Corsica – Island of Beauty

“It is always sad to leave a place to which one knows one will never return.  Such are the ‘melancholies du voyage‘ perhaps they are one of the most rewarding things about traveling.”   Gustave Flaubert

As mentioned in my previous post, Corsica was a spur of the moment trip that in retrospect offered a visual panoply of grand vistas and chance meetings with characters of genuine appeal who are fondly remembered decades later.  Previously I described what I then thought might be three or four days for a quick look-see but the ‘Island of Beauty’ enthralled and it thus stretched into a two-week long exploration. Finally, I forced myself to end the journey by exciting myself with the prospect of boarding the ferry at Bastia and cross over to Liverno a stone’s throw from Pisa and to finally gaze upon its three architectural wonders. 

Note: Note: To enhance your viewing experience click on the photos below to enlarge – once for medium, twice to zoom in.) 

Corsica, especially on the western coast and the mountainous interior is as constantly a rugged a landscape as one could wish for.  The population is spread thin other than in the few towns of  but a few thousand souls.  It suited me fine having at the time endured an almost palpable and not well disguised dislike for the claustrophobic existence lived in a large city such as Toronto.  I was and remain still by inclination a small town lad who never quite got over his longing for the well-being of belonging that one only gets from knowing your neighbours and growing up at the same pace as your school mates.  I’m certain most of you will agree the best friends are the ones made in the very early years, mine (Jean Henry) for example on the first day of kindergarden.  I remember a rather dainty friend laughed uproariously when dragging her through a dairy farm (to convince her of the charms of country life) I filled my lungs with the ambient air of freshly dumped cow dung and claimed with a lusty, “Ahhh, the aroma of Bouse de vache!”  No kidding, if I could buy ‘bullshit’ as a room freshener I’d be first in line.  Imagine, every morning the feeling you had awoken in a perfect bucolic environment.  

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Driving along the main road hugging the seascape a lone donkey grazing on scrub was I soon discovered not a rarity.  When I asked about it, a local explained that farmers got attached to their animals but when they became too old to perform the daily tasks rather than putting them  down or to take up space and food they’d simply let them fend for themselves and many of these donkeys actually lived to ripe old ages.  Of course, one had to be on the ‘qui vive‘ as they’d be quite nonchalant about car traffic, not that there was much of it.  

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This one was particularly friendly and curious.  It loved the potato chips I offered gingerly from the tip of my fingers as I can tell you for a fact they’ve got big grinding teeth.  I also discovered they particularly loved the chips for the salt content; thereafter I made sure to have a couple of bags in the car just in case.    The whiskered old boy wasn’t shy about sticking his head right inside the car.  I fed him half my chips and after a couple of gingerly given pats on the head I drove off.  I shouldn’t have peeked in the rear view mirror because there it was on gimpy legs trotting after the car for all it was worth.  Yes, of course, I stopped and parted with the rest of the package I cleverly dropped on the grassy side of the road.  While hit was busy munching head down to the task I made my getaway.   Incidentally, I told you (check out ‘Dol de Bretagne and countryside’) for some unknown reason I have a very definite liking for these dumb-ass creatures.  Could they remind me of me?

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Corsica is a land of spectacular scenery, moreover a haven for a variety of wild life I’d not seen anywhere else.  Here for example was a rare ibex that I just happened upon as it showed up around a corner of the tortuous cliffside road.   Apparently a proud male judging from the backward curve of the horns.  

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That was then the euphemistically designated main highway (N. 197 then on to N. 196) along the western coast of the entire island.  I wonder if it has since been improved? I recall coming on to a back-up that was a cause for wonder since the usual car traffic was sparse, at best.  A rare tour bus from the mainland had come to an s-curve and too long it was unable to manage getting around without a certain plunge down a hundred metres to the rocks below.  Unable to go forward, the passengers were unloaded and with much ado, hand signals, frantic gestures, hola’s and whoa’s the bus was ever so gingerly backed up to where it could do a u-turn.  The entire episode took well over an hour; a couple dozen onlookers had gotten out of their own cars and we were now all having a good chat.

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 One wondered if we might witness a spectacular plunge.  For that foolish remark his wife kicked him in the chin, hard,  and served him right.   It only occurred to me later I’d left the camera in the car and, well, one never knows, right?   Of course it was soon known I was a foreigner and one who was obviously loving the experience of the island.  One helpful fellow took out a detailed map and pointed to a side road I needed to take; he guaranteed spectacular scenery unlike anywhere else.  Never one to dismiss local knowledge, an hour later I did just that and he was certainly right on, uncommon scenery and something I’d not counted on, a sense of total isolation, so far out of touch with people a small inner voice started to speculate if sometimes I shouldn’t stick to the more common road.  Of course, the negative vibes were done and gone in a minute or two but I’ll admit the whooshing-whining sound of the wind in the rocks made for a peculiarly eery song.  OY!

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That particular area was as stark visually as anything I can ever recall seeing elsewhere.  Barren porphyritic rocks on either side of the rough gravel road  gouged out by rain and wind, eroded over millennia appear peopled with aliens.

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Did I perceive what others do not? I suppose you had to be there and to feel the unique  and somewhat stark aura.  Here, a mythic monster gorges on a pile of rocks and I dare anyone to tell me otherwise.  

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And a weird Pinocchio gave me the creeps.

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Okay, I’m being a little dramatic  but I have admitted to having been somewhat rattled by the remoteness that accentuated how far I was off the beaten track When I came upon this magnificent Laricio pine (Pinus nigra laricio) the road became so narrow and  looking into a steep shadowy ravine, I thought I’d done well, proved my mettle by not running off much sooner and decided to leave well enough alone.  The only thing remaining was to find a spot where, reminiscent of the bus a few hours earlier, I  could turn around.  I managed after doing the classic back and forth routine a half dozen times always with a wary eye on the deep crevice behind.    This pine tree will grow upwards of 50  metres (160 feet) with a straight trunk, a hard and durable wood that is highly prized for construction and carpentry.  

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And yes, I’ll admit each minute of the return drive to ‘civilization’ was eagerly welcomed.  When I came across this singular pine tree I relaxed, it seemed to me as if it was decorated as a particular gift to me.  Okay, I told you that I’d been suddenly feeling very forlorn and now with the setting sun brightening up the harsh scenery all was well again and as suddenly quite thrilled with my adventure.

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From a personal perspective I’ll admit often to being pleased (almost selfishly elated) I have seen and experienced places that had often been abandoned to their fate and thus remote from today’s rampant tourism.  I said I was selfish but when I ‘discovered’ the totally forgotten Pont du Gard in the south of France, and since I had no bathing suit I was able to swim ‘au naturel‘ under the swooping arches (each one a triumph of Roman architecture) with only the sound of birds above and trout below.  So taken in by the circumstance I could hear the voices of Roman legionnaires diving in from the arches for a dip to cool down in the summer heat.  I remember sublime Mt. St. Michel when not a single tour bus was in a near empty parking area; when Carcassonne was only a medieval town with battered crumbling walls; before Prague became a mecca for Japanese tourists; and Rocamadour as nothing more than a sleepy, out of the way little town remembered only by historians as a  stop on the pilgrimage way to Santiago de Compostela.  Yes, I’ll admit the influx of tourists has ushered in the economic reason to save-guard and even repair the damages wrought by decades, often times centuries of neglect, so hurrah for that and good for me for being there when I could let my imagination run rampant.  

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On another day and another long and remarkable drive through the interior I drove to Corte, the largest town in just about the geographical middle of the island.  Repeating myself but it can’t be helped, Corsica is for the most part an unspoiled wilderness and it is not rare to come across herds of feral hogs, an unattractive (but good meat) admix of escaped domestic swine and wild boars.  

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P1130953Indeed, I assure you the pork meats were of a quality that never failed to satisfy my palate.  Prosciutto thinly sliced was succulent as were the various salamis and dry sausages.  I always travel with a razor sharp Opinel knife and never fail to have locally purchased product in the car for impromptu snacking while enjoying a fine view.  Corsican red wines are dry and perfectly suited to help the digestion with the added appeal of being bargain priced. 

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Much to my surprise as I was on an island south of the Riviera, in what is generally considered a warm Mediterranean sea, around a corner and not all that distant loomed a snow-capped mountain.  Mt. Cinto (2700 m)  is in fact snow-covered year round; a fact proudly pointed out by a garrulous fellow who operated a picturesque watermill and claimed to have been born under the mountain’s shadow.

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The water mill I referred to above and still in great working shape; it smelled so good inside!

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Corte is the largest town in the interior of the island.  The setting is  striking  in the shadows of surrounding mountains.   I love old stone construction for the ageing process and colours that evolve as the years go by.  The only other town that I personally might compare is St. Paul de Vence, ensconced in the sunny hills of Provence beyond Nice. 

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The ancient fort attests to its historic past as the centre of true Corsican patriotism.   As the island was subjected to a succession of attackers the seacoast dwellers sought security further inside the island.  Corte became the capital of a short lived independent country declared by these fiercely independent islanders.   

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Discovering a super great place to sleep as I had in Algajola, it meant a return each evening (all except one night when I was too far and far too exhausted to return) and so time did become a factor as the sun was setting.   It really wasn’t a problem per se except there were times when I wanted to spend more time in a particularly enticing area.  Of course I always consoled myself by promising another trip in the future.  Yet the hunger for new travel sensations keep me looking for fresh vistas elsewhere, but one of these days, I’ll keep to my  promise.     

The highest viewpoint at the far north end of the island (Cap Corse) on my return to Algajola after a pulse raising drive through a long day.  The wind blew so hard I had a problem standing up but rather had to bend into the wind to get there.  Sitting on that bench to admire the vista was in fact problematical as my eyes teared up; I lasted but a minute before retreating to look from behind a large nearby rock.  

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Another day saw me going once more to Calvi to embark on a day’s boat excursion to a remote beach and a restaurant that I had been promised was a guaranteed feast of fresh seafood.  Nothing is as enticing to me as fresh fish and off I went.  The day long excursion more than exceeded my hopes.   The photo here was taken a few days later finally on my way to Bonifacio hence to finish my happy trip in Bastia.  Just imagine at the very far bottom the small beach we landed in and where four adventurous women from France had decided to open a restaurant for just a very few months each year.  What an awesome idea! 

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This indolent cat was only enticed to let me scratch his chin when I offered a bribe of fish (the head).  It grabbed the tidbit and took off without so much as a ‘miaowed‘ thanks.   It really should have been grateful as after all I like sucking the juice out of a good fish head.  Yes, I do.  

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Enjoying my delicious barbecued ‘dorade‘ (sea bream) I noticed this most beautiful sight.  A young girl, maybe ten years old,  was having the time of her life exercising her horse with a swim.  On the beach they cantered away with her showing off great style.

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Considering there was no way to get there except via a very narrow and dangerous climb from way above, I wondered how they got there and where they bunked?  One thing I can aver about Corsica there was always something a little out of the ordinary to be discovered on a daily basis.  

P1110944Notice above the remnants of a fort harking back to the days when Genoa a powerful and independent city-state controlled Corsica by building over one hundred  forts around the entire island.   Below, a closer look and the cacti cover where I was startled by a rather large, green and yellowish snake slithering off a sun-drenched rock.  Few creatures make my skin crawl more than snakes that on the whole mind their own business.   Later I learned it was not venomous although the bite was painful – good not to have found out personally.  

