A Travellerspoint blog

Impressions of Spain and Portugal, Part 2

Exploring Portugal, the land of explorers

The Wadi Guadiana river forms the border between Spain and Portugal in the southwestern part of the Iberian peninsula. The names of many rivers in Spain and Portugal begin with wadi, which is the Arabic word for river and reflects the time of the Moorish presence. The name of Portugal’s southern region Al Garve is also Arabic and means “The West” [of the Arab Empire].

The first thing my guide said about Portugal is not to conflate it with Spain. Too often people tend to just sort of lob Portugal in there with Spain. Portugal is a distinct country with a separate language, traditions and history. In the big picture the Portuguese language carries its own weight as it is third most widely spoken European language throughout the world. In Lisbon I met up with friend from the foreign service, and he told me how Portugal is still an impact player on the world stage today in many good ways that don’t always make the front page of the news.

A visitor to Portugal is greeted by images and figurines of a rooster everywhere. The legend of the Barcelos Cock is engrained into the mind of every child in Portugal. Below is a postcard which narrates the story.

You might have noticed the postcard is made of cork. The second thing a visitor to Portugal notices is the prominence of cork trees and cork products. Here is a picture of one store display:

I was going to buy my dad a hat made of cork, but I was afraid he would wear it in public. I eventually broke down myself and bought a iPhone case made of cork.

This picture from Google Images shows what a cork tree looks like when it is harvested. Cork products can be expensive because the bark can only be sheared once every nine years.

The third thing a visitor to Portugal notices is the ubiquity of artistic tiles on many building facades. There is a backstory about how this came to be: Portuguese ships used to carry tiles as ballast weights on their way to Brazil. The sailors dumped the tiles in Brazil to make room for gold and other goods. The Portuguese colonists in Brazil didn’t know what to do with all these tiles laying around, so they started decorating the outside of their houses with them. They kept decorating their houses with tiles when they moved back to Portugal. The idea caught on and continues to this day. Many houses , churches, subway stations, and bridges in Portugal are decorated in tiles.

Albufeira, Algarve:
I had two wonderful days at this beach resort town on the southwestern tip of Portugal. British tourists from all walks of life invade the town. I saw sophisticated jet-setters sip martinis at the yacht club, and I witnessed soccer hooligans cavort about.

In Albufeira I had a chance to try a traditional Portuguese meal called catalaplana. It tastes similar to seafood gumbo in the United States. The meal included some good shrimp and octopus appetizers as well.

The name catalaplana reflects the name of the pan used to serve the food, and not the food itself.

The largest river on the Iberian peninsula is the Tagus, and Lisbon grew up where it spills out into the Atlantic Ocean. The history of Lisbon stretches back to the ancient Celts and Phoenicians, but the popular story is Odysseus founded the city during his wanderings. The Romans and Moors had their turns in Lisbon as well.

A visitor to Lisbon is likely to have two moments of confusion when he or she first enters Lisbon. For one moment the visitor will wonder if he or she is in San Francisco by mistake, and in the second moment the visitor will be transported to Rio de Janeiro. This is because the 25th of April bridge was built by the same company that built the Golden Gate bridge, and resembles its cousin. The bridge was built in 1966 and was renamed in 1974 to commemorate Portugal’s peaceful transition into democracy. A replica of Rio’s Christ the Redeemer statue stands on the hilltop near the bridge. Lisbon erected it in 1950 as a way to give thanks to God for keeping Portugal from getting sucked into WWII.

Portugal produced a string of famous explorers during the “Age of Discovery.” This did not happen by chance. The backstory on what really prompted the great feats of the Portuguese explorers is they were looking for a way to get to India by sea because Constantinople fell and the Ottoman empire decided to block the land trade of spices to Europe. Prince Henry the Navigator came onto the scene in the early 15th century. He invested heavily in nautical navigation R&D to give Portuguese traders a competitive advantage. He got the Catholic church to buy into the plan by selling it as an opportunity for missionaries to convert distant peoples. A “Discoveries Monument” along the river Tagus commemorates his foresight, and a high-school specializing in preparing future cargo ship captains lives on to this day in Lisbon.

A series of Portuguese explorers inched their way along and around the African coast during the 15th century until Vasco da Gama broke through to India in 1498. He is buried in the Monastery of Jeronimos.

All major Portuguese exploring expeditions started from the Tower of Belem. A nearby replica of a bi-plane commemorates the first airplane crossing of the South Atlantic from Lisbon to Rio de Janeiro in 1922 by two pilots from Portugal. The pilots were charged with delivering a bottle of port wine to the governor of Rio, but the pilots encountered “technical difficulties” along the way and the port never made it.

Custard pastries were also invented near the Belem tower by monks who didn’t know what do to with left over egg yolks from a starch-making process. Cinnamon was a key ingredient of the spice trade and the custard cakes.

Pictures of the Lisbon Skyline:

My guide said the people of Lisbon are big on pastel colors.

Here is a picture of the bullfighting stadium in Lisbon. Note the Indian influence in the architecture. The Portuguese spice trade with the Orient influenced Lisbon architecture in many ways. For example, the tombs of royals depict elephants instead of the lions which were customary symbols for other European royals. Bullfighting in Portugal is different than in Spain. The bullfighters wrestle the bull to the ground and pull the tail. The bull gets to live. They get the bull to leave the stadium by enticing it with cows.

