Tag Archives: Richard Varr travel writer

Postcards to Recovery

Panama City, Florida’s creative postcard marketing campaign during hurricane recovery

St. Andrews State Park, Panama City Beach. Photo by Richard Varr

Perhaps you’ve visited the “sugar white” sand beaches of Panama City Beach with their glimmering green-tinted waters, and where the sand actually squeaks when you walk on it – all part of Florida’s sparkling Emerald Coast. Here’s my blog post from my visit a few years back:


What many visitors may not know is that Panama City Beach is a different municipality than nearby Panama City, also visited by tourists – but not much since Hurricane Michael caused massive destruction last October. Panama City Beach escaped the worst of the storm.

Since then, Panama City has been slowly rebuilding and has launched a unique marketing move to help lure back visitors when the time is right – the “Postcards from Panama City” campaign. Postcards with colorful images will be sent as updates and reminders to devoted repeat visitors to let them know when enough progress has been made to welcome them back.

“Tourism is a critical part of our city’s economy,” says Jennifer Vigil, Destination Panama City president and CEO. “We launched the Postcards from Panama City campaign to keep our special city in the minds and hearts of those who miss us, and to help us boost tourism as soon as we are ready for visitors.”

In addition to Panama City’s sailing, fishing and water sports activities, there are also dolphin excursions off nearby Shell Island as well as the string of restaurants along the so-called Panama City Oyster Trail. Cultural sites include the Bay County Courthouse, one of the first Florida landmarks added to the US Civil Rights Trail. The courthouse was home to the 1963 case of Gideon v. Wainwright, where the Supreme Court ruled the Constitution requires states to provide defense attorneys to criminal defendants charged with serious offenses who cannot afford lawyers.

To request a postcard for yourself or for others, visit www.destinationpanamacity.com.


Historic Barbados: A Rich Colonial Legacy…

View from Cherry Tree Hill. Photo by Richard Varr

… and George Washington Slept Here Too

George Washington House. Photo by Richard Varr

By Richard Varr

Colonial Dinner at the George Washington House. Photo by Richard Varr

Candlelight flickered on a rainy evening when more than 30 of us sat down in Barbados’ George Washington House for a true colonial dinner. On the menu: mahi-mahi yam pie with plantains, and lamb stew with pearl barley and sweet potatoes – something George Washington may have dined on during his 1751 visit to Barbados. At 19, the future Founding Father and first U.S. president traveled to Barbados with his brother Lawrence who sought the warm climate while suffering from tuberculosis. The highlight of the dinner was local historian, Dr. Karl Watson, costumed as an older Washington with insight into his stay at the home.

Dr. Karl Watson as George Washington. Photo by Richard Varr

George Washington statue

For example, few may know that Washington contracted smallpox while in Barbados and was confined to his room for three weeks. Can anyone imagine what the U.S. would be like today if Washington succumbed to the disease? The refurbished 1715 house is one of the island’s oldest, where Washington stayed for two months. His bedroom remains with period furniture including an 18th century chest and dressing table. Upstairs is a museum which tells the story of his time on Barbados, the only location Washington visited outside of Colonial America.

Lawrence Washington’s bedroom. Photo by Richard Varr

George Washington’s room in the George Washington House. Photo by Richard Varr

Nelson Statue, Bridgetown. Photo by Richard Varr

A stroll through Barbados’ capital Bridgetown reveals its rich colonial history. The castle-like towers rise above the House of Parliament, established in 1639 and the third oldest in the British Commonwealth. Across the street sits a statue of British Admiral Horatio Nelson – 30 years older than a similar statue in London’s Trafalgar Square. Founded in 1654, the Bridgetown Synagogue is one of the oldest in the Western Hemisphere. And built in 1665, St. Michael’s Cathedral still has an original baptism font that survived the hurricane of 1780 and original mahogany pews added in 1789.

