Wednesday, October 11, 2017

My First Electric Vehicle...

With all of the clamor regarding diminished global reserves of  fossil fuel, the developing threat of bovine flatulence incinerating us all and the fact that I passionately dislike filling my car at the gas station, the time suddenly seemed right to explore an all electric vehicle. 

Now, unless you have a really, really long extension cord, it is necessary to install a battery to provide the motive power for any such form of transport. Two battery models were available, big, shown here and huge shown below.



This is the base vehicle, a magnificent tricycle in Toy Town Red with a dashing front fender and big shiny handlebars.

Here it is again with the battery installed. Exciting Eh? I chose the HUGE battery because the nice man in the bike shop said "With that battery, you will be able to ride anywhere without fear or favor"








Certainly, from my excursions so far, he was absolutely right! Now, if I could just get it to stay on the road...


Friday, June 16, 2017

Forza d'Agro, Sicily - much AGRO for not much

Fourteen hundred feet up in the foothills and with a current population of a scant 900 souls, Forza d'Agro developed in its present form around the start of the 14th century. Its history, of course, goes much further back - Greek settlers in the 8th century BCE, Roman conquest in 135 BCE, Byzantine domination from 536 to 827 CE, the latter interspersed by sundry Arabian incursions.
Forza D'Agrò remained loyal to the Spanish during the anti-Spanish revolution of 1674 and was later occupied by British forces in the early 19th century for defense against Napoleonic attacks. In the early 20th century, many of the inhabitants emigrated to America.
Fortunately, the area was fairly unscathed by the 20th century world wars and today, much of the town interior consists of traditional 14th century buildings and cobbled alleys largely unsuitable for vehicular traffic. This has led to the village being favored as a backdrop for several movies, including naturally, The Godfather trilogy. Following are a few pictures of the highlights of this forgotten burg.

Savoca, Sicily - another Hollywood has-been

Savoca is a small Sicilian village of 1,600 people or so, built 1,000 feet up on a rugged mountainside that looks out over the Mediterranean at the southern tip of the "toe" of Italy. One of hundreds of similar crumbling and near forgotten communes throughout Sicily, Savoca was used and abused by the Hollywood machine and, 44 years later, remains conflicted about its identity as a result of that visitation.
For good or bad, it was selected as a location for some scenes of the Godfather movie series and was invaded in 1972 by Francis Ford Coppola and his gang of users. Since the first movie's release, daily coach loads of tourists make the tiresome trek to the village and jump through the hoops set out by the tour companies and the natives. The inhabitants are split into two groups - the haves, including church managers charging admission, the Post Office, the coffee and souvenir shop, the enterprising owner of the three-wheeled taxi who offers rides to the church and, of course, the proprietor of Bar Vitelli that appeared in one or more of the movies. Remaining are the have-nots - residents, retirees and holiday-homers seeking the earlier tranquility and solitude, now hesitant to venture out between the hours of 10 am and 4 pm to compete with the visiting hordes straining the meager local services to breaking point.
We were dropped off at the Convento dei Cappuccini to gaze at a bunch of dead bodies in the catacombs as you can see here...

Sorrento, Italy - Come back we did

The Gulf of Naples, on the west coast of Italy, is a large bay about 10 miles across, with Naples at the north end and Sorrento at the south. In between is much interesting stuff like the semi-active volcano, Vesuvius, and the excavated remains of the city of Pompeii, buried under 40 feet of lava during the last major outburst in 79 CE. For us, the 1902 pop song "Come Back to Sorrento" was appropriate since our previous visit there, many years ago, had been less than stellar.
The town is perched securely atop a sheer 170 foot cliff partitioned in places by equally steep sided gorges that extend inland. Landing on what scant beaches there are, leaves a would be invader at a severe disadvantage. Fortunately, the natives are somewhat friendlier nowadays and a shuttle bus took us up a hair-pinned road cut into one of the gorge faces and deposited us right in the center of downtown. Following a pleasant plod around the old town, we caught the bus back to the tender dock and thence splashed back to the mother-ship for lunch...

More snaps here.

Civitavecchia, Italy - cruising with Roman roots

In 106 CE, the incumbent Roman Emperor Trajan ordered the construction of a port with the ability to handle deep water ships to service Rome. The result was the city of Centumcellae which was renamed centuries later to Civitavecchia, appropriately meaning "Ancient Town" in Italian. Subsequent to Trajan, the port city was controlled by a miscellany of popes and counts who, throughout the middle ages, constructed a series of defensive structures including Forte Michelangelo. The fort was built by Giluano Leno in the 16th century with walls about 20 feet thick and a central tower designed by Renaissance architect and painter Michelangelo.
Today, Civitavecchia, about 50 miles northwest of Rome, is the cruise terminal of choice for numerous shipping companies traveling to Turkey, Greece and the eastern Mediterranean beyond. Additional pictures.

