Saturday, August 08, 2015

At Last Amsterdam

I got out of the airport in Amsterdam and headed to the train station which was within the airport. I bought a two way ticket to Amsterdam and took the train shown in the picture to the right. It took about fifteen minutes to get to downtown. As soon as I got off the train I saw the water. Amsterdam consists of a ring of canals that you see every block. The picture to the left below is the first thing I saw when I got off the train. I started walking and at about each block I saw a canal as shown in the picture to the right below.
I went through the redlight district which is notorious for its prostitution and hasheesh among other drugs. They say it is changing and becoming more of a family oriented place but it did not seem to me that way. It was the morning so there wasn't any activity there, but I am sure in the evening that place lights up all in red as the name indicates. It was dirty and trashy, as it seems there was a wild party from the night before. The interesting thing is that one of the landmarks of Amsterdam was right next to it, the old church called Oude Kerk.
I kept walking and I saw a very long line of people and later found out it was for the Ann Frank house, called Ann Frank Huis. There was also the Van Gogh museum and also Rembrandt house. I did not have time to enter any museums so I just looked from outside. The main square there is called the Dam Square, and that is where I had my breakfast. You see a picture of it to the left below. My breakfast was nothing special but interestingly the waitress asked for the money in advance. I said: "You mean this is not free?"
One thing I noticed in Amsterdam was that the main means of transportation was the bicycle. I saw the same thing elsewhere in Europe but it seemed more pronounced in Amsterdam, maybe because the weather was so nice that day. Usually Amsterdam weather is overcast and you seldom see the sun there, but that day was so nice and sunny and mild, so everybody was riding a bike on that day. The picture below is a representation of the bikes that I am talking about.
Well, that concluded my short tour in Amsterdam, I did not have time to do much other than walk for a couple of hours and have breakfast at the Dam square near Madame Tussauds which is a famous wax museum. There is so much to see in the Netherlands, and that needs at least a few days to cover everything, but for me this was it for now. I went back to the airport where I had to get my passport stamped three times because I entered from a wrong gate and finally I made it to my flight gate. Everything went fine until I arrived New York. I had only one hour to take my next flight, which I made on time just about when they were boarding the plane, but my suitcase did not make it to San Diego with me. However, Delta delivered the suitcase to my door the next morning conveniently and promptly.

Hello Ishbilya (Seville)

Seville is the largest and most populous city of Andalusia. Its river is Guadalkivir, the same one that goes to Cordoba as well. Magellan departed from Seville in 1519 and went around the globe with the help of Arab navigators. During the Islamic rule Seville was under the Almoravids and then Almohads. I was mainly interested in the old section of the city, with the Moorish heritage. So that is where I went, namely to Alcazar, an old Moorish palace that is being used now by the royal family and as government offices. Next to the Alcazar is the Gothic Seville cathedral seen in the picture to the right from the neighboring Alcazar. Notably, the tower of thee cathedral used to be a minaret of a Moorish mosque and is called the Giralda.
The cathedral itself is Gothic in structure and is the biggest such church in the world and the third biggest of any church kind. Funny they tell you to take your hat off when you enter but they don't mind women entering with skimpy clothes. Another historic Moorish structure near the Guadalkivir river is the Torre Del Oro, or the tower of gold. I passed by it but did not bother entering it. The third picture to the right shows a typical street around the area of Alcazar. I saw many horse carriages that take tourists on tours in the old section of town.
There are many McDonalds and Starbucks and other American restaurant chains. I walked around and saw a wooden structure that was made by some German architect that is shown in the picture to the right below. The picture to the left shows a building downtown that imitates the Moorish architecture style and there is a cafe below it. The food here is good in general and I liked the tapas dishes which are small dishes that allow you to sample many kinds of food instead of having one large plate of one kind.
My favorite tapas plate was the eggplant one which was made with tomato sauce and ground beef and tasted so good. I walked to to the river and saw people biking there and some were paddling kayaks and canoes. But the temperature was so hot that I could not stand in the sun for long and was constantly looking for shade. I entered the Gothic cathedral as there was mass in session because it was Sunday and spent a few minutes inside. It was quite ornate and full of statues and pictures. The Giralda distinctly showed that it came from a Moorish mosque of the past although its top was altered where statues and crosses were added to give it its Gothic character. I did not have much time to see more than this, so that sort of concluded my Andalusia's tour. I had to return to the hotel and get prepared to return to Toulouse to spend one last night there before going back home.
I checked out of the hotel and filled the car with Diesel oil and then returned it to Enterprise at the airport. The three days cost me 112 Euros total for the car, and the gas cost another 50 Euros more or less. Overall the car had very good mileage. I drove about 810 km total with that car, so the gas cost was quite reasonable. On returning to Toulouse I did not have much time left, I just slept that night and had to wake up at 4 am to head to the airport as my flight back to the US was at 6 am. I took that flight on time and made it to Amsterdam, which was my first stop. In Amsterdam I had more than five hours so I decided to get out of the airport and take the train to downtown Amsterdam for three hours or so. My next blog talks about what I saw in those three hours in Amsterdam.

