South Korea – Windmill Green Power; Andong UNESCO World Heritage Site

Reluctantly leaving splendid Gyeongju behind the next destination was a UNESCO World Heritage Site I was assured would be, for the small-town boy that I am at heart, a visual treat.  On the way, atop one of the innumerable hills in the area I spotted a windmill farm.   Never close up to one before without hesitation I turned off the highway and found the way up to discover more than I’d expected to see.  

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

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These are so much bigger close up than can be imagined seen from the valley below.   I was surprised other than a softly blowing wind, no discernible sound other than a gentle whoosh emitted from the giant spinning wings generating valuable electric energy.   All in all a peaceful scene that was so much more agreeable to the eye and kind to our natural environment than the gigantic containment towers of radiation spewing nuclear power plants and carbon laden smoke belched out by coal burning power generating effectively ruining our atmosphere.   When I think about the killing wounds inflicted to our fragile blue planet, I wonder just what are they thinking the self-annointed ‘Captains of Industry’? Abetted by craven politicians who meekly kow-tow, do they not have offspring of their own or are they all as I suspect sterile eunuchs?  Well, I answered my own question.

Incidentally, to add weight to these admittedly acerbic comments, I have personally observed up-close the machinations of politicians (grubbing for votes and money to buy elections, always) and the lobbying pressure from industry to allow unrestricted action in the pursuit of the almighty dollar.  I say this as a former journalist and having also spent time within the Canadian Ministry of the Environment.  When Brian Mulroney took power (1984) with the Conservative Party (correlate to G.W. Bush and today’s Republican Party) the first order of business was to slash research budgets into pollution and to expunge any lofty ideal about controlling let alone punishing polluting industries.  What a pathetic human being!  Today we have a sordid mental midget, a weasel Prime Minister if ever there was one who has wantonly destroyed Canada’s former stellar standing in the international community by (without consulting the Canadian people I may point out) slithered us out of the Kyoto Treaty we were almost first to ratify and who  presently is moving heaven, no, make that hell, to promote the sordid Keystone Pipeline project to ferry dirty oil from the Alberta Tar Sands, across an entire continent all the way down to the Gulf of Mexico.  Who for? To enrich further the venal oil barons sitting in Houston, Texas and Calgary in Alberta his home province and of course political base.  Yet, Albertans are the heedless sheep who will bear the brunt of the ecological disaster to follow – a pox on him!

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If you can read the Korean language the statistics posted below are self-explanatory or,  much easier as in my case, asking Ara to translate. 

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I can assure you even intrepid Don Quixote would have thought twice about taking these giants on.  Image the height at 80 metres (263 feet) or if you can imagine it, the height of a North American skyscraper; individual wing span at 46.2 metre (147 feet) for a two wing span of 95 metres (312 feet) rotating at between 9 to 16.9 revolutions per minute.  These steel leviathans weight 11 000 kilos (24 25o pounds), are 4.8 metres (16 Ft.) measured at the base and 3 metres (10Ft.) at its summit.   These particular seven windmills provide a year’s supply of electric energy for the equivalent of a 12 000 household town.   Imagine now much more can be done if there is the political will to encourage and if necessary to fund the construction of thousands more across the world.   And here’s the not so secret method  to bend the for-hire political system to the will of an enlightened voting public to effectively prevail upon old, inefficient energy providers to mend their  ways.   Take it as an absolute that politicians are nobodies once booted out of office. The will of the people can be made to prevail with the power of the voting urn.   Use it!

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I’m a convinced believer in the green power of modern windmill farms.  Much as their forerunners made use of natural wind flows over hilltops, these giants are a technological and structural wonder creating electric power that is economic and  renewable without limits. Definitely the future is in innovative power generation, whether with windmill farms, developing unlimited potential tidal power and maximizing other environmentally benign power generation techniques.  For example a valued friend, Jim K. has recently converted his home (London, Ontario)  into a solar power generating station.   He’s done himself a big favour by mitigating the rising cost of electricity, moreover adding reality value and contributing to the well-being of the environment by meaningfully reducing what he refers to as, “My carbon footprint”.  Check and consider this intelligent alternative with your local electricity provider and personally contribute to a greener world. Not only must we demand political action and corporate responsiveness, but renewable energy should not be merely a pious wish for individuals.

Beginning the northern swing back towards Seoul, we first headed for Andong, a thriving city of some 160,000 inhabitants.  It was interesting enough on its own, the usual good food and eclectic market place, but knowing my proclivity for authentic rural life-style, Ara was quite secretive about the next morning’s outing and the surprise was indeed worth the anticipation.   I enjoyed the drive through bucolic countryside and there around a corner my first glimpse of what surely was bound to be a fascinating look backwards into Korean history.  

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First recorded presence dates to the 16th century, Hahoe Village is a traditional farming community from the Joseon Dynasty. Presently a valuable part of Korean culture as it preserves period architecture, folk art and customs, valuable ancient books and yet still maintains the old tradition of clan-based villages. It is organized around the geomantic guidelines of pungsu therefore in the shape of a lotus flower or two interlocking comma shapes.  Over six centuries, the Yu clan of Pungsan has persisted through hard times and good times steadfastly maintaining a one-clan community since its very first days.

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In keeping with the unexpected an elaborate entrance greeted us after a long walk from the parking lot kept well away from view so as not to spoil the rustic charm of the village.  Just so there’s no misunderstanding, this is a real to goodness working and living village with farmers tending to their fields.  The food stalls, souvenir shops and folk art museum are segregated away from the ‘real’ village to afford maximum privacy for the resident farming folks.  

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Inside the entrance an interesting gallery room was dedicated to inform visitors to the proud event celebrating the inclusion of Hahoe Village into the prestigious list of UNESCO World Heritage Sites in 2010.  One year later locals were proud to receive none less than Elizabeth II on an official visit from the United Kingdom.   I semi-shocked Ara with a playful imaginary ‘up yours’ to Her Royal Majesty’s nose; a gesture in keeping with my well-documented aversion to anything resembling inherited wealth, power or position.  Without doubt it harkens to my father’s staunchly republican upbringing and my unwillingness to kowtow to anyone, period.    However, not to offend any of my Anglo friends, I assure you it was all in harmless fun; I’m not advocating a French-style ‘révolution’ although I wouldn’t oppose a bloodless version.  
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Okay, I’ll be a goodl sport and for my friends who value monarchy (Lord knows why? I can’t help myself, sorry.) I offer a good photo without tom-foolery.
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You’ll notice the gloves on a cool but overall pleasant day.  The advantage as any traveler knows that being on the road during a week-day and better still during off-tourist season usually results in much less congested visitor traffic.  There were a few tour buses but the village was large enough to wander freely about without more than occasionally encountering other sight-seers. 
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Walking by an affluent home with splendid tiled roof next to traditional structures reserved for artisans and farmers.
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The thatched roofs have been in continuous use for centuries and of course the reason why Hahoe village is so distinctive and unusual by modern building standards.  However, some years ago I was surprised to see many such roofs in Germany’s beautiful Swartzwald (Black Forest).  It is claimed with good reason a thatch roof is a fine insulator retaining heat during the winter and the interior cool in the summer.  Furthermore, new techniques are making it more viable economically; for my part it’s so much more attractive to the eye.
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New thatch rolled up and standing by ready for use to replace old rooftops after an average seven years of sturdily handling the vagaries of natural elements. 
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The reed material is grown and readily available locally as can be seen in the foreground of this next photo.
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In keeping with the folk tradition of the locals many of the entrances to homes featured a carved wooden effigy of mythical creatures meant to keep bad luck and evil spirits in check. 
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I couldn’t resist including plump magpies feasting on ‘organic’ tidbits selected from a pile of fresh manure provided via old time farming practices.  I love those clever birds as you must know if you’ve read the true to life tale entitled ‘Mac the Magpie’ found elsewhere in this blog.  Look for it under Fables From the Moonlight Garden, read and you’ll surely concur with my unrestrained admiration.
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A well-stocked museum featured ancient carvings, traditional costumes as well as face masks as modelled by Ara. The village is notable because it has preserved many of its original structures, such as the local Confucian school and other buildings, and maintains folk arts such as the Hahoe Mask Dance Drama which is a shamanist rite honoring the communal spirits of the village
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Strolling and gadding about the village compound a wide-limbed tree caught the attention; the sign gave the age of this stalwart as 400 years old and still growing large, tall and in great health.
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The village hugged a clear flowing river providing home drinking water and feeding irrigation ditches; it is well protected by surrounding mountains and Buyongdae Cliff.  
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We explored the outer limits of the village strolling along quiet lanes enjoying the  peaceful and attractive scenery – no wonder this village has been occupied for uninterrupted  centuries.  Now that it has been included as a worthy contributor to humankind’s historic heritage I’m confident under the auspices of  Korea’s Ministry of Culture but especially the prideful ownership of local inhabitants,  Andong’s Hakoe Village will delight new generations long  into the future.   Thus we come to the end of a most interesting visit, as usual too short lived but there’s always a next time for those of us who are forever optimistic, as I admit to have a natural propensity for such a happy frame of mind.  Next come along with me and Ara to charming Danyang City and a visit to an impressive  Buddhist temple complex.  
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Korea – Magical Anapji Pond; Tombs and Tiamo in historic Gyeongju


Gyeongju is often referred to as ‘The Museum without Walls’ and for good reason given the abundance of splendid Buddhist temples, royal tombs and relics without mentioning present day music festivals and varied cultural activities.  The city was the capital of the great Silla Kingdom  (57 BC – 935 AD) and in its apogee claimed a million population – huge by any worldwide standards during the first millennium.    Low mountains are scattered throughout what is best described as a rural-urban complex that presently claims a population of just over a quarter million.

