April in the Berkshires

April in the Berkshires…..FDR, yoga, and writing.
Laura Davis is many things, including a best selling author and a teacher. I have been part of her online following for the last year and have enjoyed her weekly communication – The Writers Journey Roadmap. Laura conducts unique writing workshops in California and around the world. She also teaches each year at the renowned San Miguel Writers Conference in Mexico. I have wanted to attend one of her workshops, but time and distance kept me from taking the plunge. So when I read this in her newsletter, I knew I would make it a priority….
“If you live east of the Mississippi and haven’t wanted to fly all the way across the country to study with Laura, now you have your chance! This five-day-retreat at Kripalu, a beautiful yoga retreat center in the Berkshires of Western Massachusetts, will give you the opportunity to discover the stories that are living inside you. Experience the power of a vibrant, supportive writing community with a seasoned, compassionate teacher.”
The opportunity for writing practice with Laura, while also practicing yoga with some of the best teachers in Massachusetts, in a beautiful setting…well, who could say no to that!
But first….
Readers of this blog will know that I like to enhance my travel with side trips. After volunteering in Thailand, I visited Siem Reap, Cambodia. Before a workshop in Paris, I did a road trip along the beaches of Normandy. While researching the route from my home in Pennsylvania to Kripalu in Massachusetts, Hyde Park, NY jumped out for a few reasons: its charm and setting along the Hudson River, and it is also the location of Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s home and presidential library. The presidential library (the first in our nation) is chock full of memorabilia, including FDR’s desk from the Oval Office, complete with tchotchkes and family photos. The original copies of both FDR’s and Eleanor Roosevelt’s correspondence and speeches are displayed next to photos and history boards.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

On the walk across the grounds to the house, Springwood, you come across a formal rose garden, where FDR and Eleanor are buried. Roosevelt’s home has been scrupulously maintained, down to the pens on desks and combs on bureaus. Several rooms on the first and second floor are open to the public, but only as part of guided tours. I had read in advance that the hour long tours fill up fast, so I went straight to the visitor center to claim my spot. As expected the next available slot was almost two hours away. So I used my free time to tour the grounds, library, and museum, which are well worth your time and money. The home tour is a walk through the intimate story of FDR. There are no elevators in the house, surprising given Roosevelt’s infirmity and wealth. How did he get upstairs to bed at night? He was lifted into the back hallway dumbwaiter where he hauled himself, hand over hand, up to the second floor. Remarkable.

I spent three hours in Hyde Park and I wish I had just one more hour to take it all in. The house tour fee is $10, unless you have a National Park pass (I do), then it’s free. Entry to the library and museum is not covered by the pass, but cost is only $10, discounted to $6 if you are 62 or over. If you are visiting anywhere in Hyde Park, be sure to grab a bite at the Eveready Diner, just down the street from the FDR site. Food is delicious, reasonably priced for Hyde Park, service is friendly, and the coffee is great.

 

 

 

From Hyde Park, the drive to the Kripalu Center is less than an hour an half (on a Sunday afternoon).
I arrived at Kripalu in time to settle into my room and walk around a bit before dinner. Kripalu is a center for health and yoga, located 5 minutes from Lenox, Massachusetts on 100 acres of rolling hills and woodlands, with views of the Berkshire Mountains and Lake Mahkeenac. Formerly a monastery, its rooms are basic, but comfortable. There are lots of places to wonder, sit, meditate, and explore nature. Kripalu offers several yoga classes every day for all levels of practice. I attended two a day, including yoga dance – an uplifting and joyful incorporation of yoga and free form dance.
Three meals a day are included and there is a café on site for purchasing snacks, coffee, ice cream, etc. Unlike many yoga centers, Kripalu offers the occasional meat entrée choice for dinner, and….coffee is available with breakfast….hallelujah! The quantity and quality of food was very good. Take note: the rooms in the main building are not air conditioned. So if you go during the height of summer, book your room in the annex.

The workshop – Crafting Personal Stories That are Vivid, Compelling, and True
Writing workshops are like Las Vegas….what happens there, stays there. So I won’t go into a lot of detail, other than to say Laura Davis and her co-facilitator, Nancy Gertz, provided us endless opportunities to deepen our craft. Their guidance and insight led to many breakthroughs and much productivity. If you have thought about writing, or want to use writing to work through something, one of Laura’s retreats could be a worthwhile and enlightening experience.

Writing Retreats With Laura Davis

Laura in our writing circle

 

 

 

 

Five days after my arrival at Kripalu, I head home feeling zen and relaxed, stretched and full, with a binder full of writing…new beginnings to new stories.

Last Days in Egypt, Packing, Laundry

The Valley of the Kings – for nearly 500 years from the 16th to 11th century BC, rock cut tombs were excavated for the Pharaohs and powerful nobles of the New Kingdom.

The valley stands on the west bank of the Nile, opposite Luxor. The royal tombs are decorated with scenes from Egyptian mythology and give clues to the beliefs and funerary rituals of the period. In modern times the valley has become famous for the discovery of the tomb of Tutankhamun (with its rumors of the Curse of the Pharaohs) and is one of the most famous archaeological sites in the world.

At the Temple of Karnak, you will marvel at the size of the columns. Hypostyle Hall, part of the Karnak complex boasts 134 massive columns arranged in 16 rows. 122 of these columns are over three stories (33 feet) tall, and the other 12 are over 6 stories tall, with a diameter of over ten feet…just massive. How did they build them with no modern equipment? The architraves on top of these columns are estimated to weigh 70 tons. These architraves may have been lifted to these heights using levers. This would be an extremely time-consuming process and also would require great balance to get to such great heights. A common alternative theory regarding how they were moved is that large ramps were constructed of sand, mud, brick or stone and that the stones were then towed up the ramps. The top of the ramps presumably would have employed either wooden tracks or cobblestones for towing the megaliths. Similar columns and buildings can be seen nearby at the Temple of Luxor.

Our river boat is the Movenpick Royal Lily and each spacious room includes a five by six foot picture window, giving us panoramic views of the Nile River and the ever-changing scenery along its banks.

 

 

 

We cruise to Edfu and disembark to tour the temple there, then we sail on to Kom Ombo Temple. In the evening, we dress up in our newly (and cheaply) purchased beaded and bejeweled Egyptian Gallabiyahs* for an onboard dance party. Luckily, my fellow travelers are not inhibited and we dance the night away to rock and roll and lively Egyptian music.