Thursday, June 15, 2017

Livorno, Italy - a really old new town

Livorno, traditionally known in English as Leghorn, is a port city on the western coast of Tuscany and is the capital of the Province of Livorno. The city, more a fishing village at the time, was effectively owned by the Republic of Pisa from 1103 until 1284 at which time the Pisan fleet was destroyed in the Battle of Meloria. It was bought and sold a few times over the next 2-1/2 centuries until the Medici dynasty arrived from Florence in the 16th century and encouraged settlement in the area.
However, Livorno remained a somewhat insignificant coastal fortress until its redesign as an "Ideal town" during the Italian Renaissance. The plan was drawn up by architect Bernardo Buontalenti in 1577, and in the late 1580's, Ferdinando I de' Medici, Grand Duke of Tuscany, declared Livorno a free port, along with the introduction of laws ensuring a well-regulated market. Livorno subsequently developed into an enlightened European city and one of the most important ports in the Mediterranean Basin.
With the burgeoning of the cruise industry, Livorno has become a popular port of call, serving as the launch point for excursions to Pisa and Florence as well as numerous small villages and towns throughout Tuscany. We had visited these attraction several times over the years and were happy, on this occasion, to check out Livorno itself.
Incidentally, if you ever pitch up in Livorno and are faced with the choice of going either to Pisa or Florence, choose the latter. Compared to the wealth of sights and experiences available in Florence, Pisa is pretty much a one trick pony unless, of course, the day you are there the leaning tower actually falls over. More snaps of this interesting burg here.

Monaco - an unprincipled Principality?

Monaco, officially the Principality of Monaco, sits on the French Riviera bordered on three sides by France and on the fourth by the Mediterranean Sea. At a minuscule total area of 3/4 square mile and a population less than 40,000 it is the second smallest country in the world and the most densely populated, even after years of aggressive land reclamation which increased its area by 1/5. To squeeze the utmost out of the available space, many roads and most parking lots are now underground making double use of that land area. 

The latest upscale high rise apartments, available from as little as $7,500 per square foot, have solved their parking problem as follows. Approach your address and press a button on a remote control. A large door opens in the side of your building. Drive in and press another button. Aha! - this is not your garage it is an elevator which whisks you up to your apartment level, still in your vehicle. Another door opens and you drive into your garage right next to your living room. Cute. Known as a playground for the rich and famous it is estimated that around 30% of the Principality's population are millionaires.
Billed, somewhat laughably, as a loose constitutional monarchy, Prince Albert II, as head of state, essentially runs the place. In fact, Albert's family, the House of Grimaldi, have ruled Monaco almost without interruption since the late 13th century. Never a family to get along well with others, the Grimaldis were ejected from their original domicile, the Genoa region of what is now Italy, in 1297 or thereabouts. They traveled west along the shoreline until they came upon a monastery of affable monks who agreed to let them abide a while while they got their act together. The Grimaldis took a shine to the highly defensible location and decided instead to slaughter the monks and call the place home. Monaco became a full United Nations voting member in 1993.
Enjoying the good life for almost 5 centuries by taxing the folk in the locality, all went quietly until around the time of the French Revolution. Emboldened by events throughout France, the local uppity serfs said "No more" and Monaco began to fall on hard times. Eventually, after a false start or two, the dynasty was saved by the arrival of the railroad in the late 19th century along with the opening of a casino modeled on similar businesses flourishing in Germany at the time. The later stroke of declaring the country a tax haven sealed their recognition as a playground for the excessively rich and more or less famous, all with year round gorgeous weather. What's not to like?
Monte Carlo - literally Mount Charles in Italian - is the largest of the four administrative areas of Monaco and, near its western end, lurks the world-famous Place du Casino as well as the Hôtel de Paris, the Café de Paris, and the Salle Garnier, home of the Opéra de Monte-Carlo. The eastern part of the quarter includes Monaco's only public beach, the recent Grimaldi Forum convention center, and the Monte-Carlo Bay Hotel & Resort. More images, click here.

