Photographs by Perry and Gannon Montoya

As a young man, while living in the western state of Utah in the United States, I read a fascinating copy of David S. Boyer’s (December 1958) archived National Geographic article entitled, Geographical Twins: A World Apart. As I read, I felt as if I’d been adopted into a long, lost family. I knew the day would come that I’d leave the younger of those twins (my hometown of Salt Lake City, Utah) to reunite my heart with her older sibling in the Holy Land that is Israel; never would I have believed at that young age that it would be as a tour guide of the region.

Israel and Salt Lake City, Utah twins? Boyer’s article aptly details some of the irrefutable likenesses such as each boasting: heightened and lessened elevations in the area, rich natural resources, fertile farmlands flanked by desolate salt flats, fresh water lakes connected (interestingly enough, both by a river named “Jordan”) to dead, salty seas, and the list goes on and on. I tell folks preparing to come with me to Israel that there are at least four must-see regions/experiences in this area. Perhaps some detail from each region will entice and edify those who are teetering on a visit.

THE MEDITERRANEAN COAST

Arrival (for westerners at least) in Israel comes from the Mediterranean seaside of the country. Most, and we’re no exception, fly in to Tel Aviv’s Ben Gurion Airport. The airport is clean and modern and welcomes the world through this constant cradle of travelers. Whether during one’s arrival by air or while distancing from the airport, each offers inviting glimpses of the Mediterranean Sea. Seaside lifestyle abounds in this region of Israel. Sand, surf, beach-goers, fun and costal beauty are staples of the terrain. I’ve been to coasts around the globe and Israel’s shores are much like any other – peaceful, soothing, and restorative. We frequent ancient Joppa (modern day Jaffa or Yafo) on this leg of the trip. As an extension of Tel Aviv, Yafo is both historic and modern at the same time. One can hear timeless calls to prayer from the minaret while gazing at spectacular sunsets.

Other notable stops along the coast include Caesarea Maritima (one of many surreal, standing relics from Herod the Great’s prolific building prowess), modern day Haifa (with its tech heavy work ethic focus coupled with wonders like the Bahá’í Gardens) and even a college-feel as found in Netanya (named for Jewish American, Nathan Strauss) which has been one of the most recent of the coastal towns to be populated.

SEA OF GALILEE (Tiberias)

Oriental (or Eastern, as in, “We Three Kings of Orient Are”) verses Occidental (or Western, as in, “Excuse me, but there isn’t any ice in my drink”) ways of living, speaking and defining is always a challenge when in Israel. Put simply, when in Israel, Western words and thoughts must give way to Eastern culture, language, and customs. Sometimes it’s good to have a “conversion chart” of sorts. For example, as a generalization, “mountains” in the Middle-East are like “hills” in the United States; “valleys” are akin to ravines, and “seas” (Mediterranean as a prime exception for sure) are like “lakes”.

To call the Sea of Galilee a true western visual of a “sea” would be to call Mt. Vernon – well, “Mt. Everest”. Indeed, the lake (named Tiberias, or Kinneret, Lake of Gennesaret or Galilee) is, on a clear day, almost small enough to see shore to shore on all sides. And those views can be spectacular, especially at sunrise as even the trees, waves and clouds appear to give obeisance to the east-rising morning sun.

Yet, despite its mini size, this region boasts a near constant flow of visitors. Where Joppa was “beach life”, Tiberias is spending days at “the lake”. However, this isn’t just any ol’ lake. Most visitors come for the historical and faith-based focus of “walking where Jesus walked”. Out trips from Tiberias include many half day or day trips to locations of historical and spiritual import to their visitors. Highlights of some of the lakeside New Testament sites include Tagba (traditional location for the multiplication of loaves and fishes and where Simon Peter fished), Magdala (thought to be the home of Mary Magdalene), Capernaum (where Jesus was “in the house” – KJV of Mark 2:1), and the picturesque Mount of Beatitudes or traditional location of Jesus Christ’s Sermon on the Mount.

THE “WILDERNESS”

Returning to the twin sisters comparison of Salt Lake City and the Dead Sea region, most compelling might be the fresh water lakes that are connected to hypersaline bodies of water, each with no outlet (or “dead”) coupled with the fact that both are fed by tributaries known as “The Jordan River”. Indeed, the contrast of this region compared to the others in country is stark and abrupt. This is desert as found in few other places on earth. Ask 100 people of their thoughts of Israel (or the Middle-East in general) and this is the picture they have in their minds. The region of the Jordan Valley is certainly arid and dry. Sites like Masada (a fabled defense location for the last of the Jews attempting to stave off Roman rule in the times shortly after Jesus Christ walked the land), Beit Shean with its Roman ruins (see below),

and Qumran (site of the found “Dead Sea Scrolls”) adorn hillsides while the Dead Sea looms nearby below each. The Dead Sea has become a draw for spa hounds worldwide. A float in this seemingly curative and revitalizing water is a must.

 

JERUSALEM

City life mixed with religious and racial tensions is the unfortunate rap that has been affixed to Jerusalem in the state of Israel. The truth is far from those extremes on a day to day basis with the wonderful people you’ll meet and interact with while in this iconic city and country. That said, if the aforementioned tensions exist, Jerusalem is (and always has been) at its heart. Three of the world’s major religions trace their roots to this fortress in the “mountains”. Judaism, Christianity and Islam all trace this spot to their “Father Abraham” as the land given of God to him and his posterity.

