shrine of the Alamo.  I always associate the word “shrine” with a holy spot, and I’m not sure what was back there, it could have been the graves of the defenders, but I don’t know.  Like I said, Texans are very serious about their history.

 

The Alamo site is surrounded by a wall, so while I was thinking it was just the mission itself (the basilica), actually the Alamo is a large precinct.  Once you enter the site, there are two cannons mounted by the walk.  These are the first of many big guns one finds along the way.  During the fight, this whole precinct was a battle area, with cannon emplacements at every corner and strategic point.

 

The landscaping is very dense, with mature trees that were transplanted to beautify the place.  Flowers, cycads, and shrubs were everywhere.  The site is lovely; Texans seem to do dense landscaping very well.

 

In front of the mission itself, there is a plaque marking where Davie Crockett died, and a brass line that represents where Colonel William Travis drew a line in the sand and told the men that whoever would fight with him should step over the line, while anyone who did not want to do that could leave.  What none of them knew was that General Santa Ana had already given orders that no prisoners would be taken. Anyway, I think most of us have seen movies about the battle and how the defenders resisted to the last man.  An interesting thing was that some of the wives who had been in the mission, were allowed to leave after the battle. They were the ones who told about the fighting.

 

The mission basilica is a small affair, with limestone walls that have twisted pillars carved into them on either side of the main doors, and alcoves between the sets of pillars that look as though they might have once held statues of saints.  As far as missions go, it is not the most impressive one we’ve seen.

 

Jim Bowie of the knife fame had been sent to dismantle the Alamo, but realized he didn’t have the resources to remove all the cannon, so he and Travis decided they would stick it out here.  The Alamo seemed ideal because it does have thick walls, and the Mexican Army had already turned the place into a fortress of sorts years earlier for protection against Indian attacks.

 

There are also things to look at like an old well, the museum in the area known as the Long Barrack (there is even a Tennessee Long Rifle that was presented to Fess Parker on display), and the cannons, lots and lots of cannons.

 

Across the street and down a way is a huge orange/pink sculpture that I understood came from France, but I also heard came from Mexico.  Anyway, this is a four or five story flowing sculpture that rises up on two square columns and twists around at the top.  It is supposed to symbolize affection but I could see it also being an invitation to ‘get knotted, of course that’s just my sense of humor.

 

After visiting the Alamo, we went down to the River Walk.  This is really a cool place.  Imagine a river kept in a concrete channel, and surrounded by restaurants, shops and hotels The river is actually the San Antonio River, but the original river was nothing like what is there now.  Pictures of how it was before being channeled show what looked like a large creek.  However, when heavy rains came, the river overflowed its banks and became destructive. 50 people died during one of the floods and so they had to take measures to control the river. Now with dams and other flood control measures, the River Walk is very safe.

 

I think the river is about twenty or thirty feet across, but there are sidewalks and gardens all along the edge. One has to walk down stairs to get into a man-made valley, at least two stories deep, where the river meanders through.   The main part of the river has a current, but even the side branch where the tour barges load up is kept moving so there is not an insect problem.  There are ducks living on the river, and I took pictures of a heron and a cormorant (a sure sign that fish live in the water), but otherwise, the main bird down there is the pigeon.  Big surprise.  Signs ask people not to feed the animals, but that doesn’t affect what the birds themselves think.

 

We ate lunch at a place called Maria Mia.  While we were there, a couple got up from the table in front of us.  The man and woman had not even reached the entry to the restaurant when a flock of pigeons descended on the table, fighting over the scraps left behind.  The bus staff all carry spray bottles to drive the birds off so they can clean the tables.  It took several squirts to quell this feeding frenzy.  I believe it could have been hazardous to try to clean the table without using squirt bottles, the birds were that determined.

 

After lunch, we went up to a place called Villita, a place that sits above the River Walk and looks like an older town or village (Villita, Spanish for small town).  The houses are well kept and have all been converted to shops and galleries.  Patsy found a tee-shirt she really liked and bought that.  After walking around for a while, we went back to our motel.  That night, we went back to the River Walk for dinner. This is a real party place, with lots of colored umbrellas by the river side, and a whole lot of places selling drinks along the way.

 

We had dinner at a place called Michelino, right next to the Blue Agave (guess what their specialty item was there).  The meal was very good, but nothing out of the ordinary.  I had chicken breast stuffed with mushrooms, spinach, and cheese.  The menu said that the chicken was lightly breaded, but if it were any more breaded I would have had to use a kitchen knife to cut it; still it was very tasty.

 

Our son Morgan’s hair started to turn grey when he was 16, and he has since developed a lot of grey in his moustache.  When our waiter brought the check he asked if we were brothers. I immediately said yes, but that I was the younger of the two.  Well, the light was not all that bright where we sat, so he bought it.  He looked long and hard at the two of us though before I started to laugh and told him the truth.

 

I mentioned that earlier in the day, pigeons bombed the table next to us.  Tonight at Michelino, we were visited by a duck and a drake.  They were not bothered by people walking around them, so I figured they have done this before.

 

The next day would be our big day in San Antonio and we were going to pack as much into it as we could.  We have been eating so much, we skipped breakfast and just grabbed some coffee and a Danish, then headed back to the River Walk.  Birds adapt to us humans, sometimes even to the point of distain; witness pigeons in a grocery store parking lot.

 

We strolled around for a bit and then took a boat trip on the river.  This was a nice break for us, especially since my feet were getting tired.  Our guide was a young man who told us a lot about the river and what had been done to make it part of a flood control plan.  He said that the water was only four feet deep; if anyone fell in, they should just stand up and walk out.  Fat chance of my doing anything like that, I mean I’m not sure I could hike a water soaked leg four feet up a concrete bank. He is the one who told us about the fish and crawdads in the river right after I got the picture of the heron.

 

The Walk is really nice in the day time, what with all the trees and flowers.  I saw several people just sitting on some of the many benches scattered around, enjoying the peace and quiet.  At night, the place turns into party central. That’s when all the lights come on and the colored umbrellas and paper/plastic flowers are in their prime.

 

We had gone back to the Alamo gift shop to see if there were and tchotchkes we could not live without, and then back to the River Walk for lunch.  The food was good, of course all the food we had along the River Walk was good, but nothing memorable.

 

After lunch, we took a horse drawn wagon ride around town.  Our driver named Dave took us in to one of the older parts of San Antonio, where there were some very nice old houses.  We pointed out to him that many of them had a light blue color on the porch ceilings. This color was called Haint Blue when we were in Charleston, and is supposed to keep you house free from Haints (ghosts) and some insects.  I don’t know if it works or not, but again, I never saw a ghost while we were in Charleston.  (Side note: I have been told that you can order Haint Blue from Sherman Williams.  I don’t know if this is true, but it’s a nice story)

 

We stopped back at the motel for a bit to drop off things we had purchased and to refresh ourselves, then headed back to the Walk for dinner.  The night life was in full swing by the time we got back.  We saw a sign pointing the way to a place called the Lonesome Dove, which we hoped was a cafe.  As Larry McMurtry fans, we thought it would be cool to eat there.  However, on the way down there, we ran across a group of what could have been senior ladies dressed in gaudy flared skirts and decorated with flashing lights, dancing around to the very loud beat of several drummers.  The drummers, all senior men, were dressed in white pants and red Hawaiian shirts.  There was a dental convention in town and I suspect that was what the drummers and the dancing ladies were all about.

 

It was hard to find a place to eat, but that’s the way it is when there is a convention in town.  We finally strolled into a place called Rio Cantina.  I had a plate of mixed enchiladas and a 210 Ale from Busted Sandal Brewing Company. The ale was nice and light with a good head which worked down into a lace that stayed until most of the ale was gone.  It went well with the enchiladas.

 

Day Seven

We were on the road to Dallas again the next morning because we all had to fly out the next day.  I had one of my “a-ha” moments when we were about half way to Dallas.  It seems as though the closer you get to San Antonio, the more Mexican oriented the food, but the closer you get to Dallas, the more barbecue places you see and the less Mexican.  Interesting.  Oh, and we saw the fake long-horns again, and they still hadn’t moved.

 

This about the end of the Texas part of our adventure, but there is one more thing I have to mention.  We had dinner that night in a place called “Bombshells,” a sports bar sort of place that has aspirations to be another Hooters.  There were way too many scantily clad waitresses, most of whom hung around with each other talking and laughing.  The burgers had names like “Gung-Ho” and other military sounding names.  I had a burger that I misunderstood what they were talking about.  It said that the burger was between two toasted cheese and bacon sandwiches.  Now logic told me that they would not have full toasted cheese and bacon sandwiches on either side of the burger, but logic lied.  That is exactly what it was; the bread was Texas toast sized on top of everything else.  I stripped off most of the extra bread and kept the bacon and the burger but that was probably enough to clog an artery anyway.

 

So, that pretty well sums up the Texas portion of our adventure.   The next installment will be about New York City.

 

New York, New York

Day One

We got to our hotel in Koreatown and found our room.  For those of you who have followed the Logs for a while, you may remember that the hotel we use is squashed between buildings that house Korean BBQs, Asian food places, and oddly enough, what I think are Vietnamese French bakeries.  The reason why I think they are Vietnamese is that the French had nothing to do with Korea and the Chinese didn’t seem to have much affection for the French when we were there last year, so that left the Vietnamese.  The bakery goods are definitely French in character, with baguettes, croissants, and all manner of other good things.

They fed us pretty well on Virgin America Airlines so we weren’t very hungry.  Instead of going out to dinner, we went up to the fourteenth floor bar for a glass of wine and a beer (Patsy had the wine, I had the beer, we did not mix them together).  The motel backs up to the Empire State Building.  From the upstairs bar, it just looks like another apartment or building because we cannot see past the first level of floors.  When we were here the first time, we asked the bartender where the Empire State Building was and he just pointed up. We weren’t impressed then until we went out the next morning and found he was telling us the truth.

The ESB has several setbacks if you will, lower blocks that then are topped off with a floor or viewing area before the next block of floors, narrower than the ones just before, climb higher.  On this particular night, we could see part of the mast and antenna on top of the building but else past that first block of floors.  The mast and antenna had red and yellow lights pulsing upward; I have no idea why, nor do I know if this is a regular thing.  We will go back up to the bar to find out, in the name of accuracy of course.

Day Two

The big event for today was a Broadway play called “Something Rotten,” a musical about the Bottom Brothers who are overshadowed by the ‘rock-star’ of the day, William Shakespeare. I’m not going to give the whole thing away, but at some point, the playwright brother writes a musical based on the Black Plague, and then one based on “Omlette.”  Needless to say this is a funny play

We took the subway up to Time Square and walked to the theater.  We wanted to have lunch before we went to the see the play, so we stopped in at a place called “Carmine’s.”  Our waiter, Ivan, told us not to eat too much of the bread on the table because the portions were big.  We ordered a family style (one dish we could share) Mixed Pasta, the specialty for the day.  When Ivan brought us our food, we realized we were about four people short of having enough to eat all that was on the tray.  We had spinach ravioli, Manicotti, lasagna, and my own favorite, Spaghetti Bolognese.  We ate as much as we could but since we were headed to the theater there was no way we could take a doggy bag with us.  I hope someone got to finish off the plate, because otherwise it would be a real waste.

 

I understood there was a rash of people at Time Square, wearing nothing more than thongs and body paint, ready to pose for a snapshot with tourists. I had seen some pictures of a couple of lovely young ladies who were painted up to look like Wonder Woman, but didn’t see anything like that at all… no matter how hard I looked.  I think the whole thing was just a scam.

Anyway, we walked back to the subway after the play and got back to the motel in good order.  On the way, we picked up a couple of Chinese style buns – the kind with the stretchy casing; Patsy had the pork bun while I had chicken curry. After the size lunch we had, that was enough for dinner.

I should say something about walking in New York.  It is a very walkable city, offering so much to look at as you pass.  The only way I can describe the foot traffic is that it is competitive, relentless, and much like Brownian Movement of particles but without the collisions.  We experienced the same sort of thing in India and in China and it seems to work.  There are even people who walk down the street looking at their phones and not at the other pedestrians, and yet who make it down the street without running into other people.  I sure couldn’t do that, I tend to trip over things like bumps in the sidewalk, driveway dips, dogs lying across the pavement, you know, the things other people never notice.

 

Day Three

Today we were consummate tourists, complete with a camera hanging from my neck.  We decided to take a tour around the harbor to see the Statue of Liberty and Ellis Island.  Somehow or another, I thought we were going to have a chance to get off the boat at the statue and look around, but once I saw how many people were on the boat, and how many people were already on the island and how the lines visitors stretched out around the base, I realized that was not going to happen.

We close to both Ellis Island and the statue, along with at least 500 Asian who were on the boat with us and who all wanted the same picture at the same time I did… ok, maybe not that many, but there were a lot.

After we got back to the terminal, we walked down to Bowling Green Park and then to the museum across the street.  By this time the wind had picked up and I got a pretty shot of tulips bending.  The museum featured exhibits of Native American Art.  We did not know it at the time, but it was apparently the Museum of Native American Art and Archives.

I took a picture of a statue next to the banner announcing the exhibit, depicting a European looking woman sheltering some figures wearing feather head-dresses.  There seemed to be some irony in the woman sheltering the figures behind her, considering the role of Europeans in the lives of American Indians. Actually though, I think the statue just copied the statues at the base of the Albert Memorial in London, where the people of the world are all sheltered by allegorical female figures.

Dinner that night was at one of the Vietnamese places.  We had small, flaky flatbread sandwiches and creampuffs the size of Big Macs.  Yum.

 

Day Four

This would be our last day in New York.  We would head out to Vienna by way of Istanbul the next morning.  We decided to go looking for Greenwich Village and SoHo because we had run into those places in literature and we wanted to put place images to the names.  We almost went to Bleecker Street however we decided to skip any sorrows today (sorry you Rod McKuen fans, but there it is).

 

We made our way to Washington Square Park and then walked around the area.  Nothing really jumped out at us while we were there.  I mean there were the rows of houses, the trees on the sidewalks and most of the same things we had seen uptown.  The buildings were not as tall, but that was about it.

As expected, there was a statue of George Washington at the front of the park.  Patsy and I sat on a bench for a while and realized there was another smaller statue facing the street in front of us.  I said I thought it might be Billie Washington, George’s ne’er-do-well brother.  Instead it turned out to be the Marquis Lafayette.  Oh well, so much for guessing.

 

We had lunch at a place called the Halal Guys, and had what they called a Gyro bowl, which was pretty much what would go into a gyro but chopped with a couple of slices of pita bread.  The man behind the counter, one of the Halal Guys, asked if we wanted hot sauce on our bowls, and we said yes.  He warned us that it was hot.  When we tasted it, the sauce was mostly habaneros, but not as hot as some of the sauces we have had.  The cashier behind the counter was laughing at us right at first, but when I identified the pepper, she started laughing with us.

Once upon a time, we had a hot sauce that was murder, and I was suffering.  I took a drink of sweet tea to cut the heat, knowing full well that sort of thing doesn’t do any good, it just puts the pain off for as long as the water or whatever is in your mouth.  Suddenly, the sauce didn’t hurt as much, so I tried an experiment: take some of the sauce on a nacho and feel the heat, then sip the tea and feel the heat drop.  It worked.  Since then I have learned that sugary drinks cut the effects of peppers.  At the Halal Guys, we were drinking sweet drinks that did the trick with the habaneros

After satisfying ourselves that there was nothing outstanding about Greenwich Village, and that probably what we were looking for had disappeared sometime in the last century, we headed home. However, there was a sculpture of some sort on the face of a building, a round, clock faced sort of thing with a beam of gold shooting out of the center toward the bottom.  I asked several people what the sculpture represented but nobody had an answer.  There was a counter next to it, adding up to a very large number.  I suspect the counter was of the earth’s growing population, so maybe the sculpture was to warn us that time is about up and we should be hoarding gold or something.  I mean, nobody else knew what the sculpture was, so we were free to apply our own interpretation.

Dinner that night was at the Belgian Beer Cafe.  This is the kind of dark wood and glass that attracts business people to stop by after work.  Beer was the main attraction, naturally, and there were several different kinds of glasses for the beers.  I have no idea what beers went with what glasses, other than my beer came in a heavy glass much like a Manhattan glass but larger.  My beer was a Hoegaarden Witbeir, a wheat ale with a slight orange flavor with a coriander overtone.

Patsy had a Yellow-Fin Tuna salad, with large slices of the fish, lightly braised.  We made a joke about the greens being shiny side up kale, because we once read a recipe that said to use only the shiny sided kale, as if there is such a thing. I had a seared scallop about the size of a hockey puck with a dash of light flavored pesto on top of it.  The vegetables were miniature ramps (members of the onion family) with purple cauliflower, small mushrooms and a touch of black truffle sauce.  I do not have the recipe for tis, nor do I plan to try to make this at home.

For dessert, Patsy had a Belgian waffle covered with strawberries and chocolate, and topped off with whipped cream.  My dessert was an apple crepe.  The crepe had a lemon taste to it, and was topped off with a scoop of ice cream and a dollop of whipped cream on top of that.  Again, while they are fairly straight forward, I do not plan to make either of these desserts at home.

Of all the pictures I have taken on this trip so far, the one that I should have gotten but didn’t was of a sidewalk vendor. These folks have everything from pushcarts on steroids to things that look like they should be mounted on a truck bed.  The vendors sell breakfast stuff, hot dogs and sausages, full meals in some cases (both regular and veggie), and let’s not forget the tee shirts, sunglasses, $25.00 Cartier watches, et cetera.   You name it and someone has a cart/stand/box selling it.  I wanted to try to get a picture of one of these setups right before we left or at least one of these sidewalk entrepreneurs, but it was too late.  We had to move on the airport for our flight to Vienna.

 

Off to Vienna

Since we were going by Turkish Airlines, we had to pass through Istanbul in the same way that if you fly American Airlines, you will pass through Dallas/ft. Worth at some time or other. I have always been interested in Istanbul and hoped I could see something of the city out the airport windows.

It took us nine and a half hours to reach Istanbul from New York.  We had a two-hour layover before we headed out to Vienna.  Since we got there at night, we didn’t see anything except for lights so the only thing I can tell you about the place is that it looks a lot like any other airport.

By the time we landed, we were trying to maintain some sense of normality while being hampered by a lack of sleep.  We had not rested the night before because we were worried about oversleeping and missing the airport shuttle.  Now we were in a foreign country, feeling a little rocky from almost nineteen hours without reasonable sleep, just some uneasy dozing on the flight.  We were not sure when we were supposed to take our meds and we had other concerns on our minds so I can’t report anything more.  At least we had aisle seats on the airplane and did not have to crawl over other people to stretch our legs.

We knew nothing about Turkish Airlines before and were not sure what to expect.  We were pleasantly surprised because even though we were in steerage, there was ample legroom, entertainment, and they even gave us warm towels and free booze.  We ate far too much but what can you do?   We were just sitting there with nothing else going on anyway, they brought us food, we ate.

 

I watched a movie called The Woman in the Van, starring Maggie Smith, which was billed as a “mostly true” story.  But other than that, I dozed, got up to walk occasionally, and tried not to think about what it meant to be flying way too far above the ground with an outside temperature that Jack London could appreciate when he was in Alaska. The monitor on the screen said that the temperature was a balmy -58 degrees; London said that you could tell when it was below -70 because when you spit, it would freeze before it hit the ground.  I don’t know what would happen at a mere -58 and I wasn’t likely to find out.

Day One

We eventually got to Vienna and had a leisurely drive through the city to our boat, the Little Prince, or Der Kleine Prinz.

The rest of the day was billed as leisure time, but we took the opportunity for a nap.

Our craft was named Der Kleine Prinz (the Little Prince) and was a long and narrow boat.  If you have seen any commercials for Viking River Cruises (and who hasn’t), the Prinz is like one of those boats only smaller.  The cabins all have a window overlooking the river or the dock, depending on whether we were sailing or tied up for a land tour.  This meant that often one did not walk around au-naturale with the curtains open.  The Prinz was built in the late 1950s in East Germany, and we had read some reviews that mentioned the age of the vessel, but even so, it was in good repair and comfortable.

Our cabin had twin beds, two small closets, and a tiny bathroom that included a shower with no enclosure to it for me to step into when I got up at night to attend an old man’s needs.  I got the hang of avoiding the shower after the second or third time I missed the turn toward the porcelain objective and stepped on the non-slip pad.

Let me tell you right now, the Danube was not blue, it was more of an olive green color in the daylight. I think the reason why is that the river has a strong current, therefore carries a lot of silt, so it could never look blue.  That said, our guide told us that the word ‘blue’ also refers to being drunk, and that maybe Strauss had that in mind when he wrote the waltz. I would go along with that suggestion.

The Danube is the second longest river in Europe, but don’t ask me which is the longest.  It is quite broad and carries a lot of shipping traffic as well as tourist boats.  Where there are not picturesque cities and towns, the river is bordered by forests.

Day Two

After breakfast, we had a bus tour of the Vienna.  Patsy and I were sufficiently recovered so that we looked forward to seeing this city so much associated with Mozart.

During the tour our guide spoke to us over little receiver/earphone devices. They were a great help and allowed me to hear what was being said even when I dawdled behind the group to take a picture.  Patsy didn’t care for them because they would not stay hooked over her ear.

Vienna was like a Baroque pastry, with all the decorations and embellishments one expects when the word Baroque is mentioned.  The Theaters and museums were of the Baroque style (think Greek looking buildings with pillars) while much of the downtown was probably Beaux Art (think banks with carved wreathes of flowers or of laurel leaves with faces looking down from around the window and doorways).  Naked bodies lounging on the buildings or holding up something were pretty common too, more than you could shake a stick at.  If you are a Terry Prachett fan, you might remember that constable Knobby Knobbs said you can tell a naked statue is art rather than something embarrassing because there were urns nearby.  Well, there weren’t all that many urns around, but there were a lot of stone canopies and other things to be held up, so maybe those took the place of urns.

There was a great deal of grey color because so many of the buildings were stone, but there were also trees along the boulevard that soften what might otherwise be a hardscape.

A lot of the aforementioned figures on the buildings and in fountains were naked ladies and I came to the realization that ideal Baroque, Beaux Art and indeed Art Nouveau women packed an extra fifteen to twenty pounds over what we like to think are “ideal women” today.

Not all the architecture was of the 19th century however.  Some buildings were destroyed during the Second World War and replacements were thrown up in a hurry.  Many of these newer structures were in areas governed by the Soviets and are mud-fence ugly.  On the other hand, some replacements showed an interest in trying something new. For instance, we saw one building that had a sloping glass front.  We thought that was an odd shape until our guide pointed out that the name of the company owning the building started with a “q.”  When seen from the side, the building had a ‘q’ shape to it.  Good thing the company name didn’t start with a ‘z.’

During the late 19th century or possibly the early 20th, an artist named Friendreichs Hundertwasser was asked to provide some ideas to improve parts of town.  He came up with a bright color palette for some apartment buildings with clever tilework for interesting touches.  Hundertwasser thought that everyone had the right to a window they could lean out of and scrape away the paint as far as they could reach, then paint whatever color or design they wished.

Vienna incinerates their trash, and Hundertwasser designed the facility for them.  So now the smokestack of the incinerator looks like a multi-colored lollipop or something from the Watts Towers.

We took a tour of the Schonbrunn Palace that afternoon (Baroque).  Schonbrunn was the summer home of the Hapsburgs, based on the palace at Versailles, but on a smaller scale because the ruling family had to cut corners to save money.  In fact, our guide said that the Emperor wanted to redesign the palace, but that would be expensive. Instead, he made the architect the Royal Architect, which was a plum appointment at the time, and then ordered him to redesign the place.  One saves money as one can.

A little bit of interest, the entryway of the porte-cochere is paved with blocks of hard wood so that the horses and carriages would not make so much noise when they pulled up.  The wood blocks are still in good shape.

Inside, the mirror rooms in the palace were white and gold in the Baroque style (almost Rococo {like Baroque after too much Schnapps}), plus some Chinoiserie (Chinese style) rooms.  There was one room dedicated to a “Royal Bed,” that looked bigger than a king-sized bed, with curtains and a carved headboard.  However, this was not used for sleeping, just for the presentation of new-born royal babies.

While the palace was used by other members of the Hapsburg family, Schonbrunn is most often associated with Empress Maria Theresa.  She was a powerful woman, and even though she was married and had sixteen children in a twenty-year period, she kept the power and did not permit her husband, Francis Stephen, to take over her authority.  In fact, there is a painting of the royal family with the empress, about six or eight kids, and Francis Stephen.  The artist shows the husband resting his arm on a chair, pointing a finger toward Marie-Theresa while she has her right hand raised with her index finger pointed toward herself.  No question who wore the pants in that family. The portrait was painted while the Empress was carrying a daughter who would in time be named Marie Antoinette.

After visiting the palace, we returned to the ship for dinner.  That night, we attended a concert at the Auersberg Palace/Borse/Arsenal Hall (don’t ask me what Borse means or why the palace should be listed as Arsenal Hall) put on by local musicians.  The hall (Arsenal Hall perhaps) for the performance was a small one, probably for about four or five hundred people tops.  Even though the walls were marble and the ceiling was high, the sound was excellent.  There were many oval windows set high in the walls and a decorative frieze ran below them showing, for some reason, a lot of wrestlers.  There were also many faux marble pillars that projected from the walls at intervals.  All these things seemed to be enough to break up the echoes that would have otherwise made this small space unusable.

While a baritone sang a song in German, I had a sudden realization that once upon a time this room had been filled with Nazi officers and their wives.  It made sense because this facility has been in use since the nineteenth century and the Nazis ruled Vienna during the war.  There is no particular point to my saying this, it was just an odd thought that went through my mind at the time.

A gentle rain had been falling all day and into the night.  We fell asleep to the sound of the rain, and only woke up a couple of times when I thought there was thunder, although that could have been my snoring.  There was also the sound of the boat passing along the river that sounded like someone was draining a bathtub, but except for that and the aforementioned thunder, there was little to disturb our sleep

Day Three

We sailed to Bratislava during the night.  Bratislava is in Slovakia, which was once part of Czechoslovakia until the breakup of the nation. Our tour guide told us the reason for the breakup was that there were people who wanted power, and since there could only be one prime minister in a country, the answer was to make two countries.  She said the division was made without a referendum to the people even though the country was a democracy.  It makes you wonder, doesn’t it?

 

A nice tree lined walking mall also held several stalls selling knick-knacks and snack items (one even specialized in honey and honey related products).  There were also loads of coffee shops and cafes under the trees and it would have been nice to sit there, but our time was limited and so we just looked and enjoyed the scene.  As we would learn along the tour, hanging around coffee shops is common here in the Baltics, our guide referred to this as a coffee culture.

Some of the walks in the mall were made of black and white blocks that formed curving patterns under the trees, making the scene even more interesting.  I should mention that in many of the cities we would visit had this same kind of walk made up of two-inch thick stone blocks.  While they were nice to look at, we also had to watch out for missing blocks or ones that were not level with the rest; it would have been easy to twist an ankle and ruin the walking parts of our vacation.

Brataslava was full of older buildings, but also had newer ones built after World War Two.  Some of the older buildings had cannon balls in the walls, dating from when Napoleon laid siege to the town.  During the siege, he used artillery as part of the offense and many of the buildings still had cannon balls embedded in them after the battle.

Our local guide told us that at some point, there was a tax break for those who kept the balls in place and just repaired the building around them.  She said that after a while, cannon balls started to appear where they hadn’t been seen before.  She pointed out one house that had such an embellishment and told us that it would have been impossible for the cannon ball to have come from Napoleon’s artillery because it was about 180 degrees away from the front lines of the siege.  I guess it could have been a ricochet, but probably not.

Speaking of interesting, there was a plaque on one of the houses, showing a man with a red hood over his head.  Our guide told us this was the traditional home of the town executioner.  It seemed to me that if you were going to advertise that this was where the executioner lived, why did he need the hood?

Further down the street was another oddity; a house where there were chimeras (those things again) over the doorway.   This was once a place where an alchemist lived and these were supposed to be portraits of the demons that helped the alchemist do his work.

We visited St. Martin’s Cathedral, a 14th Century Gothic church.  The cathedral was made of buff-colored sandstone, with the usual allotment of saint statues and allegorical animals that any self-respecting cathedral should have.  I especially liked the figures of dragons around the entry, but did not see a St. George anywhere near them and wondered why.

I found several examples of the Green Man in the main entry way of the church.  The Green Man is a decorative element from the Middle Ages, and is one of my favorite things to look for in churches from that time.   The figure is most often a face, but sometimes the rest of the body as well, combining humanfeatures with foliage (there were also green animals, but these were rare).  No one ever wrote down why they carved these on all sorts of places in cathedrals and so no one knows much about them now.  They must have made sense at the time, because everything in a cathedral was supposed to instruct the illiterate church goer.

There is a theory that the Green Man might have been a pagan symbol and that some of the stonemasons might have been closet pagans (assuming stonemasons had closets), but again, who knows.

Now back to the cathedral.  Sandstone is not as durable as limestone or brick, the other common building materials in this part of the world, which means that it needed extra care.   There were scaffolds on part of the church used in cleaning to clean the walls and to make any necessary repairs.  In fact, scaffolds were usually raised on some part of every cathedral and most of the public buildings that we saw in every city we have visited so far.

During the time of the Soviet occupation, nothing was done to clean up the air or the environment; soot stained the walls of all the buildings.  Now that Slovakians are free, the government is working to restore things, but it takes time.  I don’t know that the government was in charge of cleaning St. Martin, but considering its importance to tourism, it might have been.

A large white fortress sat on the hill overlooking the town.  We were in the foothills of the Carpathian Mountains which means there were a lot of hillocks.  There were a lot of uphill streets we had to climb. The fortress was a big square pile, one of those places where the Hapsburgs lived. I think Princess Elizabeth was the most notable person who lived there, she who was called Cissy, and who in modern times has been compared to Princess Diane because she was very popular with the people.

The gates in front of the fortress had displays of different kinds of arms and armor on pedestals that covered a range from Roman armor with swords and shields through to a helmet dressed with a turban (the Turks, don’t you know) and ending up with a broad brimmed hat trimmed with feathers and perched over a simple breastplate. The Turkish armor and the broad hatted one also sit above cannons and guns.

An interesting thing: there are two matching walls with gates set on either side of the courtyard in front of the fortress; the armor displays sit on top of the walls.  What is funny is that the left set of gates allow entry from the town to the courtyard where the coaches and carriages would arrive, while there is just a drop-off behind the right set of gates.  Of course you cannot tell this just by looking, but those gates are unusable.  The Baroque mindset liked balance and so there had to be a second wall with gates even if they didn’t do anything.

 

We passed a funny, I was going to say statue, but since it was lying on the sidewalk, I called it ‘street art.’  The object in question was of a man, full sized and cast in bronze, crawling out of a manhole in the pavement. There was a street sign above it saying “men at work,” but the locals say that the character isn’t working at all, just looked up ladies’ dresses.

 

Brataslava was one of our briefest visit, because we were only there for half a day.  When we returned to the ship there was a wine tasting scheduled to entertain us while sailing to Budapest.  It had been cloudy all morning and we had a bit of rain.  However, in the afternoon, the sun came out, although banks of grey clouds were off in the distance.  A group of swans were swimming along the shore as light glittered off the river.  There is some sort of poplar tree in bloom so that bits of what looks like cotton were floating in the breeze.  The combination of the grey clouds in the distance, the swans, the sun glinting off the water and the bits of drifting cotton made it feel as though we were sailing in a dream.  Of course it could have been the wine as well.

 

Day Four

 

We woke up in Budapest Hungary.  This is one of the most Baroque cities that we have seen so far, maybe not more so than Vienna, but the effect is more bunched together.

One of the main attractions is the Square of Heroes, which has a great concert hall and a museum on either sides.  In the center of the square, there is a tall column topped by a victory figure, with statues of early Hungarian heroes gathered around its base.  At the back of the square are two curved arcades with more life-sized statues of famous Hungarians, including St. Steven, the first Christian king of the Magyar.  Allegorical figures of peace and war stand on top of the arcades.  The square is not as large as Tienamin Square in Beijing, but it is just as impressive in its own way.  (Side note: both squares have had tanks in them at one time or another.)

We had an afternoon excursion through Pest, then over the Elizabeth Bridge (yes, Princess Cissy, who will appear again at some point in this narrative), and up the hills into Buda.  The two parts of the city are divided by the Danube River.  Seven bridges crossed the river, all of which were destroyed during the Second World War.  The Elizabeth Bridge has been the only one restored to its original appearance.

We had a great view of the city including the impressive Baroque parliament building across the river in Pest.  (A snide observation: words don’t always have the same meaning in different languages, but doesn’t Pest seem to be an appropriate place for a parliament?)

 

That night we enjoyed a concert by the Hungarian State Folklore Ensemble.  The performances included music and authentic dances from across Hungary. The musicians included two hammered dulcimers, each about the size of a baby grand piano.  During a solo by one of the dulcimer players, all the lights on stage and in the theater were turned off, but he continued to play without missing a beat.  If you have never seen a hammered dulcimer, picture the stringboard of a piano exposed and played by striking the strings with long, thin wands.  I have never played one of these things although I have known people who have, and it seems to me that you would need at least a little visual clue as to where things were.  But what do I know; the soloist was so sure of himself that he finished the piece without seeing the strings.

On the way back to our boat, the local guide took us through the city, around the Square, across the Elizabeth Bridge, and into the hills overlooking Buda. The view was lovely and would have been even more exciting if we had been warned ahead of time that we would make this drive.  A water closet would have greatly improved the adventure, still it was lovely.

 

Day Five

We had some time to go back to the city before the afternoon’s events.  One of the events we could not miss, of course, was lunch. They feed us quite well and we will have much penance to perform once we are home.  In China, we had a young lady who was our ship-board waitress and took care of us; I called her our “Coffee Goddess.”  On the Little Prince, the role was filled by a waiter named Sava (our “Coffee God”) and a bartender named Kristina (our “Beer Goddess”), both of whom made our days go smoothly.  Kristina helped me out with the on-board computer; it had several odd keys that had accent marks over some letters, while familiar things such as the ‘at’ sign were in different places on the keyboard.

 

After our over-indulgence, that was our lunch, we drove out to the Lazar Lovas Puszta horse breeding farm where we were greeted with small glasses of brandy and bite sized cakes like empanadas.  We watched a performance by the Czikos (Hungarian Cowboys) and their horses. The Czikos were dressed in blue skirts that hung down past the tops of their tall boots, black vests, and a round hat with a curled brim that looked like a cross between a Stetson and a tri-cornered hat. When the cowboys were up on their horses, the skirts acted like chaps, also they looked kind of cool.

 

We’ve seen some amazing things with Mexican rodeos, but this was something else again.  First of all, the cowboys all carried whips which they kept cracking around the horses.  Horses are notoriously skittish and yet they were not upset by the almost continuous snapping noise.

 

The cowboys made all their horses bow to the crowd, kneel, and eventually lie down on their sides.  The announcer told us that the cowboys used to sleep on their horses, at which time one of them stretched out on his recumbent mount; the horse did not even roll its eyes.  Another cowboy had his horse sit up on its haunches.  He then pulled one of the horse’s legs forward and sat on it as a chair.  This really surprised me because I think horses are very protective of their legs.

Another horseman came galloping down the field and shot arrows into a target as he rode past.  All the arrows were within an eight-inch circle.  I was impressed because I couldn’t put several arrows into that kind of cluster unless I stood in front of the target and inserted them manually.

 

Our guide on the bus told us that the cowboys did not use saddles because they had to be able to ride away quickly if attacked.  The archer had definitely stood up when he shot, and I had seen the rest of the cowboys using stirrups so I figured I had misunderstood the guide.  But what we saw when the horses were standing up again, was that the riders had a large oval-shaped piece of leather with stirrups attached, but without a framework or cinches.  Each rider threw the piece of leather over the horses’ backs, grabbed a bit of mane, and swung up as though mounting bareback.  Their feet slipped into the stirrups and they were riding off almost immediately.

 

The show continued with various displays of horsemanship.  At one point, a woman representing Princess Cissy (yup it’s her again.  Apparently she was known as an excellent horsewoman), came riding out with a sidesaddle and did various maneuvers with her horse, including standing with all four hooves on a narrow beam.

 

After the show, we took a ride around the farm on an oxen drawn cart and then visited some farm animals in their pens.  One of the interesting animals we saw was a goat with long curly horns.  Normally goats are friendly animals, enjoying a scratch under their chin, but not these.  Their main purpose in life seemed to be biting the hand nearest them.

There were the usual suspects when you visit what was essentially a petting zoo.  We saw Giant Checkered Rabbits (about the size of a beagle), more of the chickens with the feathery legs, and a sow with her piglets.  I don’t know how many of us have seen a sow up-close, but it was easy to see she didn’t have a great temper.

After the show, we made our way back to the boat, once again going around the Square of Heroes.  Because of the compact nature of Pest, it was hard to get around without passing the Square.

 

Day Six

 

We docked in Mohac, Hungary and took a tour into the town of Pecs (pronounced pesh or posh, or someplace in between).  I don’t have much of an ear for language), a place that has been inhabited since the 2nd Century.  Our guide for the day told us that a famous battle was fought near here when the Ottoman Turks were on their way to Vienna.  We were only there for half a day, but we bought some chocolates and had gelato cones.  While those were nice, they were not the highlight of the morning, which would be the cathedral.

We visited the local cathedral and saw the palace of the Archbishop.  (Side note:  although there was an archbishop there, the coat of arms over the doorway were of a cardinal.  Who knows, maybe the top dog in the area was both.)

We had a short organ recital in one of the most ornate churches/cathedrals you could imagine. Everything was highly decorated, and I had a feeling that if you stood too long in one place, you might get a coat of paint or gold leaf.

The town was occupied by the Ottoman Turks for about a hundred and fifty years, during which time they used the cathedral as a storehouse, a stable for horses and otherwise left it to fall into disrepair.  Over the century and a half or so, after the Ottomans were driven out, the church has been restored to its former glory.  It is almost overwhelming in its ornateness.  There were frescos on the walls, the ceiling, and any place that could be reached.  Even under the church where the bishops were entombed was highly decorated.  I have a photograph of saints over the stairway leading down to the crypt.

Along with the tombs of former archbishops, there were also some very detailed bronze models of the cathedral, about the size of something you could set on a coffee table.  These were for blind visitors to feel what the outside of the church looked like. There was no way they could have represented the frescoes in relief, but I thought that was rather a cool idea anyway.

After the organ recital, we were supposed to see the Roman catacombs (I know this is dumb, but I feel like I need to say all catacombs are underground.  These had a glass ceiling over them, and a walkway so that we could look down into them).  They weren’t open to us this day and we went down into the town instead.

Between the cathedral and Széchenyi Square, there was a large building with a huge green dome. This used to be the mosque of Gázi Kászim pasa.  We didn’t go inside, but my first thought was that any decorations would have been things like calligraphy or geometric designs, since Muslims generally do not favor representations of living things.  I forgot that this was now a Catholic church and would have been as highly decorated as the cathedral.  Oh well, we were getting overwhelmed by all the art work and wonderful buildings anyway, so missing out on one did not matter that much.

The outside walls of the mosque/church were dressed stone, pierced with windows that had colored brick arches over them.  The building sat at an angle to the square in front of it because it was oriented toward Mecca. (That last bit may also not have been necessary, but I thought I should mention it.)

Further into the town, Patsy and I walked past a theater that had two fountains in front of it as well as a swirling black and white plaza made of two-inch thick blocks.  One of the figures resting above a fountain was of a Pierrot figure (clown) who held a tragedy mask, while the figure at the other fountain was of a Pierrette (clownette) holding a comedy mask.  In Dublin there is a statue of a woman at a fountain representing the River Shannon; the Irish call her the Floozy with the Jacuzzi.  We decided the Pierrette was Pecs’s Floozy.

We had some time before we were due back, and I wanted to find a restroom.  There was a coffee shop right next to the square; I went in there to see if they would have pity on me.  The barista spoke good if not idiomatic English.  When I asked if I could use the facility, he gave a sigh and shrug, like he couldn’t turn away an old guy, then gestured up the staircase with his chin.  I pulled out what was one dollar in the local currency and handed it to him.  For that I got an “Is good,” and a big smile.

After returning to the boat, we sailed on to Serbia.  Right before dinner, our guide Andy gave us a talk on the history of the Balkans, starting with the Ottoman Turk invasion, through the German and Italian occupations, the wars in the 1990s and in to the current state of affairs.  This was most enlightening, and I don’t see how anything gets resolved in this region.  I mean it seems they have long memories and tend to hold centuries long grudges, even if they do hold them while drinking coffee.

Day Seven

This would be a rather mixed day, because we started out in Vukovar, Croatia but would end our day in Novi Sad, Serbia.  Here is where the mixture started.

Our morning tour would take us to the church and monastery of Saints Phillip and James.  But when we entered Vukovar, one of the first things we saw was a building that looked like it had been blown to hell, and as it turned out, had been.  When the Serbs invaded in 1991, the town’s people defended themselves for eighty-seven days with whatever weapons they could get.  The fighting was street by street and house by house.  As we walked through the town, we saw some buildings that were repaired and looked as though they had never been touched while others, often sharing a wall, were still full of bullet holes and shrapnel damage.

We passed a shoe store/factory outlet of a company called Borovo, that used to employ some 23,000 workers, but now has less than 1,000.  Our guide encouraged us to look at the store and buy some shoes if we could.  She told us that unemployment here was running over 40 per cent.

The cathedralwhere we were headed sat on top of a hill that our guide referred to as the Vukovar Alps because the town is pretty much flat except for this small hill.  As we started up the hill, we passed some buildings on one side of the street that had been repaired and now housed small shops.  The upper floors on these were painted in pastel colors and were supported by stubby pillars.  All in all, the effect was more Caribbean than Baltics.  However, the buildings across the street from these were in the same style, but were still torn up with bullet holes and shrapnel gouges.  The two sides of the street presented a before-and-after picture of what this downtown area looked like, depending on when you saw it.

Just past these places, there was a building that used to be a pharmacy before the fighting. It was too damaged to use now, but the owner obviously planned to rebuild sometime. In the meanwhile, he filled the windows with flower boxes of geraniums which he kept watered so that they are fresh and beautiful.  How can you keep determination like that down?

We visited the cathedral, which has now been restored.  It is a Jesuit monastery and church; the Serbs who attacked the town were Orthodox.  Our guide told us that the Yugoslav Army had fallen apart and that the units doing the fighting were militias and that they were much better equipped and organized that the townspeople.  They expected to roll through the town easily, but the vigorous defense of Vukovar enraged them.  Their answer to the defiance was to destroy as much of the town as they could, and since he cathedral was Roman Catholic, when they left, they blew up the church.

As part of our tour, we were going to watch a film about the defense of Vukovar. On the way to the theater, we passed a small plaza holding one of the old bells, with a huge hole in one side.  This was an artifact from when the church was blown up.  In contrast, a peacock sat on top of the bell (almost an allegory of war and peace).  Further along, we walked through a garden area where large photographs of the destruction were on display and we could see the extent of the damage.

The film we saw was a short one, but it showed people fighting for their town and the mass graves that were left after the Serb militia moved out.  We wondered how people could do that to one another, especially considering that Tito had these diverse countries working together as one nation for fifty years.  One of our guides answered the question by saying that Tito died without naming an heir, but had set up a coalition to run the country instead.  It apparently did not take long for things to go to hell in a handbasket, which is the usual course for coalitions.

