Saul Schwartz

15 POSTS

With a population of over 1.8 million residents, the Austrian capital contains approximately one-fifth of the countries’ inhabitants.  In June 2017, my wife Fern and I tremendously enjoyed our one day cruise stopover in Vienna.  Shortly after returning from the cruise, we decided to return to more fully explore.  Vibrant Vienna is once again one of Europe’s grandest cities.  In this article, I provide thematic highlights for a great four day itinerary.

World class art museums:  I highly recommend that a portion of each day be spent at an art museum, not only for the art, but also for the historical background and decor.

Albertina: 

The largest of the former Habsburg residences, the charming Albertina combines masterworks of art with imperial pomp.  The Batliner permanent art collection called Monet to Picasso contains one of Europe’s most outstanding collections of classical and modern paintings.  We particularly enjoyed impressionist works including Monet, Renoir, Degas and Cezanne.  Although there were no English language tours, the audio guide was informative and provided extensive details on the artists and their times.

In 1776, Maria Theresa’s son-in-law, Duke Albert Casimir, assembled an art collection in the Albertina.  Twenty state apartment rooms are sumptuously decorated with valuable cloth wall coverings, gorgeous chandeliers, delicate inlaid works and exquisite furniture from the 100 year period when the Albertina was a place residence of the Habsburg arch dukes and arch duchesses.  These rooms show off imperial splendor in shades of red or yellow or green, and have been authentically restored to show period furnishings.

We took a mid-day lunch break in the DO&CO restaurant within the museum, enjoying vegetarian Paninis, Viennese coffee and tasty apple strudel.  Located at Albertina Platz 1, the cost of admission was 12.9 Euros.  www.Albertina.at

The Art History Museum (Kunsthistorisches):

Located at Maria Theresien Platz in the museum quarter, experts consider this to be one of the world’s most important art museums.  Inaugurated in 1891 and built by Emperor Franz Joseph to house the imperial collections, the building is grand and imposing.  The architecture of the building really stands out!

Entering upon a magnificent staircase flanked by lions and statutes, we first ascended a raised platform (called the stairway to Klimt) to view the art works of Gustav Klimt up close.   These paintings, symbolizing a series of past artistic styles, were adhered to the walls upon the completion of the building.  The Klimt works are contained within a decorated stair case between columns and besides arches.

The art was collected by emperors and arch dukes of the Habsburg dynasty.  The palatial building consists of large main rooms with large canvases and side halls featuring smaller paintings.   The greatest collection of paintings in Vienna contains works from the middle ages and baroque art.  On the first floor, the museum features antiquities from Greece, Rome and Egypt.

We joined a superb English language tour with one of the museum’s curators.  This was an unforgettable experience, as he compared a series of masterworks from the permanent collection to art work on loan from important collections from all over the world.  As an example from within “The Shape of Time” comparison, a series of three Rembrandt self-portraits were placed side-by-side with a modern Mark Rothko work.  In addition, we purchased an audio guide.

At 15 Euros, the price of admission was a bargain.  We took a break while and enjoyed a nice lunch in the elegant café and restaurant in the Cupola Hall on the main floor.  www.kmh.at

Belvedere Palace:

The elegant summer country estate of Prince Eugene of Savoy consists of two grand buildings (upper and lower) with delightfully manicured gardens in between.  The palace provides sweeping views of the Vienna skyline.  We spent far less time in the lower Belvedere, where the primary attractions are state rooms, including a marble hall and a brightly colored golden room.

The upper Belvedere is a chronological journey of primarily Austrian art from the middle Ages to the present, with thematic rooms.  In particular, the palace includes a great collection of 19th and 20th century art, especially including French impressionists like Monet, Renoir and Van Gogh, as well as Austrian Gustav Klimt, the Viennese master of modernism.  Perhaps the most famous painting of the several thousand works in the collection is Klimt’s “The Kiss,” showing two lovers kissing wrapped in a gold and jeweled cloak.

We really enjoyed a lunch interlude in the lovely Café Menagerie in the upper Belvedere tucked behind the gift shop.  Admission currently is 22 Euros for both buildings and the gardens are free.  We recommend touring the upper Belvedere and gardens.  The English language audio guide was worthwhile, focusing on the most important works of the collection.  www.belvedere.at

Impressive Sights and Sounds of Vienna:  After spending a portion of each day at an art museum, we picked out one or two attractions to fill the remainder of the day into the evening.

Austrian National Library:

Adjoining the Habsburg Palace, this is one of the world’s most important and beautiful historic libraries.   The collection was first assembled by Emperor Karl VI for his court library.  The library is 650 years old and it is the largest library in Austria.  The interior continues to look like a eighteenth century library, with wood book cases, approximately 200,000 books and four huge splendid antique Venetian globes within the long baroque style state hall.  Some of the books were published in the 16th century.  We were particularly impressed with the elaborately decorated dome and ceiling frescoes, which remain vivid and provide an imperial flair.  Josefsplatz 1.  www.onb.ac.at

United Nations, Vienna International Center:

Vienna is one of the four official seats of the United Nations.  The others are in New York, Geneva and Nairobi.  Costing 10 Euros, the ninety minute English language tour was fascinating, providing extensive highlights of the UN activities in Vienna.  The guide first explained which UN organizations are based in Vienna.  Constructed in 1979, we walked through several of the buildings which are collectively referred to as UNO-City.  Other highlights included viewing original works of art from some of the 193 member countries, a sample of a rock from the moon donated by NASA and a visit to the conference rooms where major decisions have been taken.  Located at Wagramer Strasse 5, the International Center sits right at a subway stop.  www.unis.unvienna.org/visit

The Kursalon:

Vienna is synonymous with music.  Opened in 1867 by the Strauss brothers, the Kursalon is the hall where Johann Strauss Jr. directed concerts with many waltzes more than 100 years ago.  Conveniently located by the city park (Stadtpark), the Italian Renaissance style building is splendid, with beautiful glass chandeliers and wonderful acoustics.

The very high quality concert was called the sound of Vienna.  We had a fun evening listening primarily to Mozart and Strauss music performed by a twelve piece orchestra with English language narration as the pieces flew by over 1 ¾ hours.  The evening included enchanting ballet dances and superb opera singers, as well as waltzes and arias.  We picked Category B seats which cost 59 Euros and were situated in the seventh row.  www.soundof Vienna.at

Prater Park:

Created in 1897, Prater is the city’s largest park.  Prater contains an iconic giant Ferris wheel, an amusement park and a three mile long tree-line boulevard perfect for biking or jogging or walking.  For us, Prater Park provided a relaxing interlude between seeing various sites.  There is no fee for admission into the park.  www.prater.wien.info

Jewish Vienna:   Once numbering over 200,000, the Jewish community was all but decimated during World War II.  To discover what happened to the small Jewish community since 1945, we visited several sites.   The Jewish population has been growing since the 1950s to about 8000 in Vienna, primarily due to immigration from Eastern Europe, Iran and the former Soviet Union.

Jewish Museum Vienna:

The first Jewish museum in Vienna was founded in 1895.   The current museum was established thirty years ago.  The permanent exhibition focuses on religion, cultural traditions and Jewish customs in Austria.  The displays were well labeled in English.  The exhibit called “Our city – Jewish Vienna then and now” tells the difficult history of Jewish Vienna from its beginnings to present day.

The museum is located in two buildings in separate locations.  We only toured through the building located at Dorothoeergasse 11.  The cost of admission for both buildings was 12 Euros.  www.jmw.at

Vienna Synagogue (Stadttemple):

Established in 1826, this orthodox synagogue is the only Jewish temple to survive from the Jewish worship buildings that existed in Vienna from World War II.  We especially enjoyed a one hour English language tour of what is now the main synagogue in Vienna.  The tour included an extensive discussion of the Jewish community in Vienna, as well as an explanation of what is contained within the building.  The synagogue is only open to the public for tours or services.  Seitenstettengasse 4.

