One of my favorite things to do while traveling is to seek out the strange sights, places that are a bit wacky and off the beaten tourist track. I try to find at least one per trip. The extra effort spent getting to these places is worth the bragging rights. Some of our best (i.e. goofiest) pictures have been inspired by these spots. My husband Mike is always a willing and creative subject when challenged with these photo ops.
My first of six journeys in this blog is a trip to Europe with my mother and begins in London. I look down my nose with disdain when the subject of a visit to Madame Tussaud’s Wax Museum comes up. I am certain it will be super cheesy and beneath me. Surely Mummy knows that it’s a tourist trap?
But only a few steps inside the door and I am hooked. What a blast! My mom’s second husband George had recently passed away. He was a George the third so it is only fitting for her to be photographed with King George III.
Mom snaps a shot of me crashing Prince Andrew and Fergie’s wax wedding. I feign embarrassment because I am not dressed for the occasion.
Years later, on a return trip to London with Mike I make sure that Madam’s museum is on the itinerary. He wears the same superior smirk I wore when my mother suggested the attraction. Like me, though, he is quickly enchanted. Off he goes to rock with the Beatles;
Once he’s had his fill of supervising the musical greats, he sticks a finger in Sean Connery’s drink; takes a peek at Cybil Shepherd’s ample bosom and rejoices when Pope John Paul grants him forgiveness.
After a few days in London, our adventure turns dangerous as we rent a car and learn to cope with driving on the “wrong” side of the road. Mike starts the car. Puts it in reverse. Turns around to check traffic. Slams his head into the driver side window. It takes both of us to maneuver. Our little mantra that helps us stay alive is, “Left is easy, left is easy, right is rough, right is rough.” Years later and we still wonder who has the right of way at a U.K. four-way stop.
Armed with British Heritage Passes that give us free admission to a map of historical treasures, we wander the countryside. After Stonehenge we stop at the nearby Avebury Circle. There, I am mesmerized by a sweatshirt embossed with the image of the Cerne Abbas Giant. I quickly become obsessed with finding the huge, fabled, fertility God. We head to the scene which is carved on the side of a hill in southern England.
Chalk just under the surface of the earth provided ancient artists with this unique medium. On the way to see the enormous phallic symbol, we pass several horses and other shapes carved into hills and fields. The big guy does not disappoint. It’s “swell” worth the detour. Wise souvenir vendors, realizing some tourist prefer a more modest version, sell depictions of the Giant wearing pants. Of course, I opt for au natural.
Right now we seek the bizarre works of art we are after are in the crypt beneath the church of Santa Maria della Concezione dei Cappuccini on Via Veneto. The medium of the monks? Bones of more than 4,000 dead people-mostly friars, assembled over a 350 year period ending in the late 1800s!
In this case, the thigh bone isn’t necessarily connected to the knee bone. Instead it is connected to thirty other thighbones. In one altar, femur bones are stacked like firewood, skulls highlight another. Rib bones, hip bones, finger and toe bones by the thousands are used for decorative arches and flourishes. It is spectacularly macabre.
With eyes bugging out, we leave the bone-festooned sanctuary and become obnoxiously insane in the gift shop giggling goofily as we stack up on commemorative postcards depicting the altars and two View-Master like toy slide viewers filled with bone pictures for my young nephews.
We buy so much stuff that the monk finally stops adding prices up and gives us a round number that we thought was a bargain! I’m sure he just wanted us to go away and was embarrassed for us. Because picture-taking was not allowed, all the pictures you see here are from postcards we bought at the church.
Most people want to bask around the shores of the Danube River in Hungary’s capital of Budapest. Not us. After the obligatory visit to Hereos’ Square and City Park, a walking tour through the heart of Pest, a peek at The Chain Bridge and a tour of Buda’s castle district, we hop a cab and head to the suburbs southwest of the city.
After a twenty-minute ride the driver drops us off at the gates of Statue Park. After the fall of the Communist regime in 1989, Hungarians dragged Communist era statues to this weedy, barren field and in 1993 opened it as an outdoor museum. Walking around the giant workers and leaders gives us inspiration for another round of irreverent photos.
In my research for a trip to the Middle East, I read somewhere that Cairo is the Hollywood of the Arab world. Being in the biz, I embark on a mission to find the movie studios and take a tour. Our guide Ahmed, who looks like an Egyptian Eddie Murphy (with the same laugh!), points us to 6th of October City, a suburb of Cairo. Ahmed tells us that there is also an amusement park there. We mistakenly believe we are not interested in the amusement park, just the movie studio. At 9:30 in the morning, he sends us off with our affable driver, Ihab, whose English is sparse.
We pull into the empty parking lot of Magic Land. The tickets and driver together cost $100. Against our objections, he insists we go to Magic Land. Once in the gate, we start in the “Simulator” which is a movie screen with seats that move. If you suspend all disbelief, you might, if you try really hard, possibly imagine zooming around digital pyramids.