On the way back to the ship we passed a wall that had all the bullet holes and shrapnel gouges we had seen throughout the town.  There was a window in the wall, that is to say where a window had been, and behind the wall was a small children’s carnival.  I snapped a picture of a carousel awning through a missing window; it seemed to symbolize what we had seen during our tour.

When we were on board again we sailed down the river to a to a named Novi Sad which is in Serbia.

Novi Sad had the requisite fortress on the hill, the house with a cannon ball imbedded in it, and some lovely baroque buildings and pedestrian malls.

I hope I’m not boring readers with all those buildings, malls, and fortresses.  It’s just that the Balkans seem to have been at war since the Romans stomped through here and maybe even before that.  It is a vicious circle: unwelcome visitors create a need for a fortress, a fortress annoys the visitors enough to tear things apart.  After they leave, the local residents try to rebuild again, preparing for the next bunch of louts who pass through.

Outside Nova Sad, we visited an Orthodox monastery where we were able to listen to some of the chanting going on.  We were allowed inside the church but were not allowed to take pictures.  The entry to the monastery was through a small red building with a dome and a couple of mosaics on either side of the doors.  This gatehouse was large enough by itself for a small church.

Behind the gatehouse was a lovely park that was kept up by volunteer labor. Normally, a monastery is self-sufficient, growing its own food and keeping up with whatever work needed to be done. However, only six monks live there right now, and since the park was quite large, and so was the church, that was not enough to keep up with all that had to be done.

After visiting the monastery, we went to Sremski Karlovci, a small community about 8 km away, and in the wine producing region of Serbia.  The country was green and the low hillsides were planted with crops where there were not vineyards.  We saw small hamlets tucked in the folds of the hills, with the occasional church spire rising up.  The typical church has a tall spire rising from an onion shaped base (it seems this onion or pear shaped dome belonged to the Baroque era of architecture, there’s just no getting away from that term).

Our next stop was at the winery and bee-keeping center of the Zivanovic family where we had a chance to taste both their wines and honeys.  First though, we had a short talk given by one of the brothers, about their honey production and wine making.  Apparently, their great grandfather (I think this was right) had been diagnosed with tuberculosis and given one or two years to live.  He became interested in bees and started to raise them as something to do before he died.  The bees somehow or other kept him alive and he even recovered from the disease.

Something that I did not know was that in past times, the bee keeper had to kill off the bees in the hive to harvest the honey (I took a picture of the old fashioned kind of bee hive).  However, the ancestor of these brothers decided that he could not kill the bees that seemed to help him live.  Meanwhile, there were a couple of gentlemen who came from England, and who had developed removable frame so that the honey could be harvested without damaging the bees.  The ancestor adopted this technique, and as a whimsy, built a large hive that looked like a cathedral, even to a clock in the tower.  I also have a picture of that.

After the short talk, we went down into the cave where they stored and aged the wine in huge barrels.  The walls were lightly covered with mold and our host told us that was a good thing.  Over time, some wine leaks out of the barrelsthrough the wood’s natural pores, intensifying the flavors of the wine left inside.  The wine that is lost is called ‘the angel’s share,’ by the way, and happens with any wooden barrel aging process.  The lost wine is the reason for the mold on the walls.

Our host then took us over to a hall where we tasted the various wines the family makes.  Along with the wines, they also make a brandy that could possibly be used to power a Formula One car; tasty but, shall we say challenging.  I talked one of our party, a lovely person named Wendy, into shooting the brandy right back like tequila.  If you look through my photos you will see her.  She is the one who looks like she may never breathe again.

So, you can see what I mean by the day being mixed.  We started off the day by being reminded of the civil war and ended it with a pleasant wine tasting.

I am going to digress yet again.  This whole area and all these countries that make it up are curious.  They have so many of the same stories, the centuries of occupation by the Turks, the wars and destruction that has taken place so many times, and yet they also share a peaceful side as well.  There is a lot of Baroque architecture in every city we have visited, probably because so much was destroyed while fighting against the Ottoman Turks, and much of the rebuilding took place during the Baroque period (1590 to 1750 +).  Also, every one of the cities we have visited shares a coffee house culture.  People sit outside talking and sipping coffee, making business deals and sipping coffee, plotting political manoeuvers and sipping coffee, falling in love or planning a break-up and sipping coffee.  With all this commonality, one wonders why the Baltic countries have had so much strife that led to wars between them, and yet there it is.

 

Day Eight

 

We sailed through the night to Belgrade.  After breakfast, we took a bus ride to the Kalemegdan Fortress.  This was a large fortification, pretty much intact, that was used by both the Turks and the Serbians at one point or another.  The moat in front of the fortress is now used for tennis courts and basketball courts, a much better use I think.

The fortress has been developed as a park so it is hard to see as a stronghold.  However, while tennis and basketball courts took over one part of the moat, there were cannons and tanks from the two world wars displayed, along with a museum of Medieval Torture Devices (which we skipped), in other parts.  As we entered, we noticed that the massive iron-sheathed doors had bullet holes in them… not a good sign at any time.

I had to laugh at the dogs in the park.  There are all sorts of signs saying that dogs must be on leashes, but there were half a dozen running around, not bothering anyone, just ignoring the signs.  The dogs had tags on their ears, so even though they seemed to be operating on their own, someone was keeping track of them.  Somebody must feed them because none of the dogs seemed to be in terrible shape.

From the fortress walls, we could see where the Sava River joined the Danube.  Looking down into the town, I should have gotten some pictures of the graffiti.  There was a great deal of tagging going on, but also some real muralists.  Our local guide said that graffiti wasn’t a problem when the Soviets occupied the town… because there was no paint.

We stopped at the world’s second largest Orthodox cathedral, St. Sava.  Belgrade had its own share of destruction, and apparently the cathedral that was here before was destroyed during the civil war.  We were allowed to take photographs inside the church because the reconstruction is not finished yet. We could see the structure of the building, the domes and so forth, and where the mosaics will one day be, but for now it was an impressively large, empty structure.  By the way, there was a statue of St. Sava in front of the cathedral and he looked like the kind of guy you would not want to cross.

As the tour progressed we saw more signs of the 1990s conflict, although none as blatant as those at Vukovar.  The economy was obviously better here, although our guide did not mention the unemployment rate.  Apparently since things were better here economy-wise, the damage got repaired faster.

Because Belgrade was on a hill, we could look over fences and down into some of the yards as we walked.  I saw one yard that had a couple of cars in it, one of which had vines growing over the tires and into the wheel wells and I thought that in the US, the car would have been up on blocks.  Perhaps they had a better use for concrete blocks here in Belgrade.

Our guide pointed out places where statues of Lenin used to stand and told us that instead of being melted down, they had been put into a basement somewhere, just in case they were needed again someday.  She said that Serbians were always careful.

What more can I tell you about Belgrade that I haven’t already said a dozen times about other cities. Most of the nicest buildings were Baroque as were most of the museums, and the parks had statues of people we had never heard of.  The city was green with lots of trees along the streets and in the parks.   We had some walking round time now and so we thought about things such as broken pavement that could lead to a twisted ankle, places to sit after determining how much an ice cream cone would cost, and whether the vendors would take Euros or dollars.  We were starting to get a little tired at this point.

That afternoon, we took a drive out into the country for what was billed as a Serbian Peasant Feast at a farm house.  We were greeted with bits of bread we dipped in salt (an old peasant custom) and small glasses of plum brandy that, again, you could have used to fuel a Formula One racecar.

The patriarch of the family gave us a welcoming speech which was translated by our guide, and then handed out more brandy while his sons and grandsons played music for us.  The musicians stood on the porch, well actually the doorway of the farmhouse, surrounded by old bits of equipment, barrels and other farm stuff, and played Serbian folk songs on guitars, a fiddle and bass, and a small six stringed instrument I could not identify.  One of our group, Regina, started dancing with one of the brothers and the party was on

I tried to get Wendy to shoot the brandy back like she did before, but she wasn’t having any of it this time.  I don’t know why she didn’t trust me.

The food was excellent and plentiful, and so was the wine and brandy.  Throughout dinner, the old man kept coming around with more of those small glasses, but I ducked out after the third one because I knew at some point I would have to walk back to the bus. I did not mention it before, but both the wine and brandy were produced here on the farm, as well as most of the food we ate.

After dinner we had a pleasant ride back to our boat.  It’s amazing how pleasant things can be after a great dinner with wine and brandy… lots of brandy. There were still banks of clouds in the distance, but it didn’t rain, it just looked moody.  Along the way, we saw fields thick with poppies, bright among the green of the grasses and made even brighter by the late afternoon light.

There was a folklore show on board the Prinz that night, with four men and four women dancers.  One set performed a dance and then another group of dancers took the stage while the first changed costumes.  The show started off with fairly simple dances, but by the time it was over, the men were doing Cossack style dances, the kind where they kicked out their legs as they squatted down, as well as dances that seemed to be challenges, like who could do the more strenuous dance.  It tired me out watching them, and they didn’t even seem to be sweating.

 

Day Nine

Today would be a quiet day on board ship as we sailed by the Golubac Fortress and in to Golubac Lake.  This is the entry into the Danube Gorge, called the Iron Gates, which is the narrowest stretch of the river.  We would pass through at least two locks on our way down to Vidin, Bulgaria.  I think there were two, but again, I was napping part of the time and could have missed a lock or two

The river appeared to be moving much slower than it had been in some places, which is odd.  The walls of the canyon were starting to get higher and the passage narrower, which should have made the water flow faster, but still it seemed slower; either way it is still not blue.

The Iron Gates were amazing.  The grey limestone cliffs towered over the river and were covered with trees and greenery wherever the jagged rocks gave them a foothold.  Roads ran along either side of the Danube which is now the border between Serbia and Romania (it hasn’t always been the border, but things change often around here). The roads appeared to be very near the water on both sides, maybe just a couple of yards above the river, but that could be just the way things looked.

Tunnels had been cut through the rock wherever the cliffs were too steep to cut a road.  Because of the scale of things, the tunnels seemed to be bigger somehow than they might be otherwise, but again, this could just have been an optical illusion sort of thing.

I saw what looked like fortress ruins, but they were sticking out of the water, so I figured they must have been some sort of water feature, such as old pump houses.  Further along, we saw farms with oddly shaped haystacks on the Romanian side of the river.  The stacks were shaped like bee hives, and so tall that I thought they could be something like shepherd huts.  In fact, I tried to use my camera as a telescope to see if there were doorways or windows in the stacks, but I could see nothing.  Our guide was the one who told me they were stacks.  Later on, we passed several farms and I was able to see these things up close. I suppose my confusion about what they were stemmed from the fact that farmers here also used the roller method of gathering hay.

Here were some things that passed between myself and our guide.

me:  What are those odd things that look like bee hives or hay stacks.

guide:  Those are hay stacks.

me:  What are those things that look like fortress ruins sticking out of the water?

guide:  Those are ruins of an old fortress.

I am nothing if not perceptive.

 

There was a small white monastery with golden domes perched on a bit of land that jutted into the river.  According to our guide, there are more monks living in this small monastery than there were in the larger one we visited outside Sremski Karlovci.  Since the building was right on the water, there were boats tied up to a dock below the church.  A road passed near the church but maybe some supplies were brought in by boat as well.  Either way, there certainly was not enough land to farm and even holy men need to eat sometime.

We passed a dock next to a towering limestone wall.  There were no stairs along the cliff face and no road that approached the place so there seemed to be no reason why there should be a dock there.  Once again I asked our guide Andy what that was all about.  He told me that there was a cave where people hid out from the Turks at one time or another during the three centuries of Ottoman rule.  I have no idea what would attract people to come here now, just as I have no idea how people got here to hide from the Turks in the first place, but there were two boats tied up to the dock as a third one sailed off while I watched.  Even though the attraction had historical value, I wonder what it was that would make people boat over there.

Speaking of historical value, we passed a place where the face of Decebalus, the last king of Dacia, had been carved into the face of the cliff.  This sculpture was maybe a couple of hundred feet tall and looked like something out of Lord of the Rings.  Decebalus fought three wars against the Romans until Emperor Trajan finally defeated him and absorbed the kingdom into the Roman Empire (Dacia 1, Romans 2).  He must have been respected by his people enough that they carved his face into the stone.  Unlike at Mt. Rushmore, the carvers didn’t have dynamite or power hammers to help with the sculpting either.

Further down the river, there was a Roman monument to a general, honoring him for building a road and a bridge across the Danube in one year’s time.  Romans were good at building roads and such and who knows, the road and bridge might have been part of the wars against Dacia.

We had one more lock to go through and this time I stayed on deck to watch the proceedings.  There was a lot of graffiti on the walls of the lock, which I thought was surprising, I mean who paints graffiti on the walls of a lock?

The graffiti had been brushed on, not a sprayed.  The letters were big and several of the messages were long.  I had a vision of someone walking along the deck of a boat, painting as it dropped down.  I could see the writer bending over to start the message and almost standing on tip-toes to finish the first line before bending over again to start the next one.

Day Ten

We docked at Vidin in Bulgaria for a tour of the Baba Vida Fortress (another fortress).  The first things we noticed were Roman sarcophaguses around this place, and an odd statue in the park.  The body of the figure is made of a rust colored stone, almost like jasper, but the arms, head and shoulders were bronze.  I’m not sure it worked for me but what the hey.

The Baba Vida fortress is one of the best preserved we have visited so far. It is the only entirely preserved medieval castle in the country and was built on the site of the Roman fortification, the Castell Bononia.  At one point you can even see some of the Roman foundations.  We were warned to watch our step because some of the cobblestones were slippery, and they were.  I guess the stones had been walked on for so long that they were polished by show soles.

The background for this fortress was almost like King Lear.  A 10th century Bulgarian boyar (Sort of like a Grand Duke) had three daughters.  As he was dying, he divided his land between the three.  Two of the daughters married louts, which made his third daughter, Vida, reject proposals and remain unmarried; she built this fortress instead (the name of the fortress means “Grandmother Vida.”)  How’s that for a story.  Wonder if Shakespeare heard it and used it as a basis for Lea, it sounds like something he would have done.  Anyway, back to the tour.

The fortress had two concentric curtain walls and about nine towers, three of them were their full medieval height, while most of the original battlements were also in good repair.  We saw some early carriages for cannons, although cannons would have been added long after the fortress was built.

After our tour, we went down in to the town.  We were told Vidin was the least expensive city we would visit (for ‘least expensive’ read most depressed).  Many of the town we have visited had a drain line down the middle of main streets to shunt rain water to the river. In Vidin, there were lots of holes in this drain line, and many of the streets were generally in poor shape as well.

While we were there, we saw groups of people dressed in native costumes parading down the street.  Each group carried a banner or a sign, I suppose announcing who they were, but I couldn’t read them.  Apparently there was some sort of festival going on and these folks were headed to the main park.

Patsy and I went to a mall to get some money changed so that we could tip the guide and the driver.  This would be a problem throughout the trip, because in some places they accepted Euros and in others they did not.  After we finished at the mall, we made our way to the park where we saw the folk groups dancing.  They were doing circle dances similar to some of the Greek dances we had seen before, or maybe the Hora.  We watched that for a while until it was time to go back to the boat.

On the way to out tie up, we passed a boat named Jane Austin, and I thought “Jane Austin on the Danube,” what a great name for a book, or maybe a rock and roll band.

 

On the Kleine Prinz, we sat in the lounge with some of our new friends, sipping wine and watching the sun go down.  I got some great shots of the sun setting over the Danube.

 

Day Eleven

The next morning would find us leaving our boat and heading to Bucharest to drop off our guide, Andy, who had been with us throughout the whole trip, but now he was heading home for a while before his next tour.  Several of our other tourists were headed off to other adventures and we were now much diminished, but we persevered.

Those of us who were left went on to a town called Brasov.  Along the way, we visited Peles Castle, a former summer residence of the Romanian Royal Family.

While we were there, the rain threatened to move in again, but had not started by the time we went into the castle.  I took a couple of pictures of the outside courtyard with my phone but not with my camera because the castle/museum charged ten dollars to take pictures inside.  Besides, all I had at this point were Euros and they did not accept them here.

There were very few bannisters or railings along the staircases, and there were signs asking people to not touch the walls, but I said they had a choice with me; either I occasionally touched something to keep my balance, or they got to clean up marks where I fell down the stairs (okay, I did not say this out loud, but I thought it).  I did compromise to this extent: if it were possible to reach the other side of the staircase (these things were broad) just in case I needed to make some sort of contact, I would limit how often I touched their walls.  I don’t think I spoiled any of their paintwork.

The castle was a riot of Renaissance grandeur, including painted walls, grand staircases, life sized statues, suits of armor, and mirrored hallways. There was one large room dedicated solely to various weapons, including match-lock and wheel-lock firearms, and Turkish rifles with mother-of-pearl inlays.

There were ceramic stoves in many of the rooms, and I have always liked seeing these because they are usually elegant.  The stoves in Peles were as tall as a man and usually had blue decorations on them, either scenes painted on them or blue tiles.  The stoves were fed and cleaned through a door in a servant’s hallway behind them so that the castle residents did not have to see the grubby parts of having a cozy room to sit in.

There was a ton of things to look at, and I probably could have shot a hundred pictures in the castle if I weren’t so cheap, but there it was.

After the tour, we stepped outside and found that the rain had come down hard but passed along, so we just walked through puddles instead of getting wet ourselves.   We were forced to drink inexpensive beers while waiting for our bus.  It was a hardship, but s I said, we were a stalwart bunch.

We continue on to Brasov, a medieval resort town set high in the Carpathian Mountains.  We would spend the next day and a half here, walking around and taking one more major tour.

There was a huge open plaza in the middle of the town, at one end of which was the main feature of Brasov, the Black Cathedral.  This was a large church that had originally been Roman Catholic, but became Lutheran after the Reformation movement.  The Black Cathedral was so called because it burnt down and its walls were… well, black.

Here are some highlights we saw in Brasov:  there was a tram that took people up to the top of a heavily forested mountain.  While the mountain was not too steep, there were signs that advised people to be careful because there were bears in the woods, hence the tramway.   So there were bears just on the other side of the city walls… how interesting.

Like every other place we have visited so far, there were some very nice coffee and pastry shops facing the plaza.  I visited one and sat down under an umbrella, enjoying the view.  Surprise, surprise, I walked out and found four or five of our fellow tourists sitting there doing the same thing.  I tell you this coffee culture is catching., and yet we did not see a single Starbucks any where

We saw our first ever store-front Orthodox church.  Like most of the businesses facing the plaza it was in a line of buildings sharing a wall, and was sandwiched between two shops.  However, the front of the church had the regulation icons and mosaic work, and even had a bookstore connected to it in the next shop.

We visited a regular Orthodox church (free standing) and the graveyard next to it afterwards.  Our guide explained that it was the custom to have many people buried in the same grave, and that sometimes, after a long period of time, the skeletons were dug up and moved to another location to make room for more of the family.

In the square outside the church and cemetery, there was a statue of a soldier, a monument to all the people who have died defending their country.  It was a brave thing, but unfortunately there was a pigeon sitting on top of the soldier’s helmet. I saw four other people besides myself taking pictures of the pigeon.  I realized that if one lives long enough, and does enough to warrant a statue, one will at some time or another, host pigeons and their ah, products.

 

Day Twelve

The next morning, we toured the old city walls around Brasov before our tour for the day.  Most of the original towers were still intact and were named after the guilds that built and maintained them, e.g. the Leatherworkers Guild built one of the towers and had to provide the manpower for the tower, plus the weaponry.

After walking around the walls, we made a quick stop at the Black Cathedral.  The cathedral was closed for the first day when we got to Brasov, but was open and we joined the queue to see the interior.  Some of the walls were still black, but that could be time and weather working on limestone, not just the ancient fire.  Even though the church was now Lutheran, it still had all the niches for saint statues on the outside piers, with some of the saint statues inside them, in fact there were a couple of the old statues on exhibit inside the church.

After our quick visit, we drove to the small town of Bran in Transylvania to visit…  (can we get a little mist rolling in here, and maybe some creaky sound effects?) – DRACULA’S CASTLE.

Okay, we are just talking about one of Vlad Tepes digs.  Tepes, known to his friends as Vlad the Impaler, was just a tough customer and not some supernatural freak like a vampire.  Vlad had a strong sense of right and wrong, and an uncomfortable way of proving it.  You didn’t want to be on the outs with this guy, ever.  Our guide explained the method he used to impale people, which made me shudder (I won’t go into detail).

Bran castle is in great shape, especially considering the amount of people who were going through it on this day, and probably every other day of the week except for Sundays.  Most of the interior walls were whitewashed, and again we were not supposed to touch them, so I kept my contacts to a minimum.

The castle had been a Teutonic Knights stronghold, built by them during the 1200s, but the stupid Mongols destroyed it thirty years later (See, this is why people can never have anything nice).  There was a display standing in one corner of the room, of the white wool garments like the ones worn by the knights, with the black cross embroidered on it.

As to Vlad, he did use the castle sometimes, but he was in and out of the place during the middle 1400s.  He was a wandering sort and didn’t make this his central place.

Believe it or not, after several “takings,” including the Communist Party and later on the Romanian government, the castle has now been returned to Archduke Dominic and his sisters Maria-Magdalena Holzhausen and Elisabeth Sandhofer.  They maintain it as a private museum, but with cooperation from the government.

I took lots of pictures in the castle, including some chests because I made several period chests once, and was fascinated by the ironwork and decorations on these real examples.

There were several smaller fireplaces throughout the castle, none of which were large enough to roast an ox; these were for comfort rather than display.  We did find one built into the wall with the clean-out door in the hallway similar to the ones we saw in Peles Castle.

After our visit, we had to pass by a series of souvenir shops, and of course we had to have a tee-shirt letting people know we had visited…  DRACULA’S CASTLE! (cue the thunder roll).

Here’s an interesting thought:  Bram Stocker was an Irishman; so why did he use a castle in Transylvania?  Suppose he had used an old castle somewhere in the middle of Ireland?  I mean they have a lot of old castles around, and of course a lot of mist.  Could you maybe see an Irish vampire smelling vaguely of Guinness and saying something like “Brace yourself Bridget, I’m about to bite your neck,” and with a brogue?

On the way back to Brasov, we passed one of the highest peaks in the Carpathians, and saw a cross on top of the mountain.  I don’t know if you can make that out, but along toward the end of my photograph string you might see pictures of a mountain and wonder what I was trying to see.

That night, we had yet another tour of a wine cellar, always a pleasure, followed by a traditional dinner.  They eat a lot of pork in this part of the country, which I found interesting, because they also raise a lot of sheep.  I would have expected more lamb chops or something but nope, it was mostly pork and chicken.  (I started to wonder what they did with all the sheep, but thought better of it)

We were entertained by two couples doing folk dances.  Each time, they would come out with another set of heavily embroidered shirts and dresses and leap around like teenagers.  During the last set, they pulled some of us from the table and had us join in the dancing.  They passed over me, I suspect because they thought I might have a heart attack if they made me jump around with them.  Ah, the joys of old age.

Day Thirteen

We arrived back in Bucharest.  Our hotel had a wine store and bar in the lobby, so we naturally gravitated to that.  It had started to rain again, and we had some thunder as well.  Several of our party braved the elements to go to a highly recommended restaurant several blocks away, but Patsy and I decided to stay put with our glasses of wine in the -n-house restaurant.

I ordered a hamburger and fries (yeah, I was trying to get used to American food again).   Patsy ordered a cheese tray, and I have to say the cheeses were good, she even let me taste one or two of them.

When my burger arrived, I found that they had only braised the outside of the meat and left the middle pink.  At first I thought maybe I should send it back for a little more cooking, but then I realized they also had Steak Tartare on the menu.  If they could safely hand out raw ground meat, I guessed they could also safely offer barely cooked meat, so I chowed down.  Because the burger was so juicy, my burger kept falling apart, but I managed to end it at last.  The fries were every bit as good as those I got at home.  Big surprise, did I think French Fries were an American invention?

The rain was intermittent through the night, and so was the lightning.  A couple of times during the night, there would be a lightning flash, causing the lights in the room and the television set to come on for a moment.  It was very freaky.

 

Day Thirteen

We were on our way again.  We would fly from Bucharest to Istanbul by Turkish Airlines, and then on to New York.  As usual, Turkish was exceptional.  After we took off on our short jump to Istanbul, the flight attendants came through the cabin, offering us refreshments.  I decided to try Raki, a Turkish alcoholic drink in the licorice family along with such other drinks like Ouzo, Absinthe and Anisette.  I didn’t find the drink as strong as some of these others and did not order it again, my curiosity being satisfied.

Again, they fed us too much, and again, I ate it because, well, it was there and I wasn’t doing anything anyway was I?  They gave us packages of sleep masks, ear plugs, and so forth, plus free earphones just in case we wanted to watch a movie or something.  Remember, this was all in steerage.  Lord only knows what the first class folks go, maybe free foot rubs or something.

We were moving west and had started out during the morning, so we never did lose the day light.  However, the airline did create an artificial night time by dimming all the lights for several hours.  Someplace in here, we should probably have taken our medications and such, but our sense of time was all screwed up.

Day Fourteen

This was actually an extension of Day Thirteen, but again, we were now in the United States, in a different time zone, and generally disoriented.  We were going to fly directly to home rather than stay another day in New York.  This was a bad idea, one that I will not repeat again in the future.

The trip was grand and I’m not going to spoil it by complaining.  All in all, it was something I would willingly do again, just with some changes.  Virgin America was a nice experience, Turkish Airlines gave us grand treatment, and Delta bombed.  What can you say?

Thanks for coming along with us to the Danube.  I hope you enjoyed the trip,

 

Day One (sort of)

And the adventure started.  Mike, our ride to the airport, took us a way we had never gone before, but said it would cut out a lot of traffic. Unfortunately, a traffic light had gone out after he came to get us, and we had a delay… still no problem.  However, once we got to Tropicana Road, we found that there were new traffic cones closing down the inside lane.  Still no problem.  The signage at the airport was a little misleading, but we eventually found our way to terminal 3 with loads of time to spare.   We went through TSA with no hold ups until we got on the other side to reassemble ourselves; then there was a problem.  Patsy had set her passport down at the end of one of the baskets used to pass stuff through the TSA screening.  The passport was almost the same color as the bin liner, so when we got over to the benches, she didn’t see her passport.  Now we had a problem, especially since we would be leaving the country in a week and a half, with no time to order a new passport.

 

Now people have much to say about TSA, most of it not complementary, but two TSA people went through all the stacks of bins until the young lady helping us, spotted it.  Problem over, situation back to normal.

 

This does not sound like much of adventure until you understand that Patsy is the organized one in the family.  I spend most of my time looking and acting like an unmade bed.  If the organized one falters, the center collapses and we are doomed! Doomed I tell you, doomed… well maybe that’s a little overboard, but not by much.

 

We made it to the airport in plenty of time, in fact in m-o-o-o-r-r-e than enough time.  We were supposed to leave at 11:30, but there was an announcement that our departure was delayed due to a mechanical problem.  Just the sort of thing one wants to hear.  Anyway, after two hours, we boarded the plane, got comfortable, and waited as we taxied toward the runway.  There we sat while the airline attendant explained about the seatbelts and the air masks, etc.  Funny thing, the attendant went through all the motions while an upbeat jingle sang about what she was showing us.  It was like being in a multi-million-dollar elevator, but with seats.

 

After we learned to stay buckled up during turbulence and snapped our fingers to the catchy line about how the air mask would drop down, the captain came on the intercom and told us that the problem was indeed not fixed, and that we would go back to the terminal just as soon as they could find an entry.  Our flight was cancelled!  Bummer, although not as much a bummer as hearing the same announcement mid-way in the flight.

 

The folks at Virgin Airlines were cool and offered to put us up at Alexis Park Suites.  We decided to take then up on the deal because it would be too confusing asking someone to come pick us up at the airport, take us back home where we would have to displace Tara, our house sitter, and then have someone drive us back to the airport.

 

One consolation to all this is that we heard they had a tornado warning for Dallas, with hailstones even.  Lucky us.

 

Virgin America put us up at Alexis Park Suites and gave us meal vouchers.  Dinner was okay, nothing to write home about, but I saw ‘Beer Can Chicken’ on the list and ordered that.  Beer can chicken is prepared by shoving an open can of beer up the appropriate orifice of a whole chicken and popping it into the oven.  I have always thought it would be fun to try this, but I never have.  As I was falling asleep later on, I wondered if you could get one of those great big cans of Foster’s or Sapporo and perch a turkey on top of the can, but I could not figure out how to get the bird and beer can in our oven at home; there would not be enough room.  There must be some way of doing this though, the photo opportunity alone would be worth the effort.

 

Day Two

We got our motel reservation in Dallas taken care of but had to go through a lot of hassle to change our car rental at the airport.  I finally got that taken care of, hopefully.  We will find out should we ever reach Dallas.

 

We woke up to a very rainy day, but being in Las Vegas, we knew it wouldn’t last… sure. (Note: the weather report has us socked in for the entire day.) The storm was what Patsy’s cousin calls a frog strangler, rain so heavy and so fast that the frogs can’t get out of its way.  I don’t quite believe that, but then again, what do I know about frogs?

 

I got a text message on my phone that our flight would be delayed for an hour and wondered if that an omen.  Would we end up being cancelled again?

 

Even so, we went to the airport on faith that we would actually go this time.  As it turned out, our faith was rewarded, and we left… an hour later than we were supposed to, but we left.  Right at first, I was worried because a couple of technicians flew with us and they kept opening things and peering into them. I hoped it wasn’t anything critical, such as a computer going out, or snakes in the luggage compartment (I never saw the movie, but maybe it could happen).  As it turned out, the on-board entertainment system did not work, and that was why the technicians.

 

The flight was pleasant with very little turbulence, which was unexpected, because it was cloudy all the way to Dallas.  Patsy and I weren’t sure what to do about lunch, so we ate something at the airport.  Little did we realize they would feed us on the plane.  When it came time for the meal, we were stuffed and passed, but we did take the dessert – something called the Eton Mess.  It was a dish of lemon curd, clotted cream, a few slices of fruit, and a topping of what I thought was compressed powdered sugar.  Our flight attendant, Mark, introduced me to a new treat – chocolate chip cookies and jasmine tea.  These are best consumed at 30,000 feet in the air.

 

As I said before, the flight was more or less uneventful, which was okay with me.  I don’t like eventful flights.

 

We met Morgan and Sandee, our son and his wife, at the airport.  They had picked up a car earlier and so we were on our way.  Once again, the drive was uneventful, and again, that was okay with me.  We did stop and have a bite at a place called Zoe’s, which was a Mediterranean sort of place with a slight Texas twist.  The hummus was made with hot sauce, not paprika.

 

We stayed with Patsy’s cousin Ron and his wife Monica.  Their house was lovely, and backs up to a greenbelt, which explained what we saw from the air.  Apparently, Texas has a lot of greenbelt areas.  As we were coming into Dallas, we saw whole areas of woods (I don’t want to say forest, because that brings up other images) mixed in with the houses.  Right at first, I thought there were just a lot of golf courses in Dallas, but if all the wooded areas were courses, every man, woman and child, including homeless people, would have to play golf to justify the number of them.

 

Even with all the travel and fuss, we were still wound up, so we spent several hours talking and drinking wine until we decided it was time to get to bed.  Naturally, I couldn’t sleep, but somehow or other, it was 2:00 in the morning, and then it was 8:00.  Strange how things like that happen.

 

Day Three

We started off the morning with a great breakfast of scrambled eggs with chives, English muffins covered with sausage and cheese (see recipe below), and fresh fruit.  About the time I felt like things could not get any better, Monica produced a tray of freshly baked cinnamon rolls.  I fear my diet is out the window (yeah, like I’ve ever been on one of those).

 

After breakfast, we went to the Lindon B. Johnson Library.  I have to confess I was an anti-war student during his time as president. I was less than enthusiastic about Johnson, but looking back at all the things he accomplished, like Medicare or the Voting Rights Act, I have changed my mind.  I always thought he just completed things Kennedy started, but learning about the things he felt passionate about, in retrospect, I think he was probably one of our greatest presidents.  I will probably read more about him after we get back home.

 

We took a long drive through Austin, around to a BBQ spot down by the Colorado River.  This is not the same river we know in Nevada, Utah and Arizona, but it still shares the name.  We had a barbecue lunch, I had pulled brisket tacos.  by this time, I had consumed more calories than I normally would for an entire day, and we still had dinner to look forward to.  Oh my.

 

We went to Mt. Bonnell after lunch.  This is one of the highest points around Austin, in fact you get a great panoramic view of the city from the top.  Two things I found really great about the walk up to the top of Bonnell were the smiling faces of so many different kinds of people on the trail, young and old, men and women, grandparents and young people with lemon colored hair, and all sorts of races.  The smiles, the joy, that was what I found so great!  This was America!

 

Oh the second thing that was really great?  I didn’t trip on my way back down the path

 

Heading back to Ron and Monica’s house, we went through Austin and passed fields of wildflowers.  Monica said that Lady Bird Johnson was instrumental in reestablishing the wild flowers here in Texas.

 

Monica’s Muffins

2 pkgs English muffins (6 count each)

2 sticks softened but not melted margarine or butter

2 jars Old English Sharp Cheddar spread

1/2 teaspoon cayenne pepper

1/2 teaspoon garlic powder

dash salt

1-pound hot Jimmy Dean sausage (or Owen)

 

directions

 

Cook crumbled sausage until well done.  Drain on paper and cool.  Blend margarine, cheese and spices, the add sausage.  Place slit muffins on cookie sheet and spread with filling.  Bake in 400 deg. oven for 10 to 15 minutes.  Note: you can freeze these after spreading the muffins with the sausage mixture.  Just put the cookie sheets in the freezer until the muffins are frozen, then pop them into a Ziploc bag and they will keep for good long while.  You don’t have to thaw them to bake, just put them into the 400 deg. oven until they are nice and bubbly.

 

Day Four

This was a transitional day.  When we woke up, it had rained in the night, so things were cool and fresh.  Monica fed us some great breakfast burritos, fresh fruit, and of course cinnamon rolls (does this woman never stop?).  We took our time getting out of the house so that the rush hour traffic into Austin would be over by the time we left.

 

Ron and Monica live in an area that backs up to a greenbelt.  Apparently there are some caves with a rare insect living in them, and so the greenbelt cannot be developed.  When we look out the back door, what we see are Live Oak Trees, tall grasses, and here and there a cactus plant.  This morning, there were five deer resting in the trees behind the house. They were so close that I could have hit one of them with a rock were I so inclined (and if I didn’t throw like a girl).  Monica said that she thinks the does are pregnant and getting ready to drop fawns.  She also said that the deer in the greenbelt behind their house like to have their young near the houses, maybe as a way to protect them against coyotes. Anyway, the scene was very… what?  Should I say pastoral?   I can’t say bucolic because that refers to cows, and I think I would have been less than impressed if there were five cows in the grass behind the house.  Maybe I’ll leave it at pastoral, but whatever, it was nice to watch the deer lying down in the grass that close to the house.

 

We drove into Austin, which was a pleasant twenty-five-minute drive, and found our motel.  I believe this is the Texas Hill Country we have heard much about, a land of rolling hills covered with grass and wild flowers with stands of Live Oaks.  The country is a lot like northern California during a time of good weather.  These low hills would be good horse country because we didn’t see much to obstruct a running horse except for the occasional stream.

 

We understood that Lady Bird Johnson was instrumental in reviving the wild flowers, so applause to her.  Ron told us that this had been a dry period for them.  If so, the recent rains must have done a marvelous job, because it was green, green, green.

 

After we checked into our motel, we drove over to the Metro station and bought tickets for the Metro train and headed into downtown.  We walked around scoping things out and then had lunch at a small coffee shop before heading back.  We planned to do somethings the next day, especially since it will be the only one we will have to explore Austin before we head to San Antonio.

 

The Metro train is a sleek thing and very clean.  There are hooks on one side of the coach, where bicycle riders can hang their bikes while they ride.  I don’t know how new these trains are, but they are the cleanest we have seen in any of the places we have used trains.

 

Austin seemed to be an off-beat place.  We might have found ourselves in a gay part of town, but nothing overt, that is to say there were no cross-dressing queens out directing traffic, just people walking around, holding hands and being people.  The bulletin board in the coffee shop where we had lunch also made us think we were in the gay area; one poster advertised a Queen’s Soiree, while there were others advertising various events and openings.

 

When we went to the coffee shop and when we came back, we passed a busker on the sidewalk and both times he was hunched over next to a one-man band set-up that was covered with messages like “God is love,” and so forth.  He was eating something, so maybe he was taking a lunch break.  I hoped he would be playing on the next day, because I sort of like one man bands.  Don’t ask me why, because I also think they are corny, but there is something about them that I just enjoy.

 

Day Five

This was our day to see Austin.  We went up to the capitol and looked around.  If you have never been to Texas, the state capitol looks sort of like the Capital Building in Washington D.C., but it’s a lot smaller and tan colored rather than white.  There is a statue on top of the dome, much like the statue on top of the Capitol.  Here in Texas, it is a woman holding a star rather than the Capitol Building Statue of Freedom, who holds a wreath in her left hand and has her right hand resting on the hilt of a sword.  A surveyor’s theodolite (that thing surveyors look through that looks like a spy glass on a tripod), is set up so you can see the statue’s face.  I didn’t look through it, but Morgan did and he said that she looks surprised.

 

We passed the one-man band set-up again, and he still wasn’t plying, so maybe he was waiting until night time, when tourists would be out looking for fun.  The only busker we saw was a man who played the trumpet almost well, sitting in a doorway, but that was it. We did see some other fun things though, like a sign in front of a bar that said you can’t buy happiness, but you can buy wine, and that’s almost the same thing.

 

Like most cities that have been around for a while, Austin has a mixture of original buildings and modern ones.  We took pictures of some of the old buildings and one very tall new one that looked like an ice sculpture a clock in the middle of it.  Most of the older buildings were built with limestone, however there were also some brick mixed in there as well.  As expected, the more modern buildings used a lot of glass, I tried to take pictures of both types and will have them up shortly.

 

Meanwhile, we enjoyed a lunch at The Driskill 1886 Cafe.  I had a small salad as part of a soup-and-salad combination (see recipe below); the salad was paired up with a lovely cheddar soup.  Of course, there had to be a beer to go along with all this, so I chose a Convict Hill Stout (yes, I know I should have chosen something lighter, but I wasn’t in the mood for an IPA or a Hefe, which were the other two choices of local brews).  The stout was a nice dark color, almost like black coffee, with tones of espresso and chocolate.  So, all in all, I came from what I thought was going to be a light meal, to one that left me feeling replete.  I fear this whole vacation is going to be “replete.”

 

Salad ingredients: greens, shredded cotija (a Mexican cheese similar to feta), pepita (pumpkin seeds), roasted corn, roasted poblano peppers, bits of chicken and bacon, all dressed with a buttermilk cilantro pesto… whew, it almost wore me out listing the ingredients.

 

Dressing Ingredients

1/2 cup buttermilk

1/4 cup fat-free plain Greek yogurt

1/4 cup light mayonnaise

1/4 cup fin

4 teaspoons prepared basil pesto

1/2 teaspoon ground black pepper

 

Directions

 

In a medium bowl, whisk together all ingredients. Chill, covered, for at least 2 hours or up to 24 hours.

 

1886 Cafe and Bakery Cheese Soup

Driskill Hotel, Austin

1/4 cup butter

1/2 cup onion, minced

1/2 cup carrot, minced

1/2 cup celery, minced

1/4 cup flour

1 1/2 tablespoons cornstarch

4 cups chicken stock

4 cups milk

1/4 teaspoon baking soda

1 pound grated Velveeta or mild cheddar

1 teaspoon dried parsley

1 dash cayenne or to taste

1 dash paprika or to taste

1 teaspoon salt or to taste

1 teaspoon white pepper or to taste

 

Melt butter in a heavy saucepan. Over medium-high heat, sauté the onions, carrots, and celery until translucent and tender, about 3 to 5 minutes. Stir in flour and cornstarch. Cook about 3 to 5 more minutes. Add stock and milk gradually, blending until smooth, and reduce by 1/4. Do not allow to boil at any point. Add baking soda and cheese and stir until melted and thickened, about 10 minutes. Add parsley, cayenne, and paprika. Keep soup warm over very low heat or in a double boiler if not using immediately. Season with salt and pepper to taste. Serves 6 to 8.

 

See more at: http://www.texasmonthly.com/articles/1886-cafe-and-bakery-cheese-soup/#sthash.R07KhZNH.dpuf

 

Day Six

We started out for San Antonio, but first we waited for a while to let traffic thin out (Yes, Virginia, they do have L.A. type rush hour traffic in Texas).  By waiting, we were able to sail down to San Antonio with little to no problems, except for the changing speed limits, of course.  No speed limit was less than 60 mph, but often the limit was 75 or 80.

 

I always thought long horn cattle were something of a rarity until I saw on television, a herd being pushed to high ground in Huston during the recent storms.  So you can imagine my surprise when we saw eight or nine of these things in a field along the route.  Imagine also my surprise when we realized that the long horns were just models!  Is nothing sacred?  The statues were very realistic looking, especially with the tall grass around their feet, but when we realized that none of them had moved a muscle, we decided they were just statues… of course they could have all been stoned or something, but I don’t think cattle do that sort of thing

 

At any rate, we got to San Antonio with no problems and were able to check into our motel right away.  I have to digress here for a moment.  For some reason, I made reservations with the Red Roof Plus motel.  My reason must have been that the Red Roof was so near the Alamo and the River Walk, because the room was clean and the bed was comfortable, but there wasn’t a closet.  The only plus we saw was the staff who were always friendly and helpful.  Breakfast was not included in the fare, not even a continental one, although they did have a machine you could buy breakfast stuff from and then pop the whatever in the microwave.  We even had to pay for parking.  My reasoning was lost in time since I made the reservations back in February, but I don’t plan to stay in a Red Roof again.  Now, back to the narrative.

 

Since we arrived early enough, we went over to see the Alamo.  We learned a great deal about what prompted the battle for Texas independence in the first place.  It was apparently a struggle between a Federalist form of government and a Centrist, almost a state’s rights sort of thing.  Santa Ana overthrew the Federalists and took command of the government, which did not sit well with the Texicans (I hope I got that word right).

 

On the way to the Alamo, we passed an old hotel that had a couple of really cool chimeras tucked up above one window.  A chimera is a grotesque figure used for decorations. Some people think of them as being gargoyles, but they don’t have a drainpipe in their throats which is what makes a carved monster a gargoyle.

 

Now, on to the Alamo.  Texans take this place V-E-R-Y seriously.  I don’t know how places like Boston (site of the Boston Massacre) or Yorktown (as in Battle of) deal with their past, but you really cannot mess with Texas when it comes to the Alamo.  There is a garden area behind the mission called the Shrine of the Alamo.  I always associate the word “shrine” with a holy spot, and I’m not sure what was back there, it could have been the graves of the defenders, but I don’t know.  Like I said, Texans are very serious about their history.

 

The Alamo site is surrounded by a wall, so while I was thinking it was just the mission itself (the basilica), actually the Alamo is a large precinct.  Once you enter the site, there are two cannons mounted by the walk.  These are the first of many big guns one finds along the way.  During the fight, this whole precinct was a battle area, with cannon emplacements at every corner and strategic point.

