Taking to the seas, skies and roadways once again: Be smart, and enjoy the trip!

More people today travel to more places more often than ever before in history. At least they did, before the world came grinding to a halt due to the COVID pandemic. When restrictions are lifted once again for worldwide leisure travel, the experience will undoubtedly be changed.

What will it look like? As yet, we’re all a bit uncertain. What is certain, however, is that Americans and other nationalities will continue to travel, very probably in record numbers.

It’s not just the numbers, but also the percentages of people traveling that has skyrocketed in recent years. More than 28.5 million people took to the seas in 2018, according to Cruise Lines International Association, the world’s largest cruise industry trade association, and 2019 was expected to reach or exceed 30 million, once all numbers were tallied. Cruises regularly discharged passengers into crowded ports around the globe for visits that spanned only a few hours.

According to figures from the U.S. Travel Association, “U.S. residents logged 1.8 billion person‐trips* by air for leisure purposes in 2018,” and a record number of Americans, more than 93 million, traveled outside the country that year, according to data supplied by the U.S. Commerce Department’s National Travel and Tourism Office. A fair portion of those flights brought travelers to foreign ports so that they could board cruise ships.

*A person-trip is defined as one person on a trip away from home overnight in paid accommodations or on a day or overnight trip to places 50 miles or more [one-way] away from home.

All Those Ships

The cruise industry had become a major economic factor for many nations, impacting an astonishingly broad spectrum of goods, services and specialties. It is one of the largest worldwide employers, and the shutdown has affected broad segments of the worldwide economy.

The statistics are sobering:

It is estimated that 8.75 million passengers missed their cruises as of October 31, 2020. Between mid-March and the end of September last year, approximately 334,000 cruise-related jobs were lost. In the United States alone, the lost revenue was estimated to reach about $26 billion by the end of October 2020. And those figures don’t begin to count what has happened since.

There’s no doubt that it was “big business,” but there is even less doubt that the number of travelers will continue to increase, according to cruise industry spokespeople. Despite the worrisome statistics, bookings for future travel are up for the coming year, and for succeeding years, pointing to significant future demand. Travel is not expected to return to the “old normal” soon, perhaps not ever. But those who miss traveling and are eager to set off once again, for the most part, will embrace airline and cruise travel no matter what new restrictions may be are imposed.

About 7,000 cruise passengers were quarantined aboard their ships, in Japan, other Asian ports and various other parts of the world, including some ports in the United States in the early days of the pandemic. and other places in Asia. However, bookings for future cruised were not canceled in large numbers until the cruise industry ban on travel became a reality across the globe. Today, based on reports from all cruise lines, bookings are up for 2021, 2022 and already for 2023, even though only a handful of ships have actually begun to carry passengers.

“Stay Nimble!”

The prevailing attitude of passengers booked on a Transpacific sailing scheduled to depart Yokohama, Japan May 10 was “wait and see,” until the final moment. The cruise, of course, was canceled, but a high percentage of those passengers affected by the cancellation immediately transferred their deposits to another sailing on a future date. Refunds and incentives for future bookings were attractive, and most cruisers seem willing to wait it out.

My husband and I are among those who have had multiple cancellations. We are eager to see the return of cruise ship travel. As others in the same boat, we had little idea that the ban would persist for an entire year. We certainly did not foresee longer than a year!

Now we are encouraged not only by recent rulings that will allow ships to travel from U.S. ports to Alaska for a part of the summer, bypassing British Columbia. We are even more encouraged by the news that other U.S. ports will be embarking passengers this summer for short itineraries to Bermuda, the Bahamas, Mexico and the Caribbean.

We currently have deposits on three cruises — one this fall, one for January 2022, and another for June 2022. This is new territory for us to navigate: We seldom plan that far ahead. Typically we are much more spontaneous in our bookings. But by booking early, we have taken advantage of lower prices and additional perks. We still have dreams to hold on to. We have practiced living with hope for far too long.

Fears and Facts

Major concerns still exist. Will the logistics of future travel become more difficult? Will insurance continue to cover financial loss due to a world health scare. Will the spread of Coronavirus finally be contained. Will we be able to travel without masks, but with proof of vaccination? We realize that these concerns may seem frivolous in the face of illness and death, financial woes and the other pain associated with a worldwide pandemic, political unrest and continuing uncertainty about the future.

But for many of us, the ability to meet new people, enjoy new experiences, and explore new ideas through travel is nearly as vital as breathing, eating and sleeping. So, the questions remain.

If you love traveling, are you currently making plans for the future? Where — and how — will you be traveling? When will you deem it safe to leave home, to fly to a destination half a world away, to be on a ship at sea with thousands of other people and no immediate access to comprehensive medical care. Is taking a road trip across the United States now a viable alternative to other forms of travel?

These are important questions that each person and every family must answer from an individual perspective. There are no right answers. What are your thoughts? I would love to hear from you.

Until we can all meet up in some foreign port and share stories around a friendly table, just stay curious and be safe. Be ready to pack up and go when it becomes possible!

