An Extraordinary Hill of Crosses in Lithuania

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On a field in rural Lithuania, a Hill of Crosses rises on the horizon. Visible from a considerable distance in the flat landscape, it is an impressive sight to behold. I’ve read reports that the site contains 100,000 crosses, but I’m not sure how anyone could know that. Impenetrable walls surround the narrow walkways, with crosses crammed into every nook and cranny. Others have been stacked high in piles that have toppled over. Rosaries, meanwhile, are draped around wooden necks like Mardi Gras beads. Counting the crosses would be an insurmountable task.

hill of crosses

hill of crosses

Hill of Crosses in Lithuania

Stairs lead up the center of the hill and are flanked by towering crosses. A sculpture of Christ the Redeemer welcomes pilgrims near the entrance. Crosses of every conceivable size and denomination have been left by worshipers from around the world. I even saw a Jewish star in the mix.

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Hill of Crosses in Lithuania

hill of crosses

An Extraordinary Hill of Crosses in Lithuania

The hill first took shape in the 19th century, when Lithuanians erected crosses in protest of a ban imposed by their Tsarist overlords in the Russian Empire. More were added after an apparition of Mary holding the baby Jesus was reportedly seen. When the Soviets occupied Lithuania after World War II, they saw the Hill of Crosses as counter to Communist ideology and bulldozed it into oblivion. Devout Lithuanians were none too happy with this destructive act and fervently rebuilt the hill, secretly adding more crosses under the cover of night. Soviet forces demolished the site five times before conceding defeat. Today, the Hill of Crosses stands as a testament to the fortitude and resilience of the Lithuanian people. The site was made more famous in 1993 by a visit from Pope John Paul II.

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Hill of Crosses

hill of crosses

hill of crosses

hill of crosses

The Hill of Crosses is located near the town of small town of Siauliai, about 220 kilometers from Vilnius. I drove from Riga as part of a Lithuanian road trip, though it’s possible to visit using public transportation. Take the train from Vilnius to Siauliai, then continue by bus to the Hill of Crosses. The journey will take around 3 hours each way. Food options at the site are extremely limited so pack something or plan to eat in Siauliai. Religious souvenirs – including crosses! – are available, however.

hill of crosses

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Crazy for Kyiv: My Four Days in Ukraine

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I was searching for flights for a last minute getaway from Riga, and the cheapest direct flight was to Kyiv. Until that moment, Ukraine wasn’t on my travel radar. Russia’s annexation of Crimea was big news in Latvia and the 2014 Euromaidan riots still seemed all too recent. Was it safe to visit Ukraine? Mr. Google said yes so I quickly booked flights and a hotel. What followed were four incredible days discovering a dynamic European capital keen to shake off its turbulent past and welcome tourists with open arms.

During my visit I found Ukrainian flags flying proudly against a backdrop of stunning architecture, UNESCO-listed monasteries glittering in the sun, vibrant street art, hipsters sipping lattes in stylish cafes, and kids on pony rides in leafy parks. It felt a lot like Budapest, but without the annoying crowds. There were so many interesting things to do in Kyiv that I could have spent a month there and still not have done it all. Four days simply weren’t enough.

Kyiv Ukraine

Kyiv Ukraine

Ukrainian Flag

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Kyiv Street Art

Kyiv Soviet Architecture

My first stop was Maidan Nezalezhnosti, or Independence Square, scene of the heaviest violence in 2014. Two years later few signs of destruction were visible. The burned-out Trade Unions Building was draped with white canvas sheets and two vehicles were left parked across the street. A memorial wall dedicated to the dozens of Euromaidan victims stretched up the hill towards Hotel Ukraine.

Kyiv Maidan Square

Kyiv Maidan Memorial

Kyiv Independence Monument

The square itself was completely rebuilt after World War II when Kyiv was all but obliterated by Soviet forces. The new buildings were constructed in the heavy “Stalinist Empire” style and now look wonderfully retro with their colorful block letter signs. All the Soviet monuments came crashing down along with the USSR itself in 1991 and were replaced by symbols of an independent Ukraine.

Kyiv Maidan Square

Kyiv Stalinist Empire Architecture

Many of Kyiv’s main attractions fan off from Maidan and it took me over two days to explore them. One of the most stunning is St. Michael’s Golden-Domed Monastery. The cornflower blue cathedral is actually a modern reconstruction of a medieval church destroyed by the Soviets for having “no historical value.” Thankfully, many of the original mosaics were removed before demolition and have since been returned to their rightful place inside the cathedral.

Kyiv St Michaels Golden Domed Monastery

St Michaels Golden Domed Monastery Kyiv

The nearby Saint Sophia’s Cathedral fared much better under the Soviet regime and was saved from destruction by the efforts of scientists and historians. Constructed during the 11th century during the reign of Vladimir the Great, Saint Sophia’s Cathedral was meant to rival its namesake, the Hagia Sophia, in what was then Constantinople. After Vladimir’s baptism, Kyiv became ground zero for the spread of the Orthodox faith in the region. Saint Sophia’s breathtaking mosaics and frescoes, created with the help of Byzantine masters, remain largely intact. It’s no wonder this was the first site in Ukraine to be inscribed on the UNESCO World Heritage list.

Kyiv St Sophias Cathedral UNESCO

St Sophia Bell Tower Kyiv

Be sure to climb St. Sophia’s bell tower for terrific views of the city!

A little further north is Andrew’s Descent, a steep cobblestone street that winds between two of Kyiv’s historic neighborhoods. The descent is named after the landmark St. Andrew’s Church, a Baroque beauty designed by Bartolomeo Rastrelli, the same architect responsible for the Winter Palace in St. Petersburg. About a quarter of the way down is Mikhail Bulgakov’s House, a museum dedicated to the Kyiv-born author. I took a tour given entirely in Ukrainian and understood not a whit, but am now eager to read his novel the White Guard.

