Berlin – 2019

Another adventure begins! We are spending three weeks in Germany and Austria with my favourite brother – he says (who lives in Calgary), Denis and our sister in law, Debbie. We flew to Amsterdam with a two hour layover prior to proceeding to Berlin. We will be spending time in Berlin, Munich, Innsbruck, Salzburg and Vienna.

As many of you know, I love to investigate the history of the country I am visiting. I also like to know the current political situation, what drives the economy and the general feel of the country. So a little history first.


The early inhabitants of present day Germany were Celts and later nomadic Germanic Tribes. In 732 AD the Franks stop the progress of the Muslims into Western Europe and preserve Christianity. Robin and I saw the influence of the Muslims when we were in Southern Spain and in Portugal in the last few years. In the 900’s the Saxons rule Germany and create the Holy Roman Empire. In the 1500’s Martin Luther challenges some of the ideas of the Catholic Church. In the late 1700’s the French Revolution and Napoleonic Wars occurs and Napoleon takes Berlin in 1806 and creates the 16 member Confederation of the Rhine. In 1848 “The Communist Manifesto” is published by Karl Marx and Engels. In 1870 Otto Von Bismarck is appointed as the Prussian Prime Minister by King Wilhelm and Bismarck creates a unified Germany.

The assassination of Archduke Ferdinand in Sarajevo in 1914 initiated WW1 and Germany surrenders. A new democratic government is formed to abide by the Treaty of Versailles. Germany is in ruins, the economy is in trouble and the victors of WW1 demand heavy payments for damage caused. This causes unrest and riots and then the worldwide depression hits. The nation is looking for a strong leader to get them out of this depression. Adolf Hitler and other dissatisfied Germans form the Nazi Party in Munich and by 1930 it has become a strong political party. They blame the country’s problems on communists, foreigners and Jews. In 1932 the Nazi party gains many seats in the Reichstag and in 1933 Hitler becomes chancellor of Germany and the federal states become powerless.

For the next decade, Hitler proceeds to revive the economy, building the autobahns and rebuilding the military. Opposition parties and trade unions are banned. In 1935 the Nuremberg Laws are enacted which deprives Jews and other non Aryans of German citizenship. In 1939 Hitler invades Poland and France and Britain declare war on Germany. 1939 – 1945 millions of Jews are murdered during the Holocaust and 62 million civilians and soldiers die. In 1945 Hitler commits suicide. After the war, Germany was divided into four zones of occupation under the control of the United States, Britain, France and the Soviet Union. Berlin, although located within the Soviet zone, was also split amongst the four powers. The American, British and French sectors would form West Berlin and the Soviet sector became East Berlin.

The West German economy grows an average of 8% between 1951-1961.

In 1961 the GDR government (East Germany) begins building the 155 km long Berlin Wall. The Eastern half became a socialist state, part of the Iron Curtain that was heavily influenced by Soviet policy. Part of the building of the wall was also due to the tremendous “brain drain” that was taking place. Those that did not want to live in a socialist state.

In 1989 the Berlin Wall comes down and the reunified city of Berlin becomes the capital. Communist regimes across Eastern Europe start to fall.

In 2005 Angela Merkel becomes Germany’s first female chancellor and is still in power. She is said to retire next year. There is a rise of a right-wing populism movement in Germany itself, as the Alternative für Deutschland party establishes itself in all the land and now scores about 15 per cent in votes and polls. It embraces a renewed German nationalism alongside a global trading ambition and hostility to immigration, and wants Germany to leave the euro or refound it on a smaller northern core. This is pretty scary considering the previous history of this country.

It is said that Germany had the third-biggest economy in the world, trailing only Japan and the United States in GDP.


When we landed in Berlin, the ground crew was not ready so we had to sit on the plane for an additional ten minutes. Hey….where is that German efficiency we hear so much about! Hopefully I haven’t offended any of my German friends.

When we arrived in Berlin, we had arranged a transfer from the Tegel airport to the apartment. We were amazed at the small size of the Tegel airport. The city of Berlin is building a new airport Berlin/Brandenburg which was originally to open in October 2011 and is now reported to open in October 2020. They say cost overruns and corruption are factors of the late opening.

We arrive at our apartment and after figuring out exactly which entrance we needed, we follow the instructions we were sent.

– First open the lock box on the gate which is located between the mailbox and the main fence post. Open the lock box and the key will open the gate. Turn the key twice and reach through the fence and turn the knob and open the gate. The gate is very heavy.

Go down the stairs and open the next lock box and get the key for the main door to the apartment.

Yikes, we finally enter the apartment and couldn’t be more pleased. A very comfortable and modern apartment in a very old building, typical of Europe. The apartment is still being cleaned but we can drop off our bags and we go off to find the local grocery stores to get some food for the next few days. We go to two different stores to get our goods. The suggestions in the apartment tell us that the local organic store has the best wines.

Find both stores within walking distance and we decide to stop at a local bar to have a drink. Most welcomed after a long day of travelling. OK, maybe two drinks…after all we are waiting for the apartment to be cleaned.

Robin and Denis go into the bar to order beer for the guys and white wine for the girls. The owner of the bar does not speak any English, but they are understood and we get our drinks. The owner comes out to bring our drinks and we understand that he wants to know where we are from. We tell him Canada. He smiles……he goes to one of his regulars who is sitting behind us, who speaks english. He talks to him and asks him to translate. The short story is that the owner of the bar has relatives in Winnipeg, Manitoba. My gosh…..Robin and I just start laughing. Our son in law, Gav, is from Winnipeg and we always say that no matter where one visits in the world, there is always someone from Winnipeg or someone who knows someone from Winnipeg.

We decided to buy frozen pizza for supper as we are all very tired and jet lagged. We go back to the apartment, cook the pizza and have some wine (after a couple of beers and wine at the bar) and all fall fast asleep at 5 pm local time. Needless to say, we are all very jet lagged.

At one in the morning we are all wide awake. We make tea and catch up on reading books and figuring out what we are going to do the next day. At 4 am, I announce that we only have another four hours until the alarm goes off, so we can go downtown to catch our bike tour, Off to bed once again. Up again in time to catch the Ubahn (underground) to go downtown. We figure out where the bike shop is located and we have enough time for a coffee before heading out on our bike tour.

We had arranged a private historic e-bike (electric bikes) tour some months ago. We get accustomed to the bikes in the parking lot and head out with our guide, Christof. This man is so knowledgeable about the history of Germany, somewhat overwhelming at times.

Our first stop is along Unter den Linden, the main avenue of Berlin. The large main avenue of Berlin with trees on either side. It is referred to as the “Living Room of Berlin” or “The Royal Aisle”. We stop to see the Royal Palace which is in the midst of being cleaned. Christof points out the outer buildings that were for the princes and a smaller building for the princesses!

We also see the Armoury from 1700. Christof tells us that a Mennonite was hired to decorate the outside of the building. Rather amusing considering the Mennonites are pacifists! The building is undergoing some work, so is covered with netting. Can see some of the beautiful statues on the top of the building. This is the oldest building along Unter den Linden

We continue down the main thoroughfare and come to the Brandenburg gate (Brandenburger Tor). This monument was completed in 1791 and was said to be based on the Athens Acropolis. It was the entrance to the grand avenue Unter den Linden which led to the Royal Palace. It became a symbol of division during the cold war; but is now a symbol of reunification. It survived the Red Army onslaught of 1945; although we did see pictures of damage to the monument. Both East and West Berlin contributed to fixing it. The Wall was along the gate. It is on this site that Ronald Reagan addressed his most famous words during the Cold War to the Soviets…”Mr. Gorbachov, tear down this wall!”.

The Brandenburger Tor is also the site where East and West Berliners partied when the wall came down.

The square around the Gate is Pariser Platz which is surrounded by banks, the U.S, British and French embassies. The famous Adlon hotel is here as well. On a subsequent day, we walked into the lobby of the Adlon, lovely and very high end; not somewhere we will be staying any time soon.

The original Hotel Adlon was one of the most famous hotels in Europe. It opened in 1907 and was largely destroyed in 1945 in the closing days of World War II, though a small wing continued operating until 1984. The current hotel, which opened on August 23, 1997, is a new building with a design inspired by the original. I read that the hotel built a “luxurious” bomb shelter during WW11.

We really don’t find that their are many tourists around.

We cross over to the Tiergarten and make a stop to see where part of the Berlin wall once existed. They have put a line of cobblestones in the road to depict where the wall stood.

The Tiergarten – a garden where the Berlin rulers used to hunt boar and pheasants. It was planed in the 19th century. It is one of the world’s largest urban gardens.

We then ride to the Reichstag, the home of the German parliament since 1999. This neo-baroque building was originally built in 1894 and served as the government seat until 1933. In 1933 it was badly damaged by a fire which was set by a Dutch communist. This served Hitler’s purpose to tighten his grip on the German state. During the Cold War, the West German government seat was in Bonn. Some thought the building should be demolished, however the building was restored by Norman Foster in the 90’s. He added the famous glittering glass copula. We looked into visiting, but you need to request a visit, provide passport details and wait at least 48 hours for approval to visit. Not enough time to accomplish this….oh well, next time.

Onward to the Federal Chancellery where we find the offices of Angela Merkel. Both the Reichstag and the Chancellery sit along the river Spree, the main river that runs through Berlin. One sees many tourists boats along the Spree, not something we had time to take in. It is said that looking at a city from the river, gives one a total different perspective.

We then continue to bike to the Congress Hall which was built in 1956 ; also know as the Haus der Kulturen.

Back through the Tiergarten, and a brief stop at the Soviet Monument built by the Soviet Union to commemorate its war dead, particularly the 80,000 soldiers of the Soviet Armed Forces who died during the Battle of Berlin in April and May 1945. Our guide tells us that this monument was built of stones from Hitler’s chancellery.

Soviet Memorial

Cycle through part of the Tiergarten to get to the Holocaust Memorial or its official name The Memorial of the Murdered Jews of Europe, which was built in 2005 by an American architect to commemorate Europe’s Jews who were murdered by the Nazis. My guide book tells me that the memorial has no designated entrance and one can enter at any point. The site consists of 2711 sarcophagi-like concrete columns rising from 19,000 square metres of undulating ground. The design is purposely disorientating, the columns at slightly different heights than those around and the walkways create a claustrophobic effect. We will return in the next few days to visit the museum which is below ground.

The next stop is Potsdamer Platz and is where the former “no man’s land or the death strip” of the wall existed. We see parts of the wall in this location. In 1961 the construction of the wall started and it was 155 kms in length and 3.6 meters high. There were 300 watchtowers around the perimeter.

When one reads about the building of the wall; we are told that it was to try to stop the brain drain from East Berlin to the West. The 3.5 million East Germans who had left by 1961 totalled approximately 20% of the entire East German population.

Part of the Berlin Wall and in the background the Canadian Embassy

One of the many Berlin train stations is also on this square.

Bahnhof Train Station, Berlin

I must say that I really like the various architecture styles in Berlin. You see ancient buildings to modern architecture with curved lines. The Soviet era building certainly stand out in their “no style” concrete buildings.

We come across the Ministry of Defense, one of the largest buildings in Berlin. It was Herman Goering’s headquarters.

Topographie des Terrors with the wall in the background and the Ministry of Defense building

Right across the road we have the Topographie des Terrors. This is the spot where the most feared institutions of the Nazi government existed; the SS and the Gestapo. There is an exhibit on the outside near the wall, which we will visit at a later date.

We ride by Checkpoint Charlie, a small reproduction shack exists as a tourist attraction.

Checkpoint Charlie was used by foreigners and Government officials to cross between East and West Berlin during the Cold War.

We then proceed to Gendarmenmarkt which is said to be Berlin’s most beautiful square. The Konzerthaus is in the middle and one side is a Catholic Church and on the other the domed German Cathedral. Our guide tells us that Catholic Churches and Synagogues in Germany are always hidden behind a major building.

Lutheran Cathedral

Our last stop of the day is another square which houses the Opera House, a former palace (now part of the University) and the Pantheon (seat of the Catholic Archbishop). A book burning took place in this square during the Nazi era and to commemorate this, there is an opening in the concrete where one can see empty book shelves a level below the ground….a very powerful display!

We spent a good 4 1/2 hours with our guide and the e-bikes were a great way to see the City and get a feel where everything lies. We stop at a small cafe for lunch then make our way back to the apartment via the UBahn.

On Saturday, we decide to take in some of the museums at Museumsinsel. This island, in the Spree River, is a Unesco site, and is home to five museums. During the day, we manage to visit three of the museums. The Pergamonmuseum holds artifacts of the ancient world. The Neues Museum, the residence of Queen Nefertiti (not allowed to take pictures the bust of the Queen) and other sculptures of the same time period and finally the Alte Nationalgalerie which showcases 19th century European art. A very long day and must say we all had sore legs and backs from all the standing on concrete and marble floors. Well worth seeing!

The gate on the right is the Ishtar Gate, the 2600 year old city gate to Babylon

The museum buildings were lovely; they were in their own right works of art.

We stopped for coffee at one of the museum cafes and enjoyed our first apple strudel. I must say, one of the best strudel’s I have tasted. It was served with a vanilla cream and whipping cream.

As we enter the subway station in the late afternoon, Debbie and I spot a young man with his pants pulled down around his knees and he is in the process of wrapping his legs in tin foil. I grab her by the arm and we enter the first subway car. Not sure what that was all about, but quite a sight.

After visiting the three museums, we walk across the river and stop for tea. Debbie had a fresh mint tea; I think she is hooked. The waitress told her to grow her own mint at home to make the tea.

In Berlin, it seems that a dish called “curry wurst” is quite popular. I decided to try it one night….that was enough. Description – “Currywurst is a fast food dish of German origin consisting of steamed, then fried pork sausage typically cut into bite-sized chunks and seasoned with curry ketchup”. I don’t even eat ketchup at home….what was I thinking.

Update to the note above. On the train from Berlin to Munich, they had problems with food delivery and they were in short of food, wine and milk. By the time we wanted to eat there was only one sandwich left (Debbie had ordered it), Robin had chili and Denis and I ordered the curryworst! Ok……never again. Never..never!

On our last day in Berlin, we decide to visit some of the sights we had seen briefly, but wanted to go back and visit in a more thorough manner. We head off once again on the UBahn and our first stop was to walk once again through the Brandenburg gate.

We continue our walk and make our way to the Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe. We all weave our own way through the various concrete blocks. A quiet time to reflect as one walks through the blocks. You feel almost “off kilter” as the ground heaves up and down, the blocks of different sizes seem to fall inwards.

Then make our way to the information centre which is located below the site – underground. The following is taken from their pamphlet. “The exhibition begins with an overview of the national socialist terror policies from 1933 to 1945. The persecution and murder of Jews in Europe is presented via rows of images . Six large portraits represent the approximately 6 million victims.” Overwhelming when you think of these numbers.

The second room is called the “Room of Dimensions”. “Diary entries, letters and final notes written during the period of execution.

Continue to the third room, the “Room of Families”. It highlights 15 families showing their life before the persecutions. Notes show who survived in these families and who didn’t….very chilling!

The next is the “Room of Names”. Here people sit on benches in silence and you can hear the names and short biographies of murdered and missing Jews in Europe. It is said that it would take approximately 6 years, 7 months and 27 days to read the life stories of all the victims.

The “Room of Sites” – The focus in this room is the representation of the geographical location of crimes in Central and Eastern Europe. 220 locations are shown. There is historical footage and photographs.

The four of us went through this on our own. Again a time to reflect. At times it was hard to look at the pictures. Man’s inhumanity to Man. How did this happen? So many questions? Not many answers……

WARNING…YOU MAY NOT WANT TO LOOK AT THE FOLLOWING PHOTOGRAPHS. Having said this, I felt it important to put into my blog. This is a minuscule example of the pictures and videos that we saw.

We continue our walk and find ourselves at Potsdamer Platz, where we stop for lunch at an Italian Deli. An interesting concept. You are given an electronic card to track your purchases. We go to the “pizza” station, order a pizza and place the card on an electronic reader. You are given a “beeper” which will buzz when your order is ready. Then you go to the bar to order your drinks and same procedure. As you leave the restaurant you give the desk your card and pay the amount registered on the card. Very efficient and cuts down on wait staff and waiting times……ok, I guess not so good for prospective wait staff looking for a job.

