Thursday, April 30, 2009

Trip Planning: Selecting a Tour

Flight prices are down. Hotel prices are down. Tour prices are down. If you have the money and the wanderlust, now is the time to travel. I've always enjoyed the challenge of planning our vacation myself, stumbling through websites in languages I can only partially understand and scouring the internet for ideas. Although I love Europe, this time we wanted to go somewhere different. Do something different. This year we decided to try our first organized tour. But to where? And how to choose a tour company?

A tour company's website can make a good first impression...or a very bad one. Flashing ads for singles, wording in lime green, and no customer feedback posts or recommendations can be a sign of an amateur company, or someone wanting to take me for a ride. I figured the best way was through a recommendation. Trip Advisor and Lonely Planet have impressive forums with recommendations that set my head spinning. Then I remembered reading an article in a British newspaper by Bettany Hughes, so I went to the site to check it out.

Cox & Kings is a well-established company that's been around for longer than the USA has been in existence. Multiple writers recommend their tours all over the British papers, and since I have ties to England through my husband, I searched through their tours until I stumbled upon a great deal to Egypt. For 1025 pounds, I could stay in a 5-star hotel, take a luxury river cruise, have most of my meals and attractions covered and have a flight from London to Cairo. Sold.

Egypt is one of those countries that bedazzles me. The moment I think of it, visions of golden-hued pyramids, scuttling scarabs, mummies, camels and Cleopatra swim through my head. I feel the sun beating down upon my scalp, and animal headed gods and goddesses beckon me, their eyes hooded with magic.

So the husband and I have booked the tour and we leave in a few weeks. But just because we've booked a tour, does not mean my work is over. There are things I feel must be addressed for any trip in order to be a responsible traveler. This time, my checklist includes:

1) Buy 90 proof sunblock and a floppy hat
2) Learn basic Egyptian Arabic
3) Learn the customs, and pack accordingly
4) Buy a journal so I won't forget anything
5) Copy my travel documents and leave a set at home in case of emergencies
6) Order Egyptian pounds

Just under three weeks to go until "Wonders of Egypt" commences. You can check out our upcoming tour here:

Cox & Kings Website:

Tuesday, April 28, 2009

Tuscany's Fosdinovo Castle

Ah, Tuscany. Land of rolling hills, crisp red wine, shimmering olive trees and hearty bean soup. It's the home of the Italian renaissance and the perfect vacation spot for culinary and art history buffs alike. Yet the best way to experience Tuscany is to rent a car and get yourself lost. And that's exactly what I did in November, driving with my husband and parents through the valley of one hundred castles, just northeast of Viareggio. After a tight turn between buildings and a hair-raising drive up a mountain, Fosdinovo was in sight, as was it's beautiful castle, full of myth, mystery, and murder.

Two particular legends take center stage here. One, a classic Romeo and Juliet, but with a twist. The girl, part of the Malpensa family, fell in love with a boy from another family. When the father ordered the two not to see each other, they did what any young couple did, ignore him. They were both beaten when caught, but nothing could stop love. Except for what happened the next time - the father holed the daughter up alive behind a wall, with a dog for loyalty, and a wild boar. The skeleton of the girl and animals has recently been found, so the legend came to life. The other involves a countess whose various lovers mysteriously disappeared after she convinced them to stand over a trapdoor where they fell to their doom. The bed is said to moan at night.

If you have an opportunity to visit this charming town, make sure to stop by I Cherubini, the only bar open when we visited, since most of the residents fled to the lowlands for warmth, but the food is excellent, the service is with a smile, and there is a view of the Mediterranean not to be missed, complete with the smell of recently harvested olive oil and stomped grapes - a must for Tuscany.

Friday, April 24, 2009

The Silver Wolf by Alice Borchardt

Sadly, Alice Borchardt, the sister of Anne Rice, passed away in 2007. I just finished her first book, The Silver Wolf. Most books on the market currently place werewolves in today's society, or a world much like this one with a few concessions in order to support a supernatural populace. Borchardt, however, takes us back to the Dark Ages of Rome, where poor men spend their time wallowing in brothels, and rich men spend their time reclining on chaises while gorging themselves on stuffed game birds. Poor Regeane, young, single, and with a terrible secret to hide is at her uncle's mercy, chained every night in order to keep her wolf from escaping and terrorizing the countryside. As the distant relative of Charlemagne, Regeane is worth her weight in gold, and her uncle's intent is to marry her off and exploit the wealth. But Regeane is only determined to learn how to be a wolf and a woman both, in a land where the accusation of witchcraft means certain death and torture. She has no reason to trust men, and spends her freetime plotting the death of her soon-to-be husband, who she has never met.

