Historic Sites & Monuments

Paris: Sacre Couer to the Eiffel Tower

Today involved a bit of a whirlwind of sight seeing: Sacre Couer, the (albeit very short) funicular, Arc d’Triomphe, strolling along the Champs Elysee, purchasing an outfit for Epsilon from a shop along the Champs Elysee (have I mentioned how much more fun it is to clothes shop for Epsilon than it is for myself?), viewing impressionist art at the L’Orangerie, having a dinner cruise on the Seine, having fois gras for the first time and finally visiting the Eiffel Tower at night. This is a day better told in photos:

Deb and Epsilon with Sacre CoeurArc de TriompheMark, Deb and Epsilon on a boat cruise of the SieneMark, Deb and Epsilon with Eiffel Tower

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France: Paris – Catacombs

Bones stacked in the CatacombsToday’s mission: we set out in search of the perfect baguette. We ended up doing pretty well on that front, it wasn’t perfect, but it was mighty tasty. As were the other pastries we sampled. We walked through Luxemburg park and enjoyed our food finds on our way to visit the Paris Catacombs. By far the coolest “touristy” thing we have ever done or visited. You start your way down a very long spiral staircase and hike through empty corridors for distance, long enough to start having you think, “where are the skeleton’s, there are supposed to be skeletons!” But once you come upon them, it is striking just how many bodies were moved into these passages. This is the underground network of caves and corridors from an old limestone quarry which is now home to millions of human remains. Millions.

Later in the day we finally met up with Ethan and Liz, had a lunch involving more crepes. We walked around the island where Notre Dame sits, visited the crypts and set out to find this Berthillion ice cream shop Liz remembered. The shop itself was closed, but many vendors in the area sold the rich dessert. Mark and I both opted for the “salted buttered caramel” flavor. It was almost a little too salty. I glad we spent most of the day walking, with a diet consisting mainly of pastries, crepes and ice cream for the day.

Dinner involved another hike but we were rewarded with good food for our efforts. We had several places in mind after searching menus online. But it turned out our top three picks were closed. Not just for the day or the evening, but they had signs posted that they were closed for the owner’s to go on holiday, for the month. It worked out in the end and I was able to practice some French, although my accent quickly gives me away and I am then spoken to in English.

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France: Paris – Eurostar and Notre Dame

eurostarWe arrived in Paris by train, on the Eurostar. What a pleasant way to travel! Particularly in contrast to all the air travel we have done. It was so relaxed with our packed lunches and snacks and lovely countryside to watch zip by.  Pictured left, here I am smuggling a small child across the border.

Even though I had made them recently at home, we managed to have crepes, not once, but twice on this first day in Paris. From two different restaurants, mind you. As they say, “when in Rome,” or rather, “when in Paris,” we should be eating crepes.

Deb and Epsilon in front of Notre DameI was enjoying the opportunity to dust off my very rusty French speaking skills. Certainly my reading comprehension and listening comprehension is quite good after ten years of no practice. But speaking, from being so out of practice, my brain is a second or two behind in formulating responses and remembering pronunciation. It still feels good to stretch those neurons a bit.

Our hotel was within walking distance of the small island on the Siene where Notre Dame sits. We decided to have a little stroll around the island and as a 23w4d bump, Epsilon proved to be an excellent tour guide.

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Spain: Barcelona – Gaudi

This trip has been Gaudi-centric, and many of the places I visited and photographed involved his Dr. Seuss like architecture. I rather enjoy the style and it is the hallmark style of many landmark’s in this city. Enjoy the photo set:

Casa Batllo, Barcelona Lizard detail

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Happy 200th Birthday Darwin!

Today is Charles Darwin’s 200th birthday and there are all sorts of Darwin-centric events happening at the museum today, this week, really all this year as it is also the 150th anniversary of the publication of “On the Origin of Species.” The “nature live” lecture today was on Darwin’s life and achievements and there was promise of birthday cake. There were so many people there, they were turning people away at the door. Which included me. No cake for me. They should have known the promise of cake would have drawn out a larger crowd.

I’m a biologist, a naturalist, an entomologist, a taxonomist, it should be no mystery to anyone how Darwin inspires me. I’m fortunate to work at a place that houses his collections, that celebrates all these fields, that supports people whose livelihoods and passions are fueled by Darwin’s unifying law of biology. Yes, I said it is a law of science, it is one of those ideas that are so unifying, so observable, so proven that it is a fact of reality, and evolution by means of natural selection is one of them and it drives research and advances in many fields in biology.

So here’s to you and your brilliance (and to be fair, Wallace’s brilliance as well)! I enjoy seeing your statue watching over the halls of the Natural History Museum.

Keeping an eye on natural history

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GeoBear

Taste Testing cheddar made in Cheddar, UKI am helping a friend’s 10 year old daughter with a class project, their GeoBear project. Basically, it’s like the gnome from Amelie, only a little stuffed bear. The bear will feature in a series of photos and I’ll be sending post cards to the class room. In theory, I think I am supposed to send the bear along to someone else who may be traveling further. However, we travel a lot, and if the bear sticks with us, he’ll be getting around.

