Stay A While

Last month M and I went on holiday, a very different holiday to what we’re accustom.  I’ll explain: A couple years ago we did a three week, six city tour of Eastern Europe that we organized ourselves.  The tour included Prague, Warsaw, Krakow, Budapest, Vienna and Cesky Krumlov (in the Czech Republic). We visited these cities in the dead of winter and although cold, bitter cold at times, each had their own charm.  Traveling in the winter when there are fewer tourists and everything from airfare to accommodations are less expensive was a great experience.  Unlike in the U.S., locals in this part of the world don’t hibernate in the winter; outdoor cafes were busy day and night as were restaurants and public areas.  My guess is that homes and apartments are small, money is tight so people congregate in public places for their entertainment.

Christmas Market

The outdoor cafes are what really got me.  They had propane heaters to keep you warm on top and heavy blankets to warm your legs.  I must say there’s something romantic, and a bit adventurous for Americans, to sit outside when the temperatures are below freezing (often well below freezing!) drinking steaming hot chocolate during the day and savoring a glass of wine at night. (Eastern Europeans are big smokers so choose your outdoor table carefully to avoid the second hand smoke).

Of the cities we visited Budapest was our all around favorite for several reasons.  One, it’s a beautiful city, almost as beautiful as Paris.  We visited fascinating museums; ate some excellent (and inexpensive) meals; indulged in decadent hot chocolate and pastries as good as any in Paris or other parts of Western Europe; toured beautiful churches; we were captivated by the architecture, a mix of old and modern, Neo-Gothic to Soviet era; toured the Jewish Quarter and learned the history of Jews in Hungary; we were educated in the terrorism that has plagued Hungary for hundreds of years by neighboring countries, each taking bites of land and freedom from the Hungarian people; and of course we visited the popular public baths which was a blast.  I could go on about the night life, the ‘ruin’ bars, the excellent public transportation…there was just a charm to the city and people and we didn’t have enough time to relish it all.  After three nights in Budapest we both yearned to return sometime soon for an extended stay.

Szimpla Kert Ruin Bar

The opportunity to do so came sooner than we imagined.  In the spring of 2017 I received an alert about a British Air sale from Atlanta to Budapest for $365 each round trip (you read that right; $365 each round trip).  We immediately decided we’d be crazy not to take advantage of this amazing offer so we booked that day (sale was for travel in October and November of this year).  This time we were going to spend two weeks in Budapest, plenty of time to immerse ourselves in all Budapest had to offer.  With an extended stay we decided an AirBnB would be a perfect choice, and knowing the city layout from our previous stay  we could make an informed choice of location.  Again, what a bargain; fourteen nights in a studio apartment, centrally located for $550, under $40 a night!

While I’d love to give a travelogue describing all the things we did over those fourteen days and nights, it would probably be boring; it’s easy to list the ‘things’ you do on holiday but difficult to describe the ‘essence’.  The experience of visiting one place for an extended time is so different from rushing from city to city, trying to cram in as much as possible in a short time, no matter how well you organize your schedule.  You really have the opportunity to live life like the locals.  You get to know the shop keepers, the wait staff in restaurants, the folks at the local coffee shop and patisserie.  You can tour a museum in the morning and walk the streets in the afternoon, maybe sit at a cafe for an hour or two conversing with the locals.  It’s just relaxing and a great way to learn the essence of a place, warts and all.

Hero’s Square

While we saw and did much, we didn’t cover a lot of ground like we normally do while vacationing.  And that was the idea of the trip; live like a local, get to know what it’s like to live in a place.  The first few days we were in Budapest we’d walk into a restaurant and were greeted in English, like we had a tattoo on our forehead that said ‘American’.  By the end of our stay we’d walk into a restaurant and were greeted in Hungarian, a sure sign we were one with the local culture.

I know not everyone has the luxury of an extended stay like we had in Budapest.  Heck, we may never have the opportunity again with all the places we want to visit (the more we travel the longer our wish list of places to visit).  But, maybe next time you can take a couple weeks off, think about an extended stay in just one location.  Doesn’t have to be overseas; could be a city a hundred miles away or across the country.  Stay a while, get to know the people and place….it’s an experience you won’t soon forget!

