ERETZ YISRAEL

Having just recently enjoyed a full “Holy Land” tour a few years ago, I returned to Israel this time to simply experience “life” there. I had grown quite fond of Tel Aviv after my last visit…it’s become such a cosmopolitan, secular city. So after months of heavy touring and site-seeing, I took an apartment for a week, across the street from the Mediterranean Sea, and settled in to do some writing, relaxing, laundry, and just “being”. I was lucky to catch some unusually warm December weather, and was able to enjoy a couple of afternoons at the beach, and watch some exciting kite boarding from my balcony. I also lucked into a nostalgic evening at a Bryan Adams concert while I was in town.

Another reason I returned to Israel was because I wanted to visit friends who are living there. One family, my best friend’s nephew, his wife and 6 children, are living in an Orthodox community, Beit Shemesh. This is a surprisingly large and picturesque area, with a variety of Orthodox sects, many of them ex-pats, mostly Americans. Their eldest (16-year-old) son was away at pre-military training school, so I didn’t get to meet him; but I was so charmed by their 5 other children. I always thought that children in a large family would just blend together and maybe even get a little lost. Not the case with this bright, fun, beautiful bunch of kids, ranging from age 2 to 14. Each of them has their own unique personality and character, and they individually captured my heart over the span of a single evening shared together.

It was a lovely visit, after which I drove on to Jerusalem for the night. At my friend’s behest, I made a stop at the Western Wall before checking into my hotel. It was 11pm. The Wall is always brightly lit, so time of day has no meaning. But it was noticeably more peaceful and calm there, and I enjoyed a short session of prayer at this most holy place.

The next morning –Friday morning – I visited the Mehane Yehuda Jerusalem Market. This place is always bustling in anticipation of Shabbat with people buying their food, fruit and various other necessities for the weekend. I picked up some “pitzuchim” (assorted dried fruit and nuts) to bring with me to my friend’s home, where I was going to spend an observant Shabbat.

My bat mitzvah partner, Chaia has been living an Orthodox lifestyle in Shiloh, in the West Bank. Shiloh is an ancient city in Samaria, and the religious capital of Israel, according to the Old Testament. It is now one of those “settlements” you hear about, that has been occupied for years, and is an active archeological and tourist site, where Chaia’s husband works. Nevertheless, it is in the West Bank, and following the controversial announcement about recognizing Jerusalem as Israel’s capital, I thought better of driving myself up there alone. Instead I took a regularly scheduled ARMORED bus from downtown Jerusalem, and was there safely in less than an hour.

Chaia’s family is huge, and loving and welcoming. She has 7 children: the youngest is her 18-year-old daughter, and then one older daughter and 5 sons. There are already 8 grandchildren. My challenge was to know everyone’s (unique, Hebrew) name by the end of the weekend. The house was teeming with kids playing, laughter, lots of food, and great conversation, along with beautiful traditions that welcomed Shabbat at sunset on Friday night, and through the day on Saturday. Saturday night some friends stopped by and the conversations were politically interesting and very enlightening. It was a great honor and very special to share this warm slice-of-life experience with an old childhood friend. (There are no photos because all phones, electronics, etc. are turned off through Shabbat.)

On Sunday morning, I got back on the armored bus and headed to Jerusalem, got into my car and then embarked on a scenic 4-hour drive through the Negev Desert down to Eilat, on the southern tip of Israel, on the Red Sea. I love Eilat. Just the geography alone is staggering. To the right is Egypt. To the left is Jordan and Saudi Arabia. And I could see them all in one eye-full from my hotel room balcony. It wasn’t exactly beach weather while I was there, but I did catch a few hours of beach and pool time, and some more RnR before heading back to the cold of continental Europe in December.

 

EDITORIAL:  ISRAEL…Why They Support Trump

It is no secret that I am not a fan of the current US President. I have had a hard time understanding how Israel and Israelis can stand by him, when he has repeatedly shown himself to be racist…and most pointedly, when he failed to condemn Neo-Nazis marching and chanting “Jews Will Not Replace Us.”

They hate Obama for abstaining from the UN vote that sanctioned Israel for West Bank occupation. They hate Obama for his perceived lack of support, although under his presidency, there were several arms sales that didn’t make the news. They hate Obama for the Iran deal, even though the fact remains that since that deal, Iran has not directly attacked anyone, and all of our European allies concur that it has been successful. Making the argument about giving them money, they neglect to remember that it was Iran’s own frozen assets; and they were about to begin what would have been embarrassing proceedings against the US at The Hague to get their funds released. Making the argument of Iran’s state-sponsored terrorism…one can hardly make an argument that our allies, Saudi Arabia don’t do the same.

On December 6, while I was in Tel Aviv, in an apartment across the street from the US Embassy, Trump controversially declared that the US was recognizing Jerusalem as the capital of Israel and would be moving our embassy there. Against the advice of many world leaders, and over the objection of leaders of Muslim countries, this US President did something that many of his predecessors had promised, and never fulfilled. The fact is that Israel’s capital has always been Jerusalem. The Knesset is there. All government officials and offices are there. Trump’s pronouncement didn’t suddenly make it so. But it managed to stir up controversy.

In making this announcement, the media told us that we would see violence. Palestinian leaders called for 3 Days Of Rage, some warned of a renewed intifada, most said that it was the death-nell for the peace process…and at minimum, the US could no longer be seen as the impartial mediator of peace talks.

My American-born Orthodox friends in Israel were thrilled by this announcement from Trump, and were completely unfazed by the Palestinian threats of rage and retribution. They live with it on a regular basis. One friend presented to me a point of view that there is no real “rage”, but wherever there are TV cameras, the protestors will happily provide footage…arguing the point that if there were no cameras there would be little-to-no violence.