This past weekend while a couple of friends of ours were visiting from the U.S., the GeoBear got off to a good start on its world traveling adventure. We were in Cheddar where we taste tested cheddar cheese made in Cheddar and matured in caves there. We had an amazing fun caving adventure. Climbed Cheddar Gorge. Had a fly-by of Stonehenge. Not to mention a day around London, hitting the highlights of Trafalgar Square, Westminster Abbey, Big Ben and the Parliament, boat trip on the Thames, tour of the Tower of London, and seeing the Rosetta Stone at the British Museum (whew!)

It’s only the beginning for this bear, keep an eye on the photo stream for further adventures and travels!

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The Journey Is The Destination

We are back from the epic road trip that involved the Lake District, the Scottish Highlands and the Isle of Skye.  Much to write about, many photos to share, you know the drill, it’s a backlog here when we’re busy experiencing life.

What a long day of driving, but, we were in Scotland this morning!

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Scotland: Stirling and The Long Drive Home

We were in Scotland this morning! How weird is that? We had one last lovely drive through the Highlands. It was raining when we left Glencoe, but it quickly let up. It was surprising as we were driving out how quickly the mountains were gone. We were taking them for granted I think. We missed them when they were gone from our sight.

We met up in Stirling at Stirling Castle. We didn’t take the tour, just walked around the grounds and tried to get as far away from the group of annoying tourists. They were a group from the US who were singing religious songs at the top of their lungs clad in fluorescent yellow ponchos. The streets of Stirling leading up to the castle are idyllic. Cobble stone streets, many of the buildings built with similar dark colored stones. The castle in the center of the town rose high above on a rocky crag. Those cobbled streets wound in narrow switch backs to reach the top.

From here, we worked out a strategy for getting home. The plan, to drive through Northumberland National Park. We left the relative plateau of the lowlands and entered the rolling hills of Northumberland and large swaths of forests. Since we would be driving parallel to it for some time, perhaps a stop at Hadrian’s wall would be in order. We’ve been to Hadrian’s Arch in Athens, might as well cap it with a stop at the wall. It turned into a fly by of Hadrian’s Wall. If we had more time, I would have loved to hike along the suggested trails. But the long day of driving, after several long days of driving, I just wanted to get home. Perhaps there will be a next time and more time.

Two miles before we reached a service station, we needed to pull off to the side of the motorway to put the soft top back on. The skies were looking incredibly threatening. It would be the first time we needed the top on for the entire trip! Eventually this proved a good strategy, but the rain did hold off for quite a while. We ended up meeting our traveling companions part way at that service stop, completely randomly. We thought we would be way ahead of them. They were getting ready to hit the road just as we were pulling in the lot. We took our time leaving, doing things like rainx-ing the window, getting fuel. They had a least a half hour head start on us.

We entertained ourselves on this last stretch by texting our positions along the way. “We are looking for you! Where are you?” I imagined this is a sing song Bugs Bunny accent, but I doubt that’s how in translated in the text. Mile markers were counting down, they were in slow traffic and as luck would have it, they needed to make a pit stop to refuel. “We may catch up to them yet!” as I joked about our refueling stop strategy as if we were in an F1 race. Despite a 40 mile headstart we made it home seconds after they reached our house. Ha ha!

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Scotland: Highlands and Isle of Skye

What was intended to not be a day of driving turned into yet another day of driving.  We weighed our options and decided on heading out separately.  We would meet up at Eilean Donan Castle, regroup and make for the Isle of Skye.  On which we would drive a circular circuit going clockwise.

The drive to Eilean Donan was, again, incredibly lovely, through the Scottish highlands.  We drove right by Ben Nevis, at 4,409 feet it is the highest peak in the U.K.   The surrounding rocky range piercing the skyline.  The twisty roads are so well suited for a zippy sporty convertible.  I have to repeat the phrase that while driving through such an amazing landscape, the journey really is the destination.

Eilean Donan Castle was interesting, it stands on an island where three lochs meet.  The site has been occupied for 1500 years or so with the first fortified building erected in 13th century.  It has a long and colorful history and is the seat of the clan MacCrae.  It wasn’t the best castle we’ve visited, but there were certainly details of it that I loved.  All the built in window seats overlooking the mountains and water.  Each room had it’s own little fireplace.  And there were just so many little nooks and crannies to explore.

What I found most interesting was that as you walked through the rooms, with all the family photos on the walls and sitting on furniture, you really felt like you were in someone’s home.  Suzanne commented that it was like going through an “open house” of a property for sale.  I had to ask about the photos, who they were.  The room guard/guide explained that they were photos of the current owner’s family.  The matriarch, a MacCrae pictured in an oil painting above the fire place in the room, had five daughters, 20 grandchildren and two great-grandchildren.

The castle was the family home until the mid 1980’s.  They occasionally opened it’s doors to visitors from time to time.  But when it became obvious that the property would be more suited as a historic tourist attraction, the family moved into the servent quarters.  The castle is still used frequently for family gatherings, the matriarch will be celebrating her 80th birthday there next month and her oldest daughter recently turned 50.