View of Pest from National Gallery of Art (Buda)
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Nineteen Souls And A Bottle (or so) of Wine….Oh, Gelato Too!

How is it that every so often the stars align to create magic?  When we meticulously plan, trying to create something special, it just doesn’t happen.  But maybe that’s the problem; you can’t plan for magic.

Nineteen of us got together a few weeks ago, meeting up in Sicily (as in Italy).  Most came from Georgia but some from the Midwest and one as far away as the Pacific Northwest.  Some knew each other, others met for the first time, but we were all there for the same reason; a week of cycling through the countryside and small towns and villages on this southern Italian island.  All the planning can’t guarantee a successful tour; the weather alone could destroy what would otherwise be a great week.  But the weather cooperated, so thus was born the magic that can’t be planned. 

We pedaled from town to town, stopping often for a croissant and a coffee, or just to gawk at the ancient architecture, outdoor markets and small town life.  We mingled with the locals, sometimes using sign language to communicate….never a problem.  We traipsed through grand cathedrals and churches, tapping away in our cycling shoes.  We’d stop for lunch, invading small cafes, scarfing down paninis and pizza and beer and gelato…cyclists are always ravenous.  After checking into our hotel (and one agriturismo) we’d head into town to mingle with locals and scope out where we’d have our evening meal.  Nineteen of us would pile into tiny restaurants, seated at long tables soon covered in plates and forks and knives and glasses and bottle after bottle of red wine.  Then the platters of olives and bread would appear to be followed by bowls of pasta and every type of fish and seafood you could imagine.  And don’t forget the gelato, there to fill in all the crevices and nooks and crannies left in your belly.  We’d stumble back to our lodging only to fall asleep and start the entire process again the next morning.

But the food and wine and quaint villages were only the backdrop to the friendships and camaraderie that developed over the week.  It’s the shared experience in a foreign land that can transform a vacation into a journey. When stepping away from our everyday lives to share something special there’s a bond that develops between those involved that others can’t see or understand.  We come home, family and friends ask about the trip and you try to explain how great it was, but it’s like trying to describe a great painting to a blind person; the essence can’t be seen or touched or felt if you weren’t part of the experience, just like the blind person understanding a masterpiece.

To top off the trip (literally) we climbed, by bike, to the top of an active volcano, Mount Etna, the tallest active volcano in Europe.  As we climbed the eleven and a half miles on the smooth road, we passed black rock, once molten but now solid.  We saw the devastation that a volcano can reap on the landscape as we passed old buildings buried to the roof line, now encased in solid rock.  But this didn’t dampen our spirits as our eye was on the prize of finishing this epic climb, topping off a great shared travel experience!

 

Footnote about travel: Margaret and I continued on after our week in Sicily, traveling by auto for another two weeks in Portugal.  We have lots of stories to tell about that part of our holiday but will save it for another time.  What I do want to to talk about is my continued amazement of the travelers we encounter when traveling in Europe.  There were Jerry and Jane from the Pacific northwest traveling for six weeks. Having started in Paris they were driving wherever the inspiration took them.  There was Cat from California, a sixty-four year old semi-retired, divorced attorney traveling solo through Europe by public transportation.  Cat had an open ended plane ticket with no plans to return home anytime soon. There was Doug, a young retiree from Canada traveling solo for six months, following his instincts through Europe. And there was the grandmotherly woman we met on a boat ride up the Douro Valley whose passion in life was travel.  You’d swear by looking at her she wouldn’t leave her front yard, but we were amazed to hear the places she’d been, some we hadn’t even heard of.

There were others we met along the way, one more amazing than the last.  I’m awed by the traveling spirit, especially by those you least expect to have it.  And that’s the essence of why we keep traveling.

Introducing FreeWheelingTraveler.com

FreeWheeling logo copy 2Wow….just checked the date of my last blog post….I’ve been slacking!

Not really.  I’ve been working on my new website for the past couple months and I just launched it.  The website is called FreeWheelingTraveler.com, a forum for independent travelers.  On the site I post travel stories from around the globe, include a great reading list of travel related books, a page of travel resources that are tested and proven, plus a primer on how to get started on your own independent travels.

