Favorite Key West Museums: Butterfly Conservancy and Customs House Art & History

Favorite Key West Museums: Butterfly Conservancy and Customs House Art & History

Though most of your Key West time will be outside, here are two museums you should visit even when it’s typically delicious outside. And certainly if it’s cool or rainy, as alas, it has been known to be.

The Butterfly Conservancy is almost hidden away in a white conch style building near the southernmost point of the island (and of the U.S.!) It’s like being inside an enclosed glass case (except it’s not), as the butterflies fly freely around you.

Bordeaux from medieval to modern, discover a gorgeous city of wine

Bordeaux from medieval to modern, discover a gorgeous city of wine

Bordeaux has been transformed in the last few decades by Alain Juppé, mayor since 1995, who ordered the cars to underground car parks, cleaned the grime off the stone buildings, and turned the city into a gorgeous place for pedestrians and visitors. And as it is a center of the wine trade, a place for wine tastings and trips to vineyards, and a trendy cultural center, it’s time you visited Bordeaux!

Lisbon: gorgeous history, art, culture, food, wine in a south Europe you probably don’t know

Lisbon: gorgeous history, art, culture, food, wine in a south Europe you probably don’t know

I hadn’t been to Lisbon for decades, not since just after the Revolution of the Carnations in 1974 when the military overthrew the dictator, Antonio Salazar. Happy people in the streets stuck those flowers in the muzzles of solders’ rifles and on their uniforms, and so the revolution – which turned democratic — got its name. It was glorious to visit again, and experience Portugal’s well-deserved reputation for charming, warm and friendly people. But for many American travelers, Portugal is not on their list. It should be.

Discover port and learn why Portugal’s Douro Valley is on the UNESCO World Heritage list

Discover port and learn why Portugal’s Douro Valley is on the UNESCO World Heritage list

The oldest demarcated wine region in the world in not in France. It is in Portugal, in the Douro region near Porto, famous for port wine, and a necessary stop on any traveler’s tour of the country. Though the vineyards are an hour-and-a-half distant and more, the cellars are in Vila Nova de Gaia, just across the river from Porto. There, port wine companies have set up tours and tastings, and we spent a happy few hours there under the tutelage of Taylor port’s Claire Aukett.

Two thousand years of Jewish history; times of success and tragedy come alive in two stunning Berlin museums

It was just a swatch of cloth, a fabric of golden yellow with eight rows of stars stamped in their outlines and waiting to be cut out. The stars were manufactured by the Berlin flag maker, Geitel & Co, and Jews had to pay 10 pfennig to buy them. Jews six and older had to wear them on their clothing.

From the horrifically mundane, to the surreally horrible, the Jewish Museum in Berlin, which opened in 2001, has an astonishing collection of exhibits. I thought I could do my routine two-hour walk-through, but I was so absorbed that I returned a second and third time. It is an extraordinary museum that uses photos, exhibits and audio to tell a fascinating and dramatic history of centuries.

The entrance is through the Collegienhaus, a baroque structure built in 1735 for the regal Court of Justice and rebuilt after its destruction in World War II. But most of the exhibits are in a postmodern building, a huge angular winding gray zinc structure that is said to have been inspired by a broken Star of David. It was designed by the American architect Daniel Libeskind and was completed in 1999. Inside now are exhibits that show two millennia of German Jewish history.

Sophisticated week-end in San Francisco and the Wine Country

Sophisticated week-end in San Francisco and the Wine Country

Northern California is a magical place that is a model for the sophisticated urban-plus-country living we’d all have if the world was organized by smart people. Spending a long weekend there in the fall makes one put it on the short list of where to live if you ever moved from where you are. We landed in San Francisco for a taste of classy city chic, then moved on to the wine country, passing through forest and beach on the way.

Athens: Art from the ancient Acropolis to the moderns

The soul of Athens is embedded in its ancient monuments. The Acropolis and other historic sites are not museum pieces tucked away for tourists’ visits. They are an integral part of the city’s life. Visit the National Gallery, and you’ll see a 19th-century painting of Athenians lounging on a terrace, with the Acropolis in the background, “Athenian Evening,” 1897, by Iakovos Rizos (1849-1926).

The city shows its pride in the venerable stones of the Parthenon and other more-than-2500-year-old temples by designing its streets and buildings with the goal of assuring direct sightlines. That appears to be the de rigueur view from the best hotels.

Key West in January: Books & Boats (also Poetry, Prose & Parties)

Come January, there’s no better place to be than Key West. If the stars are right, you might arrive there as I did early this year, first to bask in the intellectual lights of the Key West Literary Seminar and then to revel in the glories of the annual Key West international regatta.

The seminar was about adventure, travel and discovery. If you were there, you would have heard Kate Wheeler, who trained as a Buddhist nun in Burma and wrote the novel, “When Mountains Walked,” about foreigners adrift in exotic cultures. Or maybe you’d have chatted with her at the champagne party the seminar throws every year at the Key West Museum of Art and History at the historic red brick Custom House. (That is Kate second from the right at the 2006 party.)

