Countries I lived in, traveled to or just had a short visit to:
- Romania: I lived there for more than half of my life.
I was born and lived in Bucharest,
and traveled almost everywhere
Romania. I have the best memories of my high-school years at
Gheorghe Lazar, where I studied in a special class of Mathematics, and of my university years
at Facultatea de Matematica.
I'd go to the Black Sea shore, to my grandparents house in Pietrosita (north of Targoviste), or
backpacking in the mountains. The mountains are especially beautiful. The mountain range of the Carpathians (Carpatzi),
Bucegi, Fagaras, Retezat, Ceahlau, Piatra Craiului, Muntii Cibinului.
The painted monasteries in Moldova are a unique
treasure we had - and I visited them.
I have three unfulfilled dreams, which should eventually make me travel back to Romania:
the Danube Delta, the highest peak in Romania (Moldoveanu - I only went up the
second highest peak, Negoiu) and the Apuseni Mountains in Transylvania. To this, a friend
persuaded me I should add
near Sibiu, about which I didn't even hear while I lived there!
I discovered opera while in Romania, but it was so memorable that I must tell the story
here. We were watching, at the Italian Cultural Center in Bucharest, Mozart's "Don Giovanni"
The music was out of this world (Dona Elvira being
interpreted by Kiri te Kanawa). Here comes the final scene, when Don Giovanni is about to
be dragged to Hell by the dead Commander's statue. At that very moment there is an
Earthquake (I think it was under 5 or so on the Richter scale, not so bad - that was in the
Fall of 1986). For a moment,
everybody thought that was a spectacular effect - and then we all realized that it
was real and rushed outside. I feel sometimes that we escaped from Romania just like that -
it was a bit unreal. We weren't dragged through all the Hell of what was to come, but we've seen
quite a bit of it.
Update (2014): In recent years I visited more often my country of birth, making pleasant discoveries. Besides Sibiu and the nearby fortified saxon churches (my favorite spot remains Cristian, with its 75+ stork nests adorning the electricity poles on the main road, but I would do unjustice not to mention the lovely village of Biertan), I discovered Sighisoara and Alba Iulia, visited Sarmisegetuza (Ulpia and Regia, the roman and dacic sites), the unique, beautiful church in Densus ("adapted" from a former monument or mausoleum of Roman origin), Hunedoara castle of Iancu de Hunedoara/Janos Hunyadi (a hero of two nations that prefer to ignore their affinities and to emphasize their differences; Iancu's tomb is in Alba Iulia), Timisoara, the salt mines at Turda, as well as two wineries, in the Tarnave valley (Jidvei) and Recas, near Timisoara. It is a strange feeling to be a tourist in a place where there is no need whatsoever of dictionaries and translations: one understands every spoken word, yet one understands little of what is now going on there.
- USA: since 1989. I lived in New Jersey (5 1/2 years), Massachusetts (
13 22 years) and California (4 months).
Besides this, I traveled to Texas, Florida, Louisiana, Nevada, Utah, Washington state, Washington DC, Maryland, Virginia,
Delaware, Tennessee, Arkansas, Vermont, New Hampshire, Pennsylvania, Kentucky, Minnesota, Illinois, Maine, Rhode Island,
Connecticut, North Carolina, Georgia, Arizona, New Mexico and surely I must have forgotten something - of course, New York!
But I used yo go there frequently, so maybe I can count it as a place where I lived (in fact, my
mom, her family, and one of my sons used to live there).
The most impressive, the most uniquely American place I visited
was Utah and the Death Valley
near Las Vegas: the landscape there is out of this planet!
And the strongest impression is what we saw as fresh immigrants,
from the window of our plane, on that day in January 1989 when we left Romania,
stopped in Vienna for refueling (when we looked at each other and realized that
we are out of that prison), and then flew non-stop to New York.
And there is so much more yet to see.
Interesting, but now the most memorable American story that comes to my mind is
from home, Northampton MA. A few years ago, there was a production of the opera "S"
(the libretto was after John Updike's novel) composed by Smith College professor Ronald
Perera. The story is this, the wife of a rich Boston physician leaves him and goes to
"discover herself" in a Zen retreat in New Mexico. There is this scene, when the doctor finds
that she has left: half of the stage is the doctor's office in Boston, half is the Zen
retreat across the continent. The doctor sings, as he discovers that she also took half of
their investments, and recites the names on the shares: "And Microsoft, and IBM, and ...".
