Friday, July 26, 2019

The magnificent underground museums of Moscow’s metro

Josef Stalin called the metro stations of Moscow  "People's Palaces"
 (Photo: Jorge Láscar -- licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution 2.0
 Generic license) 

MOSCOW –Many of the metro stations of Moscow are part of the most beautiful subway system in the world.

Josef Stalin called the stations “people’s palaces” because of their elaborate artistic and architectural designs.  They also were the largest civilian construction project in the history of the USSR. No less important to the program was Stalin’s immense ego which led him to feature designs  reminiscent of an “underground artificial sun.”

By using a mostly volunteer workforce at a time when capitalism was suffering through the Depression, Stalin aimed to impress the world with his country’s technology, industrialization and art, demonstrating the superiority of socialism.

Early stations were the  most
eclectic (Photo: licensed
under the Creative Commons
Attribution-Share Alike 4.0
International license)
With elegant chandeliers, friezes, marble archways, bronze statues, stained glass windows and bas-reliefs, each metro station in Moscow was unique with its own character and personality.

The earliest stations are perhaps the most ornate and eclectic because of the intensity with which Stalin sought completion. Among the artistic depictions, as would be expected, are representations with particularly Soviet cultural themes such as sports, industry, agriculture, history and, of course, the Revolution.

In 1935, when the Moscow metro opened its first 13 stations these are the primary underground locations to visit.

Novoslobodskaya is a cultural gem honoring Russia's military
(Photo: Jorge Láscar -- licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution 2.0 
Generic license) 

One of the earliest stations is Kievskaya which opened in 1937. The ultra-lavish mosaic in the central hall celebrates the 300-year-old union between Ukraine and Russia. Today it consists of three connecting halls.

Another of Stalin’s “originals”, Kurskaya, dating to 1938, emphasizes mosaics that highlight the strength and fortitude of Soviet society. 

Mayakovskaya is one of most beautiful stations in the system
 (Photo: Ludvig14-- licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution-Share 
Alike 4.0 International license)

Among the most beautiful, and perhaps the most famous, Mayakovskaya, opened in 1938. Dedicated to the Russian poet Vladimir Maykovsky, it is one of the deepest stations in the city because it was also designed for use as a bomb shelter.

One station was designed as a
bomb shelter (Photo: --

licensed under the Creative
Commons Attribution-Share

Alike 4.0 International license)
Believe it or not, another metro system, called Metro 2, was created beneath the being used today as an escape route for high government officials.

With seven hexagonal mosaic panels by the famed Russian artist Frolov, Novokuznetskaya is cultural gem though it did not open until 1943. The ceilings are dedicated to Soviet military operations and industry.

Don’t be misled, not all of Moscow’s stations are grand. In the late 1950s when Nikita Khruschev was in power, the stations became less extravagant, less expensive and more formulaic and undistinguished.

Khruschev’s spartan influence only lasted about 20 years. Since the mid-1970s the elaborate architecture of the metro has returned with more contemporary designs, although not to the degree or depth they were under Stalin.

Komsomolskaya Station is a favorite

Komsomolskaya is one of the most popular stations constructed during the Khruschev era. It is a favorite because of its Baroque style and arched yellow ceiling.

Another station under Khruschev’s leadership is Vorobyovy Gory. Built in 1959, it rates a mention because it is the first metro station ever constructed on a bridge.

Moving to more contemporary stations, Tsvetnoy Boulevard, which opened in 1988, features lovely glass mosaics. To visit the most popular and oldest Moscow Circus, this is the one to take.

Dostoevskava Station dedicated to author Fyodor Dostoyvsky 
(Photo: @Alex 'Florstein' Fedorov-- licensed under the Creative Commons
 Attribution-Share Alike 4.0 International license)
No list would be complete without mentioning Fyodor Dostoyvsky. The 2010 Dostoevskaya Station is one of the newest, and it is completely dedicated to the works of the great Russian author.

Rounding out the list, one of the most popular stations only came into existence in 2003. In a city where the metro stations are known for their depth, Park Pobedy is the deepest. At 414 feet, the escalators are the longest in Europe, taking about three minutes to arrive at the street. Or, for the hardy, you can climb the 740 steps to the surface.