In the “old city”, one could spend all day people-watching at the Western Wall (especially on a celebratory Sabbath Friday evening), become happily “lost” wandering and shopping in the streets of the Jewish or Muslim or Christian Quarters, or become engulfed in combing the fabled quarters for ancient history and remains. Atop all other options while in Jerusalem, as with most who come to these storied streets, Jerusalem is a magnet for people of faith. While in town, people of faith take time to reverence such sights as:

  • “The Temple Mount” (Mt. Moriah) which is also the location of Islamic holy shrines and mosques (The Dome of the Rock and Al Aqsa respectively).
  • Gethsemane, The Garden Tomb and The Church of the Holy Sepulchre (sacred locations to Christians worldwide as the locations of the suffering and salvation of Jesus Christ).
  • Hezekiah’s Tunnel (of Old Testament era fame) wherein water was brought into the city millennia ago.
  • Take in a modern concert at the Center for Near Eastern Studies (https://www.byu-jc.org/concerts/tickets)

Concert Tickets – BYU Jerusalem Center www.byu-jc.org. Tickets are free; however, you are invited to make a donation after each concert. Your entire donation is given to the performers

. . . and the list goes on and on . . .

Israel is like no other place I’ve been on earth. Its diversity of peoples, geographies, cultures, languages, foods and experiences seem never ending. Many feel this location to be the navel of the earth and it’s plain to see why. This land, considered holy by so many across the globe, is truly a “world apart”. Though it shares a geographical likeness with a modern sibling in Salt Lake City, Utah, it offers its own ancient and storied past with a host of regions and adventures that make it an obligatory destination for any serious traveler.

 

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.

Photography by Yuri Krasov 

In Prague, every traveler faces a challenge of finding a place to stay that would be close to the major historical sites. And major sites in Prague are plenty! From the Old Town to the New Town, and from the Castle District to Lesser Quarter, the finest examples of Gothic, Renaissance, Baroque, Rococo, and Art Nouveau architectural styles are pulling all eyes upward, threatening cobblestone-related injuries to the viewfinder thrill-seekers.

Were we lucky to settle at Hotel Klarov when my husband and I arrived in the capital of Czech Republic onboard economically conscious RegioJet bus? You bet we were! From our third floor window at the 25-room boutique hotel in the 1889 Neo-Baroque building we were able to see the legendary 1357 Charles Bridge across the high-leveled Vltava River, the spires of St. Vitus Cathedral and the patinated domes of Prague Castle rising above the red roofs of Mala Strana.

Interestingly, the spacious rooms at Hotel Klarov are embellished with names and memorabilia of world-famous musicians who visited Prague and left their mark in the city. Ours was dedicated to Rolling Stones who on one of their visits provided illumination for the Prague Castle so it would be lit at night and visible from afar.

To get closer to all the treasures of one of the largest and best-preserved European cities, right after the hotel breakfast we embarked on a walking tour with Jitka Simkova of Prague Walks. Our guide took us across the Charles Bridge with its 30 statues, allegedly constructed in alignment with the tomb of St. Vitus and the setting sun on the equinox, and crowded with international visitors at any time of day and night; through narrow streets and wide-open squares to the lavishly decorated Belle Époque buildings, like the Grand Hotel Evropa; Baroque churches, and splendid old synagogues in the Jewish Quarter.

We watched changing of the guards at the Prague Castle, originally built as a walled fortress in about 970 – the largest ancient castle in the world, formerly home to Bohemia’s kings, now the official residence of the Czech Republic’s President, visited Café Louvre for a posh coffee break, and marveled at the curious monument to Franz Kafka by Jaroslav Róna. The bronze statue replicates a scene from Kafka’s first novel “Amerika” in which a political candidate at a campaign rally is carried to the people on the shoulders of a faceless giant.

Besides the world-famous sights, like the 11th century Gothic Powder Tower remaining from the original city gates, the Astronomical Clock of the Old Town Hall, first installed in 1410, and the gorgeous epitome of Art Nouveau style – the Municipal House built in 1912 – we visited a few 20th century monuments, some of them grim reminders of the recent dark past overshadowed by Nazism and Communism.  

Pinkas Synagogue, built in 1535 in Gothic and Renaissance styles near the Old Jewish Cemetery with the most ancient graves from the 1300s, is now the Memorial of Holocaust Victims of Bohemia and Moravia whose names are listed with each last name followed by the first names of family members, their dates of birth and dates of death. There are 77,297 names of Holocaust victims – countless Josephs, Alberts and Rudolfs, Hannas, Marias and Albinas, ranging from babies mere months old to 80-somethings, all killed in WWII years – covering the entire wall space of the synagogue, with the geographical locations of 24 death camps listed in the center of the main hall. Among the victims names’ on the walls are the grandparents of Madeleine Albright, the first female US Secretary of State.

The Memorial to the victims of Communism by Olbram Zoubek presents bronze figures of a man descending stairs while gradually deteriorating, losing limbs and breaking open. The numbers, etched on the monument commemorate 205,486 arrested, 170,938 forced into exile, 4,500 who died in prison, 327 shot trying to escape, and 248 executed during the Communist rule in 1948-1989.

Two abstract steel sculptures by John Quentin Hejduk inspired by David Shapiro’s poem “The Funeral of Jan Palach” are dedicated to the memory of the Prague student and his 1969 self-immolation in protest of the 1968 Soviet invasion. Called The House of the Suicide and The House of the Mother of the Suicide the structures are accompanied by a plaque displaying the poem whose lines, “When I had a voice you could call a voice/My mother wept to me/My son, my beloved son/I never thought this possible” reflecting the ideological oppression of the regime and the desperate protest of the dissident.

Among the contemporary architectural wonders visible from afar from the city hills and bridges are Frank Gehry’s The Dancing House completed in 1996 and Zizkov Television Tower by Vaclav Aulicky, built in 1992. In 2000, ten black fiberglass sculptures by David Cerny depicting giant babies were installed on the TV tower crawling up and down its pillars.

