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“McSpaghetti”? Unique Items Served at the Golden Arches Around the World

By | Philippines | No Comments

Overseas McDonald’s can offer interesting cultural insights

The Arizona Republic — February 23, 2020

LAPU-LAPU CITY, Philippines – “Would you like fries with your spaghetti?”

McSpaghetti

An order of McSpaghetti served in the Philippines

The young lady behind the counter was responding to my inquiry about a curious item called “McSpaghetti” featured prominently on the menu board at a McDonald’s in this congested, touristy town on an island in the central Philippines.

For 94 Philippine pesos (less than $2) – which included fries and a drink — I gave it a try. I later learned that the Philippines is one of the few countries in which McDonald’s operates that serves pasta.

It may sound odd, but I’ve found that a visit to a McDonald’s restaurant when I travel overseas can often offer a unique insight into the local culture and customs. Don’t get me wrong; a visit to the Golden Arches is not as enriching as stepping inside a historic cathedral, hiking by a volcano, or gazing at a Da Vinci painting.

But McDonald’s around the world vary considerably in terms of menu, architecture and overall experience. The result can not only be a filling, inexpensive meal with unusual menu items that will surprise you, but a memorable travel experience as well. Perhaps the American-based fast-food chain’s cultural adaptability is one reason why it now operates successfully in more than 100 countries.

Thai Ronald McDonald

Ronald McDonald with the traditional Thai greeting called a “wai”

In Thailand, a statue of Ronald McDonald greets visitors with the traditional Thai greeting called a wai, in which the palms are pressed together in a prayer-like fashion. It’s the way Thais show respect and friendship.

At another McDonald’s in downtown Bangkok, I saw a Thai spirit house, or a small religious shrine. Commonly found next to homes and businesses in several countries in southeast Asia, spirit houses normally resemble a miniature house or temple and are mounted on a pillar. It’s common to see Thais bow in front of the spirit houses and leave offerings of food and drinks to appease the spirits before going inside to grab a burger and fries.

In India, where a majority of the population is Hindu and cows are sacred, it’s considered sacrilegious to eat beef. At a crowded McDonald’s in Mumbai, there were no Big Macs or hamburgers on the menu. But I did have a “Maharaja Mac,” made with two chicken patties. It was actually quite flavorful. The restaurant also offered numerous vegetarian options.

McDonald’s recently introduced a burger-bun made with rice at its restaurants in Japan. The buns are glazed with soy sauce.

In France, order fries and they’ll throw in a packet of “pommes-frites-sauce.” It tastes just like mayonnaise, something many Europeans seem to enjoy as much as soccer. Non, merci. I asked for ketchup (there is often a small charge for ketchup packets at overseas McDonald’s).

Mumbai McDonald's

Our of respect for Hindu beliefs, the McDonald’s in Mumbai, India, doesn’t serve beef products

To wash it down, you can order a beer at McDonald’s in France and several other European countries, which tend to have more lenient views toward alcohol than Americans.

In terms of soft drinks and coffee, if you want a refill in most countries, you pay full price. In America you can guzzle down a gallon of Coke for $1.

In Buenos Aires where there is a Jewish community numbering close to 200,000, I ate lunch at the Abasto Shopping Mall at the only kosher McDonald’s in the world outside of Israel. Kosher rules prohibit the mixing of meat and dairy products. So this is one McDonald’s where you can’t order a cheeseburger or a milkshake. And Big Macs come without its iconic secret-sauce – it’s not kosher.

The hamburger patties at the Buenos Aires McDonald’s are made from Argentine cows under strict rabbinical supervision. And there is a “kosher supervisor” on duty at the restaurant at all times to make sure all the rules related to kosher food preparation are followed. Interestingly, there was a standard McDonald’s only about 30 yards away in the same food court. The kosher McDonald’s was doing a far brisker business.

I tried a “Beef Prosperity Burger” at a McDonald’s in Bali, Indonesia, perhaps reflecting the deep spirituality of its people. It was a large rectangular burger covered with onions. Not sure if it made my life more prosperous, but it did make for a tasty burger.

Norway McDonald's

One of the most architecturally unique McDonald’s in the world in Bergen, Norway

In Bergen, Norway, I saw one of the most architecturally unique McDonald’s in the world. Located in Bergen’s bustling waterfront in a wooden building dating back to 1710, the restaurant looks more like a than a medieval fish warehouse than a fast-food restaurant.

Mind you, I don’t make a regular habit of scarfing down Big Macs and fries when I travel. I much prefer trying the local cuisine. But there are times – particularly in places where I’m experiencing a bit of culture shock – that a visit to McDonald’s gives me a sense of comfort and familiarity.

As for the McSpaghetti I tried in the Philippines, let’s just say Tuscan chefs have nothing to worry about. The sauce was way too sweet and the rubbery pasta was topped with some sort of mystery meat. A young man at the counter told me it was “beef sausage.” What appeared to be grated cheese was sprinkled on top.

I ate less than half of my McSpaghetti and chalked it up to a fast-food cultural experiment gone awry.

My apologies to Ronald McDonald, but Chef Boyardee would have been rolling in his grave.

© 2020 Dan Fellner

Skopje: Tempe’s Intriguing Sister City

By | North Macedonia | No Comments

New ASU course explores groundbreaking relationship between two cities

The Arizona Republic — January 22, 2020

SKOPJE, North Macedonia – Ever since the city of Tempe made groundbreaking history nearly a half-century ago when it became Sister Cities with Skopje, Yugoslavia, there has been a steady pipeline of students and academics going back and forth between the two communities, enriching both cities in the process.

Mother Teresa House

The Memorial House of Mother Teresa, a Skopje native and Catholic nun who was baptized at this site in 1910

Recently I had the privilege of being a small part of that pipeline when I was selected for a Fulbright Specialist grant to teach for six weeks at Saints Cyril and Methodius University (UKIM) in Skopje.

Tempe and Skopje became Sister Cities in 1971; it was the first time an American city twinned with a city in Eastern Europe’s socialist bloc.  At that time, Skopje was a city in the former Yugoslavia.  Now, it is the capital of the newly named Republic of North Macedonia.  The country recently changed its name from the Republic of Macedonia to resolve a three-decade-long dispute with its neighbor, Greece.

I had a busy and enjoyable six weeks in Skopje.  My main assignment was to teach a course in intercultural communications at UKIM, North Macedonia’s oldest, largest and most prestigious university.

In addition, I also conducted guest lectures at two other universities – the University of Tetovo and the South East European University, where I discussed the importance of a free press in the development of democracy.

