Favorite Photos

Favorite Photos
Aqueduct of Segovia

Friday, May 8, 2015

A 90th Birthday in Spain: Torre Caballeros, Segovia

My mother turned 90 this April. Travelling with family was how she wanted to celebrate. Two countries to choose between: Japan or Spain. She was seriously considering Japan as it would be so much nearer. But in the end, for sentimental reasons, she chose Spain in what she proclaimed would be her "last long trip". She specifically wanted to find #25 Calle Juan Bravo in Madrid, a condo (back then they were called apartments) we had lived in for 2 years, 60 years ago when my father was completing his doctorate in law. She thought this an appropriate way to celebrate her 90th birthday.

The largest and first group of family arrived on the same day and went by bus to the first house rented for the occasion. This was a nice farm house in Torre Cabanillas in Leon and Castile, a rural village, 8 kilometers away from Segovia. The village was rustic, the house modernized but still maintaining the original stone exterior.

 The village was tiny but it did have it's own resident stork, whose nest rested on the steeple of its one tiny chapel.

It also had one small restaurant, El Cacho de Cabanillas, where the abuela of the family cooked what was on offer for the day.

On our fist visit she cooked us a bacalao (codfish) stew which was literally overflowing with garbanzos (chickpeas). You can imagine the symphony of sounds and smells emanating from that farm house that evening and into the next day. For Easter, however, she cooked a special meal for us, baby lamb that had not eaten anything but it's mother's milk. Well..what can I say? Ah.... It was delicious?

Torre Cabanillas is a 15 minute ride to Segovia, a Unesco World Heritage Site. We had rented a car, so we were able to go at any time. The most visible and certainly most dramatic structure is the Aqueduct of Segovia. A product of Roman engineering genius dating back to the late 1st, early 2nd century. This structure, of huge granite blocks, stands proudly today as it has done for centuries past, remarkably held together without mortar! 

At Dusk

From the aqueduct area, there are small buses that take you around the whole town for a fee of 1 Euro. Since Mom was with us, this was the only way we could go. We stopped at the Alcazar, the castle in Segovia, which apparently is the model for Disney's castle.

  From the aqueduct too, through a warren of winding, rather steep streets, where street performers can gather a considerable crowd:

one reaches Segovia's Plaza Mayor (most towns and cities of Spain has it's own main plaza) 

Pushing Mom in her chair in Segovia's Plaza Mayor

Dominated by the majestic Segovia Cathedral.

The Cathedral is a perfect example of Gothic architecture, characterized by the decorative and ornate, with it's soaring spires, taller walls, lofty towers, pointed arches, and vaulted ceilings.

pointed arches and vaulted ceisling in cathedral corridors

Inside, it is filled with magnificent examples of religious art.

But these magnificent houses of worship (as we saw in Rome and discover in Spain) are for the most part no longer places of worship but museums, and tourist attractions. Masses are relegated to side chapels and attended by a mere handful.

Sunday mass in Salamanca Cathedral
Religious events, on the other hand are very well attended, not only by tourists but also by the locals. We arrived in Spain at the height of Semana Santa (Holy Week). Most of the cities and towns had processions on Good Friday, Holy Saturday and Easter Sunday. We were able to watch some of the Good Friday processions on television. Here the carossas (floats) carrying images of the dead or crucified Christ, the Dolorosa (His grieving mother), and tableaus of His passion were carried by costaleros, (men who carried these floats under the carriages) in procession around the town and accompanied by Nazarenos, men dressed in purple or blue with ku klux klan type hoods over their heads. I must say with the Nazarenos, the intermittent beating of drums and a rather melancholy dirge in the background, the spectacle can give one the shivers.

In Segovia, after the Easter Sunday mass, (for which we came early so as to make sure we had seats, only to find that our family constituted maybe a 3rd of the congregation), we watched a procession in the Plaza Mayor, re-enacting the first meeting between Mary and the Risen Christ. 

Mary"s Image

The image of the Risen Christ

The Plaza was filled with people, tourists, vendors,

and local participants:

In black with their Mantillas of lace

After the procession we proceeded to Candido, a restaurant right beside the Segovia Aqueduct. 

where we partook of their specialty: Cuchinillo, a 21 day old piglet that was roasted to perfection and cut with the edge of a plate to demonstrate how crispy and tender it was.