…In preparation to our trip to Prague, we planned on staying at the most luxurious and highly acclaimed Alchymist Grand Hotel and Spa in the city center, next door to the American Embassy. The hotel availability, severely limited in the high season of autumn travel, yielded only one precious night in a royally decorated suite with plush rugs, gilded furniture, and a crystal chandelier in a 45-room dream palace comprised of four historical houses, half-millennium old.

Rich hues of red and gold in a vaulted-ceilinged lobby adorned with live orchids; murals on the walls of the Aquarius restaurant, depicting exotic scenes of faraway lands; the Renaissance courtyard with a cherub fountain, and the turquoise water of a swimming pool at the Ecsotica Spa were topped by the melt-in-your-mouth hand-made chocolate pralines prepared at the cozy and decidedly decadent Barocco Veneziano Café. Even this brief encounter with the Alchymist luxuries left an indelible mark on our entire Prague experience, making it a memorable highlight of this year’s travel adventures.

Of course no European travel is complete without some culinary exploration, and for that we turned to the tried and true Eating Europe – a great walking tour company that operates in several European capitals with a staff of professional guides, highly knowledgeable in history as well as in food scene of each city.

On an Eating Prague tour that was titled Prague Evening Food Tour, our excellent guide, Jan Macuch took us to family-owned bars and cafes so tiny they could’ve been easily missed in a maze of narrow streets and dark alleys surrounding the Castle hill. And that would be a pity!

From artisanal beer accompanied by locally produced cured meats and cheeses to amazing local wines, and from freshly prepared hearty soup to traditional goulash served with home brewed ale – our small group of culinary curious travelers consumed plenty of special treats along our leisure walk to the John Lennon Wall, Kampa island, and the famous Café Slavia – a historic hangout of Czech artistic intelligensia with live piano music and the notorious “green fairy” of Czech absinth.

It was time to say good-bye to the “Golden Prague” with its spires and bridges, white swans on Vltava, and its old-world elegance and hospitality.

Additional information at: www.czechtourism.com, www.hotelklarov.cz, www.alchymistgroup.com, www.praguewalks.com, www.eatingpraguetours.com.

 

 

The oldest seaside town in the U.S., nestled between three bodies of water on the most southern tip of New Jersey, Cape May is a picture-perfect location for an autumn or Halloween retreat. With more than 600 Victorian or Gothic homes, the area is rich with history, beauty, spooky charm, and mysterious stories of hauntings, ghosts, spirits, and specters.

Fall in Cape May is much less hectic than in the bustling summertime. The parking is easy to find, the beach is open, and the streets are peaceful and seasonally decorated with pumpkins, mums, hay stacks, and scarecrows.

I visited in October, and the scene was like one from a Victorian Autumn painting by Thomas Kinkade. Evoking the enchantment of days long gone, Cape May in autumn is a respite from the stress of the daily world news.  People relax here.  They stroll.  They ride bicycles, and browse slowly through the many small and unique shops.  Nighttime is magical, with lights sparkling on the buildings and carriage horses clip-clopping.

The Mid-Atlantic Center for the Arts and Humanities offers plenty of Halloween Happenings. There are trolley tours – Ghosts of Cape May and Ghosts of the Lighthouses and Tales of Terror – along with the Historic Haunts tour, which visits the 1879 Emlen Physick Estate and explores the Victorians’ fascination with spiritualism and ghosts.

I took a tour of the Physic Estate, and it was a fascinating one. Emlen Physick, originally from Philadelphia, was the grandson of a man known as the father of American surgery, who invented surgical procedures still in use today.  Emlen graduated from medical school, but never practiced medicine. Instead, he lived the life of a gentleman farmer on his Cape May Estate.

The Physic Estate made 1800s’ news in Cape May due to its avant garde architecture, known as “Stick Style,” which featured oversized upside-down chimneys.

Modern visitors to the Estate in autumn can enjoy Scarecrow Alley, an eclectic collection of straw-stuffed characters ranging from the ghoulishly gruesome to the foolishly funny. My favorite was the “Diamonds Are a Ghoul’s Best Friend” creation.

I stayed in Congress Hall, one of Cape May’s most famous landmark hotels.

Rebuilt after it was destroyed by the Great Fire of 1878, Congress Hall is a stately example of Federal-style architecture with a sprawling lawn and an ocean view.

Tales of ghosts abound in Congress Hall, especially one about a little Victorian brother and sister who are said to haunt the halls.

Congress Hall hosts a “Phantom’s Ball Getaway” event each autumn, with tickets including lodging, trolley tours, and 2 tickets to the infamous Creepy Carnival Phantom’s Ball on Halloween Eve.

For those not interested in ghouls and ghosts, Cape May is a town jam-packed with ample offerings in autumn relaxation. History abounds, and there’s plenty to see and do, including climbing (or just seeing!)

The Cape May Lighthouse, built in 1859 and still guiding mariners. There’s also the World War II lookout tower, built in 1942 to guard the shore, along with the strange sight of the sunken “Concrete Ship.”  The ship, named the SS Atlantus, was a product of World War I.  After making two trips to France, the ship eventually broke free of her moorings during a storm in 1926, sank, and the wreckage remains – not far off the shore of Cape May – today.

Bird-watchers flock to the area, and the dune forests of Higbee Beach are resplendent with fall foliage. The color pallet of the seashore is just as lovely, and even more dramatic, than it is in the summer.

Cape May Diamonds shine in the autumn sunlight, and beachcombers search the beaches of Higbee and Sunset for the clear or white quartz pebbles. Whale-watching and a visit to the 62-acre Beach Plum Farm are also perfect autumn activities.  Nighttime is show time at Cape May Stage, and there’s a constant schedule of ever-changing events throughout the town.