Already in a previous post I declared my enthusiasm for two very special UNESCO sites (Bulguksa Temple and Seokguram Grotto) and now I’ll share a surreal evening spent admiring magical Anapji Pond an artificial lake within Gyeongju National Park built in 674 by order of King Munmu.

(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 part of the comprehensive Gyeongju Valley archaeological study, the Korean government temporarily drained Anapji Pond in 1972 revealing thousands of Silla artifacts that had fallen into the lake or were thrown in much to the delight of future researchers into Korea’s cultural heritage.  Many of these were restored and relocated to the Gyeongju National Museum.  In 1974 the pond was rebuild as close to the original minus the long-ago royal parties that were dazzling in pageantry and  magnificence.   “During the era of King Munmu a new pond was made in the palace and flowers and birds flourished in this pond”. 

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It was a cold but bracing evening’s stroll to admire the vast grounds; Ara, my guide, unlike me was perfectly outfitted for the occasion.  I was caught off-guard since only two days before the temperatures only a half-hour’s drive away by the East Sea shore was a spring-like 2o degree Celcius.   She explained that it was not unusual in South Korea to have dramatic swings in temperatures, up or down, due to it’s geographical location and so when traveling it paid to have an adequately varied wardrobe.  In my opinion a fashionable woman’s excuse to overload the suitcase with clothes; whatever, it was one big dip from short-sleeves to bone chilling temps.  

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See? This photo was taken a day before on the beach about thirty minutes away.  For two glorious days it was  an unexpected bonus to enjoy the sights in comfortable clothing; then the reality of the calendar set in.  

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Three illuminated islands artistically located to be eye pleasing lend further charm to the magical aura of the evening. 

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Not quite the Pyramids but for centuries the royals were buried in elaborate chambers along with the paraphenerlia deemed necessary for a pleasant afterlife and then secured under huge grassy mounds.   Many of these have yealded rich artifacts attesting to the artistic accomplishments and wealth of the Silla Kingdom.    

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Today, within the city proper, the vast grounds provide a pleasant park atmosphere for those seeking a peaceful stroll and perhaps give a passing thought to the ephemeral life of the once rich and powerful.   In the final reckoning physical ‘death’ does indeed create us all equals and I for one find it a comforting thought.  

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I would feel remiss if I didn’t include an account of what turned out to be a great bonus to my stay in Gyeongju.  I had been somewhat surprised at my clever guide’s choice of accommodations but by now I should have known better.  The truth is that in my travels for the most part I have been the one to manage the search for and choice of accommodations.   In this instance since Ara had come up with splendid hotels in Seoul and elsewhere I saw no reason to ask questions and yet, this was different.   Within the city and yet in a semi-rural setting we drove up to a different type of lodging as far as I was concerned.  In a small compound of like buildings we found what she was looking for – the ‘Tiamo’, at first sight a pleasant looking small pension, for lack of a better word to describe it.   The feature of the place and the specific reason why Ara had chosen was that it offered a barbecue facility – not, I hasten to say, out in an open to all area but on your own balcony.  Furthermore, all that was needed was to advise the owner of the time you wanted to barbecue and it was done, to the minute, a perfect fire ready for your meats.

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 The barbecue idea is a popular week-end activity for city-bound folks who live in apartment buildings and don’t have the luxury of back-yards or large balconies, thus often a group of friends will get together and book a room for fun, a little drink and lots of tasty Korean-style barbecued meats.  For my part it was also my first experience shopping in a Korean supermarket.  I can vouch it was a pleasure to discover a splendid variety of food, fresh bakery goods, fish and meat and especially in my eyes (deprived as I am living in stodgy Canada) a vast array of wines, beer and other alcoholic potables to choose from to complement our choices of meat.   I wonder when Canada will ever get to the point where residents will not be treated as potential alcoholics who must be closely monitored and kept from spending their money as they see fit.  It’s been promised a hundred times over by politicians looking for votes and of course in keeping with their in-bred insincerity never acted upon (except in Quebec province) and so I keep on waiting but I don’t believe it will ever happen – maybe next century?  Just think about this for example, you can’t buy a bottle of wine in a B.C. winery for a nickel less than what you’ll have to pay in a government liquor outlet.  Ferocious official stupidity I call it and leave it at that although I could devote an entire chapter to this but why bore you? 

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The host and hostess with the ‘mostest’ – really this fine couple couldn’t do enough to make our stay as pleasant as possible.  The service was above and beyond what we could hope for as we were spoiled with home-made soup and in the morning we were surprised with a delicious breakfast not part of the arrangement.  Why were we so well treated, I wondered? They revealed their son had spent some time in Vancouver and always spoke highly of how well he’d been treated, thus they were paying back, in a sense.  I made sure Ara realized all the extra good stuff was after all thanks to me and a good reason to remember that in life you never know when a good deed will be rewarded in unexpected fashion.  

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Finally, an unsolicited bit of promotion for this fine establishment.  If you’re ever in Gyeongju do yourself a big favour and book yourself into these fine lodgings.  The barbecue will be there with a perfect fire waiting for you to enjoy.  
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South Korea – Ancient Royal City of Gyeongju


As I stated in my previous post (East Sea – Port Hupo) Ara, my Korean friend, had expertly planned an itinerary that in the limited time available would give me the opportunity to view rural Korea as well as visit several splendid historic and cultural icons.  Gyeongju, the ancient royal city, she confided was on every high school student’s eventual tour list.  She had been on one such field trip and remembered the experience fondly as the first time she’s been anywhere with friends and teachers but no parents along – that was so exciting, she admitted.

Well, it was equally exciting for me I can assure as from the very first view I knew there would be things to see and do that would be worthy of banking in my memory vault.  The building below with its inner pagoda profile was striking in its imaginative architecture as you’ll surely concur; it’s a popular observation tower completed in 2007 along with Gyeongju Expo Culture Center.

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The structure is the equivalent of a 30 floor building and is the location since for numerous music festivals and other cultural events.  At night strobe lights and a kaleidoscope of colours makes for a magical spectacle.   

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Among the many featured historic sites, Bulguksa Temple is atop any list for  pilgrims and foreign travellers.  Within its walls are kept seven of the catalogued National Treasures and the temple itself is classified as Historic and Scenic Site No. 1 by the South Korean government.  The entrance to the temple, Sokgyemun, has a double-sectioned staircase and bridge (National Treasure No. 23) that leads to the inside of the temple compound. 

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 The stairway is 33 steps high, corresponding to the 33 steps to enlightenment.  I climbed with great anticipation and still awaiting the favourable results, yet to come hopefully. 

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The temple is considered  a masterpiece of the golden age of Buddhist art in the Silla Kingdom and currently an important  temple of the Jogye Order of Korean Buddhism.   The Silla Kingdom grew from one small tribal enclave to eventually rule over almost the entire Korean Peninsula lasting just short of one thousand years from 57 BC to 935 AD.   Buddhism, introduced in the 6th Century, played a significant role in strengthening royal authority, unifying the people, becoming the foundation of the area’s art, tradition, and culture.    In comparison  Western Europe was then well into what has been referred to as the Dark Ages, mired in centuries of superstition, wars and famine.  

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Bulguksa is a virtual cornucopia of history, art and culture, in 1995 it was added to the prestigious UNESCO World Heritage List.   In fact there is so much to be seen and appreciated in and around the town in 2000 five districts were added to the list of World Cultural Heritages under the title ‘Gyeongju Historic Areas.’  The following photos require no explanation.  

