Hallstatt: Unveiling Austria’s Beauty

I knew I would go to Hallstatt before I embarked on my trip to Europe. What was a business trip had a clause in it: YOU MUST VISIT HALLSTATT. My former co-worker had mentioned this little village that was a few hours from Salzburg, Austria. She told me of its picturesque view, how small it was, and yet how you could literally spend your whole day there without noticing the day go by because of its unique beauty. She told me that if I got the chance, I should visit it. This became the one place I most wanted to see as I prepared for my trip. And so, I embarked on my journey, which would become one of the most memorable during my stay in Austria.

I chose to take a two hour long bus ride to Hallstatt after asking locals in Salzburg which method of commute would be better between a car, a train, or a bus. Because the city was small, I had planned to sight-see for two hours, and head back to Salzburg before it got dark. The small villages along the way were beyond beautiful. The scenic backdrops at almost all the stops were just breathtaking. Considering I have lived most of my life in Florida and Texas (both beautiful places in their own right), there was nothing quite as beautiful as what I saw on my way to Hallstatt. I wondered how Hallstatt could top what I was seeing on the way there.

Finally, the bus arrived in Hallstatt. When I stepped out, the view was better than expected and exactly what my co-worker had told me: mountains, a big lake, houses on the lake banks, with the whole town on one side of the lake. Traveling with me were five Greeks. We exchanged pleasantries and spent the rest of the time in Hallstatt together. We explored the small town and took several pictures.  After walking for about 30 minutes, we had basically seen it all, except for salt mines and a church, both of which have historical importance. Hunger was calling so we went to a nearby restaurant. The food was great. I tried the Viennese beef and local beer. I also tried the omelette dessert. I was not a huge fan of it but I continued my trend of “stepping out of my box” and experiencing something different.

I captured an interesting picture of what seemed to be a kid being pulled by his relative in some sort of trolley. First time seeing that, and for some reason it seemed to exude the uniqueness that I felt and found in Hallstatt.

After more than four hours in the city, we headed back to the bus stop. Four hours just flew by us in no time, and my coworker’s words came to mind “you could literally spend your whole day in Hallstatt without noticing the day go by.” In truth, you could get to see everything in this town/village in two hours. But in our case, since we were not able to visit the two most important tourist sites, we could have walked through the whole city in an hour. Yet, my time in Hallstatt felt too short. I wanted to stay longer. There is a sense of calm and serenity that is not otherwise commonly seen.

We got to the bus stop at approximately 6p.m. and just sat and talked. Greeks are some of the world’s friendliest people; my firsthand account being from spending time with the Greeks I met. Time was slowly passing us by and before we knew it, it was almost 6:45 p.m. We got concerned because the last bus to Salzburg was scheduled to arrive at 6:30 p.m. It was now 15 minutes overdue and there were no buses in sight. We asked some locals about the bus schedule to Salzburg, but they had no idea. After a while, we realized the bus was not coming.  Seeking a way back, we tracked down some Japanese tourists who traveled to Hallstatt in their own bus. They were heading to Salzburg. We figured we could catch a ride back with them, but they refused because they did not want to be liable in case their bus had an accident.

We found ourselves in a dire situation: collectively we had a total of 10 euros left and the possibility of having to spend the night in Hallstatt was becoming increasingly likely. On one hand, I wanted to spend more time in the town/village, but on the other hand, I could not afford it financially. We lately on found a police officer and explained our predicament. Things only got worse for us when he mentioned that we had to be in the next town called Bad Ischl, which was 15 kilometers away, no later than 7:25 p.m to catch the last bus heading back to Salzburg. If we did not get there in time to catch the bus, we would be stuck in that town till the next day.  The police officer offered to take us in his car to Bad Ischl, but it could only fit two people. He went out of his way to call a taxi driver who drove one of only three vans in the town.  Let me say this: the ride was fast and furious. We got to Bad Ischl just in time as the bus was beginning to take off for Salzburg.

As we rode back, we watched the sun set and we each relived our short but memorable visit to Hallstatt and the events that left the six of us with memories we will hold on to forever. For if we never visit Hallstatt again, we six know that for as long as we live, we were there together.

