Israel and Palestine: Travels with my Mother

Been distracted from blogging lately, happens sometimes. No better way to close a life-chapter than a semi-therapeutic holiday diversion with my Mother. Thinking the world holds somewhat limited destinations to amuse and captivate both of us, I decided on Israel and Jordan. Short flight from London, loaded with culture and history, and the Holy Land has assembled an abundance of churches.

Learning from my last foray into parental travel, I reserved one hotel in each country to establish a base, instead of one or two nights per place (like I had done in India). Immeasurably easier on both of us to gain familiarity with the staff, know how breakfast worked, unpack our belongings, and fashion a temporary home. I also embraced my role as chief planner, negotiator, money changer, excursion organiser, and general-person-in-charge. For her part as my travel companion, I witnessed people going out of their way to treat us both with kindness and respect (I would have been far more self-conscious as a lone female traveller in either country).

American Colony

Landing in Tel Aviv, we headed straight to Jerusalem, the Holiest City in the centre of the Holy Land. Historically turbulent, the Holy Land refers to all of Israel and the Palestinian Autonomous Territories, and parts of Jordan and Egypt. Given the dimensions of Israel, 290 miles long, 85 miles wide at its widest point and 35 miles wide at its narrowest point, determined travellers with limited time can visit a lot of the country. From our charming hotel, the American Colony, once home to a wealthy Turkish merchant and remodelled borrowing Arabian architecture and Ottoman decor, we started our expedition. Driving north towards the coastal towns of Haifa and Akko, we stopped in every beautiful church from Nazareth to the Sea of Galilee. The next day, we explored the West Bank [of the River Jordan] from Jericho to Bethlehem, ending with a dip in the Dead Sea at Kalia Beach.

On day three we embraced Israel’s capital city. In Mark Twain’s commentary about Jerusalem he wrote in Innocents Abroad (1895), “There will be no Second Coming. Jesus has been to Jerusalem once and he will not come again.” Funny, harsh, wrong. Jesus spent a week, the prophet Muhammad (PBUH) just one night, nevertheless a person could spend a lifetime discovering and studying Jerusalem.

Here are my top five experiences:

1. Western Wall (Wailing Wall), Old City – The holiest place in Judaism and the last remnant of Herod’s Temple on the western side of the of the Temple Mount which would have housed the Holy of Holies (Arc of the Covenant).

view of the Temple Mount and Western Wall

view of the Temple Mount and Western Wall

2. Rooftop Walk, Old City – After getting lost strolling through the four Quarters (Armenian, Christian, Jewish, Muslim), the maze of souk-lined streets, and the Via Dolorosa interspersed with sacred religious landmarks, find and climb the narrow iron staircase off St. Mark’s Road to be rewarded with views of alleys below and city-scape above, particularly the Dome of the Rock at sunset from the unique perspective of residential roofs.

3. Church of the Holy Sepulchre, Old City – Believed sight of Christ’s Crucifixion, burial and Resurrection, now allotted to six denominations: Greek Orthodox, Roman Catholic, Armenian, Coptic, Ethiopian, and Syrian Christians (forget the Protestants, who knew there were so many sects from the Byzantine schism-side of the world). Sensibly, Muslims hold the key to the church and act as an intermediary for all those Christians.

Church of the Holy Sepulchre, viewed from the Coptic Patriarchate

Church of the Holy Sepulchre, view from the Coptic Patriarchate

4. Yad Vashem, New City – Yad Vashem means “a memorial and a name” and spending 45 minutes or 5 hours at this Holocaust museum will change you, your lens on the world. First walking through the children’s memorial, a path in darkness illuminated by 5 solitary candles and their millions of candlelight reflections that engulf you on every side, in flickering memory of the 1.5 million children killed. In the main building, the well-designed long corridor of exhibits affects with acute poignancy the dichotomy between efforts to humanize the victims, contrasted with the Allies’ attempt to evidence the horrors of the Nazi regime. Striking, sickening, powerful images, particularly of the concentration camps, quietly asking how you would want to be remembered, immortalised? At your worst, shaved and gaunt in depravity and despair, or in another way. With your family, in a photo from a wedding, or on a birthday as a patriotic German unaware of the upcoming brutalities that would accompany the Final Solution. I would choose the latter, the human. Easy to avoid this memorial, particularly whilst on a holiday, but don’t.

5. Mount of Olives, New City – On this eastern hilltop, visit the Jewish cemetery near the Valley of Jehoshaphat ready for the Day of Judgement, the Mosque of the Ascension, the Basilica of the Agonies with the Garden of Gethsemane, and the Church of Paternoster; plus catch spectacular panoramas of the Old City.

Our trip coincided with Pope Francis’ tour and despite efforts to stalk the Holy See (my Mother made me) via his official itinerary, an entourage of police accompanied by the force majeure of the Israeli Army repeatedly foiled even a glimpse. “Were you frustrated?” asked Amir, our Bein Harim guide, “Good, you would not truly experience the Middle East without feeling that!”

Amid the candy-store-mother-lode of things religiously significant to pilgrims of the Crescent, Cross, and Star, the co-mingling of ethnically diverse Israelis is the most fascinating aspect of the neophyte country. Lots of narratives, some aligned, some conflicting, and mixed with politics of a nation. Despite the prolific proclamations of partisan news media, you find truth in many stories; mostly people want a peaceful life.