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Beyond this ornate gate private quarters for monks and temple staff. 

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The temple is surrounded by ample grounds, peaceful and propitious for quiet contemplation.

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The ornate, uplifted roof entrance to Seokguram Grotto (only four kilometres from Bulguksa Temple) examplifies classic Korean architecture; it sits atop a steep hillside and affords a vast panoramic vista of Gyeongju far below. 

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It is promised that banging the huge bell with the wooden log is a guarantee of good luck to the ‘banger’.  I wished to return soon and I have a strong feeling it might just be ringing true in the wind.  

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Buddhist monks are seen everywhere – I couldn’t help but ponder the difference between Asia and elsewhere, in Europe in particular, where ancient monasteries are closing for lack of vocations.   Even within the walls of fabled Mt. St. Michel where for centuries hundreds used to pray and meditate presently only a handful of monks remain to keep a flickering  candle of faith burning. 

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The paths leading to and from the grotto are steep and rugged but they don’t deter the devout pilgrims, not matter how hold or in poor health.  I couldn’t help but be full of admiration as I spotted the gritty efforts of so many who came seeking a spiritual help for physical ills.   

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Finally, before leaving I slaked my thirst at a fresh spring water fountain.  I look forward to seeing you at my next entry when I’ll share some spectacular, beautiful photos.  You’ll not find fault with my promise, I promise.

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Scenic Korea – East Sea and Hupo Port


After a few hectic, exciting days in Seoul I was fortunate to spend several
 days meandering through some 1200 kilometres of rural Korea.  Since time was limited, my host planned an itinerary she considered would be a representative cross-section of Korea’s countryside and historic towns.  Unerringly (with her trusty GPS)  she guided me to daily discover what is a picturesque country with scenic landscape around every bend of the road and proudly preserved historic and cultural achievements.   I have made no secret of my affinity for bucolic landscape and since as a boy I first dipped a toe in salt water seascapes around the world have pulled me to their shores.   Thanks to this thoughtfully designed tour I feasted on an abundance of all that I love best.   I can only express a deep debt of gratitude to you my dear friend.  

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

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P1100042Incidentally, a GPS is a wonderful travel aid and I plan to prevail myself of that technology any time I can in future forays to foreign lands.  Knowing my love of everything to do with the sea, seaports and seafood we headed for the East Sea, more precisely to Hupo Port, some 40 kilometres south of Uljin.  A geographical note here: in case you are wondering if there’s a connection with the Sea of Japan, indeed there is, it is one and the same.  Except the Korean people are a little more pragmatic reasonably calling the waters bathing their east coast, the East Sea.  The Japanese on the other hand seem to have taken full possession of it by naming it the Sea of Japan.   That reminds me of my great irritation as a boy learning about ‘La Manche’ (figuratively the Sleeve that connected the North Sea to the Atlantic Ocean) and coming to Canada to learn somehow it had been appropriated by the English, thus I discovered it as the English Channel in my new  school atlas.   I thought to myself what kind of jingoistic arrogance was evidenced by that bit of misappropriation? Okay, I’ve finally got it off my chest – oy, feels good!

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Highways are invariably several lanes wide and in great upkeep; it did take me a little time to get used to the numerous speed cameras until I opted to make use of the cruise control in the car.  At first a little boring to always dawdle at a sedate 100 kph (a far cry from European autobahns) gradually I got to appreciate the relaxed driving and non-aggressive behaviour of the traffic.   Along the highway there are frequent fuel stops to gas up and check over the local goods offered in what we’d refer to here as a strip mall.  Here too the Korean retail model for reasonably priced and tasty fast food is hard to avoid or resist.  I came to look forward to these brief stops just to see what might be there that wasn’t found at the previous one.

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Loved the grilled squid – crunchy, flavourful, easy to eat while driving and inexpensive, as most fast-foods are in Korea. 

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A view of Hupo Port from my hotelt, it turned out to be a mecca for the seafood lover that I am; a splendid eating experience was guaranteed anywhere, in a restaurant or cooked  right on the docks.  
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It was difficult, in fact well nigh impossible to keep from sampling freshly cooked King Crabs right there on the docks.  The tantalizing aroma wafted from every corner and from behind every crab pot, who could resist? Not me, I assure you. 
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Then to top it off with  a tasty local delicacy, something akin to a waffle in the shape of the ubiquitous King Crab that is the mainstay of the local economy as far back as can be remembered.  
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My hotel rather strangely called ‘Motel Theme’ was centrally located and from my room’s window I could survey what I always love, a seaport, fishing boats and the limitless horizon of the sea.  
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No kidding this was the room’s decor, a full wall, top to bottom – I felt as if I was sleeping in an aquarium and maybe that was totally appropriate.   Come to think of it that might explain why it’s called ‘Motel Theme’.  I should have checked out other rooms and see what else there was to see.  
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To my surprise the flat rooftop below my room was used to dry fish.  I suppose the cold weather kept any hint of fishy smell under control and probably not allowed later in warm weather.  A photo op I was happy to take – notice the fishing fleet in the background.  
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Green branches are lashed to the top of the mast of each fishing vessel.  Why? I have no idea and since there was no one around to ask I have no answer but I’ve not seen that anywhere else.  Perhaps a good luck charm to ensure a big catch? 
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A night view of the port and an interesting discovery; the string of powerful lights on the deck of a boat meant it was exclusively dedicated to fishing for squid who can’t resist the temptation of bright lights.  Maybe there’s a moral there, somewhere.  Do you think?
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Reluctantly I was convinced no matter how much I loved Hupo Port and feasting on crab and delicious raw fish prepared sashimi style, it was high time to move south along the seacoast road.  Around a bend and look! What came next was equally satisfying, in fact I dare say I found my perfect get-away next time I want to spend a few weeks by a gorgeous  emerald tinted sea.  
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My friend informed me that big city folks desirous to spend a few inexpensive days or weeks in a peaceful surrounding can find the perfect get-away here, in a kind of local B&B in a fisherman’s home.    Immediately I expressed my interest since as I was  already drugged by the iodine-loaded air.   She was doubtful I would be comfortable in a sparsely furnished room and to sleep on floor mats, although she thought I’d most likely enjoy the daily meals.  I countered that I liked sleeping on a hard mattress and I could always buy an air mattress if really necessary.  Indeed, it’s not an outlandish idea and I may yet spend a few weeks in this enchanting seaside get-away recharging my creative battery.  First though, I need to learn a little more of the language than I presently possess.  
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I noticed at frequent intervals decorative gazebos, usually found in a pleasant nook in rural settings, perhaps by a river or a beach; these for the most part have been built by nearby residents or local council.  They are freely to spend leisurely time with a gathering of friends and neighbours.  Nice!
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I’m seriously contemplating staying a few weeks and joining the fellows on the rocks  who I’m sure would  share with me local fishing secrets.   I assure you, I’ve never met an unpleasant fisherman, the world over, concluding the pursuit of fish simply doesn’t attract anyone other than fine, peace loving men (and women too) akin to my own placid disposition.  OY!
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A visual surprise awaited on the beach close by.  A fine tableau of imposing bronze sculptures depicted the historic significance of fishing and the prized snow crab in the economic well-being of countless fishing communities on the East Sea.
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Always reluctantly I have to be dragged away but then we came to a beach and a splendid scene of blue skies, blue-green waters, soaring seagulls and after a long walk a rewarding sit-down to another fine seafood feast.
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Pointing to the one I want – and after a long stroll breathing in a bracing sea breeze I had no feelings of guilt.    On my plate it came as succulent slices of sashimi.
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Yes, that’s the one!  Let me assure the victim was much appreciated on my plate. 
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The fine view from the adjoining window and on the table.  As usual in a Korean restaurant the entree is always preceded by an array of condiments, kimchi and tasty tidbits.  
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On the way back to the car park we came across this archeological curiosity, the Tomb of King Munmu (661 – 681) built under the mound of rocks about 200 metres off-shore.  The king gave specific instructions to be buried in the sea after his death so that he would become a dragon and protect the Shilla Kingdom.  A thoughtful monarch, don’t you agree? 
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Here ends a memorable jaunt  along the East Sea coast of South Korea.  Next I’ll escort you on a tour of the royal city of Gyeongju, a famous temple, royal tombs, surreal Anapji Pond and that’s only a hint of much more to discover. 

