Category Archives: Cultural Travel

Traveling with Kids in Cuba – Pure Heaven!

Vagobond exclusive story and photos by Jennifer Merrick

traveling with kids in cubaI knew the moment the customs officer commented on how cute our children were that Cuba would be a kid-friendly destination. I wasn’t mistaken. Almost everywhere we went on our all inclusive holiday to Cuba, my son and daughter were doted on. They were given gifts, sang to, kissed and altogether spoiled.

At first they were a little shy about the unexpected attention but they warmed up quickly. My son, especially, thrived on the attention.

“Do you want to see how much snow we have in Canada?” he would ask and show people a picture of our house with a 6-foot mountain of snow in front of it. After they oooed and aaaahed, he’d then ask,

“Can I take your picture?” And in less than two minutes we had made a new friend.

The Cubans genuine affection and appreciation of children endeared us to the island and ensured that this would be a family holiday we’d cherish for a long time to come.

kids in cubaWe decided on Guardalavaca in the province of Holguin because we wanted a quieter place away from the party crowd in Veradero. It proved to be a good choice with its stunning white beaches, crystal-clear turquoise water and laid-back atmosphere.

A highlight of our trip was a horseback riding excursion in Roca Azul Bio-Park. I was a bit nervous as neither of my children had been on horseback before apart from a pony ride and my previous experience on a horse ended up with me on the ground and a very sore hip for a month. But our guide, Alejandro, quickly put us at ease and proceeded at a slow pace. My daughter proved to be a natural, moving with the horse like she was born on one. Her brother, too, quickly got the hang of it. And I managed to stay on.

With the rhythmic clip-clop of hooves and the sun shining down, my apprehension dissipated and I took in the remarkable scenery surrounding us. Desert and tropics seemed to overlap here with sand and cacti in some places and lush tropical plants and trees in others.
We stopped at a tranquil lake, known for its good fishing. This secluded spot felt a million miles from the resort and we encountered only two other tourists and their guide. Back on the horse, we trotted along until we came to a gate. On the other side was an odd assortment of animals roaming freely – horses, goats, cows, pigs and two zebras.

zebras in Cuba“Where did the zebras come from?” I asked.

“Africa,” our Cuban cowboy replied.

What could I say?

We made our way back and Alejandro worked on turning our kids into cowkids.

“Yip,Yip,Yeeeeeeep!” Cowboys here apparently don’t say ‘hee haw’.

My son repeated the call till he got it to perfection. Then the singing began. Music is everywhere on the island and Cubans often burst into song. The guide sang a melodic Spanish ballad as we rode at a leisurely pace.

Cuban MusicNot to be outdone, our kids then sang their Christmas concert song much to our guide’s delight. The warmth of the sunshine, the music, beautiful views and a real connection made it one of the most memorable moments of the trip.

There were many others and almost every one of them involved an encounter with the people.

When we arrived at Toronto Pearson, my son’s face still had lipstick marks from the kisses the dining room staff had bestowed on him.

“Do you want to see a picture of the horse I rode?” he asked the women behind the counter at the airport.

Getting a blank stare in return, I had to remind him, “Honey, we’re not in Cuba anymore.”

But we’ll be back.

After travelling the world teaching ESL, Jennifer is now ‘settled down’ in Toronto, but continues to indulge her passion for travel as a family travel writer. Her blog www.justkidstravel.com helps kids plan and get excited about their travels.

7 Architectural Wonders of Florence, Italy that are not to be missed

Florentine ArchitectureFlorence. Perhaps no other city in the world evokes as many cultural, artistic, and architectural visions as the capital of Tuscany in Italy.  Home of the Renaissance, this city filled with museums, palaces, and churches holds a huge number of the world’s cultural treasures. Perhaps, the most important of  Florence’s sites are the Baptistery, the Ponte Vecchio, and the Cathedral, but the San Lorenzo library is certainly the finest example of Michelangelo’s architectural gift and should not be missed.

