Tag Archives: Richard Varr

WELCOME!

Welcome to my blog!

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

My latest post is the third from my October trip to Leipzig, Germany highlighting the 25th anniversary of the Houston-Leipzig Sister City Partnership. Earlier ones describe my thoughts about this year’s anniversary of the 1989 Peaceful Revolution ending Communism.

My busy summer traveling included a New England cruise with American Cruise Lines, Cleveland and the Lake Erie Islands, and Barbados and Antigua. I’ll be adding posts on these locations at some point.

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

Thanks for your continued interest!!

(Header image is my photo from St. Barth, view from the Colombier Lookout.)

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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

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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.

https://www.leipzig.travel/blog/candlelight-feminism-and-remembrance-festival-of-lights/

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

New York City’s 911 Memorial, a Solemn Place

Photo by Richard Varr

Photo by Richard Varr

I hadn’t been back to New York’s World Trade Center site in lower Manhattan for more than 10 years when it was – sad to say – still a hole in the ground, and well before the 911 Memorial was completed. Although it bothers me deeply to think about that tragic day in 2001, I thought it was about time I visit the site once more to see the completed memorial.

Photo by Richard Varr

It didn’t take long to feel the strong sense of sorrow as I walked along the grounds, passing others with hardly a word spoken – an awkward silence is how a local most accurately described it to me. The memorial includes the two pools in the large square footprints where the two towers once stood. Each has 30-foot waterfalls with water further plunging into a deeper center square.

Photo by Richard Varr

The names of the nearly 3,000 victims of that clear September day are inscribed in bronze panels along the perimeters of the two pools. They include not only the workers and first responders who perished in the towers, but also the victims of the Pentagon attack and the four doomed airplanes, including the one that crashed in Shanksville, Pennsylvania. I saw pristine white and deep red roses wedged into some of the engraved names, later learning that victims get a rose on their birthdays.

911 Memorial Museum. Photo by Richard Varr

To one side of the grounds is the 911 Memorial Museum housed in a multi-sided, modern glass building. I just couldn’t bring myself to enter the museum. Like most of us, I watched coverage of the horrific event for three days and simply found it hard to relive it all by seeing the crushed and burned artifacts, including the recovered personal items from many of the victims.

Freedom Tower. Photo by Richard Varr

On a brighter note, I loved standing under the Freedom Tower with its twisting glass sides – a symbol of hope, recovery and resilience. As a native New Yorker, it was uplifting to see. Also on the site is the new World Trade Center Mall opened in 2016, with a sprawling white 160-foot-high “Oculus” design shaped to signify a dove being released.

Mall outer design. “Photo by Richard Varr

And a side note… adjacent to the 911 Memorial site is St. Paul’s Chapel of Trinity Church, dating back to 1766. The church today looks the same as I recall it years ago – seemingly untouched – having survived the devastation of September 11, 2001.

St. Paul’s Chapel. Photo by Richard Varr

Paradise in The Bahamas – Holland America Line’s Half Moon Cay

Half Moon Cay, Bahamas. Photo by Richard Varr

Finding a beach where the water is perfectly calm is not always easy. But that’s what I found on The Bahamas’ Half Moon Cay while on a four-day cruise aboard Holland America Line’s ms Nieuw Amsterdam last month. Also known as Little San Salvador Island, Half Moon Cay is now a private island leased for 99 years by Holland America – still pristine and beautiful, used as a port of call for day excursions.

Nieuw Amsterdam. Photo by Richard Varr

In fact, I found Half Moon Cay to be just about as perfect a Caribbean-like beach destination as you might find anywhere (I say Caribbean-like because The Bahamas are technically in the Atlantic Ocean and not part of the Caribbean islands).

Photo by Richard Varr

Half Moon Cay is so-named because of its elongated crescent-shaped shoreline which probably plays a role in protecting the white-sand beaches from any harsh ocean currents. During my visit, the aquamarine-tinted surf sparkled – while soothingly still like pool water. Rows of beach chairs line the beach along with hammocks and several cabanas available for rent.

Half Moon Cay. Photo by Richard Varr

Only 50 of the island’s 2400 acres are developed, leaving lots of green space for wildlife – the occasional iguana you might see, and waterfowl including ducks and geese. A staff of 40 or so live on the island year-round, while others working with water sports, hiking, horseback riding and other activities commute from nearby Eleuthera Island when a ship is in port.

On “I-95.” Photo by Richard Varr

During my visit, I joined a biking and kayaking excursion. Our biking journey took us along the island’s main road – “I-95,” as the guides call it – parallel to the beach, stopping at the horse stable and then at an inner-island lagoon for a half-hour or so of kayaking. Come lunchtime, a main fish-fry outdoor buffet-like restaurant offers many great food choices, while a lobster shack serves tasty lobster rolls (during my visit, lines formed quickly, so get there early). A few beachside bars are great places to relax and enjoy the views, including the one next to the sign reading, “I wish I could stay here forever.” Kids enjoy splashing at the Half Moon Lagoon Aqua Park.

Photo by Richard Varr

Also look out for the island’s chapel, pineapple plants, and wandering goats and chickens. One activity gets you in the water with stingrays while glass-bottom boat tours offer a look at marine life without a snorkel mask.  And at the horse stable, you might run into the island’s most noted resident: Ted the Lucky Donkey. “He brought the island luck and guests love him,” says tour guide Wendy Symonette. “He’s not aggressive, but just a lucky donkey.”

