Stories of this Canadian girl's adventures exploring Europe...join me!

Friday, November 30, 2018

greek island paradise - part I: mykonos & delos

 

Mykonos...the perfect isle


If you like nightlife, boutique shopping, and gorgeous white-washed houses, then the Town of Mykonos should be on your bucket list.


But I loved Mykonos because of its disorienting, car-free, narrow lanes, (so narrow that two tourists passing in the night need to yield to each other), its cubed houses draped in blooms, and its old fishing houses standing proudly in the sea, being rhythmically caressed (hammered?) by the waves.

Mirador Windmill

From the port of Mykonos, up on a hill towards the right, you will see swarms of tourists among a row of antique windmills (the famous Káto Mili). But, if you want a windmill to yourself I suggest venturing in the other direction, all the way through town and up the other hill, to Mirador, a run-down windmill, providing a gorgeous view of the town and sea below...it's an isolated gem in my opinion.

Church of Paraportiani

One of the most photographed churches in the world is the Church of Paraportiani, situated very close the sea's edge, in the oldest part of Mykonos Town. Stemming out of the 1400's, it consists of 5 seperate churches which have been joined together...though the entire building seems relatively small by European standards. The church's whiteness against the blue of sky and sea is just plum beautiful.


Wandering through the old Kástro neigbourhood you will stop every 5 seconds to take a photo (I bet ya!). What fascinated me was thinking about how this place used to be, before the mega party scene and Louis Vuitton. Apparently, this was a humble, out-of-the-way fishing village, whose confusing, narrow lanes bewildered the few pirates who actually made land here.

St. Nikolas Greek Orthodox Church

Many of the oldest houses in Alefkandra, or Little Venice, just steps from Kastro, are now hip, not-inexpensive taverns, where we also took a break, had a beer, and watched the waves leap onto the terraces and startle the tourists.

View of Káto Mili from a Little Venice tavern

Mykonos has incredible beaches, but we preferred to explore the town and take in the interesting architecture, the blooms, the coloured balconies, and the narrow lanes.



As you leave Mykonos Town for one of the other islands, as we did to head to Delos for the morning, you will no doubt stop to admire the small Agios Nikolaos Church at the Old Port. Amid bobbing (or retired), wooden fishing boats called 'kaiki', the blue dome and cross will be a beacon of Greece for you...a point of home whenever you get lost meandering through the labyrinthian alleyways of Mykonos.

Agios Nikolaos Church by the Old Port

Delos...the sacred isle


One of the absolute highlights of my Greek Isle trip, and which I was so excited about, was Delos. A UNESCO World Heritage Site, the birthplace of Apollo and Artemis (although that might have been just a great marketing ploy back in the pre-Roman days, according to our tourguide), and one of the best preserved sites of ancient Greek civilisation.


From Mykonos' Old Port it's just a short ferry ride, and makes an easy, unforgettable half-day experience. Delos has been an uninhabited island for centuries, because of its sacredness. There are only a few guards living on the island with their families. Interestingly, our tour guide was one of the archeologists who lived and excavated the island decades ago. She spoke with such a passion for the history of this place that is was worth every penny of the tour price.


Delos has a very long and complicated history. It has changed hands many times since the first indications of civilisation in the 3rd millenium BC. Already before the 8th century BC someone had deemed it the birthplace of Zeus and Leto's twin children, Apollo and Artemis. Legend has it that Hera, Zeus's wife, shunned Leto from giving birth on any land mass and therefore Delos, as being not attached to the ocean floor, was the only place Leto could find to deliver the twins.

Terrace of the Lions

It has been almost always a religious pilgrammage destination, at times the largest slave trader, was the site of numerous brutal Athenian purifications, and after 146 BC was Greece's most important trading centre, with over 30 000 inhabitants.

The magnificent Terrace of the Lions (600 BC), whose original statues are in the island's museum, stand watch along the Sacred Way.

House of Dionysus

From the ancient port, the right-hand side of the excavated town comprises the residential quarter. One of the incredible homes is that of a 2nd century, wealthy family whose courtyard is lined with a mosaic floor depicting Dionysus riding a panther...an amazing piece of art to see.


There are too many impressive sites and stories to explain here, but one aspect of walking in these ancient footsteps was coming across the most beautiful headless statues, mostly in former homes of the well-to-do. Apparently, headless statues were often built with fairly generic, toga-draped bodies for the commissioned heads of heros or well-known people or just plain-old rich folk to rest atop of...and for some reason I found them all very beautiful.



