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Alone in magnificent Rome and not so fancy free

December, 2009

click here to view a slideshow of images from Rome

I heard it over and over again: Beware of child pickpockets at the train station in Rome.

I took the train from Florence to Rome. Paranoid, I clutched my bags as I walked through the train station and the few blocks to my hostel. The area around the train station was not the nicest. The sun was disappearing, and what was soon to be one of the worst migraines of my life had begun.

I woke up in a room, with 14 other young visitors, in the largest and most populated city in Italy and realized that throughout my Italian adventure I had never felt so alone. I started to regret having left my travel friends in Florence and wondered why I had ever thought exploring Rome solo would be fun.

I had to snap out of it. I was in Rome! Italy’s capital! This bustling metropolis, rich in art, culture, history, fashion, cuisine and religion was waiting for me.

I got to my feet and ventured out, straight to the colosseum – Rome’s most defining landmark. I took the subway, again clutching my bag. The Colosseum was colossal, and easily spotted from far away. Opened in 80 AD, this travertine theatre once held 50,000 spectators. The closer I got to the Colosseum, the more street vendors I saw trying to sell cheap bracelets to unsuspecting tourists. There are many costumed “characters” at the entrance. They charge tourists $20 for a picture. I joined a tour group and waited in line to get in. While climbing the steps inside I looked down into the labyrinth of walls on the floor that once had elevators that transported the animals from the cages to the arena level. I couldn’t help but feel the pain of the thousands of people and wild animals that perished for the amusement of the Roman crowd.

Rome is crowded with ancient ruins – and with tourists. I tagged along with some of the tour groups to hear the stories and learn some history. I walked around in awe of the massiveness of the city. The buildings were titanic; the Renaissance and Baroque architecture is glorious, breathtaking and dramatic. I was overwhelmed, and in an attempt to find the Jewish Ghetto and the synagogue – which I never did – I got lost. I felt bad about that because my mother had told me they were definitely worth a visit. I turned a corner and found myself in front of one of the most spectacular water fountains in the world: the Trevi Fountain. The largest Baroque fountain in Rome, it stands 25.9 metres high and 19.8 metres wide. Legend has it that the traveller who throws a coin into the fountain will soon return to Rome; two coins and you will fall in love in Rome.

Next to the fountain is the Baroque Chiesa dei Santi Vincenzo e Anastasio. Built in 1630, the crypt preserves the hearts and lungs of popes from 1590 to 1903. Many tourists are likely unaware of the decaying organs behind them as they snap pictures and marvel in the beauty of the fountain.

I walked along streets lined with chic cafés and boutiques and stumbled onto another glorious landmark: Scalinata di Spagna, or the Spanish Steps.

The Scalinata is the longest and widest staircase in Europe, with 138 steps. Built from 1723 to 1725, it begins at the Piazza di Spagna and leads up to Piazza Trinita dei Monte with the church of the same name. Next to the staircase is a pink house where in 1821 John Keats, one of the most famous romantic poets of all time, passed away when he was a mere 25 years old.

As the sun started to set, I made my way back to my hostel. It was not easy. As a young woman walking around solo in Rome I felt like a lamb in the forest. An endless number of Italian men approached me, followed me, and went on and on trying to seduce me in Italian. I made it back to the hostel safe, with purse intact.

The next morning I joined a tour of The Vatican City, the walled enclave within Rome. Home to the Pope and the Catholic Church, it is the smallest country in the world by both population (about 900) and area (0.44 square kilometres). Postage stamps, tourist mementos, and fees for admission to museums support the entire economy. It issues its own coins and even has its own bank, Vatican Bank, containing the only ATM in the world with instructions in Latin. Within Vatican City are Saint Peter’s Basilica, the Apostolic Palace and the Sistine Chapel. The Swiss Guards roam the streets and guard entrances. These personal bodyguards to the Pope look like charming Disney characters in their colourful uniforms.

The immenseness of Saint Peter’s Basilica is indescribable. As one of the holiest sites in Christianity it spans 5.7 acres and holds 60,000 people. Constructed from 1506 to 1626 it is the burial site of Saint Peter, one of the 12 apostles of Jesus and of great importance in the founding of the Christian Church.

The Sistine Chapel is the chapel in the Apostolic Palace, the official residence of the Pope.

The frescos in the Sistine Chapel are among the most famous in the world with works by Michelangelo, Raphael, Bernini, and Botticelli. Michelangelo’s The Last Judgment covers the entire wall behind the altar. I spent most of my time there with my eyes on the ceiling in awe of Michelangelo’s works depicting stories in Genesis.

I went to the post office and sent a Vatican postcard with a Vatican stamp on it back home to my mother in Montreal and wondered if she’d appreciate its value.

Rome is a spectacular city, and despite all its beauty and history, the stress of all that a big city entails wore me out. I was ready to leave and return to the calm of northern Italy.

I returned to my hostel, once again successfully dodging the men and the child pickpockets.

I stopped at a small pizza joint next to the hostel and ordered a slice of cheese pizza in broken Italian. A young man approached me and asked if I was American. He sighed with utter relief when I said yes. He too was American and said he’d spent the whole day without speaking to anyone in English. He asked me if I wanted to get a coffee with him.

We found a small café and ordered some pastries, coffee and tea. He was a 26-year-old US soldier stationed in Iraq on his two-week vacation, which he chose to spend in Rome. That night was his last night before he returned to Iraq. We could not have been more different and yet we could not get enough of each other. The café closed and we walked around and found another that was open all night. We sat there, eating a cheese platter with tea, and shared our stories. He told me about his life in Iraq and his decision to join the army. I shared my experiences travelling around Europe, and my life in Los Angeles. We talked politics, religion, culture – everything we could think of. We sat at the café until the sun rose. We exchanged e-mails, said our goodbyes and we never contacted each other again. I suppose we both wanted to preserve the perfection of that night and our connection in Rome.

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Florence: a city filled with treats for the eyes

click here to view a slide show of images from Florence

We had been in Italy for a week, but it wasn’t until we arrived in Florence, or “Firenze” in Italian, that I suddenly felt unfashionable and underdressed. The first thing I noticed was how chic and elegantly dressed Italian women were. My friends and I were backpacking around Europe, and coming from three weeks on the laissez-faire beaches of the Greek islands. We were not quite prepared to blend into the fashion-filled streets.

Florence is a classic Italian city – dainty cafés, narrow streets, glorious museums, medieval castles, a romantic river, gelato, Michelangelo, Botticelli, Gucci, Prada and Valentino. It has a population of about 367,000 and is the capital city of the northeast region of Tuscany.

The first sight we visited was the famous Duomo of Santa Maria del Fiore. We made our way through a maze of unidentifiable narrow streets, stopping for pizza along the way and asking locals for directions. While nobody spoke English, they pointed us in the right direction. Suddenly, from what seemed like out of nowhere, the street opened up into a huge piazza with a massive and beautifully neo-gothic decorated Duomo. However I’m reluctant to admit that after witnessing the grandiose exterior, the blandness inside was somewhat disappointing, with the exception of the decorative 100-metre-high Brunel­leschi’s Dome, named after the architect who designed it. The interior of the dome is painted with a scene of the apocalypse. During its construction, Brunelleschi built kitchens, dorm rooms, and bathrooms between the two walls of the cupola so the builders would never have to descend. We climbed the seemingly endless old, claustrophobic staircase to reach the top with its beautiful 360-degree view of the city.

Across from the Duomo is the Baptistery, famous for its tremendous bronze doors depicting scenes from the Bible.

After an overpriced dinner in a mediocre tourist trap, we ended our first night watching the sun set from the Ponte Vecchio, the 14th-century bridge lined with shops on stilts over the Arno river. The bridge is filled with hundreds of locks placed there by lovers. After locking their love during the romantic sun set, they throw the keys into the river to show their commitment. Locking your love on the Ponte Vecchio is illegal, and if the police find you doing it you can be fined. City workers painstakingly cut the locks off one by one, but before long they are replaced by new ones.

If you are in Florence and only have time to visit one sight, make it the Accademia dell’Arte del Disegno to relish Michelangelo’s David. We waited in line for 20 minutes to enter this small museum filled with sculptures. The masterpiece of Renaissance marble depicting the biblical King David contemplating his upcoming battle with Goliath stands 5.17 metres high. David looked magnificent: strong, yet soft and angelic. We all appreciated the semi-circular bench placed around the back of the statue, where many women sit and enjoy the view of David’s perfectly sculpted derrière.

We then walked to the Piazza della Signoria to tour the Palazzo Vecchio, which from the outside looks like a castle straight out of a Disney movie. We waited in line for half an hour to tour the extravagantly decorated old rooms of this crenellated fortress. Michelangelo’s David once stood at the front entrance, before it was moved to the Accademia dell’Arte in 1873. A copy now stands in its place. The Palazzo now functions as a museum and the town hall of Florence.

The great Uffizi museum is right next to the Palazzo Vecchio. It is one of the oldest and most famous museums in Europe, displaying works by such artists as Botticelli, Michelangelo and Leonardo da Vinci. Despite this, we were not inspired to stand in line for four hours to get in.

After my friends and I decided to venture off and explore on our own, I found the synagogue – Tempio Maggiore, built in 1874-1882. The synagogue, of Italian and Moorish design, is extravagantly beautiful. Unlike most of Italy’s Duomos, which you can simply walk into, I had to go through a thorough security check before entering. There is a small but vibrant Jewish community in Florence that maintains the temple, which was almost destroyed during the Second World War. The Italian resistance defused the explosives and saved it. I stopped at Ruth’s Kosher Vegetarian Restaurant for a quick bite before heading back to meet my friends.

