Barbara Weibel is one of the best travel bloggers. She’s just posted an astonishing report on her recent journey to Antarctica. The photographs are beautiful and the text is, as always, very well written. Find it here:
Barbara Weibel is one of the best travel bloggers. She’s just posted an astonishing report on her recent journey to Antarctica. The photographs are beautiful and the text is, as always, very well written. Find it here:
Today is March 27, 2020. For about two weeks most of the world has been self-quarantining, trying to avoid the novel coronavirus (Covid-19). The New York Times says today that Bergamo, Italy is the heart of the coronavirus outbreak. The Times features a report and photo essay about the misery there.
I once spent a few hours in Bergamo, making a stop for lunch between the Veneto and Lake Como. It is one of the most beautiful and interesting cities in Italy and deserves to be better known for its cathedral and its delightful old town. Here are some of the pictures I took in 2009.
May we all be past this horrible pandemic soon.
I’ve wanted to see Mount Stewart Garden in Northern Ireland for several years. I finally got there! It’s said to be one of the ten best gardens in the world. It certainly is lush and perfectly designed. The estate is old but the gardens are largely due to the the work of Lady Edith Londonderry, a strong 20th century woman I’ll write about in a later post.
The house is grand. It’s a National Trust property. That organization has recently spent eight million pounds restoring the property. I took a quick look inside.
The hour was late when I arrived and I really was there to see the garden. The grounds cover many acres and flowers and trees bloom everywhere but the best views are found at the small lake, as you can see here.
Mount Stewart is located at the top of an inlet from the Irish Sea. It’s called Strangford Lough (pronounced “lock,” meaning “lake”). A narrow country road led me south on a peninsula to the village of Portaferry where I boarded a ferry for a ten minute ride across to a village called Strangford. That’s a word credited to Vikings who came here centuries ago. Both these villages are small and a bit isolated but really interesting, surrounded by nature and history.
In the village of Strangford I found a really good pub and restaurant named the Lobster Pot. I ordered the seafood chowder and was surprised to find a fat prawn on top and mussels and smoked haddock and salmon in the very good broth. It was a perfect meal.
In Ireland at this time of year, nearing the first day of summer, the sun doesn’t set until 10:00 pm so I had daylight for my drive to the hamlet called Kilclief where I had made an AirBnB reservation for a lovely cottage created in the restored schoolhouse. The owner has done a beautiful job of restoring this place, adding a fine kitchen and creating perennial borders around her double patio. It was a perfect place to spend the night.
The next morning I actually looked at my surroundings and discovered the old Irish castle, a lighthouse, the view across to Portaferry, and farmers’ fields along the edge of the water. In Strangford again I found breakfast in a small hotel named Cuan which is managed by nice people. For a few minutes I wandered around the village, taking a few photos. Then I was off.
Several people had mentioned that I should visit Castle Ward, another estate now managed by National Trust. When I approached it around 9:00 I thought I’d take a quick peak and be on my way. Castle Ward is enormous, with gardens and woods and a grand mansion house. The old stables have become the tea room, the book store, the gift shop and more. There’s literally an old tiny village where the estate grounds meet the water in Strangford Lough, centered by yet another Irish castle. I walked for three miles around the estate, talked at length with some of the nice women working there, had a bite of lunch, spent a bit of money and didn’t leave until afternoon.
I think I made a mistake in choosing my route back to the motorway leading south toward Dublin. On the map it was a neat straight line but in reality it made turns in every village and town. The most interesting part was finding towns built at the top of very steep hills. It was a beautiful ride through the green Irish countryside but it took a couple of hours to drive the 39 miles to Newry.
I really had a perfect couple of days, and despite six hours in the car each way, I’m really glad I found an adventure in Northern Ireland.
I’ve spent a little more than a year in Ireland and always had fine weather. Oops! Always until the past few weeks. Since I last wrote to this blog the weather has been cold, cloudy and very windy. I can go exploring in cold and cloudy but winds over 20 miles per hour kept me inside for two weeks. The photo above, taken from the lane into the farm this morning, shows you how the clouds look when they roll in from the west. Here are a few more photos taken close to “home” recently.
