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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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A Moroccan Odyssey Part II: The children of Morroco

October, 2009

click here to view a slideshow of images from A Moroccan Odyssey

The children of Morocco are endearing, enchanting, sad, and in many cases very poor. A number of young children work alongside their parents in shops and restaurants. Countless others are sent out to the streets to hawk small packages of tissues, flags, and snacks. Then there are the beggars – some quite professional.

According to Human Rights Watch (2005), Morocco has one of the highest child labor rates in the Middle East and North Africa. Government stats suggest that 600,000 children ages 7 to 14 are engaged in some kind of economic activity. Of those, 372,000 are under age 12. The numbers of children engaged in rural work is higher, but we noticed a fair number of children in every city, with the exception of Chefchaouen, where children are forced to beg or sell tissues.

These photos are not of child beggars. I didn’t want the children to think I was taking pictures of them in that situation. These photos reflect children of all ages and levels of income and at all levels of happiness.

The three boys posing for us in Chefchaouen reflect the large number of teens who seem to have absolutely nothing to do but sit around and watch people go by. Occasionally they will ask to be your guide for a few dirham and will lead you to shops and restaurants who will give them a small commission for taking you there.

The photo of the young girl and her grandfather in the “cave shop” is indicative of the close relationship between grandparents and grand- children we noticed. The boy in the photo with me at his father’s jewellery shop in Essaouira knows how to create the jewellery as well and will likely take over his father’s shop. So will the boy in the tiny textile shop in the souk in Rabat. These children don’t look unhappy. It was May when these pictures were taken and these children were not in school.

In Tangiers we ate quite a few meals outside overlooking the port at family style restaurants where a chicken or fish dinner can be had for $3 or $4. Two sisters, about 7 and 10 wearing hijabs patrolled the area selling tissues. I invited them to eat with us, telling the waiter to bring them each a chicken dinner with fries and a coke. They sat down beside us without a word. The waiter then asked them to skedaddle, and sit at the far end of the restaurant. I protested and insisted they stay with us. They split one of the meals and took the second one home, probably for their parents.

A tourist couple in Casablanca, offered a young mother and grandmother with a toddler their left over food after we offered ours. I would make sandwiches for children on the street from my leftovers or sometimes just offer fries off my plate. The ones who took the bread from the basket — you knew they were hungry. It’s strange to be sitting there eating outside and have them watching you. After all these are not cats waiting for the fishbones, these are children and young adults.

A boy in Chefchaouen was the glad recipient of an ice cream cone. He approached me and just stared at me as I was ordering mine. Another boy wanted a sandwich and got one.

In Casablanca we bought a flag from a boy selling them at our café for 10 dirham ($1). Another man sipping coffee next to us had a similar idea and just gave the kid $1. Whenever we gave, it seemed to encourage others to do so.

Then there are the lucky children, who seem very attached to their parents, walking along happily, or strapped to the backs of their moms, the children helping with the shopping or at the water fountain. Many others walk alone down the narrow streets as if they owned the place, with no adult in sight, some as young as three.

The saddest scenes, and of these scenes I have no pictures, are the children born with deformities or whose parents couldn’t afford simple medical treatment that would have given them a “normal” existence. They sit on the street, often with parents, begging. One girl sat outside her house on the street all day with her hand out. She must have been about 14 or 15. What a sad look she had, with nothing to read, nothing to do all day but beg. I gave her money twice, which she barely acknowledged. In the hour I watched her, no one gave her even 10 cents.

What angers and frustrates me is that this country’s king has palaces in every city. When he is about to arrive, that place is instantly cleaned up and made to look like nobody lives or suffers there. I guess he never sees the deformed children, the street children, and child beggars. But he must know of them. He must know the statistics. The truth is — he just doesn’t care.

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The “goddess” who took us to “heaven”

Click here to view a slideshow of The “goddess” who took us to “heaven”

Originally published: February 2006

Corfu was to be our stopover on the way to Albania from Brindisi, Italy. We planned to spend one night there before taking on Albania, a country no one recommended. All that changed when we debarked in Corfu and were greeted by Aphrodite, a buxom, loud, talkative business woman who spoke non-stop English and looked nothing like the Greek goddess.

Aphrodite was at the port to pick up tourists and talk them into staying in Pelekas at her pension. She promised us paradise in Pelekas, a village that she boasted was literally heaven on earth, or at least in Corfu. It had beaches, shopping, wonderful restaurants, and views surpassing any on the island, (by the time we arrived I wondered if we would be greeted by any other Greek gods) and it was only 45 minutes away by car. Of course, there were four or five buses daily to Corfu Town and many buses to the three beaches, all very near Pelekas. Always ready for adventure, we agreed to take a chance, but didn’t count on Aphrodite’s continuous babble about the virtues of Pelekas during our drive there. Why, we worried, did she have to convince us? Weren’t we already prisoners in her car?

We were exhausted and hot and ready for anything when she finally parked in the middle of the village, which looked lovely indeed. We had warned her about my knee — that I could not, under any circumstances, climb up any winding narrow alleys (her English was flawless so she did understand me). She responded that we would be thrilled with the room for only $30.

We got out of the car and started climbing. I asked Irwin if he thought she had understood. He shrugged. He pulled me up rocky, winding, twisting alleyways, higher and higher, till I protested. “How will I ever get down from here,” I whined. “It can’t be much farther,” he responded, not really knowing what else to say. Finally we arrived to see Aphrodite’s little room, not yet cleaned up from the last residents, and she proudly showed us the spectacular view. “I’m terribly sorry,” I said “But I cannot stay here. It will be almost impossible for me to walk down this hill to the village. And how will I get back at night?” She looked glum but accepted the $10 we offered her for the ride.

Gingerly, I edged my way down the hill to the centre of town with Irwin carrying the bags in front of me to brace any potential slips or falls. I immediately noticed a white-washed pension of sorts in the middle of the village and we decided to leave the bags there on the terrace while we searched for a room. I asked the owner for a room there against all hope. It seemed like too perfect a place to have a room available in the middle of July. Irwin trudged on to check out other rooms on the little expanse of street that was obviously Main Street Pelekas. At this point we were willing to pay anything to get a shower and a rest as long as my knee could handle it. The village did seem incredibly picturesque and compact.

The owner of this too-good-to-be-true pension did have a room on the main floor for us and after he cleaned up after the last customers, we immediately paid him $60 for two nights ($30 per night for a double with air-conditioning and terrace overlooking what seemed like the entire island), and relaxed! “Aphrodite has brought us to paradise,” I told Irwin. Too bad she had to go back to the port to look for a more able-bodied customer for her little nest on the cliff. We never did understand why she thought I could manage the steep trek up and down the hill.

We discovered a wonderful restaurant right next to our pension and ate all our meals there. I still remember the fresh taste of the taramasalata and tsatziki. I’ve eaten Greek food hundreds of times, but this was like nothing I had tasted. The tomatoes and cukes were so fresh and plentiful, the calamar so… well… fresh… and crisp. Were we in paradise after all?

The next day we took the bus to Corfu Town to spend the day walking around the Old Town, parts of which were too touristy for our liking. We discovered the rather dilapidated Jewish Quarter and the synagogue and had a young man who had the keys show us around briefly. It was a beautiful little synagogue, very old and quite ornate. We read the names of Holocaust victims on a plaque. We continued our walk through the Old Town, found the port and ordered our tickets for the two hour ferry trip to Albania the next afternoon for a hefty $60 each including some extra taxes and charges. Corfu Town is bustling with tourists and townspeople. The food was overpriced and underwhelming so we held off for Pelekas.

Then we happily returned to our little piece of heaven, which by the way is just across the island from Corfu Town. I urged Irwin to try out any of the three beaches, all a few kilometers from Pelekas by bus, but he was tired and wanted to lounge around the village with me rather than go it alone until, that is, I discovered the shops! I should explain that by this point on the trip I had decided to avoid beaches if possible given that I couldn’t swim or sit on the sand because of my knee. We walked up to the next level of the village where I promptly found my favorite jewellery store in all of Europe, bought Greek silver necklaces and bracelets for family, and friends, and engaged in an hour long conversation with the owner and his 85 year old mother (long after Irwin left). He told me a little about the history of Pelekas – how his mother had seen the Jews of Corfu Town taken away by the Nazis, how houses had been destroyed and families never seen again. He was planning to marry a Dutch doc tor, a second marriage, but she was debating about what she would do in Pelekas, not knowing a word of Greek.

After our last lunch at our wonderful outdoor restaurant, we said goodbye to our new friends, including the Albanian waitress who was the only one to be pleased we were traveling to Albania, and set off for the tug boat ferry that would take us to Saranda, Albania’s most popular resort town on the shores of the Ionian Sea.

For more information on Pelekas, google Pelekas! You’ll find many accommodations but not the one we stayed at. Alas, I don’t remember its name or the name of the restaurant next door, but you can’t miss them, should you ever wish to venture over to the isle of Corfu, on your way to Albania.

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Riga — a little piece of Latvian heaven

Click here to view a slideshow of Riga

Originally published: December, 2007

As we walked away from the train station in Riga with map in hand and no reservations, we decided it might be best to stay in the Old Town. But where was it? Crossing the street, we spied a girl walking in the opposite direction and asked her for directions. She graciously agreed to lead us there, saying it was only minutes away. Her English was good for a 17-year-old and she agreed to help us find a hotel.

Alina had just finished purchasing dog food at the outdoor city market and was on her way home to feed her pooch, but she wanted to help us and practice her English. After a few minutes of searching, we checked into the 3-star Forums Hotel, located at one end of the Old Town. It’s a classy, friendly little place with sophisticated rooms complete with cable TV.

Alina, who is Polish, waited for us in the lobby while we washed up. Then the three of us were off to explore the Old Town and have lunch. There is no shortage of eclectic, trippy restos in this city of wonders. We wanted to try John Lemon, listed in our guidebook, a funky ‘60s styled soup and sandwich place with sofas, orange walls, and inexpensive choices including jacket potatoes and homemade soups. It’s on Peldu in the heart of the Old Town. My favorites: cold borscht with cucumber, yogurt, dill, garlic and, of course, beets; and a baked potato rubbed in garlic and stuffed with cottage cheese and chives.

Alina went home after lunch, saying she would meet us the next morning and take us to Jurmula, a beach resort 40 minutes away, by mini-bus. We would spend the day with her strolling on the beach and, as she explained, touring this enchanting place where her family rented a summer home.

You may be wondering why Alina wanted to spend an entire day with us! Perhaps it was an occasion to practice her English. Whatever her reason, the three of us bonded and we looked forward to the next day’s excursion.

After lunch we headed to the Museum of the Occupation of Latvia, an imposing building in the centre of the Old Town. The museum, established in 1993, “shows what happened to Latvians under two occupying totalitarian regimes from 1940 to 1991, remembering the victims of the occupations, those who perished, were persecuted, forcefully deported, or fled the terror of the occupation regimes.” In the dark exhibit hall on two floors, tall, red boards and free standing structures display thousands of artifacts, photos, and historical documents. At one end of the room, you can sit and watch a video on a  small TV screen presenting the history of the Soviet occupation. There is also an audio-visual archive that contains testimonies of those whose lives were influenced by either the Soviet or the Nazi occupation. During the occupations, more than 550,000 Latvians perished, over one third the population.

We decided to see the Museum and Documentation Centre “Jews in Latvia” next. Created in the late ‘80s by a group of survivors of ghettos and concentration camps, the Museum is housed in Riga’s Jewish community building. The historian Margers Veste­rmanis, a former prisoner of the Riga Ghetto and the Kaiserwald concentration camp, headed the group. The collection holds documents, photographs, videotapes and objects testifying to the history of Latvian Jews. There are personal archives of outstan­ding Latvians along the hallways of what was once a school, including Abraham Isaac Kook, the chief Ashkenazi Rabbi in Palestine from 1921; Yeshayahu Leibovitch (1903-1994), Jewish religious thinker; Shimon Dubnov, Jewish historian who perished in the Riga Ghetto; Dr. Noah Maise; Isaiah Berlin, philosopher (1909-1997); and Aron Nimzowitsch (1836-1935), innovative chess player.

The period between 1918-1940, the time of the first Latvian Republic, was the peak of freedom and creativity in the Jewish community. This passage is from the guide to the museum: “What should a Jewish museum be like in a region where everything that was Jewish perished in the Holocaust and where only miraculously preserved tombstones remind us of the past of the Jewish people? Should the Jewish museum in this historical reality be only a collector and trustee of things saved from destruction — relics? Or should it be a memorial of the world that perished forever — in torments and suffering? We choose the last.”

Only 25 km from Riga, Jurmala is best reached by mini-bus, which departs every 15 minutes from the train station and costs about $1. Covered by white sand, the beach stretches over 32 km. There are sections of Jurmala, each with their own beach, but you can walk along the sand from one end to the other if you has have the energy and time.

We stayed around Majori, first touring the main street with its charming shops and outdoor cafés, and then walked to the beach, marveling along the way at the incredible wood mansions, some dating back more than 100 years. What beautiful colors and designs! Some have been converted to hotels, while others are in a dismal state, in need of new owners and investment. Halfway along our beach walk, we stopped at the Baltic Beach Hotel, a Western-like impressive but uninteresting structure, not warranting its high summer rates.

We discovered a sand sculpture exhibit jutting out of the fence surrounding it, between the beach and the boardwalk. We ate in one of the many outdoor cafés. We ordered shrimp, egg and avocado stuffed into the shell of the avocado, and smoked salmon sandwiches. Sitting among locals and tourists from abroad, we felt like we had found a little piece of heaven. We took the train back to Riga for a different kind of adventure, which included viewing the inside of the ancient Jurmala train station.

Back in Riga Once back in Riga, Irwin went off to the internet café while Alina and I took off for the huge shopping mall and my introduction to Latvian fashion, which is European and sophisticated. I bought Alina a little orange purse in a shop across from our hotel and thanked her for the trip to Jurmula and our orientation in Riga. We tearfully said our goodbyes, promising to email.

That evening Irwin and I walked through the Old Town and into the huge Cathedral Square where we searched out ‘Kiploka krogs,’ written up in our guidebook. This cozy den is otherwise known as The Garlic Restaurant, offering up garlic soup, garlic roast chicken, garlic salad, and (although we didn’t try it but wish we had now), garlic ice cream! There is fresh ground garlic to spread on whatever you deem does not have enough! As you leave you will be offered a sprig or two of parsley should you wish to be around anyone else in the next couple of days.

Our favorite restaurant (also a nightclub) that we visited twice is Casablanca. We sat outdoors under the heat lamps. We ordered from the gourmet menu. My favorite was the avocado, shrimp and cucumber soup with a yogurt (leben) base at $7 — exquisite, although the Cold Berry Soup with cream cheese at $5 was equally good. On the first night, we shared it for dessert but, on the second, we each had our own. Irwin enjoyed the lamb and olive tangine, and I found the peas in a bed of mozarella, tomatoes and shitake mushrooms delicious — everything a vegetarian could wish for. On the second night, we both tried the grilled Latvian trout with grilled vegetables ($17 US). Large, spicy and succulent, our fish went well with the outdoor musicians who serenaded us with folksy jazz, long into the night.

We took the city tour of Riga by bus the next day, getting off at two or three spots just to see what the city looked like outside the Old Town. The bus crosses the Daugava River and stops at some interesting neighbourhoods, full of small colorful wooden buildings. But we were happy to get back to our centre, the Old Town and its cobblestone walks with new discoveries at every corner.

With its splendid and lavish turn-of-the-century architecture greeting you at every turn, its universal and delectable cuisine, and its inexpensive accommodations, Riga is the new little Paris. I had expected a provincial little place climbing out from under Soviet occupation. What we saw and experienced was the opposite — a vibrant, exciting and charming city that we will certainly revisit.

To reserve at the Forums Hotel: www.hotelforums.lv

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Visiting St. Petersburg in style

Click here to view a slideshow of St. Petersburg

We arrived in St. Petersburg just before midnight and took a short cab ride to our hotel on the Fontanka, the left branch of the Neva River that flows through the centre of St. Petersburg.  Our hotel, the Asteria, lay across from a row of turn-of-the-century buildings. We were about a kilometre from the city center on Nevsky Prospekt and, at the end of Nevsky, is the famed Hermitage Museum, daunting for its size and for the difficulties of viewing its holdings.

Next morning, a Sunday, we ventured out toward Nevsky. And within a half a block, we stumbled upon a ballet theatre. We tried to get tickets for the evening performance of Swan Lake, but the theatre was closed. We walked along the Fontanka about half a kilometre and turned right. (We realized later there is a short cut to Nevsky.) After a short walk, we found a ticket kiosk.

Procuring tickets for Swan Lake for the following evening was an adventure. The friendly lady in the kiosk wrote prices on a small square of paper and, with my five words of Russian and our smiling gestures, we finalized the purchase — at $48 a seat in the third row. It turned out the tickets were right behind the conductor, and his body in motion was entirely blocking our view.  Spotting some empty seats along the row, we moved. Why we weren’t sold these seats in the first place, I’ll never know. The ballet was beautiful and what better place to see it than in the ballet capital of the world!

Russia is full of illogical frustrations, but don’t take them to heart. Here’s another: the next morning we decided to see the Hermitage — guideless and guileless. We asked the hotel clerk how to get there on foot and we promptly set off on the long walk. (She didn ’t tell us about the short cut). As we neared the immense Hermitage, it was eerily quiet. After circling the entire group of buildings, we finally found someone who told us the Hermitage was closed on Mondays. Back at the hotel, I asked the same clerk why she had sent us to the Hermitage on a Monday. “You asked for directions,” she said, “not whether it was open.” Ah, the intricacies of the post-Soviet Russian mind.

That day we strolled around Nevsky and took an hour-long bus tour around the city ($25). Irwin bought a beautiful sweater in a huge department store that used to be called GUM. It ’s now a myriad of boutiques, that run on two levels around one square city block, its front  on Nevsky .

It takes time and patience to get used to the immensity of the city. At almost every turn, there is a museum or palace to visit. Unfortunately it was raining and cold that day . We walked by the Church of Spilled Blood and on to the souvenir market, where prices are about 50% higher than in most stores! Although the church had an incredibly breathtaking fa çade, its pricey entrance fee and the name itself didn’t attract us inside.

That evening, as we waited outside our ballet theatre, we met two American women, one of whom lived in Moscow. They were discussing their packed day with their tour guide. She had taken them to the Hermitage! Could she be our answer? One of the young women happily called the guide on her cell phone and, wonder of wonders, the next morning sitting in our lobby waiting for us was Maria Luneva, former professor of Russian History, ready to show us her St. Petersburg. Maria is beautiful, charming, incredibly knowledgeable, efficient, and speaks marvellous English.

We were off to visit the world famous Hermitage Museum. Maria shepherded us through the hordes of waiting tourists to see the highlights of the larger and smaller palaces of Catherine the Great. We viewed a da Vinci, two Raphaels, and a few rooms of Impressionists along the way. Although I paint and love art, there’s only so much I can remember and appreciate, and for some reason, this whirlwind tour of the Hermitage left me exhausted. What I do remember most is Maria telling us that only 10% of Catherine ’s collection is ever shown at one time. This time we saw a room full of cameos. The Hermitage is all about superlatives and I couldn ’t imagine going it alone.

As Maria was securing our entrance tickets to the Hermitage that morning, she introduced us to a young woman who worked in the gift shop. She happened to be one of the corps de ballet in Giselle, being performed that evening at the tiny but splendid Hermitage Theatre. She also happened to be from Quebec City and had moved to St. Petersburg to study ballet. She was fluent in English, and, according to Maria, she spoke beautiful Russian. We decided right then that we would be in the audience that night, even though it would be our second night of ballet in St. Petersburg and the tickets were $100 each. We invited Maria and looked forward to a beautiful evening. The theatre is exquisite, as was the experience of seeing our young and talented Quebecer. We had never seen Giselle and we loved it. The performance was accompanied by the State Symphonic Orchestra of St. Petersburg.

