Estonia: A Squishy Stroll Through the Bogs

Estonia bogs

The Viru Bog, taken while strolling the boardwalk.

This is the last in a series of Nadine Godwin’s posts from Estonia; you can read the others here and here.

INSIDE LAHEMAA NATIONAL PARK, Estonia — In early September, I walked on a bog here. I hasten to add, given I was not adept at this, the walk was very short. Within minutes, I had gotten my boot buried past my ankle in the waterlogged moss that I was supposed to stay on top of.

I was wearing bogshoes, which look like the aquatic version of snowshoes, but one boot — a knee-high rubber thing — had come unhinged from the shoe.

While I don’t regard bog walking — I want to call this bogging — as my next favorite pastime, I was pleased to learn something about it because it is one of many windows onto life in Estonia, a tiny happenin’ northern European country on the Baltic. About half the size of Indiana, it gained independence from the Soviet Union in 1991.

Its history is rich and engaging, as evidenced by, for example, the medieval city center of Tallinn, the capital.

It has a place on the tech front, too: It is the birthplace of Skype, and 98% of the country is wired for free Wi-Fi access.

And, it is a natural wonderland, which is where the bogs come in. Fifty-five percent of Estonia is forested; 20% of the country is covered in bogs. It’s not a mountainous land, but there are 1,521 islands and islets along its coast.

Estonia bogs

View of the Viru Bog in Estonia’s Lahemaa National Park. Much of the area is covered with waterlogged moss, but bogs can leave spaces for pools of water, too.

Bogs are wetlands characterized, in the case of colder lands like Estonia, by bog mosses that capture and hold rainwater. The water in such bogs is typically highly acidic and generally has few minerals, which means not much else — except highly adapted plants — lives here with the mosses.

The thing is the mosses absorb lots of water (yielding an unsettling sponge-y sensation for the bog walker), take the minerals from the water and replace the minerals with acid. An unequal trade, one would say.

Estonia bogs

The Viru Bog seen from the lookout tower. The bog’s boardwalk is visible in the lower left-hand corner of the photo.

Some distance below the surface, not even a foot, the oxygen is effectively shut out, meaning decay is slowed or stopped. Peat is the partially decomposed dead moss found below the living plants.

It is because of these conditions that archaeologists who dig in old bogs can find and study preserved bodies of people who died hundreds or thousands of years ago.

But, back to the bog walking.

I was with a press group when in Estonia. For our bog experience, we headed to the Lahemaa National Park, which has a 3.5-km/2.2-mile boardwalk that visitors can use to walk — without touching water — at a level slightly above the Viru Bog. It also offers a lookout tower for viewing the landscape for some distance.

Estonia bogs

ViruBogLookoutTower

Outfitters provide equipment for those wishing to walk directly on the bogs. VisitEstonia.com lists a few.

This article and its photos are by Nadine Godwin, the author of Travia: The Ultimate Book of Travel Trivia, which was published by The Intrepid Traveler.

Tallinn: Recalling Guildhalls and Peppersacks

Tallinn’s historic city center seen from a helium balloon, nearly 400 feet in the air. The tallest spire belongs to St. Olaf’s Church. The Lower Town is in the foreground, with Toompea Hill in the back.

Tallinn’s historic city center seen from a helium balloon, nearly 400 feet in the air. The tallest spire belongs to St. Olaf’s Church. The Lower Town is in the foreground, with Toompea Hill in the back.

This is the second of a series of articles on Estonia. Read Nadine Godwin’s previous article here.

TALLINN, Estonia — In 2014, a vendor introduced balloon trips that give visitors a bird’s-eye view of the historic center of Tallinn, Estonia’s capital. The tethered balloons, using helium, rise to almost 400 feet above the ground.

Passengers get a sweeping view of the Old Town’s tallest churches, narrow streets lined with centuries-old buildings as well as defensive walls that have stood since the Middle Ages.

The vendor is Balloon Tallinn, and its 15-minute airborne excursion costs 25 euros for adults, with concessions for the young and for families.

The Old Town, home to 3,000 of Tallinn’s 400,000 people, is so well preserved the whole thing is a UNESCO World Heritage Site. The elevated viewing is great for getting the picture — lots of them, in fact — but it’s no substitute for exploring such a valuable piece of real estate on foot.

Tallinn’s Town Hall Square, where old houses are often now restaurants with outdoor seating in good weather.

Tallinn’s Town Hall Square, where old houses are often now restaurants with outdoor seating in good weather.

I recently visited Tallinn as part of a press trip sponsored by the Estonian Tourist Board. The balloon excursion enriched a visit that also featured plenty of nosing around at ground level.

Tallinn first appears in the chronicles in 1154 and by 1284 was a member of the Hanseatic League, a German-led exclusive trading cartel. Much of what we see on the tourist circuit today has its basis in league-generated wealth.

