Travel Tuesday: Mediterranean Part II

Hi habibis!  Welcome to our final installment of Travel Tuesday – fitting, since many people will be traveling today for Christmas.  Today, let me share with you the rest of my Mediterranean travels.   The post is going up a few hours late because it took me so long to choose from all my pictures.  (See Mediterranean Part I here and my Northern European travels here and here.) These all came after my study abroad year, and I’ll cover them chronologically rather than by country, because that’s the easiest way for me to keep it straight.  (Some are repeats.)

The summer after my study abroad year we took a Trafalgar bus tour through Italy, which I accidentally blogged about in one of my Northern European travels posts.  So here it is again:

We saw Rome, Florence, Capri, Venice, Pompei, Pisa, Ravenna, Assisi, Naples, Siena, and probably others that I’ve forgotten.  It was an awesome trip.  We did everything.  I LOVED seeing the churches (of course) and the medieval cities and villages (my other favorite places to visit), and of course the countryside and the coastline were gorgeous and we ate amazing food.  In Rome we saw the catecombs and St. Peter’s Basilica, including the Sistine Chapel (but not the pope).  In Florence the Duomo was under construction but we saw the Ponte Vecchio.  (I forgot the name of it and then remembered and then had the line from “Kiss Me Kate” playing in my head – you know the song, “Where is the Life that Late I Led,” where Petrucchio details all the ladies he’s romanced all over Italy? You know what rhymes with Vecchio?  Becky-weckio.  Hehehe.)   I didn’t like Pompei – it was hot and frankly it creeps me out a little.  Capri was gorgeous.  (We saw little of Naples except for the boat ride to Capri, I’m afraid.)  The bus drive drove down the winding roads and hair pin turns of the Amalfi coast like it was nothing.  Venice, with St. Mark’s Square, was also really cool.  It was an amazing trip.

My senior year one of the Jesuits at my university organized a pilgrimage to the Holy Land.  As I mentioned last week, my experience of Israel while studying abroad was a half hour cab ride through Eilat and it reminded me of Florida.  My parents sent me on the pilgrimage as my graduation present because they are amazingly generous people.

We went all over Israel and the West Bank. We saw beautiful churches. I had expected Israel to be desert-y, like Egypt, but it’s quite green. (In part because they take a lot of water from the River Jordan – I remember assignments in Arabic class where we had to listen to news reports about their treaties with Jordan over water usage.) We started our trip on the Mediterranean near Haifa. Then we drove up into the Golan Heights (there were a lot of helicopters – it made me nervous) to see where Jesus drove the demons into the herd of pigs.  There are ruins of a monastery there.

In the Galilee we saw the church at Peter’s house. It’s amazing. It’s a modern glass church over the rock foundations of what they say is the apostle Peter’s house, right near the Sea of Galilee. Galilee was beautiful, my favorite region of Israel.

We saw Cana, where the church is (I think) 18th century. It looked kind of baroque to me. We went to Bethlehem and saw the Church of the Nativity, which is huge and amazing.  You could see the poverty when we crossed into the West Bank.  Even in Bethlehem, which gets a lot of religious tourism, it’s not the same.


The priest organizing the trip wanted to go to Jericho but our tour guide refused to take us.  We went to the Dead Sea and swam.

In Jerusalem we went up on the Mount of Olives where Jesus spent his last night. We saw the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, which was another amazing church. We also saw the Garden Tomb, where some Protestants believe Jesus was buried, which is much simpler. It’s a big contrast!

The churches were amazing. I’m so glad I went. I may be the only person in my family to ever visit the Holy Land – you never know how the political situation will be there.  I don’t want to get into the politics too much but I never felt particularly safe while there. I prayed the rosary every day. Part of it was the history – suicide attacks, the intifada, and the Israelis’ invasion of Lebanon only the year before. Part of it was that, with my past travel, I had a little trouble getting into the country and I was concerned that I might get stopped at a check point. That never happened but it added some anxiety to the trip.

Anyway, more travels!  We’re getting near the end, I promise.  A few years ago we went on a western Mediterranean cruise with my cousins. It went from Barcelona to Rome and back. None of us had ever been to Spain. We flew in a day early to explore Barcelona, and we did despite being quite jet lagged.

I’d really like to make a quilt one day about my travels – or maybe multiple quilts – and the first place that always comes to mind is Barcelona. It’s Gaudi’s art and architecture that struck me so much. I took dozens if not hundreds of pictures. I didn’t love all of it but it’s all striking.

From there we sailed to France. We landed first in Toulon, the port for Provence. We couldn’t go on an excursion because we had to go to mass. (Note: if you are planning to take a cruise and religious services are important to you, do your research before you book. Some cruise lines offer mass, a non-denominational Christian service, and sabbath services. Some cruise lines won’t have anything unless it’s a big holiday, and your itinerary may not allow you to attend services in port. In this case we were lucky and we landed in Toulon early enough to attend mass at a church near the port, but I went on a cruise recently where that wasn’t the case.) So we didn’t really get to see Provence but we got to explore Toulon. It’s not the most beautiful city in France but Sunday was market day. We sampled fresh olives and window shopped among the locals. That’s a slice of life in France that we never would have experienced otherwise.  We also went to Nice, which I’d forgotten about until I saw my pictures.

Our other stop in France was the medieval city Eze and a trip over the border to Monte Carlo. I love old medieval cities, where every corner brings a new surprise, beautiful flowers in a stone wall or sudden Mediterranean vistas.

Monte Carlo has the casino, so luxe. My cousin M is a car aficionado and I think his favorite part of Monaco was the luxury cars parked outside, cars so expensive I couldn’t even contemplate having that much money, much less spending it all on a car.

