Category Archives: City of the Month

A Trip to Slovenia

I had been to Slovenia once many years ago when I was in Venice for a couple of days. We had spent an hour in Trieste before driving to the Slovenian border. The border was long gone but the thrill of crossing over into the former Yugoslavia was amazing. Slovenia was incorporated into the EU in 2004 and adopted the Euro in 2007. I remember that we drove to the Postojna Caves but they were closed. We spent a bit of time there and then returned to Venice. The most thrilling part of the day was crossing the border.

Honestly, I never thought much more about Slovenia. A few people I know had visited Ljubljana and loved it, but I had never returned. That is, until my son met a wonderful woman from Slovenia and they decided to get married. So, off I went again with new purpose and renewed interest! A return across the border and a chance to see a little more of this tiny country.

Italy/Slovenia Border

First of all, Slovenia is easy to get to. The capital, Ljubljana, has its own airport with frequent services to and from most European airports. There is a decent train hook up and if you rent a car, it is a short drive from either Trieste or from Venice. The journey time to Ljubljana is about 2 and half hours from Venice. The border is invisible, but you do need to buy a vinjeta. The vinjeta is a 15 Euro toll sticker that substitutes the awkward toll booths in Italy. It is easy to find – all motorway auto stops have them – and you simply stick it on your windshield. Without this little thing, a hefty fine awaits you!

The roads are great, even better than Italy in fact, and most people on the border speak perfect Italian as well as English. All roads lead through Postojna (where the famous caves are) and Nova Gorica on the border. Everything is well sign posted and the countryside is incredibly beautiful.

Postojna Caves

Slovenia has a wide compendium of landscape. From the vineyards in the Tuscan-looking rolling hills of the Friuli area, to the mountains that peer over Lake Bled in the north. It’s really a perfect country for a short break or an adventure break. There are plenty of opportunities for hiking, biking and sightseeing. Famous chefs abound as well. The world’s top female chef is Ana Ros, chef of restaurant Hisa Franko. The food has all of the great influences of Italy – as does the white wine with a strong background of Austrian and Slovenian tastes. It’s a gourmand’s delight. There are probably more top-quality restaurants in Slovenia per square mile than any country in the world.

Bled

In addition to meeting the in-laws, we had in mind to see a variety of places with only three days at our disposal. The “must-see” things you must see are Lake Bled and its 1,000-year-old castle, the Postojna Caves, the second largest limestone cave formations in the world, and of course, the capital Ljubljana. In between, there is a tiny piece of coastline with beautiful Piran as its centerpiece and the fascinating border town of Goricia and Nova Gorica. The only walled city that divided East and West after the second World War. In the Friuli area that borders Italy, beautiful towns like Šmartno are tucked into the rolling hills.

Sights of Slovenia

The city of Ljubljana is so picture perfect that you have to keep pinching yourself. It’s a charming Austro-Hungarian town with the famous Ljubljana Castle overlooking the city. The river that runs through the town hosts mini boat cruises and the bars and restaurants that line the banks are full of action and fun. Bicyclists are everywhere and there is a new pedestrian zone that has just been opened and adjoins the old town. If you can spend three days here, you will know it well. A few more days to taste the cuisine and drink the wine and you will be overjoyed. It is a fairytale town tucked into beautiful countryside; clean and picturesque with great food and lots of things to do outside the capital.

We didn’t stay long enough. A short drive back to Trieste for an overnight before heading home. However, new connections mean more visits. You never know, we may even get the hang of Slovenian!

Predjama Castle

Notre Dame de Paris

Early in the day on Monday, April 15th, I had been visiting groups and snapping pictures around Notre Dame. It was a lovely day and the cathedral was as beautiful as ever. The crowds were out in full force and the line to the cathedral entrance was as usual snaking its way across the square. Everyone was in good spirits. The air was cool but the sun was shining. It felt like spring.


Before that, I had walked down from the Luxembourg Gardens. People were playing tennis and the spring plantings of colorful flowers was breathtaking against the backdrop of the Palace. After lunch I had grabbed an electric scooter from Lime. One of the students I was chatting with had told me what to do and I easily loaded the app onto my Phone. I sailed across town and had one of the greatest rides around Paris. I left the scooter by our office and locked it through the app. It was so cool. Paris never looked better.

That evening I was with a lovely school group who were interested in fashion. I marched them through Bon Marche to scope out all the top designer names. I’ve never taken a group through there before…and probably never will again, but it was a trip! The faces on the chic and wealthy clientele was to die for. But then we came out of the store and saw the smoke in the sky.

We were over in the left bank near St Germain which is when I got a notification on my phone. Notre Dame was on fire. At first, I thought they were speaking about the Indiana school, Notre Dame University. And then another beep on my iPhone, then the kids got them too, and suddenly social media took over and we all realized that “the” Notre Dame was really on fire and that smoke in the sky was coming from the cathedral. It was serious.

We walked to a crepe place in Montparnasse and in every bar the TVs were turned on to the news. The smoke was pouring into the evening sky. The fire was out of control. The noise of the fire trucks was everywhere. The city literally froze and was transfixed. We went up to the Montparnasse tower to get a look. It was heart wrenching. In the near distance a huge fire with flames soaring into the night sky in the center of the city. It was tragic. But with just a turn of the head, Paris was glittering and was stunning (as it always is) as I looked west towards the beautiful Eiffel Tower.