The Glory of Cordoba

Cordoba! Where do I start. I drove to Seville from Granada, spent the night there and in the morning I drove to Cordoba which was about 1.5 hour away from Seville. What a glorious city. It used to be the most populous city in the world at its glory (over a million people) but now only 330,000 people live there. The first picture to the right is outside the mosque of Cordoba, which is a cathedral now. They call it Mezquita/Catedral de Cordoba. The original mehrab area was left intact as shown in the second picture to the right, whereas everywhere else in the mosque pictures and statues crowd the walls and ceilings. Also there was a grand organ playing music. The Muslims in Cordoba have been trying to get permission to pray in the Mehrab area of the mosque but their pleas were rejected many times by the government and by the Vatican. It took two hundred years to finish building this mosque, as generations kept improving on it and adding details that made it in this beautiful final form. It was the Caliph Al Hakam who ruled Cordoba in its golden age and he built many universities and hospitals and made Cordoba the shining lighthouse of Europe.
The picture to the left shows the Cordoba mosque from inside with its famous double arches with white and red stones. No paint so the colors can last for eternity without the need of any maintenance. Brilliant architecture and beautiful simplicity. The Mehrab area is left alone and is in its original condition as shown below.
Some of the famous characters of Cordoba at the time were Ibn Rushd (Averroes) and Ibn Sina (Avecina) and Mohammad Al Ghafiqi, and Al Idrissi, and Ibn Maimoun (Maimonides) and Ibn Al Arabi. and many others. You could see their statues all over the city and many streets are named after them. One of the best attractions I saw there was a museum across the bridge from Cordoba mosque. In that museum they showed us how the Islamic civilization shone is Spain. They talked about Averroes, Ibn Al Arabi, Maimonides, and Alfonso the tenth, and gave glimpses of their teachings, and how Cordoba was living in peace with Muslims, Christians and Jews all living side by side learning together and prospering together. The museum also showed how the inhabitants of Cordoba took care of the ecology of their land as instructed by the Quran. They showed the map that Idrissi made at that time and how accurate it was similar to today's maps. Amazing. I was really touched by that museum and considered it the highlight of my visit to Cordoba.
The river of Cordoba is called Guadalqivir, literally means the big river in Arabic, and is pronounced exactly like in Arabic وادي الكبير. The same river extends also to Seville, which I will talk about in my next blog. The streets in Cordoba are narrow and ancient. They are clean and well maintained. They make you fall in love with the historic city easily. I walked along those streets and saw an old synagogue with the statue of Maimonides in front of it. Just like the Muslims were denied worship in the Mezquita, the Jews are denied worship in the synagogue also.
The temperature was brutally hot at this time of the year, so if you want to visit southern Spain don't go there in August but in April or some other time. After 2 pm you can hardly see any people walking in the streets anymore as they take their siesta of the afternoon and then don't appear again until it is dark when they stay up all night after that. I stayed in Cordoba until about 3 pm and the heat was so brutal that I preferred to go back to the car where at least I had air conditioning there, and I drove to the original city that was first built in Spain called Madinat Al Zahra. This city was built by Abdel Rahman III but all what is left of it now are ruins. I saw the entrance to the city but unfortunately it was closed after 2:30 pm and I missed seeing it.
To the left you see a picture of the wall of Cordoba city. I had to say goodbye and return back to Seville as the heat was becoming unbearable, especially after my frustration of not being able to see Madinat Al Zahra which literally means the shining city. The trip back to Seville took about 1.5 hours, and in my next blog I will talk about what I saw in Seville, which is another glorious city from historic Moorish Spain. If you want to see Andalusia then visiting Cordoba is a must, even before Granada. Next to them I would say Seville and Toledo.

