Hole in the Donut Cultural Travel
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It’s fashionable to say that New York is the greatest city in the world, but this Chicago girl prefers the Second City. For the first time in many years, I had an opportunity to spend summer in the Chicagoland area, where my family still lives. As I always do whenever I’m here, I took one of the many walking tours offered by the Chicago Architecture Foundation. Last time I opted for a lunchtime tour of the Chicago Board of Trade Building, which provided a fascinating in-depth architectural look into the art deco skyscraper and allowed me to watch commodities traders screaming out orders in the “pit.” Since I focus on issues of culture, this time I chose the Treasures of Culture and Commerce walking tour in downtown Chicago, which promised to share the stories behind the great architectural landmarks of State Street and Michigan Avenue from the late 19th and early 20th centuries.

So much has changed since I grew up on the south side of Chicago. When I was a child, mom and dad would take my sisters and I downtown for the unveiling of the department store Christmas windows. For days beforehand, the giant windows that front State Street were covered in butcher paper. We’d plaster our noses to those icy window panes, excited beyond words as the paper was peeled away to reveal heaps of toys amidst a wonderland of animated figures.

Eleven-story atrium at Macy's on State Street, formerly Marshall Field 's Department Store

Eleven-story atrium at Macy’s on State Street, formerly Marshall Field ‘s Department Store

Those days are long gone, as are many of the original department stores. Mandel’s, where my mother worked as a young woman, is just a memory. Marshall Field & Company, where we had lunch at the Walnut Room at least once each holiday season, is now a Macy’s. The gargantuan Christmas tree that rose seven floors through the atrium, terminating in the center of the restaurant, has been replaced by a huge American flag. Read More

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Because I delve deeply into local culture during my travels, I tend to stay places for longer periods. As a result, I’ve never tried to visit a city during a long flight layover. Recently, however, I was flying back to the U.S. on Aer Lingus, the national airline of Ireland. I choose them whenever possible, as Aer Lingus is the only airline in the world that allows passengers to clear U.S. Immigration and Customs on Irish soil, rather than at end of the flight, when I’m dead tired. Even though I had flown this route before, I’d never managed to visit Dublin; this time I was determined to carve an extra day out of my busy schedule between flights.

The Spire of Dublin and Jim Larkin statue on O'Connell Street

The Spire of Dublin and Jim Larkin statue on O’Connell Street

Effective use of time was most important, so I chose a hotel near the airport that also had access to the city center via public transportation. Bright and early the next morning I took the hotel shuttle back to the airport and caught the Airlink Airport Express Bus into Dublin, about a 40 minute trip. The Express Bus deposited me half a block from O’Connell Street, the main thoroughfare in Dublin, where I jumped aboard the Hop-on/Hop-off sightseeing bus and climbed to the upper, open-air deck. These buses are available in many large cities around the world, and whenever possible I take this tour on my first day, as it provides an invaluable orientation to the city. Read More

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For more than 30 years, I’ve been searching for my personal paradise. My criteria isn’t unreasonable. I want a mild climate; good infrastructure (a good international airport, since I travel so much); decent health care; political stability; a low cost of living; cultural opportunities; a low crime rate; availability of quality, fresh, organic fruits and vegetables; access to spiritual programs such as meditation, Buddhism, and Yoga; and a friendly, eco-conscious community. After visiting almost all the States in the U.S. and more than 50 countries, I’d all but given up. My paradise just didn’t seem to exist. And then I was invited to visit Arillas, a small town on the northwestern tip of the island of Corfu, Greece.

Sunny kitchen at Zambeta Apartments

Sunny kitchen at Zambeta Apartments

The first indication that Arillas was different came when my host, Alex Christou, owner of Zambeta Apartments, welcomed me to his complex, installed me in a sunny two-room suite, provided me with a map and some literature, and then left me alone for the next 24 hours. Normally, when I am invited somewhere in my capacity as a travel writer, my host puts together an itinerary so jam packed with events and activities that it makes my head hurt. Wise man that he is, Alex wanted to give me free time to discover Arillas on my own. Read More

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Another day, another tour. This time I have come to the Blue Lagoon on the tiny island of Comino, famous for its clear turquoise waters. Frankly, I am bored out of my mind. Though others are swimming amongst clumps of jellyfish that are fading from royal blue to blue-gray as they die and wash up on the postage stamp beach, the water is too cold for me.

View of the Blue Hole from the cliff -top trail

View of the Blue Hole from the cliff -top trail

An hour after completing an hour hike along the cliff tops, I have commandeered the only patch of shade in sight, to sit and write while I await the return of my boat back to Malta. Trash is scattered over the sand around my feet: piles of cigarette butts; napkins, plastic cups, and straws from the food trucks that shuttered and drove away at 4:30 p.m. In front of me, a row of green plastic trash bins overflows with the detritus of the day. Read More

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After a few days of dodging incessant traffic and fighting pedestrians on cramped sidewalks on the island of Malta, I was in need of some serenity, so I hopped over to Gozo for the day. I felt the shift the moment I stepped off the ferry. Rather than breezes saturated with the smell of stale beer, on Gozo the air was sweet and fresh. Instead of drunks staggering around in the wee hours, tourists on Gozo had flocked to sidewalk cafes to enjoy breakfast and cappuccino in the brilliant morning sunshine.

Sidewalk Cafe in Victoria, the capital of Gozo in the Maltese Islands

Sidewalk Cafe in Victoria, the capital of Gozo in the Maltese Islands

Our van made its way around the island as tour guide, Terry Spiteri, entertained us with stories about Gozitan culture and local traditions.

“Keep your eyes peeled for houses with keys in the front door. This is a long-standing tradition on Gozo. Some say it began during World War II, when the men were away from home fighting for long periods of time. Wives left the keys in the door so that husbands could come home any time of the day or night. Others insist that the women took lovers because the men were away so much, and the key was left in the lock so their paramours could enter as soon as their husbands returned to the battlefield.” Read More

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Nothing defines the culture on the Maltese Islands more than religion. Life revolves around the neighborhood Catholic churches and once a year, a massive feast is held to honor the patron saint of each church. Festivities start in the spring, and throughout the spring, summer, and fall, there is a feast nearly every weekend, somewhere on the islands.

The entire town turns out for the Feast of St. Publius in Florian, on the islamd of Malta

The entire town turns out for the Feast of St. Publius in Florian, on the islamd of Malta

During my visit, the Feast of St. Publius was scheduled in Floriana, the city adjacent to Malta‘s capital of Valletta. On Sunday morning, I hopped a bus to Floriana, arriving early in the afternoon, before any of the official activities had begun. Huge red pennants, elaborately embroidered in gold, hung above every street, marking the route of the parade that would step off later in the afternoon. Families clustered around tall tables set out in the streets, sipping espresso and snacking on appetizers, while men congregated at the tabernas. Read More