Havana, Cuba

DSC_0109Cuba is certainly on the bucket list of many Americans. For Canadians, Germans and citizens of virtually every other nation a visit to Havana is no big deal. But now that the door is open just a little bit for US citizens, Tanya and Jay had to go. Though our visit was much too short, we got a feeling of how warm and proud the Cuban people are. In terms of economic development, Cuba is about where one might imagine it would be after enduring a US embargo that has been in effect since 1962. But Cubans we talked to spoke with pride about their free education, health care, housing and even free funerals. Compared to much of the rest of the Caribbean, and of course, US cities, Havana is very safe to walk at night. Most folks don’t own a car so transportation is via shared rides, buses, taxi or horse-drawn carts.

Since no new US cars have been imported since the embargo was imposed, 1950s and early 60s cars are everywhere. Of course, other than the body, most of the mechanical components have been replaced by parts either from other cars, fabricated or smuggled in through other countries. Our ride for the day was a beautiful red 1960 Buick Invicta convertible owned by our driver, Alex’s, father. There were occasional stops to check the transmission fluid level and sometimes we weren’t sure if we would make it up an incline, but overall it was a terrific way to see Havana.

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Portugal Wrap-Up: Aveiro, Lagos & Cascais

No real narrative for this week’s posting, just photos of a few other places visited during January in Portugal. About time since we’re now on our way back from spending February/March in the US.

Aveiro
Aveiro is a cute town along Portugal’s coast, noted for its canals, “the Venice of Portugal”. Nearby is the factory and showroom for Vista Alegre, the famous maker of fine dinnerware and porcelain. Tanya was in heaven.IMG_4349IMG_4350IMG_4351IMG_4352IMG_4353IMG_4347IMG_4344IMG_4345

Lagos
                                                                                                                                                  This pretty beach town in the Algarve was one of our favorites.IMG_4393IMG_4394IMG_4395IMG_4399IMG_4400

Cascais
This upscale beach town is only about 30 minutes by train from Lisbon and has long been a place for the well-to-do to spend weekends and have second homes. Naturally, Jay and Tanya thought this would be a perfect place to pick up a suitable winter cottage along the seaside. Unfortunately, any of the places we thought would be really cool were going for about 1.3 million euros. Long-term living in Portugal does not look like it’s in our future.IMG_4354IMG_4356IMG_4359IMG_4360IMG_4364IMG_4369IMG_4373IMG_4375IMG_4378IMG_4379

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Albufeira: The Highs and Lows of the Algarve

IMG_4403How can a place so pretty be so trashy at the same time? Our two voracious vagabonds asked themselves the same question during their week in Albufeira, a summertime tourist mecca along the southern Portugal Algarve coast.IMG_4404IMG_4406IMG_4409IMG_4402IMG_4405

Albufeira has one of the prettiest coastline and beach areas in the Algarve, no question. Unfortunately, thousands of party-goers descend on the area in mid-summer to take advantage of relatively cheap booze and super-low airfares, primarily from Great Britain. Hotel rates skyrocket during this season and otherwise pristine beaches are crammed with bodies.

The darker side of all this, according to one Uber driver, is that fights between rival groups of drunken tourists break out almost nightly. Sound like fun? Time and again our duo was advised by local hotel staff, restaurant workers and taxi drivers to not visit in July and August. Fortunately, T and J were visiting in winter, when both the action and hotel rates are low and quiet strolls along the beach were possible. Evenings were chilly and the wind can pick up, but overall the sunny days and pretty surroundings can make this a reasonable place to visit in January.

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Coimbra: The City That Studies

IMG_4330There’s an old Portuguese saying that goes something like: “Lisbon plays, Braga prays, Porto works and Coimbra studies”. T and J aren’t sure how much studying actually goes on in Coimbra but the city certainly has the oldest and most famous university in Portugal.

