Storks, Cervantes, and a University: Alcala de Henares

White Storks on Top of the Buildings

While I’m working on our posts from Barcelona, I figured I should publish our post on the place we went the weekend before.

Alcala de Henares is an interesting place for many reasons.  First, is it’s university.  Alcalá de Henares was the world’s first planned university city… the first city to be designed and built solely around a university.  It has served as the model for many other university towns in Europe and the Americas (UNESCO World Heritage Website).  All universities before this one existed because there was a city already there.  That fact alone put it on my ‘must see’ list.  I must admit though, neither one of us thought the university itself was that special.

What we liked much better was the medieval part of the city that was next to it.  The old, narrow, cobblestone streets, the buildings with lots of ironwork, and the huge covered sidewalks.  It reminded me of New Orleans, but cleaner and nicer.  There were so many churches, convents, and monasteries in that area that steeples and spires were sticking up all over….making for some beautiful photo opportunities.  And on the tops of these classic old buildings were (what I enjoyed the most about this city) – the beautiful white storks.  The city claims to have some 90 pairs of storks living there.  Just about every time we looked up we could see them either in their nests or flying around.  Some buildings would just have one nest, but most had more.  There were 14 nests on an old building beside the Archbishops Palace.

Statue of Cervantes in front of his house

There are lots of other interesting things about this city.  It was here at the Archbishops Palace where Christopher Columbus met with King Ferdinand for the first time and planned his excursion to the West.   Catherine of Aragon was born in the Archbishops Palace as well (she ended up being the first wife of King Henry VII of England).  And guess who else was born in this town?  Cervantes, the great Spanish author of Don Quijote.  The main plaza in the city’s center is named after him and you can visit the house he was born in.  On the second floor of his house are old editions of his books (in many different languages).  The oldest one we saw was 1605.  There are also two child saints (Justus and Pastor ) buried in the cathedral.  The city has Roman, Moorish, and Jewish history associated with it as well.  We briefly stopped in the archeological museum which displayed various mosaics and artifacts from these and earlier settlements dating back more than 2,000 years.  Everything we saw was very interesting and educational.  In a way, I felt like I was in school all day.

Stork nest on the Archbishop’s Palace

The last thing we decided to do before heading back home was have lunch.  This city still preserves the old Spainish tradition of getting a free tapa when you order any drink. The inside of the restaurant we ate at was beautiful: brick archways, wooden beams on the ceiling, a copper bar, chandeliers, and old wooden tables (I really should have taken a picture).  I ordered a glass of wine, and got some ham croquettas and french fries for free!  Robert ordered coffee and got a plate of ham, eggs, and potatoes for free!  We could have chosen from a number of different tapas – including hamburgers, calamari, salmon sandwiches, etc.   Our total lunch bill ended up being only 5.50 euro (about $6.50) – not bad for Europe.

Alcala was a much bigger city than the places we have been visiting.  It is definitely interesting and the most lively and youthful place we’ve been so far  – I’m so glad we went.  However, other than the storks and free food, I’m not sure there is anything here that would keep bringing me back….unless I was 20 years younger.  It’s a great college town but it’s definitely geared more toward singles and young couples.

 

 

A Tremendous Time in Toledo

Alcantara Bridge – An Entrance into Toledo

There seems to be a heated cyber debate as to which city is better, Toledo or Segovia.  While I have not been to Segovia yet, I can say that Toledo should not be missed.  It is an easy 30 minute non-stop train ride from Madrid to the base of the city’s historical center, and there is so much to see and do. It warrants at least two full days.  We only went for a day trip this time but we will definitely be going back at some point to spend a night.

Actually, what I consider to be one of the most beautiful things Toledo is it’s surroundings.  The Tagus river (which is the longest river in Spain) nearly surrounds this hilltop city, creating a little canyon around it.  In the past it played a strategic role in the city’s defense, today it just adds to it’s charm.  The views from anywhere along the river are amazing and if you just want to take a stroll or do some fishing, there is a lovely walking/biking path around the base of the hill.

