Hassan II Mosque (Casablanca, Morocco)

Chandeliers & windows inside the Hassan II Mosque

Chandeliers & windows inside the Hassan II Mosque

The Hassan II Mosque (named after King Hassan II) is the second largest mosque in the world (St. Peter’s Basilica can easily fit inside) and built partly on water. The largest mosque is in Mecca. It has the highest religious minaret in the world at 200 meters high. The mosque will fit up to 25,000 worshippers inside and another 80,000 in the courtyard. It is magnificent! This is also one of the very few mosques open for non-Muslims to visit.

When you enter the mosque, you are given a plastic bag to store your shoes (as you are required to walk barefoot while visiting). As I stated above, the mosque is enormous with beautiful chandeliers and mosaics. In the center, you will see a glass floor that reveals the ocean below which is said to be a reminder of the Qur’an’s statement that God’s throne is upon the water.

In the basement is an ablution room (where you cleanse yourself of your sins) and an absolutely beautiful hammam with a large pool.

Ablution Room

Ablution Room

Pool in the hammam

Pool in the hammam

Sign at the entrance to the mosque

Sign at the entrance to the mosque

View of the mosque on a foggy day.

View of the mosque on a foggy day.

For me, the Hassan II Mosque was the highlight of Casablanca. If you visit Morocco, most international flights fly into Casablanca…my recommendation is to visit the mosque, then keep driving towards Marrakesh to start your adventure!

Photos of the Day: Alexandria, Egypt

We arrived in Alexandria around 6am…just in time to see the sun rise. I could hardly sleep the night before in anticipation for what I’d get to see. The first thing I notice as we pull into port is that the water in the harbor is dirty and there are sunken ships (which were actually pretty cool).

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Alexandria is the capital where Cleopatra ruled from 51-30 BC. The city was named for Alexander the Great when he conquered Egypt from the Persians. The story of Cleopatra is fascinating. One thing I did not realize is that she was a descendant of Greeks (Ptolemy, who was a general of Alexander the Great). Cleo was highly educated (she spoke 8 languages) and hard core (she killed her sister to have the throne). A big thing back in the day was for sisters and brothers to marry each other and procreate to keep the royal bloodline going. Of course, this resulted in genetic deformities and poor health for the offspring (see the latest article on the DNA testing of King Tut) as well as a touch of the crazy. Anyway, Cleo was married off to her brother (Ptolemy XIII aka “P13”) but she was like, “this is gross and I’m out.” So, she ended up falling out with him and Julius Caesar had to resolve the conflict of who should rule Egypt. P13 thought he could outsmart his sister and keep her from using her charms to get Caesar to rule in her favor. But, he underestimated her. Where there is a will, there is a way. Cleo had herself rolled up in a carpet and was taken right past her brother’s guards in the palace to Caesar. She put her charms on, was granted the right to rule Egypt and made Caesar her first baby-daddy.

After Caesar was killed (“et tu, Brutus?” is one of my favorite lines), Cleo put her charms on Marc Antony and had 3 kids by him. Marc ended up living in Alexandria and boozing it up. When he was defeated by Octavian (Caesar’s heir to the Roman throne and his rival), he was told that Cleo was dead. So, he killed himself. Cleo actually wasn’t dead and when she found out Marc had committed suicide and she had lost the throne to Egypt, she killed herself by having a deadly snake, an asp, bite her. It’s so tragic. Her kids ended up being taken to Rome where the boys were killed so they wouldn’t pose a threat to Octavian but her daughter, Cleopatra Selene, was allowed to live and ended up becoming the Queen of Mauretania.

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Hustlin’ Hard: The Story of the Valley of the Kings

Entrace to the Valley of the Kings

Entrace to the Valley of the Kings

Luxor is home to the Valley of the Kings, Valley of the Queens, Karnak Temple, Luxor Temple and the funerary temple of Queen Hatshepsut (just to name a few). It used to be called “Thebes” in ancient times (which was the capital of Egypt when King Tut & Ramses II ruled). It is believed that Ramses II was the pharaoh when Moses came along asking for him to let his people go. Rams apparently didn’t know Moses (aka Charlton Heston) was an active member of the NRA and thus should’ve taken him seriously.

We arrive in Luxor about an hour and 15 minutes later then board a bus to drive to the Valley of the Kings (“VOK”)…the necropolis of the New Kingdom pharaohs. The VOK (which is home to King Tut’s tomb) is located on the West Bank of the Nile River. The Nile is beautiful (much more so in the country than in the city).

The VOK is purposefully built on the West Bank because the ancient Egyptians believed that since the sun sets in the west, so should their remains. I was unable to take pictures inside VOK because, unfortunately, the people at VOK are like Kanye and Sean Penn as they absolutely forbade cameras. In fact, if you tried to bring a camera in, they said it would be confiscated. And if you tried to be slick and take a picture with a camera phone…they took your phone and fined you $400. So, y’all are just going to have to use your imagination as I describe VOK. I have included a few pictures I sourced via the internet from renegade photographers braver than me (ha!).

