Author: Michael Kardos

Ohrid – A Lake, a City, and Beautiful Part of the World

Before history can be recorded, you need at least three things; people, stories and a system to write things down. As time marches on, clans become tribes that spawn languages that evolve into city-states, and then came the nations of the world. Macedonia may be a country with recently defined borders, but it is a region that has been inhabited as far back as Greek antiquity, and is its own fascinating story.

In the southwest corner of Macedonia – one of the six countries carved out of the former Yugoslavia – is Lake Ohrid, a glistening body of water that has been home and haven for people for thousands of years. The freshwater lake is more than three million years old, with a surface area of approximately 150 square miles, and a depth of more than 980 feet, making it one of Europe’s deepest lakes. And like they have for thousands of years, fisherman still ply the lake for food and the lake’s clear waters are a popular tourist draw. read more

Even in Faith, Independence Can Be Hard to Define

The northwest corner of Macedonia, about three miles from the Albanian border, is remote, rugged, wild, and mountainous, filled with lush forests, and dotted with small villages. It is also the home of an enclave of dedicated Macedonian Orthodox monks who have been nurturing their faith for nearly 1,000 years while they struggle for identity and recognition.

On the slopes of Mt. Bistra, near the small town of Debar, Saint Jovan Bigorski Monastery was established in 1021, according to historical records. Debar’s proximity to Albania means that even today Albanians outnumber the Macedonians in a town of less than 15,000 people. read more

Visiting or Passing Through, Burgos is a Must-Stop Spot

Human beings have long had a keen eye when it comes to a nice place to live and a spot in north-central Spain that is now the city of Burgos has been such an attractive locale that humans have been gathering there as far back as 800,000 years.

In addition to its ideal location, Burgos has been an important contributor to the character and history of Spain. By the time Romans arrived during the era of Pax Romana, this part of what is now Castile and León had been settled by Celts. The ensuing centuries saw wars waged by Visigoths, Suebi (Germanic tribes), and even Berbers. The Moors would control much of, then progressively smaller amounts of what is now modern Spain, for 300 years. Around 884 AD Burgos was founded as part of an expanding Christendom, and by the 11th Century it was part of the Roman Catholic Diocese of Burgos. In later times French ambitions included control of parts of Spain, and during the regime of General Francisco Franco (1939 – 1975), Burgos was the capital of his rebel Nationalist government. read more

Ávila’s Fortress and Churches Are Spanish Treasures

As ancient peoples struggled to thrive in an uncertain world, they often relied on two things for protection – churches to profess their faith in God and a sturdy fortress to keep enemies out. For thousands of years Ávila’s ideal location has been favored by a succession of cultures and today is renowned for the number of churches and the best-preserved fortress wall in Spain.

Since the dawn of civilization location remains one of the driving factors for where a city should be. This holds true for Ávila. Sited on a rocky outcrop 3,700 feet above sea level, near a spot along the Adaja River in the midst of Spain’s central plain, the city is about 72 miles west of Madrid. Ávila has been characterized as perhaps Spain’s “most 16th Century town.” read more

In Salamanca History and Young Hearts Come Together

Call it what you like – a thirst for knowledge, insatiable curiosity, or simply a keen desire to learn and know more, education is an aspirational element of the human spirit. For more than 900 years students from Spain and around the world have been attending classes at what is now Universidad de Salamanca, Spain, one of the oldest continually operating universities in the world.

But a considerable amount of time – and history – would pass before a university at Salamanca could be firmly established under Spanish rule. The area of western Spain was long considered a desirable place since its founding in ancient pre-Roman times. In 220 BC Hannibal conquered the area. The Romans then captured it from the Carthaginians. (A bridge still in use in the city was built by Romans in the 1st Century AD.) Other conquerors included Alans (thought to be of Iranian origin), Visigoths, Moors, and finally Christians would settle what is now Spain. (As late as 1492, Spain was still in the process of consolidating her borders.) read more

Miguel de Cervantes: Soldier, Jailbird, Wanderer, Scribe

The wellspring of knowledge is a source point where humanity seeks answers and inspiration. Science, art, and human endeavor advance when passionate seekers draw forth the water of knowledge. One man, Miguel de Cervantes Saavedra slaked his thirst in 1605 and again in 1615, and in the process, he produced one of history’s greatest works of literature, commonly known as The Ingenious Nobleman Sir Quixote of La Mancha (or as it is known in Spanish, El Ingenioso Hidalgo Don Quijote de la Mancha).

