Sophia's Travels around the world

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Location: Palm Harbor, Florida, United States

Sophia Kulich, Travel consultant, and owner of , was born in Ukraine, former Soviet Union. After leaving Ukraine in 1982, she lived in Europe before coming to USA and since then traveled extensively the world. Sophia is now able to share her extensive knowledge of and her passion for travel with her clients. For more info, visit,,

Monday, May 28, 2012

Morocco December 2011

Morocco Trip Report Dec 2011.

In December 2011, we attended annual trade show in Cannes. After that since we already were in Europe, we decided to visit Morocco. It is been on my wish list a long time.

I booked tickets from Marseilles to Casablanca. Our arrival was not as was elegantly stated in movie "Casablanca"… To get to Marseilles, I got train tickets from Cannes to Marseilles. I like
French trains. Well, when they show up! Our TGV train from Brussels to Cannes to Marseilles has been cancelled. We were able to catch train to Avignon and then connect to train to Marseilles St. Charles. Our original train tickets also included connection from Marseilles St. Charles to MRS (Vitroieles airport).

But Avignon to Marseilles train got us there too late and we could not take train to airport. Plan B: So we took bus shuttle to airport. This is lugging all luggage.... Thankfully we did not have heavy luggage. I shipped my trade show materials home. We made to airport just 30 min before departure. I thought we will miss the plane. But we were checked in promptly and securities got us without line. Air Maroc flight was fine,2 hrs, and I had time to catch up on breath. They even served drinks and cheese sandwich.

Suggestion to myself: do what I do for my clients - pay my prices and get driver door to door...... I wanted to save money, it cost me extra 17 euro on bus and stress of running through MRS is just not worth it.

Some information on geography and history.

Morocco is situated in Northern Africa and as we were told, Moroccan consider themselves as a tree, with roots in Africa and branches in Europe. It is the closest country to Europe and closely associated with Andalusian Spain and Portugal. It lies from strait of Gibraltar on the Mediterranean and looks out to Atlantic ocean from the Northwest part of Africa. The Atlas Mountains run through the country from North to South to Algerian border about 11,000 ft in elevation. To the south lies Sahara desert. It is the westernmost country in Muslim world.
Originally Jews and Berbers lived there. Berbers are descendants of people mixed origins (Oriental, Saharan and European) who lived in what is now Morocco since second millennium B.C.. Roman invaders called them Berbers which was derived from Barbarians. They settled at different times but believed were first inhabitants along with Jews. The first Jews came to Morocco around 70CE after destruction of the Second Temple of Jerusalem. Second immigration came in 15C fleeing from Spanish inquisition from Spain and Portugal. Arabs arrived in 7C and brought Islam to Berbers. Arabs and Berbers fought a lot but were together in invading Spain, later were expelled from Spain in 11c. That’s why Spain and Portugal has Moorish influence in culture and architecture. In 1660 Morocco came under control of Alawite dynasty which rules Morocco to this day.

During the 17th and 18th centuries, Morocco was one of the Barbary States, the headquarters of pirates who pillaged Mediterranean traders. European powers showed interest in colonizing the country beginning in 1840, and there were frequent clashes with the French and Spanish. Finally, in 1904, France and Spain concluded an agreement that divided Morocco into zones of French and Spanish influence, with France controlling almost all of Morocco and Spain controlling the small southwest portion, which became known as Spanish Sahara. Morocco became French colony in 1912 and was under French until 1956.
Unlike in other countries, Jews coexisted peacefully with Arabs and Berbers. Jews were traders and artisans and generally were protected by the King. Morocco is the only country in the Arab World both rich in Jewish history and with a living Jewish community. It is a delight for the travelers interested in the Jewish heritage of Morocco who can discover hundreds of fascinating historical and spiritual sites. A visit to "Jewish" Morocco is a lesson in the potential for Jewish-Muslim coexistence.

In Casablanca airport, we were met by our driver Fatullah. First culture shock – we saw a group of Saudi Arabians in their traditional Arab dress holding in thick padded leather gloves falcons. They had a lot’s of kind of nomadic gear and were packing into a large line of snorkeled trucks. The driver told us that it is popular sport for them to do falcon hunting along with a pilgrimage in Morocco.

At 6pm we arrived our hotel Le Meridien Mansour, best location in Casablanca. We had dinner at hotel in Moroccan restaurant with specialty of Tangine chicken. Mine had pancake (pasta stripes) and lentil and delicately cooked chicken. Michael’s had chicken stewed with olives, lemons and couscous. Both were delicious. The setup was a Berber’s tent. We were the only ones there (low season) and 2 waiters entertained us. Our guide Lahcen arrived later and joined us for desert and tea and we mapped out the next long day. I love Le Meridiens. Like other hotels, this was done in local Moroccan style. It does need a bit of updating but rooms are very large and comfortable and public places are beautiful. Breakfast buffet was abundant and had Moroccan specialties - lot's of dry and fresh fruit, stewed fruits besides general breakfast fare. Good breads and desserts, both French and Moroccan.

Day 1. Casablanca – Rabat – Meknes – Volubulus - Fes
After breakfast we checked out. Too bad we only spent one night, but we had to move on. Our driver and guide arrived and we went to Hassan II mosque by the sea. It was completed in 1993, designed by French architect Michel Pinseau and considered one of the most beautiful mosques in the world. Partly erected on water, it was inspired by King Hassan II to contemplate the power of god, soil and water. The location on Atlantic Ocean is stunning. It is the only mosque in Morocco which is open for tourists visits.

It was Saturday and Moroccan Jewish museum was closed. We took a panoramic tour of this elegant port city.

We saw colonial architecture by French colonialists – Art Nouveau, Art Deco townhouses, Moorish palace like villas – that was a Beverly Hills of the city. Although city is famous by connection with famous people like Antoine de Saint-Exupery, Edith Piaf, but most Americans associate it with romance of the movie "Casablanca" , starring Humphrey Bogart and Ingrid Berman.
Of course, movie was not even filmed in Casablanca, but to attract more tourists, the fans of the movie can be happy now – a Ricks Café is opened few years ago in a Moroccan home near old Medina overlooking city port.

We also passed by the place of former Hotel d’Anfa, where historic meeting between President Roosevelt and British PM Churchill took place in 1943, at which the date of allied landings in Normandy was decided. Although Germans intercepted the meeting, but they were misled by literal translation of “casablanca” – they thought it was White House in USA and not Casablanca city and failed to prevent it. Also, during that meeting, President Roosevelt pledged his support to Sultan Muhammed V in his struggle to obtain independence from France, thus opening new future for Morocco as an independent country in post war period.
We left Casablanca and went to Rabat, capital of the Morocco. On the way our guide Lahcen told us about history of Morocco. In Rabat, we saw unfinished Tour Hassan Mosque; it was supposed to be the counterpart of Marrakech’s Koutoubia Mosque and the Giralda Cathedral in Seville, Spain, all of which were built by the Almohad Dynasty, the twelfth 12 century persecutors of the Jewish people.

Adjoining the Tour Hassan is the Mausoleum of King Mohammed V, which has become a pilgrimage site for Jews, who cannot forget his efforts to defend them against the anti-Semitic policies of the French Vichy Government. This beautiful building was commissioned by Hassan II, designed by Vietnamese architect and built by 400 Moroccan craftsmen. It was guarded by royal guards on horses. The mausoleum was done in Italian marble and under dome there was sarcophagus of the king. The burial chamber was crowned by 12 sided dome with painted mahogany. The mausoleum had beautiful stained glass work and candelabra.

We left Rabat and went to Meknes, the “Moroccan Versailles" which was founded at the end of the 17th Century by Moulay Ismail, where the Jewish presence is evidenced by Hebraic epitaphs dating from the Christian era as well as Greek inscriptions that still appear in local Synagogues and a place of pilgrimage where the tomb of Rabbi' David Benmidan, "The Patron of Meknes" is located. Unlike other buildings, the Ancient Jewish Buildings in Jewish Quarter “Mellah” had balconies in narrow streets – for Succot. We also visited old town Medina, markets, and Palaces of king Moulay Ismail of 17C, very vast and impressive stables. Then we spent time in market. Meknes, which had 18.000 Jews in 1950, now has a community of 1000.
Lunch was olives and Moroccan flat bread on the market’s cafe, which I started to like very much. And of course, mint tea! Afterwards we went to Roman archeological site, Volubulus which was ancient capital of Mauretania. It has beautiful mosaics. And the roman town was 5 centuries old dating from 2BC to 3AD. Beautiful site, especially at sunset. Some of the more influential homes still had marvelous mosaics made into the floors.

Then we went to Fes. It was olive harvest season. We sampled olives and saw how they are harvested. It was a long day. Usually it is done in 2 days with arrival from USA in the morning to Casablanca.

But since we arrived in the evening, we had to squeeze in 1. We checked in into delightful Riad Fes, in the labyrinth of old town. I do not even know how we walked there, corner by corner with our guide. It is Relais and Chateaux property.

We were upgraded to Sultan suite with Terrace. We had dinner at the Riad. First day had ended and we were already impressed with people of Morocco. They are friendly to tourists, and most important for me, Jews and Muslim live there for many centuries and coexist peacefully.
Riads are traditional Moroccan houses, with courtyard in the middle, which has either pool or fountains. Since in Old Medina there are no views from windows, the Riads were built with windows facing the courtyard and open to the sky. Usually, the first floor is reception, fountain, and restaurants nowadays. So accommodations always start from second floor and up. The rooms are generally represent traditional character. If you go to Morocco try at least one stay in Riad.

Dinner at Riad Fes was OK but not of Relais and Chateaux quality. Lamb was very overcooked. Next morning, we had breakfast there and it was nice, beautifully presented and I liked that they bring everything to your table and not buffet. Eggs were on request to cook but we enjoyed pastries, yogurt, cheese and Moroccan pancakes.

