10-02-2015 Sligo to Belfast via Derry

Ireland Day 12

The next morning dawned foggy, and we traveled north toward Yeats grave at the church at Drumcliff, near the base of another forgotten important mountain….geez.  Ya think I should just give up on this?  LOL.  With the thick fog, we could barely see the outlines of the mountain, but Isabella brought out photos for us to get the idea.  I left this part in just to remember how hard it was to remember everything as we were actually traveling.  The mountain is called Benbulben, loved by Yeats and chosen as his final resting place.  Sligo to Derry via Drumcliffe (41 of 68)

Standing at the tomb of Yeats in the midst of the magnificent collection of Celtic Cross tombstones was perfect in the fog.  Sligo to Derry via Drumcliffe (19 of 68)  We saw the oldest Celtic Cross still in existence, used in the early days of conversion to teach the Celts the gospel.  Sligo to Derry via Drumcliffe (22 of 68)The shop at Drumcliffe was another gem, and I wished I hadn’t left my wallet and cash locked up in the bus.  I am really trying to keep from buying “stuff”, especially since I don’t have suitcase room anyway.Sligo to Derry via Drumcliffe (21 of 68)Sligo to Derry via Drumcliffe (28 of 68)

A few miles north of Drumcliffe we again made an unscheduled stop at a Neolithic site.  Creevy Keel was constructed around 3,000 BC, with a court cairn, and a beautiful portal with the portal stone still intact.  Seems as though the Druids use this site often for prayer and ritual. 

Sligo to Derry via Drumcliffe (51 of 68) Isabella loves the site, and always tries to show it to people who are receptive.  However, she refused to enter the passage, or go near the portal stone, saying that the “energy” of the place was difficult for her.   Sligo to Derry via Drumcliffe (44 of 68) Listening to her talk this way, I understood that even though she is a good Irish/Italian Catholic, she is very much connected to the old ways as well.

Sligo to Derry via Drumcliffe (63 of 68) After our morning stop, our route meandered northward toward County Donegal, famous for the Donegal tweeds, and also quite popular with the Irish because the estates are bigger, the houses more spread out, much like semi rural areas in the US. Daughter Deb asked about how folks live, but I have to say I don’t have a clue.  Traveling through a country like this, on a tour, or even in a rented car of your own, and visiting the beautiful sites that are the tourist destinations, or even the destinations for those on local holiday, doesn’t really  give much of a clue what actual daily life is like.  My sense, however, is that it isn’t all that different.

Derry to Belfast (107 of 127) What I have noticed from watching the news, from reading the papers, and from many of Isabella’s comments, is that the Irish are very fond of their great literature, their artists, their poets and writers, their playwrights.  In spite of all the unrest and the violence between the Protestants and the Catholics, it seems to be a gentle place.  The apparent ethic is a commitment to the environment and “green” politics and actions are everywhere.

Derry to Belfast (110 of 127) On our tour of the western part of the country, we saw a bit of homeless, but more like a person or two here and there on a bridge who had imbibed too much.  In Belfast, it is a different story, but more on that later.  After just two weeks, I would say Ireland is a gentle country, with wonderful friendly people everywhere.  Everyone is kind and willing to help with directions and conversation.  The big “thing” here are the pubs and one is encouraged to go into the pubs and strike up conversations with the locals, but that hasn’t been as easy as they say.  Much of the time the pubs are filled with the tourists, and locals are hard to find.  In order to get a better handle on what it is like to live here, you would have to come here and stay awhile, and actually have enough time to sit in a pub and become a regular, buy some rounds, and then talk to the locals.

At the moment I am 32000 feet high over the Atlantic as we fly home to the USA, and after so many hours the brain is not exactly brilliant. Still, it is a good time to write, and better than waiting till we get home when I know we will be crazy busy.  I did so well managing to write every single day of the trip in real time that now it is extremely difficult to attempt to recreate days past from memory.  These kinds of trips seem to do that.  So much happening so fast that it is hard to track it.  Especially here on the airplane with the photos tucked away in my carryon in the overhead bin.  I cant even use them to trigger the memories.

But I’ll do my best.  Derry and Belfast are in Northern Ireland.  It has taken me almost the entire three weeks to even come close to really understanding the separation between the two countries and how they came to be. 

Sligo to Derry via Drumcliffe (68 of 68) Derry changed all that.  When we crossed the border into Northern Ireland, there wasn’t any real border to speak of, unlike years past before the Peace Agreement.  Still, there is a palpable difference.  More than just the fact that the signs are no longer in both English and Gaelic, and the roads are measured in miles.  There is something in the air that feels different.  The farms are bigger, more really big farms rather than the sweet family farms we have grown used to with their small cottages and charming yards.  In Northern Ireland, all the way from the border, through Derry, and Belfast, and on south back into the Republic, there is an obvious gentry and separation between the have’s and the have-nots.Derry to Belfast (17 of 127)Derry to Belfast (21 of 127)

Derry itself was a surprise.  Until this visit, I remembered Bloody Sunday only vaguely, but when we began our tour of Derry with a local guide on our bus for a short time, the story unfolded with harsh clarity. Derry to Belfast (48 of 127) Isabella stepped aside for a time as the raven haired blue eyed young Irishwoman with the strong brogue told us the story of “The Troubles”, and we disembarked from the bus to stand on the site of Bloody Sunday massacre in 1972.  It was the beginning of The Troubles, when the British police killed many people who were demonstrating against the discrimination against the Catholic population by the British Protestant police in power.  The British claimed that the demonstrators had started the ruckus with bombs, but now, many decades later they have recanted and at last apologized to the families of those killed, stating that the killings were wrong and unnecessary.  There will eventually be some kind of compensation but that is still in the works.