We refueled with some soup and bread. Although I was curious about the Cullin Skink that was on the menu, my imagination was telling me it was probably something awful.  On the road again, we reached the Isle of Skye.  It was different.  Different scenery.  Flatter.  We stoppd a while to commune with the sheep.  Which made me wonder about a few statistics.  There are a lot of sheep, I mean A LOT of sheep on the Isle.  The general population of sheep is high across the whole of the U.K. but on Skye, it just seemed inordinately high.  I’m wondering about the ratio of sheep to people on this island.

The whole place,  at least the north west region we circuited, seemed rather barren.  I started also wondering what the species diversity overall was for the island (I need to look up some checklists for these statistics).   This apparent barrenness combined with the widespread large scale clear cutting of the pine trees was making me a little depressed.   Fields chewed to the nub and swaths of recently cut tree stumps does not paint the best picture of the island.  We decided we like the main land better and made the executive decision to head back to the mainland, where it was prettier, cutting our loop short.  It was the right thing to do.  We were able to get back to Glencoe relatively early and relax over dinner (and another football game, this time between two teams from Scotland).

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England: Leeds Castle and Cliffs of Dover

I had wanted to make my ricotta pancakes for breakfast, but after a look in the local markets this morning, there was no ricotta in sight.  The blueberries were looking exceptional, so in lieu of pancakes we had greek yogurt, honey, meusli and blueberries to eat.  Quite tasty, but not pancakes.

After a minor side trip through Guildford (someone had put in the wrong coordinates for the destination after poo pooing my suggestion of just entering the post code for sat nav);  Leeds Castle was the destination for today.  Supposedly, one of the best castles to visit.  It was attractive and photogenic, certainly.  The grounds outside, however, I think were the stars of the visit.  It has a Duckery!  A Duckery!  Lot’s of ducks of numerous species were contained in part of a small lake that was fed by the meandering stream that leads away from the lake/mote of the castle.

And wouldn’t you know it!  The hedge maze was closed yesterday for the week for maintenance!  I do love a good maze and was disappointed by this fact.  Unable to romp in the hedge, it did give us enough time to watch the falconry display.

I had to ask, but you too could rent out Leeds castle starting at only a mere £10,000 for your wedding or other engagement!  You and your guests get to sleep in the museum like rooms.  And that’s only the starting asking price.

Since we were fairly close by, we headed over to the White Cliffs of Dover.  In my humble opinion, the Seven Sister’s cliffs are a far more impressive sight.   What is up with fences near the cliff edges and all this development disrupting the view?  I can say I’ve been there and soon would travel to the opposite corner of the UK in a few days time!

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England: Tour of London

We powered ourselves into the day with Eggs Benedict for breakfast.  After having my confidence shaken in my flawless hollandaise having failed catastrophically multiple times in a row, I’m back on the hollandaise saddle using a whisk and smaller batches (*whew* we’ve gone a couple weeks without this sauce of the gods, I can’t exist without it!).

We got a pretty late start but still managed to do and see quite a lot today.  We hopped on the train from Beaconsfield for a day in and around London.  I actually didn’t have my camera in tow today.  I figured that since most of the places we were going to I have well covered from previous trips into the city.  We started off in Trafalgar Square, walked down towards the Parliament building, Big Ben and Westminster Abbey.  The usual sorts of sites for Suzanne’s benefit as this was her first time to  England and London.

We enjoyed hilarious commentary of the abbreviated city cruise, opting to hop out at the Tower of London where we treated to an excellent tour guide.  Honestly, our group slowly grew to about 150 people!  as individuals glommed on to listen to the Beefeater barking at the top of his lungs.

We hopped back on the city cruise ferry and hit the underground for a peek at the neon lit Piccadilly Circus, not terribly exciting.  After an unsuccessful jaunt through that side of town to find a branch of a particular bank we made our way to South Kensington for brief stop at Natural History museum.  We had enough time to for me to share this remarkable building that I work in and to spend some time in my favorite exhibits.  The old-school mineral hall and the Victorian era displays of birds, my favorite being the hummingbird display that is almost impossible to photograph.  If you want to see its awesomeness, you’ll just have to go there for your self.

We capped the day with dinner at the one thousand year old pub and free house Royal Standard that just happens to be a few miles from where we live and is one of our favorite places to eat (excellent food and atmosphere!).

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Day Two Of Tour: Fallingwater

The second day of the tour and it’s more about south western Pennsylvania.  It was a mini road trip to Fallingwater.  Frank Lloyd Wright’s masterpiece of a home for the Kaufman family set IN the rocks of the hillside, set over the water of the stream below.  This was my second trip here and it’s just as awe inspiring as it was the first time.

After the historic piece of architecture we drove nearby to a couple waterfalls at Ohiopyle.  First off were the Ohiopyle Falls, made up of the Youghiogheny River taking a twenty-foot fall with a roar.  It looks different in every season.  With it being spring, there was a great volume of water rushing over the falls.  On the road back home we stopped at Cucumber Falls, one of the higher and more elegant veils of water.  Water, rock, forest.  A theme for the day, no?

