Wednesday, January 11, 2017

Las Vegas Hot-Air Balloon Ride

Hot-air balloon over the desert outside of Las Vegas
Looking down from our balloon at the other
balloon flying with us over the Nevada desert.
Flying in a hot-air balloon has been on our to-do list probably since the 1980s. But through all those years, for one reason or another, it never happened.

Most recently, this past summer (2016), we were all set to take a balloon flight over the lunar-like landscape of Cappadocia, in Turkey. Then, less than a month before our trip, the Turkish army decided to stage a coup which, although unsuccessful, caused us (and many others!) to cancel our Turkish travel plans. Once again, no balloon ride.

Then it happened. While planning a short getaway to Las Vegas for October, 2016, we discovered that, yes, we could also get a hot-air balloon ride while we were there. We decided to go for it.

Unloading the balloon and its basket
from the trailer
We booked the ride with Vegas Balloon Rides -- not to be confused with Las Vegas Balloon Rides, a competitor company trying to play off Vegas Balloon Rides' popularity and reputation. The ride cost about $200 per person. It included pick-up from our hotel, training/orientation, a flight of about an hour, champagne cocktails at the end, and a ride back to the hotel.

Because the best time for flying is around sunrise, this flight calls for an early start -- the company van picked us up at Circus Circus on the Strip at about 5:00am. Then it was off to the company offices, stopping at a few other hotels to pick up additional passengers along the way. At the office, we were given a safety briefing, then we loaded into two vans, each towing a trailer with the balloons and other equipment. Each van carried the pilot and passengers for one of the balloons.

Inflating the balloon. These suckers are huge!

When we arrived at the launching site on the outskirts of Vegas, there was a bit of a snag. Turns out we had hit one of the few weeks of the year when it had actually rained in Vegas, the humidity was high, and the sky was filled with low clouds. The balloons could not launch in these conditions. Were we going to be denied our flight once again?

But the pilots told us not to worry. The forecast was for the clouds to begin to lift and dissipate, so they thought we'd be able to fly in an hour or so.

Ready for liftoff
We waited patiently. The pilots were in touch with the airport control tower, who relayed weather information to them. Periodically, they let loose a small helium-filled balloon to watch it rise and count the seconds until it disappeared. This told them how high the clouds were. In between, they amused us with jokes and small talk.

Finally, around 7:00am, they decided we were a "go" and began pulling the balloons out of the trailers. About a half-hour later, the balloons were inflated, the safety checks completed, and we were all aboard.

Then we were off! The ride was amazing -- calm, quiet, and peaceful, with the only real noise being those times when the pilot ran the burner to heat the air and gain more altitude. The two balloons traveled together across the Nevada desert on the outskirts of Vegas. Our altitude varied between about 3,000 and 5,000 feet as we rose and fell gently. Sometimes we were above our sister balloon, sometimes below. The ride was so calm you almost didn't know you were flying, except for the grand, panoramic view.

The holes in the side of the mountain are old
mine tunnels. According to our pilot, this mountain
is almost completely hollowed out from mining.
Along the way, our pilot pointed out various points of interest on the ground: an old abandoned mine, for instance, or what was left of a car that had driven over a cliff while running from the police years ago.

The pilots also had a running bet. At some point during the ride, the other balloon would pass over ours, and its pilot would drop a large rag. The bet was whether or not he could land the rag on top of our balloon. On this occasion, he missed. Better luck next time!

Taking it all apart after the flight.
After about an hour, the pilots began easing us down toward the landing spot in a large, flat open area designed to catch flash flood runoff. The vans (in contact with both balloons by radio during the entire flight) were there to meet us. Part of our initial training was in how to brace ourselves for landing, because there is always the possibility that the basket could hit the ground, drag too quickly, and tip over. On our landing, we tipped a little, then a little more.... then settled back upright, steady and stable. We debarked from the basket, and the pilots began deflating and disassembling the balloon.

If you take this ride, be ready to be put to work! (Sort of...) You know how, when you are deflating something like an air mattress, you really need to squeeze it from one end to the other to get all the air out? Well, a giant hot-air balloon is no different. With the mostly deflated balloon stretched out on the ground, something needs to squeeze it from one end to the other to get the rest of the air out. That "something" turns out to be .... the passengers, who are requested to lie down on the various sections of the balloons, thereby squeezing out the last remaining bits of air. What a relaxing kind of "work."
The passengers lie on sections of balloon to
squeeze the air out.
This balloon-riding stuff is
hard work. We need a nap!