Valley of the Kings (source: http://nurdinsembelit.files.wordpress.com)

Valley of the Kings (source: http://nurdinsembelit.files.wordpress.com)

It ends up being 104 degrees (which apparently is cool since a few days before it was 120). I think I saw the devil when I was walking toward the tombs. He was selling bottled water like, “Welcome to Egypt, y’all.” Anyway, we end up seeing 3 tombs (the tombs of Ramses IX, Ramses I and Ramose). I think Egypt may be the birthplace of hustling. Because, after you paid the fee to get in to see the tombs, there was an additional fee if you wanted to go into King Tut or Ramses VI tombs. Hustlers. You have to show your ticket to the guy at the entrance of each tomb who uses a hole puncher to validate it. This system ensures you don’t see more than 3 tombs without paying extra. Hustlers.

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The tombs are built into the desert Theban Hills and they are incredible. It’s hard to believe that such wonderful & intricate artwork was done so many thousands of years ago! So far, 62 tombs have been found. Tombs (before they were discovered and open to the public) held almost everything that the pharaoh owned (including his bed, jewelry, statues of servants who would serve him, etc.)…basically anything they felt the pharaoh would need in the afterlife. Since the tombs contained such valuable items, it’s said that the slaves who built the tombs were killed afterwards so they wouldn’t reveal its location. Too bad they didn’t have Confidentiality Agreements back then. That has got to suck.

To enter most tombs, you have to walk down into the opening of the mountain and while you’d think it would be cool since it’s dark…it’s just hot and stuffy. However, you don’t focus on that too much as you quickly get caught up in the hieroglyphics. The sarcophagus (coffin) of one of the pharaohs was still in the tomb. You know they had a guy standing right by it. Probably to charge you if you touched it. Hustlers.

Egyptian Afterlife (source: http://www.photo2013.com)

Egyptian Afterlife (source: http://www.photo2013.com)

Each tomb contained funerary hieroglyphics. Ancient Egyptians believed in eternal afterlife and they had a complex funeral tradition. Bodies of the pharaohs were mummified so that their soul could live on in its embalmed corpse. They took 4 organs (liver, intestines, stomach & lungs) and placed them in beautiful marble jars. The only organ left in the body was the heart which would be weighed in the afterlife. The entire mummification process took 70 days! What I found the most fascinating was the weighing of the heart. That was the final stage in the journey to the afterlife. The god, Anubis (which has the body of a man but the head of a jackal), would weigh the deceased pharaoh’s heart against a feather on a set of scales. If the heart weighed more than the feather (because of living a sinned life) then this beast named, Ammut, devoured it and the pharaoh’s soul would die and they would not live on in eternity. I’m pretty sure that Ammut kept a full belly because a lot of these pharaohs were killing their brothers and fathers and basically doing a lot of dirty stuff to get the throne. You can read a detailed description of the funeral customs here. It was so fascinating that I bought a papyrus painting of the Egyptian Funerary Scene.

After you leave the tombs, you have to wait in the heat (next to Beelzebub) for the little train to come get you and take you back to the entrance. In the meantime, you have to just sit in Hustle City. Those folks were trying to sell you EVERYTHING! They are relentless. It’s like their mantra is “Hustle or Die”. Seriously. I’m gonna see about getting them a record deal because this is just plain ridiculous. You know the package of fold out postcards? Well, they had those (which had seen a better day) and would whip them out and let them fall down all dramatically like they are David Copperfield getting ready to show you a magic card trick. If you refused to buy it, they wanted to know why. It didn’t matter if you had already bought one from Muhammed. Ali Babba doesn’t care about that. He wants you to buy his 1970 postcards with the coffee stains. You can get it for $1! What? You still don’t want it? What about a book on the VOK? You can’t read? No problem. It’s got pictures. It can be yours for $5! Why are you walking away? Oh, they will just follow you and worry the mess out of you (while smoking their cigarettes). They were determined that you were going to do a customer feedback survey. You would think you are saved when the little trolly/train shows up to take you back to the entrance. Surprise! Foodoo gets out of the driver’s seat and brings his postcards and books to sell them to you BEFORE HE WILL TAKE YOU BACK TO THE ENTRANCE. Stop the madness, Egypt. It’s 104 degrees in the hot desert…and I left my water on the bus, people are stinking and the hustlers are swarming around you like mosquitoes with the West Nile virus.

But for the heat (and really, that is my fault because I should’ve known better than to visit the desert in the summer) and the hustling, the Valley of the Kings is absolutely fascinating! I was so amazed & enthralled by the ancient Egyptian traditions. The VOK is a “must see” during your visit to Egypt!

Photos of the Day: Karnak Temple (Luxor/Thebes, Egypt)

20130223-180612.jpgI’ve been obsessed with visiting Karnak Temple ever since I saw The Mummy Returns.  When the opportunity arose to visit, I jumped at the chance!  This open-air museum is very interesting with its decaying temples & hieroglyphics.  Located in the ancient city of Thebes, this temple is said to be the largest ancient religious site in the world & second most visited site in Egypt…behind the Pyramids of Giza (source Wikipedia).  It was even more majestic than I had imagined.  At the heart of Karnak lies the Temple of Amun…king of the gods.  Karnak has everything…endless courts and halls, a sacred lake, statues of pharaohs, etc.  This was the highlight of my visit to Luxor.  It’s AMAZING!

