Valentine’s Day was a special day when I was in third grade. My teacher would put the names of everyone on my class into a jar, shake it up, pass it around, and everyone would draw a name. That person would be my “best friend” i.e. “valentine” for the rest of that day. In later grades, students exchanged homemade valentines.

But I never really understood where that idea came from. So today, I decided to find out. Valentine was a Christian priest in third-century Rome who evidently had a romantic streak. The Emperor, Claudius II forbade Roman soldiers to marry because he thought that they would prefer to stay at home with their families rather than fight in his foreign wars. Valentine secretly married couples, defying the order.  The Emperor found out and he was imprisoned and eventually put to death on February 14, 269 A.D. After Rome became Christianized, Valentine was made a saint and his day was observed every year as St. Valentine’s Day.

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Photo Credit: History.com

This holiday probably replaced the pagan Roman festival of fertility called Lupercalia. Lupercus was the god of shepherds and his priests wore goatskins. During the festival, those “romantics” were drunk and many ran around naked. The men sacrificed a goat and a dog, then whipped women with the hides of the animals they had just slain. Even so, young women reportedly lined up for the men to hit them, believing this would make them fertile. The brutal event included a matchmaking lottery, in which young men drew the names of women from a jar. They were “coupled” for the remainder of the festival—and longer, if the woman could put up with the beast!

When the festival was changed to St. Valentine’s day, men’s raucous behavior tamed down considerably. The names of Roman girls were written on slips of paper, put into jars, and drawn by young men. Those girls would then be then man’s sweetheart for the year. That process was not all that different from modern times.

 

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Gunter and I first landed on Turkey’s shores in the summer of 2007. We confidently left Pacific Bliss “on the hard” in Marmaris Yacht Marina. The following spring, we returned to Turkey for the final leg of our sailing circumnavigation. While touring Istanbul, I was surprised to learn that tulips and St. Nick both originated in that country.

That spring, Istanbul was alive and glowing, in a festive mood. The city was celebrating its annual tulip festival, and colorful blooms were everywhere. Istanbul, with its bridges across the Bosporus Strait, straddles the two continents of Europe and Asia. After enjoying the city for two days, my husband Gunter and I took a ferry trip to view the city from the river. It was a sun-splashed Sunday. We spent hours relaxing and chatting about Turkey’s past and its hopes for the future. Much of the conversation centered around the peoples’ love and respect for Atatürk, a charismatic leader, military genius, and celebrated reformer who modernized Turkey. “He made Turkey a secular country,” our said proudly.  “As a result, Turkey will never be like the other Muslim countries; in fact, we look forward to joining the EU.” The future for Turkey looked as rosy as those tulips fronting every landmark from the Blue Mosque to the Aya Sofya.

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We ordered coffees, and while we waited for them, our guide changed to another topic, the legend of St. Nick. “Did you know he came from Turkey?”

“I had no idea!” I replied. “I thought the Saint might have come from Russia. Our own legend is that he and his elves and reindeer live at the North Pole.”

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“I know your popular image is of the big belly, the white beard, and his reindeer, but that depiction came from your Coca-Cola ads in the 1930s.  Here’s the real story: Centuries before the Ottoman Empire, St. Nick got his start as a fourth-century bishop in what is now Turkey. He was born a rich man’s son, but he took his inheritance and gave it to the poor, supposedly dropped down chimneys. Poor people in Turkey are very proud; they would not have accepted gifts if he had just handed them to him.”

We all take a sip of our Turkish coffees while we listen intently. “Mainly, St. Nicolas helped the children and gave them gifts.”

“Where in Turkey did he come from?” Gunter asked.

“There is a statue of him with children in Demre, a town in Southern Turkey, and the old Byzantine Church of St. Nicholas is there.  Lots of Russians go there, but it’s not big on tourism.”

Reportedly, the Islamist government of President Erdogan has worked hard to promote the country’s Ottoman history, but he has repeatedly ignored Turkey’s rightful place in Christian history. I don’t expect the current government to promote the St. Nicholas story.

This Christmas of 2016, I look back on that Turkish Spring of eight years ago. And I fear for Turkey’s future. Turkey is overwhelmed with problems—frequent terror attacks, huge populations of Syrian refugees, and mass arrests and incarcerations after a failed coup. All this makes the country dangerous and drives tourists away. I don’t know whether I’ll ever visit Turkey again, but the country and its people will always hold a special place in my heart.

