Barcelona: La Sagrada Familia

Looks a bit gaudy (I mean Gaudi)

Exterior of the Church

One of the most memorable sites we saw in Barcelona was La Sagrada Familia (The Sacred Family). It is actually the most visited attraction in Barcelona – so make sure you make reservations ahead of time if you want to see the inside.

It’s hard to get a really good picture of it because it is so large.  Also, the exterior of the church is still undergoing construction and there are cranes around it. They actually began building the church 130 years ago and they don’t expect to finish it until at least 2026.  All entry fees are going toward it’s completion.

The design is very unique – a mix of Gothic and Modernism – almost like two different buildings in one.  It’s been called everything from “hideous” and “strange” to “spiritual”, “sensual” and “exuberant”.   It is definitely “over-the-top” and completely different than any building or church I have ever seen before.

There is a great explanation of Antoni Gaudi’s designs and inspirations inside the church.  I appreciated it because I like how Gaudi’s architectural inspiration came from nature.  He did not use straight lines…since there are no straight lines in nature.  All the designs in his buildings are based on nature itself (animals, plants, and minerals).  Robert appreciated it for all the mathematics involved (parabolas, hyperbolas, ellipses, polygons, etc).

The most recent construction work is very modern looking and (I think) deviates from the portion that was constructed during Gaudi’s lifetime.  However, Gaudi’s plans were such that he wanted it to evolve over time.  The main entrance to the church is through massive metal doors – completely covered with words and symbols.  The inside of the church is very light, open and spacious.  There are some simplistic drawings on the floors but the ceiling is incredibly detailed and beautiful…it was like looking into a kaleidoscope.  The main pillars are the size of giant sequoias soaring up and branching out into the ceiling.  The four center pillars have the names of the four evangelists on them.  The sides are full of stained glass windows and there are spiraling staircases going up each tower.  Above the alter is a crucified Christ suspended by a stained glass parachute.  Below the alter is a small chapel and a crypt where Gaudi is buried.

Inside La Sagrada Famila

The outside currently has 3 sides and 8 towers.  Only two sides are done.  When it’s finished there will be 18 towers (one for each apostle, each evangelist, Mary and Jesus), eventually making it the tallest church in the world.   The first side (the Nativity) was constructed when Gaudi was alive.  It is incredibly detailed.  It depicts events related to life.  There are religious scenes from Christ’s life (his birth, Mary, Joseph, angels, rosaries), but there also lots of other symbols of life in general (trees, flowers, leaves, vines, branches, coral, birds, turtles, chameleons, horses, etc).

Detail of the Nativity Side

The second side (the Passion) was started in the 1950’s and it depicts images related to death (the stations of the cross, skulls, bones, etc) and more symbolism (alpha and omega, magic squares).  This side is very modern looking (not anywhere near as detailed) and very different than the first side.

Detail of the Passion Side

The last side (Glory) is just a solid block right now.  It will eventually depict images of the resurrection and afterlife.  Under the church is also a large museum containing not only the designs and complete history of the church but also a workshop where people are actually creating pieces for the exterior.  It’s all really interesting and fascinating…a true work in progress.

La Sagrada Familia is one of those few places that you will think about long after you’ve left.  There is so much to look at and absorb…no matter how long you are there, you won’t see it all.  Even now I look at our pictures and I see things I didn’t see before.  It is an amazing place.

 

Thanksgiving in Barcelona: Gaudi and Goodies

View from our Apartment – Casa Mila in the center

Since we couldn’t easily go home for Thanksgiving break, we decided to go to Barcelona instead.  We heard the food there was fabulous plus we would have a 4-day weekend to explore the city.  We left Wednesday night and instead of driving (which would have taken us 6-7 hours), we took the high speed train (at 180 mph) and we were there in 2.5 hours.  The train station is also conveniently located in the center of the city, so we were even checked into our apartment by 10pm.

We booked a place on the main shopping street in Barcelona….Passeig de Gracia.  The hotel surprised us with an upgrade to a 2 bedroom, 2 bath apartment (it was really nice but way more room than we needed).  They also gave us a box of chocolates and free internet service – all for the same price as a little hotel room. 🙂  The location was perfect, the view was great and the weather was perfect.  The second night we were there the city turned on the Christmas lights so the streets were all beautifully lit up.