Later I grabbed a Lime scooter and headed down to the end of the Boulevard St. Michel where a huge crowd had gathered. The police had cordoned off the access point to the cathedral, but you could see the north and south towers clearly. Still the glow of a fire was evident. It was after midnight by this time as the crowd began singing a beautiful prayer. A fire truck came rolling out, the crew exhausted, and the crowd cheered. Les pompiers. They saved the north tower and risked their lives. And in all of this I realized that Paris had experienced a beautiful moment wrapped in tragedy. They had come together very humbly and sang together and were respectful. You saw the power of this old lady of Paris; 900 years and not going away.

 

I hung out for a while to watch. The towers were in the distance but the spire and most of the beautiful interior that I had walked around earlier was long gone. Thankfully, nobody had died, and all of our groups were safe. Soon the reconstruction will begin. The foundations and the shell of the cathedral had been preserved. The towers are still there – not sparkling white as they were in the morning sun but strong and resolute. The bateaux will pass by along the Seine as they do every day and night and we will all remember it as it was.  Notre Dame de Paris.

In the meantime, Paris will have its fair share of monuments to see. Travelers will keep on traveling and slowly we will be witness to a rebirth of this great lady of Paris.  Travel changes lives.

The Reconquistador of Granada

The last time I was in Granada, I recall that we drove from Marbella and I caught the sunset across the rooftops. I remember that we saw a flamenco show in one of the caves in the Sacramonte area and, of course, I got to visit the Alhambra. But I did that all in one day and I promised myself at the time that I would come back.

So, 15 years later, I took a flight from Barcelona to rediscover a great city. The reconquistador!

First of all, we were hosting a weekend at the Parador de Granada. It is situated inside the Alhambra Palace and its gardens spill out onto the Generalife Gardens themselves. The hotel, a four-star parador, is a fantastic place to base yourself in Granada. It’s easy and inexpensive to cab into the center of town and other parts of the city. For the adventurous, it’s an energetic walk down to town and a tougher walk back. And what a great place to stay. The Alhambra is a big deal – timed entrances, lots of tourists, difficulty finding spare slots. So, it’s sort of nice when you are already inside of the Alhambra grounds because you have access to the outer parts of the palace. It feels a little like you actually live there, which you sort of do if you’re staying at the hotel. At the end of the day, when all of the tourists have wandered away, it’s just you and the people who are staying at the hotel. It’s a very cool feeling. A travel moment.

What I loved about Granada this time was meeting up with a friend of mine who lives in the Sacramonte area in a cave. A cavewoman in fact! We had gone to the Albayzin, the Moorish Quarter, for some fabulous tapas to meet up. Here’s the thing about Granada tapas, it’s free! As long as you order a drink, the tapas flies across the table. You can add to it, as we did, but it really compliments the informality of the tapas bar itself. And the free food is really good – not just because it’s free.

From the Albayzin, we took a long walk with our friend to her cave dwelling, while also catching  breathtaking views of the Alhambra at night.  Eventually we ended up at the very bottom of the valley, with the Alhambra in the distance beautifully lit up, and there we came across a series of caves, that in my wildest dreams I could not have imagined anybody living in. And in we went. There was a beautiful fireplace with olive wood still glowing, a tiny kitchen, two bedrooms, a delightful terrace that I struggled to walk up to because the stairways were narrow, plants cascading Mediterranean-style all over the place, and I realized then that I had found paradise.

Winter in Granada is probably one of the great times to visit and I was lucky enough to be there. Plan a few days in Granada. You are surrounded by the Sierra Nevada Mountains and the white-washed villages and towns of the Alpujarras. It’s a short distance from the seaside town of Nerja and the caves of Nerja which are famous throughout Spain. Next year, Granada will be linked with the AVE and so will be connected to Seville and onto to Madrid. Making the Alhambra an even more impossible place to visit. So, visit now! It’s fabulous.

Exploring Scotland

Taking the train to Scotland is always a bit of a highlight for me. It reminds me of a poem by W.H. Auden about the night train crossing the border to deliver mail. The poem has the meter of a steam train as it trundles along the tracks. I memorized it as a young kid and every time I go to Scotland and cross the border, I think of that poem.

Now the journey from London to Scotland by train takes around four hours on Britain’s relative high-speed network. But still the names of the stations bring back memories of the beautiful stretch of coastline literally at the border with long sandy beaches and, I recall, lashing rain. The accents changing by the half hour as the train moves through the midlands, Durham, Newcastle, and Berwick-upon-Tweed, before it heads inland for its final destination on the River Forth. Edinburgh.

Edinburgh and the Coast

I was heading to Edinburgh for a wonderful teacher reception with our fabulous group of clients who had spent a weekend in Scotland. Funny enough, I got to do two things that I had never done before – have a whiskey tasting and watch a bag piper play for Scottish dancers. Shame on me for not doing those sooner, it was fabulous and amazing. One of the members of our group, who had his own bagpipes, had always wanted to play on the shores of Loch Lomond. He got his wish and even got to play the pipes while somebody else was blowing the bag at dinner time.

Edinburgh is a great city and it’s a young city with its famous university. But we had decided to head off to St. Andrews instead and trace the tourist trail along the coast of Fife.

What a magical journey that was. In a matter of an hour, we were winding through fishing villages and charming tea shops, colorful houses and ancient harbors.

I walked along the sandy shores at the beautiful beach of Elie, around the harbor at St. Monans, caught the sunset at Pittenweem, and stopped at Crail before ending up at St. Andrews. It reminded me a little of one of those spectacular journeys along the Amalfi Coast. It was rougher, the sky was not blue, but the sunset and the colorful houses more than made up for the lack of warmth. And there was always haggis at the end if you fancied it!

A Breathtaking Trip to Bruges

I love two-day breaks.

