Hole in the Donut Cultural Travel
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Author Miriam Beard, daughter of the American historians Charles A. and Mary R. Beard said, “Travel is more than the seeing of sights; it is a change that goes on, deep and permanent, in the ideas of living.”

The longer I travel, the more I realize the truth of this statement. Prior to visiting Paris for the first time, I associated it with the Eiffel Tower and Louvre Museum. After three visits, the City of Light evoked the yeasty aroma of fresh-baked bread from the boulangerie and sipping espresso at sidewalk cafes. Mexico once meant the artificially created tourist island of Cancun. Four and a half months of wandering around the country made Mexico synonymous with its Pueblos Mágicos (Magic Towns), where families emerge from their houses in the cool of the evening to share the gossip and exchange news. Everywhere I go, a shift happens deep within me as I immerse in the local culture.

Russia was no different. I expected and saw broad boulevards choked with traffic, and immense stark buildings. I visited Red Square and the Kremlin in Moscow, as well as the Hermitage Museum in St. Petersburg. But by the end of my journey, more than any of the iconic tourist sights, the essence of Russia was defined by its exquisite churches.

Dormition Cathedral, Patriarchs Palace and Church of the Twelve Apostles, Bell Tower of Ivan the Great in Cathedral Square at the Kremlin in Moscow

Dormition Cathedral, Patriarchs Palace and Church of the Twelve Apostles, Bell Tower of Ivan the Great in Cathedral Square at the Kremlin in Moscow

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Russia had intrigued me for years, but traveling solo in this vast land where few speak English had always seemed a daunting prospect. My recent trip to Berlin had not helped; a tour guide insisted that Russia was the only place on earth where the life expectancy was lower than it had been 50 years ago, due to excessive use of alcohol. To my stereotype of a dark, brooding people, shackled by an oppressive regime that controlled every nuance of society and assigned KGB agents to spy on tourists, I added mental images of streets littered with drunken, homeless people. But it was too late to worry. Prior to arriving in Berlin I had finally arranged to visit Russia. There was no turning back.

Fortunately, I had chosen to travel with Viking River Cruises on their Waterway of the Tsars cruise, a 13-day voyage between Moscow and St. Petersburg on the Volga-Baltic Waterway, which promised an English-speaking crew and local, bilingual tour guides. From the moment I stepped on board the Viking Akun in Moscow, I knew I’d made the right decision. Built in 1989, my ship had originally sailed the Black Sea and later, served as an oil platform on Lake Ladoga. Viking acquired the ship in 2013; after a complete refurbishing it was launched as the Viking Akun in May of this year.

My spacious stateroom aboard the Viking Akun

My spacious stateroom aboard the Viking Akun

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People visit Berlin for the history of the Berlin Wall, to stand in front of the historic Brandenburg Gate and walk down the Unter den Linden, and for its constantly evolving gallery and clubbing scene. So much has been written on these attributes that there is little to add. But beyond these well-know attractions lies a surprising number of reasons to visit Berlin that few talk about, including the following:

The Food:

Many places I visit are fairly one-dimensional where food is concerned. But Berlin, being home to immigrants from all over the world, has embraced multi-cultural cuisine to a degree I’ve rarely seen. The city has 4,650 restaurants and more doner kebab shops than Istanbul! Within a five block radius of my apartment in the neighborhood of Kreuzberg I found Thai, Chinese, Italian, Greek, Korean, Croatian, Vietnamese, Japanese, Vegetarian, French, and Turkish restaurants, plus a soup bar, a salad bar, a delicatessen, and numerous coffee shops. And of course, you can’t forget traditional German food, especially the pretzels, sausage sandwiches, and currywurst sold at kiosks all around the city.

Open-air cafe on the banks of the River Spree

Open-air cafe on the banks of the River Spree

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Twenty five years ago, on the evening of 9 November 1989, the Berlin Wall fell. Berlin had been on my travel wish list for a long time. With the 25th anniversary of the fall of the wall looming, I decided to put it off no longer.

The city did not immediately impress me. The apartment I rented for a week was in a 15-story high rise in the Kreuzberg area, just a ten minute stroll from the infamous Checkpoint Charlie that marked the border between the American and Soviet sectors in the days when there was still an East and West Berlin. From my 4th floor window I looked down on a sea of squat, uninteresting structures. Some of this uninspired architecture owes it’s existence to Hitler, who espoused a Nationalist style that valued function over form and eschewed even the most basic ornamentation. But to blame Hitler solely would be a mistake. By the end of World War Two, 60% of the city’s buildings had been razed and another 20% were unusable.

Standing in front of the Brandenburg Gate, which sat in the no-man's land between the two sides of the Berlin Wall during the Cold War

Standing in front of the Brandenburg Gate, which sat in the no-man’s land between the two sides of the Berlin Wall during the Cold War. Today it is the symbol of Berlin and the reunification of Germany.

Russians troops, who reached the city in December of 1945, were intent upon revenge for the 20 million of their countrymen who had fallen. Berliners fought, not on behalf of the Third Reich, but in a desperate attempt to protect their families. After surrender, even the buildings still standing were pocked by mortar shells and bullet holes. Berlin was little more than a pile of bricks.

“It was women who rebuilt the city,” one of my tour guides from Context Walking Tours explained. “So many of the men had been killed in the war. Every day the women, my mother among them, would go to the streets to clean and stack the bricks so they could be reused.” In the face of such devastation, little consideration was given to designing beautiful buildings. Read More

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Route 66. Just hearing the name makes me nostalgic for the days when I threw my tent and sleeping bag in the back of my 1969 Dodge Dart and headed west in search of adventure. I came by my romantic notions of travel quite naturally. Not only had I spent long hours poring over photos of exotic lands in the National Geographic Magazines piled up in our front hall, the television series Route 66 debuted in 1960 and quickly became a smash hit. I didn’t know it at the time but the name of the show was hugely misleading, as many of the episodes were set in states through which Route 66 did not travel. The bulk of the episodes, however, focused on the American West, leading me to believe that Route 66 was located in the western U.S.

Our route for the day - Route 66 from Pontiac to Wilmington, Illinois

Our route for the day – Route 66 from Pontiac to Wilmington, Illinois

In truth, America’s Mother Road began in Chicago and ended in Los Angeles. Beginning in 1926, when the nation’s Federal highway system was authorized, it was cobbled together from a web of of existing local, State, and national roads; ultimately its 2,448 miles of pavement provided the primary connection between the Midwest and the Pacific Coast. As more and more families were able to afford cars in the years leading up to World War II, Route 66 came to represent freedom, adventure, and opportunity in the American psyche. This “Golden Era of the Automobile” lasted until 1956, when construction of the Interstate Highway System began and many sections of Route 66 were subsumed by the new superhighways. The last section of Route 66 was bypassed by Interstate 40 in 1984. A year later the last road signs were removed and U.S. Highway 66 was officially decommissioned. All along its route, the stores, motels, service stations, and roadside attractions that had depended upon the historic road for their livelihood went into decline, in many cases disappearing altogether. Read More

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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