On my first night in Lisbon I tasted a traditional pork stew dish.

Around Lisbon:
I signed up for an excursion tour of some towns around Lisbon. This casino is the original Casino Royale from Ian Fleming’s first James Bond novel. A new owner changed the name some time ago.

The beachside town of Cascais is a playground for the rich and famous, and attracts a few celebrities.

Cabo de Roca is the western most point of continental Europe. For centuries many medieval people believed if you sailed too far west from this point you would sail straight into hell.

Many rich people built nice villas in the town of Sintra, nestled in the mountains near Lisbon. A unique microclimate creates lush vegetation and cool temperatures in summer. A few of these villas are shown below, and the ramparts from an old Moorish remain at the top of the hill.

Sintra’s city hall.

Residents of Lisbon enjoy escaping to Sintra for the pastries alone. On the left is a cheese tartlet known as a quexaes. The pastry with an apple filling on the left is known as a traviszero, which somehow translates to “body pillow.”

Many Catholics believe the Virgin Mary appeared to three villagers in the Portuguese town of Fatima in 1907. The town has become a major pilgrimage destination since then. The church can hold 10,000 people at once.

The main city on Portugal’s north coast is Porto. This is the birthplace of port wine. Like Champagne and Coca-Cola, the invention of port wine was sort of an accident. The story starts with the English increasing their imports of Portuguese wine because they didn’t want to buy French wine from Napoleon. A shipment of wine went bad and some Portuguese merchants put brandy into it to try to salvage the load. The English loved the taste and port wine as we know it was born. A good port is aged in these caskets for at least ten years.

A river cruise on the Douro is a good way to soak in the sights of the old city while soaking in some port.

I had a great meal at the restaurant Chez Lapin. They start by setting a chorizo appetizer aflame and setting it in front of the customer.

I had a good rabbit stew here. Rabbit is a favorite dish for Portuguese and Spaniards. My guide said rabbits are great because they season themselves with all the herbs they eat.

Harry Potter author J.K. Rowling authored the first book of the series while teaching English in Porto. The staircase from this Porto bookstore made its way into her second book and its movie.

As our tour bus left Portugal and crossed back into Spain my tour guide played the song April in Portugal as sung by Louis Armstrong.

I found my April dream in Portugal with you
When we discovered romance, like we never knew.
My head was in the clouds, My heart went crazy too,
And madly I said: "I love you."

Too soon I heard you say:
"This dream is for a day"
That's Porugal and love in April!
And when the showers fell,
Those tears I know so well,
They told me it was spring fooling me.


I found my April dream in Portugal with you
When we discovered romance, like I never knew.
Then morning brought the rain,
And now my dream is through
But still my heart says "I love you."

This sad reality, To know it couldn't be,
That's Portugal and love in April!
The music and the wine convinced me you were mine,
But it was just the spring fooling me.


I found my April dream in Portugal with you
When we discovered romance, like I never knew.
Then morning brought the rain,
And now my dream is through
But still my heart says "I love you."

Posted by clarkmw78 11:37 Archived in Portugal Comments (6)

Impressions of Spain and Portugal, Part 1

4th Time is Still a Charm

Spain has a way of pulling me back. This is my fourth time visiting the place, and I still have many parts to explore in the future. I signed up for a Trafalgar company tour titled “Impressions of Spain and Portugal.” I went with this tour because it promised to venture a little deeper into Spain. So far I have not been disappointed. The map below highlights my tour route.

The Spanish Schedule – Only mad dogs and English tourists go out in the midday sun.
Spaniards are a nocturnal people. They typically don’t eat dinner until 10:00 p.m., and will spend the next few hours chatting with friends and family until 1:00 a.m. This doesn’t keep them from getting up at 6:30 a.m. for work. Most of them do take a nap or siesta after a 2:00 p.m. lunch before getting back to work. The afternoon heat in Spain is a contributing factor for the siesta. I have also read the human body’s circadian rhythm is geared to fall asleep in the afternoon. I know a lot of people who feel sleepy after lunch. Spain and other siesta cultures probably have it right by following the cues of the body with a nap instead of slugging through it.

La Mancha
Traveling by motor coach is not for everyone. One advantage is the traveler gets to absorb the countryside and delight in a few scenic landscape along the way. Below is a picture of the central plains, known as La Mancha. Our guide quipped the plains in Spain received a lot of rain this year.

Don Quixote
Our first stop was the town of Puerto Lapice. A famous scene from the fictional novel Don Quixote took place in this town. Don Quixote was one of the world’s first novels. The protagonist, Don Quixote, has read too many books on chivalry of old and deludes himself into thinking he is a knight charged with solving the social problems of the world and bringing back chivalry. He rides around Spain with his squire Sancho, a simpleton farmer. The two have a series of humorous adventures, and some of the stories carry deep meaning under the veil of humor. The author, Cervantes, is regarded as the Shakespeare of Spain. Coincidentally he died on the same day as Shakespeare.