But there were no cameras at all of the other non-Arab Muslim leaders’ offices when they condemned Trump’s actions. And there was plenty of rage. The announcement did inflame the region, and there were riots in the West Bank, Gaza, and even in Jordan. Missiles were launched from Gaza, which allowed for Israel to retaliate enough to destroy weapons depots and the tunnel in Gaza. The cynic in me wondered if my Zionist friends relish these outbursts as opportunities for Israel to flex its muscles. Palestinians revolt, and Israel shows its might with surgical strikes that depletes Palestinian munitions. I think Israel feels cocky with their superior weaponry, especially with the US putting the wind at their back. I can’t help wondering and worrying if they would be that brash if they were facing the collective military power of the Muslim world. Perhaps they feel confident that the “Muslim world” is itself in such turmoil and disarray that they wouldn’t be able to form an effective military coalition against Israel.

Further supporting that thought, Netanyahu seized this moment to declare “Jerusalem has always been our capital and the sooner you Palestinians accept that, the sooner we will have peace”. So, the final determination of Jerusalem, long believed to be an item for the negotiation table, has summarily been negated. He is now taking that chip off the table, and with a show of power as his exclamation point.

Perhaps Israel has in fact ceded enough and will cede no more. After wars where they were attacked (and defeated the enemy), in an effort for peace, they’ve returned the Sinai to Egypt. They’ve left Gaza for the Palestinians. They have also given them the West Bank, although the Israeli settlements are still controversial…but people were living there (having been encouraged to set up residence there after the war that annexed that land) at the time the agreement was made. Since there’s been no advancement of the peace agreement; and there has been further escalation of strife, including Gaza’s “election” of Hamas* to run their government (*Hamas is sworn to the destruction of Israel), the Israelis have not left the West Bank, and have, in fact, grown their settlements. And because there are Israelis living there, there is still an Israeli military presence in the West Bank. But, there is also infrastructure, services, roads, power, and water, provided by Israel. And although the people all live in their own gated communities, the Israeli and Palestinian residents of the West Bank have lived together and peacefully coexisted for many years.

So now, some time has passed. Tensions have eased. The Arab leadership seems to have tacitly accepted that this is how it is going to be, also recognizing their own instability and internal issues. So it would seem that playing it tough might have been effective after all. This is how Netanyahu has been running things in recent years. And his people love him for it.

And now I feel I better understand the thinking of my Orthodox Israeli friends. These Israeli ex-pats are ZIONIST JEWS. They see the entire political world, first and foremost, as to how it effects Israel and Jews. To the exclusion of anything and everything else. “People vote their own interests”, I was told. And their interests are Israel and Jews. Given the long history of Israel’s battle for recognition and a peaceful homeland, Israelis and American ex-pats there, are pledged to the safety, security and advancement of Jews and Israel. And that’s it. Apart from that, the rest of it (i.e. Trump) is America’s problem.

And I think I mostly get that…except the last sentence. I think Trump is extremely dangerous and that’s everyone in the world’s problem. But I, too have been a single-issue voter over the years. My candidates had to be pro-choice to get my vote. However, I never had to put a moral test to the rest of my candidates’ issues…they were also mostly in alignment with mine…and generally weren’t despicable. In the case of Trump, I fear that in favor of their one big issue (Israel), they conveniently remain blind to the rest of the package that comes with him which is doing damage to many other things that matter…like the Christianization of education, or the bankrupting of the middle class, or nuclear war in Korea, or sexual misconduct, or the destruction of our planet. I know God created it once, but I don’t believe he will deem us worthy of a do-over if we don’t pay attention. Just my small take on one piece of the most complex issues in the world.

 

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“We Are Morocco!”

“We are not an Islamic country. We are not an Arab country. We are not an African country. WE ARE MOROCCO.” This was what we were told upon arrival to this unique country…that they fancy themselves just that…unique. And indeed, Morocco was an entirely unique experience.

The people are very gracious, kind, proud, and peaceful. They pride themselves on their hospitality. That said, it is also a very chauvinistic, patriarchal society, although not necessarily misogynistic. They do treat a lady like a lady…so a strong, independent feminist will have to adjust a bit to be comfortable in this culture. And, along with Arabic, they also speak French, which certainly adds to their charm.

The majority are Muslim, mixed with Berbers (indigenous), Jews, and Christians. They make a point of repeating that although Morocco is predominantly Muslim, they welcome and peacefully coexist with everyone. At one time there were @270,000 Jews in Morocco. Today, that number is near 2,500 most of them doing business in Casablanca. There are now @150,000 Moroccan Jews in Israel. And yet there are still many symbols of Jewish history throughout Morocco.

Casablanca– We started in Casablanca, a large, sprawling city with big Beverly-Hills-style homes near the beach. It’s most significant landmarks are the tremendous Hassan II mosque, and Rick’s Café, famous from the Bogart/Bergman movie “Casablanca”. It was my first time ever staying at a Four Seasons, a very luxurious, oceanfront hotel and spa; but the beach wasn’t overly inviting. Surprisingly, they had no liquor license, which evidently are hard to come by in Muslim countries, as (supposedly) they don’t drink.

Rabat- As we made our way out of town, we headed to the capital city, on the water, with an old medina. We made a stop at the king’s palace. They adore their king, Mohammed VI.

Meknes- And our next stop featured the King Mohammed V’s tomb.

Fes– We arrived late to our 6-room Ryad Layla, inside the medina. This medina is sprawling with many turns and tunnels and narrow passageways leading from one section of the souk to the next. And there’s lots of shopping. Our local guide, Mohammed, was very knowledgeable and well known in the area. We learned that traditional Muslim families always name their first-born son Mohammed, which explains the abundance of men with that name.

He brought us around the medina to certain shops (where he gets a cut) and “helped” us play the “barter” game. We went to a rug shop and watched the women hand-knot a wool rug on a loom. After the full presentation, I bought a rug, made of camel hair, by Berber Jewish women, with a design that represents the desert and mountains, all of which seemed meaningful and appropriate. It will be beautiful in my Baja home. We went to a metalwork shop and watched the artist engrave the platters by hand, with a mallet and something like a nail-head. We also went to a shop to buy native clothing. I bought myself a caftan, and I bought a jalaba for a friend…a traditional long and hooded men’s robe which all of the men were wearing every day. In the medina, everything stops five times a day for prayer.

