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Sevilla: Bienvenido a España!

Almost there! In the next week, we will be leaving for Europe for our daughter’s wedding in Greece, a oneweek trip to Bulgaria (one of the few places we have not yet visited!) and our group tour to Spain. Having written a little about our plans for the group in Madrid, we can turn out attention toSevilla. We will travel by AVE (Alta Velocidad Española), the high speed train, and arrive in two and a half hours. The trip used to take almost eight, and it was one I did regularly when I was a student in Madrid, to visit a boyfriend in Granada. The hotel in Sevilla is called the H10 Casa de la Plata, a new place to stay for me. We willdefinitely visit the small but delightful Flamenco Museum, both for its charming exhibits of clothing and memorabilia, as for its very authentic “tablao” which takes place at 5pm. The flamenco performance we will see is not a tourist performance per se, in that the women aren’t wearing what we think of as fancy or flashy flamenco dresses, but more typical clothing with women’s hair up, a brightly colored shawl with some polka dots, and a dark colored dress with a few ruffles on the bottom. But, the “palmas”(hands clapping), “tacones” (heels tapping), along with the percussive guitar and plaintive voices all make for a moving experience. We will have time to walk through the Casco Viejo, Sevilla’s maze-like old town, and visit the Fine Arts Museum of Sevilla with our own guide Luca. During our time in Sevilla, we will take a day trip to Ronda and the white towns (so-called because the buildings are all painted white), and Granada to see the Alhambra. We will definitely sample some specialties of the region, including garlic soup, local fishes, salmorejo which is a thicker, more delicious version of gazpacho, and orange wine. Bienvenido a España!

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Group Trip to Spain, October 2023

The anticipation of an upcoming trip always fills me with delight and excitement. This trip in October, however, is unusual. For the first time since I was in my twenties and thirties, I am taking a group of friends and family on a 14 day trip to Spain. Many of you don’t know that I am a proficient Spanish speaker, lived in Spain, did two years of university there, and visit every couple of years as I still have friends in Madrid. It is always a delight to spend time with them, eat at new and different restaurants, attend the theater or concerts, go to flea markets and craft fairs, exhibits and more, all the while keeping my Spanish in good form.Why did I decide to do this now? Well, for many years, several people have said they would visit Spain “when I took them”. Finally, the time was right for the trip! At the end of October, we begin our tour in Madrid where we will stay at the beautiful hotel Villa Real. Although I will be handling the touring portion of the trip and curating visits to local restaurants and activities, Luca from Rome will be our own private tour guide. Scott and I had the privilege of touring with Luca one day last year when we spent the day in Rome visiting places that had newly opened or that had changed since our previous visits. Luca is awesome; he is an art historian with fabulous English who is able to invite people who are not art people, to explore art in ways that connect it to ancient and modern historical events. We will visit the Prado, the Reina Sofia, and the Thyssen and also have a chance to eat at some great restaurants. We will enjoy a ham and wine-tasting (there are many more types of ham in Spain than just ibérico, and we will try them all, paired with some delicious “blancos” (which is what Spaniards call white wine) And, of course, no visit to Madrid is complete without a stop for chocolate and churros. Not at the famous and touristy San Ginés, but at my favorite place, Valor Chocolate. The chocolate is rich and delicious and the churros hot and freshly fried. No cinnamon or powdered sugar here; these are Spanish churros, eaten plain and designed for dipping. In my next installment, I’ll write about our plans for Sevilla and then Barcelona.

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In the Middle of Things…

Things have changed rapidly since my last post. Schools are closing, plays and concerts are cancelled or postponed, and trips are suffering the same fate. Our cruise in Amsterdam has been cancelled, so we must soon decide how to respond: refund the tickets outright or ask for a postponement to a future date with a bonus provided by the company. Right now, too much is going on for us to make that decision. The good news is that we are both healthy, we will not be traveling in the near future, and we are fortunate that we, as travel advisors, have access to accurate and timely information from trusted sources about COVID. If anyone is able to plan ahead to a future date and wants to schedule something, please let us know. Alternatively, anyone who would like any information or to talk about options, whether we booked your trip or not, please get in touch with us. We are happy to help in any way we can. My friends in Israel told me just the other day ” this, too, shall pass” and I hope they are right!

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Keep Dreaming

In just a few short months, the world as we know it has changed, perhaps forever. Sheltering-in-place has become the norm and most of us are trying to do the right thing by staying home and staying safe. But, as we do what is required, we won’t know for a long time how we will find things as the orders to quarantine ourselves are lifted and businesses begin re-opening, little by little. Some bright spots in all this for us is that we have been able to book a number of trips for 2021 and 2022. So even though 2020 is a bust, there is hope for a recovery as people begin to think about traveling again. I hope everyone continues to be well, and if you want to book something now for next year or beyond, we’re ready to help.

