Doha’s architectural gem

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Museum of Islamic Art

Museum of Islamic Art from Corniche

One of the most easily recognizable buildings in Doha is the Museum of Islamic Art. Stunningly white against the bright blue sky, the Museum protrudes into the waters of the Persian Gulf, right off the fashionable Corniche seaside boulevard. The Museum is a recently new addition to Doha’s fast-growing skyline, opened to the public in December 2008. The structure was designed by a Chinese American architect I.M. Pei who was inspired by the ablutions fountain of the 9th century Mosque of Ahmad Ibn Tulun, the oldest mosque in Cairo, Egypt. You can clearly see the parallels in the central dome surrounded by angular, layered ornamentation. Here is how I. M. Pei described his inspiration:

This was one of the most difficult jobs I ever undertook. If one could find the essence of Islamic architecture, might it not lie in the desert, severe and simple in its design, where sunlight brings forms to life? I believe I found what I was looking for in the Mosque of Ahmad Ibn Tulun in Cairo (876-879).

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Travel theme: Big

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Ailsa’s Where is My Backback? blog is fun to read and offers weekly photo challenges. I felt inspired by this week’s travel theme: big. So here we go…

El Jem, Tunisia
This is of the biggest Roman amphitheaters, truly an amazing sight in the Tunisian desert!

El Jem Read the rest of this entry

Albuquerque beyond Breaking Bad

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Breaking Bad

Breaking Bad’s Albuquerque (Image: New Yorker)

A cult show Breaking Bad resumes tonight for its fifth (part II) and final season, completing the transition of a mild-mannered high school teacher Walter White, played masterfully by Bryan Cranston, into a drug cook and kingpin par excellence who calls himself Heisenberg. The show’s success spurred great interest in the city where it’s set and filmed, Albuquerque, New Mexico, to a point where even the city’s Convention and Visitors Bureau provides a guide to exploring Breaking Bad locations. And local businesses are following the suit by offering popular new items such as blue ice candy – a nod to the show’s iconic blue meth – Bathing Bad bath salts, or Heisenberg’s Dark Ale.

Breaking Bad fans who make a pilgrimage to Albuquerque want to know: how bad is it really? Well, it tends to score on the high side (pun intended) among U.S. cities with substantive crime issues but has a long way to go to “top performers” such as Detroit. And of course the key principle of real estate – location, location, location – applies as it does everywhere, so neighborhoods vary. Read the rest of this entry

Bright colors and dark past of Gorée Island

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Obama on Goree Island

President Barack Obama and First Lady Michelle Obama look out from the Door of No Return on Gorée Island (Photo: SAUL LOEB/AFP/Getty Images)

President Barak Obama’s recent trip to Senegal, and especially his stop at Gorée Island, made me think back to my own visit there. Gorée is a tiny island in the Dakar harbor with painful history lurking beneath its charm of a colorful Mediterranean-like seaside village. From the 15th to the 19th century it was one of the slave-trading outposts on Africa’s west coast. The island was ruled in succession by the Portuguese, Dutch, English, and French and participated in the trans-Atlantic slave trade for over three centuries until the mid-1840s, although academics differ on how many slaves actually passed through there.

Regardless of such debates, though, today the island remains a haunting place and a powerful symbol of humanity’s transgressions and, ultimately, redemption. President Obama visited with his wife and daughters last June. Moved Michelle Obama – whose ancestors were brought to America as slaves – penned an emotional essay based on her experience in Gorée. She wrote: Read the rest of this entry

Discovering Arad

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IMG_9332A Romanian city of Arad doesn’t get many blogs written about it and that’s a shame because it’s definitely worth a visit even though it may not be among the top tier destinations in Eastern Europe. But such off-the-beaten-path places are precisely where you get to experience the country in a more authentic way, removed from throngs of tourists. Arad in a way felt very familiar, easy. The language is a relatively simple to decipher mix of Romance and Slavic influences, plus Turkish words like the delicious ciorbă soup but that didn’t quite help me =) And the architecture – except for Orthodox churches – made me think of my Polish hometown, Kielce (and right now I’m realizing I still haven’t blogged about it – shame!)

