Blogs > News-Herald Food and Travel

Food and travel captivate Janet Podolak, who chronicles both for The News-Herald. Get the back story of her three decades of stories here. Guest bloggers and fellow News-Herald staffers also periodically share details of their trips.

Friday, November 21, 2014

Portugal passage to Spain

Storks hi in their nests, long white necks stretched as if they're curious.Black pigs snuffling beneath oaks that haven't changed color. Old cork trees, their bark harvested to make a wide array of  commodities fare beyond bottle stoppers. These are the sights as our motor coach makes its way from Portugal to Seville. This Insight Vacation is a far cry from the last coach tour I 'd taken with huge amounts of legroom, wifi on board, charging stations, bottled water, and fellow passengers from far flung Singapore, South Africa, Australia, Italy, England and. Ireland.  Half the fun is hearing their varied perceptions of the experiences we share..We,be spent two nights in each hotel and now are concluding the Portugal portion of our journey together.

Tuesday, November 11, 2014

Car sharing - idea whose time has come

Car sharing is an idea whose time has come, especially for the museum dense University Circle neighborhood where parking and walking - especially in winter - can be problematic.

Car sharing arrives there with the Nov. 12 debut of Zipcar — a 24/7 transportation option for students and the local community. Two vehicles will be at University Circle Inc., 10831 Magnolia Drive, and two will be parked at the Ford Road Garage, 1980 Ford Road. Rates, which start at $7.50 an hour and $69 a day, include gas, insurance and 180 miles a day.

Sounds great for dropping the gang off for an exhibit or show, zipping downtown for an errand, then whipping back to pick them all up at the appointed time

 Memberships, available to university students and local businesses and nonprofits, permit reserving online or with a Smartphone. Details:

Sunday, November 9, 2014

Headed to Portugal and Spain

A week from now I'll be on my way to Lisbon to explore the southern part of that country before crossing over into Spain where I'll visit Seville  and Cordoba before going on to an overnight in Madrid and then heading home. It's all part of an #InsightVacations motorcoach trip - the first of that type of trip I've taken in many years. But that's a segment of travel I've long wanted to write about since it's the choice of so many readers.

Insight is a top notch tour operator with expert guides,  lots of seat and leg room, and itineraries with special experiences such as winery visits with tastings, a lake cruise, and seeing how free range pigs feast on acorns to become the cherished Iberico hams. We'll spend  two nights in a single hotel three times during our trip and all are centrally located and within easy walking distance of many attractions for our free time.

Our expert guide has already introduced himself by mail and I've received a duplicate list of hotels with addresses and phone numbers  so I can leave a copy behind.  That's not always the case on organized tours but it's that kind of attention to detail I've experienced so far with Insight. Check our the website at

I'm doing my homework on the places we'll visit so I don't have to waste time asking a lot of questions I can have answers for before I leave. That will leave me time to meet the people, absorb my surroundings, shoot good photos and capture the videos I'll share with readers early in 2015.

I also have fairly liberal amounts of free time, so am seeking input from others who have been to Lisbon, Evora, Monsaraz, Lake Alquva and the Andulsian region. Tell me, please, what to eat, what to drink. what to buy,  who to find, and where to take it all in.

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Saturday, November 8, 2014

Long haul flying strategies

My backpack, sleep mask and earplugs are basics for every trip. These neoprene shoes, a bottle water that folds flat when empty also help make a long flight more comfortable. See what else helps me sleep and arrive refreshed even on long haul overnight flights.

Long haul flying strategies detailed in my  Nov. 9 column in the Travel section depend on being properly equipped. 

My most recent long trip was 30-some hours en route to Oahu with an outbornd layover in San Francisco and a return layover in Houston. The five hour time difference gives,   in effect, give an extra half day. But sleep between here and there is essential if you're going to be able to take advantage of it since it's five hours earlier.

My next long trip will also be five hours' time difference, but I'm headed for Lisbon so it will be that much later than at home. When I arrive it will be morning but my internal time will be the middle of the night. 
That's part of what jet all is all about, but I can't say which is more difficult - eastbound or westbound.
But sleep is essential and I always try to get on local time as soon as I arrive. Getting outdoors and going for a brisk walk in the sunlight helps.

Here are some of the specifics Ive discovered through the years or being on the road for The News-Herald's Travel section.