Our guided walking tour started in Town Hall Square. The gothic city hall there, now a museum and concert hall, was built in 1404. Raeapteek, described as Europe’s oldest continuously operating public pharmacy (1422), is on the same square. Besides, the tourist board says, the first-ever Christmas tree stood in this square in 1441.

Raeapteek, on Town Hall Square, described as Europe’s oldest continuously operating public pharmacy.

Raeapteek, on Town Hall Square, described as Europe’s oldest continuously operating public pharmacy.

Also from the 15th century (1410), the Great Guild Hall, once home to the most powerful of the merchant guilds during Hanseatic League days, is a block away on Pikk Street and now houses the Estonian History Museum.

Great Guild Hall, home to the most powerful of Tallinn’s merchant guilds during Hanseatic League days.

Great Guild Hall, home to the most powerful of Tallinn’s merchant guilds during Hanseatic League days.

Its near neighbor is the white Holy Spirit Church (14th century) well known for a painted wall clock that has kept time since the 17th century. Other former guildhalls are on Pikk Street, as well.

The painted wall clock on the exterior of Holy Spirit Church.

The painted wall clock on the exterior of Holy Spirit Church.

While tenderly caring for these old places, Estonians also make use of them.

The Olde Hansa restaurant, in a medieval building, features period menus and staffers in period clothing.

The Olde Hansa restaurant, in a medieval building, features period menus and staffers in period clothing.

Many medieval merchant houses are now restaurants, some with staff in period costume, such as at the Olde Hansa eatery. Its menus keep to the theme, too.

A staffer at Olde Hansa restaurant, in period costume, urging passersby to try the eatery.

A staffer at Olde Hansa restaurant, in period costume, urging passersby to try the eatery.

Medieval merchants were called peppersacks reflecting pepper’s value. Hence, another period restaurant is called Peppersack. And the nearby Hopner Beer House, does beer pairings.

These three establishments sit at a convergence of streets a few steps behind the old Town Hall.

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Estonia: Islands in the Baltic

Kuressaare, Estonia

The Ekesparre B&B, the building at right, reflected in the moat that surrounds the medieval castle in Kuressaare on the island of Saaremaa. A castle tower, at left, also is reflected in the moat.

KURESSAARE, Estonia — This small Baltic nation counts 1,521 islands. I visited two, Saaremaa, the largest, and neighboring Muhu. A bridge links the pair, and each is connected to the mainland with regular ferry services.

I was a guest, with other press, of the Estonian Tourist Board.

Part of the gear on the ferry to Muhu, appearing here simply because it made a good photo.

Part of the gear on the ferry to Muhu, appearing here simply because it made a good photo.

This excursion began with the Virtsu-to-Muhu ferry, a 23-minute ride across the clear blue Baltic, in brisk (read, windy and chilly) air but under a bright September sun.

Our trip encompassed the following:

• Shopping in Liiva, a center for Muhu handicrafts, especially goods made with juniper wood. The big item is the butter knife. I have several now, some for gifts. Many souvenirs here are juniper because juniper is richly available on these islands, although protected elsewhere in Europe.

Kuressaare, Estonia

Samples of various juniper butter knives, with a wooden spoon and comb, both also of juniper, thrown in.

Another souvenir was colorful knitted socks in huge sizes for men. We wondered, do Estonian men really have such big feet? We were told yes.

Kuressaare, Estonia

Goods seen in a Liiva souvenir shop, on Estonia’s island of Muhu.

• Lunch at Nautse Mihkli guesthouse, which is a repurposed set of farm buildings. The main structure originated as a house/barn combo more than 100 years ago.

Kuressaare, Estonia

The former house/barn combination that is now the main house of the Nautse Mihkli guesthouse on Estonia’s island of Muhu.

Our hostess, Ingrem Raidjoe, and her husband own the business. The guesthouse accommodates 30 people in summer (many in a detached building with multiple singe beds, in a setting resembling summer camp) and 12 in winter, but only in the main house.

Kuressaare, Estonia

Ingrem Raidjoe, who teaches cooking classes at the Nautse Mihkli guesthouse that she and her husband operate on Muhu island.

Tourists can book rooms, meals and/or cooking classes on line. Ingrem teaches the classes, specializing in ostrich (raised on Muhu) and wild game, meaning red buck (she and her husband hunt).

Lunch was mushroom quiche (way better than I expected), red buck, beet cake and beet ice cream.

Our visit included a folk dance program. Muhu is renowned for the dancing, which resembled square dancing/circle dances/polka. The accompanying accordion music included pieces called polkas.

Kuressaare, Estonia

Muhu women folk dancers showing off both the dances and traditional costumes for which Muhu is noted.

All dancers were women, and they wore costumes that are specifically identified with Muhu. Skirts were bright yellow with vertical stripes of varying colors. Our hosts said that, traditionally, there were more women’s dances because men were so often out to sea.

