Tuesday, February 25, 2014

#708 Flores, Guatemala

Most people in this part of Guatemala are here to visit the famous Tikal (#954), but it would be tragic to pass by Flores without a stop. Where else in the world is there a highly developed colonial island town in the middle of a lake? Lago Petén Itzá is in El Petén Province in North Eastern Guatemala, and Flores is separated from the twin towns of Santa Elena and San Benito by a causeway. The village just north across the lake is San Miguel.
In Pre-Columbian times, Flores was the Maya city of Nojpetén. The Itza left the Yucatán region in the 13th century and built the city later known as Tayasal as their capital. They called it Noh Petén, literally "City Island". It was also called Tah Itzá, or Place of the Itzá. It was on this island that the last Maya held out as an independent Maya state against the Spanish conquerors despite Hernan Cortes visiting the island in 1541. It was not conquered until 1697, when they attacked via boats. Many Itzá people fled and hid in the jungle for years. 

Source: http://wikitravel.org/en/Flores_(Guatemala)

Sunday, February 23, 2014

#709 Mostar, Bosnia and Herzegovina

Mostar is a famous 16th-Century Balkan town that spans the picturesque Neretva River in central Bosnia and Herzegovina (it is actually in the Herzegovina region). Beautiful in its own right, it has become legendary for its restoration and rebuilding campaign after its ancient bridge was destroyed in the war (Croats shelled it in 1993) and then rebuilt in 2004. Many are pleased that such a symbol of reconstruction and reunification can be made (the different sides of the river were traditionally occupied by different groups) while others believe the money (much of it from international donations) could have been better spent on alternative projects. 
Mostar means 'keeper of the bridge', and the eastern side was traditionally Muslim and the western side was traditionally Croat (and catholic). During the Ottoman and Austro-Hungarian periods many beautiful buildings were constructed, although many were damaged during the shelling, and these can still be seen on the former front line. The cobbled streets have been returned to their quaint, picturesque glory, and artisans and crafts line the sidewalks, with traditional Bosnian coffee, baklava and ice cream for sale. Stari Most, the old bridge, originally built in 1556 (the stone bridge replaced a prior wooden bridge) was the only crossing point of the river in this part of the valley. Many brave men stand on the bridge as is tradition, and promise to jump off to win the heart of ladies. The bridge is flanked on either side by the two towers Tara (semi-circular, on the western bank) and Helebija (with dungeons and a guard house above on the eastern bank), with Hercegusa, a third tower, behind Tara.
The cobbled old town, Kujundziluk (named for copper smithing), stretches on both sides of the river from the bridge, with several mosques and old houses and shops along the paths. The buildings cling to the steep cliffs above the river, and the green water passes swiftly, albeit calmly, below. Further up the eastern saide, the oldest single arch stone bridge still surviving, the Kriva Cuprija ('Sloping Bridge') was built in 1558 and said to be a test before the construction on Stari Most began.
The city has been occupied since prehistory, and evidence exists of Roman settlement under the city. It came into importance with its bridge in the middle ages, first Christian, then after being conquered by the Ottomans in 1468, Islamic. They fortified the town in the early 1500s and build the stone bridge, which at 28m long and 20m high, with a perfect semicircle arch 8.56m in width, became a wonder in its own time. It was also during Ottoman time that the first church was built, a Serbian Orthodox Church in 1834. Bosnia became Austro-Hungarian after 1878 until 1918, during which time it became the seat of a Roman Catholic Diocese and significant urban restructuring occurred with wide avenues and a European style city-center on the western bank. Suffering an 18 month seige after Bosnia and Herzegovina declared independence from Yugoslavia in 1992 with destruction of churches, monasteries, mosques and other buildings, many of which remain in ruins. 
Source: Lonely Planet Eastern Europe 8th Edition 2005