The Story of Bloody Sunday is a harsh one.  This afternoon, many days after we visited Derry, I am still somewhat confused and haunted by this long complex chapter in Irish history.  Searching the many facets of the IRA, of the rebellion, the Troubles, and Irish historical timelines is like going down a rabbit hole.  One thing leads to another and before long the photos are not processed and the blog is not written.  If you want to go into it more deeply, here is a link from Wiki to get you started.

Derry to Belfast (24 of 127) Derry to Belfast (25 of 127) In this part of Derry, there is an area called Free Derry, where protestors are given a platform for free speech and demonstrations, and there are many sad murals around the squares protesting the terrible happenings during those decades.  President Clinton was instrumental in helping to reach the Good Friday agreement in 1998 proclaiming peace.  There are 6 counties that chose to remain loyal to the British crown, and the rest of Ireland is now the Republic of Ireland.  All of this is incredibly complex, and the discord between the British and the Irish goes back centuries rather than just decades.  I find it hard to really understand why any of the counties would want to remain with Britain rather than be part of the Republic of Ireland, but Britain was not about to let go of the largest industrial city and the best port on the island of Ireland, so after so much difficulty, there was finally an agreement reached between the two countries.

Derry to Belfast (33 of 127) Derry to Belfast (34 of 127) We enjoyed a walking tour of the city walls, with more stories of the history of the town with 50 names.  Called Derry, then changed to Londonderry by the English, then back to Derry after the Good Friday Agreement in 1998, the best name is “The Walled City”.  The walls were built by the British to keep out the wild Celts who wanted to eliminate the British from Ireland.  Derry to Belfast (38 of 127) Derry to Belfast (47 of 127)

Our guide is proud of Derry, and its efforts toward peace, claiming that they have worked hard for that peace, and although there is still a definite separation of Catholics and Protestants in the  city, she said it has changed a lot, with mixed marriages becoming more common and more collaboration between the two sides.Derry to Belfast (78 of 127)Derry to Belfast (82 of 127) We walked across the Peace Bridge, designed and opened in 2011 as a monument to that peace process, with its symbolism of hands reaching across the river between the protestant side to the south and the catholic side on the north.

After the bus portion of the tour, we walked the walls of the city, Derry known as the “walled city”.  The Brits built the walls after they occupied the city in the 1200’s and the Celts refused to give up their land and kept causing trouble.  The walls were built so well that they were never breached, hence another name for Derry, The Maiden City.  Walking the walls was wonderful, and trying to absorb all the history of the area was challenging.

Derry to Belfast (90 of 127)Derry to Belfast (84 of 127) Walking across the bridge from the Catholic side of the city to the Protestant side, we explored the historical fort site at Ebrington.  The fort is no longer in use, but the city of Derry is developing the site as a celebratory place for parades and gatherings to honor the peace process for which their city has become renown. Derry to Belfast (88 of 127)

I have to share one of my favorite murals of all time, from the walls of the old fort.  Look closely. Derry to Belfast (89 of 127) Derry to Belfast (91 of 127) Derry to Belfast (92 of 127) Derry to Belfast (93 of 127)After the official tour, Mo and I spent some time wandering the inner city, looking for food that wasn’t one more “self serve” cafeteria, and found an interesting looking place called Nando’s.  Derry to Belfast (71 of 127)Derry to Belfast (61 of 127)Derry to Belfast (55 of 127)It is mainly chicken in an upscale fast food sort of place, where you order your food at the counter, but then it is delivered to the table.  The food is spiced by a pepper called peri peri, from Africa, and the theme of the restaurant is Portuguese, and represents Portuguese sailors traveling to Africa and bringing home great spices.  Derry to Belfast (57 of 127) It was interesting, and I loved the great food, all fresh and spicy.  I had a quinoa salad with peri peri and Mo had some great wings that were pretty darn spicy as well.  It was a nice break from all the generic even though excellent choices at the self serve’s.

Derry to Belfast (106 of 127) Leaving Derry, we continued toward Belfast, via the new superhighway that is a collaboration on the part of both the Republic of Ireland and Northern Ireland.  There are other examples of this kind of collaboration, including wireless communications and electrical power for the entire island of Ireland.  Derry to Belfast (114 of 127) Again, the landscape was dominated by large industrial agriculture, and as we approached Belfast, the ambience of heavy industry colored much of what we saw.  There are big steel mills in Belfast, and at the moment some of them are going down and there are going to be several thousand people unemployed as a result.

Derry to Belfast (118 of 127) Belfast itself felt crowded, dreary, and not at all inviting.  We approached the city center, with Isabella pointing out various landmarks along the way through heavy traffic.  I would imagine that seeing Belfast for the first time from this perspective may have colored our impression of Northern Ireland, but it definitely did not feel as charming to us as our previous 12 days in the Republic.

Dinner on this night in Belfast was included, but as is often the case with these included dinners the venue was less than optimal.  We were in the beautiful pub, but in an upstairs room, with the chairs so crowded that we could barely lift a fork, and the noise level so loud that hearing anyone talk was next to impossible.  The food was OK, however the service was horrendous. 

Derry to Belfast (121 of 127) Our hotel was right downtown, and Isabella regaled us with all the possibilities for our evening, but by the time we got to the hotel, which was actually quite nice, we knew that if we were going to get out, we would have to do it quickly.  We decided to go find the Crown Bar, one of the most beautiful pubs in Ireland according to the guidebooks, but the walk entailed negotiating lots of construction, and many men hanging around drinking, or lying around on the sidewalks drinking.  I have no photos from this night walk through town because I didn’t feel comfortable at all carrying my camera around with me, or even the phone.

The Europa Hotel was considered a must see, a place that the Clintons frequented among other world dignitaries, and we walked there, but it was just a big fancy hotel lobby with a bar and wasn’t all that inviting.  We tried walking back to the Crown, but it was so loud and so crowded we couldn’t even get in the doors.  Instead we settled for an Irish Coffee in our hotel pub where we had previously had dinner, and were happy to avoid the streets and get back to our room.

