Photography Workshop in Northern Portugal


Editor’s note: This announcement was originally published on Traveling with Sweeney.

Capturing the essence of northern Portugal

By Barbara Nelson
Workshop dates: June 17 – 28, 2018

Lisbon street scene -- Photo by Barbara Nelson
Lisbon street scene — Photo by Barbara Nelson

Join us to be inspired by the sights and scenes of northern Portugal and be challenged to capture your perspectives in photographs during the workshop. We will often have unique access to people and places as we travel from Lisbon to Porto, ending our workshop in Santiago de Compostela (in the Galicia region of Spain)

Itinerary Highlights

Iconic Lisbon tram -- Photo by Barbara Nelson
Iconic Lisbon tram — Photo by Barbara Nelson

We will meet in the capital city of Lisbon, staying for 3 nights in the historical section of the city (the only part that was left standing after the 1755 earthquake).  This district still retains its Kasbah-like layout with winding and steep lanes and stairways. Here you will also see captivating street life scenes and wonderful views of the Tagus River.

Lisbon street scene with street musicians -- Photo by Barbara Nelson
Lisbon street scene with street musicians — Photo by Barbara Nelson

From there, we move north to Porto, whose picturesque historic center is a UNESCO World Heritage Site. There will be many photo opportunities here, but the city is also a wonderful base for our side trips that include:

Terraced vineyards of the Douro Valley -- Photo by Barbara Nelson
Terraced vineyards of the Douro Valley — Photo by Barbara Nelson
  • the intricately terraced vineyards of the Douro Valley (the birthplace of port wine), visiting vineyard owners, old villages and the people who live there, and a 9th-century monastery
  • the Alto Minho area to visit at least one of the old transhumance villages
  • a traditional village of indigenous people with a large weekly market featuring local handicrafts and products
  • Barcelos Market, visiting fishing villages on the Atlantic coast along the way.
Portuguese woman at the market -- Photo by Barbara Nelson
Portuguese woman at the market — Photo by Barbara Nelson

On our way to Santiago de Compostela, we will spend time photographing around Viana do Castelo. The workshop ends in the historic, medieval town Santiago De Compostela, famous for the destination of all who are walking the Camino de Santiago (The Way of St. James). Workshop participants are free to spend personal days here or return home.

The class is built on a schedule of photographing and critiquing with some downtime planned for organizing your images for review. We will be together photographing on some mornings from sunrise till late morning as well as afternoons, through the sunset, occasionally past twilight and into the early evening. The class will meet daily for discussions, to review work, and critique each student’s photographs — individually and as a group. The schedule will be flexible for special events, weather changes, and such.

In this photography workshop we learn new skills and practice known techniques for capturing the essence of places and people in this beautiful and historical region. This workshop is for students who can operate their cameras on manual exposure and who want to go further with their photography. The class will learn how to work with minimal equipment and maximum adaptability. We will work on analyzing the quality/direction of light, frame/compose the image, and anticipate the unfolding activity. We will practice in-camera techniques such as multiple-exposure in camera, black & white, HDR, and more.

A list of suggested equipment and other travel needs will be emailed to all in the class. For details and booking, visit Barbara Nelson Photography on the web. Contact Barbara Nelson at

5 of the World’s Easiest Travel Destinations

By Thomas Lowe

Sometimes planning your trip can be almost as enjoyable as the trip itself — it certainly builds up the excitement. We all want our journeys to be as smooth and trouble-free as possible, but figuring out what transport to take can be stressful, so we’ve taken the worry out of it for you. Here are five of the easiest destinations to travel to.

1. New Zealand

New Zealand -- Photo by Michael Shannon on Unsplash
New Zealand — Photo by Michael Shannon on Unsplash

The tourism industry is booming in New Zealand — and they know it. This means that it’s a very easy country to get to, despite the long journey. Flights take 12 hours from the west coast of the US and over 24 hours from the UK, but if you can deal with this then it’s well worth making the trip.

Once you arrive, you’ll have no problems making your way round. There are daily bus and coach services on both islands, or if you’d rather have the freedom of driving yourself then hiring a car is straightforward. Main routes are well sign-posted and the roads are always maintained to a high standard.

However you choose to see New Zealand, there won’t be any shortage of stunning natural scenery for you to admire. Check out the top ten most beautiful views here.

2. The UK

Windsor Castle -- Photo by Traveling with Sweeney
Windsor Castle — Photo by Traveling with Sweeney

With more than five airports on the outskirts of London alone, the UK has plenty of transport links for the keen traveller to take advantage of, despite being such a small island. (Insurancewith recommends pre-booking your transport to your accommodation, to save you stressing about it when you arrive.) Find more holiday planning tips here.

Once you’re there, it’s easiest to travel from city to city by train. There are lines all over the country and most places have a train station, including country villages.

Local bus services operate in and around cities and will be much more friendly on your budget than taxis. Accessible transport is readily available, with most buses are adapted to accommodate wheelchair users and people with disabilities.

Bus trip tip: Be sure to buy your tickets in advance if you can (it’s much cheaper). Bus journeys normally cost less if you buy a day ticket instead of a return, plus you can take unlimited trips.

3. Germany

Hamburg, Germany -- Photo by Traveling with Sweeney
Hamburg, Germany — Photo by Traveling with Sweeney

Germany’s transport systems are renowned throughout the world for being so efficient, so whether you’re travelling by air or making your way over from another European country, your arrival should go smoothly and without fuss. If you’re a US citizen, all you need to enter the country is a valid passport and then you can stay for up to three months within a six-month period.

The train is the best way to get around once you’re there — there are options for every scenario, whether you want to go cross-country or just to the next town along, and the services are always clean and on time. If you fancy some fresh air, cycling is very popular in Germany, with bike rentals and dedicated cycle lanes in most of the big cities.

4. Canada

Vancouver -- Photo by Traveling with Sweeney
Vancouver — Photo by Traveling with Sweeney

You can travel to Canada by car, train, or plane, and the good news is that you only need to show your passport to be granted entry if you’re a US resident. (Click here to read more about the entry requirements for Canada.)

Canada has earned its reputation as a friendly country, with the locals only too happy to help out anyone who’s lost or needs a recommendation or two. It’s enormous, so you may have trouble deciding where to go first — we’ve narrowed it down to Vancouver, where a cosmopolitan city sits beside rugged mountains, and Montreal, which has lots of history, pretty cobblestone streets, and isn’t very far from Niagara Falls.

5. The Seychelles

Seychelles -- Photo by Yannick Bakker on Unsplash
Seychelles — Photo by Yannick Bakker on Unsplash

Looking for luxury? The Seychelles is the place to go. You don’t need a visa, even on entry — just fly in, get your passport stamped, and get ready to enjoy everything these beautiful islands have to offer.

Located off the east coast of Africa, the Seychelles are not cheap, but if you want a secluded paradise and you’re willing to pay for it, you can’t get much better than this. See the sights on a bike ride, or travel from island to island via ferry or catamaran for something a little more relaxing.

This boomer travel inspiration is brought to you via Insurancewith


Capturing the Essence of Uzbekistan


Capturing images along the ancient Silk Route of Uzbekistan

Imagine yourself traveling by caravan for many weeks along Uzbekistan’s Silk Route and suddenly in the distance the sun strikes the vivid blue dome of Samarkand’s Kok Gumbaz mosque.

Join us on this new photography workshop along Uzbekistan’s ancient Silk Route.

May 6 – 21, 2018

Limited to 8 people.
Taught by Terry Abrams. Produced by Barbara Nelson.

Uzbekistan -- Photo by Barbara Nelson

The Uzbekistan workshop will start and end in Tashkent. We will be based in three locations, Tashkent, Samarkand and Bukhara, making side trips and excursions from each location.  We will be publishing a book from this trip and your pictures will be included.

Uzbekistn -- Photo by Barbara Nelson

Local English speaking experts versed in the history and culture of the country will inform and guide us to the world famous mosques and sites from the Ottoman Empire and medieval times.  Markets and local life of the people. Local crafts people at work, secrets of the old parts of town – all and more will be locations for the best photography.


Uzbekistan -- Photo by Barbara Nelson

  • Observatory of Ulugbek is the astronomical miracle of medieval Uzbekistan.  We will be there to photograph it.
  • Tomb of Saint Daniel

Uzbekistan -- Photo by Barbara Nelson

  • Several side trips into mountain areas are planned to meet and visit local people, discovering their cultures. We will have tea and food, learn bread making, cook Plov and generally experience and participate in their everyday life.