Robert in Toledo

While most people take the bus to the main plaza from the train station (which is beautiful btw), it’s just as easy to walk.  In 10 short minutes, the walk brings you to one of the two beautiful old bridges that cross the Tagus: the Alcantara bridge.  From here, there are wonderful views of the Alcazar, parts of the old wall, the medieval castle of San Servando, and of course the river.  We went thru the keyhole shaped entrance at the other side of the bridge which lead up LOTS of steep steps until we reached the old part of the city very near the main plaza.  After walking around the city all day, one thing becomes very apparent: it’s a steep, hilly city built with lots of rocks and bricks.  I’m really glad I wore my walking shoes!

Our goal this trip was to get to know the city and avoid other tourists as much as possible.  I think we did a pretty good job considering it was a Saturday.  We managed to visit two museums (El Greco and Santa Cruz), one mosque (Cristo de La Luz circa 999AD), the oldest synagogue in Europe (Santa Maria Blanca), one church (San Ramon), both historic bridges, the Puerta Bisagra and the Puerta del Sol.  We literally walked all over the city. In the process we ate pastries, did some window shopping, had a deliciously long Spanish-style lunch (with a bottle of wine), bought some mazapan (Toledo’s traditional sweet), and took LOTS of pictures.

Inside San Ramon Church

We also saw lots of places we will try to visit next time we are there including the famous cathedral, the monastery, and the Alcazar (military museum).  By the end of the day, I noticed something interesting about this town.  Though it’s very compact, every section of the old city has it’s own personality.  The west side was more open and park like, while the center was compact and dark (the narrow, curvy cobblestone streets and alleys challenged my navigational skills several times).  The Jewish Quarter was very quiet and reserved, whereas the main plaza was loud with lots of activity.  This will all be highly useful information when I go to book our hotel.

The Narrow Streets of Toledo

Just think about it: There is more than two thousand years of history within the walls of Toledo, and the whole city is a UNESCO World Heritage site.  All the civilizations that lived here (the Romans, Visigoths, Moors, Jews, and Christians) left a wealth of treasures for us to enjoy in the forms of architecture, art and culture.  I can’t imagine someone not liking this city – as there is something for everyone.  The only area that didn’t really appeal to me was around the main Plaza which was way too ‘touristy’ –  too many shops, advertisements and even a McDonald’s.  I know others like that sort of thing though.

Right before our train left for Madrid, we had a taxi take us to the other side of town across the river, so we could get a view of the whole city.  It is an incredible sight to see…no wonder El Greco painted it. 🙂

Click on the photos to see more pictures of Toledo.

The Cathedral

The Alcazar

The Monastery in San Lorenzo de Escorial

Basilica Dome at El Escorial

We were looking to get away from the city again and see a little bit of fall color so we went to the town of San Lorenzo which is about 45 minutes away from Madrid.  We arrived around 10:00 am and made a quick stop for some delicious pastries and coffee before heading out to see the sights.  It was a beautiful cool Sunday morning as we walked through the very quiet streets of this picturesque town.  I use to think the Japanese were late risers, but the Spanish have them beat.  They don’t wake up until about noon!

The main attraction here is the Monastery, El Escorial, a UNESCO World Heritage Site.  It was built during the reign of King Philip II in the mid 1500’s.  When it was built, it was the largest building in the world for quite a long time.  The outside is very stark and boring looking – reminds me more of a prison.  It’s in an extremely pretty area though and it really stands out.  They don’t let you take pictures inside the complex, so in order to see what it looks like on the inside, you will have to click the link above or, better yet, go see it for yourself.

El Escorial Monastery

Overall, it’s really impressive.  To adequately see the whole place, it takes 3-4 hours and you have to follow the arrows or you will get lost.  It’s so large, it actually houses several museums, a palace, a mausoleum, a church, a library and a school all in one.  They should sell multi-day tickets.  You have to be FAR away if you want to get a picture of the whole place.

If you pay the fee to go inside you get to see a collection of tapestries and a huge painting by El Greco, followed by the Museum of Architecture which includes drawings that were used to design the building as well as the materials they used to build it…it’s pretty amazing.  Then there is the never-ending art gallery.  While Philip II was known to be a fairly modest and simple king, he loved art and collected over 1,500 paintings and commissioned some 500 frescos (the frescos are fantastic).  I’m not sure we saw that many but it sure felt like it.

