Birthday Card Series: Part V

Our 2013 trip to Israel is recalled by the birthday card that portrays a bird’s-eye-view of the archeological site of  Masada.  Masada, which sits on a 1200′ elevation rock that overlooks the Dead Sea, was built by Herod the Great in the 1st century BCE.  Two centuries later the fortress was captured by a Jewish sect, the Zealots (from which we get the English word), in a revolt against Rome–this was the Jews’ last stand.  After a long siege the Romans took the fortress only to find that all 960 of the sect committed suicide rather than surrender.  Masada represents Israeli patriotism as its proudest–and perhaps at its most foolish.
Certainly the multiplicity of historical and biblical sites–including the Old City of Jerusalem– make Israel an interesting country to visit.  However, the unresolved Palestinian issue seems, to me, to cover the country with an oppressive layer of fog.
No international trip in the Fall of ’13–we traveled, once again, to the Mid-west and East coast to visit with friends and relatives.

The Caucus countries of Armenia and Georgia were the focus of our wine touring trip in the Spring of 2014.    With the aid of local guides we were able to visit some cultural and historical sites as well.  Since Armenia was the first country to adopt Christianity (in 301)–Georgia the second  in 337–there are many historic Orthodox churches to visit–we did our best.   This region is known as the, “Cradle of Wine” in that discoveries  found here give evidence  to the origins of  viticulture– dating back around 8000 years  ago.  In both countries today grape growing and wine making are still vital parts of the culture. During the Soviet period Georgia was “appointed” (along with Moldova)  to supply wine for the rest of the  USSR–Armenia’s role was was to be the source of grape-based brandy. 

The ’14 birthday card depicts the Citadel in Tbilisi, which dominates the eastern hills of this vital city.  The Citadel was built by the Persians in 360 and refurbished by the Turks in the 16th century.  From the balcony of our hotel room, located on the northern bank of the Mtkvari River, we had  great views of the Citadel and the  historic Old City–with its array  of Orthodox churches, mosques, synagogues, sulfur baths, restaurants  (most with live jazz) and, of course, wine bars.
Fall ’14 was another wine trip–to the Willamette Valley of Oregon and Walla Walla, Washington.  In addition, our daughter and her family flew in from Oakland to meet us in Portland for a fun weekend.

Our trip to China in the Spring of ’15 (to peek into the emerging wine industry and visit cultural sites, as well)  was unique for us in many ways.  It was our first (and only to this date) to East Asia.  It was the only trip we’ve taken in which we didn’t drive ourselves–China doesn’t allow foreign tourists to rent cars–we took flights to all four links of our trip. This was  our first trip with guides throughout  and valuable guides (with drivers)  at that–they picked us up and returned us to airports–helping us through passport control and the other confounding issues of modern travel.–and, of course, relayed important insights to all cultural sites.We flew into Beijing and were taken to a lovely 100 year old hotel that was formerly a three generation town house.  We did the usual tourist stops–including Tienanmen Square and the Forbidden City.  Then a two hour drive to a section of the Great Wall which is shown on the ’15 birthday card.  This portion of the several thousand mile wall was built around 1500, of stone, to keep out the Manchu invaders (and, perhaps, the Mexicans–if so, it was quite successful in this regard since we saw no Mexicans in China).  We saw another section of the wall –this one earthen–near Yinchuan, a city on the edge of the Gobi Desert, 550 miles west of Beijing. We stayed here three nights in order to tour nearby wineries.  Next, east to a three day stay in Xian–China’s first capital and the starting point of the Silk Road.  Fascinating walled Old Town with its active Moslem Quarter. A short trip to the most- see Terra Cotta Warriors–the awesome ranks of life-sized pottery figures that were made to guard the tomb of a despotic ruler who unified China over 2,200 years ago.  Amazing!  A flight to Taiyuan and a stay at a nearby winery’s guest house–then on to the Ming Era walled city of Pingyao, with its more than 3,000 historic buildings.  Back to Beijing and home.
Fall ’15: domestic travel only–friends and relatives in the Mid-west and South Florida.

The weather in the Baltics in the Spring of ’16 was gentle and warm–perfect for locals as well as tourists (us) to take in the street activity– the open air markets and  restaurants and bars opening out to the streets.  The three small Baltic counties of Lithuania, Latvia and Estonia , with a total population of 7 million, are beautifully wooded with rolling hills in the south–Lithuania and Latvia– that give way to a much flatter Estonia.  We greatly enjoyed the three capital cities of Vilnius, Riga and Tallinn. 
Kate and Tom flew in from Belgium to join us for a weekend in Riga.  We leisurely strolled the city’s parks and took in the vast collection of turn of the 20th century Art Noveau buildings. The ’16 birthday card (one of Mike’s favorites) tries to capture the medieval lower Old Town of Tallinn from  Toompea Hill–a walled-in 13th century “other old town”.  In trying to drive to our hotel in the “real” Old Town Mike missed a turn and we found ourselves in a maze of one-way streets on Toompea Hill.  After much frustration–and to my chagrin–Mike continued down a one way street in the wrong direction, narrowly missing a mob of cruise ship tourists who were walking  up the Hill.  We passed through a gate of the city wall only to encounter wrong-direction one way streets in the Old Town.  We made it though to our comforting boutique hotel–whose origins date back to the 14th century. Beyond the capitals, we traversed the country side in all three countries (due to Mike’s fetish in visiting obscure wineries in regions with inhospitable climate) and found friendly towns and interesting lodging wherever we went.  Two towns in particular spring to mind: Cesis, Latvia–centered around a a castle built in 1207 by the German Knights of the Sword–and the charming university town of Tartu, Estonia–which lies just a few miles west of brooding Russia and all that entails.


In Fall ’16 we went to Chicago to visit relatives and then on to a relaxing stint, off-season, to Lake Geneva, Wisconsin, where we viewed on our hotel’s bar TV the Cubs winning the World Series.

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. Kevin Klimczak, extraordinaire, is the website designer and editor of the blogs.
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