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Interested in visiting Egypt?  Read my review here.

Photo of the Day: Pretty Positano

Legend states that the Greek god Poseidon created Positano for Pasitea (a nymph he lusted after).  I have yet to visit a city/town/village in Italy that I haven’t fallen in love with (well…Naples let’s not dwell on that).  During our drive along the Amalfi Coast, we stopped in Positano for lunch and were treated to this amazing view!  Clearly Poseidon knew how to woo the ladies because this.place.is.awesome!  So, um…Call me, Poseidon!  I’m looking to move 😉

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Photos of the Day: Pompeii Uncovered

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Who knew Pompeii would be so freaking awesome?!?!?  Certainly not my high school History teacher because he never told me the E True Hollywood Story of what this city was actually like!  This place is stunning…and their civilization was actually very advanced (who knew they had cafes???)!  What impressed me most was how well-preserved the city is and the interesting “fun facts” about life back then (which isn’t too different from life now).

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Street signs in Pompeii

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They also had a lot of “extracurricular activities” going on.  Here’s an excerpt from my original post on Pompeii:

3.            Pompeii was full of freaks.  Apparently, Pompeii was where the party was at.  They had 80 bars and 25 brothels.  With the open sewer.  I am not able to get past the open sewer so let’s just address that now.  It’s gonna come up…often.  Anyway, the freaks did come out at night and they were doing things that Rick James couldn’t even dream of.  Modern Pompeii is full of people selling erotic calendars, statues, playing cards, etc (see below).  Now, I originally thought these sexual position scenes may have been their version of “art” back then.  But, the guide pointed out that they posted these scenes in the bedrooms of the whorehouses as a “menu of services” (just like McDonald’s).  You know I was looking to see what the “goings on” were (purely for research purposes only).  You ain’t ready for that.  A menu of sexual services.  Seriously.  After getting your drank on at one of the 80 bars then crossing and falling into the open sewer, you go over to Octavia’s and ask for a #3.  Love it.

You know you want to read the other 4 fun facts about Pompeii 🙂  Planning a trip to Italy?  I highly recommend you hike Mount Vesuvius then visit the spectacular remains of this interesting city.  Then reward yourself with cruising down the Amalfi Coast!

Top 10 Things to do in London (Winter Edition)

I’ve visited London 5 times so far and each visit keeps me coming back for more.  Every time I visit a city, I try to come up with a list of the “top things to do” by reading reviews on Trip Advisor and Rick Steves to plan an unforgettable trip.  The list will expand or contract based upon the amount of time I have.  You can always get the typical tour ideas from mainstream websites, but I like to mix city/historical tours with off-the-beaten path activities.  Below is a list of my top 10 things to do when visiting the fabulously energized city of London during the fall & winter (but most of the activities are available year around).

Somerset House Ice Rink (photo credit London Insider)

Somerset House Ice Rink (photo credit London Insider)

10.  Go Ice Skating.

During the winter (December/January) various spots around London host outdoor ice skating rinks.  London has some fantastic places where you can lace up your skates and twirl around on the ice.  With places like Somerset House, The Natural History Museum, Hyde Park and The Tower of London all hosting rinks, you can combine your sightseeing with skating!  And then warm up with hot chocolate or go enjoy afternoon tea.

Porn Star martini at the Dollar Bar & Grill

Porn Star martini at the Dollar Bar & Grill

9.  Drink a “Porn Star” martini at the Dollar Grill & Martini Lounge.

Okay, when I tell you that this is the best drink ever…I am not lying.  Seriously.  It’s fabulous!  I’m not really a martini connoisseur (regardless of how hard Carrie and the girls tried to lure me in during the “Sex in the City” heyday).  However, the “Porn Star” martini is like liquid heaven.  It’s made with passion fruit, vodka, vanilla syrup and a shot of champagne.  I was introduced to this magnificent drink at the Dollar Grill & Martini Lounge (which had excellent food as well).  Can’t get to London but are dying to try this drink?  Here are the ingredients & instructions.  Enjoy!!

Rosetta Stone

Rosetta Stone

8. Visit the National Portrait Gallery and British Museum.

First, these museums are AMAZING!  Second, they are free.  Seriously.  What can be better than visiting a free museum filled with cool relics and paintings?  Want to see the actual Rosetta Stone (tip:  it doesn’t come in a yellow box) or pieces of the Parthenon?  Check out the British Museum.  Want to see paintings of Henry VIII, his wives and children?  Check out the National Portrait Gallery.  I’m usually not a big museum lover (although I find myself visiting one on every trip I take mostly just because I love history), but these two museums are so interesting and easy to navigate that you can lose track of time.

