Friday, April 24, 2015

Travel Tip: European railway stations can be your BFF

Atocha railway station in Madrid, Spain features a botanical garden in the main lobby   (wikipedia)
CHARLOTTE When traveling abroad, many inexperienced travelers have two primary common fears: language barriers and getting lost.  Here’s a tip that may surprise you. In Europe, one place in almost every city where help is available is the train station.

Cafes and shops in Stockholm's railway terminal  (wikipedia)
With Europe’s vast rail network keep in mind that rail terminals can readily alleviate fears and become a major refuge and ally.

A railway station located in an airport is a usual convenience in many European hub cities. Arriving and departing passengers can frequently begin their travels by validating rail passes or purchasing point-to-point tickets without making bus or taxi transfers into the city. It is not only a time saver but an easy way to get your bearings after a long overnight journey.

Electronic departure board at Gare du Nord in Paris  (wikipedia)
In most major and medium-sized cities throughout the continent, train stations are located in the heart of town.  That means visitors are immediately centrally located before attempting to conquer new worlds.  But that’s only the beginning.

Information is always available in English at a railway station. Just look for a sign with a lower case letter “i” or one that says “Tourist Information.”  There you can get city maps, transportation schedules, hotel information (sometimes you can even make reservations), directions, restaurant suggestions or answers to almost any question.
Note that tourist information is not the same as “Rail Information” which is limited to details about rail schedules, prices, track numbers and the like.
Milan's central railway station is a massive structure that was built by Mussolini  (wikipedia)
Railway terminals usually have currency exchange and/or ATMs plus a variety of food services.  Many feature gift shops, newsstands and sundries. Some even have drug stores, pharmacies or fine dining restaurants.

 In fact, Le Train Bleu, in the Gare de Lyon in Paris, has been serving elegant cuisine to travelers and locals alike in Belle Epoque surroundings since 1901.
Le Train Bleu restaurant in Gare de Lyon in Paris hearkens to the Golden Age of travel  (wikipedia)
When French president Emile Loubet inaugurated Le Train Bleu its vast rooms were filled with sculptures and paintings depicting rail travel and events at the turn of the twentieth century, a stunning display of the styles of the era. While Le Train Bleu is certainly an anomaly, even by today’s standards, it represents a superb example of how versatile and practical a European railway station can be. For instance, in many villages throughout Switzerland there are Bahnhof Buffets where the food is so good that locals frequently dine at the train station instead of more traditional restaurants.

Switzerland's Jungfrau is the highest station in Europe  (wikipedia)
For travelers in transit, lockers are available, especially in larger cities.  If you don’t have a lot of luggage, a locker can provide a place to store your bags for several hours or a day so you can easily immerse yourself in sightseeing, shopping or other activities before traveling onward. Some railway stations even have shower facilities.

In many European cities, underground passageways offering safe, efficient transfers between the congested streets above have been cleverly adapted into lively subterranean malls where locals and visitors alike will find a diversity of shopping and dining resources. The Haupbahnhof, the main railway station in Zurich, has such a large entry hall that it is able to accommodate its own Christmas market during the winter holiday season. At other times throughout the year, there are a variety of exhibitions and displays to tantalize visitors in Switzerland’s largest city.
A Eurail Global Pass is great value  (wikipedia)

Obviously not all railway stations provide a complete selection of all services, but the point is that a European train terminal can become a traveler’s best friend. At the very least visitors will find information, food and currency exchange.

Regardless of how you say it, be it bahnhof, gare, or statzione, a railway station always translates to an oasis. Travelers making the transition from the familiarities of home through the learning curves of new environments will quickly discover that railway stations can be an island of consolation in a vast uncharted sea of uncertainty. For novice travelers a train station can become a vital comfort zone just knowing that help is readily available. A railway terminal is a one-stop bonanza where numerous small tasks can be accomplished, ultimately saving time and energy, allowing more opportunities for exploration.
A railway station like the Gare du Nord in Paris has a magic all its own at night  (wikipedia)
Best of all, European rail stations are also the ideal place to catch a train.

Friday, April 17, 2015

Puglia: Italian treasure on the east side of the boot

The unique dry-stone huts known as "trulli" in the village of Alberobello in Puglia  (Wikipedia)
PUGLIA, ITALY Just when you thought you had seen all of Italy, a new destination has arisen on the back end of the boot. She is called Puglia.

Situated upon the extensive eastern spine of Italy, Puglia is a region lovingly embraced by two seas with mile upon mile of pristine coastline nestled along serpentine ribbons of golden sand. Here the only interludes are hidden coves and enchanting outcroppings of rock that enhance the surroundings rather than disrupt them.