Go Israel – Ministry of Tourism


Bit of Editorial (in my opinion); historical context and sorting out peace

Around 1200BCE the Philistines (Palestine means “land of the Philistines”) and the Tribes of Israel arrived in the area, living in harmonious co-existence under Hebrew Kings – Saul, David, Solomon. Yes, it’s true. Anyway, you may know the Jews are the chosen people. The chosen people. Perhaps that doesn’t resonate with you, and for me the statement barely registers. God chose the Jews, they are HIS people, good for them. However the statement infers that everyone else is not chosen by God, and some God-lovers (enter Christianity and Islam) may take an exception to that notion, and so emerges anti-Semitism. Add to that the desire to possess the precious Promised-Land where you can walk in the historically accepted footsteps of Abraham, Moses, Jesus, and Muhammad (PBUT). Three great monotheistic religions, hundreds and hundreds of years; pray, fight, repeat.

Old City, viewed from the Mount of Olives

Old City, viewed from the Mount of Olives

Shortly after the birth of the State of Israel in 1948, the neighbouring Arabs declared war on it. Israel’s territory got bigger utilizing might makes right expansion; no one questions the determined resolve of the Israeli Army. Still, lots of free space in this postage-stamp of a country that has an outsider humbly asking, why are you fighting over this mostly barren, yellow-brown rocky desert? Even now, everyone wants the fertile spots, the revered Holy spots, and most importantly to conquer-acquire Jerusalem.

Bedouin life; typical terrain of the country

Bedouin life; typical terrain of the country

One side, the Western-friendly side, would argue there was nothing on any of this land 150 years ago, [read as, well done Israel]. Further, the population of Israel is 8 million while the populace of surrounding Arab countries is around 217 million, talk about a hostile neighbourhood. The same neighbours who at one time collectively vowed to cast Israel into the sea. Then remember Yad Vashem (the Holocaust memorial); what country wouldn’t have a complex that manifests in exaggerated reactions and a preoccupation with survival. Side note: Did you know, there is no letter “P” in the Arabic alphabet, making it ironically impossible to say, “the state of Palestine” in Arabic.

 What a sign. If I was Israeli, you'd have me at "forbidden" - we loved the West Bank towns


What a sign. If I was Israeli, you’d have me at “forbidden” never mind dangerous to your life or against Israeli law – but we had no problems traveling and enjoyed visiting towns in the West Bank

The other side may contend Israel has become a tiny, tyrannical bully. For example, the Israeli settlements in the West Bank expanded as recently as 2012 [and continued in 2017] despite being considered illegal under intentional law. Ma’ale Adummin, one of the largest Israeli settlements in the West Bank, is a self-contained community built for purpose to supply affordable housing in close, commutable proximity to Jerusalem. Taking the land, building lovely villas on a hilltop overlooking Jerusalem in a guard-gated community in the West Bank. Now why would that annoy Palestinians. Moreover, why should Palestine remain stateless?

Of course the Middle East situation is complex. Historical hurt, unhealed war-time wounds, difficult to forgive or forget. Current events still prompt a default response of violent rhetoric along with an-eye-for-an-eye escalation, and no one wants to give in (in the weak sense of concession) to the other side. Perhaps those who continue to want war and unrest, profit from both. Regardless, pray for peace in the Middle East, it is time.

thanks for visiting my blog

 

 

 

 

Best of Berlin: Twenty-nine hours & 5 Must-Sees

June 26, 1963: “Ich bin ein Berliner” ~ JFK

Time for a weekend away, a mini-break, destination: Berlin. Here are my 5 must-sees in the German capital.

1. Brandenburger Tor (Brandenburg Gate) – Modelled from the Athenian acropolis and topped with the Quadriga, this iconic symbol of Berlin was built as a monument to Prussian glory.

2. Deutsches Historisches Museum (German History Museum) – Located in the Baroque-style Zeughaus building (formerly the arsenal) with German history from early civilization to present day, and an adjacent exhibition hall designed by architect I. M. Pei.

Berlin has over 170 museums and several are situated on Museumsinsel (Museum Island), a pretty area on a narrow island in the Spree River. Here are three more of Berlin’s must-see museums: Pergamonmuseum (Pergamon Museum) named for the Pergamon Alter (the monumental structure excavated in present-day Turkey was part of the acropolis of an ancient Greek city there), the museum’s collection of antiquities also includes the Ishtar Gate from Babylon. Alte Nationalgalerie (Old National Gallery) displays artwork of the German Masters and French Impressionists. The Jüdisches Museum (Jewish Museum) presents an unflinching look at Jewish history in a building resembling a shattered Star of David, designed by architect Daniel Libeskind.

3. Berliner Dom (Berlin Cathedral) – The Evangelical (Protestant-Reform) Church of Germany also located on Museum Island features an ornately decorated interior, including an elaborate alter, mosaics and sculptures, and a massive Sauer organ with 7,269 pipes (worth it to stay for service or visit for a concert). Don’t miss climbing to the top of the copper dome for beautiful views of the city.

4. Schloss Charlottenburg (Charlottenburg Palace) – Originally named Lietzenburg after the area and renamed after the death of Queen Sophie Charlotte, Elector Friedrich III (Kaiser Frederick I of Prussia) built this palace as a summer residence for his wife. Walking through the richly-decorated rooms, accompanied by the free audio-guide, imagine royal life amid the largest collection of 18th-century French art outside of France.