Days 2-3. Fes.
Fez, the oldest cultural and spiritual imperial city of Morocco, was founded in 790 B.C by Moulay Idriss II and today we were off to explore it. Lahcen took us to the observation point on the hill and explained layout of Imperial city of Fes. It had 8c, 14c and new town sections. Our Riad was in 8C area. We went to Jewish quarter (called Mellah) and visited Danan synagogue of 17C.

Fes Jewish quarter is the first Jewish enclave of Morocco. The King and Rulers of Fes protected Jewish community on return for levy collected from Jews. The population of Mellah was settled according to their trade, most of them working with gold and silver. Jews contributed significantly to Fes becoming business center of Morocco. As the city developed many learned men settled in Fes, among them such as Yehuda Ben Qurayesh, David ben Abraham Alfassi and Maimonides (1150) as well as businessmen and community leaders such as Nahman ben Sunbal (1556), Samuel Hagiz (1596), Yehuda Uziel (1603), Shemouel Tsarfaty (1713), Yehuda Ben Atar and Hayim Ben Atar, Avner Tsarfaty (1884) and Isaac ben Danan (1900).

We went to Jewish cemetery dated from 7C which contains the tombs of more Jewish saints than any other cemetery in Morocco, like, Yehuda Ben Attar, Abner Ha-Serfati, Solika Hatchuel, Monsenego. We also saw house of Maimonides. The cemetery was well designed , maintained and clean. The ancient tombs were rounded shapes. Modern graves looked like regular western ones. We saw mausoleums for saints. Some of them, Lahcen explained, are visited often by Jews for pilgrimage. Ancient tombs had Hebrew inscription and modern ones were had French writing.

After cemetery, we went to Medina and explored it’s narrow alleys and souks. We had lunch in nice restaurant in Medina with Moroccan salads and of course, again Tangine chicken which by now we became fond of. As for shopping, we went to the House of Bronze, to see how artisans are working with bronze. We bought ancient bronze menorah which uses oil instead of candles. For leather, we went to tannery. Tanning craft is very ancient, and Fes was and still is the center of it. The tanning process turns animal hides into soft leather and then leather is passed for leatherwork. The tannery of Fes dates to middle ages. We were taken to the observation center by many steps by tannery representative who gave us mint to smell – to protect from unpleasant strong smell of tannery. We watched how hides were cleaned , washed and dyed with natural paints. Then we went down to presentation room to have mint tea and listen to another shopping presentation. We did not buy much, just few small items – pocketbooks etc. Then we went to souk to look at traditional clothes and they talked Michael into buying Jelabah – traditional Moroccan garb – long dress with hood. By that time I already got tired of shopping and bargaining but Michael still enjoyed it.

Bargaining process (see below at end of report) .

Not sure what we were thinking but we walked out from clothes store with $200 wool Jelabah, silk tablecloth and Fes. Michael however was wearing it the rest of the trip and declared it very comfortable. It has pockets cuts so you can comfortable keep your pockets accessible to yourself and away from pickpockets and also hood was used when not for warmth, then for carrying phone and other small items in it. Very versatile clothes. As for Fes – it was traditional red hat which we saw in Egypt and thought it is originated there but turned out Fes city was origin of Fes. We bought it too for completing the Moroccan wardrobe and now it is on display at home 
Next day in Fes we explored Medieval Medina, the Medersas, the El Qaraouiyyin Mosque, mausoleum of Moulay Idriss II the founder of Fez in the ninth century who encouraged the Jews to move to Fez and the sumptuous Nejjarine fountain. Then we went shopping for rugs the store was located in 14c palace, and had entertaining presentation by rug salesmen with good smooth English, quoting Shakespeare and quoting Frommer's description of this store. .

Medersa is 14C residential college, both cultural and religious establishment. It had beautiful tiles, wooden screens and stained glass. Afterwards we went to new town, and set in café facing wide boulevard, and watched people. That part of the town was very much French/European. There were a lot’s of young people outdoors. Lahcen explained that local team won soccer game so it was a parade. People crowded streets. So it was nice relaxing end of day before we got to our hotel to recharge, pack, and get ready for our next day adventure. Late lunch and café made for the meals for the day so we got some fruit for evening and called it a day.

Day 4 Fes - Erg Chebi, Merzouga Dunes, Sahara desert.
After another pleasant and delicious breakfast at Riad Fes we checked out and packed our already growing luggage to the car and soon we were off to our next destination –Sahara.
We headed south of Fes to Middle Atlas mountains, the altitude was changing to up 10,470 ft in the highest peaks of the mountains. In some places we saw snow peaks. The scenery varied from very little vegetation to some places with forests of cork, cedar, oak and pine. The forest was predominantly from high plateau, where craters of existing volcanoes were filled with lakes. The lakes shore looked like desert. Occasionally we saw people herding sheep, Lahcen told us that semi-nomadic tribes live there. Some wooded mountain areas looked like Switzerland. We stopped some times, to take pictures of the scenery and people (Lahcen asked them for permission to take photos). In one places there were monkeys on roadside and some enterprising locals who were selling peanuts for monkeys. We stopped, fed monkeys and took photos. The baby monkeys were so cute! That mint tea started getting to us so we needed bathrooms more often!

In about 4 hours, we stopped in Midelt and had snacks and tea in luxury hotel Taddart. It was in the middle of nowhere in the half way to Merzouga. While Michael, Lahcen and our driver Fatulla relaxed at restaurant, I inspected hotel. The rooms were 5* quality although hotel is 4*. The woodwork and plasterwork were impressive and of good taste. Some of the rooms hade view of the mountains. There was a small swimming pool and they are building spa. The tourists go trekking in the mountains if they want. So it made sense for stop for overnight on the way to Merzouga, dunes of Erg Chebbi.

We continued south, altitude got lower. The villages had large houses, Kasbah style, Kasbah means castle with towers on 4 corners. The roof was either lower or there was an open terrace instead of roof where obviously people liked to be at leisure. We were supposed to stay in High Atlas mountains last night in Kasbah.

We arrived to Erfoud to luxury hotel Xaluca which runs luxury desert camp in dunes. Some clients may want to stay at hotel and just be taken for a camel ride for sunrise and sunset but we wanted to experience desert in a traditional Berber tent.

The way it works, you arrive to hotel in Erfoud, where desert starts. Then you change to 4 wheel drive jeep and they take you to the desert. Our new driver of the jeep drove fast but carefully on the bumps. The road ended and he was driving through desert rocks and some water. Our original driver Fatullah left in Erfoud and Lahcen went with us to the camp in dunes of Erg Chebbi. We arrived about 30 min before sunset so it was perfect timing. On arrival, the camels were waiting for us. We were not sure how we will handle camels so we decided to go for a short ride over 30-60' high dunes. Otherwise for people who do not want to ride, they just walk to the tent.

The luggage was handled by Berbers who greeted us on arrival. We mounted camels and went for a ride. It was quiet, the colors were dark orange, dunes were tall like small mountains! The camels ride was smooth, because sand was soft. Lahcen was running around us taking pictures from all sides. Another advantage of having guide there! Meanwhile I saw with my side vision our luggage been carried from the jeep to the tent which I assumed will be ours for a night. The camels got us to the tent, and we descended (is this the word? ) camels and walked inside.
The Berbers were waiting for us and met us with nuts, dates, tea and wine. The sun already been down and it became colder. The whole floor was covered with rugs. Shoes were optional. They showed us our tent – it had small sink, shower and electricity but they told us that electricity will be turned off at 10pm so if we need to charge anything, do it now. They even had hot water. The tent was set private, with 4 “rooms” , we were in one and Lahcen in another, each room had private toilet western style and shower.

There was another private party – 2 ladies, but Lahcen said they have their own tent setup. Although it would be possible for them to be with us since every “room” had private bath. However, for deluxe tent camp, they place people privately. Something like villa setup. Most of the time, we spent in the tent’s common area “living room”, where they lit a fire , and talked to our berber host and Lahcen. The Berber camp attendants played traditional Berber music. It was very quiet in the evening. The stars were very bright and you can see Milky Way and other constellation until the full moon rose. It was getting colder but comfortable by the fire. They even let me join in on the drum to the Berber music! The dinner arrived soon and it was served at “living room” table, and it was the best quality we’ve had so far, roasted succulent lamb, excellent moist tangine chicken, and fruit and pastries for desert. It was a lot’s of food, real berber feast.

Contrary what I thought, Berber told us that there is water in the desert, so the wells are drilled and water is coming by pipe. He showed us plastic pipes in the sand. Michael and Lahcen still were looking at stars and I went to sleep. There were about 5 thick blankets, so they were heavy. I got under and fell asleep. At night, when I woke up, it was pitch dark but I managed to find bathroom.

Before I got to bed, Berber asked us if we want to see sunrise and we said yes. So in the morning, he woke us up and we walked dunes (without camels) for a morning walk. It was another beautiful view and reflection of sun on the red sand was just unreal. Afar, we could see a caravan of camels with tourists who came in the morning for sunrise drive, but I would not change for anything to sleep at hotel. It was a lifetime experience I will never forget. Sun was so low that you think you can touch it. And at night, even after sunset, the full round moon was unusual white color. Lahcen said because it is clear air, no pollution so the colors are very vivid.

After breakfast, the breakfast was served, now at the table outside of tent, in the sand in desert, with fruit, cheese yogurt and omelets. We saw Berbers carrying food somewhere in the dunes, he explained us, to next door tourists ladies. We never saw them. After breakfast, our jeep arrived, our luggage was moved there, we hugged Berbers, tipped them and bid them farewell. We were off towards Marrakech but you cannot make in one day so our next overnight stop is Berber Palace in Ourzazate.