Ancient streets of Matera  (Wikipedia)
In purely travel time Puglia is a relative newcomer that is only now undergoing its own “renaissance.” Because of its beaches, Puglia has always been a favorite holiday spot for Italians, but it has only come into its own as an international destination within the last ten years. Nada Vergili, owner of Nada’s Italy and a native of Florence describes Puglia as a “place for people who want to go back to Italy to squeeze out the last ounce of treasure.”

To the east lies the Adriatic. To the west is the Ionian Sea. In between is pure magic.

Nada Vergili in the vineyards of Puglia  (Nada's Italy)
Don’t expect masses of infrastructure. Puglia is not a third world port of call mind you, but it is, in its own way, Italy as it used to be.

The region is famous for its olive oil but even that is a relatively new discovery. In the past, the olive oil was used in lamps as fuel until the citizens realized it was more delicious for cooking than lighting. Today, Puglia is known for its underground olive mills.

One popular site for an excursion is a visit to see the dry-stone huts called trulli in the village of Alberobello. The white houses with conical roofs were built either as temporary shelters and storehouses or as permanent homes for the small groups of agricultural workers living in Alberobello. The community thrived in the latter part of the 19th century because of its wine growing industry.
The dazzling "white city" of Ostuni where ancient archways open to awe-inspiring courtyards and narrow streets  (Wikipedia)
The “white city” of Ostuni is one of Vergili’s favorites with its dazzling whitewashed Mediterranean-style houses. “It is a succession of delicate arches, quaint courtyards and noble palaces,” says Vergili with a sigh, “an uneven series of layers and levels filled with staircases, alleyways, narrow streets and arches.”

Cathedral Square in Lecce  (Wikipedia)
Among the newest developments in tourism is something called “albergo diffuse” which is rapidly becoming a popular concept in Puglia. As the Italian words suggest, the “albergo diffuse” offer rooms that are spread throughout a village rather than in a single building. Thus they are “diffused” with perhaps one, two or three rooms in one part of town and other similar combinations in another. The idea allows travelers more opportunities to immerse themselves into the culture.

One of the favorite attractions in the region is technically not in Puglia but close enough for a visit. Matera is one of the oldest human settlements in the world dating back to the Paleolithic Period some 12,000 years ago.
With its ancient troglodyte caves, Matera is a favorite spot to visit near Puglia  (Wikipedia)
Many parts of Matera had no running water until the 1950s. That is no longer the case today, and the troglodyte cave dwellings where people made their homes within the porous rock that provided natural protection from the elements never cease to fascinate visitors.

The harbor in Bari has become a popular port for cruise ships (Wikipedia)
With its abundance of Baroque architectural monuments, the community of Lecce has been nicknamed the “Florence of the South.” In many ways the city feels more Greek than Italian because the original settlers are said to have been from Crete. Not far away, in a small group of villages known as the Grecia Salentina, Greek is still a predominant language.

Seafood is a specialty in Puglia as are the traditional meatballs with tomato sauce and the famous mozzarella known as “burrata” which Nada describes as “decadent.”

Bari, the capital of the region, is situated on the Adriatic Sea and is the second most important economic center in Southern Italy after Naples. As Puglia grows in popularity, Bari is quickly becoming known to travelers because it is now a favorite port city for cruise ships sailing between Venice and the Greek Islands.
Lecce's Cathedral Square is especially dramatic when it is lit up at night  (Wikipedia)
As Nada Vergili sees it, “Puglia is probably not a trip for first, or even second-timers to Italy. There is just too much to see in the rest of the country. But for people seeking something new and different to satisfy their Italian appetite, Puglia is the perfect spot. Puglia is for explorers.”

Vergili couldn’t be more accurate. After all, everyone who has ever been there, always gets a “boot” out of Italy.

Friday, April 10, 2015

Hans Mateboer: Holland America Cruise Line’s “captain for all seasons”

Captain Hans Mateboer of Holland America Cruise Lines is an author of children's book among many other interests  (wikipedia)
CHARLOTTE, NC  What do someone who creates greeting cards, writes children’s books and captains a 65,000 ton cruise ship have in common? If you are HansMateboer, then they are all the same person.

Born in the Netherlands, Captain Hans Mateboer now calls Charlotte, NC his home approximately six months out of the year when he is not at sea. But don’t let his six-month-on, six-months-off schedule fool you, Captain Hans is a man for all seasons; a modern day “Renaissance man.”

