Today would have been Joey Ramone’s 67th birthday. Born Jeffrey Hyman in 1951, he was co-founder of one of the greatest punk bands of all time, the Ramones. He died from lymphoma in 2001.
I had the opportunity to see the the Ramones perform at Marietta Georgia’s Strand Theater. Here’s a photo from the show. I shot it with a Pentax K-1000 on high speed film, hence the grain. The negative is 35 years old. Overall, I guess it’s not too bad.
This beautiful stained glass image is part of the tiny St. Michael’s Shrine in Tarpon Springs, Florida.
The shrine was built about 80 years ago after a young boy, Steve Tsalickis, lay near death. The young was diagnosed with a brain tumor. His vision and hearing was already affected and the doctors told the family there was no hope. Bedridden for months, one day the young boy asked his mother to bring him an icon of St. Michael the family kept in the living room. When she brought the icon to him, Steve said he had seen St. Michael.
Steve made a complete recovery and, in honor of the miracle, his parents built the small shrine. Today people come from around the globe to visit the shrine.
In Roman Catholic teachings St. Michael is known as the leader of the Army of God, and he is frequently depicted with a sword and armor. In the Book of Revelation, St. Michael defeated Satan during the war in heaven. Interestingly, Michael is an Archangel in Judaism, Christianity and Islam; in all three faiths, Michael is the protector of the faithful.
One of the highlights of any visit to Coimbra is the Universidade Velha, or Old University. Coimbra University is one of the oldest academic institutions in Europe and probably the most important university in Portugal. A UNESCO World Heritage Site, it is a beautiful and historic University and well worth the visit.
When we set out for Universidade Velha, we knew only that it was on top of the hill that makes up Coimbra’s Old Town. Unfortunately, we chose the hardest, albeit most picturesque way, to approach the University. We entered through the Torre da Almedina and climbed the steep series of stairs known as “the backbreaker”, Rua Quebra Costa.
Rua Quebra Costa is picturesque. Entering through the Barbican Gate and wound our way up the path toward the Torre. Just after the gate we came upon a beautiful sculpture celebrating Portugal’s national music, Fado. After passing through the Torre we found another beautiful piece of artwork, a bronze statue called “Tricana de Coimbra”.
We struggled up the steps, passing the Old Cathedral and the Museu Nacional de Machado de Castro, stopped to catch our breath at the New Cathedral, and eventually made our way to the Old University. It was a trip worth making, but only once. Next time we’ll take the bus to the University.
The Universidade Velha is centered around the Paço das Escolas, or Patio of the Colleges. This was once the Royal Palace of Alcáçova and, beginning in 1131, the home of Dom Afonso Henríques, Portugal’s first king. Almost every king of Portugal’s first dynasty was born here. Interestingly, the first Portuguese king not born in the Palace was Dom Dinis, who founded the University in Lisbon in 1290.
We entered the Paço das Escolas through the Porta Férrea, or Iron Gate. Designed by 17th century architect Antonio Tavares, the gate was the first major architectural work following the University’s acquisition of the Royal Palace in 1537. It’s an elegant structure, with figures representing the University’s major schools at that time, Law, Medicine, Theology and Canons, as well as figures honoring the two kings who figure so prominently in the University’s history, Dom Dinis and Dom João III.
There’s a second entrance to the Paço das Escolas located next to the famed Biblioteca Joanina. The Minerva Stairs were built in 1725 under the supervision of Architect Gaspar Ferreira. The stairs are still one of the main entries into the Paço das Escolas.
Once through the gate you’re struck by the beauty of the Old University. Two things stand out over all others- the bell tower and the statue of Dom João III. The statue, designed by Francisco Franco and erected in 1950, shows a dignified Dom João III looking towards the Palatial home of the University since he ordered it moved to Coimbra in 1537.
The bell tower is the patio’s most prominent landmark. Known as “the Goat”, it was erected in the first half of the 18th century and is the work of Italian architect Antonio Canevari. The bell, which calls the students to class, rings 15 minutes behind the other clock towers in Coimbra. The purpose of the delay is to keep from confusing the town’s inhabitants and the University’s students regarding the various duties signified by the bells each day.
The tower is roofless; it once doubled as an astronomical observatory. Visitors can climb the tower; I’m sure it provides phenomenal views of Coimbra, but we chose not to make the climb.
The main attraction, for many people, is the Biblioteca Joanina. One of the most beautiful libraries in the world, it was a 17th century gift to the University from Dom João V, for whom it is named. Four huge columns frame the front doors of the baroque structure, but this is not where you access the library. Tours of the library start at the bottom of the Minerva stairs, where you enter the Academic Prison. It’s the last existing medieval prison still existing in Portugal and was in use until 1832. Originally the prison for the Royal Palace, it was later used to hold students who committed disciplinary offenses. By the way, the university had its own legal code, separate from the general law of the kingdom.
