San Sebastian – What Would You Say ?

Photo By Innovacionweb.com (CC) on Flickr


What would you say if I told you there was a cozy, little city tucked away in a crevice of Spain where you could find sparkling, pristine waters only yards from gourmet eateries and trendy clothing shops? A city with modern luxuries but a secluded atmosphere, a place where you can be snorkeling in the ocean in the morning and dancing on the bar by evening; this is San Sebastian.

Water Fun

San Sebastian is a beach city. In fact, it is said by many to have the best in-city beaches in all of Europe. The waters are clear and sparkling blue. The powdery sand beaches beckon sunbathers. There are several beaches in San Sebastian, three in the city itself and several in outlaying areas. Each offers an amazing experience in swimming and surfing are big attractions.

San Sebastian harbour
Photo By Oneras (CC) on Flickr

Zurriola Beach is especially popular with surfers because of its unpredictable and sometimes violent waves, Hendaia Beach is also a popular surf spot. Other beaches, like the Getaria Beach, are located near a fishing village and suitable for all ages. There are even lifeguards, restrooms, showers and restaurants nearby.

San Sebastian Attractions

The city has an amazing aquarium, El Aquarium-Palacio del Mar de Donostia-San Sebastián that boasts sharks and other marine life native to the area. It is an amazing feeling to look through the hazy glass and come eye to eye with a being from all the way across the world. There are many exhibits featuring modern marine life as well as artifacts and fossils of beings past. The aquarium offers educational lectures and courses to learn about the marine life of Spain and San Sebastian. Don’t leave without a walk along the transparent, underwater walkway.

When you leave the aquarium, travel along the Paseo Nuevo. The Paseo Nuevo is a wide walkway that goes almost completely around one of the two mountains that the city is nestled between. The Bay of Biscay provides a stunning panoramic view to this breathtaking ride.

There are several museums to visit as well. Each offers its own historic exhibits and educational portals to learn about the culture and traditions of Spain and San Sebastian. The San Telmo Municipal Museum tells the heritage of the Basque Country in multi-disciplinary centre’s set in an old 16th century convent. The three sections of the museum, Fine Art, History and Archaeology, are explored through exhibits in drawings, painting, sculptures, ceramics, music, metalwork and so much more.

San Sebastian Shopping

This city may be small but it’s mighty in the shopping arena. The culture of the Basque civilization is rich and colorful. Many of the stores and shops reflect that culture and its many traditions in the wares they stock. Much of the clothing sold in the city is traditional and meaningful to the culture.

Designer boutiques with major labels also dot the area and satisfy the discerning shopper. Louis Vuitton and Ferragamo share shelf space with local designers and handcrafted jewelry. No vacation is really complete without taking home a special souvenir.The busy Parte Vieja district is where you’ll find many boutiques and shops but don’t count out the smaller districts. Calle Narrica and Calle Puerto also have lots of great little locally owned shops along the streets.

San Sebastian Dining

The Basque culture of San Sebastian, Spain has its own very unique taste and flavors. This city on the sea offers seafood that goes far beyond expectations. It has often been said that San Sebastian has the best food you’ve never heard of. This is so because of the distinctive flavors of the Basque culture. It’s unlike anything from anywhere else in the world.

Statistics show the Basque community spends more than twice what Americans do on food and meals. Common sense tells us they also spend a lot of time preparing food and eating. With so much money and time being spent on food it is no wonder that so many amazing tastes are born here.

There are gourmet restaurants, and little sidewalk cafes. There are bars and taverns and locally owned pubs. There are breakfast, lunch and dinner places. There are places for coffee and places for cocktails. You won’t go hungry in San Sebastian.

This little ocean front city may seem like a dream but its real. Best of all, it is attainable. It has all the bells and whistles of the luxury hotspots but not of the pretention and arrogance of other beach destinations. The seclusion of the mountains on both sides of the city and the miles of clear water beaches gives the city a feeling of uniqueness.

The Basque culture and the exceptional landscape of San Sebastian make it a one in a million vacation spot. It’s surprisingly affordable but gives plenty of options for over the top luxury.

4 Alternative Barcelona Travel Resources

Travel guidebooks, no matter the publisher, are frequently filled with pages about the art, music, literary icons and food of their chosen destinations. Almost all travellers to a given city will name at least one of these three as a prime motivation for their trip. But just as there are often vast discrepancies between a guidebook’s description of a place and the way each person actually finds it there are very different things that can be learned from utilizing these culture points as the guides themselves. This is true of many parts of world, but none more so than the city of Barcelona where a brief survey of artistic representations of the city, and study of the foods created there can be a far better guide than any you’ll find in a bookstore’s travel section.  This is alternative Barcelona.

 The “King of Spain” Concept

For a quick glance at this art as guidebook theory I’ll stick to three main works specifically picked for a traveller/outsider preparing to visit Barcelona: one song, one novel, and one film. Though still relatively unknown the solo singer/guitarist Kristian Matsson who performs under the moniker The Tallest Man on Earth gained a devoted following from his second album, The Wild Hunt, which features a track entitled “King of Spain.” I should mention that Matsson is Swedish and the song is far about the singer/narrator than about Spain itself, but his reflections and impressions of being an outsider in Spain are a good starting place to begin thinking about your trip. The chorus of the song proclaims, “If you could reinvent my name…I want to be the King of Spain.” Matsson is really expressing two concepts that are uniquely in sync in Barcelona: a desire to transform/change and a sense of command and ownership of your time there. Barcelona is very welcoming and very insulated at the same time. Locals are proud of their Catalan identity and can be unforgiving of being referred to as “Spanish.” Yet the large sidewalks lined with quaint tables and chairs where patrons sit and dine so late into the night you could almost call it early in the morning are nothing if not inviting. Waiters and Chefs, who are without a doubt eager to please for a tip, are genuinely proud of the food and culture and happy to make you a temporary part of their lives. Feeling as though you are forced to assimilate—“reinvent my name,”—and the star of your own little story—“the King of Spain”—is an apt way to prepare yourself for your adventure here.