Sigmund Freud House and Museum:

In the house where Freud lived and practiced from 1859 to 1938, the museum (founded in 1971) presents a small exhibition documenting the life and work of the founder of psychoanalysis.  Driven into exile by anti-Semitism, Freud was not popular during these years in Vienna.  Most interesting to us was the film footage of the Freud family from the 1930s.  Some of the displays were labelled in English and English language handouts were available to be viewed.  The cost is 12 Euros for an adult.

With original furnishings in the waiting room including antiques, we could glimpse into the atmosphere of Freud with his patients as he developed a new discipline.  There is an empty space where he had his famous couch.  As we wandered through the small apartment and office that he spent 47 years in, we were able to view some of his numerous written works and imagine his treatment of troubled patients in the treatment room.  Berggasse 19.  www.freud-museum.at

Holocaust Memorial (The Nameless Library):

At Judenplatz, there is a monument to the 65,000 Austrian victims of the Holocaust.  Built by the city of Vienna, the memorial was unveiled in 2000.  Also engraved are the names of concentration camps where the victims were killed by the Nazis.

The outside surfaces of the memorial are library shelves turned inside out.  The shelves of the memorial appear to hold endless copies of the same edition, which stand for the vast number of the victims, as well as the concept of Jews as “People of the Book.”   The memorial also speaks of a cultural loss created by the genocide.

My Tips for an Enjoyable Stay in Vienna:

Vienna Pass:

The Vienna Pass provides free admission to over 60 attractions, including the hop on hop off bus and a one hour walking tour of central Vienna.  The pass is available for one, two, three or six consecutive days.  Both the walking tour and the hop on hop off bus provided us with a great initial overview of the layout of Vienna and the location of key sites.   With six routes and fifty stops and an audio guide, the Vienna hop on hop off bus provided a more extensive route system than similar buses in other cities.  Although the pass normally costs 119 Euros for an adult pass for three days, the passes are frequently on sale through the pass web site.   www.viennapass.com

The Public Transportation System:

The system is extensive, inexpensive and easy to use.  The subway system (U bahn) contains six color coded lines.   In addition, with one of the largest tram systems in the world, it was easy for us to travel to sites not located at subway stops.  Both subway and tram stops were clearly announced and signage of the stops was easy to follow.  The public transportation pass can be purchased along with a Vienna pass for an additional fee.

Guidebook:

Rick Steves’ Pocket Vienna provided good guidance for prioritizing our time and determining which sites were more important to see.  Although the book is over 200 pages, it is published in a very compact easy to carry around form.  He provides maps and a good overview of hotels, restaurants and Vienna neighborhoods.

Lodging:

Right in the middle of Vienna (at Schottenring 11), the Hilton Vienna Plaza was exceptionally well located by both tram and subway stops.  Designed in an art deco style, this hotel has an excellent fitness center, very nice sized rooms and fine food and drinks within their executive room.  The hotel staff spoke English fluently, were extremely helpful when asked questions and were very attentive. www.hilton.de/wienplaza

Fern and I were extremely glad to have returned to this grand city.  On our first trip we were able to explore the two imperial palaces – Schonbrunn, the summer palace, and Hofburg, within city center, pastries at Café Demel, an evening musical concert, but not much more.  Vienna’s rich cultural heritage deserves multiple trips of discovery.

My wife Fern, my daughter Danielle and I were amazed how different life is approximately one hour away from Las Vegas – in any direction. Even when were still able to view the bright lights of the Las Vegas strip in the distance, we entered into a totally different world with beautiful natural scenery and marvelous man made wonders!  Nevada’s striking scenic recreational areas were the perfect relaxing antidote after our over stimulation from the sounds and sites of Las Vegas.

Day trip to Red Rock Canyon National Conservation Area:

About 15 miles west of Las Vegas, Red Rock provides spectacular desert-like landscapes far removed from the neon glitter.  At the information desk within an extensive visitor center, we were told about the best overlooks and recommended hikes (out of the 26 trails, covering nearly 60 miles).  We enjoyed one hike, although the trail was not extremely well marked.  A thirteen mile paved loop allowed us to drive and enjoy the beautiful scenery from various overlooks, as we went up and down canyons.  Managed by the Bureau of Land Management and the Southern Nevada Conservancy, this site is well worth the $15 fee per car!  The area includes almost 200,000 acres within the Mohave Desert.  It is important to have water available, as the area gets very hot and dry.  https://www.redrockcanyonlv.org

Day trip to the Hoover Dam and the Lake Mead National Recreation Area (Boulder City, Nevada):

Hoover Dam: Less than one hour from the City of Lights, the Depression era Hoover Dam controls the flow of the Colorado River.  Completed in 1935, this world renowned structure is listed as one of American’s modern civil engineering wonders.  Walking across the O’Callaghan – Tillman Bridge (opened in 2010), Danielle, Fern and I were provided with dramatic views of the dam and river.  The bridge’s six foot wide pedestrian sideway allows visitors to walk from the Nevada side of the dam to just over the Arizona border, where the path ends.

Inside the visitor center, we watched a series of audio visual presentations and viewed interactive exhibits. We were surprised to learn that the 60 story high dam produces sufficient hydroelectric power in its plant to be self-supporting.  Outside the center is an art deco style plaza with a series of bronze sculptures and a plaque dedicated to the Hoover Dam mascot, a dog who was a companion to the construction crew.  Parking at the dam costs $10 per car and admission to the visitor center costs $10 per person.  https://www.usbr.gov/lc/hooverdam/

Lake Mead: Just minutes from Hoover Dam we drove to America’s largest mad-made reservoir.  The lake was formed by the construction of the Hoover Dam and has a shoreline of approximately 550 miles.  The national recreation area was established in 1964 and requires an admission fee of $20 per car.   Danielle, Fern and I enjoyed the drive along the lake, especially the very nice views of jumbled red rock formations and the vast lake; the colors are spectacular.  We stopped for lunch at the Boathouse Restaurant, which sits on Lake Mead Marina with pleasant views of the lake and boats, a wide variety of food options and good prices.  https://www.nps.gov/lake/index.htm

Day trip to Valley of Fire State Park (near Overton, Nevada):

About 55 miles northeast of Las Vegas, this beautiful state park (established in 1935 as Nevada’s first state park) is hugely popular. The park’s rough floor and jagged walls bristle with formations of eroded red sandstone nestled in gray and tan limestone mountains.  The fiery red colors of bright Aztec red give the park its name.  This extremely colorful effect is particularly pronounced in the softer light of late afternoon.  The gently winding park road passes a wide variety of beautiful red rock desert landscapes.  The park has many hiking trails of varying length and terrain, as well as a small visitor center.  Recognized nationally for its outstanding scenic, geological and archeologically features, this park is well worth the cost of $10 per vehicle.  https://parks.nv.gov/parks/valley-of-fire

Viva, Las Vegas:

Fern and I found the Las Vegas strip and its casinos to be extremely crowded and smoky. Nevertheless, during our time within Las Vegas, we particular enjoyed the following activities.

Vegas, the Show: Told in a splashy style, Vegas is a musical showcasing the history of Las Vegas.  The show pays homage to big name Vegas entertainers (such as Elvis, Tina Turner and the Rat Pack) and features Las Vegas showgirls donned in rhinestones and feathers.  Most nights, the show is performed at 7 and 9 p.m. in the Planet Hollywood Casino’s Saxe Theatre.