Our next stop is in Aswan, where we visit the Temple of Phalie, dedicated to the Goddess Isis and the God Osiris. The temple was moved to the Island of Agilika, after it’s original site was flooded by the Nile after construction of the Aswan Dam. From here, we board a felucca* and sail to the Aswan Botanical Gardens. Schools in Egypt are on holiday, so the grounds are brimming with Egyptian families, picnicking and playing. From here we stroll through the market in the center of Aswan where spices are piled high in wagons, and families buy their vegetables, clothing, cooking utensils, mattresses, you name it. There is no shortage of souvenir shops interspersed in this open air market.

 

 

 

On our last day on the Royal Lily, we disembark and take a short flight to Abu Simbel. Hewn from a solid cliff in the 13th century BC, the temples at Abu Simbel are a stunning sight along the shimmering Lake Nasser. The Great Temple was built to honor Ramses II, while the smaller temple was built by Ramses II to honor his favorite wife, Nefertari. These two temples are considered to be the most sophisticated of all the temples in Egypt and were worth the flight to see them.

From Abu Simbel we fly to Cairo and spend our last night in Egypt at the spectacular Le Meridien Hotel, conveniently connected to the airport. Our farewell dinner is another delightful culinary experience. I say goodbye to this group of adventurous, like-minded women, and goodbye to the land of the Pharaohs.

 

 

*Gallabiyah – ankle length, lose fitting garment
*Felucca – a traditional wooden sailing boat used on the Nile River. Some have oars and sails, some just sails.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

A practical word about packing and laundry….

We have all been guilty of overpacking. I cringe when I think about the amount of luggage I hauled around as a young traveler in my twenties. After many continents and countries I have learned to pack much more efficiently. Many of my journeys have included small planes, jungles, and the bush. This often means much smaller bags and weight limits. So even though I am usually gone for a month, I pack for one week, then find ways to do laundry. In Israel I waited until we got to a Kibbutz where I knew there would be a coin operated laundry. In Jordan and Egypt the hotel laundry service was so inexpensive that I used it in both countries more than once. A bag of laundry (2-3 pairs of pants, PJs, 5 shirts, socks, undies) cost from $4-7. In South Africa I paid $3.89 per week to have my laundry done. In the jungle north of Chiang Mai, Thailand, I paid $5. In Europe, I always make sure the AirBnB I rent has a washing machine. Laundry service in American and European hotels is extremely expensive, so I always pack a couple of my workout shirts to wear under other shirts. They are lightweight, dryfit, and can be washed in a hotel sink at night and they are dry in the morning. This allows me to wear the cover shirts multiple times. Unless you spill something on them, pants can be worn over and over. I don’t pack white pants unless I know I will have access to cheap laundry. Dresses – I have two that can be rolled up in a ball and still wont wrinkle. Happy travel packing!

In addition to online articles, my research on Egypt included the following:

Apricots on the Nile: A Memoir, by Collette Rossant
A Traveller’s History of Egypt, by Harry Ades
In an Antique Land, by Amitav Ghosh
Once Upon a Revolution: An Egyptian Story, by Thanassis Cambanis
Butterfly Mosque, by G. Willow Wilson
DK Eyewitness Travel Egypt
Cleopatra, a film directed by Joseph Mankiewicz

Egypt – Land of the Pharaohs

Egypt has long played an important role in connecting Africa and Asia, and the Mediterranean with the Indian Ocean. The earliest signs of civilization in Egypt date back to prehistoric times, but the towns and cities can trace their roots back to approximately 8000 BC. This is when the Sahara was formed and settlers started moving closer to the fertile land of the Nile River.

The dynastic period, widely regarded as one of the oldest ever cultural periods in the world, began around 3100 BC. The first Pharaoh is generally believed to have been Menes. A total of 30 dynasties ruled over the next three millennia with many of the pharaohs leaving their mark on Egypt in the form of beautiful palaces, temples, and tombs. It was during this time that most of the astonishing sights you see today were built. Among them: the Pyramids, the Sphinx, the temples of Luxor, and many more.
At various times in its history, Egypt has been occupied by Persians, Romans, Greeks, Arabs, Ottoman Turks, the British and French. But it is the pharaohs that have left the most mesmerizing legacy. Who has not been captivated by the story of the young boy who became King Tutankhamen in 1333 BC, and the beautiful Nefertiti, a queen who worshipped one God.

I arrived in Egypt with a perfunctory knowledge gleaned from history and travel books, documentaries, and films. Now I get to see, smell, and touch all that it has to offer.
As I mentioned in my last post, I spent my last day in Jordan shivering under the covers in my hotel bed. I managed to drag myself out of bed and make myself somewhat presentable in time to catch an early afternoon flight to Cairo. The plan was to explore Cairo on my own for the first two days, then join some fellow women travelers for a tour of Egypt. This turned out to be a serendipitous choice since the unplanned days gave me just enough time to stay in bed, recover sufficiently, and join the group for dinner on day two.

Marta

Marta is our tour manager and she handles all of the scheduling, problem solving, and communication. Mohamed owns the local tour company and he accompanied us the whole two weeks. I have never had the local company owner in any country accompany a tour, so this was an added bonus. Rafa is our Egyptologist and the extent of his knowledge of both ancient and modern Egypt is astounding.

Rafa and Mohammed

Every day that we were in or near Cairo and Giza we were accompanied by an armed tourist policeman. He was discreetly dressed and his sport coat covered his holstered hand gun. To be honest, I never felt unsafe anywhere in Egypt, and eventually stopped noticing the security forces present at tourist sites. Once we headed south to Luxor we no longer had our private guard along for the ride. We did occasionally have a police escort to speed our bus through traffic jams.

Baksheesh (a tip or a bribe depending on the situation) is rampant in Egypt and almost comical. We often found ourselves being ushered in to sites, tombs, and boats without regard for a queue! Then I would notice the small wad of Egyptian pounds (or better yet US dollars) exchanging hands. Which reminds me, US dollars are widely accepted everywhere in Egypt. I would still be sure to have some small denomination EGPs on hand because you rarely enter a public restroom where an “attendant” isn’t there with an extended hand. Baksheesh for the WC!

