Friday, January 25, 2019

Toledo -- historic, stately, welcoming, multi-ethnic walled city

Toledo stands proud on the plains of La Mancha, a testimony to the possibility that three cultures can coexist in peace.


Toledo stands proudly on the Tagus River banks on the La Mancha plains.

TOLEDO APPEARS in the morning mist, like a mirage. Rolling hills of Castilla La Mancha make way to a majestic walled city here in central Spain.  We see and feel the look of antiquity as we make our way up a series of six separate and very modern escalators.Spain is the world's number one tourist destination and one of the elements to insure this top rating is Spain's ability to balance new, modern buildings with revered ancient structures.

Toledo is known for its enticing pastries, many almond based.
EUROPEANS know Toledo as "the second Rome."  On the banks of the Tagus River, it towers majestically heavenward. 
Toledo indeed is an ancient and proud city, known for its mostly peaceful merging of cultures.  Jews, Christians and Muslims have long inhabited its winding streets and stunning vistas.

Well worn stairs bring the tourist
down to Toledo's plazas and churches.
The square outside the Cathedral of  Saint Mary in Toledo
 hosts celebrations, concerts and gatherings through the year. 

As capital of this beautiful region of Spain, it is also famous as the home of the well known Renaissance  painter El Greco, or "The Greek." One of El Greco's most famous paintings is "The Burial of the Count of Orgaz," and we visited the tiny church of Santo Tome, where the painting holds court and thousands of tourists have paid homage. We couldn't resist a stop for pastry filled with almond cream. Churros, flan and chocolate filled buns are also famous here, as well as an almond flavored cheesecake Keller pronounced "fabulous." 
AFTER ZIPPING up modern escalators, 
we descended a series of well worn stairways, wending our way down to Toledo's squares, plazas, bakeries, craft shops and churches.
Santa Maria la Blanca of Toledo is now a museum, preserved by the Catholic
church.  It was built as a synagogue in the 1100s by Moorish craftsman.
Entering the Moorish Bisagra Gate and Sol Gate, built in Mudéjar style, we found ourselves in the bustling old quarter, where its Plaza de Zocodover is a lively meeting place. On we went to the church for a look at the El Greco painting, one of the most visited paintings in the world. We continued our leisurely walk through the town’s pleasant jumble of streets, down more stairs onto cobblestone lanes. Weathered façades weave Moorish and Spanish elements, testimony to the influences Toledo has embraced over centuries.

Churches, paintings, history
are part of the charm of Toledo.

TOLEDO'S MOST unusual building was one that has served as synagogue, church and mosque. Muslim workers built it for the Jewish community under a Christian regime back in the 12th Century. Although designed in Moorish style, it incorporated Jewish symbols and the central arch with its lovely scallop design served to store the congregation's Torahs. Now a museum, it is known as Santa Maria la Blanca and symbolizes more than any other building the blending of three faiths as well as Toledo's surges of disharmony.
For while Toledo earned the moniker "city of three cultures" the country's major religions did not always live in peace, as the building's moving history reveals.
By the 1400s, anti-Semitism was gathering momentum and Jews were being persecuted throughout many Christian kingdoms. The synagogue was converted into a church, the Santa María la Blanca, with a lone Star of David the sole reminder of the building's earlier purpose.
JEWS WERE given three options: conversion, expulsion or   execution. Soon the entire Jewish Quarter was deserted. Jews left with only essentials, hoping their exile was temporary, and that they would soon return to their homes, businesses and comfortable life. The wait lasted generations.  Our guide told us with great emotion of three tourists he has met from three continents. Generations and centuries later, the three hold their ancestors' keys to homes in Toledo.  They pass them on, holding them dear as a sacred symbol of hope and faith.

Flamenco is known throughout the world as a symbol of Spain.
UP NEXT: Flamenco! Come join us to honor this colorful dance which has captivated the world through the centuries.  A spiritual experience revered by generations and passed on through the centuries, we explore the meaning of the dance to Spaniards. So come explore, learn and live and catch us Fridays for a unique look at travel, the arts, nature, family and more -- on the road with Christene "Cookie" Meyers and Bruce William Keller through 

Sunday, January 20, 2019

Donkey Tours rates a huge "hoofs up" for unique European experience

Donkey Tours of Barcelona boasts one of the most engaging guides two veteran travelers have experienced in decades
of globe trotting.  Here, Greek born Eteoklis Nikolaou takes tourists through Barcelona's landmarks and hidden wonders.


Barcelona's Palau de la Musica Catalonia makes an impression.
Donkey Tour guides take you there and give you a history lesson.

WE HAD BEEN  to Barcelona a dozen times before we hitched ourselves up with Donkey Tours.
What a find! If you are looking for an unusual way to spend a morning or afternoon and learn something new about this fascinating Catalan city, you'll be delighted with the spirit and intellect of the ambitious Donkey Tours.
My internet guru and partner Bruce Keller, also the talented photographer for our globe-trotting columns, deserves bounteous thanks for finding Donkey Tours. I'd asked him to line up a half-day outing on our last day of a recent week in Barcelona, a city we thought we knew quite well.  He came up with Donkey
Tours, which operates only out of Barcelona but is hoping to expand to other cities in southern Europe.