Uzbekistan -- Photo by Barbara Nelson

  • Capturing the essence of a location with a unique personal vision is the focus of this small group workshop. Learn to catch the mystery of place and people in this centuries old region of Central Asia.

We meet daily, and some evenings for low light shooting, to explore different neighborhoods of the city, providing a complete range of subjects to photograph.


You will learn new techniques, and practice known skills as we explore different environments throughout the workshop.  The days will be organized to allow for importing images for regular reviews and critiques, individually and in the group.


The Uzbekistan Photography Workshop is produced by BARBARA NELSON and taught by TERRY ABRAMS.


  • Hotels and breakfast
  • Ground transportation related to the workshop
  • Local expert traveling with group
  • Entrance fees to scheduled monuments
  • Uzbekistan Visa support


  • Lunch, drinks and beverages
  • International air travel
  • Personal items and services
  • Domestic Air: Bukhara to Tashkent ($75.00)
  • Photo and video fees for some scheduled interiors
  • Visa (Agency helps with this)


50% deposit required with reservation.

Check or money order payable to Barbara Nelson.

340 Haven Avenue #3J, New York, NY 10033

*Refund Policy
NOTE:  Visa application may take several weeks.

All photos courtesy of Barbara Nelson

Capturing the Diversity of Ecuador in a Photography Workshop


Exploring the Richness of Ecuador’s Natural and Cultural Diversity

July 30 – August 10, 2017

Limited to 10 people.
Taught by Terry Abrams. Produced by Barbara Nelson.

This photography workshop will teach us how to see beyond the richness of a new environment and quickly adjust to many different subjects to capture unique images.  We will be working in a broad variety of photographic styles at all different times of day and low light.  Time is allotted for uploading images and critiques both individual and as a group.

Photo by Barbara Nelson

Small, but dazzling, Ecuador’s richness lies in its wide natural and cultural diversity. With over 5000 years of history, Ecuador has the greatest biodiversity per area in the world, including 1600 species of birds and 25,000 species of plants.

On this trip into the pre-Columbian southeast part of the Southern Andes, we will base in two locations where we can experience both the Amazon rainforest and the Andes Highlands.


Ecuador - Photo by Barbara Nelson
Bustling market towns, traditional crafts people, remote indigenous villages, and pristine national parks far from the touring crowds. People just as diverse as the landscapes live peacefully together.

Ecuador -- Photo by Barbara Nelson

Marcas (5 days)  A small charming river town.

  • Excursions to visit Shuar communities with their unique customs and beliefs – a subgroup of the Jivaro who have lived for centuries in the rainforests.
  • Explore the rainforest’s landscape and diversity of natural life.
  • A spectacular drive in private coach from Macas to the highland’s town of Cuenca.

Cuenca (5 days)  A 16th century colonial jewel of the south and a UNESCO world heritage site.

  • Flower market, crafts market, cobblestone streets, churches, plazas and more.
  • Excursions to small villages where local artisans make and sell their fine works.
  • Handmade Panama hats originated here and are still its most famous export.

This workshop is for students who can operate their cameras on manual exposure and who want to go further with their photography. The class would meet daily for discussions, to view work and critique student’s work. We will be together photographing on some mornings from sunrise till late morning as well as afternoons, through the sunset, occasionally past twilight and into the evening. Students are expected to organize their digital images for review.

Ecuador -- Photo by Barbara Nelson

A list of suggested equipment and other travel needs will be emailed to all in the class.The class is built on a schedule of photographing and critiquing with some downtime planned for organizing your images. The schedule will be flexible for unscheduled special events, weather changes and such. The class will learn how to work with minimal equipment and maximum adaptability. We will work on analyzing the quality/direction of light, frame/compose the image and anticipate the unfolding activity. The diversity of Ecuador provides endless opportunities for photographers.

The Ecuador Photography Workshop is produced by BARBARA NELSON and taught by TERRY ABRAMS.


  • Hotels and breakfast, WiFi, and ground transportation related to the workshop. Local expert traveling with group.


  • Lunch, dinner, drinks and beverages. International air travel. Personal items and services.


  • As always, we strongly suggest travel insurance that gives good coverage for most circumstances including personal health issues that might occur with you or your family. It is also required that all check their health insurance to make sure it covers you out-of-country.



FEE: $3450. 00  SINGLE SUPPLEMENT $180.00
50% deposit required with reservation.

BALANCE DUE June 19, 2017
Check or money order payable to Barbara Nelson

340 Haven Avenue #3J, New York, NY 10033

*Refund Policy

All photos courtesy of Barbara Nelson

Visiting Surco: Where the Locals Live in Lima

How to Escape from Miraflores When in Lima

The plane lands. The foreigners get off and most head for their destinations in Miraflores. This tourist/expat infested part of Lima could be anywhere: Starbucks. McDonalds. Pizza Hut.

Really? Why bother going to Peru?

About 20 minutes away by bus, however, is Surco an engaging barrio where the locals live. Here the chances of running into foreigners is about the same as seeing llamas on the street.

Tips on things to do in Surco

Visit Plaza de Armas

Plaza de Armas de Cuzco

Plaza de Armas — Photo credit: Guillén Pérez on Flickr

The first buildings the Spanish built were those in the Plaza de Armas and every city, village and neighborhood has one. As well as housing the cathedral, the post office and the administration it was where the guns and the ammunition were kept. In the case of attack, everyone headed there.

In Surco, this square is a relaxed gathering place for locals. Older people soak up the sun; teenagers kiss on the benches; kids play football — or soccer — depending on which dialect is being spoken.

Lawns and brightly colored flowers cover the plaza, and in the center of the square there is a gazebo. The ambience is tranquil and people actually talk to each other without a smart-phone or a tablet in sight.

At the south-east entrance there is a small amphitheater. The municipal band plays from time to time in the evenings. So those who truly want to mix and mingle with the locals are welcome to dance.

Stay at Marlin’s

As Marlin lived in the United States for about 20 years, she is one of the few people in Surco who speaks English.

She rents out two bedrooms and has an Airbnb with a private bathroom on offer. Another perk of staying with her is that she is very generous with her time and showing people around. Email her at or call her on 51-991-26-84-21.

Shop at Jorge Chevas Mercado

Jorge Chevas Mercado in the Surco barrio of Lima, Peru
Shop at Jorge Chevas Mercado

Jorge Chevas — a 23-year old Peruvian aviator who died in 1910 after being the first pilot to cross the Alps — has many things named after him: the international airport, a major street and a market, to mention a few.
The Jorge Chevas Mercado goes on forever and has almost everything, except for tourist trinkets. Non-Spanish speakers are advised to make a list and translate it from one of the programs and or take photos of what they want. Another option is to just wander around and see what there is to see.

Eat with the workers

The municipality of Surco runs a lunch place about three blocks from the plaza. For four soles — about $1.33USD –the meal includes soup, rice and beans or potatoes, a meat portion and a sticky dessert. The décor is stark, the service is cafeteria style and everyone takes their trays back to the kitchen. The people who eat there are the municipal workers, the old and the poor.

Eat with the locals in the Surco barrio of Lima, Peru
Eat with the locals in Surco

For some of the best ceviche in town, head for Huarique de Barranco. To get there, turn left from Jorge Chevas Mercado and walk two blocks and a bit. The place is easily identifiable as it is a red building — technically number 324 — and there are people standing and/or eating in the sidewalk.

The line moves slowly. That is because each and every dish is made on the spot. Don’t fret about not having a place to sit in the elbow-to-elbow venue. By the time the food is ready, others will have inhaled theirs and left.

Order hand-stitched shoes

Always wanted to have personalized Italian shoes? Take a photo and then go and see Ronald, located at the north-west corner of the Plaza. He will measure your foot and then take twice as long as he promised to deliver.

But it is worth the wait. He copied a Kipling handbag perfectly in leather that will last for at least the rest of this lifetime.

Splurge on a manicure and pedicure

Rosa’s manicure shop is close to the market. Her official address is 812, Stand 03. Call her on 935-333-138 to make an appointment. At the time of writing, a manicure and a pedicure came in at about $12USD.

Drink at La Taverna

Jorge and Jeanna run La Taverna, a great little place with an extensive selection of wine at reasonable prices. Check the Astica, a Merlot/Malbec blend from Argentina. It was 23 soles — about $8USD — to drink it in the bar or 18 soles — $6USD — to take it away.

