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

Saturday, June 30, 2018

the berlin airlift...good vs evil using committment and candy bombers

Years before the Wall divided, and years after Hitler died, there was an event which united...not just the city of Berlin, but many cities, countries and people, with one goal. To fly. To help. To feed. 

2 million women, men and children were stranded., shut off from the rest of the world, for 10 whole months.

A portion of the still-standing wall at the East Side Gallery
This month marks 70 years since the beginning of the Berlin Airlift, when Russian military forces  blocked all land and rail transports into western Berlin. A very complicated and highly exhaustive coordinated response swiftly followed, with pilots from the British, French, American, Australian, and South African Air Forces began flying up to 1500 flights a day.

Templehof Airport

Food, medical supplies, mail, and almost most importantly, coal were flown daily in a round-the-clock series of flights from the Rhein-Main and Hamburg/Hannover regions of West Germany, landing every 90 seconds at 3 airports in the western sector of Berlin.

Photo: Boris Roessler/DPA
One incredibly poignant part of this story is that of Captain Gail Halverson who, as a personal statement against Stalin and the Russian regime, began throwing out parachutes of chocolate bars and candy as he flew over the neighbourhoods of west Berlin. As children and families and began to notice this pattern, Captain Halverson would wiggle his plane's wings as a signal of the sweet treats fallling from the sky. Soon his colleagues joined in and children would swarm in anticipation when seeing 'Uncle Wiggly Wings' flying low overhead. These planes were given the name of 'raisin bombers' (Rosinen Bomber).

Photo: Picture-Alliance/DPA

As the airlift began, the thinking was that it would at most last 4-6 weeks. But soon it became clear that Stalin was going to hold out, in the belief that the Berliners would never put up with the situation and soon force the Allieds out of west Berlin. The mayor of west Berlin, Ernst Reuter, gave a passionate plea to more than 350,000 Berliners gathered in a public standing against Russia, assuring the Allieds that the Berliners would put up with only 1800 calories a day, would walk everywhere (as there was very limited fuel), would put up with candlelight (as electricity had been cut off) as long as the Allieds would not abandon them. As winter loomed, the west Berliners put their heads down and continued to work and live, with limited food and light and heat. And it worked.

Airlift Memorial - Berlin

Over a million tons of coal, 730 000 tons of food, and 100 000 flights had been flown by Christmas, with a record-breaking 13 000 tons being dropped in a single day. Regardless of cost, the Allieds were committed to keeping up this incredible feat, which actually supplied western Berlin better than previously by land and rail, so that Russia finally caved in May of 1949. Stalin realized that he couldn't break the spirit of the people, either economically or politically with the support of a host of countries and individuals from the outside, and the blockade was lifted.


Thursday, May 31, 2018

germany's riesling horse, boat, and cable car

I've had the good fortune to spend two very seperate spring days, with two very different groups of people, on two very beautiful tours of Germany's Rheingau region...both just happened to be bachelorette parties. But, instead of strippers there were cyclists, instead of veils and tiaras there were sunglasses and sunscreen, and in both cases there was a lot of flowing bubbly and so much fun.

The Covered-wagon Tour: through castles and convents

As anyone who rides can tell you, the view from horseback is a special delight. Now, granted I wasn't actually riding these wagon-pulling quadrapeds but it often felt like I was. Meandering the windy and hilly vineyards along the Rhine valley gave me renewed respect for what these workers were doing for us.

The Rheingau is not Germany's largest wine region (that lies on directly on the other side of the river) but it is definitely its largest Riesling producer and one might say, it features Germany's most internationally successful wine producers. Needless to say, there is very good wine here.

Castle Vollrads
And, like everywhere along the Upper Middle Rhine Valley, there are a ubiquitous amount of castles. Schloss Vollrads is a hidden gem, small and delightful, nestled amongst glorious hills of hanging grapes. Unfortunately, like every good castle story, this one has plenty of drama. I won't spoil it by telling you'll need to come and visit.

Our tour took us through the dainty wine villages along the Rhine, such as Eltville and Ostrich-Winkel. Dotted with half-timbered houses and painted wine taverns, the clip-clop of the horses hooves and the gorgeous scenery made me just so happy. Well, maybe it was also the sekt! (German sparkling wine...of course)

Which just added to the already very merry time us girls were having.