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What turned out to be my delicious lunch is held in the man’s hand.  An avid fisherman myself I ran down to the dock to see what he had and sure enough he was delighted with an unusually big catch of ‘dorade‘.  And, no kidding, he took that one in his hand, the biggest one to the restaurant along with the rest of his catch, with me helping to carry the box (and stay very close) and we made sure that one was mine, all mine!  I’ve never met a fisherman yet I didn’t find ‘très sympa‘. 

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Finally the day came when I decided at long last to take a look  at  Bonifacio at the far southern tip of the island.  That meant giving up my splendid accommodations in Algajola but there’s an end to all good things, right?  I drove slowly to enjoy every bit of the scenery and slept one more night in a fine resort hotel.  As I mentioned tourists were scarce and I got my choice (balcony and great seaside view) for less than half the high season rate.   As is my standard modus operandi I chatted with the hotel staff, at the front desk and in the restaurant and one of them told me since I was the curious type to check out a mysterious site, one few people heard about and with not much information regarding its past.  Well, that was rather enticing and so early next morning with a sketched map to guide me I ventured out.  In 20 minutes or so I found what I was looking for.   The photo was taken in a misty low light and mist still hovering above what I took to be an area with some large rocks.  The result isn’t very good but one gets the idea.  

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I’ll admit again that I experienced more back of the neck chills in Corsica than anywhere else.  I had left the car some ten minutes down the road and walking along a narrow, hedged lane was a little lugubrious.  An owl hooted, so help me, and at about the same time a huge hare jumped out in front of my feet.   MAMA!  A double whammy!  But I wasn’t to be scared off, right? I kept on until I noticed a small clearing and what at first I took to be large rocks.  No, what I found were ancient man-made stone carvings.   When I returned to the hotel for my breakfast I was told no one had an explanation other than it was thought by a local amateur archeologist to be at least 5000 years old and no one knew where the people had come from.  I wonder if there’s since been more information discovered? I’ll need to do some research on that subject.   I did see something akin in Bretagne but what would druids be doing in Corsica? But on the other hand why not?  The menhirs were if nothing else totally at home in this isolated meadow.

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Years later, working on this post, thanks to the wonders of search sites I discovered the following: Filitosa is a megalithic site the period ranging from the end of the Neolithic era and the beginning of the Bronze Age until around the Roman occupation of Corsica.    Would I have been more satisfied then to know what I know now? I doubt it very much.  I enjoyed the mystery much more and one good reason that at times we should leave the shroud of secrecy keep things interesting.  Don’t you think? 

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Finally made it to Bonifacio but for the first time the weather didn’t cooperate – it was a foggy and rainy day hardly suited for taking good photos.  I spent but a very few hours walking around but in particular going to the port with the idea I might take a ferry over to Sardinia across a narrow passage.  For once I passed on a spur of the moment idea and finally headed for Bastia where I’d catch a ferry across to  Liverno, Italy.   Bonifacio is spectacular from any angle.  Here I took a tour boat so I could see as much as I could, as fast as I could since I had decided to move on to Bastia as I couldn’t make myself leave without a hard self-administerd kick in the butt.  The usual fortress at the highest point of a town anywhere in Corsica.

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Seen from a different angle around the cliffside along with impossibly built homes that might be more suited to cliff-dwelling birds.  

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I had to repulse the idea of boarding a ferry to Sardinia clearly seen from the boat’s deck.  Once again, it became another self-made promise that has yet to be honoured but it may yet happen when I do make my return to Corsica.    Reluctantly I headed out and yet again was totally thrilled with more splendid vistas succeeding one after the other that I kept leaping out the car and taking yet another photo.  I won’t bother with telling you where other than it was heading north towards the eastern coastline.  

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Finally, I made it to Bastia, straight on to the Italy bound ferry and went on to enjoy more of the splendid country I never get tired to visit.

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I leave you and Corsica with this popular photo of the ‘kissing rocks’ (Golfe de Porto) as a friendly ‘aurevoir‘ and hopefully you’ll get the urge to go see for yourself.  You’ll love every moment of your stay, the outstanding photo ops you won’t get anywhere else in such profusion and interacting with the fiercely proud yet friendly local population.  You have my personal  guarantee.

Corsica – The Beautiful Island

“The extent of your consciousness is limited only by your ability to love and to embrace with your love the space around you, and all it contains.”  Napoleon Bonaparte 

It’s been a long time since I spent a delightful and surprising couple of weeks in Corsica but lately there has been a persistent whispered notion of a return trip, an idea that has become more insistent by the day. ‘Oh Corse, île de beauté’ as rhapsodized in a popular song was everything I hoped it would be and then so much more. Hugely popular in France and Europe, Tino Rossi, a velvet voiced crooner/actor, also born in Ajaccio, can be considered the second most famous native son of the island only after the one and only Napoléon Bonaparte.  As for the Emperor he always claimed that were he blindfolded and dropped off at an unknown destination nevertheless he’d know immediately from the fragrance wafting on the wind he was on his native soil.   Splashed in a profusion of colours and varieties, I remembered these words the first time I wandered into a field of wild flowers.

(Note: To improve your viewing experience click on the photos below to enlarge – once for medium, twice to zoom in.) 

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As for the quality or lack thereof of the photos I’ve a confession, or rather an explanation.  This trip was taken years ago before the age of the digital camera but fortunately I then used to take my photos as slides so that now years later I can still project them on a white wall.  Well, guess what? One day I was bemoaning the fact I couldn’t use any of the some 2000 (or more) slides I have accumulated over my years of travels for this blog.  However, in a flash of epiphany, a thought popped up – why not try and take digital photos from the projected slides? Why not indeed and so I did!   The results are spotty in quality but some are good enough I think to at the very least provide a good approximation of the real thing.  If I find this works well then I’ll have several years of blogging left to share with you.  I hope you’ll let me know via the ‘comment’ box.  

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Generally speaking most people, French citizens included, know little about Corsica beyond identifying it as Napoleon’s birthplace.  I’m adding a map so you can follow along and as well I’ll add just a tad of pertinent local information, but not too much, I promise.  

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I landed at L’Ile-Rousse, the northerly port facing Nice, on the mainland, where I’d boarded the car ferry for a four-hour sail across to what turned out to be one memorable trip undertaken, to be honest, without preparation as it materialized upon a serendipitous inspiration.  As I almost always do, I set off without a real notion of where I’m going or how long I’ll stay wherever, the uncertainty translates into the tantalizing joy of surprise.  In fact it’s not that much of a gamble as traveling in Europe, no matter where one goes, the scenery is almost sure to be enticing and the discovery of local people and customs, to my way of thinking superior to any carefully planned holiday.  To be sure, at times I’ve also rued the lack of preparation (getting hopelessly lost in the dead of night within the ancient walls of Carcassonne comes to mind) but the discomfort in time becomes cause to think back on what was then stressful as after all a jolly good adventure.  

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Disembarking I immediately headed south via the only, modest roadway that  hugs the western coast down the length of the island.  I figured to spend maybe three days, four maximum to go all the way around to finally get to Bastia, hence sail acrosss to Italy.  Oh, one thing I should mention – I had wisely purchased an excellent map of Corsica on the ferry published by Michelin, in my opinion the best of the best source of information for travellers.   It was already well into the late afternoon so that I was looking for a place to spend the night when I stumbled onto picturesque Algajola, a tiny village that nonetheless featured a ruined Genoa fort and a Club Med; lucky me.  I found a spacious room that included a small cooking nook with fridge that has not ever since been equalled for price, view and comfort.   The fortunate truth (for me) at that time there was a dearth of tourists caused by unrest and some amateurish violence (blowing up communications transmitters and vandalizing cars with mainland licences) perpetrated by a minority of hotheads that were agitating for independence from France, yet a never ending but futile quest.  Mightily pissed off since the French generously payed in national taxes to keep the island afloat, they simply stopped crossing over and the few tourists around were almost exclusively foreign youngish campers.  Great for me!  My hotel was empty save for a couple of government surveyors who left a couple of days later leaving me in glorious peace.   What was going to be a one-night stand lengthened into a full week and those who are familiar with my blog will realize why I keep on harping that it’s so good to make things up as you go; I’m unrelentingly greedy in taking full advantage of an advantageous travel situation and to juice it for all it’s worth. 

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The view from my top corner window and within a short five minute walk to the isolated beach.   It was frequented as I found out rather clumsily by stumbling upon one basking ‘au naturel’ on the other side of a sand dune.  It turned out several German campers were in the neighbourhood and used this particular spot as their private beach. It was rather fun to become acquainted with one of them in particular (Ursula) and practice my rudimentary German language skills.  After all I had plans to visit Bavaria in the not too distant future, or so I claimed to give myself a touch of cover for my sudden interest in that area of Germany.  In actual fact I did go several times since and love it more each time (check out my post ‘Bavaria and Neuswienstein Castle’).   It was marvellous to fall asleep to the sound of lapping waves below my room.  This particular day was a bit windy as you can see but  I wondered what happened during a real storm?  

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Corsica is on its western coast ruggedly mountainous, yet somehow or other locals have found a way to survive in small villages wherever is found a patch of arable land to grow vegetables and a meadow to graze sheep. Sadly, red hot rivalries between neighbouring villages have all too often culminated in the violence of the infamous ‘vendetta’, a bitter grudge that can last decades and be handed down from father to son.   Yet, these folks are very friendly to a stranger who with a smile shows interest in their way of life.
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I was surprised to see what at first I took to be a fishing net being  set out to dry under the tree up a hill far from the sea.  On closer inspection I saw several such nets and at one of them two nuns were gathering the olives that conveniently dropped in when totally ripe.  No bruised fruit and easy pickings – clever nuns. Surreptitiously I attempted to take a photo but it turned out very much out of focus.  Serves me right, I should have politely asked, right? 
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In the early dawn hours of my first morning I drove to explore  the hillsides beyond my hotel.  The path became too steep and narrow and I parked to the side (not that there was much fear of other traffic) and enveloped by a fragrant misty rain ambled up the rocky lane.  A few minutes later I heard the faint tinkling of a single bell that grew louder.  Soon appeared a shepherd, his teenage son and a flock of goats leisurely on their way to a pen for the twice-daily milking chores.  With my most ingratiating smile I said hello and asked if I could come along to take photos.  
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There’s a hierarchy in the shepherd and flock relationship.  The shepherd wielding his staff leads, then followed first by the dominant male goat, the one with the bell, then comes the obedient females with one juvenile male (someday to be the new alpha male) and leading the rear, ceaselessly running to and fro, a hard working, barking dog nipping at the heels of any wayward goat.  Finally, when all the animals where inside the pen the son whacked the alpha goat out over the rustic fence.  As the farmer informed with a twinkle in his eye, “That horny devil would be too busy pleasing himself and the females would be too agitated looking for their pleasure and making milking difficult.  To have a bit of peace we get rid of him but he’ll hang around waiting to get to his happy work.”  
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I spent summers at my uncle’s farm and I know something about milking (even tried my hands at it, literally) and this Corsican was one expert. In a flash he’d wring the she-goat dry, send her off with a swat in the ass; in a thrice his son would drag the next one over and in two shakes another one was done.  Bemused I kept watching for the impending threat of the cigarette ash falling into the bucket – never happened.   At the ultimate second with a sharp head shake to the left the ash would fall off, on his shirt but he paid no attention.  “Did I have an empty bottle? I’ll give you fresh milk.” He laughed, “Almost better than wine.”  I hustled back to the car, dumped what was left in a mineral water bottle.  For the next several days each morning I came back with one litre of fresh milk to share with a couple of the campers I had met.  Although he didn’t expect anything more than a thank you and a bit of conversation about Canada and my foreign travels, I paid off with a couple packs of his brand of cigarettes, a tin can of cashews for his son and dog biscuits as a form of bribe to ingratiate myself to the snarler.  (I’m afraid of a snarling dog with bared teeth for a long ago good reason.) 
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Comfortable in my great digs in Algajola I wisely remained and during several days explored within a day’s drive what often turned out to be spectacular scenery and unexpected encounters in a mostly wild land, especially away from the coastline villages and towns.
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Not far down the road,  Calvi turned out to be an attractive town with a fine port and an imposing citadel strategically astride the highest hill.
 