Delos, if you go:

- Book ferry tickets online, or for the same price at the old port of Mykonos Town.
- I highly recommend a guided tour of Delos (ferry and entrance fee are included) because of the many interesting stories of individual families who lived there, the complex history, the ancient symbols and carvings which are pointed out which you would surely miss, and of course, the mythology of the many temples.
- Be wary of snakes when walking around Delos on your own. I wanted to trek up to the Temple of Artemis but the tourguide mentioned the snakes and I decided against it....went into the museum instead.
- Bring water and food along. There is one cafeteria on the island, by the museum, which isn't cheap...of course.

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Wednesday, October 31, 2018

prague + bratislava = 100 years of peaceful protest

One hundred years ago this month, Czechoslovakia was born. Prague and Bratislava, two incredible cities at the heart of the country, and the centres of steady, strong, peaceful voices.

Old Town - Bratislava

Over the past month, citizens of the Czech Republic and Slovakia have been celebrating the 100 year anniversary of Czechoslovakia. You might think this odd considering the country split on January 1st, 1993, but actually it’s anything but. Slovaks and Czechs experienced what Gwyneth might call, a ‚conscious uncoupling‘, or what others have called ‚a velvet divorce‘.

Either way, the stories of these two states, their marriage, life together, and subsequent divorce, has inspired me on my several visits to both Bratislava and Prague.

Charles Bridge, Prague

In this day and age, or really just in this past month, I feel like we (the global collective = we) can learn a lot from the examples of Czechs and Slovaks. From what I have gathered speaking to locals in both cities, even amidst significant differences between the cultures and the states, from the beginning, or even before the beginning, they have focused for the most part on their similarities, working together, living harmoniously, and splitting peacefully.

A wedding - Bratislava

What has intrigued me most of all are the tales of courageous, yet non-violent, protest against some of the most horrific events in modern history. In my opinion, these are the role models we should be learning from.

Graffiti in Prague...tell me everything

Of course, I’m not suggesting that all Czechoslovakians were angels for 100 years, nor that there weren’t problems. But, one notable example is that the country was the only one in Europe to seperate without bloodshed after the fall of communism in 1989.

Some say the relationship between Slovaks and Czechs is something akin to siblings, who eventually decided to live in seperate houses, but in the same neigbourhood, sharing some vital industries and traditions, and basically understanding and respecting each other. This is surely a simplified descripition of their present relationship...and maybe I'm completely wrong.



But, what about the 100 years of togetherness? Here is where one truly gets to know the character of this particular family, in my opinion. From all I've heard and read, during the century Czechoslovakians responded and revolted, gathered together, took a stand, spoke out against tyranny, injustice, inequality...with courage and determination and non-violence.

In 1918, Czechs and Slovaks decided to band together to create their own state after the Austro-Hungarian Empire crumbled. Czechoslavia was formed and what followed was almost two decades of a strong, thriving democracy.

Primate's Palace - Bratislava

Possibly there are cues as to what provided the people of Czechoslovakia with the foothold necessary to persevere with peaceful dissidence, patient protest, and solidarity through the decades of darkness, which like a burdensome black cloak would soon cover them.

Bratislava

The Arts.

Jazz took root in the the 20’s and 30’s and continued clandestinely throughout the Nazi regime. Even later, during communism, jazz musicians and their fans persevered to keep the music alive and playing.

One incredible story is of Bedrich Weiss, a Czech-Jewish musician who, even while imprisoned in the Terezin Concentration Camp, created the Weiss Quintet and played in the camp’s cafeteria. Many jazz and, possibly surprising, dixieland bands which carried on during the difficult communist years, such as the Jazz Fiddlers, are still going strong in Prague today.

National House of Vinohrady Concert Hall - Prague

Literature, idealistic prose, satirical plays and lyrical poetry flourished in the teen-age years of Czechoslovakia. Even after WWII, many writers managed to gain international attention throughout the '50's and '60's, revered for their honest and dramatic stories.

Clementinum Library - Prague

Milan Kundera...a name most of us know. Kundera was a prominent member of the non-violent Prague Spring of 1968, and wrote „The Unbearable Lightness of Being“ in homage to this turbulent time. Throughout the uprising he encouraged his fellow citizens to remain calm, predicting that the consequences of the spring will be felt in the Prague Autumn. Little did he know that it would take just a wee bit longer.

