What’s In A Name?

Split, Croatia
In Split, one lunch time we saw a drink advertised on the menu.
It’s name was Pipi—an unusual name to say the least, but what was it? We were not quite brave enough to try!
Well, later we saw a big add that explained the mystery. Just goes to show how easy it is to judge something based on our own language, doesn’t it?!

A rose---umm, a drink---by any other name

A rose—umm, a drink—by any other name

Welcome to Maastricht

The Euregio Meuse-Rhine is the three-country area where the Netherlands, Germany and Belgium meet, an area that acquired legal status in 1991. It’s home to about 4 million people and four different languages, and Maastricht is at the heart of this area. We were there recently for 5 days, our first visit to this lovely old city, and we loved it. I’ll cover Maastricht more fully later (probably when I get back home in July), but these two images serve as an introduction.
The famous Treaty of Maastricht was signed here in 1992. Representatives of 12 European countries signed it, paving the way for the introduction of the Euro as currency.
MaastrichtThe bronze statue is called the “Mestreechter Geis”, or “Spirit of Maastricht”, by artist Mari Andriessen. The artist has tried to capture the characteristics of the local Maastricht character: charm, playfulness, a healthy dose of humor, and a zest for life.
The statue is in a small square at the end of old Stokstraat, near the pedestrian Sint Servaasbrug and the entrance to the Old City.
I found two of these red stars in the city: one is just outside the entrance to the main train station, and the other is close to the River Maas (Meuse), behind the famous, and very old, Onze Lieve Vrouwebasiliek (Our Lovely Lady Basilica).

Cork Oak Tree in Israel

A great Israeli white wine

A great Israeli white wine

treeEver wondered where that cork stopper in your bottle of wine came from?
Well, it’s from a very special tree, a Cork Oak or Quercus suber. These trees produce most cork products in the world, including wine bottle stoppers. They mostly grow in countries along the coast of the Mediterranean Sea, where there’s lots of sunshine, low rainfall and high humidity. The countries producing the most cork are Portugal, Algeria, Spain, Morocco, France, Italy and Tunisia.
But it also grows in Israel and we found a marked tree at the Weizmann Institute of Science in Rehovot, just in front of the Weizmann house.

Such thick bark

Such thick bark

South Africa makes wonderful wines

South Africa makes wonderful wines

We wondered why the cork oak has a thicker layer of cork bark than other trees. It appears that the tree evolved to protect itself from the harsh conditions of the forests near the Mediterranean.
Cork has been used as bottle stoppers for more than 400 years. The thick outer layer of bark is used and it’s probably the best-suited material to use as a bottle stopper as it contains a natural waxy substance, called suberin. This makes cork impermeable to liquids and gas, and prevents the cork from rotting.
More and more wineries are now using screw caps instead of corks on their wine bottles, so next time you have a bottle with a cork take note and imagine a special tree.
An Israeli red wine

An Israeli red wine

The Weizmann house at the Institute

The Weizmann house at the Institute

Up To Masada By Cable Car

Looking up to Masada

Looking up to Masada

From the cable car we look down to the Visitors Center, and the Dead Sea in the distance

From the cable car we look down to the Visitors Center, and the Dead Sea in the distance

Cable Car to Masada, Israel’s Old fortress

While at a conference at En Bokek (Dead Sea hotels area) in Israel, we took a side trip to Masada, about a 20-minute drive north. All the international conference attendees were determined not to miss this sight, so we took a taxi-van for 7 people. Thank goodness we made the effort, as this really is a not-to-be-missed place, one that is on many people’s “bucket list”.

It’s huge, it’s impressive, it’s symbolic, and it’s quite difficult to access. The old Roman fort was approached by three, narrow, winding paths leading up to fortified gates. Today, visitors can still walk up two of those paths—the Ramp Trail on the west side, or the Snake Path on the east/Dead Sea side—or they can take the cable car, which leaves from the Visitors Center. The cable car, built in 1998, whisks you along, for almost a kilometer (0.55 mile), with an altitude increase of 950 feet (290 m). If you are young, or fit, or have a lot of time, it’s possible to walk up, but many people rely on the cable car (or aerial ropeway). We all went up in it, but three of our party (young and fit) walked down the Snake Path. They said it took about 45 minutes but that it was a bit slippery in places, especially at the top, and that it was very crowded, especially with large groups of high school students on a field trip. It must be much worse at peak season, as we were there in February.