It was also here in Segovia where we had our first taste of Jamon Iberico Bellota, the Kobe of Spanish jamons.

a leg of Jamon Iberico Bellota through the window

Sunday, November 23, 2014


Why did we go to Hikone? Well, I guess the answer to that is... because we could. We were looking to make full use of our Shinkansen tickets, and because we had booked our lodging in Tokyo for the full 10 days of our trip, day-trip destinations was the way to go.

To go to Hikone, one takes the Hikari line of the JR Tokaido Shinkansen to Maibara. And from here, one stop on the local JR line brings one to Hikone. From the train station, it was a lovely 15 minute walk to the castle.

But before going to the castle, because it was almost lunch time, we decided to accomplish the other reason for our trip to Hikone. That was to find the Hinai Jidori Hokkoriya, a restaurant serving Hikone's must eat Oyako-don. Finding the restaurant would not be a problem, we were told, "just follow the line". Unfortunately, being a weekday, there were very few people in Hikone, so there was no line to follow. But with some help, we found the place, along a road lined with traditional Japanese shops and houses.

There were only 3 choices on the menu: large Oyako-don, large Hikone Ramen, and their special, small Oyako-don with small Hikone Ramen. We, my hubby, my brother and my two sisters chose the latter.

The Special

The ramen was good, but I guess you won't find a "bad" ramen in Japan. The oyako-don, a Japanes rice bowl dish where chicken, scalions and egg (the visible ingredients at least) are simmered in a sauce and served on a bowl of white rice was....marvelous! The rice topping was runny, gooey and absolutely delicious! And what is Oyako-don in English? .... Parent-Child Donburi!

The meal was accompanied by ice cold Japanese draft beer! To say we were sated would not be an exaggeration! It took a lot of will power for us not to just return to the train and sleep our way back to Tokyo.

We forced ourselves to proceed to the castle. Upon reaching the base of the castle, we almost turned around to walk back to the train station! We didn't realize how much climbing we had to do!

The photo above was taken after I climbed the first set of steps! Notice how winded I was? And there were many more steps to go! Finally getting to the base of the Castle, we looked back to where we had come from, congratulating ourselves on a hundred calories lost! 

view from the castle

Hikone Castle is one of the oldest original-construction castles in Japan and has the distinction of being one of four castles listed as national treasures. This castle was built during the Tokugawa Shogunate and followed the Edo period of Japanese architecture characterized by simple lines and the use of wood in its natural state. 

In the castle's main keep, symmetry, simplicity, purposeful planning, patterning and regularity, a reflection of Japanese character is on striking display.

Climbing up to the castle keep shows how secure and easily defensible the Castle was. In addition, if somehow a horse and rider or a foot soldier survived the climb (as arrows and rocks would undoubtedly have rained down from above), the foundation of the castle itself would have been difficult to bring down.

Original foundation of main keep

Inside, everything is of wood, the beams, the floors, the pillars. Wood that has been polished to a high gloss through the centuries. Smoking is strictly prohibited in this all wooden structure and so is picture taking. 

At the base of the Castle, lies the Genkyuen Gardens, a Japanese landscape garden with a huge pond in the middle surrounded by walking trails.

There are little rest areas, where one can enjoy a cup of tea.

On the way back to Tokyo, I remembered that I was suppose to prepare dinner that evening. Thank God for Japanese groceries! In Maibara before boarding the Shinkansen, we bought freshly cooked tonkatsu which accompanied by sashimi and sushi bought in the grocery near our apartment made an excellent, satisfying meal!

And by the way, tongkatsu in Japan (even the grocery bought ones) is very good! No fancy cooking, no tedious preparation (cooking it myself a couple of times testifies to the ease of preparation and cooking). But why does it taste so much better here in Japan? My husband says, "it's the meat!" Oh yes....the meat, the secret ingredient! 

Tuesday, November 11, 2014

On the Shinkansen , Hakone, the Onsen and Kobe Beef

It has been ages since my last blog. Have I been busy? You could say that! Doing what exactly? Well travelling for one, but most importantly enjoying my first and only (so far) grandchild!

Although I have quite a bit of places to write about, I have decided to blog about our latest trip first. What, you may ask, makes this trip to Japan special? Well on this trip, we not only traveled with my mother, most of my siblings, my son and daughter-in-law, but with us, on her first trip abroad, was our grand-daughter.

