Berlin Mitte Tour – Morning Section

By Derek Wilson

Berlin is a city still fighting to throw off the negative image that engulfed it for most of the 20th century. In parts it is a modern, cosmopolitan city but it still has areas that have been neglected by governments and people alike. The visitor to Berlin can take in nearly 800 years of history strolling around Mitte, the middle of the city, and see sights as relevant to Berlin’s foundation in 1237 as to the future years and decades to come within a couple of moments walk of each other. Berlin of course has many districts each with their own distinct and unique flavour from leafy Charlottenburg to post wall trend area Prenzlauer Berg. The tour described here is Berlin in a day, something that could be done by a traveller with a four wait between trains at the new Hauptbahnhof – the biggest station in Europe with an estimated 250,000 daily users. The condensed nature of this tour does not make it any less worthwhile to see – and by the time you’re finished, your feet will assure you that a place in a beer garden has been hard earned!

This particular walk is best suited for those with imagination. Many of the sights are beautiful buildings, that is true, but the time will be more enjoyable to those who can imagine the scenes beyond the mere bricks and mortar. This tour takes in the very starting point of Berlin, now the Museum Island in the Spree, from when Berlin was an insignificant village with nothing other than fishing and local barter. Reducing this vibrant capital city of over three million people to little more than a hamlet on the small island is good starting point for the walk as this is the only way that the complete impact of Prussia on Berlin can be understood. The transformation from a quiet backwater to the bustling city it became under the eyes of the Prussian military kings is remarkable. The architecture from this time is second to none and many of Carl Fredrich von Schinkel’s architectural masterpieces can still be viewed. After Schinkel’s work is viewed you can then see another crucial phase of Berlin history, that of the Nazi era 1933-1945. Adolf Hitler firmly believed that Friedrich the Great and his mighty Prussia was the forerunner for his own leadership of the mighty Third Reich. Many of the Nazi sights in Berlin can still be seen but those who can transport their minds back through time to this terrifying part of the cities heritage will be rewarded with an emotional and thoughtful experience. And as quickly as the seemingly invincible Nazi regime fell a new system of government and oppression replaced it. The Soviets were eager to claim their reward for 20 million war-dead and Berlin was their showpiece prize. Despite failing to drive out the other victorious war allies they were able to impose their own Communist regime on the Eastern half of Berlin and Germany, leaving only West Berlin as an isolated island of capitalism in the red sea behind the iron curtain. This dark city was the setting for dens of spies to play their deadly games and you can stand in the very spot where Russian and American tanks stared each other down in 1961 across Checkpoint Charlie, the most famous border crossing through the Berlin Wall. Remnants of the wall are now scarce but a section is seen on this tour. As our timeline progresses beyond 1989 and the mauerfall one still needs imagination but now to look into the future to see what lies in store for this ever developing city.

We begin our tour at Hackescher Markt. Now this is one of the trendiest parts of town in the middle of Berlin and has enough cafes, restaurants, bars and clubs to keep you enthralled regardless of your entertainment preference. This was also one of the biggest Jewish quarters in pre-war Berlin. Around 170,000 Jews made their home here until 1933 but after the Nazi oppression that number dropped by a huge amount. There are currently 25,000 or so Jews in Berlin. The Hackescher Hofe is a stunning building that contains many bars, cinemas and theatres along with a dazzling facade. In Christmas the square here hosts one the most bustling markets in Berlin where you can pick up all sorts of warm food and presents. From here we go under the S-Bahn line and approach what is now known as Museum Island. This piece of land, essentially sitting in the middle of the River Spree, is where Berlin began. This was originally a small fishing village that was of little consequence to anyone. It was only when the mighty Prussia came to the fore, several centuries later that the free city of Berlin really began to make the world take notice. The Electors and Kings of Prussia that reigned here did so with mixed fortunes but Friedrich the Great is the most well known. His obsession with Prussia’s military might ensured the Berlin economy ticked over but he was also liberal towards religions and this encouraged an influx of refugees from all over Europe. The economy was geared towards supplying the army both with men and the equipment, clothes and food needed to be ready for war. The island now plays host to some of the most spectacular museums in Berlin; The Pergamon, the Old Museum, the New Museum, the newly reopened Bode and the Old National Gallery. All are worth a visit in their own right.

From the Museum Island we walk through the Lustgarten towards Unter den Linden. Nowhere in Berlin can more history be viewed in one sight than the Lustgarten. It was originally the gardens of the Imperial Palace but had also been used as a military parade ground both by the Prussians and the Nazis. On one side it is flanked by the imposing Doric columns of the Old Museum and on the other there remains the wing of the Palace from which Karl Liebknecht declared a socialist republic after defeat in the First World War brought down the German monarchy in 1918. Liebknecht’s dream was short lived as the Weimer Republic managed to quash the Communists to ensure it’s own birth. However Liebknecht is remembered in Berlin by having his name lent to a huge Allee which passes through Alexanderplatz, a clossal square in the middle of town named after the Russian Tsar which visited the city in 1805. During the war the majority of the Imperial Palace was destroyed by allied bombing and the DDR tore down the ruins with the exception of Liebknecht’s balcony wing. In this place they built the Palast der Republik – effectively the Parliament of the DDR but it also contained restaurants and a bowling alley. After the collapse of the DDR there was a great debate with what to do with the asbestos ridden building and it is now being torn down to be replaced with a replica Imperial Palace. This decision has angered many Berliners, not just at the frightful waste of 640 million Euros but at the fact this is another huge part of East German history which is being erased from history. From here we can also see the huge TV tower in Alexanderplatz. The construction was built in 1969 not only to beam TV signals but to show off the technological ingenuity of the East. Unfortunately the Politburo that ran the DDR were more optimistic than their talent should have allowed and a team of Swedish engineers were quietly brought in to finish the project. As a result no one knows how much the tower cost but it does stand at a whopping 359m tall, making it the second highest in Europe behind the Ostankino Tower in Moscow.

We now turn down the majestic Unter den Linden, the road which leads from the Lustgarten all the way down to the Brandenburg Gate. On the other side of the gate this huge street continues under the name Strasse der 17 Juni, all the way into Tiergarten park. This glorious boulevard was designed in order for Friedrich the Great to ride straight from his Palace to his hunting grounds. It also had the added bonus of intmidating visitors to the city who arrives through the Brandenburg Gate toll booth and reminding them of exactly who the boss was! Walking down Unter den Linden we pass the Prussian guard houses which now act as the German National Museum and as a home to the statue commemorating all war dead. This very memorial caused a great stir in Germany as to the right fashion in which people should remember the past. Given the special nature of Germany’s history is intriguing to see that even something as standard in the rest of the world as a war memorial causes people to become uncomfortable.

The next stop on on our tour is Humboldt University. This is one of many universities in the city but it is the most famous and was home to several noble prize winners including Albert Einstein. Ironically the university was founded by Wilhem von Humboldt when the French were occupying Berlin in the early 1800s following the defeat of the Prussian army. Previous to this there was no major university in Berlin – perhaps an indication of just how much the previously mighty Prussia had declined over the years, led by a series of ineffectual leaders after Fredrik the Great. The magnificent buildings of the university were donated by the Prussian hierarchy to support Humboldt’s push to increase education. It was originally called the Free University of Berlin and was only named after its founder when the Russians occupied the city after the second world war. And in front of the law faculty building is the infamous Bebelplatz. This is the very location Nazi students, roared on by propaganda chief Josef Goebals, staged the burning of the books in May 1933. From the law library and from all over the city students carted books that were deemed to be offensive the German nation and burned them in a frenetic rage. There is now a permanent memorial to this incident under the Platz, in the form of empty shelves with space for 20,000 books – the approximate number burned by the Nazis. This square comes complete with an irony that exists so often in Berlin as it was originally called Operplatz and intended to be a stagecoach parking lot for the adjacent opera house. This contrast between liberal culture and barbaric oppression is undoubtably one of the unique things about Berlin which gives the city it’s distinct edge.