Sierra Morena
This mountain region forms the physical boundary between the central plains and the southern Andalucia region of Spain. For several hundred years they also harbored bandits who raided gold trains on their way from Seville to Madrid. At one point the Spanish government tried settling farmers from Central Europe in the area to tame it, but the immigrants ended up becoming bandits as well. Many of the bandits were known to be dashing, well-groomed, and well-educated.

For centuries what is now Spain was a collection of small kingdoms. Several regions such as Andalucia cling to a strong and separate identity to this day. For several hundred years the Andalucia region was known as the Moorish kingdom of Granada. We know the year 1492 for Christopher Columbus and the discovery of the new world, but this is also the year Queen Isabella drove the last elements of the Moorish kingdom on the Iberian peninsula from Granada.

Olive Oil Museum:
Spain has over 600 million olive trees. For miles all we saw was an endless sea of olive trees.

Our tour included a trip to an olive oil museum, which has traditional harvesting and processing equipment on display. The museum features a garden of about 30 different types of olive trees from around the world. At the end we tasted a few varieties of olive oil.

My first adventurous meal in Spain was tail of an oxen in the town of Baeza. The meat was a little fatty but the sauce was good.

Here is a view of the Sierra Nevada mountains from my hotel window. Locals commented on how unusual it was to still have snow at the top in early July. The spring and early summer seasons were unusually cold this year.

View of Granada from the Alhambra Palace.

Alhambra Palace
I am cheating on my blog a little bit here as I am using a few pictures from a 2009 trip to the Alhambra palace as well as a few photos from Wikipedia. This is where the last Moorish kings of the Granada kingdom held court. It features beautiful artwork, gardens, and scenery.

Gypsy Flamenco Dance
Several gypsy families have built nice homes and restaurants utilizing a string of caves across from the Al Hambra palace. These families make their living entertaining visitors with flamenco dance shows. Michelle Obama dropped in for a show when she visited a few years ago.

A plate of tapas from a Granada restaurant:

The southern coast of Spain is known as the Costa Del Sol, or Sun Coast.

Barbary pirates used to plunder along the Costa del Sol. Small lookout towers dot the coastline. They were built within sight of each other so they could send signals back and forth.

On a hot summer day in Spain a bowl of Gazpacho is a refreshing treat. It is a tomato-based soup that is served cold, sometimes with ice cubes.

Sea bass is one of my favorite seafood dishes. In Malaga they bake it under a thick bed of salt. I enjoyed this dish and was surprised it did not taste too salty. I had some lightly fried sardines as well.


I am cheating again here by recycling pictures from my 2009 trip to Gibraltar, which is located on the southern tip of Spain. The British captured this area in 1704, and to this day it remains a British territory.

A similar rock formation rests at the northern tip of Morocco. Ancient Greeks said these pillars came from Hercules ripping apart the land to let the Atlantic spill into the Mediterranean Sea.

The monkeys at Gibraltar are known for stealing items from tourists and running away with them.

Ernest Hemingway made the town of Ronda famous in his book The Sun Also Rises. Orson Welles fell in love with the town as well. Hemingway stayed at a hotel which has these very scenic views around it.

Spanish bullfighting has its origins in Ronda from the 18th century. Before that bullfighters would only fight the bull from horseback. During one match a bullfighter fell from his horse. He started waving his hat to divert the bull’s charge to his hat instead of his body. The crowd loved it and bullfighting on foot with a cape became a staple of bullfights.

Bullfighting is display of form over function. A good bullfighter wows the crowd with his ability to artfully steer the bull in perilous ways around himself. The bull has a rigid spine and cannot turn easily. The trick is to stay close to the bull and move around in angles. The movements the bullfighters use are inspired by flamenco dance. Successful bullfighters have rock-star status in Spain and can earn around 6 million Euros a year. The sport is dying out though, and more people are taking issue with the death of the bull in these events.

A picture from a bullfight I saw in another part of Spain in 2009:

Field of sunflowers in south-western Spain.

Posted by clarkmw78 16:59 Archived in Spain Comments (1)

Highlights of Germany Tour, Part 2

Achtung Baby

Dresden takes the hidden gem of the tour award for my trip. I knew what to expect going into the other stops, but Dresden turned out to be a nice surprise. Dresden is called the Florence of Germany. This is because a prominent king, Augustus the Strong (1694-1733) had traveled extensively in his youth. He brought in architects from Versailles, Florence, and Venice to construct similar buildings in Dresden.

Today’s buildings are replicas as the Allies flattened the city during WWII. The bombing of Dresden remains controversial to this day as it occurred at the tail—end of the war, when Allied victory was already assured. Furthermore, the Allies used fire bombs, which did a great job of burning down old wooden buildings and killing tens of thousands of civilians; but, did not destroy the one target of military value, the train station.

Dresden is located in the state of Saxony. This is where “Saxons” in the term “Anglo-Saxons” come from. Dresden is also known for its porcelain industry. For a long period of time the Europeans paid high prices for Chinese porcelain. Dresden claims it was the first European city to figure out how to make porcelain. Today Dresden is heavily invested in the technology sector and is compared to Silicon Valley. The city is doing well economically and has low unemployment. A week before I arrived Dresden experienced flooding severe enough to make world news. I admire German resiliency, because I saw few traces of the damage along the river Elbe.