Casa Botilo

Thanksgiving morning we out to have our coffee & pastry and decided to spend the day seeing Antoni Gaudi’s work.   Gaudi’s architectural work is so different and wild….seven of his properties are recognized by UNESCO as outstanding examples of early 20th century architecture.  Each of his works is more like a piece of art than it is a practical building.  He designed everything from lamposts, to buildings, to churches, to parks.  We actually spent all day looking at his creations.  It was like walking in fantasy land.  We first saw Casa Mila and Casa Botilo, then we went to see his masterpiece, La Sagrada Familia.  The church was amazing and we spent three hours there.  You can see and read all about it in our next post.

After our church visit, we headed to Park Guell….which is a park designed by Gaudi.  It’s not easy to get to, but it is on top of hill so it has a great view of the city.  It was an incredibly beautiful day and it was great to be spending it outside.  Visiting the park was so much fun and also very relaxing.  We sat on the park benches soaking up the sun, looking out to the sea and listened to several musicians and bands playing.

The design of the park is so whimsical and colorful!  I felt like I was in the Hansel & Gretel fairy tale.  The entrance even has what looks like two gingerbread houses.  The walls surrounding it undulate, the park benches are either circular or wrap around like serpents, there are cute little mosaic creatures and beautiful tiles throughout.  Curvy trails are all over the hill, going thru little tunnels and leading to all sorts of different places – including the house Gaudi lived in (which is now a museum).  I could have easily spent the rest of the day here but it was getting late and we still hadn’t had lunch.  We headed out and immediately found a great little cafe near the park and ended up having a majorly delicious little Mediterranean pizza and a mouth watering Iberian ham sandwich.

Park Guell in Barcelona

It was already early evening when we took the subway all the way down to the waterfront and walked up the infamous mile long street (La Rambla).  We stopped there to buy some evilly good chocolates at Le Boqueria (a huge farmer’s market) and then picked up some wine, cheese & bread to snack on before going to our Spanish dinner at 9:30pm.

Our restaurant was only a few blocks away from our apartment so we walked there.  It was a small restaurant with only 10 tables but it is very popular.  I had to make reservations several weeks in advance.  The dinner (which consisted of multiple courses) was fantastic.  Every dish they served was simply amazing and so different…so many colors and flavors.  Some of the things we had included bread, stuffed olives, spicy nuts, a tricolored caramel shot, foie gras on pastry crust with caramelized leeks, scallops, roasted suckling pig, a celery-lime sorbet, a cheese plate, banana mouse with ice cream and caramel sauce and finally several chocolate samples. Robert ordered the local wine pairings.  It was great to be able to taste so many different local Spanish wines with each dish.  This was by far the best place we ate in Barcelona and so far the best in Spain.  Just thinking about it makes me want to go back.  We sure hope everyone had a wonderful Thanksgiving – there is so much to be thankful for!

Thanksgiving dinner

 

 

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.

 

 

Autumn in The Gardens of Aranjuez

Apollo Fountain in the Isle Garden

Aranjuez is not on the typical tourist’s radar.  I’ve seen it mentioned in our guide books but they don’t give any specific information on it.  It seems to be more of a day trip for the local folk.  It’s widely known for it’s strawberries, asparagus, and most importantly, it’s palace and gardens.  It’s not far from Madrid and it’s easily accessible on the local commuter train.  When it’s strawberry season,  you can actually take the Strawberry Train to Aranjuez (which I might have to do someday if I can find someone else who wants to take it with me).  It sounds interesting and yummy, despite being touristy.

After our now habitual Spanish breakfast (pastries & coffee), we caught the next train to Aranjuez.  The countryside getting there was not particularly attractive.  It was mostly hilly, dry and industrial.  However, as we approached the town, there were all of a sudden irrigated fields, gardens, and trees.  Aranjuez is the last city on that train line and once you get there, it’s like stepping into an oasis.  There are wide, tree-lined streets and sidewalks which lead you directly to the center of town and palace.

Interestingly enough, this palace was designed by the same two gentlemen that designed El Escorial (the HUGE monastery).  However, this palace is much more attractive.  I read it is incredibly beautiful on the inside, but we weren’t really interested in seeing the inside this time because it’s the palace gardens that are listed as a UNESCO Cultural Landscape Site, and I love gardens.  We decided to check out the gardens by the palace first then, if we had time, we’d walk around the town.