• Making soap at GoodKaarma, an eco-farm on Saaremaa that makes organic soaps.

Kuressaare, Estonia

The house that accommodates the GoodKaarma soap factory, on the island of Saaremaa.

Co-owners Ea Velsvebel Greenwood and her husband remade an old house to accommodate their factory and themselves with children. She leads the soap-making sessions.

Kuressaare, Estonia

Ea Velsvebel Greenwood leading a soap-making workshop on the island of Saaremaa.

For our group, this involved rebatching, meaning the shaping of new soap bars from the shavings left from making the soaps that GoodKaarma sells. We could add flowers and spices for scents of our choice.

At GoodKaarma, soaps are based on olive, linseed and other oils, but no animal fat, which means the process does not involve stovetop cooking.

Two workshop options are available in the summer, one at six and one at seven euros per adult, bookable through the GoodKaarma Web site.

Our project was easy, and the factory certainly smelled nice!!

• Touring Kuressaare, capital of Saaremaa County, which includes Saaremaa and Muhu islands.

Kuressaare, Estonia

The central square in the town of Kuressaare on the island of Saaremaa. The town’s 17th century weighhouse is the white building at right.

Kuressaare’s architectural centerpiece is a 14th century castle (with 13th century origins) and its water-filled moat.

We also paused in front of a tavern called Veski located inside a windmill — where I had eaten a lunch 21 years earlier! The Saaremaa countryside is noted for windmills.

Saaremaa was a well-established tourist destination by 1900, with a focus on spas — producing the nickname Spa-remaa. Further, our guide said, Saaremaa, a “human-sized place,” is good for hiking, biking and cross-country skiing, but “not for the party animal.”

Kuressaare

An early morning view of Saaremaa’s medieval castle.

Our guide said Saaremaa has one traffic light, installed as a joke.

However, while thinly populated, these islands are very connected. One can access free Wi-Fi almost anywhere in Estonia, including the islands.

• And eating a lot of things made with sea-buckthorn berries. At breakfast, at a Kuressaare B&B called Ekesparre, my smoothie combined carrots, bananas and the berries.

At lunch, after a spa treatment at Kuressaare’s Georg Ots hotel spa, lunch in the hotel’s restaurant ended with a sea-buckthorn sorbet.

Kuressaare, Estonia

Sorbet, made with sea-buckthorn berries, served at the Georg Ots hotel restaurant in Kuressaare on Saaremaa. The yellow orange berries have a knack for thriving where other plants don’t such as in salty coastal areas, including Estonia’s islands.

And, during a grand multicourse dinner at the luxurious Padaste Manor on Muhu island, we had a fish dish topped with a sea-buckthorn sauce and, later, another sea-buckthorn sorbet.

A course of needlefish and carrots, topped with sea-buckthorn sauce, served at the Alexander restaurant in the luxury Padaste Manor on Muhu island.

A course of needlefish and carrots, topped with sea-buckthorn sauce, served at the Alexander restaurant in the luxury Padaste Manor on Muhu island.

The Padaste dinner was served in the former manor house, now the hotel’s main building. The restaurant, called Alexander, emphasizes Nordic cuisine; it has been voted Estonia’s best eatery for three years running.

Kuressaare, Estonia

Robot lawnmower making its way, over and over again, across the lawns at the Padaste Manor on Muhu island.

Aside from the expected luxury features, Padaste Manor amused us with something unique — a robot lawnmower. My room, in the carriage house, overlooked the lawns, where a robot busily mowed the grass endlessly, hence ensuring lawns were always in fine trim. This vision suggested (to me) a very large bug crawling across the ground, and I laughed a lot.

 

 

This article and its photos are by Nadine Godwin, the author of Travia: The Ultimate Book of Travel Trivia, which was published by The Intrepid Traveler.

St. Petersburg: Going to Church

St. Petersburg Churches

St. Petersburg’s Church of Our Savior on the Spilled Blood, seen from Nevsky Prospekt, a few blocks away, and with the city’s plethora of overhead wires on display, as well.

This is the final installment of Nadine Godwin’s series on St. Petersburg. Read her other articles here and here.

ST. PETERSBURG, Russia — The Church of Our Savior on the Spilled Blood is a unique name, but this one also has been called the Church on the Potato because, for a time, the Soviets used it as a warehouse for food.

I visited the mosaic-covered interior of this ornate building during visits to Russian Orthodox churches while on a press trip sponsored by the St. Petersburg Tourism Committee.

We visited three churches, on a Sunday morning as it happened.

Spilled Blood

Spilled Blood, a handy shorthand name for this one, sits on the site, beside Griboyedov Canal, where Tsar Alexander II was mortally wounded by assassins (1881). It was built on that spot and in the style of the 14th to 16th centuries on orders of the dead tsar’s son, Tsar Alexander III. This was a private memorial to Alexander II and not open to the general public.