Borchardt spares nothing in letting you feel the dirt underneath Regeane's fingernails, letting you smell the urine and stale liquor on her cousin. Ripe with sensual and scentual images, the reader is thrust back into this time where nothing is fair, and everyone can be your enemy. Yet, Regeane finds friendship among the danger - her closest friend ends up being one of the most fascinating characters - Rome's most esteemed courtsean, the beguiling Lucilla.

Does Regeane find happiness? Is she able to sate the wolf, and yet live as a noblewoman? If you have a love of werewolves, but are looking for something different than urban fantasy, let Borchardt take you back into the days of Rome where you will run along with Regeane under the full moon and feel the thrill of freedom. And if you enjoy this one, there are two more to come.

Tuesday, April 21, 2009

Lake Geneva's Little Mermaid

The story of The Little Mermaid offers a mirror into human psychology, especially our pride - after all, why would a mermaid be happy living as a fish when she could walk among humankind? In all of the stories, from Hans Christian Anderson's original tale to Disney's happy-ending version, the little mermaid has friends who consistently appeal to her to enjoy what she has - to stop, and smell the coral, so to speak, and not set her sights on the unobtainable. The original is the quintessential Christian parable - the mermaid covets her neighbor's possessions - two feet, and in the end, it is her undoing. She epitomizes envy and greed. Disney's tale, of course, spins that true love can conquer all, and in the true spirit of Disney, seems to say "if you wish it, it will come true". Disney's little mermaid gains her true love and happiness at the end.

Surrounded by the Alps, the skyrocketing Jet D'eau (the tallest gush of water in the world), and residences that have boasted US presidents, French royalty, and famous writers, Lake Geneva offers a quiet splendor to admire a gem of a statue, hidden away in the corner of the lake.
This mermaid more of a siren, beckoning the boats closer, to capsize them upon her rock; to be caught in her beauty, instead of witnessing the beauty around her. She unabashedly looks over her shoulder, fascinated by humankind, and yet frozen in time, and unable to join them. Just don't fall for her song or you will join her forever on the bottom of Lake Geneva.

Tuesday, April 14, 2009

Reading Abbey, England

Just a short train-hop from London lies Reading, the capital of Berkshire County. At first glance, this city seems to embrace the new and modern, sporting a new mall called The Oracle, trendy eating establishments and a pedestrian mall that sports all of the British favorites: Boots, WH Smith, and Marks and Spencer. However, tucked away in the middle of the city and nestled against the River Thames are the ruins of Reading Abbey.

Reading Abbey lies within Forbury Gardens where flowers bloom in every nook and shiny edged flint rock speckles the grounds. Fountains stand or gurgle impressively depending on
the season, and the large abbey looms over it all, standing proud against the onslaught of time and weather. Henry VIII did his damage here - most of the Abbey has been cannibalized for use elsewhere. At the time of dissolutionment, Henry VIII had the abbot (Hugh Cook Faringdon) hanged, drawn and quartered.

Built in 1121 by Henry I (who is buried on the grounds), Reading Abbey was a major pilgrimage site for medieval
England. Said to have contained over 230 relics, including the hand of St. James (a hand was discovered here in demolition work and now rests in Marlow), the Abbey had many royal patrons including Constance of York, Empress Matilda and William of Poitiers.

Portions of the Abbey still lie underground Reading Gaol, forever doomed to non-excavation. Oscar Wilde spent a few years in this jail while writing De Profundis before being hauled
off to France to spend the rest of his days. Other modern

If you find yourself in Reading, perhaps for the 2012 Olympics where they will host the rowing competition, make sure to visit this sad and charming reminder of English history.

