About Libbie Griffin

For several months recently I've been traveling around Europe. Write to me at in.my.suitcase.too@gmail.com if you would like to receive a very short email each time I post new words and pictures here. I would love for you to tell your friends who love to travel about this blog. And I would be very happy to read about your experiences, your suggestions and your questions in the comments section. Let's make this blog a conversation! Thanks! Libbie Griffin

Odessa, Ukraine: A Gracious City by the Sea

A beautiful old girl located at the top of the Black Sea, Odessa was the  Miami Beach of Russian Oligarchs before the 1917 revolution. It’s a beach town today – Russians still come here as do many eastern Europeans. Begun on the orders of Russian Empress Catherine the Great in 1797, Odessa is not a “beach town” of tacky souvenir shops but rather a stylish city well planned and constructed in the 19th century.

Odessa is a delightful destination and an amazing off-season bargain. (The value of the Ukarinian currency is extremely low.) Shopping is wonderful, especially for young adults. Deribasovskaya Street is the main east-west street and the location of many restaurants, hotels, boutiques and bars. It leads to the sea. Crossing Deribasovskaya running north and south and directly to the railroad station is Katerynyns’ka Street. Several blocks of department stores and other retailers are on this street. The cathedrals of the three major Christian sects and the Muslim mosque are on or near Katerynyns’ka Street. Sycamore trees and old buildings line this avenue giving it the feeling of being in France. Odessa is small in size, making it very walkable.

There’s more than a touch of Paris here. Between 1890 and 1910 Odessa was booming as evidenced by the large number of decorative Art Noveau hotels and apartment buildings. Clearly the 20th century wasn’t the best time here and many of the fine old buildings have been neglected although others have been restored. Next to my hotel a superb example of Art Noveau decoration is being restored in a multi-year project now nearing completion. Once called the “Grand Moscow Hotel” (or sometimes the “Big Moscow Hotel”) this building is now as beautiful as it has ever been. The exterior is complete and work seems to be going on inside. Come in a year or two and you may be able to stay there. I’d love doing that!*

There’s so much to show and tell about Odessa that I plan to create three posts this week to show some of what I found there. I’ll begin with some pictures I hope will give you a sense of the city.

“CTEUKXAYC” spells “steakhouse” I think but I’m showing this for the red cow of peace.

A good idea: a picnic spot along the path through the park.

A charming hotel and a cafe named “Maman” (French for mama).

New buildings and old outside my hotel.

Deribasovskaya Street is the center of the party. Each evening young women offer ponies and donkeys, dressed up for a party, for children’s rides. I liked this one’s tutu.

The Great Moscow Hotel — more about this in my next post.

Almost Spring!

Taking wedding pictures on the boulevard overlooking the sea.

Odessa’s most important buildings are on Primorskiy Boulevard, overlooking the sea and the famous Potemkin Stairs.

Come back soon for photos of some spectacular buildings of Odessa.

*I can recommend Royal Street Hotel, a really nice small hotel at a price under $40 a night off-season, directly on Deribasovskaya Street.

Elizaveta (my name in Russian!)

Kiev: Saint Sofia Cathedral (Museum)

Following the disaster at Notre Dame de Paris yesterday, and because I’m in Kiev this week, it seems appropriate to share my photos of Saint Sofia with you today.

Begun in the early 11th century, Saint Sofia is the most famous site in Kiev, Ukraine. It was built in the eastern orthodox style. Its roof contains 13 cupolas of varying sizes, some of them covered in gold. A gold-covered carved screen surrounds a door made of silver.  Two-tier galleries comprise a second floor on three sides. Fresco paintings — some ancient and most newer – grace the galleries.

Through the centuries Saint Sofia has often been at the center of conflict between various Christian sects.  Wikipedia says, “After the Russian Revolution of 1917 and during the Soviet anti-religious campaign of the 1920s, the government plan called for the cathedral’s destruction and transformation of the grounds into a park. The cathedral was saved from destruction primarily by the effort of many scientists and historians. Nevertheless, in 1934, Soviet authorities confiscated the structure from the church, including the surrounding 17th–18th century architectural complex, and designated it as an architectural and historical museum.”  It remains a museum today.

(The image at the top of this post is of a model of St. Sofia located at the site. I think it gives you a better idea of the cathedral than any of my photos of the exterior do.)

This is the baptistry which is still in its original condition. If you look carefully you may see images of people.

This is the interior of the main dome which is located above the altar. The paintings are recent.

