Mario Ortner
My Around the World Book - Original Book Format
Mar 9th, 2010 by Mario Ortner


Mario Ortner
Los Angeles - Good things come to an end
Dec 31st, 2009 by Mario Ortner

It’s been quite an adventure for this 50-year-old body.

Exhausted after a long day

I have been to both my parents’ final resting places, visited my entire family in one scoop, participated in a documentary film, touched the wonders of the world, met people as different to me as can be, travelled in most means of transportation, shared a passion for soccer with my son, slept indoors, outdoors, in a tent, in a Ger, in a cave, swapped stories with octogenarians as well as youngsters one third my age, challenged my fears of heights, darkness, and risk-taking, witnessed the extremes of poverty and excess of wealth, dodged a typhoon, got stranded by a terrorist attempt, was delayed by impossible weather conditions…

The things I didn’t do were to become ill, suffer an accident, get robbed, swindled, arrested, miss a flight, or lose a single item. I am happy to say I am okay with that!

So, what did I get out of this experience?

First, the realization of how lucky I am. I have met scores of people who beg on the streets, work long hours for a meager income, have no roof over their heads… and there I was, sympathizing with their plight while realizing the insignificance of my own worries.

Second, my family is my world. The farther away I traveled, the closer they felt to me. My wife, my children, they are the center of my world.

There are other personal lessons to be learned. The last 4 months were unique. Every day should be like that. It is up to me not to forget.

I am grateful to all who read this blog and shared their comments, suggestions, and good wishes with me. I hope to read yours someday, when you go out and do something special, anything that you haven’t done before.

See you soon.

Mario Ortner
Washington DC, USA
Dec 31st, 2009 by Mario Ortner

It’s cold in here!

I had planned my trip carefully around the weather and, for the most part, enjoyed pleasant temperate days. But visiting Washington DC was an afterthough, and that afterthought was now freezing my b***s.

Winter post-christmas is not the best time to come here. The place felt empty, gray, and gloomy. Of course the monuments and museums still looked wonderful. The capitol tour was interesting if a bit cheesy. They showed a film (a hollywood production supposed to stirr emotions), followed by a visit to the chambers and rotunda. I got bored after a while and asked to leave. They escorted me out as you cannot wander about alone.

I had little time for museums but managed to visit two: The smithonian museum of natural history and the US holocaust museum. They are both great. The many presidential and war memorials look impressive, touching, and in some cases controvertial, but they all serve a purpose: To remember that, despite the shortcomings, this is still the greatest nation on earth.

And to tell you the truth, the more countries I visited, the more I realize that.

Tomorrow I fly back home. Time to get back to reality.

Mario Ortner
Machu Picchu, Peru
Dec 27th, 2009 by Mario Ortner

What a way to end a trip. Forget Washington DC, I am signing off here, right now!

Machu Picchu, the most famous Inca city, comprises 3 area: Agricultural (the terraces), Urban (the ruins), and religious (Temple of the sun). Behind Machu Picchu, there is a big mountain that appears in all the pictures. That is Wayna Picchu and to climb it, one must wake up very early in the morning because they only allow the first 200 people per day.

So at 4 am I woke up, showered and dressed, eat breakfast, and rushed to the bus station only to find a block long line already formed. I still made it to the list and got my ticket stamped.

The mist and fog made the views difficult at first, but it also made them special, almost magical. Standing at the terraces looking down at the ruins, one only needs to speak loudly and wait for God´s response. That´s how spiritual this place, this moment, felt.

The ruins are wonderful to walk, and there were Llamas grazing there that made it even more wonderful. Like the saying goes, greatness is in the details, and in this case, the animals added to the natural beauty of the place.

The temple of the sun is the best preserved structure, but the best part for me was Wayna Picchu. Because there have been death climbing to the top, they make you sign a waiver that they are not responsible for whatever happens to you. What they do guarantee is that you will get out, dead or alive. What a relief!

My concern was about my fear of heights, and although you climb steep steps for over an hour to reach the top,  the lush vegetation blocks the precipice below so I did not have to look down. The view from the top is S P E C T A C U L A R (I have no other words to describe the state of amazement of everyone standing there).

Going back to town, I opted to walk down instead of taking the bus. It started raining but that didn´t stop many people from descending the steep stone steps through the jungle rather than follow the bus route.

I am writing this post while waiting for my train to leave back to Cusco. I feel so overwhelmed by today´s experience, and fortunate that this was my last stop rather than the first. How can you top this place!

Mario Ortner
Aguas Calientes, Peru
Dec 26th, 2009 by Mario Ortner

The train ride from Cusco to Aguas Calientes was nothing but spectacular. It was a 3-hour scenery of wild rivers, giant green mountains, and a lush jungle-type vegetation. The ride was bumpy but comfortable. The train stopped for backpackers to get off and walk the famous 4-day Inca trail, but still made it in time.

The ”Welcome to Aguas Calientes” sign at the train station should have been added ”You are now our hostage”. The place is the biggest rip off I have found in all of my trip. It is small and isolated and if people want to continue to Machu Picchu, not only they must stay here but also have to pay 4 times the prices in Cusco (which was already pricier compared to Lima) as there is little competition.

My hostel was tucked nicely in the middle of town; a 3 story non-descriptive building overlooking the river. It was alright, nothing funcy, but they served breakfast at 4:30 in the morning for people wishing to climb Wayna Picchu as well.

The town itself was pretty. Located in the midst of a jungle and divided by a furious wild river, it had a long commercial street that climbed up the mountain and a few hanging bridges that spanned over the water with the backdrop of the cloudy mountains that I have come to love so much.

I took a stroll down the road that led to Machu Picchu and ended up at a small but well done museum of Archeology and later on at a very pretty botanical garden. At night I ate dinner at one of the many restaurants overlooking the river and went to bed early to prepare for Machu Picchu.

Mario Ortner
Sacred Valley, Peru
Dec 26th, 2009 by Mario Ortner

What a great introduction to Machu Pichu this enchanted valley was.

The full day tour I was forced to take (no other way around it) took me up the mountain to visit the Inca Cemetery and town of Pisaq, followed by the wonderful Inca terraces and town of Ollantaytambo, and finishing with a visit to a colonia church at Chinchero. Along the way, I was treated to a typical Peruvian lunch, met artisans working with Alpaca, llama, and other textile fibers to create the merchandising seen all throughout Peru. The plains were covered in green colors, and the dark clouds dancing amidst the mountain peaks were just surreal. The beauty of this valley is too difficult to explain with words, so here are the photos.

 

Mario Ortner
Cusco, Peru
Dec 26th, 2009 by Mario Ortner

I am delving into Inca´s territory.

As good as the bus drive was from Lima to Arequipa, the one from Arequipa to Cusco was a nightmare. There were no seats in the VIP bus and so I had to travel in the coach section which was cramped and had little leg room for a tall guy like me. I arrived tired and cranky, headed for my hostel, and took a short nap. My hostel was a bit farther from the centro but I didn´t come back until very late, so location didn´t matter much.

Cusco doesn´t feel like a Peruvian city but more like the small medieval Italian towns in Tuscany. Set against a dramatic backdrop of mountains reaching to the clouds, it was the best preserved colonial town I have seen in South America so far. Even with the mass of tourists and locals, it was a pleasure to walk to stone hilly streets flanked by centuries old homes and shops. The Cathedral, the churches were all beautiful examples of Spanish Architecture with strong Inca influence. and were well positioned fronting large plazas. The main square with its arched promenade all around was hard to see on a sunny day with all the packed-to-capacity stalls and a crowd that moved at a snail pace, but once it started raining (more like a short torrential precipitation of biblical proportions) the stalls, vendors, and tourists disappeared and - drenched from head to toe - I was able to appreciate the square as it was intended.

As I walked away from the main square, the town was still as lovely as could be. Tourism is the main industry here, and the Government did a splendid job preparing for the herds of tourists that descend on the town even in low season.

Mario Ortner
Arequipa, Peru
Dec 25th, 2009 by Mario Ortner

I was a little unsure as to whether come here or to travel to Nasca and fly over the mysterious and still unexplained lines of Nasca that stretch for miles and can be seen only from the air. But Nasca would´ve taken 2 days for a mere 20 minute flight, a luxury of time I did not have in this dynamically changing journey. And so I settled for this beautiful town that was on my way to Cusco and could be done in a day. The drive took 15 hours in a luxurious bus that had bed-converted seats and all the gadgets one finds in a first class plane seat.

The old section of town is magnificent in its architecture dating back to just half a century after the discovery of America. Like any town in Peru, it has a main square and a cathedral, but what sets Arequipa apart are the incredibly well preserved or restored homes all over town. This looks and feels like a living colonial town, not just a tourist spot with a few restored buildings.

And it also has the Santa Catalina monastery, which is mesmerizing. Founded in 1579 for women from different social casts who enterred the monastery to become sisters and were never allowed to leave. The lived in private cells in buildings that were added in a maze-like fashion to create a city within a city. The entire complex sits on a five by 2 city blocks. It´s huge and had been beautifully restored following the numerous earthquakes that affected the region.

I learned and tasted the Peruvian cuisine here thanks to Manolo, an Architect from Lima who was seating next to me on the bus and who invited me to a local restaurant in Mercado San Pedro to taste Cuy (like a guinea pig) and drink Chicha frutillada (a local beer that comes in many flavors including fruity ones). Thank you Manuel, but I think I´ll stick with chicken and coca cola for the time being (the rest of  my life).

I arrived here at 10 am and ten hours later I was on another bus heading to Cusco. Arequipa was totally worth a visit.

Mario Ortner
Lima, Peru
Dec 25th, 2009 by Mario Ortner

First a bit of information I did not know. Lima sits on a desert and is the second largest desert town after Cairo. It looks small but there are presently over nine million people living here.

Lima seemed safe to me, but the locals made it feel too dangerous. I had to be escorted by 2 policement for a 2 block stretch called Camino Inca because the area around it is known as Barrio de la Muerte (Death neighborhood). I wanted to visit the San Cristobal mountain (like the Corcovado in Rio), but there are no official tours due to the bus driving through a slum, and the tourist office wanrned me not to take the unofficial tour busses because people get robbed. But I took it anyway, keeping the windows closed and the cameras away (nothing bad happened). The government of this once oppulent but now mostly poor capital city are doing their best to renovate old buildings and build new parks and attracctions but they are scaring away tourists with their dire warnings. In any case, according to some street vendors, most tourists come here for the drugs as they are easy to get.

My hotel (Espana) was a former convent and was designated as historical monument by the city. It is a mixture of Barroque and Colonial architecture with a faded interior that still managed to look impressive. Statues and fountains stood everywhere and on the terrace restaurant they even had live toucans and giant tortoises roaming freely around. A very neat place.

So what to see in Lima? The old city and the neigborhoods of Miraflores and Barrancos are the big draws. Some colonial streets are a gem. Well preserved, colorful, detailed, and still being used as homes. The cathedral fronting the main square is beautiful, and the San Francisco convent has a wonderful tour that takes you to the underground catacombs where 25,000 people were buried (first cemetery of Lima), plus they have ceramic tile walls that were brought from Spain and several paintings from the famous Reubens. There is also a nice pedestrian thoroughfare (Jiron de la Union) that joins the Government palace and Plaza San Martin. Lastly, Cerro San Cristobal offers good views of this mostly flat city, but the mirador is in bad shape as tourist don´t come here much.

The Miraflores and Barrancos neighborhoods I visited when returning from Cusco 5 days later. Simply put, the coastal area is where the rich people live. Safe, clean, with nice beaches, fancy restaurants and shopping malls. Not much of a tourist attraction but I had a few hours to burn and this is an important area in Lima, so I came, took a quick peek, and left.

Mario Ortner
Rio de Janeiro - Brasil
Dec 22nd, 2009 by Mario Ortner

Day 1

It did not go well.

I arrived at Salvador´s airport early in the afternoon and managed to change to an earlier flight in the hope of getting to enjoy a few of hours in Rio. But first, the airline´s computer system broke down and the flight got delayed. Then, as we approached Rio, a severe storm forced the plane to deviate to Belo Horizonte following 2 unsuccessful and frightening landing attempts. At Belo Horizonte it took 2 hours to refuel and then back in the air for yet another frightening landing attempt, this one successful. In short, a 3-hr flight turned into a 10-hr flight. I made it to the hostel after midnight. Suffice is to say that my original flight made it on time.

The delay forced me to cancel my trip to Paraty - a small historical colonial town about 4 hours from Rio. On top of that, my hostel was a piece of drek. Location in Botafogo was not ideal and the place itself was overcrowded with young and noisy backpackers. I changed accomodations the following day.

Walking around Copacabana and Ipanema´s famed beaches and wide esplanades is a fantastic experience only made better after riding the train to the top of Corcovado mountain where the Christ Redemption monument stands dominating Rio, and then taking the funicular to the top of the Sugar Loaf mountain for yet another spectacular view of Rio from above. These are the top attractions and I tackled them first to get a sense of the size of the city.

Day 2

My new hostel was in a much better location in the heart of Copacabana just 2 blocks from the beach. It was also cleaner and friendlier. After checking in, I took the metro to downtown and visited the cathedral (in the shape of a pyramid), the Sambodromo (yes, they have a stadium built specifically for the carnival floats), then took a tram that traveled over the old aqueduct (Roman style) to the mountain town of Santa Teresita (Rio´s oldest and toniest neighborhood). The tram -a cute but unreliable relic from the early 20th century - was supposed to end at the Tijuca forests but broke down midway and had to return to the main station. Lake Rodrigo de Freitas was the final destination - a large lake with tall buildings set against a dramatic background of steep mountains that are touched by the clouds.

Day 3

Rio is the only city I know where the poor live in the hills and command the best views. Together with a group of German backpackers, we headed to Rosintha, the largest favela (slum) in Rio. They warned me at the hostel not to go alone but I figured that if women and children live there, it can´t be that bad (Just in case I left my valuables in the locker).

At first, it looked different from what I expected. A main street flanked by shops that reminded me of India twisted up the hill where the homes are clinging precariously. Once off the main street, we were in a different world. Aleyways that wouldn´t fit motorcycles and stairways so steep they wouldn´t pass minimum building code requirements spring in all directions at once. Power cables illegally hooked into an overcrowded, tired and confusing grid, and garbage piling everywhere. We threaded our way carefully not to get lost because we sensed that if we did, we would be in big troubles. But in general, people were nice and guided us along the way. Most seemed happy and in the mood for dancing and Christmas.

From Rosintha, we headed to the beach and spent the afternoon playing volleyball and bathing in the warm waters. Who could have imagined, a Jewish guy having fun with the German pack. Life can be unpredictable.

Mario Ortner
Salvador, Bahia - Brazil
Dec 17th, 2009 by Mario Ortner

The airport was about an hour away from my hotel in Barra, a well-to-do area with many restaurants, shopping centers, and the safest neighborhood in all of Salvador. It is a nice little place with a fun owner who serves Capirinhas (a drink with alcohol) to anyone who comes in the door.

There  are 2 places people come to Salvador to see: Pelourinho (the colonial district) and the beaches (too many to mention all of them). My first visit was, of course, to Pelourinho. It is a wonderful and colorful section of historical homes and churches that is hampered by a very high crime and even more, by a stunning show of force by the police that cover the tourist area with hundreds of uniformed, heavily-armed men. So, in order to see the real Pelourinho, I went out of the tourist area and into the real neighborhood where people live and crime is said to be a daily occurrence.  I did not encounter any problem but I had the privilege of walking a very lively and well-preserved Portuguese colonial town with people that were kind and gave me accurate directions to churches and points of interest. The visit ended at Lacerda - an elevator that takes you down from Pelourinho (on a hill) to the grand market and port below.

Day 2 was about the beaches, but the climate - very hot and humid - was killing me from the start. There are supposedly fantastic beaches north of town like praia de Forte and Imbassai but they were too far away for a short day trip, so I settled on an island instead: Ilha de Itaparica, located 40 minutes away by boat and stopping on the way by Forte de Sao Marcelo, a fort from the 18th century built as an island and currently functioning as a museum. The boat left me at Mar Grande, a tiny old town with some beaches. From there, I took a minivan to Itaparica (another historical town) and finally to Praia de Areia - miles of beautiful pristine beaches with the warmest sea water my feet ever touched. I sat in one of those bamboo cabanas restaurants with umbrellas and watched other people get scorched by the sun until it was time to get back.

The rest? The lighthouse and the Christo redentor at Barra are worth mentioning as well as the young guys doing the Capoeira dance and all the youngsters playing soccer at the beach are fun to watch (there is an actual soccer field built in the water). I loved Salvador Bahia. Here are the photos.

Mario Ortner
Buenos Aires, argentina
Dec 14th, 2009 by Mario Ortner

I arrived early in the morning but there was no one at the airport to greet me - a misunderstanding with my brother about the date of arrival. My nephew Diego eventually picked me up and drove me to their house.

The first day I did a nostalgic walk around the old neighborhood: My mother´s apartment in Olivos, our former apartment on Urquiza street, my grandparents house on Santa Rosa street, the kinder club I used to attend, and so on. I even met an old neighbor who recognized me. In the evening, my brother and Silvia invited me to my favorite restaurant Siga la Vaca, an old horse stable converted into an all-you-can-eat BBQ joint. My nephews Diego and Emiliano joined us with their respective girlfriends and, as it happens in every trip to Argentina, my stomach began the arduous adjustment to eating like there is no tomorrow.

The following day we travelled to the cemetery to visit my mother´s final resting place. I brought along some dirt that I took from my dad´s grave in Jerusalem and mixed it with the dirt here. Who knows, perhaps it will help bring them together wherever they are. It felt good to be close to someone I loved so much and will forever remember lovingly.

The rest of the family (my uncle, aunt and cousins) came to my brother´s house in the evening. It was nice seeing them all but, as it is usual in cases when a matriarch figure passes away, I noticed the process of distancing beginning to take shape. I expect it to accelerate in the coming years. It is no one´s fault. It is what it is and it´s inevitable.

Upon my return from Iguazu, my brother and Silvia took me to Puerto Madero, a hip area recycled from the old port. Buenos Aires has been transformed significantly over the past twenty years. It is a modern progressive city with beautiful buildings and parks and a lax of security that resulted in an alarming increase in violent crimes. The rest of my time in Buenos Aires I spent with my brother and Silvia, taking care of some paperwork relating to my mother, eating more parrillas, and visiting some more places  like the Tigre Delta and the downtown district.

Mario Ortner
Iguazu, Argentina/Brazil
Dec 14th, 2009 by Mario Ortner

The Iguazu falls lie at the border between Paraguay, Brazil, and Argentina, but only Brazil and Argentina have access to them. There are two national parks, each with its own unique sights, and they are both spectacular. The Argentine park is efficiently run, with well marked trails and a staff always eager to help. The falls are wonderful to watch at close up. The Brasilian park is well maintained but overcrowded, with long lines and lots of people that feels more like Disneyland, but the falls are out of this world. There is a city on each side, both are small and non-descriptive, especially Foz Iguazu on the Brasilian side.

Following my brother´s advice, I headed straight from the airport to the Argentine park sharing a taxi with a Venezuelan couple. Upon our arrival at the park, a train took us to a station called “Devil´s mouth”. A long ramp led to the largest fall with the same name. From there, I took a boat downstream to the upper and lower trails. There, I took another boat to what they called “Cataratas Baptism”. Basically, the boat gets very close to the falls and everyone gets soaked as the boats sways violently, ready to turn over. Lots of fun for the money.