Our last stops were Florence and Rome. We’d been to both before, on our bus tour. We explored Florence on our own. We were able to see the Duomo, which was no longer under construction, and revisit the sites we wanted to see again. It was lovely.

We picked an excursion to go wine tasting in the Lake District outside of Rome. It was rainy – not the best weather to enjoy the scenery.  Some of us, myself included, had a touch of food poisoning and my brother developed an allergy to something at te end of the cruise, so we didn’t enjoy it as much as we would have otherwise.

For our vacation the next year we took an eastern Mediterranean cruise. (We take a lot of cruises. My parents like them. You can see a lot without worrying about foreign languages, transportation, border crossings, etc. you don’t need to keep packing and unpacking and if you have picky eaters – I’m vegetarian and my cousin C, who is now vegan, was the pickiest eater I’d ever seen before she was vegan – you know you’ll have stuff you can eat in the ship. I know cruises aren’t for everyone – some people like a more flexible itinerary and the ability to travel on their own schedule – but they work well for us.) This cruise was Venice to Istanbul!! It was an amazing itinerary. My dad knew he wanted to go back to Venice since we’d been on the bus tour. Again we went a day early to explore. We walked from the port to St. Mark’s Square, using a map to traverse the piazzas. Again, this was a different experience, parts of Venice that fewer tourists get to see. It was so worth it. In the evening we sat in St. Mark’s Square and ate gelato under the stars while we listened to live music. Amazing.  The next day, the cruise ship sailed out of the port through the Grand Canal, so we sailed by St. Mark’s Square and passed palazzo after palazzo.

The rest of our itinerary included Kotor (Montenegro), Split (Croatia), Athens, Mykonos, and Santorini (Greece), and Istanbul and Ephesus (Turkey). Of these, my sister and I had been to Istanbul before and loved it, so we were excited to go back.

It would be hard to choose a favorite. Athens was very cool – we saw the Parthenon!

Mykonos and Santorini were beautiful; of the two we preferred Santorini.  It was prettier and had more to do. The island is a crescent formed from a volcanic explosion – the crater in the center was filled by the Mediterranean. We had such good food (and wine!) everywhere we went.

My cousins in Hungary have gone on vacation on Croatia’s Dalmatian coast, but I didn’t realize how wonderful it was until we went there ourselves. It’s really beautiful and it has all sorts of outdoor activities! Beaches, hiking, kayaking, rock climbing – you name it, you can do it. The Roman emperor Diocletian was from the area and retired to Split, where he built his palace. (He was one of the few emperors to die a natural death, in part because he did actually retire.) The palace was used for practical purposes – homes and apartments in the upper area and garbage in the basements – in later centuries, and it hasn’t been fully restored, but the excavated basements were actually pretty well preserved (by the garbage). That was pretty cool.

In Kotor we saw the old town, the famous church, and the local museum. It was cute but the least exciting of everywhere we visited.  Here’s a picture of the view as we sailed toward Kotor.

Turkey was amazing.    In Istanbul we hit all the big sites, and I will tell you, to me the Blue Mosque is just as stunning every time I see it.  It’s lit with lovely hanging light fixtures, shaped like big round wagon wheels suspended from the ceiling.  You can see the beautiful mosaic designs on the ceilings.  Turkish decor is so appealing, isn’t it?

The history of the Hagia Sophia is that it was a church under the Byzantine Empire, and when the Ottomans took over it became a mosque.  Now they’ve turned it into a museum.  They’ve stripped some of the mosque decor and uncovered some of the old church mosaics.  You can’t quite get a feel of what it looked like as a mosque or a church, but it’s still pretty cool looking.

We also took a cruise on the Bosphorus (amazing!) and went shopping in the bazaar and we went to one of the palaces, which I’d seen before, but not that part – we went to the treasury and saw the sultan’s jewels and clothes and swords.  Very cool.

The second day in Turkey was Ephesus.  Ephesus was a Greek and then Roman town near the coast along the Mediterranean.  If you’re interested in ancient ruins, they have them!

Ephesus is religiously significant for Christians, who believe that Mary moved to Ephesus after Jesus died and spent her last days there.  (Muslims may believe this, too – I’m not sure.)  There’s a cute little stone house that serves as a chapel there.  We were there early in the morning and it was peaceful despite the crowds.

These are all my Mediterranean travels!  I hope you enjoyed these posts.  I’m happy to delve into them further if you have any questions – and one day I think I’d like to do an “inspirations” post – all the beautiful tiles, architecture, paintings, mosaics, etc. that make me want to create.

Come back tomorrow and I’ll show you part III of R and M’s Wedding Knot quilt.


Travel Tuesday: Mediterranean Part I

Hello habibis!  Welcome to the third installment of Travel Tuesday, covering the first half of my travels in the Mediterranean.  This installment will cover the year I studied abroad in Egypt and my travels within Egypt and to nearby countries.  Next Tuesday I’ll cover the rest of my Mediterranean travels, which all occurred after my study abroad year.  I apologize for the lack of pictures in this post – I have them somewhere but I can’t track them down.  I’ll try to give you a sense of what it was like to live in Egypt, sans pictures.

I studied abroad in Egypt my junior year at the American University in Cairo (AUC). It was an amazing experience and not one I would change.  As you’ve seen in my other travel posts, I’ve traveled a lot with my family, but I really grew up very sheltered in the suburbs, and although the beautiful university where I went to college is in a small city, it’s rather cut off from the city. I hadn’t experienced much of the world. Studying Arabic changed that. It exposed me to a whole new part of the world and a culture I had little familiarity with. Where I grew up is not terribly diverse, so studying Arabic and then studying in the Middle East broadened my world view. I’m so glad I chose Arabic because I never would have had these experiences.