A very merry Christmas to you and yours!

 

Blog 3, Danube series.

The Wachau, Die Wachau, is an area of Austria you don’t want to miss. This part of the Danube is only 30 kilometers (19 miles) long, but it’s a historic and epicurean microcosm of Austria. Centuries of stone terracing enclose vineyards framed by the Melk and Gottweig Monasteries. Gunter and I—along with my sister Loretta, her husband John—disembarked at Krems and took a bus tour to Melk. Our tour group walked partway on a path along the Danube, where we experienced spectacular views of vineyards clinging to riverside hills and sprawling into lush valleys.

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The Benedictine Abbey Stift Melk, a UNESCO world heritage site that sits like a fortress on a high cliff, guards the western entrance of the Wachau region. Abbot Berthold Dietmayr began the construction the famous, baroque building during the 18th century. It took more than 30 years to build. A mighty church towers over numerous buildings and seven courtyards. It was quite the walk through the campus! And from the heights, the view of the countryside was stunning.

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In Melk, a monk looks out of each window

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As a writer, I was most impressed by the library, containing 100,000 volumes. The book bindings were designed to match the library decor. Because photos were not allowed, the following photo was “lifted” from the souvenir book, Die Wachau. More photos of Die Wachau can be viewed on Gerd Krauskopf’s photo gallery. 

Back on the ms/Ariana, we learned that two rivers, the Melk and Pielach, flow into the Danube at the foot of the cliff on which the Abbey is built. Archeological finds from the Stone, Bronze, and Iron Ages indicate that this site was a popular settlement choice. Later, the Romans built a small fort and lookout post that was probably set up where the bridge now crosses the Danube. Eventually, Slavic peasants from the East and South settled the area up to the mouth of the Enns River. The Slavic name Melk, meaning a “slow-moving stream,” comes from this time. In 1089 the monks arrived in Melk and since then, they have lived and worked in Melk without interruption. Melk is inseparably joined with the beginnings of Austria as a nation. Next stop: Vienna!

Blog 2, Danube series.

From its source, the Danube flows past the ancient kingdoms of Swabia and Franconia and the contemporary German towns of Ulm and Neuburg. But it is not until Regensburg that the river becomes Bavarian. Founded as a Roman garrison town, Regensburg was unscathed from wartime bombing, so its medieval art remains intact. The city’s primary landmark is the Steinerne Brucke, a marvelous stone bridge with fifteen arches that become higher and wider at the center, giving it a distinctive middle hump. I have visited Regensburg during other trips and never cease to be amazed.  On this trip, though, we joined the msAriana at Passau, one of the most visited cities in all of Germany.

Passau has been called the Venice of Bavaria, or the Drei-Fluss-Stadt, three rivers town. Dominated by rivers, Old Town is built on a peninsula whose end marks the confluence of the Danube with the Inn. A smaller tributary, the Ilz, emerges from a gorge to the north topped by two picture-perfect castles, complete with turrets and all. From a high vantage point, one can discern the rivers by their colors: The Ilz is black, the Danube is blue-brown, and the Inn is silver-gray.

I loved the pastel colors of houses lining the riverbank—pale yellow, russet brown, amber, and lime-green—meeting the baby-blue sky above. From the river banks, we climbed through a maze of narrow streets to reach the cream-colored St. Stephens Cathedral. What a treat! No wonder Napoleon said that in all of Germany, he never saw a town so beautiful. 

Celtics established and fortified their settlement on the Passau peninsula in 500 BC, trading salt up and down the Danube and Inn rivers. Romans replaced the fort with a camp in the first century AD. In the Christian era, the city was reborn and eventually became a prince-bishopric with its ecclesiastical rulers ruling along the Danube as far as Vienna. Passau became rich through trading flint, ceramics, wine, and grain. Products were offloaded at Passau and sent via pack animals far into Bohemia. Back the other way came hops, malts, spirits, animal hides and wool. Merchants made sure that their Rathaus (town hall) was one of the most splendid civic buildings along the Danube.