 

The landscaping is very dense, with mature trees that were transplanted to beautify the place.  Flowers, cycads, and shrubs were everywhere.  The site is lovely; Texans seem to do dense landscaping very well.

 

In front of the mission itself, there is a plaque marking where Davie Crockett died, and a brass line that represents where Colonel William Travis drew a line in the sand and told the men that whoever would fight with him should step over the line, while anyone who did not want to do that could leave.  What none of them knew was that General Santa Ana had already given orders that no prisoners would be taken. Anyway, I think most of us have seen movies about the battle and how the defenders resisted to the last man.  An interesting thing was that some of the wives who had been in the mission, were allowed to leave after the battle. They were the ones who told about the fighting.

 

The mission basilica is a small affair, with limestone walls that have twisted pillars carved into them on either side of the main doors, and alcoves between the sets of pillars that look as though they might have once held statues of saints.  As far as missions go, it is not the most impressive one we’ve seen.

 

Jim Bowie of the knife fame had been sent to dismantle the Alamo, but realized he didn’t have the resources to remove all the cannon, so he and Travis decided they would stick it out here.  The Alamo seemed ideal because it does have thick walls, and the Mexican Army had already turned the place into a fortress of sorts years earlier for protection against Indian attacks.

 

There are also things to look at like an old well, the museum in the area known as the Long Barrack (there is even a Tennessee Long Rifle that was presented to Fess Parker on display), and the cannons, lots and lots of cannons.

 

Across the street and down a way is a huge orange/pink sculpture that I understood came from France, but I also heard came from Mexico.  Anyway, this is a four or five story flowing sculpture that rises up on two square columns and twists around at the top.  It is supposed to symbolize affection but I could see it also being an invitation to ‘get knotted, of course that’s just my sense of humor.

 

After visiting the Alamo, we went down to the River Walk.  This is really a cool place.  Imagine a river kept in a concrete channel, and surrounded by restaurants, shops and hotels The river is actually the San Antonio River, but the original river was nothing like what is there now.  Pictures of how it was before being channeled show what looked like a large creek.  However, when heavy rains came, the river overflowed its banks and became destructive. 50 people died during one of the floods and so they had to take measures to control the river. Now with dams and other flood control measures, the River Walk is very safe.

 

I think the river is about twenty or thirty feet across, but there are sidewalks and gardens all along the edge. One has to walk down stairs to get into a man-made valley, at least two stories deep, where the river meanders through.   The main part of the river has a current, but even the side branch where the tour barges load up is kept moving so there is not an insect problem.  There are ducks living on the river, and I took pictures of a heron and a cormorant (a sure sign that fish live in the water), but otherwise, the main bird down there is the pigeon.  Big surprise.  Signs ask people not to feed the animals, but that doesn’t affect what the birds themselves think.

 

We ate lunch at a place called Maria Mia.  While we were there, a couple got up from the table in front of us.  The man and woman had not even reached the entry to the restaurant when a flock of pigeons descended on the table, fighting over the scraps left behind.  The bus staff all carry spray bottles to drive the birds off so they can clean the tables.  It took several squirts to quell this feeding frenzy.  I believe it could have been hazardous to try to clean the table without using squirt bottles, the birds were that determined.

 

After lunch, we went up to a place called Villita, a place that sits above the River Walk and looks like an older town or village (Villita, Spanish for small town).  The houses are well kept and have all been converted to shops and galleries.  Patsy found a tee-shirt she really liked and bought that.  After walking around for a while, we went back to our motel.  That night, we went back to the River Walk for dinner. This is a real party place, with lots of colored umbrellas by the river side, and a whole lot of places selling drinks along the way.

 

We had dinner at a place called Michelino, right next to the Blue Agave (guess what their specialty item was there).  The meal was very good, but nothing out of the ordinary.  I had chicken breast stuffed with mushrooms, spinach, and cheese.  The menu said that the chicken was lightly breaded, but if it were any more breaded I would have had to use a kitchen knife to cut it; still it was very tasty.

 

Our son Morgan’s hair started to turn grey when he was 16, and he has since developed a lot of grey in his moustache.  When our waiter brought the check he asked if we were brothers. I immediately said yes, but that I was the younger of the two.  Well, the light was not all that bright where we sat, so he bought it.  He looked long and hard at the two of us though before I started to laugh and told him the truth.

 

I mentioned that earlier in the day, pigeons bombed the table next to us.  Tonight at Michelino, we were visited by a duck and a drake.  They were not bothered by people walking around them, so I figured they have done this before.

 

The next day would be our big day in San Antonio and we were going to pack as much into it as we could.  We have been eating so much, we skipped breakfast and just grabbed some coffee and a Danish, then headed back to the River Walk.  Birds adapt to us humans, sometimes even to the point of distain; witness pigeons in a grocery store parking lot.

 

We strolled around for a bit and then took a boat trip on the river.  This was a nice break for us, especially since my feet were getting tired.  Our guide was a young man who told us a lot about the river and what had been done to make it part of a flood control plan.  He said that the water was only four feet deep; if anyone fell in, they should just stand up and walk out.  Fat chance of my doing anything like that, I mean I’m not sure I could hike a water soaked leg four feet up a concrete bank. He is the one who told us about the fish and crawdads in the river right after I got the picture of the heron.

 

The Walk is really nice in the day time, what with all the trees and flowers.  I saw several people just sitting on some of the many benches scattered around, enjoying the peace and quiet.  At night, the place turns into party central. That’s when all the lights come on and the colored umbrellas and paper/plastic flowers are in their prime.

 

We had gone back to the Alamo gift shop to see if there were and tchotchkes we could not live without, and then back to the River Walk for lunch.  The food was good, of course all the food we had along the River Walk was good, but nothing memorable.

 

After lunch, we took a horse drawn wagon ride around town.  Our driver named Dave took us in to one of the older parts of San Antonio, where there were some very nice old houses.  We pointed out to him that many of them had a light blue color on the porch ceilings. This color was called Haint Blue when we were in Charleston, and is supposed to keep you house free from Haints (ghosts) and some insects.  I don’t know if it works or not, but again, I never saw a ghost while we were in Charleston.  (Side note: I have been told that you can order Haint Blue from Sherman Williams.  I don’t know if this is true, but it’s a nice story)

 

We stopped back at the motel for a bit to drop off things we had purchased and to refresh ourselves, then headed back to the Walk for dinner.  The night life was in full swing by the time we got back.  We saw a sign pointing the way to a place called the Lonesome Dove, which we hoped was a cafe.  As Larry McMurtry fans, we thought it would be cool to eat there.  However, on the way down there, we ran across a group of what could have been senior ladies dressed in gaudy flared skirts and decorated with flashing lights, dancing around to the very loud beat of several drummers.  The drummers, all senior men, were dressed in white pants and red Hawaiian shirts.  There was a dental convention in town and I suspect that was what the drummers and the dancing ladies were all about.

 

It was hard to find a place to eat, but that’s the way it is when there is a convention in town.  We finally strolled into a place called Rio Cantina.  I had a plate of mixed enchiladas and a 210 Ale from Busted Sandal Brewing Company. The ale was nice and light with a good head which worked down into a lace that stayed until most of the ale was gone.  It went well with the enchiladas.

 

Day Seven

We were on the road to Dallas again the next morning because we all had to fly out the next day.  I had one of my “a-ha” moments when we were about half way to Dallas.  It seems as though the closer you get to San Antonio, the more Mexican oriented the food, but the closer you get to Dallas, the more barbecue places you see and the less Mexican.  Interesting.  Oh, and we saw the fake long-horns again, and they still hadn’t moved.

 

This about the end of the Texas part of our adventure, but there is one more thing I have to mention.  We had dinner that night in a place called “Bombshells,” a sports bar sort of place that has aspirations to be another Hooters.  There were way too many scantily clad waitresses, most of whom hung around with each other talking and laughing.  The burgers had names like “Gung-Ho” and other military sounding names.  I had a burger that I misunderstood what they were talking about.  It said that the burger was between two toasted cheese and bacon sandwiches.  Now logic told me that they would not have full toasted cheese and bacon sandwiches on either side of the burger, but logic lied.  That is exactly what it was; the bread was Texas toast sized on top of everything else.  I stripped off most of the extra bread and kept the bacon and the burger but that was probably enough to clog an artery anyway.

 

So, that pretty well sums up the Texas portion of our adventure.   The next installment will be about New York City.

 

New York, New York

Day One

We got to our hotel in Koreatown and found our room.  For those of you who have followed the Logs for a while, you may remember that the hotel we use is squashed between buildings that house Korean BBQs, Asian food places, and oddly enough, what I think are Vietnamese French bakeries.  The reason why I think they are Vietnamese is that the French had nothing to do with Korea and the Chinese didn’t seem to have much affection for the French when we were there last year, so that left the Vietnamese.  The bakery goods are definitely French in character, with baguettes, croissants, and all manner of other good things.

They fed us pretty well on Virgin America Airlines so we weren’t very hungry.  Instead of going out to dinner, we went up to the fourteenth floor bar for a glass of wine and a beer (Patsy had the wine, I had the beer, we did not mix them together).  The motel backs up to the Empire State Building.  From the upstairs bar, it just looks like another apartment or building because we cannot see past the first level of floors.  When we were here the first time, we asked the bartender where the Empire State Building was and he just pointed up. We weren’t impressed then until we went out the next morning and found he was telling us the truth.

The ESB has several setbacks if you will, lower blocks that then are topped off with a floor or viewing area before the next block of floors, narrower than the ones just before, climb higher.  On this particular night, we could see part of the mast and antenna on top of the building but else past that first block of floors.  The mast and antenna had red and yellow lights pulsing upward; I have no idea why, nor do I know if this is a regular thing.  We will go back up to the bar to find out, in the name of accuracy of course.

Day Two

The big event for today was a Broadway play called “Something Rotten,” a musical about the Bottom Brothers who are overshadowed by the ‘rock-star’ of the day, William Shakespeare. I’m not going to give the whole thing away, but at some point, the playwright brother writes a musical based on the Black Plague, and then one based on “Omlette.”  Needless to say this is a funny play

We took the subway up to Time Square and walked to the theater.  We wanted to have lunch before we went to the see the play, so we stopped in at a place called “Carmine’s.”  Our waiter, Ivan, told us not to eat too much of the bread on the table because the portions were big.  We ordered a family style (one dish we could share) Mixed Pasta, the specialty for the day.  When Ivan brought us our food, we realized we were about four people short of having enough to eat all that was on the tray.  We had spinach ravioli, Manicotti, lasagna, and my own favorite, Spaghetti Bolognese.  We ate as much as we could but since we were headed to the theater there was no way we could take a doggy bag with us.  I hope someone got to finish off the plate, because otherwise it would be a real waste.

 

I understood there was a rash of people at Time Square, wearing nothing more than thongs and body paint, ready to pose for a snapshot with tourists. I had seen some pictures of a couple of lovely young ladies who were painted up to look like Wonder Woman, but didn’t see anything like that at all… no matter how hard I looked.  I think the whole thing was just a scam.

Anyway, we walked back to the subway after the play and got back to the motel in good order.  On the way, we picked up a couple of Chinese style buns – the kind with the stretchy casing; Patsy had the pork bun while I had chicken curry. After the size lunch we had, that was enough for dinner.

I should say something about walking in New York.  It is a very walkable city, offering so much to look at as you pass.  The only way I can describe the foot traffic is that it is competitive, relentless, and much like Brownian Movement of particles but without the collisions.  We experienced the same sort of thing in India and in China and it seems to work.  There are even people who walk down the street looking at their phones and not at the other pedestrians, and yet who make it down the street without running into other people.  I sure couldn’t do that, I tend to trip over things like bumps in the sidewalk, driveway dips, dogs lying across the pavement, you know, the things other people never notice.

 

Day Three

Today we were consummate tourists, complete with a camera hanging from my neck.  We decided to take a tour around the harbor to see the Statue of Liberty and Ellis Island.  Somehow or another, I thought we were going to have a chance to get off the boat at the statue and look around, but once I saw how many people were on the boat, and how many people were already on the island and how the lines visitors stretched out around the base, I realized that was not going to happen.

We close to both Ellis Island and the statue, along with at least 500 Asian who were on the boat with us and who all wanted the same picture at the same time I did… ok, maybe not that many, but there were a lot.

After we got back to the terminal, we walked down to Bowling Green Park and then to the museum across the street.  By this time the wind had picked up and I got a pretty shot of tulips bending.  The museum featured exhibits of Native American Art.  We did not know it at the time, but it was apparently the Museum of Native American Art and Archives.

I took a picture of a statue next to the banner announcing the exhibit, depicting a European looking woman sheltering some figures wearing feather head-dresses.  There seemed to be some irony in the woman sheltering the figures behind her, considering the role of Europeans in the lives of American Indians. Actually though, I think the statue just copied the statues at the base of the Albert Memorial in London, where the people of the world are all sheltered by allegorical female figures.

Dinner that night was at one of the Vietnamese places.  We had small, flaky flatbread sandwiches and creampuffs the size of Big Macs.  Yum.

 

Day Four

This would be our last day in New York.  We would head out to Vienna by way of Istanbul the next morning.  We decided to go looking for Greenwich Village and SoHo because we had run into those places in literature and we wanted to put place images to the names.  We almost went to Bleecker Street however we decided to skip any sorrows today (sorry you Rod McKuen fans, but there it is).

 

We made our way to Washington Square Park and then walked around the area.  Nothing really jumped out at us while we were there.  I mean there were the rows of houses, the trees on the sidewalks and most of the same things we had seen uptown.  The buildings were not as tall, but that was about it.

As expected, there was a statue of George Washington at the front of the park.  Patsy and I sat on a bench for a while and realized there was another smaller statue facing the street in front of us.  I said I thought it might be Billie Washington, George’s ne’er-do-well brother.  Instead it turned out to be the Marquis Lafayette.  Oh well, so much for guessing.

 

We had lunch at a place called the Halal Guys, and had what they called a Gyro bowl, which was pretty much what would go into a gyro but chopped with a couple of slices of pita bread.  The man behind the counter, one of the Halal Guys, asked if we wanted hot sauce on our bowls, and we said yes.  He warned us that it was hot.  When we tasted it, the sauce was mostly habaneros, but not as hot as some of the sauces we have had.  The cashier behind the counter was laughing at us right at first, but when I identified the pepper, she started laughing with us.

Once upon a time, we had a hot sauce that was murder, and I was suffering.  I took a drink of sweet tea to cut the heat, knowing full well that sort of thing doesn’t do any good, it just puts the pain off for as long as the water or whatever is in your mouth.  Suddenly, the sauce didn’t hurt as much, so I tried an experiment: take some of the sauce on a nacho and feel the heat, then sip the tea and feel the heat drop.  It worked.  Since then I have learned that sugary drinks cut the effects of peppers.  At the Halal Guys, we were drinking sweet drinks that did the trick with the habaneros

After satisfying ourselves that there was nothing outstanding about Greenwich Village, and that probably what we were looking for had disappeared sometime in the last century, we headed home. However, there was a sculpture of some sort on the face of a building, a round, clock faced sort of thing with a beam of gold shooting out of the center toward the bottom.  I asked several people what the sculpture represented but nobody had an answer.  There was a counter next to it, adding up to a very large number.  I suspect the counter was of the earth’s growing population, so maybe the sculpture was to warn us that time is about up and we should be hoarding gold or something.  I mean, nobody else knew what the sculpture was, so we were free to apply our own interpretation.

Dinner that night was at the Belgian Beer Cafe.  This is the kind of dark wood and glass that attracts business people to stop by after work.  Beer was the main attraction, naturally, and there were several different kinds of glasses for the beers.  I have no idea what beers went with what glasses, other than my beer came in a heavy glass much like a Manhattan glass but larger.  My beer was a Hoegaarden Witbeir, a wheat ale with a slight orange flavor with a coriander overtone.

Patsy had a Yellow-Fin Tuna salad, with large slices of the fish, lightly braised.  We made a joke about the greens being shiny side up kale, because we once read a recipe that said to use only the shiny sided kale, as if there is such a thing. I had a seared scallop about the size of a hockey puck with a dash of light flavored pesto on top of it.  The vegetables were miniature ramps (members of the onion family) with purple cauliflower, small mushrooms and a touch of black truffle sauce.  I do not have the recipe for tis, nor do I plan to try to make this at home.

For dessert, Patsy had a Belgian waffle covered with strawberries and chocolate, and topped off with whipped cream.  My dessert was an apple crepe.  The crepe had a lemon taste to it, and was topped off with a scoop of ice cream and a dollop of whipped cream on top of that.  Again, while they are fairly straight forward, I do not plan to make either of these desserts at home.

Of all the pictures I have taken on this trip so far, the one that I should have gotten but didn’t was of a sidewalk vendor. These folks have everything from pushcarts on steroids to things that look like they should be mounted on a truck bed.  The vendors sell breakfast stuff, hot dogs and sausages, full meals in some cases (both regular and veggie), and let’s not forget the tee shirts, sunglasses, $25.00 Cartier watches, et cetera.   You name it and someone has a cart/stand/box selling it.  I wanted to try to get a picture of one of these setups right before we left or at least one of these sidewalk entrepreneurs, but it was too late.  We had to move on the airport for our flight to Vienna.

 

Off to Vienna

Since we were going by Turkish Airlines, we had to pass through Istanbul in the same way that if you fly American Airlines, you will pass through Dallas/ft. Worth at some time or other. I have always been interested in Istanbul and hoped I could see something of the city out the airport windows.

It took us nine and a half hours to reach Istanbul from New York.  We had a two-hour layover before we headed out to Vienna.  Since we got there at night, we didn’t see anything except for lights so the only thing I can tell you about the place is that it looks a lot like any other airport.

By the time we landed, we were trying to maintain some sense of normality while being hampered by a lack of sleep.  We had not rested the night before because we were worried about oversleeping and missing the airport shuttle.  Now we were in a foreign country, feeling a little rocky from almost nineteen hours without reasonable sleep, just some uneasy dozing on the flight.  We were not sure when we were supposed to take our meds and we had other concerns on our minds so I can’t report anything more.  At least we had aisle seats on the airplane and did not have to crawl over other people to stretch our legs.

We knew nothing about Turkish Airlines before and were not sure what to expect.  We were pleasantly surprised because even though we were in steerage, there was ample legroom, entertainment, and they even gave us warm towels and free booze.  We ate far too much but what can you do?   We were just sitting there with nothing else going on anyway, they brought us food, we ate.

 

I watched a movie called The Woman in the Van, starring Maggie Smith, which was billed as a “mostly true” story.  But other than that, I dozed, got up to walk occasionally, and tried not to think about what it meant to be flying way too far above the ground with an outside temperature that Jack London could appreciate when he was in Alaska. The monitor on the screen said that the temperature was a balmy -58 degrees; London said that you could tell when it was below -70 because when you spit, it would freeze before it hit the ground.  I don’t know what would happen at a mere -58 and I wasn’t likely to find out.

Day One

We eventually got to Vienna and had a leisurely drive through the city to our boat, the Little Prince, or Der Kleine Prinz.

The rest of the day was billed as leisure time, but we took the opportunity for a nap.

Our craft was named Der Kleine Prinz (the Little Prince) and was a long and narrow boat.  If you have seen any commercials for Viking River Cruises (and who hasn’t), the Prinz is like one of those boats only smaller.  The cabins all have a window overlooking the river or the dock, depending on whether we were sailing or tied up for a land tour.  This meant that often one did not walk around au-naturale with the curtains open.  The Prinz was built in the late 1950s in East Germany, and we had read some reviews that mentioned the age of the vessel, but even so, it was in good repair and comfortable.

Our cabin had twin beds, two small closets, and a tiny bathroom that included a shower with no enclosure to it for me to step into when I got up at night to attend an old man’s needs.  I got the hang of avoiding the shower after the second or third time I missed the turn toward the porcelain objective and stepped on the non-slip pad.

Let me tell you right now, the Danube was not blue, it was more of an olive green color in the daylight. I think the reason why is that the river has a strong current, therefore carries a lot of silt, so it could never look blue.  That said, our guide told us that the word ‘blue’ also refers to being drunk, and that maybe Strauss had that in mind when he wrote the waltz. I would go along with that suggestion.

The Danube is the second longest river in Europe, but don’t ask me which is the longest.  It is quite broad and carries a lot of shipping traffic as well as tourist boats.  Where there are not picturesque cities and towns, the river is bordered by forests.

Day Two

After breakfast, we had a bus tour of the Vienna.  Patsy and I were sufficiently recovered so that we looked forward to seeing this city so much associated with Mozart.

During the tour our guide spoke to us over little receiver/earphone devices. They were a great help and allowed me to hear what was being said even when I dawdled behind the group to take a picture.  Patsy didn’t care for them because they would not stay hooked over her ear.

Vienna was like a Baroque pastry, with all the decorations and embellishments one expects when the word Baroque is mentioned.  The Theaters and museums were of the Baroque style (think Greek looking buildings with pillars) while much of the downtown was probably Beaux Art (think banks with carved wreathes of flowers or of laurel leaves with faces looking down from around the window and doorways).  Naked bodies lounging on the buildings or holding up something were pretty common too, more than you could shake a stick at.  If you are a Terry Prachett fan, you might remember that constable Knobby Knobbs said you can tell a naked statue is art rather than something embarrassing because there were urns nearby.  Well, there weren’t all that many urns around, but there were a lot of stone canopies and other things to be held up, so maybe those took the place of urns.

There was a great deal of grey color because so many of the buildings were stone, but there were also trees along the boulevard that soften what might otherwise be a hardscape.

A lot of the aforementioned figures on the buildings and in fountains were naked ladies and I came to the realization that ideal Baroque, Beaux Art and indeed Art Nouveau women packed an extra fifteen to twenty pounds over what we like to think are “ideal women” today.

Not all the architecture was of the 19th century however.  Some buildings were destroyed during the Second World War and replacements were thrown up in a hurry.  Many of these newer structures were in areas governed by the Soviets and are mud-fence ugly.  On the other hand, some replacements showed an interest in trying something new. For instance, we saw one building that had a sloping glass front.  We thought that was an odd shape until our guide pointed out that the name of the company owning the building started with a “q.”  When seen from the side, the building had a ‘q’ shape to it.  Good thing the company name didn’t start with a ‘z.’

During the late 19th century or possibly the early 20th, an artist named Friendreichs Hundertwasser was asked to provide some ideas to improve parts of town.  He came up with a bright color palette for some apartment buildings with clever tilework for interesting touches.  Hundertwasser thought that everyone had the right to a window they could lean out of and scrape away the paint as far as they could reach, then paint whatever color or design they wished.

Vienna incinerates their trash, and Hundertwasser designed the facility for them.  So now the smokestack of the incinerator looks like a multi-colored lollipop or something from the Watts Towers.

We took a tour of the Schonbrunn Palace that afternoon (Baroque).  Schonbrunn was the summer home of the Hapsburgs, based on the palace at Versailles, but on a smaller scale because the ruling family had to cut corners to save money.  In fact, our guide said that the Emperor wanted to redesign the palace, but that would be expensive. Instead, he made the architect the Royal Architect, which was a plum appointment at the time, and then ordered him to redesign the place.  One saves money as one can.

A little bit of interest, the entryway of the porte-cochere is paved with blocks of hard wood so that the horses and carriages would not make so much noise when they pulled up.  The wood blocks are still in good shape.

Inside, the mirror rooms in the palace were white and gold in the Baroque style (almost Rococo {like Baroque after too much Schnapps}), plus some Chinoiserie (Chinese style) rooms.  There was one room dedicated to a “Royal Bed,” that looked bigger than a king-sized bed, with curtains and a carved headboard.  However, this was not used for sleeping, just for the presentation of new-born royal babies.

While the palace was used by other members of the Hapsburg family, Schonbrunn is most often associated with Empress Maria Theresa.  She was a powerful woman, and even though she was married and had sixteen children in a twenty-year period, she kept the power and did not permit her husband, Francis Stephen, to take over her authority.  In fact, there is a painting of the royal family with the empress, about six or eight kids, and Francis Stephen.  The artist shows the husband resting his arm on a chair, pointing a finger toward Marie-Theresa while she has her right hand raised with her index finger pointed toward herself.  No question who wore the pants in that family. The portrait was painted while the Empress was carrying a daughter who would in time be named Marie Antoinette.

After visiting the palace, we returned to the ship for dinner.  That night, we attended a concert at the Auersberg Palace/Borse/Arsenal Hall (don’t ask me what Borse means or why the palace should be listed as Arsenal Hall) put on by local musicians.  The hall (Arsenal Hall perhaps) for the performance was a small one, probably for about four or five hundred people tops.  Even though the walls were marble and the ceiling was high, the sound was excellent.  There were many oval windows set high in the walls and a decorative frieze ran below them showing, for some reason, a lot of wrestlers.  There were also many faux marble pillars that projected from the walls at intervals.  All these things seemed to be enough to break up the echoes that would have otherwise made this small space unusable.

While a baritone sang a song in German, I had a sudden realization that once upon a time this room had been filled with Nazi officers and their wives.  It made sense because this facility has been in use since the nineteenth century and the Nazis ruled Vienna during the war.  There is no particular point to my saying this, it was just an odd thought that went through my mind at the time.

A gentle rain had been falling all day and into the night.  We fell asleep to the sound of the rain, and only woke up a couple of times when I thought there was thunder, although that could have been my snoring.  There was also the sound of the boat passing along the river that sounded like someone was draining a bathtub, but except for that and the aforementioned thunder, there was little to disturb our sleep

Day Three

We sailed to Bratislava during the night.  Bratislava is in Slovakia, which was once part of Czechoslovakia until the breakup of the nation. Our tour guide told us the reason for the breakup was that there were people who wanted power, and since there could only be one prime minister in a country, the answer was to make two countries.  She said the division was made without a referendum to the people even though the country was a democracy.  It makes you wonder, doesn’t it?

 

A nice tree lined walking mall also held several stalls selling knick-knacks and snack items (one even specialized in honey and honey related products).  There were also loads of coffee shops and cafes under the trees and it would have been nice to sit there, but our time was limited and so we just looked and enjoyed the scene.  As we would learn along the tour, hanging around coffee shops is common here in the Baltics, our guide referred to this as a coffee culture.

Some of the walks in the mall were made of black and white blocks that formed curving patterns under the trees, making the scene even more interesting.  I should mention that in many of the cities we would visit had this same kind of walk made up of two-inch thick stone blocks.  While they were nice to look at, we also had to watch out for missing blocks or ones that were not level with the rest; it would have been easy to twist an ankle and ruin the walking parts of our vacation.

Brataslava was full of older buildings, but also had newer ones built after World War Two.  Some of the older buildings had cannon balls in the walls, dating from when Napoleon laid siege to the town.  During the siege, he used artillery as part of the offense and many of the buildings still had cannon balls embedded in them after the battle.

Our local guide told us that at some point, there was a tax break for those who kept the balls in place and just repaired the building around them.  She said that after a while, cannon balls started to appear where they hadn’t been seen before.  She pointed out one house that had such an embellishment and told us that it would have been impossible for the cannon ball to have come from Napoleon’s artillery because it was about 180 degrees away from the front lines of the siege.  I guess it could have been a ricochet, but probably not.

Speaking of interesting, there was a plaque on one of the houses, showing a man with a red hood over his head.  Our guide told us this was the traditional home of the town executioner.  It seemed to me that if you were going to advertise that this was where the executioner lived, why did he need the hood?

Further down the street was another oddity; a house where there were chimeras (those things again) over the doorway.   This was once a place where an alchemist lived and these were supposed to be portraits of the demons that helped the alchemist do his work.

We visited St. Martin’s Cathedral, a 14th Century Gothic church.  The cathedral was made of buff-colored sandstone, with the usual allotment of saint statues and allegorical animals that any self-respecting cathedral should have.  I especially liked the figures of dragons around the entry, but did not see a St. George anywhere near them and wondered why.

I found several examples of the Green Man in the main entry way of the church.  The Green Man is a decorative element from the Middle Ages, and is one of my favorite things to look for in churches from that time.   The figure is most often a face, but sometimes the rest of the body as well, combining humanfeatures with foliage (there were also green animals, but these were rare).  No one ever wrote down why they carved these on all sorts of places in cathedrals and so no one knows much about them now.  They must have made sense at the time, because everything in a cathedral was supposed to instruct the illiterate church goer.

There is a theory that the Green Man might have been a pagan symbol and that some of the stonemasons might have been closet pagans (assuming stonemasons had closets), but again, who knows.

Now back to the cathedral.  Sandstone is not as durable as limestone or brick, the other common building materials in this part of the world, which means that it needed extra care.   There were scaffolds on part of the church used in cleaning to clean the walls and to make any necessary repairs.  In fact, scaffolds were usually raised on some part of every cathedral and most of the public buildings that we saw in every city we have visited so far.

During the time of the Soviet occupation, nothing was done to clean up the air or the environment; soot stained the walls of all the buildings.  Now that Slovakians are free, the government is working to restore things, but it takes time.  I don’t know that the government was in charge of cleaning St. Martin, but considering its importance to tourism, it might have been.

A large white fortress sat on the hill overlooking the town.  We were in the foothills of the Carpathian Mountains which means there were a lot of hillocks.  There were a lot of uphill streets we had to climb. The fortress was a big square pile, one of those places where the Hapsburgs lived. I think Princess Elizabeth was the most notable person who lived there, she who was called Cissy, and who in modern times has been compared to Princess Diane because she was very popular with the people.

The gates in front of the fortress had displays of different kinds of arms and armor on pedestals that covered a range from Roman armor with swords and shields through to a helmet dressed with a turban (the Turks, don’t you know) and ending up with a broad brimmed hat trimmed with feathers and perched over a simple breastplate. The Turkish armor and the broad hatted one also sit above cannons and guns.

An interesting thing: there are two matching walls with gates set on either side of the courtyard in front of the fortress; the armor displays sit on top of the walls.  What is funny is that the left set of gates allow entry from the town to the courtyard where the coaches and carriages would arrive, while there is just a drop-off behind the right set of gates.  Of course you cannot tell this just by looking, but those gates are unusable.  The Baroque mindset liked balance and so there had to be a second wall with gates even if they didn’t do anything.

 

We passed a funny, I was going to say statue, but since it was lying on the sidewalk, I called it ‘street art.’  The object in question was of a man, full sized and cast in bronze, crawling out of a manhole in the pavement. There was a street sign above it saying “men at work,” but the locals say that the character isn’t working at all, just looked up ladies’ dresses.

 

Brataslava was one of our briefest visit, because we were only there for half a day.  When we returned to the ship there was a wine tasting scheduled to entertain us while sailing to Budapest.  It had been cloudy all morning and we had a bit of rain.  However, in the afternoon, the sun came out, although banks of grey clouds were off in the distance.  A group of swans were swimming along the shore as light glittered off the river.  There is some sort of poplar tree in bloom so that bits of what looks like cotton were floating in the breeze.  The combination of the grey clouds in the distance, the swans, the sun glinting off the water and the bits of drifting cotton made it feel as though we were sailing in a dream.  Of course it could have been the wine as well.

 

Day Four

 

We woke up in Budapest Hungary.  This is one of the most Baroque cities that we have seen so far, maybe not more so than Vienna, but the effect is more bunched together.

One of the main attractions is the Square of Heroes, which has a great concert hall and a museum on either sides.  In the center of the square, there is a tall column topped by a victory figure, with statues of early Hungarian heroes gathered around its base.  At the back of the square are two curved arcades with more life-sized statues of famous Hungarians, including St. Steven, the first Christian king of the Magyar.  Allegorical figures of peace and war stand on top of the arcades.  The square is not as large as Tienamin Square in Beijing, but it is just as impressive in its own way.  (Side note: both squares have had tanks in them at one time or another.)

We had an afternoon excursion through Pest, then over the Elizabeth Bridge (yes, Princess Cissy, who will appear again at some point in this narrative), and up the hills into Buda.  The two parts of the city are divided by the Danube River.  Seven bridges crossed the river, all of which were destroyed during the Second World War.  The Elizabeth Bridge has been the only one restored to its original appearance.

We had a great view of the city including the impressive Baroque parliament building across the river in Pest.  (A snide observation: words don’t always have the same meaning in different languages, but doesn’t Pest seem to be an appropriate place for a parliament?)

 

That night we enjoyed a concert by the Hungarian State Folklore Ensemble.  The performances included music and authentic dances from across Hungary. The musicians included two hammered dulcimers, each about the size of a baby grand piano.  During a solo by one of the dulcimer players, all the lights on stage and in the theater were turned off, but he continued to play without missing a beat.  If you have never seen a hammered dulcimer, picture the stringboard of a piano exposed and played by striking the strings with long, thin wands.  I have never played one of these things although I have known people who have, and it seems to me that you would need at least a little visual clue as to where things were.  But what do I know; the soloist was so sure of himself that he finished the piece without seeing the strings.

On the way back to our boat, the local guide took us through the city, around the Square, across the Elizabeth Bridge, and into the hills overlooking Buda. The view was lovely and would have been even more exciting if we had been warned ahead of time that we would make this drive.  A water closet would have greatly improved the adventure, still it was lovely.

 

Day Five

We had some time to go back to the city before the afternoon’s events.  One of the events we could not miss, of course, was lunch. They feed us quite well and we will have much penance to perform once we are home.  In China, we had a young lady who was our ship-board waitress and took care of us; I called her our “Coffee Goddess.”  On the Little Prince, the role was filled by a waiter named Sava (our “Coffee God”) and a bartender named Kristina (our “Beer Goddess”), both of whom made our days go smoothly.  Kristina helped me out with the on-board computer; it had several odd keys that had accent marks over some letters, while familiar things such as the ‘at’ sign were in different places on the keyboard.

 

After our over-indulgence, that was our lunch, we drove out to the Lazar Lovas Puszta horse breeding farm where we were greeted with small glasses of brandy and bite sized cakes like empanadas.  We watched a performance by the Czikos (Hungarian Cowboys) and their horses. The Czikos were dressed in blue skirts that hung down past the tops of their tall boots, black vests, and a round hat with a curled brim that looked like a cross between a Stetson and a tri-cornered hat. When the cowboys were up on their horses, the skirts acted like chaps, also they looked kind of cool.

 

We’ve seen some amazing things with Mexican rodeos, but this was something else again.  First of all, the cowboys all carried whips which they kept cracking around the horses.  Horses are notoriously skittish and yet they were not upset by the almost continuous snapping noise.

 

The cowboys made all their horses bow to the crowd, kneel, and eventually lie down on their sides.  The announcer told us that the cowboys used to sleep on their horses, at which time one of them stretched out on his recumbent mount; the horse did not even roll its eyes.  Another cowboy had his horse sit up on its haunches.  He then pulled one of the horse’s legs forward and sat on it as a chair.  This really surprised me because I think horses are very protective of their legs.

Another horseman came galloping down the field and shot arrows into a target as he rode past.  All the arrows were within an eight-inch circle.  I was impressed because I couldn’t put several arrows into that kind of cluster unless I stood in front of the target and inserted them manually.

 

Our guide on the bus told us that the cowboys did not use saddles because they had to be able to ride away quickly if attacked.  The archer had definitely stood up when he shot, and I had seen the rest of the cowboys using stirrups so I figured I had misunderstood the guide.  But what we saw when the horses were standing up again, was that the riders had a large oval-shaped piece of leather with stirrups attached, but without a framework or cinches.  Each rider threw the piece of leather over the horses’ backs, grabbed a bit of mane, and swung up as though mounting bareback.  Their feet slipped into the stirrups and they were riding off almost immediately.

 

The show continued with various displays of horsemanship.  At one point, a woman representing Princess Cissy (yup it’s her again.  Apparently she was known as an excellent horsewoman), came riding out with a sidesaddle and did various maneuvers with her horse, including standing with all four hooves on a narrow beam.

 

After the show, we took a ride around the farm on an oxen drawn cart and then visited some farm animals in their pens.  One of the interesting animals we saw was a goat with long curly horns.  Normally goats are friendly animals, enjoying a scratch under their chin, but not these.  Their main purpose in life seemed to be biting the hand nearest them.

There were the usual suspects when you visit what was essentially a petting zoo.  We saw Giant Checkered Rabbits (about the size of a beagle), more of the chickens with the feathery legs, and a sow with her piglets.  I don’t know how many of us have seen a sow up-close, but it was easy to see she didn’t have a great temper.

After the show, we made our way back to the boat, once again going around the Square of Heroes.  Because of the compact nature of Pest, it was hard to get around without passing the Square.

 

Day Six

 

We docked in Mohac, Hungary and took a tour into the town of Pecs (pronounced pesh or posh, or someplace in between).  I don’t have much of an ear for language), a place that has been inhabited since the 2nd Century.  Our guide for the day told us that a famous battle was fought near here when the Ottoman Turks were on their way to Vienna.  We were only there for half a day, but we bought some chocolates and had gelato cones.  While those were nice, they were not the highlight of the morning, which would be the cathedral.

We visited the local cathedral and saw the palace of the Archbishop.  (Side note:  although there was an archbishop there, the coat of arms over the doorway were of a cardinal.  Who knows, maybe the top dog in the area was both.)

We had a short organ recital in one of the most ornate churches/cathedrals you could imagine. Everything was highly decorated, and I had a feeling that if you stood too long in one place, you might get a coat of paint or gold leaf.

The town was occupied by the Ottoman Turks for about a hundred and fifty years, during which time they used the cathedral as a storehouse, a stable for horses and otherwise left it to fall into disrepair.  Over the century and a half or so, after the Ottomans were driven out, the church has been restored to its former glory.  It is almost overwhelming in its ornateness.  There were frescos on the walls, the ceiling, and any place that could be reached.  Even under the church where the bishops were entombed was highly decorated.  I have a photograph of saints over the stairway leading down to the crypt.

Along with the tombs of former archbishops, there were also some very detailed bronze models of the cathedral, about the size of something you could set on a coffee table.  These were for blind visitors to feel what the outside of the church looked like. There was no way they could have represented the frescoes in relief, but I thought that was rather a cool idea anyway.

After the organ recital, we were supposed to see the Roman catacombs (I know this is dumb, but I feel like I need to say all catacombs are underground.  These had a glass ceiling over them, and a walkway so that we could look down into them).  They weren’t open to us this day and we went down into the town instead.

Between the cathedral and Széchenyi Square, there was a large building with a huge green dome. This used to be the mosque of Gázi Kászim pasa.  We didn’t go inside, but my first thought was that any decorations would have been things like calligraphy or geometric designs, since Muslims generally do not favor representations of living things.  I forgot that this was now a Catholic church and would have been as highly decorated as the cathedral.  Oh well, we were getting overwhelmed by all the art work and wonderful buildings anyway, so missing out on one did not matter that much.

The outside walls of the mosque/church were dressed stone, pierced with windows that had colored brick arches over them.  The building sat at an angle to the square in front of it because it was oriented toward Mecca. (That last bit may also not have been necessary, but I thought I should mention it.)

Further into the town, Patsy and I walked past a theater that had two fountains in front of it as well as a swirling black and white plaza made of two-inch thick blocks.  One of the figures resting above a fountain was of a Pierrot figure (clown) who held a tragedy mask, while the figure at the other fountain was of a Pierrette (clownette) holding a comedy mask.  In Dublin there is a statue of a woman at a fountain representing the River Shannon; the Irish call her the Floozy with the Jacuzzi.  We decided the Pierrette was Pecs’s Floozy.

We had some time before we were due back, and I wanted to find a restroom.  There was a coffee shop right next to the square; I went in there to see if they would have pity on me.  The barista spoke good if not idiomatic English.  When I asked if I could use the facility, he gave a sigh and shrug, like he couldn’t turn away an old guy, then gestured up the staircase with his chin.  I pulled out what was one dollar in the local currency and handed it to him.  For that I got an “Is good,” and a big smile.

After returning to the boat, we sailed on to Serbia.  Right before dinner, our guide Andy gave us a talk on the history of the Balkans, starting with the Ottoman Turk invasion, through the German and Italian occupations, the wars in the 1990s and in to the current state of affairs.  This was most enlightening, and I don’t see how anything gets resolved in this region.  I mean it seems they have long memories and tend to hold centuries long grudges, even if they do hold them while drinking coffee.

Day Seven

This would be a rather mixed day, because we started out in Vukovar, Croatia but would end our day in Novi Sad, Serbia.  Here is where the mixture started.

Our morning tour would take us to the church and monastery of Saints Phillip and James.  But when we entered Vukovar, one of the first things we saw was a building that looked like it had been blown to hell, and as it turned out, had been.  When the Serbs invaded in 1991, the town’s people defended themselves for eighty-seven days with whatever weapons they could get.  The fighting was street by street and house by house.  As we walked through the town, we saw some buildings that were repaired and looked as though they had never been touched while others, often sharing a wall, were still full of bullet holes and shrapnel damage.

We passed a shoe store/factory outlet of a company called Borovo, that used to employ some 23,000 workers, but now has less than 1,000.  Our guide encouraged us to look at the store and buy some shoes if we could.  She told us that unemployment here was running over 40 per cent.

The cathedralwhere we were headed sat on top of a hill that our guide referred to as the Vukovar Alps because the town is pretty much flat except for this small hill.  As we started up the hill, we passed some buildings on one side of the street that had been repaired and now housed small shops.  The upper floors on these were painted in pastel colors and were supported by stubby pillars.  All in all, the effect was more Caribbean than Baltics.  However, the buildings across the street from these were in the same style, but were still torn up with bullet holes and shrapnel gouges.  The two sides of the street presented a before-and-after picture of what this downtown area looked like, depending on when you saw it.

Just past these places, there was a building that used to be a pharmacy before the fighting. It was too damaged to use now, but the owner obviously planned to rebuild sometime. In the meanwhile, he filled the windows with flower boxes of geraniums which he kept watered so that they are fresh and beautiful.  How can you keep determination like that down?

We visited the cathedral, which has now been restored.  It is a Jesuit monastery and church; the Serbs who attacked the town were Orthodox.  Our guide told us that the Yugoslav Army had fallen apart and that the units doing the fighting were militias and that they were much better equipped and organized that the townspeople.  They expected to roll through the town easily, but the vigorous defense of Vukovar enraged them.  Their answer to the defiance was to destroy as much of the town as they could, and since he cathedral was Roman Catholic, when they left, they blew up the church.

As part of our tour, we were going to watch a film about the defense of Vukovar. On the way to the theater, we passed a small plaza holding one of the old bells, with a huge hole in one side.  This was an artifact from when the church was blown up.  In contrast, a peacock sat on top of the bell (almost an allegory of war and peace).  Further along, we walked through a garden area where large photographs of the destruction were on display and we could see the extent of the damage.

The film we saw was a short one, but it showed people fighting for their town and the mass graves that were left after the Serb militia moved out.  We wondered how people could do that to one another, especially considering that Tito had these diverse countries working together as one nation for fifty years.  One of our guides answered the question by saying that Tito died without naming an heir, but had set up a coalition to run the country instead.  It apparently did not take long for things to go to hell in a handbasket, which is the usual course for coalitions.

On the way back to the ship we passed a wall that had all the bullet holes and shrapnel gouges we had seen throughout the town.  There was a window in the wall, that is to say where a window had been, and behind the wall was a small children’s carnival.  I snapped a picture of a carousel awning through a missing window; it seemed to symbolize what we had seen during our tour.

When we were on board again we sailed down the river to a to a named Novi Sad which is in Serbia.