Find out about Reading:
Wikipedia Article:
Friends of Reading Abbey:
Royal Berkshire History:

Thursday, April 9, 2009

White Witch, Black Curse by Kim Harrison

Rachel, Ivy and Jenks are back in the latest installment of The Hollows, a land where a genetic mutation in a tomato has brought witches, vampires and pixies to the front of human existance. Forced to live peaceably mortals and inderlanders (the term for non-mortals) have their own sets of rules and investigative bureaus. They also have Runners, the affectionate term for those who haul in the bad guys, of which our heroes are a part. Living in a church with a gargoyle for a watchdog, the setting is eerie and yet fits well with the characters. There is a sense of humor in Rachel preparing spells in an old church kitchen while pixie children flit around sprinkling their dust everywhere.

Once again Harrison does a masterful job of putting you inside Rachel's head. For a young woman, she has a lot to deal with: her aura is becoming progressively covered with demon smut, her memory of her boyfriend's death seems forever locked behind a pixie spell, and her femme fatale vampire roommate consistently fights the urge to bite her, and to take her as a lover.

This particular installment adds to her erratic and crazy lifestyle: first there is date night every Saturday with Al the demon, not to mention psychoanalysis from a fellow witch, and a ghost haunting the church. Insert one banshee and a banshee child, and sparing any spoilers, you can guess what will happen. Will Rachel's splat gun be enough to bring in the villains this time, or will her energy be drained from her forever?

Perhaps not as much happens in forwarding Rachel and Ivy's relationship, which seems forever stuck in an uneasy love for each other, but this book is another fantastically rowdy romp through The Hollows and a must for any reader in love with the paranormal urban fantasy.

Harrison's website is a treat as well. Loaded with information from the previous books, music that fits the characters, an impressive forum and many freebies, it's definitely worth some web time.

Kim Harrison's Website

Monday, April 6, 2009

The Price of Continuing Education

Last Tuesday I was fortunate (and close) enough to attend a lecture on the Philhellenic movement by the esteemed Dr. Fani-Maria Tsigakou, curator of Paintings, Prints, and Drawings at the Benaki Museum in Athens. Brought in by the University of Michigan Classics Department to discuss the movement, Dr. Tsigakou has spent over thirty years in the field and is an author of three books dealing with Philhellenic activity. As I sat in the audience, surrounded by scholars and students, I noticed that there was a sad lack of the general public. With the economy in the slumps, there are a lot of people out there who want to continue their education but are forced to abstain due to their dwindling bank account or unwillingness to seek another student loan. What many people do not know, is that lectures such as this are free and open to the public, and offer a great opportunity to further your education without having to go far from home. In fact, depending on your interests, there are many opportunities for continued adult education that will not break your wallet.

For Academics
Chances are that you live by a university or local college, and chances are that you are interested in one or more subjects taught at the esteemed place of learning. If so, head over to the university website and over to the department's webpage. Most departments have a calendar of events which list when they have visiting scholars or symposiums. Most of these are free and open to the public, and most of them have a small reception afterward. What could be better than learning something new, meeting other scholars in a field you're interested in, and having some fresh fruit and cheese.

For Nature Lovers
Nature Centers and Bird Sanctuaries are excellent opportunities to learn about the flora and fauna outside your back door. For the small price of admission, these centers are designed to foster a love of wildlife and outdoors. Classes and talks can range from astronomy to herpetology, from raptors to local medicinal plants. These are great opportunities to take alone, and great for a family. Best of all, these classes will help you fit in as we move towards a more sustainable Earth.

For Fun
Many cities offer continuing adult education through their school systems. These classes can include language instruction, mosaics, painting, belly dancing, and bookshelf making. As they are taught by members of the community, they are typically low cost and for those time-conscious, last only a few weeks. They may not be as comprehensive as a class you would take at the university, but they offer a beginning for those interested in something new, and a brush-up for those who wish to start again.

For Basic Job Skills
A great opportunity to learn the basic skills needed to survive in today's economy and job market is at your local library. Libraries make it their pride to help educate the community in basic skills that are needed in today's economy. This can include resume development, finance 101, memoir writing and searching the web. Typically these are listed on your library's website and require pre-registration but have little to no fee. While perusing the calendar of events, you may even wander across a fiction or poetry reading which is a chance to meet one of the local authors, relax and socialize.

I'd love to see some comments on your community's continuing education and tips to help everyone out in today's economy.