The third largest city in Western Romania after Timişoara and Oradea, Arad is an important transportation hub and urban center. The city straddles the banks of the Mureș River that arches in an inverted U-shape around an expansive park with the 18th century fortress. It was built after the 1699 Treaty of Carlowitz that ended 16 years of hostilities between the Ottoman Empire and a coalition of Austria, Poland, Venice, and Russia. As a result of the treaty Transylvania and much of Hungary were transferred from Turkish control to the Habsburg Empire. The Mureș became a boarder between Habsburg Austria and Ottoman Turkey and Arad a frontier town in need of fortification. Read the rest of this entry

Culinary highlights of Budapest

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BudapestBudapest: breathtaking views of the lazily flowing Danube river, artful bridges connecting the buzzing urban Pest side on the east bank with the steep, green, royal Buda hill to the west, expansive Parliament Building and imposing St. Stephen’s Cathedral… I loved them all and I’ll write about them – some other time. Right now, with the memories of my trip to Budapest I am, well, hungry to recapture some of the culinary highlights. Let the journey begin!

The day starts with a fortifying breakfast buffet at a charming boutique place, Three Corners Hotel Art‘s La Perle restaurant. My favorites were various Hungarian salamis, duck liver pate, and delicious pickled herring – perhaps not universally appreciated as a breakfast item but what can I say, that’s where my Polish roots show =) Read the rest of this entry

A little slice of heaven in the Swiss mountains

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Flüeli-RanftJust two hours south of Zürich a charming, tiny mountain village of Flüeli-Ranft sits high above lake Sarnen at the entrance of the Great Melch Valley. This is Switzerland as idyllic and picturesque as it gets: wooden houses with bright window shutters scattered on green slopes, colorful patches of wildflowers clinging to rocky paths, and distant sounds of cow wells carrying through the valley. In the morning the air is sharp and fresh, and dense fog envelops the surrounding mountain peaks. Warm noon sunlight magnifies the glow of the white-walled 17th century St. Karl Borromäus Chapel centrally perched upon a hill. And the evening stretches elongated tree shadows across the valley, and reflects crimson sun rays in the windows of the magnificent Hotel Paxmontana, the Art Nouveau masterpiece that has been the local hallmark since 1896. Read the rest of this entry

Bizarre foods in Beijing

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Andrew Zimmern

Andrew Zimmern’s Bizarre Foods (photo: travelchannel.com)

Yes, I’m a fan of Andrew Zimmern’s Bizarre Foods – a show that takes being adventurous with food to the new level of audacity. I haven’t watched it much lately but I know that Asia has been among his frequent culinary destinations. In a Beijing-focused episode he visited the two most famous street markets that were also my favorite food spots in the city: Wangfujing Snack Street, in the hutong just west off the posh Wangfujing Street, and Donghuamen Night Market also off Wangfujing further north. Both provide a unique opportunity to enjoy excellent street food, mix with a lively crowd of tourists and locals, and challenge yourself in ways you have not been before. Zimmern’s signature phrase is: ‘If it looks good, eat it.’ Many stalls in these Beijing street markets pose another question – what if it looks, uhm, scary? Should you still eat it? Read the rest of this entry

Best sunset ever

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IMG_8328There are many places around the world known for beautiful sunsets. Pristine beaches, remote islands, rugged mountains, skyscraper-spiked cityscapes… Everybody has their favorite spot and so do I: the incredible evening light show over Manila Bay. I’m in good company. For one, General Douglas MacArthur who rose to the rank of the Philippines’ most beloved hero after first defending the country against the Japanese invasion during WWII – unsuccessfully – and then in 1945 freeing the islands from the brutal occupation and thus fulfilling his famous “I shall return” promise. Before the war, when he was the Military Advisor to the Commonwealth Government of the Philippines from 1935-1941, he made Manila Hotel his home. The hotel sits right on the bay and offers a great vantage point to admire fiery sunsets. MacArthur’s penthouse suite is still available for rent for… ugh, USD 2,500/night. Read the rest of this entry

In search of Doha’s past

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DohaDoha, the capital of the tiny state of Qatar, is not exactly my kind of place. It may be an impressive human achievement of clawing an urban oasis from the clutches of unforgiving desert. Yet, shiny and brand new, Doha largely lacks the appeal of cities with long history and local character. Up until the early 20th century, Doha just like most other settlements on the Persian Gulf, was a small fishing and pearling town ravaged by economic depression after the introduction of the cultured pearls in the region in the 1930s. Its fortune reversed – just like Dubai’s – with the discovery of oil and later natural gas, and a steady stream of petrodollars that followed. In a rush to modernize, most of the remnants of Doha’s previous self were eradicated to make space for highways crowded with ubiquitous Nissan pick up trucks, expensive hotels, and futuristic-looking sky scrapers. Read the rest of this entry