A Travellerspoint blog

By this Author: zzlangerhans

Magical Islands: Sicily and Malta


View Sicily and Malta on zzlangerhans's travel map.

Easter vacation is tough when it comes to choosing a travel destination, because it raises the question of whether it's worth the two 9-10 hour flights across the Atlantic to Europe and back for a one week trip. Most of the places we still want to visit in the US are still too cold for us in April, and Latin America gets repetitious (we were just in Nicaragua in January). I was thinking about Malta for a few reasons: it was probably going to be acceptably warm with lows in the 60's, there seemed to be a lot of fun things for kids, it was tiny and isolated so we probably would never get there on a longer European road trip, and it would be a new country for everyone. However, as usual when I look at Google Maps I can't keep my hand off the scroll button and my eye kept getting drawn to Malta's larger island neighbor Sicily to the north. I'd been there twice before: with my parents when I was about five, and for a couple of days in my twenties. My memories were very vague from both trips. I had planned to include Sicily on a future road trip from Rome down the Amalfi coast, but after doing a little research I realized I didn't want to wait. I started working on an ambitious itinerary that would cover all the main attractions of Sicily as well as Malta and determined that the absolute minimum time for the trip would be two weeks. We don't like taking Cleo out of school now that she's in pre-K, but eventually we decided it wouldn't upset her to miss about a week. Of course, there were no direct flights from Miami to Sicily or Malta but I found very reasonably-priced two-leg itineraries to Palermo with a connection in Rome. The rental car ended up being inexpensive as well thanks to our discovery in Munich that a larger car could accommodate three car seats across the back seat, which meant we wouldn't have to go with an expensive and cumbersome minivan. I did my best to confirm that our seats would fit in the promised BMW 618d and decided we would deal with the issue at the rental agency if they turned out not to.

We did a great job on our end of preparing for the trip. After forgetting a few things on our last two road trips we had made an exhaustive checklist of all the essentials which ensured everything got into the bags before we left. We had an evening departure which meant the kids would sleep most of the flight and take much of the sting out of the nine hour ordeal. I had booked flights on KLM but the check-in desk redirected us to Alitalia which was apparently the actual airline we were flying on. At Alitalia, the check-in agent sent our bags through but then found herself unable to assign us boarding passes for our flight from Rome to Palermo. She called over another agent and after much scrutiny of their computer screen the second agent informed us our second flight had been canceled due to "a strike at the airport". While Mei Ling tried to get more information from the agents I Googled the strike and found it it was actually an Alitalia strike and had nothing to do with the airport. I brought this to the agents' attention and the second agent smiled and nodded. "Yes, it's an Alitalia strike." Apparently these strikes have been a fairly regular event lately and last for part of a day. Alitalia then cancels a whole bunch of flights, screws over hundreds of their passengers, presumably rebooks them, and business continues as usual until the next strike. At that point we decided we would proceed to Rome and hopefully rebook on a later flight to Palermo. If worst came to worst, we could take a ferry or drive down to Sicily and salvage most of our vacation. Rome isn't the worst place in the world to be stranded anyway.

The flight to Rome wasn't too bad, although the kids didn't sleep as much as I'd hoped and I didn't sleep at all. Once we arrived, we quickly arrived at a desk where Alitalia agents were supposed to be helping people rebook their canceled flights. After about a twenty minute wait I came to an agent with a shaved head. He looked at my itinerary and immediately passed it back to me, telling me that since I booked through KLM I would have to go to KLM check-in in the departures area. That seemed to make no sense to me. It's an Alitalia flight, I told him. He just shook his head and gave me a very insincere sympathetic look, the kind of expression that is intended to make it very clear that it is not meant sincerely. Sorry, I won't talk to you any more. You have to go to KLM. I asked him if we should go to baggage claim first and get our luggage. No, he answered, your luggage will be going on to Palermo. How does our luggage get to Palermo if the flight has been canceled? For a second, his smirk was replaced by a look of confusion. Then the smirk reappeared, and he told us that yes, we should go to baggage claim. We were pleasantly surprised to find all our bags piled up next to the empty baggage carousel. We schlepped everybody and everything to the KLM check-in where as expected, they told us that they had absolutely nothing to do with domestic flights within Italy which were exclusively conducted by Alitalia. They were courteous enough to take us directly to Alitalia check-in, where a long line of displaced passengers awaited reassignment, and prevail upon the agents there to attend to us immediately.
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Despite cutting to the front of the line, we still had to spend an hour sprawled in front of the check-in desk while the agent scrutinized his computer screen wordlessly aside from barking nastily at any coworkers who spoke to him. Eventually he informed us that all flights to Palermo the rest of the day were fully booked and the best he could do was ten in the morning the next day. I asked him if that was the first flight to Palermo that day and he told we there was one at eight. I asked him if there was space on that one and he said there was, with no explanation regarding why he had just told us that ten in the morning was the best he could do. It actually made a huge difference for us, because the earlier arrival meant we would be able to catch one of the morning markets in Palermo that we were desperate to experience. We booked the tickets and the agent told us that we would be comped for a night at a Holiday Inn close to the airport. During this long interaction there was only one other agent tending to the queue of refugees in a similarly slow fashion, so the line didn't move at all the entire time we were there. I felt a little guilty about cutting to the front, but when you have three exhausted little kids you accept any favors you get. Hopefully none of those folks ended up spending the whole night on that line.