Beauty at Every Turn

These late night dinners and quaint outdoor settings are the main stages on which Woody Allen’s film Vicky Cristina Barcelona takes place, which adds a visual element to the guide started with Matsson’s music. The film, again centering around two outsiders spending a summer in Barcelona, may be satirical but the sometimes overblown beauty of the setting, landscapes, and architecture has some spot on advice for the beauty-seeking traveller. Only a small amount of time in the film shows the more “standard” aesthetic stops (the Sagrada Familia, Parc Güell, etc) and they are far from the most visually striking scenes.

barcelona panoramic

The concept here is clear and accurate: much as you may want to see the landmarks, and well you should, Barcelona is a city with visuals to take in on nearly every block that should not be overlooked just because you are en route to get in a two-hour line at Guadí’s church. The “King of Spain” mindset runs deep with locals for who beauty is something to create for themselves not merely let happen around them and giving yourself plenty of time to simply take in your surroundings will be just as rewarding as the more planned out attractions.

A Different Kind of Travel Book

Though still keeping away from traditional guidebooks, the abstract feelings about Barcelona found in Matsson’s music and visual appetite wetting of Vicky Cristina…all come together with real, meaningful insights into a traveller’s experience of the city in Colm Toibin’s novel The South. The story follows an Irish artist who moves to Barcelona and the writing is as alive as the city itself with depictions of the people, places, food, and culture you’ll encounter today despite being set in the 1950s. I wouldn’t want to spoil your experience of reading the novel with too many details but do take this novel into consideration as you map out your time in Barcelona. Another book you may find even more informative is Barcelona by cultural critic Robert Hughes, which despite being nonfiction still carries a great story and beautiful writing to its detailing of the city and mirrors many of the points we’ve seen and heard from the music and movie—“It is possible, some days, to see the whole of Barcelona with your feet on the ground,” the book begins. Guidebooks are so quick to mention the artistic highlights in informative but often dry descriptions. Use more of your planning time to find cheap flights to let yourself get lost in a great read during rather than plot every moment of your time on the ground. Do not discredit what music, film, and literature have to say about a city where art is a main attraction.

Catalan Cooking

Guidebooks will always offer great advice on the best places to savor the local flavors of any city, but in Barcelona doing some of your own “homework” with regards to food can go a long way. Food is an integral part of Catalan identity, so much so that the first ever cookbook written in any of the Romance languages was in Catalan. While you may not find yourself doing a large amount of cooking while travelling it can still be beneficial to study up and even try making some Barcelona favorites at home to get a feel for food culture. A large staple of the cuisine is centered on the concept of Mar i Muntanya—sea and mountains—frequently featuring combinations of chicken and shrimp or related land and sea delights. Mixing the sweet and savory is also very common in stews, pasta sauces, and soups. Additionally, presentation will go a long way in your understanding of Catalan cuisine, of which the most well known practice is tapas.

catalan cooking

Tapas is more than just a fun way to try many different dishes and learning to eat in the manner of a local can be as important as eating the foods themselves. As we’ve seen in Toibin’s novel and Woody Allen’s film meals are large and late affairs but the days starts no later in Barcelona than anywhere else. While American and British culture may have adapted tapas into appetizers right before a meal, the tapas portion of the day in Barcelona (generally around noon between lunch at 2-4pm and dinner at 9-11pm) is an important social aspect to Catalan culture. Work, politics, and preparations for the rest of the day/evening are all integral discussion topics during tapas dining. Getting used to the kinds of food and ways of eating common in Barcelona can give you a leg up on what to seek out, how to identify authentic cuisines from microwaved tourist traps (as I unfortunately found myself on my first day in the city), and how to map out your day to integrate yourself with the local crowd, conversation, and culture. Follow the food, not the restaurant.

In truth there is so much to see and do in Barcelona that you can choose any of a hundred different ways to research and spend your time there and the artistic and edible route is by no means an all-encompassing view of the city. But some universally applicable food for thought (pun intended) is that travel guidebooks are meant to do just that, guide your travel, not dictate it step by step. So long as you don’t stray to unwelcoming or unsafe parts of town, Barcelona is a city with so much beauty to see, hear, and eat as well as a place where getting lost can offer a special kind of beauty to the traveller seeking line-less sightseeing and a slice of local life.

3 Ways Out of the Airport: Who is at Fault and How to Get Flying Fast

There are thousands who can relate to the news over the past two weeks of Edward Snowden’s Moscow Airport excursion. Few, I would hope, can relate to being on the run from the United States government, but life at the airport is something even the most moderate traveller can speak to. For those who have experienced cancelled, delayed, missed, or overbooked flights, it would be hard to imagine Snowden faces a more severe punishment than such a purgatorial existence. There are essentially three major cases in which most travellers find themselves stuck in limbo and navigating you’re way around each is an important part of any sojourner’s toolkit.

The Airline’s Fault

The first most common cause of delayed or missed flights is decidedly the most frustrating but can be the easiest to navigate around: blame the airline. These are most often maintenance-related delays and due to the belt-tightening by airlines in recent years, using fewer planes for stranger routes, these can and often do occur with absolutely no warning until you are in line at the gate. If a delay looks like it’s going to cause you to miss a connection, composure and quick communication is key. Before you open your mouth the only problem is your missed flight. If you approach a desk attendant with rage and anger your mood becomes a new problem to solve first. This is both human nature and standard customer service procedure. Most airlines will rebook you onto a new flight plan or even endorse your ticket to another carrier at no charge so that you can make your arrival at your final destination relatively close to your expected time.