Dinner involved yet another delicacy we can’t get in the UK: buffalo wings from Fat Heads in the South Side. Oh, sweet, sweet, spicy parms! How I have missed you! It is still shocking to my own ears, having been a vegetarian for ten years, hearing myself announce my own cravings for beer and wings at Fat Heads!

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Wiltshire

Salisbury CathedralAfter a breakfast of French toast made from left over baguette, we drove into Wiltshire.  It was a day of neolithic archeological sites, as well as castles and cathedrals. We went to Stonehenge, Woodhenge and Avebury Circle of Standing Stones. Circles of standing stones are scattered across England, but in Wiltshire, there just happens to be a concentration of them within a few miles. We went into Salisbury, toured its Cathedral. With the tallest cathedral spire in England it’s an impressive sight. Inside it is filled with the tombs of illegitimate children of king’s of England. Just outside Salisbury we stopped at Sarum Castle. On our drive home, without really looking for it we found one of the many mysterious White Horses of Wiltshire.  Dinner was a night out at another favorite restaurant of ours, the Bel and Dragon in Cookham and topped the night and their visit with some sticky toffee pudding.

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Seven Sisters Cliffs

Deb squishing the lighthouseMy parents went to church this morning (fortunately there is a Catholic church in our village, I wouldn’t have a clue where to send them otherwise).  Our adventure today took us south to the coast and hiked around the Seven Sisters Cliffs gorgeous white chalk cliffs, where you can endanger your own life by walking right up to the VERY EDGE it’s awesome!  Picnic of sandwiches from Marks and Spark’s (M&S being an institution in England), on the cliff edge.  What an amazing place. Sometime, Mark and I will need to return here because, if you time it right with the tide, you can hike a loop along the tops of the cliffs down to the beach below.

Bodiam Castle in KentWe found and stopped at Bodiam Castle on the way home. A castle that looks like what you would think a stereotypical castle would look like, complete with moat. I could live in a castle like this one :)  Driving home through the countryside, we saw many of the Oast houses in Kent, where hops are dried. 

Another spectacular dinner at home tonight which consisted of Kung Pao beef followed by a very British Banoffee Pie. After my own experience, I had to make sure to share this pie with them.

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England: The Family in London

Family with Big BenWe had a breakfast of Greek yogurt with muesli, honey and fresh blueberries. My family then got to experience what my commute into work is like. We took the local train into London, which it wasn’t one of the terribly fast trains, so they really got a feel for it. Then on to the underground, the Bakerloo line from Paddington over to Trafalgar Square. Here I took them around confidently, like I lived here or something, guiding them around the city seeing Big Ben, Westminster Abby and Parliament. A ride on the London Eye was an excellent way to get a birds eye view of London, to see how it sprawls and doesn’t have a distinct “down town” like so many other cities have. It was also a gorgeous day, clear blue skies and warm sunshine, making it possible to see for miles.

Deb's foot in two hemisphere'sFollowing the Eye, after a snack we hopped on a boat for a trip on a City Cruise with hilarious commentary up to Greenwich where we took numerous silly photos on the Prime Meridian at the Royal Observatory. Here we were in two hemispheres at once, something I think is a unique and memorable experience to have.

I would have liked to take my family to the Natural History Museum, to show them where I worked. But, it was closing time by the time we even got near the place. I’ll just have to take them there the next time they visit. We headed back home, with Mom and Joe taking a nap on the train ride home. Mark and I treated them to a dinner of our home made pasta with fresh basil, tomatoes and mozzarella. It was nice to cook so much for my family while they were here, a wonderful way to share one of our passions with them. I don’t think they fully understood just how much we enjoy cooking until spending a week living with us.

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Windsor

Mom and Dad portraitWe started off with a simple and quick bagel breakfast.  We needed to make it to the train into Windsor.  Here, we toured the castle.  I love the phenomenon of the personal tour guides.  They are these walkie-talkie like things that you punch in numbers that correspond to rooms or objects and you listen to a narrative about the history and significance.  It seems just about every museum and historical site has these offered for free.  Which is so excellent since with even doing some research ahead of time, you can’t possibly know everything ahead of time.  Unfortunately, photography is not aloud on the inside, so all the photos are of the exterior. Outside the castle we walked around part of the Long Walk, though they were not keen on the idea of actually walking the long walk :)

We puttered around Windsor for some shopping, lunch and cream tea.   We headed home for dinner and after a discussion about the taste differences between US and British beef,  we made fillet steaks, baked potatoes and runner beans, and more Vicar before bed.

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Germany: A Second day in Saarbrucken

Heron in the Franco-Deutsh GardensThere was so much to see in Saarbrucken that I decided on a second day in the city. First stop, the Franco-German Gardens. This is a botanical garden near the border between the two countries. It was built as a symbol cooperation. There is a large lake with protected islands for waterfowl. There are heaps of trails leading through landscaped tree and flower gardens. I’m sure it’s much more impressive than this grey December day in the spring.

