Two Days in the Azores

The first stop on the current itinerary finds us 850 miles due west of Portugal on a volcanic archipelago consisting of nine major populated islands. The islands are a possession of Portugal but are characterized officially as the Autonomous Region of the Azores (in Portuguese they are Açores). Considering the autonomy we found it odd that there appears to be an independence movement declaring itself with stencils on a number of walls. One local described that as people with nothing better to do and few take it seriously.

Geologically the archipelago sits over an ancient hotspot on the Gibraltar Ridge near the eastern side of the Mid-Atlantic Rift. There is still geo-thermal activity on the islands in the form of warm springs and mud baths. A short drive outside the city of Ponta Delgada are the blue and green twin lakes in a dormant caldera which have become a major tour destination.

Because of their proximity to the Gulf Stream the archipelago has an amazing climate. Year round the average high temperature ranges from 65° to 78° and it rarely makes it to the low eighties. There has also never been a recorded temperature near freezing. Because of this the foundations of the economy are agriculture, fishing and dairy farming with tourism recently developing into a major new sector. One of the major cash crops is pineapple with grape vineyards also being important.

Ponta Delgada is the largest city in the archipelago and you have to admire a city where all the streets and sidewalks consist of mosaics of black and white rock pavers. Maybe this has a practical explanation but the artistry involved left us stunned. I’m not sure we have seen anything like these before. The pace of life here seems relaxed with numerous outdoor cafes and restaurants. As is expected, seafood is the cornerstone of the diet with a decidedly Mediterranean flavor.

Not surprisingly the islands occupy a strategic position in the North Atlantic with a fifteenth century fortification protecting Ponta Delgada harbor. During the Second World War the Allies used the islands as a base to protect the sea lanes and were a base for airplanes hunting German submarines. Even today the United States Navy uses them as a refueling station for ships and aircraft heading back and forth across the Atlantic.

Convent and Shrine of the Lord Holy Christ of the Miracles.

Because of the location of the archipelago it is on the migration route for a number of whales and other sea mammals as well as a favorite wintering location. Blue whales, Sperm whales and Humpbacks are frequently sighted and whale watching is a growing attraction for tourists. The city has a number of impressive Catholic churches and a beautiful theatre which seems to favor ballet, symphonies and opera singers. Ponta Delgada is also a favorite stop for yachts and ocean racing sailboats and the waterfront and Yacht Club area is a good place in the evening to sit and enjoy a coffee or glass of local wine or port.

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Traveling

Thanks for visiting and we appreciate your support.

We will be traveling starting April 14th with very limited access to the internet until mid May. I will hope to make a few posts along the way provided I can get to the net. Hope to see you again when we get home.

The Gibraltar Apes Got Lazy…

A Short Story

Not paying much attention.

My first encounter with the apes of Gibraltar was in the mid 1960’s when our ship made a liberty call (Navy term for a non-working visit) at the port. Several of us joined a tour of The Rock and while out at an overlook we were visited by a family of apes. Suddenly they started running around and several grabbed things from us. I lost my hat and a woman with the group lost her camera and in a second the apes ran off. At the time I joked that the apes were trained by someone that gave them food in exchange for their haul. At that time nobody running the tours seemed to advertise seeing the apes.

The Apes Den

The population of apes in Gibraltar are actually Barbary Macaques and they are monkeys not apes. They are the only wild population of monkeys in Europe. Presently the population on Gibraltar numbers about 300 in five families.

Caverns inside the Rock of Gibraltar

Jumping forward fifty years, my wife and I visited Gibraltar just recently. We took a tour of “The Rock” and our guide seemed focused on finding a family of monkeys for us. He referred to them simply as monos (Spanish for monkey) and we located a troop at an overlook next to Prince Ferdinand’s Battery which the locals now call The Apes Den. There were more than a dozen monkeys walking around the area and they seemed to have little interest in us tourists. Actually they seemed almost lethargic and perhaps a bit over-weight but I found that preferable to my last encounter.

We were told that years ago it was common for a troop to make it into town on occasion and cause all sorts of mayhem but that it rarely happens any more. Perhaps they are victims of the good life just like us…

Surprise Gem of the Italian Adriatic Coast

Ravenna in the northern Italian province of Emilia Romagna is a bit off the usual tourist trail. Located only two and a half hours from Venice by train with frequent service starting at €12 it is well worth a side trip. This city is a treasure trove of art and history with its basilica containing an extensive collection of mosaics. The city was the capital of the Western Roman Empire from 402 AD until its collapse in 476. Today, Ravenna is home to eight world heritage sites, is known for its great food and is located on good beaches on the Adriatic coast that include world class resorts.