When I was in Egypt – it always amazes me how fast time flies; I was there over eight years ago – the situation was very different from what’s happening now. Mubarak had reigned as president for 20-odd years. People used to joke about him but few protests were allowed. I remember the protests because of avian flu. The government killed some chickens and threw them in the Nile, and the chicken farmers protested that they hadn’t been sufficiently compensated for their confiscated animals. There were other protests, too, but none were large. Nothing like what happened in 2010. The AUC used to have its campus right downtown, near Tahrir Square, so we saw the protests sometimes. (The new campus is outside the city – better for the Egyptian students, I guess, but way less fun when you’re a study abroad student. Then again, with everything happening in Cairo right now, being outside the city might be safer sometimes.)

When we got to Egypt it was the end of August. I flew over with my friend L. Egypt in August is HOT. It was something like 42 degrees Celsius and I remember one of the British students telling me what the conversion was – approximately 112 Fahrenheit. I remember telling him that wasn’t possible because humans couldn’t survive at those temperatures. (Science is not my strong suit…)  In my opinion, anything over 100 is too hot. They say it’s a dry heat, but as far as I’m concerned it doesn’t matter. We guzzled 1.5 liter water bottles.  I didn’t get my appetite back for about three weeks, once the temperature dropped back to something more bearable (high 90s probably).

The AUC’s main dorm is in Zamalek, an island in the Nile where a lot of expats and wealthy Egyptians live. The year I studied abroad they had an overflow so they rented a hotel to be a second dorm for female students, mostly study abroad students from America and Europe with a few full-time students from elsewhere in the Middle East mixed in. My roommate was a Palestinian girl named Dalia who was studying communications to become a journalist. This hotel was in a middle class Egyptian neighborhood and, I’m afraid to say, we heard that locally the hotel had a reputation as being the kind of place men might take their mistresses. It was probably not the best place to put 80 foreign girls living in Egypt for the first time. (The school didn’t realize that the hotel had such a reputation.) Middle class Egyptians tend to be more conservative and as it was our first time in Egypt we didn’t always know the local customs.  That was a definite adjustment.  I lived in an apartment in Zamalek with two other study abroad students in the spring.

Cairo has the famous Egyptian Museum, filled to overflowing with antiquities. I’m not a mummy person but the rest of it was cool.

Cairo also has a huge market, Khan al-Khalili, where you can buy almost anything. I liked going to the scarf and textiles section on the outskirts. (It may have even been a different market.) I bought lots of scarves for myself and as presents. I wasn’t quilting then – if I were I might have bought fabulous fabrics for myself. The textile work is really beautiful.

Cairo is a huge city and it keeps expanding. Tahrir Square is where the government is but Old Cairo, or Islamic Cairo, is where you can see many of the real sites. Al-Azhar, the famous mosque and university, is there. Khan al-Khalili is nearby. There are other mosques as well as churches and a beautiful synagogue. The synagogue is basically empty now. Most Egyptian Jews moved to Israel years ago. The only Jews there now are generally foreigners studying or working in Cairo. The churches do a little better. Most Egyptian Christians are Coptic, which is the Egyptian church. Most of the Coptic churches are Orthodox but a few are Catholic. (The main difference there is whether or not they take the Catholic Pope as their highest religious authority – I believe the practice is the same in all Coptic churches.) Coptic is also a language, the language spoken in Egypt prior to Arabic. I didn’t attend a Coptic church while I was there; I went to a Roman Catholic church in Zamalek, which had lovely mosaics inside and mainly served Zamalek’s expat community. The French, English, and Italian masses were far better attended than the Arabic mass.  (The AUC has Friday/Saturday weekends, which is standard in the Middle East because Friday is the day of worship in Islam.  We had classes on Sunday and the first semester I had classes all day Sunday that conflicted with the English and Arabic masses.  I had to attend the Italian mass, I think, for at least part of that semester.  During Ramadan the class schedules change – some classes move up in the day and some are pushed back, so people can be home with their families during iftar, the meal when you break your daily fast.  That further complicated my weekly trips to Zamalek to go to mass.  We had a shuttle bus between the two dorms but it didn’t run near iftar and I would have to take a cab and convince some poor cab driver who just wanted to get home and break his fast to take me to mass.)

The pyramids are a once in a lifetime experience. We rented camels and rode them around. My mom called me while we were there and did NOT believe me when I said I was riding a camel at the pyramids. I have a picture of me on the phone with her while on the camel. Camels, in my opinion, are also once in a lifetime. I wouldn’t want to ride one again. They’re so high up and being controlled by a small child. I tried to communicate at some point with the little boy leading my camel to tell him I wanted to get down but my Arabic was not sufficient for that. (Most foreigners learning Arabic learn Modern Standard Arabic first, the Arabic used in media and newspapers and academia. Then you have to learn dialects. My Egyptian wasn’t good enough to tell the kid I didn’t want to ride the camel anymore.) we saw the Sphinx too. It’s smaller than it looks but still crazy impressive. I got my butt grabbed there, probably by one of the Egyptian teenaged boys who appeared to be there on a school trip. That colors the memory of the Sphinx somewhat. Getting out to Giza requires an expensive cab ride or public transportation, namely Cairo’s metro system.  I don’t recommend it to foreigners.  There’s a women only car but it’s confusing sometimes which car that is, and sometimes there are still men on it.  The other cars are crowded and foreign women get a lot of attention everywhere – the hardest part of living in Egypt, for me – so being in an enclosed space isn’t ideal.

