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.

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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Wednesday, August 6, 2014

Ontario countryside an extraordinary road trip

My weekend girlfriends getaway with friend Judy from Toronto was a lot of fun. We headed east of her city to Prince Edward County, a drive-to island tucked next to the north shore of Lake Ontario. The point was attending the Great Canadian Cheese Festival  - a food for which we both have a great fondness. But we also had a great time meandering among wineries, a brewery or two,  artisan galleries and stopping for photos of wildflowers and lots more. The story goes to print subscribers of The News-Herald on Sunday but it's up online now.Take a look and consider a visit. There's a great lineup of fall events there and plenty of nice places to stay, including the Waring House Inn, which we both enjoyed. Click on the contrasted words above to read more.

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Friday, August 1, 2014

Walleye (pickerel) fishing and feasting in Ontario

Rice Lake is seen from a  guest room window in the Victorian Inn. Just east of Toronto, the lake is a popular vacation destination for  Northeast Ohioans 

It was early on a perfect summer day when my friend Judy and I aimed our rental car toward Rice Lake, a 23-mile long lake on the Trent-Severn waterway. Just an hour or so east of Toronto, it’s the darling of anglers from Ohio and a lot of other places.
“Ohioans have been coming for several generations,” said Donna Cane, innkeeper at the Victorian Inn at Gore’s Landing,
Everything’s from another era here — no Marriotts or Holiday Inns at all.
“People stay here and at some of the cottages around the lake,” she said.
She’d  arranged for me to go out fishing on Rice Lake with Mike McNaught, a local guide who grew up on the lake and has achieved a sought after skill for tracking down its pan fish, walleye, bass and muskies. His passion, however, is fly-fishing for salmon and steelhead on the Ganaraska River and he also leads anglers on those trips.
My dad was an avid fisherman and our family would head north to Ontario’s Thousands Islands for several weeks each summer. Sometimes Dad would allow me to join him and the guide for an early morning trip trolling for muskies and Northerns. Nostalgic for those times, I’d asked if it would be possible for me to see if Canadian fishing had changed.
Donna was planning our lunch around Mike’s catch from earlier that morning  when mists still shrouded the late. It was 10 a.m. and clear as can be when as I stepped into his boat secured to the Victorian Inn dock.
Fishing guide Mike McNaught shows me a lure used to catch certain fish.  

  I watched carefully as Mike selected the lures and rods we would use. He motored slowly toward our first fishing hole, in the lee of one of the rocky islets on the lake. A radar-like fish finder helped him scan the lake bottom to find the schools of fish we sought.
There was nothing like that when I was a girl, but that was a really long time ago.
“They like to hang out in the weeds,” Mike said.
As we cruised slowly out onto Rice Lake, he pointed out cottages on various islands, “That one has a couple of sheep to mow the grass,” he said. “And over there is an ancient First Nations burial ground.”
Our Indians are called First Nation people here, usually followed by a tribe name among the Canadians. Many of them still live along Rice Lake, which was named for the wild rice they cultivated at one time near the shallow shore waters.
“In winter we have a regular village of ice fishermen out here,” Mike said. “We can even call up for pizza on our cellphones and get it delivered. In summer we can usually get pizza delivered to one of the docks when we’re hungry.”
There are several places around Rice Lake  that rent boats and help folks get fishing licenses, he added.
He activated his trolling motor, a small motor that allows the boat to go very slowly as he fished. That’s something my Dad would have loved.
Mike is apparently locally well-known for the flies he ties, and to tie effective ones he not only must study the habits and appetites of fish, but that of the insects and other creatures they feast on. “Walleye, for instance, love worms,” he said.
I could tell he was accustomed to speaking to Americans because most Ontario folks use the word “pickerel” for  walleye.  .
“A good fisherman never stops learning,” he said.
He promised to show us his hand tied lures after lunch at the Victorian Inn.
The  walleye lunch from Mike's catch, cooked and served at the Victorian Inn,  was delicious. 
We feasted on walleye (pickerel) that was, for me the best fish I’d ever tasted. It was just a few hours from the depths of Rice Lake.
Learn more about the area at; 866-401-3278. Meet Mike McNaught at

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Thursday, July 31, 2014

Everyone reads in Cuba, literacy rate exceeds ours

Vendors of periodicals, postcards and other printed materials flank the entrance to a leafy Havana park. 

It was quickly apparent in Cuba that its people are avid readers. Even though the press is state controlled, papers are hawked on the streets and people are seen in coffee shops and public places reading newspapers. News is not something found widely online, so googling for information and other changes technology has brought to our world haven't yet come to Cuba.