At 228 years old, The Hermitage Theatre is the oldest theatre building in St. Petersburg and seats only 100 people. Its first season opened in 1785, but performances ceased after the death of Catherine II in 1796. Only in 1989 was the theatre restored and opened again.

The next day we were off to the fortress on the island, which was the heart of ancient St. Petersburg. Maria took me to a marvellous indoor souvenir department store, where prices were very low and the service excellent. After driving Irwin to a nearby Internet caf é, Maria sat on the balcony sipping coffee and waited for me to fill my basket.

We lunched the first day with Maria at a pierogi place, sampling various kinds from meat to herring, tuna and cabbage. These were baked in large squares and cut into pieces. I confided in Maria that what I most loved about Cuba, our winter destination, was visiting people in their homes in Havana. I certainly wasn ’t asking but she responded with a surprise invitation to lunch at her gorgeous apartment on our last day in town. Maria and her husband purchased their sumptuous turn-of-the-century penthouse in 1990. It is the same building that Shostakovich lived in and there is a bust of him in the courtyard. The apartment was beautiful and Maria was a wonderful hostess.

On the way, we stopped at a new shop that was offering free liquor to the first 100 or so customers. We walked out with two bottles of local liqueur and made our way to a neighbourhood pastry shop where we picked out goodies for dessert. I may not remember everything I saw at the Hermitage, but I do remember every detail of that visit to Maria ’s apartment.

St. Petersburg was the only city in which we visited ORT this. To remind you, ORT is the worldwide educational organization that we visited in several places last year. It turns out that ORT is right off Nevsky and only a block or two from our hotel. Bringing greetings from Montreal ORT, we were invited to tour the computer school.

I would highly recommend that you book an organized tour of St. Petersburg if you go. Alone, it can be a challenge. Maria Luneva can be reached by email at: mluneva@yandex.ru or call: +7-812-232-9725 (cell) or +7-812-921-2530 (in Russia).

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Magical, folksy, charming Tallinn

Click here to view a slideshow of Magical, folksy, charming Tallinn

Originally published: October 2007

If ever pictures were worth a thousand words, they’re worth at least 2,000 when it comes to Tallinn.

I introduced this magical place in my last article by telling you where we stayed. The Villa Hortensia is in the Old Town, at one corner of a courtyard of artists, artisans and a Chocolaterie that serves up sumptuous tiny chocolate pastries, pots of tea, café au lait, soups, and sandwiches. The skylight on our “lofty” bedroom ceiling brought us all manner of music from the Chocolaterie, but mainly Jacques Brel. Still, how romantic to wake up and go to sleep to the sounds and smells of the café below.

It rained for most of our four days in Tallinn but this did nothing to dampen our pleasures, which included hours spent reading in the cafés (we found another lovely one across the street from our courtyard), and daily trips to the indoor market near the train station to purchase our lunch. Our tiny loft had a kitchenette, where we ate the local delicacies, the same lunch every day — huge slabs of lox shoved between fresh rolls that we tore open, tomatoes, and sometimes marvellous cottage cheese along with the lox. The entire meal for two came to $6. Each night we sat in our courtyard before going to sleep and marvelled at the famous White Nights. Here we were at 11 pm and the sky was a deep blue. It was hardly dark enough to light the candles on the table.

We stayed within the walls of the Old Town for the greater part of our stay, only venturing out to see the garish shopping centre just outside and the Museum of the Occupations, where everything was translated into English. Housed on two levels, this moving testimony to both the Soviet occupation and Nazi terror was the first of three such museums we visited on this trip. In fact, there was almost too much to take in. It was raining that day too, which matched our spirits after leaving this museum.

As we were sipping coffee outside our courtyard on the second morning, we began to notice small troupes of children, seniors and couples, dressed in festive costumes, walking toward the main square. We followed them and, to our amazement, the entire square was filled with multi-coloured booths selling Estonian crafts. A stage was set up and the first performers of this “World Folkloric Festival” were getting ready to perform. Most of the groups were from the Baltic region. It was especially beautiful to see the variety of people, on both ends of the age spectrum, come together to perform and enjoy the sights of Tallinn — but I’ll let these photos tell the story.

From Tallinn we took a train ride, the first of several, to St. Petersburg, clutching our lunch bag of (you guessed it) our favourite sandwiches from the market. We arrived in St. Petersburg at night for four days of adventure that included the Hermitage, two ballets, and meeting a history professor turned tour guide, who showed us her St. Petersburg. All this and more next month!

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Last and best stop in Romania

click here to view a slideshow of images from Romania

Originally published: July 2007

For all of its 332,000 plus inhabitants, Timisoara, Romania has that small town atmosphere that makes you fall in love – both with the city, and again with your partner, once you step out into its flower lined squares and winding narrow streets.

We stayed at the Hotel Timisoara (tel: 498-852-295-278 Str 1 Mai 2) and paid about $80 if I remember correctly. But be aware that prices fluctuate, going up, not down. It ’s almost a year since we happily walked into this hotel’s luxurious lobby, with its internet facilities right by the registration desk and its outdoor/indoor café and bar ready to welcome and feed us at midnight, when we finally arrived by train from Sibui.

Timisoara is right on the Hungarian border and is famous as the birthplace of the 1989 revolution. It ’s Romania’s fourth largest city and is known by Romanians as “Primul Oras Liber” (First Free Town). The first Ceausescu protest was here.

Hotel Timisoara has its back to Piaja Victoriei, a beautifully-landscaped  pedestrian mall lined with shops and cinemas, with the National Theatre and Opera House one end.

It was on this square that thousands of demonstrators gathered on December 16, 1989. Many were slaughtered. A memorial plaque at the front of the Opera House reads: “So you, who pass by this building, dedicate a thought for free Romania.”

In a corner of the square right near our hotel, we enjoyed cappuccinos at a gorgeous little outdoor café. The cafés have a Hungarian air about them and so do the cakes. Unfortunately, we were accosted by gypsy children begging. I can never resist them.

We ventured out the second day to find the synagogue. A senior gentleman we met on the street directed us to the Jewish community headquarters hidden on the second floor of a dilapidated building on a narrow street.

We met the leader of the community, who took us on a tour of the crumbling synagogue and told us it was to be renovated and transformed into a community centre. The size of the synagogue made me imagine the large community that once congregated there. The community now is quite poor, especially the seniors. We were invited to lunch with them but declined.

Instead we left a donation for the seniors and made our way to one of the many restaurants lining the huge square a few streets away. The food was wonderful and the view of the square spectacular. We dined on fish, vegetables, potatoes and cr ème caramel, with prices below even Romanian averages.

Because I’d rather leave room for pictures, I’ll end now and invite you to read about this summer’s voyage to Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania, and St. Petersburg beginning in our September issue.

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Magical Sofia

click here to view a slideshow of images from Magical Sofia

Originally Published: May 2007

Sofia is a beautiful city for walking and walking is exactly what we did for the three days we spent in this colorful Bulgaria capital. We chose Hotel Slavyanska Besseda at Ul (St.) Slavyanska from our Lonely Planet Bulgaria guide book. The description was intriguing “decent mid-range option popular with businessmen from Russia and Eastern Europe.” Since we were coming from Eastern Europe (although I don’t see myself as a “business man”) and the price ($35-$50) seemed right, we reserved from our hotel in Varna and took a cab straight there from the train station. Hotel prices, by the way, are always higher than what is quoted in the guide book by at least 25%.

Our hotel was definitely in the middle of the action, hardly visible on a narrow corner that didn’t at first seem very picturesque after beautiful Varna. But we were soon out exploring, looking for a place to eat and window shopping in the late afternoon. We found a hip outdoor restaurant about a kilometer away and whiled away the evening on sumptuous Gazpacho soup, lots of wine and chocolate cake. The soup was so good I went back for more the next day. Sofia was more sophisticated and cosmopolitan than I had imagined. It has the old world charm with its narrow winding streets but it’s also very modern with its boutiques, bars, and restaurants. People are friendly, perhaps not as friendly as small town Varna, but certainly polite.

The next morning we were out walking, first past the Canadian Consulate, then on to find the synagogue, which turned to be huge but inviting, and the markets. Sofia is a beautiful, clean city with lots of long narrow streets full of boutiques and reasonable-priced restaurants. We loved the huge multi-leveled market, the outdoor market that seemed to stretch on forever, the grand synagogue where we met the leader of the Jewish community who talked to us about the Jewish community of Sofia.

We loved the outdoor fruit and vegetable market with its endless stalls of colorful produce, and the Cathedral behind it surrounded by parks and a playground. I’ll let the photos do the walking for you. I believe they tell the story of our days in Sofia better than my words. After three days of blissful discovery, we were off to Romania, the subject of next issue’s Times and Places.

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Kiev, Fastov & Pavoloch

click here to view a slideshow of images from Kiev, Fastov & Pavoloch

Originally published: February 2007

In Kiev we were hosted by ORT Ukraine. ORT is one of the largest non-governmental education and training organizations in over 100 countries that teach practical computer applications along with Jewish culture. ORT staff arranged our hotel, Lybid Hotel, 1 Peremogy Sq., Kyiv, 01135 and then took us on a tour of Kiev’ ORT Technology School, where we met teachers and viewed architectural models designed by high school students. As a member of ORT Montreal, it was my pleasure to bring greetings from the board of directors here. We emailed from the computer room at the ORT school to our friends at ORT Montreal.

In the evening we dined with Slava Leshchiner, Director of World ORT Representative Office in Ukraine, at a wonderful restaurant where we were invited to choose appetizers from a sumptuous looking tray. I tasted many of them but most enjoyed the cottage cheese verenikes. The next day we visited the Babi Yar monument. Babi Yar was the mass grave where thousands of Ukranian Jews were massacred during the Holocaust.

Kiev has certainly changed since my last visit in 1981. The downtown area is massive with sidewalks, flanked with boutiques and restaurants. We visited the huge indoor market which sells everything from cheese to flowers.

On Friday night we attended services at a synagogue two blocks from our hotel and enjoyed meeting members of the Jewish community who invited us to join them for a light supper following services. We communicated in English, Yiddish, and Hebrew.

The next day we headed out of town to Fastov, a small town where my grandfather spent much of his youth, and farther on to Pavoloch (Pavolitch in Yiddish), where my grandmother, Malka (Molly) Karasick, grew up. She had always talked abut Pavoloch as a vibrant town that housed three synagogues, a study house, and over 4,000 Jews so I was expecting something a bit bigger than Yagolnitsa and Losatch, where my paternal grandparents lived.

Fastov consisted of a main street, a rather lovely theatre and a cemetery that we visited, although none of my relatives were there. My grandfather, Velode William Levitus left around 1920, managing to hop on the boat that was taking my grandmother, Malka Karasick, along with her father, Dovide, to Canada. They were distant cousins and he once told me that he visited her in Pavoloch and gave her a ride in a wheelbarrow when she was three and he was a few years older.

Our ORT driver, also named Slava and a lovely woman who worked at ORT accompanied us on our journey of over three hours.

When we arrived in Pavoloch, we wondered where the town was. The terrain seemed empty. Two or three women stood huddled together as we drove closer to the only standing building. Suddenly, one of them came running up and spoke to our friends explaining that the building was in fact a museum for the town. What town, I asked myself looking around at the bare earth that seemed to stretch for kilometers. Larissa announced rather humbly that she was the present curator of the museum and that she would give us a tour. In fact, this building was the only remaining building in the town and had once been the main synagogue.

There were many sections to view, including recreated rooms from the time when my grandmother was living here. It was obvious that someone was paying to keep up this museum. There are a lot of Pavolochers in Winnipeg and we were told some of them sent money to keep up the museum/synagogue. I asked Larissa if there was a list of Jews who had lived in the town. She responded that there was a list of 2,000 Jews who had been killed in one night in 1943. They had been forced to dig their own mass grave. She gave me a bunch of dried flowers and led me to the sight of the grave. Two thousand had left during the pogroms and the rest had been murdered in one night during the Holocaust. This was the legacy of the once beautiful town my grandmother had so proudly described.

I asked Larissa if she had any records of my great-grandfather, Dovide Karasick, who was a teacher in the Hebrew school. She went to find the curator-emeritus, who was old and frail, and he told her that a photo of my great grandfather existed in the museum. The photo was small but I could make him out, standing with his students in front of the school. What a joy to see him and to imagine the rich life my family had had here, before the pogroms, before the Holocaust. Standing near the mass grave, I wondered where the motivation had come from, the motivation to travel out to every village and town and systematically murder every Jewish man, woman and child. How lucky I was that my great grandfather had had the courage to leave, that he had sent one son to Winnipeg to earn enough to send for the rest of my Pavoloch family.

I will let my photos describe what we saw and felt in Pavoloch. If you would like to visit Pavoloch, contact me at irblock@hotmail.com

For more information about Pavoloch, visit shtetlinks.jewishgen.org/pavoloch

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When in Ukraine, speak Ukrainian or travel with Yuri

Originally published: December, 2006

Traveling in northern Ukraine to discover my roots unleashed a roller coaster of emotions. I found myself in absurd, even amusing situations in places where all but memory has been erased.

I found myself luxuriating on overnight trains or enjoying coffee and pastries in lavish old world cafés while remembering my great uncle Haim — transported with his young wife and baby from his last known address in Chortkow to the concentration camps and their deaths.

Lviv or Lemberg, as it was known in my grandparents’ time at the beginning of the 20th century, is one of those places of mixed emotion. And visiting the home of my great-grandfather three hours south in a tiny village called Losatch is a more dramatic example of these conflicting feelings.

To begin our story, a word about language. If you don’t speak Russian or Ukrainian, clerks react strangely, sometimes not responding at all. None of our four spoken languages worked. Luckily we did meet a few young people who knew English.

After an hour-long train trip from Krakow, we took a cab to our hotel, which we discovered in Lonely Planet’s Eastern Europe: Hotel Dnister, 6 Mateiko St. Lviv, 7900 Ukraine. reservations@dnister.lviv.ua. This 4-star hotel (US $100 a night) features an elegant dining room with hundreds of menu choices and a piano player. We had fallen into the lap of luxury. The Dnister is a 15-minute walk through a park to the main square. Along the way there are some fine silver jewellery shops and a decent Internet café.

Our first day was a dreary, rainy Sunday. Everything was closed except a cafeteria where we enjoyed borscht and fish (all of it was “cheap as borscht”) and other Ukrainian specialties such as verenikes (dumplings).

We spent the afternoon at the Wien hotel café on the square and the next three evenings at their lovely outdoor restaurant.

On the second day, we traveled to my paternal grandparents’ villages of Yagolnitsa and Losatch, three hours southeast of Lviv. We hired a driver, Yuri, 26, a friend of the hotel receptionist, an international business graduate who speaks English well. He had never been to either of these villages but for $50 US he was willing to find them and share our adventure. On the way, we learned he had a Jewish grandfather, from whom his family had been estranged. His time with us was an awakening of a part of his identity he had never explored.

We highly recommend Yuri to visit villages near Lviv. Call him in Lviv at 8066 185 1645. (He has no email.) If he can’t take you, he belongs to a group of taxi drivers and can arrange your trip with one of them.

Seeing the sign for Yagolnitsa was exhilarating. Here we were in the town (which looked more like a village) where my grandfather, great uncle and great-cousin Shia had lived and thrived as Jews. I was eager to find out if there were any Jews left here, but a drunken and happy resident informed us that there was only one and he was very old, not in a condition to meet us.

We lunched at the local restaurant (served by two girls who never stopped smiling) on potato verenikes, sour cream that looked like butter, veal with potatoes for Irwin, three salads, wine and two glasses of tea. ($12 for all three of us). We couldn’t seem to locate the Jewish cemetery.

There are plenty of turkeys and chickens prancing around, as you can see from the pictures. It’s a beautiful place, but nothing is left of the life that once was for my family.

We drove on to Losatch, my grandmother’s village, about 30 kilometers away. We were in search of my great grandfather’s house, which I knew existed because my cousin Avrum Fenson of Toronto had discovered it 14 years before with his late father Melvin.

Yuri and I got out at what looked like the only public building on the only street in the town, which was lined with houses. Inside we met with four women. At first, none of them knew the house of Pinchas Fierstein. Then one of them had an idea and drove with us down the street to a house with a terrace, like the one I had seen in a postcard my great grandfather had sent to Winnipeg.

There seemed to be a celebration in progress as we walked up and asked if this was Pinchas Fierstein’s house. At the name, an old Babushka leapt out and hugged me. She had known my great grandfather. The family who lived in the house had married off their daughter the day before and her friends were in the back still celebrating with vodka, food, and music.

After touring the house and having the bride dress up for us in her wedding dress, we went out in the yard and joined the friends who immediately asked us to sing a Canadian song. All we could think of was “O Canada” to which they responded with the Ukrainian national anthem, hands on their hearts. It was warm out there in the rain and mud in the lean-to decorated with carpets, as we shared this memorable moment, one of the happiest in my life, in a time and place that meant so much to me. I hope my children, niece and nephews will make the trek here to touch this time and place as I did.

To see the house where my grandmother grew up, to see the birds of peace that my great grandfather had carved above the door and the Hebrew script painted over them, so high I couldn’t make it out — this was a day I will always cherish.

My great-grandfather Pinchas was murdered by the Nazis in 1943 along with his son Boomka, my grandmother’s younger stepbrother, and his wife. In this house, which he built, I felt his presence.

Yes, these people are interlopers. Kind as they are, they took this house, a house belonging to a murdered Jew, and claimed it as their own. I felt no anger toward them. They showed great warmth and compassion for me and my family. And certainly, this visit was much more fulfilling than the emptiness of Yagolnitsa, where I craved to know the house my grandfather and his family had lived in. Where was the rich culture they had spoken of? What had happened to the Jews of this place?

Back in Lviv we retreated to our outdoor restaurant and discovered a cheaper, more central hotel for next time or for you on your first visit. It’s called the Wien Guest Rooms and it’s just beside the hotel and outdoor restaurant, also called the Wien at 12 Swoboda Ave. The menu was fun. Here are some samples: Viennese Style sausages on fire 7.70; Vegetables on Sword 9.20; Pancakes with cheese mass 7.85; Ice Cream Nut 9.85; Ice cream with Advocat and Fig 17.50; Turkey live fried with onions 14.90 (it took us two days to figure out they had left the r off “live.” At first, I wondered if they had procured some live ones from Yagolnitsa.

Here’s what we had for dinner the last night: Salad with eggs, potatoes, pickles, red pepper tomatoes, salad with cauliflower, pepper and mushrooms, skewer of chicken breast with mushroom and zucchini, ice cream with cherries, chocolate cake, pot of fruit tea with honey, two (half) glasses of wine. Sound good? It was.

By the way, $1 Cdn = 4.5 hryvnia (Ukrainian currency)

Yuri showed us around the town the third and last day, including the opera house in the middle of the square and a bazaar where we purchased a few babushka dolls that looked nothing like the original babushka, Katarina, in Losatch.

By the way, if you don’t know Ukrainian or Russian, you’ll have trouble reserving a train unless you do it from your hotel. We reserved our train to Kiev, the overnight “grand tour” from one of the big hotels on the square. We had a beautiful “cabin.” And actually, you haven’t lived till you’ve cracked open a half bottle of Ukrainian champagne served in stem glasses on the night train to Kiev. Strangely, the charge was waived.

Lviv to Kiev: US $140 for two in a deluxe cabin leaving midnight, arriving 8 am.

For information on the Jewish community of Lviv or to visit the synagogue, contact Sarah Bald at 380-50-955-5555-65 or bald@mail.lviv.ua

We visited Kleparov station with Yuri, and read the plaque: “The last stop of Lvov Jews before being expelled and put to death in the gas chambers of Belzetz. All Galician Jews, 500,000 Jews passed here in March 42 - 43.”

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To walk in their footsteps and touch them in some small way

Originally Published November, 2006

Krakow is a beautiful city, too beautiful to be so close to Auschwitz.

