Walk through Granada’s Alhambra

DSCN1920DSCN1927 DSCN1932Without a doubt, mention Granada, and the first attraction that often comes to mind in this city in Spain’s Andalusia region in the Alhambra. Rightfully so. Talking a stroll through this UNESCO World Heritage site, a standing legacy of the region’s Moorish architecture, can make you feel like you just stepped into an Arabian Nights story.

Dating back more than a 1,000 years, this palace and fortress complex grew over time in space and structure, from once being a small fort to being first a Muslim and then Christian palace and then finally being restored to its glory after rediscovered by explorers and travelers.

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As pictures can show much more than my writing can describe you, here’s my pictorial on my recent visit to the Alhambra. Yet, with some guidance.

Being its own walled-in city, the Alhambra is primarily divided into four main parts: the Alcazaba, Nasrid Palaces, the Partal area, and the Generalife. I’ll break down each of them.

DSCN1957After going through the entrance, you’ll first pass along the Royal Water Channel and the Seven-Storied Gate to make your way eventually to the Alcazaba. It’s the oldest part of the Alhambra, and it was the military area.

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DSCN1981 DSCN1980 DSCN1973 DSCN1972 DSCN1971 DSCN1970Going inside, the Nasrid Palaces are a thing of sheer beauty. With three palaces in this collection, the ornate designs with circular patterns and colorful mosaics showcase different living periods.

DSCN1986 DSCN1988 DSCN1989 DSCN2011 DSCN2010 DSCN2007Heading onto what’s called the Partial area, this section contains a portico, gardens, the Rauda, the Palace of Yusuf III and the Paseo de las Torres along several towers.

DSCN2017 DSCN2018  DSCN2022 DSCN2025DSCN2041DSCN2047 DSCN2048DSCN2057 DSCN2062 DSCN2064 DSCN2065 DSCN2066 DSCN2073 DSCN2075 DSCN2076 DSCN2078The Generalife area was built as a leisure area for Granada’s monarchs, where beautiful gardens provided a pleasant escape from day to day living. This section includes the Alhambra’s lower and upper gardens and the Generalife Palace.

DSCN2081 DSCN2085 DSCN2092 DSCN2107As you can see, you can spend a good portion of your time here. And it’s well worth it!

5 Reasons for Going to the New York Travel Festival

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Got bit by the travel bug? Want to see more places but not sure where to go next? Then spend next weekend (April 26 and 27) at the New York Travel Festival, to learn more about seeing around the world from those who are already doing it.

At this two-day event in NYC, the who’s who of experts in both consumer and industry travel will be on hand to give straight-up advice minus the sales pitch. The festival opens on Saturday, April 26, at Bohemian National Hall, at 321 E 73rd Street, and then on Sunday, April 27, switches over to Hostelling International-New York, at 891 Amsterdam Ave.

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To firm up your travel plans, here are five good reasons for going to NY Trav Fest:

1) Have One-on-One Time
Seeking personal travel advice? An “Experts’ Corner” gives NY Trav Fest ticket holders the chance to pre-schedule brief meetings with participating experts. This college of travel knowledge will cover just about every destination (including Antarctica) and travel type (family, solo, budget, gay-friendly). Experts include “Nomadic Matt” aka Matt Kepnes; adventure filmmaker/TV host Ryan Van Duzer; Tawanna Browne Smith of “Mom’s Guide to Travel”; and Associated Press travel reporter Scott Mayerowitz.8701129516_a423200acd_z


2) Let’s Be Technical

From apps to maps, technology keeps changing how we travel. Mostly for the better. Open to everyone, “Travel 2.0 @ #NYTF” is a special daylong seminar with sessions highlighting the direction that travel tech is heading. Talks will focus on how mobile and social media are influencing travel such as one led by Google employees Ting Ting Yan and Sarah Robinson. Held in conjunction with Travel 2.0, a networking group for travel startups, innovation and technology, “Travel 2.0 @ #NYTF” will also welcome area travel startups that will showcase their products and services as well.

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3) Get Down to Business
From travel agents to tourism board members, Saturday’s portion of NY Trav Fest will have specific content just for you. In industry-only tracks, learn more about hot business topics and trends on improving business and customer relations. Masterclasses and workshops also are part of the weekend format, with sessions also covering the professional side of travel. Learn how to market your brand wise or get better at reaching out to niche markets. Bring along extra business cards, as Saturday ends with an industry/media networking reception.