Purple Reign, The Prince Tribute Show: Jason Tenner does an exceptional job taking on the look, sound and moves of Prince.  Starting at 9 p.m. in the Tropicana Hotel, the show lasts just under two hours.  The show features high energy dancing, focusing on the hits from the movie Purple Rain.

Marriage Can Be Murder: For the last 18 years, this interactive comic murder mystery dinner theater allows participants to try to solve the case.  Beginning at 6:30 p.m. and lasting for two hours in the D Las Vegas Hotel near downtown, the evening was just plain fun.  The three course dinner was pretty bland, but we did have vegetarian and chicken options.

Big Elvis: Performing three days per week inside a piano bar within Harrah’s Casino, Pete Vallee may be the world’s biggest Elvis impersonator.  Pete really does sound like Elvis, but he is much heavier than Elvis ever became.  Pete claims to be a love child of Elvis!

Spectacles of the Strip: Our favorites were watching the dancing fountains in front of the Bellagio, set to lights and different music throughout the evening (on the quarter hour), watching the 50 foot high volcano erupt in front of the Mirage (twice nightly) and observing the fall of Atlantis animated show inside Caesar’s Palace with fire, water and nine foot tall talking statutes (on the hour).

Eating at Carmine’s Restaurant: Within Caesar’s Palace, this southern Italian restaurant features hearty family style portions.  Set it a multi-level dining room, the servers were extremely responsive and the taste of the food – the bread, the pasta, the sauces and the eggplant – was incredibly delicious.  As a result, upon our return to Washington, D.C., we ate at Carmine’s sister restaurant in Penn Quarter.

 

Finally, we could have passed on these activities:

The Mob Museum: Located downtown, several friends had recommended this attraction to us.  We found the museum to be a pretty static and boring experience, where primarily we reading exhibit after exhibit about organized crime and its impact on American society.  Most of the interactive features required extra fees.

The Deuce Bus: The double decker bus may be the cheapest way to travel along the strip, but the ride was far from comfortable.  We crawled along in traffic, with frequent stops to pick up noisy and rowdy passengers.

The Freemont Street Experience: This five block stretch downtown becomes hyper active at night.  Underneath a canopy, the pedestrian style mall provides for a blitz of ear splitting sound, intense neon lights and a constant barrage of drunken pedestrians wandering from casino to casino.

The Lack of Amenities in Hotel Rooms: Many Las Vegas hotel rooms do not have refrigerators or coffee makers.  As a result, we could not store food in our room and had to go out to get coffee every morning.

So, as we were leaving the glitz of Las Vegas, with lights so bright every night, Danielle, Fern and I were most happy to recall the breathtaking parklands and natural areas just one hour away from the strip.

With a population of about 300,000 in the city proper and about 2 million in the metropolitan area, Cincinnati is known as the Queen City. Generally a queen city has a larger population than the state capital.  During its 19th century population growth, Cincinnati became known as the Queen City of the West.  Fern and I enjoyed our President’s Weekend 2018 in the Greater Cincinnati area, which provides many activities and great food (including Graeter’s Ice Cream) without traveling far from the heart of the city.

Day One – Covington, Kentucky

While part of the metropolitan Cincinnati area, Covington has the charm of an independent neighborhood. Three bridges spanning the Ohio River connect Covington to Cincinnati.

Main – Strasse Village – The restored nineteenth century German village comprises a six block area, with a clock bell tower, cute shops and restaurants housed in renovated buildings. A unique sculpture, the Goose Girl fountain, is a life size bronze replica of a German maid carrying two geese to market.  We had an excellent lunch at the Cock and Bull Public House, a pub on Main Street directly across from the fountain and spent a cozy hour at the quaint Roebling Point Books and Coffee Shop.

St. Mary’s Cathedral Basilica of the Assumption – The cathedral’s exterior façade was designed to look like Notre Dame in Paris. Modeled after the Abbey Church of St. Dennis in Paris, the building interior is simply spectacular.  We spent the majority of our time admiring the eighty two stained glass windows, the fourteen elegant mosaic stations reproducing the life and death of Christ in tiny porcelain ceramic tiles and mother of pearl, and two large murals by Frank Duveneck in the Blessed Sacrament Chapel.  By the entrance, one of the beautiful stained glass windows, measuring 67 by 24 feet, is among the largest in the world.  A friendly greeter answered our questions about the 1895 structure.  www.covcathedral.com

Day 2 – Downtown Cincinnati

National Underground Freedom Center – We spent most of one day within the Center. The galleries feature interactive videos, films and displays focusing on slavery in America, including the role of the Underground Railroad in leading to freedom of slaves.  Of particular interest, we were able to enter within an actual 1830 two – story slave pen which was moved from Kentucky.  The gallery featuring invisible slavery today was particularly eye opening.  The docents provided a wealth of specific information during tours and in spontaneous interactions throughout the Center.  The brief virtual reality Rosa Parks simulation puts you on the bus itself with Ms. Parks on December 1, 1955, in Montgomery, Alabama, as if you were being approached by the bus driver and police to give up your seat to a white passenger.  Outside the Center is a piece of the Berlin Wall.

Netherland Plaza and Carew Tower – Not only centrally located, the Netherland Plaza Hotel features an extensive fitness center with a pool, restaurants and over twenty adjoining shops. Built in 1930, the grandeur of the hotel features many ornate features inlcuding a beautiful French Art Deco palm court, with ceiling murals and a lovely fountain.   The Carew Tower is the highest elevated building in the city. After taking the elevator to the 49th floor of the Carew Tower, Fern and I were able to with 360 degree panoramic view of Cincinnati and Northern Kentucky on the outdoor observation tower.

Day 3 – Greater Cincinnati

Cincinnati Art Museum – With no admission charge, we were particularly impressed with the diverse collection of art works. Fern and I particularly enjoyed the one hour tour with a very entertaining, energetic and knowledgeable docent.  Founded in 1881, the collection showcases sculpture, paintings, prints and photographs roughly in a chronological order.  We particularly enjoyed the impressionist masterpieces and works of art by and about Cincinnati.  We also had a delicious lunch of salads in the tranquil atmosphere of the Terrace Café, with art inspired decor.  www.cincinnatiartmuseum.org

Eden Park – Bordering the Cincinnati Art Museum, we explored parts of Eden Park, a lovely green space featuring paths with numerous overlooks with majestic views of the Ohio River and Northern Kentucky.

Skirball Museum – Located within the Hebrew Union College campus in the Clifton neighborhood, this small museum, founded in 1913, displays Jewish artifacts and art from around the world. The permanent collection focuses on the cultural, historical and religious heritage of the Jewish people and a Holocaust display with a remembrance wall.  In a neighboring campus building, we were able to view portraits of the various graduating classes of rabbis, including one from our congregation in Virginia.  Facebook.com/cinci.skirball

Graeters Ice Cream – Founded in Cincinnati in 1870, now with eighteen locations, this family owned chain (now in its fourth generation) arguably sells the tastiest ice cream. Their very yummy ice cream is made using the French pot method, where flavors are added to an egg custard base combined with other ingredients into flavor vats.