Sounds easy enough, right? Still there are several key details to this strategy you MUST keep in mind. According to the US Department of Transportation airlines do not guarantee any flight times and there are absolutely no federal regulations regarding what airlines can or must do in the event of delayed and cancelled flights. For example, United Airlines’ policy states that they will try to rebook you if you are delayed more than two hours but makes several exceptions to this: “when the delay of cancellation is due to something beyond our control we typically do not rebook customers on other airlines.” They also go on to state that rebooking on other airlines is not typically done in Chicago, New York, Newark, San Francisco, Tokyo, Los Angeles, Guam, Washington DC, Denver, or Cleveland. Not like a lot of people travel to or through those places anyway…

Researching as many possible flights and airlines as you can before your trip will help you avoid the shock, if not the frustration, of being caught in this situation. It’s also important to remember that airlines go out of their way to make sure you can’t communicate with the people who are really able to say what’s going on. The customer service representative you deal with is not a pilot, air traffic control operator, or maintenance worker. Think of this as a collaborative problem solving, not a “me vs. you” situation and you’re bound to have better luck making your case.

More on Airline Responsibilities: Check out author Andrew Thomas’ thoughts on “Rule 240”  

 

The Traveller’s Fault

In the second case of airport detention, your humility will beat out any research or logical argument you can make. Hard as it is to admit traffic, long lines, and security delays are considered your fault as far as missed flights are concerned. If you thought airlines had no actual responsibility when delays where their fault, wait till the blame falls on you. Few if any airlines are willing to do much beyond tell you when the next available flight is and ask for your credit card if you miss a flight. But there’s another way to view what seems like the easiest way to lose a few hundred dollars. If there’s no policy requiring an airline to help you it means there’s nothing restricting them from helping you either. Booking a standby ticket can be scary for some, unless you have access to the flight manifest and can tell how full or empty a plane may be; not all one-way flights are automatically grouped together to build a flight plan on airline websites unless they are profitable enough for the airline to sell; airline mergers are a common news topic these days but frequently only the big names get attention while there are many smaller airlines whose flights can be booked by the big guys even though the general public may not be aware. All this information is something that may be hard for the self-directed traveller to find but airline desk attendants can readily tell you the manifest for most any flight, what other flights are running that day, and what other airlines they are partnered with. Take advantage of the freedom of this policy-free area of airline regulations and again make your desk attendant a comrade, not nemesis.

 

Look at Kayak.com’s Hacker Fares for help here as well          

“Acts of God”

The most vague aspect of traveller rights, airline responsibilities, and all around travel planning is what’s commonly referred to as an “act of god”. Weather, mechanical failure of an unrelated plane stuck on the tarmac, or even problems at your arrival airport, potentially halfway around the world can stall your plane’s departure. These instances are neither your, the traveller’s, fault nor the airlines and so knowing who to contact and how to go about rebooking can be tricky.

In addition to calm and friendly communication and proper planning, these instances will typically involve a bit more flexibility on your part than the other two. Jennifer Alford of the business travel service provider Concur said on their blog, “in my experience, the airlines will do all they can to ensure that you are back in the air as quickly as possible,” and that airlines frequently do not charge passengers to rebook due to weather-related issues. But this courtesy will likely only extend to flights within that airline and it would be rare you’d be the only one vying for a new seat so standby on potentially overbooked flights is a real probability.

There are still some options that while not ideal, can take a little of the edge off. Hotel/flight packages are common in the travel industry these days and if you can relinquish your need to get on the absolutely first flight you can, you may be able to find a great deal with the help of a desk attendant and pay significantly less for both the plane and hotel room than you would jumping from gate to gate waiting standby until the last plane leaves you with no recourse but to book a room anyway. Additionally, as opposed to instances of traffic or single flight delays, “acts of God” tend to affect most if not all the passengers in the airport who all have different flight plans and time restrictions. Look to your fellow groundlings to see if someone has to give up a seat on a flight you yourself could wait and take. Don’t forget to give as much as you receive in these cases, when you have little else to go on, karma can’t hurt.

airline responsibilities
Photo credit: TheeErin

You don’t have to be dodging treason charges to feel caught between a rock and a hard place when flights are delayed or cancelled. Some final thoughts to keep in mind as you plan and prepare for your trips: you are in worse shape than someone else at the airport and someone else is in a lot worse shape than you are, always, every time. A depressing way to look at it may be that when it comes to air travel things can always get worse but I prefer to see the glass as half-full: you are never in as big of a bind as you think. It’s also important no matter of which of the three instances mentioned above you find yourself in that due to the unpredictable nature of flying, there are no hard and fast rules. Depending on whose fault a missed flight is an airline may be more likely to use certain practices over others but nothing is set in stone.

Use fellow travellers, compassion for those trying to assist you, and a wide view of what possibilities may exist rather than take a black and white approach to missed flights. Finally, know that for financial and logistical purposes it is far less in an airline’s interest to keep you on the ground than to get you on a plane as quickly as possible. You’ve already paid for your seat so the quicker they can get you out of a line and get new customers in, the better. Be an opportunist rather than an antagonist and take the best course of action to get you on the quickest course towards your destination.

The Ugliest Place on Earth

The ugliest place on earth lies between two places that are always, inevitably, far more appealing than this one. The only reason to ever visit this place is to get to one of these other places. If the ugliest place on earth becomes a destination it loses everything ugly about it and then there is little reason to see it at all.

It starts about an hour west of Austin, Texas. Or an hour south of Santa Fe, New Mexico; an hour east of Tucson, Arizona. It’s a place that is many places, places without names and often without any people in it. When I discovered it I was on I-10, the highway that runs from California to Florida, clear across the southern tip of the United States. It’s West Texas, it’s coal country Pennsylvania, it’s eastern Oregon, it’s Southall outside of London, it’s Dharavi in Mumbai. It’s all the places of the world that the world has selected to fit this category. For me, it was West Texas.

