Friday, May 25, 2018

Last Stop - The Basque Country of Northern Spain/France and the Coa Valley, Portugal

Our last two stops were great in northern Spain and northern Portugal. Like a previous post, I may not be able to comment on each photo here as I am leaving for a river trip soon. But if I fail to caption each of these, I finish up when I get back! Enjoy.

Flying form Romania to Spain, we had a excellent view of the southern side of the Alps. A recent snow storm had dropped fresh snow just the day before. The captain said that the Matterhorn was visible out there but I didn't see it.

Northern Spain was so green!

Bilbao, Spain

Our first stop was the famous Guggenheim Museum. I didn't know too much about it but was pleasantly surprised at some of the exhibits (although many modern art museum will have some strange themes.

The spider at the entrance.

Tulip art. This piece is quite large.

This is one example of a seemingly strange exhibit. Imagine a hall as long as a football filed and in it are merely eight steel shapes. I walked in and said, "What is this?" But after walking into the shapes and seeing all of the different designs, it was AMAZING!

Here is the big view. We use tour guide systems on these trips in which a local guide can talk into a radio powered headset and then. we all can hear the guide without the need to stand real close. If you go more than 35 meters away, the signal fails. However, I went deep into three or four of these shapes on the far side of the hall and the guides voice came through loud and clear. The steel shapes act like an antennae.

San Sebastian, Spain

We stayed at the town of San Sebastian on the Bay of Biscay.

The old town was really wonderful and all of the "foodies" on our trip loved this stop as San Sebastian is known for its gastronomy. Some members of our group had made a reservation at a restaurant one year in advance and paid $500 for a 26-course meal. The portions were thumbnail size I heard.

Another scene on a street in the old town.

One of the churches in San Sebastian.

Across the bay is Mt. Urgill and I next went to the hotel seen on top. The following photos are taken from there.

On Mt. Urgill looking west.

Looking east into the bay and the spectacular setting of San Sebastian. The old town is seen just above the island in the bay.

Close-up of one of San Sebastian's beaches.

Close-up of the old town.

Note the upturned strata on the island. This reflects uplift of the Pyrenees Mountains whose main mass is located east of here. However, the entire region was caught up in the uplift event.

The Pyrenees have had multiple deformation episodes but the latest one was the Alpine Orogeny that created the Alps.

The road cuts near here are spectacular.

Barritz, France

I signed on for a day tour across the border in southern France and loved it.

A map of Spain and Portugal to show these locations. Note the towns of Bilbao and San Sebastian on the north coast of Spain near the French border. Just across the border is the village of Biarritz. Note also that this is the place where the orientation of the shoreline shifts from east-west to north-south. Biarritz is located right there.

This is looking from the area of the lighthouse to the east where rocks from the Pyrenees uplift are located.

Turning 90 degrees right note only a flat sandy coast. This is where the elbow of the Bay of Biscay is located. No mountains looking in this direction all the way to Normandy. This is a former plate junction where the Iberian microcontinent collided with Europe (France).

View if the lighthouse from the center of town.

In Biarritz I visited the market.

France hams for sale. I would have loved to taste it.

The fruit stall.

Fresh fish from the Bay of Biscay. Look how nicely they are displayed. This was one of the cleanest markets I have ever seen.

Visiting the Virgin Mary statue on the bay. Note the tilted sedimentary rocks.

View to the west toward San Sebastian. Our day trip to France was excellent! And our stop in Spain was great too. On to Portugal!

The Coa Valley, Portugal

Our jet took a short flight to Porto in Portugal and we drove 90 minutes to the Douro Valley. The Douro River is a major waterway in northern Iberia. For the Douro Valley, I partook in a day trip to an archaeological site in the Coa Valley.

Through the wine growing region of northern Portugal. It is very scenic. I was very eager to see the Coa Valley because it is the site of a Paleolithic rock art site. The rock art here is between 25,000 and 10,000 years old. Many people have heard of the famous cave paintings in France and Spain and this site is partially equivalent in age.

The Douro River Valley where the Coa River meets this river. Note the river cruise boat.

The museum at the site had perfect recreations of the art as well as excellent exhibits. This is a recreation piece of one of the more famous elements. It is a depiction of a horse with seemingly two heads, one looking each way. But the archaeologists believe the artists were trying to depict motion.

The archaeological site has an interesting story. In 1991 a dam was set to be built on the Coa River shown here. As part of the pre-construction archaeological survey, they found the Paleolithic rock art. The energy company tried to find that the art was not of that age but it was futile. A national campaign was begun and by 1995 the dam project was halted forever. The dam site can be seen on the left side of this photo. What a great story. Read more about it here.

