Category Archives: Travelling

Germany 11*: Dresden, Where a Day Is Nowhere Near Enough

On September 1, 2022, yet another lovely day, we left Prague and headed back into Germany, where our next two nights would be spent in Dresden. The train ride was perfection: quiet and smooth. I was trying to read a book but the architecture and the landscape constantly drew my attention. Despite the drought, the countryside was surprisingly green.

(Reminder: You can click on the images in each “Gallery” block to see them as a slide show.)

Dresden is the capital of the state of Saxony (our stops in Bayreuth and Munich had been in Bavaria) and, like Leipzig and half of Berlin, was located from 1949 to 1990 in the former communist state of East Germany. Since the mid-1400s Dresden was the seat of Saxony nobility, who invested time, money and effort to make it into a world-class cultural centre. In the 1800s it became known for its technology as well as its art. At one point, due to a “personal union,” it also became the seat of Polish monarchs, who contributed to its magnificent baroque and rococo architecture.

I had not realized that Dresden had been flattened by the Allies near the end of World War II, much less that the bombings have always been controversial, seen by many as indiscriminate and unnecessary as Dresden was not a military target. [This is a correction. When I first wrote this post I thought the bombings had occurred after peace had been declared. I erred and I am grateful to the reader who pointed out my error.] Then about a month before we left for Germany, both of my sons urged me to read Kurt Vonnegut’s Slaughterhouse Five. What a great book that is! The writing style is remarkably distinctive (I hadn’t read Vonnegut before. Now I’ll read more) and the structure of the novel is brilliant, particularly the way it manages time. But quite aside from its literary qualities, Slaughterhouse Five provided me with an intimate picture of what it was like to be in Dresden as the war drew to a close.

The bombing of Dresden by British and American troops nearly reduced the entire historic and beautiful old city to rubble. During this event, which occurred between Feb. 13 and 15, 1945, “772 heavy bombers of the Royal Air Force (RAF) and 527 of the United States Army Air Forces (USAAF) dropped more than 3,900 tons of high-explosive bombs and incendiary devices on the city. The bombing and the resulting firestorm destroyed more than 1,600 acres (6.5 km2) of the city centre. An estimated 22,700 to 25,000 people were killed. Three more USAAF air raids followed, two occurring on 2 March aimed at the city’s railway marshalling yard and one smaller raid on 17 April aimed at industrial areas.” Wikipedia This is the central incident in Slaughterhouse Five, which Vonnegut based on his personal experience as a prisoner of war who was being held in Dresden by the Germans when the attack occurred. Many of the buildings we visited in Dresden featured photographs of what they’d looked like after the bombing, and the amount of restoration that has been required (and completed so far) is astonishing.

We stayed in the old town but at the relatively new Hyperion Hotel Dresden am Schloss, in a room that was bright and functional –although having the bathroom in the middle of the suite was a new experience for me. We headed out for dinner and of course could not find the restaurant I had chosen (which, it later turned out, was a dining room right in the hotel where we were staying but it was only open for conference attendees). But we found a great alternative on the square, had a very tasty meal, and walked around a bit of the old town before calling it a day.

The Residenzschloss

Our first stop on September 2 was the mammoth Residenzschloss, or Residence Palace, which was right across the street from our hotel. This building is a major exhibitor of state and city art in Dresden, as it has been since the Saxony kings built the castle to live in, in the mid-1400s.


First we saw a series of drawings from the Hoesch Collection which were on temporary exhibit at the palace. The exhibition, entitled Anselmi to Zuccari, included works from Italian artists from the 16th to 18th century as well as selections from the Kupferstich-Kabinett (Dresden State Art Collection). They were fascinating.

We then set out to explore the permanent collection of the Residenzschloss, and we could have spent all of our remaining time in Dresden there – if not the rest of our lives. It contains a lot of amazing stuff. By the time we were half way through it I was reduced to walking from piece to piece, unable to differentiate between the astonishing and the merely stunning. I took way too many photos of it all, thinking that I would examine them more closely later. I have done some of that today. 🙂 Here is a sample (Most of the Turkish influence came by way of Poland, btw):

Then we had lunch in a square off Galeriestraße. Crepes. Sehr lecker.

After lunch, we wandered around old Dresden for a couple of hours. We viewed the lovely baroque interior of the Dresden Frauenkirche, the exterior of the Dresden opera house (Semperoper) and the grounds of the Zwinger Palace, which is still in the process of restoration and which houses many works of art that we did not pay to see. Arnie and a street musician exchanged some musical notes, and we took a stroll over the Elbe by means of the Carolabrucke (Carola Bridge). We could see how low the river was after many months of drought.

Hunger Stones

And speaking of the drought, just before we left Canada my elder son had sent me information about a phenomenon known as “Hunger Stones,” which are etchings on rocks from long ago by the sides of rivers that have been exposed due to the low water conditions in recent years. Here is an excerpt from the beginning of a Guardian article on the subject:

Wenn du mich siehst, dann weine (“If you see me, then weep”), reads the grim inscription on a rock in the Elbe River near the northern Czech town of Děčín, close to the German border. As Europe’s rivers run dry in a devastating drought that scientists say could prove the worst in 500 years, their receding waters are revealing long-hidden artefacts, from Roman camps to ghost villages and second world war shipwrecks.”

Messages left on stones are warnings from the past that hunger and hardship are not far off once the waters have receded far enough that the messages – some of which date back as far as the 15th century – can be read. Many of these are along the River Elbe in the Czech Republic and Germany, but they have also been found in recent years in Italy, Spain, Serbia and other parts of Europe.

More Residenzschloss

After our afternoon stroll, Arnie wisely took a nap but I just had to check out a few more rooms in the Residenzschloss, since my ticket was still valid. By the time I was finished, I could barely walk, but it was worth it.

We concluded our Big Day in Dresden with dinner at Edelweiss, a Swiss restaurant near the Frauenkirche and then wandered back to the hotel where we collapsed into bed to rest up for our trip the next day to our final destination in Germany: Berlin.


