Travel with Mona, visit Poland

In 2014, we spent four days in Poland, visiting the charming city of Poznan and the magnificent capital Warsaw, the historic Jasna Gora monastery, the Auschwitz concentration camp, and romantic Krakow, and later traveled to Gdansk on the Baltic Sea.

Poznań is a town steeped in history, as it was the first capital of Poland and seen by many as the birthplace of the Polish nation. Today it is a diverse and vibrant town, with much to divert the traveler. It has a stunningly rejuvenated central square, thriving night-life, fascinating museums, Renaissance town hall, Poland’s oldest cathedral, and many attractions in the surrounding area.

The Old Town square in Poznan

Warsow is the capital of Poland. It was completely reconstructed after wartime destruction. Its wide avenues contrast with the narrow lanes of the old section.

Palace of Culture and Science 
The tallest building in the city and landmark of Warsaw, the Palace of Culture and Science, was a gift from the Soviet people to the Poles. From its 30th floor, it offers a panoramic view of the city. It houses theatres, a cinema, museums and trendy bistros
[Picture taken from our hotel room]
Museum of King Jan III’s Palace at Wilanów 
Wilanów Palace is a true pearl of Baroque architecture in Warsaw. King Jan III Sobieski, who successfully fended off the Turks in the battle of Vienna, lived in Wilanów with his beloved Marysieńka. The building and the park have both kept their original form, despite the partition, war, and occupation.
 
Vistula River
The Vistula is flowing through Warsaw. Its natural banks, inhabited by wild fowl, are right next to the city’s boulevards. In the summer, the weekend city life comes alive here – trendy bars and clubs, charming bistros, and outdoor events attract both city dwellers and tourists, while the sandy beaches are the perfect place to chill out. 
Old Town
A UNESCO world heritage site, the Old Town charms with its colorful townhouses and the exceptional atmosphere of its narrow streets.

 

We visited the Jasna Gora Monastery near Czestochowa that withstood repeated attacks of Swedish forces during the 17th century. Since then its Black Madonna is venerated as the “Queen of Poland” and has become the country’s national symbol.

The Jasna Gora Monastery:Bell Tower and monastery complex.
The entrance to the church
 
 
The Black Madonna, a miraculous icon, is the most important religious icon in Poland. Poland’s Black Madonna is located in a central chapel in the monastery complex. The Chapel of the Virgin is small, but an extended worship area enables pilgrims to attend services within the walls of the church. The icon itself is small, and the Virgin’s darkened face and hands, and the two scars that mar Her cheek, are almost impossible to see. The icon is located in the center of an ebony and silver altar, where candles and flowers are also placed.
John Paul II said that he prayed the miraculous Black Madonna during the attempt of assassination at St. Peter Square, Vatican, on May 13, 1981. There is a display of the belt of his cassock, shot and bloodied, in a special cassette on the right side of the altar.

 

Auschwitz: The Largest of the Death Camps According to our guide’s explanations, the most notorious of all the Nazi death camps, opened in the spring of 1940. Detainees included anti-Nazi activists, politicians, resistance members and luminaries from the cultural and scientific communities. Not all those arriving at Auschwitz were immediately exterminated. Those deemed fit to work were employed as slave labor in the production of munitions, synthetic rubber and other products considered essential to Germany’s efforts in World War II.

Auschwitz consisted of several divisions. The original camp, known as Auschwitz I, housed between 15,000 and 20,000 political prisoners. The biggest of the Auschwitz facilities could hold some 90,000 prisoners. It also housed a group of bathhouses where countless people were gassed to death, and crematory ovens where bodies were burned. More than 40 smaller facilities, called subcamps, dotted the landscape and served as slave-labor camps.

As 1944 came to a close and the defeat of Nazi Germany by the Allied forces seemed certain, the Auschwitz commandants began destroying evidence of the horror that had taken place there. Buildings were torn down, blown up or set on fire, and records were destroyed. In January 1945, as the Soviet army entered Krakow, the Germans ordered that Auschwitz be abandoned. An estimated 60,000 detainees, accompanied by Nazi guards, departed the camp and were forced to march to Polish towns, some 30 miles away. Countless prisoners died during this process.