We got to the Holiday Inn shuttle stop only to find out we'd have to wait an hour for the next bus, so we took a taxi instead. The Rome airport is actually in Fiumicino, about twenty miles from central Rome, and our hotel was in an isolated business park halfway between the two. Once we were settled in the hotel, we had to decide if we were going to simply use the hotel dinner voucher we'd been provided or find a restaurant. Eventually I decided that the Holiday Inn dinner was probably going to be awful and I didn't want the Alitalia fiasco to have a permanent impact on the quality of our trip, so I used the "Restaurants near me" function of TripAdvisor to pick a place to eat. I wasn't sure that Uber was reliable in Rome and I already had the European Mytaxi app installed on my phone. Mytaxi showed me a very inexpensive fare and I summoned a taxi which took about 15 minutes to arrive. When we arrived at the restaurant, the taxi driver entered his own fare into the Mytaxi app which ended up about three times higher than what I had been quoted. Later I determined that Mytaxi is basically a dispatch app and the fare estimate they provide has no basis in reality. At the end of the ride, the taxi driver determines the fare and he charged us for the mileage he drove to get to the hotel as well as the mileage to the restaurant.

Fortunately, our dinner at Scuderie San Carlo was quite good and the restaurant was beautiful and peaceful, which made me feel like the effort to drag ourselves from the hotel had been worthwhile.
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We took a Uber back to the Holiday Inn which was less than half the price of the Mytaxi. Mei Ling used the voucher to get more food from the hotel restaurant, but the overcooked rigatoni in canned red sauce and baked chicken thighs ended up in the trash can. I felt a small sense of victory that we hadn't let Alitalia reduce us to eating garbage on the first night of our vacation.

The next morning we were up at the crack of dawn and took the shuttle bus back to the Fiumicino airport. One cool feature in the departure area was the rectangular columns with LED screens that displayed a continuous loop of sharks and fish moving inside a large tank. Very realistic.

Overall things went much more smoothly than the previous day and we got to Palermo without any issues. We had arranged for our Airbnb host to pick us up at the airport for about the same price as a taxi, which meant we didn't have to worry about the driver locating our apartment in central Palermo. We unloaded our stuff into the apartment as quickly as we could. Our first market was just a short walk away.

Posted by zzlangerhans 07:01 Archived in Italy Tagged italy sicily malta Comments (0)

Around the World 2015: Versailles and the Loire Valley

I'd planned to spend our last stop of the trip in Versailles and other small towns around Paris, but fortunately we had a well-traveled friend who strongly recommended that we visit the Loire Valley to the southwest. After I did a little research and saw some pictures of the amazing châteaux, I knew it would be a great little road trip. We had a late arrival in Paris after a long flight from Delhi and drove our rental car straight to Versailles. We were surprised to find an affectionate cat awaiting us at the Airbnb. He led us to his bag of food, so of course we fed him. I rechecked the listing and there was no mention of a cat whatsoever. Fortunately Cleo and I love cats, and none of us has allergies. Good thing though!
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The next morning it was freezing cold and drizzly, about the worst weather we'd experienced during the entire trip. While driving to our planned breakfast stop, we came across a large market in progress in the center of town. Naturally, we ditched our plans and immediately parked. The biting wind and rain may have deterred some of the shoppers, but the vendors were well-protected from the elements by their canopies and it seemed to be business as usual. In the outdoor part of the market in the central square we found Mei Ling's beloved rotisserie, with fat dripping down from the meat onto a layer of boiled potatoes at the bottom. There were golden brown baguettes and an enormous variety of French cheeses, as well as seemingly perfect fruits arranged in beautiful displays. There was a type of strawberry we'd never seen before, with what looked like a white net around a red center. Surrounding the square on every side were indoor arcades with delicatessens, butchers, and fish markets. It was a quintessential French market, far better than any restaurant we could have found. The only limitation was the size of our stomachs.
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When we were buying some whole sea urchins, another customer asked us in French-accented English how we were going to eat them. We explained that we were simply going to scoop out the roe and eat it raw. It turned out that he was a college professor who lived close to the market, and he invited us to his house to have coffee. We agreed to meet him in the afternoon after we'd had lunch back at our Airbnb, since we were dying to consume our purchases at that point. A short while later, the four of us were stuffing ourselves with some of the best food we'd encountered on the entire journey.
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After lunch we drove to our new acquaintance's apartment where we had coffee with him and his wife, and showed them how to open and eat sea urchins. We had a great discussion about parenting and travel. Their children were already grown and had moved to other cities. I was amazed that they were so willing to welcome complete strangers into their home, even with small children who were constantly eyeing their fragile antiques.
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We were getting a late start on Versailles, which wasn't a big problem since the palace itself was closed for May Day. I hadn't planned it that way, but it was almost a relief not to have to make the decision about touring the interior. Even though it would have felt like an obligation, I've been inside enough of these attractions to know it would have been crowded and ultimately unmemorable. Neither of us has the requisite interest in period art or furnishings to get the most out of the experience. It was still cold and drizzly, so we decided to spend a couple of hours walking in the gardens before heading to our Airbnb in Orléans.