Recently, in between trips to London and Scotland, I found myself looking for something unusual and somewhere I had never been to before. I was staying at the St. Pancras Renaissance hotel in London so I had immediate access to the Eurostar – literally located within elevator access! So, I started to think of taking a trip to Bruges, Belgium. First of all, I thought I had been there, but it must’ve been a memory lapse because I hadn’t. Secondly, I was keen to find out what the train connection was like between Brussels and Bruges. So, off we went.

The London to Brussels Eurostar journey is slightly shorter than the one to Paris – but both are incredibly efficient and are around 2 hours and 20 minutes. From the rather nice and grandiose Brussels Midi train station, the link between the local train and the Eurostar was absolutely seamless. As it turns out, there was a train to Bruges every 15 minutes and the journey is about one hour. The landscape is…well…it is called the lowlands for a reason! It is as flat as an English pancake. There are a few windmills scattered around but nothing too extraordinary until you pull into the actual city of Bruges.

That is where the fun begins.

Bruges is a tiny, beautiful town; medieval with gorgeous buildings sitting over medieval canals. There are some fabulous hotels including where I stayed, the Hotel Van Cleef, which backed onto one of the main canals. From there, we were able to walk everywhere and anywhere we wanted to. In Bruges it seems that everything is within 15 minutes of where you are.

We took the funky and fairly short sightseeing boat ride around the canals. This took about 20 minutes but was essential to get a perspective of the city. We walked the main square, the Markt, we ate moules frites, drank incredible local beer, gauged on the chocolates that were everywhere, and spent time in the Groeningemuseum. This is truly a little Venice. It is even the only place outside of Italy where a Michaelangelo statue sits inside the main church!

Bruges has it all – canals, museums, and access to the World War I sites like Ypres. It is also home to hundreds of swans and the Beguinage, which is a uniquely preserved enclosure that is still used to this day for religious women and has been used since medieval times. The town reminded me a little of Colmar, France; colorful houses, Medieval walkways cut through by canals, great food, great art, and fabulous accommodations. There is a reason they shot the movie ‘In Bruges’ here. It’s like a Hollywood set.

It is also easy to jump on the train and continue to the coast. You can be in Blankenberge or Ostend in 15 minutes. Beautiful art nouveau structures abound along the coast line with gorgeous sandy beaches. Of course, the only thing lacking there is the weather! But don’t let that deter you. It is easy to get to Bruges from Paris, Amsterdam, Brussels, and London. The only regret is that you will probably eat too much! Go to Bruges immediately. I loved it!

A Wonderful Trip to the Sultanate of Oman

The idea of going to Oman came about largely as a result of a need to be uncomfortable. Each year we hold an overseas meeting and, more often than not, we put our overseas meeting in comfortable areas of Europe. But a friend of mine had told me that Oman was this extraordinary place. So, I did some research, worked with the government’s tourist authority, got an incredible deal, and decided that we would have our overseas meeting in a place we had never been to before. What a great decision.

Getting There

Oman is more complicated to get to than most places. But because of the exceptional service from Boston on Qatar to Doha or on Emirates to Dubai, you can do a lot on non-stop flights. From London, Muscat (the capital of Oman) is well-served by both Oman Airways and British Airways.

For the journey out, I chose to travel on British Airways on my favorite day flight from Boston. I spent one night in London and the following day flew on the overnight, non-stop flight from London to Muscat. Along the way, I picked up a few of our London staff and off we went on a journey unknown. Seven hours later we arrived in Muscat. Three time zones beyond London and eight time zones beyond Boston. While this was not my first time in the Middle East – I’ve been to Israel and Jordan – this was my first time so far east.

Oman requires you to get a visa for tourism travel which is relatively easy to get online. The process of entry was just about as smooth as any entry to any country I have ever been to. If you have ever tried to fly into Israel, you’ll know the interrogation you sometimes get at Israeli Immigration. Oman was polite, friendly, civilized, and more importantly, the toilets were fabulous in the arrival zone! First impressions are usually the toilets in any country that you arrive in. Oman was in the Real Madrid category of toilets!

Oman’s Landscape

Oman is an incredibly diverse country with a coastline of nearly 2,000 miles and an interior desert that is the sort of desert you only dream – imagine sweeping vistas of sand dunes constantly changing. Oman has mountains (and lots of them) with some of them as high as 10,000 feet. The canyons there are just as impressive as the Grand Canyon.

Oman has plenty of wadis – shallow, usually sharply defined, depressions in a desert region that are often dry except for the rainy season. These then form into a stunning oasis.

Oman has sinkholes and there are limestone crevices where you can swim close to, but yet remotely, from the ocean. In fact, the ocean there is amazing with some of the most beautiful coral reefs in the world and beautiful, white sand beaches with turtles and dolphins.

Oman has fjords in the stunning northeast around the Straits of Hormuz. It is frequently called the Norway of Arabia. Not to mention that Oman also has castles, hot springs, forts, and is the largest producer of dates in the world. Oman has everything.

Its indigenous population represents about 50% of the five million people that call Oman home. The other 50% are immigrants, most of whom are from India and the Philippines, who work and build businesses in Oman but can never become citizens of Oman. The country has a high level of education, and both education and healthcare are free for everyone. The infrastructure in Oman (roads, sewage, bridges, electricity) is higher than that of most European countries. In addition, it has one of the highest salination projects in the world.

Muscat’s Shimmering Appeal

Oman is truly a jewel stuck between Yemen, Saudi Arabia, and the United Arab Emirates. Yemen is really on nobody’s bucket list and Saudi Arabia is impenetrable for most of the world…thankfully! The Emirates is a well-traveled route with an overdeveloped strip of seven emirates most famous for Abu Dhabi, the Grand Mosque, and Dubai with its ultra-modern Burj Khalifa Tower, shopping malls, and extravagant entertainment options. Oman is simply different. It is practically impossible to cover all of it in one journey.

