Tag Archives: Richard Varr

WELCOME!

img_0698a1Welcome to my blog!

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

My latest blog post is from my December trip to The Bahamas while on a four-day cruise with Holland America Line. Before that, posts from my October trip to Singapore – on my bucket list for a long time so I’m thrilled I finally made it.  I’m going to a conference in New York later this month, and then on to Southern Spain and Gibraltar for an assignment. Stay tuned…

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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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

Germany 2017: 500th Anniversary of the Reformation

Martin Luther Statue, Wittenberg. Photo by Richard Varr

Martin Luther Statue, Wittenberg. Photo by Richard Varr

Following in Martin Luther’s Footsteps

Luther cast from death mask, Halle. Photo by Richard Varr

Luther cast from death mask, Halle. Photo by Richard Varr

The faint light reveals his sallow color, his face so life-like that I can almost believe he’s sitting right in front of me.  I’m looking at the waxen mold of the face cast from Martin Luther’s death mask, one of the most sensational exhibits I saw during my week in Germany.  It’s an exciting time over the coming year as the country and the world celebrate the 500th anniversary of the Protestant Reformation in 2017.

Luther painting, Museum of City History, Leipzig.

Luther painting, Museum of City History, Leipzig.

It all started in 1517 when Luther, then a monk, boldly protested against the Catholic Church’s practice of selling tickets for forgiveness of sins called indulgences, arguing money can’t buy God’s forgiveness.  Luther nailed his 95 Theses of protest on a church door in Wittenberg, where my journey began as I followed in his footsteps.  Luther is a key figure in German history – his rebellion resulting in the Lutheran and other Protestant religions, and his translation of the Bible from Latin leading to the development of the German language today.

Painting in Luther House Museum, Wittenberg.

Painting in Luther House Museum, Wittenberg. Detail. Courtesy Luther House Museum.

In September, I visited some of the key towns where Luther lived and preached; where he was born and where he died.  I visited some of the original homes, castles and churches that remain today, 500 years later, as these towns celebrate this remarkable heritage.  On a personal note, my grandmother on my father’s side came from Germany.

Church door, Castle Church, Wittenberg. Photo by Richard Varr

Church door, Castle Church, Wittenberg. Photo by Richard Varr

This blog post will highlight just some of the things to see and do in the coming year.  There are so many buildings, references to historical events and footnotes to one of history’s greatest religious movements that I simply cannot fit into just one blog post.  I suggest booking a trip to Germany, like I did, and see it all for yourself!  I traveled on assignment, flying into Leipzig, and then renting a car and driving between towns, all within 1-2 or so hours of each other.   My assigned story will appear in May 2017 on the website of the American Automobile Association’s Home&Away Magazine, www.homeandawaymagazine.com (enter zip code 73099), with references in the actual magazines as well.

FOR MORE INFORMATION: www.visit-luther.com
www.germany.travel

Wittenberg. Photo by Richard Varr

Wittenberg central square. Photo by Richard Varr

Wittenberg: Birth of the Reformation

Luther's Tomb, Castle Church, Wittenberg. Photo by Richard Varr

Luther’s Tomb, Castle Church, Wittenberg. Photo by Richard Varr

A larger than life statue of Martin Luther in a flowing long robe stands high on a granite pedestal, the centerpiece of Wittenberg’s central Market Square surrounded by the whitewashed Town Hall and muted earthen-toned buildings.  I look up at the Great Reformer and imagine what he was thinking when, just down the street from here, he nailed his 95 Thesis on the door of the Castle Church.  The church with its imposing rounded tower has just been refurbished for the anniversary.  Inside are the tombs of Luther and the Reformation’s other key leader, Philipp Melanchthon.  And while the actual wooden door where the Theses were nailed is long gone, it has been replaced by a bronze door with intricate carvings of the Theses’ actual words.

Luther House Museum, Wittenberg. Photo by Richard Varr

Luther House Museum, Wittenberg. Photo by Richard Varr

The colossal four-story Luther House, once an Augustinian monastery and the world’s largest museum showcasing the Reformation, sits alongside a quiet courtyard fronted by a life-sized statue of Luther’s wife Katharina von Bora.  Inside are some of Luther’s important papers and pamphlets, Bibles, his pulpit, paintings and the Luther Room, part of where his family lived.

Cranach the Elder statue, Wittenberg. Photo by Richard Varr

Cranach the Elder statue, Wittenberg. Photo by Richard Varr

The old master Lucas Cranach the Elder was another of Wittenberg’s famous sons, with buildings he owned enveloping a courtyard that once housed his own art studio, pharmacy and printing businesses.