Thinking about what lies ahead

Over the past several months — months when I felt increasingly trapped at home due to a virus over which humans seem to have no control — I searched for some sort of meaning to it all. I certainly found it hard to write about travel and good times; I seriously considered renaming my blog.

Good Places in Long Ago Times came to mind, or Distant Memories of the Faraway.

Now that there are some hopeful signs that the world will once again open up, albeit not as quickly or totally as I would wish, I am consumed by thoughts of what the future will hold. Will we, months from now, still be hunkered down, focused on the perils that may await us if we travel too far and too fast, both figuratively and literally?

Have we learned anything over the past 13 months? And just what are the lessons that we could or should learn from this modern-day plague?

I, for one, have learned that being with others is always better than being apart. A year of separation from loved ones has not made us better. If anything, this year has induced in many of us a kind of stupor, a sense of helplessness and hopelessness. Some of those I know truly believe that we will be wearing masks in public for the rest of our days.

Can you imagine not ever again seeing a smile on the face of a stranger?

Others are still filled with fear for themselves, but mostly for loved ones and coworkers — and, yes, fear for the teachers, the caregivers, the first responders. It is a paralyzing thought that keeps them homebound and alone. That is far from the “good life” that I choose to embrace. There is much sadness around us these days.

Bitterness, anger, rebellion, distrust and angst — these are the symptoms of perilous times. There are medical authorities and social scientists who firmly believe that the collateral damage of this pandemic will constitute a growing future crisis of far-reaching proportions.

It was with all that in mind that my husband and I planned an early April visit to see relatives in Maine. I might add that we booked the trip only because we, and those we planned to visit, had been totally vaccinated, and because we had an airline credit that would cover our flight costs. But it had been far too long since we had seen and laughed with our cousins, who are very good friends as well as relatives.

We were all ready for a brief reunion. It has been a difficult year for all of us in individual ways, and we needed some respite in the form of togetherness. The four of us were together nearly two years ago for a glorious two weeks touring Portugal and the Azores, and we were eager to repeat that experience on home turf.

Masked travelers were no surprise; crowded airports were.

Flying out of Little Rock National at 7 a.m. was easy. There were few flights scheduled, fewer passengers waiting. The plane was small — 2×2 seating and half empty. But changing planes in Charlotte proved to be a totally different experience. Normally a large and busy airport, it was especially chaotic this time. We attributed the crowds to Spring Break and Easter travelers, but still we were surprised that although officials are still warning against unnecessary travel, so many would choose to fly.

The flight was filled — shoulder to shoulder, middle seats as well. We were greeted with a hand sanitizer packet, offered by a blue-gloved hand, not by smiles and words of welcome. There was to be no beverage service and no snacks. Along with seat belt and emergency oxygen instructions, we were admonished to keep our masks on for the entire duration of the flight. We settled in with our books for the next two and a half hours, noticing that even the in-flight magazine bore a “sanitized” label.

There were no huge crowds in Portland, Maine, our destination; just a steady stream of masked travelers. The mood was quiet, almost somber. Visitors to Maine from beyond the neighboring New England states who are not fully vaccinated still must provide proof of a negative test or undergo a voluntary 10-day quarantine. And masks are required still in all public places.

In our newly-adopted home state of Arkansas, the mask mandate and social distancing were relaxed by the governor effective March 30. However, many local businesses still required masks when we departed. We returned to a different world. Although we still carry our face masks with us, many of the signs have been removed from public places. I attended a meeting this past week that did not require them, and I was able to sit next to friends without three feet of space between chairs.

Coming home to relaxed rules is refreshing

Last night my husband and I joined a friend for dinner at a casual pizza place near our home. All the signs have been removed, and only one or two patrons entered with masks. Even most of the servers were unmasked and smiling. I asked about that, wondering if the younger, unvaccinated employees were nervous about increased exposure.

The answer: “No, not really. But would you like me to put on my mask?” So, the thought is still with us — with us all — that we have not yet returned to normal. More importantly, perhaps, none of us quite knows what normal means anymore. And we still receive somewhat conflicting advice from our leaders. We can’t help but wonder if we are moving too fast, or in the wrong direction as we hear more news reports about growing numbers of infections in other states.

For now at least, each one of us must set personal boundaries. I’m not sure what they will be for me, going forward. What I do know is that seeing the smiles on the faces of friends and family is important. And I look forward to the time when it will no longer be a question of wearing a mask or seeing a smile.

I still hope that the time will come sooner rather than later. I can now believe that the day is approaching when I can book a trip without also having an option if it is canceled. I look forward to making future memories in those faraway places, and to sampling, once again, all the good food that is waiting to be enjoyed.

No, I have decided not to rename the blog, but rather to continue to search out new experiences in interesting destinations.

In a year’s time . . .

Note: One year ago today, the World Health Organization upgraded the status of a spreading virus, dubbed COVID-19, to a global pandemic. That announcement changed our lives forever. Today, as I write this, approximately 118 million cases have been confirmed around the world, and 2.62 million individuals have died. The United States leads the world, unfortunately, in total deaths, almost 530,000 to date, but not in “deaths per million” of population. Yet, however, it is measured, this pandemic has been deadly. The good news, if there is any, is that nearly 70,000 million people worldwide are deemed to be fully recovered, and that a handful of vaccines are currently being administered around the globe. They seem to be effective in preventing serious illness and death. That fact alone is reason for hope. The number of new cases, hospitalizations and deaths continues to decline, at least in the United States. The hope, as expressed today by leading medical authorities, is that perhaps by fall citizens of this country might expect a return to some sort of normalcy.