I was in Skopje during an exciting time.  The streets were full of political banners as I arrived during a hotly contested presidential campaign.  And for the first time in the country’s history, there was a papal visit. I managed to get a ticket to attend a mass conducted by Pope Francis in Skopje’s main square.

Tempe Sister City

A plaque at Skopje’s City Hall

Catholics comprise a small minority of North Macedonia’s population (the majority of the population is Eastern Orthodox).  But one of the most famous Catholics of the 20th century — Mother Teresa – was actually born in Skopje in 1910.  The nun, who won the Nobel Peace Prize in 1979 for the humanitarian work she did in India, was born right around the corner from my downtown apartment.

Skopje’s relationship with Tempe – along with its eclectic architecture and beautiful setting in the foothills of the Balkans – has inspired me to create a new course for ASU’s Osher Lifelong Learning Institute (OLLI).

Called “Skopje, North Macedonia: Tempe’s Intriguing Sister City,” the class will be offered to members of the public (50 and older) this spring and fall at OLLI locations around the Valley. The first lecture will take place at Tempe’s Friendship Village on March 5.

Two of my faculty colleagues at UKIM studied and conducted research at ASU, demonstrating the strong bonds between the two cities.  I also met with Macedonians who had spent time in Tempe through the Sister Cities program and the Skopje city official who oversees North Macedonia’s participation in the program.

Aside from North Macedonia, I’ve also had the opportunity to teach through the Fulbright program at universities in Latvia, Lithuania, Moldova, Bulgaria and Indonesia.

But Skopje – with its deep-rooted and historic Arizona connection – felt the most like home.

© 2020 Dan Fellner

Important links:
Osher Lifelong Learning Institute at Arizona State University

Buenos Aires’ Kosher McDonald’s

By | argentina, Jewish Travel | No Comments

Hold the cheese, hold the sauce, at unique McDonald’s in Argentine shopping mall

December 26, 2019

BUENOS AIRES, Argentina – There are nearly 40,000 McDonald’s restaurants around the world that serve 68 million customers each day.

Kosher McDonald's

The lunch rush at the kosher McDonald’s in Buenos Aires’ Abasto Mall

That’s a lot of cheeseburgers, milkshakes and special sauce.

But in the central part of Buenos Aires, in the Oncé section of town known as “the Jerusalem of Argentina,” you’ll find a unique McDonald’s at which none of those items is served.

Welcome to the only kosher McDonald’s in the world outside of Israel, a restaurant that does a booming business to meet kashrut dietary regulations – while satisfying the fast-food appetite – of the seventh-largest Jewish community in the world.

I recently had lunch at the kosher McDonald’s at the food court on the third floor in the Abasto Mall, where I met with several restaurant employees and an official from McDonald’s corporate offices in Buenos Aires.  I was in Argentina’s capital city for one day, the final stop on a 14-day cruise on the Holland America Zaandam that circumnavigated the southern portion of South America.

Given the noteworthy nature of this particular Golden Arches, I hopped on an Uber from the cruise ship terminal and took a 30-minute drive through the busy streets of Buenos Aires to see the kosher McDonald’s for myself and sample some of its cuisine.

kosher certification

The restaurant’s official kosher certification

The metropolitan area of South America’s second-most populous city is home to about 15 million people.  While estimates vary, there are approximately 200,000 Jews living in the city.  Most of the country’s Jews are Ashkenazi whose families fled to South America to escape persecution in Eastern and Central Europe.

Abasto used to be the city’s central wholesale fruit and vegetable market.  The area is also well-known for being the home of Carlos Gardel, the world-famous tango singer.  Abasto was converted into a multi-story shopping mall in the late 1990s.

At that time, the mall had two McDonald’s.  But the mall’s owners, two Jewish brothers, decided they wanted to offer a product that would attract families from the surrounding area’s large Jewish community.  Indeed, I was told there are 30-40 synagogues within walking distance of the Abasto Mall.

So in 1998, the mall opened its third McDonald’s.  This one, though, was labeled with signage next to the Golden Arches as being “kosher.”  And the use of that word is not just a marketing ploy.

The McDonald’s is under the strict supervision of Rabbi Daniel Oppenheimer, one of Buenos Aires’ leading rabbis.  The restaurant has a “kosher supervisor” on duty at all times to ensure every rule pertaining to kashrut is closely followed.

kosher supervisor

Tamara Herscovich, the on-site kosher supervisor, proudly displays a box of kosher beef patties outside the restaurant’s freezer

For starters, all the beef served in the restaurant is from cows raised in Argentina – known for its world-class beef — is certified kosher.  There are no dairy products on the menu, including cheese, milkshakes or ice cream-cones or sundaes.  For dessert, there is a non-dairy sundae on the menu, which I was told tastes more like mousse than ice cream.  It comes in strawberry and caramel.

And what about the iconic Big Mac, which recently celebrated its half-century anniversary?  Yes, it comes with two all-beef (kosher) patties, lettuce, pickles, onions on a sesame-seed bun.  But you can’t get cheese or special sauce (a mixture of mayonnaise, relish, mustard and other ingredients).  The restaurant experimented with importing a non-dairy kosher sauce, but it was discontinued due to the prohibitive costs involved.  Now, the sandwich is served with no sauce, which greatly reduces its production costs, not to mention its caloric count.

The restaurant closes at 3 p.m. every Friday for Shabbat and doesn’t reopen until Sunday at 10 a.m.  I asked about Passover.  Are hamburgers served on matzah instead of bread?  No, the McDonald’s shuts down completely for an entire week during the holiday.

Florencia Santucho, who works in communications for McDonald’s in Argentina, said that while most of the restaurant’s patrons are local Jews, there is a large contingent of Israeli tourists who visit.  Some Argentines, who aren’t Jewish, also frequent the restaurant to consume fast-food that’s a bit lighter and heart-healthier than non-kosher fare.

kosher big mac

A kosher Big Mac — no cheese and no sauce — served at the McDonald’s at Abasto Mall

I was there for lunch on a Tuesday afternoon and the place was packed.  Many of the customers were wearing kippot.  The clientele looked like a mix of families and local business people on their lunch breaks from work.

Santucho took me back into the kitchen as part of a program McDonald’s has in Argentina called “open doors,” designed to give visitors a behind-the-scenes look at how the food is prepared and demonstrate to the public the fast-food chain’s growing commitment to transparency.

“It’s a good way to erase a lot of myths and fears,” she says.

While I was touring the kitchen, a young woman named Tamara Herscovich, the on-site kosher supervisor, showed me the steps taken to ensure the ingredients are correct and served according to kashrut law.  All the takeout orders are sealed with special tape, guaranteeing the kosher certification of the food.

Herscovich, who also works as a Hebrew teacher at some of the nearby Jewish schools, said she regularly brings her students to the McDonald’s as part of the “open doors” program.

