Photos of the Week – Sights of Amsterdam

Amsterdam, Netherlands, architecture, Holanda, Holland, fotos, photos, travel, viaje, Samsung Galaxy S7

Amsterdam is such a unique city.  It is like Venice meets… meets… I am not sure what!  It is a charm typical of old cities, of cities by the water, of cities with architecture seen nowhere else, and of cities with a one-of-a-kind type of energy (and I don’t mean that in terms of the red light district!).

I first went to Amsterdam in 1999 when I had business there (most of my time in The Netherlands, though, was actually in The Hague, or Den Haag).  I had not returned to Amsterdam since then (except connecting through its wonderful airport) until earlier this year when I overnighted there on my way back home after skiing in Austria.

I took advantage of the limited time to walk out and about at night, and then do a quick morning walk before heading to the airport.  Though a short visit, it took me back to 1999 and it made me re-discover why I like the city so much.  I wish I had had time to visit the museums I have never gotten to explore (back in 1999, I wasn’t touristing – had no time for that!), and be a little more aimless in the walking around.  But, hopefully, I will have another chance!  In the meantime, here are some photos from my short visit!

 Night photos of Amsterdam

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Notice the not-straight door and windows on the right!

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Right outside of the train station

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Train station

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Royal Palace

Day Photos of Amsterdam

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By the train station – a bunch of bikes!

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Red doorways – cool

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OK, not a photo of Amsterdam but of me leaving it in style!

Visiting Temples in Bangkok – Wat Pho?

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One of the neatest things for me about visiting Bangkok was seeing Buddhist temples everywhere.  I am no student of their faith and much less of all the specifics of the architecture of these temples but they are impressive and that’s why I am glad I made the time for a stop -however brief- in Bangkok as I traveled between Bali  and Cambodia.  Time was short so we had to keep it only to the main temples in Bangkok (plus the one we visited during our bike tour of the countryside).

Once we finished our bike ride outside of Bangkok after lunch that day, we headed into the heart of Bangkok to visit Wat Arun and Wat Pho. (Be careful with this latter one as asking about it may lead your fellow traveler to think you are messing with him and almost earn you a fist to your face!  Remember “Who is on first?“, etc.  Yea, that.)

I will not try to tell you the story of these two places as there are plenty of resources out there for that. These temples are very colorful thanks to what seem to be porcelain tiles and mosaics everywhere.  It is great to admire from a distance but getting up close allows one to see the details of the decorated exteriors.  Also, know that these are the very abbreviated names for these temples (which are really each a temple complex on its own) – names there can be quite long!

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Ferry on the Chao Phraya River

Wat Arun – Temple of the Dawn

Wat Arun dates from the 17th century but the main towers one sees are much more recent.  We started our temple visits by arriving here but crossing it quickly to get to the ferry to first visit Wat Pho on the other side of the river.  Once we finished with Wat Pho, where we spent most of our time, we crossed the river back to check out Wat Arun.

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Wat Arun temple complex

Wat Arun, Bangkok, Thailand, temple, Asia, travel, photo, explore, Samsung Galaxy

Greeted at the entrance by some warrior

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Sitting Buddhas

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Mosaic details

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Around Wat Arun

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Around Wat Arun

The highlight for me happened rather unexpectedly.  We walked into one of the temples.  There was a monk sitting near a box where one could drop a coin and he would pray over you.  Not certain how this all worked, I walked away to a donation box not close to him.  As I walked back to the back of the temple, the monk called me over to him and signaled for me to sit on the floor.  He proceeded to give me a blessing.  Unbeknownst to me, my friend Phil started video’ing the whole thing and I ended up with a neat ‘souvenir’ from this random event!

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The main temple

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Being blessed by a monk

Wat Pho – Where the Reclining Buddha is

The Reclining Buddha may be what makes this temple complex most famous but it is quite an impressive site.  But first, the Reclining Buddha is not just napping – he has reached the ideal state and the posture signifies that (vs. a sitting Buddha or a standing Buddha).  The Reclining Buddha is very long (46 m; 150 ft) and based on how it is housed within a building, one can’t just stand in front of it and capture it head to toes in a nice, clean photo.  Which is kind of cool, come to think of it.  This unique piece was built close to 200 years ago and it impresses.

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No easy way to photograph

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Rather large feet

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Good angle from the headrest down

But Wat Pho is much more than its famous resident statue.  Pagodas (towers) built by different kings which house their own Buddhas and other parts related to the monastic complex are worth exploring (there are well laid out signs to explain to the visitor the complex and its contents).  The ceramic tile-work on the roofs are different depending on the king or period in which the structures were built.

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What to know

  • You can go way more off-the-beaten path than what we got to see.  But these two are a must!
  • You can use ferries/boats up and down the river in Bangkok to move between the temples.  No need to just suffer city traffic.  Plus, at some point or another, you WILL need to cross the river!
  • Temples do close earlier than a tourist may expect.  Know the times or use a local guide.  We went for the latter as we didn’t have to think about anything plus he knew a few other things (like best photo spot at a given temple, etc.).
  • Temples are about someone’s faith.  They ask that you do not wear shorts or sleeveless shirts.  It was sad to see how many people showed either ignorance or disrespect.  One doesn’t have to subscribe to the beliefs of the locals, but one should respect them.  Yes, it is hot and humid.  Wear a wicking t-shirt and some hiking pants that convert to shorts and one will be alright in that weather!