On my first outing with our small group of women (hailing from the US and Canada), we climbed onto our camels and trekked across the sand to the pyramids in Giza. I have been on a camel before (Morocco), but I was still thrilled to travel this way for my first visit to the pyramids. I often describe my travel experiences as feelings or vibes, and standing before the Giza pyramids is no different. When you have studied ancient Egypt, read books, looked at pictures….it is still difficult to imagine the feeling once you are standing right there.

Climbing out of a pyramid tomb

The Giza pyramids were built around 2500 BC over a period of about 85 years. The Sphinx stands guard at the approach to the Pyramid of Khafre and was carved mostly from an outcrop of natural rock, then augmented by shaped blocks around the base.

We next visited Saqqara, a vast, ancient burial ground serving as the necropolis for the Ancient Egyptian capital, Memphis. Saqqara features numerous pyramids, including the world-famous Step pyramid of Djoser. The step pyramid is the first free standing stone building in history. The hieroglyphics here are incredible for their intricacy, age, and condition. If only you could pull up a chair and admire them for an afternoon.

The Egyptian Museum is not to be missed. It is chock full of artifacts that are older than anything you can imagine. The star of the show is King Tut’s death mask and tomb enclosures, but there is so much more to see. For an extra fee you can enter a climate controlled room that contains the actual mummified remains (mostly intact and in good condition) of ancient Egyptian royalty! A new and larger museum is being built and construction is expected to be completed this summer. This will allow the large number of artifacts and sarcophagi that are still in storage to be put on display.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Our flight to Luxor is short and smooth and we check in to our hotel, situated on the banks of the Nile River. There is no internet in the hotel, so I venture out into the street to find a phone store where I can buy a SIM card. I am immediately accosted by a middle aged Egyptian man in long robe and turban. He wants me to visit his cousin’s souvenir shop – “best prices! You like.” “No no, I explain, I’m just going to the phone store.” I have spotted an Orange store about a block away. The most dangerous thing you can do in Egypt is cross the street, so I am focused on oncoming traffic as the man jabbers away about the deals to be had at his cousin’s shop. As I scan the street ahead, I see the next robed man, waiting for me to discard the current one. As I realize I will be shadowed no matter what, I elect to keep my current escort. I explain to him (he has told me his name is Aziz), not sure how much he is understanding, that I would like him to escort me to the phone store. This will allow him to: “earn” a small token of my appreciation, keep the rest of the hawkers away, and he won’t have to convince me to shop. It’s a win-win for both of us.

I should mention that SIM cards can be a good alternative to expensive international plans offered by your carriers at home. In most countries, you can buy a SIM with a gig or more of data, texting, and calls for under ten dollars. The one I purchased in Egypt was $2.50 and I only needed half the data allowance. Internet is not free in many hotels or on the Nile cruise boats, so this proved to be a valuable purchase. I did not buy a SIM in Jordan because cell service there is hit or miss and I was only there for a week. Israel had the most expensive plan I have ever encountered, over $20 for a gig. I have purchased SIMs in Thailand, Morocco, Scotland, France, and many others for less than one quarter of the cost of a Verizon international plan. Best to get familiar with your phone’s SIM before you leave home and confirm with your carrier that your phone is “unlocked.”

So, back to my excursion through Luxor. The SIM purchase at the Orange store takes longer than the usual 10 minutes and Aziz waits patiently in the lobby. After thirty minutes, my purchase complete, Aziz and I exit the store and head back in the direction of my hotel. None of the hawkers approach me and I am patting myself on the back about the successful execution of my plan. At the entrance to my hotel, I take Aziz’s hand to thank him and slip him 10 Egyptian pounds (less than a dollar, but twice what his cousin would have given him). He’s happy, I’m happy, and it’s a beautiful, sunny day in Luxor.

 

 

 

 

Next up….Karnak, the Valley of the Kings, and the Nile River.

 

Jordan

As we cross the Sheikh Hussein border checkpoint between Israel and Jordan, I am once again confronted with the juxtaposition of modern and ancient in this sunny, mysterious corner of the world. But first, some facts:

The Hashemite Kingdom of Jordan is a small country with few natural resources, but it has played a pivotal role in the struggle for power in the Middle East. Jordan’s significance results partly from its strategic location at the crossroads of what Christians, Jews and Muslims call the Holy Land. It is a key ally of the US and, together with Egypt, one of only two Arab nations to have made peace with Israel.
The desert kingdom emerged out of the post-First World War division of the Middle East by Britain and France. So, while it is in ancient land, Jordan is a young country.

Some key dates in Jordan’s history:
1946 – The United Nations recognizes Jordan as an independent sovereign kingdom.
1950 – Jordan annexes West Bank.
1951 – King Abdullah assassinated by Palestinian gunman angry at his apparent collusion with Israel in the carve-up of Palestine.
1952 – Hussein proclaimed king after his father, Talal, is declared mentally unfit to rule.
1957 – British troops complete their withdrawal from Jordan.
1967 – Israel takes control of Jerusalem and West Bank during Six-Day War, major influx of refugees into Jordan.
1994 – Jordan signs peace treaty with Israel, ending 46-year official state of war.
1999 – King Hussein dies. His eldest son Crown Prince Abdullah succeeds to the throne.

My first impressions as we drive from the border with Israel to Amman, Jordan is that the temperatures are colder than expected, and there is trash everywhere. In an interview with the Earth Island Journal, Jordanian cardiologist, Ramzi Tabbalat, laments this lack of care for public spaces. He points to the trash in a forest outside Amman – waste from hundreds of weekend picnics. It is strewn everywhere. The entire ground to the right of a glade is literally buried in garbage. “People just leave their stuff on the ground, throw all their garbage into the woods,” Ramzi Tabbalat complains. Why is that — not just here in the woods, but also in Amman, in every neighborhood, on every meadow, in every corner of the country? Tabbalat shrugs his shoulders. “It is a cultural thing,” he explains. “I guarantee you that every square inch of their homes is spick and span, but because this is not their property, they don’t seem to care,” says Tabbalat. “Jordanians are — and I hate to say this — simply lazy.” Rather than obsess over the trash, I vow to put on my blinders in order to enjoy all that is beautiful about Jordan.