We then make our way to the “Topography of Terrors. On the way there we pass the a mural which depicts “happy workers” in a soviet state. This mural was in the previous part of East Berlin.

The Topography of Terror is the present day name of the site on which the most important institutions of the Nazi apparatus stood between 1933 and 1945. The Headquarters of the Secret State Police (Gestapo), the Reich SS Leadership and Security Service (SD) of the SS and from 1939 onward to the end of the Nazi regime the Reich Security Main Office.

Below the wall, we visited a temporary display of the bombing and atrocities of Warsaw. So massive were the bombings of Warsaw, some of the pictures show a city “razed” to the ground. First by the Germans, then the Russians.

We then visit the museum which was established in 2010. Robin found it fitting that all the previous buildings on this site were demolished. Going back to 1987 a documentation centre existed on this site and its mandate was to inform visitors about the site’s history and the crimes that were planned and initiated here. The present mandate of this information centre is to “convey historical information on Nazi terror and inspire visitors to engage actively with this history and its consequences after 1945”

Once again, we go through the various exhibits on our own. At times, very disturbing. Debbie commented on how respectful visitors have been at the various WW11 museums and exhibits…..silence rules. I did not take any pictures here…..just can’t anymore!

We make our way back to the apartment. A very emotionally draining day. We go out for a lovely meal and are thankful for the country we live in and the peace that we have enjoyed in our lifetime.

It is Monday morning and we are headed off to Munich by train for 3 days. Call up an Uber and application says “no Uber’s available”. Try to phone a taxi….the line is busy. Try Uber again….nothing. Finally decide to call our landlord. He tells me that the SBahn has some problems and is not working. In addition to this it is raining, so there is an extremely high demand for taxis and other forms of transportation. He tells us to keep trying for taxi or Uber. We look at metro system, but one of those cases that we would need to transfer from UBahn to SBahn to get to the train station; so can’t get there from here. I finally try a “smaller” Uber car and luck is shining on us. Uber arrives, and luckily we all have carry on, so the car can accommodate the four of us. Traffic is also crazy because of the problems with the SBahn. You can tell that our driver is trying different routes to get us to the train station. We finally arrive. The line up of people at the taxi stand at train station is incredible. These are people that have just arrived and trying to get somewhere in Berlin…..good luck!

One other thing that has surprised us is the lack of English understood and spoken by people in Berlin. Totally different than other parts of Europe. We get understood and try our basic words….”Danka- thank you” goes a long way.

We breathe a heavy sigh of relief and stop to have a coffee. Once our train is announced, we go to the appropriate platform. Debbie and I read the graphic which explains where once should stand depending on which car you have been assigned. Easy, right. Well, when the train arrives we realize that we are standing next to car 2 when we should be in front of car 11. If anyone has taken trains in Western Europe, you would understand that the trains only stay in a station for a few minutes. Once must embark the train as quickly as possible. So we enter car 2 and have to make our way to car 11. Looks like we are not the only ones who are in the wrong area. I think it took us at least 15 to 10 minutes to reach our car. Finally, we can relax. At one point the train was travelling at 249 kms per hour; but very smooth. You simply don’t feel that you are going that fast.

Well that is it for Berlin…..onto our next destination…..Munich.

Crete – 2019

Flew to Chania ( pronounced “Hania”) on the island of Crete, from Istanbul, on Thursday, June 13th and arrived in the late afternoon. The flight was only 45 minutes and they actually served a snack and drink on the plane. The airport is about 30 minutes from Chania. We arrive at our hotel and get settled in and go for a nice dinner of local food at a nearby restaurant which was recommended by our driver, excellent local food. Our hotel is overlooking the marina and inner harbour.

Crete is the birthplace of the first European civilization, the Minoans, which flourished between 3000 BC and 1200 BC mainly in Central and Eastern Crete. Once again, I find these dates “mind blowing”…that is BC! We will learn more about the history of Crete when we visit Heraklion, the capital, in a few days.

Crete holds a very strategic position in the Mediterranean. It is located between mainland Europe, Africa and Asia. There is still a NATO base located in Crete.


We have arranged for a tour of the old town of Chania and we are met by Olga on Friday, June 14th. We head out nice and early to try to avoid the heat. Supposed to be 30 degrees today. Olga tells us about Chania, the Venice of Greece and it is the second largest city on the island of Crete. It is located on the west side of the island.

When we arrived yesterday we were surprised to see a range of mountains, some still covered with snow. Olga says these are known as the “White Mountains” with the highest peak at 3,453 meters. They are made of limestone, so the quality of water on the island is excellent. By the way, since arriving in Greece, we have been drinking tap water, unlike our time in Turkey where we drank bottled water the whole time.

There are many gorges and caves in the mountains and many people come to Crete to hike, including the famous Samaria gorge which is 16 kms long. The land on Crete is also very fertile and the island is basically self sufficient when it comes to produce. Olga tells us that the locals eat what is in season.

A lot of earthquakes take place in Crete, but mainly in the south. Their energy comes from coal or diesel ; although they do heat their water with solar panels.

A little history first. The Venetians occupied Chania between 1204 and 1645. The boat yards that grace the harbour, were built by the Venetians, along with the breakwater. They controlled the salt trade; which we know from previous travels was used as currency. They also built the beautiful Venetian style palaces along the harbour.

After the Venetians, the Ottomans/Turks arrived and they added wooden closed balconies to the beautiful Venetian style palaces. This would allow women to look out, but still maintain their privacy. They also built a mosque in 1647. It is now an exhibition hall. As we now know, the Turks that still resided here went back to Turkey in the great population exchange of 1913.

The Cretan revolt against the Ottoman empire lasted for three years 1866-1869 and Crete became an independent state in 1898. On December 1st, 1913, Crete officially united with Greece, fulfilling the century-long dream of Cretans. The people that we have talked to here in Crete, have all told us that the people from Crete always wanted to join Greece.

During WW11, Crete was occupied by the Germans and parts of the old town were destroyed.

We walk through the winding streets of the old town and Olga points out that certain streets were traditionally for leather makers, others for knife makers, etc. We visit the Jewish Synagogue. There is no Rabbi here in Crete, but a small Jewish community does exist. There is a very small Synagogue which was in very poor condition due to bombing in WW11 and had been abandoned. In 1995 a wealthy Jewish American was instrumental in getting this building rebuilt. History shows that Jewish, Christians and Islamic people all lived here in peace.

We visit the Greek Orthodox Cathedral which was built in the 1860’s. Only icons are evident, no statues and they do not use any musical instruments. Olga tells us that 97% of the population is Orthodox; although many do not practice on a regular basis. She did say that Easter is very important and at that time of year, everyone attends church, but many have to stay outdoors as too many for the church to accommodate. It is mainly a time to spend with families. She also told us that it was a tradition for the first girl of a family to be named after the grandmother and yes, her grandmother’s name was Olga.

We visit the covered market, which now mainly houses many tourist shops, but still some fish mongers and some vegetable stalls. I mention that the Mediterranean diet is deemed to be one of the best in the world. She tells us that it is really not the Mediterranean diet but the Cretan diet that has proved to be the healthiest. This diet, of course, includes lots of cold pressed virgin olive oil. She tells us that Greeks are the number one in consumption of olive oil; 20 kilos per person per year. They eat lots of cheese and herbs are a very important part of their diet. She even showed us an herb which is used to make a tea called “mountain tea” which most Cretans have every morning. This tea is supposed to help with all types of ailments. Robin and I did try some one night and a very different taste, helps to put honey in it.

Fish also a very important part of their diet. She tells us that they eat the whole fish, including the head and some even eat the eyes. Needless to say, this kind of grossed us out. Crete is also famous for its vegetables. They consume a lot of vegetables, lots of greens and pulses.

After we leave Olga, it is so hot we decide to stop for a snack and cold beer. I cannot believe how much beer I have imbibed on this holiday. Very hot everywhere and the beer certainly goes down easily!

We wander through the lovely lanes of the old town and Faye and I buy some clothes. The owner of one shop is French so I take the opportunity to speak to her. Along come another French couple, so a lively conversation takes place. The French couple tell us that the island of Crete is very popular with the French and that they themselves have visited on numerous occasions.

On our final day in Chania, we go for a few walkabouts. To find good beaches one must go a little out of the town. We did not venture out there. The water here in the town is very clear, but no real place to dip in the sea.

We have had some wonderful meals here. Went to restaurants recommended by locals and that certainly pays off.

A final picture of our time in Chania.


We have arranged for transport to Heraklion, the capital of Crete, which is about two hours away. We leave early and meet our guide Lina, who takes us to the Archeological Museum.

Lina is certainly passionate about the history of Crete and in all honesty, I can now understand why. The history is so interesting; some based in mythology which I find so interesting.

An exert from Wikipedia follows:

” The history of Crete goes back to the 7th millennium BC, preceding the ancient Minoan civilization by more than four millennia. The Minoan civilization was the first civilization in Europe and the first, in Europe, to build a palace.”

Lina did say that after the Minoans came the Mycenaean in the last phase of the Bronze Age from 1600 to 1100 B.C. They were followed by the Dorians from 1100 to 950 BC. The Dorians were warriors and brought horses to the island. The Minoans used oxen.

The art work of the Minoan people is absolutely beautiful. To think that they existed such a long time ago, their art has intricate patterns and beautiful colours. The pieces of art in the museum were mainly taken from the excavations of the Knossos Palace. In addition to pottery, jewellery and we also see several partial frescoes. There were no weapons found; so it is felt that they were a peaceful society. The archeologists also found two separate writing systems, but they have not been able to decipher them. They also feel that they travelled off the island to trade, as they used gold and tin which were not available of the island.

There are also other palaces which were discovered in addition to Knossos and perhaps we can visit at some future date. They are Phaistos, Malia and Zakros.

We see very large pots and Lina tells us that they would have kept liquids in these large vessels; such as olive oil and wine, and these could have been used for trading.

We see small figurines and ritual vessels that would have been used in religious type ceremonies. Large tablets represent currency and clay tablets depicting their script, which is referred to as Greek Linear B script.

We make our way to the Palace of Knossos, known as “The Labyrinth”. It covers about 14,000 square meters and was surrounded by an ancient city. The site came to prominence in the early 20th century when it was excavated and restored by a team led by British archaeologist Arthur Evans. Lina tells us that Arthur Evans was very instrumental in ensuring that all of the artifacts and frescoes were removed from the site and stored to be placed in the museum, which they were. What you see at the site are simply representations of what would have existed at the time. Having said this, you do see, the actual rooms and underground areas.

We walk through the site and Lina explains the various areas such as the throne room, the four entrances, the underground storage areas, how their construction allowed for ventilation and sewer systems and overall sturdy construction.

I simply love all the history and mythology surrounding the history of Crete and Greece. I keep thinking I want to learn more about it and this may very well be my next project when I get home.

Another great day with another great guide. We have been so impressed with our guides throughout this trip.

We are taken to a resort just outside of Heraklion, about 15 minutes from the airport. Nice to finish off our holiday enjoying the sun, the sea and the swimming pool.

It was great that we were able to enjoy this holiday with our good friend Faye and thank her for taking this time with us.

Once again, many thanks to my wonderful travelling partner Robin, who always makes any trip so enjoyable and memorable.

Overnight in Amsterdam and back home to Calgary on Tuesday. This is it, till the next time!

Athens, Greece – June 2019

We arrived in Athens, Greece around 9:30 pm on Tuesday, June 11th. A very long day of travelling from Bodrum, Turkey via Istanbul.

A little history and background of Greece. The country has a population of some 11 million and greater Athens 5 million. The history of Greece is very lengthy and diverse. From Wikipedia….

” • Neolithic Greece covering a period beginning with the establishment of agricultural societies in 7000 BC and ending in 3200/3100 BC,

• Helladic (Minoan or Bronze Age) chronology covering a period beginning with the transition to a metal-based economy in 3200/3100 BC to the rise and fall of the Mycenaean Greek palaces spanning roughly five centuries (1600–1100 BC),

• Ancient Greece covering a period from the fall of the Mycenaean civilization in 1100 BC to 146 BC spanning multiple sub-periods including the Greek Dark Ages (or Iron Age, Homeric Age), Archaic period, the Classical period and the Hellenistic period,

• Roman Greece covering a period from the Roman conquest of Greece in 146 BC to 324 AD,

• Byzantine Greece covering a period from the establishment of the capital city of Byzantium, Constantinople, in 324 AD until the fall of Constantinople in 1453 AD,

• Ottoman Greece covering a period from 1453 up until the Greek Revolution of 1821,

• Modern Greece covering a period from 1821 to the present.”

We are always amazed at time lines of other countries/civilizations when you think that Canada is so young, only 151 since we became a nation. My ancestors came to Canada in the late 1700’s.

During the Second World War the Germans occupied Athens from 1941-44. When they left they destroyed a lot of the infrastructure, including the railroads. It is said that while occupying they even slaughtered whole villages as revenge for resistance fighters.

The economy of Greece is still in crisis after its recession in 2008. By the end of 2009, the Greek economy faced the highest budget deficit and government debt in the EU. It was threatening to default on its foreign debt, which would put the Eurozone in jeopardy. Various European countries loaned more money and insisted on austerity measures on the Government’s part including its pension system, cutting spending an increasing taxes. Just think about it…..Mrs. Logan, we are immediately cutting your pension in half, you need to pay more taxes and all of the government services you use are increasing in price. As you can imagine the Greek people were not too happy about this and still aren’t. I know that this issue is much more complex than what I have written, but hopefully one gets the gist. Additionally he told us that the economic elite of Greece have supported the Government….so needless to say, the Government works in their favour!

The main economy of Greece is driven by agriculture, shipping and tourism.

On Wednesday, June 12th, we are met by our guide Niko. When we spoke about the economy he indicated that it is still very bad. He also mentioned that the government never should have opted to host the Olympic games in 2004. He said the country really couldn’t afford it. They spent millions of dollars in building new games infrastructure and even additional metro lines. They were so far behind in their schedules that they had to spend even additional money to hire additional tradespeople to finish everything on time. Yes, the Olympic Games did happen, but apparently all the infrastructure such as swimming pools, new arenas, etc have not been maintained and have been allowed to fall into disrepair.

He says it was hard to build the Metro for the games, as whenever they were digging, the companies had to be aware of any antiquities; although a lot of pottery was destroyed during the process to expedite the building of the metro. As Niko says, anywhere you dig you will find antiquities.

He also mentioned that the austerity measures have been very difficult. He gave us an example of his aunt receiving a pension for many years and all of a sudden that pension was cut in half. Unemployment rate of 18%; mainly among young men similar to other countries around the world. Niko mentions that a lot of the younger well educated people left Greece during the economic crises and went to other countries such as Europe, Australia, Canada and the U.S.

He tells us that back in time, Athens was made up of several towns and each town had its own calendar. But one thing they had in common was their measurement systems. Distance was always measured from the city of Marathon.

I asked the question about pollution. At one time Athens was known as being so polluted that a haze hung over the city. He indicated that with new technology in cars and better metro system, that the pollution is not as bad as it used to be. Having said this, both Faye and Robin coughed a lot while we were in Athens; and they both believe this was due to pollution.

We are headed toward the Acropolis, but along the way Niko points to various interesting sights. We pass by the main market, the Parliament buildings and two wonderful buildings; one housing the Prime Minister and the other for the President. The beautiful National Library, the University, the beautiful National Gardens and the Stadium of the first modern Olympic Games. This site was used for archery during the 2004 Olympics. Then we drive by the Academy of Athens which has statues of Athena and Apollo. This is now a research centre.

We are told that education is free in Greece for nationals, even free University.

We also passed a monument dedicated to the Unknown Soldier. Niko tells us that it is compulsory for all Greek men of 18 yrs of age, to serve in the armed forces. Today they must serve for 9 mths. It is not mandated for women.

We see lots of graffiti on all the buildings, doesn’t seem to matter what area of the city. Niko said that the graffiti bearing anti government messages got worse after the economic crisis. He calls is “aesthetic pollution”. I like that term.

We also pass some 12th century Byzantine churches. Niko tells us there used to be over one hundred, but now only 12 remain. The remainder were demolished by the Ottomans.

We finally make it to the foot of the Acropolis and start ascending the Acropolis Hill. It was built on this particular rocky outcropping site as three sides are very steep and access is only available on one side, therefore a strategic location and easy to defend. It was also 9 kms from the sea, therefore providing some safety. It was also self sufficient as they had plenty of water and good soil to grow their own agricultural products.