Day 5, Ourzazate.
The jeep driver got us to Erfoud hotel where we our driver Fatullah was staying and we switched to our original van. Erfoud was the major Jewish population center of the Tafilalet, where Jews worked as merchants and artisans as late as the twentieth century, We visited a well preserved Jewish cemetery there with mausoleum.
Our next stop was a fossil factory where we saw beautiful rare black marble fossils furniture and knick-knacks. We bought a coffee table with relief fossils which has not arrived yet. I also wanted to check out the Berber rugs which were a bit cheaper than in Fes. But the bargaining was not good, we somehow did not connect with the seller. He was very pushy and we had to get our heavy artillery Lahcen who helped us to close the deal and threaten to the owner that he will never bring tourists there. We bought 2 rugs at rasonable price and it is a pleasure to see them in my living room.

We continued West, passed Palm Groves, saw women collecting them and drying them on the ground. This particular Valley was developed as a communal stronghold against invaders (nomadic tribes), therefore the villages were fortified centuries ago they are called Ksars. Then within fortification, the village developed with houses, medarsas, mosque and granaries.
Some areas of the valley had a lots of underground or river rain water, and that’s how oases developed. It is very fragile ecological environment to preserve oases so people drilled wells, built dams to keep it for irrigation. We saw one of such well and I pulled water out of it by rope. There were also channels which crossed oases to channel water in needed direction. Well kept irrigation canals, trees and greenery reminded me Israeli vegetation where it is also in the desert they have many trees.

We reached Tinjejad which was a village where Lahcen’s family lives. They invited us for lunch and prepared Barbeque turkey served with delcicious homemade bread and pastries. It was extended family of his mother, brother, wife, niece and 2 year old adorable nephew. It was very warm reception and we were touched that they opened their home for us. Lahcen showed us their large home and like all homes in Morocco, instead of top floor, there was terrace. It is relatively cool in summer and they escape from Marrakech for 2 months in summer.
We had nice lunch, conversation with translation of Lahcen and his brother Yosef, who is an English teacher. We hugged them farewell and continued. Our next stop was Todra Gorges where we saw cliffs high as 985 ft on both side of narrow corridor. We took a walk there and saw palm and dates groves and nice vegetation. We enjoyed nice walk there with great views and the mountain air was cool and pleasant. We sat at a café with more mint tea and then continued to Ourzazate which is half way to Marrakech. From what I saw, it is not much to do there except to stay for overnight.

Ouarzazate is located in Atlas mountains on 3800 ft altitude. It is a pleasant clean town, with wide boulevards. It is to be known as Hollywood of Morocco, hundreds of movies were shot there the diamond of the Nile, Lawrence of Arabia, the Mummy, Gladiator, 7 days in Tebet, Babel… … and there is Atlas film studios with artifacts from movies, reminded me somewhat Las Vegas. We only took pictures of the studios from outside since we did not have desire to tour it. We stayed overnight at large resort Berber Palace which also had movies props in the lobby. Dinner at Berber Palace was included, it did not compare with Berber feast in the desert. The hotel was comfortable. Next morning we checked out, stopped at post office and ship some extra clothes and shopping items home.

Days 6-7 Marrakech.
On the way to Marrakesh, we visited the sanctuary of a Jewish saint Rabbi Habibi Mizrahi.
The road continued through High Atlas Mountains and highlight views were Tiz-inTichka Pass (7,417 ft altitude) , built in 1920s by French, through rich soil and fertile valley. Red color earthen villages were perched on the hillsides. We arrived Marrakech in the afternoon and checked in at Riad Demeures d’oriente in old town section. We called it a day and had dinner at Riyad. We got nice Andalusian suite.

We we visited the Mellah with its synagogues, The Negidim synagogue built at the end of the 19th century, the other synagogue of the mellah is the Salat el Alzama, built at the turn of the century. Then we saw very large cemetery where important Jewish leaders Rabbi Hanania Ha-Cohen, the Lion of Marrakesh and Rabbi Pinhas Cohen are buried.

We proceeded to the Palais el Bahia where to see several grand halls, gardens and the harem quarter… then, we saw the eleventh century Almoravide Koubba el Baroudiyn. It is one of the few architectural reminders of the dynasty that presided over the "Golden Age" of the Jews in Spanish Andalucia and Morocco. The Medersa Ben Yusuf, El Badi Palace and Saadian tombs are beautiful demonstrations of the art and architecture of the 16th century Saadians, a dynasty that relied heavily on Jewish traders with Sub-Saharan Africa, including Moroccan-controlled Timbuktu, to finance its wars against Portugal and the Turkish Empire.
By contrast to Medina, the new city, Avenue Mohammed V was the city’s main thoroughfare and very modern. Marrakech surprised us with many green areas and parks.

We visited Berber PHarmacy in old town where we stocked up on spices and natural healing herbs and argan oil ointments. More about aregan oil below.

We shopped in souks with all those labirynths, and we were lost completely in direction but it was the fun part of it. Lahcen navigated. From souks we came out to Mosque Koutobia (only can be viewed from outside) and out to the famous Place Jemaa El Fna, Unesco Heritage site, where each evening there is a hub of activity. We had better view from on f the café’s second floor to take good pictures and watched the snake charmers, some monkey performers and general hubbub. I am not sure why it is called Unesco Heritage site but it was surely fascinating people watching. The snake charmers were very aggressive and demanded money from people who took their pictures. It was safe to watch and take photos from Café. We got prime seats again thanks to Lahcen! Afterwards we went for early dinner at French/Moroccan restaurant at the same square, La Boheme, walked again to watch the activities. By that time, the vendors set up food and drinks stalls.
Next morning, we checked out of Demeure Oriente, and did a little bit more touring: We toured Menara Gardens with nice water pools. Then we went to Cyber Parc. It was very interesting park, clean, comfortable, a lot's of shade which Lahcen explained very important in summer. And the most amazing - it is equipped with free wi-fi! You can check emails from your laptop or phone but there are also terminals around the park with computers for people using it for moderate fee. I never seen such parks in Europe or Asia. Very advanced, in my opinion.
We finished sightseeing Marrakech on second day and were leaving for our next destnation to Essaoura. On the way we were passing Lahcen's apartment so he invited us for tea and meet his wife and children. It was residential neighborhood with wide streets, contemporary apartment buildings, stores and cafes. We stopped to buy something for children and decided on live pet fish.

Lahcen keep telling we do not have to do it and he does not know how long it will live, but we convinced him his 5 year old son will love it. So together with fish bowl and fish food, we arrived to his place. We met his lovely wife and his adorable 2 year old daugther Sarah who liked to play peek-a-boo.

His 5 year old Elias was due to be picked up at nursery school so we drove few minutes to school. The relatives of kids were waiting for kids t get released. We were the only ones arrived in Mercedes van and they were looking at us. Lahcen got Elias, told him something about us and the boy jumped into van on our seats, kissed Michael and rode on his lap looking forward to his fish. We dropped him at home and continued towards our next destination Essaoura.
As I am writing this, one month later, Lahcen emailed me that one male fish died but female still alive. They are buying second male fish now.

Day 8, Essaoura
On the road from Marrakech to Essaoura we stopped to see the wonder of Morocco - Argan trees. It is a short tree with thorned branches with small leaves. The fruit of the tree is Argan nut, with a peel. The oil from Argan tree has restorative and used as a natural treatment from acne, and other dermatology problems. It also used in cosmetics, for salad and nut grinded to paste used something like our peanut butter. The bees produce honey from argan tree and honey also considered very beneficial. Honey with argan nut paste is Moroccan "Nutella". We had it for breakfast and it was very good. Pure Argan oil is supplied all over the world. Lahcen told us that the scientists tried to import to plant in other countries but it did not work and Argan trees only grow in Morocco.

The goats like to climb short thorny argan trees and much on them.

We stopped at argan oil women cooperative which also helps single women supplying them with work. We saw how gathered nuts (looks something like between almond and walnut), and were cracked with stones . Then the nuts were grounded into paste. For salad oil, the nuts were roasted and for cosmetics, they left raw.

We saw presentation and bought honey and some cosmetic products.
We finally reached Essaoura in the afternoon and checked into Riyad Dar L'oussia in old town. We had a little time to explore wooden factory where we saw amazing Moroccan furniture and jewelry woodwork.

Essaoura is delightful fishing port, on Atlantic Ocean. It is delightful fortified coastal town, formerly known as Magador. It had picturesque port and ramparts, manageable old town (medinah) and beautiful views of Atlantic ocean. Historically, it was originally under Phoenicians and Carthaginians until Romans took over about 25 ad. Then it was occupied by vandals in year 429, then Berbers from 9thC and few centuries later by Arabs, then in 15C the Portuguese conquered Essaoura and they erected fortifications which look very similar to ones in Portugal. Then Portuguese and (I think together with Spanish) lost to Arabs and Alau dynasty came to power in 18C. That's when the golden age of Essoura time came in under Sultan alauí Sidi Mohammed Abdallah. He completely reformed the city of Essaouira . This was largely as a result of trade with Europe. Essaouira was transformed into the most important commercial in the Moroccan kingdom; it became the main fishing port of Timbuctu.

So it is fascinating long history which makes this small seaside port so interesting.
We had dinner in beachfront french restaurant.

Next morning, we got up early and had wonderful breakfast on riyads terrrace overlooking ramparts, fishing boats in the port and Atlantic ocean. It was hard to beleive we are in North Africa!

We went for a walk before Lahcen came in and took some photos of fishermen in the port not without being harassed to give them some coins. I did not mind that but when they started asking extra money for next pictures, that was not right in my book.
We had to go back to riyad to find Lahcen who arrived 15 minutes earlier and came looking for us and like our mother hen, started reprimanding us " Where you've been? I went to the restaurant and you were not there". We asked him to relax, since we were already Morocconised and deserve right to explore a bit on our own :-) .

