I Have a Mission for You: in Santa Barbara!

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

Scenes of Easter Mass at St. Peter’s Square

“Moses Wuz Here” – Mt. Nebo, Jordan

Show me the way to the Promised Land, said Moses

Mt. Nebo is located on what seems to be an area north of the Dead Sea that sits high on a ridge and, according to the Bible, is the place where Moses was allowed to see the Promised Land he would never enter (after guiding his people out of Egypt for 40 years!).

Moses, Mt. Nebo, Jordan, tourism, photo, Canon EOS Rebel

Moses, I suppose

Mt. Nebo, Jordan, Moses, Promised Land, Holy Land, religion, archeology, history, sign, photo, Canon EOS Rebel

Today, without Moses around, this sign does the job of pointing to the Promised Land

Mt. Nebo overlooks the valley of the River Jordan and one can glimpse Jericho and Jerusalem to the west on a good day.  The site was visited by Popes John Paul II and Benedict XVI at some point giving the site an added level of credibility if you will, as a site of religious importance.

Moses, Mt. Nebo, Jordan, archeology, history, religion, photo, Canon EOS Rebel

Welcome to Mt. Nebo!

It is also claimed Moses is buried there but there is no conclusive evidence (as conclusive as one may expect a few thousand years later…).  Whether any of this interests you or not, the views of the valley below are certainly worth it.


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Some of the view

The visit

There was a small temporary-looking exhibit at the site showing some of the beautiful mosaics of the remains of a church found in the first half of the 20th century on Mt. Nebo.  It really makes you ponder the history of the place and the area and all the events it has witnessed over time.

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Part of the mosaics

Mount Nebo, Jordan, mosaic, Moses, history, religion, archeology, photo, Canon EOS Rebel

Color manages to survive close to two millenia

Mount Nebo, Jordan, mosaic, Moses, history, religion, archeology, photo, Canon EOS Rebel

Up close and personal

The place is crowded with tourists of all ages and that takes away for sure from the importance of the place.  Perhaps some construction during the time of my visit contributed to the small chaos, though there were moments when I was glad there was chaos and a crowd…

Mt. Nebo, Jordan, tourism, photo, children, Canon EOS Rebel

Young Mt. Nebo visitors

Mt. Nebo, Jordan, tourism, photo, child, Canon EOS Rebel

Another schoolkid visiting the site

I was patient, though, and I was rewarded when the key spot where Moses stood cleared up for a good 5 minute and I was able to soak it all in better during that pause in the visitors.

Let ME show you the Promised Land

So, in case you have not been there, allow me show you the Promised Land!

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“Over yonder!” says this modern-day Moses-wanna-be


During this trip, I was a guest of the Jordan Tourism Board.  That notwithstanding, the stories I share were my real experiences and nothing else.  As they always are!

Moldova: Land of Re-Born Churches and Monasteries

I had no idea when I first thought of going to Moldova that I would see a treasure trove of church and monastery architecture but as I researched a possible visit to Moldova, I learned that was exactly what I was going to see.

Moldova, as a Soviet Socialist Republic, was a place where the system tried to take man’s humanity out of the equation – and part of that was removing the strength and hope that faith can provide.  Churches and monasteries were either destroyed or severely damaged; those that were not totally destroyed were re-purposed as mental hospitals, children’s institutions, etc. and the religious communities were broken up.

It is evident that Moldova is trying to shed its Soviet past in the ways that are possible for a small economy that is not in the EU and that is talked about as one of the poorest, if not the poorest, in Europe.   For example, roads are being re-built in and around the capital, Chisinau (Chișinău).  The airport is modern.  But what I noticed was how churches and monasteries have been worked on to restore them to their greatness, even if not all buildings in the complexes are completely restored yet.

Visiting monasteries does not require an appointment nor are there entrance fees.  Simply walk in.  Do remember to dress appropriately!

But after showing you these monasteries below, I have a conclusion I would like to share.