Wow… about crowds! We were told it was best to visit early in the morning before the crowds from the cruise boats arrived. Think we waited too long to get here. Very hot in Athens. Whenever Niko stops to talk about a certain ruin/architectural site, we try to find some shade. Security personnel keep telling people to keep moving, especially in restricted areas as the “gate”.

There has been a reconstruction project of the Acropolis which began in 1975 but we are told that due to the current economic climate, the project has stalled. Having said this, we see a crane on the site and the grounds seems to have its own small quarry where marble/stone is stored. Most of the treasured artifacts are held at the Acropolis Museum which we will visit later in the day.

From Wikipedia: “The goal of the restoration was to reverse the decay of centuries of attrition, pollution, destruction stemming from military use, and misguided past restorations. The project included collection and identification of all stone fragments, even small ones, from the Acropolis and its slopes and the attempt was made to restore as much as possible using reassembled original materials, and new marble from Mount Penteli used sparingly. All restoration was made using titanium dowels and is designed to be completely reversible, in case future experts decide to change things. A combination of cutting-edge modern technology and extensive research and reinvention of ancient techniques were used.”

Never quite sure what really made up the Acropolis, but following is a description of the various buildings and partial ruins. Wikipedia once again:

“The entrance to the Acropolis was a monumental gateway termed the Propylaea. To the south of the entrance is the tiny Temple of Athena Nike. At the centre of the Acropolis is the Parthenon. East of the entrance and north of the Parthenon is the temple known as the Erechtheum. South of the platform that forms the top of the Acropolis there are also the remains of the ancient, though often remodelled, Theatre of Dionysus. A few hundred metres away, there is the now partially reconstructed Odeon of Herodes Atticus.”

Niko tells us that the Parthenon was just for priests and VIP’s. The altar was outside of the building itself. The main gate of the Parthenon faced East toward the sunrise. The Roman Odeon used to be covered. Odeon means “a place for singing”. All the monuments are made from local marble. It contains iron and therefore turns yellow. Niko says that Athens has low humidity so that is why these monuments look so clean. The white sections that you can see on the columns are new marble and have not yet weathered, but eventually they will turn yellow as well. Niko tells us that in the past, local people would come to the ruins and take pieces of the marble and other materials and repurpose them to build what they needed, that is why there are many missing pieces which have been filled with the newer marble as you can see in the picture below.

The Parthenon was built between 447 and 432 BC. He points out that there is a slight curvature in the pillars, which are doric, as well as being tapered. Horizontal pieces are also not straight. These features create an optical illusion and show off the elegance of the structure.

The Ancient Temple is built in the ionic style.

Niko tells us of a myth surrounding the control of Athens by the Gods.

” Athena and Poseidon vied for control of Athens and its surrounding territory, Attica. The contest took place on the Acropolis. Poseidon struck the rock with his trident and produced a salt spring or a horse. Athena brought forth an olive tree from the ground by the touch of her spear and she was proclaimed the victor. The olive was fundamental to Athenian economy and life. It provided oil, fuel, food and wood for construction. Angry at losing, Poseidon was appeased and continued to be worshiped in Athens. On the Acropolis, just across from the Parthenon, their is a hole in the roof of the building which marks the blow of his trident and a well below containing water and nearby is the olive tree that Athena had produced and continues to grow.”

Over its many centuries, the Acropolis was used for many purposes. A garrison, a sanctuary, a religious site and once held the treasury of Athens.

I love those stories and myth. Niko also tells us that Athenian pottery can be found throughout the world, so this confirms that the Greeks were a trading nation. The pottery would have contained olive oil and/or wine.

We make our way back down and our driver is waiting to take us to the Acropolis Museum. We make a stop for coffee at one of Niko favourite coffee shops near the Museum. He tells us that Greece has a very strong coffee culture and that you can order any type of coffee you want…..expresso, latte, cappuccino, cold coffee drinks and anything else you can think of. We have certainly noticed this, as there are coffee shops everywhere and usually many in a short distance.

Motorcycles also abound in Athens; this is of course due to the overabundance of vehicles on the streets, simply easier to get around on motorcycles. I asked Niko about helmets as you see some people without them. He says that by law you are supposed to wear a helmet when on a motorcycle, but the police simply do not have the time or will to enforce this law.

We visit the Acropolis museum, a must see if one visits here. Definitely world class. This is our last stop with Niko and once again we are grateful for such an informative guide.

What one sees at the Museum are the originals from the Acropolis site.

Only having one day in Athens just isn’t right, but for this time, that is all we had. An opportunity to come back and enjoy more of the City.

Robin and I do a bit of a walk around the neighbourhood before we left on Thursday, June 15th for our flight to Crete.

Bodrum and Goulet Boat Trip, Turkey- June 2019

Bodrum was once a cozy fishing village of only a few thousand people. It is where the Mediterranean and the Aegean sea meet. It has experienced a growth spurt over the last half century that has transformed this once-sleepy community into one of Turkey’s most popular vacation areas. Population is now 136,000. Matt told us that the population basically doubles during the summer months.

One we arrived in Bodrum from Selcuk, Matt took us to see the Bodrum castle. The castle like many other places we have visited is presently being restored, so we were only able to see a small portion of it. The castle overlooks the harbor and the international marina. It was constructed by the Knights of Rhodes in the 15th century during the crusades of the middle ages.

Matt brings us to the “Azra Can”, our goulet for the next three days. We say goodbye to Matt; another great guide. He will be remembered for his funniest expression…”I just love this”, especially when it came to food.!

A goulet (also spelled gulet) is a traditional design of a two-masted or three-masted wooden sailing vessel from the southwestern coast of Turkey, particularly built in the coastal towns of Bodrum and Marmaris. They sail along the coast and are now mainly used for tourists.

We have spoiled ourselves and hired a private goulet, just two staterooms. Our captain, Farouk has been sailing goulets for over five years and our young cook, Mehmet, told us that he learnt how to cook working in a restaurant for one year, then cooking on goulets.

As we start to head out, the anchor gets stuck…oh oh!. With some help, they finally get the anchor up, and we head out in late afternoon. Pretty calm seas, but I have put on a motion sickness patch just in case. Robin has an iron stomach, and does not seem to be bothered by motion. We enjoy looking over all of the beautiful goulets and mega yachts in the harbour. We even see a large steel grey yacht which is called “007” and has a gun emblem……..that is tacky…..wouldn’t want to be seen on that one!

We get to a small cove and Faye and I jump in to get cooled off. Mehmet serves our first meal. Way too much food, so delicious and beautiful presentation. Can’t get over the fact that he prepares this wonderful meal in such a small kitchen. Our first dinner was comprised of a green salad, seaweed (kind of a stringy bean), deep fried calamari, mashed potatoes, fried squid, cooked cucumber with carrots in the middle. We have tasted the seaweed before served with yogurt and very good indeed. He also want to serve fish, but we told him that this was simply too much food.

This is a very relaxing way to travel and a welcome change from our hectic touring of the past week. Allows us to chill out a little.

So for the next three days we take things easy. No rush to do anything. Our crew is more than happy to work on our schedule. Breakfast around 9 am, then a dip in the ocean to cool off, then off to the next inlet. So much fresh fruit, local cheese and olives for breakfast and whatever kinds of eggs we would like.

We keep telling Mahmet that he is such a good cook. His presentation is also marvellous, worth pictures. Faye asked him if he wanted to come back to Canada and cook for her…he just smiles. He hardly speaks or understands english so Farouk usually translates. Mahmet is also very good at re-purposing food. For example if we don’t eat the fruit for breakfast, it becomes a snack. Tomatoes and cucumbers become a salad. Fish becomes an appetizer; nothing goes to waste.

Our overnight stops have been near villages and just love to see the lights coming on, so beautiful.

We take a shore excursion one afternoon to a very small village. The ride to shore is in the small zodiac. All local Turkish people here enjoying a holiday. Enjoy another cold beer with beautiful ocean views.

It is quite something to watch Farouk and Mahmet work together to get the boat moored in a cove for an afternoon stop or overnight. They work in harmony. The boat stops a ways off a shore then Mahmet hops in a zodiac boat and takes a rope to the shore and he wraps the rope around a large rock and this holds the stern of the boat. In the interim Mahmet has let out the anchor at the front of the boat. Between the anchor and the rope, the boat is well secured.

Technology these days is incredible. The boat is equipped with televisions, although we did not have them on, why would you! Also, we have internet capability; unbelievable. Many different areas to relax on the boat. Comfortable couch and table at the front, sun mattresses in different locations on the front as well. You can choose to lie in the sun or under the shade awning; all very comfortable.

On our final night on the boast we are moored in a town next to Bodrum. We arrive back in Bodrum about 11 am the next morning. Farouk moors the boat in a very tiny spot between other goulets, masterful piece of maneuvering. He tells us that normally most of these boats would be at sea, but tourism here has taken a real hit after the problems in Istanbul a couple of years ago and the low Turkish Lira when it relates to local Turks.

Robin and I take the opportunity to do a walkabout in the old town of Bodrum. Reminiscent of many small tourist seaside towns we have visited over the years. Winding lanes with shops selling tourist trinkets, bathing suits, clothes, jewellery and anything else one could spend their money. Also many restaurants along the marina.

We are picked up by a driver around 11 am and taken to the Bodrum airport. We are catching a flight back to Istanbul and then on to Athens. A long day of travelling. Finally arrive at our hotel in Athens around 9:30 pm. LOVED TURKEY!

Ephesus – June 2019

We landed in Izmir and met our guide, Matt. Took abut 1 1/2 hours to get Selcuk. The main reason to make a stop here is to see the ancient ruins of Ephesus.

This is a very fertile area and they grow and export figs, apricots and grapes. Many peach, cherry, pomegranate and olive orchards. It is also a very important wine growing region. On our drive, we also passed a couple of tobacco factories; Turkey grows its own tobacco.

The town of Selcuk has a population of 36,000. Matt tells us that many educated people are moving to smaller centres like Selcuk to get away from the large cities like Istanbul, as things move at a slower pace and housing/food is less expensive. This is the reverse of the population migration from farms to big cities! Matt reinforces the concept that it is the well educated that are moving to places like Selcuk. He said the unfortunate part was that the prices of housing is rising quickly in these centres.

Our first stop in the afternoon is to go to the ancient city of Ephesus. He tells us that visiting in late afternoon would be better due to the breeze. The temperature tomorrow is to be quite a bit warmer. These ruins are only some five minutes from Selcuk; so easy to get to. We enter the ancient city of Ephesus from the top gate and takes us about 2 hours to walk down to the lower gate. Matt has a quirky sense of humour and laughs at tourists that enter from the lower gate as they have to walk up!

Ephesus dates back to 10BC. Over the centuries there were four separate cities of Ephesus in and around the same location. The one we are visiting was the third such city. It was built by the Greeks, then came under Roman rule; so it is referred to as a Greco/Roman city. The archeologists say that this is based on the construction of the buildings. The Greeks used grey stone, the Roman’s used white marble and later in the Roman Byzantine times they used a red marble which is found in this area.

The excavation of this site stated in the 1930’s with the help of the Austrian government. To date only 20% to 25% of the current site has been excavated. Matt tells us that the city of Ephesus was a very rich port city. The Aegean sea was right at their doorstep so trade took place. Over the years silt and earthquakes caused the sea to recede and now the city is some 20kms from the sea.

We first see the small theatre which could hold 1,200 people and the large theatre held some 24,000.

The civilization of this City eventually died off, due to the ocean receding (trade ceased) the earthquakes, mosquitoes in the marshes and malaria.

There is a church where six Priestesses lived and their duty was to keep the flame alive It was felt that if the flame went out, their people would lose their power.

Robin in front of a statue of Nike, the winged goddess

Matt told us that archeologists were able to calculate the population based on how many people could sit in the largest stadium, then multiply that figure by ten. Not sure why, but that seems to be the way they did it.

Water for the city came from the aqueduct and was used for drinking water as well as for heating the Roman baths which ran twenty four hours a day. The unfortunate part of the baths was that they burnt wood to keep the waters warm and therefore a lot of deforestation took place.

Some of the rediscovered ruins, mainly the terraced houses are now covered by a large structure to preserve them from further damage. Some beautiful frescoes can be seen.

Make our way to the Library which was reconstructed from 1970 to 1977. The library would have housed the scrolls, but none of these were found during excavations. A Hadrian church is nearby.

Large theatre

Matt tells us that in ancient times there were three cities that were lit at night by linseed oil lamps. These were Rome, Antioch and Ephesus. Some statues remain amongst the ruins, including one of Artemis, the sister of Appolo. Artemis was very important to Ephesus, as a goddess. The statue we saw was quite large and they would transport the statue across the hill to the church whenever there was a special rite.


Very hot today, but Matt says it will be even hotter tomorrow. It was his call to visit Ephesus and we are glad he made the decision to go this afternoon. As we are leaving Ephesus and walking towards our van, Matt tells us that he will meet us further down the lane. He says to watch out for the “sticky salesman”. We must go through a bazaar with all kinds of “tourist crap” for sale and the salespeople get mad at him if he is guiding a tour; as they feel that he is deterring tourist from buying their merchandise. He is not wrong; they are all calling out to us to buy something.

Matt tells us that there are three important sites in and around Selcuk. One is the ruins of Ephesus and its museum, the Basilica of St. John and the House of Mary. Tomorrow we will visit the museum as well as the Basilica. The House of Mary is located quite high in the mountains. We have opted out of going; as Matt tells us just a little house with nothing to see.

The visit to the House of Mary becomes quite a joke between all of us. Every time we are driving somewhere, Matt points to the the Mountain and says….”look, there is the House of Mary”. He tells us that we have to give him a good rating……even though we didn’t see “the House of Mary”.

After visiting Ephesus, we are driven to Sirince, a small town up in the mountains to get to our hotel Nisanyan Houses Hotel. Our van can only go up to a certain point on the road and we are met at an intersection by a small van from the hotel. Holy Moly! I think the young driver thought he was the race car driver, Mario Andretti. We find out later that this young man was also acting as a waiter in the restaurant, so that is why he was driving so fast; he had to get back to work.

Our hotel is perched on the side of the hill overlooking the town of Sirince. It is made up of several stone buildings. The furnishings in our apartment are very eclectic. We have to walk down a very steep road about five minutes to the main dining room. This hotel is very busy as is the holiday for locals, after Ramadan. A great meal with wonderful views down the valley. Wild hollyhocks growing everywhere here, even along side the road; beautiful.

Hotel grounds and vista of valley below

The next morning we are once again driven down the road to the meeting point. Faye and I tell Matt that we need a cappuccino. He stops in the town of Selcuk, some twenty minutes down the road from where we are staying. The coffee shop is just across the Ephesus museum, so visit there next. The museum houses many of the artifacts from the ancient city of Ephesus and is well worth seeing.

We then visit the Basilica of St. John which is on the hill overlooking Ephesus. It was built from 527AD to 565AD. It is said that John the Evangilist came to this region of Turkey to spread the word of Jesus. From the remains of the church one can see that it was built in the shape of a cross. Apparently some years ago Pope Paul Vl visited here and held a mass.

Ruins of the Basilica of St. John

Across the fields we see the Temple of Artemis. We visited it, but really is uninspiring. Only 1 column still exists and storks have their nest built on the one remaining column. Have seen lots of storks in this area and they are all nesting.

Matt told us that a lot of the collapsed columns and other building materials that were in the ruins were used for construction in other parts of the city of Selcuk and surrounding areas.

We stop at one of Matt’s favourite restaurants for our lunchtime meal. Can’t believe how much the Turks eat…..Matt says “of course we do”. The two lunches we have had with him have been in a buffet style which is quite popular here. You do not help yourself as you would in a North American buffet. You tell the waiter what you want and they bring it family style.

Today our lunch was made up of meat skewers, beef/lamb meatballs, stuffed zucchini flowers, zucchini fritters, black and green olives, broccoli and tomato salad, cooked vegetable mixture of eggplant, mushrooms and tomatoes, green bean salad, chick pea salad, fried potato slices, fava bean salad and seaweed with yogurt. The locals generally put cumin and hot dried peppers over top of their meat and other dishes. Matt polishes off everything that we didn’t have. All very flavourful.