This is the gold and silver screen that separates the altar from the nave. It is wood covered in precious metals.

Fresco paintings on the old walls, some recently restored and some not.

This is the bell tower (and the last blue sky I’ve seen in Kiev.)

A personal note: Since my granddaughter was a tiny child I’ve told her I’m taking her to Paris one day. Soon she’ll be old enough for that. Sadly, she will not be able to experience the awe-inspiring beauty of Notre Dame cathedral. Paris, my favorite city, has been the location of some very unfortunate events in the past few years. Don’t let that keep you from visiting!  Paris will always be the world’s most beautiful city. If you have been to Paris, please share your favorite memory or place with us in the Comments section below.

Tallinn, Estonia – Very Old and Very New

I left Zadar’s 70 degree (Fahrenheit) days to return to winter. On my first day in Tallin the temperature was 30 F degrees for most of the day and light snow had fallen overnight. Quite a change! But knowing my stay here would be short, I toughed it out and walked five miles around the city, enjoying it tremendously. On the second day the sky was blue and the sun shown most of the day but it remained quite cold. All the natives of Tallin were quick to assure me that last week the temperature was in the high 60s. (The scene above shows that we had snow on the morning of my arrival but very little of it. I like the way the old town is reflected in the window of a newer enterprise.)

Tallinn’s town hall is centuries old, gothic in style and was built to be the town hall. It is the center of the old town and the centerpiece of the large market square.

I’ve found the Estonian people to be exceptionally pleasant and friendly. Most of them speak English well. I pre-booked an old hotel near the center of the Old Town and I was very happy with my choice.

Tallinn’s medieval city walls are studded with many towers. They are still intact in most places despite many attacks over the centuries including World War 2 bombing.

The tourist office here is the best I’ve found. Not only do they patiently explain in English the answer to questions but they have also arranged three daily free walking tours.  I especially liked the “Medieval History of Tallinn” tour with Gregorian, a guide who made history fun.

Tommy was chosen to be our flag-bearer for our Medieval Tour group and with pride and good humor he carried the banner through the town. Greg, the guide, was very good, funny, full of information, a natural actor.

I asked our tour guide about life under the Soviets.  He’s young and probably doesn’t have direct memories of the years before 1991. Although I had asked about which government restored his city that had been heavily bombed during WWII, he replied about the freedom he had to speak his mind, to make jokes about the government, to be himself. He made it clear that he was very happy with Estonia’s new political system.

A typical cobblestone street filled with old buildings in the Old Town section of Tallinn. Some of the buildings date from the early medieval era.

Tallinn gives every impression of being a very westernized city.  The new part of town has many new glass towers.  One of them is the 30-story Swishotel. It is only 27 years since the Soviet Union controlled the government here as it had done since the end of World War II. Tallinn has become a very popular stop for Baltic cruises and that no doubt raises income levels here. I came because friends who have visited Tallinn on Baltic itineraries have told me how much they liked it. Surely that word has spread far.  It is a city well worth visiting.  Beautiful, old and new, well-maintained, friendly, English-speaking. I’m writing this in Riga, Latvia – Estonia’s next door neighbor. As you’ll read in my next post, that town tells an entirely different story.

Lovely entrance to a building on the market square in Tallinn. Perhaps originally a theatre? Tallinn has many beautifully painted and carved doors — so many that they’ve created a poster and other items showcasing doors.

I had to share this with you! Spring 2019 shoe styles from Estonia. Lots of fun! (Click the image to enlarge it.)

For my friend Clare: an ancient Lutheran church, older than the Protestant Reformation. Small, beautiful, still in use regularly.

Schengen Zone – A Benefit and a Hindrance

For people traveling to more than one country in Europe the freedom to move without restriction from one nation to another is an improvement over the past when there were customs controls at every border and each country issued its own visa. Easy movement between countries for citizens of Europe as well as those of the United States, Canada and a number of other countries is enabled by the Schengen Treaty.

Since 1995 visitors from those countries can travel freely inside the Schengen Zone without applying for a visa for up to 90 days within a 180 day period. That freedom is also a limitation: staying longer than 90 days is illegal and can result in severe penalties. As I planned the journey I’m taking now I spent many hours working out plans that would allow me to stay for more than six months without being inside the zone for more than 90 days.

At present 26 countries are in the Schengen Zone. Most but not all of them are member states of the European Union. Seven EU countries are not in the Zone: United Kingdom, Ireland, Croatia, Montenegro, Cyprus, Romania and Bulgaria. At this time Croatia and Montenegro are working toward becoming member states next year; Bulgaria and Romania are also working to become Schengen Zone countries. Switzerland, Norway, and some smaller countries are not in the E.U. but are member states of the Schengen Zone.