My hotel was located in the Brasilian side and the following morning, I took a bus to the Brasilian park. I was aware of the 1-hour time difference, but I was wrongly told it was the other way around. So I rushed to the park, rode the elevator down, walked the long ramp to the mouth of the fall, took a short trail walk, and was back at the entrance to catch the bus to the border. Only then and there did I learn that I had 2 extra hours to burn, and thank God for that because as I was walking around Puerto Argentino I found the most incredible Parilla restaurant “El Galpon del tio preferido” where I ate one of the juicest, thickest Chorizo steaks of my life.

Mario Ortner
Colonia, Uruguay
Dec 14th, 2009 by Mario Ortner

My mother loved coming here with her friends. She used to tell me about this peaceful little town where time had stopped and people sat in their porches sipping mate (the national tea drink). Since Colonia can be visited in a day from Buenos Aires and Silvia (my sister in law) wanted to come along, we hopped on a catamaran ferry and did the 45-minute Rio de la Plata crossing to Uruguay.

The town is charming, if a little touristy. There is a downtown section that is modern and where people live and do their shopping, and the old core area with a light house, the remains of a fortress wall, a few ruins, a church and some streets that managed to retain a close resemblance to their original splendor and which are now being used as museums, restaurants, and tourist traps (you know, where prices are in dollars because they are so ridiculously high).

I enjoyed the stillness of the historical place. I wish people still lived here so it wasn´t tourist-oriented only. The tiny museums (we visited 6 of them) housed in old historical structures consisted each of a few rooms displaying diverse elements from the indigenous, archaeological, Spanish and Portuguese origins. It was interesting to learn that Uruguay was occupied at one time by the Portuguese and I began to understand better the architecture, which is not purely traditional Spanish. We had Chivito for lunch (a steak sandwich) that was delicious. Silvia did some shopping while I climbed the light house to get an aereal view of the town, until it was time to head back across the river.

Mario Ortner
Madrid, Spain
Dec 10th, 2009 by Mario Ortner

A few years ago we visited madrid with my brother. We covered the city pretty well, except I did not get to see “El Prado” because it was my last day and the museum was closed on Mondays (Sergio had an extra day and did get to see it). So my wish during the 4 hours in town was to go and see the works Velazques and Goya, among other Spanish painters.

The visit to El Prado was interesting - Not too big of a museum but well stocked with valuable art. I skipped the ground floor and concentrated on the upper floor where most Spanish painters´ work was on display. The museum is first class in every sense.

It´s great to be in Madrid and see all monuments and palaces (even if again) and so I planned my trip to El Prado making sure to stop at as many places as possible (Plaza Mayor, Palacio Real, the cathedral, etc.) plus some I have never been to, like the temple of Debod (an entire temple gifted to Spain by the Egyptian government), plaza de la Villa (beautiful eclectic architecture), and my favorite: Teatro de la Zarzuela (someday I must see a show there).

As for the rest, just like Sevilla and Granada, it´s Christmas time in Madrid and the streets were overflowing with families and couples strolling, shopping, buying lottery tickes. There were colorful lights, giant trees and a wonderful festive mood. I wanted to stay but had just enough time to get to an hotel that let me to use the showers (for a fee) before heading to the airport for my next destination: South America.

Mario Ortner
The Alhambra, Granada - Spain
Dec 7th, 2009 by Mario Ortner

I was warned that, without a reservation, I should get to the Alhambra early enough to grab one of the 1000 tickes that they release on a daily basis. Since it is low season in Europe, I figured that wouldn’t be a problem, but I nevertheless woke up early and got on my way to the top of the hill arriving at the gate at 8 am. It was still dark and I was surprised to find the doors wide open. There was no one around as I sneaked inside and started to tour the place. It took 20 minutes for security to catch up with me and very politely throw me out. Aparently the doors were left open mistakenly by the cleaning crew. I was sent to the ticket office located further up the hill.

When I arrived there was a multitude of well over a thousand people forming a long line. Little I knew that today was a national holiday “Dia del Puente” celebrating something to do with the Spanish constitution. Since there was no way that I was going to wait in line for hours only to find out that they ran out of tickets, I started to leave in frustration for missing such an important place. Nearing the entrance, I saw a shorter line forming for the people who had prior reservations. The sign at the bottom read “Also for credit card purchases”. I tried my luck at the automatic machines and voila: Got my precious ticket with little waiting time.

The Alhambra is a palace/ fortress of the rulers of the last Moorish kingdom. It is the most exciting and romantic of all the palaces that I have visited to date. There are four distinctive areas: Palacio Carlos V functions as a museum. Alcazaba fortress has breathtaking views of the city. Palacio Nazaries is a beautifully intricated Moorish building with lots of fountains and gardens, and Generalife (I don’t get the name) has a series of towers interconnected by walls and gardens.

Here are the photos of this spectacular and unique place.

Mario Ortner
Granada, Spain
Dec 7th, 2009 by Mario Ortner

For those whose think Granada is worth a visit only because of the Alhambra, nothing could be farther from the truth.

Granada is an old Moorish city with tons of charm and a backdrop of the Siera Nevada mountains that overlooks the city and its fertile ground. Although smaller than Sevilla, it can take longer to see because of the hillside nature of its many neighborhoods. The old city has 4 well defined areas:

1. The Arab quarters of Albacyn - ancient cobblestone coridors, charmingsquares and churches, colorful stores and outdoor cafes with a mix of Andaluzan flavor. I particularly liked San Nicolas mirador, an artesanal fair with breathtaking views of the Alhambra.

2. The Gypsie quarters of Sacromonte - above the Arab quarters in a hillside with cave-like houses and the best flamenco dances in town.

3. San Mateo Neighborhood - Narrow streets and colorful buildings in what used to be the Jewish quarters enturies ago (by the way, there are presently no Jewish synagogues in Granada nor an active Jewish community. Sad but true).

4. El Centro - Mixed ecclectic architecture dominated by the grand Cathedral where shopping and the civic life are centered. My hostel was in this area fronting plaza Trinidad, and within walking distance to all the above neighborhoods.

Mario Ortner
Sevilla, Spain
Dec 6th, 2009 by Mario Ortner

It´s not just Sevilla the beautiful;  It´s Sevilla the beautiful readying for Christmas.

I arrived in the late afternoon. Finding the hostel was a snap; 2 blocks from the Plaza nueva, I was able to walk from the bus station (or had to due to a strike). The hostel was top of the line, with everything that I needed and more.

Sevilla is wonderful because it is a large city that has nevertheless managed to retain a small town feel. Low buildings, bucolic atmosphere, small plazas and churches every couple of blocks, and the architecture of the buildings is magnificent but never pretentious. Places like the cathedral or the incredibly captivating Alcazar (the moorish palace and gardens), plaza del toro (no bull fights during winter), the Spanish square (amazing), Puerta Macarena and the old remaining fortress walls. Even the Pizjuan stadium for home soccer team Sevilla is not intrusive and blends well with the neighborhod.

And speaking of neighborhoods, they are truly a work of art. Santa Cruz (the old Jewish quarters), Triana and the Macarena are a treat to the eyes. Walking the little streets, enjoying a chocolate with churros or tapas at the corner open-air cafes overlooking the churches and watching families walk and kids kick the ball in the middle of the street and pidgeos gathering for food, it such a good feet and lovely.

Only the riverfront left me wanting for more because parts were closed off to pedestrian traffic, but it’s the city working to make it more accessible to people and activities so it just happened to be bad timing on my part.

In the evenings, el Centro comes alive with lights and a multitude of people walking back and forth the streets from the cathedral to plaza Nueva  and the Ayuntamiento (city hall) and all the way to plaza Jerez. The shops are teeming with merchandise and shoppers. Restaurants are all booked and the sidewalks are overflowing with tables and waiters rushing in and out to take orders.

I had a wonderful time in the evening. Tapas for dinner followed by a terrific Flamenco show in a small cultural center in the hip neighborhood of Santa Cruz and for about 40 spectators. Named “An evening of Flamenco” by young artists of Sevile and performed in a special setting - a square patio of a house-palace from an 18th century Jewish house. It is rated one of the best in town and it showed. The singer and the guitarist played from their heart and the 2 dancers placed such energy and passion into their performance I was at the edge of my seat.

Mario Ortner
Tanger, Tarifa and Algeciras (Morocco and Spain)
Dec 6th, 2009 by Mario Ortner

I spent the entire day traveling by almost all means of transportation, but it wasn´t as tiring as expected (I actually enjoyed the ride). It started in Fes at 2:00 am - a 6-hr train ride to Tanger (I slept most of it), a hilly but dirty town, followed by a taxi ride to the port, customs as required, a 45-mnute catamaran ferry (missed the first one because of the late train) across the stretch to Tarifa (very prety but windy as hell), a 20-minute tram to algeciras (large, non-descriptive town), a 3-hr bus to Seville, and a final 15-minute walk to the hotel because there was a taxi strike in the center of town that brought all transportation to a standstill. I arrived around 5:00 pm - a 15-hour total journey. Here are today´s photos.

Mario Ortner
Fes, Morocco
Dec 6th, 2009 by Mario Ortner

Yep, Fes is a carbon copy of Casablanca, Marakesh, and Meknes (according to some Spanish girls that arrived from there). There is a nouvelle city (flat and uninspiring), and a Medina (old walled city and main tourist attraction). At the Medina there are portal entrances on all sides, a Mella (Jewish former quarters), souks, and those narrow alleyways guaranteed to get you seriously lost; Same configuration in all 4 cities.

But Fes is the better one of all. The general color is white but, unlike Marakesh, it is not exclusive of other colors. There are some ruins and a castle atop the hill that offer a breathtaking view of the Medina. The old city feels bigger and more chaotic (something you´d expect in a place like this). There is also a better segmentation into areas. There is an Andalous section, the Blida section (Tanneries), the Roman section, the Kasbah, and so on.

The main mosque, the Qualaoulyne, is said to the largest in the arab world (not the biggestin size or oppulence but it spreads wide and low). Unfortunately most mosques are of limits to non-muslims and so I could not get a peek inside.

My hostel was one ofthe worse in regards to location and amenities. In the nouvelle city and far from the action, they had very regimented rules. Hot water from 8 to 9 am and lockout after 10 pm. I had to leave at 2 am for my train to Fes and the manager wouldn´t open the door. It was not after I threatened to get physical (I was ready to) that he agreed to make an exception.

A word about the Moroccan people. During my journey, I went from being hazzled non-stop in India, to being hounded for tips in Egypt, and now to being ripped off at every chance in Morroco. Here if you don´t speak Arabic of French, vendors automatically add a zero or two to the total price, depending on how stupid you look (I confess to belonging on average in the 2-zero group). Once the price is set,the bargaining begins and that’s where it got me pissed off. It is one thing to bargain for asouvenir or a localmade work, but to have to bargain for a toothpaste or a bottle of shmpoo? Come on, there is no fun in that.

And a final word about Morocco. I knew before I started this trip that there were places that I wouldn´t be thrilled about.  I am leaving Morocco with that feeling. I expected much more, found very little and more of the same. Perhaps if I had an extra day or two I would´ve headed for the coastal towns or the desert and that would have made a huge difference in my perception of this country, but unfortunately time is not on my side. Spain is awaiting…

Mario Ortner
Marakesh, Morocco
Dec 6th, 2009 by Mario Ortner

The train ride to Marakesh gave me the first glimpse of Morocco´s landscape: a patch of empty flat land with some rolling hills and low mountains - not quite a desert but no paradise either. Just miles and miles of brownish grassy harsh meadows, a few trees and low bushes, some sheep here and there, and no water, clearly not a land suited for agriculture.

Marakesh is an interesting mix of old and new that nevertheless left me unsatisfied. Every place I visited, every mosque, palace, tomb, I had to wonder “ïs that it?” There is nothing unusual, out of the ordinary, different, nothing that I haven´t seen before. Even getting lost in the labyrintic alleyways and souks of the Medinah got tiring after a while. Everything looks the same; same dark pink color on stucco walls and no decorative details to distinguish one place from the other. The monuments are plain and flat, the tombs and palaces are in alarming state of disrepair and look empty as if they were ransacked and looted over the years. The museums are a joke, none worth the already cheap entrance fee.

In some cities, like Jaipur, the uniformity of color works nicely. Here it feels more like it was done by decree, “The king likes Pink, long live the king!” Everything is painted in the same hue of pink, the old and the new city, even the buses (thank God they left the landscaping alone).

As was the case with Casablanca (and I suspect will be Fes) Marrakesh is about the Medinah area or the old walled-in city. That´s where the action is. Jemaa el Fna square is the heart and soul of the city - an unusually large open plaza where the masses congregate during day and night; spontaneous comedy acts, games, betting, portable eateries, souks, fine restaurants, horse drawn carriages, everything can be found here.

My hotel was 2 streets down from this square. Nice Morrocan style with a tiled 3-story courtyard, clean and comfortable - one of the nicer places I have stayed in. It was here at the hotel that I tasted my first of many couscous dishes. Some were superbly prepared and many not so great but it was always tasty. The best one came from a street vendor that didn’t look very clean but had people lining up and several cats watching attentively for leftovers. The chicken, lamb, tomato, onion and spices combo with Safran couscous was yummy to say the least.

So, did I dislike everything about Marakesh? There were exceptions. The Mellah (a Jewish former district) was a gratifying surprise. I visited the old synagogue and cemetery (there are only 200 Jews left in Marrakesh). I also enjoyed a visit to the Debbagh (tanneries) where they auction and slaughter sheep, goat, lamb, etc and then cure the skin and work the leather into different products. The souks were okay (especially the spices one). Other places I visited were La Koutoubia (mainmosque), Palais Badiand Bahia, Darsisjai and Mouassine mosques, tomb of the soldier, the museum of Marrakesh, etc.

Mario Ortner
Casablanca, Morocco
Dec 6th, 2009 by Mario Ortner

It didn´t take long to realize that being late is the norm in Morocco.

The plane from Rome (Air Morocco) was 2 hours late. Baggage retrieval was another hour of waiting, the train from the airport to the center of town had a 30-minute delay, and another extra hour waiting for the train to Marrakesh the following day.

I did not plan to come to Casablanca but the main airport is here and there is no easy way around it, so I was to spend the night here and then continue to Marrakesh. The hostel was located at the entrance to the old Medina. Big, dark and empty place greeted me at night. The shops were closed for the day but the guy at the reception desk drew a sketch map of a nearby restaurant that could be still open. Fifteen minutes of wandering around the empty streets with the poorly drawn map, I got lost and had to return to the hostel with an empty stomach.

There is nothing to see in Casablanca. People kept mentioning the Hassan II Mosque as my only choice, so on my way to the train station, I asked the cab driver to stop by the mosque, snapped some photos, walked around it, and was out of Casablanca soon after.

Mario Ortner
Viterbo, Italy - A very personal day trip
Nov 28th, 2009 by Mario Ortner

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Enjoying a cup of coffee at Schenardi  

Once upon a time I wrote a fictional story where the main character must travel to Italy in search of his ancestors. I have chosen Viterbo as the town he ends up going to because I have landed there once accidentally when I stepped off the train to Rome at the wrong station. I didn’t bother to visit the town as I was in a hurry to reach my destination, but the name stayed with me.

Decades later, when I wrote the novel, I had to research everything to bring the town to life. Today’s trip to Viterbo was solely out of curiosity. I was itching to walk the streets just as my main character did in the story and visit the same places that he went to.

So, armed with a printout of the specific chapter of my novel, I boarded the train for the 2-hour journey to Viterbo. And what an awesome place it was. The hilly, winding streets, steeped in medieval history pervaded every part of this archetypal Italian town, with a laid back lifestyle, worn but sound buildings, cute trendy shops, cobbled narrow streets - One of those places where you dream of owning a vacation home someday.

But rather than keep on describing this small precious town, I’ll let the writing from Treasures of a Forgotten Land and the photos I took today tell the story. 

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 [...] A moment later they reached what looked like a medieval fortress viterbo_italy__cimg5936 and Joaquin instructed him to turn right again. Noel left the main road and crossed a huge portal into a large piazza with a sculptured fountain at its center viterbo_italy__cimg5937. A large sign posted next to the fountain led them to a cobblestone-paved parking lot.  It took a while to find a spot large enough to accommodate the Volvo and since there were no marked spaces, the cars that occupied the lot were parked in a disorderly fashion. viterbo_italy__cimg5951

[...]

Gran Caffe Schenardi viterbo_italy__cimg5960 was not waiting for them around the corner but was definitely worth the long walk down Via Matteotti viterbo_italy__cimg5949viterbo_italy__cimg5947 to Corso Italia viterbo_italy__cimg5953 viterbo_italy__cimg5954.

This fabulous cafe-bar was built as a banking house in the early fifteenth century and then transformed into a bar in 1818. Beneath a gracious vaulted ceiling supported by classical columns viterbo_italy__cimg5964, a black-and-white marble-tiled floor viterbo_italy__cimg5965 led them through the bar and patisserie viterbo_italy__cimg5968 to a double door opening into a dining patio viterbo_italy__cimg5969. Alcoves containing original statues and smaller niches pierced the brilliant white walls viterbo_italy__cimg5966. The place was packed to capacity. [...]

[...]

The San Pellegrino district was a gratifying surprise for Noel. The working class quarters of sturdy closed-face houses and cobbled streets provided an evocative glimpse of a medieval town viterbo_italy__cimg5977.  The covered passageways viterbo_italy__cimg5985and narrow blind alley, the charming combination of arches viterbo_italy__cimg5996, vaults, towers, exterior staircases viterbo_italy__cimg5989 and tiny hanging gardens, all carved in a dark stone and occasionally accented with warm, rose-colored brick and golden tufa. Along the way, they encountered countless antique shops viterbo_italy__cimg6047 and strangely sculpted fountains viterbo_italy__cimg6010. Craftsmen, carpenters, and potters still labored in tiny workshops. viterbo_italy__cimg6067

            The sky grew darker as they approached their destination. The streetlights suddenly turned on, casting grotesque shadows from the medieval towers viterbo_italy__cimg5985. Noel glanced at his watch. It was 6:45 p.m. He had insisted upon calling Francesca Negri before showing up at her door but the Spaniard laughed at him, making fun of the American ways.

            The building on Via San Pietro viterbo_italy__cimg5987 did not looked any different from the rest. A stone staircase led to a second-story that was preceded by a gracefully arched loggia decorated with hanging flower baskets viterbo_italy__cimg6002. A worn wooden door mounted on huge iron hinges and mullioned windows completed the facade. [...]

[...]

The morning sun was warm and brilliant in sharp contrast to the freezing, rainy weather of the previous day. Following the priest’s instructions, Noel avoided the crowded parking lot at Piazza della Rocca viterbo_italy__cimg6081 viterbo_italy__cimg5945, driving through the narrow cobblestone streets until reaching Piazza del Plebicito viterbo_italy__cimg6039, considered the center of the town and the junction of many roads. From there, he continued down Via San Lorenzo arriving at an attractive old market square viterbo_italy__cimg5940 with a medieval tower and an old fountain. The open-air market was bustling with activity. The sound of people and passing traffic kept the noise level high.

            He found a parking spot near the market and crossed the square to the church of the Gesu viterbo_italy__cimg6027.  Although small and inconspicuous, the building’s architecture resembled a grand cathedral. The head of Jupiter surmounted the central portal viterbo_italy__cimg6056 and to the left were a tiny outdoor pulpit and a fine campanile viterbo_italy__cimg6057 dating back to the thirteenth century. The place was well preserved but in need of a paint job.

            Inside, the church stood deserted but for an elderly priest who was about to leave the altar viterbo_italy__cimg6050. He looked up as Noel approached him.

“Buon giorno, signore.”

“Buon giorno. I’m looking for Father Negri.”

            The priest nodded. “Si, si. Federico!”  He pointed to the door behind him. “Venca conmico, per favore.”