*Sharp-eyed readers will have noticed that I gave the number “9” to the last two posts. I am reluctant to change the most recent post to “10” because it will make the url incorrect. But this is still “11,” no matter how you look at it.

Italy 24: Florence (Part 6)

The Great Synagogue of Florence

May 25, 2019

Image by Toksave, published under Creative Commons licence

The Great Synagogue (Tempio Maggiore) of Florence, built between 1874 and 1882, is a magnificent building located not far from the major museums of the city, which is appropriate as it houses an extensive museum on its upper floor. The style of the building is Italian and Moorish Revival but signage at the synagogue indicates that it is also known as “of the Emancipation” as it “was designed as an independent building and is not disguised as something else, as happened in the ghettoes.” The lovely pink and beige colours of the travertine and granite that dapple the building used to be darker – were, in fact, once red and beige.

The domes of the synagogue were familiar to Separdhic Jewry, of which the Florentine community primarily consisted, which had its origins in Berber Moorish Spain. The domes, finished in copper now oxidized to green, stand out against the skyline. (Note: I am grateful to the photographers whose photos are posted for public use on Wikipedia. They make it possible for me to show these two angles on the synagogue that we were not able to capture ourselves. If you click on the images you can see the source photos.)

These are the photos we did take of the exterior:

The interior of the synagogue is wonderfully ornate. (Click on images to see them better.) “During World War II, Nazi soldiers occupied the synagogue and they used that as a storehouse. In August 1944 retreating German troops worked with Italian Fascists to lay explosives to destroy the synagogue. However, Italian resistance fighters managed to defuse most of the explosives and only a limited amount of damage was done. What damage was done was restored after the war. The synagogue was restored yet again after damage from the flood of the River Arno in 1966.” (Wikipedia)

Wikipedia also tells us that “The Jewish community in Florence is composed of about 1,400 people. However, it has a long history which reaches back to the medieval era. In addition, there was a nearby Jewish community in the Oltrarno area, south of the Arno river , that dates to the Roman era. It is thought that the first synagogue was probably built in the 13th century.”

The Jewish Museum of Florence, opened in 1987, is located on the second floor of the synagogue. We were not allowed to take photos, but you can see some of the lovely pieces on the Museums of Florence website. We spent quite a bit of time admiring the “kiddush cups, prayer shawls, silver ornaments and embroidered vestments dating from the 16th to the twentieth century, with illustrative panels of the community’s history, together with a carved model of the old ghetto and along with a pictorial display which is occasionally changed.”

The names of 248 Florentine deportees are listed on this plaque.

It was as much a reminder of the history of the Jews as it was a sign of the times that the synagogue was guarded by soldiers with rifles, and the process for being admitted to the grounds was very strict and thorough –involving passports, metal gates, and lockers for bags and coats.

We were sorry to have already eaten lunch when we saw this inviting spot, just beyond the grounds of the synagogue. Next time. (Where have I heard that before?)

Italy 22: Florence (Part 4)

Firenze al aperto (Florence Out of Doors)

May 23 – 24, 2019

We enjoyed wandering around Florence as much as we did touring its galleries and, still fortunate with the weather, we managed to get quite a bit of fresh air. As I continued to recover from my face-plant in the Borghese Gardens, I was amused to see a street sign that seemed to warn me against landing on my head again. (As if I needed a warning.)

We spent time on both days in Florence in the Piazza della Signoria because it is so central. Surrounded by several “palazzos” and the Uffizi Gallery, the piazza is massive, accommodating outdoor restaurant seating, a lovely old merry-go-round and many shops (including an Apple store). At times in its history, the square has been less welcoming: it was here that the puritanical Dominican friar Girolamo Savonarola and his followers carried out the famous “Bonfire of the Vanities” – burning secular “books, gaming tables, fine dresses, and works of poets” in their attempt to build a new Jerusalem, and here – in front of the fountain of Neptune – Savonarola and two of his fellow friars were ultimately hanged and burned on May 23, 1498 (Wikipedia).

As is true in many major cities in Italy, being outside can be very much like being inside a museum, and that was certainly true of the large space just off the Florence’s Piazza della Signoria that is known as the Loggia dei Lanzi. We went there one afternoon to rest our feet between tours, but I soon found myself standing up again to more closely examine the huge sculptures on display in the loggia.

The Loggia dei Lanzi or Loggia della Signoria was built in the late 1300s and was intended to accommodate public meetings and events. The statues now located there include two Medici lions, historical figures, and a number of sculptures depicting characters and events from Greek and Roman myths. One of these, Perseus with the head of Medusa, I remember seeing in an encyclopedia when I was a girl, and being absolutely horrified. The actual statue is pretty horrifying too.

The River Arno flows from its source in the Apennines through Florence on its way to the sea, and while the water itself looks uninviting (it is fast and dirty), there is no matching the spectacle the river offers, especially when the light is right. There are six bridges across the Arno in Florence, five of which were bombed during the retreat of the Nazis from Italy in 1944. These have been rebuilt, either in a more modern form or to resemble the historic structures they replaced.

Although it was swept away by floods a couple of times during the first two centuries of the Common Era, and was damaged again by flooding in the mid 1960s. the Ponte Vecchio, the most famous and remarkable of the bridges, is the only one that was not destroyed in the German retreat — rumour has it that it was spared by direct command of Adolf Hitler. However, the buildings at either end of the bridge were destroyed in order to prevent its use.

The Ponte Vecchio is a “closed-spandrel bridge with three segmental arches” built from stone at the end of the first century. (The spandrel is the space between the outer part of the arch and the deck.) Its design was determined in part by the need to allow horses and carts to cross it easily, and vendors have been selling their wares from stalls on the bridge for more than a thousand years. We wandered past clothing and jewellery shops, some selling products of the highest quality (and price!) and others selling schlock for tourists, also at the highest price. The kicker was a gelato that I bought on the Ponte Vecchio for eight euros ($12)! (It did involve two tasty scoops, but the only reason it is memorable is because of how much it cost me.)

I was quite tickled to be standing in a place where Dante had also stood.