Templo Libertad

The beautiful Templo Libertad in Buenos Aires, declared a National Historic Monument in 2000

I also met Melanie Bialoskurnik, a Jewish hostess at the restaurant.  She told me the kosher McDonald’s has helped instill a sense of pride in the Jewish community, which was decimated by two terrorist attacks in the early 1990s that killed more than 100 people.  The restaurant has become much more than a place to eat hamburgers and french fries.  It’s a meeting point and social hangout.

“It’s so important,” she says.  “It’s a way the Jewish people feel connected to the community of Buenos Aires.”

And what happens when an unknowing customer orders a cheeseburger?

“It happens all the time,” says Bialoskurnik.  She politely sends them across the mall’s food court to a conventional McDonald’s where they can get cheeseburgers and ice-cream sundaes to their hearts’ content.

After leaving the Abasto Mall, I had a couple of hours before needing to return to the Zaandam.  I took an Uber to see the oldest congregation in the city, the Israeli Congregation of the Argentinian Republic, founded in 1862.  The congregation now prays in the beautiful Templo Libertad, inaugurated in 1932 and declared a National Historic Monument in 2000.  The Conservative synagogue can seat up to 700 worshippers.  It is connected to the Museo Judio, a small museum that chronicles the history of Jews in Argentina.

I had experienced a full and enriching day in Buenos Aires.  I had successfully navigated myself across one of South America’s busiest and most congested cities, learned more about the ups and downs of the world’s seventh-largest Jewish community, and seen its most famous synagogue.

And yes, I had eaten my first 100 percent certified kosher Big Mac.

                                                    © 2019 Dan Fellner

Oregon’s Dazzling Neon Sign Museum

By | Oregon | No Comments

Electrifying exhibits illuminate history of neon advertising

The Arizona Republic — November 24, 2019

THE DALLES, Oregon – David Benko is to neon signs what Jeff Bezos is to online shopping.

David Benko

David Benko, the National Neon Sign Museum’s founder and executive director, gives visitors a tour of the facility

Benko, 53, one of the preeminent American experts on the history and craftsmanship of neon advertising signs, has amassed an electrifying collection of the glowing and eye-catching relics from the country’s past and assembled them in a recently opened museum that makes a fun and family-friendly stop for visitors to the Pacific Northwest.

The National Neon Sign Museum is located in a historic building in downtown The Dalles, Oregon (rhymes with “the gals”), a town of about 16,000 residents on the Columbia River about a 90-minute drive east of Portland, Oregon.

The three-story, colonial-style brick building, formerly an Elks Temple, was built in 1910.  Benko bought the vacant building from the city for $1, with the promise that he would restore it, bring it to life with his dazzling collection, and ultimately, attract tourists to The Dalles.  It opened for visitors in late 2018.

Inside, there is more than 20,000 square feet of space that houses neon signs from Benko’s personal collection.  He owns more than 300 signs; dozens of his favorites are currently on display.

The museum also features interactive displays explaining the history and technology behind the advertising signs that were such an iconic staple of the American urban landscape from the Great Depression through the 1970s.  That’s when the popularity of neon started to fade due to rising energy costs.  Benko says the lights have recently seen a resurgence of popularity, partly due to television programs that spotlight old-style diners and other buildings with neon signage.

Neon museum

The National Neon Sign Museum is located in a historic building in downtown The Dalles, Oregon

Benko, who admits a lifelong fascination with “decrepit relics,” acquired his first neon sign at the age of 15 when he was living in the Seattle area.  It was a simple marker reading “café” that was about to be hauled away to the dump.  He took it home and has been hooked on neon ever since.

“There’s something magical about neon that just draws you,” he says.  “It’s very magnetic.”

Benko built his expertise working at sign museums in Ohio and Washington.  He also owns a thriving neon sign business based in Vancouver, Washington.

The museum in The Dalles has displays from old gas stations, ice-cream shops, burger joints, car dealerships and a Coca-Cola sign from the 1930s.

The second-floor is set-up to resemble a city street in the 1950s.  In fact, one of the signs – from a frozen custard shop – was used as inspiration for the set designers of the sit-com “Happy Days,” which was set in 1950s Milwaukee.

Earlier this year, Benko went to France to acquire one of the most historically significant inventions in the field – the first neon-gas light tube.  Invented by Georges Claude, an engineer and chemist known as the “French Thomas Edison,” the neon tube was first displayed to the public in Paris in 1910 and then patented in the United States in 1915.

Neon signs

Some of the many neon signs on display at the National Neon Sign Museum in The Dalles, Oregon

Benko proudly displays Claude’s landmark invention in the museum’s bottom floor along with other educational displays explaining the evolution of electric light, from the earliest light-bulb signs to the introduction of neon signs in the U.S. in 1923 by Claude’s company.

Unlike the larger Neon Museum in Las Vegas, the signs in Benko’s museum haven’t been restored or touched up, which he believes adds to their authenticity.

“I live with the condition they’re in or I don’t buy them,” he says.

About 80 percent of the nonprofit museum’s visitors arrive in The Dalles on riverboats cruising the Columbia.  We visited the ship while traveling on the American Queen Steamboat Company’s American Empress, which was docked just a five-minute walk from the museum. The Empress has an arrangement with the museum; passengers are given free entrance (normally $10 for adults).

Benko is always on the lookout for new items to add to the museum’s extensive collection, even if it means going overseas.  He personally conducts some of the guided tours in the museum, and glows with enthusiasm as he shares with patrons his love of brightly colored advertising signs and nostalgia from a much simpler time.

“People miss things after they disappear,” he says.  “And then, of course, everyone wants them to come back.”

                                                                                 © 2019 Dan Fellner

Important links:
National Neon Sign Museum
American Queen Steamboat Company

Cruising the Columbia River Gorge

By | Cruising, Oregon, Washington | No Comments

Scenery and history highlights of trip to Pacific Northwest

The Arizona Republic/USA Today.com — November 10, 2019

STEVENSON, Washington – Meriwether Lewis and William Clark weren’t exactly sure where they were going on their historic, uncharted expedition in the Pacific Northwest more than 200 years ago.

Columbia River Gorge

A stretch of the 80-mile Columbia River Gorge near Goldendale, Washington

But what they found proved to be some of the most ruggedly beautiful, tranquil and alluring scenery in the country, stretches of which remain as pristine as when the trailblazing explorers first set eyes on this land in the early 19th century.

Perhaps the most spectacular portion of the journey taken by Lewis and Clark in 1804-06 to find a practical route from the Midwest to the Pacific Ocean is the Columbia River Gorge.  It’s an 80-mile stretch of the river that – over millions of years – has created a canyon that slices through the Cascade mountain range and forms the border between the states of Washington and Oregon.