St Andrews Church Kyiv

Kyiv Bulgakovs Museum

Kyiv Andrews Descent

Andrew’s Descent is perhaps most famous for the souvenir stands that line the street. Some true gems can be found in with the tourist tack, including vintage Ukrainian fabrics and hand-painted wooden eggs. The sellers were super friendly and happy to pose for photos and have a chat – one man even got an album out of his car to show off the huge fish his son had recently caught!

Kyiv Souvenir Shopping

The Podil neighborhood at the base of Andrew’s Descent is home to the Chernobyl Museum which provides an in-depth look at the world’s worst nuclear disaster. When a reactor at a power plant in Pripyat, Ukraine exploded in 1986, it released 400 times more radioactive material than the Hiroshima bomb. Informative headsets walk visitors through every stage of the cataclysmic event, from the initial explosion and aftermath to the continuing impact of radiation poisoning on humans and the environment. The museum calls out the Soviet regime for attempting to downplay the disaster and blame the reactor’s operators rather than admit to faulty design and inadequate training as the main causes. The whole situation is astounding, and you’ll want to allow several hours to fully absorb the details.

Kyiv Chernobyl Museum

Kyiv Chernobyl Museum

Kyiv Chernobyl Museum

South of Maidan you’ll find architectural landmarks including the Golden Gate, National Opera of Ukraine, and House with Chimeras. I had hoped to see Mariyinski Palace, but it was undergoing restoration at the time of my visit and completely hidden from view. The Museum of Western and Oriental Art was a very pleasant surprise, however. In 1918, at the “urging” of the new Soviet regime, Varvara Khanenko “donated” the private collection of her recently deceased husband, Bohdan, along with their beautiful home to the city of Kyiv. European paintings, Chinese porcelain, Roman sculptures, and Byzantine icons are displayed inside the rooms of the restored mansion. My mouth dropped open when I first entered and saw the grand wooden staircase – and it only got more impressive from there!

Kyiv Landmarks

Last but certainly not least is Pechersk Lavra, or Cave Monastery, a unique complex included in the UNESCO listing for Saint Sophia’s. Commanding center stage are the Dormition Cathedral and Great Bell Tower, which is absolutely worth climbing for its spectacular views. The cathedral was blown up during WWII and rebuilt in 2000, but you’d never know it. The reconstruction was meticulous!

Kyiv Pechersk Lavra UNESCO

Kyiv Dormition Cathedral

I may have snuck a photo of the interior. Shhh.

Kyiv Pechersk Lavra Great Bell Tower

Kyiv Pechersk Lavra

Kyiv Pechersk Lavra

What makes Pechersk Lavra unique is the labyrinth of caves hidden below ground. At one time, 1,200 monks lived in these subterranean cells. The narrow corridors are supposedly lined with the mummified remains of some of the monks, but I can’t confirm this. I didn’t have time to explore the caves because I spent too long gaping at all the pretty things in the Museum of Ukrainian Decorative Folk Art, housed in one of the monastery buildings. But seriously, look at these gorgeous fabrics! I’ll just have to go back to Kyiv to explore the rest of the complex.

Kyiv Ukranian Folk Art

Museum of Ukrainian Decorative Folk Art

Kyiv Folk Art Museum

I wasn’t able to get my hands on a guidebook in time for my trip, but it turns out that I didn’t need one. The tourist map I got from my hotel was so detailed that it even listed the hours and addresses of all the top sights. Super helpful and time saving on a short visit – kudos to the Kyiv tourism board!

I was also impressed with Kyiv’s extremely efficient metro system. Three lines make it easy to access nearly all parts of the city, and rides cost a mere four hryvnias (about 15 cents). Some stations are decorated with the standard Soviet motifs of wheat boughs, stars, hammers and sickles, while others feel more modern. The Arsenalna station – which you’ll pass through if you go to Pechersk Lavra – is the deepest metro station in the world!

Kyiv Metro

Stay tuned for my Kyiv restaurant recommendations in an upcoming post.

Tell me: are YOU ready to add Kyiv, Ukraine to your travel itinerary?

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Top things to do in Kyiv, Ukraine

16 Things to Do in Riga, Latvia this Autumn

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Autumn is a glorious time to visit Riga, Latvia. Golden leaves bedazzle the old city, which by this time has shed some of the flag-wielding tour groups and stag parties that clog the narrow alleys in summer. Early in the season, the weather is still fine enough to sip cider on sidewalk patios, albeit with a blanket wrapped around your shoulders. November turns dark and chilly in a hurry, although holiday celebrations still entice locals out of doors. Here are some of the fun ways I made the most of this annual crescendo.

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Scale the ramparts in Riga’s Bastejkalns park. Bastion Hill is a vast green space to the west of the Freedom Monument that was created in the 19th century after the old city fortifications were torn down. Traces of them remain, however. Follow the curving staircase up to the base of a tower, and you’ll find a vantage point ideal for surveying the realm.

Bastejkalns Riga

Riga Bastejkalns Park

Sit back and admire the leaves on a Riga Canal cruise. Wooden boats ply the Riga City Canal, the moat which once surrounded the medieval city and now runs through Bastejkalns park. The variety of trees lining the banks creates a kaleidoscopic effect for several weeks each fall. (Riga’s foliage generally peaks around the second week of October.) The cruise (€18 per person) lasts one hour and includes a scenic stretch along the Daugava River. If you’re lucky, you might even see one of the city’s elusive beavers!

Riga Canal Cruise

Riga Canal Cruise

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Head to the top of St Peter’s Church spire for a birds-eye view. I made frequent trips to the lofty observation platform and found that Riga’s Old Town looked positively ethereal in the soft autumn light. If you time your visit for the late afternoon sunset, you’ll be rewarded with a city bathed in rose gold. Tickets cost €9 and include entrance to the church (which doubles as an art gallery) in addition to a ride in the lift. Note that the ticket office closes at 5pm sharp during the fall and winter seasons. I once showed up at 5:04 and was turned away.

view of riga from st peters church

Beautiful Riga, Latvia

Return back down to Earth at Lielie Kapi, or the Great Cemetery. The final resting place of Latvia’s 18th and 19th century denizens, many of Baltic German extraction, was bulldozed by the Soviets in the 1960s and turned into a public park. But many tombstones and crumbling crypts still stand, some restored by local Latvians. I came across one small group tending the graves of Krisjanis Barons and Krisjanis Valdemars – two of Latvia’s most venerable national figures. They explained that they live near Lielie Kapi and view it as part of a cultural heritage worth preserving.