The Grandeur of Granada

I booked a flight from Toulouse to Seville, Spain for 200 Euros two way, and headed to the Blagnac airport. Air France charged me 30 Euros for my suitcase, which I thought was outrageous, but on the way back they charged me 70 Euros! The flight took about 1.5 hours and it took me a while in Seville airport to find my suitcase, then I headed to Enterprise car rental where I rented a diesel stick shift car (Siat). I drove directly from the airport to Granada which took about 2.5 hours. I stayed in Melia hotel in downtown Granda near Alhambra for 75 Euros a night. The hotel was very nice and clean, but the WiFi was so slow that it was useless. The next morning I went to Alhambra (see the picture to the right). What grandeur and beauty!
The gardens were magnificent (see the second picture to the left) but the citadel and the palace were incredible. Everywhere on the walls there was itched this sentence: "No victor but God", see the third picture to the left. The main palace is called Alcazar, literally meaning the palace in Arabic, and the high fortress area is called Alcazaba, again in Arabic meaning the high fortress. I can't describe the intricate carvings on the walls inside and the beauty of it all, it is such a monumental work that will last for generations to come.
There was a special entry fee inside the palace itself and that was well worth the price. The fourth picture to the left is in the ambassador reception court of the palace. It was meant to impress you can tell and it is quite impressive no doubt. There was also the lions court area which was as impressive with its lions fountain spouting water in a beautiful manner. History flashed in front of my eyes as I wandered inside the palace looking at the carvings on the walls and imagining the events of history in this unique place.
My visit to Granada was quite worth the trouble although the temperature was brutally hot in August. I enjoyed every second of it. If I had more time I could easily spend a week or two in this city and enjoy every minutes of it, but since I did not have except this one day I had to drive back to Seville in the afternoon around 5pm, and I arrived Seville around 7:30 pm where I stayed in the Hilton Garden Inn hotel some distance away from the old section of the city. My next blog will talk about Seville, which is another one of the famous Andalusian cities of the Moorish Spain.

Friday, August 07, 2015

Toulouse or to Win

I recently had a business trip to Toulouse, France. Toulouse is the home of Airbus, who has recently won the OneWeb project that will launch some 900 satellites in low orbit to provide global internet all over the world. In any case, I got a chance to get out of Blagnac (which is the airport area) and do some sightseeing in the city, and the picture you see to the right is in downtown near Place du Capitole. The tower you see is that of the Saint Sernin basilica, which is an ancient church originally built around 1300. The French cuisine is really superb, as almost anything you eat is cooked in a very tasty way and presented in a very nice way too. The second picture to the right shows a fish plate I ordered in the Capitole square.
Needless to say the taste was fantastic and I really enjoyed eating that dish. Overall the city is full of students and foreigners in general. There is nothing much in the city other than Airbus and the university there. The streets are narrow and not that clean. The river is called La Garonne and has a few bridges that span across it, with some areas on its banks for joggers and bicyclers, but nothing that impresses you. The third picture to the right shows an area by the river bank. Transportation in the city is quite crowded and sort of confusing. We took a tram from the hotel near the airport to downtown, but it did not go all the way as it was supposed to, as there was some construction going on and we had to get off early and take the metro to make it to the Capitole. Same thing on the way back, we took the metro again to the same station called "Arenes", and from there took the tram to the hotel near the airport.
Others points of attraction in Toulouse are: Cite de l'Espace (city of Space), Chateau de Thegra, Jardins du Museum, Zenith, Basilique Sainte Germaine, Dome de la Grave, Palais des Sports, and Palais de Justice. That was basically it for Toulouse. After I finished work in Toulouse I had the weekend to spend so I decided to go instead to Spain and do some serious sightseeing in Andalusia. So the next three blogs are about Seville, Cordoba and Granada. Those blogs are much more exciting than this one as you will see. So read on the next three blogs and see for yourself.