I got lost, of course. But that is what you do when you travel in Europe – lose yourself to the city. It was getting dark. I stood in the middle of a piazza, opened my map and within seconds a nice young man who spoke no English approached me to offer his help. That trick works every time. Fillippo escorted me back to the Piazza della Signoria, passing several kiosks selling inappropriate postcards of David “parts” along the way, where I met my friends. I introduced them to Fillippo, and for the rest of the night they joked about my new Italian “boyfriend.”

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Verona: city of love and legend

click here to view a slideshow of Verona

September 2009

Verona is the enchanted city, paved in pink marble, whose beauty inspired Shakespeare to write Romeo and Juliet.

I met Gianfranco in Perugia and we decided to take a little trip together. He is from Puglia, the southeastern region of Italy, and moved to Perugia to study linguistics. When we met, he did not speak a word of English, but with my knowledge of French and three weeks in Italy, I had picked up enough Italian to get by.

With a population of roughly a quarter million, Verona is located in the region of Veneto in northern Italy. It took five hours by train to get there from Perugia, with a stopover in Florence.

Verona has everything one would expect from an Italian city: ancient Roman monuments, fine wines, narrow streets, high fashion, centuries-old basilicas, castles and a river that flows through and around the city. What we didn’t expect was how pleasantly affordable it was to visit compared to such other fashionable Italian destinations as Venice or Florence. We found a budget hotel in the centre of town, only a few blocks from the train station. We also bought Verona cards for $10 each, which gave us entry to all the museums, churches and sights in the city for one day.

Our first stop was the Castelvecchio, the castle next to our hotel – the Residence Hotel Castelvecchio. It was built in the 14th century by the della Scala family and features classic castle architecture complete with courtyards and crenellations. It is now a museum that holds a collection of sculptures and paintings (mostly religious-themed).

We walked a few blocks to the magnificent first-century Roman amphitheatre. It is the third- largest amphitheatre in Italy and holds up to 25,000 spectators within its 44 tiers of pink marble seats. It is still used today for a variety of events including fairs, theatre and opera. Unlike at the Coliseum in Rome, there were neither pushy street vendors trying to sell me cheap bracelets nor overpriced tours inside. The arena was ours to explore at our leisurely slow, Italian pace.

The main reason I wanted to visit Verona was to explore the city that was the setting for the most famous tragic romance of all time – Romeo and Juliet. We walked to the Capulets’ house, which is called “Casa di Giulietta” (Juliet’s house). The small brick house is filled with paintings and frescoes of the lovers. Gianfranco took my picture on the famous balcony, which for some reason I had imagined to be much larger and full of flowers. It was just a plain little balcony. The balcony overlooks a courtyard with a bronze statue of Juliet whose right breast is polished from all the tourists who touch it for luck. The passage leading to the courtyard is, in essence, an international hall of love graffiti. Lovers from all over the world sign their names and draw hearts on the wall. Oddly enough, the house has no historical connection to the real Capulet family. However, the Montague house, “Casa di Romeo,” just a few blocks away, really was home to the Monitague family. The villa is privately owned, with no real defining Shakespearian artifacts other than a small plaque next to the door inscribed with a quote from the play “O, Where is Romeo? … Tut, I have lost myself, I am not here, this is not Romeo, he’s some other where.”

We walked down Verona’s famous fashion row, paved with pink marble and lined with exclusive high-fashion shops. I relished in the open-air shops in the main piazza selling a variety of Italian glass jewellery while Gianfranco patiently sat on the bench and talked on the phone.

We wandered around and across the Adige River, then up countless old steps to the Castel San Pietro. There we sat, communicating in a mixture of broken Italian and sign language as we admired the foggy, enchanted city.

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Italy’s city of water: majestic, but a challenge to navigate

May, 2009

I took an overnight ferry from Patras, Greece to Ancona, Italy with three Canadian girls I met while travelling. Our sights were set on Venice, Venezia in Italian, the enchanted lagoon of northeast Italy.

When we docked in Ancona, we sent Laura to make the phone calls to find a hotel. After 20 minutes she returned, frustrated and confused. “What does ‘Pronto’ mean?” she asked. We didn’t know. “Each time I call a hotel someone picks up the phone and says ‘Pronto,’ then I ask about the rooms and then they hang up.” We later learned that “Pronto” is simply the way Italians answer the phone, and most of them don’t speak English. During her second round of phone calls, she eventually found someone who did, and reserved us a room.

The city of Venice is composed of 18 small, interconnected islands within a lagoon off the Adriatic Sea. About 31,000 people live on these islands. The city is small enough to explore entirely on foot. Boats are the standard method of transportation, and there are no cars in Venice, giving the city a sense of calmness.

From Ancona, we hopped on the train and headed north. About five hours later we heard the conductor announce “Venezia.” My mother had given me specific instructions to get off the train, turn right and walk toward the Jewish ghetto. I took charge and led the group as we made our way. It was dark and cold. We walked and walked. Something didn’t seem right. Where was the water? Scared and confused, we asked some Italian men at a café where we could find our hotel. They did not speak English. We pulled out a map of Venice and they laughed. Clearly, we had gotten off at the wrong stop. Apparently there are two train stops called “Venezia.” Who knew?

We took a cab to a bridge, walked across, and finally found our city of water. We felt lucky to have booked our hotel ahead of time, as we met several unprepared travellers roaming the street late at night looking for a place to stay. Our hotel – Alloggi Gerotto Calderan – had big, bright rooms with high ceilings. We paid about 75 euros for a room for the four of us. The hotel was just steps away from the Jewish ghetto. The first and oldest ghetto in Europe, it is 500 years old. The original term “ghetto” refers to this Venetian ghetto, which once housed 5,000 Jews, who were forced to live there. Venice’s active Jewish community of about 1,000 maintains five synagogues (two which are operational), a yeshiva (an orthodox Jewish school), a kosher restaurant, several Judaica shops, and a Chabad (an ultra-orthodox Jewish group).

The next morning, two Chabad boys invited us all to attend Chabad’s Shabbat dinner. It was the most beautiful Shabbat dinner I have ever experienced. There were several long tables set up along a canal. About 30 people – some local Venetians and many travellers from all over the world – came together for the meal.

Our first Italian café experience was interesting. I ordered a hot chocolate, and my friends all ordered coffee. We had to pay extra for a table. The waiter brought my hot chocolate out first. The girls ooed and aahed. It looked like a melted rich milk chocolate bar. Their coffees came out shortly after – mini mugs with about two sips of coffee in them. There must have been a mistake, we insisted, but no; in Italy, a coffee is a shot of espresso. Who knew?

The Piazza San Marco is one of the most famous squares in Italy. It is home to the Basilica di San Marco, the exquisite Palazzo Ducale, several ritzy art stores, cafés and hundreds of pigeons. We took a small tour of the remarkable basilica, nicknamed “Chiesa d’Or” (church of gold) for the decorative gold both inside and outside. It has Byzantine architecture. The marble floors are uneven, like water, due to the shifting of the foundation. It’s a remarkable sight.

The Palazzo Ducale is Venice’s pièce de résistance. Built in the 14th century, it was used as the senate house, the hall of justice, an administrative centre, and a prison until the fall of the Venetian Republic in 1797. As we walked through the great halls, each one more exquisite and extravagant than the last, filled with golden walls and grand works of art, I couldn’t help but imagine it as my home while I study at Ca’ Foscari, University of Venice.

The shopping in Venice is like nowhere else. The city is known for its glasswork and Venetian masks. I bought several pieces of glass jewellery, but the masks wouldn’t survive in my suitcase.

The four of us took a peaceful, $90 half-hour gondola ride around the city. We made sure to choose a handsome gondola driver, who sang to us in Italian as we floated through the majestic city of water.

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Malibu: 21 miles of scenic beauty and surfing for all ages

April, 2009

Last week my good friend Cassie and I spent the day in the Bu (pronounced “Boo,” which is slang for Malibu). We walked into the Malibu Surf Shack on Pacific Coast Highway (PCH) after a two-hour, 20- mile drive through the traffic-filled streets of Los Angeles.

Dozens of colourful surfboards, wetsuits and kayaks lined the deck outside. A young girl from Vancouver was eyeing the latest surf swag inside. Sean, the store owner and a Malibu native, says he typically does not give interviews, passing up opportunities when hotshots from Vogue or Glamour come in, so as not to be overexposed.

Part of Malibu’s essence is its relaxed and laissez-faire attitude. The locals like to preserve the casual-yet elegant ambiance, which separates Malibu from the high-strung, smog filled, paparazzi circus of Los Angeles.

Malibu is 21 miles (34 km) of scenic beauty along the Pacific coastline. It borders Topanga Canyon to the east,Ventura County to the west, the Santa Monica Mountains to the north, and the Pacific Ocean to the south. The California State Parks within Malibu are packed with breathtaking trails for hikes, horseback riding, and biking. But Malibu is best known for its premiere surf beaches and the surf culture that goes along with it.

The Surf Shack is across the street from the Malibu Pier and the well known Surfrider Beach,which is said to have the “best breaks in the world.” Surfers from all over, of all levels, shapes, sizes and ages are drawn to the waves at Surfrider. At $20 an hour or $25 a day to rent a surfboard, surfing is nicely affordable during these harsh economic times. “Kayaking is equally as popular,” Sean says, gesturing to the store’s windows overlooking the beach. “A lady in her 60s is out there kayaking. She’s been in a couple of times,” he says.

“An 86-year-old man from the Midwest came in for a surf lesson,” he adds. “We held the board the whole time until he caught a wave and stood up. It’s one more thing to check off of his bucket list.”

Sean has co-ordinated senior group outings of 20 to 30 people.

We crossed the street and strolled along the pier, which holds the new Malibu Pier Club, a vintage-inspired bar offering cocktails and appetizers. The pier is an excellent spot for salt water fishing. We moseyed on over to the beach, walking along the sidewalk on PCH, passing surfers waxing their boards and zipping up their wetsuits, and breathing in the fumes from a Volkswagen Hippie Bus.