We stayed in the Jewish district, Kazmierz, which in 1495 became the city’s Jewish quarter, one of the main cultural centres for Polish Jews. Now it is a ­re-creation of what life used to be like before the Holocaust. In March, 1941, the entire Jewish population of the district was deported to the Podgorze ghetto, where 16,000 people were crammed into 120 buildings or sent to concentration and death camps such as Auschwitz-Birkenau. The ghetto was liquidated in March 1943, ending seven centuries of Jewish life in Krakow.

Kazmierz boasts a handful of synagogues, all mira­culously intact, some with sumptuous interiors. The tiny Remu’h Synagogue at ul Szeroka 40 is one of the two functioning synagogues in the district. Just inside the entrance, a wall has been formed, a collage of the fragments of tombstones from the adjacent cemetery.

The grandest of all the synagogues in Kazmierz was the Old Synagogue on ul Szeroka, the oldest surviving Jewish religious building in Poland. It is now a museum.

Our small pension, Tournet Pokoje Goscinne at ul Miodowa 7, was run by a young couple with small children. It was clean, but small after our lavish hotel in Lodz. We arrived by train after dark and decided to venture out and buy food at one of the many small grocery stores in the area. We walked into the Old Jewish Square, which reminded me of Jacques Cartier Square in Old Montreal. Like Old Montreal, Kazimierz allows visitors to imagine life as it once was. There is a difference: there is no trace of the thousands of Jews who lived and flourished in Kazmierz.

There are many restaurants, some featuring Klezmer bands, that line the square, most sporting Hebrew menus or signs. Many are overpriced and certainly not “Jewish style” as they advertise. An example is the choice of lard or sour cream to accompany verenikes or pierogis in the restaurant we chose, which was decorated inside and out to recreate the shops and dress of the Jews who once lived and worked within its walls. When I mentioned the incongruous inclusion of lard on the menu, the server said she would mention it to her manager.

We took a street car downtown on our second day to see the largest square in Medieval Europe, Rynek Glowny. The square is the centre of the Old Town with narrow streets leading into it, where you can find boutiques and restaurants.

On one of these streets, we had lunch at Greenway, a small franchise, which we had discovered in Lodz. It’s a charming self-serve vegetarian restaurant with Polish and Mexican specialties and is very inexpensive. Then we spent the afternoon sipping ice-cream drinks in one of the many outdoor terrace cafés surrounding the square. The grandest site in the square is the Town Hall Tower. There are a multitude of churches to visit, but since we were in Krakow mainly because of Auschwitz, we did not venture into any of them but saved our energy for the third day, the day we visited Auschwitz-Birkenau.

Tours to Auschwitz can be purchased at every hotel in Krakow. The Holocaust is big business for the Poles, strange as that may sound. We relied on them to get us to Auschwitz safely and to guide us through the kilometers of testimonials to the torture and murder that went on there.

The bus was too comfortable. The documentary on the small TV on the 1 1/2 hour trip was informative, but strangely out of place and time. It made it difficult to imagine those other times — the packed, thirst-ridden, sick and dying who were herded to these gates. I wanted to see the sign “Arbeit Macht Frei.” It was strangely shrunken, and the camp was so much bigger, the barracks sturdier, and the distances longer than I had imagined.

Everything was empty and vast, save the small bunches of tourists being led around or wandering by themselves in pairs or families. As we walked out of the Visitor’s Centre some tourists were eating ice cream bars as they stood in the rain, well dressed, well fed, ready to embark on their tours of the largest killing ground in Europe.

Seeing Auschwitz-Birkenau, or what is left of it, I learned more about life there — and death —  than I had reading and studying and writing about the Holocaust. I learned the Nazis were extremely methodical and meticulous to a fault. Yes, I had known these facts, but seeing thousands of shoes, tobacco boxes, children’s clothing, and suitcases —only a tiny fraction of what was actually collected — made me realize how vast this operation was — this operation of annihilation.

And that is where, in my eyes, it differs from other holocausts. There was a vast and organized collection — booty — stolen from the living souls and from their dead bodies before they were thrown into the gas ovens.

Only in one regard did the Nazi butchers lose their sense of order and discipline: it was how and when an inmate was tortured and killed. This was completely arbitrary. We witnessed it when we visited the punishment building and the shooting yard outside it.

I have always been sure there is no god. I was brought up an atheist. Seeing Auschwitz-Birkenau confirmed my disbelief. What god with any form of supernatural power could have witnessed his chosen people as they were starved, tortured and experimented on — men, women and children? What god could have stood by and watched “his people” being deprived every human dignity before they were burnt in the ovens — and do NOTHING?

I learned also that hair turns grey, even when it is shorn off. Sixty years and it smells of mildew.

As I walked along the kilometer-long road and track that took members of my family to their deaths, the road at Birkenau, the vast camp adjacent to Auschwitz, the death camp — as I walked on the road that leads from the train station to the crematoria, past the barracks (for the inmates who were forced to help exterminate the victims), it was raining lightly, and I was having trouble keeping up with my “group.” My knee hurt from the dampness and I thought about my pain compared to that of the thousands of men, women, and  children who had walked this road from the trains, and those who veered off it or tried to escape and were shot by the side of the road.

I have thought long and hard about what to tell you about Auschwitz.

No description can bring you there. You must go if you are able.

Before we left, people asked me why I was going, why I needed to inflict this experience on myself. I went to Auschwitz to do the unthinkable — to imagine what it was like. I needed to go, not to understand — for how can such horror be understood — but to feel closer to those who perished, to walk in their footsteps, at least physically, and in doing so, touch them in some small but meaningful way.

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Chefchaouen: a friendly community of magical characters

click here to view a slideshow of images from Chefchaouen

September 2009

We visited Morocco twice this year. In May we spent three weeks in Fez, Marrakesh, Essaouira, El Jadida and Rabat. On the flight back we mulled over possible destinations for our three-week vacation in July. Before we landed in Montreal, we had come to a decision: We would return to Morocco.

You might ask why we returned so soon to the same country – a first for us. The May trip was difficult because my bad knee was at an all-time low. We travelled with a couple from New York whom I didn’t know well – another first for us, and we’ve since decided that although they were lovely people and it did save us money when we hired a guide, we’re not cut out to travel with anyone else.

Despite these things, we enjoyed ourselves immensely. The locals were friendly and supportive. The weather was perfect (it was too hot when we returned in July). The second language, French, made it easy for us to communicate. Every town and city is exotic and exciting in its own way. And you know that old saying about the devil you know – except there is nothing devilish about this place. I’m not sure why Morocco has such a bad rap; it must come from people who haven’t been there! True, there are beggars young and old selling small tissue packages, and people who try to stay alive by hocking every manner of watch, painting, purse, shirt, shoe and key chain, and “guides” every time you turn around, but Turkey was much worse when it came to being hounded and harassed for our Western buck.

What we love to do in Morocco may not be ever yone’s cup of tea. Our cup of tea is fresh mint and we sip it watching the people go by. We love to walk through the Medinas, or old cities. Each town, no matter how small, has its Medina, as well as its Melech, the part of the old city where the Jews lived. Unfortunately, our museum and archeological site days are over, because of my knee.

I love bargaining and bantering with the shopkeepers more than Irwin does, and my favourite sight-seeing subjects and photo ops are the people. The plethora of dress among both women and men is perhaps the most colourful and exotic I have ever seen. Almost anything goes – except the crass bareness of some Westerners who show themselves to be disrespectful of Morocco’s somewhat traditional and conservative dress code. Mini skirts or shorts are not de rigueur, and it’s best to have some part of your chest, back and arms covered. The easiest way to fit in is to buy a Moroccan kaftan or blouse, as we did.

I’m going to begin my account in Chefchaouen, where we spent a week in July. Eventually I hope to describe each place we visited.

On this second visit we stayed in the north of the country, which has a large Spanish influence. In fact, more people seem to speak Spanish as a second language rather than French, which is predominant in the south. We landed in Casablanca, then took a train to Tangier, where we caught buses to Tetuan, Chefchaouen and finally Asila, a beach town on the Atlantic where we stayed for four days. As usual, we planned very little in advance, deciding where and when to go on the spur of the moment.

We spent a week in Chefchaouen, partly because I got sick and partly because it is so magical. Travellers have discovered this little jewel nestled in the Rif mountains of northern Morocco, which is said to have over 200 hostels and hotels. The town’s name refers to the horn-shaped mountain tops that tower over it. We arrived in the town’s new, lower section with no guide book, and took a taxi to the upper level, where the Medina – and all the action – is. Chefchaouen’s central oblong- shaped “square” is lined with coffee shops and eateries. Off in almost every direction are the winding cobblestone lanes of the souk, or Market, where you can purchase everything from light fixtures to small sacks of dye, leather purses, and costume jewellery.

We began to search for a hotel with an elevator, but, alas, ever y lane we tried had only walk-up pensions with shared bathrooms. We finally decided on Hotel Yasmina, because it was clean and had only 18 stairs. Later that afternoon we met Melinda, an Australian former nurse who married a Berber (the indigenous people of North Africa) and now runs a lucrative shop with him at one corner of the square. She recommended the one luxury hotel in the area, the Parador, a four-star establishment with a pool. We promptly reserved a room for the following night.

I knew even before we settled into our cots at the Yasmina that my days of happily sharing a bathroom with other travellers are over. Still, at 108 dirhams ($15) a night, it was an experience – one I’d rather not have again. The Parador was 540 dirhams ($75) for a room with a private bathroom and a fan that shut off automatically every 60 minutes. The “pool” turned out to be more of an outdoor bathtub.

For dinner we tried Casa Hassan, a fabulously decorated place on three levels with a three-course dinner for 80 dirhams, or $11. For appetizers, our traditional harira soup and white cheese salad were both excellent. The vegetable pastel, a cinnamony and spicey stuffed pancake, was exquisite. Irwin declared his meat kebabs with rice and vegetables perfect. The lemon tarte, a thin layer of lemony bliss over honey- and cinnamon- flavoured crumbs, was the pièce de résistance. By Day 2 we had found favourite spots for breakfast, lunch and dinner, and we were welcomed in each like family. We played a lot of chess in Chefchaouen – at breakfast, after lunch and before dinner – so it was of no surprise to our restaurateurs that Irwin enrolled in the international chess tournament. It was, however, a surprise to Irwin: I talked him into it at the last minute. It was five-minute-a-game speed chess, with which he had no experience, but I thought it would be fun, as well as a great photo op for The Senior Times. Irwin played seven games, lost all of them and packed it in at 11 p.m. It was more fun to watch youngsters as young as eight – including one with a lollipop in her mouth who batted the chess clock as nonchalantly as if she were shooing a fly away – winning game after game against Irwin and others than it was to watch Irwin lose.

I’ve saved our best experience for last. In Chefchaouen we met Florence, an osteopath raised and trained in Paris who is married to a Berber and has a 2-year-old daughter, Lina. Florence opened her business, aptly called “Art du Bien Être” on the ground level of the house she rents with her husband for the equivalent of $300 a month. It’s all painted blue and resembles a large cave on two levels. Florence helped me through a sore hip I had developed at Melinda the Australian’s shop while bending down to look over her jewellery. Florence was my Nightingale, so relaxed and spiritual. After my first osteopathic treatment, I asked her if I could have a massage (a steal at $20 an hour) every day until I left. If you ever find yourself in Chefchaouen, Florence is worth looking up even if you’re perfectly healthy.

On our last night we attended the end of a free concert with 500 people in an open air auditorium listening to 13 men chant liturgical music on a huge stage, all dressed in white and playing various instruments. There were many children watching and it was past midnight.

One of the charms of Chefchaouen is that it’s almost impossible to get drunk there. There are no bars and the vast majority of restaurants do not serve alcohol. This means no loud, beer-guzzling tourists. It’s a pleasure to be in a safe, alcohol-free environment where children run around freely after dark.

Meanwhile, the Chefchaouen re- gion is one of the main producers of cannabis in Morocco, and it is said that your hostel owner will offer you hashish at the drop of a hat, so if you want to relive your hippy days, this is the place to do it. (We didn’t.)

Chefchaouen is full of characters. Here is a list of some of the most memorable:

• The boy who approached me while I was ordering an ice cream cone. He pointed to himself, so I bought him one, which he took to the elderly men sitting around a fountain. They nodded to me in approval.

• The boy who came up to us at a café and asked for 7 dirham ($1) to buy a sandwich. We offered to buy him the sandwich, and he insisted that the money would do just fine. When we told him it was the sandwich or nothing, he left us, pouting.

• The young man who stopped us with a loud “Shalom” to tell us his father’s name was Ben Yakov and he sold antique carpets and would we like to see his carpet warehouse. When we asked how he knew we were Jewish, he pointed to the Hamsah (Hand Against the Evil Eye) keychain hanging from our knapsack. But wait a minute. Everyone in Morocco wears them, Muslims and Jews.

• The town’s only full-time beggar. This elderly lady does the restaurant strip twice a day with her hand out, yet seems no worse off than any of the other Berber women in the town.

• The guy standing outside his restaurant who said “Come and eat” and when we said “We’ve eaten” he responded with “Come and sit.”

• The shopkeeper who, on our fifth day, stopped us and said, “You’ve been here five days and you haven’t bought anything from me.” Nobody goes unnoticed in Chefchaouen.

I leave you with some of my favourite 5am Chefchaouen sounds: roosters cockadoodling, donkeys braying, birds singing, and the muezzin calling people to prayer. It was a magical place.

If you go to Chefchaouen: • The Parador is located in Place El Mekhzen. Call (011) 212-39986136.

• Florence’s home office is behind the big mosque at 7 Derb Leizer, Souika; her number is (011) 212-663-419- 303. Or you can ask Melinda (you can’t miss her shop – just ask for the Australian woman) and she’ll direct you to Florence.

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Romania — diamonds in the rough

click here to view a slideshow of images from Romania

Originally published: June 2007

We decided to visit Romania after Bulgaria because our good friend, Andreas, would have been upset if we’d missed his country. We had little to fear: it was an enchanting and adventuresome five days. We took the train to Bucharest, where we spent two short days and one night, and then we took a train to Transylvania, where we were not bitten by any vampires. We were, however, bitten by another kind of parasite in Bucharest, upon stepping down from our train car.

It was cold in the early morning rain and we were exhausted, this being the last week of our summer adventure. We were accosted by a “taxi driver” who said he would take us to an “inexpensive” hotel. Since it was 7am, we thought “why not?” and off we went, stupidly following this creep who picked up a buddy as we entered his car. They decided we should change money along the way at a bank-o-mat. You’re probably wondering how such savvy travelers as we could make not one but three mistakes — not changing money at the station, not knowing the exchange rate, and following strangers into their cars. There is no excuse: we simply let our guards down.

The cohorts told us the exchange rate before I got out at the bank-o-mat, but the amount they suggested was the highest amount one could take out. That ’s when the light bulb went on. I took out about half that amount, got back in the car, and whispered to Irwin that something was wrong and that I thought they were up to no good.

We arrived at the hotel, which looked seedy. An employee was standing outside, seemingly waiting for us. I got out, and asked him what the correct exchange rate was (because our driver and his buddy had asked for what I later discovered was the equivalent of $200 for the 10 minute cab ride.) This guy was obviously in cahoots with our driver. He didn ’t want to tell me the rate, but I found out at the hotel desk from the equally shady attendant. After sending our criminal friends off and paying them the equivalent of $10 for the ride, we took one look around and decided to find a better hotel. Our choice was across from the Hilton, where, luckily that same afternoon, we overheard a group of Israelis on a guided tour. We approached the guide, who put us in touch with another guide for a full-fledged tour the next day.

For $50 we saw Bucharest in four hours, riding around in a nice Mercedes. Our tour included Nicolai Ceausescu ’s palace, built over a massive area he destroyed on the backs of thousands of Bucharest residents. 7,000 homes and 26 churches were destroyed. Ceausescu starved the people to pay for this monstrosity, moving farmers to grim housing blocks in the city and rationing food, while he moved to his palace and literally lived like a king. The people coined this huge building Casa Nebunulu, The Madman’s House.

Thousands of dogs were let loose when people were evicted from their homes, creating an enormous problem that would continue for the next decade. Ceaucescu had wanted to build the world ’s largest building but the palace came in second place, slightly smaller than the massive Pentagon in Washington. On the grounds, there is a costume museum that ’s worth a gander, but I decided to bypass the palace itself because there were no elevators.

We visited a synagogue, a beautiful old edifice still in use, and talked to a few of the senior worshippers outside. Our guide took us to a lovely outdoor restaurant but the fare there was quite ordinary.

About 30 hours after we arrived, we boarded a train to Brasov. On this state-of-the-art train, we met a family of scientists who were traveling to a mountain resort with their two daughters and cat. They gave us suggestions about where to visit after Brasov, mentioning Sibui. Happily, we took their advice. From Sibui it was on to Timisoara, which is near the Hungarian border and is famous as the starting place of the rebellion that toppled Ceausescu and ended his brutal regime.

Bucharest has its beautiful parks and culture, and is climbing steadily out of its years of suffering under Ceausescu. But, frankly, we were happy to head for smaller more walkable towns, and Brasov was one of these. We had phoned ahead and booked a lovely inn about 15 minutes by foot from the picturesque town square. It ’s not easy to book a hotel when you’re changing countries, which in part accounts for our arriving in Bucharest unprepared.

This inn was one of the nicest and most reasonable on our trip. Brasov is nestled in green mountains and, when you are standing in the town centre, you feel at once protected and comforted by them. We needed that after Bucharest!

The wide pedestrian street called Republique is full of shops and restaurants, but mostly shops. We picked the Ambassador Restaurant, right in the middle of the scene, and had one of the most delicious meals I can remember in the six weeks we were traveling (prices in $CDN!) — whole grilled trout ($4.); Grilled Vegetables ($1.60); Cucumber Salad ($1.60); pancakes with ice cream ($2); and our waiter could tell us what to choose in five languages! “It may come as a disappointment to you,” he said in his exquisite English, “ but we’re out of vanilla ice cream.” Don’t worry, he divided the pancake into two portions and filled it with forest fruit ice cream, drizzled with raspberry sauce, a wonderful end to a fine dinner in Brasov. At the time, the restaurant was only three months old yet the wooden deck chairs and tables were certainly a cut above the pizzeria next door.

The beaded jewelry sold in the boutiques along the mall make great gifts. Romania has its own brand of beaded eggs, not unlike the Ukrainian variety.

After one night and two beautifully restful days (I vow to go back) we were off to Sibui on a less than state-of-the-art train. In fact, the doors between the cars were open to the outside and the compartments open to the beggars; one cornered us in our compartment but, thankfully, Irwin yelled and he retreated. It was quite a harrowing ride for me after the last train but we finally made it. Alas, the train station was equally harrowing, undergoing renovation from top to bottom. I was forced to hobble over unsteady planks in the rain and mud while Irwin followed carrying the backpacks, no longer on wheels. We had trouble finding a hotel but knew we had to because there was no way we were going to get on a train at night in the middle of that decrepit station.

As it turned out, Sibui was also being renovated, refurbished for this summer’s crowd. The medieval town square is quite a sight, with every second building undergoing some kind of repair. That and the mud made the place less desirable than Brasov, but if you ’re going this year, all should be in good order. The potential for this town and others in the area is incredible. Romania is definitely the next Croatia, ready for tourists and still reasonable.

I’ll save Timisoara, on the Hungarian border, for next issue, my last installment before we head out on this summer’s adventure to Estonia, and Lithuania and St. Petersburg. That’s the plan for the first two weeks anyway. Then we’ll see!

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Varna has it all — the sea, the culture and the gold!

click here to view a slideshow of images from Varna

Orignally published: April 2007

We chose Varna, Bulgaria because we wanted to relax in a resort-like setting after our emotional and sometimes difficult adventures in Poland and Ukraine.

