On Estonia’s Saaremaa island: Where mainlanders come to play and stress melts away

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The Ekesparre Boutique Hotel on Estonia’s Saaremaa Island is only open for business from April to late October. Our room was on the second level where the two windows are open.

By Betty Gordon

© 2019 text and photos. All rights reserved.

This is the fourth in a series of posts about my two-week trip in May 2019 to Tallinn, Estonia; the country’s largest island, Saaremaa; and Riga, Latvia. See my June 1 post about making an edible marzipan mouse in Tallinn; June 10 about Salaspils, a former concentration camp on the outskirts of Riga; and August 15 about the revitalized Rotermann Quarter in downtown Tallinn.

Saaremaa is to Estonia as Gotland is to Sweden.

Confused? Let me put that in context: When Estonians dream of a nearby island escape, they often think of Saaremaa, to the west of their mainland, much as Swedes decamp to Gotland, off their southeast coast, to relax, soak up the sun and otherwise play away lazy days, particularly summer ones.

For Estonians traveling the 221 kilometers (about 137 miles) from Tallinn, their capital, to Saaremaa is an easy drive or bus ride of about 3.5 hours. Likewise, from Stockholm, Sweden’s capital, it’s about three hours by ferry to Visby, the population center of Gotland (191 kilometers or about 119 miles).

And its not just Estonians who are drawn to Saaremaa: According to tourism bureau statistics, the destination is popular with a good many Finns and Russians, with smaller numbers coming from the other Baltic states of Latvia and Lithuania.

When I travel, I like to mix better-known cities and attractions with ones more off the beaten path. Saaremaa certainly fits that latter description. In mid-May, it was uncrowded, unseasonably warm and surprisingly mosquito-y in the evenings. 

Its year-round population is just north of 33,000 people (98 percent of whom are Estonian by nationality), but on some summer weekends, that number and more make the trek to Saaremaa, which covers 2,673 square kilometers (about 1,032 square miles).

“On the Virtsu-Kuivastu route [see below], we moved a total of 45,563 passengers and 15,963 vehicles between Friday and Monday [June 21-24],” ferry company TS Laevad said in a report on ERR News, an English-language service of Estonian Public Broadcasting. 

“Compared to the same period last year, that is an increase of 22 and 18 percent, respectively.”

After four very busy days exploring Tallinn, my friend Sylvia and I took a comfortable and efficient bus to Saaremaa (I booked our tickets online months before leaving home). The bus, less than half full, featured seat-back monitors for movie viewing (included in the ticket price) or musical selections.

Once the coach had cleared the city streets, we motored on a modern highway southwest, passing farmland occasionally dotted with sheep, cows and horses, and forests of birch and other trees. We also made a few stops in the countryside to pick up passengers waiting at wooden huts. 

After about two hours, we arrived at Virtsu on Estonia’s coast, where the bus was driven onto a ferry. As the other vehicles loaded, we exited the bus and headed upstairs to the second-deck seating area, where food and beverages could be purchased.

Under a half-hour later, the ferry docked at Kuivastu, and we reboarded the bus. We drove briefly across the small island of Muhu, then over a causeway onto Saaremaa and followed Highway 10 southwest all the way into Kuressaare, its capital. 

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This section of road and decorative pavement is at the southern end of Lossi Street and is an example of what the whole project will look like when completed.

At the bus station, I got directions for walking to our hotel down Lossi Street, unbeknown to us in the midst of a major renovation. Parts of the road and sidewalk were dug up and releveled awaiting resurfacing or decorative stone pavers. That meant carrying our luggage over the dust in between the sections that were more tourist-friendly.

We later found out that the project had been started the previous summer. To say that progress was slow would be an understatement. While it has every indication of an appealing outcome, the proprietors of shops and restaurants we talked to said they had seen a large decline in patrons and were eager for the beautification to be finished. 

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The Weigh House, with its distinctive outline, is the only one of its kind in Estonia. It was completed in 1663. The building currently houses a pub. 

Lossi Street and its offshoot Tallinna Street are home to some distinguished old buildings, a few dating to the 17th century. The Weigh House, with its distinct upper-level step-stone profile, was completed in 1663, and was expanded in the next century. Goods were brought to the early Baroque building and weighed, so that taxes could be determined before sale at the adjacent market square.

The Weigh House, the only structure of its kind in Estonia, has also served as a guard building and horse postal station. Its most recent renovation was 1980-82. Today it is home to the eatery Pub Vaekoda. 

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Around the Allimann/Pallopson house, the street is torn up, awaiting its turn for renovation. The wooden house is the former workshop and residence of clockmaker Emil Ferdinand Allimann, and later another clocksmith, Jaan Pallopson.

One block west of Lossi, on the corner of Kauba and Lasteaia streets, is a clocktower-topped wooden building, fittingly the former business and residence of clocksmith Emil Ferdinand Allimann. Its weathervane is topped with a banner noting the year 1899; 100 years later the clock was restored to working condition. 

In the early 1950s, the building was sold to another clocksmith, Jaan Pallopson, whose descendants still own it today. Now its main business is called Grande Boutique, which sells women’s clothing. Do go inside; it has the most pleasingly melodious seven-tone chime over the front door.

If you are further interested in a historical walk, pick up the brochure “Journeys to Dignified Buildings in Kuressaare,” which highlights 18 structures in addition to the two I’ve mentioned. The tourist information bureau is in the former city hall, now painted light yellow with a red-tiled roof, but originally dating to the 17th century. It was destroyed in the Great Kuressaare Fire of 1710 and totally rebuilt.

A variety of accommodation is available on the island, from forest huts and camping, to guest houses to upscale hotels. I chose the 10-room Ekesparre Boutique Hotel because of its location within a stone’s throw of the imposing 14th-century Bishop’s Castle, one of the larger attractions to explore, and easy access to Lossi Street. 

(The Ekesparre is only open from April to the end of October. With so few rooms, it’s a good idea to book early. I made our reservation in January for our May stay.)

In a previous incarnation, the building was a boarding house, then a pension and home to a Bohemian group of writers in the early 20th century. When Estonia was more recently part of the Soviet Union (1940-1991), the structure may have been used during World War II for interrogations and later as a police station. 

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Four rooms in the Ekesparre Boutique Hotel have bathtubs. The other six have just showers.

In the post-independence years, the building reverted to a hotel, but several versions met with varied success before an architectural restoration movement prevailed. It reopened as the Ekesparre in the fall of 2007. No traces of the distasteful years exist — replaced by welcoming and helpful staff. 

The rooms favor art nouveau style (think design-heavy wallpaper and floral-themed carpeting), and it’s apparent how much time and effort went into tiling the bathroom walls.  

The bedding in our second-floor room was modest in both size and decor. The hotel is not air-conditioned, but we found that leaving the windows open cooled the space enough for sleeping.

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Dried cereal and a variety of dried fruits are available for breakfast. Some mornings we also had fresh fruit. Juniper syrup is the deep red liquid in the glass dish in the front.

Breakfast, included in the tariff, is served from 8 to 11 a.m. in the lounge, though accommodation can be made for room service for an extra 10 euros. Each morning, we chose to sit in facing wingback chairs beside a window that overlooked the garden. The bar top and nearby tables were loaded with buffets of dried cereals, dried fruit, platters of cheese, deli-style meats and fresh vegetables (lettuce, tomato, cucumber) and an assortment of breads, croissants and muffins, juice, smoothies, coffee, tea and champagne.

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Deli-style meats, cheese, smoked salmon and fresh vegetables were also part of the buffet.

Eggs can be made to order, or you can try the pancakes with deep red juniper syrup (made from island berries). The pancakes were thicker and heavier than crepes but not as light and fluffy as a buttermilk stack.

Later in the day, guests can relax in the lounge and order cocktails from the bar, or climb the steps to the attic where a cozy wooden-paneled library provides an even more secluded space. (This floor can also be booked for private events.)

Visitors to Saaremaa can be as active or as static as suits them. Hiking, cycling, swimming, horseback riding, sailing and seal-watching are among the many varied pursuits. 

Spa treatments are also available, with six hotels catering to the crowd that enjoys saunas, pools and deeply relaxing massages and other personal pampering. 

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The Ekesparre Boutique Hotel, as seen from the back. In fine weather, breakfast can be taken to the tables in the garden. Former presidents of Estonia Arnold Rüütel and Lennart Meri have been among the hotel’s guests.

The Ekesparre offers none of these services. But included in the room price was a ticket each day of our stay to partake of the sauna at the Georg Ots Spa (named for a Soviet-born singer and actor widely revered in Estonia). From the hotel, it’s a scenic walk of about 10-15 minutes, part of which can be done along the waterside. (A 15 percent discount was offered for other spa services.)

The idea of sitting in a steaming-hot sauna on a warm spring day was not terribly attractive. But it seemed silly not to go the the hotel and at least have a look. 

I had a staff member talk me through the rules of use, and even though I hadn’t brought a swimsuit, I decided to proceed with a wrap-around towel instead. A few people were in the outdoor pool or sunbathing on its deck, and I had the toasty sauna to myself. The sauna’s thermometer read 78.8 degrees (26 celsius) but seemed warmer. 

Fortunately, bottles of water and plastic cups were on a table just outside the woodsy-aromaed room, and I could leave to hydrate and then return. The benches were uncomfortably warm — maybe it was just that I rarely take a sauna and was unaccustomed to this kind of heat on my nearly bare rear — so I elected not to lie down or even lean again a wall.

I stayed in the sauna for less than 20 minutes, and was particularly glad of a bracingly cold shower afterward to neutralize the steamy heat.

Visitors with a car can easily get to the attractions around the island, which include the Kaali meteorite crater, the five windmills at Angla and the picturesque Panga coast on the island’s north side. We took a 3.5-hour tour of those sites with an entrepreneur, and guided ourselves through the Bishop’s Castle. I’ll discuss these in a future post.

Quick reference: Ekesparre Boutique Hotel, Lossi 27, Kuressaare, Saaremaa, ekesparre.ee. Breakfast is included in the tariff. If a bathtub is important to you, ask for rooms 1, 2, 4 or 5.

Georg Ots Spa Hotel: Tori 2, Kuressaare, Saaremaa, gospa.ee

Tourist information: Visit Saaremaa, visitsaaremaa.ee; Saaremaa tourism, saaremaatourism.ee (this will open on a page about the just-completed food festival).