And the beauty is easy to see at the Citadel in Amman. Thankfully, the historic sites are maintained at a higher standard than the rest of the country. The Citadel property includes the ruins of the Temple of Hercules and the Umayyad Palace. Excavations have uncovered signs of human occupation from as far back as the Middle Bronze Age (1650-1550 BC). Archaeologists have been working at the site since the 1920s, but a great part of the Citadel remains unexcavated. I don’t think I have ever walked through ruins in any other country where you could easily pick a piece of 3000 year old pottery off the ground as you strolled the grounds.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

North of Amman we visit Jerash, often referred to as the Pompeii of the east because of its unique state of preservation. It’s colonnaded streets, and ruins of the temples of Zeus and Artemis, stand out against the backdrop of modern day house covered hills. The oldest parts of the site have been dated to the 3rd century BC.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Of course the star of the show in Jordan is Petra! From the parking area it is a 1.2 kilometer walk through the siq. The siq is the main entrance to the ancient Nabatean city of Petra in southern Jordan. It is a dim, narrow gorge (in some points no more than 10 feet wide) that winds like a snake through the towering rock walls (over 250 feet tall) and ends at Petra’s most elaborate ruin, the Treasury.

 

 

 

 

 

 

The Treasury is actually an ancient mausoleum, built around the first century AD by the Nabateans. Modern movie goers will recognize it from the film, Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade. There are many ways to make your way from the parking area, through the siq, and around the tombs, caves, and hills of Petra. Based on my experience, the rules in place are designed more to spread tourist dollars among a greater number of the local Bedouins than they are to preserving Petra. You can hire a horse drawn carriage, but not a horse or donkey to carry you through the gorge to the Treasury. You can hire a donkey, but not a carriage, to take you after the Treasury and up to the monastery. At the end of Petra, you can hire a donkey to take you back as far as the Treasury. After the siq, you will be offered a free ride on a horse to take you to the parking area. But….a $5 tip is expected. And then there are the camels who I think can go most places. I am certain I have mixed up all of these rules and if you are up to it, I recommend walking it all. I walked 80% of the roughly 6 miles around the sight, but gave in to a very charming donkey guy for a portion of my return journey….although this choice was more about my fatigue from a worsening chest cold than Abdullah’s charms.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

And this reminds me to mention the Jordanian people. They are warm, friendly, happy, and welcoming….even when they have nothing to gain. They love their children and are proud of their families and country. Omar, our guide, was as funny as most comedians, but also possessed a deep and thorough knowledge of ancient and modern Jordanian history. And he took excellent care of us. On our last night, I was too ill to leave my hotel room. Omar arranged for food and beverages to be brought to my room, then called the next morning to be sure I was on the mend. I wasn’t, but that’s another story. Will I make it to the airport and my flight to Cairo? Of course! This purposeful traveler won’t be beaten by chills and fever! Inshallah (God willing).

Israel

How did I end up in Israel? It was never on my bucket list and I’m not Jewish. And next week I will be in Jordan. Again, not on the bucket list and I’m not Muslim. So what’s a casual Catholic woman doing here when volunteering in Tanzania was next on my nomadic adventure calendar? The answer is not complicated….the weather in Tanzania is cooler in July than January, so Tanzania will wait a few months. And, Israel is next-door to Egypt, a place I have dreamed about since seeing the movie, Cleopatra, way back in fifth grade. One of my travel philosophies is to lump in neighboring countries whenever possible. If I’ve taken the time and expense to go so far, why not see two or three countries while I’m in a particular corner of the world. Last year I added Portugal after a month in Morocco, and Northern Ireland after a month in Scotland. For this long awaited excursion to Egypt, a gander at a map revealed Israel and Jordan to be the safest options nearby.

So here I am in the ancient city of Jerusalem, feeling a little embarrassed by my previously uneducated attitude that Israel would only appeal to Jewish visitors. Thankfully, in the weeks before I left home I took the time to learn something about this country that is unique and diverse in many ways – landscape, people, history, and faith.
While people of all religions have a reason to visit Israel, the majority of those who live and work in Israel are Jews. Why do Jews live in Israel? That was the question Jerusalem Post editor Yaakov Katz asked in a column last year. Katz refers to recent dialog about Israel as the Start-up Nation, and Israel as a Light unto the Nations engaged in tikkun olam – doing good around the world. They are popular responses and two of the reasons that Jews go to Israel, but they are not necessarily the reason that Jewish families, the young in particular, stay in Israel.
Katz believes that Israelis should continue to innovate and do even more tikkun olam, but the real answer to the question – “why do Jews live in Israel? – is to actively engage in the greatest Jewish experiment of the modern era: figuring out together what type of civil and religious society we want to build – and then going out and doing it.”
Now, after my first few days in this tiny, half desert nation, I ask myself – why should a traveller want to come to Israel? In no particular order I would say: cuisine, history, landscape, and people. I was most surprised by the cuisine. There is no strictly Israeli cuisine. Most people in Israel are immigrants from five continents and over 100 countries, a variation on our own United States. Those immigrants brought the recipes, traditions, and foods from their homes around the world.

In ancient Israel, the daily diet of the ordinary Israelite was mainly one of bread, cooked grains and legumes. The Israelites drank goat and sheep’s milk when it was available in the spring and summer, and ate butter and cheese. Figs and grapes were the fruits most commonly eaten, and wine was the most popular beverage. Meat, usually goat and mutton, was eaten rarely and was reserved for special occasions.
All of these foods and drinks are still part of modern Israel cuisine, but they are crafted with the style of many cultures. There is more meat served (lamb and chicken being the most popular) than in ancient times, and I was able to try some good Israeli beer. The food that stood out for me in Israel and Egypt both was the hummus. It was creamy with layers of intense flavor that made each taste a culinary dream. I’m afraid it ruined American hummus for me.
In most restaurants we were able to feast on tasting menus that were served family style. The enthusiasm shown by my travel companions and me for the waves of food placed in front of us was reminiscent of movie scenes of medieval feasts. There might have even been some singing and clapping.

