Monday, November 28, 2011

Egypt and Jordan: Around the World in 50 Days with Sara Kras, Fall 2011 (Guest Post)

My friend Sara Kras and her husband went on an amazing journey this fall, circling the world with stops in the Middle East, India, China and the Pacific.  I think you will enjoy reading the reports of her adventures!  Sara is a children’s book author with books about animals and world cultures and geography.  Find out more at www.saralouisekras.com .

Around the world in 50 days seems impossible. But here we are, half way around in India! I’m so glad I’ve been taking notes because you forget all the wonderful small incidents that happen.

In England one of my favorite moments was next to the National Museum where I found a small church. I walked inside the chapel which had a domed, white ceiling with golden chandeliers hanging down. A small orchestra was practicing The Four Seasons by Vivaldi for the evening show. Several people were sitting in the chapel enjoying the free show and I was one of them. It was totally magical.
We stayed at the St James Hotel and Club which is close to just about everything. The hotel was a very cute, boutique hotel, but our room was quite small. It overlooked a typical old-fashion courtyard where a small outdoor restaurant had been set up.

We arrived in Cairo, Egypt three days later. Even though we landed at 5:00pm, it took us two hours to get to our hotel. The traffic in Cairo is atrocious. Four lanes on the freeway become five and sometimes six. Everyone is honking their horn and hardly anyone is moving. Granted this was rush hour traffic. But our entire stay in Cairo was spent fighting the traffic. It was difficult to get to all the sites because of this issue.

We stayed at Mena House and were immediately upgraded to a one-bedroom suite because of my 50th birthday. I was given the option to have a room in the new garden wing or the palace wing. Even though the rooms are dated in the palace wing, the view of the pyramids is simply amazing. You feel as though you could literally reach out and touch them! I spent many hours on our two balconies staring at these ancient wonders.

While in Cairo we visited the great pyramids and rode a camel. I only recommend this if you, the tourist, understand that the camel drivers will try to get more money from you. We did not realize that our tour guide had already paid for the camels and my husband gave them too much money. Our guide called the tourist police and they tracked down the camel drivers and got the money back from them. It was a hassle at the time, but actually quite comical later. Joe had to go into a little wooden hut and was surrounded by all of these Arab men, some police, our guide, and one of them we called the “Fat Man”. He was in charge of all the camel drivers and was negotiating the deal.
I also climbed up inside the Great pyramid. I do not recommend this. The slated walkway goes up about 90 degrees with wooden slates as steps. The first set of stairs went up about three stories. You also have to bend over as you walk as the ceiling is too low. Needless to say, I made it up the first set up stairs but refused to go any further. The next set of stairs went another three stories at least. My legs were totally shaking once we emerged.

We also saw the Egyptian Museum, Tahrir Square (where the protest took place), the subway system, Ali Mosque on the hill (the most amazing view of Cairo), a local market before the tourist market and an ancient neighborhood mosque in the local market. The local market was divided into product sections: one section had all kitchenware, another fabrics, and another spices etc. Donkey carts loaded down with goods squeezed through narrow alleyways. Men pushing carts filled with lumber stopped traffic. I was able to buy some very soft Egyptian cotton scarves which the local women wear. It was really a scene and a little bit frightening as we were the only tourist there.

