The next trip — the Thames Path

View of London from the Thames Path along the south side of the river.

For our next adventure, we’re thinking of walking along the Thames River, from its source to its mouth, just past Greenwich. We walked most of the last few miles of it in November 2011, not knowing at the time that it was possible to walk the entire length. Think of it — you’re following a river, so it’s downhill all the way!

Signpost along the path between Tower Bridge and Greenwich. Note the acorn symbol, which is the guide all the way along the trail like the scallop shells for the Camino de Santiago de Compostela in Spain.

This evening has been spent tracking down information about the trail, on the official website at The site describes the trail as:

“Follow the greatest river in England for 184 miles (294 km) from its source in the Cotswolds almost to the sea. Passing through peaceful water meadows, unspoilt rural villages, historic towns and cities, and finally cutting through the heart of London to finish at the Thames Barrier in Greenwich.”

Map of Thames Path

Map of the Path, about 184 miles.

Working on the Cutty Sark at Greenwich.

Cormorants and gulls in the Thames.

We’ll keep you posted, as we find out more about the weather, the accommodations, the cost, and all of those practical matters, along with more of the history of the river and the experiences of others who’ve walked the distance.

Posted in 2013, England, travel | Tagged , , , , | 1 Comment

April 17, 2010 — Around the Old City of Jerusalem

April 17, 2010: Around the Old City

Damascus Gate, evening — still busy with merchants and buyers.

Yesterday, we walked through the Old City and today, we walked around it. Not that we actually set out to do that. These things happen.

After our pita bread and wake-up black olive jolt, we sat with the hotel’s instant coffee cooling beside our computers and tried to figure out how to get to Masada and the Sea of Galilee [Europeans actually like Nescafe; they have special drinks, hot and chilled, made from it, and they offer it on their menus as a specific choice.] The difficulties sprang like hydras, and twisted and knotted around one another until we threw up our hands two hours later and said, forget it. The problem is that to get to either of those places you have to spend about $100 per person for a bus trip that is subject to the whims and traffic jams of Jerusalem streets, and the delays of stopping at a dozen different hotels to pick fellow travelers up, that takes you to a lot of places you don’t want to go. They advertise Nazareth, etc. [don’t want to go], several other places [don’t want to go], a sweeping panoramic view of the Sea of Galilee [don’t want a panoramic view, I want to wade in it and walk its shores], and a stop for shopping [don’t want it]. So most of the long and tiresome hours you spend and pay for aren’t at places you want to be (which is why they would be long and tiresome).

We left late as a result – just before noon, and stopped at the Notre Dame of Jerusalem Center to find out about evening Mass. Jerusalem is filled with people’s dreams about what Jerusalem should be and mean, in the form of institutes and gardens and parks, dedicated monuments, places of worship, and organizations meant to help others. Notre Dame of Jerusalem Center was originally for French pilgrims; the Count of Piellat in 1883 or so provided the initial land. After a series of misfortunes in the various wars, the Vatican took it over, and now has the Legionnaires running it as an educational and pilgrimage center with hotel rooms, classes, and a nice restaurant.

From there we headed toward the King David Hotel, thinking that it would be a good place to find out the cost of hiring a taxi for the day so that we could see our choice of dreams rather than other people’s ideas of what the dreams should be. Our not-at-all direct route [we were more or less lost] took us along the Azriel Promenade donated by the Jewish Foundation of Canada – many blocks of shade and plantings of white calla lilies, lavender, rosemary, exotic flowers and pleasant trees – and into a plaza where we stood looking helplessly at the map. A nice English-speaking native came along and accompanied us for a ways up the hill and pointed us the right direction – very often standing around looking helpless with a map is the best way to get to where you want to go.

There were more gardens up the hill toward the hotel, with nasturtiums, pansies and honeysuckle, and the hotel walks were lined with white shrub roses. It’s a delight to be so far from home and find so many friendly plants – but un-nerving too. Where are the plants from 2000 years ago?  These familiar flowers seem yet another overlay of people’s dreams onto the land of the Caananites, a grace-note version of the embodied dreams and ideas of all of the different peoples who have inhabited or ruled this territory.

The King David is, by everyone’s standards, the luxe hotel in Israel. It features a long hallway of marble, inlaid with a strip of white stone on which are imprinted the names, signatures, and visiting dates of Barack Obama, Nelson Mandela, Dick Cheney, Bill Clinton, Arnold Schwarzenegger (probably some women too, but not many), and so on. The King David is as far as it is possible to get from the Arab Quarter where our hotel lives. It was nice to go there and see the other side of things, and nice to know that the Rivoli and the Palestinian District have their place in the city too.

As we headed across the street to the Jerusalem YMCA, which is only a short step down in quality from the King David, a taxi driver accosted us and asked us where we wanted to go. We said, “Masada, but not today, Monday.” “OK, I take you for $320 round trip, both of you. The north shore of the Dead Sea, the south shore, the . . .” “OK,” we said, “What about the Sea of Galilee?” “I show you everything for a little more. $480 – Nazareth, Capernaum, . . .” “No, no, we only want to see the Sea of Galilee and the River Jordan.” “But you will like . . .” And so forth. “Today, I take you to Jericho. Just half a day, $220. You will want to see.” “No, we don’t want to see.” “No . . . We took his card and walked away. Twice as much (with tip) as the bus, and still just as likely that we would see a whole lot we weren’t interested in.

Now what? Jim thought he’d like to walk around the Old City, and I wanted to go to Mt. Zion to see what was there. We headed downhill again – most maps don’t show topography, so when you see a road that runs more or less the direction you want, it doesn’t occur to you to think that you will descend a few hundred feet down steep stairs along the way. And what goes down is likely to come back up, at a time when you are more thirsty and fatigued than when you started down the hill. That was the case here, and we arrived half an hour later, with a sizable gain in elevation, at the Zion Gate on Mt. Zion along with today’s pilgrimages. Our favorite here was the middle-aged Japanese group who all wore white nylon vests with lots of zippered pockets, embroidered in black with “Cherubim.”

Pilgrims and others outside the Old City wall.

