Allyson Johnson

Pieces of my Mind

Archive for the tag “World Heritage sites”

Freeway Free in Merida: Ramblin’ round the Roman Ruins

Roman theatre in MericaIf you OD on medieval ruins in Caceras, you have options.  How about Roman ruins instead?  Merida, another World Heritage Site, is only an hour’s train ride away.

Wow!  Those Romans were some engineers!  Stuff they built 2000 years ago is still being used  in Merida, such as a magical open air theatre where we happened upon a kind of rock n roll High School Musical version of “The Rape of Europa” (That giant white caterpillar with black antennae is supposed to be Jupiter as a white bull).

Temple of Diana - Merida

The Temple of Diana has a 15th Century villa built INSIDE.

Roman bridge - Merida

A graceful bridge across the Guardiana River is used now by pedestrians and bicycles as part of an extensive trail network.

Arc of Trajan - Merida

Cars still rumble under Trajan’s Arch.

Roman road leads to ongoing archaeology

In many places the original Roman roads form the substrata for current city streets.


Museo National de Arte Romano

And there is a great museum next to the theatre and amphitheater which makes sense of it all.

Freeway Free in Spain: Every Day a Festival

CacerasDragon2013We happened to be in Caceras on St. George’s day. Great Britain’s favorite dragon-slayer is also the patron saint of Caceras, so, being Spain, a festival is called for. This one involves the making and parading of a large paper-mache dragon through the streets, accompanied by an army of costumed Moors (the dragon’s evil henchmen), their ladies in various ideas of harem dress, and a princess destined to be sacrificed. This group is pursued by a squadron of Christian knights sporting white tunics and red crusader crosses, followed by the hero, St. George, on his white horse ( a highly trained Andalusian paso, striking camera-friendly poses all down the street). When the parade reaches the Plaza Major, St. George defeats the Moorish leader in a swordfight, then plunges a blazing torch into the dragon’s heart. The dragon bursts into flames, and the princess, St. George, and his horse watch its demise from the battlements of the Old City, as ear-splitting fireworks and rockets illuminate the Plaza.

St George in waitingYou can google “Caceres dragon” and get a pretty good idea of the festivities – videos from this year may be posted soon but don’t bother to look for me. We are way back under the arcades opposite the guys juggling torches.

The dragon-burning was fun. W and I were mostly surrounded by tall people and people with kids on their shoulders, but we did get a good view of St. George as he waited in the wings on his white horse behind the fire engines (can’t be too careful around a fire-breathing dragon!), and during the subsequent sections the main action was projected on the castle walls so all could see. After the dragon was lit and St. George and his horse had taken their bows everyone headed for the exits at once. We stopped for a helado once we were free of the crowd and ambled back to the hotel alternately looking upward at the  fireworks visible between the buildings on the narrow streets and looking downward at our ice cream.Festival's fiery endCan you spot St. George on his white horse gloating from the balcony?

Freeway-Free in Spain: Around and About in Extremadura

Carpets of wildflowers - Extremadure springAs an American, I thought the whole North/South thing was a side – effect of our 150-year-old civil war, but it seems to be a global prejudice.  Whether it’s a Tuscan speaking of Sicily, or a Parisian of Provence, or a New Yorker speaking of anywhere south of the Mason-Dixon line, the general thread is “Oh, those southerners!  They live at such a slow pace!  They are lazy!  And their accents – you can barely understand them!” This also is what the Spaniards of Castile y Leon or Catalonia say about Extremadura, maybe one of the most fascinating places you have never heard of.