 

 

 

Luckily, all of this eating fueled us for hours of walking everyday. One of our first excursions was to Jerusalem’s old city. From our first vantage point on top of the Tower of David, we could take in sweeping views of all of Jerusalem, including the Dome of the Rock, the Mount of Olives, the Western Wall, and Jaffa Gate. All of this was interspersed with scenes of daily life for residents of Jerusalem – shopping for vegetables and bread, going to mosque, synagogue, and church, walking to work and school. The Old City is not just an historic site, but home for over thirty thousand people in an area of less than a half square mile. Jerusalem is divided into four quarters: Jewish, Muslim, Armenian, and Christian, with the Muslim quarter being the largest in both area and population. If I had to choose a short list of my favorite sites in and around Jerusalem, they would be (again in no particular order): Holy Sepulcher Church, the Western Wall, the Tower of David, and several of the stone gates in the walls surrounding the old city. In Holy Sepulcher Church you can touch the slab of stone purported to be the place where Jesus’ body was washed after he was taken down from the cross. It is difficult to describe the vibe near this incredibly holy spot. The Western Wall is just such an iconic site, that it makes my list. And yes, I did pray and slip a small prayer request into a crack in the wall, just like over a million people every year. Twice a year, the notes are collected and buried in the Jewish cemetery on the Mount of Olives. I like knowing that a piece of me is there.

 

 

 

The Tower of David is a citadel built in various stages beginning in the first century BC. There is a museum that presents Jerusalem’s story. It details the major events in its history beginning with the first evidence of a city in Jerusalem in the second millennium BC, until the city became the capital of the State of Israel, as well as its significance to three religions. I am not a big fan of the night time light shows prevalent at historic sites in the Middle East, but the one at the Tower of David is worth a look. It presents the history of Israel in light, sound, and music that is short (45 minutes), but compelling. Admission is about $15.50.

Bethlehem, located 6 miles south of Jerusalem, is part of the Palestinian Authority. Israelis are not permitted inside and the crossing is monitored by armed Israeli military. The Church of the Nativity – undoubtedly the top attraction in Bethlehem – is a veritable citadel built fortress-like on top of the cave where Jesus was born to Mary. It is one of the oldest churches in the world. The first incarnation of the building was erected on the orders of the Roman Emperor Constantine I (the Great) in 330 AD. Access to the cave under the church is down a dark and narrow staircase, but it is well worth it if the place of Jesus’ birth is important to you.

Marks the place of Jesus’ birth

From Jerusalem, we began our drive south to Masada and watched as the scenery changed from urban, to greenery, to desert in quick succession. The ancient fortress of Masada was built in the Judean desert by King Herod, ruler of Judea around 35 BC. It was here that I had a small world moment. As I traipsed around the ruins of the fortress, I came upon a friend from high school whom I hadn’t seen in over 40 years. We had a brief mini reunion and marveled at the odds of this chance meeting in a desert a world away from home.
At the Dead Sea (not really a sea, but a lake), we changed into swim suits for a dip in the lake. You really do float easily because of the extreme salt levels. The beach around the lake is brimming with marble sized chunks of salt. The banks of the Dead Sea are also the lowest point on earth at over 1300 feet below sea level.
From the salty sea, we headed north to the fresh water Sea of Galilee. Our lodging for the next few days is a kibbutz on the shores of this largest of Israel’s lakes. Our first excursion here takes us to the holy city of Safed. Safed is the center of Kabbalah in Israel and there is a mystical vibe to this village perched on a mountain in Upper Galilee. Many of the doors and windows of homes and shops are painted blue in mystical symbolism to confuse evil spirits. Safed is also an artist colony and its narrow cobbled streets are lined with galleries and craft shops. From its cafes one can enjoy a morning coffee while taking in views that extend as far as the Golan Heights, Lebanon, and the Amud Valley.
The age and history of this ancient corner of the world are awe inspiring. To be in the land where Jesus was born, lived, and was crucified – emotional, incredible. There were so many other unique and stunning sites in Israel, but this blog is running long, so I will just list a few that I found well worth visiting:
Bet She’an – the archeological site dates back to the 16th century BC. King Saul and his sons met their deaths here. Kings David and Solomon spent time here.

 

 

Jordan River – Small in size, big in history. Stop at Yardenit if you have an urge to stand in this holy river and be baptized.
Capernaum – an old fishing village dating to the second century BC. A modern church marks the site where the ruins of St Peter’s home are visible. Capernaum is mentioned in all four gospels. Jesus taught here and healed the sick, as detailed in gospels by Mark and Luke.

 

 

 

Israel was a cultural, culinary, archeological and religious delight. I’m glad I decided to add it to this journey. Now, what will Jordan bring? Tune in soon.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

In addition to online articles my research on Israel included the following:
Books –
DK Eyewitness Travel Guide – Jerusalem, Israel, Petra, and Sinai
Israel, by Nelson Yomtov
The Land of Blood and Honey: The Rise of Modern Israel, by Martin Van Creveld

Documentaries –
The Gatekeepers
5 Broken Cameras
In Search of Israeli Cuisine (with Philly’s own Michael Solomonov, owner of Zahav)

Fitting In Staying Fit on the Road

Traveling Workout Equipment

When I travel, I am often away from home for a month or more. During that time away from my home based routines, the thing that suffers the most is exercise. Even though I might be walking several hours a day, or doing physical labor as a volunteer when I travel, it’s not the same as exercising for fitness. When at home, my weekly workout schedule is something like this: 2-3 one hour workouts at my gym, a one hour session with Crystal, the best trainer in the world (http://crystalfittraining.com), and yoga on the other days. By yoga I mean a gentle 20 minute session at home or one hour on Fridays at my local library, also gentle. I sometimes substitute a trail hike for a gym workout.

So that is my usual routine. Do I cheat? Yes, sometimes out of necessity, sometimes out of laziness. In May, I spent almost ten days on my couch due to a lingering chest/head cold. That first trip back to the gym was a killer. It is not easy to climb out of a slump. Which is exactly how I feel when returning from a long trip.

In February I wrote about how jet lag is lasting longer for me. I’m sure that the time difference (12 hours) and distance on that trip (Thailand) was a factor. I had lengthy recoveries when returning from South Africa, Morocco, China, and others. I now think age and interrupted routine also factor in. While I can do nothing about distance, time difference, or my age; I can loosely replicate an abbreviated version of my exercise routine when abroad.

On my just completed trip to France, I decided to test this idea. Did it work? More importantly…did I actually stick to my planned protocol? Is my jet lag less pronounced? Did I jump right back into my exercise routine at home?