Florence, like other major Italian cities, must be particularly magical to those with limitless wealth and a fondness for shopping. We meet neither of those conditions, but we did enjoy wandering past some of the exclusive shops.

We are hard-pressed to remember even one disappointing meal in Italy. However, we discovered a couple of outstanding restaurants in Florence, one of them thanks to a fellow-writer from the U.S. who I’d met online on a writers’ forum. Caron Guillo had spent the previous four or five years leading tours in Europe and she had lived for an extended period of time in Italy. Before we left on our trip, I saw that she had posted a photo of a dinner she’d just eaten in her favourite restaurant in Florence. She gave me the name — 4 Leoni — we tracked it down, and had a most spectacular dinner. My main course was the restaurant’s popular ravioli dish featuring pears in taleggio cheese and asparagus sauce (the same dish that Caron had posted on Facebook) and for dessert a chocolate pudding. We should have made a reservation: we were lucky that they let us in without one.

Of course, even the graffiti in Italy is artistic. I liked this piece, which somehow evoked both Banksy and Magritte.

Italy 19: Florence (Part 1)

The Lovely Villa Belvedere

May 22, 2019

Welcome / reception line, Villa Belvedere

Late on the afternoon of May 22, we arrived in Firenze (Florence) after a long drive through central Italy from Salerno. The Hotel Villa Belvedere, our accommodation for our visit, was so lovely that if we had been advised that every tourist site in the city had been unexpectedly closed for repairs and we were going to have to stay at the hotel for the entire three days we were in Florence, I would not have complained too much. This is the kind of hotel that makes you want to sit outside and read a book, or sit near a window inside and write one. Since we had a lot to see and do, I felt as though we did not have time to properly enjoy our accommodations – although we gave it our best effort.

The Villa Belvedere is a family-owned hotel, and the members of the family seem to have been born for the hospitality business. Everyone, including the hired staff, was helpful, accommodating, and eager to help us resolve any issues we had, whether they related to the villa, the city, or our next destination. Several suites have balconies: ours did not, which is a good thing or I would have wanted to spend even more time lounging about, but our room was large and comfortable. The gardens are magnificent, obviously cared for like the house itself with loving care, and the main floor common areas are comfortable and decorated with of all kinds of unusual objets d’art.

The dining room is a bright, well-appointed room with large windows that look out onto the pool and the gardens. The food was outstanding and the service impeccable. The chef is one of the owners, and when we complimented her cooking and especially her baking one morning, she asked if we would let her mother-in-law know we’d enjoyed it. (I did as she’d asked, of course, amused at this glimpse into the family dynamics.)

The city was not far away: as we wandered in the garden in the evening, we could hear the enthusiastic sounds of fans cheering on their favourite local football (soccer) game at a nearby stadium. After a spectacular dinner at the hotel and a sound night’s sleep, windows open to the Italian night, we did – of course – bestir ourselves to check out the other sights and sounds and tastes of Florence: from the Duomo to the Accademia Dell’Arte to the Uffuzi Gallery, from the Arno River to “the David” (more on those in subsequent posts). And of course we were glad we did. But it was lovely to have this place to return to each day after our wanderings had worn our feet out once again.

The art of Florence extends beyond its galleries: here, two European Rose Chafers, dining

Italy 8: Padua to La Spezia

Past the Alps to the Ligurian Sea

Monday, May 13, 2019 (Part 2)

In response to overwhelming (n=1) demand for information on whether we actually made it from Padua to La Spezia in time to catch our train, I offer this interlude to assure readers that we did (though not, of course, without a bit more drama), and also to provide additional information on the Cappella degli Scrovegni offered by friends on Facebook since my last post (thank you, Caterina Edwards and Suzanne Hillier).


First the Cappella. Caterina, who has located several of her novels in Italy and knows whereof she speaks, told me that the museum only lets about ten or twelve people into the Giotto Chapel at a time – and that the people have to be cool and dry to be admitted. “We went to Padova on a super-hot day,” she recalls. “Before we could enter the chapel, we had to sit (and watch a video) for 15 minutes in a special room where we were ‘dehumidified.’ This was to protect the fragile murals.”

While her story made me appreciate better why they hadn’t let us in, it also intensified my wish that we had booked tickets ahead of time and seen the frescoes. Suzanne (retired lawyer, now a full-time writer) added to my regret by saying, “Hate to tell you but it was fascinating. Can still see those visions of hell, with the doomed being savaged by evil little devils!”

More alps

Today Arnie reminded me there were probably photos of the frescoes online, and since “online” just happens to be my second home it didn’t take me long to find them. They are indeed astonishing: particularly considering that Giotto di Bondone completed them more than 700 years ago: in about 1305. It’s not the same at all as seeing them in person, but it will do for now.

It rained off and on between Padua and La Spezia but the weather cleared enough from time to time to offer us views of the Alps on our right and the northern Apeninne mountains on our left. We were beginning to get a sense of how quickly the landscape changes in Italy, and of the wide range of geographical areas and climates that make up this small country (small compared to Canada, that is). When we’d left the relatively flat region around Padua I’d wondered how our destination, a village only a few hours away, could be described as almost inaccessible due to its location on a mountainous coastline. But as the foothills rose around us and our elevation increased, I began to see how this could happen.

Red Pin Marks Ligurian Sea

Last Train to Monterosso

Our destination was Monterosso al Mare, the most distant of five villages that lie north of La Spezia along the coast of the Ligurian Sea. Together, the villages comprise Cinque Terre (“Five Lands”), designated a UNESCO site in 1997 and part of the Italian Riviera. My younger son and his wife had stayed in one of the villages on their honeymoon, and raved to us about the beauty of the region.

While the walking trails between the towns are mostly hike-able (where they have not been washed downhill into the sea), tourists are advised not to attempt the roads between the villages by car. This doesn’t create too much of a problem since there are 54 trains between La Spezia and Levanto (beyond the northern end of the chain of villages) every day. The train tickets are quite reasonable — you can buy a one-day pass for about €8 that allows you take as many train rides as you want between the villages, or you can buy a Cinque Terre card that allows you to use buses as well as trains and to gain access to the walking trails, museums, etc. Our only challenge as we drove from Padua was to make sure that we caught the last train of the day, which would depart from La Spezia at 23:10, and to arrive in time to park the car and get to the train before it left.