I recently cruised through the gorge as part of a week-long trip on the Snake and Columbia rivers on the American Queen Steamboat Company’s American Empress, a 220-passenger vessel that is the largest overnight riverboat west of the Mississippi River.

The trip started with a flight to Spokane, Washington, in the far eastern part of the state not far from the Idaho border.  After overnighting in Spokane, we were taken by coach about 100 miles to Clarkston, Washington.  There, the Empress – which is partially propelled with a large red paddlewheel on the rear of the boat — was waiting for us while docked on the Snake River across from Lewiston, Idaho.

American Empress

The 220-passenger American Empress docked on the Columbia River in Richland, Washington

Both Clarkston and Lewiston were named after the famous explorers who followed a similar path to the Pacific than we did, although Lewis and Clark’s journey was far more treacherous than we enjoyed on the American Empress.

Lewis and Clark had to survive brutal winters, scarce food supplies and skirmishes with Native Americans before they reached their destination – the Pacific Ocean at the mouth of the Columbia River – on Nov. 15, 1805.  The journey from St. Louis to the Pacific took them 18 months; they returned safely to St. Louis in September 1806.

We learned in-depth about the Lewis and Clark’s expedition through a series of lectures, films and hikes organized by Laurence Cotton, the boat’s “riverlorian,” a historian, writer and documentary producer who has been cruising the Snake and Columbia rivers since 2007.

Cotton says the Snake/Columbia itinerary is ideals for travelers who want to escape the crowds and busy ports found on other river cruises.  We docked in lightly populated towns such as The Dalles, Oregon, Richland, Washington and Astoria, Oregon, the oldest American settlement west of the Rockies.

Multnomah Falls

The two-tiered 620-foot high Multnomah Falls in the Columbia River Gorge in Oregon

“We’re never in a big city,” Cotton says.  “It’s mostly rural areas we go through in teeny-tiny ports of call.  We don’t have castles.  But we do have mountains.  We do have beautiful scenery and lots of local culture and color.  It’s real Americana.”

A day after leaving Clarkston, we arrived in Richland, Wash., near the confluence of the Snake and Columbia rivers.  We visited the Sacajawea State Park, named for the young Shoshone woman who accompanied Lewis and Clark and was instrumental in the expedition’s success.

We also learned about the traditions of the Nez Perce Native Americans, who have lived in this part of the country for centuries and welcomed Lewis and Clark on their trip to the Pacific.  The American Empress invited onboard a member of the Nez Perce Indian Reservation in Idaho, J.R. Spencer, who taught us about the tribe’s history and beliefs, played the flute and drums while keeping us smiling with his witty and poignant storytelling (see video shot by the author: J.R. Spencer performs on the American Empress).

Once on the Columbia, we headed downriver toward the Pacific, passing apple orchards and vineyards.  In recent years, Washington and Oregon have become increasingly recognized for their high-quality and moderately priced wines, which we were served each night for dinner.

As we sailed west through the Columbia River Gorge, the terrain changed dramatically from golden, dry grasslands to lush rainforests.

With the Empress docked in Stevenson, Washington, we visited the two-tiered, 620-foot high Multnomah Falls on the Oregon side of the river, which attracts more than 2 million visitors a year (see video shot by the author: The spectacular Multnomah Falls in Oregon).

From the falls, we drove on the famed “Fruit Loop,” a scenic 35-mile route in the Hood River Valley known for its many orchards and fruit stands.  On the loop, we enjoyed dramatic views of the volcanic, snow-capped Mount Hood.  Reaching a height of 11,249 feet, it is Oregon’s tallest mountain.

Astoria Oregon

Astoria, Oregon, located on the Columbia River near the mouth of the Pacific Ocean

Our final stop was in Astoria, Oregon, where the river meets the Pacific Ocean.  In Astoria, we took a bike ride along the south shore of the Columbia and saw the sites in a town named after American business tycoon John Jacob Astor. That evening, we sailed to Vancouver, Washington, directly across the river from Portland, Oregon, from where we flew home the following day.

The cruising season on the Snake and Columbia rivers runs from March through December.  Our trip in late October featured cool but mostly sunny days, with highs in the 50s and 60s.  In some spots along the rivers, the falls colors were at their glorious peak.

There are only nine overnight riverboats – from four different companies — cruising the Snake and Columbia rivers.  Indeed, we saw very little boat traffic during our voyage and the only attractions where we encountered large numbers of tourists were Mount Hood and Multnomah Falls.  Most of the Empress’ sailings this year were at full capacity.

All told, we sailed more than 600 miles, passed through eight locks, under 30 bridges, and retraced the path of one of the most important expeditions in American history while enjoying magnificent scenery in the process.

“Everyone knows about the Mississippi,” says Cotton.  “But not everyone knows how important the Columbia was, not to just this corner of the country, but to the American West.”

                                                                                © 2019 Dan Fellner

Important links:
American Queen Steamboat Company
Columbia River Gorge Visitors Association

Monaco: Playground of the Rich and Famous

By | Cruising, Monaco | No Comments

Visit to tiny country highlight of Mediterranean Sea cruise

The Arizona Republic/USA Today.com — September 22, 2019

MONTE CARLO, Monaco – No wonder James Bond loved hanging out here so much.

Monaco

Monaco is the most densely populated country in the world, with a population of 35,000 in less than a square mile

This playground for the rich and famous on the French Riviera, the setting for two of Agent 007’s movies — “Never Say Never Again” and “GoldenEye,” – oozes Bond-like glamour, sophistication and money.

Lots of money.

Covering less than one square-mile of territory, the principality is the world’s second-smallest sovereign country (behind Vatican City).  Monaco is so tiny, it could easily fit inside of New York’s Central Park, with plenty of space left over.  Yet 35,000 people live here, making it the most densely populated country in the world.

While empty space may be in short supply, opulence is not.  Monaco is a destination that bills itself as “the international capital of luxury.”

The country offers visitors a look at what some consider to be the most elegant casino in the world, a shopping promenade that makes Beverly Hill’s Rodeo Drive look like a flea market in comparison, and a hilltop full of lavish villas perched high above hundreds of multi-million-dollar yachts anchored on the idyllic Cote d’Azur.

My visit to Monaco was the highlight of a 10-day, seven-country “Aegean Adventures” cruise on the luxurious 700-passenger Regent Seven Seas Voyager.  We started in Barcelona and ended in Athens, with stops along the way in France, Italy, Malta, Turkey and the stunning Greek island of Santorini.