The gardens were a pleasure to walk in although surprisingly expansive. The rain and mist somewhat obscured the majesty of the buildings, but it enhanced the greenery and the beautiful fountains.
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Because the palace was closed, we had found a place to park inside the grounds without much difficulty. I wasn't sure it was entirely legal, but we found our car where we had left it without any evidence of a ticket. We all climbed in and buckled up for the drive to Orléans but within a second of hitting the gas I felt a huge bump as though the car had climbed up onto a curb or gigantic rock. I tried to reverse backwards but the car wouldn't move, and the same thing happened when I gently tried to ease the car forward. I got out and looked under the front of the car and realized that I had mounted a short, thick wooden post that was now suspending the front of the car such that the front tires weren't even touching the ground. Clearly the post had been placed there to prevent people from driving onto the grass but I had completely missed it in the rain. Incomprehensibly, the post was just a foot tall with a slanted edge, which practically invited cars to mount and impale themselves on it just as I had.

I immediately knew we weren't going to make it to Orléans that night, but I had more pressing worries to deal with first. We were stranded in the gardens on a national holiday with dusk quickly approaching, and two small children who hadn't had dinner. I didn't have any phone or internet service because all the stores were closed for May Day as well. I flagged down one passerby who was leaving and asked him to let the security guard at the gate know about our situation. We waited for a while, but no one came so I decided to strike out on my own. I made it to the gate where we'd entered and found the booth empty. There was absolutely no sign of anyone on the street or any open restaurants where I could ask for help. I headed back to the car and found a security vehicle next to it with a guard surveying the damage. More people showed up and we were able to borrow a phone and contact our Airbnb and our rental car company. Eventually a guy came with a tow truck who was able to lift the car off the post. I was hoping the car would still be drivable with only body damage but the tow truck guy showed me that the post had destroyed the radiator. I let the rental car company know, and ultimately it was determined they would send someone out to pick us up and drive us back to the Paris airport where we would be given a new car.

One stroke of luck was that the cafe in the gardens was still open, so we got the kids and bags out of the trashed car and got everyone some food while we waited for our ride. Eventually we got picked up and had to go through the whole process of returning to the airport rental counter, filling out tons of paperwork, and then getting loaded into our new car. It was too late to drive all the way to Orléans, so I substituted Chartres which was where we had originally planned to spend our last night of the trip. By the time we all crawled into bed at a roadside motel outside of Chartres at around 11, it had been six hours since I wrecked the car. The short description of the episode here doesn't begin to do justice to the ordeal we went through.

In the morning we used the motel wifi to message the Orléans Airbnb that we would be there in the afternoon, and then drove to the center of Chartres. In the heart of the old town we encountered a beautiful covered market, where we assembled the ingredients for another meal of fresh produce. The pedestrian streets around the market were filled with an array of cafes and artisanal food stores.
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It was just a short walk from the center to Chartres Cathedral. The perfectly preserved 13th century Gothic behemoth seemed out of place in such a small, unassuming town. To the rear of the cathedral was an open area with sweeping views of the newer part of town below us.
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It was Saturday and we still hadn't found an open store to buy a local SIM, so it looked like we weren't going to have phone or data during our stay in France. We decided to proceed directly to the Airbnb in Orléans. Once we arrived in the center of town, I left everyone in the illegally parked car and ran around looking for the right street. I eventually found the address after asking half a dozen people for directions, but no one answered the doorbell. A waitress at a nearby cafe lent me her mobile phone and I tried calling, but no one answered. Back at the car, we decided to press ahead to Château de Chambord and then try the Airbnb again afterwards.

I had compiled a list of five or six chateaux in the Loire Valley that seemed like they would be the most visually appealing. We probably could have managed a couple more, but I figured that after seeing that many in a short period of time they would start to become repetitive and wearisome. Château de Chambord was at the top of our list, and it also happened to be the closest to Orléans.

Chambord proved to be a great first stop on our tour of the Loire Valley chateaux. The 16th century castle is a mixed masterpiece of medieval and Renaissance architecture, and is a clear inspiration for the Disney castles that shape our perception of how royalty and opulence should appear. I loved the complexity of the structure, with dozens of towers and balconies that seemed to be made for exploring. The interior of the castle was somewhat barren compared to the outside, to the extent that they had placed cardboard cutouts of the former occupants in the great hall for tourist to amuse themselves with. Cleo and I took the winding marble staircase upstairs to the second floor, where we went out onto the balcony for a better look at all the little towers and cupolas. Even though the balustrades were taller than Cleo, I was terrified by the way she kept racing away from me around the balconies.
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After Chambord, we stopped at McDonald's to use the wifi and got the unpleasant news that our Airbnb hosts in Orléans had decided we were too much trouble and had simply canceled our reservation. Perhaps they thought that meant they would be keeping our payment for the entire three day stay, although Airbnb quickly disabused them of that misconception and compensated us with $100 for our inconvenience. That still left us with the problem of finding accommodation for the next two nights, so I got on Booking.com and found a hotel in Blois, a mid-sized town very close to Chambord. We went there immediately and I had another frustrating saga of searching for the hotel without any online map. Naturally, when I finally found the correct address there was no doorbell and no answer when I knocked on the door, so I once again had to find a cafe and beg to use a phone. The hotel turned out not to be a real hotel but an apartment and the manager wasn't on site, which was why no one had answered my knock. He came to meet me at the cafe and took me back to the apartment, where he insisted on giving me a protracted tour of the facilities while I kept reminding him that my wife and children had been waiting in the car over an hour. He accompanied me back to the car to guide me through the restricted streets around the apartment. By that time, we were exhausted by all the highs and lows of the last two days. We trudged through yet another rainstorm and had dinner in a nearby hotel before crashing back at the apartment.