My ears perked up when I heard the people of Dresden are lovers of coffee. They don’t have any unique coffee styles of their own, but they have a long tradition of being true coffee connoisseurs. Several hundred years ago the Saxon king sent soldiers from Dresden to assist the Prussian king. When the soldiers arrived they told the Prussian king “We can’t fight unless we have our coffee.”

For several hundred years this city hosted the parliament for the Holy Roman Empire, and the old part of the city retains some picturesque buildings. However, Nuremberg is most known as the spiritual center of the Nazi movement. The Nazis would have massive rallies here during the 1930s, some involving over 100,000 people. Here is a picture of what it looked like during an evening rally:

Here is what the main podium looks like today.

The US Army destroyed all Nazi symbols when they arrived. To this day Germans struggle with how to deal with sites like these. Some want to destroy them and fear they could turn into pilgrimage sites for neo-Nazis. Others think they should be preserved to educate future generations and prevent something like this from happening again. Structures like these are falling into disrepair because no public official wants to be branded as the guy who used public funds to maintain a Nazi structure.

I am sure my tour guide wished she had an electric cattle prod in Rothenburg. There were so many photograph opportunities along the road that members of our group kept peeling off to take a picture.

Rothenburg is known for a pastry called a “snowball.” This diet-killer is basically a ball of little pieces of shortbread fused together. Bakeries offer about twenty different flavor varieties. I went for one filled with amaretto-flavored marzipan.

Bayern (Bavaria)
The images most outsiders have of Germany and Germans such as the big beers, oompa bands, lederhosen, and pretzels come from the Bavarian region in southern Germany. The irony here is that many Bavarians see themselves as Bavarians first, and Germans second. Bavaria has a history of being an independent kingdom, and maintains a distinct identity to this day.

Our tour bus drove along a scenic stretch known as the “Romantic Road.”

A traditional house in southern Bavaria.

I can’t blog without Germany without including a picture of one of the many German shepherds I spotted.

The capital of the region is Munich, and it is undoubtedly a dynamic and international city.

BMW is headquartered in Munich. I had to wipe drool off my face as I walked around their showroom floor.

I was almost unable to get out of the seat of this Z4.

I guess I could settle for a Rolls Royce.

Clock show – The historical highlight of Munich is the clock tower show. Wooden figurines dance a few times a day. I am sure it was a sight of wonder to behold when it was first constructed, but the show is uninspiring by today’s entertainment standards.

I enjoyed trying Pancake Soup while in Munich. The pancake pieces tasted just like I expected, but without the sweetness. The broth was onion based.

Lederhosen (Leather pants) – Many of the stores on the tourist track sell tacky lederhosen at outrageous prices to ignorant tourists. My budget hotel was located off the tourist track, and near a lederhosen shop where the locals go. I ended up buying a nice set for a fair price.

I chose a hat which included a “Wolpertinger” figurine. These are mythical, horned creatures which run about the Bavarian forests. Hearing the mythology story reminded me of tales about the American jackalope.

Hofbrauhaus – The HB brewery and beer garden is one of the most famous in Germany. I had a great time with my new friends whom I met on the tour. Strangers crowd together on large wooden tables and drink large beers, and my group merged with several others. On another note, I like how the breweries in Germany craft a fairly decent non-alcoholic beer. Many people in America complain about the taste of N/A beer, and they are right. They do a much better job of it in Germany and I did not find myself missing the real thing.

Regular customers leave their beer steins locked in a cage.

I wore my lederhosen outfit out and it was a big hit. One German told me he thought I was a legitimate Bavarian. Several other Bavarians were at the brewery in traditional dress. Our tour guide warned us some of them don’t like being photographed. I snapped this one when he was looking away.

These local guys were also wearing lederhosen though this picture doesn’t show it. I got them to take a picture with me by translating for them as they attempted to flirt with U.S. college girls. They said the like my outfit but suggested a casual look by wearing it with the shoulder straps down.

The ruins of one of the first concentration camps remain outside Munich in the town of Dachau. This camp became the model on which others were based. The main building has a museum and features a film which shows horrific images of what occurred at the camp.

The sign greeting inmates when they first enter says “Work earns freedom” in German. It didn’t take long for the inmates to figure out this was a lie. Many inmates were deliberately worked to death.

The guards crammed into these wooden shelves for sleep.

Never Again

The most famous site in Bavaria is the Neuschwanstein Castle. Walt Disney drew inspiration from it as well. King Ludwig II broke his bank building the place, though he is remembered fondly in Bavaria as 6,000 tourists visit each day and support a lot of jobs in the region. Bavarian officials had King Ludwig removed by declaring him insane, but political motivations were the real reason they moved against him.

Black Forest
The Black Forest gets its name because the coniferous trees are so thick it blocks out most the sunlight. It was very difficult to travel through it and stories of witches and such living in it abounded.

A Roman general named Titus came across this lake while on an expedition in the 1st century A.D. He liked it so much he named it after himself. The name Titisee sticks to this day and the lake is a popular resort area.

Black Forest Style Hams

I took a hike through the forest near our hotel. I had to fight the urge to take a picture every few steps.