Regent Seven Seas Voyager

The Regent Seven Seas Voyager anchored off the coast of Monaco

It was Monaco, the only country on the itinerary I had not yet visited, that I was looking forward to seeing the most.  The Voyager spent 14 hours anchored off the coast, tendering us back and forth while we strained our heads for celebrity-sightings on the many yachts and motorboats we passed.

Due to the allure of its natural beauty and man-made grandeur, Monaco has become one of the most popular – and intriguing — stops on Mediterranean Sea cruises.

“It’s got its own unique vibe,” said Ricardo Pinheiro, Regent’s destinations manager who has been cruising to Monaco since 2003.  “It’s French, it’s Italian.  It’s the cradle of the super-rich.”

Surrounded on three sides by France with a short coastline on the Mediterranean, Monaco is less than 10 miles from the Italian border.  It’s been officially recognized as an independent country since 1861 and became a full voting member of the United Nations in 1993.

Princess Grace grave

The grave of Monaco’s Princess Grace in Saint Nicholas Cathedral

Many Americans had never heard of the tiny country until 1956, when popular actress Grace Kelly married Monaco’s Prince Rainier III.  She served as Princess of Monaco until 1982, when she died in a car accident at the age of 52.  Today, Monaco’s reigning monarch is one of Grace and Rainier’s three children – Prince Albert II – believed to be one of the wealthiest royals in the world.

As soon as the Voyager’s tender dropped us off at Monaco’s pier, we were ushered onto a coach for one of the most exciting bus rides I’ve ever taken.  We were on the 2-mile Circuit de Monaco, a road that winds through the streets of Monaco and is home to the prestigious Monaco Grand Prix, a Formula One race held every May.

Our driver kept to the speed limit and five minutes later, we exited the course and crossed the border into France.  We were on our way to the medieval hilltop village of Èze. Some of the buildings still standing here date back to the early 14th century.

We hiked up to the highest point in Èze to see stunning views of the French Riviera, including Cape Ferrat, nicknamed the “peninsula of billionaires.”  Some of the cape’s more notable residents over the years have included Winston Churchill, Elizabeth Taylor, the Rolling Stones and Microsoft co-founder Paul Allen.

Cape Ferrat

View of Cape Ferrat from Èze, France, just outside of Monaco

In 2012, Cape Ferrat was named the second-most expensive residential location in the world.  Number one?  Monaco.

After lunch in Nice, a pleasant coastal city of about a million people just 8 miles from Monaco, we drove back to the principality to learn more about its famed monarchy.  We stopped at the Saint Nicholas Cathedral, where Grace and Rainier are buried.  The beloved Princess’ tomb still sees a steady stream of devoted pilgrims.

A short walk away, we visited the Prince’s Palace of Monaco, where the royal family lives.  The palace, which features a daily changing of the guard at 11:55 a.m., originally was built in 1191 as a fortress.

We ended the day in the “ward” of Monte Carlo, home of the grandiose Casino de Monte-Carlo.  The casino opened for business in 1863 in a building with a beautiful neoclassical façade.  Parked out front were dozens of custom-made Ferraris, Bentleys, Rolls-Royces and Lamborghinis.

Visitors are allowed inside parts of the casino, but if you want to enter one of the gambling halls, there is a 17-euro cover charge (about $18.50).  A dress code is strictly enforced.  I didn’t want to pay the cover charge, but was able to get a quick glimpse into the gambling hall from the lobby.

Monte Carlo casino

The Casino de Monte Carlo, where two James Bond movies were filmed

Not surprisingly, I didn’t see any nickel-poker machines.

Monaco and the entire French Riviera is one of the most expensive places to visit in the world.  That’s why it’s a great place to stop on a cruise, where visitors are insulated from the exorbitant costs of restaurants and hotels.  A three-star hotel will set you back about $260 a night; five-star hotels average $640.

Regent, a high-end boutique line with just four ships (a fifth ship – the 750-passenger Seven Seas Splendor – begins sailing in 2020) includes most shore excursions in the cost of the cruise.  So we incurred virtually no extra out-of-pocket costs exploring Monaco and the Cote d’Azur.

I never did get to try my luck at the roulette wheel or baccarat table.  Way too rich for my blood.  But I did get a brief and entertaining look into the glitzy and mesmerizing place where James Bond starred in some of his most memorable movies.

Had I sprung for a $30 martini at the casino, I would have ordered it – just for the fun of saying the famous line — exactly like the couth 007 did.

“Shaken, not stirred.”

                                                                                             © 2019 Dan Fellner

Important links:
Regent Seven Seas Cruises
Monaco Tourism Board

Cruising Through Europe Back Into Jewish History

By | Cruising, Italy, Jewish Travel, Spain, Turkey | No Comments

Three must-see Jewish sites on a Mediterranean Sea voyage

Aish.com — September 15, 2019

MEDITERRANEAN SEA — A luxury cruise on the azure waters of the Mediterranean Sea features all the magical and alluring experiences one would anticipate – a glimpse into how the rich and famous play on the French Riviera, picturesque fishing villages, a stunning array of historic architecture, and – of course — phenomenal cuisine.

Regent Seven Seas Voyager

The Regent Seven Seas Voyager anchored in the Mediterranean Sea off the coast of Monaco

But a voyage on the Mediterranean also offers Jewish travelers another treat.  It’s a chance to see some relatively little-known sites that shed light on the survival and resilience of Jewish life dating back thousands of years to Roman times.

I recently set sail on a 10-day, seven-country “Aegean Adventures” cruise on the luxurious Regent Seven Seas Voyager.  We started in Barcelona and ended in Athens, with stops along the way in France, Italy, Malta, Turkey and the Greek island of Santorini.

In three of the stops on the itinerary – Barcelona, Rome, and Ephesus, Turkey – I had the chance to visit Jewish-related sites and learn more about the ups and downs of Jewish existence in this part of the diaspora.

BARCELONA

Just a five-minute walk from the city’s famous Las Ramblas promenade, is the former Jewish quarter that once was home to Barcelona’s thriving Jewish community.  Amidst the small and winding streets and medieval architecture, sits what some believe to be the oldest synagogue in all of Europe – the Sinagoga Major de Barcelona.

According to historians, Jews began moving to Barcelona after the destruction of the Second Temple in 70 C.E.  They settled in an area of the city known as El Call, believed to have come from an old Catalan word derived from the Hebrew word kahal (community).

Sinagoga Major

Entrance to the ancient synagogue in Barcelona

The Sinagoga Major, located on a street called Carrer Marlet, is in a building dating back to the third or fourth century.  It’s unclear if it was initially used as a synagogue.  However, one of its excavated walls has a carving of 18 in Roman numerals, a spiritual number in Judaism.  Some suggest the carved number offers evidence of the building’s ancient Jewish roots.  The building also was built with an eastward orientation toward Jerusalem, in contrast with other buildings on the street.