The capital, Muscat, is relatively modern and sits with the backdrop of the Al Hajar Mountains dominating the landscape. However, the city is not very memorable because everything is so modern – even the mosques and the Al Alam Palace. But the hotels that are scattered along the beaches are phenomenal and the hospitality is incredible. Alcohol in Oman is often not available in restaurants but is always available in hotels and hotel bars. The souks, the traditional marketplaces, are more interesting in the ancient city of Nizwa, Oman’s cultural capital. Here you can buy pretty much anything you want.

For me, the highlights of Oman were the diversity, the warmth of the people, and those sheer travel moments when you simply cannot believe what you are seeing.

The Desert Camp and the Fjords

The drive from Muscat to the Wahiba Sands and the Desert Camp took us along highways with sand on either side and free roaming camels.

The dunes, the undulating sands, and the wandering camels, were some of the most extraordinary sights I have ever encountered in travel. Watching the sunset from the top of the dunes and then the next morning climbing to watch the sun rise was one of the greatest travel moments I have ever had. The sands had an almost pink tint to them and constantly changed contour and shape with the wind and the weather.

The Wadi Shab took us on an incredible journey through a breathtaking mountain ravine where we swam in fresh water surrounded by sandstone walls of rock amidst date and banana plantations and waterfalls. In Jabal Akhdar, the breathtaking panorama and rugged mountains were extraordinary. Taking the hydrofoil from the Port of Sohar to Khasab in the Strait of Hormuz, with Iran flickering in the distant horizon, was amazing. Arriving in the tiny town of Kumzar, it felt like we had awoken a sleepy village. The trip on the dhow boat through the fjords and snorkeling with dolphins was like no other island cruise I have taken. The hotels in this area were magnificent and were not expensive.

The End of the Journey 

We then traveled from Oman to the UAE. The journey from Khasab to Dubai took only two hours in a car. It felt strange to arrive in Dubai, a glitzy, overbuilt, sky scraper-jammed panorama, with a souk that was pushy and irritating.

Honestly, I couldn’t wait to leave and head to the shopping mall and go skiing. Indeed, that is what I did! Two hours of skiing at Ski Dubai, located in a shopping mall, for $45 was one of the great moments of my life.

The next day, I took the 8:00 am non-stop flight on Emirates back to Boston in time to go to game two of the World Series and watch our victorious Red Sox begin their march to the championship. What a trip that was and what a country Oman is. I could not recommend it enough.

The Svalbard Diaries

An Introduction to Svalbard

There are some key facts to know about the Norwegian archipelago of Svalbard before visiting. The habitable part of Svalbard is called Spitsbergen, so called because of the jagged mountain tops. There are about 2,500 people living there, 4,000 snowmobiles, 3,000 polar bears, 4,000 walruses, 10,000 reindeer, and a healthy and sustainable population of arctic foxes. About 2,000 huskies live here too. It is at 78 degrees latitude – well inside the Arctic Circle.

Svalbard’s capital, Longyearbyen, was a famous whaling community and later a mining town. Svalbard is now part of Norway but according to the 1920 Svalbard Treaty, 48 countries have the right to do business here and to work here. There are only 800 beds in hotel rooms throughout the archipelago and 43 kilometers of road. Residents are entitled to 24 beers a month! Now, that’s something that might rule out many, many people.

You can die here but not be buried and illness is not recommended for permanent residency. If you are ill, you are shipped back to the mainland. There is no unemployment. You either work or you are shipped off the island! There is no crime on Svalbard either. If you commit a crime, you are sent off the island!

There is a university here and it is one of the most important geological places on earth. Svalbard in winter is one of the most amazing places to see the northern lights. In the summer months the sun never sets from June through the end of September.

Early explorers trying to figure out a way through the north east passage to the riches of the Asian continent were some of the first to discover Svalbard. In the 19th century, adventurers used it as a jumping off ground for expeditions to the North Pole. Today it is one of the northern-most places to visit on Earth and is a haven for some incredible wildlife. Tourism is controlled naturally by the hotel beds and the limited air connections from Oslo. The only danger to the island are the cruise ships!

First Day Adventure

The flight into Svalbard was dramatic as we flew over layers of ice sheets amidst soaring mountains. There was cloud cover and then it broke into a northern sunlight. We then touched down in this strange arctic land that sits at 78 degrees latitude.

Upon arrival, our tour was conducted by Vigo, a wild looking local who knew the tricks of guiding around this place. There is not much to see in the capital of Longyearbyen, one of the world’s northern-most towns. It’s a pioneer settlement, once a great coal mining town, and now largely an outpost and staging point for adventure tourism and cruises.

What strikes me first is that we are so far north. It feels surprisingly temperate, but it gets cold as the afternoon moves in although the sun never gets too close to the horizon. At around halfway to the horizon, it just stays horizontal and regenerates for another day. Sunglasses are the midnight choice of eyewear here. We drove to see the great satellite dishes that monitor the stars and keep track of the hundreds of satellites that pass across on any arctic day and night. We drove by old coal mines that have long been deserted although one mine still is active with limited production. Coal became the main industry after whaling stocks were depleted. Imagine that job offer?! Miners needed. Miners in Svalbard? No sun for six months then no darkness for six months. Plus, it’s cold and there are polar bears occasionally. Not to mention that the job itself is incredibly dangerous. I think I’ll take a beer – oh, sorry I’ve gone past my allotment!