Captain Hans "home away from home" the 65,000 ton Holland America Rotterdam  (wikipedia)
Mateboer began his career on cargo ships before becoming captain of the Rotterdam on Holland America Line. In between he worked as a safety/navigation officer and a staff captain and was also a primary consultants during the development of the Disney Cruise Line.

Hans worked for Disney for six years, two of which took place before the line even had a ship. During that time he was responsible for assisting with the set-up and design of the line.
Mateboer aboard the Rotterdam  (

Since his days with Disney, Mateboer has returned to Holland America where his schedule has him on duty approximately for three months and then off duty for three months. During his “off” months however, he is also required to take refresher courses to keep abreast of innovations in the cruise industry and honing his skills aboard ship.

While most people think of cruising as glamorous, Captain Hans says the day-to-day operation of a ship is more like running a diverse business. He is on the bridge for every arrival and departure as well as during special events and emergencies, but otherwise his primary tasks are keeping his crew happy and doing public relations with passengers.

He is also the “designated doctor” while aboard ship because the medical staff works under the captain’s supervision. As an aside, an independent survey recently rated Holland America’s medical services the best of any cruise line.

So how exactly did writing and greeting cards come into Mateboer’s life?

As with any sea captain, Mateboer is a citizen of the world, which means he has been just about everywhere during his travels. Consequently, chit-chat and shop talk do not interest Hans as much as satisfying his natural curiosity.

“I like to talk to interesting people,” says Hans who humbly does not regard himself in that same category. “I have talked with the owner of an airline and a Nobel Prize winner, and I am always thinking of things to do.”

It was during one of those periods of contemplation that Mateboer decided to try his hand at writing children’s books. Not only did he succeed, he has sold more than 85,000 copies of his work.

Mateboer's first book  (wikipedia)
The first book, The Captain’s Log, which is geared to older children who are beginning to read with more detail, describes many of Mateboer’s own experiences at sea while providing information about life aboard a cruise ship. The soft cover book was published in 2004.

Peter the Cruise Ship, published in 2007, was the first of a series of books designed with younger children in mind, much in the genre of Thomas the Train. Later Captain Hans added Peter the Cruise Ship and the Pirates and To Alaska (Peter the Cruise Ship). Each hardcover edition is a slick high-quality publication filled with colorful, cheerful illustrations.

Mateboer’s books are available on board the Rotterdam, of course, where the captain will gladly autograph his work or they can be ordered online through Amazon or Barnes & Noble.
Peter the Cruise Ship was the first of a series of colorfully illustrated books by Capt. Hans  (wikipedia)
Though writing has always been a part of Mateboer’s life, he also decided to immerse himself in another project by creating a line of “sea themed” greeting cards. For the moment, there are two series of three cards each which can be found on his website.

One series features maps of the Virgin Islands, the Fiji Islands and the Greek Islands, all destinations on Holland America itineraries. The second group contains three watercolor renditions of life aboard a cruise ship.

As with most Europeans, especially the Dutch, Mateboer is fluent in three languages; Dutch, English and German. Says the captain, “I can also ‘get by’ in French, Italian, Spanish and Danish.” Say no more.

Coastline of Sicily, Captain Hans favorite ports are the eastern Mediterranean  (Taylor)  
As for the cruises themselves, longer cruises generally have older clientele due to less time restrictions and more disposable income.

Hans personally prefers the Eastern Mediterranean because ports are smaller and easier to negotiate with his massive ship.

As if his other interests were not enough, Captain Hans also has four high-end log homes available for rent in West Virginia in Pipestem State Park. Here you can enjoy a variety of activities including hiking, archery and theater among others.
Black Bear Cabin at Pipestem  (

The captain’s philosophy has always been “At the end of the life I want to look back and say I did different things.”

That goes without saying. To meet the captain in person, you need only to sail aboard the Rotterdam when Hans is on duty. Captain Mateboer is truly one captain who never fails to “write” his ship.

Friday, April 3, 2015

The Way of the Cross: Jerusalem at Easter

The entrance to the Garden Tomb in Jerusalem  (Taylor)

JERUSALEM -- Jerusalem is a city where three great religions converge.  It has witnessed more than its share of conflict and, if history is any indicator, it will continue to do so. It is a place where the layers of time continue to add to its mystery, perhaps forever creating more questions than answers
Ancient step on the Via Dolorosa  (Taylor)
For travelers to the Holy Land, these constantly changing layers of history make Jerusalem a challenging destination to absorb.  A good example occurs at Via Dolorosa, Latin for the “Way of Grief” or the “Way of Suffering,” which is the path Jesus took while carrying the cross to his crucifixion.  Today, a labyrinth of narrow passageways between a myriad of shops and stalls lines the route from the Lion’s Gate to the Church of the Holy Sepulcher.