The Malibu Lagoon State Park, part of Surfrider Beach, is where Malibu Creek meets the Pacific Ocean. It is a pleasant little bird-watching area where the Adamson House, a natural historic site, showcases Malibu artifacts. The students of Malibu High School frequent this area as part of their nature studies.

Opposite the Lagoon, on the other side of PCH on Cross Creek Road, is the Malibu Country Mart. With over 60 shops, it is a great place to people- watch because many celebrities shop there. The Malibu Kitchen is reason enough for me to make the trip. It is the only gourmet deli in the area, which unfortunately allows them to get away with charging $12 for a sandwich. The service is mediocre, but the desserts are miraculous. The monstrous carrot cake cupcakes and Oreo brownies are my favourites.

Further up the coast is the family friendly Zuma Beach, known for its long, wide sands and excellent surf. This is where Valley kids and Malibu High and Pepperdine University students go to “slide the Bu” (surf in Malibu).

The Paradise Cove Café, just east of Zuma Beach, is the only restaurant in Malibu right on the sand with its private beach and cove. Its Sunday all you- can-eat buffet attracts large crowds, and while it appears in just about every guidebook I would steer clear. When I was there the place was packed and parking was horrendous. We waited 40 minutes for a table, and then were seated in the direct sun surrounded by children running around spreading sand everywhere. There was not one thing to eat for a vegetarian like myself; the menu consists solely of overpriced seafood. I left hungry, sun burnt, and annoyed.

Further up the coast, past several smaller, less-frequented yet lovely state beaches, is Neptune’s Net Seafood. This artery-clogging joint is where the bikers traveling along PCH hang out. Menu items include such delicacies as fish ’n’ chips, oysters, clams, lobster and calamari – all deep-fried, of course.

For a relaxing Malibu ocean front meal, I suggest Moonshadows on PCH during sunset.

Wildfires and mudslides aren’t the only troubles this upscale and tranquil community is facing these days. It’s a telltale sign of the country’s hardship when there are signs that the rich are suffering. Many of the seaside beach houses and canyon estates are up for sale. There are several empty stores in the Malibu Country Mart. Even the Malibu Inn, a legendary bar that has hosted many memorable musical acts, has closed.

However, I believe the Bu will pull through. Malibu’s greatest asset – its 365 days a year of surf weather – will forever attract people to its shores.

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California Dreamin: A beach, a courthouse, a university and a glass of wine

March 2009

Santa Barbara, otherwise known as “America’s Riviera” is only an hour and a half drive from the massive and traffic filled city of Los Angeles. Ninety-two miles up the beautiful California coast is a stylish little community with red-tiled roofs, citrus trees in cozy backyards and wine vineyards.

Santa Barbara is a picturesque escape I like to frequent where surf attire is, was, and always will be the norm. It is nestled between the Santa Ynez Mountains and the Pacific Ocean and lies on the east-west portion of the coastline.

As you drive up to Santa Barbara from the south you come across a pretty little seaside town called Summerland.

Summerland view of the ocean

Yes, that’s right, it wasn’t a typo. I almost want to move there just to have my address listed as “Summerland.”

As a native Montrealer, I truly appreciate the scene. The main drag of this sleepy Santa Barbara suburb is sparsely occupied with restaurants, cafés, wine boutiques, only one bar that I could find, and several antique shops.

Just north of Summerland and along Butterfly Beach…I’m not kidding, it’s Butterfly… is one of the wealthiest communities in the United States, the elegant Montecito. Many celebrities own property here, including Oprah Winfrey and Steven Spielberg.

The Four Seasons Resort, the Biltmore Santa Barbara, sits on Butterfly Beach. The stunning Spanish colonial style hotel not only has rooms and suites but also 12 private cottages sprawled throughout the hotel gardens. If you can’t afford the $575 US for a standard room, there is always the all-you-can-eat Sunday brunch buffet for a mere $68.

Classic cars at Woody’s BBQ

State Street is the main street in downtown Santa Barbara. There is a lot of overpriced shopping as well as California style restaurants and cafés. Wine tasting is a religion here. Several wineries are accessible by foot from State St. – all within a square mile.

I typically like to avoid courthouses, but the one in Santa Barbara is the exception. The Santa Barbara County historic courthouse is a beautiful Spanish colonial-style building built in 1929. The surrounding sunken gardens host several city celebrations of Spanish history.

Classic cars and southern California go hand in hand. The mild climate enables the vehicles to live long lives. It’s not uncommon to see cars from the 1950s and ’60s cruising down the Pacific Coast Highway (a.k.a Highway 1).

I don’t know much about cars, but I can appreciate their beauty. The Gamblers, a local car club, hosts a gathering of classic vehicles at Woody’s BBQ in Goleta every second Saturday of each month. Classic car owners ride in style into the parking lot to proudly display their manhood – I mean works of art – to the public.

The University of California Santa Barbara, UCSB, is at the seaside tip of Goleta. It is one of the United States’ top universities, not to mention one of the most beautiful. Framed by the Santa Ynez Mountains and the Pacific Ocean, it is a humble and relaxing setting, where students stroll along the beach between classes. The buildings are modest. There are no towering structures to take away from the serenity. Students walking back to the dormitories in wetsuits with surfboards in hand are a common sight. I walked through the halls of the Department of Mathematics and thought about how my grandfather, Leo Moser from Edmonton, had enjoyed his sabbatical year at UCSB in 1969.

Whenever I go to Santa Barbara, I can’t help but think of my mother, my very own Saint Barbara.

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Pricey, pristine, peaceful Oslo

Norwegian coast

I sat in the waiting room at Heathrow airport in London, England with a room full of tall blonds. A two-hour flight northwest over the North Sea brought me to Oslo Norway. Norway occupies the western portion of the Scandinavian Peninsula. It borders Sweden, Finland, and Russia with its famous fjords coastline facing the North Atlantic Ocean. Norway is one of the wealthiest countries in the world, while also being the most peaceful – Global Peace Index ranked it as the most peaceful country in the world in the 2007 survey. Oslo, with about half a million residents is the country’s capital and largest city.

What first struck me when I arrived in Oslo was an overwhelming feeling of peace and tranquility. It was not the tranquility I found on the Greek Islands, which was mostly about the ocean and the sun. The Norwegian tranquility emanated from the people themselves.

Hedda picked me up at the airport with her new hairless dog Spike. I couldn’t help but wonder how Spike made it through the Norwegian winters. Hedda and I met while studying at UCLA in the summer of 2002. She had invited me to spend a week with her in her hometown. Her house was beautifully nestled in the woods. She had assured me that I could make my way downtown while she was in school during the day, but I didn’t see any evidence of a city in the vicinity. Her house, and most of the other houses in Oslo looked like life-size dollhouses scattered in deep woods. I found out later that these houses in the woods were only a couple of miles from the city center.

Vigeland Sculpture Park

As Hedda headed out early the next morning for class, I walked two blocks down to the tram station and waited. I felt like I was in the sticks. Not a soul was in sight. Two stops and five minutes later I was miraculously in downtown Oslo. The city looked classically European with a mix of old architecture and new trendy stores, restaurants and cafes. There was one noticeable difference – a lack of tourists. Norway is in my opinion one of the most beautiful countries in the world, but it is also one of the coldest, temperature-wise, and the most expensive. Though Oslo doesn’t attract as many tourists as some other major European cities, as I stopped strangers on the streets to ask for directions I was pleasantly surprised that everyone spoke near perfect English.

The city was lovely. I walk to the Royal Palace, built in the first half of the 19th century, which housed the Royal Norwegian Family. After a few minutes of imagining the Palace was my home, I walked down the hill and through the streets, exploring the University of Oslo and the National Theatre.

I met Hedda at the Vigeland Sculpture Park – one of Oslo’s main attractions. It is Norway’s largest park occupying 80 acres with 212 bronze and granite sculptures by the Norwegian sculptor Gustav Vigeland. The sculptures are all of men, women and children in motion. The most intriguing piece is the monolith at the top, carved from a single piece of rock and standing 14.12 meters high. It portrays 121 human figures lovingly embracing each other while rising towards heaven.

Oslo Royal Palace

Sadly, the Munch Museum, dedicated to the work and life of Norway’s most famous painter, Edward Munch, was closed for construction. It holds over half the artist’s entire production of paintings, including his most famous works The Scream and Madonna.

Hedda brought me to the Holmenkollen Ski Jump. It is a truly terrifying slope that only the supremely experienced should consider. It extends 60 meters above ground and 417 meters above sea level. It was also used for the 1952 Winter Olympics and four World Ski Championships. I did not have the guts to climb to the top, and missed a magnificent panoramic view of the city.

What was most prominent about the Norwegians was their spirit for a healthy and active lifestyle. It is no wonder they are so beautiful. They are passionate about it, and they have designed their cities to accommodate it. They do not let the weather get in their way. There are numerous stunning hikes and ski slopes just 5 minutes from downtown and a few tram stops away.

Norwegian food is fresh, healthy and hearty. The water in the shower is so soft it feels like silk. They don’t count calories as many are burned on the ski slopes. They eat a special brown goat’s cheese for breakfast called Brunost. It looks strange but it will put any cheesoholic into cheese heaven. It is sharp, strong and sweet like caramel. And though it is probably terribly fattening, I indulged splendidly. As far as I know, there is only one store in Los Angeles that sells this delicacy, and it is far beyond my budget at the Beverly Hills Cheese Shop.

We spent our nights downtown with Hedda's friends at some trendy bars.Everyone spoke perfect English. It was early October. The streets were quiet but the bars were full of life. Drinks were expensive at $10-$15 per cocktail. I was told the best time to visit is late June. On June 21, the longest day of the year, the sun does not set and the parties last for 24 hours.

