Tuesday, August 25, 2009

Slovakia's Devin Castle (Hrad Devin)

If you're visiting Vienna and are itching for a day trip, it is almost effortless to hop the border into Slovakia by taking a train to Slovakia's capital Bratislava. While Bratislava is certainly charming, it's worth leaving Bratislava for a short bus or car ride (10 km) to visit Hrad Devin, a ruined castle straight out of a fairy tale. Perched upon the confluence of the Morava and Danube Rivers, the visitor is treated to quite a hike to get to the top, complete with haunting statues and views of the Slovakian countryside. But once you step foot inside Hrad Devin, you will know exactly why you came.

Due to its strategic location, Hrad Devin occupies a spot that has been settled, fortified and fought over since the Iron and Bronze Ages. Celtic and Roman fortresses once stood here and from the 8th century on, castles were built here and added to (including the construction of a palace). The history of Hrad Dev
in is somewhat uncertain; it changed hands many times, including that of the Moravians, Ottomans, Hungarians, Austrians, Germans, and the French. It is said to have been finally destroyed by Napoleon I of France during his retreat in 1809. Now this castle stands as a monument to Slovakia's past; it was even used at a certain point to watch for people trying to escape the communist east into Austria.

A beautiful 55 meter deep well stands in the center of the courtyard, and visitors are free to explore every nook and cranny of the castle grounds, which winds and sprawls, taking every advantage of the cliff on which it rests. Some argue that the design was taken from the Byzantines, and there is even evidence of Italian Renaissance frescoes. On Castle Hill there is a 9th century church, and nearby the ruins of the Renaissance additions in the 15th and 16th centuries. One of the buildings houses Roman ruins that were recently excavated and can be viewed by descending a steep passage.

Possibly the most striking is the Virgin Tower, complete with the story of a knight and damsel in distress. It stands silent vigil for Margaret, a Carinthian, who lies in a watery grave at the foot of the tower. Read the full tale here.

Sunday, August 23, 2009

Health Care and Medicine - In Ancient Rome

All the debates about health care reform in the United States made me feel as if I had to weigh in on the topic of health care as well. However, I am putting my thoughts and preferences aside to focus on a much more colorful time in history, that of Ancient Rome. For Rome, cultural change came as much from without as from within. Ancient Rome eagerly devoured Ancient Greece's medical practices and cures and learned from their renowned doctors. Some of these practices are long out of date, but surprisingly to many people, some of these ideas are still used today.

Some Fun Advice from the Ancients:
* Pliny the Elder offered this cure: "
bathe the eyes with a decoction of the liver and to apply the marrow to those that are painful or swollen". Perhaps this was the predecessor to the cooling cucumber.

* Celsus gave this widely used piece of health advice: "[A man] should always make sure that he gets enough exercise especially before a meal."

* Cinnamon was used to boost brain power, control bleeding, and hide the stench of decaying bodies - all all around spice that was considered more valuable than gold by many of the ancients.

* The most famous doctors of ancient Rome were not Romans, but Greeks. One of the most famous was Galen of Pergamum who lived from 131-201 AD and worked with injured Gladiators before beginning his career as a teacher of medicine. In particular, Galen focused on clinical observation, a step away from many Romans who believed most medical recoveries to be in the hands of the gods.

* Over 40 Roman medical instruments were found in Pompei. They were double-ended, making it easier for doctors to switch from one to the other. When patients could bleed to death quickly, time was of the essence.

* Herbs and flowers were the most common "drugs". Violets, for example, were used to cure hangovers, and cherry kernels were used for arthritic pain.

If you're interested in reading more about Ancient Roman medicine, take a look at one of the following links:

Ancient Roman Medicine
A primer in Ancient Roman Medicine. Particularly noteworthy is a list of common flowers, herbs, spices, fruits and vegetables used for medical purposes.

Medicine & Surgery in Ancient Rome
A history and primer on Ancient Roman Health Care. At the end are pictures of a terrifying array of ancient medical instruments, designed to keep you awake at night.

Tuesday, August 18, 2009

German Style Board Games - My Top Three

German-style board games have made their way to North America and these games focus on strategy as well as social interaction, unlike their typical North American counterparts, which often focuses on silent contemplation of the next move.