View of Countryside & Gardens from Palace

Next we saw the palace and royal living quarters.  That wasn’t very exciting.  It was mostly just rooms with furniture and a few decorations.  There was one wooden door however that had exquisite detail all over it which looked like something probably done in Japan or China.  We also got to see King Phillip’s room – preserved exactly the way it was the day he died – kinda creepy.  The views out the palace windows of the gardens and surrounding countryside were beautiful though.  I did manage to sneak in a couple pictures of that!

The coolest thing in the whole place was by far the solid pink & black marble hallway and staircase which descended deep into the Pantheon.  This solid marble circular room contains nearly all the Spanish Kings from the last 400 years!  Standing in the center of all those black marble & gold caskets was a bit intimidating.  There are only two spots left – and they are for the current king’s parents.  The current and future kings of Spain will have to be buried somewhere else.

Mausoleum of Past Kings & Queens of Spain (from a postcard)

We passed thru at least a dozen other tomb “rooms”.  They housed all the other royal family members including princes, princesses, husbands, wives, infants and children.  It gets pretty depressing after a while.  The most bizarre tomb we saw was for the infants which is oddly shaped like a wedding cake.

We proceeded onward to the grand hallway and staircase,  the old chapel, the huge basilica (in which Mass was being held), and finally the library.  The library is considered to be one of the most important historic libraries in the world. It supposedly contains about 45,000 works from the 15th and 16th centuries, and thousands of manuscripts in Arabic, Latin, and Spanish.  It is a beautiful library, but it didn’t feel that big or that old.  It didn’t even smell old (like the Trinity Library in Dublin did).  It’s nearly in mint condition.  The bookcases are beautiful and the ceiling is strikingly bright and colorful – decorated with frescoes related to the the seven liberal arts.  It was fun to try and find them!

The town of San Lorenzo

We were finally finished and we were exhausted.  We had originally intended to take a hike next but we just didn’t have the energy.  There were other buildings included in the visit too (which are set in the gardens and countryside), but we didn’t have the energy for that either.  We also wanted to see The Valley of the Fallen which was close by.  There’s just so much to see around here!   I guess we will just have to come back. 😉

To see some more pictures click on the picture.

Monastery Tower

Christmas in Bangkok – The Grand Palace, Wat Pho & Kukrit’s House

Visit to the Grand Palace

Christmas morning we walked to the Chao Phraya River and boarded the express ferry north bound for the Grand Palace and Wat Pho.  The Chao Phraya river was still way above normal, and at high tide we noticed the ferry boat barely fit under the bridges.  However, there were only a few sections along the river that still had sandbags up, and only one place that we saw evidence it happened.  While it may not be the prettiest or cleanest river (especially when we were there), it flows right through the heart of Bangkok and it is a great way to see the city.  The ferries were easy to use, very inexpensive, and stopped at many of the major attractions.  During our 20 minute river journey, we recognized a lot of the buildings we saw on our bike ride yesterday, and we ended up docking just north of where we were.

The Palace grounds opened at 8:00am and we were there by 8:10.  We were hoping to beat the crowds.  No such luck… 🙁 …it was already very crowded and hard to get pictures that didn’t have a bunch of other people in them.  The whole Grand Palace complex is actually quite large and consists of many different buildings, courtyards, lawns and gardens.  Only about a third of the property is even open to the public, since much of it is still used for official business.  It’s rather expensive to get in but we both really enjoyed it.  It would be much better though if they limited the number of people in there at any one time.

Temple of the Emerald Buddha

We started in the Outer Court (a huge lawn area) where we could see the spires and rooftops peaking over the wall of the temple.  Most people come to the Grand Palace just to see this temple – Wat Phra Kaeo (Temple of the Emerald Buddha).  It is considered the most sacred wat in Thailand, and it was the private chapel of many past Kings.  The 26 inch high green statue (which you can’t take pictures of and you can barely see since he is so high up) is believed to be the protector of Thailand.  Only the King is allowed to touch him (when he changes his garment every 4 months).  The buddha is actually made out of one big piece of jade (not an emerald), and this little fella has quite an interesting history (much to long to write about here).  Over the last 2000 years he has resided in India, Sri Lanka, Cambodia, Laos, and now Thailand.