On her half of the stage, the wife and a whole group of devotees sing too ... whatever ...
I do not remember what, it doesn't matter. The sounds that stay are
"And Microsoft, and IBM, and ..."
- Spain: five months in 1998 (of which, 3 months in Barcelona), back for shorter visits
three several times since, and a recent one month visit to Cordoba and Andaluzia.
Traveled through Castilla and Extremadura (Madrid, Toledo, Guadalupe,
Yuste, Merida, Caceres, Salamanca, Segovia, Avila, Escorial, Alarcon, Santo Domingo de Sillos and
through Rioja wine region), Leon (Burgos, Leon),
Eastern Spain (Valencia), Catalunya (Barcelona, Tarragona, Sitges, Poblet, Ripoll, Vic, Besalu, Puigcerda, Gerona,
Figuerres, Cadaquez, Tossa del Mar, Empuries, Tortosa, Peniscola), Aragon (Zaragoza), Navarra (Olite, Pamplona -
happened to be there just during the San Fermin "running of the bulls" festival),
Pais Basco (Vitoria, Bilbao), Cantabria (Santander, Santillana del Mar and Altamira caves, Picos de Europa (Fuente De),
San Vicente della Barquera, Castros Urdiales), Asturias (Ponferrada), Galicia (Santiago de Compostela, La Coruna),
Andaluzia (Cordoba, Sevilla, Italica, pueblos blancos: Arcos de la Frontera,
Jimena de la Frontera, Gaucin; Ronda, Granada,
Jaen, Baeza, Lanjaron, Malaga, Nerja, Almunecar, Priego, Almodovar del Rio, Montero, Osuna, Guadix) and Mallorca (and I still have to add a few places to the list).
Spain is a spectacularly beautiful and culturally rich country, where
every city, every village, every castle, every church and monastery has some incredible
treasure and some history to tell (and, without
exageration, the best food in the world).
Here's a memorable sight. We were having an early dinner (unusual for Spain, but this was
a very touristy place) in front of the cathedral in Burgos. We always prefer places
with a nice view, so we both had the two towers on the facade in front of our eyes. And here's what we
There was this big stork who just landed on one of the towers. The other tower "seat"
was not taken yet. Here comes the second stork, and completely ignoring the available
position, flies straight into the other bird to chase it away! There is a small fight
high up at the steep peak. I do not remember who won, but I remember thinking that we
humans are neither better nor worse than the "innocent" birds. Why couldn't the second
stork take the available spot on the second tower? That was not prey-predator fight, those
were two birds of the same species, given identical opportunities. I couldn't see any
reason why the first tower was better than the second, but who am I to know the
reason of the birds feud? Maybe the first tower was the presidential office, in stork's
- France: spent six months in 2003, and traveled there a few times before and after. Paris, Southern France (Roussillon, Pays Cathare, Bearn, Provence, Bordeaux,
Toulouse, Marseille, Nice), Northern France - les Ardennes, Champagne, Lorraine
(Nancy), Alsace, Bourgogne (my most
recent Art History discovery is a German painter, Konrad Witz, who caught my
eye in the Art Museum in Dijon, and then I saw a second piece in the Gemaelde
Gallerie in Berlin), Savoie,
Haute Savoie (St Gervais Mont Blanc);
and then back to see l'Isle
d'Oleron, La Rochelle, Loire Valley and
many of its chateaux (Saumur, Chinon, Azay-le-Rideau, Chambord, Chenonceau),
I could fill in
a whole page just with the many magnificent concerts, operas and theaters we attended in
Paris, at: Opera Garnier, Opera Comique, Theatre Mogador, Theatre des Champs Elysees,
St Germain d'Auxerrois, St Roch, St Germain des Pres, Musee Thermes de Cluny, Ste Chapelle,
Comedie Francaise, St Eustache, St Gervais St Protais, Notre Dame, Theatre de la Huchette, etc.
