Hole in the Donut Cultural Travel
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The view from my vacation rental apartment in Prague would have been perfect but for an ugly, sterile tower poking up behind lovely old buildings that gleamed golden in the late afternoon sunshine. The more I looked at it, the more I wondered what it was and why it was there.

Ugly Zizkov Television tower pokes up behind pretty buildings in Prague Czech Republic

Ugly Zizkov Television tower pokes up behind Prague’s pretty buildings

My map identified it as the Zizkov Television Tower and Google provided the rest of the details. Construction on this unattractive three-pronged mega-tower began in 1985, when Czechoslovakia (now the Czech Republic) was still one of the Soviet Bloc countries. From the beginning, residents resented and were highly suspicious of the true function of the tower. Rumors circulated that it was intended to jam incoming western radio and television transmissions. Official criticism was banned, however privately people referred to it by a variety of offensive nicknames that referenced its rocket-like design. Read More

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After a month of too-fast travel around England, a whirlwind tour of Morocco, and three brief days in Paris, I arrived in Prague. I was so far behind on my writing that my stress level was pegging the red zone and I was tired. Very, very tired. Fortunately, my friends at GowithOh had arranged for me to stay in one of their holiday rental apartments for a week. I was looking forward to settling in one place for a while and, with the availability of good wifi, cranking out some great travel stories about the places I’d lately visited.

The accommodation was advertised as a cozy apartment near the center of Prague, with living room, dining area and kitchenette and good access to public transportation. The pictures looked gorgeous and the description sounded great, but as a seasoned traveler I know that photos can lie and flowery copy can be deceiving, so I held my breath as I unlocked the front door and stepped inside. Parquet wood floors led down a short hall to a bright living room, where I dropped my luggage and perused my home away from home for the next week. Live plants complemented the tasteful tangerine and pale green decor, which included sofa, two Danish recliners, coffee table, and a flat-screen TV.

Living room in my GowithOh holiday rental apartment in Prague

Living room in my GowithOh holiday rental apartment in Prague

The small kitchen was well-equipped for cooking, though I doubted I would use much more than the microwave for tea, since the owners of the apartment also owned the restaurant downstairs and offered a free breakfast each morning and a 10% discount on dinners during my stay. However it was nice to know that I could save on food costs if I chose by cooking my own meals. Read More

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Finding reasonably priced accommodations in Paris can always be a challenge. Fortunately, a few months ago I discovered St. Christopher’s Inns in Barcelona, which immediately became one of my favorite hostels around the world. So when it came time to find a place to lay my head in the City of Light I was delighted to accept an invitation to try out St. Christopher’s Inns Canal in Paris.

Exterior of the hostel by night. Photo courtesy of St. Christopher's Inns Canal, Paris

Exterior of the hostel by night. Photo courtesy of St. Christopher’s Inns Canal, Paris

When choosing accommodations, the most important issues for me are safety, wifi availability in the room, location, and cleanliness, in that order. I want to be able to walk the neighborhood streets alone after dark without concern, write from the comfort of my bed in the evenings, have access to good local restaurants and public transportation, and not feel like I could pick up a case of diphtheria just by walking into the bathroom. St. Christopher’s Inns Canal in Paris not only passed my litmus test, they passed with flying colors. Just as in their Barcelona and London facilities, I found dorm bunks equipped with privacy curtains, a personal lamp, an electric receptacle, and a big wire cage on wheels that slid out from beneath my bunk bed for locking up my valuables. Access to the elevator and rooms (300 in total!) was by key-card, enduring safety. Read More

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The first clue that things might not go smoothly on my tour of Morocco was when no one from Best of Morocco Tours met me at the Casablanca airport. Since I would be a guest of the company during the 17-day tour, I did not even know the name of the hotel I would be staying at, so I wandered around the terminal building, hoping that my guide was on his way. Twenty minutes later, a tall, thin man sauntered up to me, flashed a broad grin, and offered his hand with no hint of apology.

Barbara, I am Jaouad. I was having coffee in the cafe.”

As we climbed into his car he dropped the next bomb. “I forgot to tell you that you will be sharing a room. I hope that is OK?” After a slight hesitation he added, “Of course, if you prefer a private room I can arrange this.” But the message was clear; I was expected to share accommodations.

Prior to performing, Berber Musicians warm up their drums before an open fire in the Ourika Valley

Prior to performing, Berber Musicians warm up their drums before an open fire in the Ourika Valley

I wish I could say things improved from that point but it soon became clear that organization and communication issues would plague this tour. At the Idou Anfa Hotel and Spa, I was not allowed to join the other members of my group at breakfast. Instead, I was shunted off to a separate room where the fare was coffee, bread and butter rather than the lavish Continental buffet being enjoyed by everyone else. Read More

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An employee handed us each a sprig of mint as we filed into the door of the Chouara Tannery. “Oh, they’re going to make tea for us, how nice,” I thought. I picked my way up the dark, narrow stairway, emerging three flights later into an open-air leather goods shop, where we were led to a terrace overlooking the tannery pits. The stench of rotting flesh and ammonia hit me full-force. Sheepishly, I held the mint under my nostrils, realizing it was meant to help mask the odor that emanated from the pits below.

The largest tannery in Fez, Morocco, seen from one of three surrounding terraces where finished leather goods are sold

The largest tannery in Fez, Morocco, seen from one of three surrounding terraces where finished leather goods are sold

Chouara Tannery, largest of the three tanneries in Fez, Morocco, was built in the 11th century and leather goods have been produced there using the exact same method for more than a thousand years. Skins are first placed into the white vats, which contain a mixture of water, limestone, and pigeon droppings. The limestone helps to remove hair from the skins while the acid in the pigeon droppings softens the hides. Three days later the skins are removed and washed, after which they are placed in the dying pits. Read More

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Our 4×4 jeep was trouncing over hardpan sand at the edges of the Sahara Desert when I noticed an ominous black cloud rising behind the low hills over my left shoulder.

I think there’s a sandstorm on the way,” I said to the driver.

Is nothing,” he tossed back casually.

I hesitated. I was certainly no authority on the Saharan Desert or Morocco, so I was inclined to trust him, but having lived in Arizona for 12 years, I’d been through my fair share of sandstorms. “No, I’m fairly sure it’s a sandstorm, and a pretty big one at that,” I reiterated.

As we drove toward our Saharan Desert camp, I looked over my shoulder and saw a sandstorm coming over the distant hills

Sandstorm flows over the distant hills as we drive to our tent camp in the Saharan Desert of Morocco

As we drove the last few kilometers to our tent camp the driver casually suggested to our tour host, Dror Sinai, that we could do a sunrise camel ride the following morning rather the evening sunset ride. Before he could reply we crested a final rise in the dirty washboard sand and descended into a Laurence of Arabia landscape. Wave after wave of caramel-colored dunes stretched to the horizon. Scattered around the sinuous peaks and valleys, a caravan of ratty-looking camels nonchalantly chewed their cud. Read More