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In-and-Out: Brunswick in Coastal Georgia

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While many of my travels allow me to spend time in a city or country for a long enough time, sometimes that is not the case.  And that is usually when I go on business trips.  It has been quite common for me to travel for long periods of time with work but, especially in the case of domestic travel, trips can be quite short.  That means either the ability to explore is limited to off work hours or to just one evening.  In the spirit of still sharing what I see, it makes sense to do an “in-and-out” series where I can share the small windows I get to see a place with you.  My hope is that it may show glimpses of places, however limited in scope.  So here goes the inaugural post – and please let me know if you like the idea.

Coastal Georgia – Historical… at least for Georgia

The state of Georgia does have a coastline, on the east along the Atlantic Ocean.  That coast is dotted with many islands like Jekyll, Cumberland, St. Simons, etc.  South of the middle of that coastline is the town and port of Brunswick.  Now, I know it may not be much to be excited about given Boston, Philly, Paris, London or Athens but in this part of the Southeast, Brunswick goes “far” back as 1738, depending on how you count.  Supposedly, around that time, the British set up something in the peninsula where Brunswick sits to almost face the Spanish who were in nearby Florida (credit Oglethorpe) AND who had laid claim to lands in this area too (the boundary between modern-day Florida and Georgia not existing back then). In the end, it is funny to think about that this all would have ended up being Florida has the Brits not initially colonized the area…  Brunswick as a town did not get founded until the 1850s but still, its history goes back to colonial times and that fascinates me.  It was designed, though, in the late 18th century in a layout similar to Savannah with many squares (14 of them, large and small) almost mathematically laid out in a grid of streets.

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Map of downtown and its squares and parks

Brunswick, Georgia, parks, squares, layout, map

One of the smallest squares

Downtown , square, Hanover, Brunswick, Georgia

One of the larger squares: Hanover Square

I wonder if Savannah won some battle against Brunswick to become the premier coastal Georgia city.  Brunswick certainly is gifted in terms of its setting.  Perhaps Savannah had some edge with the river and better fit for a port?  But Brunswick was a very important port in the shipping of lumber abroad.  England, Cuba and Brazil were among the destinations for lumber that made it out of the continental U.S. through this port.  It is also incredible to learn that the largest blimp base during WW II was located in Brunswick since there was threat of German U-boats along the southeastern U.S. coast.

Approaching Brunswick – Golden Isles Airport

I had a choice to drive for 5 hours or take a short flight.  Because of the short duration of the visit, a 10-hr round-trip did not make sense.  Now, if the plane had been a larger plane, the flight may have been 30 minutes but it took about 50.  That’s OK.  On my flight in, I got some good views of the land around, with rivers or creeks and perhaps marshes.  I never got to see the ocean as the approach did not require to go past Brunswick towards St. Simons and a turn back.

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Lots of tree farms near Brunswick

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I did not have much time in the area and, because of closing hours, I could not visit places like Fort Frederica.  But I decided to, at least, make the short drive from my hotel near the tiny airport to the downtown area.  The town proper is quite small but it was very charming.   And the time of day for visiting, right before sunset was just perfect for the best light.downtown, Brunswick, Georgia, red brick, architecture, charming, photos, downtown, Brunswick, Georgia, red brick, architecture, charming, photos, Coca-Coladowntown, Brunswick, Georgia, red brick, architecture, charming, photos downtown, Brunswick, Georgia, red brick, architecture, charming, photos, Ritz downtown, Brunswick, Georgia, red brick, architecture, charming, photos downtown, Brunswick, Georgia, red brick, architecture, charming, photos, sunset downtown, Brunswick, Georgia, red brick, architecture, charming, photos, rainbow, flag

Old homes in downtown Brunswick

I loved seeing old homes not immaculately restored but kept up.  Clearly, Brunswick is not a ‘happening’ place that pulls visitors in left and right but that, perhaps, has kept it more authentic or reflective of how places ‘used to be’ since it is not corrupted by out-of-control development nor by anti-septic ordinances that force artificial curbs, sidewalks, etc.

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The skies were a little dark because it had just rained.  You may appreciate in a couple of photos the rainbow coming out.  But the best was left for my drive out of Brunswick:  a beautiful sunset as a backdrop.

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Colonia del Sacramento: Uruguay’s Historical Gem

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When I started to plan my trip to Argentina for my trek, I thought maybe I’d arrive a couple of days early and do something other than eat and walk in Buenos Aires.  Don’t get me wrong, nothing wrong with those things!  Those are indeed very noble activities in my book in that great city.  But I was looking to just do something different.  I looked at one-day or half-day tours, and I looked at museums and other similar attractions.  One thing caught my eye due to my eternal wanderlust:  Uruguay was just across the river and it would be really easy to cross by boat.

I was aware of Montevideo and Punta del Este.  The latter seemed to require an overnight.  Montevideo seemed a tad boring but I thought, “why not?  it’s the capital?”  And then I ran into Colonia del Sacramento (or simply, “Colonia”).  I had never heard of this place.  Quick research led me to find out it was listed in “1,000 Places to See before You Die” so I had to learn more.