We toured old town, there were mostly white and blue building colors and together with bright sky, it turned to be a photrographer's delight to walk and explore. We admired work of wood artisans, went to Jewish quarter. This town had many Jewish artisanal items for sale and it was hard to pass by. I bought antique silver menorah. I never owned nice one like this. Instead of candles, it uses oil.

We went to the fish market and watched variety of fish. The specialty of region are sardines which are imported all over the world. Lunch was at fish place at the market where you select fish and give to the small grill place to grill it. It was delicious. We chose sardines and Lahcen also added some other local fish which was also good. The price for that lunch was very cheap, something about 10 usd for 3 of us with a lot's of sardines and tomato salad and cokes. I asked what is the name of it but he said "no name". Just fish market!
We also see another specialty of the region - wood artisans. There is Thuya tree which again only grows in Morocco and it has different wood from trunk and branches and Moroccan woodworking artists produce beautiful furniture and other items. Another item great for shopping.
In the afternoon, we took a drive to the beach about 15 minutes away and we walked on the most beautiful beach. It was low tide. I took another camel ride on the beach.

Day 8. Marrakech
Were supposed to go to casbah in the mountains. But due some minor health issues, we thought might not make it going 15 minutes up to get to Kasbah on high altitutude although luggage was transported by mules. We asked and Lahcen said, no mules will not be able to carry us. A pity! So after some calls to our local Marakech agent, we changed the route and decided to go back to civilization to Marrakech. Michael needed either back massage or hot bath. Our agent Zineb, bless her heart, on Sunday, her day off, worked for few hours and changed our reservation to Sofitel Marrakech.

After arriving Sofitel, we had few hours rest and and then Lahcen and Fatullah arrived and we went again to explore Marrakech. We visited Majorelle Gardens which started by French painter Jacques Majorelle. He opened the doors to public. After he returned to France and died, Yves St. Laurent and Pierre Berge purchased the garden and restored it. It is yet another beautiful garden oasis in Marrakech with amazing collection of plants.

After that, Lahcen took us for dinner in new city local BBQ grill which had amazing grilled chicken for fraction of cost what we would pay at Sofitel's.

We continued drive in new area and we saw suburb of Marrakech "La Palmeria" , a restful Palm Groves 13 hectares and 180,000 planted palms which are irrigated by underground water pipes. Outside of city, it is oasis of serenity. However, the area seems to be build up with luxury villas and hotel development, gated communities, Golf course designed by Robert Trent Jones, so this is another contemporary face of Marrakech.. Very much like Costa Del Sol, or California or Florida.

We returned to Marrakech and spent our last night at Djemaa El Fna square watching from the same cafe second floor activity.

Last day, we checked out from hotel at noon, did last minute shopping, Tangine chicken in souk in old town, and we headed to airport. We had to part with Lahcen and Fatullah who became for these 10 days like a family. Lahcen got us ot EasyJet check in and then we said goodbye. We hugged them and said will be in touch. We thanked them and our agent Zineb for taking care of us and she promised and I am sure my clients will be in good hands.
She even got our jacket forgotten in Fes, to get delivered to Marrakech. Somehow they get network of guides and drivers and great local support system. I would not know how our trip would be without their help. I know we would survived in Moroco but it would not be same experience.

Marrakech airport was very nice and modern, much better than Casablanca. My priority pass membership entitled us to use of business lounge where we again drank mint tea and pastries and used internet. The rest of trip to Paris was uneventful.

We left Morocco with great memories. I hope to be back sometimes soon.

Some general observations.
Morocco was a long time on our bucket list and it did not disappoint. We expected less but the country surprised us with friendly people, clean green cities and abundance of sites to see. It is easy to get from Northeast of United states and easy flight from Spain and France.
It is though recommended to get most of your trip to book a guide and driver or both (in our case). It is hard to tour alone. While people are friendly, but some vendors can be very pushy and English not widely spoken there. Local people are very friendly and if you see children, I recommend to bring candies or small pens as souvenirs. Better not to give them money. Pens were always appreciated.

Morocco has a variety of accommodations from luxury European high quality hotels to traditional Moroccan houses Riyads, and Kasbahs (castles), just like Chateaux in France, Paradores in Spain and Posadas in Portugal. Riyads have traditional Moroccan architecture with open courtyard. Try to stay at least once to experience characteristic Moroccan house.

Variety of wood products, fossils, leather, rugs, jewelry, bronze, silver, Jewish antiques. See re: bargaining top of the report
Everything starts with price usually twice as much as price of the item. Sometimes more. Sometimes there is no price at all. The goal is to get a price below of price of an item and you go back and bargain. Finally you give them your first last price, they say no, you walk away, then they call you back and start again with your last price. This continued 3 times. If they can all sell it and make small profit, they will sell it. If they keep saying no, you are below their profit margin. Guide helps somewhat if you ask him to, sometimes you are depending on a price, might be talking over the price about $2 discount, which is nothing to us, but will feed their family. Some places do not discount but they give you some free stuff. Lahcen taught us intricacies of complicated bargaining system, when to look into the item you want, most often do not show then what you are interested in. When transaction was completed, not sure if this is applicable to all customers, but ours was completed with hug and recognition us as real Moroccan – as Lahcen called it – our “Berberization” and “Morocconization”.
However for tourists not interested in bargaining, there are stores with fixed prices, even at souks. With fixed price they also give you some free items as well.
To give credit to our guide Lahcen, he did not push any shopping, and I trusted the stores he took us. I think all guides get some kind of commission or gifts from bringing tourists, so accept the fact. But I the stores and vendors he suggested made sense. First of all, if something would not arrive, you have guide to follow up with vendor. Second Lahcen always suggested vendors who would need more money. For example, the cooperative with Argan oil was created to give jobs to single women and I would rather spend money there than anywhere else. When we shopped at the souk, he would out of two vendors would select an elderly woman and since it did not matter for example where we would buy bread – it was the same – he suggested we give her business.
If we were not in a mood of shopping, he instructed us not to make eye contact. True, once you look at the vendor or the product, they would not leave us alone. Also Lahcen and Michael discussed the approach before going to each vendor – do not look at the thing you like look at others but offer money for another thing. That was too much for me and I was losing patience. I did not bargain much….

My favorite subject and important aspect of each trip. Moroccan food was delicious, light and healthy. The breads were always fresh, Moroccan bread is round small like pita shape but more like chiabata. It is hard to explain.. It was delicious.
Mint tea was excellent. Boiled with green tea and mint and served either with sugar or without. No caffeine. If you want caffeine there was variety of coffees, mostly French way.
Chicken and lamb was very popular but we ate most chicken. It is cooked in special clay pot tangine. At home, I tried with slow cooker and succeeded. Chicken is stewed with raisins, lemons, olives and sometimes with chick peas.

Olives were excellent and large variety. Dates were delicious. Small oranges something like clementines were also very sweet. Their pastries were OK but a bit sweet for my taste.
I was impressed with quality of Moroccan wines and very often I have headaches from wine but Moroccan wines were fine.

We bought home various spices which I am experimenting now with chicken.

On the seacoast the fish was excellent.

All restaurants we ate were local, inexpensive and delicious food. We saved money this way thanks to Lahcen, but there were some restaurants which he did not recommend. We also did not get sick and I’ve read about some issues from tourists with stomach problems. We used bottled water everywhere, it was available. As a precaution, we took peptol bismol during the trip and maybe this helped. We ate some salads as well, Few times I forgot and had ice in the drink, and we did not have any problems. Some restaurants we ate, the plates and utensils did not look sterile .

Highlight of the trip was of course night in the tent in Sahara. I am not sure where else I will experience such exotic location.

Jewish Heritage
As I am specializing on Jewish Heritage, that was one of the reason we wanted to check out Morocco. I was impressed with peaceful coexistence of Jews and Muslim for many centuries.
It is indeed very rich in our heritage and not as well known so I highly recommend it for Jewish travelers.

For more photos, see

Sunday, November 13, 2011

Iceland November 2011

Iceland Trip Report, November 5-10, 2011
I always wanted to visit Iceland, so when opportunity came up from Icelandair fam trip, I jumped on it.
Iceland is the second largest island in Europe. The first inhabitants arrived from Norway in 9th century so Icelanders have Viking/Celt Heritage and culture. Language is Icelandic, which is derived from Old Norse (German-Scandinavian). The present population is approximately 325,000 and about half of them live in capital Reykjavik. Most people speak English so it is easy to communicate. Contrary to expectation that Iceland is cold and covered by ice, the temperatures are mild, average in winter it is 35-45 F. Icelandic climate is temperate. The warm North Atlantic Current ensures generally higher temperatures than in most places of similar latitude in the world. Iceland's winters are mild and windy while the summers are cool. Also Iceland is located on the Mid-Atlantic Ridge dividing European and American tectonic plates, slowly pushing the two in separate directions. The ridge runs through the whole country, resulting in volcanic eruptions, geothermal activity such as geysers and hot springs, and earthquakes. There are many volcanoes and glaciers around the country. The landscape is surreal, like being on another planet, with volcanic lava and little vegetation.
So we were off to Iceland! Flight to Reykjavik from Washington took 5.5 hours and there is difference in time 4 hrs (without daylight savings time taken into consideration). Icelandair does not serve food included in economy class, only for sale. So first surprise is – Iceland is closer then it seems and easier to get to. Jet lag is not a big issue comparing with coming from European continent.
Icelandair booked us into their hotel Natura owned by Icelandair. It is a bit off center but we have not had the choice. We took Flybus to hotel. As promised the room was ready at 9am and we had breakfast before getting into room and taking a short nap. I discovered that My t-mobile (Deutsche telecom in Europe) does not work here. But Michael's AT&T worked. Fortunately, hotel provided free internet so we were OK with communication. Natura is solid 4* hotel. Staff was friendly, but there are no extra services like valet, concierge, etc. The design is Scandinavian minimalist style. It have been recently renovated. The room was small, with a little of closet space. Only shower, no bath tub. No small travel size toiletries, they had two large dispensers – one is soap in the sink and another shampoo in the shower. But it smelled heavenly. It has description on the bottles that it contains natural herbs and oils used in the hotel’s spa. It felt good on body and hair. It is very clean hotel, even outside windows were cleaned and we were on 3rd floor. Hotel is located next to small domestic airport but now I cannot remember any noise from airplanes so sound insulation was good. The Drawback is that it is 20-30 min walk from center. Better stay in the city itself, for example Radission Blu. We ended up taking taxis for about $15 each ride. I checked with reception how to change money but they said we can use credit cards. Indeed, on this trip, I never had to use cash, always credit cards. Even taxi drivers took credit cards and small vendors like water and hot dogs all took credit card. I do not even know how their money look like. It was very convenient.
We had a nap, woke up, dressed to go downstairs for whale watching tour only to find out it has been cancelled. We took cab to the center and enjoyed nice clear though cold weather. We saw flea market, browsed some stores, walked to Art museum. They have 3 art museums and the one we visited was modern art which did not impress us. We walked through the old part of the town, very picturesque, but not like European towns, more like Nordic. Saw “Occupy Reykjavik” tents. It must be cold there. Went for early dinner at Café Paris. Nice meal, busy place. We enjoyed seafood soup, very well prepared Icelandic lamb and potatoes, vegetables. Back to hotel by cab.

