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

Travel with Mona, visit the Taj Mahal

The Taj Mahal–A Story of Eternal Love

Often described as one of the wonders of the world, the stunning 17th Century ivory-white marble Taj Mahal was a mausoleum built between 1632 and 1643 by Mughal emperor Shah Jahan for his beloved wife Mumtaz Mahal, who died in childbirth, as a proof of his eternal love. The Taj Mahal is located on the right bank of the river Yamuna in the Indian city of Agra. 

Docking in Mumbai

We boarded the Princess Cruise ship in Civitavecchia–two hours away from Rome– and cruised the Mediterranean Sea to Naples where we spent a day, and then stopped in Santorini, Greece, before entering the Suez Canal and reaching Akaba on the Red Sea. Following six days at sea, we docked in Dubai and Oman, and then crossed the Indian Ocean, and arrived in Mumbai, India, where we took a bus tour of the city.

Old Indian-architecture in Mumbai
Modern residential building in Mumbai

Our Hindu guide explained that Mumbai hosted the wealthiest billionaires and the poorest of the poor. He also described the habitants as being the most tolerant on Earth, respecting all religions and granting citizens equal rights. In 2012 when we visited India, high ranking government officials included Hindu, Muslims, Catholics,…When we saw cows ambling on the sidewalk and monkeys jumping between trees, our guide explained that no one in India would ever hurt an animal.

The top floors of this high-rise are the penthouse of the wealthiest man in Mumbai.
A typically crowded street in Mumbai

Traveling to Agra

The next day we boarded an Air India plane and flew to New Delhi. We left our five-star hotel at four in the morning and walked for twenty minutes to reach the train station. In the early morning the streets were almost as crowded as during the day, with homeless roaming around, early workers carrying piles of newspapers on their bicycles, or vegetables on their wooden carts. After a three-hour train ride we arrived in Agra and took a bus that dropped us at the entrance of the Taj Mahal. A heavy fog–which apparently is a daily occurrence–veiled the famous mausoleum, but slowly faded as the sun rose higher.

The Taj Mahal was designated as a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1983 for being “the jewel of Muslim art in India and one of the universally admired masterpieces of the world’s heritage”. The Taj Mahal is constructed with impeccable symmetry. Minarets flank the domed tomb, and a central pool reflects the main building.

Notice the different colors at different times of the day. The gardens—an earthly representation of paradise—are divided into quadrants, and twin red sandstone buildings (an east-facing mosque and a west-facing guesthouse) give the mausoleum complex a balanced harmony. 
I am standing on the terrace at the entrance of the mausoleum. Notice we had to remove our shoes. The acoustics inside the main dome cause the single note of a flute to reverberate five times.
The main chamber houses the false sarcophagi of Mumtaz Mahal and Shah Jahan, as the actual graves are located at a much lower level.The sarcophagi are enclosed in an eight-sided chamber ornamented with pietra dura (an inlay with semi-precious stones) and a marble lattice screen. 

The shopping in India is amazing. Vendors boasting their merchandise– jewelry, silk scarves, incrusted boxes, and others, waited for us at the door of our buses , ready to accept any bargain.

After a fabulous day in Agra, we returned to New Delhi and visited a Maharaja castle, and then flew to Cochin, in the South of India where we caught up with our ship and continued our cruise to Thailand and Singapore–more stories for another time.

Travel with Mona to St. Petersburg, Capital of the Tsars

For two whole centuries, St. Petersburg was the capital of the Russian Empire. Currently the second largest city in Russia, it is recognized as Russia’s intellectual and cultural hub. When I spent a few days in 2002 on a business trip, St. Petersburg looked like a neglected city compared to Moscow. In July 2017, we stopped for two days as part of a Baltic Sea cruise and were stunned by the difference, the renovated buildings, the cleanliness of the streets, the wealth of flowers everywhere.

Our guide informed us that Putin was born in Leningrad (now Saint Petersburg), studied law at Leningrad State University, graduating in 1975, and took pride in renovating his city. Saint Petersburg, called the Venice of the North, because of its copious bridges and natural canals, mainly the Neva River, is now designated a UNESCO World Heritage site.

The Hermitage on the Neva
A view on the Neva at sunset

After walking along the Nevetsky Avenue, we stopped in a salon de thé and enjoyed a lunch of toast with orange caviar and a cappuccino, then headed to visit the famous Hermitage, Winter Palace of the Russian tsars. The Hermitage hosts an art collection to rival the Louvre in Paris.

In front of the Hermitage or Winter Place of the tsars.

Entrance of the Hermitage

This former palace is steeped in splendor and opulence at every turn.

Peter the Great devised the blue prints of Peterhof Palace, its 300-acre park, and superb fountains to rival the grandeur of Versailles.

The fountains are activated at noon for fifteen minutes with a music show.