Matt tells us that he has a sister living in Oakville, Ontario and that he has visited a few times. He says he loves shopping at Costco and Target. He uses the phrase “I just love this” when he likes something. He has always used it after lunch or stopping for coffee. Cannot believe how much this guy can eat! He tells us that all Turks eat like him. Must admit that this is probably true. What we have been served for breakfast at various hotels has been overwhelming.

For my “cat friends”. There are hundreds of stray cats everywhere. The Turks love cats and put out water and food for the strays.

Our next stop is “Firca Pottery” so we can observe the traditional pottery making and see some of the pieces. In Selcuk, they use local clay from the river and then grind quartz and glass into the clay to make it stronger. Also, because of the quartz they use, once the various pieces are fired, the colours do not fade.

They use all natural colours and each piece goes through many stages.

1) Once an item has been shaped it goes into a dry room

2) First firing is at 1,600 degrees for 1 hours

3) The design is painted on

4) Then colour and glazing

5) Final firing where the glazing melts on the item.

The most interesting item we saw is a wine jug that is shaped into a circle. Unfortunately I did not take a picture of these; have seen them everywhere. The lady who was leading us around said that one puts your arm into the centre of the piece (Hittite wine jug) and that helps pour the wine……needless to say, the servants did this chore.

Robin commented on the traditional designs of some of the pottery. We were told that anyone using the ancient designs on pottery they are selling need to have special permission to use them. All of us came away with some purchases; couldn’t resist, they are all so beautiful. Thank heavens they ship home free of charge, otherwise I would have to start carrying larger suitcases.

I must comment on Turkish tea and coffee. I always thought that most Turks drank very strong coffee. In reality, most Turks drink strong black tea, and if too strong, they simply add hot water. The tea pots come in two sections, as do modern day kettles, here in Turkey. The bottom part or electric kettle keep the water hot. The pot on top is where the tea is brewed. Below is a picture of an ancient and a modern tea pot.

The next morning we are picked up by our driver and Matt. They are taking us to Bodrum, about a 2 1/2 hour drive. The Soke valley, on the way to Bodrum has the largest production of cotton. Bodrum is where we will be catching our “goulet”. We make a lunch stop and again trying new food. We shared “Manti” a dumpling with meat inside which is covered with garlic and tomato sauce. The other dish is “Sarma” which is stuffed grape leaved covered in yogurt and tomato sauce. Matt is so funny; every time he eats he says…”I just love this”. We have enjoyed his company and his wealth of knowledge of Turkey and its’ people.

On to our next chapter…..Bodrum.

Cappadocia – June 2019

Flew to Kayseri on Monday, June 3rd which was about 1 1/2 hours from Istanbul. Picked up by our guide Omer and driver and it took us about 1 hour to get to Urgup. We are staying at a beautiful cave hotel “Yunak Evleri”. 

“Cappadocia, a semi-arid region in central Turkey, is known for its distinctive “fairy chimneys,” tall, cone-shaped rock formations clustered in Monks Valley, Göreme and elsewhere. Other notables sites include Bronze Age homes carved into valley walls by troglodytes (cave dwellers) and later used as refuges by

This is an area of Turkey that we have always wanted to come to, to see the cave dwellings, underground city and the rock formations. We made our way down to the centre of the small town of Urgup and walked around to get our bearings. Back to the hotel to get settled in, but opted for a cold beer on one of the numerous decks before a rest and then late dinner outside.

This hotel and grounds simply take your breath away. I mentioned beer…..a very good very popular Turkish beer is Efes. I think I might have 5 or 6 beer throughout the summer in Calgary after a hot day of gardening. I have now way surpassed my quota of beer. Hey…’s warm and thirst quenching. On another note, have been enjoying the fresh fruit drinks here.

Lovely dinner out on one of the numerous decks. Have really enjoyed the Turkish food. Lots of lamb, which the three of really enjoy.

I talked about beer which is very good, but oh my gosh, the wine, what a surprise. The Turkish wines we have tasted have been absolutely wonderful. Among the three of us, we have laughed about this. The first night we arrived in Istanbul, I had a glass of wine and Faye and Robin had a beer. I told them the wine wasn’t bad and they both had a taste and said it wasn’t very good. So since then, every time we comment on how good the wine has been, they both say….yes, except for our first night in Istanbul…..alright already. I was tired and had jet lag. It was red and I was thirsty!

The subject of the Muslim faith comes up often, especially now since it is Ramadan. It finishes tonight, Monday. Our guide told us that in 1924 there was a population exchange between Turkey and Greece. This agreement was reached just after Turkey won its independence from the Ottoman Empire. “Treaty of Lausanne involved an agreement between Greece and Turkey to forcibly exchange around 1.5 million Greek Orthodox Christians and a lower number of Muslims in the largest population displacement of modern times.” In other words, the Turkish government wanted Turkish people back in their own country.

Tuesday morning arrives and we are up and 4 am for our 4:30 am pickup. We are going on a hot air balloon ride. None of us have ever been, so a real experience. The company we are with is called Royal Hot Air Balloons and our guide told us that they are very reputable.

We stop in the small town of Goreme, which is where the hot air balloons take off. We are given the option of breakfast, but we pass and simply have tea/water. All the companies are waiting to hear from the Turkish Air Ministry whether or not the conditions are acceptable for flying. We were told that no balloons were allowed to fly yesterday as the winds were too high. The Air Ministry took over this function a few years ago as there were many accidents in prior years with unreputable unlicensed companies. This is a good thing. We get the all clear and everyone is very happy. We are driven to a field and cannot believe the amount of balloon. We are told that a maximum of 150 balloon are allowed to fly each day and they only fly once in the very early morning hours. To watch them inflate the balloons is half of the experience. There are hot fiery flames going up into the balloon to inflate them. Are we actually going to get in a basket and rise up above the earth while the pilot blows more hot flames up to keep us flying?

Oh well, our wills are up to date, so what the heck!

We are told that everything is ready. A maximum of 12 people plus the pilot in each balloon. Four sections to the basket, so three people in each quadrant, actually perfect. We start to rise, what a sensation as one sees the earth fall beneath you and to look around and see another 150 balloons rising at various intervals. They are very safety conscious these days around this whole experience. The sun is rising, the landscape below is ever changing….took way too many pictures, but one can’t help it.

After our 1 1/2 hours up in the air, our pilot lands the balloon right on the trailer being pulled by the truck…unbelievable. They communicate while we are still in the air and depending on where the wind is blowing the truck/trailer head where they think they will land. At the end of the balloon ride, we have some champagne, cookies and chocolate covered strawberries and we each get a gold medal! Not sure why, but accepted it graciously.

Back to the hotel and we all go back to our room for a snooze. Meet for breakfast and Faye and I head down to the town, about a 15 minute walk, to go to the coffee shop that Omer told us had good coffee. The town is very quiet, and the coffee shop is closed. We find a small coffee shop a few doors down and there is a family of women having their Turkish tea and breakfast. We ask for a cappuccino from one of the young ladies who speaks a little english. We ask why the town is so quiet and are told that it is the day after Ramadan and Eid begins for the week. The custom is for families to get together. I believe that the reason for no men here is that there was just a call for prayer and every thing simply opening later.

We are told that the Government has declared that there will be 9 days off after Ramadan. I asked our guide if this was normal, he said “no”. The skeptic I am, I asked if this extended holiday had anything to do with the fact that the government party lost elections in three major cities and another round of elections is happening on June 23rd. The guide just smiled.

We spend the day by our hotel pool, lovely setting.

Omer picks us up the next day and takes us to the Goreme Open Air Museum; which is a Unesco World Heritage Site. These caves were originally a Monastery and Church dating back to the late 4th century. These caves are a result of volcanic ash and were occupied until the 13th century.

We decide to visit this morning as is a very hot day…..good call.

There are well preserved paintings on the walls of the church. The pictures of various saints tell stories and teach religion at the same time for those that were illiterate. The archeologists have been able to date the three various styles of paintings from the various colours that were used. Iconoclastic period (Byzantine) shows a muddy red and the 11th and 12th century show icons with faces. There are two types of paintings on the walls. One referred to a “seco” which means that the paintings were applied directly to the walls (these don’t last as long) and “fresco” where a plaster was applied and paint put on overtop. Unfortunately photos cannot be taken inside; which is of course to preserve the paintings for future generations to see.

Omer tells us that some people lived in caves till the 1980’s. After viewing a few of the churches (really small rooms in individual caves) we see a convent for nuns and a monastery for men. These individual caves are joined by hallways to various rooms including dining rooms, food storage, bedrooms and their own church.

Each of the small churches have names..The apple church, the sandal church and the church with snakes; normally based on paintings inside the individual churches

We note that the government has applied plaster to the outside of the caves in order to prevent further erosion.

We often wondered what the small holes in the rock surfaces were as we had seen them in the walls near our hotel. Omer explains that these were called “pigeon holes”. Pigeons would live in these holes and the local farmers would cultivate the “pigeon poop” for fertilizer for the fields. As these holes are very high up, the farmers would get to the top by using the cave below the holes and climb up some inner steps.

When we were picked up at the airport in Kayseri, we noticed that the airfield was surrounded by military planes. Omer tells us that one of the government airfields is just behind the main airport. Every young man in Turkey must complete compulsory military service. In the 1930’s that time was 4 yrs, reduced to 2 1/2 yrs in the 50’s, then 21 months, down to 18 months and they are now talking 12 months. There are now 1 million people serving in the military in Turkey; including women.

What I haven’t mentioned before is the Turkish alphabet. Previously an arabic script was used by the Ottomans and we are told that this language did not have all of the phonetic sounds that were used by the Turkish people. Only 5% of the existing population could read this alphabet. In 1927, Ataturk (the leader of the independence in 1923) introduced the now “Turkish alphabet”. It has 21 consonants , 8 vowels and there are no W,X or Y’s. There are also many “umlaut’s” used over vowels; which indicate a different pronunciation. Robin said I should simply write…”It’s complicated”. I have tried to learn a few words; but have almost given up as when I use the phrases I have learnt; I get a quizzical look!

Our next stop is the Underground City of Kayakli. I am a bit claustrophobic, but Omer tells me just a couple of sections where we will have to bend down. I decide to try it as once never knows if you will return. This underground city was used in times of invasion to hide the women, children, older people and the sick. There is no sunshine down here, but a system of air shafts were built.

The tunnels could accommodate up to 4,000 people at one time and they had enough food preserves that they could stay up to 10 months. When there was no war, the various rooms were used for food storage. We note a dug out in the kitchen floor with a half cylindrical shape coming from it. This is the cooking fire site and the cylindrical shape helped provide air for a continuous fire. A constant temperature of 15 degrees celsius was maintained with the help of carpets on the floors and walls. Niches in the walls for linseed oil lamps, storage areas for food, squares in the floor where they would stomp grapes with a channel for the juice to go into a container, black ceilings due to the cooking and long tables and benches carved into the floor for seating and eating. We are told that the people cooking would also put small stones on the cooking fires to keep down the flames and mainly cook on the remaining heat of the fire. We also see a basalt stone, which they surmise was used as a mortar and pestle to grind spices.

The archeologist surmise that different rooms used for various storage depending on the size and temperature of that specific room.

The tunnels leading from room to room are very narrow and very low, but once you get into a room, once can stand up. The low, narrow tunnels would slow down any enemies, if they were able to enter, and give the people time to escape.

These caves were dug down vertically, then horizontally for a floor; and this continues down to 6 floors. We visit three floors and apparently we only see 6% of the city. Apparently a lot of the tunnels have filled with dust over the years. The top floors were used as stables and holes in the floors for their feed.

They also had emergency exits and means of blocking exits if they had to. Big rocks to block the entrances would have had to be carved down here, no way for the people to bring them down as the rocks are bigger than the tunnels. One big rock that could be rolled to block a tunnel, reminded me of “Raider’s of the Lost Ark” where Harrison Ford is running down a tunnel with a large boulder bearring down on him. Glad we saw these, but sure wouldn’t want to live down there! I think Robin hit his head a couple of times as we were walking through the tunnels.

We stop for lunch in the small town of Avanos and try “Barek”, filo pastry filled with either spinach/cheese, eggplant and minced meat. We also try the drink called “Hosaf” which is made with apricots, raisins, plums with cloves boiled in water and left to “plump up”. Very good and thirst quenching. I love the places that the tour guides take us to….their local knowledge really helps with this; as you visit restaurants you would not normally have a chance to frequent.

The town of Avanos is known for its pottery and rugs. The Red River flows through this area. It is 125kms long and goes into the Black Sea. A natural spot for making of pottery due to the clay found along the river.

Although we visited a rug store and bought rugs in Istanbul, we opted to visit this rug manufacturer as they have their own silk worms and weave their own silk. We learn that the double knot system is classified as a Turkish rug and a single know is referred to as a Moroccan or Persian. For the wool rugs, different types of wool are used. In the east of Turkey, where it is colder, the wool produced is longer and stronger, so this wool is usually used for floor carpets. In the west where it is warmer, the wool is thinner and softer; so these rugs are used for walls to help keep the temperature moderate in homes. We had watched one of the Master Weavers work and she was amazing to watch; again a very intricate design.

The owner who has explained the rug making art to us, also mentions that the “front side of the carpet is what you fall in love with” and the back side is “what you pay for”. The more knots per square inch, the more expensive. All the various patterns of the rugs tell of story and usually relate to a specific area of the country.

Once again, Faye is honing her mastery of “rug knotting”. A woman waves Faye over and tells her to sit down and she will show her what to do. This time the rug is cotton. I tell the owner that Faye has done one knot on a rug in Istanbul. He says that the women that is showing Faye is not one of his employees, but she is simply visiting. He does know her and says that she is indeed a master weaver. He tells me that their shop teaches women to become weavers. They get government subsidies to teach women (usually widows) to become self sufficient.

We are then taken to a side room where the silk is taken from the cocoons and spun into the size of thread they will need for specific carpets. This may take up to 375 single filaments to make one thread. A very interesting process. They receive large bags of cocoons and they only use the male cocoons. You ask how does one know the difference between a male and female? We asked that specific question and are told that the male cocoon is oval and the female is shaped like a peanut. They put the cocoons in water and with a whisk brush, they are able to grab a piece of thread from each cocoon and join them together and put them together to weave on thread. Very interesting process to watch.

We then drive to Monk Valley, the area known for its “Fairy Chimneys”. This place looks like a lunar landscape. These chimneys were formed when many centuries ago lava spewed, went into the sea and cooled down. With erosion and earthquakes affecting these large blocks of lava, they were spilt and the end result is the single chimneys. The caps were formed as the harder material was at the top of the rock formation and a softer material in lower layers.

A final stop to view the Imagination fields and again a type of chimney and these forms leave more to the imagination.

Omer also tells us a little more about Turkey. He tells us that Turkey produces 75% of the world’s hazelnuts. These are grown in the Black Sea area along wth cherries and tea. The south-east of the country produces cotton, cork, pistachio’s, oranges, melons, pomegranate and tomatoes. West of the country is known for figs and olives. He tells us that the best Baclava is in the South-east as this is where the pistachios’ are grown. In the south east of Turkey, the farmer’s will normally be able to harvest two crops of corn and wheat. We see vendors in all the towns/cities we have visited selling roasted corn on the cob and/or selling corn kernels in cups.

Another great day of touring with our wonderful guide, Omer.

The next morning, we are picked up and driven to the airport for our 1 1/2 hour flight to Izmir, then a 1 hour drive to our hotel near Sirince.

Istanbul – June 2019

We are off again on another adventure, this time to Turkey and Greece for three weeks. These are two countries that we have not yet visited so we are looking forward to this trip. We are also travelling with our good friend Faye J. This trip was organized by a travel agent that Faye uses for her many travels. This is different for us, as normally, I do all the organizing and a lot of what we decide to do happens when we arrive in a country. We will have some free time as well as many organized tours.

We left Calgary on May 29th and flew to Istanbul via Amsterdam. The first part of the trip is in Turkey for twelve days and continues on to Greece for the remainder of our trip. Itinerary for Turkey is Istanbul, Cappadocia area, Izmir/Sirince/Ephesus, Bodrum, a cruise on a goulet and back to Istanbul for a flight to Athens.

In Greece, we will spend time in Athens, then onto the island of Crete where we will be in Chania and Heraklion. Would have liked to see more of the Greek Islands, but you never know, there may be another Greece trip in the future.


First of all a little history of Turkey. It has the oldest known human settlement (7500 BC) and is said to be the “cradle” of the world’s oldest civilizations. It presently has a population of some 80 million people.