My North Face backpack is critical because it becomes a footrest  once I recline my seat for sleep. Neoprene Nufoot slippers go over my socks to keep me warm, provide traction  and help me make the trek to the washroom. I brush my teeth using  one-time use disposable brush picks with toothpaste embedded. A collapsible plastic water bottle the folds flat when empty  is attached to the pack by a carbiner along with Purell handcleaner. Both are easy to clip off the pack and onto my belt when I explore my destination. 

The water bottle, purchased at the AAA office in Mentor, was the envy of everyone in during my visit last spring to Cuba where hydration is important but bottled water is not widely found. 

My sleep mask and foam earplugs are travel essentials since I need darkness and silence to sleep on flights and at my destinations. They're rolled and packed in a ziplock bag along with meds I need to take on the flight. I usually travel with a sleep aide, although I don't always use it. Prescription Ambien is my choice. 
Inside my pack are my electronics and chargers padded by a light rain jacket that packs into its own pocket. That pocket has become a pillow when one isn't provided  on the flight. I also have an inflatable neck pillow
and I always take a cozy pashmina, which can serve as a blanket or be rolled for low back support during  long flight.

Tuesday, October 14, 2014

Blast from past

 I'm writing about a new book, "The Best Place to Be Today" for the December travel section. It lists great places to be every day of the year and, if you're like me, you'll look up your birthday to find a great place to celebrate it. I did just that and found Fallas in Valencia Spain, where I celebrated my March 19 birthday in 2007. But I couldn't find a link to the story I wrote, so I am reprinting it here. 