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Preface to my Travels

So before I continue sharing my travel experiences, let me preface this by saying I traveled to Europe for five weeks. This was by far the best cultural enriching experience I have had to date. My trip served a business purpose as much as personal, so I planned ahead by collecting information of must-see places to visit from friends who once lived in Europe, those who still live there, and others who have traveled there before.  And when the time came, I packed my bags (light packing), paid my bills for as long as I would be gone, and said hello to my transatlantic adventure.

I will continue to share most of my travel experiences and highlight key places you may want to visit in Europe. If you have a question on any of the places I have been to, comment to the particular post or shoot me an email and I will respond as best I can.

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Gent, Belgium: All to Ourselves

Leaving Brugge on the way back to Brussels, my friend and I stopped at Gent, which is a 30 minute train ride from Brugge.  We got there after 5 p.m. and everything was closed—museums, castles, churches— so it gave us the rare opportunity to enjoy much of the medieval architecture and soak up every detail of the churches, the lone castle, and all else Gent had to offer.

We got to the front gates of the castle and took a few pictures. It was the first “true” castle I had seen in Belgium and Europe. The structure was quite huge, but while disappointed because it was closed, I knew I would have many more opportunities to see others. The churches were astonishing: the architectural detail and commanding heights, yet there was continued construction being done. Most of these churches are dated and appear to need restoration services to ensure that they are preserved for future generations.

While I cannot tell you what areas to visit as I was not able to enter any museums or churches, I would suggest visiting Gent to at least enjoy a different feeling from Brugge and Brussels.  For the little time we spent there, it was well worth it.

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Brugge: A Misty Day

Brugge is a medieval city in northern Belgium, in the Flemish section of the country. I consider it Europe’s hidden medieval gem, if ancient history/architecture peaks your interest. Dutch is the main language spoken, although French is also regularly spoken as well as English. After watching the movie ‘In Bruges’ following prompting from my cousin and a former co-worker, I made Brugge a must see place on my recent trip to Europe earlier this year.

After getting to Brussels from London, I took the one hour train ride to Brugge.  Traveling with a friend, we decided to not buy train tickets in hopes that we could catch a free ride and save money. We were wrong. A ticket controller made his way onto the train and straightaway asked for our train tickets. We played “dumb” and spoke exclusively in English. Normally you can be charged heavy fines for trying to free-ride if caught but we took the next option of buying tickets on the train and quickly did so. Slightly expensive than what they would have been had we bought them prior to boarding, but I’ll take buying a pricier ticket over heavy fines any day. Lesson Learned.

The weather in Europe during the month of April can be very unpredictable. On this day, there was a misty rain.  We got to Brugge and the rain welcomed me in for much of the first hour. Visiting Brugge, there are many ‘must sees’. The Belfry is the first.  It is a tall structure that catches your eye from anywhere outside the city center. If you are brave enough to climb to the top- after paying eight euros- you will get a chance to listen to the fantastic bell ringing display as well as the opportunity to get a panoramic view of the city. Breathtaking.

The Beguinage is the second.  This area housed nuns in the yesteryears of Brugge’s history. The area looks serene today, with its white buildings and numerous trees and tulips. It reminds me of my days as a college student in Bishop Rogan minor seminary. The next must-see sight is Heilig Bloedbasiliek (Basilica of the Holy Blood).  This is a catholic church that is said to house a relic of the blood of Christ. I got a chance to hold this relic, and was deeply compelled in part because of my catholic roots. Following this church visit, we visited the Church of Our Lady. This church contains a Madonna and Child sculpture by Michelangelo. It is said to be Michelangelo’s only work to have left Italy in his lifetime. All the churches were incredibly beautiful, ordained with gold, ornaments, and sculptures. If nothing else, anyone who appreciates architecture will really love Brugge.

Chocolate and beer are synonymous with Belgium, so we tried some of both. The Belgians are very creative with their chocolates, and Brugge did not disappoint. From breast sculpted chocolates to a Barack Obama sculpted chocolate, it was absorbing walking down the streets looking at different chocolate designs in stores.