Saint Remy de Provence - sanitized history in rural France

The little boat bobbed on and shortly pitched up in Marseilles, France. The second largest city in France and the biggest commerce and freight port, the metro area is home to more than 1.8 million. Thankfully, this was not our destination on this visit but rather, the small village of Saint Remy de Provence, 30 miles or so inland, was in our future.
Saint Remy, once a walled city, is now ringed by a two lane road rendering the interior essentially vehicle free, with only residents vehicles going in and out. Less than half-a-mile across with a population of a little over 10,000, it would normally be an easy place to walk around but, we were there on market day at the tail end of the French vacation season. Busy, busy, busy.
As contemporary European markets go, this one was pretty good with a variety of meats, cheeses, vegetables and preserves on offer and, in less frenetic circumstances, would have afforded a pleasant toddle perusing the wares. As it was, we were pleased to escape from the thronging torrents of humanity and investigate some quieter areas of the village. In true French style, every street had been refurbished in accordance with Ministry of Culture specifications, an Orwellian compulsion born in France and spreading rapidly throughout continental Europe wherein bland conformity trumps character. Uniform cobbled streets, surface water drains running down the center, underground utilities, satellite TV antennas on every roof - a poor man's theme park village with no entry fee. A chance to enjoy history freshly manufactured on an industrial scale. See pictures here.

Wednesday, June 14, 2017

Barcelona, Spain - a tale of two churches

Barcelona is the largest city on the Mediterranean, with an urban population approaching 5 million ranking it the sixth largest city in Europe. It is located on the coast in the northeast of the country about 75 miles south of the border with France. Walking around the tourist areas after 10:30 am however, was akin to being caught in a mudslide - if you got in the right stream you could almost lift your feet off the ground and be swept along to the next destination the crowds were so dense and unforgiving. The day's excursion was to compare the old with the getting old.
First stop was the Old; The Cathedral of the Holy Cross and Saint Eulalia, also known as Barcelona Cathedral, a Gothic church and seat of the Archbishop of Barcelona, begun in the 11th century. Located in the Barri Gotic, the heart of the old town, this edifice was around 8 centuries in the building.
Next, it was onto the Getting Old (but unfinished) colossus that is, or was, the brainchild of the long since dead Antoni Gaudi - the already famous Sagrada Familia. This astonishing structure has been in construction - on and off - for a mere century and a quarter and may be completed in another 20 years or so. In this case, seeing is believing. More pictures here.

Alicante, Spain - the worst of both worlds

Alicante is on the Costa Blanca (White Coast) which, like the Costa del Sol, is a mecca for sun-worshipers. Prior to 2008 it was one of the fastest growing cities in Spain, having on and off growth spurts since the 1960s with northern Europeans, especially the British, descending like locusts for low cost vacations and second homes. Horror stories abounded through the 60s, 70s, 80s and beyond, of unfinished hotels, poor workmanship, no redress, wrecked vacations, lost retirement funds and so on as the somewhat maverick local authorities sought to maximize their golden eggs. In exchange, the British brought beer binges, drunkenness, disorderly conduct, football hooliganism, fish and chips and sundry other less than welcome national traits along with their much welcomed money.
 In former visits to Spain we had avoided Alicante, Benidorm and similarly blighted areas and concentrated instead on some of the national historical treasure troves such as Segovia, Toledo and Salamanca. This time around we determined to meet the beast head on. Fortunately, time was short and we did not get out of town to see the British refugee camps and just took a brief walk around a couple of the city highlights. Not too bad...

More to see here.

Mijas Pueblo, Spain - monochromatic monotony

Mijas Pueblo is a small village located on the south eastern coast of Spain in the Province of Málaga and falls within the area known as the Costa del Sol - the Sun Coast. Today it is a typical Andalusian white-washed village sitting about 1,400 feet above sea level. Poverty and unemployment were rife in the area following World War II and Mijas was also active in anti-Franco army operations during this time. Phone service didn't come to the area until 1953 and at that time the town consisted mainly of shacks with much of the population scattered across the countryside on numerous small farms.
In the mid-fifties, following the installation of an asbestos factory, a small hotel was built. This more or less coincided with awakening of the Costa del Sol as a vacation destination for northern Europeans enjoying increased mobility as their post war economies improved. So, with the help of a good publicity manager, Mijas was re-invented as a tourist town featuring local historical museums and many souvenir shops. Several other entire cities have sprung from nowhere and now populate the region, all peddling the same hats, purses. sunglasses, ceramic tiles and other craft items manufactured in China. More images.