With the balloons and gear packed back up into the trailers, it's time for the final ceremony: champagne cocktails all around. Then a ride back to the hotel.

Champagne cocktails top off the ride, a tradition that goes back to 18th-century France.

This was an excellent experience -- something we've wanted to do for a long, long time, and well worth both the price and the getting up at around 4:00am. The pilots and crew were experienced, professional, and fun. And the experience itself is something that you simply can't get any other way.

If you're going to Vegas and you want a great experience you'll never forget, you can book your own hot-air balloon ride. It's something that the entire family will enjoy. Each gondola (basket) holds about 16 people, so everyone can fly together. On our flight, there were about 10 people in our balloon. Very comfortable, and lots of room to take great pictures.

For something a bit more exotic, if your travel plans include Turkey, you might want to try a balloon ride over the amazing and mysterious landscape of the Cappadocia region.

Friday, September 16, 2016

Delphi, Sacred Places, and Listening to Apollo

Some places just have a vibe about them. You can feel it when you go there. It's in the air -- or something. There's just something special about the place, something perhaps a little other-wordly, something....

This is how "sacred places" become sacred.

Last month during our trip to Greece, we visited Delphi, site of the famous Oracle. Delphi has a vibe to it. It's been a sacred site since as far back as the 14th century BC, and you can feel it. The vibe is subtle, yet powerful. It can be (and probably often is) overpowered by the hustle and bustle of the modern world, by the diesel exhaust of the tour buses, by the buzz of hundreds of tourists flitting about snapping selfies and pictures of ancient ruins...

But if you can get alone for a few minutes and clear your mind, you can definitely feel the vibe. A vibe that's probably been there for thousands of years. A vibe that's probably why Delphi became a sacred site in the first place.

While we were at Delphi, I managed to shake off the tourist crowds for a few moments. Or, more accurately, the crowds went off in search of some other momentary pleasures, while I lingered almost alone at the ruined-yet-still-massive-and-impressive temple of Apollo. I tried to imagine what it might have been like 3,000 years ago: some people coming to offer tribute to the god, others coming to query the Oracle about some upcoming venture, perhaps some singers preparing to perform in the theater or athletes preparing to compete in the stadium.

I walked slowly around the temple and came to the spot where our tour guide had said the Oracle actually sat when she made her prophecies. I stopped, in contemplation. It was surprisingly quiet around me -- almost everyone else had gone away.

This was a sacred spot. In the quiet, I could feel it.

As I stood pondering, I began to experience a sense of insight -- almost as if an idea or feeling was being placed into my mind. It was a positive, calming feeling, which eventually translated into the words, "You're on the right path." This made me feel good in a very unique way: It provided reassurance that everything was going to be alright, while it also instilled in me the confidence that I'd be able to handle any challenge that might arise. I guess more than anything else, it helped to remove doubt.

But... where did this idea, these words, come from?

I decided they had come, through the Oracle, from Apollo himself.

As if as a sign, I suddenly noticed that the god had placed a small talisman in front of me, upon one of the stone platforms that in ancient times had led to the Oracle. I retrieved the talisman, held it for a minute, felt the vibes emanating from it. It would keep the god, his protection, and his power close to me. I felt grateful. I looked around. There was another talisman, which I retrieved for my wife. These were special objects from a special place.

As I began to look around for still another talisman, words came gently into my mind: "Don't be greedy." I sort of smiled to myself as I realized that, yes, I was beginning to get greedy. But I accepted the god's suggestion and decided to be satisfied with, and thankful for, the good fortune that was already mine.

As I began walking away, I realized that this apparently minor incident was actually having a rather profound effect on me. I can be a bit of a mystic, yes, but I'm not really one given to hearing voices. But here I was at a place where a god has been speaking for thousands of years, and simply by quieting my mind for a few moments, I could hear him, too.

Then, just a few days ago, I came across something rather astonishing.

I was reading about Delphi, and the article said that in ancient times there were two maxims carved into the entrance of Apollo's temple. One maxim said "Know thyself." The other said "Nothing in excess."

I did sort of a double-take as I realized immediately that "don't be greedy" is essentially "nothing in excess" in other words.