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4) Listen to Travel Innovators
Sunday’s program will welcome two world travelers that have made names for themselves yet still want to help others travel too. At noon, Lee Abbamonte, the youngest American to visit every country in the world, will deliver the Sunday keynote. Then at 4 p.m., Bruce Poon Tip, founder of the tour company, G Adventures, will tell how “Transformative Travel” has made him the entrepreneur he is today.

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5) Find Inspiration
Need more? During a session called “Travel Babel,” attendees will be able to hear neat stories from travelers – either in person or through a pre-recorded video – who will describe what was their A-Ha moment on the road. As every traveler’s story has a beginning and the journey goes off in many directions, there will be plenty of tales to tell. And with breaks throughout both days and a closing party on Sunday night, go ahead and swap stories with fellow attendance.

For a complete weekend schedule, visit http://nytravfest.com/2014-full-schedule/. All ticket holders receive discounts on NYC tours offered before, during and after the festival by a selection of New York City–based tour companies in partnership with the NY Trav Fest.

Ticket prices are as follows:
Consumer Weekend Ticket: $45 in advance ($60 at the door)
Industry Weekend Ticket: $100 in advance ($150 at the door)
Sunday only: $15
For tickets, visit http://bitly.com/NYTF2014.

Editor’s note: I am on the Planning Committee for the 2014 New York Travel Festival. Photos courtesy of the New York Travel Festival.

Toledo: A City of Three Cultures

DSCN1722A short distance from Madrid, heading south, Toledo makes for a pretty good day trip. Founded by the Romans as a fortified city, Toledo carries the nickname the “city of three cultures,” due to the Jewish, Christian and Muslim populations that once had lived alongside each other for years. Like much of Spain’s southern region, this mountainside city has had its fair share of change over the centuries due to being take over by different rulers.

Toledo once had been an industry powerhouse too: everything from steel to silks and ceramics were produced here. Yet even today, this old’s city artistic and architectural legacy still attracts visitors. Plus, you can get to this UNESCO World Heritage site by car, train or bus.

DSCN1740If you’re heading to Toledo by car (I got there by bus), the hillside scenery along the route from Madrid (you travel down via the A-42 highway) is worth the “stop to take photos” scenario. It’s a panoramic view. Stare straight ahead in the distance and among this skyline you’ll find the Alcázar of Toledo, built as a stone fortress, then used as a royal palace, and then during the height of the Spanish Civil War was severely damaged. It was rebuilt and presently holds a museum and library.

Of course, you explore Toledo by foot. Very carefully. You’re walking up hills and on cobblestone streets. There are a number of churches, monuments and museums that are not badly far in distance from each other.

DSCN1756DSCN1752DSCN1754Inside the Church of Santo Tome, groups primarily come to view “The Burial of the Count of Orgaz,” a masterpiece by the artist El Greco (meaning “The Greek” in Spanish). El Greco, which is what he is referred to than his actual Greek name, spent the latter part of his life in Toledo. This quite large, oil painting hangs in a tight fit room, but from wherever you’re standing, you can take in all this painting. It’s based on a local legend involving a very pious man, and is divided into two sections.

DSCN1743DSCN1831El Greco was chosen to paint this masterpiece, which best replicates how the Spanish men looked in time this painting was created in the late 1580s. You can also spot El Greco’s self-portrait in the painting. He’s the third man from the left side.

DSCN1793Another landmark is the cathedral of Toledo, a beautiful 13th-century High Gothic cathedral that was built on top of the city’s former mosque. It’s considered to the best of this architectural style in Spain. If you walk up a street across from the cathedral, and hit just the right angle with your camera/smartphone lens, you can get a postcard snapshot like mine below.

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While walking along Toledo’s former Jewish Quarter, a thriving section up until the expulsion of Jews from Spain in 1492, look down at the pavement. You’ll notice markers that are religious symbols, indicating that you’re following along the quarter.

DSCN1795DSCN1798 In this quarter, pay a visit inside the Santa Maria la Blanca Synagogue, considered to be the oldest synagogue in Europe that’s still standing. Seeing its interior might make you second guess this place had been built as a synagogue, as its appearance doesn’t reflect how many of them commonly look.