My discovery of French music is non-trivial: this being
Berlioz 200th anniversary, there were some
spectacular performances. His
is now a favorite opera of mine. And the
Poulenc, with a 150 voice chorus, that we heard in Notre Dame? Or the absolutely highest
quality performances of Moliere at the Comedie Francaise? A comment: what was particularly
impressive was the high percentage of young and VERY young (high-school and university age)
people attending these performances!!!
And of course, I can't even dream of listing all the cafes and bistros and
restaurants and fantastic food, but at least, I should
mention Le Procope (which proudly portrayed Ben Franklin, one of their early customers), right around the corner from where we lived. And La Truffiere, near
rue Mouffetard, near Ecole Normale. And... oh, I should stop. Still, I must add that
we just happened to visit or pass through most of wine country - so to us, France
looks as if it is almost all vineyards:
Roussillon, Bordeaux, Bourgogne, Champagne, Beaujolais, Alsace, Armagnac: anything missing?
- England: London, Oxford, Cambridge, Salisbury, Dover, Winchester, Canterbury, Bath, the Cotswolds, Liverpool, the Lake District, Lancaster, Buckinghamshire (Kavli Center).
My greatest source of pride: I managed to drive on "the wrong side of the road", after a friend persuaded us that we are missing the most charming parts of England by refusing to do it. "You get used quickly, just repeat to yourself KEEP LEFT at every intersection, until it sinks in".
- Scotland: Edinburgh, Stirling castle, Dumberton castle (spectacular position! besieged and taken by the Vikings! king taken hostage!), Inveraray, Glasgow, and a bit of traveling in the Highlands.
- Ireland: Dublin, Limerick, the Cliffs of Moher and
- Italy: Roma, Firenze, Siena, Arezzo, Venezia, Pisa, the Dolomite mountains; Alghero, Capo Caccia and Castelsardo on the
island of Sardegna.
Everybody knows about Italy's artistic treasures, but still, nothing that I knew before
ever matched the surprising discoveries on the next visit, and the next, and the next...
And we saw so little - so we must go back (several times). We spent the 2000 New Year's
Eve in Piazza San Marco in Venezia, and were almost crushed by the crowd, but managed to
escape and see the fireworks from a little street that took us back to the Lagoon. One of
my favorite memories is that of the white marble leoncini on the facade of Ca d'Oro,
a jewel of a museum overlooking Canal Grande. La Fenice
had burned down (I see it is reopening!), but even without it, there is no shortage of
good music in Italy. Vivaldi sounded at home in
his church in Venice (where he used to teach to the orphelines).
- Vatican. I visited its museums three times in my life, we walked around its
walls, but I still missed an important room that was closed for renovations,
so I think I must go back.
Berlin, Darmstadt, Worms, Speyer, Lorsch, Koeln, Koblenz, Rhein Valley, Black Forrest,
Tuebingen, Heidelberg, Aachen, Mainz, Bonn, Dresden, Weimar, Naumburg, Lutherstadt
Luebeck, Dagstuhl, Oberwolfach, Baden-Baden, Munich, Garmisch-Partenkirchen, Bad Homburg, Badenweiler.
The best performances of German music (of course!) we ever heard (Bach Festival in Leipzig,
a Beethoven concerto at the Deutsche Opera in (former) West Berlin, and an unforgettable
performance with Christoph Eschenbach at the Philarmonic in Koeln. Besides this, the
absolute most spectacular middle-east museums we've ever seen, from Ishtar's Gate in
Babylon to the Pergamon and the most beautiful Egyptian statuette in the world, Nefertiti,
at the Egyptische Museum. And the most beautiful medieval statue (Uta) in
Naumburg cathedral. And ... OK, I stop.
I brought a card with me from my first visit to Berlin two years ago. In the
I purchased several reproductions of memorable pieces of art. This is a scene from the
Battle of the Gods against the Giants. I had this card sitting
on my fireplace mantelpiece for a long while, and I couldn't take my eyes away from it. It was the
of a very beautiful, very powerful Athena, fighting and winning against a kneed Giant.
The whole battle scene is unbelievable: the women, the goddesses, were fighting side
by side with the men, the gods, against their common enemy. I do not remember exactly,
I should check, but I do not think there was any female figure among the Giants. But I know for
sure - that's what the myth records - that the Olympians won.