Novi Sad had the requisite fortress on the hill, the house with a cannon ball imbedded in it, and some lovely baroque buildings and pedestrian malls.

I hope I’m not boring readers with all those buildings, malls, and fortresses.  It’s just that the Balkans seem to have been at war since the Romans stomped through here and maybe even before that.  It is a vicious circle: unwelcome visitors create a need for a fortress, a fortress annoys the visitors enough to tear things apart.  After they leave, the local residents try to rebuild again, preparing for the next bunch of louts who pass through.

Outside Nova Sad, we visited an Orthodox monastery where we were able to listen to some of the chanting going on.  We were allowed inside the church but were not allowed to take pictures.  The entry to the monastery was through a small red building with a dome and a couple of mosaics on either side of the doors.  This gatehouse was large enough by itself for a small church.

Behind the gatehouse was a lovely park that was kept up by volunteer labor. Normally, a monastery is self-sufficient, growing its own food and keeping up with whatever work needed to be done. However, only six monks live there right now, and since the park was quite large, and so was the church, that was not enough to keep up with all that had to be done.

After visiting the monastery, we went to Sremski Karlovci, a small community about 8 km away, and in the wine producing region of Serbia.  The country was green and the low hillsides were planted with crops where there were not vineyards.  We saw small hamlets tucked in the folds of the hills, with the occasional church spire rising up.  The typical church has a tall spire rising from an onion shaped base (it seems this onion or pear shaped dome belonged to the Baroque era of architecture, there’s just no getting away from that term).

Our next stop was at the winery and bee-keeping center of the Zivanovic family where we had a chance to taste both their wines and honeys.  First though, we had a short talk given by one of the brothers, about their honey production and wine making.  Apparently, their great grandfather (I think this was right) had been diagnosed with tuberculosis and given one or two years to live.  He became interested in bees and started to raise them as something to do before he died.  The bees somehow or other kept him alive and he even recovered from the disease.

Something that I did not know was that in past times, the bee keeper had to kill off the bees in the hive to harvest the honey (I took a picture of the old fashioned kind of bee hive).  However, the ancestor of these brothers decided that he could not kill the bees that seemed to help him live.  Meanwhile, there were a couple of gentlemen who came from England, and who had developed removable frame so that the honey could be harvested without damaging the bees.  The ancestor adopted this technique, and as a whimsy, built a large hive that looked like a cathedral, even to a clock in the tower.  I also have a picture of that.

After the short talk, we went down into the cave where they stored and aged the wine in huge barrels.  The walls were lightly covered with mold and our host told us that was a good thing.  Over time, some wine leaks out of the barrelsthrough the wood’s natural pores, intensifying the flavors of the wine left inside.  The wine that is lost is called ‘the angel’s share,’ by the way, and happens with any wooden barrel aging process.  The lost wine is the reason for the mold on the walls.

Our host then took us over to a hall where we tasted the various wines the family makes.  Along with the wines, they also make a brandy that could possibly be used to power a Formula One car; tasty but, shall we say challenging.  I talked one of our party, a lovely person named Wendy, into shooting the brandy right back like tequila.  If you look through my photos you will see her.  She is the one who looks like she may never breathe again.

So, you can see what I mean by the day being mixed.  We started off the day by being reminded of the civil war and ended it with a pleasant wine tasting.

I am going to digress yet again.  This whole area and all these countries that make it up are curious.  They have so many of the same stories, the centuries of occupation by the Turks, the wars and destruction that has taken place so many times, and yet they also share a peaceful side as well.  There is a lot of Baroque architecture in every city we have visited, probably because so much was destroyed while fighting against the Ottoman Turks, and much of the rebuilding took place during the Baroque period (1590 to 1750 +).  Also, every one of the cities we have visited shares a coffee house culture.  People sit outside talking and sipping coffee, making business deals and sipping coffee, plotting political manoeuvers and sipping coffee, falling in love or planning a break-up and sipping coffee.  With all this commonality, one wonders why the Baltic countries have had so much strife that led to wars between them, and yet there it is.

 

Day Eight

 

We sailed through the night to Belgrade.  After breakfast, we took a bus ride to the Kalemegdan Fortress.  This was a large fortification, pretty much intact, that was used by both the Turks and the Serbians at one point or another.  The moat in front of the fortress is now used for tennis courts and basketball courts, a much better use I think.

The fortress has been developed as a park so it is hard to see as a stronghold.  However, while tennis and basketball courts took over one part of the moat, there were cannons and tanks from the two world wars displayed, along with a museum of Medieval Torture Devices (which we skipped), in other parts.  As we entered, we noticed that the massive iron-sheathed doors had bullet holes in them… not a good sign at any time.

I had to laugh at the dogs in the park.  There are all sorts of signs saying that dogs must be on leashes, but there were half a dozen running around, not bothering anyone, just ignoring the signs.  The dogs had tags on their ears, so even though they seemed to be operating on their own, someone was keeping track of them.  Somebody must feed them because none of the dogs seemed to be in terrible shape.

From the fortress walls, we could see where the Sava River joined the Danube.  Looking down into the town, I should have gotten some pictures of the graffiti.  There was a great deal of tagging going on, but also some real muralists.  Our local guide said that graffiti wasn’t a problem when the Soviets occupied the town… because there was no paint.

We stopped at the world’s second largest Orthodox cathedral, St. Sava.  Belgrade had its own share of destruction, and apparently the cathedral that was here before was destroyed during the civil war.  We were allowed to take photographs inside the church because the reconstruction is not finished yet. We could see the structure of the building, the domes and so forth, and where the mosaics will one day be, but for now it was an impressively large, empty structure.  By the way, there was a statue of St. Sava in front of the cathedral and he looked like the kind of guy you would not want to cross.

As the tour progressed we saw more signs of the 1990s conflict, although none as blatant as those at Vukovar.  The economy was obviously better here, although our guide did not mention the unemployment rate.  Apparently since things were better here economy-wise, the damage got repaired faster.

Because Belgrade was on a hill, we could look over fences and down into some of the yards as we walked.  I saw one yard that had a couple of cars in it, one of which had vines growing over the tires and into the wheel wells and I thought that in the US, the car would have been up on blocks.  Perhaps they had a better use for concrete blocks here in Belgrade.

Our guide pointed out places where statues of Lenin used to stand and told us that instead of being melted down, they had been put into a basement somewhere, just in case they were needed again someday.  She said that Serbians were always careful.

What more can I tell you about Belgrade that I haven’t already said a dozen times about other cities. Most of the nicest buildings were Baroque as were most of the museums, and the parks had statues of people we had never heard of.  The city was green with lots of trees along the streets and in the parks.   We had some walking round time now and so we thought about things such as broken pavement that could lead to a twisted ankle, places to sit after determining how much an ice cream cone would cost, and whether the vendors would take Euros or dollars.  We were starting to get a little tired at this point.

That afternoon, we took a drive out into the country for what was billed as a Serbian Peasant Feast at a farm house.  We were greeted with bits of bread we dipped in salt (an old peasant custom) and small glasses of plum brandy that, again, you could have used to fuel a Formula One racecar.

The patriarch of the family gave us a welcoming speech which was translated by our guide, and then handed out more brandy while his sons and grandsons played music for us.  The musicians stood on the porch, well actually the doorway of the farmhouse, surrounded by old bits of equipment, barrels and other farm stuff, and played Serbian folk songs on guitars, a fiddle and bass, and a small six stringed instrument I could not identify.  One of our group, Regina, started dancing with one of the brothers and the party was on

I tried to get Wendy to shoot the brandy back like she did before, but she wasn’t having any of it this time.  I don’t know why she didn’t trust me.

The food was excellent and plentiful, and so was the wine and brandy.  Throughout dinner, the old man kept coming around with more of those small glasses, but I ducked out after the third one because I knew at some point I would have to walk back to the bus. I did not mention it before, but both the wine and brandy were produced here on the farm, as well as most of the food we ate.

After dinner we had a pleasant ride back to our boat.  It’s amazing how pleasant things can be after a great dinner with wine and brandy… lots of brandy. There were still banks of clouds in the distance, but it didn’t rain, it just looked moody.  Along the way, we saw fields thick with poppies, bright among the green of the grasses and made even brighter by the late afternoon light.

There was a folklore show on board the Prinz that night, with four men and four women dancers.  One set performed a dance and then another group of dancers took the stage while the first changed costumes.  The show started off with fairly simple dances, but by the time it was over, the men were doing Cossack style dances, the kind where they kicked out their legs as they squatted down, as well as dances that seemed to be challenges, like who could do the more strenuous dance.  It tired me out watching them, and they didn’t even seem to be sweating.

 

Day Nine

Today would be a quiet day on board ship as we sailed by the Golubac Fortress and in to Golubac Lake.  This is the entry into the Danube Gorge, called the Iron Gates, which is the narrowest stretch of the river.  We would pass through at least two locks on our way down to Vidin, Bulgaria.  I think there were two, but again, I was napping part of the time and could have missed a lock or two

The river appeared to be moving much slower than it had been in some places, which is odd.  The walls of the canyon were starting to get higher and the passage narrower, which should have made the water flow faster, but still it seemed slower; either way it is still not blue.

The Iron Gates were amazing.  The grey limestone cliffs towered over the river and were covered with trees and greenery wherever the jagged rocks gave them a foothold.  Roads ran along either side of the Danube which is now the border between Serbia and Romania (it hasn’t always been the border, but things change often around here). The roads appeared to be very near the water on both sides, maybe just a couple of yards above the river, but that could be just the way things looked.

Tunnels had been cut through the rock wherever the cliffs were too steep to cut a road.  Because of the scale of things, the tunnels seemed to be bigger somehow than they might be otherwise, but again, this could just have been an optical illusion sort of thing.

I saw what looked like fortress ruins, but they were sticking out of the water, so I figured they must have been some sort of water feature, such as old pump houses.  Further along, we saw farms with oddly shaped haystacks on the Romanian side of the river.  The stacks were shaped like bee hives, and so tall that I thought they could be something like shepherd huts.  In fact, I tried to use my camera as a telescope to see if there were doorways or windows in the stacks, but I could see nothing.  Our guide was the one who told me they were stacks.  Later on, we passed several farms and I was able to see these things up close. I suppose my confusion about what they were stemmed from the fact that farmers here also used the roller method of gathering hay.

Here were some things that passed between myself and our guide.

me:  What are those odd things that look like bee hives or hay stacks.

guide:  Those are hay stacks.

me:  What are those things that look like fortress ruins sticking out of the water?

guide:  Those are ruins of an old fortress.

I am nothing if not perceptive.

 

There was a small white monastery with golden domes perched on a bit of land that jutted into the river.  According to our guide, there are more monks living in this small monastery than there were in the larger one we visited outside Sremski Karlovci.  Since the building was right on the water, there were boats tied up to a dock below the church.  A road passed near the church but maybe some supplies were brought in by boat as well.  Either way, there certainly was not enough land to farm and even holy men need to eat sometime.

We passed a dock next to a towering limestone wall.  There were no stairs along the cliff face and no road that approached the place so there seemed to be no reason why there should be a dock there.  Once again I asked our guide Andy what that was all about.  He told me that there was a cave where people hid out from the Turks at one time or another during the three centuries of Ottoman rule.  I have no idea what would attract people to come here now, just as I have no idea how people got here to hide from the Turks in the first place, but there were two boats tied up to the dock as a third one sailed off while I watched.  Even though the attraction had historical value, I wonder what it was that would make people boat over there.

Speaking of historical value, we passed a place where the face of Decebalus, the last king of Dacia, had been carved into the face of the cliff.  This sculpture was maybe a couple of hundred feet tall and looked like something out of Lord of the Rings.  Decebalus fought three wars against the Romans until Emperor Trajan finally defeated him and absorbed the kingdom into the Roman Empire (Dacia 1, Romans 2).  He must have been respected by his people enough that they carved his face into the stone.  Unlike at Mt. Rushmore, the carvers didn’t have dynamite or power hammers to help with the sculpting either.

Further down the river, there was a Roman monument to a general, honoring him for building a road and a bridge across the Danube in one year’s time.  Romans were good at building roads and such and who knows, the road and bridge might have been part of the wars against Dacia.

We had one more lock to go through and this time I stayed on deck to watch the proceedings.  There was a lot of graffiti on the walls of the lock, which I thought was surprising, I mean who paints graffiti on the walls of a lock?

The graffiti had been brushed on, not a sprayed.  The letters were big and several of the messages were long.  I had a vision of someone walking along the deck of a boat, painting as it dropped down.  I could see the writer bending over to start the message and almost standing on tip-toes to finish the first line before bending over again to start the next one.

Day Ten

We docked at Vidin in Bulgaria for a tour of the Baba Vida Fortress (another fortress).  The first things we noticed were Roman sarcophaguses around this place, and an odd statue in the park.  The body of the figure is made of a rust colored stone, almost like jasper, but the arms, head and shoulders were bronze.  I’m not sure it worked for me but what the hey.

The Baba Vida fortress is one of the best preserved we have visited so far. It is the only entirely preserved medieval castle in the country and was built on the site of the Roman fortification, the Castell Bononia.  At one point you can even see some of the Roman foundations.  We were warned to watch our step because some of the cobblestones were slippery, and they were.  I guess the stones had been walked on for so long that they were polished by show soles.

The background for this fortress was almost like King Lear.  A 10th century Bulgarian boyar (Sort of like a Grand Duke) had three daughters.  As he was dying, he divided his land between the three.  Two of the daughters married louts, which made his third daughter, Vida, reject proposals and remain unmarried; she built this fortress instead (the name of the fortress means “Grandmother Vida.”)  How’s that for a story.  Wonder if Shakespeare heard it and used it as a basis for Lea, it sounds like something he would have done.  Anyway, back to the tour.

The fortress had two concentric curtain walls and about nine towers, three of them were their full medieval height, while most of the original battlements were also in good repair.  We saw some early carriages for cannons, although cannons would have been added long after the fortress was built.

After our tour, we went down in to the town.  We were told Vidin was the least expensive city we would visit (for ‘least expensive’ read most depressed).  Many of the town we have visited had a drain line down the middle of main streets to shunt rain water to the river. In Vidin, there were lots of holes in this drain line, and many of the streets were generally in poor shape as well.

While we were there, we saw groups of people dressed in native costumes parading down the street.  Each group carried a banner or a sign, I suppose announcing who they were, but I couldn’t read them.  Apparently there was some sort of festival going on and these folks were headed to the main park.

Patsy and I went to a mall to get some money changed so that we could tip the guide and the driver.  This would be a problem throughout the trip, because in some places they accepted Euros and in others they did not.  After we finished at the mall, we made our way to the park where we saw the folk groups dancing.  They were doing circle dances similar to some of the Greek dances we had seen before, or maybe the Hora.  We watched that for a while until it was time to go back to the boat.

On the way to out tie up, we passed a boat named Jane Austin, and I thought “Jane Austin on the Danube,” what a great name for a book, or maybe a rock and roll band.

 

On the Kleine Prinz, we sat in the lounge with some of our new friends, sipping wine and watching the sun go down.  I got some great shots of the sun setting over the Danube.

 

Day Eleven

The next morning would find us leaving our boat and heading to Bucharest to drop off our guide, Andy, who had been with us throughout the whole trip, but now he was heading home for a while before his next tour.  Several of our other tourists were headed off to other adventures and we were now much diminished, but we persevered.

Those of us who were left went on to a town called Brasov.  Along the way, we visited Peles Castle, a former summer residence of the Romanian Royal Family.

While we were there, the rain threatened to move in again, but had not started by the time we went into the castle.  I took a couple of pictures of the outside courtyard with my phone but not with my camera because the castle/museum charged ten dollars to take pictures inside.  Besides, all I had at this point were Euros and they did not accept them here.

There were very few bannisters or railings along the staircases, and there were signs asking people to not touch the walls, but I said they had a choice with me; either I occasionally touched something to keep my balance, or they got to clean up marks where I fell down the stairs (okay, I did not say this out loud, but I thought it).  I did compromise to this extent: if it were possible to reach the other side of the staircase (these things were broad) just in case I needed to make some sort of contact, I would limit how often I touched their walls.  I don’t think I spoiled any of their paintwork.

The castle was a riot of Renaissance grandeur, including painted walls, grand staircases, life sized statues, suits of armor, and mirrored hallways. There was one large room dedicated solely to various weapons, including match-lock and wheel-lock firearms, and Turkish rifles with mother-of-pearl inlays.

There were ceramic stoves in many of the rooms, and I have always liked seeing these because they are usually elegant.  The stoves in Peles were as tall as a man and usually had blue decorations on them, either scenes painted on them or blue tiles.  The stoves were fed and cleaned through a door in a servant’s hallway behind them so that the castle residents did not have to see the grubby parts of having a cozy room to sit in.

There was a ton of things to look at, and I probably could have shot a hundred pictures in the castle if I weren’t so cheap, but there it was.

After the tour, we stepped outside and found that the rain had come down hard but passed along, so we just walked through puddles instead of getting wet ourselves.   We were forced to drink inexpensive beers while waiting for our bus.  It was a hardship, but s I said, we were a stalwart bunch.

We continue on to Brasov, a medieval resort town set high in the Carpathian Mountains.  We would spend the next day and a half here, walking around and taking one more major tour.

There was a huge open plaza in the middle of the town, at one end of which was the main feature of Brasov, the Black Cathedral.  This was a large church that had originally been Roman Catholic, but became Lutheran after the Reformation movement.  The Black Cathedral was so called because it burnt down and its walls were… well, black.

Here are some highlights we saw in Brasov:  there was a tram that took people up to the top of a heavily forested mountain.  While the mountain was not too steep, there were signs that advised people to be careful because there were bears in the woods, hence the tramway.   So there were bears just on the other side of the city walls… how interesting.

Like every other place we have visited so far, there were some very nice coffee and pastry shops facing the plaza.  I visited one and sat down under an umbrella, enjoying the view.  Surprise, surprise, I walked out and found four or five of our fellow tourists sitting there doing the same thing.  I tell you this coffee culture is catching., and yet we did not see a single Starbucks any where

We saw our first ever store-front Orthodox church.  Like most of the businesses facing the plaza it was in a line of buildings sharing a wall, and was sandwiched between two shops.  However, the front of the church had the regulation icons and mosaic work, and even had a bookstore connected to it in the next shop.

We visited a regular Orthodox church (free standing) and the graveyard next to it afterwards.  Our guide explained that it was the custom to have many people buried in the same grave, and that sometimes, after a long period of time, the skeletons were dug up and moved to another location to make room for more of the family.

In the square outside the church and cemetery, there was a statue of a soldier, a monument to all the people who have died defending their country.  It was a brave thing, but unfortunately there was a pigeon sitting on top of the soldier’s helmet. I saw four other people besides myself taking pictures of the pigeon.  I realized that if one lives long enough, and does enough to warrant a statue, one will at some time or another, host pigeons and their ah, products.

 

Day Twelve

The next morning, we toured the old city walls around Brasov before our tour for the day.  Most of the original towers were still intact and were named after the guilds that built and maintained them, e.g. the Leatherworkers Guild built one of the towers and had to provide the manpower for the tower, plus the weaponry.

After walking around the walls, we made a quick stop at the Black Cathedral.  The cathedral was closed for the first day when we got to Brasov, but was open and we joined the queue to see the interior.  Some of the walls were still black, but that could be time and weather working on limestone, not just the ancient fire.  Even though the church was now Lutheran, it still had all the niches for saint statues on the outside piers, with some of the saint statues inside them, in fact there were a couple of the old statues on exhibit inside the church.

After our quick visit, we drove to the small town of Bran in Transylvania to visit…  (can we get a little mist rolling in here, and maybe some creaky sound effects?) – DRACULA’S CASTLE.

Okay, we are just talking about one of Vlad Tepes digs.  Tepes, known to his friends as Vlad the Impaler, was just a tough customer and not some supernatural freak like a vampire.  Vlad had a strong sense of right and wrong, and an uncomfortable way of proving it.  You didn’t want to be on the outs with this guy, ever.  Our guide explained the method he used to impale people, which made me shudder (I won’t go into detail).

Bran castle is in great shape, especially considering the amount of people who were going through it on this day, and probably every other day of the week except for Sundays.  Most of the interior walls were whitewashed, and again we were not supposed to touch them, so I kept my contacts to a minimum.

The castle had been a Teutonic Knights stronghold, built by them during the 1200s, but the stupid Mongols destroyed it thirty years later (See, this is why people can never have anything nice).  There was a display standing in one corner of the room, of the white wool garments like the ones worn by the knights, with the black cross embroidered on it.

As to Vlad, he did use the castle sometimes, but he was in and out of the place during the middle 1400s.  He was a wandering sort and didn’t make this his central place.

Believe it or not, after several “takings,” including the Communist Party and later on the Romanian government, the castle has now been returned to Archduke Dominic and his sisters Maria-Magdalena Holzhausen and Elisabeth Sandhofer.  They maintain it as a private museum, but with cooperation from the government.

I took lots of pictures in the castle, including some chests because I made several period chests once, and was fascinated by the ironwork and decorations on these real examples.

There were several smaller fireplaces throughout the castle, none of which were large enough to roast an ox; these were for comfort rather than display.  We did find one built into the wall with the clean-out door in the hallway similar to the ones we saw in Peles Castle.

After our visit, we had to pass by a series of souvenir shops, and of course we had to have a tee-shirt letting people know we had visited…  DRACULA’S CASTLE! (cue the thunder roll).

Here’s an interesting thought:  Bram Stocker was an Irishman; so why did he use a castle in Transylvania?  Suppose he had used an old castle somewhere in the middle of Ireland?  I mean they have a lot of old castles around, and of course a lot of mist.  Could you maybe see an Irish vampire smelling vaguely of Guinness and saying something like “Brace yourself Bridget, I’m about to bite your neck,” and with a brogue?

On the way back to Brasov, we passed one of the highest peaks in the Carpathians, and saw a cross on top of the mountain.  I don’t know if you can make that out, but along toward the end of my photograph string you might see pictures of a mountain and wonder what I was trying to see.

That night, we had yet another tour of a wine cellar, always a pleasure, followed by a traditional dinner.  They eat a lot of pork in this part of the country, which I found interesting, because they also raise a lot of sheep.  I would have expected more lamb chops or something but nope, it was mostly pork and chicken.  (I started to wonder what they did with all the sheep, but thought better of it)

We were entertained by two couples doing folk dances.  Each time, they would come out with another set of heavily embroidered shirts and dresses and leap around like teenagers.  During the last set, they pulled some of us from the table and had us join in the dancing.  They passed over me, I suspect because they thought I might have a heart attack if they made me jump around with them.  Ah, the joys of old age.

Day Thirteen

We arrived back in Bucharest.  Our hotel had a wine store and bar in the lobby, so we naturally gravitated to that.  It had started to rain again, and we had some thunder as well.  Several of our party braved the elements to go to a highly recommended restaurant several blocks away, but Patsy and I decided to stay put with our glasses of wine in the -n-house restaurant.

I ordered a hamburger and fries (yeah, I was trying to get used to American food again).   Patsy ordered a cheese tray, and I have to say the cheeses were good, she even let me taste one or two of them.

When my burger arrived, I found that they had only braised the outside of the meat and left the middle pink.  At first I thought maybe I should send it back for a little more cooking, but then I realized they also had Steak Tartare on the menu.  If they could safely hand out raw ground meat, I guessed they could also safely offer barely cooked meat, so I chowed down.  Because the burger was so juicy, my burger kept falling apart, but I managed to end it at last.  The fries were every bit as good as those I got at home.  Big surprise, did I think French Fries were an American invention?

The rain was intermittent through the night, and so was the lightning.  A couple of times during the night, there would be a lightning flash, causing the lights in the room and the television set to come on for a moment.  It was very freaky.

 

Day Thirteen

We were on our way again.  We would fly from Bucharest to Istanbul by Turkish Airlines, and then on to New York.  As usual, Turkish was exceptional.  After we took off on our short jump to Istanbul, the flight attendants came through the cabin, offering us refreshments.  I decided to try Raki, a Turkish alcoholic drink in the licorice family along with such other drinks like Ouzo, Absinthe and Anisette.  I didn’t find the drink as strong as some of these others and did not order it again, my curiosity being satisfied.

Again, they fed us too much, and again, I ate it because, well, it was there and I wasn’t doing anything anyway was I?  They gave us packages of sleep masks, ear plugs, and so forth, plus free earphones just in case we wanted to watch a movie or something.  Remember, this was all in steerage.  Lord only knows what the first class folks go, maybe free foot rubs or something.

We were moving west and had started out during the morning, so we never did lose the day light.  However, the airline did create an artificial night time by dimming all the lights for several hours.  Someplace in here, we should probably have taken our medications and such, but our sense of time was all screwed up.

Day Fourteen

This was actually an extension of Day Thirteen, but again, we were now in the United States, in a different time zone, and generally disoriented.  We were going to fly directly to home rather than stay another day in New York.  This was a bad idea, one that I will not repeat again in the future.

The trip was grand and I’m not going to spoil it by complaining.  All in all, it was something I would willingly do again, just with some changes.  Virgin America was a nice experience, Turkish Airlines gave us grand treatment, and Delta bombed.  What can you say?

Thanks for coming along with us to the Danube.  I hope you enjoyed the trip, although I left out so much that if I had added in this log could have been much, much longer.

 

 

 

 

although I left out so much that if I had added in this log could have been much, much longer.

 

 

 

 

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The Dinosaur goes to Wales

Posted by marshal on September 1, 2015 in Dinologs |

An SCA event takes place every year at Raglan Castle outside Cardiff, in Wales. For those of you who do not know, Patsy and I belong to the reenactment group, the Society for Creative Anachronism, (SCA), and we decided that we would go to Ragland Ffaire to join in the fun. (Yes, there are two letter ’f’’ in the word… this is Wales)

Fortunately, we travelled with four other SCAdians (a collective term we use for our group, pronounced skay-dee-ans). I say fortunately, because we needed to take our swords and our special clothing (which we call ‘garb’). That meant we would be dragging along extra weight in our suitcases, plus a heavy plastic golf bag to hold the swords. The bag weighed 45 pounds; stands 50 inches tall when you stand it on its end, and is about as unwieldy as you can get. I dubbed this particular item, “the Beast,” and it will figure prominently as the adventure goes along. The Beast has four easily tipped-open latches on the side, so I taped them down with red duct tape. Now, not only was the Beast large and unwieldy, it also looked like something out of a second hand store. I was not surprised later on when we got to Heathrow and found that TSA had opened the bag for inspection.

For this particular trip, we flew Delta Airline, but for some reason, when we got to Detroit, we had to switch to Virgin Atlantic for the England leg of the trip. I was surprised because our return flight from England out of Heathrow was on Delta. They can’t fly us all the way to England, but they can fly us from England all the way home; go figure.

Now, a word of praise for Virgin Atlantic; we were in steerage and expected to be treated with some benign neglect reserved for the economy class. Our plane was one of those new “Dreamliner” jobs with extra bells and whistles. A smiling flight attendant met us at the door. Several more were just inside the plane, one of whom stood behind a bar loaded with champagne flutes! Of course, these were not for those of us of the unwashed, but I did ask the nearest flight attendant if there were disco lights somewhere in the plane. He told me that a mirror ball dropped down after take-off when the curtain would be drawn, dividing the privileged from the poorer classes. Since this would have happened after take-off, I can’t verify whether it is true or not, but I liked the idea.

I asked another attendant later on if there were bar stools at the bar and if so, did they have seat belts. He said that there were seats at the bar but without seatbelts. When the ‘buckle up’ sign came on, the people sitting at the bar had to go back to their seats; I suppose carrying their drinks, the poor things.

Patsy and I opted to sit in the emergency exit row so that we would have extra legroom. It was a cool idea, but it also meant that we did not have a space to store things under the seat in front of us. However, as compensation, a flight attendant sat right in front of us on take-off and landing, so we had entertaining conversation from time to time. By the way, our seats did not have the little television screens in front of us, but they did have some fold out TVs in the armrests. We opened the flap on the armrest, pulled out the TV, and twisted it around to look at the screen; very “Wally-like,” if you remember the little Disney robot whose head swiveled around.

We have traveled in steerage quite a bit in the past and while I knew that they would feed us something, this being an international flight, I wasn’t sure what. Once, we had cold ham and Velveeta cheese on a dry bun, but that was a long time ago.

Before our meal, the flight attendant handed out warm hand towels – warm towels to us in steerage! I don’t remember ever having this sort of thing in economy. Anyway, we had a nice light meal and then the lights dimmed to help us establish a ‘night’ pattern. Some of us can sleep on a flight, while some of us cannot. Thank heaven for TV.

When we landed at Heathrow, we had to go through the front door past the bar, and so got a glimpse at first class seating. For those of you who have not flown on one of these new jets, business class looks about what we used to see in first class. First class is another matter entirely. Each passenger has his or her own cubicle of sorts. These sit at an angle to the plane, has a short wall between seats, and looks like the cross between a business office and a small, leather covered couch. If the spaces were much larger, they would look like one of those tiny Japanese motel rooms.

The next ‘morning,’ we landed in London and went through the usual customs events. This is where ‘the Beast’ came in to play and where our friends proved to be invaluable. We had to take the underground to Paddington Station to get our Oyster Cards (metro passes) and our train tickets that would take us to Wales and back at the end of the event. Paddington Station is a high ceiling place with iron pillars holding up a glass roof. I think this dates back to the early days of rail travel. If you looked up at the ceiling and the upper ironwork, you could imagine men in long coats and fedoras saying “to Queen Victoria, God bless her.” If you just looked around, you would find fast food joints, ticket booths, and such. Trains used to run into the station, but now they no longer do so.

Paddington Station has very few elevators (lifts) and an abundance of stairs. Patsy and I had two heavy suitcases, a double carry-on (two small suitcases that saddled together like one large bag), and… The Beast! We climbed up stairs, down stairs, up and down too many times. Without our friends, we would have taken many more hours to get to where we were going to stay, but everyone pitched in and helped us along. I usually do not feel seventy-five years old, but by the time we got to where we were going, I not only felt every one of my years, but I think I made a deposit on some future years.

We rented a flat on Whitechapel Road, which made it easy to get around, but had one drawback… we were on the top floor and the steps were narrow and shallow. We had to hump the Beast on this staircase twice, once coming and once going, which was two times too many.

When in the apartment, we a good view of the street below us, and we were only a couple of blocks away from the Metro. There were some very kind people in the Metro. On our way to the apartment, people stopped to help us up or down the steps, taking a bag and even the Beast a couple of times.

The Whitechapel area has been notorious since the 1880s, but is now fairly quiet. There is a large Muslim population, and we saw men in long gowns and skullcaps, and women who wore anything from gowns and headscarves to the full coverage with only the eye slits. (Note: as an exception to this, one day before we left, we saw a young woman, maybe in her early twenties, without a headscarf. She had a haircut reminiscent of David Bowie during his Ziggy Stardust period, and she was showing it off. She looked me in the eye as though she was daring me to say something.)

We could look down the street toward a large mosque with the requisite minaret. I have often wondered why the minaret, since I don’t believe I have ever heard the call to prayer from one of these, but I digress. There was also a building further along, shaped like a gigantic glass Easter egg. Because of the green glass spirals down the sides, people have nicknamed it “The Gherkin.” It is one of London’s landmarks; I’ll talk about that later on.

The buildings along the Road looked as though they were Victorian, with special brick fronts and decorative concrete bits like pillars and ledges around the doors and windows. There was everything from clothing and food stores to betting shops and a storefront that advertised itself as a casino. Coming from Las Vegas, I couldn’t take this seriously.

There were also canvas stalls on the sidewalk outside the shops, selling produce and clothing in competition with the regularly established shops. I suppose this was a version of the Middle Eastern bazaar concept. I wondered how the merchants paying rent in the stores felt about all this, but Patsy suggested that the stalls were extensions of the shops they faced, sort of like kiosks. That made sense and accounted for the relaxed atmosphere.

This brings me to another thought: given how old London is and how many great buildings there are here (after all, this was the home of Christopher Wren), how can they build anything with modern relevance? It would be possible, but probably not desirable, to keep constructing buildings that looked like something from earlier times, but which time period? London has been around since the Romans stalked through here, although there is very little of their architecture left, just part of an old fort, a wall, and a temple. (Note: London had two great fires that pretty much razed the town. Even Westminster Palace, the home of parliament, was rebuilt after a fire in 1834, and made to look like something from the 14-15 centuries) The Gherkin was one answer, so were two other buildings affectionately called the Cheese-Grater, because it looks like one, and another called the Walkie-Talkie because it is curved like the old military radios. (Side note: the Walkie-Talkie building once actually melted a car by focusing sunlight. Really, look it up.)

We used our first day in London to more or less recovery from jetlag. We did go out to find a pub called the Blind Beggar. As it turned out, this was once a notorious place, a hangout for crooks and low life. There is apparently bullet holes in the wall, left from a murder committed there, although no one pointed them out to us. I learned about the bullet holes later on.

The pub wasn’t much to look at, and could probably have done more to attract tourism, since it once had a reputation. Instead, the owners have let the place go downhill. They made a nice burger though, and the chips (fries to us back in the colonies) were excellent; the ketchup we used on the chips was sweeter than we have back home. I had a beer called ‘Beggar’s Belief,’ which was an IPA and reasonably nice, but probably nothing I would walk across town for. The Blind Beggar was the high point of our first day on the ground.
One last thing I should mention before going on, and that is crossing the street. First, they have signs on the pavement that remind you to look right, I suppose because there are so many tourists mucking up traffic otherwise. Second, there is the usual green walking man light to let you know when it is safe to cross the street; this is advisory only. Given the least opportunity, swarms of people rush across the street. In addition, even though the green man is on, cars turning in your lane can mow you down if you are not keeping an eye out for them. Crossing a London street is a version of automobile dodgeball.

Day two:
We planned to go to the Tower of London. Patsy and I had been here years ago, and we really enjoyed the visit, but we were many years younger then, and I forgot about how many bloody stairs there were. Knees give out easily as one ages, and boy, were mine giving out!

I’m sure most people know this, but the Tower was built by (for, actually) William the Conqueror twelve years after the Battle of Hastings and after he had totally subjugated the Saxon populace of England. He needed a place to rest safely just in case the subjugation didn’t take hold.

Before we got inside the gate however, we saw some horses and some people down in the old moat (now dry), dressed in costume, standing around in front of some period pavilions (tents), getting ready to joust. This is something they do for the tourists to make their visit more memorable. We spoke to some of the costumed people for a while and learned that we would see many of them at the Raglan Ffaire. Then we proceeded to the Tower.

The Tower is a three-story structure (three exceptionally tall floors) faced in whitish stone, with a moat surrounding the two defensive inner walls. It is 118 by 105 ft. square at the base, and is 90 ft. tall at the southern battlements. The site is about 18 acres in size if you include the land kept clear for military reasons. Designed as a royal palace, it was also a fortress and a prison for those who displeased the monarchy. Mary of England (or “Bloody Mary” as she was also called, due to how many Protestants were executed during her reign), kept her half-sister, Elizabeth I there before she, in turn, became queen. Other famous prisoners include 12-year-old Edward and his younger brother Richard, the young princes supposedly murdered by their uncle Richard III, and, of course, Anne Boleyn, one of Henry VIII’s wives and the mother of Elizabeth.

Once upon a time, there was a royal zoo inside the tower. To recognize that, there are statues of lions, baboons, and bears (oh my) scattered about the tower grounds. The artists made the statues from wire, much finer gauge than chicken wire, but with the same general idea. When you see them from a distance, they look solid, but as you get closer, their outlines start to get fuzzy. Apparently, one of the kings kept a polar bear at the zoo. A long chain attached to a post allowed the bear hunt fish in the Thames. Isn’t that a picture!

According to our guide, a Beefeater, the Royal Family still uses the site sometimes. By the way, a Beefeater is one of those docent/guides who dress in Elizabethan clothing and helps to run the tours at the Tower. Our guide said that they don’t call themselves Beefeaters, and that nobody really knows where the term comes from, but he did suggest that we Google it and see how many different explanations we could find.
Beefeaters are ex-military and have either retired from active duty with twenty-two years’ service or been recommended to the job for exemplary action. Now back to the tour.

When the moat was in use, the river Thames flowed into a gap each day, helping to wash out any stagnant water plus what may have accumulated there between high tides (the Thames is a tidal river, otherwise this wouldn’t work). Now the moat is just a grassy area used for special events.

There is still Thames access at the place called ‘Traitors’ Gate’ where people accused of treason came before their executions. The royal barge also stayed there when not in use, which must have been ironic if some of the prisoners were so inclined to think that way.

Chances were the traitors had other things on their minds, because the usual punishment for treason was hanging, then drawn, and quartered. This consisted of hanging until almost dead, revived long enough to witness one’s internal workings removed (drawn) and burnt before one’s eyes, and then beheaded, with the head then put on a spike outside the city gates as a warning to other people not to engage in treason. The quartering referred to having the headless body cut into pieces, with bits shipped to outlying areas just in case nobody was going to London any time soon. Our Beefeater guide reveled in telling us about the gory history of the tower. (Side note: only seven executions took place at the Tower in 400 years, the rest were done in on Tower hill, part of the cleared ground around the Tower. Later on, we took a bus tour of London and saw a pub near the Tower, with the name ‘Hung, Drawn, and Quartered.’ I’m not sure I would want to ‘hang out’ there.)

On a lighter note, the Tower also contains some several very important things including the Royal Armory and the Crown Jewels. The armory holds various war-like items, such as the armor of various kings – especially several suits worn by Henry VIII – and their horses, actual period weaponry, and assorted treasures they find when they periodically dredge up the Thames. The Tower was also the Royal Mint for a long time, and there were displays of coin making apparatus.

The Crown Jewels are in glass cases with a people mover type conveyor to carry the viewers along in front of the cases. You can double back to see the jewels again, but you cannot stop to look at them… also no picture taking. As usual, no matter how many times attendants tell people they cannot take pictures, someone always tries. By the way, one of our band, Lucia, said that she tried to do the moonwalk ala Michael Jackson, to stay in one place on the people mover. She didn’t say how effective this was.

The crown jewels not only include various crowns worn by former kings, but also the crowns worn by some of the queens. Apparently, some but not all, crowns get recycled. No one mentioned why only some are recycled; maybe it depends on the importance of the king or queen.

One of the special jewels in the crown of Elizabeth II is the Koh-I-Noor diamond (Side note: the Koh-I-Noor was once the eye of an idol, but then confiscated by various people who took over the region. I find this very “Indiana Jones-ish.” Art does imitate life sometimes.). The diamond is a mere 105.6 metric carat diamond, weighing 21.6 grams (a little over 0.046 pound), and looks about the size of a small egg. A massive ruby sits just above the diamond, and is about the same size. Other than the occasional rare jewel, all of the crowns are masses of smaller diamonds. In all, they look uncomfortable; Elizabeth’s crown weighs about two pounds depending on whom you ask, so you can see why she doesn’t wear it very often.

We were in the Crown Jewel room when Daniel, another of our merry group, dropped down on one knee and proposed to Lucia, she of the moonwalking attempt, and asked her to marry him. She accepted and he put the ring on her finger. The crowd of almost a hundred people cheered and clapped. They clapped even harder when the two kissed. Later on, Daniel said that it took guts to offer a small, jeweled ring to his love in a room full of incredible mega-jewelry.

Another interesting aspect of the Tower is their use of one-way traffic. There are places where you had better be prepared to go to the bitter end or not go at all. My knees had been complaining after so much stair climbing the day before, and I tried to avoid as many steps as I could, but this was almost impossible. For instance, there was a wall walk where I wanted to go to get a closer look at some of the carvings on the walls. Many of the carvings are very odd and humorous, with faces carved just below the parapets. One could almost call them gargoyles except that not all of them have open mouths. I think the proper term for these is chimera.

To continue, it wasn’t until I got to the place where I could take some pictures of the carvings that I realized I had to go much further and that I would have to climb a staircase a lot like the ones usually found inside lighthouses. Of course, what goes up must come down, so I had an extra helping of staircase.

The Tower has the Raven Prophecy, that if the ravens ever leave, the Tower will fall and so will the monarchy. One of the kings (possibly Charles II) was so superstitious about this that he decreed seven ravens be kept at the Tower at all times. To make sure they don’t fly away, all the birds have their wings clipped, and one (not always the same bird) stays in a cage for a while.

Speaking of Ravens, we had a nice meal at the New Armories Restaurant, which was next to the Raven Kiosk (how’s that for a smooth segue?),

The Raven Kiosk is another dining venue, but geared more to teas, coffees, homemade cakes and savory bites than what we were looking for (you probably thought I was going to say we ate there, and so did I for a moment until I looked at the Tower site map). However, we almost decided to go to the Kiosk for the name alone, if nothing else. The New Armories Restaurant advertised a larger selection and so we decided to eat there.

Patsy and I had Watercress Soup – something we had read about but never tried – along with a wodge of fresh bread to mop up the bottom of the bowl. The soup was semi-creamy, with the peppery taste of fresh watercress. We finished off our lunches with a type of crème brûlée and fresh berries, just the stuff to perk up a weary tourist.

After a long and trying day visiting the Tower, we made our way to the apartment, stopping first to buy tickets for a bus tour of the city. We went to the Blind Beggar for another one of their burgers and fries. This time, I had a Doom Bay, amber beer, which featured a slightly fruity taste and hops.

Day three:

We took a double-decker bus tour of the city today. It was one of those ‘hop on, hop off’ affairs, so we were able to stop and see some things up close. Unfortunately, it also meant that there were steps to climb… arrgh!

We stopped near a park with a statue of Shakespeare in it. Around the base of the statue, a water fountain randomly spurted water up about three feet and then the water fell back into a shallow basin. Kids were running around, trying to step on the water jets when they came up, or just plain wanting to get wet. They accomplished this last bit quite easily. Near the statue/fountain, we watched a busker juggling three machetes and an apple, while riding a seven feet tall unicycle. Now please take a moment and try to visualize this man, when was a boy; do you think he ever said to his folks, “I don’t need to go to college since I already know what I want to be when I grow up… “

The day was cool, but we finished it off by taking a cruise along the Thames. We passed under several bridges, one of which was that most ornate of bridges, the Tower Bridge. Most people think of this as the London Bridge, but actually, it is not. The original bridge stood further downstream at a site where the Romans first built one, and was the only bridge crossing the river for centuries. Our guide was also quick to point out that the London Bridge started to sink in the river mud and so the government sold it. The new owner disassembled it and shipped to Arizona, where it now resides at Lake Havasu. If you really want to see a London Bridge, going to Lake Havasu is the cheapest way to do it.

The boat passed the ‘Eye,’ a giant wheel some three hundred feet high, with pods that you can go riding in, along with twenty-five of your closest friends for a mere $28 per person. They give you a drink and some munchies as well.

The ride has only one central support for the axel, the other support coming from rollers along the bottom of the wheel. If it had two central supports for the axel, it would be a Ferris Wheel (I don’t see the importance of one over another, but I am not an aficionado about these things.) The wheel rotates at about one mile an hour, so if you are not looking for the movement, it seems to be standing still. This means that they do not have to stop the wheel to load or off-load riders unless they are infirm.

Farther along, we passed “The Globe Theater,” Will Shakespeare’s old hangout. This is not the real Globe, which burnt down in the great London Fire in the seventeenth century. This replica probably does not stand where the Globe once did, but it is as near as they can figure. It is also the only building allowed a thatched roof in London. We would have loved to see a play at the theater, but the performance sold out for the time we would be in London.