Day 4 – Our Final Day in Cincinnati

Contemporary Arts Center – In the heart of downtown, housed in a large modern building, this free museum focuses on contemporary art. The visual and interactive arts, including paintings, sculpture, performance art and photography, explore the relationship between art and the environment.  Exhibits change frequently.  The impressive Swoon exhibit presented a site-specific installation re-staging a colorful archive of her landmark projects of socially driven work in numerous countries as well as with transitional communities in Braddock and Philadelphia, Pennsylvania.   www.contemporaryartscenter.org

We Olive and Wine Bar – In the business district, we enjoyed lunch with an olive oil experience. Along with healthy salads, we enjoyed tasting various olive oils with flat breads.  Weolive.com/cincinnati

Holocaust and Humanity Center – Currently on the campus of Rockwern Academy, the small Holocaust and Humanity Center provides education about the Holocaust to remember its victims and act on its lessons. The permanent exhibit focuses on survivors, liberators and resistors with a connection to Cincinnati.  In addition to displays, the Center contains many videos with testimony from these individuals.  The Center also includes many Jewish objects obtained from synagogues, Jewish homes and institutions.

Even in the winter, we were never bored during our weekend in Greater Cincinnati. Had the weather been better, we most likely would have explored more outdoor activities, such as the Findlay Market.  Traveling around was stress free, with a good system of roads and much more enjoyable than many other metropolitan areas.

 

My wife Fern and I left the bitter cold of the 2018 winter on a Friday January morning. We were on the beach wearing bathing suits in the afternoon.  Our non-stop flights from Baltimore – Washington airport to Cancun were under three hours and thirty minutes each way.  We booked our package (hotel, airfare, excursions and airport shuttle) together through Cheap Caribbean.com.  We divided our five day trip between relaxation at the resort and several excursions to the Mayan ruins and a natural well.

Lodging at Iberostar Paraiso Beach Resort

Midway between Cancun and Tulum, the eighty mile stretch of Mexico’s Yucatan coast is called Riviera Maya. Our resort was located twenty three miles south of the Cancun airport.

Iberostar is a Spanish chain of 4 and 5 star resorts. Located within the heart of Riviera Maya, this all- inclusive resort shares amenities with the Iberostar Del Mar, featuring a very large pool, several bars, a disco, an ice cream stand and a pristine beach.  A fully equipped fitness center also included free fitness classes throughout each day.   Many comfortable beach chairs were placed under palm thatched stands, where we were able to view the beautiful blues and greens of the tranquil Caribbean Sea on a wide stretch of beach.

We really enjoyed the dinners at the resort’s specialty restaurants, with each of the six restaurants featuring a different cuisine (including Mexican, Mediterranean, Italian, French, and Japanese). However, we were only allowed to make reservations for two dinners based on the length of our stay.  The food at the Italian and Mexican restaurants was truly exceptional, the service was excellent and the atmosphere was superior.  All breakfasts and lunches at Iberostar were at one of the two buffet restaurants, both of which offered many food options.  Throughout the grounds, we wandered by many colorful animals, including pink flamingos, large turtles, Mexican prairie dogs and the very odd coati, a member of the raccoon family!

Chichen Itza Mayan Ruins

About one and one-half hours northwest of Riviera Maya, this stunning Mayan city has been names one of the new seven wonders of the world. This site, one of the most visited in Mexico, was named as a UNESCO world heritage site in 1988.

This awe-inspiring city was once the center of the Mayan empire. This was a holy site, constructed more than 1500 years ago.  We spent half of one day here, including a guided tour.

In the heart of the city is the iconic giant El Castillo pyramid that stands nearly 100 feet high and 181 feet across at the bottom. Unfortunately tourists can no longer climb the stairways.  Two of the sides have been reconstructed.  With large sculptures of serpent heads at the base of one of the grand staircases, it is believed that the pyramid was used for sacrifices to the golds.

Among the other ancient structures, I found most interesting to be the Ball Court which was used for a game where teams of seven players competed to direct a heavy ball through a ring mounted on a wall seven meters high (23 feet). The captain of the “winning” team was sacrificed to the gods.

Tulum Mayan Ruins

About 30 minutes south of our resort, we took a two hour tour with Cancun Adventures of these well preserved ruins. The excursion included a one hour guided tour and one hour on our own.

This Mayan ancient walled city is situated on tall cliffs that back up to the Caribbean Sea for incredible views.   A thick stone wall encloses about 60 structures.  Most are small and many are carved with gargoyle faces.  The most dramatic structure is the castle, a large pyramid that overlooks the Caribbean.  We briefly sat on the stunning white sand beach beneath the ruins.  The cost was seventy pesos for an adult.

Ik Kil Cenote, Yucatan

Yucatan has thousands of cenotes (natural wells) that exist nowhere else. These sink holes are of exquisite natural beauty as they expose groundwater underneath.  The sink holes once were caverns where the roofs collapsed.

Ik Kit is a round, steep vertical shaft, both dark and cool. There are vines which reach from the opening all the way down to the pool of spring water, along with small waterfalls.

Mayans used this site as a location for human sacrifices to the rain god, as well as for relaxation. To the Mayans, these natural wells were sacred passageways to the underworld.  Near Chichen Itza, this underwater sinkhole is open to the sky.  You can walk down a carved stairway to a swimming platform or to viewing stations.

The privately owned complex includes a small restaurant, store, picnic tables and changing rooms. The cost is 80 pesos for adults and this natural well was quite crowded.

Tips:

Transportation: The Amstar shuttle to and from the airport was timely and comfortable.  We used Amstar to arrange our two Mayan ruins guided tours.

After WOW inaugurated its service from Baltimore-Washington, my wife Fern and I quickly booked our flights at great rates. After staying five nights in Brussels and two nights in Bruges, we had experienced great activities and viewed the top sights.

Brussels is the undisputed crossroads of Belgium, if not all of Europe. Our side trip to Bruges, in northwest Belgium, allowed us time to fully explore the medieval center, now a UNESCO world heritage site.  The canals surround the protected historic city in the shape of an egg.

Ten Wow sights not to miss in Brussels:

  • The landmark Atomium (www.atomium.be): This unmistakable symbol of Brussels, an enlarged model of an iron molecule 102 meters high, can be seen all over the city. A thirty minute metro ride from central Brussels to Heysel took us to this shining silver reminder from the 1958 World’s Fair Expo. Walking through tubes and spheres, we saw the permanent exhibition about the building of the Atomium and the history of the expo, a temporary art exhibit on surrealism and spectacular panoramic views of the city skyline from the top level. Ironically this structure was not intended to survive beyond the Expo, but did due to its popularity and success.
  • The European Parliament: We spent most of one day touring the three buildings open to the public without charge. At the Parlimentarium (www.europarl.europa.eu/parlimentarium), we learned a wealth of information about the formation of the European Union from World War 2 to date, as well as its governmental structures. We sat in the Hemicycle where the EU parliament meets and listed to a short audio guide which explained how sessions are translated into 24 languages for the representatives. We also enjoyed the newly opened House of Europe, essentially a historical museum of the European continent.
  • A trip to the world of Chocolate: We indulged in a little self-education at some of the many local chocolate shops. Near the Grand Place, the outstanding chocolate shop Planete Chocolat (www.planetechocolat.com) provides an exceptional one hour demonstration which included samples of hot chocolate and tastings of different Belgian chocolates. Inside the workshop, the chocolate master told us the detailed history behind chocolate in Belgium. He showed us the various stages in making pralines and other tasty delicacies.
  • The Royal Museums of Fine Arts of Belgium: Three separate art museums are interconnected by an impressive inner courtyard. The old masters museum narrates art history from the 15th to the 18th century, featuring its Pieter Bruegel collection. The modern art museum burrows underground for eight floors, displaying a strong collection of Belgian art of the past 100 years. Our favorite was the Magritte museum which presents the largest collection of works by the renowned Belgian surrealist along with quirky works of other surrealists, including paintings, sculptures, posters, photographs and films.
  • Comic culture: Brussels, the home of the comic strip, contains more than twenty wall murals featuring well-known comic characters. At the Belgian Comic Strip Center, we particularly enjoyed learning about comics that were birthed in Belgium, such as the Smurfs. The Center is contained within a beautiful building preserving Victor Horta’s art nouveau architecture.
  • The Museum of Musical Instruments: Contained within three adjacent buildings, this museum hosts a rich and diverse collection of over 1500 instruments, such as giraffe pianos. On the top level, the café presents one of the most breathtaking panoramic views over central Brussels.
  • The Cathedral St. Michel et St. Gudule: The church’s twin gothic towers look down over central Brussels. Inside we viewed outstanding stained glass windows. This large church is the site of royal weddings and christenings. St. Michel is the patron saint of Brussels.
  • The BELvue Museum: Housed in an historic hotel built in 1776, this museum provides a thematic approach to discover Belgium, as its salons feature themes – democracy, prosperity, solidarity, pluralism, migration, language and Europe. Containing over 200 objects, photos, documents and short films, BELvue charts Belgian history from its independence in 1831 to modern day.
  • Coundenberg Palace: Walking beneath the paving stones of the Royal Palace, we went underground through the remains of what was one of the main residences of Charles V. This massive palace was first constructed in the 11th century, then destroyed by a great fire in 1731 and never reconstructed. The site shows archaeological discoveries made during excavations of the past 25 years and allows visitors to view the ruins of former palace rooms.
  • The iconic Mannekin Pis: Twice we walked by the small statute of the peeing boy that has become an emblem of Brussels. Once he was naked and once he was dressed in one of the over 500 costumes used for ceremonial occasions. On this day, he was dressed in a postal carrier uniform. Nearby the equal opportunity female version statute – Jeanneke Pis – sits behind a cage outside of a restaurant where she collects coins for charity.Five Wow sights not to miss in Bruges:
    • The free harp concert: The daily concerts by Luc Vanlaerne (www.harpmuziek.be) have become a top cultural attraction. In the performance, he features instruments of the harp family and plays his own compositions. The forty minute sessions (pay by donation) take place in his studio close to Holy Mary Church.
    • The Legends of Bruges free (pay by tips) walking tour: For almost three hours, we were thoroughly entertained by a local guide, starting out in Market (Markt) Square and ending in Burg Square. As we walked by the romantic Minnewater (the picturesque lake of love which was created as a reservoir in the 13th century), our guide told us the legend of why swans must be kept in Bruges’ canals forever. As he led us through the 13th century Beguinage, a pretty and serene cluster of small white washed houses, he revealed how these nuns had devoted themselves to charitable work and health care.  Our guide even pointed out the house where Jewish orphans were hidden during World War 2.
    • The Lace Center (Kantcentrum): A short walk from the city’s two main squares, down winding cobbled winding streets, we made our way to this working museum. On the first floor, the exhibits explain the intricate art of this ancient Belgian craft through a series of displays and short films. On the second level, local women demonstrate lace making and interact with visitors, discussing their creations.
    • The Basilica of the Holy Blood: In Burg Square, the 12th century basilica is flanked by striking historic civil buildings. The basilica contains one of Europe’s most precious relics, a vial though to contain a few drops of the blood of Jesus Christ. The vial was brought to Bruges in 1149 when Derick of Alscae returned from Jerusalem.
    • The Church of Our Lady (Onze-Lieve-Vrouwekerk): This church contains one of the few Michelangelo sculptures outside of Italy, the world famous Madonna and Child. This small sculpture ended up in Belgium when the original client refused to pay and a merchant from Bruges bought it instead. Later stolen by Napoleon and Nazi leaders, the sculpture was recovered and returned to Belgium by American GIs after World War 2. 
    • Ten Wow tips for Belgium:
      1. Frequent inexpensively priced trains: Belgian trains are prompt and clean. They make for easy travel within Belgium. From Brussels airport to Brussels central station, trains run three times per hour and take less than ½ hour. From Brussels central station to Bruges, trains run three times per hour and the trip takes one hour.
      2. Best guide books: Foder’s Belgium and Lonely Planet’s Belgium/Luxembourg.
      3. The Brussels card: This pass includes free access to 39 museums and discounts to many tourist attractions. We purchased the three day version, but one and two day cards are available. By upgrading to the pass with unlimited public transportation, we easily mastered the seven line metro subway system. The card with transit includes buses, trams and the metro.
      4. The Bruges museum pass: This card (www.museabrugge.be) includes admission to 14 museums and attractions over a three day period. We toured six. We climbed 366 winding steps to the top of the 13th century Belfry (Belfort) Tower where we were rewarded with a breathtaking view of Bruges, the gorgeous surrounding countryside and the North Sea.  We also toured Sint Janshospital, one of the oldest preserved hospital buildings in Europe, which contains the masterpieces of the most famous Flemish primitive artist, Bruges native Hans Memling; the still active 14th century city hall (Stadhuis) a jewel of gothic architecture that features murals presenting a romantic history of Bruges; the Groeninge museum which contains a world famous collection of Flemish primitive paintings and the former law courts (Brugse Vrije) which feature a monumental wood, marble and alabaster fireplace within a court room.
      5. Sandeman’s Free Walking Tour: Starting our trip with this “free” (pay by tips) three hour tour was a great orientation to Belgium. Starting in the ornate Grand Place, one of Europe’s most strikingly beautiful squares, we walked through the Park de Brussels, by the former stock exchange and ended at the Royal Palace and Gardens. The tour was very informative.
      6. Hilton Grand Place: In Brussels, this hotel is superbly located directly across from Central Station and is walkable from most attractions. Additionally, we really enjoyed the lavish breakfast buffet, the gracious service and helpful directions for walking or taking the metro. By European standards, the rooms were quite large and comfortable. The fitness center was more than expected.
      7. The Jewish Museum of Belgium: Recently reopened, this Brussels museum features an exhibition with little link to Jewish history. Indeed the museum no longer contains its collection of Jewish life in Belgium. Similarly, the Grand Synagogue of Europe nearby is no longer open to the public, although we did walk by the massive Romanesque building which features a Jewish star and the Ten Commandments on its front side.
      8. The Palace de Justice in Brussels: One of the world’s largest legal buildings, the law courts are under reconstruction and only several floors can be visited. We did get a peek at a trail in session, the old fashioned black robes worn by the judge’s assistants, the enormous entry hall and a gallery of the heads of famous Belgian lawyers – all men.
      9. Green spaces: In central Brussels, directly across from the Royal Palace, the Park de Brussels provides a small bit of park land. We walked by the Botanic Gardens in Brussels which showcased carefully manicured plants, trees and symmetrical gardens. Way out by the Atomium, the Park de Laeken provided enough park land for Brussels joggers, walkers and bicyclists to get in their workouts. In central Bruges, Minnewater is the most scenic green space.
      10. Tourists everywhere: Both in Brussels and Bruges, we were surprised by the vast number of tourists walking by. Although this did not diminish our enjoyment of Belgium, we did keep a close eye on the crowds and our belongings.
    • For Fern and I, our WOW trip to Belgium was one of our most informative, diverse and enjoyable trips abroad. The local residents were friendly.  We ran out of time before we ran out of activities to do in Brussels and in Bruges.

Prague is a vibrant European capital city with lots of atmosphere. It is a city rich with a repository of Baroque, Romanesque, Art Nouveau and Medieval buildings that stir the imagination.  Little remains from the dreary days of Communist domination (1948-1989), except for some brutalist movement buildings.  For example, one is now the large InterContinental Hotel near the city center.

In 1993, the central European Czech Republic split off from Slovakia. About 1.3 million of the country’s 10.5 million inhabitants reside in Prague.  My wife Fern and I really enjoyed our four day stay in June.