As we walk beyond Babelplatz we soon arrive at Gendarmmarkt, arguably the most beautiful square in Berlin. The dominant building is Schinkel’s concert hall and at either end are two large cathederals, respectively named the French and German. The French was constructed by French Hugonots who arrived in Berlin after fleeing oppression – while the Berlin rulers made them welcome they did insist they pay for their own cathederal! Much of the square lay in ruins for decades after world war two and it was only when the DDR softened it’s attitude towards religion that the square was restored to it’s former glory with the restoration of all the buildings. From the Gendermmarkt we move onto one of the most famous streets in all of Berlin, Friedrich Strasse. Presently this is a cosmopolitan shopping street filled with designer shops. But a mere twenty years ago the street was home to the most famous border crossing in the city between East and West, Checkpoint Charlie. This was where American and Soviet tanks stared each other down in 1961 and the world hovered on the verge of nuclear destruction. Thankfully sense prevailed in that instance but the two super powers continued to peer suspiciously over the wall at each other for years to come. The wall came into existance when Walter Ulbricht, Communist chief in the DDR, persuaded Nicolai Kruschev that this was the only way to stop the ‘brain drain’ that was strangling the East Germany economy. When the Berlin border was still freely passable hundreds of thousands of young Ossis – usually the talented ones, fresh out university with energy and ideas – were able to move to the West unhindred. The border was sealed overnight on the 13th August 1961, at first with barbed wire but the concrete blocks that made the wall soon followed. Laughably it was named ‘the anti-facisit protection barrier’ by SED chiefs but the nature of the border crossing (with it’s guns, mines and tracker dogs) made it clear to everyone that it existed to keep one set of people in rather than the other out. Checkpoint Charlie is now a popular tourist attraction even if most Berliners prefer to avoid the tackiness of it all. The sign warning of the border crossing in the American sector and the small check point hut are both replicas. The Museum at Checkpoint Charlie is well worth seeing for anyone that has a day to spend reading not just about the history of Berlin in the cold war but about Hungary, Czecheslovakia, Poland, Romania and the USSR. It is a fantastic place but be well warned that the amount of reading to be done is phenomenal and no matter how brave and exciting the various escapes over/through/under/around the wall were, eventually they all merge into one another.

But now it is time to take a well earned rest. We have reached the half way point of the tour and lunch is required by all. The local recommendation – for tourists at least! – is the little pizza delhi on Friedrich Strasse. Alternatively the Cafe Adler provides good beer, good food and an eerie atmosphere. If you can still use your imagination just think about the CIA sitting three floors above you, binoculars trained over the wall…we will reconvene at the Checkpoint in 45 minutes for the second half of the tour. Please don’t be late!

Sunny San Diego

We had the privilege of living in San Diego, California for just under four years, when our children were quite small. The U.S. Navy sent my husband there to work on a ship, so we were lucky enough to be housed in Navy housing quarters; in San Diego, that meant we were only a couple of miles from the beach. While there was navy housing scattered all over the huge city, ours was in scenic Pacific Beach. We were even on a slight hill so if we craned our necks, we could see glimpses of the ocean from our front yard. We could also see the tower at Sea World, as well as the fireworks that were set off there every Saturday night during the summer months. The best thing we found about San Diego, however, was that there are countless things to do there. In fact, in four years of living there, we did not get to do everything on our list of things to do; there simply was not enough time and there are too many options!

One of our favorite spots in San Diego was the world famous San Diego Zoo. Not only does the zoo offer all that makes it famous – giant pandas, polar bears, amazing habitats for the animals, and a plethora of species, many which are endangered – but it also has a jungle-like beauty that makes visitors forget they are in the middle of a huge city. The zoo is laden with countless palm trees and other tropical plants. All paths are paved and there is shade to be found around every corner. There are many restaurants, snack shops, and snack stands all around the zoo, depending on the taste of the visitor, or if visitors bring their own lunch, there are plenty of picnic tables and area in which to rest and relax. The San Diego zoo offers special passes for groups or multiple day visits, and even season passes.

Our other favorite place to go in San Diego was Sea World. Not only was Sea World a refreshing place to visit on a warm summer day, it had all the wonderful attractions such as dolphins, penguins, polar bears, countless types of fish, sting rays, sharks, and of course the beloved Shamu. For anyone staying in San Diego for a week or longer, Sea World offers summer camp programs for children where they can make new friends and learn about sea life in a safe and fun setting. Our son went to the Sea World camps two years in a row and absolutely loved it.

Belmont Park is a small amusement center on Mission Beach in the central part of coastal San Diego. With an old roller coaster, several other rides, and many video games, Belmont Park is a fun place for children and adults even on the rare rainy days in San Diego. Yet on sunny days, the beach is just steps away; in fact, the view of the ocean from the top of the roller coaster is something to behold!

San Diego also offers the Gas Lamp District, which is a downtown area full of trendy restaurants and pubs, with all the streets decorated by old-fashioned gas lanterns. La Jolla, just north of the city, is another good place for restaurants, as well as shopping. La Jolla has been touted as a small version of Beverly Hills.

Still, our favorite place to go while we lived in San Diego was simply to the beach. Especially after moving to the northeast where we always have to park far away and pay an entrance fee to go to the beach, we enjoyed San Diego where we could simply ride our bikes or park and walk onto the beach, no charge. The beach was large, clean, and had plenty of lifeguards. When we got hungry, we could walk up the boardwalk to our favorite restaurant or find something at one of the many snack shacks.

All in all, San Diego is a wonderful place to visit and to live. Even if one must live on the eastern side of the city, the beach is not far away, the weather is delightful for much of the year, and there are always plenty of fun things to do. I would highly recommend a visit to sunny San Diego.

Whale Watching In New Zealand

By Simon Woodhouse

In recent years, ecotourism has moved away from being the exclusive haunt of environmentalists, and shifted into the consciousness of your average holidaymaker (example – me). As with most things, there are degrees of ecotourism. Hardcore environmentalists might think nothing of tramping through the Himalayas, or paddling a canoe up the Amazon. I haven’t quite managed that level of commitment just yet, but I do like the idea of interacting with the world at large, seeing it as it really is, and doing so in such a way as to cause minimal damage.

Societies changing attitudes to the natural world can be seen in the decline and fall of one particular industry – commercial whaling. Thanks largely to mass media exposure, as soon as people saw just what a barbaric practice commercial whaling really was, it didn’t take long for organized public pressure to result in it being outlawed. This level of activism is understandable, because whales and dolphins are amongst the most beloved animals on the planet. Besides the decline in commercial whaling, attitudes toward marine parks are also changing. Though there’s nothing quite as spectacular as seeing dolphins and orcas up close and in full flight, is it really fair on an animal whose natural home is the sea, to keep it penned up in a tank? With the best will in the world, a marine park can’t offer the same environment as the open ocean. Though getting on a boat and spending a day at sea might not be as convenient as sitting in a marine park grandstand, it is the only way to see whales and dolphins at their best – in the wild and free to go wherever they please.

Whale watching tours out of Auckland, New Zealand, run nearly every day of the year (weather permitting). I first went on such a trip toward the end of May 2004. As I’d never been on that sort of excursion before I wasn’t sure what to expect. The boat departed from the quayside around mid-morning, and made its way out of the harbor toward the open ocean. As Auckland Harbor is a very sheltered body of water, the conditions there don’t reflect what might be happening out at sea. The harbor can be as flat as a millpond, whilst a little way out from shore there might be a heavy swell. On this particular day the sea conditions weren’t a problem. There was hardly a wave in sight, something which made whale spotting that much easier. We’d hardly been going for more than about twenty minutes, when one of the crew pointed out a pod of dolphins.

New Zealand has quite strict rules governing the whale watching industry, and if the animals are feeding or sleeping, tourist boats aren’t allowed to approach. Bearing this in mind, the boat’s pilot stopped the engine and just let the vessel drift. Almost straight away the dolphins made a sharp u-turn and headed straight for us. For the next fifteen minutes or so they performed beautifully, as if they liked being the center of attention. They jumped out of the water, swam as close as they could to the boat, and even came along side escorting very young calves.

After this first encounter we headed further out to sea and came across a Brutus whale. Compared to the dolphins this creature was massive, easily as long as the boat. Then much to the excitement of the crew, it became apparent this was a mother and baby. As well as taking tourists out to look for whales, the team on the boat make detailed records of all their whale and dolphin encounters. This was the first sighting of young Brutus whale for along time. We followed the mother and calf for quite a while, as they seemed to be going in the same general direction as our planned route. Not long after that the crew spotted a mass of feeding gannets. This is a good sign, because it means there are schools of fish close to the surface, usually forced up by dolphins feeding on them from below. The crew maneuvered the boat right in amongst the birds (of which there were hundreds), switched the engines off and for about half an hour we just sat there. Though we saw no dolphins, this was the best part of the trip for me. The ocean was absolutely calm, there wasn’t a breath of wind and the only sound was the birds diving into the sea.

Not long after this we had to head back to port. On the return trip we came across two more pods of dolphins, both of which stayed with the boat for at least fifteen minutes each. We were also shown just how environmentally concerned the crew were. Someone board dropped a plastic bag over the side, something that can be deadly to a whale if swallowed. Straight away the pilot stopped the boat, turned round and went back to retrieve the bag. We also came across a slick of what looked like oil floating on the surface. Though it’s illegal, many container ships swill out their holds just after leaving port, and dump the residue of whatever they’ve just unloaded straight into the sea. One of the crew took a sample of the slick with the intention of giving it to the harbormaster, who in turn would have it analyzed and checked against the contents of vessels that had recently been in port.

Having left Auckland around mid morning, we didn’t return again until late afternoon. I’m not much of a seafaring person, so I found being out on the boat all day pretty tiring. But the trip was worth it. Since then, I’ve never even been tempted to go to a marine park. Seeing animals in their natural environment, where they’ve got a choice about whether they want to be scrutinized or not, is so much more exciting than going to a zoo. Choosing to do this as part of a well-organized tour also ensures the animals are treated with respect. I can’t recommend this experience highly enough, even to people who may not be particularly interested in dolphins and whales.

Visiting the National Zoo

Malaysia is known internationally to be a multi racial country that is rich in tradition and culture. Last week the country was busy celebrating the Deepavali and Hari Raya festival and I was on a long holiday with my kids. My son love animals, he never misses any shows featured on Animal Planet. He was practically pestering me to take him to the zoo.
So last week I took my two kids to the National zoo located in Kuala Lumpur.

A concrete jungle of building and houses now surrounds the zoo that was once in a virgin jungle. This is because it is only 13km from the heart of Kuala Lumpur, which is one of the busiest cities in Malaysia. The best time to visit would be in the morning, as it could get quite hot during the afternoons. You will not be allowed to bring your own food or water but it should be purchased from the shops that are in the premises of the zoo.

If you want to avoid getting stuck in a traffic jam, as the roads are usually busy you could opt to take a taxi or use the Putra Line (train) that departs every 15 minutes. You will need to purchase the tickets that cost RM 15.00 for adults and RM 6.00 for children aged above 5 years old. Please have a brief look at the bulletin board before you enter the zoo, as it will contain information about the animal shows for that particular day.

The elephant shows will take place in the elephant Amphitheatre at 10.30am and 2.30pm, while the Multi animal show will take place in the Main Amphitheatre at 11.30am and 3.30pm. The elephant show will feature solely on the tricks performed by the elephants based on the commands of their keepers. You could also have a ride on the elephant after the show that will cost RM 3.00 per person. The elephants perform many acts that reveal their strength and intelligence, like standing on their hind legs and many more.

Multi animal show consists of performance by a variety of the zoo animals like the orang utan, seal, parrot, snake and otter. The zookeeper and the animals are sure to keep you entertained with their antics. They encourage the crowd especially the children to participate in the show by clapping hands and cheering the animals.

The snake show only starts at 8.30pm; you will only be able to witness this spectacular show only if you attend the night zoo. It is a show that will pump up your adrenaline, as the trainer will attempt to kiss the cobra on its head several times. You are allowed to touch the python and snap photographs with it. Other poisonous snakes are also featured in the show with the trainer carrying out some dangerous acts like holding it by the tail, staring face to face with it and so on.

Please note that the shows can be cancelled at anytime taking into consideration the animals health, mood and the weather. Rainy weathers may require the trainers to put the animals and themselves in a much greater risk. If it rains, the floor of the Amphitheatre would be slippery, it would be difficult to kiss the cobra exactly on the head and snakes are more active when it rains so the trainers may find it a problem to control the snake.
One minus point here is that the Main Amphitheatre is only covered by layers of transparent net, if it starts to rain you will end up getting wet. The show will be cancelled if it is a heavy rain so checks the weather report before you leave for the zoo and do not forget to pack an umbrella in your bag.

Night zoo gives you an opportunity to study the animal behavior during the night. Although this is a good effort to educate the public further about nature and the animals, the lights provided are not so bright, thus it will be difficult to see the animals clearly.
If you would want to bring your kids along to the night zoo it may not be suitable as insects such as mosquito can easily bite them and they could get lost as it would be very dark. It will also be past their bedtime and children usually get cranky or moody when they want to sleep. You could opt to take a train ride, which is free of charge if you must attend the night zoo, as it will be safer and you get to scan the animals on the premises at one go.

Another new edition to the zoo is the Children Corner. The animals displayed here is the Hedgehogs, Slow Loris, Ponies, goats, Chickens, Owl, parrots, bugs, beetles, Meerkats, monitor lizards and mouse. The children can take a ride on the ponies at 2.45pm only. This section is quite fun and educational for the children.

Other attractions in the zoo are the Tunku Abdul Rahman Aquarium as it consists of over 80 species of marine and freshwater aquatic creatures including invertebrates. The fishes displayed are quite large. There is a separate tank beside the aquarium reserved for the penguins.

The Reptile House exhibits a wide range of snakes from the tiniest to the largest. The famous King Cobra and the python are the most popular snakes sought after by the visitors. Scorpions, Iguana and lizards also fall under the reptiles list. Different types of crocodiles, tortoise and turtles can also be found here.

Savannah walk focuses on the mammals such as the African lion, Giraffes, Emu, Ostrich, Kangaroo, Tigers, Sun bears, Grizzly bear, Panther, Leopard, Puma, deer, Rhinoceros, Hippopotamus, Camels. There are also a variety of primates in the zoo such as the common monkey, Gibbon, Mandrill, Orang Utan and the Bearded Monkey.

Bird lovers will enjoy themselves in the Bird house that displays hundreds of species of birds such as Eagles, Hornbills, Peacock, Cockatoo, Bats, Parrots, Flamingo and the list just keeps going on.

The zoo has kept its level best to maintain a natural environment for the animals to ensure they feel right at home. Some of the animals here are sponsored by big organizations, the tiger is sponsored by May bank Group, while the camel is sponsored by the Am bank Group.

We can also do our part by keeping the zoo clean and educate our children about the animals. I made sure my son read all the information stated on the boards outside the animals cage so he will be able to understand the animals better. We also attended the feeding time and commentary given by the keepers for certain special animals such as the tiger and the deer.

Some useful tips to remember is as stated below;

Always bring along an umbrella and a cap

Explain safety measures to your children, as they could get lost easily in a crowded place.

Wear comfortable shoes, as the zoo is 63 hectares so you would be doing a lot of walking.

Bring along your binoculars so you can see the animals better.

Make sure to visit the zoo during the day so you can see all the animals because day animals or primates cannot be seen after dusk especially the Orang Utan.

If you have a toddler bring along your pram so that you do not have to carry the child the whole day.

Check the details about the shows so that you can plan your time accordingly.

If you are too tired to walk go for a ride on the train, as it is free of charge.

Keep your child busy by making him take down notes about the animals.

The National zoo is an excellent teaching ground about endangered animals but it still needs some improvements to make it a better place.

Dining in Rio de Janeiro (By 4Ernesto)

In the melting pot of Brazil, three quite different concepts of a square meal interacted delectably. The Indians, who were there first, contributed grains, vegetables and an appreciation of the abundant seafood. The Portuguese, who colonized Brazil, brought their stews and sweet tooth… and then imported African slaves who in turn added new spices and sauces.

Later immigrants introduced novelties from other nationalities: knackwurst, pizzas and hamburgers are fully assimilated by now. Brazil is a big country, with food to match. Whatever the recipe or its derivation, the raw materials couldn’t be more auspicious.

Brazil is one of the world’s leading cattle-producing countries, so the meat is first-class and relatively inexpensive. The South Atlantic provides a bonanza of fish and seafood. In the tropics, familiar fruits and vegetables are juicier than ever, and unfamiliar ones excite the adventurous palate.

You may not come to agree with the contention that Brazilian cooking is in the same class as French or Chinese (in my case Greek) cuisine for originality and grandeur, but you will certainly be glad to have made the acquaintance of Brazil’s array of wholesome and fascinating food.

In Rio it is easy to find the right restaurant for your mood and appetite: a fish house on the beach or a candlelit French restaurant, a bohemian pasta parlor or a barbecue with waiters in Gaucho costumes. To find out what is going on in any restaurant, just look in the window (though in many cases there is no window at all, only tables overflowing onto the sidewalk). Restaurants post their menus beside the door, so you know the price range and specialties in advance.

Most tourists stay at Zona Sul beaches and quite logically take advantage of the many good restaurants nearby. But it is also worth exploring the central business district, which boasts a distinguished roster of French, German, Portuguese, Spanish and even Brazilian restaurants.

Hotels customarily include breakfast (cafe da manha) in the price of the room (fresh fruit juice, toast and rolls, butter and marmalade and coffee with hot milk). The hours are posted, usually 7 to 9 or 10 a.m. If you miss breakfast, you can catch up at a stand-up street-corner cafe. However, Rio’s relaxing sidewalk cafes do not normally serve breakfast.

Meal times for lunch and dinner are uncommonly flexible. Lunch can start at 11:30 or 12:00, more fashionably at 13:00 or 14:00 and go on as long as you please. Dinner can begin as early as 19:30 or 20:00, but many restaurants stay open until 1:00 or 2:00, or until the last customer goes home. Most restaurants are open seven days a week.

The national dish of Brazil, “Feijoada”, contains 18 or 19 ingredients and takes hours to prepare. It also takes hours to digest, which is why you will be wise not to order it at night. Most Cariocas eat it at lunch on Saturday, then take the rest of the day to recover.

If you like unusual combinations of tastes and textures, you will rave about “feijoada”. This typically Carioca stew is a feast of black beans with sausage and other pork products and dried beef, flavoured with onions, garlic, chives, tomato, parsley and perhaps hot peppers, then served with boiled rice, cassava flour, shredded kale and (brilliant after-thought) fresh orange slices. It is almost obligatory to start or accompany this meal with a batida, Brazilian rum sour. Discreet “feijoada” fanciers follow this with nothing stronger than mineral water.

From Brazil’s southernmost state of Rio Grande do Sul comes the cowboy food, “churrasco”. Cariocas and tourists alike enjoy dining at churrascarias, which serve barbecued meat in the Gaucho style. Strips of beef or sausages, chicken or chops are skewered and roasted over charcoal. Authentically, the meat must be kept moist with brine; the spit is inclined at a 45-degree angle over the fire. Avery popular species of churrascaria advertises the rodizio system. For a fixed price, you get to eat as much as you want of all the barbecues in the house. Waiters arrive with one skewer after another, tempting you first with a sausage, then a chop, then a chunk of steak, a lamb cutlet… You do not have to know the language, but you need a formidable appetite.

The state of Minas Gerais, north of Rio, provides an exquisite little dish which would be worth ordering for its name alone: “tutu”. A thoroughly prosaic translation would be black bean mush. But bean-lovers think “tutu” is too tasty to be true, being a subtle mixture of beans, bacon and sausage or jerked beef, manioc meal and onion, usually served with shredded kale and hard-boiled egg.

Brazil’s foremest contributions to the art of cooking come from the northeast, where the Indeian, African and European currents meet. Rio is specializing in these spicy delights. Here are three of many celebrated dishes:

“Acaraje”. A large fritter made from a batter of dried beans and dried shrimp, deep-fried in boiling “dende” oil, the yellowish palm oil indispensable to northern cooking. The resultant dumpling is split down the middle and liberally filled with a special sauce made of ground shrimp, chopped onion, peppers and perhaps a dash of ginger. It is served as a starter or snack.

“Vatapaā€¯ This Bahian specialty calls to mind shrimp creole, but it is more complicated, with subtly interacting flavors. The ingredients may include shrimp, fish, grated coconut, ground peanuts, cashew nuts, tomato, onion, hot pepper, ginger, coriander, olive oil, “dende” oil, pepper and salt. This is sauteed at length and served with rice cooked in coconut milk.

“Xinxim” (pronounced shing-shing), another name to inspire the imagination, is a chicken stew from Bahia. What makes it different from all other chicken-in-the-pot recipes is the addition of ground dried shrimp and the use of hot spices and “dende” oil. The hot sauce served on the side should be approached with caution.

Many Rio restaurants deal primarily in fish and seafood, often prepared according to Portuguese or Spanish recipes. As elsewhere, the price of lobster (actually crayfish or spiny lobster) could embarrass your budget. Other shellfish are within reasonable reach. Look for “zarzuela de mariscos”, a thick Spanish version of a “bouillabaisse”, or the Portuguese variants, “caldeirada” or “frutos do mar ensopados”.

Generally, when they eat fish, Cariocas prefer a thick fillet, for they are nervous about fish bones. In many restaurants you will find dishes described vaguely as “filet de peixed” (fish fillet). The fish in question often turns out to be “badejo” (bass), tasty in spite of its anonymity, but sometimes overwhelmed by a thick sauce. You can also get excellent sole “linguado”. The sauce called “belle meuniere” is a butter sauce complicated, with typical Brazilian enthusiasm, by the addition of shrimp, mushrooms, asparagus, capers and whatever else will make it seem luxurious. In the Portuguese restaurants, you can choose from many varieties of “bacalhau”, dried salt cod usually baked in a rich sauce.

All over town you will find lunch-counter restaurants advertising “galetos” (spring chicken barbecued over charcoal). This makes a fast, cheap and often delicious meal.

Stand-up snack bars are everywhere. They are often called “lanches” (which means “snacks” not “lunches”. These are the places to try some Brazilian appetizers (codfish balls, chicken patties, shrimp pies, cheese patties.

A recent development is the proliferation of American-style hamburger and hot-dog emporia, clean and brash and very popular with young Brazilians.

For snacks on the run there are countless pushcarts dealing in sandwiches, hot-dogs or popcorn. On many a Rio street you will find a lady from Bahia in her flowing dress, beads and white turban, sitting behind a tray of the richest but subtlest cookies and cakes imaginable. In a glass case beneath this she displays a few snacks home-made from the great recipes: “acaraje” and “vatapa”, for instance.

Desserts in restaurants or at snack bars can be overpoweringly sweet, probably a combination of the Portuguese influences and the early boom of the Brazilian sugar industry. If they prove too much for your taste, switch to fresh fruit, which is varied and abundant and generally a joy.

In the tropical heat, you will work up a healthy thirst. No matter where you find yourself, relief is close at hand.

On the beach, barefoot salesmen walk past you every other minute offering soft drinks, mineral water, beer, or paper cups filled with iced lemonade or “mate” (pronounced MAH-chee) from their over-the-shoulder tanks. Here the Gaucho drink, “mate”, is served very cold and sweetened; it tastes like tea with overtones of tobacco. Another Brazilian drink, bottled “guarana”, is made from a fruit growing in the Amazon; it tastes a bit like cream soda.

Certain bars specialize in “caldo de cana”, sugar-cane juice squeezed before your eyes in a special press. The soupy liquor is not as sweet as you would expect, and the after-taste is somewhat wooden.

Look for the bars advertising “sucos” (juices) with lots of fresh fruit on display. They serve as many as 20 different fruits, juiced as you watch. Do not limit yourself to the delicious orange juice; try some tropical specialties like “caju” (cashew-apple), “mamao” (papaya) and “manga” (mango).

Perhaps the favourite Carioca thirst-quencher (served at stand-up bars, sidewalk cafes and with meals in restaurants of all classes) is a “chope” (pronounced SHOW-pee), a glass of ice-cold draft beer.

Brazil’s most popular aperitif, the “caipirinha” is similar to a Mexican margarita, but instead of tequila, the firewater is “cachaca”, distilled from sugar cane. Ice and lemon soften the blow of this potent concoction.

A “batida” is a cocktail, usually whipped up in a blender, of “cachaca”, ice, sugar and fruit juice. Among favourite flavours: lemon, orange, coconut and passionfruit.

Brazilian wines enjoy less fame than they deserve. The best of them come from Rio Grande do Sul, in the mild southern part of the country. There are reds, whites and roses to choose from. In hot weather all wines tend to be served chilled.

Brazilian beer is a great national asset, always served very cold. Draft (chope) is the favourite, but some restaurants only serve beer in bottles, sometimes large bottles.

After dinner many restaurants serve complimentary coffee, or you can have a “cafezinho” at one of the coffee bars. You are expected to pour sugar into the little cup (capacity just over 2 fluid ounces) before the coffee is poured. Brazilians like it very sweet, and very often.

There is no government tax on restaurant meals, but a 10 percent service charge is often added to the bill. If your waiter served you will, you might want to leave an additional 5 percent or more on the table.

Most restaurants offer an optional “couvert”, often an overpriced dish of olives and pickled carrots, broccoli and cucumber and a few gulls’ eggs. Feel free to wave it away if you do not find it appealing.

On most Rio restaurant tables are two shakers, one for salt and the other for tooth-picks. If you want pepper, ask the waiters for “pimenta”; you will probably be served a whole tray of condiments.

If a restaurant is full, it is not customary to join a table of strangers, even if only one person is occupying a table for four. You just have to wait for a free table.

A few key words that will help you read the food/drink catalogue and order are:

leite = milk
uma agua mineral = mineral water
um guardanapo = napkin
batatas = potatoes
arroz = rice
uma salada = salad
um sanduiche = sandwich
sopa = soup
acucar = sugar
cha = tea
vinho = wine
uma cerveja = beer
a conta = bill
pao = bread
manteiga = butter
um cafe = coffee
sobremesa = dessert
peixe = fish
fruta = fruit
um sorvete = ice cream
carne = meat
o cardapio = menu
frango = chicken
frito = fried
goiaba = guava
grelhado = grilled
lagosta = spiny lobster
laranja = orange
legumes = vegetable
limao = lemon
maca = apple
melancia = watermelon
morangos = strawberries
ovo = egg

I hope that this information will help you have a wonderful trip. Rio is beautiful and if you have the chance to dine there it will be an experience of a life time!!!

Enjoying 36 Hours in Vancouver, British Columbia

“Vancouver is a big city with west-coast attitude, but you never feel overwhelmed,” is what the woman from Alberta said to me. We shared a seat on the Airporter Bus (the most economical way from Vancouver International Airport to downtown).

A four-day conference brought me to Vancouver, B.C. and most of my time was spent in a hotel ballroom. Thirty-six hours belonged to me and this is how I made the most of the journey.

The Vancouver Tourist Info Centre (200 Burrard Street) is the spot to begin any visit to the city. Maps, brochures, accommodation information and coupons are available, along with well-informed volunteers to help make the most of your visit. They can also help explain the Goods and Services Tax (GST) refund non-Canadian residents are entitled to.

With a strong Japanese population, sushi restaurants ranging from quick and cheap to chichi and upscale are everywhere. Three I enjoyed were Tokyo Joe’s Japanese Restaurant, Mr. Sushi and Tsunami Sushi. Tokyo Joe’s (955 Helmcken Street) and Mr. Sushi (775 Davie Street) were quick, cheap and tasty little spots. The selections at each are a bit overwhelming and include the basics such as maki sushi, nigiri sushi and sashimi. Luckily, both feature specials (or boxes) offering tastes off the menu. These start at $9.95 CAD.

My favorite was Tsunami Sushi (1025 Robson Street) because I had to catch my meal. Sushi, sashimi and edamame plated on color-coded dishes floated by on wooden boats and I grabbed what tempted me. A price sheet guided me so I didn’t grab all the $5.95 dishes. The cost per plate varied between $1.95 CAD and $5.95 CAD. I complemented my meal with hot sake and a basket of vegetable tempura. Yummy! Total bill was about $30 CAD. Sitting at the counter around the floating boats is a good place to chat up the locals, too.

Breakfast one morning was a tasty salmon roll at the Granville Public Market on Granville Island. The Island is accessible by walking from Vancouver’s downtown, but that looked boring so I took the False Creek Aquabus (water taxi), which was $2.50 CAD, much cheaper the cost of a taxi. While waiting at the Hornby Street dock (one of many docks along the waterfront), a seal occasionally popped its head above the water as it swam through False Creek towards English Bay.

Granville Public Market offers just about everything, from fresh produce to homemade jellies and local artwork to colorful flowers. Not everything sold at the Market can be brought back into the U.S., but some items can. I found some locally made spice rub for poultry and tea. Open daily between 9:00 a.m. and 7:00 p.m., it’s a great place for browsing and grabbing a bite for breakfast or lunch. Very close to the Market is Net Loft, an eclectic mix of artsy shops, galleries and other pretty, delicate things.

Sunset Beach Park is nice for walking along the waterfront. During my October visit, it was a comfortable 53-degree-Fahrenheit-day and this Floridian was bundled up in polar fleece and long slacks. Residents wore light jackets and many sported shorts. Beware: the path is shared with bikers and rollerbladers. Walking on the wrong side of the path will earn you an evil eye.

Vancouver is an excellent and easy walking city. As a solo woman traveler, I only walked alone during the day and relied on common sense to guide me away from sketchy looking areas. From Sunset Beach Park, Vancouver’s southwest end, I walked at least 25 blocks to Chinatown in the northeast end. Although I felt safe, I would not recommend walking to Chinatown alone at night. Walking within Chinatown at night appeared as though it would be safe.

Unlike New York City’s Chinatown where men whisper “Fendi,” “Coach” and “Gucci” in the ear’s of tourists (attempting to sell knock-off purses), Vancouver’s Chinatown is an authentic community keeping in touch with the mother country. With limited time, I walked through the Dr. Sun Yat-Sen Classical Chinese Garden. A lily pad layered koi pond welcomes visitors and is draped by a lazy weeping willow. The garden’s walls create a sense of Chinese serenity but I laughed at the irony of classical Chinese-style buildings framed by the construction of 21st century high rises being built beyond Chinatown.

I stopped at the Chinese Cultural Center and learned about walking tours offered through Chinatown. Unfortunately, none were available to fit my schedule.

Wandering down Pender, Main and Keefer Streets, I took everything in. I sipped tea (and purchased more) at Ten Lee Hong Enterprises (500 Main Street) and browsed the spice shops and food markets. Dried lizard on a stick was being sold, along with dried scallops, seahorses and other dried critters. I’m not familiar with these delicacies and opted not to become familiar with their taste on this trip.

It was lunchtime, actually dinnertime with the time change, and I was desperate for food. Strangely, there aren’t many Chinese Restaurants in Chinatown. I ended up at New Mitzie’s Restaurant (179 East Pender Street) serving Western and Chinese cuisine. Although I could have ordered French fries with sweet and sour chicken, egg drop soup and lemon chicken was my lunch. The meal was okay and but wished I had found a more authentic dining spot. With drink, the meal was about $12 CAD.

Next was Gastown, just north of Vancouver’s Chinatown. This part of town felt a bit gothic, yet trendy and chic with a touch of the wild west. There’s a statue of Gastown’s Founding Father, John Deighton (“Gassy Jack”) on Powell Street. He earned the nickname for his “gassy” monologues as a saloonkeeper.

There was time to visit a couple of shops. One was Industrial Artifacts (49 Powell Street) selling furniture and accents crafted by recycled items. Street lights have been converted to candy dishes and lamps while industrial pieces like oversized gears from machine shops have been crafted to become coffee tables.

The other stop was at Hill’s Native Art (165 Water Street), full of eye-catching masterpieces. Dozens of wood-carved, colorful masks cover the shop’s entrance. Artists featured in the shop are from Canada’s Northwest Coast First Nations who incorporate their heritage and 21st century influence into their work. Wood carvings, paintings and jewelry are some of the pieces on display and for sale.

If you want to enjoy more art, visit Gastown’s Inuit Gallery (206 Cambie Street). Somehow I missed this gallery. I’m told it has a nice collection of stone and bone sculptures, wood carvings, drawing and tapestries. It’s opposite the World’s First Steam Clock, which is probably why I missed the gallery.

A busload of tourists surrounded what looked like an oversized grandfather clock and began taking photos. Not wanting to miss out on a Kodak moment, I joined in the picture taking frenzy. After the other tourists cleared, I noticed steam drifting from the clock and quickly read its history. It was built and designed by the owner of the Gastown Steam Clock Company, a horologist named Raymond Saunders in 1977. Every quarter of an hour, the clock whistles.

Gastown also has the typical tourist shops to purchase Canadian-made products such as maple syrup and maple cookies, pre-packaged salmon and fuzzy sweatshirts. But the coolest place I found to purchase Canadian food items is called Salmon Village (779 Thurlow Street) close to my hotel (the Sheraton Wall Centre, not in Gastown). Some of the products, like “Indian candy,” (tender, twice smoked salmon marinated in maple syrup) and smoked salmon are made at the company’s smokehouse in North Vancouver. All sorts of tempting treats like salmon jerky, salmon pate and gooey maple syrup are available for purchase. They can also help you ship items back to the U.S.

The most economical Canadian food items I found were at the local IGA (grocery store). Canadian maple syrup, pre-packaged salmon and salmon jerky were significantly cheaper than in the souvenir shops.

Away from Vancouver’s downtown on the campus of the University of British Columbia is the Museum of Anthropology (6393 Northwest Marine Drive). The featured collection is from the Northwest Coast First Peoples and includes totem poles, feast dishes, canoes, masks and jewelry, to name a few. A 45-minute guided tour is offered throughout the day and is included in the $9 CAD admission.

There was so much I found interesting but one of the most fascinating was learning how the Native Peoples made four-sided boxes out of a single plank of cedar. They steamed a plank to make it pliable and formed a box. I was also impressed with the 4.5 ton wood carving by Haida artist Bill Reid called, “The Raven and the First Men.” In 1980, the yellow cedar piece depicting a raven opening a clam shell and releasing Earth’s first men, was dedicated. Members of the Haida Nation (referring to the indigenous people of Canada’s Queen Charlotte Islands) brought sand to place around the sculpture, which is still part of the display.

Short on time (and it was pouring down rain), I grabbed a taxi vs. trying to figure out the public bus system to get to the museum. It was well worth the trip (about $44 CAD round-trip from downtown).

Having briefly tasted Vancouver, it’s a region of North America I would like to return to on my own time. There is much more for me to discover and more sushi restaurants to sample.

– JA Huber

Taking Children to Monterey

Monterey, California is one of the most beautiful places on earth. With its mild temperatures, crystal clear water of Monterey Bay, clean beaches, quaint town, fisherman’s wharf, and other attractions, Monterey is a great place for honeymoons, romantic getaways, and family vacations. In fact, Monterey is not just for adults; it is also has many fun things to do with small children.

We were privileged to live in Monterey for two years when our children were small. We moved to Monterey with the Navy when our son was four, and the next year, we were expecting our second child. We soon found that Monterey is perfect for children primarily because the weather is so mild. Monterey has sunshine nearly every day of the year. While mornings often begin with fog, by mid-day, the blue sky has taken over and the sunshine is abundant. The only time it rained in Monterey for the two years that we were there was during the month of February. The rest of each year was sunny. This gave us opportunities for bike riding, hiking on local trails, and long walks on the beach. Our son loved to play with his toys in the sand on the beach, so we did that quite often, even though the chilly Pacific was normally too cold for swimming.

One of the highlights of Monterey for small children is the Dennis the Menace Park and Playground. Dennis the Menace Park, created by cartoonist, Hank Ketcham, has brightly colored, fun playground equipment for children. The slides are fast, the rides bumpy, and there are signs encouraging parental supervision and even participation. There is a statue of Dennis himself, a sunshine staircase, a train to climb upon, and many other attractions. Visitors to Monterey will love the fact that just across the street from Dennis the Menace Playground is the main beach in Monterey, with its palm trees and incredible views of the mountains on the other side of the bay. Just next to the playground is a large pond (with a beautiful island, of course) on which children and their families can rent a row boat or peddling boat and take a jaunt around the pond; again, complete with the palm trees and Monterey Bay just across the street, right in sight.

On those rare rainy days, or on days when the children have had a little too much sun, the Monterey Bay Aquarium is a treat for children of all ages. Touted as one of the best aquariums on the planet, Monterey Bay Aquarium has amazing displays of marine wildlife including a plethora of fish, sharks, octopi, starfish, sea plants, and of course, the lovable and playful sea otters. The sea otters became endangered and almost extinct when they were easily hunted due to their seemingly fearless and playful view of humans. After spending many years on the endangered species list, sea otters today can be found all along the shores of Monterey Bay, playing among the rocks, lounging in the kelp, and cracking open crabs and shells with small rocks. The aquarium has a special sea otter habitat, as well as areas where children can watch videos about sea life and a special open pond where children can touch kelp, fish, starfish, rays, and other marine animals. In the main entrance to the aquarium, visitors will marvel over the giant two-story aquarium complete with a variety of fish and sometimes deep sea divers!

Fisherman’s wharf is another favorite of small children because of the many shops carrying souvenirs and trinkets, but especially because of the crowds of sea lions and pelicans along the edges of the wharf. Sea lions can be heard barking incessantly, and their antics are always a treat for children and parents alike. Children will also enjoy the many restaurants on the wharf, all of which have a view of the bay, and parents will love the delectable sea food.

Lastly, take the children for a drive along 17-mile drive. This is one of the prettiest, most scenic drives you and your children will ever encounter. There are many places to stop and walk on the beach or climb on the rocks, and if you drive there at sunset, you are almost sure to see many of the deer that habit the Monterey Peninsula. Plus, the sunset is always something to behold. You and your children will have a visit you will never forget.

Mount Desert Island Marathon in Maine

Recently, we discovered that our good friend was planning to run in his fourth marathon, but this time, he would be running in a marathon fairly close to our home: the Mount Desert Island Marathon that goes from Bar Harbor to Southwest Harbor, Maine. This was a good chance for us to take a short road trip to Mount Desert Island, as we had not been for a visit in about seven years. The day we set out was a perfectly crisp, Maine autumn day; not only that, that fall foliage had been at peak status for the past several days, so color was still very abundant. We drove along what is normally a fairly boring highway, tree-lined on both sides; but on this day, we were awestruck time and time again by the reds, scarlets, golds, maroons, peaches, oranges, and many shades of brown. Even if we had never made it to Mount Desert Island, the day was so beautiful, the drive was enough.

Yet, when we turned south at Bangor, and drove through Ellsworth, the trees opened up and we could see even more trees on the rolling farmland in the distance. We passed small ponds, larger lakes, and crossed several rivers as we went. Finally, we found ourselves at the entrance to Mount Desert Island. We encountered the familiar road sign that directed us to either go left on Route 3 to Bar Harbor, or straight ahead on Routes 102 and 198 to Southwest Harbor. The Mount Desert Island Marathon began in Bar Harbor at 8:00 that morning and the route was to skirt the southern edge of the island and Acadia National Park. It then looped back up Route 198 to Route 102, and turned south again to end the grueling but beautiful 26.2 mile run in lovely Southwest Harbor. It was a little after noon, so we headed straight ahead on Route 102. Before long, we began seeing marathon participants running, jogging, walking, and trudging along the left side of the road. All participants were wearing the familiar numbers on the fronts of their shirts and jackets, and we began looking for our friend as we drove slowly along. There were mile markers that told runners their progress, and we saw many drink stands and resting stations. We did not really expect to see our friend running; spread out as they were, there were many people running the marathon.

Suddenly, there he was at mile 22, jogging along at a steady pace, so my husband jumped out of the car and jogged with him for about half a mile. We got a good laugh as my husband was dressed in blue jeans and hiking boots, but he claims that now he can say he ran in the Mount Desert Island Marathon! We drove on to the town of Southwest Harbor and parked so we could catch our friend at the finish line. We parked and enjoyed a lovely walk down the main road, along with the marathoners as they headed to the finish. The sky was a crystal blue and the leaves were simply breath-taking. After finding our friend’s wife and setting up our cameras, it was not long before we saw our friend heading to the finish. We congratulated him warmly, spoke for a few minutes, and then gave him leave to rest, recover, and recuperate.

After our jaunt at the marathon finish line, we decided to spend the rest of our day driving around Mount Desert Island and Acadia National Park. The other times we had been to the island were in the spring and summertime, so enjoying a Maine autumn at this beautiful area was a special treat. We drove past the rocky coastline, up to the summit of Cadillac Mountain, and back down into the quaint town of Bar Harbor. We had lunch at a delightful little seafood restaurant and then walked around the town, browsing in the shops. Finally we walked to the harbor to enjoy the view of the boats on the blue water, and then we wrapped up the day with ice cream at the Jordon Pond Creamery. I would highly recommend a visit to Bar Harbor. The people are friendly, the town lovely, and the scenery is unlike anywhere else on the planet.

History, Shopping and Nightlife in Granada by Rich Carriero

Madrid is a hot city; temperatures regularly climb well into the 90’s and over 100 in the Spanish capital, but traveling south toward Granada is like driving into a furnace. The cities that line the Mediterranean coastline of southern Spain all are bathed in sunshine and a dry sweltering climate. Granada is not located on the coast, however, but further inland ringed by the Sierra Nevada mountains. The countryside that flowed past my window on the large coach looked like the rugged face of another planet. The mountains were bare of trees and buildings but studded with colorful and jagged rocky outcroppings. The earth was red and looked dry, hot and hard from the endless sunshine. There were very few cars on the road and I had the feeling of travelling through a waste land. The ride was long and bumpy but we arrived at last in the desert town.

When one thinks of Granada one thinks of the Alhambra, the fantastical muslim fortress built by the Moors that resisted centuries of attempts by the reconquista to capture it. The fortess became synonomous with the determination of the Moors to maintain their foothold in Spain. Granada at last fell in 1492 as the last piece of Spanish territory to be recovered by catholic Spain. The conquest, which many thought would never happen, coupled with Colombus’ discovery of North America marked the beginning of Spanish dominence in Europe. For the Spanish the Alhambra is a powerful patriotic symbol of their determination and military might. For muslims the Alhambra is no less a source of pride as its luxurious palace and stern military fortifications overlooking the town of Granada are testament to the architectural genius an creativity of Islamic culture. I made a point of including Granada in my itenerary so that I might see the Alhambra for myself.

My accomodations were small but very exotic. The hostel was oriented around an open air patio that was brightly tiled and filled with desert plants. I asked the French couple who ran the hotel what they did when it rained. They told me that in Granada it never rained more than 4-6 times per year. Although I have never been there the decor of the hostel and indeed every building that I visited in Granada was extremely reminiscent of the Middle East. The walls were all painted white with large windows open to allow the passsage of air but recessed to block the oppressive sunlight. Everyone I saw was heavily tanned and wore white loosely fitted clothing of cotton or linen. Most people drank tea or coffee and smoked heavily. I found Granada immediately exotic and irresistable.

I spent my first day in Granada exploring. Granada is an interesting blend of Spanish and Islamic culture. The city is very old with narrow streets and old medieval buildings with many balconies and windows. The vegetation of the city was very typical of desert plants with tall narrow pines and short shrubs as well the ever present cacti. Near my hostel was a large plaza surrounded by modern shops and a Cortez Inglais. Cortez Inglais is the Spanish answer to Walmart. Its many floors are filled with all modern trappings of department stores-clothes, electronics and many other sundry wares. The store also had a large, lavish supermarket and the entire place was blessedly air conditioned.

The most attractive part of Granada was the Moorish quarter Albaicin, an area of old buildings and narrow streets located across the river and in the shadow of the Alhambra. The Moorish quarter was like something out of Casablanca. Street vendors hawked various handrcafted treasures at tables, tents and small shops. There were many ornate and gorgous incense burners, tea drinking paraphanalia, embroidery and jewelry. One of my most memorable experiences in Europe was haggling over tea and jewelry with the vendors who seemed to savor the lost art. The Moorish section of town also had many tea houses, which was also a wonderful experience. My Lonely Planet guidebook recommended a few particular places among which was the appropriately named Kasbah, which I visited to get out of the heat and enjoy some arabic tea.

Kasbah is awash in ambience. The dimly lit cafe has many rooms and compartments separeted by ornate tapestries. I chose a secluded booth and lounged on cushion covered wood benches while looking over a menu that advertised more varieties of tea than I knew existed. Based on its description as sweet and spicy I chose a Tunisian variety of tea and a hookah of rasberry flavored tobacco. Smoking flavored arabic tobacco is a rich experience, even for those who don’t smoke cigarettes or cigars. The tobacco is sweet and smooth with little burning. Along with the tea (which was truly amazing) and tobacco, the atmosphere of Kasbah is the closest one can come to the luxuries of the Middle East without leaving Europe.

During my second day in Granada I determined to climb the high hill upon which the Alhambra is perched and see the historic fortress. On foot in the desert heat this turned out to be quite a task. The streets leading up the hill are narrow and windy and I lost my way several times. I brought two liters of water with me and drank about a liter and a half on the long climb. As I came closer to my destination the sides of the hill became steeper and were covered with an infinite variety of plants and man made waterfalls. At last I crested the hill and got my first look at the fortress up close.

The Alhambra is ideally situated for defense. The hill on which it sits dominates the town and surrounding countryside, making an ascent by an attacker a daunting one exposed to cannon fire and archers. The walls of the fortress are thick, steep and smooth, offering no vulnerabilty to be scaled or penetrated. The Alhambra complex is basically composed of three elements: the military fortifications, the gardens and the palace. The military grounds are open to visitors for the whole day of visit but due to the volume of visitor’s an entry ticket to the palace is only valid for a short time during which a visitor must enter or be refused admittance. For this reason I went into the palace first.

The Alhambra’s palace is unlike any castle, palace or cathedral that I have ever seen. Strict muslim tenets forbid the portrayal of the human form in order to discourage idolatry so there are no portraits or realistic paintings in the Alhambra. For ornamentation every surface of Alhambra is instead covered with geometric patterns carved into the soft white stone. Each window and portico is lined with distinctive Moorish arches. In addition the Islamic architecture places a noted emphasis on symmetry which can be observed everytime one looks across a courtyard or down a path to see identical arches and windows. The Alhambra is filled with reflective pools, hanging gardens and balconies that overlook the mountains, gardens and the town of Granada. The palace was a very soothing and luxurious place to walk through. I found a bench in one of the many courtyards and stopped to write in my travel journal. As I scribbled my thoughts on the page the sound of water flowing from countless fountains added to the tranquility that I felt. Although its architecture and decoration are like nothing I have ever seen in Europe or America, I found the Alhambra’s palace to be one the most luxurious places that I have ever seen.

Outside of the palace one comes to the extensive gardens. The gardens are filled with flowers, fruit trees and more fountains. At one end of the garden a small waterfall collects into a pool from which a narrow channell is carved and leads downhill toward the palace in a long graceful straight line. At each stairwell leading down the water collects into another pool which in turn empties into another channell. In this way the entire palace and gardens are awash with water. After leaving the gardens I made my way to the military portion of the compound.
The Alhambra is an elaborate fortification filled with hallways, narrow stairwells and turrets. As I climbed each turrets I would stop to peer out the narrow slits which archers used to pour down punishment on attackers. Atop the turrets a strong refreshing breeze blue though the blue sky was completely unblemished by clouds. The turrets of the Alhambra offered the best vantage to view the Sierra Nevada mountains and the town of Granada. The town below looked as though it had been transplanted from the desert plains of Israel. Granada looked from afar like a honeycomb of squat white buildings and desert shrubs and surrounded by bare gray hills. On top of the highest turret flew the Spanish flag which was caught by the strong breeze and unfurled yellow and red toward the town below.

Granada is a favorite of backpackers and tourists looking to find the most exotic cultural experiences that Spain has to offer. For this reason the city has an exciting nightlife. Typically people gather early in the night at indoor-outdoor bars and wine shops to enjoy aromatic Spanish wine and plates of tapas rich in olives, cheese and seafood. I stood around just such a cafe with new friends from my hostel. Most of my roomates spoke English and came from Australia, Canada and UK and we were all brought together by the same language to seek our entertainment in the Granada nightlife. After the small bar and eatery we barhopped in the Spanish section of town, taking in the good wine and atmosphere of modern Spanish bars. Everyone danced, drank and had a good time but the best was yet to come. Everyone who knows Granada knows El Camborio.

El Camborio is not located in the modern part of town but rather on a high hill across from the Almhabra. The nightclub is built into the rock of the hill and its ground floor is actually undeground. El Camborio doesn’t open until 3 AM but everyone in Granada finishes there night there. My cadre of Anglophones and I had the dubious honor of arriving at the club first, precisely at three. We explored the subterranean passages of the nightclub, marvelling at each room and running our fingers over the cool stone. We made our way upstairs to the upperfloor. The upstairs of El Camborio is a 180 degree difference from the lower story. There is a large dancefloor and bar encased in glass an an enormous terrace for enjoying the cool night desert air and the brilliantly illuminated Alhambra. My friends and I sat down around a table with cocktails and enjoying the night. Before too long the sounds of new arrivals emanated from downstairs as people began to flock to the club. By four both floors and every dancefloor was filled with people dancing, drinking and having a great time. At a time of night when most clubs in the States would be closing up shop El Camborio was just getting started. I danced until I could see dawn lightening the sky to the East. I went home exhausted and spent a low key day relaxing and wandering around town before my departure for Barcelona the next day. I only spent three days in Granada but the experience is among the most vivid of any place that I visited that summer.

Gay Travel To Columbus Ohio

For gay men, travel in the United Stated for gay men could be a bit daunting. Ever since the horrific events that took place at Stonewall in the mid seventies gay and lesbian issues have been brought to the forefront of the American consciousness. Even today, gay marriage and other rights of gays and lesbians are being challenged in major political races across the country. Since Stonewall, gays and lesbians have made it a point to nurture and create communities that caters to their needs and wants. Most major cities have gone so far as to establish gay communities to help flounder this, Montreal being one of those cities which has created the largest gay district in North America. The mid western cities littered though out the United States are starting to follow suit. Columbus, Ohio has a flourishing gay area and here are some places that gays and lesbians traveling to Columbus must see during their stay.

When visiting a city for more than one night, one of your major concerns would naturally be where you are going to get your beauty rest. Fro gays and lesbians, this is a concern because they are going to want to feel free to hug their boyfriend and kiss their girlfriends without drawing gasps and strange looks. While visiting Columbus, I would suggest laying your pretty head at the Courtyard Marriott downtown Columbus. This three star hotel is within walking distance of the cities gay district and will their attendants will not raise an eyebrow when the book equipped with only a queen size bed for two men traveling together or turn their heads to see two men embraced in a passionate goodbye kiss feet from the doors that enter into the lobby. The only thing that one would have to be careful of is the close proximity also to the city’s convention center.

There is more to picking a place to eat then finding a place to end your hunger. When visiting a city, what is the use simply eating a McDonald’s or Chipotle? You can find one of those in any major city in the United States. That’s no fun. When you have graced a different city with your presence, one of the best ways to experience the city’s flava’ is by tasting a different one. Like in most gay districts of cities in the United States, some of the best eateries can be found where the “Queens” play and this truth has not been lost on the land locked city of Columbus. While here, I would recommend walking from you hotel room just a few short block north on High Street and treat your taste buds to the delectable wares that can be found at 8. 8 is a new restaurant in Columbus that fuses upscale dinning with dirt cheap prices. Try their tuna fish and mushroom soup combo for $7, you will not be disappointed.

Now that you have settled in to your nice three star hotel room and filled your stomach with some local delectable eats, now it is time to research the real reason that you traveled to the middle of Ohio; to PARTY. Though cites such as Montreal, New York, Miami Los Angeles and San Francisco boast some of the sweetest eye candy, a good ol’ fashioned, corn bread country boy should not be subtracted from the list as quickly as some may think to. This may be one of the reasons why some may surpass the larger cities to visit Columbus. For us folks that are in our mid to late twenties, the perfect place to let your hair down is at Q. Q is just walking distance from your Marriott oasis to the east. Though small, Q has two levels with lounging areas, a dance floor, square bar tops and a front bar, this little chib (Korean for house) can pack a big punch.As the night wore on the capacity of the little placed filled and I felt as if I was in Chicago at Hydrate on a Saturday night.

So the next time that you want to travel to a city to check out its gay scene, do not discount the Midwest. It has more to offer than one may think!