With its life-size dollhouses, majestic mountains, and heavenly goat cheese, it’s no wonder Norway is one of the healthiest, wealthiest and peacefulcountries in the world.

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Dancing the fairytale dream

It is that time of year again. The time for snowflakes, flowers, mice, toy soldiers, a sugarplum fairy and a young girl named Clara to come together and tell the story of The Nutcracker. Every year Ballet Ouest dazzles Montreal audiences with its production of this fairytale ballet.

Founded by Margaret Mehuys in 1984, the company performs new ballets as well as a classical repertoire. They invite outside choreographers to create original works “from which a contemporary dance language can be constructed.”

Mehuys started the company when her ballet students expressed interest in performing. With money raised from a garage sale and donations from parents, Ballet Ouest was born 24 years ago. The company has come a long way.

“We perform in a big theatre with a professional crew,” Mehuys says. “There is an elaborate set with ten scenic drops, 130 costumes and 25 professional dancers. It has become a professional company.”

This year’s cast is comprised of 107 dancers ranging from ages 7 to 93. Evelyn Hansen-Gillis, 13, from Dorval and Karina Armuplu, 12, from Saint Laurent get to live out every young girl’s dream this year by playing the lead role of Clara. Dell Ross, 93, plays Clara’s grandmother in the opening party scene. “The beautiful thing about The Nutcracker is that it gives kids the chance to experience live performance,” says Mehuys about the young dancers.

Former Ballet Ouest dancers have gone on to train at the École Supérieure de Danse du Québec, the National Ballet School of Canada, and Les Grands Ballets Canadiens.

Ballet Ouest dancers will be on their toes in their holiday production of The Nutcracker Saturday, December 6 at 2 pm and 7:30 pm and Saturday December 7 at 2 pm at Salle Pierre Mercure, Centre Pierre Peladeau, 300 de Maisonneuve E.

Info: 514-783-1245 or balletouest.com

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Dewey the cat loved books and book lovers

Vicki Myron and Dewey

Last week I wandered into Studio City’s Bookstar bookstore in Los Angeles, California, where I reside and was directly drawn to a picture of a beautiful bright orange cat looking straight back at me on the cover of a book called Dewey.

I have many wonderful books on the shelves at home waiting in line to be read, but there was something about the way this cat was looking at me that told me I had to learn of his story.

This is the true story of a library cat in the small town of Spencer, Iowa. One bitterly cold January morning in 1988, Vicki Myron, director of the Spencer Public Library, found a near frozen kitten shaking uncontrollably in the book return box. His frostbitten paws didn’t stop him from hobbling over to each member of the library staff to show them his gratitude for saving his life. They named the kitten Dewey, after Melville Dewey.

This is the story of Vicky Myron, a single mother who survived an alcoholic husband and numerous medical hurdles including breast cancer. This is the story of a woman who persevered through the toughest of times. This is the story of The Spencer Public Library, and the humble town of Spencer, in farm country Iowa that had suffered a major economic downturn during the farm crisis of the 1980’s.

Did you know that it is a common practice for libraries and used bookstores to adopt homeless cats? Dewey was adopted by the town of Spencer and called the library his home for over 19 years. He won the hearts of the staff and the patrons not just with his good looks, but also with his ability to know who needed him most. He soon became the most famous resident of Spencer. As word spread of this lovable library cat in the local newspapers and radio so did his fame to the nearby towns, then states, then all over the country and the world.

Why would people travel all the way from Japan to meet a cat? How can a friendly feline touch the lives of countless people around the world? You’ll just have to read this New York Times bestseller to find out! I am the self-proclaimed slowest reader in the world. I polished off this book in just a couple of nights. I even tried to slow down my reading, to stretch out and enjoy every Dewey moment. I read while sipping my hot chocolate at Starbucks, laughing out loud and then choking back my tears. Myron writes the story of Dewey with heart, humor, and sincerity. This book is for anyone who has been blessed with the love of an animal, and for everyone else who has yet to know this love.

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Hvar and islets attract the rich and naked

I took an overnight ferry from Rijeka, at the northernmost point of the Adriatic Sea, down the Croatian coast to Hvar Island. The cold autumn weather in the north just wasn’t cutting it for me.

Croatia’s southern islands are the country’s crown jewels. I had heard from a fellow traveler that Hvar Island was the piece de resistance, the most luxurious vacation spot for the fashionable wealthy Europeans. This was the island with Venetian architecture and lavender-covered picturesque mountain terrain, not to mention an average of 2715 hours of sunshine a year. Clearly, this was where I belonged.

Hvar Island is a long thin Island off the southern Croatian coast that stretches 88km east to west with a population of 11,000. Along with a dozen or so tra­velers, I was deposited at 8am at a dock on the northwest side of the Island near a town called Stari Grad. The other travelers were all picked up by family or friends. I was left alone and was starting to worry. There were no people, cars or boats in the vicinity, the ferry had sailed away and I was stranded on this sunny island that my father referred to in an email as “in the middle of nowhere.” I was starting to wonder if this whole “island excursion” was a good idea.

Across from the dock was a small run-down restaurant with a ticket booth. Where was the Venetian architecture? The luxury yachts? Where was the castle at the top of the hill mentioned in my guidebook? Did I get off on the wrong island?

A view of Hvar town from the taxi-boat

I walked toward the ticket book and noticed a woman at the counter. She didn’t speak English but she managed to direct me to the bus stop next to the port. I waited at the empty bus stop with no posted schedule for about ten minutes. It felt like eternity. A mini bus miraculously approached. I told the driver I wanted to go to Hvar Town. He said in perfect English “Yes, I know, 10 Kuna please.” ($2) He took my bag and loaded it in the back as I hopped into the bus already loaded with eight tourists.

The bus ride was a 20-minute breathtaking drive through the lavender-covered mountains to the southwest side of the island. We were dropped off in the center of Hvar Town (pop. 4000), next to the open-air market and a cathedral in the main square. I meandered through the old white-stone covered square past the multi-million dollar luxury yachts lined up, each more extravagant than the next, and then up the hill through the narrow stoned pathways to the Green Lizard Hostel, full of hung-over British and Irish backpackers recovering from the club hopping of the night before.

The hostel manager gave me a quick rundown of the main tourist attractions – museums, nightclubs, and the nearby islets. She circled a few, mentioning that those were the ones I might enjoy. “What about the others?” I asked. “They are all nice,” she explained, “but I suggest these.”

I spent the day walking along the port, imagining myself lounging on the deck of one of those fancy yachts as a handsome pool boy dressed in a white uniform serves me pink lemonade. I walked around town, past a few overpriced restaurants and souvenir shops, and a string of jewelry booths selling hand made earrings, bracelets and necklaces to eager buyers such as Canadian girls looking for treasures.

I walked along the seaside promenade and the rocky shores westwards past the luxury hotels and found a nice rock to lounge on and read for the rest of the day. Exhausted, I went to sleep early.

Hvar’s main attraction, for me, isn’t the xvith century fortress at the top of the hill or the xviith century oldest municipal theatre in Europe or the many museums full of culture and history. It is the sun-drenched beaches on the mainland and on the Pakleni Islands – a group of about 20 islets just opposite Hvar Town. Several little taxi boats wait to take the tourists to the islets.

Hvar Town port

I got an early start the next morning to explore the Pakleni Islands. I got in the taxi-boat with a few tourists at 10 am and we set sail. I didn’t look at the map the hostel manager had given me, circling the islands I should visit. Instead, I decided to do my own thing. The first islet we docked at was Jerolim. It looked lovely, small with large rocks to bask on and enjoy the pleasant seas. Perfect, I thought. I paid the taxi driver, hopped off, found the perfect rock with the most perfect view, laid down on my towel and proceeded to immerse myself in my book. This was my serene moment. I would spend my day reading, meditating, and reflecting on my journey and the journeys to come.

Five minutes into my book I realized others had discovered my rocky shore and planted themselves on the rocks. I almost had a heart attack when I realized they were all naked! I had stumbled upon the “nudists” islet. Not that there is anything wrong with hanging on the beach in your birthday suit, but this certainly was not for me. I quickly gathered up my belongings and headed straight back to the dock to catch the next taxi-boat. Why didn’t the taxi-boat driver say anything as I left the boat? They just let me wander onto the naked island! I waited three hours for the next boat without lifting my eyes.

As luck would have it, the next islet was also full of naturalists. Call me a prude but I couldn’t handle it. Once again I waited on the dock and took the next taxi-boat back to the mainland.

So much for my day of serenity and reflection. I headed back to the Green Lizard and shared a bottle of wine with Irish backpackers who made fun of me for stumbling onto the “sexy sexy islands.”

I did not visit the fortress, the theatre, or the museums in Hvar. Although they are probably very nice, they are not why most people come to Hvar. They come to tour the swanky hotels, restaurants and bars, canoodle in their yachts and, so I learned, tan on the Pakleni Islands au naturel. Though I am not yet one of the jet-setting rich and famous cultural elite, I got to spend two days pretending I was.

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Idyllic Istria

View from atop the church tower

I took a bus from Trieste, an Italian port city, through a one-laned twisty hilly road down through Istria – the peninsula that lies at the northern point of the Adriatic Sea. It took three hours for the bus to travel the 100 kilometers down the western coast, stopping at little towns along the way, to reach Pula – located at the southernmost tip of the peninsula. This port city is the largest in Istria with just over 62,000 residents. It holds a beautiful mix of mostly Croats, with some Serbs, Italians, Bosniaks and Slovenians. Istria is a melting pot of Italian, Austrian and Croatian cultures.