The completion of this railway bridge in 1830 was a big man-triumphs- over-nature moment as it represented even the infamous Black Forest could be trespassed. It is still in use to this day.

The Black Forest region is credited with bringing cuckoo clocks to the world and our tour stopped at a shop. The side of the building doubled as an enormous cuckoo clock.

A craftsman explained the inner mechanics of the clock and explained how they are assembled. Most of the parts are hand-carved by farmers during the winter months. Each farmer specializes in carving one small piece.

Not all clocks use cuckoo birds. Several bring scenes from Black Forest life into motion. This clock shows a wife striking a husband on the head with a bread roller.

In this scene a farmer waves a pitchfork at a young man climbing a ladder to the window of the farmer’s daughter.

Over the ages many German writers such as Johann Wolfgang von Goethe have found inspiration in the scenery of this city. The university here is known around the world.

Posted by clarkmw78 15:54 Archived in Germany Comments (5)

Highlights of Germany Tour, Part 1

My pants are getting tight around the waistline

I am half-way through my Highlights of Germany tour with the Trafalgar travel company, and the misadventures are rolling in faster than a division of blitzkrieg panzers (lightning-speed tanks).

Drive Down Memory Autobahn
I lived in Germany from 1983 to 1987 from the ages of 5 to 9. My dad was serving in the Air Force and we lived in a German village near Ramstein. I went to kindergarten and first grade in a German school. Tiny memories flashed in my head during the taxi ride from the airport to the hotel. I found the design of street signs and their character fonts exactly like I remembered. I recognized the logos of a few German companies, and the atmosphere felt familiar on my skin. Later on I was in a bakery, and the distinct smell of German pastries brought a rush of memories.

Frankfurt am Main
My tour started in the city of Frankfurt on the river Main. This city is a major finance center of Europe, and they jokingly refer to it as “Mainhattan.”
St. Bartholomew’s Cathedral is the city’s historical highlight. From 1562 to 1792 it served as the coronation site for Holy Roman Emperors. For those of you not up on your Holy Roman Empire history, all you really need to know is what comedian Mike Myers said about it in an old Saturday Night Life skit: “It was neither holy, nor Roman, nor an empire.” (My guidebook attributes this statement to Voltaire.)

Schnitzel is one of my favorite German foods. I looked at the menu out of habit for my first meal in Germany, but I had veal schnitzel on my mind since my plane took off from Atlanta.

Rhine River Cruise
The next leg of the tour was a cruise on the Rhine River. The towns along the river looked like pages out of a fairy tale book, and a small castle greeted us at just about every river bend. The tour guide pointed out one treacherous part of the river where sailors of old believed a Siren lured ships to their doom.

An old customs station in the middle of the river.

For lunch I had a delicious plate of wild boar sausage.

The Cologne cathedral is the highlight of this city, and this one is much larger than many other cathedrals I have visited throughout Europe. I am inserting this aerial picture from the internet because I was unable to get a good picture of it up close due to its size.

Here is a frame of reference. Notice the size of the spire in the forefront compared to the people walking by. This spire is the same size as the ones on the top of the cathedral, which look deceivingly small from the ground.

Here is a picture of the inside. The organ’s position in the middle of the cathedral is somewhat unique.

Cologne Caviar – My tour guide encouraged me to try this dish. The English menu threw me for a loop because it described the dish as “black pudding.” It turns out the word “pudding” is synonymous with “meat” in England. I enjoyed trying a new dish but wouldn’t eat it regularly.

This town is the scene of the Pied Piper legend. The town puts on a re-enactment every summer Sunday, and it is a big draw for Germans in the area. Historians think the nugget of truth within the legend reflects population emigrations occurring at the time.

This city in north Germany has one of the world’s largest seaports. I took a tour of the harbor to check out their equipment and operations. I used to be a military logistics officer so I have a strange fascination with this type of stuff.

The people of Hamburg love to sit by a few lakes and waterways in the center of the city.

My tour of Hamburg included a small monument dedicated to the Beattles. The band came together and spent their formative period in Hamburg. Paul McCartney said “I was born in Liverpool, but I grew up in Hamburg.” Another point of interest about Paul is that he was evicted from his apartment in Hamburg for starting a fire.

Coincidentally I was in Berlin at the same time as President Obama. My tour left the morning of his address so I didn’t get to see it.
Preparations for the President’s address at the Brandenburg Gate. The U.S. Embassy is located on the left.

With the help of some friends I tried to get to the top of the wall. Nowadays it doesn’t look like much of an obstacle. My guide said she has to explain to young people who wonder why people say it was so hard to cross that “the wall” was actually two walls with lots of barb wire, land mines, and a river between them. What remains today is only the outer wall.

I went through Checkpoint Charlie before the wall came down. My dad secured the permissions necessary to take the family on vacation to East Germany. I remember being really scared going through the checkpoint. Bright lights shined in our car, and guards spoke harshly through the loudspeakers. I remember looking up at a guard tower and seeing what I thought was a bazooka aimed at our car. I remember a few moments of tense uncertainty, where seconds passed like minutes, as we sat in the middle of the checkpoint while Soviet guards circled our car with AK-47s slung over their shoulders. Today only a little white booth with a few token sandbags remains. The only thing I found scary about the place was the large McDonalds next to it.