Nothing appears to escape public derision during Fallas, the weeklong festival celebrating St. Joseph’s Day in Valencia, Spain.
During the week culminating March 19, more than 300 public squares in this city not much larger than Cleveland fill with building-sized sculptures called ninots. The ninots make fun of the past year’s events in Spain and around the world.
At the end of the week they’re blown up and ignited, turning the entire city into one giant inferno.
It’s Fallas (say FIE-yus), a festival originating in the 1700s, and the hottest street party scene in all of Spain. Historians believe the wild bash resulted when Catholicism merged with pagan rites celebrating the start of spring.
It’s not a week for the noise-sensitive, and it’s certainly no place to catch up on sleep. But go once and you’ll never forget it.
I thought Fallas would be a great way to celebrate my mid-March birthday and I joined another Pisces birthday girl there.
This palmy city in the middle of Spain’s Mediterranean coast closes schools and businesses during Fallas so night owls can feast, explode fireworks and become involved in a citywide extravaganza of parades and festivities.
We saw ninots in which the airlines were derided for their sometimes arcane cost-cutting and security practices. We saw George W. Bush lampooned as a destroyer of the environment and as best buddies with Osama bin Laden. We saw the public dislike of new anti-smoking laws that prohibit public smoking in a country historically committed to nicotine.
But despite the then-ongoing worldwide Muslim brouhaha over a Scandinavian magazine’s cartoon depiction of Mohammed, there was absolutely no reference to that controversy.
I thought that strange, given Spain’s nearly five centuries of Muslim culture and rule. Ever the cynic, I figured censorship but would be proved wrong.
Arab lands are just an hour or so by ferry from the tip of Spain, and entire neighborhoods in many Spanish cities are populated with adherents to Islam. The Muslim culture continues to influence everything from architecture to cuisine throughout the country.
“Why does Islam seem exempt from the fun?” I asked Nacho, our guide and interpreter who was helping us non-Spanish speakers with context for our Valencian adventure.
“I’ll ask our driver,” Nacho said. “He’s Muslim.”
The eye-opening translation revealed that our driver, Ahmed, believes that no one’s religion is a suitable subject for humor or public ridicule.
Coexistence is key in this predominantly Catholic country.
“I can’t speak for everyone,” Nacho conceded. “But perhaps the lack of those ninots for Fallas is a sign of respect.”
Despite the no-holds-barred artistic expression and loud blasts of fireworks from every corner during Fallas, respect seems to run deeply through Spanish life.
The giant sculptures, created by close-knit community groups, are ignited at midnight on St. Joseph’s Day. Nearby buildings are shuttered, and fire departments come from around the world to join Spain’s fire experts in preventing the fires from spreading.
Orange glows brighten the darkened sky over different neighborhoods as black clouds spiral skyward while throngs of spectators stroll from one furious bonfire to another.
Earlier that evening, we were hard-pressed to choose the parade we wanted to attend. As a journalist, I was curious about the Muslim influences surrounding us, so voted for a neighborhood known for its Moroccan population, people also known as Moors. In modern usage, the term Moor has come to mean anyone Muslim but it originally signified the mixed Arab, Spanish and Berber people who settled in North Africa and southern Spain between the 11th and 17th centuries.
The Moorish neighborhood, two dozen blocks from our hotel in the city’s historic center, was a challenging walk, especially amid Fallas throngs. Although Valencia has a well-developed system of buses and a Metro subway, when public celebrations are everywhere, walking is most rewarding.
The parade of our choice, an extravaganza of Muslim, Spanish and African costumes and music, portrayed Valencia’s rich history with sword presentations, pageantry and even camels. Lavish costumes included garb made entirely of feathers, shells and faux animal skins that must have required hundreds of hours for their construction and cost dearly. Although a tradition for just 30 years, the 700-person Moors parade has evolved into one of the city’s most spectacular events.
During Fallas, Valencians’ passion for traditional costumes is played out all over the city, but nowhere more intensely than in the flower offering to the Virgen de los Desamparados, patron saint of Valencia.
A cavalcade of more than 140,000 ornately clad women, girls and even babies in strollers carry bouquets of flowers to dress the Virgin. This sedate parade, its pace set by neighborhood bands marching between groups, continues day and night for two full days. Some of the youngest musicians play the sweet-sounding flute called a dolgaina, an oboe-like instrument.
The two-story statue begins as a 40-foot wooden framework of scaffolding topped by the head and crown of the Virgin holding a baby Jesus. Outdoors in the cathedral square, it’s sheltered from the elements by a huge awning.
Over the hours, volunteers catch carnation bouquets tossed to them after being solemnly presented to the Virgin by the gowned females. Alternating colors, the agile volunteers insert the flowers, mostly carnations, into the framework until the Virgin’s flower gown appears. More than 40 tons of flowers are used for this fragrant and colorful ritual.
The traditional costumes worn by the women are ornate and expensive creations of silk, taffeta, damask and brocade, some taking six workers 700 hours to create, according to one Fallas publication. Although gowns usually are passed down through the generations, the price tag for one dress produced today can reach nearly 6,000 euros, or $9,000.
In contrast to the boisterous, sometimes ribald fun of other Fallas revelry, the procession to the Virgin is laden with emotion. Not a few tears are seen as the women present the bouquets they’ve carried from their neighborhoods to present to Our Lady of the Forsaken.
Spain’s night-loving culture holds true even in the mid-March Fallas season, when it can be chilly along the palm-lined streets of Valencia. The dry heat of Spanish summers originated the custom of a midday siesta, when most shops close for a couple of hours and employees enjoy a two- to three-hour lunch.
It was quite an adjustment for me, an early-to-bed-early-to-rise type, to sit down to dinner at 10 p.m.
Nothing gets moving in Valencia until mid-morning, especially during Fallas, when late-night parties hosted by neighborhood groups pop up all over town in barricaded streets and beneath tents.
The mascleta, a midday fireworks tradition of Fallas, shakes late sleepers wide awake at 1 p.m. each day. It takes place in the Plaza Ayuntamiento, or city hall square, where different sound artists take charge of each day’s multiple blasts.
These aren’t the colorful nighttime fireworks that bloom like flowers in the sky, but an ear-shattering arrangement of thousands of firecrackers that each day result in a different, almost musical, harmony played out in gunpowder.
Crowds gather in the square for the 11-minute display that, to my ear, initially sounded like castanets, then merged into a staccato dance of rhythm. When it ends, the almost vacuum-like silence is shattered by the screaming of car alarms set off by the extreme noise.
It was in Valencia that I learned ear-splitting is not an overstatement.
Travelers’ checks
The Web site has all the resources and information you might need for planning a trip to Valencia. I flew there from New York on Iberia, Spain’s national airline, which also has flights from Chicago. A one- to three-day Valencia Card ($7 to $19) provides free transport and free admission to a number of great museums and discounts at others. Order it at
Fallas 2007 will be observed March 11-19 in Valencia, with festivities peaking the final three days. Hotels will be filled to capacity so if you hope to go, make your plans soon. Get insight to the festival with a visit to the Fallas Museum, which preserves ninots chosen to be saved from the fires of each year’s event. They vividly portray history through the Franco years, the hippie era, and to the present.
Next May, Valencia also plays host to the 32nd America’s Cup sailing race, so you’ll soon be hearing a lot about this 800,000-person city on Spain’s middle Mediterranean coast.
I stayed at the well-located and beautifully appointed Hotel Astoria Palace, at the edge of the city’s picturesque historic old town district (
That part of town is up against the Turia riverbed, which was dried out and made the sunken location for gardens, museums and recreation after serious floods in centuries past. The curving expanse of park lands is framed by bridges to embrace the city and provide easy reference points for getting around.
Get information about Spain, including Valencia, from the tourist office in New York at (212) 265-8822;

