WELCOME!

Welcome to my blog!

I am a member of the Society of American Travel Writers (SATW).

I hope you are continuing to stay safe!

I’m so happy that travel is nearing or even exceeding normal levels, despite the threat of Covid19 still out there. I’m updating my blog by adding descriptions and links to my newly published stories. I recently returned from Ireland and will soon be writing about that as well. 

Glad to see Covid testing will finally no longer be necessary when entering the U.S., but summer travel has become extremely expensive! I hope you get the chance to travel! As always, thanks for following my blog.

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To see even more of my published clips, visit my website at http://www.richardvarr.com

Thanks for your continued interest and stay safe!!

(Header image is my photo from St. Barth, view from the Colombier Lookout; head shot in Krakow, Poland.)

IMG_0388a

My novel of international intrigue, Warming Up to Murder, is available as an ebook, and in Kindle and Nook formats.  It’s about a TV reporter who finds himself chasing the “big story” spanning two continents.  See the links below.

http://www.barnesandnoble.com/c/richard-varr

http://www.amazon.com/Warming-Up-Murder-Richard-Varr/dp/141344976X

 

Southern West Virginia: An Outdoors Adventures Playground

The New River Gorge Bridge. Photo by Richard Varr

It was the first time I spent significant time in West Virginia other than driving through, and I must admit it’s one of the most beautiful and lush states I have visited – and I’ve been to 48 states, including Alaska and Hawaii. The URL below links to my recently published story about my visit in the spring of 2021, where I learned to zipline for the first time. That took place at the outdoor resort and tour operator, Adventures on the Gorge, on the outskirts of the country’s newest national park, the New River Gorge National Park and Preserve near Fayetteville.

Sandstone Falls. Photo by Richard Varr

The park and preserve’s total area stretches 53 miles along the New River (despite the name, one of the world’s oldest rivers) while encompassing more than 70,000 acres of forested canopy within its dramatically sloping river valley. With tranquil lakes, challenging whitewater rapids and crisscrossing trails leading to commanding views, the park has become one of the state’s premier recreational spots for hiking, fishing, rock climbing, rafting, kayaking, horseback riding and yes, ziplining.

The New River Gorge Bridge. Photo by Richard Varr

Yet one activity unique to this park is the walk underneath the spectacular New River Gorge Bridge, one of the highest and longest single-span arch bridges in the world. Completed in 1977, the bridge stretches 3,030 feet, extending U.S. Route 19 over the New River. The Bridge Walk is a mile-and-a-quarter trek including trails to reach the bridge and a more than half-mile jaunt on a two-foot-wide catwalk just below the roadway. Linked to a safety cable, walkers have a breathtaking view of the river more than 870 feet below.

Hikes within the New River Gorge National Park lead to stunning views. Photo by Richard Varr

To read more, click on the below link to read my published story in the Good Sam RV club magazine, Coast to Coast.

Story Published: Finnish Design – Simple, Practical, Timeless

Fiskars scissors with orange plastic, ergonomically-shaped handles line a wall at Helsinki’s Design Museum. Photo by Richard Varr

The pandemic has surely delayed assignments and published stories. Here’s a story from my 2019 trip to Helsinki, just published in Porthole Cruise and Travel Magazine. From furniture and tableware to everyday items, Finnish Design still impresses visitors with a perfect marriage between form and function.

Read the story: https://mydigitalpublication.com/publication/?m=27506&i=733302&view=articleBrowser&article_id=4186675&ver=html5

Simple Finnish Design furniture at the Artek store in central Helsinki. Photo by Richard Varr

Cruising Portugal’s Douro River with Scenic Luxury Cruises – Stories published!

Scenic Azure, Douro Valley, Portugal. Photo courtesy: Scenic Luxury Cruises

Porto’s Dom Luis I bridge. Photo by Richard Varr

From Porto’s hillside cityscape of spiking church towers and pastel-hued homes to dramatic inland vistas of vineyards twirling around mountaintops, a slow cruise along the Douro River Valley is like a lesson in Portuguese history, tradition and cuisine. Two stories were published in TravelWeekly.com this fall from my August cruise onboard the Scenic Azure along Portugal’s Douro River.