It turns out there are many places to park your car in La Spezia but of course the one I had picked out was inaccessible after 8 p.m., which was when we arrived. Fortunately for us, we took a “wrong turn” and ended up in a nice big parking lot right inside the train station. This parking lot is reasonable (between €18 and €25/day depending on the season) but the fact that it is “in” the station doesn’t mean it is secure. We had been advised by many people never to leave anything in an unattended car in Italy, so we took everything with us to Monterosso. It was a lot to carry up and down the stairs and hills that are everywhere in Cinque Terre, but when we returned two days later, we found another couple parked near us who had lost all of the possessions they had left behind in their locked vehicle. So we were glad we’d taken the precaution.

Toilets in parking lot at La Spezia Train Station

If you have any physical disability you’ll have trouble getting around the train stations in the Cinque Terre region — several of which have no elevators. Even in those that do, the elevators may not be working. We hauled our luggage up the stairs onto the wrong platform then downstairs again, and then up onto the right platform, and finally managed to get ourselves and our bags onto the last train to Monterosso.

Right on time, the train pulled out into a pitch black night (it seemed more dark than even nighttime could explain for a reason, we learned the next day: much of the route along the coast winds through a series of tunnels). Twenty-two minutes later, we were in Monterosso. There we carried the suitcases and packs down two more sets of stairs, then rolled them out of the station to the street, and down the street to our beach-front hotel, where we gratefully checked in.

Utterly exhausted – it had been a long rainy-day drive after a long rainy day in Padua, after a long rainy evening the night before traipsing around the Venice Airport exchanging vehicles — we went to sleep. And awoke the next morning to the most spectacular visual treat I’ve ever had.

Watch. Listen. Learn. (Cuba 4: Trinidad, Part 1)

Rum, Women and Song (1)

Wednesday, January 6, 2016

Well, today was a day to remember. We did a 2.5 k hike up to a waterfall in the rainforest and went for a swim, then did a walking tour of Trinidad, and after that we had a salsa lesson. We also ate at two more picturesque and distinctive paradores (“home restaurants”), and we concluded the day with rum-soaked toasts to two members of our group who were celebrating birthdays.


Dr. Dan Riskin, Biólogo (aka, my elder kid)

Even before all of that, I had the utterly mind-boggling experience of seeing my elder son on Cuban television. Our host at the casa had turned on her TV while we were waiting for our bus to arrive. She started changing channels and all of a sudden Arnie yelled, “Stop! Go back! Go back!” Lo and behold, there was an episode of Monsters Inside Me, a show about parasites that is broadcast on Animal Planet. And there was Dan, who is not only the co-host of Daily Planet on Discovery Channel in Canada, but also does the scientific explanations on MIM. Only it wasn’t his voice: it was a Spanish voice that had been dubbed in. I was yelling “Mi hijo! Mi hijo!” and I think our host thought we had lost our minds. But we finally explained it all, and went on with our day.

Hiking, Swimming and Bats

The bus collected us at 8:30 am and took us on a bumpy ride up to the parking area for the hike to the Salto del Caburni, a 62m waterfall that drops into a wonderful swimming hole and stream. After a beer (or gaseosa for some of us) we set out on a beautiful hike through the rainforest – bumpy and uneven in some places and uphill for part of the way, but easy walking for the most part. About half way up, we stopped at the cabin of a farmer who had lived in the same house all his life and raised his family in it. It is completely constructed from royal palm. He served us tea that he had made from various herbs.

We then followed the stream further up the mountain to where it widened into a pool of clear blue water below a waterfall. We swam into the waterfall and beyond – and inside the cave behind the falls, at least two species of bats were trying to get a decent day’s sleep. Disturbed by our splashing and calling, a few of them flitted around above us which, of course, made me very happy as my bat-loving son has fostered in me a great affection for the little beasts. I wished I’d had a camera with me and am hoping someone got some photos (Andrew? Isobel?). The swim was wonderfully refreshing and the setting magnificent.

Unlike several others in our group (mainly guys, although Isobel bravely contemplated a leap for quite a while), I’d walked into the water from a rocky platform rather than jumping off a high cliff into the deep pool that had formed beneath the pounding water from the falls. A couple of those who did jump regretted it afterwards, Will from Australia in particular. He suffered a bruised coccyx, which made sitting on buses quite difficult for him for several days. Salto means “jump” so it was hard to resist the urge, I guess.

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In addition to intriguing flora, rock formations, the bats and a few lizards, we were fortunate to see several birds on our hike. A highlight was a sighting of Cuba’s national bird, the tocororo (aka Cuban Trogon, or Priotelus temnurus), which is red, white and blue like the Cuban flag. We also walked past almond trees and tried (without much luck) to get the nuts out by cracking dried fruits on the ground with rocks.

Back in Trinidad, we enjoyed yet another delicious meal at yet another attractive and surprisingly large family-owned restaurant. I had pollo tropicale and it was muy delicioso. We were seated outside and during lunch, a bird (not a tocororo) pooped on me. All of us agreed that this was a sign of exceeding good fortune.

(See next post for the second part of our day in Trinidad, which was far too busy and fun to describe in just one post.)


Watch. Listen. Learn. (Cuba 3: Cienfuegos, Santa Clara, Trinidad)

Some French architecture, then ¡Che!

Tuesday, January 5, 2016
IMG_2479After breakfast, our group set out on a walking tour of Cienfuegos. The city was founded by Don Louis de Clouet, who came to Cuba from France via Louisiana. He worked to build up the city’s white population by inviting families to join him from New Orleans, Philadelphia and Bordeaux. As a result, much of the city’s early architecture is neoclassical French.