I walked across the city, passing the first century Roman amphitheatre (aka Colosseum) and the old town to get to my hostel. Famished, I decided along with several new friends I had met at the hostel to pay a visit to one of Pula’s most frequented Italian restaurants, Jupiter, located at Castrapola 38 – a couple of blocks above the forum. Pizza was the specialty – there were 18 to choose from. The five of us stationed ourselves in a booth with a rustic wooden table. We each ordered an individual pizza at a reasonable price. Little did we know that in Croatia an “individual pizza” could easily feed two… or three. The pizza was exquisite.

We then decided to be mature and cultured travelers. Instead of a typical night of finding the local pub or club, we decided to attend a concert of traditional Croatian choral music at the Colosseum for $40. The amphitheater was lit beautifully and packed with locals. The men’s choirs took the stage one by one to sing songs that everyone in the audience knew and sang along to. And though it was nice, we were getting bored and cold and were somewhat regretting not hitting up the clubs.

I explored the narrow streets of the old town the next morning. Though beautifully lined with medieval and Renaissance buildings along the ancient Roman stoned streets, I couldn’t help but notice the many tourist-targeted shops and overpriced restaurants. I ran into two Portuguese friends I had met in Trieste a couple of days before. We ate a very mediocre and overpriced lunch at what looked like a nice restaurant. We were later told by one of the locals that for these restaurants there are two prices – the local’s price and the significantly higher tourist’s price.

We trekked up the stairs of the central hill of the old city to explore the star-shaped 14th century castle that sat atop. The princess that I am, I make a point of visiting the castles along the ways of my travels. This one had a moat. It was converted into the Historical Museum of Istria. It certainly was no Palazzo Ducale of Venice. For a few dollars we walked through 5 or 6 open rooms filled with old weapons, kitchenware, and pharmaceuticals. The city views alone were worth the visit.

That night we hit the clubs. We started at the beach and slowly made our way inland. By 4am we were at the fourth club of the night. The Portuguese boys were still going strong. I was fading and the smoke was getting to me. I headed back to the hostel, squeezed in a couple of hours of sleep, and the next day, caught a bus to Rovinj.

Rovinj

I had convinced Tristan (British) and Chris (Australian) from the hostel to join me in Rovinj. A short one-hour bus ride north along the coast brought us to a stunning little town by sea. Rovinj was originally an island separated from the mainland. In 1763 the channel was filled in. Its nickname is “The Hitchhiker’s Thumb.” Its population of just over 13,500 consists of mostly Croats and Italians. The town clearly had a strong Italian influence. It even had an Italian school. Tristan said it reminded him of Venice.

We could not take enough pictures. Every moment, every turn was a treasurable scene. We walked along the boardwalk filled with restaurants and tourists, sailboats and yachts, and up the rickety stairs of the church tower, which stands tall in the middle of the island. The views were breathtaking. We spent half an hour up there snapping away with our cameras.

The boys hopped on the last bus back to Pula and I had the evening to myself. I got a cup of hot chocolate and sat on the boardwalk near the boats to watch the sun set behind the island. The stray cats kept me company as love struck couples walked by. If I had known this place would be swarming with lovebirds, I would have saved it for my honeymoon.

I woke up early the next morning to soak in the beauty of this city one last time before heading to Rijeka to catch the ferry down to Hvar Island. The bus cut through the stunning Istria countryside. I didn't have much time to explore this industrious port city before I boarded the ferry heading south to Hvar Island. I ran into Tristan and Chris in the boarding line. We watched the city lights slowly get further and further away as we sailed south until it was darkness. We stayed up late laughing, reminiscing and sharing travel stories. The three of us made up a commonwealth of Canada, Britain, and Australia. Too cheap to get a cabin, we fell asleep on chairs in the lounge. Next time I’m definitely getting a cabin. The ferry docked at Hvar Island at 6 am. The boys were continuing on to Dubrovnik. We said our goodbyes and I got off the boat.

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We've got rhythm

Dance is all the rage in 2008. With the recent craze in popularity for shows like Dancing With the Stars and So You Think You Can Dance,  we are starting to see dance as more than after-school ballet class, or what the kids get down to in the hip hop clubs. It is for anybody who can catch a beat.

Edgar Lion and Roberta Woloz Mendelson are a tap dancing duo who have been bringing the beat, or tapping the beat, since 2000. They prefer to go by Eddie and Bobby.

As a teen in 1930s Vienna, Eddie frequented the cinema, which at the time was playing only gangster movies and musicals. He loved the musicals and took up ballroom dancing in high school, which has become a life-long passion. He fled the Nazis in 1938 and was later brought to Montreal by a distant relative.

“I’ve always loved tap dancing, but there was no instruction in Vienna at the time,” Lion said. In 1986, at the age of 66, he saw a newspaper ad for tap dancing instruction at the Westmount YMCA and has been “hooked ever since.” It’s never too late to learn. He met Bobbie Mendelson in 2000 when they were both performing in plays at the Cummings Jewish Center for Seniors.

Bobbie Mendelson, born in Montreal, learned tap from an early age. A mother of 5 and grandmother of 10, her legs are those of a girl in her 20s. She’s a born entertainer. “It all started with my mother’s love for the piano,” she explained. “We danced around the piano as kids.”

She grew up with a “creative passion” keeping busy with tap dancing, ballet, acrobatics and school plays. She was a member of the modern dance group at McGill University and taught fitness classes for many years.

“I’m passionate about entertaining and keeping in good shape. I never liked to say ‘for my age.’ That’s out, I hate that… I’m supposedly a good looking girl!”

Staying fit is an integral part of her life. “Body, mind, love and passion,” she said. “It’s kept my mind happy. When you have that passion, it diffuses out to every area of your life like when you read stories to your grandchildren.”

No doubt dancing keeps us in tip-top shape, but it can also be a fun and interactive way to keep you young, long and lean. Next to Bobbie's killer legs, Eddie stands tall with excellent posture at 6’1”. He is thin and strong. "My dancing has kept me in good physical shape. No problems. Always a positive attitude," he says. "My GP says he hasn't met anyone in as good a shape as I am in my age group."

For someone interested in joining in on the dance craze, Bobbie suggests looking into centers that offer fitness courses that integrate rhythmic aerobics. "So much of it has become like hip-hop."

Eddie and Bobby create their own choreography or modify an existing routine. Their one-hour show is sprinkled with jokes. Their  repertoire includes popular tunes like The Joint is Jumping by Fats Waller, and other favorites like Tea for Two, We've Got Rhythm, Love is a Simple Thing, and In The Mood. 

They perform in social clubs, hospitals, and senior residences in the Montreal area without charge. "They always ask for encores,"  Bobby says. "We feel like we owe them money for the fun that we have performing and for giving us the pleasure and satisfaction that light up their days. We connect with them, people catch on to it and they smile."

If you are interested in contacting Eddie and Bobby to book a performance, please call 514-486-8138.

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Cotton Castle gives rise to spa-city in Southeast Turkey

Barefoot in the travertine pools

There is a certain ease and carelessness that I feel when traveling with a tour group as opposed to traveling solo. When traveling solo I do the research. I know exactly where I’m going and why. I memorize a map of my destination along with all the attractions. Surprises are minimal. As part of a tour groupmy survival instincts take a back seat and I coast along knowing my tour guide will be taking us to all the hot spots.We were on our way to a place called Pamukkale – Cotton Castle in Turkish. Located in the Denizli Province in southeast Turkey, it is a major tourist attraction not to be missed.

Our little tour bus rolled into town late at night. Mustafa, the hotel owner and chef, welcomed us joyously into his hotel and did not waste any time putting food on the table. He insisted we fuel up on food and sleep for our big hike in the morning. A hike? Hmmm… I wondered what could possibly be so grueling that I was stuffing my face to do it.

Climbing the Cotton Castle

The next morning I dressed for the hike, careful to respect the unofficial Muslim modesty rule that we were politely asked to obey throughout our Turkish trek. I wore jeans, a tank top and a little sweater to cover my shoulders. Mustafa, our tour guide, informed us that most of the way up the travertines we must be barefoot. This was starting to sound a little strange. But from what I had experienced so far, strange was no stranger in Turkey.

We started out from our hotel, walked a couple of streets, turned the corner and were suddenly in what looked like a winter wonderland, in the middle of the southwest Turkish landscape, in October. It seemed as though the entire side of the hill was covered in glistening white snow.

As we approached the foot of the hill, Mustafa explained that this anomaly was white limestone from calcium deposits. We were standing in an area that was struck several times by earthquakes, which gave rise to hot springs. The water flows down the mountain and deposits its calcium while cooling, creating this very unique-looking blinding white frozen waterfall. We slowly made our way up the 250-metre hillside to the plateau, barefoot and in disbelief. The water flowed between my toes as I carefully wandered up the hill. I stopped occasionally to bask in the scene. The prayer call of the mosque echoed while I watched the many tourists march up the hill in their speedos and string bikinis. I suspected the unofficial modesty rule did not apply in Pamukkale.The bottoms of my jeans were getting wet. It was hot. I suddenly wished I had worn my bikini so that I could jump into one of the pools of hot spring water on the way up. The youngest of the group, and always the slowest, I was last to make it to the top.

Hierapolis ruins

The ancient city of Hierapolis awaited us atop the cotton castle we had climbed. Founded in the 2nd century BCE by Eumenes II, King of Pergamum (an ancient Greek city in modern-day Turkey) the spa-city prospered with the help of the healing powers of the water. Tourists can still swim in the 36°C ancient sacred pool – the Antique Pool. Sounds impressive but the Antique Pool is saturated with tourists, kiosks and overpriced cafes. Much more impressive was walking through the white-stoned, pillar-lined streets of the ancient city, imagining its beauty and glory centuries ago. There is a brilliant Roman theatre located behind the Antique Pool, which seats 12,000 spectators. It occurred to me that the cities of today are not much different than the ancient cities. Nonetheless, the ancient cities had a certain magnificence and grandeur that our modern-day ones are much lacking. From one perspective we’ve come so far as a civilization, but from another we haven’t even budged.