We then flew to Luxor and stayed at the Steigenberger Hotel. The rooms were similar to a Holiday Inn, but the views were amazing. We faced the Nile River and were able to watch the hot air balloons take off in the morning at 6:00am. While in Luxor, which means many palaces, we visited the amazing Karnak Temple and Luxor Temple. These are temples that are featured in a James Bond movie. The tall pillars are filled from top to bottom with hieroglyphs. A long walkway between the two temples is being restored. This original walkway was lined with sculptures of a lion body and ram head which is one of the representations of Amon-Ra, the main god.
We also saw Hatshepsut Temple, which seemed like a lot of walking with not much reward and Habu Temple, which had hieroglyphs still painted with original colors. It was very beautiful.
We also visited an alabaster factory (a usual tourist trap). I, of course, bought a couple of pieces. I then went to use the bathroom. While in there the handle broke and the door would not unlock. One of the boys in the shop had to climb a one story wall and jumped into the bathroom with me and began to use a crow bar to tear the door apart. Our guide rammed the door with his shoulder and the door busted through on the other side. It was very funny. When we left, the owner of the shop ran out to our car and gave me a very ugly necklace and asked me to forget about it. The necklace is now called the “forget about it necklace.” I wore it for the rest of the day.
The next day we saw the Valley of the Kings, which is pretty amazing, but it has a dearth of information. I would have loved to see display panels interpreting the hieroglyphs.

In Luxor we boarded the beautiful Dahabiya Lara. We were the only passengers on board, so were given the master suite which had a sliding door and private balcony to sit and watch as we floated down the Nile River. There was a crew of about ten men. The manager on board was a British woman. She took care of everything. Taking a cruise on the Dahabiya was like stepping back in time. It’s a “gentleman’s houseboat”.
One thing I must mention about Egypt or any Arab country, take ear plugs. The Muslim clerics call all Muslims to prayer starting at 5:00am in the morning, then three other times during the day. This is done via loud speaker (usually blown out and distorted) attached to a minaret. All the minaret callers start at different times so it is not a coordinated song, but rather a disjointed cacophony. When the donkeys start joining in with loud braying, it really becomes a mess.
We traveled through the Esna lock which was very interesting. But then we spent the night in Esna, which was not interesting but loud and extremely annoying. We were there on Thursday night, a very popular wedding night. All the brides wanted their photos taken down by the docks where the dahabiyas dock. So trucks with loud, blown-out speakers drove by. Some parked and yelled and screamed until about 11:00pm. Esna should be avoided on Thursdays, Tuesdays, and Sundays as these are the popular wedding days. I believe there were eight weddings going on the night we were there.
The next day we glided slowly down the Nile in the cool of the morning. Papyrus lined the river bank and beyond it was a lovely bucolic scene. Men in long dresses waved as our boat sailed by.
Once we reached Edfu, we got a horse and carriage to the temple. Most of the horses were in a deplorable state. Their hip bones and ribs poked out. The horse and carriage drivers are in line to take the next tourist. I refused to get on the carriage selected for us as the horse looked completely starved. I selected a later carriage with a healthy horse. This caused quite an argument between the booking agent and our guide, but eventually they gave us the carriage I selected. I gave the driver a very nice tip and motioned for him to feed his horse. When we emerged from the temple, he was feeding his horse fresh green grass.
The next day we proceeded to Kom Ombo. Because of the revolution, we practically had the temples to ourselves. It was really amazing as, I believe, before the revolution the temples could be as packed as Disneyland.
The next night we docked outside of Aswan near a herd of sheep. In the morning, the shepherd took the sheep somewhere to graze and in the evening, he brought them back. One evening, he was carrying a newly-born black lamb.

While in Aswan we flew to Abu Simbel. This temple was quite small, but very interesting. Ramses II basically was sending a message to anyone entering Egyptian territory “Don’t mess with me or I will mess you up!” The temple was filled with battle scenes and huge statues of himself.
A side note: if you want to shop in Egypt, you have to bargain. When given a price cut it down to ¼ of the price and go up from there. Joe asked how much a mask was and was told 350 Egyptian pounds. I got it down to 120 Egyptian pounds with something else thrown in. However I stared the bargaining at 50 Egyptian pounds.
While in Aswan we visited the Philae Temple, the new Sofitel Cataract Hotel, and a large Coptic Church. Our guide had trouble at the Coptic Church as the day before there was a Coptic protest in Cairo and about 25 people were killed and over 200 injured.
Later that night, we had a special dinner on the banks of the river. The staff played drums and sang for us. Even though the dahabiya is not as modern as a cruise boat, it is the only way to see the Nile. Our room was air-conditioned, but the water and electricity was run by a generator. The generator was turned off every night at around 11:00pm and turned on in the morning at around 7:00am. Because of the plumbing, you cannot put toilet paper in the toilet, but rather in a trash can. Our room was cleaned every day and amazing towel “sculptures” were created on our bed. These comprised of cobras, a camel with a rider, and even the Nile River with our dahabiya floating down. Our house man was very talented. Also, the service and food were amazing.