By the time this journey ends in late June I will have visited 11 countries and 22 cities. Sometimes I flew from one place to another and sometimes I took a bus, but mostly I rode the trains around Europe. I am a woman in my early 70s with bad knees and one heavy suitcase. It’s not a particularly large suitcase (middle size) but it weighs about 30 pounds when fully loaded. In addition I have a computer bag on wheels that contains my small computer, my slightly heavy camera, a stash of tourist brochures and a tea pot purchased for five euro at the flea market outside my door in Palermo.
Reading this you’ve probably guessed that getting my luggage on and off all those trains was a challenge. The hardest part is that train stations in Europe are usually quite old and that it’s very often necessary to use stairs from the platforms to the street level. Some stations have become more accessible and have elevators (lifts) at each platform but most do not. This post is written to declare that people are good to one another everywhere!
For every train ride I took at least two people helped my with my luggage, getting it on and off the train. In addition, very often men would offer to help me on those stairs. Sometimes young women would give me assistance. One I remember in particular was a girl scout (on her way to camp) in Lecce who took my bags down the stairs and onto the train. I remember, too, a woman who drafted her husband who was waiting for her on the platform to haul my bags up the stairs.
But the kindness I experienced didn’t end at railroad stations. I’ve written before about the young man who walked with me to the train station in Lecce with my bags. I didn’t tell you about the problem I encountered on the other end of that journey, in Bari. The railroad tracks divide the town and I walked about a mile with my luggage before I found an underpass – with about 40 stairs down and up again. Luckily, as I stood there wondering if I could handle that, a delightful young man came along and swooped up my bags and carried them for me. Not just under the tracks but all the way to my hotel, some distance away.
Sometimes a walk from a train station to a nearby hotel became more confusing than expected. In Trieste a young woman I asked for directions walked with me to my hotel. The same happened in Palermo. My bus from Kiev to Odessa began its journey in Moscow and didn’t show up at 9:00 as it was supposed to do. A very nice young man waiting for the same bus spoke English well and kept me from panicking by verifying that the bus was on the way.
Only once did I nearly miss a train. In Colmar France I stayed in an AirBnB room at the home of a gentleman named Fred. It is a beautiful home and Fred is a fine host. He not only met me at the station when I arrived but also walked back with me when I left. Good thing for me because I had the departure time wrong. Fred ran ahead, carrying my bags, found the conductor and asked him to hold the train for me – which he did! Fred gets the AirBnB host of the year award from me for 2018.
My 2019 award goes to the husband of my hostess in Palermo. Her apartment was so perfect that on the day I arrived I asked to stay another week. That apartment wasn’t available the next week but she has another, in the center of the city, a third floor apartment. I agreed to rent it but asked if her husband could bring the car for my move the following Saturday. Not only did they help me then but Siria’s husband carried all my bags up three flights of stairs in one trip!
People in hotels and AirBnB hosts were often very helpful. A young woman at the desk of the Ibis hotel in Kiev was very good to me, helping me arrange trains and buses and a pedicure. The desk clerks at the Hestia Hotel Maestro in Tallinn were very friendly and helpful. The staff, men and women, at the Royal Street Hotel in Odessa were great! Hotel clerks everywhere were friendly and helpful but these in particular went “above and beyond the call of duty.” Taxi drivers were often welcoming, pointing out historic places and providing information about their cities.
Tourist office employees are always helpful but two in particular became “instant friends.” I arrived at the rail station in Lviv very early in the morning, having traveled overnight on a sleeper. I couldn’t arrive at my AirBnB apartment until 2:00 pm. During the hours that I spent waiting Anya, from the tourist office in the station, helped me in a number of ways. A couple of days later I went to the tourist office in the city center for a map. Oksana not only helped me with information and called a taxi for me, she walked with me the two blocks to the cab. A couple of days after that I returned to the tourist office and found both my “new friends” were working that day. Together they got me into another cab and on my way “home.” They are very bright, friendly young women who represent their city well.
Holidays stand out in my memory. On the afternoon of Christmas Eve I became very ill suddenly with a high fever. When she returned from work I asked my AirBnB hostess in Venice for aspirin. Instead of giving me that she called a doctor in the neighborhood who came to see me quickly. He wrote a prescription which Sylvia took to a pharmacy immediately. That medicine made me 100% better by Christmas day.
I was pretty unhappy in Rabat, Morocco on New Year’s Day. A young woman I met there, a physician, took me out for a long walking tour of her city. We visited the old fortress and the kasbah. She made a bad day good for me. (That’s my “guide” in the Kasbah at the top of this post.)