The temple’s layout was similar to all the other wats we visited except that it did not have monk quarters. The grounds were completely walled off from the rest of the Palace grounds, and the inside of these walls were covered with beautiful brightly detailed murals.  By far the most memorable thing about this wat was how exuberantly ornate and over-the-top all the buildings were. There was so much detail and color going on, I felt dizzy – talk about sensory overload.  There were itty bitty tiny pieces of glass, tile, gems, and porcelain on just about everything.  The ordination hall (which houses the buddha) was huge and shimmered of gold and blue.

The Grand Palace

The elevated terrace had a huge gold chedi, a large scale model of Angor Wat, a library and royal pantheon (which were not open to the public), and all sorts of mythical characters throughout.  Anytime we glanced up we saw a sea full of spires.  Interesting statues were scattered throughout the premises as well, including the hermit statue (at the entry), the colorful guarding giants (which were rather comical looking), and various creatures positioned at entrances or in gardens.  After spending nearly three hours at the temple, we finally (but reluctantly) moved on to the Grand Palace area.  Wow – talk about a stark difference in architecture.  All of a sudden we felt like we were transported to Europe.  Buckingham Palace was the first thing that came to mind.  The only part of the buildings that looked remotely Thai were the roofs. It was Sunday and the ceremonial halls were closed. Neither of us were that interested in this bit, so we just walked around the grounds and checked out the museum before leaving the Palace premises completely.

Reclining Buddha

Wat Pho was not far down the road.  Considered the largest and oldest wat in Bangkok, it was also the site of Thailand’s first university and the birth place of Thai massage. 🙂  It houses over 1,000 buddhas including the largest reclining buddha in Thailand (which happens to be almost the same exact size as the one we saw in Japan – so we really wanted to see it).  When we arrived, the hall housing the reclining buddha was annoyingly over crowded, but with some patience, we did  get a few good views of him.  His feet were the most interesting part with all the inlaid mother-of-pearl scenes.  It’s supposedly taller and longer than the one in Japan but it didn’t seem that way (maybe because it is confined to the inside a building).   Even more than the reclining buddha, we both really enjoyed the rest of this wat since it was refreshingly uncrowded.  We were able to relax and move at a much slower pace to see the buddhas and the almost 200 chedi located on the property.  Given it’s proximity to the Grand Palace, many of the chedi here contain the ashes of past kings and their family members (another royal burial ground).  I  actually thought about getting a thai massage here, but we were too hungry and thirsty so we moved on to find a bite to eat instead.

Wholesale Vegetable Market

After a nice relaxing lunch and cold drinks at the Black Canyon Coffee Cafe we were now refreshed and ready to revisit the wholesale market which we zoomed through on our bikes yesterday morning.  The market was literally right down the street and we found it pretty quickly.  However, the markets were no where near as busy this time of day.  Much of the merchandise had already been moved out or bought.  We managed to snap a few good pictures while enroute to the ferry dock, but it just wasn’t the same.  We cruised back down the river and when we arrived at the central dock, we decided to take the BTS (Bangkok’s above ground train) back to our apartment instead of walking.  We were pleasantly surprised.  The BTS was extremely clean, efficient and cheap.  It was by far the best way to get around the inner parts of the city.  I hope they continue expanding the routes – and we really hope they eventually link it up to the airport.

M.R. Kukrit's Heritage Home

We got off one stop early since we still had a couple hours before we had to get ready for dinner.  For something really different we decided to stop at M.R. Kukrit’s Heritage House.  M.R Kukrit was an interesting man (a member of the royal family, an Oxford graduate, a writer, actor, poet and a former Prime Minister of Thailand).  When he died in 1995, he left his home to the public.  His home is the result of 20 years of work on two acres of land in a residential area of downtown.  All the buildings on the property are authentic traditional Thai houses (some are over 100 years old).   He brought them for various places in central Thailand and slowly reassembled them here (Thai houses are built to be moved).  It’s a very unique place – as this was his actual home (which still had all his stuff in it) and not some decorated exhibition that was thrown together.  I bet it is very rare to find this kind of property anywhere in Bangkok now.  One building was an open pavillion with a stage and housed a huge collection of antique masks.  The living quarters were made up of a group of small one room teak houses on elevated poles, creating a covered living space below that was open all the way around and surrounded by lovely gardens, pounds, and shrines.  He also had an impressive collection of antique books, art, and furniture as well.  I can only venture to guess what this piece of property is actually worth today.  The oddest thing we found on the grounds was his pet cemetery which had a gravestone marked “unknown mice” (he obviously also had a sense of humor).

