*With apologies to the old lefthander, Joe Nuxhall
After leaving Madeira we spent a full week at sea crossing the Atlantic to Ft Lauderdale, where we would exit the ship on the morning of April 30. There was a lot going on during that week, with people preparing to leave the ship, goodbye parties, performances, etc. So here’s a taste of all that.
HAL’s crews are mostly Indonesian & Filipino (HAL has a training facility in Indonesia), and each group put on a show of song & dance from their native country. Both shows were colorful & entertaining & it was fun to see the talent of some of our regular waiters, wine stewards, room attendants, etc.. First the Indonesian show.
A few days later the Filipino staff presented their show. Our wine steward for the last part of the trip, who was called Nestor, produced, directed & was one of the star performers in this show. He did a great job.
There were several other notable voyage ending concerts. First, David & Attila, the excellent violin & piano duo that played in the Explorers’ Lounge every night under the name of Adagio, had a concert on the stage in the Queen’s Lounge backed by the Amsterdam Orchestra. They are always very good, but maybe a little better in their natural habitat. They really don’t need any accompaniment.
An amazingly good steel drum group called Island Magic gave two performances during the last week. Not just the expected Calypso music, they played classical & swing numbers as well. You haven’t heard anything until you have heard classical music played on steel drums! At their first concert they started out with three Andrew Lloyd Weber pieces & we weren’t sure we wanted to stay for an Andrew Lloyd Weber tribute concert, but then they proceeded to a more interesting mix of music & we were really glad we stayed. The two front players even engaged in some Pips style choreography a few times. Great show.
There was a final musical extravaganza that included most of the musicians who had been with the ship throughout the voyage. It opened with the Amsterdam Orchestra playing with the singers from the production ensemble from the second half of he trip. Sebastian, the superb guitarist with the Amsterdam Orchestra, was showcased for a few songs, at least one of which he wrote himself. Debbie Bacon from the Piano Bar played a rousing six handed piece with Michael & Connor, the keyboardists with the Amsterdam Orchestra. The Neptunes, a very good jazz trio when they aren’t just playing for dancing, performed & then David & Attila were back on the main stage for another piece backed by the Orchestra. The lead singer with the dance band from the Crow’s Nest, whose name we don’t know, gave a dynamite performance of Man of La Mancha and Michael & Connor were back for some four handed piano. There was more, but we had to leave for dinner.
And so it was time to pack up (a big job after four months) & say goodbye. There was an assembly for that in the Queen’s Lounge, where Captain Mercer & Gene the Cruise Director spoke, among others. Barbara, the travel guide, presented a five minute(!) recap of the entire four month journey, complete with pictures.
Time for one more party, a champagne get together in Robert & Bill’s suite, then it was time to disembark on the morning of May 30 (that part wasn’t fun). Here is a last picture of the group that shared our table for the full four months, time enough to get to know each other very well. We were lucky; it was a really good group of table mates who got along really well the whole time. One person compared it to a family, but Rick disagreed because we never fought with one another. Here we are with a special order of one of our favorite deserts (well, favorite of everybody but Robert & Mary), a Cappuccino Bomb consisting of a large hunk of cappuccino ice cream enclosed in hard chocolate.
The day we disembarked we had lunch with John & Karen, friends from a previous cruise, a little way north of Ft Lauderdale, then dinner with Ada & Chuck, also friends from a previous cruise, in Miami. We greatly enjoyed seeing them all, but we should have taken two days. Then we spent a few days with Michael & Irene, Mary’s aunt & uncle, in St Petersburg & another night with Barb & Bing, more friends from previous cruises. In South Carolina we had dinner with Linda & Paul, Rick’s cousins, then made it home the next day. It was really nice seeing all of these people who we hadn’t seen in some time, but what a social whirl! We were very tired when we finally got home, but just three weeks later we were off again on a three week driving trip to Texas & Minneapolis to visit family. So that partially explains why it took so long after we got back to complete this blog!
So that’s it for this truly epic journey, a true circumnavigation of the globe (which we discovered requires you to pass through two points on precisely opposite sides of the world . . . ours were near New Zealand & Gibraltar)). This is truly a once in a lifetime trip . . . unless you do it again, which we just might. So long until next time.
On April 22 we were docked in Funchal on the Portuguese island of Madeira. The last time we were here, we took the cable car up to Monte & an excursion around this exceptionally beautiful island. See https://baderjournal.wordpress.com/2013/03/27/madeira-day-1-funchal/ and https://baderjournal.wordpress.com/2013/03/27/madeira-day-2-around-the-island/. We were pretty tired of bus trips by the time we arrived here this time (our last one for this voyage was to Florence), so we decided to spend the day walking around Funchal. We had planned to take the cable car up the mountain to Monte because last time we went up there it was late in the day and everything was closed. Some friends of ours took a bus excursion there early in the morning & said the views were fine but by the time we left the ship in miid-morning the mountain was enclosed in a cloud & it pretty much stayed that way all day, so we abandoned that plan.
Instead, we took the shuttle bus in to the edge of town & spent some time in the Jardim Municipal (Municipal Gardens). This island is famous for its abundance of beautiful flora, and we were there in early Spring when much of it was in bloom.
The gardens also have a lovely pond with swans, ducks & fountains.
We walked into town through the attractive streets of Funchal to the Municipal Plaza. The town hall is on one side of this square, but we visited the beautiful Church of St John the Evangelist that was across the way. Built in the 17th century, this church is connected to a Jesuit college. Its façade is fairly plain, in the Portuguese style of white walls outlined with dark (volcanic?) stone. In contrast, the inside is a fantasy of frescoed walls & ceiling with gilded altar pieces and tiled sections.
The Mercado dos Lavradores (Farmer’s Market) is a building several stories high with an open central courtyard. It was built in 1940. The mostly open first floor is crowded with flower, fruit & vegetable stands selling local produce under umbrellas to protect from the sun. The second floor has more fruit & vegetable stands, where vendors offer free samples, then charge exorbitant prices for more. There are also crafts & souvenir stores on this level. In the back are the butchers, hacking away at the fresh catch. It’s a very colorful market, well worth experiencing, but not a good place to actually buy fruits & vegetables because of the prices.
We walked through the old section of town behind the market, now the location of many cafes & art galleries, then out to the East side of Funchal. There we came upon the Church of Santa Maria Maior (although it also goes by other names), apparently built in the 18th century on the site of a 16th century chapel dedicated to St Tiago that was constructed to hold off an epidemic. The church was closed, but its outside was quite nice in the Portuguese black & white style.
Nearby on the waterfront is the dark yellow Fortress de Sao Tiago, built in 1614 to protect the city from pirates. Today it houses an upscale restaurant & art galleries. The best things in this area, though are the views of the coast.
Walking back toward town provided more nice views of the city & the waterfront. We also passed an archaeological site uncovering some 15th century housing & wells and an original city wall built in the late 16th century. There were many beautiful flowers along this walk as well.
One of the distinctive aspects of walking through a Portuguese city is the black and white mosaic sidewalks in many different patterns. Funchal is no exception. We always enjoy these (although the best are in Rio).
We passed the 15th century Cathedral of Our Lady of the Assumption, known for short as the Se Catedral. It is supposed to be quite beautiful inside but it was closed the day we were there (this sure seems to happen a lot). We passed the municipal garden one more time & boarded the shuttle back to the ship.
So ended our final day in port, an enjoyable walk through a lovely city. Not as spectacular as many of the ports we visited on this voyage, but a good one for winding down toward the end. Of course, it was not really the end because we still had a week to spend at sea crossing the Atlantic to Fort Lauderdale. A little more on that anon, but for now we will leave with a parting look at Funchal.
We spent April 20 in Cadiz. We had previously docked here in 2013, https://baderjournal.wordpress.com/2013/10/11/cadiz-seville-spain/, but we spent that day visiting Seville (a completely worthwhile trip) so Cadiz itself was mostly new to us. Cadiz is on the Atlantic coast, outside the Mediterranean. Founded by the Phoenicians in 1104 BC, it is considered to be the oldest continuously occupied city In Europe. In the 17th & 18th centuries Cadiz became very wealthy as the terminus for the American gold & silver trade after the river to Seville was blocked by silt. The city was mostly destroyed in 1596 by Sir Francis Drake, so most of the old city dates from the 17th & 18th centuries. Central Cadiz is located on a large peninsula jutting out into a bay, so there is water all around it. The cruise ship port is right downtown, giving quite a view of the city from the ship.
The night before reaching Cadiz there was a performance by a Flamenco group, dancers and a superb guitarist, who sailed with us for several days through Spain. The guitarist had given an intimate solo performance for a small audience in the Crow’s Nest bar earlier in the afternoon, which whetted our appetite for the full performance at night on the main stage of the Queen’s Lounge. It was not a disappointment!
Cadiz is unusually visitor friendly. Across the street from Amsterdam’s berth is a large park, at the end of which is the tourist information office. They gave us a map of the city marked with four color coded walking tours. These tours are actually marked on the streets themselves in the color indicated on the map, so it was pretty easy to follow. We followed (loosely) the green walking tour of the old part of the city.
Our first stop was Plaza de San Juan de Dios, laid out on land reclaimed from the sea beginning in the 15th century. The plaza is dominated by the old town hall, built between 1799 & 1861. In front of it on the plaza is a statue of a Cadiz politician erected in 1906, when the plaza was also expended after the city walls were demolished.
The attached building with the brown tower to the left of the town hall is the church of San Juan de Dios, formerly the Misericordia Hospital. It was built in the late 17th century & is quite elaborate inside with a small but beautiful pipe organ. We had not previously seen (or at least noticed) pipes facing forward like those in this organ.
The old part of Cadiz near the city hall, called Barrio del Populo, is famous for its picturesque narrow winding streets. Among other things, we came upon the Casa del Almirante (Admiral’s House), built in 1690 by Don Diego de Barrios, admiral of Spain’s American treasure fleet.
The Cadiz Cathedral was built between 1722 and 1838 on the site of the previous cathedral, which was built in 1260 & burned down by the English in 1596. It is one of the largest in Spain. It has a golden dome and two towers, and appeared from the ship to tower over the city on the opposite side of the peninsula. There was a good bit of construction in progress when we were there so we didn’t go inside.
On the left side of Cathedral Plaza is the Arco de la Rosa, one of the gates of the medieval; city walls built in the 12th century. On the other side is the Church of Santiago. It was rebuilt in 1635 after the English plundered the city in 1596. There are several 17th century gilded Baroque altarpieces inside & a single octagonal tower on top.
The Plaza de Las Flores is an oblong plaza full of flower vendors & cafes. It is pretty but also popular and therefore crowded. On one side of the plaza is the Correos, the main post office, an attractive brick building with a novel mail slot. On the other side is the Mercado Central (Central Market). The market’s outside walls with porticoes date to the mid-19th century and the central buildings were added in 1928. We saw mostly fruit & vegetable stands and fresh seafood (some still alive) & butchers.
Not too far from the mercado is the Palacio de los Marqueses de Recano, built around 1730, which is typical of the mansions built by merchants in the American trade. It is on the highest spot in the old city, some 45 meters above sea level, and on top is the Tavira Tower. In the 18th century there were more than 160 such watch towers used by merchants to look for ships arriving from the sea. The Tavila Tower is the tallest one remaining; in 1788 it wa designated as the watchtower for the port of Cadiz. The tower reputedly gives a fine panoramic view of the city & also contains a camera obscura that is supposed to be interesting. But its about 170 steps to climb to the top and Mary was still feeling the effects of the Dubai illness, so we didn’t go up. Across the street is the 18th century Hospital de Mujares, one of the first women’s hospitals. You can see below that its façade is interesting, with unusual cross shaped windows on the second floor. Inside is a courtyard with stone staircases leading to the upper floors, but the gem is an extremely elaborate gilded chapel, sharply contrasting with the grey stone of the rest of the building, inside which is a magnificent painting by El Greco of St Francis in Ecstasy. Sadly, no photography was allowed inside the building so we have only the picture of the façade to include here.
Just up the street from the Tavira Tower we discovered the Municipal Library, so you know we had to visit that! It was very nice, with white balustrades around a central atrium reaching to the 4th floor.
We wandered the interesting & sometimes crowded streets of the city for awhile on our way to the Cadiz Museum. The streets are probably the most interesting things to see in Cadiz.
The Cadiz Museum sits on the quiet Plaza de Mina. The museum is quite interesting, although the lack of English signage limits its enjoyment by folks like us. The first floor is the archaeological museum, containing many artifacts from Cadiz’s long history. But its prime exhibit is a pair of Phoenician sarcophagi. As mentioned above, the Phoenicians founded Cadiz (or as they called it, Gadir) around 1100 BC. The male sarcophagus, uncovered in 1887, was the first item in the archaeological museum, & was later joined by the female sarcophagus that was uncovered in 1980. There is also a large statue of the Roman Emperor Trajan, who was born not far from Cadiz. The second floor is filled with art, mostly Spanish painting, and the third floor (which was closed for renovations when we visited) contains a collection of large puppets used in local festivals.
I failed to mention earlier that it was a chilly & drizzly day. We emerged from the museum to discover that there had been a downpour while we were inside (good timing). As a result the streets & plazas were much less crowded than they had been during the morning. We visited the small 18th century Oratorio de la Santa Cueva (Holy Cave), which got its name from a subterranean cave that was converted into a chapel. The stark underground chapel has a dramatic painted wood crucifixion sculpture. On the top floor is a very richly decorated elliptical chapel with a dome. This chapel has five semicircular paintings, three of which are by Francisco Goya.
It was still drizzling on and off as we strolled to the water front on the far side of the peninsula from the cruise port, behind the Cathedral. In addition to the dramatic curved waterfront we saw the 1st century AD Roman Theater, discovered only in 1980. One of the largest theaters in the Roman empire, it could accommodate some 20,000 spectators. Next to it was a pile of spiral columns, which may or may not have been part of the theater.
On our way back to the cruise port we stopped by the Plaza de Espana to see the monument to the 1812 constitution. This was Spain’s first republican constitution, written in Cadiz while Napoleon occupied the rest of Spain. The monument was begin about 100 years after the constitution was written & completed in 1929. The text of the constitution is displayed on the tall pillar in the center, with a statue representing justice at its base.
Getting back into the port was something of an ordeal because guards at the gate required many people to empty their pockets. But before long we were back on the ship for our departure from Europe, with only one more port to visit before the end of the voyage. So here is one last look at the panorama of Cadiz from the ship before we sailed away.
We docked in Barcelona on April 18, the last of four consecutive days in different ports. We had been to Barcelona in 2013, https://baderjournal.wordpress.com/2013/09/11/barcelona-spain/, & were hoping to see the Picasso Museum, which had been too crowded for us to visit last time. But it turned out our visit was on a Monday this time, so all the museums were closed. Maybe next time.
We were docked pretty far down from the entrance to the harbor; one of the new Viking ocean ships had the berth right next to the entrance. There was a shuttle bus to take us from the ship to near the Columbus monument at the base of the Ramblas. Unlike every other port we visited (and unlike our last stop in Barcelona 3 years ago), the shuttle cost 5 Euros a person. Everyone found this irritating; many thought it was cheap of HAL not to pick up this small cost for its Grand Voyage guests. Some folks refused to use the shuttle & walked the mile or so into town, but since Mary was still feeling the effects from Dubai we took the shuttle.
We had two goals for the day. First, on our last visit we saw quite a few of the buildings created by local icon Antoni Gaudi, but only saw the inside of one, the Sagrada Familia church. This time we wanted to tour the inside of one of his residential buildings, Casa Mila, nicknamed La Padrera (the stone quarry) because of its looks. Completed in 1911, this was Gaudi’s last commercial project, subsequently concentrating exclusively on religious works. Very controversial in its time, today La Pedrera is a UNESCO World Heritage site.
To get there we walked up the Ramblas, past the monument of Christopher Columbus pointing to the new world, reputedly at the spot where he came ashore in 1493 after his first voyage. The Ramblas, one of Europe’s great boulevards, Is a pedestrian road flanked by trees & then two narrow streets. Usually crowded & busy, full of locals & tourists & vendors & cafes, it is a relatively serene & pleasant venue for an early morning walk. Among other things, we passed a woman getting dressed as, presumably, one of the living statues we would see later on our return. Further up we passed an interesting building on a corner with a street sculpture of a book outside it. Everywhere you go in this city you see buildings with interesting & unusual architectural flourishes.
We had read that lines to see the inside of Casa Mila could be as long as an hour & a half, but there was almost no line at all when we arrived. This is probably due to the morning hour & the date, before the real tourist season. The entrance was through the central courtyard of the building, open at the top, which gave a view all the way up. There is a stairway to the second floor, with painted decorations, pillars & plants. But the first stop on the self-guided audio tour is the roof, reached by an elevator.
The rooftop is a wonderland, a giant sculpture garden of chimneys with excellent views thrown in. It was pretty crowded with visitors, but still quite beautiful. On the inside you could look over the courtyard atrium, with its undulating curved lines.
On the outside were views of the surrounding buildings & streets, as well as La Sagrada Familia & some other churches in the distance.
But really, the best part is the sculptures & chimneys displayed on the roof, most covered in Gaudi’s trademark broken ceramic or stone mosaics. They come in all shapes and sizes & are interesting alone as well as in groups.
We walked down the stairs to the building’s huge “attic,” where tenants originally did their laundry. It is an arched space covered in red brick that today houses an exhibit about Gaudi’s art, including a number of models of his most famous buildings. There are 270 brick arches holding it up, all catenary arches characteristic of Gaudi’s work. These arches are the equivalent of the curve created by hanging a chain from its two ends, then turning that curve upside down. There was a display here of how such chains hang to create the curve. The whole place was dramatically lighted to great effect.
There is one apartment maintained as a display for visitors, furnished with items from the turn of the 20th century. The rooms were very nice & looked quite livable, even though the spaces and doorways are quite unconventional. We walked down there from the attic & through a hallway to visit the apartment.
Perhaps the best part of the apartment was the view through the windows. Someone has written that from the outside the apartment windows & balconies look like caves in the side of a mountain & from the inside they look like cave entrances as well. Each one seems to be different & they are partly covered with dynamic abstract wrought iron railings.
We left through (of course) the gift shop & had a last look at the atrium on our way out.
We walked down toward our second objective for the day, the Palau de la Musica Catalana (Catalan Music Hall). On the way we passed Gaudi’s Casa Battlo and, as always in Barcelona, several other interesting buildings.
The Palau de la Musica Catalana opened in 1908. It was designed by modernista architect Lluis Domenech I Montaner as a home for Orfeo Catalana, a choral group that was a cultural leader at the time. Most building at that time was being done in the Eixample district, a 19th century extension of the city beyond what used to be the city walls. That is where most of Gaudi’s best work can be found. But the Orfeo wanted their performance hall to be in the neighborhood where they lived, so it was built in an area of crowded narrow streets where it is impossible to get a good view of the building’s elaborate exterior. The Palau is a UNESCO World Heritage site.
We saw the outside of this amazing building on our last trip to Barcelona in 2013 (see pictures in that posting), but we were not able to see the inside. Unless you are attending a concert, the only way to see the inside of the Palau is on a tour & there are only a few tours in English each day. To be sure we would get in one we purchased timed tickets ahead of time on the internet. This worked out well for us, although it appeared that tickets were available for walk-ups shortly before the tour started, perhaps because this was before the real tourist season began. The tour met in the foyer, an area open to the outside added in the original style of the building during a 1980’s renovation. In the center is a coffee bar surrounded by tables. The arched ceilings are decorated with ceramic flowers & lines, some of which converge in six pointed stars, & there are red brick pillars holding it up.
After a short introductory film we walked into the main lobby & up the stairs. The lobby is decorated mostly in gold & white. There is a grand marble staircase with elaborate lamps on each side & golden glass supports for the handrails.
We gathered into a large room on the second floor called Lluis Millet Hall, named after one of the founders of the Orfeo. It has stained glass windows leading to a porch on the façade facing the street with very colorful & ornate mosaic pillars. We had seen this from the street last time we were here, but got a much more intimate view from the porch itself. Each of the mosaic pillars is unique & bright with color.
We went downstairs through the delightfully decorated hall & stairway to the concert hall. This is a fabulous room, considered one of the world’s most beautiful concert halls.
The concert hall seats about 2200 people on two levels. It is the only auditorium in Europe illuminated during the day with natural light coming through the windows & ceiling skylight. The stage is surrounded on top and sides by marble sculpture, the right side featuring Wagner’s ride of the Valkyries & a bust of Beethoven. The back of the stage is an orange semi-circle with relief sculptures of 18 young women playing instruments, each in a different costume with their lower bodies done in mosaic. They are often called the muses, although there were only 9 muses in Greek mythology.