5. Die Berliner Mauer (the Berlin Wall) – Bernauer Strasse and East Side Gallery are the best places to see the symbolic remnant of the cold war that was once a 27 mile long (43.1 km) border between East and West Berlin. The total border length around West Berlin was 96 miles (155 km). On Bernauer Strassse you can see stretches of the wall, an observation tower, and the infamous “death strip.” At the East Side Gallery look at the colourful murals on the longest remaining section (0.8 miles/1.3 km).

A few honorable mentions:

Save your money to stay at the Hotel Adlon the address in Berlin located in the Mitte district and on the grand boulevard, Unter den Linden. From the glass cupola of the Reichstag, home of the German Parliament, take in vistas of the city. If you’re after more panoramic views, head to Fernsehturm television tower, the city’s largest structure (368 m/1207 feet), an icon of communist East Berlin. Next to the Fernsehturm, visit Marienkirche (St. Mary’s Church) one of Berlin’s oldest churches. On to Bebelplatz, once named Opernplatz (Opera Square) and renamed in 1947 in honour of social activist August Bebel, this large open square was the scene of the infamous Nazi book burning on 10th May 1933 when some 25,000 books were burned. Here, find the bronze memorial with Heinrich Heine’s quote, “Where they have burned books, they will end in burning human beings.” The imposing buildings around the square include Alte Bibliothek (Old Library), Altes Palais (Old Palace), Staatsoper Uniter den Linden (opera house), and St-Hedwigs-Kathedrale. Lastly, in the Kreuzberg district which is loaded with Turkish shops and cafés, discover a “Marianne” Stasse and Platz – it’s lovely.

To quote President John F. Kennedy’s inspiring speech from June 26, 1963, “Two thousand years ago, the proudest boast was ‘Civis Romanus sum’ ” [I am a citizen of Rome]. “Today, in the world of freedom, the proudest boast is ‘Ich bin ein Berliner!’ ”

Top Ten Reasons I Love LA ~ Memories of Life in Los Angeles

After returning to London from a quick trip to Los Angeles, I contemplated why I give L.A. such a hard time. As a former Los Angelena, I admit to considering California in general and L.A. in particular a sun-soaked drive-thru paradise, lacking a soul. I’ve even said LaLa land is style over substance over-flowing with pretty-but-vacant people. In fairness to me, it’s not totally untrue that swarms of self-absorbed, botox-loving, globally unaware people do flood the tree-lined, perfectly manicured streets. Yet there’s more to the city of Angels; I’ve met many of my dearest friends in Los Angeles, truly amazing individuals. Plus I lived there for eight years, how bad could it be?

Here are ten things I miss about LA-living:

1. Amazingly fresh, delicious and diverse food choices; I especially miss-crave LA’s authentic Mexican food.

2. The Mondrian, Firefly, Bar Marmont at the Chateau, and all the latest I’m-too-cool trendy places.

3. Freeways going everywhere, 12-lanes of stop-and-go on the 10, 405, 110, 5, 101, and 134 to name a few.

4. Driving north on the 405 FWY and just after Mulholland descending into “the Valley” of San Fernando in the evening when the lights of Sherman Oaks twinkle invitingly; I have no time for snobs who dismiss Valley-life.

5. Super-supermarkets like Gelson’s, Trader Joe’s, and Whole Foods teeming with lush and organic choices.

6. The variety of niche areas like downtown (DTLA), Hollywood, Bel Air, Silverlake, and beach cities from Malibu and Santa Monica to Marina del Rey and Huntington.

7. Road trips to San Diego, Orange County (the OC), Palm Springs, Big Bear, Vegas-baby, Mammoth, and Tijuana (TJ).

8. Walk? Not a chance. Valet parking EVERYWHERE.

9. The grand Boulevards: Sunset, Santa Monica, Hollywood, and Melrose.

10. Yes, sunny again; oh how I miss the sun.

Time to say it, sing it with me, “I love…LA!”

another sunny day...I love LA!

another sunny day…I love LA!

Golden Geometry; India on $1200-a-day; Travels with my Mother

In 2009 my parents gave me their travel wish-list and my darling Mother, petrified of flying who only a few years prior obtained her passport, announced her desire to jet-off to India and see the Taj Mahal. Here’s how we toured India’s iconic golden triangle (Delhi, Agra and Jaipur) in luxurious style.

DelhiFirst stop Delhi and a stay at the Imperial Hotel. The grand lobby of this stately oasis oozed with scents of jasmine, nothing was too much trouble, and we enjoyed the relaxing ease of al fresco dining and afternoon tea in the lounge. So much history and culture in Old and New Delhi, here are some of the sites:

Notice the absence of pictures from the sound and light show at the Red Fort, the majestic Tomb of Humayun, my mom in her giant blue-flowered robe at Jama Masjid, the largest mosque in India (we were fully covered, yet the provided adornment helps locals quickly identify tourists in the courtyard which has capacity for 25,000 people), and from Gandhi’s house (Gandhi Smriti) where we walked in the garden and followed the Mahatma’s final footsteps prior to his assassination on 30th January 1948 — I deleted those photos in an stone-cold-panic as I hastily cleared a memory card at the Taj, smooth move.