P1120019I was surprised to see several uniformed Legionnaires strolling in town, one accompanying a wife pushing a baby stroller; a domestic scene that had me befuddled.  At the café I was told at that time (after pulling out of Algeria) this was the main garrison for the French Foreign Legion’s elite paratroop regiment.  Changing of the guards at the main gate was efficiently sharp yet done with a ‘military’ elegance. The soldiers pacing away did so in the slow, deliberate steps for which the Legion is recognized at any of the grand July 14 parade down the Champs Elysées.  
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At this juncture I’ll end this part of my Corsican adventure but propose a ‘rendez vous‘ for another chapter detailing some of the wild interior and the complete drive around the entire island.  A bientôt mes amis.  

London – Treasury of Art

“If Paris is a moveable feast, then London is a banquet of visual delights.”  Le Fabulist

Unsurprisingly, ancient and historic London I discovered to be a treasure trove of great museums and art galleries.  Ambling along the crammed full galleries I found myself scannning a visual map tracing man’s epic journey through the ages in expressing their artistry while often recording history.  From ancient Egyptians, Greeks and Romans through the middle-ages and on to the modern there’s something magnificent to be seen, studied and admired.  In a few photos I offer but a very small sampling of what I enjoyed in an all too brief visit although always mitigated in my mind as being only a foretaste, a sumptuous appetizer to when more time will permit the full banquet in the not too distant future – well, here’s hoping.  I’ll concentrate on but three of the best London has to offer; the British Museum, the National Art Gallery and the Modern Tate Gallery.

(Note: To improve your viewing experience click on the photos below to enlarge – once for medium, twice to zoom in.) 

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The British Museum is dedicated to human history and culture, its permanent collection, numbering some 8 million works, is among the largest and most comprehensive in existence and originates from all continents, illustrating and documenting the story of human culture from its beginnings to the present. Each of these alone would require days, not hours to properly do justice, nonetheless the essential was seen and admired.

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The British Museum from first sight is an impressive array of buildings featuring a magnificent classical facade. The entrance to the building doesn’t really prepare the visitor for the vast and spectacular inner rotunda.   I’m sure Angela Merkel was equally impressed during her recent visit accompanied by Prime Minister Cameron.  

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A mesmerizing statue of the Buddha caught and held my attention.  Not a great photo since it was difficult to take through the reflecting glass, however it’s the most interesting of poses, one I’ve not seen elsewhere in my travels.  Look at the position of the finger of the right hand on the knee.  

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The section on ancient Egypt was impressive with a fine collection of mummies, sarcophagi and  burial artifacts found in royal tombs.  

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It takes no great leap of perceptiveness to imagine the artist was a man in love with the female anatomy.   Yet again I mused the ‘ancients’ had the same basic human traits we have today and expressed them artistically just as we do now.   I particularly appreciated the headgear – yeah, sure!

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There was so much to view, admire and slide into the memory bank but time moves on and I moved on to the Tate Modern Museum of Art.  Interestingly it has a reputation that to my knowledge isn’t quite at the high level I’d expect and that I personally felt at almost first sight.  And let me tell you the first sight was a memorable one.   The gallery was a clever reworking of an old, disused power station and what you see in the photo was formerly the turbine room.  

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Tate Modern’s Turbine Hall has played host to some of the world’s most striking and memorable works of contemporary art.  Presently this vast space welcomes the largest work ever created by renowned American sculptor Richard Tuttle. Entitled I Don’t Know . The Weave of Textile Language, this new sculpture combines vast swathes of fabrics designed by the artist from both man-made and natural fibres in three bold and brilliant colours.  The huge, floating sculpture floats high above – you can take an approximate guess by comparing to the tiny figures of onlookers below.   I loved it!

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The Tate is reached via a pedestrian bridge over the River Thames and directly across from St. Paul’s Cathedral.  Oh, and yes, it’s a two way path so one could go from the Tate to St. Paul’s.  Okay, just a bit of dry English humour?  The object of my derision is due to the admittedly less than eye pleasing exterior but what could be expected from a reconverted power plant? The thing is that it provides huge galleries inside and a venue for large and impressive works of art that wouldn’t fit elsewhere.  I enjoyed it a whole lot! 

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The gallery offers a panoply of artistic works by the greats such as Picasso, Dali, Matisse and Warhol – post-modern paintings and varied eclectic works, sculptures and video art  find their rightful niche inside the numerous galleries.  

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I love coffee and I’ll avow never did I enjoy a cappuccino more than at the Tate – it was excellent at a modest price and the view was incomparable to any coffee house I’ve ever sat in.  

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I’m told there’s a new Tate in the process of being built right next to the present one.  I have doubts that it can equal the present one in scope and glory but that’s one man’s opinion.   On to Trafalgar Square to visit the British Museum of Art, another of London’s enduring contributions to the enjoyment and safeguarding of world art.  

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An impressive entrance but nowhere near as imposing as the glorious art collection of world acclaimed artists.  Just to name a few that I feasted on, visually and emotionally (Van Gogh always makes me a little sad,) and in no particular order but I’ll let you test your recognize on your own the artist on display, Renoir, Monet, Manet – all the greats and then some.  

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So there you are, a short but intensive visit to three of the world’s best art venues.  I’m sure you must have had fun identifying the paintings above without my help.  If you missed any let me know and I’ll reveal the name.   My next and final post on London will not be long coming.  Cheerio!

London – Historic River Thames

“London has the trick of making its past, its long indelible past, always a part of its present. And for that reason it will always have meaning for the future, because of all it can teach about disaster, survival, and redemption. It is all there in the streets. It is all there in the books.”  Anna Quindlen – ‘Imagined London: A Tour of the World’s Greatest Fictional City.’  

Home to a long, varied cultural legacy, London was as well an economic power second to none.  Through many centuries ‘Rule Britannia’ was a supremely nationalistic notion nurtured and believed in without self-doubt or open to criticism; colonialism was self-righteously looked upon as ‘the white man’s burden’. The uncontested seat of power for succeeding generations lay in the Royal Throne and yet with the proclamation of the Magna Carta (1215) was born a progressive, philosophical belief in the creation and safeguard of a democratically elected Parliament of the people. In a purely English expression of good manners, both the monarchy and the will of the people co-exists side by side to this day. A gentility not much in evidence during the French Revolution as I’m quite certain flighty Marie-Antoinette would have sadly agreed.  

Buckingham Palace, a grand home to succeeding royal families.  Throngs of sightseers line the entrance awaiting the colourful Changing of the Guard.

(Note: To improve your viewing experience click on the photos below to enlarge – once for medium, twice to zoom in.)  

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Pride in national achievements gave the impetus over centuries when much treasure and impressive know-how in the construction of princely palaces, grand public  buildings and splendid houses of worship.   Some of these structures are today well-preserved monuments to a proud past and a vibrant present.  London counts four sites and attractions listed by UNESCO as being of special cultural or physical significance. These are the Tower of London; the Royal Botanic Gardens at Kew; The Palace of Westminster, including the Houses of Parliament and Big Ben, St Margaret’s Westminster and Westminster Abbey; and Maritime Greenwich.  In the following pages along with accompanying photos my personal observations about this fascinating world-class city.

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On a spur of the moment rather than take the usual train to return to Blackheath my temporary home base, I decided to board a tour boat leaving from Westminster Pier (just below Parliament Buildings) to Greenwich Village and what a great idea that turned out to be.  Behind me is the famed tower often referred to as Big Ben whereas in actual fact it’s the name conferred on the huge 14 ton bell in its belfry.  

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On my way to the tour boat, along shady Victoria Embankment I chanced upon a magnificent memorial to the bravery of the Royal Air Force in the defence of the homeland during the epic Battle of Britain in 1940 against bloody bombing attacks by Hitler’s Luftwaffe.  The designer was in my opinion truly inspired in quoting Winston Churchill.  Over the years I have seen many monuments and statues dedicated to war heros but this one in particular was particularly moving with several panels on both sides dramatically depicting the various phases of the battle and heroic fighter pilots.  It is well worth seeking out.  

(Note to history buffs: “Never was so much owed by so many to so few … ” quoted from  a wartime speech made by then British Prime Minister Winston Churchill on 20 August 1940 exulting in the ongoing efforts of the Royal Air Force pilots who were at the time fighting the ‘Battle of Britain’ the pivotal air battle with the Luftwaffe fearing an imminent German invasion.  It is well worth reading the entire text as Churchill was a consummate wordsmith  and his speeches indeed inspired the nation to greater efforts and sacrifice culminating ultimate victory.  Notwithstanding his inspirational leadership, Churchill was turfed out of power at the first post-war election.  I suppose people had had enough of Churchillian ‘blood, toil, tears and sweat’ and preferred the prospect of a return to improving the lot of the working class.

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The trip along the Thames sailing in an east direction provide a memorable slice from the visual dessert pie that London had turned out to be.  I was like a school boy on his first group outing, not knowing which way to turn to face and photograph immediately recognizable buildings.  For example the ‘Walkie-Talkie’, now there’s an interesting story to be told so read on.  

20 Fenchurch Street is a commercial skyscraper that takes its name from its address on the street of the same name in the historic City of London financial district. The tower was originally proposed at nearly 200 m (656 ft) tall but its design was somewhat scaled down after concerns about its negative visual impact on nearby and much cherished St. Paul’s Cathedral and iconic Tower of London.  The project was consequently the subject of a Public Inquiry forced on the city by heritage groups; in 2007 this ruled in the developers’ favour and the building was granted full planning permission.

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I promised an interesting story, read on. During the building’s construction, it was discovered that for a period of up to two hours each day with the sun shining directly onto the building, it acts as a concave mirror and focuses light onto the streets to the south. Spot temperature readings included up to 91 °C (196 °F) and 117 °C (243 °F) also measured during the summer of 2013, when the reflection of a beam of light up to six times brighter than direct sunlight shining onto the streets beneath damaged vehicles parked on the street nearby, including one whose owner was paid £946 by the developers for repairs to melted bodywork. The media responded by dubbing the building the ‘Walkie-Scorchie’ or ‘Fryscraper’.  Oddly enough the building’s architect, Rafael Viñoly, had previously designed the Vdara hotel in Las Vegas with a similar sunlight reflection problem that some wit christened it, “Vdara death ray”.  The glass there has since been covered with a non-reflective film. You’d think he’d have learned something but apparently he mused the London problem probably had to do with ‘global warming’.  Oy!  