Frumoasa Monastery

This small and beautiful monastery, which reminded me of the Greek isles due to its sharp blue and white colors, was the focus of my photo of the week post earlier this week but it is worthy of including here as it was such a gem.  The monastery is about 14 km from Calarasi town which in turn is about 50 km from Chisinau.  It is also a convenient monastery to see if visiting the Curchi monastery.

Frumoasa Monastery in Moldova

Frumoasa Monastery altar in Moldova

Curchi Monastery

This monastery (pronounced COOR-key) is considered one of the most beautiful and famous monastery complex in Moldova with 2 large churches (and other small ones I did not get to see) and many other spaces and buildings in its footprint.  It was founded around the 1770s.  Between the 1950s and the early 2000s it did not operate as a monastery though now it has again become a monastery for men.  Lots of visitors/pilgrims the day I went though it was a weekday.  And strict rules as no photography was allowed within the churches.

The main church, painted in bright red, is the Church of the Mother of God and was built in the late 19th century.  It is a beautiful building up close but even more impressive as one approaches the monastery by road.

Church of the Mother of God in the Curchi Monastery in Moldova

Church of the Mother of God

St. Dumitru Church in the Curchi Monastery

St. Dumitru Church

Capriana Monastery

This monastery, one of the oldest in Moldova dating to the 1420s, is just 40 km away from Chisinau.  It is one of the most important ones because rulers, including the most important one, Stefan cel Mare, helped build it.  The two main churches, St. George and St. Nicholas, were built in the 1840s and 1900s, respectively.

Capriana Monastery in Moldova

Capriana Monastery in Moldova

Capriana Monastery in Moldova - Image of Stefan cel Mare (Stephen the Great)

Image of Stefan cel Mare (Stephen the Great)

Chisinau Center Churches/Cathedrals

Chisinau as a city has a good number of churches (for views of Chisinau itself, check my post on it here).  Right in the city center there are a few worth checking out.

1.  Near the Hotel National lies the St. Great Martyr Tiron Cathedral, quite a beautiful structure built in the 1850s.

Stanful Teodor Tiron Church in Moldova

Church in Chisinau, Moldova

Schimbarea La Fata Church

2.  The Transfiguration Cathedral (or the Church of Schimbarea La Fata in Moldovan) sits next to the Ministry of Agriculture.  It has been beautifully restored inside.  It’d be easy to pass it up given the size of nearby Cathedral of Christ’s Nativity but don’t miss visiting it.

3.  The Metropolitan Cathedral of Christ’s Nativity, however, is the most imposing of the churches I saw in Chisinau.  It is a Russian Orthodox Church built around the 1830s.  It, and its front tower and outdoor baptistry, sit in a large square facing the Triumphal Arch and, beyond, the imposing (though unimaginatevely architected) Government House building.

Metropolitan Cathedral of Christ's Nativity in Chisinau, Moldova

Metropolitan Cathedral of Christ’s Nativity

Baptistry at the Metropolitan Cathedral of Christ's Nativity in Chisinau, Moldova

The outdoor baptistry

Small Churches in Orhei

The predominant religion in Moldova is Orthodox Christianity.  In Orhei, a town north of Chisinau with about 25,000 inhabitants, I visited the small Catholic Church.  We asked the attendant what percent of the town’s people were Catholic and she replied:  “4%  – but working on it.”  What a spirit!

The town had small Orthodox churches but because of our itinerary/schedule, I could not explore except from the car.  But they were definitely colorful!

Church in Moldova

My Conclusion:  It’s about More than Architecture

So the renewal I witnessed in Moldova was impressive but even more impressive was seeing the faithful visit these religious places so openly, something that I am sure was impossible (or close to it?) during the decades of Soviet communism.  Those images are the ones that really stay with me…

Person praying at the Metropolitan Cathedral in Chisinau, Moldova

Candles at the Metropolitan Cathedral in Chisinau, Moldova


Pin Moldova’s churches and monasteries to your travel board!