Our lodging at the Corinthia Hotel, PragueThe Corinthia is located within the same complex as a Metro Stop (Vysehrad), two stops from the city-center. This large hotel is at the top of one of Prague’s seven hills. The Corinthia has one of the nicest executive lounges, with local food delicsies throughout the day and evening, and a very friendly staff. Both the executive lounge and the large indoor pool on the hotel’s top two floors have breathtaking panoramic views of the Prague skyline, where we could view many of the city’s “hundred spires.” We particularly enjoyed the fully equipped fitness center which features both aerobic and weights options, located right next to a day spa. Daily breakfast buffets were extensive in variety (e.g., featuring four different granola options). The buffets included some Czech cuisine and were very tasty.Walking through Vysehrad (Day 1)Vysehrad means castle on the heights; it is a rocky outcrop above the river. We walked on the many streets paved with centuries old cobblestones. These streets were the castle grounds of the first Czech royalty princes and kings and a fortress for the seat of power. The first castle was built in the 10th century and was rebuilt many times.We toured the neighborhood’s largest structure, the Neo-Gothic basilica of Saints Peter and Paul. The basilica’s twin spires can be seen from a great distance. The first church on this site dated from the 11th century. This version was rebuilt in 1903 after fires destroyed the original.  We also toured the area’s smallest structure, the tiny Romanesque Rotunda of Saint Martin which was built in the 11th century and is the oldest Christian house of worship in the Czech Republic. This tiny church was reconstructed in 1878.

We briefly strolled through the small Vysehrad national cemetery (dating from the 1870s), the last resting point of some of the country’s most famous figures and luminaries. We left the neighborhood through the Leopold Gate which contains decorative sculptures on the gate itself.

Although off of the normal tourist paths, this neighborhood contains enough sites to see for a full day. Once through the Taborska (Tabor) Gate we walked among the ruins of Charles VI’s restored Vysehrad’s fortifications from the 14th century. Vysehrad was originally fortified in the 10th century and redone again in the 17th century.

Far enough from the city center to be largely tourist free, Vysehrad is a peaceful neighborhood and it contains several small parks. Within the parks are several large restored statutes which represent figures from early Czech history. The statutes were originally on Palacky Bridge but were relocated after being damaged during US bombardment in February 1945. Stopping at the view points on the ramparts and fortifications, we enjoyed unrivaled views of Prague’s panorama, including many places overlooking the Vltava River from far above where we could see marvelous views of Prague’s spires.

Terezin (Day 2)

Touring the former ghetto and concentration camp is a sad and dramatic experience. Terezin is about one hour from Prague by car.  Originally Terezin was an historic fortified city built by the Hapsburgs.  The fortress town was conceived in the late 18th century when the Hapsburg Emperor ordered the construction of Theresienstadt, named after his mother Empress Maria Theresa.  Terezin was later established as a town in the newly formed Czechoslovakia.

Nazi Germany took over the town in 1940 and transformed it into a ghetto and later, a notorious concentration camp. Most of Prague’s Jews were moved to Terezin.  We saw the former prison cells, residences of the Gestapo and some of the extensive underground corridors.  At first Jews and political prisoners were imprisoned in Terezin and then deported by rail to various concentration camps in German occupied Poland.  As the war continued tens of thousands were killed there.  A very large number of Jews died in this camp after the 1945 liberation due to outbreaks of typhoid and malnutrition.

Landmarks of Judaism in a Medieval City – The Jewish Quarter, Josefov (Day 3)

In the 18th century the Jewish Quarter was named Josefov after Josef II who relaxed discrimination against the Prague Jews.  At the reservation center in Josefov, we purchased the Jewish Museum in Prague ticket which includes (1) the Old Jewish Cemetery, (2) the Maisel Synagogue, (3) the Pinkas Synagogue, (4) the Klausen synagogue, (5) the Ceremonial Hall, and (6) the Spanish Synagogue.  For an additional fee, we purchased an audio guide and were able to also tour the Old- New Synagogue.  These sites are closed to the public on Jewish Holidays and Saturdays.  Kosher restaurants are scattered throughout the Quarter with names like King Solomon restaurant and the Golema restaurant.

Jews are thought to have settled in Prague as early as the 10th century.  Today the small district lies within the larger Old Town and is a rich repository of Jewish history.

The Old Jewish Cemetery is the largest of its kind in Europe. We felt that the jumble of crumbling and leaning tombstones is a moving memorial to Prague’s Jewish community.  It is estimated that 100,000 graves were built in layers on top of each other from 1439 to 1787, up to twelve layers deep.

Across the street from the cemetery is the gothic 13th century Old New Synagogue, the oldest active synagogue in Europe.  This synagogue has been a place of refuge during pogroms.  This Orthodox synagogue still separates men and women, with the women sitting in the vestibule watching the services through windows.  We found it ironic that this congregation was originally called the New Synagogue until another synagogue was built nearby (that no longer exists).

Just down the street, the neo-gothic Maisel Synagogue is now a museum. It was built during the 16th century Golden Age of the Jewish Ghetto.  Mordecai Maisel was then the Jewish mayor and one of the richest citizens in Europe.  This building now features displays of Jews in the Bohemian lands during the 10th to 18th centuries (including religious artifacts, furniture and books).  Much of the collection had been looted by the Nazis from other synagogues, with the horrid intention of founding a museum of an extinct people.

Adjacent to the cemetery is the Pinkas Synagogue. Founded in 1479 by Rabbi Pinkas, this synagogue is now a memorial to Holocaust victims from Bohemia and Moravia.  The names and dates of death of approximately 80,000 Jewish victims of the Holocaust cover the walls (including quite a few named Schwartz).  Equally moving, this synagogue features a touching exhibit of children’s drawings and writings while at the Terezin concentration camp during 1942 to 1944.

Maisel also commissioned the building in 1694 of the elegant baroque Klausen synagogue which also borders the cemetery. Klausen is named after Jewish houses of prayer and study.  This building now contains exhibits and prints featuring Jewish customs, festivals, family life and traditions.  The adjoining ceremonial hall explains the role of the Jewish burial society.

Several blocks away, the conservative Jewish movement still holds services, concerts and events at the Spanish Synagogue, featuring an opulent Moorish interior and containing an organ from 1880. Additionally, this building features displays on the history of the Jews in Bohemia and Moravia.

Not all buildings within the Jewish quarter are open to the public. We were able to view from outside the original Jewish town hall that features a clock with Jewish letters.  Because Hebrew reads from right to left, the clock hands turn against the clockwise direction!

Prague Castle, Old Town and the Charles Bridge (Day 4)

Few cities embody the past as authentically as Prague. Our English language tour guide exemplified how Prague clings to its history with her unwavering passion for its colorful past.

During our guided walk through the Prague Castle (a UNESCO world heritage site), we learned that this fortress is really a complex of many impressive courtyards, palaces, churches and gardens. Outside the main entrance, two of the castle guards were wearing their blue summer uniforms, with impassive stares.  Once the seat of Bohemian kings, the castle now serves as the office of the President of the Czech Republic.  It is the world’s biggest castle complex.

Within the complex, the St. Vitus Cathedral may be Prague’s most distinctive landmark. The largest church in the Czech Republic, its spires can be seen throughout Prague.  Building of this imposing gothic structure began in 1344, but continued over almost 600 years!  The interior contains beautiful stain glass windows.  Outside the cathedral, an intricate mosaic of the Last Judgment from the 14th century shines in gold over one of the main entrances.  Gargoyles jut out over gutter spouts.

After leaving the castle, we walked across the Charles Bridge, a pedestrian only bridge (with gothic towers) which crosses the River Vltava. Constructed in the 14th century, the bridge contains a series of 30 baroque statutes (some of which are reproductions).  Crowded with tourists, there are many artists and musicians selling their wares on the bridge.  The 1700 feet long bridge connects the castle complex to Old Town.