On the other side of the Thames, we saw the parliament buildings and the tower of Big Ben. By the way, the tower is not Big Ben, but that is the name of the large bell inside the tower. Our guide on the boat told us that the clock is so big; the minute hand is eighteen feet long. He said the hand is so heavy; it takes an hour to go all the way around the dial! (Ba-dum-dah!)

Our guide on the boat also told us that the reason we call the river the Thames with no ‘th’ and a short ‘I’ rather than Thames with the ‘th’ and a long ‘A’ is that one of the royal princes could not say it correctly, and people started to copy the way he spoke. This is similar to why Castilian Spanish uses a ‘th’ for some ‘c’ places, such as ‘Grathias’ instead of ‘Gracias.’

Finally, after the boat ride, we made our way back to the apartment, where Daniel cooked us a nice traditional English countryside dinner of fajitas.

Day four:

Today would be a mixed day, with me going off by myself to do some research for a book I am planning, while everyone else went to Stonehenge. This would be our last day in London, and I was on my own to navigate the London Metro. I felt rather proud of myself in that I did not get lost at the station (that would come later) and I avoided getting on the wrong subway line, although I almost did so.

I was supposed to go to the London Metropolitan Archives, but the brochure I got did not have an address for the place. My hearing aides were going out and I needed new batteries, so I found a Boots pharmacy, and while I bought my batteries, I asked the sales person if she knew where the Archives were. She looked it up on her telephone and gave me directions. I dutifully jotted them down in my notebook. As it turned out, her directions had me making a right turn when I should have gone left; I was going away from the Archives building, rather than toward it.

I ended up walking in circles for an hour and a half, meeting a number of people whose accents were not English, and who, although they wanted to help me, had no idea where the Archives library was. I finally got there with the help of an English gentleman I stopped. He was well dressed, grey haired and had one of those light-skinned complexions that includes a high flush on the cheeks. He acted startled when I spoke to him, but quickly understood my problems, and pulled a map out of his coat pocket. Now how many people do any of us know who just happens to have a map in their pocket? After I showed him what I had scrawled in my notebook, he pointed me in the right direction and, using logic, figured out approximately where the place was. Even so, I wandered around the general vicinity for another fifteen minutes and finally stumbled on the office.

I saw the material I came here to research: journals of soldiers from the Anglo-Afghan wars. I was very surprised that I could handle the original documents without using white gloves, and that I was able to read the script despite all the fancy curlicues. Patsy told me that she had students who could not read cursive because they never learned it. My experience was almost like that. I found it interesting that the writers could march twenty or thirty miles in a day and still have time to use pen and ink to write in their diaries. The handwriting was neat well done, but with several letters that I could not recognize.

Finally, my adventure was over, so I stopped at a pub named Betsy Trotwood. I did not realize it, but the pub had two other floors besides the main one where I sat. Apparently, the cellar is a rocking venue when things get in full swing, while the upstairs is an elegant place that hosts acoustic entertainment (the quiet type). I suppose the ground floor acts as a sound barrier or something. The pub was open for lunch, but I was the only one in it. I had a nice cottage pie with steak and mushrooms, and a Spitfire Beer. The beer was supposed to be fruity, but to me it was just watery. This could be because the barman was changing out the kegs, because he was pumping them while I watched him. That was an interesting thing in itself. The tap handles are about three feet in length, and to get the beer/ale flowing, the bar man has to pull these things almost to the ground several times; it was like priming a pump.

I made my way back to the Metro and to Whitechapel with nothing more exciting than having to climb even more stairs! I also had to do the street crossing fandango.

Day five:

Today, we would leave London and head down to Cardiff in Wales. We got to Paddington, this time by using taxis rather than trying to haul all of our bags on the metro again. When our taxi driver drew up and saw all of our bags, plus the Beast, he looked startled, bemused, and then resigned. He was able to put all our bags and the Beast in the back seat, and still had room for Patsy and me, although it was a tight fit.

London, like many large cities, has construction work going on all over the place. By the time we got to the train station, we had gone in circles, driving down street that were closed for construction, backing up and going another direction, and generally getting confused… well us, not our driver. I asked him if he had memorized the A to Z, the official street map of London, and he said that he had. It took him three years and a couple of months, to do it, but apparently, all taxi drivers have to memorize the maps before they can get a license.

We found our train and got our baggage loaded just in time. Now here’s a funny thing: the luggage carts are free, but you have to use a pound coin to get them out of the racks. A box sits on top of the handle, with a couple of slots in it. You put the coin into the first slot, and shove a key into one side slot. This pushes the chain that holds the cart in place out of the other side. When you return the cart, you reverse the process and the pound coin pops back out, easy, huh. We did not know this, but as we were loading our bags onto the train, the porter just smiled as he helped us. Later on, we realized that he probably returned our carts to the queue, collected our pound coins and we had just bought him a pint at the pub.

We love traveling through the English countryside because it is very pretty; this is a green and watered land. However, the Welsh countryside is even lovelier. Hedgerows divide the rolling hills into various fields and pastures, with sheep or cows in many of them. There were trees everywhere, and flowers, things we desert dwellers don’t see as much of.

When we got off the train in Cardiff, there was a sign with the name of that town the Welsh seem to take pride in, flaunting it in the face of the English-speaking world. Here is the name: Llanfairnwillgwyngyllgogeryshwyrndrobwillantsiligogogoch. Try saying that three times quickly.

In English, the name of the town starts with “Church of St. Mary,” and then goes on to geographically describe where the church can be found (it now occurs to me that the explanation of the name is as long as the name itself, oh well). I read that the locals who live there shorten the name to ‘St. Mary Church,’ and go on about their business.

While we were at the station, I got a couple of carts to move the bags, again using coins to unhook them from their rack. Meanwhile, Guy and Laurie, the last two of our group, went to the car rental place. There was no metro or bus service to Raglan, and so we needed to have cars.

While they were gone, a young man who worked at the station helped me to move the baggage and return the carts to their queue. He showed me how to reclaim my pound coins and told me how we probably bought a pint for the first porter. I asked him if he spoke Welsh and he said that he did not. He went on to say Cardiff was too close to England, so they did not use Welsh all that much, but the schools further north teach the language. Even so, all the street and highway signs were in both languages.

We stopped at Raglan Castle (Castell Rhaglan in Welsh), the site of our event, to register before we went on to the place we were staying. The castle is in ruins, but there is still enough of it standing to impress anyone not used to castles. Some of the outer wall still stands, along with many of the interior walls, too. Raglan was the next to last castle to fall during the English Civil War, and it withstood a two month siege until Cromwell’s troops brought in mortars.

After the garrison surrendered, sappers and engineers came in and tore down the walls.
The central keep, or main tower, still stands and there are stairs that people can climb to look over the landscape… I did not climb these stairs.

We stayed long enough to see some interesting fighting going on with two-handed blunted, dull edged bladed great swords, approximately 48” long. It’s our way of reaching out and touching someone.

We signed in, showed our membership cards, paid the attendance fee, and got a bottle of hand-made beer. They told us there would be fresh pies handed out for lunch on Saturday. What a welcoming group!

After checking in, we headed off to our temporary home. We would stay in a village called Penalt (or Penallt, if you want to go full Welsh). To get there, we travelled along a regular freeway to near the turn-off, after which we found ourselves in successfully smaller roads. While none that we travelled on was small enough to be lanes, hedges hemmed almost all of them. Technically, the roads were wide enough for two automobiles to pass in most places; however, the hedges had grooves cut into them by car side-mirrors, that’s how narrow the roads were.

We were staying in a place that had once been a schoolhouse, with a chapel next door. The plaque on the wall said that the schoolhouse dated from 1834, and that the chapel came thirty-five years later on. The place was exquisite with stone floors, exposed wooden beams in the ceiling, and a small Franklin stove in the large living room, which was probably the main classroom when this was a school.

The house had the requisite English-style garden in front, with Hydrangea, Lavender, and Butterfly Bush planted along the driveway. Not only was the way down to the garage pretty, but it also had a wonderful smell that scented the air and attracted large bumblebees.

A tall, spreading tree dominated about a quarter acre of green backyard, with the requisite flock of small birds flitting around. The place was almost too perfect. We even had a table and chairs on a patio where we could sit and drink our coffee while enjoying a great view of the Welsh countryside.

We dropped our bags off and went to a grocery store for food. The back roads in Wales can be very narrow, but some of the in-town roads weren’t much better. When we went to the store, we parked along the curb and waited patiently while traffic drifted by. It could have been worth our lives, not to mention a car door or two, if we had gotten out at the wrong time.

By this time, we had been up for a long time and were hungry, so you can imagine the sort of ‘impulse buying’ we did. We bought snacks, real food, peanut butter and bread ( I’m pleased to say the English have excellent bread and very good peanut butter), and of course, Welsh wine, oh my.

After our trip to the store, we got to the house and whipped up a nice baked chicken dinner, with vegetables. I emphasize that because it is easy to miss having vegetables with all the nifty pies and pasties they have around here.

After dinner, we sat around talking and having a glass of wine or two before turning in.

Day six:

I had a bit of vertigo on this day, and so Patsy and I stayed home while the others went to the castle. Sometimes when I get too tired, the vertigo tells me it’s time to slow down for a while. Being on an airplane for most of twenty-four hours, plus going up and down too many stairs while lugging baggage and the Beast, took it out of me. Anyway, this gave me some time to write, which was good. I tend to forget about some things if I wait too long to jot them down.

That night, we went to a small pub that featured a wide variety of wines and ciders. I had cowslip wine, something I had never had before. The cowslip flower is part of the primrose family and grows in clusters, something I did not know. My only reference was where Shakespeare had Puck singing, “in a cowslip bell I lie.”

The wine was very light, not too sweet, and floral (what would you expect; the wine was made from flowers. By the way, I would not know a cowslip from many of the other flowers they used in their wines; I just looked it up so that I could tell you something about it in this log). The selection of wines included elderberries, dandelions, and other fruit and flower bases.

I would have tried their Farmhouse Scrumpy (a kind of hard apple cider) if I had seen it before I looked at the wine list and got interested. We once knew someone who sang a song about scrumpy. As it turns out, I may have been suspicious of the drink, since it is supposed to be stronger than commercial cider, and a bit cloudy. Oh well, there is next time.

I had a creamy Leek, Ham and Stilton bake along with my wine. It’s a dish that I will probably make one of these days, but will figure out how to add some vegetables to it.

The pub was small, although there were places to sit outside if one so chose. The English allow dogs in their restaurants, which of course, we don’t… hygiene and all that don’t you know. There was a rather large brown dog that walked past me after we found our table, and I certainly wasn’t going to ask him to leave, no sir.

We went to dinner early, because we wanted to be back at home before it got too late. Guy and Laurie had done a bang-up job of driving; however, we weren’t sure what it would be like on the narrow roads after dark. We didn’t want to chance it. (Now it occurs to me that the term ‘bang-up’ is not one to use when talking about driving.)
Day seven:

This was an excellent day in that I finally had a chance to do some fighting. There were several contests going on, so I had to wait around for a while. We have various ranks in our sport, depending on the group. In this case, people were testing their skills to rise up another notch in the standings.

After the tests, I got to cross swords with some of the local talent and I loved it… even when they handed me my head. By late afternoon, all of us who went to Raglan to fight were tired.

There is something almost magical, fighting in a real castle. Enough of the castle remains to see that this was a very comfortable place until Cromwell and his troops blew the hell out of it. There were tracery windows in what was once a library, and more of them in the great hall. There are many graceful things left even though damaged. Among them were several large fireplaces scattered throughout the ruins, one of which had a decorative facing of what were probably the Muses above it.

One of the people I fought with told me he was sad about the library. He wished it hadn’t been destroyed, which I thought was interesting to say the least; I mean, the destruction took place almost 400 years ago.

There were some people down under a bridge that joined the castle to the bowling green, making Norwegian Tarts in a portable oven. The oven was a replica of a medieval oven that might have been next to a cottage. It was a half of a ball, about sixteen inches across and sixteen inches tall. The bakers built a fire inside the oven, and when the wood burnt down, they swept the hearth out and started baking their tarts.

I did not get a chance to taste the tarts, but let me tell you that I am not sure what they would have tasted like. The man making the tarts said that they contained raisins, apples, nuts and fish. Okay, maybe they were delicious, but we chose to go to the nearby coffee shop for some non-period coffee and scones instead.

Day eight:

There was ceremonial business at the site in the morning, so we chose to go to Tintern Abbey instead of sitting around the house until the afternoon. Many of us had read Wordsworth’s poem about Tintern Abbey, (Okay, he didn’t write the poem about the abbey itself, but about the countryside and his feelings, and on and on. Heck even the poem’s full name is Welsh-like in its length: Lines Composed a Few Miles above Tintern Abbey, On Revisiting the Banks of the Wye during a Tour. July 13, 1798).

Now that I have gotten that out of the way, I will tell you about the place. First, it is in ruins just like the castle, and just like Raglan, it is a beautiful ruin. A wall surrounds the twenty-seven acres of Abbey grounds. Surprisingly, there doesn’t seem to have been much stone stealing so common in other places. I have heard there are barns in Greece that have bits of sculpture embedded in the walls.

There are several buildings around the site including infirmaries, vestries, smaller chapels, guesthouses, and of course, dormitories. While the Abbey has many lovely features, probably the most outstanding is the Western Window, where there seven lancet windows (tall, narrow widows ending in points) with a rose window above them. The delicate window tracery work is so fine that it is easy to forget that this is all stone. I tried to get a picture of a cloud floating behind the openings, but the result wasn’t very impressive.

Construction on the Abbey began in 1131. 1301 saw the completion of the great chapel, but work around the site continued in one way or another until 1536, when Henry shut the whole thing down. The church was large enough to be a cathedral, but there was never a bishop at Tintern (cathedrals must have a bishop resident), and so it remained just an abbey.

Like many other places, Henry VIII and his Dissolution of the Monasteries ended monastic life in England, Wales and Ireland. All the abbey treasure went to the Royal Treasury (of course), while the buildings fell into ruins. Teams of preservationists are working on the site, putting things together like a giant stone jigsaw puzzle.

The buildings are mostly of sandstone, whose colors vary from purple to buff and grey. The abbey church is 236 ft. long, but I can’t say how wide, although like most of the churches at that time, is in the form of a huge cross.

After wandering around the site for a couple of hours, we retreated to the Anchor Inn for a bite of lunch, and then off to the castle. While there were other cafes at the castle, we parked in the Anchor Inn parking lot and needed our ticket validated. The Inn offered a wide variety of dishes such as tomato-and-brie pies, cheese and ham pasties, but Patsy and I settled for Plowman’s Lunch because, again, we had read several references to it in English novels. . This dish consists of small pickled onions, a slab of cheese, slices of ham, and a spicy savory that tasted like mincemeat. Plowmen have very interesting tastes. After lunch, we headed back to Raglan.

Since this would be our final day of fighting with each other, and not traffic, I intended to make the most of it.

When we fight in groups rather than as individuals, we fight what we call melees. A melee consists of two or more teams fighting for a goal, usually to capture a prize or a particular person. Imagine if you will, several people, in this case about twenty, all armed with swords and small shields in some cases, trying to stab each other while not getting stabbed.

Our first melee fight was a bridge battle, where the invaders had to fight their way into the castle. For some reason, everything favored the invaders. We lost twice, but when it came our turn to invade, we won twice, so it all worked out. The second battle took place over a low wall in what had been The Buttery, which despite the name, was a place for serving beer and wine.
After a couple of hours fighting, it was time to stop for the day; after all, I am not a spring chicken anymore. Guy and Daniel finished with tier fighting as well. Laurie did very well at the archery range. She was the first archer to kill a plague rat (okay, a Styrofoam rat about the size of a football. No rodents were harmed in this contest). We left Raglan on a high note and with the promised meat pies. They were delicious, by the way.

Back at the schoolhouse, Daniel whipped up a lovely beef stew, which we devoured. There is nothing like a good workout in the open air to build up an appetite. Now it was time to start packing, because we would have to leave the house around six o’clock the next morning. We packed up as much as we could, including the Beast, which we put into one of the cars.

Day nine:

We got up early, made coffee and toast, took all the last minute pictures we needed, and then set off to the train station. Laurie and Guy had to return the rental cars and then take a taxi back to the station. It was close, but they made it just in time, and we were on our way back home.

I won’t bore you with the return trip, because nothing exciting happened. A Sumo wrestler didn’t sit in the outside seat, so we weren’t trapped, there was no exceptional turbulence, and we arrived back in Las Vegas about 9:30 in the evening, which meant we had been traveling for almost eighteen to twenty hours. We felt wrung out by the whole experience. However, if you asked, would we do it again, our answer would be Hell yes. In fact, we have been trying to figure out how we can match a return to Raglan next year with another event we want to attend n Pennsylvania.

So, I hope you enjoyed the trip to England and Wales. If you have any questions, please contact me. Again, I hope to be able to post some pictures along with this log, but dinosaurs have difficulty with technology, so don’t hold your breath.

Until next time, be well and be happy.

 

Links to photos: https://goo.gl/photos/GBQNasoMmDPh9nKL8

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The Dinosaur Goes toNova Scotia

Posted by marshal on August 29, 2015 in Dinologs |

 

Day one.
We flew from Las Vegas to Toronto, sat for a couple of hours, then went to our hotel. By the time we were settled, it was midnight, local time. Fortunately, it was eight o’clock Las Vegas time, so we weren’t exhausted. The next morning at the car rental place, we were supposed to get a mid-sized car. What they gave us is a Buick SUV, which they don’t consider that full sized according to the lady at the rental desk.

I got a little freaked out when I backed up. Part of the rear view mirror disappeared, because this thing has a back up camera which shows you what’s behind you. Of course it’s wide angle, which means it shows you what’s there but you can’t really judge the distances.

We started our drive to Louisbourg; it was nice but just a little longer than I would have liked, since that was our ‘jet-lag’ day, but the driving was nice. Everything is to a scale: the speed limit is often 100 kph, which works out to being somewhere around sixty-two miles per hour, but also got down to 80 kph, which is less than 50 mph. On the other hand, we were only going a couple of hundred kilometers anyway. Often we were the only car on the road for long stretches. We have been told that there are about a million people on Nova Scotia, which seems a little under estimated. However, that would explain why we never felt rushed on the roads.

We came across a middle-class river along the way, called the Bourgeoisie River. I guess means it didn’t live up to the expectations of other rivers in the area. Another sign further down the road, told us we were near a place called ‘Marshy Hope.” We looked for a ‘Quagmire Faith’ and perhaps a ‘Backwater Charity,’ but didn’t find any of those. Coffee was our mainstay, since we were both ragged out, having gotten up at eight o’clock (or four o’clock Las Vegas time), and on the road about the time we would normally be getting up at home.

McDonald’s was advertising McLobster sandwiches at their stands, so we had to stop and try one. It cost six dollars for lobster salad on a couple of pieces of lettuce in a plain hot-dog bun; expensive and cheap at the same time. We had to try it once, but we won’t order it again.

Our B&B at Louisbourg was nice, the four poster bed needed a footstool to get into. It’s one of those places where the bedspread matches the wall paper and the lampshades, a lot like Hyacinth’s bedroom in “Keeping Up Appearances.” This is also where I discovered that my computer will not work. We will have to depend on the kindness of strangers.

Day two:
Things started out well with a great breakfast, but then I went upstairs, sat down on a bench and broke the darned thing. It turned out to be one of those faux-antiques. Our host told me not to worry about it, because this was the last of several benches and they had all broken. I was worried because there are several real antiques in the B&B. One antique was an adult ‘potty chair’ with a removable chamberpot, which might have been used for sick people, sort of a maple bed pan.

We went to the lighthouse at the head of the bay and walked down a trail of crushed rock, about the size of a chicken egg for a couple of kilometers. The larger stones will eventually be covered with a finer material as time and money allows. There were piles of this finer stuff stockpiled along the way.

The trail included some trestles across the swampy areas. Our B&B host explained that they built the trestles wide enough for the ATVs used to haul the fine materials up for the trail. However, they didn’t plan well because the trestles are JUST wide enough, which means in some cases, not wide enough at all. We had seen some 2×6’s tacked on to the side of the trestles, and now we knew why.

It was a nice, brisk morning, the flowers were out and the poison ivy was dark read and glittering in the sunlight; we paid especial attention to those guys. The tide was coming in, making really dramatic waves that crashed up high on the rocks. Very impressive. After almost an hour, I started hearing a bell, but didn’t see any source for that. Well, being an old guy, hearing bells without cause is not necessarily a good thing. I kept quiet about it and just listened for the tolling: “Ask not for whom the bell tolls” and all that garbage. Anyway, a couple of minutes later, Patsy says, “Wonder where that bell is that’s ringing.” This was a good thing and I stopped worrying about what the near future held for me. We talked about it and decided it was probably a bell-buoy somewhere near the cliffs. We never did see it, but we heard it for a long time.

We kept seeing stack of rocks like the Boy Scouts make, the ‘go this direction’ sort of thing. There was one stack that looked like a Viking burial dolmen, with one large, rather flat rock supported by three upright smaller stones. It was about a foot and a half off the ground. Since Cape Breton is not so far away from Newfoundland, we checked the flat rock for Ogam or runes, but didn’t find any.

We read all the plaques along the trail and finished our walk and then decided it was time to head on over to the fortress. There’s a small island between the fortress and the lighthouse which used to be a French battery during the 1700s. Between the guns of the fortress and the battery, they had a clear field of fire over the entire harbor… except for the place where the British landed and set up their own cannons. They demolished the small island battery and then took the fortress in 1745 and again in 1756. Some one didn’t learn much the first time.

We were informed by the first docent we met, that this was a fortress, not a fort. A fortress is a fortified town, not just a stronghold. The docents stay more or less in their roles, but not as deeply as RenFaire people do. We were met at the town gates by a French soldier who was obviously an apple-cheeked young lady. We were told that any English would be considered spies, so we had to be French while we were there. I greeted her with my best ‘Bonn Sewer’ French hello.

The fortress is very interesting. It’s the largest reconstructed historical site in North America. Louisbourg was a very prosperous place when it was active, with lots of stone houses. There are also a lot of ruins that have not been excavated. The ruins are being saved for the future, but what has been rebuilt is worth seeing.

We had a traditional lunch at a place with long tables and benches. The meal included mussels in a broth that was, if not to die for, at least worth a hard punch on the arm. Our only utensil was a spoon, which gave our apple tarts an interesting taste after using the spoon on our baked cod-fish and root vegetables. We were given long napkins to tie around our necks. Good thing, because the lunch included a pea soup that was tasty, but a little thin; I’m used to the thick variety. There was also bread served with the meal, soldier’s bread, a thick, dense substance that never saw a speck of yeast. Imagine a slab of something like congealed oatmeal, only thicker, maybe closer to the consistency of plaster.

By around three, we were worn out, having spent the time earlier, walking around the lighthouse trail, so we headed to the B&B. We laid around, trying to unkink our leg muscles. After a bit of rest and some groaning, we made our way over to a place called ‘The Grubstake.’ If you make the trip to Louisbourg, The Grubstake is probably the overall best place to eat. (1st)

Day three:
We lost the sunny weather and were getting little spits of rain most of the time now, On our second visit to the fortress (we didn’t learn our lesson on the first visit), we again walked ourselves into the ground. The wind was brisk and we got a little wind burnt. We had gone out to the ruins along a trail, that took us closer to the ocean and into the wind. After a couple of hours doing this, we headed back into the main fortress for something to eat. This was a school trip day, so there was a herd of children packed into wherever we wanted to go. Eventually, though, we shoehorned ourselves into a place that sold chili. Imagine, coming from the Southwest to eat chili on Cape Breton Island.

Two things about this second visit: first is that there’s a big well by the side of one of the main streets. The well is dry, but people have been throwing money into it. Now as far as I know, the only reason why you throw money into a well is to bribe the Nixie that lives there into granting your wish. So, would this work with a dry well? No water, no Nixie, right? The second thing was, we found a young man who was supposed to be an itinerant Irish fiddle player. He played some songs for us and let me take his picture. I’ll try to attach it to this email.

I bought a small loaf of bread, the kind baked for the middle class. I knew the upper class bread would be regular white bread, and we had already had the lower class Soldier Bread, so I wanted this middle class bread for comparison. The loaf was sold to us by a young lady wearing a basket over her shoulder. Her costume included sabots, which we had seen her using to do a clog dance the day before. Middle class bread is whole wheat that has had some sort of leavening, but it’s still, a lot denser than we modern folk are used to. I wondered whether this was authentic or not, since our ancestors knew about sourdough rising. Maybe this was someone’s interpretation of an old recipe, one that didn’t mention leavening because the bakers all knew you used a pinch of old dough to make the bread rise.

While writing this particular excerpt, I was sitting in a warm area of the B&B, looking out at the harbor. There were a lot of colored dots out on the water, which I figured were lobster pot buoys. When the boats go out to check their pots, they are followed by a troop of gulls, but not as many as you might expect. I think it’s too cold for a lot of the gulls.

An odd thing: my cell phone doesn’t seem to work. I haven’t been able to pick up a signal since we got to Nova Scotia.

Day four:
Friday had us driving to Dingwall. We though this would be a good middle-of-the-drive around Cape Breton to stay. On the way, we stopped at a church/tea room for lunch, where we had very good bowls of seafood chowder. The ladies running the tea room rent it from the church. I mention this because the churches up here are interesting. They run the gamut from small chapels like this one, to big places with enormous steeples. There’s a thesis about Cape Breton churches waiting for someone, if they can find the time.

We made a wrong turn at Englishtown, but it turned out to be the best idea because it cut off about an hour or so traveling time. There was a ferry at Englishtown that took us across a fifty yard stretch of water. It took longer to load the ferry than to take the trip! This shortcut allowed us plenty of time to stop at a nursery/garden/bakery, where we bought some muffins that would travel with us for days. The muffins were delicious, but I guess we just weren’t in the mood for them.

We stayed at an out of the way resort. It’s actually big and nice, but we were here very early in the season. Since it was so early, they hadn’t even set up their dining room yet, so we made do with stuff we picked up at a tiny market. Our cabin was at the end of a long road and almost the last place in the line. We made ‘Tony Perkins Memorial Motel’ jokes about the place. If you read this journal, you know we were only joking about it being spooky. If not… well never mind, you wouldn’t be reading my log anyway.

We were near the ocean and there were the ubiquitous Appalachian chairs, plus a nice bottle of Nova Scotia wine, so even with the remote location and the soft weather, it was nice to just sit and enjoy the night.

Here’s a funny thing: most of the road signs along the route are in English and French, but up in this part of the island, they are in English and Gaelic. There’s supposed to be a Gaelic college up here somewhere. If there was, we couldn’t read the sign to tell us anyway. We were reminded that Gaelic spelling is more involved than English; why say in two words what you can say in thirty-six syllables?

The countryside was beautiful; green and bountiful like eastern Pennsylvania. The majority of houses and churches are painted white, which makes the green even greener. The place was dotted in villages, a term which I have now come to understand more fully. Some of these places are fairly large, maybe with dozens of houses, but most don’t even have a gas station in them. There’ll be a store of some sort, maybe a DIY store, and that’s about it.

Tim Horton’s cafes are very common around here. This is a quasi-fast food joint that makes actual sandwiches and soup. They have a large selection of baked goods as well. There are tons of bakeries along the way. We stopped at one coffee house that made French kind of pastries. I had an almond scone that was very nice and I would have liked to take a couple along for later on, but we still had the muffins..

.(2nd)
Day five
Cape Breton is an incredibly beautiful place. There are the green, green hills and the road is right next to the ocean. The speeds sometimes got down to 40 kph, or just about 25 mph. As beautiful as this drive is, if we were to do it again, we would probably go to Louisbourg, spend three or four days there and then double back to Pictou. Like I said, the area is beautiful but there is so much beauty in Nova Scotia and PEI, the long drive could be sacrificed.

The place is lousy with artists and you can burn up a lot of time with stopping at all the quaint shops. They have the names of the shops and galleries on signposts along the road. We bought a lovely glass orange ball about the size of a grapefruit. Patsy also got a great warm sweater.

We drove Pictou to be near the ferry for Prince Edward Island. Pictou is a lovely village, but once again it seemed that we were either a day too early or a day too late for live music. We walked by one place that had a chalked notice on the sidewalk, advertising Irish music the night before. Oh well.

If the last place we stayed was strange, the Evening Sail B&B in Pictou made up for it. This is the kind of place you think of when you look for a B&B. The room was great and the breakfast was very tasty. We bought a bottle of wine and sat on the balcony behind our room, listening to the rain and looking out at the harbor. A pattern seems to be developing here.

The cell phone mystery has been cleared up! I forgot to get my phone set up for being out of the country. We went to a Sobey’s story, a super market thing, and bought a program that would help us to use the phone in Canada. Unfortunately, the young man sold me the wrong SIM card for the phone, so that didn’t work. When I changed back to my original SIM card things worked like a charm. The next time we travel out of the country, I have to set up a roaming program with my cell provider. Oh, about the wrong card? This was Saturday evening when we went to Sobey’s. The young man said that I had to wait for a half hour so the system could get adjusted to my phone. Wel-l-l-l, he was closed by the time I realized the phone wasn’t going to work. We would be on the ferry the next morning, so I thought I was stuck. I resolved to go to the Ralph’s Network when we hit PEI.

It was still rainy, but a soft rain that went very well with the local Chardonnay.

Day six
We got down to the ferry on time and sat around in the rain. It was coming in bursts now, soft, then hard, then back to soft again. The ride over to PEI was not bad, no high seas or anything. Nevertheless, there were some folks who didn’t do well and I noticed there were barf bags scattered around the place. The interesting thing is, they don’t charge for going to the island: you have to pay to get off of it. Once we got off the ferry at Charlottetown, it was two left turns and a stretch to our B&B.

Our B&B in Charlottetown is again a winner. It was central to everything we needed, and even had a laundromat nearby. We ate at a steakhouse, having surf and turf at the first reasonable prices we’d encountered so far. Every place we went, there was lobster for sale, but at about $25. Heck, we could get a better deal back in Las Vegas.

Everybody thinks our coming from Las Vegas is a big deal. That’s okay, it makes us feel special.

Patsy lost an umbrella somewhere, so we bought one at the museum, then walked outside and the wind turned it inside out. I took that one for myself, since I can hold the broken strut while I hunker down under the undamaged part. The museum had a Starbucks, so I got a decent cup of coffee. Not that the coffee has been bad, but even at Tim Horton’s, it ain’t Starbucks.

Day seven
Found us headed over to Avonlea and Green Gables. Patsy has been reading “Anne of the Green Gables” in preparation for the visit. Mark Twain said it was the sweetest children’s book ever written. When Twain says something like that, you want to look at the compliment very closely.

We were going to walk through the Haunted Forest part of the farm, but there’s a golf course in the middle of the park and the path kind of peters out between a green and a tee, then takes back up somewhere further along. We just turned around and went over to the author’s home. We realized there wasn’t enough time to do everything that was nifty, so we went to the art museum for a walk around, dinner and then to a musical “Anne of Green Gables,” go figure. The show was great! The dancing was so vigorous and well put together, it took a while to realize just how hard these people were working. What was amazing was how hard these people were dancing, but they could still belt out a tune immediately afterwards. I’d like to say that the museum meal was outstanding, it was, but not as outstanding as the meal we’d have in Alma or in Halifax, later on.

By the way, we talked to several locals and one man from Newfoundland about which prince Edward the island was named after. Nobody could tell us. Turns out it was named after Edward, son of George III, you may have heard of him. Edward was the only one of his sons to have never worn the crown. He was governor or regent or something like that, over Canada instead. Sort of like John Lackland being given Ireland, although he eventually wore the crown and signed the Magna Carta. The capital city is Charlottetown, named after George III’s consort. There’s that name again. If you go to Prince Edward Island, you may be the only person there that knows who the names belong to.

 

Day eight:
The weather was a little more rainy than it had been. We drove down to the bridge. Let me rephrase that, we drove to the BRIDGE! This is the longest bridge over frozen water, in the world. What a claim. Of course it was misty, so I couldn’t see the whole expanse, thank God. But I will say it kept going and going and then it humped in the middle and then kept going… I think it cost us something like $25 Canadian to get off PEI. Well worth it.
We drove down to a small burg named Alma, which was near the Hopewell Rocks and the Fundy National Park. The Hopewell Rocks are really interesting, they look like the Hoodoos at Bryce Canyon, except that they are islands when the tide is in and big, tall lumps of land when it’s out. I’ll try to attach a picture to this email so you can see.

(3rd)

I’ve divided day eight into two sections because there was so much to talk about. So on to Hopewell Rocks and other adventures. We went to Fundy National Park first, because the tide was going out and we wanted to get the full benefit of the visit to Hopewell. We went down to the beach at Wolfe Point, quite a haul, and walked along the shore. Someone had written a pro-marijuana message in the sand, which we thought was funny and maybe a little retro. I picked up a green stone with a notch in it and carried that around. Just what I needed, more weight while climbing back up to the top of the cliff.

On our drive over to Hopewell, we saw one of those deer crossing signs, the one with the leaping deer silhouette. Well actually, we saw a lot of them, but someone had painted it so that the deer was smoking a giant doobie. Shades of the 1960s.

Hopewell Rocks were incredible. I promised so send some pictures, but have forgotten to do so, so far. I’ll try to remember to send one this time. If I do get the picture sent, remember that those things at the bottom of the hoodoos are people, not ants, and the green line at the top of the hoodoos is the high tide mark. Incredible.

By the time we were done with the Hopewell Rocks, we just wanted to go back to the B&B and relax. There was a store right next door so we could pick up a bottle of wine (remember the pattern that seems to be emerging?), and a restaurant across the street. We expected the usual lobster etc. at the restaurant, but found a wider selection instead. The chef is a young man who is interested in experimenting. We had a lobster chicken rollade with a nut crust and fresh vegetables with fiddle head ferns. The French fries were crispy on the outside and melting inside. I’d like to get this guy to come to Las Vegas.

We made the mistake of having dessert, which was a delicious apple and berry concoction, but it was too much of a good thing. I spent the rest of the night regretting that.
By the way, I forgot to mention a meal we had in Charlottetown, in an Irish pub. It was a Boxty potato pancake folded over a mixture of sauted fresh veggies and chunks of ham. I’m going to try to make that myself.

Day nine:
We passed through the Fundy Park on our way to St. John. The rain was a lot stronger now, but still intermittent. St. John is another retro adventure. We stayed in the Earle of Leinster B&B, down in the older part of town. This looks and feels like San Francisco in the 1960s. We went down to a massive indoor market for lunch and then decided to walk to the Reversing Falls. This is a rapids area of the river where, when the tide is in, the river flows backwards. The walk was supposed to take about forty-five minutes, but we were more tired that we realized, and so it took us twice as long. We stopped to rest a lot. Anyway, yes, the river is tidal here and yes the rapids do flow backwards.

The way to the market was through a Loyalist graveyard, so we stopped and looked at some of the stones from the 1790s. Most of these are covered in lichen and are hard to make out. The market had a great variety of food places and was connected to a museum by a glass walkway. Inside the mall where the museum was located, there were lots of whimsical sculptures. One group was of a little girl flying overhead, holding onto a bunch of helium balloons and being accompanied by a couple of WWI bi-wing airplanes, also whimsically carved. There is a sort of totem pole outside the mall, supposedly carved by the same sculptor. It starts out with a series of businessmen sitting outside their doors. As the pole climbs, it has candy cane spiraled pillars that support another group of smaller figures. By the time it reaches it’s height of maybe twenty feet, there is a group of people sitting at a table under an umbrella. Having coffee? Who knows?

We opted for Greek Salads back at our room, some television and of course, a bottle of wine. There is a type of Chardonnay grape called l’Acadie grown up here. To me, it has a citrus/pineapple mouth and a green apple finish. This is our wine of choice on this trip. We wanted to watch some Canadian television because in the past, this has always been an interesting diversion. Canadian humor is slightly different that US humor. We ended up watching some PBS program out of Maine. This had something good for us, because we were supposed to stay with friends in Maine the next night. Well, Maine is an hour different from New Brunswick and we had reservations on the ferry the following day. If we missed that, we would have been in bad shape.

When we got up the next morning, it was just spitting a little rain. We headed off to St. Andrew to meet our friends. St. Andrew is another retro thing. You could pick the town up from almost anywhere along the California coast and drop it here. Except for the whale watching tours, there would be no difference. There was a Farmer’s Market going on, so we wandered through the stalls, passing time until Colm and Honour showed up. We found a coffee shop where we could sit for a while, plus of course use the facilities. I bought an apple foccatia bread tart. It was nice, but a bit dry.

There were cannons along the boardwalk. There seems to be a lot of these here in New Brunswick. I think this was a much contested shore, especially from the US. Right after the Revolution, we tried to take over parts of Canada several times.

Colm and Honour showed up and we had a marvelous lunch that lasted for well over two hours. We offered to vacate the table, but our waitress told us to not rush, since the lunch business was over. We talked about our going to Maine and realized that this was not a good idea. We stood a good chance of missing the ferry if we did. However, we also talked about maybe going there in the fall.

By the time Colm and Honour left, it was almost evening and we went back to St. John to be near the ferry. We stayed in a regular hotel that was not as prosperous as it had been. There were great stained glass windows set in oak window frames, but the place was being used as a dormitory for Polish pipeline workers.

(4th)

Some things to mention before I forget: first is the lupines. They are everywhere and they are beautiful. There were drifts of lupines between the trees and on the verges. Even so, people still plant them in their yards. I think I have a picture of lupines, if so, I will attach it.

The next thing is the polite way that the waiter at the museum reminded me the proper pronunciation of Niceoise is neese-wah, not nick-wah. And this even though I know the name of the city is neese, not n-ice. My command of foreign languages amazes even me sometimes.

The Canadians are way ahead of us in recycling. They have bins everywhere for recycle, and there is usually one for ‘compostables’ as well as the glass and paper ones.

I had heard of ‘hanging valleys’ before, but had not really gotten the term down. So at one of our stops, there was an information board telling about ‘hanging valleys.’ What the term means is the smaller side valleys feeding into a main valley that subsides faster than the smaller ones. This leaves them ‘hanging,’ so that any stream coming out of those valleys, will be a waterfall. Simple, no?

Now, on with the story. Half the Polish workers had the day off, so they all wanted to wash their clothes at the same time. Fine, except that there was only one small washer and dryer. We sat there to guard our clothes while five Poles came through, asking in Polish if the washer or the dryer were available. At least I hope that’s what they were asking. We did the pantomime thing and lots of pointing. The Poles have no problem with pulling someone else’s clothes out of the dryer, putting in their own and then walking away. Anyway, we pulled our drying out when it looked like we were bottle-necking the procedure and stuffed semi-dry clothes into plastic sacks. We would finish the drying later on. One more interesting thing about the Polish workers, they all smoked and when they did, they smoked the cigarette down to the filter. I think the last inhale must be nasty.

In the morning, it was raining cats and dogs. We got down to the ferry on time, but the ticket booth’s computer wasn’t working, so the attendant told us to go on down to aisle three. We were about the fifth auto there. After about an hour, they started loading vehicles. We were among the last, which bothered me, because I needed the bathroom. Also another cup of coffee. Go figure. As we were loading, the man at the gate asked me for my ticket. I told him I didn’t have a ticket, just a reservation. Well, we had to get out of line, I had to walk through the rain with my reservation number and a rather full bladder, to get a ticket.

When we finally loaded, we were at the head of the center line, which would help later on. The hold made me think the last batch of autos must have been hauling very old fish. Anyway, once we were loaded, we had to make a mad dash up the stairs, looking for the washrooms. Once we got that taken care of, we went to the cafe for something to eat. The interesting thing is, the cafe only served sandwiches, while the lounge had real food, hot soup and so on. We found this out after we had some sandwiches that would have done justice to an airline or maybe a hospital.

The trip from St. John New Brunswick to Digby Nova Scotia is a little over three hours, so we had some time to kill. With the rain lashing the windows, we killed a certain amount of the time with some Starbuck’s coffee and small talk. However, as we got closer to Nova Scotia, the weather improved until it was sunny when we got to Digby. Being at the front of the line paid off now, because we were able to get to our B&B in less than fifteen minutes.

We stayed at the Thistledown Inn, and what a perfect place to wrap up the vacation. Okay, so we still had a couple of days to go, but they would be spent in Halifax, so this was the last of the good places.

There was a Laundromat nearby and we finally got our clothes dry. Best of all, we didn’t lose any socks along the way!

Anyway, we went down to a place that served excellent sea-food and had tiger shrimp. On the way back to the B&B, we passed a place that advertised LIVE MUSIC!!! Finally! We dropped in and listened to a singer who played both a guitar and a dulcimer. When we got there, they gave us a booth, even though we said we were only there for the music, and the beer, of course. We sat there long enough for a couple of Keith’s Amber Ales and enjoyed the music. There was a big party there, making noise, so the musician was being ignored. Patsy and I started clapping after every song until eventually, we got other people to join in.

We made our way back to the Thistledown and sat out on the lawn in the ever present Adirondack chairs. We finished our last bottle of l’Acadie wine and watched the peaceful sunset. I half expected whales out in the water, and there may have been, but none of them came near us. I don’t take this as a personal slight.

The next morning should have been an easy drive into Halifax, but it was the start of a long, long travail that ended only when we got on the airplane to Las Vegas.

When we got on the edge of town, near Lower Wolfville, and called the hotel where we would be staying, to get directions. The young lady at the desk gave me complete directions, but then suddenly realized she had given them to me backwards! We could drive from the hotel to where we were, but not the other way around. She proceeded to give me what she thought were the correct directions, but she left out a few things, such as that one of the major roads changes names when it turns. Shades of Las Vegas! Well, I get lost with simple directions, so these complicated ones were guaranteed to give us an adventure.

After being lost for an hour, we stopped at a Tim Horton’s to use the washroom and to ask for more directions. One gentleman told us to just go up to the corner and turn right, take the next right turn and we would be on the road we needed. Yeah. Well, we found the road, but again it turned and changed it’s name. We finally stopped at an RCMP office for directions. The officer showed me a map and told me to go down this one street, that it would take us right into downtown Halifax. What he didn’t tell me was that the road ended in a chain-link fence. I thought maybe I had gone the wrong way, so I went around the block, or tried to. Things didn’t work out and we found ourselves in Lower Wolfville again.

I went to the RCMP station in Lower Wolfville; it was closed, but there was a telephone outside, so I could call and ask for directions. The person who answered the phone wanted to know where I was calling from…

I eventually got another set of directions and headed off toward the airport, figuring we could find that, turn in the car and get a shuttle to the hotel. Well, almost. We did get the car turned in and we did git the shuttle, but the closest drop off was about five or six blocks away. We had to trudge uphill with all the bags and stuff.

Once we were in our room, a very lovely room on the third floor with two dozen stairs per floor, we took a short nap. I headed down to make reservations for dinner and to pull up our boarding passes.

Now, an odd chicken came home to roost. Before we left home, I called the credit card companies and told them we would be in Canada for two weeks. What I had forgotten was that my Compuserve bill is paid by credit card, so since the charge came from some where other than Canada, it didn’t get paid. My service was suspended, but I didn’t know why. Maybe if there had been a ‘Pay up, you deadbeat’ message, I would have known. I didn’t find out about how this snafu happened until we were home.