Ducks on the River

The gardens looked more like something I would expect to find in France  – not here in such an arid part of Spain.  There were trees and shrubs and fountains everywhere!  We must have seen 40-50 different fountains that day.  My favorite fountain was the guy sitting on the wine barrel (although Apollo was looking mighty fine).  The gardens are huge and geometrically designed.  The walkways were going off in every direction.  Most people had maps, but we just wandered around slowly and discovered all the treasures hidden inside.

The Isle garden (with most of the fountains) is actually on a manmade island on the Tagus river (that’s the same river that runs around Toledo).  There were lots of birds and ducks and a couple of little water falls along the river.  It also looked like you could do boat trips or kayak on some parts of the river – I’ll have to do some research on that.  I know there is a hike in the area, and it looks like it would also be an ideal place to do some biking.

Robert at El Rana Verde Restaurant

Before we knew it it was lunchtime (2pm).  We learned the hard way that you don’t want to be late for lunch in Spain or you won’t find an empty restaurant.  I only knew about two restaurants in town (both were listed in my hiking book).  We found one right away and it was right on the river.  We decided to give it a try even though it looked pretty fancy (the waiters wore suits).  We were unsure at first, but we ended up having a great waiter (yes, in Spain! where they are notoriously known for being awful).  There was a huge Spanish family (22 people) dining beside us so I thought for sure we’d be forgotten, but he was right on time with everything and very friendly.  We each ordered the “Menu del Dia” which included a starter, a main course, a dessert, and a whole BOTTLE of wine – all for only 15 euro ($20).  This may have been the best bargain meal I’ve ever had.  I really wanted to take pictures of our gourmet dishes, but I felt it was inappropriate in a place this nice….maybe when we get our iPhone (then it will be less conspicuous).

After our 2 hour lunch we headed out to work off some of those calories, but the clouds were rolling in, so instead, we skipped the city and briefly peeked into the Prince’s garden.  After a few sprinkles of rain we thought it best to head back to Madrid.  Our timing was perfect, the train was there just waiting for us.  🙂

We both really loved Aranjuez.  It’s beautiful, laid back, and it seemed to be the most ‘authentic’ Spanish experience we’ve had so far.  It’s amazing how different this town was from Toledo.  I’m finding that every city, town, and suburb here is different.  Each has their own personality, their own foods, their own look, and their own vibe.  I can’t wait to visit some more.  I feel like a little kid in a candy store!

Summer Palace in Aranjuez

Our Restaurant on the River

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

The Amazing Angkor Archaeological Park

Carvings in Angkor Thom

Our life has changed a bit, but before I can move on with our new adventures, I just had to wrap up our trip from last winter.  This particular place was just too important not be included in our travel memoirs.

Angkor Archaeological Park is simply a place that must be seen in person. Pictures and blogs will never do it justice.  It’s one of the largest archaeological sites in the world containing over 1,000 temples in some 350 square miles (at one time it was the largest preindustrial city in the world).  Today most of the area is covered in jungle.  It is an incredibly interesting place, and I could write a book about it but instead I will just focus on the highlights from our time there.  If you ever go, three days is the minimum time needed to see the main sights.

We stayed in Siem Reap which is the closest city to the park.  It is only 15 minutes away from this amazing UNESCO World Heritage Site.  We were there during Christmas break and the weather was perfect.  I was surprised to see the sheer number of families with small children that were there.  I erroneously imagined it would be mostly post-college singles and older couples.  I had read Cambodia was still relatively ‘unsafe’ with malaria, dengue fever, poverty, 3rd world sanitary conditions, and questionable food sources.  While I’m sure all those do exist somewhere in the country that did not seem to be the case around Siem Reap and Angkor Park.  I was also surprised to find it functioned almost completely in US dollars and most people spoke English, thus making it easier to visit than some of the other Asian countries we visited.

Entrance into Angkor Park

We had a guide come with us the first day we were there just to help us get our bearings and make sure we didn’t miss anything.  Unless you really aren’t interested in the history behind this place (or if you already know the history), a guide is a good idea for at least one day.  The park opened at 8am and we bought our 3 day pass – which took about 5 minutes.  Our guide recommended seeing the Angkor Wat Temple first since he knew it would only get more crowded as the day went on (and he was right). We arrived and parked outside the temple’s West Entrance.  The sun was low in the sky and we could see the famous silhouette in the distance. It was much larger than I expected.  The morning’s haze only added to it’s magic and mystic.  It is surrounded by a moat (which is nearly as wide as the Mississippi River).  A long, wide, sandstone walkway leads all the way to the temple.  Walking up that stone causeway and approaching the temple for the first time was definitely a highlight.  I had to keep pinching myself.  I’m still in disbelief that we were actually there.