The sunset from the summit was like nothing I had ever seen. Beautiful reds and yellows glow from the white limestone spring-water pools. Looking past the pools and the cotton castle into the vast deserted land ahead is breathtaking.

I slowly made my way back down through the warm waterfall, enjoying every moment of this natural phenomenon while at the same time trying my very best not to slip. One wrong step and I could have slid all the way down the castle. It was dark when I reached the bottom, and the rough limestone made my feet as smooth as butter.

The next morning we all piled back into out little tour bus and chugged up the twisty cliff-hugging side roads along the shores of southwest Turkey to rendezvous with our next dazzling and bizarre surprise of a destination.

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A less touristy road through southwest Turkey

Our Turkish joyride was over. The 14 unsuspecting travelers in our tour group were driving into the dusty cloud of the southeast.

We had started in Istanbul, then made our way down through the southwest coast with its beautiful beaches and British vacation towns, then on through the Fairy Chimneys of Cappadocia, and now, into the dust. The eight-hour bus ride took us through an endless desert with occasional communist-style buildings. Dull would be an understatement.

We were deposited in a town called Kahta. It seemed desolate, scruffy, and did I mention – dusty? Unimpressed, I asked Mustafa, our tour guide, “Why are we here?”

“To climb Mount Nemrut,” he replied. Obviously I hadn’t done my homework. We went as a group for dinner to the only restaurant open past 10 pm. The few local Turkish men hanging out in the restaurant looked at us as if we were from Mars.

The next morning we gathered into the bus that took us 40 km up to Mount Nemrut. We were told to bring raincoats and warm clothing because the peak can get quite chilly. It was a beautiful 27˚C outside, and we were in the middle of the desert. I couldn’t imagine chilly weather anywhere in the vicinity so I skimped a bit on the warm clothing. I looked out the window of our bus as we drove by dusty little houses with goats and chickens running freely and realized I was a long long way from California.

Toppled heads on Mount Nemrut

We were dropped off about a mile or so from the peak. I was starting to feel the chill. There was a narrow rocky path that led up to the top of the mountain. As we started our little trek up it started to drizzle. At 26 I was the youngest in our group. I was also the slowest, with the fear of slipping down those rocks as the drizzle slowly turned into rain, then hail. My sneakers were soaking through, my jeans were getting drenched, and the three layers I wore underneath my raincoat were somehow getting soaked as well. I stopped for a moment to take in the beautiful vastness of the desert mountains as the hail bounced off my head. I chugged along.

“Don’t fall Molly! Don’t fall!” was all I could think. The 2,150-meter mountain has a tomb on the summit dating to the 1st century BCE. In 62 BCE King Antiochus I built his tomb accompanied by 8-9 foot tall statues. One of the statues is meant to be the king, and the others are Greek, Armenian and Persian gods, which the king thought of as his relatives. The statues were once seated, but earthquakes have toppled the heads. The 2-meter-high heads lay scattered around the site. They have become a symbol of Turkey and are eastern Turkey’s main attraction. I was the last to leave the summit. I stood atop by myself to soak in the greatness of this site with huge heads looking out into mountains below. Shivering, and standing my ground against the winds, I made my way down the slippery path. I should have brought warmer clothes.

A view of Urfa

We dried off and hopped back into the bus. A few hours later we arrived in Urfa. Located close to the Syrian border, it is known as the birthplace of Abraham (according to Muslim tradition). After another bland meal of lentil soup and pita bread, we ventured through the traffic-filled noisy, dusty, crowded, Middle Eastern streets. People stared at us as we walked. “I don’t like this place,” I said to Mustafa as we were trying to make our way through the crowds. “They are just curious,” he replied. “Tourists are rare around here.”

I stared at the people who were staring at our group and me. The looks in their eyes were not like those of the men in Istanbul – hungry for a date with a western girl. The looks were of wonder and curiosity at the rare spectacle of tourists in their town. We made our way through the old bazaar, a chaotic yet organized smorgasbord of merchants selling everything from produce and teas to silks, pots and carpets. This was no tourist trap like the Grand Bazaar in Istanbul. This was where the locals hustled and bustled. The women scurried by, draped in their black chadors, and the men in the traditional Turkish baggy pants (MC Hammer style). Mustafa warned us girls not to stay out past sunset since women walking around at that time are considered prostitutes.

Pool of the Sacred Fish

A young boy of about 10 took an interest in our tour group and had convinced Mustafa to show and explain to us the story of the Pool of the Sacred Fish. Abraham destroyed the pagan gods, and it angered the Assyrian King Nimrod. As punishment, King Nimrod ordered Abraham to be thrown into a blazing fire with hot coals. As Abraham was in midair God turned the fire into water and the coals into fish. The pool is now filled with sacred carp fish that thrash frantically around when given food by tourists.

We walked along the courtyard near the pool to the Hazreti Ibrahim Halilullah (the prophet Abraham’s birthplace). We took off our shoes, covered our heads and walked through a small tunnel to the cave. The Muslim women praying in the cave resembled the Jewish women praying at the Wailing Wall in Jerusalem. Passionate.

We were being followed and stared at continuously. They were almost like the paparazzi in Los Angeles, though without the cameras. I started to enjoy all this attention. A couple of men approached me and two other women in our group just for a picture. A young girl of about 16 walked right up to me, smiled and reached out her hand to greet me. She gave me an enthusiastic “Hello!” and her eyes were wide with excitement. I looked over to Mustafa with confusion. “She just wants to practice her English with you,” he said. A couple of teenaged boys approached me while I was emailing my mother in an Internet café just to tell me I was beautiful.

This is why I travel. It’s not to lounge on the beautiful beaches, or party in foreign clubs (well, maybe to some small extent it is), but mostly it’s to take the road less traveled, to push my limits, to challenge my views and emotions, to enter one way and leave another. Practicing English with the young wide-eyed girl in Urfa was the highlight of my Turkish experience.

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Molly's Istanbul sparks reader's memories and reflections

I was deeply touched by Molly Newborn’s June travel article Istanbul – the magic, the madness & the mosques. I was in Istanbul in 1958, exactly 50 years ago, my head full of Pierre Loti, taking a summer course in Turkish for foreign students at Istanbul University. It was the most beautiful city I had seen, at least its skyline of domes and minarets.

By the way Bosporus is a strait between two seas, not a river (Mr. Richler, please correct me if I am wrong) although it may look like a river if you don’t taste its salt water.

Ms. Newborn’s first impressions were bitter. She was hassled by peddlers offering to sell her a carpet and by cavaliers hoping to date her. They could tell she was a tourist. Maybe the way she was dressed in jeans or her typical tourist behaviour, looking around with curious starry eyes the way no local would. Judging by her photo we would expect her to draw admiring glances not only in Turkey, though we can’t expect her to accept an invitation for a date, especially a crudely formulated one from a stranger. She goes back to her hotel room to cry for the rest of the day. She is obviously a sensitive young woman. It may be her weakness as a journalist, but it is her strength as a writer.

Well, carpet sellers or other peddlers did not run after me. I was a student, and students, even foreign students, were not expected to have much money.

Ms. Newborn is rescued by Ahmet, a former Turkish classmate from UCLA, who gives her a guided tour of the city. She is “stunned” by the grandeur of the Hagia Sophia. I remember how excited I was, as a Christian, seeing what was perhaps the most beautiful Christian church ever built. Mehmet the Conqueror had transformed the church into a mosque, adding the first of the four minarets. The secularist President Ataturk turned it into a museum.

A house of worship has a soul that a mere museum cannot have. Something Ms. Newborn missed. She shows us a photo of the Blue Mosque, illuminated at night, displaying the inscription “DONYA AHIRETIN TARLASIDIR” (“The world is the ploughed field for after-life”). Yet, one of the wonders of the Hagia Sophia is its Christian mosaics which had been plastered over during the four centuries when the building was serving as a mosque. The subject matter may not have been objectionable to the Muslims who venerate the Prophet Jesus and his Mother but a mosque may not contain any pictorial representations, viewed as idolatry. To most if not all Turks, it would have been tantamount to a symbolic surrender of the city to the Greeks, a nightmare, which had almost happened at the end of World War I. Ataturk’s victory over the Greeks and their British and French allies saved the city for Turkey and for Islam.

When visiting the Blue Mosque, Ms. Newborn feels “uncomfortable” at being asked to cover her head. Come on, young lady! Haven’t you ever wrapped your head with a scarf to protect yourself from Canadian wind? I don’t remember whether Western women tourists were asked to cover their heads when visiting mosques in Turkey in my time. I remember that we all had to take our shoes off.

Ms. Newborn is not much impressed by the Islamic call to prayer, appreciated by so many non-Muslims, including Byron who had fought against the Turks in the Greek War of Independence:

“’Twas musical, yet sadly sweet...” (The Siege of Corinth)

On her own Ms. Newborn takes the train across the Galata Bridge to the Dolmabahge Palace. A train across the Galata Bridge? I am sure the “train” here is a misprint for tram, or is it an innovation since my time?

After her guided tour of the city Ms. Newborn spends the night partying with Ahmet and his friends in the bars of Taxim (her spelling). That is quite in character with the society. Unlike most Muslims (Arabs, Iranians, Pakistanis) the Turks drink openly, without inhibition, even taking pride in their drinking prowess. Except that those were strictly men-only sessions. It was not considered dignified for Turkish ladies to drink raki. I wonder if there were Turkish girls partying that night?

Please note the spelling: Taksim. There is no X in Turkish. It is an Arabic loanword meaning “division” or “partition.” Taksim Square is the centre of Pera or Beyogiu, the formerly “Frankish” suburb of Istanbul with more bars than mosques.

In the end Ms. Newborn forgets her initial disappointment and is won over by the city: “Istanbul is magical. There is no other place that compares.” I haven’t been back to Istanbul for 50 years.