Getting food was something we felt would be the easiest of everything in the day. Instead, it turned out to be the longest experience. One hour, this is. In Brugge, there is no concept of forming a line, or knowing what you are going to order before it’s your turn, or placing that order in a timely manner. Instead, what you have is a melee. After waiting an hour at the restaurant ironically named Quick Burger, we finally got our food, which turned out to be garbage.  On our way back to Brussels that night, we bought crepes- a Belgium delectable- and beer, both of which made up for the horrible burger joint experience. Though brief, that was my experience in Brugge.

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The French Open Strikes Again!

Let’s go back to 1984. A young left-handed American player named John McEnroe took the ATP tour by storm. He would embark on a journey not seen in the Open Era and run off 42 consecutive victories en route to the French Open final.

A 43rd straight victory seemed inevitable given McEnroe was up two sets and a break in the third set against a formidable opponent, Ivan Lendl. In usual McEnroe fashion, he threw a temper tantrum after hearing the click of a camera in the stadium stands. He would lash out at the photographer, and eventually proceed to lose the match in five sets. Truth is in my watching this old match last year, Lendl made some tactical adjustments that included using heavy topspin and hitting the ball cross court to McEnroe’s backhand. A one-handed backhand almost always proves ineffective against heavy topspin. All these factors brought an end to McEnroe’s spectacular run. McEnroe ended up finishing the 1984 season a remarkable 82-3. That record still stands to this day.

Fast-forward to 2011. Novak Djokovic started the season with confidence he could win the Australian Open. Rafael Nadal on the other hand had the spotlight on him as he was trying to become the first man to hold all four majors (Australian Open, French Open, Wimbledon, US Open) at the same time, having won the French,Wimbledon, and US Open titles in 2010. Roger Federer flew under the radar with fans and critics speaking of his decline.

Nadal would go on to lose in the quarterfinals; Federer would go on to lose to Djokovic in the semi-finals; and Djokovic would go on to dismantle Andy Murray in straight sets in the finals. This run will become one that will always be remembered in tennis history. He would go on to defeat Federer three more times, and defeat Nadal in four finals, the latter two on clay. Going into the 2011 French Open, he needed to win the title to surpass Guillermo Vilas’ modern era record of 46 consecutive victories. Reaching the semi-final of the French Open meant Djokovic would surpass McEnroe’s record of 42 consecutive victories to start a season.

Djokovic was predicted to win the French Open over defending champion, Rafael Nadal. With Nadal being taken to his first ever five set match in the first round at the French Open by the big serving American John Isner and narrowly escaping a major upset, this reinforced why Djokovic was tapped to win the tournament. Djokovic on the other hand continued to maintain his incredible form. With each victory by Djokovic, McEnroe’s record steadily became one victory away from being replaced.

Then came the quarter-finals, which would allow Djokovic to tie McEnroe’s record. His opponent quit the day before the match secondary to injury. As fate would have it, Djokovic would get an extra day of play off, thereby needing to beat his semi-final opponent to tie McEnroe’s record. Meanwhile, Roger Federer was still flying under the radar. Until the semi-finals, Federer was the only player who had not dropped a set at the tournament. Still, no one talked about him being a potential champion. Additionally, given the fact that Roger had lost his previous three contests against Djokovic, nobody gave him a shot at beating Djokovic.

What would follow was a match considered one of the best in French Open history. Back and forth both players went, playing at their best. Federer was up two sets. The crowd was stunned but very supportive of Federer.

Djokovic fought back in the third set, eventually breaking Federer and taking the set. To the fourth set they went, and with darkness setting in over Stade Roland Garros, they played a tiebreak. Fittingly, Federer won the game with an ace. After 27 years, the French Open struck!! Federer held his right index finger high in the air as if to say “I am still the best.” For Djokovic, his chance at history was gone. McEnroe’s record would live in the history books for yet another year.