Each year thousands of pilgrims walk the route, a distance of just under a half a mile, as the where fourteen stations mark the way, representing important events that occurred during Christ’s excruciating ordeal. 
Station Number Three on Via Dolorosa  (Taylor)

Over centuries, the route of the Via Dolorosa has changed many times, making it virtually impossible to do the walk as Jesus did it.  In Christ’s day, the path was relatively straight from beginning to end. 

The historic stations do provide specific locations to aid travelers in comprehending the dramatic events of the day.  Among the most popular are stations one, two, three, four, seven and nine. 

Numbers one and two are said to mark Jesus’ encounters with Pontius Pilate.  Stations three, seven and nine signify locations where Christ is said to have fallen during his trek. but there is no evidence that Christ literally dropped to the ground in the true sense of falling down.
Station Two on Via Dolorosa said to be where Christ encountered Pilate the second time  (Taylor)
The fourth station claims to be the site where Jesus encountered his mother though there is no mention of any such meeting in the New Testament.

One of Jesus’ favorite places was a mountain ridge just beyond the walls of the Old City called the Mount of Olives.  It was so named because of the olive groves that once covered its slopes. On Palm Sunday, Jesus traveled across and down the mount riding a donkey to enter Jerusalem.
The Dome of the Rock inside the walls of Jerusalem as seen from the Mount of Olives  (Taylor)
The golden light that pervades the city, especially in early morning or late afternoon, is awe inspiring.  From the crest of the mount, the Old City exudes an aura that feels much as it was two millennia ago.

Lion's Gate where Christ entered Jerusalem  (Taylor)
Also visible from the Mount of Olives is Lion’s Gate which is situated just a short distance away.  The gate marks the entrance Christ used for the last walk from prison to his crucifixion. Today, the walls of the Old City still surround the dusky desert hues of a place that altered the course of history for all mankind.

The Garden of Gethsemane is not large, but here the olive trees with their ancient, gnarly appearance, create a sensation that they could have actually been there during those historic events. It was at there that Judas betrayed Christ, arriving with soldiers, high priests and Pharisees to arrest him.
Garden of Gethsemane where Jesus was arrested  (Taylor)

One of the most intriguing sites in Jerusalem is called the Garden Tomb. The traditional location of Christ’s crucifixion, burial and resurrection is situated at the Church of the Holy Sepulcher, but during the 19th century some doubts were raised about its authenticity.

Many believe the site was a garden and sepulcher belonging to Joseph of Arimathea.

While on sabbatical in 1893, General Charles Gordon, an important member of British society, became curious about the name of a rock cliff in the garden known as “Skull Hill.”
Skull Hill, Jerusalem:  Golgotha in Aramaic means "the place of the skull"  (Taylor)
Whether a person calls the crucifixion site Golgotha (Aramaic) or Calvary (Latin), both terms mean “the place of the skull” when translated and the appropriately named cliff resembles a skull when viewed from several angles.

Slim evidence yes, but Garden Tomb officials make no claims that their site is the indisputable place where Jesus was interred. What they will state however, is there are several features about the area that coincide with biblical accounts of the crucifixion. 
The Garden Tomb in 1906  (Wikipedia)

The Bible says Golgotha was located outside the city walls of Jerusalem along a busy thoroughfare near a gate of the city at a place of execution with a garden nearby, and the site was shaped like a skull.

The tomb itself was located in a garden belonging to a rich man; Joseph of Arimathea was wealthy. It was hewn out of rock, entered through a low doorway with a burial chamber located to the right of the entrance and sealed by a rolling stone.

All of these elements are found at the Garden Tomb.

In the “Gospel According to John” in the King James Version of the Bible, John specifically states that Jesus’ tomb was located in a garden.

The Garden Tomb which some believe is the actual site of the resurrection  (Taylor)
Many authorities have opposing views about the authenticity of the Garden Tomb as the true site of the crucifixion and resurrection. Despite those beliefs, the Garden Tomb has become a popular pilgrimage site, especially for Protestants. For travelers, regardless of whether the Garden Tomb or the Church of the Holy Sepulcher is the actual spot where Jesus died and was resurrected is a matter of personal conviction.

But as one Catholic priest put it, “If the Garden Tomb is not the right place, then it should be.”
Crowded, narrow merchant streets of the Via Dolorosa as they appear today in Jerusalem  (Taylor)
Walking in places so familiar to people of faith from around the globe is spiritually powerful, and Jerusalem is a place where visitors relive events that changed the world more than two thousand years ago.