Day 2 touring. We met our private guide Oli and went to explore south coast in his 4 wheel drive. He brought cute puppy Loki with him.
First we drove through Reykjavik harbor, we saw new Opera house, very beautiful. We drove past Laugardalshöll Arena where in 1972 World Chess Championship between Boris Spassky and Bobby Fischer took place and Bobby Fischer defeated Spassky and became chess champion. In my pre-American life I used to play chess professionally and I grew up on studying their games and style so this attraction, maybe not that of much interest to average tourist, was of interest to me. Fischer was a chess genius, despite of his disturbed personality. We talked to Oli about chess and Iceland Grandmaster Fredrik Olaffson, we found out Olaffson was also very popular in Iceland and even served in the Parliament.

We talked about how Bobby Fischer ended up in Reykjavik again after his exile in Europe and then to Japan and USA wanted to extradite him. Iceland offered him citizenship and he arrived to Reykjavik in 2005. He died 3 years later. We asked where he is buried and Oli said in a small church near town Selfoss. It was on our way so we went there. Oli had to ask local policemen for exact location and they talked about 5 minutes about Bobby Fischer. We found the small church and his grave at this church.

We took sandwiches for a road since at this time of the year you have to plan your meal stops. At service station, we got smoked lamb, salmon, herring sandwiches. There were also football (soccer) memorabilia and photos and Oli showed us photo of his father who is a head of country’s soccer federation. We also tasted Icelandic pancake (like crepe) and got Icelandic lemonade with Orange flavor (apelsin).

The weather was changing all the time but it was mostly rain and wind. Oli had a four wheel drive with big wide tires. We went to the famous Volcano Eyjofjallajokul site – which erupted in 2010. On average there is a volcanic eruption every five years and lava fields cover about 11% of the island.

Another 11% is covered by glaciers. We visited Eyjofjallajokul site and we also saw a small waterfall. We continued on south coast and came to small town of Vik where we stopped at woolen factory and bought beautiful sweaters of Icelandic design. Then we went to Black beach where it was dramatic view ocean, waves, volcanic mountains coming out of the sea and black sand. It was raining and windy and the rain was mixed with ocean mist, the colors were all gray and ominous but it was something exciting and dramatic in that view. It is cold for swimming even in summer but the view is spectacular. Oli drove to the beach direct and I started to worry when waves kept coming closer but he got us out just fine.

We continued to glacier Myrdaisjokull, parked there and walked to the ice. It was raining but we got as closer we could get. The ice indeed was white and blue color. Loki followed us.

Northern lights.

The Aurora Borealis, also known as Northern Lights, is unique in nature and for those lucky few who can visit Iceland in winter, there is an adventure worth undertaking. The adventure is far from being realized even under the best circumstances. Besides local condition, low ambient light, no moon, little or no cloud cover, low humidity, rain, snow.

There are other conditions: the number of the sunspots, the suns coronal mass ejections. Given perfect condition, and a substantial amount of luck and timing, you may finally witness the Aurora Borealis or Northern Lights are the beautiful natural wonder to behold. If this does not give you the expected results, the company has free repeat policy.

Our bus Northern Lights tour was scheduled next day at 9pm but Oli said if the weather will be good, we can watch it from his countryside cottage with coffee and hot tub. However today weather is was bad and we went back to the city. We wanted to eat authentic Icelandic dinner so Oli recommended Sea Baron in the harbor, it was no frills fishermen place, with freshest seafood available, and very basic décor, it is most like lobster harbor shack. They are known for world famous lobster soup. They have display of fish on skewers and you show what you want to be grilled and skewers of vegetables. We had lobster soup which has quite a lot of lobster meat. We also selected salmon, halibut and small potatoes kebabs, and one beer. It cost about $50 for two of us. I considered local delicacy mink whale but was not sure if I like it. The restaurant called us for taxi and we went home. We dried our clothes on the radiator, took a hot shower and went to sleep satisfied with productive day.

Before we went to sleep, we stopped at hotel’s restaurant and completed our progressive dinner with desert: chocolate cake, Apple rhubarb granola cake, ice cream with tea and coffee.

By the way, there are no tips expected in Iceland so there is another plus to paying by credit card and not worry with small bills.

Day 3 touring. Today it was excursion day provided for us in Icelandair package – Gulfoss waterfalls and Geysers. They pick people up at hotel and take them to bus station and the sightseeing bus leaves from gas station. I was concerned about bus tour, but it was not bad. The driver turned out very entertaining, he even sand national anthem. Besides us, there was a young woman from Japan, a woman with two young children from Norway and on the way back we picked up a guy from Taiwan to get them to Reykjavik. I wish we would spend more time there that was my only complaint. First stop was Geysir.
One of the many stories connected with the falls tells about the fight early in the 20th century for their existence, when a foreign enterprise managed to contracted the rights to harness them for electrical production. The spouting hot spring Geysir was claimed to be the biggest one in the world. Its fame spread and other spouting hot springs elsewhere were consequently named Geysir or geyser. The old Geysir has been in retirement for decades, but when it was active its eruptions reached the height of at least 80 m. All around the old Geysir are more spouting hot springs, such as Strokkur, which erupts every 3-5 minutes. The Geysir site has very nice center with museum and interactive exhibits. I especially liked platform where you stand and experience 5.1 Richter scale earthquake shakes. There was a lot’s of information about geological activity but we only had one hour there (more reason to drive yourself or with private guide and go at your own place). We went outside to Geysir site and saw its eruption. Nearby small lagoons had also thermal hot water with different colors.

Our next stop was Gulfoss waterfalls. Gulfoss means “Golden”. It is located on Hvita River. The falls cascade down in two stages. We saw beautiful rainbow near water. There was a photo of waterfalls in winter under snow which was spectacular.

We were driven afterwards through Pingvelir National Park, Unesco Heritage site, it used to be a national parliament of the first settlers, and it is important part of history of the island. The park is also renowned for its geological significance. The area is located on the Mid-Atlantic ridge, where the continents of Europe and America drift apart, causing earthquakes and volcanic activity. Icelanders believe that this is the place where you can stand between the two continental plates.

After that, we went back to hotel. We had a traditional Icelandic dinner at hotel’s restaurant Satt which was unexpected for hotel’s, excellent Icelandic cuisine. We chose 4 course sampling dinner. The appetizer was smoked goose, tartar of the goose and something else from the goose. It was very good. Second course was lobster with sautéed cauliflower and it was excellent. For main course, I had reindeer with small potatoes, chanterelles mushrooms and various sautéed vegetables and fruit, it was superb. Michael had arctic char and pronounced it also very good, similar in texture to sea bass. Desert was chocolate mousse balls and ice cream. It was excellent dinner.

At 8:30pm we were picked up for Northern Lights tour by bus. There were many people for this tour since few other days before it has been cancelled. The tour took 3 hours and they drove us in countryside, then we had stop in the airport for bathroom break. The night was clear and the moon had strange circle around it. However the full moon condition was not conducive for Northern lights. The company said we can be booked for next tour free of charge until we will see it but we did not have much time. Oli however sent us a photo of Northern Light… The guide on Northern Light tour was entertaining though and told us all kind of Nordic sagas...

Day 3 touring.
We finished Northern Lights tour about 2am so next day was hard to wake up for touring. Fortunately it was private touring with Oli today so we texted him to start one hour late. We had buffet breakfast at hotel restaurant. Speaking about breakfasts, they were included, very good but menu did not change daily. There were soft boiled (4 min) eggs, hard boiled eggs, waffles, cold cuts, great local yogurt skyr, cheeses, herring, muesli and very good breads. I wish though they would have that famous Icelandic salmon.

