Tuesday, October 30, 2018

Guernica is Alive and Kicking

Until a short while ago, the only association I had with the name Guernica -- or Gernika, the town’s official Basque name -- was the famous huge painting by Pablo Picasso. I first saw it on our trip to Spain in February 1999, at the Reina Sofia Museum in Madrid. It was awesome in the original sense of the word, i.e., truly awe-inspiring. And scary and heartbreaking. The kind of art that can give you nightmares if you look at it carefully, at length.

Then, just recently, we watched Season 2 of the TV series Genius. The 10 episodes of this season were dedicated to Pablo Picasso. Though I’m sure some will find fault with the series, I found it interesting and well-made, and it filled a few gaps in my education. Though the series didn’t go into the story of the bombing of Gernika at great length, it did provide some background, and even made me curious to find out more.

Anyway, when we were planning our trip, the first company we consulted (but ended up not hiring – too expensive) suggested popping over to the town of Gernika-Lumo as part of our route. So we did.
Gernika, Oct 2018

Gernika, Oct 2018
 It was Friday, October 12, which happens to be no less than Spain’s national holiday, commemorating the arrival of Columbus in the Americas. The streets of the pretty little town were full of strolling families, the bars and cafes filled with local residents enjoying their day off in the fresh air, quickly filling it with cigarette smoke, drinking vino or cerveza, and having the time of their lives. I sort of wished that whichever Nazi had given the order to bomb Gernika in April 1937 could see them now.

We were given to understand that the main point of going to Gernika was to visit the Museum of Peace. So we parked our rented car among all the other cars on one of the main streets, and went to the museum.
Museum of Peace, Gernika

Museum of Peace, Gernika

War museums are designed to be unsettling, I suppose. But the trick isn’t to say that war is hell; that’s been said and shown in countless novels, documentaries, and movies – War and Peace, All Quiet on the Western Front, The Longest Day – to name but a few well-known ones; and more recently, the TV series Sharpe which, though riveting, caused me to leave the room every once in a while, when the cruelty and bloodshed got too much for me. (My son dissuaded me from reading the books, saying they are even more gory…) Here’s the series’ theme song. (Apologies. I’m a Sharpe fan.)

In January 2017 we toured Vietnam. When in Ho Chi Minh City (Saigon), we went to the War Remnants Museum. Keep in mind that, if you Google “Vietnam War Museum” you’ll reach an American website of a museum in Texas… For the Vietnamese, it was “the American War”. A matter of perspective, obviously. Anyway – I’m afraid I didn’t have much patience for all the blood-curdling photos and relics. (Unlike my American cousin who felt morally obligated to scrutinize and contemplate the displays.) I know what war is. I was born on a kibbutz in pre-State Israel and lived through all of Israel’s wars. In fact – I’m lucky to be alive: the nursery that housed the kibbutz babies was bombed by Egypt the very day after we, the babies, were evacuated…
Babies' nursery, kibbutz Hatzor, 1948

Kibbutz Hatzor dining room, 1948

Kibbutz Hatzor living quarters, 1948

Kibbutz Hatzor public toilets, 1948 (there were no private toilets!)

Later, in the IDF, I didn’t serve on the front lines… But my then-husband did; and some of my school friends never made it back alive. I’d like to believe that anyone who has lived through a war would be ardently pro-peace. Sadly, this does not seem to be the case.

But I digress. The whole idea of the Peace Museum is not to commemorate war, but rather to encourage and extol peace. As one visitor wrote: “I was touched by the initiative to promote peace rather to condemn war”.*
Which doesn’t mean that the Museum completely refrains from touching that [exposed] nerve called The Horror of War. They have a short audio-visual show that places you in the pleasant, comfy home of a family, where you sit listening to a very convincing narrator representing the mother of the family… when suddenly the siren sounds, the bombers fly overhead, the bombs fall, and the next moment you’re sitting in a pile of ruins. It made me sick to my stomach.