We then met with Anika who explained the island and the possibilities for tourism. We strolled the town and visited the Svalbard Museum which is essential to get the full picture. The museum is full of the history of whaling and hunting and polar bears and coal. It’s low key and worth the visit. There’s a poor stuffed polar bear who couldn’t obviously resist getting too close to someone with a rifle. Alas there are no winners in that game, but he is here in the museum. Immortal and very much the highlight of the museum!

In the afternoon, we organized a dog sledding excursion with nine huskies and a guide. During the summer, instead of using a traditional sled, they use a wheelie sled. What a blast it was. I got to steer it and we had to stop to make sure the huskies stayed hydrated. In the winter they don’t worry about it though.

These huskies are amazing. They are strong and not at all intimidating. Just friendly animals. We sledded out to the tip of the island and bumped into some reindeer and some horses. The dogs were cool about it – thank goodness!! The biggest thrill was learning how to rig the sled and how to look after the dogs. At the end of the day, we drove back to “huskyville” to bring the dogs back home. The company keeps about 200 huskies. According to our fab guide, Taya, a Canadian from Alberta, winter is more fun for everyone. The huskies can sleep outdoors even on the coldest arctic night. Sometimes the sleds have 20 huskies pulling riders across the ice and snow. This is their neighborhood. What a thrilling adventure!

Cruising the Arctic

Today we boarded our small cruise ship of about 100 passengers in total that would take us on a three-day journey around Svalbard. Cabins are basic, fairly tiny and have bunk beds. I had a port hole so some minor luxury! I also had a shower and a toilet. You needed to keep a clean ship inside the cabin. And when the boat turned, it was a rocky ride indeed. No room for the seasick traveler. For the frequent Costa cruise ship type, this would be a stretch. For me it was a minor challenge! The most important decision of the cruise was to choose your table seat and position. You have to do this right away. We grabbed the window berths. That was a big deal. We had the safety briefing then a buffet lunch which was pretty decent before heading out to Barentsburg about four hours from Longyearbyen.

If you had said that we were heading to the USSR today I would not have believed you. But here we were. This was (and still is) a Russian coal mining town. And this really was Russia with a Lenin statue in the middle of the square. It was another world. Pure USSR but no visa hassle!!

Today we couldn’t go down the mine but we got to stroll the town. We had a show provided by the Arctic Singers. It was a little wild but lots of fun and we got to meet the cast members and take pictures afterwards. There was a fabulous pub with local craft beer called 78 Degrees. A Russian wooden church, a souvenir shop and not much else. But, this was Russia! Visiting Barentsburg can be done from Longyearbyen by hydrofoil as a day trip. It takes about an hour to get there. It’s a must do!

An Arctic Beach Day

The menu of activities on our second day was extensive. We set off on a morning exploration of a beach and a rocky cove with glaciers at the far end of the cove. We were surrounded by stunning vistas and still, arctic blue waters. The arctic blue is like no color I have seen. This was also the first time on the trip we saw floating glaciers of blue ice. It was also the first time we were taken by one of four motorboats stored on the main boat to the land. This involved lifejacket routines and careful instructions about following the guide and not drifting off to be eaten by a polar bear. Everyone definitely listened!

At least four people went for a swim in the below freezing water – one was even naked. We all wished them well and I wished I had my Speedo but alas! Apparently, you get a certificate at the end if you take the plunge. I didn’t feel tempted in the least! We were attacked by arctic terns! These birds commute between the arctic and Antarctic every summer and winter chasing the warmer weather and the midnight sun. About 40,000 kilometers roundtrip each year! A lot of flapping and not much time at home with the kids so no wonder they get bent out of shape if you get near their nests. They attack ferociously in swarms like the scene in the Hitchcock movie, The Birds. The biggest challenge of the day was getting the lifejacket on and then defending your head from the beaks of the birds. A Polar bear encounter would seem insignificant to these two obstacles!

The Morning Arctic Silence

People spoke of this – the quiet and absolute still in an arctic landscape. We had arrived in a beautiful bay. Nothing unusual here except for a colorful orange hut full of things from explorers that had been here before. A chess set, two bunks, and random kitchen stuff. It was called Lloyd’s 5-star Hotel! The glacier field in the distance was the one we had just seen from the boat. It was a vast body of water with layer upon layer of packed ice dropping into the sea. The guides had asked for us just to walk the beach; to be alone and be still. The beach and rocks were wide and crescent shaped. We each staked a place or point and just stood or sat and gazed into the arctic air. Nothing more. It was amazing and something I’ll remember.

Hiking the Beach

Today we were prepared to hike but a polar bear had been spotted and reported roaming the beach area and the guides had to ensure the area was clear and safe before we were able to go out. The climb to the far mountain would be around two hours round trip. It was exciting stuff. We were given very strict instructions to stay close and work as a team. Everyone was on the lookout. The guides were super alert with flares and rifles in hand.

The walk across spongy flora and jagged rocks was exhausting but the view was amazing from the top. We saw reindeer and no bears (which was good). I had constantly weighed the specifications of rifle range and guide to me. It never was off my mind. The climb down was trickier as is always the case. At last we headed back to the boat and to dinner.

We would set sail for Ny-Ålesund for our last excursion of the trip. Here we would find the staging post for the explorers who came to conquer the north pole. The last piece of land before the ice fields gobbled up the wooden boats and took their human toll. The rain had picked up – chilly arctic rain.

A Sight to Remember

It’s what we all dreamed about. I honestly thought it would never happen. A polar bear sighting!

We were in the most beautiful arctic bay I had ever seen with huge glaciers and magical drifts of blue icebergs. We saw a glacier drop into the water right in front of us. The sound was haunting. That was when someone back on the main boat spotted a polar bear swimming across the fjord.