Back at our apartment we had plenty of time to relax and have a cocktail before going to dinner.  It was a 5-10 minute walk to a French restaurant (inside a lovely old home) at which we had our Christmas dinner.  We didn’t have extremely high expectations but both of our dinners were actually quite delicious.  As we sat there and ate, we realized just how unusual a Christmas this was.  Can’t help but think that Santa must have thought we were awfully good this past year.  Check out these amazing places yourself, by clicking on the photo below.

Day 9 – Grand Palace, Wat Pho, & Kukrit’s House

Biking around Bangkok

Wat Suwan Plu

We arrived in Bangkok Friday evening, and settled into our apartment.  It was so nice to have a home-like space for the three days we were in Bangkok.  We loaded up the fridge with some essential snacks and drinks and felt immediately relaxed.  Our apartment building was located on a quiet street walking distance from some great restaurants yet conveniently located to all the major tourist sights.  It was a very nice place and we would definitely stay here again if we ever found ourselves in Bangkok.

On Saturday we did a bike tour of the Siam historic district of Bangkok with Follow Me Bike Tours.  I know it sounds crazy, but it was a lot of fun!  Since it was Saturday morning the traffic probably wasn’t as bad as a weekday.  We also lucked out and got a private tour again (probably because of the decreased number of tourists in the area due to the recent flooding).  We arrived at the clubhouse at 7:45am and met our two guides, Tob and Kathy.  Equipped with 24 gears, heavy duty shocks and ultra cushy seats we set off to tackle the jungle of Bangkok.  We did have to cross or ride on major streets a few times (thus experiencing cars and motorcycles whizzing by and large buses brushing up right beside us), but most of the trip we were on backstreets, narrow alleys, pathways and sidewalks which was actually a lot of fun.  Only someone who was intimately familiar with the area could do this route without any help.  We covered 25 km in 4 hours and got to see many historic sites in Bangkok that most tourists never see (or even know about).  The only bad thing about a bike tour is that it’s hard to take pictures unless you stop.  If you stop too much, you’re not going to get very far.  So some things we only got to see the outside of as we passed by.

In front of the Old Customs House

Our route followed north along the east bank of the Chao Phraya River.  We passed the Shangra-la Hotel and soon stopped at Wat Suwan Plu.  This temple had it’s own elementary school and we watched as the kids assembled early that morning.   Unlike the other wats we’d see everywhere else, the monk’s quarters were very simple.  They were made of wood boards and had pretty carved wood panels.  The bot (prayer hall) was white with beautiful carvings, statues, and some light blue tiles highlighted by touches of gold.  We continued on our way entering the farang (foreigner’s) quarter of Bangkok.  We passed the Assumption Cathedral, the East Asiatic Company, and the French Embassy before stopping at to the Old Customs House.  Built in the 1880’s, it was obvious that this was once an incredibly beautiful European style building, but now it’s in a very sad state (it’s great to photograph however).  The fire department uses the lot now, and there was still some water in the lot from the recent floods (sandbags were still piled four feet high along the river bank).  We were told there were plans to eventually restore the building to it’s original glory.  We then biked thru was a small Muslim community and past the Portuguese Chancellery (the Portuguese were the first foreigners to have formal ties with Siam), before stopping at the Holy Rosary Church (built by the Portuguese in 1786).  Outside the church was a garden with a little shrine, a Christmas tree, a tree with hanging presents, and a snowman made out of recently used sandbags.  The inside was a beautiful old fashioned church with ceiling fans, stained glass windows, and a gorgeous ceiling.

The Resident Crocodile

Then we biked through Chinatown.  Thank goodness we were there before the crowds arrived.  Even this early the place was like a beehive and almost impossible to get through at times.  We stopped once to get some pictures of the main walking street.  We followed Tob down all sorts of narrow corridors, past an old Chinese shrine, and we watched everyone frantically preparing for the busy weekend ahead. We stopped at Wat Chakrawat, which is a small temple with a black and gold facade.  Our guides were anxious to show us the most popular residents here – the crocodiles.  We peaked over the wall and sure enough there was one in the pond.  Right around the corner was another caged within a fence sleeping.  They turned on a hose to wake him up and cool him off with some cold water.  In a glass case near the pond, was the skeletal remains (with skin) of the first crocodile they pulled from the river some 50+ years ago.  Plenty of dogs and cats hung out in this area too.  We learned about the guards in front of the wats.  One is male and one female.  The male usually has a ball, and the female has a baby.