On Sunday we had a full slate of Loire Valley castles to see. We began our day at Château de Chenonceau, which largely rests on a series of stone arches over the River Cher. Before the château even comes into view, the first experience of the estate is a wide path through lush greenery lined with majestic trees. The castle's architecture is reminiscent of Château de Chambord, but the setting atop the river made the place truly unique.
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For lunch we rewarded ourselves with a gourmet meal at Le Patio in the nearby town of Amboise. The food was delicious and the kids were well-behaved, so we counted that meal as a major win.
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Amboise had its own château which hadn't made my list, but since we were right there we decided to pay a visit. The castle couldn't really compare to Chambord or Chenonceau, but there were beautiful views over the town and the Loire from the top of the hill that the château stood on.
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Our last stop before returning to Blois was Château de Cheverny, This 17th century mansion was a significant departure from the Renaissance castles we had seen earlier, displaying a more symmetric and conservative classical French style. The interior furnishings were more elaborate and well-maintained than the others. The owner still maintains dozens of hunting dogs on the estate.
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We returned to Blois with a couple of hours of daylight left so we decided to explore the town a little. The center of the hillside town was full of interesting features like tall outdoor staircases, cobblestoned pedestrian streets, and several stone bridges across the Loire. We had dinner at a Turkish barbecue restaurant before returning to the apartment for the night.
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On our last full day of the trip we took a short walk from our apartment to La Maison de la Magie Robert-Houdin, a museum dedicated to magic and specifically Houdini. When we arrived, we learned that there would be a magic show in about an hour so we decided to take a look at the Château de Blois, which was conveniently placed on the opposite side of the square we were on. We didn't pay the entrance fee since we could get a good look at the castle from the inner courtyard and we'd already seen more than enough château interiors. The most distinctive feature from the outside was a magnificent octagonal spiral staircase protruding outward from one of the wings.
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The kids enjoyed some the the displays at the magic museum but were a little too young to appreciate the magic show, so we brought them out after about an hour. Before returning to our car, we enjoyed the hourly show where gigantic dragon heads burst from the upper windows of the museum and twist and roar for a few minutes before retreating back inside.
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On the drive north to Orléans we stopped for lunch at the ancient and scenic riverside town of Beaugency. The little village was almost deserted on a Monday afternoon, but fortunately we were able to find a decent meal at the only open restaurant that we encountered.
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We arrived in Orléans three days later than planned, but we hadn't been given much reason to regret all the events that had scuttled our carefully laid plans. We settled into our hotel at the edge of the pedestrian center and resolved to see as much as we could in the one afternoon and evening fate had allotted us. It turned out we were fortunate not to have missed Orléans, because it proved to be the most beautiful French city we'd seen up to that point. We walked from our hotel down the wide pedestrian street Rue de la République, which was lined with boutiques and beautiful classical apartment buildings. Eventually we came to the central Place du Martroi, which was surrounded by cafes where people congregated despite the intermittent drizzle. In the center was a gorgeous two-level carousel which we finally had to drag the kids away from after a half dozen rides. We had a very good seafood dinner in a carefully chosen restaurant on the square and retired to our hotel for the last sleep of our journey.
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In the morning we took the car to the southern part of the old town where we had breakfast in the covered market, which was rather subdued on a Tuesday morning.
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We had given ourselves plenty of time to drive back to the Paris for our flight, but once we got in the car we were confronted with the problem that our GPS could not recognize the name of the airport no matter what way we tried to enter it. We had never bought a SIM card, so we didn't have the option of Google Maps either. Eventually I decided to use the rudimentary map that accompanied the rental information to get us to the right area and then look for the signs. Unsurprisingly, we did not encounter a single sign for the airport until we were practically on top of it, at which point I was already beginning to sweat heavily and stare at the clock on the dashboard. Even after the first sign, they only appeared intermittently and somewhat ambiguously until we became convinced we were going to miss our flight. We ultimately arrived at the rental dropoff with far less time than we would have liked and prepared to rush for the gate, but the attendant thretaned us with a heavy fine if we didn't do something about the four days worth of kid-related garbage that had accumulated in the back of the car. Mei Ling started sweeping the garbage frantically into a plastic bag while I assembled our little caravan of strollers and baggage, and then we all raced furiously to the gate and barely made it to our flight. After five weeks and six stops in four countries, we were finally on our way home.
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Posted by zzlangerhans 12:51 Archived in France Tagged orleans chenonceau beaugency versailles amboise chambord blois chartres cheverny Comments (0)

Around the World 2015: India's Golden Triangle and Taj Mahal

We had originally planned to visit Delhi and the Taj Mahal, so I had reserved one night in a hotel in Agra before we left. We figured we would sort out our transportation to Agra once we arrived. At the Tara Palace in Delhi, the manager had made us a reasonable offer to send us on a three day tour of Jaipur and Agra with a personal driver. I didn't know much about Jaipur, but we had already seen most of what we wanted to in Delhi so at least it would be something different. We set off fairly early in the morning on what would prove to be a five hour drive in an old car with weak air conditioning. We didn't have car seats for the kids, but fortunately the highway was in very good condition and our driver was very conservative. At least our kids were safer than the ones in this vehicle.
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We got to experience Delhi traffic as we departed through Chor Bazaar in the center of the old city.