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Since this is my blog I’ll graciously allow myself a mild ‘rant’. I wondered when learning the developer ‘won’ the public enquiry into the building being too massive with its attendant risk to the integrity of St. Paul’s dominant place in the London skyline as well as to historic Tower of London. My question is as follows: when do developers with deep pocket ever lose? In London or elsewhere? Vancouver for example, a prime example of uncontested disasters that England’s Prince Charles considering his well known aversion to modern architecture would surely gag upon laying his princely eyes on the tawdry skyline of a city otherwise blessed with a great physical location.  It is my firm opinion that every single ‘planning department’ in every major city in the world should as a matter of course be investigated every couple of years for dereliction of duty or worse.  Too often permits to build are issued as a matter of routine without real analysis of what is proposed or even worse without consequent supervision by city inspectors. Vancouver’s infamous ‘leaking condo’ episode costing billions (that’s right) to repair and of course paid for by the unlucky buyers is a case in point. And it persists to this day! If there was any real justice for the powerful rich and the politically well-connected, more than a few greedy miscreants ought to be spending a few years in a leaky cell in a very damp jail.  There, isn’t it wonderful to have your own blog? I highly recommend it as it allows for such cathartic benefits.  

St. Paul’s dome is second only to St. Peter’s in the Vatican and dominates from atop the highest ground in London proper.  I fervently hope its position will be protected in the future and not find itself in the shadows of yet another monster skyscraper.   Londoners must always remain vigilant as no doubt more attempts will be made, count on it. 

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Possibly the most recognizable sight in London, the bridge I’m told is spectacular at night, something time didn’t permit for me to enjoy but next time, for sure.  

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Busy above and below, to say the least it took navigating skill at all times to get around without mishap.

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Beautifully preserved, the venerable Tower of London the epicentre for much past English history, often glorious (at times wicked) and now a much visited UNESCO World Heritage Site.  

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This less than admired building in London is nicknamed ‘The Cheese Grater’ and the odd shaped building to the right the name is known as the Swiss Re building or more aptly perhaps as ‘The Gherkin’. 

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Canary Wharf was built on mostly derelict wharfs and  vacant lots adjacent to the river with a vision to become the epicentre of European financial activity and for the most part it is now uncontested as such. However, the building designs doesn’t meet with everyone’s aesthetic standards judging from the wittily acerbic remarks made by the tour guide. I had to concur as other than a couple of the smaller buildings much appeared to have been conceived with a view to maximize space and office rental returns rather than architectural value.  Should I blame the lack of artistic conviction on the Canadian developer?  Do we deserve our Canadian reputation as nice but dull, bland and colourless. On the face of this dull, bland and colourless hodgepodge who can deny it – eh? 
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Maritime Greenwich was added to the list of World Heritage Sites in 1997 for the concentration and quality of buildings of historic and architectural interest in the area. These can be divided into the group of buildings along the riverfront, Greenwich Park, and the Georgian and  Victorian town centre.   The Rolls Royce adds a certain cachet to the neighbourhood, do you agree?

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A spectacular panorama of the city from the Royal Observatory viewpoint, with the financial power house ‘Canary Wharf’ in background to the right.

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A world-class monument to man’s ingenuity and the never ending search for knowledge, this small but vital community has been the home of Greenwich Mean Time (GMT) since 1884. Sometimes called Greenwich Meridian Line because it is measured from the Greenwich Meridian Line at the Royal Observatory and the universally agreed place from where all time zones are measured.   The clock below indicates Standard Measurements and I’d not quibble with its accuracy.  

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There a traced line indicates the exact location of the Prime Meridian, the theoretical demarcation between the Western and Eastern hemisphere of the globe.  Since the earth rotation is not absolutely perfect, with measurable wobbles, if one wishes to split hairs, the line in the old observatory’s courtyard today differs no more than a few metres from that imaginary line which is now the prime meridian of the world.  I had no one to take my photo standing astride both hemispheres – too bad.  

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The Observatory is located amid a vast parkland that spreads above Greenwich Village.   Visitor’s pavilions display the history and uses of the installation as well as  coffee shops in a bucolic setting – featured are flower gardens, tree-lined lanes and these magnificent centuries old chestnut trees.

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From there it was a ten minute walk to Blackheath Village, my home base.   The park is just beyond the wall in mid-photo and the ever-present Shard Building lording it in the middle background.  

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All Saints, a century old Roman Catholic church in Blackheath and a view from the train station’s quay of the numerous chimneys still dominating rooftops and as evidenced in the former college remodelled as a Senior’s Home in the village.  

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So much to see and share that in the interest of keeping each photo essay manageable in length I’ll stop here but I promise another one in the not too distant future.   Hope to see you then and enjoy reading your comments too. Incidentally, I’ve actually been told by some who have checked my various posts they don’t write comments out of shyness.  No kidding!   Come on, it takes no time and I like feedback good or bad, whatever kind so I can improve my future output.  Okay? I’ll respond to each and every one, promise.  

London – City on the Go!

You are now / In London, that great sea, whose ebb and flow / At once is deaf and loud, and on the shore / Vomits its wrecks, and still howls on for more / Yet in its depth what treasures! 

Percy Bysshe Shelley                               

Treasures, no doubt, everywhere one looks, hugging the banks of the River Thames, round every street corner another surprise and yet one more delightful encounter with history.  I’ll confess to having made it around the world before stepping foot in Great Britain.   One might wonder why not and then why now?  Simply because I never had a real desire other than vaguely thinking I’d eventually like to meander through the Romantic poet’s Lake District and perhaps rugged, stoic Scotland.   Unexpectedly, very recently I received an invitation to visit London and although somewhat hesitant by the late autumn timing and the British Isles reputation for dismal rain and fog, I agreed and a very good thing too.   As it turned out I was blessed (it’s the appropriate word) with sumptuous weather, daily sunshine and temperatures in the high teens (Celsius, of course) and encountered a hitherto unsuspected English ‘charm’, is that too much to say? The city core itself is a vast repository of historic buildings, great cathedrals and churches, world class museums and art galleries, wide avenues with lively squares and of course loud, friendly pubs.

(Note: To improve your viewing experience click on the photos below to enlarge – once for medium, twice to zoom in.)

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The storied River Thames provides a watery highway through a cultural landscape of scope and splendour where the modern cohabits with ancient pride. 

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My friend was a delightful companion on some forays but by unavoidable circumstances I was left to fend on my own for the most part and found the transportation system efficient, clean and thanks to the clever ‘Oyster Pass’, easy on the pocket (take note Vancouver).  In the centre background, the unmistakeable Horatio Nelson statue dominates Trafalgar Square

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From Blackheath Village (neighbouring Greenwich Village) where I was graciously hosted, Charring Cross Station became my daily destination, once there I could decide on where I might transfer to take the ‘tube’ (subway) or stroll to one of the numerous great sites within an eye-pleasing stroll.  A look at the front entrance facing The Strand and one from the bridge side over The Thames, quite a contrast in architectural style over the years of wartime bomb damage and modern needs. 

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Let me take you on a visual tour of what London has to offer and what I can offer is by no means exhaustive.  As a matter of fact, I’ll admit to already planning a second visit perhaps next spring just so I can see and experience what time constraints this time around made impossible.  In fact, my first good look at London came five minutes from the station when I discovered double-deck buses were the norm in London and not a tourist conveyance.  Notice too I’m still wearing the same clothes as on the airplane; I long ago discovered that dressing up just a touch always, but always gets you better service when you need it from airline staff. Naturally, that was the last time I was so sartorial until the return flight.  Sure, it’s not as comfortable as wearing a t-shirt and loose jeans but the small discomfort is worth a lot more including once being up-graded to business class when the economy class seats had been over-booked only because I looked like I might belong.  When I explained, with a glint in her eyes my hostess (a voracious book consumer) piped up it was proof the cover didn’t make the book.  Cynical but true.  

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As my first full day in town was bright and sunny we decided, rather my guide did, that we’d visit an authentic area in East London, specifically the  Columbia Road Flower Market and in the same vicinity amble on to Brick Lane Road where we could lunch on fast but tasty international foods.  

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A word to the wise; here as elsewhere extreme caution must be exercised in crowded urban venues as pickpockets prey on wide-eyed tourists and relaxed locals.  Unfortunately, the pleasure of the flower market was marred by the realization my companion had had her smart phone expertly filched out of her coat pocket.  Upon discovering this, perhaps within five minutes, we managed to make a phone call to her phone but already it had been ‘disabled’, thus proving it had not been inadvertently dropped but stolen and a new chip already inserted.  Of course, the next twenty minutes were frantic as Ara had to cancel several sites, including email address and bank account from her device.  To date, a month later, nothing untoward has happened other than the cost of replacement and the sour taste left behind to having been literally ripped-off directly from her pocket.

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I’ll hasten to say that London is not any worse than other large cities.  I’ve been targeted just outside the Vatican, up a famed mosque minaret in  India (the low-lifes do not respect sacred places), at the Hong Kong airport and the Paris ‘métro’ station to the famed ‘Marché aux Puces’ (Flea Market) and each time was spared the loss of money and my pride too since I was well prepared for the eventuality of such contemptible encounters. A pox on those who ruin people’s holidays by stealing rather than earning an honest living in one fashion or other.

Let me offer a bit of advice here.  First of all I was warned in Rome and in Paris about the very real threat I might encounter around these places, so take seriously a local’s word of caution; and in Asia I was clever enough to wear a thin belly belt my mother had made and insisted I wear, and thank God I did too.  I’ll further admit that I now always wear one on any foreign trip and feel much better for knowing my passport, my wallet with vital documents and money as well are basically stored in an unassailable fortress.  If a reprobate was bold enough to try  to forage in there I’d rip his hands off!  So now you’ve been advised – don’t leave home and behave like a ‘never-been-anywhere cluck’, it really is easy to avoid such misery even if in the case of a man it’s a little less than macho.  As for women, you all know about the perils of a handbag being ripped off your shoulders or the insecurity of shallow pockets in fashionable coats – I need not belabour the point anymore, right?  

This fellow’s shirt was in keeping with the general ambiance, you’ll agree.  

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At any rate it had been a pleasure to check out the fragrant array of potted flowers and varieties of tropical plants; perhaps more fun was the incessant sales patter of the ruddy-faced hawkers.  I’m always on the look-out for interesting faces and I had a field day here.  This jolly chap was happy to oblige when I politely asked to take his pic.  See for yourself.  Wouldn’t you like to  hoist a mug or two with this friendly fellow? I would.  

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And this clever fellow while selling tons of flowers kept a large audience laughing loudly at his non-stop witty chatter.  It was almost an obligation to buy after being entertained so well.  

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Okay, I admit to being tickled pink to encounter an English ‘Bobby’ wearing the classic, authentic  Custodian helmet with his elegant partner, notice the spiffy hat and tie.  I had to have my pic taken with the obliging duo at the entrance to cheery Brick Lane Road who I’m sure must pose countless times throughout the day.   True enough as soon as they indulged me several others lined up for the same and they submitted with a smile every time.  Lovely! 

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Hot Malay dishes for a really skinny price.  I could spend every day there for a week and not run out of appetizing choices.  

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I must comment on the double-decker bus – while the vehicle was moving getting on and climbing to the top deck was problematic while the vehicle was moving and once sitting down I still felt as if aboard a small boat riding atop rough waves.  Still, from above you get a great view, as good as taking one of the multitude of tour buses for a fraction the cos;  moreover I liked the idea of spending time with Londoners doing their thing, more often than not texting on  smart-phones and not gawking out the window.    

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Riding a bus in London and simply looking out the window is a great way to see what there is to see, fast, easy and cheaply!  Numerous cranes are a sure indication of how vibrant and thriving a city is while building and renewing itself.

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If you can get yourself seated at the front of the bus its much like being in the front seat of a balcony in the theatre.  

