Friday, December 19, 2008

Happy Holidays!!!

My flight to Seattle for a holiday visit is only five hours away. It has been a hectic last four weeks with travel, both personal and work related. In that span, I have been in my apartment no more than five days. I am ready for the holiday break. I will be in Seattle for two weeks. Because I have not had that much time, I was not able to send out Christmas cards. Also, for the same reason, the design of the greeting card is almost the same as last year. So here it is:

Happy Holidays and Peace on Earth!!!

Microsoft Word - peace collage

Sunday, December 7, 2008

It's almost Christmas and I haven't had time to shop for presents...

I will be at Rota and Moron, Spain all week this week for work. A co-worker and I will stay around for the weekend to see the sights of Sevilla. After I get back, I will be back at work for half a day, then I will be away again for 4 days to visit schools at Vilseck, Grafenwoehr, Hohenfels, Schweinfurt, and Bamberg – all located in the Bavaria region of Germany. I will then go back to Seattle for the holidays for two weeks, which will be a much needed break.

I will be posting a majority of the pictures from my trip to southwestern France during the Thanksgiving week, at a later date. We visited Carcassonne, Castelnaudary, Toulouse, Nimes and Pont du Gard. Just as a preview, the following photos are shown:

I visited Carcassonne back in summer of 2002 with six other backpackers, all family and friends. Back then, Carcassonne was a short stop to see the rebuilt fortress castle on our way to Collioure and Barcelona. This was the only time that we were lugging our backpack while sightseeing. We were all very tired once we made it up to the grounds of the fortress. This is probably why I don’t have many pictures from that first visit. The first picture is Jimmy Jam along the ramparts of the castle from the 2002 trip. The second is of me in front of the castle taken during this last trip. I was not prepared for the cold and blustery weather.

Carcassonne, July 2002

Carcassonne, Nov 2008

The heart of the cassoulet route goes thru Carcassonne, Castelnaudary, and Toulouse. We had cassoulet for dinner at Carcassone, lunch at Castelnaudary the next day, and dinner in Toulouse later that evening.


Along with these three cassoulet meals, our first lunch at Carcassonne was also a bean and meat entrée.

carcassonne lunch

So, it’s no wonder that we came across this sign at a bar in Nimes. But we managed to be civil, because we were in the car for a good part of the day driving from Toulouse to Nimes after the 3-day bean casserole indulgence.

Nimes bar warning

The last day and half were spent seeing the sights of Nimes, including the well preserved Roman amphitheater, and the magnificent and also well preserved Roman aqueduct at Pont du Gard.

Nimes Roman amphitheater

pont du gard aqueduct

Porto, Portugal

I visited Porto with a couple of friends from work during the Veteran's Day weekend, from 8 - 12 November. A month before the trip to Porto, we were discussing where to spend four to five days for a short break. Paris, Athens, south of France, and southern Spain were a few places considered. Porto won out. The inexpensive airfare via Ryan Air, the warmer clime and the fact that none of us has been to Portugal before (my trip to the Azores earlier this year and my two hour layovers at the Lisbon airport flying into and out of the Azores do not count) sealed the deal for Porto. I was looking forward to the visit because it was a place to eat seafood. Wiesbaden is nowhere close to a sea or an ocean. There is not much fresh seafood selection to find around here. I really haven’t tried that hard looking, but if the twice weekly market in Wiesbaden is any indication, you would really have to put an effort to find fresh seafood around town. Anyway, I had the hankerin’ for some good ol’ seafood. Porto was one place to go to satisfy the hankerin’. Porto is also the primary place to find fine port wine. Port is wine fortified with brandy.

Porto is the second largest city in Portugal. It is located in the north, close to the border with Spain. The city is decaying with many buildings needing major renovations. I got the impression that the city has grown further out, beyond the old city, and the development seemed to focus on these outlying areas while the city center is left to deteriorate. The European Union has helped to build up and upgrade Porto’s infrastructure, including a new mass transit system with its above ground tram lines, and a considerably refurbished airport. It will take a lot more investment to revitalize the old part of the city. The historic center of Porto has been declared a UNESCO world heritage site. This may mean that it will be harder and more expensive to renovate the buildings since they would have to be restored to its original design. A lot of the buildings are condemned and abandoned.