Splendid, spectacular Seoul


Seoul was fascinating at first sight.  I had landed at the ultra-modern Incheon International Airport and with customs formalities efficiently handled I was soon whisked downtown by express bus.   It was a long time since I’d found so much to get excited about – history and modern times seamlessly blended to result in a satisfying holiday that in retrospect was unfortunately too short.

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

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Inchon is familiar to those who remember the vicious Korean War (1950 – 53) that although causing incalculable misery to the populace lurched to an uncertain conclusion with the country decades later still cleft in half.  General of the Army Douglas MacArthur saved the South from near certain defeat with a daring, surprise amphibious landing in what became known as the Incheon Enclave.

DNKF00006287_7MacArthur had to overcome the strong misgivings of more cautious generals to a risky assault over extremely unfavorable terrain with United Nations army contingents augmented with a majority of tough US Marines. The Battle of Inchon resulted in a decisive victory and strategic reversal in favor of the United Nations and Republic of Korea (ROK) armed forces that led to the recapture of Seoul.   Had he been given free rein, the bold general meant to pursue and destroy the foe’s army in disarray and retreating north.  Political considerations in Washington dictated otherwise much to the Korean people’s grievous loss of half of their homeland. The historic fiasco was simply a continuation of the naive and disrespectful miscalculations of the Allies after the end of the Second World War, (without consulting the Korean people although clearly against international law) to divide into two parts, one south of the 38th parallel for the Americans to occupy and north for the Russian Army.  

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Tragically the clear advantage was not pursued and war-weary United Nations allies yet again accepted a de-facto split of the country along the 38th parallel.  After three years of bitter combat, destruction and uncounted civilian deaths, fighting ended on 27 July 1953, when the armistice agreement was signed. The pact restored the very same border while creating the Korean Demilitarized Zone a four kilometre-wide fortified buffer zone between the two nations.  To this day violent military provocations from the North, brandishing the threat of a nuclear arsenal, is a daily reminder of the short-sighted policy of appeasement.  Obviously lessons had not been learned if one recalls the abject surrender to Hitler’s territorial expansion but a decade earlier. Three succeeding generations of the despotic Kim family has starved and terrorized its own populace in North Korea sadly with no end in sight.  Alas, history teaches that all too often the mistakes of the past are doomed to be repeated.  

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Seoul located only a few kilometres south of the DMZ was grievously damaged, its infrastructure destroyed and its population traumatized by starvation and death.   The horrors of that new war came only five years after having seen the last of the Imperial Japanese Army that had occupied the country since 1910 until the end of the Second World War.  Considering that Korea can trace its roots some 5000 years the brief account of relatively recent history explains how Seoul, in particular, was through the ingenuity and determined hard work of its people rose from the ashes to become today’s vibrant, prosperous, modern city.  It has been rewarded with several UNESCO World Heritage designations and I propose to share with you that which I found most appealing.  Undoubtedly there is so much more to see that I definitely plan another and longer foray in the not too distance future. 

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To move 25 million people within its metropolitan area, the Seoul public transit is massive, efficient and by other industrial countries standards, relatively economical for the riders. I couldn’t help but notice the numerous, brightly painted  local buses that oftentimes zoom by several at a time.   The photo I took was to demonstrate precisely what I’m referring to; it wasn’t until this moment I noticed the happy ballerina showing off a flawless style in front of the art gallery.

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Decades of relative peace has allowed a powerful and innovative manufacturing sector to create a sparkling economic miracle.  Ambitious and creative, the capital city of Seoul has risen from the ashes featuring wide avenues, fast transit infrastructure and architecture that is bold and attractive to the eye .  A case in point is City Hall, a fine amalgamation of modern admixed to classic Korean design, completed in 2011.   Seoul’s new landmark is a symbol of a ‘green’ awareness, the planners determined to incorporate geothermal and solar energy to effect important reduction in energy consumption.   En passant, South Korea is a global leading proponent to control and eventually reduce green gas emissions, whereas in sharp contrast, the present Canadian Government is hell-bent on going the other direction. It has opted out of the Kyoto accords, it is pushing to extract oil from the vast tar sands that by any sane reckoning is an ongoing environmental disaster, all I might add without a sense of shame or bothering to listen to the majority of Canadian voices appalled by the abject obeisance to the oil industry barons.   That is but a partial exposition of the Harper Government sanctioned degradation of the natural environment once considered sacrosanct by the majority of Canadians where Green Peace organization was birthed.   The unpleasant truth is Canada has become an environmental despoiler, a rogue nation in the eyes of the world community.  So much for the ‘nice’ Canadian image.

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Facing City Hall a skating rink that reminded me of Toronto’s except much, much larger.  All in all though I might give a definite edge to Canadian skaters, except of course when it comes to Olympic speed skaters and figure skating champion, the sublime Yuna Kim.  The ubiquitous Zamboni renews the ice surface allowing a short rest for the numerous skaters. 

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Close by City Hall, my first look at the Deoksugung one of the Five Palaces built during the Joseon Dynasty (1392 – 1897).  The walled compound was also known as the ‘palace of virtue’ and was inhabited by generations of princes and quarters for concubines. By luck I happened on a daily ritual, the Changing of the Guards.  Against a grey, lacklustre sky the display of colourful, centurties old garb and precise marching to the sounds of a martial band was a cheerful welcome and a  much needed energy boost after an already long, long walk.

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In many respects Seoul reminded me of Paris as it doesn’t take much walking distance to come upon yet another interesting site, a fountain, a statue or a famous street .  Ancient history is around every corner although often framed by modern architecture within a super-charged city.  

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This young fellow was undoubtedly the most photographed of all the participants; he maintained a dignified cool and I’m sure he must be the focus of thousands of souvenir photos.  
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Strike up the band and let’s march smartly!

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During the Japanese occupation (1905) and subsequent annexation (1910) official Japanese policy was extremely harsh and particularly focused on destroying Korean cultural identity with the aim of eradicating any nationalistic sentiments.  There ensued a terrible destruction of many of Korea’s palaces and national landmarks as well as the outright theft of thousands of cherished historic artifacts.  It has taken decades for only a part of these cultural heirlooms to be repatriated from Japan and other countries that also took part in the looting, including Western nations.   This is not particularly unusual behaviour although it always is a source of wonder why nations are so loath to return what was stolen from another country’s cultural heritage.  If your home has been broken into and your furniture stolen it is reasonable to expect it to be returned when found or is the government allowed to keep it?  You know, a kind of finders keepers in the form of  a  sanctioned international injustice in my opinion.   

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The Korean people
have dedicated much treasury to restoring the former glory of its cultural heritage.  Thousands of artisans expertly reconstruct buildings and restore artifacts as a gesture of national pride for the edification and proud delight of new generations.   Although only one-third of the destroyed structures have been rebuilt already Daeksugung Palace is shining bright; started in 1990 the rebuilding will continue for as long as it takes to be fully restored.  

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A Western-style building found its way within the traditional architecture, not to every Korean’s liking incidentally, and I don’t disagree with their opinion. 

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Behind my shoulder one of the two European style buildings houses the National Museum of Art where the works of contemporary Korean artists are displayed in fine collections as well as major exhibitions of famous masters such as Picasso, Chagall and Matisse among others .   Zoom in on this photo and take a close look at the centre – Seoul’s dual personality is clearly seen in the ultra modern architecture of City Hall set just behind the classic lines of the ancient palace. 

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Leaving the palace grounds I strolled along Cheonggyecheon, originally an urban waterway, then paved over until after three years of restoration reborn as an ecological stream.   I knew from there it was but a stone’s throw to my hotel.  Almost for six kilometres it cuts through the very heart of Seoul’s downtown area featuring 22 bridges and nine fountains.  It is very popular with local office workers who   gather on convenient benches or grassy areas to eat lunch or meet friends after work.   In the summer it is illuminated with waterfalls and fountains. All in all a remarkable urban rehabilitation of a once despoiled natural stream brought back to life for the enjoyment of Seoul’s residents and visitors alike.  I’d say this was a successful government initiative to make life a little more pleasant for its citizens, unfortunately too seldom seen elsewhere. 

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This colourful, perhaps curious sculpture located at one extremity of the stream was the result of an international contest.  It has not received unanimous approval, in fact has been scorned by locals, but I like it.  As my friend chided, my aesthetic judgment maybe as screwy as the design.

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After a long day and tired feet, it was back to the comfort of my fine accommodations. The Designers Hotel name indicates what it purports to be – a designer’s hotel.   When it was built a couple of years ago, a novel idea was tried out.  Each member of the graduating class of a major design school was offered the opportunity to create their best room and the result was that every last room in the hotel is very much different one from the other.  Some favoured muted colours, wood paneling and traditional looks while others were definitely modern, upbeat and innovative.  I know I tried out three of them for the fun of it. This one turned out to be my favourite, bright with a great view and a whirlpool bath inside the room.