Nidḥe Israel Synagogue, Bridgetown. Photo by Richard Varr

Historic Garrison area. Photo by Richard Varr

Grave of man wishing to be buried standing up in St. John’s Parish Church cemetery. Photo by Richard Varr

Just on the outskirts of the capital in Hastings is the Historic Garrison area. This is home to the Barbados Museum and Historical Society occupying an original 19th century military prison, and the restored George Washington House. Other historic sites around the island include the Morgan Lewis Windmill, Codrington College with its impressive royal palm trees and hilltop view, and old parish churches and cemeteries including one where a local official was buried standing up – at his request – to always look out to the sea.

Grounds of Codrington College. Photo by Richard Varr

Morgan Lewis Windmill. Photo by Richard Varr

St. Nicholas Abbey great house. Photo by Richard Varr

Inside St. Nicholas Abbey great house. Photo by Richard Varr

And there’s the grandiose plantation home, St. Nicholas Abbey. Walking through its lavish interior is like reliving moments in the 18th century, when sugarcane ruled the islands. With fine furniture, china and silver pieces, St. Nicholas’ Jacobean great house showcases the luxurious lifestyle of colonial plantation owners, and with Dutch gables and coral stone finials, it’s the oldest building on Barbados. The plantation still has an old sugar factory, windmill and working rum distillery. A tourist railroad from St. Nicholas Abbey leads to nearby Cherry Tree Hill, offering the best island views.

Inside St. Nicholas Abbey great house. Photo by Richard Varr

Traveling around the island makes it easy to enjoy its beauty and easy lifestyle – hilly terrain with palm and banana trees, and carpeted with bountiful fields of sugarcane.  Sheep and goats grazing within lush green pastures, refreshing trade winds, fishing boats and both rocky and soft-sand beaches also help frame this peaceful Caribbean paradise.

My view from the Barbados Hilton. Photo by Richard Varr

Inside Kensington Oval. Photo by Richard Varr

Cricket: My Chance to Play

Vasbert Drakes during our cricket lesson. Photo by Richard Varr

I’ve always loved baseball since I was a little leaguer. And since learning about cricket, I always wondered what it would be like to play the sport which, with bat and ball, is very similar to our favorite American pastime.On Barbados, I got my chance to find out as I joined a tour for a complete experience of the rich heritage and culture of this game so popular in Barbados and the Caribbean. I visited the Cricket Hall of Fame and learned about the island’s strong cricket history. I did get a chance at bat and learned you have to approach the ball for the best swing – unlike baseball where the batter must remain in the batter’s box.

Cricket legends Desmond Haynes and Vasbert Drakes. Photo by Richard Varr

Outside Kensington Oval. Photo by Richard Varr

I also met two cricket legends including Desmond Haynes and Vasbert Drakes, who instructed our group on how to play the game. We also visited Kensington Oval, the Yankee Stadium of Barbados.

Antigua Sparkles in the Caribbean Sun

Antigua’s Shirley Heights: View of a Lifetime Overlooking Historic Nelson’s Dockyard

Antigua: the view from Shirley Heights. Photo by Richard Varr

It takes only a moment to recognize the beauty on Antigua, especially if you’re looking at the stunning view from the Shirley Heights lookout. I see a crescent-moon beach with sailboats bobbing in gentle harbors. From up here, a central elongated island looks like an alligator with its long back and protruding jaw. And in the distance, clouds seem to dip down and seemingly touch the peaks of a hilly and mountainous panorama.

Photo by Richard Varr

The jagged, curving and twisting shorelines in view actually shelter Nelson’s Dockyard, the world’s only Georgian-era dockyard still in use. Royal Navy ships were once berthed within the harbors of this historic site dating back to the early 18th century. English naval legends once stationed there included Horatio Nelson and Prince William Henry who was later crowned King William IV. The dockyard includes nearby forts, hiking trails, a restaurant/hotel complex, and the Dockyard Museum.