Meanwhile, it’s raining hard now, we don’t have boarding passes and our pick-up point is several blocks away. We had one day to spend in Halifax and then the next day, we had to be at the airport no later than 5:30, the first shuttle was at 4:45, so we decided to shift hotels so we were only five minutes away from the airport. The people at the front desk were really kind; they let us back out of the second night reservation with no problems. Canadians! They’re too damned nice.

Dinner that night was superb. This was the second of our memorable meals, starting off with scallops in rice paper wrappers. We had wild boar medallions wrapped in bacon, served on a polenta with a pasilla pepper sauce. Being a sort of Nouveau Cuisine kind sort of dish, the veggies consisted of two asparagus spears, a couple of slices of red pepper and a slice or two of yellow squash. That’s okay, the scallops had been dressed with a bunch of greens, so we considered the deal as done. Dessert was interesting. Patsy opted for an apple pie sort of thing, while I went whole hog for something they billed as ‘Dessert to the third power.’ it was a sampler, a small fruit tart, a small Crème Brûlée and a wodge of chocolate cake.

I had planned to end the log today, but there is so much that happens after this, I will draw out the adventure for one more time.

(5th)

So we had the adventure getting to our hotel. After putting our bags in our room, we walked around Halifax, enjoying the waterfront. It was still fairly clear, just a little cloudy. That night, we had the great meal I described before. The next day was when things started to get strange. The Airporter, the shuttle that goes from the hotels to the airport, didn’t stop at our place, so we made arrangements to meet at another hotel about four or five blocks away. It was raining, but not too hard.

As we stood out waiting for the Airporter, which was late, a taxi pulled up and asked if we were the ones waiting for the Airporter. I thought he said he was there to take us to meet the shuttle, so we loaded our bags into the trunk. He said he would be taking us all the way to the airport, at the same rate as the Airporter. About the time we pulled away, the shuttle showed up. I felt guilty, because we had made special arrangements for the shuttle to come there, and now we were sailing away in a gypsy cab. In the long run, this was a good thing, but still.

The driver was an old guy, and believe me, if I say he was old, he was old. Anyway, he kept telling us interesting things about Halifax as he drove, which was good. He illustrated his talk by using his hands, both hands at the same time, while still driving down a rainy freeway. This was not good. We of course survived, but it was still scary. We learned, by the way, that there is an American cemetery in Halifax. It’s a graveyard of Americans captured during the War of 1812 and taken to Canada, where they were allowed to die without care, much like Andersonville in our Civil War. The taxi driver said that they had started to use DNA and had identified some of the skeletons.

So the other good thing about our gypsy driver is he took us directly to our new hotel. If we had taken the Airporter, it would have dropped us off at the airport in the rain and we would have had to wait a half hour for a shuttle.

At the hotel, I went to the business center and tried to get on the Internet again; I was still blocked. I went to the Aircanada site and tried to get our boarding passes there. What a fight that was. First, the site refused to acknowledge me, although it called me by name. Next, it refused to acknowledge we had reservations, even though it showed that, if we had reservations, they would take us to Toronto and then on to Las Vegas. Well, after about a half hour of this, I got our boarding passes. Things were looking up. We asked for a wakeup call at 4:00 A.M.

Did I mention that the wind was blowing and the rain was coming in at an angle?

Good thing I made coffee in the room, because the hotel didn’t have any. When we got to the airport, nothing was open, either. The coffee shop opened just as they were loading us onto the airplane. I didn’t realize it at the time, but some enterprising souls had gotten cups of coffee and were carrying them on the plane with them. Oh well, they would serve coffee on the plane, right? Wrong. We did get some juice and water, however.

When we got to Toronto, we should have had an hour and a half to our next flight. However, our baggage didn’t get unloaded for almost an hour. Then we rushed over to our connecting flight and had to go through security again. As we’re being s-l-o-w-l-y checked through, we heard our flight being called for final boarding. We were not quite at the head of the line for inspection.

As we got to the inspection point, one of the inspectors started loading plastic trays upside down in front of us. I’m trying to get my useless computer into a tray,.but there’s not enough room what with the upside down trays. Now I am flustered because they are announcing that all passengers for our flight must now be on board. I put my traveling vest on the conveyor, even though Patsy reminded me that I would need my passport and boarding pass to show. They were in the vest pocket, the one that was now on the other side of the x-ray machine.

Patsy handed me my vest, I pulled out the documents and sent the vest back through again. Now we were on the right side of the inspection area, but as I picked up my vest and computer, my passport fell and I kicked it across the room. More panic. Another call for final boarding. One of the inspectors decides she has to wand the computer case, very very carefully. I told her we were in a hurry, but she said we shouldn’t have waited so long to get to the airport. Well, this wasn’t the time to get into all this.

We made it to the boarding area and had one more stop. We had to show our passports and boarding passes one more time. Well, Patsy had hers in hand. I reached for my passport and it wasn’t with my boarding pass. I didn’t know what to do at this point, because our baggage was on the plane, the plane was waiting on us and I couldn’t find the damned passport. Now why they thought we could have gotten to this point without a passport, God only knows, but I wasn’t leaving Canada without showing the document. I had a panic attack thinking about having to learn how to speak French.

At the last moment, I felt the passport in one of the dozen or so pockets of the vest. In my haste, I had stuck it there rather than in the place it should have gone. I showed it and we made it! Okay, so there were some glares from the other passengers as we got to our seats. We had to roust out a teenager who thought he could just move in on our window seat. I don’t blame him, I probably would have done the same thing if I were his age. Fortunately, there was another family that got on after us. They had also been on the Halifax and had not gotten their luggage on time.

Well, there it was. We had six hours of stale sandwiches, mediocre coffee and trying to pee in a closet while bouncing up and down. But we all know what airplanes are like, right? So we made it back to Las Vegas, leaving a cool, rainy 70 degree temperature, and landed in our 103 degree temp with the sunlight pouring down like honey… wait, that’s a line from Leonard Cohen’s “Suzanne.” Never mind.

Hope you have enjoyed the Dinosaur Log from Nova Scotia. Thanks for listening.

Tony

 

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The Dinosaur goes to China

Posted by marshal on July 17, 2015 in Dinologs |

Prologue:
China is a very large, very ancient country. We would not see most of the country, nor see most of the varied ethnic groups who live in China. Since we were only in the country for a short time, this log is almost a snapshot of a snapshot if you will. This is not a definitive work, just my impressions of what we saw while there.
Chapter one:
I suspect that most of us get Travelzoo in our e-mail – you know – the one that offers you three days and two nights in downtown Tucson for only $125.00, and deals on other exotic places. Patsy got a promotion for a trip to China through a Canadian company named Sinorama. China has always been on my to-do list, not my bucket list, but on a list somewhere. The deal Sinorama pitched sounded great and so we went for it.
An interesting thing about the Sinorama people is that they are very helpful, however we would have an occasional communication disconnect when I worked with them. Once or twice, I thought I asked straightforward questions, but got unusual answers. Persistence pays off, so I kept asking the same question in different ways until I had the information I needed. I will say that they are a good deal, their program is exceptional, and their system of guides is very professional. I would use their services again.
Logic would say that, living in Las Vegas, we should have contacted the Chinese Embassy in Los Angeles for our visas. We were prepared to drive down there and stay with some friends while we got our paperwork done. However, and this is a big however, when I went on-line to get the address of the embassy, I found that people living in Las Vegas must go through the embassy in San Francisco.
It that bothered me that we would have to send our passports off to get our Chinese visas. I get antsy when we have to ship our little blue books somewhere so that we can enter another country. I start to worry that maybe somewhere someone is passing himself off as me by using my identification. How would I defend myself if the Feds came after me for some fraudulent international escapade unknown to me? Nevertheless, we had to do it and so we entrusted our passports and our identities to FedEx.
Apparently, there are companies whose sole purpose in life is to obtain visas for other people, at a price, of course. I thought their fee was a little high in this case, although not as expensive as traveling to San Francisco and the cost of spending time there. I will say that the company we chose got the job done in short order and we had our passports back with our brand-spanking new Chinese visas. I looked at my visa several times and wondered if it would be impolite to casually show it off to friends, or even to strangers standing next to me at the market. They would be amazed I’m sure, however, since this might have been a little over the top, I refrained.
The next step of our adventure began with a miscalculation. We had planned to use one of those free park-and-ride places next to the airport and fly down to L.A. for our connection to Vancouver, Canada. There was a snag to all this however: we needed to be at the airport some 90 minutes before our flight, and the bus service from the park-and-ride place did not even start until after the time when we should have been checked in. When I realized that we had a problem, I had visions of us running down the airport concourse, dragging our carry-ons, and elbowing people out of our way. Even then, the airline people probably would have been calling our names and warning us that the plane was in its final boarding stages.
Fortunately, we had friends who came to our rescue; they picked us up and ran us out to the airport at 4:45 in the morning. These are real friends. We got to McCarran Airport on time, checked through TSA, bought expensive cups of coffee, and read for a while.
When we fly, Patsy likes to sit next to the window, which puts me in the middle seat and I usually find myself next to a Sumo wrestler who promptly falls asleep. This time I was in luck, sort of; the plane was one of the smaller ones and I had an aisle seat. Although I didn’t have to squish over against Patsy in order to be comfortable, the legroom on the aircraft was short – I had to straddle the seat in front of me with a knee to either side. Thankfully, the person sitting there did not drop his seat back.
We spent the night in L.A. because our flight to Vancouver was very early the next morning. What is it with these flights that require one to get up before dawn?
The next morning we were up at 4:30 again and headed for the airport on our way to Canada. My luck held on the flight to Vancouver! There was ample legroom and while I still sat between my lady and another passenger, this time it was a small woman who might have weighed 90 pounds if you handed her a couple of bricks.
We got to Vancouver with an hour layover, but I misread the gate information and we had to move out smartly to find the right one. Too bad, because the Vancouver airport is pretty and we could have spent some time looking at all the artwork instead of hustling down the concourse.
Our flight from Vancouver to Beijing was on a Boing 737, called a ‘Dreamliner,’ and it is in some ways. If you are in first class, you get these sort-of booth compartments instead of the usual side-by-side seating. However, back in steerage where we were, all we got was more legroom. More leg room was fine with me, especially after someone told me how much it would cost the two of us to go from Vancouver to Beijing first class.
I thought I was in luck again, because although I was still in the middle seat, sitting on the aisle was a young Asian girl wearing an extremely short skirt and rhinestone high heel sneakers. I figured I would have no problems getting out when I needed to, but I was wrong. When we reached cruising altitude, the girl kicked off her shoes, put a pillow down on the pullout table in front of her, and promptly went to sleep. I was trapped again!
Fortunately, the airline fed us every couple of hours, so between getting food served to us, plus the occasional help from a flight attendant who spoke her language, I made it through the flight with no “pressing” needs.
Let me tell you that they do feed you on international flights. We had two full meals, a couple of snacks, and a sandwich during the sixteen hours it took to fly from Canada to China. We also had lots of water, which is why the sleeping beauty next to me was of such concern.
The flight itself was calm, with some turbulence, but not too much, and we got to Beijing on time. The airport there is very large and very hectic. We thought the New Delhi airport was confusing, but at least there, many people there spoke English. In Beijing, the most common phrase we heard was ‘no English.’
Patsy and I retrieved our bags and tried to find the exit, but since we do not read Chinese, we almost found ourselves on a domestic flight into Shanghai instead.
Normally, in these logs, I talk about the food we eat and/or the beer encountered along the way, but not this time. It would be some five or six days into the tour before I could transcribe my notes. By then we would have eaten so much Chinese food with various meats and vegetables, that if you asked me about any one particular thing, for instance pork, I would only nod my head and say, “Yup, had some of that.”
The same thing holds for my notes. I usually jot things down in a small notebook which, of course, I forgot to bring it along with us this time. I had been writing things down on scraps of paper that I cadged from the hotels where we stayed, and then I stuck them into wherever I find a place, in books, pockets, suitcases, and hoped for the best. At one point, I considered using toilet paper, but refrained; not only would the paper tear and the ink spread, but also my handwriting is sketchy at best. Writing down something like “Enclosed houses, grey bricks,” could have been interpreted as, “Encroached mouse, grey licks.” Please, as you read these notes, if something doesn’t make sense, be creative with your reading.
As for the beer, I won’t comment except to say that once we were on the tour, we had a glass of Tsing Tao beer as part of almost every meal except for breakfast. If we wanted more than the one glass of beer, we had to pay about $5 for a bottle of Tsing Tao. (Note: I am covering this after the trip, so I don’t remember if this is $5 Chinese, US, or Canadian.)