Funny how history runs its course…

Colonia del Sacramento was established by the Portuguese across the river from another small town called Buenos Aires in the late 17th century.  The town was part of a ping-pong match in terms of who ruled it:  Spain, Portugal, Spain, Portugal, …, Brazil, and then independent Uruguay.  Must have been exhausting!  The modern town’s old quarter is a UNESCO World Heritage Site and has a population of roughly 25,000 folks.

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French map dating from the 1740s made into a mural

Getting to Colonia del Sacramento

Certainly one can get there by road from Montevideo but, if you are in Buenos Aires, the Buquebus ferry leaving from Puerto Madero is quite efficient and convenient.  There are fast ferries that make the crossing in one hour (the river, at that point, is really no longer a river but the sea meeting the river) and slow-poke boats that make the crossing in three hours.  Needless to say, three hours on a boat when I can do it in one was a no-brainer….  The one hour ferry was at 8:30 AM so that was a bit of a sacrifice since there was a line or two to make at the port… But it was the right choice.  On the way back, since we wanted to have dinner in Buenos Aires, we took the ferry that arrived around 6 PM.  One thing to mind is that there IS a time zone difference between Uruguay and Argentina (crazy).

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The walkway to the ferry in the port in Buenos Aires

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Welcome to Uruguay!

Oh, and another thing to mind is that you MUST bring with you the reciprocity fee receipt for Argentina (if you are a U.S. citizen)… When you leave Uruguay, right at the port in Colonia, you will go through BOTH Uruguayan and Argentine immigration officers.  When you get to the Argentine officer, if you do not have it, you are in a for a nervous wait to see what the officer will do with you.  No, it did not happen to me, but it happened to a friend.  Note:  the other friend hanging with her volunteered to the officer “Oh, I don’t have mine either” – lol!  Somehow, the officer did not care about her but did about the other one.

The town – ruins

The thing to see in Colonia is the old quarter.  When you exit the very modern port facility, you go out of the port and go on that same street uphill and, eventually, you will hit the main street where you will make a left and walk for like five minutes before you hit the old quarter.  (There is a tourism info office outside the main building of the port but I did not go in.)

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The old quarter is on the left side of the map

The old buildings have been beautifully kept up or maintained and the quarter is easy to walk around in.  The old quarter is in a peninsula so you can’t go too far without hitting the water except in one direction (as you can see in the map above).   The old quarter has ruins of fortifications from those centuries when the European powers were trying to take control of the river.  You can also see parts of the foundation of the former Portuguese governor’s house and ruins of the old convent.  Most of these ruins are, one could say, ruins of ruins but, nevertheless, they help understand how the town was set up and defended.

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Ruins of San Francisco Convent in front of the lighthouse

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Ruins of Bastión de San Miguel

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Ruins of the Portuguese Governor House in the Plaza de Armas

The town – buildings and structures

There old church, the Basilica del Sagrado Sacramento (Basilica of the Sacred Sacrament) was heavily restored starting in the 1950s.  It is simple in its design and decor.

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Basilica del Sagrado Sacramento

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Inside of the basilica

The town is clearly oriented to visitors from Uruguay and abroad with many cafés, restaurants, gifts shops, and art shops.

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Local shop

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Outdoor café near the basilica

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Eclectic café chair and table

But the best this charming town offers is just the simple yet beautiful architecture of the streets in or near its old quarter.  A peaceful setting graced by history and architecture!

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House near the lighthouse

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Shop in Calle de los Suspiros

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House in Calle de los Suspiros

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Detail of the local architecture by the Plaza de Armas

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Home

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A local street right outside the heart of the old quarter

Lunch time in Colonia!

Of course, we stopped at a local restaurant for lunch where I enjoyed an incredible pasta dish and we all enjoyed trying Uruguayan red wine – an unexpected treat (later followed by a cup of Freddos ice cream!)

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Lunch was this delicious butternut squash gnocchi in a pancetta cream sauce!

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Surprised at how good the local wine was!

A resident enjoying summer…

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Dog days of summer in Colonia are awesome!

 

 

The Presidio: A Different View of California. Thank goodness.

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I have been to California a few times but mainly to the areas around San Francisco and, less so, around Los Angeles (plus a business trip to Sacramento).  This past summer, though, I got to sample some of the “other” Californias.  I got to spend a few days in lovely Santa Barbara.  It captivated me and makes me want to explore other places in California that I have always heard of or read about but never make the time to visit.

The Old Mission, of which I already wrote, was an incredible sight and site.  Another one that was less imposing but just as powerful was the Presidio.

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The church

The Presidio was built in the late 18th century as a military facility (not sure if “fort” is too strong a word).  The original site was a large square but now only half of it remains.

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A street runs through it now…

The center has a model that helps envision the total original site and it pains me that the part of it was lost.  The good news is that one of the remaining structures is the second oldest building structure in California.  The entire site is now a California state park so it is protected – and that is good.

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Looking from the street towards the visitor center

We met a gentleman who works at the site who gave us a quick overview (for free!) of the site before we paid and walked in to explore the site.  Of course, a lot of restoration has taken place.  The decades can’t be kind to a building made in those days and with those materials (and given the frequency of quakes in the area).  But I walked around, it all felt as it must have been so long ago.

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The grounds around the Presidio

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The grounds behind the church

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Room in the Presidio

The outer walls of the precinct are thick and there were private spaces for the homes of the more senior members of the staff, even with space for small gardens.  Along with the typical military spaces (like the military parade grounds), there was also a church located well inside the square.  The church is plain but has been nicely restored at some point as you can see in the following pictures.

