Wednesday, July 31, 2013

#798 York Cat Trail, York, England

Anyone who knows me knows that I am crazy about cats. I was so delighted to discover this cool path in York when I visited recently. It's not spectacular or complicated, but it shows human ingenuity and a fun thing to do. There are so many old cities in Europe and this is a different way to look at one!

As far as I could see, there was one version of the trail available from The Cat Gallery (, which had an amazing assortment of things to buy that are related to cats, and they even had a Cat Catalogue) or from the York Glass shop ( Each of these places had their own cat, so that crosses two off the list!

The history of cats in York differs depending on who's telling the story. The York Glass shop says some statues (since removed) date as far back as the middle ages, and statues have been common for 200 years. The Cat Gallery says that the tradition started in 1920. Either way -- I love it!

Monday, July 29, 2013

#799 Uplistikhe, Georgia

Capadocia in Turkey receives a lot of fame for being a settlement constructed out of rock, but its far from being the only one in the region. Across the border and into Georgia, there are several: Davit Gareje Monastery (#964) is one, and Uplistikhe is another.
With many worn carvings of structural elements like stairs and decorate pieces, Uplistikhe is not magnificent in its beauty but in the imagination for what once was that it leaves with you. Once an enormous 20,000-inhabitant caravan-route cave city on the northern bank of the Mtkvari River (10km east of present day city Gori) with views for miles around, the area now visited is the Inner City (Shida Kalaki) of an ancient (one of the oldest) place of settlement dating back to around 1000 BC. Settled and developed predominantly during the 6th century BC to the 1st century AD, by the pre-Christian Kartli (a.k.a. Iberia to classical writers), it was an important political and religious center dedicated primarily to the sun goddess. Archaeological results from later periods (especially the 4th-6th centuries AD) show the struggle between Christian and pre-Christian groups. With the arrival of Christianization also appears to have been the beginning of its decline in importance, although it was strong during the Muslim conquest in the 8th and 9th centuries.
Though it began to decline before this, it was ultimately sacked by the Mongols in 1240 and remained covered until around 1957, when archaeologists took the tops of caves visible above the dirt down to the rock level. Various artifacts were found including gold, silver and bronze jewelry, ceramics and sculptures.

Important parts of the site:

  • The Theatre has octagonal designs carved on the ceiling in a similar style to the Caracalla Baths in Rome and was probably a temple from the 1st or 2nd century AD.
  • The Temple of Makvliani has an inner recess behind an arched portico, and an open hall in front with stone seats for the priests and two rounded holes on the floor for the blood of sacrificed animals.
  • The Tamaris Darbazi (Hall of Queen Tamar) has two columns built into the cliff and a stone seat. The ceiling is cut to look like wooden beams and there is a hole to let smoke out and light in. Although originally pagan, perhaps Christian Queen Tamar later occupied it. There are stone niches along one side believe to have once been a pharmacy.
  • The triple basilica Uplistikhe Eklesia (Prince's or Lord's Fortress Church) at the top of the hill dates from the 10th century and was built over a pagan temple.
  • A tunnel (see photo above) runs down to the river in an emergency escape/water collection route.
  • Other structures include a bakery, a prison and an ampitheatre.
This is the most famous image of Uplistikhe -- the face in the rock that is an accident of a doorway eroding away.
NOTE: Since 2007 it has been a tentative candidate for inclusion in the UNESCO World Heritage List, but it is not yet fully included.
Source: Lonely Planet Georgia, Armenia and Azerbaijan 3rd Edition 2008

Wednesday, July 17, 2013

#804 Piedra del Penol, Guatape, Colombia

A 200m monolith rising from the rolling hills is about as incongruous as possible 2 hours out of Medellin (#936). Nothing in the area comes close to its elevation (2100m) or its geological makeup. Seemingly floating on an island of the Embalse Guatape (a dammed lake), it mars the landscape with either majesty or ugliness.

70 million years old, it was worshipped by the Tahamies Indians formerly of the region, and it was first climbed in 1954. Fascinatingly, German scientists found a new species of plant at the top! The G and incomplete U painted on the side of the rock are evidence of disputed ownership between Guatape and Peñol. 

649 or 740 delightfully constructed steps lead up the southern crack of the rock, getting so busy at times that the more recent renovations have made 2 sets of stairs with one direction only! Magnificent views abound, but also the bizareness of having a coffee shop and a 4 floored tower on top! Peñol is actually the town before you get to the rock -- ask for La Piedra!

Source: Lonely Planet Colombia 6th Edition

Monday, July 15, 2013

#805 London, England

"There’s nowhere else like London. Nothing at all, anywhere." – Vivienne Westwood

I think if I had to pick a favorite city in the world, it would have to be London. I could never be bored with it -- there are just so many things to do, and so many different districts to visit. The amount of free stuff is greater than any other city I've known -- from museums to parks, to sites, to people watching to shopping, to fabulous music and food places. The sad part is that I could never possibly tell you them all here. Instead I will tell you some of my favorite things about London.