Update (2014) We spent 7 months in 2013-14 in the heart of Bavaria, in Munich, riding the bicycle everywhere, even to the university, even to the opera or concerts. Am I more appreciative of classical performances now, after seeing non-conventional productions of classical pieces at Bayerische Staatsoper? You bet. Mozart's Don Giovanni in a decor of slaughterhouse carcasses managed to kill the pleasure of even the most beautiful areas and the artistry of the best voices: the purpose of it all escaped me. The return of a classical (August Everding) production of Die Zauberflotte was a blessing. Yet, the two parts of the Ring of the Niebelungen, the only ones I managed to find last-minute tickets to (Das Rheingold and Goetterdaemmerung), were magnificent: the "red" Loge in Das Rheingold was never before as interesting a character, and the Hagen-Guenther "bankers" alliance, with Gudrun riding an euro-shaped rocking chair while seducing Siegfried - these were memorable scenes, capable of lingering on even after competing with Wagner's overwhelmingly beautiful music.
- Austria: Wien, and Baden bei Wien, Salzburg, Innsbruck and nearby Otztal, Kitzbuehel, Bad Hofgastein with its Alpentherme.
I skied in Innsbruck (a little ambition of
mine, as my ideal of perfect skiing was always associated with Austria), while Ciprian
visited the museums and then took me to the best place for Apfelstrudel. We went to a very
nice performance of Marriage of
Figaro at the Opera in Vienna, but the most touching visit was to Mozart's house -
one of the many places Mozart lived in while in Vienna.
Kunsthistorisches Museum is densely packed with art treasures: almost
every piece is recognizable as an "Art History" top list item. The Brueghel hall is amazing,
and very hard to leave in less than three hours for 10 paintings or so.
Albertina was closed when we visited Vienna, and just opened this Fall
with a spectacular and widely advertised exhibition of Duerer's drawings: we
debated seriously whether we should go there, not to miss the event
(but there wasn't time for it).
And indeed, it is very pleasant to chat with friends over a coffee or
hot chocolate in a Vienese cafe, but the Wienerschnitzel is a bit too large - and there is
confusion over the Apfelstrudel: do we want it with Vanillesauce or not?
So we ordered two, one with and one without, and I ended up emptying Ciprian's plate (he
ordered the one with the sauce).
- Belgium: Antwerp (Anvers), Brugges (Brug), Bruxelles, Ghent (Gand) (this is a
jewel of a city), Liege, Dinant.
Antwerp's surprise was the Plantin-Moretus
museum, with old printing machines and a history to tell to the old-book lover in me.
And Ghent's masterpiece, Van Eyck's Altar of the
sacrificial Lamb, with the discovery that the green grass in the painting is so Flemish: you must
travel in March, as we did, to discover that this is indeed the case. And the richly
decorated facades of old burger's houses in Ghent.
And Brugges. And Rubens' house in Antwerp.
And in what looks like an industrial town, Liege, a spectacular treasure -
Charles the Temerary's golden reliquary.
And the mussels prepared in at least 25 ways. And ...
French fries are actually Belgian, and there is a kind of beer called "Morte Subite": they
have quite a dark sense of humor, I'd say.
- Netherlands: Amsterdam, Haarlem, Hague, Dordrecht, Delft, Gouda.
You must take a walk on the beaches (we did), to recognize and appreciate Dutch
Be in Amsterdam on a cold day in January (as I was once), when the canals were frozen and
a child was learning how to skate by holding onto a kitchen chair. And Delft still has
some recognizable silhouettes from Vermeer's "View".
Almost every year since 1994, I attended (and more recently, organized) a small workshop
in my field, in a rustic marine science research institute on the small island
of Barbados in the Carribean. So, contrary to what you'd expect, my memories of
Barbados are all work-related. It's true that I like to swim, and snorkel to see the fish
and sometimes the sea-turtles, and that there are cute green monkeys visiting the place,
and that the weather is pleasant and a few times I even took a kayak to go to the turtle
place, and once we even toured the island. But the real Barbados story is this: once, Sue
Whitesides and I stayed two extra days after her workshop, to finish discussing a paper
we were working on. Since the next workshop just started and we didn't want to intrude, we
went to dinner (on a Saturday night) to a nice but unpretentious restaurant on the beach.