"Author Jody Hanson"About the Author:
Jody Hanson is an insufferable travel junkie who currently lives in Colombia. To date she has visited 107 countries, lived in eight and holds passports in three. Her – some would say irresponsible – retirement plan is to keep going until she drops. At that time she wants a Muslim burial: wash the body, wrap it in a white sheet and plant it by sundown. In the meantime, Hanson continues to have more than her share of adventures and misadventures, both of which she embraces equally.

Contact Jody by email:
Blogs: Jody Hanson and Traveling with Sweeney
Connect with Jody Hanson on LinkedIn
Add Jody to your circles on Google+

When in Rome … or Tuscany, or Quebec, or France

By Catherine Sweeney, BWT Founder and Editor

The international connection challenge

A little time away from the internet can do us some good once in a while. However, the reality is that many of us need and want to stay connected most of the time — especially when we travel. For me, it’s important to keep up with business and to stay in touch with family and friends sharing my experiences via social media, email, or Skype. As a travel blogger, it’s critical to stay connected to keep engaged with my audience.

It can be a challenge finding the right connections when traveling internationally, especially since charges for global data coverage options offered by U.S. cell phone carriers can be astronomical. Over the past several months, the XCOM Global Mobile Hotspot has become my go-to wireless connectivity solution when traveling outside of the United States.

A hilltop view of the grandeur of Rome
A hilltop view of the grandeur of Rome

Since my first experience with XCOM Global Mobile Hotspot (“Our French Connection” in Paris and Provence), I’ve had an XCOM hotspot device with me traversing country roads in Tuscany, exploring secluded areas of Quebec’s maritime region, and gazing upon history from the hilltops of Rome and Florence.

The stunning Renaissance city of Florence, italy
The stunning Renaissance city of Florence, italy

My own private Wi-Fi

The XCOM hotspot provides unlimited wireless data access for up to 10 devices (laptops, smartphones, and tablets) for use in over 175 countries. There are various plans depending upon your needs and what countries will be visited.

Wi-Fi in Tuscany

Upon landing in Florence, I activated the hotspot, connected quickly with my phone, and was able to make a call with Skype to our villa in Tuscany to let them know we’d arrived and would soon be on our way to check in.

Staying connected upon arrival in Florence, Italy with XCOM Global
Arrived in Florence, Italy! Now contacting the villa managers to let them know I’m on my way!

Staying connected while driving in unfamiliar places is very important and my husband and I took advantage of maps and apps many times as we explored Tuscany on the highways and country roads in our fun little Fiat 500.

Happy to have Wi-Fi access while driving around Tuscany in our fun Fiat 500. Left: Guided to the small village of Lucardo near our villa via online maps
Happy to have Wi-Fi access while driving around Tuscany in our fun Fiat 500. Left: Guided to the small village of Lucardo near our villa via online maps

One night, we took the wrong exit off the main highway heading back to the villa from Florence. It was dark and there were very few signs on this winding country road through the Tuscan hills. Once we realized our mistake, we got online to see where we were and what to do. We decided to keep on our new route instead of going back and were very glad when we saw the lights of the small village of Lucardo which was near the villa.

Wi-Fi in Rome

When in Rome, I was constantly seeing sites that I couldn’t wait to share with friends and my blog audience. The city is amazing. This photo of me at the Colosseum went directly to Twitter! We also were happy to have access to guides, maps and reviews for picking restaurants and finding attraction locations.

Using wifi in Rome to tweet to my followers from the Colosseum in Rome - staying connected with XCOM Global Mobile Wi-Fi
Tweeting to my followers from the Colosseum in Rome

Before leaving Rome for the United States, there was one final task on the plane before take off  — ordering the taxi for pickup at Chicago’s O’Hare International Airport. Arrivederci, Roma!

Using wifi in Rome to schedule a taxi in Chicago prior to take from FCO
Using the XCOM Global hotspot one last time in Rome before take off

Wi-Fi in Quebec

Before leaving for a press trip in Quebec, I wondered how good the coverage would be in areas of the maritime region far less traveled than the popular cities of the province. Would XCOM Global come through for me? The hotspot worked beautifully.

What an office! Staying social at beautiful Lac-Témiscouata in Quebec
What an office! Staying social at beautiful Lac-Témiscouata in Quebec

There was an occasion when my Canadian travel companion wasn’t getting any signal from her own carrier and I was able to help her out since I had coverage. That might not always be the case, but it certainly worked out for me this time.

My husband wasn’t on this trip, so a big benefit of reliable Wi-Fi was being able to make Skype calls to him each day no matter where I was.

What I like about the XCOM Global Mobile Hotspot

Size: The device is small, slim and light and can easily fit in any pocket, purse, or small case. I carried it (as well as an extra battery) in a zipped pocket of my purse.

Multiple Devices: On the trips with my husband, we had four devices — two laptops, two smartphones — at least two in use most of the time and sometimes three or four.

Ease of use: It’s quick and easy to get connected — install the battery, turn on the power, locate the device as an available Wi-Fi network on the smartphone, enter the password, and connect as you would to any network.

Coverage: I experienced very good 3G coverage throughout each trip. The only times that I was temporarily without Wi-Fi were in very remote areas of Quebec where no carrier was providing services.

Unlimited data: There’s no need to worry about going above usage limits as far as the hotspot is concerned. However, note that you are still subject to each carrier’s Fair Usage Policies if their networks get overloaded.

Battery life: The battery lasts about four hours. As a blogger using social media frequently during a day of activities, I kept the device powered on most of the time, so having a backup battery was very important. I also found on one day in Quebec having a portable charger came in handy – not just for the Wi-Fi device, but for my smartphone, too. But generally, I simply charged the batteries each evening and was set to go the next day.

Order and return process: The device and accessories arrive the day prior to the trip with a prepaid FedEx Ground envelope to return the hotspot when back in the United States.

24 hour support: It’s nice to know it’s there; however, I haven’t yet had the need to use it, so I can’t comment directly about XCOM’s technical support.

Why not buy SIM cards in other countries?

From my experiences, there are several advantages over using SIM cards which I’ve purchased on previous trips to Canada and European countries. However, there are several reasons that a mobile hotspot has proven to be a better option for me.

  • The XCOM Global Mobile Hotspot provides coverage beyond your smartphone as it works on laptops and tablets, too.
  • Researching how and where to get a SIM card for a destination can be time-consuming and then getting to each purchase location requires time and logistics. It’s nice to avoid that headache when you’ve begun your holiday.
  • Short-term data plans are not available everywhere for SIM cards.
  • SIM card plans can be complex, possibly magnified with language barriers in the stores outside of your own country. Even when language is not an issue, I’ve usually found that the phone stores have waiting lines and the process of signing up can take a long time.
  • Unlike the mobile hotspot, with SIM cards you have to recharge them as you use data since fees are based on specific data amounts; this can be costly and time-consuming.

Why not use Wi-Fi at hotels, cafés and in other public places at your destination?

Availability and Reliability: Rather than needing to look for free Wi-Fi hotspots in cafés, the XCOM Global Mobile Hotspot is always on hand. Although most hotels have Wi-Fi access, it’s sometimes very expensive and it’s not always reliable. The hotspot makes for a great backup in cases where you don’t have internet availability in your room or if the premium access is not affordable.

Security: We also felt more secure with our own password-protected wireless network avoiding the risks of public networks.

What to consider

XCom_ZTEMF60Coverage areas: Check the coverage areas on the XCOM Global website to see countries where their plans are available and the service areas of the local carriers.

Rental plans: For my uses so far, I have only required a daily coverage plan for one country on each of my trips, but XCOM offers other plans, including those for covering multiple countries (even a special Europe Travel Plan option that covers 40 European countries) and a monthly package.

Value: Consider how many (and what type) of devices you have, how long you’ll be gone, and where you’ll be traveling to determine the value for each of your trips. The more devices you have accessing the XCOM hotspot, the more economical it becomes. The XCOM hotspot may not be the lowest-cost option in some circumstances, but is definitely an affordable option for many travelers and the benefits are worth it. Avoiding the downsides of other options I mentioned and the peace of mind can be priceless.

Will I consider XCOM Global’s Mobile Hotspot for my future international travels? Si! Oui! Yes!

