Nelson Mandela’s Robben Island

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Nelson Mandela

Nelson Mandela (Image: Smithsonian Magazine)

On December 5, 2013 the world bid farewell to one of its modern-day heros: South Africa’s Nelson Mandela. His compelling life story, amazing capacity to forgive and reconcile, and exceptional leadership during a pivotal period in his country’s history made him an icon. His death gave all of us a moment to pause, mourn – and at the same time celebrate his achievements in the successful struggle to end apartheid. These words from his 1994 inaugural presidential address come to mind:

Out of the experience of an extraordinary human disaster that lasted too long, must be born a society of which all humanity will be proud. (…) The time for the healing of the wounds has come.
The moment to bridge the chasms that divide us has come.
The time to build is upon us.

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Tropical Thankgsiving

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El Yunque

El Yunque National Forest in Puerto Rico

Last year we tried out this Thanksgiving concept for the first time – and loved it! Instead of hours of turkey consumption and sitting in front of TV, hours of exotic food and adventures in a tropical paradise. Our choice was beautiful Puerto Rico. We started our vacation in San Juan and I already blogged about the highlights. Then we headed east to explore the island’s natural beauty.

When searching for a perfect place to stay, I had in mind something similar to our amazing time in Costa Rica a few years back. We stayed on the Caribbean coast in a charming cabin nestled in the rainforest and yet only a few steps away from the pristine beach. I wasn’t exactly finding these kinds of accommodations in the area of Puerto Rico we wanted to explore, with the goal of staying relatively close to San Juan given how short our trip was. Most of the accommodations I was seeing where large resort hotels, and even smaller boutique ones were not quite small enough to match the peace and quiet of a secluded cabin. And then I found it!

When I came across photos of this log cabin on the edge of El Yunque National Forest, I knew I had to go there! I usually stay away from providing property reviews but I make exceptions for really special places and the Hamilton cabin is one of them. Read the rest of this entry

In love with Verona

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Juliet's balcony in Verona

Juliet’s balcony in Verona

Seeing a superb performance of Romeo and Juliet directed by Aaron Posner at Washington DC’s beautiful Folger Theatre took me back to summer days in Verona. Before I went there I really knew nothing about this city beyond its association with Shakespeare’s star-crossed lovers. Verona surprised me, charmed me, exceeded expectations in every way. I was anticipating a mini-Disneyland with Romeo & Juliet-themed rides. I found a city rich in history and and points of interest beyond the famed Juliet’s balcony (which by the way is a tourist zoo).

Juliet’s house at Via Cappello 23 (Casa di Giulietta), dating back to the 13th century and owned by the family dell Capello, is usually the first stop on everybody’s Verona itinerary. Never mind that we’re not really sure whether Romeo and Juliet ever existed and that the balcony that overlooks the courtyard was added in the 20th century. Capello apparently sounds close enough to Capulet and that’s sufficient to create a tourist craze. Read the rest of this entry

London calling

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IMG_0249Earlier this year I saw a superb adaptation of Neil Gaiman’s Neverwhere directed by Jenny McConnell Frederick at Washington, DC’s Atlas Theatre. The story’s protagonist, Richard Mayhew, rescues a mysterious wounded girl he finds on the London sidewalk and he is soon plunged into an underworld of “London Below” where the struggle between good and evil, heroes and monsters, plays out among imaginary spaces with familiar names of London Underground tube stations. I had been to London before many years ago, but Neverwhere inspired me to reconnect and incorporate a few days in the city into the itinerary of a recent trip to Europe.

My impressions of London were not unlike those of Richard Mayhew:

“Richard had originally imagined London as a gray city, even a black city, from pictures he had seen, and he was surprised to find it filled with color. It was a city of red brick and white stone, red buses and large black taxis, bright red mailboxes and green grassy parks and cemeteries.” Read the rest of this entry

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