While in the past only comic and gaming stores carried these games, they have slowly made their way into chain stores. Unlike their counterparts, these games won’t grow old quickly. Many of these games offer expansions and different versions that can be later added to the basic version, and many use tiles instead of a board for a different experience every time. They’re also visually appealing, from the artistically crafted boards and tiles to the wooden pieces that will stand the test of time. Even more exciting is their inclusion of many places around the world that are unfamiliar to many people.

If you're unfamiliar with German style board games, check out one of the following games below. All three are international hits, and you might discover the joy of board gaming all over again.

Named after a medieval city in France, players place a tile adjacent to other tiles on the board. By placing followers on roads, in cities, in cloisters, and on farms, players score points immediately or by controlling a larger area than other players at the end of a game. Terribly addictive due to its ever-changing layout and multiple expansions. One even adds a fairy and a dragon! (Players: 2-5, Time to Play: 60 minutes, Basic Edition Cost: $20-25)

Ticket to Ride
Players place train tokens on a board and attempt to secretly complete routes on the map while other players are doing the same. Multiple strategies are in play and you can choose to add more routes or have fun trying to thwart your opposition. The European edition even includes the names of the cities in their native languages around the year 1910. (Players: 2-4, Time to Play: 60 minutes, American or European Edition Cost: $30-40)

Settlers of Catan
Players attempt to dominate the island by collecting and trading resources to build settlements, cities and roads. A winner emerges when someone possesses ten victory points. With plenty of trading (and back-stabbing), SOC is a social game but is best played when you have more time. The first board game to gain widespread popularity outside of Europe. (Players: 3-4, Time to Play: 60-90 minutes, Basic Edition Cost: $25-35)

Thursday, August 13, 2009

Animal Photos: Blue Butterflies, Rhino Models, and Squirrels Gone Wild

Despite there being larger points of cultural interest nearby, I am always drawn to zoos in the countries I visit. During a recent trip to Vienna and Frankfurt, I visited two zoos. In most circumstances, these animals offer beautiful photo opportunities (short of these animals hiding in the tree or behind large, bushy plants). Yet the true travel photographer is always armed with his or her camera, ready to snap a picture at a moment's notice of an animal in the wild. I spotted this beautiful, blue butterfly on a mountain in Slovakia, not too far from Bratislava. I'll write more about the castle on this mountain and how to get there in a future post.

Here's another one of my favorites, but this one is from the zoo in Frankfurt, Germany. I've never seen a rhino look so in need of a modeling contract.

So when I saw the story and picture below, I couldn't help myself. On holiday, their photo was invaded by a curious ground squirrel. See the photo and the story here - for animal lovers, this is not to be missed:
Banff Squirrel Invades Photo

May a ground squirrel find a way into your travel photos too!

Thursday, August 6, 2009

The Buried Pyramid by Jane Lindskold

In a shift from her Wolf series, Jane Lindskold's Buried Pyramid reads like a adventure story: a warning is given (several, in fact), but the heroes plunge ahead, dubious of the threat's veracity and determined to discover a long lost archaeological secret, the buried pyramid (resting place) of Pharoah Neferankhotep.

The heroine is young Genevieve Benet (Jenny) whose parents have recently passed on, leaving her in her uncle's less than capable hands. As a British archaeologist, her uncle is far more concerned with retracing the path to lead to this great treasure, unsure if he seeks its treasure, or just the fame to follow. He grudgingly agrees to take his niece to Egypt where they are followed by the beautiful, cunning and dastardly Lady Cheshire.

The book alternately takes place in Victorian England and Egypt, and the historical details are near flawless. Twists and turns abound, as well as a brilliantly researched and integrated grasp of Egyptian mythology into this setting. Lindskold spares no detail, and infuses old morals with humor - Jenny is, of course, shamed away from wearing trousers, and yet, she is a product of the Wild Wild West with a sharp-tongued American mouth and guns on her hips. She's an enchanting addition to the other three scholarly and potentially stuffy British men without her company.

The group finds that the legend of the good king
Neferankhotep may be truer than they thought and it's secrets are guarded by a secret society reminiscent of something from The DaVinci Code. The group will be judged, not only by themselves for their ability to find the tomb, but by something far greater, and they might just learn something about themselves in return.

Lindskold's writing is as crisp as usual, and one cannot help but become embroiled in her character's struggles. As usual, romance doesn't play a strong part in her novels, but if you are looking for a good read, full of action, intrigue, and history, take a chance with The Buried Pyramid. Not only will you enjoy the read, but you'll learn something too.