The next day, Mohammed also took us to the hillside ruins of the king’s tomb, destroyed in the Lisbon earthquake in the 1700s. There are great views of the whole Fes medina from up there. Next stop, the King’s grand palace with amazing gold doors. We went to a ceramic shop and watched the workers carving the small pieces of ceramics that they puzzle together into beautiful designs for vases, urns, table-tops, fountains and more. I made another special purchase there as well, a beautiful ceramic urn with camel bone and metal and stone embellishments. We also went to a tannery where they dye the leather and can custom make a garment in just 5 hours! (We didn’t buy!)

On the night we arrived, 2 young boys (@15 years old) met us at the edge of the medina with a cart to carry in our bags, since there are no cars inside the medina. One of the boys, Asseade, was exceptionally bright and charming. On our 3rd/last afternoon, we set out to shop solo in the medina, when out of nowhere Asseade appeared, on his way home from school. He ended up accompanying us into the medina, after taking us to meet his family for tea. Using his young Moroccan “machismo”, he guided us through the souk for a couple of hours of shopping. And then we went back to his family’s Ryad for dinner. It was a lovely experience.

That morning, I had experienced a Hammam. In a small, dark, candlelit “wet room”, a young woman bathed me, exfoliated, scrubbed and washed me, after which I enjoyed an hour massage. It was a bit odd to be “bathed”, but Moroccan women have hammam baths weekly.

Merzouga- We spent the whole day on a 10-hour drive through Morocco, making our way to the Sahara Desert. We made a couple of scenic stops along the way, including a park filled with wild monkeys.

We arrived just before sunset to this luxury camp, and immediately embarked on a sunset camel ride up the dunes, which was simply spectacular. We sat around a roaring fire drinking wine with the other guests as the temps began to drop, and then enjoyed a lovely dinner in the main tent. After dinner, we took in the magnificent sky, dense with stars, the Milky Way and no moon, before heading to the tent to lay in bed and read, under the warm duvet, with a hot water bottle alongside. It was surprisingly cold (@42 degrees!) there…I always thought deserts were HOT! I awoke early to see the sunrise…one of those “once in a lifetime” experiences…a desert sunrise.

Oarzazate- This is a movie town…famous for “Lawrence Of Arabia” and many other films. It was pretty much a “pit stop” for us as we made our way from the desert toward Marakkech. The hotel, Le Temple des Arts, was amazing. All of the rooms are in tribute to the movies made there.

From here we visited a traditional “ksar” (village) from the 1700s, Ksar Ait Ben Haddou. In it’s time, it was a critical stop on the trade route between the Imperial Cities of Morocco. People still live there in some of the original mud hut homes.

Marakkech–  This is a big city with many faces. We didn’t have enough time to explore it to the fullest…with just one full day here. We had a guide take us on an exhausting walking tour of the city and Medina. We saw the The Grand Mosque and Royal Palace.

We also went to a major Madrasa. And we went to the old Jewish quarter, where I stopped into the still active synagogue and museum. Then we shopped the Medina, making our way back to our beautiful ryad to relax and recharge.

We went out for dinner to a magnificent 5* hotel, the Mamunia. And then we went back to the main square of the Marakkech medina to see how different it is by night. There were groups of people gathered together drinking, listening to music or performing, along with many people still selling their wares. It was quite a scene there…and we managed to miss the snake charmers!

The next day we went to a beautiful botanical garden. On these same grounds is the newly opened Yves Saint Laurent museum. His former lover and agent created this tribute to YSL, who loved Marakkech and used it as his muse for his fashion designs.

Kasbah Tamadot, Asni- From here we made our way @40 minutes up into the High Atlas Mountains to Sir Richard Branson’s deluxe luxury resort. After 2 weeks of rigorous touring, it was nice to relax and be pampered. I even smoked “shisha” from a hooka pipe for the first time. The views and grounds were beautiful, filled with flowers and animals they care for on premises. There were many lounges and private nooks to relax and waste the days, which we happily did.

Morocco definitely deserves a lot of credit for their gracious hospitality and welcoming attitudes to people of all backgrounds. It is a warm, colorful country with friendly, accommodating, colorful people.

Next Up: Israel, an editorial

Many Faces of France (deux)

PART 2 of 2: PROVENCE AND FRENCH RIVIERA

We enjoyed the luxury of travel by TGV fast train through France, to the Provence region. It’s always nice to travel by train in Europe…the seats are comfy and spacious, the scenery along the way is lovely, and it is relatively quick…BUT…it is an interesting hassle when traveling with a lot of heavy luggage. The space for luggage is always limited, and if everyone boarding has some sort of bag, it fills up quickly. And as I’m loading multiple bags, people are trying to board the train at that same door. Unloading is equally challenging, as the stops are brief. I always have to “gear up” for busting that move when traveling by train. But the rest of it is so pleasant and civilized.

We started in Avignon at a charming Bed & Breakfast, Les Limas. Our host, Maggie was cute and interesting and very gracious. She offered a fantastic breakfast as well as great recommendations for local sites and restaurants. We ventured out on foot on a windy Sunday and saw the famous “Pont d’Avignon”, and the huge Palace of the Pope, which was featuring an African Art exhibit inside. Of course, in the heart of impressionist art, we began with art overload!

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The next day was even more windy, and we rented a luxurious Audi wagon and went out to explore for the day. First stop was the little town, St. Remy, with cute shops, a great bakery and it’s very own 99cent store! We continued on to Les Baux de Provence, which is located inside of a beautiful national park. We were in the mountains, and the winds were even more intense…we got very blown around in that charming village on the hill! So, to beat the wind, we went into the caves for an amazing, unique art show. At Carrieres Lumieres, they have caves that remain from the extraction of stone to build the neighboring towns. They have installed a multi-media visual presentation of artists, some of it animated, projected on all of the walls, ceiling and floor inside this cave, accompanied by music. We were treated to Bosch, but they do many other artists; and I totally plan to return. It was completely incredible! We continued on and through Arles. The Van Gogh museum was closed, and the rest of the town didn’t grab us, so we continued on to Nimes. We drove around the town, took in the Roman ruins and a quick burger in a local bar before driving back to Avignon.