The church boasts many colorful domes and looks a lot like St. Basil’s in Moscow. We see the domes’ resemblance to onions, but they are meant to imitate candlelight, “symbolizing the light of Christ,” our guide Tanya said.

St. Petersburg Churches

St. Petersburg’s Church of Our Savior on the Spilled Blood, seen at night, when it looks a bit like frosting on a cake.

The mosaics that line interior walls, depicting the life and deeds of Christ, comprise Russia’s largest collection of mosaics (covering more than 75,000 square feet).

St. Petersburg Churches

Samples of the mosaics that cover the walls inside St. Petersburg’s Church of Our Savior on the Spilled Blood.

Further, the floor is marble as is the central iconostasis at the front of the church.

St. Petersburg churches

Decorative marble floor inside St. Petersburg’s Church of Our Savior on the Spilled Blood, roped off for protection from countless visitors.

After using the church as a warehouse, then as a morgue during the Nazis’ siege of Leningrad, the Soviets saw the church’s touristic value and undertook a full restoration, starting in 1970. That took 27 years, longer than the 24 required to build from scratch.

Early on, restorers extracted a live shell, which had hit the church in 1944. The biggest part of the project was cleaning the mosaics, Tanya said, adding that 90% are originals.

The church was consecrated on Aug. 19, 1907, and reopened on Aug. 19, 1997.

This is a very impressive place to visit. What a shame we tourists do so much in a hurry.

Kazan Cathedral

St. Petersburg Churches

Kazan Cathedral in St. Petersburg, which was a museum in Soviet times.

The exterior of Kazan Cathedral, on St. Petersburg’s broad Nevsky Prospekt, is distinguished by its sweeping arc-shaped colonnade.

St. Petersburg Churches

One wing of the arc-shaped colonnade that fronts Kazan Cathedral on St. Petersburg’s Nevsky Prospekt.

Now an active church, it was the Museum of Religion and Atheism for part of the Soviet period.

Given our press group visited on a Sunday, we were strolling in the background during a service.

Tanya said the official rule is that photos are not allowed in any active church, whether a service is under way or not, but the reality depends on how strict the local priest is. I blindly took photos while my camera hung from my neck, then straightened the shots with iPhoto.

This cathedral, built between 1801 and 1811, is a big, heavy-looking building — the opposite of delicate — but with attractive decorative features, just the same.

St. Petersburg churches

Interior of the Kazan Cathedral in St. Petersburg, during a Sunday service.

Inside, the centerpiece for the faithful is an icon of Our Lady of Kazan. We could see worshippers kissing the icon, or “venerating” it, as Tanya said. I figure it was a great way to spread disease. This service was memorable for the chanting.

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St. Petersburg: A Palatial Place

St. Petersburg palaces

A sample of decorative goods made by the Faberge jewelers, in addition to the eggs for which Faberge is best known. These items are on display in the Faberge Museum, which is on St. Petersburg’s Fontanka River Embankment.

ST. PETERSBURG, Russia — It wasn’t intentional, but Russia’s tsars and the aristocracy bequeathed to the public a large assortment of royal residences in and around St. Petersburg.

Some are shoo-ins for the tourist circuit, including summer palaces such as Peterhof and Catherine Palace, discussed in a separate article, and the Winter Palace (part of the Hermitage Museum).

Others are less known, but one emerged from obscurity in 2013 and is sure to be a hit with visitors, not because of the palace (which is gorgeous, BTW), but because it houses the Faberge Museum.

I visited the museum less than a year after its debut while on a press trip sponsored by the St. Petersburg Tourism Committee. Our itinerary took in other former palaces, too.

We even stayed in one, now the Four Seasons Lion Palace St. Petersburg, which debuted as a very upscale apartment house in 1820. (The Four Seasons Website tells us that most city center palaces were apartment houses for the rich.)

As to our sightseeing, the following will appeal to widely varied interests.

Shuvalov Palace

It took seven years to restore the 19th century Shuvalov so it could house the Faberge Museum.

St. Petersburg palaces

Interior of the Shuvalov Palace, which houses the Faberge Museum in St. Petersburg. The famed eggs are in this room, notable for walls covered in blue silk with a silver design and the very ornate gold gilt molding that tops off the room, literally.

The museum, a private operation, was the brainchild of Russian entrepreneur Viktor Vekselberg, whose collection the museum’s displays are based on. His idea is to restore to Russia treasures that were lost to the country during the Soviet period.

Vekselberg began the process by purchasing the late Malcolm Forbes’ collection of Faberge eggs and other items. After Forbes died, his sons had put the package up for auction. That was 2004, and the price tag was $120 million.

More treasures have been added and now there are 4,000 items on display, made by Faberge and other specialists.