Sail loft pillars, Nelson’s Dockyard. Photo by Richard Varr

Dockyard Museum. Photo by Richard Varr

The original sail loft pillars – columns that once supported a structure atop them used to repair sails of 18th century ships – remain today. Ships would dock inside a narrow channel and the sails would be raised into the above building through a trap door into the building to be repaired.

Richard at the wheel, ready to sail from Nelson’s Dockyard.

Betty’s Hope windmill. Photo by Richard Varr

Betty’s Hope, Devil’s Bridge and Swimming with Stingrays

A fully intact windmill that once squeezed sugarcane stalks remains on the grounds of a historic Antigua plantation. Called Betty’s Hope, the plantation got its name when Christopher Codrington, later Captain General of the Leeward Islands, bought the land in 1674 and named it after his daughter. Today, ruins remain and a small museum includes actual artifacts – forks, pottery, horseshoes and more.

Devil’s Bridge. Photo by Richard Varr

Devil’s Bridge sprayed by a wave. Photo by Richard Varr

I also visited Devil’s Bridge, an arched limestone formation with blowholes shaped by crashing waves, all within a national park. It’s a natural bridge of sorts, passing over eroded shoreline. I dare not walk on it, however, as crashing waves spewing water could knock me over, with the spray making rocks slippery.

Stunning Turners Beach. Photo by Richard Varr

Pineapple Beach Club resort. Photo by Richard Varr

Other sights to see on Antigua include port of call St. George, with highlights including Heritage Quay, a shopaholic’s paradise; the dual-towered Anglican Cathedral dating back to 1681; the Museum of Antigua and Barbuda with artifacts ranging from 34 million year old fossils to an Arawak canoe; and Redcliffe Quay with its 19th century buildings and art galleries. Fig Tree Drive carves through a rainforest where there are no figs but instead banana and mango trees, and 1,319-foot-high Mt. Obama is also in the rainforest. Harmony Hall is an art gallery and restaurant within the great house of a former plantation.

Swimming with Stingrays. Photo by Richard Varr

Finally I had a chance to swim with stingrays, hopping on a boat to reach a shallow spot far out along the shoreline. The stingrays know that when the people come, they’ll be fed! They were gentle and swam alongside us, but after they were fed, they left. It was a great experience!

Swimming with stingrays. Photo by Richard Varr

Houston-Leipzig Sister City Partnership

Celebrating 25 years in 2018

By Richard Varr

Central Leipzig. Courtesy Leipzig Travel

Downtown Houston. Photo by Richard Varr

At first glance, one might never imagine that Houston, Texas and Leipzig, Germany are sister cities. Houston’s shining glass towers seem to touch the sky, while Leipzig’s skyline is accented by historic stone towers including those of the Renaissance Old Town Hall building, the New Town Hall with the highest town hall tower in Germany and the neo-gothic St. Thomas Church. Houston’s population swells at 2.2 million, while Leipzig’s is nearing 600,000. Musically speaking, both cities are known for contrasting icons – Leipzig is home to Bach, while Houston’s Beyonce continues to top the charts.

Augustusplatz, Leipzig. Courtesy Leipzig Travel

Uptown Houston. Photo by Richard Varr

San Jacinto Monument. Photo by Richard Varr

But a closer look reveals some striking similarities. Both are crossroads for business and commerce – the port of Houston is one of the country’s largest; Leipzig, a city of trade fairs for centuries. Another example is both have monuments on pivotal historic battlegrounds. Houston’s nearby San Jacinto Monument commemorates when in 1836 General Sam Houston and his army of 800 won Texas independence, while Leipzig’s Battle of Nations Monument marks the 1813 defeat of Napoleon by more than a dozen countries involving 600,000 soldiers – the world’s largest battle before the 20th century.