Disclosure: The XCOM Global Mobile Hotspot was provided to me for review by XCOM Global, but my opinions and perspectives are completely my own — as always. 

Havana: I Spent a Year There One Week

By Jody Hanson

The Plan

Restless, a touch bored – always dangerous – I decided to move to Havana on 10 December 2015. The hot season in the Kingdom was looming. Three months of relentless heat hovering about 40c makes you sweat from pores you didn’t even know you had – like your fingernails.

And for some reason I wanted to return to the Americas. Much as I enjoyed the people I met, the culture of Cambodia and the terrace on my apartment, the monks were starting to remind me of choir boys. It was time to go.

My only concern with Havana was the Internet. But the research confirmed that the technical whiz kids were finding ways to get around the second most unconnected country – North Korea is first – using proxy servers in neighboring countries and such.

Cuba map

Then on 17 December 2015, the American president announced that the United States was normalizing relations with Cuba. Opening up? People from other countries have always been able to visit. Hells bells, I went there on a holiday in 1978.

All of a sudden things weren’t looking so good as America’s first promise was to improve the Internet and every second article focused on that topic. Translated that meant they are going to shut down the innovations and control cyberspace in the land of cigars and rum.


Havana collage

Although it is a questionable term, “quaint” is the adjective that best describes the capital.

The 1950s and 60s cars are belching and farting some of the worst pollution ever. Getting stuck behind one of them is gas-mask material. Some newer vehicles have been imported, so that is another market the Americans are going to try to weasel in on.

I stayed in a small apartment that was part of a three-generation accommodation. Lydia and Luis are in their 80s and still holding hands.

Lydia and Luis
Lydia and Luis – still holding hands

Jorge is 50 something; Lester is his 29-year old son who works two jobs. Lester could have found the geeks for me in about 10 minutes, but with the Americans invading, I knew it wasn’t going to work.

Spending time with the family – with all the coming and going of various friends and relatives – was the highlight of my trip. It was wonderful to be part of a functioning three-generation arrangement and Jorge told me I was most welcome early in the piece. A Hilton is a Hilton is a Hilton, but real people who include you in their lives are far more interesting.

Contingency Plans

Given my erratic lifestyle I always have Plan B, C and possibly D. Before I left the Kingdom I’d done the research and decided on Medellin, Columbia. My mother was not exactly impressed. “Isn’t it dangerous there?”

“Yes and no. Twenty years ago it was declared the most risky city on the planet. That was when Pablo Escobar was running the drug cartels. But is 2012 the Washington based Urban Land Institute named Medellin as the most innovative city in the world.”

My mother would still rather I moved to Saskatoon, Saskatchewan, but that isn’t going to happen at minus 23 with a wind chill of minus 47.

Booking a ticket

Most people go to Cuba on all-inclusive tours and don’t have to deal with the bureaucracy of the country. The Spanish have a word, trametie, which describes time-consumption and inefficiency.

First of all I had to go to the government Internet shop. It costs $4.50 an hour and as there were only four computers, there was always a line-up. No, I couldn’t use my laptop as they don’t have wi-fi and plugging into the system is not allowed. Nobody could tell me why, but it is a rule, which can neither be bent nor broken. Trametie, trametie, trametie.

After two days I finally found a one-way ticket to Medellin with Copa and booked. But the government shop couldn’t print, so I had to send it to myself as an email, lug my laptop up to the Hotel Havana Libre and pay $10 an hour to use their wi-fi.

I had the booking numbers, but they wanted a hard-copy of the ticket and the printer wasn’t working. They said it would be functioning tomorrow. At this point I was beginning to wonder if I would have to call on my friend, Leo – a security person who offered me unconditional protection when I left Sydney – to get me off the island. Getting the printer fixed could take four days and I was due to fly out in two.

Disgruntled, I went off for another feast of rice, beans, some sort of undisclosed meat and rum. The food was so-so, but the Havana Club was good. Can you ever drink too much rum in Cuba? No, it is what fortifies you for the no es facil – it is not easy – lifestyle there.

That said, the people are friendly, helpful and tolerant of those who can’t speak Spanish well. When I got lost – which happened frequently – locals would walk me to where I was going, even though it was out of their way.


Although my flight wasn’t until 15:30, I like to be at the airport early. I slept in – the apartment was so quiet and I didn’t have an alarm – but I still arrived before the gates had opened for boarding. Jorge had arranged for one of his friends to take me. He wasn’t an accredited driver so I paid cash before we left.

Insha’Allah, a puff of ju-ju smoke and a bit of my Buddah and the plane took off headed for Medellin via Bogota almost exactly one week to the hour after I had arrived.

It is unfortunate the Americans are invading Cuba. On the one hand I will be able to say I was one of the last people to see Havana as it was. On the other, I would have liked to have found the geeks and worked from there.

But there are adventures waiting in Medellin.

Jody Hanson’s original article was published on

"Author Jody Hanson"About the Author:
Jody Hanson is an insufferable travel junkie who currently lives in Cambodia. To date she has visited 107 countries, lived in eight and holds passports in three. Her – some would say irresponsible – retirement plan is to keep going until she drops. At that time she wants a Muslim burial: wash the body, wrap it in a white sheet and plant it by sundown. In the meantime, Hanson continues to have more than her share of adventures and misadventures, both of which she embraces equally.

Contact Jody by email:
Blogs: Jody Hanson
Connect with Jody Hanson on LinkedIn
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October in Puglia: La Dolce Vita, Salento Style!

Victoria De Maio of PostcardZ from Victoria has another one of her great small group tours in Puglia coming up. We’ve asked her to tell us the details.

Head Over HeelZ in Puglia! October 9 – 18, 2015

By Victoria De Maio

Here’s a daily itinerary of this awesome tour!*

For the first 4 nights of your tour, you will stay in Lecce. Your boutique, an all-suite hotel is in the heart of Lecce’s historic center and walking distance from the very best that this Baroque jewel has to offer. Enjoy Lecce’s unique architecture and pedestrian center with its wine bars, museums, restaurants, shops, bookstores, and more.

Day 1 – Friday, October 9 – Benvenuti! Welcome to Puglia!

  • Arrive in Brindisi Airport.
  • Your private transfer will take you to your accommodation in Lecce.
  • Check in and welcome wine tasting.
  • Dinner to follow featuring traditional Pugliese cuisine at a local trattoria.

Day 2 – Saturday, October 10 – Lecce Lifestyle, “Florence of the South”

Lecce, Italy - Photos by Victoria De Maio

  • Walking tour of Lecce, the capital of Baroque. A guided walk in the historical center with its lavish, magnificent Baroque architecture and distinctive personality.
  • Visit a local artist and enjoy the cartapesta (papier-mâché) demonstration.
  • Lunch in a local renowned restaurant with traditional, regional delights.
  • Free afternoon in Lecce to explore and enjoy this lively, lovely town.
  • Late afternoon “Aperitivo Leccese” followed by dinner and wine in a local ristorante walking distance from your hotel.

Day 3 – Sunday, October 11 – Gallipoli, “Pearl of the Ionian” and Wine Tasting

Gallipoli, Italy - Photos by Victoria De Maio

  • On our way, let’s visit a local artisan in their pottery studio.
  • Visit the port of Gallipoli, “città bella” of fishermen.
  • Lunch by the sea at a local ristorante.
  • Walking tour of the old town of Gallipoli.
  • Gelato time! Stop for a gourmet gelato treat before heading home.
  • Return to Lecce to rest before dinner.
  • Another fabulous, traditional dinner of regional specialties.

Day 4 – Monday, October 12 – Food Artisans Experience!

Lecce Market - Photos by Victoria De Maio

  • After breakfast, embark on a food artisan tour (and a few samples!); visit to the Lecce food market, watch fresh mozzarella being made at the caccificio (cheese shop), and pasticciotto (Lecce’s favorite pastry) at the pasticceria (pastry shop).
  • Light lunch in a trendy enoteca in Lecce.
  • Caffè Experience: Taste different coffees and learn about coffee making.
  • Visit a pastificio (pasta shop) where we will make a very special wine pasta together.
  • Dinner at the pastificio.

For the second half of our stay, we will move to the nearby countryside among thousands and thousands of hectares of olive groves! Here we will stay at Masseria Provenzani, a charming and relaxing restored 16th-century farmhouse.