Bayon’s Faces

Most of the temples in the area are built in tiers, rising like pyramids.  The local landscape is completely flat so the temples really stand out.  Some of these ‘temples’ were actually cities, covering large areas of land and containing many different buildings.  Angkor Wat’s first level had two libraries, a monestary, and two seasonal ‘pools’ (which beautifully reflect the temple).  There use to be many homes (which have long since deteriorated since they were made of wood).  Today this level is mostly jungle and the only remaining ‘residents’ are a lot of monkeys.  Angkor Thom was much larger in total area than Angkor Wat.  It took a couple days to see all the buildings located within it’s perimeter.

Besides the sheer number and size of these structures, what is really amazing is the detail carved into every block.  In the case of Angkor Wat, every side of the walled entrance was adorned from floor to ceiling with remarkably detailed bas-reliefs….each one telling a different story.  This was the case at other temples as well.  Bayon had huge faces carved all over its facade.  Entry gates and bridges were adorned with large statues and various carvings of immense detail.  It was almost impossible to take it all in.  Once you get inside the buildings there are cloisters, buddhas, old pools, and soaring towers.   Climbing up the very steep stairways lead to the very tops of the temples where we were rewarded with some magnificent views looking out over the jungle.

Ta Prohm – Roots Swallowing Temple

We probably saw close to 100 different buildings and it was hard deciding which was our favorite.  Some people get ‘templed out’, but we never did.  They are all uniquely different because of their history, their layout, the carvings, the colors, their remoteness or their current natural state.  One of our favorites was Ta Prohm (which was used as the location for the movie Tomb Raider).  This temple is literally being swallowed by the jungle.  Massive trees have wrapped their roots around the structures and are crushing, covering, and mangling them into irrecognizable forms.  Though this temple was not anywhere near the scale of some of the other temples we visited, it was totally mesmerizing.  The trees around it were of mythical proportions.  The detail and colors in the stonework here were incredible.  The whole place was eye candy for us photo enthusiasts.  It is in pretty bad shape but fortunately (and unfortunately) they have started restoration work.

In fact, throughout the park, restoration work is taking place (which is very badly needed).  Our guide mentioned all the countries taking part in the restoration efforts at Angkor Park.  The causeway we walked up to Angkor Wat was being done by Japan.  He showed us a section that had been repaired versus an area that had not.  Other temples we visited had huge blocks laid out with numbers on them, others had scaffolding covering parts of the structure.  As the jungle takes over, these massive sites are slowly falling into disrepair and rubble.  While a lot of progress has been made, there is SO much work still to be done that it may take centuries to recreate what was once there.

Besides temples, there is plenty of things to see and do in the area.  In addition to the city of Siem Reap, there is Tonle Sap lake and plenty of shops, crafts, museums and small villages to visit.  We didn’t have nearly enough time to do it all.  If you’re a foodie, I have to say Cambodian food is good but simple and their desserts were interesting…overall probably my least favorite food in Asia.  We loved the Cambodian people though, who were always very friendly and always willing to help.

If we ever have the opportunity to visit again, I’m sure we will.  It’s one of those places that will stick with us forever and it will keep calling us back.

If you want to see lots more photos click on the photos below:

Angkor Wat Temple

Making Palm Sugar

Downtown Siem Reap

 

 

 

 

 

Hiking Miyajima Island, Plus Hiroshima & The Peace Park

View of Torii Gate

View of the Famous Floating Torii Gate

We finally made it to Hiroshima and Miyajima.   After a series of really wet weekends, the weather could not have been more perfect for our trip and I’d have to say that these two UNESCO World Heritage sites were well worth the year long wait.  Even though they are extremely different, we enjoyed both of them very much and would go back there in a heartbeat.

We knew there would be lots to see and sacrificed sleeping in on a Saturday morning to be out our door by 7am.   Since Miyajima was more difficult to get to, we decided to do that first, which meant buying lots of tickets and making lots of connections (from our subway, to the bullet train, then transferring to a regular train, and finally onto a ferry).  Fortunately everything went smoothly and we were in Miyajima by 10am.  We even managed to figure out the lockers at the train station so we could store our luggage while we explored the island.