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The London Eye is a giant observation Ferris Wheel centrally erected on the South Bank of the Thames to celebrate the second Millenium.  The structure is 135 metres (443 ft) tall and the wheel has a diameter of 120 metres (394 ft).  The project was a complex undertaking with components built in six European countries and then assembled in a most unusual fashion, section by section barged in, set flat on pontoons in the river and when complete then raised standing by degrees.  (It’s a fascinating story, check it out on the web.)  Dominating from almost every angle it is very much like the Tour Eiffel in Paris.  The idea is simple enough; provide a spectacular view of the city from the vantage point of a spacious gondola that accommodates 25 people, either sitting or walking around.  Each revolution takes 30 minutes and I’m told the view is a spectacular 360 degree panorama as far as the eye can see or weather permits, sometimes a challenge in ‘foggy old London’.  I didn’t see for myself as impatient (as always) the three times I checked  there was at the very least an hour-long waiting queue.  Oh well, next time.  It took me about 2 dozen semi-serious attempts to go up the Eiffel Tower and finally some years ago on a clear day surprisingly there was no line-up; the opportunity was too good to miss.  I admired the unrestricted view of the great sites, near and far, but contrary to my enthusiasm my companion wasn’t impressed: “I’m not thrilled,” Hélène stated.  When I foolishly asked why she seriously answered: “I can’t see the Eiffel Tower!”  That was good for a laugh but since she always associated Paris with the tower’s omnipresence it also strangely made sense, maybe.  

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When I say it’s seen from every angle of London, I’m not exaggerating.  Here it’s seen from as far away as near Buckingham Palace, (taken with a 12x zoom lens) but still it’s there, the appropriately named ‘Eye'; as well as beyond Trafalgar Square.  

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Two different angles depicts the immense wheel’s ‘Mécano-like’ construction. 

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Let me introduce you to self-styled ‘Mister England’.  A friendly sort who danced, mimed and chatted up tourists to entice them inside the indoor shopping emporium.  I rather fancied his patter and general bonhomie and asked how he liked his job, “Luvvv it mate! Best job in the world.”  I wish I could reproduce the priceless accent but how in writing? 

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I told you he was genuinely friendly and I had no doubt he indeed luvved his job.  I’d like to recall the name of the street somewhere near Piccadilly Circus (or perhaps not) so that you too could wish him well.  

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What is more symbolic of London than Big Ben?  Other than one’s favourite pub, I can’t think of anything else.  I’ll take my leave for now but there’s so much more to share with you that I’ll return with another post in a week or two.  I don’t want to overburden you with too much and London certainly has a lot of that quality.  In many respects it really is, “Too, too much!”  OY! I’ll leave you for now.  See you soon – Ta Ta and Tallyho!

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Brusells ‘La Grande Place’ – Medieval Ghent and Bruges

“Put away your plans, maps and preconceived notions and follow the clouds above, if the sky is too blue then track the sun or the stars.  Borders or time constraint exist only for the timid – just go.”               Le Fabulist

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If one travels extensively it is not unusual to meet like-minded men and women, who share the same passion for exploring new vistas and then much like storybook nomads move on seeking the next great unknown. A touch of pride is always present in listing where and when, but most of all to come up with the most exotic, remote or truly interesting destination considered beyond the trodden path.  Seeking the opportunity to see and experience that which I don’t view as normal daily fare is the sine qua non of my personal ‘joy de vivre’.  In conversations between travel aficionados one is often challenged to come up with a personal favourite and I often surprise by naming  Bruges and Ghent in particular and Bruxelles en passant.  It appears to be uniquely my own bias as no one I have encountered in Canada has ever come close to naming Belgium as a travel destination, not even as a go-through or stop-over.   Yet, for  such a smallish country in area and modest population it boasts of a long and interesting history as well as numerous sites worthy of anyone’s close-up look.  It’s a bilingual country, French and Flemish but you’ll also hear German and as in  most of Europe almost everyone can speak a least a rudimentary English.  

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I always by-passed Bruxelles but this time I decided to at least spend an entire day checking it out; I liked what I saw promising myself a longer look next opportunity.  It’s a cosmopolitan city with an intriguing mix of people, international business and presently the de facto capital of the European Union.  Since the end of the Second World War Brussels has become the polyglot home of major European Union (EU) institutions, international organisations, politicians, diplomats and civil servants.  Importantly it is the headquarters of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) a vital military counter-balance to Soviet threats through the Cold War and now to the renewed super-nationalist ambitions of Vlademir Putin, a would-be Tsar of all the Russian people.  

The imposing structure standing at the border is a symbolic reminder of the traditional French/Belgium amicable relations. 

(Note: To improve your viewing experience click on the photos below to enlarge — once for medium, twice to zoom in.) 

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As soon as you cross over into Belgium here’s an absolute must-do, indulge in Belgian fries (aka French fries but better, oh sacrilege) with a couple of Merguez (spicy sausages) served in a paper cornet and a huge dollop of rich mayonnaise, wash it down with one of the splendid local beers, a guaranteed delightful snack anytime.   I found myself stopping all too often on the byways of Belgium at one of the numerous roadside snack trailers.  In truth, it became a test of will to keep on driving after the third stop in just a couple of hours.  

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In Bruxelles (Brussels if you prefer) the city features many pedestrian avenues and ample squares to shop for flowers, browse, stroll, or sit at an outdoor café and enjoy a refreshing brew.   In August a hugely popular, intricately designed carpet of flowers draws people from far and wide; the first was created in 1971 on La Grand Place by the landscape architect E. Stautemans.  Although he’s created floral masterpieces in many other great venues, he claims,“Nowhere is the carpet more beautiful and distinguished than in the unique, ancient surroundings of the Grand-Place in Brussels”.  Can anyone doubt his words? 

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The beauty of the carpets are mostly due to the lovely begonia. Chosen for its qualities of robustness, resistance to bad weather and strong sunshine the  versatile flower guarantees the long life and freshness of the carpet. It also gives it a kaleidoscope of colours – from vivid splashes to delicate pastel shades, to the parti-colored and white flowers which reflect the light so well.

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La Grande Place is the central square of  Brussels and a favored tourist destination. It is surrounded by guildhalls, the city’s Town Hall and the Breadhouse built in traditional Flemish architecture. 

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Many European cities lay claim to offering the grandest squares or piazzas but other than St. Mark’s in Venice in my view none quite equal La Grande Place.  Ara, a dear friend has proposed London’s Trafalgar Square based on history and architecture as worthy of inclusion too, perhaps, but I form my opinion based of my proclivity for taking photos.  As at India’s fabulous Taj Mahal a few years earlier I could find no angle here that didn’t produce a fine result and personally that is the main criteria on which I make my choice.    

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Hopefully my admiration concerning ‘La Grande Place‘ was adequately displayed in the previous photos; but the time came to drive off to Ghent a beautifully preserved medieval centre and presently a modern thriving city. Ghent is the capital city of Flemish Belgium, a prosperous town with a quarter million inhabitant.  For my part it was a fortuitous discovery a few years ago originally meant simply as a stop for a quick look-see on my way to Amsterdam.  I was so intrigued that I stayed two days and have since returned twice and surely more in the future.  I was delighted to be greeted by a handsome four-legged Belgian guarding the medieval gateway.    

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Ghent’s wealth in the early medieval period was based on international trade, the import and export of wheat, and the manufacture of luxury woollen cloth.  The city’s trade benefitted from being traversed by a river linking it directly to Bruges and the North Sea hence to the world.   There is so much to see that it is an injustice to share so few photos but self-discipline is required as not to overload and risk boring you.  

The classic tower and the battlement of Gravensteen Castle and the splendid architecture along the old Graslei harbour. Much of the city’s medieval architecture is remarkably well preserved and when required restored to its former state by skillful artisans. 

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I head into St. Bavo’s, the city’s venerable cathedral founded in the 7th century, to see for myself how extravagant were the city’s wealthy burghers in parading their riches; the Catholic Church often was the grateful recipient of great art donations.

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Highlights of the interior decoration include the Baroque high altar (1702–1782), in white, black and red flamed marble, the rococo pulpit (1741–1745), made in oak, gilded wood and white and black marble.  There is a wealth of precious art and artifacts to discover and admire in the vault, along the walls and adorning the several alcoves and side chapels.  

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Visiting the great cathedrals of Europe is one of my great joys yet I’ve seldom come across one that has so much art on display anywhere your eyes wander – notice the intricate patterns of the marble floor and elaborate doors to side chapels.

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Jan and Hubert van Eyck’s famous Adoration of the Mystic Lamb, better known as the Ghent Altarpiece of 1432, ranks among the most significant works of art in Europe.  Works of historical importance in art such as The Adoration of the Magi along with a much coveted (by invading armies) trend-setting triptich created by Jan and Hubert. 

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The cathedral is home to the work of another artist of note Peter Paul Rubens: Saint Bavo enters the Convent at Ghent. 

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A splendid grouping of admirers in this massive sculpture paying homage to the Jan and Hubert Eyck majestically sitting in the middle.

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The city centre is truly a joy to walk about, admiring the architecture; I felt especially grateful to the local citizens for lovingly preserving their magnificent cultural heritage.  

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The Gravensteen  Castle is strikingly illuminated at night; in fact the entire centre of the historic town is off-limits to cars and thus a great walking venue.  

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Another of the great angles to take photos – here we have St. Nicholas Church and opulent storefronts of wealthy merchants.  

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As all good things must come to an end I regretfully bid adieu to Ghent and drove west to Bruges, a short drive  towards the North Sea.  I lost nothing only gaining more appreciation for Belgium as Bruges vies with its larger neighbour for medieval splendour while oozing a particular brand of charm and hospitality.  Best described as a picturesque medieval town with most of its medieval architecture intact its historic city centre is recognized as a UNESCO World Heritage Site since 2000.  

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Quite by happenstance not long ago I happened to stumble on a fine British film titled, ‘In Bruges’.  A benighted ganster played by Colin Farell, who is awaiting for a murderous assignment to come his way expresses his heartfelt sentiment and initially I was dumbstruck when vehemently he repeated over and over, “Bruges is a shit hole!”  On the other hand his partner in crime was delighted and attempted (in vain) to show him the errors of his ways.  In keeping with the scenario many of Bruges delights were on cinematic display.  I highly recommend the film as it was excellent on many levels, praise I don’t make lightly, with fine acting all around and a solid  plot. The Belfry is the setting for a tense and surprising dénouement.  As I’m sure we all feel, I was delighted to exclaim to my viewing companion, “Hey, I’ve been there.”

Start off by visiting the ‘Markt’, a pleasant and busy square; then head for the Belfry, the lofty 13th century medieval bell tower.  It houses a splendid carillon 48 bells.  The city still employs a full-time carillonneur, who gives free concerts on a regular basis.

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After admiring the vista, to recover from the tower’s steps head to one of the many restaurant patios located in the Markt, grab some food, personally I love the delicious Belgian waffles, have a drink and catch your breath.  The square is wonderfully alive and oftentimes a military band performs upbeat marching music from the large gazebo strategically located right in the centre.

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Luckily I found a comfortable and in retrospect for the price bargain accommodations in the best part of town for a visitor.   My small hotel was right in the centre of the foreground with a friendly restaurant below where to enjoy my breakfast on the patio.

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Belgium is famous for its canals and Bruges is nicknamed ‘Little Venice’ – a great way to get oriented is to start with a boat ride around the canals that ring the centre of town. This pleasant jaunt gives access to places you wouldn’t see either on foot or bike. At one time, it was considered the  ‘chief commercial city’ of the world and to this day it retains a significant economic importance thanks the Leie River, its port and direct access to the North Sea hence the world. 