Turkey is a peninsula, surrounded by three seas: the Black Sea on the north side, the Aegean Sea on the west side and the Mediterranean Sea on the south side. As of 2019 the U.N.estimates the population of Turkey to be 82.8 million. The capital of Turkey is Ankara.

The following information was taken from the CIA Worldbook site, which I refer to when doing research on countries that we are visiting.

“The Turkish Government conducted a referendum in April 2017 in which voters approved constitutional amendments changing Turkey from a parliamentary to a presidential system. The amendments went into effect fully following the presidential and parliamentary elections in June 2018.

Turkey is a land rich in natural resources some of which are coal, iron ore, copper, chromium, antimony, mercury, gold, barite, borate, celestite (strontium), emery, feldspar, limestone, magnesite, marble, perlite, pumice, pyrites (sulfur), clay, arable land, hydropower.

The country is among the world’s leading producers of agricultural products (50% of the land is agricultural) ; textiles; motor vehicles, transportation equipment; construction materials; consumer electronics and home appliances.”

Turkey is divided into seven geographical regions and each has particular foods, accents and folklore.

Since 2018 the country has suffered a decline in its economy due to some of the political views/turmoil, some terrorist attacks and actions on interest rates.

Found these little known facts of Turkey on a postcard that our travel agent gave us.

– Turks gave the Dutch their famous tulips

– Selcuk near Ephesus is the city where the Virgin Mary spent her last days. I know we will see Ephesus, so not sure if Selcuk is on the itinerary.

– The first church built by man (St. Peter’s Church) is in Antioch.

– The Temple of Artemis and the Mausoleum at Halicarnassus are two of the seven wonders of the ancient world.


We flew from Calgary via Amsterdam to Istanbul and arrived about 4:30 pm, a long day. We were met at the airport by our guide Yasemin, who will be with us during the next 3 days. Istanbul built a new airport about 3 years ago and it is very large and modern and about a 40 minute drive to our hotel; which is located in the old part of the city.

Driving to the hotel we cross the Bosphorus Strait which separates the Asian and European sides of the City. Our hotel is located on the European side. There are 3 suspension bridges crossing the strait.

The city of Istanbul is the only city in the world located on two continents, Europe and Asia. It sits between the Black Sea and the Mediterranean. It was the capital of both the Byzantine and Ottoman empires.

Some 20% of Turkey’s population lives in Istanbul and it’s present population is 16 million. 65% live on the European side and 35% reside on the Asian side of the City. The average age of the population is 32 years of age, so very young when compared to other major cities in the world. Due to the huge population and the growth of Istanbul over the centuries, most of the green areas and trees in the city have been cut down for development sake. Jasmine tells us that the locals say that if they see a green area in the city, it is either military or cemetery!

On our way to the hotel, Yasemin also mentioned that Istanbul is the 5th most crowded city in the world. 99% of the population in the city are Muslim and it is presently Ramadan and will end on Monday evening. There are also Armenian Christians, Greek Orthodox and about 20,000 of the Jewish faith. She also told us that the city has 3,000 mosques, 300 churches and 22 synagogues. Driving in we saw many, many minarets and mosques. The country is a secular society where state and religious institutions are separate. When a couple gets married, there must first be a civil wedding and if they wish, a religious celebration may follow.

The city has one overall mayor and 39 district mayors with counsels. You may have followed the news regarding the mayoralty election here in Istanbul over a month ago. The election was deemed to have had some issues and the outcome was declared invalid by the present Turkish government. It was reported that the government did not like the outcome (the winner was not of the existing ruling government, but someone more liberal), so has called a subsequent election for June 23rd. This also happened in the capital, Ankara and in Izmir; both large cities. Our guide tells us that she feels that due to this situation, more people will come out and vote and that the outcome will be the same and she is actually hoping for a larger majority. As you can guess she is liberal minded. It is felt that the present State government is felt to be very conservative idealogies.

Most of the industries that I mentioned before are located in the Istanbul area. Jasmine confirmed that major industries are car manufacturing (Fiat, Mercedes Benz, Toyota, Citroen, etc.), textile and leather goods manufacturing (Hilfiger, Armani, Burberry, etc.) and the third main source of revenue is tourism. Tourism did take a hit a few years ago due to several terrorist attacks.

Yasemin told us that the minimum wage is about 400 Euro per month, so this low cost of labour is a benefit to the manufacturing sector. The main agricultural area is in the Aegean and Mediterranean areas of the country. Cotton is one of the main crops which is used in the textile industry. Unfortunately the country still deals with an unofficial unemployment rate of 12%.

The transportation in Istanbul is excellent. They have an underground, even with one line running under the Sea of Marmara which joins the Asian and European sides. A light rail transit system, trains and ferries. Jasmine tells us that it is very economical to use the public transit system and people are encouraged to use it to help lower the number of vehicles on the road. Taxis abound on all the streets.

Turkey does have four seasons. Yasemin indicated that on occasion even Istanbul gets snow; but it usually melts as soon as it lands. In the north part of the country they can get huge amounts of snow and at times the children don’t attend school for weeks at a time due to the amount of snow.

On our drive in from the airport we also see part of a Roman Aqueduct built in the 7th Century by the Romans. They also built a system of cistern’s to hold the water. The aqueduct no longer functions and neither do the cistern’s. Some of the cistern’s are so large, they are used to day for functions. Also see some of the ancient walls along the way in the Sultanahmet area, near our hotel.

We had read that when in Turkey we should use bottled water and Yasemin did confirm this. She indicated that the water from the taps is only to be used for bathing or washing clothes. The city grew so fast and the officials weren’t able to deal with the infrastructure needed to deal with a proper water system.

Even the best hotels do not have potable water. Our hotel provides bottled water in the rooms. The thing that bothers us the most is all the plastic…..what on earth do they do with it. We even have problems in Canada with recycling our plastic and we probably don’t use half the plastic they do here. What a pity!

Our hotel is located in the Sultanahmet district, which is the old part of the city. We finally arrive at the hotel around 5:30 pm and we are all very tired. We take time to unpack and freshen up and head out for dinner. As we are walking around trying to get our bearings, we pass by many restaurants. Outside all the restaurants there are men trying to beckon you into their establishments. These guys are so quick and have the greatest lines. When I kept walking by one and shook my head no, his response was “You are breaking my heart”. None of us are too hungry as we were well fed on our flights. We opt for a small restaurant where we share a few appetizers. Cold beers enjoyed by Faye and Robin and I opt for a glass of wine.

Jet lag keeps me up for part of the night, but Robin doesn’t ever having problems sleeping. He always tells me that is because he has “pure thoughts and a clear conscience!”. Since it is Ramadan, there is a call to prayer at 3:30 in the morning…..yes a.m. Good thing I was awake. After the call to prayers, the dogs started barking! The Muslims are supposed to be fasting in daylight hours during Ramadan, so that is why the prayers take place so early, so that they can eat after the prayers but before sunrise. Normally the Muslims are called to prayer five times a day. Women are also allowed in Mosque, in a separate area, but not on Fridays; as this is only for men. Our guide tells us that most practicing Muslim women pray at home.

Yasemin has told us that not all Muslim’s fast nowadays and many even drink alcohol and smoke on a regular basis. I guess that this would be similar to non-practicing Catholics. Must say that they are very liberal when it comes to Ramadan here in Turkey; the shops and restaurants are all open, liquor is available and all historical venues are also open. We were in Morocco once during Ramadan and everything was shut down.

On Friday morning, Robin, Faye and I head out to discover our neighbourhood. This area is know for its old wooden built homes which date back to the Ottoman Empire in the 15th century. A lot of them have been restored as homes, while others turned into small hotels. Some of them are very well taken care of and restored, while some have been allowed to fall into disrepair, which is unfortunate.

We continue on our way, simply walking down streets randomly and come across the Small Haghia Sophia mosque and continue on and find the small Arasta Bazaar which is located just below the Blue Mosque. We stop at the first bazaar shop we see….so like a tourist!. It is a chocolate, dried fruit and tea shop; who can resist. A young man waits on us and he spots that we have bought a box of green tea in a plastic bag that I am holding. We had stopped at a small corner store to buy the green tea. I always find it amazing how observant these merchants can be and that they pick up on the slightest clue. He tells us that loose tea is much better for you and proceeds to show us his teas. All the teas are on shelves and in drawers and he picks up a paddle full of the tea so that you can smell it. He gave us a sample of pomegranate tea which was simply delicious. Below is a picture of the loose teas as they were so colourful, all natural ingredients.

He then sells Robin some nice dark chocolate nuggets filled with coffee flavoured filling. Faye tries the chocolate/hazelnut log and cannot believe the flavours. She resists buying any, which is hard; as hazelnuts are her favourite. The young salesman tries to sell her some but she insists that she would gain weight if she ate all of this chocolate. He then tells her that he can also sell her a diuretic slimming tea, so she can buy the chocolate and the tea and therefore enjoy the chocolate and not gain weight! You would have to see this young man. He told us he was from Syria and was tall and very thin. Faye told him he didn’t need the tea and could eat all the chocolate he wanted!

We continue wandering down the mall and come across a Turkish towel shop that has a Canadian flag hanging in the window. Needless to say, we have to go in. Both Faye and I have indulged in purchasing Turkish towels back in Canada and we both say that once you have used a turkish towel, you will never go back. What a lovely shop, it belongs to a Canadian lady who lives in Turkey. We consider buying some bed coverings, but decide to wait. They will ship to Canada as do most shops. Such a lovely variety of Hamann and Turkish bath towels….hard to resist.

We make our way back to our hotel as we have our first tour this afternoon with our guide. On the way to the ferry terminal, we stop at Taksim (meaning “to distribute water”) square. In ancient times the square was used to “distribute water” to the citizens of the area. The Republic Monument is situated here. Turkey gained its independence in 1923. Taksim is a busy nightlife, shopping, dining district and is the city’s main pedestrian boulevard, which is lined with 19th-century buildings housing international shopping chains, movie theaters and cafes. Many embassies located in this area as well. We also note the construction of a new mosque just off the square and Yasemin says that the locals did not want the mosque built in this area, not sure why, but they lost their cause.

Today, the square is surrounded by police fencing and some very serious looking police riot vehicles, water cannon guns and lots of police presence. The square was the location of the 2013 anti-government demonstrations and concerns exist that there might be trouble on this anniversary day. Not something we would see at home!.

We make our way to the boat/ferry terminal in the harbour and we begin the trip on the Golden Horn, which was the original port during the Byzantine period. Legend has it that the Golden Horn name comes from the fact that this is where the trading of goods took place and gold was the currency used. Another story is that the name comes from the color of the water at sunset as it shines with a gold color because of the reflection of the sun.

Once we leave the harbour, we cruise into the Bosphorus strait. Sailing on water is a great way to see the skyline of a city. The Bosphorus is the body of water that joins the Sea of Marmara and the Black Sea. Lots of large transport ships use this shipping lane. We are told that ships travel in one direction for eight hours and the other direction for the next eight hours. By the way, the Sea of Marmara joins the Aegean Sea which eventually joins the Mediterranean. I actually had to look up a map of the region to get my bearings and that finally made sense. We begin by sailing under the Bosphorus bridge, one of the longest suspension bridges and view the beautiful wooden mansions along both shores. Yasemin told us that one Russian tanker lost control some time ago and smashed into one of the mansions. No one was injured…..can you imagine seeing a bigger tanker coming toward you while you are having coffee in your living room!

Along the shore the beautiful Dolmabahce Palace is a striking building. It was built in the 19th century and was the administration centre of the Ottoman Empire.

In the distance on one of the hills of the city, we can see the Galata Tower. This is one of Istanbul’s most recognized symbols. It was first built of wood as a lighthouse in 528AD and was originally called the Great Tower. At one time the tower was damaged and was rebuilt in stone in the 1200’s.

We pass a couple of islands on which one stands the Maiden’s Tower. According to one myth it was built by an emperor to protect his daughter who he saw die of a snakebite in a dream. It is said that his efforts proved futile as a snake hid itself in a fruit basket and bit her anyway. Today it is a restaurant.

We spend a couple of hours touring and following are just some of the views from the ferry.

On the way back to the old town, we discuss the education system. In schools, the children first learn Turkish and some then decide to take another language (french, english, german, etc). When it comes to high school; two choices are available. Private schools or public schools. One must write an exam and they need to excel. If the child does well they can attend a private school and it is paid for by the government. If your child does not do well in the exams you have two choices…attend a private school and pay or attend a public school. Yasmin tells us that the education offered in the public schools is basic and that it is much better if one can attend the private schools. There are some 40 Universities in the city of Istanbul.

The new government has changed the laws and children are not mandated to go to school after grade 4. This horrifies Yasemin, as does us. She feels that this is one of the many laws that the new government has changed in trying to bring the country backward vs progressing into modern society. Knowledge is power!

We drive through the Nisantasi Tesvikiye neighbourhood which has very high end shopping and home sell for two to three million U.S. dollars as they have a view of the Bosphorus.

We visit the Basilica Underground Cistern, the largest of several hundred ancient cisterns that lie beneath the city. It is nicknamed “The Sunken Palace” due to all the columns and was built in the 6th century. It provided the water needs of the imperial palace and other residents living in the area and later used as a water source for the Topkapi Palace gardens. It is supported by 336 columns and the cistern could hold up to 100,000 tons of water ( 3 million cubic feet). The columns are not identical as they were taken from older buildings that were no longer in use. Some are in the Doric style and others Corinthian. One column draws special attention due to engraved pictures resembling eyes and tears. It is said these tears pay tribute to the hundreds of slaves who died during the construction of the Basilica Cistern.

There are also a couple columns with sculptures of Medusa on the pedestals of the pillars. These are said to be guardians of the cistern.

At some point, the cistern was no longer and use and during renovation work that took place between 1985-87, 50,000 tons of mud were taken out and walking platforms were placed in the cistern and opened to the public for viewing.

Some of you might recognize the cistern as it has been the location of several movies including the James Bond “From Russia with Love” and in the “Inferno” with Tom Hanks. The cistern normally has some water in it with fish abounding. It is presently undergoing some restoration so the water has been emptied. It is often used for concerts and private functions. It is hard to describe how huge this place really is.

We walk to the Hippodrome, where chariot races used to take place. It could hold up to 100,000 people. It is now a public square which hosts many events. Along the square there are 2 columns and 1 obelisk.

Our first day has been full and we are hot and tired. Decide to head up to the terrace on the top of our hotel to have a “cold one”. I am not normally a beer drinker, but with this hot weather the beer is going down very well.

Below is a view from our terrace and in the distance you can see all the tankers waiting to cross the Bosphorus.

At supper we were given a complimentary desert of “Kunefe/Kanafeh” which is made with a thin noodle like pastry which is soaked in syrup and layered with cheese and some nuts. It was followed by a glass of “raki” which is a sweetened anise flavoured liqueur….wouldn’t want too many of these, goes straight to one’s head.

In a corner of the terrace, I noticed a baby seagull. The waiter told us that the mother hated him, every time he approached the mother would start squawking and sure enough that did happen. Quite amusing to watch as he would walk back and forth. We mentioned that Turkish was a hard language and that we were even having a hard time with the simplest of phrases. He told us that after 10 beer we would be able to understand the Turkish language!

Once again today I was taken aback when a shopkeeper in the market spoke to me in French. Seems to happen to me all over the world; makes me proud of my french heritage. Faye made an observation that all of the people working in the shops are men. For the most part this is very true, we have seen very few women working in the shops.

We head out early for our second day of touring with Yasemin. Our first stop is the Blue Mosque. To enter the Blue Mosque, women must be dressed modestly and their heads must be covered. Men must wear long pants. We were aware of this and dressed appropriately but for those that did not, there was a small shop that rented long skirts (for both women and men) and scarves for women.

The Blue Mosque was built between 1609 and 1616. It’s official name is Sultan Ahmed Mosque (commissioned by him) but is known as the Blue Mosque due to it’s 21,000 hand made blue tiles in the interior. A nice interior courtyard before one enters the mosque. It has 260 windows. As with a lot of historical sites, the mosque is undergoing a restoration, so some areas were closed off. This did not take away from its’ beauty.

