Pompeii, Italy

Pompeii was once a flourishing as a coastal retreat for wealthy Romans. It contained a bustling marketplace, beautiful homes, taverns, bathhouses, temples of worship, magnificent architecture, an arena (older than the Roman coliseum) that sat 20,000 people, and a flourishing arts and crafts science. Life was good.

That all changed on one horrific day in 79 AD with the eruption of Mount Vesuvius. The eruption blasted a cloud of volcanic ash and poisonous gas 21 miles into air that could be seen from hundreds of miles away as volcanic debris pummeled the towns below. About 12 hours into the eruption, the massive cloud of gas and volcanic ash collapsed resulting in a pyroclastic flow that rolled down the mountain at 400+ mph with temperatures reaching 1000 degrees Fahrenheit. Only five miles from Mount Vesuvius, Pompeii was instantly engulfed in this searing flow and buried under millions of tons of volcanic ash and pumice.

As many as 16,000 people perished that day in the cities and villas around Mount Vesuvius. The number of dead in Pompeii is estimated at 2,000 and several hundred more in the nearby town of Herculaneum. This suggests there may have been a short window to escape. Some of Herculaneum’s citizens were possibly able to escape to Naples before the pyroclastic flow hit. Others were likely killed along the roads beyond the cities while trying to escape.

In terms of preservation, one interesting aspect of this eruption is the apparent lack of fire. The poisonous gases were oxygen free and no oxygen means no fire. Instead of burning, natural materials like wood were carbonized. In Herculaneum there are some relatively well-preserved wooden pieces such as ceiling beams, beds, shelves, and even the famous papyrus scrolls.

Along with Herculaneum, Pompeii serves as a time capsule of Roman life in the first century. While much of Rome’s cultural and architectural grandeur were destroyed as the Roman Empire collapsed, Pompeii remained frozen in time and free from vandalism and looting for 1700 years. In 1748, archeological excavation of Pompeii began and soon revealed the city and life in ancient Rome to the world.

Pompeii was originally developed by the Greeks around 600 BC as a port city. Over time, Greek influence receded and Roman influence rose. By 200 BC Pompeii was part of the Roman Republic. The Roman Republic lasted from 509 BC to 27 BC. By 79 AD, Rome had transformed from a Republic led by Senators to an Empire led by an Emperor. The Romans always thought highly of Greek culture (adopting much of it as their own and adding to it) so transitions from Greek to Roman control were not typically disruptive or oppressive. The influence of Greek culture is evident throughout Pompeii.

In 79 AD the world was only 79 years removed from Jesus walking the earth. His relatively recent presence hadn’t yet registered in Pompeii as Roman and Greek gods were still being worshipped. The Temple of Apollo (image below), built in 129 BC, is one example.

Apollo was a Greek god also worshipped by the Romans. He was the god of light, reason, truth, art, and healing. This temple had 48 columns surrounding the perimeter. As I understand it, these columns would have supported a roof that formed a covered walkway around the courtyard with the temple in the center.

Moving closer to the temple (image below), you can see the remains of stairs once topped with white marble and the remains of what was once an enclosed temple. As you can imagine, there is little indication of any roofing in Pompeii due to the tons of volcanic debris that nearly leveled the city.

Across from the Temple of Apollo is the Basilica of Pompeii built around 120 BC. This was a covered structure with walls and 28 interior columns. In the picture below, we are looking into the Basilica from the Forum. The Basilica was a central building for matters of justice as well as commercial activities and one of the most important buildings in Pompeii.

Below, we are looking at an outer wall of the Basilica. There was another level to this wall that would have extended the height by 50%.

At the end of the Basilica is the elevated tribunal where magistrates would sit. The tribunal gives you a sense of the Basilica’s height that would have extended around building. The bases of columns in the photo below were on the interior of the building and would have extended upward to the second-story ceiling.

Given the administration of justice that occurred in the Basilica, it seems fitting the building would be located next to the Temple of Apollo – god of reason and truth. Leaving the Basilica, you step into the Forum. This was a central area of commerce and political activity in Pompeii.