The only other notable memory I have from East Berlin at that time was from our dinner experience at a restaurant. My sister had a Disney picture book and our waiter noticed it, mentioning his little daughter. We left him the book as a tip, and he reacted like we had given him the Mona Lisa. His family wrote us an elaborate letter after that. I didn’t understand the capitalism vs. socialism/communism debate at the time, but I do remember thinking what a horrible country this must be if a kid couldn’t get a Disney book.

Speaking of bourgeois excess, KaDeWe is the premier department store in Berlin and it offers just about every type of luxury good you can imagine. A very attractive saleswoman told me I looked great in a pair of Porsche Design sunglasses which went for a mere 300 Euros. She had me reaching for my wallet for a moment, but price aside, I didn’t think they fit my face well.

This is the balcony where Michael Jackson held his baby over the rail. This hotel has a long history of celebrity and distinguished guests.

During the Cold War days spy trades were exchanged at the Glienicker bridge on the border of West Berlin and East Germany. The Soviets turned downed U2 pilot Gary Powers at this bridge.

Pope’s Revenge – The East German government built this communication tower in the 1960’s to make a statement about their technical prowess. A design glitch became evident after the tower was completed. The sun’s reflection in the main part of tower just happened to make a cross. This was a huge embarrassment to a government which sponsored atheism as the official state religion. Berliners started calling the cross the Pope’s Revenge.

I enjoyed seeing the German Reichstag (parliament) building. The glass dome symbolizes transparency in government. The public can walk to the top of the dome and look down into parliament sessions, and their visible presence above is intended to remind parliament members about the people they serve.

Gates of Babylon – When I was Iraq I flew over the ruins of Bablyon in a helicopter. The site features a replica of the famous Ishtar gate entrance, as the original is the in Permagon museum in Berlin. I sought this structure out during my free time. As I passed through the Ishtar gate I thought about how Alexander the Great had once walked underneath the same arch. The gate was also too big for my camera so I am inserting an internet picture of it.

Here is my picture of one of the lions.

My tour included a dinner at a lakeside resort in an area which once served as a hunting ground for Prussian kings. I had the venison dish, and other guests had a traditional ham hock.

The signature dish of Berlin is Currywurst. Curry powder on top of ketchup makes for an interesting taste. Adding mayonnaise to fries is common throughout Europe.

Public Nudity – Our tour bus drove by one of many public parks designated as nude sunbathing areas. This is a common and accepted practice in Berlin and other parts of Germany. Even mainstream business professionals will strip off their suits during lunch breaks and catch a few rays au naturale. I was in a museum which depicted life in East Germany before the wall came down. It had a panel about how nudism and skinny dipping had its roots as a form of passive resistance to the authoritarian government. A survey at the time revealed 4 out of 5 East Germans had participated in some type of nude sunbathing, and 9 out of 10 did not have a moral problem with the practice. Advocates of the movement outfoxed government officials by saying the nudism lifestyle supported socialist ideals because all social class distinction is removed along with the clothing and everyone stands in front of each other as equals.

Whereas the German public is comfortable with seeing the human body on television, they will censor out scenes with intense violence. They are appalled at the violence which Americans allow on television in the same way many Americans would be appalled at the nudity allowed on German television. When Janet Jackson and Justin Timberlake had the nipple incident at the Super Bowl some of my German friends expressed disbelief about the American public getting so upset over a nipple while not saying anything about TV violence.

Another neat offering of the life in East Germany museum is the “Trabi” car they have on display. East Germans had to wait 16 years to get one of these two-stroke engine masterpieces. A screen setup gives you a feel for driving the car through an East Berlin neighborhood.

Ämpelmannchen (Traffic Men) - When the Berlin wall came down the world was turned upside down for the East Germans. Everything changed for them to conform to western standards. East Germans clung to their pedestrian traffic lights called Ämpelmannchen, and contested attempts by the West to change them over to Western-style lights. East Germans take a lot of pride in these icons, and stores offer all sorts of merchandise with these images on them. Wikipedia will go as far as to say these figures have “cult status.”

I am recommending a book titled In The Garden of Beasts by Erik Larson. It focuses on the experience of the United States Ambassador to Germany in the years 1933-1934. This is the time period in which Hitler and the Nazi power had their breakthroughs and were able to consolidate power in Germany. The book gives the reader a sense about how many at this time thought Hitler could be controlled, was just posturing for political purposes, or would flame out quickly. The US Ambassador at the time was one of the few people who saw what was happening and where it would lead. He faced strong headwinds because there was a strong isolationist movement at the time in depression-ravaged America, and U.S. banks didn't want to give Hitler an excuse for defaulting on loans to the German government. In the meantime his daughter gets involved romantically with the first Gestapo chief as well as a Soviet agent. The author also does a good job of describing how anti-Semitic forces played out in both the government and populations of the United States and Germany. It is a work of historical non-fiction, but it is an easy read because it is written in a story format. Erik Larson is mostly known for writing Devil in the White City which is about America's first serial killer at the Chicago World Fair.