Riga Lielie Kapi

Riga Great Cemetery

Honor a hero at the Janis Lipke Memorial. This small but powerful museum is dedicated to someone who, with his family and a few close friends, saved over 50 Jews from the Riga Ghetto during World War II. Mr. Lipke was employed at the dock warehouses and responsible for transporting ghetto inmates to and from work each day. When the opportunity arose, either from lax security or by bribing the guards, he would help Jews escape. Some were hidden with trusted friends in Riga, while others were spirited away to farms in Dobele. The rest survived the war in a secret bunker Mr. Lipke created under the woodshed on his property on Kipsala, an island in the Daugava River. Amazingly, the Lipke family was never betrayed to the Nazis and continue to live on Kipsala to this day.

Janis Lipke Museum in Riga, Latvia.

The museum was built next to the Lipke home and designed by premier Latvian architect Zaiga Gaile. Ms. Gaile’s firm is responsible for rehabbing many of the island’s old wooden homes and revitalizing the area. It’s a lovely place to walk and reflect on a crisp fall afternoon.

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View of Riga from Kipsala Island

Lift your spirits with the friendly barkeeps of Labietis, Riga’s hippest craft brewery. The original pub is tucked inside a courtyard on Aristida Briana iela and has twelve experimental brews on tap. The knowledgeable staff will gladly explain the different flavors, which they’ve divided into five color families. The “yellow” beers were popular with my crowd, though I also enjoyed the Dumenis (Smoky) “red” beer. Want to know even more? Ask for a tour of the Labietis brewery!

Riga Labietis Brewery

Celebrate the Autumn harvest at a Saturday market in Kalnciema Kvartals. Country farmers show off their bounty of fall produce, along with all the jams, honeys, and breads you can eat. This is also a great spot to pick up local handicrafts and knitwear, like hats and scarves, which you will soon need. (I’m fond of the “Mice” brand of accessories.) While you’re in the neighborhood, take some time to appreciate the historic wooden Art Nouveau architecture which is gradually being restored to its former glory.

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Pay tribute to Latvia’s freedom fighters on Lacplesis Day. November 11 commemorates the day in 1919 when Latvia’s army defeated Russian forces and made Latvia a free and independent country. Locals lay flowers at the base of Riga’s Freedom Monument and light candles by the thousands to mark the special event. I was moved to witness parents and teachers explain the significance of the day to their children, ensuring the tradition continues for generations to come.

Riga November 11

Lighting Candles for Lacplesis Day in Riga, Latvia.

Lacplesis Day Riga

Get patriotic on November 18 for Latvian Independence Day. On this date in 1918, Latvia officially declared its independence from the Russian Empire, though it would take another year for this to be fully realized (see Lacplesis Day, above). This public holiday is one of the biggest events of the year, celebrated with a military parade and spectacular fireworks display. Locals participate by laying heaps of flowers at the Freedom Monument and making torchlight processions across the city. Many torches are left in Bastejkalns park, turning it into a fairy kingdom for the night.

Riga November 18 Torch Procession

Latvian Independence Day

Take a tour of Latvia’s parliament, or Saeima. The historic building was constructed in 1867 for the Livonian knights and transferred to the Latvian government in 1920. Guided tours can be prearranged for groups and take visitors through the beautifully restored entrance hall, library, meeting rooms, and voting chamber. If you want to experience the government in action, it’s possible to observe a plenary session, though the proceedings will be entirely in Latvian.

Latvian Parliament Building

Riga Saeima Building

Amuse the kids at two of Riga’s family-friendly museums. The Latvian Railway Museum has a large collection of historical photographs, maps, and train schedules, though it’s the “rolling stock” that’s of most interest. Vintage locomotives and train cars are parked on the tracks behind the museum, and some you can climb aboard! The Latvian Firefighting Museum is chockablock with antique vehicles and fire safety equipment, such as uniforms, pumps, and hoses. You can even test your fire-extinguishing capabilities in an interactive game!

Riga Railway Museum

Riga Firefighting Museum

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Say hello to the animals at the Riga Zoo. This sprawling park is home to dozens of animals, including lions, hippos, giraffes, bears, camels, and kangaroos. The zoo is well-tended and some of the enclosures have been newly renovated to give the large animals lots of space to roam. Picnic areas are available if you want to make a day of it – but heed the signs and don’t feed the animals! The Riga Zoo is open every day and adult tickets cost €6, though discounted family tickets are available.

Riga Zoo animals

Peruse the latest styles at Riga Fashion Week. Top designers from the Baltic countries show off their spring-summer collections in October, giving everyone something to look forward to at the end of those long winter months. Names to look out for include Dace Bahmann, Anna Led, and Narciss.

Riga Fashion Week

Light up the night with Staro Riga. For one weekend every November, Riga is transformed by art installations that illuminate the dark autumn sky. Creative and colorful displays timed to music dance across building facades and fountains around the city. Frigid temperatures can’t keep the crowds away from this much anticipated annual spectacle!

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Enjoy a performance of the Latvian National Opera and Ballet. I know I recommended this activity in my Winter edition, but the shows are so marvelous they deserve a another mention. My favorites include La Traviata, Madama Butterfly, Don Quixote, Swan Lake, and Giselle. I was continually impressed by the talent of the performers, the stunning set pieces and costumes, and the affordable ticket prices. Nights at the theater felt like such a treat, and now that I no longer live in Riga, it’s one of the things I miss most.