Mt. Zion’s buildings include an area marked off as King David’s Tomb (a low arched stone area blackened with candle smoke), a museum, a building honoring the Holocaust victims, and a church that is believed to be the room of the Last Supper. Like many other churches in the city, it was built by the Crusaders on the site of something earlier, and then turned into a mosque during the Turkish centuries before being returned to its current use by the British in the early 1900s. The mosque’s prayer niche, and one of its domes are still in the room.

Arched remnant of  a mosque that at one time occupied the Upper Room.

The room itself, while we were there had three other pilgrim groups. At the foot of the steep stairs leading to the Upper Room, as it is known, were the “Dos and Don’ts” – most notably, “You are at a holy site. Please respect the sanctity of the site. Absolutely no religious services allowed.” A bit contradictory, and not noticed by many of the groups apparently. Above the voices of the guides for the three different groups rose the chatter of the members of the groups, and then a loud “Shhhhh!” or two from other members. Soon, two nuns in one group chanted for a while, and when they were finished, men in the group went into a different chant, possibly Latin. Over in the adjacent corner the orange hats pilgrimage group were exiting, singing their own song. And as we came down the stairs to a courtyard, a French guide began leading his group in a French carol/folk song, very charming.

The “Upper Room,” believed to be the site of the last supper that Christ had with his disciples. I don’t recall where the shadow that looks like a bug came from.

They weren’t the only people in the area chanting. Near the Chamber of the Holocaust was a Jewish area, divided into a courtyard, and a large room. The room was for Men’s Prayers, and a section of the courtyard against a back wall had a sign, “Women’s Prayer Station.” Two dozen girls, ages four to about nine (and one four-year-old boy) were lined up on benches yelling out their lessons in chorus. Leading them was a nine-year-old girl in a floor-length gray satiny, swirly-skirted gorgeous dress; long black hair; she twirled and conducted and led them in their rousing choruses of Hebrew prayer that drowned out the men and echoed off the stone walls. I’d have given a lot to have a dress like that at the age of nine. Nineteen too, probably.

Tree of Life sculpture in the Upper Room.

From there we headed downhill, past a weedy area alongside the bus park. We met up with a long-legged black beetle, some butterflies, sparrows, lots of grasses, and a few of the red poppies that in Greece were sacred to Athena, but here are probably sacred to a saint. It was 3:00 p.m. and the walk led along open streets with little shade from the very hot sun, down the hill to the Valley of Kidron. This area is also called the City of David, with a long stretch of archeological excavations on both sides of the road that runs through the area. Across the valley is the Mount of Olives, with its own rich history, including a Russian church with half a dozen of the distinctive gold onion domes (it’s the Church of the Ascension, built over the rock which is believed to be where Christ ascended into heaven; it tris now managed by the Muslims). A couple of Roman tombs from the second century C.E. are cut into the rock in the valley – they look entirely Roman, and are called Absalom’s Tomb and Zechariah’s Tomb.

Jackdaw (crow cousin) on steps outside the Old City of Jerusalem.

We started uphill again, and came closer to the Golden Gate which was blocked off by the Muslims in the seventh century to prevent the Messiah from coming through as the Jews believe that He will do at the second coming. It’s worth noting that some Christians share that belief (I had not heard of it before), and that the Muslims also believe that Allah will come through that gate at the end of history. The walk runs through an Arabic cemetery with graves all the way up to the wall, and spilling down the steep slope on the other side of the walk. There was no mention of this very large cemetery in our guidebooks, even though it continued up the hill  nearly all the way to the end of the east side of the wall, a distance of several blocks. It took some research on Google to discover that the Muslims began to bury their dead there (according to a couple of web sites) because they believed that high priests were not allowed to go through cemeteries, and that because the Messiah would be a high priest, he would not be able to go through.

Part of the Muslim cemetery outside the eastern wall of the Old City.

For a long hot half hour we saw almost no-one. There were a few soldiers and a couple of little boys playing by St. Stephen’s Gate, a German tour group (not breaking into song), and a couple of random other walkers, but it mostly we had the walk to ourselves and the occupants of the graves. Only two out of the many hundreds there looked recently cared for – one with fresh paint on the unpolished white stone (they all were the same material, and all simple), and one with a low clump of yellow daisies blooming – but they could have been there twenty years or more. Some of the graves had large palm leaves laid across them, gray and brittle with years of weathering.

At about 4:00, we turned the corner onto Suleiman Street which was choked with buses and cars, and crossed over to the market side, almost overwhelmed with the contrast. There were even more people and vendors, more noise and smoke from the grills, more families and teenage boys, and the heavily coated and scarfed (but not veiled – we have seen almost no women veiled) women always carrying bags of something than when we left at noon. We pushed through the crowds, anxious for the hotel and a glass of water, stopping only to notice that the women in the front of the hotel were counting stacks of grape leaves.

Suleiman Street, a main street that runs alongside the Old City. The umbrellas and shades each protect a street food vendor from the sun.

Later in the evening I asked the guys at the baguette restaurant where we dined about the vendors. The women, they said, come in from the West Bank, bringing their own vegetables that they grow – without fertilizers or insecticides [perhaps because they can’t afford them?]. They said that these are the best vegetables and fruits in the city, and they themselves always buy from the West Bank women. I asked about the other vendors – they were still doing a bustling business at 6:15 when we walked over to the Notre Dame Center for Mass, and at 8:15 – well after sunset – they were just closing up. Where does all of that stuff go every night, I asked – all of the teddy bears and plastic dishes and pots and pans and table clothes and shoes and socks and stripy bras and bags of nuts and . . . ? They take it all away for the night, I was told – in their cars, or maybe to a storage place in the network of streets and alleys behind the main street. Every bit of it. The baguette guys also said that this was Saturday, and many more people come on Saturdays because the Israeli police aren’t handing out tickets.

We did walk to the Notre Dame Center, and sang through the 6:30 Mass that was half English and half Latin, with a small choir and a small organ, and a tall Irish priest who held a “birthday party” for Pope Benedict around the baptismal font at the back of the church afterward. He asked if anyone had a camera to take a picture of the brief event, so Jim obliged and spent some time this evening trying to get his computer to cooperate in sending along the photos which will go to the Pope himself. We walked back through the chilly desert darkness with a low crescent moon and Venus shining below it in the sky.