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Many of its medieval buildings are notable, including the Church of Our Lady whose spire reaches 122 m (401 ft), making its tower one of the world’s highest brick structure. The sculpture Madonna and Child which can be seen in the transept, is believed to be Michelangelo’s only sculpture to have left Italy within his lifetime.   On my first visit to Bruges, when I first entered the church I walked the right hand aisle and in a marbled alcove, I spotted the striking statue of a Madonna and Child.  Strangely, I immediately thought of Michelangelo having previously admired his splendid Pieta inside St. Peters, in Rome.  A  small plaque confirmed to my delight (I felt really clever) indeed it was created by the sublime Renaissance artist.  I looked over my shoulder to make sure I was not observed, tip-toed up to the base and very respectfully passed my hand over the lowest part of the statue to touch what Michelangelo had magically worked centuries ago.  The photos are not of the best quality as at that time I did not have a digital camera so this is the result of taking close-ups from print photos.   In the interest of being honest the anecdote related was during my first visit decades ago when not even a plain glass partition was deemed necessary, ah the good old days.  

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The memory is all the more poignant as presently the very same statue is now secured behind a bullet-proof glass and the viewer must stand at least 5 metres (15 f.) distance away.  The result I learned stemmed from the wanton attack in 1972 on the Pieta (soon after my own moment of happiness) by a mad man who took a hammer to the beautiful face.  I suppose in retrospect I might have been more circumspect and admired the statue from a distance, yet I’d be less than candid if I say to not holding this as a cherished memory.  

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Oh, I almost forgot and that really would have been a big miss – since the middle-ages Bruges has been famous for fine lacework with a specialized local technique and patterns that are immediately recognized by knowledgeable enthusiasts.  Delicate lace curtains festoon windows  particularly in the olden parts of the town, a tradition that is very much alive to this day. 

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On my first trip years ago I had the good sense to purchase a large lace table cloth for my mother; on my last trip I came to realize what a bargain I had in comparison to today’s prices.  

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There you have my sincere compliments paid to Belgium and its people; this small, effervescent country is justifiably proud of a long and brave history.  Think of it as a deep basket of interesting sites, culture and art (many recognized by UNESCO), wonderfully preserved medieval towns, mouth-watering chocolates, good food, exceptional beer, friendly folks and a quality sure to please the budget conscious traveler, easy on the pocket book.  No doubt I’ll return yet again,  to act on a desire to explore and enjoy a whole lot more that I know is awaiting in the  Plains of Flanders.  

A note to my ‘très gentil’ followers and, so we are clear, I don’t mean to appear self-important but that’s how you my friends are referred to in the parlance of the blogger.  At any rate,  I’ve been chided by some of my Canadian friends for neglecting this  immense and often times grandiose country.  Living in British Columbia most certainly provides a plethora of beautiful scenery and spectacular vistas.   Therefore in the near future I’ll offer a selection of memorable views taken over the years in and around Vancouver and roaming the ways and byways of this richly varied province.  Until then, à bientôt!  

Blowing Magic Bubbles

“No matter how far you travel, you never get away from yourself.  It’s like your shadow. It follows you everywhere.”                        Haruki Murakami – ‘After the Quake’

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Foreign travel is my life’s passion but of necessity I return home (along with my shadow,) albeit reluctantly to water my plants and change shirts.  Soon enough the welcome of familiar surroundings becomes humdrum but fortunately I reside immediately facing Vancouver’s Stanley Park and Lost Lagoon is a stone’s throw from my door.  In praise of this immense urban park, I’ll vouch to never knowing what  awaits behind a majestic Douglas fir or along the ten kilometres of seawall around English Bay.  Daily I stroll along the leafy paths and feed the chickadees,  the squirrels too and if in a forgiving mood perhaps indulge a thieving racoon or two, especially the new born in the spring that admittedly are cute little rascals.

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(Note: To improve your viewing experience click on the photos below to enlarge — once for medium, twice to zoom in.) 

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At any rate one day this spring as I ambled down the shady lane leading to the lagoon, I was surprised, no, in fact, flabbergasted by what materialized in front of my eyes.  A soap bubble so large it almost filled up all of the sky between two large cedars.  I had no idea where that dazzling UFO had come from, it hovered an instant then in a breath of air flew upwards and in the sunlight a kaleidoscope of colours shimmered as if by magic.

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Those who know me well will not be surprised when I claim blowing soap bubbles in the wind is a wonderfully therapeutic activity.  To be candid it’s an activity I am totally in tune with, one might say I was born to be a Bubble Blower.  I can imagine nothing more heavenly, as fragile or short-lived and therein lies its poignant charm.   I might compare the bubble’s evanescent  existence to the span of a human life since when we first walked the face of this planet.  ‘Time’ is incomprehensible, beyond control, aloof and willful, fleeting as a shooting star.    But, this is to be a happy anecdotal story and thus I’ll spare you from more of such kill-joy musings.

Cherry blossoms seen behind the diaphanous bubble have but a short life span as well; such loveliness cannot be hoarded but pause and breathe in the time of a sigh, let go and await next year.  Always allowing myself the gift of a future pleasure is part of my personality make-up, or as a perspicacious friend claims me to be, “The Eternal Optimist.”  Truthfully I can’t quibble with that statement and am rather happy about it and grateful for such priceless good fortune. 

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Bubbles must be blown in the wind so the element of unpredictability is present every second, the god Zephyr must be of a mood  to change the direction and shape of a bubble to create the most whimsical of shapes and bursts of colours.   Now how did I come to blow bubbles? I mean gigantic bubbles that have no kinship with those of childhood.  Remember? You’d find a straw, carefully slice one end perhaps four or five times, bend the flaps to create a kind of starfish shaped instrument.

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 Then you’d dip it in a soapy water, warm but not too warm, pick up a small drop, carefully bring it to the mouth and then a blow a steady but gentle stream of air through the other end.  Result? Soap bubbles would materialize and with a delicate shake the bubble would release and fly off for an ethereal moment of glory.

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Indeed, even then as a burgeoning romantic lad I had come to equate soap bubbles with the fickleness of life.  Was I destined even then to be circumspect about my future prospects? Happily, I can emphatically say not but it was a close call after we’d emigrated to these shores when I was in my mid-teens.  Without being over stating the culture shock was traumatic and I never quite totally got over it.  But that’s an altogether other story to be told in full in my autobiography (presently in the furrowed brow stage).  

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Or they’d pop almost immediately and that too made me learn the rudiments of a philosophical stoicism admixed with an altar boy’s faith and hope about what to expect from life.  Some bubbles last and others don’t, and that’s that.  Well, all this is really of not much import however it does serve to introduce my recent adventure with soap bubbles, but in this instance gigantic, colourful ones such as my wildest dreams wouldn’t have been able to imagine. So, what is the science behind these beauties?  A soap bubble is an extremely thin film of soapy water enclosing air that forms a hollow sphere with an iridescent surface.   Not to get too technical (don’t want to ruin the whimsical quality) when light shines on the surface beautiful colours shimmer and swirl arising from interference of light reflecting off the front and back of the microscopically thin soap film.   And my friends, that’s where the explanations stop before it destroys the whimsical nature of blowing magic bubbles.  

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A few steps and I discovered where and who was the inspired creator of that surprise.  And that immediately brought to mind the very same phenomenal puffs of soap in front of Musée Pompidou, in Paris.  A few years ago for the first time in my life I saw a man entertaining a sizeable crowd, adults and children alike,  creating giant diaphanous air balloons. Curious as always,  I learned after chatting he now earned a good living from the coins tossed in to a hat.  In a heavily accented French he told coming from the Azore Islands where as a boy he’d learned the trick from his grand-father.  One afternoon he’d taken his children to a nearby park to entertain with bubbles as there was no money for carousel rides and instantly a sizeable crowd had gathered to cheer the display.  

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Months unemployed and unable to find a job he’d taken a chance to do exactly what he was doing then and it now fed him, a wife and two children.   There were several other entertaining acts in the large square fronting the Pompidou Centre but he had by far the largest gathering, no wonder, I thought, each and every one of us must at one time have blown tiny little bubbles and here was the absolute Everest compared to our puny hill of beans.  

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If I were of a mind to wax poetic I’d suggest this hopeful young lady is reaching for a bit of ethereal happiness.   I hope she finds it much more permanent than that elusive bit of froath but just as beautiful.

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The creator of the bubble was doing his thing by the edge of the water.  Later he told me the location was perfect as the wind was just right, neither too strong nor too weak with enough changes in direction to allow for different flight patterns.  Indeed, contrary to the bubbles of youth, these giants at times flew a considerable distance and lasted ten or more seconds.  Let me introduce the artist who delighted me and a gathering crowd with an impressive series of splendid bubbles.   His name is Rimvi and he turned out to be a really decent and generous fellow – you’ll soon discover why I thought so.

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Was he talented? Sure, look, he could conjure up  ‘doubles’ too.  Wow!  And the next one was HUGE!

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I spent several minutes watching and growing envious too.  Finally, I approached and asked if he’d be so kind as to let me try my hand at the exercise.  As I’d surmised since only a fine young man would take such pleasure in blowing bubbles he readily agreed and now you can judge for yourself if I possessed any latent yet promising  talent.

Oops, that was a bit of a bust … no pun, really, it went ‘ploop’ right off.  

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The truth is it took a few tries to get the hang of releasing the bubbles.  Making one was relatively easy although to be candid no sure thing, that came along soon enough but they seemed to get stuck to the tip end of my sticks.

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It took a bit of practice and a deft move. Think of it as if you were releasing a dove in the air.   Throwing your hands upwards but reasonably gently while tip-toeing back two or three steps,  gingerly but with purpose — in other words it took a little practice but I got it and now I share with you my best bubbles. 

Ah, that was better!

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This monumental (to my eyes) effort was caught on camera a milli-second before blowing up.  Notice the bottom tearing up.  

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This one was a winner, almost the size of a whale but the wrong camera angle as the sunlight was too bright and the colours didn’t  show well;  yet notice the witnessing couple in ‘shock and awe’ at the evidence of my prowess.  

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Finally  I’ll leave you with this shot, I don’t know, really if it was MY bubble or Rimvi’s but what the heck, I’ll be generous let it be his and I’ll take credit for a great shot, catching just the right angle of sun rays for maximum kaleidoscope effects.  

P1110042_2  Yes sir, I’m a generous kinda fella, love to spread the praise around, pour moi aussi naturellement.   A final note, I’m going to find the ‘bubble artist’ again, then I’ll plead with him to instruct me on how to manufacture the paraphernalia required to create my own happiness bubbles whenever and wherever.  My next trip I’ll share will be to Belgium – see you then.  Aurevoir mes amis.

‘Evanescence’

As a soap bubble life is ephemeral

let me live it with grace and dazzle

and when I burst out from existence

one tear drop I’ll leave as evidence.

On the smooth cool marble proclaim

a passionate heart was his domain.

Le Fabulist

   

Seoul – Vibrant Capital of South Korea

“The world is a book and those who don’t travel only read one page.”  Saint Augustine of Hippo 

After a surprise-filled, exciting journey of some 1200 kilometres that led me and my companion through the scenic interior of the Korean peninsula, vibrant, vital Seoul once again beckoned.  I was happy to find myself in the familiar surroundings of The Designer’s Hotel, especially as it is centrally located to much of what I could yet visit in the few short days left for me to explore this vast metropolis.  