Key West is a tonic for body, intellect and soul

Beach, diving and water sports plus famous Literary Seminar   By Lucy Komisar In Key West you can have it all — a gorgeous beach town with thrilling water sports — scuba, parasailing, jetskis — and an annual event that draws top writers to talk and schmooze with aficionados from around the country. Did you […]

Berlin sculptures tell of women who defied Nazis

Berlin sculptures tell of women who defied Nazis

Protest at Rosenstrasse by non-Jewish women saved their Jewish husbands and sons


In a small park just off Karl Liebnechtstrasse in former East Berlin stands an extraordinary group of reddish pink sculptures called “Block der Frauen,” the block of women. German sculptor Ingeborg Hunzinger, an artistic refugee from the Nazis, chiseled them to commemorate an extraordinary event that occurred at that site in February 1943.
Berlin 1 Rosenstrasse Block der Frauen
The Nazis had rounded up some 2500 Jewish men and boys, the husbands and sons of non-Jewish women, and imprisoned them at Rosenstrasse 2-4, the Jewish Community Center to gather them for deportation to death. The women found out where the men had been taken and converged there. From 600 the protests grew to 6,000. The guards pointed machine guns at them and threatened to open fire. The women held their ground.

After a week, propagandist Joseph Goebbels, who indicated in his diary that he was worried about the protest’s public relations impact in Germany and abroad, ordered that the Jews with Aryan spouses or parents be released. And then the event seemed to vanish from history.

Why didn’t we know about this? Why is it still generally believed that no one could challenge the Nazis and live?

The Wine Geese of Ireland

The mystery of why a French cognac is called Hennessy   By Lucy Komisar Ever wonder how a French cognac got a name like Hennessy? Or why French Bordeaux is called Lynch-Bages? Lynch? Does Ireland, the country of beer and ale imbibers, have a connection to fine wine? I found the answers on a trip […]

Discovering “Romantik” hotels from Germany’s Mosel to the Rhine

There’s a bit of magic and fantasy in a day along the Mosel River, stopping at villages of half-timbered houses, trying wines from local vineyards, visiting centuries-old castles, and seeing stunning examples of a turn-of-the-last-century style called Art Nouveau.

We picked up the river route in Traben-Trarbach, between Trier (famous for Roman ruins) and Koblenz, arriving in the evening at the Jugendstilhotel Bellevue. Jugendstil means Modern Style as it was called in England, or Art Nouveau as the French named it. The hotel is not only charming and comfortable, but an architectural gem.

Art Nouveau developed as a rejection of turn-of-the-19th-to-20th-century upheaval and industrialization. Artists adopted shapes of nature; flowers with slim leaves and long-stalks were popular. Women were depicted with long flowing garments and hair. Elements of Modern Style are seen in the lithographs of Toulouse-Lautrec and in some Paris metro entrances.

Glorious London, from the gory Tower to trendy galleries

London, glorious London. I know we Americans (or some of our ancestors) fought them in the 1700s, but they are still our best friends, aren’t they? For theater, art, and experience, London is like leaving home to visit cousins. (Leaving the colonies to cross the Pond, as the Brits would say.) What I find wonderful about London is the easy fusion of the traditional and the modern. Traditional, by the way, sometimes goes back a thousand years!

Start with the traditional. To get a good grasp of the gory Royals, there’s no place better than the Tower of London, founded by William the Conqueror in 1066-7 and enlarged and changed by royal houses that followed. The best way to see it is with a guided tour by one of the Beefeaters, those fellows who look like the picture on the gin bottle and take you around the Tower grounds explaining, with delicious, malicious enjoyment, the dreadful incarceration and murder of Anne Boleyn, two child princes, and other enemies of whoever was running the state. It’s a bit like having your own personal version of a Shakespeare play.

Be sure to get there by the last tour at 3:30 pm; I’ve done it both ways, and I’ve learned that you miss too much wandering around without a guide. You can also see the crown jewels at the Tower. It gives you an idea of what the royals were fighting for! And what the republican Oliver Cromwell was fighting against.

A Paris Exhibit about Jews Deported from the Marais

A boutique hotel for tourists, a modern one for business travelers   By Lucy Komisar I was walking along the rue de Rivoli in Paris and noticed a banner on the huge stone Hôtel de Ville, the city hall. It announced an exhibit, “Du Refuge au Piège (From Refuge to Trap), The Jews in the […]

Goethe’s poetic Weimar, the Nazis’ Buchenwald, and “Stasiland”

Weimar and its surroundings represent the best and the worst of the German character and history. On the square is the neoclassical German National Theater, with a statue of poet Johann Goethe (who founded the theater) and his contemporary, dramatist Friedrich Schiller. They were part of the “Sturm und Drang” (storm and stress movement, which advocated a celebration of nature and emotion. On the day I visited, a group of theatrical activists in red and white robes were performing alongside the statue, handing passers-by advice cards labeled “Secret Agent: freedom training.” Considering what we would soon see, it was an appropriate idea.