Two huge panels decorate the walls of Park Pobedy with enameled depictions of the War of 1812 in the north hall and another highlighting the victory over Nazism in the south hall.

The system is color coded, but it is useful to have a map written in Russian so you can visually match the station stops.

Be alert for pickpockets, especially during peak hours when the metros are busiest. The best time to ride without crowds is between noon and 2 pm.

Though many stations are magnificent, the rolling stock can be quite old, so do not expect stations to be quiet.

Saturday, July 20, 2019

An All- American story, the moon landing and baseball

The Apollo 11 crew was the first to set foot on the moon [1969 ]
[Photo--NASA--Public Domain]

ATLANTAIn July, 1969 five decades ago, astronaut Neil Armstrong took the ultimate travel adventure in history when he became the first person to walk on the moon. So what do Neil Armstrong’s lunar stroll and baseball have in common?

Both represent all things American. The moon landing and baseball, in their own unique way, typically define a story about national pride and spirit that defines our country. It's about who we are and what we do best.

Five decades ago, the two converged in Atlanta, Georgia when a major international event merged with another unknown, unheralded story to reinforce a truly American experience.

In the late 1950s, the Russians sent a satellite into space called Sputnik. That moment signaled a race to the heavens between the United States and the Soviet Union that would intensify over the next decade.

The international competition grew even stronger when President John F. Kennedy claimed that we would put a man on the moon by the end of 60s. The gauntlet had been thrown. The gloves were off. It was the ultimate quest to see which nation would become the first to step on a heavenly body other than our own.

Alan Shepherd became the first American into space. John Glenn was the first American to orbit the earth. Then, on July 20, 1969, Neil Armstrong became not only the first American, but also the first person, to walk on the moon.

Eleven astronauts followed. All of them Americans. No other nation has ever accomplished that task. Kennedy’s dream and America’s challenge had become a reality.

Man's first lunar footprint.
a powerful image
[Photo--NASA--Public Domain]
Other than the awareness throughout the United States that, if successful, sometime during the afternoon of July 20th an American spacecraft would land on the surface of the moon, it was a day like any other day.

It was a Sunday. People went to church. Others played golf. Families gathered for weekly reunions at lunch. And there was a full schedule of major league baseball games all across the country.

In Atlanta, the Braves were playing the San Diego Padres. It was a typical Sunday afternoon for the Braves with a modest crowd of a little more than 12,000 fans rooting for their team that was then in the thick of the pennant race.

Atlanta scored a run in the first inning, which, as it turned out, was all they would need even though they added three more in the third before building up a 10-0 heading into the eighth inning.
Marine throws first pitch
to Braves catcher
[Photo--Sgt. Courtney

White, USMC]

It was the sort of game that only a Braves fan, or a die-hard baseball lover, could enjoy. The drama had long since abated and the only thing in doubt was whether Braves pitcher, Pat Jarvis, would get a complete game shutout.

After the first hour of the ball game, the scoreboards around Atlanta Stadium became more interesting to watch than the game. Throughout the afternoon, messages kept flashing across the electronic message boards providing regular updates about the progress of Apollo 11.

“One hour until touchdown,” they would say.

Then, “Thirty minutes before landing.”

“Fifteen minutes.”

Then five and, finally, at 4:17 in the afternoon Eastern Time, the message flashed, “The Eagle has landed!”

Neil Armstrong takes the first step on the  moon
[Photo--NASA--Public Domain]

The game was in the top of the eighth inning. The Padres were at bat and Pat Jarvis was still on the mound. He picked up the resin bag, stepped to the rubber and began his wind-up as usual. Suddenly 12,000-plus people spontaneously rose to their feet with a cheer that sounded like 100,000 instead.

Then something truly serendipitous happened. Something that cannot be scripted or planned. Something that comes from the heart and erupts in your soul. Something that is unforgettable and lives within you forever.

Jarvis had just brought his leg to his waist as he readied his pitch to the San Diego hitter. And then he stopped. He heard the roar, and he knew what had happened. There was no doubt.

Without hesitation, the Braves pitcher ceased his motion, put his leg down and turned toward the American flag in center field. He removed his cap and placed it over his heart. Jarvis’ teammates on the field spontaneously did the same thing, and the Padres came out of their dugout to stand in a moment of national unity.