Riga Opera House

Latvian National Opera and Ballet

Give Autumn a proper sendoff with mulled wine at the Riga Christmas Market. The festivities open in Dome Square at the end of November, and last through the first week of January, giving you plenty of time to soak up the holiday atmosphere. At least a quarter of the stalls sell hot food and beverages, which you’ll definitely need to combat the chilly temps. (Latvian mittens also help.)

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What do YOU think are the best things to do in Riga in Autumn?

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Dobele, Latvia and the Largest Lilac Garden in Europe

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“You’re going all the way to Dobele to see bloomin’ lilacs? I have those in my backyard.”

When I told my Riga taxi driver that Dobele, Latvia has the largest lilac garden in Europe, he didn’t believe me. But it’s true – the Peteris Upitis Garden in Dobele boasts more than 200 lilac trees! The first were planted in 1956 by Peteris Upitis, an avid horticulturist and head of the Latvian Fruit Research Laboratory. His job was to create hearty varieties of trees that would bear fruit in spite of Latvia’s harsh winter climate, but his real passion was lilacs. Now we get to enjoy the fruits of his labors in late spring when the lilacs are in bloom. The fragrance is intoxicating!

Dobele Lilacs

Dobele Lilac Garden

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Lilac Blossoms

If you’re able, try to coordinate your visit with the annual Dobele Lilac Festival, when a classical music concert and other events are held among the blossoms. I went a week earlier, when some of the nearly 5,000 apple and cherry trees were still flowering. Friendly vendors sold ice cream and souvenirs, while fruit and lilac products were available for purchase at the ticket booth. (There is also an apple festival in autumn.)

Dobele Fruit Trees

Pink Tree Blossoms

Dobele Apple Trees

But even if you aren’t able to see the lilacs at their peak, Dobele still makes a fun day trip from Riga! The Knights of the Livonian Order built Dobele Castle on a strategic hill in the 1330s which remained in active use until the Great Northern War nearly four centuries later. The heavily damaged castle was abandoned in 1736 and fell into ruin. An impressive amount of stonework remains intact, including much of the bailey’s perimeter wall.

Dobele, Latvia Castle Ruins

Dobele Castle Ruins

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Dobele Castle

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The old town center of Dobele dates to the late 1400s when the Livonians constructed a Lutheran Church a short distance from the castle grounds. The beautifully restored church features original stone floors, 17th and 18th century woodwork, and a gleaming new organ. As ever, the ladies inside were delighted to welcome tourists, though some knowledge of Latvian was necessary to understand them.

Dobele Lutheran Church

A marketplace grew around the church and attractive two-story brick buildings appeared much later. The vast square was given a makeover in 2011, with new paving stones and fountains adding charm. The centerpiece is a giant well-shaped fountain whose bucket tips over once full. The fountain was shut off for cleaning at the time of my visit, but a kindly worker turned it on so I could see. I was surprised by the crowd that quickly gathered to enjoy the show!

Dobele Latvia

Dobele Well Fountain

Note: The crowd was standing behind me. I didn’t make that bit up.

Just around the corner is the Dobele Craft House, which hosts rotating exhibits and workshops relating to Latvian arts and handicrafts. Knitters are encouraged to add a few rows to the lengthy scarf which has been an ongoing group effort since the House opened in 2010. Sadly, not much was available for sale.

Dobele Craft House

Dobele is home to several important memorials which document the region’s turbulent past. The Memorial to the Victims of Communist Genocide stands near the train station, where deportations to Siberia began in 1941. Little fanfare is given for the nearby Soviet Soldiers Cemetery, although the site is well maintained. Much more celebrated is the Dobele Liberation Monument which stands proudly near the castle ruins. The massive stone statue depicts two Latvian figures in traditional costumes ready to fight for their country. The original monument was erected in 1940 but blown up by the occupying Soviets 10 years later; the current version dates to 1996.

Dobele Communism Memorial

Memorial to the Victims of Communist Genocide

Dobele Bralu Kapi

Statue in the Soviet Soldiers Cemetery

Dobele Liberation Monument

Dobele Liberation Monument

For lunch, the ladies at the Tourism Information Center (opposite the well fountain) recommended the Gardi Gan Cafe en route to the castle ruins. If you want a classic Latvian dish with a twist, try the chicken cutlet “French style” – i.e. smothered with cheese and tomatoes. Order fries and a salad to round out the meal!

Where to Eat in Dobele Latvia

Latvian Cuisine

Vistas Karbonades Francu Gaume

Dobele is easily reached by bus from Riga, 1.5 hours each way. I recommend purchasing tickets in advance to secure a good seat as this is a popular route and some of the buses are small. (Sit on the right side of the bus for a view of Jelgava Palace.) Signage around town is sorely lacking so be sure to pick up English brochures from Dobele’s tourism office. Happy travels!

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Tell me: Have you ever traveled to see flowers in bloom?

A Peaceful Afternoon at Arlington National Cemetery

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Last week I wrote about some of the many presidential monuments and war memorials in Washington, DC. I shared statistics such as the 54,000 American soldiers killed during the three-year Korean War and the staggering 400,000 who gave their lives during World War II. It is difficult to comprehend losses of that magnitude, so many young men and women simply gone. Many lie under the former battlefields of Europe, rows of white crosses punctuated by Stars of David flowing across the now-peaceful landscape. I visited the American Cemetery in Luxembourg where General Patton is buried with 5,000 of the men he led in battle.

As sobering as that sight was, imagine Arlington National Cemetery, the 624 acre memorial park where more than 300,000 people have been laid to rest. The graves are marked with uniform white tombstones, aligned in seemingly endless rows over the undulating hills. The cemetery is dotted with ancient trees and beds of colorful flowers, making it a serenely beautiful place to wander.