Texas is often noted for it’s massive size, for the seemingly endless swath of time you can spend just travelling from one end of the state to the other. On I-10, it is just under 1,000 miles end to end; a third of the entire country ocean to ocean. But what is seldom mentioned is what happens to the landscape as you make this trek. On the eastern edge, bordering Louisiana, Texas is a swamp, green and lush but thickly green not crisply green like in the Northeast or Pacific Northwest. west texas landscapeLeaving Central Texas, most easily identified as Austin, you enter Hill Country and you are for the first time assured that you are distinctly in Texas now. The rolling hills are a quiet kind of yellow, sanded and scorched but not quiet desert country, and they are dotted with a combination of Southwestern Prickly Pears and more lush Fragrant Ash trees. It’s a quiet back and forth that even the most nature-resistant traveller can’t help but take note of.

Eventually, we come to the towns. Again in a wholly unique and uniquely Texas manner each town looks exactly like the one before it yet either by their individual nature or their cumulative volume they tell a story as big as the state itself. They all look as if they once offered large promises and aspirations for new residents and in a funny way, even in their dilapidated states, they still preach that gospel of possibility. Each town’s colors tend to mirror the part of Texas they inhabit rather than complement or balance them out. The further west you go the more yellow and scorched the gas stations and houses, always a few boarded up, look. The entire towns are always very low to the ground, almost as if to appear born straight from the earth itself. But compared to parts of the country far more lush and irrigated, these places are entirely man-made. There is no soil to seed or tree to tap. For a house to stand in these towns it must always be in battle with nature; trying to cool the unbearable heat and quench the thirst of the air and inhabitants alike.

These towns start out separated by about fifty miles but become far more infrequent. They do not grow in size, they do not offer more for the long distance traveller and for this reason what they do offer becomes more and more valuable. The convenience store you passed two hundred miles back until you could find a more recognizable chain becomes more than welcomed by the time you get around Van Horn, Texas. It’s not even convenience anymore, it’s dinner. For many, this is the ugliness in full force, travel becoming survival. But baseline survival can be an incredibly rewarding style of travel. It can make the unwanted, embraced and the ugly something to marvel at.

where is west texas located

There’s certainly something voyeuristic about viewing your travels like this, embracing beauty in “ugliness” and finding other people’s daily life as a form of survival. Part of it is truly the burden of necessity with so few routes to take you the full 1,000 miles and so few reasons to seek out these places as destinations in their own right. To combat this approach to West Texas or any of the other ugliest places on earth while still maintaining this openness and appreciation for that which makes it worth at least passing through, try to think of the destinations you get to on this route (New Orleans, Austin, El Paso, Las Cruces, Tucson, Los Angeles) as much as markers of how far you’ve traveled as destinations to get to. These in between places, particularly the “ugly” ones are more reflective of you—neither here nor there, unknown and often unknowable—than the cities or landmarks you think you’re seeking out. Be like the low yellow houses of West Texas and mirror your surroundings rather than cover them up. You might be surprised how much beauty you encounter.

By Jake Sorgen

There’s Something Fishy in Tokyo – Tsukiji market

The wondrous Tsukiji market

When westerners get in their cars every morning, it’s safe to say very few think actively and empathetically for the assembly-line workers who built the machine; the burns, cuts, or scars production may have caused them, or even their deteriorating health from years in factory life. The same could be said for construction workers who build our homes, or even the ER nurses working forty-eight hour shifts to make sure we are healthy. What doesn’t fit into this category, what is increasingly scorned and mourned publicly, is the toll that is taken on all those associated with the food we eat. We have become, on a general level, much more conscious of what goes into our bodies and how it gets there.

Who is harmed or treated unfairly to put this slab on our plate? How are the original sources (the cows, pigs, and yes even the soil contaminated to make vegetables grow larger and quicker) being abused? These issues surround no one food source more than the Japanese fish trade, which in Tokyo at least comes to a head as a world-renown destination and darkly-viewed ground zero for these issues.

Tsukiji market  Tuna

This issue is so vast, and our time to travel and explore is often so limited that we’ll restrict our view into Tokyo as a travel destination and learning opportunity through the eyes of my personal favorite kind of fish: sushi. One of the first things you’ll notice, or at least should be on the look out for, is how much of the fresh authentic sushi that you’ll find in almost any restaurant is more likely to have been caught ten miles from your home than it was even one hundred miles from your restaurant.

Nearly a quarter of all Bluefin tuna imported into Japan comes from the United States, and that’s just one fish. The sushi trade has been as lauded as it’s been criticized for it’s comparatively pure reliance on supply and demand. As governments have more and more protected the Bluefin tuna, its demand has gone up. Early this year, one Bluefin sold at the famous Tsukiji fish market auction for $1.8 million USD.

But this is meant to encourage your exploration, not discourage your sense of what makes Tokyo sushi authentic. The Tsukiji market’s Outer-Market is loaded with retailors for personal consumption while the auctions and wholesale trade takes place in the Inner-Market. Browsing through the market it seems there are two ways of seeing the fish before you: you can hold firm to the irrationality of these tuna flown in from New England to sell to locals, as well as New England tourists, a food that forty years ago was considered disgusting by most Americans and Europeans.

Or you can see what is still beautiful about the Japanese relationship to these fish. Many of the markets that import from around the world send “tuna techs” as they are known to New England, Spain, Croatia, and the other tuna exporting countries to teach fisherman how to properly catch, cut, and determine which fish are of the proper quality to be sold at Tsukiji. It may seem neurotic or controlling but it is neither. It comes from a place of pride and respect for the fish and consumers alike.

Auctioneer at Tsukiji market

Locals and in-the-know activists will surely have their own views on where to travel to get the “truth” about the international fish trade but for curious travelers and non-ideological investigators, Tokyo should be embraced specifically for the range of views one can take away from it. Moving beyond the market, an important part of any investigatory trip is to view your subject “in action.”