Varna, population 350,000, is Bulgaria’s third largest city. It’s on the northern Black Sea coast and has the look and feel of a seaside town with all the cultural amenities of a city. Small and famous resorts, bearing names like Sveti Konstantin and Zlatni Pyasati, dot the coast, luring many tourists and making Varna a jumping off point. For us, Varna had it all, and we saw no need to explore farther along the coast. Varna is small enough to be accessible on foot and large enough to be convenient for tourists. It’s flat and well paved, with very few high rises.

We arrived late on the hydrofoil from Odessa (I’m saving Odessa for another article) without reservations. The taxis at the port lived up to their corrupt reputation, but we finally got one to take us ($10 for a five-minute ride in the dark) to the hotel most likely to have available rooms – the Hotel Odessa, a three-star, four-story hotel overlooking a huge square that leads to the beach and kilometers of scenic walks. Prices for doubles are about $70US, including a buffet breakfast. The best part is the location and the outdoor restaurant, which is part of the square, a people-watching scene par excellence. As we learned our first night, the restaurant is open till midnight and has a huge and inexpensive variety of salads, fish, brochettes, and tasty desserts. Food in Varna is varied, inexpensive and excellent. Fish is the specialty, grilled or fried. At our hotel we sampled the grilled bluefish, the whole grilled trout and the village salad with that famous Bulgarian feta.

On our second day, we ventured off in the opposite direction of the beach, down a long and fun-filled pedestrian mall lined with ice cream parlours and boutiques. Eventually you hit a crossroad and, if you turn left, you find the Archaeological Museum. Bulgaria’s largest museum, it features some of the oldest artifacts in the world. The highlight of the site is room after room filled with 6000-year-old gold and copper jewellery and art. These treasures were discovered by accident in 1972 at the Varna Necropolis, about 4 km from the town, and are apparently the oldest of their kind in the world. Here, you can experience the evolution of humankind in this region, which claims to be the home of the oldest civilization in the world, one pre-dating even the Mesopotamians.

The Cathedral of the Assumption of the Virgin is worth a gander, but my favorite part of Varna is the outdoor market, which starts at the Cathedral and stretches for blocks in a kind of circle (or maybe we were just walking in circles). In any case, there is everything there, from underwear to food and souvenirs. The tablecloths are especially nice and inexpensive and make lovely presents. We sent a few back by mail. Unfortunately the price of the mailing equaled that of the tablecloths ($60).

Our best food find was a cafeteria where we both ate dinner for a total of $4 US. This cavernous place with outdoor seating offers by-the-piece delicacies and salads by weight. Just tell them what you want by pointing. The offerings included feta in a kind of fried coating with red pepper salad, grated carrots and peas, and chicken in all forms. You can have a chicken brochette for 50 cents or a wiener for 35 cents. Crème caramel and coffee set you back 75 cents. To get there, go to the McDonalds on the main mall and turn right and walk half a block down. It’s at Kniaz Boris I street off Slivnitza and it’s called MECAP (backwards N) (Backwards R)

We stayed in Varna four days, relaxing, walking up and down the pedestrian walkway discovering more and more jewellery shops, restaurants and coffee shops, and a delightful artisan market with a Bulgarian dancing show. The people are charming and speak enough English to converse, an improvement over Ukraine.

One evening we chanced upon a worldwide ballet competition in the outdoor theatre about half a kilometer into Primorski Park, which winds along the sea for about 10 kilometers. The promenade itself is wonderful but to find a three hour ballet recital of the highest calibre was spectacular. Canada competed!

Another evening we joined our new friends from Israel, Sima and Shimon, who invited us to a strange concert that included fashion models and an organ player. Oh, yes, there was also an opera singer. The lady, who was in her eighties and lived in Israel, had been one of the children evacuated from Varna before the Holocaust. Bulgaria has one of the best records of saving Jews during that time, we found out.

After four days we took the train to Sofia, Bulgaria’s capital, to get a taste of the big city.

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On with last summer’s Greek island cruise: Kos and Syros

June 2009

Dining out in Kos

After Bodrum Turkey, our Easy Life Cruise sailed to the Greek island of Kos , not far away, but I believe t he ship just sat out on the sea over night to give us the idea that we were sailing far, much like the overnight train to Toronto does.

We walked into the old part of the town and then along the beach for two kilometres until we turned inland and found a mom-and-pop place for lunch. Hidden in a nondescript alley, it served up the best Greek food we ate that week. The couple – and their parrot – were friendly, serving us, their only customers, on the terrace.

This friendly couple and their parrot served us our best meal of the week

We loved our Kos coffee shop, not far from the port, and spent hours that day playing chess and making use of their free outdoor Wi-Fi to e-mail our children.

Forgive me for not mentioning the sights; my knee doesn’t do sightseeing. That is perhaps why I have been accused of writing about little else than food in my travel pieces. And to prove my point:

Syros: our beautiful, welcoming and all-around favourite Greek island Click image to view larger version.

That evening we dined on the seashore watching children and parents playing on the rocks. We met a lone Canadian tourist and exchanged stories about our travels. And then we slowly walked back to our coffee shop for more Wi-Fi and half attended an outdoor concert of musicians playing on the plaza.

Some time in the middle of the night our ship sailed to Syros, which again wasn’t far, and turned out to be our favourite island.

Mykonos, the stop after Syros, was our ‘unfavourite’ island. The two are polar opposites. Syros is real; Mykonos is unreal. Syros is authentic; Mykonos is plastic. Syros is friendly; Mykonos is unfriendly, especially when you ask them why it costs $5 for a cup of coffee. “This is Mykonos,” they answer. “What did you expect?” I’ll probably give in to Mykonos next issue with a picture gallery of the superficially beautiful but off-putting island where we were relegated to eating outside a grocery store a kind native led us to.

The women of the co-op cafeteria

Our first view of Syros was of the gentlemen chatting and reading the morning paper along the port in little cafés. They had left their wives at home, as older generation Greeks and Italians are wont to do.

We and our cruise mates seemed to be the only tourists. There is a reason for this: Syros is the administrative centre of the Cyclade islands, so the economy is doing just fine without us. In an effort to do a better job on Syros than I did on Kos, let me enlighten you on some history. Syros has been inhabited since the stone age. Homer called it Siriin. Legend has it that the first inhabitant, Keraunus (Lightning), went to the island riding on the back of a dolphin after his ship had sunk. On Syros, the oldest acropolis in the Cyclades has been found. Its architecture has been strongly influenced by the Venetians, who settled there at the beginning of the 13th century until the Turks took over in the 16th century.

We spent most of the day in the capital, Ermoupolis, or Queen of the Cyclades. We toured the Apollo Theatre, a mini copy of Milan’s La Scala, then meandered around the lanes behind the port and found a café with tables outside, playing Greek music. We bought the CD, but this music never sounds the same when you take away the warm sea breeze, the painted white and blue shops and houses, the cobblestone lanes and the sounds of Greek emanating from the surrounding venues.

Children playing on the rocks in Kos

We found a delightful women’s cooperative cafeteria for lunch, one of two on a lane that runs parallel to the sea. You pay per portion and it’s all home cooked, literally.

We took a bus ride to a nearby beach and bathed ourselves in the clean beauty of the bay.

For those with more time and better knees, there is an archaeological museum and a medieval village, Ano Syros. From there you can visit the Catholic Cathedral of St. George and the monasteries of the Jesuits and Capucins from the 18th and 17th centuries. Ano Syros holds music festivals every summer.

We returned to the ship after our beach excursion and ate on board – always a disappointment. If we ever find another Easy Life Cruise going to islands we haven’t yet visited we’ll know not to take the half board. Unfortunately, all the cruises seem to go to Mykonos.

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Napa Valley tour offers a feast for the eye and palate

May, 2009

The Kuleto Estate Winery, with owner Paul Kuleto’s home in the background. Click image to view larger version. Photos: Todd Pritchett

Our plan was to take a road trip up the California Coast, from LA where we live, along the Pacific Coast Highway. With a few destinations in mind, we took off with no reservations and no direction other than north.

Just a short 80 minutes north of San Francisco, Yountville is at the epicentre of Napa Valley – a food oasis in a valley of wines and vines rolling into the horizon. We focused our tastings in the Rutherford area and discovered that reservations were needed for most tours. We did four tours over two days. We also tried a few of the local restaurants and we found a bakery that was beyond compare.

Writer Amy Newborn and photographer Todd Pritchett. Click image to view larger version.

We started our wine tasting tour at Round Pound Estate. We drove up to the gate and called to make an appointment. A woman answered and managed to fit us in immediately. We entered through two over-sized glass doors into the main foyer area. We paid $25 each and were led upstairs to the tasting room, which had a large bar, soaring cathedral ceilings with light coming in from everywhere and an opening to the barrel room below. The terrace was breathtaking, with rows and rows of grape vines growing below. We chose a corner seat beside the fireplace.

The sommelier was extremely attentive and brought us our first tasting immediately, explaining that Round Pond is a family owned and operated estate winery that produces mostly Cabernet Sauvignon. He also brought out a trio of amuse bouche’s – with duck confit, thin dough and cheese, and a mini potato pancake, to pair with our three wine tastings. Our favourite wine was the 2005 Cabernet Sauvignon.

After an hour and a half of being treated like VIPs, we descended the stairs and asked the hostess for suggestions about where to go next. She was very helpful and made a few calls, managing to get us a reservation at Vine Cliff.

The Kuleto Estate Pond overlooks the infinity pool and Lake Hennessey. Click image to view larger version.

One the way to Vine Cliff, I made reservations for the next day. I called Schramsburg, a California sparkling wine producer, as well as Kuleto Estate, which the woman had recommended.

We arrived at Vine Cliff and walked into a large warehouse, which housed many barrels of wine. For $35, we tried three wines, a Cabernet Sauvignon, a Chardonnay, and a Merlot. The tasting lasted only 30 minutes and then we were off to find a snack.

We found a fancy food court called Oxbo Public Market – a fancier, smaller version of Atwater Market. We discovered a great charcuterie and perched ourselves at the wine bar. Our bartender was in her mid-20s and studying to be a sommelier. She let us eat our assorted meats and olives from the charcuterie at the bar and poured us a sparkling rosé wine for about $8.50 for a half-litre – more than enough after our two wine tastings!

We needed some fuel for our adventures the next morning so we stopped at Bouchon Bakery. They have fresh-baked pastries and paninis. My favourite treat was the nutterbutter peanut butter cookie – two cookies with peanut butter in between – like an ice cream sandwich, but better!

Cutting across from the coast to Napa Valley, we stopped to photograph some vines near Yorkville, along highway 128. Click image to view larger version.

We drove to the gate of the Kuleto Estate, and then up and up for almost 10 minutes to the top of the hill, through sprawling fields of vines. We paid $35 each and were led into a room with brown leather couches and a large wooden table near the bar, where we took our seats. The sommelier poured two glasses of Cabernet Sauvignon and led us through the marvelous 800-acre estate. He informed us that the estate was self sufficient, producing all kinds of fruits and vegetables, spices and even poultry. They also had their own charcuterie.

A brown Lab followed us through the rest of our tour after taking a sip from a fountain overlooking the river and vineyard below. We got back to the wine tasting room and were presented with three cheeses – a blue cheese that looked like it was still alive, aged cheddar and goat. All three were delicious and made to compliment the three wines we were about to taste. The wines were great but the tour of the grounds was even better and we left happily satisfied.

We got to Schramsburg with not a second to spare. The $35 tour had already started and there were about 10 other people composed of retired couples and some rich-looking forty-somethings. We were obviously the youngest ones there. The tour guide led us through the tunnels beneath the main buildings, which housed barrels and bottles of wines. It looked like there were several thousand. The ceilings were full of moss and cobwebs and the bottles shimmered in the dim light. The tour guide explained to us how the sparkling wine was made and led us to a room where we were poured four different ones to taste. They were all exquisite!

Our wine tasting experience far exceeded my expectations. If you want to live “the life” for a few days, the Napa Valley does not disappoint.

Todd Pritchett is a photographer in LA. To view more of his work: toddpritchett.com.

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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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Easy cruising with a first stop at the isle of Kalymnos

March 2009

We arrived in Piraeus, the port of Athens, very late after a comfortable train ride and made our way by taxi to our hotel, sharing the ride with a young geologist who lived nearby. The taxi driver tried to charge us for two trips and after a long argument, he left with a nice tip for one trip.

Our room was underwhelming, especially for 89 euro ($144 Canadian), measly breakfast included. The next morning we walked around the picturesque yacht bay and found a more reasonably priced hotel for our return after our cruise. This nicer and better situated hotel was 55 euro, and would serve as our base for visiting Athens when we returned.

The view whose beauty brought me to tears

Our hotel manager told us we could walk to the port. Unfortunately it took an hour and by the time we arrived, I was a wreck! Irwin was fine, though. We boarded EasyCruise, a British line, for a one-week tour of Bodrum, Turkey, and the Greek islands of Kalymnos, Mykonos, Syros and Kos. Our cabin had a window, an unexpected upgrade from our booking of an inside cabin. Later, we learned we had probably paid more than most of the people on board who had made their reservations through the Internet.

All things considered, this was our kind of cruise: low key, with a lot of attention given to time spent off the ship. The ship typically docked between 10am and 2pm and left the port in the wee hours. This left us plenty of time to explore and no worries of being left high and dry at the destination.

Our tiny cabin was by no means luxurious, with two side-by-side cots and a small bathroom, but it suited our needs just fine and we soon settled in like campers, happy not to have to make accommodation decisions for an entire week.

The first lunch offered was a buffet that seemed plentiful and reasonably varied until we realized that it was the introduction to almost everything we would eat on board for the entire week. This was not going to be easy for a vegetarian, and the portions, after the buffet, weren’t the largest. I soon tired of Calamari and skimpy salads. I was most disappointed with the lack of Greek foods I have always loved in Montreal, such as tzatziki and taramosalata. Clearly this food was British with a touch of Greece.

The pool was a large bathtub that we could observe from the interior dining room. One young man thoughtlessly dove in head first and came out bloodied on the last morning of the cruise. The pool had to be emptied, but somehow the man got away without neurological injuries. Many of the servers and the doctor were from Russia and Ukraine, giving the cruise a definite multi-cultural feel. What we liked most was the mixture of cruisers – families, boomers, honeymooners and seniors from Europe, Canada and Australia. On the first day we docked at Kalymnos, which is approximately 100 square kilometres. The view from the dock of the terraced pastel houses built on the mountainside was so beautiful it made me cry.

It was a quiet Sunday and we set out strolling along the port past the touristy restaurants (only to return to one later after searching in vain for a more authentic one). We walked up through the serene, winding lanes

One of countless photo-worthy doors

past countless photo ops, featuring intricate blue and white achitectural designs on the faded facades. Flower pots draped their wares over doors, window boxes and archways. Like good journalists, we took postcard-worthy pictures of almost every one of them.

We returned to the port for a mediocre lunch served by a British boomer who had “retired” to the island. She advised us to hop a bus to the other side of the island and get in some beach time, which we did. It took about half an hour to reach the smooth sands and crystal clean water of the little village we had chosen to visit. At 5 pm we began an hour wait for the bus back, not having checked the schedule before we left. The small bus finally arrived and became more and more crowded with locals and tourists as we neared the port.

We relaxed on board that night and at 10pm the ship began its 24-hour journey to Bodrum, Turkey, our only destination that was not an island. I was excited to be going back to Turkey, a country we explored for five weeks, five years ago – even if this time it was just for one day.

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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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LA in two days

With the recession in full force, travel is a luxury fewer and fewer of us can consider. This past holiday season I opted to stay home in Los Angeles, which has an average of 263 sunshine days a year. Many of my travelling friends passed through our little house, nestled in the Hollywood Hills, to explore the City of Angels. Five of them visited us, each for no more than two days.

How could I show my friends this massive and sprawling 1,291-km2 city in just two days? We would hit only the must-see attractions – in a very sporty car, a rental of course.

Many people don’t equate LA with beautiful hikes, but the locals take full advantage of them. The trendiest hike in LA might just be the one in Runyon Canyon Park, located in the eastern end of the Santa Monica Mountains, in the celebrity-rich Hollywood Hills. The easiest and shortest hiking trail opens in the centre of the hills on Mulholland Drive and takes you through breathtaking views of the city from the Pacific Ocean to downtown, about 30 kilometers away.

We zipped through the hills and down Lauren Canyon Blvd., which used to be (and still is, to some extent) the heart of counterculture activity in the 1960s. The street twists and turns down the hill, passing the former houses of legends like Joni Mitchell, Jimi Hendrix, Brian Wilson, Cass Elliot and Neil Young. It is rumoured that in the late ’60s Jim Morrison lived just behind the Canyon County Store. Not to be missed is the Houdini mansion, which is said to be haunted by Houdini himself.

The Griddle Café on Sunset and Fairfax is where the locals go to see and be seen. A line forms on Sunset Blvd. as early as 9 am on the weekends with people eager for the café’s trademark gigantic buttermilk pancakes. Gluttony is the trend in this diner-style Hollywood breakfast joint. Epic portions are served by gorgeous actors – oops, I mean waiters. The “Yellow Brick Road” pancakes, filled with butterscotch, caramel, and walnuts, are a crowd favourite, while I always enjoy the Chocolate Chip Cookie Crusted French Toast, filled with cookie dough and sprinkled unsparingly with cookie crumbs.

Strolling down Ocean Avenue in Santa Monica

The Hollywood sign is one of Los Angeles’ most famous landmarks. On a clear day it is visible all the way from the beach. We drove up Beachwood Canyon into the winding streets with several “No Access to the Hollywood Sign” signs that seem to be put up just to confuse and deter the tourists. From up close the Hollywood sign looks surprisingly small.

The Hollywood Walk of Fame at Hollywood Blvd. and Vine was next. The walk, with 2000 blank stars embedded in it, was formed in 1953 as part of a Hollywood “facelift.” Now those stars are filled with the names of celebrities, in honour of their contributions to the entertainment industry. Some of the most visited stars are those of the Beatles, Mickey Mouse and Britney Spears.

The Walk of Fame took us to Grauman’s Chinese Theatre. The theatre is nice, but the real reason tourists flock there is to find out how their hands and feet compare to those of their favourite celebrities. The forecourt holds about 200 sets of handprints, footprints and autographs, along with such prints as George Burns’s cigar and Whoopi Goldberg’s dreads. Some of my favourites are the prints belonging to Shirley Temple, Frank Sinatra, Marilyn Monroe and ’60s heartthrob Paul Newman.

We bought a Map of the Stars for $6 in a souvenir store along Hollywood Blvd. In my five years in LA I had never seen one before. The map not only indicated famous celebrity houses, but also

locations of famous celebrity scandals, landmarks and even burials. How exciting to find out that William Shatner is my neighbour!

Catching a wave

Next, we drove down Sunset into Beverly Hills. We felt like paparazzi as we took photos of Ringo Starr’s house, Madonna’s house, the Playboy mansion and, of course, the public restroom in Will Rogers Memorial Park where singer George Michael was arrested in 1998 for performing a “lewd act” in front of an undercover policeman – always a crowd favourite.

On Day 2 we headed west. Our first stop was Rodeo Drive, the epicentre of luxury fashion. It spans three blocks from Santa Monica to Wilshire. We began at Santa Monica, hitting Crumbs to indulge in the trendiest treat to hit LA since frozen yogourt – cupcakes. A stroll along the street and you’ll rub shoulders with Louis Vuitton, Roberto Cavalli and Yves Saint Laurent. Make your way south and you’ll end up at the Beverly Wilshire Hotel where Julia Roberts worked her magic on Richard Gere in the penthouse suite in Pretty Woman. The $5 hot chocolate at the hotel’s patio café is worth every dollar as you watch the hotel guests return with their Gucci and Prada shopping bags.