Leaving Delhi, just 40km outside Agra stands the UNESCO World Heritage Site, Fatehpur Sikri (City of Victory), the short-lived capital of the Mughal empire during the reign of Emperor Akbar. Worth the drive to wonder through the immaculately preserved monuments and architectural wonders of the abandoned citadel city.

Onwards to the town of Agra with hectic festival-like chaos, streets teeming with people, motorbikes, tuk-tuks, cows, and one lost monkey. The opulent Oberoi Amarvilas boasts each room views the Taj plus the hotel offers private golf cart transport to the Taj gate.

Pictures of the Taj Mahal (no these don’t do it justice; yes we have ten thousand more).

In the Pink City Jaipur, we entered the regal world of the Rambagh Palace Hotel. Welcomed like a Maharani, hotel guests are driven from the front gates in a vintage 1937 sedan, led by royal guard on horseback in procession with umbrella canopies; upon arrival walk atop strewn rose petals to the lobby where ointments and a tropical drink await.

The sites of Jaipur, Rajasthan:

Post-holiday I reflected on this new phase of life, a grown woman traveling with her mother. Although I’ve always had a dear connection with my Mom, we’re not personally close, as my strict, tight-lipped Catholic upbringing allowed us to share practical information, food and love, but not ideas or god-forbid personal longings or desires. However I did see another side to her in traveling, as you do. A wilful, independent side of her personality, haggling for rugs and marble and jewels in each respective city. Incidental, random stories emerged too, for example she shared this gem over dinner.

At home, as she was leaving a local restaurant, she passed by a table and noticed they ordered the fish. 

Mom: I said to the man, I was going to get that fish but didn’t know if I’d like it. Here, try mine, he replied.

Me: You ate fish off his plate? (asked in an incredulous tone)

Mom: Only a little bite.

Me: Who was he?

Mom: No idea.

Me: What? You ate off a stranger’s plate? Did he seem shocked when you said yes?

Mom: I don’t know. Glad I didn’t order the fish though, I didn’t like it.

Another day, we were driving between cities and she said “when I leave this place…” her voice trailed off and she paused before snapping “pay attention!” Ok I replied and she repeated, “when I leave this place, can I take the flowers” (she meant the beautiful fresh-cut frangipani and temple tree flowers from the hotel room). Gees, I replied I thought you meant leave, as in leave this place and were giving me instructions on arrangements. To which she replied, oh who cares about that! We both laughed.

Quite possibly people don’t see many mother-daughter travel partners, as everyone we met went out of their way to be kind to us. We were respectfully welcomed and well-wished in each locale. I did have to contend with “being the guy” for the trip sorting all the itineraries, tours, logistics, payments and tips. Hard work being the responsible one in charge. Not sure my Mom will ever fully understand me; she loves me though and I will cherish the memory of our Indian adventure.

homeward bound

homeward bound

5 Ways Sri Lanka Crushed My Travel Bug (nearly)

The adage if you can’t say something nice, say nothing rings in my ears, especially as it pertains to travel and experiencing the unfamiliar, foreign or out-right weird. Conscientious travelers have a responsibility to be tolerant and non-judgmental. With that in mind, and coupled with the self-imposed obligation share the best of countries not my own, I shyly reveal 5 ways Sri Lanka nearly crushed my travel bug.

1. Oh the Driving

You need to hire a car and driver to expeditiously see the country, however rural road and one main highway meant 31 hours of car travel, my least favourite form of conveyance, to cover just 700 miles up, down, and around the country. Beyond the sheer volume of road time, there’s also the take your life in your hands adrenaline rush involved. With narrow lanes, road-hogging lorries, and high-speed overtakers, nothing prepares you for driving (or riding as a terrified passenger) in a country where head-on collisions seem inevitable, avoided only by a system of flashing lights, hand signals, and an unwritten code of driver decorum. My road weary travel partner asked on day five, “have we been in Sri Lanka this whole time?” You do know it’s an island, I replied, but I know what you mean!

right of way goes to the biggest

be brave on the roads

2. Geckos, everywhere! Yes, I understand it’s a jungle out there. I understand geckos are harmless and necessary but tiny lizards in my shower, zipping around near my bed, and  scurrying towards my luggage, in every hotel room, every day. Give me strength. No hitch-hiking reptiles allowed!

hello little one

hello little one

3. Entrance Fees like Disneyland

I appreciate and accept there will be “foreigner” prices, I don’t expect them to equate to home-country prices. For example the towns and ancient ruins of Anuradhapura and Polonnaruwa both cost $25 per person and you’ll pay $30 per person for the joy of climbing Sigiriya rock. In comparison the entrance fee for the Grand Canyon is $25 for a 7-day pass (USA); $12 to visit Stonehenge (UK); $16 to see the Mona Lisa and the rest of the artwork in the Louvre (France). That said, worth the fees, and far better value than Disney.