Our highway lunch stop was a bit of a misfire, as I quickly realized that the restaurant was very overpriced with bland food and the only people eating there were Westerners on a similar itinerary to ours. We didn't have any choice at that point, but once we got back to the car I made it very clear to our driver that we weren't going to be earning him any more commissions at tourist stops. From on now, we were going to eat where the Indians ate.

Once in Jaipur we drove straight to City Palace, a complex of ornate pink-hued palaces and temples spread over a wide area. It was pleasant enough to walk around in, aside from the brutal heat which was worse than anything we'd experienced in Delhi.
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After an hour we retreated to the main road where we encountered the Hawa Mahal, a 18th century palace whose rear facade resembles a pink beehive. The ornately-latticed windows were reportedly designed to allow the woman of the royal household to watch the goings on in the street below without being observed.
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We spent a little more time walking up and down Hawa Mahal Road checking out various street vendors and buying a few snacks, but it was really too hot to enjoy ourselves so we drove to our hotel and checked in. The air conditioning and cold drinks were a god send. In the evening we had a reasonably good restaurant meal and then went to the Johari Bazaar, a large complex of shops where the main emphasis was jewelry. We weren't very interested in that, but there were enough food vendors and other things to see to keep us interested for a while.
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We weren't sorry to leave Jaipur for Agra the next morning. I'm sure there's a lot we didn't see, but in terms of markets and street life the city was a pale shadow of Delhi. Once we arrived in Agra, we didn't have to wait long for our first sight of the Taj Mahal. Our driver dropped us off at a rooftop cafe I'd read about in the crowded neighborhood south of the palace and had a beautiful view of the surreally beautiful building. It was a fine appetizer for our visit.
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We walked north through the busy bazaar south of the Taj Mahal to get to the Great gate, Darwaza-i rauza. If I hadn't seen the actual mausoleum from the cafe rooftop, I might have thought this formidable red sandstone and white marble structure was the Taj Mahal itself.
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Once through the gate, we were face to face with the beautiful white mausoleum. at the far end of a long rectangular fountain surrounded by short cypress trees. At this point I allowed myself a moment to savor our accomplishment. We'd made it here with two small children who could barely walk on their own, and Mei Ling pregnant to boot. One by one we were seeing the most incredible sights the world had to offer, and we hadn't let anything stop us.
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The exterior of the mausoleum was amazing up close as well, with complicated architectural designs and detailed, colorful decorations in the white marble. Around the mausoleum was a wide platform of white marble tiles where Indian visitors sat in groups. The four tall white minarets at each corner of the platform added to the sense of majesty and serenity. The crypt chamber was surprisingly plain, in keeping with the Muslim prohibition against elaborate decoration of graves. Between the crowds, dimness, and lack of memorable detail we didn't find any pictures worth taking once inside.
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As always, the kids were a big hit with the Indians, who often asked if they could take pictures of each other holding Ian.
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In the afternoon we visited the Kinari Bazaar, a large market next to Agra Fort. It was just as gritty as the markets in Delhi, but it felt great to be in the mix of activity in the street and part of the daily rhythm of Indian life. I was briefly tempted by a sugar cane juice vendor, but I had second thoughts after seeing the thick blanket of flies covering the crushed cane.
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Our driver had a lot of difficulty finding the restaurant I'd chosen from TripAdvisor, but eventually we had a pleasant meal of the local specialty which was reminiscent of savory crepes filled with meat and vegetables.
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I'd reserved a deluxe hotel room at a four star hotel in Agra before leaving Miami, but it was still very inexpensive compared to even an average hotel in the US or Europe. The kids got a kick out of the lavish interior decor and the friendly, uniformed staff.
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Our driver did much better with the highway stop on the way back to Delhi the next morning. We put together a good lunch from a mix of cheap stalls attached to the service station. Cleo had bonded quite well with our driver at this point.
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As we approached Delhi, we could see a very impressive-appearing temple on the eastern bank of the Yamuna River. Since our contract extended to the end of the day, we asked our driver to take us there once we'd had a chance to freshen up at the hotel. The temple turned out to be the Swaminarayan Akshardham, a gigantic complex whose construction had been completed only ten years earlier. Unfortunately I can't present any pictures of this amazing building because the guards were extremely strict about enforcing a no photography policy. Everyone was patted down at the entrance to be sure they weren't bringing in a camera or cell phone. Signs were posted everywhere threatening horrific penalties for attempting to smuggle in any such device. The only picture I have of us at Akshardham was taken from outside the perimeter fence.
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The main temple, or Mandir, or Akshardam is one of the most awe-inspiring structures I have ever seen. In terms of pure visual effect, it vastly overshadows even the Taj Mahal. The temple is constructed entirely from the highest quality pink sandstone and white marble, and cost about 60 million dollars to build. In the US, it probably would have cost five times that. Every inch of the stone was decorated with intricate carvings. The opulence of the complex is testimony to the enormous wealth of the Swaminarayan religious organization, the Hindu sect that built the temple. As with the grandiose cathedrals we've seen in countless poverty-stricken Latin countries, I couldn't help wondering why the enormous wealth amassed by religious organizations couldn't be used to provide genuine assistance to the helpless members of the communities rather than these opulent and ultimately useless edifices. It wouldn't surprise me if after a couple of hundred years have erased the stain of modernity, Akshardam becomes more well-known as one of the architectural wonders of the world than the Taj Mahal. Since we weren't allowed to take any photographs, I ripped a couple of pictures from the web to try and illustrate the magnificence of this temple.
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The next morning we were taken back to the Delhi airport for our flight to France. Our last memory of Delhi was of the pigeons flying around inside the departure area.
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Posted by zzlangerhans 12:44 Archived in India Tagged jaipur taj_mahal agra Comments (0)