Legionnaire priest Fr. Eamon Kelly, holding a “birthday party” for Pope Benedict XVI after the Saturday evening Mass at the Notre Dame Center in Jerusalem.

Our present plan is to take the train to Caesarea – Roman ruins and beaches – on Monday. Tomorrow might be nice, but the Israeli soldiers can ride the trains free on Sunday and Thursday, so they are often crowded. [Another aside – we asked the baguette guys, who speak good English and are friendly, if they had ever taken the train to Tel Aviv. They were puzzled. No train, the bus goes to Tel Aviv. We insisted that the train went. They turned to a much older man who was chatting with a friend outside the restaurant. No, he said, bus. No train. The train goes for the Jews – no train for the Arab section. So although they could go on the train, we are sure, the fact is that it leaves from a Jewish section of town, and they won’t therefore go on it.] That gives us more time tomorrow to explore parts of Jerusalem that we haven’t seen. Like Athens, it seems to hold enough for months of exploration, so we shouldn’t have any trouble finding things to do.

Montefiore windmill, built in Jerusalem in 1857, to grind wheat into flour. There was not enough wind to turn the blades, and the Israeli wheat was harder than the grain that the mill was designed for, so the mill was not a commercial success.

Posted in 2010, Israel, travel | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

April 19, 2010 — Caesarea — Roman ruins and Israeli trains, plus Anthea’s blogs

April 19, 2010: Roman ruins and Israeli trains

Oil tanker anchored in the Mediterranean off the coast at Caesarea, with Roman column in foreground, and haze from a Sahara sandstorm.

Jim’s account of the day

Quite a day. Up at 5:00 a.m. (okay, Teri was up at 4:30 a.m.) and on the way to the Jerusalem train station by 6:30 in a taxi that the manager of the Rivoli Hotel rounded up for us. It cost us 70 shekels (shekels are worth about $.32). Than we got two tickets to Caesarea for 76 shekels each. The train left the station around 7:40 am and we were rolling through a pleasant valley of trees on terraced hills, some shrubs and dry grass. The stream bed running alongside the tracks at the bottom of the valley was dry as a bone, but its well-scoured rocks suggested it runs swiftly with water at least part of the year.

There isn’t a lot of habitation west of Jerusalem. The dry, green, brown, and rocky slopes suggest the American southwest. And what is more appropriate for the west than a train trip. It took us almost an hour and a half to get to the main train station in Tel Aviv, and the last half hour was out of the wilderness and passing through civilization. Tel Aviv is a modern city with freeways, lots of high rises, an IKEA and all the trappings of western civilization we have come to know and love in the US.

Israel countryside between Jerusalem and Tel Aviv, from the train.

We had to change trains in Tel Aviv to get to Caesarea, which took another hour. Binyamini is the end of the line. Everyone off! A cab took us the last few kilometres to the National Park at Caesarea, which is an archaeological site featuring ruins from the time of Herod onward. There are the remains of a palace that Herod built, and further along, a reconstructed amphitheatre on the site of Herod’s amphitheatre. There is a beach that is littered with small shells, a few of which ended up in our pockets.

Restored Roman amphitheatre.

On the horizon was a huge ship, probably an oil tanker, and off the in distance to the south, several very tall smokestacks and a long pier, which was probably there for the oil tankers –  industrial features that were not in evidence forty years ago when I first set foot on this particular beach. In fact, almost none of the ruins, with the exception of the palace, had been unearthed then. In the place of a half dozen up-scale restaurants, and an equal number of antique and jewelry stores, equally up-scale, there had been only a patch of grass and palm trees, with dirt paths, and areas to camp. Once again, evidence that the world had marched on without me. There hadn’t been a fee then either. In 2010, it cost us each $10 to get in. That price included a video portraying the history of Caesarea, but we passed on that, wandering among the various ruins instead.

Roman ruins; oil tanker off shore.

After a few hours we were feeling the sun and heat; we felt like we had seen the best the park had to offer and began our trip home.

The attendant at the park gate called a cab for us which took us back to the train station. We arrived minutes before a train arrived to get us to Tel Aviv, and our return trip was a comfortable, scenic and pleasant as the morning trip had been. The Israeli trains are new, smooth riding, comfortable and run on time, as near as we can tell. Not all the information we needed was in English and we were forced to confirm from other passengers whether we were on the right train and getting off on the right stop. But they were very patient with us, and steered us right. We made it to Jerusalem by 4:30 and caught a taxi home. A taxi that charged us only half of what the morning driver charged us, by the way. I know I am being taken advantage of pretty regularly here. And it isn’t for huge amounts. And we do get what we need. And everyone is very friendly as they pocket our shekels. But it is tiring sometimes. Not that taxi drivers, and other purveyors are necessarily any better.

Teri’s notes

I half-way woke at 2:30 a.m. and lay there wondering where I was and how I got there and how I would get back. Slowly I worked my way back – Hotel Rivoli in Jerusalem. Took a bus from the airport to get here. Took a plane from Istanbul, and before that, a plane from Athens to Istanbul. Athens – got there from Newark, via Milan. OK. And got to Newark from Anchorage via Seattle. And Meagan is taking care of the house in Anchorage. OK. So there was an identifiable trail of connections to show that I was indeed Teri Carns, and had gotten to the Hotel Rivoli by a route that didn’t involve magic of any sort, pharmaceutical or otherwise. Reassuring, but still left me feeling disoriented.

Jim has described the day’s events. He didn’t mention the wildlife: one weasel – long, low, and light desert brown – running across the road as we approached the ruins. A pair of storks on a piece of the breakwater a hundred yards from shore. Some of the same long-legged black ants (like they’re running around on stilts) that we saw near the ocean on Aegina. Another pair of storks sighted from the plane on the way home. And more of the crow-family birds we saw in Greece, who turn out to my delight (having never seen one, but having read about them for most of my life) to be jackdaws.

Stork off-shore at Caesarea.

The humans for the day included the ticket seller and the station master at the main train station in Jerusalem, both of whom knew exactly as much about the train schedules for Caesarea as the Palestinians in our area. After taking the trip, I understand why the Palestinians don’t know about it – there would not be any reason for most of them to go to Caesarea, and no reason to take the train. The stationmaster and ticketseller are less understandable. Nonetheless, once we got to Tel Aviv, a very helpful girl who was a train employee got us on the right platform at the right time.