For me, that means a return to travel.

Just a little over one year has passed since I was first affected by COVID-19. The pandemic was not yet big news, but we were notified in February 2020 that a cruise we had booked for May of 2020from Tokyo to Vancouver, British Columbia, would be cancelled due to “an abundance of caution” surrounding the growing number of infections, on cruise ships as well as on land. All of us who lived through this past year know how the cancellations, shutdowns and stay-at-home orders progressed.

We had returned to the U.S. on Thanksgiving Day 2019, following a trip to the Mediterranean, and we had taken a short voyage to Mexico in January to celebrate an anniversary. Life looked good at the time, with many more trips already taking shape in our minds. We were confident that modern medicine and early warnings would be effective against the spread of a new virus, and that we would soon be traveling again.

How mistaken we were.

Little did we realize at the time what the coming months had in store. When our planned North Pacific crossing was canceled, we immediately began looking for other itineraries. We boldly booked several. Over the years, we have had to postpone other trips due to illness and we have cancelled others because of a simple change of plans. We have occasionally missed a flight; we have adjusted travel plans to adapt to changing conditions and reworked schedules based on circumstances beyond our control.

Our previous trips have been memorable. And we have the memories of those journeys. But this year, to date, we have had 11 planned cruises canceled by various cruise lines, the most recent just last week. As have others, we have accrued a handful of future cruise credits, rebooked some itineraries for the following year, and opted to have other deposits returned in cash. As have others, we had flights canceled as well, and we still have a handful of travel vouchers for future use. We are beginning to plan how we will use them.

In conversations with representatives of three separate cruise companies this week, we have been given little hope of being at sea again this summer. We remain hopeful about the fall, but we are not yet confident. We have to believe that our plans for 2022 will, indeed, materialize. Down deep, though, we hold on to the thought that, with the vaccine now available, we just might be able to walk up the gangplank of a ship for a quick getaway before year’s end. Maybe sooner? Some cruise lines still have May 31 marked as the date their schedule will resume. In the meantime, we have begun to plan some road trips within reasonable driving distance of our home.

And, because of the vaccine, we felt quite confident booking a flight to visit family in Maine at the end of the month. An island somewhere in the world continues to beckon us for a fall visit.

We look forward to the time when we all can venture out without fear to see family and meet friends, to enjoy restaurant meals and to take advantage of the cultural and educational opportunities all around us. There are many places we have not seen, and others we are eager to see again, many within a few hours of our home.

The truth is that staying at home has been hard, and not every journey has to be a long one. Road trips have their own distinct appeal. We’re looking forward to exploring more of Arkansas, our new home state.

But, when the infection rates come down, and a high percentage of the world’s population is vaccinated, watch out! We continue to hope that day comes soon, and you can bet we’re making plans right now to travel to those exotic destinations that have been waiting for us.

Are you?

Pizza — the ultimate comfort food?

My January/February issue of Food Network magazine arrived recently. Looking at the cover, I had to smile. Prominently displayed in mouthwatering color is a pizza with what appears to be some distinctly non-traditional toppings. I was eager to sit down with this new issue and explore ideas presented by some of my favorite television chefs.

And as I did just that on a chilly day when it was prudent to stay indoors, I was reminded of the pizzas I have ordered and consumed in faraway places . . . Here are some of my favorites from the previous few years of sampling good food in unique places! Pizza does indeed seem to have universal appeal!

Pizza, whether shared with friends, prepared at home, or ordered by the slice as a quick snack, always seems appropriate. The fact that it’s so versatile — and so varied — is a large part of its appeal. No matter how you enjoy your pizza, at home or abroad, with a soda, a glass of wine or a beer, chances are good that others will share your opinion and be willing to join you for a slice of goodness.

Because it’s still impossible to take to the skies, the seas or the highways across the globe, the next best thing — for me and for many others this year — has been to spend time in the kitchen, savoring new taste treats inspired by our globetrotting of the past. That has taken me, at least, on some unexpected journeys — recalling previous trips and wonderful food experiences — as well as into past times when life was at least as difficult as it is today and good food was hard to come by. I have become captivated by some of the dog-eared recipes in my grandmother’s recipe box.

More about those in coming days — It has been an insightful few weeks, and I’m eager to share some thoughts.

I realize how lucky I am to be alive today, in these times, as hard as it has been to be at home and not on the road during this pandemic. There’s a reason I chose to write about good food and far away places. Cooking and travel are both art forms in their individual ways. Each brings joy.