Day 1:
Eventually, our guide found us, and after a wait for the last of our group to arrive, we headed to our hotel. The drive should have taken forty minutes, but traffic was so heavy that it took us almost two hours to make the trip. Our guide explained this was the Beijing rush hour and that it lasts from seven in the morning until seven in the evening.
I should probably mention that our guide told us he spoke Chinglish, and that we would encounter Chinglish along the way. Much like Spanglish, the Chinese we met spoke good English, but they often put the em-fah-sis on the wrong syll-ah-bul. We would also see signs with unusual phrases like, “Wet step, slide carefully.” Our guides tended to repeat the last word or phrase they said, along with the word, ‘yeah.’ For example, they might say something like, ‘word, yeah, word.’ Having said that, I couldn’t imagine what we would come up with if we tried to speak or write Chinese.
Now back to the tour.
At the hotel, we turned in our passports, got a key for our room, and then went off for dinner. The hotel offered a buffet of Chinese food, but with nod to Western tastes as well. By the time we ate and got back to the room, we had been mostly awake for twenty-four hours, so we slept like babies. (Note: we understand there is a Chinese saying that we slept like dead pigs… I don’t know if I like that comparison or not, but we did it anyway.)
I should also mention that while we stayed in some nice hotels, it seems the Chinese like to watch people bathing. There were large windows between the bed areas and the bathtubs, and all the showers were glass enclosed as well. This probably doesn’t mean anything, but I thought it was worth noting.
By the way, since I am on bathrooms, I should mention that all the hotels had western style toilets, but elsewhere, we were likely to find squat toilets. One of our later guides said that this is healthier than sitting on a stool. She suggested that if we only used the western toilet, we really didn’t know squat.
Day 2:
We found out some things about our guide. Not only did he meet us at the airport, but would be with us throughout the tour. He told us his name was Jeff Wei, and then he told us his Chinese name… Jeff was an okay name for us.
All of our guides would have English names as well as their Chinese names. Apparently, taking an English name is part of what they do when learning the language. Our guide took his name from an instructor who he admired.
Jeff told us he would be our main guide, although there would be other local guides as well. After this introduction, he gave us a short lesson in Chinese, and showed us some basic Chinese characters. China is the Middle Kingdom, and the pictograph for Middle is a square with a vertical line drawn through it, simple, huh? Another character often goes along with this one, and together they say China (or Middle) Kingdom. The second character looks like three stacked horizontal lines with a vertical line down the middle of them, and a little tick at the end of the bottom line. The name China comes from the Qin dynasty (221-206 B.C.), but to the Chinese, the name has always been Zhongguo, the Middle Kingdom.
Like western lettering, there are block pictograms and those drawn in a cursive style. There are also different styles of lettering, some more blocky, some more relaxed. In western style letters, these are called fonts, but I don’t know if this term applies to pictograms.
I got good at recognizing some of the symbols. (Side note: this ability fell off rapidly. I learned the symbols for entry, exit, and bank, but never for toilets, which would have been more useful. Thank God, most of the important signs have English sub-titles.)
Beijing is large city of some 10 million people. My first reaction to it was that there were a lot of tall buildings, high-rises in fact, but even the tallest ones had some interesting architectural details so that the city wasn’t just Legoland on steroids. My second reaction to the high-rises was that once the architect settled on a design, the builders repeated it four, five, or six times.
What I think of as Chinese vernacular, that is the curved eaves with fancy end caps, was still around, but those places seemed to be the exception rather than the rule. Mostly what we saw were the blocky high rises. There were exceptions to this however, such as the building with two towers and a four or five story bridge connecting them so that it looked like an upside-down ‘U,’ or another building with a swirl on top, like a soft ice cream cone.
Even though there was some very exciting architecture spotted around the city, the majority of the buildings seemed to be the high-rise apartment type. When you have 10 million people in a city, they all have to live somewhere.
By the way, there were cranes everywhere and I mean the lifting kind, not the feather bearing ones. Jeff told us the crane is the national bird of China, and then pointed to a cluster of the lifting type hovering on the skyline.
He went on to tell us that the government owns the land and that people can buy the apartments or live on the land for 70 years, but then they must pay a tax and get permission to stay longer. A farmer can build a house if he applies for permission (and later on, we saw a lot of these). He still has the 70- year rule, but I think there is some sort of dispensation. One of our guides said that the 70 -year rule is has been in effect for almost that long and she thought the government would change it soon.
I started to get an appreciation of the problems associated with providing food and shelter for 1.5+ billion people. A small town in China may have between 400,000 and 1.5 million people in it, while many of the larger towns have 20 million residents or more.
Paulo Solari, the architect, suggested that we create people hives, which is not the same thing they have done here, but the effect is similar. According to Solari, it is better to go up rather than to sprawl all over the place, using up arable land best used for growing food. Unfortunately, they don’t understand this concept in places where farmland and orange groves give way to shopping malls.
Beijing has a park-like feeling, with lots of trees and gardens. We saw this park-like look repeated in all the cities we visited. Everything seemed neatly trimmed, which must take a huge number of gardeners to accomplish. Someone pointed out how, with 10 million people already living in the city, and with who knows how many kids leaving school every year, someone must find work for all these people. Maybe that’s the reason why there were so many parks: being a landscape worker was probably the default job for people who have not trained for something else.
One of our local guides told us that there is unemployment insurance, but that people are embarrassed to apply for it. I found this interesting because I thought everyone would have a job in a nominally Communist system.
There were a lot of colorful bits to the city, things like fanciful gates brilliantly painted with dragons, or bright red lanterns swinging under upturned eaves; things that would be hokey in someplace else but were right at home here. I saw one noble looking gate standing in front of a parking lot. In Las Vegas all you would see at a parking lot is a post telling you how much it costs to park there, and maybe a magazine rack on the street. Since I don’t read Chinese, the gate could have had parking information on it too, but I wouldn’t know.
We started out by learning how to say good morning. I think I remember it being ‘ne hao,’ and we were supposed to reply ‘ding hao’ or if we really felt good, ‘ding, ding hao.’
We had a printed itinerary, but our schedule shifted around as needed, so that we visited several places besides the Great Wall today. The Wall was one of the things we really wanted to see.
We made a brief stop along the way, where we had a lecture on pearls. This sounds boring but wasn’t. Although pearls have nothing to do with the Great Wall, they have everything to do with the tourist trade. Stopping at places where people can buy things helps to pay the bills and makes these cheaper tours possible.
I was surprised to learn that there are so many colors of pearls, including a gold color. Here is an interesting tit-bit: you can test pearls by rubbing them together. If they are real, you will find a little bit of white powder, even from the black pearls.
After the pearl presentation, we were off to see the Wall.
At our first sighting of it, the wall looked like a wandering line across some very rugged hills. As we got closer we could see the Wall was composed of dressed rocks topped with bricks, maybe fifteen or twenty feet tall. The tops were crenelated, which means there are regular gaps where archers can hide while they pull out the next arrow. There were carved openings spaced along the bottom of the Wall for drainage, but I suspect hot oil or even boiling soup could have been poured through them onto the invaders.
There were watchtowers or guard blocks spaced along the way. This is where soldiers would live while serving their time and where they could signal to the main army that things weren’t going well at their particular location and reinforcements would be a welcome thing.
Although the Wall did have some success, it did not work as well as intended; then again, most walls don’t. Hadrian’s Wall on the Scottish border certainly didn’t keep the Picts out of England. I thought about Robert Frost’s line, “Something there is that doesn’t love a wall”… in this case, the ‘something’ in this case were the Mongol hoards.
The Great Wall goes up and down some very serious terrain. We started walking, but soon found ourselves huffing and puffing before too long. Patsy and I fought our way through crowds of people until it was too much for us. We were still tired from the airline trip and so we walked/climbed a goodly distance that included two guard towers and then gave up.
I was amazed to see the amount of graffiti on the bricks. While not all of it was in Chinese, thankfully not all of it was in English either. Writing names on walls seems to be a human thing. We even saw graffiti in the Taj Mahal, and although I did not see a lot of it in Beijing, it was there. I did see a sign that said ‘No Scribbling,’ which I hoped sounded a bit stronger in Chinese. I could imagine what an American tagger could make of that sign.
The countryside near the Wall looked a lot like parts of California when there isn’t a drought going on. There were trees everywhere, although they looked evenly spaced, and the hills behind them seem to have terraces like the livestock paths one sees on hillsides. However, what might have been animal paths were too evenly spaced. I asked Jeff about this and he told me that during the Cultural Revolution of the 1970s, for some reason, they cut down all the trees on the hillsides, but then someone realized this was not a good idea. He said they were now replanting the trees. He didn’t tell me why they cut down the trees in the first place, but it did account for why they were so evenly spaced. I suspect the terracing helped cut down on erosion.
After visiting the Wall, we headed back to the Ming tombs, but made a stop at a cloisonné factory first. Cloisonné is a more complicated art than we realized. Each color has its own copper ‘collar’ or cell that holds liquid enamel in place until it dries. After the base is prepared by attaching the cells to the piece, an artist paints the color into its proper place and then fires the item in a kiln. When the piece is fired, a worker dips each one into a bath of molten metal to keep the copper from eroding and then fires it again. Afterwards, there is a long polishing process until everything is perfect. Wow!
Our next stop was at the tombs of some 13 emperors of the Ming Dynasty (1369-1644), plus their wives and concubines (read ‘girlfriends’). The most important of the emperors was Zhu Di (or Judy as it sounds in English), the third emperor of the Ming Dynasty. His was the largest tomb and the first of the lot.
When they replanted the hills around the tomb area, they included flowering trees, some that bloomed with pink blossoms while others were white. When we got off our bus, white blossoms were floating down like snowflakes.
There were many colored flags along the way, which, along with the flowering trees, added a festive look to what is basically, an up-scale graveyard.
I took several pictures at the tombs, but on looking back to what I shot, I was obviously impressed with the dragon-headed gargoyles, because I have half a dozen shots of those. I did get a shot of the great red gate, the entry into the tombs, and another of a large pink tomb, but mostly it was dragons. My fascination must be because we learned our Chinese Zodiac signs while on this trip, and mine was the Dragon.
There is a tour inside the tomb of the 13th Ming emperor, but we were out of time and did not go inside. We did take a walk past some of the animal carvings that line the way into the site, but those darned dragons got all my attention.
That night, we had a nice dinner at our hotel and turned in early because it had been a long day in very heavy traffic.
I need to say something about Beijing traffic. It is every bit as chaotic as that which we encountered in New Delhi, with drivers trying to merge lanes in front of our bus, trying to push their way past everyone else, and little three wheel buggies that tried to fill in any gaps. In India, they call these buggies ‘Tuk-Tuks,’ but in China, they call them ‘Boom-Booms.’
I should also mention that, given the amount of traffic, the air in Beijing was not nearly as polluted as I expected. I had visions of dark days and darker nights, but it was more like what we have experienced in LA. In addition, the people we saw wearing masks seemed to have them only covering their mouths and not their noses, so I suppose they were trying to guard against coughing or something.
Day 3:
Our highlights for this day were a visit to Tiananmen Square, a visit to the Forbidden City, and a performance at the Beijing Opera. This would be our most ambitious schedule and by the time we were done, we would have walked some eight miles.
Tiananmen Square is the largest square in the world. I would agree with that, although I have not done a comparison with other squares around the world. There is a flag raising ceremony at the square in the morning and a flag lowering ceremony in the evening. When we drove past the square the night before, there were people lined up on both sides of the road, waiting to see the ceremony.
Because of the heavy traffic, our schedules shifted around a lot. For instance, the Great Wall visit should have been on the second day and the Forbidden City, the first. However, I digress.
Tiananmen Square has Mao Se Tung’s tomb in it, and his portrait hangs over the main gate to the Forbidden City. There are some heroic statues at the edge of the square, honoring the Long March when Mao led his Red Army away from the east and Nanjing, to the north and the Wall in 1934-1935 to escape Chiang Kai-shek’s Nationalist Army. The two enemies joined forces during WWII, but resumed the civil war afterwards.
There is a saying that one is not a hero unless one has been to the Great Wall. Again, this refers to the Long March. Since we had already seen the wall, and indeed strode upon it, Patsy and I might be somewhat heroic. This also explained the enterprising merchant on the edge of the shopping area at the Great Wall who offered to transcribe your name into Chinese characters and give you a Hero Certificate for a price; however, we modestly decided to keep our heroics private.
At Tiananmen, our tour group got together for a photograph before heading off to the Forbidden City. For those who do not know, this was the emperor’s palace, strictly off limits to commoners. The last emperor’s mom was a strong old bird they termed the ‘Dragon Lady,’ and like Elizabeth I of England, ruled for a long time, cutting off any, and all, opposition. I thought she must roll over in her tomb every time some of the unwashed masses trooped across her courtyards.
The roof tiles of the palaces are a golden color, which was strictly reserved for the emperor. Before we got to see those, we stopped at the Temple of Heaven. This is a magnificent structure with many levels to the outside staircase. Jeff told us that the emperor would stand at the top of the staircase, surrounded by enormous incense burners that made it look as though he was standing in clouds. Each level of the staircase had a landing holding a couple of these incense burners, reinforcing the idea, while the lesser folk stood in the courtyard looking up. Each landing also had to have a drain or gargoyle if you will just in case it rained, and of course, they were dragon shaped. I sensed a pattern here.
We walked past the temple and on into the palace grounds. The walls of the temple and of the palaces were mostly red in color, which I suppose was another one of those important ideological things with emperors and such. There were strings of animal figures at the end of the upturned eve – Jeff said they have something to do with water animals. Since the roofs and much of everything else was made of wood, it was wise to ask heaven to weigh-in and not let things burn down. Along those same lines, there were some huge pots for water set along the sides of the buildings, just in case a fire did break out and heaven was distracted at the moment.
There was a pattern of metal stud decorations on each of the big doors going through the gates. People have rubbed their hands over the studs so much that any paint or plating on them has worn off. Maybe the rubbing is for good luck or something. I noticed all the Fire Dog (dogs that look something like a lion) and other brass statues have shiny places on them from people rubbing them as well.
By the way, Fire Dogs are probably more common than dragons as decorations.
You see them outside hotels and banks as well as palaces. You can tell which one is female and which is male by looking at their front feet. The female dog has a pup under her paw while the male has a ball. It also turns out that the female is always on the right side of the gate, i.e. the gate’s right side.
Besides the dogs and the dragons, another common statue often seen is an animal with deer-like antlers, long teeth, and scales, but I think it is mythological. I suppose I should also mention the turtle with fangs although it was not as common… everything seemed toothy around there.
After we got through the Temple of Heaven, we were not finished by a long chalk. We had the emperor’s teahouse to get past, and various smaller palaces for his wife and concubines, not to mention other buildings associated with the palace (i.e. support staff). By the time we reached the meeting place for our bus, I had used up all my “Awe” for now and was just looking for a way out. We missed going into a beautiful pagoda because of time constraints, which was okay by me, I could not have climbed anymore stairs today.
I can’t recall our dinner this night; it was supposed to be Beijing Roast Duck, but we had that the following night. I have a special reason for remembering this, which I will tell about later.
Except for breakfast, when we ate a meal, we all sat at round tables with giant lazy-Susan turntables in the middle, loaded down with several dishes, usually seven, or eight. This led to some interesting times when person A wanted item B, while person C wanted item D. Sometimes A would start to take a portion of B, when C pushed the turntable along and moved B out of range. There was plenty of food, however, and nobody went hungry unless they chose to do so. We knew that the meal was over when the waiters brought us plates of watermelon slices.
Even though we didn’t have the duck dinner, we did visit the Beijing Opera, and as God is my witness, I believe this was a spoof. The Opera is supposed to be something the emperors enjoyed. Mostly it consisted of a central character wearing a beard that looked like something from a third rate Halloween costume shop, and standing on one foot much of the time. When he did that, he also managed to turn himself around with his other foot, sometimes more than once. We got to know the sole of that shoe quite well; I believe I could pick it out from a line-up of shoe soles.
What I could make of the story told was that a siege was going on somewhere, with big guns off to the side and an army on the other. Of course we never saw the guns, just heard the character sing about them while standing on that one foot. Fortunately, we did not have to stay for the whole performance.
Day 4:
We visited the Summer Palace, a lovely spot on a manmade lake. I replenished some of my “Awe” overnight and so I could appreciate the beauty of the location and the artwork. Patsy and I made our way along the bank of the lake and down through a structure billed as ‘the Long Corridor,’ which it was. There were people sitting around all over the place doing things. Some people used big paintbrushes on long sticks and dipped in water, to write Chinese calligraphy on the paving stones. Senior citizens sat on the steps or straddled the balustrades to play cards or dominoes, to crochet and to play a game I did not recognize. The game is Xian qi or Chinese Chess, and looks like some version of checkers but with a bad attitude.
There was a place where singers performed karaoke near the lake. We had a ‘battle of the bands’ going on for a while, with the a cappella singers by the lake trying to drown out a woman who sang accompanied by a flute and a two string violin type instrument.
While we were standing on the bridge, a young girl came up and asked if she could have her picture taken with me. This would happen several times again during the trip, and I was always surprised when it did.
Now we come to an interesting part of the story: I can tell you this was the evening of the Beijing Roast Duck dinner.
Patsy and I were going through the Long Corridor when we heard music and singing going on up the hill from where we were. It sounded so nice that we decided to go see what was happening. By the time we got to the top of the hill however, the music had stopped and the musicians were packing their instruments down the hill. We decided to go back to the Long Corridor and the lake. The musicians were going down a ramp, and we decided that was easier than the way we had come up, so we followed them. This was our first mistake.
Instead of coming back to the lake, we found ourselves outside of the palace grounds. That didn’t seem like too big a problem – all we had to do was follow the road around to the entrance. Yeah, like it was going to be that easy.
We passed what we later came to realize was the main entry to the palace, but didn’t recognize it as such at the time. This is where we made our second mistake; we should have called Jeff, however in the end it would not have made any difference. He had given us his cell number and had us write it on the back of our identification cards. However, the noise level around him was so great when we did finally call, that he couldn’t hear his phone.
Although we did not recognize the entry to the palace grounds, we did see the bus parking lot across the street. By careful observation and a whole lot of stupid blind luck, we located our bus. Of course the driver did not speak English, why should he? It doesn’t take multilingual skills to drive a bus, just some common sense, nerves of steel, and an eye to opportunity.
Anyway, by some pantomiming and gesturing, we got it across that we wanted him to call Jeff and tell him where we were. Naturally, Jeff did not answer because the equivalent of a German Polka Band was holding forth near him about the time the bus driver called.
Now we made our third mistake. I thought we had about forty minutes before we were supposed to meet with the group. Since we knew where the bus was, it was just a hop skip and a jump to our assembly point and if for some reason we missed the group, we could always come back here. Why spend all that time just sitting in the bus, right?
We made our way back to the place where we were supposed to meet just a couple of minutes after Jeff and the rest of our crew left by another entry. We did not have forty minutes to get back to the site, we had no time at all, but I digress again. We were going into the grounds through one gate about the time the rest of the group was coming out a different one.
We waited at the no-longer-meeting-spot for a half hour and did not see anyone anywhere that looked even remotely like our group. It seemed like a good idea to go back to the parking lot and wait for everyone else. Of course, when we got back to where our bus had been, it was gone. So there we were, two senior citizens stranded in a country where not only did we not speak the language, we couldn’t even figure out what the symbols meant.
We walked over to a young man in a police uniform, standing in front of a police kiosk to ask if he would call Jeff for us. Not only did he not have a cell, he wasn’t even a real cop. He had the uniform and stuff, but when we tried to talk him, he got all flustered. A real cop doesn’t get flustered when an old person talks to him. He might get annoyed or even belligerent, but not flustered. The young man gestured toward the parking lot gatehouse and then turned away.
We finally asked the parking lot attendant to make the call. Jeff told us to stay where we were, that he would come to get us in a taxi, and we were saved.
We got to the restaurant in time for lunch, which featured a fungus soup and fish fries (they looked like French fries, but were actually thinly sliced fish. I have seen them advertised in this country, but never tried them here).
Now, how does all this relate to the Roast Beijing Duck you might ask; well, there is more to the story. After lunch, we were supposed to take a rickshaw ride to visit an old Beijing Hutong, which is a traditional enclosed neighborhood. We left the restaurant and walked to the place where we were supposed to meet the bus. The street crowds caused us to string out and separate at a traffic light.
When we got to the bus pick-up point, it was almost a three-ring circus. People tried to sell us Red Army fatigue caps or $10 Rolexes, and blind musicians wandered around playing on the two-string violin. Each musician had a person to help guide him while begging for money. I forgot to mention there was also a hawker who wore a derby hat and sold inflatable green moustaches. The moustaches were rolled up in a ball until you blew into a mouthpiece, then they extended out about a foot on either side until you stopped blowing on the mouthpiece, then they rolled back up into a ball. The seller caught my attention because I never saw anyone else selling these. When I told Patsy about it later, she asked me why I hadn’t bought one of those, and for the life of me, I didn’t have an answer.
We all stood around until it was almost the time when the bus either had to move or pay a fine, and that was when we realized another couple was missing. We waited as long as we could and then had to leave for the rickshaw ride into the Hutong. On the way to our next location, Jeff got a call from the absent tourists. There was no way that they could hook up with us because we were a long way from the original pick-up point and we were on a schedule, so they went directly to our hotel while the rest of us went forward.
Here is how I know about the duck dinner. We went to the restaurant and had the much heralded dinner. Afterwards, I saw that Jeff tried to make it up to the missing party by taking some of the food to the hotel with us. There, that was easy, wasn’t it?
Now that the tale of the duck dinner is out of the way, I should probably say a few words about some of the other stuff mentioned above. First, one of the two blind musicians and his crippled wife looked like something right out of a de La Tour painting, except that this blind man played a violin and de La Tour’s subject played a hurdy-gurdy.
The second musician was Muslim and he had something written in Arabic rather than Chinese on his skullcap, probably a Koranic verse. He didn’t play as well as the first man and his assistant was not crippled. Perhaps this was why the second team seemed less successful in their begging than the first.
We got to a place where a string of rickshaws waited for us. Our driver was a sturdy young man who could have played front line on an American football team. We had taken a rickshaw ride once, in New Delhi, and there I had to help the driver get his bike up a hill, but unlike there, this one did not need my help, although he was puffing a little toward the last. I fear that with all the rich food we have been eating, I am more of a man than I used to be.
The traditional enclosed Hutong has a wall around it; this one also sported a decorative gate with up-turned eaves. The houses shared walls between each other much like the Hopi pueblos. Grey brick was the building material of choice. As we rode past them, we saw many people sitting outside on their stoops, talking to one another. I think there was at least one small shop as well as the homes, although I can’t remember what it sold.
A woman called Mary waited for us in front of her house. She took us inside to give us some idea of what a Hutong home looked like, and gave us cups of Chinese tea. She showed us around the house and then took our pictures before escorting us back to our bus. She also gave us all small red Chinese good luck knots.
This would be our last night in Beijing. The next morning we flew from Beijing to the ancient capital city of Xi’an. At least this time we would fly at a decent time in the morning… well sort of. I think we had to be at the airport at about seven in the morning, which put us out of the hotel around five thirty, to beat the Beijing traffic.
Chapter two
Day 5:
Our first local tour guide was named Sarah. She told us about the history of the city and then about the local dialect. She spoke several words and phrases in Mandarin and then explained how people would say them here. The Xi’an dialect was much harder, more abrupt, and sounded angry to me. I bet that made a big difference when one whispered sweet nothings to one’s honey.
Xi’an is important for several reasons. First, the Emperor Qin’s large tomb is the one surrounded by the famous terra cotta army. Qin unified the whole of China around 210 B.C. by subjugating the other smaller states that had been warring against one another for a long, long time. We had seen a Nova special about all this, so Patsy and I were not totally in the dark. It seems Qin used advanced technology to defeat the other armies in that he armed his troops with mass produced crossbows. These weapons were much easier to master than the long bow, and so he had more of his soldiers shooting at the enemy from a longer distance than he would have otherwise.
As I said near the beginning of this log, the name China comes from Xi’an (I know, it doesn’t look that way, but it’s because we are using an alphabet rather than pictograms). The other thing is that Xi’an was the starting point of the famous Silk Road, where trade with the West brought new wealth to the emperors.
Before going to see the emperor’s tomb, we stopped to look at the Great Wild Goose pagoda and at the statue of the monk Xuan Zang, who went west to collect Buddhist scriptures. He convinced the emperor to build the pagoda to house the sutras and then spent the rest of his life translating them from Sanskrit to Chinese. We didn’t have time to go into the pagoda, nor was I in the mood for climbing more stairs. Instead, we went to sit outside in the sunlight, away from the ‘Madding Crowd.’ We had been going at a steady pace for the last four days, gotten up much too early to make our flight to Xi’an, and still hadn’t really recovered from the twenty-four hour airplane flights from LA to Beijing. By this time Patsy and I were feeling frazzled, but we knew we would eventually have to suck it up. We didn’t sign up on this tour to just sit around, even though that was what we were doing at the moment. Heck, we could have stayed home and done that
A small garden near Xuan Zang’s statue had a number of interesting stones that caught our attention. The Chinese use stones as important elements in their gardens. Throughout the tour, we would encounter oddly shaped stones in gardens, stones as monuments, and even large stones with poetry carved into them. I have to say the white and grey stones here were not particularly large, but lovely to look at and the right height for sitting, which we did for a while. After a short rest on the stones we retired to a near-by Starbucks.
There are so many American companies here in China, that sometimes it feels like we are still at home. The people using the Starbucks looked just like they do at home – young people texting on their phones, using their computers, reading, and just hanging out with their friends. One could even order a soymilk, salted caramel Frappuccino here if so desired. We were just happy to have regular coffee at the right time and the right place. (Note: along with Starbucks, there are McDonalds, Burger Kings, and especially Kentucky Fried Chicken stores here – they are everywhere. KFC is so common that I believe Colonel Sanders has developed a slight Asian look to him, but then that could have been my imagination.)
Next to the Starbucks there was a rather intriguing place named “Mr. Prawn’s Holy Soup.” The shop wasn’t open yet, and it was too early for soup anyway even if it was a spiritual delight, so we could not report if it was ‘holy’ or not, but we did need the coffee.
When we got back on the bus to go to the tomb of Qin, Sarah told us that the reason for the terra cotta army was that the emperor originally planned to bury real soldiers alive. His advisors told him that if the soldiers learned about that, they would no longer fight for him. Instead of burying the soldiers themselves, the advisors suggested making the terra cotta army as guards for his after-life. (Note: My own thought was that there were some drawbacks to letting a bunch of heavily armed men know you plan to bury them alive.)
I think the argument worked okay for the soldiers, but I didn’t see any references to terra cotta concubines, so it might have sucked to be the emperor’s girlfriends.
On the way to the army, we stopped at a store where they sold jade and made replicas of the soldiers – everything from small desktop sized figures to full-sized pieces. There were a couple of life sized soldier bodies standing out in the courtyard. These had no heads on them, but there was a step behind them. People could stand behind the partial soldiers and put their heads on the statue’s shoulders for a novelty photograph. This was a lot cooler than the old stick-your-head-through-a-plywood-cutout.
Our store guide told us about the importance of jade and jadeite to the Chinese, she also told us that there were more colors to jade than green. Patsy and I thought that jadeite would be the lesser of the two stones, but as it turns out, is the more desirable because it is the harder one and therefore more durable. Behind the speaker were statues and other things made of stones, including fine, translucent bowls.
We watched as artists worked with various stones including jasper and agate as well as the jade. There was one artist making the balls inside a ball thing. I didn’t get to see it all, but I have often wondered how they cut the stones away from each other so that the balls can move independently inside one another.
After our lecture, we were free to look around and purchase anything we wanted. I thought it would be cool to have one of those life-sized soldiers, but couldn’t figure out how I would get it into my suitcase, so we passed on that one.
(Note: I think the Chinese are missing something here. In India, whenever we stopped at an outlet, they gave us booze, which made it easier to sell us stuff. Dumb purchases make more sense when you have a buzz going.)
After our break, we moved on to see the army.
Three buildings shelter the terra cotta soldiers. The first and largest is about two football fields in length and looks like an airplane hangar. A walkway extends around the pit where the soldiers were standing in ranks, so you look down at them. There were large sections where the statues were in good shape, while in other places the cover above the soldiers has collapsed into a mixture of bodies, armor, and shelter material. This unreconstructed bit gives the viewer an idea of what the discovery first looked like. Teams of archeologists had pieced together the statues that were on display.
There are still large sections of the pit waiting for excavation, but you can tell that something is under there because the archeology teams have removed several feet of topsoil down to a ropy looking layer. The ropy look made me think that perhaps some sort of heavy woven mats, like Japanese tatamis, covered the timber supports under the dirt. Anyway, the ropy level is what remains of the cover meant to protect the soldiers.
By the way, there were horses in the pits as well. I suppose once the emperor agreed not to bury real soldiers he decided not to bury real horses either. This was good news for the horses.
Some of the interesting things about this army were that while the sculpted clay armor may have had a basic form, there were details such as arming ties, scarves, or belt buckles that made each suit a little different. Remarkably, each head had a different face, as if they represented the real soldier. So far, they have uncovered 8,000 statues. We understood that it originally took 36 years to make all of them, which sounds about right.
The statues were once polychrome, but some of the mineral colors reacted with the surrounding soil, while others broke down after exposure to light and air. A chemical analysis of statue surfaces determined which pigments were on each part of the statue. Based on that information, several restored statues have their original glorious color. The army must have been an amazing sight to see.
We stopped at all three pit sites, but the crowds were so thick that we decided to see what we could and then get out of there. I was not mentally prepared to fight my way through a bunch of people to get a glimpse of some of the displays in the museum, not to mention getting a decent photograph. This is not to say that people were rude or anything, it’s just there were so many of them, all wanting to see the same things.
Several signs asked people not to use flash when they took pictures. We could read the signs easily by all the flashes going off.
Since it was very warm and the air humid, and after we fought our way through the crowds, Patsy and I decided to have some ice cream while we waited for our next move. I did not ask her what her treat was like because it looked like a standard paper-wrapped cone such as we would find back at home. My cup was a little different. The ice cream had an odd texture to it, like a cross between ice cream and whipped cream from a can. The main body of the treat was more or less vanilla, but around the edges it tasted like butter rum. This was something new to me and I wondered if this was typical of Chinese ice cream. The next time we had ice cream , it was at a Häagen-Dazs, so I never did have anything to compare it with.
After visiting the terra cotta army, we headed back to town.
That evening we enjoyed a Tang Dynasty Dancing Show while we feasted on dumplings. The dinner was very nice, especially if you like dumplings (which we do). Some of them looked like what was inside them – for instance, the fish dumpling skins had wide fantails and green peas for eyes. The duck dumplings were a little less convincing, however… they looked vaguely like Hershey Kisses made out of white dough.
The show was colorful with lots of pretty girls swirling long silk sleeves into loops that they danced through. An excellent percussion group had things rocking for a while, but they were not the only musicians on the bill. One Chinese instrument sounds like a split reed, but otherwise looks like a soprano saxophone. A musician in Tang costume played two of these, alternating between them and a bird whistle he held in his mouth. He played a melody using one or the other instrument and interrupting the song with the bird whistle, smiling a goofy grin when he did. Overall, he was very funny.
Day 6:
The traffic Xi’an was not as heavy as in Beijing, but it had its own peculiarities. For instance, there was a heavy truck driver hauling a trailer, who cut off our bus just so that he could make a left turn from the right lane. Another car sped up and drove on the sidewalk to get around the car in front of him. The scattering pedestrians were less than thrilled.
We noticed that there were quite a few rooftop gardens on the tall buildings, which I thought was very cool. I’ve always been a fan of small gardens and things like rooftop oases. I wondered if they had early morning Tai Chi classes up there. The rooftop gardens also fit in with the pattern we had already seen in Beijing – a city full of parks.
On the way to the airport for the next leg of our tour, again way too early in the morning, Sarah sang us some songs. She had a very pleasant voice and taught us some Chinese verses to sing along with her. There is no way that I would remember the words after we left the bus, but they were fun to sing at the time.
Our flight this morning would take us to Chongqing where we would see the panda bears in the zoo, after which we would go to our boat for a trip down the Yangtze River. We had a snack of water or juice and some cream crackers on the plane. Cream crackers for those who don’t know, are about like Ritz crackers, and if one does not know about Ritz crackers, there isn’t much else to say except that it was an odd snack.
Chongqing is a city of 32 million people, but that includes outlying areas as well as the city itself so it technically wasn’t as large as Beijing. It is hard for me to get my head around some of these figures.
There were the ever-present tall Legoland buildings and the very pretty, very neat parks. Our local guide here called himself David, although part of his Chinese name included ‘Poo.” David was good enough for us.
David told us several things about the Pandas, how they were dying out in nature due to loss of habitat (they eat large quantities of bamboo, and when the forest becomes a housing development or a factory, the bears have to move on). There is also some difficulty with breeding them in captivity. David told us about how they use Panda porn to show the males what they are supposed to do when the females are in season, and said that the zookeepers were even experimenting with giving the males Viagra. (At this point, I had a vision of two Pandas sitting in bathtubs, holding paws, like in the Cialis commercials.)
A sign at the zoo told us that the animals are solitary except during mating season, so maybe the male Pandas are the equivalent of the Norwegian Bachelor Farmers that Garrison Keeler talks about on “A Prairie Home Companion.”
The zoo was large and we did not have time to take in much more of it than the Panda exhibit. However, there was an intriguing sign pointing to a Dinosaur section. I felt a certain affinity to this, being a bit of a dinosaur myself, but when I looked toward where the sign was pointing, I only saw shrubs trimmed like topiary dinosaurs.
There were both the black and white Panda Bears as well as Red Pandas at the exhibit. The Red Panda is no relation the Bears, and actually looks like an oversized rusty colored raccoon, complete with a long striped tail. Although originally classified as related to raccoons, Red Pandas aren’t related to them either, even though they look that way. I think this is good news for the raccoons.
Surprisingly, at least to me, the big bears are not completely white where they are not black. They do have white bits but also some dirty areas on their fur, which makes sense. I mean there are probably not Panda washing facilities in the wild, so why would there be at the zoo? Besides, if you sit a white furry object down onto the ground, it’s going to get dirty, and even if someone cleaned the bears daily, they would still get dirty.
Anyway, our first Panda sighting was of a large bear making himself comfortable in a tree (Does a Panda… nap in the woods?). For the rest of the time all we saw were Pandas napping, although we did catch one eating bamboo.
After the zoo, we went to the boat, grateful for some down time. We were on the move every day so far, touring or flying, and we were all looking forward to a little rest. I also hoped for some writing time to transcribe my notes since I seemed to be taking very sketchy ones and those that I had taken were crumpled and messy. I told myself that I would do better as I went along, but knew that was a lie.
We noticed several people walking around town, carrying bamboo poles over their shoulders. David told us that they were itinerate workers and that they were called the ‘Bamboo Army.’ Mostly, they were people displaced by various civic projects or by bumps in the economy. They came to the city to earn some money, but apparently, they don’t have permits to live in the city. This meant that they had to come into town, pick up whatever they could, and be gone at the end of the day.
Our guide said that we would see some down at the loading area, offering to carry our bags and even ourselves to the boat. The bags were already on the boat and there was no way I would let someone carry our small bags or us so we didn’t help the Bamboo Army much.
By the way, we weren’t sure how to pack for the weather. I packed three tee shirts and three long sleeved tees, but the weather was so warm that the long sleeved things were not that comfortable. I soon found myself the proud possessor of a bright red tee with a golden dragon on it and a black tee featuring a picture of a terra cotta archer.
Day 7:
Our boat glided along the Yangtze River – the third longest river in the world – through the famous Three Gorges. The Three Gorges are the Qutang the Wu, and the Xiling gorges. The combination of narrow canyons among high mountains with several turns in the river makes this a beautiful area. There is a place called the Chalk Wall, where there are Chinese characters carved into the rock, some of them dating back to the 900s.
The Three Gorges Dam has raised the water level in this portion of the Yangtze, so that the river is wider and the mountains appear lower. However, they still tower above the river and the gorges continue to offer spectacular views.
Our room on the boat had a small sitting area outside so that we could sit there and watch the scenery, which was very cool. The last time we had something like this, it was on another tour and the sliding door wouldn’t open. Even after the repairman fixed the door however,, we realized the balcony was only for looks, not for sitting.
We saw farming settlements along the banks of the river, with terraced fields and small orchards. There were also staircases that sometimes lead to villages, and sometimes to unseen places.
Because the gorge is narrow, there are regular channel markers that take the form of small rowboats supporting lights for nighttime navigation. At first, we weren’t sure what these were and why there were boats out there with no one in them. Finally, after seeing a dozen or so of these, the penny dropped. Back home, we would have had a floating ball of some sort, the folks here used a boat.
We visited the Shibaozhai (Stone Treasure Fortress), and the famous Red Pagoda built into the cliff on the north side of the Yangtze. A temple sits at the top of the pagoda. The name Stone Treasure came from a legend of a hole in temple wall that trickled out enough rice daily to feed the monks, until one greedy monk tried to enlarge the hole so more would pour out. The rice stopped flowing at that point. We saw the basin where the rice was supposed to have fallen, and of course, it was empty.
On the approach to the pagoda, we came across some bronze zodiac signs. People have polished them all to a high sheen by rubbing them for good luck.
The pagoda is indeed red, with black, upturned eves. It is nine stories high and leans into the side of the cliff to make the climb to the cliff top temple easier. There is a grand entry gate to the staircase, all yellow and quite colorful, with the requisite firedogs and dragons guarding the entry of course. The same theme repeats at the entry to the temple on top of the cliff.
(Note: I get that building things on top of hills gets them closer to heaven, but it would be nice if the builders had an eye out for the eventual tourist trade as well. A smooth ramp or even easy riser stairs would have been nice.)
We managed to climb all the way to the top, although it was rough going at some points. The staircase was odd; some of the shorter stairs were so steep they might as well have been ladders. Fortunately, there were stops along the way so we could catch our breath.
Statues of various gods and their attendants were on several levels of the pagoda. The statues were heroic in size, and brightly painted. This is when I wished I had a better camera, because the flash on mine no longer worked, and I was in a dark place, but I took pictures of the statues anyway.
Before we even got to the pagoda, we had to pass through a row of very hopeful merchants, climb a hill, and cross a very shaky footbridge. The bridge was not very narrow, maybe three people could walk abreast, but there were periodic signs asking people not to rock the bridge. Also, one needed to keep an eye on the boards making up the bridge as they were not all nailed down at both ends. It’s interesting to watch someone step on a board in front of you, have it rock up, and find yourself looking at the stream several hundred feet below you.
Near the top of the pagoda, there was a well of sorts. That is to say, the shape of the structure was like a well, but with a triangular hole in the bottom so that it cannot hold water. They called this the Duck Well because supposedly, if you dropped a duck down this hole, it would appear on the river sometime later on. No one explained why anyone would want to do this; perhaps the monks got bored and were looking for diversion. In any case, the local duck population did not support the idea.
Off to the side, there was what looked like a cannon, but with most of its muzzle gone, almost as if it blew up when fired. Why there would be cannon up here was a puzzle to me. Although it was a fortress, it just didn’t look like one. Maybe the pagoda kept me from seeing it as it had been hundreds of years before that addition.
We came to a tiny garden with a small pond and a humped bridge over it, in front of the temple. Each couple in our tour group took turns climbing up the bridge, the women on one side and the men on the other, and then kissing when they met in the middle. I don’t know if this was a tradition or just something someone decided to do as a photo op. We were often behind our group and sometimes missed any plans; maybe someone thought this would be fun. In any case, and despite the steep sides of the bridge, we climbed our sides of the bridge, met at the top, and I got my kiss from Patsy.
Going up the pagoda had been a real climb, what with the steps being narrow and steep. However, going back down was easy because there was a wide staircase with regularly spaced steps and a comfortable railing on the open side of the cliff. I suppose we could have come up this way, but it would have been less of an adventure.
On the way back to the boat, we passed some of those large streaked limestone rocks carved with poetry and, of course, dragons.
Chapter three
At this point, I have to make an addition. While we were in Beijing, we visited a most interesting place called the Hall of Prayer for Good Harvest. The building is 130 feet across, and rises in three levels, each covered with blue tiles to symbolize heaven. What makes this particularly interesting is that no nails are in the construction. I can only blame our residual tiredness for excluding this marvelous building from the earlier account.
Now, on with the current timeline:
Day 8:
Today we floated down the Yangtze on smaller boats into an area called Shennv Stream for a more intimate experience of the Three Gorge landscape. Our boats were small things with yellow roofs and dragon entwined pillars (more dragons!). The interior reminded me of the cable cars in San Francisco; all polished wooden slat benches.
Shennv Stream was a beautiful, primitive area (by the way, I have no idea why Shennv ends with a ‘v,’ it just seems to). The cliffs here were primarily white limestone, but their faces were streaked with black mineral run-off where not covered in greenery. While the beauty of the landscape does not have the grandeur of the Grand Canyon, it was lovely to see.
A constant mist hangs over the river, so that there was a dreamy quality about things. The gorge looked very much like an ink drawing.
Buildings with a similar, blocky sameness about them among stood among the terraced fields close to the river. Most likely the sameness was due to the many small towns that were flooded out when they built the Three Gorges Dam – they had to relocate a lot of people in a relatively short time. I think I heard that the project relocated more than a million people. The sheer numbers involved in this project boggled my brain. Every time I think I have come to grips with the size of this country, another figure comes up and I am amazed again.
As our boat drifted down the river, we saw an unusual thing – a light hung over the middle of the river. Our guide told us that this was for fish. At night, the light attracts insects, the fish rise to feed on the bugs, and the fisher-folk collect the fish. This is easier and probably cheaper than chumming.
The guide also pointed out some tea trees on top of the ridge and told us that the higher up the hill, the better the tea. (That would be interesting to remember when we visit a tea plantation later on in the trip.)
Besides the light hanging over the river, another interesting sight was a pair of wooden coffins in a small crevice high up on a cliff. During the Bronze Age, the Ba people put these coffins up there. Our guide had no explanation as to why people would go to that effort. Since the Ba people were conquered and absorbed into the Qin Dynasty over a couple of thousand years ago, perhaps nobody knows why they did it.
There were odd, rather grotesque algae or moss growths on the shaded side of the cliffs. Whichever it was, it created a thick mat that stuck several feet out away from the cliff, following water that ran down the side of the rock. I wondered if anyone had a use for this stuff since there was so much of it and the folks along the river seemed to use whatever came to hand.
After our river ride, we returned to our boat and learned that we would pass through five locks during the night. Not being all that interested in locks, I went to bed early. However, getting on toward midnight, there was a tremendous squealing noise that made me sit up in bed! The sound was the noise of our going through the locks. It happened several times later on, but after the first time, I just ignored it.
Day 9:
We visited the Three Gorges Dam. The Three Gorges Dam was an important project because the Yangtze had devastating floods that killed people, wiped out buildings, and swept away livestock about every ten years. When I first heard of the project, it was at home. Like many folks, I thought it was another dam on another wild river just because engineers do that sort of thing, not realizing how wild the river was. There were also many ecological concerns, including reservoir-induced earthquakes, loss of unique and rare habitat, and so on. However, none of this stopped the project. The Three Gorges Dam is currently the largest hydroelectric dam in the world (no pun intended).
I thought the idea of damming the Yangtze was a new one, but Dr. Sun Yat-sen, the first president of China, came up with the idea in the 1920s. Chairman Mao also wanted the project done, but did not live to see it happen.
We disembarked and walked to a grand building entry flanked by those deer/dragon things. (The term for our group being ‘all together’ sounded like “Two Dollah” Also, Jeff, our guide, liked to call us ‘sticky rice’ when we stayed together the way he wanted us to do.) When we were ready, Two Dollah, we strolled down a merchant area all covered in red awnings and surrounded by lots of things we could buy as souvenirs.
We took a bus up to the dam and the visitor center. There is a large model of the dam in the center lobby, and our guide used a laser pointer to draw our attention to different features of the project. Something the guide mentioned was that the Chinese government purchase several turbine generators from Europe and Canada, but with the stipulation that the technology on how to make the turbines came with them. Now, not only does China make its own turbines, Chinese engineers have improved on the designs by making them air-cooled rather than by water.
I found it interesting that the Chinese have gardens everywhere. There were even formal type gardens down in work areas as well as in the more public places. The lower gardens were not for casual visitors but for the workers. We saw a crew unloading a whole truckload of flowers when we arrived at the dam. Obviously the landscapers renewed the beds frequently, like they do at casinos. Can anyone imagine a flowerbed at Caesar’s Palace with dead or drooping flowers?
Something else that reminded me of a casino was the fountain in the plaza that featured a large inverted pyramid of black stone with something etched on its surface. The fountain had dancing waters (those things with timed water jets that jump up and make a pretty display) that splashed across the stone. I could imagine a fountain like that in front of the Bellagio or some other place back home in Las Vegas.
Many of the flowerbeds we saw had low borders made of split bamboo used to keep people from walking across them. It not only protected the beds, but also added a folksy touch to the neatly trimmed grass. (I almost said ‘barbered’ lawns, they were that neatly clipped.)
Like most big projects, there were heroic sized friezes and carvings celebrating the construction at the observation area. This seems to be another human thing; if you do something big enough, you need to make a statue or frieze to celebrate it
When we left the dam, we went back through the same shopping area where merchants again tried to sell us all sorts of things. One item for sale that aroused my curiosity was the fried fish, heads and all. I had no idea who the cooked fish were for, but there they were, toasty and ready to go. Could you imagine one of us munching a carp-on-a-stick while riding back to our boat? I have no idea why we always encountered food merchants at these places, we just did. Beer merchants I could understand, but who was going to buy a fried fish?
Several of us were standing outside, talking about nothing in particular, when our boat passed through the locks and headed down stream again, off to the next sight. One moment we were level with the top of the lock, the next, the boat started to drop down to the next level. It’s a strange sight to feel no movement at all, but to see the wall next to you rise.
After lunch, we took a special boat tour to see the Tribe of the Three Gorges. I first thought the community was a monastery because of the way the buildings that faced the river linked up together. They were all in the Chinese Vernacular style I keep mentioning – the upturned eves with fancy endings, the rounded tiles with ends that look like rolls of coins, and the funny animals along the end rooflines. I wondered if this was standard DIY roofing material you can get at a Chinese Home Depot (they must have Home Depots; after all, they have a ton of KFYs).
The row of buildings marked the entry to an enclave built along both sides of a stream that emptied into the Yangtze. There were three or four fishing boats in front of the village, their junk-type sails hoisted but allowed to flutter in the gentle breeze. When we disembarked, we saw a young girl dressed in red, standing in the bow of a small boat. Further up the stream, there was a young man dressed in blue pajama-like clothes, and playing a flute to attract the girl.
The banks of the stream were heavily wooded and very pleasant to walk through. Along the way, we saw houses and walkways on both sides of the water and more fishing boats, some with nets drying on their masts.
A sign along the path warned us to ‘be careful of that monkey.’ I was not sure if we could tell which one was ‘that’ monkey, but I was hoping we would luck out and meet a different one. Speaking of monkeys, we did meet a family of them along the trail where someone was selling peanuts to feed them. We probably didn’t have anything to be careful about, but you never know.
There were two young girls sitting on the far side of the stream from where we stood, washing clothes and singing a song. Our guide told us this is something young girls did to attract the attention of boys. It was all very pleasant, but I was suspicious: things couldn’t be all this peaceful. I mean, there were even some ducks quietly swimming past where the girls were working, acting as though no one ever threw something at them. However, I had to take it all at face value, because who knows, when you live next to a heavily forested stream, surrounded by ducks and monkeys, maybe things were this peaceful.
Further along the path, we stopped to listen to a young woman dressed in very fancy robes and playing a horizontal harp or Zheng (think large zither, like the Japanese Koto). This was more of the pastoral ‘forest and stream effect’ we experienced. I felt like we had stumbled into the land of the Lotus Eaters.
At the end of the walk, we looked at some particularly lovely waterfalls before returning to a show planned for us – we were going to witness a wedding ceremony. At the start, a series of pretty girls dressed in heavily embroidered red dresses came out and sang a song for us. Then, the headman of the village came out, greeted us in English, and never spoke another word of the language after that. He made a speech I figured was a welcome, since this is where that sort of thing would fit in the program.
After the speech, one young man from our group volunteered to act as the groom; he wore a dark blue robe and a fancy hat. A matchmaker dressed in a heavily embroidered robe and wearing large dangling earrings came out, made a long speech in Chinese, and introduced the couple. The girl went off and came back a few moments later, dolled up in wedding finery. The couple exchanged gifts, took a sip of liquor, and departed hastily up some stairs. A shadow play on the bedroom window curtain let us see the young bride strip the robe off the young man and then pull him down with her below the window sill.. Later on, when the ‘bridegroom’ joined us, he had a sheepish grin on his face.
When the show was over, we went back to our tour boat and had supper. We were supposed to have a passenger talent show that night, and I know Jeff had hoped someone in our group would join in, but it was not to be. It wasn’t until sometime later that I realized I could have sung “The Eggplant That Ate Chicago,” but by then it was too late.
(Here is the back-story about the song: we were having dinner in Shanghai – this would be after the “Tribe of the Three Gorges” trip – when the server brought a dish to the table. One of our fellow passengers asked what it was, and someone else said it was eggplant. The first person said that it didn’t look like any eggplant she had before, which brought the song back to mind, and so I sang it. Everyone was amazed… well, sort of)
Okay, now on with the tour.
Day 10:
The big event today was the visit to the museum and the ancient city walls of Jinzhou. The walls at Jinzhou are only some 500 years old, young for much of this country even though they would be rather old for the United States.
There was a guardhouse over the city gate with a statue of a local emperor (there were a lot of these mucky-mucks around at one time or another) and some of his buddies, all of them about three times life sized. The walls were similar to the Great Wall, complete with crenellations and places suitable for dumping things on the enemy.
Interestingly, there are four gateways, each of them with double gates. Lowering both gates at the same time would trap the invaders in between them. However, I did not see a ‘murder-hole,’ which is an opening in the roof of the gateways where archers could pick off the unfortunate soldiers trapped between the gates. This is standard feature in most Medieval European gated cities. Maybe there was a hole but someone patched it up or something, because the opportunity for a good rousing slaughter would be too much to pass up.
On top of the wall were statues of soldiers, only 1.5 life-sized, and in full living color so people could take pictures of themselves with the troopers. There was even a life-sized statue of a horse with mounting blocks standing next to a soldier. People could climb up on the horse to have their picture taken.
When we were finished with the wall, etc., we headed over to the museum. The museum looked like a cross between a great hall and a pagoda, fronted by a pond. The building was white, with a green tiled roof. There was a small container garden in front of the pond with a rather large tree growing in it. The tree and container are too big to be considered bonsai, or (Penjing, in Chinese), but the effect is similar: ten pounds of whatever in a five pound bag.
The tombs excavated around Jinzhou had especially exquisite lacquer-ware in them, much of which was on display, but the main attraction in the museum seemed to be the 2,000 year-old man. He rested on a platform below floor surface so that we looked down at him. He looked remarkably fresh for someone of his age. Our guide, Jeff, said that the body had been incased in two coffins, which we saw at another location, had liquid mercury between them.
Earlier, my hearing aids gave out and so I was not hearing everything said, but I think that Jeff told us someone painted the man’s body with cinnabar as well (cinnabar is just the raw form of mercury). Either way, he told us the man’s joints were still flexible and his muscles resilient. Apparently, someone performed an autopsy on the body and removed the organs, because they were on display next to the body. I, for one, would not want mess with a 2,000 year-old man, but hey, it’s a dirty job and someone had to do it.
(Side note: my camera had crapped out on me earlier. Any pictures I got after that point were either very blurry or under-exposed. I wondered about my personal technology: my hearing aids were gone, and now my camera followed. What was going to go next, I worried. Maybe my knees or something worse… it didn’t bear thinking about.)
Now, back to the museum displays
There were excellent examples of lacquer ware and bits of furniture in the showcases. In another room, there was one model of a funeral procession, with several mourners leading a chariot, which in turn held the deceased. Surprisingly, these weren’t as nice as some of the other works on display. The effigies were almost simple blocks of painted wood. I thought this was interesting because there were some nicely carved pieces in other display cases. Maybe they were not for viewing but for representing, much like the paper money that the relatives of the dearly departed burn at funerals.
That night was our last on our boat, so the captain threw us a bang-up dinner. Our waitress, the one that I had privately dubbed our ‘coffee goddess’ normally wore the standard waiter/waitress uniform of a white shirt and black skirt. Tonight she was all dolled up in one of those heavily embroidered dresses, called Cheongsam, the Suzy Wong style dress with the high necks and slits up the side. Instead of our usual turntable, we had individual services. All of this added to the feeling that the night was special. Our boat captain gave us a toast and went back to the bridge while we all sat down to dinner.
(Side note: So far, I haven’t been saying much about clothing, but I’m going to take a moment to do so now. Generally, people wore the same clothes we would expect to see in the United States, although many of the girls seemed to favor Madonna as their clothing model.
I guess I thought we would see a lot of Mao jackets or something like that, but no. Tee shirts and baseball caps were very noticeable. Many of the tee shirts were the standard logo things like Tommy Hilfiger, but others had messages on them that fell into the Chinglish category. (I wondered if the Chinese character tee shirts and tattoos we get here in the United States are Chinglish.)
(Yet another side-side Note: I had a whole list of funny tee shirts, but like several of my notes, they have disappeared. You have to take my word that there were some very strange legends on some of the shirts)
The folk costumes we did see were generally bright; we mostly saw blue or red, and blue, often with lovely embroidery. We only saw the Cheongsam that once at the captain’s dinner, and we saw some colorful headgear on workers elsewhere. However, no Mao jackets, and the only Red Star caps we saw were the ones hawkers tried to sell us along the way.
Now, back to the tour
Chapter four
Day 11:
This may have been the morning the hotel would not be open early enough for breakfast, but Jeff improvised by bringing us bacon and egg breakfasts from McDonalds. We ate while we traveled to the airport for yet another flight, this time to Shanghai. Once again, we appreciated having a guide with us every step of the way because if nothing else, airports are very confusing.
Because our one guide, Sarah, sang to us on the way to the airport, we asked if our current local guide was going to sing to us as well. We all joined him in singing “You Are My Sunshine.” It’s nice to know we share a folk song with the Chinese.
Shanghai is one heck of a city. It has the 4th and 13th highest buildings in the world, as well as some well-preserved famous landmark structures including the 19th century Russian Embassy that looks like it did when the Czars were still around.
We had time to go to the park and walk around, looking at local attractions such as the Hero’s Monument. This is where we had the eggplant lunch mentioned above.
It is one thing to bandy about terms like fourteen million people in a city, and another to be out amongst those fourteen million. The park was jammed to the gills (this was the start of the Mayday holiday and many people were on vacation). While we were there, two very charming young tweens asked if they could take my picture. Before I let them, I said I had to take their picture as well. I still haven’t figured out the attraction, because I am not famous nor am I very special looking. Perhaps it’s because I look like a Caucasian version of a Shar-Pei dog, you know, the one with all the wrinkles.
That night, we had dinner in a place that reminded me of a high school gymnasium, but the food was as good as ever. Afterwards we went to an acrobatic show that featured human pyramids, a couple who did an aerial ballet using long streamers hanging down from the ceiling, a Globe of Death (the one where six motorcycles whirled around inside a large wire cage),and various other feats of strength and daring-do. Of course, no show would be complete without one of those people who can put their butts on top of their head. The woman who did this was beautiful and as sinuous as expected, but she made my back hurt just watching her. After that, we were off to the hotel (again, one with a window next to the bathtub).
Day 12:
We had rain while we were in Shanghai. We should have gone to the museum there, however, what with the rain and the crowds standing in line, we voted to give it a miss. Instead, we went to a silk factory where we saw the worms before they started to spin their cocoons, and then on to the final cocoon stage.
Silk is interesting stuff that has had a profound effect on the cultures of China and the various European countries that dealt in the fabric. The Silk Road (or roads, because there were many routes) was the main trade route between East and West. The ‘road’ still exists, but it is now more of a tourist destination than its original purpose.
A guide at the facility showed us a spinning jenny that unraveled many cocoons at the same time, and at a high rate of speed. She let us feel the silk fibers as they unspun. The individual strands are so fine that you can hardly see them. (I started to say they were delicate but they are not at all, just very fine.)
Apparently, each cocoon can hold one or two silkworm pupae, but the threads from a double are much coarser than the single. Our facility guide showed us how workers turn the heavier thread into mats for heavy use. Mattress covers, comforters and pillow covers come from these stretched mats. The finer singleton cocoons produce fabric for clothing and such.
We could buy comforters and other large items at the retail part of the factory. These things are bulky, and I wondered how anyone would get their purchases home. However, the factory compressed the otherwise unwieldy objects into nice tight bundles, no bigger than carry-on luggage. Again, silk is some special stuff.
(Side note: I had always heard that ancient Chinese cavalry wore silk cloaks during their Middle Ages. Since the cloak did not tear, a rider shot with an arrow could use the silk to work the shaft out of his wound. I asked the guide about this, and she said that the story was true.)
When we were done with the silk factory, we went directly to the Nanjing Road shopping district. This was another mixing into the crowds; literally, a sea of people walked through the mall. Since we were not interested in shopping, we made our way to the friendly neighborhood Haagen-Dazs store for ice cream.
When the rain stared coming down hard, the street bloomed with umbrellas of all sizes and colors. The umbrella salespeople made out like bandits. People were buying umbrellas as fast as they could give the salesperson their money. I liked the transparent ones because you could keep them down over our head and still see where you were going.
The Shanghai folks take their rain seriously. Not only did a gully-buster rain not stop people from walking in the mall, there were even people riding on bicycles and scooters on the nearby streets, wearing ponchos that covered themselves and their vehicles. By the way, I have no idea what the Chinese word is for poncho, but I bet it isn’t poncho.
Later on in the afternoon, we took a boat ride along the Huangpu River to see the best panorama of the city. The tallest buildings were in the clouds, which was pretty, but I’m not sure I would have wanted to be in one of them at that point. It’s one thing to have your head in the clouds and another to have the floor beneath your feet in there as well.
A sign on the boat asked us not to climb on the railing. The sign read, “Non ClimBing.”
The Bund is the main boulevard in Shanghai that faces the port. The park we walked along, where I got my picture taken and which was awash with people, stands between the Bund and the port. (Bund is an Anglo-Indian word meaning an embankment.) I thought Bund was a German word, but apparently, the name dates back to the Sino-British Opium war of the 1840s, a rather complicated affair. The English wanted to push opium in China but people objected to outsiders turning their country into a doper’s heaven. By the time resistance broke out, there were an estimated 20 million Chinese addicted to opium.
(The British outgunned the Chinese and forced the empress to capitulate, which eventually opened the country up to the West. This was an early example of the market place reshaping society.)
There are some beautiful and historic buildings facing the port. The Chinese government refurbished many of them a couple of years ago and now they almost looked new. This was especially true of one that sported a naked man partially covered with a carefully draped cloth and a young woman, not so carefully draped. The building might have been in London, an Admiralty building perhaps, or something like that. The naked man could have been Poseidon, while the woman a sea-nymph. Either way, the man and woman above the entry to the building were ‘Art.’ However, you know if a real person tried to walk around in public like that… well you get the picture.
We visited another shopping place, this one with narrow streets amid Chinese Vernacular buildings. This may have been the Huaihai Road and Former French Concession area, I did not catch all that information because as I mentioned, my hearing aids were out. I just know the place was very crowded.
Two interesting things happened while we were here. First, I was standing with Patsy next to a bridge when I felt something touch my shoulder. I turned and saw a young woman having her picture taken with me, so I posed with her as boyfriend took the photo. After that, he gave the camera to the woman and stood next to me while she shot another picture. Thankfully, nobody asked for autographs.
The next interesting thing happened while I looked around the square. I saw some statues on the eve of one building and decided to take a picture of them when I noticed a police officer looking at us from one of the second story windows. He kept his eye on us the whole time we waited there. I don’t know why he would keep watch on us, who knows, maybe he wanted a picture with me too.
I don’t recall what we did that evening, but it might have been an early one, because we had to fly out again the next morning, on our way to Guilin. This tour was becoming very ‘flighty.’
Day 13:
Guilin would turn out to be one of our more interesting stops. It is in Karst country, which means the mountains are limestone, but somewhat softer than what we had seen in the Three gorges. They were just as tall, the tree cover just as thick, but instead of more or less blocky mountains, these have a softer, more pointed look to them. Imagine if you will, that a giant child took a pile of sand and let it trickle through its fingers to form soft cone-shaped mounds. The landscape has that kind of odd look to it.
However, the Karst-type mountains are not the only thing that made our trip to Guilin interesting; it just laid the groundwork so to speak (no pun intended).
On the way to our hotel, we stopped to visit a tea plantation. It was raining, but only slightly, much like what the Irish call a ‘soft day.’ At the plantation, our host handed us wide bamboo hats to wear. He talked us about the tealeaves and told us what we should look for. Then we went out into the field to collect leaves. For those of us who thought tea only came in bags, this was quite an experience.
We watched a woman ‘wither’ the tealeaves we had gathered; after that, she shook them in a bamboo basket to make them oxidize better. These were steps I had no idea were necessary. Some tea is allowed to ferment (another step I did not know about) while other types are unfermented. We learned that tea can be green, yellow, Oolong (and white), and black, all from the same plant – it depends on which leaves are plucked and how they are handled as to what they will become. No one mentioned Orange Pekoe, by the way.
We stepped into the tearoom where our host would serve us different kinds of tea and explain what flavors we should look for.
The room was a long white walled space with a high ceiling and what I suspect was a poem on the forward wall, written in elegant calligraphy. Our host’s low wooden table had all sorts of utensils on it because his making tea would be somewhat different from my making tea (again, I use bags). There were several low benches arranged around the room, with a number of polished tree stumps behind them. The benches were tree trunks split in half, but otherwise left in their natural state except for a little polish and some stubby legs under them. All the slight twists and bumps the trees had when they were alive were still there.
Our host made a joke: he told us he could tell we had never been in a tearoom before because we were sitting on the tales! What we thought were benches were actually tables – we should have been sitting on the polished stumps.
When we sat down properly (me with my knees almost to my shoulders), our host proceeded to show us the correct way to brew tea. There are different kinds of pots to use for each type of tea. This blew away my experience that you just dropped the bag into a cup of hot water and giggled it up and down a couple of times – you didn’t need a stinking pot to do it, either.
After the lecture and tasting, we had time to buy the tea and some of the utensils, such as cups, if we wanted.
I forgot to mention that blocks of compressed tea were available. Tea blocks are for long-term storage and easier transportation. Although it was tempting to buy some of that, we didn’t have that much room in our suitcases. In addition, I thought about how it might look to a TSA agent if I came through customs with a compressed block of some dark substance and tried to explain it was only tea.
After the presentation, we had lunch and then went to the hotel for some down time. The rain followed us for most of the week, but it finally cleared up by evening, which cheered us greatly.
The reason we were happy about the weather was that we were going to see a very special show outdoors, and the producers would have cancelled it if it rained. In fact, they cancelled the show the night before because of rain, and would again the night after we were there. Patsy and I are usually lucky about weather and this time the whole team profited by our good fortune. (Yes, we are lucky, but don’t try to rub our tummies.)
That night the extravaganza we went to see was “Impressions of Liu San Jie.” Liu is the man who put together the opening for the China Olympics. The only way to describe what we saw was spectacular; although to get the full effect, you should say it like this: spec-tac-u-lar! (The number of exclamation points after this would depend on how much one liked the show)
We sat in an open-air amphitheater that could hold hundreds, but even so, there were people standing along the staircase. In front of us was a large lake or reservoir, backed by some of those soft Karst mountains. We could just make out people rowing boats (rafts actually) out on the lake as the sun went down. The traditional way to row in China appears to be standing up; that seems to be the only way it’s done here. Even in regularly shaped craft using two oars, we saw boatmen row standing up.
We could just barely make out six or seven men standing on their boats, moving out away from the shore. Suddenly, when the night was very dark and we were getting restless, spotlights hit the cliffs on the far side of the lake and some nearer ones that acted as proscenia. Imagine if you will, a mountain hundreds of feet tall and almost a mile away, light up and reflected in the black water of the lake. The cliffs near us were not as tall as the central backdrop and not as close as they first appeared, but in contrast, they seemed more intimate.
Now we could see the men rowing the boats clearly. They were dressed in black high collar jackets and wearing large straw hats. This was a subtle beginning to an extravagant display of lights, music, and coordinated people. There were also low platforms that came up out of the water as needed, and sank back down again when they were not. This would give the impression that people were walking on the water.
Shortly after the lights came up and the boatmen made their appearance, some twenty or thirty young girls dressed in colorful native costumes ran out on a platform to sing us a song. Things were starting to pick up.
By the time the show was finished, we had seen some eight or nine long rows of boatmen holding cables draped in red plastic that stretched clear across the lake. The fishermen lifted and dropped the plastic sheets in coordination with music, making them look as if they were waves of water.
A huge crescent moon floated on the lake behind them like a giant child’s night light. A young woman in a flowing outfit danced on the moon and sang to us.
Nearer, some dozen or more young women swayed on one of the platforms that came up out of the water, and sang to us as well. Then a woman singer drew our attention to the front of the lake.
As her song progressed, some of the swaying women came to the solo singer and stripped off her dress. She wore a body stocking, so she appeared nude when they did this. After stripping her, they dressed her in the same kind of red wedding dress we had seen at the earlier show in the Three Gorges. When she was dressed for a wedding, all of the swaying women stripped off their own dresses and continued to dance. They were all wearing the body stockings as well. When they did this, the young woman dancing on the moon also stripped off her clothes, so we saw what appeared to be a number of very flexible naked women swaying in the night air. After a further moment or two of swaying, the women also put on red bridesmaids dresses.
While the swaying and singing was going on, another group came down one side of the lake and sang as they held torches. Finally, the young woman, the soloist, stepped into a covered boat where she met a young man and the two of them sailed off. On analysis, I think what we saw was supposed to be an allegorical wedding and the singers were celebrating the young lovers.
(Note: if this seems disjointed and skipping all over the place, it is because the show did the same thing. We had fishermen walking across the front of the stage, carrying poles with cormorants sitting on them, only to walk off stage without any reason except to show us they had birds. I mean, how ‘skipping all over the place’ was that. )
While all this was going on in the foreground, the spotlights on the mountains would come on and then go off to reinforce what was happening on the lake or to draw our attention to something else. The finale was a long line of singers and dancers, all lit up with red lights, crossing and re-crossing the lake on the submersible platforms. While the long serpentine line seemed to go on and on, fishermen rowed their boats around in the foreground.
Overall, there were over 600 performers, and now they were all on stage together. The only thing that could have made this even more overwhelming would have been if someone rode a zip line between the mountains, crossing over the lake while holding a torch in their teeth. This may happen in the future, who knows.
It started to sprinkle slightly when we made our way out to the bus parking lot. Even so, there were people coming in to see the show. We hoped for their sakes that the rain did not come down hard enough to stop the performance.
One more interesting thing was that the producers used real fishermen from around the area, which gave them, the fishers, an extra income. Later on, we would see some very nice houses that belonged to these fishers-cum-actors, so the extravaganza did help the local economy.
Chapter four
Day 14:
It was raining lightly once more when we started on our day’s adventures. We walked past a school where we heard children singing their lesson. As usual, we walked through a merchant area on our way for a boat ride along the Li River. I took photographs of the details carved on a bridge next to the water. There were all sorts of little embellishments on bannisters, pillar bases, and places where you might least expect them.
Our boat this time was a large thing that almost looked like a floating restaurant (we would visit one of those later). Along the banks of the Li we saw the traditional rafts the fishermen use, and some that were not so traditional. The basic raft was made of five or six giant bamboo poles lashed together, with the front end tilted up slightly. I suppose like most organic things, these rafts eventually rotted out, so we also saw rafts that were made of large diameter PVC water pipe, sealed at both ends and again, with the forward end tilted up.
We passed some other enclosed boats that were larger than the rafts but smaller than ours were. We thought these boats were for tourists because they were decorated up with large dragonheads on their bows – fishermen would probably not bother with all that.
A small building that looked like a pagoda stood at the boat loading area, but was really just a viewing area. We sat inside it while we waited for our boat.
As we sailed along the Li, we saw some very nice houses along the banks. Our local guide told us that these belonged to the fishermen who worked at the light show. Their extra income allowed them to build these nice houses.
After our cruise on the river, our next stop was at a farm village. Two elderly men greeted us, leading their water buffalos so we could take pictures of them and their animals. Since this was part of the tour, we understood that the men wanted something for that. It was okay with me, since these folks obviously did not have much, unless they were part of the lightshow, of course.
While we watched, one of the farmers led his buffalo down to a rice paddy where the animal relieved itself. Two things; first urine is ammonium nitrate on the hoof some to speak, Mother Nature’s own fertilizer, and second, you cannot imagine how long a water buffalo can whiz! This animal must have produced five gallons of nutrient! We could have taken a National Geographic type movie and people would have had time to go make popcorn before the clip ended.
Along with the buffaloes and the usual team of ducks, there were multi-colored chickens running free. I had to take a couple of pictures of them, because why not? Chickens came from Asia, and these could have been direct decedents of those original jungle birds. (When you think about that logically, I suppose they were.)