Old Town Square (Staromestske Namesti) - Pragu

Václav Havel. Did you know that Havel was a Czech playwright, who together with Kundera, was part of the group who initiated the Prague Spring...this fleeting moment of liberalization in the country? The group, whose goal was to reform the communist party, to guarantee civil rights and move towards democracy,  was violently quashed by the Soviet army. Havel remained in the country, was imprisoned repeatedly, persevered with his beliefs, and eventually became interim president of Czechoslovakia after the peaceful ‚Velvet Revolution‘ in 1989.

As the country then split a few years later, which Havel was opposed to, he was elected for two consecutive terms as the Czech Republic’s president. Now, he is writing again.

Kundera, meanwhile, had fled to France in the mid-70’s after his books were banned and he was kicked out of the party for a second time. He was stripped of citizenship, and since then has demanded to be known as a French writer, and insists his books be deemed French literature. He’s a fascinating man, without a doubt.

Old Town - Bratislava

Taking to the Streets...a few poignant examples of peaceful revolt:

Prague Spring (1968) - Alexander Dubcek, the so-called leader of the Prague Spring, wanted a peaceful reform of the communist party.."'socialism with a human face," he proclaimed. When the Soviet tanks finally rolled into Czechoslovakia, to quash a months-long movement towards liberalization and an end to censorshop, the military received no resistance. Photos circulated around the world of peaceful protestors argueing their point with tank commanders.

Candle Revolution (1988) - An underground clergy movement, which had begun in the 1950's, led to the first major step towards bringing down the communist regime. This was the Candle Revolution in Bratislava in March 1988. The mass demonstration was organized by Catholic dissident groups, and helped by the Vatican. Over 10 000 people took to the streets, with only candles in their hands, until the police began attacking the protesters with water cannons, batons and sticks.

Velvet (or 'Gentle') Revolution (1989) - A series of demostrations in November 1989, including a massive 2-hour strike where every citizen in Czechoslovakia stopped working (can you imagine the impact?), which  led to the end of 41 years of communist rule. 500 000 people took to the streets for weeks of non-violent protests...eventually they couldn't be ignored any longer. 500 000 people!

I don't want to sugar-coat history, not at all, but there are some good examples of what the power of good can do. People can take a stand and make changes, without weapons. The first is definitely to go and vote....wherever you are. If you live in a country where you can vote, then do it. Don't take it for granted. Second, believe that you can make a difference. If enough people believe it, then eventually, with determination and perseverance change can sometimes be made.

In the Czech Republic, Slovakia and many other countries throughout Europe, and into the Americas, there is a current way of populism threatening to destroy the belief of 'together is better'. I'm not sure why, but I think it is the undercurrent feeling of fear leading the way, while a clever few stir the pot in their quest for power. Unfortunately, it works.

I hope that we (all of us) can be inspired by peaceful, united actions that brought change in the past...and that we will be motivated to act. Let's do it. And if all else fails, travel and meet people from other countries, hear their stories and learn from them. What I know for sure...this inspires me.


If you go:

Bratislava - an easy 45-minute trip by car from Vienna's Schwechat Intl. Airport. Take a Danube Cruise from Vienna to Budapest and stop in Bratislava, which is half-way between both cities. It's a pretty, but small, city with great food and drink.

Prague - an easy road trip from Munich, with most of the city easy to discover by tram or subway. Great beer, lots of tourists, and good food which is still less expensive than the countries to the west. If you want to photograph the Charles Bridge, do it early in the morning...you won't regret it. Early = less people :)

If you go...try trdelník!

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Friday, August 31, 2018

two days in nancy, france...so francais, so lovely

So this just might happen to be a post about doors...and windows. Sorry, I can’t help it. Nancy, France has surprised me. It has shop windows overflowing with pastries, pain de chocolat, and éclairs. Along with pastel-coloured shutters adorning every house window, wandering the old town streets here is trés wonderful. 


Oh, and there's this amazing fountain.


The French city of Nancy lies just 2.5 hours from Frankfurt, and is a fairly pleasant train ride from Paris. Its town centre is a UNESCO World Heritage Site, and rumour has it that Place Stanislas, which is home to buildings much more palace than city hall, is the most beautiful square in Europe. 

Place Stanislas
I'm not  sure if that's true, or if the French have just claimed that, because well, they're French and it's probably true. Once I've visited all European town squares I'll let y'all know :).

What is interesting is that Stanislas was the King of Poland, but Duke of Upper Lorraine, and he did much to better the lives of the citizens of Nancy at the time. He forged cultural and economic growth, fed the poor, and gave houses to those who had through misfortune lost everything.