My experience at the temple was validated. I had no earthly clue that the phrase "nothing in excess" was an important factor in Delphic wisdom and ritual -- so important that it was actually carved into the entrance of the temple itself. Yet that is the exact concept that was given to me as I stood contemplating at the temple.

Not only is the site sacred, but it is consistent in its teachings.

Thursday, September 15, 2016

Delphi and the Oracle of Apollo

The remains of the temple of Apollo at Dephi
Almost everyone has heard at least a little bit about the Oracle of Delphi. This ancient priestess who prophesied in the name of the Greek god Apollo is mentioned at least briefly in most history books. But the mentions in the history books don't do justice to the magnificent, sprawling temple complex, situated high on the side of a mountain, where the Oracle made her cryptic pronouncements. You simply have to be there to grasp its true grandeur and to feel its mystical vibration.

First, though, pronunciation. Many of us have gone through our lives pronouncing the location as "delf-eye." The Greeks, however, pronounce it as "delf-ee." Hearing this caused us to change our pronunciation to the way the Greeks pronounce it. They should know, after all -- it's their language. (You may, of course, pronounce the word however you like. This is just for your information.)

The ancient temple complex at Delphi has existed as a religious center in one form or another since as early as the 14th century BC. The heyday of the site, and of the Oracle, was from around 800 BC through around 400 AD -- over 1,000 years. The Oracle herself was not a single person, but instead a series of women who held the position as priestess/prophet/oracle in the temple of Apollo.

Looking down the mountainside from Delphi
The complex itself sits nearly 2,000 feet up the side of Mt. Parnassus in the southern part of Greece, about a 2-1/2 hour drive from Athens. The site is spread over many different levels, following the slope of the mountain. You will need to be in fairly decent physical shape to visit, as there is a lot of climbing involved. Indeed, as you stand among the ruins and look down the mountainside, you wonder how the ancient people actually got there, especially those coming from a great distance. The roads were not what they are today, of course, and the mountainside is rough and steep. It could not have been an easy journey, and those people must have really wanted to consult the Oracle to go through it.

We visited Delphi in August, 2016, so we had summer heat to deal with as well -- the midday temperature was in the 90s. The air-conditioned tour bus only drops you at the entrance. After that, you trek up the slope on your own. The walking paths are good, but it can still be some work.

The centerpiece of the complex is what remains of the once-great temple of Apollo. Little more than a ruin today, with only a few columns still left standing, the temple remains impressive nonetheless, with a scale that reflects the grandeur of the god.

Getting water from the "Fountain of Youth" at Delphi
In addition to the temple, the site contains numerous "treasury houses" (buildings where offerings to the god were stored), an outdoor theater, a large stadium, and numerous other features. There is also what our tour guide referred to as a "fountain of youth" -- an ancient spring which since antiquity has been said to provide magical waters. You can fill your water bottles from the spring so that you, too, can reap its benefits. A more-modern addition at Delphi is a museum containing many artifacts from the site.

The location where the Delphic Oracle sat
to deliver her prophecies
It is at the side of Apollo's temple, over a crevice in the earth, that the Oracle sat when she delivered her messages as the mouthpiece of the god. Even today, this location feels mystically "charged." When the crowd of tourists wanders off and you stand quietly beside the stone platforms alone, you can sense the presence of higher powers and perhaps gain insight into some greater wisdom. Apollo, via the Oracle, may even speak to you, provided you are open to hearing what he has to say.

Our tour guide, Anastasia, was quite knowledgeable about Delphi and its history. But she pooh-poohed the mystical background and vibration of the site. Indeed, she went so far as to say that the entire complex was constructed as a massive con game concocted by the temple priests for the sole purpose of separating the pilgrims to Delphi from their money!

This seems to be a rather extreme interpretation. Even if you yourself don't believe in the ancient Greek gods and the mystic powers of the Oracle, most people would concede that the Oracle, the temple priests, and those asking for advice all actually did believe in these powers. To cynically claim that it was all just a con game and that not even the priests believed it is... well, a bit much, it seems.

For our part, we did feel and connect with the mystic vibration of the site. Apollo speaks, if you are open to listen. And the two maxims which were carved into the temple in ancient times -- "Know thyself" and "Nothing in excess" -- are still worth pondering and following.

