Month: September 2015

Mountain Sculpture of King Decebalus–Danube View

Statue of King Decebalus near the city of Orşova in Romania

I’m sailing the blue Danube, second longest river in Europe. River cruising is the only way to see certain sites, such as the magnificent rock sculpture of King Decebalus carved into a Romanian mountainside facing the river, rivaling Mount Rushmore. And because we go slowly, no one gets seasick.

The Danube begins in the Black Forest of Germany and meanders through Europe, ending at the Black Sea ocean resort of Constanta. I joined the trip in Budapest and got to experience the culture of many Balkan countries in Eastern Europe as we pass through, including Hungary, Croatia, Serbia, Bulgaria and Romania. Eastern Europe is very geo-politically unstable; each country harbors its own intrigue. If you like history, conflict, culture and religion dating from Roman times, the Balkans are an excellent fit. I am cruising with 140 mostly retired passengers, almost all of whom are lifetime learners eagerly trying to put the pieces together — better late than never.

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Riot in Mombasa

 Most people don’t know where this funny sounding place is, but it is a fascinating city to visit.

You can still feel the influence of the Sultanate of Oman, which took control of the city in 1698. Heavily influenced by the Moslem architectural style even to this day, this African city is still predominately Arab, but it retains the strong, somewhat bizarre convergence of Indian and British culture left over from the colonial era. Mombasa remains a major trading center for Kenya on the east-west sea route.

Being a seaside city, the first thing that tourists notice is the expansive beachfront said to be one of the best in Africa. This is a major beach destination. Unique is the fact that a coral reef extends far out into the ocean so that at low tide it is possible to walk nearly a mile into the ocean and still not be waist high in water. Then, quite suddenly the coral reef drops off to the normal ocean bottom.

The reef makes for very good ocean “safaris” to see all types of ocean life without being underwater. It is also excellent for scuba diving beyond the fall off. Boating is good, too, although you need to have experience to know where the water is too shallow to venture.

Along the seashore there are the typical seaside resorts. Gambling is legal in Kenya, so most of the resorts have casinos, which provide ample nighttime activity.

One of the wealthy men of Kenya set up a safari park on native preserve inside Mombasa city limits, which is reputed to be among the best in Kenya. He stocked it with every wild species in Kenya. The convenience of having a man-made safari park cannot be overstated. It means that you do not have to venture to the wilderness to get your wildlife fix. You can return to the luxury of your hotel at night rather than sleep in a tent surrounded by barbed wire.

As you walk or drive around Mombasa, it will be like nowhere else you’ve been. Since it is a sign of prestige to own a camel, you might spot one walking down the street, often with a handler some distance way. On the beach, I saw cattle being shepherded to pasture next to a luxurious, almost-abandoned British hotel with high tea served by white-gloved African waiters.

From a tourist point of view, the old Portuguese Fort Jesus and the adjacent Old City are the most interesting aspects of the city. The fort is so old that it looks like it will crumble on top of visitors. It sits at a strategic point guarding the entry to the harbor where, still today, many in the city make their living by fishing and trading. The 16th century fort is on UNESCO’s World Heritage list and today contains a museum.

Old fort

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In Rome for a Day? Head for Orvieto

The tiny little Italian town of Orvieto is amazing, simple to visit and often overlooked by tourists in Italy. Size is one of its advantages. You can see all it has to offer in a few days, or most of it in an exhausting few hours.

Situated outside Rome on a train line, you can get there without needing to drive. Driving in Italy can be frightening, since the cars are small, and drivers in the passing lane go at very high speed.

Once you arrive in Orvieto, you walk a short distance to the bottom of a funicular that takes you to the top of the hill on which the main part of Orvieto lies. Orvieto, like many Italian cities, was built on a hill for security purposes.

Before you head to the top of the hill, however, there are some interesting sites at the base of the hill. There are also hotels at the base where much of the modern development has taken place. So if you plan to stay overnight, explore around the base. One of the interesting sites is the ancient Well of Saint Patrick, a bit hard to find in a park near the entrance to the funicular. Those with difficulty walking narrow stairs need not attempt this.

On the funicular ride, the vistas present a constantly changing landscape of green, rich olive fields and vineyards with scattered castles and monasteries, some of which now offer lodging for tourists.

Once at the top of the hill, you’re in the old city of Orvieto, dating back to the fifth century before the Common Era. Orvieto was home to many popes in the 13th century. Visit the papal residence. At one point, the Pope considered making Orvieto the papal city instead of Rome. During the sack of Rome in 1527 by Roman Emperor Charles V, Pope Clement VII took refuge in Orvieto.

One of the most fascinating and unique sites in Orvieto is neither at the bottom nor top of the hill. It is literally in between in an “Underground” labyrinth of caves and tunnels where ancient residents raised pigeons that served as food and as messengers. You will experience for yourself a wall of pigeon holes.

The Underground was long hidden and secret, but it is now open to tours. In addition to pigeon holes, you’ll find wells, stairs, quarries, hidden passageways, wine cellars and cisterns. When Orvieto came under siege, Underground residents were able to escape to safe exit points away from the city walls.

I suggest you purchase a special pass called the Carta Unica that entitles you to entry to all major attractions, including the Underground, for a single fee. The pass is available behind the rail station, at the Underground information point on the main plaza and at the museums and other points of interest included in the price.

Stop for a coffee at one of the many outdoor cafes that line the central plaza, and soak in the atmosphere. As you explore, leave time for more coffee stops, as your feet are guaranteed to ache from walking on all the cobblestone roads.

The main attraction of Orvieto is an absolutely beautiful Duomo or cathedral that dominates its main plaza. Built with white travertine and greenish-black basalt in narrow stripes, the church is stunning outside. Inside, find the Chapel of San Brizio. Frescoed between 1449-51 by Luca Signorelli depicting the Last Judgment, it is every bit as impressive and far less crowded than Michelangelo’s Sistine Chapel, which it partially inspired.

Duomo

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