One of the most distinctive elements of this Istanbul mosque is that it has six minarets, as opposed to the usual two or four of most of the city’s mosques. In the history of the Blue Mosque, legend has it that this is because of a misunderstanding – when the Sultan decreed there should be altın minare (gold minarets), the architect heard altı minare (six minarets). This caused some controversy, as the only other mosque with six minarets at that time was the Prophet’s mosque in Mecca – a problem the sultan overcame by ordering a seventh to be added in Mecca. Our guide told us that some believe that the architect did this on purpose to save money!

On the tiles, the images are those taken from nature, such as flowers or geometric designs. There are no pictures of humans or animals as the Koran indicates that Muslims are to pray directly to God. For this reason one will never see any statues in a mosque.

Tourists can only access the mosque at certain times as it is still used for Muslim prayers on a daily basis. Yasemin tells us of the five pillars of Islam

1) God is one and Mohamed is the prophet

2) One must pray five times a day

3) One must fast during Ramadan

4) One must go to Mecca at least once in a lifetime

5) One must be charitable

It is believed that it is better to go to Mecca at an older age; as your sins are forgiven. When you go to Mecca you cannot borrow money to go and you must leave money behind for your family.

Some of the elements of a mosque are the minaret (where the muezzin calls people to prayer), the mihrab (a niche that shows the direction one should pray), the minbar (where the Friday sermon is given) . Men pray on the rug in the main part of the mosque and the women pray behind screens or on the second level.

I should apologize to my Muslim friends if any of my writings regarding the Muslim faith is incorrect.

Our next stop is the Hagia Sophia, which is just some 500 metres from the Blue Mosque. This was a former Greek Orthodox Christian patriarchal cathedral, later an Ottoman imperial mosque and now a museum. Built in AD 537 at the beginning of the Middle Ages, it was famous in particular for its massive dome; which is 56 metres high. The amazing thing is that this building incorporates not only Muslim symbols, but Christian ones as well. In our travels, this is the first time we see this. The readers may recall that we visited the Andalusia province of Spain last year and many mosques converted to churches and vice versa. but every time a church was converted to a mosques, all the Christian symbols would be removed and the same applied when a mosque was converted; it would only have Christian symbols.

Partial Christian mosaics can still be seen on the second floor of the Museum. Beautiful gardens surround the property.

It has flying buttresses to support the structure; an outer and inner narthex and a cistern was built under the church to stabilize it in case of earthquakes.

There are two resident cats at the Hagia Sophia museum. One is called Gli and has slightly crossed eyes and has its own Instagram account with 12,400 followers. Gli just sits there while everyone takes his picture…..possibly looking for more followers!

Yasemin asks us if we want to go see some turkish carpets and we all agree. She tells us that the shop we are about to see is very famous; the owner will spend time with us, explain how the carpets are made and show us various carpet styles. He does not pressure anyone to buy anything. Upon entering the shop, we are shown how the carpets are woven. There is a lady who is weaving and we are told that it can take any where from 1 to 2 years to weave an average size rug, depending on the pattern. This lady’s fingers are moving so fast, we an hardly see what she is doing. She is weaving a carpet with silk fibres, such beautiful colours. Faye tries her hand and does one knot….so somewhere out there in the future, there will be a carpet with one know done by Faye. We are offered tea and are shown various carpets. Robin and I succumb to the beauty of these handcrafted carpets as does Faye. Carpets are being shipped home!

Turks were nomads and lived in tents. They made woven rugs to sleep on and used natural substances to dye their carpets.

Off to the 15th century Grand Bazaar which is one of the largest and oldest covered markets in the world, with 61 covered streets and over 4,000 shops on a total area of 30,700 square metres and 22 different gates. The vendors sell leather goods, jewellery (mainly Armenian designs), turkish rugs, scarves (silk and pashmina), ceramics, lamps, antique shops, silver and souvenirs. Hang on to your wallets!

Oh….some fake silk scarves as well. Why do I know this? Yasemin takes us to her favourite “ethical” vendors. In one scarf shop we enter, she introduces us to the owner and I start to look at the silk scarves. He tells me that these really aren’t silk and brings me to the inside of his shop to look at the “real silk” scarves. I was telling Faye that it is nice to go to these places with a guide as she takes you to the reputable vendors. I kind of smile when I write this as I wonder if this vendor would have tried to sell me the “not so silk scarf” had we not been with Yasemin! Oh well….I am now the owner of a beautiful pashmina….like a need another one!

We make our way to Topkapi Palace. The following is taken from their official web site:

Topkapı Palace was not only the  residence of the Ottoman sultans, but also the administrative and educational centre of the state. Initially constructed between 1460 and 1478 by Sultan Mehmed II, the conqueror of Constantinople, and expanded upon and altered many times throughout its long history, the palace served as the home of the Ottoman sultans and their court until the middle of the 19th century. In the early 1850s, the palace became inadequate to the requirements of state ceremonies and protocol, and so the sultans moved to Dolmabahçe Palace, located on the Bosphorus.

There are four courtyards in the palace compound; but each one was for a certain group of people in the palace. For example the Sultan and family had their own courtyard, with a swimming pool, then the Harem had theirs, etc. Each group also had their own turkish bath, their own kitchen and eating area.

We were also told that the Mother Queen was also a very important figure, especially if the new Sultan was young. She also would have had her own quarters. 36 Sultans ruled during the Ottoman Empire.

By the way, I learnt that the word Harem meant “forbidden”. In other words, the harem women were forbidden to men, except for the Sultan that is. It is said that the Sultan had his favourites and the favourites had their own suite of rooms and their own garden, of course. The women of the harem were served by Eunuchs, normally young black boys that had been castrated. In some instances they were also deaf and mute; that way they could not report what they had seen or heard.

Yasemin told us we really must watch some Turkish shows on Netflix…Magnificent and Kuzgun. Must look these up! Tried to look them up, but the internet in the cave hotel in Cappadocia is not that great.

We visited the Justice Tower, the clock room and then the arms/armour room. In the justice tower, there was a screen in the upper wall and it is said that the Sultan would sit there and listen to what the counsel was discussing.

We then visit the royal kitchens. Apparently they could serve up to 3,000 at one time.

Stopped for lunch in a restaurant overlooking the Bosphorus. Always so nice to see all the boat traffic, beautiful setting. I finally tried Serber, a cherry drink; it is sold in markets, in restaurants and from street vendors. The drink is made of pomegranate, ginger, raspberry, tamarin, cherry, strawberry, rose water, rose-hip, cinnamon and carnation. Must say it was very refreshing in this heat and I have had it a few more times.

Yasemin takes us to one of her favourite restaurants near the spice market. We took the tram from the palace to get there. We told her that we just wanted something light to eat. We shared Igli Koftl (a meatball made of lamb, bulgar and walnuts) Lahmacun (Turkish pizza) and Fistikli Kebap (kebab with lamb, beef and pistachio). Pistachios are grown and Turkey and is widely used in cooking. Great views of the harbour.

Talking of food, I love the fresh fruit I am enjoying every morning for breakfast, along with their Turkish yogurt. Have also tried Cigara Boregi – a deep fried pastry rolled up to look like a cigar, stuffed with cheese….very yummy!

Our last stop is the Spice Market, which was built in 1664. On the outside are all the spice vendors and the inside shops are selling dried fruit, teas and very similar goods to the Grand Bazaar. Needless to say, one finds Turkish Delight everywhere. I am not a fan of this confectionary, so have not indulged.

We finish our tour with Yasemin and we take the tram with her back to our hotel. She has been a delight and had made our time in Istanbul quite memorable. We feel that we have only scratched the surface of this vibrant city and wished we could have spent more time discovering the many museums, market and experience daily life in this wonderful place.

Madeira – March 2019

Arrived in Madeira the morning of February 28th around 11 am; a two hour flight from Lisbon. Our friend Susan had been to Madeira and told us that the landing strip was very interesting; I really didn’t need to know that! As the plane approaches you see this rocky island in the middle of the ocean and the airstrip is basically hanging on the edge of the cliff. A good landing, but I will say that I was hanging on to him for dear life. People started clapping when the plane made its’ safe landing….is there something we should know!

The reason we chose to come to Madeira, besides not having been here before, is that Robin’s mother’s ancestors were from Madeira. His grandmother and grandfather immigrated to British Guyana at the end of the 19th century. Robin thinks that they came to Guyana as indentured labourers and would have had to work through a period of indenture prior to being given their freedom. My sister in law, Suzanne might be able to shed more light on this assumption.

The gentleman who picked us up at the airport, which is about 20 minutes away from Funchal (the capital of Madeira), informed us that this weekend was the start of Mardi Gras. He certainly got very lively when he found out that Robin’s ancestors were from Madeira. Told us that Madeira was the best island, way better than the Azores! He also gave us a long list of the foods we must try. He said the many types of bananas are grown on the island and they are exported all over the world. Also, lots of cane sugar is grown. He said we must try the “bolo de caco” bread, a white fish served with bananas, all the various pastries and of course, Madeira wine. When Robin asked him about malasada (a pastry Robin remembers from Guyana) his smile was incredible. He told us that in Madeira the malasada is quite large and served with a cane sugar honey. He told us that it was a tradition to cook the malasada just before lent, to use up the lard and sugar in the household. They also discussed bol de mel, which in Madeira is called “bolo de mel”. He also told us to try a traditional Madeira drink called “poncha” made with lemons, oranges, sugar and white rum.

We have rented an apartment for the four days that we are here. After getting settled in, we venture out to get to know the city. Our first stop is the local market, Mercado dos Lavradores and find a fruit vendor. I don’t think I have ever seen so many fruit and lots that I am not familiar with. This island is after all a semi-tropical and grows its own fruit, a lot of which is exported. As we are speaking to the fruit vendor, we said we wanted some bananas. He was quite the salesman. He told us he carried about 8 types of bananas and we walked out with several different kinds which he hand picked for us. Have now tried most of them and each variety really has it’s own taste, all very good.

As we walked into the market we saw flower vendors. These are all women and they all wear traditional clothing.

The tile work at the entrance of the Mercado

The flower lady dressed in traditional clothes

We decide to stop for lunch and we split a sandwich made of the “bolo de caco” bread. The bolo do caco is a flat, circular bread, shaped like a cake and thus called bolo. It is traditionally cooked on a caco, a flat basalt stone slab. The bread is usually served with garlic butter. We ordered one with shredded chicken and it was delicious. Robin decided to pair his with a glass of Madeira wine….it is after noon, so that is allowed, right?

As I walk over to look at the bread, one of the ladies was making a fresh batch, an older gentleman sitting down having his bica (expresso) says to me….”Bonjour Madame”. So I reply in french and we start a short conversation. He is quite a character; he tells me he is going to be the next President of France! He tells the lady making the bread what he has just told me (in Portuguese), she burst out laughing.

Robin and I have often commented as to the many times that people start speaking to me in French; I guess I must have that look!

I go back to our table and lo and behold the older gentleman follows me and asks our permission to sit down. I tell him that Robin cannot speak french but will understand him is he speaks slowly. Once again he introduces himself that he will be the next President of France. He then tells us that he spent thirty years working in France and that his two sons were born there. He came back to Madeira when he retired as he was born here and he calls this his home. We spoke a little longer and then he left. A good chuckle!

We continue walking to Rua de Santa Maria to check out the restaurants. The representative of the management company had gone over where to go to eat and what to see. A charming small lane with all types of restaurants, but mainly seafood.

The doors of the various shops and restaurants are all painted depicting various scenes or people, very peculiar, have never seen this anywhere else.

We then make our way along the promenade, Avenida do Mar and visit the old abandoned Forte Sao Tiago. Believe they are turning the space into art galleries and a museum. Further along we see the cable car, Teleferico do Funchal. We decide on the spur of the moment to take the cable car to the top, an area known as Monte. The length of the ride is 3,200 metres (about 2 miles) and takes about 15 to 20 minutes. Beautiful views of the city of Funchal. The most amazing sight are the gardens which are planted on the hills, all of which are terraced.

When we get to the top I told Robin that I had read about these “basket rides” that one could take down the hill. We weren’t sure what this was all about, so we watched a few people go down. The “Carreiros do Monte” have been operating for over one hundred years. Historically they were used to bring people down from the hilltop village of Monte down to Funchal. Also used to transport their produce for market. The baskets are guided by two men, called “carreiros” and they have special leather boots that they use for breaking/slowing down the sledge. The sledges are made out of wicker and sit on two wooden runners. The trail runs 2 kilometres down the hill. We decide, what they heck, only here once, might as well do it. Halfway down the hill, the carreiros stop and grease the runners.

The ride was so worth it; lot’s of fun and something unique.

On our way back to the apartment, we stop at a small coffee shop and we indulge in malasada and cane sugar honey. This was very special for Robin as these were made in Guyana. Very good.

We were told that this weekend is the start of “Carnival” and that there will be a parade on Saturday night.

We go out to one of the fish restaurants that we saw earlier in the day. I always have to laugh when the waiter says to me as “yes, my lady” . I opt to have the “filete de espada com banana e mara caja” (scabbard fish fillet with banana and passion fruit). I know that this must sound like a weird combination, but it is very good. A specialty of Madeira. Robin has the tuna steak Madeira style (Bife de atum a Madeirense). Both were very good. A musician playing at the restaurant made for a lovely ambience and evening.

On Friday, March 1st we are picked up by a tour guide in an ex-military jeep. I had arranged a tour of the east side of the island and the west side on the next day. On Friday, we were joined by another couple visiting from England. Our guide, Ricardo, was born and raised here in Madeira. The top of the jeep is pulled back and Robin and I are sitting in the back. We stop at an outlook at the top of Funchal and view the sights of the city.

We then do some cross country off roading and head to Pico do Arieiro, a mountain which stands at 1,810 metres high (5,938 feet). To get here we have driven right through the clouds. We asked Ricardo to put the top back on the jeep as we were all quite cold. We had been told by the tour company to come prepared for cold, so thankfully Robin and I had brought sufficient clothes, including our hats and gloves. The views from Mount Arieiro look down into the Valley of the Nuns. Absolutely spectacular views from here, but very windy.

As we are about to get back into the jeep, Ricardo introduces us to his cousin, Diego who is also a tour guide, but with another company. The two of then are hilarious, kidding with each other and the rest of us. Diego tells us that we should really be touring with him as he is much better looking!

Ricardo borrowing my scarf. His cousin Diego says he dresses like a girl for carnival!

We continue and stop in a small bar along the way, really in the middle of nowhere. Ricardo goes behind the bar and tells us he is making us all a poncha. This is the Madeira drink made of white rum, sugar, lemons and limes. I also ask for a galao (latte) and he makes it himself as well. The bar tender/owner just lets him go about his duties. We drink the poncha and wow….what a kick! We find out that the white rum is 50% alcohol. Having said it had a kick, it was good.

Our guide Ricardo, Robin and Pete and Sandra from England

The ingredients for Poncha. The stick is called a caralhinho stick and used to mix the ingredients.

When I asked Ricardo how to spell Poncha….he writes in my little notebook “BEER”.

Then continue our tour. Our next stop is a small village where traditional Madeiran homes still exist. We visit this tiny house and garden and the owner gives us a shot glass of a home made coffee liqueur.

That is Ricardo’s hand trying to cover up the naked parts of the statue as I am taking a picture!

In this same small village we stop for lunch. A little out of the way place mainly for locals. The meal is a set menu and we get the garlic bread, meat skewer’s of beef and chicken (called espetada) served with a salad, french fries and milhofrito ( a side dish of corn, kale water, garlic and olive oil mixed together, shaped into squares and fried). Wine and desert was also included at a very reasonable cost. The meat was so tender. Ricardo told Sandra that she must eat the chicken with her fingers. If she used a knife and fork she would leave behind the most tender part attached to the bones.

Along the way when we are going off road, Ricardo stops along the way to show us native plants, herbs and fruit. At one point, he almost falls out of the truck trying to reach some fruit. He would simply show us how to eat the fruit and tell us it didn’t need to be washed as this was organic, growing in the forest. That is so true. During the day we tasted Japanese plums (really yummy), sugar apples, guava and banana pineapple. All fruit we would rarely see in Canada.

Ricardo standing on top of the jeep to reach some fruit for us to try

He says that a lot of the older generation still use the herbs that grow wild to help with different ailments. He said that his mother and grandmother taught him the herbs’ various uses and he uses them when necessary.

The views along the coast in the afternoon are incredible and ever changing.