The small restaurants Daisho Siusan, Tonsui, and Sushi Sawada are frequently praised as the best of the more traditional end of the sushi spectrum. Also make sure to carve out some time to visit restaurants featuring the distinctly Japanese, kaitenzushi method of serving. Also known as “conveyor belt sushi” these restaurants often have no menus and very few servers.

Instead a long conveyer belt with plates of one or two pieces of sushi roves its way throughout the restaurant and patrons pick and choose the bites they want. The plates are often colored different to represent the price of each piece. This is as entertaining an experience as it is eye opening.

The lack of westernized sushi entrees like the ubiquitous  Sushi/Sashimi Combination For Two is reflective of the respect for the fish themselves and the food as its own cultural institution. Sushi is to be savored not merely ingested.
More “contemporary” approaches to the cuisine can be found almost anywhere but I recommend seeking out those who hold as true as possible to the ancient ethos of sushi culture to get the best understanding of how this fish is regarded and, perhaps, why some are willing to do almost anything to keep it available.  The catching and trading of sushi-grade fish is not a perfect system but not all those involved with the trade are out to do harm to consumers or the fish themselves. It’s a complex relationship that is best understood on the personal level.

Spending time at the Tsukiji market and taking several hours to eat one piece at a time will if nothing else bring you closer to understanding, if not totally approving of, the journey these fish take throughout our physical and cultural lives. And for many, that is precisely what sushi in Tokyo is all about.

There’s Something Fishy in Tokyo (And It’s American Made)

By T.S. Allen

In the Land of Tea and Protest

Two things it’s hard to place when you take a walk through Prague’s Wenceslas Square today, covered with fast food chains and postcard stands: uprising and far eastern serenity. Through separated by some forty years, both were there and in a lot of ways both still are. The square was the site of the most famous protests during the Prague Spring of August 1968 when Soviet tanks invaded then-Czechoslovakia. The 72 people killed and over 700 injured in the invasion are still not forgotten on the pages of Czech history and the faces of Czech citizens.

As has often been the case with many a landmark site, modern day commerce has outweighed historical significance. Cynics can wax poetic on how many important footsteps the Starbucks off Stepanska Street covers up, others may see the beauty in a country that has grown so much so that it can even have a Starbucks to build; a city that in the writing of Milan Kundera has always been a place to escape is now a must destination for the existentialism, Art Nouveau lovers like myself. I came to Prague with a group of 84 but stayed behind when the other 83 took their week off from university to bask in the Italian and Spanish sun or went north to watch Ireland turn green in the early spring. A Kafka fan all my life, I felt discovering the history and mystery of this city was best done alone. What turned out most mysterious was how much history actually existed where in places like the Starbucks off Stepanska it seemed there was room for none.

If you should find yourself with some time to spend in Prague let the monuments, like the statue of Wenceslas himself watching over the square, be only the beginning of your historical inquiry. Despite the square’s infamy for the ’68 uprising and the country’s pivotal place in twentieth century political history, Prague itself was never actually bombed during WWII, leaving this city-wide monument to Art Nouveau and Bohemia fully preserved and in tact despite its modernization.

Only brief travel throughout the rest of Europe will tell you what a rarity this is for a city this size. And so while it was no chain import of any kind standing on that square, many cups of coffee may very well have been consumed in the early 1900s right where you now walk. The colors and sense of newness that the architecture evokes even today was the same as it was when Karl Capek walked these streets, imagining the future with prescient clarity.

Time itself is quite an interesting part of the city’s history and present. The medieval Prague Orloj or Astrological Clock is another high point on many visitor’s list as well it should be—it is the oldest astrological clock in the world that still works. Go into any pawn shop (of which there are still very many all over the city) and it’s hard not to notice the abundance of watches and clocks, some still ticking, some marking the second they now preserve forever. It is heavily symbolic of the city itself, preserved and present all at the same time.   But beyond the not so subtle landmarks, the understated and untouched history, and the modernization is yet another Prague that is worth the effort to seek out. I found it in a pot of tea.  The Dobre Cajovny is a small teashop tucked down a bamboo-covered alley off Wenceslas Square.

medieval Prague Orloj or Astrological Clock

There’s a sign hanging from the yellow façade of a hotel but it is so faded and small it’s as if offering help only to those who are actively seeking it out. I had been told this was a must stop and so I fell into the category most likely to spot the sign. Behind the square, even just these few steps, everything falls quiet. The teahouse is small and low. The building and ceiling aren’t such but the seating so close to the floor and the concentration of only the handful of patrons I ever saw in there brings a hush and muted sense to the whole experience. A menu with a small bell are brought to you as you sit down and though the short server waited only feet from me, he gave me plenty of space and waited for the bell to announce his arrival. Never assuming, never judging.  The tea is brought in three parts, a small pot filled with green leaves, a larger pitcher of water, kept at a perfectly hot temperature by a single flame underneath it and a bowl about the size of two cupped hands to pour the vivid green tea into when fully brewed. Only after my first couple sips did the server make mention of the book of Kafka parables at my side.  “You know Capek?” he asked
“I do, I’ve always been more of a Kafka man myself though,” I replied feeling immediately foolish for telling a local who the superior Czech writer was.  “Yes. Weird.” he said to me, and I immediately realized he wasn’t trying to share anything Czech with me but rather to give in to what he assumed a sojourner to Prague might be interested in. He had, and either by influence or through influence so too had the Dobre, moved beyond what is Czech about Prague and worked towards establishing what is Prague about Prague. Czech is the ’68 uprising, Prague is peace and serenity. Czech is oppression and national dissolution, Prague is untouched Bohemian beauty.