The trip itself had all of the advantages of train travel – more comfortable than a bus or plane, better scenery than bus, plane or car (because the trains typically don’t take up nearly as much land as the freeways on which the cars and buses travel, they are closer to the scenery), no traffic jams on the runways or freeways to hold them up, and so forth. Leaving Jerusalem, the first half of the trip was, as Jim said, through a gorge with limestone outcroppings, pine and eucalyptus forests, wild roses, Queen Anne’s Lace and other wildflowers, and little sign of civilization anywhere. Add some blue sky and sunshine (a predictable part of the recipe for every day here), and a cup of coffee, and there’s little else to ask for. The land settled out into slightly rolling fields, a landscape that reminded me of northern Illinois at its best. The herd of cows, and an occasional horse completed the illusion. And even when the urban areas showed up, much of the land along the tracks was in fields – hay, a two-foot high green plant that I didn’t recognize, olive and orange orchards, and even palm tree orchards, sometimes with big prickly pear cacti for hedgerows.

Sheep grazing in the hilly areas along the train tracks.

We ate our lunch at the “palm court” – that is, shaded by a tall palm tree in a park area, with the Mediterranean breeze for company, and a chunk of Roman wall to contemplate while we ate our croissant from the Binyamina train station (the stop for Caesarea) and flatbread fresh from an oven in the Old City. I like the Palm Court at the Plaza Hotel in New York (the children’s story of Eloise takes place there in part, and we ate there on our 1995 trip around the U.S.), but this palm court had a great deal to recommend it. The view out to the ocean was hazy – Anthea mentioned in one of her posts (see below for the links) that a Sahara sand storm is doing its best to make Southern Europe not feel that it’s been left out by the dust from the Iceland volcano. I couldn’t find any information about it on the Internet, but Anchorage periodically gets dust from storms in western China and Mongolia, so it seemed possible.

The Roman ruins looked to my very untrained eye a lot like the Byzantine ruins – blocks of stone, a browner/redder shade than the honey color of the stones of and on which Jerusalem is built – stacked and cut and held together in buildings for which one of the main questions is: “How on earth did they do all that?” Although the site, like everywhere else around here is ruins that were built from other ruins and served in their turn as the building blocks for new developers, it lay fallow from the late 1200s when the invading Turks destroyed what the Crusaders had built, until the mid-1800s when the Turks settled a small group of farmers from Bosnia there. The Renaissance passed Caesarea by, as did the age of explorations, the age of reason, the French and American revolutions, and a great deal else. The result has been that the ruins were relatively easy to get at. Now besides the ruins that are a national park, there is the town itself which is characterized as middle class and up, a small community of well-off people.

The stage of the Roman amphitheatre at Caesarea, now used for open-air rock concerts and other events.

We dined again at the Alhambra Hotel in the Palestinian district of Jerusalem, a few blocks from the Rivoli. The chef sent out a complimentary bruschetta sort of appetizer, prepared a large plate of cauliflower, peppers, zucchini and a few potatoes sauteed in olive oil, sent a complimentary side of fresh potato chips, and brought two bowls of fruit (complimentary) for dessert. I felt well- fed (read, stuffed) for the first time on the trip. It was delicious. We highly recommend it.

Anthea says:

Here are the links to Anthea’s blogs about her trip to Santorini –
First day:
Second day:
Third day:

Posted in 2010, Israel, travel, Uncategorized | Tagged , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

April 15, 2010 — Across from Herod’s gate in Jerusalem

April 15, 2010: Across from Herod’s Gate
Wall of the Old City of Jerusalem, on Sultan Suleiman Street not far from the Rivoli Hotel.

At 3:45 a.m. today in Athens we met up with a band of pigeons foraging along Ermou Street, a couple of the area dogs (sleep all day, play all night), and handfuls of people leaving the 24/7 McDonald’s on Syntagma Square with their shakes and burgers. By 5:00 we were at the Athens airport, waiting for our Turkish Airways plane to Istanbul and then to Jerusalem. After showing our passports at least a dozen times, going through two major security checks, flying several hours on Turkish Airways, and walking half a mile through the Tel Aviv airport, we found ourselves buying guidebooks, and heading out to the curb to catch a shuttle.

Israel countryside, west of Jerusalem.

I think of Israel as desert, and many of the hills we drove through were light-colored limestone with low shrubs dotted here and there. But we saw hay fields and orchards, long stretches of Queen Anne’s lace along the road banks, white clover, tall grasses and yellow mustard. In spots, it looked a lot like Central Illinois. Then a few palm trees would rear up alongside the Queen Anne’s Lace, and it would be clear that we were not in Illinois. We saw a single black and white cow standing in a field, and a couple of horses to add to the Illinois illusion. There are long stretches of planted forests and woods – pine trees, cypress, and many others that I didn’t recognize, but overall the land was brown hills, and rocky fields and terraces, where the limestone crop has had the best of it for thousands of years.

An hour and a half shuttle bus ride later, in the company of eight Hasidic Jewish American boys coming back to Jerusalem (for school? not clear) who got dropped off in various little alleys and corners of Jewish Jerusalem we found ourselves at the Hotel Rivoli in the Arab Quarter, directly across from Herod’s Gate in the Old Wall. It’s actually relatively recent in Jerusalem history, built (I think) in the mid-1500s by Sulieman the Magnificent, ruler of the Ottoman Empire. His territory included Greece as well, until their Independence in the 1820s; Palestine remained under Turkish control until the early 1900s. Our three hours in the Istanbul airport, and another several hours reading the Turkish Airlines magazine while flying left me with the impression that Turks are proud of their rule over so much of this area, and celebrate it regularly.

The Hotel Rivoli is in a different world, the Palestinian District. I booked the hotel because it came with a private bath (it is in our room, but the door doesn’t close, so Jim came up with a way to wedge it closed); Internet in the room (“Yes, sometimes there is Internet in that room, but tomorrow we give you a different room and tonight you use the Internet in the lounge here”); and basics like heat (“Oh, this is summer. We don’t heat in the summer. There are extra blankets in the room. You understand of course.” – There are blankets – a vibrating purple polyester; and it may be warm in the day but gets down to the 40s at night. I will not feel very understanding in the morning if the room is 60 degrees.) We asked for a dinner recommendation and he suggested shwarma (grilled meat, more or less, made into a sandwich). “Oh, the lady is vegetarian. Oh, then, bread and water.” He beamed. “They will give you bread and water. Maybe tomato.”