Masseria - Photos by Victoria De Maio

Here we will learn firsthand about “cucina povera”. Putting on our aprons, we’ll prepare and enjoy regional seasonal dishes with Mamma Giulia, explore more of the seductive Salento lifestyle, and learn firsthand about the exquisite local olive oil and vino (of course!).

Day 5 – Tuesday, October 13 – City to Country with Some Wine & Cooking Lessons Along the Way!

  • After breakfast, we check out and head to a Salento winery where Primitivo, Negroamaro, and other local varietals are transformed into gorgeous wines!
  • Lunch at a traditional Masseria.
  • Check in to our new home for 5 nights, a traditional Salento style Masseria.
  • Time to unpack, relax, and practice some Italian with your hosts.
  • Grab your apron! It’s time to cook together! Learn about “cucina povera” and how to make culinary magic with very simple ingredients.
  • Dinner at the Masseria.

Cooking at the masseria in Puglia - Photos by Victoria De Maio

Day 6 – Wednesday, October 14 – It’s Olive Harvest! Time for a Picnic & the Pizzica!

  • Today we will harvest olives and make our own olive oil! Our olive oil expert will guide us through this beautiful experience!
  • Learn how to taste olive oil and enjoy a traditional picnic.
  • Let’s dance the Pizzica with locals to traditional Salento music.
  • Return to the Masseria for a private tutored wine tasting.
  • Mamma is in the kitchen tonight and she will demonstrate how to make the best risotto!
  • Dinner at the Masseria.

Olive harvest and tour of mill in Puglia - Photos by Victoria De Maio

Day 7 – Thursday, October 15 – Explore “Grecia Salentina” and Pizza Making

  • Today we will explore the picturesque and historic “grecia salentina” or griko Salento.
  • Visit and enjoy guided walks in the town of Corigliano and the beautiful coastal city of Otranto, city of martyrs and mosaics (and great shopping!).
  • Lunch in a traditional trattoria.
  • On our way home, visit a farm where they make natural beauty products with aloe vera.
  • Return to the Masseria for pizza making and dinner.

Pizza Making - Photos by Victoria De Maio

Day 8 – Friday, October 16 – Visit to the Itria Valley for a Trulli Photo Safari!

  • Visit the famous Itria Valley and the famous white washed stone villages of Ostuni, Cisternino and Alberobello.
  • Enjoy walking tours of these picturesque trulli towns.
  • Guided stroll through Ostuni, “the white city”.
  • In Cisternino, famous for its tradition of butcher shops with annexed wooden ovens, you will choose the meat you want cooked for you “al Fornello”.
  • Free time in Alberobello to explore the many shops, wine bars, and gourmet food boutiques (and to take lots of photos!).
  • Return to the Masseria for another home traditional cooked dinner (with wine, of course!)

Towns of Puglia - Photos by Victoria De Maio

Day 9 – Saturday, October 17 – The Valle della Cupa Experience & Puglia Wine School

  • After breakfast, we go off the beaten track to the Valle della Cupa to visit more picture-perfect villages in Northern Salento.
  • Meet local artists and artisans.
  • Enjoy lunch in a local traditional trattoria.
  • Return to the Masseria to relax before our last evening together.
  • A special class at Puglia Wine School where we will learn how to pair food and wine.
  • Our last evening together will be celebrated with another special delicious dinner and wine.

Puglia tour group - Photo by Victoria De Maio

Day 10 – Sunday, October 18 – Buon Viaggio!

  • Time to finish packing.
  • Enjoy breakfast and say our goodbyes.
  • Private transfer to Brindisi airport.

Arrivederci! Safe travels!

*Itinerary is subject to change due to weather and unforeseen schedule changes. However, all activities outlined will be included in your experience.

For more information and booking: Head Over HeelZ in Puglia

Limited to Only 12 Spaces!

Book by July 30, 2015 and save $100 per person!

Photos courtesy of Victoria De Maio

Victoria De Maio, Travel Consultant, Blogger, Writer, Tour Leader & Published Author
Victoria De Maio

About the author:
La dolce vita for me” sums up Victoria’s passion and love for all things Italian. An American (with deep Italian roots) living in California, her heart is always in Italy. Her book “Victoria’s Travel TipZ Italian Style” is a result of her love for Italy, all things Italian, and sincere desire to help others have a truly fabulous trip to Italy. As a travel consultant, writer, and blogger, Victoria loves sharing practical no-nonsense travel tips and insights as well as her own experiences from a personal and light-hearted point-of-view on her travel blog, PostcardZ from Victoria. Needless to say, her favorite subject is Italy! When she isn’t planning her next trip (or yours!), she loves being a regular contributing writer for Italian Notebook, Italian Talks, and L’Italo-Americano. She loves doing book signings and presentations and can also be found on Facebook, Twitter, YouTube, Pinterest, and Instagram as well as on blog radio, and doing guest posts and interviews.

The Krama — A Cambodian Fashion Statement

By Jody Hanson

“What are you doing?” demanded my small-town Canadian mother in the exasperated tone she saves for me, her oldest and most difficult child, “There are potholders in the drawer.”

“No need,” I shot back as I manipulated the casserole dish of cabbage rolls from the microwave to the table, “I have my krama that I brought with me from Cambodia.” My long suffering mother rolled her eyes and went back to cutting vegetables for the salad. Lifting the lid, a few drops of steam morphed into water. I wiped up the puddle with the corner of my scarf, slung it back around my neck and carried on.

Jody Hanson wearing the krama  --- a Cambodian fashion essential
Jody Hanson wearing the krama — a Cambodian fashion essential

To date I have – among other things – used my krama to mop my sweaty brow, filter out the dirt when riding in a tuk-tuk and wrapped it around my shoulders to keep warm in air-conditioned spaces.

In the house the krama has come in handy as an emergency dust cloth, a laundry hamper, a napkin and an eye shade to filter out the morning sun. Hells bells, I even wear one around my neck when I sleep to protect me against a draught from the fan.

Like earrings and a properly packed handbag, I never leave home without a krama as I would sort of feel undressed. And the few times I haven’t had it with me, I’ve needed it.

Cambodian Fashion Statement

And then there is Cambodian fashion, which is another area where the krama can take front and centre stage. Darlinggggg, can you ever be too thin, have too much money or own too many scarves? No, so that is settled. Given the fabric and colour choices you can mix and match to your wardrobe’s entire content, a krama goes with absolutely everything.

According to Princess Soma Norodom – a woman about town and a bit of a fashion icon – Cambodian fashion designers might want to look at repurposing the krama. “Some people in Cambodia think the krama is only for poor people and they would never contemplate wearing one with their designer clothes. I don’t agree. Check the market and you can find luxurious hand-woven silk scarves that can double as shoulder wraps. Although they may not be popular here, women in other countries would pay a proverbial fortune for the beautiful scarves we take for granted. Get with it, girls.”

“There is also a proud tradition of kramas that goes back centuries when the royal family wore them. Perhaps my fashion contribution to Cambodia will be to start wearing them to the events I host.”

Yes, there is nothing like the Royal Rebel taking up the cause to firmly plant the krama back on the Cambodian fashion map.

Make a Statement

If someone gives you a krama and you don’t have the imagination to figure out what else to do with it there is always a wall hanging, a table cloth or a dish towel.

Now some of the locals need to learn what the peasants and we berang (foreigners) know so well. Krama wearers of the world unite, we are onto a good thing.

"Author Jody Hanson"About the Author:
Jody Hanson is an insufferable travel junkie who currently lives in Cambodia. To date she has visited 107 countries, lived in eight and holds passports in three. Her – some would say irresponsible – retirement plan is to keep going until she drops. At that time she wants a Muslim burial: wash the body, wrap it in a white sheet and plant it by sundown. In the meantime, Hanson continues to have more than her share of adventures and misadventures, both of which she embraces equally.

Contact Jody by email:
Blogs: Jody Hanson
Connect with Jody Hanson on LinkedIn
Add Jody to your circles on Google+

A Touch of Tuscany: Highlights of a One-Week Visit

By Catherine Sweeney

Highlights of a week in northern Tuscany

A week in Tuscany is not nearly enough time to gain anything but a preliminary knowledge of the region, even if just focusing on its northern part. However, it’s enough to feel the pull it has on the hearts of visitors and understand why residents are so proud of their home. It was also enough time for us to experience some wonderful activities that we can recommend for your own visits. In future posts, I will have more to share about the many reasons we loved Tuscany, but here are a few highlights of our Tuscan experience.

