Thursday, August 28, 2014

Out on a Limb in Lebanon

This is one that I would never have pictured myself writing about, but here it goes.  Lebanon is dead center of the volatile western area of the Middle East.  It sits between Turkey, Syria, Israel, the West Bank, and Jordan.  It's a rough neighborhood.  It's been the center of it's own civil wars, terrorist attacks, radical situations, international incidents, and one really well known mass kidnapping.  It's not on the current list of top ten most desirable locations to take a vacation.  But, you wouldn't believe the wealth of historical sites that the world is missing out on because they don't want trouble while they're on vacation.  I've decided to share some of those today.  Let's remember that Anthony Bourdain won an Emmy for "No Reservations" for his episode where they got stuck in Beirut because of an incident.  It did happen, but I don't remember him saying that he regretted the trip.  It's all part of what makes the place so interesting.  It might just be worth it to say that you went to this amazing place and saw amazing things.  Oh yeah, and most likely, nothing will happen.

Beirut is by and large the only well known place in Lebanon.  It's a sprawling metropolis, home to over 2 million people.  It's modern, it's old, it serves several religions, it has amazing architecture, it has great shopping, clubs, restaurants, and hotels.  Unlike some other countries in the region, you can drink alcohol here.  There are also notable populations of people practicing religions other than Islam.  Most Lebanese people are very forward thinking and educated.  This is not your ordinary Middle Eastern Country like you hear about on the news.  The people in Lebanon are friendly and outgoing.  They like tourism, as it is a significant part of their income.  That sounds a little weird for a country that's at the epicenter of so many crossroads of the unstable world.  So, with all the stuff to do in Beirut, why would I mention Lebanon as a whole?

It's the history that's the adventure here.  There are many historic ruins sites in Lebanon.  Not only have they survived the recent bombings and civil unrest, but they have survived thousands of years and are still around to be looked at.  From the Phoenicians to Alexander the Great to the Romans, these cities have seen a lot of action and history.  There are three that are particularly of note.  Byblos is one of the oldest continually inhabited cities in the world.  It dates back to as long ago as 8,000 BC.  That's old.  It sits right on the coast and is still in use as a city.  The ruins are a massive collection that are open for viewing.  It is a UNESCO World Heritage Site.  These ruins have been being excavated and studied since the 1920's and a wealth of information about the time periods and the peoples have been found.  There are many things to see there from the Byblos Castle, to medieval walls.  There is the Great Temple, Baalat Temple and the Temple of the Obelisks.  It's an amazing place to visit, and since the city is still in use, you can stay, eat and play as well.


Tyre, or Sour as the Romans called it is another ancient city.  It's modern parts make up the country's fourth largest city, at around 175,000 people, even though that's only a guess.  It lies south of Beirut along the coast, and is one of the biggest port cities.  It's industrious but more cultured and reserved than Beirut.  The main population in this city is Shia, but there are other groups in the city.  Tyre was part of recent wars, and the working city has suffered some damage.  The ruins, however, may last forever.  Tyre was also a Phoenician city, and was ruled by the Romans.  It's most notable piece of architecture is the world famous Hippodrome where public events were carried out.  It is a day trip from Beirut and has amazing sea views as well as miles of ruins from Romans and beyond to see.

City number three is the one that fascinates me the most.  Baalbek is currently home to just over 100,000 people and has all the modern amenities you need.  It's a lovely place to visit.  Unlike the other two cities that I mentioned, this one sits on the Eastern side of the country in a desert region.  Baalbek is home to some of the best preserved ruins from Roman times including the Jupiter Temple, one of the largest remaining Roman temples in the world.  Once believed that this city was first settled by Romans as part of the spice trade with the east, it has recently been discovered that there may be a connection to the Phoenicians.  Baalbek is still being excavated and researched and is one of the largest areas of ruins in Lebanon and one of the more interesting.  It's well worth the day trip from Beirut, and an amazing site to see.

