Photography by Emma Krasov

Close to midnight, I walked through etched glass French doors into a hallway lit by flower-shaped chandeliers. High ceiling with gilded moldings, framed oil paintings on the walls, and little bronze statuettes positioned throughout on small marble tables greeted me in silence. Open rooms on both sides of the hallway invited to peek in, and freely displayed their treasures. A blue salon furnished with armchairs and sofas of silk upholstery, an Asian-style room with potted palms, red accents and a Buddha statue, a formal dining room with parchment wallpaper and a fully set table amid carved mahogany china stands and family crests on painted window panes…

An invisible source produced quiet, barely perceptible music. Eerily, there were no other people there. All alone, I sat down on a silk ottoman in enchanted reverie, and stared at a half-draped window enlivened by a starry night sky.

The Lost Estate [by Alain-Fournier] came to mind. Only this estate, not far from the city center of Lisbon, where I was having a moment of pure bliss, was not lost.

It was founded by Marquis de Valle Flor, born in 1855, who in his teen years moved to the islands of Sao Tomé and Príncipe in Central Africa, and became one of the largest producers of cocoa, and one of the richest men in Portugal. With the construction of this palace, the prosperous marquis established his family’s place in the country’s history – and created one of the most luxurious and significant dwellings in the capital city.

And then it was found by Pestana Collection Hotels – Portugal’s largest international tourism and leisure hotel group, and one of the largest in Europe – whose motto is, “The Time of Your Life.”

I knew I was about to have the time of my life here (however briefly) when I’ve learned that the enchanted Pestana Palace Lisboa Hotel where I’ve settled for a couple of nights was classified as a National Monument due to its 1904 Nicola Bigaglia architecture, turn-of-the-century Carlos Reis ceiling paintings, and exquisite frescos, stuccos, stained glass designs and other decorative features, all lovingly restored at the magnificent Belle Époque building in a splendid location on a hilltop overlooking the Tagus River.

 

From here, I explored the eclectic beauty of Lisbon – the bustling metropolis with its medieval castle of St. George and carved stone monastery of St. Jerome, the Renaissance tower of St. Vincent and the Baroque Estrela Basilica. Every time, tired after enduring the winding narrow streets of Bairro Alto in the summer heat, I returned to my cool hotel room with a view of the lush gardens studded with bronze statues and gazebos, and hurried to one of the swimming pools – indoors or outdoors, depending on the weather whimsy of the moment.

When in Lisbon, I discovered the singing soul of Portugal – the music of Fado – an original style and genre, approximately 200 years old, named after “fate” or “destiny” that is the major theme of fado lyrics.

At Adega Machado in Bairro Alto I was treated to an amazing talent of Isabel Noronha. A singer of an incredible range and very distinct, passionate yet reserved style, Ms. Noronha captivated the audience with a heart-wrenching sincerity of her poignant expression of the tragic longing and unrequited love – obviously the themes of the songs she delivered.

Fado songs are usually performed by strong-voiced solo singers, both male and female, with highly emotional expressiveness, accompanied by a Portuguese guitar and other instruments. The musicians also perform no-singing pieces with great panache and mastery. Fado performances, even though most often happening in restaurants, constitute a high art form, and require subdued lighting (candlelight), revered silence and undivided attention of their listeners.

The overall ambiance at Adega Machado is very welcoming and accommodating for the international gusts. The original tavern has been founded 75 years ago by a fado singer Maria de Lurdes Machado and her husband, composer and guitarist Armando Machado. At the recently renovated and reopened upscale restaurant, the legendary fado singers Amalia Rodrigues and Alfredo Marceneiro are honored in multiple images decorating the walls of the establishment.

Besides nightly fado music (on the night of my visit there were four singers and three musicians performing) Adega Machado offers an extensive list of excellent Portuguese wines, and a comprehensive menu of local and international dishes, with a la cart and tasting menu options.

In Porto, I had a chance to experience yet another Pestana hotel – the newest, opened mere months ago A Brasileira – a gorgeous 5-star property in a posh historic downtown building with Art Nouveau décor. Minutes from the central Avenida dos Aliados and the 1916 Sao Bento train station (still lavishly decorated with murals and blue-and-white tiles of amazing craftsmanship) the hotel is a walking distance from the iconic Ribeira district with its boat rides, port cellars, and multiple little restaurants featuring Douro valley wines and live music.