THE TOUR is free,  but a generous tip is appreciated.  We tipped the equivalent of what we would have paid for a much less interesting tour.  The well traveled tourist, or even the neophyte, should know to tip well for such a splendid operation. Our able Greek born guide entertained Aussies, Dutch, Germans, Italians,
Africans, Brits and the two of us Yanks with humor, patience, enthusiasm and intelligence.
  Eteoklis Nicolau met us in a well known square,
introducing us to the first of many wonders:
a Picasso mural on a onetime architecture school.

Above left:  Looking for fabulous fruit for a meal,   
           or breakfast in in your digs, Donkey Tours guides
            you to the finest outdoor markets in Barcelona.

Barcelona's revered College of Architects boasts a unique mural drawn by
Pablo Picasso during his years of artistic growth in a favorite city.

BEST BET and NEXT UP:  For theater in the grand tradition of 
old-fashioned comedy, point your laughing shoes to North Coast
Repertory Theatre for "Moon Over Buffalo." The new production
is expertly rendered by regular guest director Matthew Wiener, longtime

colleague of  the Rep's versatile and talented artistic director,
David Ellenstein. The show offers fabulous timing by a seasoned cast of 
theater pros.Book tickets to this delightful ode to a life in the theater,
at Then tune in and turn on to Toledo,
as we visit this glorious ancient city in Spain. Remember to
learn, laugh and explore as we bring you a column each Friday,
with a novel take on travel, the arts, family, and  nature.
--At right, the company of "Moon Over Buffalo,'' in
which a befuddled repertory actor enters Noel Coward's
"Private Lives" as Cyrano de Bergerac. 
We spent a lively day with Theo, who took time to answer myriad questions, shared computer images and even escorted folks from our group of 25 to specific
specialty pastry shops and restaurants. We had a lovely tea and time for individual chat during
coffee break at tour midpoint, then
walked by a building most people
would have bypassed. 
WE FOLLOWED  Theo  down a marble stairway in an old law school, to discover a beautiful
basement of Roman arches and a
lovely little fountain.  Another
delightful surprise with Donkey
Tours, whose guides are all multi-
lingual and well educated. Bravo!


Friday, January 11, 2019

Herculaneum: historic village looks at life five centuries B.C.

When Vesuvius erupted, the explosion covered nearby Pompeii, but not as deeply as Ercolano, thus the preservation.



Buried beneath the slopes of Vesuvius, Ercolano was once a thriving
"vacation town" for wealthy Romans, who loved the countryside.

Ercolano is approached from a busy tourist area, with
plenty of restaurants lining the road to the ruins.
 THE LOST city of Herculaneum (Ercolano in Italian) was founded between the seventh and fifth centuries B.C. It was both a fishing village and a wealthy get-away -- the Palm Springs of its day -- a vacation enclave for well
heeled Romans escaping city life.
Cookie enters the path to Ercolano.
By the time the 79 AD eruption  ended, Herculaneum was buried by 20 metres of volcanic material. Nearby Pompeii was buried by only five metres of volcanic material and thus deteriorated through the years while Ercolano remained virtually intact, "fossilized" for posterity. Most of the buildings in Pompeii collapsed in the fall of pumice stone while this didn't happen in Herculaneum.  So off we were to this lesser known product of the wrath of Vesuvius. Fast-moving pyroclastic flow (rock, hot gas and other volcanic matter) was the devastating result of the eruption, which killed all the residents of both settlements. The gas reached a temperature of over 1,830 degrees F.
Bruce Keller poses above the lost then found village.  

FROM FOUND documents, researchers learned that Ercolano was an ancient Roman fishing town also enjoyed by wealthy Romans, who vacationed or had lavish second homes in the shadow of Mount Vesuvius. We were thrilled to read about the village and took a day trip from Napoli, Naples in English. First, we booked the direct express train from Rome to Naples, then switched to the Circumvesuviana train, a colorful ride out of Naples to the east of the city near Mount Vesuvius.
The excitement of discovering a  village more than 2,000 years old
awaits if you visit Herculaneum -- Ercolano in Italian. It's near Naples.
WHAT WE FOUND is rare. This tiny city, buried by the devastating eruption of Mount Vesuvius in AD 79, has been carefully conserved to become a UNESCO World Heritage Site. Thanks to the pyroclastic surge, much of the organic based wood objects remained intact, so these archaeological treasures give a glimpse of life of both the fishermen and the wealthy Romans they fed. Mosaics, frescoes, artwork, and even dried fruit and vegetables were sealed in the mud and uncovered centuries later. Surprisingly, we found few tourists  here, halfway between the more frequented and touristy towns of Pompeii and Naples, home of pizza!
   Although excavation began in the mid-1700s, earnest development of the site began only in the past 75 years. This peek into the past is sure to be rapidly discovered.  If you're in the vicinity, don't miss it. You can tie it in with a Vesuvius visit:

Donkey Tours will take you off the beaten track, to wonders of Gaudi
and Picasso, Roman ruins that not everyone knows about and much more.  
UP NEXT: Heard of Donkey Tours Barcelona? Want up close and personal looks at the wonders of this exciting city, from Picasso's haunts to the best croissant in town, little known Roman ruins and paella to put your taste buds in happy overdrive. We share the delights of this wonderfully engaging tour group which prides itself in knowledgeable, fun guides. Meanwhile, remember to explore, learn and live and catch us Fridays for a unique view of life with travel, the arts, nature and family.

