Category Archives: Travel

Stuff to take with you…

Barbarians at the Gate

In the fifth century, the whole of Europe was swallowed up by the various tribes who lived outside of the Roman Empire – Visigoths, Huns, Vandals, Saxons, and Franks. Barbarians. They had not been “Christianized” but they were militarized and they took a crumbling Roman Empire and turned it inside out.

1,619 years later, they would return in the form of Liverpool and Tottenham Hotspur fans! They were to invade the Holy city of Madrid for the weekend. They would come by plane, car, vans, busses and trains. They drunk alcohol like nobody had ever seen. They sang songs and they dressed in their respective war colors of red and white, they were fearless and frightening!

Madrid was unable to defend itself against the hordes. Their goal – the Champion’s League trophy. Their destination – the Metropolitano Stadium near the airport in Madrid. The day was hot, the enemy barely knew what hit them. Liverpool won the battle; the Spurs were sent reeling and the Madrieleos regained their city after total occupation and devastation. It was victory for all except the Spurs fans.

Liverpool fans are called scousers. The word “scouse” is a shortened form of “lobscouse”. It refers to a stew commonly eaten by sailors. In the 19th century, poorer people in Liverpool and its surrounding area ate scouse as it was a cheap dish, and familiar to the families of seafarers. Outsiders tended to call these people “scousers”. Now they are the modern-day barbarians who support Liverpool Football club. Known for their famous anthem, they barely know that their national anthem is “You’ll Never Walk Alone” from the show Carousel by Rogers and Hammerstein.

The other barbarian fans rooted for the Tottenham Hotspurs. Hotspur is a reference to the First Earl of Northumberland who attempted to overthrow King Henry IV at the end of the fourteenth century! His name was Henry Percy but he was referred to as Haatspore by the Scots for the speed of his attack. He was fast and sped into battle sometimes recklessly, to the amazement of all around him. He would get his horse to move faster by using his spurs. However, he met his match and was slain by the army of King Henry IV. Today, Tottenham Hotspur carries with it this piece of very cool history referenced by Shakespeare in Henry IV Part 1. As Hotspur was slain, so were the modern-day Spurs.

Traveling Around the Peloponnese

Day 1 – Off to Delphi

As a confession, in Greece, I have been to Athens and quite a few Greek islands – Mykonos, Paros, and Symi, my favorite in the Dodecanese – but I have never been to the Peloponnese Region. Which means, rather tragically, that I have never been to Delphi, Mycenae, Epidauras, Olympia, or the island of Hydra. So, in a situation like this, when you find the need to catch up on stuff that you should have done but never did, there’s only one thing for it…jump in a car and go travel.

The drive from Athens to Delphi is around an hour and a half. Shame on me as it is so close. It becomes quite dramatic as you get closer to the ancient site. Actually, there is a ski station, Fterolakka/Kellaria, not far away and there was snow up on Mount Parnassus. Something peculiar in mid-May as the climate across the world shifts its shape and twists and turns. It is strange to look up and see snow and signs for alpine wear this time of year in Greece. Incidentally, one of the coolest areas in Paris, Montparnasse, is related to this mountain! Go figure!

So, on we went to Delphi. The view across the valley is something extraordinary. It’s quite a climb to the top. I can’t imagine what it is like climbing up on a hot day, but the view once you get there is the view of the ages! You start to get the whole picture and you also wonder how they got those stones up there. It’s always better to be a strategist rather than a worker! The museum in Delphi reminded me of the Acropolis Museum in Athens, but less state of the art. It was very well laid out, easy to navigate, and bloody awesome. My advice to anybody going to Delphi is to find a tree, sit under it, and try to imagine that this incredible landscape has remained unchanged for 2,500 years with a whole lot of history in between.

We grabbed some water and headed out; there were other fish to fry today. We drove across the Peloponnese to the western shores of the Ionian Sea and took in the sunset at a hotel by the beach near the ancient site of Olympia. The sunset provided us with a dramatic view of Cephalonia; a beautiful island with a tragic history in World War II. This was the island that the book, Captain Corelli’s Mandolin, was based around. Day 1 was finished,and we had barely started.

