WELCOME!

Welcome to my blog!

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

I hope you are staying safe!

I’m continuing to post more as my travel schedule resumed beginning in the spring of last year and now into 2022! I’ve had a few stories published within the last few months - stories from trips taken before the pandemic started and a few resulting from my recent travels, with more to follow this winter and spring. Scroll down to see my first story published in 2022.

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

Thanks for your continued interest and stay safe!!

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

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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.

 

Story Published: Finnish Design - Simple, Practical, Timeless

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Douro River at Pinhao. Photo by Richard Varr

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

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

Vineyards near Pinhao. Photo by Richard Varr

Wine grapes before harvest near Pinhao. Photo by Richard Varr

 

 

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

Here are two stories recently published…

Falling into Paradise; Grenada’s Spectacular Waterfalls

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

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

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

Oklahoma City Memorial. Photo courtesy VisitOKC

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

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

Oklahoma City Memorial. Photo courtesy VisitOKC

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

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

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

The Secret Weapon of New Orleans: The Higgins Boat

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

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

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

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

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

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Stories Published!

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

GREECE

The Parthenon and the Acropolis grounds. Photo by Richard Varr

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

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

Here’s the story URL:

Tower of the Winds at night. Photo by Richard Varr

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

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

Celestyal’s Crystal. Photo by Richard Varr

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

Cruising Like a Greek with Celestyal Cruises

TEXAS HILL COUNTRY

Enchanted Rock. Photo by Richard Varr

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

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

SPAIN

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

Azulejos. Photo by Richard Varr

Click to access Azulejos+HAL+2020.pdf

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

Thanks for your continued interest and stay safe!!

 

Athens, Greece: Where Antiquity Meets the 21st Century

The Parthenon. Photo by Richard Varr

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

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

View of the Acropolis at night. Photo by Richard Varr

Tower of the Winds at night. Photo by Richard Varr

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

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

The National Archeological Museum. Photo by Richard Varr

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

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

The Parthenon and the Acropolis grounds. Photo by Richard Varr

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

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

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

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

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

Inside the Acropolis Museum. Photo by Richard Varr

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Old Town streets. Photo by Richard Varr

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

Byzantine Kapnikarea Church. Photo by Richard Varr

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

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

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

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

Athens Flea Market. Photo by Richard Varr

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Helsinki, Finland: ‘White City of the North’

Helsinki Cathedral. Photo by Richard Varr

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

Uspenski Cathedral. Photo by Richard Varr

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

Sibelius Monument. Photo by Richard Varr

Photo by Richard Varr

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

 

Inside the Temppeliaukio Church. Photo by Richard Varr

Helsinki Island Hopping: Suomenlinna Island Fortress

Suomenlinna bastion walk. Photo by Richard Varr

King’s Gate, Suomenlinna. Photo by Richard Varr

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

Suomenlinna bastion walk. Photo by Richard Varr

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

Suomenlinna bastion area. Photo by Richard Varr

Fortress walls, Suomenlinna. Photo by Richard Varr

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

FINNISH DESIGN: Simple, Practical, Colorful and World Renowned

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

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

Finnish Design furniture in artek store. Photo by Richard Varr

Artek, Helsinki. Photo by Richard Varr

Fiskars scissors in the Design Museum. Photo by Richard Varr

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

1933 creamer in the Design Museum. Photo by Richard Varr

Design Museum. Photo by Richard Varr

Finnish Sauna: Hot Rocks and Steam like No Other

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

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

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

SkyWheel, Helsinki. Photo by Richard Varr

Hotel Katajanokka, Helsinki - A Former Prison Now a Hotel

Photo by Richard Varr

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

Photo by Richard Varr

Original jail cell inside the hotel. Photo by Richard Varr

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

Courtyard. Photo by Richard Varr

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

Old Town Tallinn: A Medieval Playground

Old Town Tallinn from atop the City Hall Tower. Photo by Richard Varr

Viru Gates at night. Photo by Richard Varr

Yes, Tallinn is a medieval playground of sorts because with cobbled streets, stone towers and more than 600 year-old churches and town gates, it’s like walking in an open air museum. It’s one of the most memorable and well-preserved European old towns that I have visited in recent years.