Warwick’s Royal Windsor Hotel: a Brussels fantasy

How would you like to spend a few nights in an art museum? Not possible? How about a hotel room that’s as exciting and original as anything you’re likely to see in a gallery? You have never experienced anything like the stunning, stylized, avant garde and traditionally elegant one-of-a-kind new “fashion rooms” receiving guests at the luxury Royal Windsor Hotel Grand Place in Brussels. They are 10 veritable works of art by important Brussels fashion designers and they’ve been open for less than a year.

Brussels is a center of grand couture, although its designers are less recognized – perhaps because of snobbery – than their Paris cousins. The idea for the rooms started with a Belgian designer who mused at a cocktail party that the hotel ought to be a showcase for Belgian design. Claude Dufour, Director Sales & Marketing, originated the concept of the fashion rooms. It fit with the Warwick group’s resolve to make their hotels individualistic and distinctive.

Venice’s elegant Bauer and boutique 18th-century Il Palazzo

Sitting on the “Bar Canale” terrace for breakfast, gazing at the 17th century Church of Santa Maria della Salute across the Grand Canal, I could imagine the lazy mornings of the Venice nobles who once owned the Bauer Il Palazzo. They might have finished their coffees and walked the five minutes to the Palace of the Doges, where government business was carried out.

They or their servants might have stepped into a gondola to travel quickly to the Rialto, the market at the site of the famous bridge. That might have happened in the 18th century, when the Palazzo was built.

Art tells the story of politics in vibrant, sophisticated Buenos Aires

Art tells the story of politics in vibrant, sophisticated Buenos Aires

The citizens of Buenos Aires are called “porteños,” people of the port. Perhaps this connection to the rest of the world contributes to their sophistication. “BA” is a city of grand, classical-style buildings, elegant neighborhoods, scruffy crowded “barrios,” pedestrian malls and even a kitchy tourist waterfront along the Río de la Plata, the Platt River. Like other great cities, it’s a center of contemporary art. Much of that reflects its turbulent political history.

Argentina has come a long way since the period of repression of 1976-1973, the time of the military’s “dirty war” against the left. The government has granted the “Mothers of the Plaza de Mayo” concession booths at the square opposite the Presidential Palace, and they are mentioned in official guides. The café-bookstore is a tourist attraction! In this vibrant city, politics and culture mix with a Latin passion.

Celebrating the 500th Birthday of David in Florence

The most riotous time I had in Italy was at Michelangelo’s David 500th birthday party. Well, not exactly a party, an exhibit at the Academy Gallery (Galleria dell’Accademia) in Florence. Hmm? Isn’t David just a piece of white marble, beautiful, yes, but riotous?

I’m talking about Robert Morris’ “The Birthday Boy,” an hysterical send-up of two leftwing art historians, each in a separate video talking about “The David.” The American Morris did them in 2003-4. His satire has the art critics (played by actors), typically veering into discussions of international politics, feminism, all the hot-button issues. Or didn’t you think an art historian discussing “The David” could bring in an attack on George Bush?

Finding the Oldest Inn in the Oldest Town in England

Finding the Oldest Inn in the Oldest Town in England

Given a choice between a hotel that’s spiffy modern and one that’s historic, I’ll take the historic place every time. And when that history goes back 700 years, staying in a hotel becomes just as exciting as going out to see the sights. I discovered that in Colchester, where I found the oldest inn located in the oldest recorded town in Britain.

I was going to a conference at the University of Essex, just outside Colchester, which is an hour’s drive or train ride northeast of London. So I did some boning up on local history. I found that Cunobelin, King of the Britons, had lived here from 5 AD. Then the Romans invaded. The gritty Brits fought back! Queen Boudica burned the town and the Roman Temple to the ground in 60 AD.

Climbing down a coal shaft and up a castle keep in Wales

Seeing how both halfs lived –

We were descending a into 300-foot-deep Welsh coal mine, hard hats firmly in place, watches and anything else with batteries removed because the law requires it to prevent a spark that could set off flammable methane gas.
Cardiff Big Pit visitors getting readyOur guide, a former miner, grinned and joked. We laughed nervously. If you want a memorable experience, visiting “The Big Pit,” an hour’s drive north of Cardiff, is high on the agenda!

Sailing the Caribbean on the luxury yacht Sea Cloud II

It’s a shimmering sunny morning in the Caribbean, a night’s voyage out of Antigua, and we’re lounging on the Lido deck of the elegant Sea Cloud II. First Mate Hendrik Carlsson is explaining how to set sails and navigate a square rigger. “Tall ships have square sales and are therefore called square riggers.” We’ve been given diagrams and lists of the 24 sails so we can follow the drill as agile crewmen sprint up high poles. The real sailors among the guests and even neophytes love it!