Headstones in GardensInside the gardens on the far end is a strange memorial. A memorial containing the headstones of military and civilian, French and German victims from French-German conflicts in the 1880’s. What is particularly odd, is that they only moved the headstones, and not the graves. There is only one woman’s headstone here. She was a local to the Saarbrucken region and worked to help the injured on both sides. It’s tucked in a thick patch of pines creating a dark and quiet space. Fresh flowers were on one stone, a lit candle on another. This place is meaningful to somebody today.

I walked the several miles from the gardens into town. I decided to go to the Saarland Art museum, where there was a spectacular special exhibition of Picasso works. It’s amazing how just a few strokes, a few lines on his sketches can communicate so much. On the other hand, there were crayon or finger painted primitive pieces that looked like what is stuck to refrigerators of parents of toddlers everywhere.

Deb with the prizesWe won a prize at dinner tonight! Actually, Mark made the winning roll of the dice. 6-6-5. Out of everyone in the restaurant (which admittedly weren’t very many), but still, we won! And we won a bottle of locally produced Riesling, my favorite type of wine and a little chocolate egg with a creepy toy inside.

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Germany: Saarbrucken

George slaying the dragonToday I hopped on the train and headed to the capital of the state of Saar, Saarbrucken. I started by heading to Rathaus St. Johann, the old town hall. Outside above the entrance is the oddly out of place bronze figure of St. George slaying the dragon. A symbol of England. Perhaps their presence represents the battle between good and evil. The facade is decorated with sandstone statues representing trades of the region, a miner, a smelter, a farmer, a brewer. The sandstone has that wonderful red color. This was an excellent place to start as well, since there was a tourism office right inside, complete with guides and maps in English. Making my exploration much less complicated.

Saarbrucken castle ruins in blueI walked along the pedestrian shopping street, which was well over a mile long in this city, all the way to the far square. Another holiday festival was going on and I indulged in another crepe. From here, I crossed the Saar river and made my way up the hill to the shlossplatz, the castle square and the Saarland Regional History museum. This square was constructed to have buildings erected that looked similar to the palace but without distracting from the castle. Inside the museum, I was led underground where the remnants of the castle walls, corridors and rooms remain. On one side the museum contained posters of WWII propaganda. Everywhere else I was taking photos and was left alone. The moment I tried taking shots of these posters depicting England as a small vulnerable island surrounded by U-boats, or London being bombed, I was quickly told that photography was not permitted.

Miserly Baker on castle wallThis castle plaza is on a bluff overlooking the city below, with a tall castle wall. On this castle wall is an odd gargoyle, the Miserly Baker. It is said that the miserly baker refused to help the poor in times of need. He would insult them and encouraged young women to offer him their bodies in exchange for bread. When the margravine (the wife of the military governor) heard this rumor she dressed up as a beggar to put him to the test. The baker fell for the disguise and was put in the stocks as punishment and died several days later. An effigy of his head was carved of stone and placed on the Old Bridge to serve as a drain pipe gargoyle and as a warning for several centuries. This castle wall was moved 16 meters when the modern motorway was built along the river below.

That evening we enjoyed a dinner at hotel restaurant which featured two wines from the region as well as a fabulous dessert. It was an apple tart topped with the most amazing vanilla ice cream, it tasted like it was topped with creme brulee. And was encircled in pureed peaches and plums.

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Turkey: Cappadocia

Camel shaped rock formationToday’s first stop was Imagination Valley. Here we scrabbled all over the eroded rock formations and looked for shapes in the rocks. The first huge obvious rock formation was in the shape of a camel. There were penguins, seals, an eagle here and cat there. The rocks were just fun to climb all over. Of course Martin was off like a shot, before we knew it, we saw him across the ravine. How he gets so far so fast away from us at every site we visit is a mystery to me as I leisurely stroll and languidly drape myself over the rocks.

Lunch was at a restaurant that happened to be in, you guessed it, a cave. It started with a lentil soup, followed by a bean dish, the main course was a meat dish. The meat is cooked in a ceramic pot that has been sealed with bread dough over the top. (It does have a special name but I’m having a hard time finding it).

Climbing up the foot holdsDown the road we stopped at another carved out hide out that belonged to St. Simon. Here he lived a simple life, eating little and having little to no personal possessions, living in isolation, in his sacrifice trying to get closer to god. The bed and pillow were even carved out of stone. Mark shimmied up the chimney like stairs with foot holds in the wall.

We visited another open air museum at Zelve. There are two valleys here that are connected by carved out stairs and tunnels which we clambered through the dark. Fortunately we came prepared, we actually packed our headlamp. This valley was inhabited by a large population of Greeks until the 1922 “population exchange” when Greeks and Turks were “repatriated” to their own countries. This is all a nice way of saying the Christians were kicked out and the Muslims were brought back home. It was later inhabited by Muslims, and there is a small stone Mosque carved out near the entrance.