We were told that the highlight of Old Town may be the mesmerizing Astronomical clock, dating from the 15th century.  On the hour, bells ring, cocks crow and a series of wooden statutes of apostles take turns popping through window openings.  Situated high atop the old town hall, the display is currently partially impaired by repairs to the building.  The hourly showing only lasts approximately one minute and arguably is overrated!

Final tips

Prague is a wonderful city, but we also enjoyed seeing some of the countryside outside of Prague. There is life beyond Prague in the Czech Republic. On the way back from Terezin, we made a brief stop in Litomerice and had lunch and a “mini” tour at a microbrewery. The microbrewery Minipovar Labut is located in the cellar of a small hotel. It has a nice brewery room with copper kettles and a limited menu that features local food.

When in doubt, try an Italian restaurant. We really enjoyed Pepe Nero, in Old Town just outside of the Jewish Quarter. The staff spoke English fluently. The breads, salads and pasta were tasty and inexpensive.The streets in the city center are mostly cobblestone so comfortable shoes are a must.

We used Czech coins for public restrooms (as the Czech Republic is not on the Euro), but most restaurants and museums took credit cards for payment.

Connecticut is the third smallest state in size. My wife Fern and I sought to cover many Connecticut highlights over the three-day weekend.  Using Hartford’s central location as our base, we discovered quite a few great experiences in the Constitution state.

Day 1: Hartford

The Mark Twain House and Museum one hour tour provided us with information on the life of Samuel Clemens and this house.   The extensive home was built for Clemens and his family in 1874 in a beautiful West End neighborhood; then an art colony called Nook Farm.  He lived in this 25 room Victorian Gothic home for 17 years until his financial troubles caused him to sell.  The brick mansion features large porches and towering turrets.  Highlights included the billiards room where Clemens penned many of his famous books; the ornate interior with stenciled and carved woodwork designed by Louis Tiffany, and numerous exotic items belonging to Clemens and his family.  Adjoining the house, the museum center contained a series of exhibitions related to Clemens, including photographs and films, as well as some of the most humorous Mark Twain quotes inscribed on the walls.  The museum docents were extremely knowledgeable about Twain’s life and times.  We found it both ironic and tragic that although Twain became an international celebrity, he faced financial ruin and outlived all but one of his daughters.

The Harriet Beecher Stowe house sits directly across from the Twain House. Although more modest than the Twain House, the gothic style Stowe house built in 1871 (which is currently in the middle of restoration) contains 14 rooms and many items from Stowe and her family.  Because of the restoration, the center’s docents tell part of the life of Stowe in the adjoining Katharine Seymour Day House.  Day was Stowe’s grandniece.  The one hour tour was very interactive.  We learned that Stowe was one generation older than Clemens and that they had limited social interaction.  Stowe wrote Uncle Tom’s Cabin before she moved in this house in Nook Farm.  First published in serial installments in an anti-slavery newspaper, the book became known all over the world.  By the time she retired to the Hartford home, she also had achieved international celebrity status, but none of her later books replicated her success.

Also in West Hartford, the Elizabeth Park Gardens are a pleasant oasis of over 100 acres where we felt far away from the surrounding urban environment. Although only a few varieties of roses were in bloom, we enjoyed strolling along the paths, meandering by formal gardens, green houses and ponds.  The historic gardens (first opened in 1897) are free to the public and maintained by a conservancy.  We particularly enjoyed seeing adults taking pictures sitting on a huge wooden chair, where you feel like a character in an Alice in Wonderland scene.  White we were there, quite a few brides and their wedding parties used the park as a backdrop for their wedding photos.

Day 2: Castles, an Ivy League university and cats that wrestle

About one hour south of Hartford, Gillette Castle State Park is a gem worth seeing in East Haddam.  The park overlooks and provides beautiful scenic views high above the Connecticut River.  We thoroughly enjoyed touring the fieldstone Gillette Castle, the focal point of the park.  We began to tour by viewing a short film which explained how William Gillette became a leading actor, playwright and director of his day (in the late 19th century into the early 20th century), most notably for his portrayals of Sherlock Holmes on stage and screen.  The 24 room mansion was designed by Gillette and built in 1919 to look like a medieval European castle.  Inside the castle, the state employee docents regaled us with their extensive knowledge of the castle itself which contains many whimsical design elements (including  secret doors, hidden mirrors for surveillance of the public rooms, unusual door knobs and locks).  Without descendants, Gillette’s career might have been lost to obscurity if the state of Connecticut had not purchased the property and its furnishings.

Close by the castle, we lunched at the Two Wrasslin’ Cats coffee house and café. We were drawn in by the catchy name and the cat decor, as well as a large sign welcoming minority groups to come in and eat.  After a discussion with the owner (biologist Mark Thiede), Fern and I learned that the café has become a focal point for solidarity promoting various vigils in support of minority groups at the café’s parking lot.  The food was tasty but it was the inspiration for the owner’s good works that made us happy we stopped by.

Almost one hour further south, we ended the day in New Haven, walking through the ivy-covered buildings of Yale University.  Starting out at the Mead visitor center, we wandered by the gothic-style dormitories with towers and turrets, courts and iron gates and two cathedral towers.  The visitor center featured traditions and many firsts from Yale’s 300-year old history (such as first Ph.D. awarded).  Some historic Yale buildings are scattered throughout New Haven and its public greens, which were too edgy for us to comfortably enjoy.

Day 3: Above, along and under the sea

Approximately one hour south of Hartford, Groton is the home of the electrical boat division of General Dynamics and the U.S. Navy Submarine Force Museum.  The Museum features a free self-guided audio tour of the U.S.S. Nautilus, the world’s first nuclear powered submarine, commissioned in 1954 and decommissioned in 1980.  The Nautilus was built by General Dynamics, the nation’s largest submarine producer, and completed the first undersea voyage to the North Pole in 1958.  We were fascinated to see how small the quarters were for the crew of 100 as we walked through the sub.  The museum is relatively small, but is full of displays featuring a complete history of submarines.

Two friends recommended we eat the famous lobster roll at Abbots Lobster in the Rough in Noank, nearby Groton, along the Mystic River. I am not a fan as I found the lobster roll to be tiny, overpriced and not particularly tasty.  Our other dish, the pasta in the rough (with shrimp and marina sauce) was much better.  The views are vintage New England, as we ate on the screened deck, watching boats along the water.

We ended the day in the picturesque coastal town of Mystic, along the Mystic River.  Fern and I first watched a superb Memorial Day parade, featuring farm animals, school bands, fire engines from nearby towns and military vehicles.  After crossing the quaint draw bridge over the river, we wandered in and out of the specialty shops, particularly enjoying a very large and well-stocked independent book store.  We concluded our trip with a stop at Mystic Pizza, made famous by the 1988 movie with Julia Roberts.  The movie shows continuously on several screens inside the restaurant.  The plain pizza was very tasty, with especially good sauce and seasonings.                As the weekend ended, we concluded that Central Connecticut offered plenty of attractions to fill a holiday weekend with fun-filled and educational experiences.

After attending a wonderful wedding weekend in Denver, my wife Fern and I extended our trip with a one hour drive to Colorado Springs, Colorado. We were rewarded by our initial excursion to Colorado Springs with stunning panoramic scenery throughout our two day stay.