The synagogue was significantly expanded during the 13th century.  At that time, Jews comprised up to 20 percent of Barcelona’s population.  Tragically, in 1391 the Black Plague decimated the city.  Jews were blamed and most were either murdered or forced to convert to Christianity.

An Argentine businessman with Catalan roots purchased the building in 1996 before it was to be demolished by the city.  Restorations began and Sinagoga Major reopened as a museum in 2002.

One room features ruins from the Roman era; the other has a small sanctuary with a menorah, a 500-year-old Torah scroll – donated by a New York attorney — and other Jewish artifacts.  Tours are given in English, Spanish and Hebrew.  There are no formal services held in the synagogue.  However, it is used for special events like weddings and bar mitzvahs.

Barcelona Jewish Quarter

The old Jewish Quarter in Barcelona

Sinagoga Major is not easy to find.  The Jewish quarter is a maze of streets not clearly marked and we needed to ask for directions several times before finding the building.  But it was well worth the effort to see a site with such religious significance and historical magnitude.

Over the years, the Jewish community in Barcelona has seen a mild resurgence.  In 1918, the Jewish population was estimated at just 100.  In subsequent years, Jews arrived from such places as Turkey, Greece, South America, northern Africa and Israel.

Today, the city’s Jewish population has grown to about 5,000, and there are four working synagogues.  We visited the largest — the Orthodox Cominidad Israelita de Barcelona Synagogue.  Located in a residential area in a building dating back to 1954, it was the first free-standing synagogue built on the Iberian Peninsula since the Jewish expulsion in 1492.  The synagogue houses both Sephardic and Ashkenazic sanctuaries. Security is tight, so if you’d like to attend services, it’s best to contact the synagogue in advance: info@cibonline.org.

ROME

Rome Synagogue

The Great Synagogue of Rome

A visit to the Eternal City rewards Jewish travelers with a must-see look at the oldest Jewish community in Europe and one of the oldest continuous Jewish settlements in the world.

It’s believed that a Jewish presence in Rome dates back to 161 B.C.E., when Jason ben Eleazar and Eupolemus ben Johanan were sent as envoys of Judah Maccabee.  While the treatment of Jews by the Romans in Palestine was often harsh, relations with the rulers in Rome were generally much better.  But once Christianity became the official religion of the Roman Empire, Jewish rights eroded.  During the Middle Ages, treatment of the Jews varied from pope to pope.

Like most ships on Mediterranean itineraries, the Seven Seas Voyager docked in the Italian port city of Civitavecchia, a 90-minute drive from the heart of Rome. We had the option of taking a tour of “Jewish Rome” organized by the ship, but opted instead to do it on our own, using one of several “hop-on-hop-off” bus lines that follow the same route past the city’s main sites.

Shanghai Jewish newspaper

The beautiful interior of the Great Synagogue of Rome

We exited the bus at the Piazza Venezia stop and walked about 10 minutes to the “Ghetto Ebraico,” which is clearly marked on city maps.   The Jewish Ghetto dates back to 1555, when Pope Paul IV restricted Jews to this small area of the city, which was then surrounded by a wall.  Following the unification of Italy in 1870, Jews were granted citizenship and the Ghetto was eventually abolished.

It was easy to figure out when we had reached the former Ghetto.  There were several kosher restaurants in the main square, catering to the large number of Jewish tourists coming to see the nearby Great Synagogue of Rome and the attached Jewish museum.

The Great Synagogue is a beautiful building that opened in 1904.  Containing elements of Assyrian-Babylonian, Egyptian and Greco-Roman architecture, the building’s aluminum dome is the only square dome in Rome.  The Jewish community of Rome wanted an eye-catching building that would represent a visible symbol of the community’s freedom after centuries of hardship.  They succeeded.

For an 11-euro admission fee, we entered the two-story synagogue.  Security is extremely tight; there was a Palestinian terrorist attack here in 1982 which resulted in the slaying of a 2-year-old boy.

Our visit came on a Friday morning and while we sat in the sanctuary, a cleaning crew readied the synagogue for that evening’s Shabbat services.  We were surprised to learn that the Great Synagogue is just one of 18 working synagogues in Rome, although many of them are quite small.  There are an estimated 15,000 Jews now living in Italy’s capital city.

The admission fee to the synagogue also includes entrance to the attached Jewish Museum of Rome, which chronicles Jewish life in Rome throughout the centuries.  Established in 1960 as a room behind the Torah ark in the synagogue, the expanded museum moved to its present location adjacent to the synagogue in 2005.  We were especially impressed with the extensive collection of Jewish art on display.

The synagogue made headlines in 2016 when Pope Francis visited and gave a speech rejecting all forms of anti-Semitism and calling for “maximum vigilance” to prevent another Holocaust.

EPHESUS, TURKEY

Celsus Library

The ruins of the famous Celsus Library in the ancient city of Ephesus, Turkey

After a wave of terrorist attacks in 2016 that had a severe impact on tourism, some of the cruise lines – including Regent Seven Seas – are now slowly starting to return to Turkey.  One of the most popular port stops is the city of Kuşadasi, located on Turkey’s western coast on the Aegean Sea.  Kuşadasi is just a 30-minute drive from the famous Roman ruins of Ephesus.

One of the world’s most impressive and best-restored archaeological sites, Ephesus was the former capital of Asia Minor and was first built about 3,000 years ago.  In the Roman Empire, the city was considered second in importance only to Rome.

Ephesus reached its height in the second and third centuries, when it was home to nearly a quarter-million people.  Over the centuries, Ephesus was visited by such dignitaries as Alexander the Great, Julius Cesar, Mark Anthony and Cleopatra.

It is believed there was a substantial Jewish community living in Ephesus since at least the 5th century B.C.E.  Only about 20 percent of the city has been excavated; archaeologists think there is a synagogue that has yet to be discovered.

Unfortunately, there is currently little visible evidence of Jewish life in this ancient city.  However, there is a barely visible carving of a menorah on the marble steps in front of one of its most famous and popular structures – the Celsus Library.

Ephesus Jewish marker

A marker commemorating Jewish life in the ancient city of Ephesus, Turkey

Built in the second century, the two-story library with Corinthian style columns once contained more than 12,000 scrolls.  A marker on the steps in front of the library next to the menorah carving carries the following inscription in both Turkish and English:  “Menorah, seven-branched candlestick Judaic symbol, incised on the steps of the Celsus Library.  Roman Imperial period.”