Beyond credit for creating one of world literature’s monumental works, Cervantes is lauded for inventing the modern novel, he is Spain’s greatest writer, and he set a standard for writing and storytelling that endures to this day. Quite an achievement, considering Cervantes did not come from wealth, nobility, or academia. In fact, Cervantes was born in a small town northeast of Madrid, Alcala de Henares, and his working career was marked by periods as a tax collector, incarceration as a debtor and also a prisoner of war. It is thought the germ of his idea for Don Quixote (as it is universally known), came to him while he was in prison during part of his military service. read more

Toledo, A Crossroads Forged by Steel

History is a blend of people, place, events, and moments. For thousands of years those elements have been mixing together in Toledo, Spain to create a fascinating history. Like so many good stories this one begins with a place.

For countless centuries the longest river in Spain, the Tagus, flowed at a spot in the central part of the country, etching deeper into the granite hillsides to create a promontory on three sides. When Celtic and Iberian tribesmen constructed a wall along the steep north side they had a highly defensible position. That is until 193 A.D., when the Roman Empire decided Toletum (as it was then known) would be an ideal place from which to rule the western edge of their empire. They drove out the Celtic tribesmen and appropriated the location for themselves. read more

Only Gaudi Could Conceive Sagrada Familia

Barcelona deserves its reputation as one of the world’s top travel destinations, a city with a grand mix of history, culture, cuisine, and architecture. When it comes to Barcelona’s architecture, no name is more highly regarded than Antoni Gaudi. His singular style of design has bequeathed the city some of the most recognizable buildings on the planet and the pinnacle accomplishment of the Catalonian’s “labore corporis” is Sagrada Familia.

The story of Sagrada Faimilia – Sacred Family – and Antoni Gaudi are intertwined. Both the city and the man represent a series of contrasts – and similarities. In some ways each is a product of the other, and neither would be one without the other had it not been for a devoutly religious man’s ambition and a city’s desire to construct a shrine to Catholicism. read more

Palau Güell

Antoni Gaudi easily ranks as one of the most brilliant architects of all time. Barcelona, Spain is home to Gaudi’s greatest works, and Palau Güell is a first-rate example of some of his early efforts. And while Palau Güell might be considered a more traditional, as compared with some of Gaudi’s later accomplishments, it is technically marvelous and strongly hints at some of the inventiveness he would demonstrate throughout his career.

Gaudi did design and build projects outside of Barcelona; the Catalan city is home, however, to his most famous buildings, and all seven of the Gaudi projects that have been recognized as UNESCO World Heritage Sites, including Palau Güell (1984), are here. read more

Castell de Montjuïc

There are a number of excellent reasons tourists find Barcelona one of the most popular cities in the world. Beauty, culture, unique attractions, Catalan magic, and so much more combine to produce a city that attracts millions of visitors each year. One of the oldest sites in the city is Castell de Montjuïc, essential to the story and history of Barcelona.

Like many areas along the Mediterranean Sea, the Catalan region has been occupied since the Stone Age. Over the centuries various conquerors laid claim to the area and by the Middle Ages European monarchs were squabbling over borders. Barcelona, a city within Catalonia, was coming into its own and for protection a fortress was needed. Located southwest of the center of Barcelona, high up on a cliff by the sea, a fortress has been located here, as far back as 1073. The basic foundation of Castell de Montjuïc was laid out in 1640. Within a year it would be the scene of battle when Catalans stood up to the supremacy of Spanish royals – and won. But less than 30 years later Catalonia would be subsumed into the borders of Spain – a point that fiercely proud Catalans still chafe over. read more

Barcelona Showcases Gaudí’s Singular Vision

The architecture of Antoni Gaudi is eye candy for the imagination. Creativity, inventiveness, form, function, visual daring, grandeur, and playfulness merge into structures as dramatically pleasing as they are superbly functional. And despite Gaudi’s immense talents he was a pious and humble man. His work is so impressive that seven of Gaudi’s projects, all in Barcelona, have been designated UNESCO World Heritage Sites.

Two of those landmarks, one a completed project and the other a dream not fully realized, are highlighted here. read more

Málaga, A Spanish Coastal Beauty

In some form or fashion every city in the world brags on itself. Some boast of interesting moments from their past, or notable people who were born or lived there. Other cities are famous for foods or drinks. And some places played a crucial role in a nation’s development. But a few cities in the world can lay claim to something truly special – being there when human civilization was just getting its feet off the ground. Málaga is one of those, and as old as it is, it continues to reinvent itself anew. read more

Salvador, Brazil, Old City in a New World

Salvador began as Brazil’s first capital city, but today it continues as the home of 2.9 million people and the capital of the state of Bahia, with a rich tradition of celebrating Carnival and an historic center that has been designated a UNESCO World Heritage Site.