Derry to Belfast (124 of 127)The Park Inn hotel was actually quite nice, and we enjoyed the room with a bed that was probably the most comfortable of the trip.Derry to Belfast (125 of 127) Derry to Belfast (126 of 127)

The link to the rest of the photos of the part of the day from Sligo to Derry is here

Another link to photos of Belfast is here.

Next: We see the Belfast Titanic Museum and another high point of Ireland, The Giant’s Causeway.

3-11-2014 Our piece of the Natchez Trace and Visiting Vicksburg

Catch Up Post completed March 20 from Page, Arizonanatchez trace

dark and dreary day on the Natchez Trace When we woke up this morning, the skies were dark and gloomy, but at least it wasn’t raining.  Even on a full sunshiny day, the forests in this part of Mississippi can be a bit gloomy with no leaves on the trees.  I asked the park ranger what hardwoods were represented here and he scratched his head and said, “I don’t really know…maybe some white oaks and red oaks?”  I could see there were probably a dozen kinds of brown leaves in the thick layer on the forest floor, but not being well versed in southern hardwood forests, I had no clue what they were.

Natchez Trace_001Jeremy especially loved this campground.  It is funny how he responds to different places.  When we first land, he is at the door, anxious to get out and see his surroundings.  Sometimes he jumps right out and runs around, other times he sniffs from the step and decides to do a tentative look around before exploring.  Here, however, he wanted to be outside all the time, sniffing the leaves and probably finding little critters underneath. 

visiting Emerald MoundAs we were packing up, he jumped outside and decided with a purposeful stride to go directly down to the lake for a look at whatever he might find on the shoreline.  Mo called him, and he ignored her, very unusual.  She walked down to him and said, “You get home now!” and he did.  He is so good about obeying those kinds of commands, and “Get Home” will most often see him ears flattened and going back up the step and into the MoHo.

Natchez Trace_003Even though the Natchez Trace Parkway is more than 400 miles long, I was still excited to be traveling even a small part of it on this day.  The gloomy skies and barren trees did make me wish that we had been just a little bit later in the season, although during a “normal” winter, many wildflowers would have been out at this time and the trees often begin leafing in early March.

The Trace is a National Parkway, a strip of protected land without ads, rest stops, or towns, other than old historic settlements that once were important along the way. Reading about the Trace, I noted some reviews that said it would be boring for kids, and that there wasn’t much to see, and no shopping.  Kind of reminded me of folks I heard one time when traveling in Glacier National Park wondering why there wasn’t an escalator installed at one of the viewpoints.

Natchez Trace_007Although the Natchez Trace begins officially near the town of Natchez, we entered from the Natchez State Park area.  At that point, just a few miles west of the Trace, is the Emerald Mound, the second largest temple mound remaining from the Mississippian Era of mound building in the United States.  The Mississippian mound building period lasted a few hundred years, between 1250 CE and 1600 CE. Excavations at Emerald Mound indicate that the mound was used extensively for ceremonial purposes.

The mound was built by hand, with people carrying buckets of soil from some distance to build the hill in several stages.  Standing on this wide topped man made hill, I tried hard to imagine how many baskets of soil it would have taken to build it.

Mt Locust InnContinuing north on the Trace, we came to the site of the Mount Locust Inn.  Mount Locust is the only one of more than 50 inns that served weary travelers along the Trace and has been restored to its 1810 appearance, the time when travel on the road reached its historic peak.

Another comment made in one of the reviews, was that traveling the Trace required using a lot of imagination, since many of the sites along the way are just signs showing what was once there. I think that aspect was one of the more delightful parts of the trip.  Imagination can go wild thinking of what it must have been like to travel these forests after the long boat trip south on the Mississippi and dreams of a Kentucky home, perhaps a wife and children, waiting many miles distant.

the Sunken TraceThe dreary day helped imagination go back to how hard it must have been to walk and walk through these forests when it was cold and dark.  I would have loved to drive the road on a sunny spring day, photographing flowers and green forests and finding wildlife and birds along the way.  We did see cardinals, but my skill at identifying “little brown birds” in leafless brown twiggy trees is less than stellar, so only the red guys and the ravens were visible to us.

had to try out the pianoThe 80 miles or so that we had on the parkway was peaceful, and we saw only an occasional car along the way.  Stopping at milepost 41.5 to view the Sunken Trace, it was a bit of a stretch to figure out which sunken portion was the actual original trail and which portion was simply erosion.  I think we found the “real” trail, and I let my imagination wander once again, wondering if my favorite pioneer icon Davy Crockett ever traveled this part of the road.

church at Rocky Springs townsiteOur last stop was at the site of the town of Rocky Springs, another place stimulating lots of imagination as to what it was once like.  One building was still standing, however, the beautiful Baptist church, built in 1837, still stands, and until very recently hosted a local congregation.  The church was open, with signs inviting us inside, and I couldn’t resist the piano.  The cemetery behind the church was a treasure for anyone searching out family heritage, with some stones recording deaths in the early 1800’s.

Natchez Trace_064A slower pace, with time for hiking and photography, for actually feeling what it was like to travel the Natchez Trace would be a luxury and a delight.  We only saw it, and the weather and our plans weren’t conducive to a more leisurely trip.  If you plan to travel the Natchez Trace for real, and to experience it, it would take as much time as you could give. I do have more photos of our short time on the Trace here if you are interested.

By the time we left the Trace and arrived at Vicksburg, it was raining hard.  The visitor center at the Vicksburg National Military Park was surprisingly busy.  In the rainy weather, we were happy for the extensive exhibits that explained the importance of the Siege of Vicksburg and the outcome of that struggle to the ending of the Civil War.

