Kathmandu Valley: Part 1 – sacred spaces



Kathmandu panorama from Swayambhunath temple

Kathmandu is the gateway to the Himalayas. Tucked away in the eponymous valley, the capital of Nepal stands at 1,400 meters (4,600 ft) above the sea level and for most visitors is just an entry point in transit to even greater elevations of the majestic mountains. Me – I like to linger and enjoy things close by before going for the mountain peaks. Kathmandu Valley, a UNESCO World Heritage Site, is a perfect place to acquaint yourself with the rich cultural tapestry that is Nepal.

The valley once was an important trade route from India to Tibet, which explains a ubiquitous and fascinating mix of Hindu and Buddhist influences in local beliefs, architecture, and food. Historically the valley was settled by the Newars, a tribe of Indian and Tibeto-Burman origin. “Nepal” and “Newar” are phonetically different forms of the same word. Read the rest of this entry

White City of the North


HelsinkiI must admit I was unexpectedly charmed by Helsinki. Visiting there in early March, I was envisioning a frozen Nordic capital. The weather was indeed on the chilly side but I barely noticed, having been totally amazed by the city’s stunning architecture and welcoming vibe. Above all, I was surprised – and delighted – by the “North-meets-East” feel of the place. The Northern part does not need much explanation: Helsinki is the second northernmost capital city in the world after Reykjavik. It is Helsinki’s eastern character that is less commonly appreciated. While in the common consciousness Finland, a member state of the European Union, is firmly a part of Western Europe, geographically and historically it also has strong ties to the East – namely Russia.

After centuries of Swedish rule, Finland came under Russia’s influence after the 1808-09 war fought between the Kingdom of Sweden and the Russian Empire. As a result of the war, the autonomous Grand Duchy of Finland was established within the Russian Empire. When Tsar Alexander I moved the new duchy’s capital from Turku to Helsinki in 1812 to bring the capital closer to St. Petersburg, the city began its transformation into a modern metropolis. Its downtown in particular was shaped in the neoclassical image of the tsarist capital by a German-born architect Carl Ludvig Engel. Read the rest of this entry

Raise a glass to the dead


Congressional CemeteryWe raise a glass to the dead on various occasions to commemorate their lives – wakes, anniversaries, days of remembrance. But have you ever had a chance to toast somebody at a cemetery in a tasteful, respectful, and memorable way? I never thought I would until a few weeks ago when I did just that at Washington, DC’s Congressional Cemetery. I’ll tell you how in a moment…

Not many visitors coming to the nation’s capital even realize that this place exists since it’s been overshadowed by its larger, newer, and more famous relative, Arlington Cemetery. Yet Congressional Cemetery, stretched on the green banks of the Anacostia River in Southeast Washington (1801 E Street SE), is equally special. Founded in 1807, the cemetery is the final resting place for 65,000 individuals including prominent politicians, local businessmen, veterans of every American war, and other notable and ordinary Washingtonians. Probably the two most famous residents are John Philip Sousa, a composer and conductor known for patriotic military marches, and the first director of the Federal Bureau of Investigation J. Edgar Hoover. Many early members of the U.S. Congress who died in office are buried here for a very practical reason – it was not possible to transport bodies over long distances before the era of refrigeration. To honor those whose remains were moved, the Congress commissioned cenotaphs, or “empty tomb” monuments, designed by Benjamin Henry Latrobe, the architect of the Capitol building. Read the rest of this entry

Bella Roma


JP II canonization

Crowds gathered at the canonization of John Paul II and John XXIII (Image: CNN)

Santo subito! – Saint now! the crowds of faithful gathered in Rome were demanding at the Polish Pope John Paul II’s funeral on April 8, 2005. Last Sunday, these calls were answered when John Paul II, along with John XXIII were canonized by Pope Francis in an unprecedented ceremony in St. Peter’s Square in Vatican. For Poles in particular – religious or not – this was a special day. John Paul II was “our” pope, for people from my generation the only pope we’d ever known, a source of spiritual strength in bleak communist reality of Poland at the time, and a source of inspiration to millions that helped bring down the Berlin Wall. Not surprisingly, during the days surrounding the canonization ceremony Rome became a Polish city with thousands of pilgrims from Poland flocking to the Italian capital. Read the rest of this entry

Dreaming of Jerusalem


Jerusalem’s Old Town (Photo: Where Is My Suitcase)

During these special days of Easter and Passover the thoughts, yearnings, and devotions of millions of faithful around the world converge on one of the oldest and holiest of cities: Jerusalem. Special for the world’s three major religions, Judaism, Christianity, and Islam, Jerusalem’s walled Old City – or Al-Quds, or the Holy City in Arabic, stretches over less than one square mile and yet is a universe in itself.