No shoes allowed, best deal in town

no shoes allowed, best deal in town

4. Hawkers

The convergence of beggars and touts in every spot likely to be crossed by a tourist. According to my Bradt guidebook, “unlike hawkers in other countries, at least they are trying to sell something.” The steady stream of so-called vendors who invasively intruded into my adventure uttering the oft-repeated phrase “it’s nothing to you” left me feeling slightly harassed and exhausted. Special mention goes to the “guides” and “helpers” at Sigiriya; despite my guidebook suggesting a small tip of Rs100 to Rs500 (a few dollars) depending on your rate of satisfaction, both asked rather persistently for $20 compensation for their services. They should work in sales, oh wait, they do. In which case, well done boys.

lower steps at Sigiriya, pre-daylight robbery, forced tip

lower steps at Sigiriya

5. 5-Star Prices

People travel to parts of the world where they get the best value for their currency and although there are 5-star accommodations I didn’t the find the 5-star luxury, that I had in India for example. My pricing theories confirmed  boarding my flight from Colombo where I bought a 500ml bottle of water for $1.97; I purchased the same exact bottle 2 hours later in Mumbai International for a mere .39 cents. In retrospect, maybe it’s India that needs to raise prices. Sometimes travel life is all about exchange rates!

Day 6, "I'm never coming back!"

day 6, “too weary to smile for photos!”

Alright, time to make amends for any unintended harshness by saying several wonderful about traveling in Sri Lanka.

I was glad to be among the first throngs of tourists to rediscover the country. It is beautiful and I’d go as far to say, Lord Buddha painted Ceylon in a palette of yellow and green with the vast country-side, specked with plantation style properties and gentrified land-owning farmers.

road near Dambulla

road near Dambulla

road near Kandy

road near Kandy

landowner & property

landowner’s property

Plans are underway to build a new super-highway and maybe there will be another airport connecting the deep south coast with the rest of the country.

Indian Ocean

Indian Ocean, unspoilt southern coastline

When I eventually return once the country there are two must do’s that I missed this trip:

1. Start an ascent of Adam’s Peak at 1:00am to reach the summit at dawn. The country’s holiest pilgrimage, you’ll find an indentation at the summit that Buddhists believe is the footprint of Gautama Buddha, Hindus believe is the sacred footprint of Lord Shiva, and Muslims insist, and Christians agree, is Adam’s footprint left when he was cast out of the Garden of Eden. A convergence of religions in amicable disagreement ~ and a spectacular view.

2. Stay at another Taprobane property. Having patronized the Dutch House  which exudes excellence in abundance, I can not say enough about these wonderful boutique hotels.

Taprobane Island, private mansion Weligama Bay

Taprobane Island, private mansion Weligama Bay

~ 31st August 2013: Happy 2nd birthday to my blog-baby.

Sri Lanka ~ 8-days and 7-nights

After booking my holiday to Sri Lanka, travel articles via Wanderlust, Condé Nast Travel, Trip Advisor, and Lonely Planet started appearing in my inbox hailing ancient Ceylon as a top 2013 travel destination. The tiny island just off the southern tip of India recovered from the devastating 2004 Boxing Day tsunami and long political unrest in 2009 when its civil war ended, to once again claim tourism as a major income source.

As I planned my own ambitious itinerary, I was determined to maximize limited time and see everything. Given the dimensions of the island, just slightly larger than West Virginia (in European terms roughly Belgium plus the Netherlands), I was optimistic.

Here’s my itinerary including sites and hotels:

My flight landed into pre-dawn darkness at the international airport, just 20 miles north of capital city, Colombo. Having arranged a car and driver with our hotel, we started in early morning light and drove inland on near deserted roads.

First stop, Pinnawela Elephant Orphanage founded in 1975 as a refuge for orphaned and abandoned elephants and now home to around 70 elephants. We arrived in perfect time for the first feeding at 9:15am followed by the first bath time at 10:00am.

feeding time

feeding time

up close and personal

up close and personal

he stopped and looked right at me!

he stopped and looked right at me!

bath time

bath time

We checked-in to our first hotel in the afternoon, the Heritance Kandalama, an ecological wonder built straight into a cliff by architectural legend, Geoffrey Bawa. We called it the jungle hotel, not because of the monkeys on our balcony or geckos everywhere, but because its dirt road goes so deep into the wild, we were genuinely concerned if we needed to get out.

The hotel was an excellent base for exploring the archaeological monuments of the Cultural Triangle, the triangular area between the cities of Kandy, Anuradhapura, and Polonnaruwa, and from it we visited four of Sri Lanka’s eight (yes eight) UNESCO World Heritage Sites:

The sacred city of Anuradhapura Sri Lanka’s first capital founded in the 5th century BC and capital city of Buddhism:

In front of the Old Shrine

In front of the Old Shrine

reclining Buddha

reclining Buddha

sitting Buddha

sitting Buddha

Stupa (Buddhist burial mound)

Stupa (Buddhist burial mound)

The Sri Maha Bodi or Sacred Bo Tree grown from a transplanted branch of the tree under which Siddhartha Gautama attained enlightenment. A revered Buddhist holy place, it is the oldest documented tree in the world (2,200 hundred years old).

Sacred Bo Tree

Sacred Bo Tree

closer look

closer look at a holy branch

Polonnaruwa medieval capital city with ruins and shrines dating from the 10th to 13th century AD:

Buddha shrine at Vatadage

Buddha shrine at Vatadage

close up at Vatadage

base of the stairs, Vatadage

standing Buddha at Gal Vihara

reclining Buddha at Gal Vihara

close up of standing Buddha at Gal Vihara

standing Buddha close up, Gal Vihara

Sigiriya rock fortress a massive stone monolith dating from the 5th century AD also known as the Lion Rock. Views from the once royal palace at the summit are worth the 180m (591 ft) vertical climb:

Sigiriya

Sigiriya

Lion paws

traversing up above the Lion paws

cave with 5th century frescoes

Cloud Maidens, 5th century frescoes

view from the top

view from the top

what goes up must go down the narrow caged in stairs!

what goes up, goes down narrow caged-in stairs!