Our last stop of the day is about a 1/2 hour walk along a levada. A levada is an irrigation canal that is specific to Madeira and the Azores. In Madeira they were built centuries ago to help bring the water from the northwest of the island to the south, which was drier. It helped with agriculture and sugar cane production. Ricardo explained that farmers are allotted a certain time of the day/week where they divert the water from the levada to their fields. Along the way we can see the small gates where the diversion takes place. They are still used today. Ricardo told us that when he was a small boy, his job was to help his father with the sluice gates. They would put cow manure at the top of the field and when the water would begin its diversion, the water would mix with the cow manure, thus providing fertilizer in the fields.

Levada walk

When one sees the small villages on the island, you wonder how they make a living. Ricardo tells us that farming/agriculture is a way of life here. Although is is mountainous, we have seen the terraced fields every where during our travels. You see cows, sheep and goats munching away on very steep slopes. The types of crops that are grown depend on the altitude of the land. More tropical fruits and vineyards at the lower elevations and root vegetables at higher elevations. Everything that is not used for personal consumption is sold.

At times when we were back roading, we would stand up in the jeep, quite a thrill. Got back into Funchal around 5 pm. A full day of seeing this beautiful island with its’ varied terrain and temperature differences, with a very knowledgeable guide. During the day, we kept running into Ricardo’s cousin Diego and the people he was guiding…lots of jokes by these two cousins.

A lovely dinner on this beautiful night and we were able to sit outside.

On Saturday, March 2nd, Ricardo picks us up to tour the west side of the island. This side of the island is not as forested and has a larger population living off agriculture. We were the only ones on the tour today….but who do we run into on our first stop which is a mirador…..Diego with some Portuguese tourists….the jibbing between the two cousins continues. There was a glass bottom walkway at this mirador.

We continue and stop for our first coffee and poncha. Another little town with a bar and once again Ricardo goes behind the bar and mixes us fresh ponchas. In addition, the woman who runs the bar, gives us a small glass of her home made liquor. She uses white rum and puts in all kinds of herbs. Home made liquor is illegal, so when locals make it, they put it in empty liquor bottles to hide the fact it is home made. We had a little glass and must say it was quite good.

Guess who walks in…yes Diego. He grabs my phone and does a selfie of the two of us….he says so I never forget him!

We continue to drive up the mountain and see fish farms in the ocean. Great views everywhere one looks.

We pass several small stone huts along the countryside and Ricardo explains that these small huts are the original houses of the farmers. He told us that Germans are now buying these huts and expanding them to make summer homes.

Some of the off roads we travelled along

Once again, we are amazed at this beautiful island. We finally make it to Porto Moniz, a small fishing community along the coast. It is also known for its tidal pools. Ricardo told us that seven people were recently hurt due to unexpected large waves coming over the rocks. We stop here for lunch and have a very tasty fish soup, scabbard fish (espada), vegetables and a salad, all very good. We take about 1/2 hour here to walk along the shore and watch the waves crashing, simply incredible.

I had asked Ricardo about the colourful dresses that the flower women wear. He told us that traditionally if women wore white blouses and brown skirts it meant that they were single, colours meant they were married and blue was worn by widows. You may have seen in one of the earlier pictures, a group playing music who wore traditional hats that had a point to them. Ricardo told us that some of the ancients lived in small caves. In order that they wouldn’t hurt their heads, they wore the hats with points so that the point would hit the top of the cave as protection for their heads.

We continue along the way and stop at another lookout. A strange rock formation which had a hole in it, but unfortunately we could only see it as we drove by and I couldn’t get a picture of it.

Our last stop of the day was a small town that is known for its waterfalls.

Another great tour of this beautiful island. It is Saturday night and the Mardi Gras parade is tonight. We go for dinner, then make our way to the parade….hundreds of people already there. We watch for a while, but hard to see what is going on as there are so many people, manage to get a few shots. We can hardly see the parade as there are so many people. Stop at a hotel for a port on our way back to our apartment and watch the rest of the parade on tv.

Sunday, our last day in Funchal and beautiful blue skies. We walk towards the cathedral and make our way to the boardwalk along the ocean. Lots of people in town, then we realize two very large cruise ships in port. Beautiful buildings in the older part of the town. We are amazed how clean the area is near the port, last night it was full of streamers and confetti and now all cleaned up.

We have so enjoyed our time here in Madeira and would recommend it for anyone to visit. So full of traditions, good food and wonderful people.

Monday is a travel day from the island of Madeira, with a stopover in Lisbon and on to Amsterdam. We will spend Tuesday in Amsterdam and back home to Calgary on Wednesday. We have so enjoyed this trip seeing so many new places and meeting wonderful people along the way.

This is my last blog post for this holiday. I enjoy writing them as it allows me to look back and remember these special times. It is my version of a diary and photo album.

Once again, I need to thank Robin for being my partner in life and willing to take on new adventures. We will continue our travels for as long as we can. Until the next time!

Last few days in and around Lisbon

The weather in Lisbon has improved in the last week and we are seeing temperatures in the low 20’s with blue skies. Had a relaxing day on Sunday the 24th just enjoying the city and the warm weather.

Must say that although the exterior of the trains are full of graffiti, the interiors are very clean. We have found all modes of transportation, whether that be tram, bus, metro and trains to be all very efficient and all very clean. We have also used Uber on several occasions. We were told to be very careful with taxis as they are known for charging too much; they try to make bargains and normally these bargains are over what a metered fare would be. Even the locals warned us against taking taxis.

On Monday, we take the train from the Rossio train station to the Palacio Nacional de Quelez, which only takes about 15 minutes. This palace is halfway between Lisbon and Sintra. The Quelez Palace is often overlooked, as most tourists go to the palaces of Sintra/Pena. We had been to Sintra when we were here some 10 years ago, so did not feel we had to see it again.

In 1747 this hunting lodge was transformed into a “Rococo” style summer palace. Over the years the palace was expanded and gardens were designed and planted. Maria, the eldest daughter of Jose 1, lived in the palace after her marriage to her uncle. As one guide told us, the rich and the royalty certainly knew how to keep the wealth in their families. The guide book says that Maria suffered from “melancholia” and when her son died, she went mad. They say that visitors to the palace could hear her shrieking. Her younger son took her to Brazil during the French invasion in the early 1800’s.

Since 1940, the palace has been opened to the public. Part of the palace is used for official ceremonies.

The guide book and markers at the palace indicated there were several lakes; in fact it appears that they refer to fountains. There was also many sculptures throughout the well manicured gardens.

One of the most amazing structures in the gardens is a channel that was built so the royal family could enjoy boat or gondola rides. The sides of this channel were completely covered in tiles depicting hunting and landscape scenes. A few individuals working on restoring the tiles. Looked like very meticulous time consuming work. We have never seen anything like this, quite unique.

We spend about 2 hours touring the palace and grounds and made our way back to Lisbon.

One of the things I have been meaning to mention is the way in which one orders coffee in Portugal. The first few days we arrived, I was ordering cappuccinos, but found them quite strong. One of our tour guides mentioned that even the Italians think that the Portuguese coffee is strong. I had remembered that the guide book had made mention of coffee, as had the young lady who managed the apartment. So I learnt that what I really wanted was called a “galao”, probably the closest to a latte. It is normally served in a glass. An espresso is referred to as a “bica” and a coffee drink with half milk and half coffee is known as a “meia de leite”. I think I mentioned before that we like to make the effort to try to speak as many words or phrases of the local language, so I started ordering “um galao”.

We spoke to one of our guides about the amount of graffiti on the buildings and vans in and around Lisbon. It seems to be an attitude that the government simply does not have the will or resources to tackle the problem. We find this so unfortunate.

On Tuesday we arranged a tour to a few villages and a National Park south of Lisbon. We were picked up by our guide Rodrigo. We used a different company as the company we previously used did not offer this tour. When Rodrigo started talking, I asked him where he learnt his English, as it was very different than what we have heard. He told us that he was born in Canada and lived there with his parents till he was in grade seven, and they moved back to Lisbon. His parents had originally gone to Canada on a two year working visa, but stayed much longer as when they were due to come back to Portugal, the country was in the midst of its revolution. His father was in International Banking and had worked for several banks in Canada. They had lived in Montreal and Toronto.

We left Lisbon via the Ponte 25 de Abril bridge and as we passed the southern end of the bridge, we got a good view of the Christo Rei statue. Our first stop was the small town of Azeitao. This area is known for its Moscatel wine. The main building in this small town is the Jose Maria da Fonseca cellars. A majestic building. This family owned business has been producing wines since 1834 and is the oldest table wine in Portugal. It has been a family business for seven generations. Rodrigo tells us that Portuguese wines used to be mainly blends; but the industry is now moving towards producing single varietal wines. He says that there are 600 varieties of grapes in Portugal of which 250 are natural to Portugal.

Stopped at a small cafe for a morning coffee/tea and pastry. Rodrigo says that most of the ancient pastries were made of egg yolks. This was due to the fact that the nuns used the egg whites to starch their wimples and the egg yolks were surplus, thus the pastries!

Driving through the area we see lots of vineyards and cork trees.

We continue our journey into the Parque Natural da Arrabida. The park was established in 1910. Beautiful forests of pine and cypress trees. A narrow winding road winds its way across the mountain (hill) range to the Bay of Setubal and the very small towns of Galapos and Figueirinha. We walk through these very small towns. There are some residences here, mainly used as summer escapes. No additional homes can be built as they are located in a National Park. They are allowed to remodel the existing homes, but cannot expand the footprints. A few secluded beaches along the way.

Then on to Setubal which is the third largest port in Portugal, after Lisbon and Oporto. Rodrigo tells us that container ships come here when the port of Lisbon gets too busy. Setubal is still classified as a fishing village, even though it is more like a city now. Rodrigo tells us that many people live in Setubal and commute to Lisbon by train as housing is more reasonable than Lisbon.

Setubal is also known for its dolphins. One sees many statues and murals of dolphins in the town centre. Apparently lots of dolphin tours during the tourist season. The dolphins are protected.

We visit the local market and stalls abound with fish of all types, certainly some we have never seen before. Even lots of fish eggs for sale. I asked Rodrigo about these and he indicated they were delicious when grilled…..not sure about that! Some fruit and vegetable stands in the market as well. Rodrigo tells us that unlike North America, Portugal labels any produce if it is not organic, interesting.

The far wall of the market is covered in ancient blue and white tiles. Rodrigo tells us that if he had the room in his home, he would collect ancient tiles. Portuguese tiles are influenced by Roman mosaics and the Moorish tiles. Portuguese tiles that are simply blue and white date back to the 16th century and those with more colours date to the 18th century. All colours are based on metal oxides; for example greens are copper, red is magnesium, etc. A lot of tiles also have yellow, orange and blue colours.

Back in the car and we drive up to the highest point above Setubal to visit the Castelo de Sao Filipe. This star-shaped fort built in 1595 to watch for invaders. It was transformed into a pousada, but was closed last year due to safety reasons as the building starting to sink! Part of the upper ramparts are also closed. Funny thing, there is still a restaurant and people are still allowed to visit. A beautiful chapel where all the walls are decorated with tiles, mostly in very good condition.

The views from the fort are quite wonderful. We look down onto Setubal but also see the bay. Beautiful beaches all along, probably stretching for several kilometres.

Looking at the other side of the bay from Setubal

Stop for lunch at a small restaurant that serves local fish, very good.

Our last stop of the day is an old water mill. The Mourisca Tide Mill is in the Sado estuary and was working until the 1950’s. It had eight millstones. The tide is out so we see lots of different birds in the mud flats. Apparently lots of bird watchers come here during the migration seasons.

Another great day discovering areas that one would not normally venture to.

Wednesday, the 27th is our last day in Lisbon and basically a laid back day, getting ready for the next four days on the island of Madeira.

Day trip to Mafra, Alcobaca, Batalha and Obidos

On Saturday, February 23rd we arranged for a day tour with our previous guide, Daniel, to Mafra, Alcobaca and Obidos. On the way, we pass many wind turbines and Daniel tells us that Portugal now gets 62% of its energy from renewable resources of which 40% is from wind and the remainder from solar, hydro and biomass. Interestingly enough, there are many old windmills in the same area.

We were also talking about pollution and Daniel tells us that all older cars are subject to emission testing on a regular basis.

Our first stop of the day was the Palacio de Mafra some 40 kms north west of Lisbon. It was built in the 18th century by order of King Joao V to fulfill a vow he made, to be blessed with an heir from his marriage to Maria Ana of Austria, or be cured of a serious illness. I have heard this over and over and it seems that a lot of monasteries, churches and palaces built for these reasons.

The Royal Convent and Palace of Mafra is the most important baroque monument in Portugal. All in limestone and marble from the region, the building covers an area of almost four hectares and includes 1,200 rooms, more than 4,700 doors and windows, 156 stairways and many courtyards. The scope and magnificence of the building was possible due to the Brazilian gold that Portugal brought to the country. The king ordered sculptures and art from Italian, French and Portuguese artists. Daniel told us that normally a monastery is where monks resided and a convent is where nuns resided. He does not know why this monument is known as “The Royal Convent” as at one time up to 300 monks lived there.

As we are touring the Palace, we comment on how cold it is and cannot see any means of heating the Palace. One of the docents working in the palace told us that this was a summer palace only and was used mainly for hunting. You will see in the some of the pictures the reference to hunting.

One of the most magnificent rooms I think was the library. It is said to be one of the most important libraries in Europe and holds 36,000 volumes devoted to 18th century knowledge.

The furnishings, paintings, sculptures, painted ceilings and floors are simply impeccable in this palace. Even the long halls are magnificent; I especially love the royal yellows and light blues that are used throughout. Our guide book says that most of the finest furniture and art works were taken to Brazil when the royal family escaped the French invasion in the early 1800’s. I would say what is left is still quite spectacular.

It appears that part of the convent was used as a convalescent hospital for monks. One chapel had side rooms with beds; I imagine mass was held for the sick as they laid in bed. The monastery (convent) was abandoned when all religious orders were banned.

As we make our way through the various rooms, we finally enter the “hunting room”…kind of creepy for me. Even chairs and a table made of antlers.

The basilica has twin bell towers and has six organs.

We then venture outside in the gardens to find hawks and owls tethered, after all it was a hunting palace.

On the way to our next stop we see many vineyards and orchards, beautiful countryside.

Our next stop is Alcobaca to visit the Alcobaca Monastery, which is located 120 kms north of Lisbon. The building of the monastery began in 1178 by order of the first Portuguese king, Alfonso Henriques and was the first gothic building to be built in Portugal. Construction of the church was finished in 1252. It is a Unesco World Heritage Site… more for our list.

Many monarchs were buried here in the 15th and 16th centuries and we were able to see the beautifully carved tombs of King Pedro 1 and his mistress, Ines de Castro. The nave is 20 metres high (65 feet) and very impressive. The interior is quite simple as are the various columns.

We stop for lunch at a beautiful countryside restaurant (O Cabeco) in the hills above Alcobaca. I must say that one would not find these great out of the way places unless you were with a guide. It was a Saturday and full of locals. Food was great and setting was so peaceful. Even the local dog to greet you when you arrived and a couple of goats keeping the grass under control.

On to Batalha to see the Monastery of Batalha, which is also a Unesco World Heritage Site. This monastery was built to commemorate the battle of 1385 against the Castillians (the battle of Aljubarrota) and was originally called the Monastery of Saint Mary of the Victory. It took over a century to build (1386 to 1517) and spanned the reign of seven kings. Many different architects were used and one of the outer chapels is referred to as the “unfinished chapel”. It has no ceiling and is exposed to the elements.

Our last stop of the day is Obidos, a charming walled town with narrow cobbled streets and traditionally painted houses. It has a medieval castle which was given to one of the Queen’s of Portugal for her wedding. The town is very quaint but I think it is one of those places that would be overrun with tourists in the height of the season. Every second shop had ginga tasting (sour cherry liqueur), sold chocolates and tourist kitsch. It kind of reminded me of Mont St. Michel in France in many ways. We did have a ginga tasting with our guide Daniel, but the best part was that the ginga was served in edible chocolate cups! Even an old Roman aqueduct just outside the castle.

In our travels we have often seen the Knights Templar symbol. Daniel told us that if we looked closely, the symbol was somewhat different. When all christian organizations were banished from Europe it was felt that the Knights Templar were simply too powerful. The King of Portugal was able to convince the Pope that he would start a new organization under his purview. Basically he just renamed them the Order of Christ and changed the cross symbol just a little. To this day, the President of Portugal is always the head of the Order of Christ.