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A night view to sleep by and a sunny greeting to get cracking bright and early. 

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Oh yes, I almost forgot the tree in my room – wonder if it has sprouted leaves by now? 

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Finally I would feel remiss if I didn’t include a couple of photos of Ewah, the most prestigious woman’s university in Korea and my friend’s much beloved alma mater.   The building I’m pointing to is about as innovative as any I’ve seen anywhere.  It is the focal point of the campus; on either side libraries and lecture rooms, staff offices and restaurants provide all the student and professor requires for a comfortable day.  It is also a big favourite tourist attraction with neighbouring Chinese in particular.  

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And finally an imaginative sculpture several stories high seen from the inner elevator on the way to the top of the building and out to the campus grounds.   I’ll leave you with this image with a promise of more from The Land of the Morning Calm soon to come.   My next post will take us to explore a couple of UNESCO sites, amazing temples, royal tombs, a busy fishing port (I loved it) and a scenic journey through rural Korea among other discoveries.    A bientôt!

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Korea – ‘Land of the Morning Calm’

Unexpectedly, a few weeks ago I found myself in Korea, or to be more poetic, in ‘The Land of the Morning Calm’.   I’d not planned on it, rather thinking about returning yet again to France, the land of my birth as well as neighbouring countries but a lucky happenstance pointed in the other direction.  A dear friend who in the past had been subjected to copious praise of Europe, France in particular, judged the time had come for me to open up a new horizon and discover her remarkable country.  She had a few days to spend guiding me and how could I not accept? I’m not one to quibble with Karma and so without equivocation or ado I flew off and now while memories are fresh and vibrant I’ll take you along on a journey of discovery, that for my part was captivating and delightful in every respect.   This rugged and ancient land offered spectacular scenery and vibrant, modern cities; in but a sampling of its long history and cultural achievements proudly preserved in several UNESCO sites I discovered  more to admire unstintingly.

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

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Flying over my first view of Korea confirmed what I’d read – it’s a mountainous peninsula, a full 70% covering the land mass with every square metre of the remainder dedicated to farming and living space.   Double click on the images below to see for yourselves.  

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An aerial view of Seoul, a sprawling megapolis served by no fewer than twenty bridges spanning the Han River.

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As I’ve often claimed, the local people one encounters traveling in a foreign land are really the star attraction and in this case I can’t praise enough the Koreans I encountered, all without fail, kindly disposed and generous.   I can’t think of one instance when meeting either those catering to you in a restaurant or hotel, at the airport or in a taxi, or chancing upon in a casual manner, when a smile and a courteous demeanour wasn’t the sine qua non of interpersonal relations; on a personal level I was always treated with respect and I do believe with a touch of affection for having come to visit their country.  I may be redundant but I have nothing but fulsome praise for the people and the marvellous manner in which they live and behave either as individuals or on a collective basis. 

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Perhaps we in Western industrial countries could take notes on how not to treat sidewalks as garbage disposals, to deface public transit with graffiti, and recognize  it is possible to live harmoniously even when population pressure may seem overwhelming.   I remember a rather snide remark made by a visiting friend who viewed with disdain Vancouver’s ill-maintained, scruffy sidewalks, scraps of newspapers, discarded bus and sky-train transfers, fast-food coffee cups scattered and cigaret butts along the curbs in areas that would not be considered as the less affluent of the city, no at all, it’s a visual pollution plaguing the entire town, including the much vaunted sea-wall.   I was prompted to set him straight, “Just you wait, it’s going to rain soon and it’ll clean itself up.”  Well, I suppose that was a little sarcastic but unfortunately on the whole it was telling it as it is.   Take notice, nary a cigaret butt, a chewing gum wrapper on Seoul’s sidewalks, anywhere!

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The people, the children even, have a calmness about them and in their behaviour that gives the ring of truth to ‘The Land of the Morning Calm’.  A friendly Buddhist monk allowed me to take his photo; after I’d politely bowed a farewell he responded with a ringing  ‘hello’ as a goodbye.  Nice!  

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I spent several busy days in Seoul and just a few of the statistics that accompany this great city would make one wonder about what might be encountered during a visit.   Here are some striking figures: it’s the capital and largest city (by far) in South Korea; with a population of more than 10 million it is the largest such megacity in the developed world.    What is referred to as Seoul Capital Area is the home to nearly 26 million people, over half of the entire South Korean population.  Situated on the Han River, it was first inhabited over 2000 years ago and within its metropolitan no fewer than 4 UNESCO World Heritage Sites attest to its illustrious history.   

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Given its sheer breath and scope I might have felt overwhelmed and yet, it took no time for me to feel at ease in an environment that was pulsating with energy, with people, young and old, on the go and traffic that would scare the most experienced driver, and I’ve driven in Rome, Paris and Barcelona among other crazed traffic situations.

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Yet, I can tell you the traffic moves along (ushered along by traffic cops at almost every intersection of main streets), that there is an amazing number of transit buses for the local citizenry, numerous cabs (the fare a third of what I’d pay in Vancouver, I kid you not), and passenger cars, and yet, I do believe I heard but one warning honk to a fellow who was jaywalking (me), a rare occurrence as I observed.  Heck, even in staid Vancouver it’s an all too common annoyance, honking for the sake of making oneself heard.  The monk patiently waited for the green light to cross: henceforth I wisely decided to ‘when in Korea, do as the Koreans’.  

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Jongno Tower is a 33 story tall office building with a restaurant and bar atop that’s famous for its view of the Jongno area.  It’s located near Jonggak Station of Seoul Subway Line 1.   My hotel was some five minutes walk from this interesting building and I used is as my location beacon.  If you’re not familiar with Seoul it’s easy to lose one’s way compounded by the fact that street addresses as we know in the West are not commonly used in Korea.  It’s also a good idea for the traveler to take a digital pic of an outstanding building or a salient physical feature to find your way back.   You can always show it to a local who will point you in the right direction.

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Awaiting a subway train people line up and wait without undue haste.  Interestingly, for safety’s sake (it does get crowded during rush hours) a glass and metal security barrier prevents any accidental fall over the edge and onto the tracks.  The train stops exactly in front and then and only then does the system open up for an orderly in and out of passengers.  I think this could surely be emulated in other cities – take note Montreal and Toronto. 

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Ancient customs and modern architecture blend seamlessly in Seoul and elsewhere in South Korea.  My impression everywhere was that of a carefully planned modus vivendi that allows for the preservation and celebration of its past history along with living in a fast paced and constructive new society.   Respect for elders and customs is evident along with the enthusiasm of the younger generation for fashionable styles (young women are the best dressed, bar none, I’ve seen anywhere, Paris included) and technology.   

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I was surprised to find dozens of men squatting or sitting on grassy stretches bent over boards.  Thinking they might be playing chess (maybe I could get a game?) I soon discovered they were intent on playing a much more complex and ancient game of ‘Go’.

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As usual I did a lot of walking and soon made an interesting discovery – the main streets and avenues are busy with office workers, shops and restaurants and skyscrapers.  However, take a couple steps inside one of the side streets, some not much more than paved lanes and a whole new world opens up.

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A mere fifteen minutes stroll from my hotel (The Designers), daily I was drawn to Kwang Jang Market, a sprawling indoor emporium.  Inside hundreds (yes, that many) outlets offer a myriad variety of  household goods, clothing and  food at affordable prices.  For my delight several alleys feature a panoply of what is often referred to as ‘street food’ but that in reality has no kinship with the hot dog stand on the sidewalks of North American cities.

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And deciding on what to eat was a daily conundrum – which of the inviting stalls should I sit at? I’ll admit to even doubling up, yes a little meat here and a little seafood there.  Oh, and should I reveal a full meal would set me back maybe the equivalent of six or seven Canadian dollars? By way of information, another welcome relief for the pocket book – no tax of any kind or tips! NONE!

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For the foreigner, other than the visual advantage of seeing what one might fancy to eat, the eyes and the nose is a reliable guide and surely beats ordering from an unknown menu.  All steamed, deep fried or boiled in front of the eager client, the warmth and aroma are a powerful inducement to a hearty appetite and ultimate satisfaction.

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What’s more, the friendliness is palpable; perhaps a foreigner who obviously is enjoying himself is made to feel even more welcome with generous samples to taste.   The truth is had I so desired I could have simply sampled my way through to a full stomach without ever actually buying a meal.  