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Uncharted Territory

It is absolutely mind-boggling to us what is going on with COVID. We are staying inside and have for four weeks already. No one knows how much longer – maybe two to four weeks more or even longer. One can only do so much cleaning and cooking and watching TV before feeling bored and restless. Thank goodness we live near a beautiful reservoir with a great walking path alongside. Every day we walk and that, along with the posts people send of musicians playing together virtually and inspirational writings from poets and pundits all around the world, are keeping us going. As far as travel goes, keep dreaming and remember that we are here for when things get better again. Stay healthy and safe!

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Leaving Jerusalem

Today is our last day in Jerusalem and we were ready to go at 8:20 after checking out of the Arthur Hotel. We met our guide for today, Ofir, a friend of Ron’s, at Shamai St. at the Harmony Hotel, one of the other Atlas Properties in Jerusalem. He had a big van with extra luggage containers and all our stuff fit, including the new menorah and some artwork. We began our drive out of Jerusalem, on the same road as we traveled yesterday, past the same Bedouin boy and camel, but this time we didn’t stop for a photo. The drive took quite a while and as we passed Bedouin camps with goats, and other items of interest, Ofir narrated a history and culture of the area. The most complicated thing for us to understand was the ABC zones, which described who lived where and what the rules were regarding where each could and could not go. Finally we got to Beit She’an and we walked all around looking at the ruins, seeing the Tel (the hill where things get buried) and learning all about these exquisite Roman ruins, including the beautiful bathhouse, theater, shopping area and toilets! Afterward we ate lunch at what appeared to be a local strip mall where we had meat (shawarma was a specialty, Scott and I had ground meat kebabs of beef and lamb) with salads and freshly-made pita. Then we stopped for gelato, which rivaled any we’ve had even in Italy – dense, creamy, with unusual flavors. I had date/banana and passion fruit – yum! Next we drove past Yardenit and the Jordan River, Tiberias and then to Tsfat where we walked around the town, saw one of the charming synagogues from the 1500’s and browsed the few shops that were open at the time. We got to our hotel the Ruth Safed (or Ruth Rimonin) a 200-year-old palace turned into a way station and still a hotel. Charming lobby and rooms, and dinner was served in a large, beautiful space overlooking the town. Unfortunately, the buffet which cost $60 pp was ample but nothing was particularly good, unlike our excellent food at the hotel in Jerusalem. We’ll meet Ofir again in the morning for the next part of our tour.

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Amsterdam, anyone?

In the middle of COVID, it may seem crazy, but Scott and I are going to Amsterdam for a tulip-time cruise on Ama, in just a few weeks. We’ve decided that we are extra-careful already and will continue being vigilant. For anyone who is not traveling, think of the horrific consequences for people who are in other countries, or who work in travel in any way, who are suffering from the millions of cancellations by people who are reluctant to go on a trip because of the virus. My idea is that we, as travel Advisors, have access to tons of accurate information, and can help guide clients, and ourselves, to continue to lessen the effects of all the people who decide not to go. We’ll be staying at the beautiful Sofitel Legend in Amsterdam and although we don’t have much time on either end of the cruise, will certainly enjoy being in this wonderful city.