The next morning we flew to Cairo and caught our flight to Amman, Jordan. While waiting to board, several severely injured men were loaded onto the plane. I asked what had happened to them and was told they had been fighting in Libya against Gaddafi. One injured man in front of me showed me videos on his cell phone of a person being beaten by Gaddafi’s soldiers. He was very animated about what happened, but unfortunately, I could hardly understand anything he said.
Once we arrived, we were picked up at the airport and driven to Petra and stayed at the Movenpick. This hotel is very modern and literally steps away from the entrance. We went to Petra at 7:00 am and arranged for a horse and carriage to carry Joe’s camera equipment. Many tourists took pictures of us as we rode through the narrow canyons to Petra. The Treasury was just like the Indian Jones movie. I hiked with our guide all around the area while Joe stayed behind to take photos. I thought it was pretty funny when a boy riding a donkey said taxi̧ basically asking if I wanted a ride.
After Petra we had to go back to the airport for our flight to Delhi. We left on the Desert Highway. Half the way to Madaba, the traffic completely stopped as there was a protest on the highway. Our driver had to cross a gravel area and headed back towards King’s Highway, a much longer route. We stopped at a Bedouin rest stop called “Sunshine” which had pit toilets (totally gross). We drank tea and looked at the amazing view of Wadi Mujib.
We were able to see the famous tiles and the ancient Coptic Church in Madaba, but it was getting close to our flight time. While trying to leave Madaba, the King’s Highway was also blocked off by a rope and a tractor. There was a protest immediately in front of our car. Some of the men with guns. I have to admit I was really scared. We were lucky as within about 15 minutes the rope was dropped and we were able to get the heck out of there.

Overall, the two countries we visited have very few tourists (for obvious reasons). The Middle East seems to be a big fat mess right now. But I do consider ourselves to be lucky as we had many of these amazing treasures all to ourselves and we are still here to tell the tale.

We have since visited Jaipur, India where we have ridden elephants, rubbed shoulders with snake charmers, and tromped through glittering palaces. We just returned from the Taj Mahal this evening. But India is a completely different tale to tell.
(Look for Sara's report on India next week.)

Monday, November 21, 2011

Berlin in Winter

Friedrichstrasse at night outside our hotel
[Diary of my trip to Berlin in November 2010]  It was the last Thursday in November and we were in Berlin, where Art was attending a conference.  We were staying at the Maritim Hotel, on Friedrichstrasse, the main shopping street of the former East Berlin, now a bustling center of commerce with huge department stores, hotels, and other businesses.  That evening we attended an elaborate buffet at the hotel with dozens of dishes and artfully prepared appetizers, many in little glass containers.  Main courses included venison and roast goose–the closest we came to a real Thanksgiving dinner.  After dinner we walked a few blocks to the intersection with Unter den Linden, a wide boulevard leading to the Brandenburg Gate, which was decked out for Christmas with sparkling lights.  The temperature was around 0 degrees Centigrade and it felt like it was going to snow.  In the morning, as I looked out our hotel window, I saw a light dusting of snow on the rooftops.
View from our hotel window

The next day while Art was attending meetings, I ate at the hotel again.  Dessert came on a plate shaped like an artist’s palette with cake, ice cream, and chocolate sauce in three “paint” compartments.  Everywhere in the hotel, walls were decorated with modern paintings, some of them huge.  Finally, on the last day of our stay I realized that the concept of the hotel was a giant art gallery!  (Hence, the palette for my dessert!)  One thing that puzzled me when I got on the elevator to go to our room was that each floor had a name on it.  I now understood that these were the names of painters and each floor was dedicated to the work of a single artist.  Our floor (the 5th) displayed paintings by German artist Bernd Zimmer.