“Extremadura” simply means “beyond the Madura River”.  It takes in the broad plains and mountain ridges between Madrid and the Portuguese border. The province is ringed by mountains, so during the Peninsular Wars Wellington’s troops swung north, leaving the medieval fortress walls of Caceras and Trujillo and the  Roman ruins of Merida unscathed. If you dream of going back in time, in Extremadura you can almost pick your century.Sierra de Gredos

The bus ride from Madrid  to Caceras, the center of Extremadura, takes a little over four hours with one half-hour and one five-minute stop.  After an unusually wet spring  it was a lovely ride, with the snowcapped peaks of the Sierra de Gredos rising above the rolling green plains of La Mancha, – only missing some windmills to tilt at.  As we moved into Extremadura the landscape looked more and more like spring in California’s Sierra foothills  – pools of blue flowers that weren’t lupine, shrubs covered with big white flowers that weren’t matilja poppies, recognizable Scotch broom and mustard and unrecognizable pink and lavender flowers, all  painting the slopes beautiful.

Hotel Don CarlosOur home base for the week is the Hotel Don Carlos, just off the Plaza Mayor (Main Square) and steps from the medieval Old City which earned Caceras its World Heritage Site designation.  Our first two nights were spent in a spacious room with a luxurious bath,  facing the narrow cobbled pedestrians-only street, with a cute balcony and view down the twisting lane to the restaurant on the corner.  The first night we slept as befits travelers who have been on the road for twenty hours.  The second night we slept as befits those whose open window is just down the street from a bar patronized by soccer fans who are cheering, drinking, and arguing raucously until at least 4AM.  We asked for a change, which happened seamlessly while we were out sight-seeing.  The following nights were spent in a smaller room facing the inside courtyard, with no balcony or bidet but lots of blessed quiet.

Note to travelers in Spain:  The American work schedule has not penetrated past the Pyrenees.  Spaniards snack at 8 AM, take a two hour lunch break 12-2PM, work til 7PM, hang out on the Plaza until at least 9PM, maybe think about dinner after 9PM, and after dinner hang out some more.  Don’t even think about looking for dinner before 9PM.

On our first evening we walked through the neighboring church plaza spotting storks nesting on the church steeple, swallow chicks chirping in the nests built in cracks in the church facade, swallows swooping and dodging after gnats to feed to the chirping chicks, and lots of folks of various sizes, shapes, and colors strolling, sipping, socializing in the empty open walking and sitting spaces.

Regional cheese - CacerasThe helpful desk clerk had recommended a tapas bar just beyond the church plaza.  Not being accustomed to Spanish hours, we were the first customers.  We  asked for three of the four featured tapas and got enough food to feed four people comfortably, including the best anchovies either of us had ever eaten or imagined, assorted wonderful local cured pork, and a local soft cheese whose deliciousness defies description.   A walk around the Plaza Major shook down enough space within to make room for   a tiny cup of exotically flavored gelato after the post-tapas stroll.

It was 10PM and the Plaza was just getting going, but the lure of a warm shower and a soft bed has us postponing our adjustment to Spanish time for one more day.

Next: Medieval Meandering in Caceras

Freeway-Free in Spain: Castles in Caceras

Castle in Spain - through the bus window“I long for the day/ I can get underway/ and look for those castles in Spain…”

Faraway Places – Margaret Whiting hit song of 1948

Castles in Spain – My childhood friend  W mentioned that she was planning to make a trip to the area in Spain from which emigrated some of the families she had known during her Peace Corps service in Peru. She thought maybe she would stay an extra week in Madrid to see the art museums.  Naturally, I invited myself to come along.

My contribution to the trip was a further extension of a third week to accommodate a visit to my niece J who lives with her Spanish husband and two children in a smallish town in northern Spain. We planned to travel mostly by bus and train, except for the visit to the smallish town, where we would need to rent a car – something I had never done in all my foreign travel.The bus to Badajoz (with a stop at Caceras)

Smart thing I did:  Hang my plane tickets and passport in an easy access pouch around my neck, so they were visibly THERE at all times and easy to get to even though I was using carry-on luggage.

Dumb thing I did: Omit the last-minute-before-you-leave-the-house check for all necessary documents. Thus I failed to notice that my wallet-on-a-string had snagged itself on a towel bar in the kitchen as I zoomed past and had been pulled out of my fanny pack. Panic in the car on the way to the airport.  Go home? Risk missing the plane? Decision to rely on W for credit and ATM for a few days, assuming Capable Husband could find and FEDEX the missing wallet.