Literacy in Cuba exceeds 99 percent according to data from UNESCO . That’s higher than any other Latin American country and even exceeds the U.S. literacy rate of 96 percent for the United States.
Since internet access is problematic, to say the least, e-books also have not yet become a part of life. Like cell phones, they are rare.
We saw paper boys (usually men) hawking Granma, the official government newspaper and a few others, but the media in Cuba is entirely state controlled so the idea of a free press is foreign to Cubans. It's surprising to see a digital version, because internet access is pretty limited in Cuba itself. Have a look by clicking its name above if you speak Spanish or read a translation into English. Don't expect anything flattering about America.

The oldest and most important of four plazas in old Havana is marked by a ceramic sign.

A visit to Plaza De Armas, the oldest and most important of the four major plazas in old Havana,
underscores the popularity of the written word. Just opposite the Palace of the Captain Generals, bookstalls flank the entry to the leafy green and palmy Parque Cespedes. Containing magazines, books, posters and postcards, new and used and all in Spanish the stalls reminded me of those along the the left bank of the Seine opposite Notre Dame in Paris.
The Palace dominating  Armas Plaza was built in 1791. 

Look down to notice the street surface in front of the Palace, which was built in 1791. It’s made of wooden bricks, laid instead of cobblestones to soften the sound of horse drawn carriages so as not to disturb the governor’s sleep.

The stately palace was home for 65 governors of Cuba until 1898 when it became the U.S. governor’s residence during America’s occupation Cuba. In 1902 it became the seat of the Cuba government until 1920 when it became Havana’s city hall. Today it is a museum.

Carlos Manuel de Cespedes is honored with a white marble statue 

Carlos Manuel de Cespedes (1819 to 1874),  considered the father of Cuba. After fleeing his sugar plantation’s slaves in 1868, he organized them into an army and declared an open revolt against Spain. He was cut down by a hail of bullets in in 1874. That white marble statue of Cespedes in the middle of the park surrounded by Armas Plaza is often surrounded by those sitting on park benches reading what they’ve purchased.

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Wednesday, July 30, 2014

Hotel a legacy of the Mob in Havana

This lavish show at  Cabaret Parisien was a throwback to the past.

Havana’s Hotel Nacional, alleged Cuba headquarters for the Mob during the 1950s when Americans flocked to the island to gamble and play, was restored to its 1930s glamour a few years ago. Its terraced palm shaded lawns overlook the seaside Malecon — an appropriate place for our small group to gather for cocktails on the last evening of our visit to Cuba. Cigars and mojitos were the order of the evening.
The miles-long Malecon is a dramatic seawall stretching along the Atlantic shoreline where people gather day and night. It’s a great microcosm of the city with lovers, teenagers, peddlers, bicyclists, dog walkers and anglers — great people watching up close or from a distance.

Note the yellow  3-wheeled cocotaxi in the driveway of the storied Hotel Nacional in Havana.

U.S. gangsters had taken over the hotels and casinos, including this one,  during the pre-Revolution days of the '40s and '50s when Batista was in power and a tourism boom ensued. Those times now are recalled at the Mob Museum in Las Vegas — a town also run by the Mob in its earlier days.
This logo was projected in lights on the dark floor at the entrance to Cabaret Parisien

A wall of photos at the far end of the Nacional’s lobby pays tribute to its many guests, which included actors and writers to sports heroes including Frank Sinatra, John Wayne, Marlon Brando, Errol Flynn, Marlene Dietrich, Rocky Marciano, Mickey Mantle and Ernest Hemingway. Royalty and heads of state stayed here including Winston Churchill and the Prince of Wales. A 1946 Mob summit, called to divvy up Havana, was dramatically recalled by Francis Ford Coppola in The Godfather II.

 That night we attended a lavish and high energy show at the Nacional’s Cabaret Parisien, similar to what visitors in the 1950s saw. The dancers were great, costumes were lavish and the drinks were good. I( heard that the show at the Tropicana was even better buts its tickiets were more expensive.  But I was glad I’d brought a sweater because the air conditioning seemed aimed at keeping the dancers from overheating.

We took cute little yellow coco-taxis back to our rooms in the suburbs.

You can see one in the driveway of the hotel in the photo here.  When I saw  these three-wheeled, three-passenger vehicles my first day in Cuba, I commented on how unsafe they appeared. “Not on your life,” I’d said. But we all survived, despite the driver getting lost and losing power en route..

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