View of Val di Pesa from La Novellina in Tuscany
View of Val di Pesa from La Novellina in Tuscany

Seeing the famous sights

Florence and Pisa are well-known tourist-attraction venues, so be prepared for crowds of tourists but don’t miss their many must-see sights.

In Pisa, we took the climb to the top of the leaning tower which we thought was worth it for the views of the rooftops of the city and the surrounding area. My husband thought the tower leaned more than he’d expected, and I agree. I felt a little woozy because of the tower’s unevenness of the floor as we first entered the tower and started climbing. The tower itself actually seemed more beautiful to me than I’d seen in pictures. The subtle shades of the marble facade really stood out more than in photos. While waiting for your turn to tour the tower, have lunch or a coffee on one of the touristy, but still nice adjacent streets.

Famous attractions: Pisa -- Leaning Tower of Pisa; Florence -- Ponte Vecchio and Il Duomo di Firenze
Famous attractions: Pisa — Leaning Tower of Pisa; Florence — Ponte Vecchio and Il Duomo di Firenze

It’s no wonder that Florence is a top city for visitors to Italy. With its history, architecture, bridges, cathedrals, piazzas and museums, it’s an amazing place to visit. Even on this rainy day, for us Florence shined as a Renaissance treasure. While walking along both sides of the Arno River and from the bridges, we enjoyed views of the Ponte Vecchio (Old Bridge). The majestic Duomo di Firenze (Florence Cathedral) mesmerizes with its size and beauty. We were focused on getting a good introduction to Florence during a short day trip so only admired its exterior, but we’ve put a longer tour of Florence and key sights on our must-do list for our next time in Tuscany.

Being surprised

Part of the fun of visiting places for the first time is learning about and doing things that are unexpected. These were just a few things that surprised us during our week in northern Tuscany.

The coastside city of Viareggio, quarries of the Apuan Alps, bicycling on the walls of Lucca, art in Pietrasanta, Santa Maria Novella Pharmacy in Florence
The coastside city of Viareggio, quarries of the Apuan Alps, bicycling on the walls of Lucca, art in Pietrasanta, Santa Maria Novella Pharmacy in Florence
    • Tuscany is not just about vineyards, rolling hills, and quaint villages. The beach towns of Viareggio and Forte Dei Marmi attract summer vacationers to their resorts and villas along the Versilia coast of the Mediterranean.
    • I didn’t expect to see marble quarries on the hillsides of the Apuane Alps. These quarries extract the abundant high-quality marble there that has been used for centuries in great buildings and for creating the timeless art of sculptors such as Michelangelo.
    • Pietrasanta is a surprising artisic gem with its public art installations, galleries, and marble-carving studios. It is also home to master mosaic artist Piero Giannoni, whose creations are seen around the world.
    • In Florence, we admired the decor, artifacts, and product displays, while sampling fragrances at Santa Maria Novella Pharmacy which is said to be the oldest still-operating pharmacy in the world. Formulas of the monks who originally established the pharmacy in the 13th century are still being used. Imagine that!
    • I like bicycling (primarily on flat surfaces) and got a special treat riding bikes along the top of the ancient city walls of Lucca, an area designated for pedestrians and bicycles only. Not only did it provide an opportunity for fresh air and exercise, but it was great for getting an overhead view of the city while watching locals stroll the tree-lined path.

Walking and wandering

Each of the cities and towns, large and small, that we visited in northern Tuscany had its own charm and unique appeal, but all were a pleasure to explore on foot, even when getting a bit off track as we did one evening in Lucca. Our footsteps took us all around Florence, Certaldo Alto, San Gimignano, Barberino Val d’Elsa, Pietrasanta, and Lucca. On many occasions, we were aided by wonderful local guides who explained the importance, history, or uniqueness of the sights and introduced us to local shop owners.

Strolling the streets of Lucca, Certaldo Alto and Pietrasanta
Strolling the streets of Lucca, Certaldo Alto and Pietrasanta

Wining and dining

For me, quintessential Tuscan dining experiences are those enjoyed al fresco with views of serene countryside or bustling piazzas. Besides finding great traditional cuisine in the restaurants of Tuscany, we indulged in tasting the local fare at the villas where we stayed or visited, cheese makers, wineries, olive mills, specialty wine and food shops, and fresh markets. And let’s not forget the gelaterias!

Tasty specialties of Tuscany - cheese (Fattoria Corzano e Paterno), wine (Pasolini dall'Onda), ham (Enoteca e Convivio), gelato (Pappa Grappa),  and fresh produce (Frantoio Sociale)
Tasty specialties of Tuscany – cheese (Fattoria Corzano e Paterno), wine (Pasolini dall’Onda), ham (Enoteca e Convivio), gelato (Pappa Grappa), and fresh produce (Frantoio Sociale)

Dotting the hillsides and valleys of Chianti and other areas of Tuscany are vast expanses of olive groves and vineyards, many of which are small, family-owned operations that welcome visitors for tastings and tours. The large Antinori wine estate is visually impressive with its modern architecture in a pastoral setting in Bargino that offers public tours and tastings as well.


On our trip, we especially enjoyed our drives through the picturesque countryside and small villages. There were beautiful vistas at every turn and also some serendipitous finds. Renting a car as we did will give you spontaneity and flexibility in seeing Tuscany’s beauty. Driving a  Ferrari in Tuscany seems very popular (and we saw quite a few), but that didn’t fit our budget. Whatever you drive, make it a small car for maneuvering the narrow roads and tight parking spots in towns and villages. As much fun as it is to drive in the countryside, avoid taking the car into the city centers by using parking lots on the outskirts or traveling by train.

Our rental car, some of the beautiful scenery, and a not uncommon Ferrari
Our rental car, some of the beautiful scenery, and a not uncommon Ferrari

Staying in a villa

There are certainly many accommodation options in Tuscany, including hotels and B&Bs, but as we learned, villas offer unique ways to truly immerse in the Tuscan experience. And they can be particularly advantageous for family celebrations, reunions, weddings, and other special gatherings. Each villa that we visited or at which we stayed has its distinct characteristics and amenities appealing to different tastes and needs, accommodating a wide range of group sizes, and offering a great variety of services to make a stay special. During our tour of EsteVillas holiday rentals, we were guests of La Novellina in Fiano and Buonvisi in Lucca, and toured several others in northern Tuscany. We’ll share the details of these with you in future posts.

Rolling out the red carpet for guests at Villa Buonvisi in Lucca
Rolling out the red carpet for guests at Villa Buonvisi in Lucca

But beyond all the beautiful vistas, historic towns and cities, and the wonderful food and wine, there were the friendly, helpful and generous people we met throughout our stay.

This article was originally published on Traveling with Sweeney.

The Magical Islands of Mykonos and Santorini

By Anita Finlay

In Anita Finlay’s third and final article about her Mediterranean cruise, she takes us to the enchanting islands of Mykonos and Santorini.

The great thing about visiting paradise is the joy of knowing you have realized a dearly held wish. My initial introduction to the stunning islands of Mykonos and Santorini were via a Barnes & Noble wall calendar. Each year, and for many years, staring at photographs of the Adriatic against the white walls and magical porticos of island homes there was as close as I would get. I had hoped that treating ourselves to a Mediterranean cruise meant my husband and I could finally throw the bookstore calendars away, and make a few of our own.

"Santorini upon arrival"
Upon arrival on Santorini

As our cruise ship, the Celebrity Equinox, arrived in the bay of Santorini, I couldn’t get dressed fast enough. The tenders loaded up early that morning to take eager travelers to shore. The ship’s crew, as per usual, was efficient in getting us aboard the boats which held about 120 people and soon we were standing at the tiny dockside area where tourist shops were nestled into the mountainside. We made for the left of the dock before our fellow travelers noticed and were first in line for the cable car that traveled up the side of the mountain into town.

Cable cars, like ski lifts, scare the crap out of me. This should tell you just how much I wanted to experience our destination. But our other options were walking up the switchbacks 587 steps or riding up via donkey. Informed that the donkey scent would “stay with us” throughout the day, we figured to spare ourselves the aroma and save our energy for the walking we would do later. And the donkeys made the cable car seem much less frightening.