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Our Last Meal in Israel

Got in so late from our 23 hour journey to Petra that we fell into bed and slept straight through til 9am. Had to try breakfast in the David Citadel so we hurried down to a beautiful buffet. There was a predictable selection of salads, shakshuka, halvah, baked goods, hot and cold cereals juices, and fresh fruit. There was also kefir and yogurt. The dining room is pleasant and light and service was acceptable. Cappuccino was not great, but it was certainly drinkable. We are disappointed to discover that the food at breakfast is no better than the food we were served at lunch the day before, which was mediocre at best. We talked to several people that morning from various places and they, too, thought the food was just adequate. Compared to some of the other, less elegant, places we stayed that had much better food, we were truly surprised. Oh, well. After breakfast we began to pack and soon got everything ready, including the new menorah, which we hadn’t opened since we bought it two weeks earlier and had been toting around everywhere. We decided to go to the Mahane Yehuda market to see if I could find the famous Kingdom of Halvah, which so many people had recommended. Finally, we found it, and it was an amazing place: filled with more than 20 flavors of halvah, and the vendor was willing to slice off a bit of every one if I wanted to taste them all. Even for me, that was impossible, so we ended up buying plain, pistachio and Lotus (Biscoff cookie) flavor, approximately four pounds. He cut big slabs and I wasn’t paying attention, which we had been cautioned we needed to do, so we didn’t end up with so much. It was all nicely boxed and wrapped, so at least it could go in my packed luggage and the vendor said it would last at least a year! We had been invited to have dinner at Happy Fish at the Mamilla Hotel next door to the David Citadel. It is a charming, tiled restaurant with warm wood accents and a summery vibe. We had been told to ask for the manager, Amit, and he welcomed us cordially and offered to pick things for us, as he and Ronit had already talked about what we might like. We thought that would be a great idea, but having already had the experience of way too much food in restaurants, we asked him to keep things light. They prepared a delicious drink for me made with tequila and some citrus juices and pomegranate which was yummy and we started with a huge array of expertly-prepared and delicious appetizer dishes: eggplant, hummus, tahini, cucumbers and tomatoes, falafel, cabbages, carrots, etc. but differently done than in other places. Then, we were served a carpaccio of salmon with a parsley-pesto that was out of this world, plus freshly-made bread. We were worried after all the appetizers that more food would come, as by then we were very full. Our server suggested that we end with one serving of their lemon pie – it seemed an odd thing to serve in Israel but it was awesome. The crust was a cookie-type with something crumbly on top, then a swirl of creamy lemon mousse, covered with a tasty meringue. More than enough for two and that’s how we ended our last meal in Israel. It was a delight, to be sure. Back to the room to pick up all our stuff and meet Alberto for the $100 ride in his car to the airport at Tel Aviv. United Airlines was on time, but the flight was super-full and only because we paid extra to board early, were we able to find any overhead bin space. We will not fly United again, definitely uncomfortable, plane not clean, and diffident employees who were unwilling to engage or help in any way. We much prefer Lufthansa or even Delta! Will arrive at SFO at 5:30am and will not deplane until the airport opens at 6am. L’hitraot! The beautiful menorah didn’t make it in one piece – it shattered and we have to throw it away. Such a shame as it was never put in luggage but apparently had not been packed carefully enough.

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The Rose-Red City

We set the alarm for 2am so we could be ready for our 3am pickup here at our hotel. The bus driver met us outside and we were ushered into a minivan with about ten others, to a location about 20 minutes out of the city. There we transferred to a very large bus and we were driven to Eilat, approximately four hours or so. At Eilat, we were met by a Go Israel guide named Lioni who helped us navigate the border crossing into Jordan. He told us we had to pay $60 and $65 each extra for the special Visa to Jordan and exiting Israel. We used American dollars for part of the cost and we used shekels for the rest, as they only accepted cash. Once we crossed into Jordan we had several stops, at each we were required to show our passport, and then wait til the next area. It was confusing, poorly-organized and it took about an hour and a half to finish all the bureaucracy to get into a new country. Finally, our Jordanian guide Nazir met us and took us to another bus and we began the drive to Petra. He was delightful, his English was excellent and we learned a lot about the history of Jordan. We started first in Aqaba where the government of Jordan is investing (and requesting foreigners also to invest, including investors for Dubai and China) in making a large, world-class city with modern infrastructure and amenities such as big hotels and conference centers. It took about two hours to get to Petra and we drove first through the Wadi Rum (Valley Rum), which sadly was socked in by heavy fog so we couldn’t see anything. On to Petra where we debarked the bus, were told what to expect inside Petra in terms of tourists and groups and how to handle the Bedouins who are the only ones inside Petra allowed to sell trinkets, and donkey, camel and horse rides ( all for exorbitant prices). Apparently, the Bedouins negotiated this deal with the Jordanian government and they are making hundreds of thousands of dollars, none of which makes its way to the local economy or banks, as all the money is kept in mattresses and under tiles in the houses. By the way, Bedouin children do not attend school and the Jordanians are working hard to change that. So far, no luck. There is a beautiful visitor center and many big hotels on the outside of the “rose-red city”, and we shortly passed the entrance gates and began our tour. It was amazing! The big rocks and canyons formed by major earthquakes thousands of years ago, formed the outer edge and funneled us down into the canyon. We saw some carvings made by the Nabataeans (who predated the Romans and Christians) and mostly used the caves for burial sites. We took lots of amazing pictures as we walked downward. We were told the area was famous for flash floods and it was easy to see why. Scott and I were reminded of the slot canyons of Arizona as we walked through with our guide Nizar. Shortly we came across the famous Treasury, gorgeous carvings in the red sandstone. It was never used as anything but a burial site, but at some point, someone shot a gun at an amphora up top, hoping to dislodge gold coins, hence its new name. From that point on, each site was more amazing than the last. We walked a couple of kilometers down into the canyon, ending at the great temple. We couldn’t go further as we didn’t have more time! Our guide left us at the bottom, giving us two hours to explore more or to go back up to meet him at the plaza at 4:15. We explored more on our own getting as far as seeing the colonnaded streets and soon began the 2 mile trek back up to the main level. The path is mostly sand and lots of rocks, so not easy walking, especially for Scott. We walked about 15 minutes before it began to rain in earnest, and soon the entire trail was filled with rushing water and waterfalls began cascading off the big rocks. Even though we had umbrellas and rain coats, we quickly were drenched and our shoes covered with muddy water as we climbed. It took us almost an hour to get back up, exhausted and soaked, and we were able to get a quick bite to eat and then get ready to leave. Our simple lunch of a bowl of soup, a Kebab of chicken and French fries and a lemonade cost more than $60 – very surprising to us! We were the last ones on the bus and we rode two hours back to Eilat where we went through the border again. Although by comparison, returning to Israel was more organized, we still had to pass metal detectors and body screenings, questions from agents and passport control. It took about an hour for all of us to get through and back to our Israeli bus. By this time, it was 7pm and Lioni (the same one who met us earlier in the day at 7am) greeted us and got us on the bus back to Jerusalem. It took five hours to get back to Jerusalem and finally arrived around midnight at our hotel. We had been touring for 23 hours! Pulled off wet clothes and quickly went to sleep. The trip was absolutely, 100% worth all the expense and time. All told, it cost us about $800, not including food. By the way, the lunch bag that was included on the trip was a dry bagel, an apple, an orange and a brownish banana, a fruit drink in a box and a bottle of water. Pretty much inedible…