One of the travel realities that continues to surprise me is that it’s possible to find pizza on a menu almost anywhere on the globe. The “pandemic hours” that I spent organizing photos and notes of my travels have confirmed that good pizza is not confined by geography or defined by a particular culture, that the love of pizza transcends borders, and that it can be both a satisfying “street food” consumed on the run and a full meal elegantly presented. Or anything in between! Also, almost anything can become a pizza topping! From the delightfully simple basil and mozzarella-topped classic in a tiny Neapolitan trattoria to an oversize and overloaded game day pizza delivered direct to my doorstep, pizza is a beloved tradition, and a treat that only seems to gain favor with each passing year.

One shouldn’t miss the classic Pizza Margherita when visiting Naples! But there are many other pizza choices in other places. On our European trip in late 2019, we enjoyed pizza several times in distinctive locations, from a seaside restaurant with a stunning view of the Adriatic to a cozy small-town town eatery tucked into a centuries-old building in Pula, Croatia. Pizza is a staple at airports across the globe, and during this summer’s pandemic shutdown, a required motel stay in Texas brought us “no contact” pizza delivery from a local take-out-only chain pizza parlor. It was our only option, and we were happy to have it!

I also found among my photos a shot of the familiar Domino’s sign in Barcelona, with a crowd of people awaiting their own orders, testimony to pizza’s universality!

Dessert pizzas have also become popular, and they are definitely worth a try. In addition, I have discovered how much fun it can be to make pizza at home; not only is it a great way to introduce kitchen skills to younger children, but there is nothing quite like the sense of accomplishment that comes from creating a hot and satisfying meal out of leftovers and “refrigerator finds!”

No matter how you slice it, it’s entirely possible to enjoy pizza wherever you may roam. By the way, the magazine photo that attracted my attention was of a non-traditional Brussels Sprouts Pizza Carbonara by Chef Ina Garten. Instead of red sauce, it features a white Bechamel sauce, ricotta cheese, Italian pancetta and thinly-sliced Brussels sprouts. Here’s the recipe. It’s one I’m going to have to try.

A relapse of restlessness . . .

Mornings are chilly. Daylight comes later and is as apt to be dull and gray as bright and sunny. Dark descends early, and the glow of a fire in the hearth is welcome. But today marks the winter solstice, and the earth will once again slowly begin to reawaken after its winter rest. So, too, will our spirits. 

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This has been a long nine months — leaving a wealth of sadness, anger, distrust and uncertainty in the wake. I know I am not alone with the feeling that it just needs to be over so that we can all get on with living our lives the way we wish to live them. And, because the nightly newscasts now intersperse continuing Coronavirus reports and charges of election irregularities with the news of vaccine approvals and deliveries, we have  cause for hope. The vaccines may be the best holiday gift we could imagine.

For me, my future will once again hopefully include travel, dining out in the company of others when the mood strikes and gathering with groups of friends to share good times. I hope we will soon be able to greet family and friends with hugs rather than fist or elbow bumps, and put away the masks that hide our smiles.

I cannot wait. I am making plans. However, I am well aware that the return to a sense of normalcy will not be abrupt. I just hope that the path to that return can be relatively smooth.

Perhaps, sooner rather than later, the threat of COVID-19 will become just another memory, and we can all succumb to Spring Fever instead. During these dark and lonely months, we have tried to cope in ways that made sense to each of us individually. Perhaps now we can join together to pave the way back to a lifestyle that is punctuated with laughter and hope rather than fear.

Life is always uncertain, and if that is the great lesson of COVID-19, let’s all take heart that good times lie ahead. I anticipate than 2021 will be a good year, even though I recognize that there are continuing challenges to meet.

In my heart — and in my world — the time to plan new excursions is past due. My travel partner and I want to escape to an island for a bit of sea and sun; we want to be able to freely explore our new home state, savor the fun of out-of-the-way destinations, and discover unique “back alley” eateries. I am compiling a list!

I have satisfied my wanderlust somewhat these past few months by reviewing and editing the past several years of travel photographs, reliving memories and cataloging ideas for posts still to be written. It has only served, though, to increase my appetite for the next journey and for new destinations.

It helps that cruise companies and travel planners view spring as the season to offer reduced deposits, bargain fares, new itineraries and great incentives. They’re all very tempting, but the reality is that travel plans are still tenuous, and the disappointment of more cancelled cruises would be almost too much to bear.

So, even as I ramp up the planning for trips that lie ahead, I remain sensible enough to know that for the next several weeks, perhaps months, my travel is apt to remain virtual. I will, however, post weekly photos and share some stories of past travels just for the fun of it. 

The good food? Well, that can be found almost anywhere, and staying at home has proved to be a way rediscover the goodness and the joy of home cooking. I recently found some old family recipes, saved from the hard times of long ago. So there will be stories of them as well. And some of them may surprise you.

When the world settles down a bit, I have compiled a variety of travel tips for anyone who is ready to pack bags and head off to new experiences. I hope you’ll join me!

The art of sipping port

The mention of Port Wine has always, for me, prompted a vision of wood-paneled rooms filled with leather settees and impeccably-groomed men holding a glass in one hand and a cigar in the other. It’s a movie-set vision, I know.

Port still seems a bit mysterious. Like sherry, it has never really been a mainstream experience for most Americans. I was aware that port was produced in Portugal, while sherry is associated with Spain, but I knew little else. So, when my traveling companions and I had the opportunity to take part in a port tasting on a rainy day, we seized it. We were in Cascais, a delightful seaside city not far from Lisbon.