It was almost 11pm, they were about to close, and we were still feverishly debating the
validity of a mathematical argument. The waiter, obviously intrigued, brings in the check
and asks "Are you ladies having fun?" We certainly did!
A few years ago, we spent a torrid week in August
on the island, attracted there by the reading of a book I once
bought in Raven's Old Books store in Northampton, about the order of the
Hospitallers, the Knights of St John or the Knights of Malta.
cathedral, St John's in
Valetta, is spectacular: I think I developed a taste for Baroque because of the
visit to Malta. And so are the fortifications they built to
keep the Ottomans at bay. Driven away from Rhodos by Suleyman the Magnificent in his second
year of ruling, given the island by Charles the Fifth,
they defeated the Turks in Suleyman's latest years and stopped their
expansion in the Meditteranean. Why am I talking 16th century history here? Because
one understands history by seeing those fortifications! There
is also a 7000 year old neolithic site, Roman ruins, a fortified city
Mdina, which makes you feel that you are in a Muslim country (they are Catholic,
speaking an Arabic language written with Latin characters), Caravaggio paintings (accompanied
by picaresque stories of his adventures on the island, where he ended up being put in prison), and the opportunity to just jump
and swim in the Mediterannean whenever you feel like! I even remember the name of the
hotel where we stayed, as nothing
we've ever seen matched the view we had from our room, over the bay and the fortifications.
- Russia and Ukraine (while all was part of Soviet Union):
Kiev, Moscow, StPetersburg (at that time, Leningrad) and Novgorod.
My first visit to the Soviet Union was in 1981, as a turist on a short organized trip, in one of the few countries one could visit if you lived from Romania. I remember how strong was the impression left by StPetersburg in summer. I thought of it as one of the most beautidul cities in the world. I still do.
I went back to Russia in 2008. My travels nowadays start with a conference (this was in Moscow) or a research project, and this time we stayed for 3 weeks in a small apartment in StPetersburg, trying to live like the locals.
The highlights? Perhaps those students in the park behind Moscow State (Lomonosov) University, gathered in a semi-circle and reading their poems to each other. Or the walk in the park by Vorobiovi Gori, around the university. Or living in the old-fashioned, historic hotel right in the Moscow University's building. Or the fantastic performance of Prokofiev's Romeo and Juliet at Mariinsky in StPetersburg: ballet as perfect as it can be, in the world's ballet capital.
The artistic discoveries were the old icon collections from the Tretiakov Gallery in Moscow, and the Icon collection in Novgorod. The visit to the Museum of political history in StPetersburg was sobering.
- Belarus: Minsk, and the Mir and Neshvik castles.
A trip back in time - the highlight was Minsk's large-scale Stalin-era architecture (UNESCO-protected).
- Hungary: Budapest
I visited Budapest
twice three times, once coming from Romania, once twice from the US, each time in connection
with some conference and without much room for touristic activities.
The first time Budapest looked like a Western European city to my eyes.
I remember an exhibit of
Goya's Capricios in the Art Museum and Western goods in the stores.
The second time was a grey November week a few years ago, when Budapest brought back
tender memories from my country of birth: lots of Trabant cars in the streets
(I used to have one), delicious "palachinta" (even better then the French crepes in Paris),
food that reminded me of childhood. Everybody at the conference was going to the
Turkish baths, so finally, my last day there, I decided to try it - and ended up spending
a couple of relaxing hours in the Gelert Baths. Wonderful! I always wondered, why on Earth
were the Hungarians and Romanians (at least in my years of living in the Balkans)
at each other's throats, when in fact we have so much in common? One must live in another,
much more different country, to realize that! I concluded that political manipulation
in the Balkans (or elsewhere) has brainwashed people so much that they don't see that. So
I happily returned to my new multi-cultural home country. No political manipulation of
one people against another, no ... hold on, I forgot, was there something said about the
French as being nasty and anti-American and ... well, I do not remember that, because I
was in France at that time, and the French looked very nice to me.
I guess that's why I like to travel.
Update (2016): I was again in Budapest this year (a conference, of course). This time, I had gorgeous spring weather and used my few hours of free time to further explore the thermal baths (Szeczeny, Lukas and Vali Bey), and to admire the architecture along Andrassy boulevard.