Historically, this luxury hotel was built around the famous A Brasileira Café, opened in 1903 by a Porto man who made a fortune buying coffee beans in Brazil, and married a Brazilian woman. He was the first coffee entrepreneur to serve espresso in Portugal in the early 20th century. His motto, “The best coffee comes from A Brasileira” still rings true today, in the cozy café, popular with the hotel guests and the locals alike.

For many years after the proprietor’s death the building stayed abandoned, until it was acquired and renovated under the new ownership and Pestana management.

Now, with a highly desirable location in the city center, A Brasileira offers 89 rooms and suites, a restaurant serving Portuguese cuisine, two meeting rooms, a well-equipped gym, a French patio with a vertical garden and elegant outdoor furniture, and the namesake café of 115-year history.

Each hotel floor that has a comfortable seating area of its own with a large horseshoe leather sofa, is thematically tied to one of the products imported from faraway lands during the Portuguese maritime expansion of the 15th and 16th centuries: coffee, tea, chocolate, pink pepper, cinnamon, and anise.

I was genuinely pleased with my pristine room, with a double balcony offering views over the picturesque rooftops of Porto historical center, with the snow-white bed topped with a fluffy comforter and pillows of three different sizes, with a decorative photo display of colorful teas in bowls above the bedhead, and with a sparkling clean spacious bathroom – rain shower and all!

The room amenity that impressed me the most was perched on a desk, plugged in a charger, under a large-screen interactive TV that was greeting me by name and offering an array of services. That room amenity was a smart phone with a remarkable GuestU software featuring a comprehensive interface with free internet, a list of local attractions, Google maps, an individualized concierge service, constant connection to the hotel, and even free international phone calls daily! With GuestU phone in my hand a city I’ve never been to before all of sudden became familiar, recognizable, easily navigable, and pedestrian-friendly at any hour of day or night.

I couldn’t get enough of the Porto walks, leading up to the closely clustered Trinity Church, a magnificent City Hall building, and the Liberty Square with the stunning Carmelite Church and the Clerics Tower nearby, or down to the Douro River, with a lively waterfront, studded with historical monuments.

One of them, the Stock Exchange Palace (Palacio da Bolsa) is definitely worth a visit, and provides guided tours in several languages every half an hour. With its spectacular glass dome decorated with the painted coats-of-arms of Portugal and the countries with which Portugal had commercial relations in the 19th century, and wonderfully appointed Tribunal Room, Assembly Room, and Golden Room with allegoric paintings and sculptures the building offers quite a few discoveries. The Arab Room, built at the end of the 19th century by Gonçalves e Sousa is echoing Alhambra in Spain with its Moorish Revival style, with intricate detailing constructed by Portuguese craftsmen honoring “the Educator, the Good Mother” queen of Portugal, Maria II.

Close to the lower part of the city center, mere steps from Palacio da Bolsa, on a winding side street I settled for a very pleasant evening at the O Fado restaurant that served great wines and fresh seafood, and indulged its guests with the wonderful performances by the three singers – Antonio Laranjeira, Patricia Costa, and Sandra Cristina Amaral.

Looking back at my first ever visit to Portugal, and to the country’s two major cities I became enamored with so easily, I must admit that Pestana hotels and Fado music played a decisive role – each in its own way – in making my journey unforgettable and making me crave more encounters with the westernmost country of Europe.

Additional information at: www.visitportugal.com, www.pestanacollection.com, www.adegamachado.pt.

 

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.

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.

 

For all those in the know, Santa Barbara is one of Southern California’s most beloved beach cities. This city lives up to its reputation for great wine and food, beach bliss and the love of films. Now in its 33 year the Santa Barbara International Film Festival (SBIFF) shines on with great spirit rising above recent fire tragedy, as crowds turned out to welcome film lovers from around the world. I moved here for the destination and my passion for films adding this year as my 13th SBIFF.

SBIFF’s Executive Director, Roger Durling has a vision, which continues to emerge year after year as he encourages film buffs to mix and mingle and make new friends.

With red carpet in place and cameras flashing at the historic Arlington Theatre, the 33rd SBIFF got under way with a new film opener by Emilio Estevez as writer, director and actor called “The Public,” centering on a group of homeless people in the dead of winter, who take refuge from the cold in the Cincinnati public library. Cast members Alec Baldwin and Jenna Malone and others took center stage with Emilio Estevez, even his dad Martin Sheen stopped in.