Ms. Newborn has captured the spirit of the place and brought back precious memories of my youth.

Thank you, Molly!

Çok tesekkür ederim!

– Jan Witold Weryho, NDG


Dear Ms. Weryho,

You are so very welcome! I was delighted to learn about your experience in Istanbul 50 years ago. It seems as though things haven’t changed too much.

We were asked to take off our shoes and cover our heads upon entering all mosques. Taking off my shoes made me as uneasy as covering my head. There were water fountains outside all mosques where the men washed their feet (and face and arms?) before entering. I found a crowd of about 30 women jammed into the ladies’ restroom with three sinks outside the Blue Mosque washing their feet. As a foreigner it is not my place to complain, especially since entering the stunningly beautiful mosque negated any uneasy feelings.

Ahmet presented me with my first glass of Raki during our lunch under the Galata Bridge. The first of many. There certainly was no shortage of alcohol for the ladies in Taksim! There were girls in Ahmet’s circle of friends who joined us in the festivities, and they could have easily passed as Americans. This took me by surprise since I was advised to “cover up” while traveling around Turkey, but when it came to Istanbul the girls definitely weren’t shy to be sexy. This is a far cry from Urfa, which I will be writing about in a future issue.

I did come to enjoy the Islamic call to prayer. It was a bit of a jolt when I heard it for the first time without  warning. It was a constant reminder wherever I went, saying “Listen! You’re in Turkey!” And I certainly appreciated it when it woke me up to catch my flight.

Thanks again for your reply! I am so happy we were able to share our stories with one another.

– Molly, Los Angeles

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The enchanted world of Cappadocia

If you have ever dreamt of traveling to the moon and then realized that the 384,403 km, eight million dollar space shuttle ticket might be a bit out of budget, might I recommend a trip to Cappadocia? Located in the center of Turkey – the middle Anatolian region spanning five cities – you will find this lunar-like landscape.

After a grueling overnight bus from Antalya, my tour group of 14 was deposited at what at first looked like a boring little Turkish town. I rubbed my eyes as we walked down the empty street at 5 am and realized this was no ordinary place. It looked like some of the houses were built right into mysterious and unearthly looking rocks. Look a little closer and this bizarre scene stretches for miles and miles.

Volcanic eruptions, erosion and winds from millions of years ago somehow created the wondrous rock formations of Cappadocia. The Fairy Chimneys – the most common and absurd looking structures – are natural cone formations made from the volcanic eruptions smoothed over time by wind and rain (good thing this article comes with pictures because otherwise you would be lost).

Houses carved into the stone

The Hittites were the first known civilization to inhabit the volcanic rock structures of Cappadocia about 3800 years ago, followed by the Persians and the Romans. They discovered the volcanic rock was easily carved and shaped yet sturdy enough to hold permanent structures. Whole towns were carved into these rocks with houses and tunnels and churches with frescos. People still live in houses carved into the stone, and some lucky tourists can even book a room in one of the pricey carved rock hotels.

After a short 30-minute hike through the landscape, our tour guide took us to the old deserted town of Zelve. Zelve was inhabited until 1952. In 1967 it was turned into an open-air museum. I felt like I was 6 years old again climbing up the cliffs to the caves (or houses), exploring each room and tunnel, ima-gining the lifestyle of the cave dwellers while admiring the views as I climbed.

Fairy Chimneys

We then piled back into our rented minibus and headed to a town called Avanos. This is a town famous for its colourful pottery made from the red clay of the Kyzylyrmak River – the longest in Turkey. We visited a shop that allowed us to watch and learn how the intricately decorated pots were made. We were all so impressed with the show and the artwork that each of us bought a souvenir pot. As we explored the tourist kiosks that seem to be around almost every Cappadocia corner we realized that they were selling the same pots at a half to two thirds the price we had paid in the shop.

Our next excursion took us to one of Cappadocia’s 36 identified underground cities (only four are open to the public). It was like climbing through a giant ant farm, crawling through holes and tunnels and more holes. These cities were actually fully functioning civilizations equipped with communal kitchens, ventilation systems, and common rooms. These cities were built to live in during invasions and could sustain hundreds of people for up to six months! They are not for the claustrophobic. The tall might emerge with a bit of back pain. Our tour guide – about 5’3” – appeared to be standing comfortably in the rooms while the rest of us had to hunch. I did however get a kick out of crawling down the maze of tunnels and rooms carved eight levels down into the earth!

Whirling Dervishes

Our final night in Cappadocia was spent watching the mesmerizing prayer dance of the whirling Dervishes. The Dervishes belong to the Sufi sect of Islam. The whirling they do is a type of prayer to achieve a meditative trance state, connecting with the ever revolving motion of all existence – from the protons and electrons around the nucleus, to the planets around the stars. Their long flowing angelic white skirts seem to send them soaring into mystical flight. The “show” is incredibly beautiful and relaxing. Sweet cinnamon tea is served to the audience to conclude the show. My sweet tooth couldn’t get enough of it. It cost 35 lira (about $35). I stumbled across more Whirling Dervishes a week later near the Blue Mosque in Istanbul. That show was free and it did not skimp on the tea.

Although I opted out of the $250 hot air balloon ride (apparently a must see), and may have fallen into a couple of tourist traps, my Cappadocia experience was nothing short of extraordinary. From the giant ant farm to the towering Fairy Chimneys, Cappadocia took me to another world, and back to the playground.

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Istanbul - the magic, the madness and the mosques

The Blue Mosque

Europe’s most populous city is split by the Bosporus River into two distinct regions. Half of it lies in Europe and the other half in Asia. The Black Sea is to the north and the Marmara Sea to the south. Istanbul is the only metropolis in the world that lies on two continents, and over 10 million people call it home.

I arrived at Ataturk Airport at around 6 am with several men asking me if I needed a lift to my hotel. I ended up having to haggle over the taxi fare to my hostel. On arrival my hostel room wasn’t ready so I decided to take a walk around the neighbourhood to acquaint myself with the city I’d call home for the next few days.

I was staying at the Bauhaus Guesthouse. It was ranked #1 in the world at hostelworld.com and I would soon learn why. It’s located in an area called Sultanahmet, aka Tourist Town, with almost all the main attractions within walking distance. There is an area of about a one-mile radius packed with hostels and boutique hotels, each of them with beautiful rooftop terraces with views of the Bosporus, the Blue Mosque, and Hagia Sophia.

My little walk didn’t last long. It seemed as though every Turkish man I walked by called out to me, either for a date, or to buy a carpet. This was a culture shock I wasn’t expecting and would be forced to get used to if I wanted to explore and enjoy this city. I hurried back to my hostel, wrote an email to my Turkish friend, Ahmet, telling him how scared I was, and hid and cried for the rest of the day in my room. I was going to be stuck in this town for a while.

I met a Columbian guy on the rooftop. He’d been there for about a week and was about to leave. He said Istanbul was magical, though I was unable to see the magic at that point. I didn’t like having to bargain for my taxi ride, nor was I amused by men who hassled me everywhere I walked. Ahmet, a man of few words, wrote back simply that everything would be okay and that he would pick me up the next day at 10 am to be my personal tour guide for the day.

A room in the harem of the Topkapi Palace

I hadn’t seen him since the summer of 2002 at UCLA. When I left I didn’t know if I’d ever see him again. There we were, five years later on his home turf. He looked more distinguished and notably comfortable, since I was used to seeing him on the UCLA campus like a fish out of water. I supposed it was my turn to play the fish.

After a brief stop for a cup of Turkish apple tea, we headed straight to the Topkapi Palace. This massive palace, which at the height of its existence was home to about 4000 people, is not to be missed. Topkapi was home to the royals from 1465 to 1853, including Sultan Selim the Sot, who drowned in the bath after drinking too much champagne. It was occupied by the Valide Sultan (mother of the Sultan), who ruled the harem, plus the Sultan, the Sultan’s wives, up to 300 concubines and their children, and their servants.

The royal residence is an exquisite display of Ottoman architecture, housing beautiful displays of antique porcelain, weapons, and murals. We spent about 3½ hours strolling through the four courts. The murals are masterpieces by themselves. Don’t miss the treasury. There I found a seemingly endless array of treasures including gold and diamond candlesticks, jewel-encrusted swords, a throne made of mother-of-pearl, the Topkapi Dagger – decorated with three enormous emeralds – and the pièce de resistance, the Kasikci, aka Spoonmaker’s Diamond. The Kasikci is a teardrop-shaped 86-carat diamond surrounded by 49 smaller diamonds. It is the fifth largest diamond in the world.

Steps away from the Topkapi Palace is the world-famous Hagia Sophia. Originally built as a church in 537, Mehmet the Conqueror had it converted into a mosque in 1493, as it remained until Ataturk proclaimed it a museum in 1935. As we walked into this massive structure, I must have looked pretty silly with my head tilted back and my mouth open wide. I was stunned at the indescribable grandeur of this building but it must have looked like I was trying to catch raindrops in my mouth. Oh well, I assume many others looked as I did.

Both famished, we took a two-minute taxi ride down to Eminounu (I guess we could have walked). From there we walked along the Galata Bridge, an experience in itself. Hundreds of fishermen line the top of the bridge, where restaurants lie underneath. I asked Ahmet why all those men were fishing. He answered simply, “to catch fish.”

We ate at a nice Turkish restaurant with lots of vegetarian options for me. Turkish food seems similar to Israeli food, or maybe that’s just the Middle East. Loud singing from speakerphones suddenly interrupted our lunchtime conversation. What was that?!! Where was it coming from? I looked around and nobody seemed to take notice. I didn’t see any police and Ahmet continued eating. Should I be concerned? No, because once you’ve been in Istanbul for more than a day you’ll notice these loud prayers from the mosques penetrating the city 5 times a day. I was not pleased with the first one, which was at 6 am.