A stop at Frahlinger’s Salt Water Taffy is always a good idea, and the family-owned business is a good old-fashioned shop for visitors of all seasons.

“I always say autumn in Cape May is the best,” said the woman working the fudge counter. “Beautiful weather, peace and quiet, lots to do. Plus the ghosts.  We have lots of ghosts, you know.  Oh, and don’t forget the seafood!”

Great meals are to be found at the town’s many fine restaurants, including Aleathea’s at the Inn of Cape May (best bread and garlic oil ever!), 410 Bank Street, the Blue Pig Tavern, and the Lobster House. Several restaurants and hotels are offering Thanksgiving packages, including The Ebbitt Room/The Virginia and Blue Pig Tavern/Congress Hall.  Affordable family lodging may be found at the newly-renovated beachfront hotel La Mer, so there’s a room – and a meal – for every taste.

And then there’s Christmas in Cape May: a winter wonderland of old-fashioned magic and charm.   But that’s another story.

www.congresshall.com

www.innofcapemay.com

www.410bankstreet.com

www.thelobsterhouse.com

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.

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When Bonnie was a child her family drove from South Carolina every autumn to Gatlinburg, their favorite place to stay in a mountain cabin, see the crimson and gold leaves, and enjoy the fresh cool mountain air. Back then Gatlinburg was just a little village in the Smokies with rustic cabins and a few shops along the winding highway through town. This was a place for artists and craftsmen and hobbyists to whittle away the days and nights creatively and have roadside stands for their items for sale.  Bonnie and her family loved the crafts and that was part of what drew them there.  However, no one dreamed this beautiful area of three little mountain villages, including Sevierville and Pigeon Forge, would grow into the enormous travelers’ mecca it is today, where the three places have grown together with no apparent borders of separation.  Today there is SO MUCH TO SEE AND DO that even the TRAFFIC GALORE is not a preventative for tourists.

Thank goodness the beautiful mountain scenery and trails, woodlands, and streams have been preserved in their natural glory by our wonderful BEST United States investment and value: the National Park System. The Great Smoky Mountains National Park, which surrounds this area of Southern Appalachia, is the most visited National Park in the U.S., over 11 million recreational visitors in 2016. Great Smoky Mountains National Park was established by Congress in 1934 and dedicated by President Franklin D. Roosevelt in 1940. The development of most of the roads, fire towers, park buildings, bridges and other infrastructure was done by the Civilian Conservation Corps, men and women employed by the government during the Great Depression to prevent their families from starvation.

The Great Smoky Mountain National Park is designated as a World Heritage Site internationally and the mountains are some of the oldest on the planet.  To enjoy these beautiful mountains fully be sure to go with a professional guide from the outfitters A Walk In The Woods. It will be the highlight of your trip to the mountains. Thankfully, many of the early structures are still in good condition and homes of original settlers can be seen in various places, as well as tourist cabins which are replicas of the historic ones.  And the tri-town area has done much to preserve the heritage of the mountain people and many re-enactment shows are educational as well as fun. Dolly Parton has developed many of these including Dollywood and several dinner theaters: Dixie Stampede, and Smoky Mountain Adventure, which are fun ways to learn the culture and see the crafts, dances, and music of her beloved mountains. In 2016 a raging fire destroyed many mountain homes and businesses above Gatlinburg, but with the generosity of Dolly’s charities and others the town is rebuilding rapidly.

At Dollywood Craftsman’s Valley is a great place to see today’s artisans working in yesteryear’s ways to create beautiful and useful items, using skills and tools their grandparents and great grandparents taught them. The skills were necessary for survival in early days and now are fascinating preservation of history.  These crafts people create beautiful and useful ornaments and often visitors can learn how and create their own to take home.

Gatlinburg also features one of the most popular places to visit on the 8 mile Loop of its Arts and Crafts Community. In Gatlinburg the traffic lights are numbered, (a brilliant idea!) and on East Parkway you turn at traffic light #3 onto Highway 321 and follow the signs for the Arts and Crafts Loop. It is well worth a day to visit each of the more than 100 homes and studio/shops along the Loop to chat with artists of all kinds and watch them at work creating such lovely items for souvenirs and gifts. The works are treasures you will keep always with the happy memory of seeing them being made. These include glass blowing, ceramics, baking, weaving, stitchery, wood crafts, clock works, floral arrangements, candle making, painting, photography, metal works and so much more!

When Bonnie was a child her family always ate pancakes for breakfast at a small restaurant. This happy memory of delightful smells and tastes goes with the mountain atmosphere and today you will find one or more pancake restaurants all along the highway through the three towns.  But the number one choice of most tourists is Crockett’s Breakfast Camp in Gatlinburg.  We were SO HAPPY it was recommended to us and we enjoyed one of our top breakfasts of all time there.  The large griddle cakes are different from any we had ever had and were light and delicious!  They offer choices innumerable of eggs prepared in so many ways and served with delicious smoky bacon or sausage, and as if we needed dessert!  We could not leave without sampling the other item they are famous for: their amazing cinnamon rolls, which are HUGE and to die for!

You will find a very interesting menu in the fashion of an historic newspaper from Davy Crockett’s time, and the numerous choices for breakfast will make your eyes spin! The atmosphere in the really large log cabin is so fascinating in the décor from century ago with wagons, huge fireplace, hunting items, portraits on the walls and so much more. You will wish you could eat every meal here, but alas, they only serve breakfast, the most memorable and delectable you have ever experienced! And be sure to take in the excellent Country Tonite Show with music, song, dance, and comedy that will keep you toe tapping and smiling. For More Information: http://awalkinthewoods.com/, http://www.pigeonforge.com/plan-your-visit/dollywood/craftsman-s-valley/, www.Dollywood.com, http://crockettsbreakfastcamp.com/, https://www.facebook.com/GatlinburgCVB/, https://www.nps.gov/grsm/index.htm, http://www.countrytonitepf.com/,  http://www.dollywood.com/Shows/SmokyMountainAdventures,  http://www.dollywood.com/Shows/DixieStampede/About.  