I traveled around Egypt a fair bit. I went to Alexandria on the Mediterranean. The library at Alexandria was one of the wonders of the ancient world. It was destroyed but today they have a very modern cool library. They also have a great museum – very different from the one in Cairo. It’s curated sparsely but to great effect. The one in Cairo is sometimes a jumble. We also saw some Greek and Roman ruins and the interesting graves they have there, which combine Greek and Egyptian iconography.

I went to the Sinai to see St. Catherine’s monastery and Mt. Sinai. Boy is that a trip. Hours and hours on a bus across the desert. Not my favorite way to travel.  (I don’t like deserts.)  However, the monastery was lovely. Egypt has a long monastic and hermetic religion – St. Anthony was an Egyptian monk and hermit.  St. Catherine’s has a bush that is said to be the burning bush, going back to Moses. We tried to climb the mountain to watch the sunrise but we started too late and then it got crazy hot and we had to give up and go back down. Adventure!

The other place I went in Egypt was Luxor, Valley of the Kings. My uncle G was visiting and we took a dawn hot air balloon ride. It was amazing. The tombs are elaborate.  All in all a really cool place to visit.

While we studied abroad we took side trips.  Some were arranged via the AUC and some we did on our own.  My first trip out of Egypt was to Istanbul over one of the eids (holidays).  It was early November but Egypt was still HOT.  We got to Istanbul and it was in the 40s and rainy.  It was wonderful.  They took us on tours of palaces and we went shopping and had so much fun.  I returned to Istanbul again with my uncle G, who came back to Egypt to visit me in the spring and brought my sister with him.  We had planned a trip to Sharm El Sheikh, a resort town in Egypt, but there had recently been a suicide bombing in nearby Dahab (the only terrorist attack I’m aware of while I was studying in Egypt), so we decided Istanbul would be better.  We stayed near Galata Tower and explored.  N stayed with me in Egypt after Uncle G went home, but she liked Istanbul better.

I also traveled to Cyprus with some friends in the spring.  We needed a break from Egypt at that point.  (I remember returning to Egypt and a little British girl sitting near me on the plane being SO EXCITED to travel to Egypt, whereas my reaction was dread.  As I mentioned, the sexual harassment was really stressful and made life in Egypt less enjoyable.)  We went to the beach, some Roman ruins (They are everywhere!  The Romans truly got around!), and Greek monasteries on the Greek side.  Then we crossed into the Turkish side for a day.  I knew nothing about Cyprus before I went, so I’d been completely unaware that there even was a Turkish Cyprus or that they’d had a civil war and now have a no-man’s-land in between.  The border crossing area used to be where a lot of embassies were, so you pass by huge empty mansions.  It’s surreal.  Turkish Cyprus did feel more like Turkey.  We saw a Crusader castle (speaking of people who got around).  You can cross the border but only for a day – you have to be back by a certain time.

My big trip was our spring break trip: Lebanon, Syria, and Jordan.  At the time Lebanon seemed pretty stable (although Israel bombed them four months later and my mother is still upset at me over it), and if there were any signs of the civil war to come in Syria, they hadn’t been seen by the West yet.  Everything was peaceful while we traveled.  We started in Beirut – we saw their museum, still with bullet holes from their own civil war (hey have amazing treasures that they covered in the cement for the duration to protect them), although the city didn’t give me any sense of tension or strain.  It seemed recovered.  I don’t know how it is now.  We walked around the beautiful city and enjoyed ourselves.  The next day we took a bus to the Syrian border to see if we could cross.  They don’t always let people through and we were expecting to be refused and to go back to Beirut for a few more days, and then we’d have flown to Amman to finish our travels.  However, after a four hour wait we were allowed to cross.  That border crossing was a very different experience from the one in Cyprus.  There was a bathroom at the Dunkin Donuts or something on the Lebanese side, but we couldn’t cross back to use it.  We were a group of five Americans, so the two of us with the strongest Arabic asked someone at the crossing – they were all Syrian soldiers – for a bathroom in our best lugha wusta (literally, “middle language,” a mix of standard Arabic and dialect).  The Egyptian dialect is close to Levantine dialects, but not exactly the same, and Syrian would be the least similar Levantine dialect due to its geographic distance from Egypt.  We got taken to an officer to repeat our request, and then he spoke in the phone in Arabic and we had NO IDEA what he was saying.  Finally, they took us to the bathroom the soldiers used, yelled something (presumably, a warning to any soldiers in there that a group of American girls was coming in), and let us in.  My friends reported that a rather startled looking soldier came out while a couple of us were in other stalls.  I think that’s one of my best travel stories, but in light of the current conflict it feels so strange to retell it.

As a tangent, bathrooms in the Middle East are on the basic side.  When we flew into Cyprus and they had not only automatic flushing toilets but automatic towel dispensers, we exclaimed aloud like children.  We had gotten used to bathrooms where you can’t put the toilet paper in the toilet – which are the nicest public bathrooms.  By the time we’d gotten to Syria, I was used to toilets that were holes in the ground.  My first experience with that was en route to the hot air balloon ride in Luxor, Egypt.  The “bathroom” was a small cement room with a hole in the floor on the side of a building.  There was a door but it had a large hole in the bottom of it, so the door didn’t conceal you at all.  It faced out into fields.  Luckily, when I needed to use the bathroom it was pre-dawn so there was no one around.  We always carried our own toilet paper and hand sanitizer in the Middle East.