Moldova, Chisinau. Kishnev, church, monastery

You can find more information about monasteries in Moldova here.


Photo of the Week – Into Moldova: The Frumoasa Monastery

As I prepare to write the story of my visit to the Republic of Moldova, a former Soviet socialist republic, I thought this week’s Photo of the Week could be a good initial way to share one of the things that the country has to offer:  its monasteries and churches.

The Frumoasa Monastery (which was on our way to the better known and more significant Curchi Monastery) was my first stop after entering Moldova from Romania near Iasi.  It is a nun monastery today, as it was for a few years pre-World War II and Soviet communism.

As many monasteries in Moldova, they were severely damaged either intentionally and/or by fire and restored after the fall of communism.  Also, as most former monasteries during Soviet communism in Moldova, this one was used for non-religious purposes during that era having served as an orphanage, a school for deaf children, a colony for girls, and even a dancing club for children.  Different buildings in the complex were used for different purposes.

While communism severely damaged the original buildings and likely destroyed original architecture, artwork, and documents, the dedication shown post-communism to restore these jewels of Moldova speaks a lot about the Moldovan people, and humans in general:  no political system can really remove a people’s faith.  Most monasteries I visited had a lot of the faithful -young and old- coming in for prayers.

Frumoasa Monastery and Church in Moldova

Frumoasa Monastery and Church


Visiting my First Eastern European Capital: Bulgaria’s Sofia

As I wrote in other entries about the trip to Bulgaria, the main purpose of my visit to Sofia was to attend a wedding. Around the various events, though, I had time to check out the city, of about 1.2 million residents (15th largest city in the European Union as of this writing) by walking around a lot and stopping at key sites based on my travel guide and curiosity.

Sofia was a Roman capital, which belies my ignorance as I didn’t realize the Romans got to this part of Europe.  It also was home to a Celtic tribe before that.  And about the 7th century BC, it was home to the Thracians.  All this followed by probably gazillions of tribes, peoples, empires given its strategic location in southeastern Europe.  I did not realize how old this city was in its history!  But there was a lot of learning and discovery for me as I spent time in Bulgaria’s capital…

Churches and Religion

I guess the main type of site to visit is churches. There are a lot of churches in Sofia and out in the country. In Sofia, I visited the Saint Nedelya, Saint Sofia, Saint George, Alexander Nevski (the Bulgarian Orthodox cathedral), and perhaps a few other lesser known ones.

Saint George, a 4th century church! (between the Sheraton and the Presidency)

Cathedral of Alexander Nevski in Sofia, Bulgaria - Orthodox Church

Cathedral of Alexander Nevski in Sofia

I began to see that while each church is unique in its own way, they tend to be quite dark and austere.  I imagine this is as intended but being new to visiting Orthodox churches, that was a new piece of “data” for me.  The iconostasis, or what to be is the back of the altar area, was always unique and beautiful.  There were always icons placed around the church; the faithful would walk to each, bow, perhaps kiss it and say a prayer.  The faithful would also buy candles upon entering the church and light them as they prayed.  It was moving to see the display of faith.

Inside the Cathedral of Alexander Nevski in Sofia, Bulgaria

Inside the Cathedral of Alexander Nevski

My mind wondered how religion and its public expression may have changed since the fall of communism (a religion of its own in my opinion but of a darker sort…).  Regardless, it is good to see that it is alive.

Reminders of the Communist Past

Walking around town, you see a fairly modern and free society – and then you run into sights that remind you of the serious communist past of the country.  I recall reading somewhere that Bulgaria was more Soviet than the Soviet Union itself (well, the communist leadership anyway; not sure that all Bulgarians shared that preference!).