Before I left for France, I saved links to YouTube videos for a few different 15 minute yoga and exercise workouts. I knew 15 minutes was an attainable goal. A goal of a one hour, or even a half hour workout after a day of sightseeing, eating, and writing would just be setting myself up for failure. After all, it was France! To keep it simple, I got advice from Crystal and googled hotel room exercises, since the only equipment I was packing was a yoga mat and a resistance strap.
In a previous blog I described my first day in France – picked up the rental car and drove most of the day, making stops in Giverny, Rouen, and finally stopping for the night in Honfluer. Two hours sleep in 38 hours. Did I really need to exercise that first night – no. But I knew if I made excuses the first night, I was doomed. So I pushed myself and did it. In all honesty, wherever I travel I am usually on an “arrival high” the first day, so that helped. The next night it was 15 minutes of yoga. On the third night, I was out late in Mont St Michel and had climbed to the top of the Abbey there. It was a warm night and there was no air conditioning in the hotel. So I gave myself the night off.

Once I got to Paris and settled into my apartment, I had the space to keep my yoga mat and resistance strap rolled out in the living room as my constant reminder. And it worked the first night; I completed my 15 minutes. The next afternoon, while strolling the gravel path along the lawn in front of the Eiffel Tower, I took another kind of trip. The kind where your foot connects with a big rock that sends you flying, followed by gravity smacking you down. There was a fair amount of blood, but no hospital worthy injuries. This did mean, however, that my knee required bandages, elevation, and ice packs, instead of yoga poses. So I took two days off from exercise. On the third day, I had to modify my routines, but I did manage yoga or regular exercise during the remainder of my stay in France.

This lovely family picked me up off the ground at the Eiffel Tower

So after two weeks at home, what is the verdict? The results are mixed. Jet lag lasted for almost a week, which is my typical experience when returning from a trip of that distance and time difference. Routine exercise didn’t do a thing to improve the duration of my adjustment to Eastern Standard Time. But my regimen did pay off in the time it took to get back to my home based workout routine. My normal slack off period of two weeks after a long journey was reduced to three days! I am back in the swing of things. And a good thing too. Because while in France, I ate…a lot, in a country where butter is the first listed ingredient in most dishes.

Even the ice cream is a work of art

C’etait tres magnifique!

Paris – Memories and Cafe Writing

It was a clear, sunny June day in Paris. A soft breeze from the east ruffled tree branches on the boulevard. As I drove through the city, I could feel the tinge of excitement and nostalgia fluttering inside me. I was returning to the city I had fallen in love with 40 years ago, but not as the young novice traveler of my youth. I now have five continents and 30+ countries under my belt and I worried that the thrill of Paris would be lost this time around.

Linda, Madeleine, Kathy

 

 

 

 

I arranged to attend a weeklong workshop aptly named Paris Café Writing, run by Patty Tennison, who divides her time between Paris and Chicago. We spent our mornings with coffee and croissants, learning and writing in various cafes in the heart of Le Marais. Le Marais as you may know is a wonderful Paris neighborhood located in the 3rd and 4th arrondisements. It’s tree shaded streets are lined with shops, cafes, and old apartment buildings, adorned with frilly Juliet balconies. Most of our afternoons were free, so I used that time to revisit the sites of my long ago sojourn in Paris.

Even the ice cream is a work of art

A quick note here about getting around in Paris (I turned in my rental car once I arrived in the city). Before I left home, I downloaded the free Paris transit app, RATP. Once in Paris, this app synced with my Google Maps App to create an extraordinary tool for easily navigating the city. I would enter a destination in the app and Google would tell me several ways to go: walking, driving, bus, train, metro. The app is so specific that it is nearly impossible to make a mistake or get lost. Within 4 hours of my arrival in the city, I was hopping buses and metros with confidence. On the rare occasion that public transit is not convenient (toting luggage, accessibility issues), your Lyft and Uber apps from home work just fine in Paris.

Back to the workshop. Patty Tennison has taught at the graduate level and she has taught beginners. Her versatility enables her to easily adapt to her participants. She limits the workshops to eight writers, but due to last minute cancellations, our group was reduced to an intimate class of four. It was a unique, friendly, and open group representing the UK, Illinois, Colorado, and Pennsylvania. In addition to the morning workshops, Patty and her husband, Joe Prendergast, guided us on an informative walking tour of Le Marais, hosted a wine and cheese tasting at their apartment, arranged meals at wonderful restaurants, and a jazz night for our entertainment. We were encouraged to practice our French whenever possible, but English is perfectly fine too.

As part of the program, Patty conducted private one on one sessions with each writer. We had previously submitted a piece we were working on and Patty used the one on one to provide feedback and answer questions with each of us. My session with Patty on its own was worth the trip to Paris. I was really struggling with a subject and the brainstorming with Patty gave me a new perspective that will hopefully turn into the beginning of a book.

Because I frequently travel solo, adding in a volunteer purpose, or a learning activity, positions me to form new friendships with like minded people. We become part of the communities in which we are helping or learning. France was no exception and I hope to travel with or visit each and every writer with whom I had this wonderful experience.

A few weeks before I left home for this trip, I wrote a short piece about my first trip:

It was late June, 1977 and I was a 23 year old traveling to Europe for the first time. Not just anywhere in Europe, but the city of light….Paris. In the pre internet days of the 1970s, trips were planned with real travel agents. My best friend, Helen, and I saved for a year in order to get to the place we had dreamed about since we were high schoolers. Our agent helped us reserve our flights and a six night hotel stay on the left bank. We left home with little more than our suitcases and a sense of adventure. What we knew about Paris we had read in books. We had no metro maps, cell phones, email, or internet searches….just our naïve intuition that we would be fine.
Helen and I were counting on my high school French to navigate the city. Unlike today, there were not many English speakers in Paris then. While many Parisians turned up their noses at my American accented French, we managed to find most of what we were looking for. We marveled at the Eiffel Tower, Arch de Triumph, and the Champs Ellysees. We somehow found our way to the Palace of Versailles and walked, wide eyed, through the gardens and gilded halls. We chuckled at the miniature size of Napoleon’s bed in one of the palace bedrooms.
Then there was the Louvre. No one seeing the Mona Lisa for the first time will ever forget it. It is my most vivid memory of that trip. It is, of course, smaller than you expect, but no less riveting…..that smile, and Da Vinci’s magnificent talent on display.
There were smaller moments too. Like the little French boy at the Arch de Triumph who showed me his toy sailboat as we sat together on sun warmed stone. And the art student in Montmartre from whom we purchased two sketches. He smiled proudly as we departed to the rain washed cobbled street outside his school. The food! Someone once told me that French food at the time was really just average meat or fish topped with stunningly delectable sauces. Maybe so, but to our inexperienced palates, it was all heavenly.
The people….well, they were French. The women, rich or poor, were chicly dressed and seemingly annoyed by our presence. Because we were young and unaccompanied, the men were friendlier, more willing to overlook our status as Americans. One evening we attended a performance at the Moulin Rouge. For reasons unknown to us the maitre d’ and his handsome assistant marched us straight up to the best table in the house. We gazed at the burlesque dancers and performers under the glow of stage lights.
July 4th dawned bright and sunny. Helen and I determined that the most American thing we could do to celebrate independence day was to go to McDonalds for a burger. As I recall, it was the one and only McDonalds in Paris at the time. The burger, unfortunately, was grey in color and lacked any hint of flavor. The special sauce, in this case, did nothing to enhance this
 mystery meat.
Our next meal at a tiny café in the Latin Quarter more than made up for it. We sat at a street side table and people watched until the sun began to set. We toasted the French love of wine and butter, their sense of style, and their romantic language. The next day, we bid au revoir to Paris, its museums and monuments, can can dancers and artists. It would become a dreamy memory in the intervening years, always beckoning, still magical.

Back to the present and my desire to relive my Paris experience of forty years ago….well it didn’t happen. And that is not necessarily a bad thing. Your eyes and heart see and feel things differently after 40 years of life experience. There is nothing like seeing the Eiffel Tower, Versailles, the Mona Lisa the first time. That thrill is a one time opportunity. This visit was more about living in Le Marais (in an apartment instead of a hotel), slowing down to sit in a café all morning, strolling the parks and streets, finding inspiration in my surroundings. That is not to say I didn’t go to Versailles, the Louvre, the Eiffel Tower and Arc de Triomphe. I did, and so did thousands of others. The sites are more crowded, more touristy than they were in 1977. But that was okay too, because this time was about living, eating, writing, and absorbing all there is to like  about Paris today. It is still magical, but in a more grown up and laid back way.

 

 

 

I promised in an earlier blog to list some of my favorite places to eat in France.

Le Drakkar – traditional bistro, 27 Rue St Jean, Bayeux
Le Moulin de la Galette – Cafe and creperie, 38 rue de Nesmind, Bayeux
Café de la Mairie – street side café, 51 rue de Bretagne, Paris
Le Petit Chatelet – restaurant with a view to Notre Dame and next door to the famous Shakespeare & Company Book Store, 39 rue de la Bucherie, Paris
Au Grand Turenne – café, 27 Boulevard du Temple
Le Blanc Cassis – café, 6 Dupetit Thouars, Paris
La Coupoule – fine dining and if you are celebrating a birthday they will make it very special, 102 Boulevard Montparnasse, Paris
Mollard – fine dining and expensive, but the Art Deco and old world charm is worth the splurge, 115 rue Saint Lazaro, Paris

Lastly, I thought it would be fun to show a side by side of photos from both 1977 and 2017. Hope you enjoy!

 

Bayeux and the D-Day Beaches

After a much-needed overnight rest in Honfleur, I began the drive to Bayeux. Bayeux would be my base for visiting the D-Day sites, but it is also a very interesting and picturesque town on its own.

Dating to Roman times the town of Bayeux included the residence of an early Roman Catholic bishop in the 4th century, and was captured by the Vikings in 880. While a Norman stronghold for many years, it was eventually taken by various other forces, including the English.  Bayeux survived these invasions as well as the Hundred Years War and the Wars of Religion, finally returning to the French in the 13th century.

In 1940, the German army occupied Bayeux. Four years later, it would become the first town liberated by the allies after D-Day.  Miraculously, it was spared any major damage during the war.

Bayeux is home to a magnificent tapestry of the same name. It is displayed in Musée de la Tapisserie de Bayeux. The fact that it is in such good condition after nine centuries defies logic.  It is really more an embroidery than a tapestry as can be seen in the photo. (No picture taking allowed in the museum, so this is a stock photo). It depicts the events leading up to the Norman conquest of England involving William, Duke of Normandy, and Harold, Earl of Wessex, later King of England, and culminating in the Battle of Hastings.

Bayeux also boasts a beautiful cathedral named, wait for it…..Cathedral Notre Dame de Bayeux. The French are so enamored of the Blessed Mother. The Romanesque architecture of the original 1077 structure can still be seen in the core of the church, but after a damaging fire in 1160, the exterior Gothic style was added. Construction and additions would continue for a few hundred years.

Bayeux oozes with the charm of quaint old buildings and cobbled streets. It straddles the Aure River, which provides tranquil photo ops, centuries old water wheels, and during my June visit was bursting with blooms and color.

To visit the D-Day sites, I chose a tour with Bayeux Shuttles.  I could have easily driven myself, but all recommendations suggested hiring a guide. And I’m glad I did. Lloyd, Bayeux Shuttles’ tour guide extraordinaire, is a young World War II enthusiast who hails from Wales, where he spent years as a re-enactor, all the while studying everything he could about the war.
In fact, he is so obsessed that he turned his hobby into a career and moved to Normandy a few years ago to conduct tours of the D-Day sites. Without his commentary, a visit to the beaches would not have come alive as it did with Lloyd. Bayeux Shuttles also offers short films in their vans on the way to the sites. The films are a nice complement to the guide’s information and add a very human touch as they incorporate interviews with actual D-Day soldiers. Bring tissues.

Our first stop was Pointe du Hoc, where the 2nd Ranger Battalion landed on June 6, 1944. The landing and climbing scene is depicted in the film, The Longest Day. Naval bombardment at Pointe du Hoc began at 5:50 AM, and the craters are still there, interspersed with the destroyed/damaged German army’s concrete bunkers.