Lisbon, Portugal - launch pad to the new world

Lisbon sits on the right bank of the river Tagus which flows westward to the Atlantic Ocean. It is the de facto capital city of Portugal, one of the largest ports in Europe and the oldest European capital by far, predating London, Paris and Rome by several centuries. More than that however, Lisbon is a city of many parts, brimming with sights and history and offering something for everyone. As with earlier visits to this amiable city, we thoroughly enjoyed our day there and filled a couple of gaps in our previous coverage. Pictures here.

Tuesday, June 13, 2017

Porto, Portugal - where's the beef?

With a selection of 500 or so excursions offered around this particular cruise itinerary it is practically inevitable that there would be a few duds. Such outings usually comprise a few local items of marginal broader interest, cobbled together with a paragraph or two of effusive travelogue copy to sound like the discovery of the meaning of life. Our choice for Porto turned out to be one of these - watery soup indeed.
Porto is on the coast of northwest Portugal and has a population of 1.4 million making it the second largest city in the country after Lisbon. It is the port wine capital of the world with the product name, port, being taken directly from the city name. Located a short distance up the estuary of the River Douro, Porto has a more or less viable economy, diversified beyond fishing and port wine but otherwise obstinately stuck in time without the momentum to move on.
Our experience was further dampened, literally, by a constant heavy overcast with light drizzle which dulled whatever bright spots there might have been. But, as they say, "You shouldn't have joined if you can't take a joke" so we soldiered on as follows...

More pictures here.

Ferrol, Spain - our favorite excursion - on our own

Ferrol, on the northern coast of Spain, has the dubious honor of having been the birthplace, in 1892, of the Spanish General and dictator Francisco Franco. After narrowly losing the 1936 election to the anti-royalist left, Franco and several other generals attempted a coup and set in motion the Spanish Civil War. Three years and 1 million dead countrymen later, Franco finally triumphed. All the other generals were dead and he appointed himself Dictator in 1939 establishing a thirty-six year dictatorship which ended only with his own death from old age in 1976. Spain has spent much of the intervening forty years catching up to the 21st century.
With a current population of around 70,000, Ferrol has been a major naval shipbuilding center for most of its history as well as the most important arsenal in Europe for long periods. Today, the city is still home to the Navantia shipbuilding group but overall, it's economy is well diversified including agriculture, aquaculture, fishing, electrical equipment, textiles and so on.
So, with no other commitments for the day, we took the bus to town and had a good old-fashioned walkabout, our favorite kind of outing... Additional picture show here.

Bilbao, Spain - a flying bridge and a 30 foot dog

Three for the price of one! This tour was a hodge-podge of features from three don't-have-much locations and turned out to be quite enjoyable.
Up first is Getxo. This is home of the cruise port, is part of Greater Bilbao, has about 80,000 mostly affluent inhabitants. It is noted for it's flying bridge. Next up Castro Urdiales, a seaport on the bay of Biscay. It is a modern town, although its castle and the Gothic-style parish church of Santa María de la Asunción, date from the Middle Ages. Currently, tourism, fishing, and fish canning make up the economy but tourism looks set to eclipse all else fairly soon. Population is around 32,000 - a number that can almost triple in the summertime.
Finally, Bilbao, the largest city in the Basque Country and the tenth largest in Spain with a population around one third million. During the 19th and early 20th centuries Bilbao became heavily industrialised but, today, it has morphed into a service city enjoying social, economic, and aesthetic revitalisation inspired by the presence of the iconic Bilbao Guggenheim Museum. Pictures here.

Bordeaux, France - Part 2: We came back, all is forgiven

One of Bordeaux's prior nicknames was "La Belle Endormie" or Sleeping Beauty, and that's what she became for us. Buoyed by the previous day's enjoyment, we were up at the crack of noon and back on the trail for day 2.
While the city has it's share of grimy, in cases derelict buildings and streets peppered with "For Rent" or "For Sale" signs it collectively markets about $15 billion of wine each year, providing a tax base sufficient to keep itself on track. As such, it appears to be evolving organically and harmoniously in accordance with the wishes of the people and the administration. Score one for France.
The city itself straddles the River Garonne and is approximately 30 miles up river and south of the river estuary on the Atlantic coast. Originally a walled city, many of the original gateways have been preserved and Bordeaux is considered not only to have the finest collection of 18th century buildings in the country, but comes second only to Paris in terms of the largest number of recognized historical monuments. What a treasure! Click here for more pictures.