Posted by clarkmw78 11:18 Archived in Germany Comments (2)

Weekend in NOLA (New Orleans, Louisiana)

Abandon Hope All Ye Who Enter Here

Sirens’ Call
A common question people ask me is “How do you decide where to go in your travels?” I struggle with this question because I don’t put a lot of deep thought into my travel destinations. I just get an idea to go somewhere someday and it sort of sticks in my subconscious. Sometimes I see a pretty or interesting site on TV and I make a mental note to go there, and other times a fellow traveler enchants me with a story about someplace. There are times when I happen to be in the neighborhood and go searching for what it has to offer. And, on rare occasions , it seems like the universe whispers in my ear and nudges me towards someplace somewhere.

I have long wanted to visit New Orleans, but had never put real planning effort behind it. A slightly freaky set of small coincidences convinced me the universe was trying to nudge me to New Orleans over Memorial Day weekend. It all started when I attended a social function for a club of international residents and world travelers living in Atlanta. I chatted with a girl from Spain, and she was impressed that I had seen several parts of Spain than she is still meaning to visit. Then she told me she was headed to New Orleans, and I confessed I had never been there despite my travels to the far reaches of the globe. She phrased it perfectly when she said “We tend to miss the gems in our own country.”

A day later I was hanging out at my friend Chris’s place. Yes, this is the same Chris featured in my Costa Rica blog. Without any prompting on my part, Chris said “I am thinking about getting out of town this weekend and heading to New Orleans.”

The third siren called the very next day while I was at my dentist’s office. I mentioned something to him that I was thinking about going to New Orleans, and it turns out he lived there for several years. He gets so many recommendation requests from other dentists that he put together his own New Orleans insider travel guide. He emailed a copy of it to me, and it was like receiving divine guidance from above as it revealed unto me secrets of New Orleans only a local would know. At this point even a doubting Thomas like me couldn’t refute the universe. I was going to New Orleans.

Be Prepared to Enter A Foreign Country
My friend Chris tested my mettle before I climbed into his car for the road trip. He told me New Orleans might as well be another country, and I would question if we were still in America at some part of the trip. I ignored his warnings and jumped in. We had a smooth, eight-hour car drive to New Orleans, and the highlight our conversation was formulating a quest for the weekend. Every life needs a purpose, and every impromptu road trip needs a quest. After some discussion we decided we would seek the perfect po boy sandwich New Orleans had to offer.

This brings up the deep philosophical question about what distinguishes a po boy from just a regular sandwich? I convened with the Wikipedia spirits to find the answer. Po boy is short for Poor Boy. According to Wikipedia: “A key ingredient that differentiates po' boys from other submarine sandwiches is the bread. Typically, the French bread comes in two-foot-long "sticks". Standard sandwich sizes might be a half po' boy, about six inches long (called a "Shorty") and a full po' boy, at about a foot long. The traditional versions are served hot and include fried shrimp, and oysters. Soft shell crab, catfish, crawfish, Louisiana hot sausage, fried chicken breast, roast beef, and French fries are other common variations.”

My First Taste
New Orleans hosts some of the best restaurants in the world. One of the best known is Acme, which offers some of the best oysters known to the universe. Their kitchen is open to public viewing, but they wouldn’t let me take a picture lest their secret get out.

I tried my first crawfish at Acme as well. I remember hunting “crawdads” for fun in streams and rivers as a kid. I never thought about actually eating them because they looked gross. For those of you who have no idea of what a crawfish/crayfish/crawdad looks like:

Chris shook his head in disbelief when I confessed that I had never sampled crawfish before. He kindly walked me through the savoring process:
Step One: Pull the body out of the head socket.
Step Two: “Suck” the back end of the head. Note – you will not get any meat or juices, you are doing this to build the flavoring in your mouth.
Step Three: Remove the outer shell of the tail and consume the meat.
Step Four: Repeat process with another crawdad.
Crawfish meat is brown in color and bittersweet in taste. I recommend everyone try one at some point in their life, but I won’t be making a habit out of eating them.

Bourbon Street: Into The Heart of Darkness
When Chris told me about New Orleans being another country, he was mainly referring to Bourbon Street. A New Orleans tour guide I met calls it “Frat Boy Hell.” The scene reminded me of Pinocchio’s Pleasure Island.

The best part about Bourbon Street is the music. Almost every genre can be found, and the bands here have a real knack for getting people dancing and singing.

I never knew a washboard could be used as a musical instrument.

Alcoholic beverages are cheap, large, strong and plentiful on Bourbon Street. The law permits people to carry beverages on the street as long as they are not in glass:

I thought this girl was a paid entertainer in one of the music joints. It turns out she just loves to hula hoop dance to music. I chatted with her for a few minutes. To get the conversation going I said “Tell me a little bit about yourself.” She led off with “Well, I am a bit of a mess…”

A voodoo shop on Bourbon Street:

For the record this shop doesn’t do curses. If you read my blog post from the Virgin Islands back in January you may recall how I was annoyed at a Microsoft-induced problem on my computer. I stated I was going to sick some voodoo on them. I didn’t have anything serious in mind: I just wanted the engineer responsible to spill his coffee or stub his toe. I didn’t see any voodoo shops in the Virgin Islands, so I thought to settle the matter in this one. I jokingly inquired about the price of curses and the shopkeeper said “You have no idea what you are messing with!” Then he asked me to leave. While I waited outside for my friend Chris to come out, I checked my body over to make sure nothing odd was happening. In retrospect, it was wrong of me to be so flippant with someone’s belief system. In my defense though, the place is set up on Bourbon Street – an epicenter of tacky gimmicks. I misjudged it as another gimmicky tourist trap store.

