Monthly Archives: December 2014

Cartagena, Colombia

The last port of call on our 14 day Panama Canal cruise was Cartagena, Colombia. The U.S. State Department maintains a travel warning for Colombia, but tourist areas are considered safe. Tourists are warned not to venture into rural areas, however, where drug trafficking and kidnapping still occur on occasion.

This was our second visit to Cartagena. Our previous visit occurred in February, 2013 and we were charmed by the old colonial city with its Spanish architecture and colorful tropical flowers, especially the Bougainvillea.  We walked the 12 foot high ramparts surrounding the old town while drinking in breathtaking views of the Caribbean. Then on our cab ride back to the port, we spotted a fortress high on a hill and we knew immediately we’d missed a key sight. It was Castillo San Felipe de Barajas, and this time we were intent on touring it so we made it our first stop. This UNESCO World Heritage Site is remarkably intact and fascinating.

Approach to Castillo San Felipe de Barajas in Cartagena

Approach to Castillo San Felipe de Barajas in Cartagena

Built  in the 1600’s to ward off repeated attacks by pirates, including the likes of Sir Francis Drake searching for booty of gold and silver, it is the largest fortification constructed by the Spanish in the new world.

Castillo San Felipe de Barajas, Cartagena

Castillo San Felipe de Barajas, Cartagena

The fascinating part is an extensive system of tunnels built under the fortress for storage, communication, and escape. The acoustic design resulted in amplification of sound so that intruders would be detected if they somehow gained access to the tunnels. A generous portion of the tunnels is open to the public and although they are low and narrow with a number of steps up and down, I explored every accessible bit. After the hot, steamy climb up to the fortress with little shade, it was a relief to get out of the sun.

Tunnels in Castillo San Felipe de Barajas

Tunnels in Castillo San Felipe de Barajas

City View from Castillo San Felipe de Barajas

City View from Castillo San Felipe de Barajas

View from Castillo San Felipe de Barajas

View from Castillo San Felipe de Barajas

Castillo San Felipe de Barajas

Castillo San Felipe de Barajas

After spending sufficient time and energy in the steamy heat exploring the fortress, we ventured onward to the old town which is also part of the designated World Heritage Site.

The clock tower is a famous Cartagena landmark and the easiest starting place for a self guided tour and a good place to meet your pre-arranged transportation at the end of your visit. It was once the main and only gate into the walled city.

Clock tower, Cartagena, Colombia

Clock Tower, Cartagena, Colombia

Immediately inside the Clock Tower Gate is Coach Square, so-called because it is where the horse-drawn carriages line up to provide tours. Notice the balconies on the buildings. You’ll see them everywhere, designed to catch the sea breeze in a sultry climate along with the covered walkways to provide shade. Historically, this square was originally named Plaza del Esclavo, the scene of slave trading in the 17th century.

Coach Square, Cartagena

Coach Square, Cartagena

San Pedro Claver, the first person canonized in the New World, was a Jesuit priest who befriended and served the African slaves who were traded in Cartagena. In addition to the square and church named for him, there is a sculpture of him located here.

Iglesia de San Pedro Claver

Iglesia (Church) de San Pedro Claver in Claver Plaza

San Pedro Claver

Sculpture of San Pedro Claver

Other sculptures around this square are scrap metal depictions of modern everyday life in Cartagena. Created by Eduardo Carmona, this street folk art adds another charming dimension to the old city.

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Metal Sculpture in Claver Plaza

Metal Sculpture

Metal Sculpture in Claver Plaza

Nearby, we found a staircase to the ramparts so we ascended to take in the views from above.

Ramparts of Cartagena

View of the Caribbean from las murallas (walls) of Cartagena

View of the old city from las murallas

View of the old city from las murallas

It is admittedly more uncomfortably hot walking the ramparts with no shade for relief so this time we soon escaped back to the streets with shade. Nearby, the Plaza Bolivar, named for Simon Bolivar who liberated Colombia from Spanish rule in 1811 and became the first president, offers a welcome shady respite.

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Fruit vendors in colorful costumes

Bougainvillea adorning the balconies

Bougainvillea adorning the balconies

Cartagena was every bit as charming the second time around. If I happen to take another Caribbean cruise that includes this port, I’ll happily return. La ciudad es preciosa y tiene mucho gran historia. That’s Spanish for, “The city is very lovely and it has a lot of great history.”