Kloster Eberbach

The Ring Tour: ferry, chairlift, hike, gondola, ferry...a circle of loveliness and wine

Starting from Rüdesheim or Bingen, you hop on the ferry towards Assmannshausen, passing a few castles perched on the hillside as you float by.

This is the beginning of the Upper Middle Rhein Valley, with steep cliffsides and treacherous hanging vineyards and castles every kilometre. A tour that on its own is worth its weight in gold.

Castle Rheinstein

But on the ring tour, you get out in Assmannshausen, a small town reknowned for its red wine unique event in this area of white wine. The Hotel Krone, built in 1541, is one seriously romantic and very traditional hotel....the hanging wisteria just adds to the sweeping elegance of it all.

Assmannshausen...unfortunate name for a very cute wine town
Up the ancient chairlift, between hills of vineyards and overlooking the town, towards the forest above Rüdesheim.

Chairlift fear and fun
On this particular tour, but quite usual if I think about it, wanderers and/or bachelorettes usually stop and picnic...with sekt or just plain ol' normal wine. When in Rome...

It is approximately thirty minutes of walking through the forest to get to the lookout above Rüdesheim...depending on how many other lookout points you take advantage of.

Coming out of the magic cave...ooh la la
And you have to add in the picnic stops...Germans really do picnic-ing like no others (in my opinion). Sausages, stuffed peppers, cheese and dips, fresh olive bread, grapes, large plump olives, and chocolate. Add to that, sitting on a castle wall for a bite to eat and well, you can't get that in Canada!

Picnic at the castle...of course

Niederwald Memorial

Above Rüdesheim and you have a view of the widest part of the Rhine, right before it gets to be its narrowest. Across the river is Bingen am Rhein, another traditonal wine town, but with a more laissez-faire flair, possibly due to its years of French rule ergo the huge monument facing France after the Napoleon was defeated and driven away.

Rüdesheim am Rhein
And then after gondola-ing down towards town, we meandered towards the ferry, but not before taking in another glass of wine or two.

Evening ferry over the get to the other side (duh)

What's a bachelorette party post without a parting shot after an entire day of bubbly.


Monday, April 30, 2018

palermo...sicily's golden child and the birthplace of cosa nostra

Perched on the northwest corner of what looks like the giant rock Italy's boot is trying to kick away Palermo is the Island of Sicily's beautiful capital.

I didn't know much, or anything for that matter, about Sicily before I visited recently, but its rich blend of Arabic, Spanish, French and, of course, Italian influences became very clear to me as we walked towards Piazza Castelnuovo on our way to the Ballarò Market. I'm a lover of all things market related and reading about this one was shamefully the extent of my research.

But, long before we arrived at the Ballarò we encountered a host of wonderful sights and sounds as this fascinating and somewhat mysterious city opened itself (only partially) to greet us.

Aspects of Palermo reminded me of the grand, somewhat neglected mainland cities of Spain, such as Cadiz on the Atlantic coast (also one of my favourite historic centres). The streets of Palermo reek of story. There is a sense of daunting, a mix of beauty and foreboding, which could in all fairness have something to do with realisation that this is the birthplace of the mafia. The horse head in the bed. The Don. The Pizza Connection.

Of course Palermo is much more than its 200-year-old mafia story. It is one of the oldest cities I've been fortunate enough to visit, and its confluence of architectural styles, dating back to 734 BC, impressed me enough that I quickly realized I missed most of the important details as a result of my market obsession (thus I have borrowed some photos from someone who knew better).

Palermo Cathedral

Honestly, Palermo's history is confusing and so I won't begin to try and explain the numerous sources of design and cultural significance, except to say that if you were a church builder back in the 12th century then you would've had a boom in business to rival most other centuries. The youngest of four of the most incredible churches built in Palermo between 1132 and 1185 is the Palermo Cathedral, which is impressive enough just from the outside.

Quatto Canti

Before I get into the nuts and bolts of the three churches I want to focus on, let me just say that if you make it to Palermo you must take five minutes and see Quattro Canti - the most impressive four corners of an intersection you will ever see. The piazza splits two main streets with four Baroque buildings, almost identical, taking over each of the corners. 

The four fountains at ground level represent the four seasons, then come each of the four Spanish kings of Sicily, topped off by Christina, Olivia, Agata and Ninfa, Palermo's four patronesses. I stood as close to the centre of the intersection as I dared in order not to get run over by a fiat or vespa, and began slowly rotating, taking few photos but many deep breaths, trying to absorb the 4 most beautiful corners of two streets I had ever seen.

