Barcelona and Andorra: December 2015

Upon realizing I hadn’t left the US for six months (the longest I’ve ever gone without using my passport), I knew we had to decide on Christmas break plans and buy some plane tickets.  We decided on Barcelona, because we figured they would have a mild December climate, and Andorra, only three hours away by bus.

Barcelona was a great temperature and there was no end of things to do.  We started off with a free Sandeman’s walking tour through the Gothic and El Born quarters.  It was a good overview of some Catalonian history and the sights there- the cathedral, Roman ruins, Jewish synagogues, the Spanish civil war.  We stayed on for their Modernisme/Gaudi tour and had a really good explanation of buildings such as Casa Batllo, Casa Mila, and Casa Lleo-Morera in the Eixample district, and of course the Sagrada Familia(outside only).  We stayed on with our group for the Tapas Tour, which wasn’t all that great, but we actually had fun chatting with the people we had been around all day and got to try three new tapas bars, so it wasn’t a total loss!

We stayed in a hotel on Las Ramblas, just yards away from Placa Catalonya, and our room overlooked the walled-in garden of a neighboring hotel.  There were no street traffic noises and it was very pleasant to be able to sleep with our balcony doors open and hear the bells toll the hour.

The following day we took the train out to Montserrat.  We purchased the combination ticket from Plaza Espanya, which got us the train ride out there, the cable car to the monastery, a short video about the place, and then rides on the two funiculars to various points on the mountain. It was a calm clear day and a lovely temperature; really great for walking.  There was so much beauty inside the church and the statue of the black-faced Madonna, La Moreneta.

 

 

 

On Christmas day, we reserved tickets for Sagrada Familia and used our T-10 metro pass (ten rides for ten euros, a great deal!).  Seeing the inside of the church was amazing.  The stain glass windows, the columns, the soaring heights… everything.  What a beautiful place.  And to think of what it will look like in 2026, when it is scheduled for completion!  Not done with Gaudi yet, we headed up the hill to Park Guell, to see some more of his architectural beauty.

The next day we went to Sants Estacion and took the Direct Bus to Andorra. We stayed in Andorra la Vella, which took three hours by bus (25 Euro).  Aside from skiing or hiking, there’s not much to do in Andorra besides duty free shop, so we decided that would be a perfect evening to take in the new Star Wars movie.  We also enjoyed some smoked salmon and a bottle of 2 Euro wine that night, specially chosen because it was named after our friend Chantal.  Not bad for 2 euro!

On Sunday, after walking around the old district of Andorra- a very quaint little area of cobblestone streets and 16th century buildings- we took the bus back to Barcelona.  This time we stayed in the Sants/Tarragona area, in a very nice hotel, but one that unfortunately had a lot of traffic noise, so we had to sleep with the windows shut.  We had a great meal that night at a restaurant on top of Arenas- some amazing eggplant starters and then a great bistecca.

We spent the next day walking all around the Montjuic area- from the Magic Fountain, up to the really beautiful National Art of Catalonia building, and then around the back of that to the site of the 1992 Olympics.  Really nice sports stadiums and practice spaces there.  And a botanic garden, a teleferique, and a castle.  It was nice to spend the day outside and we didn’t even need our coats.  On the way back to our hotel, we stopped at a Peruvian place to eat that was fantastic, and then met my friend Rydah for drinks.  I had worked with her in Sudan and the last time I had seen her was in December 2011, at a party on Chantal’s rooftop celebrating my graduation from my Library Sciences degree.  Rydah travels about as much as Chris and I do, so it was nice to hear all about her time in West Africa working on an art project there in the fall, and her month in Spain in December.

Our last day, Tuesday, we spent again on Montjuic, visiting the Poble Espanyol (The Spanish Village).  It’s a little Epcot-style village built for the 1929 world exhibition, showing 117 buildings that reflect the regions of Spain.  Although a little touristy with the dozens of shops and restaurants, I really liked looking at the architectural styles of Catalonia, Andalusia, Basque, Aragon, Castile, and Extremadura. There are lots of artisan workshops, so we were able to watch blacksmiths, glassblowers, leatherworkers, and bronzeworkers made their crafts. The museum there also houses a collection of over 300 paintings, including Dali, Picasso, Miro, and Barcelo. Outside, near a replica of the monastery of St Miguel, there’s a lovely sculpture garden.  So all in all, a pretty fun place to spend the day.