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We left sweet Maggie’s B&B and made a 2-hour drive to Aix de Provence. This is a bustling town in the heart of the region. We fell upon a Tuesday Farmers/Craft Market and enjoyed the fun things on offer. We went to the Hotel Caumont, which is essentially a tea room, restaurant/museum/tribute to artist Paul Cezanne, who made his base here. Rima even managed to find his studio and took a tour.

We continued on to Antibes for the next 2 nights. This area is the summer playground for wealthy Europeans. We took a drive over to neighboring Cannes, toured the old city (“Le Suquet”), and enjoyed some great views. Next day, we made our way to Monte Carlo via Nice…in the rain…which didn’t stop us! We took in the Chagall Museum and the Matisse Museum, each artist with deep ties to the city. We explored the waterfront Promenade des Anglais and grabbed lunch. Nice is a big, diverse city and the central hub connecting Provence and the Cote d’Azur, and I can see spending more time here on another visit!

We continued on along the coast into Monaco. I think we even drove beyond it, into Italy, on a search for gas. We arrived at our glitzy hotel on the water (Le Meridien) and grabbed some bar food for dinner and a relaxing night. We toured Monaco on foot, around the port area and up at the palace (closed to tours inside), and we caught the changing of the guard. The views of the harbor and all of the incredible yachts is quite a site to behold.

We had a very special night out, dinner at the legendary Café de Paris, right next to the famous hotel of the same name…all on the same square with the Casino de Monte Carlo. Featured in the Bond movies, it surely was the hub of opulence for the rich and famous back in the day. It is an exquisite building, very elegant, formal, and brightly lit. The gambling action is very staid and high stakes…just roulette and cards. No craps (too crass for the French). There were private salons along the perimeter, but I parked myself at a roulette table for the evening and managed to win 200Euros, so I left a happy winner, and crossed a big one off my bucket list. Always dreamt of gambling in Monte Carlo!

Provence and the French Riviera are storied places. Provence represents a time of great artistic growth and experimentation, which brought forth masterpieces from the likes of Van Gogh, Picasso, Monet, Manet, Renoir, Matisse, Cezanne, Chagall, and so many many more. And all the glitz and glamour of the Riviera continues to shine with Hollywood and the international world of celebrity. Such a wonderful place to get your art on!

Rima and I parted here, and I continued on to visit Kay in London for a few days.

Having been to London several times before, it wasn’t necessary to do the touristy stuff, and instead, I just enjoyed hanging out at the flat with Kay, her friends, her son, and his lady. Relaxing fun. We did go a great dinner at Rules, the oldest restaurant in London, with my favorite cocktail, the “Kate Middleton”. And on a walkabout in her hip neighborhood, Islington…we walked right past Tracey Ullman, out walking her weird little dog (we did not interact). We had a great night out at theatre…”Oslo”, the story of the behind-the-scenes maneuverings of several Norwegian diplomats to create the groundwork for what ended up being the 1993 “Oslo Peace Agreement” (between Israel and the Palestinians). It was also a fine warm up for my time ahead in Israel. But first, two weeks of touring in Morocco!

Next up: Morocco

On deck: Israel, An Editorial

Many Faces Of France

PART 1 of 2

I have been to Paris four times before, and once in Chamonix in the Alps, years ago. And I’ve loved every minute of those visits. But I have never been anywhere else in France, and this part of my journey gave me the opportunity to see some unique and special regions of this wonderful country.

Joigny– I met up with Marty, the Hechts and the Printzes at Orly and we made our way to Le Cote Sainte Jacques. This chateau and it’s 2-star Michelin restaurant, were a bucket list item for Pedro. Unfortunately for me, I got super sick with a stomach virus on the night of our dinner there, and it hung with me for 5 days or more. So I didn’t see much of the area…and our stay was brief. We were also joined there by The Rubins, The Blanks and the Zanes. This part of the trip was hosted by Marty for an early celebration of his 65th birthday in December.

Barge Trip through the Canals of Burgundy– We traveled to the Dijon area to board our chartered barge, “The Adrienne”. For six gastronomical days and nights we floated down through the canals in Burgundy, loch after loch. We’d walk or bike ride along the canal path, faster than the barge moved. The barge had 6 guest cabins, and a common living room, dining room, and deck.

We had a tour leader, Matthew, an Englishman who was very well versed in all things French: the language, the food, the history and the wine. He was a wonderful guide through this region of France. The team included the young captain and his first mate, who happened also to be his uncle, and a captain himself. We had two lovely young ladies cleaning, serving, and presenting the wines and cheeses at each meal. And our fantastic chef prepared magnificent customized meals each day for breakfast, lunch and dinner that were truly award worthy.

Each afternoon we did an excursion, either into a town, or to a chateau, winery or castle in this winemakers’ region of France. We tasted fabulous Pinot Noir and Chardonnay wines endemic to Burgundy.

It was a fun, convivial week with great, long-time friends, celebrating Marty and eating, drinking and laughing a lot! I think we all shed a tear when we had to leave The Adrienne and her great staff.

But Paris awaits…and onward we went, altogether for the first couple of days. We even had one final special night, dining at The Jules Verne restaurant high inside the Eiffel Tower. Then everyone returned home, and Marty and I stayed on in Paris together.

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Paris- Our apartment exchange didn’t work out as we’d hoped, so we moved over to the Hotel Pont Royal, on the left bank, just behind the Orsay Museum. I had stayed in this neighborhood 3 years ago, and loved its central location.