Close-up of Doe & Fawn

Doe & Fawn

While we were on the ferry, Robert was busy snapping pictures as I stood anxiously watching the torii gate approach.  After seeing so many pictures of this torii gate, it was hard to believe we were actually here.  The island (Istukushima) is very beautiful…it’s steep and very forested.  The island is still considered sacred and pure in the Shinto religion.  In the past, commoners were not allowed on the island, and all other visitors had to go thru the torii gate before stepping on the island.  There are still some strict rules in place…no cutting down trees, no births and no deaths.  The highest point on the island is Mt Misen which rises up directly behind the torii gate to a height of about 530 meters (1,750 feet).  We had originally planned to take the ropeway up to the top, but Robert said his back was feeling fine, so we decided we would hike it instead.

Robert eating the Maple Leaf

Snacking on Maple Leaves – yum!

Everyone visiting the island had smiles on their face….(you’d think you were at Disneyland).   Tame deer roamed the streets, there were little chariots carrying happy couples around, and lots of quaint little shops.  There were also lots of statues, lanterns, and traditional Edo period Japanese buildings.  We didn’t have a map, so we just followed the crowds and wondered around – looking at everything.  Occasionally we’d see signs, pointing us in the direction of Mt Misen.  We also saw signs telling us not to pet or feed the deer, but the Japanese sign must have said something different because they were doing both constantly.

We visited the pagoda, walked around the “1,000 tatami mat” pavilion (Senjokaku) and explored the back streets of the village.  We found a shop making the little maple shaped cakes (momiji manju), so we stopped and sampled their two flavors and had some tea.  We eventually ended up at the main temple, Daisho, and spent a good hour taking photos and enjoying the scenery.  Surprisingly, it wasn’t very crowded and some leaves were starting to change so we really took our time there.  However, I knew it was getting late and we still had our hike to do, so we continued on our way.

View near top

View from Mt Misen

Our hike up Mt. Misen (Mount Stair-Miser would be a better name) began near the temple.  I don’t know if anyone has ever counted how many stairs there are, but I’d venture to guess there were at least a couple thousand (it took us nearly an hour to climb it).  Some sections were so steep that it was very obvious there had been some recent landslides and extensive repair work had been made.  At times I thought the stairs would never end.  The views just kept getting better and better, so we kept going.  We even had a fantastic view of the torii gate at low tide…all the people walking up to it looked like ants.  The trail followed a stream/waterfall most of the way up.  It was very shady and there were only a handful of other hikers.  Thank goodness it was a cool day because I was extremely thirsty (I didn’t have my water bottle and there were none of those famous vending machines along the way).  The views from the top were spectacular.

YakiKaki !

Grilled Oysters!

I would have loved to hang out there had we had picnic provisions, but since we were both extremely thirsty and hungry, and neither of us can tolerate walking down steep downhills anymore (darn knees!), we decided to take the Ropeway down.   After a 15 minute ride we were back amongst the masses and the vending machines!  The line to go up was incredibly long so we now know never to do that.  Robert was craving some grilled oysters (yakikaki), so we waited about 15 minutes for our delicious appetizer and then moved on to find some anago-buri (eel on rice) for a late lunch.  Again, (true to the Japanese tradition), we waited in another line at the restaurant.  The anago-buri was amazingly delicious (oishii!).  Sunset was approaching, so we figured we should make our way back to the ferry…passing the torii gate one last time, and delaying our departure as long as we could.

We went back to Hiroshima, retrieved our luggage and checked into our hotel.  Fairly exhausted from our long day, we relaxed for a while, shared a beer and opted for a carousel sushi dinner.   We got up early so we could experience the Peace Park with as few visitors as possible.  It ended up being another beautiful day.  We walked along the river to the A-bomb Dome – which is quite impressive indeed.  It seems frozen in time.  Stray cats run around it just like in some dystopian tale.  It’s hard to write about our experience there, as a worthy description of both the Dome and Peace Park cannot be captured in words.  It’s something that must be experienced first-hand.

A-bomb dome View

A-bomb Dome

The visit to Hiroshima completed a full circle for us.  Some 20+ years ago, we visited the museum in Los Alamos, New Mexico – the birthplace of the A-bomb.  I still remember that day vividly.  It was an incredibly weighted experience (just as watching Schindler’s list was).  It rendered both of us speechless and depressed for hours.  It is shocking to realize the kind of destruction man is capable of.  We have since then also visited Nagasaki (the site of the 2nd nuclear bomb dropping), and we live relatively close to where the 2nd bomb was initially intended to be dropped.