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My guiding companion displayed a wry sense of humour that might have been funny, if I wasn’t the target.  In all seriousness she asked if the pig’s snout reminded me of someone? “Had I seen it reflected in a mirror,” she mused, innocently.  Okay, it was mildly amusing after all.

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I’ve decided to indulge my taste buds with Korean food this evening; I wonder what induced that sudden urge? As it happens good quality Korean restaurants are not hard to find in Vancouver.   So there you have but a very small sampling of what you might discover for yourself in splendid, spectacular Seoul.  More to come in following posts, stay tuned.  

 

Herzeele and Gueudecourt

If, like me, you love the nostalgic sound of mechanical pipe organs read on.  Not all that long ago I had discussed my projected itinerary through Belgium to a Parisian friend and wondered what I might  look for on my way back through Northern France, a part of the country not too often mentioned in tourism brochures.  ‘La Flandre française’, as I recalled from geography lessons as a boy was known for coal mining along with industrial development and ‘grey’ seemed the colour best associated with it.  To my knowledge there was nothing scenic worthy of note to be seen.  Still one has to drive through on the way back and I thought the fastest way south via the Autoroute du Nord the preferable choice. Knowing my propensity for nostalgia, he suggested a side trip promising it would be well worth the detour.  Go see ‘The café des Orgues’.  Where? Herzeele.  What? Never heard of that place. Just across the border and not to worry he assures me it’s one of those marvellous places that’s under the radar and better for that fact.  Now I’m curious and he tells me about it, rather smug with the knowledge he had a real winner to pass on.  As it turned out he was quite correct in the assumption I’d enjoy the sights and sounds to be found in the remote Café des Orgues.  In fact , let me be perfectly candid,  I was delighted, no, I was tickled pink, loved every moment.  

(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 café is frequented by a faitful local clientele, friends and neighbours from several nearby farming communities gather Sunday afternoons for a drink, a fine choice of beers in particular and to indulge a love of dancing.  The ambiance harkened back to when dancing was a popular pastime and let me tell you each and every one of these friendly people were excellent dancers.  Crackling with energy and good feelings the large room at the back holds up to three hundred avid dancers with a range of ages spanning 6 decades or more.  It brought me back to an era in my own life when I showed off nimble feet on the dance floor, an ability I learned soon was appreciated by the fair sex.  I owed this not small edge in the noble pursuit of skirt-chasing to my mother’s insistence that I should learn how to dance properly; she was Polish and of course showing off a good waltz and Polka was de rigueur and subsequently all the old standards, the fox-trot, rumba, tango, followed by my own discovery  of the fun of the cha-cha, jive and even the twist.  Unfortunately in present days ballroom dancing is basically moribund with the exception of a few die-hards found here and there as in Herzeele. 

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So what are you going to find in Herzeele, or more to the point at the Café des Orgues?  Théophile Mortier was an organ manufacturer who until 1944 created  dance organs along with required orchestrations.  Owned and amiably run by     the family Ameloot it’s an amazing fact that in a modest town of some 1200 inhabitants you’ll find three magnificent, perfectly preserved and functional mechanical organs, rare curiosities and in my opinion splendid mementos of past glories.  I’m a sucker for sentimentality of almost any shade or hue and this ranks right up with any of my favourite golden oldies. 

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These magnificent musical machines were manufactured by the TH Mortier Anvers company in Belgium; intricate mechanism hidden behind ornately decorated exteriors  replicate the sounds of a 25 musical instrument orchestra.  All three are fully functional and powered by air bellows crank out a great sound.  The oldest dates to 1912 followed by 1926 both in rococo style and the 1939 baby with a more muted Art deco facade.  Let me share a good idea, go to your YouTube application and type in Herzeele Pipe Organs and presto, you’ll discover the sound and feel of the place.

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P1070690To the left of the photo, without a partner, unperturbed she dances with her shadow.  Always gallant (I hope), I awaited for her to come by my table so I could partner her but the music ended just a beat too soon and off she went to rejoin her friends.  

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That lovely lady asked me to dance – how nice. Later I realized the locals made sure those they realized were new to the place would initiate the invitation to dance.  I was happy to oblige since it was a lively fox-trot and I remembered how – dancing I guess is like riding a bike, the feet never forget.  

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Then she showed me the back room and the fellow in charge of changing the music explained how cleverly it all worked.  There are only about 200 such organs still existing and here there were not one as elsewhere but three!  Indeed, I should have discovered more of how this happy happenstance came about but the owner was absent just then and time was growing short.  I’ll have to return to find out, and I plan on doing so for sure.  

P1040564He was proud to inform there were over five hundred dance pieces dating to back when, a priceless collection no doubt.   These cardboard accordions perforated with holes are fed through a mechanism that determines the notes to be played – come to think of it an early form of computer. 

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Before leaving Herzeele, although initially not  on my radar scope another fortuitous discovery when I came across a vaguely familiar name on my Michelin map – Vimy Ridge site of a famed Canadian victory during WWI.   In the distance the iconic memorial to the bravery of Canadian soldiers who won a pivotal battle at a bitter cost in blood.

P1040572Any Canadian student of my generation will recall memorizing the heartbreaking poem ‘In Flanders Fields’ by Lt. Col. John A. Macrae  and sure enough a field of poppies in full bloom made this day ever more evocative and frankly tugged a touch at my heartstrings.   I’ll risk breaking copyrights if such still apply and include the poem for you to appreciate its poignancy.  McCrae himself a few months after penning the powerful sentiments would give up his life and is buried in a not too distant Canadian military cemetery.  

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‘In Flanders Fields’
adfaldkjfalsdkjfadf
In Flanders fields the poppies blow
Between the crosses, row on row,
That mark our place; and in the sky
The larks, still bravely singing, fly
Scarcely heard amid the guns below.
asdlkjfa;lkdjfa;ldkjfadf
We are the dead.  Short days ago
We lived, felt dawn, saw sunsets glow,
Loved and were loved, and now we lie
in Flanders fields.
asdfal;djfasdfadf
Take up our quarrel with the foe:
To you from failing hands, we throw
The torch; be yours to hold it high.  
If ye break faith with us who die
We shall not sleep, though poppies grow
in Flanders fields. 

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And then, driving along a regional road heading south I spot a modest plaque with an arrow indicating a memorial to the memory of the brave Newfoundlanders who shed blood and guts in a bold attack on a well-entranched German position.  I’d never heard of it but out of a vague sense of duty I turned off and went looking.

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Not more than a couple of kilometres along a rural road through peaceful farmland  there it was, just a small copse, a tiny bit of hallowed battlefield land and under a canopy of pine trees the wind whistled through the branches just enough to be heard, making a singular impression on my imagination.  Was I hearing voices?  I glanced up and there it was, a fine bronze caribou stag erected by the Newfoundland Government stands in a small battlefield park on a low rise. It marks the spot where, in October 1916, the Newfoundlanders (not yet part of Canada) played a decisive role in the capture of a German strong-point named Rainbow Trench.   

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Beyond the lush green field the church spire of the farming village of Gueudecourt.  I drove there and spotted an older gent in a farm courtyard.  I asked what he knew about the memorial.  He looked up at me, “Vous êtes Canadien? My father spoke of how brave your soldiers were, unforgetable.  Our farm, right here was burned down but we’ve rebuilt and just like before it will last another hundred years or maybe two.”  I wished a long life to both.  

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I’ve often remarked the best part of travel is of course the scenery and discovery of culture and sites of historic importance.  However, what I remember best are the numerous really fine people with whom I exchanged perhaps not more than a few minutes of conversation.  Around the world I’ve had that experience and that what makes travel really satisfying, the discovery that indeed notwithstanding the constant bombardment of news depicting more examples of mankind’s folly and murderous rampages, for the most part given an opportunity to be kind that’s who you’ll meet from Japan to Portugal to Germany, by way of Singapore, Holland, Croatia and back through France.  

Here’s a case in point in the form of a thank you note to the comely, smiling Gendarme in the van below.  