Smart thing we did: Book our first full week staying in one hotel central to Extremedura, so we could settle in – and the wallet could catch up with me (which it did, a day earlier than I had thought possible. Blessings on CH and FEDEX!)

Eighteen hours after leaving my house, via car, plane, subway, bus, and taxi, W and I arrived in Caceras, equipped with two Kindles, an iPad, a MacBook, and a cheap cell phone purchased at the bus station for making calls to my niece.  We were to become very attached to this phone.

Travel Trivia: Caceras, with its intact medieval Old City, was the second World Heritage Site created in Europe.

Sierra Gredos range, from the bus

Canada: the Alien Next Door – Day 7-8 – Kamloops -> Vancouver

Continental Divide

Another early day, another gourmet breakfast aboard our luxury train, the Rocky Mountaineer.  We head into our final day of mountain scenery – the northern Cascade range.  As our black-and-gold bubble threads its way in and out of tunnels and alongside the westward-bound Fraser River, we catch one postcard view after another: glimpses of bald eagles perched on power poles, rafters shooting through rapids, and funicular cars trundling on cables overhead.  We pass the Continental Divide (actually a tri-vide, as from this point rivers flow into the Arctic as well as into the Pacific and the Gulf of Mexico). We follow the Fraser River down the slope, and too soon we are rumbling along next to  tankers and flatcars as we enter the railyard under the bridges of Vancouver – end of the line.  Rafters on the Fraser River

The  Hotel  Vancouver is the last of the chain of hotels built by the railroads to encourage travelers to tour westward. (They ran out of track at the ocean)  It is a stately building, with the hallmark high ceilings and decorative interior pillars that mark the Gilded Age of its birth.  It has been  renovated a few too many time, though – it doesn’t have the rich patina of age that coats its sister hotels in  Banff Springs and Edmonton.  I spied no exuberant self-congratulatory murals showing the founders, nor was there any truly campy pseudo-oriental or pseudo-Spanish décor left to amaze and delight.  Just large rooms, tasteful colors, and a lot of gilt paint to evoke the luxury intended by the builders. [p1050068web – (Kamloops-Vancouver folder)] Maybe it was the cafeteria-style breakfast option which broke the illusion of bygone grandiosity – can you image Jane and Leland Stanford pushing their trays along at a cafeteria?Hotel Vancouver Lobby

The  Hotel Vancouver is located in a bustling area near the University of Vancouver and the Art Museum.  I took advantage of a bright morning to enjoy a walk around the neighborhoodand includes architecture ranging from the ultra-classic columns of the  Art Museum to the playful ramps of the University Library.  This section of Vancouver has a sprightly, humourous vibe –the public art display called “soft rocks” which conists of giant beanbags ideal for sprawling in the sun, the pretty young fashionistas striding to work in their ridiculously impractical platform shoes, the bright banners on the buildings.  I would like to explore more but… Soft Rocks - Vancouver

We had planned an extra day or two in Vancouver, but family issues called us home a bit sooner.  I saw and heard so much that was new to me on this visit to the north  – places, politics and people surprised me at every turn.  I  only took baby steps in exploring this alien land.  Knowing that it IS alien, not just a colder clone of the US, still feels like a breakthrough. In this lifetime I hope to learn more. Vancouver Central (Hotel, Concert Hall, Art Museum)

Canada – the Alien Next Door – Day 6 – the Rockies by Rail – All aboard!

The view from the Rocky MountaineerBy 7 AM we are breakfasted. By 8Am shivering on the platform, waiting for our luxury train to arrive. A far-off whistle blows! We see an oncoming light! Everyone pulls out cameras, starts snapping photos. It’s coming closer! It’s getting louder! It’s not stopping! It’s a freight!Here it comes!
It’s a loooooooooooooong freight. Everyone puts their cameras away, goes back to shivering.
Another distant whistle. Another headlight. This time it’s the real thing – the Rocky Mountaineer, striped elegantly in black and gold.Dome car on the Rocky Mountaineer - outside

Uniformed attendants jump from the doors and spread  a red carpet on the platform to mark where you are to mount the train. We have been issued special red-enameled maple leaves which entitle us to seats in the bubble dome car and hot meals served in the downstairs dining space. (Lowly gold-enameled leaf-ers have to make do with box lunches served at their seat.)
Dome car, Rocky Mountaineer

On the train!Comfy reclinable seats!  Snack tables!  Scenery! Clean windows! Open bar! Food, snacks, local cuisine – hopeless! I haven’t seen a scale since we left, but I’m beginning to dread when I do.