Natchez Trace_078The movie explained the battle on a more personal level, but my favorite display was the fiber optic depiction of the military strategy of the Union army as they struggled to take Vicksburg and thus control the Mississippi River.  The illuminated dots representing the reds and the blues somehow brought it all to life in a way that even a well done movie couldn’t do.  Later, as we drove the 16 mile road of the battlefield, the memories of those lines helped us understand more clearly what we were seeing.

Vicksburg and the place of surrenderThe drive itself is winding and impressive with the many monuments that have been erected to honor troops from many states involved in both the Union and the Confederate armies.  Much of the area has been cleared and is open and grassy.  Surrounded by thick brushy forest in the natural areas, it was obvious that the actual battles were fought in this incredibly thick brushy and steep landscape. 

Natchez Trace_082The dark day and rainy skies made it seem all the more real as I imagined the troops trying to function in those trenches day after day during the cold winter, and then into the muggy, buggy springtime until the siege ended with General Pemberton surrendering to General Grant on July 4, 1863.

the Illinois State Memorial at VicksburgAll the state memorials are impressive, scattered along the tour road, but the Illinois State Memorial is huge. The dome is open to the sky, and bronze plaques with the names of the troops from Illinois who participated in the siege of Vicksburg line the interior walls.  As we explored, a family took rubbings of the name of a long dead ancestor who died at Vicksburg.

Visiting a Civil War battlefield is sobering.  I found myself in tears a few times, trying to comprehend the magnitude of this war and the tragedy of lives lost.  The movie was hard to watch, the history is hard to read.  The rain kept coming down in buckets as we left, once more on the road north and west toward Arkansas and Missouri for a long awaited visit with my son.names on the wall at the Illinois State Memorial at Vicksburg


September 8 to 10 John Day to Baker City

Currently we are back In Rocky Point, Oregon.  Cloudy and light rain, 43 degrees F

Clyde Holiday State Park near John Day Sometimes I can just sit down at the computer, open up the photos of our travels, and all the memories come flooding back.  It is easy to write and remember what we have seen and done.  Other times I look at the photos, I remember, but writing about it just doesn’t quite come as easily.  Makes me glad I made the effort to write about our days in John Day Fossil Beds while they were happening.

Our original plan this summer season was to stay home, to enjoy our own state, and we did just that.  There are parts of Oregon that are very familiar to me.  The corridor north and south along 97, the corridor along I-5, the road over 140 to Medford, the roads east to the desert.  I have traveled along Highway 26 to Idaho in the past, but never had the time to really linger and explore.  This month we took that time and it paid off with beautiful back roads, amazing vistas, and good memories.

Donna over at Travels in Therapy mentioned Clyde Holiday State Park, and we changed our original plans to overnight at the fairgrounds in John Day in favor of this lovely patch of green along the John Day River.  I have been trying to read and catch up on blogs, and have been surprised at the number of people traveling in this area, often just a day or two apart from us.  Funny how each of us sees something different, or writes about it differently, but many of the photos are similar.

Clyde Holiday State Park near John Day It was a short respite in the two week trip where we actually had telephone  and internet service, giving me time to catch up with phone calls and check on bank accounts.  I was surprised at how the internet, email, telephone messages, all seemed so necessary and yet so intrusive.  I love being connected, but it definitely can be stressful sometimes.  Almost as stressful as not being connected.  Still it was wonderful to hear my daughter’s (plural daughters) voice and to get missed phone messages from my son and other friends. 

Clyde Holiday State Park near John Day Clyde Holiday State Park is right along the highway, just a few miles west of John Day.  It is a bit like camping in a large city park, with grass and a nice river walkway, and a place to build a campfire.

There are teepees for rent that were locked up, but looked as though they would be quite cozy.  It was a busy park, and without a reservation, we were glad to arrive around 2 in the afternoon after traveling south from Fossil.  We got a nice back-in spot, and settled in for the evening after driving in to the town of John Day.  We were in the midst of the Cycle Oregon event, with hundreds of cyclists camped for the night in the fairgrounds.  It was definitely a place where the bicyclists had the run of the place, and we had to be especially careful driving around town.

The next morning we ambled a very short distance east along highway 26, and then highway 7 toward Baker City.  On the way we stopped at Bates State Park, and wandered through the brand new park built to commemorate the tiny logging town that once existed there.  Visiting with the camp host was a treat, and there were only 2 rigs in the entire park.  The trees are young, there is no internet access (he told us we could drive a few miles to milepost 6 to get a phone signal).  He said his busiest weekends might have up to 7 rigs in the park.  We enjoyed his down home conversation, and loved his description of camp hosting in such a quiet park.

The Union Creek Forest Service campground seemed much more inviting even without hook-ups than camping in a city RV park jammed up against the interstate 84.  We wanted to spend plenty of time at the Oregon Trail Interpretive Center, and still have plenty of time to explore Baker City, touted as an amazing place to visit by all the Travel Oregon booklets we had been collecting.9-09-2013 Sumpter Dredge

Not far west of our evening destination, however, was a turn-off to the historic town of Sumpter and the Sumpter Valley Dredge. As we approached the old gold mining town, the huge piles of tailings left behind by the dredge were evident all along the drainageway.  I was familiar with dredge gold mining from other areas in the Idaho mountains, and have tried to map soils on landscapes forever altered by hydraulic mining in California.  But I had never actually seen a dredge or understood  how they work. If you are interested in the actual mechanical workings of the dredge and its history, click here.