Port is produced only in a specific region in the country, and its designation is strictly regulated. Bottled in several varieties, there are expensive aged ports and sought-after vintages, but surprisingly smooth, rich and reasonably-priced options are also available. Stringent standards govern a port’s bottling and labeling. But all true port wine comes from the Douro Valley of northern Portugal. It bears what is termed a “controlled” appellation. Although other regions produce liqueurs and similar fortified wines, true port is distinctive and distinctively satisfying.

My brief experience in the tasting room certainly does not bestow expert status, but I feel confident that I would not embarrass myself by ordering an after-dinner port in a restaurant. For me, that’s a triumph. I also know now why so many people enjoy sipping port. I have a favorite, but the four different varieties we sampled were all pleasant. To my surprise, I learned that there is white port; and that it is, indeed, very good.

The cool, drizzly day presented us an opportunity to cozy up in a wine bar in the all-but-deserted marina area of Cascais. The proprietor beckoned us in, offering temporary shelter from approaching dark clouds. Within minutes, places were set, bottles arranged, and the learning commenced.

The tasting became a highlight of our two-week driving trip through Portugal. When we returned home, one of our first purchases was a bottle of Tawny Port. We savored it, both for its taste and for the memories it evoked.

A European trip the previous year filled in some gaps in my knowledge about sherry during a tasting and cooking class in the Spanish city of Jerez. I remember that experience fondly as well. Today, bottles of the two unique fortified wines share space in my home’s cocktail bar, offered as complements to good food and good times shared regularly with friends.

One of the best reasons for traveling, of course, has always been to experience new things. The tastes of new and previously unfamiliar food and drink rank every bit as high on my list as visual adventures. Even though, today, there is a temporary hold on my travel plans, the enjoyment lingers, the memories are sweet and fresh, and sharing past experiences keeps every recollection alive.

Oysters . . . and other Adriatic adventures

I had never developed an appreciation for raw oysters; nor for oyster stew or oyster stuffing at Thanksgiving, for that matter.

I have been known to order Oysters Rockefeller because that seems a “classy” choice at an upscale restaurant, on the same culinary level as escargot or whole artichokes. I love showy foods, and I admit that I enjoy demonstrating that I know how to deal with such dishes. I have, on occasion, skewered a salty, smoked oyster for a cracker.

But as for raw oysters. No, thank you. I do not love oysters.

My husband, on the other hand, enjoys oysters any way they’re served, but preferably right in the shell, cold, salty and fresh from the sea.

It was a preference he worked hard to cultivate, ordering oysters on the half shell several times in his early 20s. He initially discovered that the slippery oysters didn’t slide so easily down his throat, no matter how much he tried to disguise them with cocktail sauce and and Tabasco. Those first few times, he admits, were less than pleasant experiences.

But he persevered. At a tiny cafe in Brittany, with a view of the oyster fields just out the window, he ordered an oyster. One fresh-from-the-Atlantic oyster. The lone half shell on ice, accompanied by lemon and course sea salt, was brought to the table with a flourish by an ever-so-proper French waiter. It prompted curious smiles from those seated at nearby tables.

The waiter stood by expectantly, awaiting a reaction.

I was there, cheering him on.

Other diners also waited, and nodded approval as he downed that first cool slippery oyster. It was a personal triumph. And it started a trend. He has since ordered oysters in Maine, in numerous Gulf Coast eateries, and in fine restaurants in cities across the globe. He does, you see, love oysters.

After many years, we returned to that same restaurant in Cancale, France. It had changed a bit over the years, but the oyster fields are still the same, and this time my husband ordered a half dozen and enjoyed every one. In fact, he considered ordering another half dozen.

Today, he rarely passes on the opportunity to order oysters on the half shell when we’re near an ocean that allows them to be delivered fresh and cold from their habitat. He still asks for extra horseradish and hot sauce.

I resisted for the longest time, until we visited the Adriatic three years ago. Sitting on the open deck of a vessel anchored only feet from the oyster beds, I was prepared to enjoy the local fare along with the white wine promised as part of a half-day excursion from Dubrovnik, Croatia.

I had planned to say no to the oysters. But I was curiously enthralled as I watched the servers expertly open the shells and plate up the briny treats. Before I took much time to think about it, I was repeating “I can do this” to myself. I accepted my plate with a bit of trepidation, but I knew my mate would help me out if I couldn’t finish my share.

I sprinkled the smallest oyster with lemon juice, added just a drop of Tabasco, and closed my eyes. My first sensation was memorable. I sensed the cold, and tasted the sea. Then I swallowed. It was a whole new reality.

I actually liked the sensation. I was pleasantly surprised by the silky texture, the intense fresh flavor, and the saltiness. I felt close to the sea and its bounty in profound ways.

It was a lesson. It was delicious. It was unforgettable. Not only was it an eye-opening confirmation of the bounties of the sea, but it was the beginning of a love affair with Croatia. The time we spent there was all too short. Last November we returned to see more of the country.