Saturday, February 22, 2014

#710 Ljubljana, Slovenia

Slovenia's capital city on its namesake river is so charming a place that the citizens felt they had to hang wires with shoes on them to make it less perfect, or so one legend goes (although I can't find an online source telling me this). Near Shoemaker's bridge (Cobbler's Bridge), and in other places across the city, people have thrown shoes over wires to remember loved ones, to remember famous people, to get good luck, or perhaps this relatively new phenomenon (10-15 years or so) is just for the tourists. This link has a charming story of the first person to hang their shoes (and the luck they received afterwards). So, after you've admired the shoes and the various art installations around the city, and taken a stroll along the riverside past the cafes, restaurants and gelaterias, you can enjoy the rest that the city has to offer. 
Once known in German as Laibach, there is some discussion about the origins of the current name (see wikipedia). Ljub means 'love' but Ljubovid means 'one of a kind appearance', so who really knows? The settlement of the area is without question however, with remnants dating back to the Prehistoric pile settlements, and stretching through the Romans (when it was settlement Iulia Aemona), sacked by the Huns, Ostrogoths and Lombards, before the ancestors of the Slovenes arrived in the 9th Century. The Franks, the Slavs, the Bohemians, Napoleon and later the Hapsburg-Austrians all controlled the area. Maximilian I, Holy Roman Emperor exiled the Jews in 1515 for a fee, Bishop Tomaz Hren scared the protestants away in the mid 1500s and otherwise it has been predominantly catholic since its diocese was established in 1461. Joining the Kingdom of the Serbs, Croats, Slovenes after world war I and Italian then German occupied in world war II, Slovenia joined Communist Yugoslavia until its independence in 1991. 
Famous for its bridges and beautiful squares, the downtown heart of the city is quaint and cobble-stoned. Small barges ferry down the river with restaurants moored in certain spots along the banks. 
This statue stares out from a house near the middle of the city, and it is said that she is watching for her love, who is a statue on the other side of the square.
The dragon as a symbol of Ljubljana could have two possible origins. Perhaps Greek legends of Jason and the Argonauts having struck down a monster somewhere in this area is the cause, or perhaps it is connected to Saint George, patron of the Ljubljana Castle?
In the middle of the city is the castle, from which there are beautiful views across the city, with the spires of churches poking through above the red roofs. 
Inside Ljubljana castle.
The coolest door to a cathedral that I've ever seen. Don't look if ghosts scare you because these bishops are emerging from the door!

Source: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Ljubljana 
http://www.neverendingvoyage.com/ljubljana-a-photo-essay/ - An excellent photo essay!
Padlocks for lovers on Butcher's Bridge.

Tuesday, February 18, 2014

#711 Seward, Alaska, USA

File:Seward Alaska aerial view.jpg
Down on the Kenai peninsula, south of Anchorage and in a beautiful fjord-like idyllic harbor is Seward. From air it looks tiny, and it is! It's the end of the road, home to the Exit Glacier (which emerges from the Harding icefield), the Seward Mount Marathon Race (and when you see how steep the mountain you realise just how insane this race is going up 3000m and back in less than an hour ever since 1915!) and a superb animal center (Alaska SeaLife Center opened in 1998 and is part of the legacy of the Exxon Valdez spill) with puffins, seals and other typical Alaskan wildlife. It is also mile 0 of the historic Iditarod Dogsled Trail to Nome and the Alaska Railroad terminus, as well as being the gateway to Kenai Fjords National Park.
William H. Seward was secretary of state under Abraham Lincoln and Andrew Johnson, and it was after him that this wild outpost was named, as he fought to gain the territory of Alaska from Russia, although the area was settled long before that by Alexander Baranov of the Shelikhov-Golikov company (Russian-American Company), who established a fur trade post on Resurrection Bay.
What is it good for? Fishing! Lots of rain! Less than 3000 people call Seward home, which is not much growth from around 500 in 1910. It's basically a quaint little Alaskan port and military base town at the edge of beautiful mountains and spectacular scenery.
All 127 miles of Seward Highway is a spectacular drive and a scenic byway, and Seward itself is a destination for most Alaska cruises. Its modern incarnation began with the establishment of the railway in 1903 due to its ice-free port, and the whole area was significantly damaged in a 1964 earthquake.

Source: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Seward,_Alaska 
Lonely Planet Alaska, 9th Edition, 2009