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The church’s altar

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The back of the church

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Looking towards the front of the church

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Detail of the wall and ceiling of the church

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Baptismal font with a plaque of ceramic with names of those baptized in the mid 19th century

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I have to say that with all the glitz and glam that California has become synonymous with, and the accompanying Hollywood trash, it is refreshing to experience a different California, one that makes evident how this land was explored and how it was settled by a European power.  Yes, I am a history geek!

Hallgrímskirkja Church: The Young Icon of Reykjavik

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Hallgrímskirkja Church in the heart of Reykjavik is a “young” building.  It was completed in 1986 but took close to 40 years to erect.  Its design, driving up in a pointed way to the sky with its tower, reflects on the landscape of the island country with its lava flows.  The structure is not the tallest structure in Iceland but is the tallest church.  Though young, it has become the icon of the city due to its highly visible profile and unique architecture.

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Approaching the church from the back, on a slightly gray day

Outside, you can admire the structure from up close which allows for any number of neat pictures from different perspectives.  Outside you can also admire the statue to Leif Erikson, allegedly, the first European to reach North America (I mean, who knows if another Viking got there before him?!).  Interestingly, the statue pre-dates the church as it was given by the U.S. to Iceland in 1930 to commemorate the 1,000th anniversary of the establishment of Iceland’s Parliament at Þingvellir.

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The statue of Leif Erikson in front of the facade of the church

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Close up of Mr. Erikson – and the clock tower

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A visitor and Mr. Erikson meet – as seen from the clock tower

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The inscription that describes the gift from the U.S. of the statue on 1930

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A visitor takes advantage of the statue’s base for a shot of the church

We went inside and, as many Protestant churches, the interior was plain.  I assume the more so to help the faithful focus on God.  Being a tourist-visited site, of course, removes some of that aura but, at the time I visited, there was an organist playing (or maybe just practicing?) which drew attention to the pipe organ at the back of the church.Hallgrimskirkja, church, Reykjavik, Iceland, architecture, design, views, Canon EOS Rebel, travel, photo Hallgrimskirkja,pipe organ, church, Reykjavik, Iceland, architecture, design, views, Canon EOS Rebel, travel, photo

My favorite part is the observation deck at the top of the church tower.  As usual, when it is available, I always go up to gain a birds-eye view of the places I visit.  This deck did not disappoint as it helped frame the city of Reykjavik within its setting, hugged by mountains and the Atlantic Ocean.  I leave you with some of the views I enjoyed from up high in Hallgrímskirkja!

Hallgrimskirkja, church, Reykjavik, Iceland, architecture, design, views, Canon EOS Rebel, travel, photo

Detail of the roof above the altar area

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View of the neighborhood by the church

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Looking towards the area where our apartment was

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The Pearl Observatory (and restaurant)

Hallgrimskirkja, church, Reykjavik, Iceland, architecture, design, views, Canon EOS Rebel, travel, photo

View a little further away from the church

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Looking now further away from the city center

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Looking further away in another direction

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And now in another direction!

A Stroll around Reykjavik

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One of the pluses of going to Iceland, besides witnessing the magnificent statement nature makes there, is enjoying visiting somewhere that is manageable in size.  One can cross the island in one day from coast to coast thanks for a great ring road that is in pretty good condition (especially, when one considers the climate).  Another pleasant aspect of it being of manageable size is that its capital, Reykjavik, is quite approachable and easily explored on foot – perfect for a stroll to discover!

Pedestrian friendly areas

With a population of about 125,000, traffic in this city is not a problem; one can easily walk around, cross streets, etc.

Reykjavik, Iceland, architecture, travel, street, red, Samsung Galaxy

Walking around Reykjavik is delightful

Reykjavik, Iceland, architecture, travel, street, lone biker, Canon EOS Rebel

Plenty of road space for bicyclists

But Reykjavik has in its city center a nice pedestrian street, Laugavegur.  Shops of every kind and a few eateries can be found in this street.  We actually stayed right off it in an apartment we rented on Vatnsstigur – a perfect spot central to everything.

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Hallgrímskirkja Church as seen from Laugavegur street

Reykjavik, Iceland, street scene, travel, pedestrian street, Laugavegur, Canon EOS Rebel

Laugavegur is a fun street to walk about!

Reykjavik, Iceland, street scene, travel, pedestrian street, street art, bicycle, blue,Laugavegur, Olympus

Neat way to close up the street to cars!

Reykjavik, Iceland, street scene, travel, pedestrian street, Laugavegur, Canon EOS Rebel

Looking from one end of Laugavegur – it was a nice “warm” day!

The Old Harbor (which still functions as a harbor for fishermen, etc.) is a place with great seafood restaurants (also has a Viking museum and other places of interest).  The one I went to was not fancy at all but it served OUTSTANDING fresh seafood.

Reykjavik, Iceland, Old Harbor, seafood, fishing, travel, photo, map, Olympus

The Old Harbor has been re-vitalized and it’s a great spot for dining.

Reykjavik, Iceland, Old Harbor, seafood, fishing, travel, photo, Olympus

One of the many restaurants in the Old Harbor

Interesting architecture

I found the town to be quite charming even if I cannot say its architecture is overwhelmingly incredible.  The type and materials of construction, of course, are designed to deal with the climate the town experiences.  But, some of the designs are pretty neat visually, to my untrained eye at least.