There was no pre-game notification. No planning. No bands waiting for a ceremony. This was completely unrehearsed and natural. Suddenly the organist played God Bless America and the small, but vocal, crowd and the players sang in unison.

Approximately six hours later, Neil Armstrong stepped on the moon with his now famous quote: “That's one small step for man, one giant leap for mankind.”

But it was that brief moment of pride during the course of an ordinary baseball game that became an extraordinary event that remains forever etched in the heart of those who witnessed it.

Wright Brothers first flight at Kitty Hawk, NC in 1903, 116 years
ago  [Photo -- Public Domain]

This was a story about a country unlike any other. It wasn't about waving a foam finger in the air and boasting of being number one. This was not bluster. This was deeper. It was about success. It was about American spirit and what can be accomplished when we utilize our resources to achieve.

This was about a country that went shooting for the stars. It was about the first man to make a "small" step toward that goal. Fifty years ago today, Neil Armstrong took a walk in the heavens.

Friday, July 12, 2019

Dos & Don'ts for traveling in Paris and beyond

Paris is known as the " City of Light" but it can sometimes be difficult for you travelers to navigate (Courtesy: Pixabay)
PARIS — Even non-travelers are familiar with the reputation Parisians have for being rude.

As with almost any major city in world, however, that trend can be applied. Which means, in some ways, that the French are getting a bit of a bum rap.

Canal St Martin, Paris
(Courtesy: Pixabay) 
As a combination survival kit and travel guide for how to "get along" in the French capital, Conde Nast Traveler published an article covering some Dos & Don'ts for visiting Paris. Truthfully, about half of their tips can be applied to virtually any European city.

Savvy veteran travelers likely already know these basic rules but for rookie wanderlusters and part-timers, here's a modified version of the Conde Nast story.

The Arch de Triumph is the gateway to the Champs-Elysées in
Paris  (Photo: Taylor) 

1 -- Don't shop on the Champs-Elysees: According to Conde Nast, the once fashionable avenue, which was among the most beautiful in the world, is now overly-populated with international chain stores, automobile dealerships and  multiplex movie houses.

In addition, the dream idea of eating at a quaint cafe on one of the best known streets in the world is now an over-priced tourist trap which locals avoid in droves.

The alternative: Here's one place where the guide can apply to any famous city in the world -- Follow the footsteps of locals.

Conde Nast suggests that quality stuff is best found in emerging shopping neighborhoods in Paris like the North Marais, where you can shop for brands or crafts.

The  Champs-Elysées is usually
crowded and always expensive
(Courtesy: Pixabay) 
Another good shopping location is "in the center of town at Les Halles for Parisian-designed goods from Sept Cinq or emerging French designers at L’Exception. Even the department stores like Galeries Lafayette and Printemps are in the business of diversifying their offerings."

Perhaps more fun for visitors is the old-fashioned ambience of Paris' covered passages which date to the 19th century. Here you may embrace the essence of Paris-past beneath glass-vaulted ceilings and the city's famed wrought iron.

The romantic little nooks are filled with crannies filed with antique book dealers, art galleries and quirky toy shops among others.
Galerie Vivienne, just north of the Palais Royal, in the second arrondissement, is the most elegant of the lot.

\You can spend a small fortune on fine dining in Paris
(Courtesy: Pixabay) 
2 -- Don't spend a fortune on elegant dining: This is another tip that applies not only to Paris,  but to other destinations as well. Large cities can reach up a grab your wallet and credit cards faster than a pick-pocket. Unless you must find the need to say you dined at Cafe XYZ to impress your friends at home, plan to fork out a few hundred big ones for that so-called "European dining experience."

The Alternative: Throw Rick Steves and his other guidebook buddies in the trash and explore on your own. If you're not comfortable with doing that in an unknown destination, ask the concierge at your hotel. If you give him the specific information you want, 90% of the time he will hit a home run.

Sidewalk cafés are everywhere in
Paris (Courtesy: Pixabay)
Modern day bistros are fun and reasonable. Or simply stroll along a street until you come to a place that suits your lifestyle and budget. If it's filled with locals, it is probably just what you're looking for.

Best of all, when you return home you can now impress your friends with your own "personal expertise" and chances are on your next trip to Paris that little eatery will be among the first places you visit.