We walked upstairs to have a view from the balcony. On the way up we passed behind the busts of composers on the façade above the porch. The view of the concert hall from the balcony was even more beautiful.
For many, the real highlight of this room (no pun intended) is the fabulous stained glass skylight in the center of the ceiling. The golden center portion droops down from a mostly blue background, like the sun in the sky, and is surrounded by female faces (presumably singing, since this is a music hall). If it looks familiar, perhaps you have seen it on the screen of an LG television in one of their print ads. The skylight & the huge windows are functional as well as beautiful, because the Orfeo wanted to have natural light in their concert hall & its location among narrow streets lined with multi-story buildings made this difficult to accomplish.
Above the windows on the sides the ceiling appears to be supported by giant yellow mushrooms lined with red & gray ceramic roses, with chandeliers hanging from them.
We left the Palau & walked to the Ramblas, where we had an excellent lunch in the window of a restaurant where we could watch folks walking by.
After eating we walked back down the Ramblas to the shuttle bus stop for the trip back to the ship. We passed one of our favorite buildings there, a former umbrella factory with a dragon on the corner holding an umbrella. We also saw some of the human statues near the bottom of the Ramblas. These are individuals who dress up like statues & pose perfectly still . . . until you come close when they will suddenly move just a little. Silly, but fun. Just before we reached the shuttle stop we passed the Old Port Authority building & the Aduena Building, the old customs house, both built in the first decade of the 20th century.
So there you have it, several of Barcelona’s highlights on a much too short one day stop. We then left the Mediterranean, headed for Cadiz.
April 16 found us in the port of Livorno, the access point for a number of cities in Tuscany. Since neither of us had been to Florence in decades we decided to spend the day there. We signed up for a bus transfer that would drop us off & pick us up about 6 hours later, much as we had done in Rome the day before. Again this worked out very well for us.
The Renaissance began in Florence around the beginning of the 15th century. It was characterized by a new interest in science and classical Greek & Roman culture, along with a more humanistic worldview softening the church’s domination of culture. Florence was an independent city state that would come to be dominated by the Medici family, bankers who were among the richest families in Europe. The Medici’s (and other wealthy families) became patrons of Florentine art during the Renaissance period, which helped enable the artists to expand from the previous focus on religious art to decorate religious buildings.
Leaving our transfer group in Piazza Santa Croce, we walked up to the Piazza del Duomo to see the Cathedral of Santa Maria del Fiore (usually called “Il Duomo” because of its spectacular dome), the largest building in Florence & one of the most important architectural achievements of the Renaissance. Construction of the cathedral began in 1296 on the foundation of an earlier cathedral. The original model for the cathedral included an octagonal dome some 144 feet wide, with no buttresses, but no one knew how to build one. Thus in 1418, with a huge hole in the roof of the cathedral, a competition was initiated to select an architect to build this, particularly difficult because there was not enough wood in Tuscany to build a scaffolding to hold it up during construction. The story is told that Brunelleschi won the competition by proposing during a meeting that anyone who could make an egg stand on end on a piece of marble should get the commission. The egg went around the table with everyone failing, then Brunelleschi smashed one end of the egg on the marble & placed it there upright. “We could have done that,” the others protested, but Brunelleschi replied “You could have, but you didn’t. You could build the dome as well, if you knew my secret plans for it.”
The dome was completed in 1436. Brunelleschi essentially invented the engineering techniques that together enabled it to be built without scaffolding & ensure that it did not collapse of its own weight for lack of external supports. Notable were the double dome design, in which the thicker internal dome was used to support a thin outer dome; the circular supports embedded in the dome at regular intervals; and the herringbone design of the brickwork that helped support it as it was built. He also invented a new type of pulley apparatus to lift the heavy stones to the top along with other novel tools. This is still the largest masonry dome in the world & has influenced the building of innumerable later domes, including the U.S. Capitol. The marble lantern on top of the dome, also designed by Brunelleschi, was completed in 1469. The original 14th century façade was dismantled in the late 16th century, but was not replaced until 1887. This neo-gothic façade is made of red, green & white marble & is dramatic in effect, though some think it too busy.
Before visiting the cathedral itself, however, we visited the Museo dell’Opera del Duomo (Duomo museum) across the street behind the cathedral. This museum is devoted largely to artifacts from the Duomo & its Baptistry, moved here either after being displaced by renovations or for preservation. The museum building was originally constructed in the 14th century to house offices and workshops connected with the construction work on the Duomo & several Renaissance artists created well known sculptures there. It has been a museum since the 1890’s, but was reopened in October, 2015 – just 6 months before we visited — in a greatly expanded & updated form. It is well worth a visit, even if you have been there before this expansion. As you can see from the pictures just above, there is an outdoor viewing space on the museum’s roof with a fine view of the cathedral’s dome.
On the first floor is a long room that has been built on one side as a duplicate of the original pre-Renaissance façade of the cathedral that was torn down in the 16th century. The façade replica is all gray, but many of the original statues & decorations have been placed in their original positions on the façade. The original façade only covered the first story of the building, so this reproduces just about all of it.
The wall on the other side of the room contains the gilded bronze doors from all three of the entrances to the Baptistry of the cathedral. The first set of doors was made by Andrea Pisano in the mid-14th century (these do not appear to have been installed yet in the space reserved for them). The second set was made by Lorenzo Ghiberti, who won a competition (against Brunelleschi & Donatello, among others) in 1401, at the age of 21, and spent the next 21 years completing the doors. Some historians date the beginning of the Renaissance from the panels submitted by Ghiberti & Brunelleschi for this competition. In 1425 Ghiberti was commissioned to create the third set of doors, which make extensive use of perspective to give a new depth to his reliefs. All of these doors were replaced with copies on the Baptistry itself in 1990 to preserve them from further damage after 500 years of exposure to the elements. Some of the individual panels had been on display individually in the museum, but now they have been restored to their full glory in three fully reconstructed sets of doors.
Ghiberti’s first set of doors consist of 28 panels. The first 20 panels depict the life of Jesus & the lower eight show the four evangelists & Saints Ambrose, Jerome, Gregory & Augustine. The figures look natural in their movement in a way that was new * characteristic of the Renaissance. These doors made Ghiberti a celebrity. Note that the doors are behind glass that reflects the room, so the pictures are not very clear.
Ghiberti’s second set of doors depict stories from the Old Testament. The gilded bronze panels on these doors are much larger and the relief extends to the edges of the rectangles, rather than being confined inside a decorative outline as on the more traditional first set of doors. Moreover, they move in time in that some panels include more than one episode from the story they depict. There is also a new depth to the scenes, created using perspective & different depth of relief for the figures & the backgrounds. Michelangelo said these were fit to be the “Gates of Paradise,” and that is generally how they are referred to today.
Each door had a set of three sculptures above the entrance. Above the Pisano gate was “The Beheading of St John the Baptist,” sculpted in 1521 by Vincenso Danti. Above the Gates of Paradise was “The Baptism of Christ” sculpted by Andrea Sansovino in 1505. Above Ghiberti’s original prize winning gate was “John the Baptist Preaching to a Pharisee & Sadducee,” completed in 1509 by Francesco Rustici with the possible assistance of Leonardo da Vinci. The originals are all now mounted above their respective gates in the museum.
. Other things in this room of the museum include some Roman sarcophagi that stood in the square between the cathedral & the baptistry for centuries & some other statues. There are also windows from the upper floors from which you can get a closer view of some of the elevated statues. Altogether, this room makes for quite an experience.
Upstairs we saw Brunelleschi’s wooden model for the dome & his later one for the lantern. There is also a wooden model for the proposed new façade of the cathedral made in the late 16th century by Bernardo Buontalenti, but never actually built.
There were many more ancient artifacts in the museum, including architectural details replaced by later renovations & even some early 16th century hand drawn sheet music decorated with painting.
Two of the most striking sculptures in the museum to us were by Donatello & Michelangelo. Donatello’s wooden “Penitent Magdalene” was sculpted in the mid 1450’s when Donatello was in his 60’s. At that time it was unprecedented for its realism, eschewing the usual portrayal of Mary Magdalene as a beauty for a haggard depiction. It once stood in the Baptistry & may have been commissioned for it. It was damaged in the flood of 1966 and has been beautifully restored for placement in the museum.
Michelangelo’s “The Deposition,” also known as the “Florentine Pieta,” is entirely unlike the one in Rome that he sculpted in his 20’s. He began this sculpture at the age of 72 & worked on it for 8 years. Supposedly he intended it for his tomb. The face of the standing figure (Nicodemus or Joseph of Arimathea) is thought to be a self portrait. The other three figures are Mary, Jesus & Mary Magdalene. Then one night, for reasons that are unclear, he destroyed it in a fit of frustration, breaking off limbs & other parts. It was purchased by one Francesco Bandini who hired a young apprentice sculptor to restore the piece. Working from Michelangelo’s models he reattached the limbs of Mary Magdalene, the fingers of Jesus’s mother, and Jesus’s left arm, elbow & left nipple. He did not reattach Jesus’s left leg (which originally lay over his mother’s lap) or finish the uncompleted parts that still have chisel marks, but he did add the Mary Magdalene figure. The work spent time in several museums before ending up in this one.
Leaving he museum we walked around to the front of the cathedral and joined a moderate line to enter the interior. It took a little longer than it should have because irritatingly, guides with groups of tourists were allowed to bypass the regular line & gain almost immediate admittance. But it wasn’t too long before we were inside.
The cathedral, or Duomo, is more than 500 feet long and 125 feet wide while the top of the lantern is more than 375 feet above the ground. The bronze doors were made at the turn of the 20th century Above each door is a semicircular mosaic and at the top of the façade is a row of niche sculptures of the apostles flanking a sculpture of mother & child. The piazza was pretty crowded, & across from the cathedral we could see the 13th century Loggia del Bigallo which was something of an orphanage, where lost & unwanted children were accepted for care.
The interior is vast, the supporting arches stretching 75 feet high. There is a liturgical clock over the entrance with one hand, divided into 24 hours that went from sundown to sundown. This is how Italians kept time until the 18th century. The marble floor is colorful and varied in pattern. In the crypt below the cathedral you can see the archaeological remains of the previous cathedral on this site (built in the 5th century) along with other interesting exhibits. When we were there a mass was in progress in the chapel on one side of the transept.
The inside of Brunelleschi’s great dome is covered with frescos depicting “The Last Judgment,” finished in 1570 after 11 years’ work by Giorgio Vasari & Federico Zuccari. The painting covers almost 39,000 square feet. It was restored in 1995 but we saw some alarming looking cracks when we were there.
Next to the Duomo, to the right of the doors as you face them, is the bell tower originally designed by the painter Giotto. This free standing campanile is covered with red, green & white marble decoration similar to that of the cathedral, although it predates the cathedral façade by 500 years. It is more than 275 feet tall and you can climb to the top for a panoramic view of the city (we didn’t). Only the first story was finished when Giotto died in 1337 and it was completed by Andrea Pisano and later Francesco Talenti (the top 3 stories). by 1359. The top 3 levels with windows were designed using perspective, so that each level is larger than the lower one. From the ground, this makes them all look about the same size.
Across the piazza from the front of the Duomo is the Baptistry of St John, for which the three sets of gilded bronze doors shown previously were made. Constructed from 1059 to 1128 on the foundations of a Roman building, this is the oldest building in Florence. It is octagonal Romanesque in design & has a green & white marble design that harmonizes with the cathedral & Giotto’s tower. Once the Cathedral was built the Baptistry served as (obviously) the location for baptisms, and all Catholics in Florence were baptised there until the end of the 19th century. Newly baptised Catholics could proceed directly across the piazza to participate in their first Eucharist. Somehow we neglected to take a separate picture of this remarkable building (doh!), but here is one that includes part of it in the foreground along with the Duomo & Giotto’s tower in the back, showing how the three buildings form a harmonious whole around the piazza..
On the inside of the Baptistry is an apse with an altar & lined with 13th century mosaics. There is a gallery around the inside above the main floor with windows also decorated with mosaics.
The ceiling is covered with mosaics, begun in 1270 and completed in the 14th century. Venetian craftsmen created the mosaics in Venetian glass based on designs by local artists. Various religious scenes are included, including the story of Adam & Eve & the punishments of hell (part of the Last Judgment) shown below. Thankfully, there are chairs arrayed in front of the altar that enable a visitor to sit down & lean his head far enough back to take in the whole ceiling.
We walked down Via de’ Calzaiuoli to Piazza della Signoria, considered the civic center of the city. This main street connecting the religious & civic centers of the city was once filled with traffic, but today it and the two piazzas it connects are reserved for pedestrians, making all of this area very pleasant for walking. This street is a high fashion shopping area as well.
Two buildings dominate the Piazza della Signoria. The Palazzo Vecchio (“Old Palace”) is a fortress-like building with a crenelated roof & a bell tower that can be seen far & wide. It was built by the Medici’s in 1322 above the ruins of a 1st century Roman theater. It was the city hall then & is the city hall now. The entrance says (in Latin) “King of Kings and Lord of Lords,” with a monogram of Christ above it and flanked by lions. On one side of the entrance is a copy of Michelangelo’s David; the original stood here until 1873 when it was moved to a museum for safekeeping. On the other side is Bandinelli’s sculpture of Hercules and Cacus. To the left of the building is the 1565 Fontana di Nettuna (fountain of Neptune). whose face is said to resemble Cosimo I de Medici. The book burning monk Savonarola was burned in front of this fountain in 1498.
Next to the Palazzo on your right is the Loggia dei Lanzi. It was built in 1382 for public ceremonies and gatherings. Today it is an open air sculpture gallery with three large open arches facing the Piazza. Along the back wall is a row of Roman sculptures, perhaps of emperors, brought back from Rome by one of the Medici’s. In front are two notable sculptures. First, Giambologna’s 1580’s “The Rape Of the Sabines” includes three twisting figures carved from a single block of flawed marble. On the arm of the bottom figure is an electrical wire that keeps pigeons away. Second is Benvenuto Cellini’s bronze “Perseus” of 1553, portrayed with sword in one hand and the head of Medusa in the other. Cellini spent 10 years creating this sculpture.
From here we walked down to the Ponte Vecchio (“Old Bridge”). There has been a bridge at this spot since Roman times & the current one was built in 1345. This bridge over the Arno River is famously lined on both sides with shops. Originally these were mostly butchers & tanners. But in 1565 the Medici’s moved from the Palazzo Vecchio across the river to the Pitti Palace. The commissioned Vasari to build an elevated corridor over this bridge & connecting these two buildings, so they could walk between their residence & the city hall without encountering ordinary people on the streets. They didn’t like the smell from the butchers & tanners, so in 1593 they were banned & the bridge was occupied by gold merchants, who dominate the shops here to this day. The Vasari Corridor can still be seen above the shops on one side of the bridge and on the other side is a bust of Benvenuto Cellini, not only an important sculptor but one of the most prominent goldsmiths in the city. This was the only bridge in Florence that was not demolished by the retreating Nazi’s at the end of World War II, although they demolished the medieval buildings at each end to make it unusable. Some say this was on Hitler’s orders, others that the officer ordered to demolish it chose not to carry through. This is a popular tourist stop & was quite crowded when we were there.
From here we walked to the Biblioteca Nazionale Centrale di Firenze (National Central Library), the largest library in Italy, which is not far from where we were to meet our group for the transfer back to the port. This library was founded in 1714 & the current building near the river bank was completed in 1935. Since 1870 it has received copies of all publications in Italy. The flood of 1966 damaged about a third of the library’s holdings, but many of these items were subsequently repaired in the library’s Restoration Center. Sadly, the library was closed when we got there (we probably should have visited there first), but the building is quite impressive from the outside.
We walked up the street a couple of blocks (past a gelato shop we would visit a little later) to the Basilica of Santa Croce, fronting on the piazza that bears its name where we were to meet our group. This is the largest Franciscan church in the world. It was begun in 1294 and consecrated in 1442. Like the Duomo, its Neo-Gothic façade was added in the mid 19th century. It was designed by a Jewish architect named Niccolo Matas, which may explain why there is a Star of David prominently displayed near the top above the main entrance. Matas had wanted to be buried in the church but because he was Jewish he was buried under the porch rather than inside. The bell tower behind the church was built in 1842, after an earlier one was damaged by lightning.
The inside of the church is very large and open, with several chapels on each side of the altar. All are lush with 14th century frescoes.
Santa Croce was a favored burial place for the rich & famous of Florence. The tombs lining the walls of Santa Croce include such luminaries as Michelangelo, Machiavelli, Galileo & the composer Rossini. Michelangelo died in Rome but a group of Florentines broke into the Roman church where he was buried & smuggled him back to Florence, where he was interred here in 1570 in a tomb designed by Vasari. Galileo died in 1542 but was denied burial in the church because of his condemnation for heresy, but he was moved into his tomb in the church’s wall in 1737. Machiavelli was not entombed in the wall until 1787 even though he died in 1527. Rossini died in 1868 but his monument wasn’t created until 1900. There are also monuments on the wall to famous Italians who are buried elsewhere, including Dante Alighieri (exiled from Florence & buried in Ravenna in 1321), nuclear scientist Enrico Fermi & the inventor of radio, Guglielmo Marconi. There is also a well known relief of the Annunciation in gilded limestone by Donatello. The floor contains the tops of a number of other tombs (see first picture in the group above), but the guide on our transfer bus told us that the 1966 flood caused so much damage to the church that the bones in the floor were all mixed together so that today there are no remains left in these graves.
The wall of the church also displayed an interesting pipe organ originally built in 1579. We left the church into the courtyard through the porch of the Pazzi Chapel. Originally designed by Brunelleschi and completed in the mid 15th century, this is considered something of an early Renaissance masterpiece. The decorations inside the cupola of the porch were done by Luca della Robbia. Behind the chapel was a good view of the bell tower, and the piazza was viewable through the wrought iron doors of the courtyard.
We walked back down to the gelato shop & had some delicious gelato cones (they are always delicious), then back to the Piazza Santa Croce to meet our group for the bus trip back to the dock. Amazingly, for the second day in a row everyone was back on time! So we walked to the bus (the driver picked us up a good bit closer than is allowed so we wouldn’t have to walk so far) & headed into the hills outside the city. We saw a portion of the 14th century city walls and rove through one of the gates. There were also some nice views from the hills, but the best was at Piazzale Michelangelo, a hillside plaza built in 1869. The best views would have been from the edge of this plaza, but unfortunately our bus only slowed down & didn’t stop. Still, not bad for a last view of Florence.
On April 15 we docked in Civitavecchia, the port for Rome (a mere 1.5 hour bus ride away). Docked right behind us was HAL’s newest & largest ship, the 2700 passenger Koningsdam, ending its maiden voyage (I think). As a special treat, HAL invited the Amsterdam passengers over for a special tour of the new ship. But we were only here for 1 day & the tour would take all morning, so there would be no time left to go to Rome or any of the other interesting sites in the area, beyond Civitavecchia itself. So, Rome or Koningsdam? It seemed like a no-brainer to us, but to our amazement almost half the passengers chose to tour the new ship! I get it that many of these are veteran cruisers who have been here numerous times before, but really do you ever run out of things to see & do in Rome & its environs? And this is, after all, just another cruise ship. There must be something here we are missing.
We had been here before, https://baderjournal.wordpress.com/2013/08/14/rome-italy/, but to us this choice was easy. So early in the morning we boarded a bus for the trip to Rome. We would be dropped off in Rome, have 6 or 7 hours on our own, then picked up at the same spot & driven back to the ship. This turned out to be a good choice, at least for us. We were dropped off in the Piazza del Popolo & walked down Via di Ripetta past the mausoleum of Augustus to the Piazza Navona. We had visited here briefly in 2013, under time pressure of a deadline for rejoining our tour group, but this time we were able to explore it at leisure.
As you can see above, the Piazza is very long & narrow. This is because it started life as a race course built in the 1st century AD by the Emperor Domitian. In the mid-17th century Pope Innocent X, whose family palazzo faced this plaza, had it converted into a masterpiece of Baroque design, with a church in the middle of one side and three fountains down the middle. Today it is usually full of visitors & locals, including artists selling their work & itinerant vendors. When we were there the product of the day seemed to be selfie sticks (the fellow with a backpack in the 1st picture above is holding one).
We entered the Piazza from the north & stopped at the first fountain there. The Fontana del Nettuno (Fountain of Neptune) was originally constructed in the late 16th century as a terminus for a new aqueduct. For 200 years it was a utilitarian source of drinking and washing water with no statuary. The fountain was elaborated with statuary in 1878, after Rome became the capital of the new nation-state of Italy. In the center is Neptune fighting an octopus, with other statues around it. This is also the fountain in the picture above, left.