Huge posters gave statistics. Between 1.1 million to 1.5 million people, the vast majority of them Jews, died at Auschwitz during its years of operation. An estimated 70,000 to 80,000 Poles perished at the camp, along with 19,000 to 20,000 others.

In Auschwitz we visited rooms with glass doors showing hundreds of thousands of pieces of clothing or pairs of shoes or tons of human hair. Going through these rooms was heart wrenching. We were crying and couldn’t take any pictures. The worst nightmare you could imagine.

Krakow: Poland’s most beautiful city For almost 500 years it was the country’s capital and the residence of Polish Kings. Today it is the cultural center of Poland.

The Cloth Hall in the Main Market Street: It’s usually filled with tourists. We savored local pastry at a café.
Cardinal Wojtila’s –Pope John Paul II– house in Krakow, his hometown.

 

St. Mary’s Basilica with a dozen of lovely carriages to take us on a tour.
Enjoying the lively music in the street.
 
 
 

Gdańsk (Danzig in German) is a port city on the Baltic coast of Poland. At the center of its Main Town, reconstructed after WWII, are the colorful facades of Long Market, now home to shops and restaurants. Gdańsk is also a center for the world’s amber trade; boutiques throughout the city sell the ossified resin.

Neptune Fountain, a 17th-century symbol of the city topped by a bronze statue of the sea god.
Dlugi Targ or Long Market or Royal Way is the main street through Gdansk.

Below: The Golden Gate is the Western area with cafes, amber shops.

The iconic Town Hall Tower.
Vendors displaying their amber jewelry.

Poland is a beautiful country with old towns and modern cities, now opening its doors to millions of Ukrainian refugees.

A romance novel that will lift your mood and make you laugh:

 

BABY PLANS, Love Plans, book 5

Relax with a sweet and sassy Romance  

They meet at the fertility clinic.

Zach is working on an article. Audrey is secretly getting a baby.

And a big mess results.

Travel to Kiev, and pray for the Ukrainians

As we follow the terrible news on TV and pray for the Ukrainians, I pulled my picture album and reminisced about my business trip to Ukraine in April 1997.

Located on the Dnieper River. Kiev (or Kyiv) is the capital and largest city in Ukraine with a population of three million inhabitants. It dates back to 560 AD and enjoys an authentic Eastern European culture.

Independence Square (Maidan Nezalezhnosti) is on the historical boulevard Khreschatyky. It is the focal point of the Independence Day celebrations every August to celebrate Ukraine’s breakaway from the former Soviet Republic but it is also remembered for the Orange Revolution of 1994.
The Dnieper  is one of the major rivers of Europe, rising in the Valdai Hills near Smolensk, Russia, before flowing through Belarus and Ukraine to the Black Sea.

As the program manager for a contract in Ukraine, I flew to Kiev with three people from our lab in Ohio, and met with our Belarusian driver, Sergei, who had driven from Minsk, Belarus, with two chemists we previously trained on analytical equipment.

We spent our first evening in Kiev, strolling through the main avenues, discovering the city, and admiring the beauty of the colorful cathedrals with golden domes, churches, statues and monuments.

Marinskyi Palace that serves as the official ceremonial residence of the President. The palace lies on the right bank of the Dnieper River in Kyiv.

Some of you may remember the Chernobyl nuclear disaster in 1986. Two explosions resulted in radioactive dust spread around the area, mainly to Belarus which is at 20 km north of Chernobyl and to Kiev at about 130km south of Chernobyl.

In 1997, my company was contracted by the DOD to equip and deliver a mobile laboratory to a military base in Uman, in Central Ukraine, about five hours away from Kiev. The two GC/MS—gas chromatogram/mass spectrometer—and other smaller instruments we installed would allow the detection and analysis of toxic substances in hazardous waste samples.