Golden Temple of Dambulla and 1st century cave-shrines:

museum and temple

museum and temple

Buddha's view of Sigiriya

Buddha’s view of Sigiriya

another long climb to the caves

another long climb to reach the caves

After the sequence of stairs to reach the temple inside the hill, some 340m above the entrance, depositing our shoes to walk barefoot though the five caves, here we had the best guide who kindly shared his historical knowledge and beliefs about the philosophy of Buddhism.

cave paintings and carvings

cave paintings, carvings and statues

lots of Buddhas

lots of Buddhas

giant reclining Buddha

giant reclining Buddha

close up reclining Buddha

close up reclining Buddha

good place to rest before the walk back down

good place to rest before the walk back down

On Day 4 we relocated to Kandy and our second hotel, Mahaweli Reach. The royal city of Kandy is another UNESCO World Heritage Site and the last capital of the Sinhalese Kings. From here we visited the Royal Botanical Gardens, Peradeniya surrounded by the Mahaweli Ganga (River) and extending nearly 148 acres. The grounds, with giant fig trees, beautiful manicured lawns, and stunning flora, are an idyllic, peaceful place to relax.

the gardens

the gardens

Orchid House

Orchid House

pretty flowers

pretty flowers

lovely orchids

lovely orchids

bird-watching

and a little bird-watching

Kandy’s main attraction is Sri Dalada Maligawa or Temple of the Tooth. The Sacred Tooth believed recovered from the ashes following Buddha’s cremation hence making the temple a spiritual place of veneration for Buddhists. We visited during one of the daily formal prayer offerings or puja, when pilgrims can join the procession to see the casket containing the tooth. The drums pounding throughout as monks in bright saffron robes chanted, the rewarding  glimpse of the gold-gilded casket and experiencing the sacred, the transcendent. Unforgettable.

Temple of the Tooth

Temple of the Tooth

join the pilgrims

joining the pilgrims

monks everywhere

monks everywhere

the sacred housed behind those golden doors

the sacred tooth housed behind golden doors

One can’t see everything, so we consciously missed the Central Highlands, the cold, wet tea-growing region also known as Little England. I live in London, I passed. Instead we started the long, long drive from Kandy to the deep south coast. Turning right “near the 214km post on the Tangalle highway” and way-off-any-beaten-path we found Turtle Bay in Kalametiya for a few relaxing days at a remote beach hotel on the southern tip of Sri Lanka, just 6º from the equator and facing Antarctica.

Turtle Bay Hotel

Turtle Bay Hotel

view from the pool

view from the pool

Indian Ocean sunset at Turtle Bay

Indian Ocean sunset at Turtle Bay

Day 7. No missed opportunities. Sightseeing on the two-hour drive from Tangalle to Galle.

Indian Ocean

Indian Ocean

Weherahena Temple near Matara

Weherahena Temple near Matara

fishing villiage, Weligama Bay

fishing village, Weligama Bay

famous stilt fisherman, Weligama

famous stilt fisherman, Weligama

refreshments courtesy of king coconut vendor

refreshments courtesy of king coconut vendor

Onwards to the Dutch fortifications in Galle, the sixth UNESCO World Heritage Site on our agenda. Spent a lazy afternoon walking the charming streets and alleys of Old Galle and the ancient walls around the colonial fort. Stopping for tea at the luxurious Amangalla Hotel is a must.

Galle Fort, Moon Bastion

Galle Fort, Moon Bastion

watching cricket on the ramparts, International Stadium

watching cricket from the ramparts, Int’l Stadium

Old Galle

Old Galle

All Saints Church

All Saints Church

verandah, Amangalla Hotel

verandah, Amangalla Hotel

Galle promenade, from the lighthouse

Galle promenade, from the lighthouse

Our last night in Sri Lanka at the Doornberg (The Dutch House) was perfection with bouquets of flowers, gentle background music, detailed room decor, and plentiful artwork. Dinner across the street at sister residence, the elegant Sun House, and its 3-course menu won best meal of the trip. The staff was so attentive, I sneezed and a tissue appeared in a blink. In appreciation of your visit, owner Geoffrey Dobbs kindly donates a planted tree on your behalf to preserve the country’s coastline. Amazing.

my chamber, the Doornberg

my chamber, the Doornberg

happy, dinner at the Sun House

happy, dinner at the Sun House

Last day in Sri Lanka started with a Simpifly chartered helicopter flight over the hill country from the tea plantations to Adam’s Peak. That was awesome.

co-pilot

co-pilot

southern interior

hill country

tea plantations

tea plantations

central highlands waterfall

central highlands waterfall

The rest of the day we spent in Sri Lanka’s capital, Colombo, had lunch at Galle Face Hotel and walked on the promenade of Galle Face Green.

Galle Face Hotel

Galle Face Hotel

promenade, Galle Face Green

promenade, Galle Face Green

snacks, Galle Face Green

lots of snacks, Galle Face Green

sunset, Galle Face Green, Colombo

sunset, Galle Face Green, Colombo

That is how you squish a 14-day itinerary into 8-days and 7-nights. Should you have any energy left, Bandaranaike International Airport has a tea village with up-market tea-shops towards departures gate 14. Enjoy.