We walked a few blocks looking for places to eat and finding shoe shops, dress shops, produce markets, drugstores, sunglasses – all much smaller than their Athens cousins, and spilling out into the street much more haphazardly. The streets are crowded  – many  small children between about four and ten; women – some with children, some without – buying produce from other women sitting on the sidewalk with produce spread out around them – open bags of small nectarines, fat dark golden raisins, small zucchini, stacks of fresh grape leaves, bunches of flat-leaved parsley, and a number of fruits and vegetables that I don’t even recognize from reading. We ate at a hole in the wall “baguette shop” that gave Jim a Greek salad and a 12″ baguette, and me french fries and a 6″ baguette with four or five tomato slices and a few swipes of olive oil. We were hungry. We ate most of it and appreciated it, and looked for other places on the way home.

We crossed a main road to go along by the Old Wall – no stop lights, but at crosswalks all of the drivers actually stop for pedestrians – the exact opposite of Athens, where being in a crosswalk just means that the drivers can take better aim. Then we walked down into Herod’s Gate through the Old Wall, and just as it has for thousands of years, it housed a produce stand and a watchmaker, and a couple of other little businesses. That led into the Old City, which we decided to save for tomorrow. Across from the Damascus Gate, a 10-year-old boy minded a cart that sent up the smoke of grilling meat – he set up in a median between two parts of the main road. The world passed by – a very few Hasidic Jews, some nuns garbed in blue and white, a tall priest in a cream habit with black (not a Dominican), tourists from everywhere, the Arab women with their black high-necked to shoe-top dresses/coats and head coverings – and more. We saw a couple of soldiers standing guard at Herod’s Gate, and a policeman or two – nothing like the numbers in Athens.

Jerusalem is built on hills like Athens, and there are stairs everywhere. The hotel had an elevator at one time; it is closed off now, so we climb two steep sets of steps to our room. Luckily, we have been in training in Athens. A cousin asked if we were doing this because we liked walking or because transportation was too expensive. We do like the walking (and have not worn out any shoes yet). In Athens, the buses and Metro are inexpensive, but for a couple of miles, not convenient. We don’t know about Jerusalem yet, but having spent some time in the traffic this afternoon, my guess is that walking will be considerably more useful here too.

At about 7:20 we were back in our room. I was looking out the back window at the sun setting pink and purple, and at an abandoned bird’s nest built on the wide sill between the screen and the shutter that hasn’t opened in the last thirty or forty years, and heard the evening call to prayer. It started very close by, and then moved away, finally dying out five minutes later. In Athens it would have been church bells, and perhaps in parts of this city, the church bells count out the hours also. But here, I think we will hear more of the call to prayer. Somewhat later a siren went on for five minutes – perhaps this has to do with our proximity to the police station. And now, at 9:20 p.m., someone is hammering vigorously at a project that didn’t get done during the day.

Looking at the map, it appears that we are steps from a hospital and a police station and very near half a dozen other things to see. But we will save those for tomorrow. We’ve been up since about 2:00 a.m. and need to get some sleep to strengthen us for tomorrow’s explorations.

Posted in 2010, Israel, travel | Tagged , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

April 23, 2010 — Fishing boats and ferries — Poros

April 23, 2010: Poros — Fishing boats and ferries

Poros harbor.

Six-thirty in the morning was half-light in Athens, with the Acropolis set against Homer’s “rosy-fingered dawn.” A few birds were awake enough to sing, but none of the people on the Metro (including us) were awake enough to look anything other than glum. Our trip to Piraeus and our search for ferry tickets and the ferry was uneventful, and at 8:00 a.m. the Apollon Hellas moved out into the sea with us and about fifty teenagers among its passengers.

Ferry to Poros

Luckily, the teens were bound for Aegina, and left us in peace after that. During their hour as our companions they never ceased their chatter and movement, like flocks of sparrows or maybe seagulls – not as musical as sparrows. They settled in a group for a moment, then rose up and flung themselves around and settled again in a different grouping. Mostly the boys clung together and the girls swarmed separately. The boys played cards, threw paper wads, ate. The girls chattered, got drinks, ate, finished the drinks, chattered, regrouped. I tried napping, but couldn’t miss the crescendoing excitement, louder laughter, cheers, more laughter, shouts, clapping . . .

Harbor at Poros

We spent a pleasant and very low-key day on Poros. We tried, for the first half-hour walking along the main street, to locate a guidebook to Poros. Some shopowners seemed insulted that we asked, and others looked at us with profound blankness – what do you mean, and why would you want such a thing? So we relied on our feet and eyes to find out what was interesting about that island as distinct from all of the others. Food and coffee were the first things; we ate an early lunch at Poseidon’s Taverna – pizza margarita for Jim, fried zucchini slices and tomato fritters for me, “weird” spaghetti for Anthea, most of which was left behind, and a basket of good Greek bread with olive oil for dipping.

Ambrosia Cafe, Poros.

We strolled along the street until the downtown ended, then turned and walked along the waterfront in the other direction. It was lined with boats docked in groups – mid-sized sailboats and yachts, small ferries to take people across the water to the town on the other side – just a fifteen-minute ride, fishing boats, and a cluster of yachts that looked like they might be for rent because they were all made and managed by the same company. Looking at the names on the boats – from the U. S., Sweden, the U.K., South Africa – we felt more directly that we were no longer alone on the vast continents of North and South America. From Greece, you can travel much more directly to China (along the Silk Road), or south to Cape Horn, north and west to the British Isles – you are connected through history and geography much more directly with most of the people of the world than you are in the United States.

Some of the fishing boats were set up for night trawling for squid, with big lights to attract the ten-tentacled creatures. Others had already done their work for the day, bringing in fish for the tavernas spread along the street. A couple of restaurants were grilling octopi in front of their restaurants, hoping that the delicious scents would draw in diners. In the water, little schools of six-inch red fish, and some larger silver fish swam, easy to see in the clear Mediterranean water.