 

Basse Terre is the western of the two major island of Guadeloupe. Staying at the Langley Hotel at Fort Royal on Basse Terre turned out to be a tremendous choice.  Once owned by Club Med, the sprawling hotel overlooks stunning, picture postcard views of the blue green Caribbean Sea.  The hotel is situated directly alongside a long, sandy yellow golden beach.  The beach is shaded by coconut palms and is populated with umbrellas and comfortable beach chairs, next to a large pool.  We enjoyed the bed and breakfast rate, which included a daily French-style brunch buffet (e.g., a variety of cheeses and breads, cereals, fresh croissants, etc.).  At the base of a tropical forest, the resort adjoined a pleasantly shaded hiking trail with views of Caribbean coves and inlets.  We indulged in light meals at the beach bar, where we relaxed to live music several evenings.  Two evenings we participated in free yoga classes on the hotel terrace as the sun set with vivid orange and red hues in the sky over the Caribbean Sea.

The interior of Basse Terre is largely a national park, with a rain forest and volcano.  On one day, we drove over two hours south of our hotel on the national highway to see the majestic Carbet waterfalls (Les Chutes du Carbet).  Two vertical waterfalls are on top of each other, each plunging more than 300 feet of cascading water.  The national roads (designated N) along the coasts were good for the most part, with winding turns providing majestic views of mountains on one side of the road and the Caribbean Sea or the Atlantic Ocean on the other.  The side roads (designated D), like the roads to these waterfalls, were steep and narrow with repeated jaw dropping turns and they were not well paved.  The pace on these islands was slow, except when cars passed us on the roads, as we ascended and descended hills.

Near Deshaies, we spent a delightful afternoon wandering through the paths of the botanical gardens (Jardin Botanique), which featured trees and plants from around the world, as well as an aviary with multi-colored tropical birds. There is a small restaurant/snack bar at the top of a man-made waterfall, overlooking the gardens.  We enjoyed three scoops of sorbet, with refreshing flavors of coconut and passion fruit.

Further south, near the town of Bouillante, we traveled on a glass bottom boat to the Jacques Cousteau Underwater Reserve. Beneath the boat we viewed an alien world, populated by weird shaped sponges, coral and colorful schools of fish in various sizes and shapes.

North of Fort Royal, near the base of a mountain, we toured a medal winning rum distillery, Le Domaine de Severin. The large property includes a mini-train ride and paths through gardens, a water wheel, rum making equipment, crayfish breeding ponds, a sauces and spice factory and prototypical houses of rum workers.  The tour ended with a tasting of strong dark rums and refreshing cool light rums.

As a department of France, the official language spoken in Guadeloupe is French and the signage was exclusively in French.  At the museum of cocoa (La Maison du Cacao) near Pointe – Nore, the tropical gardens featured explanations of the history, care and variety of cocoa products with some English signs.  We patiently waited for the English language samples tasting and demonstration, which turned out to be presented in rapidly spoken French with a few English words sprinkled in!

The signage throughout Guadeloupe was limited, even for the tourist attractions. Indeed we never found one elusive waterfall despite several attempts on different side roads.  Although the staff at the Langley Hotel was fluent in English, outside our resort we had few conversations with anyone in our native language.

 

There were a few “freaky” moments on this trip. After landing in Ponte a Pitre at night, we drove to the hotel through Sainte Rose during a carnival night.  We were taken on a detour through town, stopping to let the locals walk past in very scary masks.  On our return from a drive on the national road early one evening, our car was briefly surrounded by a group of rowdy teenagers in masks probably wanting money from us.  We floored our small rental car and drove by them, but we were a little shaken up.  Based on our drives through side roads into small communities, there clearly was some poverty on Basse Terre in the more remote and rural areas.

Even within the resort, we had to often brake so as to not run over the roster families and dwarf goats on the property. It often surprised us to see animals grazing on the sides of roads where there were no gates.

We spent our last full day (a Friday) in search of the one synagogue in Guadeloupe, Or Samaech.  On the eastern large island of Grande Terre, the small shul is largely unmarked on a side road in Gosier.  With Fern’s persistent and directions from local police, we came upon a house/compound topped by barbed wire and a security system.  After a maintenance worker admitted us into the complex, we met the French and Hebrew speaking rabbi, he directed us upstairs into the lovely sanctuary, filled with ritual objects and memorials to former members of the small Jewish community.  The population of the Guadeloupe islands is estimated to be around 425,000 with around 300 Jewish residents.

We were invited to have lunch in the kosher café downstairs. We feasted on a delicious meal of challah bread, fish (bass), salad, roasted potatoes and two scrumptious desserts, a chocolate lava cake and a lemon pie.  During lunch we engaged in limited English conversations with the local Jewish residents.  We learned that the congregation was Sephardic (i.e., Jews descended originally from Spain and Northern Africa) and held worship services on Friday nights.

Our drives were majestic with stunning views of the Caribbean Sea or Atlantic Ocean on one side of the car and fields of sugar cane or mountain peaks on the other side. The large volcano (La Soufriere) was often visible.  At all times at the hotel, we listened to the peaceful crashing of the Caribbean waves coming into the beach.  We’ll long remember relaxing while just starring out at the natural beauty of these islands.