Bus service: Lux Express, http://www.luxexpress.eu

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In Tallinn, Estonia: Re-energized Rotermann Quarter home to trendy restaurants, apartments and more

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There’s no mistaking the industrial beginnings of the revitalized Rotermann Quarter near the port of Tallinn and Old Town. Formerly home to mills, a construction supply company and other businesses, it is now a bustling mixed-use area. This pedestrian-only street is Stalkers Pass. The lighted yin-yang sign on the left is for Tao Keskus, a self-improvement center. RØST (on the right) is a bakery and café.

By Betty Gordon 

© 2019 text and photos. All rights reserved.

This is the third in a series of posts about my two-week trip to Tallinn, Estonia; the country’s largest island Saaremaa; and Riga, Latvia, in May 2019. See my June 1 post about making an edible marzipan mouse in Tallinn, and June 10 about Salaspils, a former World War II concentration camp on the outskirts of Riga.

The directions from staff at our centrally located hotel couldn’t have been easier: Walk toward the huge Coca-Cola sign and turn left. 

It took only about 10 minutes traveling north on Laikmaa, a wide and busy street, to reach the Rotermann Quarter (sometimes called Rotermanni), a revitalized commercial area of Tallinn that was once a hub of industrial activity and home to the city’s salt storage.

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The red-accented building on the right is known as R18, near the intersection of Ahtri and Hobujaama streets. Restaurants and office space occupy the ground level. Apartments take up the other six floors. Restaurant Pull, on the ground floor of a former granary (left building), is a “casual fine-dining” establishment that specializes in grilled steak, pork, duck and salmon.  

In American-speak, we’d call what exists today a mixed-use development of varying architectural styles, offering apartments, office space, restaurants and shops. Best of all, its inner streets are car-free.

As far as its general location, the quarter is east of Old Town, a UNESCO World Heritage Site, known for its meandering cobblestone lanes, red-capped circular stone towers and its well-preserved Gothic Town Hall and square, which dates to the 15th century.

To the north of the quarter by two blocks is Tallinn’s harbor, a popular stop for cruise ships, ferries and cargo vessels. 

But walk west for several blocks, and quieter pursuits such as joggling and fishing can be found, especially if you take the path closest to the water. On a Saturday morning amble, I even found a very small market where local vegetables and fish were being sold.

My friend Sylvia and I were in search of dinner, and wandering among Rotermanni’s narrow streets, we found choices ranging from Asian to Mexican, with a few craft-brew and wine bars mingled in among compact cafés.

We also happened upon an outlet for chocolatier Kalev, which we returned to more than once to buy samples of its delicious products.

In that so many eateries were in close proximity, we took our time going from business to business studying menus, evaluating entrees and their prices, and trying to decide what we were in the mood to eat.  

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 Low lighting and casual seating set the ambiance at Restaurant Platz. 

One night we supped at Restaurant Platz, the dining space open and airy but with sturdy walls of alternating red and white bricks, its tables illuminated by candles.

I ordered Korean vegetable bibimbap, picturing a heaping bowl of rice topped with fiery kimchi, vegetables, beef and a sunny-side up egg as I had so enjoyed while in South Korea many years earlier.

Yes, I realize that the northern European country of Estonia is not in Asia, and the authenticity of the dish might be in doubt, but the menu description listed some of the “correct” ingredients. Its take: “zucchini, quinoa, pickled cucumber and radish shavings, kimchi, shimeji mushrooms, radish sprouts, gochujang celery root purée, citrus fillet and spicy tomato sauce.”

When my modest-size plate arrived, the elements were nicely presented, but consisted of hollowed-out zucchini boats filled with the above ingredients. I’m guessing quinoa substituted for the rice. 

There was nothing wrong with it per se, the vegetables fresh and the entree mildly spiced. It just was very different than what I was expecting.  

Sylvia had a a roasted chicken filet, served with potatoes, cherry tomatoes and chanterelle sauce.

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No need to dress up at Saku Gastro, which also has outdoor seating available.

On another night, we tried Saku Gastro, its motto “Ōlu & Hea Toit” (Beer and Good Food). This was probably our best dinner in Tallinn.

Its interior furnishings were modern and sleek, in unencumbered Scandinavian style. The bar was well-stocked, featuring the beer of Danish-based Carlsberg breweries.

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Chicken shashlik accompanied by sweet potato fries and a glass of Grimbergen Rouge.

I ordered chicken shashlik, juicy chunks of perfectly grilled thigh meat alternating with halved cherry tomatoes threaded on two wooden skewers. This was served over a bed of micro green and slices of roasted red and orange bell peppers and topped with crisp broccoli florets.

The entree came with a generous portion of sweet potato fries mounded in a copper tin and creamy sriracha sauce swirled into a ceramic ramekin.

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Saku Gastro serves beer, wine and mixed drinks. 

Among the suggested liquid accompaniments for the entree was a six-percent Grimbergen Rouge, a fruity Belgian ale with notes of strawberry, cranberry and elderberry, which I ordered. I do not have a sophisticated beer palate, but I enjoyed the mild, slightly sweet beverage. 

Oliver’s rib was Sylvia’s choice, a moist rack of pork ribs nestled among a green salad and fries. 

Other diners ordered the Best of Gastro, featuring side-by-side petit portions of minced trout, coconut shrimp, roast beef, pickled Baltic herring and Peipsi smelt, meant to be shared by at least two, probably as an appetizer, served on rectangular wooden boards with handles at each end.

Saku Gastro also has outdoor seating, an inviting option on a pleasant evening.

The Rotermann family’s association with the area dates to 1829, when Christian Abraham Rotermann (1801-1870) opened a construction supply company on Mere Boulevard, along the western boundary of the quarter. Twenty years later he added a department store and built sheds, mills and warehouses for other businesses.

His son, Christian Barthold Rotermann (1840-1912), assumed the reins of the company in 1865, further expanding the businesses, including building a macaroni factory in 1887.

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The blue seating (left) in the courtyard is part of Saku Gastro. The entrance to the Tallinn Design House is to the right of the restaurant. The design house specializes in Estonian brands, with goods that span fashion, furnishings, jewelry, ceramics, gifts and more.

By the early years of the 20th century, the Rotermann Quarter housed a grain elevator and flour mill, a five-floor barley mill and a bread factory, among other enterprises. By the 1920s and ’30s, it was the largest producer of flour and bread in Estonia.

Ensuing years brought a wool factory; raw linen processing plant; lumber mill; workshops featuring glass, porcelain and weaving; and eventually a vodka factory, which also turned out other alcoholic spirits.

Soviet occupation during World War II was not kind to the quarter, resulting in architectural damage and the nationalization of most remaining businesses. 

Disrepair of many buildings and lofty redevelopment plans to directly connect the streets of Rotermanni to the port of Tallinn almost doomed the quarter in the 1970s. Fortunately, those changes were derailed, but it took until well after Estonia regained its independence in 1991 for renovation to move forward.

The limestone building that had been the salt storage warehouse was restored and now houses the Museum of Estonian Architecture. It opened in 1996.

Tallinn has no shortage of places to eat — or things to do for that matter — but a stroll through this historic quarter reveals the many design and culinary elements that make Rotermanni such an urban hot spot. 

Quick reference: Restaurant Platz: 11:30 a.m. to 11 p.m. Mondays-Saturdays, 11:30 a.m. to 10 p.m. Sundays. Roseni 7, Tallinn. www.platz.ee

Saku Gastro: noon to 11 p.m. Tuesdays-Saturdays. Rotermanni 14, Tallinn. www.facebook.com/sakugastro

Kalev chocolate shop: 10 a.m. to 9 p.m. Monday-Saturdays, 11 a.m. to 6 p.m. Sundays. Roseni 7, Tallinn. kalev.eu

General information about Rotermanni: rotermann.eu

Where were you 50 years ago when two American astronauts stepped foot on the moon (and a third was in lunar orbit)?

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This photograph has become known as the “visor shot,” taken by Neil Armstrong of Buzz Aldrin on the moon. Armstrong, commander of Apollo 11, is reflected in the visor, as is the Eagle, the lunar module that Armstrong landed at the Sea of Tranquility. Photo courtesy of NASA.

By Betty Gordon 

© 2019 text and photos, except where noted. All rights reserved.

At a little before 11 p.m. Eastern Daylight Time on July 20, 1969, I was crouched on the carpeting only a few feet from the television screen in my parents’ wood-paneled den in south Florida, peering intently at a somewhat fuzzy black-and-white image. 

A figure in a bulky spacesuit was slowly easing himself backward, rung by rung, down the lunar module ladder. Radio transmissions between American astronaut Neil Armstrong and Mission Control in Houston provided a movement-by-movement account.

It was astonishing — and wildly exciting — to be able to see this picture from more than 240,000 miles away. That the clarity was somewhat compromised didn’t matter a bit.

Several hours after the Eagle landed at Tranquility Base on the moon, it was time for Armstrong, a 38-year-old Ohio native — and soon to follow 39-year-old New Jersey-born Edwin “Buzz” Aldrin — to become the first man to set foot on a celestial body other than the planet Earth.

In NASA time, it was four days, 13 hours, 24 minutes and 20 seconds into the Apollo 11 mission, the 21st manned flight in the history of the American space program. 

In Earth time it was 10:56:15 p.m., a Sunday.

Commander Armstrong extended his left booted foot, stepped off the LM (pronounced “lem”) onto the powdery surface and uttered these concise, memorable words:

“That’s one small step for (a) man, one giant leap for mankind,” an audience of millions around the world heard, likewise engrossed in front of a TV or listening on the radio.

(The “a” in the statement was hard to make out then and it’s still unintelligible now on tape, but Armstrong insists in the book “First Man” by James Hansen that he intended to include the “a.”)

It was a universal moment, seared into our collective consciousness.

About 16 minutes later, LM pilot Aldrin likewise exited the Eagle and negotiated the ladder while Armstrong captured the moments for posterity with a Hasselblad 70-mm camera.

Aldrin’s description of the lunar landscape: “Magnificent desolation,” a phrase he also used as the title for his 2009 autobiography. 