Cienfuegos has a more prosperous economic base than many other cities in Cuba (shrimp fishing, thermoelectric and petrochemical plants, and ship building, according to my trusty Lonely Planet), and it is a lovely city with a large port. Its elegant and stately buildings are gradually being restored after years of neglect, thanks to the financial support that has accrued from its having been declared a Unesco World Heritage Site in 2005.

In the main square of the city, there is access to wifi so after our tour we settled in for 15 or 20 minutes of connecting the outside world. Access to the internet is extremely limited in Cuba and estimates of the number of Cubans with internet connections range from 5% to 25%. Most of the connecting is done on mobile phones in wifi hotspots, most of which are located in city squares, and even when they are connected, Cubans’ access to many independent news sites are blocked.

Wifi access cards are 2 CUCs per hour (about CAD 3), and you can use them at any hotspot on the island. The card gives you a user name and a password. We were told that if you use the card for ten minutes and then sign off, you will be able to use the remaining 50 minutes at the same or other locations in future, but several times when I signed off part way through an hour, when I tried to sign on again I was told that I had used up all my time.


We then set off for Santa Clara, enjoying a varied and delicious buffet lunch en route at a restaurant whose Don Quixote theme made me very happy, needless to say.

Mausoleo de Che Guevara

Santa Clara is where the mausoleum of Che Guevara and his friends/fellow revolutionaries is located. In 1967, seven men, including Che, were tracked down and executed in Bolivia, where they were working to instigate an uprising there, but their bodies were not found for several decades. After their DNA had been tested to prove their identities, they were brought to Santa Clara. The location was chosen because it was in Santa Clara that, years earlier, Che and his compatriots had derailed the train that carried munitions and troops sent by Batista to defend the city, effectively spelling the successful end of the Cuban revolution.

The mausoleo complex is a shrine to a man who is more than a hero in this country. It features a towering statue of Che, his arm in a cast – as it was during the Battle of Santa Clara, since he had broken his arm in a battle at Caibarién a few days earlier. The mausoleum itself, which includes an eternal flame lit by Fidel Castro, is so secure that one is allowed to take nothing at all into it – including a purse or a cell phone. The documents and objects that are collected in the accompanying museum are intriguingly specific and detailed and range across Guevara’s life. I could have spent three hours there instead the one we were allotted.

Our guide Manny told us how Che had arrived in Cuba with Fidel, Raúl and nine others on a yacht called Granma in 1956. These twelve were only ones left of 82 who had set out from Mexico with the intention of overthrowing the Batista dictatorship – an upheaval that by then Fidel had been planning from exile for more than five years.

The day was cloudy and as we got back on the bus following our tour, it started to rain. The grey skies seemed appropriate.

Assorted interesting things I have learned today (mostly from Manny):

  • The given name of Che – who was Argentinian – was Ernesto. His nickname came about from his Argentinian custom of ending his sentences with the interjection “che?” (as Canadians do “eh?” Example, “Let’s go get a beer, che?”). One of his closest friends, Nico Lopez, a Cuban, asked him, “Why do you always say ‘Che?’ I am going to call you ‘Che’.”
  • Cubans are not permitted to ride in motorized boats – even a catamaran that is for rent to tourists is off-limits to Cubans
  • Locals shop and stay in separate, lower-quality stores and casas particulares than do tourists
  • White herons hang out around the cows, adding spots of brightness to the fields


Field of sugar cane as seen from the bus


We next travelled through some truly beautiful mountainous countryside to Trinidad, which is a charming town on the island’s south shore with an amazing array of restaurants, bars, nightlife and shops – not to mention more interesting history and culture.

Since we arrived after dark, there was no time for sightseeing, but our group met at the foot of the stairs where all the action is. The younger ones went up the stairs to party. The more mature of us (Arnie and I) went for a great dinner in a rooftop restaurant and then walked back to our new casa.

The female head of this household – which includes two school-aged children – is, like our host in Cienfuegos, a warm and friendly woman who wants to help us practice our Spanish. 🙂 She told us that they have friends in Montreal who come down to stay with them every year or two. She also told us that they have never been outside Cuba because they cannot afford to travel (as is the case for most Cubans). For holidays they go to Havana sometimes, but prefer to spend their time at their beach house. She also told us that when she was growing up, they did not teach English in schools, but now they do. Her children are learning to speak English and she believes that this is very important.

We have two nights here, so we feel as though we can settle in a bit.









Watch. Listen. Learn. (India 15: Final thoughts)

I guess one way to tell that your trip to India is over is that you stop having to take malaria pills, and for me that happened over a month ago. But in fact my trip did not feel “over” until I finished writing about it. And now that I have done that too, I long to call the whole experience back to the present, but I am also eager to start thinking about my next writing projects, and my next adventures.

This post is a summary of some lingering thoughts I’ve had while reflecting on my three weeks in India, which was also my first major solo trip abroad – thoughts that I didn’t really cover in the previous posts, but ones that are too brief and transitory to merit their own posts.

The Best Part

A few people have asked me what was the “best part” of my trip to India, and I honestly can’t give an answer to that question. Instead of disparate memories of different locations – Delhi, the Taj Mahal, Pushkar, the wildlife reserve in the Arivalli Hills – it all merges together in my head to become one big wonderful thing called “India.” Or, more specifically, “Some of Northwestern India.” It’s a feeling. And a good one. I want to go back.

Where Next?

A few people have also asked me where I’m going next – now that clearly I’ve  been bitten by the travel bug. For a while I was thinking “Spain,” because I’ve been longing to go to Spain (and France, and Germany, and Italy, and Greece) since I was in university, or even before that. I studied French and Spanish In school and keep trying to brush up on those languages in case I get a chance to use them.

But now I’m thinking that if I’m going to be more flexible (mentally as well as physically) in the next thirty years than I will be in the thirty years after that, and since travelling through Europe (and Australia and New Zealand) is likely to be easier on an older person than travelling through other parts of the world, maybe I should go to the more challenging places first. So I think Peru is my answer at the moment. Or Cambodia.

Jet Lag

I didn’t have jet lag on the way to India: when I got to Delhi, I was ready to hit the pavement. That may  have been because I was in a new place and was full of curiosity, excitement, and a bit of fear. Or maybe it was because after travelling for 36 hours, I arrived just in time to go to bed. I just got up the next morning and started going. And kept going. And going.

