Fall in the Austrian Countryside

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I spent a few days in the countryside outside Vienna.

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Fall was in full force, tingeing grape vines red, yellow and orange.

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The skies were gray, but the greenery was golden.

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It seemed like nearly every family in this small town had a small winery.

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Even the town square arbor wore fall colors.

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And decorated with a rich carpet.

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Pure charm.

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Fall in Hungarian Forest

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I spent a week this fall in the forests of Hungary.

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It was just me, the conference of about 60 from all over the world, and about 100 octogenarian Hungarians.

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Apparently the hotel has a reputation for relaxation and good buffet dinners.

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I enjoyed hiking in the forest as early as I could convince my jet-lagged bod to head out the door.

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I also spent an afternoon in nearby Sopron.

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It’s not a tourist town per se, so it felt like a view into the lives of real Hungarians.

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The ancient fire tower helped guard the city.

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Which today, is just a charming little town.

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Some day I hope I’m as cute as these two old ladies, with a best friend or sister to sit backwards on a bench with and chat about the day in the fall sunshine.

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But until then, there are many more paths to pursue.

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Devil’s Backbone

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As we drove past it, I inadvertently gasped. There it was, jutting out the hill and scraping the sky like a claw.

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It turns out the Devil’s Backbone was just next to our Airbnb. We didn’t have much time, but we made time to hike it.

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I was hoping to scale the rocks, but it turns out they’re too fragile. So we were limited to the trail that winds around beside this incredible rock formation.

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The only time we had was on a gray rainy morning, and since I’m the queen of not being prepared for weather, We started out the hike with trash bag rain gear. Because we’re classy.

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And that’s why these are all iphone photos: I wasn’t willing to haul my SLR out into the drizzle.

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It was a great, easy hike with the kids (though they whined plenty), and I could have gone much longer.

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But we had to rush back, since we were late for lunch at the Silver Grill.

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In ISIS Holes

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A few months ago, I was able to go into one of the cities held by ISIS for two years in the Nineveh Plains outside Mosul.

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It took a complex set of negotiations to get in and pass through about five checkpoints held by different groups. There was an Iraqi Army checkpoint. There was a Peshmerga checkpoint. Then there were three various Christian militia checkpoints, including the militia who held the town.

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Once in the city, the devastation left behind by the ISIS fighters was clear.

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Crumpled buildings, charred roofs, broken glass.

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But mostly, decimated ancient Chaldean churches.

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The Christian communities in this part of Iraq have histories dating back to the first century. Many of the Chaldeans speak Syriac, an ancient language similar to Aramaic.

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Now their churches, formerly filled with marble and glass, are in ruins.

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Every cross was torn from every roof or steeple.

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Ceilings were blackened, saints defaced.

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The sanctuaries are filled with trash and rubble.

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The ISIS fighters apparently used this church courtyard for target practice. Its floor was littered with bullet casings and store mannequins stood in as targets.

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On the way out, we stopped at a monastery. It caught our eye because ISIS had removed the ornate wrought iron cross from the dome of the monastery and dragged it up the hill behind.

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When Christian militia retook the monastery earlier this year, they put up a simple wooden cross on the hill overlooking the site.

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Inside the monastery, the militia soldiers now guarding the building showed us the escape tunnels ISIS fighter had dug into the building and its grounds.

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One of the men motioned me into the tunnel, and I followed him in the winding darkness along the tunnel floor.

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We came up to a metal door, which led into the monastery. Then we turned and went another way, and we popped out on the other side of the hill, looking toward Mosul itself. We could hear the sound of the bomber jets overhead, as the Iraqi army battled ISIS for control of the city.

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Today, ISIS is nearly driven out of Mosul, and some of those who were driven out of their homes are planning to return. There’s little to return to, though. No water or electricity. No businesses or schools. Empty husks of homes, stripped of anything of value.

I don’t know how this story ends. But I hope that it some day comes to restoration.