Reykjavik, Iceland, buildings, construction, color, architecture, travel, photo, Olympus

Corner door AND sharp color contrast – my kind of place!

Reykjavik, Iceland, buildings, construction, color, architecture, travel, photo, Olympus

Nice contrast between these two neighbors

Reykjavik, Iceland, buildings, construction, color, architecture, travel, photo, Canon EOS Rebel

A propos of it being a seaside city

Reykjavik, Iceland, buildings, construction, color, architecture, travel, photo, Canon EOS Rebel

Nice contrast between the exterior wall and the window frames

Reykjavik, Iceland, buildings, construction, color, architecture, travel, photo, Olympus

Simple is also OK

Reykjavik, Iceland, buildings, construction, color, architecture, travel, photo, Olympus

Typical corner door and “cut-out” above

Reykjavik, Iceland, buildings, construction, color, architecture, travel, photo, Olympus

The picket fence is a nice touch

Reykjavik, Iceland, buildings, construction, color, architecture, travel, photo, Olympus

My favorite corner door and “cut-out”

Reykjavik, Iceland, buildings, construction, color, architecture, travel, photo, Olympus

Don’t forget to look up!

Reykjavik, Iceland, buildings, construction, color, architecture, travel, photo, Olympus

Sharp color contrast

And food along the way

A stroll around Reykjavik is NOT complete without having an Icelandic hot dog.

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One of the many hot dog carts around

There is more to see in Reykjavik, of course, like Hallgrímskirkja Church, museums, etc.  But, start with a stroll like this and you will love this northern town too!

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Read and see more about my trip to Iceland:

I Have a Mission for You: in Santa Barbara!

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Among the many beautiful things to enjoy in Santa Barbara, California, one of my favorite ones is the Old Mission.  Its architecture, its setting, its history all make it a neat place to visit but what I like the most is that it is still in use by the monks and the locals; in other words, it is not just a museum.

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Approaching the Mission on a beautiful California day

The Santa Barbara Mission is located on what seems to be the outskirts of town but it really takes no time to reach it from the center of Santa Barbara (a very easy place to get around with a car or a bike).  It was established by the Franciscan monks around 1768 as one of the last of a series of missions founded along California by the order.  As with most places where Europeans (or people of European descent), there was contact between the new arrivals and the locals; in this case the Chumash Indians.   The Santa Barbara Mission represents the longest continuous presence of the Franciscans in the United States.

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The Mission is more than the church and the museum; also a mausoleum and retreat center

The structures that have been on the site and are now have gone through changes and repairs, especially due to damage from earthquakes over its lifetime and after a period of civil administration of the site when the structures were not maintained.  Not today:  the structures look well kept up and on a beautiful day (which seems to be every day in Santa Barbara), the Mission is perfect for photos!  Admiring the facade of the mission is not hard.  The ample space outside allows one to step back and soak the whole structure in.

Once inside, one can enjoy the beautiful inner courtyards and outdoor “hallways” of the mission.

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Inner courtyard at the Mission

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I could sit on a rocking chair here and rock away all day!

At some point, one enters the cemetery area on the side of the main church before entering the church itself, following the sequence proposed in the self-tour which, at $7, was a great deal!  They also have led tours which seem would be best to better grasp the history and meaning of the Mission.  Unfortunately, we had less time than the tours require so we did the self-guided version.

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The cemetery outside of the church, near the mausoleum

The church itself has the feel of what makes a place of worship one where I could focus and reflect and pray.  It is simply beautiful.

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Main altar at the church

The Mission is not just a place to go check out if you are in Santa Barbara:  it is one of the reasons you should GO to Santa Barbara!

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The church

Images from Marrakesh, Morocco – Or Why I Would Return

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On my recent trip to Morocco, I spent two overnights in Marrakesh on either end of my visit to the country.  It certainly was not the right amount of time to spend there, especially given that I loved its architecture and would have enjoyed seeing more of it.  However, it was a good amount of time to sample the city.  So, I thought I’d share some of the images that stuck with me so you can get a sense for the town.  Of course, I witnessed beautiful sunsets in Marrakesh but I will share those separately from these!

Airport

The airport in Marrakesh has a good number of international flights.  It must be very new and it is very modern indeed.  I loved getting off the plane after an overnight flight from the U.S. to Amsterdam and a 3-hour layover before heading to Marrakesh.

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The airport terminal as I deplane

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The departures area on the day I left Marrakesh – pleasing to the eye.

Our riad

A typical place to stay while visiting Morocco is the “riad.”  A riad is a home with a small inner courtyard or garden that offers quite a few benefits for its residents such as privacy and an outdoor space with little to no direct sunlight which helps deal with the high heat of this type of locations.  Riads remind me of the centuries-old houses in places like Old San Juan, which also had inner courtyards.

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View down towards the ground level at Mon Riad

Well, riads nowawadays offer a great design for small places of lodging and so it was with the one where we stayed in Marrakesh:  Mon Riad.