Martin with polish onyx eggWe made a quick stop at a jewelers that gave a demonstration of carving local onyx. The difference between marble, alabaster and onyx was explained, onyx is opaque whereas no light passes through the marble. Locally acquired onyx is carved into boxes and keepsakes. The craftsman quickly used a diamond tipped lathe to carve out and polish an egg shape within seconds before our eyes. Mark admired the machining skill done with such precision in two dimensions at once. We were corralled into the shop, where we were harangued a bit. It was amusing watching Mark try to explain the concept of “bling bling” to a woman who spoke little English but had asked about a word that describes jewelery she asked, “you know, two words together, like ‘tickle tickle’ or ‘giggle giggle’?”

Pinks, rose, goldenrodIn the early evening we went on a long hike in the “Red Valley” to watch the sunset as we descended into the “Rose Valley” Here we saw the brightly colored multi layered strata. A thick band of yellow blazed across the vibrant pinks that dominated this valley. All this contrasted beautifully with the blue sky and fluffy white clouds, the dark greens of the scrub vegetation. At the far end of the hike we encountered the largest cave church carved out of the soft tuff yet. On the way down we watched a few dung beetles doing their thing outside the holes they’ve dug. On our way out, the wind was whipping through the valley, pushing against us as we walked the the higher ridges.

That night a few of us needed to make a supply run, either to an eczane or market. It had been pouring down rain, torrential rain. As soon as it let up a little we ventured out. It turned out to be more of a brisk run in the rain. The sound track playing in my mind was, “run lola run” music as we went from place to place looking for directions to an eczane, then eczane to eczane trying to find one that was open, then on to a super market. There was a bit of mad giggling as we ran. It was a bit ridiculous. As we started back up the hill to the hotel, it turns out there was a market just a block or two away that we could have gone to. But, a run in the rain after days of walking and hiking about is just what we needed.

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Turkey: Cappadocia

Fairy Chimneys product of local geologyFirst stop today, the famous site of the Three Fairy Chimneys. These “fairy chimneys” are also a product of the geology unique to this region. The thick layers of easily eroded Tuff topped by the less easily erodible basalt results in tapering towers of Tuff with hats of Basalt. Is some places they look rather mushroom like, pale stems of Tuff with caps of darker Basalt.

We made our way to the Göreme Open Air Museum, which is a UNESCO World Heritage Site that has half a dozen cave churches and a number of monasteries hand cut into the Tuff. Several well preserved byzantine style churches have walls with colorful Secco’s. Secco’s differ from Fresco’s in that fresco painting involves painting on wet plaster. Secco painting is on dry plaster. The primary color was red ocher made from the iron rich clay deposits found in the area. The colors were mixed with albumin from eggs to set the color.

Multiple arches carved into stoneMost of the carved out dwellings we visited had been inhabited until the 1930’s, there was a thirty year period where these places were not protected from looters and vandalism. An interesting bit of vandalism is in the form of all the eyes of Christian secco’s having been scratched out. Muslim’s were responsible for this. Fearing that only Allah had eyes to see into these places that were later used as mosques, also that whole idea of no living things allowed to be depicted in mosques led to scratching out of faces.

Forming a bowl with local Cappadocian clayOur next stop was a visit to a ceramics making place, Kaya Seramik Evi, which was located in a cave. Here the master potters throw clay found in the region, both the red iron rich clay and a smoother porcelain like clay. They painstakingly paint and glaze their plates in traditional Hittite and Iznik styles. The potters are all in the family, passing the trade down for several generations, they even have developed a personal family decorating style, pointillist in it’s detail.

After a tour and demonstration of a hand throwing style on a foot powered wheel a volunteer was needed to try their hand at the wheel. I did not hesitate. I’m glad I had the opportunity to throw and feel this clay. Having taken a number of pottery wheel throwing classes, using a variety of clays, it was interesting to compare the the feel and texture to what I was familiar with.

Deb's hands on local Cappadocian clayThe Cappodocian clay was finer than the clay I have the most experience with. It was not quite as smooth and fine as porcelain, but was similarly soft and malleable as porcelain. I really enjoyed myself. I wouldn’t say it was my best work, but it was really fun to do. Mark and I ended up purchasing one of the small family design plates. I think this is a unique souvenir, I will always think of how the clay felt in my hands every time I look at the plate.

We drove on, visiting a set of cave homes where people lived in up to the 1950’s. Here these rooms were still furnished as the people had lived there. I think Mark and I could live comfortably in carved out cave rooms. Think of how nice the temperature regulation is, maintaining the same temperature inside year round, feeling refreshingly cool in the summer and pleasantly warm in winter.

Whirling DirvishesAfter dinner at the hotel most of us, meaning everyone but Mark, went out to a Turkish culture night, hosted in a cave restaurant. This involved traditional music and dancing of Turkey and all the alcohol you could drink. The night started out with the whirling dervishes. Their white long robes symbolizes the white cloth the dead are wrapped and buried in, the spinning is a prayer bringing them closer to Allah. Photos were not allowed during the actual performance, I can imagine cameras and flashes would be really distracting. It was also performed in darkness, the white robes illuminated by black lights only. They had a brief bit of whirling afterwards in the bright light for photos.