I suppose I need to correct something here. Some of the farmers did have money, since they either lived in houses made of fired bricks, or were building houses of the same material. However, there were also adobe brick buildings painted over to protect them from the weather. For those who con’t know, adobe is mud mixed with straw or other vegetable material to hold them together into sun-dried blocks.
There was a small shrine near the entry to the village, which was probably a funerary monument. We would see many of these later on in our trip. One of those large, oddly shaped stones we saw from time to time, marked the entry to the village. There were Chinese characters carved into the stone, but I did not ask anyone what they meant. Who knows; they could have been the name of the village or maybe even that this road had no exit. Either way, I have a picture of it and may someday ask someone who reads Chinese to tell me what it means.
On our way back to town, I noticed that many of the bicycles along of side our bus had umbrellas over them, with a long tail to cover the rider behind the cyclist. Imagine if you will a circle with a square attached to it. We had seen ponchos used earlier, but here was a new way of dealing with the rain.
That afternoon, we visited another pearl museum/store, where we learned about salt-water pearls. Since I am not a fan of pearls, I found their coffee bar more interesting than the merchandise. In my defense, I have to say we were steadily moving almost the whole tour. An occasional quiet sit down and a good cup of coffee were welcome breaks.
Along with displays of regular oysters that produce the pearls, there were several giant clamshells in cases around the lobby (you know, the kind that Tarzan gets his foot caught in and then has to wrestle free.) This was strange because clams don’t produce peals, but hey, why quibble – the shells were interesting to look at.
That afternoon we had some time to kick around the city before took our next flight to Guangzhou. Naturally, we had to go to a merchant area. One cannot have too many tee shirts or chopstick sets.
Patsy and I took a walk around and looked at the Sun and Moon pagodas out on a lake, then went back to our hotel.
Day 15:
Today’s adventure would be to fly to Guangzhou and see the Chen family Ancestral Hall. Jeff, our regular guide, told us there were only about one hundred names in China, so we should not be surprised to see the same name over again. Chen was a prominent name.
The 72 Chen clans built the hall in 1894 to give a place for their junior relatives’ to stay while preparing for their imperial examinations. The examinations ended in the early part of the twentieth century, but the family still used the hall until the Guangzhou City People’s Committee appropriated it as a City preserve In 1957. It is now a cultural center/museum with classrooms for teaching art.
The original carved prayer table or alter sat in the main hall, with a wall behind it that once held the names of Chen ancestors. The government removed the names when the hall became the People’s preserve; otherwise, the whole complex was intact.
There are some nineteen buildings in the complex, all highly ornamented and with their own garden areas. One of the small gardens held a number of Penjing or Bonsai trees, lovingly cared for. Many of the trees looked old, but who knows how old they really were. If well done, even young bonsais look ancient.
The usual motif of dragons and Fire Dogs writhed and threatened all over the place. There was even a small ornamental carving of what looked like a frog exhaling a cloud of something. I didn’t know that frogs smoked, but maybe they do here in China.
After visiting the Chen Hall, we had an afternoon free. Normally, Patsy and I are not big fans of shopping, but we did some here. We wandered into an enclave of shops and watched a woman doing tablet weaving in front of her shop. The work was lovely and Patsy bought a shawl one of the women had on display.
We started back toward the hotel, but passed a shop full of large black pots with red cloth tied around their tops. They looked intriguing, so we went inside. The smell immediately told me we were in a wine shop. Each pot must have held thirty or more gallons of wine, but they were large ceramic things, not stainless steel or glass, and sealed with the red covers and not with corks or screw tops, so we were not sure what we were seeing right at first. I don’t think they could have made corks or screw tops that would have fit anyway.
We returned to the hotel Starbucks. Patsy went on with her reading and I tried to catch up on my notes.
Day 16:
Our next stop was the ferry that would take us to Macau. Along the way to the port, our bus passed many small fish farms and rice paddies mixed in with freeways and other modern structures, which made for a time jumble – a mixing of old and new. Most of the fish farms had small rustic huts next to them, with tall stacks of poles. Our guide said that the pole stacks helped in drying fish, which made sense.
We got to the port and took the ferry to Macau. There were so many people crammed on the ferry that we wondered about how safe it was. The boat was wall to wall with people; I had to stand between four people who were sitting down on a ledge, and a bulkhead. One hears about the huge numbers of people lost when a ferry sinks, and now we could see how this could happen. Fortunately, the trip only took a few minutes, but hey, how long does it take for a ferry to tip over and sink?
I am pleased to say that we arrived in Macau safely. As an interesting note, we off-loaded next to the headquarters of a fireworks manufacturer. I hoped that this was not an omen.
We must have bused down to Colane Village where we visited the A-Ma Daoism Temple. (I say ‘must have’ because my sense of direction isn’t working as well as it might. I thought we sailed in almost a straight line to Macao, but according to a map, we probably sailed at an angle to the south before landing.)
The temple stood on a hill, and as we climbed the steps to the pink buildings, we noticed large sand trays filled with smoking incense. Some of the incense sticks were small, maybe a bit larger than we might use at home, but other sticks were as thick as ballpark hot dogs and several feet long.
After walking around the temple, we walked back down to a small tree shaded plaza and stopped at a place that sold cookies and cream tarts. I saw some cookies that looked as though they had chocolate dripped across them. I started to buy them when our guide told me not to buy chocolate while I was in China. I pointed to the cookies and she said they were not chocolate. Puzzled, I took one of the sample cookies off the counter and tried it. What I thought was chocolate was seaweed wrapped around the bar… so much for that.
Macau is on a peninsula where the Portuguese set up as a trading post in the 1550s, when they rented the colony during the Ming Dynasty. Portugal returned it to China in 1999.
We visited the Fortaleza do Monte, one of the old city fortresses, and walked around looking at Banyan trees and out cannon ports. Below, we saw what looked like the very fancy front of a church, but with no church behind it. Later on, we would learn that this is the front of Sao Paulo, or St. Paul’s church which burnt down first in 1601, and again in 1835. The second fire also took out an adjacent college and library. There was some interest in rebuilding the church, but nothing ever came of that and now there is only the lovely front.
Macau is famous as a tourist/casino town. Indeed, one casino building, the Grand Lisboan, looks like a giant feather duster exploding. There is a lot to see in the old town; therefore, our main interest in the casinos was where to find washrooms. The one we most visited was the Venetian, and I have to say it was not nearly as grand as the Venetian Hotel in Las Vegas. I suppose this was a copy of a copy with something left out after each copy.
We visited St. Paul’s to take pictures, and then moved on to the old town. In old town Macau, there are streets with swirling mosaics of black and white patterns. The street names were on tiles set into building walls, written in both Portuguese and Chinese.
The day was warm and we had some down time, so we all sat around a small park on Largo de S. Domingos Street. On our way to here, we paused by the statue of Luís Vaz de Camões, the chief warrant officer in Macau around 1556 or so. Although I had never heard of him before, I learned that many consider Camões Portugal’s greatest poet. Some say he ranks up there with Shakespeare himself, which is high praise indeed.
We had to wait for a while at the park until we could go to our bus. Since it was a hot day, we wanted something cool to drink. I spotted a nearby McDonalds down the street so I went there to get something and immediately ran into a couple of problems: first, the counter person started asking me things in Chinese, and second, all the money I had was Chines Yuan. I had to return to our group and beg for some Macau money. When I went back to McDonalds, the young man who wanted to help me patiently watched me as I went through some pointing and other hand gestures. Finally, we arrived at my buying two chocolate covered sundaes even though our guide said not to buy chocolate in China. If you can’t trust McDonalds, who can you trust?
Macau and Hong Kong currency is different from Chinese and from each other, which is troublesome since they only accept their own. I liked the one-dollar coin because it had frilly edges. Since money flies away, as it does, why not make it look frilly?
The McDonalds offered two specialties you most likely won’t find in the States: a black and a white hamburger. The black burger was on a bun darker than pumpernickel, while the white was on a bun that looked like a Dim Sum dumpling. I have no idea what these tasted like, but their descriptions were in both Chinese and English. I read that the white burger came with a choice of special sauces, one of which was a crab sauce… I don’t think we will see either of these at home anytime soon.
After a wait made longer by the hot weather, we caught our bus to the port for our trip to Hong Kong. We had to show our passports as we were technically leaving China. Hong Kong is a Special Administrative Region, like Macau. Why we did not have to present our passports when we went to Macau, I don’t know, but we didn’t. Special Administrative Region means that they can elect their own government for the time being. However, the Chinese Government has to approve list of candidates for office.
(Side note: since this has come up, I thought the Party had tight control over everything, but apparently, at least according to two of our guides, the Party only controls about 30% of things. In fact, we saw a public demonstration in Macau, well, one man protesting anyway. Our guide didn’t explain what he was against, but just that he often had posters and a loudspeaker out in the plaza. She also said that people thought he was crazy because he was always protesting something.)
Now back to the tour
We made our trip to Hong Kong on a very sleek, very fast hydrofoil. I guess I should actually call it a jetfoil, since it uses jets to rise up out of the water. Rising out of the water cuts down on drag and allows the boat to go faster. Once it gets up and starts moving, the large catamaran cruised at about forty miles an hour.
We were not in Hong Kong for very long before we noticed dealerships for Mercedes, Lamborghini, Ferrari, and other high-end cars. Not only were there showrooms for these expensive machines, there were several dealerships for each. We already knew there was a lot of money in Hong Kong, but this was more than I expected.
Our local guide who was a real comedian, his patter kept us laughing all the way to our hotel, the L’Hotel Nana Tower. (Note: Although the name is Nana Tower, singular, the hotel consists of two towers.)
Our guide told a joke as we passed the local racetrack, he explained about how they cared for the horses there. He said that, as a Buddhist, he believed in reincarnation and that because of the way they pamper racehorses here, he wanted to come back as one. Then he rubbed his shoulder and said he always got a twinge in his left arm when the tours passed by the track. He wondered if maybe he had in fact been a racehorse in a former life, and if he had broken his leg there or something. He went on to say that if that were the case, he had re-incarnated into a guide for Sinorama, and maybe the exchange hadn’t been worth it.
We finally reached the hotel to check in. The first tower at L’Hotel was 41 floors high. We had to take the elevator to this floor and cross over an enclosed bridge to the second tower, which was some 80 stories high – our room was on the 59th floor. Now we wondered what was happening lower down in this tower that we couldn’t just take one elevator up to our room. I will say more about that later, but first an observation.
One has to understand that Hong Kong, like the rest of the east coast of China, is in the “Ring of Fire,” the Pacific earthquake zone. The next thing one has to understand is that much of Hong Kong sits on fill, i.e. dirt and rock taken from one place and put into the harbor to make more land. Finally, that our very high hotel stood on landfill. We asked several people about earthquakes, but they all denied quakes ever happened here. I think those same people had a bridge in Hong Kong they might want to sell me.
Now, on to our hotel:
We found that there was a whole world under our feet. An escalator rose from the lobby to a multi-level shopping mall complete with upscale shops and places to eat, which was okay with us. However, the next day, when we got off on a lower floor than the ones dedicated to food and shopping, we wandered into a massive meat store, with butcher shops working at high capacity. How many hotels have you ever stayed in that had both shopping malls and butcher shops in them? This explained why we couldn’t take an elevator directly from the lobby to our room… we might have had to share it with a side of beef.
I believe we went up to Victoria Mountain the next morning because I have a picture of me kissing Patsy on a city over-look. If so, we went to the top of the mountain and visited… the shopping area there.
Victoria Mountain is named after Queen Victoria (this used to be British territory, remember), as was the harbor and a couple of streets. Our guide pointed out several mansions along the way, including one that belonged to his very close and personal friend Jackie Chan (ba-da-dum).
He told us that the higher up the mountain we went, the more the mansions cost. It must have been true, because when we were at the top of the mountain, the air smelled like money (okay, not really, but you get my point). This was Ex-Pat country, and as we stood around looking over the hillside, a couple who looked like they stepped out of a Jordache advertisement ,came walking past us, leading one of the largest dogs I have ever seen.
Day 17:
We went to Aberdeen Harbor to ride around looking at the boats. There are whole communities that live on the boats in the harbor, some in smaller ones while the larger ones looked as though they could go out to sea. As we passed a dry dock where a boat was in for repairs, I wondered what the family that lived on the boat did while it was there. Did they go to a floating motel or something?
After our tour, we went to have lunch at the Jumbo Floating Restaurant, which as the name implies, is on a very large raft. The restaurant is several stories high and rests on piers so that we did not feel any motion of the water.
Very large dragons, twisted around multi-colored pillars, greeted us at the entryway along with peacock wall murals and lots of gold trim. Oh yes, a small hostess met us there as well.
We climbed up the stairs to the third floor where a sumptuous lunch awaited us. The décor of the place was just as over the top as expected. Red lanterns hung everywhere and the dining room seemed to be as long as a football field.
After lunch, we returned to the island on our ferry (decorated with dragons that spit water from their mouths) and on to some free time.
Day 18:
Patsy and I walked down to a small park in front of the hotel before we started our journey back home. A woman was there, sweeping the street with a broom made of bamboo with twigs. I tried to get a picture of the broom because I had seen that sort of thing used elsewhere, but the woman turned just as I pressed the button. I did get a shot of her very large hat that could almost double as a tent.
That afternoon we got to the airport with very little difficulty, and flew back home.
There is not a whole lot more to say at this point except that our Canadian friends told us Air Canada hands out free drinks even in steerage, something I did not know before. Suffice it to say, I had to test this out. It is true, and our flight home was much pleasanter than our flight to China.
Oh, there was something else… I mentioned that things had fallen apart and I was worried that more things might follow. During our flight to Vancouver, I got up to use the lavatory and had to go back to stand near the flight attendants’ area. As I was talking to one of them, the left lens of my glasses fell out of the frame. Fortunately, the screw didn’t come out as well, and I put everything back together more or less. At least my efforts got us back home before the lens came out again.
Well, that is the Dinosaur log for our trip to China. I hope you all enjoyed the somewhat long and rambling dialogue. I also hope I will be able to post my photo album so you can see some of the things I have mentioned. Until the next time, have a safe trip wherever you go.

 

 

 

 

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bread blog

Posted by marshal on February 1, 2015 in Uncategorized |

Let’s agree at the start that I am a bad blogger. It’s not that I don’t want to blog; it’s just that I get involved in other things and forget to write something. The last time that I wrote something to this site, I promised to add to the blog every Thursday, which seemed like a do-able thing. How wrong that was! However, I have this thing and I really should use it, so I am going to chronicle my travails with making sourdough bread. Not just any sourdough bread, however. I already do that on a bi-weekly basis. In fact, sourdough bread is the only bread I eat now days. No, what I am working on is various historic breads, but using only preferment starters and no modern yeasts. To that end, I have captured two wild yeasts inside my kitchen. I suppose I should be concerned that I harvested the yeasts under the plants on the table we use for dinner, but I also realize that yeasts are all over the place, not just there. In fact, I suppose I should be comforted that the two starters I have were usable and not something foul that I had to throw away.
Of the two mothers, which is the proper term for the preferment starters, one has a distinct beer smell, while the other smells more like wine. I renew one with white flour only, while I refresh the wine-y one with whole wheat and/or rye flours.
Currently, I am working on a Maslin bread, peasant bread from the Middle Ages, and a Panettone, which is an Italian dessert bread, dating from the 16th century. I will try to chronicle my adventures with these two breads in future blogs. Right now, I am going to close and enjoy a glass of wine after watching the Patriots beat the Seahawks in the Super Bowl. See you next time, that is if anyone is reading this.

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The Dinosaur Goes South

Posted by marshal on June 18, 2014 in Dinologs |

[Note: my computer was on the fritz and so I did not have that to use. I did buy a notebook and tried to keep some account of what we did and what we ate, but I am lazy, and so the notes are sketchy at best. What I have here is a reconstruction based on the notebook and my ramshackle memory. I tried to make it as honest and complete as I could; now, on to the log.]

Patsy and I planned to go to St, Augustine, Florida for a couple of days. We would meet with our son and daughter-in-law in Jacksonville and drive down to St. Augustine for two days, then head up to Savannah, Georgia. However, family business took us up to South Carolina for our first day, so we had to crowd our visit to St. Augustine into a single day.

By the time Patsy and I flew into Jacksonville, it was late. When we got to the hotel, we decided to order in, rather than go somewhere for dinner. The desk clerk recommended a steakhouse down the road, so we called them… but we soon realized we were in a different part of the country. I asked for Chicken Marsala, which is usually a couple of chicken breasts in a light wine sauce, usually served with pasta. This time however, I got two chicken breasts and mushrooms in thick, brown gravy, with mashed potatoes. Oh well, the gravy went nicely with the potatoes.

Next morning, we headed out to South Carolina. This was a four-hour trip, but it did not rain, which meant I could keep the pedal down. I am pleased to report that drivers in Florida, Georgia, and South Carolina drive just like they do in Los Angeles…. fast. I felt right at home going 80 in a 65 zone, and even though there were troopers on the media, cars were still passing me.

The Southern countryside was very green, with thick forest on either side of the freeway, made even thicker by the Kudzu vines. For those of you who don’t know about Kudzu, it’s a vine originally imported from Japan to control erosion. Unfortunately, there are no natural controls for Kudzu here in this country, and the vine has spread everywhere, climbing up trees and choking out undergrowth. I have often wondered if Kudzu could be harvested for ethanol production, but that’s another story.

When we got to South Carolina and met with the friends we needed to see, we had lunch at a fresh seafood place. It was one of those places with varnished knotty pine walls and pictures of fishermen everywhere. The wooden table we sat down at had a hole cut into the top for a tin bucket. This is where you were supposed to throw shells and crab bits – the seafood was that fresh. Our server was a small round woman with her hair pulled back into a bun. She was about as tall standing up as I am sitting down and seemed to have the pep of an Energizer Bunny. She quoted the day’s specials for us and suggested that I try the Shrimp and Grits.

This was my first encounter with Shrimp and Grits, something I understand is a regional staple. In fact, as I also learned, shrimp is a poor person’s food in this part of the country, apparently because they are that easy to harvest.

The dish consisted of two triangles of crunchy deep fried grits and eight large shrimp, all covered with a creamy white sauce… delicious. Later on, as our trip continued, I saw other combinations of grits and shrimp with variations, such as grits with goat cheese, grits timbales with basil sauce, blackened shrimp and Parmesan cheese grits, and so on. (I have a couple of recipes for this dish tacked on at the end of this log)

Shrimp tastes different here than they do back home. This is because we are near the ocean and shrimp are very fresh here, not frozen. Our shrimp we had on this first day were sweet and firm, with nothing processed about them.

We spent time with our friends before heading back down to St. Augustine, where we stayed at an old converted carriage house named The Castle Cottage. This used to be a carriage house for the Ripley mansion, which is across the street (no time for a visit, but maybe next time). Even though the owner of the B & B has been working to improve the property, he still has a way to go. The place was clean and comfortable, but there were minor things like the broken paneling in our bathroom. Still, the price was reasonable, the location is very near to Old Town, and if one is aware that there are some flaws to overlook, it is a nice place to stay.

Since we got to St. Augustine late, we had dinner at Barnacle Bill’s Seafood Restaurant. There we had clam chowder and an apple salad with shrimp because it was too late for anything very heavy. We also drank Mile Marker Zero Blonde Ale (malty taste with a hint of citrus). Satisfied with the good food and the very good beer, we turned in for the night. Tomorrow would be a very full day, indeed.

Day One
After breakfast, we headed out to main street St. Augustine to look around. This is a small town, especially Old Town, and it did not take us long to get our bearings. St. Augustine is the oldest European settlement in North America, founded in 1565, by Spanish admiral Pedro Menéndez de Avilés. However, it was Spanish explorer and governor of Puerto Rico, Juan Ponce de León, who claimed the region for the Spanish crown in 1516. He also claimed the entire North American continent for Spain, including Canada, oh and he named it all Florida.

St. Augustine once was a walled town, but the only part of that remaining now is the gateway into St. George Street, one of the main attraction streets in Old Town St. Augustine. There are historical things along the street, such as the oldest wooden schoolhouse in America and the Government House Museum, with its shaded gallery over the courtyard. [Of course, what would a tourist town be without various souvenir shops, cafes, and other tourist attractions? You can find them all along St. George Street; there was even an old man sitting at a corner, playing a concertina for tips.

The museums along the way include the Government House museum and the Gonzalez-Alvarez House, which once considered the oldest house in North America (That title is now held by the Acoma Pueblo New Mexico, another fascinating place to visit). The St. Augustine Pirate & Treasure Museum is also an interesting stop for all who want to get your “Arrr” on. The exhibits there include Blackbeard’s original blunderbuss and pieces of gold retrieved from his warship the Queen Anne’s Revenge.

One of the main draws of the town is the Castillo de San Marcos, a fortress built by the Spanish in the 16th century to protect the town (from pirates, of course). The fortress is in excellent shape and has a great number of cannons and mortars on display. Docents dress like early 18th century Spanish soldiers, and fire one of the cannons several times a day as part of the attraction; the firing commands are in Spanish.

While we were there on the top of the fortress wall, a park ranger reminded us that if a storm hit, we were on a wall with lots of iron and that we were the tallest things there. He told us we might want to go down to the lower levels of the fort when told to do so. As it happened, we did get a storm and we all moved down the stairs smartly.

After visiting the fortress, we had lunch in the Bunnery, a bakery/sandwich shop. I had a Panini Veggie sandwich, and felt so good about choosing a healthy lunch, that I treated myself to a large Pecan Praline cookie.

That afternoon, we took a sail around the bay on the Freedom Schooner. We found the schooner down at the end of the jetty, right next to the Black Raven Pirate Ship, a plywood version of an 18th century carrack (pirate ship to those of you who aren’t familiar with carracks). The pirates were as rowdy as they should have been; we could hear them all the way across the bay, singing songs and making more of those ‘Arrr’ sounds.

Our crew talked to us as they hauled on ropes, and even had some of us to help raise the sails once we were under way. One young lady’s boyfriend had to hold her down as she lowered one of the sails. Captain Jack cut the engines when we were out of the docking area and tacked us up and down the harbor. Of course, we didn’t catch the pirate ship, since they were under power, not sail, but then again, we didn’t have to sing rowdy songs either.

Later on, we had an early dinner at the Columbia Restaurant (reservations are a good idea). This restaurant is in the historic district on St. George Street, and has the feeling of a Spanish Mission style place. The Columbia is part of a family owned chain of restaurants that specialize in Cuban and Spanish influenced recipes. I had chicken breast in a Riojana sauce (recipe to follow), fresh veggies and yellow rice. The food was excellent and at a fair price. If any of my readers go to St. Augustine, I would heartily recommend the Columbia.

With dinner over, it was too early to call it a night, so we walked down St. George Street until we came to the Mi Casa Café, where we drank Dogfish Head 90 minute IPAs (brandied fruitcake, citrusy, and raisin flavors), and listened to a smoky voiced singer named Danny Via for a couple of hours. The man played as though he had three hands or maybe twenty fingers. He did some of his own stuff as well as covering songs we could all sing along with him; he even did a credible Lester Flatt number. Finally, though, it was late and we had to drive to Savannah the next morning.

Day Two:
Since today was a Sunday, and since our main objective was to drive to Savannah, we spent some time at the fabled “Fountain of Youth” site. This is where Pedro Menendez first settled. The Timucuan Indians also lived on the site and there are some Timucuan style huts in the park to look at. These Indians were early converts to Christianity; in fact, there is a reconstruction of the first church, the Mission Church of Nombre de Dios, on the site.

Apparently, Ponce de Leon did not think this was the fountain of youth, but another man, probably Pedro, attributed all this to good old Ponce. There is a fountain where you can take a drink of water before going on the rest of the tour. I don’t know if this was indeed the fabulous fountain, but I felt a little bit younger for a while. Of course, this could have also been because I was thirsty and had some water.

One of the first features that you notice in this lush garden of a place is the peacocks. They are everywhere, both the colorful types and the white ones, and they scream like crazy. I took several photos of the full colored ones sitting on one of the old cannons for a ‘Beauty and the Beast’ approach.

Along the trail through the park, there is a docent who fires a matchlock gun. He said that he only fires powder and not bullets with his demonstration. He also said the management won’t let him shoot bullets because if they did, there would not be a single peacock left in the park.

For those of you who do not know how a matchlock works, it’s like a muzzle loaded flintlock rifle (think Daniel Boone). However, instead of using sparks from flint hitting against iron to fire the powder, pulling the trigger touches a smoldering piece of twine – the match – down into a tiny bit of powder under the lock. There was one heck of a bang when the gun went off, with a big cloud of smoke following that.

Since I’m talking about a firing demonstrations, let me mention another one that they do at the park: a six pound breech loaded cannon. I found this very interesting, since I did not know they had breech loading (loading from the back rather than the muzzle) guns during that time period. The docent showed us iron canisters filled with gunpowder that fit into the cannon breech. A block sits between the gun carriage and the canister to hold it in place. While breech loading would be faster than muzzle loading, a six-pound ball is the upper limit for this type cannon; muzzle-loaders can fire much larger projectiles. In both firing demonstrations, the commands were in Spanish.

After the Fountain of Youth Park, we continued our drive to Savannah. The day was a bit rainy, but nothing to be concerned about. When we got to the hotel, I realized that I had chosen a location not in Savannah itself, but on the outskirts. This was just as well, because we met some people later on, who told us they were paying almost $200 a night for a downtown location.

We got to our hotel rather late, and just settled in for the night. Dinner was at Hoolihans, where we ordered things like meatloaf and mashed potatoes, and other comfort food.

Day Three:
We started the morning by visiting the Mighty 8th Air Force Museum. While I had not thought about visiting a military museum before, this was very interesting. I would recommend a stop at the Might 8th to anyone going to Savannah.

You enter the museum through a large rotunda that is decorated with flags and has busts of five or six generals who commanded the 8th Air Force during WWII. Once inside the exhibits, I was amazed. There are video uploads of films documenting actual bombing runs over Germany. The films included Luftwaffe fighters attacking, of other bombers going down in flames, and of bombers taking off and landing at their English airfields.

Besides the videos, there are artifacts such as uniforms, both allied and German,, the nose of a German jet aircraft, and various other items. Along with the videos of the 8th bombers, there are also propaganda videos from the Third Reich. There is a large section dedicated to the Battle of Britain, including films and mock-ups.

Moving through the exhibits, the visitor enters a Quonset hut for an orientation and mission briefing as part of the Mission Experience. A recorded message gave us a briefing on an actual bombing raid made in WWII. Outside, we saw pictures of the ground crew and the things they did to get the bombers ready to go. After that, there is a film allows visitors to ride along as an observer during a mission over enemy territory. Outside are photographs of the raid aftermath. There is also a large-scale diorama of the raid over the Ploesti oil refinery.

Along with the main body of exhibits, there are sections devoted to the Tuskegee Airmen and for women who served in the Air Corps, even though neither were part of the 8th Air Force. Women could not fly combat missions, but they did ferry aircraft to combat areas.

There is a B-17 Flying Fortress bomber that can be viewed while it is restored;. Also on view are a Bf 109G Messerschmitt fighter and a P-51 Mustang fighter. I especially liked the B-17 exhibit because it showed how the belly gunner pod worked. The gunner was actually lying on his back and looking through his feet at his target.

After our tour, we stopped in to have lunch at the “English” pub on site.. Having been in real pubs before, this one is more “referential” than real. We had pesto mayonnaise BLTs and iced tea. The pesto was not all that strong, which was okay, because who needs to be burping up garlic all afternoon. (Recipe follows)

After visiting the museum, we moved on to Savannah proper. Let me say before going on further that anyone visiting Savannah for the first time should read Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil, a non-fiction work by John Berendt, and published in 1994 I got a copy on our last day there, and after reading it, wished I had done so prior to the trip. The book shows you something of the city you would not know otherwise. By the way, I understand there was a film made from the book, in 1997. We missed it then, but are going to try to find it on Netflix or some other place.

We stopped at the Savannah Visitor Information Center to find some maps and a tour bus. The visitor center is in the old red brick passenger terminal of the Central of Georgia Railroad complex, with its high ceilings and sweeping archways. Outside the center are several choices of tours, each with its own price range and venue. Since I tend to be thrifty (reads cheap), I chose the least expensive tour. Although this tour did not offer the ‘off-and-on option, ‘from what I could see, we didn’t miss much.

Savannah is a port town, and always has been. There is a section called Factors Row and Factors Walk, located on a bluff just above the River Walk. This is where the cotton brokers would look at the cotton offered by the growers. The walk is up over cobblestone streets so that the brokers could walk out of their businesses and look down on the bales. A funny thing about the streets; the cobblestones are old ship ballasts dumped here to make room for the cotton – the thrifty Georgians used the free stone to pave their streets, and some of the buildings down by the river walk seem to be built from these stones.. At some point, the ship captains realized what was happening and started to charge for the stone. Commerce is commerce from age to age and place to place, I suppose.

The visitor center parking lot closed at 6:00, so we had to find another place to park. Savannah has a lot of one way streets; just taking off will not do the trick; you have to have a map that shows the traffic flow. We found a parking garage nearby, navigated the streets to get there, and then started to find a place to have dinner. We wanted to have local food, so we went looking for a Savannah themed restaurant, but finally ended up at Churchill’s Pub. Now as much as this does not sound like a place for local cuisine, I did find Shrimp and Grits with goat cheese on the menu, and ordered that. We asked about any local brews and got Tybee Island Blonde (a Kölsch style ale that features aromas of roasted nuts, chocolate, and citrus) in a can, and brewed in Savannah. I always expect local beers to be on draft, but we ran across this same thing in Charleston as well.

It had rained earlier in the day, but now the weather had cleared and so we ate on the rooftop. There was a nice breeze, the clouds overhead were thin, and there were swallows flying around. I was reminded about a time when we were in Paris, taking a boat ride down the Seine. The sky looked just about like this, the swallows were flying around much like now, and I suddenly hoped that one of the damned birds wouldn’t poop on me like they did in Paris, or my dinner.

Here, the Shrimp and Grits meal was more like a pudding than the first dish I had, with lots of shrimp and slices of Andouille sausage. I thought the cheese would make more of an impact, but it didn’t.

After dinner, we made our way back to the motel for the night.

Day four:
We decided that today would be a good day to walk around the town and take in the sights. This is a good time to tell you, dear reader, more about the town. Savannah is more or less intact, because during the Civil War, (The Recent Unpleasantness), the mayor of Savannah realized what was happening and negotiated surrender of the town to General Sherman without a fight. Sherman, on his part, did not burn the place down, but offered it as a Christmas present to President Lincoln. Much of the town is so intact, that they covered one of the streets with dirt and filmed parts of “Glory,” the film about the first Black regiment in the Union Army, here.

As I said earlier, Savannah is on a bluff above the Savannah River. General James Oglethorpe and some of his close associates developed an elaborate plan for the town, based on a grid pattern that incorporated squares of open space. Savannah’s historic district has 22 tree filled squares with some sort of monument in in each one. There are also varieties of buskers found in the squares, ranging from talented musicians to one man who was teaching himself to play a flute, but who still had a tip can sitting in front of him. I think the tips were supposed to pay for his music lessons.

Several other districts arose as the town grew, each with its own character. We stayed pretty much in the Downtown (Landmark Historic District and Victorian District), so cannot talk about the other areas except to say they exist. I cannot say whether the other districts continued to incorporate public squares in them or not.

The Historic District owes its existence to seven women who formed the Historic Savannah Foundation in the 1950s. By that time, the squares had cuts through them to improve traffic flow, and many historic buildings were in line to be demolished for structures that were more utilitarian. In other words, bean counters were doing their usual ‘utility over beauty’ thing.

Having said all that, there are the usual tee-shirt shops and tchotsci shops, as well as restaurants and art stores. This is especially true along the River Walk area of town. We bought a nice little etching done on hand made paper at one art store.

We had lunch at the Shrimp Factory, where we ate Fried Green Tomato BLTs. The sandwiches were spicier than a regular BLT, mostly due to the breading on the green tomatoes. There were no local brews offered here, so I settled for an Anchor IPA (another local beer, except on a different coast).

After lunch, we took a ride on the Georgia Queen, a riverboat that would run us up and down the river so we could get a different view of Savannah. By now, if you have followed many of these logs, you will see a pattern of boat cruises. We like them because it gives a different perspective to wherever we are visiting.

The Georgia Queen is ostensibly a stern paddleboat, but I think the wheel is there for looks, rather than propulsion. There really was much of anything to see except the shipping aspect of the port. For most of my readers, you might want to skip this if you go there. Incidentally, there is a free ferry service from different locations along the River Walk to the International Trade and Convention Center, across the river from Savannah. We didn’t try this service, but it might be worth checking out. Hey, if nothing else, the price is right.

Back on the River Walk, we stopped by the “Waving Girl” statue. The statue is in honor of Florence Martus, who for 44 years, girl and woman, greeted ships coming into Savannah by waving a dishcloth in welcome. The statue and memorial plaque are in a little riverside square with a few benches.so that you can sit and watch the river traffic go by.

We needed a break before continuing to walk around, so we went to the Shrimp Factory for refreshments. I had a Jacamo IPA, (sweet fruity and malty, with a citrus over tone).

Our last visit for the day was the Richardson-Owen House, one of the grand mansions in Savannah. Built between 1816 and 1819, the house is in fine condition, with much of the original furnishings in it. This example of English Regency architecture (neoclassical with elements from sources such as the Italian Renaissance) is one of the finest examples of this style in America. Notable in its features are the columned entry, the stairway of mahogany, cast iron and brass, and the elegant furnishings. One original chandelier in the dining room went from candles to whale oil, then to electricity. The Academy is trying to locate other period chandeliers to fit into the other rooms of the house.

The tour starts in the slave quarters with traces of the original ‘haint blue’ paint on the ceiling put there to stop evil spirits. We first ran across this paint in Charleston, where the verandahs have ‘haint blue’ on them. Haints, or spirits, can’t cross water, and the blue color confuses them.

Inside the house is full of paintings and furniture of the period. This especially so with the bedroom that the Marquis de Lafayette used when he stayed there. The furniture in the room is the same as was there during his visit. Lafayette even addressed a crowd of people who came to hear him, from the bedroom window.

There are funny things in the house, such as round rooms, and doors that do not go anywhere. Their sole purpose is to balance off real doors. Of course, the staircase is elegant, as is the whole house, in spite of the extra doors.

It was getting on towards dinnertime when we completed the tour, so we headed over to Paula Deene’s restaurant, Lady and Sons. Yes, I know she dropped the N-word bomb and got into a lot of trouble over it, but I was curious, and besides, she has apologized several times for her slip. It is probably time to let a bye gone be a bye gone.

The restaurant was crowded and we were on the third floor, but the high ceiling and the many windows helped lighten up the atmosphere. There were several exciting choices, including a buffet, but coming from a buffet town, that didn’t interest me. I almost ordered the Shrimp and Grits, but opted instead for a salad. The Southern Spinach Salad featured balsamic dressing, with red peppers, red onion, olives, and feta cheese. (There were cheese biscuits as well, but I didn’t want to mention them because my having a salad sounded like I was paying attention to my diet.) I accompanied the salad with a Scattered Sun Wit beer (again, it had a citrus flavor, this time with coriander, and wheat flavors as well); the combination of beer and salad worked perfectly. Okay, yes I did have the cheese biscuits with gobs of butter, but only because they were there, and it would have been a waste not to eat them.

Day Five:
This would be our last day in the area, so we drove down to Tybee Island to visit the lighthouse, apparently still in use today, despite GPS. Tybee Island is an easily accessible barrier island, just about a half hour drive outside of Savannah. The distance is not that great, but with the narrow roads and all that, it seems like it took us a half hour to get there.

The black and white lighthouse was the object of our visit. Built of wood in 1736, it was the highest structure in America at that time. Some years later, the lighthouse collapsed in a storm, and had to be replaced. Beach erosion forced the construction of yet another lighthouse in 1773, parts of which are the bottom 60 feet of the present lighthouse. The structure was damaged during the Civil War, but again, it collapsed during an earthquake and hurricane. The current lighthouse is built from iron and brick, so hopefully it will not collapse again… at least not any time soon. There are some 178 steps to the top. These are broken up in series of twenty-five steps and a landing with a window you can look out, so it’s not too bad a climb if you take your time, or you are a mountain goat.

All the buildings and houses used by the staff to support the lighthouse are in fine shape, two of them are available for visiting, while another is now the gift shop . The site is in great condition and well worth seeing.

Back in Savannah proper, we thought about lunch at the Café at the City Market pedestrian-only courtyard. However, the weather started to turn warm and we wanted a cool place to sit, so we went inside.

Outside the Café is a spooky (at least to me) life-sized statue of Marilyn Monroe with her dress flying up, from the movie The Seven-Year Itch. The statue is all white except for red shoes, yellow hair, and lipstick. Savannah has an attachment to Marilyn, because she liked to come here often. We would see more of this attachment later on at the Jepson Museum.

Inside the café, the walls were decorated with pictures of fifties stars, and other kitschy things. One item that bothered my son was a floor lamp built to look like a mannequin wearing a floor length dress with long sleeves, but with no head or hands… again, spooky. The sound track was also out of the fifties and sixties, and the music was a tad too loud. The chicken salad with sesame noodles was okay, but probably not worth sitting through a half -hour of Dean Martin.

That afternoon, we visited the Telfair Academy of Arts and Sciences, housed in a neoclassical mansion designed by English architect William Jay, who also designed the Richardson-Owens house, mentioned earlier. The Telfair Academy contains two nineteenth-century period rooms with nineteenth and twentieth-century American and European art on display. A lower section of the Academy holds full sized plaster casts of famous sculptures for student artists to use as models, while learning to draw.

A funny story about the place, the last owner of the house, Mary Telfair, bequeathed the mansion to the Academy with the stipulation that no food or drink be consumed inside. Sometime later, a dinner was held in the house, but the festivities were interrupted by a fierce storm. The directors interpreted that as Mary’s ghost being angry, and they added a banquet room at the back of the mansion.

There were exhibits that introduced visitors to Mary Telfair and the Telfair family, giving the background to why this was a museum rather than a private mansion.

There were some great paintings in the gallery, in the middle of which there was a plush, round sitting bench. Maybe settee is the proper term, or whatever, anyway one of those circular sitting areas I normally associate with 19th century hotel lobbies. Other exhibits highlighted the founding museum director Carl Brandt, and the enslaved family who worked at the house (quite a jump in subjects).

Next, we visited the Jepson Center, part of the Telfair Museums group. There are several exhibits going on at the museum, one of them dedicated to Marilyn Monroe (who else?).
Another exhibit included works by Helen Levitt and her recording of New York street life in the early 20th century. In a similar vein, there was what is billed “a mesmerizing 61-minute high-definition video Street” by James Nares. I was mesmerized because this is a film made with a high-speed camera usually used for photographing things like bullets exploding light bulbs and such. Nares drove through New York, photographing people on the street. So what you have is 61 minutes of people moving so slowly that they appear to almost not be moving at all.

I did enjoy the Kirk Varnedoe Collection of modern artists, such as paintings by Willem de Kooning and Roy Lichtenstein, but was slightly baffled at an exhibit by Karrie Hovey: an odd assortment of things made with recycled stuff, and shaped into flowers, birds, etc. But on the other hand, Hovey is exhibited in the Jepson Center Museum and I’m not, so where does that leave things?

After going through the two museums, we were ready for dinner. Museums crawls always leave me drained because of overload. I usually see far too many pieces that need hours to look at, in too short a time. I almost get brain dead.

We went to Vic’s on the River for dinner. We sat in the upper level of the restaurant, where the gleaming white napkins and plates set off the black tablecloths. I had… wait for it… Shrimp and Grits! Yes, I had to try them again. This time, the dish used smoked cheddar for the cheese, bacon crumbled over the top, and fresh shrimp cooked in a light brown sauce. Some great buttermilk biscuits with the honey butter just added to my enjoyment. Oh, and so did a Southbound IPA (citrus hops, slight floral with just a hint of yeast). What a great way to end our trip.

The next morning, we flew back to Las Vegas, pleased and well rested, even though we were averaging five to six miles of walking every day.

Well, this wraps up another journey. Thanks for coming along, and I hope you enjoyed my stories. I could probably ramble on for another half dozen pages, considering how much I forgot or left out. However, I will finish it at this point. I have attached some recipes that I think people would enjoy trying. None of these are my own recipes, and I have credited the source for each one.

Shrimp and Grits Recipe courtesy of Bobby Flay

Ingredients
4 cups water
Salt and pepper
1 cup stone-ground grits
3 tablespoons butter
2 cups shredded sharp cheddar cheese
1 pound shrimp, peeled and deveined
6 slices bacon, chopped
4 teaspoons lemon juice
2 tablespoons chopped parsley
1 cup thinly sliced scallions
1 large clove garlic, minced

Directions

Bring water to a boil. Add salt and pepper. Add grits and cook until water is absorbed, about 20 to 25 minutes. Remove from heat and stir in butter and cheese.

Rinse shrimp and pat dry. Fry the bacon in a large skillet until browned; drain well. In grease, add shrimp. Cook until shrimp turn pink. Add lemon juice, chopped bacon, parsley, scallions and garlic. Saute for 3 minutes.

Spoon grits into a serving bowl. Add shrimp mixture and mix well. Serve immediately.

Read more at: http://www.foodnetwork.com/recipes/bobby-flay/shrimp-and-grits-recipe.html?oc=linkback

Shrimp and Grits Cakes by Robin Schempp
Ingredients
• 2 cups regular grits
• 6 cups plus 2/3 cup low-sodium chicken or vegetable stock (amount may vary, depending on grits package directions), divided
• Parchment paper
• Vegetable oil cooking spray
• 1/2 cup grated Parmesan
• 1 tablespoons unsalted butter
• 1 pound large local shrimp, shelled and deveined
• Juice of 1 lemon
• Hot pepper sauce, such as Tabasco
• 3 slices thick-cut bacon, cut in 1/2-inch dice
• 1/3 cup diced red bell pepper
• 3/4 cup chopped scallions
• 2 tablespoons unbleached all-purpose flour
• 1/4 cup dry white wine or additional stock
• 1/3 cup chopped fresh parsley
Preparation
Cook grits as directed on package, using about 6 cups stock instead of water. Line a baking sheet with parchment paper; coat paper with cooking spray. Stir Parmesan and butter into grits; season with salt and black pepper. Pour grits onto sheet; smooth into an even layer. Cover and refrigerate until very firm, at least 2 1/2 hours or overnight. Use a 2-inch biscuit or round cookie cutter to cut out 16 cakes; cover cakes and refrigerate. A half hour before serving, heat oven to 300°. In a bowl, toss shrimp with juice and a few shakes of hot pepper sauce. In a large skillet, sauté bacon and bell pepper over medium heat until bacon is light brown but not crisp, about 5 minutes. Remove all but 2 teaspoons bacon fat from pan. Reduce heat to medium-low; add scallions and toss to coat. Sprinkle in flour; sauté, stirring frequently with a wooden spatula, until light brown, 2 to 5 minutes. Add remaining 2/3 cup stock and wine; cook, stirring, until sauce thickens. Season with salt, black pepper and more hot pepper sauce. Add shrimp and any liquid; sauté until just opaque, 2 to 5 minutes, being careful not to overcook. Just prior to serving, transfer grits cakes to a baking sheet; bake until warm through, about 6 minutes. Spoon a bit of sauce and 1 shrimp over each cake; garnish with parsley. Do AHEAD: The grits-cake base of these nibbles needs to firm up in the fridge for at least 2 1/2 hours—and more time is fine. Prep it the night before your party.

Read more at: http://www.epicurious.com/recipes/food/views/Shrimp-and-Grits-Cakes-368307

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Fried Green Tomatoes BLTs by seriouseats.com
Ingredients
• 3 green tomatoes, sliced 1/4 inch thick
• 2 eggs
• 1/2 cup whole milk
• 3 cups canola oil
• 1/2 cup flour
• 3 tablespoons cornmeal
• 2 teaspoons salt
• 1 1/2 teaspoons freshly ground pepper
• lettuce
• 4 slices bread
• 4 slices bacon, cooked
• mayonnaise
• salt and pepper
Procedures
1. Pour the oil into a small pot. Heat it to 365 degrees. Preheat the oven to 225 degrees. Place a wire rack on a sheet pan in the oven.
2. Crack the eggs into a small bowl. Pour in the milk and whisk together. In another small bowl combine the flour, cornmeal, salt, and pepper.
3. Dredge the pieces of slices of green tomatoes one at a time in the flour mixture, shake off any excess, and then toss in the egg wash to coat, and then transfer back to the flour mixture.
4. Toss the pieces in the hot oil, and cook for 2 minutes on each side. When done place the fried tomatoes in the oven on the wire rack.
5. Construct the sandwiches. Slather the pieces of breads with mayonnaise. Sprinkle with salt and lots of pepper. Top with bacon, lettuce, and the fried green tomatoes. Top with the other slice of bread.
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Rioja-Style Chicken Recipe – Pollo a la Riojana by Lisa & Tony Sierra
Ingredients:
• 1 chicken, cut in 8 pieces, OR 8 pieces of legs and breasts
• 1 yellow onion, peeled
• 2 cloves garlic
• 2 red peppers
• 1 spanish chorizo sausage
• 3-4 Tbsp olive oil
• 2-3 sprigs parsley
• 1 cup white wine
• 1 cup chicken broth
• 1-15 oz can peas, drained (or 8 oz frozen peas)
• salt and pepper to taste

Preparation:
Important Note: If you are unable to find Spanish chorizo sausage, you may substitute Portuguese Linguica sausage, which is very similar. Mexican or Caribbean varieties cannot be used as substitutes for Spanish chorizo in Spanish recipes, due to the difference in consistency and flavor.
Peel and chop the onion. Peel the garlic and cut into thin slices. Remove the stems and seeds and cut the red peppers into strips. Slice the chorizo into rounds. Chop the parsley.
Heat a large, heavy-bottomed pot with a couple tablespoons of olive oil. Brown the chicken in the pot on both sides. Remove pot from heat and set aside.
While the chicken is browning in the pot, heat 2 tablespoons of olive oil in a large heavy-bottomed frying pan or skillet over medium heat. Add the onion and garlic and sauté until onion is translucent. Add parsley, peppers, and chorizo. Cook, stirring often for about 10 minutes.
Add vegetables to the large pot of chicken and mix. Add white wine and chicken broth. Stir. Cover and simmer for 30-40 minutes. About 5 minutes before removing chicken from stove, add peas.
Read more at: http://spanishfood.about.com/od/maincourses/r/polloalariojana.htm
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Pesto Mayonnaise by Aaron McCargo, Jr.

Servings: 1 1/2 cups
INGREDIENTS
1 cup mayonnaise
2 tablespoons lemon juice, fresh
1/4 cup basil, fresh, chopped
1 tablespoon garlic, chopped
1 tablespoon worcestershire sauce
Directions:
In a small bowl, stir together the mayonnaise and lemon juice. Stir in the basil, garlic, and Worcestershire. Season to taste with salt and pepper. Serve right away, or cover and refrigerate for up to 5 days
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Lady and Sons Cheese Biscuit Recipe courtesy of Paula Deen

Ingredients:
1/2 cup shredded Monterey Jack cheese
1 cup shredded Cheddar
4 cups biscuit mix
2 cups milk
Salt and freshly ground black pepper
Garlic Butter, recipe follows, optional
Garlic Butter:
1/2 stick butter, melted
1/4 to 1/2 teaspoon garlic powder

Directions:
Preheat the oven to 375 degrees F. Spray a baking sheet with nonstick cooking spray.
To a large bowl, add the cheese. Add the biscuit mix and gradually add the milk. Stir together until desired consistency is reached. Add salt and pepper, to taste. Scoop the batter with an ice cream scoop and drop onto the prepared baking sheet. Brush the biscuits with garlic butter. Bake for 12 to 15 minutes. Brush the biscuits with more garlic butter when they come out of the oven.

Garlic Butter:
In a bowl mix together the butter and garlic.

Read more at: http://www.foodnetwork.com/recipes/paula-deen/the-lady-and-sons-cheese-biscuits-recipe.html?oc=linkback

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