The way in was on dirt roads. The site is limited to about 50 people per day and there were 15 guests in our group.

The last town before the site is Castillo Melhor and the local restaurant is in on the theme.

A larger view of the site with the big floodplain bar likely the site where the artists camped. To think of Homo sapiens living here 25,000 years ago in the height of the Ice Age is thrilling to me.

The first panel being explained by our archaeology guide Antonio Barata. He has worked with rock art at this site since the days of dam construction.

When we arrived the panel was in the shade. But within 10 minutes the sun had drawn high snout to illuminate the elements. Many elements overlap one another and irregularities in the rock are sometimes used for eyes, noses, and other features.

This is a depiction of a horse on the left facing right. There are three heads on the torso which is very evident on the left. Antonio believes that the artists were depicting motion as the horse was grazing with its head down (easily seen at center), then lifting its head in two other positions above that.

Antonio pointing out the site.

A fabulous rendition of an aurochs, a wild predecessor of domesticated cattle. The last aurochs died in Poland in 1837.

More elements on the rock. Our group was ecstatic to see such ancient art.

Look at this! The rock type is schist.

Thank you for reading about my trip - Kingdoms and Cultures of Eurasia!

Thursday, May 24, 2018

Post-Soviet Albania and Romania

Much of this trip skirted the western side of the former Soviet Union and our visit to Albania and Romania reflects this. If, like me, you were subjected to the grainy, black and white images of wrinkly old ladies standing in a bread line in the 1960s and 1970s, you might also expect these countries to look the same today. Not wanting me to aspire to anything socialized, our government  imprinted these images of scarcity and want in our psyches. Admittedly, things were not always good under the Soviet dictatorships and we heard many stories from the locals in this regard. We did however, also hear how roads, railroads and other infrastructure was improved during these dark days. Like most things in life, there was spectrum of benefits and misery and not just a single story to be told. Both of these countries were subjected to brutal social conditions in the Communist era but they are now thriving and forward looking. Wee had great weather in both places. Take a look.

Tirana, Albania

Our jet landed in the capital, Tirana and our hotel was directly in the city center. I took this photo from the window of my 20th floor hotel room. You can see the mosque to the left under construction, with funding provided by the government of Turkey. We heard this refrain often on our trip. It seems the Turkish government wants to exert influence in nearby countries as a sort of "Return of the Ottoman Empire."

Map of Albania showing surrounding nations, Tirana the capital, and Skoder and Lake Skoder.

Skodra, Albania

I opted for a full day tour to the northern city of Skodra (also spelled Shkodër). Our objective was to visit the Rozafa Castle located on the hill seen here. Check out the link provided for a more detailed explanation.

Walking up on the old road. We left the capital early to beat the crowds. That was a very good thing.

Once on top of the hill we could see why this was such an incredible place to build a castle - the hill is located at the confluence of three rivers. This view to the south shows two of the rivers coming from the distant mountains in the background, known as the Albanian Alps.

View to the north to the modern city of Skodra with some of the castle ruins in the foreground. Look a those cirrus clouds! I love watching them.

There are three concentric walls and this is the entrance through the outer wall. Note the city in the background. Beyond the city is the border with the country of Montenegro.

Cobblestone road in the entrance.

Looking out beyond the outermost wall.

View to the north from Rozafa Castle to the city of Skodra.

This view is the left of the one above and shows the third river in the area. Look closely and you can see it is a short river and begins when water leaves Lake Skodra, visible in the left background.

Turning downstream on the Skodra River where it joins the other two river. Note the Albanian flag.

One more turn to the left showing where the two rivers approach the Skodra River.

Spring was in full bloom and these poppies reveal here the color for the flag was obtained.

Everywhere we went young people engaged us as they often do not see Americans. However, European tourism is strong in al of the countries that we visited.

After passing the second wall, we encountered the old church, whose bell tower had been converted into a minaret when the Ottoman's invaded the area in 1478. I love those clouds visible here. What a day!

Inside the modern city of Skodra, where the old streets are welcoming and beautiful.

One of the things these trips do not lack is plenty of good food. We stopped at a very local Albanian restaurant located about halfway between Skodra and Tirana. The food was excellent as well as the beer! It was busy with locals - we were the only visitors here. Fourteen courses had everyone in our group raving about the day.