West of Beverly Hills, just past UCLA, on a hilltop off Sunset Blvd. with one of the most spectacular views of the city is the Getty Center – a free museum filled with paintings, sculptures and decorative arts. The building is a work of art in itself. It is an architectural landmark made from travertine imported from Italy. Vincent Van Gogh’s Irises is one of the museum’s most famous possessions.

We then drove west to the ocean. Venice Beach, aka Muscle Beach, is a tourist hot spot famed for its circus-like boardwalk filled with street performers, fortune-tellers and tattoo parlours. I, however, opted for a more relaxing walk down Ocean Ave. in Santa Monica.

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Unplanned stop in Thessaloniki kicks off Greek island hop

We arrived in Thessaloniki, Greece, at 7 am, and had expensive cafés au lait ($5) while waiting for the travel agencies along the port to open. We thought we’d hop a cruise to some Greek Islands the next day.

At 8:50, one travel agent opened her doors to us. Early bird Christina Jeirani of Overseas Travel greeted us with a sleepy smile and began to process our desires, travel wise. We had decided to loosen the purse strings and try our first cruise.

After years of avoiding cruises, we resolved that sleeping on a ship and cruising around the islands would be just what we needed after the walk into Macedonia from Albania, and all those buses, trains and ferries. We wanted to have a few days without worrying about where we were going to sleep and eat.

Christina found a seven-day island hop with Easy Cruise that included Bodrum, Turkey, as well as several Greek islands, for 500 euro (about $800) with half board. Later we discovered we had probably over paid a bit because this was no luxury cruise. But that’s a story for the next issue.

We actually breathed a sigh of relief at the price, thinking it would be much higher. Not so easy! Cruises don’t leave from Thessaloniki! We would have to get to Athens and depart from Piraeus (the port).

Christina booked us a hotel in Thessaloniki, the Mandrino, for 65 euro. After checking in, we took a bus three or four stops to the railway station, where we were informed that the only seats available to Athens were on the express leaving the next day at 7 pm – for 48 euro each! Okay, we said, rather hefty, but what choice did we have? We then went back to the tourist office and asked Christina to get us a hotel in Piraeus, which she did – for another 89 euro. But better safe than sorry in Athens at 11:30 pm, right? This is the downside of last-minute plans, but we wouldn’t trade such freedom for the world – of bookings.

We then asked Christina for an interesting restaurant, since we hadn’t eaten for 24 hours. She, after a giggling session with her friends, sent us to Ouzo Medathron. Everyone knows it, she said, because the food is exquisite. And it was! It’s in a fun courtyard full of hungry, happy Greeks, downing every imaginable variety of mussels; sardines, not the canned variety; anchovies, the real thing; all sorts of meats and truly marvelous Greek salad. It was all topped off with ice cream and strawberry or chocolate syrup on a bed of baklava strings sprinkled with honey and espresso, for – nothing! “Well,” Irwin says, “The dessert and coffee are complimentary!” What a joyful experience – especially when we got spritzed with the mist that was ingeniously connected to a fan, for a little relief from the stifling heat.

The next morning we waited for the Jewish museum to open and when it did we spent an hour and a half marvelling at the growth of the wonderful community of up to 70,000 Jews who first settled in Thessaloniki as Roman slaves, augmented later by Sephardic Jews fleeing the Spanish Inquisition and other points across Europe. It was a thriving, vibrant community with over 20 newspapers in Spanish and Ladino, full of scholarship, schools, over 30 synagogues, hospitals, seniors’ homes, libraries, orphanages – until the Nazis brutally and systematically devastated the community, transporting all but a few Jews to Auschwitz after destroying the cemetery and humiliating and tormenting the men. We saw the deportation order telling the people there would be food waiting for themand to pack all their jewellery and valuables. The museum has a small library and bookstore with several publications about the community.

Thessaloniki, as we discovered during our unplanned 24-hour stay, has a charm all its own. It was our introduction to a bustling Greek city, which was full of friendly shoppers. We discovered cheaper and nicer hotels on the same street as the Mandrino, and we’ll stay in one of them next time. No reservations seem to be necessary in this city – just the way we like it.

That evening, after packing burekas and tomatoes purchased from a nearby grocery, we got on the train for Athens. The next afternoon we would board our “Easy Cruise” and begin an adventure like none we had ever known, starting with the Greek island of Kalymnos.

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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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Meeting Zeus and a Cretan goddess

My brother Jon and I are very different. He’s quietly curious and knowledgeable. I’m overly-excitable and annoying. But we have one thing in common: the quest for adventure.

He needed little coaxing when I asked him to come to Crete with me. With thumbs-up and a subtle smile, he signaled he was game for the ride – lucky for me, given the dangerous roads we had to drive.

Barely having time to bid my dogs good-bye, Greece swept us up as swiftly as Apollo’s chariot traversing the heavens. Sky-high and safe, we snoozed in Air Transat’s wide seats offering great leg room. Jon and I are no spring chickens, so we both appreciated the comfy nighttime flight that rejuvenated my usual jet lag.

I stayed on in Athens while intrepid Jon headed for Chania, Crete where I would join him three days later. We would drive along Crete’s southwestern shore, swim in its lovely Libyan sea and hike like Hercules.

Checking into a darling hotel named Plaka, I was surprised by it’s cozy affordable charm and quiet beauty. Its location put me in the middle of Midas gold: shopping, dining and ancient sites. I had the best of both worlds: a lively Plaka neighboruhood outside; tranquil Plaka Hotel inside. My room offered a breathtaking view of the Acropolis, but it got even better atop Plaka’s roof garden. An awesome 360-degree view of Athens revealed itself. Two hotel feasts: the view and breakfast!

It was time to meet Jon. We were both set on doing some spectacular hiking in Crete’s incredible gorges. Our favourite hike was Imbros Gorge, Four hours to the finish line with a beach to reward you. No matter the gorge, a treasure of floral magnificence unfolded. Orchids poked out of crevices dug deep into the earth. Oleanders, lilies and poppies appeared among intimidating boulders. Our feet were treading over billions of years of time!

No trip to Crete would be complete without serious caving, so Jon and I set out to find the Ida cave – birthplace of Zeus. After driving hours to reach the foot of Mount Psilaritis’s 2,456 metres, we stumbled upon the legendary cave.

What a disappointment! We were staring into a black cavern with no opening to explore. I went red with rage. Never one to interfere, Jon let me have a go at the god. Carefully stepping down the stairs leading into Zeus’s rock hovel, I cursed the God in broken Greek. We had traveled over 1000 kilometers (I allowed myself poetic exaggeration) and all he could give us was a dank cave, an old Cretan goat and some crows flying overhead. Albeit, their cawing supplied some eeriness, but we deserved better! Even the off-tune lute music we had heard the night before in a hotel high up in Monasteraki village and the priest we had met in Meronas who requested I stay thirteen days to convert me into a good Greek Orthodox girl was more interesting than this. Crete has over 2000 caves. Why did this one have to be a dud?

The next day I realized Zeus had been present, for he gave us an unforgettable gift. It happened while we were trying to traverse the waters along Kourtaliotiko Gorge. Suddenly, a beautiful nymph-like lady appeared. “I’m Sylvie: follow me,” she said, waving. This goddess guide led us out of the gorge. We were ascending into unknown territory. “Welcome to my home,” she smiled. It was a cave covered in flowers with running water, even fire. Stretched out over one of her cave cushions, Sylvie cooked us our first cave meal: keftedes (meatballs), tzatziki with herbs picked outside her cave and yogurt with honey from the gods. Lulled by Sylvie’s magical manner, we nicknamed her Calypso – Odysseus’s kidnapper.

Our hiking was put on hold. My “Ode to a Cretan Urge” was being fulfilled right here. As stars twinkled and Sylvie smiled, the black hush of midnight descended. We were a trio in a land resonating with minotaur myths, impenetrable mysteries and surprises that confound the imagination.

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Behind the walls, Skopje’s Old Town enchants

Our favourite Old City restaurant

Skopje is perhaps the most surprising city we’ve ever visited, possibly because we had no guidebook or recommendations from friends to depend on.

The kindness of the Macedonian people continued as our bus from Ohrid, which we had boarded with the help of the Dimoska family, stopped at a cafeteria. It was a welcome respite on this hot and stuffy four-hour trip. I was already regretting leaving the family in Orhid or at least in the town.

While everyone was buying burekas I was in line for the toilet. Alas, I had no denars to pay the attendant. One of my fellow passengers came to my rescue and also changed a euro or two to denars so we could partake in the marvelous, huge cheese burekas that we wolfed down as the bus departed.

In Skopje, we were dropped off at the train/bus station and found a cab to the hotel the family had recommended. Upon discovering that it was beyond our budget, we asked the owner for advice and were the recipients of yet more Macedonian hospitality.

He drove us to an inexpensive hotel! It was 35 euro and 5 euro extra for the necessary air conditioning above a bar on a small street across from the Greek consulate. The room was tiny and non-descript but it was a walk from the town circle and as we later found out, on the same street as the Jewish community centre. It was a windy-twisty but interesting 20 minutes to the massive circular ton square. We had to write down markers such as Sex Shop along the way. But don’t get me wrong. It was a pleasant area, past bakeries, pet shops, restaurants, and shoe shops. We had pasta and salads in a posh, antiquey European style restaurant after checking out the bookstore for a guidebook — to no avail.

Strange architecture adorns Skopje

The next morning, we headed out towards the medieval fortress across the bridge and once inside the small gate, we discovered an Old City. Its narrow stone streets beckoned to my yearnings for small old-fashioned boutiques, handicraft shops and cafés, and to Irwin’s yearnings to find an internet café where he could sip espresso and play internet chess.

Lo and behold Irwin was reading a small sign posted beside a door. We had stumbled upon the Honorary Consulate for the State of Israel. We rang the buzzer and immediately were let in. Usually security isn’t this lax, but our friend upstairs told us he had been expecting a friend. We climbed the stairs and there was the assistant to the Honorary Consul, his son, a dapper young gentleman who welcomed us warmly, serving us coffee and providing us with two students who would to take us over to the Jewish Foundation building. During coffee, we talked about the history of Macedonian Jewry. He told us 7,148 or 98% were deported to Treblinka. Only 200 Jews now live in Skopje, some having immigrated to Israel.

Inside the foundation building we met Victoria who is responsible for running the day-to-day operations of the foundation responsible for building the “Holocaust Memorial Center of the Jews of Macedonia.” Macedonia is returning land and funds to the remaining Jews as reparations for land and property that was stolen, and the center will be ready, says Victoria, this summer. I had a fleeting thought that it would be nice to return for the opening.

Victoria spent three years in Israel ten years ago, but her family returned fearing the conflict there. We stepped out onto the street and she showed us a restaurant or two where we could sample authentic Macedonian cuisine. Then, she took us to her friend’s jewellery shop where Irwin purchased gold earrings for my birthday at a great price.

A lazy afternoon in the Old City

After our lunch of kebab for Irwin, an exquisite yogurt soup for me, and Greek salad and roasted peppers for both of us we wandered our own ways. I discovered an antique beaded jewellery shop where I spent two hours negotiating prices and sipping Turkish coffee. He hightailed it to the more modern bar/café where he played chess on his laptop.

That evening we met Victoria for dinner in a cave like, ornate restaurant, (the name of which I wrote on a slip of paper and lost) and ordered wonderful salads of eggplant, red peppers, hot dishes of meat for Victoria and Irwin and a giant tomato cut like a pie. It must have been 5 inches in diameter and it was then that Victoria disclosed the fact that her country produces the best tomatoes in the world. She’s right as far as I know!

The next morning we walked over to the Jewish community center and met the president and secretary, two youngish women who spoke impeccable English and showed us the synagogue. This is a small but thriving community complete with a choir and a publication centre of sorts. We purchased an English cookbook of Jewish Macedonian recipes written by one of the oldest members of the community and were given a video of the choir, which we cherish and play for friends.

We spent the afternoon arranging our exit from Skopja, which was by mini-bus to Thessaloniki. We figured we would arrive in this port city and hop a last minute cruise to the Greek Islands — to make up for the one we had missed in Trieste.

It was a bit more complicated than that. But that story will have to wait till February.

We spent our last night in Skopje trying to get some sleep so we could get up at 3:15 am to be picked up at 4 am in our minibus to Thessaloniki. Our fellow passengers were a university student who’d just finished her exams and a history buff/guide who supports his son in Santa Monica, California. To supplant his income he imports used cars from Germany. He talked a lot about the about the conflict between Macedonia and Greece. According to him the Greeks are not only jealous of the name Macedonia, used by “non-Greeks” but wary of future territorial demands on the fertile northern part of Greece, from which thousands of Macedonians were expelled, their property confiscated. Ostensibly they were part of the Communist rebellion, which was put down with the help of the British after the Second World War.

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A long walk — and a lift — from Pogradeci to Macedonia

The Dimoska family

Our congenial host at the Parlimenti Hotel in Tirana drove us in his slightly worn Mercedes-Benz (almost everybody drives one in Albania) to a lot where mini-buses were filling up with passengers bound for Pogradeci, a resort region on the shores of Lake Orhid, a lake shared with Macedonia. We started out on a good road. Suddenly the driver made a u-turn, drove back to where we started and took a road that re-aligned my internal organs. It seemed to go on forever.

Once we were back on pavement, the drive was uneventful and hot. We followed a winding road around a mountain. For the queasy, it was harrowing. We stopped halfway (after 2 hours) at a roadside resto where the owner tried to stiff us 10 euro for two pieces of cheese, bread and a simple salad. We eventually settled on 500 lek ($6), which according to us included a hefty tip.

Once in the Pogradeci region, we almost stopped at the Lunhidas Hotel, described in the guide book we’d purchased in Tirana as a “tourist centre” with swimming pool. We noticed that here, 10 kilometers out of town, the lake looked crystal clear. But it was too far from the centre and we always stay where the action is. Our driver dropped us off at the first place on the hotel strip in town. We liked the looks of the hotel and the price, $34 Cdn for a modern room with balcony overlooking the lake. The bed however could have used fewer metal rods.

We strolled along the boardwalk and decided to rent a paddleboat ($2.50 Cdn an hour). The odor of excrement was too strong to go swimming near the shore so we paddled out toward the middle of the lake, where the water looked clearer, and Irwin jumped in. One of four sturdy soldiers-on-furlough in a neighbouring sailboat, hearing us conversing in English, begged to interrupt. The conversation continued until after two of the lads had boosted Irwin onto our boat, nearly tipping me over. Irwin’s physical condition, being what it is — chess, jazz, wine, pizza, lengthy books — made it impossible for him to do it on his own.

Strolling along the boardwalk in Pogradeci

We spent the afternoon treating the five soldiers to ice cream, beer and coffee. The English speaker, translating for his friends as he spoke, complained bitterly of Albanian corruption. His parents, farmers, had no money to send him to university so he was conscripted and hates every minute of it. He told us that rich parents pay to get their children through university.

We spent Sunday wandering along the bustling 3 kilometer boardwalk. I was saddened by the Gypsy mother with toddlers begging on the boardwalk. Making a quick detour I returned with pastries, which the kids grabbed as if they hadn’t eaten in days.

We spent the afternoon on the terrace of our hotel viewing the pier in the sunset drinking Martini and Rossi and playing chess. Monday morning, while sipping cappuccino, we asked — two women–professors from a nearby university and quizzed them about the soldier’s reports. They claimed that nobody takes seriously the universities where a diploma can be bought. We also quizzed them about how to get to Macedonia. It sounded simple: “Get a cab to the border, five kilometers away. Then get out and walk across. There will be cabs waiting on the other side to take you to Orhid, Macedonia’s lake resort.”

We got out of the cab, said goodbye to Albania, and walked 100 meters to the friendly Macedonian border police. They instructed us, in sign language, to walk ahead, either 30 or 300 meters (I’m not sure which) indicating there would be taxis.

20 minutes past the border. Where are those cabs?

We walked and walked and walked. No sidewalks. No cars. No buses. Just a two lane highway. I told Irwin I wanted to go back. “I don’t go back,” and “It’s uphill,” were his quirky replies. I was worried. We were in the middle of nowhere in the mid-day heat with our knapsacks on wheels. No food. Little water. After 30 minutes, a modern red jeep came rolling down the highway. Instinctively, we put out our thumbs.

Our savior stopped and we asked “Ohrid?” He invited us in, threw our bags in the back and started to drive — and drive and drive. He spoke no English, French, Spanish, German, or Hebrew, but we managed to convey we were Canadians. He called his wife on his cell and she told me in perfect English that he would gladly drive us to the bus station to catch a bus to Skopja, the capital. We drove through a touristy, more sophisticated version of Pogradec, called Ohrid and stopped at a large bus station, where he insisted on purchasing the tickets in Denar. We returned the amount in Euro to him later. Then he motioned for us to get back in the car. We had no idea why but by this time he felt like a long lost cousin so we climbed in knowing our bus would leave from the station in half an hour. He drove faster now, obviously heading for somewhere. After 10 minutes he stopped abruptly and turned into a house with a small porch. Mr. Dimoska was taking us home — and we would meet the bus across the road from his house on its way to Skopja.

The Dimoska family is in the construction business and lives in a three storey house their father built. Fiona and the children, Victoria and Michael greeted us in English. Victoria and her cousin were playing with the new kitten. We posed for pictures, and sampled Fiona’s homemade blueberry juice and Turkish coffee. Then we hugged the entire family including the grandma, all of whom had graciously welcomed us to Macedonia. We gave the kids some Canadian souvenirs, and crossed the highway to the bus stop with Fiona, who said she was sorry we were leaving so soon. But we’d had our fill of “resorts” and wanted some big city life. So on to Skopja we journeyed.

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Visiting the Canadian War Museum

(photos: Robert Galbraith)

There is an old adage that says, “Those who do not learn from the past will be forced to relive it.” It is for this reason that institutions like the Canadian War Museum in Ottawa exist, and must continue to exist.

The museum neither glorifies nor endorses war – it’s a time capsule exhibiting the memoirs and artifacts of our warring past, and to a lesser degree, the present.

Anyone who visits its labyrinth of exhibits is left to contemplate the sacrifices of life and limb that have allowed us the life of freedom and choice that most take for granted. This is the message the museum leaves visitors to ponder.

“We are focused on Canadian history, and the preservation of material of what has come before,” says James Whitham, the acting manager of collections for the museum. “This is the overall reason why any museum collects.” But the institution serves other purposes just as important, he notes. “A great part of the museum’s agenda includes education and research.”

Whitham says that many of the artifacts and documents now housed in the museum were donated by Canadian war veterans and their families. “We have received everything you can possibly imagine, including Victoria Crosses, artwork, and even vehicles, including a tank. We even received bombs that were converted into flower planters.”

Anyone who possesses any artifact, relic, or document of war history is encouraged to call the museum if they are interested in donating or inquiring about it. Whitham recommends writing the museum describing the object and its background, or visiting the museum website. A visit is highly recommended for those who wish to know the price our soldiers paid for the Canada we know today.

The Canadian War Museum is at 1 Vimy Place in Ottawa, five minutes west of Parliament Hill. $10 adults 18+, $8 seniors 65+ and students. Free admission to Canadian veterans and up to 3 accompanying family members.

Info: 800-555-5621 or warmuseum.ca

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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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Picking the right trip for a single senior

Ever since I lost my husband I've traveled alone and thoroughly enjoyed my trips. Sadly, my recent riverboat cruise on the Danube did not match my expectations.

At the Captain's 'Welcome Cocktail Party' I knew I had chosen the wrong cruise. I was the only elderly female and nobody came to the rescue as I stood in a corner with a glass in my hand. This would never have happened to a man! I felt like an immigrant: sink or swim! The Danube isn't exactly swimmer-friendly! Nor is it blue. This most serenaded and venerated river, considered by some as a metaphor for life, is smelly, has a sickly greenish colour, and drags pounds of algae. Pollution has caught up with it.

The dining room tables were elegantly set for 2, 4, 6 or 8 but the maitre d' was nowhere to be seen. I fled to my cabin and opened the windows wide. ­ The splashing sounds of the river lolled me to sleep.