Taverna on the waterfront at Poros.

The boats that were tied up had piles of nets and buoys on the docks, and an occasional fisherman spreading his nets to dry. Others were still out on the water, leaving only covered piles of nets to mark their place on the docks. Most were small, some almost tiny, their decks so crowded with gear that we wondered how the fishermen could move around – and where did they put the fish that they caught?

We walked over to the church to see the eye in a sunburst carved in white marble above the front door, flanked by Alpha and Omega (which represents God as the beginning and end of all things). On the street side of the church was a mosaic depicting the angel announcing to Mary that she can become the mother of God if she chooses. The old woman who cares for the church came over to watch me sketching the eye and said that the name of the church was Panagia Evangelismos, which translates roughly as the Annunciation of Mary. I was hoping that she would invite us in, but she seemed to consider her job done and walked away.

Eye above church door on Poros.

On the land side of the street, the village climbed up steep hillsides. Its architecture mixed the style of Athens – creamy browns and Mediterranean red tile roofs – with the whitewashed stucco and vividly painted blue doors and shutters of the islands. Where the houses ended, scrub bushes, limestone, and occasional clusters of shade trees and evergreens took over, with the exclamation points of cypress trees punctuating the hills. From the Malibu café, hard rock pounded out, a reminder that while the hills and houses were timeless, time was still alive and moving on.

Poros city, above the island harbor.

Anthea has a cold and Jim’s hip was bothering him a bit, so we found a pleasant coffee shop on the waterfront where we could sit and watch the motorcycles buzz by. One of the initial attractions was a sign in the window that said they had waffles were made with Golden Carbon Flour. Small world story – the flour used to be made in Buchanan, Michigan where I grew up. The company still maintains some connection with Buchanan I think; the signs advertising the flour said Buchanan on them. We of course think that there is nothing finer than waffles made with Golden Carbon Flour, so the shop had to be a good one. And when the owner saw Anthea with her computer out, she came out to say that the café had just installed free wireless – so we had a little Internet time as a bonus.

Carbon Golden Malted Pancake and Waffle Flour, made in Buchanan, Michigan; sold on Poros in Greece.

When the ferry back to Piraeus docked, hundreds of people disembarked getting an early start on their island weekend. Only a few passengers got on. From Poros to Aegina, it was calm, the afternoon sun brightening the limestone hills that we passed, and highlighting a occasional ruin or lighthouse. The teen hordes returned at Aegina, doubled in size, we swore. Eight hours roaming around on Aegina didn’t apparently diminish their energy level much at all. “How is that possible?” I asked “Are they the same ones?” Jim and Anthea looked pityingly at me: “Does it matter?” But I verified that they were the same – the girl with the blonde mohawk was on board again.

To add to the chaos, an accordion player walked around playing “Never on Sunday,” which is not the only tune the Greek accordion players know, but the one they always start with. Anthea had gone exploring; Jim was reading and writing; I was writing. He stood 18 inches away from us. We studiously ignored him. Finally he stopped playing and said something ending in “Please.” I said “Ochi” – “no,” and he finally left. Meanwhile Anthea was out on deck taking video of the island scenery – but said she couldn’t do an audio commentary because all of the kids who weren’t inside racketing were out on deck singing Greek camp songs. We agreed that it would make a good sound track for a dystopic post-apocalyptic movie.

After that, a quiet dinner at the Paradisikio taverna near Syntagma was ideal. We walked past the square on the way to the Metro station, an evening concert blasting into the air at much the same volume as the ferry kids. The police with their riot shields stood at the ready on the opposite side of the street. We left them all to their evening’s entertainment, and headed home to start packing for Monday’s departure. Tomorrow we think that we will take the train down the coast in the afternoon and get some beach time, of which Jim and I have had very little. Anthea will join us; she’ll have the morning for writing papers for classes.

Poros from the ferry.

Posted in 2010, travel | Tagged , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Sicilian wheat, a smattering of tastes

The Sicilian flag shows Medusa’s head, with ears of wheat alternating with the three legs that some say represent the three corners of Sicily. One source says that the Gorgons (Medusa was one of three) represented the destructive aspect of Athena. Perseus cut off her head and presented it to Athena who wore it on her shield. Thus the presence of Medusa on the Sicilian flag shows Athena’s protection of  the island.

The three legs show up in symbolism elsewhere in Europe and throughout the world, so  they may represent other qualities as well. In 1082, the Normans who invaded Sicily took the three legged-symbol back to the Isle of Man, which then used it (just the legs) for its own symbol. Another interpretation of the three legs is that they represent the Greek name for Sicily, trinakrias, Sicily adopted the flag in 1282; its red represents Palermo, and  the yellow stands for Corleone, the two major cities of the time on the island.

Wheat has been one of the glories of Sicily since its Greek days, and possibly before. A couple of years ago, a friend guest-blogged here about Gold from Sicily. Since that  time, I’ve had the good fortune to visit Sicily and see a bit of that history and present day myself. Although we went in September and missed seeing the wheat fields in their glory, we had ample chance to sample Sicilian cuisine. From pastas to pizzas, from elaborate cakes, to memorials of martyrs, to daily breads, we saw and tasted wheat in many forms. Here are a few.

Pastry shop in Catania, with elaborate cakes.

Cannoli, with pistachio and strawberry jam decor.

Baker in small shop near the waterfront, Catania.

Breads for sale at the Catania market, September 18, 2013.

Pizza for lunch in Ortygia (Siracusa), from Cafe Professore, eaten outdoors on a square (September 18).

Cafe Professore — everything you could want in an Italian cafe on a hot day — a shady spot on the square, good pizza, cold drinks, gelato, and air conditioning inside for a brief respite from the sun’s heat.

Ruins of the temple to Apollo, just down the street from the Cafe Professore.

Sfinciuni, the Sicilian version of pizza (recipe and more detail here). Alice at the Hotel Trieste sent us to a bakery nearby to get this. This one is stuffed with broccoli, and a bit of onion and mushroom.

The wrapping paper for the sfinciuni.

Bread for dinner in Catania, September 18.