Turkish bride escorted inThe rest of the evening was filled with dances and costumes representing different regions and aspects of Turkish culture. There was also a bride and henna ceremony, starting with the bride making an entrance on a donkey. There was quite a bit of audience participation dancing including a weaving dance that led everyone in the room outside and around a bonfire. The belly dancing had an interesting twist. Rather than it being all about objectifying this really hot women, she picked out a half dozen male volunteers for an impromptu lesson. The men then were the center of attention for the show, including Scott, who was a really good sport about it all. The place turned into a Turkish disco for a bit before we needed to go which was fun too. Yeah, Mark would have hated this :)

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Turkey: Ankara and Cappadocia

Deb on stairsOur first stop today was Atat

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Turkey: Istanbul – Archeology Museum and Beyoglu

The chain that closed off the Golden Horn in the 15th centuryThis morning we awoke to find that Mark was not feeling well at all. Since the morning destination of a museum was on tap, Mark decided to sit this one out and we would regroup at lunch to see how he was feeling and what if anything he would be up for doing.

Photo for mom to make into a puzzle :)We headed over to the Istanbul Archeology Museum. This is an enormous museum, if I were here alone I would have spent the day here, we didn’t even make it into the third building. It was the beginning in understanding and learning about the history and culture of Turkey. Here we got to see a part of the actual chain that was draped across the Golden Horn to prevent invaders from boating through, but Constantinople was defeated when ships were taken over land to get around it (more on this when photos are up…)

Mark met up with us at lunch, not able to really eat anything without feeling sick and just was not up to the long day of trekking across town that was planned. Mark stayed behind. Two more of our party decided to stay behind to do their own thing and I asked them to check in with Mark later in the afternoon or for dinner in case he was feeling more like himself and wanted to get out. Mark later laid a huge guilt trip on me for not staying behind with him, but he would have wanted me out of the hotel room anyway :) He had us all worried, we even made a stop to an eczane to pick up a thermometer, just so we could make sure of his temp.

Looking up at Galata TowerAfter lunch we walked down to the waters of the Bosphorus and crossed the Galata bridge, to the Beyoğlu section of town. This bridge spans over the natural harbor that divides the city, so called the Golden Horn, with the Bosphorus connecting north to the Black sea and the Sea of Marmara spread out to the south. Here we climbed Galata Tower, well, actually, they don’t let people climb all the stairs, we took the lift to the “7th” floor and then took the spiral staircase up two more flights to the outer deck for a panoramic view of Istanbul. We were on Thrace, the name for the small percentage of the country that is on the European continent, we had a spectacular view of the edge of the country that is mostly a part of the Asian continent. The view back across the bridge we were graced with the famous skyline of Istanbul, highlighted and pierced by the minarets of mosques.

Blue Mosque as seen from Galata TowerWe meandered our way through Beyoğlu making our way along Istikalal Cad, lined with European embassy buildings and tucked away hidden Christian churches. There were plenty of shops and restaurants, on the way up the street we stopped to share in some dessert involving a decadent heaping pile of profiteroles topped with a chocolate pudding sauce. It was rich without being too sweet.

Tea in tulip shaped glassesWe walked further to Taksim parki and waited to meet up with a highschool friend of Gün’s, people watching while we waited. We paused for tea on the Bosphorus water’s edge near Dolmabahçe Palace. Çay again served in those simple tulip shaped glasses and a snack of tost the Turkish version of grilled cheese.

On the way back from Taksim we walked back down Istikalal Caddesi and found a place for dinner where we enjoyed manti, the marble sized meat ravioli served with a warm garlic yogurt sauce and g

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Hell Fire Caves of West Wycombe

Deb in the Hell Fire Caves of West WycombeLast night, while out driving in search of a different grocery store we passed a sign for “Hell Fire Caves” (arrow pointing that-a-way). “Hell Fire Caves!” I exclaimed, “we need to go there!”

Outside, the entrance is built and designed in the manner as many of the Gothic style flint stone churches that riddle the country. Winding over a half mile in, the chalk walls were wet and milky deep into the hillside. I imagine digging through chalk to create the caves would be easier than through other solid rock. These caves and chambers were hand dug in the 1740’s and you can still see the marks from tools along the walls. Mosses and small plants were growing in the meager light and warmth of some of the lighting.

Mark in the Hell Fire Caves of West WycombeAt the far end, the inner “temple” room lies 300 feet below a church on the hill above. There was long rumored to be a tunnel that led from the church to the inner temple, but years of searching and logistics of a steep slippery slope have proven it didn’t exist.

From the plaques lining the walls explaining the history and purported purposes of the spaces you get a sense for what it was to be a part of the Hell Fire Club. More or less the Hell Fire Club was a place for boozing, smoking and entertaining women of questionable humors dressed as nuns in order to not raise suspicions. The rich eccentric infamous Sir Francis Dashwood, carved out the ultimate hang out and created a not-so-secret notorious society that held regular meetings.

Notice I’m in a turtle necked sweater, it was a chilly, low 60’s, drizzly August day where one is in need of such attire.

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Greece: Athens – Acropolis and other thoughts

Deb with the ParthenonIt’s marginally less obscenely hot today, before we leave for our flight, we needed to make it to the Acropolis and the Parthenon. No archaeologists on strike today, up we went.