As I said, I have been lucky to be in Paris many times before, but it is one of my most favorite cities in the world, and I never get tired of it. Marty had only been here once, briefly, so I was happy to tour the city with him. We took the Hop On Hop Off bus by day and again by night and covered the city, and then we took a Siene River boat trip, which I’d never done before. It was great to see the sites from these differing vantage points.

It’s never boring to repeat the Musee d’Orsay and indulge in their preeminent collection of impressionist art. We went up to Montmartre and into Sacre C’oeur, which I hadn’t done in some time. We walked around the Luxumberg Gardens neighborhood and through St. Sulpice Church, which was new to me. And back to Notre Dame and the Marais. And Angelina’s, of course. We even had lunch with cousins of Marty who live outside of Paris. Spent a lovely afternoon at legendary La Coupole catching up on family stories.

The following week, I was on my own in a 3-story-walk-up apartment in the Marais neighborhood, I’d arranged through Home Exchange. It was very well located in the hippest, hottest neighborhood in Paris, which was not long ago an old Jewish neighborhood. There are still signs of the presence, with multiple kosher and falafel restaurants, Judaica shops, a Holocaust memorial, and Chabad in the streets.

My goal for this week was to just “BE” in Paris. I spent some time doing some writing, looking out the window at the millennials, and younger, hanging out in the cafes. No matter the weather, they are all at outdoor sidewalk cafes (so they can smoke). I enjoyed doing walkabouts in the neighborhood, and along the Siene, examining the wares for sale from those green boxes along the riverside. I lucked into a great Irving Penn photography exhibit at Le Gran Palais, where I had never been before. “I wandered down the Champs Elysee”, singing Joni Mitchell, and popping in and out of shops. I strolled through the designer fashion area and up to Bon Marche and Galleries Lafayette. The boutiques all boasted waiting lines of mostly Asian tourists, interested in buying the latest design from all the big names, at full retail price. Amazing!

In stark juxtaposition to this opulence and wealth was the scene in the streets. There are homeless people everywhere. And it’s different. They are clearly refugees. Families. Mom, Dad and young children, huddled together on a mattress on the sidewalk in front of a well-lit department store window. I wondered to myself how these people will fare once it gets really cold. I hope the French government or NGO’s have something in mind to help these people and get them off the streets.

Later in the week, Rima arrived. We explored the Marais and enjoyed excellent falafel. We went to The Picasso Museum, also in the neighborhood. We walked along the Rue de Rivoli, the Place de la Concorde (where Marie Antoinette was beheaded), and enjoyed the Christian Dior exhibit at the Musee de Artes Decorativs. Albeit too hot and crowded for a ticketed event, it was great to see some of the couture gowns and fashions by the many designers who have worked under that label. And then another visit to Angelina’s…thick  African hot cocoa. We enjoyed exploring together the green box vendors along the riverside. We did a tour of the magnificent Sainte Chappelle cathedral…the oldest stained glass windows in the world. And we strolled around the neighboring St. Paul neighborhood.

We covered a lot of ground in a short time. Soon it was time to bid Paris adieu, and head south to Provence.

END OF PART 1. 

Coming soon: Discovering the artistic heart of France: Provence.

SE ME ENCANTA, ESPANA

Salamanca– When I was 16 years old, the summer following 10th grade, I had the opportunity to study Spanish in Spain. I had the choice of 2 programs, one in Salamanca and the other in Santiago de Compostela. For whatever reason, I chose Santiago and had an incredible, unforgettable experience there. But I was always curious about Salamanca. Having toured through so much of Spain on previous trips, I was determined to get there on this one.

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Upon arrival into Madrid airport, I picked up my rental car, and was robbed in the rental car parking lot. I was not hurt and it could have been so much worse. But they got my purse, which had ALL of my money, credit cards and ID. Clearly this posed a serious challenge. This sad story is elaborated in a (not yet published) chapter: “When Bad Things Happen to Good People”. But this event clearly stole my solo travel mojo and impacted my time in Salamanca and Segovia.

After dealing with the immediate crisis in Madrid: getting a temporary replacement passport, getting cash wired to me from the US, cancelling my cards and getting new ones sent to my sister (coming next week to Spain), I made my way from Madrid for the 2-hour drive to Salamanca. As you enter the area, the massive, sprawling Cathedral on the hill dominates the view. I stayed at a classy, charming hotel in the old town, which carries a consistent architectural and design theme throughout. It might be the most “photogenic” place of all the places I’ve been. It is clearly a university town, lively and bustling with young people throughout the narrow streets and filling the Plaza Mayor.

I visited the convent, just across from my hotel, so beautifully lit up at night. When visiting the “new” cathedral, you are lead to the “old” cathedral, which is simply ancient! There are also several other churches that are notably special.

Segovia- Just an hour away is this great medieval city on the hilltop. The walled city is comparable in size to old Salamanca, but it feels much older and a bit more authentic. There are many narrow roads and passageways through the old town.

Arrival to Segovia also offers dramatic sites of the enormous cathedral and classic castle as well as a towering aqueduct incorporated into the fortress of the old city. There was an old Jewish quarter and ancient synagogue that is now a church. There was also an ancient Jewish cemetery just outside the city walls. There were sweeping views of the valley from everywhere in Segovia.

Toledo–  Sara arrived in the early morning and we headed straight to Toledo. Having been here a couple of times before, I was aware of the rich Jewish history in this town. Before the inquisition, there was a large Sephardic Jewish community here, and the temple is now a Museum. We also visited the Maria la Blanca Synagogue from the 12th century, and of course, the gorgeous gothic cathedral.

Madrid– We toured the city on the Hop on hop off bus, giving us a full overview of this great city. We went inside the unique cathedral, a departure from the many gothic cathedrals of Europe. We saw the Palace and enjoyed lunch and people-watching on the Plaza Mayor. One of my all-time favorite sites in Madrid are the Cervantes, Don Quijote and Sancho Panza statues.