I told this story to my friend from Spain and her eyes lit up as she had also been kicked out of the same store. She missed the sign that said “No Pictures” and they got very vocal with her when she snapped a picture. The attendant told her “Kharma will catch up to you!”

I also told the story to a waitress later that day and she freaked out a little bit. Her family had lived in New Orleans for several generations, and someone had put a curse on their first-born children about 100 years ago. She gave a summary of how many first-born members of her family had suffered unusual and untimely deaths since then.

A local corrected me on my pronunciation of her city’s name. I said “New Or LEANS” and the correct way to enunciate it is “New Or LINS.” Another acceptable pronunciation is “Nawlins.”

Strange History of New Orleans Tour
The brochure for this tour caught my eye as it promised to go into the history of New Orleans which few guides would cover.
The tour got off to an interesting start as my tour guide got into it with a street evangelist over the evangelist’s use of a microphone, which is a violation of a city ordinance.

Here are some of the highlights from the tour:
- New Orleans started as a French colony. The original colonists named New Orleans in a way that twisted French grammar rules on gender. This was a way of poking fun at a cross-dressing duke in France who was sitting on the throne until Louis XV came of age.

-The colonists named several streets after the bastard children of Louis XIV. These streets were deliberately left off of city maps sent to France.

- The officials in France had a sense of humor as well. When the officials in New Orleans requested France send women of virtue (they meant women from good families for courting and marriage) the officials in France took revenge for the name games by sending them nuns.

- No one wanted to live in New Orleans when it was founded. The French government emptied out its prisons to colonize the city. They paired up male and female prisoners, connected them with chains, and a priest gave them a 5 second wedding as they walked onto the ship. Later in the tour we walked by a building which housed public records. Our guide explained how people from prominent families used to sneak into the building with hidden razor blades to cut out records tracing their family history back to criminal origins.

- The tour covered the history of dueling. Our guide described how the French typically chose swords, and the duel stopped when the blood was drawn. Deaths were not common. The Americans took dueling to a different level as we liked to use our guns for the duels, and the death toll shot up. Our guide explained how most duel propositions just went back and forth in the posturing phase. One could get out of a duel if they applied a little bit of cleverness. Abraham Lincoln was challenged to a duel, and as the receiver of the challenge he was allowed to choose the duel weapon. He preserved his honor by accepting to duel, but he chose pig feces as the weapon knowing his challenger wouldn’t take it to the next step.

- The U.S. government went into debt for the first time to purchase the Louisiana Territory, and the act of the federal government borrowing money was a huge controversy at the time. The government had to borrow $5 million from the Bank of England to come up for $15 million. England was at war with France at the time so England was effectively financing the war against itself.

- Our tour visited the site of a street shoot-out between a gangster and professional boxer over the hand of Norma Wallace, the premier madam of the city from the 1920s to 1960s. Both men were legally married to Norma at the time. The gun battle went on for hours, but the police never showed up. Norma had mob-boss like powers in the city, and many prominent people across the country knew her as well. She was married twelve times in her life and is quoted as saying: “All my marriages were beautiful. . . . The trouble was, my husbands all considered themselves married, but I didn't.''

- The tour finished at the Omni Royal Hotel, where a Led Zepplin band member had a close call with a transvestite.

More Good Eats

Pan Fried Rabbit at Chef Paul Prudhomme's K-Paul Louisiana Kitchen

Beignets at Café du Monde. Their website states "Beignets were also brought to Louisiana by the Acadians. These were fried fritters, sometimes filled with fruit. Today, the beignet is a square piece of dough, fried and covered with powdered sugar."

Here is what their website says about the chicory in their coffee: "The taste for coffee and chicory was developed by the French during their civil war. Coffee was scarce during those times, and they found that chicory added body and flavor to the brew. The Acadians from Nova Scotia brought this taste and many other French customs (heritage) to Louisiana. Chicory is the root of the endive plant. Endive is a type of lettuce. The root of the plant is roasted and ground. It is added to the coffee to soften the bitter edge of the dark roasted coffee. It adds an almost chocolate flavor to the Cafe Au Lait served at Cafe Du Monde."

Alligator Sausage Sandwich at 801 Royale.

Chris did a lot of research on TripAdvisor and found Killler Po Boys, which is tucked into the back of an Erin Rose Irish Pub. They offer non-traditional but very creative po boy sandwiches.

Frenchman Street: The Real New Orleans:
The locals try to hide their best nightlife spots from tourists in many places I go to in the world. In New Orleans, the locals encourage people to break out of Bourbon Street and experience their favorite jaunts. I spent an evening listening to local jazz bands perform on Frenchman Street, and it was the best night of my trip.

A local wedding procession:

I thought the shadow effect made for a good picture:

Posted by clarkmw78 13:07 Archived in USA Tagged new orleans Comments (2)

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