DSCN1814DSCN1820DSCN1819Designed by Moorish architects, the temple is was constructed using the Mudejar style (created for non-Islamic purposes). The floor plan consists of an unusual mix of aisles. There are a series of beams supported by octagon piers. Arches are graced with intricate designs, more in line with nature-inspired symbols than religious ones (my guide happened to point out a hard-to-find Star of David carvedon one beam). Now as a museum, the Santa Maria la Blanca Synagogue later went from being a temple to a monastery, and then was used as an armory and warehouse for a sword factory.   DSCN1818 DSCN1815One sweet find in Toledo is marzipan, a creamy confectionery made from almonds and sugar. It’s not hard to find a shop that solely offers this handmade treat. You can find it in its basic state or filled with chocolate and even shaped to look like little fruits or vegetables.

DSCN1763DSCN1751For a whole day or just half of one, it’s good to head to Toledo and explore its three cultures.

 

Must See Places in Madrid

As Spain’s capital city, Madrid mixes cultural and culinary influences with politics, commerce and royalty. I got to spend a few days there recently, wandering along streets and plazas and visiting museums, landmarks and districts. Here are some of the places I went that I definitely recommend checking out.

With museums, Madrid has a good standing. In the city center, there is a section known as the Golden Triangle of Art, which consists of three important art museums located along the street, Paseo del Prado.

DSCN1463 DSCN1486First, the most recognized art museum in Madrid is Museo Nacional del Prado. In comparison in size to the Lourve Museum in Paris, the Prado contains a massive collection: around 7,600 paintings, 1,000 sculptures, 4,800 prints and 8,200 drawings, in addition to a large number of other works of art and historic documents. It’s one of the best collections of European art. Pieces date from the 12th to early 19th century, a number made by artists who were assigned to create works specifically for the Spanish royal crown.

DSCN1470DSCN1473It can feel a bit daunting to try get through a lot of the Prado in one visit. I got there on a Monday afternoon, still recovering a bit from my early-morning flight, and, due to my jet lag, I decided to stick to about two floors. Or perhaps focus on a certain artist or join in a tour. Francisco de Goya has a high representation, as well as Diego Velázquez, Titian, and El Greco, among others. Italian, Flemish, Dutch, German and French masterpieces are also well featured. If all else fails, one painting I recommend seeing is Velázquez’s Las Meninas.

For those who like modern art, the second museum is this “triangle” is also worth a visit. Across from the train station, Estación de Atocha, Museo Nacional Centro de Arte Reina Sofia is located in a former hospital and holds works by 20th century masters.

DSCN1399 DSCN1398It’s similar to what you would see at the Museum of Modern Art in New York City. One of its most significant pieces is Pablo Picasso’s “Guernica,” which Picasso painted in protest of the Spanish Civil War. Major works by fellow Spanish artists, Joan Miró and Salvador Dalí, are also here. The museum is also open late on Friday nights, with free admission.

In addition to these museums, consider checking out the Museo Thyssen-Bornemisza, once a baron’s private collection, and a great navy museum called Museo Naval, run by the Spanish Navy. (Bring your passport with you for this one, as it’s in a government building. An ID is required for admission).

Along with public buses and the Metro, Madrid can be great to explore on foot. In fact, there are different squares you can walk through to reach landmarks as well as stop for a meal or people watching.

DSCN1423-sol DSCN1421Plaza Mayor is cobblestone-lined section is literally squared away, and its remote feeling is like stepping back into a different era. Buildings with beautiful balconies line this square and its different arches open out different streets. Yet, Plaza Mayor has an interesting history. Trials by the Spanish Inquisition took place here, but the location also has been a setting for bull fighting. Nowadays, there are cafes, restaurants and shops here.

DSCN1678 DSCN1676 DSCN1682 DSCN1681Plaza del Sol is a well-trafficked pedestrian area, quite lively in both day and particularly at night. Likewise there are shops and restaurants, in this older section of Madrid. On New Year’s Eve, people gather here to conduct the tradition of eating 12 grapes as the clock strikes midnight for good luck for the incoming year.

DSCN1456-SolDSCN1576 DSCN1581 DSCN1582With dining, if you want to try a mix of everything, from tapas to seafood and even something sweeter, pay a visit to The Mercado de San Miguel. Located near Calle Mayor, this older building houses a nice mixture of delicatessens, restaurants and bars. For a few Euros, you can purchase different small plates and appetizers to try. During my visit, I dined on everything from stuffed olives to croquettes to fried calamari and even sampled a few pastries. My entire bill for the evening averaged out at most to 15 Euros.