Carved Christmas Pyramid
On Saturday afternoon, after the meeting was over, we went out shopping, stopping at a Christmas store filled with pyramids (elaborately carved wooden holiday decorations that turn from the heat of lighted candles), as well as many other kinds of other wooden objects, plus holiday table cloths, ceramics, etc.

Entrance to the Christmas Market at Gendarmensmarkt

Our real destination, though, was the Christmas market at the Gendarmenmarkt, a few blocks away, where we paid one Euro each to get in.  This huge outdoor fair had dozens of booths selling food and crafts.  On one side was a stage where entertainers danced and sang.  There was also a semi-indoor section tented off from the chilly air where there were more booths.  We toured the booths and  bought cookies and poppyseed cake to take home, puppets for the grandkids, and a Thuringer sausage on a bun for my lunch.  We also took a photo by a large decorated Berlin bear. (Bears are the symbol of Berlin. They are all over the city, something like the cows in Chicago.)  That evening, German friends took us to the Berlin Opera where we saw Mozart's The Magic Flute.  The staging–lots of smoke and lights–was dramatic and creative.  It didn’t matter that I didn’t understand the German lyrics. It was all wonderful.  Afterward, we ate in the opera restaurant where Art had smoked eel and I had gnocchi.


Booth selling stollen, cookies and other baked goods

On Sunday morning we bundled up and walked to the Brandenburg Gate and from there to the New National Art Museum, a large glass box not far from the symphony hall.  The main collection is German art of the early to mid-twentieth century.  From the outside, the building seems unlikely to have wall space for much art, but the inside is surprisingly spacious. In one room, they were screening a 1927 film called Symphony of Berlin, a black and white visual homage to life in the city as it was then, bustling with industry and commerce. (You can rent the film on Netflix.)  Later, we met our friends again for a traditional German Christmas tea with wonderful homemade stollen, fruit bread, cookies, and marzipan, followed by more German food for dinner at a restaurant near our hotel.  The next morning we got on a plane to go back to LA.
Caroline at the Brandenburg Gate, Berlin
Note: We have been to Berlin numerous times, usually during warmer seasons.  This was my first trip in winter.  The short days and freezing temperatures, along with the sounds of Christmas music in the streets, brought back memories of winters in Minneapolis when I was growing up.  As a child, one of the highlights of the Christmas season was going downtown to look at the displays in the department store windows.  Even though I have lived in California for most of my adult life, and have gotten used to trees being green year round and t-shirt weather in January, Christmas still never seems quite the same without snow underfoot and the air so cold you can see your breath.  In Berlin, we could definitely see our breath in the night air!

Monday, November 14, 2011

Prague: Old World Food and Culture


Prague, view from our hotel window of Prague Castle and St. Vitus Cathedral
In November of 2010, we spent five days in Prague and, as I look over my trip diary, it seems as if we spent most of our time eating!  We did, in fact, enjoy many of the main tourist sites, guided one day by a Czech friend, but as you’ll see, the focus is on food.  So, here is my mostly culinary tour of Prague.

Day 1:  We checked into our hotel, The Royal Palace, just as the sun was setting.  Our room looked over the large enclosed gardens of the Wallenstein Palace to the Castle (actually St. Vitus Cathedral) high on the hill above.  After a short walk, we ate a traditional Czech dinner at a nearby restaurant, Pod Vezi, where Art got duck and I chose fallow (deer) with what they called dumplings but tasted like the bread dressing of a typical American Thanksgiving.
Deer and Dumplings for dinner at Restaurant Pod Vezi


Day 2:  After breakfast at the hotel, a buffet they call a Swedish table (meat, cheese, bacon, bread, pastries, fruit) which filled us up for the day, we set out to explore.  We walked across the Charles Bridge (for pedestrians only and filled with vendors despite the freezing weather) from Mala Strana (the town below the castle) to Stare Mesto (old town) on the other side of the river, and walked along the twisty cobblestone streets, filled mainly with tourist shops featuring puppets, jewelry made from local amber (actually from Poland), art glass, Russian nesting dolls, etc.