After touring Passau on our own and ending with coffee in one of the many riverside cafes, we boarded the svAriana for our cruise down the Danube. The top deck provided a view for miles.

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Fifteen miles downstream from Passau, the Danube becomes a wholly Austrian river; however, four centuries before Charlemagne’s rule, the river was the boundary of the crumbling Roman Empire. Craggy granite heights above riverside towns were used by the Romans for forts and lookout stations. Now those fortresses hang onto bluffs, and hide behind breaks in the forests, abandoned to the ravages of nature. I imagine that each of these castles has a story to tell. We do know that some rose again as medieval castles, and later, others were turned into restaurants-with-a-view.

In no time, we were about to enter the first set of locks. I was amazed to see how close the ship came to the edge of the locks—not much over one foot! All these locks along the rivers differentiate a European river cruise from an ocean cruise. The Danube has most of them, a total of 19 locks; most of them (15) are between Regensburg and Vienna; one is between Bratislava and Budapest; and two are at the Iron Gates between Budapest and Bucharest. And finally, the last one is at Cernavoda, close to the delta.

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Dikes have been built to prevent floods along the Danube ever since the 16th century. Only about a fifth of the floodplains that lay along the Danube in the 19th century remain. Now, the Danube itself is regulated along over 80% of its length. Around 60% of the yearly electricity generation within the Danube River Basin in Austria originates from hydropower. After svAriana had passed through the locks to the other side, we viewed vast swaths of generation stations.

Europe is the birthplace of the bicycle and cycling culture runs deep. And the Austrian Danube is most likely the most famous cycle route in all of Europe. As we sailed downstream, we saw bicyclists on the banks cycling downstream. Most start their bike tour near Passau and end in Vienna; however, some continue to Bratislava, Slovakia, only 35 miles away down the river. The route is easy for beginners: There are few hills, and most of the ride is on paved paths that follow the river as it passes through the Eastern European countryside. One 13-day, 526-mile ride (named by National Geographic Traveler as one of the “50 Tours of a Lifetime”) from Experience Plus begins in Germany and winds past „impressive Bavarian monasteries, verdant Austrian vineyards, and pristine Hungarian villages before ending in the imperial gem that is Budapest.“ Melanie, because I began this blog on a German typewriter while staying at my step-daughter’s home in Germany, now Word does not allow me to fix the quotes. If you can, fine; if not, just type the preceding sentence over or reword so that it is not a quote. Thanks. Another travel company, AmaWaterways, offers a cruise combined with cycling stops. To some, cycling is a welcome change from the usual cruise-excursion voyage, but I prefer riverboating combined with bus and walking tours.

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During one of these walking tours (in the pedestrian lane of the bike path), our guide described past use of these trails. The bike route follows former bridle paths that run along the river from Passau to Vienna. But before that, commercial ships were pulled upstream by teams of horses.  And before that, slaves of the Roman Empire pulled those ships along! For most Americans, traveling Europe is living a history we don’t know much about. The advantage of cruising Europe is that I can come back to the same cabin every day to research what’s coming up next.

This is the season I’m overcome with mixed emotions: I love the brilliant colors and subtle hues of autumn; I revel in the crisp cool air and bright blue skies, and I’m energized by the fierce storms magnified by crashing thunder and sparks of lightning. We have weather here.

But with each leaf that drifts toward the ground, covering it with a blanket of yellow, orange and brown, I’m reminded that winter is coming. And that’s the season I’d rather not be here. Trees are barren and stark. Shrubs slink back into sorry masses of yellow-brown brush. The landscape cries for a lid of pure snow to hide it all.

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Knowing what’s in store, I slog through the fall chores at Northern Bliss, our Wisconsin lake home.  I cut back the spent flowers—except for black-eyed susans, sunflowers, and any others with seeds or pods for the birds. I supervise the “fencing” of the fruit trees, so the deer don’t demolish them in the early spring before the forest grows its bounty. And I arrange for the pontoon, lift, and dock to be stored on the lake bank and alongside the garden shed—all the while cherishing memories of the delighted screams of grandchildren as they jumped off the pontoon into the lake or were pulled in a tube—a sport they call “tubing.”