The Forum was lined with columns, statues, and other buildings of importance. The image below is looking down the western edge of the Forum. There was a second level of shorter columns on top of what we now see and a roof extending to the left that provided a covered walkway around the forum.

At the north end of the Forum sits the Temple of Jupiter. Jupiter was the chief Roman god and held a position similar to Zeus for the Greeks. Jupiter was the god of the sky, thunder, and king of all gods. Symbols associated with Jupiter include the lightening bolt and eagle. This temple has six columns across the front and five down the side. The roof would have extended from a central building out to the front columns to create a covered but open entrance. To the left and right of the temple are triumphal arches. One was dedicated to Augustus, the first emperor or Rome.

Leaving the Forum, I traveled out to the edge of the city to visit the Villa dei Misteri. I had the unique experience of imagining what it would be like to walk through the Pompeii “suburbs”.

Knowing Mount Vesuvius is still active left me with an eerie feeling while walking along the destroyed homes and quiet streets. It erupted in 1700 BC and again in 79 AD with a dormant period of 1800 years between eruptions. Knowing it has been over 1900 years since the last eruption, I had the sense that it could happen at any moment. This feeling was even stronger on the quiet edges of the city.

After a somewhat lengthy walk, I arrive at the Villa dei Misteri. A highlight of this home is that it contains frescoes depicting the secret initiation ritual for women into the worship of Dionysus. Like Apollo, Dionysus was also a Greek god worshipped by the Romans. He was associated with wine, theatre, fertility, and spiritual ecstasy. The Romans often referred to him as Bacchus.

Having run low on time, I make my way back to the rendezvous point for the tour group I had abandoned after arriving at Pompeii. The tour guide was moving way to slow, burned time on rather mundane topics, and wasn’t going to all the places I wanted to see. I could feel precious minutes wasting away so I broke from the group rather quickly. If I were to do it again, I would download one of the apps for Pompeii, get to the city as early in the day as possible, and explore it by myself.

I really enjoy history and loved my visit to Pompeii. If you are visiting cities like Naples, Sorrento, or the Amalfi Coast you will be within striking distance of Pompeii. This is a trip should make. Also, the city of Herculaneum is about 10 miles away and said to be even better preserved than Pompeii. Designing a day that gives allows 4-6 hours in Pompeii and 3 hours in Herculaneum is how I will do it…next time.

Neuschwanstein Castle – Bavaria, Germany

Neuschwanstein Castle is a Romanesque Revival palace built in the late 1800’s by King Ludwing II of Bavaria. It sits high above the village of Hohenschwangau in southwest Bavaria, Germany. If the castle looks vaguely familiar, it is because Neuschwanstein castle was the inspiration behind Walt Disney’s Sleeping Beauty Castle.

Professional photo taken from mountain across from Neuschwanstein Castle

King Ludwig II intended the palace to serve as a retreat from his palace in Munich and personally paid for its construction rather than using public funds. At least some of the inspiration for the castle’s design is attributed to Richard Wagner – a dear friend of King Ludwig’s. Richard Wagner was a composer and theorist whose operas and music greatly influenced the evolution of music in the western world.

When King Ludwig passed away in 1886, the castle was opened to the public and more than 61 million people have visited. A few of my favorite photos from Neuschwanstein Castle:

Scenic vistas walking up the steep road to Neuschwanstein Castle and the road going up beyond the castle:

Historical Context

The region known today as Bavaria was originally settled by Iron Age Celts. The Roman Empire took control of the region around 100 BC. As the Western Roman Empire collapsed, Bavaria become part of the Kingdom of Germany around 600 AD and later became a sovereign kingdom.

King Ludwig II ascended to the Bavarian throne at age 18 in 1864. Several years later, Bavaria joined the Prussian-led German Empire in the Franco-Prussian (French-German) War of 1870 and, became a German state.

Grand Canyon – West Rim

Grand Canyon West Rim is a 2.5 hour drive from Las Vegas. If you are in Las Vegas and have never been to the Grand Canyon, the West Rim is certainly worth the trip. You can also stop at Hoover Dam which you will pass traveling to and from Grand Canyon West. While Grand Canyon West is part of the Grand Canyon, it is not part of the Grand Canyon National Park system. Instead, it is located on the Hualapai Reservation and operated by the Hualapai Tribe. If you are planning a trip specifically to visit the Grand Canyon for several days, the South Rim is the place to go.