The center of the Piazza holds the masterpiece of the group, Bernini’s 1661 Fontana dei Quattro Fiumi (Fountain of the Four Rivers), the dynamic design of which was revolutionary in its time. The four rivers, representing the four continents to which Christianity had spread, are the Nile (for Africa), the Danube (for Europe), the Ganges (for Asia) & the Rio de la Plata that runs by Buenos Aires (representing the Americas). The four river gods are readily identifiable: the Ganges carries an oar, indicating navigability; the Nile’s head is covered by a cloth, because its source was unknown at that time; the Rio de la Plata is sitting on coins, indicating the riches of the Americas; the Danube is touching the Pope’s coat of arms, because it is the closest major river to Rome. All of them lie back a little from the center of the fountain where they are dwarfed by a tall obelisk, originally created in the 1st century for the Emperor Domitian and reconstructed here from the several pieces into which it had broken when it fell n the 5th century. It is often said (even by tour guides) that the fearful figure of the Rio de la Plata sculpture was intended by Bernini to be expressing horror at the church next to the fountain that was designed by a rival of his, but in fact the fountain was completed before the rival began work on the church.
On one side of the Piazza behind the Fountain of the Four Rivers is the church of Sant’Agnese In Agone, built just after the fountain was completed. It is named after St Agnes, who was martyred here when this Piazza was still the Stadium of Domitian. The primary architect was Francesco Borromini, a student and then a rival of Bernini’s. The name does not refer to the agony of martyrdom, but to the Greek for “site of competitions” that was an early name for the plaza: “piazza in agone.” We walked inside & were blown away by the stunning beauty of the interior space. Sadly, photography was not allowed inside so the only pictures here are of its façade (see also the first picture of Piazza Navona, above).
The Fontana del Moro (Fountain of the Moor) sits at the southern end of the piazza. Originally constructed circa 1575 with a statue of a dolphin in the middle & four Tritons around the edges, Bernini’s sculpture of a Moor was added in the middle with the dolphin in 1653. In 1874 the original statues were moved to a museum so the ones seen there today are copies (but good enough to fool us). An accordion trio was playing near the fountain.
Leaving Piazza Navona, we continued walking south toward the Capitoline Hill & the Forum, our major objectives for the day. We passed an archaeological site and several typical Roman streets and before long the Capitoline Hill with Michelangelo’s famous staircase came into view.
The Capitoline Hill. one of the original seven hills of Rome, has been a center of government in Rome for some 2500 years. This was the location of the ancient Temple of Jupiter and the entire hilltop was redesigned by Michelangelo in the 1530’s into what is now the Piazza del Campidoglio. At the top of the stairs are the twin statues of Castor & Pollux, considered in ancient times to be protectors of Rome, and in the middle of the square is an equestrian statue of Marcus Aurelius. The original of this statue is in the museum here; it survived the general destruction of pagan statuary because it was mistakenly thought to be Emperor Constantine, a Christian hero. The Capitoline Museum is in the two identical buildings on the sides of this square, which are connected by a tunnel, and the building at the back is the Palazzo Senatorio, now the mayor’s offices.
As we walked around the left side of the piazza toward the back of the hill facing the Forum we passed a copy of the famous statue of a she-wolf suckling Romulus & Remus sitting on a tall pedestal. The original is in the museum. Apparently it was just a sculpture of a wolf when first made in the 13th century & the statues of the boys were added during the Renaissance. From the back of the hill one has quite a view of the western end of the Forum, in particular the Arch of Septimus Severus, built in 203 AD, that stands just below the Capitoline Hill. In the first picture below you can also see the Temples of Saturn & Vespasian (pillars on the right) — the Basilica of Julia, a civil law court in the center where the rows of column bases are — the Column of Phocas to the right of the Arch — the Rostra, a forum for public speaking, at the low brick wall under the Column of Phocas – and the Palatine hill in the center background.
The Forum was the center of Roman life for 1,000 years. After the fall of Rome the city fell into neglect, with the result that the forum was filled up with dirt & debris to a depth of several yards. During the Renaissance interest was renewed in this historic area that still had the tops of columns & arches sticking up from the ground, but scientific excavations did not begin until the late 18th century. The original ground level was discovered in the 19th century and most of the ruins were uncovered only in the 20th century. Today, despite the tourist crowds, walking down these streets where so many famous ancient figures walked & lived provides a personal connection to history.
A lot of work was in progress in the western part of the Forum & there was no entrance from the Capitoline Hill. We had to walk out on the street about halfway down the Forum before finding a ticket booth & entrance. There was a long line so it took a while to get in (we almost gave it up, having limited time in town, but were glad we stuck it out). We saw a lot of ancient buildings & ruins in our tour of the Forum, and each of them (at least the ones we photographed) is addressed below. I hope it doesn’t prove too tedious.
We started our tour of the Forum at the Arch of Titus, which is at the eastern end, a short walk up the road called the Sacred Way from the Colosseum & the Arch of Constantine, both of which we visited last time we were here. Constructed after Emperor Titus’s death, this arch celebrates his victory in squelching the Judean uprising in 70 AD, which included the destruction of the Temple in Jerusalem. The inside of one side of the arch contains a relief showing Roman soldiers carrying off the menorah & other booty from the Temple. The other side shows Titus in a chariot being crowned by the goddess of Victory & at the top is a relief of Titus riding an eagle to heaven.
Today the Basilica of Constantine is a very large & impressive building containing three huge arches. But originally this was only one side of a much larger building with a matching row of arches on the other side & a huge pitched roof 130 feet high over a center hall between the rows of arches. This building, about as long as a football field, was the hall of justice & there was a gigantic statue of a sitting Constantine filling up one end of it. At the top of the ruins you can see the remains of the taller supports for the central roof. We couldn’t go inside this building because it was undergoing restoration work.
To the left when facing west is the Palatine Hill, another of the original 7 hills of Rome where the emperors had their palaces. In fact, our word “palace” comes from “Palatine.” Quite a few people were standing on a terrace on top of that hill, thought to have been part of the palace of Caligula. We didn’t go there because our time was limited and, as you can see, it is pretty far uphill. At the lower end of the hill are the ruins of the Horrea Vespasiani, originally a warehouse that was later converted into a two level shopping center.
The 4th century Temple of Romulus, probably actually dedicated to a member of the royal family rather than Romulus, was used as the vestibule of a church beginning in the 6th century. The massive bronze doors are original, still on their original hinges & with a working lock. It is circular in design with a cupola on top.
The Temple of Antoninus & Faustina is an amalgam of the columned portico of a temple built in 141 AD & a church built inside it at the beginning of the 17th century. It is named for the Emperor Antoninus Pius and his wife. Across the Forum from there is the site of the house of the Vestal Virgins whose garden is lined with statues of some of the more notable Vestals.
Nearby is the Temple of Vesta, goddess of the hearth, tended by the Vestal Virgins. A recruit spent 30 years as a Vestal: 10 to learn her duties, 10 to perform them & 10 to teach new recruits. A Vestal who violated the oath of virginity was to be buried alive, which apparently happened 10 times, and the man involved would be whipped to death. The temple was round with a ring of columns and a sacred flame inside that the Virgins had to keep burning at all times, on pain of whipping by the head priest, the Pontifex Maximus.
There are several other sets of columns in this area that are the remains of ancient temples. The Temple of Castor and Pollux was first built in the 5th century BC, but the three remaining columns were erected in 6 AD after a fire. The 44 foot tall Column of Phocas was erected in 608 AD by the Byzantine Emperor of that name who had just visited the city. It was the last monument built here. The Temple of Saturn dates back almost to 500 BC, but the 8 columns on a platform that can be seen today were erected in 42 BC. The next to last week of December was the celebration of Saturnalia, when gifts were exchanged and social distinctions (including master-slave) were disregarded in a show of good will, a precursor to our modern Christmas holiday. Next to it are the three remaining columns of the Temple of Vespasian. The Basilica Julia was a large building housing civil law courts, begun by Julius Caesar in 54 BC & completed by Augustus. All that is left is the floor & rows of bases of columns.
The Temple of Julius Caesar stands on the spot where Caesar was cremated at a funeral where Marc Antony gave the speech that Shakespeare paraphrased (“Friends, Romans & countrymen, lend me your ears”). Caesar’s house was just behind this temple & he walked by this spot on the day of his assassination. The temple was erected by Augustus, making Julius Caesar the first actual Roman citizen to become a god.
Not far away is the Curia, the spot where the Roman Senate met from the beginning of the republic. The building’s reconstruction by Julius Caesar was completed by Augustus. Because of this reconstruction work the Senate was meeting elsewhere when Julius Caesar was assassinated. It was rebuilt again by Diocletian after extensive fire damage in 283 AD & converted into a church in 630. We were unable to go inside because it was undergoing reconstruction. The bronze door is a copy of the original, which was moved to a church.
That’s it for our tour of the Forum. We had one more item on our agenda, the Church of St Peter In Chains. This church contains not only the chains supposedly used to bind St Peter but also Michelangelo’s great sculpture of Moses. It turned out to be very difficult to find, up some streets, then up a stairway & around a corner. We probably wouldn’t have found it but for the bright red spray-painted sign on a wall at the top of a very long stairway that helpfully said: “S Pietro –>”. But after spending quite a while seeking it out, it turned out that the church was closed until 3:00 PM, too late for us since we had to meet the bus across town at 4:00. Next time we will check the closing times of places we want to visit much more closely! The church had several signs emphatically noting that visiting the church is free and warning visitors not to pay anyone to gain entrance; this scam on tourists must be a problem to prompt the posting of such signs.
We walked back toward the meeting place for the bus (it was a little early, but we wanted to be very sure we wouldn’t miss the ride back to the port). On the way we passed the Forum of Augustus, built to commemorate his victory over Brutus & Cassius at the Battle of Philippi in 41 BC. It originally had a statue of Mars that reputedly looked very much like Augustus. Next to the sidewalk near this excavation is an actual statue of Augustus, so you can see what that might have looked like.
We also passed Trajan’s Column, erected in 113 AD at one end of Trajan’s Forum to commemorate the Emperor’s victories over the Dacians (in present day Romania). It is covered by a continuous shallow relief spiraling up from the bottom telling the story of the Dacian wars with some 2500 figures. There was originally a bronze statue of Trajan on top, but that was replaced in 1587 with the statue of St Peter that is still there today. Behind it is the domed church of Santa Maria di Loreto, also completed near the time when St Peter was placed on top of the coumn. The ashes of Trajan & his wife were originally interred in its base.
It was a good bit further to Piazza del Popolo, where we were to meet our group for the trip back to the port. Most of the way we walked along the Via del Corso, one of the premier high end shopping streets. We got back early enough to stop for a delicious margherita pizza with very large beers and some gelato just before reaching the Piazza.
On its northern side, Piazza del Popolo is just inside of what was the northern gate of the walls of Rome. Once called the Porta Flaminia, this gate is now called Porta del Popolo. The gate was restored to its present appearance by Bernini in 1655. To the right of the gate is the Basilica of Santa Maria del Popolo, which gave the piazza its name. The current church was built in the 1470’s on the spot that was supposed to have been the burial place of Nero’s ashes. It is full of important artwork.
In the middle of the Piazza del Popolo is an Egyptian obelisk that was carved during the 13th century BC and brought to Rome from Heliopolis in 10 BC by Emperor Augustus. Originally placed in the Circus Maximus, it was moved here in the 16th century. This is the 2d oldest & 2d tallest obelisk in Rome, rising some 120 feet. Around the obelisk are four lions spouting water, and behind it at the southern entrance of the Piazza (where we entered) are twin 17th century domed churches.
On each side of the piazza is a fountain with elaborate sculptures above it. On the eastern side is Rome standing between figures representing the Tiber & the Aniene rivers. Note the she-wolf suckling Romulus & Remus under the feet of Rome in the center. On the western side is the Fountain of Neptune, holding a trident.
We met our group as arranged on the steps of the Basilica, just inside the Porta del Populo. It was a sunny & warm afternoon & it felt good reclining in the sun on the steps waiting for the rest to show up (maybe the extra large beer helped). Amazingly, everybody was there on time. We walked to the bus & returned to Civitavecchia after yet another full and rewarding day.
On April 13 we were docked at Katakolon, a very small town in western Greece.
The main attraction in this area is Olympia (not Mt Olympus, which is not near here), the site of the ancient Olympic Games. So that is where we elected to spend the day. This entailed a bus trip through the beautiful countryside with hillsides of olive trees. Near the towns were large piles of bags of trash & garbage. Our guide was clearly embarrassed by this, but we didn’t fully understand her explanation which was mostly about the closing of disposal facilities in the area & controversy about how to replace them. Why would you close the facilities before ensuring an alternative, and will this piling up go on indefinitely? Maybe we missed something, but its pretty clear that the locals are not happy about what this does to their image, particularly with their big moment in the spotlight coming next week when the Olympic flame is lit at the site of the ancient Olympics.
As mentioned earlier, we visited the week before Olympia’s big moment, the lighting of the Olympic torch. When we arrived there was a local celebration in progress. The big turnout seemed mostly to be school kids.
The archaeological site, a sacred religious compound to the ancient Greeks established long before the athletic games, was a short walk down the road. This was not a town, but a religious enclave. The first recorded Panhellenic athletic games here were held around 776 BC and continued for more than a millennium until the Roman Emperor Theodosius I banned them in 393 AD as part of a general campaign against pagan rituals. Earthquakes began to destroy the buildings in the 3d century and the site was abandoned in the 7th century after repeated floods & earthquakes. Floods deeply buried the site, which was rediscovered only in the mid-18th century. Excavation was begun in 1875.
Our first stop after entering the site was at the Gymnasion and the Palaestra. Participants were required to spend the month before the games training on-site & these buildings housed the training facilities for racing, javelin, and discus in the Gymnasion & wrestling, boxing and long jump in the Palaestra. Women were not allowed here. The men competed in the games naked, wearing only olive oil mixed with sand to protect from the sun. There were only two rules for wrestling: no poking in the eye with a finger & no biting. As our guide observed, many men will instantly think of another very vulnerable body part that was not protected by these rules! While a large portion of the pillars lining the Gymnasion are visible, some of it is still buried under the road that brings visitors to the site, which gave an idea of how deeply the entire site was once buried. Throughout the area Judas Trees were covered with pink flowers on this nice Spring day. (Note that we have labeled the pictures to the best of our recollections, but our recollections are not always reliable a month after the fact.)
Across from the Gymnasion is the Philippeion, the only round building here & the only one dedicated to a human. It was begun by Philip of Macedonia to commemorate his conquest of Greece in 338 BC, and may have been completed by his son, Alexander the Great. The building, now partially restored, originally held gold & ivory statues of Philip & his family. It marked a turning point for the enclave’s evolution from a religious to a more secular nature.
Next to the Philippeion, but much larger, is the rectangular Temple of Hera, originally built around 650 BC. It may originally have been wood, but the columns were replace by stone over the centuries as the wooden ones rotted. This is the oldest & most complete building on the site. Like the other buildings here, this one was made of local limestone rather than marble, with a coating of stucco made with marble dust to make it shine like marble. The stucco is long gone, so that what you see now is the limestone itself.
Since 1936 the Olympic flame has been lit at the Altar of Hera, just outside the end of the Temple of Hera closest to the athletic grounds. The torch is ignited by sunlight in a mirrored bowl & then the flame is transferred to a ceramic bowl. This year the official lighting of the flame was scheduled just 8 days after our visit, and we were treated to a view of a rehearsal. The women who play the temple priestesses are all professional actresses who donate their services, and they rehearse on site for about a week before the ceremony. The high priestess is a well known Greek movie & TV actress named Katerina Lechou. The two pillars behind them are remains of the Exedra of Herodes Attticus, built in 160 AD, which was a circular water fountain..
We walked over toward the athletic grounds, entered through an arch covered passageway that was once fully covered. On the hill to our left – the Hill of Kronos where Zeus was supposedly born & his father Kronos tried unsuccessfully to eat him — were the “treasuries” of the various cities, which held their equipment for sacrifices & athletics. Along the wall leading to the passageway was a row of pedestals that once held bronze statues of Zeus (called “Zanes,” plural of Zeus). They were built using fines paid by athletes found to have cheated in the games and each had an inscription on the base naming the violator, his father & city, and his offense. This walk of shame was a pretty dramatic warning to the competitors who passed them on the way to the Krypti, a 100 foot long vaulted tunnel that was the entrance to the stadium. Today there is a only single arch representing the long roof that covered the entire walkway.
The stadium isn’t much more than a large rectangle of dirt with gentle grassy hills on each side & a few rows of stone seating on one side. Rehearsals were in progress there as well, so we didn’t have an opportunity to explore it or take any interesting pictures. We walked back into the archaeological site & headed toward the Temple of Zeus. We passed some workmen who were using a pulley system to reassemble a huge pillar inside a scaffolding. We also saw a rectangular stone that had once been a pedestal for a bronze statue (perhaps of one of the Olympic champions). The two holes cut into the top were for the statue’s brpmze feet; this was only done for bronze statues.
The Temple of Zeus was completed in the middle of the 5th century BC. This was the largest building at Olympia, its shape & size being comparable to the Parthenon. The temple was some 68 feet high & 235 feet long. In front was a large statue of Nike, goddess of victory (now in the museum), standing on a high pedestal. This was where the Olympic victors were crowned with Olive wreaths. Inside was the colossal gold & ivory statue of a seated Zeus, some 43 feet tall, which was one of the 7 wonders of the ancient world. The sculptor Pheidias spent 12 years at the site creating this statue. The statue sat in the temple for about 1,000 years before being destroyed sometime n the 5th century AD, perhaps by fire after being carried off to Constantinople & perhaps with the destruction of this temple itself. In 426 the Roman Emperor Theodosius II ordered this pagan temple burned, and two earthquakes during the 6th century competed the job.
Finally, situated at the southwest corner of the area is the Leonidaion, which contained living quarters. Near it is the Workshop of Pheidias, where the sculptor spent more than a decade crafting the great statue of Zeus. It was identified by sculptural tools & a cup inscribed “I belong to Pheidias” found in the building. The two pictures of a brick building below are probably the Workshop rather than the Leonidaion (we didn’t get close enough to be sure).
We left the archaeological sight and headed for the museums. Near the entrance we passed the Hill of Kronos that overlooks the sight & some bright red flowers (geraniums?). On the road to the museum we saw a roadside shrine, which we were told are common in Greece to commemorate those killed in accidents, and an olive grove.
We visited the Ancient Olympic Games Museum, set on a hill above the archaeological site. Originally built in the 1880’s, this museum was abandoned after being damaged by an earthquake in 1953, but was repaired & reopened in 2004. It has a thematic organization focusing on the Olympic games. Among the items here were an ancient discus, the wheel of a chariot, small jars in which athletes carried their olive oil & iron scrapers they used to remove the oil & sand after competition, and pottery jars with athletic themes.
We drove to the Archaeological Museum on the other side of the site, opened in 1982, which houses a rich collection of ancient artifacts found at Olympia. In the central hall were the reassembled statuary that had been on the pediments above each end of the Temple of Zeus. Pediments were triangular in shape and these groups of statues were made to fit those dimensions. The west pediment, pictured below, depicts a battle between the Lapiths and the Centaurs (half man, half horse). This is considered some of the best surviving examples of so-called severe style of early Greek sculpture. The central figure is Apollo, attempting to restore order.
The Temple of Zeus also displayed reliefs of the twelve labors of Hercules. Called Metopes, these were situated just below the pediments, six on each end.
The Nike of Palonios is the statue that originally stood on the tall base sitting in front of the Temple of Zeus, shown above with the temple. It is quite large & its dress was originally red. An image of this sculpture was prominent on the medals awarded at the 2004 Olympics in Athens. In the Ancient Olympic Games Museum is a model of what it originally looked like, standing on its tall base.
The statue of Hermes holding the infant Dionysus was probably sculpted by Praxiteles in the 4th century BC. It was rediscovered in several pieces in the Temple of Hera in 1877. This is considered one of the masterpieces of Greek sculpture.
Two more statues we noted are from the Roman period: one of Emperor Hadrian & one of Poppaea Sabina, Nero’s second wife. We also saw some lion heads that were originally water spouts on the tops of buildings.
A couple of interesting ancient helmets were in a glass case together. One was a Persian helmet from the 5th century BC, with an inscription in Greek identifying it as “booty” the Athenians “took from the Medes.” The other was a helmet with the inscription “Miltiades offered to Zeus,” dedicated by the victorious general after his victory over the Persians at Marathon in 490 BC.