Niguliste Church. Photo by Richard Varr

The stone walls of St. Catherine’s Passageway. Photo by Richard Varr

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Must see places include the 15th century Niguliste Church with its Danse Macabre or Dancing with Death frieze; the twin stone towers of the Viru Gate, especially when illuminated at night; and the cobbled St. Catherine’s passageway, a narrow alleyway seemingly from 13th century Tallinn, and now home to artisan and craft shops. The so-called Three Sisters consists of three adjoining medieval merchants houses.

Three Sisters medieval homes. Photo by Richard Varr

Town Hall at night. Photo by Richard Varr

And in the Toompea District or Upper Town, the Kiek-in-de-Kök meaning “peek in the kitchen” was one of northern Europe’s strongest cannon towers in the 16th century. Now housing Tallinn’s history museum, its name stems from the belief that soldiers could actually see into people’s kitchens when looking down onto Old Town below.

Kiek-in-de-Kök tower behind the town wall. Photo by Richard Varr

“Normal Estonians would probably know the former KGB headquarters in Old Town,” says Tallinn tour guide Jaan-Laur Tähepõld. “But for me, I see medieval houses, citizens and craftsman, horse carriages and dirt streets because they hadn’t been cobbled yet. It makes me glad to live in a modern time because it was difficult back then, to fight for your life every day.”

Town Hall Square. Photo by Richard Varr

Tallinn from Above: A New Perspective on Old Town’s Medieval Glory

It didn’t take long to really appreciate the many aerial views of Old Town Tallinn – the faded red roofs, stone church towers, winding streets and courtyards. In fact, Tallinn has maybe a half dozen such places to see the medieval Old Town from above.

View of Alexander Nevsky Cathedral from atop St. Mary’s Cathedral in Toompea. Photo by Richard Varr

Yet getting to those viewpoints surely involves a bit of huffing and puffing. For example, I climbed the 115 twisting and uneven steps up the narrowing tower in the 15th century Town Hall. As I neared the top, the stone stairwell’s steps became higher with the walls inching closer every step of the way. But the view at the top was worth every grunt.

Town Hall Square from atop Town Hall Tower. Photo by Richard Varr

After my ascent up Toompea Hill, also known as Upper Town, I also climbed the 140 stone steps up St. Mary’s church tower and was again rewarded with stunning views of the Neo-Byzantine Alexander Nevsky Cathedral and the faded pink façade of Toompea Castle. Toompea also has two hillside lookouts directly over Old Town, where I clearly traced the medieval streets lined with muted Baroque green and faded ochre hues on facades of Old Town homes.

View from a Toompea lookout. Photo by Richard Varr

Another view from a Toompea lookout. Photo by Richard Varr

Tour guide Tähepõld recalls his thoughts about the view from St. Olav’s Church (which was closed for renovations during my visit): “I’ve seen it on the ground a thousand times, and have seen houses from the inside and have been to courtyards. But from up there, it was breathtaking and amazing to see terraces on the roof, some with a garden or a beautiful balcony.”

Old Town Street. Photo by Richard Varr

The Power of Song: Estonians Singing Their Way to Freedom

Communism may have outlawed freedom of speech, travel and the right to protest, but it couldn’t stop Estonian pride and nationalism expressed through song. That’s because thousands gathered to do it. Leading up to the collapse of the Iron Curtain, Estonians came together to sing their way to freedom. “This tradition survived the Soviet occupation with the songs about Lenin and Stalin that we had to sing, but to also sing the songs we like and love, when Estonians were still free,” recalls Tähepõld. “We came together in the 80s when Estonians started singing songs that weren’t really allowed and they spontaneously started singing Estonian hymns during the festivals.  The Soviets didn’t know what to do with people who sing,” he adds.

The tradition actually began in the 1800s during the many years of Russian occupation. Today, singing festivals are held every five years in Tallinn’s outdoor amphitheater known as the Song Festival Grounds, where 100,000-plus continue to celebrate their cultural identity through song. Similar singing movements for freedom took place in neighboring Latvia and Lithuania, where at one point a chain of singers joined by hand in 1989 stretched 360 miles to form the “Baltic Chain,” from Tallinn to Vilnius.