            The priest led the way through the door that opened into an unusually large patio. Stepping outside, Noel was amazed to find a garden this size in the midst of an ancient city. The park-like setting was covered with neatly mowed grass and flanked with several rows of blooming flowers, their fragrance wafting throughout the air. viterbo_italy__cimg6036

[...]

            To his left, he saw a ground-level window that led to a basement viterbo_italy__cimg6014. The building itself he recognized as the Cathedral of San Lorenzo, a Romanesque structure dating back to the early 12th century viterbo_italy__cimg6012. Joaquin had mentioned that last night on the way to Francesca’s house.

            Where in the world was Joaquin? [...]

[...]

            Glancing desperately around while trying to adjust to the shadows, he finally distinguished the shape of a doorway atop a flight of steps. Climbing up the steps, he jerked the door open and surged into the brightly lit cathedral. viterbo_italy__cimg6015At once he slammed the door behind him, realizing it didn’t have a lock. He charged across the large hall, reaching an open stairwell located to the left of the altar and racing up the hard-surfaced steps viterbo_italy__cimg6021. Behind him, a door banged open and hurried footsteps charged after him.

            Reaching to the top of the circular stair, he jerked the door open and realized, to his dismay, the terrible mistake he had made. The stairwell had led him all the way up to the 14th century bell tower, a fifteen-by-fifteen concrete maze looming above the ancient town viterbo_italy__cimg6023. For a moment, he let his gaze fall to the street five stories below; then he heard the door opening behind and turned around.

            Paralyzed by horror, Noel realized he was going to die. [...]

Mario Ortner
Rome, Italy - Day 2
Nov 27th, 2009 by Mario Ortner

Mamma mia, must have been a record how much I walked today. It started with Palazzo Margherita and from there it was none stop: Piazza Quirinale, Fontana di Trevi, Spanish steps, Piazza del Popolo, The Vatican, Castle Saint Angelo, Piazza Navona, Pantheon, Campo di Fiori, Palazzos Farnese and Spada, and so on… I have left the Vatican museum for tomorrow afternoon as I would like to spend some real time there. (Note: I never got to see it because of a late change of plans).

My favorite places today? Two actually: San Peter Basilica - an impressively-detailed building, and Piazza Navona - an elongated square with cafes, tons of people, and beautiful architecture.

Note: I apologize for the hundreds of photos. It was impossible for me to walk Rome and keep from snapping away. 

Mario Ortner
Rome, Italy - Day 1
Nov 27th, 2009 by Mario Ortner

Because I have been to both cities in a span of a week, I can’t help it but marvel at the magnitude of the difference in size and scope of Athens and Rome. To compare the acropolis with the Roman forum is like comparing a toy car with the real thing. Seriously, the Parthenon would hardly elicit looks if it was located here, and I can attest to that because some churches in Rome might rival Milan’s Duomo in size and architectural features, yet they get hardly visited.

Rome is a magnificent city in every aspect, full of history but very liveable. Every corner I hesitated which direction to take as there are amazing buildings everywhere. I concentrated in the South-West section on the first day, which encompassed the Coliseum, the Palatino and Roman forum, the Campidoglio, Sta Maria Miggliori (My final presentation in History of Architecture class), Sta Maria degli Angeli, and many more churches and ruins.

I won’t go over each places as there are photos to tell the story, but I do wonder what have I actually seen during my previous 2 visits as everything looks so new and tantalizing. Shame on my reckless youth that didn’t allow me to enjoy these beauties. 

Mario Ortner
Lucca (Tuscany), Italy
Nov 26th, 2009 by Mario Ortner

Lucca is a beautifully preserved, self-contained town surrounded by a fortress-like walls and baluardos (extensions) that have been converted into a pedestrian road (you can walk around the entire city). The handsome buildings opening into cute piazzas, the intricate streets layout, the piazza that was built over a Roman amphitheater, everything here is meticulously kept in its original form one way or another.

My plan was to rent a bike after visiting the town and head out to the countryside, but by the time I was ready, the bike shop was already closed for the day.  I went for a walk instead but it wasn’t the same and I only managed to see the fringes of what must be an incredible landscape of rolling hills and rustic farm houses. Too bad my travel schedule is tight. I would have loved to stick around in Tuscany for a few extra days and visit the Chianti region. I guess it will happen as a family vacation someday.

Mario Ortner
Pisa, Italy
Nov 26th, 2009 by Mario Ortner

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Looks straight to me!

Not really, but Pisa was a straight deal. In by train at 9 am, crossed the picturesque bridge, walked to the inclined tower, the Cathedral, and the Baptistery, continued to piazza Garibaldi, rounded the ancient fortress walls, and out by train at 11 am.

I should remark that this is a university town and in certain areas it had the feel of it, with tons of students and faculty building. One fine example was piazza Garibaldi - a beautiful example of Romanesque architecture.

Mario Ortner
Florence, Italy
Nov 26th, 2009 by Mario Ortner

The train ride to Firenze (same as from Milan to Venice) was fast and comfortable. I loved it when it departed Sta Lucia station. It was like sailing into the sea with nothing but water on all sides but the train tracks. The hostel in Florence was near the train station, just the way I wanted it, and a 10 minute walk to all places of interest.

My heart was beating faster as I walked to places like Galleria Uffizi, Sta Croce, and Ponte Vechio (weird bridge, isn’t it?) because as an Architectural student I had to dissect these places and study every detail as well as the stories behind their conception, but for someone who’s come with so many expectations, Florence turned out to be somewhat of a disappointment. Aside from the notable buildings, the city itself appeared to me dull and uninspiring, with straight, predictable streets and plain buildings. The piazzas were designed too small to appreciate the size and grandiosity of the churches and palaces they intended to showcase. In addition, the city allowed street vendors to erect their tents right in front of the important building making it worse to appreciate the architecture. Finally, there was the problem of Graffiti. The city was covered with them. Seldom I have seen such a display of vulgarity (see photos), which took away from the beauty of the place.

Maybe it was my mistake coming here immediately after visiting Venice but c’est la vie.

Mario Ortner
Venice, Italy
Nov 23rd, 2009 by Mario Ortner

I am tired from walking all day… and from eating pizza and gelatto.

What can be said about Venice? Probably one of the most unusually beautiful cities in the world. I have been here before and what a pleasure it was to come back. The streets, the canals, the buildings, the squares, everything here evokes special feelings and moods.

My hostel was located across Ponte degli Scalzi and the Santa Lucia train station - an old building that has been renovated and is so popular that it is fully booked the entire year (lucky me for reserving 6 months earlier).

In Venice, you can differentiate easily between the locals and tourists. Tourists are the ones walking all day with a map glued to their faces, and although I use maps too, getting lost in Venice is the main reason for coming here. Every corner is a surprise, turning into a dead-end canal, a large piazza with a unique church, or another street that springs into a different direction.

Judging by the size of Venice, I figured that if I started early and walked all day, I would eventually hit all the sweet spots, and I did: La Croce, San Marco, Palazzo Ducale, San Polo, and many more materialized sooner or later from the twisted, nonsensical streets. Along the way, I walked right into the Jewish Ghetto and met this Chabad guy Jacob who told me all about the Jewish history in Venice until it was time for him to go to prayer. I learned from him that the first bank in the world operated here, that this was the first ghetto and that the word ghetto comes from the Venetian dialect meaning “foul smell” (I hope he was telling the truth, if anyone knows different, please clarify). When I left the ghetto,  it got real late and dark, so I headed to the main canal and boarded a water taxi back to the hostel.

Wonderful Venice! Hard to put into words but who would dare say otherwise.

Mario Ortner
Venice, Italy - La Biennale
Nov 23rd, 2009 by Mario Ortner

I am posting this entry separately because this expo of modern art was huge and I took too many photos.

Originally I did not planned to attend since I was here for 2 days and wasn’t going to waste any time at a museum, but people who knew I was coming to Venice kept telling me it was worth it. Then when I arrived at my hostel, the manager said to me, “You should hurry and go to the Biennale. Today is the last day and they are closing at 6 pm” so I replied, “Okay, I am going to the Biennale. And so I dropped my stuff in the room and walked hurriedly past San Marco square and all the way to the Arsenal port. I had less than 4 hours to visit the place but I did the most of it.

The theme this year was “Making Worlds.” The 53rd International art exhibition of La Biennale di Venezia was housed in various buildings anchored by the Giardini or Palazzo della exposizioni. It was an exhibition without sections, with different themes that, I felt, emphasized on the Biennale as a place for experimentation and creativity. As such, I’d say 95% of the art was poop, but there were some interesting work. I am posting here the best photos. Please mind that I managed to see only about 60% of the entire exhibits as some of the buildings were too far away.

Mario Ortner
Milan, Italy
Nov 23rd, 2009 by Mario Ortner

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This one’s for Edan… San Ciro.

What a pity, such a rich city with so little to see. If you take the Duomo out, you are left with… shopping, because not even La Scala opera house is that impressive. The one place that impressed me the most was the Castello Sforzesco, a very well preserved fortress set in a lush park and anchored at the corners by the Arco della Pace, an ancient arena, and the Triennale museum of modern art. Of course the Duomo is beatiful as well as Palazzo Reale, Santa Maria della Grazie, Villa Comunale, Stazione centrale, etc, but it feels too little, too insignificant for such a world-renown city.

Now, when it comes to shopping, Milan excels. Galleria Viti next to the Duomo is impressive as are the shops along Via Venetto and Corso Buenos Aires. The store names are first class and the designs are top notch.

Although I was only one day in Milan, I managed to go out of the way and visit San Ciro stadium where soccer team AC Milan plays, and that’s because I knew Edan would want me to go see it.

Mario Ortner
Corinth Canal - Greece
Nov 20th, 2009 by Mario Ortner

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Corinth as seen from the bus

Some places are not worth the trouble.

I am always hungry to see new places, but there are limits to what I am willing to do. Because I stayed an extra day in Nafplio, my plan was to visit ancient Corinth for a few hours on my way back to Athens. At the Canal bus station in Corinth they told me that I had to take a local bus to new Corinth and then another bus to Ancient Corinth. Finally, to get to AcroCorinth, I had to walk uphill for an hour each way as there were no transportation to the top of the hill. It sounded like a pain-in-the-butt but I was still okay with it. Then I asked for a place to store my backpack for a few hours. The girl at the counter pointed to a hallway leading to the restrooms and said “there”. I asked if it was safe to leave it there and she just shrugged.

Now, there are some risks I am willing to take, but that particular spot screamed “Go ahead, steal my backpack”, so because Corinth wasn’t on my list of must-see-places, I boarded the bus to Athens instead and left Corinth without a trace of regret.

Mario Ortner
Nafplio, Greece
Nov 19th, 2009 by Mario Ortner

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Day 1

Located only 2 hrs drive from Athens, Nafplio is like an island. Surrounded by water on 3 sides and joined to the mainland by a long peninsula, the challenge in this town is finding a place, a building, anything that is unattractive. This coastal town is damn too cute, and it has it all: Beaches, marina, mountains, castle ruins, cristaline blue waters, adorable narrow streets, and the best part is that outside Greece few have heard of it, so it’s never busy with tourists.

As soon as I stepped down from the bus I decided to stay an extra day. I just love the place. Pension Bekas (or hostel) is atop the hill with a terrace in the front overlooking the city and an abandoned road in the back leading to one of the castles. The first day I walked and walked the streets, which maintains a strong Venetian feeling with it’s open squares and Italianesque buildings wrapped in iron balconies and bouganvilea. There are more restaurants with outdoor seating than any other stores combined. I have added Nutella gelatto to my diet of Gyros and lattes as it is Italian style and delicious.

Day 2

The castle ruins above town are truly a one of a kind, and I realize that after climbing 1000 steps everything must look one-of-a-kind, but this is different. The location atop the mountain, the size, shape and excelent preservation makes this a unique place to explore.

Following the ruins, it was time to go to the beach. The water was calm and transparent but cold to the touch and the sand made of pebbles hurt when walking on it. But once in the water, it became a very enjoyable swimming pool.

After lunch I took the boat to the castle in the tiny island. Nothing too exciting as it looks more spectacular from a distance but worth a quick visit.

That’s it from Nafplio, another place I will come back someday.

Mario Ortner
Athens, Greece
Nov 18th, 2009 by Mario Ortner

My first and only visit to Athens was when I was 18.  I remember filthy streets and bunch of wild, rabies drooling dogs roaming free and freaking out everybody. I also remember the numerous brothels in the seedy neighborhood around Filys street with their simple light buld lit day and night (what else did you expect from an 18 year-old?). What I found today was a city that cleaned up significantly (perhaps because of the recent Olympics). The dogs are still out there but they all carry a tag and look friendly. As for the brothels, I suspect they are still there but I am not allowed to check them out.

My hostel was off Monastiaki square, one of the best areas in Athens only minutes from all historical attractions. It took me a short walk around the square to realize that Athens, like the rest of Europe, is extremely expensive. Thank God they have their famous Gyros, which are cheap and incredibly delicious. I am sticking to a diet of Gyros and Lattes, even if my stomach isn’t happy about it.

Athens can be visited in a day, and if your name is Mario, probably in half a day. I was out in the street before daylight. First stop was ancient Agora, followed by the Acropolis and the Parthenon. What I love about these places is that you get the feel that you are walking as it was during their glory days, even if it last for a few seconds before the construction scaffoldings and food vendors materialized to ruin the moment.

My next stop were the neighborhoods of Anafiotika and Plaka, with their narrow streets, overhanging vines, restaurants and trendy galleries. The Roman Agora and Hadrian library and Arch were next, followed by the national gardens, the Olympic stadium, the presidential palace and change of guards, the parliament building, and the tomb of the unknown soldier, before ending at Syntagma square and the pedestrian street of Ermou. There are a few museums here and there but that’s it for Athens.

In the afternooon, things got interesting. On my way to the archeological museum, there was a massive demonstration at Amonia square that cut off streets to vehicles and brought in the Army and riot police - something about an anniversary for a military coup that resulted in scores of students killed at the Polytechnic university. Now, I don’t know much about demonstrations but by the hostile climate, the wodden bats carried by the manifestants, the gas masks used by the police, and the communist signs, my guess is that this isn’t going to end peacefully.

I am planning to stick with my plans and leave tomorrow for Nafptlion. Hopefully I’ll find accomodation as I don’t have a hotel reservation in place.

Mario Ortner
Cappadocia, Turkey
Nov 14th, 2009 by Mario Ortner

Cappadocia is one place I will come back to someday. It’s not that it is just beautiful but the beauty is unseen anywhere else. It is as if the whole place has been pulled out from a fairy story book…

My hostel room

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The overnight bus ride to Goreme was long (11 hours) but comfortable and made it in time. Cappadocia is a region in central Turkey made out of several little town and a strange rock formations (fairy Chimneys) that look as if from another world. My hotel was in Goreme, a tiny sweet little town right in the middle of the action. My hotel is tucked inside one of these chimneys. My room was at the top. Incredibly cute and cozy. The door measured 2′ wide x 4′ high. It was barely big enough to fit a bed. LOVED IT!

The first day I made sort of a mistake (it was still a lot of fun). I joined forces with 4 young and very nıce people (Sarah and Jo from Belgium, Vladımır from Russia, and Jay from New York) and rented a car for the day. When I say I made a mistake it’s because we had no idea where we were going and ınstead just roamed freely. That took us to many interesting places but little of the faıry chimneys I was desperate to see. The last stop was at a vinery for tasting (this is a wine-producing region) and they bought 4 bottles of wine. At night we went to a traditional Turkish restaurant that let us bring the wine. They emptied the 4 bottles, ordered 4 more and got very drunk. I only had 5 glasses and was shocked to still be sober (usually a glass or 2 will make me vomit). There was dancıng and more drınkıng and Nargila smokıng (I didn’t) and by the end of the night I had a herd of drunken sheeps to drag back to the hostel.

My Friend Oto!

cappadoccia_turkey__cimg3971

I assumed the young bunch were out for most of next morning and hired a driver for three hours to take me to see the famous chimneys (they dot the landscape everywhere in the region but some places have a huge concentration of chimneys). The driver made my wishes come true and I visited one of the most dramatic landscapes on earth. I became so enamored of this place that at the last stop I paid the driver and let him go, then walked the last 4 kilometers back to the hostel.  On the way a cute slubbery dog joined me and did not leave my side for the entire walk. I named him Oto as he was standing next to a sign reading Otogar (Parking in Turkish) and his big furry body was covering the “gar” portion of the sign. He kept walking in front of me, stopping from time to time so I could pet him. Adorable guy but we already have Chimi so I sadly bid him goodbye upon my arrival to the hostel.

It started to rain so I am now at an Internet cafe. There will be more photos tomorrow, my last day, but I don’t think there is need for more words. The photos speak loud enough.

Mario Ortner
Istambul, Turkey
Nov 14th, 2009 by Mario Ortner

Day 1

What a surprise Istambul turned out to be! I expected to see the typical muslim Arab city with filthy streets and shops and shabby bulidings that crumbled with every earthquake. Instead I found a beautifully preserved european city with a small town feel, clean cobblestone streets, and trendy restaurants and cafes everywhere. I am no longer in the middle east. This is Europe at its best.

The ride from the airport was a breeze. a simple metro ride that transformed into a tram that slid into old town. My hostel was suberbly located. 2 blocks from blue mosque and Hagia Sophia: Best location in town.

The first day in Istambul I visited all the important monuments and got a feel for the lifestyle. Here are the photos…

Day 2

I quickly discarded going to a Turkish bath. It’s not what I thought it would be, but just a regular spa (albeit a very good one) with the usual menu of treatments. Not my kind of place.

The spice bazaar (or Egyptian bazaar) located behind a huge mosque is a wonderful blend of colors, smells, and textures. A huge covered historical building with stalls selling spices, nuts, and sweets that spilled into the adjacent surrounding area.

Nearby was the dock and I took ferry across the Bosporus strait. What a treat, travelling from cute little town to the next one, with shops and restaurants and quaint feel and architecture. 2 noteworthy town: Sariyer and Karagi, with the ruins of a castle at the top from which fabulous views of the strait and the black sea were attained.

At night I ate dinner at a trendy bazaar restaurant that offer traditional music and Devrish dancing on a stage. I don’t know why they prohibit photos but I took some anyway.

Day 3

Today I visited the grand bazaar - sort of a humangous indoor shopping mall (I liked the Egyptian bazaar better) - then headed to the Topkapi museum built in the 14th century as a residence for the sultans. Just as I was leaving, a downspour forced me to seek refuge at a cafeteria for a couple of hours. Once the rain subsided, I headed over to the hotel where Sergio and Silvia were supposed to arrive today. I was hoping to spend the afternoon together but the hotel did not have any reservation under their name. I left in frustration and headed across the Galata bridge over the golden horn, and climbed the hill to see the Galata tower that dominated the cityscape. The views from the top are wonderful and the area is very artsy with galleries, trendy shops and restaurants. Nearby were the only 2 synagogues I could find in Istambul (Neve Shalom and a tiny Italian one) and traces of the Jewish neighborhood. There is no much Jewish life left in Istambul.

It was getting late. I headed back to the hostel, grabbed my backpack (always ready) and headed to the station to board the bus for my next destination: Cappadoccia.

Mario Ortner
Amman - Jordan
Nov 10th, 2009 by Mario Ortner

The camp’s owner drove selfish couple and myself to Aqaba and was nice enough to give us a quick tour of this lovely beach town before dropping me off at the bus station. I was lucky the bus took the king highway this time. Such a pretty scenery of tiny Arab villages, but I could not visit Mt. Nebo or any other attaction along the way.