Old city gate

Eight Unesco World Heritage Sites

  1. The Mausoleum of Galla Placidia meant to be the resting place of Galla Placidia, the sister of the Roman Emperor Honorius who had transferred the capital of the Western Roman Empire from Milan to Ravenna in 402 AD.
  2. The Neonian Baptistery along with the
  3. Arian Baptistery with both including plain octagonal shaped brick exteriors with lavish interiors.
  4. The Basilica of Sant’Apollinare Nuovo with its 26 mosaic scenes from the New Testament, the oldest in the world.
  5. The , the only chapel of the early Christian era that is still fully preserved.
  6. The Mausoleum of Theodoric built in 520 AD by Theodoric the Great, King and unifier of the Ostrogoths.

    flying buttress on the Basilica of San Vitale
  7. The Basilica of San Vitale. One of the most important churches of the early church.
  8. The Basilica of Sant’ Apollinare, located in the countryside five miles outside Ravenna.
Dante’s Tomb

The city is also the site of the Tomb of Dante Alighieri

The author of The Divine Comedy who was exiled from his native Florence to Ravenna in 1318, where he completed Paradise, the final section of his famous three part work. Dante is buried in the graveyard beside the San Francesco Basilica.

The “Basilica of San Vitale” church in Ravenna, is one of the most important examples of early Christian Byzantine art and architecture in Europe.

The Roman Catholic Church has designated the building a “basilica”, the title bestowed on church buildings of exceptional historic and ecclesiastical importance, although it is not an architectural basilica form.

The church was begun by Bishop Ecclesius in 526, when Ravenna was under the rule of the Ostrogoths and completed by the 27th Bishop of Ravenna, Maximian, in 547.

The church has an octagonal plan. The building combines Roman elements: the dome, shape of doorways, and stepped towers; with Byzantine elements: polygonal apse, capitals, narrow bricks, and one of the earliest examples of the flying buttress. The church is most famous for its collection of Byzantine mosaics, the largest and best preserved outside of Constantinople. The church is of extreme importance in Byzantine art, as it is the only major church from the period of the Emperor Justinian I to survive virtually intact to the present day. Furthermore, it is thought to reflect the design of the Byzantine Imperial Palace Audience Chamber, of which nothing at all survives. The Church also inspired the design of the church of the Saints Sergius and Bacchus in Constantinople, and also was the model used by the Emperor Charlemagne for his Palatine Chapel in Aachen in 805, and centuries later theSan Vitale dome was the inspiration for Filippo Brunelleschi in the design for the dome of the Duomo of Florence.

Besides the history and good food the city is also a very easy place for walking with a number of wide pedestrian malls lined with good shops.

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Outside the city towards the Adriatic beaches we passed a number of canals dotted with interesting fishing huts with huge and elaborate fishing net contraptions that didn’t seem a very sporting way of fishing. Even at the beach there was a long pier also with a number of these fishing huts and nets. I’ve never found a description or explanation of how these places worked?

Minerva’s Pencil Case has a great  post HERE with some breathtaking interior photography.

Amsterdam in the Spring

There is something disconcerting as well as liberating about the smell of weed drifting thru the outdoor café while you enjoy your morning coffee. Welcome to Amsterdam.

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Central Station Square
Anne Frank House

We were passing thru Amsterdam in the Spring and decided to stay a few days and take in the Keukenhof. We stayed at the Hotel Arena and picked up the public transport chip card (OV-chipkaart) for a couple of days right away. It’s good for travel on trams, buses and metros with the most convenient option for visitors being the day card that’s valid for one to seven days starting from €7.50. While the city is a great place for walking it is helpful to be able to grab a tram or bus to get you to a point of interest.

Our plan was mostly to grab a tram in the morning to get across town and later stroll back towards the hotel. We used this thinking to start our day in the neighborhood of the Anne Frank House and also the Van Gogh Museum. It was also helpful when we needed a break from walking.