After a quick tour of the academic prison we’re allowed to climb the stairs to the middle floor, called Depository 4. This is now a museum. Originally, only librarians and the Royal Prison Guard had access to the floor (the guards accessed the Academic Prison from here). Access to the books stored in Depository 4 were restricted to a select group of staff.
The highlight of the library is the magnificent “Book House”. The top level is a series of three chambers with two floors. 72 gilded book shelves hold about 60,000 priceless books, including a copy of Camões’s Lusiads from 1572 and a Latin Bible from 1492. Each room has a fantastic ceiling painting and at the far end of the third room is a beautiful painting of Dom João V. It’s so beautiful that I can’t imagine anyone actually reading in the library.
There are two colonies of bats who live in the library. Their job is to eat the insects that could harm the books. We didn’t see any of the bats, but there are plenty of places for them to sleep during the day.
I’m sure that some people stop their tour after visiting the Biblioteca Joanina, but those who do are missing out. Next door to the library is the Capela de São Miguel, an ornate Baroque and Manueline chapel built in the 16th century and remodeled in the 17th and 18th centuries.
The altarpiece dates from 1605 and in 1663 the interior was covered with tiles. There’s a magnificent baroque pipe organ, built in 1733 by Friar Manuel Gomes to replace the old one, that consists of around 2,000 pipes. The organ is still used on special occasions.
The chapel is full of outstanding religious artwork, including a painting of Our Lady of Conception, the patroness of the University, and another of Our Lady of Light, the patroness saint of students. It’s a beautiful structure. I was inspired enough to try out my limited knowledge of the Portuguese language. “A capela é muito linda,” I told the student at the door. I apparently used it correctly, because he smiled and replied in English, “Yes, it is.”
After a quick break in the cafeteria for a snack and a glass of wine, we moved on to the Royal Palace. The entry to the Royal Palace is the Via Latina, a magnificent staircase built during the late 18th century. It seems to be a popular spot for selfies or group photos, depending on whether you’re an introvert or an extrovert. We’re not really into photos of ourselves so we climbed the stairs and entered the Palace.
There are several really nice rooms in the Palace. First up was the Arms Room, which houses the weapons of the former Royal Academic Guard. The weapons are used today only for formal academic ceremonies such as the opening of the school year and the awarding of PhDs.
Next to the Arms Room is the Yellow Room. Each school has a different color. Coimbra’s School of Medicine’s color is yellow. The Yellow Room is where the School of Medicine’s faculty gather for events.
The Sala dos Capelos, or Great Hall of Acts, was originally the Palace’s Throne Room. Today it is the space where most official ceremonies are held and where PhD oral exams are conducted. It’s a magnificent space lined with portraits of all Portuguese kings except those who ruled during the sixty years when Spain ruled Portugal.
The Private Examination Room was once the room of the King of Portugal. This is the place where graduate students held their Doctoral exams. Traditionally, these were private exams and were done in secret and at night. The paintings lining the room’s walls are portraits of former rectors.
After a visit to the second-floor balcony overlooking the plaza we made our way back down to the Paço das Escolas and took in the view of the Mondego River and Coimbra from the far end of the plaza. The Universidade Velha is just a small part of the current University, but it’s a huge part of its history. There was so much more to see- the Botanical Gardens, for example- but we’ll have to do that on our next visit to Coimbra.
My wife and I look upon dining out as an adventure. We do a lot of research to find interesting and unique restaurants wherever we go. I had done a lot of research into restaurants in the cities on our itinerary. One restaurant that came up over and over was Ze Manel dos Ossos, in Coimbra. The fact that it was just a short walk from our hotel was a bonus. This would be our dinner destination.
Ze Manel dos Ossos is tucked down a little alley just a block from Largo da Portagem, a central square across from the Santa Clara bridge and a popular for shoppers and tourists.
A light rain was falling when we arrived at the restaurant. Ze Manel dos Ossos is a very small restaurant with nowhere to wait inside for a table to become available, so we waited in the rain with a young man from Greece and his dinner partner, a young woman from Croatia, and, eventually, a man from Lisbon. The young man had done his research as well and was not going to give up a chance to dine at Ze Manel dos Ossos.
We studied the menu so we’d know what we wanted when we were seated. The best way to describe the offerings would be country cooking, or, as Ann Marie called it, peasant food. We decided on a half order of braised goat and a half order of bean stew with wild boar.
Half an hour later we were all in and seated.
The restaurant is truly a hole in the wall. The inside is tiny. The front half of the restaurant is an open kitchen. The back half is filled with simple wooden tables and chairs and the walls are covered with small pieces of paper- drawings, doodles and poems. The waiter called our order to the cook, brought us our bread, a great bean and cabbage soup and a stoneware pitcher of red wine, and we were under way.