Back to Syria: we took the bus to Damascus.  Our travel day was Good Friday.  The next day we explored Old Damascus – the market, the Christian quarter, the Umayyad Mosque, etc.  The Umayyad Mosque is said to possess the head of John the Baptist (but there’s also one in Istanbul, so make of that what you will).  (This isn’t the Umayyad Mosque that was partially destroyed during the civil war – that’s the Umayyad Mosque in Aleppo – but I understand that Damascus has suffered heavy damages so I don’t know what shape it’s in.)  The coolest part about the souq (market) is that it’s the same market St. Paul walked through 2,000 years ago.  When I went you could still see the Roman columns. Again, I don’t know what it looks like now, but at the time it was a beautiful thriving market.  In the Christian quarter we explored and I looked for every church to figure out where I could go to Easter Mass the next day.  We saw an Armenian church and were fascinated by the Armenian script.

On Easter I attended mass at the Syrian Catholic Patriarchy with one or two of the other girls.  It was a huge church done in green marble, with a more Orthodox feel to it (based on the style of the icons and other decor).  Mass was either in Syrian Arabic or in Syriac, a Semitic language evolved from Aramaic.  I couldn’t understand the words, but Catholic mass is the same everywhere so I could follow along as well as I could at the Italian mass in Cairo.  (Many of the Syrian churches use Syriac as a liturgical language, including the Syrian Catholic Church.  Like in Egypt, where there are Coptic Orthodox and Coptic Catholics, there are Syrian Orthodox and Syrian Catholics.)

We traveled out into the countryside to see some Crusader castles and Byzantine ruins.  The countryside was green and beautiful with rolling hills and huge poppy fields.  I know the poppies were probably being grown for opium, but they’re my favorite flowers and I loved to see them.  One of the Crusader castles, Crac des Chevaliers, is the best Crusader castle I’ve ever seen.  They’ve reconstructed parts of it, so you can see the great halls and walk around.  We climbed up to the top and sat along the walls.  It was wonderful.  The Byzantine ruins are also really cool – it’s a village or town that was abandoned for unknown reasons in the 4th or 5th century, so it’s roofless rock houses that still stand and what I believe is the longest still-standing Roman colonnade in the world.   It’s pretty cool.  (I feel like I need to caveat every paragraph by saying “I don’t know what condition this is still in.”)

We went to Hama and Homs, which were the seats of the civil war.  So I have a pretty good idea of what shape they’re in now, which is not good.

The other place we went in Syria is Palmyra, called Tadmur in Arabic.  It dates back thousands of years.  They built huge monuments there, and they have more Roman columns and stuff.  (You see Roman ruins seriously everywhere and at some point it becomes a bit blase, like oh look another colonnade.)  Palmyra is in the desert going toward Syria, so it was pretty hot there even in April.

From Syria we took another bus to Amman.  We didn’t find Amman that interesting – I find that most people who studied in Cairo think Amman is boring just because there’s less to see, but people I know who studied in Amman really enjoyed it, so I think it’s not much of a tourist-y destination, but apparently a cool place to live.  My favorite part of Jordan was Petra.   If you’ve seen “Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade” you’ve seen Petra – the desert canyon with the huge carved edifices is Petra.  (But when you go inside, it’s not fancy like in Indiana Jones – it’s just a large room with bare walls.)  The Nabateans, another Semitic people, carved these giant edifices into the canyon. It’s beautiful.  They are so amazing in person.

We had planned to travel back to Egypt via the “fast ferry” from Aqaba, but it wasn’t running.  The slow ferry was running but not for hours later, so we decided to take a cab to Egypt via Eilat, in Israel.  (Seriously, it’s like a half hour cab ride.)  Eilat looked like Florida – people were walking around in bathing suits.  It was a bit of culture shock.  We didn’t spend any other time in Israel; I didn’t see anything other than the cab ride.

So, that was my study abroad.  Next week I’ll talk about my other trips to the Mediterranean: my pilgrimage to Israel and our family vacations on a bus tour of Italy and two Mediterranean cruises – with pictures!

Travel Tuesday: Northern Europe Part II

Happy Tuesday, habibis!  Welcome to part II of my Northern Europe travels!  See the first part here.

I went back to England for a proper, week-long visit almost four years ago.  My friend A was studying at Oxford and our friend R was at UCL.  We split our time between London and Oxford and it was SO FUN.  We went to Kings Cross and I took a picture at Platform 8 3/4.  We went to the London Archives and the London Museum, Picadilly Circus, King James Park, Westminster Abbey, St. Paul’s Cathedral, Buckingham Palace (we didn’t go into all of those places – some we just saw from the outside!), Trafalgar Square, and then we went all over Oxford and saw the Bodleian and went punting (I am not half bad at punting! who knew?) and just had a blast.  It was Holy Week and A and I went to both Holy Thursday and Good Friday masses.  They have two orders of priests in Oxford, the Jesuits (our favorites! we went to a Jesuit university) and the Oratorians.  I’d never heard of the Oratorians before; they wore black hats with pom poms on them and I thought they were Dominicans.  We went to the Oratorian masses and they were LONG.  The Oratorians are traditionalists, definitely.  One mass was all in Latin.  I think we spent five hours in church between the two days!  (I noticed, also, that they only washed men’s feet during the washing of the feet.  Like I said, traditionalists.)  It was a really wonderful trip.  It was, actually, exactly what I needed.  The timing of the trip came a week after my father’s mother had died, and I think the trip helped me cope with her loss.  When my father’s father died a few months later I had a much harder time going back to work.

I know I have pictures from that trip, but I couldn’t find them.  I’ll make up for it with lots of other pictures!!