So what is it that has made the Houston-Leipzig Sister City partnership so enduring as it celebrates its 25th anniversary in 2018? “In spite of the difference in size, the spirit of openness, entrepreneurial attitude, of being concerned about matters of justice and having an adventurous spirit have matched down the line for Leipzig and Houston,” says the Reverend Dr. Robert Moore, Reformation Ambassador for the City of Leipzig and with St. Thomas Church, and formerly Senior Pastor of Houston’s Christ the King Lutheran Church.

San Jacinto Monument. Photo by Richard Varr

Battle of Nations Monument, Leipzig. Photo by Richard Varr

“What brings the cities together is that they’re both very curious and they’ve stayed curious over the years. And they inspire each other,” says Lisa Renner, 2nd Vice President of the Städtepartnerschaft Leipzig-Houston e.V., the association on the Leipzig side. “We stay curious, but it takes a lot of work to keep people curious.”

Market Square, Leipzig. Photo by Richard Varr

Sam Houston Statue, Hermann Park, Houston. Photo by Richard Varr

According to the Association’s website (http://houstonleipzig.org/), the relationship started in the early 1990s with the enthusiasm of Stefan Roehrbein, a student from Leipzig, who contacted Sister Cities International in Washington DC. The Friendship Association Leipzig-Houston was first established in 1992, and then president of the Leipzig City Parliament and a senior pastor at St. Nicholas Church, Friedrich Magirius, became chairman. Soon after, a group of Houstonians supporting the idea approached Houston’s then Mayor Bob Lanier who sponsored a resolution and proclamation that led to officially establishing the association in 1993.

Goals of Sister Cities International include promoting cultural appreciation; creating artistic, academic, business and scientific exchanges; and establishing programs to carry out such goals. The Houston-Leipzig Sister City Association has done just that through a number of initiatives. One involves student exchange visits between Houston Heights High School and Leipzig’s Johannes-Kepler-Gymnasium. Leipzig students visited this year and Houston students will travel to Germany next year, according to Renner.

Downtown Houston. Photo by Richard Varr

There are also exchanges between the University of Houston’s Moores School of Music and Leipzig’s HMT, or Hochschule für Musik Theaterwissenschaften Felix Mendelssohn Bartholdy (University of Music and Theatre Felix Mendelssohn Bartholdy), a public university founded in 1843 by Felix Mendelssohn as the Conservatory of Music. In addition, the American Studies Program at the University of Leipzig has relationships with both Rice University and with the University of Houston. “The exchanges seem to be remarkable as we heard during our last visit to Houston in February,” notes Renner.

Bach statue outside St. Thomas Church. Photo by Richard Varr

Every June, Houstonians attend the Leipzig Bach Festival that brings together musicians from all over the world. “Bach is a great magnet. The program is very extensive and yet we have people who attend every single concert every year,” points out Renner. “Pastor Moore’s and his wife Kathy’s efforts made the group feel welcome. He is a master of managing the extensive program and can handle huge and small groups. It’s a steady thing we can always count on.”

Leipzig’s soccer stadium. Photo by Richard Varr

During my October visit to Leipzig, I had a chance to attend a soccer game – my first ever in Europe – as the home team RB Leipzig crushed FC Nurnberg 6-0. But I never imagined the city would have a baseball team as well – the Leipzig Wallbreakers. “We see them regularly during events and they try to make baseball and softball more popular in and around Leipzig and Germany,” says Renner.

Minute Maid Park, home of the Houston Astros. Photo by Richard Varr

Although an amateur team, the Wallbreakers sent a team photo and season finale-winning baseball with Leipzig Sister City Association members during their February Houston visit. They were greeted by Houston Astros PR folks at Minute Maid Park. “We told them of the Wallbreakers’ story to simply introduce them. It is planned that both teams might get together in something like a Skype session or similar,” says Renner.

Downtown Ferris Wheel at the Houston Aquarium. Photo by Richard Varr

Perhaps the true spirit of the Leipzig/Houston partnership surfaced when Leipzig citizens came together to help out during Houston’s devastating 2017 Hurricane Harvey. Donations were collected during a specially organized concert. “About $30,000 were donated and transferred to a relief fund St. Thomas Church had opened,” says Renner. Proceeds went to the Houston Coalition for the Homeless and other charities.