Armstrong and Aldrin’s time on the surface was limited to two hours and 40 minutes. They collected nearly 48 pounds worth of rocks and soil samples, conducted six experiments (or set up equipment to transmit data back to Earth), planted a partially unfurled American flag, tested their balance and gait in the moon’s one-sixth gravity, took a call from President Richard Nixon and snapped a lot of color photos. 

(A later controversy criticized Aldrin because he is the figure in almost all of the photos. His logical defense was that Armstrong took most of the pictures. What came to be called the “visor shot,” where Armstrong and the LM are reflected in Aldrin’s helmet, is probably the most well-known of the Apollo 11 photos.)  

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At the time of the Apollo 11 liftoff, Neil Armstrong was 38 years old as was Michael Collins. Buzz Aldrin was 39. Photo courtesy of NASA

The feel-good moon mission was a startling contrast to a year otherwise teeming with civil unrest, with a brief interlude to celebrate peace and music.

Just weeks before the astronauts lifted off, the Stonewall Inn riots in New York City, six days of violent protests, marked a major turning point in the movement for gay civil rights.

Demonstrations against the Vietnam War intensified across the United States. 

Less than a month after the astronauts returned to Earth, more than 400,000 fans trekked to a dairy farm field in upstate New York for three days of now-legendary vocal and instrumental performances at Woodstock.

And in California, the vicious murder spree of Charles Manson and his followers would soon dominate national headlines in August — and for years to come. 

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The pages are a bit brittle and yellowed with age, but this 28-page section was one of many special editions produced to mark man’s landing on the moon. 

But for those glorious day in July 1969, it was all about flying to the moon, and returning safely to Earth, as President John F. Kennedy had challenged America to do in a speech in 1961.

Collectors’ editions of books about Apollo 11 were soon to hit store shelves. Newspapers and magazines turned out commemorative editions. I saved the 28-page section produced by the Miami Herald on July 25, 1969.

The front page is a blurry screen-grab photo of both astronauts on the surface. The headline: “We Came in Peace For All Mankind,” one of the phrases on the plaque that the astronauts left on the moon. 

The section covered the mission from the liftoff of the Saturn V rocket from launchpad 39A at Cape Kennedy in Florida, profiled the astronauts (Michael Collins, the third member of the crew, was the pilot of the command module Columbia) and their families, included a diagram of the two-tiered Eagle, delved into the history of rocketry from American Robert Goddard to German immigrant Wernher von Braun, listed all the Russian and American astronauts and their crafts who had been to space, and noted the deaths of two Russian cosmonauts and eight Americans astronauts in the pre-Apollo 11 days.

Articles also considered the possibility of extra-terrestrial life, highlighted exploits of earlier explorers (Columbus’ name was frequently mentioned), described Apollo 11’s re-entry into Earth’s atmosphere and recovery at sea, detailed the astronauts’ slated 17-day quarantine, previewed the Apollo 12 moon mission scheduled for November 1969, questioned “the gap between morals and science,” and dangled the idea of an expedition to Mars, to cost an estimated $100 billion and targeting a time frame of 1982-1988.  

The advertisements were a mix of flag-waving congratulations, some to-be-expected moon-centric puns and companies noting their contributions to the space program.

The ad from Burdines, a department store (later bought out by Macy’s), from the top read: Our Hat’s Off — [Uncle Sam’s red, white and blue top hat], followed by a moon with a half-smile, and pictures of Aldrin, Armstrong and Collins (in that order in a horizontal column). The copy said: “Hip, hip hooray for Neil Armstrong, Buzz Aldrin and Michael Collins! They put a new smile on the man in the moon and proved once again when something needs doing, Uncle Sam does it.” 

A full-page ad from the airline Pan Am (which ceased operation in December 1991) teased civilians yearning to go into space: “To anyone who ever wished on the moon: sign up here.” A credit-card sized illustration featured two spacesuit-clad men on the moon, with the Earth in the background. The card’s text: “Know Ye by These Presents that Larry Anderson has become a certified member of Pan Am’s ‘First Moon Flights Club.’ ” In the lower right corner was the signature of James Montgomery, vice president of sales. 

The copy went on to say that the airline “really” had a “waiting list for the moon,” touted its ties as a contractor to the U.S. Air Force and the space program, noted that its fleet flew to 119 destinations, and in the winter of 1969, would be flying the “world’s first Boeing 747s.”

Other ads were a mix of local (banks, lawn mower sales) and national companies (IBM, Volkswagen, appliance maker Whirlpool “That Wasn’t Green Cheese They Were Eating on the Moon!).

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A range of toys and other collectibles deluged the market as tie-ins to Apollo 11. The items in this case are on display at the Cradle of Aviation Museum in Garden City, Long Island, New York. See my post of December 8, 2018 for more about the museum, especially the lunar modules, all of which were built by Grumman at Bethpage, Long Island. 

Print media wasn’t the only business getting in on the memorabilia bonanza. Products from dozens of manufacturers ran the gamut from kitchenware (glasses and pitchers) to commemorative coins. Kids had their choice of games and puzzles, plastic and paper models of the Saturn V, the Columbia and the Eagle; spaceman figures; and even Snoopy in a plastic bubble helmet. For stamp enthusiasts, there were first-day covers for purchase. One of the odder collectibles was a Wedgwood blue-and-white Jasperware plate with the two moon men and the LM in the center.

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A first-day-of-issue cover is surely a coveted souvenir among stamp collectors. It is at the bottom of the display case at the Cradle of Aviation Museum.

The astronauts were released from quarantine on August 10. They returned to their Houston homes, but not for long. America had some celebrating to do, and the astronauts and their families were the objects of an outpouring of pride and affection from coast to coast. 

In one marathon day, August 13 (a Wednesday), there were parades and ceremonies in New York City, Chicago and Los Angeles. (A 45-day, 23-nation goodwill tour by the astronauts and their wives, with  various agencies providing support staff, kicked off September 29 from Houston.)

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This is a far better photograph than the one I took at the ticker-tape parade in New York City on August 13, 1969. Apollo 11 astronauts Buzz Aldrin (left), Michael Collins (middle) and Neil Armstrong had only been out of their post-moon quarantine for a few day before greeting their adoring public. Photo courtesy of NASA

I was lucky enough to be in New York and see at least part of that parade — along with an estimated 4 million others. 

The streets were packed with people, and if I recall correctly, I was hanging out of a bathroom window several stories up in a department store. I took photos — probably with a Kodak Instamatic — but I was so far away, that the printed image wasn’t sharp.

The lead open convertible carried the smiling and waving heroes: Aldrin on the left, Collins in the middle and Armstrong on the right. 

Their car was followed by a security car, then one with the astronauts’ wives, another security car, then a car with the astronauts children (three each Aldrins and Collinses, two Armstrongs). 

Tons of confetti, streamers and ticker tape — and some whole stacks of IBM punch cards that fell like bricks, Armstrong recalled — were cast down from the skyscrapers lining the parade route through the Financial District, Broadway and Park Avenue, 42nd Street and to the United Nations (46th Street and First Avenue). 

In my scrapbook, I still have the crinkled blue streamers and bits of ticker tape from the parade.

Today, the 50th anniversary of the July 16 launch, and those pioneering steps on the moon, is fast approaching. 

Beginning 9 p.m. Monday (July 8), PBS will show over three nights “Chasing the Moon,” a documentary detailing the science, politics and personal sacrifices that went into the manned space program. 

Nine days later, at 9 p.m. July 17, it will air “8 Days: To the Moon and Back,” featuring formerly classified audio from Apollo 11, and a retelling of the mission. 

At the Smithsonian National Air and Space Museum in Washington, D.C., Armstrong’s newly conserved spacesuit will go back on display July 16. You can see it online now at https://airandspace.si.edu/exhibitions/neil-armstrong-apollo-11-spacesuit. Pay particular attention to the left gauntlet. It displays a list of tasks Armstrong was to perform on the moon. (Aldrin’s left glove similarly catalogued his duties.) 

The command module Columbia is also at the museum, though not currently on display. Collins wrote on its interior: “The Best Ship to Come Down the Line. God Bless Her.” See 45 photos online at https://airandspace.si.edu/collection-objects/command-module-apollo-11.

Special programs are scheduled for July 19 and 20 at the museum. In fact, many facilities around the country are celebrating the anniversary, including the Johnson Space Center in Houston, where the meticulously restored Mission Control, nearly exact to the last paper cup and pencil, was unveiled June 28. 

For a lengthy list of anniversary-related (and beyond) events, see NASA’s website: https://www.nasa.gov/specials/apollo50th/events.html.

The Apollo 11 mission was the last for the three astronauts. They went their separate ways, pursuing other projects. 

Armstrong died on August 25, 2012, of complications from heart surgery. He was 82. Though he carried out a space-centric, busy post-NASA schedule over the decades, it was never enough for some critics, who went so far as to call him a recluse. “First man on the moon” was not a title he coveted, and carrying it was often a burden. Though he understood the continuing interest in him, he would have preferred far less attention. 

He taught aerospace engineering at the University of Cincinnati for eight years, until 1980. When the space shuttle Challenger exploded shortly after liftoff in January 1986, he joined the Presidential Commission convened to discover the cause of the disaster, which took the lives of six astronauts and New Hampshire teacher Christa McAuliffe.

Aldrin, 89, who has written openly about his post-moon mission battle with depression and alcoholism, continues to advocate for an expedition to Mars, presenting ideas and innovations in continuing pursuit of the goal. Command module pilot Collins said in a 2016 interview with the Smithsonian’s Air & Space magazine that Aldrin “eats, lives and breathes space.” 

Of the three, Aldrin has capitalized the most on his celebrity status. He’s also infamous for having punched a persistent (and misguided) camera-toting man who wanted Aldrin to swear on a Bible that the landing was a hoax. (The same person harassed Armstrong at a company’s annual meeting in New York in 2001 and at his home in Ohio.)

After leaving NASA, Collins briefly worked at the State Department, before joining the Smithsonian, where as director he shepherded the construction of the Air and Space Museum building on the Mall (it opened in July 1976). He retired in 1982 from the U.S. Air Force Reserve with the rank of major general. 

He’s also written several books, including “Carrying the Fire: An Astronaut’s Journeys.” Now 88, he, too, supports a Mars mission, though he said in the Air & Space magazine interview that it should be an international effort. 

