Birthday Card Series: Part III

In 2003 we took two international trips: Portugal and western Spain in the Spring and in September a 2 1/2 week journey to Ireland and Wales.  Ah, Ireland!–Dublin, the prehistoric burial mound of Newgrange, castles and more castles,  beautiful green rolling landscape, dramatic cliffs in the southwest, lively Galway, quaint villages and more.  Sunny and without rain the entire visit–perhaps a record.  A first for us was driving on the left–easily resolved (or else!).  Lodging we found to be a challenge — we made no advance reservations  (which we felt gave us flexibility in our wanderings)  but we had no idea that September in Ireland was a big month for weddings.  With relativity small homes and large extended families these weddings generally take place in hotels where guests put up for a night or two.  In villages and small towns hotels and accommodations are aligned with pubs and their adjoining restaurants–the pecking order being drinks, eats and then beds.

The 2003 birthday card depicts the early 13th century fortified King John’s Castle in Limerick.  The draw to Limerick, a blue collar city in western Ireland, was that my father’s family stems from here.  We decided not to claim the title to the family’s castle since the roof needed repairs and the fact that unpaid back taxes go back to the potato famine.

In the Spring of 2004 we flew to Rome where Kate, Tom and Jules met us for a few days–then off to the south of Italy–Campania, Calabria and the  ferry to Sicily.  Due to its strategic position in the Mediterranean Sicily has been ruled by the Greeks, the Romans, Byzantine, the Arabs, Normans and Spain–all whom have left their imprint on this beautiful island.  An island of interesting coastal villages and cities, a rural hilly interior and, of course, fuming Mount Etna.  The ’04 card tries to capture the Greek theater in Taormina in northeast Sicily.  The theater, still in use, was built by the Greeks in the 3rd century BCE and rehabbed by the Romans  five centuries later.  Sitting in the stands affords magnificent views of both the sea and Mount Etna

In the Fall of ’04 we traveled to South America but with only one birthday a year and only one birthday card a year.  Chile, Argentina and Uruguay will have to be another story. 

Spring 2005: We made our first trip, with many to follow, into a former Communist Block Country: Hungary–leisurely driving along the Danube.  We started the river tour in Regensberg, Germany then into Austria and Hungary.  This trip also took us into 3 major and culturally important cities–Munich, Vienna and Budapest.  Mike’s wine touring fetish was also assuaged by our stops in the Wachau region of Austria and the Hungarian wine regions of Eger, Tokaj and Lake Balaton. 

The 2005 birthday card pays homage to the tiny Austrian wine village of Durnstein.  We spent two nights there and lodged in a lovely converted convent right smack on the Danube–talk about atmosphere!  The card shows castle ruins on the hilltop that included a jail where Richard the Lion Heart was held after returning to Europe from the 3rd Crusade.  Apparently a dispute with the Duke of Austria landed him in lockup.

As an aside: it is told that during the communist era Lake Balaton was used as a mutual meeting place for East Germans and their West German relatives–the Iron Curtain had its moth holes–and the Hungarians winked.  

In the Fall of 2005 Mike, by himself, went off to do wine touring in South Africa.

In ’06 we took two international trips– in the Fall England and Scotland and in the Spring Greece–the subject of the ’06 birthday card.

We flew into Athens on a Sunday–no traffic–clearly the best day of the week to drive through a major city.  Even though we were weary due to  little sleep on the flight we still drove off and headed for the Peloponnese Peninsula and the seaside town of Nafplio.  We did make a stop on the way at Ancient Corinth and its outstanding Acropolis.  With Nafplio as our base we were able to visit several nearby ancient sites–the best being Mycene, the 2nd millennium BCE settlement, and the theater at Epidavros.  Of course Mike found several local quality wineries to visit.  Then a beautiful drive along a high mountain road to ancient Olympia on the west coast of the peninsula.    The next day we crossed the Gulf of Corinth over a very long and beautifully designed cable-stayed bridge and into rugged, mountainous and sparely populated Central Greece,   A few days later we came to Meteora (birthday card 2006)–the fantastic grey sandstone rocks, some of which rise up out of the trees as much as 980 feet above the flat valley below.  Perched on the top of these precipitous columns are monasteries.  The first of what were 21 was built in the 10th century–there are now only 6.  Since the monks worked the fields below they had to trek down the multitude of stairs every day and ,worse yet, had to climb up.  Their produce was lifted by pulley systems to their lodges.

On to Northern Greece and Macedonia–the home of Alexander the Great.  Great wines here in the Naoussa –Mike’s favorite Greek reds.    A relaxing stay in the port city of Thessaloníki, an overnight in Delphi and then onto a few days in vital Athens and its sites before our flight home.

After a Fall ’07 trip to the former Eastern Bloc countries of Romania and Bulgaria we found our way to Slovenia and Croatia in the Spring of ’07, with a flight into Venice (and departing from Milan).  We spent some time wandering around the canals of Venice then headed off to Slovenia.  We crossed the Italian-Slovenian border without even a passport check and headed for the wine district–of course, Mike–near Nova Gorica.  Beautiful rolling hills, very low key and extremely friendly folks.  Then a breathtaking drive along the southern tier of the Julian Alps ending up in Lake Bled–the nation’s premier mountain resort.  We found a room in a large hotel that had commanding views of the lake.  Sitting idyllically on a  wooded islet is the lovely church represented in the birthday card of ’07.  We encountered, for the first time on any of our European trips, bus loads of tourists (whom we referred to as “bus people”–not in a pejorative way since we realized that there would be a time when we’d be “them” –not being able to travel independently ourselves).  When we went to breakfast we found a wiped out buffet–yes, the “bus people”–we did manage to get served, however.  A 4 mile walk around the lake set us straight–finding hidden churches and vacation estates (including that of Joseph Tito).  Although we only traveled in the western part of Slovenia we still see the country as a hidden gem.

Then on to a drive along the Dalmatian Coast of Croatia stopping at three major port cities: Zadar, Split and Dubrovnik. All  three bearing the imprint of past empires: the Roman, Byzantine and Venetian.   These three, very interesting  cities are heavily impacted by  cruise ship tourists.  On our way back to Italy we relaxed for a few days in the fishing village of Rovinj on the  Istria peninsula.

To Milan and home.

More to come.

About carolinebotwin

Caroline Botwin and her husband Mike are retired educators who have always had a yen for travelling: he with a PH.D and teaching Architectural Engineering plus California wine education, and she having taught high school English, speech and drama. Both wanted to learn first hand about other cultures. While Mike predominately studied buildings and structures and met with winemakers, Caroline hunted for ancient sites and peoples. And kept journals of all their travels.
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