The soup, as I said, was great. The goat arrived in a stoneware pot along with potatoes and vegetables. We poured the wine and the gentleman from Lisbon, seated at the table beside us, leaned over and told Ann Marie that the wine is homemade on the cook’s farm and is very strong, so please don’t drive afterwards. He was a really nice guy who said he stops at the restaurant whenever he’s in Coimbra. And yes, the wine was strong, but very nice.
Remember that we had ordered only a half serving of the goat and a half order of the bean stew. By the time we had finished the goat, potatoes and veggies, we couldn’t eat any more. We asked the waiter if we could cancel the bean stew and he laughed and said, of course. But, he reminded us, that was just a half order!
We really enjoyed the dinner at Ze Manel dos Ossos. The food and wine were really good, the staff was friendly and seemed to enjoy what they were doing, and the atmosphere was one of a kind. And, best of all, the bill was half of what we paid at many other restaurants on our journey. Our new friend was on to something. Ze Manel dos Ossos would definitely be worth another visit the next time we’re in Coimbra.
Easily the best excursion we took on our Alaska cruise and trip to Denali, the Tundra Wilderness Tour was a seven hour trip into Denali National Park. Since we visited early in the season our trip was a little shorter than it could have been, ending at the Toklat Ranger Station. That being said, I think the early visit actually worked to our advantage.
The buses were not much at to look at but they were retrofitted with a fantastic system with zoom camera and video screens. When the driver spotted wildlife he could control the camera and zoom in to a remarkable closeness. At the same time video screens would drop from the ceiling in front of each row of seats. The camera system allowed us to see wildlife that we could barely see with binoculars.
Our driver was great. He said he had come to Denali in 1996 to study wolves and has been there ever since. He was very knowledgeable and loved to share that knowledge with his passengers. For example, he gave us the odds of seeing various species of wildlife- 9% to see a moose, 30% to see a brown bear, 100% to see Dall sheep, etc. We were fortunate enough to see all of these and many more.
One thing that worked to our advantage was that we were visiting just after the bears were coming out of hibernation and just before all the foliage had leafed out. That meant the wildlife was there and the foliage would not interfere with our ability to see them.
The first animals spotted were a few Dall sheep in the distance, but shortly after that we spotted our first moose peeking out from the trees by a small pond.
The moose at Denali grow to huge sizes. This is because the primary food source for moose is willow, and willow is abundant in the park. Denali moose have been known to grow to over 1,000 pounds and even brown bears think twice before challenging one of these behemoths. Later we would see a cow moose with a new calf.
The next sighting was a ptarmigan. The ptarmigan had begun shedding its white winter feathers to its brown summer coloration. Known colloquially in Alaska as the “snow chicken”, it’s about the size of a small chicken. One funny story one of our bus drivers told us was that there’s a town in Alaska named Chicken. The residents liked the taste of ptarmigan and decided to name the town after the bird. Unfortunately, they couldn’t agree on the spelling so they agreed to name the town Chicken instead.
Brown bears, or grizzlies, are the preeminent predator in Denali. Because the environment is quite harsh the inland bears of Denali are only about half the size of the coastal bears, between 400 and 500 pounds. Denali’s bears are very territorial and solitary, so you won’t see bears very close to each other. We saw six brown bears, including a mother with two cubs. Most were in the distance but we had the rare opportunity to see a brown bear up close.
Next up were a herd of Dall sheep. Dall sheep are quite common in Denali. They spend most of their time on steep rocky slopes, which allows them to easily move away from any approaching predator.
Wildlife wasn’t the only attraction of the tour. The rugged landscape was breathtaking. One of the high points was Polychrome Pass. Ancient and vast, Polychrome Pass was typical of the sights along the tour. The pass gets its name from the variety of colorations in the rock faces.
Caribou are quite common in Denali. We saw several herds but most were either too far to photograph or blended in with the surrounding landscape. This was the best I could do with the Caribou.
We turned around after a short stop at the Toklat Ranger Station. The Toklat River is a braided river, so called because it’s made up of many channels that intersect at various points. From the ranger station we could see mountain goats on the mountain sides across the river.
In all we saw three moose, six brown bears, a couple ptarmigans and countless Dall sheep, mountain goats and caribou. But shortly before the end of the tour we passed a porcupine beside the road. After such an eventful and successful tour, we were surprised when, after spotting the porcupine, the bus driver shouted “this is the best trip ever!”
All in all, this was the best excursion of our trip and seven hours well spent. If you visit Denali I highly recommend the Tundra Wilderness Tour.