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I was on my way to a hotel to spend my last night in France.  It was not unknown, in fact a well-known middle of the road chain (3*) apparently just about 20 minutes from Charles de Gaulle airport.   I was driving in from the north and in spite of checking the map time and again after I drove aimelessly for more than an hour then found myself back at the starting point off the main highway; I was more than just a little frazzled.   I pride myself on being good at finding my way, no matter where, and if I have a map too, well how can I miss?  But I kept wandering around in this area of hotels, warehouses  and semi-suburban area north of the airport.  Finally, I spotted a local Gendarmerie office and checking my pride in my hip pocket  I walked in and asked the policeman at the desk if he could direct me to my hotel.  There was a detailed wall map right there and he said, sure no problem, here let me point the way.   Oddly he soon lost his positive assurance, hmmm… well, now… hmmm…. here’s where your hotel is but how to get there? At that moment a young woman in uniform walks in.  He poses the question to her – do you know the hotel? Sure, it’s … blah blah … how do you get there from here?  Well, you go this way … no, wait… you should …  hmmm… come to think of it I’m not totally sure.  

I’m listening to this and wondering what the hey? But on the other hand somewhat relieved my pride isn’t all that much out of whack, if local cops can’t figure it out, why should I feel insecure about my inner directional radar?  After about five minutes of thinking it over she pipes up, “I know.  I don’t know how to explain but follow me and I’ll find it for you. It will be much simpler.”  Off we went and I was rather surprised it took at least 20 minutes to get there and sure enough the twists and turns we took would have made my finding it on my own a matter of luck and not due to good map reading.  And that’s how I found my hotel following my charming Gendarme.  

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I only wish I’d have been clever enough to get her name so I could send a note of appreciation once back in Canada, however, just in case, “Un grand et sincère merci du Canada.”  

And here’s to you until we meet in Belgium where the beer is really fine and (sacrilège) the french fries are more tasty than in France.   A bientôt!

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Bastogne and Waterloo

Some years ago I was heading for Amsterdam, that was the supposed plan but in my travels nothing is ever set in concrete – my journey started at scenic Aix-les-Bains, in the French Alps.  I’d been late getting started, exchanging long goodbyes with Danielle, my ‘cousine’, who while packing a gourmet lunch kept reminding me of this anecdote or that family event.  She’d been my childhood playmate and admittedly there was always something that would crop up, “Hey, Jeannôt do you remember … ???” It was pleasant reminiscing and yet I’m not much on farewells (they tend to depress me) so that I was trying to make my get-away without being overtly brusque.  Finally, some two hours late I was free to go and happily looking forward to the drive through unfamiliar territory.  The night before I’d looked over a good Michelin map (the very best in my opinion) of Western Europe and although a little over 1000 kliks I wasn’t daunted as in the past I’ve done that and even more in one day’s driving.  As well, I had decided, more or less, on a route that would take me through the rugged Ardennes Forest, a first for me, hence to Luxembourg.  Amsterdam was obviously now  out of the question.

Driving in Europe is a joy; the landscape at the very least scenic, often spectacular and its hard to avoid yet another historic site, a famous castle, a pivotal battlefield and such was the case when I pulled over to one of the convenient rest areas frequent along European roads (take note Canada!). Munching on a tasty ‘terrine de canard‘ sandwich, the roadmap spread out on the picnic table somewhere in the Ardennes Forest my eyes widened as I noticed Bastogne located not far ahead along my way.

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

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Any history buff, especially of WWII, will recognize Bastogne as the scene of a surprise attack when Hitler ordered one final and desperate advance with a powerful mechanized force to slice through the advancing Allied army, cut it in two and recapture the strategic port city of  Antwerp in Belgium.  The 1944 winter siege of Bastogne produced the celebrated response, “Nuts!” from General McCaullife when handed an offer to surrender.  Looking over the written answer the German commandant not understanding the colloquialism asked for a clarification: the emissary who delivered the note deemed it more apt to translate ‘nuts’ as “Go to hell!”  That aside proves yet again there’s always somebody who think they are more eloquent whereas in my opinion ‘nuts’ was crackling terse and to the point. Without further ado off I went to Bastogne and discovered much more than expected; an interesting museum, impressive monument to American casualties and a neat small town very much aware of its past importance.  

Below, the author of the celebrated quote, General McCaullife; incidentally he was in command only because the Commanding Office, General Middleton for that area happened to be elsewhere at a conference.  Such happenstance often leads to unexpected results, in this case fortuitous for the Allies.  

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Baptized by Winston Churchill as the Battle of the Bulge, it turned out to be the most costly in lives of any single battle fought by American troops during the entire war.  The fierce fighting took place during the week of Christmas, starting on the 20th and ending on the 27th with the collapse of the German offensive when their Panzer units ran out of fuel.  The outcome was disastrous to the Wehrmacht who not only lost men in their thousands, killed, wounded or taken prisoner, but a massive loss of vital equipment.  The victory certainly contributed to shorten the war as henceforth the Allied troops encountered a much weaker opposition than otherwise would have been the case.  So much for Hitler’s military genius, he’d have been better off heeding the advice of his professional army planning staff.  The man in charge of crafting the battle plans Field Marshal Gerd Von Rundstedt never believed in its chances of success and stayed well clear behind the lines.  Clever? Or a chicken shit? 

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The impressive and I must say inspired star-shaped design of the huge monument is yet today yearly visited by thousands of American veterans who often bring family members along.   The pride evidenced is well-justified as it was a crucial victory achieved at a bloody cost of limb and life. 

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I spent a considerable time wandering around taking it all in and imagining how it was back then, the snow blowing, explosions, screams, soldiers on either side scared to hell but relentlessly attacking or desperately defending. 

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I’m confident one could make a case for studying the effect on a soldier’s state of mind depending on the uniform he wears.  No doubt if I didn’t know which side was on the right side of history I would have opted without a second thought for the cool almost theatrical German uniforms.  Come to think of it Hitler understood the value of propaganda, of massive show pieces such as the Nuremberg rallies, pump and circumstances, multitudes of flags, precision marching and smart uniforms.   If one is curious check out ‘Triumph of the Will’  (on YouTube) the impressive recording of the 1934 rally filmed by Leni Riefenstahl.  To this day she’s considered by many critics as the finest ever woman film director; notwithstanding the subject matter, high praise indeed. 

The museum was well designed with an interesting display of scenes replicating battle photos taken on the spot during the devastating event.  Lending depth-of-field, the background scenes were painted in, whereas the immediate foreground was recreated with authentic equipment, guns, military gear and life-like mannequins closely resembling the photos.  Well-lit the overall effect was realistic and informative.

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In contrast American Gi Joe garb was less than awe-inspiring.  Below a five star general, Dwight Eisenhower who payed a visit after the battle was won.  The displays were rather imaginatively set-up. 

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In the meantime the terrified populace huddled in their basements and prayed for an end to the mayhem.  War is hell!  I can’t think of three words that are more appropriate to describe any situation other than ‘I love you’. Now lolling about in the shade of one of the tanks that saved their present home, I wonder how much these young people knew about the town’s historic past.

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French fries are certainly well known but they don’t compare to Belgian ‘patates frites et merguez’.  If I say so, believe me, I’ve sampled them in every corner of France but in Belgium, straight from the frier, drenched in mayonnaise along with spicy merguez sausages it’s a treat.  As I was trying to avoid dribbling all over my  map to see where to next, another name jumped out – Waterloo! Certainly I couldn’t resist having a look at that battlefield, a pivotal result that surely changed European history for ever.  Imagine had Napoleon won? Well,  let me try. Today most of Western Europe would have been unified for two centuries instead of now slowly integrating into the European Union and the rest of the world would have been altered beyond imagination.  For one there surely not have been two world wars, at least not with the same participants on either side.  However, the Little Emperor lost and that was that, still it’s interesting to speculate, right?

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So off I went to see what there was to see and again so much more than I had expected.  The field of battle was much larger than I had imagined but on thinking back at what I’d learned in history class, the opposing armies were massive, even by modern standards.   I have throughout Western Europe stood on ancient battle fields, from Hannibal’s encounter with Roman legions, through several major wars, and yet I am always struck by how peaceful the countryside becomes after farmers reclaim their land and lovingly bring it back to its rightful purpose of growing life-giving food.  

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A fine museum displayed on a clever electronic board the day’s momentous ebbs and flows of battle and the resulting carnage.  I took the time and made the arduous climb up the man-made hill (there’s an oxymoron as every square inch of the huge mound was built by women carrying the earth on hods strapped to their backs,) to where the imposing lion roars a challenge towards France as a reminder of who won.  As I took each of the 229 steps up I  imagined the backbreaking labour but when were women not abused physically and economically?  The hill and monument were ordered by the King of the Netherlands to honour his son for bravery and sustaining a wound.  Sheesh, it wasn’t even fatal, imagine if he’s actually died on the field of battle? A hill twice as big and an entire pride of lions? 