What I like best on the website are the travel stories, and the first featured story (if I may say so myself) is outstanding.  The author, Megan Sullivan, titled her story After Being Diagnosed With Cancer, I Traveled to the 7 Wonders of the World In 13megan Days.  Hers is a great story with a fantastic accompanying video….please check it out HERE.

Megan embodies the very essence of FreeWheeling Travel; she works hard in order to have the time and money to create her own incredible adventures.  While not all of us are willing to live on that edge, Megan’s life story may help you find your own ‘edge’.


In addition to Megan’s story there are several

others from travelers who have created their own adventures; Rich Wolf travels to Africa and Southeast Asia, Roger Strauss searches for the best beer in Dublin while Ron Feinberg describes his tour of Prague’s Jewish Quarter.


Have a story you’d like to share?  A great photo from your latest trip?  A favorite travel book or guide or a stunning photo from your travels?

I’d love to include it on the FreeWheelingTraveler.com website.  Click HERE to connect….everything will be considered.  As David Foley writes in Ashes to Ashes;

why we travel – to witness the ‘unreal’, to take in the extraordinary ordinariness of a way of life we could never have imagined ”.

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Happy (Belated) New Year

Here it is February 1st and I’m just getting around to a New Year’s blog…how pathetic.  But it’s not like I’ve been slacking, except for the last week.  I had good reason; after three weeks of intense traveling through Eastern Europe and two long, long days of missed flights, unscheduled airport layovers, a restless nine hour overseas flight, I needed at least a week to reboot my brain and body.  Travel takes a toll, but it’s a worthwhile toll.

Spending New Year’s eve and day traveling was a dream come true for me, although I didn’t know it until it was actually happening.  Mine is not a depressive personality, I’m normally optimistic and upbeat.  But for years New Year’s Day has made me feel depressed, melancholy.  Is it the prospect of an entire new year unfolding all at once?  Or a let down after a great year?  I really don’t know what it is, but I can attest to the fact that on January 1st I don’t want to be around people….no phony socializing over black eyed peas and greens for me.  Just let me be in my own little world and I’ll muddle through the day.  And after a couple days of muddling I’m ready to get on with the New Year.  But this year was different; we were a world away from home in a new (for us) exciting city and I had not an iota of the usual New Year Day melancholy….I didn’t have time, what with the barrage of new stimuli.  It was great!

In a future post I’ll talk in more detail about our incredible trip, a trip we both place near or at the top of our list of favorites. This adventure offered a history lesson we’ve not experienced when traveling, plus the European culture we both love.  But I will include some notes I jotted down on our long journey home when events of the three week holiday were fresh.

The U.S.A. seems like the entire world, like the center of everything, but it’s not. There’s a big world out there. We’ve met highly intelligent people from around the globe who are not always aware of what goes on in the U.S…..not even on their radar. They’re not ignorant, they have lives that don’t center around ours.  And if you were asked about their country you may not be able to locate it on a map let alone understand their culture, politics, likes and dislikes. As Mark Twain said, “Travel is fatal to prejudice, bigotry, and narrow-mindedness, and many of our people need it sorely on these accounts. Broad, wholesome, charitable views of men and things cannot be acquired by vegetating in one little corner of the earth all one’s lifetime.”
I’m aware I preach about travel often in my blog and many may get tired of it.  But I do it because of my (our) love of travel; the experience is life affirming, simple as that.  And if I can influence a reader to plan their own adventure I’d be very happy.
I wanted to include just one photo out of the hundreds I snapped on our vacation. I chose the one below because it represents the rich culture we experienced.  It was a cold night in the old town district of Krakow, Poland and we happened upon this beautiful centuries old church that had nightly classical music concerts.  The church wasn’t heated and about twenty music lovers braved the cold.  The lights were dim, the music echoing through the enormous chamber, the audience wrapped in winter coats each lost in their own meditative state of serenity…it was a magical moment, one we won’t forget anytime soon.  Happy New Year to you all…..
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“And that’s the way it is”

Ok, just want to ask; when did businesses start the holiday shopping season right after the Fourth of July? Just saying…now on to more important issues.