The annual tributes included a spectacular evening honoring Gary Oldman, the Maltin Modern Master Award, for his accomplishments in cinema reflecting on his outstanding performance in “The Darkest Hour” as Winston Churchill.

Oldman has had an extraordinary career; however, this performance with his incredible make up stands on its own. Another tribute went to Willem Dafoe, an actor with his career playing distinctive characters, he garnered the Cinema Vanguard Award.

Irish actress Saoirse Ronan was well deserving of the Santa Barbara Award, while making another milestone film this year with a realistic performance in Greta Gerwig’s “Lady Bird”, she is not a stranger to the SBIFF arriving at cinematic achievement in past years with awards as Outstanding Performance of the year (“Brooklyn”) and a recognized Virtuoso. SBIFF welcomed actor Sam Rockwell with the American Rivera Award; he was a strong force in “Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri,” which has received strong accolades this Oscar season. Rockwell, a versatile actor, has 99 films to his credit.

Even if it’s just ten days out of the year, it’s worth the visit during the SBIFF for an opportunity to view over 200 films in endless genres including: crime, food and wine, documentaries, features from many countries, nature reels, shorts, student films and talks with filmmakers. Going to the movies just got better at the SBIFF, because everyone talks about the films and meeting new people. The locals are foodies, so Screen Cuisine is popular, I was moved by the French wine film “Back to Burgundy,” focusing on a wine growing family by Director Cedric Klapisch. I couldn’t help thinking about wonderful wines in Beaune while looking down on vineyards from an air balloon and scouting Dijon for wine and mustard.

Outstanding Performers of the Year honorees were the duo Margot Robbie and Allison Janney in a show stopping performance as daughter and mother in “I Tonya.” This high-strung relationship in the story of figure skater Tonya Harding and her involvement in an attack on her competitor, based on the true story. Janney has achieved numerous awards for this role. Margo Robbie’s company produced the film. Janney, who is best known for her award-winning role on West Wing, shared that while growing up she longed to be a figure skater. As always SBIFF tributed guests go on to win Oscars for their work.

Taking a break from a full day of films, more than once, I head to the waterfront for lunch in The Funk Zone by the pier. Here is a wine lover’s paradise with some of the best wineries along the Central Coast and friendly tasting rooms open with multifaceted wines to savor. It’s a welcoming spot for friends, locals and tourists to hang out. I especially favor the Santa Barbara Winery and their award winning Chardonnay. It’s walkable here to the wineries, restaurants, art galleries located in converted warehouses and buildings decorated with graffiti.

If you are longing for the taste of fresh fish, you are in the right place near Santa Barbara’s waterfront. Stop by The Fishouse for an unforgettable lunch or dinner. Must try the macadamia nut sea bass and freshly cooked clam chowder.

More fish cross over to Stearns Wharf and head to Moby Dick overlooking the water or a short jaunt to the Harbor for one of my all-time favorites Brophy Bros.

Brophy Brothers Seafood & Clam Restaurant dine in or outside and try the crab cakes, seafood pasta and the mahi mahi.

Much revered is the historic landmark and pillar of the community Mission Santa Barbara. It’s what brought me here to Santa Barbara, founded the same day as my birthday with my name in the title, it was fortuitous that my home is located on the street leading to the mission. Known as the Queen of the Missions, there are 21 California Missions, I had visited here time and time again before moving here. The Mission remains an active Franciscan parish with its beautiful rose gardens and year round activities locals and visitors are drawn here for art, music and fiesta dances. A yearly favorite is the Madonnari paintings in pastel of masterpieces below the church steps.

As the SBIFF ended, it reflected city pride with Santa Barbara filmmakers showcasing local documentaries: behind the scenes of events meaningful to Santa Barbara. It tapped into the summer Solstice Parade, the unforgettable Cascarones creators for Fiesta (confetti filled decorated eggshells); the trials and tribulations of a local businessman and restaurant owner of the East Beach Grill and a young Oxnard Channel swimmer. Two things are certain: Santa Barbara is a perfect destination with lots of things to do, fun at the waterfront, shopping at Paseo Nuevo, great museums and theatre and outdoor activities galore and the SBIFF is a great film festival with new films, top celebrities, gala opening party and plenty of movie talk. The California sun shines on Santa Barbara everyday during SBIFF.