We flew to Tokyo which was to become our base for the next 10 days. We rented a lovely apartment in the Shinagawa area. A two bedroom affair with a spacious living room, a fantastic kitchen and a Japanese style bathroom.

View from our living room windows

and at night
The apartment was about a 10 minute walk to the Shinagawa station, the main station for the Shinkansen, the famous bullet trains of Japan, and also a major subway stop to and from Tokyo. Because of this, it is always packed with people. When we first went to the station to use the subway, we were quite overwhelmed as literally hordes of people, walked briskly towards us! But as we were to find out later, this was nothing compared to the Shinjuku station, where 3 million people pass through everyday!

There are no words to adequately describe the Shingkansen, the Bullet Train, that Japanese technological marvel , which allows one to travel to most parts of Japan in record time and in the utmost of comfort. An astonishing fact is that it is celebrating it's 50th anniversary! (According to a friend, California is starting to develop it's own bullet train. But when it will be completed is anyone's guess!) And yet, it shows no sign of age and is as clean as one would expect a new railway line to be. The ride is so smooth, and so quiet, that one is unaware it is travelling at speeds of 150 to 200 MPH! And when a train that is not stopping at the platform where you are waiting for your ride, passes, you hear a whooping sound, your hair whips from your face, and you see momentarily.... a blur, and then it is gone. 

We noticed that the rails of the Shinkansen don't lie flat on the ground but is tilted to one side away from the waiting platform. We were told that this is to prevent the giant draft generated by the train as it passes by, a draft that can literally lift you off your feet!

Because of the Shinkansen, we were able to go to a lot of places during our 10 day trip. My husband, a consummate researcher especially when we are planning a trip, insisted (based on web information) on our acquiring a Japan Rail Pass which is available for sale only outside of Japan. We ordered online, a 7 day pass for around $350, for travel on the Green or first class train, as per the website advise, in order to ensure the availability of seats at any time. The pass was delivered within 48 hours to our home, from Paris, France! Go figure that one out! The pass needs to be activated in the Shinkansen ticket station upon arrival or as in our case, on the first day we used it. This pass also allowed us to use the internal trains and subway lines of the JR rail. With all these privileges, the $350 we paid for the pass was well worth it and more!

So where did we go on the Shinkansen? First up was:


Because there is outlet shopping in Gotemba, on the way (more or less) to Hakone, we decided to stop there before proceeding to Hakone. Taking the Shinkansen towards Nagoya, we stopped at Odawara station. From there we transferred to the regular train lines. We took the Odakyu line to Shinmatsuda station. From there a short walk to the Matsuda station, brought us to the Gotemba line going toward Numazu, for which one of the stops was Gotemba. At the station there were shuttle buses to bring us to the outlet. 

Gotemba Premium Outlet
I must say, I regretted stopping at the outlet as it resembled any premium outlet one sees in North America. Having said that.... I still couldn't resist the shopping....Anyway from there we needed to find our way to Hakone, where my mom and some of our party had proceeded with the van they had hired. 

We took a bus to Gora, that drove us through spiraling, narrow  mountain roads. It was getting dark at the time, so visibility was limited, therefore stopping at bus stops that consisted of nothing more than a bench by the road side was unanticipated to say the least. At the station, difficulty communicating where we were going, nearly made us board a train that would take us all the way back down the mountain! In the nick of time, on instinct , we all literally jumped off the train and scrambled into the funicular that would take us to Hakone! 

Outside Gora Station
Arriving at our stop, a platform beside which a small sign told us where we were, we went down a small street surrounded by trees. It was rather chilly and there was a breeze eerily rustling through the trees, raising goose bumps on my arm. Dragging our bags (that was the point when I regretted stopping at Gotemba) through cobbled, steep roads, we found (with the help of some kind soul) the Hyatt, where we were billeted for the night.

The long drive and uphill walk was well worth it. The place is built to blend in with the environment and was elegant but cosy. We were all given yukatas, traditional Japanese kimonos, tanzens (jackets), as well as getas (wooden flip flops) to wear while we were there. We arrived in the midst of happy hour, which we enjoyed in the seating room surrounding a fireplace. 