This teahouse came to be the focal point from which everything I see in Prague coalesced. You see this is the recently released letters of Karl Capek, which demonstrate someone interested not in robotics and industrial futurism but in pacifism and conscientious objection to warfare of any kind.dobre cajovny

You see this in the Orloj, still ticking away in resilience but not resistance. You see this in the Dobre Cajovny, bringing into the fold of this wonderful city something beyond pre-WWII Bohemia and post 1980s-capitlism; bringing the peaceful and the foreign, the obscure and the inviting together.

 

 

Go Costa Rica !

Costa Rica has so many attractions it is mind boggling. Tourism is the country’s main income source and they make it worth your every penny. Searching for personal reflection, adventure on the high sea, sports, or spectacular natural attractions, Costa Rica has all that and much more. Check out a few of the Costa Rica destinations below to ensure you’ve experienced a variety of what this amazing country has to offer.

Monteverde Cloud Forest Reserve

This 26,000 acre reserve is comprised of tropical rainforest and innumerable species of wildlife. The astonishing biodiversity makes it possible for more than 3000 species of animals and plants to flourish. Not only animals but an overabundance of plant life grows here as well. Vines, orchids, ferns and lush flora and fauna fill virtually every inch of these fertile lands and reach high into the sky over towering trees.

Monteverde_puente Costa Rica
Pciture Courtesy of Author: Haakon S. Krohn

The Monteverde Nature Center and Butterfly Gardens offer numerous educational nature exhibits. A superfluity of multiple species of butterflies amidst more than three acres of replicated natural habitats gives visitors a chance to understand the entire life process of these graceful and important creatures.

The temperatures and humidity of life in a mountain town makes it possible to develop some of the world’s most delicious cheeses. The Monteverde Cheese Factory is known throughout the world for its meticulously cured cheeses and supplies much of the country. They offer tours and exhibits on how the succulent cheeses are made and packaged for sale.

Arenal Volcano

Costa Rico is known across the globe for its active volcanoes. The Arenal is towering, imposing and strikes a bravura and stately figure for visitors at 5,437 feet. While dormant for the past 40 years, this volcano has a lurid history of major and minor eruptions affecting the lives of the townspeople for centuries.

The last major eruption was in 1968 which buried three villages beneath its fiery lava and killed 87 people before it was over. Smoke and lava continued to erupt daily, though not to such a violent extent, until 2010 when the great giant fell dormant.

There are numerous activities and attractions to enjoy at the foot of this volcano. Hiking, fishing, and boating are among the most popular but only the beginning. The geothermal energy under the volcano formed many hot springs throughout the area. They are popular spots for the tourists to unwind after a day of sightseeing.

There are several hot spring locations, each with very unique attributes. Some have swim up bars and others have both hot and cold pools. Some have waterslides and others a virtually secluded, excepting only a small number of visitors a day to preserve its privacy.

Golfing In Costa Rica

There is certain contentment to playing golf surrounded by flourishing rainforests, swinging monkeys, and in view of noble volcanoes. Costa Rica is rife with magnificent golf courses. Each has very specific amenities and attributes.

The Reserva Conchal Resort has a spectacular golf course for its members and visitors. Each nine runs through a stunning course of waterfalls, lush greenery and abundant flora and fauna. It is a 71 par championship course that offers challenging courses as well as beginners. Play through lakes and ravines as well as manicured Bermuda grass greens.

The Hacienda Pinilla is another resort with an all-inclusive 72 par golf course. Designed by Mike Young, one of the finest golf course designers in the United States, this course is more than 7000 yards of stunning greenery, lush landscape, falling waterways and exquisite landscaping.

The Four Seasons courses are all in the Guanacaste area and offer testing specialized layouts. The infamous Arnold Palmer designed this par-72, 18 hole championship course, rated among the top 100 courses outside America. The course begins atop a high plateau overlooking clear, azure waters for a stimulating start.

Ox Carts in Costa Rica

Ox carts and yolks are considered a national art form in Costa Rica and a symbol of their traditional means of transportation. The world’s largest ox-cart, four meters in height and six in length, is located in Costa Rica, made by the country’s most reputable artisans and painters in 2006.

Costa Rica Eco Tourism

Costa Rica is a certified sustainable, ecotourism destination. Sustainability means that Costa Rica is dedicated to using its tourism resources in a way that will perpetuate it’s assets for years to come, helping future generations of both humans and wildlife.

Costa Rica Eco Tourism
Phto Courtesy of: Charles H. Smith, vergrößert von Aglarech

The ecotourism is apparent in the fact that the country comprises only .03% of Earth’s surface but is in the top 20 most biodiversified countries. You can find more species of plants and animals in a small 1,000 acre track of Costa Rica than in the same amount of space in Brazil or even Columbia.

Costa Rica is a wonderland of wildlife and the amazements of Mother Earth. Each destination in this amazing country offers a plethora of modern luxuries and activity surrounded by lush green landscapes and amazing plant and animal life.  Any place you visit will leave you in awe with a deeper understanding of the gifts this planet offers.

Costa Rica – By Kelly Banaski Sons

Should You Visit The Seychelles…?

Photo By TravelOurPlanet.com (cc)

The Seychelles

If you’re thinking about visiting the Seychelles then hopefully this whistle stop guide will help make your mind up…

The Seychelles are an archipelago, or island chain, east of mainland Africa.  The islands were fought over by the French and British for hundreds of years before finally landing under British rule. The exporting of coconut, sugarcane and cotton sustained the culture and is still their main exports. They gained their independence from Britain in 1976 and thrive as a republic under the commonwealth.

There are 25 districts that make up the inner islands of the Seychelles. The districts are grouped into basic demographic areas. Eight are grouped together and called Greater Victoria. This district is the capital of Seychelles. Fourteen are on the main island of Mahé and are designated a rural area and many are uninhabited.