From the cable car we look across the mountain desert

From the cable car we look across the mountain desert

The cable car arrives at the top

The cable car arrives at the top

At the top of the cable car lift, you arrive at the Snake Path Gate and ahead of you is a sloping plateau, roughly oval in shape and more than half a kilometer long. Much of what you see is ruins, but enough still exists to give a really good idea of what a magnificent place this must have been, a remote gem in the desert. Besides getting an idea of what was up here on the plateau and trying to visualize the story of the rebels, you get absolutely stunning views out to the Judean Hills and the Dead Sea.

The cliffs of the hills and mountains right next to the Dead Sea are spectacular in a brown-gold desert way. The bright blue of the Dead Sea on one side and the sculpted brown and cream crags, peaks and hills on the other, make for a dramatic place to have a palace and then to stage a major rebellion. Add to that, the day we were there, huge inky-black rain clouds over the north side of the Dead Sea, and the picture becomes almost dream-like with the haze in the air. The wind picked up and we even had some light rain—imagine that in the desert!

What an amazing view!

What an amazing view!

Exit to the cable car down through that doorway on the left

Exit to the cable car down through that doorway on the left

Besides this setting, the site is full of symbolism, which is why it attracts so many tourists annually. We are told it’s Israel’s #2 tourist sight (after the Western Wall), and it’s easy to see why.

People come to see where Jewish rebels stood up to the Roman Legion in a bid to free Israel from the Romans, and almost succeeded.

A Bit of Background:

King Herod the Great built this ancient fortress on top of an isolated natural rocky plateau with cliffs more than 800 feet high (like a huge mesa), on the eastern edge of the Judean Desert, overlooking the Dead Sea. Herod built grand palaces for himself up there between 37-31 BC, partly because he thought it was impregnable and partly so he could enjoy the health benefits of the Dead Sea (see my earlier post on the Dead Sea here: https://viviennemackie.wordpress.com/2015/03/24/dead-sea-salts-and-suchlike-the-dead-sea-is-dying/ ). In addition to the natural defensive cliffs, Herod added fortifications with a casemate wall and towers.

What is the Story of the Rebellion?

The 1st-century Jewish-Roman historian Flavius Josephus wrote that in 66 AD a group of Jewish rebels, the Sicarii, overcame the Roman garrison at Masada (so-called because they carried small knives called sicaris). After the Jewish Temple was destroyed in Jerusalem in 70 AD, more of the Sicarii escaped Jerusalem and settled on Masada after massacring the Roman garrison. A Roman legion surrounded Masada in 73 AD and the Romans built an enormous siege system around Masada that we can still see clearly today. The Romans built a ramp up to the plateau and eventually breached the walls with a siege tower and battering ram in 73 or 74 AD. Rather than surrender or be killed by the Romans, the 960 rebel inhabitants on Masada supposedly set all the buildings on fire and committed mass suicide, their last stand against the Romans.

Viv M, Dead Sea in the distance

Viv M, Dead Sea in the distance

This dramatic event has become a symbol of the fight for freedom from oppression. Thousands of Israeli soldiers now swear their oath of allegiance here. However, there are discrepancies between archeological findings and the writings of Josephus, plus the remains of only 28 bodies have been found.

But, for us and for most other visitors, the truth or otherwise of this mass suicide doesn’t detract from the power of this place. The siege did take place, after the Jewish rebels captured Masada. The Romans did slowly wear down the rebels and breached the fortress and some people died. Whether 28 or 960 died, it’s still a story of bravery, tenacity, and strong belief—on both sides, both determined to win.