DSCN1563 DSCN1545 DSCN1546 DSCN1547DSCN1556 DSCN1553Traditionally, the Spanish eat dinner late, so it’s possible you might have to wait until 8 p.m. or so for your restaurant reservation. One place I went to Reservante Botin, a restaurant that has been in existence for almost 300 years (it’s even in the Guinness Book of World Records). Down the street from the Mercado, and in existence since 1725, Botin’s specialty dish is a roast suckling pig that is quite tasty.

One final place that might be of interest to you ties into Spain’s royal history. Palacio Royal is Madrid’s royal palace is built upon an old fortress and is now mostly used for ceremonial occasions. You can check out the views on the patio area, but definitely take a tour of its lavish interior and exquisite rooms!

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Hope my suggestions get you started!

How to Choose A Guided Tour

Going on a guided or escorted tour can be a good thing. If you need a confident boost about being alone abroad or nervous about handling your airfare or other arrangements, a guided tour can help you feel a bit more at ease while getting you closer to seeing your destination.

While many tours often include stops at major attractions in the country you’ve heading to, these companies can differ in many ways. Based on my experiences with them, here is my advice on what to keep in mind while choosing a tour company.

155911_4615225371361_22542242_n1)  See Who’s Going
Group tours can have quite a mix of travelers in age and background: older, younger, couples, families and solo. Depending on how you feel or your approach to travel, and if it makes you feel better about fitting in, check out what types of travelers often go on the tour company you might be interested in.

For example, Contiki is more ideal for college-age/twenty somethings while Trafalgar often attracts retirees and many from the UK and Australia as well as the U.S. Tour companies also center on different travel styles. G Adventures is suited to outdoor types and offers locally-owned accommodations and physical activities. More general tour companies like Gate1Travel cover key points and often have a broad spectrum of customers.

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2)  Judge Your Free Time
A planned out itinerary can be nice but pay attention to what’s included – and particularly what’s not. Tours may cover brief visits to major museums and monuments (perhaps hour-two hours) where you have to make quick choices about what to see. Or just a quick stop for a photo opp. Some areas may be seen only through your tour bus window, often while in route from one location to another.

I often go with tours that include a reasonable amount of free time. It’s good because you can check out maybe a place not included on your schedule. In the case of a change of plans or have some solo time, you still have the opportunity to see something quickly.

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3) Judge the schedule.
Like No. 2, see about the schedule. As common as tours are to stop at must-see attractions, it’s also important to look at overall what’s included on your itinerary. I get leery of tours that seem to push places where there is a lot of shopping to do but some people might like that.

It might be good to first read up on the destination you’re looking at going first, and then do a comparison against the itinerary of a tour company you’re interested. Also, some tours will make stops and/or stays all at major cities in Italy but maybe one or two might also include time in a town like San Gimignano – which is beautiful - that is along your route.

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4) Look at Features
Tours are now offering a lot of optional side choices or experiential activities. While you don’t have to necessarily do all of them, see which ones stand out to you. I like doing ones that seem to replicate the area (like musical locations in Nashville) or may get you to a place that is off your route but definitely will get to (like a stop at a famous beach side hotel in Coronado, California).

Also consider getting airfare through your tour company. Some offer this choice, others leave getting there entirely up to you. If I’m maybe traveling in the U.S. — where I live — I might be opted more to book my own fare if I find a lower rate. If you’re going overseas, and a bit nervous about getting from the airport to the hotel on your own, in most cases your tour company can take care of that transfer for you. Or you can book your airfare through them instead of having to do it yourself.

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5) Read Their Reviews
From review sites like TripAdvisor to even Facebook, checking up on personal reviews can firm up your decision. Some may have had snags in their trip while others just have their own good things to say or general gripes about trips, but the more opinions you need can give you a better sense about what you might be getting into.

Also, consider signing up for e-newsletters, as tour companies from time to time offer special discounts or price breaks. Some even may give you a discount for everything from early booking (six months in advance). Unfortunately, solo travelers can get stuck with a single person fee (due to hotel rooms) but some companies might have a room-sharing program where if you can be paired with another single passenger then that fee is waived.

In all, enjoy your tour.

A Recap of The 2014 New York Times Travel Show

For my recap on The 2014 New York Times Travel Show, here is a mix of information from sessions I attended as well as my time on the show floor.

DSCN1287616213_10151446244076457_1984918430_oDestinations

While passing along the 1,000 plus booths, it was good to see some mix-ups. Sections for technology, LGBT, adventure, and health/wellness travel had good placement on the floor, along with traditional interests relating to cruises and countries.