You never know what you'll find until you go out there and look.  Lebanon is a scary place if you've ever watched the news.  If you're like me, and have friends who grew up there and go to visit their families every year, you may have had the chance to hear a more realistic view of that amazing country.  They aren't all radical Islamists.  They aren't all packing guns and hand grenades.  They don't wear Kevlar vests around the countryside or the city.  They are perfectly wonderful folks with a beautiful country that everyone should see.  Take the chance, take a trip to see the amazing history of Lebanon.

Sunday, August 24, 2014

More of My New York...Love That City!

So, we're still discussing New York City.  There's a reason for that.  I've been to a lot of large cities around the world, and I must say that there's something addictive about New York.  The more you go, the more you know.  The more you know, the more you go.  It's a really cool addiction though, and I highly recommend it.  So, on with my tips.  I have some really good ones.  One of the last times I went into the city, I stayed over.  This is something that I had never done before, but I would definitely do again.

What's the secret?  There's this hotel in the financial district called Club Quarters.  I've never found anyplace like this.  We had a small suite for a great price and the view was really good.  You are surrounded by skyscrapers, but there's a great plaza across the street with some cool sculpture work that makes a pretty good view.  It's really reasonably priced and the amenities are fabulous.  They even hold your luggage before and after you check in and out so that you can run around the city some more without toting it all around.  This place changed my view of staying over in New York.  The financial district is mostly on the red line subway, but take a 2 or 3, not a 1.

So, what about the financial district?  Let's take a look at this one.  I hadn't before.  During the week, this place is full of people, because of the stock exchange.  They are everywhere, and the one time I was down there during the week, I felt like I was suffocating in an ant hill it was so overrun with people.  Not so on the weekends however.  It is true that the stock exchange is closed on the weekends, but Federal Hall is open and you can see where George Washington was sworn in.  The original Tiffany's is there with all it's amazing jewelry and glass work.  There is a police museum and a museum of finance that are open.  There's a lot of stuff to see and do.  The neighborhood itself is interesting.

My favorite spot in the financial district is Trinity Church.  That's right, that church in National Treasure.  This ancient church is one of the most beautiful buildings in all of New York.  It's stained glass windows, carved doors, vaulted ceilings, and marble carvings are really something to see.  There are several people there who can tell you all about the history of the building and why the tree roots are outside.  It' one of the oldest buildings in the city, and one of the best places to just stumble upon.

Just down the street from all of that is the waterfront.  Manhattan has put a lot of time into the waterfront.  The greenway that they have made goes everywhere and is over 30 miles long.  I have my favorite spots which are from the financial district to the Brooklyn Bridge and the South Street Seaport and the area from Ground Zero over to Battery Park.  They provide some great views and activities.  On the west side by Battery Park, the views of the sunsets are magnificent, and the food is also good.  You can take blue and green subways down there, but the best ones are the C and the 5.  This area is a great place to rent a bike and take a ride.  Citibike is a relatively new option in New York, but for $9.95 a day it's a bargain.  You can pick up a bike pretty much anywhere and return it anywhere with just a credit card.  But to ride along the waterfront, it's priceless.

The sunsets are worth it.  Promise.

Now, neighborhoods.  You must visit Chinatown, Little Italy, and Chelsea.  It's that simple.  Chinatown has all the shopping you'll ever want.  If you need a purse, watch, Iphone case, or sunglasses this is your spot.  It's cheap, you get to haggle and the stuff is nice.  You can also get all the crazy Chinese souvenirs you want if you want.  Take the yellow line, probably a Q to Lafayette Street for optimum entry to the neighborhood.  I recommend that you eat here, but not on Canal Street.  Lots of tourists don't leave that street, leaving the restaurants crowded and loud.  Take a look down those side streets and try out some of the little places.  The low prices and great food will both surprise and delight you.  Before you leave Chinatown, check out Columbus Park.  It's just south of all the hustle and bustle.  Here you will see musicians, dancing, tai chi, and mahjong.  The locals have really kept their traditions alive, and most tourists don't go to the park.  You'll find yourself in a world of real culture, with a lot of nice people who want to show you how they do things.  It's an experience that I can't recommend enough.