This summer, the city put on an incredible light show every evening, creating magnificently vivid scenes detailing episodes from the past centuries. The scenes played out on the 4 major town square buildings, with the prominent focus on city hall. Both nights that we stayed in the city we experienced the Spectacle son et Lumière in Place Stanislas...it was just that incredible.


The Spectacle highlighted the industrial revolution, the renaissance, Nancy's surrounding wine and agricultural landscape, its schools, music and cultural heritage...all set to an inspiring and uplifting soundtrack.


Nancy is not a huge city, about a half million people, but it is an old one, dating back to 800 BC. Like most other well-placed European cities, this one has also gone through many soul-altering evolutions, sometimes due to war, often due to natural occurrences. Oh, who are we kidding? Pretty much all destruction and change was due to war, including when Nancy was set on fire in 1218, at the end of the War of Succession of Champagne.


I came to Nancy to experience more French towns, culture and cuisine, and Nancy was the perfect choice. Patisseries on every corner, much top-rated, but not top-priced local cuisine, and fascinating history made the two-day visit well worth the trip.


Since the late 19th century, Nancy has been a centre of art and architecture, giving Paris a run for her money at times. Around that time a group of artists and architects created the 'École de Nancy' and their Art Nouveau influences can still be felt while wandering many sidewalks.



What I just couldn't get enough of were the shuttered windows, neatly painted in soft hues, complimenting the buildings in all their variations of taupe. I'm not really sure if they are only decorative or if they have an actual purpose, but I don't really care. They are super cute.



Nancy also has an wonderful array of gardens, some centuries old. One of the cities oldest botanical gardens, now named Jardin Godron, used to house numerous collections vital to the Royal College of Medicine. Now, it displays vibrant horticultural specimens in long distinguished rows, making it easy and interesting to walk amongst and just enjoy.

Jardin Godron
The Parque de la Pépinière, just around the corner from Place Stanislas, is huge. There's a small concert bowl, outdoor dancing lessons, an assortment of peacocks ambling about, an intimate rose garden, a statue by Rodin, fields and fields of open green space to play or lay...and there's the most beautiful art niveau pergola which I have ever seen. I only took about 25 photos of it.

Parque de la Pépinière
What you should really do in Nancy is eat. I was treated to an incredible birthday dinner at C' Fred, an intimate, simply decorated restaurant just off the main drag. It boasts a seasonally fixed menu for 34€, with 3 choices for starter, entrée and dessert. Dishes such as, Terrine de foie gras au chocolat to start with, then Pot au feu de filets de boeuf à la truffe de Meuse or Cuisse de canard confite aigret doux. There is almost nothing more delicious...

C' Fred...plain excellent!
except for their dessert. I had to have the Fondant chocolat glace café. The warm chocolate insides melted my cold hardened heart and I could ease into the new year of my life a bit more content. Thank you C' Fred!


I would be remiss not to include C' Fred's excellent wine offerings. We indulged in a bottle of the Pezenas Madame du Parc from the south of France. I had never heard of it before, but oh was it delish. Apparently it's something special.


And since I don't have the warm chocolate cake anymore to warm my heart, I will leave you with a nighttime photo of my favourite fountain, which almost does the same for me...and I hope for you.
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Tuesday, July 31, 2018

an enchanted place...melk abbey, austria

There is a place upon a hill overlooking the Danube, just a stone's throw from Vienna, which as soon as I stepped foot upon its grounds it held my breath.

"Ora et Labora et Lege" - Pray, Work, Learn.


Melk Abbey stands guard at the entrance of Austria's enchanting Wachau region, an area dotted with cathedrals and steep vineyards, glistening with elegance and fascinating history. This Benedictine Abbey, which surely is one of the most beautiful in the world, is home to two of my now-favourite buildings...a library like no other, and a garden pavillion out of a fairytale. Take a look...


But first, as you enter the Abbey's imposing inner square, a series of modern murals representing the four virtues (wisdom, justice, temperance, and fortitude) will catch your eye almost immediately, juxtaposed against the Abbey's  Baroque facade.


The Abbey itself dates back to 1089 when a group of Benedictine monks were gifted a castle by Leopold II of Austria. This explains in part the opulence of the home of such a simple people. What the monks did with their generous gift was to immediately put it to good work, creating a monastic school and library, both of which are still in existence today and continue to be renowned institutions.


Many of the Baroque additions and renovations were undertaken between 1702 and 1736, but because of the Abbey's international reputation for education and its well-known extensive collection of manuscripts, the buildings were spared from countless wars, confiscations and conflicts in the centuries which have since followed.