Wat Arun

We then made our way back to the river bank and stopped right before we entered Pak Khlong Market – Bangkok’s largest wholesale market.  Most restaurants and local markets come to here to get their goods.  It’s open 24 hours a day and it’s busiest in the morning.  Without stopping, we went through the market which was loaded up with everything you could possibly think of.  The array of smells we passed ranged from amazingly divine to very pungent.  The volumes of food moving through here made Costco look like child’s play.  Trucks were piled high with bananas, cabbage, peppers, onions, garlic, crates of fruit, etc.  There were bins and baskets filled with large industrial size bags of produce as well.  Carts, trolleys, and dollies were moving goods around.  This went on for several city blocks…all sorts of vegetables, fruits, fish, chicken, spices, flowers, and who knows what else.  I knew we’d have to come back here at some point to get some photos.  We stopped at a ferry dock right across from Wat Arun (Temple of the Dawn).  Wat Arun is a stunning structure – even from far away and especially on a cloudy day.  We boarded the ferry and headed to the other side.

Wat Prayoon Chedi Courtyard

After we docked, we explored the temple grounds. We didn’t go into the Wat since we could easily admire it’s porcelain covered exterior from where we were.  We walked to the river bank and saw the official name of Bangkok.  Kathy read it out loud to us.  It’s in the world record book for the longest name of a place…translating to something like: “the city of angels, the great city, home of the emerald Buddha, built by…etc”. We biked south along a boardwalk paralleling the west bank of the river and stopped at the very old Chinese shrine, Kuan Yin, dedicated to the god of mercy.  Looking like it’s been standing there untouched for 200 years, this place could use some mercy (or restoration work).  Our next stop was Santa Cruz Catholic Church (built by the Portuguese).  Finally we stopped at Wat Prayoon which had it’s own museum.  The 180 year old all white chedi was recently restored and all sorts of amulets and buddhas were found inside it’s chambers.  This is the only chedi we were able to actually go inside.  The courtyard was beautiful lined with old pieces of timber taken from the chedi’s interior during it’s restoration.  We went into the very center of the chedi admiring the secret room and then climbed up to the top for a great view.

The Fish Spa

We went a little further south and eventually took another ferry back across the river and continued back to the clubhouse. Tob stopped and ordered all of us some street food which we brought back to the house and ate for lunch.  The owners had a spa fish bath on their property which Robert decided to try.  As soon as he put his feet in, the fish went after him – nibbling all over.  He started laughing saying how much it tickled.  I didn’t try it…for some reason I had images of piranhas in my head.  We talked for awhile, wrote comments on their wall and then headed back to our hotel to relax.

We loved getting to see the city this way and we’d for sure do another bike tour if we return to Bangkok.  In addition to the pictures we took, Tob also took some pictures during the tour and sent them to us.  Looking back, it’s amazing how much we saw that day…

 

Day 7 & 8 – Bangkok Bike Tour

Winter Wrapup

Where has the time gone?  In less than four months we will be done with our first year in Japan.  January and February flew by.  We’ve had lots of little events over the last 8 weeks, so we thought we’d wrap them into a summary post.  I have to admit, after New Zealand, most events almost don’t seem worthy of a post; however, we have had some interesting experiences that we don’t want to forget, and want to share with you.

Chuck Wagon Bar

1) The Country Western Bar Downtown:  It was a night out for the whole school….an “All You Can Eat & Drink” – choice of various types of bar food, whiskey, beer and box wine (ha!) courtesy of the Chairman of the Board of Directors.  He apparently is a big Country Western fan and frequents this place a lot (but he’s obviously not a wine drinker).  This place even had a live band singing various honky tonk songs!  I was actually really surprised such a place existed here…but it does and they do a pretty good job creating the right atmosphere.  It’s not a very big place, but somehow we all managed to fit in….and a few people even “danced”.  I was actually hoping there would be a nice big thick steak and baked potato there, but no such luck.  They had pizza, pasta, salad, sausage, some rice dishes, and various other finger foods instead.  And as hard as I tried, I just couldn’t get use to the Japanese band dressed in cowboy hats and tight blue jeans.  It was almost as entertaining as seeing the Japanese waiters dressed in Mexican attire at El Barracho.  They just shouldn’t do it.  I wish I would have remembered to bring my camera to this event, however, the images in my mind still won’t go away.