Mahe holds most of the historic sites of Seychelles.  There are several museums and ecotourism locations to learn about the culture, traditions and environment. La Plaine St. Andre is an old restored plantation house that offers a special glimpse into life in the Seychells. Explore the past with the interactive exhibits and period clothes. You can enjoy a fine gourmet meal, tour the grounds and plantation and get an authentic feel for life in the Seychelles in the past and present.

Mahe has several unbelievable beaches. The waters in Seychelles is an incredible warm temperature all year round. The beaches are soft and powdery. Swimming, snorkeling, surfing and diving take on a whole new feeling when you can see the marine life so clearly in front of you.

Turtle Bay has shallow warm waters that are amazing for marine life watching. When the small tides roll in and wash back out rock pools hold lots of tiny surprises. Small fish, mussels, tiny octopus and plant life get caught in the rock pools and wait for the next wave.

There are tons of great little shops all over the Seychelles. You can literally lose hours and even days ambling through the many unique specialty shops. Mahe has great shopping and also has designer labels and famous stores.

The specialty shops like The Black Pearl in Praslin is where you get a real feel for the culture of Seychelles. Tea and perfumes are made locally and its in these specialty shops that you’ll find handcrafted items like these. The aroma is unlike anything in the rest of the world.

Seychelles food
Photo By TheLastResorts (CC) on Flickr

The Black Pearl is also a giant clam and pearl farm. It’s the only pearl farm in the Indian Ocean region and cultures its own pearls. Learn about the feeding habits of giant clams and how pearls are formed. The gift shop is full of handmade pearl jewelry and other trinkets.

There are myriad opportunities to enjoy the gorgeous landscape of Seychelles. Hiking, biking and horseback riding opportunities abound. Don’t stop there. Take a boat tour or go deep sea fishing. Take off exploring the countryside on some ATV’s.

Anse Major is an easy trail, best for those who are new to hiking Seychelles. It winds around the coastline onto a secluded beach. For those a little more adept at hiking, Cassedent is a great place. It’s a bit long and has plenty of uphill and downhill stretches to keep things interesting. The trail splits and comes back together among palm trees, screw pines, endemic trees and a multitude of wild life. It ends at a majestic waterfall to make it worth the work of getting there.

Food in the Seychelles is definitely a cultural experience. Creole cuisine graces the menu of even the swankiest restaurants and you’re liable to run into a seafood dish even at breakfast. The tropical fruits of the area play a part in the dishes in so many surprising ways. New flavors mesh seamlessly familiar tastes and flood your senses. Eating becomes an ethereal experience.

Anse Volbert, Isla Praslin, Seychelles
Photo By ReservasdeCoches.com (cc) on Flickr

The fish that live in the Indian Ocean grow large and thick. Served on your plate, they are meaty and flavorful unlike anywhere else on the planet. Seafood is served so often here because of the meaty, flavorful abundance of the ocean’s harvest.

In addition to the plentiful seafood, many recipes incorporate native fruits and nuts for a unique flavor. Coconut milk is used a lot and can be found in both warm and cold cocktails. Various wild bird eggs are also a big delicacy in Seychelles and are most often boiled or served as an omelet.

Much of the cultural entertainment is provided through song and storytelling. The Creole culture is celebrated in a yearly festival. Old folklore is passed down and cultures and tradition is shared. This festival is important to the natives and fascinating for travelers.

Visiting Seychelles is different than being anywhere else. There is a feeling unlike any place else on earth. The attractions, wildlife, natural wonders and faultless beaches pool together to make an unbelievable vacation destination for anyone in the family. It’s a vacation no one will soon forget.

Roslyn Washington – More Than A Moosefest?

Photo By Blake Handley CC

Rosyln Washington

Sometimes you just happen across a little town or city or bend in the road that strikes you as special. The attractions may not be Vegas style and the events may be closer to an ice cream social than a red carpet extravaganza but it just feels good. Roslyn, Washington is a place like that.

Roslyn is unassuming and yet it has had both a film and an entire television series filmed in its midst. It is small but its population skyrockets a few times a year during their unique festivals and local activities. The character, ambiance and environment draw visitors from all over the world each year.

Roslyn, a city in Kittitas County, Washington, United States, has a population of less than 1000. In the late 1800’s coal was discovered and soon after it became a thriving coal mining city. Its abundance of coal allowed it to become instrumental in the railroad industry.The varied and unique cultures and traditions of the area stem from these coal mining/railroad days. The never ending, backbreaking work of the coal mines drew immigrants by the boatloads in search of work and a better life in America.

Rosyln Washington

 

Immigrant workers came from Italy, Poland, Germany, Lithuania, Slovenia, Serbia, Croatia, England, Ireland, Scotland and Wales, bringing their cultures and traditions with them. Most of the area’s residents are descendents of these immigrant workers.

The deadliest mining accident in Washington history happened in tiny Roslyn. Mine No. 4 exploded in 1892 and killed 45 miners. The mine shaft exploded and everything within 200 yards was destroyed by the burning wooden frame structures that were shot out of the devastation. The ground shook like an earthquake as the explosions tore through the mine shafts. Tours and tales of this tragedy abound today throughout Roslyn.

The coal production began to slow in 1910 after nearly 2 million tons were excavated. By the early twenties, diesel replaced coal and the mines shut down. The city never lost its “company town” atmosphere, however.  After so many years as a coal mining town, dependent on the company store and the Northern Pacific Coal Company, Roslyn kept its company store in business for many years and used it as a community gathering spot. The company store still stands and is in use today as a historical landmark.

The distinct uniqueness of the town has drawn film and television producers into its midst. The Runner Stumbles, starring Dick Van Dyke and Kathleen Quinlan, was filmed in Roslyn and released in 1979. The local residents appeared as extras and in bit parts. The Immaculate Conception Church of Roslyn played an integral part of the film and still draws visitors to the city.