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Active-duty veterans of the United States Armed Forces and their families are eligible for burial at Arlington National Cemetery. Walking among the graves, you’ll find soldiers from every conflict since the Civil War. The country’s premiere military cemetery was first established in 1864 by the Union general in command of the garrison at Arlington House, the confiscated family home of Confederate general Robert E. Lee. One of the earliest memorials on the property stands above a mass grave of unknown Union soldiers killed at the Battle of Bull Run in Manassas. More Civil War-era tombstones line the perimeter around the Lees’ rose garden.

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Tomb of the Unknown Civil War dead.

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The original Arlington House still stands on the highest hill overlooking Washington, DC. Built in 1802, it was likely saved from destruction by Union troops because the original owner of the house was George Washington’s adopted son, George Washington Parke Custis. The mansion has been fully restored to the time Robert E. Lee and his wife, Mary Custis, daughter of George Custis, lived there. Free guided tours are led by park rangers, who sometimes wear period dress. It’s a fascinating time capsule of antebellum life.

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At the bottom of the hill directly below Arlington House lie the graves of U.S. President John F. Kennedy, his wife, Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis and two of their infant children who were reburied beside them. An Eternal Flame, lighted by Mrs. Kennedy after the president’s funeral, burns at the head of the grave plot to honor his memory.

JFK’s brother, Robert “Bobby” Kennedy, is buried a short distance away. Bobby, a U.S. Senator and World War II veteran, was also shockingly assassinated in the 1960s. His grave is marked with a marble footstone and a simple white cross. Their brother, Edward “Ted” Kennedy, a U.S. Senator for 43 years, is buried nearby with an identical grave marker. A memorial stone for the eldest brother, Joseph Kennedy, Jr, who was killed in action during World War II, was added to the site so all the brothers could be together. It’s a very touching tribute to one of America’s most revered political families.

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While the only other U.S. president buried here is William Howard Taft (served 1908-1912), there are many other notable graves and memorials on the grounds honoring important individuals and significant events in American history. The saddest to me personally is the memorial to the Space Shuttle Challenger, which exploded during the launch in 1986, killing all seven crew members on board. Among them was Sharon Christa McAuliffe, a civilian set to become the first teacher in space. Elementary school classes like mine watched the live broadcast of the launch and subsequent explosion in horror. I vividly recall my teacher running from the room in tears.

Near the Challenger Memorial stands a monument to the Space Shuttle Columbia, which disintegrated upon reentry in 2003. A memorial to the brave men and women who died in the effort to rescue American hostages in Iran in 1979 is also located here.

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Grave site of President William Howard Taft.

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Tomb of Pierre Charles L’Enfant, who designed the layout of Washington, DC.

The Tomb of the Unknown Soldier is among the most famous memorials at Arlington National Cemetery. An unidentified American casualty of World War I was interred in 1921 to honor all the servicemen who gave their lives. Crypts were later added with unknown soldiers from World War II, Korea and Vietnam. The unknown solider from the Vietnam War was later identified through DNA testing, a technique that may make such memorials less likely in the future.

U.S. Marines keep a constant vigil, standing guard over the tomb 24 hours a day, 365 days a year. An elaborate Changing of the Guard ceremony takes place every hour and, if you’re lucky, you might even get to witness a wreath laying ceremony. While observing these services, please remember to stand and maintain a respectful silence.

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The three white stones behind the tomb mark the graves of World War II, Korea and Vietnam soldiers.

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Changing of the Guard at the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier.

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Have you visited Arlington Cemetery? What were your impressions?

 

Best of DC: Monuments and Memorials

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As world capitals go, Washington, DC is among the most impressive. Sure, it’s relatively young, without the distinguished history of the grand dames of Europe. But what it lacks in age, it makes up for in stately monuments and memorials. Many of the most significant are grouped around the National Mall, a large public park and gathering place also known as the “nation’s backyard.” They serve as a visual reminder of America’s sacrifices and commitment to freedom and equality. But with over 150 memorials spread over the city, it can be challenging to see them all, so I’ve put together a guide to my top eight memorials in Washington.

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Washington Monument

One of the most recognizable is the Washington Monument, the white marble obelisk towering over the National Mall. Law mandates that no building in the city can be taller than the 555-foot Monument, ensuring it is always visible on the skyline. Construction on the Monument, which honors America’s first president and general of the army which defeated Great Britain in a bid for independence, began in 1848 and wasn’t finished until 1884. It was the tallest building in the world at the time!

Damaged in a 2011 earthquake, the Monument has only recently been reopened to the public. Tickets are required to visit the observation deck and museum at the top.

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Lincoln Memorial

Perhaps even more famous than the Washington Monument is the Lincoln Memorial, dedicated to the 16th president of the United States. Abraham Lincoln led the nation through the unfortunate years of the Civil War, ultimately emancipating the slaves at the heart of the battle and reunifying the states. The walls of the Memorial are engraved with Lincoln’s two most remarkable speeches, his second inaugural address and the Gettysburg Address.

One hundred years after Lincoln issued the Emancipation Proclamation freeing the slaves, Martin Luther King, Jr. marched on Washington in the name of civil rights and delivered his “I Have a Dream” speech from the marble steps of the Lincoln Memorial.

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Jefferson Memorial

Situated along the far side of the Tidal Basin, the white-domed Jefferson Memorial is one of the city’s most iconic structures, and a photographer’s dream come cherry blossom season. The Memorial honors Thomas Jefferson, America’s third president and author of the Declaration of Independence, which established the United States of America as a country separate from Great Britain.

The exterior of the monument is made from Vermont marble, while the interior marble walls were sourced from Georgia, symbolizing the northern and southern borders of the original thirteen states. The materials for the statue of Jefferson came from Missouri and Minnesota, states added to the Union after Jefferson made the Louisiana Purchase. The Memorial’s design was based on the Rotunda of the University of Virginia, which Jefferson established.

