Prague; an Eastern European Gem

I had known since the beginning of my trip that I wanted to visit Prague. During the months leading up to my trip many people who had already visited Europe and backpacked across the continent highly recommended Prague for its beautiful sights, nightlife and general atmosphere. Of course arranging a trip from Rome to Prague was no easy task but after a long afternoon at a computer lab I planned a flight from Rome to Frankfurt and then a train ride to Dresden and another train into the Czech capital. I would now be leaving Western Europe and the warm climate of the Mediterranean but I was running seriously low on funds and the west was bankrupting me so I gladly welcomed the dollar-friendly exchange rates of Eastern Europe.

I enjoyed a long day of European mass transit during the course of which I landed in Germany. Germany was, from what I could see, very green and very modern. The German countryside is studded with wind farms and is spotlessly clean. In Frankfurt I purchased my tickets to Prague and boarded a German bullet train. Unfortunately when the train arrived in Dresden some hours later, I did not realize that the city had two train stations and I got off at the first while my connection waited across town at the second. With approximately fifteen minutes to get there I hailed a taxi to run me across town. Firstly, German taxi cabs are all Mercedes Benz and this one handled and accelerated like a race car. My driver was a trim middle aged woman with bleach blond hair cut into short spikes. She drove expertly and smoked cigarettes the whole time. If she got me there on time I would give her a ten euro tip. If we failed, I would wait six hours in the station for the next train to Prague. It was close. As I looked out the window I thought of Slaughter House 5 and how American bombers turned this city into powder during the closing days of World War II. Needless to say we made it; I tipped the cabbie a sawbuck (in euros) and sprinted with my cumbersome pack swaying on my back to the train.

The second train rode through the verdant forests of Eastern Germany. After an hour’s ride we passed nothing but small farmhouses and rocky outcroppings. Then we rode along a river in the middle of nowhere, whose name I never learned, that separated Germany from what used to be Czechoslovakia. We crossed the border and two customs officials smoking acrid cigarettes examined and then stamped my passport. After a few minutes the train moved forward, stopping at the first Czech station. On the signs indicating town names and danger signals I saw the accent marks and spelling of a Slavic language for the first time.

I spent the duration of my ride sitting next to a young Czech school teacher. She spoke some little English and talked with me, explaining the general layout of the city and places that I should see. She looked like many of the Czech girls I would see with a small lynx-like triangular face with a chic brunette bob surmounting her head. She was very slight but well dressed, though slightly behind the fashion. She was an interesting companion and when the train came to a halt in the station and we got off I said goodbye and went off to see the city.

Since my stay in Marseille I had stopped reserving rooms as I arrived in cities so I had no arrangements. My first impression of Prague was the train station, which was a seedy place that failed to inspire much confidence. I found myself clutching my possessions carefully. There were several burly men with signs indicating that they offered rooms for rent but I didn’t like the looks of them so I went straight to the tourist information center where I was able to book and pay for a room in a nearby hostel. I walked to the hostel, which was a large old building only a few hundred meters from the station. I was soon to find that my hostel was used alternately as an SS barracks and as a barracks for Soviet soldiers. The hostel was very large with many floors with dorm rooms, lockers and large public bathrooms. As night was falling I decided to stash my gear, grab something to eat and then get some sleep. It was a much colder night than any I had experienced in Rome and it had just rained, which made the city smell like early spring rather than mid July.

The next morning I woke up well rested and ready to see the city. My hostel and the train station were situated in the Nove Mesto, or new town, on the eastern bank of the Vltava River. As I walked through the Nove Mesto, I saw many 19th century buildings with modest but tasteful facades and elegant wrought iron balconies. The streets were cobbled with small square stones. It seemed that everywhere I went, somewhere in the distance rose the spires of some cathedral or castle. Czech architecture has many large pointed towers on ancient edifices but unlike many other, plainer forms of architecture, from each large tower branch out several smaller spires. It is a very unique and beautiful sight that is the first thing I picture when I think about Prague.

At the end of the my street, stood the impressive national museum. The museum is a large brown stoned building that looks as sumptuous and dramatic as the Paris Opera House. The museum stood at the end of a long boulevard that was effectively the heart of Nove Mesto. Lining the street are modern strip malls, fancy boutiques, neon lights and outdoor bistros and cafes. The street bustled with activity. In the center pedestrian island were several modernist sculptures that illustrated the Czech propensity for the absurd in art. One sculpture was a series of brutal looking male figures constructed entirely from iron plates bolted and riveted together. Another sculpture depicted Superman flying head-first into the ground. At regular intervals there were small stands that sold incredible hot dogs that cost only a dollar. There were also a number of outdoor bistros and cafes, which advertised traditional Czech cooking on black sandwich boards.

As beautiful as it was, I found that I had to keep on guard in the Nove Mesto. Prague is filled street urchins, salesmen, beggars and outright thieves. As in any city, I find it best to act confidently and act as though you are very aware of your surroundings. At one point I allowed a very solicitous man show me where I could buy a pack of cigarettes. I soon found myself with a faithful guide who wanted to show me where I could have a good time in Prague. I soon extricated myself from the situation with a little money for a tip, but I only needed one such experience to learn my lesson.

I soon made my way closer to the river, toward the Stare Mesto. In the old town the buildings get larger and larger with more spires. I made my way to Old Town Square in the heart of town. The square is extremely large and surrounded by tall buildings, cafes and restaurants. In the center of the square stands a large statue of Jan Huss, a Czech theologian who was burnt as a heretic during the Counter Reformation. Huss is depicted at the moment of his execution standing boldly upright. Today Huss is considered an important Czech hero. Overtime many of his controversial religious opinions have been adopted by various sects of Christianity.