I highly recommend taking a guided tour when you visit because of the volume of interesting stories and historical information that you will hear. It costs 13€/adult and includes the Abbey church, library and gorgeous marble hall...all worth the price.

The staircase leading up to the 196 m long Kaisersall (Imperial Hall)

I love libraries...always have. Some of my earliest happy memories are sitting at the feet of my elementary school librarian and listening to her read to us. So, whenever I visit a new place, I try to pop into a library. I especially love the smell of old books...the well-worn covers, the musty pages filled with tales and wisdom, and the millions of fingerprints from long-gone souls. For some reason, this all inspires me to no end.

"Pray, work, learn" - the highly regarded Abbey library

The Abbey library does not disappoint. I snuck a couple of unflashed photos because I absolutely wanted to be able to remember these rooms. Over the centuries, the library has amassed a collection of 100,000 books and manuscripts, including 750 printed before 1500 AD!


The Abbey, especially the library, was the centre of the 'Melk Reform Movement' in the 15th century, a sort of counter reformation building on Jesuit teachings. The monks held the library in such high regard, second only to the church, that they commissioned Paul Troger to paint the incredible ceiling fresco. The centrepiece of the painting is a female representation of faith, surrounded by four groups of angels again depicting the virtues of wisdom, temperance, fortitude and justice.


I have to confess, one of the details which enchants me most about castles and historical rooms, such as libraries, is the almost certain occurance of stumbling upon a tiny door. Okay, 'tiny' might not be the right word, and I'm jumping the gun if I make an 'Alice in Wonderland' comparison, but the small, often hidden or unnoticeable doors secretively blending into a wall of books or nestled into the floorboards fill me with a whimsical, fairytale-y feeling.

  
This particular door seen above had, as I found out during the tour, an interesting but unfortunately, fairly boring purpose. On the other side of it is a very large ceramic stove for heating the inner room. These little doors, which almost every room in the Abbey has, allowed the house staff to fill the stove with wood from the outside hallway without bothering (and dirtying) the room's inhabitants. Nonetheless...I still find them enchanting.

The Marble Hall from the outside

The Abbey church, and believe me, to call it a 'church' seems to do it an injustice, is impressive. It seems, for lack of a better word, strange to walk into such an opulent cathedral-like place of worship while visiting the home of Benedictine monks. I mean, St Benedictine charged his followers to live simply, dedicating their prayer (obviously), their work and their life-long journey of education to the glory of God.


And therein lies most likely the reason behind the incredible ceiling frescoes and altar paintings (7 famed masters of their time were commissioned to decorate the church in 1722)...to glorify God.

But, what also struck me during my visit through the Abbey is that the monks were, and continue to be, just plain smart. They have, over the centuries, with hard work and incredible dedication, built a compound for everyone to fall in love with; a school offering high quality education, scholarly achievements to research and study, and an incredibly beautiful tourist destination that everyone wants to visit!


The Abbey Park and Garden Pavillion are part of this gorgeous visiting experience. I fell in love with the pavillion, designed as part of the Baroque park in 1750 as a place of relaxation for the monks.

  
Only since the year 2000 has this area been open to the public, and it is now a highlight. The park includes a 'Garden of Paradise', a 'Jardin Méditerranéen', a meditational path with an incredible view over the Danube and 250 year-old Linden trees.


Inside the pavillion, the beauty continues, with fantastical exotic frescoes climbing across the walls. Johann Bergl's creations in the two window-filled rooms are rife with plants, animals, jungle themes, and native people, instilling a longing to learn about and to explore far-off lands.


But look up and you will again be transported to the Baroque scenes of the heavens. Really, it is such a dreamy building.


When your time at Melk Abbey comes to an end, you will be sent off with the parting words, "Höre und du wirst ankommen" - a blessing reminding us to stop and listen, to come to peace in order to know you have arrived.

St. Benedictine encouraged his faithful to never stop beginning - in prayer, in work, in learning. To always dedicate oneself anew to living a life in peace with God and with others. He taught that living compatibly within community, to ask forgiveness and to come clean whenever needed, glorifies God and allows us to focus on that what is important. Melk Abbey...an inspiring place indeed.

Listen and you will arrive


If you go, you should know:

For opening times, prices and interesting information about all of the rooms in Abbey in case you forget some of the details after your visit (like I did):  http://www.stiftmelk.at/englisch/

How-to-get-there information, including hiking trails and boat tours in the area: https://www.outdooractive.com/en/tourist-information/danube-lower-austria/wachau-info-center-melk/3234748/

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