Birthday Card Series: Part IV

In the Spring of 2008, we traveled independently via rental car for 2 1/2 weeks in the former Soviet Bloc countries of Czechoslovakia–now the Czech Republic and Slovak Republic–(actually spending only 4 days in the Slovak Republic).  We flew into the exciting capital of Prague–with its beautiful squares in the old town, dominating castle above the Vltava River, vital street life and the Jewish Quarter (Hitler kept it well preserved with the intent of making it into a tourist site–a “Jewish Disneyland”– he killed the populous but left the synagogues in tack).

Off to the provinces to more castles, historic old towns, and for Mike, vineyards and wineries in South Moravia (Bohemia  beer–Moravia wine).  Mike also wanted to visit with an inventive structural engineer and see the elegant pedestrian bridges designed and built by this brilliant man.


One of the old towns that still sticks out from the many was Tabor, which was the center of the 15 century–pre-Luther– Hussite revolt protesting the corruption of the Catholic Church.

The ’08 birthday card is a bit of a lament in that it depicts the solemn, depleted market square in Melnik–a town built on an escapement overlooking the confluence of the two major Czech rivers.

Although I think the Czech Republic came out better economically from the Communist era than others the Soviets left their imprint on.  All over the various countries the Soviets forced many of the locals to move into high rise blocks outside of the town centers thus leaving the centers–particularly the market squares–devoid of activity.  (In the U.S. the “Urban Renewal” movement of the ’60s and ’70s had a similar effect).  Beautiful but melancholy squares.

Fall ’08: New Zealand and Australia.

Castillo de la Calatrava
Castle of Morella-

In the Fall of ’09 we flew into Barcelona–as you know, I love Spain– and immediately took off in our rental to meander the remote and, certainly, off-the-beaten-path of the eastern mountains of Spain.  First stop was the  Alcaniz and the Castillo de la Calatrava, a 12th century, fortified castle containing a large church and, yes, a parador–as you know, I love paradors.  The castle sits high above the village with sweeping views of the olive fields below. Also memorable on this jaunt was the fortified castle of Morella–also built during the long  period in which  Spain attempted to “reconquest” their country from the Moors.   A mile-long wall with ramparts and towers girdles the town and its castle ruins. 

A little more time in Spain and on to France and Collioure, a lovely fishing village  just over the Spanish border– the subject of the ’09 birthday card.  At the turn of the 20th century artists, including Matisse, were drawn to the village and its the brightly colored stucco houses.  A naval academy overlooks the harbor from the hill above.  We had a lovely alfresco dinner on the esplanade.  I had monk fish–actually I had monk fish for the third night in a row–as you now know, I love monk fish.

We then drove along the coast to meet Kate, Tom, Jules and 3 year old Louis–our first meeting with Louis, in Grand Motte– a sea side community south of Montpelier.  A wonderful weekend! 

An interesting excursion followed Grand Motte–to four somewhat obscure fortified settlements in the limestone plateau south of Millau.  They were established in the 13th century by the Knights Templar and taken over by the Knights of St. John when the Templars were forced to disband in the early part of the 14th century.

Back to Barcelona–via Andorra–and a flight home.

Our travels in the Spring ’09 were strictly domestic: St. Louis for my college reunion (Mike met me there after his visiting wineries in North Dakota–yes, North Dakota) and to Maui.

The Fall of 2010 brought one of our favorite ventures–this one to Turkey, which exceeded all expectations.  Two things stick out to me about Turkey–the hospitality: sincere, warm and helpful (not the insincere, patronizing “hospitality” tourists often receive) and the layer upon layer of history and culture.  The ’10 birthday card shows a bit of what I mean by layers of history and culture.  The two buildings portrayed on the card are the Blue Mosque (bottom left)–which was built between 1609 and 1616 during the Ottoman period– the Aya Sophia (upper right) which was originally an Eastern Orthodox church (it’s now a mosque) built in the 6th century during the Byzantine empire.

Allow me to mention a few other favorites showing the “layers”.  In northern Anatolia is Hattusa, which was settled around 2500 BC! And was the capital of the Hittite empire.  The 3 1/2 mile surrounding walls of the ruins from this period are impressive as is the still intact temple (one of 70 original temples)  from that era.  Nearby  is Amysari, a lovely river town, which was the capital of the Pontus kings; these kings are memorialized with huge tombs, dating from the 4th century BC, which are carved into the hills overlooking the river.  Multiple Greek/Roman settlements line the Mediterranean and Aegean coast–Side, Assos and Ephesus, to name a few.  The Cappadocia area is in itself an amazing place to roam.  Soft tuffa rock permeates the region giving rise to the 100 plus “faerie chimneys”–some as much as 140′ tall.  In addition churches and homes were caved out of the soft stone.  The underground cities (about 20 still exist)  are beyond belief.  They were used by the early Christians to avoid the raiding Arabs of the time.  These “cities”, unseen from above, reach 150′-250′ below ground with as many as 8 levels; some housed as many as 20,000 people. They include kitchens, bedrooms, wine cellars and vents–and oh so narrow passages.