Leaving the museum we headed for lunch. It was a pretty good walk back to the bus, passing an area with shops & a café whose patio was covered with blooming Wisteria. We had a HUGE and delicious Greek lunch at a lovely restaurant with a swimming pool & brightly colored flowers in its garden.
We made one more stop, in the modern village of Olympia, where we spent some time exploring the many shops (this is, after all, primarily there for tourists). Then we headed back to the ship for a fairly early departure. The next day, just north of Sicily, we passed the island of Stromboli, one of the most active volcanoes on earth. We passed this island at night in 2013 and, although you couldn’t see the island very well in the dark, it was erupting regularly every 10 or 15 seconds, sending fire into the sky that was clearly visible rather far away. This time it was daylight and we passed a lot closer, but the volcano was only smoking, no fireworks. Amazingly, this island is inhabited; there’s no telling where people will choose to live! We spent one more night at sea on this welcome sea day.
We woke up with the sunrise on the morning of April 12 near Piraeus, the port for Athens. We wanted to disembark early to maximize our time in Athens, where we would be on our own. We had toured the Acropolis & its new museum and seen other highlights on our last visit here, https://baderjournal.wordpress.com/2013/05/18/athens-greece/, so our objective this time was to see the National Archaeological Museum, one of the world’s greatest museums of antiquities.
We were docked at a terminal about half a mile further from the port exit than the one we were at in 2013. This made for a much longer walk to the subway than we had anticipated, maybe 2 miles. But when we finally got there, it turned out that tickets could be purchased from real people (rather than machines), although ours didn’t speak English. However the signs were in English as well as Greek so it was easy to find our train & get into the city. The train was pretty slow until it got out of Piraeus, but we got to our stop fairly quickly overall. It was less easy finding our way from the Metro stop to the museum but it didn’t take too long. Although the neighborhood seemed a little seedy, with a lot of graffiti on the buildings, the museum is quite impressive, with some colorful flowers in the beds on the grounds.
This is a vast museum, too much to really cover in one day, but it is helpfully arranged largely in chronological order, beginning with the 5,000 year old Cycladic artifacts from the islands around Delos. We will only be able to touch on some of the things that stood out for us as we perused the museum’s collection (or at least a large part of it).
Displayed in one of the early rooms (right through the door in the picture above) were the hoard of gold artifacts from Mycenae first discovered by Heinrich Schliemann (the discoverer of Troy) in the late 19th century. Mycenae was the center of Greek culture in the time of the Trojan War, a period known as the Mycenaean era. These artifacts were recovered from a circular tomb called “Grave Circle A” that held 19 bodies, apparently members of the ruling class of the day. The most famous item is what Schliemann (jumping to desired conclusions, as was his wont) called the “Mask of Agamemnon,” a solid gold mask made to cover the face of a dead man (notice the tiny holes under the ears for tying it around the head).. This could not have been Agamemnon because it dates to about 250 years before the fall of Troy around 1300 BC, but it is still a stunning artifact.
Other items from Mycenae included wall frescoes, an amphora (storage jar) & a bone helmet made of boar tusk, which was strong but also flexible. All were similar in style to items we had seen in Crete in 2013, suggesting a Minoan influence on Mycenaean style. Note that the raised stone pieces in the frescoes are original, while the completion of the painting around them is a speculative modern reconstruction.
The earliest Greek sculpture (from about 700 to 500 BC) are called kouroi: Kouros (male) & Kore (female). They are stiff & straight & stylized, apparently influenced by Egyptian statues. The men are naked & the women are clothed & all of them had slight smiles (or smirks) and were brightly painted, even the skin. The first Kouros below, dating from about 600 BC, once stood at the entrance to the Temple of Poseidon at Cape Sounion. Typically, he is naked with his left foot forward but his hips straight rather than swiveled. The second, a Kore, is from about 550 BC. She holds a flower in her left hand & tugs at her dress with her right (an attempt to show movement). Her dress was once painted red & has flowers & swastikas (good luck symbols to the ancient Greeks) down the front (see closeup). The third is a later funerary Kouros from Attica, dated to the 530’s BC. It is a bit livelier than the earlier one. The fourth is a woman, seemingly in a very early flat style, notable for the traces of red paint still clearly visible on the marble. Nearby was a base for a Kouros from Athens, circa 510 BC, depicting a wrestling match in relief with the bodies in a much more animated light.
The large (6’ 10””) & imposing bronze statue below is called the “Artemision Bronze” because it was found in a shipwreck off Cape Artemision, north of Athens, in 1928. The weapon he is throwing was not found, so it is not clear whether this is Zeus, throwing a thunderbolt, or Poseidon, throwing a trident. It has been dated to 460 BC, the beginning of the Classical period of Greek sculpture (although this is more in what is called the Severe Style that preceded it). His eyes are hollow but were once filled with white bone.
An interesting sculpture that looks like it lined the roof of a building (possibly at Epidauros) includes a row of water spouts in the form of lions’ heads. A funerary urn from Marathon (probably) dating from the 420’s BC, made by a painter called Polygnotos, depicts Helen’s abduction, by Theseus. Then there is the much more dynamic “Artemision Jockey,” circa 140 BC in the Hellenistic period. It was recovered in pieces from the same shipwreck as the Zeus/Poseidon above & pieced back together in 1971. It is a large sculpture that dominates a room otherwise full of Roman copies of Greek sculptures (this was an industry for the Romans). The jockey appears to be a young boy, originally painted black with non-Greek looking features, which may indicate he was at least partly Ethiopian.
A bronze statue of a young athlete was found in the sea off Marathon, dated circa 330’s BC. Notice the white eyes still in this one. The appendage pointing up from his head is a leaf from a victory garland around his head. The bronze Statue of a Youth, circa 330’s BC, was recovered from a shipwreck near Antikythera. Some think this is Perseus, who would have been holding the head of Medusa, and others (more likely correct) think it is Paris, presenting the apple to Aphrodite as the most beautiful goddess. Found in the Aegean sea is a statue of Augustus Caesar,circa 10 BC, which was originally mounted on a horse.
Finally, perhaps the most interesting & unusual artifact in the museum is the Antikythera Mechanism, recovered around the turn of the 20th century from the same shipwreck near Antikythera as the Statue of a Youth, above. It is in many pieces and badly corroded after a couple of millenia under the sea. It is clear from its surface that it is a mechanism operated by gears of various sizes & examination of what is inside with x-ray and other technologies has disclosed its complexity and inscriptions. After a century of study it has been concluded that this was an astronomical calculator, combining several different calendar systems, predicting eclipses, calculating the dates of various Panhellenic games, and perhaps locating the positions of the sun, moon & the 5 planets then known on any future date. It has been called the first computer and mechanisms of comparable complexity did not again appear until the European astronomical clocks of the 15th century. Several modern versions a working model of the mechanism are on display in the same room. After seeing this we left the museum, to be sure we would get back to the ship in time for our fairly early departure.
We returned to the subway & boarded a train headed for Piraeus. The train was not crowded but there were several young men standing around us making it impossible to move into the train from the area in front of the door. As we approached the next stop they circled around us and one of them started pushing Rick aside, as if trying to get to the door even though he was already there. He politely said “excuse me” a couple of times. When the door opened they all got out & Rick felt a hand reaching into his pocket from one of them who had a sweater draped over his arm. Obviously, this was a pickpocket gang. Although the whole experience was rather unnerving, the bottom line is that they got nothing before getting off the train because Rick’s wallet was well secured in his front pocket.
As the ship was preparing to leave the Captain made an announcement pointing out that there were a number of Syrian refugees camped on a dock not too far away. Of course, everyone has heard about the Syrian refugee crisis in Greece this Spring, but this was our first actual exposure to it. We don’t know what the status of these people might be, perhaps they are being vetted before being admitted to Europe. But it seemed clear to us that people, & whole families, would not choose to live like this unless their conditions at home were truly desperate.
It was very sunny & the water was very blue as we sailed away. We did not visit the Acropolis on this visit, but you could see it clearly from the ship leaving the port, probably some 6 miles away. We had beautiful views of Piraeus (a city in itself) & of Athens as we reached the deep water. It seems the light is different here & makes everything sparkle on a nice day.
[Note: As I write this we are at home. As you can see, the blog fell behind a bit in the last portion of the trip, but rest assured that the entire thing will be completed, despite all the competing demands on our time here in our natural habitat. Hopefully, it won’t take too long, although we are leaving town again in June for a few weeks. It should be completed by then, but who knows?]
On April 9 we docked in Haifa, Israel. When we visited here before, https://baderjournal.wordpress.com/2013/05/01/israel-day-2-jerusalem-to-haifa/, we arrived at night after a two day tour of Israel and thus had no time to see the city. This time we took an excursion to the ancient cities of Caesarea and Akko that was promised to finish with a visit to the Bahai Gardens in Haifa. But to our disappointment it didn’t. So after two visits we have not had a chance to see Haifa at all beyond the view from the port. Maybe next time.
Located on the coast halfway between Haifa & Tel Aviv, Caesarea was initially built on some Phoenician ruins by Herod the Great in the last two decades BC. Named after Herod’s patron, the Emperor Augustus Caesar, it was an important port & served as the capital of the province of Palestine under the Romans and Byzantines. It was conquered by the Muslims in the 7th century & then by the Crusaders in the 12th. The Crusaders were ousted in 1265 by the Mamluks, and the town then lay largely uninhabited until 1884 when a group of Bosnian Muslims settled there. It was occupied by Israelis at the beginning of the 1947 war, when the remaining occupants were expelled and the village houses destroyed. Since then the area has been largely devoted to archaeological excavation, and is owned today by a foundation. A lot of these ruins have been reconstructed & it is difficult to tell what is original and what has been added. There are about 5,000 inhabitants in the area.
Our first stop was on the beach outside the town where a Roman aqueduct traverses the beach. This is one of three aqueducts that served Caesarea. It has two channels, built at different times, which are visible from below as a seam in the ceiling of the arches. An impressive structure, it originally extended some 11 miles.
Our first stop inside the city was at the Roman theater. It has been restored and often hosts concerts. While we were sitting in the seats another group of visitors standing on the stage sang a hymn. It was very nice, but seemed a little out of place in a Roman theater.
After viewing a movie we walked down to the harbor, which is broad and picturesque.
On the left of the harbor are the ruins of the palace built by Herod that was the residence of the Roman governors of the province. Notably visible is the swimming pool built on the edge of the sea. A stone was unearthed near here inscribed with the message that “Pontius Pilatus” had erected a building dedicated to the emperor Tiberius. Part of the palace was later partitioned into private quarters & the palace was abandoned entirely at the end of the Byzantine era.
In the middle, facing the harbor, was the Hippodrome, built in 9 BC and described by Josephus. The “Actian Games,” instituted by Herod & named for the naval battle in which Augustus defeated Marc Antony & Cleopatra to claim the empire, were held here every four years. In addition to athletics & gladiatorial combat, they included chariot races that went seven laps of this track, one of the largest in the Roman Empire. One part of the wall in front of the grandstand was covered by faux marble fresco, but we couldn’t tell whether that was original or a modern demonstration of something that might have been there.
Beyond the hippodrome was a complex of walls of various buildings, some with (rebuilt?) archways.
Some of the buildings in this area had mosaic floors (some reproductions?) that must have been beautiful when in use.
Of particular note is the public bathhouse, which is particularly well preserved (or restored), with marble columns & mosaic floors. This was a public meeting place where, in addition to bathing, one could exercise & get a shave, haircut or massage.
On our way to a huge & delicious lunch in a restaurant near the water we walked along the city wall built by the Crusaders, complete with moat. Near the restaurant we saw some Roman sculpture & the minaret of the mosque built by the Bosnian settlers in the 19th century. No work was being done because it was Saturday, the Jewish Sabbath. Across from the restaurant was a hillside covered with ongoing excavations called the Crusaders’ Market, thought to contain houses & commercial buildings.
After lunch we left the city through a gate built by Crusaders, designed with sharp turns inside to deter invaders, and boarded the bus for the trip to Akko.
Before leaving Caesarea, here are some of the flowers we encountered there.
First settled about 5,000 years ago, Akko is one of the oldest continuously occupied cities in the Middle East. During the Biblical period it was a Phoenician city. While Akko is its official name today, it was known as Ptolemais during the Hellenistic through the Byzantine eras & as Acre during its occupation by the Crusaders.
Acre was an important port in the middle ages under Islamic rule starting in the 7th century. It was captured after some four years of siege by the Crusaders in 1104 and became their main port.and provided great wealth to the Crusader Kingdom of Jerusalem. Saladin recaptured it for Islam in 1187 but in 1191 it was restored to the Crusaders by forces under Richard the Lionheart of England & Philip II of France. They retained it until 1291 when the Mamluks took over. Acre was the last Crusader foothold in the Middle East.
Our first visit was to the ruins of the fortress built in the 12th century by the Knights of St John Hospitallers. It was unearthed in recent times under a prison built by the Turks. A number of Zionist underground fighters were imprisoned here by the British during the period after World War II when the Zionists were pushing for independence, and some were executed here. Apparently in the movie Exodus Paul Newman’s character was imprisoned here. In 1947 the Irgun, Zionist independence fighters, broke into the prison & released the Zionist inmates (and more than 200 Arab inmates as well).
Inside the fortress were several halls and/or chambers with vaulted ceilings, all nicely lighted with historical exhibits and some art on display, called Crusader Halls. Our guide told us that before the underground fortress was discovered there were rumors of underground passage. Some of the Zionist prisoners dug down through the floor of their cell & discovered a bit of stone ceiling of a room filled to the top with dirt. Obviously this was no use for escape, but it was apparently the first modern evidence that the Crusaders’ fortress was still there.
The largest Crusader hall is the Refectory, or dining hall.
Under the Refectory is a tunnel. There is a famous tunnel here that leads to the waterfront, thought to be a means of escape in the event of a successful attack, but this was not that tunnel since it ended in what was once the Crypt of the Crusaders’ Church of St. John. The Turks used this area as a post office. This tunnel was very narrow & there were parts where even short people like us had to bend over to avoid the ceiling. It was fairly dark in the tunnel & we were moving the whole time, so the pictures are a little unfocused. As should be obvious, Mary was in front of Rick in line.
We walked up some steps to the street level where we passed through a shop & into a corridor that seems to have been part of the old prison. Today it is something of a shopping mall, with restaurants & shops (many closed for the Sabbath). We left through the souk, teeming with vendors & shoppers, & walked back to the bus through the very crowded streets. Then we drove back to Haifa, without stopping at the Baha’i Gardens.
We sailed that night to Ashdod, the port nearest Jerusalem. But we had visited Jerusalem & Masada, the prime sites in that area, just three years ago. https://baderjournal.wordpress.com/2013/04/27/israel-day-1-ashdod-to-jerusalem/. We thought about going into Ashdod for a look around (it is a very ancient port city), but Mary was still not recovered from the desert fever she picked up in Dubai & we were both quite tired. So we stayed on the ship & treated it as a sea day in the hope that some extra rest would prepare us for the port-intensive run through the Mediterranean (7 ports in 9 days).
The first canal in this area was built almost 4,000 years ago, connecting the Red Sea to the Nile River. It was used off and on for a thousand years, alternately silting up and being cleared again for use. Napoleon looked into building a canal here in 1799, but his engineers erroneously calculated that the Mediterranean was 33 feet lower than the Red Sea. Forty years later it was discovered that the two seas are at the same level and in the 1850’s Said Pasha, the Ottoman governor of Egypt, approved a French canal effort directed by Ferdinand de Lesseps. Because the canal required no locks it could be built primarily by digging and moving sand & in 1869 the Suez Canal was opened to shipping. When de Lesseps tried to use the same method to dig a canal through Panama, of course, he failed miserably. Opening the canal also provided a route into the Mediterranean for numerous flora & fauna previously resident only in the Red Sea, altering its ecosystem permanently. This is called the Lessepian Migration.
After a sea day sailing around the Sinai Peninsula we found ourselves anchored before sunup on April 8 off the city of Suez at the northern end of the Red Sea. There were a lot of other ships anchored nearby.
We were to be the second ship in a convoy that was set to enter the Suez Canal before sunrise to spend most of the day sailing through it into the Mediterranean Sea. The Canal is about 121 miles long and and at least two convoys of ships traverse it every day, one north bound and one south bound. Our lead ship, which looked like a small military vessel, headed for the canal as the skies began to lighten & we followed it in.
As we began sailing slowly north, the city of Suez was on our left & the barren Sinai Peninsula was on our right.
Entering the canal behind us was a huge container ship which we were told was one of several identical ships that are the largest container ships in the world. If memory serves, it has a capacity of 22,000 containers and was carrying 14,000. Each container is the size of a large tractor trailer.
All along the canal were military posts & watchtowers. Some were obviously occupied & some less clear, & some had messages for us on the ground outside. They looked like lonely places to be stationed.
We continued up the canal, which is actually the dividing line between Asia, on our starboard (right) side, and Africa on our port (left) side. We saw some of the tall conical dovecotes common in Egypt. The pigeons drop guano on the inside that is used for fertilizer and are also eaten as squab. We came to the first of several lakes in the canal where convoys used to wait for ships going the other way to pass by (no more, as we will soon see).
We passed an oil tanker that had become disabled and had been sitting here for several months while its oil is drained into another ship, repairs are made, and the oil is pumped back in to complete the canal journey. This must be pretty unpleasant for the crew, not to mention very expensive for the owner.
We next came to the place where the canal divides into two parallel channels, one for northbound and one for southbound. This is brand new; the channel on the east (right) side for northbound ships just opened in August. Before this one of the convoys had to wait in a lake until the other passed by, slowing everything down considerably since there are quite a few ships in each convoy. The new parallel channels will enable traffic to increase by about 40%, and this will greatly increase Egypt’s income from the canal.
In this area from the lakes to the divided channels were a number of small fishing boats. After entering the parallel channel we continued to sail north. Most of the scenery consisted of large hills of sand, but they are laying asphalt roads on both sides along the waterfront.
The ongoing canal upgrade project includes more than the new channel. They are building several tunnels under the canal & a new town on the Sinai side, which we were told is expected to be a vacation destination for Egyptians. We saw a mosque & apartment buildings under construction there. Currently crossing the canal is done mostly by ferry, of which we saw a few. There is an old bridge at one point that rotates to let ships through, but it doesn’t reach across the new channel, so its difficult to see what use it will be in the future, unless they build a tunnel there to complete the journey to the Sinai side. In this area there were some statues & logos in the area between the channels relating to the canal.
We passed Ismailia, where the canal headquarters are located, but it was on the side of the other channel so we only got a distant view. This town was named after Ismail, the Egyptian pasha at the time the canal was opened. It has two noticeable monuments: a concrete monolith commemorating World War I dead, and a monument shaped (we were told) like an AK-47 to commemorate the Egyptian dead in the 6 day war with Israel.
Once we reached Ismailia we began to see ships from the southbound convoy in the opposite channel. the hills of sand (perhaps the material removed in digging the second channel) made it impossible to see more than the very top of the ships at first, but later the sandbanks in the center became lower & a better view of the ships was available. As you can see from the pictures, the ships maintain a pretty good distance between them, presumably for safety reasons.
As we neared the northern end of the canal we came to the one bridge that spans the entire canal. It was built by the Japanese & is called the Japan Egypt Friendship Bridge. We spent a long time approaching it at the slow speed used by canal traffic, & only saw one car cross this imposing bridge. It reminded us of the infamous “bridge to nowhere” that was supposed to be built in Alaska a few years back.
After the bridge came Port Said, the city at the Mediterranean entrance to the canal that was named for the Pasha who granted de Lesseps authority to build the canal. We had docked in Port Said during our Grand Mediterranean cruise in 2013, although we spent the day visiting Cairo rather than in Port Said. See https://baderjournal.wordpress.com/2013/04/23/port-said-cairo-egypt/. The canal was widened long ago to permit northbound ships to exit directly into the Mediterranean, bypassing Port Said. We did that, so our only glimpse of Port Said was from a distance. Having thus completed our interesting encounter with the Suez Canal, which is so different from the canal in which we crossed Panama, we sailed on toward more adventures in the Mediterranean Sea.
At its northern end the Red Sea divides in two: the left fork leads to the Suez Canal & the right fork is the Gulf of Aqaba. We sailed up the gulf & docked in Aqaba early in the morning on April 6. Aqaba is an ancient town & was an important stop on caravan routes. In biblical times the town here was called Elot. Because of its access to fresh water as well as the Red Sea this was a strategic location during World War I, when T.E. Lawrence and an Arab raiding party captured it by approaching over the desert while all of Aqaba’s defensive weapons faced the sea. This is a climactic moment in the film Lawrence of Arabia, but the director didn’t like the look of Aqaba so he shot this sequence in Spain.