Categories: cruise, History, Travel, Uncategorized | Tags: , , | 7 Comments

Christmas Tidings

The holidays bring out my sentimental side. I watch all the holiday movies and cry over Hallmark cards. I love tradition and draw comfort from spending the holidays with family and friends, listening to (dare I say singing) carols, decorating my home and savoring all the decorations around me. While we stay at home for Christmas, we’ve certainly traveled before and after the holidays. Fortunately for us, many places keep their decorations up through Epiphany, January 6, so we’ve seen Christmas decorations in the U.S., the Caribbean, and Europe either before or after Christmas. Here are just a few of the fun photos and memories I found to share. So grab a cup of something warm and visit a few places near and far with me.

If you’re in Rome, Italy, during the Christmas season, you absolutely must see the life-size Nativity scene in St. Peter’s Square at the Vatican. They also erect a huge Christmas tree in the square, although this is a fairly recent addition. The Pope conducts midnight mass in St. Peter’s Basilica where crowds of people pack the square to watch on large screens. Then on Christmas day the Pope delivers his Christmas message from the balcony of the Papal Apartments. The Catholic Education Resource Center (Saunders, 2003), explains that the first celebration of Christmas occurred in Rome so it seems a fitting place to begin our tour.

Nativity in St Peter's Square at the Vatican

Nativity in St Peter’s Square at the Vatican

Christmas Tree at St. Peter's Square

Christmas Tree at St. Peter’s Square

Many European cities offer Christmas markets in their city squares. One of the most famous in Rome is the Christmas Market of Piazza Navona where you can buy handmade ornaments, toys, gifts, and foods. Babbo Natale (Father Christmas) even puts in an appearance to warn the children to be good.

Christmas Market in Piazza Navona, Rome, Italy

Christmas Market in Piazza Navona, Rome, Italy

Babbo Natale, Piazza Navona, Rome

Babbo Natale, Piazza Navona, Rome

While in Ostia Antica, visiting the ancient ruins of the seaport outside of Rome, we had dinner at a trattoria with festive decorations that caught my eye so I took this photo.

Christmas decorations in trattoria in Ostia Antica

Christmas decorations in trattoria in Ostia Antica

Brussels, Belgium, however, had the most eye-catching decorations I’ve seen. Possibly other places use these decorations but I haven’t seen them elsewhere.  They feature Santa Claus climbing up the side of the building. In this case, 10 Santas were climbing.

Climbing Santas in Brussels, Belgium

Climbing Santas in Brussels, Belgium

In Belgium, where Dutch and French traditions combine, St. Nicholas and Pere Noel both visit on December 6 bringing gifts for the Feast of St. Nicholas and then again on Christmas.  My grandparents were Czech immigrants and we also celebrated St. Nicholas Day when I was a child, getting fruit, nuts and candies in our stockings so I love this tradition. Brussels, like Rome, also features a Christmas Market, Christmas tree, and Nativity in the Grand Place.

Grand Place, Brussels, Belgium

Grand Place, Brussels, Belgium

Brussels, Belgium

Christmas Tree in the Grand Place, Brussels

Brussels, Belgium

Nativity Scene in the Grand Place, Brussels, Belgium

My husband, Jim, says you haven’t been to Europe if you haven’t been to Luxembourg so we stayed at the Hotel Italia in Luxembourg City as captured in this photo. We weren’t there while their Christmas Market was operating but I’ve seen photos online and it looks amazing. You can check it out here.

Hotel Italia, Luxembourg

Hotel Italia, Luxembourg

Luxembourg

Luxembourg City, Luxembourg

I’ve been fortunate to visit Paris several times while the decorations were up but alas, I have few photos of them. My most vivid memory, however, is of the decorations adorning the department stores in Paris. Similar to what you see in New York City, they delight the eye and fill hearts with Christmas spirit.  I have one photo below but I have no idea what store it is. (If you happen to know, post in comments.) Similar to other areas of Europe, we saw a large Christmas tree outside Notre Dame Cathedral in Paris and I understand the largest Christmas Market in Paris is held along the Champs Elysees. Incidentally, both of these traditions, Christmas trees and markets, originated in Germany.