Tyn Cathedral borders the square to the east. The church rises with twin towers surmounted by many smaller spires. The main nave is long and narrow but rises very high with buttresses neatly providing exterior support. On the western side of Old Town Square is St. Nicholas Church, a baroque masterpiece. Nearby stands the Old Town Hall, with its tall, slender clock tower from which tourists can peer out over the city. The most famous feature of the hall, however, is the medieval astronomical clock on its southern face. Crowds gather to watch the ornate display when the clock chimes the hour.

Moving west from Old Town Square, the streets become considerably narrower pedestrian pathways. Many tiny shops selling traditional Czech wares line these small streets. People hand out advertisements for eateries, classical music concerts and other sundry offers. I soon wound my way through these streets in the direction of the Charles Bridge.

The Charles Bridge is perhaps the most famous sight in Prague. The bridge was built during the 14th and 15th centuries as the only connection between Stare Mesto and Prague Castle. This sturdy stone span contributed greatly to Prague’s importance as a town on the trade routes passing through Europe. The bridge rests on a number of solid arches and is protected by three guard towers complete with spires, balconies and large powerful gates. During the 17th century a number of statues were erected on the bridge depicting saints and traditional Czech heroes. Today the Charles Bridge is a pedestrian thoroughfare across which throngs of people pass each day. The bridge is also a de facto market along which merchants sell wooden handicrafts, jewelry and artwork. Many beggars also line the bridge, bent low with hats in hand. Others seek their fortunes playing violins, guitars or clarinets for their alms.

The western bank of the Charles Bridge is known as the Lesser Quarter of Prague. There are, however, a number of sights to be taken in on this side of town. The most important, by far, is the Prague Castle. Prague Castle is the largest ancient castle in the world. It features an enormous courtyard, several of the tallest spires in the city and numerous lavishly decorated rooms. As I arrived at the castle I noticed a detachment of guards carrying bayoneted assault rifles. They walked with a high martial step in unison to the castle to relieve the guards on duty. It was fascinating to see this ritual of Czech pride parading through the streets.

Over the course of my week in Prague, I visited each of these sights in turn. I saw the requisite museums and climbed the many stairs to look out from ancient towers over the small red roofs and distant spires of the city. However, I derived the most pleasure just from hanging out in this charming city. Prague has so many cool places to see. One café I located in the Lesser Quarter of town was built on the ruins of a 13th century chapel. More than once I ordered a pot of tea and sat to relax in the underground vaults while reading a book. Near another café I found a small theatre that offered performances of its plays nightly to audiences of twenty or so. I attended one such performance called Mimi and her Lord which was a silent production portraying the escapades of a penniless Mimi as she went from employer to employer trying to earn money. At last she ends up working as a maid for a sadistic old man who throws around pasta for her to clean up and blows smoke at her. Despite having no words, it was quite hilarious.

Another night I attended a classical concert at one of Prague’s many small but ancient churches. The list of performances included various works by Mozart, Beethoven, Strauss and of course, Czech master, Dvorak. The concert was played by a violinist, a classical singer and an organist. The church organ dates back to the 17th century and is in flawless condition. The music soared through the eaves of that church and for one hour I was transported to an ethereal place where my whole existence was reduced to the sense of hearing. That hour went by so quickly and I was sorry to hear it when the instruments at last fell silent.

One of the best features of Prague was the cuisine. Czech cuisine is a heavenly concoction of meats, rich sauces and starches. At one restaurant near the Charles Bridge I enjoyed a pig’s knuckle with potato dumplings and vegetables. All week I ate other meals of various game animals at cafes, beer gardens and bistros.

After the hectic pace of Rome, I welcomed the laidback city of Prague. I lounged about in parks, public squares and cafes, reading books, watching people and taking in the sights. I found a large park on the western outskirts of town located on a green hill with fruit trees. From the park I could see the American embassy with its flag waving in the breeze. The sight of the flag was a welcome one but it made me a little homesick. I continued on, however, and spent a pleasant sunny afternoon reading Dharma Bums on the high wall of an abandoned military institution.

By night, there was always a lot to do in Prague. My hostel was filled with young people from various nations. The hostel’s courtyard had a small bar and was a popular place for people to hang out, play music and talk. I spent much of my time with a group of young French guys. They were shocked that I spoke French and I had fun dispelling many of their misconceptions about Americans in their own native tongue. We played cards, smoked cigarettes and listened to each others i-pods. One night the group of use went out to a club on river near the Charles Bridge. The club was incredible with many different levels, rooms and dance floors playing different musical styles: hip-hop, techno and rock and roll. We wandered throughout the place dancing, hanging out and having a great time.

Prague is a decidedly small city that can boast barely one million people. However, Prague is completely unique. The city was the home of Kafka and bears a museum in his honor. Fittingly, out front of the Kafka museum is a fountain shaped like the Czech Republic. In the middle of the fountain stand two copper statues of dictators urinating on the country. That’s what Prague does; around every corner the classical and the absurd are glaringly juxtaposed. The old and new collide everywhere in this city. Communist housing blocks, medieval churches and neon lights all abound in Prague. There is a thriving tourist trade, but Prague is not overrun and I never once felt crowded or rushed. I stayed long enough to see everything there was to see and by the end of my stay I was simply relaxing and planning my trip to Krakow. Even these days, however, never felt empty as the mere atmosphere in Prague has a tonic effect and I could see why virtually everyone recommends Prague to travelers of Eastern Europe. To their recommendations, I heartily add my own.

Top New Years Destinations

By Brandi M. Seals

Ringing in the New Year in style can be difficult if you do not know where to go, but I have some great state-side suggestions for you. Sure you can spend New Years in front of the television again or you can get out and have a wonderful time at one of these great destinations.