From this vantage point you can see the 3 levels of Herod's Palace

From this vantage point you can see the 3 levels of Herod’s Palace


Some people come on a day trip from Jerusalem, or from En Bokek, or you can stay in a guesthouse up there. You definitely need a minimum of 4-5 hours, so you can visit the Museum too, and more if you decide to either walk up or down the Snake Path rather than use the cable car. It’s very hot in summer, so take lots of water, and wear comfortable walking shoes.

Entrance into Masada (including the museum at the bottom), plus return cable car was 96 NIS per person (roughly $24).

We are very glad we went—it would have been a great pity to be so close and to miss it. And I, for one, am very grateful that there’s a cable car to whisk us up to the top of Masada painlessly!


Approaching the Memorial Plaza

Approaching the Memorial Plaza

Rehovot, Israel: At the Weizmann Institute of Science, Rehovot, Israel, we visited labs, the Weizmann house and a Holocaust Memorial—an unexpected addition to the tour.

The Weizmann Institute of Science is a public research university and offers only graduate study. It was established in 1934 by Chaim Weizmann (1874-1952), Zionist leader, Israeli statesman, and first president of the newly-formed state of Israel. He was also a biochemist, who developed the acetone-butanol-ethanol fermentation process that produces acetone. His acetone production method was of great importance for the British war industry in WW1.

The surrounding walls have multiple quotations and sayings inscribed on them

The surrounding walls have multiple quotations and sayings inscribed on them

The Memorial to the Holocaust Plaza was designed by Israeli sculptor Dani Karavan and completed in 1972. It is a memorial plaza to victims of the Holocaust on the campus of the Weizmann Institute of Science. The centerpiece is a bronze and stone sculpture representing a torah scroll that has been split in half (very symbolic for Jewish people). On the walls surrounding the plaza are inscriptions with names and quotes. One of them is by Weizmann (1946), which says “I feel sure that science will bring to this land both peace and a renewal of its youth, creating here the springs of a new spiritual and material life.” It’s a great compliment to science, but a little ironic really when one considers what has happened in this part of the world since then.

The broken Torah closer

The broken Torah closer

The Memorial Plaza is a lovely tranquil area on campus, surrounded by trees and gardens. A place for some quiet reflection.

Sculptor Dani Karavan (born 1930) is best known for site-specific memorials and monuments that merge into the environment, such as this one. Another is one (2005) depicting the foundation of the Regensburg Synagogue that was destroyed during a pogrom in 1519.

The Torah is inscribed with the ID numbers of some concentration camps' prisoners

The Torah is inscribed with the ID numbers of some concentration camps’ prisoners


The open plaza facing the Torah Memorial

The open plaza facing the Torah Memorial

First view of the Western Wall and Plaza

First view of the Western Wall and Plaza

View from the women's side of the Plaza

View from the women’s side of the Plaza

The Western Wall, or the Kotel, or the Wailing Wall

(Note: this is a longish article—I really wanted to try and understand this complex subject)

What is special about the Western Wall? The wall has withstood time and has witnessed war and peace. I am not Jewish, and I have not visited Israel before, so I wanted to try and understand the significance of this wall, which is the most visited site in Israel today.

(For other sights in Jerusalem, I’ll post another article later).

In order to understand what the Western Wall is, we need to go back three thousand or so years. Long before a temple was built on this mount, Abraham came here to sacrifice his son Isaac, and Jacob slept here, dreaming of a ladder to heaven. Then called Mount Moriah, its summit was where Solomon built the First Temple on the land that his father King David bought from Aravnah, the Jebusite, 3,000 years ago.

Diagram of old Temple

Diagram of old Temple

The Temple stood for around 500 years, until it was destroyed by the Babylonian conqueror Nebuchadnezzar in 586 BC. The Holy Ark and the Ten Commandments, which were in the Temple, vanished and the Jews were expelled from the land of Israel. They were allowed to return 70 years later and built the Second Temple.

Closer view of the Wall today

Closer view of the Wall today

King Herod (who ruled 37-4 BC) decided to rebuild that in 19 BC. He had a problem, though: the Temple was on the peak of a mountain where there was limited space. Herod, who was known for huge building projects (such as the port at Caesarea, and his palace at Masada), decided to build four massive supporting walls around the mountain and transform it into a level platform. Which he did, and built the next Temple on the new platform.