Day 2 – Olympia to Hydra

The hotel we were staying at, Aldemar Olympian Village, was an all-inclusive resort where you had to wear a thing around your wrist to get breakfast and dinner. We had done the customary inspection of the hotel, rooms basic but ok, and not much decision making to make on the culinary timetable. It wasn’t really my cup of tea, but it was inexpensive in May and the beach looked quite nice. We had an early meeting with a guide in Olympia and we had to move fast this day because we were taking in a lot of sites.

Olympia is one of those places that everyone should go to. It was a city of peace in a sea of war. The city, located on the western coast in the magical valley of the River Alpheus, was dedicated to Zeus. It’s a city where divinities were worshipped, where the Olympic Games were born, and where the idea of harmony of body and mind, fair play, and the symbol of the humble crown of the wild olive for the victor were created. Pretty impressive credentials.

Olympia

The Olympic Games were organized around 800 B.C. The ancient games sadly didn’t survive the rotten Romans and were officially banned by the Roman Emperor Theodosius in 393. What a killjoy! In the good old days, there were no gold, silver or bronze. No anthem. Winner takes all was the deal and if you won, you got a statue and a podium. Losers walked away with nothing! The Modern Olympic Games were not reintroduced until 1896. During the ancient Olympics, there was an establishment of a sacred truce; a cessation of war that would last the duration of the games. These were bad times, lots of violence and pretty much non-stop war. How strange and ironic that once the whistle had blown, the fighting would stop before starting again once the games ended? I thought of the Olympic games in Berlin in 1936. Literally, three years later the world would be at war with the host nation for five years. How tragic.

We stayed at the site of Olympia for a while. It was fun to watch some local children run the original Olympic track. 200 meters long and host to the ancient sports of the time – running, jumping, discus, javelin. The tunnel to the old track reminded me of the tunnel used in soccer games today. I tried to imagine how amazing this would have been. We were racing too and thanked the guide who was wonderful and jumped back in the car.

Lion Gate, Mycenae

Next stop was Mycenae. This city was built during the last phase of the Bronze Age and signals the beginning of our ancient civilization. This was where it all started nearly 3,500 years ago – engineering feats we cannot imagine, mathematics, and writing. It all started right here. It’s strange when you travel through this part of the world. You feel the gods around you. You feel history unleashed from the confines of museums. It’s scattered in the ancient fields, a column across the ground that once stood tall, marble with ancient scribe on it, and the vistas – hauntingly unchanged.

We continued on to Epidaurus to see the famous amphitheater. I sang a song in the center of the great auditorium and climbed to sit on the top stone of the ancient theater and looked out across the countryside. I imagined the same view preserved through the ages. Exactly the same view in this same amphitheater where performances played out nearly 2,500 years ago. Imagine under the beautiful soft Aegean light how extraordinary this must have been back then. Today, the theater is still used because of its remarkable acoustics. In its heyday, it held 13,000-14,000 people. Art encourages wellbeing. The Greeks knew this. They were right. Never give up!

Epidaurus

The last leg of our journey was to the coast. We drove through tiny villages and the road twisted and turned. There were lots of sleeping dogs suddenly awoken by our car and we had to get directions from some locals playing cards when we took a wrong turn. An old fishing boat was waiting for us at a remote location that would take us from the mainland to the magical island of Hydra. It was like an old James Bond movie!

Hydra is a place to be visited and to spend the night when all of the tourist ships have gone and all of the donkey rides have been taken. The charm of the harbor and the island itself synched with a beautiful sunset is enough to take your breath away. There are no cars on Hydra, lots of donkeys and boats in the harbor. The island has some nice hotels and great restaurants. The horseshoe harbor is stunning at sunset. It’s a great place to set down, relax, read and take some wonderful walks. The nightlife is buzzy, and as everything is clustered around the harbor and its backstreets, everything is very accessible. It is just a short ride on the ferry back to Athens. I recommend spending at least two nights here. Nearly enough time to let the world pass by. The hotel I stayed in was the Bratsera Hotel. A wonderful hotel tucked just away from the hustle and bustle of the harbor. Breakfasts are amazing there!

Hydra

Exploring Athens by Segway

I am embarrassed to say that there are a few things out there that I should’ve done that I haven’t done, and of course there are a few things that I have done that I shouldn’t have done!