 

Absolutely enchanted by the tiny fawn on my doorstep, and the season’s other newborns

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Comfort may not have been the first thought on my visitor’s mind when it sandwiched itself in the corner of my doorstep. More likely it was “Where can I hide?”

By Betty Gordon 

© 2019 text and photos. All rights reserved.

For previous posts about fawns born in my backyard, see June 10 and July 1, 2017, and July 7, 2018.

The nursery in my backyard, welcoming newborn fawns for the third consecutive year, has expanded to my front doorstep. Literally.

On Saturday morning (June 22), I was preparing to take my dog Simon for a walk as usual. He was on my left at the front door, and pulling on his leash as he always does. So my vision was obscured to our immediate left as we stepped outside.

He vocalized a little yip, as the pulling increased. 

I heard a louder, higher-pitched yelp in return. 

There, on the front landing, settled in the corner between the wall and a rust-colored plastic planter filled with dirt — busy-beaver chipmunks and various other critters keep eating my flowers — was a tiny fawn. 

Its rear legs were splayed in figure “S” formation, the split black hooves pointing backward. The left front leg was fully extended parallel to the wall, but the right front limb was folded under its body.

Breathing gently, it was resting on its stomach. Its ears were up and alert, the nose was partially hidden by the planter.

“Oh, wow,” I said to myself almost in a whisper, thrilled to see the fawn so close. But I knew that I had to distract Simon, who wanted to do what dogs do: Investigate. (Fawns give off very little scent, having been licked clean their mom.)

And we would have to get back up the steps without disturbing the fawn — and quickly — so I could take photos before it decided it had had enough of this frightening intrusion and scampered away. 

Simon, my black Lab-mix who thinks he’s the alpha dog around here, was cooperative. He did his business — he’d get his customary long walk later — and I put him back in the house.

I grabbed my smart phone and my camera, opened the door slowly and stepped back outside. 

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The position of the fawn was such that anyone coming up the stairs likely wouldn’t have seen it until reaching the landing.

The fawn looked to be several hours old. Only the fur on its tummy seemed damp. I went down the stairs and stood on my lawn facing the house so that I could get a better look at its face and its big innocent eyes, just barely visible between the wall and the planter.

This prone-body position was different than all the fawns I’ve found in my backyard in previous years. They’ve generally been curled into themselves to some degree: nose to tail, with their legs wrapped tightly under their body.

I’ve name this fawn Ellie. I have no idea if it’s a boy or girl; I couldn’t get a good enough look to see if its head had the two round spots where antlers will grow.

I alerted my neighbors, and one by one, they quietly crept up the stairs and had their own moments of joy peering at the little visitor, taking photos also.

I planted new gardenia bushes this spring, and augmented the pine straw around the existing shrubs. I’ve often thought this would be a perfect spot for a doe to conceal a newborn.

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I saw this fawn, hunkered down in the woods beside my property, on Sunday. The dark spot above its right eye may indicate it is a male, and is where an antler will grow.

This is the third fawn of the season at my house. On June 7, several adult deer were in the backyard in the late afternoon, and when I went on my deck to watch, I saw a fawn in the corner grassy-weedy area. I have photos of the fawn I named Friday from two years ago in this exact spot. (See my post of June 9, 2017.)

The adults ran off to the woods, with the baby in hot pursuit, and I wasn’t fast enough to get a photo. 

My next-door neighbor, whose deck also affords a view of my backyard, told me that she saw a doe licking a newborn on June 21 in this spot. I missed it completely.

Last Saturday, I sat on my inside stairs watching Ellie through the window, wondering how long it would stay. I was happy that it was completely under the overhang and would be shielded if it rained later.

Alas, though it probably had been resting there several hours — most does give birth early in the morning — I was only aware of Ellie’s presence for less than 90 minutes.

I heard some scraping, its hooves against the plastic, and saw it wobble to its feet. 

Then Ellie eyed the stairs. “Hmmm, how do I negotiate these?” it might have been thinking.

Not so well, as it turned out. Ellie tumbled off the landing onto the pine straw, between a gardenia bush and a pointy-leafed holly bush.

Seemingly unfazed, Ellie stood up and darted across my lawn into the woods. I followed but lost track of the spotted speedster.

About 3:30 in the afternoon, I was working on this post and was in what I call my “deer-watching position,” from where I can see out the front windows and track the animals as they come out of the woods, and often graze on anything that takes their fancy.

They eat my flowers and my ground cover, and balance themselves up on their back legs so they can nibble leaves off the trees — and then do similar damage in my neighbors’ yards.

Into view came a doe … and then two fawns. Does Ellie have a sibling? 

I thought so for a few minutes, until I decided that the twins looked too big for Ellie to be one of them. I’d heard that the previous week twins were born in a neighbor’s yard, a street over from mine, so these were probably those animals. 

Grabbing my camera again, I got off a few shots before the trio pranced across my driveway and down the street.

About an hour later, I caught sight of a doe with a patch of fur missing on her left front shoulder. Trailing was a tiny fawn. This was probably Ellie.

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This fawn, born in my neighbors’ yard on Monday, was wiggling its nose while I was taking its picture.

On Monday, another newborn was in my neighbors’ backyard, in the corner that abuts mine. Its mom had jumped the fence in one effortless bound and left the baby in a grassy area. My neighbors opened their front gate so the doe would have easier access when she returned.

By my count, this fawn was the seventh I’ve seen this year. I try to take note of differing characteristics such as the color of their coats — from creamy caramel to milk-chocolatey brown — or whether the rims of their ears are outlined in black or tan.

Does often give birth in one spot and then move their young to a safer place. Sometimes twins are within eyesight of each other, like Sunday and Sammy, born in my backyard last year. (See post of July 1, 2017.)

But my doorstep isn’t what I would call particularly well-hidden.

There was no blood on the concrete and no sign of afterbirth, so the delivery room was likely elsewhere, possibly my neighbor’s yard two doors down. The person who lives in the lower level reported looking out the window in the morning and seeing two large eyes returning his gaze.

The question remains: How did the fawn get up the stairs? (Fawns can walk within 20 minutes of birth, albeit unsteadily.) Was it secluded elsewhere, lying perfectly still, its spots providing camouflage in the woods? 

Did something spook it, and in its confusion and disorientation simply dart up the stairs and hide behind the first thing it saw?

Or did the doe nudge it with her nose to get the baby to go where she wanted?

Whatever the method, it’s possible the doe was at one point standing in front of the door, which means that she could have inadvertently rung the bell.

Our welcome mat says “Wipe your paws” and has two paw prints above and below that suggestion.

Maybe it should also say “Wipe your hooves!”? 

In Sintra, Portugal: Palaces, park and castle ruins richly deserve their UNESCO World Heritage Site status

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The Palácio Nacional da Pena in Sintra, Portugal, combines a riot of color and varied architectural styles. It is Portugal’s most visited palace.

By Betty Gordon 

© 2019 text and photos. All rights reserved.

This is the eighth post on my spring 2017 trip to Portugal. See March 4, 2018 for a post about the Monument to the Discoveries in the Belém section of Lisbon; February 18 about the National Tile Museum and making a ceramic tile at a small shop; January 16 about a visit to Taylor’s port wine lodge in Porto; June 2, 2017 about unexpectedly meeting author/TV travel host Rick Steves in Lisbon; July 30 for a post about the Casa da Musica concert hall in Porto; August 20 on cork and its importance to Portugal; and September 3 on custard tarts, a Portuguese specialty.

If your taste in royal palaces runs toward a sedate two-tone facade and understated flourishes, then be prepared for a shock when visiting the multi-hued Palácio Nacional da Pena set on the second-highest hill above Sintra, Portugal.

With its odd juxtaposition of colors — which seemingly change with the light — and architectural styles, one can only wonder what Romanticism-inspired plans were stirring in the mind of Dom Ferdinand II when he commissioned the renovation of a ruined Hieronymite monastery beginning in 1839.

Sintra was long a favorite getaway for royalty, and anyone else with the means to escape to cooler climes during steamy Portuguese summers. 

The Palácio Nacional da Pena is among Sintra’s most-photographed and visited sights, and is featured on the front and back covers of the 2017 Lonely Planet guide to Portugal. More than 1.6 million visited the palace and park in 2017. 

About a 40-minute train ride from Lisbon, Sintra is 18 miles northwest of the country’s capital. But there is so much to take in in this UNESCO World Heritage Site (since 1995) that you will need to get an early start and be prepared for a long day of sightseeing to sandwich it all in. 

Or better yet, consider staying overnight so you can enjoy all that Sintra has to offer at a more leisurely pace.

Either way, do not spend a moment planning to drive to Sintra during the summer. Even on a shoulder season Friday during my May visit, the narrow streets were crowded with tourists on foot, and parking was extremely limited. 

For a modest fee, a shuttle bus will transport you from the train station to all the major sights. (I recommend going to the farthest point you want to see, and then you’ll be able to walk mostly downhill if you are too impatient to wait for the shuttle.)

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The ruins of the 10th-century Castelo dos Mouros were stabilized in the 19th century, another of Ferdinand II’s projects.

You can purchase a combination ticket for the Palácio Nacional da Pena and its sprawling park; the Palácio Nacional de Sintra, with its own quirky architectural elements; and the Castelo dos Mouros, a ruined fortification, parts of which date to the 10th century when the Moors conquered the Iberian peninsula. 

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This is the view of the Palácio Nacional da Pena from the ramparts of the Moorish castle ruins. 

My friend Sylvia and I could fit in only the first and last attractions. It was a mostly clear day, and as we scrambled up and down the Moorish castle’s railing-less ramparts, the view back toward the majestic Palácio Nacional da Pena and tree-covered hills was spectacular.

The arts-loving, multi-lingual Fernando II (1816-1885) is due a fair amount of credit for Portugal’s forward-looking improvements and building boom. The German-born prince from the duchy of Saxe-Coburg-Gotha had a spousal role similar to that of his cousin Prince Albert, who was married to Great Britain’s Queen Victoria: sounding board, collaborator, visionary. 

Consort to Queen Maria II (born 1819) from their marriage in 1836 until her death in childbirth in 1853 (with her 11th child), Ferdinand II was regent for his son from 1853 to 1855, until Pedro V ascended the throne.