In 70 AD, during the Jewish rebellion against the Romans, Jerusalem was conquered and the Temple destroyed.

After the rebellion, Jews were not allowed to return to the Temple mound and the Kotel (Western Wall) was the closest they could come to that area. The Western Wall is the most sacred, because the Temple (and its inner Holy of Holies) had been built closest to that wall. Since then, the Western Wall has been the center of Jewish belief. For Jews, touching the stones links them with their nation and heritage, and their long turbulent history.

Today, people from all over the world converge here, to see, to feel, to pray, and to wedge notes and requests between its timeless stones.

Bar Mitzvah. Taken by me from over the dividing wall

Bar Mitzvah. Taken by me from over the dividing wall

Women's side of the Plaza---note the women standing on chairs looking over!

Women’s side of the Plaza—note the women standing on chairs looking over!

What is the Western Wall Plaza?

This is the cleared area in front of part of the Western Wall, and is the setting for many national events, such as the Priests’ Blessing at Pesach and Sukkot, candle lighting at Channukah, swearing in of Israeli police and armed forces recruits, and Jerusalem Day ceremonies. It is also a popular place for bar and bat mitzvahs of young people from Israel and abroad. The Plaza today is part of an open synagogue, which is why men and women are separated like in many synagogues.

When we visited, there were two bar mitzvahs in progress, which the men in our party could easily see from their side of the divided plaza. However, the women could see too, as we could stand on a row of chairs and look over the wall! (This seemed a little incongruous to me in such a holy place!). Everyone should cover their heads, and if you don’t have a covering, then a volunteer group will give you one. There’s also a table when you can pick up a slip of paper and a pencil, to write a note to put into the wall.

Until about 700 years ago, the entire length of the Western Wall was accessible. Gradually, the city’s Mameluke and Muslim conquerors built up against it. Jews continued to pray at the wall and had to wind their way through narrow alleys to reach it. This ended in 1948 when Jordan occupied Jerusalem’s Old City and Jews were denied access to the wall. When Jerusalem was reunified in 1967 the plaza was cleared and Jews could again approach the wall, which became a symbol of national unity.

One of the large vaulted passage ways below today's Plaza and city streets

One of the large vaulted passage ways below today’s Plaza and city streets

Our guide, Shani Kotev, points out details on part of the tunnel wall

Our guide, Shani Kotev, points out details on part of the tunnel wall

Do we see the entire Western Wall from the plaza?

What one sees from the Prayer Plaza is actually only a small part (about one seventh) of one of the original four walls. About the same stretches to the right as you face the wall, and the rest to the left, into the Western Wall tunnels.

If you think that huge wall in the Prayer Plaza is impressive, then you will be astounded by what you see underground on the tunnel tour. You can only do this on a guided tour, which needs to be reserved in advance usually. I’m told that many tourists don’t know about this tour, which is a great shame, as it really does extend our knowledge and appreciation for this massive construction of Herod’s.

Our day tour, with guide Shani Kotev, included the tunnels luckily. The main tunnel is adjacent to the base of the Western Wall and is under buildings of the Old City of Jerusalem—residential neighborhoods built over ancient structures from the Second Temple period.

Below, we saw special bath houses for ritual cleaning, as the Jews of that time approached to pray at the wall. Even today, in the tunnel is a small synagogue at the closest physical point to the Holy of Holies where women come to pray.

Our host points out some of the masonry marks

Our host points out some of the masonry marks

The cistern underground today

The cistern underground today

We noted parts of Herod’s wall with massive stones, including the Western Stone. It is the largest stone in the wall, supposedly one of the heaviest objects ever lifted by humans without powered machinery. It is 45 ft long and between 11-15 ft wide with an estimated weight of 520 metric tons.

Note part of the market street that used to run along the wall and where Jesus may even have walked. At the northern part of the Western Wall, remains were found of a water channel that supplied water to the Temple Mount. The exact source of the channel is unknown but it passes through an underground pool/cistern called the Struthion Pool, which they think gathered rainwater.