A night view of the ubiquitous Seoul Tower, reminiscent of the Eiffel Tower it’s spotted almost anytime one looks up.  It provides a popular observation tower and useful off-air communications centre.

(Note: To improve your viewing experience click on the photos below to enlarge – once for medium, twice to zoom in.)

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After dark Seoul is a fascinating brightly lit city as in this photo.  I spent several minutes enjoying a fine laser show on the facade of this unknown (to me) building.  

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I had the sense the palpable hurly-burly of Seoul  nonetheless worked according to a well-designed urban plan.   When a full half of the nation’s population lives and works within the metropolitan area, 20 plus million souls need to adhere to an organized yet benign modus-operandi that works for everyone. The surface mass transportation system with countless buses servicing the effervescent downtown cores (there are four such within the city) is super efficient; the subway system served by 14 lines interlinks every district of the city.  The majority of the population uses public transportation with 8 million daily passengers; it  is spotlessly clean (in keeping with every thing else in Seoul) and in keeping with a  philosophy to encourage the greatest use of public transportation the cost of a ride is subsidized and by comparison with other major cities around the world a bargain, no doubt.   Further, if you’re in a particular hurry or simply want to avoid the crowds, taxis are extremely frequent and to my Vancouver jaundiced eyes, cheap beyond comparison.   In fact I’ll say it – the cab fare home from the airport by Seoul standards was obscene!  No wonder tourists to Vancouver soon become disenchanted with over-priced hotels, gouging restaurants and overall aura of creeping decrepitude.   I really believe there’s an established  policy by City Hall that sidewalks and public spaces  according to the whims of the rain, abundant here no doubt, hence deemed to be self-cleaning.  

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Seoul has one of the busiest subway systems in the world. In addition, in order to cope with all of these transportation modes, Seoul’s metropolitan government employs several mathematicians to coordinate the subway, bus, and traffic schedules into one timetable.   Nothing left to chance and it works!

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It seemed every evening was another sit-down to a feast and on this particular evening my guide led me to one of her very favourite restaurants, an all-you-can-eat seafood emporium that had two great features – mouth-watering food and the tab was a surprising delight.   As I was nearing the end of the my stay in Korea I can’t claim to have been surprised in the least and this may be as good a time as any to state unequivocally my holiday turned out to be the first time ever I’ve ventured abroad that I’d spent less than what I’d  budgeted for.  Prior to this happy event,  I’ll admit to never have returned home without necessarily augmenting a trip’s finances by making more liberal usage of a credit card.   

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A clever idea – patrons are handed a large plastic bag to hold their outer clothes.  Why? It’s a barbecue seafood place and thus the odour, alluring in the eating, is perhaps less aromatic in a crowded subway car.  Also notice the heavy linen gloves on the table; very useful to handle hot seashells.  

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Oh, yes is there any wonder I have this big smile on my face? In actual fact this evening out was to celebrate my companion’s birthday and I got away with it, drinks (four beers) included for just under $40 Canadian.  Imagine that anywhere in Vancouver, or Toronto, or anywhere else in this country, you’d be dreaming.   
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Notice the bucket at the top right hand? It’s for the purpose of getting rid of empty shells and whatnots.  Ara cautioned me not even to think of leaving before I had filled mine as she surely would hers.  A vigilant staff kept an eye out and hustled over with more of everything.   I assure my friends, I’m not shilling for this restaurant rather I’d urge you when considering making a trip somewhere other than the usual, put South Korea at the top of your list.  The people are invariably polite and kind, it boast of an ancient history, a sophisticated culture, a great cuisine and scenic sites to enjoy in or out of Seoul.  Moreover, you won’t bust your budget, I promise.  In fact, if Canadians in the business of tourism, government agencies or providers would take the time to see how it’s done successfully, this country’s ailing tourist industry would surely recover in quick time.   A ferocious stupidity  is in oversupply in complacent British Columbia, with astonishing arrogance fed by ignorance, it’s hardly likely to happen in this century if ever.  (Incidentally these last comments come under the heading of ‘How NOT to influence friends but rather to win enemies.’ )  
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Seoul has one of the youngest population anywhere on the globe.  Major corporations and government agencies attract workers and recent university graduates.  Evenings after a day at the office, as young people are prone to, they go out choosing from numerous eateries or to relax with a drink at local pubs.
 
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I suppose there’s no harm in yet one more example of fine eating at a great price; this eatery specialized in barbecued meats, lamb shishkebab particularly delectable.  
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It was also a fun place with a chattering ambiance and laughter in the air.  Hanging above every table a clever contraption would be lowered to an appropriate height and it  effectively sucked out the smoky air.  
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My predilection for food and eating must be left aside, oh, except for one last photo; as a coffee aficionado I must share this most delicious cappuccino, perfect in taste and presentation.  I’ve been attempting to duplicate if not the appearance at least the taste with my own Italian coffee maker but not even close, as yet.  
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Finally, after leaving my friend (poor girl) to return to her office I finally had the time necessary to visit the last must-see on my agenda.  I’m not suggesting there weren’t many more such to see in Seoul but I was on my last full day and so off to the ancient  king’s palace.    On my way I noticed several folks who were demonstrating against the indiscriminate killing of birds of all feathers, chickens and ducks included.  There was a recent outbreak of bird flu and the government was wisely using preventing measures however these nice people were concerned the effort was going overboard, at least that’s what I sort of understood.  Notice the numerous city buses in the background.  

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The main avenue leading to the ancient imperial palace along which imposing statues, various government ministry buildings and the United States Ambassy are found along the way.  

Admiral Yi Sun-Shin of the Joseon Dynasty earned a reputation among many historians as at least equal to England’s Horatio Nelson, if not superior taking into consideration the numerous battles he won most often with definitely inferior forces. He fought 23 battles against overwhelming superior forces, sinking thousands of enemy ships and yet never lost a single battle.  

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A regal fellow that, a face loaded with purpose and charismatic leadership in my view.  Notice there’s not a bit of pigeon droppings anywhere on the worthy and yet the statue is several metres tall.  How do they keep it that way? Coming from Vancouver presently infested by crows in flocks of thousands, of course with pigeons everywhere and a proliferation of Canada Geese I soon notice and appreciate such free-from-bird droppings environment. I can’t imagine there’s a man with a tall ladder going up to clean up every day, so how do they do it? Incidentally when I mentioned the crow problem to the current city mayor, his surprised comment was, “Really, I didn’t know we had a crow problem.”  When I called the Wild Life Service of the federal Environment Ministry the answer was a pat one, if rather weasel-mouthed, “Crows and Canada Geese are protected by the migratory bird act.”  Maybe I suggested these birds should be made aware they ought to head south at least half of the time but nope, they hang around and proliferate.  Alas, if  intent and purpose is lacking  the official bullshit is in no short supply.   

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The ‘Turtle Ship’ was improved by the astute admiral and used to great effect against the invading Japanese fleets.  Heavily armed, it used sails and oars located in a second deck added mobility crucial in close combat.   The spikes atop the roof kept Japanese sailors from using a favoured tactic that of boarding and hand-to-hand combat.   The Admiral wise to this always managed to keep his ships from being boarded and overwhelmed by superiors numbers. 

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Along just a little further up the avenue the regal statue of Sejong the Great, a monarch deservedly revered in Korean history and national culture.   A king and learned scholar (please note English folks, what has Elizsbeth II done for you sitting on the throne for six decades? Oh, wait she and her family got filthy rich, jolly good and pip pip) he created Hangul, the distinctive Korea alphabet ridding his country of the usage of Chinese characters.   I’m sure this fact has probably caused heartburn across in Japan where they are still (and I assume forever) wedded to Chinese characters but that’s another story.  For my part I applaud any country that has the pride to create and celebrate their own style – bravo!  At first it wasn’t welcomed by the upper classes as they alone were educated in reading and writing but that was precisely to break this monopoly this very wise man decreed a new and much easier method to write the national language. 

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In explaining the need for the new script, King Sejong explained that the Korean language was fundamentally different from Chinese; using Chinese characters (known as hanja) to write was so difficult for the common people that only privileged aristocrats usually male, could read and write fluently. Hangul was designed so that even a commoner could learn to read and write and an old saying states, a “A wise man can acquaint himself with them before the morning is over; a stupid man can learn them in the space of ten days.”

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Almost directly across the wide avenue, notice the US compound was mightily protected with scads of Korean police, barbed wire over tall fences  and plenty of security cameras.  One can never be too careful these days.  

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Also on this great avenue, a government ministry office with lots of security too; it’s not a simple world anymore.
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The main gate to the Imperial Palace (Gyeiong Bok Gung) that was originally constructed in 1394 by King Taejo, the first king and the founder of the Joseon Dynasty and expanded by succeeding kings.   Owing to its status as the symbol of national sovereignty, the palace was demolished during the Japanese occupation;  during their colonial rule (1905 to 1945)  it was an official policy to destroy historic buildings and monuments that might keep alive nationalist sentiments of the people.  Presently the Korean government is committed to restoring to its original beauty much of the past glories no matter how many decades it might take.  As of 2009, roughly 40% of the original number of palace buildings still stand or have been reconstructed.  Splendid!

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Rain or shine,  each and every day, from ten a.m. to 3 p.m. a splendidly attired royal guard parade to the sounds of military music and a colourful  changing of the guards takes place with great pageantry to the delight of onlookers.
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Mount Bugak as a backdrop and the Street of Six Ministries outside the main gate the daily parade by resplendent palace guards reminds onlookers of past glories.  
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In the background a fine structure originally built for the leisurely pleasure of the Royal family and retinue.  The pavilion has been reconstructed exactly to former dimensions and design and is designated as National Treasure No. 224.  
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No commentary need be added to the knowledge and fine workmanship required to recreate buildings to their original splendour.
 
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 The Imperial Throne Hall – National Treasure No. 223
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In front of the Folk Museum on the castle grounds I came across an interesting statue display of the Zodiac according to Oriental lore and here I am in front mine, the dreaded Dragon.  Yeah!P1100722
And so, I’ve come to the end of yet another photo essay dedicated to the praise of ‘The Land of the Morning Calm.’  Indeed, throughout several postings I have without stint heaped positive commentary on this fine country, but I stand by all I wrote because I saw and personally experienced;  it is sincere and in keeping with my journalist’s credo  objectively described.  Once we get past admiring the God-given scenic wonders, the ancient history, the cultural achievements and the friendly and ethical conduct as I experienced it on a daily basis  is an accurate reflection of the  superior quality of its people.  I’ve mentioned it elsewhere on this blog but any one who is looking for a great travel adventure on a limited budget, South Korea is the place for you.   For my part I’m already plotting a return with a longer stay.  
The International Airport at Incheon is state of the art, handling huge passenger and commercial traffic with cool efficiency; it is considered by many international organizations as travellers, me included, as the best in the world .   The buildings are vast and airy, spotlessly clean in keeping with all such Korean venues; the long distances between check-in and departure gates are easily managed by long moving sidewalks.  Notice the skating rink for kids to while away time before departure.   
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At this juncture it’s appropriate since she took the photo to give thanks to Ara, my hostess, travel companion, guide and translator.  Her considerable knowledge of Korean history and culture, her good humoured nature and generosity no doubt contributed mightily to the enjoyment I had throughout my stay.  Merci beaucoup ma chère amie.  Gamsa-hamndia!
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I’ll be seeing you soon, blowing bubbles, yep, big, enormous bubbles.  It’s guaranteed awesome, don’t miss the fun!  Annyeonghi-gaseyo!