The bus had a “no Smoking” sign but no one was paying any attention to it. When the smoke got very heavy, I asked the driver to enforce the sign or put it away. He said Okay, okay but did nothing about it, so at the next road checkpoint, I stepped down from the bus to speak to the police. What a difference it made! The driver actually apologize to me, no one dared to smoke during the entire trip, and I was revered as the king himself.

A ball cannot stay still in Amman as it is basically a hillside town. It is very clean, safe and orderly but very difficult to navigate. I had only 3 hours from my arrival time to see as much as I could. The guy at the hotel (a  creepy weirdo who wouldn’t stop talking and interrupting others) gave me a map and a few pointers that allowed me to visit the main mosque, the Roman amphitheatre, and the Citadel that was closed when I arrived but they nevertheless allowed me a 5-minute peek inside the ruins and a great view of the city.

Mario Ortner
Wadi Rum Bedouin Camp - Jordan
November 10th, 2009 by Mario Ortner

The hotel manager got me a great deal for a drive from Petra to Wadi Rum, a 4-hr jeep drive in the desert, 1 night sleep in a tent and dinner. The catch? I had to share the ride and tent with an Israeli couple from California, among the most selfish people I have ever encountered. The never said thank you when I shared stuff with them and never shared back anything, but I did not know that at the time and the deal was too good to let it pass.

Wadi Rum is awsome. The landscape of reddish sand and rocks is breathtaking. The silence of the desert is like anything I have experienced and the sunset and sunrise are out of this world. The camp, set against the mountain, was filled with tents - mostly empty as this is not tourist season - and a fire pit for nightime dancing and general fun. At dinner time, they all formed a circle around an earth oven they dug out from the ground. Inside, there was cooked chicken and lamb, rice, potatoes and vegetables, which they carried to the dining tent that had a buffet style setting. Following dinner, they lit the firepit and people stayed there past midnight (I was cold and didn’t quite make that late). A unique experience in a unique place.

 

Mario Ortner
Petra, Jordan
November 9th, 2009 by Mario Ortner

It’s so hard to say goodbye.
My original plan was to leave quietly on Friday by bus to Jerusalem and cross the border there, but I miscalculated the border location, which is not in Jerusalem but near Liori’s Kibbutz, and since Eitan insisted to drive me there, I finally gave up and accepted.
We stopped at Liori’s to say goodbye, then drove 5 minutes to the border crossing. Eitan is such a mench, he would’ve driven me to South America if there was no water in between. I hope to see him again very soon, perhaps in LA.
The Israeli side of the border was fast and easy. Once out, I took a bus to the Jordanian post, and that’s when a series of problems hit me. First, the Jordanian officials would not stamp my American passport because I exited with the Israeli one. Since I refused to do that, they took me to an office, sat me down and started arguing among them. One Jordanian was on my side the other was adamantly against me. Soon it became clear that this issue wasn’t about me but about 2 co-workers who didn’t like each other. Lucky for me, a third person came in and after weighting both arguments, gave me the okay. My American passport was stamped and I was out of there.
Unfortunately there is no transport to Amman other than taxi. I waited for people to come out and see if they wished to share a ride but when no one did, I was forced to take a cub all by myself at an inflated rate ($35) or that’s what I thought. An hour an a half later I realized it wasn’t a bad deal after all. Amman was far, really far over the mountains.
At Amman’s bus station, I learned that on Fridays buses stop circulating at noontime. Lucky for me, there was a minibus whose driver was waving at me “Petra, Petra!” I ran over and boarded the minivan feeling relieved. I was finally on my way to Petra. Or was I?
Wrong again. The minibus wouldn’t leave until it was full… and I was the only one aboard! I sat there for 20 minutes until an Italian couple on their honeymoon (obviously poor), boarded the minibus. I immediately proposed that we take a taxi instead and split it 3 ways. They agreed and we negotiated a great rate to Petra. I was NOW finally on my way. I asked the cab driver to take the King highway |(scenic) but he took the desert highway instead (faster), stopping at Kerak castle for a few minutes.
Wadi Musa is a cute little Arab village with many restaurants, banks, shops, and only 15 minute walk to Petra. My hotel (there are no hotels in Petra) was okay but I could’ve gone cheaper and classier had I booked on arrival. The owner was nice and gave me a lot of valuable information, so I decided to stay there for the 2 nights.

Petra is a “WOW” at every corner - a huge complex of caves, temples and tombs excavated into the mountains. Just the As-Siq entrance is worth the trip here. You walk through this enormous narrow canyon that awakes all your senses: The wind, the colors, the shapes… and when you think you’ve seen enough, you suddenly find yourself facing Al-Kazneh, one of the most incredible monuments I have ever seen because of its location and carving into the mountain.
Past Al-Kazneh, I took a detour and climbed through hard steps to the top of the mountain, visiting more tombs and temples that I could count. The view from the top is incredible.
In the afternoon I took another jhard climb to the monastery of Ad-Deir, which looks like Al-Kazneh but less detailed. I ended the day walking back through a colonnade street, an amphitheater, and several other royal tombs.
Petra is truly a place not to be missed. One of my favorite places in this trip. Wadi Rum was next.

Mario Ortner
Jerusalem, Israel - 1967
November 7th, 2009 by Mario Ortner

My dad died in the 1967 Israeli-Arab war. We had very little information about what really happened to him until this man, David Yahir, showed up for the documentary filming. The following is a segment from his book. I realize this is not the place to post something like this, but I felt obligated to translate it from the Hebrew so it doesn’t get lost.

With Sergio and David Yahir

“We waited for the helicopters. Meanwhile, I walked among the many wounded soldiers. Some of them looked beyond help. They carried their misery with a dignified silence that was incredible.

One of them, Dov Bernardo, tall, thin with clear eyes and a wide forehead who looked like in his early thirties. He got hit by the enemy’s fire when attacking a fortification on Givat Hamevater, very close to where we were fighting. He was severely wounded in several places in the abdomen and the chest. All the time he was getting blood transfusions. I heard from soldiers that he already received about a dozen transfusions, and even is the doctors were overwhealmed with work, because they knew that Bernardo’s life was hanging from a hair string, they tended to him constantly. One doctor sat next to him on a rock, one hand holding a water canteen from where Bernardo drank and in the other hand an injection that was attached to his arm with a tube, supposedly to give him blood transfusions. Bernardo bit his lips, turned to look at the doctor, and kept silent.

“Listen, don’t be shy. If it hurts I’ll give you a little morphin,” told him one of the nurses that walked along the wounded and took their names, personal information and the degree of the wound: Grave, difficult, very serious, etc.

Bernardo thought for a moment, finally said, “Okay, give me a little.” He was lying down on a stretcher on his right side, his upper body bare and nursing pads covering his chest and abdomen. I stood there and swapped away the flies that didn’t give him rest. “They are working wonderful, the nurses,” he told me.

“Give me a little water,” he asked after they administered the morphine. I didn’t know if he could have water and so I called the doctor over. “Bernardo is asking for water. Should I give him some?”

“No, under any circunstances he can have water. He has a wound in the stomach”, the doctor explained with quick hand movements. He got closer and asked Bernardo something, but there was no one to answer. Bernardo had passed out.

The doctor started massaging his heart, his face showing alarm. He checked once, twice the blood pressure and said, “he needs more blood.”

Immediately a donor was found with the same blood type and another transfusion was given. Berardo showed again signs of life. Until now, he had laid down facing in one direction. Suddenly, he started turning his head. I was glad because I saw it as a good sign. He looked at me like wanting to say something. I leaned closer to listen. Bernardo knew somehow that he had been given another transfusion, “a pity to waste another drop of blood on me. It’s not going to help. I am going to die. So what? You die for Israel and they bury you in Israel.”

“Silly what are you saying?” I chidded him. “No, I am going to die. I know. I don’t care.” The unbearable pain cut through his words.

I wasn’t going to argue with him. Better if he didn’t talk at all, but In any case, I wanted to comfort him, to give him hope. “If the doctors thought your condition was that bad, would they give you so much blood? You are going to get better.”

“Water!” he suddenly screamed. “Water, give me some water!”

This was killing me. I couldn’t stand the suffering any longer. I rushed to the doctor and begged him, “Give him some water. He wants it so give it to him.”

The doctor stared at me as if I was a misbehaved child. “You cannot give him water, understand? You can’t. Absolutely not.”

“It won’t change anything,” I became stubborn. “Do him some good, give him some water, just a little.”

The doctor realized he wasn’t going to get rid of me easily. “Okay,” he said, “wet a piece of cotton and rub it on his lips.”

Bernardo saw that  stood next to him again. He recognized me. “Did you bring water?” he asked agitated. “It’s going to be alright. Here, I am wetting your lips.”

Now he seemed to calm down, as if feeling a little better, but the doctor was still woried and gave him another transfusion. “What do they want from me?” he fretted. “There are soldiers that need more attention. They should help them.” And truth was, next to Bernardo lay Raphael Shimoni, and all the time blood dripped from his mouth. It seemed there was no way to stop the blood flow.

Division 3, that Bernardo belonged to, advanced on the main road over to Givaat Hamevater. Suddenly they got hit. Bernardo and other soldiers jumped from their vehicle to seek refuge from the shelling and to try to storm the enemy’s post on foot. A number of shots at close range dropped Bernardo on the road. Some of the soldiers eliminated the enemy’s pst while the others carried Bernardo to this place where the other wounded were being treated.

After a waiting that seemed to last forever, we heard the faint sound of the helicopter. The noise grew louder and we finally saw it approaching. Someone here had to give signs for the helicopter to land but we realized no one knew the signals. Finally, someone exploded a smoke granade over a nearby road, but the helicopter landed in an area that was difficult to reach because of the enemy’s fire. A soldier risked his life to run over to the helicopter and show him where to land. The helicopter took off again and landed closer to us in an area that was lower from the road, thus facilitating the transport of the wounded on stretchers.

When the pilot opened the door, I confronted him angrily. “Why did it take so long?” He said “Habibi, do you have any idea how many wounded soldiers we picked today?” His words only added to my saddness and despair.

We hurried to bring over the first wounded soldier. Bernardo was second, pale-looking and very quiet. His feet were facing the helicopter. I stood on his right side holding the transfusion tube on one hand and the stretcher with the other. Bernardo was moving his head side to side as if to say no or maybe to get rid of a bothersome fly, then his head slumped over to my side. Something was happening to him. I shouted to the doctor that stood on the road attending to the wounded. He bolted over and started to pound Bernardo’s heart, then got closer to listen to a heartbeat. There was none but the doctor continued to pound his chest. Bernardo was half inside the helicopter and half out. Finally the doctor made a decision “Get him inside,” he said with a pained voice.

“Do you think he is already dead?” I asked, unwilling to believe. He looked at me, then to the sky as if to say, “Maybe God knows. I don’t.” I felt my heart sink. After all the effort and all the transfusions, just when the helicopter arrived. Maybe if it did a few minutes earlier Bernardo could have been saved at the hospital. In any case, maybe he was still alive, maybe he just lost consciousness. The doctor did not say he was dead. I wanted to believe he wasn’t dead.

After the last wounded soldier was carried inside, the door closed and the helicopter took off, flying away to Haddassah hospital.”

With David Yahir

A personal note: The book was written many years ago, and although there is always room for doubts and suspicions, the name Bernardo, the physical description, and the helicopter, matches whatever little information we had. A nurse at Hadassah told my family that she saw my dad arriving at the hospital, so I must give the man, David Yahir, the benefit of the doubt and take his word as it was written.

Mario Ortner
Tel Aviv, Israel
November 7th, 2009 by Mario Ortner

To write about Israel is to become emotional. So many dearest people, so many places that bring back memories, some great and some painful.

The stop in Israel, in addition to visiting the family, had another purpose: The filming of a documentary about my father’s life and his last moments during the violent battles to conquer Jerusalem on the 1967 six-day war. My brother Sergio and his wife Silvia were meeiting me here to participate in the documentary.

Day 1: The bus from Eilat arrived at 5:30 am. My cousing Eitan (my absolute favorite - no contest here) picked me up at the station and dropped me at the Carlton, a fancy hotel on the beach. I was dead tired but wanted to say hello to my brother who arrived days earlier. They were still asleep so I took the elevator to my room and went to sleep too.

Eitan came around noontime and after meeting my brother and Silvia, we drove to Masada - a Jewish bastion during Roman times. We rode the funicular to the top, toured the fortification and took in the breathtaking views. Later, we stopped at the desd sea to wet our feet before heading back.

Seeing my my family from my father’s side gives me imense happiness. That evening, at a restaurant, we met my cousin Tami (probably ranked among the world’s sweetest people), my cousin Liori (more serious but equally loving, she is the one who always take us to see new and interesting places), and their husbands Udi and Avram. Liori’s son and his fiance were there too (they are getting married early next year). They showered us with food and attention and we had a great time together.

Day 2: My uncle Oscar (my dad’s younger brother) is the one I keep in touch the most via emails and the ocassional calls, came to the hotel and drove us to Ein Carmel. a Kibbutz on the way to Haifa to visit the Gerber family from my mother’s side. It was a surprise for me as I didn’t expect to see them on such a short trip. Judith Gerber, the 95 year-old matriarc of their family was there to greet us. It was incredible to talk to her and realize how much she still remembers about us growing up. Also there were Judith’s daughter Jasia, hes husband and a grandaughter of another of Judith’s children, Meir (The other being Miri).

Boy, how great it was to drive through the place. My mother had always held great affection for Judith and used to send us during the long summers to stay at the kibutz.

I may be confused with the dates, but I think that evening Liori and Avram took us to see a unique play by a group of blind and deaf people, followed by dinner at the same place.

Day 3: In the morning, we drove to Jerusalem with Oscar to do the documentary. Tami joined us at the first place “Har Hatachmochet” where fierce battles took place. We met there with Orit (the producer), the 2 female filmakers and a camera man. The explained to us what was going to take place today, then dropped us a bomb: A guy who saw my father during his last hours of life and who wrote a book about it and other experiences from the war, would be joining us during the filming. We did not expect that at all!

The filming toop place normally and in different locations. First it was Oscar’s turn and as I was listening to him, I realized that we, as a family, never talked about this important subject. Who knows, revising painful memories is always hard.

Next it was Sergio’s and my turn. We did the filming together and spoke about our personal memories about my dad, the day he said goodbye, the day we got the sad news. As we were finishing, David Yahir, the writer of the book joined us and told the story to the camera exactly as he wrote it. He became very emotional, and couldn’t stop himself. It was  an emotional moment, marred a bit by the the surprise of learning what really happend to my dad in the battlefield.

We visited to monuments in the hills dedicated to my father and his batallion, and finally we headed to the cemetery. There, Tami spoke to the camera and I almost cried listening to her account of learning of my father’s fate. Sergio and I asked for a moment alone to be with my father. I took a bit of dirt and plan to place it on my mother’s grave in Argentina.

With that, the filming concluded, and we invited the crew to join us for lunch at a restaurant in a popular Arab village (can’t remember the name). They are very nice people and we have full confidence they’ll do a good job in post-production.

We spent the evening at Tami’s house and we talked about the day’s account. Eitan joined us later, bringing along my aunt Quela who suffered a stroke years earlier. It mademe very happy to se her, even if she didn’t recognize me. I was amazed to see how well she looked and the way she tried to participate in the conversation. I cannot feel sorry for her as I will always remember Quela as a beautiful, bright, happy, talented and loving woman.

Day 4: Sergio wasn’t feeling well and stayed at the hotel while Silvia and I went to Oscar’s house to see Joana, his wife. They took us to the shopping mall for a bit of shopping and we had coffee and a long conversation about our children and life in general. I enjoy chatting with Joana as she is a very bright woman who is not afraid to say what she thinks. We took it easy in the afternoon as I wished to rest a little before going on the road again and Sergio was still feeling sick.

In the end, they all came to our hotel to say goodbye. I am truly grateful that we keep in constant touch with them. This is what family is all about. I only lament that because of my emotional state during my visit, I did not remember to take too many photos. Here’s what I got…

Mario Ortner
Taba - Eilat Border crossing, Israel
November 5th, 2009 by Mario Ortner

First, a bit of a personal reflection.

Today is exactly the half point of the journey and I have to say it has exceeded my expectations. I have celebrated my birthday the way I wanted to, doing something I haven’t done since my twenties and with the support of a wife and kids I love more than ever before (if that’s even possible). I have taken the time to feel comfortable with my new age and to contemplate life from outside the routine box. What I discovered is that I can get older or be as young as I want to be. It’s my choice. By means of this adventure trip, by acting childish when playing with Sophia, arguing adamantly with Edan about soccer, or amusing Heather with my ingenuity. That’s the age I want to be for the rest of my life.

Now back to the journey. As usual, the bus from Cairo to Taba took 13 hours instead of the scheduled 9 hrs. The problem this time was a severe storm that washed away portions of the road. As we drove by, there were several overturned cars along the damaged route.

I was traveling with a group of Americans and we asked to be notified when we reached Taba, but the driver failed to do so and when we remembered to ask again, we were already an hour and a half drive past Taba. We got down at a small town and rushed to take another bus heading back to the border.

Taba is not even a town. There is a resort hotel, a bus stop, a border crossing and that’s mostly it. Once on the Israeli side, I took the public bus to town only to discover that on Sabbath most places are closed so I couldn’t find a hotel or an Internet cafe to research one. Since I wanted to get a taste of Eilat (last time I was here was 30 years ago) I purchased a bus ticket to Tel Aviv leaving after midnight, giving me plenty of time to walk along the pretty pedestrian esplanade (Tayelet), enjoy the sea breeze, and a good dinner and coffee on the beach - A relaxed ending to a hectic day.

Mario Ortner
Luxor, Egypt
October 30th, 2009 by Mario Ortner

Although a very compact city, finding the hostel took me an eternity. There was no map available and no one knew the place or the street name. The Hostel itself was alright: funky looking and with a lot of young people having fun.

As soon as I settled in, I rented a bike and rode out to explore the East bank. The center of this coastal town is pretty, well kept, and geared for tourism. There are two temples: Luxor and Karnak. Luxor is facing the street ands you almost hesitate to buy the entrance ticket as you can see it all from outside. Karnak is huge and fabulous, and the best preserved temple of all Luxor.

Later in the evening, I sailed on a falucca across the Nile to Crocodile and Banana islands. It was wonderful to watch the sunset sipping a fresh banana shake.

The next day it was West bank’s turn. I crossed the Nile on the ferry and hired a private car that took me to all the places I asked for: Al Bahari temple, Habu temple, Ramesseum temple, tombs at Valley of the kings and Valley of the queens, Deir al-Medina, and colossi of Mennen statues. I enjoyed more the temples than the tombs as they are more spectacular to look at and the best tombs were closed to the public anyway.

I was supposed to stay in Luxor an extra day but since I’ve seen everything I wanted to see, I decided to leave earlier to gain a full day in Eilat, Israel - my next destination.

Mario Ortner
Cairo, Egypt - Day 3
October 27th, 2009 by Mario Ortner

The best part of Cairo in my opinion is the Muslim quarter, with the Kahn El-Khalili bazaar, the little known El Moezz street with its countless minarets and mosques (one for every block), and the Midan Hussein Square with its traditional tea houses. The Muslim quarter is one of those places where you put the map away and let your instinct take you on an adventure. Mine ended up getting a haircut from a store-less Arab guy, sitting on the sidewalk. No kidding. He offered to shave me too but I am not that adventurous.

I am posting early today so I can catch my late afternoon train to Luxor.