The riverboat was brand new but its architect had not discovered a sensible location for the only fuse box on my deck. It was housed in my closet. I was disturbed several times by a hunk of an electrician trying to fix somebody else's blown fuse just as I'd emerged from the bathtub wrapped in my towel. He told me arrogantly that he had not designed the ship. It occurred to me later that he could have been Jack the Ripper and nobody would have missed me!

The 20-day trip started in my favorite place, Prague. It was so crowded that I could barely maneuver my way across the famous Charles Bridge. Massive crowds blocked the view to the Moldova River and the hurdy-gurdy blaring 'New York, New York' was irritating. I spent hours in Prague's famous Jewish quarter. The ancient Jewish cemetery with about 12,000 tombstones, clustered into a small space, is so unique, moving and peaceful. In Salzburg 'The Sound of Music' had taken over from Mozart!

The second half of the cruise took us through the Balkans and the Iron Gate to the Black Sea, which was blue! This is rough territory of awe-inspiring beauty. Its complicated history is soaked in blood and full of rage, superstition, corruption and war. Some actually believe that Dracula, cruelest ruler of the 15th century, is still haunting the area. At his tomb on the Romanian island Monastery at Snagov I wondered whether it was empty. Did Dracula ever exist or is he just a frightening figment of the imagination, good for Hollywood?

By that time two couples had invited me to dine with them. We didn't share a lot in common but had some good laughs and this, together with a visit to a trendy beauty parlour in Vienna, helped my state of mind.

I blame myself for not doing enough research before signing on. My recommendation to anyone who travels alone is to find out beforehand what to expect, especially if you're a senior and single.

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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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Expensive, enchanting Trieste: first stop on our spontaneous summer adventure

Trieste canal

Our first stop on this summer's adventure was Trieste, Italy at the Northeast top of the Adriatic Sea. Trieste has all the best qualities of Italian cities — accessible on foot, terrific tomatoes, marvelous mozzarella, and fabulous fish that tastes like it just came out of the sea. Then there's the gelate — multi-flavored Italian ice-cream in its various forms — yogurt, sorbet and rich cream — at every corner, which became a serious threat to my diet.

Our hotel, the 2-star Alabarda, was friendly but offered only 30 minutes of free wifi in the room. This seemed rather stingy when we later compared them to other hotels in Albania, Macedonia, and Greece, places we would visit later in the month.

This is the first time we took a laptop to Europe. It fit nicely into our knapsack on wheels and we rarely took it out of the hotel rooms. It was nice to not have to find the local Internet cafe, usually crowded with smelly teens. We had bought a $10 adaptor at Trudeau airport, which simply attaches to the plug and then goes into the wall. A helpful rep at Bureau en Gros told me that more expensive converters are unnecessary for laptops, which already have the ability to run on 110 or 220 volts.

Sunset in Trieste

We arrived on a Saturday and spent most of the day catching up on sleep and walking the streets that run around the Grand Canal. The first afternoon, I walked across the street to the Supermercado and purchased some succulent peaches, nectarines, tomatoes, and cheese, as well as a perfect size orange melon resembling a cantaloup. The next morning we enjoyed a wonderful cafe latte at one of the spots along the canal. Fancy coffees are the only thing cheaper than Montreal, apart from the wine and gelate.

The music in the bars and restaurants is awful — loud and aggressive. We asked one waitress to change it and she happily obliged.

We had three restaurant meals in Trieste (eating the second meal from the supermarket deli counters) and the average bill was 30 euro ($50) including wine and sparkling water. The service was always friendly and accommodating.

Muggia fishing tackle

The hotel gives out a special menu for a restaurant that is two streets away: Risorante Pizzeria O-Scugnizzo. For 20 euro you can have Primi (First Course) pasta, Secondi (Second Course) fish or meat in tiny portions; Contorni (salad or grilled veggies), and Bevanda (Beverage) — either mineral water, ¼ liter wine or beer. We weren't that hungry or willing to splurge yet again so we asked if we could share. We could and did! Irwin had the spaghetti with fresh mussels and clams (both in the shell) and I had the secondi of grilled squid. Restaurant food in Trieste and in Rome, as we were later to discover, is well prepared and fresh but beyond our budget.

On the second day, we visited the port and decided not to take the cruise going to the Greek Islands for one week. We weren't ready to be packed in like the grilled sardines I had for lunch, listening to loudspeakers and unable to stay in a place longer than a few hours. At least that's the impression we had of cruises before we took one two weeks later in Greece.

Instead we boarded a chug-a-lug to Muggia, a half an hour away (6 euro return) and toured a lovely little port town, sampled more gelate and more delicious coffees. You get the picture!

What a beautiful little town. We would have inquired about the apartments for sale at 140,000 Euro if it hadn't been a lazy Sunday.

On the third day in the evening, we boarded a ferry headed for Durres, Albania for a return visit to this budget land of friendly people and hair raising rides along mountain cliffs. Next issue Albania — still the best kept secret in Europe.

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South of the Border September 2008

Vermont

Burlington Book Festival

Friday, September 12 to Sunday, September 14, Burlington's annual celebration of the written word features readings, signings, panels, workshops and presentations by nationally renowned authors at downtown venues. Info: 802-865-7211

Field days and festivals

Starting Thursday, September 11, old fashioned agricultural fair. Cambridge. Info: 800-889-5555

Taste of Deerfield Valley

Saturday, September 13 at 10 am, this event is under the tent at the Clock Tower at Mt Snow Resort. 15 restaurants participate. Info: 802-365-7650

Wine and food

Starting Saturday, September 13, the Flynn Center for the Performing Arts has a gourmet dinner prepared by top Vermont chefs including tasting premium. Shelburne Farms Coast Barn features VermontÕs food products, wines from local and international wineries, live music, an auction and wine lottery. Info: 802-652-4500

Classic car show

Thursday, September 18 to Sunday, September 21, the annual British Invasion Classic Car Show takes place in Stowe, Vermont. This three day festival features more than 800 classic cars. Info: 802-253-5320

Fairbanks festival weekend

Saturday, September 20, celebrate rural creativity with artisans and craftspeople who demonstrate knowledge and skills that shaped the landscape of the rural northeast St Johnsbury. Info: 802-748-2372

Stowe Octoberfest celebration

Friday, September 26, this two day Bavarian Blast celebrates Vermont's splendid Autumn season, with Oompah bands, German cuisine and a silent auction. Route 100, off I-89 exit 10, 10 miles north of Waterbury. Info: 802-253-8506

Harvest market

Starting Saturday, September 27, Vermont's fall family harvest fair features the Underhill and Jericho communities. Parade, live entertainment, flea market, Vermont artisans. Info: 802-899-1722

Demonstrations, displays, decorating

Starting Saturday, September 27, celebrate the annual Vermont fine furniture and woodworking festival in Woodstock. With live music and food. Info: 802-747-7900 or vermontwoodfestival.org

Fall foliage festival

Saturday, September 27, the East Burke Vermont Autumn Foliage Festival features crafts, food, games and demonstrations. Info: 802-467-1266

Plattsburgh

Farmer's market days

Thursday, September 11 from 1 pm - 4 pm, a farmer's market takes place to promote local food produced in the Adirondack Region. Info: wildcenter.org

Mountains antique show

Saturday, September 20, antique lovers and collectors will enjoy featured items of rustic furniture, hunting & fishing boats, and Native American materials at the Byron Park. Info: indian-lake.com

Adirondack antiques weekend

Saturday, September 20 and Sunday, September 21 from 10 am – 5 pm, a preview of premier antique and vintage furnishings managed by Rod Lich, Inc at the Adirondack Museum. Info: adkmuseum.org

Adirondack harvest festival

Saturday, October 4 and Sunday, October 5, the 4th Annual Harvest Festival. Info: adkmuseum.org

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400th birthday fest fills August with music

The International Festival of Military Bands comes to Quebec City from August 14 to 24 (photo: David Cannon)

Quebec City’s 400th birthday brings partygoers a full slate of free performances this month. Over $151 million has gone into public infrastructure, notably a new park along the riverside and a new performance site called Espace 400, to be the epicentre of many anniversary activities. For 2008 the city expects a 5% increase over the five million tourists who visit in a typical year.

Events and exhibitions are clustered around the city’s Old Port, now a Unesco World Heritage Site, and the Plains of Abraham, just outside its gates. Céline Dion’s free show there Friday, August 22 is expected to draw a crowd matching or exceeding the estimated 200,000 that flooded the Plains for Paul McCartney July 20.

Odds favour a record turnout for the Charlemagne-born diva, whose homeland credentials remain impeccable — she once refused a Félix Award for best anglophone artist — and whose setlist is expected to trend heavily francophone for the occasion. Fresh off her 5-year Vegas spectacle, Dion and her Taking Chances tour will detour to the capital midway through a 6-night stint here at the Bell Centre. For the birthday show she’ll be joined by Claude Dubois, Zachary Richard, Éric Lapointe, Garou, Nanette Workman, Marc Dupré, Dan Bigras, Mes Aïeux, La Famille Dion and Jean-Pierre Ferland. Those with limited mobility will want to arrive very early in the day and stake out a place behind the Musée national des beaux-arts, and not in front of the  main stage site, where chairs won’t be allowed and where hundreds sprinted for choice spots when the gates opened to the McCartney show.

Stages in and around Quebec City’s Old Port will feature a dizzying lineup of acts from folk to hip hop, klezmer, rock, cabaret and marching bands. Bassin Louise’s Grand Place will host Quebec folk singer Belzébuth, hip-hop artist Wapikoni Mobile, and klezmer group Socalled Sunday, August 17, and the city’s own Dynamite Cabaret August 18 and 25. Other performers will include France’s Mell, Belgium’s Mix-Music, and Ontario rockers Great Lake Swimmers. For brass fans, The International Festival Of Military Bands runs August 14 to 24 at Place George V, with 1200 musicians from 13 countries. (More event details below.)

Family events will take place at Bassin Louise’s Ephemeral Gardens Stage and Petit Place in the Old Port.  For harmony fans, highlights will include Groupe vocal Privilège Sunday, August 17, Harmonie du Collège Letendre Thursday, August 21, Chœur basque Argileak Friday, August 22, and La Clé des Saisons Sunday, August 24. The venue presents Argentinian tango from Association Tango-Quebec Saturday, August 23, Latin and Caribbean rhythms from Salsa Attitude Sunday, August 24, and oriental dance from Baladi Quebec Saturday, August 30. Cultural fare of note includes West African percussionists Oké Djembé Thursday, August 28, and bagpiping troupe Cornemuse Quebec Friday, August 29.

Autumn will hold further spectacles wrapping up with a closing extravaganza Sunday, October 19 at the Colisée, featuring a Cirque du Soleil performance created for the event. Free tickets will be distributed by lottery, and the show will be projected on a giant outdoor screen.

Travel and accommodation packages by air, bus, and train are widely available and a worthy option during the summer’s peak demand time. Tourist info and referrals are available at quebecregion.com. Festival organizers recommend getting around the city by public transit, which is more than just a good idea — when the streets are swarming during the big events, it may be the only chance you get to sit down.

Tourist info: 866-585-2008 or monquebec2008.ca

Complete listings:

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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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Vermont events August 2008

Friday, August 15 to Monday, August 18, the Stowe Summer Music Festival presents free classical indoor concerts in the Symphony Auditorium at Stowe High School. Info: 802-253-9554 or stowemusicfestival.org

Sunday, August 17 to Monday, August 18, the 11th annual Vermont State Zucchini Festival presents a fun-filled family event to carve, catapult, dress, eat, fly and race zucchinis at Veteran’s Memorial Park on Route 103 in Ludlow. Info: 802-228-5830

Saturday, August 16 from 4 pm – 5 pm, the Opera Theatre of Weston presents “Scenes from Hansel & Gretel” at the Old Stone Church in Chester. $15. Info: 802-824-3821 or operatheatreofweston.com

Saturday, August 16 at 7 pm, Michael Kennedy entertains park visitors with traditional music and storytelling. Irish, English, Scottish, and American music will be performed on the English concertina, guitar and musical “singing” saw. Groton Nature Center, Groton. Info: vtstateparks.com

Monday, August 18, see more than 30 exhibits of artists and craftsmen with continuous painting demonstrations at the Andover Town Hall fields. Info: 802-875-4348

Monday, August 25 to Wednesday, September 3, Vermont’s largest agricultural and entertainment fair offers 10 days of family fun in Essex Junction. Info: 802-878-5545 or cvfair.com

Sunday, August 24 to Monday, August 25, buy or sell used musical gear at the Bethany Church in Montpelier. Proceeds to provide music scholarships. Info: 802-229-0295 or sharethemusicvt.org

Tuesday, August 19, see tractors dating from the 1930s to the 1950s and learn more from the folks who restored them, with traditional farm activities, games, ice cream making, and more. Until Tuesday, September 23, see the 21st annual juried exhibition of colourful and exquisitely designed quilts made in Windsor County. Billings Farm & Museum, Woodstock. Info: 802-457-2355 or billingsfarm.org

Tuesday, August 26 to Saturday, September 6, an exclusive art ensemble of original works will be on display and on sale in beautiful historical Grafton at the Hunter Gallery of Fine Art & The Old Tavern. Info: 802-843-1440 or old-tavern.com

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Syros and Athens

From Mykonos, which we found touristy, arrogant, and over-priced, we sailed to what we both now call our favourite island of the cruise -- Syros. It's a small, old-fashioned kind of place. As we walked straight off the ship and onto the port, we noticed many older Greeks sitting all along the homey cafes having coffee or sharing food they had ordered. We immediately felt at home. We bumped into a book shop with an English stand and bought another of Ian McEwen, who we both like, as we have almost run out of novels on this trip. We found a cafe playing soft Greek music and eventually bought a CD of the female singer, whose name I will have to tell you next blog.

We visited the Apollan Theatre, a small replica La Scala in Milan, a cosy site that represents the town, which is on a hill. The streets are so scenic as is the harbour, that I had to click away every few minutes. For lunch we found a women's collective self-serve, run by 28 women from the district. The food definitely tasted like it came straight from their kitchens. I had eggplant stuffed with feta. They do a lot of feta stuffing here.

We took a local bus to the nearest beach, which was clean and reasonably quiet and had a wonderful and relaxing time cooling off. We had Greek coffees, rather like Turkish coffee, played game or two of chess overlooking the beach area and made our way back in a crowded bus to the town, where we reluctantly boarded the ship for our last night on board.

We are now in Athens in an area called Plaka, which has pedestrian streets filled with market-like shops and pricey cafes. We found, with the help of the young woman who manages this internet spot, a reasonably priced Greek restaurant filled with locals. How to describe it? A cross between Shwartz's Deli on St. Laurent, though 10 times the size, and a typical Montreal Greek eatery. There was little for vegetarians. Irwin had an excellent order of Kebab and shared my spicy cheese, hot green grilled chili peppers,and tomato and cucumber salad. The name of the place is Thanassis. It seems to go on for blocks and is very popular. Right next to it is an equally popular but slightly higher priced Bairaktaris, also recommended by our internet manager. We had lunch there today and they had more to offer a vegetarian. We shared a Greek salad, zucchini croquettes, and sweet red peppers, grilled and stuffed with feta. I have to try those when I get home, but will they taste as good?

It's hot, very hot and hard to get away from it. July is definitely not the time to visit Greece. And now, I've left the most important for the end. As soon as our ship docked in Piraeus, we dropped off our bags at our hotel, which we had reserved the day before our cruise departed, the Phidias (50 euro a night for a lovely and spacious double) and made our way, with the same friendly taxi driver to the Acropolis. We wanted to get there before 9 because we had heard it would be teeming with tourists. And it was! Alas, they don't take VISA and we had to walk all around until we found a taxi driver who would change our dollars. US dollars are quite unpopular here. Finally we managed to buy tickets and were soon climbing (and I mean climbing) the steps leading to the Parthenon. It was my third visit. I was 18 the first time, 22, the second time and now, well it's certainly changed. The first time, in 1968, I remember touching those famed columns. Now, you can hardly get close enough to take pictures without heads in your way. It was Irwin's first time and for him it was "dramatic."

We are spending our day in Plaka since it's Sunday and little else is open. It's a lovely place to relax if you don't mind spending over $5-6 for a latte and the same for ice cream. It seems that since the euro has become part of the Greek scene, we Canadians are at a bit of a disadvantage, financially. But all in all, Greece is a place we are growing to love, and we will be back!

We've already decided to book a cruise next summer with Easy Cruise Life and see four or five more islands. What a comfortable, low-key and interesting way to travel!

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Panos and Mykonos

Yesterday we docked in Panos at 2 pm and were told we had to take a "tender" boat to shore as it was windy. Windy my foot! We noticed the more luxurious cruises were right near the dock. The tender filled to capacity and more. It was not in our estimation the safest mode of transportation, especially on the way back to the ship at 10 pm. There were few if any lifejackets, with children and more people sitting on the roof of the boat, but when we complained about the safety, we were told by the cruise director, Anita, that these boats weren't under "their umbrella." Of course they are! What would happen if someone fell off? There would be no way I could last in that water more than 2 minutes!

Panos was lovely. It was small enough to walk around. The houses and streets are blue and white — lots of paint on these islands! We found an Internet cafe but couldn't connect our laptop so we used theirs for free. Just had to purchase expensive drinks! I didn't stop taking pictures of the narrow streets with their colourful doors and balconies. Every twist and turn brought a new photo op. Since we had our lunch on board (we have one meal a day, lunch or dinner plus breakfast included on our half-board plan), we started looking for a restaurant around 7 pm and found one right on the beach, from where we could watch the sun set in style.

We asked for a mixed platter of our Greek favorites, including grilled peppers stuffed with feta and tarmosalata. I was the one stuffed by the end of it, and then I made the mistake of ordering "little fishies" — grilled sardines — and could finish only half. Oh well! The thin kittens had a great time delicately eating whole fish! During dinner we met a single male high school history teacher from Calgary, very charming. Forgot to mention we also had a nice swim at a public beach with bamboo umbrellas. A bit dirty but okay for Irwin!

Today we are in Mykonos! What a difference! Made pricey and crowded by the "rich people who live here," we've spent the day wandering the picturesque streets looking for Internet cafes such as this one in which we can cool off. The heat is getting to me. We Canadians aren't used to the sun being so strong, even now at 5 pm! In these cafes we use their laptops (ours doesn't seem to work on these two islands) and pay big prices for small non-alcoholic drinks. But it all works out in the end.

Tomorrow is our last island: Syros. Then on Saturday, it's back to Athens. Don't be surprised, dear readers, if you see one of the photos I've been taking on the cover of our August issue! We must confess that we didn't take the 47 euro tour to Delos today to see the home of Apollo! We're just not up to the heat and having to do anything in a group.

And now we're off to the city beach for a short swim before finding our shuttle bus to the new port and climbing aboard our tender to take us back to our ship.

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Kos

We are now in Kos, a Greek Island only two hours from Bodrum, Turkey, where we spent yesterday. Bodrum was touristy but it was a joy to be back in Turkey, which we visited four years ago. Prices have definitely shot up but we enjoy the people and the ambiance. There's a huge market there, a small Grand Bazaar (which exists in Istanbul). We had a fish lunch by the sea and strolled along the busy streets looking for a "bathing suit" since I'd unwittingly left mine in the cabin, thinking I'd spend the entire day touring around. It turns out that many of the restaurants and bars offer free swims, complete with deck and lounge cars and umbrellas, in exchange for a pricey drink or coffee at $5. We had to shop for a change of clothes and buy a bathing suit for Irwin, but in the end we managed to climb into the cool and refreshing water and have a short swim.