Tonight : Dinner and overnight in cosmopolitan Kamloops

Canada: the Alien Next Door – Day 5 – Banff Springs

View of Banff from the Cascade GardensThe day begins in a ballroom/classroom in the stately Banff Springs Hotel – we learn that it was originally built by the railroad to lure tourists to western Canada (just as the El Tovar Lodge and Ahwahnee Hotel were built in the US to bring tourists to the Grand Canyon and Yosemite).  How ignominious to know that this World Historic Site is now owned by a consortium fronted by the Fairmont Hotel chain and largely funded by Arabian oil moguls.    You can still see the Beaver logo of the Northern Canadian Railroad engraved  in the archway over the fomer main entrance to the Banff Springs Lodge.

P1040963After the lecture by our Canadian tour leader, we tour the hotel – the Ballroom, the Conservatory, the Cigar Lounge, the Alhambra Room – if a movie is made based on the game of CLUE, here is the natural setting.

Whyte Museum- BanffThen  a bus to downtown Banff and a tour of the Whyte Museum of the Rockies, with a lively introduction to the exhibits by a senior curator.  (I want to live in the Whyte cabin: all natural wood, built-in furniture, and thousands of books.)

After a rain – sprinkled promenade in the town of Banff (think Carmel with an influence of snow) and a lunch at the  Chinook Restaurant (Denny’s with a smile and a view), I walked in the Cascade Gardens overlooking the Bow River.  Sad to say, the historic cascades have dried up along with the maintenance funding, but the flowers are still brilliant, maintained by a dedicated group of volunteers).  The view from these gardens down the main street of Banff to the mountains opposite is post-card pretty (see above.

Steps down to the Bow RiverNext we wander along a shady  trail bordering the Bow river with  lots of wildflowers, a couple of close encounters with grazing elk, and a view of  the Bow Falls.  (Tip: If walking this trail going downriver, turn back at the bottom of the the 200-step stair to get the full effect.)

 There was another 200-step stair which brought up back to the Banff Springs hotel on its bluff overlooking the river.  Now that we had been to the falls, we could hear it rumbling in the background at all times – being a child of civilization, I had assumed the soothing low vibration was  traffic noise or air conditioning – a roaring waterfall is much more exciting!

Tomorrow: Bags are due out at 6AM as we prepare to board the Train.

Canada – the Alien Next Door: Day 4 – Via the Icefields Parkway to Banff

Lake Louise with Lodge and RowersThe geologic past and my personal past meet on the bus at the  Continental divide.  (How’s that for an opening summary?)

We leave Jasper early via our luxury bubble-bus.

30 minutes out of Jasper, a cluster of parked cars signals another wildlife sighting – a young grizzly bear with a broken or sprained left rear leg is limping as rapidly as it can along the side of the road behind a small scree of shrubs – best case, it was just nicked by a car and is hobbling in panic, may recover shortly;  worst case it is an older injury and this bear will be at a serious survival disadvantage through the winter.Bashful Bear

The Continental Divide – a marker by the road (see the streams reverse direction!)  I imagine being an early explorer – did they register, in this vertical landscape, that they had begun to trend downhill?

Athabasca FallsGlaciers –  Athabaska Falls – a swirling torrent carving narrow channels and deep bowls through layers of sandstone; the Athabaska glacier creeping out from the Columbia Ice Field, which coats the top like a smoothed coat of white sugar frosting.  Mt. Athabaska with its own glaciers,  glacial silt and gravel coloring the streams flowing into Hudson Bay, the Arctic, or the Pacific. (the Triple Divide).