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Martin Luther King, Jr. Memorial

“Out of the mountain of despair, a stone of hope.” The Martin Luther King, Jr. Memorial is a metaphorical mountain of granite from which Dr. King rises. Sixteen more quotes are carved in the wall behind the sculpture of Dr. King, ensuring that his powerful words will continue to inspire the generations to come. Opened in 2011, it is the newest memorial on the National Mall. It is located along the Tidal Basin, not far from the steps of the Lincoln Memorial.

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Vietnam Veterans Memorial

Dedicated to the military men and women who served America in the Vietnam War, the Memorial Wall is powerful in its simplicity. The names of the 58,000 Americans who lost their lives are carved in the black granite wall, and it’s not uncommon to see loved ones making etchings of the names with paper and pencil. Two brave members of my family fought in the war and I’m fortunate and thankful their names aren’t listed.

The Wall was designed by Maya Ying Lin, who won the competition for the design when she was a student at Yale University and just 21 years old. A complementary statue of three young soldiers was added later to appease critics of the Wall’s plain and unconventional design.

When I visited Vietnam a few years ago, I had the opportunity to go inside the Cu Chi Tunnels used by the Viet Cong during the war. Click here to read about the unnerving experience.

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Korean War Veterans Memorial

“Freedom is not free.” Nearly six million Americans served in the military during the Korean War. Although the fighting lasted just three years, over 54,000 soldiers gave their lives in the defense of South Korea. That’s nearly as many as those killed during the Vietnam War, which dragged on for 16 years.

The Korean War Memorial consists of 19 stainless steel statues and a black granite wall faintly etched with a mural. The statues, which stand in green shrubbery meant to evoke the rice paddies of Korea, represent four branches of the U.S. armed services: Army, Marines, Navy and Air Force. The mural wall utilizes actual photos of the Korean War from the National Archives and a has an eerie, ghost-like quality.

To read about my experience visiting the Demilitarized Zone between the two Koreas, click here.

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World War II Memorial

“Our debt to the heroic men and valiant women in the service of our country can never be repaid. They have earned our undying gratitude. America will never forget their sacrifices.” – President Harry S. Truman.

These words are written on one of the walls surrounding the lovely World War II Memorial. It has pride of place between the Washington Monument and Lincoln Memorial, two of our nation’s most important and revered presidents. The World War II Memorial consists of 56 granite columns, representing each of the U.S. states and territories. These surround a large fountain, with two pavilions at either end symbolizing U.S. victory on the Atlantic and Pacific fronts.

16 million Americans served in the armed forces during World War II and more than 400,000 gave their lives. This sacrifice is honored by the wall of 4,000 gold stars at the center of the Memorial.

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US Marine Corps War Memorial

This striking sculpture, located just outside the grounds of Arlington National Cemetery in Virginia, is dedicated to all the Marines who have given their lives in defense of their country since 1775, when the Corps was founded. The sculpture is based on an iconic photograph from World War II, which depicts six soldiers raising the American flag on the Japanese island of Iwo Jima. The names and dates of the major battles involving U.S. Marines are carved along the base and the U.S. flag flies continuously, year-round.

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Have you been to Washington, DC? Which memorial is your favorite?

 

Mount Vernon: Home of America’s First President

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America is a relatively young nation and lacks the intriguing monarchical histories of European and Asian states. No royal palaces grace our shores and no mischievous princes keep the paparazzi on their toes. The story might have been different had our first president, George Washington, decided to call himself “king.” Instead he retired after two terms, to the befuddlement of 18th century rulers everywhere.

After winning the Revolutionary War against England and helping to create the United States of America, Washington was eager to return to the simple life he had enjoyed at his family farm, Mount Vernon.

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Washington inherited the estate in 1754 and turned the unassuming farmhouse into the stately 21-room mansion it remains today. Made of wood which was rusticated to imitate sandstone, the mansion has been painstakingly restored and decorated to reflect its 1799 grandeur.

Each room is painted a vibrant hue that was popular at the time, from verdigris green to Prussian blue. Some of the furnishings are original to the house, while others are gifts of Washington’s heirs and others are privately-owned period pieces (for which reason no photographs are allowed inside). Family photos adorn the walls and each room looks warm and inviting.

Perhaps that’s partly why the Washingtons received so many guests – 677 in one year alone! Many were friends and relations, but some were total strangers, drawn out of respect for the president and simple curiosity. Can you imagine rolling up to the White House today and asking to stay with the Obamas?!

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Mount Vernon’s two-story back porch has become an iconic Virginia architectural style.

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Washington’s view across the Potomac River hasn’t changed much in the last 200 years.

The outbuildings on either side of the mansion were used for essential functions such as laundry, home repairs and food preparation and storage. Washington’s wife, Martha, took great pains to feed her many guests high quality meals, which contained a shocking amount of calories by today’s standards. Her famous Christmas cake recipe calls for 40 eggs and four pounds of butter! No wonder gout was such a common affliction back then!

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The kitchen was in a separate building to mitigate the risk of fire at the main house.

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Wool and linen were among the textiles produced at Mount Vernon.

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The Washington family would have ridden in a coach similar to this one.

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The stables housed Washington’s personal horses as well as those of his many guests.

Mount Vernon was a working farm and the livestock raised there were a source of both food and clothing. Hundreds of cows and hogs were needed to sustain daily operations, while the wool from the large flock of sheep was woven and sold. Donkeys were raised to help with heavy farm work and dogs kept on hand for traditional foxhunts which entertained Washington and his many guests.

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Washington was an avid gardener and collected plants and seeds from all around the world. Fresh vegetables and fruits graced the dinner table and a beautiful array of flowers delighted visitors year round. The major crops produced by the farm were corn and wheat, and an onsite mill facilitated the production of cornmeal and flour.

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Washington designed a greenhouse to protect his collection of tropical plants.

It’s an unfortunate fact that the plantation was tended by slaves owned by Washington and his family. At the time of his death in 1799, there were over 300 slaves at Mount Vernon. They toiled for long hours and endured grim living conditions, including harsh punishments for theft and other wrongdoings. Washington’s feelings on slavery appear to have been mixed and often contradictory, and in his will he left instructions for the emancipation of his slaves upon Martha’s death. He is the only Founding Father to have done so.