While Europe, the U.S. and the Caribbean continued to have a good amount of space, it was nice to see a strong representation of Asian and South, Central and Latin American countries. Indonesia and Taiwan stood out in my mind.

Costa Rica had a nice informational booth, with tasty samples of iced coffee, a creamy, sweetened rice drink, and a shrimp dish. Cuisine aside, Costa Rica is an affordable getaway, and its natural scenery makes it enticing to both budget and adventure travelers. I attended a press seminar held by Costa Rica’s tourism board, who unveiled a new marketing campaign: Essential Costa Rica, focusing on a strong commitment to conservation (with goal of becoming carbon neutral by 2021) and its growth in technical innovation.

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For the United States, Atlantic City, New Jersey of course had a glitzy booth, complete with a DJ and spin wheel giveaways (got a wine cozy from a game of roulette). On Friday and Saturday, I got to watch “Sand Master” Matt Long from Wildwood Crest, NJ, at work. He kept fine-tuning his sandcastle sculpture, and it was to neat to look on as he combined each part. Wildwood Crest must have some great sand.

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Seminars

Saturday and Sunday’s portion of the show is more consumer driven. Leading experts in this field often come back year and after year. The father and daughter team of Arthur Frommer and Pauline Frommer of the Frommer’s talked about how major developments in accommodations are changing where we can stay: in vacation homes and short-rental apartments in place of hotel rooms.

DSCN1365These options have been providing more comfortable stays for much less of a price tag. Companies such as Airbnb, HomeAway, Roomorama, VRBO and FlipKey have been leading in connecting homeowners/renters with visitors (in some states such as New York, it’s illegal to rent to a transient person unless the renter has to stay there during the visitor’s time).

Arthur and Pauline tried out Airbnb for their visits to Portland, Oregon and Seattle and for each time stayed in the upstairs level of a two-family house with “modest furnishings” and stocked with grocery staples. They saved a bundle! If you’re weary about staying a stranger’s home, be assured you can check up on previous references left by past guests on these sites.

Apps have become a traveler’s best bud.  During her presentation, Conde Nast Traveler’s Wendy Perrin named a number of apps that help with everything from flight tracking to getting directions to even finding out what’s happening in your destination. Perrin’s picks included: FlightStats, MyTSA, GateGuru, HotelNight, City Maps 2 Go, and Peek.

In all, I was able to leave with new insights and a couple of brochures of places I hope to go to soon!

The New York Times Travel Show Opens This Weekend

One recent tagline I had seen for The New York Times Travel Show was “See the World. Be Home in Time for Dinner.”  First out firsthand for yourself when this annual show opens to the general public Saturday, March 1, and Sunday, March 2, at the Jacob K. Javits Convention Center.

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This year, more than 500 destinations around the globe will be represented. Walking through this consumer trade show is like hopping to different parts of the world in a day’s length. It can get overwhelming, as the travel show attracts many visitors. Here is a map, so to speak, for getting around.

The setup on the show floor is segmented by continent or country. The United States or Europe can be found in certain areas, while you have to cross another area to learn more about Africa, the Caribbean, Asia, or Latin America. Then, there are subdivisions for specific travel interests such as cruises and adventure-minded excursions.

616213_10151446244076457_1984918430_oVendor booths feature reps from hotel/resort properties, tourism boards, tour companies, public attractions and gadget/apparel companies. From booth to booth, you’ll find brochures and tchotchkes – remember it can end up being a lot to carry home – as well as special show promotions or giveaways where you need to provide your information.

Another way to take in the show is to check out the programming offered throughout the weekend. There are travel seminars where leading experts share their input on topics ranging from top destinations to go to this year to savvy money saving tips. Definitely make it a point to listen to Arthur Frommer, founder of Frommers guidebooks, and his daughter, Pauline Frommer. They are very nice and well respected in their field.

Stage performances consists of educational lectures and demonstrations that showcase customs and traditions through dance and music. Cooking demos and book signings with top names happen too.

In all, here is what you need to know if you plan to go to The New York Times Travel Show:

 ·  Saturday, March 1: from 10 AM to 6 PM

·  Sunday, March 2, from 11 AM to 5 PM

Consumer tickets are at $17, plus NY sales tax.  Children 18 and under are free.

You can purchase tickets in advance or in person. For tickets and the entire show schedule, see this link. I’ll be around this weekend. Who else is going?