Toy and Ceramic Shop
After visiting the Spanish Synagogue, beautifully decorated and turned into a museum of pre-War Jewish history and culture in Prague, we stopped for coffee and delicious pastries at a Bake Shop on Bikova Street.   For dinner, we picked a restaurant called Herzetova, on the river below the Kafka Museum.  At 6:00, we were the only people there, but it began to fill up as we left. I had pork piccata with gnocchi and Art had veal and potato dumplings in a rich sauce. Servings were huge and I only ate half of mine.

Stained Glass window at St. Vitus Cathedral
Day 3:  After breakfast, we walked up the hill to the castle and went into St. Vitus Cathedral, a Gothic masterpiece with flying buttresses and giant stained glass windows.  We then visited the Prague Castle Picture Gallery, a small museum with selected pictures from the royal collection, mostly minor portraits and landscapes, but also some notable paintings by Tintoretto, Titian, Veronese, and others. An unusual Tintoretto features the Christ Child off center in the lower left with everything else in the painting sliding toward him.

Fred and Ginger building, is an example of deconstructionist architecture
After lunch of goulash and potato soup in a small café, we walked along the river to the Fred and Ginger building, co-designed by Frank Gehry and a Czech architect. In stark contrast to the ornate, old stone buildings of central Prague, the two parts of the modern Fred and Ginger building lean toward one another like dancers. It is used as an office building. Dinner that night was at Gitanes, a gypsy themed Serbian restaurant, just down the hill from the American Embassy.  The first course was a bowl of fried donut-like cakes served with two kinds of creamy cheese, one pink, one white.  I then had cheese stuffed fried peppers (a very distant cousin of chiles rellenos) and Art had swarma (cabbage wrapped around meat) over mashed potatoes.

Afternoon Snack
Day 4:  We spent the day visiting several churches, buying tickets for a concert that night in Dvorak Hall at the Rudolfinium (a mixture of traditional and modern music), and stopping for tea and honey cakes at a small café.  For dinner before the concert we ate moules (mussels) at a restaurant in Josefov, the Jewish Quarter, which lies between the right bank of the Vltava River and the Old Town Square. Jewish history in Prague goes back 1000 years and the Jewish Museum there has one of the most extensive collections of Jewish art, textiles and silver in the world.
Dvorak Hall
Day 5:  In the morning we took a tour to Terezin, about an hour’s drive from Prague.  The walled town, originally built as a fortress by the Prussians, was used by the Nazis as a prison and concentration camp during the Second World War.  The weather had turned raw and windy with swirling snow, making us conscious as we toured the prison how stark conditions had been for prisoners who lived in buildings with no heat and with insufficient clothing.  After we returned to Prague, we visited the Kafka Museum, an exhibit of his life arranged, appropriately, in twisting corridors with mirrors and surprise turns. That evening, for our last dinner in Prague, we went to U Patrona, a small but charming restaurant near the Charles Bridge.  Art ordered bream (fish) and I had duck and Greek salad.  For dessert we had panna cotta with fruit.  Everything was good and artfully presented.  We thought it the best restaurant of our visit.

Unlike many other European cities, central Prague was not bombed during WW II, so the heart of the city, which goes back ten centuries or more, retains its historic character.  It is best seen by walking, and although the weather was chilly, we wore warm coats and were quite comfortable walking around.  A few days after we left, a huge storm blanketed Europe with more than a foot of snow, making it almost impossible to get around.  We were lucky that we had mostly clear weather for our trip.
Typical street in the castle area of Prague

Getting around:  The best way to get around central Prague is by walking, which was what we did.  You do not need to know Czech to visit Prague.  We found that almost everyone speaks English.
Getting there:  We flew directly to Prague (via Paris) from Los Angeles.  From Prague, we took a train to Berlin (a beautiful ride along the river), and flew back to Los Angeles (via Paris) from there.