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Sleeping quarters for female slaves and their children.

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This memorial marks the location of the slave burial ground.

George and Martha Washington are buried at Mount Vernon, along with 28 members of their extended family. The “new” red-brick tomb was built in the 1830s to replace a much older deteriorating structure.

Many famous world leaders and dignitaries have visited the tomb of America’s first president, including the Marquis de Lafayette, King George VI, Winston Churchill and Chiang Kai-shek’s wife Soong May-ling. Over one million tourists pass through Mount Vernon’s gates annually, so you are sure to be in good company.

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Mount Vernon
Address: 3200 Mount Vernon Memorial Highway, Mount Vernon, Virginia, USA
Entrance Fee: US$17 for adults, US$8 for children aged 6-11, free for children 5 and younger

 

Have you been to Mount Vernon?

 

Visiting the NYC 9/11 Memorial

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“Where were you on 9/11?”

That’s a question that doesn’t get asked as much anymore, twelve years after the event. When I am asked, almost no one is prepared for my answer. I was in the air.

In September, 2001, I was working in Washington, D.C., for a small publisher of legal books. I had recently graduated college and this was my first “real” job.

On that fateful morning, I was to embark on my very first business trip. I met a coworker at Ronald Reagan Washington National Airport where we boarded our flight to Tampa, Florida. We departed at 8:20 am, five minutes after the first plane had been hijacked, though we didn’t know that at the time. We flew south, directly over the Pentagon.

It was a beautiful, clear day and we remained blissfully unaware of the events unfolding in New York. Our flight crew gave no indication of trouble and cheerfully served the free morning meal (remember those days?). Having taken many flights before, I found it odd that our plane never ascended above the clouds. I said as much to my colleague, but didn’t think much of it.

About halfway through the flight, our pilot announced over the intercom that we were being forced to land in Columbia, South Carolina, due to a national emergency. He was calm and said he would share more information once we were on the ground. Our cabin was abuzz with speculation. I naively wondered if they were clearing the skies for Air Force One.

We descended at a shockingly rapid rate. The lady across the aisle grabbed my hand and started to pray. I had not been afraid until that moment when it became clear something was really not right. We landed so hard I thought we were going to crash, bouncing and jerking from side to side. It was absolutely terrifying. As we taxied to the gate at this small rural airport, we watched as plane after plane put down behind us – United, Continental, FedEx, private planes and major airliners alike. What on earth could be happening?

We listened in disbelief as the pilot broke the horrifying news. I remember tears streaming down my face as I collected my bags and stumbled off the plane. All the passengers huddled around the TV in the terminal, desperate for details. Mobile phone service was down so we queued at the pay phones to let our families know we were okay.

My coworker and I rented a car and headed to a nearby hotel for lack of other options. Later that day, we decided just to make the 10-hour drive back to D.C. The hotel clerk had given us a map of South Carolina and wished us luck. Somewhere around the border of North Carolina and Virginia I got pulled over for speeding and the officer issued me a ticket. The absurdity almost made me laugh! How could going a few miles over the limit matter on a day like this?

We were welcomed back to the office with champagne and chocolate shortly thereafter as tanks and armed security forces took up positions in the streets outside. Our beautiful, peaceful city felt like a war zone. Daily fire drills had us running downstairs and constantly on edge.

One month later, I moved to New York City and stayed five incredible years. I love that city more than any other place on earth and will always consider it “home,” even though I haven’t lived there for years now.

Why am I sharing this story? Because I recently visited for the first time the NYC 9/11 Memorial. It was an emotional visit but one that I needed to make.

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When I moved to New York twelve years ago, the World Trade Center was smoldering rubble. Today the 16-acre site is a lovely park filled with trees and tourists. Waterfalls pour into the footprints of the twin towers, where reflecting pools are meant to wash away the horrors of death and destruction.

The names of the 2,983 individuals who perished in the 2001 and 1993 terrorist attacks are etched into bronze walls surrounding the reflecting pools. Flowers and other mementos adorn the walls and remind one that the site is a graveyard as well as a national monument. 9/11 was the worst terrorist attack to happen on U.S. soil and we must not forget it. By visiting the site, we honor the victims and the brave rescue personnel who gave their lives to save others.

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Wind sprays water over the memorial walls.

Wind sprays water over the memorial walls.

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New construction surrounds what was once Ground Zero, with the Freedom Tower its most notable structure. Officially known as One World Trade Center, the 104-story building is the tallest in America and the fourth tallest in the world. Seven glittering new towers will eventually form the new World Trade Center complex.

A museum commemorating the lives of the victims and providing details of the attacks is slated to open in 2014. Currently, artwork made from pieces of the destroyed towers is displayed inside the gift shop, where a moving documentary about victims’ families and survivors can also be viewed.

I was dismayed to find some tourists, perhaps forgetting where they were, laughing and posing for photos as they might at an ordinary tourist attraction.  As you are visiting the site, I would suggest being respectful of the lives that were lost.

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Artwork made from WTC reckage, on display in the Memorial gift shop.

Artwork made from WTC reckage, on display in the Memorial gift shop.

National September 11 Memorial & Museum
Address: Liberty St, New York, NY (enter near the corner of Albany and Greenwich Streets)
Entrance Fee: None, though donations are encouraged
Visitor Passes: It is possible to visit the memorial without a pass, but expect a lengthy wait. To skip the line, reserve a visitor pass in advance, either online or in person at the 9/11 Memorial Preview Site at 20 Vesey Street. We went on a Saturday afternoon without passes and the wait was about 40 minutes.

Where were YOU on 9/11?

The Three Pagodas of Dali, China

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One of the most iconic sights of China’s southwestern Yunnan Province is the Three Pagodas of Dali, found 1.5 kilometers north of the ancient city. The striking towers were built in the 9th and 10th centuries at the base of the Cangshan Mountains, with Lake Erhai visible on the horizon. Miraculously, the brick structures have withstood two devastating earthquakes and the ravages of the Cultural Revolution. Legend has it the pagodas were built to scare off dragons that once plagued the area.