Our ship left at 8 am this morning and less than two hours later, we were strolling along the port of Kos, an island that suffered an earthquake in 1913. There is still a castle here that looks something like the one in Bodrum which we are not ashamed to say we missed. We are into "hanging" not touring more castles. The temperature yesterday was over 40 degrees and today it reached 38. So sunblock is essential. Still the heat takes it toll. We are not young anymore and there's only so much walking in the heat we can stand. Irwin is now falling asleep in his car at this lovely wireless cafe so we must make our way back to the shop and look forward to dinner, which tonight is "sole." We hope it has more soul than the past meals on our half-board plan, which have been underwhelming. If we have any energy we will return after dinner and check out the action.

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Kalymnos Island

We arrived in Piraeus very late after a comfortable train ride and made our way by taxi to our hotel, sharing the ride with a young geologist who lives near the city. The taxi driver tried to charge us for two trips and after a long argument, he left angry with a nice tip for one trip.

Our room was underwhelming, especially for 89 euro, a measly breakfast included. The next morning we walked around the picturesque yacht bay and thought we would try to find a more reasonably-priced hotel for our return July 26 (from our cruise). Happily we found and booked a nicer hotel, better situated, for 55 euro, which will be our base for visiting Athens and the Acropolis when we return.

Our hotel manager told us we could walk to the port. Unfortunately it took an hour and by the time we arrived, I was a wreck! Irwin was fine. We discovered that our cabin had a window, a substantial upgrade from our booking of an inside cabin. It’s actually meant for four people so it’s quite spacious.

We have since learned that we probably paid more than we should have because we didn’t need the meals and we booked at the last minute, probably paying a hidden agency fee. Other cruisers told us that they got good deals by reserving early online. Still we feel content. And we’ll know for next time.

Today we docked at Kalymnos Island, which is approximately 100 kilometers square. The island is so beautiful that I cried when I disembarked and saw the terraced pastel houses built on the mountainside. Future paintings?

We had a mediocre lunch, quite pricey, in a portside resto, but we got good advice from the British retiree who served us and suggested taking a bus to the other side of the island to a beach town called Misouri. The water was clean, calm and cool — a pleasure to swim in. And though there were many hundreds of Sunday swimmers, it didn’t feel crowded in the water. The town is simply exquisite. How nice it would be to spend six months there writing a novel. Getting the bus back was an adventure. We waited over an hour and finally it came and was packed all the way back to Pothia, the main town where the ships dock.

Tomorrow — Bodrum, Turkey. One of the nicest surprises is that our cruise ship leaves in the wee hours so we lose no time on land — exploring and enjoying the scene.

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Thessaloniki

A walking bridge connecting to the new city of Skopja to the Old Town

We spent our last night in Skopje trying to get some sleep so we could get up at 3:15 am to be picked up in our mini bus to Thessaloniki. Our driver arrived on time and picked up a very interesting man and a student who had just finished her university exams. He was a guide who supplements his income importing used cars from Germany to support his son in Santa Monica. He told us about the conflict between Macedonia and Greece, which is not only jealous of the name used by “non-Greeks” but also, according to him, wary of future territorial demands on the fertile northern part of Greece, from which thousands of Macedonians were expelled, their property confiscated, ostensibly because they were part of the Communist rebellion, put down with the help of the British after World War II.

We arrived in Thessaloniki at 6 am our time, 7 am theirs and looked for coffee while waiting for the travel agencies along the port to open. At 8:50, one did. Early bird Christina Jeirani of Overseas Travel greeted us with a sleepy smile and began to process our desires, travelwise. We’ve decided that we’d loosen the purse strings and try our first cruise, yes, you heard it here first, cruise!

Christina found a 7-day island hop including Bodrum, Turkey and Mykonos for 500 euro with half board. We breathed a sigh of relief at the price and accepted. Not so easy! Cruises don’t leave from here! We have to go to Athens, Piraeus (the port). So after finding our hotel, booked by Overseas, and called Mandrino (65 euro), we took a bus three or four stops to the railway station to be informed that the only seats available were on the express leaving the next day at 7 pm for 48 euro each! Okay, we said, rather hefty but what choice did we have! We then went back to the tourist office and said “Get us a hotel near Piraeus please,” which Christina did for a hefty 89 euro! But better safe than sorry in Athens at 11:30 pm, right?

We then asked her for an interesting restaurant since we hadn’t eaten for 24 hours! She, after giggling with her friends, sent us to Oysoy Meaaoopon in Greek, or Ouzo Medathron. Everyone knows it and the reason is that the food is exquisite. It’s in a fun courtyard full of hungry, happy Greeks, downing mussels in every imaginable way, sardines – not the canned variety, anchovies – the real thing, and various meats and truly marvelous Greek, yes Greek salad. They top it all off with ice cream and strawberry or chocolate syrup on a bed of Baklava strings sprinkled with honey and Espresso for — nothing! Well, says Irwin, the ice cream and Espresso are complimentary! What a joyful experience especially if you get shpritzed with the mist connected to a fan.

This morning we waited for the Jewish museum to open and when it did we spent an hour and a half marveling at the growth of this wonderful community of up to 70,000 Jews, who first settled here as Roman slaves, augmented later by Sephardic Jews fleeing the Spanish Inquisition and other points across Europe. It was a thriving vibrant community with over 20 newspapers in Spanish and Ladino, full of scholarship, schools, over 30 synagogues, hospitals, senior homes, libraries, and orphanages until the Nazis brutally and systematically destroyed all but a few, transporting them to Auschwitz after destroying the cemetery and humiliating and tormenting the men of the community. We saw the deportation order telling the people there would be food waiting for them and to pack all their jewellery and valuables. The museum has a small library and bookstore, and many publications about the community now and then are given out.

In three hours we will be leaving on our train for Athens. Tomorrow at 2 pm we will board our ship. This is one town we would like to see more of. We’ll be back!

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Crossing the Macedonian border

We took a taxi from Pogradeci to the Macedonian border (5 km), said goodbye to Albania and walked the 100 meters to the border police. We showed our passports and they welcomed us, telling us in sign language to walk ahead, either 30 or 300 meters (I’m not sure which) and that there would be taxis to the town called Ohrid, pronounced Okrid, on the other side of the lake that Albania and Macedonia share. We walked and walked and walked. No sidewalks. No cars. No buses. Just a two lane highway. I told Irwin I wanted to go back. He said “I don’t go back. It’s uphill.” I was worried. Here we were in the middle of nowhere with our two knapsacks on wheels, our money, and our baby laptop. After about 30 minutes, a red car came up behind us. We put out our arms. Were we actually going to hitchhike?

The gentleman stopped and we asked for a ride to Ohrid, not knowing how far it was. He invited us in, threw our bags in the back and started to drive, and drive and drive. He spoke no English but we managed to convey that we were Canadians. He called his wife on his cell and she told us in perfect English that he would gladly drive us to the bus station to get the bus for Skopja, the capital city.

Ohrid is a touristy, more sophisticated version of Pogradeci. We stopped at a large bus station, where he insisted on purchasing the tickets in Denar. We returned the amount in euro later. Then he motioned for us to get back in the car. What did he mean by this, we asked, but by this time he felt like a long-lost cousin so we climbed in knowing our bus would leave from the station in half an hour. He drove faster now, obviously heading for somewhere. Suddenly, after 10 minutes he stopped abruptly and turned in to a ground floor apartment with a small porch. He was taking us home — and we would meet the bus across the road on its way to Skopja.

His wife Fiona was lovely and so were her two children, Victoria and Michael. Victoria and her cousin were playing with their new kitten. We posed them for pictures, and sampled some of Victoria’s homemade blueberry juice and coffee. Then we hugged the entire family, especially our saviour and his mother, who had so graciously welcomed us to Macedonia, and made our way to the bus with Fiona.

The bus was hot and stuffy but we finished our books and four hours later were walking away from the bus station looking for a hotel. Finally we found one for 35 euro, 5 extra for necessary air conditioning, across from the Greek Embassy, about a 15 minute walk to the great square in the centre of this somewhat eclectic city of 700,000. Our room is tiny but we feel safe across from the embassy manned by a burly policeman at all times.

This morning we walked in all directions looking for the elusive post office, hidden in a circular building that looked like the inside of a flower. Inside after much negotiation we decided to only send home the heavy books for the special rate of 5 euro rather than the books and t-shirts for 40 euro! We headed out towards a medieval fortress across the bridge and inside we found the Old City. Its narrow stone streets, somewhat resembling the Old City of Jerusalem, including the fortress, beckoned to our yearnings for small old-fashioned boutiques and cafes, and lo and behold, we stumbled upon the Honourary Consulate for the State of Israel. We rang and were immediately let in and introduced to the assistant to the Honourary Consul, his son, who greeted us warmly and served us coffee. We talked about the history of Macedonian Jewry. He told us 7,148 or 98% were deported during the Holocaust, all to Treblinka. Only 200 are left here in Skopja, some having emigrated to Israel.

We were invited to visit the foundations of the new Holocaust Memorial Center of the Jews from Macedonia. Inside the new building that is the Foundation for the Center, we met Victoria who runs the day-to-day operations. Victoria spent three years in Israel with her family ten years ago but they returned, fearing “the wars.” We spoke Hebrew and she then showed us a few restaurants below her building that we could choose for lunch. Alas she wasn’t allowed to accompany us but we will be meeting her this evening with her boyfriend.

Our lunch of kebab, yogurt soup, Greek salad and roasted peppers, and Macedonia Riesling was a treat, but we are not ready for much more than a nap right now. Tomorrow we visit the Jewish community centre one minute from our hotel.

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Pogradeci

As promised, our congenial host at the Parlimenti Hotel drove us in his slightly worn Mercedes-Benz (almost everybody drives a Mercedes in Albania) to the lot where mini-buses were waiting for passengers to drive to Pogradeci. The cost for the almost four-hour trip was $14 each. We started on a reasonably good road but suddenly the driver made a U-turn and drove back to where we started and ended up on a rocky unpaved track through some construction area that seemed to go on forever. We never found out what the detour was for.

Once we got back on a paved road, the trip was uneventful, if hot, until we climbed up several mountain ranges — and for the queasy, it was harrowing, since the road was narrow and the cliffs steep and potentially deadly. We stopped more than halfway (after 2 hours) at a “café” where the owner tried to stiff us 10 Euro for two pieces of cheese and a simple salad. We eventually settled on 500 lek ($6) which according to us included a hefty tip.

We thought we would stay at the Lunhidas Hotel, a “tourist centre” with a swimming pool. We noticed the lake was crystal clear, but it was too far from the centre of town, and we always stay in the centre of town. Our driver dropped us off at the first place on the hotel strip bordering the lake (Lake Orhid). We like the looks of the hotel, named Enkelana, and especially the price ($34 CDN with breakfast) for a modern room with a balcony overlooking the lake, TV and a bathroom. The bed however could use a few less metal rods.

We strolled along the boardwalk and decided to rent a paddleboat ($2.60 CDN) for an hour. The odour of excrement was too strong to go swimming near the shore. We paddled out toward the middle of the lake, where the water looked clearer, and Irwin jumped in. One of four sturdy lads in a neighbouring paddle boat, hearing us conversing in English, begged to interrupt. A conversation ensued and continued after the two lads boosted Irwin onto the boat. Irwin’s current physical condition, being what it is, (chess, jazz, wine, pizza) made it impossible to do it on his own.

After inviting the lads for coffee on the boardwalk, the English-speaking one told us a bit about Albanian youth and his own difficult circumstances. He is the son of poor farmers from this area and is completing a compulsory year in the army, which he hates. He won’t go to Afghanistan or Iraq because the $10,000 for six months service is insufficient compensation for having to kill and risk being killed. He complained that the senior officers won’t even talk to him and the class system in the army prevents him from getting recognition and training. He told us that the university system here is corrupt and that one can buy grades for money. He has no hope of going to university because of lack of funds, even though he is bright and articulate. The boys are embarrassed by the condition of the lake and told us that when the dictator Enver Hoxha lived here in the summers, polluters risked severe punishment. Our lad would like to get out of Albania but he has no marketable skills.

We stayed at our hotel for dinner where we were the only couple on the second floor overlooking the lake and it was charming. We chatted for a few minutes with the daughter of the waitress, a graduate in psychology who can’t find a job in her field because “Albanians don’t recognize the need for psychologists yet.”

Irwin ordered steak with garnishes and we shared three or four salads, a fish soup, a glass of Macedonian wine, and Fanta — the bill coming to $23. We strolled on the main street, bought a small watermelon and ate it in our hotel room, keeping the balcony door open all night for the breeze.

The music continued well into the night, taken over sometime in the early morning by the howling of dogs, followed by the call of the Muezzin, summoning the faithful to morning prayer.

So far today (Sunday), we've sat outside here on the terrace — with a “borrowed” Internet password (top secret) that the waiters will not divulge but will gladly punch in — reading and soaking up the breeze by the lake, and gone out to buy cookies for two withered ladies sitting on the street across from the hotel and a stash of croissants for the gypsy children who beg at our table intermittently.

Tomorrow we plan to take a minibus to the Macedonian side of the lake and make our way from there to Skopje.

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In love with Tirana

On our way to Albania

Today we arrived in Tirana, Albania. Our ferry from Trieste was no cruise, but it was a pleasant 24 hour trip.

We met a German Jewish journalist-photographer off to an assignment in Kosovo. His editor had asked him to do a travel book on Kosovo! We also met a young couple from Vienna traveling to Albania to see her family. Luckily, her brother was picking them up and we were offered a ride to Tirana from Dures, where the ferries dock. A bus ride would have taken 2 hours or so, for what is a 30 minute trip.

Our new friend's brother Gazi insisted on taking us out for coffee and found us an affordable and centrally-located hotel for 35 Euro. Our room is huge compared to the one in Italy and down the hall we have a bathroom bigger than our own at home.

Reflective Muggia

We're still hoping we have Wifi here. The owner’s son assured us we did before he left for parts unknown. His mom doesn’t seem to know a thing about it. If not, there are Internet cafes every three minutes.

Gazi recommended a fish restaurant that we tried for a 4 pm lunch. It was fabulous! We had two whole fish, grilled, two Greek salads and one mixed salad. With fries and toast, and complimentary watermelon for dessert, the bill came to about $30. We finished the afternoon with a stroll around our area, which includes a food market and many many gold and silver shops.

A gorgeous twin view along the canal

We’re in love with Tirana already. We haven’t heard English yet except from the waiters and shopkeepers. Everyone is helpful and polite, except perhaps the boys who greeted us in our hotel and asked for money twice, not giving us a receipt until we insisted. At that point we got a handwritten note with the name and address of the hotel. The mother of course asked if we had paid when we returned. We hope the son hasn’t run off with our money to one of the casinos we saw not far from here.

If we do have Wifi, we’re bedding down in this town for a while!

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First post from Trieste

Our first stop on this summer’s adventure is Trieste, Italy at the Northeast point of the Adriatic Sea. Trieste has all the best qualities of Italian cities — accessible on foot, the best tomatoes in the world, marvelous mozzarella, fabulous fish and seafood that tastes like it came out of the sea yesterday. Then there’s the gelate (multi-flavoured Italian ice cream in its various forms — yogurt, sorbet and rich cream) at every corner.

Our hotel, Alabarda, two star, is friendly and has 30 minutes of free Wifi from the room. This is the first time we've taken a laptop. It’s nice to not have to find the local Internet café, which is usually smelly and crowded with teens. We bought a $10 adaptor, which simply attaches to the plug, which then goes into the wall. I found out from a nice man at Bureau en Gros that more expensive converters are unnecessary for laptops, which already have the ability to run on 110 or 220 volts.

We arrived on a Saturday and spent most of the day catching up on sleep and walking the streets that run around the Grand Canal. We’ve had three meals so far and the average bill is about 30 Euro for two including one entrée, ¼ liter of wine and sparkling water. The service is always friendly and accommodating.

The first afternoon, I walked across the street to the Supermercado and purchased some succulent peaches, nectarines, tomatoes, and cheese, as well as a perfectly-sized orange melon resembling a cantaloupe but tasting like the real thing. This morning we enjoyed a wonderful café latte at one of the spots on the canal. Fancy coffees are the only thing cheaper than in Montreal, apart from the wine and the gelate.

The music in the bars and restaurants is awful — loud and aggressive. We asked the waitress tonight to change it and she happily obliged.

The hotel gives out a special menu for this restaurant, two streets away (Ristorante Pizzeria O-Scugnizzo). For 20 Euro you get Primi (first course) which is pasta, Secondi (second course) which is fish, Contorni (salad or grilled veggies), and Bevanda (beverage) — either mineral water or ¼ liter of wine or beer. We weren’t that hungry or willing to splurge yet again so we asked if we could share. We could and did! Irwin had the spaghetti with fresh mussels and clams (in the shell too) and I had the Secondi of grilled squid. After three meals here, one could say the food is exquisitely prepared and fresh. So fresh! The olive oil is better than anything I’ve tasted in Montreal.

Today we visited the port and decided not to take the cruise going to the Greek Islands for one week. Why be packed in like the grilled sardines I had for lunch listening to loudspeakers and unable to stay in a place longer than a few hours? For a minute I wanted to try it just once. But Irwin quickly nixed the idea and instead we boarded a chug-a-lug boat to Muggia, a half-hour away (6 Euro return) and toured a lovely little port town, ate more gelate and had more delicious coffees. You get the picture!

What a beautiful little town! We would have inquired about the apartments for sale at 140,000 Euro if it hadn’t been a Sunday.

Now that we’re back in Italy, we remember why it’s one of our favorite countries in the world!

Tomorrow we want to look into ferries going to Croatia. Our intention this time is not to miss Sarajevo. If we can, we’ll take a ferry to Zadar on the coast of Croatia, and then move on to Split and maybe the island of Hvar before making our way to Sarajevo by bus or train! We like not knowing exactly where we’re going. The cruise wouldn’t have been our cup of coffee!

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Vermont events July 2008

Saturday, July 12 from 10 am – 4 pm, Vermont’s Children’s Aid Society’s Annual Antiques & Unique Festival features 120 antique vendors, pottery, paintings, jewelry, collectibles, toys and quilts. Feast on bake sale goodies and enjoy Trinity music. Info: 802-655-0006

Sunday, July 13 to Saturday, July 19, Vermont’s Village Green hosts its 30th annual Festival-on-the-Green. Marta Gomez and group perform original compositions based on Latin American rhythms. Street dance closes the Festival on Saturday. Info: 802-462-3555

Thursday, July 17 to Sunday, July 20, the 7th Killington Wine Festival features wine tasting, educational seminars, live music and a gala wine dinner. Info: 800-337-1928

Friday, July 18 to Saturday, July 19, the Vermont Brewers Festival in Burlington’s scenic Waterfront Park is perfect for enjoying Lake Champlain and the Adirondack Mountains. Info: 802-244-6828

Friday, July 18 at 8 pm, Cracker Barrel Fiddlers Contest offers an evening of music, food and family fun. Foot stompin’ toe tappin’ and knee slappin’ tunes await. $6. Info: 802-866-5580

Friday, July 18 to Saturday, July 19, the Stowe Street Arts Festival in Waterbury features Phill ‘n’ the Blanks Friday evening from 7 – 10 pm after the Congregational Church’s Chicken Barbeque. Info: 802-244-8300

Saturday, July 19 to Sunday, July 20, participate in a Weekend Ballroom Dance Workshop with dancing and lessons with world-renowned dance instructor Ian Folker. Champlain Club, 20 Crowley, Burlington. Info: 802-598-6757

Friday, July 11 to Sunday, July 13, see hundreds of top breed dogs at the Vermont Cluster Dog Show at Champlain Valley Fairgounds, 105 Pearl, Essex Junction. Info: 902-878-5545 or cvexpo.org

Sunday, July 20 from 10 am – 5 pm Billings Farm & Museum presents its 25th Anniversary Celebration for free ice cream and cookies. Performances by the Vermont Fiddle Orchestra, Vermont Governor Jim Douglas and Robert Resnik & Friends. Route 12 North at River Road, Woodstock. Info: 802-457-2355

Tuesday, July 22 at 7 pm, the 10th Old West Church Folk Concert features Peggy Seeger, Deb Flanders and Pete Sutherland. The Calais Concerts, organized by Deb Flanders, highlight the traditional music of New England in honour of Deb’s great-aunt Helen Hartness Flanders, one of the pioneers of folk music history in the US. Info: 802-863-5966

Tuesday, July 29 to Saturday, August 9 at 8 pm with a Saturday matinee at 2 pm, Pump Boys and Dinettes - the Musical celebrates the simple pleasures and good folks at the Double Cupp Diner. Saint Michael’s Playhouse, 1 Winooski Park, Colchester. Info: 802-654-2281

Saturday, August 23 to Monday, September 1, the Champlain Valley Fair presents entertainment, agricultural competitions, arts and crafts, horse and oxen pulling, shopping, Reihoffer Carnival and Midway, Coca-Cola Grandstand concerts, motorsports, music, Vermont Talent and food. Champlain Valley Fairgounds, 105 Pearl, Essex Junction.