On one evening, we had a great dinner near our hotel and met 2 nice, bright, young women from The Netherlands on a long weekend getaway. They were sweet, interesting young ladies who we talked with for hours about life, politics and world affairs. This is one of the unsung joys of travel…when you unexpectedly and randomly strike up conversation with complete strangers, and just hours later you are signing on to each other’s Facebook pages.

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Barcelona– Another wonderful new friend story happened while searching for an apartment in Barcelona. On Home Exchange, I’d found a beautiful, big, comfortable modern, hi-design apartment in the gothic quarter, just in off La Rambla in a pedestrian zone right near the cathedral. A perfect location! The flat belongs to Annemieke from The Netherlands. But the deal almost fell through when her family decided not to come to US for political reasons. I was heartbroken, and after I explained my position and shared my story, she was totally supportive and excited about my journey and agreed to rent me her fabulous apartment for a very reasonable rate. We’ve ended up communicating a lot along the way, as she offered advice and ideas along my trip.

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Ralph joined us in Barcelona. We hit the ground running, and wandered through the gothic quarter and visited the cathedral and the Picasso Museum. This museum features works mostly donated by Picasso himself, from his childhood and early years as an artist, along with several masterpieces. The museum itself is exquisite architecture.

There were lots of protests happening in Barcelona, both FOR and AGAINST secession from Spain. There were @1million people in the streets, in response to big secession movement and referendum in Catalunya. There were helicopters overhead every day. We did our best to avoid the crowds but it was nearly impossible. While searching for a particular fountain (where my nieces had taken a photo together), we ended up near the Arch de Triomphe of Barcelona…right near a major government residence, and thus, an active protest site. It was peaceful, but very, very intense.

The next day was all about Gaudi. We went to the Sagrada Familia, inside and out…wisely having bought tickets in advance, because this cathedral actually sells out! It is still under construction and largely hidden by scaffolding, but it is due to be completed by 2027…over 100 years since it began, as is the case with most cathedral construction. We also went to the Park Guell and had a picnic and hiked to the top of the park. We also visited Gaudi’s House at the park. After that, we went to Casa Mila, another Gaudi masterpiece.

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We enjoyed some lovely dinners, including tapas at Le Coure and paella down by the marina, one of the prettiest parts of town. We did a lot of walking on the avenues and the Rambla. What a special treat it was to share my love of Spain with my sister and brother in law.

Coming Next: A Month in France

ROAD TRIPPIN’: Croatia & Southern Italy — Sometimes Photos Tell It Best

Part 1 – CROATIA:

I flew into Zagreb…a brand new airport that looks like a stainless steel space ship…clearly a symbol of their optimism for a growing economy. Picked up my VW Jetta and drove to Plitvice Lakes National Park (delayed by 2 serious accidents). I checked into my adorable apartment accommodations and had dinner outside, by the fire-pit, wearing a fleece! After all of these cities, it was wonderful to be out in nature with fresh, cool, crisp air.

I started early the next morning to explore this magnificent park with lakes, waterfalls and the bluest water on earth. Tin, the “everything guy” at the hotel, gave me the perfect plan to attack this park, see it all, and not be totally dead at the end (which I was anyway). So I left the hotel on foot and walked about a half mile to the trail down to one of the entrances to the park. Bought my ticket, and then hiked the trail from there for about an hour to the large waterfall. I’ve seen bigger, but it was still beautiful, as was the scenery and littler waterfalls along the way. It was quite crowded, and notably, with tons of Asian tourists, traveling in large (busload) groups, with selfie-sticks, walking 3-across a narrow wooden boardwalk trail. It got challenging, constantly being banged into as I tried to make my way, hugging the edge, hoping not to fall into the water.

I hiked around a couple of lakes, and then out toward one of the other entrances where I picked up the tram to ride uphill to the furthest section of the park (where the popular photos were taken), where lakes just spill over into other lakes, creating endless waterfalls everywhere. The hike from here is mostly downhill, but it winds around, does some climbing, and goes on for miles. The scenery was breathtaking throughout. The water is an indescribable color blue. I took a zillion pictures, of course. I finished up after about 6 hours of hiking, with a few nice rests along the way, and got onto a little ferry that runs across the bigger lake between the entry points. It began to rain along the ride across the lake, and it was pouring by the time we landed at my starting point. I trudged up the hill for that last half mile back to the hotel, and arrived drenched, and very satisfied, as well as grateful that the weather had held up all day. 8 miles. 20,000 steps. I ate dinner and passed out early, and slept like a baby.

Awoke early to intense thunder and lightning. I felt so badly for the new arrivals who had this day to “enjoy” the park. I loaded up the car, and hit the road, tentatively, as it was treacherous driving the entire trip south to Split. I arrived in pouring rain to my weird “hotel”…which is actually 8 “guest rooms” on a floor of a run-down hi-rise office building that happens to have great views of the old town and the harbor, and is a 5 minute walk away. If you can get past the odd set-up…no real “hotel” to speak of, the reception was gracious and accommodating, the room is adequate, comfortable, and convenient, and the view is spectacular, and the price was right. I parked on the sidewalk, like everyone else, and could see the car from my window.

But it was not there in the morning when I woke up and opened the curtains. That was alarming, to say the least. I went right to the hostess, and she helped me track it down…evidently it is common for them to tow a tourist’s car…and I had parked slightly blocking the cross-walk…(I couldn’t really see that when I parked, cause it was raining so hard). Anyway, $85 later, a taxi brings me to the lot, my tow fee is paid, and I’m in my car…and back in time to still catch breakfast, and enjoy my day in Split.

After another brief rain shower, the sun came out strong, and it was a gorgeous afternoon. I walked around the old town…the VERY old town…now filled with quaint shops and cafes. Pizza, ice cream, jewelry, clothes, shoes, and accessories, mixed in with tourist trinkets. I found the old Jewish ghetto and the synagogue, but it was closed. There was clearly a lot of ancient history here, and I tried to eaves-drop here and there as groups with guides would pass through. It is impossible to absorb all of the history of every place that I am visiting on a trip like this. Sometimes, I just have to see a place and enjoy it for what it is on the surface. In many cases, I look forward to returning at some point in the future for a longer and more in-depth experience.