Just goes to show that if you’re more famous than me (which is just about everyone), you can get my  ideas and thoughts published in the media.  Case in point, the excellent RIck Steves article written for the LA Times (the entire article is printed below).  He expresses exactly what I’ve been thinking and feeling over the last few years.  For those not familiar with that name, Rick Steves has been writing and publishing travel guides to Europe since 1979 with a philosophy he calls Europe Through the Back Door.  His books guide users on the best way to  immerse oneself in the local culture; why stay at a Best Western or eat at McDonald’s while in Paris when you can do that at home.(?)  Even though Rick and his company have gone on to be highly successful with their guidebooks, PBS shows, guided tours, travel products, etc., he has truly kept to his core principles.

In considering travel plans for 2016, whether domestic or international, I feel while there are very real international terrorist threats, they are probably no greater now than before the Paris attacks. In fact, the Paris terrorist attacks may have been able to occur due to complacency, with no recent high profile attacks on the western world. Now that it has happened, security will be as tight as ever, especially in public places such as airports and train stations, so this could be one of the safest times to travel. And as cliche as it sounds, if we don’t go on with our normal (or ‘new normal’) lives regarding travel, public events, etc…doesn’t that give the win to the terrorists?  Would love to hear your thoughts!  And when you finish Mr. Steves’ article (below) here’s another interesting article from a CNN contributor

Here’s the article in full;tune-out-cable-1200-1024x1024

L.A. Times Op-Ed: Tune Out Cable News and Turn Away Fear
By Rick Steves

I miss the days when people would say “Bon voyage” to travelers heading off. Today, Americans instead say “Travel safely.”

I travel a lot. In the last year or so I’ve been to Egypt, the West Bank, Israel, Turkey and Russia. My loved ones worry out loud: “Rick, do you think this is safe?” I always assure them, “As long as I’m not traveling through Chicago, I think I’ll be OK.”

After traveling and lecturing across the United States in recent months, it strikes me that our nation has never been so racked with fear. The paramount concern is “national security”: the fear that apocalyptic forces outside America’s borders — Islamic State, Ebola, immigrants from Latin America — will creep in and overwhelm us.

But the more I travel, the clearer it seems to me: Fear is for people who don’t get out much. These people don’t see the world firsthand, so their opinions end up being shaped by sensationalistic media coverage geared toward selling ads. Sadly, fear-mongering politicians desperate for your vote pile on too.

Commercial television news is hammering “the land of the brave” with scare tactics as never before. I believe the motivation is not to make us safer. It’s to boost ratings to keep advertisers satisfied and turn a profit.

When Walter Cronkite closed the evening news by saying, “And that’s the way it is,” I believe that, to the best of journalists’ knowledge, that really was the way it was. In those days, television networks were willing to lose money on their evening news time slot to bring us the news. It was seen as their patriotic duty as good corporate citizens.

But times have changed, and now corporations have a legal responsibility to maximize short-term profits for their shareholders. They’ve started sexing up, spicing up and bloodying up the news to boost ratings. And 24/7 news channels have to amp up the shrillness to make recycled news exciting enough to watch.

In a sense, news has become entertainment masquerading as news. Now an event is not news, it’s a “crisis.” Today it’s Islamic State militants and Ebola. Last month, the greatest threat civilization was apparently the National Football League turning a blind eye to domestic violence. Or was it racist cops? Or child immigrants at the Mexican border? Of course, these are serious issues. But hyping a news story as a “crisis” and lurching erratically from one to the next serves only to stir people up. Mix in negative political ads, and it can feel as if the world is falling apart.

The unhappy consequence: We end up being afraid of things we shouldn’t be — and ignoring things that actually do threaten our society, such as climate change and the growing gap between rich and poor.

It seems that the most fearful people in our country are those who don’t travel and are metaphorically barricaded in America. If we all stayed home and built more walls and fewer bridges between us and the rest of the world, eventually we would have something to actually be fearful of.

I’ve found that one partial solution is a simple one: travel.

The flip side of fear is understanding. And we gain understanding through travel. As you travel, you realize that we’re just 300 million Americans in a much wider pool of 7 billion people. It’s good for our national security to travel, to engage with the other 96% of humanity and gain empathy for people beyond our borders.

Don’t let fear-mongering politicians and ratings-crazed news channels shape the way you see our world. Get out there and experience it for yourself. Bon voyage.