Thinking wrongly, that hokey does not get any better, we follow the signs to the Mubarek Media Center. We are confused because there are pictures of a huge white building that we cannot see. We are told that we need to take a tram to Media City.
We are still searching the horizon for the unseen Mubarek monument, as we wander onto the Prehistoric boat ride. Once again the suspension of disbelief is challenged. Here we find fur falling off the cavemen and his catch (probably decaying from the desert sun).
Wow. Look. A Pterodactyl hanging from a construction crane. We can hear his primitive cries from the exposed speakers right in front of us.
Being traffic reporters at the time, we had to take pictures of the empty kiddie ride “Traffic City”.
As the only non-Egyptians in the nearly empty park, our hosts are eager to show us a good time. They demand we see every attraction we’ve paid for and initial our tickets to make sure we do. There’s no way to skip anything. We are hostages of their goodwill.
Next stop, the bumper boats, for a change, might be fun. The place is deserted so we’re the only two on the water. Mike’s boat’s battery dies in the middle of the lake. Oh well. The rescue boat tows him to “shore.” Next, the arcade, for the obligatory four games our tickets insist we play. We’re having forced fun.
“Rapid River” is another “treat.” Imagine a giant two-story tall treadmill. Imagine a raft waiting perilously on top of this moving carpet. Put unsuspecting Americans, who don’t speak Arabic, in said rafts. Now add electricity. The moving ramp inches towards a cliff where the raft is dropped into Class 1 rapids. Screaming is an international language. U.S. laws would never allow this ride to pass any safety checks. I’m sure you get my drift.
Next, we are led to a desert version of SeaWorld. This “featured” one lonely sea-lion. We could see two dolphins, but only one performs. The other swims around under water. Was he on a break? Not a jumper? Union? Sad.
Time to find the tram to get to the Mubarek Media Center. Because we’re Americans, everyone really wants to make sure we are having fun and they are super sweet. Egyptians are truly lovely people. The tram is loaded with school children on a field trip who are eager to know more about us. They only know us as Americans so they don’t quite understand when we say we are from the United States. We narrow it down and say San Francisco (where we were living at the time) and a murmur of “America” floats through the crowd.
After practicing a bit of English with us, they soon are distracted with the Arabic narration of the tour. The park is obviously expecting only Arabic-speaking guests. Everybody from our tour guide down to the clean-up crew in the midway are puzzled by our interest.
No English? No problem. Mike and I make up translations. “That’s where they film Baywatch” (inexplicably it’s seen around the world) or “That’s the set for Sex and 6th of October City!” Then we happen upon a set we really do recognize from the only thing we have been watching regularly on TV back at the hotel: an Egyptian soap opera that’s in English. Everyone oohs, and aahs with recognition (including us) as we pass each empty set. Finally, we pass the foundation of the famed Mubarek Media City – it hadn’t been built yet! That was the final curtain. Show’s over.
We want to buy a couple of galabeyas, the floor length caftans that many Egyptians wear. They will be gifts for friends. Our driver Ihab not only got us a deal but negotiated a tip for himself in the process – a bunch of clothes for his kids. It was worth every Egyptian pound.
When I saw a picture of the Atomium outside of Brussels, Belgium, I knew I had to work it into a trip. It does not disappoint. It gets bonus point for its next door neighbor, Mini Europe. The Atomium is a giant atom that was built for the 1958 World’s Fair.
While waiting for an elevator to whisk us to the top, the long queue wraps around the base where, for reasons unknown, there is an old Isetta on display. I am amused because my parents had one when I was a baby in New York City. (See my Aug. 2010 post “The Beginning”.)
From the top, there is a panoramic view of Brussels, King Baudouin Sports Complex & Stadium and Mini Europe which really looks mini from that height. I barely remember our meal in the nondescript cafeteria in the top sphere. But there’s plenty of picture-taking and I am almost swooning with anticipation of our visit to Mini-Europe.
In some follow-up research I find that there is a copyright lawsuit and up until 2009 it was an infringement for anyone to show personal pictures of the Atomium to anyone. A settlement eases those restrictions and allows me to show them for non-commercial use with specific size limitations and verbiage to be placed next to the image. Who know that someone could require me to Photoshop their giant structure out of MY pictures!
Back at the gates of Mini Europe, we turn into giants juxtaposed with the scale models of great European landmarks.
Many models move to the delight of young and old. While standing on a special plate, we feel the ground rumble as Mt. Vesuvius erupts. Little cranes knock down the Berlin Wall, while airplanes taxi on mini runways.
The attention to detail is meticulous, right down to the barking sheepdog herding cattle and the naked sunbathers, presumably somewhere in France.
Seeking out the strange and wonderful sights never fails us. We always take home fun memories and what better souvenir is there?