Ready for a break from sightseeing, I ferried over to Brac Island with the car, and then drove over the mountain to the other side, and checked into the Bol Boutique Hotel.  Spent 2 days at Zlatni Rat beach, a triangular spit of stone beach at the perfectly clear Adriatic Sea. The town of Bol is also old, but vibrantly alive with tourist stores, shops and restaurants. Enjoyed a very relaxing stay here on the beach for a couple of days!

I then ferried back to Split and drove 3 hours, passing through Bosnia, to Dubrovnik. My hotel here was a large, convention-oriented hotel outside of town on the water, but with no real beach. So I enjoyed the pool. There was an easy bus route to the Old Town, where I climbed the famous wall and took a lot of photos. As I started to lean against a metal railing to take a selfie, I realized that the rail was broken…I could have easily fallen 6 stories to my “Game Of Thrones” death. It is filmed there, and you see and hear all of the GOT fans geeking out over being “on the set”.

Dubrovnik’s old town is very dramatic. They also have enlivened all of these old buildings with active businesses, shops and restaurants.

“Life among the ruins…” The Croatians do that very well.  I Loved Croatia.

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Part 2 – ITALY:

Renting a car in Rome Airport (FCO) is a nightmare. I had forgotten this, and it was just last year, when we rented a van there. It’s not marked, it’s multiple elevators, far away, and always a long wait. And then they don’t have the “category” (mid-size SUV) that I reserved, and want to give me an Alfa Romeo “Giulia”. As lovely as that sounds, and as cute as the car is, it is literally on the ground, so I begged for and got a more SUV-like Toyota, which ended up being almost too big for the tiny, narrow streets of Italy.

I drove from Rome to Sorrento…in traffic, on autopistas, and ultimately up a steep, curvy, windy, narrow road to the hotel, on the cliffs high above the city, with views of the sea.

Sorrento town center is really nice…nice shops. Little alleys. It all becomes a pedestrian mall at night (Oh, so that’s what that parking ticket says).

Spent the first day at Pompeii, an amazing archeological site. The city was originally very cosmopolitan and intellectual Romans lived there when it was buried under the ash of Vesuvius in 79AD. There are incredible ruins and artifact finds on display there.

The Isle of Capri and AnaCapri towns are quaint…carved into the mountainside of the island. The ferry ride over was really rough…lots of wind and high seas. The island is home to many famous grottos that we were unable to see that day because of rough seas. The most famous is the Blue Grotto, and that involves a small boat ride to a row boat. That never would have been possible under these conditions. Evidently this is a common problem. Hopefully, I will be back in Amalfi another time, so I can get to these grottos.

Leaving Sorrento involved a drive along the magnificent Amalfi Coast for 2+hours.

Heading south to Calabria, I stayed at the lovely Sofitel MGallery hotel in Ricadi, near Tropea. I had a huge room, with a large patio, and wonderful views of Stromboli, the active volcanic island in the Tyrrenhian Sea.

I went on a snorkel outing on a gorgeous day. We went to some cool rock caves. We snorkeled over remnants of a church foundation. The water was beautiful…clean and crystal clear, although there was not a huge variety of fish. I was disappointed to see trash at the bottom of the sea, caught up in the rocks; and all along the roadsides in this area as well, which was VERY disheartening.

I spent a day on the beach at my hotel. There was an Indian man who passed by selling beaded jewelry. Then there was a black man selling tablecloths or blankets. He’s got many…they have to weigh a ton. He is not in anyone’s face…in fact he’s @10 meters away, standing on the beach, opening each one and showing the pattern…then refolding them all. It occurs to me, in the heart of lily-white Italy, that these men are obviously immigrants…could be refugees, who knows. They’re just trying to make an honest living. The patterns are pretty. I wish my bags weren’t full. As he walked past me and I tried to tell him I’d love to buy one but my luggage is too full. He spoke only Italian and French. So I used sign language…and I think he got it. Sadly, he didn’t make a single sale here. And he’s off, trudging down the beach. I sat back in my comfortable beach chair, and I counted my blessings.

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The next stop was Sicily. It was an hour and a half drive to the coast where the car and I boarded the quick ferry across to Catania. It was another dramatic drive across the island to Palermo, through many tunnels and across high suspension bridges between them. My first impression of Palermo is it needs a facelift. Impressive, old architecture is mixed in with a lot of “meh”, and all of it tired and marked with graffiti. It’s all sort of seedy and run down.


Not really feeling it for Palermo, I stretched another beach day out of Italy.  It was a gorgeous day, so I found Mondello Beach and spent another day relaxing in the sun. Fortunately, Sicily is very large and diverse. I had considered stayed on the other side of the island in Taormina, which is said to be very lovely, but I thought I should go to the historical center of the island. Next time, I’d like to try it there, and also visit Syracusa.

I did do a walkabout in Palermo and enjoyed many of the beautiful old buildings and churches.

Despite the surroundings, Palermo has lively street night life on a Sunday where the main drag with the designer shops becomes a pedestrian mall. I found excellent pizza…and discovered Aroncine (little balls of food goodness), which is probably not a good thing.

Top Ten Things To Know About Driving In Italy:

  1. No speed limit on the autostrada
  2. Stop signs are meaningless
  3. Hair pin turns everywhere on curvy, windy, narrow mountain roads, tunnels, and traffic everywhere.
  4. The line down the center of the road is the motorcycle lane.
  5. There are probably 100 models of Mercedes over here that are not offered for sale in the US.
  6. Italians do talk with their hands, especially while they’re driving.
  7. “Pick A Lane” originated here: they drive in both lanes, straddling the center line.
  8. God bless the inventor of GPS without whom I’d still be circling my first roundabout.
  9. The signs bear the surnames of every Italian person you’ve ever met.
  10. After a week, you drive just like them.