Ferdinand II later married Swiss-born and Boston-raised opera singer Elise Hensler, whom he lived with for several years before their 1869 wedding. Among her projects was a two-story Swiss-style chalet built in 1864 in the western end of the park, sometimes known as the House of Indulgence (Casa do Regalo).

In addition to the chalet, the park, covering 85 hectares (about 210 acres) features up to 500 species of trees, with plants transported from around the world, several lakes, winding paths and stone benches. With its mix of orderly elements and wild vegetation, the park was envisioned as a place where people could commune with nature — and think about it while they were doing so.   

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The Gate of Justice features one arch atop another. Tiles adorned with fruit-and-leaf motifs and three rose relief sculptures separate the two sections. 

Today, the palace is accessed from a path up a steep hill, then through the tiled and double-arched Alhambra Gate, inspired by the Gate of Justice at the Alhambra in Granada, Spain. 

From there, visitors can head to the pink chapel and the Manueline cloisters (built around 1511), both original parts of the Hieronymite monastery. On the northeastern side of this section, the structure is adorned with pointed watchtowers of varying size and shape.  

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Many visitors pose for photographs at the Courtyard of Arches.

Among the most photogenic areas is the Courtyard of Arches, on the western side of the hill, with its reddish three-story clock tower at one end and its French’s mustard-yellow  arches overlooking the countryside descending toward Sentry Walk. 

In about the center of the complex is the Terrace of the Triton, so named for the menacing sea god Triton, perched on a richly decorated scallop shell beneath a bow window. The half-man half-fish is the focal point above an archway that connects identical windowed towers partially covered in tiles.

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The circular tower (left) housed the apartments of King Manuel II and the Stag Room, where banquets were held. The building to the right (with balcony and tiled facade) is the location of the Great Hall. Continuing to the right, beneath the twin towers is the entrance to the Music and Smoking Room. In the foreground, with the spiky diamonds and twin watchtowers, is the Monumental Gate.  

Opposite the courtyard at the western section of the palace is a yellow circular tower capped with a grayish-blue Moorish-inspired dome. Inside this building is the former apartments of King Manuel II (reigned 1908-1910), the last monarch to live in the palace, and the Stag Room, used as a banqueting hall. The “trophies” around the room’s interior are plaster heads mimicking real stags, with their authentic antlers likely found on the palace grounds. 

A wooden table comprised of six sections, perhaps Ferdinand II’s ode to King Arthur’s knights’ Round Table, partially encircles an intricately decorated tiered white column. Lacking a seventh section, the table ends intentionally do not meet.  

Other rooms such as the kitchens, Ferdinand’s dining room and royal bedrooms are open to the public. The furniture, china, artwork and other accessories are a combination of Ferdinand II’s acquisitions and the few royals that followed. (Portugal became a republic in October 1910.)

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The Palácio Nacional de Sintra is closer to the center of town that the Palácio Nacional da Pena. It’s about a 15-minute walk from the train station.

We didn’t have time to explore the Palácio Nacional de Sintra, recognizable by its twin white conical chimneys and set more in the center of town. Its interiors are described as more lavish than those at Pena. This palace dates to the 14th century, with an expansion in the 16th century. Its major transformation was credited to Dom João I (reigned 1385-1433), who lived there with his English bride, Philippa of Lancaster, daughter of John of Gaunt (son of Edward III and father of Henry IV). 

Quick reference: Palácio Nacional da Pena: Hours: Palace: 9:30 a.m. to 7 p.m., park: 9:30 a.m. to 8 p.m. Admission, palace and park: ages 18 to 64, 14 euros (about $16); ages 6 to 17 and over 65, 12.5 euros (about $14); two adults and two youths, 49 euros (about $55). Park only: ages 18 to 64, 7.5 euros (about $8.50); ages 6 to 17 and over 65, 6.5 euros (about $7.50); two adults and two youths, 26 euros (about $29). Save 5 percent by purchasing online. Up to six attractions can be included in a combination ticket (valid for 30 days). The website has information on all the sights I’ve mentioned and other things to see in Sintra: parquesdesintra.pt

 

Colossal stone statues, stark architecture commemorate site of former WWII Salaspils concentration camp outside Riga, Latvia

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Enormous statues, perhaps in part conveying concentration camp prisoners’ efforts to hold onto their dignity, enclosed by the Way of Sorrows at Salaspils Memorials, less than 10 miles from central Riga, Latvia. Clockwise from left: “The Humiliated,” “The Mother,” “Solidarity,” “The Oath,” possibly “Rot Front” (showing solidarity with a cause) and “The Unbroken.”

By Betty Gordon 

© 2019 text and photos. All rights reserved.

This is the second in a series of posts about my two-week trip to Tallinn, Estonia; the country’s largest island Saaremaa; and Riga, Latvia, in May 2019. See my June 1 post about making an edible marzipan mouse in Tallinn.

It is mostly quiet now in a clearing less than 10 miles (15 kilometers) from central Riga, save the occasional breeze-driven ripple of leafy branches or the sound of footsteps crunching stones on a landscaped path.

Hushed, that is, except for a metronome’s steady beat, beat, beat marking the inevitable passage of every second of every year since the Salaspils Memorials opened on October 13, 1967, when Latvia was under the umbrella of the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics. (After the breakup of the Soviet Union, Latvia became an independent republic in 1991, and joined the European Union and NATO in 2004.)

Set on about 49 acres (20 hectares) of what was one of the lesser-known compounds of Nazi-ordered brutality during World War II, the Salaspils concentration camp was constructed beginning in late 1941 by Jews deported from Czechoslovakia, Germany and Austria, as well as Latvian, Lithuanian and Estonian political prisoners, resistance fighters and military personnel.

(Brochures refer to it as a “police prison and labor correctional camp” because it was administered by the commander of the security police in Latvia, and not from Berlin. Latvia was independent from 1918 to 1940; the Soviets invaded in June 1940. The Nazi occupation began a year later.)

Whatever the designation, as at the hundreds of other camps, illness, disease, overwork, starvation rations and inhumane treatment took their toll. As many as 3,000 people may have died at Salaspils.

Tantalizingly close to towering stands of pine, birch and spruce trees, prisoners not only dreamed about escape, but some tried. The odds of slipping past search lights and armed guards in six watchtowers, then negotiating a double barbed-wire fence were slim. 

Still evident nestled in ankle-high grass are the foundation footprints of some of the overcrowded barracks, where up to 23,000 forced laborers over four years were housed. Tenderhearted visitors have left a colorful array of stuffed animals at two slabs that indicate where children lived. 

Some of the several-thousand youngsters who had been transported from Belorussia, Russia and Latgale (in eastern Latvia) were free labor for farmers in the areas surrounding Salaspils. As such, some of the children received better care and had more access to food.

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The pillar indicates one of the sites of a former gallows at Salaspils Memorials.

The Way of Sorrows, an elongated horseshoe-shaped walkway, encloses some of the memorial elements, dominated by six colossal stone statues, geometrically stark, with evocative names such as “Solidarity,” “The Unbroken,” “Oath” and “The Humiliated.”

At the ceremonial end of the Way of Sorrows is the source of the steady ticking, encased in an almost 20-foot (6 meter) polished piece of marble. Wreaths and stuffed animals are left here too, acknowledging those who lost their lives from 1941 to 1944.

The entrance to the modernistic memorial is a 396-foot-long (120-meter) wall, almost like a forbidding horizontal slash, meant to portray the dividing line between life and death. 

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In some interpretations, this imposing horizontal structure represents the dividing line between life and death. Or as the Latvian poet Eižens Vēveris wrote: “Behind this gate, the earth groans.”

The structure is emblazoned with the words “Aiz šiem vārtiem vaidzeme,” which translate to “Behind this gate, the earth groans,” sentiments from a poem by Latvian writer Eižens Vēveris (1899-1976), who was imprisoned here.

Inside, part of the corridor exhibit displays photographs, drawings, text (in English, Russian and Latvian), videos and models describing what life was like at Salaspils. The exhibit, which includes a section about the architectural vision of the designers and sculptors, opened on February 7, 2018.

Salaspils laborers put in 10-hour days, six days a week, doing such tasks as building and repairing roads, breaking rocks in a quarry and digging peat. Some were sent to another site to construct runways and an aerodrome.

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Prisoner Kārlis Bušs illustrated the heavy labor required by co-workers digging peat.

Demands were less physical for those who worked in the carpentry, cobbler or machine shops or elsewhere. Among the more difficult jobs for women was in the laundry, where everything was washed by hand.

Punishment was harsh, ranging from beatings to death. To the right of the Way of Sorrows, a stone column marks the site of the former gallows.

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Stuffed animals have been left at the remains of barracks that once housed children.

Near the end of 1943, the Nazis began to transport prisoners from Salaspils to infamous concentration camps at Buchenwald, Sachsenhausen (both in Germany) and Mauthausen (Austria) and elsewhere, where the need of slave laborers was higher.

In May 1944, about 400 Soviet prisoners of war and invalids arrived in Salaspils and were executed. 

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A better look at “The Humiliated,” with a bent arm acting as a covering shield, “The Mother” sheltering two children and the defiant male figures from another viewpoint.

By September 20, 1944, no one remained, and the site was destroyed by fire. The Soviet Army liberated Riga on October 13, 1944.

Before I left home, I had investigated the best way to get to Salaspils, noting options by train (under 3 euros round trip), bus and rental car. Once in Riga, I priced the cost of round-trip taxi fare, plus waiting time, which was likely to be in excess of 60 euros (about $68). 

What I had been unable to ascertain was if there were signs on a path from the train station to the memorials. While I was at the Riga Ghetto Museum, a young woman made two calls on my behalf — she’d never been to Salaspils herself. The second was to the Salaspils tourism center, with a person there confirming that independent travelers would be able to follow a marked path to the memorials. 

Eternally grateful for the kindness of strangers

From the Riga station, we took the 10:56 a.m. train seven stops (about 15 minutes) to Darzini — little more than a graffiti-marred roofed shelter — with no road access or parking lot. And no sign pointing to a trail. A man who got off the train pointed us to the left, so we crossed the tracks and off we went into the woods.

A sign (yay!) indicated the site was 2 kilometers away. After about 10 minutes of walking, we came to a second sign. But when we reached a gravel road intersection, we had to guess which direction. (Darn!)