It also reminded me of a TV series we watched recently, based on Terry Pratchett’s Johnny and the Bomb, a novel for young readers. Though the main theme may be time travel, the parallel theme is war, and the way it affects civilians: ordinary people living in an ordinary town. You know – like Gernika, or Coventry, or [insert city name of your choice.] I think a film like that is perfectly in keeping with the Peace Museum, whose entire objective is to encourage people from all over the world to work for peace. One cannot travel in time; we can’t change the past. But changing the route that leads to a future of war is still a possibility. Or is it simply an ineradicable feature of the human race?
 --       --       --

* Thing Thing Lee, contributor to Google Maps

Sunday, October 14, 2018

San Sebastian - it's the little things

And this time, I don't mean the little things that make San Sebastian different and special. I haven't been here long enough to observe the peculiarities of this beautiful city. We only arrived here yesterday (Wednesday), and are leaving tomorrow (Friday). Pity. Had I done my homework, maybe we'd have stayed one more day. By the time I begin to get the feel of a city, it's time to pack and move on. Unlike our stay in Tbilisi, say, Rome, or Catania, where I began to feel at home.

"Are you packing your slippers?" asked my trusty travel planner.
"Nah, not necessary," I answered, having packed so much stuff, that I really didn't feel like agonizing over which slippers or flip-flops to take with, and where exactly in the suitcase or backpack I'd put them.
Humph :-(
Had I really forgotten what hotel floors were like in Spain?
I was fine during the TLV-Madrid flight. I could be comfortable with simply loosening the shoelaces of my sneakers. The flight was just over 4 hours long. And the connecting flight to Bilbao took about an hour. But here at the hotel...
Amara Plaza hotel, San Sebastian
The Amara Plaza, part of the Silken chain, is fine, really. No complaints. Or at least, no serious complaints. The room is tasteful, in a no-frills, minimalist style. Nothing to distinguish it from its brethren at other 4-star hotels. Not a single picture on the bedroom walls (but plenty of beautiful art  in the public areas); nothing noteworthy or unique re drapes, bedspread, desk, etc. And the floor tiles are lovely -- grey ceramic, with a wood-like texture, exactly like the ones I chose for our bathroom floor, when we did renovations some six years ago.
What can I say? I suffer from cold feet. Literally.

What I'd really like while jotting down these persnickety notes is a cup of latte, or cappuccino. Neither appear in the Room Service pages, and the room has no electric kettle, so even had I brought my fave black coffee ("botz", in Hebrew), it wouldn't have done me any good :-(
We noticed this morning, at breakfast, that the coffee machine was out of order. The ready-made coffee in the pitchers was very strong. Not sure about the flavor. But surely in the Piano Bar they serve decent coffee?...

Gosh, don't I sound like a spoiled brat!

Listen, hotel staff and owners: It's a good hotel. The staff are friendly, capable and helpful. Young Yuliya, for example, is a gem; I hope you appreciate her and nurture her. Your range of artwork is diverse and admirable. I love your choice of complimentary green-tea toiletries -- good quality and a delicate scent. Please add shower cap to said toiletries.  Oh - I couldn't help wondering: why isn't there a toilet-brush in the bathroom?... [I thought it might be just a glitch, but later noticed that there simply are no toilet brushes in hotel or restaurant or other public toilets. A deliberate policy?]

Anyway -- San Sebastian is beautiful. It has a river with several bridges, including a French-style one with ornate statues.
Urumea river, San Sebastian
It has tree-lined boulevards with colorful flowerbeds. It has interesting architecture, beautiful, renovated old buildings, a bay and a beach, museums and a huge public library; and scores upon scores of bars, cafes and restaurants.
Items from Amara Plaza's private art collection

San Sebastian beach

San Sebastian Old City
Recommended bar, a short walk from the hotel:
The delightful Azul
delicious tapas, or pinxtos in Basque

It's bad enough that I hadn't brushed up on my university-days Spanish before the trip; but not understanding a word in Basque makes things even more complicated...

Monday, August 27, 2018

Crete - Xania or Chania

View #1 of Theotikopoulou St. from the hotel balcony

View #2 - the sea at the other end of Theotikopoulou St.
Finding the Consolato Boutique Suites & Rooms was easy, once we managed the tricky bit -- finding parking in one of the streets leading to the entrance to the Old City. Our charming host, Thanasis, was waiting for us at the door. He ushered us into the Hermes suite, explaining everything in great detail, pointed out the restaurant right across the street, for which he gave us breakfast vouchers; and recommended the Tamam restaurant down the road for dinner.
The luxurious suite took me by surprise; I'd forgotten that Michael had taken the "what-the-hell, let's splurge" approach for our last couple of nights in Crete. It was worth it. Some good points about the Consolato, and the Hermes suite:

  • Large bed, comfy mattress... a welcome change after the typical hard mattresses encountered on our Greece trips, as far back as 1991; excellent pillows, soundproof windows, powerful yet quiet a/c, large shower stall with fragrant shower-gel & body lotion, etc.
  • Fridge. Nespresso coffee machine & capsules. Tea-bags for Brits like Michael ;-)

Hermes Suite bedroom

Hermes Suite front room

  • Perfect location: Walk out to the left, and you can either take a right and within minutes find yourself at the Maritime Museum and at the gorgeous Venetian Harbor; or you can continue down Theotikopoulou for a 100 meters or so and be at the beach, that blue blob in View #2 in the above pics. If you exit the hotel and turn right, you can enjoy walking along the meandering cobblestoned lanes with their eye-catching artistic shops and boutiques, ending at -- you guessed it -- the beautiful Venetian Harbor. Most Israelis are familiar with the old-world charm of Old Cities, e.g.  the Old City of Jerusalem, the Old City of Jaffa, the Old City of Acre and Safed. But it's different when you're abroad. Otherwise what's the point in traveling?...
  • Aspros Gatos Wine Project right opposite the hotel. Friendly service, tasty breakfast, cute name -- at least for cat lovers. We didn't go there in the evening so I don't know what it's like as a bar, but there are plenty of favorable testimonies online. The vouchers given us by Mr. Thanasis provided for a more-than-satisfying breakfast.

Michael reading the menu @Aspros Gatos

Breakfast menu (yes, the tattered pages are intentional...)
Nina @Aspros Gatos
  • The two restaurants recommended by Thanasis -- the Tamam nearby and the Chrisostomos -- were both excellent, but it is advisable to book a table. We were lucky, and on both evening we apparently came an hour or so before the crowds, so a table was found for us. At the Tamam I had the best moussaka since my previous trip to Greece... and an imaginative, original salad that was yummy. You know how the desire for an "original" dish can be a booby-trap for an ambitious chef? Well, this certainly was not one of those! As for the Chrisostomos -- Sorry, I didn't write down what we ate; but it was well worth it. As for desserts at both places -- we tend to skip dessert and just stop by the nearest kiosk or minimarket and treat ourselves to a Magnum...
  • If you like museums, there's more than one. I like maritime museums. The Maritime Museum of Crete one was not as impressive as, say, the historic Dockyard at Chatham, but it had plenty of historical info about wars and such... plus some interesting pieces. 
Alexander the Great
Alexander the Great

  •  If you're not into shopping for souvenirs, arts & crafts etc., the best thing you can do is stroll back and forth along the waterfront -- including up to the lighthouse and back -- and take pictures from every possible angle... Then choose a random cafe, order your fave drink, and drink in the view... You will miss it once you get home!

Xania Venetian Harbor
Nina @ the lighthouse, Xania Harbor
One last note: I have very little idea what the "real", i.e. modern, city of Xania is like. Sure, we drove through it. It looked like a city. You know, with shops, houses, traffic lights... But other than that, I haven't a clue. We did the common touristy thing. If we go there again, I'll make time to explore the city. Even if it turns out not to be "special". Just like in Georgia, I am sure that authentic local restaurants, where the locals eat, are worth the effort :-)
    My favorite souvenir from Crete

    Saturday, August 18, 2018

    Crete - The Old Phoenix

    ... so we checked out of the Georgia B&B on Friday (Aug 3rd), and began driving towards Sfakia, a.k.a. Hora Sfakion. Some of the roads twist up and down hilly land, and our rented car, a Nissan Micra, is not very powerful. But then again, we were only two passengers, with relatively light luggage - one mid-sized suitcase and two trollies, none of which were stuffed to the max.
    Stopped mid-way at one of those places that sell olive oil and a huge selection of other olive-based products. Was brave and didn't buy anything... Except for a cold drink at the adjacent kiosk.

    Our daughter and son-in-law, who were already comfortably settled at The Old Phoenix, had warned us about the very tricky drive from Sfakia to Phoenix Bay. Apparently the road is very rough, steep and winding, requiring extreme concentration and caution. As Noam drove, Daria tried to distract the children (aged 2 1/2, 4 1/2, and 7) who were tense and scared. Far better to take a water taxi. You can also take a ferry, then walk for about 15 minutes. But who wants to hike along a footpath in the sweltering midday sun, schlepping a suitcase, two trollies, a shoulder-bag and a backpack... For more practical suggestions and details, see the Visit West Crete page.