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P1090508The battle as I was taught in a Canadian high school text-book was a brilliant victory by Wellington.  Years later I learned that in actual fact he was conceding defeat and surrounded by his personal guard was preparing to leave the field when the German Army under Gen. Blucher showed up at the crucial moment and swung the tide of battle against Napoleon, who was waiting for his own reserve army under Marshall Grouchy.  French history books make much of the fact Grouchy was a Royalist and who betrayed his people by refusing to join the battle.  Napoleon is famously quoted as repeating over and over, “Ou est Grouchy?”  I’ve a suspicion there must have been a few choice epithets included.  As I’ve been fortunate enough to read history books in both languages as adjudged from the perspective of winner and loser, I can safely say that almost always ‘revisionism’ rules the day.  Historians tend to have their own national bias, they are almost always subsidized and research grants accepted from by interested parties, inevitably, even in good faith, they wind up shading the unappetizing truth when such appears.  The probable best chance to get near the actual truth is to read accounts from a third and neutral party and still it would only be an approximate guess at how it really was on the ground at the time, there and then.

The modest monument to the German army is hidden in a copse, miles away and if you didn’t know what and where to look, it would be invisible.  See what I mean? 

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So there you have it.  I apologize for the poor quality of some, well if I’m going to be candid, most of the pics, but they were all taken with my digital camera from printed pics taken with my long serving Nikon.  Next time, I’ll provide much better visuals of Bruges and Ghent, I promise.  
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‘The Boy, the Bicycle and the Bone-Setter’

The Boy, the Bicycle and the Bone-Setter by Jean-Michel Papirchuk

There are events in one’s life that linger and live on long after they took place and what I’m about to recount is one such happening when just a young lad growing up in France.  I remember it in vivid detail as if it were yesterday not decades ago.  There are those who actively try to forget or are even encouraged, by those who would be wise, to seek the easier path of erasing a happening, a circumstance that may have been nefarious, perhaps traumatic but I disagree.  In my opinion remembering only the good, the happy, and the felicitous would result in a life that lacked salt and pepper, sinew and bone, with only an insipid taste of what’s left, meatloaf instead of filet mignon.  How does one learn and grow except through adversity and somehow discovering the wherewithal to overcome and prosper?  Oh, the anecdote that follows is neither pivotal nor significant of itself but in time it became the object lesson to understand that even subjected to dismal circumstances pointing the finger of blame resulted in neither joy nor satisfaction.  Live fearlessly, don’t duck the unpleasant, deal with it with a stout heart and move on, that’s why good or bad, all memories should be welcomed; they are the sturdy character building blocks that nourish and fortify our personality.  While not avoiding my own contribution to what originally was painful in equal measure physical and emotional, fortunately I’ve since discovered much more to celebrate rather than to assign blame.

Lovely Nancy, Regal Reims

Leaving splendid Strasbourg and meandering westward towards lovely Nancy I came across a hilltop sight now common across Europe, modern windmill farms creating clean electricity.

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

These modern mechanical structures aren’t ugly by any means but they don’t come close to matching the nostalgic sight I came across in central Spain where several ancient windmills astride a ridge evoked Don Quixote’s menacing giants.  

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Early two or three story high windmills captured nature’s prolific (and free) winds to power man-made machinery for the general good of mankind.

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Clustered in exposed areas known for frequent winds, today’s behemoths can number several hundred with state-of-the-art design and materials, turbines are powered by blades ranging from 40 to 50 metres, and typically rise 50 to 80 metres above ground.  One such behemoth in Germany is actually 100 metres high, think of it as a 33 floor high building.

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How beneficial to wildlife is a question much debated;  renewable less polluting ‘green’ power weighed against the uncounted tens of thousand of migrating birds yearly chopped down by gigantic spinning arms.   Yet there is hope avian denizens will learn to avoid the giant turbines.  It’s a recorded fact that decades ago migrating northern European songbirds that for millennia had flown a path above Italy, on their way to North African wintering grounds, in time learned to modify their inbred path and veered off to fly above the Adriatic.  Although a perilous journey when confronted by storms with no place to find  shelter, it was nonetheless safer to avoid the deadly gauntlet above land.  Hunting had become a passionate past-time and songbirds were not spared in the least.  The carnage was such that even the birds figured it out and made the course change needed to survive, not bad thinking for ‘bird brains’, you’ll agree.  A long aside to express the hope that today’s winged creatures will figure it out too and learn to avoid the perils inherent in flying through the gauntlet of wind farms. 
As I mentioned I had the good fortune to come across these several ancient windmills astride a hillside above the town of Consuegra, a smallish but historic town some 60 kilometres north of Toledo.  The  unmistakable silhouette on the wall was an immediate reminder of hapless Don Quixote who according to Miguel de Cervantes’ account, mistaking these same  windmills for threatening giants mounted a valiant charge that met with predictably appalling results, sad to say. A direct reference to that absurd event, you’ll surely remember,  is the wise admonition to refrain from ’tilting at windmills’.
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I might also reveal here I read the book still in my teens and was utterly saddened by the story but more than that I hated each and every episode when the benighted “Knight of the Sad Countenance’ was not only defeated but humiliated over and over again.  The only reason I kept on reading was to at last discover a victory, no matter how small, just one,  but alas, not even that was to be found.  I came to hate Cervantes as a cruel writer with not a drop of the milk of human kindness to be squeezed from his implacable Spanish heart.  Yes, of course, it’s been hailed as a monumental novel of great literary significance but search me if I know why.  Then as now I didn’t see any rational for piling on when the victim was already down and out, even in fiction.   
The windmills have been restored and grace the hillside with dignity.  In the background the remnants of an ancient citadel.  

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Next time you have the opportunity to do so, spare a day  for Nancy, a lovely city on the main east-west axis from Paris to the German border with a long and illustrious history, yet  it isn’t often a foreign tourist will make a point to visit and that’s simply too bad.   The sprawling, pedestrian square ‘Place Stanislas’ has a well-earned reputation as a splendid example of ‘flamboyant architecture’ and sure enough it burnishes bright in the sunshine.  Since 1983 it has been added to UNESCO’s prestigious list of World Heritage Sites along with adjoining ‘Place de la Carrière and Place d’Alliance’. 

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The statue honours Stanislaw Leszczynski, former king of Poland; the city was a gift from his son-in-law, King Louis XV of France as a consolation prize for having lost his Polish crown.  The new Duke de Lorraine et de Bar spent the next twenty years of his life in Nancy and almost immediately embarked on a major urban renewal project and the ‘place’  became its center piece.  Place Stan as it’s called familiarly honors his memory has long been used for public assemblies, festivities and a favourite venue for meeting friends.  

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The child isn’t born who doesn’t love the up and down ride on a carousel pony: I’ll admit to being sorely tempted to join her but didn’t want to give way to my youthful impulse – maybe I should have, no, not maybe, I should have.

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Where better to enjoy a ‘quiche lorraine‘ than in the capital of Lorraine? The local beer was the perfect accompaniment.  There’s not a city or town in Europe that doesn’t offer a choice of great bistros with outdoor patios to relax and gawk at passers-by.  

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Feeling rested and energetic, I headed 250 kliks north-east towards Reims, via the autoroute a little over 2 hours drive, admittedly at slightly faster than posted speed limits.  The city of Reims for it’s part posseses a glorious past dating to Roman days, St. Joan of Arc and of course famed as the home of several distinguished ‘Maison de  Champagne’.    Notre-Dame de Reims, is classified a UNESCO World Heritage Site celebrating new architectural techniques in the 13th century coupled with the harmonious marriage of sculptural decoration with architecture.  Considered one of the masterpieces of Gothic art the former abbey still has its beautiful 9th-century nave, in which lie the remains of Archbishop St Rémi (440–533), who instituted the Holy Anointing of the kings of France.  The cathedral has withstood the desecration of rampaging mobs during the French Revolution with the  profane vandalism to statues and severe bomb damage during WWI that destroyed priceless stained glass windows.   Like the mythical Phoenix the cathedral rises anew and since my first sight as a very young lad to this day it remains my personal favourite of all buildings around the world. Lucky me, I have admired close-up the incomparable Taj Mahal in Agra, graceful Golden Temple in Kyoto, the inspired restructuring and adaptation of a splendid Moorish mosque to Christian  cathedral in Cordoba, the triumphant Piazza de Miraculo in Pisa, to name more would be superfluous – to my eyes all equal in celebrating man’s artistic genius when creating rather than destroying, and yet La Cathedral de Reims dedicated to the Virgin Mary is closest to my heart.    Obviously I’m not alone as it attracts one million visitors each year.  

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