So I heard that you could spend from dawn to dusk on the Malecon in Puerto Vallarta, Mexico and never get bored and I thought, “Okay, I’m up for that challenge.” Well, maybe not the dawn part — I’m not a morning person – so I had no problem leaving those early hours to the joggers and those seeking an early start to catch their red snapper for dinner.

But yes, the Malecon is a 1.5 mile delight in so many different ways as to make any number of hours pass quickly. Mid-morning: Northern tip. The Hotel Rosita, built in 1948 and the oldest hotel on the island, is steeped in history. It is the famous locale of the even more famous illicit liaison between Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Burton during the 1963 filming of The Night of the Iguana. The resultant publicity put the very sleepy town of PV on the map, and it became the only Mexican resort destination that grew up organically rather than created for the very purpose of attracting tourists. Take that Cancun and Mazatlan!

Rebuilt as a pedestrian walkway 10 years ago after Hurricane Kenna, much of its old world charm has been maintained. Bordered by shops on one side and the Bay of Banderas on the other, I was initially struck by the preponderance of unusual brass sculptures that dominate the landscape. First conglomeration: a boat signifying humans’ desire to search, a whale symbolizing ambition, a combination of a bird/propeller/airplane denoting technological evolution and an obelisk representing time. There are sculptures everywhere – clowns, mermaids, unicorns, lovers – celebrating relationships, history, Spanish culture, religion, animals and just plain fun. Chilo, our guide, transfixed us with the many stories surrounding each and every creation, but after a while, they tended to flow together, not unlike the waves hitting the shore as we walked.

And brass is not the only source of creative expression. Sand sculptures also abound. Large depictions of a welcome to Puerto Vallarta sign and a graceful Our Lady of Guadalupe, patron saint of the city. A sand sculpture wishing well was accompanied by the sign: “Your tips are my only salary.” That combination, I thought, was an interesting double-dipping marketing play. Both the tip jar and the well get coins tossed in them…

Encased in the pavement all around us are free-flowing Indian designs made from small pebbles. Even the tops of sewers provide artistic expression in the form of the town shields built into the stone. While oohing and ahing at every sculpture, I came to a whole garden of bronze benches in assorted sizes and shapes, each with a different symbolic, mythical or whimsical meaning. As enthralling as it was to see and hear, even better was the opportunity to sit and rest.

A quick turn of the head at any point brings you up against colorful assortments of plants, flowers and palm trees running the course of the Malecon. Look up instead and see five men atop a pole, about to perform an ancient Indian religious ritual in which one man plays the flute and drum while the other four descend from above flying in concentric circles, symbolizing the seasons and the cycle of life. Did I mention they are hanging by one foot upside down? It looks a little like an amusement park ride, but Chilo explained they train their whole lives for the privilege.

The stores as well reflect Indian art. The Tierra Huichol sells animals of every variety and wall hangings hand-made of miniscule multi-hued beads. The Opal Mine not only sells all varieties of the semi-precious stones but it is set up to replicate the mining operation that produces them. There’s history of Mexico reflected in every step of the Malecon.

Plus, of course, your de rigueur street musicians, painters, balloon makers and food vendors. Skeletons, a staple of Puerto Vallarta folklore, in assorted attire and assemblages are on every street corner. Yet, I was hard pressed to even find a t-shirt store. Unlike most beach boardwalks, the Malecon opts for funky rather than tacky.

By this time, I was delighted to imbibe in a refreshing glass of tuba, coconut milk flavored with pecans and apple. Okay, so maybe it would be even better mixed with tequila. But then, isn’t everything?

Near the end of the Malecon is a small amphitheater where performers entertain most weekend nights, but more on that later. Now, it’s time for lunch. The Malecon ends at a large beach, and the hotels lining the street, umbrellas crowding the sand, music blaring from the bars and the cries of children playing in the waves add a very different character to the far more relaxing and less touristy stroll that got us here. I felt I had left the real Puerto Vallarta behind but there was a beach bar, and hunger won out. Though not without its challenges.

The cordoned-off beach at our hotel protects its guests from the overly aggressive, ever-optimistic vendors hawking everything from purses to pottery, sombreros to sunglasses, trinkets to toys, jewelry to…hmmm…okay, junk. Not so at the public beaches of which the Malecon is one. I was at a loss as to how they could come up with so many things to sell – some easily recognizable, others more questionable – and all of it “almost for free!”

Especially ironic are the many venders selling food items – pastries, grilled fish on a stick, nuts and candies – to people actually sitting at tables and ordering food from the menu. A poorly thought out coals-to-Newcastle marketing venture, I thought. A suggestion: Do not make eye contact and be prepared for some minor whiplash just from shaking your head no. And do not order that third margarita – no telling what you may end up buying! Be prepared also for the bizarre — there was the woman at the table next to us having her hair braided into multiple strands while eating lunch. Want some highlights with your hot dog? A little beauty parlor in your dining parlour? One more reason to love the Malecon.

You can, of course, forego the pleasure of eating with your toes in the sand and dine off the beach. You may not hear the waves as well but you’ll dine in relative quiet. A lunch for two people with two beers will run you about $11 U.S. The entertainment is free. And post my margarita-laden lunch, a siesta on the sand was a perfect way to round out the afternoon.

So on to the Malecon at night when yet another whole world emerges. The sun goes down, the lights go up, the crowds pour in – and the good news is they are not just tourists. Or at least not just American tourists. Families by the droves with balloons, light rays and ice cream; couples young and old holding hands; people sitting at the water’s edge gazing at the city skyline off in the distance and multitudes of all ages, sizes and ethnicities dancing to the music at the square, the variety of dance steps as diverse as the people executing them. The amphitheater is home to entertainers ranging from folklore dancers to Mariachi bands to clowns – or as we were surprised to find ourselves in the middle of, a protest rally against Mexico’s president. It reminded me a little too much of home. I certainly didn’t have to come to PV for that!