The Church of the Resurrection, also called Church of Savior on Spilled Blood is the other major attraction in St. Petersburg. Commissioned by tsar Alexander III in 1883, the church was meant to honor the assassination of his father, Alexander II, which explains the name “spilled blood.” This church resembles Moscow’s famous St. Basil’s Cathedral. The most magnificent component is the 7,500 square meter of mosaics inside the church, illustrating scenes from the Bible.

The Peter and Paul Cathedral is a landmark of St. Petersburg, built on the site of the old fortress, which marks the birthplace of the city. The Peter and Paul Cathedral symbolizes imperial Russia, since it once served as a burial site for the imperial family.

Inside St. Peter and Paul Cathedral in the fortress.
The tomb of the last Romanof Tsar

There are so many beautiful churches in St. Petersburg, most of them with a colorful dome in gold, or other colors. We visited St. Isaac Church, Our Lady of Kazan, and so many more…

Just walking in the streets for hours and hours was so interesting. We also used the ultra modern underground metro to go from our hotel to downtown. Remember that in summer the sun sets at 11:30 pm. St. Petersburg is so far north that it experiences nearly 24 hours a day of sunlight from mid-May to mid-July. Even when the sun is down — for a couple of hours after midnight — the sky is white.

Russian metro
A bear for a pet?

You can’t visit Russia without attending a ballet performance or a traditional Russian folk dance in a real palace. During the intermission we mingled with the dancers a glass of vodka in hand.

I hope you enjoyed this quick visit to St. Petersburg.

To relax with a sweet Christmas romance, may I suggest my latest release, WEDDING PLANS, book 5 of the Love Plans Series.

New Release WEDDING PLANS A sweet Christmas story.
When dedicated Dr. Kent rescues a patient and is late for his own wedding, his fiancée greets him with tears, curses, and a slap. Fed up with her hysterics, Tyler cancels the wedding. The recovered patient intends to keep her handsome doctor. But the jilted bride goes out of her way to grab back her former fiancé.
Wedding Plans is part of the Love Plans Series.

New Release: SAILING AWAY PLANS: “A great love story and a second chance at a new life.”

New Release: DATING PLANS: Happiness finally seems within grasp for Matt and Brenda until the bullies in her daughter’s class pull her into their web again.

New Release RESCUE PLANS: Intense, emotional, sensual– Ariana fought hard to escape the slums and become a nurse. Captain Lopez taught her to conquer fear. Can he help her forget the scum from the past and win her trust?

Your Favorite Drink

For years, I would restrict myself to a light whiskey, a girlie drink as they call it, that has the right proportions of lemon juice; warming, floral bourbon; and sweet syrup to deliver a refreshing cocktail that’s neither too cloying nor too biting. Just what I needed to mingle around with a drink in hand.

American vodka

I learned to drink stronger stuff during my business trips to Belarus. Vodka, the typical Russian drink is not for the faint of heart. In the States, I’ve tried vodka diluted with orange juice and ice cubes, and found it too strong for my taste.

In Minsk, I experienced the burning effect of straight, unadulterated Belarusian vodka. When I landed in Minsk, Belarus, to work as the Program Manager of an American-Belarusian project of demilitarization that included refurbishing an analytical laboratory, I discovered that Belarusians can’t function without a bottle of vodka handy.

Belarusian vodka

During our delegation’s first meeting in the historical Hall of Officers, I presented a ten-minute summary of the project. Later an officer brought a bottle of vodka and small glasses, filled the shot glasses and distributed them. The Belarusian general raised his glass in a toast. “Welcome to Belarus. Moy drouk, my friends, I wish you a happy stay in my beautiful country. Na zdorovie. To your health.” Na zdorovie was the second Russian word I learned after Dobroye outroh, good morning.

The men emptied their glasses in one shot. I swallowed a first sip. A colonel laughed. “Let me show you how to drink vodka. One of us makes a toast. You raise your glass and you swallow it all at once. Bottoms up, as you Americans say.”

French vodka and Swedish vodka

The officer filled a second round and the general stood for another toast. “I propose a toast to the success of our joint project in Minsk.”

The men chorused, “Bottoms up.”

I raised my glass, then emptied half of my drink and brought my hand to my throat. I could swear it was on fire.

Waggling his finger, the officer chuckled. “You cheated. You left half the vodka in your glass. With each toast, you’ll get better.” Toasting with vodka became part of my job description.

Vodka, a liquor usually made from fermented grains and potatoes, has a standard alcohol concentration of 40% ABV in the United States, and 45% in Belarus (or up to 76%). Belarusians drink vodka to celebrate, to keep warm, to treat cough and sore throat. They use it in cooking and pastry. When I got sick during a trip to Minsk, they treated me with six shots of vodka. I fell asleep right away and awakened cured.

In remarks to U.K newspaper The Times, President Lukashenko encouraged citizens to drink vodka (unless working) and visit the sauna at least twice a week to stay healthy. Thanks to their heavy drinking of vodka, only 152 people have contracted COVID-19 infections, with no deaths.

I wrote two books set in Belarus:

Allow me to present my new series, LOVE PLANS with three romance novels released in September and October.