Portuguese explorers first landed in what is today Brazil in April of 1500; Salvador was established in 1549 and became the colony’s first capital, until 1808, when it was moved to Rio de Janeiro (in 1960 the capital was moved to the built-from-scratch city of Brasilia). read more

A Rift is the Gift of Iguazu Falls

When laws of nature cross paths with a happenstance of geology, in this case water, gravity, and topography, a waterfall results. The basic configuration is the same, but every waterfall is distinctive and beautiful in its own way. By many definitions, one of the most impressive and incredible waterfalls on the planet is Iguazu Falls, proudly claimed by both Argentina and Brazil.

A number of features make Iguazu Falls special. Probably the most breathtaking aspect is the portion known as the Devil’s Throat, a U-shaped formation at the beginning of the head of the falls approximately 490 feet wide and 2,300 feet in length. The amount of water and the overall drop means there is a perpetual cloud of mist, often rising above the level of the Iguazu River. The overall length of Iguazu Falls is another distinctive element, and with approximately 1.6 miles of length, Iguazu is more than a half-mile longer than Victoria Falls (1.06 miles), and more than twice the length of Niagara Falls. read more

Falkland Islands or Islas Malvinas? It Depends Who You Ask

Call them what you will – Falkland Islands or Islas Malvinas – these tiny windswept specks of land situated in the South Atlantic Ocean approximately 330 miles off the coast of Argentina might well have been omitted from the annals of modern history had not two nations growled and bared their teeth when they squared off and waged a 10-week war to reconfirm who owns the land.

Europeans first sighted the islands – half the size of the U.S. state of Delaware – in 1592 and over the centuries France, Great Britain, Spain and Argentina claimed ownership. Great Britain took control in 1833, though Argentina still claims the archipelago. And there the matter stood for about 150 years, until the early 1980s – times of trouble for both Great Britain and Argentina. Each country saw advantages to pressing their case – even if it meant war. read more

Fjords, Glaciers and Rounding the Horn

Chile is home to an amazing collection of natural wonders and her southern coastal region offers an array of travel treats – world famous fjords, glacier watching and a chance to go around Cape Horn – the southern-most spot of South America.

The easiest way to take in this beauty is aboard a ship. Treat yourself to this experience and you’ll see firsthand Chile’s amazing coastal beauty that has been created thanks to the geology of tectonics, time, and climate.

Fjords were created during the Ice Age, over many millennia, when massive glaciers scoured the rock bed below them and then retreated, allowing the seawater to inundate the valley. read more

Santiago, Chile, Fascinating Capital of the World’s Most Elongated Country

Santiago is a city that defies simple summary. It is Chile’s financial and cultural center, has the largest population and is the political hub of that South American nation. But Santiago is emerging on a number of levels, with one of South America’s highest rates of economic growth and per capita income, a high literacy rate, recognition for its expanding culinary scene and a relatively corruption-free government.

Santiago’s New World beginnings began a few decades after the European land grab in South America was kicked off by Christopher Columbus’ Spanish-financed voyage in 1492 (though he did not reach South America until his third trip). But once Columbus proved the earth was round, other nations quickly followed including France, Portugal, Great Britain and others, each claiming as much territory – and wealth – as they could lay their hands on. Skirmishes, wars, slaughter and fighting would go on for more than 300 years as indigenous peoples were beaten down, their populations decimated and South America’s resources exploited. read more

Galapagos Islands, Where Nature is the Rule

The Galapagos Islands are a must-see experience for world travelers and anyone interested in ecology, species protection and preservation, and glimpsing a part of the world that remains pristine.

The unique character of these islands has been featured in countless articles, documentaries and television programs produced by luminaries such as Jacques Cousteau, David Attenborough and National Geographic. Historically, Charles Darwin’s experience at that remote archipelago sparked his imagination and led to his groundbreaking theory of evolution. read more

Cartagena, Colombia’s Most Caribbean City

Thanks to an insatiable lust for gold by the Spanish Crown, a prime location along Colombia’s northeast coast, and a shameful distinction as one of Spain’s slave trading centers, Cartagena might never have risen to prominence as an important New World city. But those factors, along with the aspirations of ambitious men, enabled Cartagena to grow and prosper. Today they are ingredients that make up a recipe for a vibrant history and lifestyle of a beautiful city on the bay.

As far back as 4000 BC, the region that today comprises Cartagena was inhabited by a group of pre-Columbian tribes who were likely attracted to the region based on the warm climate and abundance of game and seafood. Spanish conquistadors were drawn to the area because of gold that the tribes crafted into jewelry and art. One of them would go on to establish Cartagena. read more

Medellin Magic: People, Parks, Art, Markets and Food

It’s always exciting to discover and new city, and with Medellin, you’re also likely to fall in love. Forget the clichés you might have heard about Colombia’s second largest city – gone are the days of a crime-ridden haven run by drug lords.

As recently as the 1990s Medellin was considered the most dangerous city in the world. But as Paisas – those who live in Medellin (population 2.4 million) and the surrounding area – are quick to point out, dark days are giving way to a modern metropolis where tourists are welcome. As recent visitor I felt safe in Medellin. (Tip: Colombians pronounce the city’s name as med-uh-JEEN.) read more

Amazon Jungle Canopy Walkway – Strolling Between Heaven and Earth

When flying overhead, the Amazon jungle looks impenetrable. Gaze upwards from the jungle floor and the light and sky are nearly obscured. But at the interstitial between top and bottom one gets a perspective of the vibrancy and vitality of the Amazon River jungle. It’s a place to see both the trees and the forest.

For arboreal lovers, ambling along the top of a forest is a true delight. The longest canopy walkway in South America, which is also one of the longest in the world, is located in Peru’s Amazon jungle. The walkway is owned and maintained by Explorama Lodges, which for more than 50 years has been providing a place for visitors to spend time in the Amazon jungle. Their expert guides escort guests on hikes, excursions and even piranha fishing trips, in addition to a trip to their canopy walkway. read more

Yagua, Namesake of the Amazon

As time marches on some people get left behind. The Yagua, today a diaspora of fewer than 6,000 people scattered in small and remote villages along the Amazon River in Peru and Colombia, are an example of how “progress” can ravage a culture unprepared to deal with a changing world.

Yet the Yagua have a distinguished heritage and remain proud. The Amazon River was so named because early Spanish conquerors mistook the Yagua men, who wear a type of grass skirt, as women, and named the region “Amazon” after the legendary female warriors who were bitter enemies of the ancient Greeks. read more

The World’s Biggest River

Compared to every other one of the world’s great rivers, the Amazon is by far the biggest. However it’s measured, by the amount of water, size of its drainage basin, or total length, no other river comes close.

Yes, some argue the Nile River is a bit longer in total length, but that fact too is in dispute. The Amazon River, with an average discharge of 55-million gallons per second, releases more water than the next seven-largest rivers in the world combined. The Amazon River discharges approximately 20 percent of the world’s total fresh water. The Amazon basin, at more than 2.7 million square miles, is nearly twice the size of the world’s second largest river (by water discharged), Africa’s Congo River basin. And the Amazon’s mouth stretches over 40 miles and pushes freshwater more over 100 miles into the Atlantic Ocean. To date, no bridge has been built across any portion of the Amazon River. read more

The Floating Islands Where the Uros Live on Lake Titicaca

For thousands of years the Uros people have proven to be survivors. When faced with adversity this ancient peace-loving civilization in southern Peru adapts.

When the Incas were ascendant 1,500 years ago it could have been life or death for the Uros. Their choices were stark: be subsumed by the Incas, fight and face extinction, flee the rich bounty of Lake Titicaca, or perhaps come up with another answer. Their ingenious solution – build floating islands using the plentiful totora reeds of the lake – became the answer that has defined a way of life for centuries. Their mastery of the water kept the land-based Incas at bay. read more

Machu Picchu, Most Famous City of the Inca Empire

Travelers keep a list, if not on paper then in their heads of the places they would love to see. Some destinations are decided early on and for others it’s a notion that comes along later. No doubt virtually every list includes a stop at Machu Picchu, where upwards of a million people a year visit one of Mesoamerica’s greatest places.

Researchers say it took nearly 100 years to build and it was in use for only about that long before it was abandoned and lost to obscurity for 400 years more. But in 1911, when American archeologist Hiram Bingham stumbled upon Machu Picchu, about 45 miles northwest of Cusco, Peru, he reintroduced to the world a magical place that grows increasingly popular with tourists from all over the globe. read more