Coimbra is a medieval city once occupied by the Romans, of course, and was the capital of Portugal from 1131 to 1255. The University of Coimbra was established in 1290 and its buildings became a UNESCO World Heritage site in 2013. Today, the university has about 20,000 students. This is a good thing because the downtown economy is obviously on the slide with lots of empty retail spaces whose former businesses have given way to a couple of new shopping malls a few miles away.

This was the second visit to Coimbra for our two wandering wastrels and even though the early-January weather was off and on, exploring the Roman ruins and digging the Coimbra style of Fado (the Portuguese blues) made the trip fun.

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Tavira

IMG_4389Tavira is a small town of about 26,000 along the southwestern coast of Portugal and was the first stop in the Algarve region for our travel-junky pair. There’s nothing especially zippy going on in Tavira and the that seems to suit the local residents just fine, thank you. It’s one of those places in the Iberian Peninsula that follow a similar pattern of history. The Phoenicians were here. So were the Romans. And the Moors. Then the Moors were pushed out by the Christians. We’ve seen the drill so many times.

But two things impacted the course of modern history for Tavira. First, was the great earthquake of 1755 that practically demolished the entire town. Second, was the change of migration patterns of the tuna, which had been so important to the town’s livelihood. The city was rebuilt but the tuna never returned. Fortunately for Tavira, tuna have been replace by tourists (but not that many) which keep the city alive. The food here is wonderful, the people friendly and for the traveler willing to take a little bit of time off the usual heavily touristed Algarve track, a rewarding experience.

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High Alcohol Concentration in Porto

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January found our restless duo in Portugal, in search of some warmer weather than in chilly Deutschland. While warmer than most of Europe during the first month of the year, Portugal still has its gray, rainy days and the temperature never got much over 60 degrees F.

But what their first stop, Porto, lacked in warmth it more than made up for in the sheer quantity of alcoholic beverage, namely port wine. The warehouses lining the banks of the Douro River hold literally tens of thousands of barrels of the sweet elixir and it is said that the area contains the highest concentration of alcoholic beverage per square meter than anywhere in the world. After our visit, that amount may have been diminished slightly.

How port came about at all is a fascinating story. Grapes had been grown and wine produced in the Douro Valley for over 2,000 years. The Greeks made wine, the Romans made wine and, of course the Portuguese produced wine. By the mid-12th century, wine was an important export for the Kingdom of Portugal and a mutual trading relationship grew between England and Portugal, often involving the sale of Portuguese wine for the import of salt cod. While the Portuguese wine then being exported from northern Portugal was okay, it was rather thin, with high tannin levels, and the English still greatly preferred imported French wine.

In the 17th century, France and England were engaged in not only military conflicts with each other but also trade wars. The French restricted the import of English goods into France. The English retaliated by imposing high tariffs on French wine. We can’t help but think of the current US president’s recent remark, “Trade wars are good. And easy to win.” Not sure if France or England came out on top but this particular trade war did end up benefitting English wine traders and Portugal.

English wine merchants started sourcing wine from the Douro Valley, shipping it down the river to Oporto and then up the Atlantic coast to England. The wine was better quality than what the English had previously experienced from Portugal but, unfortunately, the long sea trip often resulted in the wine that, frankly, tasted terrible by the time it got to England. The English then got the brilliant idea to fortify the wine before shipment by adding brandy to the barrels. This made the wine stronger and kept it from spoiling during the long trip north. With an alcohol content of about 20%, the new product, “port wine” became very popular with the Brits and a whole culture of pairing the red stuff with exotic cheeses, fine cigars and so on developed. Today’s port has brandy added during the fermentation process but the idea is the same. In the end, France and England stopped fighting but port has lived on.IMG_4292IMG_4276

Today, Porto is the second largest city in Portugal and is a much more workaday place than Lisbon. The weather is harsher, the skies often grayer and the place reminded Tanya and Jay of a larger version of Astoria, Oregon, including lots of seagulls.