Those who are on last minute holidays or seeking the Italian Renaissance, need only look upon the palaces, buildings and squares of Florence for each of them are masterpieces.  Many of them built by the most admired artists of all time. In Florence, when you want to see the work of Michelangelo or Brunelleschi – there is no need to go indoors to a museum.

1) Piazza della Signoria is an L shaped plaza in the heart of Florence that serves as the historical and cultural center of the city. While unremarkable in terms of design itself, it is the surroundings and the history of this piazza that make it a must visit location.  Surrounding the piazza you will find The Uffizi Gallery, the Palazzao Vecchio, the replica of Michelangelo’s David, statues by Donatello, Cellini and others and as if that isn’t enough, the Piazza marks the place where both  return of the Medici family was and the famous Bonfire of the Vanities took place. The radical priest, Girolamo Savonarola who burned the books and treasures of the Florentine elite was later himself burned in the square – the exact spot is marked.

Florence Architectural Gems2) Palazzo Vecchio which literally means “Old Palace” is still the focus of the piazza. It was built in 1302 asthe seat of Florentine government and is still used for the same purpose. As such, only portions of it are open to the public. This was the original palace of the Medici family. The clasic blocky castle-like architecture is not centered on the tower for a reason, it was actually built around a tower which is far older and served as the substructure of the current tower.  This is a Romanesque building with many Gothic elements.  Inside is a treasure trove of courtyards, salons, and more than a few priceless artistic works.

Bridge of the Arno Florence3)Ponte Vecchio is a wonderful closed spandrel bridge which crosses the Arno at its narrowest point and is believed to have been first built in Roman times but is first mentioned in the year 996. The bridge still has shops along side it and a hidden walkway along the top so that the Medici didn’t have to expose themselves to the public when crossing. It was originally constructed in wood but wasdestroyed by a flood in 1333 and rebuilt of stone in 1345. Culturally interesting is that right on the bridge is the place where the concept of bankruptcy was born. The statue of Cellini in the center is surrounded by a small fence festooned with padlocks. Lovers will lock the padlocks and throw the key in the river to bind them together forever. A sign surrounded by locks forbids the practice. Urban legend says that the tradition was started by a padlock shop owner on one side of the bridge. Smart move.

4) Torre della Pagliazza is also called the Byzantine Tower and the Straw tower. This is regarded as the oldest building in Florence (7th century) though there are several other candidates that might fit that description better, but none of them quite so wonderful as Pagliazza Tower. The tower today has been incorporated into the very nice Hotel Brunellesci but was once accommodation of a different sort – a female prison. This is the origin of the name “Straw tower” – female prisoners were given a bit of straw, a luxury denied to male prisoners.

Florence architectural gems5) The Battistero di San Giovanni (Baptistery of St John) is also said to be the oldest building in Florence though it was built in the 10th century and so is not. Still, it is old and the stories of it being the oldest are based on the fact that it sits atop earlier structures – one even rumoured to have been a Roman temple to Mars. It is particularly famed for its three sets of wondrous bronze doors which have only recently been put back in place after extensive restoration and preservation work was done on them. The three sets were made by Pisano, Ghiberti including the famed East doors called by Michelangelo “The Gates of Paradise”. The Bapistery is built in a Florentine Romanesque style that served as inspiration for the later Renaissance styles to emerge in Florence.

6)The Basilica di Santa Maria del Fiore also simply called the Duomo of Florence was built from 1296 when the first stone was laid.The dome created by Brunelleschi with its exquisite facing of polychrome marble panels and the cathedral itself designed by Arnolfo di Cambio (who also designed Palazzo Vecchio). The dome is the largest brick dome ever constructed (completed in 1496) and the cathedral remains one of the largest in the world. The competition between Ghiberti and Brunelleschi was fierce to see who would get the commission for the dome – when it was awarded to both jointly, Brunelleschi feigned sickness until Ghiberti bowed out thus leaving full credit to Brunelleschi. The drama between the two is the stuff of great film and literature. The dome itself is made of more than 4 million bricks and pre-saged the mathematics that were later used to define it. Brunelleschi’s innovations served as inspiration to a young apprentice who worked on the dome’s lanern – Leonardo Davinci.