Stourhead House and Gardens, Wiltshire ~ Idyllic England

grounds of Stourhead

grounds of Stourhead

The National Trust is a UK conservation charity protecting some 567 historic houses and buildings, gardens and parks, coasts and countryside, sites and monuments throughout the country. If you live in Britain, you should become a member.

My favourite National Trust property is Stourhead, an 18th century landscape garden and Palladian mansion in Wiltshire. Designed by Henry Hoare II, the house holds treasures for period-lovers including the Regency Library with a magnificent lunette painted window based on Raphael’s Vatican fresco, The School of Athens, while the manicured lawns brim with temples and other elaborate follies that visually delight in any season. Enjoy Stourhead for the day just a few hours from London via the M3 motorway. View the great-house, gallivant the grounds at your leisure and imagine it’s your very own home-sweet-home (or perhaps that’s just me). Check out the gardens:

Palladian Bridge

Palladian Bridge

the Grotto

the Grotto

Pantheon

Pantheon

Temple of Apollo

Temple of Apollo

Stourhead's colourful environs

Stourhead’s colourful environs

February 22nd: Post dedicated to my dear old Dad, Happy Birthday Pop!

A very British Christmas

This year marked my first Christmas away from a familial home, instead deciding to remain in my English domicile. Upon relaying this intention to friends, the oft-reply wished me glad tidings, “you’ll be having a Charles Dickens Christmas!” Somewhat confused by this comment because I intended to stay in posh North London, not removed to the 19th century Victorian era. Nevertheless, I decided to ponder the prospective meaning of an English Noël.

One lovely aspect of Christmas in the U.K. (a nominally Christian country) is the unabashed awareness and unreserved “Happy Christmas” that passes many lips. Most everyone celebrates the holiday in some fashion regardless of religious persuasion, largely due to the cultural importance and inclusivity of the day.

My Christmas-day dawned with midnight Mass at St. Dominic’s with excited chirps of children blended into carols and Latin sung choruses. Evergreen branches sparsely decorated the church’s towering columns with vaulted ceilings compelling the eye toward enormous stained glass windows rising above the ornate gothic altar. When the pipe organ bellowed the closing hymn, Adeste Fideles, the church bells gracefully began to chime and I instinctively reached for my iPhone to capture the uplifting experience. Suppressing the notion, I momentarily chastised myself, closed my eyes and continued singing.

Somewhere betwixt the quaintly illuminated High Street decorations, a BBC special showcasing the nation’s best loved Christmas food and my own feast finale of flaming traditional pudding, I realised the magical merriment of Christmas in Britain – a truly Dickensian* Yuletide.

*Dickensian [dɪˈkɛnzɪən] b.  characterized by jollity and conviviality a Dickensian scene round the Christmas tree

Joyous sentiments of British Christmas culminate in New Year celebrations and fireworks over the Thames ~ for those observing the Gregorian calendar, best wishes for 2013!

Sweet Arizona ~ 12 reasons to visit AZ

A few weeks ago, while visiting friends in Arizona, I was reminded of the beauty and variety of attractions that lure travelers to the American southwest.

Personally, I jump transatlantically from LHR to one of the international ports of EWR-PHL-JFK every few months, so it seldom occurs to me to write about, well, America. For one thing, traveling to the U.S. isn’t exciting or exotic, it’s home.

For another, I am not inspired by “NYLA,” the top two destinations for foreign tourists visiting the USA, otherwise known as New York and Los Angeles. Here’s why. I’m a former Los Angeleno. Although I consider California in general and L.A. in particular a sun-soaked, drive-thru paradise, the town lacks soul. Style over substance, LaLa land is brimming with pretty-but-vacant people.

As for the east coast rival, New York City does have unique, adrenaline fueled attitude but to borrow a British phrase, NYC is exceedingly “up its own arse.” New Yorkers, who refer to their locale simply as “the City,” insist the five borough conglomerate is the best metropolis on the planet, designating anyone and anything originating in or associated with NYC, ipso facto, awesome. New York is one of many amazing world-cities, but I say, if you don’t have a passport or indeed have never left “the City,” you don’t get a vote in the global best-city-contest.

Essentially, if you visit America from one of the 196-or-so other countries in the world, forget NY and LA. Whilst you deliberate on the remaining 48-state options, here are 12 reasons to consider a holiday in Arizona.