Van Gogh Exhibit

Van Gogh Exhibit

2) The Van Gogh Exhibit at the National Museum in Dazaifu:  This was truly a delight to see.  It was so good, we almost went back to see it again.  I’ve been to other exhibits and been disappointed by the number of actual paintings on loan of the featured artist(s) you get to see – and how far away you have to be from them, so I didn’t have high expectations going to this one.  Well….to my (and everyone else’s) surprise, there must have been a hundred of Van Gogh works there AND you could literally get within inches of them.  It was amazing to see all the detail, the depth, and the brush strokes!  The way the paintings were arranged, the progression of his work from his first sketches to his most famous paintings was very apparent.  Occasionally, there would be works from other famous painters that were either from the same era or which influenced his style.  I would have loved to have taken pictures in there, but (even if I was allowed) pictures just can’t capture stuff like that yet.  I also need to mention the number of people that were there…we were nearly packed in there like sardines!  At times it was almost frustrating, but fortunately, they were able to keep the lines moving so that you could eventually see everything.  You were also allowed to go back if you wanted to see something again.  It was like walking through a maze, but it took you by every piece of work.  I suppose the narrow halls would have bothered those individuals who like to study paintings from a distance, but I find his work more enjoyable close up.  The only painting that wasn’t there that we would have really liked to see was Starry Night.  Everyone seemed to have a different favorite.  I’m not sure I could choose just one.  Oddly enough, Van Gogh happens to resemble the person that works in the library with me…the students had a good chuckle with that.  Lucky for him, he knows who to ‘dress up’ as for Halloween next year.

3) The Prom Lunch Fundraisers:  As some of you might know, Robert is in charge of the Junior class who is in charge of funding and planning the Prom.  After some initial frustration (and a temper tantrum) he decided to take it on by doing something he enjoys doing:  cooking!  So he planned 4 lunches at the school in order to raise money.  One time we made Chicken Soup (which went over well with the healthy eaters) and the other three times we made Chili (which was enjoyed by all, including the junk food addicts).  We had to go a little low on the spiciness meter for the children, but that was easily remedied for us adults with some Tabasco sauce.  Anyway, all these lunches meant we’ve been going to Costco every other weekend and loading up on beef, beans, onions, tomatoes, corn, and various spices (I also loaded up on wine & cheese 🙂 ).  We chopped and prepped on Sunday afternoons.  Robert got up early on Mondays to get the stuff cooking…the whole school smelled wonderful!  The last batch was perfection.  There was absolutely nothing left over….no bowls, no spoons, no cheese, no sour cream.  It was awesome.  Makes me want to do it again….alas, they have made enough ¥ now, so chili will not be on any future lunch menus. 🙁

Hong Kong Day One

Day 1 in Hong Kong

Water Fountain in front of Former Supreme Court Bldg

I’m SO glad Typhoon Megi decided to vacation near Taiwan rather than Hong Kong….I really didn’t want to spend the next three days inside my hotel or in shopping malls.  Fortunately, the weather ended up being perfect.

Hong Kong feels like a San Francisco that’s being swallowed by ‘China Town’.  There is no apparent language barrier here…everyone seems to know English.  It’s very well organized and has a great and inexpensive subway system which I came to know intimately.  I spent my first day exploring from Hong Kong Central to the Western Market.  I would have preferred to explore everything with Robert, but unfortunately he was stuck in a classroom from 8:00 to 5:00…so he had to experience my day (and most of Hong Kong) through pictures.

The first half of my first day took me through the British historic areas of downtown.  It was odd to see small colonial buildings lost among all the steel and glass of modern day skyscrapers.  Times sure have changed.  With a little imagination, you could picture what it was once like.  I really enjoyed visiting St John’s cathedral (a very tiny cathedral with ceiling fans!) which is thought to be the oldest Anglican church in the Far East).  And not far from there, was the Government house and the Botanical Gardens filled with beautiful tropical vegetation and orchids.