On the way back, I arrived in Toronto at noon after about the same number of hours of travel time – and in the same direction, by the way: I’d gone to India via Hong Kong but I came back via Brussels. I tried to stay awake until night arrived when I got home but it was impossible. I fell asleep against my will at about 4 p.m. and I was totally messed up for about a week.

I have since read that jet lag may be as much related to digestion as to sleeping patterns. That makes some sense to me because when I’d wake up in the middle of the night during that week after my return, I was ravenous.

The pundits with the food-and-jet-lag theory suggest eating nothing while in transit. That would certainly be a variation on this trip, where I felt as though I were eating constantly while I was getting to India and getting home again. As soon as I’d board a plane I’d get dinner, and then four hours later I’d get breakfast: two planes each way. And on the layovers between flights (seven hours in Hong Kong and four in Brussels), I ate. What else was there to do?

I guess it couldn’t hurt to try to fast while flying. Consuming lots of water also seems to be a good idea.

Of course, if I go to Peru next time, jet lag won’t be a problem: Peru is in the same time zone as Toronto. And I think I can use some of my Spanish there.

How long should a trip to one country be?

Three week feels like about the minimum amount of time it takes to start to get a sense of a new place – longer would be better, but may not be possible if you have a real life underway back home and aren’t able to just become permanently itinerant.

I think you need to stay in a new place for long enough that what looks really strange when you arrive starts to look normal: for me, in India, this included the sight of cattle wandering the roadways, and of women in saris riding side-saddle on the backs of motorcycles with their arms wrapped around the drivers (I saw this everywhere, from the centre of the city to the middle of the desert). I got so used to these things that I barely noticed them by the time we left.

Ongoing effects of my trip to India

I could go on for pages on this subject, but I can also summarize fairly briefly my sense of what has changed in me as a result of my visit to India.

Elephant bathing ghat at Sahakari Spice Farm, Goa

I have always been attracted to the multifaceted “idea” of India but now I feel as though the country is a part of me. Granted, it’s a small part; in three short weeks I was only able to nibble at the edges of that vast empire. But India is with me now in a way it never was before, and as long as my brain is still functional, I will never have to let it go. When someone says the word “Mumbai” to me, it has a personal meaning now. When they say “chai-wallah,” I can see one in my mind’s eye. The word “ghat” has a physical representation in my mind that no photograph can give me – I’ve seen several, including one reserved for a family of elephants, and walked down one in Pushkar in bare feet. I know how to pronounce “Udaipur” properly, and I know what really great fish vindaloo tastes like at an outside table in Baga.

I also find myself far more interested in Indian news than I was before. I have followed with interest an excellent series on caste and women in India in the Globe and Mail. I was intrigued by the story of a man named Anna Hazare who went on a hunger strike to protest corruption in India’s government. I reflected on how similar were the frustration of speakers of the Konkani language in Goa at the increasing influence of English to the dismay expressed by aboriginals and Quebecois in Canada. When I see the word “India” in the news,  I read.

This blog

Yes, did name this blog to echo the title of Eat. Pray. Love. I wanted to stress that I was not going to India to try to find anything inside myself — I was going there to learn about India. And I did.

Here are links to the earlier posts on my India travel blog, in case you missed them:

Then there were the posts about


This is only the first, I hope, of many travel blogs. When I’m not travelling (which is, obviously, most of the time), I do write about other things that catch my interest here at I’m All Write, so subscribe if you think you might be interested. And I write about writing-related things at The Militant Writer.

Until the next post, नमस्ते (namaste).

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Watch. Listen. Learn. (India 14: Shopping)

The travel challenges of a Not-a-Shop-A-Holic

I am not a good shopper at the best of times. I dither and dither and then make impetuous decisions that I later regret. As a result, I often need to take back things I’ve bought.

I don’t like returning things, either – especially to smaller stores. Returning something requires me to summon all of my courage because I feel as though taking something back to a store is tantamount to criticizing one of the salesperson’s offspring, or at least impugning his or her tastes. I therefore usually end up buying something else I don’t want while I’m there, just to cheer up him or her. Logically I know that the salesperson is an employee of the store and doesn’t give a rat’s ass about the fact that the handbag I’m returning turned out to be too small for my purposes, but for me, logic has nothing to do with the shopping experience.

In short, I am the Ultimate Non-Shopaholic – and that is true even in a country where the prices of things are clearly marked, where I have time to think about what I’m doing, and where the staff speak the same language I do and are generally nowhere to be found (which is just where I like them). It turns out that I am much worse at shopping in foreign countries where I need to bargain about prices with salesclerks who hover and hover and respond to the words “No, thank you,” by bringing out a dozen other things they are sure I’ll want to look at – salesclerks who implore customers who walk away empty-handed by saying, “You come back tomorrow, Lady?” and when you answer, “Yes, tomorrow,” respond, as though their hearts will break, “You promise?”

After my trip to India (and yes. It’s true: I do have the nerve to travel by myself half way around the world to see a country I’ve never been to, but not the courage to return a leaking mug to Starbucks. Go figure), I have decided that I am never again going to try to bring anything back from anywhere with me. I have learned my lessons. I think.

The Albatross

As those of you who have been reading earlier posts will know, my first shopping misadventure in India occurred in Jaipur, where I was not intending to buy anything at all. But the tuk-tuk driver who took me to the Amber Fort, which I ended up accidentally climbing past in favour of the Jaigarh Fort, thereby totally wearing myself out, was a very good guy. First he told me how to avoid being ripped off by other drivers and souvenir sellers. Then he waited for me even though I was gone for at least three hours, and he didn’t charge me any extra for the wait. In short, I was as grateful to him by the end of my adventure, which had been undertaken for the most part in hot sun, without water, and on an upward incline, as I would have been if he’d just donated his left kidney to me. And all the dear man asked in return was that I spend fifteen minutes looking at the goods his friend sold. How could I refuse?