Our ride back to the capital passed through some beautiful landscapes. The Albanian Alps are a place I could envision returning to with striking mountain scenery protected in National Parks. I think my strongest take-away from Albania was realizing how words - such as Albania - can create impressions, feelings, and even judgements that are not necessarily true. Had I visited this country during the 1960s and 1970s, my impressions may have been quite different. But Rozafa Castle, the Albanian Alps, and the cirrus clouds on a sunny day would have still been there, Our next country only confirmed this observations.

Bucharest, Romania

As five of the nine counties visited on this trip are new to me, I only learned something about their history - anything - only a few days before touchdown. The ability to quickly learn about a country's history is really an artifact of living in this modern, wired world. Sure, there were printed travel guides in the "old" days but having ready access to many documents at once is a sure sign of modernity. As I learned, Romania has a fascinating history and landscape.

Map of Romania showing Bucharest, Pelaş, and Bucovina.

A Triumphal Arch that was designed after  the one in Paris. An original wooden arch was built here to honor Romanian independence in the 1870s and this version was constructed and dedicated in 1936.

Romania is a proud member of the European Union.

The fire from my 7th floor hotel room to the east in Bucharest.

The Royal Palace of Bucharest, now an art museum.

An old Orthodox Church in the heart of Bucharest. Lots of outdoor cafes lined the streets of the city.

On our 2nd day, we headed north into the Carpathian Mountains where the Pelaȿ Castle is located. More of a mansion than a castle, the interior was astounding in its over-the-top size and design. From the Wikipedia site:

When King Carol of Romania (1839–1914), first visited the site of the castle in 1866, he fell in love with the magnificent mountain scenery. In 1872, the Crown purchased 500 square miles of land and the estate was named the Royal Estate of Sinaia. The King commissioned the construction of a royal hunting preserve and summer retreat on the property, and the foundation for Peleș Castle was laid on 22 August 1873 and interior redesign continued until his death. Several out buildings were also constructed: a guards' chambers, a hunting lodge, royal stables, and a power plant. Peleș became the world's first castle fully powered by locally produced electricity.

Here is a view of the Carpathian Mountains in central Romania. These mountains are the site of another castle just 35 miles away that was the setting of the 1897 novel "Dracula" by Bran Stoker. Indeed, one of the three provinces in Romania is Transylvania. The Carpathian Mountains have a history related to the uplift of the Alps to the west. The rocks seen here are mostly composed of limestone.

There are numerous statues at the entrance of the castle/mansion.

After ascending a red carpeted stairway, the entry room was attained. Three stories high and full of ornate woodwork.

King Carol I (pronounced Karl) was very fond, of his weapons collection with many pieces dating back to early Medieval times.

Here is a fully outfitted armored horseman as he might have looked in the 14th century.

The stained glass windows were quite impressive.

Portrait of a young King Carol of Romania.

A scene from the music room.

This is not a nickel-plated bathtub in one of the 33 bathrooms, it is a solid nickel bathtub.

The largest guest bedroom where Franz Joseph I of Austria slept for one night only.

The main dining table with an opening to the third floor of the entryway. I have not previously had much experience with European castles and I understand that "castle fatigue" can be as undesirable as "church fatigue" in Italy. However, I was pleasantly surprised with this visit. While I might not return to this castle, The Carpathian Mountains hold a lot of interest to me.

Bucovina, Romania

We once again returned to our jet for a "commuter trip" to the northeast part of the country, a region called Bucovina. It was a one hour flight from Bucharest to this area, very near the neighboring country of Moldava.

Map of the regions in Romania.

Bucovina lies on the northern fringe of the Carpathian Mountains and this view to the south shows the low hills at the base of the range. It was green and hilly and very interesting to me.

The reason for our journey north was to see two beautifully painted and preserved monasteries. These have been declared UNESCO World Heritage sites for the preservation of their 15th and 16th century frescoes.

Where the walls are exposed to rain and snow, the frescoes are weathered...

...but where they are protected, they are wonderful.

 I used my zoom lens to bring out the detail.

We were not allowed to photograph the frescoes in side the church and these are ones that have sat out in the elements for nearly five centuries.

While visiting the sites, some of our group were interviewed by a local news team. They had heard that our special group was flying into the area for the day to see the sights. I was told we could see the story later that night (May 14) on their web site ( But I do not read Romanian and could not navigate the site.

A more modern Orthodox church near the site of the monasteries.

Driving through the countryside was very enjoyable an where a shepherd and his sheep dog watch over the flock. I would love to travel back to Romania, and authentic European destination.