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Taking the Train to Jerusalem

Earlier morning, breakfast at the hotel with Frank, Jen and another couple from Toronto that we met. We finished packing and asked the hotel clerk which train station we needed to go to to catch the high speed train to Jerusalem. He said Ha-Shalom, so we got a taxi to the station, which took about 15 minutes. Found the train and bought tickets, about 22 shekels for both of us (apps. $7 each). We went down to the platform, and boarded the train. We were told we had to go to the airport first and then transfer to the Jerusalem train. While standing on the platform, we must have looked lost, so a kind employee told us that it would be easier to get on the Ashkelon train which was arriving imminently, transfer at Havana station, and then get on the high-speed train to Jerusalem. That is what we did and it was pretty easy. The train was modern, clean, and had an area for people with disabilities (and seniors, which we are!) so we didn’t have to drag the luggage down or up any more stairs. Quick ride to Navon in Jerusalem. Up at least four levels to the street where we found a cab to our hotel in Jerusalem, the five-star David Citadel. Now that we were just us, we decided to try one of the Virtuoso properties so we could visit and experience something different. Our contact at the hotel greeted us warmly, upgraded our room to a partial old city view, and assigned us to room 750. We decided we wanted to see how the food was in this beautiful place, so we had lunch in the lobby restaurant. It was Kosher, dairy at lunch and this is what we ordered: fresh onion soup (watery and tasteless, unfortunately), tuna sandwich on a baguette with watery cucumber/tomato salad, and a delicious halloumi salad with fresh greens and tomatoes in a sumac vinaigrette. I ordered iced tea which was the color of water with a bit of lemon in it. It was Clearly not brewed as it tasted like water, so I sent it back. Next came a glass with slightly darker but still no taste, tea. It was room temperature. Oh, well. Scott’s salad was clearly the best thing and the tuna was fine, just nothing special. The price for those few things was over $60 and they took the soup off the bill. We were hoping the food would get better. After lunch, we met with Nofit, who took us on a comprehensive and lengthy tour of the hotel and all its facilities. It is quite big and lovely and we even met the manager, a man from the UK. We were also able to tour the Mamilla, the Citadel’s sister hotel, with Ronit, their sales manager. It is lovely, much more Italian (read plain and spare) in decorative style. We did enjoy seeing their fabulous spa with a meditation room and hamam, open to all guests, and a fabulous, private wine-tasting area. After we unpacked, it began to drizzle again so for dinner we caught a cab to Chakra. Again, we had an amazing meal of delicious and unusual focaccia (thin and crispy, instead of pilloughy and doughy), mushroom risotto and a Caesar salad with a poached egg. The snowball for dessert that we enjoyed last time would just be too much, so we opted for a creme brûlée with something red on top. My guess is it was crushed dried raspberries, but I couldn’t be sure. Anyway, the food was fabulous as was the service and we highly recommend this restaurant. We climbed into bed early as we had to be up at 3am on Wednesday for our excursion to Petra, Jordan.

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