St. Petersburg palaces

Examples of the very expensive trinkets commissioned by the upper classes in tsarist Russia. Expert artisans other than Faberge made these items, seen in the Faberge Museum.

The museum has 13 Faberge eggs, nine of which belonged to the tsars, including the first (1885) and the last (1916) egg made for the royal family. Faberge made 50 eggs for the family.

In addition, display goods include icons, jewelry, silver, paintings and a range of other personal and household items indicative of the lifestyle of the rich and connected in tsarist days. The palace itself, with gilt molding, richly colored silk wall coverings and a truly grand entry staircase, is a good indicator, too.

Visitors can rent a book with information about display items to use if touring the museum without a guide. The 150-ruble “rent” (between $4 and $5) is really a deposit and refundable.

Yusupov Palace

Now the property of St. Petersburg’s teachers’ union, this palace won its place in history because the “holy man” Rasputin was murdered here in 1916. The killers were the young Oxford-educated Prince Felix Yusupov and a number of coconspirators who believed Rasputin’s influence over Tsar Nicholas II and his family was dangerous. Yusupov’s wife was the tsar’s niece.

St. Petersburg palaces

The Red Reception Room in the Yusupov Palace, which is located on the Moika River in St. Petersburg.

On our tour, our guide led us into a Yusupov living room to view a diorama of Felix’s conspirators. We then visited a basement diorama with Rasputin at the table and the young Felix standing nearby.

St. Petersburg palaces

Diorama in Yusupov Palace illustrating the Rasputin figure in the basement at the time when he had been eating poison — to no effect.

Rasputin had been lured to the palace believing he would meet Felix’s wife. During the wait for this supposed encounter, Felix fed him poison-laced food, to no avail. Felix later shot him.

We also had a short tour of some rooms used by Felix’s parents. Builders of this 1910 home used interesting building materials. The paneling in the tapestry room is plaster, but it certainly doesn’t look like it.

And, in the palace’s big ballroom, the large chandelier is 32 kilos (70 pounds) of papier-mache while smaller light fixtures are 10 kilos (22 pounds) of papier-mache.

St. Petersburg palaces

The 70-pound papier-mache chandelier in the ballroom at Yusupov Palace.

The palace has a menu of visitor fees covering a variety of experiences, such as a fee for seeing the Rasputin diorama in the basement, another for seeing the younger Yusupovs’ private apartment, etc.

There was a rather stiff photo fee (more than $4), and this was the one place in St. Petersburg where the fee was barely worth it.

 Constantine Palace

I had never heard of this one. Essentially, Constantine Palace — except for its outer walls — is a reconstruction. It is an official state residence and a business center.

St. Petersburg palaces

The entry point for the restored Constantine Palace, located in Strelna, a St. Petersburg suburb on the Gulf of Finland.

It dates from 1720, but has been abandoned for more than half its existence. During World War II, it was reduced to a stone frame. Restoration took 18 months in 2000 and 2001.

Located in a suburb called Strelna, the palace offers a variety of regular tours, except when it is in use for state business.

This is a stately and pristine reconstruction of an 18th century palace, especially on the exterior, with a broad plaza at the front centered with an equestrian statue of Peter the Great.

St. Petersburg palaces

Statue of Peter the Great standing in front of the Constantine Palace. The palace was conceived and construction started while Peter was tsar, but he gave more attention to Peterhof.

Another broad plaza at the back overlooking formal gardens and a system of canals.

St. Petersburg palaces

Grounds of Constantine Palace, with some of its broad exterior staircases in view.

A central canal leads from the palace to a modern meeting pavilion, designed to harmonize with the 18th century style of the main building. The Gulf of Finland is just beyond the pavilion. The canals can be used for boating.

St. Petersburg palaces

The canal at the back of Constantine Palace that stretches to a modern meeting pavilion seen in the distance, with the Gulf of Finland behind it. Formal gardens are at right.

As to the interior, the west side is the president’s side, and the east side is for VIP guests, but there are no bedrooms. There are meeting spaces and event spaces. President Vladimir Putin and all guests stay in 20 new cottages on the grounds, and these are very big cottages!

St. Petersburg palaces

Private space for the Russian president, seen in the Constantine Palace.

Putin always stays in a specific cottage, which is never available to anyone else. The other 19 can be rented when the government isn’t using the property.

There are approximately 17,000 bottles of Hungarian wine in the cellar, a gift from Hungary, but Putin’s drink is beer.

St. Petersburg palaces

A young couple using the Constantine Palace and its grounds as a backdrop for wedding photos.

This article and its photos are by Nadine Godwin, the author of Travia: The Ultimate Book of Travel Trivia, which was published by The Intrepid Traveler.

 

St. Petersburg: The Summer Palace Circuit

St. Petersburg Palaces

The Bird Cage, an aviary pavilion, on the grounds at Peterhof.