I’ve been moving in and out of the Zone since January. Today I’m heading to Estonia and Latvia for a few days. If it weren’t for the 90 day limit I’d be staying there much longer and traveling in Scandinavia as well. When I leave Latvia I’m going to Ukraine for a couple of weeks, in part because its outside the Zone. After that I plan to spend two months in Ireland before returning home. I have used a spreadsheet to count my days in the Zone when planning my journey.

Here’s much more information about the Schengen Treaty and the Zone:
This site has detailed information: https://www.schengenvisainfo.com/schengen-visa-countries-list/
There are several “Schengen Zone calulators” on the web; I like this one best: http://adambard.github.io/schengencalc/
This one is also good: https://www.everyoneinbetween.com/schengen-visa-calculator/
Google “Schengen Zone” to find many references, calculators and explanations on the web.


Zadar, Croatia: Ancient and Up-To-Date

Zadar Croatia is one of the oldest cities on earth. Founded before 800 BC, by Ilirians, it has been occupied many times over the centuries. Zadar (pronounced Zuh-dahr) retains many artifacts of its invaders, mostly those of Romans and Venetians. The old town is a small portion of the city but its the part of Zadar that attracts many visitors — not just history and old church fans like me but also young people attracted to its beach and party scene in summer.

Old town Zadar feels like being on an island but its actually the tip of a peninsula, a boaters paradise. The main town is reached by a 100-foot-long bridge.

Last evening sitting on a park bench overlooking the Adriatic Sea, watching the sunset unfold, I thought about how lucky I am to be here. Here’s a bit of what I’ve found here.

I would never have found this 11th century church had I not taken an excellent tour with professional guide Sime Botica, arranged for me by AirBnB. The columns are “recycled” Roman remains.

St. Anastasia cathedral is one of the purest Romanesque churches I’ve seen anywhere. Built in the years 1100 – 1200 AD, it is small and simple and beautiful.

This view looks across the large collection of Roman stone artifacts toward the Church of Saint Donat. A resident of Zadar told me that this church was destroyed by Allied bombing in 1943 as was about 60% of the old town. The tower in the rear appears to be Venetian and may also have been reconstructed in the 20th century.

A view of the cloisters at the Franciscan church and abbey.

Rain threatened yesterday and the skies were too stormy last night to let much sunlight through, but the sunset here is often one of the best in Europe. Zadar is known for its musical Sea Organ created at the northern edge of the peninsula.

Yesterday 158 members of the U.S. House of Representatives voted against reinstating the Violence Against Women Act, due to opposition by the NRA. When I found this painted bench at the seaside, I had to share it with you. Look closely to read it.


My educational, fun and affordable tour of Zadar was with Sime Botica, a professional guide who is a native of the town. Arrange a tour with him by emailing info@art-and-nature-travel.com or see his website at http://art-and-nature-travel.com


Zagreb: a delightful surprise!

Croatia was a part of Yugoslavia until 1991. Following its declaration of independence it was embroiled in a war with Serbia; that war also involved Bosnia-Herzegovina.  Because Croatians have long lived near the Adriatic, when the independent country of Croatia was formed it assumed most of Yugoslavia’s access to the Adriatic Sea. The war eventually came to an end in the late 1990s.

Since the end of that war Croatia has become a very popular tourist destination.  It’s often been said that “Croatia is like Italy used to be.”  Most visitors are drawn to the coastal towns and island villages. Many cruise ships call at those ports. I have been to several of them including Dubrovnik and Split while escorting cruise groups. This time I wanted to explore Zagreb, the capital city. And unlike other famous places in Croatia, Zagreb is really a city. It was the fourth largest city of the Austro-Hungarian empire.  People have lived here for millennia and the city will soon celebrate its 900th anniversary. Despite years of communism and a devastating war, today Zagreb is apparently a booming and successful city.

It’s appeal, I found, was based on city planning and building beginning in the early 1800s. Large public squares, parks and green spaces are a prominent part of this city. The most important of these is the Lenuci Horseshoe, a park consisting of seven connected blocks on two sides of a large square, connected by the botanical garden and the rail station to make an enormous letter U. Begun about 1820, the park is the location of magnificent buildings housing museums and more. (Please follow the blue link at “Lenuci Horseshoe” above to find Wikipedia’s excellent explanation of this masterpiece of urban planning.) Magnificent 19th century mansions line the streets on both sides of the “Horsehoe.” The city is filled with decorative mansions and office buildings constructed during the 1800s and early 1900s.