Parts of the tunnel have concrete supports that reinforce the ancient streets above in Jerusalem’s Muslim Quarter. Visitors today leave the tunnel through the northern exit, which leads to the Via Dolorosa. This exit was specially created so visitors didn’t have to retrace their steps back to the entrance by the Prayer Plaza, and only opened in 1996 after much deadly protesting by Arabs. Still today, the entrance is only open during the day, due to security reasons, and a guard sits at the exit.

So much history is here, concentrated in one place, that it’s almost overwhelming. To do the Western Wall and tunnels tour you need about 2-3 hours, and then perhaps it’s a good time to find lunch in one of the small cafes dotted all over the market street area. We went to a hommos (hummus) place for falafel, hummus and pita bread, which was great.

See a good description here: http://www.biblewalks.com/Sites/WesternWallTunnels.html

glassesLuxembourg City: La Boucherie, 9 Place d’Armes, Luxembourg City


We’d noted this place one afternoon as we strolled around the city—one of many places to eat around and close to the Place d’Armes, the center of the old city. The name gets your attention, and the black and white cow at the entrance catches your eye as do, when we were there just before Easter, some small branches decorated with painted Easter eggs. The menu looked good too—-and it was, when we returned that evening.

There’s seating downstairs and upstairs, which is where we opted to go. Upstairs also has seating for groups— up to about 8-10 it seems.

The décor is cheerful and fun—red and white with lots of mirrors and the cow motif everywhere; on the carpet, tablecloths, glasses, even their own salt and pepper shakers. It’s bright, and makes one feel cheerful, and the very pleasant waiter added to that. There are plaques on the wall, announcing the dates of opening of other Boucherie restaurants (mostly in France, but two in Phuket that we saw), so it seems to be a big chain.


insideA bit of the history here (in French): http://www.la-boucherie.fr/histoire/

Jacques Salmon created the first La Boucherie in France in 1974, and he picked the red and white color scheme and the cow motif. It became a franchise in 1996, and in 1997 the first international restaurants were opened in Switzerland and Thailand. By 2013, they’d expanded to more than 100 in France, and added various other international locations, such as Luxembourg City, Seattle and Washington DC.

We also wondered if the red and white color has any link to the famous tire bouchons in France. A bouchon is a type of restaurant found in Lyon, France, that serves traditional Lyonnaise cuisine, such as sausages, duck pâté or roast pork. Compared to other forms of French cooking, the dishes are quite fatty and heavily oriented around meat. The emphasis is not on haute cuisine, but rather on a convivial atmosphere and a personal relationship with the owner. The tradition came from small inns visited by silk workers passing through Lyons in the 17th and 18th centuries.

Rod M enjoys a kir

Rod M enjoys a kir

Rod M inside---mirrors and plaques

Rod M inside—mirrors and plaques

So, the type of cuisine offered here, plus the special atmosphere, do seem linked to the bouchons. But, I couldn’t find any particular reference to the color scheme, although I know we’ve been to a couple of bouchons in central France that did have a red and white color scheme.

No matter, really. It’s a great place, serving great food.

That night we opted for the duck breast, which was beautifully cooked and served, with fries and a side salad, and a sauce of choice. It was a large serving and more than sufficient, so we didn’t need entrees (appetizers) or desserts. The meat comes with a little plastic animal “flag”—pink for au point or medium, and brown for medium-well. Cute.

The restaurant seemed to be well patronized on the various levels, by people from many different places, and the waiters effortlessly switched between English and French. We’ll definitely return if we can.

Part of the conference group

Part of the conference group

We did in fact return the next night with people from the conference my husband was attending—a group of 9—and sat upstairs again and had the same waiter, who did a good job with a large group. The group had multiple varied dishes and drinks, and the waiter managed fine. Rod and I had kir, then rose wine. I had the chevre salad, which was excellent. Rod had the entrecote, with sauce and chips, which he also enjoyed.

So, all experiences good. Thumbs up!

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