Now, finally, we come to my last trip to Europe, two summers ago.  My dad’s family wanted to take a trip to Switzerland, to visit where my father’s father was from.  My grandpa was born in St. Gallen but the family came to America when he was small, and as far as we know we don’t have any family left there.  Neither Grandpa nor his older sister (our deeply beloved Aunt E, my favorite of my great aunts, who – along with my grandpa, was one of the kindest sweetest people in the world; they are both dearly missed in our family) seemed to want to go back to visit.  We thought it would be a really nice family trip.  We added Austria and Hungary and went as a group.  My brother and his then-fiancee (soon to be wife!!!) couldn’t join us, unfortunately.  In addition to my parents and my sister, Uncle P, Aunt M, Uncle R, and my cousins C and T-Rex and T-Rex’s husband B all went.  (As you may have noticed, we tend to travel in a large group.)  We started the trip in Budapest.  We only had two days – I wish we could have spent much longer!  We got to see most of our family in Hungary.  The day we arrived we went to Jeno bacsi’s house, where everyone had gathered and cooked amaaaazing delicious Hungarian food for us.  (Oh, the meal had endless courses, and then dessert, and fresh peaches – my grandma always says the peaches are better in Hungary.)  The next day some of our cousins took us sightseeing in Budapest proper.  (Jeno bacsi lives in Godollo, in what I guess would be considered the suburbs of Budapest, where the Habsburgs had their Hungarian summer palace.)  It was such a fun day.

The Hungarian Parliament (Orszaghaz)

The Chain Bridge

The Fisherman’s Bastion (Halászbástya)

Mátyás templom (Matthias Church)

Then we had to leave (boo!) and to go to Austria (yes, our lives are so hard) – two days in Vienna, and two days in Salzburg.  I appreciated them a lot more as an adult than I had when I was 12.  (I didn’t really remember Vienna from the first time we went.)  We went to see some more palaces (the Hofburg and the Schonnbrunn), museums, churches, and the opera house.  We even went to a performance by the Vienna Philharmonic at one of the palaces (see below – the Hofburg – I think this wing is now the national library), in a special auditorium that isn’t open for tours.

No kangaroos in Austria!  We stayed right near Stephansdom, the Cathedral, but I don’t think I had good pictures of it.  It was a fun place to stay, though – walking distance from everything.  (Not good for driving.)

In Salzburg we explored more than I think we had last time.  (We went to mass at the same church, in Mondsee, and we realized there’s not one skeleton, but five.  Five!  Interesting church decor.  That is, decidedly, NOT my favorite church.)  We also ate amazing food everywhere.  Traveling with my family is a hectic pace but you see everything and you go in style.  🙂  We took the Sound of Music tour again and we saw the Mozart Museum (in addition to the one in Vienna).

The church in Mondsee, where the wedding from the Sound of Music was filmed (except for the part where she’s by the gates with the nuns – that’s in the convent, which isn’t open for viewing). (I’ll spare you the skeletons.)

A cute restaurant in Mondsee

The gardens with the fountain where Maria sings with the children and the Salzburg castle in the background

The gazebo (closed to the public after an elderly lady broke a hip jumping from bench to bench years ago)

The back of the Von Trapps’ house in the movie – this was a palace and I can’t remember who built it.  (The front of the house in the movie is a different house, and neither was their actual house – their actual house is, I believe, a bed and breakfast now, if you’re planning a trip to Salzburg and you’re a Sound of Music fan.)

Mozart’s birthplace (now a museum)

Other pictures of Salzburg:

We traveled a lot in Switzerland – Appenzell, St. Gallen, Guarda, Lucerne, Zermatt, and Zurich.  (We also stopped in Liechtenstein but I skipped those pictures.)

Appenzell is one of those places my parents had on their list to return to, like Venice. It’s a cute town in the German-speaking part and we’d been there on our first trip. (The first time it was a holiday so everything was closed and the women wore traditional outfits with headdresses like the Flying Nun.) Appenzell is one of the more conservative cantons in Switzerland – it was the last place where women got the vote, and then only after they sued the canton in the Swiss courts. In the 1990s. Regardless, it’s truly lovely. It’s probably what you picture when you think of Switzerland. Cute wooden houses and lovely shops. My uncle is a big golfer and there’s a nearby golf course up in the mountains. He, my dad, and my sister went. They golfed on the Swiss mountainside and the wind carried the sound of cowbells up to them as they golfed. It doesn’t sound real, does it? It sounds like a movie.  I couldn’t find my pictures, so just take my word for it.

St. Gallen has a very famous monastery. During the Reformation the town of St. Gallen, mostly tradespeople, converted to Protestantism, but the countryside remained Catholic, as did the monastery. The townspeople built a large wall around the church compound to separate the Catholics and the Protestants, but the priests had to sneak out of the wall to minister to the people living in the countryside. The bell towers of the church are at the altar end, rather than the entrance, because the wall cuts too close to the entrance for them to have built the bell towers there. The church is in baroque style, but I learned that Northern European baroque is not like Southern European baroque. In Spain and France and Italy, baroque seems to be dark woods and lots of gold – very heavy. Further north it’s lighter – pastels on a light background. I like it better. The monastery was shut down a long time ago but they still have the amazing library where you can take tours. When we went  the theme was the bible in all its forms. They had old old bibles in Latin from when you would only have a few chapters together instead of the whole book, illustrated manuscripts, a Gutenberg, other early printed versions in German, etc. The tour guide was very impressed that I could read the Arabic Bible they had on display, a recent acquisition. It was an amazing library – lovely decorated wood paneling with a huge decorated globe – and an amazing collection.

Pictures of St. Gallen:

We don’t know exactly where in St. Gallen my grandpa grew up, but thanks to anlichan’s mom and her fabulous genealogy research skills we had the last address where Grandpa and Aunt E lived with a relative before traveling to America to meet their parents, who had gone on ahead of them. We went to that address – just an apartment building – but we took a family photo there. (We are huge tourists. We had matching tshirts that we wore for the picture hehe. They said “what happens in Switzerland stays in Switzerland.” Most people didn’t get it. Guess those Vegas ads don’t play in Switzerland hehe.)

