Monthly Archives: December 2015

The Vermilion Cliffs and Navajo Bridge


Thanks to a lucky accident Ruth and I saw one of the most spectacular sights in northern Arizona last spring.  I don’t think we’re unique. I suspect that a lot of people discover the Navajo Bridge and the Vermilion Cliffs accidentally. We were driving from Page to Prescott on Federal Highway 89 and somehow ended up almost back to Page on a high bridge over Marble Canyon with the Colorado River far below. We had been following Highway 89A, also called Alternate 89 on maps.   89A takes travelers to 67, the only road to the North Rim of the Grand Canyon.  Higher than the South Rim, the North Rim is closed to visitors in the winter.  If there’s another road to get to this bridge from Page, it must have been closed to regular traffic.  In any event, we did get to see the cliffs and the bridge.

The Vermilion Cliffs is a 293,689 acres National Monument. There are apparently no roads for passenger cars into this vast wilderness of beautifully banded buttes and canyons, but 89A skirts the bottom of the Vermilion Cliffs for many miles after the bridge.  There is no marble in Marble Canyon, which marks the western boundary of the Navajo Nation.  One-armed explorer John Wesley Powell, one of the first non-natives to see the Colorado River in the Grand Canyon, imagined that Marble Canyon’s gleaming multi-colored limestone looked like marble and gave it that name.

Northwest of Marble Canyon is the Glen Canyon dam, the lake named for Powell, and the town of Page.  Southwest is the entrance to the Grand Canyon. Upriver from the bridge, Lee’s Ferry is a popular launching place for river rafters, trout seekers, and those beginning their journey through the Grand Canyon.

Two very scenic bridges cross the canyon on 89A.  They look like twins.   One was built between 1927 and 1929, is only 18 feet wide, and was the scene of many accidents until the other, the Navajo Steel Arch Highway Bridge, replaced it in 1995.  The latter, begun in 1993, is 1 of only 7 roads to cross the Colorado River for 750 miles.  Both bridges are engineering feats and worth seeing.  The older one is now pedestrian-only and a good place to spot nesting and flying condors.


When the new bridge opened, the old rest area on the canyon’s west side became a Navajo Nation interpretive center.  It was closed when Ruth & I were there.  We were told that a restroom fire made this closure necessary but that it would reopen in the spring of 2015.  To my knowledge that didn’t happened.

Seeing these bridges and the Vermilion Cliffs behind them is definitely a good idea for anyone exploring this vast, still largely undeveloped area.


Ski Bulgaria!



The town of Bansko is both ancient and modern.  There’s a 6th century church named for the Virgin Mary in its old town.  I walked out of this area of cobblestone streets and was staring at more than 100 mostly empty hotels, apartments, etc.   When Ruth & I saw Bansko in May, 2015, there was almost no one around. This was kind of understandable.  Today Bansko is basically a ski resort, but there were signs everywhere for the upcoming international jazz festival in August.  Those who look at all the come-to-Bulgaria websites might think that Bansko is thriving, but the sad fact is that it’s struggling.

Lonely Planet calls it “swelled with overdevelopment”.  The town’s elevation is about 3,000 feet, but Mount Vihren, almost 10,000 feet, and other beautiful mountains loom over it.  The ski area has the longest runs in Bulgaria.  A building boom occurred when the town launched a serious bid for the 2014 Winter Olympics.  Boom became bust when it didn’t get it.

Until the 18th century Bansko was a thriving mountain town of artisans and lumber mills surrounded by fat cattle.   Many say that Spartacus came from around here.  That’s possible but unprovable.  Ancient sources called him a Thracian, and Bansko is in what was once Roman-times Thrace.  What makes Bansko unique today is that a centuries old village is within a contemporary ski resort town.  I watched old women washing rugs in an ages-old community laundry pit and minutes later glimpsed a restaurant advertising American-style barbecue.  A new Subway will open for the 2015-16 ski season.


Bansko is upbeat and trying to appear prosperous.  The ski area opened for its 12th season on December 12 followed by decent snow. The entire facility was expected to be usable by December 20.  Snow currently measures 16 inches at the summit.  The ski area is expected to be running until the 2nd weekend in April. Opening ceremonies included the 5th annual Treasure Hunters fest during which a set of car keys to a new Audi A3 was buried somewhere under the snow.





Patrick Leigh Fermor

I finished a book this morning that told the life story of Paddy Fermor.   It was written by Artemis Cooper.   Although it contained a bit too much detail about Patrick Leigh’s social life, I loved it.   Fermor traveled constantly.  Greece became his 2nd home.  His last trip at the age of 92 was to Vergina, where he saw the tomb of Alexander The Great’s father.  Ruth and I visited Vergina last May.


Paddy didn’t do well in school.   He often had trouble focusing.  At the age of 18 he left home in England and walked to Turkey.  Well, he mostly walked.   Tall and very good-looking, he had many adventures along the way involving castles, ladies, local notables, etc. Later in life he tried to put the story of this trip in book form and completed 2 of 3 volumes.   His many other books, none of which I have read yet, were about his travels to Asia, South America, etc. Travel and commitments kept him from completing #3.