That’s the thing about the Malecon – it’s full of surprises – and some of them so unexpected. Sand sculptures are one thing – stone art another. Precariously placed boulders of varying size and shape balanced one upon the other – I had no idea what they meant but the visual was surprisingly impressive. During the day your attention is on the permanent appeal of the Malecon, shops and gardens and sculptures of various kinds; at night, it’s all noise and moving parts.

At dinner in a second story restaurant looking down upon the boardwalk, I watched a man in a monkey suit taking pictures with tourists, a violin player, bikers and inline skaters trying to keep from crashing into each other, grown-ups wearing outlandish hats made from balloons as though coming from a toddler’s birthday party, a sculpture of a bronze man sporting a sombrero and a rifle – until he moved and became a mime instead. I hardly had time to focus on my margaritas. And then, an unexpected explosion in the sky – fireworks! Who knows why – it’s the Malecon. There doesn’t have to be a reason! For more information, visit http://visitpuertovallarta.com.

Photography by Emma Krasov

Just like in my previous travels to Germany, once again I was moving around in a state of dual fascination – recognizing the sights and sounds of my European roots, and discovering the incredible variety of cultural identities that constitute this country of many lands.

This June, in a group of international travelers from America, Eastern Europe, and Asia, I’ve visited quite a few of German towns with connection to Martin Luther in the course of a thematic trip though Thuringia and Bavaria, where medieval castles, baroque churches, and local cuisine restaurants rate high among the popular tourist attractions.

Martin Luther, called the father of the Protestant Reformation, was born in 1483 in Eisleben, Germany, and on October 31, 1517, allegedly nailed his theses criticizing the Catholic church, and especially the selling of indulgences, to the gate of the Castle Church in Wittenberg.

The 500th anniversary of Luther’s act of protest, considered the start of the Reformation, is widely celebrated this year, with every city and town in which he used to reside, preach, or hide from the authorities, pitching in with their own historical references, monuments, legends, and mementos.

Tiny, pretty, and pedestrian-friendly, Eisenach boasts the medieval St. Nicholas Gate in close proximity to a train station, and right across from it – a massive Luther memorial, created by the sculptor Adolf von Donndorf in 1895 – featuring the corpulent reformer in a long robe, towering above the relief depictions of his life’s pivotal events.

Historical Eisenach welcomed Luther on more than one occasion. Starting in 1498, and for three more years, the future church rebel attended St. George Latin school in town of then 3000 inhabitants, while residing in the councilman Cotta’s house. It is said that the pious matron of the family was so taken by young Luther’s heartfelt singing and devout payers that she offered him room and board. Now called Luther House, and housing the Luther Museum, it might be the oldest half-timbered building in Thuringia, well-preserved, and located in the old town center.A short walking distance away, there’s the world’s first and largest museum dedicated to the composer Johann Sebastian Bach, who was born in Eisenach in 1685. The adjacent new building of a musical center presents a multimedia exhibition on Bach’s music, holds a collection of baroque instruments, and offers live music performances. Baptized in the local Church of St. George (built in 1182; where Luther held a sermon in 1521 after being excommunicated by Rome) later in life Bach, a devout Lutheran, created his famous cantatas based on Luther’s hymns, like No. 80, “A mighty fortress is our God” (“Ein Feste Burg ist unser Gott“).

 

 

A subject to the Edict of Worms (Imperial ban), Luther was aided by his early defender, Frederick III, who sheltered him at the Wartburg Castle in the wooded mountains overlooking Eisenach. Built in 1067, and richly decorated with murals and mosaics, Wartburg Castle was home to St. Elisabeth of Hungary in the early 1200s, and an inspiration for Ludwig II’s Neuschwanstein Castle (the prototype of the Cinderella Castle in Disney theme parks). Wartburg Castle was added to the UNESCO World Heritage list in 1999.

Here, in one of the chambers of the castle, Luther translated the New Testament into conversational German, and according to a legend, threw an inkwell against a wall while “fighting the Devil with ink,” by his own saying. The video “ink stain” appears on the wall during multiple daily tours through the themed exhibition, “Luther and the Germans” on view through November 5.

The well-researched and widely laid out exhibition doesn’t shy away from Luther’s controversies. In the curatorial sections, “The Reception of Luther and the Reformation in Divided Germany” and “Martin Luther under National Socialism” it addresses his characterization as “a traitor to the common people” in time of the Peasants’ War (1524-25) and his aggressive anti-Semitism resulting from the failed attempts to convert the followers of Judaism to Christianity.

While staying in the hospitable Eisenach, our group had a rather modern dinner of arugula and burrata, veal osso bucco with goat cheese polenta, and strawberry mousse with lime and basil ice cream at a historical restaurant, Turmschänke Eisenach, and spent the night at a chic Steigenberger Hotel Thüringer Hof in the town center.

Arriving in Schmalkalden – a small medieval town in Southern Thuringia, we started the day with a lavish lunch at Ratskeller restaurant, this time with all the traditional German fare, like roasted pork shoulder, seasonal white asparagus, and shiny round Thuringian potato dumplings.

On a guided walking tour of the town, visited by Luther many times in his tempestuous life, we learned about a special meeting of the Schmalkaldic League which resulted in far-reaching changes in the church practices. The Schmalkaldic League, an association of 16 Protestant princes sworn to defend one another against Catholic opposition, founded in 1531, assembled in the Schmalkalden Town Hall in 1537. This assembly (also called diet) was led by Luther and Philipp Melanchthon – the professor-theologian and intellectual leader of the Lutheran Reformation. The Articles of Faith presented by Luther during the meeting were incorporated into the Evangelical church’s Book of Concord. Today, priests are still ordained using the Schmalkalden Articles of Faith.