I walked maybe a quarter-mile to the right and saw no signage. I retreated to where my friend Sylvia was waiting, and then we walked to the left. Several cars passed us. We could see a small cluster of houses not far away. 

A car stopped, Sylvia talked to the driver and he said we were going in the wrong direction. He offered to take us, but I thought it best to decline for safety reasons. (Earlier I had made a lame joke that if anything happened to us in these isolated woods, it would be a long time before anyone found us.)

Shortly thereafter, a female driver stopped; she had an empty child seat in her white hatchback. While she zipped along to our destination, we tried unsuccessfully to make mental notes — gee, all these trees sure look alike — so that we could retrace that route.

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A drawing of how Salaspils concentration camp looked during World War II. The paper in the center shows the layout of the barracks, which may have numbered 39, though not all were used to house people.

After a brief ride, she dropped us at the Salaspils Memorials parking lot. She offered to give us her phone number, but we declined because we didn’t have a phone that would work in Europe.

We thanked her profusely, then walked up a heavily shaded lane to the entrance.

On the far side of the angled concrete wall, a man was finishing a small-group tour. We didn’t know if he was a private guide or someone who worked there. The site has no visitor center, museum shop or restrooms, and seemingly no way to make contact with the outside world.

After we’d seen everything (in about two hours), we walked back to the parking lot and tried to get reoriented. Several people were getting in cars and I asked if anyone spoke English. A man indicated that he did but declined to speak to me.

We had no clue how to access the walking path to get back to the Darzini stop. Or to the Salaspils station, five kilometers (3.1 miles) away, for that matter.

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From this angle, trees almost obscure the colossal statues.

Through the trees, we could see a train chugging past, and we briefly toyed with the idea of walking parallel to the tracks to Darzini. That didn’t seem to be the safest option, so we walked down a gravel road, and encountered a friendly young man pushing a baby carriage. 

He assured us that once we got to the main road, we could get a bus. He said he was from Riga and was unfamiliar with the general area.

We passed a cemetery (near a big sign indicating Salaspils was 1.2 km to the left) and he got in his car there. We continued to a divided highway — I believe it was the A6 — and there was no bus shelter/stop in either direction.

We retreated again, and walked down another gravel road. We ended up near what I can only surmise was the waste treatment plant northeast of the memorial that one of the staff at our hotel had shown me on a Google map. We turned around and went back toward the cemetery.

I approached an older man just outside the cemetery gate and asked if he spoke English. He did not, but we repeatedly said “Darzini” and “Salaspils station” and “train,” which led him to retrieve a map booklet from the car. Alas, it was no help.

Finally, he phoned his daughter, who spoke English. I told her we were trying to get back to the train stop at Darzini, but I knew that the station at Salaspils might be a better option.

Meanwhile, the man’s wife had left the cemetery and gotten in their car, also a hatchback. 

The daughter said that her father would drive us, though we weren’t sure if that meant to Darzini or Salaspils.

Wandering these multiple wrong avenues probably consumed about an hour. The weather was overcast and cool, so at least we weren’t uncomfortable. 

After about a 10-minute ride through a modern-looking town, we ended up at the Salaspils station. We offered to pay the gentleman, but he refused the money. To say that his kindness, and the woman who picked us up earlier, was heartily appreciated is a massive understatement. 

We went into the tourist information center, across from the train station, to politely report our frustration over the lack of walking-path signage. The woman there said a new employee was likely the person the woman from the Riga museum had spoken to, and she may not have had correct information. Good intentions, though thwarted.

We paid the fare for two extra stations, then used our original return tickets for Riga.

Two days later, at Riga’s Museum of Jews in Latvia, I met a woman from London who had taken the train to Salaspils station the previous day. She said she walked to the memorial — much farther than she anticipated — and that path also had no signage. Her internal compass must be far better than mine, or maybe her smart phone worked in Europe. 

The bottom line is that we got to the memorial and back, and that (fortunately) nothing bad happened. But it sure would have been a lot easier if the walking path had proper signage. 

Maybe the most efficient approach for future visitors would be to take the train to Salaspils station, then ask the tourist center to call for a taxi the rest of the way.

Quick reference: Salaspils Memorial, outside Riga, Latvia. Designed by architects Gunārs Asaris, Olģerts Ostenbergs, Ivars Strautmanis and Oļegs Zakamennijs, and sculptors Ļevs Bukovskis, Oļegs Skarainis, Jānis Zariņš. The team was awarded the highest Soviet honor, the Lenin Award, in 1970. Hours: 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. daily April to October; 10 a.m. to 3 p.m. daily November to March. Admission: Free. Tours can be booked in advance in Latvia, Russian or English. See website for details. https://salaspilsmemorials.lv/en/index/

In Tallinn, Estonia: Making a marzipan mouse is sweetly enjoyable fun

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It took about an hour to transform a 40-gram ball of plain marzipan into the elements of this edible mouse and cheese at a shop in Tallinn, Estonia. 

By Betty Gordon 

© 2019 text and photos. All rights reserved.

This is the first in a series of posts about my two-week trip to Tallinn, Estonia; the country’s largest island Saaremaa; and Riga, Latvia, in May 2019.  

Picture several gold trays filled with cartoon characters, adorable animals, animated trains and delicate flowers, all brightly colored and too cute for words. What’s more, all of these diminutive figures are edible, fashioned from slightly sweet marzipan. Wouldn’t you jump at a chance to make one yourself? 

Several months before I left for Tallinn, I sent an email to a historic Estonian company renowned for its chocolate, but which also has a stellar reputation for its marzipan. I hoped to take a class making one or the other of the confections.

Unfortunately, the minimum number for class was four. I said my friend Sylvia and I would be happy to join others who had already registered, but it seemed the only other option, suggested by the chocolate company, was to pay double for a class just for two. I thought 70 euros (about $78) seemed excessive for making marzipan from scratch and then sculpting a figure, so I passed on confirming a reservation. 

So imagine my delight when walking around Tallinn’s Toompea Hill, southwest of its Old Town, I found a small shop called Martsipanigalerii (Marzipan Gallery) that would not only let us make something from marzipan, but cost a fraction of what the other company charged. And no reservation was needed either. 

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The chicken (bottom row, far right) would have been easy to make. The Minion character (bottom row, third from left) would have required more steps and colors. 

At Martsipanigalerii, the five-euro fee (about $5.60) covered very minimal instruction from an employee, a 40-gram ball of plain marzipan (about 1.4 ounces) to model, a six-color container of edible food dye to use and a plastic cube to transport our finished work.

Marzipan, made from finely ground almonds, sugar and unbeaten egg white (recipes vary; some include honey, almond extract and a bit of water, and may substitute corn syrup for the egg white), has a long history in Estonia, dating to the Middle Ages. The slightly sticky confection may have been introduced to Europe from Persia (modern-day Iran), where writings mention it as early as the ninth century. 

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Visitors to the Marzipan Gallery can sample small bites of marzipan in several flavors, from plain to pistachio to cardamom-spiced.  

Today, it’s especially popular in Austria, Belgium, Germany, Hungary, Italy, Spain and France, and a favorite of pastry chefs worldwide for adding whimsicality to any creation.

Given its malleability and long shelf-life if stored in an air-tight container, it is perfect for encasing cakes, shaping into ribbons and bows or other show-stopping decorations. It also takes well to ceramic or metal molds.

Some supermarkets carry marzipan, and it can be ordered online.

If you want to see tiny fruit taken to excess, watch Martha Stewart make a three-tiered almond wedding cake adorned with marzipan cherries, raspberries, stems and leaves in Julia Child’s kitchen on PBS’s “Baking with Julia” from 1997. (https://www.thirteen.org/programs/baking-with-julia/julia-child-baking-julia-three-tiered-wedding-cake-martha-stewart-part-1/)

For our much-less fussy marzipan session, each work station at two tables had a white rectangular plastic board, a paintbrush for adding food coloring and detail, and a multipurpose plastic tool with a knife-like serrated edge at one end and a graduated oval at the other for shaping and texture. 

We were given disposable wipes to clean our hands and tools throughout the session, but even so, I had no intention of eating my finished figure.

The biggest decision was what to make. Being marzipan novices, we eliminated some of the figures that seemed more complicated or had a lot of parts. For example, crafting multiple petals for a rose and arranging them to resemble something elegant from nature seemed a bit above our skill level. 

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Marzipan makers can copy any of the figures in the shop, or craft something from their own imagination. Possibilities are endless.

We both decided to make a mouse, perched on a round of yellow cheese, resting on a thin platform. With a tail, eyes, ears and a nose, a total of nine pieces to mold.

I started with the green base, working the dye into the plain marzipan a little at a time. Rolling it into a ball between my palms to evenly distribute the color and then flattening it into a disk reminded me of a cross between manipulating Silly Putty and Play-Doh.

Next I made the mouse’s body, which didn’t require any color, just a bit of shaping. 

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Once I finished incorporating the food dye into the elements of my figure, it was time to assemble them. 

For the ears and tail, I incorporated the orange dye into a small ball, then took a pinch of it to roll a thin log for the tail and two smaller balls for the ears. I found the end of my paintbrush was perfect for making indentations in the ears, and for poking shallow holes in the top of my wheel of yellow cheese, the last element I made, using what remained of the original portion of marzipan.

Once all my components were ready, I put the ears and tail on my mouse. A staff member supplied a tiny amount of black marzipan to complete the eyes and nose. The remaining parts were pretty easy to assemble on a blue cardboard platform — base, cheese, mouse.

It took about an hour to craft Walter, as I’ve named my rodent, a laughably long time considering that staff at the shop can make about 30 of the figures in one hour, in assembly-line fashion. 

The shop also has a cafe, and sells a wide range of bigger marzipan figures for visitors to consume with their beverage, or to take with them. 

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Marzipan Moomin family characters (white trolls that resemble hippos) are on a picnic in the downstairs gallery (behind glass). 

Downstairs is a gallery of much larger marzipan scenes, that the staff is eager for visitors to see. There is no cost to do so. Word must have circulated about this shop, because a film crew was there when I was viewing the tableaux, ranging from the adult dogs and puppies from “101 Dalmatians,” to a scale replica of Tallinn’s iconic brick Fat Margaret Tower to Moomin characters, which are wildly popular in their home country of Finland, in Japan and elsewhere. 