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I buy butternut squash at the farmers market and bake an apple crisp to serve during the final week-end here when family and friends will stop by to say their goodbyes. Then next week, we’ll store all the lawn furniture and pots, winterize the cabin and set the heat in the main house to 50° to prepare for freezing temperatures; they can reach 30° below zero in January.

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We’ll soon return to our condo in San Diego and I know that when we watch the sun set over Sail Bay with streaks of orange and red, we’ll fall in love with the Pacific Ocean all over again. But for now, there’s a nostalgic sadness in my heart. I’m leaving my beloved Northern Bliss.

Upcoming blogs will continue the series covering our September trip from Germany down the Danube.

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I’m sitting on the top deck of the Ariana while the sun shines on the rippled but peaceful Danube River below. Controlled by numerous dams and locks, the medieval wildness of the Danube has been tamed centuries ago. We began our trip in Passau, Germany; we’ll reach the delta of the Black Sea before turning around to head back.

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The view from our cabin while traveling through Germany to our first destination in Austria

Called the King of Rivers by Napoleon, the Danube is really the Prince. The King title belongs to the Volga, the great River in Russia that drains into the Caspian Sea and is 500 miles longer than the Danube. And even though the Danube is the second longest in Europe, it is only the 25th longest in the world. The Danube begins in Germany’s Black Forest and ends on the Romanian and Ukrainian shores, in the delta region of the Black Sea, 1777 miles away.

While sailing, I’m reading “The Danube, a Cultural History, by Andrew Beattie.” He relates the stories of empires that have risen and fallen along the Danube, from Macedonians, to Romans, to the Hapsburgs, the Ottomans, to the Nazis, and most recently, the countries that have shrugged off the yoke of Communist Socialism.

I wondered how such a river affecting so many countries could be governed. The book covers this in its last chapter. In 1946 a council of European foreign ministers announced the creation of the International Danube Commission, with headquarters in Budapest, Hungary. At first, only the Eastern bloc countries, along with Yugoslavia, formed this new body; then Austria joined in 1960. Germany did not join until after the  fall of communism. With the break-up of the Balkans in the 1990s, the commission rose to ten countries, with Slovakia succeeding Czechoslovakia, Serbia and Croatia succeeding Yugoslavia, and Moldova and Ukraine succeeding the USSR. There is probably no other river in the world whose navigable length is of such international complexity!

During this trip, we will see a panoply of flags displayed on the boats that ply this river. Just as during our world sailing circumnavigation on Pacific Bliss, it doesn’t matter much what one’s nationality is. In this river, we are all Mariners.

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What a coincidence! I have two framed Egyptian papyrus prints on the walls of my home. And now I have Egyptian papyrus plants in my Rain Garden at Northern Bliss.

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The papyrus plant is a reed that grows wild in marshy areas around the Nile River. One of my favorite excursions when I visited Egypt during our circumnavigation was our boat trip down the Nile River. How I loved to see those papyrus plants swaying in the breeze! During a cultural show, we learned the process of making paper from papyrus. First, the inside of the stalk was peeled into long strips. Then these strips were spread out in two layers, one horizontal and one vertical, and pressed and dried to form a sheet. The sheet could be used by itself, or individual sheets could be joined end-to-end to form a roll. Natural gum held the sheets together, so no glue was required. A roll was usually about one foot in height and could be up to 100 feet in length.

I never knew that papyrus was offered by nurseries in the USA until I built my Rain Garden at Northern Bliss. I had researched the process in sustainable landscaping books and websites and diligently followed the instructions using native Wisconsin plants with deep roots. All of the natural flowers worked well in heavy rains except for the blazing stars planted in the center, the deepest part. They just drowned.

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So the following spring I decided to try something else. But what?  Dale, my gardener with Lake Services, just happened to notice a group of tall papyrus plants in the back of a pick-up truck leaving a nursery. He stopped the driver to ask questions. And then we considered our options: Papyrus is a non-native plant, but because I’d seen it growing wild in the Nile, I knew it had to have deep roots to soak up excess moisture in my Rain Garden. But, because it’s a tropical plant, we’d have to replace the three plants every spring.

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We went ahead and I certainly don’t regret it. This year, we’ve had lots of rain and the system works: My Wet Lot drains like it’s designed to do and the three King Tut papyrus plants stand tall and majestic, swaying in the breeze─just like their ancestors did in the Nile.

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