I headed out of Vegas around 7 am filled with anticipation and arrived at Grand Canyon West a couple hours later. After paying the park admission fee and taking a short shuttle bus ride, I finally laid eyes on the Grand Canyon.

I couldn’t really grasp what I was seeing…massive, sprawling, and absolutely breathtaking. It was hard to wrap my mind around a place so unlike anything I had ever seen before. The passing of millions upon millions of years was evident before me and etched into the canyon walls. I feel very fortunate to have seen some amazing sights in my life, but this was overwhelming – spiritual.

I was also surprised by the lack of safety features around the view points. There was nothing. My hands are sweating right now thinking about how I could walk right up the edge and one step further would be the end.

I do okay with heights but this danger certainly had my undivided attention.

Yikes!
Taking a photo of someone taking a photo of someone taking a photo.

I had an amazing afternoon at Grand Canyon West. Buying your admission ticket online will save time. There are many tour bus options out of Vegas but a rental car will allow you travel at your own pace. Traveling in a V-8 Dodge Challenger added to the day’s excitement for me.

The park uses shuttle buses to get you from point to point. There are three stops on the route with the second and third stops being Grand Canyon view points. The third stop was my favorite because it had more views and a small peak you could hike up and truly feel on top of the world. The much touted “Skywalk” is at stop #2. There is an additional fee for the Skywalk and you aren’t allowed to take photos. Instead, they have photographers that will take photos of you and sell them to you. Not a big fan of that setup and didn’t participate.

If you are in Las Vegas and want to get out of the city for a day, Grand Canyon West is a great excursion. You will drive right past the Hoover Dam so be sure to stop and check it out as well.

Singapore – Gardens by the Bay

Singapore’s Gardens by the Bay is an expansive project in the Marina Bay area of Singapore. It is an eco-tourist destination showcasing sustainable practices and plants from across the globe and is a must-see attraction in Singapore.

The ever-present Marina Bay Sands hotel is on the edge of Gardens by the Bay.
First glimpse of the “super tree” groove – south of Marina Bay
The garden contains 18 of these “supertrees”
Each is a self-sustaining vertical garden
The skywalk between the trees provides another way to view and enjoy the garden.
Notice the “eggs” floating on Dragonfly lake. At night, they are illuminated along with the trees.
Crossing the Gardens by the Bay (south of Marina Bay)

The Gardens by the Bay covers 103 acres and has themed garden areas honoring the diversity of people found in Singapore – Chinese, Malay, and Indian – and Singapore’s history. It represents a significant step towards transforming Singapore into a “city within a garden.” They are well on their way. This garden and the focus on flora throughout the city is something that will always standout in my memories of Singapore.

Park Royal Hotel is living the “city within a garden” vision.

Porto, Portugal – Walk with Me (Part II)

My first post on Porto, Portugal took us through the vibrant and historic waterfront area of Ribiera. You can find it here: Porto Portugal – Walk with Me (Part I). In part II, we’ll begin our visual stroll north of Ribiera and take in a few sights as we work our way down to the riverfront.

Starting near the Campanha train station. The first landmark is a 19th century church, Igreja Santissima Trinidade.

A block south of the church is the breathtaking plaza called Avenida dos Aliados which is filled with architectural gems lining both sides. Statues, hotels, government building, cafes, retail stores, and restaurants make this a popular area in Porto.

Looking south down Avenida dos Aliados
Looking north at Porto City Hall

At the southern point of Avenida dos Aliados is a monument for King Pedro IV erected in 1866. His story is fascinating as he was in front and center during a period of significant upheaval in Portugal’s history. As the King of Portugal, he was forced to flee Portugal after the French (Napoleonic-era) invasion and conquest of Portugal in 1807. He took up residence in Brazil (Portugal’s wealthiest and most successful colony). He ruled over Brazil and eventually returned to Portugal with an army to regain control of Portugal in the early 1830’s. A lot happened in between his departure and return but that is a story for another day.