Today Aqaba is the only port of the otherwise landlocked country of Jordan. It has become a flourishing beach resort area & a popular diving spot with submerged coral reefs. Right next to Aqaba, just across the border, is the Israeli city of Eilat. From the ship we looked out on Aqaba from the seaboard & Eilat from the port side.
We spent the day on a private excursion. Heading out of Aqaba early in the morning, we saw a huge Jordanian flag flying on a very tall flagpole that our guide said had been the tallest in the world until (who else?) Dubai built a taller one. We drove through the mountains, passing desert villages & Bedouin encampments.
Our major stop for the day was Petra, an ancient city carved out of rock some 2000 years ago by a group called the Nabateans. This is where Indiana Jones found the holy grail in Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade, it is the setting for Agatha Christie’s Appointment With Death, and it is on the modern list of the seven wonders of the world. Petra was an important trading center in ancient times, a crossroads on several caravan routes where the Nabateans extracted payments for passage. At the end of the first century AD it came under Roman control (the Emperor Hadrian visited), but its importance declined as sea routes replaced desert crossings for trade and the city was largely destroyed by earthquakes. Hidden away in a valley that is difficult to see, much less to visit, Petra was lost to everyone but the bedouins living in its caves for some 500 years, until rediscovered in 1812 by Jean Louis Burkhardt. After another visitor’s drawings were published in 1839 Petra became a destination for particularly hearty travellers & near the turn of the 20th century archaeological excavations began.
One approaches Petra through a town called Wadi Musa. This means “Valley of Moses,” and the name comes from the Bible. There is a spring here (called the Spring of Moses) that is supposed to be where Moses struck the rock with his staff to produce water for the Israelites during their wandering in the desert. The local king (of what was then Edom) is said to have denied them permission to travel through the area, but Moses’ brother Aaron died before they left & was buried on top of a nearby mountain called Jebel Haroun (Haroun is Aaron in Arabic), where there is still a white shrine visited by Jewish, Muslim & Christian pilgrims.
It is a very long walk (about 2 miles) into Petra from the gate, and the ground is very rocky & uneven. For those who can’t do that, horses & carriages are available (for a price). It is all downhill going in, so you know it will be uphill coming out (when you are already tired). While the slope is a moderate 5%, it adds up: one book said it amounted to a total equal to a 45 story building. The Romans built a road here, but most of it is still covered by rock & dirt from the flash floods that sometimes inundate the lower part of this area. They have dug down to the Roman road in some places, but it is made of worn down rocks & is almost as uneven to walk on as the rest of the path.
Most of what is left in Petra are tombs & caves where the Nabateans buried their dead. First we came to some “god-blocks,” huge rocks about 20 feet tall carved into cubes that may represent gods protecting the city’s water supply. A little further on is the Obelisk Tomb & Triclinium (or dining room), which may be one monument or two. The top is a cave containing graves fronted by four large obelisks, with a figure carved into the rock between the middle obelisks. The bottom is a single room with tables & chairs for holding banquets for the dead.
We passed some goats grazing near the path & came to the small bridge over the Wadi Musa stream. A dam has been built here in modern times to deflect the water during the wet season, which otherwise would flood the canyon that contains the path into Petra from here. A tunnel on one side of the road was used by the Nabateans to divert this flow.
The last mile or so into Petra is along a path through a very narrow & beautiful canyon called the Siq. This narrow split in the rock was probably first opened up by an earthquake & its tall wavy walls of various colors were developed slowly by wind, sandstorms & flash floods.
There has been a lot said about the colors of Petra. A famous 1845 poem, written by a man who had never been there, called it “a rose-red city half as old as time.” Agatha Christie described it as “blood-red” & had one of her characters say it is “very much the color of raw beef.” In actuality, as you can see from these pictures, the rocks are mostly beige or reddish brown (although some say at dusk it has a rosier hue), but on closer inspection there is great variety in the color. The variety is probably more beautiful than a flat red color would be. Some of the pictures below were taken in the Siq & some inside a restroom built inside a cave in Petra. Our guide announced a rest stop there & told those of us who declined that we really should stop in there to see the rocks, if nothing else. He was right.
The Siq has a number of stone carvings & shapes. It has a very long but narrow aqueduct running along one wall, which presumably brought water from Wadi Musa into the city.
At the end of the Siq the first thing in Petra to come into view is the most famous, the so-called Treasury. Carved out of the solid rock wall, with no freestanding components (other than one pillar that replaced one that collapsed in antiquity), this is the building where Indiana Jones found the Holy Grail. The sudden appearance of this sophisticated carved building between the natural wavy walls of the Siq is quite dramatic.
This building was probably a place of worship, built in the 1st century BC. It is called the Treasury because of a rumor that the urn carved into the top façade was full of money. You can still see the bullet marks where early visitors tried to release the money by shooting at the urn, which is actually solid rock. You can’t approach the Treasury today beyond the foot of the stairs, but there are a few rooms inside (although they are bare with none of the stuff Indiana Jones encountered there). The parallel lines up the sides of the building may have been footholds for the workers carving the rock. The Treasury from some angles actually has a reddish hue.
Recent excavations in front of the Treasury have disclosed two tombs built on a lower level. Presumably that was the original level of the ground here & the Treasury was built above these tombs. The area in front of the Treasury is the scene of a lot of hustle & bustle since it’s the entrance to the city, including souvenir stands & camel rides. There were a lot more people than normal on the day we visited, a large proportion young girls on school trips from Amman who were here on some kind of special school day. They seemed to be particularly interested in having their pictures taken with Western women for some reason.
From the Treasury we continued walking downhill into what was the city. We passed several structures carved into the walls, and also some mounted police and an old man playing a string instrument. We also ran into some of our tablemates down here, who had come on a HAL excursion.
At the end of this road, where it angles to the right, is the theater, built in the 1st century AD before the Romans took over. The entire edifice, other than the pillars behind the stage & the ends of the rows of seats, is carved out of solid rock. The openings above are all that remains of some buildings that were superseded by the theater. Originally there was a high wall behind the stage that would have cut off the view of the interior from the outside. Notice how the colors can vary, depending on your perspective & the amount of sunlight.
After the theater we came to what is called the Royal Tombs, a row of the biggest and most elaborate tombs in Petra high on the face of the East Cliff. There is a modern stairway up to this level. Rick climbed up for a few photos, while Mary stopped halfway up because she wasn’t feeling well. In this area there were souvenir stands, some selling “ancient coins” that our guide said were about a week old.
Among the tombs along this wall from Rick’s perspective (they continue around the cliff out of sight), three stood out. From left to right are the Corinthian Tomb, with a design similar to the Treasury but in far worse condition, the Silk Tomb, notable mainly for its multiple layers of bright colors, and the Urn Tomb. The Urn Tomb is in excellent condition, with several rows of arches below its façade supporting a large forecourt. It appears that its good condition stems from its conversion into a church (or perhaps even a cathedral) in the 5th century. The Urn Tomb & the Corinthian Tomb are thought to have been built for Nabatean kings.
From this height one could see a number of caves that have been eroded by wind & water into wavy multicolored natural sculptures. You could also see further into the valley, which was once full of houses in a teeming city of some 30,000, all of which were destroyed by earthquakes. Some archaeologists think they are all still buried there & that what has so far been uncovered here is only the bare beginning.
Sadly, we had no more time to explore further. It really takes 2 or 3 days to fully explore Petra, particularly its high places. Even if more time had been available we probably couldn’t have done much more, since there was still a 2 mile uphill climb to leave Petra & we were already pretty worn down. So we turned around and trudged back up through all the wonders we had already visited. Afterwards we had lunch in a restaurant in Wadi Musa. And even in the desert there are flowers. Summing up, Petra was one of the real highlights of the entire voyage; in fact at the end of the trip the passengers voted it the top sight (& site) of the entire trip.
By now it was mid-afternoon and after the experience and challenges of seeing Petra one might think that would be enough for one day. But no! We climbed on the bus for the long drive to Wadi Rum, a mountainous desert area that rivals Petra for spectacular beauty.
You have probably seen Wadi Rum without knowing it, for many of the beautiful desert scenes in Lawrence of Arabia were filmed here, where Lawrence spent quite a lot of time. This is where (in the movie) Lawrence meets the Howeitat tribe’s difficult leader played by Anthony Quinn & this is where the Arab force sets out to cross the desert to capture Aqaba. (We traveled from here to Aqaba on a highway in about 1.5 hours & I have read that people often hike it, without the camels Lawrence’s forces rode, in four days, which sounds quite different from the epic & lethal desert crossing depicted in the movie.)
We only had a couple of hours here, driving in a caravan of 3 4X4 trucks, so we saw very little of it, but what we saw was more than worth the trip. After boarding our 4X4 we drove into the desert past some mountains shining in the late afternoon sun. One is called “The Seven Pillars of Wisdom,” although it only seems to have five pillars. This is also the name of T.E. Lawrence’s memoir of the Arab Revolt & the locals will tell you the book was named after the mountain, but in fact it is the other way around.
Our first stop was at a place called “Lawrence’s Spring.” There is supposed to be a spring on the mountainside where T.E. Lawrence wrote that he often brought his camel to drink. Be that as it may, we didn’t go up the mountain, but there is a water trough here that is fed by a long pipe disappearing up the mountainside. There is a Bedouin tent and nearby are some ancient inscriptions on rocks, some of which may be Nabatean & some Aramaic (if we understood correctly).
Our next stop was the most fun. It was a tall hill of red sand up against the side of a rock cliff. The sand here is very red because it is rich in iron ore. Some of us climbed the sand hill (not easy, small steps are better) from which there were wonderful views in all directions.
We drove to another mountain (perhaps Jebel Khazali) which had on outcropping that looked like a face, we don’t know if it is natural or not but it looks sculpted. This mountain is split by a narrow canyon on the wall of which are ancient Thalmudic petroglyphs, made by a tribe related to the Nabateans. We had to negotiate a narrow ledge well into the canyon to see all this.
We stopped for some supersweet tea in a Bedouin tent (where souvenirs were also available), then we drove to a spot to watch the sunset. In a ravine nearby was a Bedouin encampment with a solar panel to provide electricity. We saw a number of Bedouin encampments in Wadi Rum & we were told that they are no longer nomadic because they want their children to get an education in the local schools.
We returned to the Amsterdam too late for dinner, so we ate in our room. We later discovered that while we were away most of the razor wire was removed from the ship, the water & acoustic cannons were taken down & the supplemental security team disembarked. Having made it through the danger zone unscathed, we set sail around midnight around the Sinai Peninsula toward the Suez Canal.
On April 1 we were in Salalah, the largest city (175,000+) in the southern part of Oman, not far from the border with Yemen (I know it was April Fools Day, but this really happened). Salalah is the capital of Dhofar province, which is separated from Muscat by the huge desert called the Empty Quarter. In ancient times this area thrived as the source of frankincense, which was shipped from here to Africa, Europe & Asia. Most of the frankincense today comes from Somalia & Yemen, but Omani frankincense is considered the highest quality. This was also a major source for Arabian horses in the 19th century. The Omani court was located in Salalah under the last Sultan, who rarely left his palace here. But when Sultan Qaboos overthrew him in a bloodless coup in 1970 the court was moved back to Muscat.
In Muscat we were told that the people there (and really all over the Arabian peninsula) consider Salalah a “paradise” because of its substantial rainfall & moderate temperatures. In July & August, when the temperatures in Muscat & Dubai hover well above 100 degrees, the annual Khareef (monsoon) keeps things fairly cool here. As a result, tourists from the north stream to Salalah during that time of year for a beach holiday.
The port is a long way from Salalah, there is nothing of interest near it and a taxi to town is quite expensive. So we signed up for a HAL tour of the area. We drove into the city to visit the Sultan’s palace, where the coup was staged in 1970. But there is a high wall around the palace so you can’t see very much. The area is nice though, with palm trees & lots of green.
In back of the palace is the Al Husn Souk. It was Friday, the Muslim sabbath, so more than half of the shops in the souk were closed. But most of them sold mainly the same goods so that wasn’t really a problem. The souk is atmospheric so it was interesting to walk around even if you weren’t interested in buying anything.
We next stopped at a row of fruit stands in front of a plantation. Salalah’s ample rainfall makes it possible to grow coconuts, bananas & a variety of vegetables here. There are a number of plantations growing this kind of produce, with extensive irrigation. Notable at the fruit stands were the tiny & flavorful Lady Finger bananas, coconuts & okra.
We drove through town & up into the mountains. The town has a lot of buildings with pointed or round topped windows, giving it a character often lacking in cities with a lot of modern square buildings. As mentioned last time, we were told that Oman has a policy requiring some traditional Arabic features in new buildings, so they aren’t just concrete boxes. Here are a few examples, taken from the bus window.
In the mountains we visited the supposed tomb of Job, the character from the Bible who never lost his faith even though God deprived him of everything & everyone he loved. In front is what is supposed to be Job’s footprint (it’s big, so he must have been a huge guy). On the grounds was a great variety of colorful flowers. This is a Muslim holy place, so there was a mosque.
We saw a great many camels in this area, mostly wandering by themselves or in small groups. Our guide told us that all of these camels are owned by someone, but they let them roam free because camels form a strong attachment to their homes & will always return on their own. He said that in the past there have been camels stolen by Yemenis and Saudis, but their owners didn’t worry & a year or two later they showed up back home. Camels were in the mountains, some wandering up to folks at Job’s tomb, & they were in the valley as well. Our bus was held up a couple of times by camels very slowly crossing, or walking along, the road. One group of camels being led by their owner had to move out of the center of the road to let the bus pass & the owner was none too happy about it.
We came down from the mountains and drove along the plain past Salalah. We passed several villages in the desert.
We finally reached the hilly area where Boswellia trees, which produce frankincense, grow wild. These trees are short & gnarled, but very tough, & have a peeling bark. It appeared that the trees were just beginning to grow leaves when we were there (makes sense, since it was April). These trees begin producing the frankincense sap when they are about 10 years old & can be tapped (by making a small incision) several times a year. Just about all frankincense is taken from wild trees because they are very difficult to cultivate. Frankincense smoke is aromatic (if you like that sort of thing) & supposedly repels mosquitos. The sap can also be eaten, which reputedly gives a very clean feeling in the mouth. Research is being conducted to use it as a medicine for several diseases, including cancer.
Our last stop was at Al-Mughsail Beach. The beach is beautiful but was pretty deserted the day we visited. Next to it, though, is Marneef Cave, which was well attended. It is more a rock formation on the side off a hill than a cave, but it is quite nice. A little down from the cave are some blowholes. During the summer when the tides are heavy water shoots up through these holes for about 20 yards. At least that is what our guide said; all we saw was a little mist coming from the holes. Oh, well.
After leaving Salalah Amsterdam headed southwest, to round the southern point of the Arabian Peninsula & head into the Red Sea. Through this period we had Yemen on our starboard side; this is also one of the areas where pirates are most active. We found out later that a second security team was on board all the way to Aqaba (the deck lights were turned off so they could watch the seas at night) but fortunately there were no incidents. Last year this part of the trip came just after the war in Yemen began & we were told that Yemeni planes were often overhead, but there was nothing like that this year. We entered the Red Sea through the very narrow Strait of Tears, at which point you can see Yemen on the starboard side & a couple of islands belonging to Djibouti on the port side. We also passed some fishing boats in this area.
The day after leaving Salalah we attended the Lebanese dinner in the Pinnacle Grill. It was really good & was accompanied by a couple of performances by the belly dancer on board.
March 30 found us in Muscat, the capital of Oman. It was occupied by the Portuguese from about 1508 to 1650, when their ouster was completed by the capture of Muscat. Oman was something of a naval power in the the 18th & 19th centuries, its control extending as far as Zanzibar on the southeast African coast, and Muscat became its capital in 1793. But Oman became a backwater by the mid-20th century, when it was under the control of Sultan Said, who never left Salalah & wouldn’t spend his substantial oil wealth to improve the country. In 1970 his son, now Sultan Qaboos (pronounced like the last car of a train), staged a coup supported by a disgruntled populace. Having received a modern education in Europe, he has spent lavishly to modernize the country & improve the well being of its people, & he seems to be more than popular among Omanis. But this is still an absolute monarchy & is socially conservative. Sultan Qaboos was in Germany when we visited, where he has gone several times in the last few years for treatment of apparently serious health issues. He apparently has no children and has named no heir, so no one knows what will happen after he dies.
Although we had intended to explore this port on foot Mary’s illness from Dubai dictated signing up for a bus tour, which turned out to be a pretty good one. We left early in the morning for a fairly long drive along some busy thoroughfares through the more recently built areas of town to visit the Sultan Qaboos Grand Mosque, opened in 2001 to mark the 30th anniversary of the Sultan’s rule. With a central dome & 5 minarets it is the third largest mosque in the world. It can accommodate 20,000 worshippers in its two gender-segregated prayer rooms & adjacent courtyards.
The buildings & courtyards here are all made of brightly shining marble. We walked through some of them to visit the women’s prayer room, which can hold 750 worshippers. In addition to the marble buildings and arches, a lot of very fine woodwork can be found at this mosque, especially in the doors & ceilings. As in most mosques, shoes must be removed before entering & there were racks provided to hold them. There is a strict dress code as well, particularly for women whose heads must be covered with a scarf and who must wear clothing reaching to neck, wrists & ankles. You are scrutinized before entering & we saw a group of women who had folded their bare arms under large headscarves being turned away.
We walked through courtyards to the men’s prayer room under the dome, carrying our shoes to a new rack there. Stepping inside this vast room is literally breathtaking. At first the massive chandelier hanging from the domed roof in the center seems unreal (the pictures don’t capture this). It is crystal and was made in Germany, the second largest in the world; just cleaning it (after it is lowered to floor level) is a massive undertaking.
Measuring some 70 yards by 60 yards, the carpet in this room is the 2d largest hand-loomed Persian carpet in the world (after the mosque in Abu Dhabi). It took 600 women four years to complete it.
Our guide showed us around the room & explained its contents at length. When asked why the men’s room is so much bigger than the women’s he said that many fewer women come to the mosque, and less often, because it is not a religious obligation for them as it is for the men. He showed us where the Imam stands & gave us a short lesson on the Koran. The mosque was full of interesting artistic details.
Outside in the courtyard we retrieved our shoes & walked to another courtyard where dates & coffee had been prepared for us. We were also given booklets promoting Islam. One area had a series of colorful tile work niches that were inspired by the 15th century architecture of Samarkand in the time of Tamerlane.
As we drove back to the old part of the city we passed government buildings & modern neighborhoods. These were basically commercial & residential neighborhoods of little intrinsic interest, but apparently there is a policy in Oman requiring all new buildings to have some traditional Arabic features, such as pointed windows or crenelated or domed roofs, and there is a rather low height limit. This keeps the city from becoming characterless, as have parts of some of the cities we have visited. In this spirit, even our bus had traditional looking drapery along the tops of its windows.
We passed through the city gate to Muttrah, the old port area of town near where Amsterdam was docked. Here we visited the Muttrah Souk, a labyrinth of shops under a wooden roof. Unfortunately we only had about half an hour here, but it was a fun half hour.
After the souk we visited the Bait al Zubair museum. This was the home of a prominent family, built about 100 years ago. They still own & operate the museum. There were interesting displays of traditional clothing, jewelry & weaponry, representing something of a social history of the region. Unfortunately, photography was not permitted inside, but outside in the courtyard was a colorful collection of variously painted statues of goats or sheep. It looked like the public art sometimes seen in American cities, in which each of a series of identical statues of animals is decorated by a different local artist – in Washington, DC, we had donkeys & elephants & in Nags Head, North Carolina they had flying horses. On the front of the building was an enormous poster of Sultan Qaboos, whose face can be seen a lot in Oman.
Next we visited Al Alam Palace, the Sultan’s offices & formal reception place. He does not live here. It was built in 1972 & looks like it. It is right on the waterfront between two forts built by the Portuguese in the 1580’s, Al Jalali & Al Mirani. You can see the large flagpole atop the central building is empty; we were told that this flag only flies when the Sultan is in Oman & this day he was in Germany.
Notable was the palace’s amazing flower garden, full of all manner of very bright flowers.
On a large hill near the palace is a section of the original city wall & three Portuguese watch towers. A lot of these small, often round structures can be seen in the old part of Muscat around the port area.
The sail away party had an Arabian theme, with colorful divan pillows, water pipes & a belly dancer (who stayed on the ship until Aqaba, giving lessons in Arabic & belly dancing). We were told that some of the passengers made off with divan pillows, big water pipes and perhaps even rugs. These were not party favors, but the real thing that the ship stores for occasions like this. It never ceases to amaze what some people feel entitled to do. This is especially dumb, if it really happened, because there are security cameras all over the ship, so they undoubtedly know who the culprits are.