I hand-carried Walter home, as I did when I made an amezaiku bunny from an edible super-hot rice paste mixture in Japan (see my August 22, 2016 post). At least Walter looks like the finished product I intended, which is more than I can say for my bunny.

Quick reference: Martsipanigalerii (Marzipan Gallery), Pikk 40, Tallinn, Estonia. Open daily 10 a.m. to 6 p.m. Drop-in modeling session: 5 euros. Individual instruction (10 euros) and group sessions (5.50 euros) also available, but reservations at least three days in advance are required. http://www.martsipan.ee

How an industrious young Polish woman survived three years in Nazi labor camps and a near-fatal forced march in winter

By Betty Gordon 

© 2019 text. All rights reserved.

“All But My Life: A Memoir” by Gerda Weissmann Klein (Hill and Wang, paperback, 1996, 38th printing)

One day short of her 21st birthday, Gerda Weissman found herself somewhere in the Czechoslovakian countryside. Of the 2,000 or so other tortured souls who had been force-marched through several European countries for more than three months in the winter of 1945, only about 120 were still alive, all of them barely clinging to life.

Cherished friends had died along the march, or were to at its very end. Others had been shot by Nazi guards. Constantly reminding herself of the words of her beloved older brother, Arthur, that she must live and “be strong,” she pushed on, step after step, covering more than 500 kilometers (about 310 miles). The column she was part of left Grünberg, one of the subcamps of Gross-Rosen (now in western Poland), on January 29, and eventually staggered into Volary, now in the Czech Republic, as spring took hold. 

When rumors circulated at an abandoned factory where they stopped on May 7, 1945, that the Germans had surrendered, and that World War II in the European theater would be formally over the next day, she could barely believe it. 

She weighed 68 pounds. What little hair she had was white.

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Gerda Weissmann Klein’s memoir first appeared in 1957. She updated her book for the paperback edition, which has had numerous reprintings. In the background is her photo ID from 1940.

Among her most precious possessions: Ski boots, in which she had hidden family photographs, and one of her boyfriend, whom she had reluctantly (and with inner turmoil) promised to marry.

“As I look back now, trying to recall my feelings during those first hours [after liberation], I actually think that there were none,” she writes in “All But My Life,” her moving and emotional account of her survival. “My mind was so dull, my nerves so worn from waiting, that only an emotionless vacuum remained. Like many of the other girls I just sat and waited for whatever would happen next.”

As life-changing as all that came before was, so, too, was what came after.

Among the soldiers of the U.S. Army’s 5th Infantry Division hurriedly staffing a hospital and other support structure needed to administer to the starved, weak and sickly individuals was a young lieutenant, German-born Kurt Klein, the man who would become her husband in 1946, and whom she would be married to until his death in 2002. 

At age 17, Klein immigrated to the United States in 1937, and joined his sister in Buffalo, New York. Their brother also later came to the U.S., but the siblings were unable to get their parents to America. Ludwig and Alice Klein died at Auschwitz, as did other family members. 

Klein, whose job it was to interrogate German prisoners of war, was one of the “Ritchie Boys,” who trained in military intelligence at Camp Ritchie in western Maryland. For a discussion of “Sons and Soldiers,” a book about these skilled G.I.s, a good number of them Jewish immigrants, see my post of August 16, 2017.

How did Weissmann survive, when so many gave up and did not?

Likely because of her innate humanity, which made an impression upon Klein almost immediately; her friendships; her ability to conjure pleasant memories in her mind when she needed an escape; and her hope that she would be reunited with her family after the war.

Weissmann was born in Bielsko, in southwestern Poland (she calls it Bielitz, its German name), in 1924, the daughter of a homemaker — a proficient knitter and embroiderer — and a man who was part owner of a fur-processing plant. Bielsko was a textile center, and its skilled workers were able to afford a higher standard of living than some of their countrymen.

Weissmann remembers her early years as an idyllic period, secure in her parents’ love and with many friends. She was a creative, intelligent 15-year-old, and aware of the likely consequences of Germany’s invasion of Poland on September 1, 1939.

For a time, the Weissmanns’ new normal under Nazi reign included food rationing, moving into the cellar of their house, wearing a Jewish star on their clothing and worrying incessantly about Arthur, who was transported in October 1939. He was last heard from in January 1943.

In April 1942, as the situation worsened, they were evacuated into a ghetto with the remaining 250 or so Jews in Bielsko. Weissmann was selected to work in what would become a series of textile-related concentration camps over the next three years, and separated from her parents. 

The first was in Wadowitz, about two hours by train from the ghetto. Her longest stay — a bit more than a year — was in Bolkenhain, a camp in Germany, where she was tasked with tending four looms at once in a deafening, lint-laden factory, stifling hot in summer and unheated in winter. 

Conditions in Bolkenhain were poor, but not on a par with the brutality that was going on in some other labor camps, or the death camps. One of the few comforts was being able to occasionally write a letter and to receive mail. Packages from an uncle in Turkey arrived, but they were looted so that Weissmann received only a fraction of the contents. 

At the last camp, Grünberg, Weissmann worked on a spinning machine, where again, dust was an issue, so much so, that the women were X-rayed about every two months to check for lung damage. If tuberculosis was discovered, the next stop was Auschwitz.

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The images of the Kleins are from their engagement party in September 1945.

After liberation, a very fragile Weissmann battled typhus and pneumonia. Expert medical care, an abundance of good food and the concern of one very attentive American with whom she had formed an almost instant bond gave Gerda a fighting chance. With her thick dark hair growing in and a dimpled smile, she began to resemble the teenager she had been at the war’s start. By September 1945, Gerda and Kurt were engaged.

Many decades later, the couple teamed to write “The Hours After: Letters of Love and Longing in  War’s Aftermath” (St. Martin’s Press, 2000, $23.95) spanning the months they were apart as Gerda continued her recovery in Germany and Kurt returned to the United States to negotiate the post-war bureaucracy blocking her immigration. The authors provide enough context of their younger years and war experiences to stitch together the letters’ content, but I’d still recommend reading Gerda’s book first. 

As of this writing, Gerda is about to turn 95, in Arizona. She spent years lecturing about the Holocaust and teaching tolerance. Her book was the subject of 1995’s “One Survivor Remembers,” an Emmy- and Oscar-winning short film. In 2011, she was awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom, America’s highest civilian honor, by President Barack Obama.

Like many Holocaust survivors, Weismann Klein recorded her oral history at the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum. One interview can be accessed at https://collections.ushmm.org/search/catalog/irn504599 (other information is available). There is also an uncorrected English transcript. Kurt’s interview can be viewed at https://collections.ushmm.org/search/catalog/irn504600

 

With a few easy substitutions, try this vegetarian lasagne recipe suitable for Passover and Easter

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Lurking in the many layers of this vegetarian lasagne is a surprise: Passover matzo sheets take the place of ruffled pasta noodles.

By Betty Gordon

© 2019 text and photos. All rights reserved.

To traditionalists, a heaping portion of lasagne without its ruffled noodle layers might be too radical an idea to consider because it changes the very heart of a time-honored dish. 

But as people look for ways to eat healthier and reduce calories and carbohydrates, some recipes have been developed using substitutions such as eggplant slices to separate the layers of filling. 

Which brings us to Passover and Easter, where lasagne might seem a weird choice for your spring holiday table.

Those observing Passover can’t make lasagne with regular noodles because of the flour content (forbidden during the holiday). And many would argue it isn’t Easter dinner unless the centerpiece is baked ham with a sweet glaze.

But keep an open mind and try something new. With a few substitutions, one recipe can serve both celebrations.

Lasagne is one of my favorite dishes. Over the years, I’ve made multistep recipes from Italian cookbooks that were wonderful. But they can be extremely time-consuming, especially if you make the marinara from scratch and boil the noddles first. And the classic finished dish would never fit the definition of healthful.

The recipe I use now, without meat or béchamel sauce, has a fraction of the fat and calories. It also takes far less time and effort to make. 

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Spinach, onions, yellow bell pepper, cottage cheese, mozzarella and marinara sauce make this lasagne a less-fattening version of a classic Italian dish.

This isn’t your grandmother’s lasagne by any means — and she might scoff at the very thought of what I’m suggesting — but to my palate, this recipe is satisfying and fun to assemble. 

For Passover, instead of lasagne noodles, substitute sheets of matzo. You don’t even have to soak them before using, as many Passover recipes call for. 

One reason why this works for Passover is that the tasteless matzo gets lost among the layers of marinara, cheese and veggies. Matzo by itself is one of the most bland and uninspiring “flavors” of Passover.

These days, many groceries stock specific “kosher for Passover” cheeses and marinara sauce, but if your store doesn’t, ingredients are easily available online.

Though the recipe calls for shredded mozzarella, I usually buy a 1-pound block or two of part-skim mozzarella and cut the cheese into small dice. Some manufacturers use cellulose as an anti-caking agent in their shredded cheese, and I’d rather not have that “additive.” 

If your family or friends find that lasagne is too crazy an idea for Easter — and I note I am posting this just before the holiday — then you can always try this recipe some other time. 

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As the lasagne bakes, the matzo sheets will absorb the water and moisture from the sauce to become soft. The same process applies to the recipe if you are using uncooked lasagne noodles.

Spinach and Veggie Lasagne

Hands on: 30 minutes

Total time: 1 hour, 45 minutes to 1 hour, 55 minutes

Servings: 8-10

1 (10-ounce) package frozen chopped spinach, defrosted and squeezed dry

1/4 cup onion, finely diced (I use sweet Vidalia onions)

1/4 yellow bell pepper, finely diced

1 pound small-curd cottage cheese (I use 2 percent milkfat; ricotta is fine too)

1 large egg

1/2 teaspoon dried oregano

1/2 teaspoon salt

Freshly ground black pepper, to taste

1 (26-ounce) jar marinara sauce

3 (7-ounce) bags shredded mozzarella, divided

For Passover: 6 matzo sheets

For Easter: 9 to 12 lasagne noodles, uncooked

1 cup water

Preheat oven to 350 degrees. In a large mixing bowl, thoroughly combine spinach, onion, bell pepper, cottage cheese (or ricotta), egg, oregano, salt, black pepper and half the mozzarella.