The captain of our boat slowly, and with great care, followed its route. It was heading between the glaciers to the far beach. What a sight. They are huge and are truly great swimmers. Once on land, it paraded up and down for quite a while. Everyone reached for their weapon of choice! The binocular purist crew were going crazy. The camera people with lenses about two feet long were in ecstasy. This was their moment. All that lugging around was worth it. The bigger, the better. Cameras, real cameras, won the day. These giant single reflex cameras with huge telescopic zooms just live for moments like this. My Lumix with a Leica Lens was decent enough but really didn’t cut the mustard. At least I had an option beyond my iPhone.

Now we had our stories. We could embellish and move them around, but we had seen a polar bear in the wild. Exaggeration would be important and vital in the retelling! On to the walrus island and the farthest north we would get to – 80 degrees latitude which was practically at the North Pole. We would celebrate the crossing of the latitude line with a glass of champagne. It was something to behold.

Ny-Ålesund

Ny-Ålesund is the northernmost settlement in the world (80 degrees latitude) with a permanent civilian population. Other settlements are farther north but are populated only by rotating groups of settlers. That’s where we found ourselves on the last night. The weather deteriorated, and the rain was heavy as we moored in this town. The view across the bay was spectacular. We had a museum to get to and a bar that stayed open only on Thursdays and only until 9:30 pm. The sign read “No Photos Please”! The boat comes in once a week. The museum was fascinating.

This was first a mining town. A coal mining town and later a research center for Geologists and meteorologists. The shop in the museum was busy and business was sort of booming – not booming crazy but this was the end of the world! And it was so absolutely bizarre. It was our last night in uncomfortable weather and the boat rocking like crazy. In my single bunk, I dreamed of the Titanic but woke in the morning to breakfast. Life was good.

The Brilliant Guides of Svalbard

Here’s the deal, it takes a lot of training to become an arctic guide. Your background has to have some modicum of outdoorsy enthusiasm preferably with a knowledge of the sea and geology. You have to speak several languages and English must be one of them. You have to know how to read the night skies, follow the pattern of the midnight sun, and spot and distinguish between whales. You must know a walrus from a seal from a far-off distance and you need to have your eyes trained constantly for polar bears. You also have to know how to shoot a gun under pressure, how to fire a flare, and how to deal with emergencies. Flare first, fire second. You have to know how to sail, how to judge changing conditions, how to pitch a tent in a blizzard, and how to run a trip line so that there are no surprises at night from the bears or reindeers. These are standard Arctic emergency training drills that need to be imagined real.

You’re off the map here; off the charts. There is zero cell phone coverage. You are responsible for 100+ people at any given time who haven’t the faintest idea of arctic conditions. You need to think about the safety of the people and keep a respect for the animals. Everyone wants to see the polar bears, but you have to be the one that watches for them constantly.

In addition, you have to have a super personality, exude leadership, and be a decision maker. It may be that your decision can make a huge difference to a day. Lastly, you have to really love it. Love the outdoors, even in blizzards, freezing temperatures, and fast changing conditions that can alter any day. You have to keep to the code and stay smart, always working as a team and having a team mentality. Oh yeah. The last thing you have to know is how to swim in arctic water. There is a standard three-minute test you have to endure. Pass that and maybe you get a job! Ah ha!

Looking Back

So, hours of endless days. A cruise to 80 degrees latitude and the end of the world in the northern hemisphere. A World Cup final in a pub in Longyearbyen with about 50 French people and 20 Croatians. Allez les bleus! An encounter with a polar bear, a husky sled ride, a Russian enclave inside a Norwegian archipelago, and a group of people that were fun and different and just like me, experimenting with something that seemed slightly off center. It was amazing. Like no other place on Earth. Can we take groups there? You bet.

A Trip Through the Old Soviet Union: A Nine-Day Illustrated Story

A Quick Trip to Quebec City

I am pretty well traveled. I have been to many places and love the city I live in, Boston. I’ve been to the countries that abut our US borders and have loved both Mexico and Canada but I had never been to Quebec City until recently.

Getting to Quebec City is a bit complicated. There are no non-stop flights from Boston and the drive is long through New Hampshire and Maine. Still, no excuses. I needed to get there as quick as possible as I was only spending a little over 24 hours there. So off Michael, our Canada expert, and I went. We traveled on Porter Airlines over Toronto. I really loved Porter Airlines – plenty of leg room and the facilities in their waiting rooms are brilliant. Landing at Toronto’s Billy Bishop City Airport is one of the greatest landing strips in the world. It feels like you are literally in the parking lot of the Toronto skyline. It was a breathtaking landing! We then went on to Quebec City and colder climates.  Quebec here we come!

Awestruck at Arrival

Quebec is a total French experience.

We grabbed a rental car and headed in to the city. The first stop was the small town on the banks of the Saint Lawrence River, Levis. We boarded the car ferry for the 10-minute crossing into Old Quebec. The river was a moving spectacle of floating ice. It looked like a sea of icebergs steadily moving along the rapid tide. The boat crushed through the chunks of ice as if they were not there. In the distance, there was the beautiful Chateau Frontenac; our hotel and main focal point for Old Quebec. We checked in and began our tour of Quebec. My rusty French was about to get a work out.

A Chilly Quebec

Quebec is simply a delightful small town. Its modern history stretches back to the story of the American revolution and the collapse of French colonialism and English domination. It is utterly French. Its language is authentic, old French and the cafes and restaurants boast this proud heritage.