We went out on the aft deck for the sailaway. From the ship you could see a watchtower shaped like a giant incense burner, the Muscat Fort (really a couple of watchtowers on the waterfront), and the sun setting over the mountains behind the port. I forgot to show you the Sultan’s yacht, looking like a cruise ship, so I will include that here even thought it wasn’t taken from the ship.
As we sailed away we had a very nice view of the Corniche, a curved waterfront row of houses & shops (including the Souk) across from the harbor. Anchored near our ship were three Iranian military ships. Further out in the bay we passed the palace, with its forts on either side, looking quite different from the water. We saw some dhows (wooden boats of the type that used to do all the shipping in this part of the world) & mountains. And then we were once more at sea.
On March 27 we arrived for an overnight stay in Dubai. This was a sleepy fishing village as recently as the 1970’s, with no paved roads & camels in the streets. But then came oil (discovered in 1966) & an ambitious, over-the-top construction program started around 2000. Today this is a glitzy city of impossibly tall buildings selling luxury at premium prices. As someone mentioned, Dubai is pronounced like “Do buy,” & that’s just what they want you to do.
Dubai is the largest of the United Arab Emirates, which was formed in 1971, although it is not the capital (which is Abu Dhabi). And it seems to be trying to garner the world record for everything, from largest shopping mall to tallest building. We were told that the construction program is still only about 30 % complete. Most of the people here are from elsewhere, but the 20 % or so that are native Dubaians want for nothing. The ruling Sheikh provides them with housing, health care, education & even money. Foreigners recently obtained the right to buy land here, but we were told that once a foreigner reaches age 65 he or she has to leave. No one not born a Dubaian can achieve citizenship. Pretty harsh.
When we arrived the air was quite hazy because, we were told, of a sand storm somewhere in the desert. There is no way to walk out of the security minded port (whose gate is more than a mile from the dock), so we took the shuttle provided by HAL to the Dubai Mall . . . yes, the largest shopping mall on the planet. It has more than 1200 stores within its 12 million square feet of space & 120 cafes & restaurants. Much of it is quite opulent.
This mall not only has stores, it has an ice skating rink, a waterfall & a huge aquarium with 33,000 fish. You can walk through a glass tunnel under the aquarium or ride a glass bottom boat across the top.
One atrium contained a huge dinosaur skeleton bathed in blue light. It is a Diplodocus Longus, discovered in Wyoming in 2008, undoubtedly one of the largest in the world (are you getting the theme here?).
Although western dress dominated we saw quite a few people in more traditional Arab attire, an interesting contrast to all the modern opulence. In the back of the mall was a bridge leading to a smaller mall called Souk Al Bahar. It had a more traditional ambience. We bought a couple of ordinary toothbrushes there for the nighttime shown out below which cost $10. There was a whimsical portrait of a camel in an art dealer’s shop in the Souk.
The bridge between these malls goes over a small man-made lake. This is the site of the Dubai Fountain, the world’s biggest (yes) dancing fountain. At night it has shows, with sound & light, during which the water jets “dance” to the music. We are told that it works periodically in the daytime, without the sound & light, but we didn’t see that.
On the other side of the fountain is the Burj Khalifa, the (you guessed it) tallest building in the world. Well over 800 yards tall (more than 300 yards taller than the next highest building in the world), Burj Khalifa has 160 floors. Opened in 2010, this was supposed to be called the Burj Dubai, but during the economic downturn the UAE gave them a $15 billion bailout to enable its completion so they changed the name to honor the president of the UAE. This makes the naming rights for American sports stadiums seem very cheap! This building certainly is very tall, but we didn’t think it was very attractive.
We were signed up for an overnight excursion into the desert so we decided to take the shuttle bus back to the ship & get ready for that. But there was no shuttle bus there & none came over the next half hour. Finally we managed to get seats on a smaller shuttle being run for crew members, which was packed not only with crew but with other passengers waiting for a ride back to the port. When we got back one of the regular shuttle buses was just sitting there with no one on board, the driver relaxing with nothing to do; we don’t know where the other shuttle buses might have been. Pretty irritating!
At about 4:00 we left on our small (12 people) excursion to the desert. We rode in three Toyota Land Cruisers for about an hour, passing the new Universal Studios being built here (only the gate was finished) & the camel racing stadium. This is a big sport in these parts. We were told that a good racing camel can cost more than $1 million & that the ruling Sheikh had lost $10,000,000 on the races the day before. We stopped at a camel farm for a close & personal introduction to camels. Most of the camels here are for milking, not racing, and there were a number of babies who were still nursing. We were told that there are no undomesticated camels left in the Middle East at all. You see a lot of unattended camels wandering around, but all of them are owned & most are branded.
Our driver/guide Mervyn drove us to the Dubai Desert Conservation Reserve. Mervyn (like almost everyone you meet here) is not a native of Dubai, but first came here as a child in the 1970’s from his native Sri Lanka. His father was in the British military (from where we presume the “Mervyn” came) & came here to help direct a new school. He vividly recalls that era when there were no cars or large buildings in Dubai, just sand and people living a Bedouin lifestyle. The Dubai Desert Conservation Reserve was created in the early 2000’s & encompasses 225 kilometers, about 5% of all the land in Dubai. While there we saw some of their projects to enhance the desert environment for wildlife. Only a limited number of people can visit the reserve each day & only approved guides can lead parties in the reserve.
The reserve is a very beautiful ocean of sand, right out of Lawrence of Arabia. There are sand dunes aplenty, with ripples created by repeated gusts of windblown sand.
After we got a little way into the Reserve the real fun began. The drivers went up & over & down the dunes at speed, exciting if you have a strong stomach (one woman in another of our cars came close to losing it). It appears that there is a track for the cars to do this, since they all took the same route, including a lot more that came after us. But the route is marked only by the faint tire tracks in the sand, so the drivers must be required to know the route. We were told that the vehicle of choice is a Toyota because most cars are not built to withstand the desert environment.
All three of our cars stopped for pictures on top of a dune.
Interestingly, the sand is not all one color. Most is the usual buff color, but some is red (from iron ore) & some is black (from volcanic rock).
A little while later we approached a ridge on which were some men with about a half dozen camels lying in the sand. We were to ride these camels a short distance into our campsite. The camels wore knitted face masks to ensure they wouldn’t bite. They had double saddles on their backs, each with a sturdy metal bar for riders to hold onto & well cushioned to protect the camel.
So with the assistance of the handlers, who held the camels down on the ground for us, we climbed on board our camel. It was like climbing onto a bicycle except that the camel’s hump was higher & getting your foot over the top was much harder. Once we were aboard they told us to hold on tight to the metal bars & the camel stood up, back end first. It felt like sitting on a catapult & being launched forward suddenly with a lot of force. But we held on & set out on our caravan to the camp site. Rick was sitting in back, & the camel behind us kept trying to put his or her head into his lap!
At the camp the handlers got the camels to lie down, one at a time, and then helped us dismount. But one camel decided to lie down on its own out of turn. There was no handler there yet, but the rider apparently decided it was time for her to dismount anyway. She fell backward while pulling her leg over the camel’s hump & fell on her tailbone. She was in enough pain (she could hardly walk) that they took her to a hospital right away & Tom, our Cruise Specialists host, went with her. We didn’t see or hear from them again for the remainder of the excursion, so now our group was down to 10. In the group picture earlier, she is the second from the right. (We have since seen this woman back on the ship, so she is OK, although still in a lot of pain.)
Our campsite had 8 tents on wooden platforms with lanterns & chairs outside & a double bed inside. There was a large dining tent where you would sit on a pillow on the ground to eat & a sitting area with couches also made of pillows on the ground. Huge hookahs were at the sitting area along with a fire pit. We ate a wonderful dinner prepared on site, including marinated lamb chops, fish, skewered chicken, marinated prawns, pita bread, hummus, and sweet cakes for dessert. There was to be some additional time in the sitting area after dinner including smoking the water pipes, but we were bushed & had no interest in smoking so we went to bed. Unfortunately, in the middle of the night Mary woke up with chills & a fever, apparently having contracted some exotic desert disease. Over the next few days it repeatedly got better & then worse, and this continued for several weeks.
In the morning we were awakened by an amazing racket put out by the birds (& maybe animals) in our little grove of trees just before the sun rose. Rick got up & took some pictures of the sunrise & of some of the noisy culprits. In the distance just at sunrise we could see a mountain range, which disappeared again once the sun was fully up. Mervyn told us that these mountains were in Oman.
As the guides made us breakfast Rick took some more pictures of the camp site, less romantic but much easier to see in the daylight.
After breakfast we reboarded the Toyotas & headed out into a different part of the desert, golden in the morning light.
We were able to see several of the wildlife species in the reserve, the Arabic Gazelle & the Arabic Oryx. These are native animals that are being carefully cultivated by the Reserve, which provides them with water & irrigates plants for their food & has even set up a salt lick. The Oryx is an interesting story. Native to this area, they had died out before the Reserve was established. So Dubai purchased 70 of them from institutions in the United States to repopulate the reserve & today there are some 300 of them living here.
Mervyn explained quite a lot about the desert ecology before we left the Reserve to return to Dubai. For example, he said that the bushes you see clumped here & there can take up to 100 years to grow to full size. For flower lovers, the only thing we have from this arid port is an Acacia tree, which was sporting yellow flowers as well as seed pods.
We got back to the ship about 10:00 AM. Our plan had been to spend the rest of this day at Dubai Creek, not too far from the dock, which is the old part of Dubai that dates back to its Bedouin period. But Mary was sick & we were both tired so we stayed on the ship instead to recuperate. Maybe next time. But the trip to the desert alone made this a most memorable stop.
March 21 found us in Colombo, the capital & largest city in Sri Lanka with a population of some 3 million people. This was an over night stop, so we would be here almost two full days. Called Ceylon for many years when it was subject to Dutch & then British control, Sri Lanka recently ended a lengthy civil war with the rebel Tamils during which Colombo was subject to repeated attacks, most notably a car bomb in 1996 that killed almost 100 people & injured more some 1500. As a result, the central administrative area adjacent to the harbor, called “Fort” after an old Portuguese fort that is long gone, was subject to strict security measures that made it very difficult to visit. Some of that is still there, but a lot less than before apparently since we were able to walk around most of the area without hindrance.
Since we were docked right in town we decided to tour the city ourselves on foot. We had some maps & written guidance, but repeatedly lost our way in this large, complex & crowded city. But really, much of the wandering around made the visit more interesting because we got a taste of the local streets off the beaten tourist path. On our way out of the harbor area we were repeatedly accosted by “Tuk-tuk” drivers (very small taxis) seeking a fare. They do not easily take “no” for an answer, following us in their vehicles & urging us to engage them for a tour of the city. Twice we were stopped by men carrying what they claimed to be tourist bureau identification, who wanted to steer us to a good taxi. We found that people falsely claiming special status was not uncommon here, & a false id is quite easy to make. We hoped that this would only happen around the port, as in most other towns with this problem, but it continued all day long, to the point where we stopped being polite about it.
Anyway, we shook them all off & headed for our first landmark, the clock tower near the President’s House. Originally built in 1857, a decade later a lighthouse beacon was added to the top & it served as the local lighthouse until the surrounding buildings grew tall enough to cut off the sea view of its light. The grounds of the President’s House were blocked off by walls & guards, so we headed for the business district to the northeast. We noted that there seem to be a number of small mosques in this area, & we passed the Young Men’s Buddhist Association, inside which is a statue of Buddha with a neon halo (the picture is blurry because it is in a dark room & we were outside on the street). On one block of interesting old colonial era department stores we passed Cargill’s department store, apparently a venerable landmark in this city.
We walked on toward Pettah, an area with a huge & busy souk. It is arranged in the traditional manner, with particular specialties gathered together on each street, so that most of the gold shops are together, most of the fabric shops are together, etc. On the way there we passed another clock tower, smaller but apparently modeled on the one near the President’s House. We also passed the Old Town Hall, built in 1873. There are so many shops open to the street, some with interesting items we are sure but many with cheap goods or household items uninteresting to a visitor, that picking out something good would be difficult, particularly because the shop keeper would begin pushing his or her goods at you as soon as you showed any interest. Some folks love to haggle in these places, but we have never seen the charm in trying to save a dollar or two that might mean quite a lot to many of these less wealthy folks.
We came to the Jami ul-Aftar Mosque, a glorious candy-striped building completed in 1909. Many people think it is just gaudy, but we thought it had an interesting style. It is quite big & could be seen from the ship.
We walked on through Pettah’s interesting but dirty & nerve wracking streets. It was nerve wracking because you had to dodge vehicles & handcarts that weren’t interested in stopping or giving way & because sidewalks were unavailable, either because too crowded or piled with stuff. We continued to be approached by tuk-tuk drivers and individuals on the street. It was awkward because some of these people on the street may have been just trying to be friendly, but others were looking to make a few bucks, and it was impossible to distinguish between them since all seemed nice at first. For example, we were approached by one fellow who claimed to be the pilot of our ship (not likely), and another who claimed he worked in Amsterdam’s engine room, yet asked us where we had arrived from and where we were going next. So the only thing we could do was greet everyone politely then disengage as soon as possible.
We managed to find the Dutch Reformed Wolvendaal Church just when we were about to give up looking for it. Built in 1749, when the Dutch still ruled Ceylon, it has a rather simple interior & its exterior is in need of repair. A number of old gravestones line one side of the building, dating back to the 17th century, before the current building was erected.
As we walked back down the hill toward downtown we noticed that women dressed in saris were common, though not dominant, in Pettah, whose population is largely Tamil. That was not true elsewhere in town.
Our plan had been to explore Fort & Pettah on the first day, then the near southern districts on the second day. But we got back to Fort around mid day, so we decided to continue on south. We walked past an old pillared building with military guards that we found out later is the old Parliament Building and now the President’s Secretariat. Just beyond it is a canal (the Dutch built a number of them here) that leads to an interior lake. We didn’t walk up the canal, but we did see some nice birds bathing & swimming there, including egrets & what looked a little like crows, along with what we think were endangered spot-billed pelicans that live here.
We walked down the long Galle Face Green, a large park along the water’s edge created in the 1850’s. This area is more lively at night when lots of folks come out for picnics & promenading, but it was pretty nice to watch the surf in the insufferably hot & humid weather. There is a pier that attracted a lot of visitors, including several women in saris with classes of children dressed in white, and a few food vendors along the road.
We stopped for lunch at the Galle Face Hotel that forms the southern end of the park. Dating from the mid-18th century, the hotel has hosted many notables, from Mark Twain to Harrison Ford, whose pictures are on display in the bar area where we ate. We ran into some friends who were on a HAL tour that lunched in a courtyard here on an extensive buffet of curry & other local cuisine, but we just had a sandwich & a beer . . . in a delightfully air conditioned room.
After lunch we decided to walk to Barefoot, a store that had been highly recommended. We knew it was a ways further south, but we didn’t know how really far it was. We passed the US Embassy & the Prime Minister’s residence, surrounded by a wall with soldiers in watchtowers above it. But most of this very long walk was through uninteresting commercial & financial areas. Fortunately, Barefoot turned out to be a really interesting store, so we didn’t feel this long walk had been wasted. This is Sri Lanka, so there were plenty of nice flowers around the city.
On the way back we stopped at a McDonald’s for water (it advertised curry specialties), but mostly we just wanted to get back to the ship & off our feet. As we passed Galle Face Green there were a lot more people there than before & there were families enjoying the beach at the end of the park, which also had more pelicans.
We walked back to the dock. Shortly before entering the harbor, the last tuk-tuk of the day pulled up and offered to take us to the ship for $1 (this is the price they always quote, but others have told us that it went up after they were in the vehicle). It was only about 500 feet, so it wasn’t even worth that much. We walked past a lighthouse that doesn’t seem to work any more, which we think must be the one built by the water after taller buildings blocked the clock tower light. And we entered the port by walking under a huge stupa sitting on legs about 10 stories high, where the port controller’s office is located.
It turned out we had walked 13 miles on our first day in Colombo, easily a new record for us. We woke up the next day, March 22, still tired & sore all over, so we decided to stay on the ship. After all, we had seen most of what we had planned for two days on the first day. There was a row of tourist oriented shops on the pier across from the ship & we spent some time looking there, but found nothing we wanted beyond a tee shirt. Interestingly, although these shops had been open & available for the entire two days, when the all aboard time arrived (everybody knew when it would be), security officers had to go out to these shops to corral passengers who couldn’t tear themselves away. The antics of the passengers on these cruises are always entertaining, if baffling.
After Colombo we will be sailing north toward the Middle East and into pirate infested waters, including the Straits of Hormuz & the Persian Gulf, then around the Arabian Peninsula into the Red Sea & up to the Suez canal. In Colombo preparations for this began as crew members strung razor wire along the edge of the open walking deck, deck 3, which is where anyone would try to board this ship & also where our cabin is located. Just outside our window they also installed one of several water cannons, fire hoses attached to nozzles over the edge of the ship that can be turned on anyone trying to climb aboard. On deck 6 they also have sound cannons capable of breaking the eardrums of anyone in the water near our ship. The captain explained that we would be under constant surveillance during this passage, from the ship’s radar & security guards posted on the outside deck (with deck lights off at night), and from AWACS planes flying above & satellite coverage. In reality, there probably isn’t much real danger to us because Amsterdam can do 25 knots, easily enough to outrun any pirate boats, and a cruise ship with 1500 people on board is not a likely target for pirates, who want cargo to ransom. But its good to know that all these precautions are being taken.
So in late afternoon we sailed away from Colombo, headed up the western coast of India toward the Arabian Peninsula.
On March 20 we arrived at Hambantota’s spanking new cruise port. This was Amsterdam’s maiden visit & only the 2d by any HAL ship, Rotterdam having visited here a couple of weeks earlier. We were told that the local tourist board had a special meeting the day before our arrival to prepare. We were met on the dock by dancers & musicians, as we had in a number of ports. As our bus left the port we passed a large crowd of taxi drivers waiting to recruit passengers leaving on their own. We were glad we were already engaged.
Hambantota is a small town (about 12,000) that is likely to get a lot bigger soon. Originally settled by Malay fishermen, Hambantota has the largest percentage of Muslims of any town in Sri Lanka. Its name is a corruption of “Sampan-thota,” which means port for sampan boats. It was all but destroyed by the 2004 tsunami, which killed a large portion of the townspeople in just a few minutes. It has been rebuilt near the original spot and the Sri Lanka government (headed by a Hambantotan) now plans to make it the second largest city in Sri Lanka. They have already mostly finished a new port that is one of the deepest in the world, which is where we docked, and are building an international airport as well.
We really didn’t get to see much of Hambantota (which we understand has little to see) because we were on an excursion to Mulkirigala, a fascinating series of ancient temples built into caves in a mountain. On the long bus ride to the site, we were able to see some pretty countryside & some village scenes as well.
Most people seemed to be dressed in western garb but there were many men wearing sarongs & women in sari’s.
Mulkirigala is a huge rock outcrop more than 600 feet high. There are seven Buddhist temples built into caves on four levels. There are 533 very steep steps to reach the top (getting steeper & more difficult the higher you go). The temples date back to 300 BC & were completely restored in the 18th century. (Note that the caves were pretty dark & no flash was allowed, so a lot of these pictures are blurrier than we would have liked)
On the first terrace were two temples, each of which had a 45 foot long reclining Buddha (unfortunately difficult to photograph because behind glass). There were also many colorful paintings on the walls & ceilings showing Buddhist & Hindu gods & stories. As usual, you were required to remove your shoes before entering each of the temples. Also on this level we encountered a number of monkeys, with what looked like Beatles haircuts & dark ears that looked like they had been pasted onto their fur.
We walked up the stairs to the second terrace, where there is a stupa as well as a temple. Inside was a reclining Buddha, thankfully not behind glass this time, with some attendants. Reclining Buddhas, as we understand it, represent Buddha on his deathbed. If his feet are together he is still alive, if apart he is dead. More interesting paintings were on the walls.
The third level has four temples, although it is not clear at this point which of our pictures applies to which temple. Anyway, two of them have reclining Buddhas (one of them is the only dead Buddha on the site). One of them has a separate vestibule, paved with Dutch floor tiles and its walls covered with dramatic sculptures.
The climb to the fourth level was really unreasonable, with steps cut out of almost a cliff wall. But we made it up there (and down, which may have been harder, since you had to do it ladder-style). No temples up here on the very top of the mountain, but there was a stupa & a small building called a dagoba, where another monk was selling blessings. Behind the top you could scramble down (no steps) a hillside to stand on the top of the rock & look out over the countryside for quite a ways, so Rick did that.