We are told by Daniel that the weather this February has been somewhat warmer and they have had less rain than previous years.

Another great day of seeing new places with our guide Daniel.

More and more to see in Lisbon

On Saturday, February 16th, we decided to head off to the Parque da Nacoes (Park of the Nations) and the Oceanario de Lisboa. The site, which was originally an abandoned industrial area was revitalized and transformed for Expo ’98. One is surrounded by contemporary architecture which is such a difference from the rest of Lisbon. We were told that this is the most expensive real estate area of Lisbon. Lots of condo’s, restaurant’s, parks and paths along the river.

We make our way to the Oceanario de Lisboa which is now the main attraction of the area. The building itself is quite futuristic looking; a bit weird in all honesty! Must say that we are getting Senior’s discount at all the museums, palaces and attractions that we have been to; so helps with the wine budget!

The Oceanario (aquarium) is perched at the end of a pier and is surrounded by water. There is a vast main central tank with a varied array of fish, large and small, swimming around. Numerous view points throughout the building where one can get a different perspective, on two separate levels. We spent about one hour and would be a great place to bring a family. We really enjoyed visiting this aquarium and were very impressed with all the displays; it is world class.

Next stop is to take a ride on the Cable car. From here one can see the 17.5 kms Vasco de Gama bridge, which is said to be the longest in Europe. Beautiful views of the whole Parque de Nacoes.

On Sunday, we decide to take the bus to another market that I had read about, the “Mercado de Ourique”. The City of Lisbon has a great website for their transportation system (Carris) and is interactive. You indicate where you are leaving from and destination and it tells you how to get there using either tram, bus or train. So, we know we have to take the 760 bus at Praca de Figueira and get off at the Ourique Basilica. Great, we just walk to Figueira square, find the 760 and get on. We realize within a few minutes that in our haste to catch the bus, we did not look at the final destination on the front of the bus and we were going in the wrong direction. We laughed at ourselves and simply got off the bus at the next stop, walked across the street and caught the 760 going in the right direction. We realized after, that there were two separate stops at the square; notwithstanding, we know better. We should have looked at the final destination point, same on bus as for the metro. Goes with travelling, not everything works out the way you plan, you just have to be able to shrug those things off and continue on your way.

We finally make it to the Mercado de Ourique. I had read about it on line and reviews indicated that some liked it better than Time out Market as it was not as busy. Their web site indicated that this market concept (similar to Time Out) was undertaken at this location as it was an abandoned market and the City wanted to revitalize the Ourique neighbourhood. Not sure if it was the time of year (fewer tourists at this time of year) or because it was Sunday and we are in the outer tourist area. The place was really quiet and hardly anybody there. We wandered around, stopped for coffee, then were on our way.

On Monday, we decide to take the bus to Belem and visit the Palacio Nacional da Aujuda. The first time we went to Belem, we had taken the train, as it was closer to the Mosterio dos Jeronimos. The Palacio is located up a hill and the bus simply made more sense….by the way….took the right bus going in the right direction! A cool gloomy day, but doesn’t stop us from getting out and about.

This royal palace was destroyed by fire in 1795 and was replaced in the early 19th century with the present Neo-Classical building. It was left unfinished as the royal family was forced into exile in Brazil in 1807 when Napoleon 1 invaded. The palace was eventually finished when Luis 1 became King in 1861 and married Maria Pia from Italy. The guide book says that no expense was spared in furnishing the apartments. It is always amazing to us to see the decorations, furniture and art work of these palaces. The chandeliers abounded everywhere you looked!

The one room that took me aback here, was the Banquet Hall.

Tuesday we take the train to Cascais which took about 45 minutes, about 31 kms from Lisbon. A beautiful sunny day. The city has been a holiday resort for over a century. There are numerous beautiful villas along the coast which were built by the wealthy Lisboetas in the late 19th century. A lovely afternoon in 19 degree temperatures; we were both a little overdressed. Wandered the streets and visited an old fort which is now filled with art galleries, shops and even a 5 star hotel.

Fishing is still a main way of life for the locals and many fishing boats, crab traps etc. in the marina. We even came across two fisherman mending their nets. Young people were playing volleyball along the beach and apparently the surrounding beaches are surfing spots. Although a nice town to visit for the day, not sure I would want to spend too much time here. The streets are filled with Irish and English pubs everywhere and I would think gets pretty rowdy. Having said this, we are really glad we made it out here.

Spent Wednesday and Thursday simply discovering new neighbourhoods in Lisbon. We either walk, take a tram, bus or metro and simply wander, stopping to have a coffee and people watch. We spend more time in Barrio Alto, Baixa/Chiado and our own hood of Graca.

Wednesday night we decided to treat ourselves to a dinner out at a seafood restaurant that had been recommended by our city guide Daniel. The 5 Oceanos restaurant is located along the docks ( Coca de Santo Amaro) just by the Ponte 25 de Abril bridge (the one that looks like the Golden Gate). Numerous restaurants along the docks, mainly all seafood restaurants. Thanks to a suggestion from our friend Shirley, we both decided to try the “Cataplanta”. This is a fish stew prepared in a copper vessel called a cataplanta. The dish contains fresh fish (cod) some shellfish and a mixture of potatoes, onions, garlic and paprika. Delicious!

There are paths all along the river and many cyclists on their way home and runners getting their exercise for the day. Just at the end of the marina are a series of tennis courts, all in use. A beautiful night and we are able to not only see the bridge all lit up but also the statue of Cristo Rei on the other side of the river. This statue is modelled after the the famous Cristo Redentor in Rio de Janeiro.

Thursday night we attend a football (soccer) match at the Estadio da Luz, home to one of Lisbon’s football teams, Benfica. I had bought tickets before we left Canada. Benfica was playing a team from Turkey, Galatasaray in a UEFFA match. Must say that this evening was something quite spectacular, nothing of which I have seen before. The crowds were incredible. The stadium holds 64,600 and was built in 2003 to replace an older stadium. Not sure what the attendance was on Thursday night, but certainly quite full. When we arrived, hundreds of people streaming into the stadium while hundreds more drinking and eating in the outer areas, similar I guess, to a tail gate party. Most everyone is wearing the red of the Benfica team, team scarves and team shirts. The atmosphere inside the stadium was one of excitement and cause for celebration. The fans are constantly singing, yelling and waving gigantic flags. Robin was one happy guy, watching a live football game!

One thing that did strike both of us is the actual size of the football pitch, much bigger than one seems to see on the television. Lots of action but the outcome was a tie. This was the second match of a two match play and Benfica won 2-1.

Friday, another day to discover the city. We venture out and decide to try one of the elevadors (funicular) and find the “Elevador da Gloria”. It is located in the Restauradores bairro, not too far from our apartment and we ride it up to the Bairro Alto to the Miradouro de Sao Pedro de Alcantara. A beautiful view of the city of Lisbon looking across Baixa area. From here we can see the Castelo and churches up in the Graca hills.

Elevador da Gloria – this funicular working, simply graffitied.

This elevador no where near as busy as the popular Santa Justa. In the last week, we have certainly noticed an upswing in the number of tourists in the City. We continue walking through the Real Principe area which is definitely more upscale than a lot of others we have visited. Stop for a coffee in the Praca do Principe Real, a park that goes back to 1860. A beautiful trellis providing shade in the summer.

We realize we are near the Jardim Botanico so decide to venture in that direction. The botanical garden spreads over four hectares (10 acres). I read a little about the garden upon returning back to our apartment. It says that the gardens have ” a distinct air of neglect” and we did find it so. Although nice to walk around the paths and see the trees, not much really here. Still a nice place to spend some quiet relaxing time. Temperature hit 20 C degrees today and beautiful blue skies.

A few days in Bilbao and San Sebastian, Spain

We had decided before we left Canada, that we would go to Bilbao and San Sebastian for a few days, that was a great call on our part. The only thing I would have done differently is probably spend one extra day in each city.

Bilbao was only a two hour flight from Lisbon. We are always amazed at the low cost of flights within Europe. The Bilbao terminal itself is a work of art; it was designed by Santiago Calatrava, the famous Spanish architect. The terminal has a sleek design, and to me has the look of a “Concorde”. We have seen his bridges and buildings throughout the world and are always taken aback by the uniqueness of his designs. In Calgary, the Peace Bridge (pedestrian bridge) was designed by him. A little controversy occurred at the time it was built, but now an iconic symbol of Calgary.

Our main objective of visiting Bilbao was to see the Guggenheim Museum. I had bought tickets prior to leaving Canada. I would think that this would be a must do in the height of the season. The side trip to San Sebastian was added thanks to our friends Joanne and Bob who had visited and told us it was a must see. So glad we took their advice.

We had arranged for a driver from the airport as we landed around 7 pm. Our driver was a young Basque man who was very informative on our way to the hotel. Bilbao proper has a population of about 350,000 and 1 million in greater Bilbao. We talked about the Basque language which is called “Euskara” and he told us that every sign (highway, street name, etc.) was always in the Basque language first and Spanish on the bottom. Bilbao (Bizkaia) is considered the capital of the Basque region. He indicated that the basque language has seen a resurgence; it had been banned under the Franco regime. In the business sector, Spanish is still the main language.

Following are a few examples of the Basque language

Hello = Kaixo

Good Morning = Egunan

Goodbye = Agur

And we thought Portuguese was a hard language!

As we passed the football stadium (soccer in North America), he told us that the Bilbao team is very special as all its members must either be from the Basque region or have some type of relationship with the region.

We talked a little about the separation of the Basque region from Spain, and he advised that issue really no longer existed. The Basque region is the only region in Spain which keeps all of the local taxes. They than have total control over how the money is spent.

Our our first morning in Bilbao, we asked the concierge of the hotel where we could find a coffee shop for breakfast. Hotel breakfasts are so often overpriced and we simply are not interested in the breakfast buffets. He directs us to his favourite coffee shop called Plaza, just at the end of the block. Oh my gosh, we walk in and find that this place is just jumping. Everyone seems to know each other, a quick coffee and short conversation, then they are off to work. So interesting to see the differences between Europe and North America. In the mornings, we in Canada would just have our coffee to go before we went to work vs. Europe where they actually take the time to have their coffee at the coffee shop and enjoy a quick conversation with others.

The concierge at the hotel was so friendly. He provided us with a city map, told us how to get to the Guggenheim. Pointed out other places we should see and gave us a small package of chocolates and wished us a good day.

After our breakfast we decided to walk a bit in the area of the hotel and just one block off was a beautiful urban park called the Parque de Dona Casilda Iturrizar, a wealthy woman who donated the 8.52 hectares (about 21 acres) of land to the City over 100 years ago. When I went to look into the history of the park, once again I noted that it is referred to as the “lung of the city”.

On our way to the Guggenheim, we note that the City has lovely old buildings in the main area of the city. All are so well preserved, simply magnificent.

When we arrive at the Guggenheim, we take the time to admire the exterior of the building. A work of art in itself, it was designed by the Canadian born architect Frank Gehry and opened in 1997. The building is clad in titanium, glass and sandstone and there is a random aspect to the design of the various curves, which is said to have been done, to reflect the light from different angles.

An excerpt from Wikipedia about the museum and it’s impact to the City of Bilbao which I find very interesting…”After the phenomenal success of Gehry’s design for the museum, critics began referring to the economic and cultural revitalization of cities through iconic, innovative architecture as the “Bilbao effect“. In the first 12 months after the museum was opened, an estimated US$160 million were added to the Basque economy. Indeed, over $3.5 billion has been added to the Basque economy since the building opened”.

The interior is a large, light-filled atrium with views of Bilbao’s estuary and the surrounding hills. One is allowed to take pictures of the interior of the building, but not of the art work in the various galleries. Works of art on the exterior of the building as well. Spent a couple of hours viewing the art in the various galleries. So worth the wait to see this spectacular building and its art.

Our next stop was the old town, which is mainly a pedestrian zone. We wind our way around the streets and stop for lunch at a small bar and have our first “Pintxos”, the “small bites” of the Basque region. Very good and great for a small lunch or appetizers.

On Thursday, we had arranged for a private tour of San Sebastian. Our guide/driver Aitor picked us up at the hotel and we headed off. San Sebastian is about an one hour drive from Bilbao. I had looked into getting to San Sebastian on our own. It would have been a four hour train trip both there and back. Once again it was one of those “you can’t get there from here” situations. We are so glad that we opted for this private tour. Aitor shared with us his knowledge of the Basque country including both Bilbao and San Sebastian. He was so very considerate the whole day, listening to what we had to say as well. We drive into the old town and do a “walk about”.

Our first stop was the market including the fish market. We always find these places so interesting and all have their own personality. We stop at one vendor and Aitor tells us that we need to try our first “pintxos”. He said that this particular one was one of the first that was invented. The name pintxos referred to the toothpicks that held the creations together. The waiter would then calculate what you owed based on the number of toothpicks on your plate. Today, the toothpicks are used on those pintxos which include a slice of bread at the bottom, simply to keep them together.

We stop for a coffee in a small square, nice people watching. Aitor insisted on doing a selfie.

Walked by a local church and there was a piece of modern art on the front of the church. I found this a little bizarre, but Aitor told us that the local priest had it commissioned. Not sure if it was supposed to stand for anything or represent something.

We continue to meander through the pedestrian zone and our next stop is a “locals” bar. Here is where we taste Chacoli (Txakolina) which is a sparkling Basque white wine. It was quite good, but the most amazing part of the process is the way they pour the wine. They hold the bottle about one meter above the glass and pour slowly. Not sure why they do this, but perhaps to aerate the wine? Aitor also ordered some deep fried shrimp pintxos which were made fresh and very delicious, went well with the wine. I love the way the bartender is not even looking at where he is pouring the wine!

He then tells us that we are going to a locals restaurant for a lunch of various pintxos. He says that he normally has six to seven….there is no way I could eat this many. We ordered various pintxos and shared. A nice way to do it, as we were able to really get a good sense of the variety available. Not just the tastes that are so good, the presentation is always quite amazing.

Walking through the old town, saw a few old gentleman wearing their berets, a Basque tradition. Here, they are not normally worn by woman…..notwithstanding, I will continue to wear my beret when I get back home!

We drive through parts of San Sebastian and view the beautiful buildings and wind our way up to a viewpoint overlooking the city and the Bay of Biscay, beautiful! The city reminded me in many ways of Biarritz, which is in France and only 50 kms away.

Can’t believe it is already time to head back to Bilbao. On our way back, Aitor makes a detour to take Robin to a chocolate manufacturer and shop, Chocolates of Mendaro- Saint Gerons. Robin had mentioned earlier in the day that he liked dark chocolate, so this was a surprise stop, what a lovely gesture on Aitor’s part. They have been in business since 1850 and still use an ancient mill to grind the cocoa beans. The lady who greeted us told us that they had to shut down the mill as they were having a problem with it and they were hoping it would be fixed in the next couple of days. How does one find someone to fix a mill that is over one hundred years old? Needless to say that we left with a few (large) bars of both dark chocolate for Robin and milk chocolate for Claire.

Earlier in the day at one of our stops and discussions with Aitor, I had mentioned that I had a travel blog and he looked at the site. He asked about my heading on “Unesco World Heritage Sites” and I told him that I kept track of those we had visited. Well, guess what, another nice surprise for us. Instead of dropping us off that the hotel, we take another detour and this time it is to see the Vizcaya bridge which is a Unesco World Heritage Site. The bridge was built in 1893 and has a gondola which can transport 6 vehicles and several dozen passengers. It runs from side to side of Nervion river every 8 minutes and takes 1 1/2 minutes to cross. It really is quite amazing to see. What a great day.

Look closely at the hanging cable car

There is only one flight per day from Lisbon to Bilbao and back. Our flight left at 7 am. Because of the time we had to be at the airport, we had arranged for a transfer. So little traffic at that time of the morning, we got to the airport before it actually opened. We were not the only ones, several other people waiting outside as well. We start talking to an American couple about their travels and they were on their way home to Chicago. They had been in Bilbao for a week, which we said seemed a long way to come for just a week. He told us he still worked for Bank of Montreal in Chicago. I am always amazed at what a small world it really is. Both Robin and I worked for Bank of Montreal. Nice two hour flight back to Lisbon, watching the sun rise as we travelled.

Really enjoyed our time in both Bilbao and San Sebastian, but could have spent an extra day in Bilbao. A must visit.