Day 5 John Day_036This huge dredge was used in the Sumpter Valley from 1935 to 1954.  It was interesting that during this time there was a second gold rush to the area, and it lasted until the price of gold again went too low to make it profitable.  I appreciated the Oregon State Park volunteer that offered incredibly detailed information about the dredge, its operation, and back stories of the people who lived in Sumpter and ran the dredge.  The little museum room at the state park had a nostalgic photo album of the reunions of original dredge workers over the last decade.

visiting the Sumpter Valley Dredge When we arrived at the park, the lot was almost completely empty, but as we started to leave, some kind of amazing parade of vintage cars entered town and turned into the park.  I think there must have been 50 to 100 cars, all shiny and perfect, and they all poured into the lot as we were leaving so we got some nice close up looks at them.  Sure did look like those folks were having a great time in their old cars.

For more photos of the Dredge and Sumpter click here 


the Oregon Trail Interpretive CenterWe arrived at the campground, just a few more miles down the road, opened up the Fantastic Fan for Jeremy, and drove the short 20 miles into Baker City. Just 5 miles east from town is the Oregon Trail Interpretive Center.  The building sits high on a hill, with a magnificent view of the Blue Mountains to the west and basin and range country to the east.  It was hot when we got there, even though it was late afternoon, so Mo walked around with Abby while I explored the center.  Of course no dogs are allowed inside, and the trails, while open to dogs, were made of hot asphalt, not good for doggie paws.

I enjoyed an hour in the various exhibits, then walked Abby while Mo took a turn.  When she came out, we decided that it really was too hot to try to hike down to the Oregon Trail wagon ruts, but from the high point you could see the scars in the desert where thousands of people fled their lives in the east for the Promised Land of Oregon. 

the Oregon Trail Interpretive CenterI have no idea why but somehow the stories were depressing instead of inspirational to me.  I felt the pain, the sadness, the death and loneliness of the trail.  There was a special exhibit of narrated stories of individuals traveling that was especially touching.  I could see young women, pregnant or with young children, following their husbands wild dreams into new territory.  They left behind friends, family, and familiarity and in most cases never saw their loved ones again.

Made me think of how much I love to travel, and yet how much I love to be home, how much I love to be able to talk to my kids, or even get a text or a facebook post from them.

………………………………………………………………………………………………………………………………………………..the Oregon Trail Interpretive Center

It was a wonderful exhibit, but definitely left me feeling somewhat pensive.  I was glad when we returned to our hot, dry, very open and very empty campground to all the comforts of our “covered wagon”.  Good food, water, a toilet, a shower, lights, shelter, all taken completely for granted most of the time, but not on this night.  As I fell asleep I was still haunted by the stories of the trail. More photos of the Interpretive Center are here.camping at Union Creek FS Campground

The next morning we continued east to Baker City, leaving late enough to be leisurely, and yet early enough to explore what we thought might be an area that would require several hours if not an entire day.  Our first stop was the visitor center, which was closed on Monday, Tuesday and Wednesday.  Great.  We finally found a sign outside where there were a few brochures, and picked up the Walking Tour Guide.  Whew!  At least we could see some of the famous historic buildings and have a clue what they were about.

We walked the town, a bit disappointed with the guide that didn’t include even half of the buildings that we could see with Historic Register signs on them.  The galleries were a bit disappointing as well, with one of them actually lit with fluorescent lights, and many of them not even open.  Geez, it is only September!  The nicest parts of town were the beautiful Geiser Grand Hotel, although we were only allowed in the main part of the lobby as unregistered guests.  We also were impressed with the Carnegie Library, now a city art center that seemed full of life and activity. 9-10-2103 Historic Baker City

Baker City was once the Queen City of the Mines and was considered a cultural oasis in the emptiness of Eastern Oregon.  There were restaurants, fine hotels, orchestras and opera, and beautiful elaborate homes.  By 1900, the population was nearly 7,000 people, more than either Boise or Spokane at the time.  We enjoyed parts of Baker City, but didn’t find a lot to keep us there more than a couple of hours.  I would say that the Chamber of Commerce has done a great job of promoting their town, they got us to go there, but we still didn’t spend any money.


Tour Day in Prague Part 1 October 12


My oldest daughter Deborah has always loved James C Christensen and his fantasy paintings of magical worlds.  The entire time I was in Prague, I tried to remember his name, because the city reminded me so much of what I saw in his art.  I am not sure how a man from Culver City, California, a modern painter, could capture the feeling of a place so perfectly, and yet this painting somehow embodies all I felt during the entire time I was in Prague.  There is something about the city that feels almost too Disneyesque, as if it were all created by Walt himself just for our modern day delight.

St Vitus at the entrance to Prague Castle Instead, this place sometimes called “The Magical City”, “The Golden City”, the “City of a Hundred Towers” (actually there are closer to 435 spires in Prague) and the “Paris of the East”, came into being in Neolithic times, and the first recorded fortified settlements were built in the 9th century.  Over the centuries it has survived wars, invasions, disasters, more invasions and wars, and yet it remains, magnificent in its complexity and loveliness.

Castle of Prague Morning tour-021  Our tour day was to include a long walk through “The Castle”, one of the largest fortresses in the world. The fact that it was about 33  degrees F and the skies were socked in with a dank fog made it all that much more mysterious. We were to see the Royal Palace, St Vitus Cathedral, and walk the Charles Bridge; places that have endured for centuries. Somehow it is impossible to talk about visiting Prague without at least getting a taste of its history.

(I am paraphrasing from a book called “Art and History in Prague – English Edition”, with a few tidbits added in by our local guide):

off to see the castle on a frosty Prague morning In the 900’s as a focal point for craftsmen and merchants, Prague attracted mainly Jews and Germans, becoming a Bishop’s See ruled by Dukes until it became an actual city between 1232 and 1235.  The first University in eastern Europe was founded in Prague in 1348, and in 1419 some rebels threw out the Catholic leaders.  Religious conflict followed for centuries and Prague actually declined during the rule of the Habsburgs when the capital was moved to Vienna. The city became more Germanized until the Czech revolt of 1618 and the “Thirty Years War”, and then losing that war caused even more decline in the city.