No, I haven’t been to Jerusalem. Yet. It definitely is on my to-do list. But this weekend I ventured to connect with Jerusalem somehow, even if just remotely. A good place to start? If you want to transport yourself to a place you’re dreaming about, use the help of a fellow blogger who has already been there. In my case that blogger is a friend at Where Is My Suitcase. I love the photos and this description of roaming around in the Old City: Read the rest of this entry

Cherry blossoms’ blissful craze


cherry blossomsIt’s this time of the year again! The time when thousands flock to Washington DC’s Tidal Basin with their blankets, picnic baskets, strollers, and yes – above all cameras – to enjoy the fleeting beauty of cherry blossoms. They just peaked last Thursday after about a week of delay due to unseasonably chilly winter. Today the blossoms were on display in their full glory. But the window for viewing is closing! More and more petals are falling down and even the slightest breeze causes a “snowstorm” – the last of the season :)

In case you’re wondering, yes, it was crowded. Especially spots that offered iconic cherry-blossom-framed angles of Jefferson Memorial, the Washington Monument, FDR Memorial, the Capitol, and Martin Luther King Jr. Memorial were popular to put it mildly. Was it worth it? Absolutely yes! I’ve done it before and I’ll do it again! Spring in DC is not complete without the cherry blossom experience. A saukra-themed poem is obligatory as well. I like this one, very appropriate today:

“The first day of spring
are those snowflakes or petals
twirling in the wind?”
— Amy Liedtke Loy
Read the rest of this entry

Fun in Frankfurt



Frankfurt skyline

Yes, I meant for the title of this blog to be provocative. For most people Frankfurt – the one on the Main river – has three leading associations: 1) one of the few European cities with a U.S.-style skyline, 2) the headquarters of the European Central Bank (ECB), and 3) a giant airport that they always transit through but never leave. None of the above (but especially the airport) typically brings the word “fun” to mind. But that impression changed for me when, after countless flight connections at FRA, my husband and I finally decided to venture outside having built two days in the city into our itinerary. And it was totally worth it!

Did you know that there used to be a Roman settlement here? While few artifacts remain, the Roman heritage lives on in the name of a hallmark medieval building in the compact yet surprisingly charming Old Town (Altstadt) called Römer, or Roman, after a merchant family that used to own it. Did you know that the world-famous Frankfurt Trade Fair (or Frankfurter Messe) dates back to 1150? Did you know that German kings and emperors were elected in Frankfurt since 855 and also crowned there from 1562 until 1792 at the impressive Frankfurt Cathedral of St. Bartholomäus? Did you know that Goethe was born here in 1749? I didn’t until I finally took the time to explore. Read the rest of this entry

Charming Charleston


St. Philip's Church

St. Philip’s Church

Charleston, South Carolina is undoubtedly one of America’s most beautiful cities. Inhabiting an irregularly shaped peninsula at the mouths of the Ashley and Cooper rivers, Charlestown – or Charles Towne as it was originally known – was founded in 1670 and named in honor of King Charles II of England. Its colonial heritage is still visible today, especially when one wanders along cobblestone streets of the French Quarter lined with charming houses and ancient trees. Once this was a thriving neighborhood of Huguenot refugees and French merchants, and the core of the Charles Towne settlement.

Interestingly, that settlement was the only English walled city in North America. In the late 17th and early 18th century, the Spanish, the French as well as Native Americans posed a threat to the fledgling colony. The fort-like wall was built in 1690 and ran along what are now Meeting, Cumberland, East Bay, and Water streets. The north, west, and south walls were dismantled by 1730s but the harbor-side fortifications remained mostly intact until after the American Revolution. Not much remains today: eight bastion markers and a portion of the wall discovered during renovations of the Provost Dungeon in a cellar of the Old Exchange, the British customs office built 1767-1771 where Half Moon battery of the city’s fortifications used to stand. Read the rest of this entry

Blagden Alley Progression

Blagden Alley

Blagden Alley

Tucked away between 9th, 10th, N, and O streets in Northwest Washington, DC Blagden Alley may not be easy to find but it’s worth the search. Blagden Alley-Naylor Court is a historic district and one of the few remaining intact examples of Washington’s characteristic alley dwellings. Thomas Blagden and Dickerson Nailor (now Naylor) were two 19th-century property owners. The former also ran a lumberyard and the latter was a grocer.

Cultural Tourism DC further explains the history of Washington’s old allies:

“Alley dwellings were small houses situated on alleys behind large homes that faced the main streets. They often shared the alleys with workshops, stables, and other accessory buildings. During the Civil War’s severe housing shortages, alley housing was one of the few options available to poor and working-class residents. Interracial in the beginning, alley dwellings were predominantly African American by the turn of the 20th century.” Read the rest of this entry

San Diego beyond the zoo


Cabrillo Monument

Cabrillo Monument

I miss San Diego. And I imagine I’m not alone in that sentiment. In fact, anybody who visits is likely to wish they could linger a bit longer and come back soon. To me San Diego combines the best of California: LA’s balmy weather with San Francisco-like character of distinct neighborhoods, history – and street cars. For most people San Diego Zoo is the first association with the city. It was for me as well and I’ll write another blog about the sun & fun side of San Diego, the zoo included. But this one is about old San Diego and its charms.

Portuguese explorer Juan Rodriguez Cabrillo – or rather João Rodrigues Cabrilho – sailing up the west coast of North America in service of Spain discovered San Diego Bay on September 28, 1542. He called it San Miguel. The voyage’s diary provides a description of the not-so-friendly first encounter with the locals:

“…they went about six leagues along the coast running north-northwest, and discovered a port, closed and very good, which they named San Miguel. (…) Having cast anchor in it, they went ashore where there were people. Three of them waited, but all the rest fled. To these three they gave some presents and they said by signs that in the interior men like the Spaniards had passed. They gave signs of great fear. On the night of this day they went ashore from the ships to fish with a net, and it appears that here there were some Indians, and that they began to shoot at them with arrows and wounded three men.”

Read the rest of this entry