I did not sample any more oysters, but I did partake, willingly, of other Croatian treats! The food is special, as are the people. To say we loved our two short visits to Croatia is an understatement. I still have no great love for oysters, but Croatia captured our hearts. This Thanksgiving I cannot help but think again of those trips.

I am thankful that we took those trips when we did. When the world is once again healed, we will return. I look forward to it.

And I am sure there will be more stories to tell.

Revisiting Rouen

Last May I wrote about a 2018 visit to this city in Normandy against the backdrop of the 75th anniversary of the D-Day landing. We were still in the early days of the pandemic. Two months ago, the world marked the 75th anniversary of the end of World War II. Today we are engaged in another battle against a formidable virus. On November 11, we honored those who serve or have served in our military. Today, we still await a definitive answer to the question of who will be our next president. Through all of this, I cannot help but remember my visit to Rouen. It serves as a reminder that generations of our forebears survived wars, devastating plagues and years of civil unrest. They endured. And so will we. Rouen adds new perspective to contemporary history. Perhaps we should learn from it.

The heart of a great city

William, Duke of Normandy, became King of England in 1066 following his victory at the Battle of Hastings, and the course of history was forever altered for two nations, if not for the entire world. Known today as William the Conqueror, his coronation was held at Westminster Abbey on Christmas Day, but soon after his investiture, he returned to the capital of Normandy.

Considered a military genius, he was a descendant of the Viking Rollo, was uneducated, lacked culture, and spoke little English. He returned to England to quell periodic uprisings, but he spent most of his reign on the continent. He died near Rouen at the age of 60, in 1087, and is buried near the coast, at Caen, France, in the The Abbey of Saint-Étienne which was founded in 1063.

Another Duke of Normandy, who also held the titles of Duke of Aquitaine and Gascony, and Count of Anjou, was born in England, the fifth son of King Henry II and Duchess Eleanor of Aquitaine. He led a turbulent life, rebelled against his father the king, and formed an alliance with the king of France, along with two of his brothers.

Richard I was crowned King of England in 1189, but spent little time there. Like William the Conqueror, he may not even have spoken the language, but he was educated, enjoyed music and the arts, was personable but temperamental and quick to anger. He was also obsessed by the Crusades. He reigned for less than 10 years, and is best remembered for his exploits in the Holy Land, fighting Saladin and the Saracens during the Third Crusade.

Richard the Lionheart, not quite 42 years old, died of an infected arrow wound in 1199. History recounts that he had always “held Rouen in his heart,” and his embalmed heart rests in Rouen’s Cathedral, while his body is entombed “at the feet of his father” at Fontevraud Abbey in Anjou. His younger brother John succeeded him on the English Throne, and Phillip II of France gained control over Rouen, assuring that Normandy and Brittany would remain under French control.

I knew of the historical ties Rouen has with these renowned English kings, but it was yet another historical figure that beckoned me to Rouen. The Maid of Orleans met her destiny in Rouen in 1431. She was tried for heresy, witchcraft and other offenses ranging from horse theft to sorcery. She was burned at the stake by the English in a square that still serves as the site of the city’s public market. Her bones and ashes were gathered and thrown into the river.

History recounts that Joan of Arc did indeed hear voices and see visions. She believed they were signs, but modern authorities suspect she suffered from a medical disorder, something akin to epilepsy or perhaps schizophrenia.

Although characterized as a warrior, she actually never fought in battle, choosing to simply accompany the troops carrying a banner to urge them on. Nonetheless, she is credited with turning the tide of battle and securing a French victory over English forces in Orleans in 1429.

Joan was originally charged with 70 crimes which were later narrowed to 12; it is said that she signed an admission of guilt in exchange for life imprisonment, but days later violated the terms of that agreement by, among other things, once again donning men’s clothing and admitting that “the voice” had returned to guide her. She was subsequently sentenced as a “relapsed heretic,” according to historical records.

Joan of Arc — the name stems from her father’s surname d’Arc, even though she was simply known as Jehanne or Jehannette. During her trial, she referred to herself simply as Jehanne la Pucelle (translated as Joan “the maid”).

The young peasant girl became a national symbol, a uniting influence on French forces during the latter part of the bitter 100 Year’s War that lasted from 1337 to 1453. There actually was no victor in the war; the English simply retreated, finally realizing that the cost was too great, and the conflict ended.

Twenty years after the war ended, Charles VII, the French king who owed his position to Joan, held a posthumous retrial to clear her name, and she became not only a folk heroine, but also a mythic symbol of French nationalism.

As a child I was fascinated by her exploits, and by her brazen defiance of existing norms. I am still fascnated, and I wanted to see for myself the place where she met her fate.

For centuries, there was no monument to mark the spot of her demise in Rouen, just a simple cross in commemoration of the 19-year-old’s martyrdom. Today, a large modern Catholic church stands to honor Saint Joan; it was completed adjacent to the square in 1979.

Joan, by all accounts, never doubted that she had been chosen by God for her role in history, but it was not until 1920 that she was canonized as a saint. Today she is revered as the patron saint of France.