Spring 2010: Albania, Macedonia (now the Northern Republic of) and Italy.

Brazil in the Fall of 2011 (actually it was Spring in Brazil but…)  We flew into an left the country from Rio de Janeiro where we spent a few days at each end of our trip.  The 2011 birthday card depicts a view from the Corcovado looking out into the bay and Sugar Loaf Mountain.  The statue of Christ the Redeemer, 100′ tall, was erected in 1931 and is the work of a French sculptor (who fashioned the head) and two Brazilian engineers who constructed the rest.  Rio is a big, buzzing city with a stunning setting–the city extends over 15 miles along an alluvial strip between an azure sea and forest-clad mountains.  The “centro” has its share of colonial period historic sites but for many tourists the beaches are the city’s treasures.  On our return to Rio we stayed at a hotel adjacent to Copacabana–beautiful.

The country, of course, is huge–except for Rio, we sawed off only a small piece– in the far southeast.  Our main goal here–actually Mike’s–was to visit Brazil’s prime wine producing region near the city of Bento Gonsalves.  We flew from Rio to Porto Alegre , spent a night there and then drove to the wine area.  While not wine touring with Mike, I relaxed in the luxurious suite of our hotel with its view of the surrounding vineyards. Ah!

From there we drove about 250 miles  through the sparsely populated plains to the site of the ruins of Jesuit missions that date from the early 1600’s.  We ended this leg of the trip by vising the magnificent Iguassu Falls on the Brazilian- Argentine border.  Our hotel was on the Brazilian side within stones throw of the falls.  We dropped the car off and flew to Buenos Aires–in retrospect, not a great idea since it poured our entire stay.  To Rio for three days and home.

Our Spring trip that year was to the mid-west and east coast to see relatives and friends.

Poland was our destination in the Fall of 2012.  Admittedly my pre-conception of the country was colored by WW II and its long period under the Soviet yoke.  I expected grey and grim.  Wow!  What a surprise–the country is anything but.  We saw vitality, independence, spick and span brightly colored buildings and wooded forests –green not grey–in the southern portion of Poland we traveled.

Our travels took us to 5 interesting towns and 3 major cities–Warsaw, Krakow and Wroclaw (pronounced VROTS waff). These  three cities came out of the war in very different ways.  Warsaw was heavy wracked by the Germans.  The city has been rebuilt but more as a “new world” modern city–wide streets, high rises with a bit of “old world” charm in the restored old town and  parks.  Krakow, perhaps one of Europe’s gems, was not touched by the Nazis at all primarily because Krakow was designated to be the capital city of the Nazi regional government.  Mike’s birthday card of ’12 shows an aerial view of the Wawel Hill and the 16th century former royal palace with its associated buildings.  Krakow has an outstanding central square but Mike found drawing it too difficult. Wroclaw was the German city of Breslau before the war.

Of the 5 towns we stayed, the first is the old trading town of Sandomierz, about 150 mile south of Warsaw, with its medieval and Renaissance buildings still intact. East of Sandomierz is the 16th century model town of Zamosc.  The town has an Italianate feel–wide piazza, grid-plan streets and  is still surrounded by  star-shaped fortification walls. On to Przemysl, on the Ukraine border, with an outlying ring of 19th century forts.  We stayed overnight in a large 17th century castle whose restaurant specializes in game.  Yum.  After Krakow we drove to the highland town of Zapopane in the Tatra Mountains known for skiing, hiking and its timber-built rustic architecture.  On our way back to Warsaw from Wroclaw we found ourselves in need of lodging.  About 5 miles off the exit from the superhighway that connects Berlin to Warsaw we found a hotel, the only one in town, in the none-describe Konin–well, actually “new Konin”–a Soviet era planned town.  On our way back to the highway the next morning we discovered we missed the “real” Konin–a charming village on a small river–and several hotels to choose from.  Next time…

Spring 2012: Denmark, Norway and Sweden.

Part V, the final, coming in two weeks.

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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