Hermann Park, Houston. Photo by Richard Varr

Even Leipzig firefighters set up their own fund for their Houston counterparts who had fallen victim to the storm, collecting $600 dollars that was handed over during the February visit. “The Leipzig firefighters had started collecting a few Euros for the firefighters and their families as they were aware of what it meant if one always has to work with no breaks, damage control and saving lives,” notes Renner. “We were able to meet some firefighters at Station 16,” she continues. “They were so happy and friendly. The gesture meant a lot to them, just to know that other comrades from around the world were thinking of them.”

Bach grave, St. Thomas Church, Leipzig. Photo by Richard Varr

A particularly notable initiative was the commissioning and purchase of the Peace Window in St. Thomas Church, the final resting place of Johann Sebastian Bach and one of Leipzig’s most prominent landmarks. The large stained-glass window – sharply contrasting the church’s other more traditional panes – was a gift to the City of Leipzig from the Sister City Association in conjunction with Houston Rotarians of District 5890 who helped raise the $120,000 to pay for it.

Peace Window, St. Thomas Church, Leipzig. Photo by Richard Varr

The window, with streaks of bright blue, green and purple – like elongated shards of thin glass – was completed and installed in 2009 on the 20th anniversary of the 1989 Peaceful Revolution, when more than 70,000 Leipzig citizens marched peacefully against the oppression of East Germany’s Communist rule. “It’

Peace Window, detail. Photo by Richard Varr

s an abstract work – like peace breaking out, filled with possibilities and newness – a whole new way of living that people welcomed into their lives.” exclaims Pastor Moore. “This kind of energy you see is meant to say that peace is not simply passive peace, but filled with energy and possibilities.”

Bach window in St. Thomas Church, Leipzig.Photo by Richard Varr

“This window breaks away from the traditional windows that have been with the church for over 120 years,” he continues. “They’ve made a deliberate effort to allow a whole new spirit to enter into the church which signified to them what it’s like for peace to break out, to celebrate that peace and do it in style.” The detailed and colorful glasswork of the church’s other windows depict some of Germany’s favorite sons including Bach and composer Felix Mendelssohn-Bartholdy, Kaiser Wilhelm II, and Protestant Reformers Martin Luther and Phillip Melanchthon.

Inside St. Thomas Church. Photo by Richard Varr

So what’s next for the Houston-Leipzig partnership? “The people I meet over the years make me feel that my colleagues and I can continue to contribute to an exchange on a basic level, city-to-city, culture- to-culture, on an everyday people-to-people level,” concludes Renner. “Have a look at what other people do and you’ll see it’s not only me and them, but it’s all of us together.”



Leipzig Aglow with the Annual Festival of Lights

Photo by Richard Varr

The 1989 Peaceful Revolution celebrated every October 9th

By Richard Varr

They knew freedom would come one day – all they had to do was stand up for it. And on October 9, 1989, they did – defiantly, peacefully. But it was the sheer numbers of protesters that would determine their destiny as they would soon see Communist rule crumble into the history books.

Crowds in Augustusplatz gather for the Festival of Lights, Oct. 9, 2018. Photo by Richard Varr

Every October 9th, on the anniversary of the Peaceful Revolution, Leipzig citizens celebrate how prayers and a yearning to be free brought out a surging crowd – virtually overnight – of more than 70,000 who demanded democracy. Back then, they stood with candles in hand, not knowing whether police would fire upon them. They chanted over and over again, “We are the people” and “No violence” as they marched around Leipzig’s inner-city ring road. And the march remained peaceful because holding candles prevented protesters from throwing stones.

Thousands of candles illuminate the Festival of Lights. Photo by Richard Varr

They demonstrated against East Germany’s oppressive GDR government, the feared Stasi (Secret Police) and Communist rule. Despite threats of police gunfire to quash the rebellion, the overwhelming crowds made it impossible for police to imprison the tens-of-thousands. The Berlin Wall tumbled a month later.

Augustusplatz, October 9, 2018. Photo by Richard Varr

During my visit to Leipzig earlier this month, I took part in the so-called Festival of Lights, held every October 9th, commemorating the Peaceful Revolution. Citizens come together at nightfall, again cradling candles where it all took place – in central Augustusplatz, and earlier in the imposing Romanesque and Gothic St. Nicholas Church, where Monday prayer meetings beginning in 1982 would spawn a revolution seven years later.

An all women orchestra performs in this year’s Festival of Lights. Photo by Richard Varr

This year’s anniversary paid tribute to women for their role during the rebellion. An all-women orchestra performed amidst the chanting of five actresses recalling the hardships they suffered. “Of course we were intimidated,” the actresses shouted as the music reached a crescendo, looking out upon the candlelit panorama beneath illuminated City Tower windows synchronized to display “89.” “We knew of people suddenly disappearing, of children who had to be adopted because their parents were under arrest.”

Five actresses on stage alongside the orchestra. Photo by Richard Varr

“Sometimes, I had downright nightmares about the Stasi attacking our home at night and taking me with them, just as it happened to my father at his workplace in 1952,” one chanted.

St. Nicholas Church.

Key to each anniversary is the Speech on Democracy at St. Nicholas Church. This year’s speaker – in keeping with the tribute to women theme – was former Federal Minister of Justice Herta Däubler-Gmelin, the first woman to give the speech. “Today is a day of remembrance, with our thoughts looking forward. I am thankful to be a part of it,” she said within the packed church. “I think we should state clearly and with more self-confidence what we expect from politics and politicians, and then add what we citizens ourselves could and must do – more and better.”

Single column outside St. Nicholas Church. Photo by Richard Varr

St. Nicholas is one of the sights of the Peaceful Revolution, where Monday prayer meetings swelled in the fall of 1989 as calls to end Communism echoed throughout Eastern Europe, culminating in Leipzig with the October 9th demonstration. In the adjacent courtyard stands a single column –a replica of the church’s inside columns with their sprouting palm fronds design. The outside pillar and a bronze plaque with footprints below symbolize the thousands of people who couldn’t get into the church and who marched during the Peaceful Revolution.

Inside beautiful St. Nicholas Church. Photo by Richard Varr

Another important sight is the former Stasi headquarters building, now a museum, at the so-called Round Corner. “The situation was really dangerous,” local historian and tour guide Theresa Hertrich told me during a tour. “Would the Stasi in the headquarters shoot the people as they walked by? So the people put candles on the stairs so they could show they were peaceful.”

Bugging/recording devices inside the Stasi Museum. Photo by Richard Varr

The museum showcases the Staci’s oppressive methods and spying tactics. One exhibit reveals the Secret Police had about 2,400 employees and 10,000 “unofficial” employees who spied on fellow citizens. “Many worked every day in factories with colleagues and reported any anti-government talk. That’s how the Stasi collected information on citizens,” explains Hertrich.

“People had to have two faces – a private face, and one official face if you talked to people you didn’t know. Because it was really dangerous to say out loud what you were thinking.” Other museum exhibits include bugging devices, a recreated detention cell and a steam-driven machine used to open envelopes of private letters. Yet another sensational exhibit revealed how the police would question suspected citizens for hours in hot interrogation rooms, and then collect their scents from perspiration on a cloth they sat on, so specially trained dogs could later track them down.

Madler Passage. Photo by Richard Varr

Under the GDR, buildings decayed and the environment suffered. “In the 70s, you could still see the charm of Leipzig, but at the end of the 80s there was nothing anymore. Nothing was renovated,” said tour guide Birgit Scheffel while we sipped coffee within Leipzig’s famous Madler Passage, one of the city’s many passageways lined with retail shops cutting through city blocks. Scheffel explained that after German East-West reunification, shops, malls and department stores sprung up where there was once rubble and empty space.