So then we climbed down, which sounds pretty simple but actually wasn’t. You might wonder what we could have been thinking going up those last flights of steps, but everyone got down OK.
Perhaps this is a good place to show a sample of the flowers on display at this site.
At the bottom are a number of shrines, one of which was attended by a couple of elderly men in sarongs. We got back in our bus, but had to wait 20 or 30 minutes for the last passenger to show up. We were beginning to wonder whether, if someone fell off the top, anyone would notice them.
Our final passenger finally showed up (we never heard what delayed her) & we drove back to the ship. We passed more town & country scenes. Sri Lanka has, since ancient times, been building earth & stone pools for water retention that they call “tanks,” which have served very extensive irrigation systems. Usually they build a small dam around a depression in the earth. We saw a few of these on our trip back. There was also a pond where egrets, ducks & other birds had gathered.
As in Cambodia, we thought the written language of Sri Lanka was quite beautiful. Here are a few examples with English translations. Note that there are two official languages in Sri Lanka, Sinhalese & Tamil.
So our visit to Hambantota came to an end, but we would see more of Sri Lanka the next day.
On St Patrick’s Day, March 17, we arrived in Phuket, an island at the very bottom of Thailand. I know this will be a disappointment for some, but the “Ph” in this name is not pronounced like an “F,” and the name does not rhyme with bucket. The “h” is silent & it is pronounced “Poo’-ket,” which I guess is bad enough. Thailand is the only country in Southeast Asia that was not colonized by Europeans, retaining its ruling monarchy, famous to westerners from The King And I (which is disliked here for its portrayal of their king as a strutting buffoon in need of tutelage from a young European woman).
Phuket is primarily a resort area today, known for its fine beaches. A dozen years ago it was a victim of the devastating tsunami that killed thousands here. Our day here turned out to be sunny & hot.
We are not beach people & there really isn’t much to do on your own here, so we signed up for an excursion to an elephant refuge. In 1989 commercial logging was outlawed, which left a great many elephants (who moved the timber) & their handlers without a job. Siam Safari was opened that year to help them out as a sanctuary & hospital for elephants. In 1994 became the first company to offer elephant trekking in Phuket & it has received recognition for its care of the animals. Today there are between 6000 & 7000 elephants in Thailand, down from 100,000 in 1900.
We set out in the morning for the bus ride to the elephant camp. Near the end of the ride we spotted the 125 foot Big Buddha they have almost completed, sitting on top of a large hill. It is, indeed, very big & very white. We transferred to a smaller vehicle which took us up a mountain to the camp.
We had understood that this was just an elephant camp, but it turned out to have much more than that for visitors. First we met a water buffalo, had a ride in a buffalo card (slow & not too exciting) & were shown a demonstration of how water buffalo are used to help plant rice.
We were shown how rice is husked & prepared for market. They showed us how to prepare pineapple curry, which was really delicious (Rick had two bowls). Then they showed us how rubber is produced, from tapping a rubber tree to rolling it out into sheets in what looked like the top of an old fashioned manual washing machine. They come out in the middle of the night to tap the trees, wearing head lanterns with flames in them. Each day one diagonal line is cut in the tree & a spout & cup are mounted to catch the sap. Rubber trees originated in the Amazon region of Brazil & they prohibited the export of the trees, which gave Brazil a very lucrative monopoly on rubber. But saplings were smuggled out to Britain, who replanted them in Asian colonies from which they spread to Thailand. The guy who smuggled them was a wanted criminal in Brazil, but was knighted in Britain.
Next we were taken to meet a young elephant, who was mostly interested in being fed. She kept moving, walking around her pen then coming back to the people who were there. Asian elephants are smaller than African elephants, have much smaller tusks & have two large bumps on top of their heads. All of the elephants at the camp when we visited were females, with no visible tusks.
We rode elephants through the jungle for half an hour. Our elephant was named Boso. You mount the elephant from a platform & sit on a bench mounted on the elephant’s back . . . easier than stepping into a tender boat from the ship! A skilled handler sits on the elephant’s neck & controls the animal. It seems that the handlers work with the same elephant all the time. The had short sticks with a curved metal point to direct the animal, but this was used gently on top of the elephant’s head to indicate directions. We never saw anyone hit any of the elephants. We were told that we were a very light load for an elephant, who can carry really large weights.
We walked through the woods, swaying gently from side to side. A couple of times our handler asked us to move a little to balance the load. It was easy to slide back & forth on the bench as the elephant walked, but there was (happily) a metal bar across our laps to keep us from falling out. The handler kept his feet behind the elephant’s ears, which probably assists in directing it. Occasionally an elephant would stop to get a bite to eat, or to scratch an itch on a rock, or other rather natural things.
We stopped at a scenic overlook of the seashore. As we approached it we noted the head of the Big Buddha peeping over the trees on top of a nearby mountain. The elephants rested & milled around for awhile at the overlook, while passengers snapped pictures of each other, before heading back.
So then we returned to the camp & dismounted onto the platform. This was a really fun outing.
At the elephant camp we saw quite a bit of pretty flora, and some unusual fauna. In particular was a very large yellow spider, scary but fortunately too far away to do any damage. And there was a very tiny frog. I didn’t see it when taking a picture of a water lily. It was only later when I cropped and enlarged the water lily picture that I noticed what looked like a worm on one leaf. Enlarging it further, it turned out to be a tiny frog, probably only about an inch or so long.
We came down from the mountain & went to lunch at one of the best local restaurants located right by the water. It was delicious Thai food (& lots of it), but not as delicious as that pineapple curry we had at the camp in the morning!
After lunch we visited Wat Chalong, the largest Buddhist temple in Phuket, which was built in 1837. It is very colorful & elaborately decorated.
While we were walking to the temple there was suddenly loud explosions, sounding at first like gunfire. It turns out that there is a tradition here of setting off firecrackers in a small building near the temple as thanks for a wish fulfilled. It was startling (& very loud) at first, but it happened a number of times while we were there, so it must be pretty routine.
Down a short path from the temple is a much more recent building called the Chedi. It is 3 stories, much larger than the temple, & houses in the top story what is reputedly a bone fragment from the Buddha himself. It is in a reliquary & in a room behind glass, so you can’t really see it. But the Chedi is quite beautiful, with the first floor filled with gold colored statues of Buddha & others.
We returned to the ship & sailed away from Thailand as the sun set, ending our sojourn in Southeast Asia & heading for Sri Lanka, with two sea days before us.
March 15 was Mary’s birthday, but that was no respite for us from exploring all we could of endlessly interesting Singapore. We took the subway to Little India this morning and walked down Serangoon Road among the kiosks, notably the flower shops selling garlands of fresh jasmine, roses and other flowers for prayer offerings.
The Indian community here dates to the import of convict laborers from India beginning in 1825, who were used to build many of the colonial buildings in Singapore. As we saw on day one, the population today is large & immigrants continue to arrive from India & Bangladesh.
We came to our second Hindu temple in Singapore, Sri Veeramakaliamman Temple (don’t ask us how to pronounce it). Built in the mid 19th century, it is dedicated to the goddess Kali.
We took off our shoes & went inside. The temple is filled with sculptures of Hindu divinities and, because it was a Hindu holy day, there were quite a few worshipers as well. A lot of bustle & a very colorful space.
We spent some time walking around & perusing the shops, particularly in the Little India Arcade. There was much of interest. Characteristic of all the older parts of Singapore is the shophouse, a 2 or 3 story building with an open store on the first floor and living quarters upstairs. Actually, we have seen this kind of building all over Southeast Asia, but in Singapore the architecture of the upper floors is much more interesting & diverse.
We walked over to Kampong Glam, the Arab neighborhood. Arab street is famous for its textile shops, with many silks & batiks at widely varying prices. Vendors are fairly aggressive, but no one was rude. Nearby is the Sultan Mosque, originally built in 1827 with financing by the East India Company as a result of the treaty between Raffles & Sultan Hussein Muhammed Shah. The current structure, with its fabulous golden dome, was built a century later. Sadly, we arrived just 10 minutes after it closed for two hours at mid-day, so we could not go inside.
Next to the mosque is the Istana Kampong Glam, which was the Shah’s official residence, built in 1840. The back of both structures are on Muscat Street, named for the capital of Oman (which we will be visiting later) because the Omanis helped finance the development of this area.
We walked to Chinatown, passing some interesting skyscrapers on the way.
In Chinatown we had lunch at the very Chinese sounding Wall Street Café (which did have Chinese proprietors) on Pagoda Street. In the 19th century this was lined with shophouses & itinerant vendors, along with opium dens and slave traders dealing in Chinese laborers. At one end is a set of sculptures evoking that period.
In Chinatown we visited two temples. First was the Sri Mariamman Temple, the oldest Hindu temple in Singapore, completed in 1843. It is dedicated to Mariamman, a divinity with healing powers. The gopurum is populated by more than 70 Hindu deities & the wall around the temple grounds is topped with sculptures of sacred cows. During an annual festival devotees walk on hot coals here. Near it is the green Jamae Mosque, built in the early 1830’s. The minarets in its façade are not real, but look like part of a model of a mosque sitting over the entrance.
Finally, we visited the Thian Hock Keng Temple, completed in 1842, the oldest Chinese temple in Singapore. Seafarers came here to give thanks to Ma Zhu Po, protector of sojourners, for safe passage to Singapore. It is supported on bricks and wooden posts, with no nails used in the main structure.
We returned to the ship feeling rather tired, having walked almost 10 miles in very hot weather for the second day in a row. In the cruise terminal (a huge building with three floors of shops & restaurants) we searched & searched for a place to have a beer to celebrate Mary’s birthday, and finally ended up in a sports bar that seemed to be the only place serving alcohol. At dinner that night all the waiters sang an Indonesian birthday song to Mary & we were served a birthday cake (Mary’s birthday was in their records, Rick did not tell them!). We felt that we had seen & done quite a lot in our 2+ days in Singapore, but that there is a whole lot more left to see and do on a return trip in this unusual & diverse city.
We got up as early as we could on March 14 and after breakfast headed into town. This is no easy thing. We were all given our passports for this stop (usually the ship holds onto them). It was a long walk from the ship through indoor passages to the desks where we had to line up to have our passports & landing cards checked & scanned, then another line to go through a metal detector & have anything you are carrying scanned. Another ship had just docked, so this area was pretty jammed. After running that gauntlet we had to figure out how & where to board the subway. We spent some time in the wrong line (there are a lot of lines), but finally found the MRT ticket office. There we bought two 2-day passes & went off to find the entrance to the subway line we wanted, to take us to Chinatown. All in all, it was close to an hour between stepping off the ship & stepping on the subway.
Singapore offers a lot to a visitor, with several diverse ethnic neighborhoods, many gardens & amusements, museums, history and a wealth of shopping opportunities. But our reaction was that it was a lot like Disney World (we aren’t the first to notice this). It is very clean & neat & easy to get around with a very efficient subway system. It has several different self-contained attraction areas, which could as easily be called Little Indialand, Chinatownland, Arabland, Colonialland & Big Businessland. It has rides, three of which you saw in the first episode. Everything seems carefully planned and executed to make enjoyment of the city easy for the visitor. None of this is bad (we love Disney World), but the theme park feeling is a bit unsettling (at least to us), even though there is quite a lot of real life to be seen & experienced here.
Singapore is a small island nation with no natural resources. Everything is imported & taxed. Singapore was a small fishing village of about 1000 people until the arrival of Sir Thomas Stamford Raffles in 1819 to establish an British colony. You may remember him from an earlier episode when as governor of Java he set in motion the recovery of Borobudur temple. He concluded a treaty with the local chieftains & by 1824 Britain had obtained full control of the island. In 1822 Raffles decided that the growing ethnic groups in the city should be segregated into separate areas & he drew up demarcation lines that still pretty much mark the boundaries of the Chinese, the Muslims and the commercial district. Raffles died of a brain tumor in England four years later, but the island flourished as an important trading post half way between India & China. By 1860 the population reached 80,000 & by the turn of the century its status a trading hub was well established.
In 1942 Singapore fell to the Japanese. Its defenses, called “Fortress Singapore,” all faced the sea but the Japanese came by land from the Malay Peninsula in the north. The 3+ year occupation was harsh, many people killed, sent to prison camps or sent north to work as slave labor on the railroad the Japanese were building. After the war the British returned, but in 1963 Singapore became part of the independent Malaysia and two years later separated into an independent country.
Lee Kuan Yew was the political strong man of Singapore from independence until his death a couple of years ago. Under his rule Singapore developed into an economic powerhouse, but also a repressive society characterized by innumerable rules coupled with harsh punishments. The media have been tightly controlled and political opposition has not been tolerated (successful opposition politicians often found themselves in serious legal difficulties). Bringing drugs or even an unloaded gun into the city is punishable by death and there are signs everywhere telling you what is disallowed & warning that police cameras are in operation (not all of these restrictions are necessarily bad ideas).
We rode on the subway to the Chinatown stop & stopped in a small park above a street to reconnoiter. Nearby was the defunct Majestic Opera House & in the middle of the street below were Disney-looking artificial trees. We left the park & a few minutes later Rick noticed he didn’t have his camera! He ran back to the park & the camera was still sitting where he left it on a table, undisturbed by others in the park. In most cities it would have been long gone.
We walked down to the financial district, with its huge skyscrapers, to the River Walk. This is a landscaped path along the riverside on the opposite side from where our boat trip ended the night before. It has not only many lovely real flowers, mostly growing on trees or bushes, but also large sculptures of flowers. We had been told that this one city has 100 Starbucks outlets & at the river walk we spied number 100 itself.
We walked by the beautiful Fullerton Hotel seen in last night’s pictures, built in 1928 as the General Post Office. From here we could also see the new & huge Sands Hotel, owned by the same people who own the Sands in Las Vegas. It is really 3 buildings with a common rooftop that looks like a long boat. People who visited the top told us that the viewing area is now tightly roped off so that you can’t approach the swimming pool or the palms or take any interesting pictures.
We walked past the Cavanagh Bridge (which we went under last night), constructed in 1869 by Indian convict labor. Then we visited the Victoria Theater & Concert Hall. The theater was built in 1862 as Singapore’s town hall & the concert hall was added in 1905 for Victoria’s jubilee year. In front is an 1887 statue of Raffles that was moved here in 1819 on the 100th anniversary of his arrival in Singapore.
Nearby is the old Parliament House, built in 1827 & now converted into a contemporary art gallery. In front of it is a bronze elephant given to Singapore by the King of Siam (the father of the one depicted in The King And I) after he visited in 1871, the first foreign trip by a Thai king. Trying to find this sculpture we approached a guard behind a fence on the other side of the building. He said there was no elephant sculpture on the grounds & gratuitously asserted that we couldn’t enter the gate (we hadn’t asked to). Not far away is the old Supreme Court which, along with the old city hall, is now the National Art Gallery of Singapore.
We went off in search of the cathedral & promptly got lost. But even when lost there are interesting things to see in Singapore. We came upon the candy-striped Central Fire Station, built in 1908. Although it is still in operation it also includes a museum of fire fighting (which we didn’t see) & a sculpture of a fireman on the second floor. We also passed the very colorful MICA Building, which used to be a police station but now houses the Ministry of Communications and some art galleries. Finally we found St Andrew’s Cathedral, completed in 1862 with Indian convict labor.
What would a visit to Singapore be without a visit to the famous Raffles Hotel, birthplace of the Singapore Sling in 1915. It opened in 1887 & attracted many literary figures over the years. Somerset Maugham, who supposedly wrote many of his Asian stories in the gardens, said it “stood for all the fables of the exotic East.” The Long Bar where, as Amsterdam’s location guide put it, you can buy a Singapore Sling for approximately the price of a small house, was closed the day we were there.
We walked through CHIJMES across the street from the hotel. This is now a mall with shops & restaurants, but was originally the Convent of the Holy Infant Jesus (from which come the first 4 letters of its name). Founded in 1854, the convent operated a school and a women’s refuge.On its other side is the lovely former chapel of the convent, no longer a church but a recital, wedding & exhibition space. This brought us to the Central Library, a large & very modern building, but always one of our favored destinations.
By now it was getting late & we were getting tired. We walked a total of 10 miles this day, & it was in stifling heat. We had one more place we wanted to visit, the Chettiar Hindu Temple. This temple was built in 1984 to replace a 19th century one that had been financed by Indian money-lenders, called chettiars. But it was not close by, and our walk there took us past the Esplanade Theatres on the Bay, two large domed buldings that the locals call the Durians because of their spiky shells. We also saw some nice flowers as we walked through Ft Canning park.
The Chettiar Temple is dedicated to Lord Murugan. Like many Hindu temples, it has a five tier entrance archway, called a gopuram, filled with colorful sculptures & reliefs. The front door was open when we got there, but no one was around and there was a sign saying not to go in. So we didn’t, but we did take a photo through the front door.
We returned to the subway and made our way back to the ship; the gauntlet of officials in the cruise terminal moved much faster than in the morning because there were fewer people in line. There was supposed to be a local folkloric show on the ship this night, but they apparently backed out at the last minute (HAL people were livid & we were disappointed). However, that allowed us to get to bed fairly early in anticipation of another full day tomorrow.
Our first day in Singapore was spent mostly at sea, since we weren’t scheduled to arrive until 6:00 on March 13. It was foggy & rainy all day; we could hardly see the many ships anchored off Singapore as we approached. We had a nighttime excursion booked beginning shortly after our arrival & we were becoming more & more convinced that it would be a disaster in the rain, since most of it would be outside. We even went up to the shore excursion desk to see if we could back out of the tour, but it was closed for the day.
So imagine our surprise when we trooped out of the ship to the tour bus to find that the rain had pretty much stopped & the fog had lifted, just in time! The night tour turned out to be great, & we were glad the shore excursion desk had been closed. (Please note that some of the pictures in this episode are a little blurry because they were all taken at night & many from a moving vehicle. But they are worth seeing anyway.)
Our bus dropped us off at Bugis Street, once a very rowdy neighborhood but now a crowded covered marketplace. Bugis (pronounced “boo-gis”) is the name of an ethnic group in Indonesia known for their seamanship. They built the schooners we saw in Jakarta. At one time there were fierce pirates among them who preyed on shipping in the area. From this comes the saying “the boogey man will get you,” used to scare small children into behaving.
First on our agenda was a ride through the area in a trishaw. This is a 3 wheel vehicle comprising a bicycle attached at the side of a 2 seat cart. There was a long line of these carrying the passengers on our excursion.
Our drive through the area passed the Maghain Aboth Synagogue, built in the 1870’s, which is identifiable from the Stars of David on the walls. Best was the drive through Little India, because it was Sunday and many thousands of young men (and a few women) were out & about, overflowing the sidewalks into the street. Quite a scene.
From here we went for a ride on the Singapore Flyer, a 540 foot tall ferris wheel, the tallest in the world. It has glass enclosed capsules that hold about 8 passengers each & it moves very slowly, completing one turn in about 30 minutes. It is lit up at night (as is most of this part of the city) & the colors are constantly changing. You can even arrange to have dinner served in your capsule! When it was first opened the builders were surprised that hardly anyone came to ride. It turned out that the wheel was turning the wrong way under the principles of feng shui, draining the area of good luck. Reversing the direction of rotation made it a success.
The views of the city from the Flyer were nothing short of spectacular. We were very thankful that the fog seemed completely gone & the night was very clear.
Our last outing of the night was a ride on a bumboat on the Singapore River. The bumboats are traditional cargo boats, with tires on the sides & eyes painted on the front, that brought goods up the river from the port to the “godowns” (warehouses) in the city. The river is now blocked as part of Singapore’s massive effort to eliminate the need to import fresh water from Malaysia, so the boats are now used just for tourist rides. It starts at Clarke Quay, which is now one of the hottest nightspots in town with a lot of restaurants & bars. There is a ride here similar to a bungy, but you sit in a little cage that holds 2 or 3 people that is suspended on a long cord from two towers, bouncing up & down & back & forth. We didn’t do that.
It was not a long boat ride, but pretty colorful with so many of the bridges & buildings lit up in various colors. Some of the places we would see in daytime later included the Fullerton Hotel, the Dunes Hotel, the Cavanagh Bridge & the Merlion, where the boat trip ended. The Merlion – half lion & half fish – is the symbol of Singapore, but it is not some ancient mythological creature. It was created by the Singapore tourist board. We saw a lot of signs & tee shirts calling Singapore the “lion city” & thought this was just a tourist oriented slogan based on the Merlion. But it turns out that the city’s name is thought to derive from the Sanskrit word “Singapura,” which means “lion city.” You just never know.