Ted the “lucky donkey.” Photo by Richard Varr

FOR MORE INFORMATION:  www.hollandamerica.com

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Pink-tinted colonial architecture in Nassau. Photo by Richard Varr

NASSAU

Artist in the Straw Market. Photo by Richard Varr

Our cruise ship also stopped in Nassau, the Bahamian capital on Providence Island, which I found to be a thriving city. I strolled along downtown streets to visit a few museums and a fort, and along squares with swaying palm trees, including the courtyards of the pink colonial Parliament and other government buildings. Shops seemingly stretch for blocks just outside the busy cruise ship terminal. For the ultimate Bahamian shopping adventure, stop in the bustling Straw Market, where artists sculpt wooden figurines on the spot and where vendors hawk just about everything you can imagine that might be sold in such a sprawling marketplace.

Fort Fincastle. Photo by Richard Varr

Queen’s Staircase. Photo by Richard Varr

My first stop was the 1793 Fort Fincastle perched on Elizabeth Hill, and at the base of the 126-foot tall, white water tower, the island’s tallest structure. Below the fort lies the Queen’s Staircase, a stairwell with 66 steps leading down a shady and narrow walkway. While not so impressive from the outside, the two-story 18th century Balcony House is a Nassau landmark as it’s the oldest wooden structure on the island. Most impressive inside the elegant home is the mahogany staircase, thought to have been retrieved from the inside of a 19th century ship.

Balcony House. Photo by Richard Varr

The Octagonal Library, another old island structure, was once a prison and what were once its narrow prison cells now hold the library’s books, documents, old newspapers and more. I found this uniquely impressive, but unfortunately, taking photos inside the library is prohibited and thus no such photo for this blog post.

Octogonal Library. Photo by Richard Varr

Other downtown sights include the Pompey Museum, named after a rebel slave and housed on the site where slaves were once sold. The museum showcases the country’s slavery and emancipation history. The Bahamas Historical Society Museum is certainly not on the radar of most visitors, but I found it teeming with historic photographs, artifacts and explanations highlighting more than 500 years of Bahamian History.

Pompey Museum. Photo by Richard Varr

Other popular island sights I didn’t have a chance to visit include the National Art Gallery of The Bahamas housed in an Italianate colonial mansion, the Graycliff Chocolate Factory, and John Watling’s Distillery featured in the James Bond movie Casino Royale. But I did have time to take a ferry boat over to nearby Paradise Island to see the sprawling Atlantis Resort with its casino, huge hotel towers and outdoor water parks. Particularly impressive are its surrounding aquarium-like pools, home to stingrays, fish and other marine life that can be easily seen up close through large glass panels – just like an aquarium – on the mega-resort’s lower lobby level.

Atlantis Resort. Photo by Richard Varr

Mackinac Island: Stepping Back to the Gilded Age

Grand Hotel. Photo by Richard Varr

The dreamy 1980 movie Somewhere in Time with Christopher Reeve and Jane Seymour is how I first heard about Mackinac Island, Michigan – one of the Midwest’s most popular resort destinations – and its 1887 Grand Hotel, built during the Gilded Age. It’s the perfect stage for the late 19th century setting where the movie’s characters connect through time travel. The Grand Hotel helps set the tone of yesteryear with its traditional rocking chairs lining the 660-foot-long porch.

The Grand Hotel lobby. Photo by Richard Varr

Grand Hotel. Photo by Richard Varr

Grand Hotel’s porch. Photo by Richard Varr

Horses and carriage. Photo by Richard Varr

Hopping a ferry from Mackinaw City, I arrive in the busy port flanking Huron Street, the island’s quaint but bustling store-fronted main drag. It’s cluttered with bicyclists and echoing with the clip-clop of horse hooves only – that’s because automobiles have been banned here since 1898. Bicycle rental and fudge shops with their deep-chocolaty treats dominate every block it seems, providing some of the island’s favorite pastimes.

Grand Hotel. Photo by Richard Varr

Circling the island. Photo by Richard Varr

Although horse-driven carriages will take you to some of the same locations and sights, I opt to rent a bicycle and pedal along curvy roads and paths circling the island and cutting through forested bluffs. I stop in a few churches and museums on Market and Main streets, but many interesting sights are inland.

Sugar Loaf Rock. Photo by Richard Varr

Unusual stone formations pierce the tree line: Arch Rock, a bridge-like span of eroded breccias carved out of a hillside 146 feet above Lake Michigan’s shoreline; and Sugar Loaf Rock, another breccias mass shooting up 75 feet. The best views of the 2,318-acre island can be seen from nearby Point Lookout and the hilltop site of Fort Holmes.

Fort Mackinac. Photo by Richard Varr

View from Fort Mackinac. Photo by Richard Varr

Fort Mackinac along the waterfront, built by the British in 1780 but falling to the Americans after the Revolutionary War, has interactive displays and period furnishings filling 14 original buildings, while reenactments and gun and cannon firings reverberate within the stone ramparts.

Grand Hotel, view from the porch. Photo by Richard Varr

Mackinac Bridge. Photo by Richard Varr

In the evening, my favorite pastime is sitting on the Grand Hotel’s elongated porch – possibly the world’s longest – and looking out to the water’s edge as the sun sets, with views of the expansive Mackinac Bridge connecting the mainland with Michigan’s Upper Peninsula.

Photo by Richard Varr

For More Information:

www.mackinacisland.org

www.grandhotel.com

Stories Published in March and April!

I’ve had two stories published on the website for the American Automobile Associations’s (AAA) Home & Away magazine — both from trips last year to Italy and Romania (if asked for a zip code, enter 73099).

Photo by Richard Varr

The First is on the life of a Venetian Gondolier — more involved than you might think. http://www.homeandawaymagazine.com/Content/Article/5856

And the second is a story on Romanian Moonshine — the country’s national drink, with the best concoctions surprisingly made in simple backyard distilleries (Photo courtesy Romanian Tourist Office, North America).

http://www.homeandawaymagazine.com/Content/Article/5909