Monday, June 12, 2017

Bordeaux, France - Part 1: Forgotten, but not gone

Bordeaux is in the Aquitaine Region of south west France and, although we have passed it many times, we have always "forgotten" that it was there and driven by without a second glance. With a population of 1/4 million, its global recognition as the wine capital of the world, a paucity of convenient campsites and, quite incorrectly as it turns out, a lack of tourist "juice", we were happy in our misconception. But, Horror of Horrors, Lollipop was stopping there for two days - two whole days!
We had reviewed the excursions for the port and everyone of them was vineyard related involving sipping, spitting and waffling witlessly about the grape rather than just working on getting legless. Not our cup of tea at all, to mix a metaphor.
Undaunted, we got a map, strolled through the risible French security into town and set out to confirm our suspicions. The weather at this point was hot, having risen steadily from the Paris chill into the high eighties and low nineties. The outlook was for a severe clear - not even a cloud in sight. Day 1 pictures here.

Saint Malo, France - perception is reality

Saint Malo, another theme park illusion visited upon the unsuspecting tourist. Sitting at the mouth of the River Rance, Saint Malo was a fortified island back in the Middle Ages controlling not just the estuary but a huge arc of the English Channel and the Atlantic Ocean around Britanny, the north west extremity of France. In the 18th century, numerous "corsairs" operated from the port, French privateers who were effectively sanctioned by the King to plunder passing shipping.
That was then - this is now. During heavy fighting in the late summer of 1944 however, the entire walled city was almost entirely demolished by the American Air Force and the Britsh Navy. Beginning in 1948 it was rebuilt over 12 years to look like the original from the outside but fitted internally with all modern conveniences, fifties style. Hollywood would have been proud.
The walled city is actually quite a boring place - a matrix of identical five storey buildings arranged on a rectangular grid and separated by narrow, canyon like streets. The encompassing wall is three storeys high and has a broad walkway all the way round. Walking around the wall, the visitor gets to stare into the residents third floor apartments often to see the unfortunate residents balefully glaring back. A block or so away from the wall and there is nothing much but apartments and the occasional neighborhood store. The cathedral, Saint Vincent of Saragosse, is unremarkable and the "attractions", such as they are comprise a plethora of coffee shops and rows of T shirt and souvenir shops concentrated at the south end where there are a couple of larger courtyards. The excitement is really outside of the wall, busy boats of every ilk, small islands, beaches and a constant milling of visitors.See pictures here.

Paris, France - insane on the Seine

In his 2010 novel, "The Map and the Territory", the dubious French author Michel Houellebecq described how, by 2035, all of France will have become nothing but a theme park for tourists. An increasingly believable prediction, with the caution that it may be a fait accompli as early as 2020. However, even a theme park has a limit on the number of punters in the park at any one time, not so with tourists - short of total gridlock, they continue to arrive in ever increasing numbers. The sidewalks of the 5th Avenue of Paris, the Champs Elysee, were practically at a standstill with a slurry of humanity concentrating on staying vertical while clutching their valuables to ward off the well advertised pick-pockets. The joys of this wonderful city seem long gone.
In all of our previous European trips we have heeded the advice of more experienced travelers and avoided the second half of July and the whole of August. These are the weeks that Europe effectively shuts down and, with their generous six weeks allowance, takes a long vacation. So here we were, on August 10, being bused 180 miles from Le Havre to spend just four hours in Paris. To make matters worse, the weather produced a windy 59 degree day, hopelessly unsuitable for shorts and summer attire. Dumped near one end of the Champs Elysee, more than a mile from any of the dozen or so "must see" Parisian attractions, we truly questioned our sanity. Teeth chattering and dreaming of 90 degree Florida days, we came up with a plan - a ride on a Hop-on Hop-off bus - how bad could it be?
The bus route was 2-1/2 hours per lap so hopping on and off was out of the question if we were to be back in time to catch the ride to Le Havre. Thus we resigned ourselves to a frigid rattle around on the open upper deck snatching a snap or two as opportunity permitted. Another miscalculation. Hordes of screaming, bratty kids, armies of morons leering oafishly up their selfie sticks blocking every available view, interminable stops at popular locations while the driver patiently explained in a variety of languages how the bus ride worked and all the while it seemed to get colder and colder. Finally we retreated to the lower deck and huddled miserably until our stop came up.
Here are a few glimpses hinting at the splendor of this most magnificent city.