And then our time in Spain was over, and we were heading back to the US.  Although I’ve flown from Europe to the US several times, it was the first time I’d ever seen Greenland- definitely not green. That might be another place on our list to visit, but definitely not in the winter!

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Philadelphia: Thanksgiving 2015

We were looking for somewhere fairly close for Thanksgiving this year, so we settled on Philadelphia, as it’s only three hours by car away from where we live.  We left the DC area on Wednesday morning, and arrived in Philly a little after noon.  First on our list was to see the Ben Franklin museum, and the printing office next door, and the first post office.  After finding parking (a bit of a challenge in that city), we hopped out of the car and visited the site of Franklin’s old home, and learned a lot about him in the museum dedicated to his personal belongings and his writings.  Next door at the printing press, two National Parks workers demonstrated the use of the movable printing press, and showed us copies of the Constitution printed on cotton paper.

Later, we drove to the other side of town and located our hotel, the Club Quarters.  A very nice place and -bonus- m&ms and espressos on check in.  Always appreciated.  After using our Yelp app to see what was around, we centered in on a dinner of Philly cheesesteaks at Steve’s Prince of Steaks, which were certainly delicious.  We walked around a bit and looked at the neighborhood, including the German Christmasmart and the ice rink at the Town Hall nearby. We watched Rocky (the first one!) that night to get a feel for Philadelphia, 1976 style.

The next morning was Thanksgiving, so we got up to see the parade- the oldest in the nation!  On the way, we stopped by the train depot to see the really beautiful statue inside dedicated to all the train workers who fought in WWII.  Then we walked over the the Museum of Art and watched the parade.  We made sure to get snaps of the “Rocky steps” and the Rocky statue (paid for by Sylvester Stallone).

As the parade was wrapping up, we headed back over to the historic part of town, passing by the Rodin museum on the way, unfortunately closed for Thanksgiving.  Chinatown was open, with lots of people and families of all ethnicities enjoying shopping and eating in that area.  We kept walking (we walked 11 miles that day! Glad I had my Fitbit on!), and wound up back at the Constitution Center, and lined up to see the Liberty Bell.  Next up was Independence Hall, open for tours, and then the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier from the American Revolution.  Chris, being Chris, made us walk over the bridge from Philadelphia to where we were technically in New Jersey.  Then we walked back to Philadelphia and visited the Betsy Ross house.

Our hotel gave us some ideas for Thanksgiving dinner that night, and we wound up visiting Devil’s Alley, where we had an amazing three-course meal with drinks.  It was all fantastic.  I had turkey, he had ham, and the sides were delicious.  We were so stuffed we had to save our dessert for the next day.

On Friday we visited the Eastern State Penitentiary. A true use of the word “penitence”, the E.S.P. was a model for the isolationary model of prisons that came into prominence around the world in the 1800s.  Prisoners never came into contact with another prisoner the entire time they were in there.  They were given one small cell with a bed, a table, a toilet, and a Bible, and one small exercise yard they could use one hour a day.  That’s it.  Luckily, sentences tended to be a bit shorter then.  The audio tour was narrated by Steve Buscemi and was really good, and free with admission.

At noon we left to drive back to DC, as I had to catch a quick flight to Texas.  I had two surprise birthday parties to attend for friends turning 40 this week.  They were both surprised to see me and I’m so glad I got to spend some time with each.

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Chicago: November 2015

I was invited to Chicago for a conference for my library work, so Chris and I decided to head up a couple of days early and sightsee the Windy City.  We arrived on Saturday around noon, and after checking into our super-awesome hotel (upgraded to a suite, thank you!), we dropped our bags and went out for a tour of the town.  We headed for the river, where we bought tickets for a river architecture cruise.  For 90 minutes, we cruised up and down the north and south branches of the Chicago River, and were treated to a fabulous lecture about the architectural styles and pricetags of the buildings.  We were also treated to some toasty hot chocolate with butterscotch schnapps.  The weather was cool but not too cold, but the hot chocolate was still delicious.

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After the cruise, we walked around Chicago, sighting such sights as the Millennium Park, the Bean, Grant Park, and the Navy Pier.  We had dinner on the Pier (Chicago hot dogs) and after returning to our hotel, went up to their 29th floor rooftop bar for some drinks and a wonderful night view of the skyline.