ST. PETERSBURG, RUSSIA — The tsars made St. Petersburg their capital for 200 years. As a result, this northern Russian city and its outskirts are, even today, rich with imperial palaces, now repurposed as museums, hotels, government facilities or headquarters for other organizations.

On a recent press trip, the first St. Petersburg has ever hosted for American journalists, I visited several. Our group made the de rigueur visit to the Winter Palace, which is part of the larger Hermitage Museum, but we visited more. [Read more...]

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Gyeongju: Where History Runs Deep

Gyeongju, South Korea

Artwork functioning as guardians for Bulguksa Temple in Gyeongju, South Korea. Artist-created guardians are sometimes paintings, sometimes very colorful statues.

This is the final installment of Nadine Godwin’s series on South Korea. Check out her other articles: Korea: A Temple Sleepover, Seoul: Traditional Architecture, Seoul: With Designs on the Future, and Seoul: Palace Hopping.

GYEONGJU, South Korea — In the eighth century, Gyeongju had a population of one million; today that number hovers around 250,000, or only one quarter as many.

But the city does have a rich collection of UNESCO World Heritage Sites because it was Korea’s capital during the thousand-year rein of the Silla Dynasty. Gyeongju’s importance ended with the dynasty in the 10th century.

My recent press trip, sponsored by the Korea Tourism Organization, included a very short visit to this former capital. I had been here previously, in the 1980s, when the name was spelled Kyong-Ju. Our guide said Korea has been standardizing spellings of place names, hence, the new iteration for the old capital.

During our fly-by sojourn, we squeezed in an unplanned visit to the royal tombs, which I had seen in the 1980s. The specific destination is called the Daereungwon Tomb Complex, part of a UNESCO site. It encompasses 23 royal tomb mounds, out of 155 such tumuli in the city’s downtown.

Gyeongju, South Korea

Grass-covered burial mounds seen in the Daereungwon Tomb Complex in Gyeongju, a former capital of Korea. There are 155 such mounds in the city’s downtown.

The enclosed complex is essentially a pleasant park with paths that take visitors past many of the manmade grass-covered bumps. These tombs are estimated to date from the early fourth century through the sixth century, during Silla days.

We found our way to the best known of them, Cheonmachong Tomb, which displays some of the artifacts found there including an outstanding gold royal crown. Also, one display shows how the tomb was constructed, i.e., with stones and dirt surrounding a wooden room in which the royal body was buried with various treasures.

A sign said no photos were allowed, so I did not take a shot of that golden crown. Our guide said later that we could have taken pictures anyway.

I was glad to revisit the tombs but was not so enchanted by our next UNESCO site — the hillside Seokguram Grotto, site of an eighth century Buddha. It is a manmade granite cave on Mount Tohamsan.

This location meant we had a dramatic mountain drive getting to the destination — and quite a few steep steps to climb upon arrival.

Maybe Seokguram would have made me happier if the site had not been tied up in restoration and protective maintenance work. I do understand such work is necessary.

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Kenya: Taking to the Sky

Sunrise on the Maasai Mara, seen from a hot-air balloon.

Sunrise on the Maasai Mara, seen from a hot-air balloon.

ON THE MAASAI MARA, Kenya — During a recent Kenya trip, I had a few opportunities to do game viewing from the air, in some cases from small aircraft when traveling to and between tent camps and once on a helicopter tour of the Rift Valley just outside of Nairobi.

But the best choice for overflying the animals — for great views of the animals as well as their home turf — was the hot-air balloon ride operated by Kenya-based Balloon Safaris, Ltd.

I was in Kenya with other travel journalists, hosted by the Kenya Tourism Board. This particular excursion started at the Mara Plains tented camp, owned by Great Plains Conservation and located on the Olare Motorogi Conversancy, adjacent to the Maasai Mara National Reserve.

You don’t have to be a daredevil to take a hot-air balloon ride over the Maasai Mara in southwestern Kenya, but this is not for sissies. It’s not for the lazy either.

We were up early enough to depart by around 5 a.m. We needed to be at the launch site, about half an hour away, in time for lift-off before sunrise.

It was chilly being out and about at such an hour, even in June. During the ride to the launch site, we discovered that our four-wheel-drive transport came stocked with nicely lined ponchos. They were a lifesaver for this and other brisk early morning activities.

I can clock the journey by looking at my photographs. I took my first shot at 5:30 a.m. of the balloon on the ground, just being filled with air. The first shot in the sky was at 5:45.

In the intervening 15 minutes, we passed through a short security check then were lifted into the air.

As for takeoff, initially we were sitting down, but in a horizontal position, until the basket could be moved and came upright.

Our pilot revved up a fire to heat the air inside the balloon, which in turn kept the balloon blown up to its full size. This was enough to allow us to rise because the air was much thinner and warmer inside the balloon than the colder air outside.