Day 1 in Hong Kong

An Antique Market in Hong Kong

After such a relaxing and civilized morning, I was ready to take on the commercial markets.  Hong Kong has an insane amount of high end shops (most of which seem to have no patrons), and then sandwiched on small alleys between these buildings which house the shops for Versace, Valentino and Tiffany’s are street vendors in make-shift stalls repairing shoes, and selling costume jewelry, handbags, and cheap knockoffs.

The further East I went, the more exotic the shops got.  There were whole streets dedicated to dried/preserved items…including seafood, mushrooms, flowers, roots, bark, snake skins, and ‘herbal medicines’.  I can only imagine what eventually becomes of this stuff, and I’m not sure I want to find out.   I finally came upon the antique district where there were hundreds of dealers with a huge array of artifacts from jade and carved ivory to gourds and old war propaganda posters.  I’m a sucker for all things old and I would have loved to spend more time here searching for a treasure to bring back, but I really needed to be heading back, so on I went.

My last stop for the day was Man Ho Temple (the oldest temple in Hong Kong).  I passed on the palm reading, but I did go inside to view the large incense spirals hanging from the ceiling (that stuff makes me dizzy), and then I watched a few women bang the gong and burn their prayers in the big fire pit outside (sending their prayers to the spirit world).  On my way back, fortunately I discovered the Central-Mid-Level Escalators…after walking all day my legs were numb – and those moving sidewalks were a godsend!

The old Man Ho Temple in Downtown Hong Kong

When Robert returned from his training, we both headed for the SoHo area (stands for South of Hollywood).  There were numerous bars and restaurants in this area for us to choose from.  We decided on a small Italian place on one of the back roads to have our dinner.  It was an extremely relaxing evening with great food and wine.  It was exactly what we both needed.  The owner and staff were fantastic and very generous.  Neither one of us really wanted to leave, but all good things must end.  On the way back we checked out the IFC mall and walked down to the Harbor area to check out the city lights.  By the time we returned to the hotel we were both exhausted, but excited about what the next couple nights would have in store.

Dazaifu’s Tenmangu Shrine (and Flea Market)

You must be this tall to enter...

You must be this tall to enter…

Our first adventure outside the city took us to the town of Dazaifu. The city is about a 30 minute train trip southeast of Fukuoka. According to our brochure, 1,300 years ago this is where Kyushu was governed from and the seat of government stayed there for about 500 years.  The shrine that currently resides there was built in 1591.  It is probably the most important Tenmangu Shrine in Japan.  The shrine is dedicated to the god(s) of learning – I am thinking about a field trip here for my classes before our next big test. 🙂

A group of 11 of us took the trip to visit the monthly flea market and learn the ins and outs of train tickets and station transfers.  We did a pretty good job except for when we found ourselves doing a stand-up comedy routine for the local Japanese passengers by going to the wrong platform (where no one else was) and sitting on the wrong train (which was empty) until the station manager told us to go to a different platform.  A good rule thumb in Japan: if you go to a train platform and no one else is there and then you get on the train and no one else is on it, then chances are you are not in the right place.  When we finally got to the right train, two older Japanese men next to us looked and pointed over to where we had been and were laughing “with us”.

National museum is amazing architecture

National Museum in Dazaifu

The grounds of the shrine were beautiful and the buildings were very interesting. But..it was brutally hot and humid.  Rose and I walked around and took in the scenery and shopping as much as possible but we had to get inside to some air conditioning.

So, we headed to the National Museum.  We were glad we did…the architecture was stunning and the history on the inside was very educational. We certainly know a lot more about the role the Chinese and Koreans played in the history of Japan than we did before we went.

More shrine

Tenmangu Shrine

We finally had lunch around 1:45, and I was starving. We were on our own at that point, so we just picked a restaurant on the main street that looked good.  A young girl brought us our menus (which fortunately had a few pictures) and we played our usual game of “food roulette”.  I ended up with some cold soba noodles mixed with a broth topped with shredded egg, wasabi, and re-hydrated fish of some kind. It was fantastic and very refreshing after the hot day.  Rose ended up with a bowl of rice topped with a battered pork cutlet, a cooked egg and some type of sauce.  And yes, it was also very good.  After lunch we met up with the rest of our group and rode the trains back to Fukuoka without incident.  We are all expert train travelers now!

Click on any picture to see more photos of this trip.