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But first we had to find them.

Heading out from Dali’s north gate, we eventually came to an ornately painted arch with stone lions out front. We had found the entrance to the reflection pool park which boasts a superb view of the Three Pagodas. We were given an English brochure with our tickets which cost 121 RMB (about 20 USD) a piece. Tickets allow entry to both this park and the main Three Pagodas site, although few tourists seem to be aware of the former. Aside from a lone tourist, we were completely alone here. After some photos and a quick loop around the pond, we left for the main attraction.

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Seriously, where are the doors?!

Continuing north, we walked down a street where people were doing things like extracting oil from leaves and making cotton bedding by hand. After crossing a major highway with nary a stop light or cross walk, we came to a parking lot filled with tour buses and figured we had surely reached our destination. Since we already had tickets, we were able to breeze past the waiting crowds and head straight in.

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Dali’s Three Pagodas, made of red brick and covered in white mud, form an equilateral triangle, the largest one forming the front point. The main pagoda, built in the 9th century, is square-shaped and stands nearly 70 meters high. Each of its sixteen stories has an alcove with a white marble Buddha image enshrined within, though this feature isn’t visible from the ground. The two smaller round pagodas were built in the 10th century and have 10 stories each. They lean precariously and unsurprisingly inspire those goofy photos of tourists alternately pretending to hold them up and push them over.

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Chongsheng Temple is nestled against the foothills behind the Three Pagodas and was the royal temple of the Nanzhao kingdom, which ruled the region during the Tang Dynasty. Sadly, the original structures were destroyed by natural disasters, war and the Cultural Revolution, with the existing buildings erected in 1999. On the back of our brochure, the temple is billed as “the biggest Han Buddhist building in China.”

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Amazingly, a fair number of folks seemed happy to pose with the towers and then leave. The further we went into the complex, the fewer people we encountered, though the intermittent sudden downpours might have chased them away. In a bizarre weather phenomenon unique to the terrain, dark clouds appeared, the temperature dropped sharply and rain fell in sheets. Then, just as suddenly, the sky cleared and the sun returned as though the storm never happened. The temperature changes were so drastic that steam rose from the pavement!

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A surprisingly candid sign explaining how the original 9th century structure was destroyed during the Cultural Revolution.

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The region is famous for its white marble.

The main sanctuary is all the way at the back of the complex, furthest from the pagodas and close to the mountain. It is surprisingly beautiful and worth seeking out. The center of the room is dominated by a dozen or so gleaming Buddhist statues in varying sizes. Some are downright intimidating! The pièce de résistance, however, is the gorgeous wood paneling along the room’s perimeter. The panels are intricately carved with scenes from the Buddha’s life and are simply magnificent, though I’m not sure as to their age. Should you want to visit the temple without the climb, green tourist buses will shuttle you from the Three Pagodas and back again.

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Tell me: are the Three Pagodas of Dali, China on your bucket list?

Finding Beauty in Phnom Penh

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After a somber day delving into Cambodia’s dark history, we wanted to immerse ourselves in the more uplifting aspects of Khmer culture. We started with a visit to the Silver Pagoda on the grounds of the Royal Palace. Built in 1962 on the site of an older wooden structure, the Silver Pagoda gets its name from the 5,000 tiles covering the floor, each made from one kilogram of solid silver. Though most of the tiles are covered with protective carpeting, several by the entrance have been left visible. More impressive is the collection of over 1,500 artifacts kept inside the pagoda, which is also known as the Temple of the Emerald Buddha.

The centerpiece of the collection is a green crystal, seated Buddha image similar to ones found in Bangkok and Chiang Mai, Thailand. Standing in front of the Emerald Buddha is another Buddha image cast from 90 kilograms of gold and adorned with thousands of diamonds, including a giant 25-carat gem in the crown. The remaining objets d’art – many gifts from other royal families – are kept in cases lining the inside perimeter and range from religious and ceremonial regalia to household items such as jeweled cigarette containers. Though the Khmer Rouge destroyed many of the country’s temples and historic relics, this collection was miraculously and thankfully spared.

 

 

We explored the grounds surrounding the Silver Pagoda, which include a statue of King Norodom as well as several smaller shrines and ornately carved chedi. The Royal Palace and Throne Hall were closed to tourists due to the recent passing of the King Father, Norodom Sihanouk.

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The King Father passed away in October 2012 and was cremated in early 2013 after a period of official mourning. A lovely pavilion near the royal palace now houses his ashes.

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The National Museum of Cambodia is around the corner from the palace and well worth a visit. The elegant pink building, designed in 1917 by Frenchman George Groslier when Cambodia was part of Indochina, houses one of the world’s finest collections of Khmer art and sculpture. Many of the pieces are original to the temples of Angkor and were moved to the museum for safekeeping. The museum was closed during the four years of the Khmer Rouge regime, and untold damages were done to the collection, but what’s left is magnificent. A giant Garuda statue greats visitors in the entrance and the halls are filled with well-preserved images of Buddha, Vishnu and Shiva. The museum is centered around a beautiful courtyard whose porticoes are lined with the heads of once-massive statues and intricate wall carvings. While not as well annotated or as safeguarded from tourists’ wandering hands as at the Angkor museum in Siem Reap, this collection’s sheer size and scope are nonetheless quite impressive.

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Royal Palace and Silver Pagoda
Address: Samdech Sothearos Boulevard, Phnom Penh, Cambodia
Hours: 7:30am-11:00am / 2:00pm-5:00pm daily
Entrance Fee: 25,000 Riel
National Museum of Cambodia
Address: Street 13, Phnom Penh, Cambodia
Hours: 8am – 5pm daily, last tickets issued at 4:30pm
Entrance Fee: 5 USD for foreign visitors