Cappella Palatina

The Cappella Palatina is a highlight on any Palermo tour, and the panormiti (as the locals are known) would surely echo this statement. It's a fairly small chapel with much gold, built by the Norman kings as part of the palace grounds, but incorporating a mixture of fascinating styles. A Byzantine dome, Arabic arches, Norman architecture, Christian artwork and Greek inscriptions create a true 'east meets west' creation. 

The chapel is a mosaic masterpiece, with such intricate detail on every surface that one can really spend an inordinate amount of time in this humbly-sized church. But, if you look up you will also experience something remarkable. An Islamic style of design which is sometimes called a 'honeycomb vault', used in ceilings throughout Persian architecture and called 'Muqarnas', the Palatine Chapel showcases this feature beautifully. The vaulting is solely ornamental but unique in adorning special interiors throughout arab-influenced areas, such as Morocco, Spain, Iraq and Egypt.

Scenes of Christ's life, along with prophets and saints adorn the dome's ceiling in glorious visions of embellished gold.

We made our way through narrow lanes to the Ballarò, one of Palermo's bright markets, which wasn't as easy to find as I thought. There wasn't a trail of tourists filing in and out of the side streets making their way to this 'attraction' which was, of course, in the end a great thing.

Under the tarp and awning-covered stands we found mostly locals buying colourful vegetables, fruit and much fish, like Sicilian favourites, swordfish or octopus.

The narrow streets are almost as colourful as the oranges, tomatoes and artichokes in the Ballarò. Laundry (which I love) hangs cavalierly over balconies and on washing lines from most apartments, alongside potted plants and neglected window shutters. Scan downwards towards street level and more colour greets you with bold graffiti adorning most surfaces.

That there is a host of activity taking place away from the naive eyes of tourists, akin to a seedy underbelly of the normal day-to-day life here in Sicily, is not difficult to imagine.

Located also in the heart of Palermo, just around the corner from the Quattro Canti, in Piazza Bellini lies the Church of San Cataldo. Also built in the 1100's under Norman rule, San Cataldo is a bit different than your typical European churches.

Church of San Cataldo
It is a pure homage to Norman-Arab architecture, without many of the opulent trimmings used to embellish places of worship at the time.

The San Cataldo invites you in and holds you once inside, with its naked walls, high arches and bulging domes. One can focus on the minutiae of life's circumstance (if one chooses to do so) without getting sidetracked by lavish gold altars or traumatic frescoes. Spending time in here feels like you've walked into a more primitive, feudal era...much more dangerous than just the Sicilian mafia.

Onwards to one of the oldest and most interesting of Palermo's churches, due to its host of various influences over the centuries, the Martorana.

Where the San Cataldo was naked, the Martorana is draped in gold and dressed in a wonderful blend of 12th century Byzantine mosaics and 18th century Baroque frescoes. Across the piazza from the San Cataldo (why each city needs so many churches is beyond me!) and built about 20 years earlier, the Martorana will steal a good bit of your time if you pay it a visit.

Between the 14th and 16 centuries, the Martorana was run by Benedictine nuns who took great care in modifying and enhancing large portions of the interiour. Rumours say that the church was then abandoned for a couple of hundred years, reopened and then adorned with sweeping pastel frescoes by Guglielmo Borremans.

The Greek cross design of the church highlights the Byzantine mozaics, along the likes of  Jesus bestowing the crown of Sicily upon the head of King Roger II or George of Antioch lying at the feet of the Virgin Mary.

While the later frescoes are said to have little artistic value, the Islamic influences on the culture of Norman Sicily, are impressively noticeable from the Martorana's early years. One such imposing element is the Christ Pantokrator, a traditional Greek image, which holds court in the Martorana's dome ceiling. Make sure to look up.

While meandering through the narrow side streets and across the palm-tree-lined piazzas, we stopped often to snap pics of dramatic doorways and fountains; harkening back to a time when a different type of godfather ruled Sicily, when the capo di tutti capi was named Roger or George, not Toto or Salvatore, but where allegiance was every bit as important. A lot has happened on these streets.

Palermo's fascinating history, its interesting blend of architectural influences, its many world heritage sites honouring the cultural impact these ruling factions had on Sicily, and its abundant culinary offerings, ensure that I will be back again. A road trip across this island is on my (now very long) list of things to do. I hope it's on yours won't disappoint, capiche?

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