After a week of work installing and testing the equipment, I left the staff to continue the training and returned to Kiev to fly back to Munich, and then to New York. For my bad luck it was May 1st or Labor Day in Ukraine and Europe. Little did I know that the big avenues were blocked for a military parade with the President heading it. Sergei and I had to use the backroads. I had the chance to visit St. Sophia Cathedral and a fabulous monastery, but I almost missed my plane.

Kyevo-Pecherska Lavra, is a monastery’s cluster of gold-domed Orthodox churches built on top of a labyrinth of ancient caves. 
Closer view of the green dome church in the monastery.
Motherland Monument on the Dnieper River. We could see it from far away.
Saint Sophia Cathedral is a unique monument of
architecture and monumental art of the early 11th century having the biggest preserved collection of mosaics and frescoes of that period.

Kiev is such a beautiful city. The pastry is delicious and the amber jewelry out of this world. I bought amber necklaces, brooches, bracelets.

Pray for the Ukrainians’ safety and for peace.

HEAL MY HEART is set in Belarus. In a far away country, a baby girl, four little boys, and a handsome doctor may teach Dr. Jillian the true meaning of Christmas.

AMAZON

Travel with Mona, visit Jerusalem and the Holy Land

Many trips to Israel and the Middle East had often been canceled or postponed because of political turmoil or instability. When a Canadian friend told us about a group from Montreal organizing a guided tourist visit to the Holy Land in March 2010, my husband and I found it an excellent opportunity to finally travel safely through the region.

We flew from New York to Amman, Jordan, where we met the eighteen people coming from Canada. The next day we boarded our comfortable bus and visited Petra that I described in a previous blog. From there we continued along the King Hussein Bridge between Jordan and Israel. The security was very tight with x-ray scanning, questioning and bag searches and passport control.

Monastery of the Temptation
 The sycamore-fig tree or  Zacchaeus tree

We stopped for lunch in Jericho, commonly known as “the oldest city in the world” (8000 BCE) and the world’s lowest city (1200 feet under sea level).” Jericho is a Palestinian city in the West Bank, an important historical, cultural, and political center located northwest of the Dead Sea. It is truly a place where the ancient past comes in contact with the immediate present and where the fragrance of oranges and citrus permeates the air.

After lunch, we spent the afternoon at the Dead Sea shore. The sea water is rich in minerals and salt, and so muddy. The mud is cleaned and sold as an anti-wrinkle facial cream at $90 the small jar. [Yes, I bought a jar. It didn’t erase a single line.]

The Dome of the Rock or Masgad El Aksa. A cabinet within the building houses a hair from the prophet Mohamad’s beard. Another tradition suggests it’s the mountain where Abraham nearly sacrificed his son Isaac.
A view of Jerusalem from Mount Olive

Finally we entered Jerusalem in the early night and checked in our hotel that was fully booked for the week. For our bad luck, millions of Christian pilgrims and orthodox Jews had flocked to Jerusalem to celebrate the Catholic Easter, Orthodox Easter, and Passover that all occurred on that same week in the year 2010. The hotel manager had programmed the elevators to stop at each floor in respect for the Jewish patrons who were not allowed to operate the lift. Imagine the slow traffic, going up and down.

In the morning we boarded our bus and headed to Nazareth where we visited the Basilica of the Annunciation and in the lowest floor an ancient house that tradition says is the site of the angelic announcement. Not far from it, we visited the Church of St. Joseph, the site of the Holy Family’s house and St. Joseph’s workshop. Later we had lunch on the Lake of Tiberias, and then drove through the verdant hills of Galilea, where we visited three more churches.

Lunch of fish on the Lake Tiberias known for its rough waves.

We spent the evening on the shore of the Jordan River. Many pilgrims wore a white robe to be baptized or renew their baptism vows in the Jordan River.

Sea of Galilee, also called Lake Tiberias, through which the Jordan River flows.