One of our favorite excursions was also a free one. We took a shuttle from McKinley Chalet Resort to the park to visit the National Park Service sled dogs. The NPS sled dogs are quite different from the racing dogs we saw at Caribou Crossing in the Yukon. The NPS dogs are working dogs and, as such, are not built for speed but for endurance. Because of the harsh winters virtually the only way into the wilderness is by dog sled. The rangers can spend weeks in the the wilderness and depend on the dogs to get them in and around the park. During the spring and summer, though, the dogs take it easy and provide an opportunity for tourists to interact with real working sled dogs.
As part of the visit to the dogs, the park rangers put on a short but informative sledding demonstration. It’s obvious from the demonstration that the dogs love what they do.
A few words about the dog sled team. Each dog on the team has a job and they’re assigned that job based on their physical abilities and their personality. Here’s the team from our demonstration.
The front row contains the lead dogs. Lead dogs steer the team and set the pace. Qualities of a good lead dog is intelligence, initiative and the ability to find a good trail in bad conditions.
The second row are the swing dogs. These dogs help swing the rest of the team along the turns of the trail.
The dog closest to the sled is the wheel dog. The wheel dog needs to be calm and intelligent, so that it is not startled by the movement of the sled. They also need to be able to help guide the sled around tight turns.
So that’s the team. The sled they pull during the demonstration is an actual working sled, but without the couple hundred pounds that can be loaded on the sled for long excursions into the Alaska wilderness. The all wood sled has not changed much since men began using sleds and dogs for transportation in Alaska.
The actual mushing demonstration only lasted a minute but it was obvious that the dogs enjoy their job. Once they were done with their 60 seconds of work the dogs were rewarded with a treat and laid down to enjoy it while a park ranger explained the ins and outs of the life of an NPS sled dog.
In case you’re interested, the NPS sled dogs are retired at age nine. By that time they’ve traveled more than 8,000 miles under harness. So what happens to the dogs once they’re retired? They’re adopted to suitable homes. Keep in mind that the years of sledding have kept these dogs in top condition and the energy and intelligence of the dogs may not be a match for the casual dog person. But if you’re used to high energy and intelligent dogs and can give one of these dogs the home it needs, please consider adopting.
Our final port on the Alaska cruise was Seward, a town of just under 3,000 residents on the Gulf of Alaska. Seward is the ninth most lucrative fisheries port in the United States and the harbor was full of fishing boats.
Seward is also the beginning of the Seward Highway, one of the most beautiful drives in the United States. Our trip from Seward to Denali would begin along the Seward Highway.
Fifty years after the 1964 earthquake that devastated Alaska from Anchorage to Seward there are still signs of damage. The land dropped six to eight feet and was flooded with salt water. Along the highway you can see “ghost forests” of trees that were killed by the salt water.
Just five miles from Seward the highway passes through the Chugach National Forest. Alaska. The trip to Denali passes through some truly beautiful wilderness areas. The largest state in the country, Alaska is also the most sparsely populated state, and has relatively few highways. Most of the population of Alaska live in the coastal regions, so much of the interior of the state is wilderness. It seemed that everywhere we looked there were beautiful vistas.
Our trip took us along the Turnagain Arm, a waterway running inland from Cook Inlet, and the location of the second highest tides in North America. Tides can reach forty feet and come in so quickly that they form a wave called a tidal bore. The bore can be dangerous if you’re caught unaware when it comes in, but it is also a favorite with kayakers and surfers who like to ride the wave as an extreme sport. Our trip did not let us witness the tidal bore but Turnagain Arm is quite beautiful, with high and rugged lining the north side of the Arm.
We stopped for lunch in Palmer, Alaska, in the Matanuska Valley. During the Great Depression the U.S. government began offering families the opportunity to move to the Matanuska Valley as a way out of the hardships of the depression devastating the country. Each family who relocated was offered forty acres of land. All they had to do was build a house and farm the land. The valley is well suited for dairy farming and vegetables such as potatoes and cabbage grow well in the valley.
The experiment was not very successful. The climate, while mild by Alaska standards, was much harder than many of the colonists were used to, and by 1940 over half of the original families had returned home.
We still had a few hours before reaching Denali. This final stretch was where we saw our first moose, two of which came out of the woods and ran along the highway for several yards. We were to see several more moose at Denali.
Finally, we reached our destination, the McKinley Chalet Resort. Located along the Nenanha River, the location of the resort is quite beautiful. The cabins were rustic yet comfortable and the scenery was awe inspiring. The land around us changed literally overnight. When we awoke the after our first night the mountains behind our cabin were covered with a fresh snow. It was beautiful.
Denali is pretty remote as far as destinations go, but we were to experience firsthand how small the world can be. The first evening we went to Karsten’s Pub, a new restaurant at McKinley Chalet. Our waitress was a young lady from Marietta, Georgia. Marietta was our home for many years before we relocated to North Carolina.
While our Alaska adventure was nearing its end, we still had two days and enjoyed two great excursions, a visit to the National Park Service sled dogs and the Tundra Tour, a bus excursion that took us deep into the park.