South Korea – Guin-sa Temple

“It is better to travel well than to arrive.”  Buddha

Guin-sa (Salvation and Kindness Temple) is squeezed into a narrow, secluded valley located in the shade of Mt. Sobaeksan.  The sprawling temple complex is the spectacular headquarters of the Cheontae school of Buddhism and the religious centre for 2 million adherents who follow the precepts of the Grand Patriarch Sangwol-Wongak.  Less than a 30 minute drive from Danyang City, the mysterious aura of the rugged mountains has led to its reputation as a holy place of Mahayana Buddhism. The hermit monk’s vow to revive Buddhism, to protect the nation and create a sanctuary to save all sentient beings saw its modest beginning in 1945.  In an isolated location, the Grand Patriarch built a tiny thatched hut with intertwined arrowroot vines; solitary he led a life of austerity, seeking a complete awakening through fast and meditation. His wisdom and integrity shone brightly and soon numerous disciples flocked to his side.  In tandem with the nation’s economic miracle since the end of the 1953 Korean War, it has prospered until it is as now the biggest temple in Korea.

(Note: To improve your viewing experience click on the photos below to enlarge – once for medium, twice to zoom in.)

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From a passenger car and bus parking lot we begin what turned out to be a long and tiring walk up a steep, curving road.  Nothing prepared me for the sights that unfolded as we progressed  and each new corner unveiled yet another startling vista.   Past the first ornate entrance a steady stream of pilgrims moved on without undue haste or chatter, only the muted shuffle of feet and a fresh wind in the pines.  Widely known to worshipers as a miraculous and mystic retreat, words of encouragement whisper that everyone’s prayers come trueHere as in any of the several places of pilgrimage I’ve visited, be it Lourdes or Fatima, believers the world over gather to seek relief to physical ailments, emotional distress and spiritual enlightment.  Bless us all!

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The early spring season with cool temperatures in the mountains is not known for being particularly busy, even so coming and going the foot traffic is never at a stand still.  

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Further up a massive stone gate houses two fearsome deities vigilantly guarding the entrance to the grounds.  Notice the intricate, colourful carvings and meticulous tile work.   Throughout the grounds the work of hundreds of Korean artisans was a uniform display of the highest order of traditional artistry.

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Numerous believers daily flock to pray, meditate and seek a peaceful respite from daily travails encountered in an intense success driven country.  By most standards the complex although relatively new (1945) now comprises 50 intricately designed buildings that offer all the trappings of a small but efficient  town.   

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The buildings unfold in layers as you make your way upwards.  The temple as well as a place of worship provides sleeping accommodations for those who wish to stay a few days to reflect and pray.  Balconies are strewn with drying bags and patios occupied by neatly arranged Onggi kimchi pots; a huge cafeteria caters free vegetarian meals.  

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Morning ablutions and getting ready for a day of meditation, prayer and discovering the nooks and crannies of this vast complex.  

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You’d have to be the worst kind of photographer to not discover a great angle or a colourful scene.  Gung-sa reminded me of a thought I had when viewing my photos of the Taj Mahal  – each appeared to be perfect.  In fact, I concluded one could throw a camera in the air and the perfect angle would be an automatic result.  The construction plan of this unique temple is truly striking as it includes placing fifty odd structures in different angled positions so each melds seamlessly within the whole panoply of buildings.   

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I came across what to my eyes was an unusual sight among the splendid buildings – dozens of large glazed terra cotta pots that my companion assured were filled with kimchi, the pungent, spicy concoction of fermented cabbage unique to this country, in actual fact it is the national dish. In traditional preparation kimchi is often allowed to ferment underground in jars for months.

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I’ll take this opportunity to reveal my appreciation of kimchi (also kimchee) since I was first introduced to this very particularly Korean condiment.  Types are determined by the main vegetable ingredients most often Napa (Chinese) cabbage, sometimes chopped radish or cucumber and the mix of seasonings; the most common are brine, scallions, spices, ginger, the indispensable garlic, anchovy paste, shrimp or fish sauce and other spices depending on the regional preference.  A  mainstay on any Korea table it is used in everything from soups to pancakes, and even as a topping on pizza and burgers.

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Kimchi is said to be excellent for one’s health and after an initial trial period I came to love it, anytime.  In Vancouver there are several Korean food outlets and I regularly buy the stuff for my use, often times simply to jazz up an omelet, rice or noodles.  Below, a Korean-style pancake easily made at home that meets my stringent standards for tastiness; after all I eat what I cook, right? 

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On any table  the guest will discover a tasty array of varied appetizers in the form of pickles and kimchi.   

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This super-condiment served at every meal with an average 18 kilos (40 pounds) per person each year is part of a high-fiber, low-fat diet that has kept obesity at bay in Korea.  Kimchi is loaded with vitamins A, B, and C, however its biggest benefit may be in its ‘healthy bacteria’ called lactobacilli, this good bacteria facilitates good digestion, plus according to a recent study it appears to help stop and even prevent yeast infections. Furthermore, some studies show fermented cabbage has compounds that may prevent the growth of stomach cancer.  (I read of such a study recently published in the US that caused a precipitous run on traditional East-European sauerkraut.  A life long lover of the dish in its many forms, I was pleased by the good news although miffed by the sudden doubling in price.  The old supply and demand routine that a capitalist society imposes every time – the more you want it the more you’ll pay or do without.)  How important is kimchi within the national lore? Its history has long been studied and documented along with many serious books written and the Kimchi Field Museum in Seoul has documented no fewer than 187 traditional and current varieties.  In traditional preparation kimchi is often allowed to ferment underground in jars for months.  As a group activity the women folk in a village prepare the delicious and absolute necessary staple.  

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Kimchi types are determined by the main vegetable ingredients and the mix of seasonings used for flavouring as well as region of origin and season.   

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My impression is whenever I encounter Buddhist monks they are invariably smiling or failing that display an expression of unperturbed inner peace.  Do they know something we don’t?   I sense that they must.   

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Unfortunately I didn’t feel as if I dared walk in this inner sanctum even with shoes removed, I simply didn’t know what was acceptable and rather than risk offending I merely looked on from outside and spent a moment in respectful  reflection and awareness of the deep spirituality of the surroundings.

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At this conjuncture it is appropriate to leave this peaceful haven from the pressing daily cares of the world.  I’ll meet you again for a final close up look at Seoul, that vast, varied and vital metropolis.    It’s a rendez-vous between us, a bientôt.  Annyeonghi-gaseyo!

South Korea – Danyang City

“There are no foreign lands.  It is the traveler only who is foreign.”  
Robert Louis Stevenson
The trip through the countryside of South Korea  continued to provide a cornucopia of splendid vistas, historic sites and constant reminders of how vibrant and varied is the Korean life-style.  A not unusual circumstance in the Korean peninsula, Danyang City is surrounded by high mountains; it is a celebrated centre of hang-gliding, deep, limestone caves and a varied choice of interesting, enjoyable excursions within an hour’s drive, fine accommodations, hot springs and fine cuisine as I came to expect wherever we stopped for a visit.  Oh, and the local farmers produce a prized garlic, a healthy flavourful addition much used in the nation’s dishes.  How good is the pungent bulb?  So proud are the locals they celebrate by choosing a Garlic Princess in a beauty contest.  Pretty yes, but is she kissable? 
(NOTE: To improve your viewing experience click on the photos below to enlarge – once for medium, twice to zoom in.)
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The resort town built around the looping elbow of the Nam Han River is rather small by Korean standards with something less than 40000 inhabitants.  Boasting ‘Eight Scenic Beauties’ as an alluring tourist destination, it is an unhurried three hours drive south of  Seoul where to recharge one’s emotional and physical batteries.  
 
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A couple kilometres out from the town proper a comfortable hotel provided all the amenities one could wish for after several days of heavy duty travel.  Called the  ‘Edelweiss’ it was a little surprising but I didn’t discovr if there were any such European Alpine flowers in the surrounding mountains.  On the other hand, why not? 

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In the course of my working career coupled with my passion for travel I’ve necessarily sojourned in countless hotels but this side-by-side bathtub for two was a definite first.   Korean accommodations as far as I experienced always placed a premium on bathroom facilities.  Loved it!

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I’m thinking the ‘Art of Fine Eating’ should be classed as the national  sport of Korea.  Seriously, for what by usual Canadian standards is a fast food price one can invariably sit down to a copious dinner with all the appetizers, condiments, salads and soups one can desire.  Just bring an appetite and enjoy! Notice what is a common amenity in a Korean restaurant – a table top gas range to cook your food as you go.  The advantages are you can choose how  well done or rare you want your meat, how crispy your veggies, as well as keeping the savoury broth warm at all time.  

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The covered market place off the main street is an emporium for all types of useful shopping and restaurants.  In a mountainous country that features a plentiful winter snowfall it’s a much appreciated amenity by the townsfolk.  

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The train bridge and highway viaduct as seen from the hotel room.  

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Thiz attractive pedestrian bridge crosses the Nam Han River to a park beyond; it is imaginatively illuminated at night and provides a conducive aura  for strolling  lovers seeking a bit of magic.  

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A drive up the facing mountain in retrospect shouldn’t have been undertaken but the prospect of a night view of the panorama below was too much to resist.   The  rough, narrow roadway up to the jump off area for expert hang-gliders was deeply rutted and at times iced up making driving a hazardous undertaking.   Barely more than a single lane wide I was grateful not to encounter another car coming the other way; the precipitous cliff on the right hand side had absolutely no guardrail and it was a sheer drop off several hundred metres down. OY!  I really should have known better and turned tail but on the other hand the view was indeed magnificent and soon I only had to worry about navigating safely back to town.  

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The return trip over the bridge and yes, we had a celebratory drink back at the hotel, me with a sheepish smile and Ara with obvious relief.    

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“Yeah, sure there was nothing to it!”  Said he with a reassuring smile.  P1100540

At the top of the ferry dock at Chunguiko about to take a boat cruise along the Namhangang River – my companion is well prepared to face what was to be one cold outing.

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The river was dammed in 1986 to create a vast artificial lake to provide a secure water supply for Seoul as well as additional hydro-electric power.  Ancient parts of Danyang City dating back many centuries unfortunately was sacrificed to the demands of the present.  The area is dotted with deep caves, surrounded by three national parks.  

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A classic Korean peninsula vista that features wooded hills backed by higher mountains forming an impressive panorama.

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I was a little less well bundled up for the excursion but couldn’t resist saluting the national flag (known as Taegukgi) of my host country.  The flag’s design is entirely unique, composed of three parts; a white background, a red and blue ‘Taeguk’ and four black trigrams.  The white represents peace and purity, the Taeguk is the yin and yang symbol that represents the balance of the universe (the  blue represents negative cosmic forces whereas the red opposite positive forces) finally the trigrams together represent the principle of movement and harmony. Each corner trigram (hangul: kwae) represents one of the four classical elements sky, sun, moon and earth.  There’s much more to the flag and it’s worth doing a little research into its history and discover more of how it came to be.  For a country with such a long and illustrious history it wasn’t until 1883 when the Joseon government officially promulgated Taegukgi to henceforth be used as the official national flag.

P1100483As a boy I thought the French ‘bleu, blanc, rouge’ was rife with meaning but it pales compared to the beautifully designed and poetic Taegukgi.  The national ethos of ‘The Land of the Morning Calm’ in many respects is underscored by its proud ensign.  A good time to exit here and hope you check out my next entry, ‘Guin-sa’ a spectacular Buddhist temple complex that will surely impress you as it did me.  

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