I’m sure I’m forgetting to mention people who deserve my personal Award for Good People. There were so many people who helped me. I think discovering the kindness of people everywhere was the best experience of my long journey.
I’ve returned to my favorite place on earth, the countryside of Ireland. For the third time I’ve rented a vacation cottage on the ancient farm of my friends, Susan and Dick. I plan to stay for a couple of months. While Ireland is beautiful indeed and I love this area, most of all it is the friendliness of Dick and Susan that keeps me coming back to Fruit Hill. It feels like my second home.
The farm dates to the 17th century as does the enormous house that Dick and Susan restored. Formerly their dairy farm, they now offer three self-catering rentals. Recently I took my camera for a walk around the farm, capturing some images for you. I hope they’ll explain to you why I come here, year after year, for months at a time.
Life for me is slow and easy here, peaceful, restful.
You can read about my 2017 stay at Fruit Hill by clicking here.
Read my “10 Favorite Things about Ireland” starting here and moving back by clicking the “previous page” link at the top of each post. Or just click the word “Ireland” in the table of contents on the right side above.
People who have followed this blog since its beginning know I love beautiful gardens! Today I saw one of the world’s greatest gardens: Keukenhof
An enormous garden created anew each year by the association of tulip bulb producers of Holland Keukenhof is said to be the largest flower garden in the world. Keukenhof covers 79 acres of wooded land with tulip displays, azaleas, narcissus, and more. The park includes a beautiful small lake, a Dutch windmill and several buildings that tell the story of tulips and display many other types of flowering plants. It is open every year near Amsterdam, but only in tulip-blooming season, late March through mid-May.
In going there today I accomplished a goal I’ve had since 2002. When I was there that year I saw the acres of fields where tulips are grown and their bulbs are harvested but I didn’t enter the park. Now I’ve experienced one of the greatest gardens.
Here’s a link to a short video that gives you a taste of Keukenhof.
And here is a link to the official site of the Keukenhof Gardens.
And here are a few of the hundreds of photos I took today. It was heavenly!
Ghent, Belgium has been a rich port city since the middle ages. In the 1600s and 1700s wealthy people of the town and church leaders built spectacular buildings, many of which are still being used and visited every day. Located halfway between Antwerp and Bruges, Ghent shares with those cities scenes of great interest and beauty. Here are a few images of Ghent.
Ghent may be best known for its cathedral, Saint Bavo’s, and for one particular work of art that resides there. The tall gothic cathedral was begun in the 13th century. The bell tower that stands at its entrance is 89 meters tall (292 feet).
It is one work of art from the 1400s that makes this cathedral a destination for visitors from all over the world. It’s sometimes called the Ghent Altarpiece but it’s better known as the “Adoration of the Lamb of God.”
Learn more about this magnificent work of art and its recent restoration at the cathedral’s website: https://www.sintbaafskathedraal.be/en/art/the-mystic-lamb.html
Click on the image above to enlarge it.
To be continued… (The great buildings of Ghent deserve a post of their own.)
In the last month I have visited five countries that were unwilling members of the Soviet Union. Each one is unique, some are doing better economically than others, some have embraced the west while others seem to cling to Mother Russia. Since the Soviet Union fell apart at the end of 1991 much has changed in some places, less in others. Here are my observations from these brief visits.
My sister-in-law, who is Hungarian, generously allowed me to stay in her family apartment in Budapest for three weeks in January. I had visited my brother and her there in 2017 so I was more focused on ordinary life and meeting local people during this winter stay. Edina and her young adult children, members of my sister-in-law’s family, were very good to me, very welcoming, very helpful. The kids have big plans for the future and they are so talented I expect they will succeed. I was delighted to find a Lidl market near the apartment – very much the same as the one where I buy wine, cheese and chocolate at home. There was a fine laundromat in the next block owned by a very helpful, friendly man. The city art museum has been totally re-habbed.
Budapest was a co-capital of the Austro-Hungarian empire prior to the end of World War I. The city center is filled with beautiful 19th century buildings which are now home to designer boutiques with names you would recognize as well as with offices of companies from around the world. Unfortunately, Hungary now has a hard right-wing government dedicated to denying immigrants entrance to the country. It is a member state of the European Union and the Schengen Zone.
