Hole in the Donut Cultural Travel

The National Opera House in Minsk, Belarus

The Opera House in Minsk, Belarus, is officially named the National Academic Grand Opera and Ballet Theatre of the Republic of Belarus, but most just call it the Bolshoi Theatre. Originally completed in 1939, the venue was subsequently renovated and reopened in 2009. During the renovation, sculptures were added inside and around the grounds, the stage was slightly moved, modern lighting and audio-visual equipment were installed, and seating was increased. Today the facility hosts ballets, operas, concerts, chamber music, singing competitions, children’s performances, and even a New Year’s Ball. Read More

Independence Square in Minsk, Belarus

These days, Belarus is a truly European country, but emerge from the Metro onto Independence Square in Minsk and you would be forgiven for thinking you’d been transported to Russia. Construction on the square began in 1964, well before the breakup of the Soviet Union, and in some ways it perfectly reflects the Russian penchant for function over form. First, the square is immense. It was designed for rallies, ceremonies, and military parades. Second, a number of monumental buildings scream Soviet Brutalist style, including the high-rise Belarusian State University (left in the above photo) and the former Supreme Soviet of Belarus (now the Supreme Council of Belarus), in the center of the photo. Read More

As I often do when visiting a new country for the first time, I asked a number of people I met in Kiev what one thing best describes Ukrainians. Without exception, they all proclaimed, “We want to be free.”

My first foray into the city center reinforced what I’d been told. At Independence Square, a giant mural proclaimed “Freedom is our Religion!” The Square, which locals refer to as “Maidan,” was ground zero for the 2013/14 Ukrainian Revolution that ousted the corrupt Communist regime. Not only had the freedom fighters succeeded, but Maidan had been given a shiny new face. Of the destruction and fires that had raged through the square three years earlier, not a single sign remained.

Giant mural in Kiev's Independence Square Maidan proclaiming "Freedom is our Religion!" stands in contrast to the mail order brides scam that pervades Ukraine

Giant mural in Kiev’s Independence Square (Maidan) proclaiming “Freedom is our Religion!” stands in contrast to the mail order brides scam that pervades Ukraine

I was impressed. Ukrainians seemed passionately devoted to the pursuit of freedom. But my bubble burst when I sat down in a cute little French cafe just steps off the Maidan. Within moments, the twenty-something Ukrainian woman seated at the adjacent table began selling her soul. Her lunch companion, a Cuban-American man who had traveled to Ukraine to meet what are commonly referred to as mail order brides, spent the better part of the next hour interviewing the woman. Was she attracted to him? Could she see herself in a committed relationship with him? She tossed her long fire-engine red hair and answered flippantly, “No,” and, “No.” Carlos (not his real name), realizing this was not the soul mate he had hoped for, spent the balance of the “date” asking his companion to share what she knew about the mail order brides scam in Ukraine. Fascinated, I eavesdropped as she obliged. Read More

Potemkin Stairs in Odessa, Ukraine

I stood at the top of the Potemkin Stairs in Odessa, Ukraine, and contemplated the hike down. No problem, I thought. It looks like a lot of landings and very few steps. I started down but soon realized there were way more steps than I originally thought. Fifty, 100, 150…was I ever going to reach the bottom? Finally I reached the last step, 192, and turned to look backup the staircase. From the bottom it looked like a single staircase with no landings! Had I first seen it from the bottom, I might have decided to ride the Funicular down instead of walking. The Potemkin Stairs in Odessa were purpose built to create an optical illusion. The top step is 41 feet wide and the bottom step is 70.8 feet wide. As a result, a person looking down sees only the landings, while a person looking up sees only steps. Because this photo looks down from the harbor, both the steps and landings are visible. Read More

Saint Sophia Cathedral in Kiev, Ukraine

When UNESCO turned an eye toward Ukraine, the first site they chose to inscribe as a World Heritage Site was the magnificent Saint Sophia Cathedral in Kiev. In somewhat of a departure, UNESCO opted to inscribe Saint Sophia along with the monastic complex of Kiev-Pechersk Lavra as a single site, even though they are two separate complexes at two different locations. Saint Sophia Cathedral is located in the historic city center, while Kiev-Pechersk Lavra is some distance away, on a plateau overlooking the Dnieper River. Read More

Not so long ago, traveling as a vegetarian or vegan was a challenge. Fortunately, in recent years vegetarianism and veganism have become more mainstream, thus an increasing number of restaurants cater to those of us who do not eat meat. Unfortunately, quantity does not always mean quality. I have suffered through some meals that were borderline inedible. But during a recent trip to Italy, I was delighted to discover two exceptional vegan and vegetarian restaurants in Milan.

Mantra Raw Vegan Restaurant in Milan, Italy

Mantra Raw Vegan Restaurant in Milan, Italy

Mantra Raw Vegan Restaurant

Marina Dell’Utri, owner of Mantra Raw Vegan Restaurant was born and raised in Milan. After completing secondary school, she moved to California to pursue a degree in Marine Biology. During her time in the States, she noticed that everyone was selling cold pressed juices. On a day when she was not feeling well, she bought a six pack of the juices to detox. At the same time, she also began doing Yoga. Read More