- Sweeden: Stockholm, Uppsala.
- China: Beijing,
Hong Kong, Macao, Xian, Tianjin.
Some unforgettable moments: a popular Chinese opera performance in the public park
in Macao, the most touching and authentic thing we've seen. A cup of tea, served in the
Chinese "tea ceremony" style at the Art Museum of the City University in Hong Kong. We
bought some small tea pots at the night market in Kowloon after that, and once in
a while I like to sip a tiny cup of tea, prepared with the whole ritual. A performance of
Beijing opera (that was in Hong Kong), where we were given only a five line description
in English of the
4-hour-long plot, and still managed to figure out large chunks of it: of course, the
eternal student, preparing for, taking, failing and then passing the imperial examinations,
a woman unjustly accused of murder whose cause he champions, intrigues and fine costumes. One of
the highlights of my visit to the Forbidden City in Beijing was the sight of the large
hall where the "finals" for the imperial examinations would take place.
Ever since I learned (in my Art History class) about the Xian terracota army, I've dreamt
of visiting that place in China. Eventually, I hope I will. [Update: I visited Xian in December 2005.]
Or even better. I am fascinated
by applications of computers to archeology. I remember that I read, years ago, about an
Egyptian temple built in Akenaton's time and dismantled and "reused" for a different temple
after his death. I can't locate the reference, it came from a little Art
History book I read years ago in Romania, called Nefertiti, translated from French, I think,
or maybe English, and written by an author whose name I do not remember. Apparently, there
was an attempt to reconstruct the original temple using computer encodings of the information
on the stones. I do not think they succeeded - that must have been done in the '60's or '70's,
I remember an IBM being mentioned, and lots of punched cards.
Last year, in Stanford, I learned of the Digital
Forma Urbis Romae project. I even know people who work on it. It is of a similar
nature, to solve an archeological puzzle.
So here's a dream. That maybe I can work on reconstructing some broken Xian terracota
warriors from a big pile of broken rubble?
It is a geometry problem, after all. Quite a bit of a puzzle.
- Saudi Arabia:
I was there for a visit to a women's college, and enjoyed warm hospitality. I didn't mind having to wear the black abaya, when outdoors: after all it provided protection from the blazing sun (40+ degrees Celsius in March), and made me feel closer to the "local" women. Did they mind having to wear it? I would never know, but I remember vividly the sudden transformation taking place inside the plane, from what it looked like as we took off from Paris (where I was surrounded by elegantly dressed ladies) to how it looked like just before landing in Jeddah (when all the women, except me, were covered in black).
- Mexico: Cozumel, Tijuana, Puerto Vallarta.
We had to cancel the trip to Mexico City, for which Ciprian had prepared in detail the
visit to the Museum of Arheology (and more), so we plan to go there sometimes. But even the
sight of the Mayan ruins in
San Gervasio in
Cozumel was unforgettable: I remember a green lizzard on those
grey-and-green stones, in a steamy hot afternoon, and my glimpse into
what the jungle may feel like.
- Canada: Montreal, Ottawa, Quebec City, Saskatoon, Fredericton (New Brunswick), Toronto, Waterloo,
Vancouver, Victoria, Vancouver Island, Kingston, Calgary, Banff, Jasper and Lake Louise, Windsor, Prince Edward Island.
If I were to pick my favorite spot in Canada, it might be the Sunshine Village ski resort near Banff, in the Canadian Rockies, and the outdoor Banff Upper Hot Springs on Sulphur Mountain, with a superb view (especially in winter) of Mount Rundle. But then I would do unjustice to Lake Louise and to the spectacular Promenade des Glaciers, the 200+ kilometer drive from Banff to Jasper, with its superb ice-capped mountains, wild life emerging from unsuspected corners, emerald-colored lakes and much more.
- Switzerland: Zurich, Geneve, Ascona, Rigi, Luzerne, Spitz on
Thunersee (Berner Oberland),
les Diablerets and
St Gingolph on Lake Leman, StGallen.
Favorites: the spectacular views from Rigi towards the Lake of the Four Cantons, the city of Luzern, and the stunningly beautiful baroque library in StGallen.
- Japan: Tokyo, Abashiri
City (in Hokkaido), Kyoto, Nara, Hakone, Osaka, Kushimoto and the Himeji samurai castle.