Find out more information: http://sbiff.org  – check here for the festival films and winners, Visit Santa Barbara http://santabarbaraca.com.

 

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.

For many of us New Year’s Day begins with the tradition of watching the beautiful Tournament of Roses Parade preceding the Rose Bowl Football Game in Pasadena, California. Each year we have marveled at the enormous figures on the floats with intricate designs and wondered how on earth they were covered entirely with real flowers and other plant material in time for the parade. In late December 2016 we got to watch the creating of the floats for the 100th anniversary of this famous parade, begun in 1917.  What a thrill! Admission is charged for viewing the floats at the various sites outside or near the Pasadena Rose Bowl Stadium. The four float decorating places are Rose Palace, Rosemont Pavilion, Brookside Pavilion, and the Rose Float Plaza South, in the City of Irwindale, California.

In huge warehouses we watched the hundreds of workers who volunteer to make these impressive and colorful floats. Professional designers and committees are ready with the basic forms of the huge floats set up and waiting for the volunteers who show up from all over the USA and from some other countries to have the enjoyment of saying with pride, “I helped create that one!” to their friends and family as the floats go by on Colorado Avenue, Pasadena, or on TV sets all over the world on New Year’s Day.

There were many different work stations set up in each of the barns: glue stations, brush cleaning places, tables of dried flowers, bark, seeds, herbs, spices, grasses, and any other part of nature which could be applied during the two weeks before the big day. Fresh flowers, which complete each of the floats are applied in the last 48 hours before the parade. To decorate one float about 60 volunteers work 10 hours a day for 10 days. The group cooperation looks like fun, but the positions they must stay in for some of the decorating looked painful and very tiring! But volunteers ranged from 13 years old to senior citizens and all were happily industrious in applying all their artistic energies to their particular assigned part of the huge floats.

In the final decorating hours when the thousands of fresh flowers are applied in small vials as quickly and securely as possible, it takes an amazing 20 daisies, 30 roses or 36 marigolds to cover one square foot of a float area! And approximately a half million roses are used in the parade. Growers from all over the world are necessary to fill and deliver the orders on time. What a fete!

It is produced by the nonprofit Pasadena Tournament of Roses Association. I asked how the floats were made in the early days a century ago when planes did not fly flowers in from all over the world. In the early days the Tournament of Roses Parade flowers were locally grown in the Fanny Morrison Horticultural Center to decorate horse-drawn carriages.  Today professionally designed floats are required to be covered with plant material. Three civic and floral industry leaders judge the floats and award prizes in 24 categories. Awards are announced at 6 A.M. on parade day. Length of parade is 5.5 miles (8.9 km), about 2.25 hours long at 2.5 miles (4.0 km) per hour pace.

You can volunteer too! Plans for next year’s floats will begin a few weeks after this year’s glory has been dismantled! And designers and architects start their work and by February the theme for the following year is announced. So begin to plan now to join the volunteer fun which extends from the day after Christmas until the last of December.

 

The Showcase of Floats begins at Sierra Madre and Washington Boulevard in Pasadena. Parking is free, but limited. Last year there is a free shuttle location at Pasadena City College, 1570 E. Colorado Blvd., Pasadena; and the Rose Bowl Stadium Lot B. Well before the parade as each float is completed it is moved from the warehouse facility to line up on Orange Grove Boulevard, Pasadena.

FOR MORE INFORMATION:

https://www.tournamentofroses.com/events/float-decorating

http://www.pasadenastarnews.com/2015/12/16/how-to-volunteer-to-decorate-a-rose-parade-float/

http://www.sharpseating.com/Rose-Parade-Festivities.php

http://www.pasadenastarnews.com/2016/12/27/where-to-view-2017-rose-parade-floats-before-and-after-the-pasadena-parade/

 

 

When I was on Pandaw’s Halong Bay and Red River Cruise I truly understood the quote, “Don’t tell me how educated you are, tell me how much you have traveled.”

I have watched movies, documentaries, and read books about Vietnam but until I walked down the narrow road of a small, riverside Vietnamese village and could hear the pounding of metal and see the sparks fly did I really feel the pulse beat of the Vietnam people. Small villages along the Red River tend to focus on making one main item be it knives, noodles, bonsai trees, wood objects, bamboo products or rice paddy hats. They make the items the way they have for generations not just for a show-and-tell presentation created for tourists.