Castle Church tower. Photo by Richard Varr

Castle Church tower. Photo by Richard Varr

For 2017, the town has already built an impressive round panorama with a giant painting of Wittenberg in Luther’s time.  The World Reformation Exhibition scheduled to run next summer will include seven “Gates of Freedom,” with the Welcoming Gate as a lookout tower.  “We will develop discussion platforms, rooms and spaces so people can exchange ideas about the Reformation – what it meant 500 years ago, what it means now and what will come of it 500 years from now,” says project marketing director Cathrine Schweikardt.

Panorama painting. Courtesy Asisi Panorama Wittenberg 1517 Foto Tom Schulze tel. 0049-172-7997706 mail post@tom-schulze.com web www.tom-schulze.com

Panorama painting. Courtesy Asisi Panorama Wittenberg 1517.
Photo by Tom Schulze

Courtesy Asisi Panorama,Wittenberg. Photo: by Tom Schulze

Courtesy Asisi Panorama,Wittenberg.
Photo: by Tom Schulze

Halle: A Life-Like Glimpse of the Reformer

Luther cast of death mask and hands, Halle. Photo by Richard Varr

Luther cast of death mask and hands, Halle. Photo by Richard Varr

Luther preached in Halle many times during his lifetime.  His eerie likeness – the original wax cast of his death mask and hands – is tucked away in a small room of Halle’s four-tower Market Church that anchors the city’s central square.  The church’s historic library houses many original documents, including the first 1534 edition of Luther’s translated Bible.  “Luther used a common German language and because of that, we can say that he invented the modern common German language because of his translation of the Bible,” says Halle city tour guide Hans-Joachim Kres.

Luther's handwriting in Bible. Photo by Richard Varr

Luther’s handwriting in Bible. Photo by Richard Varr

Other library documents include a Bible Luther presented to a noble family with original script written by Luther himself and a mention of the 1685 baptism one of the city’s favorite sons, composer Georg Frideric Handel, written in a church log.

Handel baptism entry. Photo by Richard Varr

Handel baptism entry. Photo by Richard Varr

Handel Museum, Halle. Photo by Richard Varr

Handel Museum, Halle. Photo by Richard Varr

Other Halle sights include the Handel Museum (the composer was born there), and the Moritzburg Art Museum housed in the late 15th century castle of the same name.

Moritzburg Castle. Photo by Richard Varr

Moritzburg Castle. Photo by Richard Varr

Eisleben and Mansfeld

At the end of his life, an extremely ill Martin Luther trudged along dirt roads in winter to where he was born in 1483, the countryside town of Eisleben at the foot of the Harz Mountains.  It’s also where he died.  A reconstruction of his birth home is now the Luther Birthplace Museum, highlighting his early life and final days through exhibits showcasing his father’s copper mining activities and Luther’s baptismal font from 1518.

Inside the Death House Museum. Photo by Richard Varr

Inside the Death House Museum. Photo by Richard Varr

The Death House Museum, just off the town square, showcases paintings of his final hours and exhibits of describing his bouts with kidney stones and heart disease.  Most impressive is the original pall – now dramatically faded – that covered his coffin when he died in 1546.

Luther's parents house, Mansfeld. Photo by Richard Varr

Luther’s parents house, Mansfeld. Photo by Richard Varr

As a child, Luther’s parents moved to the nearby town of Mansfeld.  Their original small brick home where young Martin lived from 1484-1497 still stands as a museum.  Across the street, an exhibition hall showcases artifacts – coins, colored window glass, nails, marbles and more – the family used, unearthed on the very site during an archeological excavation.

Wartburg Castle. Photo by Richard Varr

Wartburg Castle. Photo by Richard Varr

Eisenach

After he was denounced by the Catholic Church, Martin Luther took refuge for 10 months in Wartburg Castle, a fortification perched on a hilltop outside Eisenach.  In a small wood-paneled room, he would sit at a desk where he translated the Bible’s New Testament.

Luther's room, Wartburg Castle. Photo by Richard Varr

Luther’s room, Wartburg Castle. Photo by Richard Varr

Luther House, Eisenach. Photo by Richard Varr

Luther House, Eisenach. Photo by Richard Varr

In town, the Luther House with its half-timbered façade is now a museum.  Owned by a town councilman who lived there with his family, Luther boarded at the home from 1498-1501 while attending a local school.  Upstairs is the so-called Luther Room where it’s believed he slept, with one beam in the wall dating back to 1269.