Then and now

Rouen is filled with good restaurants, small cafes and local bakeries. It boasts boutique hotels tucked away on narrow streets, within walking distance of major sites, a newly-redesigned and attractive riverbank that beckons river cruisers and bicyclists, picnickers and artists. Prior to the pandemic, visitors from across the globe arrived in the city during every season, seeking their own fulfillment. Rouen’s cultural appeal is catholic, and it resonates on different levels depending on one’s personal interests.

But Rouen offers something else as well. Visit the city during the off-season, and a uniquely personalized view of the city is your reward. The pace of life in this part of France is easy-going and friendly, surprisingly subdued. Indeed, if you stay in the medieval quarter or the university district, the slice of life that presents itself is distinctively “common.” It’s truly delightful, relaxed and unpretentious.

One can walk seemingly endlessly through the narrow cobbled streets of the Medieval quarter. We marveled at the clock, standing under its archway one dismal, chilly late afternoon. We lingered, snapping pictures, studying the artistry of its face and enjoying the music of its chimes. We knew that darkness would soon descend, but we hesitated there, unwilling to break the mood.

It’s impossible to be in Rouen and ignore its past. Napoleon visited textile factories in the city in 1802, helping to build that industry in the region; he also is credited with commissioning the Corneille Bridge and both Lafayette and Republic Streets. In Rouen, it is impossible to escape the emperor’s historical influence. In numerous ways, the history of France is tied to the history of Rouen.

Seeing it all unfold during a walking tour of the city is spellbinding. The most enduring memory, however, is of being alone in the courtyard of Rouen’s ossuary, the “Plague Cemetery.” It is an experience seared into my consciousness, as the world faces an unknown future besieged by a seemingly unstoppable virus.

Later, we ducked into a small brasserie for a cup of hot cafe au lait, and exchanged small talk with the proprietor and two other patrons who were as happy to speak a few words of English as we were to practice our French. We were immediately transported to the present, and we were buoyed by the charm and vivacity of the city’s modern vibe.

We left, strolling the almost deserted streets in search of an informal place to eat. Arriving too early for dinner, we were led upstairs to a warm, cozy nook that suited us perfectly for an early-evening supper. We sipped good red wine, dined on burgers and fries served in true French style, and conversed with the establishment’s friendly proprietor about contemporary life. It was a perfect finale to a day of immersion in the life of Rouen.

We will long remember our visit to Rouen, for any number of reasons.

A lesson in democracy

San Marino, capital of the European “microstate” of the same name, is not on most lists of “not-to-be-missed” European destinations. However, this tiny nation, founded in the year 301 and reputed to be the world’s oldest constitutional republic, ranks among our best adventures.

We had read, in passing, about this tiny, ancient city-state, and could not resist the temptation to visit a modern-day anomaly. The lure of the fifth-smallest nation on earth was strong.

My husband and I planned this quick excursion in conjunction with last winter’s Mediterranean/Adriatic cruise. Tiny San Marino is an easy drive — not more than about an hour — from the Italian port of Ravenna.

The world’s longest-surviving republic has known its share of difficult times and has been occupied three times, it is said, by foreign powers. But it has survived, and today it enjoys one of the world’s most stable economies, much of it derived from tourism, and is considered one of the wealthiest countries in Europe in terms of GDP.

Its claim to be the oldest existing sovereign state as well as the oldest constitutional republic is not disputed. San Marino’s 60-member legislature is elected every five years, and dual heads of state, “Captains Regents,” are elected by the council every April and October to serve six-month terms. From all outward appearances, the system of government, with an unlimited number of political parties, seems to work very well.

I think of San Marino now, as the calendar ticks down to our own election and wish I had been able to spend more time getting to know the people and learning more about their system of government.

The few hours we spent there are unforgettable. The mountaintop site of the old city is spectacular and the people we met were lively, welcoming and “real.” There is something compelling about a “parliamentary representative democratic republic” that has survived this long!

With a land area of only 23.6 miles, and a total population of just over 36,000, San Marino is completely surrounded by Italy. Its official language is Italian, and the currency is the Euro, although San Marino is not a member of the EU. There is no official border crossing.

The drive along the coast from Ravenna takes one along modern highways and through charming seaside resorts before turning inland to wind through agricultural fields and vineyards. It’s pleasant. The weather forecast was for cool temperatures with a chance of rain. We knew about San Marino’s strategic location, but we were not prepared for the fog that shrouded the peak as we began the ascent.

We had seen the pictures of “The Three Towers” that cap the crest of Monte Titano, and the medieval wall that surrounds the capital, also named San Marino. We had hoped to see them outlined by blue sky, as they had appeared in the tourist guide.

A roadside cafe on the way to the old city beckoned us, and we enjoyed steaming cups of hot chocolate with local workmen and uniformed highway police before pushing onward. It was grey and overcast, and the aerial tramway that would have whisked us to the summit on a sunny day was not running.

Not knowing what to expect, we pushed on and were able to park just outside the gate of the medieval city. Passing through the gate was like stepping back in time, or entering another world. Cobblestone lanes not much wider than a primitive wagon path greeted us, and even though the mist hung heavy all about, we were enchanted.