I always like to see pictures of historical figures which made the National Portrait Gallery fascinating.  I’ve seen plenty of pictures of Queen Elizabeth I and her daddy, Henry 8, but it’s cool to see original paintings.  My absolute favorite painting is of the Earl of Southampton who was a playboy extraordinaire.  You didn’t even need to read his bio to know.  His picture said it all.  When you looked at the other paintings of men from that era, they had short-cropped hair.  Southampton had long flowing locks down to the middle of his back, a swagger to him, and a look that said, “you know you want me…don’t deny it. I want myself.”  He was so debonair that while Liz 1 was beheading folks who even looked like they thought she had bad breath, this joker just got some jail time for organizing her overthrow.  Then he was pardoned!  That’s right.  Earl Rapunzel got out and was like, “take that, take that…can’t stop, won’t stop…baaaaad boooooyyyy!” Check him out: Earl of Southampton.

7.  Drink hot chocolate while strolling through Trafalgar Square.

Cold weather and hot chocolate go together like peas and carrots.  After you leave the National Gallery, why not stroll around Trafalgar Square with a nice hot cup of cocoa and take in the holiday decorations (the Christmas tree is usually spectacular), listen to carolers or just people watch?

Christmas tree in Trafalgar Square

Christmas tree in Trafalgar Square

6.  See a Musical!

You can’t go to London without checking out one of their many fabulous shows.  It’s like going to NYC without checking out Broadway.  Low on funds?  Go to TKTS (located at Leicester Square) to buy half-priced tickets for West End plays, operas and musicals the day of.

Afternoon Tea @ the National Gallery Cafe

Afternoon Tea @ the National Gallery Cafe

5.  Enjoy Afternoon Tea.

You can’t visit London without having afternoon tea.  I find myself looking forward to 3pm so I can sample delicious cucumber sandwiches, scones with various jams, delicious tartes & cupcakes and my favorite flavor of tea with a side of a tall glass of champagne.  To.Die.For.  My favorite spots are the Orangerie (at Kensington Palace) and the National Gallery Cafe (best scones in London).

4.  Cruise the Thames.

Sail along the Thames under the London Bridge, view the Tower of London, see Shakespeare’s Globe, take in the awesome sight of Big Ben…these are just a few things you will do on your cruise.  The ride (which can be a hop on/hop off or an hour-long sail…depending on the company you choose) comes with commentary and is a good introduction to the sights of London along the famous Thames.

Westminster

Westminster

3.  Visit Westminster Abbey.

I’m a history buff…but even if you aren’t, this place is interesting.  You can stroll the halls and see where the coronations have taken place since 1066 (complete with tv’s showing Queen Elizabeth II’s coronation); and it’s the resting place of varying famous people (including William Shakespeare) and 17 monarchs (i.e. Henry VIII with his crazy self).  Elizabeth I is buried ON TOP of her sister, Mary (or, as she was known, “Bloody Mary”…which actually makes me a bit thirsty for a cool beverage).  For those of you who aren’t up on your Tudor history, Mary was the daughter of Henry VIII and Catherine of Aragon while Elizabeth I (known as “The Virgin Queen”) was the daughter of Henry VIII and Anne Boleyn.  So, Liz’s mama stole her daddy (Henry) from his 1st wife (Catherine) but later found out he was no prize when he had her decaptitated for allegedly being a traitor and having an incestuous relationship with her brother.  Which I mean, with the royals marrying 1st cousins and such back then, that is sort of like the pot calling the kettle black.  It also explains the whole “Deliverance” vibe some of them had…you just don’t mix the blood lines like that.

Henry 8 changed the official religion of England from Catholicism to Protestant to divorce Catherine when the Pope refused to grant him an annulment so he could marry his new boo, Anne Boleyn.  Of course, if lil Annie knew that Henry would turn his craziness on her and get all Betty Broderick (the quintessential Lifetime movie for love gone crazy), I’m sure she would’ve reserved her charms for someone else.  But, power is a heady drug that distorts your common sense.  All she could see is the finery and being able to tell her haters to kiss her ass once she was Queen of England.  I can relate.  Anyway, Mary was a strict Roman Catholic like her mama and changed the official religion of England from Protestant back to Catholicism once  she was able to take the throne (after her sickly younger brother passed away as a child).  But Mary wasn’t content with just changing the religion…she also rounded up people who refused to convert to Catholicism and had them burned alive at the stake.  I’m pretty sure that Jesus wasn’t co-signing that.

Clearly Mary had a touch of the crazy like her daddy and after being locked away from her mama for years due to her father’s libido, it couldn’t have been too much of a surprise.  After Mary was made queen, she locked Elizabeth (Liz 1) in the Tower of London for a while because she thought Liz was in on a plot to kill her.  Which…she probably was.  That’s just how they rolled back then.  But, being locked away in the tower and being labeled a traitor did nothing to get Mary in Liz’s good graces.  When poor Mary’s fortunes turned and she passed away, Liz was crowned Queen of England.  She had her sister buried at Westminster…and when she died years later, had her tomb placed on top of Mary.  For now and for all eternity, Mary will reside beneath Liz in the Abbey. I’m sure Liz was like, “How you like me now, sis?”