He drove me to a textile shop, a really classy place, where the vendor served me chai masala and showed me how the textile makers put vegetable dye marks on fabric and how they wove rugs– and then showed me around his massive showroom.

I felt no pressure as the owner showed me bedspread after bedspread, starting with the cheapest one first, asking his assistant to fling open one after another of increasing quality and opulence atop its predecessor. I worried about how they could ever sell all the fabrics that they had on display there: walls and walls of shelves full of folded beautiful fabrics. I fell in love with everything he showed me, and—thinking of all the people who had had to work so hard for mere pennies a day to create these lovely pieces (true, although on reflection I doubt any of them was related to the owner)–I did not negotiate much.

I bought a beautiful bedspread with hundreds of tiny reflective spangles, each one sewn in separately, and a spectacular wall hanging pieced together by hand from stiff pieces of aged fabric to create the image of an elephant – in my favourite colours, deep red and green. It is true that these items would have cost much more in Canada, if they were available here—but they might have cost far less in any other store in India, and could have cost even less if I had offered less. In addition, I was on a budget and could not afford them, even at the prices I paid. So although I was delighted with my purchases as the vendor had them plastic-wrapped and taped and then sewn into a cotton sack for me so I could ship them home, by the time I got back to my hotel I was feeling guilty. That’s why I called the sack “The Albatross “– because of my guilt (which was, admittedly, slightly smaller than that endured by the Ancient Mariner, as were the repercussions) and embarrassment that I had not argued for a better price. With further echoes of Coleridge, since it was at least a week before I found a post office to mail the package from, I had to drag this 6.7 kg reminder of my shopping stupidity around with me everywhere I went.

Souvenir Shopping

When I finally did divest myself of The Albatross in Mumbai, I still faced other shopping obligations, which I’d need to do in Goa.

It wasn’t a long list. I wanted to get a few souvenirs for my kids and grandkids and a couple of small things for myself. But having avoided shops everywhere else I went in India, I’d left souvenir shopping to the last minute,  and that was a mistake.  By then I had perfected the skill of avoiding the pleading eyes and  the hawking calls of shop-owners who came out in the street to try to draw me in by telling me of the remarkable quality and range of wares they had on sale, and who were not easily discouraged by any word except “Tomorrow.” On the day when I was carrying The Albatross back from the post office to my hotel in Udaipur, after finding that the post office was closed on Sunday, even then retailer after retailer begged me to stop and shop with them as I struggled down the street. I indicated my arms and my burden – “How could I carry any more?” I asked them, but they just smiled and said, “Okay, then. You come back tomorrow. You promise.” (They were friendly. All of them were friendly. But they were hard to refuse.)

(I had also been taught my lesson about crafty sales pitches for a second time in Udaipur when a friendly man at the Jagdish Temple invited me to see his art school [he was small. I could have squashed him. Stop worrying, my sons] and I learned it was another store front—this time for expensive works of art. This time after looking at the wares in his classy little store, I just said “No, thanks,” and left.)

The upshot was that I knew I would actually have to look a vendor in the eye if I were going to get any shopping done, and I would need to actually enter a shop of my own free will. I chose my shop by skimming my eyes across the available alternatives along the main street of Calangute, as though I weren’t actually interested in any of them. Once I stepped inside, I knew I would be sunk.

And I was. I either picked the wrong shop or there were no right shops anywhere because once I got in there, there was nothing I wanted, and yet I bought and bought and bought. T-shirts. Handbags. Leggings. A dress or two. The kitchen sink. I knew the same things were available elsewhere, and I knew I should not pay more than half of what the shopkeeper was asking, and I even wondered if maybe some of the things I was looking at might not be for sale back in Toronto. But it was all so cheap that I filled my backpack and did not dicker very much because the woman had so much less than I do (another kind of guilt that comes into play when shopping in places like India), and then when I got back to my room I realized that most of the clothes I’d purchased for myself were never going to fit me because I’m twice the size of your average Indian woman, and so most of it was heading for the Goodwill. Also, by then I was hot and aggravated. I’d spent about $30 on about $5 worth of salvageable merchandise that would have cost me hundreds in Canada except that I’d never have bought it in Canada. I’d have honestly been happier (much happier) if I had been able to just give the $30 to the woman who sold me all these things, without having to actually take any of her products away with me.

So that was that.

Resolutions for Future Travels

Next time I go travelling, I am going to relieve the pressure on myself by purchasing only postcards.

At least that’s what I think now. Because the problem is that now it has arrived, I’m pretty happy with the bedspread and the wall hanging. And I find myself quite attached to a small carved wood Ganesh that I bought at a five-and-dime type place for about 25 rupees (50 cents). The kids seem to like the tea I gave them. And if I hadn’t gone into any stores at all, I wouldn’t have those things, either.

The funny thing is that I had promised my children I would bring them back each an elephant from India to put in their living rooms so they could have something not to talk about. The central image on my wall hanging, when I finally find a living room large enough to hang it in, is going to make me laugh.

This is what my wall hanging looks like, but the colours on mine are quite different (see below). I took this photo of a similar hanging after mine was already wrapped. Now all I need is the right wall.

Inner wrapping, Albatross

Unwrapping The Albatross


Detail: Wall hanging

A portion of my elephant wall hanging

Watch. Listen. Learn. (India 13: My Travel Buddies)

In Praise of Travelling With Younger People

(This post is dedicated to Beth, Gemma, Liam, Jenny, Emma, Mark, Terri, Kelly, Naj, Antonia, Alyx, Janine, Ricky and Abhi)

I was sixty years old when I started to book my trip to India, and I was going to be leaving Canada on my own. Aside from England and Mexico, which I’d visited in the company of other people, and the USA, which is mostly like staying with the neighbours, I’d never gone on this kind of adventure before. My inexperience in international travel has not been caused by a lack of wishing: I’ve always longed to go everywhere. I’ve just never had the money or the time. Now I am determined to see as much of the world as I can before I drop dead – which I hope doesn’t happen for a long time, because there’s a lot I need to see.