Grease a 9-by-13-inch baking pan. Ladle a thin layer of marinara sauce on the bottom of the pan. 

For Passover: Place 2 matzo sheets over the sauce. You may need to break off a small part of the end of one sheet so that both lie flat. Don’t overlap. That will make the layers uneven because the matzo expands and softens as it cooks. You will have a little space on either size of the matzo to the edge of the pan, and this, too, will disappear as the lasagne bakes.

For Easter: Place 3 noodles parallel to one another lengthwise over the sauce; do not overlap. Break a noodle to size and place it at one end perpendicular to the parallel noodles. Like the matzo, the noodles will expand as they bake.

Cover matzo layer or lasagne noodles with half of the spinach-cheese mixture, then spread a layer of sauce.

For Passover: Repeat the matzo layer.

For Easter: Repeat with 3 noodles, but place the perpendicular one at the opposite end of the pan from the first layer. This helps with stability when slicing the layers.

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This is the second addition of the spinach-cheese mixture that I’m spreading evenly over the second layer of two matzo sheets.

Top with the remaining half of the spinach-cheese mixture and another layer of sauce. 

For Passover: Repeat matzo layer.

For Easter: Repeat with 3 more noodles, again positioning the smaller one at the opposite end from the previous layer. 

Top with remaining marinara and sprinkle over the rest of the mozzarella. 

Pour 1 cup water around the sides. (Or, for a enhanced flavor, “rinse” the jar with enough red wine to swish out stubborn sauce. Top up in a measuring cup so you have a total of 1 cup water/wine and pour around sides of pan.)

Cover tightly with aluminum foil. (To prevent the cheese from sticking as it melts, apply a light film of cooking spray to the foil. If you don’t want the foil to touch your food, cover with a greased sheet of parchment paper first, then the foil.) 

Place lasagne on a rimmed baking sheet, in case the sauce bubbles over.

Bake for 45 minutes. Uncover, rotate the pan for even cooking, and bake another 30 to 40 minutes until the cheese is melted, bubbly and lightly golden. 

Let stand at least 10 minutes before cutting. 

Individually wrapped portions in aluminum foil freeze well. Totally defrost before reheating in oven or microwave (don’t put foil in the microwave; use a microwave-safe dish to reheat).

In Interlaken, Switzerland: Spectacular scenery on a train journey to the ‘top of Europe’ railway station

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At 13,462 feet, Jungfrau (right) is the tallest of these three Alpine peaks near Interlaken, Switzerland. Mönch (middle) tops out at 13,448 feet, and Eiger (partially obscured) at 13,025 feet. 

By Betty Gordon 

© 2019 text and photos. All rights reserved.

If  you’ve ever dreamed of standing relatively near some towering Alpine peaks but have neither the time nor money to train as a mountain climber, you can still achieve your goal.

In Switzerland, all you need is the railway. In a bit over two hours, you’ll be whisked in comfort from Interlaken to the “top of Europe” — the highest train station on the continent. 

From the outdoor-loving, recreationally rich city in the south-central part of the country, you can enjoy a spectacularly scenic journey through the Alps that will take you to 11,333 feet, where you disembark at Jungfraujoch, which also boasts the highest post office. 

At that point, you can venture outside for a closer look at the jaw-droppingly gorgeous vista of the Bernese Oberland region and the Eiger, Mönch and Jungfrau peaks.

All accomplished with no sweat, little risk and no problems.

More than 1 million visitors in 2018 made this excursion on a coordinated series of trains that gain more than 9,500 feet in altitude while winding through picturesque valleys, cozy villages and verdant farmland. And mountains, of course.

It’s best to start out early from Interlaken, set between lakes Brienz and Thun, so you can make the most of your experience. Also, as it gets later in the day in spring and summer and the snow melts, the chance of fog obscuring the tops of the peaks increases. The ever-efficient Swiss have a TV channel that shows continuous images of the weather conditions at altitude so that you can plan accordingly.

The train does the route year-round. Even if you go in summer, you are guaranteed to see ice and snow. 

When I visited in May 2004, the temperature was in the 50s (about 10 degrees Celsius) upon departure from the Interlaken Ost station. I had the recommended light coat, sunscreen and sunglasses, and it was gloriously clear — the bluest sky you can imagine.

Many tourists were dressed lightly in ski vests and boots, with their skis and other gear stowed in another carriage.    

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As the train gains in altitude, the houses and farms in the valley look like so many random dots.

The train began its gentle climb, passing through Wilderswil, where cows and black sheep were grazing in the meadow. Before long, rich green pastures gave way to forests heavy with pine trees and then impressive bluffs, some as high as 3,300 feet.

The waterfalls also became more numerous as we approached the U-shaped Lauterbrunnen valley, dotted with A-frame houses and small farms. 

We changed trains here, and soon were surrounded by snow as we passed through the car-free village of Wengen (4,180 feet), sitting snugly on a slope above the valley floor. Think chalet and ski resort and you’ll have conjured the picture-perfect setting. 

The higher the train climbed, the more tunnels we went through and the more our ears popped. The incline became more noticeable as did the pressure in our heads.

Kleine Scheidegg (6,762 feet), a village at the base of Eiger’s famed north wall, was the next stop. Another train change here put us on the Jungfrau Railway, the brainchild of 54-year-old Adolf Guyer-Zeller, a widely traveled Swiss textile magnate, who was active in politics.

Guyer-Zeller was also something of an entrepreneur. After a pleasant hike with his daughter on an August day in 1893, he hit upon the idea of making the upper reaches of the mountain range more accessible. Thus, a tourism scheme was born. 

The electric cog railway from Kleine Scheidegg was begun in 1896, and took 16 years and 15 million Swiss francs to build. The project had to overcome monetary and technical difficulties, the death of 30 workers, strikes, supply issues, and weather and environmental challenges. 

Construction was particularly harsh in winter, as the camp and its up to 300 workers (many of them Italian) were cut off from the outside world. To ensure that work could continue, immense amounts of food, some brought in via teams of huskies — 12 tons of flour, 2 tons of potatoes, 3,000 eggs, 4 tons of meat and more — were stockpiled. The Eiger glacier’s crevasses provided a natural freezer for the perishable goods.

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This memorial to Adolf Guyer-Zeller (1839-1899), the Swiss entrepreneur behind the Jungfrau Railway, is in Interlaken.

Almost 20 years after Guyer-Zeller applied for the concession, the railway began operating in 1912. (Guyer-Zeller died in 1899 at age 60; his sons finished overseeing the project.)

On one stretch, the 5.7-mile railway (9.3 kilometers) tunnels through Eiger and Mönch for more than four miles. At times, the tight fit puts the rail cars just inches from the rock.

Only two stations — Eigerwand (North Wall, 9,400 feet) and Eismeer (Sea of Ice, 10,368 feet) — remained until we reached our destination.

At both stations, the train stopped for five minutes and we piled out quickly to take photographs through enormous windows.

As the railway was being built, blasted rock and other debris were disposed of through the spaces that are now covered by glass. 

Today, the Eigerwand station is still the rescue-mission starting point for stranded or injured climbers.  

Only a few minutes more on the train, and we reached Jungfraujoch, where passengers scattered.

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An igloo is right at home (pun intended) in the Ice Palace, complete with a seated Eskimo (right) and tail-up seals (foreground left).

Some headed to the blue-hued Ice Palace, with its slick, long tunnels and ice sculptures of penguins, birds, bears and other figures carved from the ice. The slow-moving glacier continues to advance, which means that new figures are sculpted every year.

Others made a beeline for the terrace of the Sphinx Observatory, where scientific, astronomical and environmental research is ongoing (the observatory is not open to the public).

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The Sphinx Observatory conducts scientific research and is not open to the public. But you’ll be so dazzled by the Alpine view that you’ll be busy looking at the mountains.

From the terrace, Eiger (which means ogre, 13,025 feet), Mönch (monk, 13,448 feet) and Jungfrau (virgin, 13,642 feet) comprise an almost incomparable panorama. On a clear day, you might be able to make out Germany’s Black Forrest to the northwest and France’s Vosges Mountains near the German-French border. 

Another stunning view is the Aletsch Glacier, at 14 miles the longest in Europe. Its snow runoff reaches Lake Geneva en route to the Mediterranean.

At two miles high, you might feel a bit dizzy or out of sorts, because of the rapid increase in altitude. On my visit, there was — shockingly — little wind, probably a rarity. The highest wind speed ever recorded is 267 kilometers per hour (about 166 miles per hour).

The temperature was just below freezing, but with the bright sun, it was warm enough to take off my coat. 

In the valley, enthusiastic skiers were making the first tracks of the day, and in the far distance, slow-moving ant-size glacier hikers were inching their way up-mountain. 

After wandering around this part of the Jungfrau-Aletsch-Bietschhorn UNESCO World Heritage Site for two hours, it was time to get back on the train. On the descent, I again switched at Kleine Scheidegg, but took a route heading northeast to Grindelwald, another ski-centric (22 lifts, more than 100 downhill runs) village, with far more places to stay and dine than Wengen or Mürren. 

In the center of a small park in Grindelwald is a statue of a man dressed for outdoor adventure, cradling two upright skis in the crook of his left elbow. The plaque in the stone base recognizes 100 years of winter sports in Grindelwald (1888-1988).

Just the sort of commemoration Adolf Guyer-Zeller might have envisioned when he conceived of bringing visitors to this area of Switzerland and beyond. 

Quick reference: At the Jungfraujoch station, tourists can dine at three restaurants (two open year-round), or shop for souvenirs featuring Swiss goods (Victorinox knives, chocolate, watches, carved wooden figures). Should you find you are not dressed warmly enough, you can purchase hats and gloves. At Snow Fun Park, snowtubing, skiing and snowboarding are among the options, for additional cost. A round-trip ticket, second class, will cost at least $210. A discount may be available for holders of a Swiss Travel Pass. Take the time to research the many options at sbb.ch. For a detailed description of the construction of the Jungfrau Railway and historical photographs, see www.jungfraubahn.ch (tickets can also be booked). For general information on Switzerland, myswitzerland.com

A version of this post appeared in The Atlanta Journal-Constitution Travel section on December 5, 2004.