Here are some interesting tours of Delphi from

More photos from our trip to Delphi:


The remaining columns are at what was the main entrance to the temple

Closeup of the temple entrance

The Omphalos of Delphi. In ancient times, Delphi was considered to the center
or "navel" of the world. The Omphalus was a stone thrown by Zeus to
mark the spot.

Another Omphalos from Delphi, this one on exhibit in the museum.

Looking down at one of the treasury houses

The theater

Friday, August 26, 2016

A Visit to Dracula's Castle

Bran Castle in Romania
Bran Castle in Romania
The castle marketed to the public as "Dracula's Castle" is actually Bran Castle, a fortress perched high on a mountain above the town of Bran in Romania. It sits at the border between the Romanian regions of Transylvania and Wallachia.

Construction of the present castle was completed in 1388, and for nearly 500 years thereafter it served as both a customs house and military stronghold to defend Transylvania from invasion.

We visited the Bran Castle in August, 2016. As our Romanian tour guide repeatedly reminded us, the castle has only a tenuous connection to either the fictional character Dracula, or to the real-life Vlad Tepes ("Vlad the Impaler"), also known as Vlad Dracul, who is said to have been at least part of the inspiration for Bram Stoker's classic vampire. Its real value is its role in the history of Romania. Yet there are indeed a couple of Dracula connections, as we shall see shortly.

Looking at the town below from Bran Castle.
Historically, the castle served the function of most castles -- i.e., to defend its region from invasion. The castle is situated strategically above a mountain pass. Thus, its occupants are able to see for long distances all around, and they are also able to control the only entrance to the area. But by the late 1800s, for a variety of reasons, the castle had lost its strategic importance and fallen into disrepair.

In 1920, after Transylvania had become a part of the Kingdom of Romania, local residents offered the castle as a gift to Romanian Queen Maria. She undertook an extensive restoration of the castle and turned it into a residence for the royal family. They remained there until 1948, when they were expelled by the newly installed Communist government, who also seized possession of the castle.

In the early 1990s, the people of Romania overthrew the Communist regime. And in 2006, Bran Castle was legally returned to the heirs of the royal family.

The castle is now open to the public as a museum, housing pieces from all of its eras -- from medieval torture devices to a secret staircase to early 20th-century royal furniture.

There is also a room devoted to the Dracula connections.

Vlad Tepes, Prince of Wallachia
Vlad Tepes, Prince of Wallachia
In terms of Bram Stoker's fictional vampire, the bloodthirsty Transylvanian Count Dracula, Bran Castle is said to have been the inspiration for Stoker's description of Count Dracula's sinister residence in the novel. According to the castle's website, Stoker himself never visited Romania. But he did have access to pictures and descriptions of Bran Castle, from which he developed his own description of the fictional Dracula's Castle.

In real life, Vlad Tepes -- also known as "Vlad the Impaler" or "Vlad Dracul" (Dragon) -- was Prince of Wallachia, a region bordering Transylvania, in the 1400s. Vlad was a fierce defender of both Wallachia and Transylvania against repeated invasions by the Ottoman Turks. Today he is revered as a hero in Romania.

Although Vlad did not live at Bran Castle, it is said that he would stay here as he traveled between Wallachia and Transylvania. It is also said that Vlad was once captured and imprisoned for two months in Bran Castle, after his relations with the Transylvanians had soured.

We visited Bran Castle on the 2-Night Dracula City Break from Bucharest. This is a great tour where you not only visit Dracula's Castle, but also have guided tours through the cities of Brasov and Bucharest. We learned more about the history and culture of Romania than we even knew existed, yet we left wanting to learn even more!

For more information on Bran Castle, you can check out the castle's website and its Wikipedia article.

Here are more photos from Bran Castle:

Fittingly, the castle contains a room full of torture devices. Here are a couple of ways  to make your guests feel welcome.

Some of the furnishings used by the royal family.

The King's bed

The King's crown and sceptre. This display is located in his bedroom.

The Queen's bathroom

Here are some views from outside the castle.

The secret staircase. A bit confining, but handy when you need to make a quick getaway.

The King's fancy-dress uniform.

Old suit of armor. Note the weapon: a crossbow.

Vicky in the courtyard of the castle
Ed with a picture of Vlad

Ed, Vicky, Jeanine, Norm (l-r), with the castle in the background

Dust and shadows, but a few beams of light... time for Dracula to crawl back into his coffin...