 

 

 

 

Lt. Col. James Rudder and his ranger battalion were tasked with scaling the cliff and dismantling the German positions. Lt. Col. Max Schneider’s 5th Ranger Batalion would later join the 2nd. The Germans had previously moved their guns southward from their original positions. Despite fierce resistance, the rangers found and destroyed the guns….but at a terrible cost. After two days of fighting, only 90 of the original 225 rangers were still able to bear arms.

The French government transferred the area to the American Battle Monuments Commission in 1979 and Pointe du Hoc is well maintained. It includes a visitor center where the story of individual courage and sacrifice is on display. An array of interpretive exhibits and multimedia puts the battle of Pointe du Hoc and the D-Day landings in perspective as one of the greatest military achievements of all time. A short film documents interviews with surviving soldiers. Again, bring tissues.

Omaha Beach is a short drive from Pointe du Hoc, but a very different experience. It is not managed as an historic site so to speak. There are several memorials to be seen, but this is also a beach community. Built into the hill behind the beach road are summer vacation homes, restaurants, and shops. Still, while standing on this wide expanse of beach, looking out to the English Channel, one can feel the spirit of the brave soldiers storming the beach and running into a ferocious enemy.

Les Braves is a war memorial located on the shores of Omaha Beach in the village of St. Laurent-sur-Mer and was installed to honor the fallen American soldiers. It was commissioned by the French government to commemorate the 60th anniversary of the D-Day Invasion Of Normandy. Intended only as a temporary art piece, the sculpture still stands on the shores of Omaha Beach, primarily due to local public interest and petition.

Our final stop of the day was the American Cemetery, which overlooks Omaha Beach from a bluff. I had purposely avoided looking at pictures of the cemetery before my visit.  I wanted to experience it fully, in the moment. I was unprepared for the stunning beauty and grandeur of the site. My first surprise was the semi circular colonnade that greets visitors. It’s pillars flank the soaring statue representing The Spirit of American Youth Rising from the Waves – a reminder of the relative youth of those who died here. The grounds are park like, with walking paths under the shade of trees and sculpted shrubs.

Then there is the spectacular view of the water below, waves cresting on Omaha Beach. A stone structure in the center of the cemetery provides a place for a prayer or reflection. And yet, the rows of simple white crosses are what I found most moving. Each one is stamped with the name of the deceased, their rank, branch of service, hometown, and date of death. Each one is someone’s child, brother, parent, husband, sister, from a small town or a big city in America.

There are 9,387 Americans, including four women, buried here. Carved into the graves of the unknown is the epitaph: Here rests in honored glory a comrade in arms known but to God.

There are some well know soldiers interred at the cemetery…Theodore Roosevelt, Jr, Preston and Robert Niland (of Saving Private Ryan fame). First Lieutenant Jimmie Monteith from Low Moor, Va, while not well known to most of us, showed enormous courage before he died on June 6, 1944.  He was awarded the Congressional Medal of Honor. Here is a brief synopsis of his actions on D-Day from the First Division Museum:

“For conspicuous gallantry and intrepidity above and beyond the call of duty on 6 June 1944, near Colleville-sur-Mer, France. 1st Lt. Monteith landed with the initial assault waves on the coast of France under heavy enemy fire. Without regard to his own personal safety he continually moved up and down the beach reorganizing men for further assault. He then led the assault over a narrow protective ledge and across the flat, exposed terrain to the comparative safety of a cliff. Retracing his steps across the field to the beach, he moved over to where 2 tanks were buttoned up and blind under violent enemy artillery and machinegun fire. Completely exposed to the intense fire, 1st Lt. Monteith led the tanks on foot through a minefield and into firing positions. Under his direction several enemy positions were destroyed. He then rejoined his company and under his leadership his men captured an advantageous position on the hill. Supervising the defense of his newly won position against repeated vicious counterattacks, he continued to ignore his own personal safety, repeatedly crossing the 200 or 300 yards of open terrain under heavy fire to strengthen links in his defensive chain. When the enemy succeeded in completely surrounding 1st Lt. Monteith and his unit and while leading the fight out of the situation, 1st Lt. Monteith was killed by enemy fire. The courage, gallantry, and intrepid leadership displayed by 1st Lt. Monteith is worthy of emulation”.

 

 

 

 

There is a subtle feeling of gratitude in the towns and villages near the D-Day sites. American flags can frequently be seen flying from random homes and gardens. An American visitor can expect a warm welcome and a solemn nod of respect.

 

Wandering Normandy – Day One

I last visited France in 1977 when I was 23 years old. It was my first trip to Europe and there was no Internet, so no economical way of staying in touch with family at home. My friend, Helen, and I left from Philadelphia with little more than a hotel reservation and our heavy suitcases…. no wheeled luggage back then. At the time there were few English speakers in France and few Parisians seemed to understand my high school French. But we muddled through and I fell in love with the beautiful city of light.

Fast forward almost 40 years and I was yearning for a return visit, but with a twist. Everything I have read and seen about the D-Day invasions at Normandy fascinated me. So this time around I wanted to venture to the cities and beaches of Normandy –  Bayeux, Honfleur, Omaha Beach, and more.

 

 

 

June 8, 2017

After arrival at Charles De Gaulle airport on a sunny Thursday, I picked up a rental car and headed west. The GPS skillfuly guided me to my first stop – Giverny,  the picturesque village where Claude Monet tended his home and famous garden. Like many sites in France, it was crowded. But if you love Monet’s work, it is worth a stop. The house is very interesting, but the gardens and pond are the stars of this show.

Then it was on to the city of Rouen, where I enjoyed the first of many meals at one of France’s ubiquitous outdoor cafes. At some point I will list the names of the cafes, restaurants, and brasseries that deserve to be named, but this little place in Rouen will remain anonymous. To stretch my legs, I decided to walk to the cathedral, one of several named Notre Dame in France. The frilly facade of Rouen’s cathedral is so captivating that Claude Monet created 30 different studies of it, capturing the light at different times of day.

 

 

 

 

By 4:00 I was cruising into Honfleur, a quaint harbor town where I would spend the night at the L’Absinthe Hotel. I had eaten lunch so late that I decided to skip dinner and go straight to dessert – crème glacée, AKA ice cream. This particular version was texturely different and very delicious. I followed it up with my first French blonde beer at a nearby cafe, and an early return to my hotel.

After 38 hours of travel with only 2 hours sleep, I will wish you good night. À bientôt.