Douro River at Pinhao. Photo by Richard Varr

Scenic Azure chefs during a pastry cooking demonstration. Photo by Richard Varr

One story focused on the overall cruise and excursions, while the other highlighted Scenic Luxury Cruises’ excellent onboard culinary offerings – in particular, pairing Douro River Valley wines with fine food choices.

https://www.travelweekly.com/River-Cruising/Best-of-Portugal-in-slow-motion-on-Scenic-Azure

https://www.travelweekly.com/Cruise-Travel/Focus-on-Culinary-Travel-2021-Scenic-Azure-pairs-perfectly-with-Douro-Valley

Vineyards near Pinhao. Photo by Richard Varr

Wine grapes before harvest near Pinhao. Photo by Richard Varr

 

 

Stories Published! Grenada’s Waterfalls and Historic South Central Heartland

Here are two stories recently published…

Falling into Paradise; Grenada’s Spectacular Waterfalls

My story in Porthole Cruise Magazine‘s October 2021 issue highlights the island of Grenada’s many dramatic and cooling waterfalls in paradise! Scroll below or click on the following link to my website’s published stories page.

https://www.richardvarr.com/projects

Click to access Grenada+Waterfalls+VARR+2021.pdf

Oklahoma City to Little Rock: Exploring the South-Central American Heartland

Oklahoma City Memorial. Photo courtesy VisitOKC

This story was published in Good Sam Club’s Coast to Coast 2021 summer issue. It focuses on historic sights including the Oklahoma City Memorial following the 1995 truck bombing there. The memorial is one of the more poignant sites to see in a trail of history within America’s south-central heartland while traveling from Oklahoma City to Tulsa and then crossing over to Arkansas’ Fort Smith, Hot Springs and Little Rock. Stops along the way showcase national historic sites, monuments to civil rights struggles, museums, architecture, natural attractions and even a presidential library that reveal not only the region’s historical and cultural legacy, but momentous events that have profoundly shaped American history.

Scroll below, or click on the following link and look for it on my website published stories page: https://www.richardvarr.com/projects

Click to access Oklahoma+Arkansas+Coast+to+Coast.pdf

Oklahoma City Memorial. Photo courtesy VisitOKC

Stories Published! New Orleans’ Higgins Boat and Alabama Civil Rights Trail

Yet another six months have passed without any traveling for me, and it’s again hard to believe my last post was last summer. With vaccinations against COVID19 already underway, I’m hopeful I’ll be hitting the road again soon as I’m already planning my next trip, which will be here in the U.S. More to come on that soon.

Luckily, two publications have recently published stories from trips before the pandemic, which follow below.

The Secret Weapon of New Orleans: The Higgins Boat

New Orleans’ National World War II Museum features an exhibit on the boat that helped the Allies win the war. Best known for its role in the D-Day assault, the Higgins Boat with its drop-down forward hatch allowed easy access for troops to storm the beaches.

Higgins+Boat+American+Countess.pdf (squarespace.com)

Alabama’s historic Civil Rights Trail: The Enduring Legacy of Birmingham, Montgomery and Selma

Notable museums, historic churches, monuments and other landmarks highlight the enduring legacy of Birmingham, Montgomery and Selma in the struggle for civil rights.

CTC59155 Fall Digital Magazine 2020.pdf (squarespace.com)

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Stories Published!

Some publications have recently published stories from trips before the pandemic strangled our freedom, which are posted below.

GREECE

The Parthenon and the Acropolis grounds. Photo by Richard Varr

Three stories from my trip to Greece last fall have been published in two cruise magazines and an online travel website. See what you can do in Athens for 48 hours before or after a cruise, just published in the July\August 2020 issue of Porthole Cruise Magazine. Aside from being a center of ancient culture, Athens is a shopper’s dream and has so many tempting dishes, including the souvlaki plates and sweet flaky-dough deserts we all crave.

Packages of olives hang on shop walls. Photo by Richard Varr

Here’s the story URL:

https://bluetoad.com/publication/?i=665755&article_id=3710014&view=articleBrowser&ver=html5

Tower of the Winds at night. Photo by Richard Varr

In my feature appearing in the April issue of Cruise Travel Magazine, I delve into many of Athen’s ancient sites, take a closer look at some of the shore excursions and highlight Celestyal Cruises, Greece’s foremost cruise ship operator that offers sailing adventures to the Greek Islands and beyond.

Click to access 2020+M-A+Cruise+Travel+%28Port+of+the+Month%29%281%29.pdf

Celestyal’s Crystal. Photo by Richard Varr

And the highlight of my visit was a cruise to the Greek Islands with Celestyal Cruises which also included stops in Turkey, published in GoWorldTravel.com. Read about my adventure by clicking below:

Cruising Like a Greek with Celestyal Cruises

TEXAS HILL COUNTRY

Enchanted Rock. Photo by Richard Varr

Another story just published in one of the Good Sam Club RV publications, Coast Magazine, stems from my March road trip to the Texas Hill Country, which many visitors find delightful in what’s often perceived as flat Texas. “You kind of forget you’re in Texas,” one local told me. That’s because it’s where rolling hills, gentle rivers and placid lakes highlight the scenic countryside along with a mix of Texas charm and history influenced by German settlers in and around Fredericksburg, the heart of the Hill Country. Flip to page 26 below.