Next on my loosely penned itinerary is to locate the Clerigos Tower. Situated on the highest point of historic Porto. I know the view of the city will be one of the best available. I head east from the Avenida dos Aliados and up a steep street to arrive at the Clerigos church. Getting to the top will require a spiraling 250-step ascent but promises a fantastic 360-degree panoramic view of the city. Count me in!

Entering the church, I’m unexpectedly taken back by its splendor and pause for a few photos before getting to the tower.

As I begin my ascent into the tower, I notice the top of a building (image below) that is an actual park. So bizarre to see people laying in the grass surrounded by olive trees…on the roof of a building. This space is known as Jardim das Oliveiras.

Jardim das Oliveiras
Looking out from inside the tower.
Mission accomplished – view from top of the Clerigos Tower

Taking in the city view from the Clerigos tower is incredible. You are able to walk all the way around the top and get a 360 degree view. I was able to identify a few of the landmarks I wanted to see and get a general sense of the city’s layout. After leaving the tower, I know everything is downhill to the river. However, there is a famous bookstore (connected to Harry Potter) to visit first.

The Livaria Lello & Irmao is the bookstore where J.K. Rowling is said to have written parts of Harry Potter and inspired aspects of Harry Potter’s Hogwarts.

Around the corner from the Livaria Lello & Irmao bookstore is a plaza featuring the Fountain of the Lions and Igreja do Carmo. The church was built in the late 1700’s and features azulejos – ornate ceramic tiles – on the exterior. I haven’t mentioned this yet but azulejos are everywhere in Porto (and Portugal in general). Sometimes they are simple patterns covering the exterior of homes and at other times they form grand, detailed mosaics. Azulejo was introduced in the 13th century when the Moors (people from region today known as Morocco) controlled much of Iberian peninsula (what is now Portugal and Spain).

After this fun diversion, I set off down the narrow cobblestone streets of Porto towards the waterfront.

Porto is filled with steep streets. Wear comfortable shoes for walking.
Rio Douro ahead…I made it!

To see photos of Porto’s riverfront, please checkout Porto Portugal – Walk with Me (Part I).

Amalfi Coast, Italy

The Amalfi Coast is a breathtaking stretch of rugged coastline and vibrant villages. Located between the larger towns of Sorrento and Salerno in the Campania region of Italy, the Amalfi Coast has been designated as an UNESCO World Heritage Site.

My family’s trek to the Amalfi Coast began with a train ride from Naples to Salerno. Once in Salerno (which is a charming town as well), we had the option of riding a bus through tight mountain roads to the smaller towns or taking a ferry. As you can see below, the ferry offers sweeping views of dramatic coastline, vibrant villas, terraced vineyards, and cliffside lemon groves.

Our time was somewhat limited so we were only able to spend time in the villages of Amalfi and Positano. Here are some of my favorites from Amalfi taken in the village and from the ferry.

From Amalfi, we hopped on another ferry and made our way to Positano. While already part of the UNESCO World Heritage Sites, my daughter informed me it is also a premier spot for a coveted Instagram photo. Let me tell you, it isn’t an easy shot to get. As you are gaining access to the beach, I wouldn’t mention anything about taking a photo.

Our time was cut short in Positano by rain and rough seas. The last image is where the ferry docks to load passengers. Somehow, the captain managed to get us loaded for the last ferry out. If you are planing a similar trip the Amalfi Coast, there are ferry options out of Naples as well as Sorrento which, in hindsight, may have been the most scenic option. The only real downside for taking the ferry is weather. If the forecast is good, go for it.

Basel, Switzerland

The ancient history of Basel is beyond the scope of this photography-centered post. However, I personally enjoy having a little historical context around the places I am exploring. Briefly, Basel was touched by the Celts as early as 100 BC to 50 AD, followed by the Romans in the 1st and 2d century. After that, Basel came under the control of the Old-World kingdoms that have now evolved into France, Germany, and Hungary. In 1500, Basel joined the Swiss Confederation and is now one of the three largest cities in Switzerland.