The Propylaia (the main entrance) and The Parthenon are both undergoing extensive restoration work, only small portions are not surrounded by scaffolding, maybe some day we will revisit the sites once the work has been completed. A project of Perikles, the complex of temples was built starting in the 5th century B.C. The Parthenon is a temple built and dedicated to the goddess Athena and over the centuries has been utilized as a church, a mosque and even housed weapons as an arsenal through various invasions. Even with the amount of damage it has sustained, it still remains the symbol and pride of Athens.

Deb with the ParthenonWhile Mark was working in the early afternoon, I also made my pilgrimage to buy some yarn made in Greece to add to my “knitting scarves as souvenirs” project. Walking by one of the many tiny Byzantine churches, around the corner and parallel to the Ermou Street clothes shopping is a long street full of textile shops, largely bolts and bolts of fabric. I initially asked at the hotel desk where to find such a shop. I didn’t want to wander aimlessly in the oppressive heat. She asked me how many and what colors I was thinking, “when you come back, we’ll have yarn for you!” stymied I explained, “No, no! I like to go look at the yarn myself!”

I’m starting to have a back log, snowy white fluff from Finland, soft blues from Spain and now a chunky wool of ochers and terra cotta. Scarves are quick (relatively), I’ll catch up!

Byzantine Church in the middle of Ermou StreetI did have a good bit of down time in the hotel escaping from the heat and sun, but even this time was spent reading about Greek life. I brought along with me It’s All Greek To Me by John Mole. Two English ex-pats who came to living in Greece for work and then decided to buy a home there, this place where they were the happiest they’ve ever been. He takes us through all the details as he buys essentially an abandoned goat shack in the 1970’s and remodels it into a home where they have lived for the past 30 years. Interspersed through his own story he includes tidbits of Greek history, mythology, culture and language. I learned quite a bit about traditional village life, Greek life philosophy, the haggling mentality, their love of their own food and identity. And even through the changes in modern society they managed to create a piece of their own Arcadia. It was a fun read made more real and relevant as it was contextualized within my own experience.

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Greece: Athens – Royal Gardens, Temple of Zues, Lykavittos Hill

Detail of inlaid stone around fountainWith a freshly soaking wet head I ventured outside on this marginally cooler day to see a few outdoor sites. Next to the Parliament building is the forty acre National Gardens. I went in the morning and spent a couple hours there. For one, it was at least twenty degrees cooler within the gardens than the rest of the city. Athens has few trees along roads or in squares. A cool breeze actually came out of any of the areas that had significant numbers of trees and greenery. So I didn’t mind staying there for as long as I did.

The turtle hiding among the flowers bolted as I approachedIt isn’t an organized botanical garden per se. It is a park riddled with meandering paths, pools and fountains. The fountains had intricately inlaid stones around them. The park was created in the 1840’s and was landscaped by Friedrich Schmidt, a Prussian horticulturist, who traveled the world looking for rare plants. It’s not the same park as it once was, but was a wonderful place for respite from the sun and heat.

Olympian Temple of ZeusThere were woodpeckers everywhere, just as many as the pigeons. I thought there was a strangely large bird under the leaves of a patch of purple flowers, until I noticed that it was actually a turtle. A speedy turtle that took off as I approached, but not before I could give him a little photo shoot!

On the far side of the National Gardens is the Olympiann Temple of Zues. It is the largest temple in Greece, even larger that the Parthenon. Construction began in the 6th century B.C. but was not completed until 650 years later. Only 15 of the original 104 columns remain, but there is enough of the temple left that you really get a sense for the enormous size and scale of the temple.

Fallen column of Olympian Temple of Zeus

In the evening Mark and I headed on over to Lykavittos Hill. At 910 feet it’s the highest point inside the city of Athens. The ancient belief was that it was the rock destined to become the Acropolis citadel, accidentally dropped by Athena. We rode the funicular which was like the inclines in Pittsburgh, but in a tunnel, I would have thought it would have been out in the open for the views on the ride.

Mark on the very edge of Lykavittos HillOnce to the top we enjoyed the panoramic views of the city, we could see the Aegean Sea off behind the Acropolis. There is a small monastery and bell tower on top of the hill as well. We enjoyed a lovely (and a refreshingly really non-Greek) dinner at the terraced restaurant on the hill. I had the Sole served with an orange glaze and almonds with a bitter greens salad with pomegranate. We shared a dessert involving flambeed tomatoes and strawberries served with a mango and green pepper sorbet.

Deb on Lykavittos HillWith the funicular on running every half and hour near midnight, we decided to walk down the hill. Even in the relative coolness of the evening air, it was a rough hike down, if we stopped moving, that gave the still air enough time to remind us how hot we were.

Most the of the dirt path on the way down wasn’t lit aside from what light from the moon. It was one of those quiet and private moments Mark and I get to share, with no one else in sight. Hiking down the highest hill in Athens at midnight. Midnight! The metro stops at midnight! We were a couple miles away from the hotel, but slogged through the heat and fell asleep the moment our heads hit the air conditioned hotel pillows.

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