Monthly Archives: June 2011

Prague’s Finest Landmark

Early for our SAS flight from Seattle, Ruth and I were the only two people checking in, so there was time to chat with the unusually friendly agent who knew Prague well from frequent lay-overs. “What shouldn’t we miss?” I asked her since this was our first trip there.

I had read a lot about Prague and expected her answer to be The Charles Bridge or The Castle.  But without hesitation she said, “The Jewish Museum.” I was both surprised and intrigued by what sounded like a single building.  I checked my well-thumbed travel book, and my eyes scrolled down more than Prague 30 landmarks before they got to “The Jewish Quarter.”  The Prague Jewish Museum was, according to its writers, “a fascinating variety of monuments.”  By the time Ruth and I decided to devote an entire day to exploring them, several people had told us that it was a near-mystical experience.

The tickets that we bought at the Moorish-style Spanish Synagogue included six other sites, some of which also sold tickets.  But this proved to be a good place to begin since display cases inside told the story of  “the Jews in Bohemia and Moravia from Emancipation to the Present” with new (to me) and interesting information, like the fact that the first woman rabbi in history was ordained in Berlin, of all places, in 1935.

When the Nazis began confiscating property, the Maisel Synagogue ironically became one of 50 warehouses where they stored what was pillaged from Jewish communities.

The austere Pinkas Synagogue elicited both universal sadness and profound silence from all who were passing through, Ruth and me included, because its walls were literally and painstakingly covered with the names in red and black script of 80,000 Holocaust victims from 153 local Jewish communities.

The Klausen, the largest synagogue in Prague, was now a museum that gently and for the most part joyfully focused on Jewish customs and traditions, one being that “if a husband dies in a childless marriage, it is the duty of his brother to marry the widow.”

By late afternoon our tickets were full of punched holes and our emotions had run the gamut from optimism to despair and back again several times.  Mere words can only provide just a slight insight into what it’s like to experience Prague’s Jewish Museum, where indifference is impossible as a rich historical-cultural story eloquently unfolds.


Australia, Part 9


I found the above easily on

The Three Sisters is a rock formation caused by sandstone erosion.  The Sisters are three fat pinnacles similar to the hoodoos you see in the Canadian Rockies and a couple of the formations in Arches National Park.  The sparsely tree-topped Three Sisters, however, appear much older because they are since Australia is the oldest continent.

First, we viewed The Sisters from above via a visitors’ platform; then we descended 1,000 feet on the 800+ step Giant Stairway to the Jamison Valley floor where the Blue Mountain’s most popular bush walk took Ruth and me through what appeared to be a prehistoric rainforest that was like nothing we had ever experienced before. Thrillingly alone on the Federal Pass Trail, we came around one bend and heard an unearthly, shrill sound.  Peering into the bush, we spotted its source, an exotic looking bird that looked like an anorexic peacock.  It had strange tail feathers that were upraised as if to warn us to come no further.  We didn’t.

At the end of the hot trail, after all it was January (mid-summer), was Katoomba Falls where we discovered that there were two easy ways back to the top, the Scenic Railway, a nearly vertical funicular, and the Scenic Skyway, a soaring tram.  Both seemed equally fun.  We took the Railway.

The day before we had ridden The Zig Zag Railway because I had promised the International Railway Traveler an article about it.  Another attraction worth your time if you get to the Blue Mountains is the Mount Tomah Botanical Garden.  It specializes in exotic, cool-climate plants that you won’t see in Sydney.  On the way back to Katoomba, we also saw a lot of damage caused by recent bush fires set by arsonists.

After two days back in Sydney, we took a train down the coast to Kiama, home to a famous blowhole, where Robert and Lynette had a summer home.  They had invited us to spend a few days with them there before taking us to Melbourne.  We stumbled off the train with four heavy bags.  Robert was appalled.  We argued that we were on a month’s trip with activities ranging from bush waking to opera but he, a dedicated light traveler, didn’t buy it.

Our Australian friends, we soon learned, loved picnics, so the next day we went up to Budderoo National Park where we had a second rainforest walk and lunch.  Seated at a picnic table, I found myself suddenly staring at a bird identical to the one we had seen on the Federal Pass Trail.  “Lynette!” I erupted.  “Look!  What kind of a bird is that?”  She turned and said, “Oh, that’s a lyrebird.  They can imitate almost any sound they hear…even train whistles.”

“They must be pretty common here,” I judged.  “We just saw one in the Blue Mountains.”

“No, actually they’re kind of rare.”

So is real friendship.


The San Juan Islands

Sad news this morning.  The State of Washington is closing its official tourism agency by the end of this week because the strapped and desperate Legislature cut funding last May.  One year its budget provided $7,000,000 to attract visitors. Due to the prolonged Recession, its budget is now $0.

Ruth and I moved to Washington a little over 8 years ago, and it didn’t take long for us to come to an inescapable conclusion.  It’s among the most beautiful states and unique in its diversity of attractions.  We’ve been in all 50 states more than once and had seen all of the major US scenic wonders before moving here so we have a basis for comparison.   Working for a newspaper as a travel writer for more than five years, I really got around the State thanks to many assignments.

If Washington can’t spend the money to tout its wonders, I’ll try to fill in until times are better.  So I decided to do a series of blogs about my favorite Washington destinations starting with The San Juan Islands.

There are 172 or so of them out in Puget Sound off the southeastern coast of Canada’s Vancouver Island, but only 3 of them attract the many visitors who line up in Anacortes, WA, and wait for ferries, an inescapable but stressless San Juan pastime.

