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

“Travel makes one modest.  You see what a tiny place you occupy in the world.” Gustave Flaubert

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

“The perfect journey is never finished, the goal is always just across the next river, round the shoulder of the next mountain.  There is always one more track to follow, one more mirage to explore.”   Rosita Forbes

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.  Traditional music wafted in the air carried by a soft wind added to the enchantment.

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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

“A good traveler has no fixed plans and is not intent on arriving.”  Lao TsuLao 

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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