Great Chart, England - land of light lunches

Hythe, Kent
A small coastal market town on the south coast of the county of Kent, Hythe contains Medieval and Georgian buildings, as well as a Saxon/Norman church and a Victorian seafront promenade. Hythe was once defended by two castles, Saltwood and Lympne. The Town Hall was built in 1794.
In 1348 the Black Death afflicted Hythe, and in 1400 the plague further reduced the population. Today's headcount is around 14,000



Great Chart, Kent
Great Chart is first mentioned in 762 as Seleberhtes Cert and was known at that time for operating a mechanical water mill, the first such recorded in Britain. In 776 Great Chart's manor, the village, its lands and much of its produce were sold by King Egbert to Archbishop Jænberht of Canterbury to raise money for a Kentish army to fight King Offa of Mercia.
The current population is about 7000.

Pictures here.

Ghent, Belgium - some real old stuff!

Ghent is the capital and largest city of the East Flanders province and the second largest city in Belgium after Antwerp. The city developed around the confluence of the Rivers Scheldt and Leie and, by the end of the 13th century, was very wealthy with a population of 50,000 or so. It currently has about 250,000 inhabitants.
An historic example of industrial espionage improved the city's fortunes at the end of the 18th century when plans for industrial weaving machines were smuggled out of England to bring mechanical weaving to Europe. In 1830 however, the Belgian revolution occurred, snatching the southern part of the Netherlands and creating the enduring political, lingual and administrative disaster that is Belgium today. The local economy collapsed, the first Belgian trades-union took root in Ghent and the nation seems never to have satisfactorily re-established it's identity. If it were not for the European Union selecting Brussels as it's administrative capital it is possible that the country would have been democratically re-partitioned as elements of France and the Netherlands by this time and been better off for it.
Although Ghent was occupied by the Germans in both World War I and World War II it escaped severe destruction and actually boasts quite a lot of genuine "old stuff". Considerable medieval architecture remains intact and the city appears to be enjoying a nice balance between comfort, convenience and history, making it's old town well worth a visit. Additional pictures here.

Sunday, June 11, 2017

The Hague, Netherlands - a center of centers

The Hague is the capital city of the province of South Holland. It is also the seat of government, parliament, the Supreme Court and the Council of State for the whole of the Netherlands but, it is not the capital - that honor is held by Amsterdam. Almost all foreign embassies in the Netherlands are in The Hague along with 150 or so international organisations including the International Court of Justice and the International Criminal Court, these latter two making the city one of the major hosts of the United Nations.
In the early 13th century The Hague came into being when Count Floris IV bought a lot of land by a pond, on which to build a hunting lodge. In 1248, his son, William II, improved the lodge into a palace and, with various modifications and additions over the years, the palace, known as the Binnenhof, is today the Netherlands' parliament building and the little pond has been promoted to become the picturesque Hofvijver Lake.
The Hague is also home to the Peace Palace, an international law administrative center which houses the International Court of Justice, the Permanent Court of Arbitration, the Hague Academy of International Law and the Peace Palace Library. With a population of more than 500,000 the city center is grimy, crowded, noisy and generally stressful - typical of mid-sized 21st century European towns.

More pictures here.

Bremen, Germany - an historical haven

The actual port of call was Bremerhaven on the north coast of Germany, a popular start point for overland excursions to Hamburg. We had chosen instead to remain in the region known as the Free Hanseatic City of Bremen and to visit Bremen itself, about 35 miles south on the river Weser. Together, Bremerhaven and Bremen comprise modern Germany's smallest federal state, second most populous northern region and the tenth largest nationwide.
More than 1,200 years of history, including UNESCO World Heritage sites, is on display just in the market place of Bremen, all in the middle of a thriving modern city. Seemed like an idea to check it out and see more pictures here.

Kiel Canal Transit, Germany - a surreal experience

Back in 1784, before Germany as we know it existed, the southwest corner of the Baltic Sea was connected to the North Sea by the Eiderkanal, a 27 mile long canal link to the river Eider which empties into the North Sea. The entire waterway was about 110 miles in length but reduced the often dangerously stormy alternative journey, north around Denmark, by about 300 miles. The canal was about 100 feet wide and 10 feet deep, large enough for ships up to 300 tons or so.
Industrial progress over the next century was increasingly swift and the canal's utility waned rapidly in the second half of the 19th century. In 1887 9,000 workers set about digging a new canal directly linking Holtenau in the Baltic to Brunsbuttel in the the North Sea. Eight years and many shovels later the 61 mile trench was completed and formally opened by Kaiser Wilhelm II in 1895.
To reduce canal water currents and consequent erosion due to tidal differences of the two seas, locks were installed at each end of the canal. The canal was enlarged between 1905 and 1914 to accommodate larger sea-going vessels. Today, more than 1,000 commercial ships and 500 leisure craft pass through the canal each week and it was our pleasure to be aboard one of these. See here for more pictures.