Federer would eventually lose the final to Nadal in four sets, but this year’s French Open was all about Novak Djokovic and his chance at making history by breaking John McEnroe’s record of 42 consecutive victories to start a season. There is something magical about the red dirt of Roland Garros. The irony is that the world was about to witness history while at the same time write off an all-time great from memory. We watched Federer show us why he is still a force to be reckoned with, and for Djokovic, as valiant as his effort was in trying to match and surpass McEnroe’s record, he will have a chance to begin a new streak of consecutive wins to start a season next year. In the meantime, Djokovic will start working on a new streak once Wimbledon comes along.

Disclaimer: No copyright infringement is intended. I don’t own any pictures in article.

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Another French Open Disappointment for Maria Sharapova

Maria Sharapova, former tennis world no. 1 and a 3-time Grand Slam Champion, sought her maiden French Open title in 2011. The Russian tennis star, who combined a powerful serve with a strong two handed backhand, and a good forehand en route to 2004 Wimbledon, 2006 US Open, and 2008 Australian Open was looking to overcome injuries that have derailed her career the last few years. Maria was sidelined with a right shoulder injury that required extensive surgical repair. Upon return from that injury, her serve had departed her, the number of double faults increased, and some wondered whether or not she would reach the pinnacle of tennis again.

This year, Sharapova played like her former self, winning titles, and competing deeper into tournaments. This French Open, she loomed as a dark horse, with Kim Clijsters and defending champion Francesca Schiavone being overwhelming favorites. The number 1 seed Wozniacki was upset, as was the number 2 seed Kim Clijsters. That left Sharapova’s path to the French Open final wide open.

Beating China’s Li Na was going to be challenging, but nothing Maria could not overcome. However, on this day, Li Na had other plans. She combined spectacular strokes off both wings- backhand & forehand- to pull off what would be deemed an upset despite having a higher ranking than Sharapova.  Looking at the stat sheet, those double faults Sharapova had much of last year crept into this game, and she could never really find her footing.  Li Na did a good job on defense and mixing it up.                       

                         

Just when it looked like Sharapova would finally break through at the red clay of Roland Garros, the opportunity was shut down by an opponent who was better.  So Sharapova is left to wait another year to complete the career slam. With some tweaks in her serve, she should be able to eventually win a French Open title.

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UN SECURITY COUNCIL RESOLUTION 1973—LIBYA

UN Resolution 1973 demands: an immediate cease-fire,  gives the international community the power to protect civilians by all means necessary primarily through enforcing a no-fly zone over Libya’s airspace. It does not explicitly call for the overthrow of Gaddaffi or give room for a regime change through the use of force in Libya, though tacitly, a regime change is what Western Powers would really like.

The Resolution does not allow the international community to choose sides between the government and the rebels. It was strictly aimed at protecting civilians in a country who were most certainly going to come under the assault of Gaddaffi’s military power. The initial phases of the military intervention have largely achieved those goals. Gaddaffi’s air force is virtually obsolete, and the rebels who had lost all the territory they gained in the initial phase of the protest and subsequent fight towards their march to Tripoli, Libya’s capital, have gained most of the land lost under air cover from allied forces.

Publicly, the international community maintains them rightfully enforcing UN Resolution 1973. The main threat was the people in Benghazi who were threatened by Gaddaffi’s forces. A personal disclaimer: I don’t condone what Gaddaffi may or may not have done to his citizens. With that said, those citizens from Benghazi had looted weapons storage facilities, had some defections from the military ranks of Gaddaffi’s army, and where fighting against the government and it’s institutions. Gaddaffi’s regime retaliated and captured all land lost, ultimately ending with the standoff in Benghazi. This situation in Libya is murkier than it seems.

The international community maintains it is impartial, but has pummeled Gaddaffi’s army from the air, while allowing the rebels to regain most of the territories they lost. This seems sinister. A cease-fire would have meant attacking Gaddaffi’s forces that made the assault on Benghazi, and ensuring Benghazi was safe and the fighting “ceased” in that region. Now we find that the air strikes have moved beyond that, all in the name of protecting civilians. This has become a civil war if it isn’t already. The international community is openly choosing sides, even though they don’t publicly acknowledge that. Gaddaffi’s hometown has been bombed the last few days even though there has been no fighting going on there. Why would they take such action? The international community has overstepped its boundaries as mandated by the UN resolution. All the fighting should have started and ended in the Benghazi area. Simply put, there is more to this that warrants more explaining, hence Barack Obama’s address to the nation and international community.