I thought I would at least get by with my little knowledge of the Spanish language. Not!!! Written Portuguese is fairly close to Spanish; the spoken Portuguese is very nasal and harsher sounding than Spanish. Portuguese has the resonance and tonal quality of an Eastern European language being spoken. So in essence, written Portuguese as in menus and signs I was able to understand for the most part; hearing it being spoken to us was another thing.

We explored Porto mainly by foot, but we also saw more sights outside the old city via bus and boat tours. We enjoyed the seafood. The meal prices were decent. We toured and tasted the products of four port wine manufacturers. I was not able to sample one of the traditional dishes of Porto – Tripas a Modo do Porto, tripes Porto style. The dish is probably similar to “rakrakipa,” a Filipino tripe dish. Although not fond of eating animal innards, I was willing to try it especially after eating haggis on a trip to Scotland earlier this year turned out to be not so bad. That doesn’t sound too positive, does it? Okay, let’s say I would eat haggis again.

You probably only need two full days to see the sights of Porto. We were there for four days. For the most part, the weather was fine for the time of year. It was nice to see a new place and be away from work. Would I visit Porto again? Probably not, but it was still nice to discover a new city, learn a little bit about the city’s history, eat fresh seafood, and drink port wine. It was a good trip. I would not mind seeing other parts of Portugal – Lisbon, perhaps, or the southern coastal areas.

Another note about Porto, especially to the Seattleites – we visited Casa da Musica, a recently built concert hall, designed by Rem Koolhas, the same architect who designed the new Seattle Public Library.

Here are a few photos from Porto (click on the photo to see entire shot):

The nicer part of old town Porto, including the riverfront:




Porto - Blue Tiled Church

Porto City Center

Porto at night:


Grilled sardines for a great lunch – the grilling, the meal, the empty plate, and the end result:


grilled sardines



The bridges crossing the Douro River:

Porto Bridge

Porto Bridge

Porto Bridges

Porto Bridge

Port wine tours and tasting:



Port Wine tour

Port Wine Tour

Port Wine Tasting

Sandeman Port Wine

Casa da Musica, outside and in:

Casa da Musica

Casa da Musica

Casa da Musica

Inside the Casa da Musica

Outside the old city:

North Porto


Beach north of Porto

Port of Porto

Arroz de marisco (seafood rice), and a dish similar to seafood rice but with bread instead.


Market scenes:

Porto Market

Porto Market


Porto Market

Porto Market

Monday, December 1, 2008


As I have stated on my previous blog, I was in Turkey for work from 20-23 October. I managed to get a full day of sightseeing the old city part of Istanbul before continuing to my eventual destination in Adana, where Incirlik Air Base is located. My one day exploring the old section of Istanbul provided me enough interest that I would want to return for a longer vacation. I got to see the Grand Bazaar, a huge covered market with countless vendors selling vast selection of jewelry, rugs, pottery, colorful "I Dreamed of Jeannie" house slippers (see photos below if my trivial tv sitcom reference is confusing), and many other wares. You can easily get lost in the maze-like layout of the bazaar. I would bet that the Grand Bazaar is probably the origin or at least one source for the mega-mall concept. I walked the grounds of the Sultan Ahmet Mosque, better known as the Blue Mosque. I had the opportunity to go inside the mosque. The structure was impressive with its six towering minarets, massive interior columns supporting the main dome, and the ornately decorated dome interior. I got to see the Hagia Sophia from the outside and its courtyard. It was near closing time when I got there. The Hagia Sophia was originally a church, later converted to a mosque, and now a museum. I managed to see most of the Topkapi Palace by walking around the courtyards and gardens. I walked around the bustling city during the night and felt fairly safe. The prices are still reasonable compared to Western Europe prices. I had ample time to walk thru the spice bazaar before I headed to the airport the following day to fly to Adana. Incirlik Air Base, location of the two schools that we surveyed, is located just outside of Adana.

The following are a few pictures of the sights I saw in old town Istanbul (click on the photo for enlarged view):

Inside the Grand Bazaar and some of the wares the vendors sell.

Inside the Grand Bazaar

Grand Bazaar

Grand Bazaar

Grand Bazaar

Grand Bazaar

Wares at the Grand Bazaar

The Blue Mosque during day and night.

The Blue Mosque

The Blue Mosque in the evening

Inside the Blue Mosque.

Inside the Blue Mosque

Inside the Blue Mosque

The Hagia Sophia during day and night.

Hagia Sophia

Hagia Sophia at night

Other photos in old town Istanbul.

decorative arch window bars

Hagia Sophia