4.) Aspen, Colorado
If you love snow and skiing then Aspen is right up your ally. Use the New Year as an excuse to hit the slopes this holiday season. If someone in your party is not so hot on schussing down the slopes, you can still talk them into a trip to Aspen. Aspen caters to the wealthy type and is thus known for gourmet dinners and excellent drinks. A trip to Aspen is certainly a classy way to celebrate the coming year as the old one is ushered out.

3) Las Vegas, Nevada
Las Vegas is known as party city year round. The words Las Vegas conjure images of gambling, partying and everything in excess. Why not choose Las Vegas to ring in the New Year. Party down right in Sin City. Each year the celebration gets bigger and wilder. Prepare yourself to be mesmerized by pyrotechnics and block parties. Not to mention the fabulous night clubs and gourmet restaurants throughout the area.

Each year thousands of people flock to Las Vegas for the New Years celebration. The place to be is the America’s Party. The usually busy Strip is shut down to traffic and turned into a viewing area for the fantastic fireworks that will be shot out over the city skyline. If you are looking for a really good time, splurge on the Fremont Street Experience. Tickets cost $80 and give purchasers access to a state-of-the-art lights show and huge block party. Confetti will rain down at the stroke of midnight when everyone celebrates with a wine toast.

2.) Miami, Florida
Get out of the cool winter air and enjoy a warm and sunny New Years down in Miami. Soak up the sun and explore the hot spots before counting down the New Year. If you are lucky you might just catch a glimpse at some Hollywood stars. Rumor has it they like to head Miami for one of the exclusive, over the top parties. While you may not be able to worm your way into one of these parties, you can certainly celebrate the holiday at one of the trendy clubs or restaurants that line the streets.
If you do not have a lot of money to spend, celebrate at Bayfront Park. It is the site of a free concert and New Year’s countdown. You will even get to see Miami’s version of a ball drop – the Orange drop. You will also catch a beautiful fireworks display over Biscayne Bay.

1.) New York, New York
What could be better than spending new years right in the middle of things? You have probably watched the ball drop in Times Square from the comfort of your living room since you were a child, but have you ever been there in person? Add that experience to your repertoire with a trip to New York City at the end of the year.

The ball drop got its start 100 years ago in 1907. Celebrate its centennial with the millions of other visitors that flock to New York this time of year. You will be treated to confetti free floating down the street, a block party like you would not believe and the chance to see several celebrities. Who knows, if you do everything right, you might just end up on Dick Clark’s Rocking Eve.

If you do not want to be crammed into Times Square with thousands of other people, opt to spend the evening at one of the local clubs or bars. There will be plenty of private parties that will last into the wee hours.
There are plenty of other spectacular destinations to spend New Years. If you cannot get to one of the top 4 cities, try spending the holiday in New Orleans, Detroit or other large city. You will be sure to find plenty going on to suit your mood.

Happy New Years everyone!

Barrio Norte (4Ernesto)

– In Buenos Aires, Barrio Norte is where the rich people live. But this was not always the case. In the city’s early days, a large slaughter house occupied the northern part of the barrio, the Recolet. It was said that a ravine filled up with cattle heads and that people dreaded the rainy season on account of the floating heads.
– Barrio Norte acquired some much-needed tone when a yellow fever epidemic hit the city in 1870. Wealthy portenos, convinced that the river fogs were causing the deaths, fled from the southern lowlands near San Telmo for the higher ground to the north.
– Over the next few decades, Argentina’s upper classes spared no expense in making Barrio Norte into a miniature Paris. Here, more than anywhere else in the city, it is easy to imagine what Buenos Aires was like when it was capital of one of the richest countries on earth. At the ever-fashionable Cafe Biela, you may see a handsome businessman in a well-cut Italian suit. His head may be tilted back to take advantage of the sun as a white-jacketed waiter takes his order, another man shines his shoes and a third, a street artist, sketches his likeness on a drawing pad. The thought may cross your mind that this is a wonderful life.

A wonderful death
– However, to do a proper walking tour of Barrio Norte, you should postpone the cafes for an hour and begin where privileged Argentines end, at Recoleta Cemetery.
– In a city that devotes itself to distinctions of class and military rank, the Recoleta is Buenos Aires’ marble heart. To be buried in one of these ornate crypts, you must be related to one of Argentina’s “name” families. A general or two in the family tree would also help. The allure of the necropolis is such that even mourners have the air of apartment hunters, doggedly searching out immortality with a view. As one Argentine writer put it, the inhabitants of Recoleta are “more dead and less dead than the ordinary deceased. “This is true of no one more than Eva Peron, reviled and revered wife of the dictator Juan Peron, whose body disappeared for 16 years before it finally came to rest in a black crypt marked simply, “Eva Duarte.” Her inscriptions reads “Volvere y sere millones,” (I will return and be millions), a populist sentiment that does not sit well with many of the families who pay respect at the neighbouring tombs. Although Evita expressed scorn for Argentina’s oligarchy, she was hurt when the society ladies did not invite her to become head of an exclusive charity organization, the Sociedad de Beneficiencia, as was the usual prerogative of Argentine First Ladies. She lies among them now, in a supposedly unrobbable grave under six feet of concrete.
– Next door to the cemetery stand the Basilica of Nuestra Senora del Pilar and Convent of the Recoletos, both completed in 1732 by the Recoletan monks (a Franciscan order) who give the area its name.
– For anyone familiar with the imposing stone exterior of the Latin American cathedral, the Basilica’s mustard and white stucco seems almost cheery. Children play in the nearby playground and on Sundays, artisans gather to sell mate gourds and handmade leather goods. The Basilica houses a Baroque silver altar and woodwork attributed to the Spanish artist and mystic Alonso Cano, yet on a sunny day at Recoleta, you could imagine that they fold the Basilica into a box when the circus gets ready to leave town.
– The russet-red Convent is no longer a convent but a cultural centre which displays aggressive examples of contemporary Argentine art. In one recent exhibition, Las Historietas de Hierro (Cartoons of Iron), visitors were greeted by a highly realistic representation of a dead steelworker crumpled in the entrance hallway. The Centre’s young artists often traffic in images that are violent, grotesque and explicitly sexual. Consequently you may see older Argentines jogging through the exhibitions as if pursued by a bad smell.

Sinful ice cream
– Sex, death and religion all have their own shrines at the Recoleta grounds. After you have paid your respects, walk south across grassy Plaza Alvear towards the large bill-boards that advertise Calvin Klein or some other good thing. You will have arrived at cafes Biela and Del la Paix, which face each other on Avenida Quintana. They are portals to the posh neighbourhood of Recoleta. The most economical thing you could do at this point would be to go down Quintana one block to Ayacucho to have a chocolate amargo (bitter chocolate) ice cream at Freddo. Go south on Ayacucho one block to Alvear and you will witness a sumptuousness that has faded from many quarters of Buenos Aires but which lives on in retail at the Galeria Alvear (1777 Alvear) and the Galeria Promenade (1885 Alvear inside the Alver Hotel). The Alvear’s newly restored, gleaming lobby is a favourite spot for afternoon tea. (Along the opposite cemetery wall, on Calle Azuenaga, you may have spotted a row of hotels called hoteles transitorios or telos. These are not student pensions but Buenos Aires’ highly discreet answer to indiscretion.

Jockey Club and old silver
– Walking southwest down Alvear, you will pass a number of the city’s finest apartment buildings, scrupulously copied from the French. There is no choicer spot in Buenos Aires than this (for the living; the dead have Recoleta). You may gaze upon the French and Brazilian embassies, and, more importantly, the Jockey Club, the citadel of Argentine anglophilia. The doors of the Jockey Club open for no man who cannot produce impeccable references and an equally impeccable suit; women are allowed only in the dining room. If you choose to postpone your membership bid, continue down Alvear which becomes Arroyo and then crosses Avenida Nueve de Julio. Gape at Nueve de Julio’s obscenely large obelisk on your right but press on to the next cross street, Carlos Pellegrini. There on the left is Plaza Cataluna, a striking piece of urban redesign consisting of a mural by Josep Niebla painted n great slashes of colour across the sides of several Dickensian-looking houses.

Plaza San Martin
– There is one proper way to enter Plaza San Martin and that is to enter from Avenida Santa Fe. Described by one Argentine writer as a “prolongation” of New York or Paris, Santa Fe offers everything imaginable in leather and will satisfy a reasonable number of other desires as well. Because of the generally enervated state of the Argentine economy, the cost of high fashion here is medium or low for the tourist. Portenos spend a lot of time looking in shop windows. Some of these windows hold only the nylon-covered legs of mannequins, suspended in mid-air, a disturbing sight if you have not grown up with such things.
– Browsing southward on Santa Fe, the avenue opens up into the Plaza San Martin, a palm-fringed greensward dominated by the bronze statue of San Martin upon his horse. Built in 1862, the statue is Argentina’s monument to a lost cause. The general had left his base near the present-day Plaza to wage a war of continental liberation from Spain. He returned to Argentina triumphant, only to discover that internal bickering had undone his vision of a liberal, unified South America.
– The area around the Plaza is an upscale mix of travel agencies, government buildings and expensive restaurants. It is pleasant but a little dull. Since you know that San Martin will not unfreeze in mid-gallop to restore Argentina to glory with one mad dash down Avenida Santa Fe, you head southeast, downhill to the enormous thoroughfare, Avenida Del Libertador. Along the way, you will pass the Sheraton Hotel, a true yanqui vision, with its shopping gallery enclosed in an inflated fabric tunnel.
– Farther up Libertador is the Museo Ferroviario Argentina (Railways Museum, Liberator 405), worth a quick stop, and then on Avenidas Libertador and Callao, the Ital Park Amusement Park which should be worth a roller-coaster ride. In any event, the rollercoaster’s airy architecture is a nice visual counterpoint to the Greco-Roman mass of the University of Buenos Aires Law School still farther up the road.

Fine Arts
– You may take the pedestrian bridge in front of the Law School, cutting back over Libertador which has branched off to the west. Now you will be hard upon the Museo de Bellas Artes (National Fine Arts Museum, 1437 Libertador), red bulging-columned classical building. A minute’s walk away is the Cultural Centre.
– On the first floor are nudes by Rodin Gauguin, Manet and others.
– The second floor of the Bellas Artes is more interesting than the first since you will not find its likes in London or New York. There are portraits of the Argentine aristocracy, painted with all the solemnity of imported European convention; in another room folkloric canvases romanticizing the hard men of the pampas; and in another, panoramic paintings by Candido Lopez (1840 – 1902) detailing the glorious carnage of military campaigns against South American neighbours. Back on Libertador, continue your northerly walk for several more blocks alongside pleasant parklands. You will come to Calle Austria on whose southwest corner is the desolate National Library, which was abandoned for lack of funds. Two blocks up the street at Austria and Las Heras the well-to-do ladies of Buenos Aires – las gordas (the fat ones) – congregate at the Cafe Fontaine for chocolate cake…

Need A New Wardrobe? Revitalize What You Have!

Ah, the moment has finally arrived. You’ve lost those extra pounds and you’re rejoicing because the clothes that once fit you are hanging in piles at your feet. You have enough cash saved to buy yourself some nice new wardrobe enhancers, and the Dumpster is already eagerly awaiting its next meal; your old clothes. Before you throw out every single thing in your closet, remember that some items can be recycled.

Have pants that no longer fit? There are a few options here. You can hem in the waist, but the legs will still look baggy. If you absolutely can’t find any way that they can still be worn, don’t throw them away; see if anyone in your family can use them. If not, thrift stores and places such as the Salvation Army will gladly welcome new donations. If you love the look of your old pants and can’t bear to let them go, consider cutting them apart and resewing to make shorts or a skirt. Even if you don’t sew, you will probably be able to find someone among friends or family who will help you out in this department.

If you just bought a new pair of jeans but have now lost a lot of weight and can no longer fit in them, try to get as much use out of them as possible. I purchased jeans when I was between sizes; the size was too big, but a smaller size would not have fit. Now they are ridiculously floppy but I pull them in with a tight belt until I allow myself a shopping spree. Don’t waste new pants just because they’re big; make sure to get lots of use out of them until you buy a new pair. See if you can hem in the waist; often, jeans will be too big around the waist but fit just comfortably around the legs.

Perhaps the neck of what was once your favorite shirt has now stretched too low to wear in public. You can sew inserts into the shirt by adding lace or other material. By simply turning the shirt inside out and applying the proper stitches, you can add modesty and a touch of color to your blouse and it will still look great. This doesn’t work for every shirt, so you might want to hold the chosen material behind the blouse to see how it will look before you actually start sewing. Before tossing shirts you’ll never touch again, consider cutting out squares for quilts, craft projects, or anything else you may be able to think of.

Sweaters can look good even if they would normally be too big for you; many find it fashionable to wear a long sweater that isn’t tight and fitted. Personally I have a beautiful black sweater that I just didn’t want to get rid of. It was two sizes too big, and even though shrinking helped a tiny bit, it still looked bulky. I solved this problem by wearing a gold belt over the waist of the sweater; it helped pull it in and give more of a fitted appearance. Belts over shirts are very popular currently and this is definitely something you could try.

Remember that it may not be a horrible thing if pajamas are a bit too large or even much too large; you’ll want them loose and comfortable for lounging around at home. Trying to shrink pajamas might work somewhat, but it probably won’t shrink enough to be a perfect fit. Since pajamas and often sleepwear items are often already floppy and loose-fitting, you shouldn’t need to worry about replacing this part of your wardrobe right away. Casual at-home sweaters and cardigans that are too large for your now-thinner frame might be more comfortable because of it.

If you have a whole closetful of socks, you shouldn’t throw them out just because you’ve lost weight; they’ll still fit, and if they’re in good shape you can save yourself a lot of money (designer socks aren’t cheap). If you *do* need socks, check the material; certain thin materials tear easily and you’re soon running to the clothing department again. You also won’t need to replace shoes right away as you won’t be losing much weight off your feet. If you have good shoes, that’s money you will save.

This isn’t to say you won’t still want to buy a new wardrobe; I’m looking forward to the time I can go out and pick out anything I like without worrying about looking for special sizes. It just means you shouldn’t waste years worth of clothing without being sure there aren’t some things you can revitalize first.

By Lacie R. Schaeffer

Experiencing India

By Simon Woodhouse

Is there a more mysterious, evocative country than India? Maybe, but as travel experiences go, the sub-continent has got to be one of the most exciting, challenging destinations. It’s a conundrum, a contradiction in terms. It’s a place where palaces sit side by side with shantytowns. There’s great wealth, but also abject poverty. There are towering mountains and clear, blue oceans. A trip to India can be described in many ways, but boring certainly isn’t one of them.

When you arrive in India, you’ll be one of over two and a half million other tourists who visit each year. Before you get that far, however, it might be worth considering when you want to go. As with everything else in India, the climate can go from one extreme to another. Geographically speaking, India is a big place (over three and a quarter million square kilometers), which means the weather at one end of the country won’t be the same as it is at the other. Out of the three seasons – hot, wet and cool, cool is the best. This generally runs from November to February.

Traveling around within Indian borders is relatively easy if you want to fly. Deregulation has recently led to a proliferation of airlines, whereas only a few years ago Air India dominated the marketplace. For a real taste of India, however, train travel will offer you a totally new experience. Perhaps it’s not for the faint hearted. From booking a ticket to understanding commuter etiquette, riding by train in India will be something you’ll never forget. But compared to the buses, the trains are a piece of cake. Going by bus takes the concept of uncomfortable, unpredictable travel to a whole other level. Car hire is an option, though perhaps driving in India should only be attempted by people with nerves of steel. If you’re a military test pilot, or a Hollywood stuntman, try the hire car option, otherwise forget it. There are numerous types of taxi style transports to be found in India, which include auto-rickshaws, cycle-rickshaws and horse drawn carriages, but don’t expect to see a working meter.

When people think of Indian cuisine, they think of curry. But curry is an English word, and a rough translation of the Indian word Kari, which means spiced sauce. Because it’s a generic term, you won’t actually be able to ask for a curry. Instead, you’ll have to choose a particular dish, of which there are many. Buying any sort of food from a street vender is probably not advisable. That’s not to say they’re all bad, but unless you’ve got specific experience of a particular vender, you won’t know what you’re letting yourself in for. Likewise, don’t drink the water. Bottled water is a must in India, and make sure the seal around the cap hasn’t been broken.

The Indian calendar is loaded with festivals and celebrations. Many of these are regional, and not always religious. The Republic Day Festival is a secular celebration that takes place in Delhi. It has a heavy military theme, but there is also a parade that comes complete with elephants. Diwali (or Deepavaali as it’s also known) is the most enthusiastic of the Hindu festivals, and lasts for five days during October and November. It’s also known as the Festival of Lights, and much of the celebrations center around lamps and lanterns.

If you’re after a more relaxing time in India, the country has some excellent beaches. The district of Kerala, in the south west, boasts quite a few. The Andaman Islands out in the Bay of Bengal are also pretty good beach-wise, as is the island of Goa. Maybe lying in the sun or swimming in the sea isn’t your thing. India has some excellent places to trek, including the mountain regions of Himachal Pradesh , Sikkim, and Leh. For something more adventurous still, how about mountaineering in the Himalayas. As mountains go, they’re the big ones. There are also an abundance of temple sites to visit in India, with the most well known being the Golden Temple of Amritsar in the Majha region of the Punjab.

Wherever you go in India, it’s a good idea to check ahead and see what the political situation is like. Certain areas within the country are prone to periods of civil unrest, or even armed conflict between various factions. Getting caught up in one of these fracas would not make for a good vacation. But you shouldn’t let that put you off visiting India as a whole. If you use a bit of common sense, and do a bit of research, India will make for one of the most interesting travel destinations you’re ever likely to visit.

Great East Coast Towns

By Brandi M. Seals

Like many people, I absolutely love seaside towns. I do not know what it is about them, but they give off a different vibe. They somehow seem more relaxed, and yet they often have plenty of attractions to keep visitors busy.

In recent years, I have made it my goal to visit every state in the US. Currently I have 36 states under my belt. I cannot give an opinion on any coastal towns on the west coast because I have not been there yet. I have, however, been almost everywhere on the east coast. Only Florida and Maine have yet to be graced with my presence.

Below are my favorite seaside towns. Each one is unique in its own right.

Ocean City, New Jersey
Ocean City is a quaint town during the winter months when it has some 15,000 residents but it swells to a bustling locale when nearly 100,000 new residents come for the summer months.

Ocean City is really a barrier island along the South Jersey coast. The eastern side of Ocean City lies on the Atlantic Ocean, while the western side faces Great Egg Harbor.

From a visitor’s perspective, it as if no one has a job in Ocean City. The only thing they do is spend time soaking up the sun on one of the beaches. The area is relaxed and has a number of one-of-a-kind restaurants featuring excellent meals. Enjoy pancakes on a terrace overlooking the ocean or stop in for some ice cream at a local shop.

Ocean City is considered a very family friendly resort area because it does not allow for the sale of alcohol within its city limits. If you are looking for hot nightlife and a clubbing atmosphere, Ocean City is not for you.

Charleston, South Carolina
One would think Charleston is much larger than it really is. Downtown Charleston is actually quaint and very easy to get around. Almost everything worth seeing is within walking distance. Simply park on the street or in one of the parking decks, then get out and explore.

Visitors will find excellent seafood, unique restaurants, a gorgeous boardwalk and several stunning homes. The area is dotted with museums with all sorts of interesting contents. I particuallry enjoyed seeing the confederate memorabilia at the Daughters of the Confederacy Museum.

Shoppers will love the high end stores and open air market located only a short distance apart. Those looking to find out more about the history of the area should go on a guided tour around the city. Sit back and relax as you learn all about the city and its former residents. The tours are given on horse-drawn carriages and are quite interesting.

Wilmington, North Carolina
No one can quite seem to understand my fascination with Wilmington. Of course, that is coming from people that have not been there. It may not be a traditional travel location because it does not have tons of big landmarks, and it does not have that tourists trap feel to it. It is what it is – a relaxed seaside town.

The historic downtown area is my favorite. Visitors can tour gorgeous homes, admire monuments and fountains, and walk along the boardwalk. Sure there are beaches there too, but it is the small town feel that Wilmington has that I absolutely love.

Newport, Rhode Island
Newport is the largest city on Aquidneck Island. It is located in Narragansett Bay and is covered with huge mansions built for some of the richest families in America. It has great views, long beaches, a busy marina, and much more.

Newport was a happening place back in colonial times. It was the center for the slave trade in New England. In fact, visitors that stop by the Old Brick Market can see first hand where many slave auctions were held. Another point of interest is the Common Burial Ground. Located on Fairwell Street, this is where most of the slaves were buried.

John F. Kennedy and Jacqueline Bouvier were married in Newport at St. Mary’s Church. It remained an important spot for the couple, as they often visited the area and stayed at the Hammersmith Farm.

No visit to Newport is complete without at least one tour of the majestic homes that dot the area.

Wilmington, North Carolina

By Brandi M. Seals

Wilmington, North Carolina is a beautiful place that draws its fair share of tourists, but it does not feel like a tourist town. Wilmington manages to maintain a small town feel despite covering a large area.

I visited Wilmington for the first time recently and loved every moment I spent there. The historic downtown area is relaxed and filled with locales just passing the time. Visitors can walk the boardwalk and enjoy the breeze coming up off the river before stopping for a hot dog that a vender can dish up in a matter of seconds.

There are tons of local shops and restaurants to visit. There are beaches to relax on while getting a tan. I cannot quite describe the vibe that the area gives off but it is one that immediately puts you at ease and you can take your time to really enjoy everything that the town has to offer.

I recommend stopping over at the Serpentarium. It is an interesting place located on Orange Street near River Street. It is an easy walk from anywhere downtown and visitors will be able to see some very rare and unusual snakes. The black mamba and cobra are among the most deadly snakes in the world and they can be found at the Serpentarium along with bushmasters, alligators, and various rattlers.

Each snake comes with a death rating. Unlike zoos that might only tell you where the snake naturally lives, the Serpentarium provides information on how the snake strikes, how its venom works or even relays stories of snake bites. The founder of the Serpentarium, Dean Ripa, has been bitten by a few of the snakes and his tales are recounted. With the bushmasters alone, Ripa has been bitten four times, making him the person most bitten by bushmasters ever. That is amazing, considering studies show that 80 percent of those bitten by a bushmaster die even with anti-venom treatment.

After studying the fascinating snakes, head over to Kilwin’s on Market Street and choose a treat to satisfy your sweet tooth. I enjoyed a toasted coconut ice cream cone. Kilwin’s is a chain and I have enjoyed their fudge up in Mackinaw City and Mackinac Island before, but this was the first time I had tried their ice cream. It really is excellent, especially on a warm summer day.

For an actual meal, try one of the restaurants along the boardwalk. You might even get to enjoy your meal from an outdoor patio.

Downtown is filled with several old mansions that tourists can explore for a small price. If you have time, find one that suits your fancy and have a look. I went to the Bellamy Mansion on Market Street and enjoy seeing the gorgeous home up close and personal.

Away from the downtown area you will find beaches that stretch along most of the coast, shopping malls and plazas, and an aquarium out at Fort Fisher, which is only a short drive away.

The North Carolina Aquarium at Fort Fisher is not a big aquarium, but it does have numerous things to see. They have a collection of sea turtles, alligators, look downs and more. I have gone to a lot of aquariums but I had never seen a burrfish up close before. If you are familiar with blowfish, a burrfish looks similar only smaller. I also got to pet a horseshoe crab, spider crab, and various other animals.

The staff is very knowledgeable and always willing to answer questions. Go at the right time and you can catch an informational session given from a diver in the largest tank in the aquarium. There is also a very interesting session on whales and dolphins. I learned some new stuff and got to touch baleen. It was a great experience.

On the way back to Wilmington from the aquarium, stop in for a bite at any of the seafood restaurants that line the street.

Since I went to Wilmington in November, I was not able to take advantage of one of the many beaches located there, but they are numerous and if I ever get the chance to go during the warmer months, rest assured I will be lying on one of beaches soaking up the sun.

Travel Guide: Making Room For Furry Friends

Many of us would have a much more enjoyable time on a family vacation if we could bring our beloved pets along to partake of the fun. Sadly, our logical minds usually decide it’s too much hassle to make room in the backseat for our furry friends, or we don’t want to hear incessant barking or meowing for hours, or we don’t want to bother finding a hotel or motel that accommodates pets. It’s actually very simple to plan a trip with your dog or cat in mind. Here are some tips that will make things much easier for those traveling with pets:

(1) Make sure you have an appropriate travel carrier. Depending on what kind of pet you have and what kind of vehicle you will be traveling in, carrier sizes vary. I don’t recommend allowing dogs, especially large dogs, to have free reign in the vehicle. A medium-sized cage with plenty of room for your pet to look out and take part in the action should be fine.

If you’re traveling with a cat, you’ll want to clean and perhaps reline the cage and its cushion before the trip; cats will remember their smell from before and won’t be too happy about a “dirty” cage. If your cage didn’t come with any cushioning, you might consider cutting up old t-shirts, wadding cotton inside, and taping the shirts to create a comfy pillow. This way when roads get rough, your little fur-baby won’t be bruised.

(2) Take a separate suitcase just for your pet. This may seem like a hassle but it really isn’t that bad. Your suitcase (or bag, purse, etc.) should include (1) newspapers – just incase he or she can’t reach the litterbox or go out for a walk in time; (2) water bowls and both wet and dry food bowls; (3) water bottles, since chlorine water isn’t good for pets; (4) any special treats or toys that you think will help make the trip easier; (5) a collar and leash if you intend to take your pet outside at all; (6) a litterbox and plenty of litter if you are taking a cat; (7) different varieties of wet and dry food; and (8) sleeping gear for your pet. This would include an enclosed area if you’re not going to let him roam at night, a sleeping pillow, a robe to lie on, etc.

(3) Keep in mind that pets (much like people) will need plenty of rest stops. Dogs simply won’t wait to be walked, and cats will wail for their litterbox. You’ll want to get pets out at a quiet spot, away from the traffic and noises of the main road. If you stop at a visitor center with walking paths, take your pet away from the main hubbub to do their business. If you’re taking a cat who is anything like mine and will simply refuse to use the litterbox at all while traveling, be prepared to have her hold it in until the hotel room.

(4) Don’t get angry at pets for causing noise. If your dog or cat has never been away from home before, there will probably be some loud protests. Stick a safe toy through the bars in the carrier and keep him or her entertained when whining begins; it will soon be quiet if you can get their minds on something else. If the barking or meowing *doesn’t* stop immediately, let time take its course. Animals will often get bored when they see you’re not going to cater to them, and they’ll accept defeat.

(5) If you’re vacationing at a time of year when fleas and ticks are abundant, make sure to use a flea collar or some kind of medicinal treatment on your pet before going outside. It will save you a lot of trouble in the future. If your pet seems to have a bite or be in any pain, monitor him for signs of illness and keep him away from the great outdoors for awhile. You’ll always want to keep furry family members out of mud and any other substance that can be transferred to the backseat of your car.

(6) Before leaving your home, you’ll need to check out hotels in the area where you will be staying. Many won’t accommodate animals and you don’t want to discover that fact when you arrive. You will want to not only see if they allow pets, but also if there is an extra fee for those pets. It’s better to know ahead of time than to arrive at your destination and find out that no local hotels allow your cat or dog. Chances are, there will be at least one pet-friendly hotel at your destination of choice, so do a thorough search.

By Lacie R. Schaeffer


By Brandi M. Seals

Last week I was away on vacation. My husband and I did a bit of a road trip, visiting many parts of North Carolina and South Carolina. One of my favorite destinations was Charleston. I would have thought the city was bigger, but really it was easy to get around and there was not much traffic (unless it was rush hour).

Charleston, South Carolina (try HotelBox for travel deals) has been an important city for years. It is the site of Fort Sumter, numerous plantations, and much more. It does not matter what you are into, there is something for everyone in Charleston.

History buffs will want to hit all the obligatory sites like the fort, Boone Hall Plantation, historic downtown, and the Old Exchange.

Fort Sumter is located on a small island in Charleston Harbor. It is where the Civil War started on April 12, 1861. Confederate soldiers opened fire on the Federal fort and within 34 hours the Union forces surrendered. You will not find many in the south that refer to the war as the Civil War; they usually call it the War Between the States. There is no fee for visiting the fort, but you will need to take a private boat or pay for the ferry to get there.

Before heading out to the fort, visit the Fort Sumter Visitor Education Center at Liberty Square. The facility, located at 340 Concord Street, is open daily from 8:30 AM to 5 PM, except on select holidays.

If one fort is not enough, swing on over to Sullivan’s Island and take a tour of Fort Moultrie (also part of the Fort Sumter National Park). This lesser known fort was used during the Revolutionary War to fight against British occupation.

Boone Hall Plantation is a short drive outside the city. The home is beautiful and is open for tours, along with some of the old slave cabins. The tour guides will give you a tour and fill you in on all the interesting tidbits from the past. For example, the former owner was a fence for pirates back in the day. Now the plantation is used as a you-pick farm where residents can find fresh peaches, strawberries and much more.

In the heart of Charleston, visitors will find a unique building. It is the Old Exchange and Provost Dungeon. The land that the Old Exchange stands on used to be home to the Half-Moon Bastion, an original fortification in Charles Town.

The Old Exchange offers tours of its three floors. Each highlights aspects of Charleston’s history during colonial times and the Revolutionary War. Some Charleston residents even gathered here to sign the US Constitution. The building details the building’s history and includes a trip through the Provost Dungeon where pirates and others were once held captive.

One less well known museum is the Daughters of the Confederacy Museum located above the Old City Market where Meeting and Market meets. They have collected numerous artifacts that range from original confederate flags and bullets to rare slave tags and more.

If you prefer visiting one of a kind boutiques or hitting up high end retailers, you will also love Charleston. Stop by Market Street. Between East End and Meeting streets there is an open air market where vendors gather everyday to sell their wares.

Up the street a little farther, visitors will find Saks Fifth Avenue. Stop by and marvel at all the designer duds. If you are into high fashion, Saks is a stop you just cannot miss.

Outside of downtown, visitors will find a large outlet center. Visit the Gap outlet and load up on basics or pick up a nice watch over at Fossil.

Stop for a bite to eat at one of the many restaurants in the area. I recommend the Noisy Oyster located at 24 N. Market. Try the Baked Chicken Neptune. It is delicious and features a blue crab stuffing that is to die for. You will also find the Bubba Gump Shrimp Company and several other restaurants featuring fresh and delicious seafood.

Charleston is a walking city so park the car and get out and walk around. If you are used to walking you can see just about everything you want to on foot (at least downtown). For those that will need to drive a little, there are a number of meter spaces available and parking garages.

Visiting the Queen City in the Heartland

The city of Cincinnati has lost much of its tourism economy in recent decades. Much of that loss is well-deserved. The city has done little to attract good tourists, and many people feel frightened there because of the number of panhandlers and the amount of crime. This loss of tourism may have caused many people to miss out on the wonderful parts of the city, however.

Cincinnati is home to some of the best museums in the nation. The Freedom Center, which opened in 2005, is home to a number of exhibits on the Underground Railroad and other parts of the civil rights movement. For the uninitiated, Cincinnati played a vital role in the movement of slaves in the antebellum era. The Ohio River served as the border between free and slave, and many slaves made Cincinnati their freedom destination. This museum has been hailed as one of the most comprehensive resources on civil rights history.

The Cincinnati Zoo consistently ranks among the best in the nation in league with the San Diego Zoo and other well-known animal habitats around the country. The Cincinnati Zoo has train rides, animal rides, and all of the excitement of a major zoo with some pretty neat animals as well. The Krohn Conservatory is a must-see on the list of Cincinnati attractions. This privately owned botanical garden has rooms representing each of the seven continents. Visitors can go into the rooms and see what plants live in Africa or Asia. The Conservatory curators work to provide interesting plant life that you will not find easily in other botanical gardens. The gardens also are home to rooms of bamboo, roses, and other interesting fauna. The best part about the conservatory is that admission is free! While a donation is suggested (and certainly deserved) a family can visit the conservatory for very little money.

While in Cincinnati, taking in a game is a real possibility. Whether it is a Bengals game, the Reds, or the University of Cincinnati basketball team, the Queen City has sports galore, and they are adding more. Two minor-league hockey teams call Cincinnati home in addition to a female football team and several other minor sports franchise. Getting out to see the games will allow you to spend time on the Cincinnati riverfront. While the Ohio River is not the most impressive you will see, it does cut a nice swatch through the city.

It must be said as well that you should venture over to the Kentucky side of Cincinnati if you are in town for a bit of fun and shopping. Technically called Newport, this little part of Cincinnati is quickly growing into the entertainment district of the city. Newport on the Levee is the massive entertainment complex and features a movie theater, retail stores, and a number of high-end restaurants and bars. During the day, families may enjoy the fun of Newport, but in the evenings, it is the happening spot for fun-loving couples and singles to party. The young professional crowd tends to spend a good bit of time in this part of Cincinnati.

Newport also is home to the Newport Aquarium, which has brought in a number of tourists since opening a few years ago. The aquarium features rooms with small tanks filled with various kinds of fish. When you get into the larger part of the aquarium, you will find yourself walking under shark-infested waters and coming face-to-face with other sea life. The aquarium staff holds various special exhibits and presentations throughout the year.

If you are in the Queen City during the spring or summer weekends, you should stop by Findlay Market. An outdoor market, Findlay offers more fresh produce (and at cheaper prices) than you could imagine. You also can get fresh-cut meats there. Plus you can purchase fine cheeses and ready-to-eat food. Local artisans and crafters also sell their wares, which range from beaded jewelry to paintings of the city.

So, the next time you are considering a place to go, check out Cincinnati. You may find that a jazz festival or another wonderful event is happening at just the right time for you to enjoy this city. Just remember to be careful on your visit.