Hyatt seating room

That evening and the following morning, my husband, son, daughter-in-law and some other members of our party enjoyed the Onsen, the hot springs for which Hakone is known. Before entering the Onsen, one is required to wash and scrub every part of the body, and then to proceed to the Onsen sans a stitch of clothing. 

We have visited and lived in several countries, where public baths are part of the culture, like Italy and Korea, but, coming from a culture that tolerates nudity only in the privacy of one's home and bathroom, and I might add educated in a strict private girls' school run by nuns, I didn't have the "guts" to try it.  My family though tells me that it "was heavenly"! So maybe next time.

Hakone is a charming mountain town, which we regret not having had the chance to explore at all, since we only stayed that one night. But we did get to eat at Itoh Dining by Nobu (a Michelin star chef with a restaurant in London), a Kobe Beef Restaurant, tucked away in one of the side streets of the town

Nobu's restaurant

The meal was simple, a salad with a Japanese dressing:

And teppan Kobe Beef with a glass of red house wine:

Simply a steak, you say? Oh no! put the steak in your mouth and take a bite....a flood of flavor fills your mouth and shoots up to your brain! Wow....I will never forget that taste, that sensation! 

So what is the difference between Wagyu and Kobe beef. A Japanese friend says only this: "All Wagyu is Kobe but...not all Kobe is Wagyu"

Friday, December 13, 2013

The Whirling Dervishes

When my husband retired, November became our month of choice to travel, because it being a low travel season, there are lots of deals on air fares, and accommodations. There is of course, the added bonus of not having to contend with hordes of tourists. Of course it is also a rainy, cold month but we have learned, in the course of our lives, to take the good with the bad.  
This November, I decided that a return to Rome, my favorite city, was called for, so that my husband could finally "see" her as I did, in that magical year we spent there prior to his retirement, but before that, a first encounter with that most fascinating of cities, Istanbul!
There is so much to remember and recount of Istanbul, but witnessing the "dance" of the Whirling Dervishes was for me unforgettable. I put this experience at par with my enchantment with the Pantheon in Rome. Could it be because of the understated elegance of the sublime that both experiences conveyed to me?

A Dikhr, a remembrance of God
Pantheon's Oculus, a vision of heaven
The whirling dervishes are members of the Sufi order of Mevlevi, which was founded by a Persian poet, Islamic jurist and theologian in Konya a town in central Turkey. A Dervish is one who follows the Sufi path and the act of whirling is part of the Mevlevi Sema ceremony, a dihkr (dance) or a rememberance of God. The Sama, the whirling, represents man's mystical journey to the perfect. As man turns toward truth, he grows in love, abandons his ego, approaches perfection and is more able to love and serve all creation.

The ceremony starts with an ensemble of instruments accompanying a solo singer, singing praises to the Prophet.


Then the 4 dervishes make their entrance, one of them lays down a red cloth to which all bow.

The 5th dervish or the Sheikh, enters and proceeds to the front of the red cloth, where he is approached one by one by the samas who have at this time shed their black robes. After passing the Sheikh, they begin to whirl. The four samas represent the moon who are whirling around the Sheikh who represents the sun.

The dance represents the spiritual journey that every believer goes through. The first Sama represents the recognition of God, the second, the recognition of one's unity with God, the third, the ecstasy that one experiences when one surrenders to God, and the fourth, when the Sheikh joins the dance, symbolizes the peace which comes with this unity.

The dikhr is accompanied by sufi music and song, one also hears the scraping of the samas shoes on the floor. There is a slight continuous breeze coming from the whirling samas' tennure which represents the death shroud. Their sikkes, representing  gravestones stay firmly on their heads. Their hands are lifted with one palm facing up and the other facing down. A form of dying before dying, some say.

Click on the link to see part of the performance taped by my hubby:


Sunday, December 1, 2013

Enchanting Ha Long Bay

Because my mother is in her 88th year, she's no longer keen on going to places that require taking those long (across the pacific) flights. Having said this, however, doesn't mean that her "wanderlust" is gone. Maybe it has dimmed a little but it's definitely still there. This year alone, she has travelled thrice with me or one or two or three of my siblings. One of those trips was to Hanoi.

Ha Long Bay
When my father was alive, he used to plan all our trips and our accomodations. This being the case, my mother is used to a certain kind of accomodation. The boutique hotel, in the old part of the city, which we stayed in was not what she is used to. So, no saying what would have happened if we hadn't arrived past midnight!

