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.