  • Monday, July 21 at 8 pm, Elton John plays the Coca-Cola Grandstand. Four ticket limit.
  • Saturday, August 23 at 8 pm, Vermont Public Radio presents Garrison Keillor and A Prairie Home Companion.
  • Sunday, August 24 at 7 pm, 95 Triple X presents Daughtry as part of the Bud Light Concert Series.
  • Thursday, August 28 at 7 pm, US Marine Corps band performs.
  • Friday, August 29, 106.7 WIZN presents Ted Nugent.
Info: 802-878-5545 or cvexpo.org
Tickets: 802-86-FLYNN or flynntix.org

Saturday, July 26 NAS Green Mountain Strongman Challenge benefits the American Lung Association of New England. Tickets on sale through the American Lung Association of Vermont. $5 person, $15 family of four, 8 and under free. Champlain Valley Fairgounds, 105 Pearl, Essex Junction. Info: 802-876-6500 or lungvt.org

Friday, August 15 to Saturday, August 16, Vermont Dressage Days Horse Show benefits Women Helping Battered Women and the Vermont Humane Federation. Champlain Valley Fair­gounds, 105 Pearl, Essex Junction. Info: 802-878-5545 or vtddatcve.com

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My Vegas: 30 years of memories and Elton

Elton John singing Candle in the Wind at this 200th concert in Vegas

Most people I know who haven’t been to Vegas have little desire to experience it. They have no connection to the place. They see it as crass and glitzy.

But for me, Vegas means a lot. It holds 30 years of memories — of family, love and loss.

My first time was with the father of my daughters just before we married in 1975. I was smitten — with Vegas.

We never left the Tropicana: the food was free or close to it, the orange juice freshly squeezed, the lox abundant and succulent. It was my first encounter with the starry glitter and tinkle of the slots. Not that I’m a gambler, but I’ve always liked the nickel machines.

My mother lived in Vegas for ten years. She moved there to be closer to Paul Anka. Once at a show we saw together, he asked her to dance, recognizing her from her many fan letters. She still has his autographed pictures on her walls: “To Eva, Love Paul.”

On the Strip: Flamingo Hotel bathers

On my visits during those years, Mom and I would sit for hours in the piano bar at one of the Strip’s cheaper hotels and watch Angelo, the singer-piano man, belt out our requests — hers being Nat King Cole and Paul, and mine, Elton John.

My sister Melanie moved to Vegas to live with my mother. Melanie had a tough life and in Vegas she felt like a somebody. She loved the Strip, the slots, the lights, the free drinks, the buffets, the music — and most of all, Neil Diamond.

Melanie died in Vegas in December 2000. She was 48. Her funeral was in a room at her favorite hotel, the famous Golden Nugget.

I remember walking along the Strip the day of the funeral, having come from Melanie’s apartment carrying our grandmother Molly’s wine glasses wrapped in our grandmother Laura’s embroidered tablecloth.

Melanie had no children, just a dog. I remember taking her aging Pekinese to have him put to sleep. She would have hated me for that, but I just couldn’t take him on.

On this trip, I see Melanie everywhere.

I’ve come to Vegas to visit my daughters and accompany my husband on business. I am staying at the Hilton Star Trek, just off the Strip. Gone are the days when you could stay at the Aladdin or the Hilton Flamingo for $17 a night. These rooms cost $160. Alas, the laid back Aladdin was blown up to make room for a glitzier hotel, which is the fate of most Vegas hotels.

The slots have changed. Now you slide your bills in and if you win, the coins don’t come pouring out. I miss that sound. Now it’s a fake jingling and you get a slip you can exchange in another machine. The drinks at the slots are still free and are they ever strong! They still do everything to get you to gamble.

There are no bookstores in sight. And I’m the only one this morning at the Hilton Buffet with a laptop. People are looking at me like I’m weird.

The buffets are still good and plentiful, but prices are up. Today’s brunch is $14. It’s a better deal than the restaurants; the fresh fruit grown in California, just two hours away, is divine.

They now have penny slots in every hotel but the thing is you have to bet at least 25 cents if you’re going to win more than a few pennies. I still love to watch the high rollers bet $25,000 a shot. But I don’t dare try my hand at Black Jack anymore.

Now for my jackpot! Amy, Molly and I took in the Elton John show at Caesars. Tickets start at $100 and peak at $250. We opted for $115 in the first row of the second balcony. We all agreed the concert was the best we had ever seen. I cried every second song, seeing 40 years of my life and Elton’s career pass before me in a flash, watching the big screen images of the sixties, reveling in the memories and the present. Holding my daughters’ hands and swaying back and forth, we waved the black and red boas we had been given in the lobby to celebrate Elton’s 200th concert in Vegas.

What a show! The stage was an ever-evolving magical place with massive inflated breasts, red roses, a lipstick and other overtly playful phallic parts. I was thrown back to the days when sex was less serious and more innocent. I cried during Candle in the Wind, Rocket Man, and most of all, when he sang his finale — Your Song, in honour of his two bodyguards who had just tied the knot in California! I laughed when he lovingly referred to Celine Dion as “that skinny bitch” who never has to worry about her weight as he does.

Amy, Mom, and Molly in our boas after the concert, taken from Amy's iPhone

He looked just lovely to me in his longish appliquéd jacket and the glasses, more muted than I remember – the whole Elton aging gracefully into a less raucous show-off, his virtuoso piano playing more beautiful than ever, his voice strong and robust, having lost none of its sexy, smooth tone. My girls and I knew all the words, sometimes singing along. This is the sign of a star — to last more than two generations.

Molly and I walked over to the Riviera in the heat and were blessed with a stunning rendition of Your Song by a house crooner, the talented and friendly Mark.

To cap off our stay, we saw Menopause — the Musical, a zany slapstick look at “the change” through the eyes of four icons of “our age” — the professional woman, the fading soap star, the Earth Mother, and the Iowa housewife. The songs are takeoffs of tunes from the 60s and 70s, with themes ranging from the ever-present hot flashes to ever-present need for food to the ever-present need for sex from hubby. The best performance of the show was a very risqué dance rendition of My Guy sung to a huge red vibrator. (I just can’t bring myself to use the D-word).

All of us who have gone through the change were invited onstage to do an aging can-can and receive buttons: I’ve changed.

I don’t have much change left as I leave this town. If you go to Vegas, I recommend staying on the Strip. You can take the monorail (at $11 a day) to get around but you’ll still have some walking to do. It’s much more expensive, more crowded, less accessible, and you get a lot less “bang for your buck.”

Vegas has changed — a lot since 1975! Little is free in this town. It’s not the easygoing place I fell in love with 30 years ago. Yet, all in all it was a slice. Thanks Elton for playing my songs!

So, everyone, get off your high horses and live a little. You won’t find high culture here, but it’s a breath of not-so-fresh air in the city that never sleeps.

Elton John plays the Champlain Valley Fair in Vermont July 21.

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House & garden tour for the Piggery

Thursday, July 17, the Piggery Theatre holds its biggest fundraiser of the year. From 9:30 am - 4:30 pm, wander through six homes and two gardens in and around North Hatley and Ste-Catherine-de-Hatley, chosen for their architecture and prime views. $50.

Info: 819-842-2431 or piggery.com

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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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One of the prettiest villages in Quebec

Knowlton scenery (photo: Jessie Archambault)

Part of the Association des Plus Beaux Villages du Québec, Knowlton is 100 km from Montreal and is mostly English-speaking. Loyalists from New England founded the Victorian-style town in 1821. This explains the village’s British flavour, notable as soon as you get there.

On Knowlton Road we see the town’s three churches – Anglican, Catholic and United – which were all built soon after the town’s founding.

In the summer, outdoor and indoor activities take over the town. There are band concerts at the Gazebo, painting exhibitions, English plays at the Lake Brome Theatre, a wedding dress exhibition, from Sunday, June 1 to Tuesday, June 3, and a tractor pull competition from Friday, July 18 to Sunday, July 20.

The local theatre will present Intimate Exchanges Saturday, July 5, Richard Donat reads Stephen Leacock Saturday, July 12, Let’s be Frank Saturday, July 19, Woodswalker Friday, July 25, The 25th Century Belongs to Canada Saturday, June 28, and The Dik and Mitzi Anniversary Show Friday, August 8.

Each Labour Day weekend an agricultural fair established in 1856 takes place near Knowlton over four days. Brome Fair has talent shows, horses, cattle judging, attractions and rides, a magician, local band shows, and a 4x4 truck pull contest.

The major outside activity is the Brome Lake Duck Fest during the last two weekends of September from 11 am – 5 pm when the town closes its two main streets to celebrate. The festival welcomes visitors from Quebec, Ontario, Vermont and New York for a total of 50,000 people over the two weekends. They can taste the duck, special dishes and local products like jams, wine, cheese and honey. Duck-related souvenirs are available in the majority of the stores and outdoor stands.

The Auberge Knowlton Inn starts at $120 per room, with two country-style breakfasts for just $15 more. The inn offers its guests 10% off at its restaurant Le Relais. Attached to the inn, it has an old-style ambiance, looking like a decorated barn with wooden tables and chairs. The menu consists of steak, chicken, seafood, and of course duckling, with prices varying from $18 to $30. All the wine served is locally made in vineyards around the Lake.

Downtown is comprised of Lakeside Street and Knowlton Road where the stores, cafés, restaurants, antique stores and accomodations are found.

Knowlton changes depending on the season in which you visit it. In the spring, multicoloured flowers hang everywhere and in the summer everyone is outside. Autumn gives a magnificent view of the colourful trees, and in winter they’re lit up by lights and Christmas ornaments.

Knowlton is a perfect escape for a taste of the country, boasting a great deal of diversion on a reasonable budget and is well worth a visit any time of year.

Jessie Archambault is a Dawson student.

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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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New York events June 2008

Tuesday, June 10 to Thursday, June 12, the Heart of the Park Antique Show & Sale features Adirondackania items, plateware, jewelry, furniture, framed prints and lithographs at Long Lake Central School, Route 30, Long Lake. Info: 518-624-3077

Thursday, June 12 to Sunday, June 15, the Lake Placid Film Forum offers film screenings, discussions and master classes. Info: 518-523-3456

Saturday, June 14 to Sunday June 15, LARAC Arts Festival takes place at City Park on Glen Street in Glens Falls. The event is wheelchair accessible. Info: 518-798-1144

Friday, June 20 to Sunday, June 22, the 4th Adirondack Birding Festival celebrates the Boreal Birds of the Adirondacks in County Wide, Lake Pleasant, featuring canoe trips, walks, outings and seminars. Registration required. Info: 518-548-3076

Friday, June 27 to Sunday, June 29, Lake George Summer Fest presents music, food, crafts, boats and more at Shepard Park on Canada Street. Wheelchair accessible. Info: 518-668-2688

Friday, July 4 to Sunday July 6, The Great Adirondack Days with fireworks and Adirondack Jazz Band at Riverside Park. Info: 518-891-1990

Tuesday, June 24 to Sunday, June 29 and Tuesday, July 1 to Sunday, July 8 at 8 am, the Lake Placid Horse Show Association holds the Love New York Horse Show with riders competing at the North Elba Horse Show Grounds. $2 weekdays/$5 weekends. Free for children under 12. Info: 518-523-9625

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Shelburne Farms in Vermont

Shelburne House (photo: John Harwood)

Shelburne Farms is a 1400-acre working farm, National Historic Landmark, and non-profit organization committed to teaching sustainability and the conservation of natural and agricultural resources.

The property is open until October 19 and welcomes visitors to enjoy the eight-mile network of walking trails, its Frederick Law Olmsted-inspired landscape, daily tours of the property, and activities for children of all ages at the Children’s Farmyard.

Guided tours, offered four times daily, visit buildings on the National Register of Historic Places.

Info: 802-985-8686

The hospitality of the Gilded Age lives on at the beautifully renovated Shelburne House, now a seasonal inn with 24 bedrooms, open until October 19. The Dining Room showcases the best of Shelburne Farms and Vermont produce, open to the public for breakfast, dinner and Sunday brunch.

Info and reservations: 802-985-8498

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Vermont events June 2008

Until June 27, at the heart of the Art’s Alive Festival of Fine Art is the exhibition at the Art’s Alive Gallery at Main Street Landing’s Union Station, on Burlington’s scenic waterfront. The exhibition shows work by festival artists and is the location of the opening reception and awards ceremony on Sunday, June 7. The gallery is open Monday through Friday from 8 am – 8 pm and Saturday from 9 am – 4 pm.

Tuesday, June 17 to Saturday, June 28, Saint Michael’s Playhouse presents the high-flying Broadway musical Barnum about Phineas Taylor Barnum, directed and choreographed by Keith Andrews. With music by Cy Coleman, lyrics by Michael Stewart, and book by Mark Bramble, this Tony Award winning tale of the legendary showman promises thrilling circus performers, slapstick clowns, circus-ring staging and buoyant songs. Saint Michael’s is located in the McCarthy Arts Center on the campus of Saint Michael’s College in Colchester, only minutes away from downtown Burlington. Info: 802-654-2281 or 802-654-2617 or saintmichaelsplayhouse.org

Saturday, July 5 from 10 am – 4 pm, artists will display work and give demonstrations on Main Street in Newport. Members of the Memphremagog Arts Collaborative and visiting artists celebrate the 4th of July during the Annual Downtown Chowderfest on 167 Main, Newport. Info: 802-505-1265 or memphremagogartscollaborative.com

Sunday, June 22, The Green Mountain Opera Festival stages La Traviata at the Barre Opera House, 6 North Main, Barre. Info: 802-496-7722 or greenmountainoperafestival.com

Friday, June 27 and Saturday, June 28 from 11 am – 9 pm and Sunday, June 29 from 11 am – 6 pm, Vermont holds its favorite family-oriented feeding frenzy. The 23rd annual Green Mountain Chew Chew Food and Music Festival features 30 restaurants, caterers and Vermont food producers. Each will serve three of their most tantalizing taste treats. The festival is held in downtown Burlington’s magnificent waterfront park, right on the shores of Lake Champlain. Info: 802-864-6674 or greenmountainchewchew.com

Friday, June 27 and Saturday, June 28 from 9 am – 6 pm and Sunday, June 29 from 9 am – 3 pm, it’s New England’s oldest and largest quilt event, the Vermont Quilt Festival at the  Champlain Valley Exposition, 105 Pearl, Route 15 in Essex Junction. Enjoy over 400 beautiful quilts on display, shop in over 80 booths brimming with quilts, fabrics, gift items and more, and choose from over 80 classes and lectures. Take part in the contest awards ceremony and the Champagne and Chocolate Preview Thursday, June 26 and have your treasured quilts appraised on Saturday. Info: 603-444-7500 or vqf.org

Until Sunday, June 29, Wednesdays through Sundays from 11 am - 6 pm, the Westbranch Gallery presents Be There Be Square, an exhibition featuring square works at 17 Towne Farm Lane. Info: 802-253-8943 or westbranchgallery.com

Thursday, June 12 to Saturday, June 14, the Vermont International Choral Festival features choirs from across the United States, Canada and Europe. The performers will present individual concerts in various community settings. Saturday, June 15 at 7 pm, Robert de Cormier directs The Massed Sing performance, at the Stowe Church. Info: 802-862-2200 or 802-863-5966 or music-contact.com

Friday, June 13 from 12 pm – 3 pm, the Burlington Garden Club presents Growing Together, a National Garden Club Small Standard Flower Show, including designs created by Federated Garden Club members. Learn about perennials, bulbs, arboreal and house plants grown in the area. Show takes place at the Faith United Methodist Church, 899 Dorset St. (south of I-89 overpass) in South Burlington. Info: 802-658-4061 or 802-373-4058

Thursday, July 17 to Sunday, July 20, a four-day wine tasting event takes place at Killington Resort. Sample wines from around the world. Events include educational seminars, live music and a gala wine dinner. Info: 800-337-1928 or killingtonchamber.com

Open 7 days a week year-round, Dakin Farm on Route 7 in Ferrisburgh and 100 Dorset in South Burlington offers Vermont’s finest cob-smoked ham, aged cheddar cheese, and pure maple syrup, with free samples and ongoing exhibits. Info: dakinfarm.com

For more listings of events, attractions and useful lodging information, visit vermontvacation.com.

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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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Bialystock, a sad town in Poland

From Vilnius we moved on by train to Bialystock. We were on our way to Budapest, where we had a plane to catch for Israel. We planned to go back through Warsaw and take a train from Warsaw to Budapest. Then we would spend two weeks in Israel. We decided Bialystock would be a good place to spend a day or two. We had grown up hearing the name although we had no family roots there. We were interested in seeing another Polish town, one where many Jews had once lived and flourished.

Bialystock is a town that looks like the heart has been cut out of it. It's pleasant enough. There are cafés and a modern hotel right in the middle of town. There are pretty streets and people living out their lives in peace, but the town is too quiet, too calm.

Seventy thousand Jews lived in Bialystock before the Holocaust. There was a town square where they traded, whole neighbourhoods where they lived, a fish market, a massive synagogue. Now there is a lot of empty space.

We took a tour with young lady who knows all about the Jews who once lived here. She is not Jewish but she is interested in how our people lived and died in this town. She and her friends do their best to look after the cemetery which is on the outskirts of town. There is hardly a gravestone that has not been desecrated. We walk through the shambles, the tombs stretching out in their jagged shapes as far as the eye can see. She tells us that the "neighbours" have stolen as many grave stones as they could carry to be used as foundations for the apartments they have built in the area surrounding the cemetery.

The children of these Jews, buried on these grounds, cannot look after their graves. They are the victims of the Nazis and they have no graves. She takes us to the site of the synagogue. On one night, the Nazis forced 2,000 Jews into this synagogue. Then, they set fire to it. They tried to climb out of the windows. They were pushed back in. Men, women, and children, burned alive.

We stood on the site of this synagogue. It is in an apartment complex. There are gardens for children to play. There is a twisted structure, a memorial to the 2,000 who perished here where we are standing. How can we be standing here so peacefully? Where are the ashes? Where are the graves? The memorial has some graffiti on it. No different from Vilnius, we think.

It's hard to know what to feel.

We walk along the main street. In one of the windows of a tourist shop we see paintings of Chassidic men counting money by candlelight. Men wearing prayer shawls counting gold coins. I enter the shop. I ask the man behind the counter if he understands what he is selling. "You Jews caused us trouble for hundreds of years. What do you want from us now?" I leave the store. I am angry, can't speak, don't know what to say, what to feel, what to think, except: They still hate us. We're gone from this place, we're all dead here. What or whom do they hate?

We walk through streets of wooden houses. She tells us these were once the houses of Jews. They are to be torn down to make way for a new shopping centre. This was the site of the fish market.

Bialystock is a sad place. There is a heaviness here. It is everywhere.

We have a quiet dinner at the hotel. We try to pretend we are tourists. But what we have seen is never far from our minds.

Why have we come? We have come to bear witness to the dead, to those souls who died in that torched synagogue. But we will not go back to Poland. It is enough. It is too much.

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