But the hotel itself was charming and owned by a very enterprising young woman, who took very good care of us. The staff were friendly and helpful and all of them started to call my mother, "mommy". In addition, they transferred her to their "presidential" suite. So she decided to stay and for the rest of us, staying in the "old part" of the city brought us closer to the more interesting sites and sounds of this city's life!
busy street in the old quarter
Hanoi is charming indeed, largely escaping the Vietnam War unscathed. French influence is seen in its buildings, apartments, embassy houses, the Opera house, as well as the ubiquitous baguette vendors lining the roadsides. There are no towering condominiums or office buldings. Adding to its allure, are the Sino-Vietnamese temples, pagodas and public gardens.

Hanoi, the former capital of Indochina and now the capital of reunified Vietnam (because the north defeated the south in the Vietnam war), is the second largest city in Vietnam and sits on the right bank of the Red River.
 On our first day there we rented a car to bring us around the city. Thank God we had a driver! Driving can be nerve wracking in Hanoi, there being almost four million registered motorbikes! Seeing the swarm of motorcycles facing you in an intersection can be truly intimidating!

Because it was very hot and humid, we decided to remain in the car, having no real interest in seeing the War Museum or Ho Chi Minh's sarcophagus, we just asked the driver to bring us around the city. What made an impression was the Hanoi Ceramic Road, completed in October 2010, to commemorate the establishment of the city 1,000 years ago. This road is bounded on one side with a ceramic mosaic mural on the wall of the dyke system of Hanoi, covering 5 kilometers. Something that took scores of mosaicists, professionals, hobbyists, weekend artists, children, adults, foreign and local 5 years to complete. Hanoi Ceramic Mural Project on CNN

Part of the Mural
We of course ate in the local restaurants and I must say I found the food delicious: flavorful, fragrant with spices and just enough chillis to give it a little kick. The flavor is enhanced with the use of fish sauce and fish paste. The fragrance intensified by the liberal use of mint, lemongrass, coriander, ginger and basil. The more conservative use of chilli is more similar to  Cambodian rather than Thai cooking. Phoa Ba was our breakfast of choice accompanied by a small baguette, and I must say, the best baguette I have had outside of Paris. 

Local food stall

The highlight of our trip to Hanoi was undoubtedly the side trip to Ha Long Bay. Almost 4 hours by car from Hanoi, the ride included a visit to a handicraft factory producing and selling Vietnamese silk, embroidery, laquer ware, sculptures and coffee.

Pandemonium greets one upon reaching the wharf where the boats to Ha Long Bay are docked. People and more people are herded into areas where passengers are segregated into premiere, first, second class etc. tour groups. After a lot of delays we finally boarded our boat. Our accomodations were not bad at all, except that the bathroom was miniscule.

Then we were on our way, slowly leaving our berth, sailing past the other boats heading to the opening of Halong Bay.

According to the information provided on the web Halong Bay's thousands of limestone karst or islets took 500 million years of formation. Awesome is hardly an adequate word to describe this!

More interesting is the legend that surrounds the origins of the bay. As locals tell it, a very long time ago when Vietnam was just starting to develop as a country, she had to defend herself against invaders from the sea. To assist Vietnam, the gods sent dragons from the sky, who spat out jewels and jade which abruptly turned into the islands and islets dotting the bay. After the enemy was repulsed, the dragons decided to stay in the bay with the mother of all the dragons descending and staying in Ha Long Bay.

Can't blame the dragons for staying, the beauty, serenity and majesty of Ha Long is unforgetable:

Approaching the Bay

An islet dwarfs a fishing boat
Inside the Bay at dusk

Anchored in the Bay for the night

View from my porthole

Early next morning taken from top deck after taichi

 The next morning, after early morning taichi and a hearty breakfast we proceeded to visit one of the caves in the Bay. As magnificent as Halong is, it is a  of this world, Hang Sung Sot, the Cave of Surprises on the other hand at times appeared not to be! Beautiful, sometimes amazingly so, it was also in places, eeriely other wordly!

Descending into the cave

Where am I?

The Final Frontier


 And back again.

And upon exiting the cave, the panorama of Halong Bay!

On the way back a visit to a charming floating fishing village, whose inhabitants tried to sell us their catch for the day.
Floating Fishing Village