  1. The Grand Canyon. An awe-inspiring wonder of the natural world, 30 million tourist sail through the Grand Canyon National Park each year.
  2. A photographer’s paradise. Gawk at the Petrified Forest, Painted Desert, Sunset Crater, Red Rock formations, Hoover Dam or dramatic canyons and rapids of the Colorado River.
  3. Large cities. If you crave urban life, shopping or fine dining, then stop in Phoenix, Tucson, Mesa, Scottsdale or Tempe.
  4. Smaller towns. Whether your inclination is Native American culture, exploring remnants of the old wild west or a new-age adventure chasing energy Vortexes, choose to stay in Sedona, Flagstaff, Tombstone, Prescott or Yuma.
  5. Lake Havasu. “Arizona’s Playground” is also home to England’s famous London Bridge which was shipped stone-by-stone and reconstructed in Lake Havasu City.
  6. Water-sports in the desert. Lake Mead and Lake Powell are the two largest man-made reservoirs in the U.S.
  7. Winter-sports. Play like a snowbird and ski the Arizona Snowbowl.
  8. Spectator sports. Avid fans and amateur enthusiasts can cheer for the home team because Arizona’s resident professionals include baseball (Diamondbacks), basketball (Suns and WNBA Mercury), hockey (Coyotes) and football teams (Cardinals).
  9. The great outdoors. Nature aficionados can appreciate fishing, hiking, biking and boating, an abundance of National Parks and recreational areas and hundreds of luxury golf courses.
  10. Historic Route 66. Drive baby, drive; part of the original iconic road runs from Seligman to Kingman, Arizona. 
  11. Four Corners Monument. In Navajo country, stand in four states at once at the quadripoint of Arizona, Colorado, New Mexico and Utah.
  12. Day-trip south of the border. Bring your passport and say “hola” to Mexico, just seven miles from Yuma.

“Arizona has more parks and national monuments than any other state, more mountains than Switzerland, and more golf courses than Scotland.” Conveniently, British Airways offers direct flights from Heathrow to Phoenix Sky Harbor. www.arizonaguide.com

 

When you hear hoofbeats think Zürich, and a river runs through it

“Are you going to the beach in Zürich?” one of my geography challenged co-workers asked. Luckily, the seaside was not a prerequisite when a friend and I were deciding on a European city-break to celebrate our mutually milestone-esque birthdays. We narrowed the field to Paris (obvious, always diverting), Frankfurt (she’s a former resident of the German-burg), Berlin (sexy, on the trendy side of edgy), Milan (Italy, enough said), and Zürich. Playing word association with “Switzerland” conjured notions of clocks and watches, chocolates and cheese, banking and piles of money kept discreetly in offshore secret bunkers, the actualization of neutrality, and the one famous Swiss guy − tennis legend Roger Federer; images punctuated with the majestic snow-capped Alps. We selected Zürich, Switzerland’s largest city, consistently voted a best place to live because of its wealth and high quality of life.

the Limmat River bisects Zürich flowing from Zürichsee Lake

If rich and exceedingly glamorous people flock via private yacht to St. Tropez or Marbella, more sensible glitzophiles with steady jobs and balance-free American Express cards land in Zürich. Here are my Top 3 city delights.

1. The dining experience.

There is no shortage of choice for trendy, chic, nouveau, or old world restaurants housed in everything from 17th century guildhalls to renovated, re-designed industrial spaces. We had the pleasure of dining at LaSalle located in a converted shipbuilding factory. The lovely staff, rustic elegance, and luscious cocktails contribute to the restaurant’s charm along with the dining room’s open-and-airy, glass-filled ambiance all of which softens the distress for vegetarians who must turn the other cheek in this carnivore paradise. Bison, rabbit, and veal cravings can be quickly satisfied or for the more daring, horse fillet with garlic featured on the menu (horsemeat generously, or rather surprisingly, sourced from Canada and the USA).

after-dinner cocktails at Terrasse Café

Our second evening, dressed for dinner at Kronenhalle, we patronized without our diamonds and pearls and were subsequently relegated to a backroom table in this overly-conservative, stuffy local institution. Only the ability to view original artwork adorning the walls by Picasso, Matisse, Chagall, and Kandinsky, abated our feigned indignation.

Kronenhalle

2. The Spa experience.

I did mention birthdays and along with the calendar demarcation looms an annual contemplation of life. Although I have an inclination to revive the lost art of growing old gracefully, it is not counter-intuitive to another aspiration, namely, professionally-pampering my body. Switzerland has spas aplenty and claims some of the world’s best luxury spas and wellness resorts. We enjoyed the day spa at The Dolder Grand and left this hillside castle hotel feeling refreshed, relaxed, and ten-years younger.

hallway to spa heaven

3. The shopping experience.

Zürich has stylish little museums and galleries and the admirably clean, compact city allows ease of navigation through cobblestone streets to churches, courtyards, and riverside cafés. Personally, I prefer art and culture to shops and souvenirs but I confess to enjoying Bahnhofstrasse, the broad pedestrianized boulevard of endless retail options. In a daze of merchandize I succumbed to commercialism, purchasing insanely expensive shoes in the form of blue-suede-heels from Bally.

relaxing post-Bahnhofstrasse

Unquestionably a finance capital, Zürich residents vary across the spectrum from unabashed luxury sedan driving capitalists to young contemporary bike-riding artists; no one overly ostentatious and all seemingly enjoy Zürich’s high standard of living. Peering through a veneer of regulated Protestant-modesty, the city reverberates with comfort and affluence. Pleasant, sophisticated, and a river runs through it.

Grossmünster (Great Church) on Limmatquai

Notes from my Learn 1 Thing a Day collection:

Switzerland has four national languages: French, German, Italian, and Romansch.

The abbreviation for the Swiss Franc, the country’s currency is CHF because Switzerland, is also known as Confoederatio Helvetica (Latin). The Helvetians were the first tribe to settle in this central European region.

“For all the gnomish bankers and uptight Protestant burghers, Zürich was never simply the soulless, spotless city of reputation, even if James Joyce claimed that if you spilled soup on the Bahnhofstrasse you could lick it up.” – Wallpaper City Guide

St. Peters Kirche (Europe’s largest clock face)