Mario Ortner
Caro, Egypt - Day 2
October 27th, 2009 by Mario Ortner

My day started with a visit to Giza, which houses 9 (not just 3) pyramids plus the Sphinx. It is a formidable experience, even if the people managing the place seem to still live in Pharaohs times. There are no signs at the ticket office and no one to inform you of your choices. So you buy the entrance ticket and walk like forever to the first pyramid only to find out from a rude tourist police that you have to buy a separate ticket to get inside the pyramid and that they don’t sell tickets there (Oh well, I guess this is one of the pitfalls from traveling solo as opposed to organized tours). So you walk like forever to get the damn ticket and again back to the pyramid, but now the tourist police is all smiles because he expects a tip. Yes, everyone in Egypt expects a tip. Apparently it’s a national sport to see who can collect the most with a minimum effort. In time, you can develop a neck pain from all the NO headshakes. In short, I liked Giza and took a camel ride to see all 9 pyramids.

Next stop was Damshur where there are 2 pyramids: A red one and a bent one (closed to the public). The best part was a long tunnel that took me to the exact center point and was kept in the original condition (as opposed to Giza where it’s more tourist oriented).

Memphis, my next stop, wasn’t what I expected. A small town with a tiny museum showcasing unimpressive pieces (compared to those found at the Egyptian museum), unless I missed something important but I don’t think so.

The last stop was also the best: Sakkara, a stepped pyramid and several tombs in addition to a intense ongoing archeological excavation. They let people roam the place with little supervision, which allows you to explore every corner and climb wherever you want. My kind of place!

In the evening, I was having coffee at a local Starbucks-type chain store (called Cilantro) when I noticed a young woman wearing western clothes (most women still wear the traditional garb) reading a paperback book with the photo of Daniel Craig that I recognized from the movie Defiance (book was in Arabic). I was curious to know if, as a young Egyptian, she appreciated the Jewish plight or just enjoyed reading the Nazis gunning down Jews, so I approached her and we had a long lively conversation about the middle East. Turned out I was the one with wrong preconception about stereotyping. According to her, the young Egyptian generation doesn’t hold rancor toward Israel or Jews. It just to show that time heals everything.

Video

Mario Ortner
Cairo, Egypt - Day 1
October 25th, 2009 by Mario Ortner

I returned to delhi just to board the fligt to Cairo via Bahrain - a rather long flight made easier by my fortuitous upgrade to 1st class. My hotel in Cairo was located in the downtown (nice) area, but on a 5th floor with a very old elevator that didn’t work most of the times. It was getting late so I spent the first day buying the train ticket to Luxor and my bus ticket to Taba.

The following day I visited old Cairo and the Coptic Museum, the medieval Citadel, the Egyptian museum (no photos allowed inside but not as extensive as I expected) and the only working synagogue, which was located only 3 blocks from my hotel. Cairo is a very cosmopolitan city with wide avenues and the latest trendy shops. Traffic was a nightmare on the weekend so I am bracing myself for Monday when I cross the Nile to visit Giza and other significant towns.

Mario Ortner
Jaipur, India
October 22nd, 2009 by Mario Ortner

Jaipur is what I expected India to look like. It was hot but bearable, crowded but not suffocating, poor but dignified and people were pushy but not nasty. The old town is clearly marked not only by a perimeter wall but also by the pink/red hue color on all the walls. The hills are dotted with dramatic-looking fortresses, palaces sits in the middle of lakes, and you see temples for all tastes and styles. Monkeys, pigs, donkeys, camels and elephants roam everywhere. It’s beautiful any way you look at it.

My hotel was located in one of the best areas of Jaipur and looked like a mini palace with Indian ornaments everywhere, big airy rooms and a private terrace. Since I had 2 days in Jaipur, I visited the old city on one day and the rest (including another wonderful monkey temple) on the last day.

I think a trip to India would not be complete without a visit to Jaipur. See photos to believe.

Mario Ortner
Agra, India
October 22nd, 2009 by Mario Ortner

Thank God I planned only one day in this town. I mean, come on, how long can you stare at a pretty white building?

Actually it was a little more than that but not enough for a 2-day visit, at least not for me.

My train from Delhi (an incredibly luxurious express line) arrived in Agra at 8:30 am. I was in and out of the hotel (a pretty modern one next to Taj Mahal’s East gate) at 9:15 am, hired a tuk tuk for the day for $5.00, and went to see the Taj Mahal - very impressive from a distance but quickly lost its appeal as I got closer because there is nothing of interest to see other than a tomb in a very small room. Next it was Agra Fort, with its labyrinth passageways and imposing scale (looks a bit like the Delhi fort which I couldn’t visit). From the fort, I headed to Baby Taj, and exact replica that was actually built before the Taj for the Queen’s father (so the Taj wasn’t an original building after all). Then it was Mehtab Bagh, a garden complex across the river from Taj Mahal where it was rumored that the emperor planned to built a Black Taj. Finally a visit to one of the numerous bazar before heading back to the hotel. I was done by 4:00 pm and already thinking about Jaipur.

Agra? Okay for a day but only because you must see the Taj Mahal once in your lifetime, even if for an hour like I did.

Mario Ortner
New Delhi, India
October 22nd, 2009 by Mario Ortner

New Delhi was a rather pleasant surprise. People had warned me to expect more of Kolkata, but the 2 cities are day and night. I found a modern, progressive, vibrant city with lots of green spaces and , except for the train stations and bazaars, not crowded at all. The metro is spotless and runs efficiently. Traffic is more relaxed and follows the signals as best as possible.

Now, if I could only say the same about the people…

A tuk tuk driver stopped by my side the moment I stepped out of my hotel and told me  he knew where the tourist bureau office was in case I was looking for it, and offered to take me there for 5 rupees. It just happened that I was looking for the tourist office for a map and since 5 rupees are 10 cents of a dollar, I took the ride to reward him for the information.

Well, he took me to a travel agency that tried to sell me on expensive tours. Within the hour I learned all their spiel: If you take a picture, they’ll start with “great shot. Where are you from?” If you are checking a map, they’ll say “the temple is that way. Let me show you”. If you are about to cross the street, they’ll intervene “Delhi traffic is very dangerous. I’ll help you” and so on… Sometimes I’d watch from the corner of my eye as a guy takes off from the shadows and joins a tourist casually as if another pedestrian, and they won’t leave you alone (no means maybe to them) until you raise your voice. Then they leave quickly but only because they know that if the police intervenes, a foreigner’s word against theirs is worth like the exchange rate: 49 to 1. You also have to watch your pockets as I felt constantly frisked. In short, people here managed to make me irritable all day long.

Getting from place to place was easy.Unfortunately for me, it was a Monday holiday and the red Fort and some temples were closed to the public, but I still managed to see them from outside and visited many mosques and Hindu temples, some very impressive tombs that were built by the same emperor who built the Taj Mahal, India’s gate (like the Triumph arch in Paris), Qutab Minaret, the embassies area (beautiful park-like area), the Connaught place (the center of Delhi and main commercial district) and the many crowded bazars  of old Delhi.

It’s a pity that most backpackers spend only one night here on their way to more exotic locations. New Delhi is definitely worth a closer look.

Mario Ortner
Kathmandu, Nepal
October 17th, 2009 by mario

Day 1

To be clear, you need at least 2-3 weeks to visit Nepal, because the real Nepal is about trekking along the landscape, climbing the Everest, etc. My trip was not designed that way. 2-3 days in each place allows me to taste the apple, not to eat it entirely. This is the way I wanted it.

I believe cities come in 2 modes: Walkable and non-walkable. Kathmandu is  a non-walkable city. The roads are shared by cars, cycles and people fighting for every inch of space. The places of interest are located far apart to walk,  buses are overcrowded (people ride on the roofs), and the routes are confusing and written in Nepali, which makes it impossible to use.

So I looked into tours, but the prices are so ridiculously high that they are posted in dollars rather than in Rupees (as everything else). Where in other South Asia countries a city tour costs $10, here its $90. A 3-day trekking start at $500 (in Thailand it was less than $100).

Plan B being out of the question, I sat with the hotel manager and told him what I wanted: an unemployed guy with a car to show me around for a day. No  tour experience needed. Once the manager realized he wasn’t going to sell me anything, he lined up 3 candidates at $40 for 10 hours. I chose the one who spoke English minimally (like myself) and a deal was reached.

Unfortunately for the driver, he could not know the guy he was driving can’t stay at one place for more than 10 minutes, so when I presented him the list of places I wanted to see, he first gasped, then gave out a  knowing smile like “there is no way you can see all these places in one day.” Well… by the end of the day it was clear who got screwed, but  he was too exhausted from the driving to complain about it.

I won’t go over the complete list, but in the morning I visited the monkeys temple - lots of monkeys there, the Bouddhanath (the largest stupa in Nepal and a lovely market surrounding it), the 2 popular squares (Kathmandu and Patna), each with a multitude of temples, and finally the Pashupati ghats (also with many temples but also a creamation ceremony), which was stunning because unlike Varanasi you could take pictures standing in front of the body as it was being burned (see pictures).

In the afternoon it was time to get out of Kathmandu. We drove for an hour up the mountain to Bhaktapur, a wonderful artsy town with a Durbar square,  pottery and silver markets and factories, and many art galleries. Our final destination was Nagarkot, the highest point in the Kathmandu valley with views of the Everest. The drive up the mountain was spectacular but the views from the top were so so. The horizon was clouded and you could only see the fine silhouette of Everest. We were supposed to stay there  until sunset but my driver was looking ready to drive over the cliff so I chose to get back earlier.

The biggest problem here are the power outages. Every night the power goes off for a few hours, so when I got back to the hotel I had to walk down a dark alley, climb 4 flights of stairs in total darkness, and stumble like a blind person to reach my room. The manager forgot to place candles as he usually does.

Day 2

I discovered I own a magic hat!

I bought for the trip this very cool-looking wide hat made with light fabric and mesh that keeps my head protected from the harshest sun. But it’s a magic hat as well because as soon as I wear it a neon sign above my head appears to flash the words “A FOOL! TAKE HIS MONEY! Within seconds I am surrounded by the worst human elements life has to offer. Tauts, beggars, scammers and the likes stick to me like honey and won’t go away until I take off the hat. Too bad.  Hopefully I’ll be wearing it more at my next destination.

I have done so well the first day that I ran out of places to visit. I considered joining a group for river rafting but changed my mind and decided to take it easy for a change. I am glad I did as this week Nepalese celebrate the Tihad (a yearly festival) and the streets are full with people, colors, banners and a festive mood. Children in groups go from store to store and sing until they get some money (kind of like our Haloween). A monk walked up to me and stuck without permission a red dot on my forehead for good luck (required a small donation). How could I decline such a gift, but if anyone knows how to remove the freaking dot, please write ASAP.

Mario Ortner
Varanasi, India
October 17th, 2009 by Mario Ortner

I love this place! Varanasi is as poor as Kolkata but does not pretend to be anything else. I love getting lost the the narrow alleyways (and you do get lost), the picturesque Ganges river with its creamation of bodies, the boats, the people bathing in the river, the candle ceremonies at night, the fireworks…

Five minutes after leaving the hotel, I was back looking concerned. I had no map and since the hotel was located at the Ganges proper, to get to the main road you had to transverse a multitude of narrow passageways that twisted out of view. An hotel employee was nice enough to walk me through them and show me some temples, burning sites, etc. He suggested that if I got lost to head to the river and then it was easy to find my way back to the hotel. He was partly right. Getting to the river was easy buit walking along the riverbank wasn’t, as the walkway sometimes ended abruptly and the only way to continue was either by getting in the water (like most people did) or going back to the alleyways (like I did) and getting lost again. 

The thing is, getting lost is a wonderful experience here. You find exotic shops, temples, great little restaurants, cows that block your way (I was literally stuck for 5 minutes while the beast was pooping transversally to the passageway. The monkeys here are numerous but they mostly stay on the roofs.

I was able to see the cremation of bodies but they don’t allow photographs (unless you pay money to the guy in charge), but in the afternoon I took a boat ride back to the crematorium and was able to snap my memories as there are no restrictions if you are on a boat. As night fell, the boat took me to a ceremony of some sort where they light lots of candles, sing and throw flower petals to the river. It was great seeing the crowd lining up to see it from boats, balconies, and rooftops.

My only regret: Not having an extra day to do exactly what I did today all over again. That’s how much I liked this place.

Mario Ortner
Kolkata to Varanasi - The train ride from hell!
October 17th, 2009 by Mario Ortner

First it was a Typhoon, now a terrorist attack.

It happened at 11 pm - 4 hours into the 12-hr journey. A Maoist group protesting the capture of their leader days earlier blew up a segment of the railway. Apparently India has a serious problem of internal strifes that are not well publicized. The bottom line, we were stuck ina station somewhere while they were repairing the line. Then, an hour after resuming the journey, the train stoped again, this time due to reports of terorist activity in the area. 4 more hours of waiting and, to make things even more pleasurable, they cut off the air conditioning around noontime when the heat was  unbearable. To top it off, I did not have coffee all day and my addiction to caffeine was giving me a split headache. After the train started moving again, a fellow Indian traveller suggested I needed food in my stomach. He called his assistant on the cellphone to bring food to his station stop. He did not accept any money saying it was his way to welcome me to India. And what a welcome it was. An hour later I was throwing up all over the place, doing more damage to the train car than the terrorists did.

Train arrived 12 hours late. Luckily the hotel’s manager sent someone to pick me up at the station. The hotel in Varanasi is much better than in Kolkata: A big room, clean and with a georgeous terrace that overlooked the Ganges river. No complaints here!

Unfortunately, the 12-hr delay made me lose a day. I was planning to take the train again to Goraphur (6 hrs), a bus to the Nepali border at Sunauly (4 hrs) and then a bus again to Kathmandu (another 12 hrs), but after the latest experience, I did not believe my body would take another full day on the bumpy road, so my always efficient travel agent (Heather) booked me a direct flight from Varanasi to Kathmandu.

Mario Ortner
Kolkata, India
October 17th, 2009 by Mario Ortner

I don’t exaggerate when I say that Kolkata’s biggest attraction is its poverty. To think that this country is an emerging power when you see this place is laughable, but let’s start from the beginning.

Traffic was so clogged that my taxi driver left the car to go have some lunch while I waited alone at a busy intersection. People honk non-stop and for no reason. Pollution from cars is rampant. I decided not to take any taxi while in town.

My hotel was located in the middle of a shanty town complete with free roaming cows, annoying monkeys, makeshift tents and people sleeping right in the middle of the street. When I saw my room I almost passed out. Dirty greasy walls, bathroom with a hole and no shower or lavatory and a mattress on the floor. My complaints to the manager got me a room with a toilet and shower and something that resembled a bed. I figured I would move into another hotel in the afternoon, but surprisingly most hotels were booked or would not take foreigners (need a special license for that), so I was stuck here for the 2 nights.

The heat is suffocating and there is no escape from it as there are very few restaurants or coffee places and most don’t even have air conditioning. Getting water is a problem too as the locals re-use bottle waters to fill with tap water and resell it. So many bottles I rejected because of a broken seal cap.

The streets of Kolkata have names but no street sign to go with them, so taxi drivers don’t know how to get to a specific address. They get out of the car to confer with other drivers until eventually getting to destination.

In the afternoon I walked in the center of town (nothing remarkable) then went to the river and took a mini-cruise with live orchestra (no dinner, just people sitting in chairs, watching. I met there a group of 5 young women who are in Kolkata studying to become missionaries. Nice girls but a bit wild when the music started. One even put her arms around me. I suspect the missionary girls were on a mission to get some action.

I took the ferry across the river to get back to my hotel, went out to dinner (rice and Naan bread) at a place that featured live singers, then when it got real dark and scary I locked myself in my room and called it a night.

Next day, I went to visit the city proper. It’s hard to get to places without street names but I managed to visit many interesting buildings such as the Kali temple, the St. Peter Cathedral, and the Victoria memorial, among others. I also went out of my way to find the only Synagogue still functioning, but it’s been closed for the last 2 years as there are only about 25 Jewish families, which makes it impossible to have minian.  The caretaker still looks after the property but doesn’t know who pays his salary. I also found on my last day a Jewish girls school but there were no Jewish girls there. It was a regular school which never bothered to remove the 40-year old sign.

On my last day, I had the great honor to visit mother Theresa’s tomb and the room she lived in. It is located in a very poor central district where the nuns maintain a home for the destitute and try their best to keep up with mother Theresa’s work, but money is an issue and the mother’s name alone isn’t enough to raise the funds they need.

I am embarrassed to say this but I spent a good part of the afternoon looking to buy toilet paper. Apparently no one uses it here (no need to explain how they manage without it, just understand that people here shake their right hand for a different reason than we do).

All in all,  I did enjoy the experience of visiting Kolkata. It’s just hard to get by when you can’t find a decent place to eat, escape the oppressing heat, can’t get essentials such as toilet paper or drinking water, avoid the scores of begging mothers with their babies in arms, sleep in moldy, greasy, dirty, unsanitary hotel, etc. I know the rest of India is like this. I just hope it’s not this bad. I was overjoyed when checking out and am looking forward to seeing Varanasi, even if to see more of this.

Mario Ortner
Ayutthaya, Thailand
October 9th, 2009 by Mario Ortner

When local people learn that I am American (what do they know about accents), they suggest I visit the Bridge over river Kwai and it’s museum, but after looking at the photos and what is there to see, I decided there was no way I would spend a full day to visit any one bridge, no matter the historical significance. Instead I settled on Ayutthaya, an island surrounded by 3 rivers that was built in the 1300’s and was once the capital of Thailand for hundreds of years.

This time, I took the train for the hour-plus trip, walked to the riverfront, crossed it by ferry and was right in the middle of action (with a little walk and Tuk Tuk help. The ruins of Ayutthaya are now world heritage site and they are truly magnificent as you will see in the photos. I manage to visit 5 temples, pagodas, stupas, a Royal palace, and 2 giant reclining Buddhas before the rain forced me to head back to Bangkok (this time by bus as the train wasn’t leaving for an hour. What is incredible about the ruins is that they are in the open, within parks and farmland and are unprotected, which make them more spectacular.

In the evening I took a short detour to Silom, the red light district of Bangkok. I did not take pictures because of the rain and because I would not post explicit material anyway. Let’s just say that the whole place is plainly surreal, and it was just getting started at 7 pm. Those who have been to Bangkok know what I am talking about.

One last observation about Bangkok. Dick, my father-in-law made a comment about the people hating the old king’s son.  Matter of fact, going back to the first day photos of Bangkok, there are a few shots of a not-so-peaceful demonstration, which I was told has something to do with the Monarchy, and which I forgot to mention in the post.

Tomorrow I fly to my next destination - The land of sacred cows, unavoidable diarrhea, and Malaria-happy mosquitoes… India!

Mario Ortner
Bangkok - Day 2
October 8th, 2009 by Mario Ortner

I specifically asked for a tourist-free floating market, but is that really possible? Who are the local people going to sell the bamboo hats and plastic souvenirs to?

Bangkok has a floating market, but it was suggested to me that the farther away from Bangkok, the fewer the tourists, so with that in mind, I boarded a public bus and an hour plus later I was at a floating market (the name I can no longer remember and it’s irrelevant). The neat thing about this place was that the only way to reach the actual market is via motorboat, which eliminated the torture of seeing those ugly big tourist buses.

The market was fine as the photos will show. Was it worth the 2-hour (both ways) drive? The Bangkok floating market would’ve probably been fine too.

But the real treat was the visit to the Grand Palace (wearing proper attire, of course). I have a weakness for big oppulent places like the forbidden city and Peter the Great Fortress (both my favorites) and this one fits the bill nicely. A complex surrounded by a fortress-like walls and built in the late 1700th, it houses the royal palace, as well as the temple of emerald Buddha and several government offices. It features lots of gold, jade and decorative ceramic tiles in inticate and elaborate detailing. Truly an amazing gift to the eyes.