During World War II he was sent to Crete where he oversaw the capture of a German general.   He married the love of his life when they were in their fifties.  At the age of 69, he successfully swam across The Hellespont.  Fermor lived well into his 90s despite smoking up to 90 cigarettes a day well into middle age and surviving tongue and other smoking related cancers.

Over the years, people with awe in their voices have asked me if I’ve read any Fermor.  The answer was always, “No.”  I told a friend who had never heard of Fermor about him, and David looked him up and wrote back “Quite a guy!” Indeed.


p.s. I didn’t post yesterday because a Northwest wind storm knocked out our power for 3 hours.  This gave me the chance to finish Patrick Leigh Fermor: An Adventure. 

Cowra’s Worst Night


Cowra is a pleasant but unremarkable town of about 10,000 in New South Wales about 200 miles southwest of Sydney.  It has one claim to fame.  During World War II it was the site of a major prisoner of war camp for Italians and Japanese POWS.  There were actually 4 camps.  Each consisted of 17 acres and could hold up to 1,000 detainees.   Camps A & C housed Italians and B & D were for Japanese. Many Japanese officers were held in D.   Italians, the first Cowra prisoners, had been captured in North Africa.

At 2 am on the night of August 5, 1944, more than 900 of the Japanese detainees in Camp B attacked their guards.  Armed with mess knives, baseball bats and improvised weapons, they set fire to their huts, destroying 18 of 20. Carrying extra clothing, they rushed the fences and headed for the gates at both ends of the camp in an escape attempt.  Some succeeded but were recaptured over the next 9 days.

231 Japanese died.  Some burned to death in the huts, others were killed by comrades or committed suicide while trying to commandeer a Vickers Machine Gun, and some died later from wounds.  Accounts vary, but at least 3 Australians were wounded and 4 died; 3 of the dead were guards killed during the initial breakout attempt.

During World War II Australia interned 7,000 residents, and an additional 8,000 people were sent there by allies.   The peak year was 1942 when 12,000 were interned.  There were camps in each of Australia’s 6 states. Comparatively, there were up to 127,000 Japanese interned in 10 camps in 7 states west of the Mississippi–Arkansas, California, Idaho, Wyoming, Colorado, Utah and Arizona–in the United States.

All of the Japanese who died in the Cowra camp were buried in the Cowra War Cemetery.  However, in 1964 a Japanese War Cemetery was funded by the Japanese Government in Cowra and the remains of other Japanese who died in Australia were brought here and buried.

A modest monument remains where the camps once stood.  Cowra is about 100 miles west of the Blue Mountains, a popular destination for both Australians and visitors to Australia.  It’s 57 miles from Cowra to the thriving town of Orange in Australia’s up and coming wine region.





Tirana: Passing Strange


If asked to name the most interesting place I visited in 2015, I’d have to say Tirana.  Other words that would apply to Tirana would include dysfunctional, fascinating, surreal, unforgettable, etc.   It’s very Alice in Wonderland, a city of constant contradiction.

The Lanë River begins in the mountains east of Tirana and flows through its center.  On our first full day in the city, we took a tour and the bus went up one side of it for about 5 blocks, crossed to the other side, and drove down the opposite bank for about 12 blocks. That was the extent of the tour.  The narrow Lanë, little more than a rivulet, looked both inviting and toxic.  One source said it was so polluted that fish can’t survive in it.

Ruth & I went to the Et’hem Bey Mosque.   Some sources call Albania a Muslim country, and the call to prayer can be regularly heard here. Et’hem Bey is one of the oldest buildings in Tirana.  It was spared during the long Communist Era because it was considered a cultural monument.  Without official permission, it’s back to being a mosque in a country that Tirana inyourpocket, a for-sale travel booklet, says is 21% Muslim and 70% non-religious.

Every Albanian Jew survived The Holocaust because the national honor code necessitated hiding them and providing forged documents.

We went to the fairly new Orthodox Cathedral, Christ’s Resurrection, that was consecrated in 2012.    The 3rd largest church of its kind in Europe, it does not conform to traditional Orthodox cathedral design.  After calling it “ostentatious and vulgar in equal amounts” inyourpocket suggests that visitors see it after dark when it lights up like a Las Vegas casino.

About being out a night…visitors, especially those from the United States, home to more than 2 million Albanians, are told to expect to be overwhelmed with hospitality but to hide any valuables.   Do not wander into unlit areas at night, it advises.

Smoking is not allowed in public places but enforcement is weak. inyourpocket claims, “Albanians generally enjoy sitting in clouds of smoke”.

Mercedes are regularly seen passing carts pulled by donkeys.  I specifically named Mercedes because during the Communist Era only party officials were allowed to drive and they favored them.  They were about the only cars seen on city streets.  When the restriction was lifted, Albanians went to other countries and returned with every existing Mercedes-Benz model. “Several hundred polished Mercedes, mostly with German or Italian registration plates, are parked in formation in a muddy field strewn with litter…” noted The New York Times in 2002.

It was announced this week that Mother Teresa, an ethnic Albanian, will be declared a saint late in 2016.  There’s a major square with a statue of her in downtown Tirana.  One evening Ruth & I noticed that an event was about to take place there, so we walked down to see if it was a mass, a prayer meeting, etc.  It was a political rally, and we were discouraged from hanging around.

Surreal, fascinating, etc.