While in Chinatown you have to visit Little Italy.  It's right there.  Little Italy is another great place to eat and shop.  If you like to cook, they have some of the best kitchen gadget shops in all the city.  They also have Christmas all year round, and all the gelato you can eat.  In the summer, go on a Saturday night and eat outside in the street.  They block off Mulberry Street and all the restaurants spill out into it, with street performers to serenade you.  It's a special evening.

Not far north of One WTC is Chelsea.  Here is the home of another one of my favorite parks.  The High Line.  This place was made from an old elevated train.  It runs from the Meat Packing District through most of Chelsea.  It has it's own unique views and the wonderful Chelsea Market.  You can see things on this park that you just can't see anywhere else.  They even have a set of bleachers so that you can have a unique view of the city.  It's a great place to unwind and enjoy a beautiful day.  Here you will want to take the L line which runs across Manhattan, so it's unusual.  You can catch it best from Union Square.

Now, you're probably wondering if I do any shopping in the city.  Not much to be honest, but there is one neighborhood that I like to shop in.  Union Square and NYU has some great shopping.  They also have a great Citibike hub.  Take the green line, any number to this area.  This is home to two great stores.  One is Forbidden Planet.  That's for all you sci fi geeks.  I love this place.  You only get started with the life size Terminator in the window.  They have all the Star Wars, Star Trek and Doctor Who stuff that you could ever want plus so much more.  Next to that one is The Strand.  This is the greatest bookstore I've ever been to.  They have everything and a lot of it is used and cheap.  Period.  You can't beat that.  You can try.  So, it's true.  I don't hit the expensive stores like Bloomingdales and Saks.  They just aren't for me.  I like the stores that real people shop in.  I don't like to spend too much time in Central Park, especially in the summertime.  It's crowded, people are cranky, and it smells.  I like all the kitchy little parks around the city.  I like to go where the people go.  I like to see what the city is really like.

I hope you've enjoyed my little stories of the city.  I will always take time to add more.  I love New York, and I say that everyone should visit there.  Just in case you don't live as close as I do and you have to take a train or fly in, just remember that you can always take the metro.  You can catch it just of the Sky Train at JFK and you can catch it in both Penn Station and Grand Central.  It's really the best way to get around.  There are many wonderful things to see in the city, so don't limit yourself to the things that you see in travel guides and on TV.  See the real city and you'll love it even more.

Saturday, August 16, 2014

Here are Some Tips for New York City part 1

I've been living on the East Coast for a long time now, and I can say with great conviction that if you go to New York City and only see the things that you hear about on TV, you've really missed a great city.  I know that it's customary to go to Times Square and the Empire State Building.  I know that everyone feels obligated to go to the Statue of Liberty and Central Park.  I realize all of this.  You could spend a week seeing Broadway Plays and touring 30 Rock.  It's easy to do.  It's a wonderful way to spend some time.  But, if you want to see New York, you should get out there and mingle.  See what the locals see.  They like to go out and do things to.  You should learn from them.  I do.

It's summer, and I've made a point to talk about beaches, so let's start with Coney Island.  It's old, it's famous, it's a landmark, and it's one of the places that I highly recommend you go when in New York.  Coney Island is found at the end of the yellow and orange subway lines in the very south end of Brooklyn.  Always take the subway.  There are maps of the subway for sale in places like Grand Central Station on the lower level at Hudson News for $5.00 if you need a hand with directions.  Coney Island has been through a lot of changes in recent  years.  They were hit by a superstorm and had a turnover of landlords on the premises.  What has come out of all the havoc, amazingly is a new and improved Coney Island.  You still have Nathan's and the Wonder Wheel, the Cyclone and the Circus Sideshow, but you also have a whole lot of new rides and attractions.  There's no end to the fun, the food and the view.