A scene from the botanical garden, part of the Lenuci Horseshoe.

The gothic cathedral and its high towers on a hill overlooking the Lenuci Horseshoe were constructed many centuries earlier. On another nearby hill, the church known as St. Mark’s proudly flaunts its colorful tile roof. These churches stand on what were once hills occupied by the two enemy villages that grew to be Zagreb.

A years-long project to restore the steeples of the Zagreb cathedral is nearing completion. An original pinnacle is displayed outside the chuurch. It had mostly dissolved over the centuries. This photo shows towers from the ancient wall still standing guard over the cathedral.

The colorful tile roof of St. Mark’s church is relatively recent. The small church dates from the 1300s. The tower is one of several that grace the skyline of Zagreb.

Between the “Horseshoe” and the hills on which the city was first built there’s an enormous public square which was lively on Sunday. The main shopping street leads away from the square. In the space between the hills a daily market offers appealing produce and small goods and crafts.

This grand square with an un-pronounceable name, is the center of the city.

I found Zagreb to be very affordable, with the cost of everything much lower than anywhere inside the E.U.  The exchange rate was nearly seven “krona” to the U.S. dollar. Although the Croatian language is totally unlike Latin-based languages including English, I found that everyone I asked a question of spoke English and was willing to help me. The people here were very friendly. They seem to be proud of their city and their pride is certainly justified. If you have a chance to visit Zagreb, I’m sure you’ll enjoy it.

A very common scene in the center of Zagreb: cobbled street, well-maintained buildings from past centuries, a cafe under canopies where people meet for coffee.

Another cafe scene. The weather was warm and sunny while I was in Zagreb and everyone seemed to be out enjoying it.



Slovenia: a Natural Beauty

I boarded a train in Trieste. It ran along a high ridge overlooking the Adriatic Sea where a number of oil tankers were lined up. Soon the train left Italy and entered Slovenia, a country that was once part of Yugoslavia. An independent country only since 1990, Slovenia gives an interesting view of both 20th and 21st century life in eastern Europe. The train passed farms and small towns comprised of American-style homes. Many were single family, quite large, and some had garages. The farms appeared to be old but successful, and at the end of March they were still showing their winter doldrums. There was a good new highway running alongside the train tracks most of the way across the country. One town the train stopped in was named Logatek.  Doesn’t that sound like it should be in the Silicon Valley?

This is a view of Ljubljana snapped as I walked out of the station.

After a couple of hours the train entered Ljubljana. Because Slovenia is an EU country the border between it and Italy was open and the train I rode was from TrenItalia. I didn’t have much time for sightseeing but luckily the station is near the old town and soon I spotted the castle on the hill and the old yellow domed church beneath it. The train running from Slovenia to Croatia was an old style with six-seat compartments. At one point a man nearby could be heard singing opera as he tried to woo someone. He had a good voice but she didn’t seem to be impressed.

Just a few blocks from the train station I discovered this scene: castle on the hill and eastern style church steeples.

The ride from Ljubljana to the border with Croatia ran below the snow-covered Alps and followed the river Sava. The river began as a shallow body of water running over baseball-sized stones. Toward the east the river raced through rapids, over boulders, reminding me of West Virginia, surrounded by mountains all, filling it as it ran in a southeasterly direction to Zagreb and beyond. Then it became very full and smooth until it reached the dam.  There someone hang gliding from a mountain hung high in the air over the full river.

On a beautiful Saturday afternoon the terrace along a canal was busy with people enjoying lunch.

When the train reached the border between Slovenia and Croatia it stopped and Croatian customs agents boarded. They required ID from each of us. At my request they stamped a visa into my passport. Both of those countries are members of the European Union now but Croatia is not yet a signatory of the Schengen Treaty, the agreement that enables open borders within the E.U. The Schengen rules have been a problem for me as I plan this long journey. I’ll write about that soon.

I took this picture to capture the vivid red train but it turned out to be my only photo of the snow-covered Alps in Slovenia.

(Here’s a trick I’ve learned that someone might like to know: I’ve discovered that I can get good pictures through train windows (even very dirty ones) by putting my Iphone flat against the glass.  However on this trip I also discovered that shooting directly into the sun caused a red halo that distorted my pictures.)