On a recent trip to Athens, a city I had not been to for several years, I fell in love with the place once again. Athens has a great beat to it, and it was super cool staying at the top of the Plaka by Syntagma Square at the Hotel Elia Ermou. The traffic was insufferable, but once the sun dropped down, the city became a magical place that had a skip to its step. We ate at some great restaurants (including rooftop ones), I became further addicted to grilled octopus and Greek salads, and I even fell back in love with moussaka. I got to have lunch at the Benaki Museum with a wonderful friend and ex-art teacher that now lives in Athens, the delightful Polytime Costes.

Lunch with Polytime Costes

The highlight of the whole visit was taking a sunset Segway ride around the top of the Plaka and along the pedestrian walkway that leads to the Acropolis. The Segway is a strange machine – in part because the guy that invented it had an accident on his Segway and died! Yikes! So everyone, including me, felt a little trepidatious! Once you get the hang of it though, it is an empowering experience. It literally turns on a dime, it has a decent speed to it, and it enables you to move with the walkers and ride with the bikers. Sightseeing on a Segway is just about as good as it gets. We all wore helmets in case you are wondering!

When I think of great cities, I always think of that perfect view – like the Alhambra in Granada from the Sacromonte and Palatine Hill in Rome from the Aventine – but in the end, there is nothing quite so dramatic at sunset on a clear late spring evening before the heat of the summer takes over as the view of the Acropolis. The most dangerous part of the journey was climbing off of the Segway and clamoring up the slippery stone hill to get the last dramatic shot of the sun across the limestone temple with all of Athens below and Mount Lycabettus in the distance. Stunning.

On the journey back, the lights had turned on and the Acropolis treated us to another view. In some ways, it is even more spectacular than the sunset. We passed by the Acropolis Museum at the foot of the hill which is a must-see museum for everyone that goes to Athens. I stood on my Segway and peered through the glass exterior and looked at the collection of statues and heads and faces inside. I swiveled the Segway and looked up at the Acropolis. An amazing moment. Antiquity at its best.

Acropolis

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.

ACIS MLK Global Teacher Conferences 2019

Next week we are about to embark upon our MLK weekend global teacher conferences. It’s a treat for us to travel to all of the places out there this year (Barcelona, Granada, Paris, Florence, Krakow, Panama, New Orleans), it’s a treat for us to meet with new faces and familiar faces, and it’s a treat for us to showcase some of the things that we do and some of the things we hope to do over the course of the next few months. The foundation of our business is based around this partnership between teachers and ourselves. This weekend is our way to say thank you, to listen, to learn, and hopefully, to give everyone an understanding of our culture.

I am always reminded that, most importantly, this is a weekend when we pay tribute to Martin Luther King and the things that he stood for. Furthermore, I am always reminded of the James Taylor song, “Shed a Little Light”.

Oh let us turn our thoughts today to Martin Luther King
And recognize that there are ties between us
All men and women, living on the earth….
That we are bound together
With a desire to see the world become
A place in which our children can grow free and strong
We are bound together by the task that stands before us
And the road that lies ahead…

Travel changes lives.

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!

The British Boot Company

Recently, I found myself visiting my 101-year-old uncle who lives in a beautiful part of London near Regent’s Park. He has lived in a very groovy, government assisted place for many years. The last time that I was there, I got to follow him on his daily routine. Every day he takes his scooter and goes shopping down by Camden Town. Camden Town is in north London and is not far from the fabulous Camden Market and Camden Locks and close to the London Zoo.

We ended up in a local shoe shop by Camden Town called the British Boot Company. It was then that my uncle revealed that above this fairly unique shoe shop is where he, my dad, their siblings, and their parents, were born and grew up. This shoe shop is even well-known for being one of the first shops to ever sell Doc Martens. Today they focus on selling English-made quality footwear. In the same shop, the band Madness became regular customers and even performed their iconic song ‘Our House’. In addition, the store was featured in several of their music videos!

We went inside the store where I chatted with one of the shop employees. I told him that my dad was a cobbler at that store (when it was known as Holts) before the second World War and he showed me the original cobblers bench. He lamented the good old days when people wanted the proper Doc Martens and not the cheaper ones made now. I bought myself a pair of very English George Cox loafers, not cheap, but felt that I grabbed a piece of my history. They are the most comfortable shoes I have ever owned and every time I put them on, I think of my dad.

London in Darkness: The Holiday Season

Let me just say that I love London in the winter time. It is dark for most of the day and it rains on and off every single day. If you are traveling during the winter (or even summer), make sure that you arm yourself with a decent mini-umbrella that you can tuck in your bag. Essential. The weather changes all of the time. I guarantee you will always need to reach for that umbrella.