The Tudor history is fascinating. I would recommend reading a series of books by Phillipa Gregory to gain a thorough overview (The Other Boleyn Girl, The Virgin Queen, etc). I can say that being royalty back in the day was a death sentence!

Tower of London

Tower of London

2.  Visit the Tower of London.

A visit to the tower is a must.  This castle is located on the River Thames close to the Tower Bridge.  It’s famous for housing the Crown Jewels and for being the “prison” of royalty hundreds of years ago (Anne Boleyn was beheaded here).  If you ever visit the Tower of London, you will hear the story about the 2 young sons of the last York king (of the War of the Roses fame), Richard III, who (after Richard had died), were sent to the tower by their uncle (Richard’s brother) under the guise of keeping them safe.  However, it’s believed they were murdered because their bodies were never found (they were around 13 and 8 or something like that…I can’t remember the exact ages).  Anyway, the war ended when Henry 7 defeated the uncle and married Richard III’s daughter to unite the houses. Then, spawned crazy Henry 8.

The Original Tour...hop on/hop off bus

The Original Tour…hop on/hop off bus

1.  Ride the Hop On/Hop Off bus.

What visit is complete without a tour on the Hop On/Hop Off bus?  There are several tour companies that offer this service (I usually do the Original Tour).  They offer a 48 hour pass & 3 routes.  The pass includes free walking tours and a free Thames River cruise.  You can save some money by purchasing online.  This is a great way to get a good overview and layout of this wonderful city before or during sightseeing.  These bus tours usually offer live or recorded commentaries.  The live commentary tours are better, in my opinion, since there is more interaction.

Regardless of what activities you decide to do, enjoy your time & be safe!  Cheers!

Fabulous Firenze

English: Michelangelo's David (original statue...

Michelangelo’s David (original statue) (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

FRIDAY

Buongiorno!!!  After finishing up work a bit early on Friday afternoon, William (aka Sweet Willy) and I took the train from Genoa to Florence (which was a 4.5 hour train ride along the beautiful Mediterranean and Tuscan countryside).

The train ride was uneventful until we changed trains in La Spezia to transfer to the regional train to Florence.  Of course, I picked the car with crazy in it.  Why does this always happen to me???  When you buy a train ticket in Italy, you are required to validate the ticket in one of the yellow machines on the platform.  If you don’t validate your ticket, you are subject to a fine up to 50 Euro.  So, the train operator lady comes into our railcar to verify that everybody has a validated ticket.  There are only 4 people in our car (me + William + African guy + Italian guy). 

She gets to the Italian guy first who looks completely normal.  He was wearing glasses and reading a book.  All smiles when we got on.  Little did I know that glasses can obscure crazy eyes.  I mean, crazy folks aren’t usually smiling & reading a book.  So, the train operator lady asks him for his ticket…then tells him that he either has the wrong ticket or it’s not properly validated (it was hard to translate).  He was like, “no, no, no…the machina Italian words, foccacia, Italian words, primavera, Italian words” and train lady was like, “yeah, you need to pay 50 Euro because this ticket isn’t properly validated.”  Why did she say that to that man?  Because that set him off and he continues to repeat himself basically saying that he got the ticket out of the fast ticket machine and it’s not his fault if it’s missing something.  The train lady is not sympathetic and now they are both getting heated.  Next thing I know, train lady was like, “pay this fine or I’m calling the police.” Crazy Italian guy was like, “Call’em.  You don’t know me.  I’m real.  I’m wild.  It’s the machine’s fault.  Kick rocks!”  

At this point, he starts cursing in Italian and talking to himself after she leaves.  Then, he turns around to plead his case to William and myself (speaking Italian a mile a minute) and we just give him a blank look and the crickets (for those of you who don’t know what “the crickets” are, it means being so silent you can hear crickets chirping).  We weren’t about to get caught up in that mess.  He got the police on him now.  We can’t help you, buddy.  Get your Euros, pay the lady and shut up.  You ain’t gonna win this fight, Giuseppe.  But, you know what?  You can’t reason with crazy.  Why did 2 police men come and he STILL gives the same story about the “machina” messing up his ticket?  They wanted identification and to talk to him in “private” (which was out in the corridor where he is still completely visible and continuing to go off about the machina).  It was high drama and lasted for at least an hour and a half (crazy folks don’t have watches or a sense of time) and the result was that he paid the 50 Euro fine while continuing to fuss and teach me Italian curse words.  I would’ve taken a picture but I didn’t know if crazy Italian man would go all Kanye on me and try to take my camera.

So, we finally arrive to Florence around 6:30pm and get to our hotel where they give you an actual key with a big gold-plated key ring (like we are about to do a breakdance battle) that you have to turn into the front desk when you leave the hotel.  If you ever go to Florence, and are looking for a nice budget hotel with a friendly staff, I highly recommend the Hotel Privilege. 

After we checked in, we went to dinner and had a great meal of lemon flavored penne & meatballs as well as gnocchi with drunk cheese and the house Chianti to drink.  Then a fabulous dessert!