One of several balloons that shared the skies with our own. The view also highlights the majesty of the Maasai Mara landscape.

One of several balloons that shared the skies with our own. The view also highlights the majesty of the Maasai Mara landscape.

Our pilot/guide was an Australian, Capt. Ellie Kirkman, whose husband, Capt. Milton Kirkman, was piloting another balloon traveling in tandem with us. In fact, there were several balloons in the sky and we could photograph them in all directions.

We had a beautiful sky and could enjoy views of sloping hills, winding tree-lined rivers and some wildlife below.

View of the Maasai Mara landscape as well as giraffes moving away from a floating balloon. A second balloon is visible in the distance.

View of the Maasai Mara landscape as well as giraffes moving away from a floating balloon. A second balloon is visible in the distance.

The biggest grouping was a really large herd of buffalo. We also looked down on lone or small groups of giraffes and zebras. Sometimes, aware of the balloon or balloons in the sky, they skittered away from us, but not in a great frantic rush.

Zebras, sensing a balloon nearby, skitter away.

Zebras, sensing a balloon nearby, skitter away.

The journey lasted 60 minutes — my last airborne photo was at 6:45 — but went very quickly.

We floated relatively close to the ground, it seemed, but, of course, there are no electrical wires or other such impediments on nature preserves to bother us at low levels.

The shadow of our balloon seen against the richly colored Maasai Mara landscape.

The shadow of our balloon seen against the richly colored Maasai Mara landscape.

At its Website, Balloon Safaris, Ltd., lists the cost of the balloon experience at $450 (I took essentially the same trip 10 years ago when, as I recall, that price tag was $300).

Balloon Safaris designates a specific tree where each flight will end and where breakfast will be served to passengers. As we neared our destination, we were amused to watch the balloon in front of us, piloted by our captain’s husband, head in a direction that would take it straight into the designated tree.

Watching a second balloon clear the tree that marks our breakfast site.

Watching a second balloon clear the tree that marks our breakfast site.

He brought the balloon up to clear the tree, leaving enough time then for our captain — his wife — to be first to land. On the ground, he claimed he had really been first in that “race.”

The flight was followed by breakfast in the bush, with seating at a table under the tree that nearly lost its top. The menu included pastries and croissants, yogurt, quiche, sausages, cereal plus hot drinks.

With this, we were primed for a busy day on the ground. After all, the day had barely begun. My timed photos show we were already game viewing by around 8 a.m.

The flight completed, a hot-air balloon deflates on the ground.

The flight completed, a hot-air balloon deflates on the ground.

This article and its photos are by Nadine Godwin, the author of  Travia: The Ultimate Book of Travel Trivia, which was published by The Intrepid Traveler.

Kenya: Wildebeests and Their Cousins

Zebras on the Maasai Mara in southwestern Kenya.

Zebras on the Maasai Mara in southwestern Kenya.

ON THE MAASAI MARA, Kenya — I had known about the Great Migration — the annual movement of herbivores across the grasslands of East Africa — but I did not know that wildebeests imitate their migratory behavior on a regular, less-grand scale.

During a recent morning’s game viewing on the Maasai Mara, another journalist and I saw one example of this, as the animals moved en masse from one grassy plateau to another.

To effect that move, the animals had to cross a gully and the Ntiakitiak River, which — for good reason — they did at a run: There was a crocodile in the river near the wildebeests’ legs, looking for lunch.

Wildebeests run across the Maasai Mara’s Ntiakitiak River to get to the grasses on the next plateau.

Wildebeests run across the Maasai Mara’s Ntiakitiak River to get to the grasses on the next plateau.

The Maasai Mara area (encompassing the Maasai Mara National Reserve and neighboring private conservancies in southwestern Kenya) is famed for its place in the Great Migration.

Broadly speaking, the animals move in a circle, departing from Tanzania’s Serengeti National Park and flooding onto the Maasai Mara plain in mid- and late summer. The return trip to Tanzania, at the end of the year, is more gradual.

In my book, Travia: The Ultimate Book of Travel Trivia, I reported that an estimated 3 million to 3.5 million animals make the move, about half of them wildebeests. The line of wildebeests, zebras, gazelles, the predators that live on them and others can stretch across the landscape for 25 miles at the height of the relocation.

At the time of my recent sightings, I was part of a press group hosted by the Kenya Tourism Board. Our group spent a significant portion of our time on the Maasai Mara National Reserve and in the adjacent conservancies.

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Zebras on the Maasai Mara in southwestern Kenya.

Thomson’s gazelles breakfasting under bright early morning light, on the Maasai Mara.

Thomson’s gazelles breakfasting under bright early morning light, on the Maasai Mara.

When we visited the Maasai Mara, most of these animals had just returned to Kenya.