The Pyramid by I.M. Pei at the Louvre has become a landmark in
Paris (Photo: Taylor) 
3 -- Don’t try to see everything at the Louvre: Not only is this a good tip for the Louvre, it also works for traveling in general. If you try to see everything that's all you will do...see it rather than experience it.

The Louvre is massive. You can race through it or you can spend three days and never see the rest of Paris.
Either way, and this goes for countries too, if you want to see it all in a single trip, forget it. It just ain't gonna happen.

Musee d'Orsay is situated
in an old train station
(ourtesy: Pixabay) 
The Alternative: Do some homework before you leave and decide what is most important for you to see. Then split your time between the Louvre and a few smaller, less crowded and, in many ways, equally satisfying museums.

Conde Nast suggests "Monet's famous Nymphéas (water lily) murals in the Musée de l'Orangerie, at the far end of the Tuileries Gardens; The Musée Marmottan is home to the world's largest collection of Monets; and the Musée Rodin, housed in a luminous villa with a lovely garden, is one of the most romantic places in all of Paris."

There's also Musee d'Orsay with its Impressionist collection showcased in an old converted railway station.

Looking and acting like a tourist can be a problem, better to blend in as much as possible  (Courtesy: Pixabay)
4 -- Don't look like a tourist: Pickpockets and hucksters will spot you a mile away. All too often newbie travelers over-pack because they want to "look nice" in another country. Lets face it, not only do the locals not care, they won't even pay attention, unless you do something outlandish to attract their amusement.

Looking nice and being clean and neat are two entirely different things.

Almost everyone goes for casual and comfortable styles these days and the impact of television, movies and social media has changed routine daily fashions tremendously.

Just trying to "look" French
doesn't always work
(Courtesy: Pixabay)
If you "try" to imitate the stereotype of a Frenchman, you're going to fail. Likewise, walking around with all that camera gear and posing at every landmark is a dead giveaway.

Put the selfie-stick away folks and act like you've been out of the country before.

The Alternative: Casual is acceptable these days. Just be neat and coordinated with neutral colors. Cowboy hats and boots, Hawaiian shirts and raucous group staring, pointing and laughing will almost certainly be a catalyst for rude responses, especially in Paris.

Stay cool. Be polite. And do your best to blend in if you want to have a great experience. A genuine smile and respect will go a long way toward making a huge difference in how you are treated in any country.

Saturday, July 6, 2019

Wondrously exotic and mysterious Istanbul, Turkey

Istanbul's famed Blue Mosque is one of the city's most familiar sites with its multiple minarets  (Photo: Nserrano -- licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 4.0 International license)

ISTANBUL — Straddling the Strait of Bosphorus, which separates Europe from Asia, sits the only transcontinental city in the world; Istanbul.

Mysterious, exotic, chaotic or whatever other term you choose to call the most populous city in Turkey, Istanbul has almost as many names as it does words to describe it. In past lives it has also been known a Constantinople and Byzantium.

As the connecting point between the Black Sea, Russia's only seagoing access to the Mediterranean, with the Sea of Marmara, to say that Istanbul is a major international crossroads is an understatement.

The Strait of Bosphorus
Alexey Komarov --
licensed under the Creative
Commons Attribution 3.0
Unported license)
Founded around 660 B.C., Istanbul was originally known as Byzantion until it was reestablished as the imperial capital of the Holy Roman Empire by Constantine in 330 A.D. With  Roman/Byzantine influence dominating the culture for nearly 16 centuries, it was instrumental in the advancement of Christianity under the name of Constantinople until 1453 when the Ottomans conquered the city.

With Istanbul's strategic location on the historic Silk Road combined with important rail access and by between the Black Sea and the Mediterranean, the city has long been a melting pot of cultures and religions that have frequently been a source of conflict and tension.

As such, it has evolved into one of the most fascinating cities on the planet as witnessed by the fact that it is the world's fifth most metropolitan travel destination.

Istanbul is not a one day city to visit. Take your time, immerse yourself and savor all that it offers. At the same time, do your best to learn something about the on-going conflicts between Christianity and Islam that influence our world today. It's a simple homework assignment because in Istanbul cultural differences smack you squarely in the face everywhere you turn.