Department store in Paris

Department store in Paris

Paris Lights

Paris Lights

Paris Lights

Paris Lights

Christmas tree at Notre Dam, Paris

Christmas tree at Notre Dame, Paris

Lights in Paris

Lights in Paris

My husband and sons with Eiffel Tower and Christmas Lights in Paris

My husband and sons with Eiffel Tower and Christmas Lights in Paris

Tour Eiffel, Paris

Tour Eiffel, Paris, no Christmas decorations but I love this picture

Bayeux, France is one of the most charming towns I have seen. I have a great story about our accommodations in Bayeux that will have to wait for another time but I will just tell you that we went to Bayeux specifically to see the Bayeux tapestry. Unfortunately, it is closed during the month of January every year so we’ll be going back. Tip: Check the opening days and times for every “must see” sight whenever planning a trip. The photos show a restaurant where we ate and a view of the town with lights that were magical at night.

Bayeux, France

Bayeux, France

Bayeux, France

Bayeux, France

Back in the western hemisphere, we’ve traveled to the Caribbean and I love seeing Christmas decorations in the tropics. Unfortunately, the only photos I found happened to be on cruise ships.

Ready for Christmas

Ready for Christmas in the Caribbean

Onboard the Norwegian Epic

Onboard the Norwegian Epic

Keeping with the charm of Christmas in warm weather, the lights wrapped around palm trees always thrill me. Phoenix, Arizona does their lighting right.

Ahwatukee Hills area in Phoenix

Ahwatukee Hills area in Phoenix

Closer to home, our family tradition when our children were small was to visit my hometown Wausau, Wisconsin at Thanksgiving and cut a balsam tree at our favorite tree farm, Tannenbaum Acres, in Wittenburg, Wisconsin. The kids enjoyed going over the river and through the woods (literally) to find the perfect tree and the llamas and donkeys that live at the Korbisch’s Tannenbaum Acres got a fair share of their attention.

Picking the perfect tree

Picking the perfect tree with Emma, the perfect dog

Tannenbaum Acres, Wittenburg, WI

Tannenbaum Acres, Wittenburg, WI

Thank you for indulging me on my trip down memory lane. I hope you enjoyed seeing a few of the signs of Christmas gleaned from my travels. From home in Iowa where we’ll celebrate Christmas with family including our sons and new daughter-in-law, I’m wishing you many blessings at Christmastime and throughout the new year.

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References:
Saunders, Fr. William. (2003). The First Christmas.
Retrieved from http://www.catholiceducation.org/en/culture/catholic-contributions/the-first-christmas.html

Categories: Travel, Uncategorized | Tags: , , , , , | 2 Comments

The Panama Canal Back Story

I think most people, even those who don’t care about history, have some idea that the Panama Canal is an amazing feat of engineering. I hope they know that the Panama Canal is widely regarded as one of the wonders of the modern world.  Most probably don’t know, however, why these statements are true.   Here are just a few fascinating details about the Panama Canal.

Prior to the completion of the Panama Canal, goods were shipped from New York to California around Cape Horn at the southern tip of South America. It was a long, dangerous journey and a shortcut across Panama connecting the Atlantic and Pacific Oceans would shave off 8,000 nautical miles saving both time and money. (Completion of the transcontinental railroad in 1869 offered another transport option but that’s a story for another day.)

Expeditions to find or create a waterway across the isthmus of Panama are recorded as early as the 16th century when Vasco Nunez de Balboa explored the area for Spain. It was the French, however, that initiated a project in 1881 under the leadership of engineer and developer, Ferdinand de Lesseps. He previously had completed the Suez Canal in Egypt in 1869, after 10 years of construction at a cost of $100 million so he mistakenly thought a canal across Panama would be similar in effort and equally lucrative to investors. The Suez Canal, however, is a 100 mile pathway at sea level which was impossible to re-create across the 50 mile isthmus of Panama due to entirely different conditions.

“Apart from wars, it represented the largest, most costly single effort ever before mounted anywhere on earth,” wrote David McCullough, in his award-winning book about the Panama Canal, The Path Between the Seas.  Between 1881 and 1888, French investors spent over $280 million before the project went bankrupt.  The United States purchased the rights to the project in 1902 and spent another $375 million from 1904 until the project was completed in 1914.