Around the World 2015: Delhi

Jack Kerouac said "The only people for me are the mad ones, the ones who are mad to live, mad to talk, mad to be saved, desirous of everything at the same time". I could say the same, if one substituted cities for people. That's why my favorite city in the world is the one I grew up in, New York City. The closest runners up are also among the largest and wildest: London, Tokyo, Shanghai, Bangkok. But no one who claims to be a lover of metropolitan greatness can be complete without a visit to India, home of some of the most populous and frenzied cities in the world. Naturally my first choice in India would have been Mumbai, but as luck would have it there were no direct flights from Guangzhou so we chose Delhi instead. It might not be quite as riotous as Mumbai, but it had the bonus of proximity to the Taj Mahal.

It might seem insane to have taken my pregnant wife and two small children on a first visit to India, but I was terrified that we would lose the ability to travel internationally for years once number three came along. I simply couldn't stand the idea of not having seen India until I was in my fifties, if not later. In the end, I figured we could hack it for six days even if it turned out to be more difficult that I expected. My biggest fear was the possibility of everyone getting gastroenteritis. I wasn't sure how we could handle two sick kids while possibly being sick ourselves. I resolved to be militant about what went into our mouths, especially water.

We didn't have to wait long to experience the uniqueness of India. As soon as we entered the terminal we encountered a vivid sculpture of disembodied hands making complex gestures against a background of concave copper disks. The effect was vaguely spiritual, somewhat artistic, but unmistakably Indian.
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A long delay at the visa-on-arrival desk was terrifying, in that I was sure that the driver the hotel had provided would give up on us and return to the city. However, once we finally escaped the terminal with our baggage he was dutifully awaiting us. The horde of frenzied touts gathered outside the gate made me immensely grateful that we had prearranged our transportation. Since there were minimal Airbnb options in Delhi, we had booked a hotel in the old part of town far from the areas that tourists usually frequented. Our driver brought us to Tara Palace, which we found to be clean but otherwise very basic. It was far too late to do anything except collapse into our beds.