The photo at the top of this post shows the Chain Bridge in Budapest with the Hungarian Parliament building in the distance.
My time here was very brief – just a train ride across this beautiful country and an hour or two in the capital with the impossible-to-pronounce name: Ljubljana. Riding along a river within sight of snow-covered Alps is an experience I won’t forget. About life in Slovenia I can only say that on a beautiful Saturday in early spring many people were out in the old town center enjoying lunch and the sunshine. I would like to return here for a much longer stay. Slovenia, formerly part of Yugoslavia, is a member state of the European Union and the Schengen Zone
Zagreb and Zadar, Croatia
When I was a travel agent I visited popular port towns in Croatia three times with cruise groups. I liked them and wanted to spend more time there and I was particularly interested in seeing Zagreb and Zadar. (It’s important to know that Croatia was more an ally of the Soviet Union than a member state as it was part of Yugoslavia which fell apart in a nasty internal war in the 1990s.)
I will admit that I expected Zagreb to be a dull, gray, Soviet-style city. I could not have been more wrong. Planned around a blocks-long park which leads to a huge market square just beneath the “old town,” Zagreb is endlessly intriguing. My AirBnB apartment there was in a small 20th century building in a neighborhood well served by trams and small stores, giving me a peek at normal life.
Zadar is a popular tourist destination and now I know why. It’s lovely. It’s graced by many stone relics of the Romans and by a number of beautiful churches. Like Dubrovnik and other seaside tourist towns, it appears to me that modern life is pushed to the outskirts while the old town’s atmosphere is carefully maintained. My stays in both these places was too short. I hope to be able to return to Croatia which is an EU member country and will probably become part of the Schengen Zone next year.
My exposure to 21st century Tallinn was limited to two rides to and from the airport. Cabs took me on the main street through the city center where I saw many new high-rise buildings. My time in Estonia was much shorter than I wanted so I focused my two days there on the touristy but very interesting old town. Everybody I encountered in Tallinn spoke English well so I was able to have conversations once or twice with people about the “old days” under the Soviets. This is a country that is very happy to have its freedom. They celebrate it in many ways including by warmly welcoming visitors. Estonia is a member state of the European Union and the Schengen Zone.
I took a bus from Tallinn to Riga because trains don’t run directly between those cities. The two places could not be more unalike. I don’t know what is going on with the Latvian government but it’s not good. It would appear that nothing has changed here since 1991 except that deterioration is more advanced.
Riga’s tourism claim-to-fame is its Art Nouveau architecture. As the bus drove through the center of the city I saw some of those buildings totally encrusted in dirt and exhaust fumes. The only high rise building I recall is an old Soviet-built Stalinist government building much like others in Warsaw and other communist capitals. My hotel was old and located, more or less by itself, in a major street lined with abandoned buildings. The only restaurant near it was a small cafeteria where the owner insulted me when I asked for ice for my tea: “We don’t have any ice here.”
I had only planned an overnight stopover here and that was enough. Instead of sightseeing on the second day I went to the airport early and waited there for hours. Latvia is a member state of the European Union and the Schengen Zone.
Kiev, Odessa and Lviv, Ukraine
I’m writing this in a hotel room in Kiev as I wait to fly out of Eastern Europe. The window in front of me shows me an unending line of high-rise apartment buildings from left to right. At 4:15 this morning I was awakened by church bells – it’s Orthodox Easter Sunday here. If I take away one important lesson from my time in Ukraine it is this: through half a century of communist occupation, the people here clung to their religion. They built new churches. Some of them added gold plating to the domes at the top. In the 1920s, when the Russian communists arrived here, they banned religious meetings. That didn’t work the way they probably hoped it would.
Kiev (pronounced Keeve) is the capital city, growing very fast, estimated current population about 5 million. High rise apartment and office buildings literally ring the city. It appears that the city’s leaders can’t quite catch up with its growth. The names of famous western companies pop up everywhere. I made the mistake of booking a hotel in the business sector which caused me to miss quite a lot in Kiev. If you’re coming here stay near Saint Sofia and the other famous churches and the opera house. They are more authentic and have easier access to the best places to visit.