Sunday, June 07, 2015

Canyon's Bright Angle Trail

A day hike into Grand Canyon affords an unparalleled experience. You can hike down all the way to Colorado river from Canyon Village, but beware: Grand Canyon is an extreme environment! As park rangers say "going down in optional, but coming up is mandatory." Plan to take twice as long to hike up as it took to hike down. The picture shows a point along the way as we trekked down on Bright Angel trail. We could not make it all the way down to Colorado river, because that could take 6 miles each way and descent of some 3,000 ft. Instead we just made it to about the lower tunnel and close to the rest house which is about 1.5 miles and some 1,120 ft descent. It took us about 2 hours roundtrip.
One of these days I plan to go all the way down to the river, and maybe camp down there for the night and then climb back up the next day. This would be excellent exercise! So we started the Grand Canyon Visitor Center where we parked in parking lot B. We took the blue bus to Grand Canyon Village. From there we took the red line to the first stop at Hermits point, then we stopped at different points which were Trailview Overlook, then Maricopa point, then Powell point, then Hopi point, then Mohave point, then The Abyss, then Monument Creek Vista, then Pima point, and finally Hermits Rest which is at the end of the red line. Each point offered a different view of the canyon, and some offered a view of the Colorado river. The scenes are out of this world, and the sound of silence makes you stand in awe before this natural wonder. We wanted to watch the sunset but we were tired and decided to leave half an hour earlier before the rush hour. We stopped at a famous steakhouse near the park where we had dinner, and as a bonus we watched fantastic views of the canyon on a large screen at the restaurant that showed close up shots taken by helicopter of the river and parts of the canyons that we could only see from faraway. The weather was moderate and little chilly at night, and there was snow traces along the way from Flagstaff all the way to the park. We enjoyed it very much. One could easily spend a few days in this wonderful park to really enjoy it. This was the South Rim by the way. I would like to visit the North Rim one day, and stay there for a week. I wish we had more time to fully enjoy the South Rim, but we had great time in this one day as it is.

Wednesday, March 11, 2015

Discovery Lake Trails After the Fire

It has been about 8 months since the fire devoured the forests on top of the Discovery Hills. The trails leading to Double Peak park have been closed since the fire last June. Now finally the trails are open again after they replaced the burnt fences, see the picture.
As you can see the trees are growing again. Sections of the old fence are still intact and were kept in their place, but the burnt ones were replaced as is obvious in the picture. It was a blessing that they repaired this trail because it is one of the best trails around. So last Sunday I hiked on it up to the point where the loop starts. The loop is a 10 km trail that goes around through Double Peak Park. I took a right at the loop and reached the top of the ridge where I could see a view of the ocean from there.
The path that I took can be seen on the map to the right. It took 1 hour and 38 minutes round trip and the total climb was 1057 ft as can be seen on the data of the map. It is a very nice climb and the weather was fantastic. The only concern I have now is that recently a mountain lion was spotted in the area. I was encouraged by the many hikers who were on the trail during the weekend which makes it quite unlikely that the mountain lion would come near us humans in large numbers. It is not advised to hike alone, especially that I know that coyotes thrive there as well; I took a picture of one from my window once. Coyotes should not attack humans, at least not adults, but who knows, I heard there are new breeds who do attack humans. In any case, that is why it is advised not to hike alone. So as long as there are many hikers in the weekend it should be safe.

Sunday, March 08, 2015

Sound Surround System

My sound surround system has been completed finally, and as usual there were many little hurdles here and there in setting it up, so this post summarizes all the issues I encountered and how they were fixed. It all started with the installed Bose speakers that were already there in place hung nicely on the walls. There are five of them; in the front there are center, right and left speakers, and in the back there are left surround and right surround.
We had a Sony 42" smart TV and an old Toshiba DVD. First step was to buy an audio/video receiver (AVR). I chose the Onkyo TX-NR353 which costs about $430 including tax. This receiver has WiFi and Bluetooth connections, and is 5 channel x 100 Watts. I also bought an active subwoofer, which I chose to be BIC America F-12, with 475 W peak power (150 W average) and 12" subwoofer. This subwoofer has an LFE jack which makes it easy to connect and calibrate within the AV receiver. Setting up the AV receiver was easy. I connected the cable box to the receiver via HDMI and connected the receiver's output HDMI to the smart TV. Immediately I got the cable TV working through the sound surround system. Next I calibrated the sound system by placing the provided microphone to the point of listening on the sofa and running the Onkyo calibration program. Next I connected the FM antenna and set up a few FM channels, and listened to the FM reception on the sound surround system. Worked fine. Then I connected the receiver to the WiFi network, and was able to listen to Pandora and Spotify through the surround system. All good so far. In order to set up the video streaming from the smart TV (such as Netflix, YouTube etc.) I assigned CD/TV setting, and set the Audio Return Channel (ARC) to Auto, so that the TV sound goes through the receiver on to the sound surround system when in video streaming mode. Now Netflix and YouTube sound go through the sound surround system fine. However, there was a glitch in the sound, every few seconds I could hear sound dropout for a second, which was very annoying. I was able to fix this problem by changing the Fixed Mode to PCM in the Source Input of the receiver's Setup menu. No more sound dropout in video streaming. This was fortuitous because I did not have to buy a video streaming device such as Roku-3 or Apple TV. Last step was to connect the old DVD player. I took the video components from the DVD player into the receiver, and out of the receiver to the TV. I took the sound from the DVD sound into the Aux input of the receiver, and assigned this setting to Aux. When playing the DVD player, I chose the input of the TV from HDMI to Video Components, and chose Aux on the receiver. Picture was great and sound came through the surround system fine. I paired my smart phone to the receiver, so I was able to stream music from the iTunes library to the receiver and listen to it through the sound surround system. That completed the installation. A great working system that turns movies from Netflix into a real theater experience.