Roslyn Cafe Washington
Photo By Curtis Cronn (cc) on Flickr

From 1990 through 1995, the hugely successful American television show, Northern Exposure was also filmed in Roslyn. The show starred Rob Morrow, Janine Turner, Darren E. Burrows, John Corbett, Cynthia Geary, Elaine Miles, Barry Corbin and John Cullum.

The show centered on the town and the fictional people who lived there but it used many locals as extras and some even had recurring characters. The town’s main street, radio station, bar and many other locations were frequently part of the storylines.

Each year a Moosefest is held in Roslyn to celebrate Northern Exposure. Visitors come from all over the world to participate in this fan festival. Celebrities from the show come to town and participate in panel discussions, games, contest and autographing.

The festivals activities include a costume contest where participants dress in costume from their favorite moment in the five year long series. Tours of the shooting sites, questions and answer with guest stars and meals are all part of this fan festival each year.

The tavern in Roslyn, “The Brick” , was used in the show and is said to be the oldest tavern in the state. The exterior was used for the show while the inside shots were filmed on a set in Washington. Other building like the general store and the doctor’s office where used in their entirety in the show, are still in use today and are part of the tour each year during Moosefest.

Roslyn has several historic cemeteries that are also big tourist attractions. They are all on the National register of Historic Places. The cemetery is unique as it has 26 separate but adjacent plots. They were purchased by the various civic organizations formed from the many immigrant workers. There are 24 nationalities represented among the 5,000 graves.

The Roslyn Museum and the Historic Coal Mines offer a taste of Roslyn from its early beginnings. Artifacts, remains, exhibits and relics of all sorts are on display to educate visitors on the town’s humble beginnings in the coal mines. Tours are given of the mining sites but no inside tours are permissible for safety reasons.

Hike the Coal Miners trail for a hands-on experience of the original railroad line that put Roslyn on the map. Visit the Coal Miners Memorial to pay tribute to the many hard working coal miners that toiled in the dangerous mines.

A vacation to Roslyn is a trip full of fun and eccentricity. This tiny town is full of history and character and personality. Barry Corbin, star of Northern Exposure, once said that Roslyn has so much personality it became a tangible character in the show.

Come and meet Roslyn. You’ll fall in love forever.

Written by Kelly Banaski Sons

Lalibela Rock Churches in Ethiopia

A vacation is a vacation. You see the attractions, you swim, and you fish. What if you could take a vacation that changed you? What if you took a vacation that meant something? Many people come away from the Lalibela rock churches in Ethiopia feeling just like that.

Lalibela is little more than its rock churches but for so many that is plenty. It is considered a holy place and the monasteries still carry the tales. The streets are unpaved and there are little to no motorized vehicles. There are no gas stations or supermarkets inside the center of the city.The population is a scant 9000 people and over 1000 of them are priests. The churches, the priests, and the religious festivals circulate the biblical atmosphere.

The environment breeds religious epiphany and life changing thoughts. The simplistic life of the area brings a certain peace and inner tranquility.

The area, once called Roha, was named after King Lalibela of the 12th century. King Lalibela was a shrewd politician and a beloved prophet. His reign was threatened and he sought the protection of the influential Ethiopian Orthodox Church.

Lalibela Ethiopia rock churches

During the time he was seeking the acceptance and protection of the church he claims to have had a dream where God called him to Heaven. While there he witnessed great churches and upon awakening he commissioned the creation of specific stone chiseling tools. He set to work explaining to his builders exactly what he saw and set them to excavating it.

The churches were chiseled from the living rock base of the mountains that spotted the area. The King hoped to win the churches approval with the unique rock churches but he also sought to make a religious mecca comparable to Jerusalem. People were required to make a trip to the holy land of Jerusalem once in their life. Lalibela hoped to make a New Jerusalem, not to take the place of the holy land but to aid those who could not make the lengthy trip.

When you think of a rock church there is no way you would imagine these churches. They are completely carved from rock and stone. The inside has intricate designs over the arches, walls and windows. There are 11 of these rock churches and the largest is 40 feet high. The intricate designs are still visible and much of the original markings are near pristine.

The work involved and how it got done is mystifying. Similar to the Egyptian pyramids, it is a mystery. Local legend has it that each night when the workers would sleep angels would come and take over the process. One of the churches contains a stone pillar with writing from the King explaining the secrets of the churches excavation. It stays covered with cloths. No one is permitted to look at it but the priests.

The King dedicated 20 years of his life to the churches. After which he reported a religious epiphany and abdicated his throne. He chose to live his life as a hermit He spent the rest of his days in self introspection, eating roots and vegetables. Because of this life change and the fact that his stone churches became such a place of religious importance, he is considered a saint to this day.

While the area is mostly undisturbed and rustic, there are still a few places to stay and eat while you are visiting. The surrounding areas house the hotels where you are able to hire a guide for your visit to the churches if you desire. The guides will take you through each of the churches and explain their heritage, history and significance.

Lalibela rock churches in Ethiopia
Photo by Marc Veraart

The Lalibela World Cultural Center is near the Tukul Village Hotel. It serves as a protective agency for the preservation of the churches but also as a educational center for the tourists. Performances like circuses and theater acts are staged throughout the year to help both tourists and natives understand other cultures than their own. Eventually, they center plans to ass a library for local students.

There is a sizeable museum located near the main entrance to some of the churches. It is filled with ancient manuscripts, vested gold thousands of years old, crosses, crowns, pendants and paintings all gathered to ensure the stories of the people and King Lalibela survive.

Dining in Lalibela is an interesting experience. The local eateries serve traditional foods indigenous to the area along with an Ethiopian honey-wine called Tej. Most of the restaurants have in-house dancers and entertainment. There is a coffee making ceremony significant to the area that performers often call patrons on stage to help with, adding a special touch to the evening.

This place, the churches and the people, have a special effect on people. It’s unexpected and benevolent and well worth the trip. You may think you’re going for the history and significance but you may have a higher calling.