Gdansk, Poland - what's new is old again

With a population of around 450,000, Gdańsk lies at the mouth of the Motlawa river and, along with neighboring Gdynia, is now the largest Polish seaport. Between World War I and II Gdansk was it's own man in the sense that it was a Free City not beholden to any other entity and, going by the name of Danzig, it operated in a customs union with Poland. Alas, as for most of Europe, World War II brought great changes and the city, along with all of Poland, ended up another unwilling member of the Soviet Union.
After 35 years of tyranny, enter Lech Walesa, a 37 year old shipyard electrician who, along with others, formed the Solidarity movement in 1980. This trades union movement was instrumental in ending Communist rule in Poland and helped bring about the collapse of the entire Eastern Bloc, the fall of the Berlin Wall and the demise of the Soviet Union.
We drove by Walesa's house and the shipyard where he worked, now long defunct. From electrician, to union activist, to Nobel Peace Prize winner, to President of Poland, he is apparently frequently seen about town and is very approachable. Another 20th century hero.
With no preconceived idea of what to expect we lurched into Gdansk. Were we in for a surprise! More pictures here.

Tallinn, Estonia - singing it's way to freedom

The fortunes and misfortunes of three tiny Baltic states have fairly much paralleled each other over the past 100 years. Lithuania, Latvia and Estonia, population 2.9 million, 2.0 million and 1.3 million respectively, had endured foreign interference and subjugation to varying degrees for centuries and it wasn't until the end of World War I and the communist revolution in Russia that each country emerged as a more or less independent nation. For the next twenty years each state reaffirmed and revitalized its identity and all seemed well.
Then came World War II. In 1940 each of the states was occupied by the Soviets who in turn were driven out and replaced by German occupiers. In 1944 the Soviets were back and simply annexed all three nations into the USSR. For forty dreary years poverty and peasantry prevailed for these buffer states while the Russian Empire slowly froze itself to a standstill.
Beginning around 1986, Estonians began meeting in small groups to sing traditional songs - a completely illegal activity under Soviet rule, but one that came to measure the resolve of their masters. Tallinn, the capital city of Estonia, became the epicenter of this phenomenon and the groups slowly grew in size to peak at 300,000 songsters - a quarter of the country's population - becoming a powerful force in the ultimate withdrawal of the Soviet occupation.
Tallinn is the undisputed political, financial and educational center of Estonia and it's Old Town is rated as one of the best preserved medieval cities in Europe. Unfortunately, we had selected an inappropriate excursion which completely avoided any sight of this undoubtedly beautiful city.
Bah Humbug, I must get some new glasses! A few more snaps here.

St. Petersburg, Russia - saved by incompetence

St. Petersburg has a quite unusual genesis. Most cities, in Europe or elsewhere in the world, grow organically from trade routes, defensible positions, favorable local resources or combinations of all of these and more. Old world cities such as London, Paris, Rome, Moscow, Budapest etc., grew from humble beginnings over many centuries of even millenia. Not so St. Petersburg.
Built on a marsh at the extreme eastern end of the Baltic Sea where the river Neva empties into the ocean, St. Petersburg was the vision, ambition and relentless goal of one man - Tsar Peter the Great. Many in the royal family of Romanov were less enthusiastic than Peter in this expensive venture and did much to deter him, including several assassination attempts. Peter was, of course, wickedly wealthy, well traveled and ever conscious of the territorial ambitions of the Swedes. He saw the project as a means of producing a world class city in the north, developing a major port and trade route, a lasting testament to his personal greatness and a solid defense against Baltic based aggressors. Thus in 1703, a little over three hundred years ago, the Peter Paul Fortress was started on a small island in the river and everything else is history. By 1712, Peter had moved the capital of Russia from Moscow to St. Petersburg and everything was going as planned.
Fast forward 200 years to World War I. Russia getting whooped by Germany had already de-Germanized the city's name to Petrograd and, in November 1917, the Communist Revolution resulted in almost every Russian Royal being slaughtered. Time for a new plan. The Bolsheviks moved the government back to Moscow in 1918 and, when Lenin croaked in 1924, they renamed Petrograd to Leningrad and it seems that the dream was dead.
The Moscow mob ordered the destruction of all churches and other old-school cultural buildings as they feverishly planned their way to oblivion. As it turned out, this very ineptitude was instrumental in saving many important treasures for the world at large. With "undesirable" structures - the bigger the better - being seized upon wholesale for storage of surplus products for which there was no demand and in the face of the considerable cost of razing and clearing the multi-acre sized lots of many of the proscribed buildings, essentially nothing was done.
The most recent tick of the clock occurred of course in 1989, when the entire seventy year Soviet fraud was exposed and the world took a clearer look at itself. Leningrad became St. Petersburg again in 1991 and many "overlooked" architectural masterpieces were suddenly rediscovered and promoted as tourist attractions. Whatever next!
 More images here.