On Sunday we walked over to Al’s Beef, enjoyed their lunchtime offerings, and headed up town to the Chicago History Museum, at the edge of Lincoln Park.  The Chicago History Museum is a nicely done museum detailing the history of the city, and we bought groupon tickets for half price, so bonus!  An afternoon’s entertainment for $7.  I enjoyed learning about how the river’s course was reversed; the historic fire; segregation and integration; Capone, and other segments of Chicago’s history.  They have a nice lounge there called “Chicago Authored” which profiled some of Chicago’s prolific authors, including Hemingway, Sandra Cisneros, Veronica Roth, Michael Crichton, and Carl Sandburg. Before we knew it, it was time to leave the museum and meet up with my conference group for a dinner at Original Gino’s, where I had the Best.Deep.Dish.Pizza.Ever.  I wanted to eat more but I had to stop at two pieces, because there was no more room in my stomach for more pizza.

On Monday I had to go to my conference, and Chris continued exploring the city.  He visited the Adler Planetarium and the Art Institute of Chicago, and then together we visited the Willis (Sears) Tower, and looked out over four states from the tallest building in the western hemisphere.  104 stories! Wow!  Glad we got to see that one.

After a quick Mexican dinner (surprisingly good, and with excellent margaritas), it was time to pack up, head to bed, and watch Ferris Bueller’s Day Off. A Chicago classic.

Cuba: 2005/2015

Ten years ago, a certain someone went to Cuba, but never posted the pictures.  And this week, another certain someone very close to the first certain someone went to Cuba, and took more pictures.  And here they are:

Cuba 2005

Habana Viejo

Habana Viejo

Riding Around Havana in Style

Riding Around Havana in Style

Hemingway's House

Hemingway’s House

Eastern Cuba

Eastern Cuba

Trinidad

Trinidad

Enjoying the Delights of Havana

Enjoying the Delights of Havana  

Cuba 2015: 

Exploring  Havana

Exploring Havana

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Japan: May 21- June 17, 2015

There is so much to see and do in Japan, so it’s a good thing we had almost four weeks to spend there! We bought a Japan Rail 21 day pass, allowing us unlimited train rides around four of Japan’s islands. And we took major advantage of it.

The first night we were here, we walked up to a ramen counter and sat down. The conversation went like this:

Owner: “Hai!”.  Meaning, “Yes, please order, I am busy”.

Deah: “Hiiiiii….”.  As in, “Hellllooooo!”.

Chris: Dies laughing.

That was in Fukuoka, on the island of Kyushu, (after a ferry ride from South Korea). We sampled the local ramen specialty, saw some old style shrines and temples, and visited a Mongolian Invasion museum and a robot museum (opposite ends of the spectrum!). And then we took a train to Nagasaki, to see two sites: the “Battleship Island”, an old coal mine island that has been abandoned since 1974 (and is the evil lair in 007 Skyfall), and the Nagasaki Peace Park, ground zero for the atomic bomb. What a moving place, especially with the tens of thousands of folded origami cranes, homage to a young girl named Sadako who died after the bombings. From there, we went to Beppu, a hot springs town, to visit the seven different “hells”, or hot springs, as well as get buried in volcanic sand and stay at a traditional ryokan (Japanese style room with futons and tatami mats).

Fukuoka

 

Nagasaki

Beppu

Then we were ready to move on to Honshu. We stopped in Hiroshima, and then Himeji, to visit the White Egret castle, one of the remaining 12 originals from the shogun period. This is where Chris accidentally bought a whole plate of cartilage and liver yakitori.  I declined. We also went to the island of Myojima to see the floating Tori shrine- really beautiful. And then we made our way to Kobe, to stay with my college friend Kirsten, and go to sake factories, sing karaoke, and try some Kobe (Wagyu) beef! So good, it melts in your mouth, literally.  I was so sad when that last piece was eaten. From Kobe, we also took a day trip to Mt. Koya to visit a very old Buddhist cemetery, which was set in a lovely cypress forest atop a mountain.

Around Kobe

From Kobe, we went to Kyoto. We skulked around the Gion area long enough to spot some geishas, and we visited the imperial palace and the Golden Pavilion (a bit overrated). We went to the really beautiful bamboo forest at Arashiyama, and took a quick commuter train to see the fushimi-Inari shrine, which is three kilometers of gorgeous vermillion tori gates, lined up one after another, up a mountain. Just beautiful.

Around Kyoto

Skipping Tokyo for the time being, we took the super fast Shinkansen trains past Mt Fuji, past Tokyo, and over to our third island, Hokkaido.  We spent the weekend at another onsen/ryokan (Japanese style room with a hot springs bathing room) at a lakeside village called Toyako. The tiny town featured a lake, a volcano, a national park for hiking, and nightly fireworks. Also tame deer! It was very relaxing, and got us ready for our time in Tokyo.