The main advantage of Tara Palace was that it was in close proximity to two of our highest priority sights in Delhi, the Chandni Chowk market and the Red Fort. On our first morning in Delhi, we woke early and made sure the kids were fed with the complimentary breakfast before setting out for the market. I had researched Delhi fairly well, so I was expecting it to be hot, crowded, dirty, and poverty-stricken. In fact, Delhi exactly matched my expectations, but there's an enormous difference between expecting something and experiencing it. We found Chandni Chowk quite overwhelming. The sidewalks were so crowded and obstructed by vendors that most people walked in the street despite the omnipresence of honking cars and motorcycles, and we soon found ourselves joining them. There was virtually no sense of personal space as we were bumped and jostled constantly. There were gruesomely crippled beggars everywhere. Lording over everything was the incandescent Indian sun, which seemed determined to suck sweat out of every pore of our bodies.
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Within minutes we had rechristened Chandni Chowk "the Choke", and so it would remain in our minds for the rest of our stay. The Choke wasn't actually a market, but rather a main street on which several markets resided. Rather disappointingly for us, few of these markets emphasized food. Fabric and hardware were much more the order of the day. However, we were able to find enough vendors of freshly peeled vegetables and deep-fried samosas to assuage hunger until we found a place we could actually sit down and eat.
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After walking west as far as we could stand the heat and the crowds, we doubled back the way we came. At the eastern end of the Choke is the Red Fort, a 17th century residence of the Mughal emperors. The site is a large complex of many buildings and structures, with the most imposing being the Lahori Gate that one encounters at the entrance. The abundant trees and well-manicured lawns were a pleasant respite from the madness of the Choke.
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We headed south past our hotel towards Jama Masjid, the largest mosque in India. Our goal wasn't so much the mosque itself as the markets which clustered around it.
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The small square in front of the mosque was a beehive of activity. Vendors were doing a brisk business selling snacks, clothes, and toys. Food stalls were placed strategically around the square, while other hawkers simply set up shop in the middle of the crowd or occupied the staircase leading down to the Meena Bazaar. Mei Ling found her beloved meat skewers fairly quickly.
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About this time we noticed people were paying an unusual amount of attention to us, especially considering how crowded and chaotic the area was. We've been in lots of exotic places from Morocco to Israel with the kids, but it was unusual for people to come up and ask to be photographed with us. Even more surprisingly, it was mostly young guys who would be expected to completely ignore families with kids.
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South of the mosque was a predominantly Muslim area of narrow streets where everyone walked in the street because the sidewalks were completely occupied with various vendors and food stalls. We continued to notice the unusual friendliness and familiarity of people in the area as we strolled around.
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We could easily have found a place to eat in that neighborhood but I wanted to check out a more upscale area called Connaught Place. On a map, Connaught Place looks like the hub of the city. It consists of three concentric rings and eight spokes, many of which continue outward to become major traffic arteries of the city. It was built almost a hundred years ago as a central business district, and is now packed with cinemas, hotels, and international restaurants. I had been advised to stay at a hotel in Connaught Place, but I was glad to have chosen our location in the old part of town. Like any modernized part of an ancient city, the area felt somewhat sterile and generic. Dinner was OK, but not memorable. After dinner I made an attempt to get a local SIM. I bought the card in an official Vodafone store and the salesman told me it would start working in a couple of hours. As I expected, it never did.
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The next day I discussed our plan to visit the Taj Mahal with the hotel manager, and he offered to sell us a three day package tour of Jaipur and Agra to depart the next day. He threw in a driver to take us anywhere we wanted in Delhi that day. I knew the price was probably higher than I would find if I shopped around, but it was low enough that I didn't feel like taking the trouble so I accepted. Soon enough our driver came by and we requested to be taken to the INA market. Mei Ling was looking sprightly and quite pregnant in a local outfit she'd bought the previous day at the Choke. Like everything else in India, INA was a bit of a culture shock. The facilities were even more basic and grim than what we'd seen in poorer parts of China and Colombia, and the air was thick with flies which swarmed over the piles of raw meat and fish. Nevertheless, the market was bustling with people and the vendors seemed to be doing a brisk business.
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Mei Ling can't watch food being made anywhere without itching to get involved, so she provided some free labor to some of the bread and dumpling makers. Afterwards we had a chance to sample some of her efforts.
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Adjacent to the INA food market is the Dilli Haat textile and crafts market, which is much more of a destination for Western tourists. We'd already seen quite a lot of clothing at the Choke, so we didn't linger long there.
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The next market was a wash out as far as food was concerned, having only a few of vendors selling nothing particularly new or interesting. However, we did encounter some gentlemen playing carrom, which fascinated Mei Ling and the kids. The players spoke perfect English and provided us with hot tea and pleasant conversation while they played.
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Our next stop was Lodi Gardens in the southern part of central Delhi. This beautiful park was built around several 15th century tombs.
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By this time we'd become accustomed to friendly locals picking up our kids and playing with them.
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One interesting thing that happened as we were leaving the gardens is that while Ian and Mei Ling were walking hand in hand, Ian suddenly tried to pull away just as Mei Ling was changing direction. Ian cried out in pain and then sat on the ground holding his left arm and crying. Mei Ling tried to coax him up but he kept crying and wouldn't use his left arm at all. Fortunately, I knew exactly what had happened based on my experience as an ER doctor. Ian had a nursemaid's elbow, which is caused by pulling outwardly on a small child's outstretched arm. The traction causes the elbow joint space to gap open and a ligament slips into the joint, causing pain with any movement of the elbow. Fortunately, it's very easy to get the ligament to pop back out of the joint using a number of techniques. My favorite is the supination/flexion technique, in which the child's hand is turned palm up and the elbow is flexed. If one holds the child's elbow with the other hand, one can usually feel the pop as the elbow bones realign into correct position. If that technique doesn't work, an alternative is the hyperpronation technique in which the child's hand is rotated palm down and then turned as far as possible without causing pain. I included diagrams of both techniques.
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Ian's elbow reduced easily and within a minute he was using his arm normally. I felt enormously relieved that thanks to my background we'd avoided a visit to an Indian emergency room, which was a very unappealing prospect. It occurred to me that every parent traveling with young kids should know to avoid yanking on their outstretched arm from below the elbow, and should also know how to reduce a nursemaid's elbow if it ever happened to their kid.

Once we'd returned to our hotel, we decided to return to the area south of Jama Masjid for dinner at Karim's. This century old restaurant is a landmark of old Delhi. The only table to be had was on a crowded balcony where I had to hold Ian on my lap to prevent him from crawling around on a floor covered with dropped food. The dishes were basic but fairly good, although I'm confident I've had better Indian meals in New York and California.
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The coolest thing that happened to us in Delhi was that after dinner, we stumbled onto a Muslim wedding. A procession of decorated cars slowly trundled past us and we followed them a short distance to a reception hall.
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Mei Ling was ushered into a separate room full of women in brightly colored saris, while I brought the kids into a room where some scholarly-appearing men surrounded the festively-dressed groom. The invited guests made sure I had a good vantage point so that Cleo could see and I could take video. As always, Indians of every religion went far out of their way to make guests feel welcome.
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We couldn't stay at the wedding too long because it was getting late and we had an early departure for Jaipur in the morning. Despite the late hour, the main street south of the mosque was still packed with people going about their business like it was the middle of the day. The throngs of brightly-dressed people and swerving vehicles created a visual and auditory sensory overload.
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The next morning we set off by car for our three-day tour of India's Golden Triangle.

Posted by zzlangerhans 18:56 Archived in India Tagged delhi red_fort chandni_chowk jama_masjid dilli_haat karim's lodi_gardens Comments (0)

Around the World 2015: Guangzhou, China

China is a huge and diverse country. Even after five previous visits, I only felt like I'd seen at most five percent of what was worth seeing in China. I was looking forward to adding to that with a visit to Guangzhou, the capital of Guangdong province. While Guangzhou may be only vaguely familiar to Westerners, it is one of the ten most populous cities in the world by any form of measurement, and possibly the most populous by metropolitan area. It's better known to Americans by its Anglicized name of Canton, and as the origin of most of what Americans and other Westerners consider to be Chinese, or Cantonese food. Guangzhou is well-regarded throughout China for its food, especially seafood, and is famous for its markets. For Mei Ling and me, that's nirvana.