Augustusplatz, October 9, 2018. Photo by Richard Varr

“In my family, we did not starve. We had basic food,” she said when describing day to day life during GDR rule. “But if you wanted something special like oranges and bananas, we could only get those once a year.”

“We had to wait 15-18 years for a car,” she added. “We had to wait for a normal telephone up to 20 years.”

Recreated living area inside the N’Ostalgie Museum. Photo by Richard Varr

Leipzig’s N’Ostalgie Museum adds yet another dimension of daily life under Communist rule. On display are old scooters, kitchen utensils, toys, old film cameras, bicycles and even a Trabi car, to name just a few of the everyday items mostly made in East Germany. Yet there are no signs or explanations of these items in the museum because those who lived during that era know what they are.

Trabi car inside the N’Ostalgie Museum. Photo by Richard Varr

“Most GDR museums are about the Stasi or the Wall,” noted museum owner Nancy Hager. “It’s very interesting for German people, both West and East, to have a place that’s neutral and not political. Many people that lived then had their own personal memories that were not political.”

Market Square. Photo by Richard Varr

“Sure, there were many citizens who didn’t care – absorbed by their daily life,” said Gisela Kallenbach, a former Leipzig City Council woman and former member of both the Saxony State Parliament and European Parliament. “Many were resigned to the fact they couldn’t change anything because we had the wall – like an open prison in the GDR. For myself, I’m convinced that if you suffer, you have to make changes.”

Augustusplatz, October 9, 2018. Photo by Richard Varr

I’m hoping I can make it back to Leipzig for next year’s 30th anniversary of the Peaceful Revolution – an event that, just like the 25th anniversary in 2014, will draw even larger crowds and a march along the inner-city ring road.

“We started to become braver citizens back then,” recalls Kallenbach. “It’s still as if it happened yesterday.”

Leipzig, Germany’s Festival of Lights: Candlelight, Feminism and Remembrance

Thousands of candles illuminate the Festival of Lights. Photo by Richard Varr

On this year’s 29th anniversary of Leipzig’s Peaceful Revolution, the wind is gentle; the feeling, however, powerful and poignant. In my mind, it’s not so much a festival, but instead a remembrance of a bold and courageous stand for the basic freedoms we take for granted today. Thousands hold candles as the more than 70,000 protesters did in 1989 in what was a defiant stand for human rights.

Crowds in Augustusplatz gather for the Festival of Lights. Photo by Richard Varr

Leipzig’s Festival of Lights is an annual event commemorating the city’s October 9, 1989 Peaceful Revolution when Communism began to crumble into history. I was invited by Leipzig Tourism to participate in the festival and write about this year’s anniversary of the historic event. My guest blog is now posted on the Tourist Office’s website.


I’ll be adding my own posts from my trip this month on this blog in the days ahead!

An all women orchestra and actresses perform in remembrance of the Peaceful Revolution. Photo by Richard Varr

What Not to Miss in Irving, Texas

The Mustangs of Las Colinas. Photo by Richard Varr

Gondola ride on Lake Carolyn. Photo by Richard Varr

I’ve visited the Dallas/Fort Worth metroplex many times over the years, but never spent time in Irving, a city just northwest of Dallas. During my visit in late May, I found Irving has several notable sights well worth checking out!

The Ruth Paine House. Photo by Richard Varr

The Ruth Paine House Museum – In the Footsteps of an Assassin

It looks like a simple middle class house with a front lawn and garage. But this house in Irving played an important role in the grim history of President John F. Kennedy’s assassination. It’s where Lee Harvey Oswald stayed the night before shooting Kennedy in 1963. Oswald would visit the home often because his wife Marina was staying there with her children while he was living and working in Dallas at the Texas School Book Depository. In fact, Oswald at one point hid the gun he used to kill Kennedy in the home’s garage.