Oli arrived at 10am and said today will take us to Eastern coast for National Park. We stopped again at service station to get sandwiches just in case food will not be available. Loki the dog did not come this day and we were disappointed. Oli took us to countryside to inspect hotel Ranga. It is considered the best resort hotel in the country. First I thought it is in the middle of nowhere but Oli explained it is a great location for taking day tours. It is about 1 hr from Reykjavik. It is built in the style of mountain lodge and has 52 rooms and suites. We’ve met the manager who showed us hotel.
It is 4* hotel but has a quality of 5*. It has impressive guest list including Bette Midler and John Rockefeller. In addition to regular and superior rooms, we also looked at suites which are themed by continents of the world. The rooms have views of the river or volcano. There are hot tubs (no pool). We were told the restaurant is best destination restaurant in Iceland with locals coming for famous Christmas dinner. The suites were spectacular – for example, Africa suite had all decorations direct from Africa and South America from I think Peru, and North America from Canada and Alaska. Antarctica was a presidential suite in black and white colors and Antarctica theme (nothing was brought from there!). The manager was very enthusiastic and eager to please guests. There are one room and suite for handicapped guests but all suites are on second floor so he said if the guests wish to be in the suite, they will carry them. The hotel has 2 floors and they do not want to have elevators.
There is no spa but there are massages available. Probably lack of pool, elevator and official spa prevents hotel from getting 5* rating, but it is best kept secret in Iceland.

The best thing about this hotel and Northern Lights that guests can see them from their rooms! Provided you have the right view room. Otherwise you come to the lobby but it is not like going in a bus for 3 hours at night searching elusive lights. There was a list for wakeup call for Northern Lights viewing so people ask to wake them up. The hotel has connections with local farmers who will alert hotel re: lights if they see them and hotel wakes guests up to watch from their window. That beats bus tour – this is the way to watch it!

As for activities in summer, there is salmon fishing in the backyard river – the fishing licenses need to be obtained month in advance. Nearby are horseback riding facilities on those special Icelandic horses (considered special isolated breed, gentle and enthusiastic). There are trips to Volcanoes, hiking in the mountains and Glacier walks.

I’ve been looking at it and thought there is the place I can spend 4-5 days and last day in Reykjavik before flying home. I’ve been thinking that for people who considering to go for lodges to Alaska from USA it is great alternative since the weather is warmer, only 5.5 hours to get, Nordic culture, excellent food, European exposure, horseback riding, fishing, hiking, glaciers, volcanoes! And after that people can go back home – easy flight 6 hours or continue to Europe for few more hours’ flight. It is indeed incredible undiscovered destination with friendly English speaking people.

We continued to go East to yet another National Park where glacier melt from 2010 Volcano eruption. To get there, you need to drive through lava fields and rivers. Oli made it with his 4 wheel drive wide tires.
Some of you might remember the crisis that was part of the March 2010 Iceland volcano eruption. The volcano eruption caused ash plumes to flow over much of Europe which created massive airlines no-fly zones. This volcano is just one of the many located in the geologically amazing country of Iceland. Iceland is located and was formed a relatively short time ago on the injunction of the North American and European tectonic plates. Today we visited ground zero and the immediate physical changes of that eruption. Located about 1.5 hour east of Reykjavik National Park approachable by a very rough track of land and rivers that’s accessible by a large tired 4x4 vehicle. I would not recommend it to drive on your own. Few river crossing were scary... His vehicle is called a super jeep and the country worked in conjunction with the auto makers to develop the vehicle specifically for the terrain in Iceland.

The track roughly follows an ancient glacier track and is now a constantly changing riverbed. The river is fed by three separate glaciers. The explosion caused a rift in a huge rock which emptied a lagoon which for 10 of thousands years contained 50 feet deep of water and had small icebergs floating into it. The land we walked on has not seen the light of the sun for countless centuries.

The physical ash, small rounded glacially molded rocks and general moonlike craters was beyond belief.

We finished sightseeing by going back to Reykjavik and stopped on the way in a nice lobster restaurant where we had lobster soup and sautéed lobster for main course. It was excellent. Oli dropped us at the hotel and we bid farewell to him. It was time well spent and our guide was terrific. I will definitely will book him again when I will be back in Iceland.

Back to hotel, tired to bed.

Day 4, our last day in Iceland. Breakfast at hotel and check out by 10:30. We were picked up again by Icelandair flybus and they dropped us at Blue Lagoon for few hours of bathing in thermal waters. It was about 35-40F, and raining which was mixed with sleet, and we were sitting in 80F degree mineral lagoon! It was Unreal. The head was a bit cold though especially with snow/sleet falling but the hat would not work  . We left our luggage in storage area and went to swimming area. There are also buckets with lagoon mud so we like other people, spread on our face to use as a mud mask. There was waterfall area as well and special massage area where people are lying down on water mat and being massaged in water by spa staff. There is also restaurant and gift shop on property. I figured that it is better to leave towel inside and use special door going out swimming to lagoon. I did have out in the cold to take photos and it was chilly in swimsuit! Again, incredible activity. I love to use hot springs whenever I had a chance but this was very special.

Afterwards, we showered, dressed up and went back to luggage area and boarded flybus to airport. We checked in flew back home.

We loved this small country, at perfect location between USA and in Europe. Great food, little crime. We have not seen any homeless people or beggars. It is very clean. Food is good. People speak English. Credit cards accepted. European Scandinavian feel and great scenery and it is close to USA. Icelandair offers stopover packages on the way to Europe with reasonable priced air; therefore you might consider taking advantage it.

It is quite expensive but very much comparable with other European countries and NYC. It is understandably expensive since most goods and food is brought from other countries into Iceland. The local vegetables are only tomatoes, potatoes and cucumbers. All fruit is imported.


Although not that open as for example Italians, nevertheless people are helpful, courteous, and very friendly. The country been somewhat isolated politically from the rest of the Europe. There are discussions in parliament to become members of European Union but there is also an opposition from Nationalists stay separately. They are members of NATO but it is only one member without standing army. In Iceland, army duty is performed Icelandic Coast guard and special sources units for disasters, international peacekeeping and helping. In the airport, customs officers have police badges. During the war, Iceland benefited because occupation forces (British and American) stayed there, built bases, airport and bought local food and services. However, even though Iceland was an ally in WWII but they refused to declare war on Germany since it is against country’s policy. Ironically, 60 years later, they participated in war in Iraq to keep good relationship with USA but US military base left anyway. The people are in tough financial situation after 2009 bank crash and do not like government restrictions, for example they cannot invest abroad and when they travel only allowed taking 200 eur abroad.

Would I come again?

Definitely it is on my list. Maybe on stopover to Europe. Some things I would do different – stay at hotel Ranga or other locations in the country and make a circuit, and finish in Reykjavik for last one or two nights. It is a small city and while is very pretty, the rest of the country is worth spending time there exploring and not coming back to city every night.


Sunday, May 22, 2011

Cologne 2011 GTM

Cologne-Bonn. May 7-11, GTM (German Travel Mart) - this section would be more of interest to travel trade ....

May 7, 2011. We arrived Cologne.

Spa fam trip is over, and we are back to reality - travel mart starts tomorrow.

In Cologne our group split since different nationalities were booked by their country's tourist offices at different hotels. Chinese delegations stayed at Renaissance, Scandinavians at Radisson SAs (of course!), Russians at Le Meriden, Americans in Marriott and Europeans spread out in different hotels. Asians and Australians were at 4* hotel near Convention center.
Marriott was populated with Americans, Canadians and Israelis.

We arrived Marriott and checked in. My room was adequate but comfortable. Comparing to other Marriott's this hotel feels lower than 5*. It has tired interior, scratched walls. Unpleasant surprise is when you enter the main revolving door, there are few steps stairs! Hard to lag suitcases. Service wise, not too many doormen available at the door. Room did not have robe. So I would rate it 4* as opposed 5*. Anyway I am here to work. 12.50 euro per day internet! One of the delegates told me she got internet stick for 17 euro for a month. Probably will be my next choice in Europe.

I refreshed, and with my newfound friend Cindy from USA whom I met on fam trip, we went to explore Cologne. The positive thing about Marriott is it's location. 3 minutes walk to train station. Unlike other cities, train station is right in the center by famous Dom- Cathedral. You walk to the train station, then walk through it and you are at the Cathedral where you find stores, pedestrian shopping district, museum and river promenade. Great location. That also mades easier if you travel by train - you do not need cab ride. For people looking more upscale 5* hotel, I recommend Excelsior, traditional hotel, also few minutes from Dom and train station.
I walked at pedestiran district, did some small shopping, got delicious pretzels at the bakery and had meal from the bakery in my room. I got internet for 12 euro for 24 hours and caught up on my work since I knew next few days will be hectic. It was a long day so I went to bed early.

May 8. Had some time until 10:30 bus transfer to the convention center so I decided to sleep more. Big mistake - when I came to the breakfast, it was a zoo. Hard to find table for buffet and looks like they were finishing breakfast. After breakfast I went to the bus and we were off for a short ride to the Koln-Messe convention center. The manager of US delegation announced that the fam trips are over (other group explored food and wine), so no more spa treatments, food, wine tasting, back to reality!

Prior to convention, GTM came up with social media networking system so you find contacts and network with them and make appointments for travel professionals. I am not sure what function journalists had, since they had more sightseeing, interviews and press conferences. We were supposed to make minimum 10 appointments, I made more. It was great idea to communicate to people through network before decide to make appointment or not. In other trade shows, you just look at suppliers and make an appointment, here you can network in advance. If you set your profile with right keywords, suppliers will find you. For example, I asked for a question how to get to Munich ghotel from airport and received many suggestion from different contact and even one supplier, vounteered to pick me up! Thank you Michael!!! However the glitch of the system is appointment setup process. The system does not search available time for both parties, you select time and send request to supplier, then they reply if they accept or decline. Since there is no way to see there available time, it was going back and forth for each appointment especially at the end and who has time for that? As result, many people have double and triple booked and many of my appointments were overlayed including my first one.

First day were opening session and seminars. I've seen my fam trip companions but now the delegates were congregating by their country. We listened to presentation from Lufthanza and Deutsche Bahn. It reminded me to offer more to clients rail pass with flexible travel. German ICE trains are very comfortable speed trains, equivalent to French TGV. It is relaxing and convenient way to go to Paris, Amsterdam, Brussels, and of course neigboring Austria and Switzerland.