On my first trip to Japan I discovered the beauty of Japanese ukiyo-e woodblock
and Kabuki theater, at Kabuki-za in
Tokyo. Memorable events: a visit to Jin Akiyama's Okhotsk Mathematical Wonderland
(where but in Japan would one have mathematics night shows and
mathematical wonderlands?), an encounter with a (mild) taifun in Tokyo, and a
swim in the Olympic pool in Yoyogi Park.
We spent a summer month in Kyoto in 2005, as the rainy season turned into torrid
steaming-hot weather when the colorful Gion festival ended. At a rate of one
temple per day,
one has to work very hard to see all the wonderful, world-heritage class
Buddhist temples and Shinto shrines in Kyoto and nearby Nara. Ninna-ji, with
its beautiful palace, and Ginzen-ji, with its imposing sunmon (gate) are among
my favorite memories, but I will do injustice not to mention Kinkaku-ji (the
Golden pavilion), the Rock Temple, Ginkaku-ji and the nearby charming path of
or the amazing Fushimi-Inari with its over 4 kilometers of orange Torii gates
(and the discovery that last year's mounting of Christo's Gates in Central Park
in New York is obviously inspired by this bewildering shinto shrine). Spending
a few hours in antique
ukiyo-e dealer shops is a museum-quality experience, in the company of Hiroshige,
Hokusai, Utamaru and other newly discovered woodblock print artists. On the
way back, we had a short stop in Odawara for its samurai castle, and spent a
day in Hakone. There, a boat
trip on lake Ashi and a hike up the mountain (to the smelly sulphur vulcanic
springs, the source for the onsen baths at our small hotel) brought in the quintessential
view of Japan, Fuji-san.
Updates: the latest discovery (2014) in Japan is Kushimoto, situated in Wakayama province at the southernmost point of Japan's main island, Honshu, and the spectacular view towards the Hashigui rocks from the outdoor onsen in the Daiwa Royal hotel. And in 2015, I finally realized that the best way to explore Kyoto is by bike, along less touristy routes to peaceful, serene shrines and temples, tasting sticky rice cakes or other local delicacies, catching glimpses of charming stores on side streets, or capturing a surprising image in an unexpected place. And of course, at the end of the day, relax by trying each one of the 10+ onsens (several outdoors, on the roof) of my hotel in Takatsuki City.
- Korea: Seoul, Geong-Ju.
December (2005) in Seoul was as cold as it would have been in Bucharest, Romania - not the most exciting
time of the year for tourism (but we were there for a conference).
Uniquely Korean heated floors and the traditional rice porridge really warm
you up, though,
and get you ready for outdoor explorations in this modern but unmistakenly Asian
city. Some special memories: spices, herbs (and yes, ginseng) in large outdoor
markets, a charming rice cake shop on the way to one of the former royal palaces,
the very interesting,
recently opened National Korean Museum, street vendors for all sorts of foods
(what can be more delicious than a hot baked sweet potato when the temperature outside is -10 Celsius?), kimchi
bibimbap! On the flight to Seoul I picked up an interesting story from the events section of a newspaper,
about a Korean production of Shakespeare's
Romeo and Juliet, with Roh Myi-oh being the son of the South Korean general Roh and Ju Rya, the daughter of the North
Korean general Ju.
Two wonderful weeks in May 2012, for a joyous family event, on this small Carribean island, who became recently an official "province" of the Netherlands. The most revealing snorkeling experience, with beautifully colored fish and interesting sea creatures (barracuda, eals, lion fish, huge sea urchins and parrot fish, and elegantly moving squid), right there, at the Divi Resort. From an experienced scuba diving instructor and nature preservation activist, who had just organized a lion-fish "hunting" event, I learned of the havoc caused by this predator in the Carribean - and then had a copious meal from her fishing "harvest". A drive around the island, on our last day there, brought in a sobering reminder of the devastation that an accidental oil spill (in this case, an oil reservoir fire) can cause: the famous flamingo reservation in Bonaire was completely depleated of its pink inhabitants.
- Grand Cayman:
Swimming in the warm Caribbean and taking relaxing walks on the Seven Mile Beach: no need to elaborate further. This island has a high standard of living and income, and a very international population.