Basilica of Florence7) The Basilica of San Lorenzo Library is in the center of Florence’s straw market district and is where most of the Medici family are buried. This building is also claimed to be the oldest in Florence and has a pretty good claim since the church was consecrated in the year 393. The building was designed by Brunelleschi and contains Michelangelo’s Laurentian Library. The entire complex serves as an important bridge between the old architecture (pre-renaissance) and the new architecture which followed it.

Santa Claus – Extraordinary World Traveler Vagabond

Santa Claus – He’s Not Who You Think He Is

origin of Santa ClausEarlier this year, before her 1st birthday, my daughter had the opportunity to visit the real home of Santa Claus. No, we didn’t go to the North Pole. Nor did we go to Lapland.  We didn’t visit with the elves or travel through the snow.

We were in Demre, Turkey. If you don’t believe me, you can read a little about the history of Santa on Wikipedia or you can just read on and trust me with the facts.

If anyone ever tells my daughter that Santa is a made up person, I can show her pictures of us visiting where he really lived. He was a real person. A person named Nicholas.

If you are one of those people who says Santa Claus isn’t real – you’re right because he’s long dead, but he was real. He was a real person, so if you are one of those people who say Santa Clause is a fictional or imaginary character – you are wrong.

Demre Santa ClausSanta Clause was born in the town of Patara , Turkey on the Mediterranean Coast. If you visit today you will find (much to the surprise of many) Santa shops, Christmas shops, and everything Santa you can imagine in this mostly Muslim town. At the time he was born, Turkey wasn’t yet a country and so despite being Anatolian, he was Greek. A Byzantine Christian to be precise. For those who don’t know, Istanbul was the capital of Byzantium and called Constantinople in those days.

His parents left him as a wealthy orphan and he used his inheritance to help the poor who weren’t as fortunate as he.  In particular, he was generous with children and traveled the known world distributing gifts and help to the needy.

Facts about SantaIn 325 A.D. He became the Bishop of Myra (Now Demre, Turkey) and was a part of the Council of Nicea who cobbled together the Holy Bible from a vast assortment of documents. He died December 6, 343 A.D. In fact, in many parts of Europe, December 6 is a day to give gifts and exchange presents.

Six Facts You Didn’t Know About Santa (From Natalie Sayin’s Turkish Travel Blog)

 

So, how did he become Santa Clause?

Here’s a story you won’t see in Christmas cartoons…one of the most famous stories of St. Nick’s generosity was when he gave three orphaned girls dowries so they would be able to marry and wouldn’t have to become prostitutes! It was this gift that some say led to the giving of presents on Christmas today!

Santa Claus is buried hereIn the 10th century – Myra was attacked by Italian sailors who carried away all the relics of St. Nicholas to Bari where they still sit today.  He is the patron saint of archers, sailors, and children to pawnbrokers.

After his death, he was attributed with miracles aplenty. He brought boys murdered by a butcher back to life, he kept a ship from sinking with his prayers, and he levitated one sailor from the water to save his life. Hmmm…I believe he can fly!

Clement C. Moore, an American professor of divinity, was the one who turned Saint Nicholas into Santa with his 1823 poem “A Visit from Saint Nicholas.” The poem provided the inspiration for the first portrait of Santa Claus, drawn by newspaper cartoonist Thomas Nast in 1870.

After he died, he was made a saint and a tomb was built for him in Demre. The Church of St Nicholas was built over that tomb in the 6th Century. It is a ruin now, but still a very beautiful piece of  Anatolian Byzantine architecture. Many of the mosaics and frescoes have survived.  There is a tomb there, but the bones are in Bari.

Baba Noel Santa Claus StatueSt. Nicholas is the paton saint of Russian Orthodoxy, so it’s not surprising that on peak days (around December 6th) you can find up to 60 buses per day of tourists – mostly from Russia. The government of Turkey issued a Santa Claus stamp in 1955 and have heavily promoted ‘Noel Baba’ as a tourist draw. It’s a pretty good one if you ask me.