Then there was presentation about Health and Wellness tourism segment. By that time I already had an idea after fam trip about German spas. It is very popular European destination for spas, why not offer this to Americans? The speaker was talking about different aspects medical tourism, but the one I remembered is that they provide quality medical care at fraction of cost in USA. Also, they provide (according to the speaker) better quality, quicker access for plastic surgery, eye care. Of course Germany and other European countries insurances cover this expenses but not from USA. In addition to treatment unlike in USA, the treatment in Germany is combined with rehabilitation and 4* resorts, excersize, nutrition, organic food etc..

After lunch break, there was presentation for student hostel travel. We tried to skip this session, I do not sell student travel and hostels, but we decided to stay. Our manager said he could not talk us out of this session. We were grateful that he got us out of next presentation for one hour: panel discussion on BRIC countries (Brazil, Russia, India, China). We were excused from that one - nothing of interest for Americans! Instead, he booked us for a walking tour of Cologne.

We went back to hotel, refreshed and met in the lobby for walking tour.

Cologne Tour and Jewish Heritage.

The tour was for Canadians and Americans. The guide took us for 1.5 hour tour of Cathedral and old town and gave me some interesting facts about Jewish community in Cologne area. We also visited Rathaus and there is Roman excavations next to the old city walls.

This archeological site will be the site of Jewish museum. It is pending now due to the lack of funds. It is admirable to show the world that this German Catholic city, with its famous Cathedral, claims to be the oldest home of Jewish community North of Alps, dating back to at least 321BC.

He also told me that Cologne Jewish community was active at Medieval Cologne's due to strategic location on the river Rhine at the crossing of trade routes which brought it prosperity. Its Jewish community thrived until pogroms and explusions in the 14th and 15th centuries but perished at Holocaust, Now it is about 5,000-strong Jewish community, it tripled in the last 15 years, mainly due to immigrants from the former Soviet Union who account for most of the country's 105,000 registered Jews. Part of the resurgence is due to former German Chancellor, Helmut Kohl who invited Jews from the former Soviet Union to settle in Germany to help revitalize the Jewish community. With neo-Nazi crime on the rise, police guard synagogues round the clock and the community is haunted by the memory of the Holocaust in which Nazis killed about 6 million Jews. Although not on the scale of Berlin's Jewish museum which opened to great fanfare in 2001, locals say the historical connection will give Cologne's museum special appeal.

We finished our walk at the Brauhaus where we had presentation from the owner with a snack of sandwiches, beer and sausages. Then we walked by the river, enjoying good weather and people watching in the park by the river. Back to hotel, we had some time to change for grand opening reception at the Cathedral itself!

We gathered at reception at hotel prior to going to cathedral. I had chance to meet Israeli colleague to have chance to network. Israeli had big delegation about 17 people - it is a lot for such a small country. Germany is a big destination for Israelis and Russians, I found out.
We walked to the cathedral. I never dreamed that I will be part of the reception by town officials at famous cathedral! It was very special. At Dom's square, they had group of local youth dance orchestras standing by. We walked inside Cathedral and the opening ceremony started. We were greeted by mayor of Cologne and tourist office officials. There was a minute of silence to remember victims of Japanese tsunami. Afterwards the Cathedral architect gave a speech regarding cathedral, and its construction statistics and facts. At the end organ played. It was beautiful. Afterwards we all walked through the old town (they closed the traffic!) to the venue where dinner being held . Dinner was buffet, delicious choices in the beautiful setup. The music band thankfully was not loud :-) . We did not want to walk and three of us caught taxi earlier to beat the traffic to the hotel. Next morning was busy day at trade show. The work started...

May 8, Cologne-Bonn

I ordered wake up call at 6am to avoid late breakfast fiasco. We gravitated to same single tables, yet being close to each other so it made nice conversation with newly found collegaues. Marriott elevators turned out to be very slow, always staying in lines. Definitely not 5* standard. It keeps bugging me since I am kind of lost on German classification system. Some 5* hotels did not look like 5* hotels and some 4* hotels we look like 5* hotels. I asked and was told that due to corporate travel and also very large share of medical tourism, health insurances only cover stay at 4* hotel so many hotels lower their qualifications, same with corporate travel. Go figure. So it helps to have local suppliers to guide us through this maze.

Arrived trade show and started my route for apponitments. Since everything was in the computer and you just print your schedule, I had to find internet for my laptop and checked my schedule. I was indeed triple booked my first supplier, so it gave me chance to acclimate to the trade show and get oriented.

Lunch was served in the convention center, just outside of trade floor, very nice buffet with salads, variety of salads and hot foods and desserts.

To my pleasant surprise, I was impressed that after networking and finding what my niche is (FIT's and private tours for Jewish Heritage itineraries), many tour operators and tourist boards prepared programs just for me!

New Interesting Products and ideas.

I reconnected with my suppliers who already were working on my client's requests.

I found some new interesting products, for example:

  • Fairy tale route - it is 650 km from Frankfurt to Hamburg, following on steps by brothers Grimm. Most people traveled and know Romantic Road, but Fairy tale route is the oldest and most popular scenice route in Germany . Diversified romantic villages with typical half-timbered houses, castles, ruins and monuments, fairy tales and legends are becoming alive. The German Fairy - tale route was founded in the historic city of the Brothers Grimm Steinau. The route is worth a detour if you travel this area with children, fairy tales are resurected on the way. There are open air theaters, puppet shows and festivals. The tourists will be greeted by fairy-tale characters (Mother Goose, Sleeping Beauty, Rapunzel), or we can create package deals to experience fairy tales for the young and old. Did I stir your imagination? If yes, contact us for this delightful tour for the whole family.

  • I've had a meeting with a representative from Israel who works in Berlin and can arrange for us kosher meals for my clients at Crowne Plaza hotel.

  • There is a small town Erding not far from Munich airport which has mineral springs. Nice to relax before flying home if you already toured Munich. For kosher travelers, we have connections to provide kosher food there.

  • I've met representatives from tourist board of Nuremberg, Furth, Bremenhofen and Erfurt, who prepared itineraries with inclusion of Jewish interest sightseeing.

  • I've met with specialists who design and run their wine tours

  • Tours In the footsteps of Pope Benedict XVI

  • Music tours - in the footsteps of Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart and Johann Sebastian Bach

  • WWII interest tours (the fall of Berlin wall) and unification of Germany

  • Christmas markets

    Evening was another reception at Bonn (former parlament ) with music and entertainment.

    May 9-10
    I finished trade show to see people who were not at my appointment list. After trade show, we had brief bus tour of the Bonn. Afterwards were came to hotel and I ran to change to be on time for our final dinner and inspection of Maritime hotel. The hotel was very nice, 4* with a lot's of lights, atrium inside, and very nice appointed rooms. Honestly, it looked better than Marriott. We had nice dinner and finished with desert in lovely restaurant. We toasted our host at hotel and our completion of this very busy but productive event .

    Next day I had breakfast, checked out from hotel, walked to the train station and boarded train to Frankfurt airport. The train was ICE high speed, "quiet car" and a pleasure to ride. Beats inter-european flights. It arrived into Frankfurt airport (pay attention since final destination was Munich!) and there was internal connection to the terminal with luggage check-in. After that, it was uneventful flight back home.
    This concluded my exploration of Germany.

    For more information or book your trip to Germany, travel agents, please contact us at 877-466-2934,

    Final thoughts and Jewish Heritage itineraries.

    Bremerhaven and its emigration museum. My researchers in Germany used this museum to track people left Germany for Ellis Island. Susan Reinitz, the museum representative showed interesting project they developed for Heritage research. They have extensive database for tracing emigrants. This museum has been honored with "The European museum of the year 2007" and is planning to cooperate with Jewish museum in Berlin offering joint exhibitions and ticket combination cards. Visitors to the Emigration center in Bremerhaven gain and compelling insight into emigrant's lives and their life stories. This is a great resource and highly recommended for Jewish visitors to find out about their family heritage.

    In the area there is town Bremen where is also had Jewish community dated to 19c and counted 1300 Jews. In 1933, Kristallnacht was particularly cruel there, with 5 people killed and Jewish men deported to Sachenhausen concentration camp and synagogue destroyed. A new Bremen Jewish comunity was founded after the war and synagogue was opened in 1961.

    In Celle (pronounced Tselle), a town in in Lower Saxony, the synagogue circa 1740, was damaged in 1938 and reclaimed in 1945 by Hassidic survivors of the nearby concentration camp Bergen-Belsen. It is considered one of the oldest synagogues and has been restored in 1974 and also houses museum.

    In Chemnitz, Jews lived from 1308. There was Grand Romanesque synagogue from 1899. As in other towns, the population 3,500 Jews, suffered at Kristallnacht . Synagogue was burned and Jews either been deported or fled. After the war, only 45 Jewish survivors left. After the war, when West Germany admitted holocaust however, Eastern Germany denied all responsiblity. Chemnitz has been under Soviet rule in Eastern Germany and was renamed as Karl Marx Stadt (not sure why since Karl Marx was born in Trier). In 1999, there were only 17 Jews left. Finally, the city recognized contribution of Jews under mayor Peter Seifert, and made an effort to ask forgiveness, instituted days of Jewish culture and invited Jews from former Soviet Union to come and live there. The invitation to Soviet Jews began as an act of redemption by East Germany's first democratically elected government after the fall of the Wall in 1989 it was incorporated into the reunification agreement between the divided Germanys. Each year since 1991, at least 5,000 Jews and accompanying family members from the former Soviet Union have received visas.
    And for non-Jewish Germans, the renewal of communities can feel like a form of atonement. "It is not the task of the Jewish community to build a synagogue," said a member of a committee supporting the new Chemnitz synagogue. The $4.5 million building is being paid for by the city, the state of Saxony and $250,000 in local contributions. "Germans destroyed the synagogue and Germans should rebuild one. We cannot bring back one life, but we can do this." The synagogue was completed in 2002 and now it is served to new revived Jewish community.
    Every year in March the Days of Jewish Culture come alive with a program that is a highlight in the Chemnitz event calendar which showcases Jewish art, everyday culture and life style.