The next day, we stopped by St. John the Baptist Church, built over the house where he was born. We climbed 154 steps to the Church of the Visitation. Inside the church, 41 plaques, each in a different language, bear the Magnificat.

We visited the Museum of Jerusalem and saw the Dead Sea Scrolls, then admired a small model –maquette– of Old Jerusalem, with the Temple, Pilate’s fortress, Herod’ s Castle, and the walls of Jerusalem.

We continued to Bethlehem and the Church of the Nativity.

The Church of the Nativity is built above a cave which may have been the place of Jesus’ nativity.
The church was built by Queen Helena in 329, and renovated by the Crusaders. The cave includes two lobes, one with a star marks the place of Jesus’ birth, the other marks the place of the manger.

We passed by the Shepherd’s Field where the sheep and goats used to grate.

Later the hotel offered us a tour of Jerusalem by night, with a stop at Mount Olive. We crossed some villages, stopped by Victoria Hospital and Masada. We saw a temple, built by an American philanthropist on the model of the initial Temple of Solomon. It is said that the Masgad el Aksa, the mosque with the golden dome, was built on the location of the former temple.

On Holy Thursday, we returned to Mount Olive, visited a Jewish cemetery, walked by the Eastern Wall, and the Wailing Wall.

A Jewish crowd
A Christian crowd

We spent Good Friday walking through the Via Dolorosa and visiting old churches, and spent Friday evening and Saturday in the Church of the Holy Sepulchre .

Strolling along the narrow lanes of Via Dolorosa
A view of the Church of Holy Sepulcher
from Mount Olive
The Chapel built on top of Christ’s Tomb in the center of the Holy Sepulcher

It would take ten blogs to describe all that we’ve seen and learned during that week spent in Jerusalem and its surroundings. An amazing trip that will remain imprinted in my memory forever.

My latest published books are part of the Love Plans.

SAILING AWAY PLANS ; DATING PLANS ; RESCUE PLANS ;

WEDDING PLANS ; BABY PLANS

Family Christmas

In elementary school, one of our teachers used to ask the class to write a paper about the meaning of Christmas. What does Christmas mean to you? This sentence still echoes in my ears after so many years. I had no trouble filling the pages, writing how my grandparents organized Christmas for their family of six children and families. Christmas meant getting together with the many cousins, enjoying a fun time, a delicious dinner, innumerable cookies and desserts. “Christmas is family time,” my grandmother often repeated. Yet she always added to her guest list the friends and neighbors that were on their own on Christmas day.  

And then my grandfather passed. A year later, my mother took over. The Christmas get-together moved to my parents’ house, with my grandmother’s menu and a few new recipes. By then I was married with small children. So were the invited cousins. The reunions continued, with thirty guests attending, all related — my children playing with their relatives, creating life-long bonds of friendship within the family.

When my dad passed, Mom lost the desire and energy to prepare big gatherings. It was my turn to maintain the tradition that came with a lot of work but so much joy for children and parents. For the last thirty years, I’ve been starting the cooking and baking three weeks before Christmas. Even after we retired and moved to Florida, our children and relatives kept visiting for the holidays. This year, I will entertain twenty-five guests on Christmas Eve, relatives and a few lonely friends. My daughter will handle the Christmas Day dinner. The family reunion continues with my grandchildren befriending the cousins’ kids.

Christmas meant family togetherness for church, dinner, and play, when I was a school kid, and it still has the same meaning. My grandmother must be smiling from up there at my grandchildren and her many descendants bonding together.

Yes, the holiday preparations can be exhausting. What do you do after a long day of preparation? Wouldn’t it be nice to lounge in front of a fire or curl onto a couch or even in bed with a sweet romance novel, forget the latest lousy news and escape into a warm Christmas story that would cheer you up and reassure you there is still love in this world?
Wishing you a Merry Christmas and Happy New Year.

Here are a few warm Christmas stories to lift your heart: