A Day in Nicaragua

Postcard perfect scenery in route to Rivas

Postcard perfect scenery in route to Rivas

Nicaragua is an undiscovered tourist location which placed third in The New York Times’ suggested places to visit in 2013. I happened to be in Liberia, Costa Rica during March, 2014 and decided to book a one day tour to Nicaragua on a whim, not knowing what adventures were in store.

Heading to the Border

Departing early, our bus left Liberia with a tour group composed of fourteen Canadians, one Australian and myself as the only American. Liberia is about an hour and a half drive from the border access point of Penas Blancas on the Inter-Americana Highway. From the Costa Rican side, as vehicles near the border, visitors may see unscheduled police check points and will notice a heavier police presence. Costa Rica has had an influx of immigrants from Nicaragua seeking a better standard of living as average wages in Costa Rica are four times higher than its neighbor. In a country that has faced bad, corrupt governments, international debt and civil war, life in Nicaragua is hard, with jobs difficult to come by. People, however, are friendly and trying to do the best they can where opportunities are limited.

At the border on the Nicaragua side

At the border on the Nicaragua side

The border post of Penas Blancas is remote and like any frontier outpost, full of local color. Visitors will need to clear both Costa Rican and Nicaraguan immigration and on the Nicaraguan side, there is a tax. While we were waiting for our bus to clear immigration in Nicaragua, we stood in the parking lot where street vendors approach visitors selling goods like belts, sandals, purses, hammocks and snacks. A pig ran through the parking lot adding to the atmosphere. Our group was surprised when a man with what looked like a giant leaf blower approached our bus, wearing a blue jumpsuit and a gas mask. Suddenly, the inside of the bus was sprayed with pesticide for fumigation for a charge of US$5.

Nicaraguan Border

Nicaraguan Border

US dollars are accepted in Nicaragua but I would recommend having very small bills as any change will be given in Nicaraguan cordobas.

I’ve read several different travel sites about how long it takes to cross between Costa Rica and Nicaragua by road, with some estimates running five hours. My experience was a good one, as the combined crossing between both countries took a total of an hour. It was helpful that our guide had all the paperwork in hand as visitors will need to be sure to have the correct forms, including an itinerary showing a return ticket. Visitors should head to the border early as trucks on the Inter-Americana Highway will be backed up on both sides of the border. We were at the border by 8:00 a.m.

Welcome to Nicaragua

Clearing the border, we headed north on the Inter-Americana Highway toward the town of Rivas. Roads in this area are good and if the weather is clear, visitors will be lucky to see a spectacular view of two volcanoes (Concepcion and Maderas) located on the Island of Ometepe in Lake Nicaragua. These volcanoes are awe-inspiring, rising majestically from Nicaragua’s landscape. The only word that comes to mind is “wow”.

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Numerous ranches are in the area and ox carts are often used for transportation. Visitors will also see three-wheeled taxis (what I would call a “tuk-tuk”) filled with locals sharing a ride, as well as very packed busses.

Entering Rivas, visitors may notice red and black stripes painted on telephone poles as well as red and black flags. These colors are the identifying marks of the FSLN or the Sandinistas, one of the major political parties in Nicaragua. Former Sandinista head, Daniel Ortega, is the country’s current elected president and visitors will notice signs in towns (sort of a “cult of personality”) with paintings of Ortega.

We were also told that while education is now free in Nicaragua, roughly 65% of children attend school. Children may be kept at home to work to help support their family or some families cannot afford shoes for their children to walk to school.

Catarina

Heading north toward Catarina, visitors will come across a town known for its plant nurseries and handicrafts. The big draw in Catarina, though, is a lookout point at Mirador across the Laguna de Apoyo, a volcanic crater lake. With benches looking down at the water, views are breathtaking. Tourists will enter through a parking lot surrounded with colorful craft shops (selling anything from belts, clothing, paintings, pottery and wooden handicrafts for just a few dollars) and a few restaurants. On the day we visited Catarina, there were a few visitors around, but we almost had the crater to ourselves.

Laguna de Apoyo

Laguna de Apoyo

If the weather is clear, visitors will be able to see across to Granada and Lake Nicaragua. The overall effect at Laguna de Apoyo is peaceful and a street musician playing a classic guitar added to the atmosphere.

Sitting on a bench, looking out over the crater, one vendor was explaining that her family designs pottery and it was hard to envision how her family manages with prices of one dollar per vase. The handiwork was intricate and reflected a lot of family pride. This vendor wanted to know where I was from and was surprised to hear it was the United States.

Masaya Volcano National Park

This park includes craters, trails and the very active Masaya Volcano which last erupted in 2012. Visitors will notice rocks and volcanic ashes on entering the park. To me, it was incredible that visitors can look right into the crater which is filled with smoke and sulfur gases. Signs in the area warn that the volcano is active (erupting without notice), and include information on how visitors should protect themselves.

Looking in the crater of Masaya Volcano

Looking in the crater of Masaya Volcano

Park information

Park information

Rangers in green shirts in the area keep a close watch on things. Bilingual signs in Spanish and English warn of parking too close to the main crater, as well as pointing to an evacuation route.

On a cliff above the crater is the Bobadilla Cross, which can be accessed by climbing 177 steps. The day I visited, the stairs were closed as it was considered too unstable (which was a little worrying!). If the weather is clear, the views across Nicaragua are fantastic as the countryside is dramatic. I could see across the Nicaraguan landscape for many miles.

Cross of Bobadilla

Cross of Bobadilla

The view from Masaya Volcano National Park

The view from Masaya Volcano National Park

It’s not every day a visitor gets to look into a crater, and I was surprised our bus could go almost to the rim.

Apparently, this park also offers a night tour where visitors can see bats fly from their caves. I didn’t see any wildlife on the day we visited, but the park is inhabited by many species of animals.

Granada

As it was now early afternoon, our bus headed to the City of Granada, founded in 1524 by Cordoba. The historic Spanish architecture, painted in vibrant colors, is one of the oldest cities in the western hemisphere. Buildings are painted in two colors and we were advised that each family is assigned a color scheme. For instance, one family might be assigned the color scheme of red with a white trim and any buildings the family owns will be painted accordingly. I was surprised at the vast array of colors from yellows to oranges to purples.

Horse carriage tours are available around the city, stopping at the many colonial churches. Carriage tours run around US$20 and transport visitors back in time.

Carriages in Granada

Carriages in Granada

Granada has suffered pirate attacks during its history as well as civil war but the buildings maintain their colonial character.

In Granada

In Granada

We had limited time in Granada and I spent most of my visit at the Iglesia de la Merced. A large plaza outside the church had a few vendors and inside, visitors can climb the tower for US$1. I initially planned to climb the tower, but changed my mind on seeing the steepness of the interior steps. The steps are open and quite a hike. For visitors willing to go to the top, however, views will be rewarded across Granada.

Iglesia de la Merced

Iglesia de la Merced

The various chapels within the church are colorfully painted and peaceful. Visitors should be sure to be respectful as locals will be stopping to pray. On a late Saturday afternoon, the church was fairly quiet.

Inside the church

Inside the church

Before leaving Granada, we stopped at the central park to admire the surrounding architecture. A stop by Lake Nicaragua was also impressive and I was surprised to see a white horse walking on the beach.

Return

As it was now late in the day, our bus began heading back to Liberia, Costa Rica. Crossing both borders took very little time and we cleared both countries in thirty minutes. Visitors should be aware that on the Nicaraguan side, there is a departure tax. At this point, the sun was starting to set and our excited group was exchanging stories about what we had seen.

Buildings in Granada

Buildings in Granada

Nicaragua is a country filled with lakes, beaches, volcanic scenery and colonial architecture. While the infrastructure is developing, for those tourists who are willing to overlook this, Nicaragua has much to offer. My visit to Nicaragua is something that I will remember for a long time to come.

Along Lake Nicaragua with a friend

Along Lake Nicaragua with a friend

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Healing Hearts in Zagreb, Croatia

Museum of Broken Relationships in Zagreb

Museum of Broken Relationships in Zagreb

In the shadow of the Lotrscak Tower in Zagreb’s Upper Town lies a museum dedicated to failed relationships. Beginning as a traveling exhibition, Zagreb’s Museum of Broken Relationships, is a tribute to the notion that not all relationships work.

In the shadow of the Lotrscak Tower

In the shadow of the Lotrscak Tower

Located in a traditional building, the Kulmer Palace, this non-traditional museum exhibits objects that people have held onto following the end of a relationship. The museum accepts donations of personal artifacts, which have been received from around the world. The bilingual stories in Croatian and English are powerful and in some cases, I almost found myself gasping for air, as the stories communicated a great sense of grief. This museum is a catharsis for the trauma of ending a relationship.

Several rooms of displays include:

1. A stuffed rabbit that was going to travel around the world, but the relationship only made it as far as Iran.

2. A red reindeer from Peru from an excited newlywed celebrating a first Christmas together who sadly discovers her marriage would not last a second Christmas.

3. Two ceramic figures from Ireland donated from a woman who bought one each for her two children after fleeing an abusive husband in the United Kingdom.

4. A love letter from a 13-year-old boy on meeting a young girl fleeing the siege of Sarajevo.

5. A car mirror that had been removed from a vandalized car after a girlfriend discovers her boyfriend had cheated. His car faced her anger.

The rabbit that didn't make it around the world

The rabbit that didn’t make it around the world

A Christmas reindeer with a sad tale

A Christmas reindeer with a sad tale

This museum explores tough topics including betrayal, false love, death, politics and war, disease, addictions, violence and revenge. The stories themselves can be disturbing, emotional or moving and I found myself reading the story of each and every donated object.

Museum Entry--The figurine in the poster has a moving story

Museum Entry–The figurine in the poster has a moving story

The cold walls in some of the rooms also reflect the chill in a relationship and the starkness of the end of something that wasn’t meant to be. The white-tiled rooms almost seemed like a mortuary, signifying the death of a relationship.

Included in the various rooms is a map of the traveling exhibition which has been around the world. To me, this map shows that broken relationships translate into any language and culture.

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For 25 kunas, this museum is fascinating and well worth the admission price. Facilities also include a small gift shop and a coffee shop.

Alfred Lord Tennyson said “Tis better to have loved and lost than never to have loved at all”. The Museum of Broken Relationships is a critical reminder of the frailty of the human heart when love ends and loss begins.

Museum of Broken Relationships
Sv. Cirila i Metoda 2
Upper Town
10000 Zagreb, Croatia
Phone: 385-1-4851-021

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In Search of Cream Cake in Samobor, Croatia

Amazing slice of kremsnita

Amazing slice of kremsnita

Croatia is a country known for its delicious desserts. Between the strudels, ice creams, pastries, gingerbread and cream cakes, I quickly learned the Croatian word for bakery, “pekarnica”.

From some Croatian friends of my brother and sister-in-law’s, I was referred to the town of Samobor, which is known for its crafts, hiking (including 13th century ruins) and its cream cakes. The cakes have a big reputation and visitors will even notice before entering the town billboards advertising bakery after bakery.

My favorite souvenir shop in Samobor, Srceko

My favorite souvenir shop in Samobor, Srceko

Roughly an easy 30 minute bus ride (depending on the number of stops) from Zagreb, I decided I had to investigate a local, legendary bakery called U Prolazu (which translates to “in the passage”). Located in a passage on the historic town square, U Prolazu is a simple two room café filled with delicacies. Menu options include chestnut cakes, donuts, strudel, cheese triangles and ice creams. The big draw, however, is the “kremsnita” or cream cake, which attracts visitors from Zagreb and throughout Croatia.

U Prolazu

U Prolazu

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Service at U Prolazu is at the table with some English spoken and bilingual menus. Visitors will be asked by staff in yellow and white uniforms whether they desire one or two slices of cream cake. The cake will be served with water (as it is rich) and I decided to have kava (or coffee) with my slice as well. The texture of this pastry is moist and creamy, while the crispy top with powdered sugar is mouth-watering. Basically, this is a dessert of custard filling served between two crispy pastries. Some of the locals enjoying their cake had to laugh while I was photographing my slice as the kremsnita in Samobor is a form of art.

Prices for this treat run roughly 14 kuna (or roughly $2.50) for a slice with coffee. I happened to visit Samobor on a day where it was raining heavily and bitterly cold, so the cake and coffee were a special treat.

The Parish Church of St. Anastasia (1671-75) just off Samobor's main square

The Parish Church of St. Anastasia (1671-75) just off Samobor’s main square

For visitors to Zagreb, an easy day trip to Samobor should be on any agenda. Between hiking, local shops and historic churches, there is plenty to see. Topped off with a slice of kremsnita, this pastry will make any visit to Samobor memorable. When I returned to my hotel in Zagreb and mentioned to the front desk that I had been to Samobor, the front desk in unison smiled and said “kremsnita”.

The main square (trg) in Samobor

The main square (trg) in Samobor

Kremsnita for sale in the main food market, Dolac Market, in Zagreb

Kremsnita for sale in the main food market, Dolac Market, in Zagreb

U Prolazu
Trg Kralja Tomislava 5
Samobor, Croatia

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A Few Favorites from Savannah, Georgia

Owens-Thomas House

Owens-Thomas House

For visitors to the U.S. Deep South, Savannah, Georgia remains a hidden gem. With more than twenty discretely manicured squares and a city founded in 1733, the Historic District is a find. The city’s architecture has stayed intact as during the Civil War, General William T. Sherman wanted to present President Lincoln with a Christmas present in December, 1864. The city was spared the fate of Atlanta.

Today’s Historic District is a blend of Southern genteelness with an urban edge, as the hipness from the Savannah College of Art and Design (SCAD) blends with a rich Southern history.

I have listed a few of my favorite spots in a city overflowing with things to see and do.

Colonial Park Cemetery

Entering Colonial Park Cemetery

Entering Colonial Park Cemetery

From 1750 to 1853, this cemetery served as Savannah’s burial ground. Located on approximately six acres with roughly 9,000 graves, this cemetery is both historical and a sad reminder of some of Savannah’s past tragedies. I went early on a Saturday morning and was surprised to see so many tombstones from 1820, as Savannah was hit by a yellow fever epidemic. More than ten percent of the city died, killing roughly 700 people including two doctors trying to save their patients.

A Victim of the 1820 Epidemic

A Victim of the 1820 Epidemic

Famous Savannahians are also buried here including James Johnson, who was Georgia’s first newspaper publisher, as well as William Scarbrough, who promoted the first trans-Atlantic steamship. Walking through the cemetery, visitors will also see the graves of Archibald Bulloch, Georgia’s first governor, and Joseph Habersham, who served as Postmaster General under three U.S. Presidents. Notable local burial sites are designated by detailed historical markers.

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The cemetery also includes other history from the early 1800s with a well-marked Duelist’s Grave. Local resident, James Wilde, died in a duel in 1815 and it’s hard to imagine today that centuries ago disputes were settled by dueling.

While many of the tombstones are worn and harder to read, this cemetery is a step back into history during the U.S. Revolutionary War. The grounds were designated a city park in 1896 and on an early weekend morning, I had the area almost to myself.

Colonial Park Cemetery
201 Abercorn Street
Savannah, Georgia 31401
Phone: (912)651-6843

Owens-Thomas House

There are so many beautiful, historical houses in Savannah that it could take days to see them all. I would especially recommend the Owens-Thomas House which is administered by the Telfair Museum. For an admission price of $15.00, the inside of this house is nothing short of fantastic.

House Garden

House Garden

The home was designed by William Jay who studied at the Royal Academy in London. This house was well beyond its time as the home includes four cisterns including a 5,000 gallon cistern in the basement. This home even had indoor toilets before the White House.

This property was built for Richard Richardson between 1816 and 1819, who was a wealthy Savannah merchant and banker. Unfortunately, Mr. Richardson’s timing was bad as the U.S. suffered an economic panic in 1819. In January, 1820, there was a large fire in Savannah with a yellow fever epidemic that summer, which killed some of Mr. Richardson’s family.

Through various owners, the Owens-Thomas house also served as a boarding house and remained in the Owens family from 1830 to 1951. General Lafayette stayed for two nights in 1825, making this home an historic landmark.

I was frankly surprised by how well kept this home was. Designed way ahead in the future, the house has an original skylight in the dining room as well significant brass in the entry way. The brass served a purpose as candles would reflect off the brass at night.

The upstairs portion of the house has an internal bridge which I thought was fascinating. Ceilings throughout the house are ornate, and the home is filled with many original furnishings. I liked hearing about playing cards from the early 1800s which did not have numbers. For heavy drinkers, playing cards could be dangerous and confusing, as players would have to count the numbers of diamonds, clubs, spades or hearts on their cards.

Interestingly, Savannah has no natural stone and any stone had to be imported at great expense to the owners. This house was constructed of tabby and coquina. Coquina is a lightweight stone while tabby is a combination of lime, oyster shells, sand and water.

What is Tabby?

What is Tabby?

All visits to the home are by guided tour and begin in the former slave quarters. Unfortunately, only photos outside are allowed but visitors should expect to be pleasantly surprised by all the features in the interior of the house. This home is amazing.

Owens-Thomas House
124 Abercorn Street
Savannah, Georgia 31401
Phone: (912)790-8889

First African Baptist Church

First African Baptist Church

First African Baptist Church

Located not far from the Savannah River, the First African Baptist Church is filled with history as this is the oldest continuous black congregation in North America. Originally constituted in 1777, the current church was built during the time period 1855 to 1859 by mainly slaves working at night. I was surprised to hear slaves were allowed to leave plantations in the evenings and the work to build the church must have been grueling. The nearest plantations were several miles away.

On the outside of the church is a picture of the founding minister, George Leile. Behind the current altar are pictures of the next six ministers who followed. The interior of the church also includes original light fixtures, a baptismal pool (which sounded much safer than wading into the Savannah River) and a pipe organ from 1832, which has not been played in many years.

During the fight to end segregation, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. practiced his “I Have a Dream” speech within the sanctuary.

Be sure to take the excellent tours offered Tuesday to Saturday at either 11:00 or 2:00 for $7.00, as visitors will especially want to see the ground floor. On this floor, visitors will see several crosses surrounded by diamonds, which are also called Congolese Cosmograms. When slaves were trying to escape to freedom via the “Underground Railroad” to the North, they hid under this floor in a four foot high crawl space. The holes in the floor decorations served as air holes. The plantation owners never figured out that the floor decorations served another purpose.

Floor Air Holes

Floor Air Holes

Unfortunately, photos are not allowed inside the church unless someone or something is in the photo.

I found the visit to this church moving and learning about the amount of history that occurred in this one church was impressive.

First African Baptist Church
402 Treat Avenue
Savannah, Georgia 31404
Phone: (912) 232-8981

Papillote

Papillote

Papillote

On Savannah’s main shopping street, visitors will feel like they are in Paris when eating at Papillote. “En Papillote” is French which means to cook in parchment paper. The word can also refer to a traditional French candy wrapped in colorful foils for Christmas.

Papillote is a casual café specializing in food to go to picnic in Savannah’s squares or along the river. A few tables are also inside with Eiffel Tower decorations, French gourmet gifts and a casual atmosphere contributing to a simple French feel. I stopped here for lunch and loved the shrimp, pancetta and arugula salad, served with fresh lemonade. Quiche specials are popular for lunch.

The biggest draw for me, though, was the cookies. Absolutely, positively, do not miss these cookies. The chocolate chip oatmeal cookies are fresh from the oven (and oh so good). I came back several times in one weekend and bought as many of these cookies as I could find. The restaurant was even kind enough to introduce me to their pastry chef and offer to make more cookies if I wanted to return in twenty minutes.

The macarons are also delicious. With tasty flavors like chocolate hazel, raspberry white chocolate or key lime, these cookies won’t last long. I had to laugh that when buying the macarons, visitors are presented with an option. The staff at Papillote will ask whether the cookies should be boxed or whether a napkin is fine for those macarons that won’t make it down the block. My macarons barely made it outside the store.

The staff at Papillote is super friendly and this café is definitely worth a stop. Closed on Mondays and Tuesdays, it’s a shame that Savannah locals are without these wonderful cookies two days a week. For visitors looking for good place to eat in the Historic District, Papillote is a must.

Papillote
218 W. Broughton Street
Savannah, Georgia 31401
Phone: (912)232-1881

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Stepping into the 17th Century at Boston’s Paul Revere House

Revere House in the North End

Revere House in the North End

Many American schoolchildren first learned the legend of Paul Revere from a poem by Henry Wadsworth Longfellow. Revere was a silversmith made famous by warning American revolutionaries of British troops on the march during the Revolutionary War.

In a neighborhood filled with Italian restaurants in Boston’s North End, visitors will almost stumble upon the Paul Revere House, which was built in 1680. For an admission fee of $3.50, visitors can see the only remaining 17th century architecture located in downtown Boston. The original owner of the house, Robert Howard, was a Puritan merchant and Paul Revere did not buy the home until 1770. The house itself is restored to express two time periods in different rooms during Howard’s, as well as Revere’s, ownerships.

Hidden in Boston's North End

Hidden in Boston’s North End

The entry to the house is a little unusual as visitors enter through the kitchen. The walls of this room are darkly paneled with a large fireplace. The average colonial woman spent long, hard days in the kitchen and diets were high in fat and low in vitamins. Most colonials ate mainly meats and pastries.

The second room of the house is the hall which is the most versatile. Halls could be used for many purposes including as a parlor, dining room, bedroom or office. Be sure to ask the docents on each floor for some information as these volunteers are knowledgeable about colonial history. I visited the home in December and was surprised to learn that the Puritans did not celebrate Christmas, as this was considered a holiday of excess. The Colony of Massachusetts even declared Christmas illegal in 1659!

The Paul Revere House

The Paul Revere House

Upstairs, visitors will find the bedchamber which could be used as a parlor, where guests were brought for drinks. Bringing guests to your bedroom seemed strange to me but this was common in the 17th and 18th centuries.

The final room upstairs is a second bedroom where Paul Revere’s mother stayed.

Unfortunately, no photos (even without a flash) are allowed in the house but photos are allowed outside in the home’s courtyard.

Overall, this house was considered spacious during its time, but by today’s standards, this house is small. It was hard to imagine that Paul Revere had 16 children (five who died in infancy) and anywhere from five to nine people were living in this home at any one time. There couldn’t have been much extra space.

This house almost didn’t survive and was in bad shape by the early 1900s. When the Reveres moved to another location, the home became a boarding house during the 1800s and at different stages the ground floor was used for shops. Luckily, Revere’s great-grandson purchased the house in 1902 and the house was restored in the early 1900s. While most of the posts and beams are still original, other features like the windows in the front are replicas of the style in the 1680s.

Neighborhood around the Paul Revere House

Neighborhood around the Paul Revere House

Paul Revere was a diversified tradesman as in addition to being a silversmith, he also worked as an engraver, owned a hardware store and even worked as a dentist.

On leaving the house, be sure to stop by the exhibit of a Paul Revere bell. There are 23 Revere bells still known to exist today. I had to laugh that Paul Revere was apparently very particular about how the bells were hung. The bells even came with a warranty for twelve months with exclusions like accidents and improper usage.

Revere Bell

Revere Bell

For visitors to Boston, be sure to stop by the Paul Revere House to experience a taste of American history. I could almost remember Longfellow’s poem telling of the midnight ride of Paul Revere as I headed into the North End.

The Paul Revere Association
19 North Square
Boston, Massachusetts 02113
(617)523-2338

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Pizza on a Budget in Boston’s North End

Galleria Umberto

Galleria Umberto

It’s December in Boston when the weather in the city has turned decidedly colder and snow flurries are in the air. Holiday strolls and carolers abound; the Mallard family members, commemorated by the “Make Way for Ducklings” children’s book statue in the Public Garden, are dressed in their holiday finery; and, simple wreathes and lamp post decorations in historic neighborhoods add touches of elegance. I love visiting Boston this time of year.

Mallard family in the Public Garden

Mallard family in the Public Garden

In Boston’s Italian North End, bakeries have windows stacked with panettone, a holiday Italian sweet bread, as well as Christmas cookies. This neighborhood is truly Italian and it’s not unusual to be greeted with a “buongiorno”.

Christmas tree in Boston's North End

Christmas tree in Boston’s North End

I have headed to the North End to stop at a landmark restaurant, Galleria Umberto, which is famous for its Sicilian-style pizzas and has been in the North End for years. The outside of this restaurant is unremarkable but it’s what’s inside that counts. Beginning around 11 a.m., a line starts forming for lunch, regardless of the weather. It’s nine degrees on my latest visit but that doesn’t stop the crowds from lining up for delicious trays of rectangular cheese pizza. Local residents order boxes to go and the slices of pizza practically disappear from the trays. The dough is soft, the tomato sauce tangy and for $1.65 a slice, visitors can’t go wrong.

Yummy pizza

Yummy pizza

Arancini are also on the menu which are fried rice balls filled with meat and peas. A friend of mine has told me that a meal of arancini is “old school” Italian, as her Italian grandmother used to make these. I have had these on several visits to Galleria Umberto and can almost fill up on one. The taste is divine.

Calzone (basically a filled turnover) is also on the menu with flavors including spinach, spinach cheese and sausage, and ricotta, ham and salami.

Galleria Umberto keeps their prices down by accepting only cash. The interior is very basic and one man in line told me it hasn’t changed since he was a kid. With roughly twenty tables, worn travel posters of Italian cities and a mural of Italy painted on the wall, this restaurant represents simple Italian at its best.

Lunch crowds

Lunch crowds

I wish Galleria Umberto was open for dinner but lunchtime is their only meal. They stay open until the pizza sells out, so visitors should get there early.

I like eating where the locals eat and Galleria Umberto is a North End tradition. I love that I can eat lunch for around $3.00 and the food is worth the wait. This restaurant should be on the itinerary for any Boston visitors to the North End.

Galleria Umberto
289 Hanover Street
Boston, MA 02113
Phone: (617)227-5709

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19th Century Living (and Coffee) in New York City’s NoHo

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Merchant’s House Museum

For visitors to Manhattan, a quiet museum well worth a visit is the Merchant’s House Museum. Located on East Fourth Street on a street filled with a garden center, lounges and cafes, this museum gives visitors an idea of what life would have been like in a 19th century home in New York City. Amazingly, this home has survived virtually intact, complete with family memorabilia and furniture.

The home was originally built between 1831 and 1832 by Joseph Brewster and became the home of Seabury Tredwell and his descendants in 1835 for close to 100 years. This museum opened to the public in 1936 and has been a fixture in NoHo ever since.

Offering both self-guided and guided tours, this house gives guests a perspective of what life for a family with four servants was like from 1835 to 1865. I had to think what was going on in history as particularly with the Civil War in this period, life must have been hard.

Visits will start on the ground floor where family activities occurred and servants worked. This floor has lower ceilings and because of this, the ground floor was warmer in winter. Being below ground, this floor was also coolest in the summer. The servant bells are still in place and be sure to stop in the pantry where a bucket of coal is on display. Visitors can lift the bucket (which isn’t easy!) and work must have been backbreaking for the servants who had to supply seven fireplaces on four floors.

The ground floor also leads to a fantastic enclosed garden in the back which almost reminds me of a secret garden in New York. It seems strange that modern buildings surround the enclosure as I almost felt that I was standing between two centuries.

Secret Garden

Secret Garden

The next floor of the house is the parlor floor which is split into a front and back parlor. Parlors were where visitors would wait while calling cards were presented to the servants. I especially noticed the vibrant red silky curtains as well as the 1850s gas chandeliers.

The third floor is the bedroom floor which has separate husband and wife bedrooms which was common in the 19th century. It was also interesting to see a china display from the Tredwell family on this floor, including a teacup from Eliza Tredwell just prior to the Civil War, dated 1860. With the various remnants of china, visitors can almost imagine what a dinner party in the Tredwell home would have been like.

Husband's Bedroom

Husband’s Bedroom

Wife's Bedroom

Wife’s Bedroom

The top floor of the house is the servants’ quarters and I immediately noticed rougher floors, no carpet in the stairways and much simpler furniture.

Servants Quarters

Servants’ Quarters

Admission to the museum is $10.00 and during the Christmas season, the house is decorated for the holiday with an exhibit called “Christmas Comes to Old New York”. Signs explain what was common for a 19th century Christmas and enthusiastic volunteers are happy to answer questions.

Sadly, I also found out that this museum is currently in dispute with a developer who wants to build a nine story hotel behind the house. This hotel could potentially damage the home’s plaster or possibly the entire building. The city has yet to make a decision about what will happen and I think it would be a travesty to lose something so historic.

I have been coming to New York for years and somehow missed this museum in the past. I won’t make this mistake again as the Merchant’s House Museum is a great example of Americana and what life would have been like for the merchant class in the 1800s.

Merchant’s House Museum
29 East Fourth Street
New York, New York 10003
Phone: (212)777-1089
(Take the Lex line—6 Train—to Bleecker Street)
Museum hours are Thursday to Monday, 12 p.m. to 5 p.m. with guided tours at 2 p.m.

Gasoline Alley Coffee

Gasoline Alley Coffee

Gasoline Alley Coffee

In December, it’s cold in Manhattan and I happened to get to the Merchant’s House Museum too early. Walking around NoHo, I happened on Gasoline Alley Coffee which is a good place for a cup of coffee or creamy (and tasty!) hot chocolate. Pastries, like donuts and cookies, are also available.

With friendly staff, exposed brick walls and beams, a hanging bicycle, as well as alternative music, this shop is a nice stop to refuel. Coffees include espresso, cappuccino, latte, and mocha and prices between $2.75 to $5.00 are about standard for coffee shops in Manhattan.

Inside Gasoline Alley Coffee

Inside Gasoline Alley Coffee

There is limited seating, but this is a great location to “watch the world go by”. I happened on Gasoline Alley’s blackboard inviting visitors to “Warm up with a Chai Latte or Hot Cocoa”. I couldn’t resist.

Gasoline Alley Coffee
331 Lafayette Street
New York, New York 10012
Phone: (212)933-0113

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Experiencing Life in the German Democratic Republic at Berlin’s DDR Museum

DDR Museum

DDR Museum

To get an idea of what everyday life was like in East Germany, a visit to Berlin’s DDR Museum is a must. With hands-on exhibitions where visitors can touch objects, open drawers and closets, view films and experience a Stasi secret police jail cell, this museum provides a fascinating overview of what East Germans had to experience daily. With a government ruled by the Communist party (specifically the Socialist Unity Party, or, SED for short), life was very hard.

Group thinking was taught early and individualism was discouraged. As an example, day-cares used collective benches for potty training where everyone remained seated until the last child was done. Children as young as age five were taught to play with wooden grenades and how to count soldiers.

Collective Potty Training

Collective Potty Training

While some goods were heavily subsidized by the government like bread (which was even fed to pigs because it was so cheap!), many goods were in short supply. The museum includes a diary where the author notes that sliced cheese, toilet paper, frying pans and guitar strings were not available in stores. Dentists lacked the materials to make crowns. A joke at the time was that the GDR economy was like a steam engine, which unfortunately used 90 percent of the steam for the whistle. Fresh fruit and vegetables were in scarce supply for the average East German (party bosses could shop elsewhere). One exhibit is particularly disturbing outlining how produce suddenly appeared in East German shops following Chernobyl which the West wouldn’t buy.

Cotton was limited so clothing was made of synthetic fibers. I found it interesting looking through the closets of what a typical East German wardrobe resembled. While there was a demand for westernized goods like Levi’s jeans, wearing Levi’s was considered subversive by the government. The museum includes an example of GDR manufactured jeans; however, there were troubles with the dye bleeding and ruining any other clothes in the washer.

A Sample Wardrobe

A Sample Wardrobe

The Trabant was the car manufactured to compete with the West’s VW Beetle. While the Trabi was supposed to be cheap, this car was still out of most salary ranges and had major defects like weak brakes! The exhibits allow visitors to sit behind the wheel of a Trabant and imagine driving a Trabi. Ironically, the SED bosses didn’t drive Trabants—they tended to favor Volvo limos with a sample on display.

A Trabant

A Trabant

Behind the Wheel!

Behind the Wheel!

I didn’t realize that nude holidays were common among East Germans like swimming and volleyball. Nudity was considered a protest against the government’s conformity so nudist beach vacations were popular.

A movie theater is included with actual chairs from an East German cinema. The “documentary” I watched was actually a propaganda film about building new apartments for residents.

Sports were a major source of pride for East German leaders as star athletes could provide national prestige. Unfortunately, winning was not always “above board”, as athletes could be drugged.

The darker side of DDR life is also emphasized in exhibits with an interactive exhibit of the Berlin Wall, a Stasi interrogation room as well as a jail cell. Interrogations were horrific, with no lawyers or outside contacts and confessions came quickly. Roughly 250,000 people served time as political prisoners.

An Interrogation Room

An Interrogation Room

A Typical Jail Cell

A Typical Jail Cell

Privacy was a foreign concept as salaries were known, mail could be randomly searched (or plundered by the Stasi), informants were everywhere and each resident had to keep a house book, recording who visited their home (for the Stasi to review at any time). For any Easterner staying for three days plus, this needed to be recorded, while any Western visitors had to be recorded immediately.

The pictures on display of families split by the Berlin Wall are heartbreaking as families were torn apart between East and West Berlin. I found it hard to look at some of the pictures. While West Berliners could enter East Berlin, East Berliners could only head east to other Eastern Bloc countries.

Next door to the DDR Museum is the DDR Restaurant which gives visitors an idea of what foods and beverages were being consumed in East Germany. Apparently a popular children’s dish was sugar pasta, which was pasta with sugar on it. I couldn’t bring myself to try this. A grilleta is the East German version of a hamburger made of pork and beef in a bread roll with salad garnish and a spicy sauce. I tried the vegetarian krusta which is the GDR version of a pizza. The dough is thicker but I thought the tomato sauce was much blander.

DDR Restaurant

DDR Restaurant

The competitor to Coca-Cola is Vita Cola, which the menu describes as having a lemony taste. I personally didn’t care for this, as to me, the cola tasted flat.

Krusta and Vita Cola

Krusta and Vita Cola

For alcohol, wines were typically from Bulgaria or Hungary. East Germans could also be known as “world champion drinkers” as on average, men and women consumed 17 liters of pure alcohol yearly.

This museum is informative and I liked it so much, I went twice. For an admission of six euros (discounted by 25 percent with a Berlin Welcome Card), the DDR Museum makes visitors appreciate what they have. Life under the German Democratic Republic was difficult as people tried to do the best they could under a regime offering few freedoms. This museum should be on any Berlin itinerary.

DDR Museum
Karl-Liebknecht-Str. 1
10178, Berlin
Phone: (4930)847 123 73 1

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World Class Sculpture in Kansas City, Missouri

My favorite--One of the Shuttlecocks

My favorite–One of the Shuttlecocks

On a cool, crisp fall morning in the leafy neighborhood of Rockhill, Kansas City, I wandered into the Donald J. Hall (of Hallmark Cards) Sculpture Park. A part of the fantastic Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art, this park is set on twenty-two acres and filled with amazing art objects.

Scattered on hills and terraces are traditional and modern sculptures in a garden fit for a picnic. The park is open year-round during daylight hours and the cost is free.

Visitors will immediately notice the sculpture called “Shuttlecocks” designed by the husband and wife team of Claes Oldenburg and Coosje van Bruggen. The artists envisioned the museum itself as a badminton net and have scattered four shuttlecocks throughout the park. I loved the idea of an interactive badminton court and the sculptures themselves made me smile.

George Segal’s “Rush Hour” depicts a more realistic scene of workers “trudging” to work during rush hour and the art reminded me of groups of workers heading for a subway or bus.

Rush Hour

Rush Hour

Darker art on the grounds by Magdalena Abakanowicz called “Standing Figures” was a little grimmer and it was interesting trying to speculate the message the artist was trying to send. With a group of headless (and slightly scary) figures, visitors will wonder what the designer meant.

A group of headless figures

A group of headless figures

The sculpture terrace and lush green grounds will almost remind visitors of being in a palace. Tourists will recognize art like Auguste Rodin’s “The Thinker” as well as sculpture by Renoir around the terrace.

Visitors will recognize Rodin's art.

Visitors will recognize Rodin’s art.

Since I travel to Alaska frequently with my job, I also enjoyed the sculpture called “Totem Pole” by Kenny Mowatt and Charles Heit. This artwork definitely reminded me of northern Canada and Alaska and I nearly forgot where I was.

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A nearby interactive piece by George Rickey called “Two Planes Vertical-Horizontal” moves with the wind and it was fun to watch a piece that was constantly changing.

Two Planes Vertical-Horizontal

Two Planes Vertical-Horizontal

The grounds of this park are significant and over thirty sculptures are hidden in different corners. With stairs, picnic tables, birds, crickets and the sounds of train whistles and church bells in the distance, this park is first rate. Audioguides, as well as helpful information, is also available inside the museum.

Across the grounds

Across the grounds


A piece called "Storage".  It kind of reminded of a group of parts in an artist's studio.

A piece called “Storage”. It kind of reminded me of a group of parts in an artist’s studio.

Personally, I wasn’t expecting to like this park as much as I did. I made it to the park early in the morning and with the fall breeze, the leaves changing color, locals walking dogs, children playing and even some amateur photographers, the grounds made for a relaxing escape. I frankly lost track of time and could have spent hours just exploring the park. For art fans near the Kansas City area, a visit to the Donald J. Hall Sculpture Park should be a requirement.

Donald J. Hall Sculpture Park
(On the grounds of the Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art)
4525 Oak Street
Kansas City, Missouri 64111
Phone: (816)751-1278

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Peace in San Francisco’s Japanese Tea Garden

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Visitors to San Francisco’s Golden Gate Park will experience a taste of Japan at the Japanese Tea Garden. I recently visited in the early morning of a cool, crisp fall day and the peace and beauty of this garden are magnificent. I am a fan of public spaces and it was nice that few tourists were around (with most visitors being amateur photographers).

Entering the Japanese Tea Garden

Entering the Japanese Tea Garden

Gardens are considered an art form within Japanese culture and this garden is a find. Filled with bridges, pagodas, koi fish, ponds, fountains and dwarf trees, for any visitor to San Francisco, this garden is a must.

Beautiful grounds

Beautiful grounds

For an entry fee of $7.00, visitors will almost forget they are in the United States. In the fall, the leaves are starting to turn and the landscaping and coloring around the Pagoda are nothing short of stunning. The Pagoda itself is a Buddhist Shrine built in 1915. Around the Pagoda, visitors will discover dwarf trees which were maintained by the Hagiwara family until 1942. Unfortunately, the story surrounding the Hagiwaras is sad as during 1942, all Japanese Americans on the West Coast (including the Hagiwara family) were relocated to internment camps following the U.S. entry into World War II.

Pagoda

Pagoda

Visitors to the Tea Garden will experience a Bronze Buddha which was cast in Tajima, Japan in 1790. Nearby, the steeply structured Drum Bridge, which was commissioned in Japan in 1894, adds a unique feature. I am afraid of heights but this bridge is both scenic and unusual.

Drum Bridge

Drum Bridge

The ponds and fountains scattered throughout the garden (along with the koi fish) are a peaceful refuge from the city life of San Francisco. The grounds are so quiet and refreshing that I nearly forgot I was in a major city.

Be sure to also visit the interior Zen Garden which was designed in 1953. Zen gardens use stones to represent hills, mountains or islands, while sand and gravel are used to represent streams or water.

Zen Garden

Zen Garden

Located within the garden is a gift shop which has a special treat. For $2.00 (cash only), visitors can receive a Japanese fortune. There is a system involved as each visitor will pick a rod from a canister, which has a number on the bottom. The numbered rod corresponds to a stack of drawers, with each specific numbered box filled with pink fortunes. Visitors will randomly pick a fortune which rates a person’s overall luck, love life, gaming opportunities and job prospects. The fortune should be read in the garden and for those fortunes that are good, the luck will follow for a year. For those fortunes that are not so good (my first fortune was not great so I bought a second one), these fortunes should be tied to a rack outside the gift shop, so the luck does not follow the visitor.

Discarded fortunes outside the gift shop

Discarded fortunes outside the gift shop

Also be sure to stop at the tea room for hot teas or my favorite, green iced tea. Sipping tea in such a lovely setting is hard to beat.

The Japanese Tea Garden offers visitors a memorable experience in the heart of San Francisco. This garden is immaculate, quiet and elegant in its simplicity. Frankly, the $7.00 admission fee is one of the best $7.00 that I’ve ever spent. I easily spent several hours here.

Japanese Tea Garden
75 Hagiwara Tea Garden Drive
San Francisco, California 94118
Phone: (415)752-1711

Public transport: From downtown San Francisco on Market Street, pick up the Number 5 Fulton Street bus outside the Gap and exit at 8th Avenue at Golden Gate Park.

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