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Angie's Pub

Angie’s Pub

After dinner, we walked around Florence and ate gelato.  Then stumbled upon a really cool lounge named “Angie’s Pub”.  It was packed and they were showing the movie “Scarface” on the wall in the back room.  William and I had a debate on whether or not a patron who came up to the bar was a man or a woman.  My viewpoint was that it was a woman (I didn’t get a good look at her face and couldn’t hear her talking but she seemed built like a woman).  William was insistent that it was a transvestite.

Sweet Willy: That is a man
Me: No it’s not. She looks straight woman.
SW: Look at her! She’s got an Adam ’s apple and a deep voice. That is a man.
Me: Maybe she’s had a hard life. That don’t make her a man.
SW: Are you deaf? His voice is deeper than mine!

So, we agree to disagree because I wasn’t convinced.  However, when William came out of the men’s bathroom, the “lady” was entering so um….he was right.  Then I start to wonder what type of bar we are in because I had already started to notice a certain element but it really seemed to have a broad range of patrons.  And we had a great time talking to people so it really didn’t matter.

SATURDAY

William and I get up Saturday morning and I am really dragging.  It’s been a rough week of long hours at the office and little sleep.  But, I wanted to be up to see as much as we could on our last day in Florence.  So, we check-out of the hotel and make our way to the train station.  It was weird how dead the city was at 11am.  When I visited Florence during the summer 2 years ago, it was packed.  I think the cold weather puts people off sightseeing.  But, that turned into a major advantage for us because we didn’t have to wait in any lines and got to see a lot.

William: Why do the pigeons look homeless?
Me:  Because they are? They look fine to me.
William: Their feathers are all dull and that one looks like it has a tumor on its foot.

First stop was Santa Croce Church.  It’s a 14th century Franciscan church decorated with centuries of precious art and holds the tombs of some great Florentines (such as Galileo Galilei 1564-1642, who was from Pisa but lived his last years under house arrest near Florence because he defied the church and declared the Earth revolved around the sun; also, the tomb of Michelangelo Buonarroti, 1475-1564, famous sculptor of Statue of David and the Pieta and painter of Sistine Chapel).

Santa Croce

Santa Croce

Then, we walked towards the Duomo. Florence’s Gothic cathedral has the third-longest nave in Christendom. The façade from the 1870s is covered with pink, green, and white Tuscan marble. So, you know why I love to look at it. Maybe I can suggest we do the next Boule here?

Duomo

Duomo

Afterwards, we made our way to the train station to check our bags so we could sightsee unencumbered.  We then made our way to the Accademia where we were able to see the Statue of David…if you have never seen this amazing statue in person, buy a ticket to Florence now and go see it.  When you enter the Accademia, you have to walk down a hall then when you turn the corner, you see this magnificent and very large statue.  It’s a sight to behold.  And it is beautiful!  But you can’t take pictures.

Once we left the Accademia, we stopped by this café and had the BEST pasta. I had the gnocchi with Bolognese sauce while William had spaghetti with tuna and peppers. We had planned on leaving for Rome mid-afternoon but once we stopped by the street markets, it was a wrap because the shopping was great. We ended up buying some great souvenirs for friends and family and William bought a fab new coat.  While we were at one store, the sales lady let me know that a pigeon had taken a dump on the back of my coat. Sigh. Really Petey? I defend you when Will calls you homeless but you gonna just use my coat as your Port-a-Potty? That’s how they do in Florence now?

We also noticed that dogs could go anyplace.  Not only the restaurants but into the high-end stores!  Most of them were so well-behaved. It’s a shame Riley will never get to experience that because I can’t be put on a Watch List since he doesn’t know how to act.

After shopping and realizing that time is about to expire to pick up our checked luggage, we start walking back towards the train station and realize there were more markets. Then, it was like the heavens opened up and I saw the most fabulous coat!  It was hand-stitched with fox fur trim.  The sales guy says, “I’ll give you a 50% discount so it’s only $1900.”  Wait…what?  $1900 U.S. dollars?  What currency are we talking about because I can only afford that denomination in pesos.  He confirmed U.S. dollars so I was like, “that’s okay, playa.”  Still, I couldn’t resist trying it on.

Me:  Man, I love this coat. Will you get it for me?
William: Uh, sure. Let’s ask about their layaway plan. I’ll see if they will let me pay 20 Euro a month for 4 years.  If I put down 50 Euro in good faith, they may let you walk off with the coat.
Sales guy: *crickets* [then puts his hand out to take the coat back]
Me:  I really love that coat.  I need it in my life.
William: Yeah, that  coat is hot.  You’d have a closet full of death with the fox-mink. With the leather you just bought and this fur, you’d have your own pet cemetery. Because you know they had to kill those animals to make that coat you love.
Me: *crickets* {walking away dejected}

We rush to the train station, get our bags and just make the train to Rome.  We meet 2 ladies on the train who are artists from NY but own second homes in Umbria that they visit every 3 months or so.  I just had one question…how can I do that?

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Captivating Copenhagen

Copenhagen 084Ah, Københaven…what a fabulous city!  I spent 5 days experiencing as much as I could.  In my opinion, Copenhagen has a bit more “color” than some of the other Scandinavian cities I’ve visited (Oslo and Helsinki).  It reminds me a lot of Amsterdam with the vibrantly colored buildings & canals.

I stayed at the Radisson Blu Scandinavia hotel (which I reviewed here).  This hotel was perfectly located…not only because it was within walking distance to my company’s office, but also in walking distance to most attractions.

If you are on the fence about visiting the Nordics (or just never thought about it), I highly recommend you try visiting Copenhagen for the following reasons:

Big Mike and I during his wonderful bike tour!

Big Mike and I during his wonderful bike tour!

Big Mike Bike Adventures.  By far, this was THE BEST thing I did in Copenhagen.  It was COLD (as you can see from my huge coat).  But it was so fun!  Mike is THE.BEST.EVER!  I promise that you will have a fabulous time.  We started off meeting up with him and a few others at his bike shop.  Once outfitted with our bikes, we started pedaling thru the city (which is super easy to navigate because of the bike lanes and motorists being used to navigating bicyclists).  We were able to see most of the city by bike, stop for hot chocolate and meet a lot of cool people.  Big Mike has a huge personality that is so fun & light.  He was a superb tour guide…I learned more about the Danish culture from him than my trusty guidebook!  I was also inspired by him as he is a cancer survivor and left his job in the corporate world to pursue his passion.  He truly is following his bliss.  I need to do that!

Copenhagen 056The Green Light District (aka “Christiania”).  Um…this is the “alternative-living” section of Copenhagen which is home to idealists, hippies, potheads, non-materialists and lots of kids & animals.   It was founded in 1971 when 700 Christianians established squatters’ rights at some abandoned military barracks.  This place is fascinating!  Locals build their own homes but don’t own the land (as it’s still owned by Denmark’s Military of Defense) and most use wood or gas heat (not oil unless you are a “luxury hippie”).  Since they don’t own land, they are unable to buy or sell property.  When someone decides to move out, the community decides who can move in to replace them.  This community has 9 rules…among them:  no hard drugs (but they do sell & use pot); no guns or explosives (I assume they don’t want you high and shooting stuff up…which if you are high, aren’t you pretty chill?); etc.

Copenhagen 058

I was only able to get a few pictures as photographing is strictly prohibited once you get into the community…and should you miss the big sign (like I did); someone is there to promptly remind you.  As Renee & I walked down “Pusher Street” (named for the sale of soft drugs), we found ramshackle homes, cozy cafes, and lots of stalls with people selling different types of pot.  Then there were the outdoor areas with picnic tables where you could go and smoke to your heart’s delight.  It is clear that this is a place of freedom, free love, no taboos and no judgment.  And, it’s very popular…it’s the 3rd most visited place in Copenhagen!

bicycles, bicycles, bicycles

bicycles, bicycles, bicycles

Fitness.  If you are a runner or bicyclist, this is the place for you!  It seems that everyone works out.  With so many beautiful lakes, canals and trails, it’s hard to find a reason not to be outside taking it all in.  You will find a large number of people bicycling all day and night (the city is set up perfectly with bike lanes).  I was able to download 5 running routes (with distances between 3 – 7 miles) around the city.

apropos

apropos

Food.  It’s no secret that I love to eat.  And those that know me well are aware of the fact that I have to eat at Wagamamas if there is one in the city.  I fell in love with the Pan-Asian restaurant in Glasgow and make it a point to eat there whenever I see one since we don’t have one in Atlanta.  The one in Copenhagen was okay…not as good as the ones in London, Dublin or Glasgow.  To sample a bit of the local cuisine, I highly recommend brunch at a delicious restaurant called “apropos”.  They served a wide selection of culinary treats (French toast, eggs, bacon, pastries, mimosas, fruits…you name it).  There are 2 traditional Danish foods that you should try for lunch…Smørrebrød (which is an open-face sandwich) and pølse (basically a big hot dog).  Both are delicious!!!  If you are ever in Copenhagen, you must check it out!

Copenhagen 085Canals & Colorful Buildings.  We spent hours walking around the different sections of Copenhagen…taking in the colorful buildings, lingering on bridges over canals and marveling at the beauty of it all.  Some big cities are so congested and vanilla but others have such character that you can’t help but stop to take it all in.  I suggest taking a stroll thru Nyhavn (“New Harbor”) which is new gentrified harbor with beautiful canals filled with glamorous sailboats of all sizes.  It has trendy cafes, tattoo shops and jazz clubs to hang out while enjoying a cup of java or juice (which is really big in this city).

Sights.  There are so many things to see and do while visiting.  Check out Copenhagen’s amusement park, Tivoli Gardens.  Or the Rosenborg Castle & Treasury, Christiansborg Palace, Danish Jewish Museum…or plenty of others.  As per my usual routine, I brought along my Rick Steves “Scandinavia” guidebook which was very helpful in organizing which sights were “must sees” vs. “if you have time, check it out”.  It seems like I am forever visiting places of worship on every trip I take (Shout out to Jesus!  See?  Just because I don’t always go to church in the states doesn’t mean I’m not thinking about you :)).  We ended up at a very cool church called, “Our Savior’s Church” which has a Baroque design to it.