Monday, November 7, 2011

Uppsala, Sweden

Uppsala Castle, built in 1549:  The Governor's Residence and Site of Several Museums
Last month, my husband Art spent a week in Uppsala, Sweden.  He was there for work, but he also did a little sightseeing and has agreed to share a few of his photos here.  Although I did not accompany him on this trip, I did go with him on a trip to Sweden several years ago.  I remember that as we drove from the airport to Stockholm past pine forests and rolling farmland, it was highly reminiscent of my home state of Minnesota.  Perhaps that’s why so many Scandinavians emigrated to the American upper Midwest! Art’s photos from this trip focus on the historic center of Uppsala, a university town of 140,000 people about an hour north of Stockholm.

A University Town
The Carolina Rediviva University Library
 Uppsala University, founded in 1477, is the oldest university in Scandinavia and one of the most distinguished universities in northern Europe.  During Art’s visit, he was taken on a tour of the Museum Gustavianum and of the old books and map collection at the university’s Carolina Rediviva Library.  From early anatomical textbooks, to globes of the world made before much of the world had been explored, his photos show a room packed with historic books and documents.  My favorite picture is of a globe of the constellations showing a realistic drawing of a bear around what we usually call the Big and Little Dippers.  I’ve always thought it took a great deal of imagination to see those constellations (Ursa Major and Ursa Minor) as bears!
Globe of the Constellations, Carolina Rediviva Library
The Uppsala Cathedral
Uppsala Cathedral.  Seat of the Archbishop of the Church of Sweden
Since 1164, Uppsala has been the ecclesiastical center of Sweden.  Its most prominent building is the Cathedral, whose twin towers, nearly four hundred feet high, dominate the skyline.  The Cathedral, with its soaring nave and stained glass windows, is Gothic in design. When it was inaugurated in 1435 it was part of the Roman Catholic Church.  Since the Reformation, it has been part of the Lutheran Church of Sweden.  In addition to its architectural interest, the Cathedral is the burial site of many of Sweden’s kings and luminaries, including botanist Carl Linnaeus. 
Uppsala Cathedral Stained Glass Window with Angels Above
Carl Linnaeus (1707-1778), Father of ModernTaxonomy
As I looked at Art’s photos of Uppsala, I tried to imagine that it might have been somewhat similar when Linnaeus was alive and students flocked to his lectures at the university. Carl Linnaeus (also known as Carl von Linne) was a scientist, lecturer, writer, and passionate collector and explorer.  In his time, there was no comprehensive system for identifying and classifying plants and animals. Linnaeus' study of plants and the need to name them in an organized way motivated him to develop a two part system for naming all living things, the first part being the genus name and the second the species, as in Homo sapiens, Felis domesticus, or Tyrannosaurus rex.  The universal language of science in Linnaeus’ time was Latin.  Today, English is the universal scientific language, but we still use Latin and Linnaeus' system for scientific names.  

Stora Torget, the main square in Uppsala, for pedestrians only
Flatbread 
While in Uppsala, Art became enamored of the many varieties of flatbread that were served on the breakfast smorgasbord at his hotel.  Made from rye, wheat, whole grain, and in various degrees of thickness, this crisp bread is perfect with butter, cheese, meat or by itself as a healthy snack. Of course, you don’t have to fly to Sweden to buy or eat Swedish food.  Just go to your nearest IKEA! [For an interesting article on the history and culture of IKEA, go to the October 3, 2011 issue of the New Yorker.]

Thanks to Art for sharing his photos!

Dome of Museum Gustavianum of Uppsala University