We were visiting in the cold of winter. They estimate they get 16 feet of snow on average each winter here and it stays cold for many months. The snow stays too. But Quebecoise get used to it. There are toboggan runs and ski circuits, skating rinks and dog sleds, ice hotels and maple sugar shacks, and popsicles made from hot maple rolled along a snow tray. Which are delicious! There are even canoe races across the icy Saint Lawrence. Nearby ski resorts do not have the mountain height of the Rockies but they sure get the snow depth. And the snow is light and airy because of the cold. If the town is hunkered down with winter attractions, it is, according to Michael, also one of the great places to visit in its short summer. Music festivals and cafes spilling out onto the narrow cobble streets create a whole new Quebec. Today we would freeze but enjoy the funicular and some welcomed hot chocolate. The feast would come later at one of the great restaurants that occupy the citadel.

Hotel Alex Zermatt

Routine and familiarity are comforting. I’ve been going to the same hotel, the Hotel Alex, in the Swiss Alps for 15 years. Same room, same friends, same everything. It’s a great place!

There is an order to the week. There are the owners that know us and greet us daily.  There is the bar and the dinners all set out every night. It is a fixed menu that is beautifully crafted by a fabulous chef. There are special dinner nights like fish night when there is a fabulous array of smoked delicacies (Eel is my favorite. All of my childhood years of jellied eels created this addiction).  Then there is cured meat night – a gourmands dream and as many types of mountain animals that your cholesterol can take! There’s raclette night when the owner of the hotel sweats over a raclette machine and serves grilled Swiss mountain cheese with potatoes and pickled onions. As much as you want. And these are just the appetizers! There’s always salad and always a fabulous dessert. Breakfasts are part of the extravaganza too. Yep, it’s a calorific buster off week. The skiing keeps the damage down but who is counting really?!

Apart from the food there’s this level of anticipation. Everyone looks at the map denoting ski runs open and weather reports from the top of the mountain. “What piste should I take today?” “Is Italy open?” They are always the same conversations. Reassuring. Then there’s the in-between time at the hotel. The spa and a swim before the dinner make it just a perfect week.

The people who work at the hotel are super nice. They get it. We’re all there to have a good time and escape. They smile and become part of the week.

The Hotel Alex is near to the main cog railway that takes you up the mountain and right by the main station that connects everyone to the real world down in the valley. It’s a bit like Brigadoon. For a week at least it works for me. More info on the Alex can be found on their website: Hotel Alex Zermatt. It is a surprisingly great deal and a fabulous four star hotel. Best in town. Best in show.

La Dolce Vita – Zermatt Style

Today was so cold and the temperature at the top of mountain minus 40 Celsius. The cable car stalled every five minutes because of the temperatures. But…the sun was out and with seven layers and a balaclava I was ready.

We were going to ski Italy today.

The amazing thing about Zermatt is that you get two countries, two huge mountains and therefore two cuisines. Two cultures and frankly extreme cultural differences. On the Swiss side, all the lunch places are privately owned. On the Italian side, it’s local government concessions. Even the toilets are terrible on the Italian side because they don’t care to spend the money. They just lease the premises every three years. But, hey, it’s la dolce vita so who can knock that?!  It’s rosti versus polenta. Let the games begin.

At nearly 13,000 feet, the Klein Matterhorn is the highest ski station in the Alps. It’s breathtaking. From there we took the one hour ski journey to Valtournenche, a town and commune in the Aosta Valley region of northwestern Italy. What a ride – 16 kilometers of winding ski terrain. It’s something everyone should try once in their life.

Lunch at the top of course would be polenta. The sun stayed on us all day and it was glorious.

The Top of the Matterhorn

In Zermatt there are three choices to climb the Matterhorn mountain: The beautiful Gornergrat Railway, the funicular, and the Matterhorn Express Gondola.

The Gornergrat Railway is walkable from our delightful hotel, Hotel Alex Zermatt. It’s a sightseeing journey all to itself; 20 minutes climbing through spectacular scenery en route to the top. Skiers, hikers, and sightseers all share the train.  It is literally, a trip, and worth taking.

Today however, we grabbed an electric taxi to the Matterhorn Express station as the temperatures were super crazy cold.  The top of the mountain is minus 15 Fahrenheit. They’re telling parents not to take the kids up. Cloud cover looked grim but we went for it.  And then the sun broke through at 9,000 feet. Skiing had near to perfect conditions but so cold at high altitudes.

Zermatt is a paradise of choice where everything is connected. It’s huge and connects to Cervinia in Italy. The Matterhorn follows us everywhere we go.  The sun stayed out all day. We skied all day. Old friends. Fun times!

Sarajevo’s History and Haunting Beauty

I am not sure why Sarajevo sounds so haunting but it simply has a beautiful lilt to the name. Nestled in a valley, it is one of the most extraordinary places you can imagine. The country of Bosnia and Herzegovina was one of the last dominoes to fall in the once powerful Ottoman Empire. Its strong Muslim culture is very much alive and vibrant today. The mix of history in this city is extraordinary, almost overwhelming. Imagine this – the first world war started here on the tiny crossroads in the center of town by the Miljacka River at the end of the Latin Bridge. That was in 1914 when Archduke Franz Ferdinand of Austria and his wife Sophie, Duchess of Hohenberg, were assassinated. That was one bad turn! You could say that the first world war begot the second world war and the second world war begot the expansion of the Soviet Union but more importantly, the emergence of Yugoslavia as a country. As the disintegration of the Soviet Union took place, so did the disintegration of Yugoslavia. Then all hell broke loose during the Yugoslav Wars in the 1990’s.