Marrakesh, Morocco, riad, hotel, courtyard, photo, travel, Olympus

Mon Riad

With a small courtyard with a small pool in which one could dip one’s feet, it certainly was a nice place to get to after a long trans-Atlantic trip!  I immediately dropped my bags, started meeting my future fellow trekkers (more on my trek along the Camino de Santiago soon!), enjoy a welcoming cup of hot tea (yes, that is actually the best thing in hot weather!), and taking my shoes off so I could refresh my tired legs in the small pool!  The staff and accommodations (great A/C in the rooms!) were phenomenal.

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My welcome hot tea – nice touch!

I enjoyed the rooftop terrace where we had dinner one night and where I got to watch some very nice sunsets and sunrise!

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View from Mon Riad’s terrace

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Perfectly set up for dinner up in the Mon Riad’s rooftop terrace!

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The alley where Mon Riad is located – quiet and clean!

Red everywhere

Most structures in central Marrakesh are red or pinkish-red.  The same red is visible in the pottery typical of the area.  It is a neat color especially in contrast to the beautiful blue skies, the sparse but present green of the palm trees, and the color of the desert that kisses the city.

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Driving in towards the medina from the airport

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Minaret of the Koutoubia mosque

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Right before entering the medina, we passed this beautiful gate: the Palace Gate (or Bab Agnaou).

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Going around the medina, looking for the entrance!

Marrakesh, Morocco, medina, photo, travel, Olympus, red walls

The outer walls of Marrakesh’s medina.  Red on the walls, red on the stop sign, and red on the curb!

Marrakesh, clay pot, pottery, handicrafts, souvenir, market, Morocco, Olympus, travel

Presumably the same clay that is used for walls is used for these clay pots – more red!

Decorations and architectural details

The best images I take away from Marrakesh (sunsets aside) are these.  I have always found Arabic architecture (if that is the right term) beautiful since the first time I saw Moorish Spain’s legacy to the current architecture of places like Granada and Cordoba.  In Marrakesh, everywhere I turned there was an interesting architectural or decorative element.

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Though worn by time and feet, this tilework is still beautiful.

Marrakesh, Morocco, design, photo, Canon EOS Rebel

Great patterns

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Incredible detail above a doorway – exquisite

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Entrance to a building in the medina. Great mosaic and metal work

As I said earlier, I wish I had had more time to explore this exotic town but hope these images begin to convey the beauty to be found in the town.

The Warm Capitals: Panama City, Manila, San Juan, and Port of Spain

Port of Spain, Trinidad, Tobago, architecture, dark sky, travel, photo

For many, the ideal vacation is to go where it is sunny and warm, be it the tropics or somewhere with good “Mediterranean” climate.  Be it the Caribbean, the South Pacific, or the Greek Isles, sun and fun seem to go together.  I am not as much a chaser of these climates but they definitely present great color and usually interesting and, pardon the word, warm peoples.  For the “Capital Cities” series,  I have chosen four warm capitals:  Panama City, Manila, San Juan, and Port of Spain.

Panama City, Panama

I have shared before about incredible and ever-changing Panama City, a place I have visited over four different decades and which I always enjoy.

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Modern Panama City as seen from the Casco Viejo

As I have family there, I get to do both the things a visitor would do but also live a little like the locals when I am there.  Panama City is both old and modern and whether by visiting the old ruins of the original establishment, or exploring the old (but not as old) city or “Casco Viejo,” or entering the Canal Zone, or simply enjoying the modern life, Panama City offers great experiences.  And when those are not enough, then fly to the Pearl Islands or head to other beautiful parts of the country like the area near Chagres or Chiriqui, for example.

Manila, The Philippines

I have only visited Manila once and for a rather brief visit.  I shared in another post how the old district has much more history than I understood from centuries of Spanish rule, then American control, then Japanese occupation, and –finally- from the times after it gained its independence.

Intramuros, Manila, city walls, Manila Town Hall, Philippines, golf course, clouds, sky, Olympus

Looking from the Bayleaf’s Sky Deck towards the Manila Town Hall (notice the golf course)

While it can be quite hot and humid (as Panama City), the warmth of the people is well worth the warmth of the climate.  You’d expect that people in any large city would be short-tempered, always in a rush – a la Manhattan.  Not in Manila, where it seems the human connection is most important.  I did not get to venture outside of the city to enjoy what I hear are incredible beaches and other natural settings worth exploring.  But the city alone was well worth the visit!

San Juan, Puerto Rico

You may know from prior posts that I grew up in Puerto Rico.  We moved there when I was two and I left at 17.  15 years to make San Juan a piece of my heart, as the lovely song says:  “En mi Viejo San Juan, cuantos cuantos sueños forjé en mis noches de infancia…”  The old part of San Juan is referred to as “el Viejo San Juan” to distinguish it from the more modern city around it.

El Morro, fortress, San Juan, Puerto Rico, fields, kites, Caribbean, view, vista, photo, travel, Canon EOS Rebel

Great fields facing the ocean (note the kites and the city walls) in El Morro

The small island where old San Juan sits is connected by bridges to the rest of the city and, if you don’t pay attention, you may not catch that.

Old San Juan is truly a living museum.  Centuries old, it has not been destroyed nor significantly burned so what you see is what it was and has always been.  But it is not a lifeless museum or collection of old buildings:  people work, shop, play and live in those old buildings!  The heat of the tropics is kind in Puerto Rico due to the strong breezes coming in from the Atlantic, at least on the northern and eastern side of the island so Old San Juan is a great place to spend time as it sits higher than sea level for the most part and the breezes, combined with the shadows the buildings offer part of the day, make it comfortable even for the most cold-loving snowbird.  When you go, make sure you explore the old forts and walls erected by the Spanish centuries ago.  For more of what to see in this incredible place and the rest of Puerto Rico, check out my recommendations on experiences to have in Puerto Rico!

Port of Spain, Trinidad & Tobago

The capital of Trinidad and Tobago sits in the island of Trinidad.  Facing the water but with hills around it, it is a melting pot of races and cultures which results in a fun place to discover, even when it is not Carnival (which I hear is phenomenal!).  I visited for a few days and enjoyed GREAT food (whether Italian, Indian, tropical, or other!).  I loved driving around the neighborhoods and seeing some neat island architecture.

Trinindad, food, fish, rice, tropical, travel

A delicious lunch at Veni Mangé in Port of Spain was well-deserving of thanks!

While Port of Spain definitely has an industrial side to it, it has many other awesome areas to spend time in – and don’t forget Maracas Bay not too far away (passing through a beautiful tropical forest and great ocean views from the road!).

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Great architecture in Port of Spain!

Port of Spain, Trinidad, Tobago, architecture, dark sky, travel, photo

Modern architecture? Check!

The world has many capitals in the warmer climates.  In fact, quite a bit!  Here is to getting to explore many more of them!  Have any recommendations??

Charming and Historical Lafayette Square in D.C.

Washington D.C., DC, Cutts-Madison mansion, Lafayette Square, architecture, history, Samsung

One of the key sights in Washington, D.C. is the White House.  That symbol of the U.S. Presidency is indeed a big draw even if it is so inaccessible to most of us, the people.  One can be forgiven for losing sight of what is around the White House as the draw is too strong.  However, the square just across from its north side is an interesting place to explore.  The street that separates it from the White House’s north lawn used to allow for cars as recently as the late 1990s.  However, it is now pedestrian only which is quite alright with me – that allows tourists being absent-minded while taking photos without the risk of being hit by a car.

Enter, stage north, Lafayette Square

The square is known as Lafayette Square and is bounded by Madison Place and Jackson Place (on the east and west sides, respectively) and by Pennsylvania Ave. and H. St. (on the south and north sides, respectively).  I used to work a block down from it and enjoyed eating my lunch there a few times.

Washington, DC, Lafayette Square, Andrew Jackson, park, White House, photo, Olympus

The statue at the center of Lafayette Square is NOT Lafayette but, instead, Andrew Jackson

The buildings around the square were almost lost had it not been for some key people intervening, among them the First Lady at the time, Jacqueline Kennedy.  The federal government had bought the land and was planning to demolish all the beautiful buildings around the square to build, guess what, likely-monstrous government buildings.  As a lover of history and architecture, I am so thankful these buildings were preserved even if other work was done to adapt and “blend” them with the new buildings they were to connect to.  Their existence helps capture how the areas near the White House likely looked in the late 19th and early 20th centuries.  Needless to say, these buildings are mercifully protected now.

Jackson Place – on the western end of Lafayette Square

The buildings on the western side are owned mostly by White House for different purposes such as a place for former Presidents to stay when they visit.  But they have incredible pedigrees with past important and famous folks owning or visiting these places.  Their style is quite distinct from those across the square in Madison Place.

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The buildings at Jackson Place

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Looking across Lafayette Square from Jackson Place towards Madison Place (National Courts is the big red building)

Decatur House on Jackson Place

The Decatur House on the corner of Jackson Place and H Street does deserve special mention.  While it looks pretty “blah” from the outside, it is one of the oldest surviving homes in Washington, D.C. having been built in 1818.

Decatur House, Washington D.C., DC, Lafayette Square, Jackson Place, architecture, history, Van Buren

Decatur House on the corner of H St. and Jackson Place

It was built for a naval hero named Stephen Decatur (fought naval wars in North Africa, fought in the War of 1812, and others) but was subsequently home to other illustrious Americans like Henry Clay, Martin Van Buren, and others.  The structure behind it housed the slaves some owners had.  It is said to be one of the few examples of slave quarters in an urban area that remains.

Though I worked literally a short block away, I never visited it – crazy, huh?

Madison Place – on the eastern end of Lafayette Square

The buildings along Madison Place have more charming façades than those on Jackson Place.  These buildings were adapted to fit it with the new National Courts Building (the big red monster behind them in the photo).  Actually the National Courts Building was designed to not take attention away from the old buildings by being built tall and just pretty much red bricks.  I have to agree that it does meet that objective as it helps frame them.

The one on the corner with H Street, the Cutts-Madison mansion, was First Lady’s Dolley Madison’s residence until she died in 1849.  The house was built in 1819 and it has been changed by later owners (for instance, the front door used to face Madison Place but it was switched to H St. in the mid 1800s).

Washington D.C., DC, Cutts-Madison mansion, Lafayette Square, architecture, history, Samsung

Dolley Madison’s home with the National Courts Building behind it. To its right, the Cosmos Club Building.

Other buildings on this street include the Cosmos Club Building and the Benjamin Ogle Tayloe HouseThe latter was built in the 1820s back when this area was still mainly trees and shrubs.  It almost became the official residence of the Vice President of the U.S.  And for three years in the late 1950 and early 1960s, it was the headquarters of NASA.  Who knew.