This is a picture of a man on a bicycle herding cows on the road somewhere as we drove through Switzerland.  I had to share.

From St. Gallen we went to Guarda (pronounced guard-a not gward-a) in the Romansch speaking section of Switzerland. For those of you not familiar with Romansch, it’s a Romance language spoken by a significant minority of Swiss and one of the four official languages of Switzerland, with German, French, and Italian. Very interesting if you like languages, as many of us in my family do.

Guarda was cute. It’s known for the painted walls on houses, known as sgraffito.  In some of the pictures you can see the Romansch written on the walls.

Pictures of Guarda:

I have so many more pictures of the sgraffito, too many to share.

From Guarda we drove to St. Moritz and took the train into the Italian speaking part and then into Italy. That was a beautiful trip!! You go through the Alps and see glaciers.  On the way back we took a local train and got off in a cute town bisected by a river with a lovely church.

Pictures from the train trips (too many glacier pictures so I didn’t include them)

From Guarda we went to Zermatt with a detour to the French area. I don’t remember the name of the town, but it was in the wine region. It had almost a Mediterranean feel. I’m afraid I got carsick in the backseat of the 10-person van taking hairpin turns up and down mountains and I was too nauseous to enjoy it. We saw a Roman-style church there – it was pretty but I didn’t think it was worth the nausea. Had I felt better I’m sure I would have appreciated it. We got to see a glacier in the mountains and that was cool, too, but I was very happy to get to Zermatt.

Zermatt is where the Matterhorn is. It’s a car-free town and all the houses and hotels look like chalets. It’s full of tourists but still preserves its charm. (Maybe the locals don’t feel that way… On the one hand, tourism brings in money, but on the other hand it must be hard to have your town invaded by tourists all summer and all winter.)  you can take the train up a nearby mountain with great views of the Matterhorn and other mountains in the range. You can also hike.  We took the train up and then hiked the last bit down and it was not the easy trail we non-hikers had expected. We took longer to get down than we expected but we had family bonding time as we went through the forest. (And how many people can say they’ve hiked in the Swiss Alps? Even if it’s the easiest hiking you could probably do in the Swiss Alps, it was an accomplishment for us. We do a lot of walking but not on steep mountain trails.)  Zermatt was truly lovely.

The Matterhorn

We went to Lucerne and walked around and took a boat tour of the lake.

We saw the famous Lion Monument, carved to honor the Swiss mercenaries guarding King Louis XVI who were killed by French Revolutionaries.

Our last stop was Zurich. Zurich took fully to the Reformation and it was interesting to see the churches.  Many of the churches were Catholic Churches until the Reformation and then they became Protestant. One of them was redone with beautiful Marc Chagall stained glass but they don’t let you take pictures. Another looked very plain except for the really unusual stained glass. Some of them were geodes. Some of them were actual stained glass but we couldn’t tell what they depicted. One looked like a goat. They were an interesting mix of Gothic architecture and I guess modern stained glass, with no other decor. They were not my favorite churches but as you know I like my churches to be beautifully decorated, rather than plain or austere.  However, Zurich itself is very pretty.

These banners were hanging in one of the streets and they caught my eye.  It was some kind of art exhibit, and these were only a few of the banners that hung the length of the street.

That was a really fabulous trip.

Did I make up for the lack of pictures in my last post?  I hope so.  It was hard to whittle them down to only this many!

Come back tomorrow for the guest post by my cousin T-Rex!


Travel Tuesday: Northern Europe Part I

I’ve had requests to write about my travel, so I’ve decided my Advent calendar posts would be the perfect time for that.  I was originally going to do this in two parts, one day Europe and another day the Middle East, but I drafted a massive post for my Europe travel and realized I’d traveled so much and had so much to share that I needed to split it further.  Today and next Tuesday we’ll do Northern Europe and then on December 16th and December 23 we’ll do the Mediterranean (both Europe and the Middle East).

I have been incredibly fortunate to travel extensively, thanks in large part to my parents’ generosity. They enjoy taking very nice vacations and they like to take all their children with them, even though we’re all grown, whether they’re renting a shore house for a week or taking a two-week European vacation. I’m very blessed to travel as much as I have, and I wouldn’t have been able to afford most of these trips on my own.

I first traveled to Europe when I was in middle school. My Hungarian grandparents and my parents decided to take us three kids on a two-week trip to Germany, Switzerland, Austria, and Hungary. We’d taken Caribbean  cruises before and flown cross-country to visit my uncles on the west coast, but we’d never left North America. It was my dad’s first time, too. (My mother had been to Hungary once before, when she was in middle school herself.) My grandfather was the only member of his family to leave Hungary (he and my grandmother fled after the Hungarian Revolution in 1956 with my mom’s oldest brother), and we still have a lot of family there on his side.

We flew into Munich and drove through Bavaria (or the Black Forest?) and saw castles. (Apologies for the vagueness – I was only 12, so “castles” is about as specific as I can get.)  Then we went to Switzerland. We had cassette tapes that we played in the car, and to this day whenever I hear Sarah Brightman’s “Time to Say Goodbye” album I think of the mountains of Switzerland.

After traveling through Switzerland, we went to Austria.  In Salzburg we took the Sound of Music tour!  If you’re American, you may not be aware that Austrians don’t know the Sound of Music.  It’s not popular there.  Most people there haven’t heard of it.  However, Sound of Music tours are a big industry.  They take you to different places where the movie was filmed! It’s fun.  Salzburg is a lovely city, as is Vienna.  My strongest memories of our trip to Austria are the Sound of Music tour and the Catholic church in Mondsee, where we went to mass (in German).  The church has the relics of a bishop, but normally relics are a finger bone in a box somewhere, and this is a skeleton in a glass case (in full bishop regalia) over the altar.  That’s intense.