    Then I've met with representatives of town Erfurt, who told me a story of Old Erfurt synagogue. The original synagogue building dates to 13C but it was destroyed in middle ages in Black Plague massacre and Jews were expelled . The building was served for other purposes therefore centuries later it was not recognized by Nazis as synagogue and it was overlooked and was not destroyed. It was purchased after the war and rebuilt and now serves as a museum of the culture and history of Jewish community. For more information, see

I already wrote articles on Jewish Franconia
So I was happy to brainstorm new ideas with Nuremberg and Furth tourst board representatives. For travelers departing on a cruise from Nuremberg, it will be a good pre-cruise exploration.

And of course there are vibrant Jewish communities in Frankfurt, Munich, Berlin and many other cities. areas. Of course they have issues since the Jews came from former Soviet Union and they are different from German Jews of Pre-WWII . There are still issue in assimilation and culture. I offer no opinion on but here are some links - food for thought.
But I am happy to report that it is a good time for Jewish travelers to go to Germany. There are a lot's of Russian and Israelis going there, so why not us?

Disclaimer: this report presents just an opinion of individuals who's been there.... Tastes Differ...
Copyrights Sophia's Travel, Emco Travel, LLC..

Contact us for more information

Oberstaufen-Baden Baden- Wiesbaden May 2011

May 5, 2011, Oberstaufen

We had breakfast at hotel and checked out. We left for 2 hr ride to Bavaria - small town Oberstaufen. We checked into hotel 5* Algau Sonne. Oberstaufen is located in Bavarian Alps, about 1 hr from Neuschwanstein Castle and 30 mins from Lake Constance. Nice beautiful countryside and fresh Alpine air. No wonder it is a popular location for spas and clinics and many Germans come here for cure.
On arrival, we were met by tourism board officials and went for lunch. We visited a small cheese shop where the owner showed us homemade cheeses and liquors and other delicious items. Lunch was buffet in a small restaurant, the owner was explaining dishes however not all was clear and then turned out it was a pig lard spread! Our vegetarians were not happy. Food was kind of heavy. German breads were delicious.

We walked in the town, it was pretty. We looked at some hotel which is brand new and has converted apartments, they were beautifully designed.

Afterwards we walked to our hotel and had presentation on Schrott cure program. It was developed by a doctor Schrott (you guessed) about 100 years ago who developed naturopathic treatment for different disorders and well-being. There are no natural springs in the area but there is fresh alpine air, so there are conducted combination of diet and exercise under medical supervision. The hotel has a beautiful spa with massages, pool, sauna and steam room. There are many walking trails in the forest and in the city.
However I am not sure how it fit Americans traveling in Europe since the treatment takes 21 day. It alternates dry and liquid diet, heavy on crabs. Most German insurances subsidize such treatments but ours do not. Hotel was in nice environment but did not have facilities of 5* as rated. There were no porters to help with bags. My room had only one twin bed, usually even for single person the beds are at least double size. The bath lacked shampoo and when I asked at front, desk, they gave me body soap bottle. They assured me it is OK to wash hair but I did not try. The restaurant served very nice dinner. So it is while it is advertised as 5* hotel, it is most likely very solid 4*.

In general, the area is very nice to drive around and it is popular year round. There are summer activities like toboggan, swimming pools (indoor/outdoor), golf, hiking, walking in the forest, skiing in the winter.

May 6, 2011, Baden Baden
Next morning, we had breakfast and left Oberstaufen for Baden Baden. It was long drive, 4 hrs. We finally arrived to Baden Baden and were met by representatives of their tourist board.
We checked in into our 5* hotel Dorint Maison Messmer hotel. It is nice historic hotel, next to casino. After checking in, we gathered together with hotel representatives for lunch at their restaurant. The lunch was delicious, however at this point I was already saturated with beef and potatoes :-) .

After lunch we met our guide and went for a walking tour of Baden Baden. This town proved to be delightful. It is located in the hills of Black Forrest, a lot's of greenery, beautiful parks, alleys. Casino was modeled after Versailles Palace, very beautiful. The town looked stylish and elegant, with tourist of all ages - young, older and families were abound - for those who cherish life pleasures and wish to recharge their batteries. We passed through beautiful parks and our guide pointed at museums. Museum Frieder Burda was built by NY architect Richard Meier and it looked fascinating from architectural point of view. We did not have time to visit but it has important masterpieces of Classical Modernism. There is also State Art gallery for modern contemporary art and City museum. Also we saw new museum donated by some private collector of Faberge eggs.

In the picturesque streets of Baden-Baden of the neo-baroque old town, there is world class shopping for those interested in brand names, individual antiques and jewelry.

Germany oldest and according to Marlene Dietrich, "the most beautiful casino in the world" is the perfect place to finish relaxing spa day.
Spas.... This is the town is famous for.. The two thermal baths, the modern Caracalla Spa and the historic Roman-Irish Friedrichbad plus many spa hotels, beckon travelers with various spa treatments.

For more than 350 years, the parks and Garden "Lichtentaller Allee" it was famous landmark of the town. It was beautiful with gardens, flowers, chestnut trees, fountains, together with belle époque monuments was absolutely fascinating. I think it can be compared with Monte Carlo but less pompous, and with Karlovy Vary but more upscale with international clientele.

I wish to come back and spend a week there. I want to go to Concert hall Festpielhaus. Looking at 2011 schedule, they will have performances of famous artists, The Hamburg Ballet, Juan Diego Florez, The Orpheus Chamber of New York and Mariinsky Ballet of St. Petersburg.
In winter there are Christmas markets. It's convenient location makes it easy to get from many European gateways, It is 1.5 train connection by train from Frankfurt. It is very close to French border, you can reach by car just under 1 hour. Small Baden airport has low cost flights from other destinations.

After walk, we went to the spa. We all prebooked treatments in advance, with a choice of Caracalla or Frederichsbad spa and it took about 3 hours. I chose Frederichsbad since it offers traditional Roman-Irish treatment with 17 different steps. It was a bliss. After spa, I returned to hotel for dinner. Dinner was at casino restaurant with view of the garden alleys and it was very relaxing. There was a choice of fish but the waiter could not translate it, turned out it was salmon. Anyway the chicken was good and so was desert. After dinner we walked to the casino where casino director talked to us about it and explained few games. The clientele was well dressed and international and I noticed many Russians. Also many signs in town are in Russian so it is seen to be catering to this new market.

It was long but interesting day. The hotel was very comfortable so I rate it number one - best 5* hotel on this fam trip.

May 7, 2011, Wiesbaden

After breakfast, we left Baden Baden for last leg to Cologne. Half way we stopped at Wiesbaden and were met by Wiesbaden tourist representatives. This was another surprise town.
Our enthusiastic guide tried to show us in one hour the beauty of this town so we can spread the word. And it was not hard for her to succeed. This pleasant city is often called "Nice of the North", gateway to the Reinghau region. The city has a spa reputation due to the hot springs. It has also interesting history. It is dating back to Roman times when it was called Aque Matiacorum. In 19th century, Wiesbaden became a popular gambling center. was impressed by architecture of Wilhelmian era, beautiful parks and gardens. The center of the city and main landmarks are casino, opera theater, town hall and neo-gothic Market church. We did not have time to see but the guide told us there is Baroque Palace on the Rhine and a Russian church.

It has interesting museums - laughter museum, Womens museum, Wiesbaden museum, Natural history and also looks like interesting interactive museum

This will be definetely on my list next time when I will fly to Frankfurt. It takes the same time to get from Frankfurt airport to Wiesbaden as to the Frankfurt center. So if you already been in Frankfurt and want to get away from it's hustle and bustle, it is a perfect place to spend few days.

Interesting fact about casino and relation to famous russian writer Fedor Dostoevsky. We were shown a bust of the writer in the park near casino. The guide told us that indeed, Dostoevsky spent time here and since he was compulsive gambler, he lost a fortune. He asked money from his wife from Russia, she sent some but then stopped. Therefore the writer left owning money to the casino and they tried to collect for some time. Of course when he became famous, they forgave debt :-) .

In 1990 the former Russian president Michail Gorbachev came to Wiesbaden. A Russian journalist who accompanied Gorbachev talked to the Russian painter and sculptor Gabriel Glikam about the relation between Wiesbaden and Dostoevsky. Glikam decided to give the bust of Dostoevsky as a present the Casino Wiesbaden to its 225th anniversary. Since 1996 the bust of Dostoevsky is located in the Kurpark. The writer Dostoevsky described his personal experience in novel "The Gambler", after all, he lost his fortune while staying at a spa in Wiesbaden in 1865.

We visited beautiful casino and walked to the hotel Nassauerhof for inspection and lunch. It is a beautiful luxury hotel in the center. The draw of this hotel is a spa which has a mineral spring on site. It is an elegant classic hotel, member of the Leading Hotels of the World, in perfect location near casino in the center. For it's spa, hotel was awarded the SENSES award as the best city resort in 2011. We visited spa (products by Estee Lauder), with its thermal pool, fitness center and solarium with pool. It had beautiful views of the city and it is only hotel in Wiesbaden with its own thermal pool. Higlhy recommended for a special vacation.

Lunch was delicious. We were reluctant to leave but it was time to go to Cologne for our next 4 days of work, back to the reality. ... Next. Cologne.