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Winter Olympics–Then and Now

It seems especially appropriate right now, while the 2018 Winter Olympic Games are underway in PyeongChang, to take a look back at one of the past Winter Olympics and make some comparisons. Last July, Tanya and Jay visited the site of the 1936 games in the German city of Garmisch-Partenkirchen. IMG_3783

IMG_3823The Olympic stadium is still there, as well the modernized ski jumping platforms. IMG_3821IMG_3784The area is still a winter playground and visitors can just imagine what the games must have been like in those years before the start of World War II. German Chancellor Adolf Hitler opened the games and there would not be a Winter Olympics for another 12 years until St. Moritz hosted them in 1948. Just as in the 1936 Summer Olympics held in Berlin later that year, the clear purpose of these games was to showcase the Nazi regime and its athletic and political superiority rather than today’s games which are more focused on unity and peace.

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One of the highlights of the 1936 games included Sonja Henie of Norway winning her third consecutive Olympic gold medal in figure skating. Alpine skiing was introduced for the first time at these Olympics and the Olympic flame was lit for the first time at a winter games.

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646 athletes from 28 countries competed in 17 events at the Garmisch Olympics. 80 of the athletes were women. In comparison, there are 2,952 athletes competing in 102 events in PeongChang. The athletes come from 92 countries. Over 45% of all the athletes competing are female and 108 of the 243 athletes on the US team are women.

As for medals, Norway cleaned up at these games, winning the gold medal in 7 of the 17 events and 15 medals overall. Three of Norway’s gold medals were won by one athlete, Ivar Ballangrud, who won three of the four speed-skating events. Ballangrud took the silver in the fourth event. Of the 11 teams winning medals, the US took 1 gold, in the 2-man bobsleigh, and 3 bronze, placing them 8th in the overall medal count.

Of course, the 1936 winter games were much simpler than today’s Olympics. There was no man-made snow in Garmisch, no electronic time keeping, and no drones overseeing the venues. There were no curling events and no multi-million dollar advertising, television and sponsorship deals. There was however fireworks at the closing ceremonies. And, of course, there was the ominous presence of the Nazi party and the foreboding of what was to come. Despite the ever-present danger of North Korea, the PyeongChang games look pretty good in comparison.

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Chernobyl: A day in the exclusion zone

IMG_4127Early in the morning of April 25, 1986, nuclear engineer Alexander Akinhov was busy preparing his night-shift team for a special test they were about to conduct at the Chernobyl nuclear power plant #4 in northern Ukraine. The team was trying to see how an emergency water cooling system would work in the event of a complete loss of power at the plant. The plant’s backup diesel generators had never been able to get up to full speed quickly enough to power the coolant pumps needed to cool the reactor in the event of a power failure. So, the idea was that maybe the plant’s steam turbine could be used to generate enough electric power to run the plant’s coolant pumps for the 45 seconds needed until the diesel generators could fully kick in. Three earlier tests had been carried out at the plant since 1982 but none had been successful. Each time, the system was modified in some way. This time, Akinhov and his team were hoping for success.

At 1:23:04 am, the experiment began. Steam to the plant’s turbines was shut off and the emergency diesel generator started per plan. But 36 seconds into the test something began to go horribly wrong. The system’s steam turbine generator was slowing as was planned but the system began allowing more water to be converted to steam to increase power. The plant’s automated control system then began to insert control rods into the reactor core to limit the power rise. But it was too late. For Akinhov it was one of those “Oh crap” moments. Even before steam levels grew to explosive levels within the plant, it’s now believed that a series of nuclear explosions occurred 53 seconds after the experiment began. These sent a plume of debris almost two miles into the air. Three seconds later, the steam buildup ruptured the reactor, blew the top off the building and sent even more radioactive material airborne. And so began the greatest nuclear power plant catastrophe in history. Akinhov immediately reports, “The reactor is OK, we have no problems.” He later dies from radiation sickness.