Actor projection in the Ruth Paine House. Photo by Richard Varr

The house has been recently restored to the way it looked in 1963. In addition to the period refrigerator, washer, sofa, television and other items, multi-media hologram-like projections showcase actors playing the roles of Oswald and Marina as well as homeowner Ruth Paine and her husband repeating scripts according to what was found in historical records.

Inside the Ruth Paine House. Photo by Richard Varr

Visitors first spend time in a small museum showcasing photos, interviews with Ruth Paine, and mostly black and white videos of Kennedy’s Dallas visit looped through 1960s-era TVs. They are then driven to the nearby Paine House for a tour.

Ruth Paine House museum exhibit. Photo by Richard Varr

What to See and Do in Irving

The Mustangs of Las Colinas. Photo by Richard Varr

The Mustangs of Las Colinas exudes the free and wild Texas plains spirit in the heart of the city. Sculptures of nine galloping mustang horses stand over a man-made fountain/stream surrounded by office towers within Williams Square Plaza. A museum in the East Tower highlights sculptor Robert Glen, an African wildlife artist, and what inspired him to create the sculptures.

The Mustangs of Las Colinas. Photo by Richard Varr

Railroad depot in Heritage Park, downtown Irving. Photo by Richard Varr

Inside the Big State Fountain Grill, downtown Irving. Photo by Richard Varr

I also attended a concert at The Pavilion, an indoor/outdoor music venue on the grounds of Irving’s Toyota Music Factory, a complex with several other music venues, shops and restaurants. Key to what makes The Pavilion unique is its retractable rear walls that in good weather open to a grassy area on a hill, where concert goers can sit on blankets.

Concert at The Pavilion. Photo by Richard Varr

High-rises along Lake Carolyn. Photo by Richard Varr

In addition to the hills and treed streets of Las Colinas, an Irving neighborhood, there’s also the scenic waterfront of Lake Carolyn. Canals weave in and around apartments and other high rise buildings and lead out to the lake’s two distinct bodies of water. It’s also where you can ride “trikes” (aqua-cycles with pedals that sit high above the water) and where you can try your luck on stand-up paddle boards. One highlight was my evening ride on a Venetian-style gondola – a sunset ride with cooling breezes, and a simply delightful way to cap off the day, especially in the hot summer months.

Art on Flag Pole Hill park, Las Colinas. Photo by Richard Varr

Founders’ Plaza by DFW Airport. Photo by Richard Varr

Founders’ Plaza by DFW Airport. Photo by Richard Varr

Irving sits next to sprawling DFW airport, with most sights only a 10 or 15-minute car ride away. Adjacent to the airport sits Founders’ Plaza, an observation area to see roaring jets taking off and landing. Historical plaques pay tribute to traveling military veterans, and the area has picnic tables, telescopes, monuments and actual communications from the air traffic control tower broadcast through loudspeakers.

Lobby of the Four Seasons Dallas at Las Colinas. Photo by Richard Varr

The Four Seasons Dallas at Las Colinas

Often referred to as Texas’ first urban resort, staying at this Four Seasons property was like visiting a country club. It’s a fabulous hotel/resort that lives up to the chain’s luxurious reputation with welcoming staff, fine restaurants, a full service spa and simply outstanding facilities all around.

Pool at the Four Seasons Dallas at Las Colinas. Photo by Richard Varr

In particular, the Four Seasons Dallas at Las Colinas offers a resort vacation with a large tennis and sports club, pool and an 18-hole, par-70 golf course where the AT&T Byron Nelson Golf Tournament was held from 1983-2017. Located between Dallas and Fort Worth, it’s particularly popular as a staycation destination for locals, for a Dallas area vacation for visitors, and as a convenient stopover hotel for passengers flying in and out of DFW Airport.


Byron Nelson statue at the Four Seasons. Photo by Richard Varr