Office House of the National Assembly in Sofia, Bulgaria; formerly the House of the Communist Party of Bulgaria

Office House of the National Assembly; formerly the House of the Communist Party of Bulgaria

Art mural in Sofia, Bulgaria

Mural on the side of a building in Sofia

Statues in a park in Sofia, Bulgaria

Statues in a park in Sofia

Guard post in Sofia, Bulgaria reminiscent of communist times

Guard post at an intersection

Rain, Rain on My Face

It rained most of the time I was in Sofia, except during the weekend which was perfect since that’s when the wedding events were taking place – I can only imagine the bride’s concern at all that rain right before her wedding day!  The worst part was that water didn’t clear fast enough from the curb so when walking in narrow-sidewalked streets, you played a game of dodge of sorts…  Most drivers slowed down, if not for the common potholes, for us as pedestrians.  But there were one or two drivers who saw opportunity in the convergence of curb water and pedestrians… Evil! 🙂

Pothole (LOL, not from Sofia, just searched for a pic on the Net)

While it was common to see potholes on the streets, I may add that the sidewalks weren’t much different!  You really had to watch where you stepped.  In some places where the sidewalk was made up of square tiles, you had to mind that the tile could be lose and, if so, there was water under it, so stepping on it could also mean getting splashed even if a little bit, by oneself!  The rain did not deter me -or the locals- from venturing out.

Vitosha is the name of the main shopping street where only the tram and buses travel the roadway and which sort of ends at the church of Saint Nedela.  I enjoyed walking it and seeing the shops – and the folks. I wondered if people thought I was a local given my looks…


Vitosha (not my picture!)

Because of the rain, there was not much available in terms of open-air cafes. I don’t recall seeing many places with that type of facilities, except maybe in Vitosha street. Because it is still a heavy-smoking culture and because I am no longer used to being around smoking, I was longing for an open-air cafe but the rain pretty much killed that possibility even where such cafes existed. I did manage on the weekend to sit at Flo-cafe across from Saint Nedelya and enjoyed a beer sitting outside. It was cool enough that I wanted to be inside but not too much that it was going to be intolerable so I opted for “fresh air”.

The weather did not allow for the best of photos but some of the views were still worth a picture!

National Theater in Sofia, Bulgaria

National Theater in Sofia, a beautiful building

I visited the Archeological Museum (across from the Presidency) which was as impressive a building as it was in terms of its contents. It was well labeled in Bulgarian and English and I recommend it if you are interested in artifacts from a long time ago.

Guards at the Presidency in Sofia, Bulgaria

Guards at the Presidency

There were other museums that I did not get to visit (National Art, Natural History) as I wasn’t feeling too museum-bound in spite of the rain which invited one to find indoor entertainment/activities.  Some key places offered info via your mobile phone and were so identified with signs like the one below.

Sign in Sofia, Bulgaria for tourists to get information

Bulgarian and the Cyrillic Alphabet

I walked around the Presidency, the Party building (former home of the Communist Party), and many non-descript sidestreets that allowed me to see more about real life in Sofia.  One key challenge at the beginning was figuring out where I was on the map. Most street signs, not all, were only in Bulgarian.

Building in Sofia, Bulgaria - neat color and architecture

Around Sofia’s center

As you may know, they use the Cyrillic alphabet which often but not always looks like the Greek letters we used in my science/math classes in college.  I finally figured out the value of studying engineering when one does not work as an engineer: it is easier to sort through Cyrillic/Greek alphabets when traveling abroad!! I would like to say that I can finally justify my engineering degree as it was going to help me in my travels!

Having said that, it was not cake to sort through Cyrillic but, I like puzzles so I kept looking up the letter “conversion” to my alphabet and kept trying to read signs phonetically. I think that helped me a lot as I was able by the 4th or 5th day to pronounce most words I read. Now, that did not mean I knew what the word meant!  But since my map used English street names, it helped me at least learn to find my spot on the map and then get to learn how to move about the city.  In about 3 days, I didn’t need a map to navigate around my part of the city as my sense of direction and memory allowed me to get rid of the dependency on the map.