“The world is a book and those who do not travel read only one page.” – St. Augustine

To understand this quote one needn’t have traveled much.  I remember thirty years ago a simple week at the beach was all it took to recharge my batteries.  But now I’m not just looking to recharge my batteries, I’m seeking nourishment for the soul.  Travel is not just about seeing new places; it’s about learning how small we are in a big world.  It’s learning we’re not the center of the universe, that everyone we meet is their own center.  It’s learning that talking heads on TVs and computers and iPhones give a small view of a big world. We have the opportunity to learn from people like ourselves in other lands.  It’s correcting what people in other countries think of us, ie. we are not our politicians.  It’s learning what true diversity is.  Wouldn’t you find it terrible if people in France or Italy or Poland or Slovakia think all Americans support war in Iraq and Afghanistan just because our politicians think it’s just?

2013Mar05_5690“He who does not travel does not know the value of men.” – Moorish proverb

We started traveling seriously about eight years ago.  By seriously I mean getting out of our comfort zone….foreign countries where we didn’t know the language or customs.  While scary to think how uncomfortable that may be, it’s also incredibly nourishing and liberating.  And the more one travels the more one desires to learn about other places.   As soon as I return from a trip my mind works overtime planning where to go next (I often start planning the next trip before completing the present trip).  I try to prioritize destinations I feel important to visit.  Once I recover from the rush of a journey I immerse myself in books about travel; guides, memoirs, travel stories.  The time between trips seems to drag on endlessly as we wait for the day of departure.  And once the day arrives we switch to journey mode and all our travel experience returns; navigating foreign airports and local transportation options, currency, which side of the road to drive on.  Your senses come to life, you’re not sleepwalking as we do in our everyday lives.

“The traveler was active; he went strenuously in search of people, of adventure, of experience.  The tourist is passive; he expects interesting things to happen to him.  He goes ‘sight-seeing.'”  Daniel J. Boorstin

Who is this ‘we’ I keep mentioning?  We is Margaret and myself.  How different we are with 042014_8060each other when ‘we’ travel.  Our friends and family know we have a healthy, open relationship.  We bicker little (never going to bed angry), respect one another…we get along well.  But when we travel we’re co-conspirators, plotters in our every move and decision throughout the day.  And it doesn’t get tiresome, we both love new adventures and experiences.  Travel is great for our relationship, not just while traveling but at home too.  We have shared experiences that link us to one another unlike we’re linked to others.

You lose sight of things… and when you travel, everything balances out”.    Daranna Gidel

So what changes in us when we travel? Is it physical? Psychological? Metaphysical?  Maybe all three.  My senses are heightened…tastes, sights, sounds and most acutely smells.  I wake refreshed, ready to go.  What’s mundane at home is an adventure in a foreign country; ordering breakfast, asking directions from those who may or may not speak your language,  where the heck is the water closet and why do I need to pay to use it?  But that’s where adventure lies.  And the interaction with travelers from around the globe….what’s better than taking inventory of people from other countries you’ve interacted with in a given day?  Would I ever do these things in my home town?  Doubtful.

“To travel is to live”. Hans Christian Andersen

At times I feel that time is running out, we’ll never have the chance to visit all the places on our ever expanding list.  Age, time, money all play a factor.  But I’d rather live with less in my everyday life, allowing more time and dollars to travel (not sure that’s M’s philosophy). Between trips I feed my adventure bug by learning how others travel.  Here are some of my favorite reads: anything in the Best American Travel Writing annual series, The Great Railroad Bazaar by Paul Theroux,  1000 Places to See Before You DieThe Longest Way Home by Andrew McCarthy (yes, the actor who is also an accomplished travel writer),  An Innocent Abroad: Life-Changing Trips From 35 Great Writers from Lonely Planet Travel Literature,  The Tao of Travel: Enlightenments from Lives on the Road by Paul Theroux,  The Hidden Europe: What Eastern Europeans Can Teach Us by Francis Tapon.

Take the plunge and travel….if a tour is your thing by all means book it.  But planning your own trip is rewarding in so many ways, especially when things go wrong.  There’s so much information available to create your own adventure; Trip Advisor, Rick Steves’ Travel Guides (our bible when traveling), your friends and family….just go!