From there we walked up through the 350-year-old Spice Bazaar. There I found Turkish delight, spices, nuts, teas, lotions, potions and trinkets for tourists. A bit overwhelming at first, but it’s a mere warmup to our final destination, the Grand Bazaar, aka paradise.

The Grand Bazaar is no simple task. Take the advice from the master – moi – who after the first time, with Ahmet, conquered the labyrinth three times thereafter. Put on your bargaining hat, take out the compass and map, hold your bag and brace yourself. There are over 4000 shops, with every shopkeeper trying to lure you in. From the carpets and pottery to the jewelry and the belly dancing costumes you’ll be sure to find what you want! I found the perfect belly dancing costume, but $400 was a bit out of my budget, so I settled on a beautiful turquoise and silver bracelet. I bargained down from 120 lira to 50 lira, and included matching earrings. I suppose the carpet wouldn’t have fit in my suitcase.

We spent the night partying with Ahmet’s friends until sunrise at the bars and clubs across the Galata Bridge in Taxim, the hip place to be.

Assortment of spices at the Spice Bazaar

Ahmet was right. Everything was okay. I adapted to Turkish culture and was soon roaming around the city on my own. Most people speak English and the public transportation is fast and simple. I even impressed myself by taking the train from Sultanahmet down and across the Galata Bridge to the Dolmabahce Palace, which served as the imperial residence between 1852 and 1922. The palace was also home to Mustafa Kemal Ataturk, the founder of modern Turkey. It was Istanbul’s first European-style palace. It displays the world’s largest collection of Bohemian and Baccarat chandeliers, with the world’s largest chandelier hanging in the center hall. Fourteen tonnes of gold were used to decorate the ceilings, so once again I looked like I was catching raindrops.

A good friend from Israel, Liron, flew to meet me. We decided to visit the Sultan Ahmet Mosque (the Blue Mosque). The women are asked to cover their heads, which made me uncomfortable, but after some time in Turkey I accepted this rule. We stood in front of the mosque in awe. Liron told me how strange it was to be so close to a mosque without feeling scared. The mosque is decorated with tens of thousands of blue tiles, giving it its unofficial name.

On my last night in Istanbul, on the rooftop of the hostel with some new friends overlooking the Bosporus, I remembered my Columbian friend. He was right. Istanbul is magical. There is no other place that compares. I was so unhappy when I arrived in Istanbul, and now I was so unhappy to leave. I slept through the three alarm clocks I’d set to wake me up in time to catch the shuttle to the airport, and if it weren’t for the 6 am morning prayers, I would have missed my flight.

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Dubrovnik - A tiny gem on the Adriatic

The Stari Grad

Sitting on the southernmost point of Croatia’s Dalmatian coast is a gem called Dubrovnik. I discovered Dubrovnik when I was trekking through Croatia this past fall. This fashionable Croatian capital will take your breath away as you walk its shiny streets and gaze out on the Adriatic from its peaks.

Dubrovnik is out of the way if you are traveling around Croatia, but you can get there by plane, boat or bus. I took the bus from Split, Croatia's second most well known city, meeting up with my friend Hedda who flew from Oslo. It took 5 hours to travel the 135 miles to Dubrovnik, with a few miles that pass through Bosnia, so don’t be surprised to have to pull out your passport, twice. There is a 15-minute stop in Bosnia. Though it sounds treacherous, I highly recommend this route. Traveling down the Croatian coastline compares with the United States’ most beautiful coast drive, the Pacific Coast Highway. The bus bumps along the cliffs so make sure to get a window seat to enjoy the view. Don’t forget to bring anti-nausea tablets.

The Gradske Zidine

As with most other Croatian tours, as soon as I stepped off the bus I was bombarded with local women holding up maps and pictures of accommodations. Since Croatia is still a relatively new tourist attraction, hotels are limited and expensive. Your best option, and possibly your only choice, is to rent a room in a private house or apartment. It gives you the added bonus of experiencing their lifestyle and they are always eager to give you tips and point you towards the best restaurant or bakery in town, even if they don’t speak a word of English. You can always bargain with the women at the bus station, but make sure they show you on a map where their home is located because you want to be close to the old city. Otherwise you will be schlepping for miles up and down the hill. Hedda and I booked our room early from www.hostelworld.com. We splurged a bit (for about 150 Kuna or $30/person/night) and stayed at a little place called Villa Elly (www.villa-elly.com), about a mile outside the old city. It was a family run apartment complex. The room was bright, simple, clean and renovated, and though a bit tight, we had a nice balcony that we shared with two guys staying in the adjacent apartment. They also rent out larger apartments but those didn’t quite fit our budget. The family was helpful and friendly, driving us to and from the train station and airport and giving us their best tips for the hot spots to hit. The wife even told me as I left Dubrovnik that if I was in any trouble or needed help then I shouldn’t hesitate to call her.

Dubrovnik is all about the Stari Grad (aka the old town), where most of the tourist attractions are. It was built from the 13th century to the 18th century. It's surrounded by a massive wall, the Gradske Zidine, and is 80 feet tall by 10 to 20 feet thick. Hedda and I paid 30 Kuna each (USD$6) to walk around the old town along the top of the wall. We took it slow to embrace the beauty of the orange-tiled roofs, copper domes, and bell towers along the Adriatic Sea. It took us about an hour because we stopped every few minutes for pictures.

View from the top of the Gradske Zidine

As we walked through the Vrata od Ploca, one of two entrances to the old town, we immediately noticed the shiny stone streets. There is an old water fountain at the entrance, used centuries ago when people were asked to wash their feet before they entered the city. Is that why the streets are so clean? No need to worry about cars zooming by because there are no cars here. We did however have to walk carefully in our heels at night on the way to the jazz club as to not slip. How did my mother, with her bad knee, make it through these slippery shiny streets?

The streets are lined with clothing stores, boutiques, souvenirs, restaurants, cafes, a few clubs and bars, and ooOOOoo the jewelry stores. For food, there is an abundance of reasonably priced seafood, pizza and salads.

We visited the Franciscan Monastery, which houses a little pharmacy. It was founded in 1318 and is the oldest in Europe. Next to the pharmacy is an art exhibition about the attack on the city by Montenegro in 1991. It brought unemotional me to tears. How could anyone bomb such a beautiful historical place? It told how the residents hid in their basements until it was over, surfacing only to find their beloved city torn apart, roofs shattered, and bullet holes in the Monasteries. Why? Luckily media coverage attracted much attention and money poured in from around the world to help clean up and rebuild. The new rooftops are clearly distinguishable from the old ones from the view atop the walls.

The Dubrovnik synagogue

As I travel through Europe, I make a point of finding the synagogue, if there is one, in every city I visit. It gives me a little sense of belonging, knowing my people were there and made their mark. The Dubrovnik synagogue, or “sinagoga,” is tucked away along the side of a narrow street of the old city on the 3rd floor of a townhouse. It is the oldest Sephardic synagogue in the world and the second oldest synagogue in Europe (after Prague). Dubrovnik once had a thriving Jewish community consisting of about 50 Jews, mostly comprised of those who were expelled from Spain in 1492 and Italy in 1514-15. During that period Dubrovnik was under Turkish rule, with the Sultan protecting their rights. They flourished in business, dealing with fabrics, silk, wool, leather and spices. The community grew to 218 Jews by the 18th century.

During World War II, Dubrovnik was occupied by the Italian army. They did not allow mass deportation of the Jews. They were moved to the nearby Island of Lopud, and then to Rab Island. Before the territory was taken over by the Germans, many Jews were transported off the islands by partisans to liberated territory on the mainland. Dubrovnik is now home to about 40 Jews. Entrance to the synagogue costs 10 Kuna (USD$2). It retains its Baroque Italian style, the interior made of dark wooden panels, featuring a beautiful blue ceiling painted with stars, newly rebuilt after it was heavily damaged during the attack in 1991. The second floor holds a little Jewish museum, which has artifacts of the Dubrovnik Jewish community throughout the past 500 years. On the first floor of the townhouse you'll find a small gift shop selling Jewish artwork.

How can I talk about Croatia without mentioning its islands?! The thirteen tiny Elafiti Islands are all within a 1-hour ferry ride from Dubrovnik. The largest Islands — Lopud, Kolocep and Sipan have no cars and are inhabited by about 900 people year round. Hedda and I visited Lopud because we heard about a spectacular beach there. The boat trip took about an hour and stopped along the way at other islands. Lopud has a tiny town along the bay made up of stone houses, a couple of hotels and souvenirs stores. We took a 20-minute hike to the other side of the Island to reach Sunj beach. It is the most perfect beach I have ever seen. I was convinced it was man-made until I was told otherwise. The sand felt like silk. It was perfect no seaweed or anything creepy. The water was crystal clear. The only thing we had to avoid was the portion of the beach that was behind a pitiful looking wall — the naked beach. One thing I learned, and learned the hard way, is that on every beautiful beach in Croatia, there is a sexy sexy side that I must steer clear of.

My last night in Dubrovnik was bittersweet. I said goodbye to Hedda at the airport not knowing when I’d see my favorite Norwegian again. I then caught up with a friend we had met the night before. He was our waiter at a restaurant where we had dined. He took me up to the hilltop to show off his miraculous city. He was so proud. I noticed the trees and shrubs were all burnt and the cable car that led up to the top of the hill was broken. I asked what had happened. Apparently two weeks before my arrival there was a mysterious fire that came over from the other side of the hills, in Bosnia. The fire blazed through the hills as the firefighters and the residents of Dubrovnik (including our 20-year-old waiter and his friends) came together to fight the fire and stop it before it hit the old city. The Croatians say the Serbs are to blame, but really no one really knows. Once again tears came to my eyes as I stood at the top of the hill, surrounded by ashes, looking at one of the most spectacular little old cities in the world.

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