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Wednesday, August 13, 2014

Coincidences from other side of the world

Some days I just LOVE the internet!

My Wednesday began with an email from a former Willoughby guy living in Malaysia who read my Monday story online about Carl Roberts who died in the final days of World War I. Roberts was buried in Flanders Field and a Belgian man who pledged to take care of his grave had reached out to find any descendants.

 The Malaysia emailer  wrote to tell me of several amazing coincidences: He lived on Wilson Avenue in Willoughby ('61 to '75) near where Carl Roberts' family lived in the early days of the last century. His dad was business manager of WE Schools & lived there until 1983; he delivered the News-Herald on that same street & played football with sports writer Jim Ingraham; a fraternity brother Lt. Col John McCrae wrote "In Flanders Fields" mentioned in the story. 

Furthermore,  Willoughby Mayor Dave Anderson played lead guitar for Changing Tymes, the band for which the emailer played keyboards in junior high. E-mail writer Howard Fries has lived in Asia since 1995. His email included photos of his neighbors - a herd of elephants. Today he lives in the Terengganu Province of Malaysia - the same place where I visited the Tajong Jara resort in 2001. He says his heart remains in Willoughby.

 How's that for a small world?.

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Friday, August 8, 2014

Searching for Commies in wrong Cuban places

The terraced hillsides of Las Terrazas, west of Havana, began as a reforestation effort but  now are an artist colony.
"Searching for Commies in all the wrong places" was my suggested headline for the second story in the Cuba series, which goes to readers on Aug. 10.

Either that was just too edgy or the paper's layout folks figured younger readers might not connect with the word "Commie" since it's not one in much use now. Many of the actions by Communists, who were in Cuba from the early 1960s until the fall of the Soviet Union in 1991, caused today's restrictions on Cuba for Americans.

So instead the story is headlined "Visit to Cuba has power to shake perception" which is certainly quite accurate.

Click on the contrasted print and you will be able to see the story itself along with pictures  of one of the prettiest places I've ever been  - Las Terrazas in the lovely Sierra de Rosario mountains west of Havana .

Thatch roof cottages on stilts provide rustic overnight lodging to visitors.

Whether by accident or intent this project initiated by the Russians and Fidel Castro has become a model of ecotourism - drawing visitors and Cubans alike to its cool forests, its art colony and to its Banos, a series of waterfalls and deep pools in the San Juan River where people come to play, picnic and stay overnight in thatched cottages on stilts.

Birds, wildlife and exotic  trees and plant species abound. It was begun as a reforestation  project on hillsides denuded of trees by people to make charcoal - the same activity that has made much of Haiti an ecological wasteland prone to erosion.

In the reforestation effort, which also provided wide employment, the slopes were terraced and mahogany, teak and other trees planted to end the erosion.

In the 40 years since then, it's become a lush oasis and a prime destination for a day or more away from the city. Hiking trails thread through the mountainsides, there's good dining, and a 1800s French run  coffee plantation has been restored for interpretation.  There's a small hotel with a huge tree growing through its roof.

Houses originally built for workers now have become a focus for an artist colony, many of whom open their homes and studios to visitors. Those who practice the arts always seem drawn to places of great beauty, which they make more beautiful by their own work.

Cuba still has several species of wild parrots, although the birds are endangered since many have been captured as pets. 

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