In Tien Du village the ladies were making paddy hats called “Non La.” With our guide explaining every step in the process I learned that they start with palm leaves which are dried for about a week, flattened and then fashioned and sewn around a frame. It was impressive. One lady was 80 years old, sitting on a small block of wood, threading a needle and sewing on the leaves. Each lady specialized in one step of the process. They make about one dollar a day. They were working not selling their wares but we also visited a pottery-making village and where there were plenty of shops selling their pottery. A great place to pick up gifts/souvenirs.

Besides learning about how products are made in the traditional manner I learned more about the culture. During a visit to Hung Lo Temple a local group performed a traditional folk song, “Hat Xoan.” “Hat Xoan” is seeking recognition as a world cultural heritage to be preserved. Xoan singing is believed to have been developed during the reign of the Hung Kings (2890 to 250 BC). It has been passed on within certain families for generations. I was impressed with the seriousness of the young boy leading the group.  He was the grandson of the person who is currently the head of the group and some day it will be his job to preserve Hat Xoan and pass it on.

Water puppets and Vietnam are synonymous. I have enjoyed the shows in Hanoi’s puppet theater but seeing the show in Thanh Ha village was special.  Water puppetry dates back to the 11th century when it originated in the Red River Delta villages like Thanh Ha.  The puppeteers stand in waist-deep water hidden by a screen. They control the lacquered wooden puppets by an unseen bamboo rod so that the puppets appear to dance on water accompanied by drums, cymbals, and gongs.  The puppet vignettes relate traditional folktale complete with a fire-breathing dragon plus day-to-day activities such as farming and fishing. The show was schedule for Pandaw guests but it drew the local people also, especially the children who took delight in the unexpected, free performance.  At the end of one of the shore trips we were entertained on the wharf by a lion dance, an integral part of the Vietnamese New Year’s celebration. The Pandaw RV Angkor crew thinks of everything.  They brought chairs from the vessel so we could enjoy the show in comfort.  The lions, two people in one costume, are incredibly agile as they perform especially when the lions, one person on the shoulders of their partner, have to jump “battle” to get the lettuce that is held on a high spot.  It is a traditional part of the dance as it portends good luck for the coming year.

The cruise also included wonderful shore trips that showed off the amazing scenery of the area. The crew had arranged small boats to take us to Stork Island that protects the flora and fauna of the area. One morning we were bussed passed green rice paddies to the area called “Halong Bay on Land” where small wooden boats awaited. For an hour a lady rowed, using her feet, along the stream that passed by towering karst formation through two caves to a pond-like area where we stopped, I thought to give the rower a rest; not so, it was so she could give us a back massage! The cruise around Halong Bay was magical and, once again, the Pandaw crew arranged for a small boat trip in the area, through a cave, and to a place where we were in luck. We saw several of the endangered lemurs flitting from tree to tree.

When we returned to the RV Angkor after a shore trip there were staff members waiting: one with a refreshing lemongrass scented towel, one with a refreshing fruit drink, and one to take our shoes and clean them. How’s that for service? Accommodations, staff and meals were five-star but attire is casual.

There were also onboard presentations: a cooking demonstration, musical presentations, cultural presentations, and in the evening, movies set in Vietnam. Before dinner one of the crew members explains the next day’s tour; along with evening turndown service there was a copy of the next day’s schedule. Pandaw guests get to see and experience things the average tourist does not. Pandaw is the pioneer in the Red River but they offer other cruises in Myanmar, Cambodia, and Laos.

Pandaw has revived Burma’s Old Irrawaddy Flotilla Company. The RV Angkor like most of Pandaw’s vessels is hand-crafted and traditional in design but with all the modern conveniences, accommodations are large, there is even internet connection. The cruise is all-inclusive including the tip – I like that. The average number of passengers is usually in the mid-20s (maximum capcity is 32) most of whom are well-traveled. I was surprised to find that all but five passengers had been on more than one Pandaw cruise, it was the fifth trip for one couple.  There is no better recommendation than that!

If you go: For more information on any of Pandaw’s expeditions log on to www.pandaw.com or call 1-844-361-6281 toll free from North America, or email usa@pandaw.com. Pandaw offers pre- and post-trip extension trips. To visit Vietnam a visa is required.