We could not see the valley below, nor could we see the crenelated towers above, but we were content to walk the steep lanes, peering into shop windows, catching glimpses of gardens and marveling at the statuary and art that punctuated plazas and wide spots along the narrow walkways.

We stopped at the upper station of the tramway, impressed by the engineering expertise it had required, and we looked over the edge of the city wall, disappointed at the mist that still blocked our view of the valley below. We ducked into the nearby Visitors Center to have our passports stamped as proof of our visit.

We strolled to the city’s beautiful basilica, marveling at the skill and endurance it must have taken to construct on top of the mountain in 1836, on the site of an earlier church that dated to the 7th Century. We were enthralled, and could have spent longer inside, but because we were on a strict time schedule, we decided to make our way back to our rental vehicle.

When we emerged, the clouds had lifted and the sun was shining. We could not leave without once again making our way to the city’s encircling walls to gaze in awe at the countryside far below us.

Although Ravenna has its own attractions, we were more than pleased by our decision to forego the eight UNESCO world heritage sites located there and head instead to a tiny nation-state with a long history.

It remains a fond memory.

Twists of fate . . .

. . . and other thoughts about travel to the far reaches of today’s shrinking world

As I have said before, and with apologies to Lee Marvin as well as to Lerner and Loewe, I was born “under a wand’rin’ star.” Wanderlust is real!

I am hooked on travel! 

As a freelance writer, I have convinced myself that it is also “my business” to be as informed as possible about popular worldwide destinations, off-the-beaten-path places, interesting excursions and inviting cruise ship itineraries. I enjoy every minute of it, and I keep a running list of possibilities that appeal to me for my own getaways.

I started out as a working journalist at a daily newspaper, and I remain a “newshound” to this day, eager to tell stories about people, places and events. I don’t regret leaving that part of my life behind, but I still sometimes miss being an active “participant” in major news events.

I have been following the Coronavirus outbreak in China with great interest, for all the above reasons, and also because of the serious worldwide health implications. My husband and I listen avidly to the live reports from David Abel and his wife Sally, British citizens on board the quarantined Diamond Princess. But we have watched events unfold, and remained only interested bystanders half a world away.

Until two days ago

Our next planned journey was to have been a trans-Pacific sailing on the 2,200-passenger Celebrity Millennium, scheduled to depart Yokohama, Japan on May 10. We had flight reservations that would have given us a few days in Tokyo prior to the cruise, and allowed us to see friends in Vancouver, B.C. following disembarkation, prior to returning home. We were concerned, but relatively confident that the spread of the virus would be contained during the next 90 days, and that our trip across a vast stretch of ocean would proceed as scheduled without risk.

On Wednesday, we were notified by Celebrity Cruises that the remainder of the Asian cruise schedule for “the Millie” had been suspended. Our cruise and others were to be canceled. The ship would sail early to North America in preparation for a summer season of cruising Alaska. No other details were offered. We shared the disappointment of thousands of other passengers whose vacation plans had instantly been crushed. 

For this single ship of this one cruise line, five sailings were canceled, affecting thousands of booked passengers. Route changes and port cancellations are announced daily by other major cruise companies, and the ripple effect is enormous. Not only is there a huge economic impact on the cruise lines, airlines, hotels and excursion operators, but necessary logistical issues are mind-boggling. 

As we faced the task of canceling reservations yesterday, I ran across some forgotten notes in a travel folder of ideas for 2020 travel. And, to use one of my current favorite expressions, I was gobsmacked.

I had written:

“RT Tokyo — 15 days — Jan 20-Feb 4. Japan, Hong Kong, Vietnam. Diamond Princess — cabins available at good prices — air about $925, estimated”

They were just some quick notes that I hadn’t acted upon, choosing instead to begin the year with other trips, lured by the prospect of the journey from Japan to Canada with 10 relaxing  days at sea. I booked another, shorter, closer-to-home trip for early in the year, and moved on.

Reading that scribbled note, I realized that had I made another decision several months earlier, my husband and I would currently be quarantined aboard Diamond Princess in Yokohama harbor. I imagined the weight of the fear that we might test positive for a worrisome new virus, now bearing the name COVID-19.  It was a sobering thought, even though for just an instant I thought about the stories I could tell about that experience!

More news . . .

Earlier today, Royal Caribbean, the parent company of Celebrity, announced that two of their ships will spend the next several weeks offering complimentary cruises to fire-fighting crews and first responders in Australia and California. There are also plans underway to deliver needed supplies to health authorities in China and Asia. We will miss our own time aboard the Millennium, but we are happy to know that the ships will be used for other good purposes.

In addition, I cannot help but smile at the Facebook post of a member of the pastry crew on board Diamond Princess. I know there must be some moments that come close to despair for the quarantined crew, but this is truly an example of indomitable spirit!

Now that I have had another day to consider, I am convinced more than ever that travel is “life-changing.” I still believe that travel is always a good idea; it just doesn’t always happen the way we would choose! 

We certainly hope that all passengers and crew aboard the quarantined ship are able to return home well and resume their normal lives as soon as possible. We will continue to watch the reports, and to follow the mounting efforts to control this virulent virus.