Tuesday, June 06, 2017

Helsinki, Finland - a nervous nation

Wedged between Russia to the east and Sweden in the northwest, Finland's existence for most of it's 1,000 year history has been rather like that of a foster-child. During the 12th and 13th centuries the Swedish kings, on their Northern Crusades, simply took over Finland piece by piece, set up Swedish colonies in the coastal areas and constrained the Finns to a peasant life in the hinterland. Swedish became the main language.
When the Swede's Empire aspirations went into meltdown in the early 19th century, as much as anything a result of Russia's Empire building efforts, Finland quietly became an autonomous Grand Duchy within the Russian Empire. During the next century the Finnish language began to gain recognition again and the Finns labored on as a part of the Russian Empire. The Russian Empire itself was toppled by the Communist Revolution of 1917 at which time Finland sort of fell through the cracks to end up as an autonomous nation, but not until they waged a short lived but bitter civil war. They then tried a monarchy briefly before deciding, in 1919, to be a presidential republic.
Having missed the industrial revolution and the first part of the 20th century, the country continued largely as a farming community, were overrun by the Germans in WWII, compelled to cede much territory to Russia as war reparations in 1945 and ended up in dire financial condition. The 1952 Olympics were held in Helsinki and this period marked a turn toward industrialization and fifty years of economic growth playing catch up with their western neighbors. 
The population has since been stalled at 5.5 million for the most recent 2 decades and economic output has declined significantly in the most recent 10 years. Despite joining western organizations such as the OECD, the EU and so on, the de facto Russian Emperor, Vladimir, still has his beady eye on them with a view to reclaiming what was once Russian... Check out pictures here.

Monday, June 05, 2017

Stockholm, Sweden - a war free zone

Of the thirteen sovereign monarchies in Europe, Sweden and Denmark pretty much tie in terms of the oldest uninterrupted "Kinging" stakes, with each going back to 900 CE or a little earlier. Sweden's current monarch is Carl XVI Gustaf of the House of Bernadotte, which has reigned since 1818. Oldest continuous monarchy in Europe however, does not mean the oldest in the world - that honor goes to Japan with 2,600 uninterrupted years by a series of Emperors.
Two hundred plus years ago, Sweden, like many other European countries, had garnered a significant empire around the world. At the end of the eighteenth and beginning of the nineteenth centuries however, things began to unravel. Many of their territorial possessions were forcibly wrested away from them to the extent that in 1814 they quit the empire race, declared themselves neutral and haven't engaged in any form of military hostility since. In the intervening years they have given the world the Nobel prize system, Volvo cars, SAAB cars and airplanes, smorgasbord, Bjorn Borg and ABBA. Pretty impressive.
Stockholm is the capital city and Gamla Stan, it's historic district, actually contains much real old stuff. So many European cities were reduced to rubble over two world wars in the 20th century and have been rebuilt, usually on a budget, since the late 1940s. Stockholm however, sports a lot of solid old craftsmanship, plenty of well polished pomp and a sunny, old European attitude.More pictures.

Friday, June 02, 2017

Warnemunde, Germany - born again seaside

Today, Warnemunde is a pleasant seaside resort on the Baltic sea with wide sandy beaches, a lighthouse and the Warnow river estuary. It has a population of around 8,000. 
Until the middle of the 19th century it had been a small fishing village for centuries before it began to develop it's resort features. The town was a center of aircraft construction in World War I and again in World War II. It was periodically bombed by the Allies during World War II and, at the end of hostilities, found itself in what became East Germany under Soviet domination.
Since the collapse of the USSR, Warnemunde has pretty much shaken off the signs of fifty years of communism, established itself as a cruise ship port and enjoys a brisk tourist trade. 
Hurrah for free enterprise! See here for more thrills.