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.

Photography by Emma Krasov

Taiwan’s growing prosperity, its high tech developing alongside upscale retail and hospitality, the freedom-loving stance and the innate friendliness of Taiwanese people, many of whom speak good English, make this East Asian country an attractive vacation spot for American tourists.

I was fortunate to visit the tropical island before and during one of the major annual events – 2017 Taiwan LGBT Pride Parade – the largest in Asia, attended by more than a 100 000 people, that was taking place in the capital city of Taipei. The 15th Taiwan LGBT Pride started on a warm October Saturday morning on Ketagalan Boulevard, between the Presidential Office building and the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, and proceeded in three directions, looping back to the thoroughfare, where the main stage was set for the community activists, famous musicians, and representatives of LGBT organizations from Taiwan, Japan and Korea.

This year advocacy theme was “Make Love, Not War – Sex Ed is the Way to Go” stressing the importance of gender equality, sex education and a humanistic approach to sex and gender issues without discrimination and stigma.

The message of acceptance sounded loud and clear in the Pride chanting, “No matter who you are, no matter who you love, stand proud!” Topical activities of the event included Gender Equality Education, Social Movement Stand Together, and Marriage Equality – the latter expected to be finally legalized in Taiwan in two years term.

A giant rainbow flag, almost the length of a city block, carried by dozens of college students and members of non-governmental organizations; elaborate costumes, music, laughter, and a generous scattering of rainbow crowns, ribbons, fans, and plumes turned the always busy, congested with traffic capital of Taiwan into a festive flowerbed, studded with happy smiling faces.

What an amazing show of unity and joy! This reporter was especially impressed with the seemingly self-regulated crowd. Not a single episode of rudeness, impatience, or any kind of conflict. A lone protester with a sign invoking religious prohibitions on homosexuality was guarded by two police officers, but the biggest harm done to him or any of the parade participants was the incessant flashing of photo cameras.

By the time evening traffic started to accumulate, rainbow-marked guys and girls dispersed into buses, subway trains, and to the surrounding streets on foot, mixing with the daily crowd, entering it as a part and parcel of the big city.

Our group of American travel journalists, in Taipei primarily for the Pride, had nevertheless a full tourist program, exploring the gorgeous island with its natural wonders, historical monuments, and superb culinary scene.

From the windows of AMBA Taipei Songshan, a new boutique design hotel – a playful brand, originated in Hong Kong – near Xinyi shopping and business district, we took our first glance at the Keelung River, circling the city in the north, and at the bamboo-shaped Taipei 101 Observatory, not long ago the tallest building in the world.

A tour of the 101-story tower included and exhilarating elevator ride that took us from the 5th to 89th floor in 37 seconds; breathtaking panoramic views of the city and its environs, and a gourmet lunch at the world-famous Din Tai Fung on the ground floor of the observation tower.

Here, in the spacious dining room, separated by a glass wall from a pristine kitchen, where all workers were clad in white sanitary suits and masks, our group was greeted by my Taiwanese namesake, Emma, a deputy supervisor of catering department.

The young woman with an infectious smile, dressed for business, and speaking effortless English, she conveyed to us the history of the notorious dumpling restaurant, awarded multiple stars, medals, and mentions by the international foodie authorities. According to the legend of Din Tai Fung, it all started in a cooking oil retail shop back in 1958 that gradually turned into a “fast food” restaurant specializing in xiao long bao, or “soup dumplings” made with pork meat and pork fat jelly that turns into aromatic liquid during steaming.

The original process of kneading, rolling, filling, folding (18 folds, no less no more) and steaming the dumplings is still meticulously followed in all the kitchens of Din Tai Fung in more than 100 locations all over the world, and of course in its flagship restaurant in Taipei. Only now more than 50 kinds of dumplings, wontons, buns, noodles, and rice dishes grace the menu, appreciated by the tourists as well as regulars who dine here a few times a week.

That is not to say that other restaurants lack fans among the local and international visitors. Some of the highlights of Taiwanese cuisine, like steamed fish, crab with bamboo shoots, thousand year egg, black chicken soup, and countless others can be enjoyed in practically every small or large eatery throughout the country.

Before we left Taipei for further exploration, we visited a festive night market – one of several, each stall teeming with eager customers attracted by the delicate aromas of pork buns, green onion crepes, and other amazingly enticing local dishes.