Like most of the world's great cities, Guangzhou is intimately associated with water. Around the city, multiple river systems converge to form the wide and powerful Zhujiang (formerly Pearl) river which splits and rejoins itself countless times forming numerous small islands in the river. Our hotel was in the Shamian Residential District, a tiny rectangular island formed by a narrow canal of the Zhujiang River. Shamian was clearly an enclave of the wealthy. It had a wide central street with a beautifully landscaped park running down the middle. The park had well-maintained exercise equipment and a running track. The buildings were relatively new and attractive, and the shops and restaurants on the island seemed to cater to expats.
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As soon as we'd dropped off the bags, we headed across the canal to Guangzhou's busy pedestrian zone. Mei Ling and Ian split off for a rendezvous with an old friend while Cleo and I ate a snack at a tiny alley restaurant that served a delicious salad made with crunchy fish skin. As is so often the case with dishes that I absolutely love in Asia, we were never able to find that salad again during our visit. Mei Ling still hadn't found her way back once we'd finished eating, so we went to the spa next door to get our feet nibbled by tiny Garra rufa fish. Cleo made a valiant attempt but eventually her two year old mind couldn't overcome her natural instinct to keep her feet from being bitten.
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Mei LIng eventually rejoined us and we spent some more time exploring the main pedestrian street Shangxiaju and snacking before heading back home for an early sleep. We still had to recover from our grueling train journey and flight earlier.
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The next day was a market day, of course, so we met up with Mei Ling's friends and crossed the Renmin Bridge across the Zhujiang to Haizhu, the largest river island in the Guangzhou area. We spent an entire day wandering from market to market at the western tip of Haizhu. I was disappointed that I couldn't convince Mei Ling to buy the sandals with the incomprehensible Chinglish slogan.
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Later we crossed back north across the river and circled back towards Shamian, where the enormous Huangsha seafood market awaited us. One of the more interesting discoveries there was sand worms, also known as peanut worms. We couldn't resist buying a bag of these unappetizing pinkish-grey tubes and eventually brought them to the most well-known seafood restaurant in the market where they were prepared for us with a garlic sauce. They tasted like garlic sauce.

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The next day we spent a little more time exploring the neighborhoods close by our hotel and then took a taxi to Liuhua Hu Park in the northern part of the city. The beautiful park was full of serene walking paths and grassy lakes where locals were boating. One of the highlights was watching some guys playing jian zi, the Chinese version of the hacky sack game I saw Mei Ling playing in Seoul.
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In the evening, we met up with Mei Ling's friend Guo Guo again and explored one of Guangzhou's upscale modern malls before having dinner in a hot pot restaurant.
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We decided to check out of our hotel the next morning. Another of Mei Ling's old friends was driving us southwest to the city of Kaiping, and it would be easier for us not to go back to Guangzhou at all. We walked back across the canal for one last meal at Huangsha market.
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On the road, we stopped at a special restaurant Mei Ling's friend knew about where we seemed to be the only customers. The specialty was paddlefish, which had a wide paddle-shaped snout. Several of them were swimming in large tanks at the restaurant. I tried looking them up afterwards, but couldn't find any convincing identification of what we had eaten. They're clearly not the same fish as what is commonly described as a Chinese paddlefish, which appears to be practically extinct. Hopefully the ones we ate weren't endangered!
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The only reason to visit the Kaiping area that I'm aware of is to see the eerie, multistory diaolou houses that were built intermittently between the 15th century and the early part of the 20th century. Some of the structures were constructed to serve as watchtowers, while others were multifamily residences. The mysterious diaolou reminded me of the imposing towers of Bologna, whose builders and true purposes have largely become obscured by the passage of time. In the area we explored, the diaolou arose incongruously from rice paddies that could only be traversed by narrow flagstone paths.
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On the way back east from Kaiping we stopped in the coastal town of Zhuhai for dinner. The star attraction here was Zhuhai Wanzai Seafood Street, with a long seafood night market on one side and a row of seafood restaurants on the other. Mei Ling immediately went to work on buying delicacies for us to bring to a restaurant. The best part was watching her negotiating for a huge horseshoe crab.

Refrigeration for the seafood probably hasn't changed in a hundred years. Here you can see how the guys on the ice truck carve up and distribute their product.

We spent the next day in Shenzhen, hanging out with yet another of Mei Ling's old friends. We spent a few hours in one of Shenzhen's many theme parks, of which the most interesting part for the kids was the monorail. In the evening, we had yet another seafood banquet at a coastal restaurant where we picked our food from tanks.
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The next day we crossed into Hong Kong, where we had less than twenty-four hours before our flight to India. Fortunately I'd been to Hong Kong twice before, so I'd already seen most of the interesting sights and markets. We stayed in a luxurious hotel suite on an upper floor of the Nina Tower, one of the most prestigious hotels in Hong Kong. We'd gotten a very low rate thanks to Mei Ling's local connections.
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In the morning before our flight we hung out in the busy Sham Shui Po market area of Kowloon, where we window shopped for a couple of hours and tried some snake soup.
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I wasn't sorry to be heading to the airport once again. I'd been waiting a long time for my first visit to India.

Posted by zzlangerhans 17:25 Archived in China Tagged hong_kong guangzhou guangdong shenzhen zhuhai kaiping Comments (2)

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