I love the houses. I love the creaking half-up-half-down stairs inside, the small backyards maximized for space and sunshine, the likelihood of everyone in a house sharing a bathroom, the hidden but well utilized ceiling space, and the small (but really quite useless) front yards. 

My Dad says he could spend all day just riding around in the front seat at the top of a double-decker bus, and I have to agree. They wheel around (quite rapidly) and show you all the little neighborhoods (which were once village greens of separate towns but are now suburbs), and teach you how to say the unpronounceable place names and stops.

The Thames... just fabulous. I love it's history, its traffic, the tidal sand banks where there are sculptures in the summer, the people that walk along either side, and even its brown murkiness. I remember hearing that the Victorians built massive sewers so the river wouldn't receive all the waste, and it became a pretty park-filled promenade, still being used to this day. 

Everything in London has a unique name. The London Eye -- they couldn't possible call it a ferris wheel. The Gherkin, The Shard, etc. 

South Bank -- best people watching spot, great museums, London Eye, Shakespeare's theatre, etc, etc! Dad and I could sit for hours watching the performers and unusual people (and normal people!) wandering by. 
Mum said she loves the galleries and museums and Westminster Abbey the best. We have a family tradition of catching the Summer Exhibition at the Royal Academy -- it takes hours and has so many cool ideas -- as well as the BP Portrait Award at the National Portrait Gallery -- I think we have every one of the annual exhibition books for the past 5 or 6 years if not more. I could go on and on.

What else??

  • The Sunday Old Spittlefields Market onwards to Brick Lane and other markets
  • The shopping: Dad loves going to Oxford Street and HMV, I love the markets and just a good ol' Tesco's.
  • The parks -- so many of them, and it's just wonderful to have a picnic by a small pond!
  • The food -- little stalls selling amazing snacks, great restaurants, pub grub, and never-ending choices!
  • Finding great little places, like the fabulous shoe shop in the Elephant and Castle shitty mall and the Tottenham Court Road 10 pound haircut shops.
  • When I can I go to the Wildlife Photographer of the Year exhibition at the National Museum of Natural History - love love it!
  • The tube -- nothing else like it. Mind the Gap.
  • The overland trains -- you can get to anywhere, but hell, you'll have at least 5 different stations to go there from, and it isn't easy getting from one to the other!
  • Heathrow, Gatwick, Stanstead, City, Luton and Southend... could it be any more confusing or difficult to get to them!?
  • The shows -- all the best drama and performance in the world
  • The British Museum -- it was truly special to see the Rosetta Stone!
I really enjoyed reading this reflection on living in London versus just travelling there.

Friday, July 12, 2013

#806 Thingvellir, Iceland

Iceland's most important historical site is 23km east of Reykjavik, but it feels like it is in the middle of the wilderness. The location of the first parliament in the world is a grassy knoll in the middle of a national park renowned for nature walks and green-grassed lake banks. Part of the Golden Circle of tourist attractions with Geysir and Gullfoss, it has been visited by all travelers to Iceland for hundreds of years.
In 930 AD the Vikings established the first democratic parliament of rule (the Althing) here because they were pleased to be separate from their kings at home and thus developed 'things' (assemblies). These eventually worked themselves into a national assembly. One brother learned the laws and passed them on verbally from generation to generation, and another brother found the site Blaskogur (Parliament Fields). As with many of the sites from the sagas, there is not much left aside from the law rock (Logberg), and the fact that despite the marvelous achievement of democratic self-rule, Icelanders later relinquished power back to the royals of Norway and Denmark (in 1271), so while it may have been the first, it was not a continuous course. It functioned as a courthouse until 1798 when it was dissolved completely, only to be reinstated in 1843 but relocated to Reykjavik. One of the most important decisions made here, however, was the conscious choice to make Christianity the country's religion (as opposed to Pagan beliefs -- if only modern religion could be decided so democratically!).
I think one of the more poetic things about the site is its geological location. Sitting right on the top of the great Atlantic Rift of the two continents' (North American and Eurasian) plates drifting visibly apart (18mm per year). Mossy lava flows, wrinkled rocks, deep fissures (such as Flosagja and Nikulasargja named for a freed slave and a dead drunk sheriff), the Almannagja cliffs, and spectacularly clear icy lakes and pools make it even more beautiful (although those lovely lakes were used to drown women found guilty of infanticide or adultery!). The site was chosen for its lakes full of fish (such as the enormous Thingvallavatn, Iceland's biggest lake at 84 sq km), the Oxara River (which was actually diverted to maximize its flow and convenience), the proximity of firewood as well as the dramatic setting to give aura to the orators. It was a great summer gathering with traders, entertainment, marriage contracts occuring, and other communal gatherings. Evidence of various family/regional booths can still be found at the foot of the cliffs, and the farmhouse built in 1930 (for the 1000th anniversary) is the park headquarters and president's summer house. 
Photo on a tourist notice board at the site with the rifts visible in the landscape.
Sources: Lonely Planet Iceland 7th Edition