Basel, like many cities, has an “Old Town”. Much of the old-town architecture of note seems to come from 1300 – 1700. Your approach into Old Town Basel will likely begin with a crossing of the Mittlere Bridge.

Mittlere Bridge
View from Mittlere Bridge
View from Mittlere Bridge

Mittlere Bridge crosses the Rhine at a point that is one of the oldest crossings on the Rhine. The bridge we see today was built in 1905 and replaced the original bridge built in 1226. A copy of the old bridge chapel – the Käppelijoch – was added to the new bridge. In the middle ages, criminals were sentenced to death at the Käppelijoch.

Käppelijoch

After crossing Mittlere, you have some great destinations to choose from. I began with Marktplatz which is the central square of Old Town. Dominating the view in this square is the vibrant red Basel Rathaus (old town hall). The center portion of the building was built in the early 1500’s with the tower and left wing (as you face it) added in the 1800’s. If you zoom in on the second image, the detailed art on the building is amazing. Marktplatz is filled with shops and places to eat…and I ate plenty.

Leaving Marketplatz, I next set my sights on the old city gate and the walk there was filled with vibrant colored homes.

Approaching Spalentor Gate

Spalentor (c. 1370) is a medieval city gate and all that remains of what was once the fortified city walls of old town Basel.

Located near Spalentor is Saint Peter’s Church built in the early 1300s.

After visiting Spalentor, I turned towards another key city square in Old Town. Munsterplatz is a square surrounding the historic Basler Munster (Basel Minster) church.

Munsterplatz

A Roman fort one stood on these grounds in the 2nd century. Most of the existing buildings today were built in the 1700s. Off to the right of picture below (not shown) is a nice park area with benches to relax and enjoy the scenery. The church is certainly a focal point in this square as it has been throughout the ages regardless of which city-state or nation controlled the area.

As you can see in the photos below, Basler Munster (Basel Minster) has tall spires and vibrant roof top tiles. The church was built and expanded between the 9th – 13th century. Partially destroyed by an earthquake in 1356, it was rebuilt in the Gothic style we see today.

Basler Munster sits upon the highest point in Basel. The Rhine river was of critical importance for trade and movement of supplies so the city and waterway needed to be defended. The elevation of this point optimized defensive positions. The presence of a fort and soldiers drove the need for a place of worship upon this plateau.

This is just a small sample of things to do and see in Basel, but they were points of interests that captured my imagination in the limited time I had available. Basel is on the border of France and Germany and within relatively short train rides to Zurich and Geneva so it is a central location for day trips to other areas as well.

Porto, Portugal – Walk with Me (Part I)

Coming in at #5 on Travel & Leisure’s “Top Cities in Europe to Visit” readers’ survey for 2019, Porto is a travel destination on the rise. If you visit Porto, the Praca da Ribeira is the must-see location and this is where I’ll start my series of posts on Portugal.

Nestled in along the river front of the Rio Douro, Ribeira is a UNESCO World Heritage Site and Porto’s historic city center. It is filled with vibrant architecture, winding cobblestone medieval streets, cafes, and restaurants.

As you can already see in the photos above, Porto is not built on flat terrain. And, if you enjoy exploring on foot, you’ll need to wear very comfortable shoes and be prepared for a leg workout. I began my journey north of Ribeira and take in a few other landmarks before walking down towards the Rio Douro.

The Rio Douro is getting closer.
Arriving at the bustling center of Ribeira along the Rio Douro.
A look back shows the slope of the streets and the vibrant buildings.
Facing the river and looking left, there are more riverfront cafes.

Once in Ribeira by the river, there are a few things that are going to command your attention. One is the massive steel bridge – the Ponte de D. Luis. This bridge was designed and constructed by a former student of Gustave Eiffel (designer of the Eiffel Tower). 

Ponte de D. Luis

I am drawn in for a closer look. The bridge has a pedestrian walkway on the lower level and this level is also used by cars. The top level is for a train but also has a pedestrian walkway. I cross on the bottom level with plans to return on the top level.

In the images below, I have crossed the river and we are now looking at Ribeira from the other side of the river.