 

NEXT UP: Espana!

 

Capital Cities of Eastern Europe, Part 2

This is part 2 of 2 featuring the great cities of Eastern Europe. Sorry for the long delay in getting this done!

PRAGUE:

As I reflect on Prague, I can only smile at the surprises of its transcendent beauty and the great energy of the city. I also smile because I shared this part of the trip with a dear friend…our first time traveling away together…and it was joyful every moment. Even the “whineage”.

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I covered a lot of ground with my active and fit friend and we toured the entire city, a couple of times, actually. First, we went out as princesses in an open car private tour of the city’s highlights. At the end we discovered The Charles Bridge, and we enjoyed the many vendors as we walked over bridge. And then we took a short boat ride on the river, to enjoy the incredible scenery and architecture from yet another angle. As we walked back to our hotel, we came upon a wall of graffiti, known as the John Lennon tribute wall. Street musicians enhanced the experience.

We had dinner up at the monastery which is at the Prague castle, high atop the city. The views from there were spectacular. We climbed that hill and toured the castle by day on two other occasions, going into the church, cathedral and palace that are there in this medieval town within a town that dates back to the 9th century. We timed our visit to the cathedral in the late afternoon and caught some incredible lighting on the pillars reflecting through the stained glass. The main square is where you find the Astronomical Clock, which is quirky and fun, and currently under renovation.

 

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We also toured Jewish Prague. We were able to go inside the oldest active synagogue in Europe. There were several other synagogues and a Jewish cemetery in the neighborhood.

Prague is GORGEOUS. It was spared the Nazi bombings. The Czech government did not resist, and capitulated to the Nazi surge rather than get bombed to pieces. Hitler liked Prague, and wanted to save it for himself. Today the Czech Republic is thriving…10million people live there, 1.2million in Prague. And they host 12M tourists a year. It’s not hard to see why.

 

VIENNA:

We lucked into a comfortable private car transfer for the 3+ hour drive from Prague to Vienna. They pronounce it more like “Vyenna”…in a very romantic and passionate way. The first settlements in Vienna go back to 800BC, but 1/3 of the city was destroyed in WWII, so it far less grand and intimidating than I’d expected, and much more modern and gracious.

We toured the whole city by bus, and also visited the magnificent St. Stephen’s Cathedral and the Schonnbrunn Palace. The Habsburg family ruled from the 14th Century till the 1600s. I later learned that there was an Austral-Hungarian alliance during these years, as the Habsburgs also have a history in Hungary and the former Czechoslavakia. They were patrons of the arts and sciences, and this beautiful rococo palace still remains.

Vienna is best known for their musicians: Strauss, Bach, Beethoven, Mozart, to name a few. Beethoven is said to have lived in 80 different apartments in the city…and that he was a terrible tenant who never paid rent on time and played his music loud and late into the night!

We enjoyed an evening at the symphony, with some opera and ballet performances…clearly a very Viennese thing to do. We also enjoyed eating schnitzel, spaetzle and gorgeous pastries and shopping for crystals at the Swarovsky mother ship.

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BUCHAREST:

The land of Dracula—spires and gabled rooflines. The city had an eerie feel to it, befitting the legend. At dusk each night, screeching black crows by the thousands flock to their trees for the night. I was also treated to a wonderful thunder and lightning storm that added to the ambience of my experience.

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Romania keeps the “east” in Eastern Europe. It is clearly the bastard stepchild of the EU. You can feel that they are struggling here. Many stately old buildings have crumbling facades or are covered in graffiti.

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The words “Roma” (my mother’s name) and “Romani” mean “gypsy”…and I thought there could be a possible ancestral link for me. They even have a Museum of Peasants! It is a city with many parks full of people, activities and events. You can feel that they are trying. There is an enormous palace that was built under communism by Caucescu as a symbol of opulence; and it now serves as the Parlaiment, and is the second-largest government building in the world, surpassed only by the Pentagon.

I took my usual HopOn-HopOff bus tour of the city. I also did a bike ride and saw many interesting sites. I fell upon the old section where there were ancient churches and old cobblestone streets going back to the 10th Century.

 

BUDAPEST:

Budapest has a long history of monarchy, nobility, occupation, war and destruction that has left it lacking in a real unique culture. And yet, it is an awesome city! 80% of Budapest was destroyed in WWII and has since been rebuilt, along with all 8 bridges that cross the Danube that had been blown up. They say that 70k Jews survived the holocaust in the Budapest ghetto, and interestingly, make no mention of how many died. There is a compelling memorial to those who were killed during the holocaust…”Shoes On The Danube”…which is extremely powerful.

In 1989, Hungary became independent of communism/socialism, and they seem to be a thriving member of the European Union. It’s interesting to me that our point of reference for these post-WW2, former communist countries, is really not an accurate depiction in the larger picture of their history. Most of these countries, in fact, have histories that are very European with monarchy-based governance.

The “Buda” side of the Danube is the hilly side of the river, atop which sits the old city castles, bastions and fortresses. It is truly a city within a city, although from down in “Pest” it looks like just a castle on the hilltop. A walkabout up there took me to some of the oldest structures in Europe, including a synagogue dating back to 500AD!

The “Pest” side of the city is a bit more modern and has a lot of energy and charm. The HopOn-HopOff tour also included a nighttime version, which was extra lovely, to see the city all lit up at night. They also offer a mellow ride on the Danube for yet another perspective of the city. There are many beautiful buildings and landmarks to enjoy.

There’s a St. Stephen’s Cathedral here as well…same as in Prague and equally beautiful. The massive Parliament building, the indoor market, and the dramatic Chain Bridge. I also went to the Grand Chorale Synagogue with a magnificent holocaust remembrance garden. It’s one of several synagogues that still actively exist in Budapest, and surely one of the most grand in all of Europe.

Unfortunately, I struggled with a nasty head cold throughout my time here, which zapped my energy, but not my enthusiasm for this magnificent, interesting, unique city.

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