London is unlike most cities in the world during the holiday period. It just simply goes for it. Lights are everywhere and not just in the shops…they are on miles of streets that populate the center of the city. It’s not even that the Christmas tree is the main focus, although traditionally there has always been a beautiful tree in Trafalgar Square opposite the National Gallery. It’s really the lights on Oxford Street, Regent Street, Piccadilly, and Covent Garden that takes your breath away. There are thousands and thousands of people rushing around from shop to shop and pub to pub, hopping on double deckers, jumping into cabs, and pouring into the Tube. It’s cozy and it feels so intimate.

The neighborhoods all have their own decorations and their own ambiance.  In the West End, the bustle of the restaurants, theater, music, ballet, and museums, seem to move into high gear over this period. My favorite neighborhood is always Soho. It even has my favorite hotel, the Dean Street Townhouse, and my favorite restaurant, the Dean Street Brasserie. I like to keep things geographically simple!

“Maybe its because I’m a Londoner, that I love London town!”

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.

Glyndebourne

Arriving off a transatlantic flight, then grabbing two hours of sleep at the hotel before racing across a very overheated Tube to get to Victoria Station was not my usual arrival pattern. London was hot – Morocco hot – and nothing was really equipped to deal with this heat. Add a slightly deranged jet lagged traveler on a mission to visit a place he had never been to, and you sort of get the picture. In addition, it was the day of the England vs. Sweden quarter final World Cup game. I could not discuss with anyone that my first intention of being in England was a Debussy opera set amidst the rolling downs of Sussex.

There is a train that connects London all the way to Lewes Station in East Sussex. From there, they provide the opera aficionados a series of buses that transport us along a short 15-minute beautiful drive to the glorious country estate of Glyndebourne. The train is packed with everyone dressed to the nines. Fortnum and Mason picnic baskets and champagne coolers are the norm here, so I am beginning to feel a little out of place. I had a Pret A Manger sandwich and no formal white shirt or bow tie! Oh well.

Upon arrival in Glyndebourne, I was met with some good news. Firstly, formal dress was optional. Second, the England game would be televised in the very posh bar. Thank goodness the Opera was due to start at 5:00 pm and the England game due to finish around 4:45 pm. I was hoping for no extra time, or worse, penalties!

Glyndebourne is an amazing place. Tickets are pricey, but the auditorium is spectacular and even air conditioned. There are great bars, beautiful gardens, and a lovely lake set amidst the Sussex Downs there. The Debussy opera was truly wonderful. During intermission, we grabbed a glass of wine, strolled the lawns and gardens, and I got to eat my Pret A Manger sandwich! England won that game by the way. Glyndebourne. Done it!

2018 FIFA World Cup

There is something so amazing about the World Cup. It must be that it comes in the dog days of summer when baseball has barely gotten hold of my mind and basketball and hockey are a distant memory. It also is part of my professional life because of GoPlay. We have more than 1,000 young soccer players traveling overseas to play with some of the great international youth teams. We also are privileged to be part of the Celtic FC international football academy program.

And incidentally, I am crazy about soccer!

I love Messi and Ronaldo and just recently came back from the Champion’s League Final in Kiev, Ukraine. I am a lifelong supporter of Manchester United. For these three weeks in the summer every four years, I hold my breath and watch in awe.

Peter (second from left) in a Manchester United book

This year the World Cup is in Russia and takes place in cities I have never been to in the outer reaches of the huge country. It’s played under the watchful eye of Putin and the new regime of FIFA. A supposedly corrupt-free environment. Ojala!

What I like about it the most is that here we are watching the highest level of football played by 32 countries that range from Iran and Egypt to Morocco and Senegal and the mighty Spain, Germany, and Brazil. Oh yeah, and England too…It is a rainbow of humanity, of artists, playing a game that is so difficult to play in the sweltering heat of a Russian summer. They grace us with a sporting ballet, a drama, that even Puccini could not muster and heartbreak, success, and failure for players and fans in stadiums and televisions all over the world. It is our bread and circus.

Soccer has improved. The skill level is amazing and in eight years, the USA, Canada, and Mexico will host an expanded 48 team roster. I believe that the USA will be a force to be reckoned with. There are 25 million kids playing soccer in the USA and a whole lot of Cristiano Ronaldo’s are about to be revealed to the world.