As horrible as that part of history was, it’s nowhere near the devastating nuclear capacity we have today.  The recent events in northern Japan is a constant reminder of how dangerous a game we are playing.

At the end of the day, I left Hiroshima feeling hopeful – because I didn’t like the thought of it ending any other way.

NZ: The Elusive Mt. Cook & Central Otago

Road to Mt. Cook

Lake Pukaki – on the way to Mt. Cook

Our quest on day 4 was to see Mt Cook, but waking up to rain was not a good sign.  After packing our bags we headed south and eventually the rain stopped and the skies cleared up.  We came to Lake Pukaki whose color is (I kid you not) a fluorescent Carolina Blue.  Even on Google Maps this lake looks freakishly light blue – and fake.  But WOW is it incredibly beautiful!  We drove the full length of the lake into the canyon that houses the access points to Mt Cook.  The closer we got, the windier it got and clouds were forming quickly.  By the time we got into the National Park it was mostly cloudy, and by the time we got to the end of the road it was pouring rain so hard we couldn’t see anything.  We hung out at the resort and drank a cup of coffee and checked out the museum and shopped, hoping the storm would pass, but no such luck – this thing was going to stick around all day.

Shrek the Merino Sheep

The Shrek’s Wool

We left the park and the skies gradually cleared as we continued our way south into Central Otago.  We stopped in the incredibly cute and tiny town of Tarras for a long lunch and to check out the shops. We also learned to appreciate just how crazed people here are about their mountain bikes.  We saw a guy who had his bike attached to the side of his motorcycle – still not sure how he got on and off.  We also got to see raw wool from Shrek (the famous sheep that eluded shearers for six years) which was pretty cool.

We then headed west following a huge river toward the town of Wanaka which is situated on another huge lake.   This is a beautiful and well planned mountain town – with lots of parks and open spaces so everyone can enjoy the views.  Bike trails and walking trails make it very conducive to outdoor activities.  And plenty of shops and restaurants for us to check out on another day.

B&B in Cardrona

Waiorau Homestead – our B&B in Cardrona

Our next B&B was in Cardrona which was 20km outside of town.  This particular B&B is ranked #1 on Trip Advisor for the South Island (so I just had to find out why).  It quickly became obvious as we drove down the driveway.  Not only is it in a beautiful secluded location across from the Cardrona Ski Mountain, but they greet you with a glass of wine and a platter of cheese and fruit.  The house (circa 1928) was restored, retaining it’s charm, yet it is fashionably decorated.  The hosts are extremely pleasant and helpful and they make you feel as if the place is all yours….so we pretended it was and just hung out enjoying the beautiful grounds and views for the rest of the day.  They offered to cook us a lamb dinner, but we decided to check out the historic hotel and pub in Cardrona instead.  Being the off-season for the ski mountain, we pretty much had that whole place to ourselves too.

The next morning we headed for Bannockburn and Cromwell – which some argue has the best pinot noir in the world, so we had to check it out.   Neither of us are wine experts, but we were not disappointed.  As for the best in the world?…well, we still have lots of places to check out before we can make that call. 🙂

The Kea Bird we saw on the way to Milford Sound

We headed back to Wanaka where it was drizzling on and off.  We checked out the shops and Robert was finally able to get his hair cut by someone who could speak English.  The spring rain storm moved out revealing snow on the mountain tops in the distance.  The forecast was calling for some ‘fine’ weather over the next 3 days so we decided to venture into Milford Sound tomorrow.  This meant we’d have to get up pretty early in order to make the long drive.  We ate an early dinner in Wanaka and headed back to our B&B where they had a large plate of desserts waiting for us.

An interesting tidbit I learned is that four National Parks on the South Island comprise a UNESCO World Heritage area (Westland National ParkMt Aspiring National ParkAoraki/Mt Cook National Park and Fiordland National Park.)   Two-thirds of the South West New Zealand World Heritage Park is covered with forest – beech and podocarps – some of which is over 800 years old. The only alpine parrot in the world – the kea – also lives in the park, as well as the endangered flightless takahe, and a myriad unique marine animals.  What an amazing place.