Interestingly, our guide noted my interest when mentioning the Jewish marker.  She asked if I was Jewish.  When I responded affirmatively, she told me that she too was Jewish and lived in the nearby Turkish city of Izmir and is a member of one of the synagogues there.

Like a number of other cruise lines, Regent goes out of its way to accommodate Jewish passengers.  There were Shabbat services onboard and kosher food was available, if arranged in advance.  In fact, Regent offers 70 kosher meal options, prepared with certified Glatt kosher meats under strict rabbinical supervision.  Each meal is served on kosher china.

The Voyager was close to capacity, with 665 passengers onboard.  About two-thirds of our fellow travelers were either from America or the United Kingdom.

Had we had more time, we would have liked to have explored other Jewish sites on the itinerary, including the synagogues in Monaco and Livorno, Italy.  But seeing the survival – and even revival — of Jewish life in Barcelona and Rome and the vestige of an ancient Jewish community in Ephesus, certainly whet our appetite to come back and learn more about Jewish life and history in this wondrously beautiful part of the world.

© 2019 Dan Fellner

Sognefjord

Norway’s Spectacular Sognefjord

By | Cruising, Norway | No Comments

Cruising the longest navigable fjord in the world

The Arizona Republic — August 18, 2019

SKJOLDEN, Norway – There is a reason the Sognefjord – the longest navigable fjord in the world – has earned the nickname “The King of the Fjords.”

Cruising the Sognefjord

Cruising through the Sognefjord, the longest navigable fjord in the world, on the Holland America Nieuw Statendam

In addition to its length — 127 miles – the Sognefjord’s majestic offerings include waterfalls cascading down snow-capped cliffs that soar more than a mile-high from the sea, emerald-green lakes resulting from thousands of years of glacial melting, and brightly painted Norwegian houses and fertile farmland that dot the base of where the sea meets the massive peaks.

Cruising the Sognefjord was the highlight of a seven-day “Norse Legends” cruise on the 2,800-passenger Nieuw Statendam, Holland America’s newest and largest ship that just began sailing last December.  It officially was dedicated at a ceremony in February by the ship’s “godmother,” Oprah Winfrey.

Our 1,800-mile journey started and ended in Amsterdam, with four Norwegian port stops – Eidfjord, Skjolden, Alesund and Bergen.

About one-third of the ship’s passengers were Americans; there also was a large Dutch contingent.  The weather in Norway was surprisingly – and unusually — warm.  Some days the thermometer neared 90 degrees.  The light parka I brought never once came out of my cabin’s closet.

Skjolden

The harbor in picturesque Skjolden, Norway

I found Skjolden, which lies at the innermost point of the Sognefjord on a branch of the fjord called Lustrafjord, to be the most captivating stop during the cruise.  With a population of only 200 – “not including two dogs and a cat,” as our guide quipped – Skjolden is one of the smallest ports in the world visited by large cruise ships.

Norway has more than 1,000 fjords, the most of any country in the world.  In fact, fjord is a Norwegian word, which describes a long, narrow watery inlet flanked by steep cliffs that was created by a glacier.

The Sognefjord begins in the Atlantic Ocean in western Norway and winds its way inland past small, idyllic villages, fruit farms and popular hiking trails.  Its most famous arm is Naeroyfjord, only 820-feet wide at its narrowest point.  Since 2005, Naeroyfjord has been listed as a UNESCO World Heritage Site and is believed to have been an inspiration for the 2013 Disney movie “Frozen.”

It never got tiring sitting on one of the Nieuw Statendam’s outdoor decks soaking in the scenery, listening to the ship’s port lecturer describe the geological wonders we were passing.

Nieuw Statendam

The Nieuw Statendam docked in Skjolden, Norway

Skjolden is a gateway to the ruggedly beautiful Jotenheimen National Park.  Jotenheimen, which means “home of the giants” in English, is home to a wonderous landscape of waterfalls, rivers, glaciers and some of the highest peaks in Europe north of the Alps.  The park is a one-hour bus ride – through hairpin bends and steep, winding roads – from Skjolden.

The cruise offered much more than natural beauty. Our northernmost stop of Alesund, a fishing port less than 300 miles south of the Arctic Circle, was virtually rebuilt from scratch following a fire in 1904. Today it boasts one of the most interesting collections of Art Nouveau buildings in Europe.

Our final port stop was Bergen, Norway’s second-largest city with a population of about 300,000.  An ancient Viking port steeped in medieval history, Bergen is known for a bustling waterfront with striking wood buildings, one block from a huge fish market.  I rode a funicular up Mount Floyen, where I took a three-hour hike that rewarded us with panoramic views of the city and surrounding fjords.

While Alaskan cruises also offer spectacular natural beauty, the port stops are much more touristy than those in Norway.  The western Scandinavian country is a compelling alternative for cruisers who enjoy scenery and hiking, but don’t want to rub elbows with a lot of other tourists in the process.

Alesund

The colorful architecture of Ålesund, Norway

You will see plenty of Norwegians enjoying the outdoors.  There’s even a Norwegian word – friluftsliv (pronounced free-loofts-liv) – coined by poet Henrik Ibsen that attempts to shed some insight into the Norwegian mindset.

Loosely translated as “free air life,” friluftsliv describes the deep connection to nature that is such a huge part of Norwegian culture.  Some argue the philosophy is one reason Norway consistently ranks as one of the happiest countries on Earth.

At every stop, we would see the locals camping in pup tents, boating, hiking and biking.  We learned a Norwegian proverb that helps understand the country’s deep love of the outdoors, even during the dark and frigid winter months:

“There is no such thing as bad weather.  Just bad clothes.”

                                                                                             © 2019 Dan Fellner

Important links:
Holland America Cruises
The official guide to Sognefjord

Video:
See video shot by the author of the Nieuw Statendam sailing underneath one of the world’s longest suspension bridges in the scenic Hardanger Fjord in Norway.

The Jews of North Macedonia

By | Jewish Travel, North Macedonia | No Comments

Skopje’s Jewish community survives despite near annihilation during the Holocaust

June 20, 2019

SKOPJE, North Macedonia – Like many countries in Eastern Europe, North Macedonia offers visitors wanting a glimpse of Jewish history and culture a bittersweet experience.

Skopje Holocaust Museum


The Holocaust Memorial Center for the Jews of Macedonia

There are remnants and artifacts of a once-thriving community, which dates back to Roman times and ultimately reached a peak of nearly 12,000 Jews before World War II.

There are inspirational signs of survival and a modest rebirth, namely in the form of the newest synagogue in the Balkans, Beit Yaakov, a Sephardic-style synagogue with beautiful stained-glass windows designed by local artists.