We drove back to the ship, happy that this excursion had turned out so much better than anticipated a few hours earlier, & went to bed after a quick meal so that we would be rested for our first full day in Singapore.
We were docked in Sihanoukville when we woke up on March 11. We were up early because our private tour guides wanted to beat the heat of the day so we were treated to a sunrise over the dock. During the trip from Phu My we had sailed near many small fishing boats.
Our exit from the ship was delayed some before the local officials gave us clearance. Our tour group walked out on the deck, but our tour leaders were nowhere to be seen. It turns out that most people are barred from entering the port, so we walked to the gate of the port about a quarter of a mile away & found our tour guides there.
During the late 1970’s Cambodia was ruled by the Khmer Rouge, a group that called itself Communist but appears in fact to have been pretty much insane. They emptied the cities of people and killed millions of them – men, women & children – for no apparent reason. After they were overthrown there was a baby boom, so that today the population is very young & we saw few older people.
Originally an unimportant out-of-the-way town called Kampong Som, Sihanoukville was mostly built in the 1950’s as Cambodia’s only deep water port. It is primarily a beach resort area, with miles of nice beaches. It is named for King Norodom Sihanouk, who became king in 1941, was removed in a coup in 1955, then brought back to rule from 1993 to 2004.
Sihanoukville has five Buddhist temples and our first visit was to one of them. Wat Krom (Lower Pagoda) is the largest & most important temple in the province. It was really a complex of several buildings with a large number of gilded statues, shrines & family crypts, in addition to the white temple building with its gilded roof.
Inside the temple walls & ceiling were covered with paintings, presumably of scenes from the Buddha’s life. We had to remove our shoes to enter the temple. There were a number of children hanging out at the temple & when we emerged a young girl had taken firm custody of Rick’s shoes. She insisted on putting his shoes back on, to his embarrassment. The shoes were too tight for her (they are slip-ons), so in the end Rick had to finish the job himself.
We drove out along a long & rocky unpaved road to reach K’Bal Chhay waterfall. This is reputedly a popular place for locals to visit & there were a number of buildings fitted with hammocks for them. The falls are said to be impressive during the wet season, but this was the dry season so it really wasn’t worth the long trip. There was a long walk from the car park to the falls that included scrambling over rocks, which was a little much for some of our tour group. One woman, who made the unfortunate choice to wear flip-flops, fell on the rocks & scraped her arm.
In Cambodia, as in Vietnam & Indonesia, there seemed to be small shrines with trays for offerings in front of most houses and other buildings. These seemed more elaborate than we had seen before, many with gilding or golden paint, & they were even here next to the waterfall & the hammock buildings.
We visited a pepper farm, where the spice that was once so valuable that it lured many explorers was growing in abundance on plants supported by bamboo (and sometimes brick) poles. It takes several years for a pepper plant to begin producing usable pepper & after a few years it has to be replaced. They told us that the peppers that turn red before harvesting are the best quality. After picking the pepper is dried in the sun for some days on large tarps.
This farm also grows durian, the really foul smelling fruit. Some say that if you can get past the smell the fruit is quite sweet tasting, but others say it is decidedly an acquired taste. We made no effort to acquire it.
We took a long drive to Ream National Park, then drove down another rocky unpaved road to visit a fishing village. The overwhelming impression was of poverty, but the people there were friendly, especially the children. I’m pretty sure they are used to visits from tourists, but it still felt a little strange to go traipsing through their village taking pictures.
There were some lush flowers in the fishing village.
We had a Cambodian lunch at a roadside spot, complete with hammocks for resting in the shade during the hottest part of the day. Nearby were signs advertising the two top Cambodian beers (we had an Angkor). The script here is quite beautiful, but completely indecipherable for a Westerner.
After lunch we had two more temples to visit. First was Wat Ream. We didn’t actually go into this temple, but there were a number of shrines & sculptures on the grounds. I should add that none of the temples we visited here are very old, all were built in the second half of the 20th century (I think), after the development of Sihanoukville’s port.
The last temple we visited was Wat Leu (the upper pagoda). It sits on top of the largest hill in the area & commands a panoramic view.
The primary attraction here was the troop of monkeys living here. They were not afraid of humans (who like to feed them) & several had babies hanging on to their undersides. A very interesting flower was growing on a vine (I think) on a tree. Interesting flora & fauna, who could ask for more?
Last and, yes, least was a visit to the downtown market called Psar Leu. It seemed like just a huge warehouse with lots of little kiosks where people were selling food (raw & prepared), jewelry & clothes. Nothing looked very interesting. It also had a number of beggars. We spent a long half hour there. Driving through town, it seemed very pedestrian with little in the way of style. I guess that’s because the town is so new & many of the people so poor. We saw again a thick tangle of electrical wires like in Vietnam, just asking for a nasty fire. Outside the market were “tuk-tuks,” motorbikes with small carriages that serve as the local taxis. After this we returned to the ship, a little early thankfully since it was hot and we had seen enough of this part of Cambodia, which would not be near the top of our list for a return visit.
We had a day at sea before reaching Phu My (pronounced like “Phu My once, shame on you. . . “) on March 9. During the sea day we went to the special Vietnamese dinner in the Pinnacle Grill. It was very good & this makes the 3rd day in a row we had Vietnamese food (which we would have again in Ho Chi Minh City).
Phu My is really just an industrial port. We were here to visit Ho Chi Minh City, since 1976 the official name of Saigon. Most people still call it Saigon; our guide said you have to use Ho Chi Minh City when you write it, but when speaking most people use Saigon. A thousand years ago this was a Khmer (the Cambodian ethnic group) fishing village called Prei Nokor but by the 18th century the area was part of the Vietnamese Nguyen empire. The Vietnamese called it Saigon. The French seized this area in 1861 and in 1862 it was declared the capital of French Cochinchina. After ejecting the Japanese from the area in 1945 the British handed it back to the French, and the long independence war against the French & Americans began. In 1975 the Americans evacuated & the city fell to the Vietnamese, who renamed it Ho Chi Minh City a year later.
After a long drive from Phu My we reached Saigon (as I will call it because it is shorter), crossing the Saigon river. The city now has a population of about 9 million & many very tall buildings, as you would expect in a city of that size.
Our first stop was at the Presidential Palace. This has long been called the Reunification Palace but we didn’t see any indication of this while we were there. This is where the Vietnamese tanks broke through the front gate to seize power from the old U.S. supported regime. In fact, long-time President Thieu had helicoptered out a day or two before & turned his office over to a general known as Big Minh. When the tanks arrived Minh announced “I have been waiting since this morning to transfer power to you,” and the general responded, “Your power is gone. You cannot give up what you do not have.” So ended the Vietnam-American war.
The Presidential Palace was completed in 1966. An older palace here was badly damaged by bombs when his own air force tried unsuccessfully to assassinate President Diem in 1962. Diem was successfully assassinated (with American support) in 1963 so he never got to live here. Inside they have preserved most of the ornate rooms used by the president.
We next visited Notre Dame Cathedral and the General Post Office, which are across the street from each other. The cathedral was built by the French in 1880. It is the largest church ever built in the French empire & when it was completed it was the tallest building in Saigon (not any more, by a long shot). Inside it is rather plain; most of its stained glass windows were destroyed in World War II & replaced with clear ones. In front is a statue of Mary, installed in 1959.
The General Post Office across the street was designed by Gustave Eiffel & completed in the 1880’s. It is a huge open space where postal activities are still busily carried on. In the back is a large picture of Ho Chi Minh and near the front are two huge maps, one showing the Saigon area in 1892.
Nearby is the old CIA headquarters, which our guide said was where the last American helicopters left Saigon in 1975, rather than the U.S. Embassy, as most sources say. Actually, there were a number of helicopter departure points around the city, so both of these could have been among the last. Not far away is a socialist realism style sculpture.
Lam Son Square is the site of the Municipal Theater, called the Opera House when it was built in 1899. It looks French, with fanciful stone carvings at the top and by the entrance. When it opened in 1959 the Caravelle hotel was the tallest building in the city at 10 stories. It was a central gathering place for diplomats & journalists during the war. Today the old Caravelle is attached to a much taller addition.
A couple of blocks away is the Rex Hotel. Built in the 1950’s, it did not begin operating as a hotel until after the war in the 1970’s. Its Rooftop Garden bar was the venue for the regular briefings by the U.S. military that came to be known as the “Five O’Clock Follies” because no one believed the extravagant Viet Cong body counts that were routinely announced here. We went up to the rooftop bar, fronted by the large crown that is the symbol of the hotel & is a local landmark when lit up at night. There was a great view here of the People’s Committee Building, which was built by the French in 1908 as the Hotel de Ville (city hall). In 1945 thousands of people gathered here to establish the Provisional Administrative Committee of South Vietnam. It is very French looking & there is a nice park in front with a lot of flowers & a statue of Ho Chi Minh.
We went to lunch at a classy restaurant called Nam Phan. We were seated on the top floor & there was no elevator, so this was not a great plan for the older folks with walking difficulties in our party. But everybody made it & it was quite a good lunch.
Our last stop was for a water puppet performance. People stand in the water behind a screen and use long sticks under the water to manipulate puppets in front of the screen. It was (way) less than thrilling. We found it hard to imagine that even little kids would be enthralled by this tedious business in the age of movies & video games.
We left Phu My after dark. It is an industrial port located up a river from the coast, but there are woods & mountains & fishing boats in the area which we watched as the sun went down & we left Vietnam.
On March 7 we visited Hoi An, an ancient city just south of Danang that escaped war damage & thus still displays its ancient heritage. Driving south from Danang we passed the remains of the old American air base & Marble Mountain. At the foot of Marble Mountain were several places producing & selling countless marble statues of all shapes & sizes, some 10 feet tall. We stopped at one, but didn’t buy any.
We drove south along the water. Miles & miles of beaches line the ocean between Danang & Hoi An, and there is a lot of construction underway, mostly resort hotels & luxury apartment buildings. The Chinese have built a large casino that is only open to non-Vietnamese. Our guide said China is so big & Vietnam is so small that they cannot refuse anything China asks. On the way we also saw some fish farms. All you can see is the sticks that are part of the fences sticking out of the water in a pattern.
We exited the bus & walked the rest of the day in Hoi An. It is a lovely small city with streets covered in lanterns (a local craft specialty) in many colors. One thing we have noticed elsewhere in Southeast Asia that was first pointed out here is the profusion of electrical & telephone wires lining the streets above ground & often obscuring the view. It is amazing that these confusing wires don’t cause more fires. One guide told us that there is so much confusion in the wiring that when something goes out they just string a new wire rather than trying to figure out which old wire is the problem. It reminded us of Robert DeNiro’s character in the movie Brazil. Many buildings display the red flags of Vietnam & the Communist Party.
Originally called Fai Fo, Hoi An was an important port in the Asian maritime trade for more than a thousand years. But its heyday was the 16th & 17th centuries when Chinese, Japanese & European ships regularly traded here. Many Chinese & Japanese merchants actually settled here & developed strong ethnic communities, but most of the Japanese left in the mid 17th century when the Japanese government prohibited foreign travel. After that the Chinese community became dominant & more Chinese immigrated here. The town’s fortunes began to wane in the late 18th century when the Thu Bon River that runs through here began to silt up and stifle sea trade. Danang became the dominant port & Fai Fo, renamed Hoi An in 1954, became enough of a backwater that the French & American wars of the mid 20th century passed it by, leaving its old architecture intact.
Our first visit was to the assembly hall of the Chinese immigrants from Fujian province. The Chinese immigrants were organized into communities based on their province of origin & each had an assembly hall. The Phuoc Kien (another name for Fujian) Assembly Hall was first built in the 17th century. They dedicated it to Thien Hau, goddess of the sea & protector of sailors, in thanks for arriving here safely over the sea. A 200 year old papier-mache figure of the goddess is flanked by her two assistants, who supposedly can detect any boat in distress for many miles. There is also a large model of an old Chinese junk. There is a flamboyant red gate in front of the temple, which was added in the 1970’s.
A second room in the back is dedicated to Van Thien & the “12 heavenly midwives,” who help her decide the gender & fates of children. Couples & pregnant women come here for assistance.
We visited a smaller Chinese temple or assembly hall (can’t remember exactly) where a couple seemed to be waiting to take wedding pictures. Oddly, we saw them posing for pictures in several other parts of the town as well, so we aren’t sure what they were really about.
One unusual practice in Vietnam is the wearing of face masks. Most of the women & girls you see outside (& some of the men) wear long sleeves, hats, gloves, masks & scarves even when it is 95 degrees out. This is not religious, it is because pale skin is considered attractive here & dark skin is not, so people go to extremes to avoid getting a suntan.
One of the features of Hoi An is a series of several houses that are a couple of centuries old, called (predictably) “Old Houses.” We visited one, Quan Thang House. It was built in the late 17th century by a ship captain from Fujian province in China. Today it is occupied by a very old woman, deaf & almost blind, who is the seventh generation descendant of the ship captain. It had a lot of finely carved wood & stone. In the kitchen two women were preparing a kind of dumpling that we were served later for lunch at our restaurant. Out back was a small cage filled with angry chickens.
Our last visit before lunch was to a shop that manufactures & tailors silk fabrics & embroiders pictures. They showed us silk worms at work & how they unwind the silk & spin it into thread. Some women were weaving in one room & some young women were embroidering in another room. Upstairs was the tailor & the shelves of beautiful silk cloth. Our tablemates, Bill & Robert, bought a silk shirt & robe, respectively. It was about 11:30 AM & they were measured for the clothing. Robert’s pure silk robe was only $50, & that included delivering it to our ship in Danang before the gangway went up at 4:00 PM. It arrived on time & fit him perfectly. Pretty impressive.
We started off toward our luncheon restaurant. First we came to the Japanese Bridge, originally erected in 1593 & renovated several times since, which is the symbol of Hoi An. It was built by the Japanese community that lived on the other side of this bridge at that time. It is quite small.
We walked down to the Thu Bon River, still picturesque with fishing boats even though it is no longer the busy international trading center it was in the past. We saw women carrying baskets hanging from sticks on their shoulder (most were not delivering anything, just looking for a few dollars from tourists who want to take their pictures) & others working on small boats. This river floods every year during the rainy season, sometimes getting high enough to damage even the old houses above.
We had a delicious Vietnamese lunch in a restaurant on the other side of the river. They had a “weird food” counter that included such delectable items as jellyfish salad (we didn’t have any). After lunch we had free time, which we spent walking around, shopping & looking at the many flowers around town.
On the way back to Danang we stopped at what the U.S. soldiers called China Beach. I’m sure it looks a lot different now. There is a fairly new female Buddha on a hillside overlooking the beach & rows of chairs with umbrellas.
We drove further down the beach to a fishing boat mooring. In addition to more conventional boats in the water, the locals here use tiny bowl shaped boats made of woven material or some kind of wicker. We have no idea how a round boat is maneuvered in the water, but we could see some fishermen out in the water hunting fish.
We returned to the ship and our two day stay in Danang came to an end. It seemed like a very full two days & we felt we had seen & learned quite a lot.
We docked in Danang very slowly on the morning of March 6 because it was engulfed in thick fog that made the dock invisible until the last minute. The weather had been poor all the way from Hong Kong, & worse, Rick had a bad cold that started on our third day in Hong Kong. It was not gone by the morning of March 6, but he was not about to miss Vietnam just because of a cold.
Those old enough to remember the Vietnam War (called, predictably, the American War in these parts) will recognize the name of this city. This is where the U.S. marines landed & was the location of a large air base in addition to its harbor. Some of the passengers who were Vietnam veterans did not go ashore here.
We did not see much of Danang, however, because we spent the day on a private excursion to Hue (pronounced “hway”), the Imperial capital of Vietnam from the beginning of the 19th century until the end of World War II. It became the Imperial capital when the first Nguyen emperor moved the capital here from Hanoi in 1802 & its status came to an end when Bao Dai, the last Nguyen emperor, abdicated in 1945. Hue is about an hour and a half drive northwest from Danang. But our first stop was Hai Van Pass, located high in the mountains. This is said to have a spectacular view, but it was completely fogged in the day we were there. It would have made sense to skip it this day, but I imagine the tour company has an arrangement with the folks who run the tourist rest stop. There were some structures a couple of hundred years old designed to control access to the mountain passes & also a couple of bunkers built by the Americans. A Vietnamese couple was waiting for the fog to lift so they could have wedding pictures taken.
As in Indonesia, the most popular mode of transportation here is the motorbike. One of our guides told us that until about 20 years ago it was mostly bicycles, but you see fewer of those today. Some carry improbably large loads on a motorbike. We saw one fellow on a motorbike dragging a 20 foot bamboo ladder behind him. Some of these pictures are a little unfocused because taken from a moving van, but still worth seeing.
On the road to Hue we passed a fishing village and what appeared to be a Christian cemetery. The fishing village is probably Lang Co; if so, the large bridge in the background replaced one that was the first structure bombed by the Viet Minh in 1947. Many buildings in Vietnam had small shrines in front.
Our first stop was for a ride on a “dragon boat” on the Perfume River, which runs through Hue. We had read that this was very atmospheric, with lots of small fishing boats and locals transporting goods by boat, but almost the only boats we passed were other “dragon boats,” all of which said “Tourist” in large letters on the side. The people operating our boat were busily trying to sell souvenirs to the passengers. Maybe other parts of the river are more interesting, or maybe the river’s ambience has changed, but we found this a little disappointing.
Our boat trip ended at the Thien Mu Pagoda, which is a monastery. Built in 1601, this is the oldest pagoda in Hue. It features a 7 story octagonal tower visible from the river & a 2 ton bronze bell cast in 1710 which can be heard for miles.
We were able to go inside the temple of the pagoda & in the back was a large patio filled with bonsai trees. Thich Quang Duc, the Buddhist monk who immolated himself in Saigon in 1963 to protest the government’s repression of Buddhists, was a resident of this monastery & the car he drove to Saigon is on display here.
We had a delicious Vietnamese lunch at a good restaurant (we did not eat the squid). Outside a long tailed lizard stopped for a picture on his way down a tree.
After lunch we went to the main attraction, the Imperial City. This citadel was built at the beginning of the 19th century, & was the home of the emperor & his family for about 150 years (although beginning in 1885 the French were really in control). It was all but destroyed during the French & American wars after World War II & although restoration activities are ongoing only a few of the hundreds of buildings that were here are now intact. In particular, during the 1968 Tet Offensive, the Viet Cong occupied the citadel for almost a month & it was all but destroyed by American bombs & artillery. The citadel is surrounded by a wall more than 20 feet high & 60 feet thick, the front of which along the river is centered by Cot Co, a flag tower first built in 1807 that now sports the flag of Vietnam, a yellow star on a red background. There are gates through the wall near the end on either side of the flag tower. [Note: I (Rick) am finding it difficult to identify some of these pictures, so some of this may not be accurate]
The Ngo Mon Gate, the inner gate to the compound, has on its top the Five Phoenix Watchtower, where the Emperor sat on state occasions. It has a bridge through a large pool that is full of large goldfish. There are five openings in the gate: the Emperor alone used the center one, the mandarins & the military used the openings flanking the Emperor’s, and the outer two openings were for elephants.
Walking inward from the Ngo Mon gate you come to the Thai Hoa Palace, originally built in 1805 & reconstructed in 1833, which was the Emperor’s throne room. His golden throne is on a fairly high platform, where he sat wearing a gold tunic & a crown with 9 dragons under a gilded canopy. This was the only major building in the Imperial City that was not damaged by bombs. Unfortunately, you cannot take photos inside, but it is nicely restored to its former glory.
Behind a high inner wall is the Forbidden Purple City. The Emperor was the only man allowed to enter this compound populated entirely by women; the death penalty awaited any other man who entered here. It originally had some 60 buildings erected over the first third of the 19th century but almost all were destroyed by bombing during the Tet offensive in 1968. Next to the wall to the Purple City are the two Halls of the Mandarins, where nobles & military officers would dress in ceremonial robes for official ceremonies.
Our last visit was to the Royal Theater. Originally built in 1826, this was a venue for opera. It was remodeled in the mid-20th century and restored at the end of the century. The Hue college of music was here from 1952 to 1990 and since its final restoration it has once again become a venue for traditional music performance. As you can see, it is quite beautiful on the inside, though fairly plain outside. After this visit we exited the Imperial City through another elaborate gate, which may be the Cua Hien Nhon (“Gate of Humanity”).
Our last stop in Hue was the Dong Ba market. As with most such markets there is a wide variety of goods for sale, mostly food but also clothing and other wares. There is also much bustle & confusion. We could only walk through, no time to shop here.