Friday, January 4, 2019

Best of Europe: Picking the right tour can make a huge difference

The glories of the Amalfi Coast come alive with Can't Be Missed Tours, known for intimate exposure to the landscape.
The personalized nature of a quality tour includes
getting to know your guide with pointers on the region. 
Rosella and Cookie pose in Naples.


The charm of the seaside towns of the Amalfi
Coast includes time for wandering and dining.
Small vehicles hug the coastline with CBM, where intimate
experience is paramount and guides know the territory.

Our CBM guides took us to specialty shops run by locals,
for the best prices along the route, giving shoppers an edge.

 An amiable CBM tour guide will meet you at the train station, ship or airport, and even pick up or return to your hotel.
Private, small-group tours, tailored to each traveler, are the CBM hallmark. Transfers can also be arranged.

WHEN YOU plan a trip to Europe, you want to make the most of your precious time and money.
Booking the right excursions to fit your mood and interests is paramount to having a memorable time.
CBM makes the journey come alive,
with cheerful, informative guides
who take you off the beaten path.

We discovered an energetic new agency, CBM Tours, which guarantees "up close and personal" attention to each visitor and personalized, specific-interest forays to precisely where you want to go. We spent a delightful day with CBM and can't wait to meet again.  The small, family-run business is managed by Petro, an amiable multi-lingual fellow who works his small groups like a veteran jeweler, pointing out gems and bargains, making the most of each participant's time, tailoring each tour to fit the wishes of each person. Petro is a showman and he knows his territory.
Ravello's pretty streets lead to squares, churches and the famed festival.

WE FOUND CBM during a two-week Mediterranean cruise, and were thrilled to book, after studying the lively brochure. If you're interested in history and antiquity, CBM will take you up close and personal to the wonders of Pompeii, Amalfi, Sorrento, the Vatican and Florence and Pisa. 
CBM makes the tour pick-up convenient. Our cheerful guide Vincenzo met us at the ship in Naples, and drove us past the lovely port city of Sorrento, a picturesque coastal town in southwestern Italy. We had a stunning view of the Bay of Naples on the Sorrentine Peninsula. Perched atop cliffs that separate the town from its busy marinas, Sorrento is famous for its sweeping water views and Piazza Tasso, a cafe-lined square. The historic center is a warren of narrow alleys -- home to the Chiesa di San Francesco, a 14th-century church with a tranquil cloister.
AFTER TWO hours in colorful Positano, we pushed on to a town dear to my heart for its fine music, Ravello.  Its famous festival -- also known as the "Wagner Festival" -- is  an annual summer feast of music and the arts, attended by legions from around the globe, all drawn to the town of Ravello.  Many consider its location on the Amalfi coast one of the most lovely in Italy's Campania region.
An enjoyable boat ride was a highlight of our Amalfi coast CBM experience.
CBM makes free time for lunch stops, landmarks and shopping and the guides know which restaurants to recommend, based on your fancy. We found wonderful pizza and sweets and shopped for scarves and pottery made in the region.
DRIVING UP  the Amalfi Coast was a thrill.  Vincenzo pulled our mini-van off in several spectacular viewing spots where a larger vehicle couldn't go.  We'd been to Pompeii so passed on that with CBM, but others raved about the enthusiastic private tour of this fascinating place. We loved our fun, informative time with CBM and were returned to our ship precisely on time as promised. CBM's love of Italy, and knowledge of both its popular and hidden treasures made our two-week cruise.
CBM COVERS offers a range of imaginative tours and will tailor a trip to your requests -- meeting clients in Civitavecchia for Rome and the Vatican, from Naples up the Amalfi Coast and Pompeii and from Florence to Pisa.

Herculaneum, known as Ercolano in Italian, is a wonderful relic
of Roman life five centuries B.C. It's a fun train ride, too, from Naples.
UP NEXT: While we're in the neighborhood, we have more pointers.  If you're anywhere in the vicinity of Naples, don't miss the opportunity to visit nearby Herculaneum. Ercolano, its Italian name, is in the shadow of Mount Vesuvius and near Pompeii, is equally fascinating, although lesser known.  The town was covered by volcanic flows in 79 AD and is mostly preserved intact.  Remember to explore, learn and live and catch us each Friday for a fresh look at travel, nature, history, family and the arts.