The hot debris from the explosions set part of the complex on fire and the fire department arrived 20 minutes later. The firefighters, unaware of the escaping radiation, headed straight into the area, unprotected, to fight the fires. The next day, the nearby town of Prypiat was ordered to be evacuated. Busses took the 40,000 residents away to Kiev on short notice with only what they could carry. Meanwhile the radioactive cloud spread north to Belarus and west, covering most of Ukraine, Poland and over Germany and France. Three days later, Moscow was aware of the extent of the catastrophe but agreed that the annual May Day parade in Kiev go on as scheduled to avoid panic and to assure people that there is no danger. Thousands of people were exposed to dangerous levels of radiation. The full extent of the tragedy and the cost of its containment eventually lead to the collapse of the Soviet Union, three years later.

Today, after 32 years, the effects of the released radiation are still being seen. 31 people died within a few days of the accident but no one really knows how many were affected. Estimates range from 10,000 on the low end to over 100,000 on the high end. Belarus, absorbed an estimated 70% of the nuclear fallout and has experienced a sharp rise in birth defects since 1986. For anyone, the long-term effects of radiation exposure are a sobering reminder of how terrible nuclear radiation can be.

In the years immediately after the disaster, the Soviets built a somewhat primitive concrete tomb, called a sarcophagus, to cover the reactor. This sarcophagus will eventually deteriorate and a larger new containment structure is now finally nearing completion over the remains of the reactor. Radiation from the reactor will continue for the next 100,000 years and the area around the plant probably won’t be safe for people to live for at least 20,000 years. Here is a photo of the actual nuclear material taken 10 years after the accident. It’s actually a mixture of molten nuclear material combined with concrete and debris. Screen Shot 2017-12-28 at 12.07.58 PM

So this place sounded like just the right kind of destination for our intrepid twosome. Guided tours make the full-day trip from Kiev regularly and Tanya and Jay wanted to see this place first-hand. Eight other travelers joined them, along with a guide and driver, in a van whose shock absorbers had seen better days. The Chernobyl power complex is actually made up of four reactors, including the damaged reactor #4. The other three have all been shut down and are undergoing the long-term process of de-commissioning. The complex is surrounded by a closely guarded 30-kilometer “exclusion zone” where visitors are carefully checked in and out and are required to pass through two different radiation detector stations as they exit. Everyone in T and J’s group was issued hand held detectors which all started beeping wildly whenever especially contaminated areas were approached.IMG_4145IMG_4174

The tour consisted of four primary sites: the town of Chernobyl, the reactor complex, a nearby village and the abandoned town of Prypiat which was closest to the accident. Chernobyl town is about 7 km from the reactor complex and now serves principally as a housing and support services area for workers de-commissioning the power plant. Employees work 15 days at a time, then leave the area for another 15 days before returning.

Visitors are allowed no closer than 300 meters from the nearly-completed containment structure and for some reason photos are not allowed to be taken, but we got some anyway.

The eeriest part of the day was walking around the abandoned town of Prypiat. This town, built in 1970 served as a model Soviet community for the 40,000 people associated with the nuclear plant. Schools, cafeteria, apartment blocks, movie theatre and hotel were all part of what the Soviets wanted to portray to the outside world as life in the progressive USSR. It’s pretty much been left as it was when it was abandoned right after the accident. The amusement park area was scheduled to open just a few weeks after the disaster.

Since 1986, some of the buildings have simply collapsed due to the elements and poor initial construction. IMG_4157

Some people, who were not fortunate enough (or not) to live in Prypiat lived in a few nearby villages. These folks were evacuated later and left behind the remains of their homes, school, grocery store and kindergarten/nursery.