My evenings are spent, as everyone else does, strolling up and down Kao san road, a Santa Monica-like pedestrian street with tons of bars, backpackers and ventors selling everything from tours, clothing and food to puppy dogs and snakes. It’s nice watching the young get drunk while I happily sip my extra large Mango shake.

 

Mario Ortner
Bangkok, Thailand - Day 1
October 7th, 2009 by Mario Ortner

Happy birthday to me, Happy birthday to me, etc. tra la la la. THANK YOU ALL FOR YOUR WARM WISHES AND PLEASE FORGIVE ME FOR NOT RESPONDING RIGHT AWAY. Well, I did not spend my birthday in a cocroach-infested hotel but getting an oil swedish massage (with permission from la senora Ortner). I am not crazy about massages but for a mere $8 for a 2-hr session even I cannot let it pass. Oy Vey, it felt good!

I wish I came here when I was young and single and had most of my hair (that would be during the 1980’s). This place is so much fun. Most numerous tourists by country: Hands down ISRAELIS, mostly backpackers. They are everywhere. There are even signs in Hebrew on the main street.

My hostel is actually newly built and very confortable and conveniently located blocks Khao San Road - the most popular street. The day started really hot and humid. I was perspiring before leaving the hotel. First thing, I took a ferry across the Chao Praya river and back across to where the Grand palace is. That was when I discovered my first mistake: They don’t let you in the sacred places in shorts and the line to rent pants was too long so I left in frustration. That was when Zomba, a Thai driver of a Tuk Tuk (a tri-motorcycle with a roof) pulled to the curb and offered to shuttle me all over town for about a dollar (35 Bahts). I could not believe what I was hearing because Bangkok has 450 temples and I was set on visiting the 20 most important ones, but the guy insisted and even put it in writing, so with the perspiration on my body reaching ridiculous proportions, I took the gamble and boarded the Tuk Tuk.

Zomba was a very good guy and suggested many tourist places for shopping. After insisting so many times, I finally asked him what was the real deal. He admitted that each place that I spent 5 minutes (no obligation to buy anything) he gets 5 litres of gasoline to subsidize my ridiculous $1 drive around town. I felt sorry for him (I can be a nice guy sometimes) and soon Mario was working for Mr. Zomba, stopping in between temples at tourist traps for exactly 5 minutes so he could collect his bonus gasoline. It worked for both of us. Zomba made $25 in gas while I got to visit my 20 temples in record time, even after it started raining like crazy (it alternates from hot to rainy in matter of minutes).

Bangkok is a very contrasting city, alternating between wide boulevards and first class hotels and poverty stricken neighborhood - sometimes located within a block from each other. Tomorrow I am hopping to visit (finally) a floating market and going back to the grand palace wearing proper attire. Meanwhile, let the birthday celebration continue (with permission from la senora Ortner).

Mario Ortner
Hoa Lu - Tam Coc, Vietnam
October 6th, 2009 by Mario Ortner

The great thing about staying at hostels is that people gang together to hire a van and go on daytrip that are not tied to boring scheduled tours.

Really really nice this place. A natural setting with limestone outcrops that rival Halong bay but on land littered with flooded rice fields.

Hoa Lu used to be Vietnam’s capital in the 12th century. The first stop was a temple built by an emperor’s family with a shaksperian taste  for slaughtering each other to get the top job (emperor that is).

The day was very hot and the group desisted from a 10-mile bike ride along picturesque villages. Instead, we took boats (they are called Sampan) and rowed (actually Vietnamese people did the hard work) along the Boi river, gliding along flooded rice fields and through 3 caves to Tam Coc, another tiny village. What a wonderful day it was!

Mario Ortner
Halong Bay, Vietnam
October 6th, 2009 by Mario Ortner

Unfortunately Halong Bay is one of those places where you have to book a tour (which I dislike very much and avoid when possible). There are busses that take you there but you can’t just hop into a boat and sail, so I was stuck with the usual group of Japanese, Australian, French and a few English type - all nice people.

The drive took 3+ hours on a busy paved/ unpaved highway road. Upon arrival we boarded one of those New Orleans type ships and had lunch before sailing into the bay.

I don’t know if Halong Bay deserved to be named one of the wonders of the world (as the Vietnamese Government is pushing for), but it’s certainly a wondrous place.

The first place we visited was the famous “caves” which, as the name implies, is a hugh cave with animal-shaped rocks. What was unique about this place is that we did a 30-minute kayaking exploration inside it and that was awsome (too bad I couldn’t bring the camera inside the Kajak. Folowing that, we rounded the outcrop of limestone rocks that put this place on the map and headed to the pier to board the bus back to Hanoi.

A very unique experience, the beauty of this place is hard to explain with words. Hopefully the photos will show that.

Mario Ortner
Hanoi, Vietnam
October 4th, 2009 by Mario Ortner

By the way, what an interesting name for a street!

Street Sign

And what a great city to get lost in. Hanoi has its own distinctive character. Everywhere you go you are likely to run into a temple, an ope market, a lake, a palace, etc. And there are always lots of people milling around.

I am lucky to stay in a hotel located a mere 2 blocks from Hoam Kiem Lake - the center of the city’s old quarters. It is in a dark alley to the side of a crowded market. Unwelcoming at first, I learned to appreciate the quiet at night as I was able to sleep like a baby.

The atmosphere in the old quarters is hallucinating, especially at night. It took me 20 minutes to walk 2 blocks to the lake, which gives you an idea of the crowds. It felt like being stuck in a human freeway, unable to move, fighting for every inch of space.

Outside the old quarters, the city relaxes. There are beautiful parks and lakes, wide avenues and many interesting buildings. Most notable are the presidential palace and the Ho Chi Minh mausoleum, the opera house, the one pier pagoda, and the various lakes and parks.

I walked so much today that in the afternoon I took the plunge and rented a motorcycle - the favored method of transport - but I returned it 15 minutes later when I realized I was bound to kill someone. You have to live here to know how to maneuver around the crowds.

Like in Mongolia and Russia, food is an issue again for me. Lots of fish dishes, chicken doesn’t look good, and meat is mostly pork or dog, which doesn’t appeal to my taste. On the other hand, fruit juices are delicious: Passion fruit, guava, watermelon. I drink them all day long.

Mario Ortner
Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam
October 4th, 2009 by Mario Ortner

You have to be out of your mind to cross a street here. The way it works is like this:  You just cross (your fingers and the street) against the incoming traffic and get swept by thousands of motorcycles that maneuver mere inches around you. There are very few traffic lights throughout the city and apparently even fewer traffic laws. Everyone just go and a pedestrian’s only right is not to be killed (if possible).

But that’s the beauty of Ho Chi Minh. The wave of motorcycles moving at unison in every direction is like a performance dance to the eyes and one I never get tired of looking at.

My hostel, again, was top notch location right in the center of town. The directions told me to enter alley 241 and just before the end turn left into another alley, etc…  Sounds scary but it’t not. It was easy to find and the 3-story building, 12 ft wide total, is newly-built and very comfortable. I got my first solo room with a queen bed and a bathroom, probably my last one too.

Ho Chi Minh city has no architectural history. Apparently it was bombed so much by everyone (America, Chinese, French, etc.) that I could not find many old notable buildings. I’ll mention the few that I visited: The reunification palace is a big buil;ding but was closed due to renovations so I saw it from outside. The war remnant museum was the best thing here. It shows the other side of the story of the struggle of Vietnam during the wars. The vietnamese are very set in showing the brutality of what other nations did to them, so they show you graphically all the tortures and deformed people with a brutal honesty that I don’t believe it would be accepted in an American museum. You leave feeling unsure about the story you were told back at home. There is also a Cathedral, the opera house, the Ben Than Market (another of those), and that’s about it. I promise you. There is nothing else to see. I took a ferry across the Saigon river before a torrential rain forced me back to the hostel.

The weather is another story. You can be drenched from the heat and humidity one moment and the next you are drenched by a storm rain of biblical proportions. Then it stops and you are sweating again. It’s the worse possible weather for me.

The funny thing is, as you walk the street dozens of locals offer you a ride in a taxi, motorcycle, riksha or a combination of both. But as it started to rain and I desperately needed trasportation, everyone disappeared  and I had to run back to my hostel. Big mistake. I did not know that rains last only a few minutes. I should have waited under a roof for it to stop. I didn’t and I paid the price.

In the morning I traveled by bus to the Cu Chi tunnels. The trip took 2 hours and it is basically a jungle type setting with a network of tunnels. Unfortunately you have to hire a guide there because they are afraid you’ll get lost in the tunnels. From what I heard from the guide it confirmed three notions that I got from my visit to the museum the previous day: 1. They hate Americans for what they did to the country 2.  The now embrace America with an eye on progress for their country and 3. They LOVE, positively LOVE Bill Clinton. The exhibition was very graphic and brutal (they show you a dozen contraptions where they trapped American soldiers and their sniffing dogs. Then, at the end, they let us go inside the 3 ft wide x 4 ft. high tunnel for 300 about meters. I exited the tunnel after 100 meters. It wasn’t that I couldn’t make but as I explained to my guide, it was simply uncomfortable to be there and it didn’t make a difference to me 100 or 300 meters.

In the evening, after returning to Ho Chi Minh, I went to see the Vietnamese water puppet show with live traditional music - a stage filled with water and puppets dancing and telling folk stories. It was fabulous and the theatre was packed to capacity.

The first major change to my itinerary came after returning from the theatre. Reading the news casually, I discovered the Typhoon caused major damage to the railway network. According to the news reports, there were 100 people stranded at Hue Railway Station (my destination). When I called the station here to confirm, they suggested I start travelling and see how far it takes me. I suggested they try that and asked politely for my refund.

You see, as much as I welcome adventures, I will NOT knowingly thrust myself into a disaster zone and be stranded for days with water up to my knees. Instead, I got my refund and booked a flight to Hanoi bypassing the typhoon area. I’ll use the extra days to see more in Hanoi. It will be worth it.

Mario Ortner
Hong Kong - Day 2
September 29th, 2009 by Mario Ortner

A malfunctioning of my SD Card Reader last night rendered all my HK photos useless, so in the morning I took the card to one of the electronic shops with the intention of replacing the card reader. The salesperson told me not to bother. He gave me a non-descriptive disk with a Serial number on a label and said “Try this”. He did not charge me a penny. Back in the hostel, I inserted the disk, typed the serial number where the option to purchase the program for $69 was provided (you wonder if this is a pirated copy? I didn’t ask so why should you?) and in minutes I recovered all my photos, including the ones I lost for Rostov and Pereslavl. Mario is a happy chap again.

It was still raining but no wind or any sign of a typhoon, so I headed for Lantau Island and took the cable car to Ngong Ping, a small village high in the mountains with a small monastery and the largest known bronze Buddha statue. The village was Chinese-themed and was very pretty, except the rain intensified and the wind started blowing again. You know it’s time to head back when the guys operating the cable car tell you it’s time to head back.

Well… going back was hell. I was alone in the cable car, with a thick fog that reduced visibility to zero and winds that shook the cable car so bad I felt like throwing up. The ride from hell lasted 30 minutes and I honestly expected something bad to happen.

My plan after Lantau Island was to visit Aberdeen, a small fishing town on the other side of HK island, but the weather turned so bad that I was afraid of being stuck there with no transportation back. So I headed back to the hostel, changed into dry clothes, and wemt back to HK island to visit the areas I did not cover the previous day: Victoria Park, Times Square, exhibition center, etc. In the evening, I went to the night market, same deal as the other markets, except this one opens when the others close. It was nice watching the sea of umbrellas moving down the alleyway.

Tomorrow I leave for Vietnam. I was hoping the weather will improve but heard the Typhoon we wre supposed to get here headed instead to Vietnam. Oh well, it’s all part of the experience.

 

Mario Ortner
Hong Kong - Day 1
September 29th, 2009 by Mario Ortner

I took the Maglev train to Pudong Airport - fastest train in the world - 8 minutes trip time at 450 Km/Hr.

The waiting at airports in general kill me. What do I do to pass the time? I read Heather’s medicine list that she prepared for this trip. It includes dosage, color of pills, symptoms, when to take and not to take, etc. People turn to look at me as I laugh out loud. My woman is one-of-a-kind.

Hong Kong is humid. I have been sweating profusely since arriving here. Hong Kong is also noisy. Everyone honks. Even the traffic lights make an annoying sound, like an old alarm clock, it’s tick tack while you wait and an alarm sound when it’s time to cross the street. You feel like getting up there to snooze it… with a hammer.

Upon my arrival at the hostel, I was surprised to see so many people in the streets. I was concerned it would be like this all over town but I learned soon that the shopping area where I am staying - Mong Kog in Kowloon island - is the busiest in all of Hong Kong. My hostel is on the 7th floor of a high-rise building (there are 4 hotels in this building to give an idea of the size). My room was a 5′x6′ hole in the wall (exact size) with no windows. I complained the next morning and they changed me to a larger hole in the wall, still no window, but you can hear the noise from the street.

I started the day strolling along Nathan Road (a supposedly glitzy commercial fare). I wasn’t impressed - just another busy street with upscale shops. Along the way, I took detours to many specialized open markets: Flower market, bird market, lady market, Jade market, etc. To be honest, aside from some notable differences, they all sell and look the same - crowded stalls in narrow alleyways. Oh, and I forgot to mention. McDonalds and 7Eleven are everywhere - every couple of blocks - you can’t miss them even if you want. 

Now, as I approached the Star Ferry, the beauty of Hong Kong became apparent. The skyline of high Rise buildings is unparallel and it’s what makes HK unique. The Star Ferry sailing to HK central was bumpy but I didn’t get sea sick.

After walking the central district, with its pedestrian bridges and malls, it became evident that the stunning skyline is just 5 blocks deep because of the mountain’s proximity, which explained the need to go up and high. After visiting the beautiful HK park with its aviary and lakes, I boarded the tram to the Peak. The views of downtown are even more unbelievable than from street level. I particularly enjoyed walking down the trail on the way down, then taking the mechanical escalator to the street level.

From the tram, I took a bus to Stanley village and it’s (supposedly) famous market). Stanle lies on the other side of the Island and you cross the mountains to reach it. The village is charming. The market is another crowded conglomerate of tented stalls selling everything cheaper than other places, or so they say.

By the way, the subway system here is the work of a genius, Unlike other subways where the platforms serve  both directions of a line and to transfer to another line you have to walk for what seems an eternity, here the lines connect on the same platform according to traffic patterns, so it’s right there. It must have been a nightmare building the system this way but it works beautifully.

It was raining hard on the way back and, according to some people on the bus, there was a possibility of a typhoon for tomorrow (estimated category 4, which is only mild, 8 being severe). The Typhoon originated in Philllipines where there were some reported death. Apparently these storms are not uncommon this time of the year. I don’t know what to expect for tomorrow but if it gets bad I may have to watch it from my hostel room… Damn it, I don’t even have a window in my room.

Mario Ortner
Shanghai, China - Day 2
Sep 26th, 2009 by Mario Ortner

Another instance of my darling wife ruining my plans… only to make them even more wonderful.

I had planned on visiting a water village about an hour away, but during our last Skype conversation, Heather asked if I was going to visit the Jewish Ghetto. A Jewish Ghetto in Shanghai!!! I didn’t know one existed. Anyway, I dismissed the idea and went to sleep with my original plan only to wake up the following day with a new one (talk about my wife’s long distance persuasion).  In any case, I am probably going to see plenty of water villages in Vietnam and Thailand.

No one here has heard of a Jewish Ghetto, or a Ghetto, or in many cases the word Jewish, so I turned to the Internet for info. It turned out it wasn’t really a Ghetto but a refugee area for about 30,000 Jews during WW2. Nothing remains any longer but recently, the district of Tilanquiao decided to grant money to rebuild the old Synagogue. The former Jewish neighborhood is located in one of the poorest areas of Shanghai (thanks honey). It comprises 3 square blocks and I was able to visit the former Ohel Moshe synagogue, now a tiny museum of 3 even tinier rooms. The entrance fee was steep (as much as the Terracota museum). They told me it’s for “preservation work.” I think Mario alone is paying for the preservation work because I haven’t seen anyone else coming in during my entire stay.

Following the museum, I visited “little Vienna”, a former Jewish street (most crowded), Houshan park (there is a plaque there), the former site of the Jewish refugee shelter (in ruins now) and a few more structures, all occupied by poor Chinese citizens. All in all, it was sort of emotional being there where Jewish history was made.

My next stop was supposed to the Jade Buddhist Temple (the only working monastery in Shanghai), but after walking and asking for directions for 2 hours I gave up looking for it. I strongly believe the place does not exist. Period.

Since I’ve been to the poorest part of Shanghai, I decided to visit the area where the rich people live. No one had to tell me the Luwan district is the Beverly Hills of Shanghai. You know it the moment you step off the subway station. Glitzy apartment complexes, spotless streets, expensive cars, manicured parks, fancy pedestrian malls selling the latest in fashion (by the way, how come they only have one Rolex store when every Chinese is wearing one?… Oh wait.  I get it now)

And what about the poor people here? They are everywhere, but hidden from view behind tall walls and permanent bamboo scaffolding. How original, I thought, but then I visited “TiangZifong”, a pedestrian mall built right in a shanty town block. AWSOME!!! Fancy boutique shops mixed with dilapidated buildings, neon signs sharing airspace with clothlines. It’s just too cool to describe properly. I left the area after visiting an open Antique market, feeling more than satisfied.

I have walked so much today. I was supposed to go see Chinese acrobats at the Shanghai Center, but I am too tired to spend any money.

Tomorrow will be a month since I left LA for my trip with Edan. I will be celebrating quietly in Hong Kong. Good night now…

Mario Ortner
Shanghai, China - Day 1
Sep 25th, 2009 by Mario Ortner

Shanghai is beautiful, vibrant, vast, crowded, advanced and messy and if you thought American is a consumer oriented society, you obviously haven’t been here (I expect Hong Kong to be the same way). They sell absolutely everything here, and everywhere, in back alleys, second floors, basements. There are shopping centers in the corridors communicating subway lines. I would be dazzled by it all it it weren’t because 90% of what they sell is useless, and the other 10% is food.

The hostel actually looks like a modern hotel. Located in a quiet residential area with easy access to the center of town,  everything is top notch except the shower. Why can’t anyone give me hot water? I don’t ask for much.

The city is gearing up for expo 2010, and just like they did in the Olympics, the Chinese government is transforming the city to show an image that fit the new China. Just to give you an idea, the “Bund”, a 5-mile waterfront walk was closed to the public completely for construction. You literally cannot see the river from anywhere except from a few bridges opened for vehicular traffic. Still,  the center of town is impressive. I started with the people’s square, made my way through Nianjing Road east, a pedestrian mall at least five times the lengths of Santa Monica’s 3rd street mall. Then I crossed the bridge over the spectactlar skyline of hi-rise buildings, made it to the Yuyuyan gardens (a rocky labyrinth) and the Bazaar (incredible - see pictures) and the old temple before calling it a day.

I love Shanghai. It feels more real than Beijing (post Olympics). I hope they don’t alter much of it for expo 2010.

Mario Ortner
Xian, China
Sep 25th, 2009 by Mario Ortner

I want to share 2 experiences that occured on my way to the train station.

1. Have you tried taking the subway in Beijing at rush hour? Dont!!! The maze of human stampede is of epic proportions. I was carrying the backpack above my head, being carried away by a mob. At my stop, no one moved and so I yelled “open sesame”, a very poor choice of words but the tone of my voice must have scared people because a narrow gap opened and I was able to squeeze out.