Barack’s speech was good on style, but very short on substance. What happens in a post Gaddaffi Libya? Who is paying the bill for the war and reconstruction costs? What really is the mission? If it was to protect civilians, why is Gaddaffi’s hometown being bombed? Who are these rebels? After all, Barack mentioned in the speech Monday March 28th 2011 that one of the reasons for the intervention was the fact that the rebels called for the help of the international community. So let’s make sense out of this. The rebels whom we still know nothing about-besides the fact that there was a large flow of foreign fighters into Iraq coming predominantly from Benghazi and surrounding cities at the height of the insurgency-asked for international help and the international community just went in to help them? Wow…There are Bahrainians who have asked for help. Where is the international community? But remaining on topic, we have helped avert a potentially really dire situation in Benghazi by destroying Gaddaffi’s forces that encircled that city.

Again the UN resolution asks for the protection of civilians. So, it begs the question, which civilians? The civilians from the rebel control Benghazi? Or the civilians of Libya? As we are well aware, on the first night of the assault on Libya, the U.S. fired over 100 cruise missiles into Libya, specifically in the heavily populated capital of Tripoli. We are obviously led to believe that those missiles hit all the targets it intended to hit and there were no civilian casualties. That may all be true except we know that there is always collateral damage when one fights wars, especially from the air. Additionally, what about those civilians who are genuinely in support of Gaddaffi? Does the UN Security Council resolution make a distinction between those civilians and the rebels?

Secondly, if the mandate calls for protecting civilians, why is the U.S. considering arming the rebels directly or indirectly? Do they not think that these rebels will kill a civilian population that sympathizes with Gaddaffi? Yet the U.S. and her allies state that they are neutral in this conflict. They are concerned about a humanitarian crisis, yet this is the same U.N. body that gave Libya a seat on the U.N. human rights council until 2013. The United Nations lost credibility a long time ago on certain global issues, chiefly security and peace issues.

Back to President Barack Obama. There is just some sort of aloofness when it comes to foreign affairs. Maybe that is me just being harsh on the president, but he doesn’t seem to have total control of the situation. He gave an assessment of the picture right now in Libya, mentioning Gaddaffi must go, but refusing to use military force to achieve a regime change, leaving it up to the political process. The worst thing that could happen from this ill-advised military venture- albeit the good but sinister moral intentions behind the whole issue- is Gaddaffi staying in power in some capacity. Barack mentioned they averted a massacre, by protecting the civilians of Benghazi. With the bombings in Gaddaffi’s hometown, we definitely have overstepped the UN resolution mandate. We are choosing sides, and attacking civilians in that city. Oh, that’s right these are not civilians from Benghazi. Pro-Gaddaffi civilians can be killed by the coalition forces, but the civilians from Benghazi are protected. We can say not all civilians are equal. Yet there is “no proof” of civilian casualties from U.S. missiles and bombs per U.S. administration officials.

The President did not mention how much the war is costing us, but mentioned instead that in a day, the whole operation will be handed off to NATO. But wait a minute, is that some sort of achievement? Barack Obama, get a grip. We are not stupid. Isn’t the U.S. part of NATO? Does NATO, or better yet can NATO function without the U.S.? No, period. So don’t try selling that we are handing this over to NATO. Tell the American people how much it costs, and when we will be leaving there. They said the operation would take days and weeks, rather than months. Now they are talking about at least 3 months, with some officials saying they don’t know when it will end. This open-ended resolution does not allow for an early end to the intervention, which frankly worries me as it should most people. In the end, this will only be resolved politically. In the meantime, we continue to support the rebels as they march towards Tripoli to forcefully remove Gaddaffi from power. The only hope is that it works out for all parties involved.

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