Luther Room, Eisenach. Photo by Richard Varr

Luther Room, Eisenach. Photo by Richard Varr

Luther sang with the school’s boys’ choir.  And maybe it’s no coincidence that Luther had so much in common with another of the town’s favorite sons, composer Johann Sebastian Bach, who was born in Eisenach.  “Luther was the initiator of Lutheran church music.  Without Luther, we wouldn’t have the music of Bach who realized the ideas of Luther for his own music,” says Eisenach tour guide Cornelia Hartleb.  The renovated Bach House was the first Bach Museum on the actual site of the house where Bach was born in 1685.

Twin churches on Domplatz, Erfurt. Photo by Richard Varr

Twin churches on Domplatz, Erfurt. Photo by Richard Varr

Erfurt

Erfurt’s medieval skyline at nightfall is breathtaking.  Spotlights bring sharply into focus the twin houses of worship dominating the view:  St. Mary’s Cathedral and the Church of St. Severus, separated by a colossal stairwell on the central square Domplatz.  Luther studied law in Erfurt, but soon vowed to become a monk if he survived a fierce thunderstorm when trapped in nearby fields.

Altar of Luther's first sermon, Erfurt. Photo by Richard Varr

Altar of Luther’s first sermon, Erfurt. Photo by Richard Varr

After the storm, he entered the Augustinian Monastery to fulfill his promise and was later ordained as a Catholic priest.  Today, the Monastery is a Protestant conference center and houses exhibits including a library, artifacts and original prayer cells.  Next door, I enter the nave of St. Augustine Church and see the original altar where Luther gave his first sermon.

Merchants' Bridge, Erfurt. Photo by Richard Varr

Merchants’ Bridge, Erfurt. Photo by Richard Varr

Luther Stone. Photo by Richard Varr

Luther Stone. Photo by Richard Varr

With a population of about 400,000, Erfurt has retained its medieval heritage with its centerpiece Merchants’ Bridge, lined with cafes and shops along its cobbled road over part of the Gera River.  The large Luther Stone in nearby countryside marks the spot where Luther feared for his life during the thunderstorm.

Schmalkalden's scenic half-timbered homes. Photo by Richard Varr

Schmalkalden’s scenic half-timbered homes. Photo by Richard Varr

Schmalkalden

Classic German half-timbered houses line the cobbled streets of Schmalkalden, a small town nestled along the edges of the Thuringian Forest.  Some of those structures date back to the 13th and 14th centuries with their crisscross of beams, red tile roofs and white and cool-colored facades.  One of those houses is this town’s Luther House, where the reformer stayed during the Schmalkaldic League’s meetings in 1537.

Luther House, Schmalkalden. Photo by Richard Varr

Luther House.

The League was a group of Protestant counts and princes teaming together to further the cause of the new Lutheran religion created by the Reformation.  Luther preached in the original upstairs rooms when too sick to attend meetings at the Town Church of St. George, where he gave sermons only twice because of likely kidney stones.  If you have the energy, you can hike up 158 steps along the narrowing, twisting stairwell of the town’s tower with splendid views of Schmalkalden’s central square.

Auerbach's Cellar, Leipzig. Photo by Richard Varr

Auerbach’s Cellar, Leipzig. Photo by Richard Varr

Leipzig

Madler Passage, Leipzig. Photo by Richard Varr

Madler Passage, Leipzig. Photo by Richard Varr

Throughout his life, Martin Luther visited the city that Bach called home.  Along Mädler Passage, one of Germany’s best known arcade buildings, I visit the underground Auerbach’s Cellar, one of Leipzig’s most popular restaurants.  During Martin Luther’s time it was a wine bar for students owned by Heinrich Stromer, a professor of medicine.  Stromer took in Luther who was disguised as a bearded “Squire George” when hiding out from the Catholic Church.  A modern-day painting of them together hangs on a wall there.

Katharina von Bora's wedding ring, Leipzig. Photo by Richard Varr

Katharina von Bora’s wedding ring in the Museum of City History, Leipzig.

The Museum of City History in the Old Town Hall exhibits a portrait of Luther, some of his writings, one of his goblets, and perhaps most interesting, the wedding ring of his wife Katharina von Bora.  The museum also has one of Bach’s classic portraits from 1746.  The same Bach portrait, meanwhile, sits inside St. Thomas Church’s museum where Bach was music director for 27 years.

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

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

FOR MORE INFORMATION:

www.visit-luther.com

www.germany.travel

Shanghai: Dueling Skylines along The Bund

Pudong, Shanghai. Photo by Richard Varr

Pudong, Shanghai. Photo by Richard Varr

Walking along the Bund. Photo by Richard Varr

Walking along the Bund. Photo by Richard Varr

By Richard Varr

The sun peeks through a hazy sky, reflecting off the curving glass of the twisting Shanghai Tower, its narrowing apex still flirting with wispy cloud cover.  I’m strolling the Bund, the broad pedestrian walkway along the Huangpu River, with great views of the 21st century downtown Pudong District.  It had been raining for two days, so a bit of clearing and some blue sky made my first visit here all the more special.

Customs House with clock tower and historic bank building along the Bund. Photo by Richard Varr

Customs House with clock tower and historic bank building along the Bund. Photo by Richard Varr

Before coming to Shanghai, the Bund was foremost in my mind as the place to visit – even if you only have an hour in the city.  It’s perhaps Shanghai’s signature landmark reminding me of, for example, what La Ramblas is to Barcelona, Broadway to New York or the Champs Élysées to Paris.

21st century skyline. Photo by Richard Varr

21st century skyline. Photo by Richard Varr

The Bund’s riverside promenade juxtaposes two skylines a century apart.  On one side, there’s the early 20th century business district with its stately brick bank towers and the Customs House with the city’s signature clock tower.  “It’s a typical British-style building,” explains Shanghai tour guide Qiao Yong Gang, whose English name is Charlie.  “Let’s wait a few minutes and we’ll hear the tower’s bells sound off with a melody,” he adds.  While there, I hear the bells ring every quarter hour.

Pudong from across the river. Photo by Richard Varr

Pudong from across the river. Photo by Richard Varr

VIDEO: A quick clip of my walk along the Bund.

Cross the river via ferry or the Bund Sightseeing Tunnel and behold the exact opposite – Shanghai’s futuristic glass and steel towers of the Pudong district including the Oriental Pearl TV Tower offering stunning views, the pagoda-topped 88-floor Jinmao Tower and the spiraling Shanghai Tower with the world’s fastest elevators.

The neon glitz of Nanging Road at night. Photo by Richard Varr

The neon glitz of Nanjing Road at night. Photo by Richard Varr

Another pedestrian thoroughfare just a 10 minute walk from the Bund is Nanjing Road, one of the city’s foremost shopping streets with a stream of shoppers and sightseers seemingly day and night.  I pass storefronts which pulse at night with neon lights, and where sales people standing in doorways chant their pitches into portable loudspeakers.

Saleswoman on Nanging Road. Photo by Richard Varr

Saleswoman on Nanging Road. Photo by Richard Varr

Centuries old ceramic figurine in the Shanghai Museum. Photo by Richard Varr

Nanjing Road stretches from the Bund to People’s Park with its green lawns accented with manicured patches of flower beds.  One edge of the park is home to the Shanghai Museum, displaying some of China’s best relics spanning 5,000 years.  I was particularly impressed with some of the 1500-year-old, hand-painted ceramic figurines looking like they just came out of a specialty shop.

Yu Gardens in the rain. Photo by Richard Varr

Yu Gardens in the rain. Photo by Richard Varr

Yu Gardens. Photo by Richard Varr

Yu Gardens. Photo by Richard Varr

Another must-see is Yu Gardens and Bazaar, a complex of buildings with Chinese-style architecture laced around small ponds that are crisscrossed with foot bridges over rocky shorelines.  To one side is a bazaar where bold salespeople will approach you on the alleyways and try to sell you jewelry and watches – a good way to sharpen your bargaining skills.  The Shanghai Jewish Refugees Museum tells the story of how Shanghai became a safe haven for 18,000 Jews fleeing the Holocaust, and how they lived peacefully with Chinese residents.  After World War II, most had survived and returned to their homelands.  The museum includes the Ohel Moshe Synagogue, the primary temple used by the refugees.  Exhibition halls include items from that period and highlight some of the survivors’ stories.

Yu Gardens. Photo by Richard Varr

Yu Gardens. Photo by Richard Varr

As a westerner, I also appreciated my visit to the so-called French Concession, a once separate district with narrow alleyways and old brick architecture.  Upscale shops and cafes are now situated in those buildings.  The complex is a great place to enjoy coffee or beer on outdoor tables along pedestrian packed courtyards.

French Concession. Photo by Richard Varr

French Concession. Photo by Richard Varr

Charlie with Richard at the Shanghai airport.

Charlie with Richard at the Shanghai airport.

TOUR GUIDE “Charlie” Qiao Yong Gang

Shanghai independent tour guide Qiao Yong Gang, whose English name is Charlie, led our writers’ group during our visit.  He’s an excellent guide and I will look him up when I return.  I recommend him as a private or group guide!

Email: Chinese_charlie@hotmail.com

Wenzhou and China’s Spectacular Yandang Mountain World Geological Park

 

Pagoda on Jiangxin Islet, Wenzhou. Photo by Richard Varr

Pagoda on Jiangxin Islet, Wenzhou. Photo by Richard Varr

A boat ride across the Oujiang River brings us to Jiangxin Islet, the historic heart of Wenzhou, a coastal city about an hour’s plane ride south of Shanghai in the Zhejiang Provence.  Flanked by two pagoda towers on either end of this elongated island, Jiangxin is the so-called “Island of Poetry,” where poets have for successive dynasties written about the island’s tranquil riverside and lakeside gardens now dotted with camphor and maple trees and tiny potted pine trees.

Jiangxin Islet. Photo by Richard Varr

Jiangxin Islet. Photo by Richard Varr

“The poets liked to come here to enjoy the scenery and write poems, so all together there have been more than 800 poems written by renowned poets from all over the country,” says Hu Nianwang with the Wenzhou Tourism Administration Bureau.  Also on the island sits Jiangxin Temple, rebuilt in 1789 with a Buddha, and other pavilions.   The two towers are called East Pagoda and West Pagoda, dating back to 869 and 969 respectively.  “When there was no light at night, the fishermen would look for the two pagodas to steer their boats,” says Hu.

The "Five Horses" shopping street, Wenzhou. Photo by Richard Varr

The “Five Horses” shopping street, Wenzhou. Photo by Richard Varr

In the afternoon, I visit Wuma Street or “Five Horses” Street, the city’s main pedestrian shopping thoroughfare.  To one side is a statue of five charging horse leading a chariot of sorts, highlighting how the street got its name when a magistrate first rode through in a carriage.  Today, salespeople lure shoppers into brightly lit stores selling jewelry, clothing, shoes and more.  “Wenzhou is regarded as a shoe capital in China,” says Hu, as we pass both Adidas and Skechers shoe outlets.

Nantang River at night. Photo by Richard Varr

Nantang River at night. Photo by Richard Varr

Artist in the Wenzhou Cultural Heritage Hall. Photo by Richard Varr

Artist in the Wenzhou Cultural Heritage Hall. Photo by Richard Varr

In the evening, I take a boat ride on the Nantang River flanking yet another pedestrian area along adjacent Nantang Street.  It’s a popular spot for locals with restaurants, cafes and stores.  Arched pedestrian bridges cross the waterways, with strings of lights along storefronts reflecting off the water.  The Wenzhou Cultural Heritage Hall showcases the area’s art forms including traditional puppets, stretch drums, marble carvings and bamboo filament lanterns, to name only a few.

I visited Wenzhou in October for the Society of American Travel Writers’ (SATW) 2016 Annual Convention where our hosts, the city’s municipal and tourism staff, had arranged sightseeing tours and impressive cultural presentations and performances during our evening dinner events.

Yandang Mountain World Geological Park

Artist capturing the hazy image of the Two Bamboo Peak rock formations. Photo by Richard Varr

Artist capturing the hazy image of the Two Bamboo Peak rock formations. Photo by Richard Varr

Wenzhou is a great base to explore the imposing peaks, deep valley views and spouting waterfalls of the Yandang Mountain World Geological Park.  Jagged, steep mountains dusted with green vegetation feature huge cracks in their faces, looking like the giant mastiffs could seemingly break apart with a seismic jolt.

Buddist Temple in Lingfeng Mountain. Photo by Richard Varr

Buddist Temple in Lingfeng Mountain. Photo by Richard Varr

Our group hiked up more than 400 steps to reach Guanyin Temple, a Buddist shrine dating back to 265 AD within a hillside cave in Lingfeng Peak.  Inside, a central golden Buddha is flanked by smaller such figurines placed on rocky ledges.

Big Dragon Waterfall. Photo by Richard Varr

Big Dragon Waterfall pool. Photo by Richard Varr

Big Dragon Waterfall. Photo by Richard Varr

Big Dragon Waterfall. Photo by Richard Varr

We make another stop to see the so-called Big Dragon Waterfall, with water spewing down 197 meters into a pool at the base of a mountain.  “The view looks like a dragon drinking from the valley,” reads an informational tablet, noting that the waterfall is one of the four most famous such natural wonders in China.

The Two Bamboo Peak rock formations reflect off a peaceful stream in the valley, where I see artists trying to capture the two slabs against a backdrop of morning haze.  In the afternoon, we stop to see the so-called “Flying Man” acrobat suspended from a cable traipse down the mountainside.

Lingfeng Peak, Yandang Mountain World Geological Park. Photo by Richard Varr

Lingfeng Peak, Yandang Mountain World Geological Park. Photo by Richard Varr