Click to access CTC58708+Summer+Digital+Magazine1+2020.pdf

SPAIN

And, one more story was published earlier this year in Holland America Line’s onboard magazine Compass. The feature, from my trip to Seville and beyond two years ago, highlights the striking Spanish painted tiles or Azulejos as seen in Andalucia.

Azulejos. Photo by Richard Varr

Click to access Azulejos+HAL+2020.pdf

To see even more of my published clips, visit my website at http://www.richardvarr.com

Thanks for your continued interest and stay safe!!

 

Athens, Greece: Where Antiquity Meets the 21st Century

The Parthenon. Photo by Richard Varr

View of Lykavittos Hill from the Acropolis. Photo by Richard Varr

My current and long lost Greek relatives will be happy to know that I finally made it to the homeland. I stayed in Athens for four days to research a story I was writing for a cruise magazine and, yes, found the same proud gusto, oregano-spiced foods, music and culture that I experienced growing up. As a native New Yorker reflecting on my youth, Athens seems like, culturally speaking, a giant Astoria – perhaps the city’s premier Greek neighborhood – where my grandparents lived.

View of the Acropolis at night. Photo by Richard Varr

Tower of the Winds at night. Photo by Richard Varr

And it didn’t take long to be mesmerized by ancient history. Floodlights bathe the 2,500 year old hilltop Acropolis, visible at almost every corner. Archeological sites with well-preserved Doric and Ionic columns from ancient Greek and Roman temples protrude along neighborhood streets.

Ancient vases in the National Archeological Museum. Photo by Richard Varr

The National Archeological Museum. Photo by Richard Varr

Thousands of artifacts including vases and statues fill display cases in Athens’ world class museums. And I am enlightened, but not surprised to learn that this ancient heritage and classic Greek culture remains today, most notably with the clutters of hand-painted vases, Spartan helmets and paintings of icons that crowd souvenir shops today.

Hand-painted replica vases of those found in museums. Photo by Richard Varr

The Parthenon and the Acropolis grounds. Photo by Richard Varr

Roman copy of the Athena statue in the National Archeological Museum. Photo by Richard Varr

With so much to see in Athens, here are my basic highlights and impressions that I’ll include in this blog post. Since it was my first time to Greece, of course topping my list was a visit to the Acropolis. Everything I read warned to visit either early in the morning or late afternoon to avoid the crowds. I thought 9:30 am would be early enough, but of course the tour buses had already arrived with swarming and almost unbearable crowds. But that’s mostly when ascending the narrow path and stairwells up through the Roman-era Beulé Gate and Propylaia within the Acropolis’ grand entrance. I also passed the small square Temple of Athena Nike, but the real thrill was finally seeing the colossal Parthenon, one of the world’s greatest temples where the ancients once worshiped a 40-foot-high chryselephantine (gold and ivory) statue – long lost – of the goddess Athena.

Porch of the Caryatids of the Erechtheion. Photo by Richard Varr

Original Erechtheion columns inside the Acropolis Museum. Photo by Richard Varr

Opposite the Acropolis sits the Erechtheion, much smaller but better preserved with the stunning Porch of the Caryatids with stone columns carved to represent maiden figurines (replicas – the Acropolis Museum houses the originals). “They’re beautiful statues of women representing young ladies of Athens’ families as symbolism to connect with mythology,” says tour guide Koula Vasiliki. “All of them were particularly selected to show that this area was the best artistic part of the world and to show this place is very unique.” The Erechtheion is where Athena and Poseidon, according to legend, fought for a shot at the city’s namesake – the winner, quite obvious.

Inside the Acropolis Museum. Photo by Richard Varr

Statues outside the Stoa of Attalos in the Ancient Agora. Photo by Richard Varr

Along with the Acropolis, the Ancient Agora emerged during Athens’ Classical Period during the 5th century B.C., when the great philosophers Plato and Socrates walked the same streets we see today. The Agora was a complex of civic buildings that lie in crumbles today, yet the grounds were they stood are clearly marked.

Columns of the rebuilt Stoa of Attalos in the Ancient Agora. Photo by Richard Varr

The rebuilt Stoa of Attalos with its pristine columns and Greek and Roman statues is a museum filled with artifacts from the site, and stands in stark contrast to the surrounding field of ruins. Yet overlooking all the stone fragments is the hilltop Hephaisteion temple that’s in such good condition that a newcomer might think it’s the Parthenon.

