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.



Palermo: enjoying its history and its future

Four hundred year ago Palermo was a very rich city. From the 1600s to the 1800s enormous palaces and churches were built to the highest standard here. Relics of that era are found everywhere. It sometime seems that there’s a baroque church and a rococo palace or two in every block. Those huge buildings are often used now as hotels, museums, offices and, more often, apartment buildings. Many of the churches have been re-purposed or closed permanently.

This is one a pair of grand portals opening onto a building that’s being restored (apparently). A pizza place is there now but it seems better days are ahead.

The many ancient palaces (called “palazzi” in Italian) seem to be faring better than the churches. Often the main door to the street is a two-story tall confection of carved stone, sometimes with the coat of arms of the family that built it at the top. Inside the door there’s usually a courtyard open to the sky, often made into a garden with tall palm trees and other Mediterranean plants.

Here’s my new friend Emanuele in front of the eastern end of the Palermo cathedral which I had completely missed seeing.

I’ve been fortunate here to have met a very knowledgeable guide, Emanuele DeGaetano. He has introduced me to some most interesting places in Palermo and has shared with me the history of each place. On two occasions we walked for hours, once in the city center and once in the marina district. Emanuele has shown me churches and museums but he’s also shown me giant murals and explained the murders of men who opposed the mafia. He is completely knowledgeable about his city.

The church tower at the end of this block is wrapped in scaffolding while being repaired. It’s one of two towers and the facade of a huge church that is now being restored. Note the narrow street in the historic center of Palermo and all the balconies. This street is typical of the center of Palermo.

Today Palermo is alive with the energy of young people, with the noise and confusion of a city where everybody seems to be in the street. Swarms of tourists from every part of the world add to the chaos. This is the most alive town I’ve ever been in. People sleep in ancient small apartments in the original city center but they live in the street. Sidewalk cafés are everywhere. Late Sunday afternoon I was surprised when I went to one of the main streets, Via Maqueda, and found it totally packed with people, reminding me of a state fair on opening day.

This picture wasn’t taken when the street was packed but it’s the same street, a pedestrian only zone lined with shops and restaurants, all of them locally owned. No McDonald’s or Starbucks here!

I’ve been to all the famous cities of Italy (some of them several times) and to other wonderful Italian cities that are less famous. Considering all of them, I’ve found Palermo to be the most fascinating and enjoyable. It is alive!


Postscript: March 21, 2019: This morning when I left the place where I stayed this week I found hundreds of young people marching up the main street nearby. When I asked a someone what it was about she said it’s an annual event in which students remember those who have been murdered by the mafia. It happens all over Italy on this day each year.The signs being carried also seemed to express a desire to rid Sicily of the mafia.

Emanuele DeGaetano is a professional guide. He has a thorough knowledge of his city and country. He speaks English fluently. If you will be in Palermo I recommend you arrange a tour with him. Reach Emanuele at info@palermotour.it. His website is under construction and is missing the English translation now but still provides many ideas for time in Palermo. Find it at www.palermotour.it

The photo at the top of this post is of one of the very elaborately decorated Baroque churches in Palermo. The dopey little computer I brought on this trip has a terrible monitor. Pictures on it look awful to me. I hope they look better on your screen.

Tomorrow I’m off to Siracusa, an ancient Greek city in Sicily. Stay tuned!

Loving Palermo!

My AirBnB apartment in Palermo is the best I’ve had. It’s been converted from the ground floor barn of a centuries-old building into a 21st century apartment with everything anyone needs for comfort. It’s located near the foot of Via Victor Emanuele, the principal north/south street, near the point where that street ends at the edge of the Mediterranean. This area is called Piazza Marina – it’s where the city’s pleasure craft marina is located. (The photo above shows the corner near my apartment: the church was built in the 1500s and the masts of sailboats in the marina are seen in the background along with one of the small mountains that protect the harbour.)

My apartment in Palermo is very comfortable.

The walk to the center of the city from the apartment is less than a kilometer. The city’s free circular-route bus is just outside the door. The wide street around the corner runs between ancient city walls and the Mediterranean Sea. Good, affordable restaurants are there and all over town. Sunday morning I found a large flea market outside my door. Less than 24 hours after I arrived I asked to stay another week and cancelled my plans for next week.

This photo of the cathedral of Palermo doesn’t include the entire exterior. The building is a full block long.

This city that has known may rulers over the centuries. There are layers of history to explore. Just one example — the cathedral. Quoting from the tourist brochure: “The cathedral was erected in 1185 by the Archbishop … on an ancient basilica, which had been transformed into a mosque by Muslims and was later reconsecrated to the Christian faith by the Normans.”  The façade dates from the 1300s – 1400s and the dome dates from 1781.

One of the many beautiful parks in Palermo.

The city of Palermo is alive with busy people, young and old. It’s filled with beautiful old churches. Many of them don’t get much use these days. There is an enormous opera house and many theaters as well as art galleries and museums. Parks are dotted all over town. The one across the street from my apartment is said to be the location of the largest tree in Europe. Another is a playground running for blocks along the edge of the sea. A well-regarded botanical garden and a neighboring park are near it. Small mountains (or big hills) overlook the city.

The wide walking area along the Mediterranean Sea in Palermo, showing a restaurant that specializes in pizza and gelato!

Yesterday I boarded the free bus that runs through the old part of town just for the free city tour it provides. I got on at the first stop about 9:00 in the morning. The bus took me to a part of town with modern apartment buildings, large stores (including one of those big German groceries that are covering the world), and past the hospital. Soon it was packed with people, most of them pensioners. The noise level was surprising. The lady sitting next to me was so insistent that another woman using a walker take her seat that she argued loudly when her offer was declined. At each stop the noise level increased as people pushed their way on and off the bus. It was all a new experience!

An out-of-focus photo of a family enjoying a day out in Palermo. Don’t miss the horse’s hat!

The people here are genuinely helpful and friendly. I got really lost a couple of days ago and asked a number of people for directions back to the cathedral, which is my major landmark. Invariably they smiled and struggled to understand what I needed and pointed me in the right direction. One woman actually interrupted her conversation with a friend to walk me part way “home.” I have found Italians to be this kind and helpful everywhere I’ve been.

Stay tuned for the further adventures in Palermo!


PS: Here’s AirBnB’s site for the apartment I’m loving.