Castle of Prague Morning tour-020 Between the 19th and 20th centuries Prague continued to develop economically and industrially, and with the influx of people and money, it became a center for cultural and intellectual development.  It endured the brutal domination of the Nazis from 1939 to 1945.  Our local guide talked of a treaty agreement between Prague and Germany during that time which was supposed to protect Prague but instead only allowed the Germans free reign to the city.  She did say that the agreement managed to keep Prague from being completely decimated by the Nazis, even though thousands of Jews were killed. 

guarding the entrance to Prague CastleThe Russians liberated Prague from the Nazis, but the Soviet leaders thought the city was getting too uppity and on August 20, 1968, tanks were sent into Prague to let the people know they could not stand up against the USSR.  The Communist Regime fell at the end of 1989 and on January 1, 1993, Czechoslovakia was separated into the Czech  and Slovak Republics, in one of the few peaceful separations of a country in Europe.   Our guide, Yarmilla, discussed the unrest during that period with dry humor.  She lived most of her life under Communist rule, and seemed to take most of it in stride.  She said every time the Soviets were on top, the statues would go down.  Then the Czechs would be on top and the statues would go up again.  Up and Down, over and over.  Now the statue of Stalin is no longer on Castle Hill.

waiting for the changing of the guard at the entrance gate to the Grand Courtyard One thing she did say that was interesting, is that the Czech people have had religion foisted on them since the 9th century, and usually it wasn’t a religion of their own choice.  The Czech people aren’t all that excited about religion at all, with more than 80 percent of the population claiming either Atheist or Agnostic beliefs.  Seems strange to me in a city that has a skyline dominated by the spires and steeples and domes of some of the most beautiful churches in the world.  On our free day (tomorrow), Melody and I slipped into a cathedral near Old Town Square during mass.  My grandmother was Catholic, I listened to Latin mass as a child with her, and felt her pain when the Mass was no longer said in Latin.  In this church in Prague, Mass was in Czech.  It was beautiful, and the voice of the priest still haunts me.

detail of the Fighting Giants at the entrance gate to the Grand Courtyard But I am getting ahead of myself.  As we boarded our tour bus at 8am, most of the group were dressed in big coats, hats, and gloves.  Melody and I were not.  We had checked the weather over and over and decided not to bring heavy clothes for the cold.  Instead I had a fleece shirt, a wool sweater, and another wool sweater.  I also had some nice thick tights under my jeans, but the gloves and hat didn’t make it on the bus with me.  Dumb!  Melody at least had on her boiled wool jacket, her comfy staple back at home as well, and lucky for me, her jacket had pockets.

Castle of Prague Morning tour-042 When we got out of the bus, we were assaulted by really really cold damp air and I managed by walking with Melody and keeping a hand in one of her pockets, and switching when the free hand got too cold.  It was COLD!  The bus let us off outside the castle gates and we walked past an old Czech building from the 13th century, across the moats, and through the castle gates into layer upon layer of history.  Many of the buildings that were first built in the 1200’s had been destroyed and rebuilt over and over, and the austere architecture of the Viennese period was evident in the Royal Palace and some of the courtyards.  Still, the wild nature of the Czech people could be seen in the statuary guarding the main gate to the First Courtyard, and then as we walked through the Matthias Gate into the Second Courtyard, the magnificence of St Vitus Cathedral was overwhelming.

This Cathedral took my breath away.  Only completed in 1929, St Wenceslas built the Rotunda of St Vitus in 926 on the same site. More than a century later, a Romanesque basilica rose, and then on these foundations a Gothic cathedral was later erected in the first half of the 14th century.  The Renaissance steeple was added in the 16th century, and the bell tower holds the largest bell in Bohemia from the 16th century.  Plans were drawn in 1872 to complete the grand building and the main portal wasn’t actually completed until 1929, 1000 years after the death of St Wenceslas.

10-12-2012 St Vitus Cathedral1 This cathedral is a masterpiece of neo-Gothic architecture, with a gorgeous rose window, many beautiful stained glass windows, magnificent tombs and crypts, the tomb of St Wenceslaus, and my favorite of all, a gorgeous stained glass window by Alfons Mucha, famous art nouveau artist and resident of Prague.  The tomb of St John Nepomuk , patron saint of Bohemia, is made of tons of solid silver. Legend has it that St John Nepomuk refused to tell the King what the King’s wife had confessed to him and was tortured and thrown in the Vltava River as a result.  There are other versions of the story, but he was canonized as a worthy saint in the 1700’s and it is said that when he was killed, seven stars appeared in heaven.  In the statues, there are only five, so where are the other two?  Either way, if you touch his statue on the Charles Bridge, it is said either that a wish will come true, or you will return to Prague. There are many more photos of St Vitus Cathedral online here if you are interested.10-12-2012 St Vitus Cathedral

Castle of Prague Morning tour-080Even inside the cathedral, it was chilly, and once back out on the courtyard the air was still foggy and cold.  I was really looking forward to the promised coffee shop which didn’t open until ten thirty or so.  I was also very glad for Melody’s warm hands and pockets!  We next entered the Royal Palace, that was originally built in the 12th century on the site of the 9th century prince’s court. 

Vladislav Hall in the Royal PalaceThe most important and impressive room was Vladislav Hall, built at the end of the 15th century.  The floor was originally packed dirt for the horseback jousting matches held there, and the stairs were built especially to accommodate the horses entering the hall.  The room had a quiet dignity, and our guide gave us another architecture lesson discussing the use of the beautiful gothic ribbed vaults.  Melody and I got a kick out of the small hidden laughing faces tucked away into the arches, something that no one seemed to notice but us.