The Hephaisteion temple in the Ancient Agora. Photo by Richard Varr

Ancient temple replicas in a souvenir shop. Photo by Richard Varr

Old Town Athens or Plaka, and the adjacent Monastiráki neighborhood are the city’s historic center. It’s where shoppers clutter pedestrian streets, mostly dominated by souvenir shops where tiny Acropolis replicas and figurines of Greek gods stack four and five shelves high.

Old Town streets. Photo by Richard Varr

Figurines of gods and philosophers in a souvenir shop. Photo by Richard Varr

Byzantine Kapnikarea Church. Photo by Richard Varr

Painted icons hang on the wall, some of them replicas of the originals that color the stone walls of several 11th and 12th-century byzantine churches within small squares and along narrow streets. And below the steep slopes of the Acropolis, I maneuver through the curving alleyways of Anafiótika, a 19th century neighborhood founded by settlers from the Cycladic island of Anáfi, just east of Santorini.

Byzantine Panagia Gorgoepikoos church in Old Town. Photo by Richard Varr

Tower of the Winds inside the Roman Forum. Photo by Richard Varr

Two other key ancient sites in the historic center include the Roman Agora with the 1st century BC octagonal-shaped Tower of the Winds, and Hadrian’s Library with grand Corinthian columns from the 2nd century AD.

Athens Flea Market. Photo by Richard Varr

Also, I strolled along the storefronts and cluttered vendor stands of Athens Flea Market off  Monastiráki square, where any mention or amazement of the number of Greek heritage souvenirs of gods, philosophers and medusas, packages stuffed with olives, ancient Greek-styled sandals and souvlaki stands (along Souvlaki Row) would be an understatement.

Packages of olives hang on shop walls. Photo by Richard Varr

Remaining columns of Temple of Olympian Zeus. Photo by Richard Varr

Other key ruins include the 15 remaining Corinthian columns of the Temple of Olympian Zeus and Hadrian’s Arch that separated the ancient Greek city from the new Roman city.

Syntagma Square with Parliament in the background. Photo by Richard Varr

A short walk leads to a look at a more modern Athens around Syntagma Square, a popular place for protest as it’s next to Greece’s Parliament building. On the Parliament grounds is the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier, where slow-stepping Evzone guards in their traditional kilt uniforms have Changing of the Guard ceremonies every Sunday morning.

Evzone guards at the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier. Photo by Richard Varr

Helsinki, Finland: ‘White City of the North’

Helsinki Cathedral. Photo by Richard Varr

Finland’s largest city was founded in 1550, but surprisingly has no medieval past. That’s because it remained only a small village and was actually made the capital in the early 1800s when, under Russian rule, they decided to move the capital closer to St. Petersburg, from Turku to Helsinki. Thus the city is northern Europe’s youngest capital with 19th through 21st century buildings lining its streets and overlooking its scenic waterfronts. And what’s behind the name White City of the North?  That’s because many buildings sport light-colored facades, constructed from white or pale granite.

Uspenski Cathedral. Photo by Richard Varr

One example includes the landmark and stately Lutheran Cathedral in Senate Square, a gleaming white columned structure in neoclassical architecture that looks more like a capitol building sitting atop a steep flight of stairs.  Another church dominating the skyline and just a few blocks from Senate Square is the Russian Orthodox Uspenski Cathedral, designed in Byzantine Russian architectural style and topped with typical “onion” domes.

Sibelius Monument. Photo by Richard Varr

Photo by Richard Varr

Other must see Helsinki sites include the pipe-like tubes making up the Sibelius Monument, a tribute to native son and composer Jean Sibelius. The Temppeliaukio Church, with its rock walls and domed roof, was dugout of a granite mound. It’s perhaps the city’s sight most visited by tourists.

 

Inside the Temppeliaukio Church. Photo by Richard Varr

Helsinki Island Hopping: Suomenlinna Island Fortress

Suomenlinna bastion walk. Photo by Richard Varr

King’s Gate, Suomenlinna. Photo by Richard Varr

Island hopping off the shores of Helsinki is easier than you might imagine. And you don’t really need a boat – except for a 15-minute ferry ride to Suomenlinna. This group of six islands, most attached by footbridges, is still Scandinavia’s largest sea fortress. Sturdy brick walls, ramparts, courtyards and cannons remain, but today it’s a UNESCO World Heritage Site – a park and an attraction where hundreds come on any given day to walk its gravel paths, many now shaded by trees, and to learn about Finland’s maritime history. There are museums, a church, great waterside views and more.