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Have you been to Copenhagen?  If so, what were your favorite sights/things to do?

A Christian Among Muslims

I had the pleasure of spending 8 days in the Muslim country of Morocco.  To be honest, I was a bit nervous after reading the warnings in the guidebooks.  I was aware of a bombing of a tourist cafe in Jamaa el-Fnaa square in Marrakesh in April 2011 as well as a general anti-American sentiment from people who had visited the country in the early to mid-2000’s.  However, I was assured by the local travel agency I used that it was completely safe for Americans to visit.  And, I am so glad that I did.

I’ve traveled to many countries and, on the whole, Moroccans have been the kindest and most generous people I have met.  The people I met treated me as a family member as it is a very family oriented society.  When an old friend passes by, Moroccans don’t just say “hi”…they take time to ask about the individual’s health, family, job, etc.  They also greet each other as “brother” or “sister”.  In addition to treating each other (and people they don’t know) warmly, they gave money to the disabled and elderly, and they made religion their priority.  Everything revolves around Allah.  You will hear a call to prayer over loudspeakers five times a day.

During my visit, I had some great conversations about religion.  I wanted to understand the basics of Islam as well as the culture.  I am a Christian and being American, I’ve heard a lot of “anti-Muslim” rhetoric since 9/11.  Quite honestly, I get tired of people and certain media demonizing an entire religion based upon the actions of extremists.  As my late grandmother used to say, “not everybody who goes to church is a Christian.”  Every religion has its own sect of crazies.  Westboro Baptist does not represent me or my beliefs.  Yet, they call themselves “Christians.”  Hitler saw himself as Christian.  And, I am sure the Catholic priests who molested little boys see themselves as Christians too.  Just as al-Qaeda sees themselves as Muslims. 

Claiming a religion doesn’t automatically make you the representative of it.  Everybody has their own set of beliefs…whether they believe in a form of religion or not.  But, all of us have a belief system.  Whether we worship God, Allah, Buddha…or a set of gods…or none at all.  The bottom line, I feel, is that we should be able to respect those that are different from us. 

In speaking with some Muslims in Morocco, I was able to learn the following about the differences in our religions:

1.  They regard Jesus as a respected prophet, not God. I think this is the biggest difference.  That’s the essence of the message of Islam…which is to call upon people to worship the one God of Abraham, Isaac, Moses, Jesus, etc.

2.  They don’t believe in the original sin.  I’m told that the Quran mentions the story of Adam, Eve and the apple but places the blame on Adam and Eve equally, then forgave them. Thus, Jesus didn’t die on a cross nor did He die for anyones sins (since we are born sinless). He was raised to heaven and will return before the end of times.

3.  They are accountable for their actions. On the day of judgment, their deeds will be weighed.  Belief alone does not guarantee them Heaven. Their good actions have to outweigh their bad actions. These deeds could be anything from praying to God to serving for a better humanity.

Islam has 5 pillars that every Muslim must practice:

1.  Shahadah = the declaration that there is none worthy of worship except Allah and that Muhammad is his messenger.

2.  Prayer (Salat) = establishing of the five daily Prayers.

3.  The paying of alms (Zakat) = which is generally 2.5% of the total savings for a rich man working in trade or industry, and 10% or 20% of the annual produce for agriculturists. This money or produce is distributed among the poor.

4.  Fasting (Sawm) = refraining from eating, drinking or satisfying other needs from dawn to dusk in the month of Ramadan, the ninth month in the Islamic lunar calendar (usually around August/September).

5.  The Pilgrimage to Mecca (Hajj) = this is done during the month of Zul Hijjah, and is compulsory once in a lifetime for one who has the ability to do it. If the Muslim is in ill-health or in debt, he or she is not required to perform Hajj.

While there are differences (mainly that Christians recognize God, Jesus, and the Holy Spirit), there are some similarities (we fast from time to time, pay tithes, help the less fortunate and pray).  I’m not saying that one religion is better than the other.  I am a Christian.  However, my grandmother is a Jehovah’s Witness.  I’ve had to learn from an early age to figure out differences and make a decision on what I believe is true.  Just because I don’t agree with the tenets of certain religions doesn’t mean I should disrespect them.  As long as our rights and person aren’t infringed upon, we should be able to live in peace.

The terrorists from 9/11 and from the recent U.S. embassy attacks are horrible people.  And so was Queen Mary (also known as Bloody Mary) who burned Protestants on the stake for refusing to convert to Catholicism.  History is riddled with those who want to use violence & murder to uphold their “religious beliefs.”  Let’s not judge an entire religion based upon the acts of a few.  Making Muslim synonymous with terrorism is wrong.  Just like the anti-Muslim movie that has caused a firestorm recently was wrong.  I think if we quit judging others, we will find that we are more alike than we realize.  Of course, this is just my humble opinion.