My main reason for crossing the Douro river, in addition to wanting to experience the bridge up close, was to have a glass of port wine. Porto is where port wine originated and a large part of the riverfront across from Ribeira is lined with port cellars. The area (a separate city) is called Vila Nova de Gaia. You can arrange for tastings (on land or boat cruises) or sample the varieties in one of the many restaurants along the waterfront.

Port wine in the land it originated – Porto

Ribeira is breathtaking and every turn is filled with architectural eye candy. But, be sure to cross the Ponte de D Luis and look at Ribeira from across the river with a glass of port. It is a view you don’t want to miss.

I hope you enjoyed this visual stroll. In my next post, we’ll get a view from the top level of the Ponte de D. Luis and take in some of Porto’s other landmarks in Ribeira and beyond.

Porto, Portugal

Historic Ribeira highlighted

Monterey, California

Monterey, California had always been high on my bucket list, and I couldn’t wait to expose my family to the sights I had long dreamed of seeing. The town of Monterey would be wonderful to visit but what really had my heart racing was finally making the drive along the Pacific Coast Highway towards Big Sur.

It has been several years since we made this memorable journey. Now, I look forward to piecing it back together with this stroll down memory lane.

We stayed at the Monterey Plaza Hotel and Spa with a room overlooking Monterey Bay. Below, my daughter experiments with some creative photography on the balcony.

On the left side of the courtyard (in the image above) is a fire pit and seating where we enjoyed several relaxing sunsets looking out onto the bay. We were also within walking distance of the bustling Cannery Row which is filled with retail stores, restaurants, bars, and the renowned Monterey Bay Aquarium.

Even the early morning runs provided with memorable views:

Taking in the sights and experiences of Monterey were wonderful. However, the trip down the Pacific Coast Highway (PCH) was a different kind of wonderful. The Bixby Creek Bridge is a famous landmark along the PCH.

The panoramic cliffside views were breathtaking. I was also able to get a bit closer to the waterline at times to witness and almost feel the powerful force of nature that is still carving her masterpiece.

And even closer…

After dozens of stops at cliffside lookouts, each more visually compelling than previous stop, we reluctantly turned around and headed back to Monterey. But, there is always time for one last photo as I capture my wife and son in a selfie moment.

My wife and son taking one last shot for the road

Along the way back, we stopped for dinner at a seaside restaurant.

While the name of the place is lost to memory, I do have vivid memories of sitting on the patio with my family enjoying a meal while taking in a sweeping view of the Pacific Ocean from our cliffside perch. We were even treated with an all too short but magical whale sighting.

Brief History of the Monterey Area

Native Americans Native Americans first settled the area now known as Monterey and existed in a fishing and gathering-type society when Spanish explorers first arrived.

Spanish Discovery Spanish seafaring explorers first discovered the area known today as Monterey Bay in 1602 and suggested it was a suitable area for a potential port. It would take over 150 years for Spain to dispatch a land expedition to further explore the area in 1769 and establish a settlement – the second city established in California. San Diego is the only California city that is older.

Argentine Invasion On November 24, 1818, Argentina landed a military force that captured Monterey. The Spanish fort was taken and burned along with many of the buildings in this early Monterey settlement. Argentina’s occupation lasted only six days.

Mexico Takes Control In 1821, Mexico gained independence from Spain and Monterey became a possession of Mexico. There was little impact on the area and life continued much as it had while under Spain. One notable exception was the expansion of ranches through land grants.

Mexican – American War The Battle of Monterey took place on July 7, 1846 between U.S. and Mexico. American troops captured the city and claimed California for the United States. California became a state in 1850.

Monterey prospered as a fishing village (driven in large part by Japanese and Chinese migrants) through 1950 before exhausting its most vital resource – fish (especially sardines). Today, the area is more focused on tourism, marine biology, and is part of a marine sanctuary (an oceanic national park) that extends from Santa Barbara to San Francisco. A notable feature in Monterey Bay is the kelp forest which can be viewed up close in a kayak.

Monterey or nearby Carmel are great places for a family vacation. There is plenty to do and see in these two small towns and you can visit each of them easily regardless of which city you decide to stay in. Of course, a drive down the Pacific Coast Highway is a must while you are in the area.