When we first arrived atop the mountain in the village of Fira, we were greeted by friendly, easygoing shopkeepers offering costume jewelry by the basketful — one set of pastel stones prettier than the next. The narrow walkways were charming and picturesque, making the town feel at once intimate but not cramped. We were also lucky that the Equinox was the only ship in port that day so we had the place to ourselves. After spending an hour checking out the various clothing, jewelry and art vendors up and down the narrow side streets, we made our way to the town of Oia (Ee-ah), a 15 minute bus ride from Fira.

When we got off the bus, we realized where all the Barnes & Noble people had been taking their pictures!

"Marble sidewalks of Oia in Santorini, Greece"
Marble sidewalks of Oia in Santorini

Until you see for yourself that the town’s main thoroughfare is paved in marble, you won’t believe it.

"Picture perfect gate in Oia, Santorini"
Picture perfect in Oia, Santorini

Tourism drives both islands, but still, shop owners had such a sweet and welcoming demeanor whether we bought anything or not, our day was all the better for meeting them. We marveled at the local architecture and had lunch at Flora Café, another recommendation from the always reliable Rick Steves in his book, Mediterranean Ports.

"A view in the town of Oia, Santorini"
A view in the town of Oia, Santorini

Walking up yet another staircase, we parked ourselves at an outdoor table overlooking the sea. Armir, our brash but charming waiter at the Flora Café, had a way of bossing us around while catering to our every wish. “You must try the Greek pizza,” he said. “After all, you are here!” We took his advice. The crust was unlike anything we had tasted. I can only tell you that you have not had a Greek salad until you have had one in Greece. The Feta was piquant, not salty, and the tomatoes tasted as though they had been picked two minutes ago. We also ordered spinach pie and a mysterious raspberry smoothie concoction.

Lunch for three of us was a steal at 28 Euro. Eat there: Delicious, every last bite. And, of course, you cannot beat the view.

It is impossible to get lost in Oia because most of the day you are following the marble walkway that runs through the center of town.

"Lovely architecture in Oia"
Lovely architecture in Oia

Retracing our steps to head for the bus, however, we took a detour aiming to get as close as possible to the water. As we meandered through “streets” below the main drag that were no more than six feet wide, the effect was not unlike being lost in a magical maze.

"Stairway to the Adriatic in Santorini"
Stairway to the Adriatic

We later stumbled upon what must be considered the Beverly Hills of Santorini, with expensive gold jewelry and fine art shops – but not before spying some of the donkeys we missed on the way up as they headed for home!

"Santorini’s famous donkeys head home"
Santorini’s famous donkeys head home

The churches were likewise a sight to behold.

"Church in Santorini"
Church in Santorini
"Iconic blue steeple of church in Santorini"
Iconic blue steeple of church in Santorini

Then, reluctant to leave, we made our way back to the bus.

Once in the village of Fira, we made a last pass at some of the shops, drinking in as much of the lovely scenery as we could before boarding the cable car back to the bottom – and our tender back to the ship.

" A view from the harbor in Mykonos"
A view from the harbor in Mykonos

Two days later, we were once again in paradise, this time, in the more rustic town of Mykonos. Once the ship landed in port, it was a five minute shuttle bus around the harbor and a brief walk into town. In keeping with the mode of our trip thus far, even if we didn’t need to scale a mountain to do our sightseeing, we found one to climb anyway! Walking up to a high view point for a photo op, we soon realized that we didn’t need to schlep as far as we had in order to visit the stunning windmills that are a famous part of the island.

We also discovered that Mykonos is famous for its different winds — in fact the wind we experienced, referred to as “chair-thrower,” was most welcome in the 90 degree plus heat. My advice, ladies: wear a hat or a visor and forget about having a good hair day!

"Mykonos amazing windmills"
Mykonos amazing windmills

We happened upon a back staircase traversing the cliff side area in which we found ourselves and kept heading downhill, wandering through another maze of lovely homes and narrow stone streets that were little wider than a hall way. We were in no rush to make our way into town, almost hoping to get lost so some kindly residents would take us in and keep us there indefinitely. We were ready to hang out a shingle — will work for Feta!

In spite of my husband being a bit hobbled by a surprise bout of sciatica, he insisted on exploring every staircase and back alley, having to take a picture of each one. Of course, our fellow tourists were not real happy to be held at bay while he captured the moment without human interruption.

Every time I would try to get into a photograph by standing in front of a picturesque home, he would say, “Get out of the event.”

"Walking winding paths toward center of Mykonos"
Walking winding paths toward center of Mykonos
"Beautiful homes and palm trees of Mykonos"
Beautiful homes and palm trees of Mykonos

By the way, I have a pet peeve about sunglasses and hate wearing them, but was forced to buy a pair, grateful to spend a few Euro to protect my eyes from the glare of the near blinding sunshine on white sidewalks — and white everything else. I don’t know how I managed to choose the largest pair they had, but the gigantic lenses perched in the middle of my smallish face made me look rather like a bee.

"Anita Finlay in Greece"
My best efforts to do a bee imitation

In town, we found lovely shops carrying inventive artwork and jewelry and were shocked to jump onto a stairway as a rare automobile actually made its way through the narrow street, missing the store owners’ wares by millimeters.

We couldn’t resist taking a little of Mykonos home with us. Our favorite was the Hermes Gallery, selling beautifully painted platters, bottles and urns made by a local artist.

"Sandra Clare, co-owner of Hermes Gallery in Mykonos"
Sandra Clare, co-owner of Hermes Gallery in Mykonos

Owners Nikolas and Sandra nearly adopted us, and recommended a fabulous place for lunch, The Alegro Café, just a few blocks from their shop along the harbor.

"Walking along the harbor in Mykonos toward Alegro Cafe"
Walking along the harbor in Mykonos toward Alegro Cafe

And this was the view from our table.

"Lunch on the harbor in Mykonos at the Alegro Café"
Lunch on the harbor in Mykonos at the Alegro Café

By far, Mykonos and Santorini were the favorite ports of our cruise. The serene, relaxed quality of the islands, the kindness and warmth of the people, and the rustic atmosphere of Mykonos in particular, made clear these were venues we would be content to spend weeks in, not just hours. Which brings me to the only tough part about visiting paradise — your stay will never be long enough.

"From our balcony aboard the Celebrity Equinox"
Aboard the Equinox

Photos courtesy David Givens and Shelby Heard (all rights reserved).

This article was originally published on Traveling with Sweeney.

About the author:

Anita Finlay is the author of the Amazon bestseller Dirty Words on Clean Skin in which she shares the nasty truth of contemporary misogyny and tells it like it is for women aspiring to power. Anita is a frequent commentator to the top syndicated Jerry Doyle Show, ARNN, Epic Times and The New Agenda. She has also frequently been named editors’ pick on BlogHer.

A Mediterranean Cruise: History Amidst the Bustle of Italy

By Anita Finlay

Editor’s Note: This is the second of Anita Finlay’s articles about her fabulous Mediterranean cruise originally published on Traveling with Sweeney. The story continues in the next cruise port — Rome!

There are about a hundred ways to see Rome. We chose the exhausting way. When I say we saw the city on foot, I mean that literally. At the end of what amounted to a ten-hour walk, we ached to be semi-prone with a cold drink! Yet when you are inside the Vatican’s Sistine Chapel staring up at Michelangelo’s frescoes, or turn onto a piazza filled with apartments and bistros only to find yourself standing smack in front of the Pantheon, the sensation of not only having stepped into history but being a part of it is as overwhelming as it is rewarding.

"The Pantheon, Rome"
The Pantheon

Getting there aboard the Equinox

Before docking in Civitavecchia, the port closest to Rome, our first 36 hours cruising aboard the Celebrity Equinox were a relaxing treat. Only four years old, the Equinox is a splendid ship, tasteful and elegantly appointed with an attentive, warm staff. Handed a glass of champagne as soon as we boarded, we stepped into the main atrium and relaxed on plush club chairs overlooking a tri-level opening filled with stylish lounges, each boasting a unique decor. A pianist entertained us before we wandered the ship to survey the amenities – and there were plenty. How many ships do you know of that feature a top deck with a huge lawn of real grass for sunning and picnicking or have daily glass blowing demonstrations, giving away many of their lovely creations at the end of each show?

On the deck below, beyond the large pool flanked by four hot tubs, the ship also featured a peaceful solarium with vaulted glass ceilings, another heated pool, cabanas, more hot tubs – and no one under 18 allowed.

Our veranda staterooms were compact, as most are, but well designed with tons of out of sight storage. The view from our generous balcony was lovely, as there was nothing between us and the water. I can even report one whale breach!