Suomenlinna bastion walk. Photo by Richard Varr

“Some historians say that Suomenlinna might have been one of the factors leading to Helsinki becoming the capital later on,” explains Helsinki tour guide Heidi Johansson. “There were more inhabitants on the islands than in Helsinki proper in the beginning.” Because it was inhabited by military including officers, it was a center of culture for the region.

Suomenlinna bastion area. Photo by Richard Varr

Fortress walls, Suomenlinna. Photo by Richard Varr

“When Suomenlinna was built in the 1700s, that’s where the magic happened,” Johansson continues. “Suomenlinna was really a flourishing place, where all the social events happened, where all the trends came in.”

FINNISH DESIGN: Simple, Practical, Colorful and World Renowned

Fiskars scissors in the Design Museum, Helsinki. Photo by Richard Varr

It took a trip to Finland for me to realize that I have perhaps the most iconic item representing Finnish Design in my own home – orange-handled scissors that I have used for years. As it turns out, the Fiskars Scissor brand is now more than 50 years old and more than a billion have been sold worldwide.

Finnish Design furniture in artek store. Photo by Richard Varr

Artek, Helsinki. Photo by Richard Varr

Fiskars scissors in the Design Museum. Photo by Richard Varr

Finnish Design emphasizes simplicity in everyday life with practical and timeless – yet colorful and unique – household items such as tableware and furniture like classic stools, but also clothing styles and artistic expression. Think IKEA with flair.  Popular names include Artek, Aalto, Arabia, Iittala and the Marimekko clothing brand once worn by Jackie Kennedy.  Several Finnish Design brands came about in an effort to brighten décor after the war years and to enliven the diluted colors and grayish scale. In Helsinki, stores can be found in many neighborhoods selling Finnish Design household items. I also visited the Design Museum which showcases and explains the history behind the simple coffee cups, saucers and other tableware for example – many still sold today.

1933 creamer in the Design Museum. Photo by Richard Varr

Design Museum. Photo by Richard Varr

Finnish Sauna: Hot Rocks and Steam like No Other

There are saunas, and then there are Finnish saunas. What’s the difference you might ask, considering steam and relaxation are all part of the process? The answer is tradition, national pride and benefits to one’s health. “My grandfather was completely convinced that any ailments or diseases he was suffering from could be cured in the sauna,” says Johansson. “And he was not completely wrong as there’s such a thing as sweating it out.”

Sauna ladles on display in the National Museum of Finland. Photo by Richard Varr

Finnish saunas date back 2,000 years as a means of keeping warm during Scandinavian winters. But they became an integral part of Finnish culture beginning in the 19th century as more of a ritual. The Finns do it in groups: there are sauna sessions on holidays, on Friday nights and more. “For just about every celebration, there’s the ritual of going to the sauna,” says Johansson. For Finland’s 5.5 million inhabitants, there are 3.3 million saunas – one sauna for every one or two residents. Even Helsinki’s SkyWheel has the world’s only sauna gondola. “Sauna is an important sort of rite of passage,” she adds.

SkyWheel, Helsinki. Photo by Richard Varr

Hotel Katajanokka, Helsinki – A Former Prison Now a Hotel

Photo by Richard Varr

I stayed four nights in one of Helsinki’s most unique hotels with an interesting history. That’s because the hotel was once a prison with guest rooms renovated from former prison cells, some with obvious lower doorways, and hallways and stairwells that were clearly constructed for a prison setting.

Photo by Richard Varr

Original jail cell inside the hotel. Photo by Richard Varr

Now a Tribute Portfolio Hotel by Marriott, it’s also a museum of sorts. On the bottom floor just down the hall from the hotel’s Linnankellari Restaurant, which serves Nordic dishes with a Finnish-Scandi accent, is an actual prison cell that was not refurbished. Upstairs is Helsinki’s second oldest chapel which is now a hotel function room. According to the hotel’s website, the oldest part of the building dates back to 1837, with the main building back to 1888. Closed in 2002, the former prison was reopened in 2007 as a hotel and was further refurbished in 2017.

Courtyard. Photo by Richard Varr

The hotel is surrounded by a high brick wall and the inner courtyard, where prisoners once enjoyed moments of sunshine, is now a delightful green space with the hotel’s outdoor café. As for location, the hotel is just a 10-minute walk from central Helsinki and the tram stops just outside the brick wall. I highly recommend considering it for your next Helsinki visit!

For more information: https://www.hotelkatajanokka.fi/en/