We were thrilled to see what I call a mini-migration, during which thousands of wildebeests moved a fairly short distance, but en masse. They were seeking grass, which is the motivator for the Great Migration, too.
Duncan, our driver/guide, said wildebeests regularly move together in large numbers because they have a tendency to behave like lemmings.

He said, “Once one decides to do it, others follow.” We saw the animals lined up beyond our horizon. Some of them ran just to join the line — or maybe jump the line.

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Korea: A Temple Sleepover

The twin Buddhas for which Daebiro Hall at Haeinsa is famous. These are described as the world’s oldest wooden Buddhas (covered in gold, obviously).

The twin Buddhas for which Daebiro Hall at Haeinsa is famous. These are described as the world’s oldest wooden Buddhas (covered in gold, obviously).

HAPCHEON COUNTY, South Korea — Haeinsa is a Buddhist temple in the mountains of Hapcheon County south of Seoul. Dating from the ninth century, it is one of 16 Korean Buddhist temples where tourists can stay overnight for one or a few nights and experience aspects of a monk’s life.

Haeinsa is different from all others, however, because it houses the Tripitaka Koreana, the world’s most complete collection of Buddhist writings, carved on 81,258 wooden blocks nearly 800 years ago.

Fabulous characters painted on the ceiling inside the main hall of worship at Haeinsa Buddhist temple.

Fabulous characters painted on the ceiling inside the main hall of worship at Haeinsa Buddhist temple.

I sampled the temple life for one night and glimpsed some of the Tripitaka wooden blocks while on a press trip hosted by the Korea Tourism Organization with support from the Cultural Corps of Korean Buddhism.

To reach Haeinsa, we traveled by coach about five hours from Seoul, mostly on expressways, taking breaks twice at large, modern rest stops with some amusing features.

For one thing, each had a machine that for a dollar or two would read your fortune if you put your hand inside the designated opening.

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In one bathroom, there was a device called the etiquette bell: Push a button and you

Toilet for tots, seen at a highway rest stop in Korea.

Toilet for tots, seen at a highway rest stop in Korea.

get the sound of flushing to drown out other sounds. Further, one ladies room set aside a space for primping that smacked of a bordello. And the stall for tiny tots looked like a play area.

 Sleeping over

Now, about the temple stay — this was an enlightening experience, but it isn’t for everyone. It helps to have an interest in Buddhism and in the promise of meditation. Otherwise, the experience may be something of a grind.

On the afternoon of our arrival, our Haeinsa host, a monk called Do Moo Zee (meaning Just Don’t Know) gave us instructions on temple manners, meditation and prostration routines.

Do Moo Zee leads the way through one of several gates at Haeinsa.

Do Moo Zee leads the way through one of several gates at Haeinsa.

Manners meant bowing in certain circumstances and no talking during meals in the common dining room. It often meant no indoor photos.

As for meditation, we were told we would be whacked with a bamboo stick (it looked like a yardstick) if we fell asleep during meditations. Do Moo Zee demonstrated on one guest who said it felt like the whack one may get during massages. We were urged to smile slightly during meditation, as this is not meant to be a grim business; it’s meant to be the route to enlightenment.

Prostration, starting from a standing position, involved going to a kneeling stance and then prostration, then standing up again, multiple times. I figure we did about 90 of those by the end of our visit the next morning. We attended evening and morning services.

That morning service occurred at 3:30, which meant a wake-up knock on the door at 3 a.m. after sleeping on thin mats on the floor (blessedly heated from below).

My bet is this was a cut above monks’ housing arrangements, but our food was the same and somewhere between tasteless and inedible. To our great amusement, we found a notice posted in our shared sleeping rooms saying comments on the food were “highly discouraged.”

Navigating this temple, which sits on a mountain, also involved a lot of steps, but this is not true of all temples where overnight guests are welcomed.

These points may make a temple stay sound unattractive, but these are things one should know before committing to the experience.

The brightly painted Daebiro Hall on the grounds at Haeinsa.

The brightly painted Daebiro Hall on the grounds at Haeinsa.

On the other hand, our very short visit included serious time for meditation plus group conversations with Do Moo Zee, where we could ask about Buddhism in Korea, temple life — and even his personal life. For those who stay more than one night, only the first day involves the described rigors; after that, guests decide how rigorous to be.

A Haeinsa monk, using a very large hanging drum, calls fellow Buddhists to an evening service.

A Haeinsa monk, using a very large hanging drum, calls fellow Buddhists to an evening service.

There were amusing surprises. Haeinsa monks use a huge drum to call others to services. One monk, wielding a very

A Haeinsa monk films another who uses a drum to call fellow Buddhists to an evening service.

A Haeinsa monk films another who uses a drum to call fellow Buddhists to an evening service.

with-it tablet, filmed the drumming session that our group witnessed. This was for training purposes, we were told. Pounding that drum wasn’t easy and required five monks working in rotation.

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