 

Lake Toya

Then, to Tokyo, the biggest city in the world! Although I have to say, that with  everyone using public transportation, the streets are not as crowded as I thought. We went to watch a sumo wrestling practice, and went to the Palace Grounds (actually you can’t see much).  At night, we went up to the 48th floor observation deck of the government building, and also to the 52nd floor bar of the Hyatt hotel (that was in the movie Lost in Translation)- what a view! Chris got up early and went to the fish market tuna auction (I slept in).  The Edo-Tokyo History Museum was a really good history of the city since the 1700’s.

Tokyo

Last stop was Osaka. On the way, we went to the home of Hattori Honzo, now a ninja museum and demonstration. Very fun- the whole town has ninja mannequins on top of buses, underneath benches, in the corners of shops.  Then we had one more Wagyu beef dinner- so, so good. We went to the ramen museum, where we learned all about Momofuko Ando, the inventor, and we even got to make our own cup and customized noodle and toppings. Too fun.  We saw a few more sites around Osaka, such as the Osaka castle and Tennoji  Park, and then were ready to prepare for our flight home.

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South Korea: May 9-21, 2015

On May 9, we flew from China to Seoul, South Korea.  We spent the next week in Seoul, visiting various sites such as the Jongmyo Shrine,  the old city walls, the Gyeongbokgung Palace, Seoul Tower, and a couple different history museums. 

Another day, we had lunch and walked around the area called Itaewon, full of servicemen and restaurants from all over the world.  After lunch, we spent the rest of the day at the Korean War Museum, comparing their version of the war with the version we saw in North Korea.

I caught a cold and stayed home the next day, while Chris visited the DMZ.


At the end of the week, we spent a day out in Incheon, visiting the lovely Central Park there, and having dinner with our friend Maluschka, who we had not seen in nine years.

After Seoul, we headed to the east coast, for the express purpose of visiting the Haesindang Penis Park.  The park is full of statues, benches, sculptures, and artwork, all in the shape of penises.  The story goes that a young maiden drowned off the coast of this fishing village, and after that no fish could be caught.  One day a fisherman exposed his penis to to the sea, and the fish rose to the surface. And so the villagers concluded that the ghost of the maiden was unhappy and could only be appeased by penises.  And so here you go.

From the east coast, we took a bus to the south and the city of Busan.  We did a little sightseeing there,  picked up our Japan rail passes and ferry tickets, and tried some Korean street food, such as mandu (dumplings) and pajeon (chive pancakes). 

On our last day, we visited the Lotte Department store- 13 floors, including an aquatic show, a four-level cinema, a gym, petting zoo, and a sky terrace offering amazing views of the city.  Kind of a weird way to spend an afternoon, but fun.

And now….. We are headed by hydrofoil jet to Japan, our last stop on this trip.

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China: April and May, 2015

*We entered and exited China four times in the last two months, so I waited until the end of our China visits to post this.

* I wrote Taiwan, Hong Kong & Macau, and Tibet as separate posts because of their unique cultural or geographical identities, even though technically they are part of China.

On April 4th we walked over the border between Macau and Zhuhai, and boarded a bus to go north to Guangzhou, China. We spent the night there, and then took a train to Yichang.  We chose that as our first stop because we wanted to see the Three Rivers Dam and the beautiful gorges and rivers in the area.  I have wanted to see that area ever since seeing the movie The Painted Veil, which was filmed in that area in 2004- the last film that was made in the area before the dam was built. We went on a tour of the dam- the largest in the world- and took lots of pictures.  Unfortunately our tour of the dam was not in English. But we figured out most of it anyway.  In Yichang, we stayed in a nice hostel, which thankfully had heat, which was good because it was super cold there. So cold, I had to break down and buy a jacket, even though it’s April already.

Three Rivers Dam, Yichang, China

From Yichang, we took an overnight train to Xi’an, home of the terra cotta warriors.  I happen to love overnight trains. The best duration is 12 hours. You board the train around 7 or 8 pm, settle in, read for an hour or two, then pop a sleeping pill, put on your eye mask and earplugs, and sleep for 8 hours. Wake up, have a cup of coffee, and an hour later you’re there.  Drop your bags off at the hotel, and you’re ready to go sightseeing. It’s way more comfortable than a long bus ride, cheaper than a plane ride, and you save a night’s accommodation costs. Plus you get to see some scenery.