H Street – the northern side of Lafayette Square

This side of the street, currently housing the U. S. Chamber of Commerce (built in the 1920s, government style) and the Hay-Adams Hotel, used to have houses as Madison Place and Jackson Place have.  Unfortunately those disappeared much earlier in the 20th century when, perhaps, people were not as inclined to think about heritage preservation.  Lost in that shuffle where the Corcoran House and the Hay-Adams Houses.

Chamber of Commerce, Lafayette Square, Washington, DC, Olympus

The northern side of Lafayette Square

The good news on the northern side is that the “Church of Presidents,” St. John’s Episcopal Church, is still there.  It is nicknamed so since every President since Madison has attended service there, even if not regularly.  The church was built in 1816 and it is a gem.

St. John Episcopal Church, Church of Presidents, Lafayette Square, Washington, DC, history, architecture

St. John’s is a neat reminder of the history of the U.S. capital

So next time you are in D.C. gawking at the White House, take a moment to stroll around Lafayette Square and take a peek at these buildings that take us back in the capital’s history.

D.C. has plenty of hotels but I was fortunate to stay at one very close to the square:  the aptly named Sofitel Lafayette.  It is just a block away on H St. and it is perfect as a base to visit the square and many other places in D.C.  Only the Hay-Adams Hotel is closer to the Square but the price difference is huge!  I sampled a couple of the specialty cocktails at Le Bar, where they have an incredible diversity of specialty cocktails – and a very nice wine list too!

Le Bar, Sofitel Lafayette, DC, hotel, bar

Le Bar offers nice spaces to enjoy its offerings

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The entrance to the Sofitel

On the day of departure, I splurged and got an incredible breakfast of smoked salmon pair with a café au lait, and a side of a pain au chocolat :)smoked salmon, pain au chocolat, breakfast, SofitelThat was a great way to wrap up my visit to one of my favorite cities in the world!

Have you visited D.C. and explored Lafayette Square?  Are there similar places in your hometown that help portray its history? 

Brașov : The Gem of Transylvania

Brașov, Romania, architecture, travel

In 2012, I was fortunate to hike in the Transylvanian Alps in Romania for four days.  It was a wonderful experience as it was trekking with purpose:  to help orphaned kids in a Romanian orphanage in the town of Brașov (pronounced BRA-shov).  I have shared about the hike and the service aspects of this incredible trek.  But what I have not done is pay the town of Brașov its due…  You see, Brașov was totally unexpected for me given my limited exposure to Romania before this trip.  Also, it was unexpected after spending a couple of days in Bucharest.  Brașov could not be any more different than its counterpart south of the mountains.  And that may be true of many towns in Romania if my visit to Iași added further to the case…

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Headed towards city council (the tower) and main square of Brașov

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Black Church and the White and Black Towers on the hill

German Saxons were influential in shaping the region and this town going as far back as the 12th century when the Hungarian overlords of the area brought these industrious folks to help develop the area.  Brașov could be said was founded by Teutonic Knights but even after they left, the settlers stayed continuing to influence this town, so much so, that German is still an important language in the area (I found just as many people who spoke German there as English) though some of that could be due to more modern reasons too.  In any case, all you need to do is look at the architecture of this beautiful town surrounding a good bit by mountains to see what I mean.  You feel you are in maybe some part of Germany or Austria in the old part of the town.

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Beautiful buildings everywhere

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Detail on an old building

Some of the key sights and sites of the town include:

  • The Black Church, one of the largest (if not the largest) Gothic churches in southeastern Europe
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    The Black Church

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    Clock of the Black Church

  • The old city gates that remain (Catherine’s which is the only original medieval gate still standing, and Şchei which is more recent from the 1820s)
  • The medieval city walls and fortifications, which you can get onto and walk pieces of it to see some of and go up the old towers (the White and Black towers)
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    The White Tower (I hope that is self-evident!)

    Black Tower, Brașov, Romania, fortification

    The Black Tower, which does not look as black as the White Tower looks white!

  • The main square or piața (Piața Sfatului) with all the cafés and lively scene
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    Brașov’s main square or piata full of life (and pigeons!)

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    Musicians playing on a street leading to the piata on a summer night

  • Rope Street, the narrowest street in Romania
  • The first Romanian school (originally built in 1495 and re-built almost a century later into the current structure) sits next to St. Nicholas Church (which itself dates from the 16th century) and its small but interesting museum (we got a fun and lively short lecture by a priest named Vasile on the history of the school)

    St. Nicholas Church, Brașov, Romania, travel, architecture

    St. Nicholas Church in Brașov

Brașov is not only rich in history and architecture but it is also a perfect spot to explore Transylvania (which is WAY more than Bran’s Castle!) and from which to launch any summer or winter sports activities.  The hiking is phenomenal with beautiful landscapes that feel untouched by modernity and I can only imagine how neat the skiing is!

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Street art near the main post office

And the food, oh, the food!  I loved it!

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Fried pork chunks – mmm!!!!

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Deliciousness

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Fresh from the bakery!

Here a couple of images showing the range of “interesting” to be found in doors around town!

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Near St. Nicholas Church

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Was someone drunk? Or am I?

I enjoyed my days in Brașov before and after the hike and can safely say this is a MUST when visiting Romania.

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