We picnic by the Athabaska River with box lunches, surrounded by lofty peaks, fireweed, buffalo berry bushes,  friendly ground squirrels. Our companions, the nature guide and the professorial geologist, are  cascading fountains of natural and geologic interpretation.

The cheerful ride-along spouse of the tour organizer strikes up a conversation.  Turns out he student-taught at the same high school where my mother was Vice Principal, and remembers a number of the faculty members who were family friends and authority figures from my teen years.    Déjà vu all over again.

We make a stop at Lake Louise.  I flashback to an early trip when my husband and I were camping across Canada and a lot more energetic.  I can clearly remember the lovely summer day we spent walking around and rowing on this green lake cradled in the glaciers.  The lake has not changed;  younger people are still rowing on it;  the sky is still blue beyond the stately Lake Louise Lodge.

Banff Springs Hotel - original entranceWe ended the day at Banff Springs Lodge.  On that same trip many  years ago we set up our tent in the national park campground nearby.  Feeling grubby and un-washed after a hike, we managed to sneak into the Banff Springs Lodge swimming pool area and take a  memorable illicit dip;  I tried to reconstruct the memory as we re-entered as paying guests, but it was not easy.  In the intervening years the entrance has been re-positioned to accomodate large tour buses, and  the spacious outdoor pool with its grassy surround has been caged and over-chloriniated inside a glass dome.   The new outdoor pool is half the former size and surrounded by concrete.  Also,   the fencing and overall security have been improved to prevent riff-raff such as we were from sneaking in as we did.

We learned that in the time since our last visit the hotel has converted from a summer-only tourist hotel to a year-round tourist/ bus tour/spa/ski/corporate- incentive- trip resort;  hence closing in the outdoor pool (too expensive to heat year – round) and other changes.  Not changed:  the many nooks and crannies of the hotel – more small and large lounges, bars, restaurants, and meeting rooms than one could exhaust,  plus a second large extension convention center and staff rooms in an adjacent building.

In honor of our previous visit, we went swimming.

Canada – the Alien Next Door – Day 3 – The Jasper tourist loop

Mystery Island, Maligne Lake

Day 3 is fully scheduled.  We are given an itinerary review at our

8AM breakfast and STRONGLY CAUTIONED not to be the last on the bus.  We managed despite accidentally locking ourselves out of the room safe with all our desirables inside – security has its price. After breakfast, a

9AM  lecture by our Canadian co-leaderBarry on Canadian people and politics build on the theme of successive immigration.  I had somehow never thought about what was going on in Canada next door while the US was experiencing its two hundred years of history.   I hope I will never take Canada as lightly again. At

10AM, the group clears its collective head from all that back-room political talk with a ranger-led nature walk around the periphery of the lake.  I would have liked to go the whole route, but we were due back at the lodge by

11AM  to  purchase “lunch on our own.”  That’s codespeak for “we’d have no hope of getting you all out on time if we tried to organize lunch for you.” We munched and crunched sandwiches from the downstairs deli so that by

12 noon we were all on the bus to Maligne Lake.

12:30  – more sheep at a road turnout.  More photos.Tourist-savvy sheep

1:30 – on a boat tour of Maligne Lake.  This interglacial gem was put onthe Canadian maps by a woman  who had lost her 20-years – older husband and  both parents, within a short space, wanted to get away from her life, came to Jasper and married her 20-years-younger tour guide, a “Meti” (half Indian, half Anglo) who led her to Maligne Lake.  (“She was a cougar!” says tour guide Mark).  We take a boat tour out to the Photo Opportunity which makes all the post cards – a little island with a small grove of pine trees just off the shore.  (See the  Opportunity above).

3:30: Bus back to Jasper lodge.

4:45: we blow off a lecture on Rocky Mountain wildlife adaptation strategies and go swimming.  The Lodge includes a lovely 88 degree pool with  lots of sun, not too many children… very QUIET – no one lecturing or asking questions, blessed peace.