The French plan called for a canal built at sea level which required monumental excavation through tropical jungle and mountainous terrain.  Due to heavy rainfall feeding waterlogged ground and the wild and treacherous Chagres River, excavation efforts repeatedly resulted in massive mudslides. Too late in the project but finally accepting that a sea level canal was impossible, de Lesseps conceded the need to use a system of locks to reduce the amount of earth to be moved. Thirty million cubic yards of earth were excavated in the French project which was a fraction of the total amount that would be moved.

In addition, tropical diseases decimated the workforce. By the time the French project failed, the death toll stood at 20,000 from malaria, yellow fever, or accidents. This is likely a gross underestimate, however, because deaths that occurred outside the hospital weren’t counted.

President Theodore Roosevelt initiated the American canal project and he is often credited with its construction but work actually continued throughout the term of President William Howard Taft and the canal was completed during the presidency of Woodrow Wilson. When Colombia didn’t agree to the terms offered by the United States, U.S. gun-boat diplomacy ensured the success of Panama’s bloodless revolution to establish their independence from Colombia. Better terms followed. The U.S. obtained a 10 mile wide strip of land across Panama for a canal for a one-time payment of $10 million and $250,000 annually.

The American plan eventually called for a system of locks to raise ships to the level of man-made Lake Gatun at 85 feet above sea level, which was created by damming the Chagres River.  After crossing the lake, ships would pass through another set of locks to return to sea level in the other ocean. Beginning in 1904, the American experience was similar to that of the French but the tide finally turned when John Stevens was appointed chief engineer in 1905.  With better planning, a repaired railroad, more effective equipment, and improved sanitation (to decrease the mosquito population), the project finally took off. Over 238 million cubic yards of earth were moved and more than 5,000 workers died in the American project. It opened in 1914 on schedule and under budget. In 1999, the United States transferred control of the Panama Canal to Panama.

Today, the canal operates as it did when it was built and it is completely self-sufficient.  Three dams produce electricity and the tremendous rainfall replenishes the 52 million gallons of water expended in each transit. There are two tracks through the locks allowing 2 ships to transit the locks at the same time.  Water fills the locks by use of gravity while locomotives, called mules, actually tow the ships through the locks. It takes 8-10 hours to transit the entire canal including locks at each end and Gatun Lake in between.  Currently, over 13,000 transits occur annually producing revenue of $1.8 billion. The cost per transit varies by tonnage and number of passengers but a cruise ship, for example, pays around $300,000 to transit the Panama Canal. Curiously, it seems like you should be going east when transiting the Panama Canal from the Pacific Ocean to the Atlantic. In actuality, you are headed northwest as the map below shows.

Miraflores Locks

Miraflores Locks

Gates closing on the lock

Gates closing on the lock

Workers walking across the gate of the lock when it's closed

Workers walking across the gate of the lock when it’s closed

Container ship in the lock next to us with "mules" to the right of the ship  on the track

Container ship in the lock next to us with “mules” to the right of the ship on the track

Terracing on the Calebra Cut

Terracing on the Calebra Cut

Man-made Gatun Lake, Panama Canal

Man-made Gatun Lake created by dam on the Chagres River

The Panama Canal expansion project began in 2007 and is currently over 80% completed. Another set of locks is under construction that will double capacity and accommodate new and larger ships. In addition, dredging will improve the navigational channels.

View of Panama Canal Expansion Project

View of Panama Canal Expansion Project

Dredging to improve channel navigation

Dredging to improve channel navigation

Everyone I’ve talked to that has taken a cruise through the Panama Canal cites it as their best cruise ever.  With so many endorsements, we simply had to do it and we thought the centennial year would be the perfect time.  Our friends, Lori and Rick, also wanted to do this trip so off we went. The day before we arrived at the Panama Canal, the Norwegian Star showed the PBS NOVA documentary, A Man, A Plan, A Canal–Panama, narrated by David Mccullough. After learning so much about the history, we were all excited and up at dawn when we arrived at the Panama Canal. In all honesty, I’ve seen locks before so this was not totally new to me.  After the first lock, I’d seen enough and it was kind of like watching paint dry thereafter. (In fairness, I must say my husband vehemently disagrees with this statement.) The back story, however, is fascinating to me and I hope you think so, too.

Categories: History, Travel | Tags: , | 6 Comments

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