After several hours exploring areas within the exclusion zone, our van driver and guide took the group 5 kilometers down a lonely single lane road to one of the weirdest places our gruesome twosome had ever visited, the abandoned Cold War relic, Radar Duga-1. This was a huge super-secret antennae system build by the Soviets in 1976 as an early warning to track potential incoming US missiles. This thing was like something straight out of the X-Files. The cover story was that the road leading to the antennae was the entrance to a boy scout camp, but it’s hard to believe anyone nearby would ever buy that idea. Duga-1 sent out extremely powerful radio signals, which unfortunately disrupted commercial broadcasts, aviation communications and amateur radios resulting in complaints from several countries. Some speculated that Duga-1 was designed for Soviet weather control or mind control experiments but NATO intelligence figured out pretty quickly what Duga’s real purpose was, as well as determining pretty accurately where the antennae was located. It was shut down in 1989 when the Soviet Union collapsed. IMG_4213IMG_4219Screen Shot 2017-12-27 at 2.58.55 PM

The day ended with not only a reminder of the colossal waste of preparing for nuclear conflict but also a somber reminder of the people who suffered so terribly as a result of the worst nuclear power plant accident in history.IMG_4130.jpg

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Night Train to Lviv

“You want to take a train to…where?” asked the German travel agent in Wiesbaden.

“Lviv, Ukraine.” Jay answered.

“Lviv?”

“Yes, Lviv.”

The travel agent looked perplexed as she searched her screen. “Oh, you mean, Lemberg.”

Thinking that the agent was confusing Lviv with the German town of Limburg, not far away, Jay repeated, “No, Lviv!”

“Lemberg.” the agent repeated, showing me her screen.

It was at this point that Jay realized there were several names for this beautiful city in western Ukraine. The Germans still call it Lemberg. Poles call it Lwow. And, sometimes, Russians call it Lvov. Whatever its name, the entire exercise with the travel agent was quickly proving fruitless as evidently it would take more than two days to get there by train and that going by rail would cost at least twice that of taking a flight on Ukraine Int’l Airlines from Frankfurt to Kiev and then connecting to Lviv/Lvov/Lwow/Lemberg or any of its other names, Lavov (Serbo-Croation), Liov (Romanian) or Leopolis (Latin).

As it turned out, our dynamic duo ended up taking the night train from Chernivtsi, aka Chernovitsy or Czerniowce to the multi-named destination of Lviv. Here’s the Chernivtsi station. IMG_4033 The roughly six-hour ride in a sleeper compartment on Ukraine Railways was very pleasant and our traveling tramps arrived in Lviv, refreshed and ready to take on the next day. IMG_4082.JPG

Lviv is only about 90km from the Polish border and was once part of Poland from 1434 to 1772. Then it came under the Habsburgs until 1918, then for a short time it became the capital of the West Ukrainian People’s Republic, then part of Poland again, then the Soviet Union and finally part of independent Ukraine in 1991. So, it’s understandable how the city is referred to by so many linguistic variations in its name.

The wonderful thing about Lviv is that it largely escaped damage during World War II and it retains the Neo-Renaissance architecture that was so popular during the latter part of the 19th century. IMG_4098IMG_4095IMG_4103The gem of Lviv’s downtown is its opera house, modeled after the State Opera House in Vienna. IMG_0892IMG_4088Notice the female figure adorning the top of the opera house. Does she look a bit pregnant? IMG_4107Well, she is. It seems that that sculptor who created the work, “Glory” used as his model a woman who was about four months pregnant and the statue was made accordingly. Our two culture vultures snagged two tickets for a performance of Puccinni’s “Madame Butterfly”. At $12 a ticket, it was worth every penny, or hryvnia.IMG_0887

From a culinary standpoint, Lviv is noteworthy for its abundance of coffee shops and restaurants serving grilled meat. A vegetarian could make do in Lviv, but the emphasis is clearly along carnivorian lines. One of the most bizarre restaurants our dining duo has ever visited was “The First Lviv Grill Restaurant of Meat and Justice”. As you enter, you pass the grill so there’s no question of what you’re in for. Not yet, anyway. IMG_0901After you’re seated, this big guy in an quasi-torturer’s outfit comes by, sizes you up and decides whether you deserve punishment. IMG_0898After he’s selected some volunteer for retribution, the poor sucker is placed in a cage and then lowered into “the pit” where he stays until he either begs for mercy or the torturer has decided he’s had enough. The whole thing is mildly entertaining and, of course, kind of weird.