These historic events are the subject of the permanent exhibition, “Launch into a New Era” at Wilhelmsburg Castle, one of the major Renaissance castles in Germany, situated above the green tree crowns and red tiled roofs of Schmalkalden. The original interior rooms with characteristic period murals and exquisite stucco decorations, and the beautifully restored chapel with vaulted ceiling and working organ present an unforgettable experience enhanced by the views of baroque gardens that surround the castle.

We also visited the late-gothic church of St. George with stained glass windows and a thin black clock tower that bears a graphic reminder of Memento Mori, and a historical building in which Luther rented a top floor room during one of his visits to the town.

Transferring to the Bavarian Coburg we were about to embark on one of the best city walking tours in our group’s collective memory. Our guide, Beatrice Hoellein, who admittedly was born in Malaysia, married a German, and found her true vocation in leading multi-lingual tours in and around Coburg, started her amazing presentation standing at Marktplatz in front of the 1865 monument to Albert, Prince Consort of Great Britain from the House of Coburg. She made a reference to Coburg’s own “Brexit” when the city, located on the border of the two states, voted to drop Thuringia and join Bavaria in 1920 after a state-wide referendum.  Our guide then pointed to a depiction of the head of St. Moriz on the city’s coat of arms, on many building walls, and on manhole covers. She explained that the legendary Coburg Moor was the city’s patron saint, and that Coburg’s main church was also named after him.

We proceeded to visiting the St. Moriz church, where Luther preached in 1530, with a late-gothic hall, mid-18th century baroque interior, 13-meter tall alabaster epitaph of Duke John Frederick the Middle by Nikolaus Bergner (1598) and Schuke organ.

Then in an energetic tour-de-force, interrupted only for a quick yet substantial lunch at Brauhaus Coburg  (featuring local award-winning sausages) we visited all four castles of Coburg: Ehrenburg Palace, where Queen Victoria met the Austrian Emperor Franz Joseph, and where Johann Strauss, the “King of Waltz” married his third wife Adele in the Palace Chapel; Rosenau Palace, one of Queen Victoria’s favorites, where her beloved husband Albert of Saxe-Coburg was born; Callenberg Castle, the summer residence of the Coburg dukes with a 400-year-old Protestant chapel, and Veste Coburg – the medieval fortress where Luther resided for six month in 1530 after being outlawed by the Emperor.  Here, Luther’s living quarters are authentically furnished and preserved as well as a chapel where he prayed.

The Bavarian State Exhibition “Knights, Farmers, Lutherans,” currently on display through November 5 at Veste Coburg, focuses on the impact that Luther’s teaching had on the people of Bavaria, and more precisely, Upper Franconia. It contains numerous examples of medieval and Renaissance religious art, reflecting the period’s fascination with death and its inevitability reflected in wonderfully crafted pieces, like a wooden mechanical clock depicting a skeleton riding a lion, and striking him with a bone over the head every 15 minutes on the dot.

We soon checked out of our Hotel Goldener Anker in Coburg, and were on our way to Augsburg, Bavaria’s third largest, and one of Germany’s oldest cities, founded by the Roman Emperor Augustus more than 2000 years ago. We stopped at Kastanienhof restaurant and beer garden in Pleinfeld for al fresco dining in the shade of old chestnut trees.

After a peaceful night sleep at the Hotel Augsburger Hof, steps from the city center with a monument to Emperor Augustus, we headed to the recently opened Fugger and Welser Museum for a guided tour with focus on Luther. Located in the extensively renovated Renaissance Wiesel house, the museum explores with the help of multimedia devices and interactive sections the influence of Augsburg patrician families of the 15th and 16th centuries on worldwide economic events as the Fuggers and the Welsers ran their businesses from the Fondaco dei Tedeschi in Venice, expanding their trade relations across Europe and financing popes, emperors and kings as well as trade missions to India, Africa and South America.

After a lively lunch at the innovative Die Tafeldecker restaurant offering contemporary small plates and outdoor communal seating, our group headed on a guided walking tour in the footsteps of Luther in Augsburg, a.k.a. The City of Reformation.

Church of St. Anna and the adjoining Carmelite monastery became the focal point of the Reformation when Luther stayed here in 1518 during his confrontation with Cardinal Cajetan. At the Christmas service of 1525, the Holy Communion was first observed “according to both rites.”

In 1530, the Augsburg Confession (Confessio Augustana) was read out in Augsburg, before Emperor Charles V.

At the Augsburg Cathedral, Mariae Heimsuchung, (“Visitation of the Holy Virgin”) Luther’s officially certified “Appeal regarding the ill-informed Pope and directed to the Pope who is in need of better information” was affixed to the Cathedral portal after the fruitless dispute with Cardinal Cajetan.

At the old gothic Town Hall in 1555 the Augsburg Contract of Religious Peace was proclaimed, which marked the end of confrontation and led to peaceful coexistence of different religious beliefs. It gave the followers of the Confessio Augustana the right to freely practice their religion.

After a lavish farewell dinner at Riegele Wirtshaus, when our group was heading to the hotel, we encountered a police-protected street demonstration emphasizing Luther’s adamant refusal to grant others the same religious freedom he proclaimed and insisted upon for his own followers. An effigy of Luther depicted as a flasher, and quoting his well-known insights, “Burn their synagogues, destroy their religious books,” etc. etc. was taken through the streets of Augsburg by a group of protesters, supported by some passersby – a great testament to the freedom of speech, alive and well in the City of Reformation.

Additional information at: www.germany.travel.