Our highlights:

Garden of the Gods Park: The rustic beauty of this free city park at the base of Pikes Peak rivals views of national parks.  We drove by towering red rock sandstone formations and walked on one of many easy paved trails.  From the terrace of the visitor center, we had a majestic view of Pikes Peak and the surrounding rugged mountains.  Thanks to erosion there are numerous rock formations that are easily identified by what they look like to the naked eye (such as the two kissing camels) and fun to photograph (like the huge balanced rock that sits on a much smaller rock).

Seven Falls: A majestic series of seven distinct falls cascade down a very steep canyon.  The experience begins as a free shuttle took us from the Broadmoor part way up the canyon.  Beyond the entrance gate, we then walked up a gradually ascending trail through the canyon.  Large red rock formations were on one side of the trail and the cascading streams from the falls meandered along the other side.  To achieve a spectacular view of the top of the falls, we climbed a 224 step stairway alongside the upper portion of the falls.  Seven falls is justifiably promoted as Colorado’s grandest mile.

The Broadmoor: This is an amazing grand historic hotel resort which reminded us of elegant European palaces like Versailles, with its picturesque manicured gardens, beautiful water features between the buildings and extensive artwork of the west.  With a spectacular mountain backdrop, the hotel property just exudes luxury.  We enjoyed an excellent and reasonably priced multi-course dinner in the Italian Restaurant (Ristorante del Lago), one of ten restaurants on the property.  As we strolled around the hotel, we viewed various displays from its past, including a picture gallery of famous hotel guests,  menus from years past and miscellaneous hotel-related items dating back almost 100 years.

Our lodging:

Cheyenne Mountain Resort: Although not as grand as the Broadmoor, we were extremely satisfied with our stay.  The resort property is expansive and includes a lovely golf course, a lake with a sandy beach, an outdoor pool with a hot tub, a spa, tennis courts, restaurants and a superb fitness center.  Guest rooms and the restaurants have wonderful mountain views.

A final note:

Homeless in the Springs: We were surprised by the number of homeless living just a few miles away from the luxurious resorts. At a quick stop at a fast food restaurant, the manager informed us that he intentionally kept the restaurant cold so that homeless would not stay inside for long.  Certainly this experience caused us to wonder at the stark contrast of the life styles of the Colorado Springs homeless population in contrast to the tourists enjoying the high end amenities nearby.

My wife Fern and I successfully navigated around Amsterdam and environs to celebrate our first wedding anniversary with a trip to the Netherlands, a country roughly the size of Maryland, but with about the same number of bikes as people (about 17 million).

We were fortunate to be in Amsterdam at the peak of the tulip festival. We spent ½ day at the Keukenhof tulip and flower gardens and bulb fields, which are only open two months per year (late March to late May), at the peak of the blooming season.  The world’s largest tulip fields feature the Netherlands most famous flowers in a dazzling kaleidoscope of colors.  We meandered for several hours along well-manicured paths and by ponds, struck by the vivid colors and hues with about 600 kinds of tulips in almost every color imaginable!  As we climbed up the Groningen windmill on the grounds, we saw fields of literally millions of tulips and other flowers in stunning colors stretching out over 80 acres of land.

Central Amsterdam is not huge, but the sites are spread out enough that public transportation is essential. The above ground tram system was easy for us to learn as we traveled from our hotel in the south towards Central Station in the north or east toward the Jewish cultural quarter.  Tram transport and entrance to many museums and attractions were included in our I AM AMSTERDAM passes, which we would highly recommend.  These passes can be purchased for one to four days.

Highlights and high points- (1) the museums: With the museums close together in the museum quarter, it was easy for us to museum hop for one full day.  Housed in a beautiful and recently renovated neo-Gothic neo-Renaissance building, the Rijksmuseum’s vast collection is on part with the world’s great art museums.  The English language tour was amazingly informative.  Our guide explained why Rembrandt’s The Night Watch stood out amongst his paintings in the Gallery of Honour (e.g., techniques of depth and lighting) and how the museum itself was built to showcase this large work.  With the world’s largest collection of Vincent’s works, the crowded Van Gogh Museum – through an audio tour and great signage – does a superb job to highlight his troubled life, his development as an artist through various art periods, as well as his relationships with artist contemporaries.  Although we aren’t great fans of contemporary art, we toured the smaller Stedelijk Museum and the Amsterdam Diamond Museum.   Just outside the museum quarter, we took the obligatory photos by the bigly huge I AM AMSTERDAM sign.

(2) The free walking tour: We love to go on free walking tours to learn information from the locals and the Amsterdam free walking tour did not disappoint us.  Starting in crowded Dam Square, our native guide was a wealth of information as we strolled together through the infamous Red Light District by other sites in the city center.  We learned how in Amsterdam the world’s oldest profession is essentially a “collection” of independent contractors providing sexual services for a fee, renting out their spaces of employment and providing a large percentage of fees to the city in taxes.  The most imposing site on Dam Square, the 17th century Royal Palace (formerly the City Hall) was well worth a separate visit to gaze at the Golden Age of Amsterdam with its lavish furniture and furnishings from Louis Napeleon, period paintings, white marbled floors and sculpted walls.

(3) The Jewish cultural quarter: We spent one full day focused on the many sites of our Jewish heritage, of which several are sad relics from World War 2.  Clearly the Anne Frank house is a must see, as the English language signage and audio tour fully explain the complete story of the Frank’s family secret hiding space and the tragic plight of Amsterdam Jews during World War 2 (with about 100,000 killed).  Three other museums tell the story of the prosecution of the Jews in the Netherlands between 1940 and 1945 – the National Holocaust Memorial, the National Holocaust Museum and the Dutch Resistance Museum.   We learned one particularly inspiring story of how Dutch citizens smuggled hundreds of children into hiding from a day nursery when trams blocked the view of Nazi soldiers assembling Jewish families at the Hollandse Schouwburg Theater across the street, from where they would be deported to concentration camps.  We also spent time touring the massive and majestic 17th century Portuguese Synagogue which still holds services and once was the home of the world’s largest Sephardic Jewish community.  Finally, we visited the Jewish Historical Museum which presented us with a broad picture the religious traditions of Jews in Amsterdam over many centuries, set within a complex of former 17th century synagogues.  Ironically our guide (Sem) for the fabulous free walking tour of Amsterdam was Jewish.

(4) The John and Yoko Lennon Honeymoon suite: By staying at the Hilton, we were able to view the suite where the Lennons staged their infamous week long bed in for world peace in 1969.  The suite still maintains extensive Lennon memorabilia, including one of John’s guitars, a beautiful white bed spread featuring a symbol of John and Yoko, John’s autograph on a wall and sayings on the window above the bed from their protest (hair peace, bed peace) and numerous pictures from their stay.  We were told that room 702 is available for bookings, although for many more Euros than the standard rooms!

(5) The iconic canals: Canals are a primary reason that Amsterdam is so picturesque and why it is often called the Venice of the north.  Our canal cruise provided us with a good orientation to the city as we traveled below street level along the concentric canal belts and by the two rivers (the Amstel and the Ij).   We really enjoyed looking out of our hotel room daily, watching boats of various types and sizes glide by on the Amstel canal.  We were very impressed by the historic 17th century Van Loon canal house, now open as a museum.  Most surprising to us was the size of the house alongside the Keiizersgracht canal (the Emperor’s canal) which contained a magnificent garden and a coach house.  The beauty of the historic canals led to their placement on the UNESCO world heritage list in 2010.

Some of the attractions did not live up to our expectations. The Heineken experience was juvenile and nowhere near as informative as our tour of the Coors Brewery in Colorado.  Our ½ day trip to Delft and the Hague was very disappointing as the bus did not stop in the Hague at all, we simply did a drive by of the sites – and the whirlwind tour of the pottery factory in Delft seemed geared around getting us quickly into the gift shop to make a purchase of the blue and white ceramics.