We also spent a good chunk of time in two remarkable museums, representing the historical past and the assertive future of the country. The National Palace Museum contains immense treasures of the Chinese imperial court, transported to Taiwan for safekeeping after the fall of the last dynasty. Among the most popular exhibits at the museum is jadeite cabbage, carved from a single stone with auspicious color variations, presenting the humble vegetable in a noble form of an exquisite art piece. The never-yielding crowd around the display case wouldn’t let me take a good picture of the precious artifact, so I had to settle for a back view that still conveys the fragile elegance of the awesome work.

MOCA Taipei, Museum of Contemporary Art, brings to the public attention the bold and edgy art created here and now. During our visit, a major exhibition, called “Spectrosynthesis – Asian LGBTQ Issues and Art Now” created in collaboration with The Sunpride Foundation curated by Sean C. S. Hu was on display, showcasing 22 artists from Taiwan, China, Hong Kong and Singapore.

On our way to the city of Taichung via HSR high speed rail, we spent a wonderful sunny day at the serene Sun Moon Lake, taking a boat tour and then cycling to Xian Shan visitor center, where we could see the open air exhibition of bonsai and decorative arts against a backdrop of the turquoise lake. At least four-five weddings were conducting their photoshoots along the shores.

At lunch at Lusihan – an aboriginal restaurant – we’ve not only tried the most exotic foods, like “wax apples” stuffed with dried shrimp and seaweed, and sticky rice baked and served in bamboo cups, but also learned about the tribal history of Taiwan – of 16 different tribes composing the island nation.

The Lin Hotel Taichung welcomed us into its luxurious fold offering boldly decorated rooms in red, gold, and black-and-white; supremely comfortable beds, and a breakfast hall filled with freshly made wonders of all imaginable cuisines.

The day program started with a visit to the historic 1927 Miyahara building – formerly a Japanese eye doctor’s hospital, currently the sought after Dawn Bakery, where dressed in Japanese military uniform sales clerks dish out samples of heavenly cheesecakes, and give cautionary warnings on expiration dates of pineapple cakes and mooncakes, packed in dainty boxes made of Japanese wrapping paper.

Then we headed to a fun and exciting Pearl Milk Tea Workshop with Chun Shui Tang Cultural Tea House. In a special classroom on the top floor of a popular restaurant we were educated on producing the real original bubble tea, invented here four decades ago by the founder Liu Han-Chien. We learned the difference between bubble tea (shaken into foam) and boba tea (with added tapioca pearls), and upon successful completion of our course each of us received a certificate of our iced tea mastery!

Traversing the entire country, next we landed in the Southern city of Tainan, a former capital, densely populated with historical monuments, like Chihkan Tower (Fort Provintia) a former Dutch outpost on Formosa, built in 1653 during the Dutch colonization of Taiwan, and Anping Old Fort near a “tree house” – a skeleton of an ancient structure completely overwhelmed by an overgrown banyan tree.

We marveled at the enlightened austerity of Tainan Confucius Temple and at the lavish gilded décor of The Grand Matsu Temple, a.k.a. the Great Queen of Heaven Temple, where at the time of our visit middle-aged priestesses in bright-yellow silk robes performed a ceremony to the sound of drums.

At the Du Hsiao Yueh noodle house we all took the same picture of a beautiful blue and white plate of noodles with a bright orange shrimp on top – the same that serves as the restaurant’s logo and is served to every diner who ever ventures in.

At the designer boutique hotel, Jia-Jia at West Market, we slept in artfully decorated rooms, ate at a communal table in the cozy lobby filled with inventive artwork, and participated in one of the hotel’s cultural activities – a kind of a cosplay, when we all donned Taiwanese garb, offered by the staff, and walked around in it through the lively stalls of the historic West Market. Apparently, the hotel CEO, also an artist, creates these fashions from vintage fabrics, formerly found at the West Market. She offers her guests an opportunity to try them on and walk in them, reaching a double goal – to familiarize foreigners with the traditional Taiwanese attire, and to remind the locals of their national traditions.

Posing for a group photo in my gorgeous vintage dress (which I eventually bought from the hotel and brought home to wear on special occasions) I thought that traveling in a company of gay men – well-mannered, kind and with a great sense of humor – for moi had its undeniable advantage.

More information on Taiwan travel at: www.taiwan.net.tw.