    At Sfakia harbor, we found the Controlled Parking area and the guy in charge managed to squeeze our Micra into a tight spot, charged us 9 euro for three days paid in advance, and told us to wait for our boat by the tall crane. I honestly don't know the full meaning of "controlled" parking; we just paid and hoped that, other than dust and bird droppings, we'd find our car just as we left it.
    Tall crane, Sfakia harbor

    Interesting wall along Sfakia harbor
    I neglected to mention that the amazing Elisabet at the Georgia Hotel had phoned Taxi Boat Sifis ahead of time and booked the trip for us. (Check out the link and copy-paste the number into your smartphone!)  The fee quoted was 40 euro, but we got a 5-euro discount because another family joined the ride. 'Bye, Sfakia! See you in a few days!
    On board Taxi Boat Sifis
    Some 25 minutes of chugging along on the clearest, bluest, calmest water I've ever sailed on, and there were the white buildings with the blue shutters, so typical of Greek islands. Before I even had a chance to wonder which of those buildings housed the Reception of The Old Phoenix, and how I'd find our daughter and her entourage, I caught sight of a skinny boy (7) in bathing trunks running towards the pier, waving excitedly at us. We hardly set foot on solid ground when our youngest grandkid, two-and-a-half year-old Tamzie, who'd heard M's voice, dashed forward calling out "Michael sheli!" ("my Michael") and jumped into his arms. 
    Okay, that made our day :-) 
    Soon enough the whole family escorted us to the Reception desk, and walked us to our room.
    Michael and Daria enjoying a cold drink shortly after our arrival
    The room itself was pretty basic, nothing to write home about, or rather, to blog about. The shower stall was a joke: it had a shower curtain on the two sides which weren't walls, but no matter whether you placed the showerhead in its holder way up on the wall or held it in your hand -- the water somehow escaped the stall and flooded the entire bathroom floor. Luckily, it also dried up of its own accord pretty fast. How come? - window, air conditioning, whatever.
    But the most exhilarating aspect of the place is the view from the balcony! And I'm not referring to the towels, bathing suits and other items hanging up on most balconies, although these had their use:
    Our balcony at the Old Phoenix

    Spread them out on the line properly, and you've got a lightweight barrier between you and your neighbor, which is rather useful when you spend much of your time minimally dressed, if at all, with the balcony door/shutters often open to let in the sea breeze, and -- well, you get the picture.
    View from our room, morning
    View from our room, later in the day
    In the mornings we were awakened by a beautiful jingling of bells, lots of bells. Simply had to jump out of bed to see where it was coming from. It came from a herd of goats taking their morning walk up and around the nearby hills. Early morning is the best time to do hiking and sightseeing in nature, both for goats and humans. You can walk from the Old Phoenix to the nearby village of Loutro either the short way -- about 700 meters -- or the longer but easier way of 1300 meters. (0.43 and 0.8 miles, respectively.) I didn't do it, but since my grandkids did, I'm sure you could, too. 
    If you want to stock up on something (booze? Pringles? flipflops?) or want to buy a new pareo, if you run out of sunscreen lotion, Ibuprofen or crayons for the kids -- Loutro has it all. Oh -- and a propos flipflops: what you really need on this beach is lightweight water shoes to protect your feet from the pebbles and rocks. (As an Israeli, I'm accustomed to the gloriously soft sand on our beaches.)
    The plastic sandals I wore, a popular brand called Moses, are fine and dandy, but not for stepping into the sea surrounding [most of?] Crete. You don't have to invest in expensive swimmers' or divers' shoes. You can find really cheap versions at any supermarket in villages and towns along the coast. 

    Like many travelers, I'm a sucker for high-quality, or at least fragrant, toiletries. Chapeau to The Old Phoenix for their choice of shampoo/shower gel (pity there was no corresponding body lotion): 
    Oliva(mo) shampoo & shower gel
    When in Loutro, we went into a minimarket where I actually saw these products on a shelf, but failed to grab a few... consoling myself later with the thought that I'd find them at some other place. But I didn't :-(   Of course Google was quick to show me where I could get them. So if I'm really desperate, I could order the stuff online. But who knows -- we'll soon be traveling to Spain, where I fell in love with the Prija toiletries... then there were Algotherm treats, picked up at I-don't-remember-where... and... but enough is enough.
    Next post: Xania, a.k.a Chania, a.k.a. Khania