As Danny Kaye said “To travel is to take a journey into yourself“.

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Guest Blog From Ron Feinberg

Our friend Ron Feinberg spent forty years as a professional journalist, thirty of those years with the AJC.  Following is a post from recent travels with his wonderful wife Wendy….enjoy!

Some folks stay busy in retirement traveling … here’s how a few friends spent their winter vacation…..

New York, New York, it’s a helluva town …  On the Town

So yet again the lovely Miss Wendy and I were in the Big Apple last week, enjoying the sights, sounds and, yes, even the frigid weather. Hey, it’s the one time each year that I have the opportunity to wear a really heavy coat, a scarf and gloves. Cover up just right, and even when it’s sleeting, you just might manage to feel toasty and warm while looking cool in water-resistant basic black!

And so it was that Wendy and I found ourselves high up in the balcony of the Lyric Theatre on 42nd Street, waiting out the final minutes before the curtain went up for “On the Town,” a glorious revival of the happening musical that first hit Broadway during the waning days of World War II.

Those of us of a certain generation will recall the movie version of the show, starring Frank Sinatra, Gene Kelly and Jules Munshin; focusing on the ups, downs and conquests of a trio of sailors on a 24-hour leave in the Big Apple.

Wendy and I had, in fact, been in the city for several days and, in a fashion, had been playing out the touristy bits of the show; making it uptown and down, even riding in a “hole in the ground”, living out the frenetic tone set in the show’s signature number:

New York, New York, a visitor’s place,
Where no one lives on account of the pace,
But seven millions are screaming for space.
New York, New York, it’s a visitor’s place!

Indeed, a visitor’s place! Have I mentioned the food?

Wendy and I once again managed to eat our way across Manhattan, adding a few new and nicer restaurants — Le Marais, a kosher steakhouse in midtown and Rafale, an Italian ristorante in the village — to our usual stops at delis offering up a smorgasbord of Jewish delights: matzo ball soup and mushroom barley; corned beef and pastrami; chopped liver, lox and bagels; knishes, kugel and kasha varnishkes! If you have to ask, well, let’s just say kasha is a Jewish delicacy and leave it at that!

Now pass the Rolaids or, better yet, Bromo-Seltzer!

Somewhere deep in our gluttony, we managed to push back our dinner plates and make it to several Broadway musicals. Aside from “On the Town,” we tapped our tootsies at “Wicked” and “A Gentleman’s Guide to Love and Murder”.

What lingers about most when thinking of these two shows is the final number in “Wicked” leading into intermission, “Defying Gravity”. As some of you may recall, Elphaba, the lovely and talented Caroline Bowman, tells us that it’s time for her to trust her instincts and “leap,” time to defy gravity.

And, wow, does she soar, high above the stage and audience. It’s one of those transcendent moments in theater when most everything — the music, singing, lights and special effects — blend together splendidly, offering up a fantasy that momentarily springs to life.

Another such moment took hold at the Lyric Theater, seconds after the lights dimmed but a moment before the curtain went up for “On the Town.” As I mentioned earlier, Wendy and I were high above the stage, surrounded by tourists and locals, folks from around the world and down the block; all of us settling in for a little fun and frothy entertainment.

The front of the stage was covered with an American flag, a huge piece of artwork that I thought in some fashion might be linked to the red, white and blue vibe of the show — you know, sailors out and about in search of fun and romance!

With little fanfare, the full orchestra began playing the national anthem — yes, the U.S. National Anthem! I looked about, a bit puzzled, and spotted folks around me looking around, confused and uncertain how to react. Was this part of the show? Should we stand?

One by one, then row after row, people began rising, then singing. The orchestra played with gusto and, taken with it all, the audience responded. After only a moment, the Star Spangled Banner filled the theater, the acoustics catching the lyrics and tossing them about, a chilling spectacle that built on itself. The final words, “land of the free … and the home of the brave,” hung lightly in the air as the room went absolutely quiet, then burst into spontaneous cheers.

The flag lifted, the show began and five minutes into the production we were lost in the music and lyrics of  Leonard Bernstein, Betty Comden and Adolph Green as we learned that “the Bronx is up, but the Battery’s down … people ride in a hole in the ground … New York, New York … it’s a helluva town.”

And so it is!

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