Which was my favorite place? Odessa or Tallinn? Yes!! Odessa is lovely. It’s small, and easy to walk through seeing everything the tourist wants to see. Unlike Tallinn, it’s not ancient. Founded on the orders of Czarina Catherine of Russia in 1797, most of buildings in Odessa were constructed in the 19th and early 20th centuries. They are beautiful buildings, many of them decorated with Art Nouveau sculpture. Due to what might be an old competition among the religious denominations, Odessa is graced by beautiful domed churches, many of them dripping gold. It’s a lovely, relaxing small city. I want to return!
I chose my hotel well here. I enjoyed a boutique hotel in the center of everything for less than $40 a night. The people at the Royal Street Hotel are uncommonly gracious and helpful. Because it’s been a tourist town for a century or more finding good restaurants, fashionable shops and evening entertainment is easy.
At the center of Lviv there is a grand market square and at its center is a huge, square city hall. There you’ll find a tourist office with some of the nicest people I have met anywhere in my travels. Making instant friends in unknown places is about the best thing that can happen to a traveler.
Lviv is a city of about 750,000 people so it doesn’t feel overwhelming. The old city center is well protected and easy to explore. By my count nine old churches are within a few blocks, put up (apparently) by nine different sects, both Orthodox and Catholic. The central area is pretty, has low priced city-sponsored tourist train and bus tours, and has many restaurants and pubs to chooser from. I had a very nice AirBnB apartment there, about two kilometers from the center. There are still neighborhoods of old single-family homes tucked in between the newer high rise apartment buildings.
Ukraine is not a member state of the E.U. nor is it in the Schengen Zone. They’ve just elected a new president nobody knows anything about. Could be a good thing – we hope!
I’ve just spent a month in Eastern Europe plus three weeks in Budapest. If I’m ever able to do it again I’ll spend at least three months next time. Most of the places I visited offer good value hotels, rentals and restaurants. Ukraine is especially low-priced. Nothing was exactly like I had expected and nearly every place was more like the U.S and western Europe. People are nice. Language is difficult in some places where few people know English. Dealing with the Cyrillic (Russian) alphabet in Ukraine made things complicated sometimes. All the other countries use the Latin alphabet. Trains are cheap but uncomfortable. The tracks are bumpy and noisy. Buses are a good way to get around but don’t expect comfort. Taxi rides are a thrilling experience everywhere. I would have included Belarus to visit Minsk but entry for westerners is very restricted. I had to fly from Riga to Kiev, hopping over Belarus.
To see my posts and photos about individual cities, look under the heading “Former Soviet Union Countries” in the index to the right.
A city nearly 1000 years old, L’viv is purely Ukrainian (as I was told by a proud young citizen of the town). While Russian is the language spoken by most people in Kiev and Odessa, here people speak Ukrainian.
Perhaps more than anyplace else I’ve visited in Ukraine, this city seems to be happy. Lively people fill the many squares on a beautiful spring afternoon. Street markets offer art and handmade doilies and books. Sidewalk cafés line the streets.
L’viv is located in the western part of the Ukraine about 50 miles from the border with Poland. At various times over the centuries it has been ruled by Poland, Russia, the Hapsburgs of Austria and a place called Ruthenia. Written in English the name can be found as Lviv, L’viv, and Lvov.
The city is centered by a large market square and in the center of that square is the town hall which has an enormous tower sprouting from its center. It is a city filled with old churches. It seems every block has at least one church and sometimes two or three. Church towers built by Italians and Poles and Russians, by Catholic orders, by Greek Ukrainians sprout up all over the center of the town. The city center is beautiful. There’s a strong French touch — buildings much like those seen in Paris. Pastel buildings about four stories tall surround the square. Lviv is a very popular destination for tourists, particularly young adults. The tourist office here employs the friendliest, most helpful people I’ve encountered anywhere.
I’m staying in an AirBnB apartment located about two kilometers from the city center in an area filled with multi-story apartment buildings. It’s interesting to note the differences and similarities between Ukraine and the United States. There’s a Walmart-size grocery store on my corner where I can buy Lay’s Potato Chips and Coca Cola and peanut butter. There’s a health club in my building and a multi-story shopping mall on the corner. But people who appear to be poor and leftover from the 20th century are seen offering a few things for sale on street corners. The people I see around me here are a mix of middle aged and young adults in fashionable dress and older people, the women in headscarves and old coats, the men in flat hats like berets.
Here are a few photos that I hope will give you a taste of Lviv, Ukraine.