Trieste, Italy: out of the way but worth finding

For the next month I’ll be traveling north and east, through some of the countries that were once part of the Soviet Union. My first destination, on my way to points east, is Trieste, a city in northern Italy on the edge of the Adriatic Sea. Look on a map of Italy to find Trieste. It’s location has been a blessing and a curse over the centuries. Once part of the Habsburg empire its population is a mix of Catholic Italians, Orthodox Slovenes and Germanic peoples. Its location on the sea and between powerful European states caused the first half of the 20th century to be very troublesome for the people of Trieste. Ultimately, the greater region was divided in 1954 between Italy and Yugoslavia.

I went there on my way east, traveling first by plane from Sicily and then by train from Rome, an adventure that took the better part of two days. On the third day I reached my goal: Zagreb, Croatia. More about that soon.

I had little time to see much of Trieste.  It’s a city that has interested me for a number of years, having been a favorite subject of the writer Jan Morris. Her book, Trieste and the Meaning of Nowhere is being reissued this year. Luckily, I chose a hotel in a perfect location for seeing the center of the city, the part near the “grand canal.” That allowed me to photograph some interesting and/or fun scenes on a Friday in the late afternoon of a beautiful day.  Here’s some of what I saw.

An enormous Serb Orthodox church stands at the head of the canal. Interesting market stalls can be found there.

Another Orthodox church is near by. These churches were closed when I was there. Too bad. I’d love to have seen the interiors.


The “grand canal” (only two or three blocks long) empties into the Adriatic.


James Joyce was living in Trieste while he wrote Ulysses. (His wife was supporting the family with her boarding house.) He’s remembered here with this sculpture.

Friday afternoon after-work fun is the same everywhere, isn’t it?

I’ll be writing about Ljubljana and the Slovenian countryside next, followed by a post or two about Zagreb.



Ortigia in Siracusa: Living History


I walked out of a 14th century palace today (above), into a street lined with houses constructed in the 1600s or earlier, past a church that’s probably older. I felt like I’d been swept back in time 500 years. The island of Ortigia is a living time capsule.


One of many thousand locally-found ancient artifacts in the Archaeology Museum in Siracusa, this one strikes me as a “photograph” of a couple of guys from about 2000 years ago.

People have lived here for 14,000 years (per Wikipedia). The walls of the cathedral began life as a Greek temple to the goddess Diana. The large archaeological museum here is filled with artifacts left behind by residents thousands of years before the time of Christ.


This house may be the most lavishly decorated in Ortigia. This photo shows the top of the entrance and a window above and part of the decor along the roof line. 

The oldest palaces line up along the southern edge of the island. Their facades date them to the 1400s when the Spanish were in control here or the Bourbons in the 1500s. Like Lecce, the 1600s found men making great fortunes here and demonstrating their wealth by building palazzi in the baroque fashion. The 1700s continued that trend, but fancier with roccoco style balconies held up by sculputured heads or leaves and flowers. The doorways communicate the time of a buildings origins: in the 1500s they were plain, in the 1600s they became a bit grander, and in the 1700s they were lavishly decorated.


St. Peter the Apostle Church in Ortigia is one of the oldest existing churches in Europe. A descriptor in the church quotes a source dating it to 326 AD.

Ortigia is an island that is part of the city of Siracusa (Syracuse in English) located on the southeastern coast of Sicily. Siricusa is just over a pair of short bridges. Siracusa holds the modern necessities: homes, offices, and so forth. The archaeological museum is there not far from the large Greek remains: a theatre, some of the coliseum, lots of rocks!

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People live here! It’s a busy place.

I’ve read that fewer than 5000 people actually live on the island. I have also read that 100,000 tourists come to Ortigia each year. I’m here in the off-season but even so on the weekend the piazza by the cathedral was packed with people with cameras, eating gelato and having a great day. The weather has been perfect this week. The people responsible for town government do a great job of maintaining its history while entertaining hordes of people and filling many of the ancient doorways with vendors of pizza and tourist magnets and fashionable clothing and sneakers.


This image of the cathedral in Ortigia shows the Greek temple in the illuminated section at the left.

My friend Nikki wrote to me yesterday about a visit here that she and her husband made a few year ago. She wrote this: “We walked in the amphitheater of the Greeks!!  Don’t forget to try the blood oranges and the lemons unlike any you have ever tasted in America. We visited the grave of Archimedes and the church dedicated to St. Lucy, [the patron saint of Siracusa.]” As Nikki demonstrated, a visit here is one you’ll not soon forget.