Sarajevo, the Olympic city of 1984, became a city under siege from 1992 until 1996. It was the longest siege of any capital city in the history of modern warfare. The siege lasted 1,425 days and about 14,000 people were killed, including over 5,000 civilians. It took the tragedy of the Markale marketplace massacre in 1994 for NATO to become involved and ultimately for the siege of Sarajevo to be ended. This was in 1996 – only 21 years ago. Now Sarajevo is one of the fastest growing cities in Europe and is ranked as one of the most popular destinations for tourists in 2017.

We walked by the town hall and library that was destroyed in 1992 by Serbian forces. Most of the important manuscripts and books were burned beyond recognition. Today it has become a monument to regeneration and reconstruction. To walk through the streets of Sarajevo, you are always reminded of the siege. We visited a tunnel by the airport where supplies were secretly shipped into town outside of the Serbian perimeter. It was the only way that the city could maintain its food and ammunition supply. The entire city was literally cut off except for this extraordinary tunnel link that the Serbian forces never found.

We stayed at Hotel Europe, delightfully central and reasonably priced, did an incredible walking tour with a local guide, and visited the old bazaar, Bascarsija. Sarajevo is unique in that in the same neighborhood, you can visit a Catholic cathedral, a mosque, an Orthodox church, and a synagogue. You can hear the call to prayer while walking through the city and listening to the church bells. Essentially, it is the story of the great Ottoman Empire. When you walk through the streets of Sarajevo, you can almost feel the pulse of tragedy, rebirth and the imprint of the centuries that have been left behind.

Faroe Islands Part 2: The Adventure

The Faroes have been compared to a grain of sand on a dance floor; impossible to find but a complete world onto itself once it is seen through a looking glass.

I was fortunate enough to travel for a few days in the Faroe Islands and stayed at the Hotel Føroyar in the capital, Tórshavn. It is like no other place I have been to.

This is a land of 50,000 people and 70,000 sheep. There are two sub-sea tunnels, one Michelin Star restaurant in Tórshavn (Koks Restaurant), 62 churches, and one bridge crossing the Atlantic sea. It’s a land of temperate gulf current Atlantic waters, tons of puffin birds, and fabulous cuisine. It has only 840 sunny hours per year and rains most of the time. Stark but beautifully colored houses with grass growing on the rooftops are scattered across the landscape. The grass is used to keep the houses warm in both the winter and the summer!

The Faroe Islands are known for its sheep and its fish. It’s very famous for its knitwear and wool was once the gold of the Faroe Islands. This archipelago also has one of the largest salmon fish farming industries in the world. In fact, much of the farm raised salmon we get in super markets and restaurants come from the Faroes.

The Faroes has its own language although everybody speaks Danish and English. Nothing is open on a Sunday – absolutely nothing including gas stations! The greatest discovery in the whole world on a Sunday in the Faroe Islands is the small but great café, Fríða Kaffihús. Service is a bit challenging but very friendly. But hey, it’s open.

To get around the Faroe Islands, you need to rent a car, which is easy to do. Then each day you can set out to discover one of the 18 islands, most of which are connected to one another by tunnel or bridge. As I drove across the various islands, I started to notice trampolines everywhere. Unofficially, this must be the country with the most trampolines per capita in the world. Not saying that there is not a lot to do there…either that or some sales guy really had away with trampolines. In addition, the Faroese love to play soccer. They have a national team and they have had some big results in the past. Every tiny town dotted around the 18 islands has a decent size stadium. They like to drink beer and the craft beer industry is growing like crazy. As they are part of the EU, the young Faroese have access to the entire world of 26 EU countries to work.

If you plan to visit the Faroe Islands, one suggestion I would make is to break up the different islands. It would be best to travel from Iceland to there and then finish with a few days in Copenhagen. It should also be noted that you can take a ferry from Scotland. But frankly, with the stormy Atlantic seas out there, I would rather fly if only to avoid sea sickness alone!

Faroe Islands Part 1: Getting There is Half the Fun

When I was a kid in the UK, I used to listen to the shipping forecast on the radio late at night. It felt cozy and reassuring when I was tucked in my bed and thinking of all these ships bobbing around in the harsh waters around the northern parts of the UK and beyond. It has become quite a famous institution in fact. At the London Olympics it was played along with Elgar’s Nimrod to denote Britain’s maritime heritage. There were updates of mysterious places like Tyne, Dogger, German Bight, Fair Isle and the Faroe Islands. I had no idea where most of these places were but like most youngsters in the UK, it became part of every Brits upbringing and it still beams out across the air waves today. This summer I decided to go visit one of these places; The Faroes. I had never been and had not much of a clue exactly where it was.

Getting there is not easy. Perched between the Outer Hebrides and the southeast tip of Iceland in the inhospitable waters of the Atlantic ocean, there is no direct service from London or many other European gateways. You can fly quite conveniently from Copenhagen or Reykjavik on SAS or Air Atlantic (the Faroe national carrier). We chose SAS and that was probably our first mistake in trying to get there.

It’s a two hour and 30-minute journey from Copenhagen. The runway at Vágar Airport in the Faroe Islands is small. It was a cloudy day and when we finally arrived, after some delay, the pilot felt encouraged to make his descent. But the cloud cover ultimately was too much for him. As we descended, I felt the surge of the engines as he pulled out of the landing. After circling above for 10 minutes, he informed us he would have to go back to Copenhagen.

Yes, that really did happen.

According to the locals, only travel on Air Atlantic as the Faroe pilots know how to land in cloud cover on a short runway. That was advice I wish I had earlier!

The next day we tried again. The weather was much better and the views were spectacular. As we descended, the archipelago of 18 islands suddenly appeared as we dropped onto what seemed to be a 50 yard runway that is cut into the edge of a steep cliff. We had made it and so the adventure began.