We wandered through more of the palace to the room containing the famous “Defenestration Window”.  Defenestration actually means the act of throwing something out the window, in this case people.  Prague is the defenestration capital of the world, with two major events, and many others in between.  You can read about it here.  The stories are a bit funny, with the third floor window not being high enough to cause the death of the people thrown out due to the huge pile of dung that was below the window. By this time I was really wishing that the huge green ceramic heaters were actually working, because it was still really cold.

nice place for a break from the cold

the famous Defenestration Window in the Royal Palace Finally we walked across another courtyard to a quiet little coffee shop, all warmed up and cozy with the smell of pastries and coffee and actual HEAT!  Whew!  Our group squeezed into the small space and were treated to coffees by our guide Lorena.  I also had an apple strudel which was nearly perfect. 

After warming up in the coffee shop, we continued our tour through the castle by wandering to the famous Golden Lane, a picturesque little street also referred to as “Alchemists Lane” where alchemists pursued the myths of the production of gold.  Yarmilla thought the truth of the name was more picturesque, with chamber pots being emptied out the windows daily and turning the streets “gold”.  ewwww.  Once home to the craftsmen and the poor folk of the castle, there are now little shops and lots of tourists. 

view of Prague looking east from Castle Hill We descended the stairs from Golden Lane to an open view of Prague below us, but not before Melody found the stairway to the castle dungeon.  By this time I was getting a bit tired of stairs so I left it to her to explore the depths of the dungeon.  Dungeons are really creepy, sort of like catacombs.  Melody loves all that kind of stuff.

If you are up for it, there are more photos of Prague Castle, the Royal Palace, the dungeons, and Golden Lane online here.

Next:  The afternoon of our tour day: a Czech lunch, the Charles Bridge, walking through Prague, Old Town Square, and the Jewish Quarter. 

Free Day in Budapest October 7

facades on Szondi Utcasee the lady in the window? Ahh, our free day lies before us with only our own agenda to think of. Perfect. Even though the morning dawned with a bit of a cloudy sky, the temperature was till warm enough that it wouldn’t interfere with our plans to walk the city and go to the baths. I knew before we came on this trip that Budapest was famous for its healing waters and beautiful public baths.

One of the reasons I enjoy group tours is that I can get a taste of the culture and the history of the people through the conversation of the tour guide.  Our group guide Lorena is a charming woman, but her insight into the country is at the level of a Wiki search.  She would offer a few tidbits but they weren’t at all connected.  Our local tour guide Bernice had even less to offer, with some history and dates and names but no personal stories to flesh it all out.  I really missed that.

walking along Szondi Utca  GoAhead Tours offers the usual tour support, including luggage management (a really nice plus), transportation between airports and hotels, a few meals, and back-up trouble shooting if you really need it. The other thing that Go Ahead offers are group tours for a price.  Usually the price is quite high for the convenience of what you get.  It is similar to those excursions on cruise ships that can be so expensive. In Budapest, one of the “optional” tours was a day long cruise of the Danube and lunch in some remote estate with wine of course.  With so few days in the city, I didn’t want to waste our time floating along the river looking at scenery.  I wanted to walk the streets and look at buildings and signs and sit in street cafes and watch the people.

Free Day in Budapest 10-7-2012 2-15-55 AM The other big thing I wanted to do in Budapest was experience the amazing thermal waters.  Because of its location on limestone there are more than 100 thermal springs that feed the city’s famous bathhouses.  The water emerges at 35 to 76 degrees C and was the source of a flourishing spa culture in the Roman Age. Buda and Pest were occupied by the Ottoman’s from 1541 to 1686 and the Turkish bathhouses prospered.  Many of the spas of today are traditional Turkish baths.  The spa list is long, but after reading about several, including the famous Gellert Baths, I knew that the beautiful Szechenyi Spa in City Park was the place I wanted to visit on this Sunday in Budapest

Melody and I slept in a bit and then had a leisurely breakfast with another couple, Joan and Frank from southern California, at the hotel buffet.  We really enjoyed them throughout the trip. Sometimes the group dynamics of these tours can get a bit crazy, but this group was great. People were friendly and we could move from one couple or group of friends to another, sharing conversation and time with different people at different times.  Melody was especially popular since she was the resident iPhone, Skype, and Wireless access guru for several folks. 

almost 6 miles according to googleWe fired up the iPad for walking directions to city park and decided that taking the Szondi Utca (street) would be a great route to give us a taste of a different kind of downtown city neighborhood.  The skies were a bit overcast and it was coolish, but not raining, and walking along Terez Korut in the daylight was fun. Things were still quiet on this Sunday morning, but the difference in energy between the main road and Szondi Utca was dramatic.  The road narrowed and the buildings were older, with crumbling facades and black encrusted sandstone faces. It was just under 2 miles to the park where the baths were located.

view from the terrace  at the Szechenyi Baths The Szechenyi Bath was built in 1909 in City Park, and is the largest spa in Europe.  It is a huge complex with gorgeous architecture, 3 outdoor pools, several saunas and steam rooms, and indoor spring fed pools of varying temperatures. Outside the entrance we bought cheap little Hungarian flip flops and then walked into one of the more amazing experiences of our trip.  On entry, we paid our 3400 florints (about $14.90) and were given little plastic watches that were used to lock and unlock our rented “cabin” which was just a small changing room.  It was nice to have a private place to dress and a safe space to store our belongings while we were in the baths.