Beats a lecture!5:45:  We leave the swimming pool,return to our little cabin/haven to  dress leisurely for dinner.   Dinner is  outside on the deck with a 180-degree lake and mountan view,  fresh air and all the outdoors to dissipate the chatter of conversation.

9PM: The deck is the place to be, with the lake still glimmering, the late summer sun still loaning a glow to the sky,  and a storm visibly gathering, with clouds billowing grandly as if to belittle the mountains’ puny pretensions.  The wind picks up; the mosquitoes are gone, the stars are playing hide and seek beyond the clouds.

I have to keep reminding myself:  It’s probably not this perfect in February.  But for now – Wow!

From Russia with Mom – Day 7 – Helsinki

I awake at 6:30 (fortunately we get an hour back as we journey westward toward Copenhagen) and catch a glimpse of Finland’s World Heritage site Suomenlinna skimming by the railing – an old fort, a tower, and then we are at the port and docking.  We have a bus tour of the city scheduled;  we endeavor to be ready on time, but Mom has misplaced the key card which she needs to get on and off the boat and by the time we get to the bus they have been waiting pretty patiently for almost 15 minutes.  But everyone is very nice to a smiling nonagenarian and her escort.

Helsinki is a small city of only about 600,000 people, so the bus drives in circles to spend the time required to justify the cost of the expedition.  We see the Senate Square, the Parliament Building, pass the National Museum twice before going inside, park several blocks from the Church of the Rock and walk a few blocks.  Helsinki is all about the architecture –the gleaming white Lutheran cathedral which gives the  White City of the Baltic its nickname,  the red brick Russian Orthodox church on an opposing hill, and the eco-modern architecture of the Church of the Rock (so called because it is built into a hill so as not to disturb the neighborhood sight lines.

We end at an outdoor café by the harbor for Finnish snacks: rye flatbread with smoked reindeer and mustard; Karelli Pie – a sort of cheese pastry with diced hard-boiled egg on top, then we browse the adjacent food and craft open-air market.  After lunch Mom opts again for a nap and I go storming off up the hill to Marimekko, drawn irresistibly by the SALE 40% sign I had spotted earlier. I admire Finnish design in all its maifestations, purchase a few gifts, and amble down the warm sunny tree-lined streets full of mimes, street musicians, outdoor diners – it is like Paris without the horns and humidity.  I step into a shop to price their postcards, step out again without buying and the day is transformed.  It is pouring rain – I mean a real gully-washer – gutters overflowing, street flooded, rain-spouts fountaining… everyone is laughing at being so caught by surprise.

Luckier than some, I am wearing my nearly-waterproof windbreaker (only because it had a nice pocket for the camera) so I raise the hood, cover my purse with the Marimekko bag, and make a dash for the boat.  Fortunately I am not very far from the harbor, and there are a couple of covered arcades to shelter in.  I make it through the customs center and wait on the porch looking at the ship with a couple of other soggy but smiling passengers until a helpful and vigilant sprite from the ship spots us and comes over with a couple of huge umbrellas – so of course the deluge stops as suddenly as it began.

Tonight is Formal Night and the Captain’s Cocktail Party, so I shed my wet clothes and we dress for the occation, then go for tea in the Panorama lounge.  As we linger over our finger sandwiches, cookies, and mini-pastries, a couple scurries in from the outside promenade-  it is pouring rain again.   We retreat to our room to watch the lightning and the rain bouncing off the balcony railing.

This first evening shows off the crew:  first the cocktail party and introductions, then a full restaurant where we shared our table gregariously, then  a Musical Extravaganza –  an all-white Motown show, complete with feather boas and choreographed dance moves – I was remembering seeing the Temptations in Las Vegas years back. I talked with “Duke” , the tenor, afterward;  he said the group were somewhat limited in their dancing due to the movement of the boat. I thought “yeah, right” but now that I am typing in the quiet of my cabin I am aware of the shifting basis of the boat world I am on.

[Note: Turns out Duke Zoran has written his own blog posts about this trip – Check it out!]

Tomorrow: Stockholm and the Swedes!

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