I’m most familiar with Lopez Island, also called Slopez due to its leisurely pace. Here you can rent a farmhouse, chat on beach walks with its slightly more than 2000 residents, kayak, go to Shark Reef and watch sunning and fishing seals, pet horses, collect driftwood, and forget about the Recession for a few days.

Orcas is, in my opinion, the most scenic.  Among its gentle mountains is Constitution with a dramatic view of Puget Sound from its summit which is more than likely to be seen since The San Juans benefit from the Rain Shadow effect that keeps them drier than the mainland.  Orcas is a cultured place of golf clubs, chamber music festivals, artists, and theater with byways sporting names like Plum Tree Farm Lane.  Moran State Park and Rosario Resort will enchant you.

The Islands’ main town, bustling Friday Harbor, is on San Juan.   This Island’s best attractions are on its west coast–eye-filling Roche Harbor, British Camp (scene of the Pig War), and Lime Kiln Point, a popular whale watching spot, among them.

There’s an excellent Whale Museum in Friday Harbor where I learned that whales are the second most widely distributed mammals on the planet after humans.  They have the largest brains among mammals.   That’s probably why they spend so much time swimming circles around the San Juans.  But it doesn’t require a large brain to figure out that The San Juan Islands are a Class A attraction.  Their remoteness, virtually empty roads, pulse-slowing ambiance, and incredible scenery at every turn guarantee a hassle free vacation, if you don’t mind waiting for ferries.


San Marino’s Thrust

I mentioned in “Small and Far Apart In Europe” that I found San Marino a bit strange in that so much there has to do with weapons and torture. I’ve done some research and have more information, if not answers.

I mentioned a particularly gruesome painting in the State Museum that shows a woman about to literally nail a man to the floor.  I now know that the woman is Jael, and the Old Testament story is in Judges 4, Deborah and Barak.   Deborah was an Israeli prophet and judge, a powerful woman in a world dominated by men.  One of her predictions when invited to an invasion was that “the Lord will hand Sisara over to a woman.”  That would be Jael.  Sisara, a Canaanite commander whom God befuddled in battle, ran from the scene and Jael invited him into her tent.  He asked for a drink of water and, after telling her to say no if anyone asked if she had a visitor, fell asleep.  Jael grabbed a hammer and tent stake to “drive the peg right through the side of his head and into the ground.”

In the same area with this painting is one of St. Agatha looking serenely skyward while getting her left nipple excised by some especially evil-looking shears.  This made more sense when I learned that she’s a patron saint of a country named for another saint, Marinus.  He’s a big deal here every September 3 when the 30,000 citizens of SM (am I just overreaching when I point out that SM is also the initials for some kinky, reportedly painful behavior?) commemorate his founding way back in 301 of what is now the world’s oldest republic

After I stared at St. Sebastian pulling an arrow out of his armpit, Ruth and I went shopping.  While Ruth looked at coins, I visited Pistole e Carabine and Aria Compressa.  Both sells guns, swords, huge knives, etc.  I flashed on trying to explain to TSA why my carry-on is full of such souvenirs.

Down from these stores was a Torture Museum which boasted “more than 100 instruments for inflicting pain and death.”  There was also a Museum of Curiosity that sounded bizarre.  The Waxworks Museum promised, “Special section feature (sic) figures from opera and instruments of torture.”  Now for some (not me), opera is an instrument of torture, so maybe that’s the thrust (ouch!) of this curious description.  One of the three defensive towers above the city sports a Museum of Ancient Weapons.  I didn’t have the time (or the guts) to investigate.

Get the picture?  If anyone knows why San Marino is this way, please comment. All I know is that I kept looking over my shoulder as I headed for the Lancia.


Driving in Italy Again

I took the picture above in Bergamo as we waited for a bride and groom to erupt from the church in the background, ease into wheeled luxury, and begin their tempestuous Italian married life together.  It definitely isn’t a Lancia.

The second car we rented was a Lancia.  It was small and a bit underpowered on the same road with BMWs but fairly nimble.  We had to claim it from a National office in the train station in Mestre, Italy, since cars are not allowed into Venice.  The single employee was spending a lot  time on the phone.   From his pained expression I assumed he was listening to customers with problems.  The line wasn’t moving.  In front of us were two delightful, fun-seeking ladies from Melbourne, Australia, who were planning to travel to Trieste and back over six days.  The one who was to be behind the wheel had never driven on the right, and I still wince and wonder how they did in a country where passionate drivers ride your rear end close enough that you can see their volcanic facial expressions in your rear view mirror, until you move over.

We made it to the Autostrada without major incident with the help of only minor expletives despite traffic congestion and confusing road signs.  We were in Rimini, our overnight destination, a fast and furious two hours later.

We were up and out by seven the next morning because we added, just in case, 2 extra hours to the trip back, a really good decision. We made it to the outskirts of Mestre in a flash, but there was a “traffic incident” at the exit we needed which meant that all cars, BMWs included, had to fit into one lane.   As in Zurich, we were quickly lost because repeating a route from the other direction seems easy but often isn’t.  As in Zurich, luck happened.   I spotted tram tracks.  Reasoning that all trams would eventually pass in front of such an important train station, the portal to Venice, we began following them and, sure enough, we pulled into the National lot a mere 20 minutes before the Lancia was due back.

The man who checked us in was both astonished and angry.  Accident-free, we had a full tank of gas and hadn’t gone over the time limit.  This meant that there would be no additional charges.  At least I suspect that was the cause of his snit since he went into his office and came back with an official looking document that he insisted I sign.  When I told him that I didn’t put my name on documents that I couldn’t read, his repertory of Italian gestures got quite a workout and I learned a few new ones.  Putting my name on a document which, allegedly, reported to the entire Italian judicial system that I had not had an accident was the only way to calm him.  I hope the Australian ladies had to sign one too.