Melody under the fountain  at the Szechenyi Baths We stayed there for hours, at least 4 I think, but I lost track of time.  We slipped into the big pools first and thrilled at the warm water and views of all the baroque architecture and statuary.  We also thrilled at some of the beautiful people and were happy to see lots of not beautiful people as well.  Just as in the pictures, there were old men playing chess on big chess boards right in the water.  We then went into the inside pools and wandered from building to building trying out each of the pools in turn.  Of course, the cold pool was really cold after all that nice hot water, but once I got in it made my skin tingle when I got back out and into the hot water.  So invigorating.  I had to really work hard at convincing Melody she could do it, but once in she loved it too.

inside pools  at the Szechenyi Baths I know there were tourists there, but there were a lot of families and older kids (not many small ones), and it seemed that most of the language being spoken was Hungarian, not German or English as is the case where there are a lot of tourists.  It was a completely healing experience, not only spiritually and emotionally, but physically!  My knee was very happy about that whole thing after a couple of days of serious walking. We enjoyed our great lunch right there in the spa, having tomatoes and cucumbers with feta and some kind of phyllo pastry thingy with lots of veggies in it that was really good.  And of course, beer.  Good beer.  Beer is cheaper than water just about everywhere in Eastern Europe.

we find our way to our little rented cabin inside the Szechenyi Baths Thoroughly relaxed we went back to our little cabin, and started the trek home via Andrassy Ut, the main thoroughfare that runs from City Park and Hero’s Square all the way to the Danube River and Parliament.  Andrassy Way is lined with huge palatial homes that were once owned by the wealthy, but were confiscated by the Nazis, and then again during the Communist invasion, and then later turned into embassies.  Our plan was to walk all of Andrassy to take in the fancy designer shops closer to the river, but instead we found ourselves intrigued by something called the House of Terror.

Free Day in Budapest 10-7-2012 5-59-03 AM For the first time since arriving in Hungary, I began to understand how oppressed this nation has been and how awful its recent history. Over and over the Magyar people have been almost completely destroyed, only to rise again, still maintaining their culture and their language. The museum wasn’t anything like I expected.  It told in stark detail the history of the Nazis in Budapest, the killing of the Jews, the oppression of the Soviet Gulag that replaced the Nazis when the Germans lost the war.  It was sobering and troubling, but somehow I understood how the people seem to be unwilling to talk much about it.  I at first thought the House of Terror was some kind of torture museum, and I was totally uninterested.  I am so glad that we wandered past this sober building with the photos of dead Hungarians embedded all along the walls.  In front of the building was a huge sculpture of heavy iron chains and poetry celebrating the fall of the Iron Curtain in 1989. 

Internment camps in Hungary In spite of the horrendous story, when I researched more Hungarian history, I read that even though 400,000 Hungarian Jews were murdered in the holocaust, the people of Budapest managed to save more than 60 percent of its Jewish Community. It is encouraging to see the transformational change in Hungary and Budapest that has happened since then and even more so since its entrance into the European Union in 2004.  I am not quite sure of the politics, but even though both Hungary and the Czech Republic are part of the European Union, neither country has yet to adopt the Euro.

Free Day in Budapest 10-7-2012 6-08-57 AM Hungarian history is hard to track, and as much as I read, I had a hard time retaining it.  The first settlement was attributed to Celtic tribes and then during the first century AD the Romans built a fortification that eventually evolved into a town. The Huns were never associated with Hungary, in spite of the name.  The Magyar (Hungarian) pagan horse-riding tribes arrived in 986 AD and the Christian Kingdom of SZt. Istvan (St Stephan) was established in the year 1000. St Stephan is now a national symbol of the country and the thousand year old crown that we saw in the Parliament yesterday was actually used by him. The Mongols showed up in 1200 or so, and then King Matthias (not sure what he was or how he got there!) brought the renaissance to Hungary. 

memorials to many killed in the House of Terror Then in the mid 1500’s the Ottoman Empire showed up until the Habsburg Empire centered in Austria took over.  The Ottoman and Austrian cultures still are a major part of life in Hungary. Hungary was almost autonomous for a short time after the defeat of the Habsburgs in the mid 1800’s and Buda, Pest, and Obuda were unified and the official city of Budapest was created in 1873 under the Dual Monarchy of Austria-Hungary. Confused yet?  Whew! the cafe on Terez Korut I am exhausted trying to track this, and spent much of my time in Budapest trying to figure it out and haven’t even included the “dark ages” of  World War I, the Nazi regime, World War II, and the Communists!

Air raids and a three-month siege towards the end World War II resulted in the death of more than 38,000 civilians and nearly complete destruction of much of the city.  Is it no wonder that it is hard to get Hungarians to talk about their history? When I asked Bernice a question about the Communist Era and how it happened she was short and snippy with me, and I actually have no clue what she said. Somehow, though, understanding the history of a country helps me to understand the culture a bit, and to appreciate what I am seeing in a completely different way.  Hopefully my “short version” will stick and as I look back at my experiences in Hungary.

10-7-2012 Free Day in Budapest After the intense and somewhat depressing visit to the House of Terror, we felt a change in the weather coming and decided that it was time to head back toward the hotel rather than continuing along Andrassy Way to the high end district.  Instead we walked toward our hotel along the main east/west boulevard, past lots of little shops and cafes and chose one with nice tables outside where we could sit and people-watch. The cappuccino was outstanding and the pastries light and flaky. I have to say, I was totally spoiled by the coffees in Europe.  Yum!  We needed a little pick-up since I was getting a bit worn out and we still had our evening cruise waiting.

Budapest Danube Cruise 10-7-2012 8-42-00 PMMelody and I are both trying to get picture on this dark rainy night with our iPhones from the boat on the Danube under the Chain Bridge The evening cruise on the Danube in the rain was something I won’t ever forget.  By the time we started walking the half mile or so to the piers the rain was coming down in full force. Our boat was just a nice size for a small dinner cruise, with a warm and lovely cabin protected from the rain.  During the classic Hungarian dinner we slowly made our way up and down the river past the incredibly lit Parliament buildings and under the illuminated bridges, all glistening in the rain.  Buda Castle shown on the hill above us, lit up like Christmas.  I can only imagine what Christmas would be like in this city with all the beautiful lights.  It was a fitting end to a wonderful day in one of the great cities of the world.

Many more photos from this lovely day in Budapest are online here.