2. Outside the subway I stopped a woman to ask for directions to the train station. She signaled me to follow her, stopped a taxi, took me to the station, and paid the fare!!! I still can’t get used to people’s generosity in this side of the world. I am always thinking they are out to screw me. Slowly, I am learning a life lesson.

My train ticket to Xian was 2nd class but felt like 1st class. New train, smooth ride, comfortable, was served breakfast in the morning and it was punctual to the minute.

My first impression of Xian wasn’t good. Old, gray, dull and overcrowded, and the overcast sky didn’t help either. But I have come here with a purpose: To see the Terracota warriors excavations. The ride to the museum took 45 minutes, then 20 minutes walk through beautiful gardens and souvenir shops. Very clever the way it was done. They simply put a building on top of the excavation digs and a museum was born. Impressive yes, but I was a bit disappointed with the number of warriors on display. I was expecting thousands but there were in the hundreds (I guess the promotional photos show the same warriors from a different angle). Nevertheless, the size of the digs and the history behind it made the trip here worthwhile.

With 3 hours before the train was due to depart, I took a calculated gamble and boarded a local bus to my second point of interest: The big wild goose pagoda - a complex of temples with a 6-7 story pagoda at its center. By then, the day brightened and so did the city of millions. The pagoda is the newer part of town outside the walls of the old city. I loved the complex but could not climb atop the pagoda as time was clicking away and I had to get back to the train station. I actually could not fing the same bus going back, and as I was getting anxious, the woman from the same bus I took on the way here recognized me (I drove her crazy with questions earlier on) and waved at me. I made it back to to the train with minutes to spare.

Mario Ortner
Beijing, China - Day 3
September 23rd, 2009 by Mario Ortner

My first stop in the morning was the Temple of Heaven, a wonderful complex of temples , courtyards, and gardens. But the moment I stepped inside I sensed something was amiss. The place was packed. People were dancing, singing in large groups, playing card games, excercising. They were so happy and I know people are not happy naturally, especially the Chinese. Well, just like in Liverpool and Warsaw, I am in the right place at the right time. Today is the Chinese republic 60th birthday (1949), the day they became the people’s republic. Now I understand why Beijing looks so clean and beautiful. The government is mounting a big show for the world and is telling the people to go out and pretend to be happy (I guess just like they did during the Olypmpics). In any case, the people responded in masses and It truly astounded me the level of participation. To the Chinese people I say. Mazal Tov!

From the Temple of Heaven I headed to the Forbidden city. I LOVE THIS PLACE. You just get lost in here and every corner and courtyard is a treat. In a way, it reminds me of the old city in Jerusalem. The place is huge and it brought memories of a favorite movie, the Last Emperor.

Next to the Forbidden city is a very large Garden park with lakes and boats and beautiful landscapes. I can’t remember the name but entrance fee was worth every penny (it costs pennies).

Tianamen Square was, as I expected, big and guarded by tight security. To get in, you go thru police checkout, no exceptions. The square was obviously gearing for the anniversary celebrations, with huge screens showing the best of China, banners, concerts, police, etc. It’s nice to walk around, even if you are under watchful eyes at all time.

Next to Tianamen square they built this enormous (everything in Beijing is big, large or huge, except the people) shopping street Disneyland style, with a trolley and the latest shops. The beauty of this place is that it connects to  side alleyways (hutongs) so you get this wonderful mix of old and new.

I am done for the day. Tonight I am taking the overnight train to Xian. Hope more wonderful experiences will follow.

Mario Ortner
Beijing, China - Day 2
Sep 22nd, 2009 by Mario Ortner

After evaluating all my options, I decided the least expensive and most convenient way to see the great wall was to share a minivan with 3 women - a mother and daughter from Japan and a very sweet girl and flight attendant from Kazakhstan (is that the way you write the former Soviet republic and Borat’s homeland?)

Anyway, the van picked us up punctually at 6:30 am and drove over an hour to the Great wall, not the tourist wall but the one a bit farther away, less crowded and more spectacular. I thought I was going to die climbing those steps for 2 hours but the sheer view from the top was well worth it.

From there we visited the Tomb of emperor Ming, also a beautiful series of temples and mausoleums. Following that we got back to Beijing to visit the olympic park and the structure I was most interested in: The bird nest. We ate Chinese foood at a restaurant and we hit museum skid - not your regular museum but a series of factory-museums, as follows: Jade, silk, tea, and herbal medicine. The way it works is that in the Jade and silk they showed us a museum of how it was made (kind of like the diamond center in Tel Aviv, Heather will remember), at the tea museum they served us like 8 types of different teas and in the Herbal medicine one they gave us a foot massage. Then, when we were done with each presentation, they take you to a showroom where, without pressure, they offer to buy their products. Pretty clever and we had a great time.

All in all it was a wonderful day out with the ladies. Beijing is trully impressive following the Olympics. It’s clean, pleasant and very open. I feel very comfortable here.

Note: There are several snapshots that are displayed sideways. This was due to slow internet connection and my limited time, which didn’t allow to rotate the photos.  

Mario Ortner
Beijing, China - Day 1
Sep 22nd, 2009 by Mario Ortner

I like Beijing already. The city is an organized mess. Behind the wide, well laid out avenues are the tiny alleyways where the you start losing a sense of direction. These alleyways are the veins of the city where the blood flows. In these alleyways you find the famous Hutongs, like commercial pedestrian throughways the width of a 1 car driveway, and there are millions of people bumping onto cars, rickshaws, bicycles, navigating alleyways that stretch forever.

I had the opportunity to visit no less than 8 Hutongs today, but one that left me speechles was a well-to-do one surrounding a lake with restaurants, boutiques, cafes. It was very beautiful to walk around the lake, even after barking a 100 times NO to the street hawkers (they never give up, do they?). People in general are very helpful, tryng their best to give you directions. The police, posted everywhere, even smile (unlike the Russians). They give a sense of security to the places without being an eyesore.

I tell you, they sell everything these Chinese. Since Poland I have been looking for a leather place to puncture some holes in my belt (yes, I am losing weight faster than you can say Jenny Craig). I found one store here five minutes after leaving the hostel. In a timeframe of 1 hour, I took a very short ride in a rickshaw (1 block - a deal I made with a guy who wouldn’t leave me alone), had a head massage (feels funny), and ate churros with chocolate (delicioso).  

The city is clean. The subways are new and modern. I have no doubt much of it was done for the Olympics but still, a pleasure a city to walk. Of course, I arrived in the afternoon and so I was able to walk in the Hostel’s district. The city reminds me of LA as it stretches forever. It will be hard to reach all the places I want to see in such a short time.

I had no problem finding the hostel (2 subway connections). The location seems excelent. It is in an alleyway surrounding a courtyard. Very charming. The people are nice too. I pray the hot water works.

Mario Ortner
Ulan Bator - Beijing: Transiberian Train
Sep 22nd, 2009 by Mario Ortner

In the morning it snowed heavily. All flights were cancelled but luckily not the trains. The ticket inspector did not know there was a country named Israel and it took some convincing to let me aboard the train (not that I was worried or anything).

In a matter of an hour, the scenery changed from snow to desert and the temperature shifted from bitter cold to scorching hot as we traveled South east across Mongolia. I had the cabin all to myself but on a long trip it was sort of a disadvantage. I did enjoyed my privacy but missed the long conversations with total strangers.

At midnight we arrived at the border with China where they had to shift gears again. Only this time they did it with the passengers aboard the train. They rolled the train into a giant hangar and lifted each car in the air while they replaced the gear. While this is happening, they did the passport inspection. Chinese officials are more efficient than their Russian counterparts.

In the morning I woke up in China. The landscape was vastly different. In Mongolia, nature rules in shaping the land, but the Chinese are all about image and they want people to get a positive picture upon entering their country. So for several miles all you see is a narrow lane of landscaping and decorative fences hiding ugly homes and factories behind. I prefer the Mongolian’s pristine landscape. 

Mario Ortner
Mongolia - Day 2
Sep 22nd, 2009 by Mario Ortner

This will be without a doubt one of the highlights of the entire trip.

In the morning, mom and pop loaded the car and off we drove into the countryside. Little by little, the buildings, cars and people disappeared and we found ourselves driving along an unpaved road.

Stop number 1 was at a farm where I got to ride a camel, hold an eagle in my arm and watch the men herd the sheep.

Second stop was a rocky hillside with an interior cave where monks go to meditate. I climbed inside. It was big, almos standing room.

After eating a traditional Mongolian meal (noodles with shreaded meat and other things I did not recognized, we headed to our third stop: An isolated Buddhist temple perched on a hill over a precarious suspended bridge and up 108 steps. In addition, it started to snow, making this a dreamlike setting.

Stop number 4 was weird. An enormous Genghis Kahn statue (I am talking 200 ft tall), perched atop a building. It was built as part of a theme park to attract tourists. Whether it will succeed remain to be seen but the location is so remote, it seems out of context.

Last stop - Our destination: A Ger camp to spend the night. This one was unique because it wasn’t geared to tourists but a real family living and working there. The location was stunning - atop a hill overlooking a wild river. It was a very cold night and the central chimney wasn’t enough to keep us warm. Forget shower as there was no cold water. We went to sleep early as we were to wake up at 5 am to drive back to Ulan Bator to catch my 8 am train to Beijing.

Mario Ortner
Mongolia - Day 1
Sep 22nd, 2009 by Mario Ortner

Honey, it appears I don’t speak Mongolian after all! (a family joke - Keep reading)

In Ulan Bator, there aren’t any parks. It may have to do with the weather or the difficulty of maintaining grass, but not once I have seen a western-styled park. This is truly a dusty town with a booming economy. Everywhere you turn you see construction cranes, but there’s still a long way to go in repairing and maintaining the streets and common areas. I believe over 90% of Mongolian live here and it shows. The streets are bustling with people and cars are kings. Not only Mongolian drivers don’t stop. They accelerate when they see a pedestrian, as if to teach you a lesson.

As the train pulled to the station, there were people holding hand-made signs with passenger names. And there they stood: Husband and wife, full smile, waiting to make my stay as pleasant as possible. They treted me like a son from the first moment (they are probably half my age), drove me back to their Soviet-era apartment on a fifth floor, made me breakfast of scrambled eggs and toast, did my laundry, gave me a private room while they slept in the living room. Was there anything else I could ask for? Yes! Hot water!!! My tsuris with showers continue. This time the water pipe broke and the entire neighborhood was left without hot water (apparently it’s a common occurence). Luckily, mom and pop found a solution. They boiled water in  the kitchen and poured it into a small cistern. It wasn’t enough for the entire body but at least I was able to wash my hair.

Ulan Bator is a very interesting town, with several Monasteries dotting it. I visited at least 5, the most important one being The Gandan Monastery complex of 9 buildings. The monks dress either in yellow or red and keep chanting as people walk around clockwise and rotate barrels placed next to each other. A large statue of Buddha stand in the center of the main complex.

Other significant structures are the main square, the government building, the Ulan Bator museum, the indoor markets, and the winter palace. That’s all I could find but it was enough for 1 day, and to top it off, the Mongolian National Song and Dance Ensemble Tumen Ekh, a fantastic show of dance, songs with traditional musical instruments, and contortioninsts. It was a beauty of a show only interrupted by a few power outages (a common occurence too).

Mario Ortner
Moscow-Irkutks-Ulan Bator: Transiberian Train
Sep 22nd, 2009 by Mario Ortner

On the train back to Moscow, I met Alexander, a Russian civil Engineer who spoke fluent English and who insisted in accompanying me all the way to the airport so I could make it in time for my flight. Can you believe the good nature of some people? I wish everyone was as nice as this guy.

At the Sheremetevo airport I had my first scary moment. They wouldn’t let me in and I could not understand why. It wasn’t until an English-speaking employee arrived that the problem was resolved. They were asking for my mandatory registration card while in Russia, which I had put away since no one asked for it until now.

In Irkutsk, a town much larger than I expected, I had to pick up the transiberian train ticket. It took forever because the directions I was given were written in English and were pretty lousy. I had just enough time to buy groceries, walk the center of town (nothing impressive other than a few churches) before heading to the train station. I was worried because I haven’t taken a shower and I knew I wouldn’t take one in the next 2 days. Luckily, at the station, I discovered they have these rooms you can rent by the hour. I took one for 3 hours, napped and took a shower. I was now ready for the long train ride.

Transiberian Train

My roomates in the cabin of 4 were 2 Sweedish guys and a Finnish girl. All spoke good English and were excelent companions. We played chess, argued about US health plan vs the Socialized medicine they have, talked soccer, etc. The cabin was very comfortable and I slept all night.

In the morning, we arrived at the Mongolian border, a town called Nagushi or something like that. They made us wait 4 hours there (talk about innefectual bureocracy). There was nothing to do in the tiny town and most passengers stayed aboard the train. Then at the Mongolian side, another 3 hours, but here some of us got a big scare. We were told the train would leave in 30 minutes and so we went to the bathroom at the station (the toilets on the train are closed while the train is idle because everything goes to the tracks below). When we came back, the train was gone, bye bye, with all our belongings. We panicked and for the next 5 minutes we were screaming at everyone. Imagine being stuck in a Mongolian border town. Then, suddenly, lights came up and our train rolled slowly back into the station. It was explained to us that the train was taken to change gears since Russian and Chinese tracks are different in gauge. What a relief!!!

I enjoyed the Mongolian landscape the most. Russian scenery was flat with almost no vegetation. On the Mongolian side, there were rivers, rolling hills, and pine trees for a long stretch before we hit the desert again.

Mario Ortner
Rostov and Pereslavl, Russia
Sep 22nd, 2009 by Mario Ortner

I am writing this post from a deck overlooking Lake Nero about 25 ft away. The view is one of peacefulness and serenity. All I am missing is my Strabucks Venti drip.

The Golden Ring north of Moscow is composed of 7 mini towns with a rich architectural history. Rostov and Pereslavl are 2 of them.

Rostov Velicky: It took me hours to find out where the train station was located in Moscow. A metro ride left me in the middle of 4 different stations aiming in 4 different directions. No one knew this little town and of course no one happen to speak English when I need it. So finally I decided to take matters into my own hands. I took out the printout of the cyrillic alphabet that I printed at home and matched letter by letter until figuring out the spelling of the town, and then matched it to the names on the electronic board until found.  There was a long line at the ticket office so I approached another window with no line. The woman nodded and sold me the ticket. Only later I realized that I have purchased a sleeper ticket in first class. I could’ve saved $15 but I was feeling already exhausted so a bed was good. I slept the entire 4 hour train ride.

The train station left me outside town and I had to walk for 20 minutes. It was actually nice because it gives you a sense of the scale of the place. Rostov is a small provincial town with low houses, a small center and a gigantic Kremlin with minarets, ponds, bridges, towers, etc. The scale of it is out of context and it seems like that in every town. In the afternoon I visited the neighboring town and it had one too.
In a way, the town reminded me of small provincial town of Northern Argentina.

Mikhail, the guest house owner, is an affable man and a stained-glass artist who rents rooms to complement his meaguer income. He works all day in the attelier and his mom cleans and manages the property. The guest house is charming and fronts lake Nero, a typical Russian lake: Flat and barren and with no beach. Its beauty comes from walking on the shore with no one in plain view, which gives a powerful sense of isolation. I must admit that I felt a pang of loneliness. This town is so isolated and deserted of people in the evenings that there is no one to talk to, and don’t even mention Internet. But I am not worried since tomorrow is a busy day again.

Pereslavl: On the way to the bus station, I struck a casual conversation with a woman in her thrties but looking my age. She teaches English in the town’s school but knows about 50 words herself. She told me where to find the bus to Pereslavl, then she told me she’s been married twice and have 5 kids, then insinuated she would love to come to America with me. I figured then it was time to split.

The bus ride took 90 minutes and left me in the heart of town. Pereslavl is laid differently than Rostov. Away from the lake and along a main thoroughfare. The town was a bit of a disappointment when compared to Rostov. It’s smaller and there is less Architecture to see. The Pleshebo lake is hidden by factories. I was never able to make reservations in a hoter here and I’m glad I didn’t. Rostov is more attractive and it has the train to Moscow, which I prefer to busses.

The first night I was the lone guest at the guest house, but upon my return to Rostov, I met 3 other guests. A shy Finnish girl, an Architect student who I didn’t get to meet, and then there was Jack, an Irish music promoter and a freelance writer for lonely planet. We talked into the late hours and he gave me great advice for the Transiberian train.

Mario Ortner
Moscow - Russia
September 12th, 2009 by Mario Ortner

The overnigh train ride from St.Petersburg was smooth. Comfortable bunk beds, quiet, fast… but the excess of chocolate pancakes that I ate before the ride did the damage. It wasn’t that bad but I won’t go into details.

It took an hour to get to the hostel, but only because it took that long to decypher the metro routes. The hostel was on a 5th floor (no elevator) in an old dilapidated building (did I mention no elevators?). Apparently it is centrally located (about 7 blocks from the kremlin) so it was fully booked.

Moscow is a perplexing city, exasperating is the right word. Everything is arranged in such way as to make people’s life more difficult. The Metros are huge but confusing. Signage is kept to a minimum, is written only in Russian and sounds even more confusing through the pathetic sound system. To cross a major interseccion you must access undergroud tunnels, even if on the surface they have traffic lights for cars. And for the few who attempt to cross on the surface, there are policemen with a cold unfriendly face that says “former KGB employee.” They don’t talk, don’t smile, don’t even look at you. They just blow a whistle and you better move on. And finally we have barriers and barricades everywhere, making it a nightmare to navigate from place to place. It is as if they have a need to confine places so they can have control over the people and all the exit points.

To the above, I must add: I LOVE IT! I came to see different cultures and everything that has to do with the old Soviet apparatus is welcome.

DAY1: I visited the Kremlin. Red square was closed to the public due to a concert and so I came back on day 2. While trying to find the ticket office (they are never placed near the intended entrance), I run into a Salvadorean guy named Federico, a pilot for Quatar airlines, who looked more lost than me. We stuck together and were able to navigate the ticketing and access to the Kremlin. We purchased tickets only for the outside walk but soon discovered that the ticket inspectors are posted inside the buildings so we got inside all the churches, took pictures and left before the inspectors came to chase us out.

The red square, Lenin Mausoleum, the St. Basil church and Kremlin are very interesting and by far the best attraction in Moscow. No argument there.

Day 2: In the morning, I traveled somewhere far just to retrieve my Transiberian train tickets (only the Ulan Baator-Beijing). From there I went to Gorky Park (famous in the movie with the same name), a beautiful park ruined by the construction of a generic amusement park, then walked to the old Arbat, a pedestrian street selling memorabilias and other useless stuff, saw up close the huge statue of Peter the great on the Moscow River, the Pushkin museum (outside only because after the Hermitage in St. Petersburg no museum of art will do for me).

In the afternoon I walked back to red square to visit the Lenin Mausoleum, found a wonderful street alive with people, music and vendors, visited the beautiful Church christ the savior and crossed the pedestrian street over the Moscow River.

That’s it for Moscow, a city behind St.Petersburg in many aspects but mostly openess. It is in the small things that I find the heart to a place, and Moscow has little heart in my opinion. Young people may look hip and happy on the surface but there is something still dark and secretive behind all their freedom of expression, as if the old system is still alive.

Mario Ortner
St.Petersburg - Day 3
Sep 10th, 2009 by Mario Ortner

In the morning, I packed everything for the overnight train to Moscow, then took the metro (a breeze) to the bus station, and from there a local bus to Pushkin - a town about 24 miles south of St. Petersburg. The trip itself was stressful since once aboard the bus, it was up to the local folks (non-English) to tell me where to get off. Luckily an old woman took pity on me and kept tapping my lap and shook her head no when most people were getting off at the main station in Pushkin. Another 10 tortuous minutes and she tapped again and nodded yes. I crossed my fingers and got off the bus in the middle of nowhere… And that’s where the royal country residence stood (I figured that most tourists are advised to get off at the main station and then take a taxi or another bus to the palace to help the local economy).