 The Bosphorus Bridge connects Europe and Asia

Istanbul is a veritable treasure chest waiting to be discovered. Begin with the Bosphorus Bridge which in itself can be as mysterious as the city when fog rolls in off the isthmus and turns the bridge into an ominous silhouette that links two continents.

Interior of the Topkapi Palace
Norbert Nagel --
licensed under the
Creative Commons
Attribution 3.0
Unported license

Oddly enough, with all of its architectural splendor, Istanbul does not have a primary urban park although the grounds of Yildiz Palace and Topkapi Palace were converted into public areas in the early decades of the Turkish Republic.

Topkapi Palace is today a large museum filled with historic relics and artifacts that conjure images of Sinbad the Sailor and the Arabian Nights. It was the primary residence of the Ottoman sultans during the 15th century, making a visit to the harem one of the most popular tours at the site.

Strategically situated on the Seraglio Point overlooking the Golden Horn where the strait joins the Sea of Marmara, Topaki sits one of the highest points in the city.

Istanbul as seen from the Galata Bridge
Comprised of three major courtyards, the Imperial Treasury, the Courtyard of the Eunuchs as well as countless other exhibitions, Topkapi Palace is one of those captivating places that entices visitors to stay long after they planned. Save plenty of time to see it or you'll be sadly disappointed.

When it comes to architecture, Istanbul has few, if any, rivals. Even the most hardened cynic cannot deny the impressive religious sites that dominate the skyline unlike any other city in the world.
Istanbul's Hagia Sophia at sunset (Photo: Nserrano --
licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution-Share
Alike 4.0 International license) 
Hagia Sophia, built between 532 and 537 A.D. on orders by Byzantine Emperor Justinian I, was a Christian church until 1453 when the city was conquered by the Ottomans and Mehmed the Conqueror converted it into a mosque.

The Blue Mosque, formally known as the Sultan Ahmed Mosque, has more minarets than any mosque in the world
(Photo: Dersaadet -- licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution 3.0 Unported license)
For whatever reason, Hagia Sophia and the nearby Blue Mosque often get confused by travelers as being the same building or flip-flopping their identity. According the Turkish Culture and Tourism Ministry however, Hagia Sophia was the country's most visited attraction in 2015.

Interior of the  Blue Mosque
Christian Perez -- 
 Commons Attribution 3.0 
Unported license)
The Sultan Ahmed Mosque, more familiarly known as the Blue Mosque, sits next door to Hagia Sophia. Though it was recently re-opened following renovations, the mosque did remain open for Islamic prayers during the construction.

Built between 1609 and 1616, the mosque has the unique distinction of having the most minarets (6) of any mosque in the world. It also features five main domes and eight secondary domes emitting an almost overwhelming aura when bathed in blue from the interior lights in the evening.

The Pera Palace's wrought iron elevator conjures another era 
(Photo: Taylor)

Not to be overlooked is the Pera Palace Hotel Jumeirah which has the distinction of being a historic special category hotel. Built in 1892 for the purpose of hosting passengers on the famed Orient Express, it is said the be the "oldest European hotel in Turkey."

Pera Palace lobby
It was here that Agatha Christie got the inspiration for her classic murder mystery "Murder on the Orient Express" for which publicity only added prestige to the property. Be sure to examine the ancient iron elevator which is worth a visit all its own.

Stroll through the maze of streets and discover the outdoor fish market which thrives each morning.

The Grand Covered Bazaar is like stepping into the "Tales of the Arabian Nights"  (Photo: Jean Pascal Sèba -- licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution 3.0 Unported license)

For even more fun, the Grand Bazaar, or Covered Bazaar, is a world unto itself. With 61 covered streets and more than 4,000 shops that are more like stalls than shops, Istanbul's market is frequently regarded as one of the first shopping malls in the world.

Exotic spices abound at the
Covered Bazaar
(Photo: Pixabay)
Exotic spices abound, along with nuts from every corner of the region and olives, of course. One favorite is a candy known as "Turkish Delight" which is something like a cross between taffy and nougat.

These are but a few of the wonders of Istanbul and they barely scratch the surface. If you plan a visit, allow at least three days to savor the tastes, sights, sounds and smells of Istanbul.

That in itself is truly a "Turkish Delight."