If you spend time on this beach, you will see a lot of things.  You will see people from all over the world.  You will see some great kites, great sights, and a lot of ships passing by.  New York is one of the busiest ports in the world, and it all passes right by the beach at Coney Island.  While you're pondering whether or not you should take a ride on the world famous Cyclone Roller Coaster, take some time to visit the New York Aquarium, which sits right at the end of the main boardwalk.  There are lots of things to do at Coney Island, although, if you wanted to shoot the clown, you missed it.  I was a bit disappointed, because that was the craziest carnival game I ever heard of, but it is gone.  If Coney Island isn't quite enough beach for you, hop back on that train for a few stops and stop and Brighton Beach.  This one, known as Little Russia or Little Odessa for many years is quite a beauty too.  In addition to the beach here, the whole area is signed in Cyrillic and most of the folks are from Russia.  Here you have Russian gifts, Russian Food and the National Night Club.  If you like drag queens, stick around for the show.

Now, once you've been to the beach, head on back toward Manhattan.  But, stop in DUMBO along the way.  This is only a blue line trip away on the subway.  Check your map. Home of one of the best parks in all of New York, DUMBO or Down Under the Manhattan Bridge Organization, is a little community that sits right under the Manhattan and Brooklyn Bridges.  This place is a great place to stop for a snack or meal and take in some art galleries.  They also have a great park that runs underneath the Brooklyn Bridge and has some views like none you've ever seen.  The views of the Manhattan skyline are breathtaking and the views of the bridges are amazing.  They have an antique carousel in the park too that's a can't miss.  But that's not even the main attraction here.  My favorite activity in the city is to walk from Brooklyn to Manhattan on the Brooklyn Bridge.  You just can't get a better view of New York.  It's an amazing walk, and I recommend it almost more than anything else in the city.

So, you've landed back in Manhattan via the Brooklyn Bridge. After you visit the South Street Seaport--you can't miss it right underneath the bridge--and seen some interesting shops and street performers, hop on the green line subway, head all the way to 59th street and walk a couple of blocks east.  This is where you catch the tram to Roosevelt Island.  Roosevelt Island used to be primarily a mental institution.  The Octagon is the notable remnant of that period.  Now, it's a whole city, full of luxury condos.  When you land on the tram which follows the Queensboro Bridge and has amazing views, you'll see a visitor center.  Anything you need or want to know about the island, you can learn there.  On Roosevelt Island there's a red bus.  This is how you get around.  It's free, no matter what you've read.  I like to go to the parks and the center of town.

There's a lighthouse in the park at the north end of the island.  It's great.  You can see all kinds of things from there.  But, there are walkways all around the island and you get the most amazing views of the city from all over.  It's a great relaxing way to spend some time.  If you get hungry, stop at Gristedes Cafe at the supermarket and have a relaxing sidewalk lunch.  If you own a camera, you need to visit this place.

So, Coney Island, Roosevelt Island.  Any questions?  I'll spend a little more time on telling you my great tips for New York, but these are a few.  I'll be back on this topic in a few days.

Thursday, August 7, 2014

Sometimes We Need to Learn Something While We Travel

It's sobering how many people have lost touch with what my generation has always called the great generation.  I spend so much time listening to everyone talk politics and who's a bad leader/who's a good leader.  I see a generation that worries more about germs than germ warfare.  They worry more about their smart phones than they do about liberty or food.  I see a generation that doesn't have a personal connection with the great generation and I find that a real shame.

When I was young and my grandparents were still around, they used to tell me all the tales of what my grandfather did during the war.  They talked about WWII almost fondly and that struck me as strange.  Being born during the days of Vietnam, I had learned that war was bad.  That politicians were crooked and that we should all be at peace and never raise arms against one another.  I've spent my adulthood watching terrorism confuse whatever issue was left in the world of warfare.  We've lost our way in some ways.  We worry about things that don't really matter.  We forget that our ancestors were fighting for their right to live.