Our next day at sea was the first Captain’s Night so my husband David, our friend Shelby and I got decked out in all our finery!

"Aboard the Celebrity Equinox"
David, Anita, and Shelby aboard the Celebrity Equinox

Exploring Historic Rome

Docking in Civitavecchia by 7 AM the next morning, we disembarked after an early breakfast, not wanting to lose a minute of our twelve hours in port. With Rick Steve’s Mediterranean Ports in hand, we fed our independent streak by exploring Rome, as well as the six stops that followed, on our own. His book is a valuable, specific guide that helped us make our way through Civitavecchia’s Port Gate to the train into Rome (40 minutes), and to every venue that followed. On our walk to the station, we were treated to Unconditional Surrender, a giant rendering of World War II’s most famous kiss. Check out the size of the tourists at the left of the picture!

"Unconditional Surrender": Statue of famous World War II kiss"
“Unconditional Surrender”: Statue of famous World War II kiss

The train into Rome’s St. Pietro station reminded me of one of New York City’s old subways – hot, sticky and creaky. Navigating the station’s signs without knowing more than a few Italian words was not without stress, yet I was glad we didn’t opt for a bus tour, choosing instead to be part of the culture, if only for a few hours. After all, when in Rome…

Once arriving at St. Pietro station, we got our bearings and started our self-guided walking tour. The city felt surprisingly cramped, the side streets winding and narrow, the rich architecture a bit slapdash. Campo de Fiori, a famous open air market nestled in a restaurant-filled square was similar to Barcelona’s La Boqueria in that vendors’ wares were artfully displayed. My favorites were bags of rainbow striped farfalle and barrels filled with fragrant herb concoctions that made me want to toss a pinch in with some sautéed pasta on the spot.

As we ambled to our next stop, David froze in his tracks, drooling in front of a colorful bakery, eager to begin his quest for the perfect cannoli. He must have hit pay dirt on the first try. I could barely steal a bite from him before he inhaled it all.

I did some drooling of my own when at last we arrived at the Pantheon. I don’t know why I assumed that ancient Rome would be in an outskirt of the city. That the historic and the modern co-exist in the same block is something that must be seen to be believed – just don’t get caught gawking while cab drivers and businessmen on motorbikes zigzag down the narrow streets at crazy speeds, or you might get run down!

"The oculus inside the Pantheon"
The oculus inside the Pantheon

Built in 126 A.D., the Pantheon is one of the best preserved of all Roman buildings. The vaulted ceilings, oculus and construction of this enormous space left us awestruck. We learned that almost two thousand years after it was built, the Pantheon still boasts the world’s largest unreinforced concrete dome. The rain falls through the oculus and the sloped floors allow for drainage out through the 25-foot entrance doors. The magnificent construction of the edifice and its interiors are enough to make you believe in alien beings.

"The Trevi Fountain, Rome"
The Trevi Fountain

The Fountain of Trevi was exquisite and overrun with tourists, who took pictures from every conceivable angle before making their wishes as they threw coins into the fountain.

"The Spanish Steps, Rome"
The Spanish Steps

Ending our walking tour by climbing the Spanish Steps, we enjoyed a wonderful view of much of the city and after a relaxing lunch, boarded the metro to the Vatican. We had reserved our tickets on the internet weeks in advance, making it a cinch to wade past the long ticket line to get our passes at the will-call window. Prepare yourself for ridiculous crowds regardless of a pre-arranged appointment time.

"Frescoes in the entrance to the Sistine Chapel"
Frescoes in the entrance to the Sistine Chapel

Gawking at the frescoes on the way to the Sistine Chapel, I felt like a boob – since there is no signage telling you when you have actually arrived.

"Ceiling fresco near entrance to the Sistine Chapel"
Ceiling fresco near entrance to the Sistine Chapel

But we were content to move through the rooms like cattle until we were ushered into the magnificent chapel. The guards were reverent; adamant that no photos be taken and that no one speak in the chamber. Some visitors prayed; others meditated. A warm hum of awed murmurs were all that could be heard. As Goethe once said, “Without having seen the Sistine Chapel, one can form no appreciable idea of what one man is capable of achieving.”

"Vatican exterior viewing the Pope’s Window"
Vatican exterior viewing the Pope’s Window

As we walked out to view the grounds of the Vatican, the Pope’s window and St. Peter’s Basilica, we made the mistake most tourists make, not using the “secret door” to exit the chapel, and wound up walking all the way around the Vatican wall in order to return to see the museum itself. Having trekked the entirety of the property twice, we can attest that it is far larger in scale than anyone can imagine from pictures or television.

A guard eyeballed me as we tried to use our tickets for re-admittance. “Why, Madam, why?” He wasn’t happy, but after we explained ourselves, we were allowed back in. Apparently, the sovereign country of the Vatican feels no need to tell you how to get anywhere on their grounds and isn’t worried about helping you to an efficient visit. This endless walk in circles was the worst part of our day but the tapestry of The Last Supper made up for it.

"Tapestry of the Last Supper"
Tapestry of the Last Supper

For our last exhibit, we took in the Ancient Roman sarcophagi and did our best once outside the Vatican walls to find Termini Station for the trip back to Civitavecchia. The most direction we could get from any tourist information booth or Vatican guard was “Go to the wall. Turn right.” Pedestrians weren’t any more helpful. After turning right six times, we’d had our fill, but by some miracle, at last found the train station.

I’m sure denizens of the city get tired of being overrun by tourists daily, so we forgave the brusque attitudes we encountered in some of the people there. Rome was an experience we cherished more in retrospect, once we had time to reflect on the jaw-dropping sights of our journey. Still, I’d wager it was everyone’s most stressful day and, like many of our ship mates, we were dragging. Even if you think you’re wearing comfortable shoes – bring socks!


We took a less ambitious excursion in Naples the next morning, boarding a bus and then the metro for 40 minutes to get to Pompeii.

"Tourists at Pompeii"

Being able to walk through a city destroyed by the eruption of Mt. Vesuvius and buried under almost 20 feet of ash in 79 A.D. is likewise not something one can make sense of. We marveled at the innovative street designs and layout of the raised stones, which made room for chariot passage, let the “drivers” know if the street was one or two-way, and also featured lowered parts designed for drainage.

"The ash-covered body of a victim in Pompeii"
The ash-covered body of a victim in Pompeii

We were also told not to feed the wild dogs we found resting in one of the better preserved structures. They seemed to act as guardians, watching over the ash-covered bodies encased in glass that we found within the building.

"Vast expanse of Pompeii, Italy"
Vast expanse of Pompeii

One structure that was relatively undamaged was the brothel. It featured wall paintings where a patron could point to his desired, um…activity. The miniscule chambers with stone beds were unnerving, looking as uncomfortable as they were tiny. No amount of straw could make that palatable! Needless to say, more tourists crammed into that tiny building to take pictures than any other in Pompeii.


Not expecting so vast a city, we got lost for hours on the various streets, homes, amphitheaters and parks.

A glimpse of Naples

"Convitto Nazionale Vittorio Emanuele and statue of Dante at Piazza Dante"
Convitto Nazionale Vittorio Emanuele and statue of Dante at Piazza Dante

We opted to take the train back into Naples and walk from the Archeological Museum through Piazza Dante to the port and our ship. The city, not as rich as Rome, featured some lovely architecture but was grittier and not as picturesque.


By the time we were back aboard the Equinox, after our two day whirlwind tour of Rome and Naples, we were ready to once again be pampered and were not disappointed. At every port, the staff was waiting outside the embarkation ramp with icy towels and cold lemonade. We enjoyed a great dinner and music in one of the lounges with a jazz quartet, happy for another full “sea day” before arriving in Greece.

"Anita Finlay aboard the Celebrity Equinox"
From our balcony aboard the Celebrity Equinox

Look for more about Anita’s Mediterranean cruise
Part One: Beautiful Barcelona
Part Three: Mykonos and Santorini — Enchanting Greece (coming soon)

Photos courtesy David Givens and Shelby Heard (all rights reserved).

About the author:
Anita Finlay is the author of the Amazon bestseller Dirty Words on Clean Skin in which she shares the nasty truth of contemporary misogyny and tells it like it is for women aspiring to power. Anita is a frequent commentator to the top syndicated Jerry Doyle Show, ARNN, Epic Times and The New Agenda. She has also frequently been named editors’ pick on BlogHer.