- Portugal: Lisboa, Sintra, Queluz, Evora, Coimbra, Guimarraes, Tomar, Viana, Braga.
A beautiful country, with superb cultural sites and historic places, elegant azulejos, fantastic food, and nostalgic, moving music, their traditional fado.
- Slovenia: Ljubljana, Lake Bled.
A small country, formerly the region of Carniola in the Habsburg empire. After breaking in 1991 from former Yougoslavia, it is now part of the European Community.
Ljubljana is lively and lovely in summer. My favorite sight: a water fountain in Kongresnii Trg, a central square, inviting the passersby to drink from it, instead of their plastic bottles. A timely reminder of the wasting of Earth's resources and polution that our "civilized" societies are contributing to.
An interesting visit to Bistra where a technical museum was set on the premises of a former monastery, led to hands-on experiments with old, but still functioning, Nikola Tesla's instruments. Lake Bled affords superb views and is worth a visit.
- Iceland: Reyksjavik and nearby areas.
The Blue Lagoon was indeed spectacular, as were the sight of the continental divide, the Stokkur geyser, the site of the Althing (the place of the annual "parliament", or gathering place of ancient icelanders), the visit to a local museum of fishing (of course, this was a serious business here, and the museum was sobering in reminding the younger generations of how harsh life used to be here ) or to Snorri Sturlusson's museum. The strongest impression, though, comes from our very first hour in Iceland: the gusty wind, blowing almost horizontally, the grey sky, the black lava fields.
- Denmark: Aarhus, Copenhagen.
- Turkey: Istambul, Izmir, Bursa, Isnik, Bergama (Pergamon), Efesus (Selcuk), Bodrum (Halikarnasus), Asos, Troia, Canakale, Siliviri.
I still haven't gotten to put down in writing my impressions of this fantastic trip in the summer of 2015. I dreamt of seeing Troia since childhood. I was in love with Iznik pottery since my first visit to the Islamic art section of the Metropolitan Museum in New York. I was stunned by the Pergamon Altar when I saw it in Berlin. I saw images of Artemis of Ephesus, the "great mother goddess", and then "met" her at the Ephesus Museum in Vienna. But I could only imagine Bosphorus, or the Dardaneles - the narrow straits that separate the Black Sea (the sea of my childhood) from the Mediteranean. Yet, nothing I had previously read, seen in books or museums, or imagined could match the stunning sights we encountered on this trip. We were driving up the narrow, winding road towards Assos (the place where Aristotle spent a few years before becoming the tutor of the young Alexander "the Great" in Macedonia) and - all of a sudden - the wide blue extent of the sea appeared in front of us (I thought I was going to fall over the cliff, and into the Aegean): this was perhaps one of the most spectacularly scenic drives we ever undertook.
One more thing. I used to be very fussy about proper spelling, and I still am.
But I wrote this in a burst of inspiration one cold Winter
exotic travels and
fine food while procrastinating digging up my car from under a foot of snow
and while my brain refused to focus on a theorem I had to prove. I have classes
tomorrow and I have no time to check the spelling of names I pulled hastily from
If you notice something wrong, hold on: vacation is around the corner, and this time I stay
home. Travel reveries will re-emerge, and then I will put order in my collection of
travel photographs, and look up words in dictionaries and travel guides, and all will
look well. Come back later, if this caught your attention.
An old Romanian joke comes to mind, as I revisit and add to my travel notes. It dates from the times when we were stuck in a country where very few could venture outside. And now, only a few will probably remember or understand it, but I can't help adding it here, with a sort-of self-deprecating tone: "mai e state ..."
It is true: "mai e state...". A few years ago, an American colleague who read my travel notes was intrigued, and did a search on the internet for an explanation. He found an article pointing to the correct origin (and the explanation) of this joke - and emailed me: helas, the riddle was cracked!
But fear not: this is none of Turandot's riddles. No head will fall, no prince will lose his kingdom - you do not have to crack it, too.
Because I think that - unless you lived in Ceasusescu's Romania (as we did) - the sad, politically desperate irony of this untranslatable "joke" will escape you for ever. May my new country never have to experience the paranoia that unbridled power generates in un-educated, un-informed, evil, vain, power-hungry "leaders".