We watch James Bond dealing with Blofeld and other characters that want to rule the world and we see entertainment.  The people who had their landscape permanently altered by the bombs of countries run by tyrants who wanted to take over the world for real might have a different perspective.  Their tyrants were real.  Their battles were a matter of life and death.  They saw the world differently than we did.  I think that sometimes we should all take a little time off and see what our forefathers saw.

So, the area is northern France and Belgium.  This is a land rich with museums, monuments, tunnels, and cemeteries that will teach you an awful lot about World War I.  It was called the Great War.  The War to End All Wars.  Unfortunately it was only the first.  The war raged from 1914 to 1918 and millions died.  That sounds staggering since today if a thousand soldiers die, it's a tragedy.  Millions.  Staggering.


Flanders Fields, Essex Farm, now a memorial cemetery to fallen soldiers of WWI.  It's just outside of Ypres, one of the most devastated areas in all of Europe during the war.  Little known fact here:  In Flanders Fields, a poem by John McCrae, was a very well known piece following the war.  It was so poignant that it is the source of those poppies that you get when you donate to the veteran's on Memorial Day.  That poem is the reason that poppies are the symbol for veterans.  Didn't know that did you?

Verdun, France is a lovely place; full of culture and beauty.  During WWI it was the site of the bloodiest battle of the whole war.  Most of the area was blown to bits.  They have a huge cemetery there as well.  Interestingly enough Douamont Ossuary isn't far from there.  The Ossuary holds over 100,000 bones from soldiers that they couldn't separate to identify the individuals.  There are German soldier's bones as well as allied soldier's bones all together.  It was the best that they could do after the damage had been done.


They put them all together in one building so that the families could visit, even if they didn't know who was who.

The landscapes were shattered by trenches and by bombs.  The troops lived in tunnels in order to survive.  We hear these tales all the time about the people in Vietnam, but you never hear the stories of the French having to do the same exact thing in WWI.  In Vauquois, both sides tunneled under a ridge that they were fighting over.  The battle to some extent took place inside the ridge.

The Sacred Way was a road that the troops fought over for months.  The battle of Verdun lasted 300 days.  The fact that anyone survived the war is amazing.  The United States didn't even get into it until the last minute.  In Fromelles, the Australians lost a record number of soldiers.  There's a lot to learn.


I normally talk about light and fun things, but I think that deep down inside there's a historian in a lot of us.  As I grew older, I began to wonder what it was like for my grandparents.  I started to get more interested in history.  In Europe, you will find that history is everywhere.  They have monuments and museums, battlefield tours and cemeteries everywhere.  There's a reason for that.  They once had to fight for their right to live.  We all know about the Holocaust, and it was an amazingly horrible event, but the Jewish folks weren't alone in those days.  Entire countries were fighting for their right to survive.  They were desperate times.  They will be remembered forever.  But, we should take the time to learn about it.

I've spent a lot of time recently listening to people talk about what they're entitled to.  Our ancestors had to fight for it.  They didn't get anything because they were entitled to it.  There were real demons who were trying to take over the world and ruin cultures.  There were real Dr. Evil's out there and someone had to stop them.  Thousands of people lost their lives--thousands and thousands so that we could sit around and complain about what we're entitled to.  So the next time you go to a museum and run across a volunteer that can tell you first hand what it's like to fight oppression, maybe you should open you mind, take the time and listen.

We are at the 100th anniversary of WWI.  Northern France and Belgium were ground zero in that one.  Take the time to visit these amazing places from Cambrai to Fromelles to Vauquois to Verdun to Ypres and pay your respects to those who died so that we could remain free.

I will leave you with a little something lite.  Every summer they have a festival outside Cambrai where they fly vintage airplanes.  It's called La Ferte Alais, and even the Red Baron himself shows up to fly for the spectators.  It's a lot of fun, and you may even get to go for a ride.  Take a tour or go on your own.  This area is rich with history and culture, with a constant reminder that they would all speak German if it weren't for the bravery of the people who fought WWI.