In Hungary we spent a week visiting family.  Most of my grandpa’s family lives in the Budapest area.  We stayed with his younger brother, Jeno bacsi, and his wife Zsuzsa neni.  My grandfather had two older brothers, one of whom was in the Hungarian military during WWII and died in a Russian POW camp.  The oldest brother, Karoly bacsi, used to visit us in America when I was little, but he had died by the time we went to Hungary.  We visited his wife Maria neni and we visited a bunch of cousins and went sight seeing in Budapest.  It’s a beautiful city, but at the time you could still see the remnants of Soviet occupation.  They were cleaning some of the buildings to remove Soviet-era industrial pollution and we visited the Hapsburg palace in Godollo, where there are bullet holes in the chapel.  I also remember our tour guide warning us that “gypsies” steal children.    (I wish I could say that Hungarian attitudes toward the Roma have changed, but I rather doubt that’s the case.)  I think she was trying to scare us into good behavior.  It didn’t work.

So, that was my first trip to Europe.  And look how much space it took me to tell you about it!

I went to Europe several times the year I studied abroad.  (I know, so fancy.)  I would transfer through European airports on my way to and from Cairo, and when I was returning to Egypt after spending Christmas at home it was just as cheap for me to have a 4-day layover as a 4-hour layover.  One of my friends was studying abroad at LSE so I took my layover and stayed with her in London.  We explored a bit: we went to the Tate Museum, walked around the city, went to see “Match Point” (which we both hated, but we were stuck in the middle of a row in a crowded theater so we couldn’t leave).  It was really fun!

We had some breaks during our study abroad year and over one break we went to Cyprus.  It was beautiful and the food was delicious.  We even went into Turkish Cyprus.  We saw a Crusader castle, I remember.  It seemed strange to pass through that no-man’s-land between the two sides.  It used to be the diplomatic sector, so it’s full of grand empty mansions.  I couldn’t picture it being a war zone.  Before we went I really knew nothing about Cyprus and I’d had no idea it was split until we planned our trip.

The summer after my study abroad I wanted to go teach English in Hungary, to improve my Hungarian.  My parents said no, in part because it would have conflicted with our planned vacation.  Instead, they sent me to stay with Maria neni for a month.  At the time she was living with her son, my mom’s cousin Geza, and his wife Hajnalka, who speaks English.  I got to visit with my cousins and Geza’s kids took me exploring in Budapest and elsewhere.  At the end of the month, two days before I was flying home, my grandpa passed away.  I was so upset that I never got a chance to say goodbye, but I was with his family and I think he would have liked that.  Jeno bacsi gave me a wooden owl that my grandpa had carved when he was young, which I took back to my grandmother.   Although Jeno bacsi and my grandpa lived on different continents for fifty years, they were still really close.  They were alike in a lot of ways.  I’m so glad I had that trip.  At the time my Hungarian improved to nearly conversational, but once I returned to the States and went back to my Arabic studies that went away again.  The nice thing about being in Hungary for a month was seeing things that you wouldn’t do if you only had a short period to visit.  I saw the Roman ruins in Budapest, with an amphitheater and aqueducts and even baths.  The Romans found hot springs in the area that’s now Budapest and took full advantage of them; the Turks, equally a fan of baths, did the same.  Hungary is a landlocked country with only the Danube and one large lake, the Balaton, but they love bathing and swimming, which appears to be their heritage from that.  (Also, they make some lovely wines; the Romans brought that to Hungary as well, long before the Magyar ever entered the land the Romans called Pannonia.)  I also got to see a Turkish rose garden and tomb (Gul Baba and Rozsakert) in the hills of Buda.  (Buda is the older part of Budapest and Pest is the newer part; they used to be separate cities.)  We went to an outdoor Hungarian folk museum.  My favorite was the trip to Margit-sziget, Margaret Island, in the Danube.  The island is a park and it was really pretty and peaceful.

I love being in Budapest. Maybe it’s because we have family there. Maybe it’s because even though my Hungarian is poor, the language (and the food) have been familiar to me since my childhood. It is the only place that feels like “home” other than where I live.  (I like being close to my family.)  Every time I go it’s more beautiful and I appreciate it more.  I wish it were an easier (and cheaper) trip so I could go visit more often.  As technology improves, we can stay in touch with our cousins via Skype and Facebook, but it’s not the same as being there.

About two weeks after I returned from Hungary we went back to Europe for a bus tour to Italy with our cousins.  (For several years we went on vacation with my Aunt D and Uncle S, and my cousins C, J, and M.  Us kids are all about the same age and we all had a lot of fun.)  That year the parents decided we should take a vacation to Italy!  We took a Trafalgar bus tour and it was a blast.  We saw Rome, Florence, Capri, Venice, Pompei, Pisa, Ravenna, Assisi, Naples, Siena, and probably others that I’ve forgotten.  It was an awesome trip.  We did everything.  I LOVED seeing the churches (of course) and the medieval cities and villages (my other favorite places to visit), and of course the countryside and the coastline were gorgeous and we ate amazing food.

You had no idea what you were getting in for when you asked to hear about my travels, did you? I think this is enough for one post, so tune in next week to hear about my second trip to England, our Mediterranean cruises, and our second trip to Hungary, Austria, and Switzerland.  Hopefully I’ll have pictures in that post, since I should actually have pictures from those trips on my laptop.  Also, stop back tomorrow for my first guest post, by my friend anamuan.