As keen as I was for a solo adventure, I knew that going to India all by myself was not a good idea. So I signed up for a tour. On the recommendation of my elder son and his wife, who are interested in sustainable travel and had just returned from a wonderful trip to Morocco, I used the Responsible Travel network (“Travel Like A Local”). I settled on a Gap Adventures tour because the price was very reasonable, it went where I wanted to go when I wanted to go there, and it was billed as a “small group adventure.”

I knew from the company’s name that its primary market was the “gap” age group—those kids who are taking a year off between high school and university (although very recently the company has been renamed “G Adventures,” so maybe it wants to expand its reach). [*Update – I was wrong in my assumption about the name of GAP Adventures — see first comment below — but since I’m sure I’m not the only one who made the mistake, I’ll not editing it out.*] Still, the photo of the woman with the elephant on the page where my tour was described (Delhi to Goa) reassured me that not everyone was going to be a teenager. As did the agents when I called to ask, and with whom I ultimately booked the tour.

Although I knew that the majority of my travelling companions would be younger than I am, it was still a bit of a shock to discover at our first meeting in Delhi that all 12 of them were well under forty, most were less than thirty, and some were still not yet twenty. The closest fellow traveller in age to me was about the same age as my older son. The group leader was 29, and the group-leader-in-training who accompanied us was younger than that.

Despite still being glad to have companions and a group leader, I was now quite apprehensive, because I felt that these people were not going to want to have an old lady hanging around with them. Amazing as it seems to me – because I feel about the same as I ever did, and I know I am slower than I used to be but I certainly do not feel “old” – I have begun to run into ageism here and there. So I was wary. And sympathetic: I do remember from my own younger years that hanging around with people thirty or forty years older than I am was  – with a few exceptions – not my idea of a good time. I always figured they would need to be spoken to slowly and clearly, and/or taken care of when they came apart at the joints.

In addition to the age thing, aside from two people in their thirties and one cheerful 19-year-old, everyone was already travelling with somebody else with whom they’d come from home, so they didn’t really need a third wheel tagging along with them. And the two people in their thirties soon enough started travelling together too.

My strategy at the outset was to stay away from the others in the group except for meals and other group activities. I guess I dealt with them the way I do other people’s pets or children–I do my own thing, and leave it to them to come to me if they should wish to do so.

This approach was not difficult: in fact, it suited me just fine. I am a (sociable) solitaire – a writer, an observer. I normally prefer to be alone. So I booked optional tours for one, and wandered around by myself (which is one of the reasons I ended up at Jaigarh instead of Amber Fort).

I have no idea what the other members of the group thought of me, dragging along my suitcase on its little wheels as they lofted huge, heavy packs onto their backs and exchanged notes about their trips to Thailand, Cambodia, Australia, Africa, Europe, South America. But gradually over the first week or so we got to know one another a bit better, and they separated themselves from one another in my mind. A couple of them were veteran solo travellers who’d been to dozens of places. A few had been travelling with their families since they were infants, and were on their first adult adventures. Others were somewhere on the continuum between well travelled and untravelled.  Some were great partiers, others were less inclined to stay out half the night. Some were vegetarians, three were health professionals (hi, Gemma, Beth, and Naj!). Most were just starting out their adult lives. All of us were on our first trip to India, and all of us had to make adjustments to the unfamiliar aspects of that country. We were such a diverse group that I doubt we’d have ever come together – especially every day for more than two weeks – in any other context, but we had India in common. And that was plenty.

Side note: I was totally delighted to see that almost every last one of them had brought a book or two along with them – mostly novels, and literate ones at that. I wanted to drag all the doom-and-gloomers from the writing and publishing communities out of their internet caves to show them that the need for good writers is not dead: there are young people out there who still can – and do – read entire books!

As time went on, I found my fellow travellers to be as distinct in their travel interests, goals, and approaches from one another as I was from them. But all of them were resilient and friendly –  game to go anywhere and do anything (except when they were doubled up from food poisonings, hangovers, or both) and more than willing to include me in their activities. They came from Ireland, Australia, Sweden, and England (Ricky – group leader in training –  and Abhi – group leader extraordinaire – came from India, of course), and we talked to one another about our home countries as well as other places we had visited. They were open-minded and tolerant, and loved to laugh.

I have so many wonderful memories of them – Emma reading the future in others’ palms at dinner in Pushkar, Liam looking ready to adopt the subcontinent as his second home as he happily settled into the saddle of his camel, Naj joining in a Hindu wedding procession in the streets of Jaipur, Mark begging Terri to stop sharing her impressions of the Kama Sutra so loudly on the plane to Goa, Antonia and Janine cheerfully setting off to buy food from a road-side stand while the rest of us panicked that the bus would leave before they got back on board, Abhi counting heads in Hindi everywhere we went.

Aside from the two who left early, no one seemed fazed by the dirt, the crowds, or the ailments we all came down with. They were an absolutely fabulous group to travel with. Every single one was a good sport, friendly and eager to see, learn and do. They were energetic, curious and (for the most part) sensible.

I began to appreciate them soon after we arrived in India, even before I really got to know them. We were in Agra in our various tuk-tuks, bumping knees with motorcycle riders, swerving around cattle and bicycles, pedestrians and trucks, catching our breaths and holding them as once again we came within whiffing distance of an open sewer. At some point near the Taj Mahal, I looked up to see an air-conditioned bus going by, all sealed off from the air, the noise and the dirt, filled with people who, on the basis of age, it would have been more appropriate for me to travel with than the group of “kidlets” I was with. And I knew that I did not want to be on that bus.

It turned out that my concerns about fitting in were all in my head and not in the heads of my travelling companions. In fact, it was two of them, Mark and Naj (thanks, guys) who insisted that I cancel my plans to return to Mumbai at the end of the journey and join them at the Presa di Goa for my last three days in India.

Next time I go travelling, I will try to find a group that includes a few people who are closer to my age, but the only other adjustment I plan to make is to bring my backpack instead of a suitcase. I don’t mind being older in the least, but I don’t want anyone thinking that I should be riding on that bus.