Sunday, February 15, 2015

Biking Through San Elijo Hill

This ride is not flat at all. It goes through San Elijo hill with over 1580 ft. total climb.
As seen the map, I rode my bike from home to San Marcos Blvd, to Rancho Santa Fe, and at about 4.5 miles I turned into San Elijo Rd. which climbs up the San Elijo hill (see the satellite photo), and at about mile 8 I started descending down until I reached Craven Rd. which I took left to Discovery Rd. back home. The total tour is 11.44 miles and took one hour and 41 minutes as is shown in the statistics on the map. It is quite a workout (927 calories burnt in the effort). The map and its details are taken by the RunKeeper app on my phone.
The satellite photo shows the same map with the details of the San Elijo hill shown clearly. The distance up to mile 4 was more or less flat, but then starting at San Elijo Rd. you see that the road goes up the hill. I looked back while riding the bike and I could see the ocean behind me, a view that most houses on the hill can see. San Elijo Rd. becomes Twin Oaks Rd., and it meets Craven Rd. as you see in the satellite photo. The path from Craven Rd. to S. Bent Avenue is more or less flat, then left on to Discovery Rd. which is also flat. Finally I took the Vera Cruz Rd. back home and that has some climbing in it which provides a nice workout near the end of the exercise. Can you see Lake San Marcos within the trip's loop?

Sunday, February 01, 2015

Biking the North County Coast

This adventure is similar to my previous post "Coasting the North County Coast" but instead of taking the Coaster train and then walking back from Solana Beach to Encinitas, this time I carried my bike and parked in Encinitas train station and then biked all the way down to Torrey Pines and back. It took less than two hours and the trail was level all the way except between Del Mar and Torrey Pines.
The bike is seen carried on my Honda CRV, and a selfie below shows my bike and I after I arrived to Torrey Pines beach. The distance each way is 7.9 miles taking 55 minutes each way. Most of the path is by the ocean offering wonderful sea breezes and scenery. The third picture shows the beach near Torrey Pines looking back towards Del Mar.
It was a very pleasant experience and I would like to repeat it again and again. I am thinking next time to start from South Carlsbad by parking at the Poinsettia Station and biking from there south to Del Mar and back. This will take longer than two hours both ways but it would be worth the ride because the whole path is on the beach. So for a level ride for about two hours or more this is the perfect route. But for up and down hill rides then you need to go more east towards the mountains. Later on this soon.

Saturday, January 03, 2015

Ascending Mount Soledad

Mount Soledad is in La Jolla and means "Solitude" in Spanish. It has the Veteran memorial on its top with a large cross standing there as seen in the inset of the picture that shows the view from up there. You can see 360 degree view of San Diego and up to Escondido in the north and down to Coronado island and Mexico in the south. We parked the car there at Via Capri and descended on foot all the way down to La Jolla Cove, which took about 45 minutes. The way back up took another 45 minutes and was quite a work out. Along the way you see the multi-million dollar homes that have a fantastic view to the ocean.

Coasting the North County Coast

The Coaster is a train that runs between Oceanside and San Diego. We caught it from Encinitas and rode one station down to Solana Beach so that we could walk back along the North County Coast back to Encinitas. The walk took about 1 hour and twenty minutes. Starting the walk from Solana Beach, the first thing you see going north is Cardiff-By-The-Sea, a small affluent town on the ocean with multi-million dollar homes. Then you get into Encinitas which spreads all the way up north to Carlsbad. The picture to the right shows the scene of the beaches that spread along the coast.
The inset to the left shows the Coaster train at the Solana Beach station, the second inset shows Cardiff sign, and the third one shows the Encinitas sign by D street near the Encinitas train station. The second picture to the right shows the path taken during this walk. The San Diego North county starts just north of La Jolla with Del Mar, then up to Solana Beach, then Encinitas (including Cardiff) then Carlsbad then Oceanside. Those are the coastal towns. A little to the east there are extensions to North County such as Carmel Valley east of Del Mar, San Marcos east of Carlsbad, Vista and Escondido. La Jolla is part of San Diego. We will be going to Soledad east of La Jolla shortly and will talk about it in the next posting, God willing.