Spaghetti with cherry tomatoes and basil, Catania, September 18.

The house wine, at Vineria i Picasso.

Posted in 2013, Sicily, travel | Tagged , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

California sunshine, October 2013

Anchorage, a brief patch of blue sky on October 14.
We left rainy windy Anchorage on October 15. At 8:00 p.m., the power blew out at our house, so we headed for the warm, well-lit airport many hours before our 2:30 a.m. flight to San Francisco. When we arrived in the Bay area (via Portland) at 9:30 a.m., we stepped out into sunshine, fresh breezes, palm trees, and the golden-brown hills of California autumn. Anthea met us at the S.F. airport; we rented our car; and set out for Menlo Park, home of Jim’s generous cousin.
The rest of that day, fighting hard against enormous sleepiness, we spent stocking up on road-trip supplies at Trader Joe’s, exploring Menlo Park and Palo Alto, and getting take-out Greek food  from Evvia in Palo Alto for a late dinner at the cousins’ home.
Palo Alto palm tree in the afternoon sun.
Morning glories, Menlo Park.
Menlo Park mailbox.
Thursday was our day to see the city.  Our strategy for getting there from Menlo Park was a little complicated (no fun, otherwise, right?). Anthea took the train in, and walked up Market Street to meet a college friend for lunch. Jim and I drove to Vallejo where we had rented a hotel for the night to be closer to our weekend destination in Reno, parked the car, took the ferry to the city and met Anthea after lunch.
Great idea all the way around, but driving in the Bay area is still driving in the Bay area. Luckily we went up the east side of the Bay, and were going north. But even at that, the best of all circumstances for morning driving, it was half an hour more than Google maps optimistically promised. We arrived at the ferry terminal at 9:58, for a 10:00 ferry. The ticket seller, watching us running up to the window, panting and frazzled said, “Don’t worry, I called them and told them to hold the ferry for you.” And they did.

The ferries to and from Vallejo are fast, clean, comfortable, and scenic. The sea air is exhilarating and we saw a hawk, a seal, and our fair share of gulls. Hard to find a pleasanter way to spend an hour being transported, especially after two hours on the freeways.
Vallejo in the distance. The sky was cloudless, with a brown haze smothering the horizon. The air is better than it was thirty or forty years ago, but it’s not as clean as Anchorage.
At the Ferry Terminal Market Building, pigeons waiting for someone to bring them lunch.
The Navy ship, Carl Brashear, coming into the harbor under the Bay Bridge. It carries cargo; was named after the first African-American to become a Master Diver. The Bay and the docks are known for their tourist appeal, but are working docks — besides the Navy ship, we saw container ships, ferries, tour boats and sailboats.
The cormorants stake claim to their part of the bay.
People along the Embarcadero. The day was too nice to spend much of it inside, so we walked along the waterfront for a couple of hours. Here were a few of the people and sights:
Denizens of the Alcatraz Landing Cafe.
Protection from the hot sun (something you didn’t see much of in Anchorage during the past couple of months) — hats, umbrellas. Note the heavy coats tied around the waists. We saw plenty of people wearing coats, down vests, hats, scarves, boots — looking like Anchorage-ites in November. It was at least 75 degrees, and although it was cooler in the shade with a breeze, these warmly-dressed people were in the full baking sun.
Sunning themselves, along the Embarcadero —  not over-dressed for the afternoon.
A young busker, tap-dancing, trumpet-playing, and singing.
Waiting for the actors to show up? The cameraman is ignoring the characters seated  behind him on the monument near the Ferry Market Building.
Anthea and Jim along the Embarcadero. Jim’s shirt was combining with the camera to create a nice interference pattern. 
A rush-hour demonstration for better immigration policies, turning off Embarcadero to go down Market Street.
From the Ferry Market — dahlias.
Tomatillos and hot peppers.
Broccoli, leeks, artichokes, and white and green asparagus.
Leaving San Francisco at sunset.
Sunset over Marin County from the ferry.

Posted in 2013, travel, Uncategorized | Tagged , , , , , | Leave a comment

Hotel Trieste, Catania, Sicily

View from our balcony at the Hotel Trieste, looking west, about 5:00 p.m., Catania, Sicily.I had never heard of Catania before deciding to visit Sicily with my husband, daughter, sister and her husband. We flew from Rome, mid-September, to this city of 400,000 people (center of an area of 800,000). Our home-town Anchorage, has about 325,000, and the whole state of Alaska has just over 700,000. And yet, we’d never heard of Catania, although the people there had certainly heard of Alaska.

Another difference — Catania’s been there since about 900 B.C.E., making it close to 3,000 years old. Although people are likely to have been living in the Anchorage area for that long, the first permanent settlement was in 1915, not even 100 years ago.

Plaque on a building across the street from the Hotel Trieste. This suggests that the Trieste is probably of a similar age, and the whole street has existed much longer than most of the buildings in Anchorage.

View of the hotel from the street. Note the graffiti, ubiquitous in Catania, as it was in Greece and much of northern Spain. One awning says “Hotel Trieste,” and the one above it says “Hotel Mele.” The sign at street level has both names. That garage door will be rolled up at night, and tables and chairs for a bar will come out onto the street.

A view of the gates for the Trieste and the Mele. Every place we stayed in Italy had a set of iron gates at the entrance to the property, then a locked entrance to the hotel or apartment building, and then a locked door for the hotel room. It felt secure, but a  little odd. Immediately inside the gates is an ope, cobblestoned area used to park a couple of cars.

The quiet street comes alive at dusk, with “American bars” up and down its length. By day, when you walk down the street, you see some shop windows, doors to houses, and roll-down metal garage doors, graffitied or plain. At night the doors roll up, the bar owners carry out tables, chairs, movie screens/monster TVs, and sofas. Italian bars are usually open all day, selling coffee, liquor, beer, and food. American bars exist for the sole purpose of drinking, watching sports (or maybe Simpsons, while waiting for soccer), and socializing; they never open until dusk.

The street in front of Hotel Trieste at 10:30 p.m. [This was a night with no soccer game, so no TV out front.]