Some of my train companions

Although I do have to say that I like the Thailand trains better than the Chinese trains. Thai trains, in 2nd class, have long rows of bunk beds, that convert to table and chairs during daytime hours.  All the bunks have a privacy screen.  Once you’re in it for the night, you’re pretty cozy. Chinese trains, in 2nd class, have three tiered bunks, which means you basically can’t sit up right in any of them.  No privacy curtains.  Alongside one wall of the train are tiny pull-down tables and chairs. Tiny. We did two 2nd class Chinese trains (called “hard sleepers”, even though the beds are fairly soft), and two 1st class (called soft sleepers, not actually any softer). In first class, they have two sets of bunk beds inside a private cabin, with a small table in between them. The door closes for privacy and you can control the lights, and they have a tv in them, although I never used it.

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Chris on a Thai train; Chris on a Chinese train

So, we arrived at the home of the Terra Cotta Warriors, Xi’an. They were made  2,200 years ago, to celebrate the first emperor of the Qin Dynasty, considered to be the unifier of China. Discovered by farmers digging a well in 1976, so far over 8,000 warriors, including archers, infantry, cavalry, and horses, chariots, acrobats, strongmen, musicians, and generals have been uncovered. About half are on display; the rest are still under cover until the preservationists can figure out better techniques for preserving the delicate polychrome lacquer painted on the statues. They were quite a sight, and a lifelong goal of mine.

Terra Cotta Army, Xi’An, China

Afterwards we walked around the walled city of Xi’an, sampling some food and seeing their Bell Tower and Drum Tower. The city is pretty far west, so we saw some of the Uigur, Chinese Muslims, with their big bee-hive head scarves all wrapped up around their hair.

From Xi’an, another sleeper train to Beijing.  There we explored Tiennemen Square and the Forbidden City, both not far from our hotel. Tiennemen Square is pretty boring, really, just a big square, but The Forbidden City had all kinds of courtyards, palaces, apartments, alleyways, etc.  Afterward, we climbed a hill just north of the Forbidden City, and got a look at it from above.  There you could really see Beijing’s pollution. Kind of sad.

The Forbidden City

The Forbidden City

We had Peking Duck for dinner, and of course we went to the Great Wall.  Talk about another lifelong dream! We went to the Matianyu section, about 70 km from Beijing, chosen due to it generally being less crowded than other sections closer to the city.  We took a cable car up to Tower 14, hiked up and along to Tower 26, then returned back to Tower 6 and took a ski lift back to the bus park. All in all, about 8 km of hiking. It was amazing seeing the wall curve and wend its way along the mountains, and all along the cherry blossom trees were just beginning to bloom.

The Great Wall of China; Peking Duck

The Great Wall of China; Peking Duck

In Beijing, we also visited the Temple of Heaven. It’s located in a beautiful park, and used to be reserved solely for the emperor as he made an annual sacrifice. One temple there is the oldest wooden temple in China. The blue, circular wooden buildings are really amazing examples of Chinese architecture and cosmology.

Temple of Heaven, Beijing

We met with our DPRK group, and flew to N Korea. When that trip finished, we had one day and night back in Beijing- more Peking Duck.  Then we flew to Monglia. When we returned from Mongolia, we had one night in Beijing before our trip to Tibet. No time for more duck.

When we left Tibet, we took the train from Lhasa to Lanzhou, a medium-sized city pretty much in the middle of China.  We chose the train because we wanted to see the scenery as we left Tibet.  It was amazing. We went over some pretty high mountain passes. I could feel it in the air as we tried to breathe. The Tibet trains have special glass windows to block out UV Rays, because the atmosphere is so thin. Each cabin has special oxygen hook-ups in case you need it.

Tibet from the train

Last stop in China was Lanzhou. The city was considered the beginning of the Silk Road for all goods leaving China and heading west. The plateau that the province sits on was also probably one of the first settled parts of China, and has an amazing number of potsherds, early bronze items, etc. Even a large number of dinosaur bones have been found here. They have a pretty good museum with several rooms, so we went to it. The Silk Road, Han Buddhism, fossils, and Neolithic Pottery were all nice exhibits.  And it was free.  I wholly approve of free museums.

Gansu Province Museum, Lanzhou

After crossing The Yellow River, we headed to the airport.  We will fly via Shanghai and arrive in Seoul on Saturday, May 9.  Country #84!