Bicycles parked at train station

Amsterdam is a beautiful city with friendly people and great public transportation. The primary way to get around for locals is the bicycle. They are usually nothing fancy and come in configurations that include wheelbarrows in front and multiple kid seats in back. They are parked in some areas like near the train station by the thousands (we have no idea how the locate their bikes in these masses of bikes.

One strong word of caution about walking this city; pay attention to the bikes! Most streets have lanes for cars and others for bicycles and than sidewalks for walking. DO NOT step toward the street without looking both ways for bicycles. Often they are traveling fast and silent and are between you and the crosswalk.

While there we visited the Keukenhof tulip festival gardens, and went to a cheese shop tasting and brought back several Gouda cheeses. We strolled the flower markets and looked into buying some tulip bulbs.

Fortunately we discovered that U.S. Customs only allows you to “import” U.S. certified bulbs and when you start looking for those you discover that the choices a very limited. After we got home we found that most of those are readily available in the U.S. often at better prices.

There are a number of great museums and famous neighborhoods that you should make an effort to visit including:

The narrow canals and streets of the Jordaan lined with boutiques, pubs and fancy eateries. Stalls at the Noordermarkt square feature  jewelry, clothes and antiques.

Leidseplein is an exciting nightlife hub centered on Leidseplein Square, where people are entertained by street performers and the surrounding bars and restaurants are always busy.

Willet-Holthuysen Windmill

Museum Willet-Holthuysen Iconic windmill with octagonal body. The tallest wooden windmill in the country is octagonal in shape & was once used as a flour mill.

Westerkerk Church

Westerkerk with its spire standing above this Renaissance-era Protestant church where Rembrandt is buried. It stands only a half block from the Anne Frank House

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For the more mature and adventurist tourist there is Amsterdam’s red light district. It consists of a network of alleys containing hundreds of red one-room cabins rented by prostitutes who offer their sexual services from a window, typically illuminated with red lights. Window prostitution is the most visible and typical kind of red light experience in Amsterdam and is a large tourist attraction.

One afternoon while walking along a residential canal with a couple of bars at the end of the block there was a sign in several languages put up by neighbors asking patrons to kindly confine the marijuana smoking away from in front of the residences as there are open windows and children inside and to try and keep the noise down after nine at night.

In closing we came to the opinion that this is a very easy city to like and their tolerance for the unconventional lifestyles of other people seems to work really well for them. Maybe we in America should consider the Dutch experience and ask why criminalize lifestyle choices.

 

 

Barcelona to Montserrat Mountain

A Day Trip From Barcelona

If you are visiting Barcelona, Spain, we would recommend that you save a day for a trip to Montserrat. The mountain is home to great hiking trails, grand vistas along with a Basilica, monastery, convents, restaurants and two hotels.

 

funicular to the peak

We visited on a tour arranged for us in Barcelona but it is not difficult to plan a trip for a day on your own. Start at the Plaza Espanya train station in Barcelona. The train station is in the same building as a metro station so it’s easy to get to. Follow signs for the R5 train which runs ever fifty minutes or so. The train will take you to stations at the foot of the mountain but, before buying tickets, you will need to decide whether you would like to travel up Montserrat Mountain by Cable Car or by the Rack Railway . There are agents selling combination tickets who can help you decide, so ask them for advice. You also need to confirm which station to exit based on your choice.

 

The mountain of Montserrat would be worth a visit if it was only a geological

monts4
Cable Car up the mountai

spectacle and that alone draws hikers and rock climbers from around the world. It has also been a religious site from the days of the Roman Empire with a temple to Venus having been built there more than two thousand years ago. Since 888 AD there has been the Christian sanctuary of the Virgin Mary of Montserrat and, in 1025, Oliba, Bishop of Vic, founded a larger monastery at the hermitage of Santa Maria de Montserrat. The monastery soon began receiving pilgrims and visitors who contributed to the spread of stories of miracles and wonders performed by the Virgin. In 1409 the monastery of Montserrat became an abbey and from 1493 to 1835, the monastery underwent numerous improvements, growing and increasing in splendor. 

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During the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, the Monastery of Montserrat became a cultural centre with The Montserrat Music School producing a number of significant composers. From the early nineteenth century on the Monastery was abandoned, rebuilt and restored a number of times because of the French War and the Spanish Civil War. Today, Montserrat is again a cultural and religious center welcoming pilgrims and tourists.

I recently came across a good post on avoiding mistakes in visiting Montserrat. Check it out  HERE.

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