Uppsala – Worth the Drive from Stockholm

A long weekend in Stockholm sounded like fun.  And off I went last October with a college friend, John.  While Stockholm was the focus, I have always wanted to see something of ‘rural’ Sweden:  lakes, charming homes, and lots of green.  At least, that is how I envisioned it.  So, once in Sweden, I was eager to get on the road at least for a day of driving around.  As I looked at the map, Uppsala caught my eye:  I knew it was a university town AND it was approximately 1.5 hrs away from Stockholm so not a stretch for a day trip.

The streets of Uppsala

After veering west and exploring, the day ended in Uppsala.  It was getting dark but we got to walk around the pedestrian friendly town center where we saw the university grounds, the cathedral, and the shopping district.  Being fall made the streets by the main cathedral and university a lot more charming with all the fallen leaves.  It was beautiful.

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Around the commercial area

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Charming architecture

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Around the university

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Canal lined by yellowing trees

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Beautiful cobblestone street covered in leaves

Uppsala’s Cathedral

Erik the Holy -or Saint Erik-, patron saint of Sweden, is buried at the cathedral, the site where he was killed a long time ago (12th century if you want to know!).  The cathedral itself was finished in the 15th century and it claims to be the largest church building in the Nordic countries.

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The cathedral of Saint Erik

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Cathedral at night

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Saint Erik’s tomb

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We happened upon a recital rehearsal when we visited

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Drink, please!

We were a tad surprised that a university town did not have an obvious ‘bar scene.’  Perhaps tainted by the U.S. college town experience?  Probably.  But we were wondering where to go hang out and grab a bite to eat; a place with personality.

And an online app suggested what turned out to be the perfect spot:  the Churchill Arms gastropub.  We sat at the small bar where I ended up teaching the young bartender how to make a Manhattan.  Then the loungey chairs (just two of them) by the bar freed up and we decided to grab them instead of going to one of the regular tables in one of the wood-paneled eating rooms.  There, we could see everyone coming in and out.  I enjoyed some mussels (moules marinieres) in a white wine sauce – mmm!!

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Nice collection

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The bar

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My moules marinieres and French fries!

Once again, going off the beaten path proved rewarding.  If you ever go to Stockholm, hop over to quiet but charming Uppsala.  It was beautiful in the fall, I can only imagine how it would be in the summer and spring.  After dinner, we headed out back to Stockholm to wrap up a day of semi-aimless driving around and seeing what we came upon.  Another post will share more of what else we saw that day!

Santiago de Compostela: Food, Charm, and “New” Family

I wrote earlier about my arrival in Santiago de Compostela as a Camino pilgrim and the activities related to the end of the pilgrimage (getting the Compostela certificate, Pilgrims’ Mass, etc.).  Though my stay in Santiago was brief (less than 24 hours due to needing to bring the group back to Madrid), there were some noteworthy things to share about my brief second visit to this incredible city in northwest Spain‘s Galicia

Food

As ANYWHERE in Spain, food is spectacular.  In Santiago, I had a quick lunch at a local tapas bar before going to meet relatives.  I love tapas bars.  These are not the unreasonable facsimiles in many U.S. cities that offer tapas.  I loved sitting at the bar and looking at the tapas on display (salivating at, to be more accurate) and then making my choices.  That and an adult beverage made for a quick and delicious lunch.

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A splendid array

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One of many had…

Later that evening, after dinner with my group, a couple of us took off in a chase for some hot chocolate and “churros” (fried sticks of dough and sugar; a favorite of mine from my childhood).  Let me tell you, this hot chocolate is not of the watery style.  It is THICK – and delicious.

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Churros and hot chocolate – the real reason the pilgrims came!

Great vibe to the town – charming architecture and streets

The great Cathedral of Santiago is not the only main architectural piece in this city.  I love its side streets with or without arcades and the many small and big plazas all around.  In fact, it is the whole town, not just the Cathedral or the plaza in front of it that is a World Heritage Site!

Plaza de Platerias, south facade, Santiago de Compostela, Galicia, Spain, World Heritage Site, travel, photo, architecture, Olympus

Hanging out at Praza de Platerías along the south face of the Cathedral

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University building facing the north side of the Cathedral

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I ate at this café called Dakar 20 years before!

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Small plaza and cafés near the Cathedral

The grand plaza in front of the Cathedral is named Praza do Obradoiro, which best I know means plaza of the workshop.  It is large and pretty plain except for the buildings around it:  the Cathedral, a palace, and a hostel built by the Catholic Monarchs, Isabella and Ferdinand, back in 1492!

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Entering Praza do Obradoiro from the northeast corner

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The inn built by the Catholic Monarchs, now a parador

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Looking around the Praza do Obradoiro – Rajoy Palace

From here, once can admire the façade of the Cathedral (which was undergoing repairs/restoration) and then go into town in any number of directions.  The site of the Cathedral has been the site of a church since the 9th century.  Construction of the current church began in 1075 (!) and the church was consecrated in 1211 – THAT is patience!  Of course, it has been added to in the many centuries since.  It looks like a massive complex.

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The massive west façade of the Cathedral

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Looking closer at the main façade ‘s exposed towers

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Detail of the Cathedral from the side

We stayed at a monastery-seminary called Hospedería San Martín Pinario next to the Cathedral but not within the Praza do Obradoiro – great location!  The rooms, as can be expected, are spartan but clean and functional.  Aside of the massive size of the building, I was surprised at the VERY wide hallways.  I wonder why they made them like that?!

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Room at the Hospedería

Hospederia San Martin, Santiago de Compostela, hotel, seminary, monastery, travel, photo, Olympus, spartan

One of the massive hallways, this one in the lobby

And the family connection

I mentioned meeting relatives earlier.  The story behind that is that my great-grandfather was born right outside of Santiago in a rural village named Bastavales (made famous in Spain in a song).  I had visited the hamlet 20 years earlier but, unprepared and not having a car, I got to see the church where he likely was baptized and walked past houses in which he and other relatives likely lived.  Years later, I made contact with the parish to see about getting a copy of the records of his baptism, etc. and got some good information, courtesy of the local priest.  I guess he told some of my great-grandfather’s local relatives about my inquiries – years later they reached out to me and we got to meet by letters, email and a phone call.  So, I made it my purpose to go meet them in this trip.  After the tapas lunch, I headed to a house in Bastavales using a taxi.  Back in 1994, I had taken a bus and had taken a while.  Now, with a brand new highway, it took about 15 minutes to get there.  Sweet.

It was really neat to meet one of my grandmother’s younger cousins (only two were alive at this point; my grandmother had been born in Cuba and never got to go to Spain so she never met any of her Spanish relatives), a lovely lady with blue eyes named Flora.

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My grandmother’s cousin and her granddaughter (my 3rd cousin?)

I also met one of her sons and two of her grandchildren.  She shared some family history and showed me some photos.  Also, she pointed at a distance at the house where my great-grandfather had been born.  I only had a couple of hours to spare and they did not have a car readily available so I had to be satisfied with having seen the house from a distance.  I also saw the church I had visited 20 years earlier and noticed that I had walked in front of the houses she was pointing to after I got off the bus and walked a few kilometers to get to the church…

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The side garden of their house has vines! Beautiful spot

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Showing me the old wine press they used to use – pretty cool!

This week some other relatives have contacted me and have sent me photos they scanned of my grandmother.  Apparently, she kept in touch with them (though her dad died in Cuba when she was a toddler) and sent them pictures of her as a young woman.  They actually sent me a copy of the little “souvenir” with her baby picture issued when she was baptized; her dad must have sent it to Spain!  I realized with the info they gave me that she had been sending pictures and writing to them because her grandparents were still alive.  I was glad to hear she had some contact with them.

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This was a special way to end the Camino:  a pilgrimage to meet relatives my grandmother never met. I love Santiago de Compostela and now I must return to meet these other relatives that have given me such a wonderful gift.  And this will give me more time to explore Santiago more and keep enjoying tapas, hot chocolate and churros!

Photo of the Week – The Basilica of a Tiny State (NOT The Vatican!)

Ah, yes, there is another tiny state within what we think of as ItalySan Marino.  No more than 24 sq. mi. (64 sq km) and about 30,000 inhabitants, this tiny state which claims to have been founded in the year 301 AD has been known for duty free shopping more than anything else.  While I am not claiming to have explored every corner of this state, there was not much to it for me to recommend a visit – unless you are checking states of the world 🙂

The basilica of the city of San Marino, capital of the state of San Marino (!), is a simple classical (or neoclassical) style structure dating from the 1830s.  A church has been located at this site since the founding of the state in the 4th century and the remains of St. Marinus (after which the state is named) are buried under the basilica.

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To the right of the photo, you see part of the Church of St. Peters which pre-dates the Basilica

 

A True Representative of Its Hometown: Istanbul’s Hagia Sophia

After having had some challenges getting out of Egypt, my arrival in Istanbul continued to offer “experiences” as there was an unexpected change of plans that I shared in my Boarding Pass Series post about Istanbul.  Since I had to find a place to stay all of a sudden, I opened my guidebook and fished around for some hotel that looked well situated, cheap enough, and nice enough. And that’s how I found the Hotel Pierre Loti, a small but well located hotel that became my source of accommodations for 5 days.  It was definitely an easy walk to the main historic sites, like Topkapi Palace and the Blue Mosque, and a score for the price point.

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A city that straddles Europe (foreground) and Asia (background), divided by the Bosphorus

Each of the places I want to share with you deserves its own post, not only because of what I want to say about them but also because of the photos I want to share.  If you are visiting Istanbul, one thing to keep in mind is that most of the places I write about are within walking distance of each other so it is only a matter of how much you can or want to cover in one day.

In this first post, I will share what I consider to be the crown jewel of Istanbul as a history and architecture lover –  its “grand dame”: the Hagia Sophia, or Holy Wisdom.

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Without further ado, the Hagia Sophia

A church is born

This is one of the most amazing structures that I have seen.  It is not imposing in the same way that, say, Versailles is amazing.  But if you hear or read its story and consider how old that structure is, it is nothing short of incredible.  I stood in the center of the museum looking around in awe and disbelief that I finally got to see in person this unique piece of architecture and history that I had learned about in high school days.  The ability to build a structure that could support such a large dome back when the church was built is incredible in and of itself (the dome has had repairs over the centuries).

The current structure with its massive dome has its origin in the 6th century when it was built by Roman emperor Justinian as a Christian church (it was the third church built on that site).  It was one of the most magnificent churches in the world at that time and for centuries to come.  In fact, it was the world’s largest cathedral for a thousand years!  (You may wonder “who” dethroned it… the Cathedral of Seville built in 1520).

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A massive base was needed to support the dome

Hagia Sophia was decorated with mosaics all around and it is said to have re-defined the course of architecture.  While it remained an Eastern Orthodox Cathedral for close to 900 years, for a very brief period (at that time scale), it served as a Roman Catholic Cathedral.   In a way, Hagia Sophia was at the epicenter of the Great Schism that resulted in the split of the Catholic Church into Roman Catholic and Eastern Orthodox “versions” around the year 1053.

Transformation into a mosque

The Christian church was converted to a mosque when Constantinople fell to the conquering Ottomans who came from what is today Asian Turkey in 1453.  Lovers of history (or those with good memories of their world history class) know this was a key turning point in history.  This event ended the existence of the Eastern Roman Empire (the Byzantine eastern half of the former Roman Empire).  In essence, this killed off the last remnant of the Roman Empire which had existed in one form or another for around 1,500 years.

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Ablution fountain added in its conversion to a mosque for ritual purification

As part of the conversion to a mosque, minarets were added to the church so it would be a proper mosque and the mosaics were covered up or removed as images of people are not appropriate in a mosque.  While I realize this goes with the belief system, I am saddened to think of all the beauty we don’t get to see.  But at least the beautiful Islamic features compensate the loss of a good number of the mosaics.

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One of the mosaics of the Hagia Sophia (Virgin and Child flanked by Justinian I and Constantine I)

Its current state

Eventually, after the fall of the Ottoman Empire (around World War I), Turkey moved to a more secular state under the guidance of its modernizing leader, Mustafa Kemal Ataturk (my visit coincided with the 60th anniversary of his death hence you will notice flags at half mast in photos I may show in other posts from this trip).

During his presidency (he founded modern Turkey and was its first president), the Hagia Sophia was secularized by being converted into a museum.  Like with any of the places on this list, a guided tour or audio guide (if available now) are the way to go; you will not truly understand the significance of the place without getting all the background.  But the good news is that, so we can appreciate the history of the place, a few of the mosaics have been exposed.  Impressive.  The Hagia Sophia had fallen into disrepair but, mercifully, thanks to corporations and governments, the various issues are being worked through.  One key item that was addressed was the potential risk to the dome’s long term viability.

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Ritual purification urn brought in during its time as a mosque

For me and my interests, nothing beats the Hagia Sophia as the number one sight to see in Istanbul.  And the day I return to Istanbul, you can be sure I will be going again.

Before you go, which days it is open (as with anything).  Last I checked it was closed on Mondays.

A structure that represents its city

Istanbul, like the Hagia Sophia, has gone through a lot of “conversions”:  Byzantium, Constantinople and Istanbul.  Due to its location at the crossroads of the “world” for many centuries, Istanbul has had a part in or been affected by most events in that part of the world.  I am still fascinated by this incredible city that has seen so much and serves witness to all it has seen and by this structure that reflects all that perfectly.

I would really enjoy returning and spending another week exploring the many things I still did not get to discover in my only visit there.  Stay tuned for more posts about the sights and sites of this great city.  I leave you with a rewarding view of the Bosphorus.

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The sun sets on the Bosphorus and Istanbul

 

How Best to Explore Intramuros in Manila

Intramuros is the old district of Manila, the capital of the Philippines.  It carries a lot of history and meaning within its walls as I shared with you in a prior post.  Though it is quite distinctive and historic, it is not your typical tourist haven.   That is actually what makes it an appealing place to visit for me:  it is first and foremost a national treasure for the country itself, not just for tourists.  As a national treasure its reconstruction and growth are managed by the Intramuros Administration (IA).  Maintaining the integrity of the district is very important to the IA and that is a good thing for current and future generations.

Some of the highlights of Intramuros

The first thing that will catch your attention is the city walls and all the forts, gates, bulwarks, ravelins and redoubts (clearly, I picked up some words related to military fortifications!).  A good starting point in this network is Fort Santiago.  The fort was built by the Spanish starting in the late XVI century.

Fort Santiago, Intramuros, Manila, city walls, Philippines, Olympus

The entrance to Fort Santiago from the land side, repaired after WWII

Through the centuries it has changed due to earthquakes, attacks, or modifications.  During WWII it suffered great damage.  Today, it is set up well for visitors.  You first enter a plaza or park and then cross the moat (which is an arm of the Pasig River) to enter the main part of the fort.

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The moat in front of the entrance to Fort Santiago

Fort Santiago, Intramuros, Manila, city walls, Philippines, Olympus

You can walk along the walls and look across the river.

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Walk along the walls of the fort!

And you can see the place where the Philippines’ national hero, José Rizal, was imprisoned right before his execution in 1896.  A poignant detail you will notice is that his footsteps from his prison to the place of his execution are marked on the ground.

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Lifelike statue of Rizal in his former cell

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Rizal’s walk to his execution

After you are done in Fort Santiago, a short walk takes you to the Manila Cathedral, which has been destroyed and reconstructed more than a handful of times since it was first built in the late 16th century.

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The Cathedral

The Cathedral shares the Plaza de Roma (used to be called the Plaza de Armas, a key spot in any Spanish colonial town) with the former Governor’s Palace (also destroyed in the past) which now houses government offices, including the Intramuros Administration.

Palacio del Gobernador, Governor's Palace, , Intramuros, Manila, Philippines, photo, Olympus, architecture

The Governor’s Palace

San Agustín Church, the oldest stone church in the Philippines, is one of the few buildings still standing in Intramuros that pre-date WWII.  Though it suffered a little damage, it is mostly still the same structure.  Along with three other churches in the Philippines, it is a UNESCO World Heritage site.  Legazpi, the founder of the city of Manila is buried here.  And if you get to visit, check out the ceiling – it plays a trick on the eye:  though it looks elaborately decorated, all that you see is painted on a smooth surface!

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Interior of the church – everything on the arches and ceiling is painted on!

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Detail in the interior of the church

Though I call out Fort Santiago, the city walls with all its different components are good places to explore and get up on to check out the views.  Worth noting that right outside the city walls, the former moat was reclaimed during the American period and a full 18-hole golf course established!

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City wall fortifications with the golf course in the background

How to see Intramuros

Depending on the reason for your visit to Manila and how much time you have,  how you do Intramuros may vary.  But whether you only have half-a-day or two days to spare, you should find a guide to show you around for 2-4 hours.  There is a lot behind what you see in Intramuros and you will miss more than half of the story if you only walk around without a guide.  I had a neat tour guide who, though a little too freely-sharing and opinionated, nevertheless presented Manila’s story in a very compelling way.

You can walk the district (it is not too big) or use a calesa to get around a little more comfortably, especially on a hot day.  The good part about walking is that you can meander around with more freedom and take better pictures!

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Calesas on the run

Finally I would recommend not only visiting Intramuros but staying there one or two nights to soak in the district.  While it is not the most lively area in the evening, there is a perfect spot to explore the old town, watch the sun set, and enjoy the evening breeze:  The Bayleaf Hotel.

The unique Bayleaf Hotel

The Bayleaf is unique in several ways.  For starters, it is actually the only hotel within the city walls.  Secondly, it is the tallest building in Intramuros.  Thirdly, it is well-known to be very welcoming:  I researched the hotel in TripAdvisor where it had the top rank from other travelers’ reviews, always a nice benchmark for me especially with so many reviewers opining.  In fact, the Bayleaf also received TripAdvisor’s 2013 Circle of Excellence award.  Finally, it is one of the best spots to watch the sun set in Manila (even locals suggested we go there without knowing I was staying there!).

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Lobby of the Bayleaf

The Bayleaf is a boutique hotel, well-priced, and possessing a neat color scheme indoors as you would expect in the tropics (my floor and room were my favorite color:  orange) while the outside of the building maintains the exterior that makes it a clear part of Intramuros.  It sits right by the city walls and Victoria St., a very colorful street worth walking.  So clearly this is where I would recommend staying when exploring Intramuros both for the convenience and charm.

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My room at the Bayleaf

A sunset that never happened but I did get a good view

I was a guest of the hotel for one night to see how great its location is and, hopefully, get one of the best sunset views in Manila over Manila Bay from its Sky Deck rooftop terrace.

Bayleaf Hotel, Sky Deck, rooftop terrace, Manila, Philippines, sunset, Intramuros

The terrace and part of the view

Unfortunately, watching the sunset from the Sky Deck became impossible as it rained really hard that day so not sunset to be seen (so the photo above is not mine but from the hotel’s site).  While the sunset was a no-go, I enjoyed an adobo (a typical Filipino dish of pork and chicken in  soy and vinegar sauce) at the 9 Spoons restaurant which sits right below the Sky Deck terrace.

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The adobo dish (garnished to the left with a fried egg)

I did go up the next morning to the Sky Deck terrace to soak the awesome 360 degree view it offers.  Being the tallest building in Intramuros, the view is spectacular.  You can see the golf course built in the site of the moat outside of the city walls.  You can see the tall Manila Town Hall right outside the walls, then the National Museum.  And then you can turn around to see all of Intramuros right below you.

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)

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View over Intramuros (the Cathedral to the left) towards Manila Bay

I only wish I had been there on a clear sunset, with some tropical beverage and camera in hand…  I guess there is always a return to Manila.  If MacArthur did it, why not me??


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Boarding Pass Stories: Christchurch, New Zealand

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The destination, the when(s), and the reason(s)

After spending two weeks there, I flew from Melbourne, Australia to New Zealand.  My entry point:  the very livable and lovely town of Christchurch.  This was in 2009, so before the large earthquake that did so much damage to this beautiful town.  I got to see it before it suffered such destruction.

The airline

Air New Zealand.  The carrier that I chose to fly me from Los Angeles to Australia/New Zealand.  I landed in Auckland where I connected with a flight to Sydney.  After spending two weeks in Australia, I returned to NZ to explore it.

What fascinated me about this experience

Christchurch was a place I could actually live in.  The neighborhoods, the city center – it all fit my likes.  I found good restaurants and a charming bed and breakfast.  It was a great launching point too to explore the south island of New Zealand and I sure hope to return some day!

Christchurch, New Zealand, cathedral, earthquake, destruction

Indoors at the main cathedral that, unfortunately, had to be condemned after the damage it suffered during the earthquake

I sure hope to return to Christchurch and explore it and the area more!

Arriving in the Southern Island of Middle Earth: Christchurch, New Zealand

There are so many awesome places in New Zealand but I feel Christchurch, though not one of the top 2 cities in NZ, may be the best place to hit first on a trip over (Dunedin is not far behind!).

The arrival

I arrived in Christchurch on the eastern coast of the southern island of New Zealand (where Lord of the Rings was filmed; the lands in the movie were called “Middle Earth” for those who may not be familiar with the movie!).  From the plane we flew over the southern Alps, as they are unofficially called.   In this picture, we pass over the highest peaks and you can even see a glacier coming down.  This is the view you want to see ahead of coming to NZ!

Southern Alps, New Zealand, Christchurch, glacier, nature

Glacier flowing to lower right corner of pic as I fly over the Southern Alps in New Zealand

It was around 230 PM and we were delayed getting off the plane because a passenger had flu-like symptoms.  Nice.  The health person from the airport had to board the plane and do some kind of test on the passenger before any of us could get off.  I could not see exactly what he was doing but after a few minutes of whatever, we were allowed to get off the plane.  The airport claims to be the “top carbon neutral airport company in the southern hemisphere” which I found amusing for a couple of reasons, one of which is the recurrent theme in Australia and NZ of claims about a place being the “—-est” (tallest, biggest, cleanest, etc.) in the “southern hemisphere”.  Considering how little of the world is in the southern hemisphere, these claims almost seem too easy 🙂  but, heck, someone’s got to make the claim!

Besides being carbon neutral, the airport is nice and small and it was very easy to just go to the bus stop and catch bus 29 intown.  It dropped me off very close to my bed and breakfast but apparently I signaled “stop” one street too early so I walked an extra block.  No worries, extra exercise.  The streets were very pleasant and had the air of a place where people knew each other, where people felt safe, and where the pace was not too fast and not too slow – a great place to get to know NZ and, especially, the south island.

A great place to stay in Christchurch

The Orari Bed and Breakfast was in an old house and was very nice.  At 6 PM they cracked open some wine for the guests so I knew I had ample time to walk around before sunset (around 430 PM) and be back to shower, unpack and get some wine.  The room was frigid when I got there though they had turned on the standing heating unit probably just before I arrived.  I thought I would freeze that night but the standing units (there was another one) and the heating blanket worked really well.  In fact, all too well, I was burning up in the middle of the night and had to turn off the heating blanket!  It was the first time I had used one…  I was very glad with my choice of place to stay due to a great location next to an art museum but otherwise not in the middle of things, yet a short walk away from places to eat, the city center, etc.  Oh, and the staff is great!  It definitely made me feel Christchurch and NZ was putting its best foot forward to welcome me.

The Garden City

The town of Christchurch is called the Garden City and I would agree with that although it was the beginning of winter.  The “suburbs” were very nice but also the areas closer to the city center.  The city center itself was manageable and with some key sights to check out.

Christchurch, New Zealand, cathedral, earthquake, southern island, architecture, Canon EOS Rebel

The ill-fated cathedral, fatally damaged in the earthquake and now being rebuilt in Christchurch

Christchurch cathedral New Zealand earthquake southern island

Interior of the cathedral of Christchurch before it was destroyed

Christchurch square plaza chess New Zealand

A friendly game of chess in Christchurch’s main square

architecture center of Christchurch New Zealand, Canon EOS Rebel

Beautiful architecture in the center of Christchurch

New Regent street in Christchurch before earthquake New Zealand Canon EOS Rebel

New Regent St. in Christchurch – seriously damaged during the earthquake

I strolled down Oxford Terrace by the small river that cuts through the town as there were a lot of restaurants/cafes/pubs along the street and I wanted to scope out where I would have dinner later that night.  I settled for a place called Sticky Fingers where I later got to enjoy a very nice Sauvignon Blanc wine from Marlborough called Cloudy Bay.  The place has a nice smart and modern ambiance.  The seating areas was very comfy and next to but separate enough from the bar area.  The food was good but I would not say stellar.  Other restaurants in the strip that caught my attention were Ferment and Liquidity.

My visit in Christchurch was short and I am going back at the end of my tour of the southern island so I should get to sample another restaurant and sip on the wine at Orari.  The tempo of the city and its charm served as a great welcome mat for this first time visitor to the magical place that is New Zealand.

(Pictures taken with Canon EOS Rebel)

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