Some words in Bulgarian are similar enough to words in languages I speak so being able to read the Cyrillic helped me out. Of course, I also made an effort to learn a few words in Bulgarian (to read menus, for example) so that helped. I did notice some French influence and I wondered how that came about and if it had always been like that or if that was a post-Communist thing.  For example, the word for “thank you” in Bulgarian is quite long so people just say “merci”.  Another example is that one can say “aerogara” to refer to the airport.  If you are curious on the Cyrillic alphabet and how it came about, check this link out:  http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Cyrillic_alphabet

Impressions of Sofia and Bulgaria

I could clearly tell that Sofia was a capital city given all the government buildings around the area where I stayed.  The former influence of the Soviet Union was felt in some of the architecture though there is enough of other architecture that I didn’t feel like I was drowning in state-planned architecture (mercifully).

I was sad to see the state of some of the buildings and infrastructure.  Bulgaria is now in the EU but that is also an expensive proposition for a country recently escaping from communism that may not have had the pre-communism experience of capitalism other ex-Soviet bloc countries may have had (like the Czech Republic).  I could see that the country is moving forward but I didn’t feel unbridled energy.  A local told me that Bulgarians don’t like to see others “get ahead”, that they want everyone to be the same and that such mentality keeps the entire country from exploding in growth and new ventures, things needed to help lift a country to the next level.  I wondered if his viewpoint was skewed in any way but what he said made sense to me knowing that the country had been under a stern Stalinist model for close to 50 years.

I think the country is blessed with great natural beauty, a perfect setting for trade (it is at the crossroads of Europe and the Middle East/Turkey), great climate, and a rich history.  It is a great destination should folks be willing to go somewhere different where the sights and “feel” of the city are not exactly those of the major European capitals or even towns like Tours, Toledo, Siena, Salzburg, or Krakow.  I wish I had had more time to explore other areas of the city and more of the countryside and smaller towns to experience it more fully.  But I am glad I got to get at least a peek at it and finally get a real picture of that country that seemed so inaccessible and remote in my childhood…

Last Day in Krakow, Poland

Alright, vacation is almost over, I am on my last evening in Krakow prior to heading back home. Morning flight at 5:30 AM to Prague, then another to JFK, and then Atlanta. It will be hard but sitting down for a long time sounds good after all the walking I have done this week. I have eaten all sorts of delicious yet very fatty food (the whip cream here is REAL cream!) but I don’t feel my jeans are any tighter!

I need to write more about a few experiences from the trip but here I will recap some of the sights in Krakow itself.

Krakow main square Poland Wawel Castle travel Canon EOS Rebel Photo

Krakow’s is one of the most magnificent squares in Europe

Krakow, main square, Poland, travel, photo, Canon EOS Rebel

Another angle on the great square of Krakow

The city is loaded with history. It used to be the capital and we visited the site of the royal palace, Wawel Castle (http://www.wawel.krakow.pl/en/), which sits atop the hill of the same name. Unfortunately, the royal residence was closed for a few weeks and re-opens on Monday. But we visited the crown treasure and armory museum in the basement of the palace and also toured the Cathedral (which is also in Wawel Hill) and the royal tombs underneath it. All very impressive (reading up a little Polish history before the trip paid off!).

Wawel Hill, Wawel Castle, Krakow, Poland, Basilica of St Stanisław and St Wacław, cathedral, history, religion, architecture

The main features of Wawel Hill are the same-named castle and the Basilica of St Stanisław and St Wacław (the Wawel Cathedral)

We also got to see very different style churches and key sites in the life of Karol Wojtyla (John Paul II). He clearly is still a big figure in the city where he lived most of his life and served as priest, bishop, and cardinal.

We have eaten very well and will write more about that later. Highlight of the day was finding a bakery with cream cakes, like the one I ate in Wadowice. Mmmm… cream cakes…

Today has felt very cold due to high winds.  I learned from someone that it is the “halny”  (winds from the Tatra Mountains http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Halny).

I am guessing my next entry will be once I am home but have a few odds and ends to write about the trip. The trip to Krakow, though short, has been well worth it!

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