The town’s name is Tsarskoye Selo but is known as Pusking because the Russian poet Alexander Puskin studied at the Lyceum in town. The Catherine Palace is a grandiose barroque-styled residence built about 200 years ago by the Architect Rastrelli (Yes, I did learned about Rastrelli while studying architecture. There is a park (1500 acres) and 2 lakes and other chapels and outbuildings.

The interiors remind me of the Hermitage the previous day. Photography was a no-go and they even provided me with socks to walk around as shoes are not permitted. One thing that bothered me about Russia museums is that they make you buy tickets for every different exhibition. It was hilarious to watch a German couple arguing with an employee who wanted to charge them to get inside a garden pavilion the size of a 2-car garage, but that’s the way things work here. Russians are not used to having it easy. I can see it everywhere, from narrow cue lines to get to the metro, to tiny elevators in buildings, and from lack of street signages at major intersections to the way they serve coffee. You want coffee? It’s black. You want some milk in it? You must order a Latte (costing 3 time more) I may be wrong on some of the descriptions, but I ask a lot of questions and that’s how I see things so far.

I am back at the hotel now, getting ready to head to the train station. I’ll post again from Moscow.

Mario Ortner
St.Petersburg - Day 2
Sep 9th, 2009 by Mario Ortner

Today I must have walked for 7 hours straight, stopping only for lunch at a popular Russian fast food joint (delicious blintzes filled with whatever one wants). I practically circled the city as yesterday I did the center section of town. I will not fill this post with details but I managed to visited the only Synagogue in St.Petersburg (A very small community struggling to survive), crossed the river to the outlying islands to visit more churches and palaces, including the amazing Peter and Paul fortress ((I recognized it from an all time favorite movie Dark Eyes with Marcelo Mastroianni) and Peter’s summer palace.  Since it was still relatively early, I ended my day going to the Hermitage museum; a vast, lavishly-displayed art from every conceiveable time in history. There is simply no time to see it all. My aching feet asked me to leave.

One low point: Many of the notable buildings are under renovation and covered with scaffolding. After many years of struggling the city is finally getting fresh money from oil barons acting as benefactors.

The weather has been great so far and the the city has managed to impress me in a big way. Hopefully Moscow won’t be a disappointment compared to this.

Mario Ortner
St.Petersburg - Russia
Sep 8th, 2009 by Mario Ortner

Shalom. I am an Israeli in Russia!

The flight from Warsaw arrived an hour later due to an airport evacuation for a suspicious package. Going through customs was a breeze. My fear of entering Russia without a visa and using my Israeli passport were unfounded.

The ride to the hostel was easy. The bus from the airport left me practically at the door.  The hostel , Lucky Duck is in an old building in a not so nice area (reminds me of downtown LA), but once you walk 5 blocks toward the canals, the city come to its splendor, so I am not complaining about the location. The problem here is the language. No one (honestly no one) speaks English, and the alphabet is different too. I spoke to no one today other than the hostel guys and ate at Sbarros and other places where I could point to the food. That’s the only way. I can’t even order at McDonalds because I can’t say Big Mac in Russian. People are nice though and try their best. I think in a few years, the young people will learn more English, just like in Poland.

St. Petersburg in one sentence: Big avenues and monumental buildings

The main streets are very wide to accommodate the imposing architecture. Even the canals (there are many, kind of like in Venice) are spaced apart too much to notice the pattern of water rings circling the city. But the buildings, my God, they are so imposing, and they are everywhere. Sometimes you turn a corner and the grandiosity of a church or a palace takes your breath away. Although I prefer getting lost in narrow streets and alleyways, St. Petersburg is truly a beautiful and dynamic city. I have walked so much today and saw only a fraction of it (meaning dozens of landmarks), that I dread the amount of walking that awaits me tomorrow. I hope I can see most by then so I can dedicate the last day to visit the Hermitage (just a peek, as they say it would take 100 years to see it all if you took a minute with every piece of art)

That’s it for now. It’s been a very long day and I am dead tired. Here are today’s photos.

Mario Ortner
Warsaw, Poland
Sep 7th, 2009 by Mario Ortner

Day 1

First it was Beatles week. Now it’s Jewish celebration week. Seems I’m hitting all the sweet spots.

The train from Krakow to Warsaw took 2.5 hrs. It was fast and efficient and left me near the center of town. The hostel, Okidoki, was 10 minutes walk from the station right in the middle of everything. (my long hours of research are paying off handsomely). Located withing a small park in a courtyard next to the Italian embassy, the place was named last year one of the 10 best hostels in the world. To me, it was clean, quiet and convenient, that’s all I was asking for.

The girl at the reception desk saw my Israeli passport and assumed I was here for anything Jewish. She pulled out a map and showed me all the Jewish-related sites and events. That’s how I learned about the yearly Jewish festival (Warsawa Singare) taking place during the weekend. I settled quickly in my room and soon was ready for some serious walking.

The Jewish quarters are located about 10 blocks from the hostel. It comprises the only surviving synagogue following WW2, the Jewish community center, the Ghetto, a museum and a cemetery (which was closed for the weekend) The Ghetto consists of one block that was left the way it was at the end of the war. The street was overflowing with a crowd attending the festival. There were stalls selling Jewish food and memorabilia and 2 stages for Kleismer music and Yddish plays. For this ocassion, they also opened one of the apartment units that survived the war. The sight of it, the Kleismer music, the smells… almost made me cry.

The festival lasted 4 hours and at 10 pm, I headed to Warsaw’s main square where they had another concert, this time it was rock and sponsored by Orange (I think it’s the equivalent to AT&T). There was a crowd estimated at tenth of thousands and it was fun to see young Poles doing Polish rap. Trashy music sounds the same in every language.

Back at the hostel, I struck a friendship with two Spaniards in town to see the Basketball Eurocopa. One of them must be around my age. And speaking of age, Hostel is no longer an option just for young people. I am meeting guests in their 30th and 40th.

Day 2

In Warsaw, they have a Church on every block but not a single public restroom. How am I supposed to confess my sins?  Seriously!

On Sunday, I visited old town. It was early morning. Church bells, people flocking to mass, brides and grooms posing for portraits. Took tons of pictures. Lovely.

Around midday, I discovered I lost my first item (Edan are you reading?) I bought this ultralight pair of pants especially for the trip, so light in fact, they were put together with invisible seams. The keys to my room went right through a hole. I should have read the “Made in Honduras” warning label.

In the afternoon I visited more monuments, palaces and gardens that I can account for (most notable is Wilanow), attended another international festival (very cultural city) and went atop the tallest building in Warsaw to get a panoramic view. In the evening, my rommates and I went out for some fun. We ended up at the local Hard Rock Cafe around midnight. Must have been weird for people to watch me sipping a latte as everyone around was getting drunk, but that’s me: Totally uncool and addicted to coffee.

Day 3

The great thing about Warsaw: All the great places are located close by. The bad thing about warsaw: All the great places are located close by.

The woman at the information kiosk kept staring at me like “Get off my case already. There is nothing else to see in here”. Later in the day, as I walked around town, I understood why. I have always had a fascination with WW2, and what a better time to come to Warsaw than the 70th anniversary of the start of the war (you know, September 1, 1939). The city handled the remembrance in a clever way. Next to each church and square (I haven’t noticed it until now), they placed photos of the same spots as they looked after the war. It appears the German bombed the hell out of this place. None of the buildings are original. They were all re-built since the end of the war.

Because of the time constrains, I have not intended to spend much time inside museums. I consider the architecture of cities the true original museums. But the Insurgency Museum in Warsaw is another story. 2 hours stretched to 4 in this clearly the best attraction in town. The architecture, displays, and never before seen footage of the systematic destruction of Warsaw are simply mind blowing. I have tries taking as many photos and videos as I could but unless you are here, you can’t get the true scope of the place. I left feeling I should have stayed longer.

I hate going to funerals, but I love old cemeteries. There is an eerie feeling to it that you can’t get anywhere else. The Jewish cemetery in Warsaw certainly fit the bill. Huge, with elaborate crypts in a forest-like setting. Being alone in the vastness of it all I felt like in a horror movie, waiting to be slashed to death anytime by a Jew-hater.

I am now back at the hostel, readying for my next stop: St. Petersburg. I enjoyed Poland. My only regret: No being able to go to Gdansk. You can only do so much.

Mario Ortner
Schindler’s Factory, Nowa Huta, Wieliczka Salt mines, and the Crypts
Sep 4th, 2009 by Mario Ortner

The girl at the information booth discouraged me from going to the Schindler factory alone because of the run down neighborhood, but I had to see the place where Oscar Schindler lived and gave work to the Jews he later saved. The area does look scary but I didn’t spend much time there. One building, click, clich and I was gone before a Polish gang could mistake me for a Yankee tourist. I don’t know if Spielberg used the same building in his movie but it looks pretty similar and so it was easy to recognize and find in this dilapidated neighborhood.

Nowa Huta is actually a separate city built in the late 40th by the communist as an example of a centrally planned city for the workers. In one sentence: It’s a massive monolit town of gray, fading block buildings and interior courtyards. From the air, it must look impressive. From a pedestrian point of view,  it’s one block after another of the same, stretching forever. Only the landscape planted recently by the city gives it a liveable feeling.

The bus to Wieliczka took 40 minutes. The town is very beautiful, with well preserved buildings and magnifiscent gardens. The salt mines were the largest in Europe and were discovered in the 12th century. Since then, thousands of workers built an underground city with 60 churches, banquets halls, stables, etc. Only a small fraction is open for viewing (about 1%) but it is quirte spectacular. My only complaint: They went for the “Disney” look and hardly any chamber remains in its original glory, sharing space with models of what it was before (unnecessary in my opinion). A visitor descends about 600 steps (you heard well) into the underground and a super fast elevator gets you back to the surface. Totally worth the visit.

And to finish a busy day, a surprise bonus, which turned out to be the best of the best. I have heard about this Franciscan monastery where dead people’s bodies got mummified by themselves in the crypts of this picturesque Baroque complex. When I arrived, there was an old man standing at the door alone. The place stood desolated. He spoke Polish only and could not understand me. I stopped a young man on the street and he translated for me. The man  replied that Unfortunately, visitors and their flashes  were prohibited about 10 years ago. As my young translator left, I made a desperate move. I rubbed my fingers together at the old man (the international sign language for bribing). He glanced around nervously to make sure no one was watching, then got me in. I’ll tell you, IT WAS AWSOME!!!! hundreds of bodies, hundreds of years old lying before me. As I waled around the Crypts, it occured to me that if the old man attacked me, no one would ever find me here. Luckily he was only interested in my money and I got out alive and with incredible footage.

Okay, it’s 4 pm and I am taking it easy for the rest of the day. Next stop is Warsaw.

Mario Ortner
Auschwitz-Birkenau, poland
Sep 3rd, 2009 by Mario Ortner

Poles can be strange sometimes #2: I struck a casual conversation with a lady as we boarded a local minibus to the camps. She was nice to inform me that the bus would leave me at the museum entrance, but strangely enough failed to tell me she was going there too as she stepped off the bus and that I should get off too. The bus driver, who I requested to let me know when we arrived, didn’t say a word either… AND THERE WERE ONLY 3 PEOPLE ON THE BUS THE ENTIRE TRIP!

There is no much to say about the camps that you or I don’t already know. Suffice is to say that Auschwitz is smaller but better preserved and has the only remaining gas chamber. Birkenau is 3 km away and is 75% gone. Particularly harrowing are the SS watch tower where you can get the scope of the size of the horror and the barracks with the stacked beds. The main railroad gate is the one you see in the movies, not to be confused with Auschwitz.

Here are the photos.

Mario Ortner
Krakow, Poland - Day 1
Sep 3rd, 2009 by Mario Ortner

If I could wish for anything upon arriving to a city it would be the airport to city transfer in Krakow. A train outside the terminal takes you to the center of town. It’s that simple. The hotel was half block from the main square. Can’t beat the location. The atmosphere is very young and free spirit and that suits me just fine. The kids wake up when I go to sleep and go to sleep when I wake up. No generational clash.

Poles can be strange sometimes #1: The woman at the reception could not find my reservation. I showed her the email she sent me confirming it. She admitted it was entirely her fault but the disagreement remained as to who should pay the price for her incompetence. A backpacker who was listening offere me his bed if he could sleep with his partner (what a great line!). She accepted and the problem was settled.

Krakow is a walking open-air museum. It would take hours and many pages to describe each notable building so I’ll just stick to the basics and let the photos speak by themselves.

I was most interested in two areas: The old town is where the action is. About a mile square, it is surrounded by a block wide green belt. A human maze transverse this section all day and the area become even more alive at night, with restaurants and lots of  noise.

Kazimierz is the old Jewish quarters with a few remaining synagogues, a unique cemetery in a forest setting and a lively square with food and flower stalls and restaurants playing live Kleismer music at night. I know my good friend Lazaro would have a field day here.

Last two things about Krakow: Bagels and Kebab. They aere everywhere and delicious. That’s all I’m eating here.

Here are the photos. Enjoy

Mario Ortner
London, England
Sep 2nd, 2009 by Mario Ortner

We had only one day to see London and I must say I have never seen so much of this town in one day as we did today. We hit all the tourist spots (Trafalgar and Leicester square, Covent Garden, St. Paul and Westminster abbey, Buckingham palace, tate and Globe theatre, London eye, a boat ride alond the Thames, Tower and Millenium bridge, Piccadily Circus, etc. and there was still time to squeeze in Arsenal new stadium “The Emirates” (Edan’s request) and Harrods (Heather’s request).

Back at Joanna’s we had the pleasure of seeing her sons Peter and Daniel together for the first time. Edan says I’m getting old as I still confuse the two of them. I swear they look like twin brothers.

I did not sleep that night as I had to catch a train leaving at 3 in the morning. I took a shower, did some laundry and hugged and kissed Edan before he went to sleep. It was sad saying goodbye to him. He is such a good company and we had a fantastic time together. But it’s time to move on with my trip. Next stop is Krakow, Poland.

Mario Ortner
Salisbury, England
Sep 2nd, 2009 by Mario Ortner

In the very early morning we took the train back to London Euston station, and from there the tube to Waterloo, and stil another train to Salisbury. The almost 90-minute ride went quickly as we played Rummi with a Beatles card deck.

My cousing Eyal was waiting at the station. It was great seeing him again after so many years. I was also looking forward to finally meeting his kids Marley and Shirlaya but Eyal suggested we visited Stonehenge before heading to his house.

Stonehenge was smaller than we expected but still managed to impress me considering the story and mystery behind it. We took a walk around the perimeter fence , took the mandatory photos and were ready to leave.

Eyal’s house is in a very quiet and beautiful area near Salisbury. The children were glued to the window when we arrived. They are beautiful children and very smart and social. Edan immediately won over the boy and they went outside to play soccer. I had a chance to meet Helen’s (Eyal’s wife) parents who were on a visit.

We spent the afternoon at the house and when it was time to leave, Eyal and Helen took us on a tour of Salisbury, a charming town know for the Steak bearing the same name and an impressive and well preserved Cathedral.

Back in London, we took yet another tube to our dear and beloved Joanna’s house. She picked us up at the station and drove us to her house, where we had dinner, chat a bit with Heather and Sophia on Skype and went to sleep exhausted.

Mario Ortner
Liverpool, England
Sep 2nd, 2009 by Mario Ortner

Day 1 was mostly about traveling and coordination. From Heatrow we took the underground to Euston station where we met Daniel, who was incredibly helpful in purchasing the soccer tickets for us and had come to give us the tickets. We had just enough time to grab some lunch with him, retrieve our train tickets and board the train to Liverpool. Three hours later, we arrived in Lime station, took acouple of more undergrounds that left us standing in front of our hotel.

The Bank Hall isn’t exactly an hotel, but a mix of hostel and apartments located in an exclusive industrial area (meaning it was our hotel and factories, nothing else). We still liked it very much. The room was ample and clean and there was a game room with a ping pong and pool table and a large screen flat tv. The building itself was next to the station so hoping on and off to town was a breeze. Oh, and the place was full to capacity. We learned the reason the following day.

There was no one to greet us when we arrived. I called the owner at home and he drove down immediately. Alex is an easy going fellow who gave us the key, told us to leave the key and money in a drawer on departure day and drove off. We never heard of him again.

It was still early, the weather clear, and Edan was sfull of energy (of course,  being a fan of Liverpool fc he couldn’t wait to see the town of his dreams). We walked for about 3 hours before we run out of places to see. Liverpool is pretty compact city to walk and as we decided to leave the museums and games for the next days, there was not much else to see.

Upon our return to the hotel we spend a few more hours playing pool and went to sleep.

Day 2 was about soccer but we did managed to squeeze in the Beatles story, which is a museum in 2 separate locations. Edan was very interested and kept taking photos of memorabilia items. then there was a 4D film at the other location that was very funny. Liverpool is definitely about the Beatles and you can feel it everywhere (More on this later).

At noontime we took the train to Bolton and another one to the stadium. Edan was like in a dream. The seats we got were 5 feet from the field and the players came almost within reach. The game result favorable to Liverpool helped made this a special day, but what made it spectacular was after the game where most fans left and we were there biding our time to take our train back. We saw a few people gathering at a side door. A moment later, the door opened and the Liverpool players came out heading to their charter bus. Edan was in a catatonic state. I immediately shoved every piece of paper I could gather and a pen and shoved him toward the players. He managed to get 5 authographs. The kid was beyond joy.

Day 3 was even better. In the morning we did the Liverpool FC stadium tour, then we went to the Everton stadium to watch another great game (great seats too). When we returned to our hotel to wind down after a long day, the cab driver told us today was Beatles week, an citywide event once a year. Hotels were fully booked (including ours). We told the cab driver to forget about our hotel and take us to the city center. The place was packed with people partying and getting drunk. We were late to see the live music shows but the crowd was a show by itself. We were back in our hotel at around midnight.

And here are more photos…

NOTE: I apologize for the many gramatical mistakes. I am writing this in the wee hours on the night and can’t keep my eyes open long enough to make the corrections. I’m afraid it will be like this for the rest of the trip.


Mario Ortner
The Journey Begins…
Aug 25th, 2009 by Mario Ortner

Me

Hello everyone,

Four months to roam the world! Four whole months of unusual places and curious happenings in far-off lands!

I have thought of doing this for a long time; promised myself that when I got old enough, and rich enough, and could “spare the time,” I would travel around the world…

Well, I did get older; not rich enough but I’m not complaining either.  But the time! The time! To spare the time, to cut loose from material comforts, to say goodbye to my home, friends, and family, whom I so dearly love. That’s the real challenge!

It is thrilling and daunting at the same time. But this is something I want to do now as I’m standing on the threshold of my 50th. So I am looking forward to it.

This blog is my personal travel diary as well as a means of communication. It is also a way of sharing my experiences with the important people in my life. Hope it serves the purpose.

See you all in January.

Mario

Mario Ortner
Map of Places to Visit
Aug 24th, 2009 by mario



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Mario Ortner
Full Itinerary Schedule
Aug 23th, 2009 by Mario Ortner

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Mario Ortner
Our Anniversary and Birthdays Party!
Aug 22th, 2009 by Mario Ortner


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The Party

Saturday, August 22, we celebrated Heather’s 40th birthday, Mario’s 50th, and our 10th anniversary at Lalas, an Argentine restaurant in Studio City. Thank you everyone for sharing this special occasion with us and all your good wishes for my upcoming trip.


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