After our penitent pair had finished their meal, the waitress brought the bill and…a hatchet. OMG, what now? Before paying, she carefully put Jay’s little finger on a chopping block and then..whack!..she misses it by a few inches. Believe it, it was no fake hatchet. Wow! One can only wonder how this would go over in the US. No doubt there would be some sort of lawsuit filed for intentional mental distress after the first week.IMG_4089IMG_4093IMG_4109IMG_4102

After four days in Lviv, it was time for our two to, once again, ride the rails and head to Chernobyl, a place that turned out to be one of their eeriest adventures yet.

Next posting: Chernobyl

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Ukraine: Chernivtsi

The intrepid twosome rode quietly in the back of a Kiev taxi as it made its way through the gathering dusk and cold wintry haze for the 40-minute ride to Kiev’s Boryspil International Airport. After entering the airport departure area they sat down for a bowl of borscht at the sparsely furnished airport cafe. They had learned that borscht, that ubiquitous beet and vegetable soup served in virtually every eating place in Ukraine, was a native concoction. For the last week they had been told that borscht was not Russian. It was not Polish. It was Ukrainian. OK, Ukrainian borscht for two, please.

Finishing their soup, the two carefully checked out their surroundings. Here were ticket counters for airlines little known outside the US; Dniproavia Airlines, Air Astana, Estonian Air, Azerbaijan Airlines, Belavia Airlines, Uzbekistan Airways proudly or humbly took their place among Lufthansa and Air France. But these noble air carriers would have to wait for another time, as the two traveling maniacs headed downstairs to wait for the one-hour nightly Ukraine International Airlines flight to Chernivtsi.

A nighttime arrival at the small airport serving Chernivtsi was reminiscent of a previous trip to the municipal airport in Cortez, Colorado, minus the mountains. It was a fairly simple process. Get off the plane, walk across the tarmac to the small fluorescent-lit waiting room with plastic chairs and one airport employee on duty, wait for the truck to offload the luggage, go back outside to retrieve your bag from the truck and off you go. A short taxi ride later through the pot-holed and often-unpaved streets, J and T checked in to the “Allure Inn”, the “best place in town” according to the friendly cab driver. While checking in, Jay asked the hotel clerk if she was from Chernvitsi. “Yes”, she replied, “But I am Romanian—part of the diaspora.” This short exchange gave enough material for the couple to occupy the next hour before bed, discussing what exactly a “diaspora” was and what did the young woman at the desk actually mean?

Apparently, about 4% of the city’s population is ethnic Romanian, which makes sense since Chernivtsi was once part of the Kingdom of Romania after the Austro-Hungarian Empire dissolved in 1918 and until the Soviet Union made it part of Ukraine in 1940. The current Romanian border is only about 40 km away.

Over the next few days, our pair roamed the streets and suburbs of this often gritty southwest Ukrainian town, which has a surprisingly urbane past and is home to Chernivtsi State University, a UNESCO World Heritage Site. IMG_4037IMG_4038The University was once the residence of the Bukovinian and Dalmation Metropolitans (Church Bishops) and still includes the impressive Seminarska Church. Away from the university, one is never far from a church, like the St. Nicholas Cathedral, nicknamed the “drunken church” because of its twisted turrets. IMG_4048

In a nutshell, Chernivtsi was once the primary city of Bukovina, which was part of Moldavia which was from 1774-1918 part of the Habsburg Monarchy, which became the Austrian Empire, which became the Austro-Hungarian Empire. Consequently, much of the architecture of the period 1867-1918 is still evident and somewhat restored. IMG_4068IMG_4071The beauty of these buildings often stands in stark contrast to the much of the rest of the city, which is more of a reminder of its not so distant Soviet past. IMG_4031IMG_4032IMG_4034IMG_4035IMG_4050IMG_4054IMG_4065IMG_4066IMG_4067

But one thing our wandering pair have usually found—the simple joys of people experiencing everyday life, the things that matter, love and friendship.IMG_4069IMG_4070IMG_4077IMG_4079

Next Posting: Night train to Lviv

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