The “hotel,” like a number of places we’ve stayed in Spain and Italy, is just seven rooms on one floor of a building. At least one other hotel, the Mele, shares the building, as do a number of apartments. The owners, Alice Bianchi and Guiseppe Koenraadt, would like to expand soon. They found us a guide for Mt. Aetna, recommended bakeries, served us a local liqueur on our last evening, and took care of us in every way. One could not ask for more gracious hosts, better English, or more knowledgeable guides.

The local liqueur, Amaro dell’ Etna [], that Guiseppe and Alice served us on our last evening at the Trieste. Wikipedia describes amaros (amaro is Italian for “bitter”) as liqueurs made with herbs, bark, roots, flowers, and other ingredients. We can tell you that it was sweet, powerful, and delicious.

Hotel Trieste owners, Alice Bianchi, Guiseppe Koenraadt, and the twins (nearly 4).

On the ground floor of the hotel, inside the tall iron gate, is a paved area or parking. This is one of the cats that made their home there, under or atop the cars.

Posted in Sicily, travel | Tagged , , , , , | Leave a comment

Sicilian impressions — Catania Market


The morning crowd at the Catania Fish Market. The group in the lower right is buying herring (or mackerel?) from a fisherman who has just brought them in from his boat. He’s pulling out handfuls, weighing them, and taking money from the buyers. Luckily for the people of the city, the market is on two levels, allowing easy viewing of the action in the center.

Catania, in Southeast Sicily has survived earthquakes, frequent eruptions of Mt. Aetna, and the rule of Greeks, French, Spanish, Romans, and more. It’s a city that’s rough around the edges and alive with fishermen, tourists, and all the wealth of the fields, vineyards and olive groves that surround it. The fish and produce market is particularly noted for its vigor.

    Mackerel for sale.

   Seaweed with lime.

  Swordfish, whole and sliced into steaks.

People at the markets all over Italy seem to specialize. This man is carrying lemons and limes, and has a basket of parsley strapped to his front — garnishes for the seafood that others are selling.

The market sold fish of almost every description (not so many octopi and squid as we would see in Siracusa), poultry, meats (including rabbits and horse meat), and fruits and vegetables.

 Prickly pear cactus fruits, which grow around the area.

    Local olives.

 An array of fruits and vegetables.

Not all of the animals were for sale. This pigeon hopped into the box beneath the table in the photo above.

A few stalls sold breads, but perhaps there were so many bakeries that were easy to get to that people didn’t expect as many choices at the market.

   Leaving the market, on our way to Siracusa for the day.

Posted in Uncategorized | Tagged , , , , | 1 Comment

Roman Holiday, September 14, 2013

If you were a Roman in the old days, you would not go to Ostia on a holiday. These days, you might, just to look at what was left of a bustling Roman community. We went to Ostia (means “mouth,” and is located where the Tiber empties into the Mediterranean Sea. In its heyday it was a salt-producing town, and the port of Rome, with 60,000 people. After the fall of Rome, the city lost its importance, and besides that, the Tiber changed course and silt covered over the city. That saved it from the next thousand years of scavenging for brick and stone to use in new churches and government buildings, and preserved the mosaics, the mills, and the monuments.
Ostia is out in the country, with horses grazing alongside the ruins, butterflies, and herbs everywhere underfoot. Overhead, those magnificent pines, the ones that inspired Resphigi’s music, shade the cobbled roads through the old city. Underfoot, their brown needles scent the air with every step, and make your feet slip against the stones. We saw green lizards, each one with enough iridescent bling to sate the glitiziest of tastes. Butterflies and tiny grasshoppers flitted just over the low-growing mint, and in a field next to a white horse, an egret stood watching for lunch. It was peaceful and quiet, the sort of silence that the guys in the Sistine Chapel and St. Peter’s were trying in vain to enforce.
For the afternoon event, we visited the Capuchin Ossuary, hard to describe adequately. It consists of several rooms under a church run by the Capuchin monks (from whence, cappucino, as in the delicious coffee drink). The rooms are dioramas created with the bones of thousands of monks (the bodies dated from about 1530 to 1870). One is called the pelvis room, another the shoulder blade room, and another the skull room. Wikipedia says that there are other ossuaries in Europe where the bones of the dead are displayed as reminders to the living that this is their fate. This, however, is considered the most artistic.
In the evening we dined well at Il Foccacia near the Piazza Navona. The house wine was chianti; the special of the evening was an entree of grilled porcini mushrooms (Regina had that); and they had all sorts of veggies in the various offerings. Afterward we wandered around the Piazza taking photos of fountains, fortune tellers (they don’t like that), vendors, and the half moon in a clear sky.
For gelato, we headed back to our neighborhood favorite, getting there about 10:30 — it was packed. Usually it’s quiet, so we must be getting there earlier than most people. And it was Saturday night, in the mid-70s. The streets, even at 10:30, were filled with everyone — old people, lots of families with toddlers and babies and kids, groups of young people, couples of all ages, clusters of men; clusters of women, vendors. Every cafe had its tables along the streets and sidewalks, and all of them seemed busy. Hard to believe how many there are, crowded with Romans, as well as tourists.
The finale for the evening came as we were walking back to the apartment. Several cops on motorcycles came roaring down the street, blue lights flashing. They were followed by more regular people on motorcycles, and then more and more and more — we estimated between 100 and 150 in all, with a few more cops bringing up the rear.
Random observation: Roman drivers don’t use turn signals. Why would you, when you have no more idea than the driver behind you what you are likely to do next? A turn signal implies more than split-second thought given to your next move, something that rarely occurs as far as we can tell.
Ruins at Ostia.
Regina examining ruins at Ostia.
A mosaic floor, open to the skies now.
Part of the cemetery at Ostia, outside the city walls, as required by Roman tradition. The niches were for urns with ashes.
The Roman pines.
One of the rooms in the crypt of the church of  Our Lady of the Conception of the Capuchins, All of the decorations are human bones from the monks over the past few centuries, except their habits. No photos allowed; so got one from the web.
File:Capuchinos 2.jpg
Teri, Anthea, and Regina at Trevi Fountain, along with hundreds of others.
Anthea, Regina, and Jim at one of the fountains in Piazza Navona.
The Ponte Sisto at 10:00 p.m.


Posted in Uncategorized | Tagged , , , , , , | Leave a comment