There also is a deeply disturbing and moving museum chronicling the virtual destruction of Macedonia’s Jewish community during the Holocaust, when more than 7,000 Jews were transported to their deaths at the concentration camp in Treblinka, Poland.

I recently spent six weeks teaching at North Macedonia’s largest university and had an opportunity to learn more about the roller-coaster existence of the region’s Jewish community.

Macedonia, as the locals call it, was officially renamed the Republic of North Macedonia in early 2019 to resolve a decades-old dispute with neighboring Greece, which had long laid claim to the name of Macedonia.  It’s believed the move will pave the way for the country to eventually join the European Union and the NATO military alliance.

Skopje synagogue

Inside Skopje’s Beit Yaakov synagogue

Skopje, a city of a half-million people, is the capital of this landlocked country about the size of Vermont.  Macedonia gained its independence when Yugoslavia imploded in the early 1990s.  The country’s Macedonian majority is mostly Eastern Orthodox; however, ethnic Albanians – many of whom practice Islam — constitute about 25 percent of the country’s population.

Today, the country’s Jewish population has dwindled to about 200.  Virtually all of them live in Skopje.

On my second day in the city, I visited the Holocaust Memorial Center for the Jews of Macedonia, a $23 million state-of-the-art and tastefully designed museum located in the heart of what once was the city’s Jewish quarter.  It’s just a stone’s throw from two of Skopje’s most famous sites – the historic Stone Bridge that takes pedestrians across the Vardar River, and the old Turkish Bazaar.

Inaugurated in 2011, the Holocaust museum was built with money raised from a 2002 law providing for the return of heirless Jewish property to the Jewish community, a law that is widely recognized as one of the best in Europe.

Inside Holocaust museum

The Holocaust museum chronicles the prosperous history of Jews in the region

Inside the museum, I learned that the first-known synagogue in Skopje dates back to 1366.  Many Jews came to the region following the Spanish and Portuguese inquisitions.  The Jewish community was almost entirely Sephardic, and most spoke Ladino at home.  When Macedonia was part of the Ottoman Empire, Jews prospered in the fields of trade, banking and medicine.  They also enjoyed fairly good relations with the non-Jewish population.  At one point, there were 14 working synagogues in the country, nine of them in Bitola, a city in southern Macedonia that is close to the Greek and Albanian borders.

The museum has a number of multimedia exhibits depicting Jewish life in Macedonia and the Balkans through the centuries, including historic Jewish religious and cultural artifacts. Most of the exhibits are in English.

In 1941, the Bulgarian army entered what is now Macedonia in an effort to reclaim the region, which it believed was part of its own homeland.  During its occupation, the Bulgarians implemented anti-Semitic laws and began to force the Jews into ghettos and slave-labor camps.  In 1943, under orders from Germany, Bulgarian troops deported most of Macedonia’s Jews to the Yugoslav border with Romania, where they ultimately were transported in cattle-cars by Germans to the death camp in Treblinka, Poland.

Holocaust train

One of the original wagons used to transport Macedonia’s Jews to Treblinka

To Bulgaria’s credit, its government succumbed to public and political pressure and refused to hand over the Jews in its own territory to the Germans.  Sadly, the Jews of Macedonia were not so fortunate.  None of the more than 7,000 men, women and children survived the deportation to Treblinka. 

The World Jewish Congress has noted that no Jewish community in Europe suffered a greater degree of destruction than the one from North Macedonia.  Less than 2 percent of the country’s Jewish population survived the Holocaust.  

Perhaps the Holocaust museum’s most haunting and impactful exhibit is a German cattle-car that transported the Jews to their deaths.  Stepping inside the dark, wooden structure, one can only imagine the inhumane conditions and sheer horror the Jews endured before being murdered by the Nazis in the gas chambers.

Outside the museum stands a powerful and evocative statue of two young Jews, heads bowed in grief, next to packed suitcases and shoes.  In the process of being uprooted from their home, they are seemingly on their way to a ghetto or concentration camp.

While few of the country’s Jews survived the Holocaust, the community somehow managed to endure.  The rebirth culminated in the construction of a new synagogue in 2003, the only Jewish house of worship in North Macedonia.

Holocaust monument

A haunting monument remembering the Jewish victims outside the Holocaust museum in Skopje

A 15-minute walk from the museum, Beit Yaakov is located on the top floor of a non-descript three-story building that also houses the Jewish community’s administrative offices and rooms for a small religious school and community events.

During my visit to the synagogue, I met with Jana Nichota, the secretary general of the Jewish community.  She told me that while Skopje’s Jews strongly embrace their history and culture, they aren’t particularly religious.

It’s a symptom of Jewry throughout Eastern Europe, where Jewish communities, decimated by the Holocaust, became less observant during Socialist times, mainly because religion — of any type — was largely frowned upon by ruling governments.

Indeed, the Skopje synagogue has no rabbi and rarely holds services.  Normally, a rabbi is brought in from Belgrade or another location to lead High-Holiday services.  But this past year, Jana said, there just wasn’t enough interest. However, the community did host a Passover Seder in April, with about 30 attendees.

North Macedonia has largely been spared from the wave of anti-Semitism that is creeping across Europe.  The small population of Jews gets along well with its Christian and Muslim neighbors.  The country’s president and prime minister — along with leaders of the Orthodox, Catholic and Muslim communities — attended the inauguration of the Holocaust museum.

“If you build it, they will come,” goes the line from the movie “Field of Dreams.”  With a beautiful 21st-century synagogue and a Jewish museum that outshines exhibitions in much larger European cities, Skopje’s Jewish leaders hope their once dormant community will continue to regain its footing and attract visitors to learn more about Jewish life in a little-understood part of the world.

                                                    © 2019 Dan Fellner

Skopje: Statue City

By | North Macedonia | No Comments

North Macedonia’s capital offers visitors unique and plentiful sculptures

The Arizona Republic — May 5, 2019

SKOPJE, North Macedonia – If a city’s beauty can be gauged by the number, size and sheer uniqueness of the statues it showcases, then this capital city in southeastern Europe – and Tempe’s Sister City – makes Paris, Rome and London look prosaic in comparison.

Skopje square

The main square — bookmarked by two huge statues — in Skopje, North Macedonia

Walk through the heart of Skopje (pronounced Skow-pee-yeh) and you’ll see well more than 100 statues, most of which were erected in the past 10 years in a government effort to boost tourism and build national pride.  The statues depict Macedonian military heroes, politicians, literary and religious figures, and people going about their daily lives.

Some of the sculptures are massive and majestic, showing courageous sword-wielding warriors perched atop regal steeds.  Others are just plain over the top and quirky, earning Skopje the nickname in some circles as “the Capital of Kitsch.”

The statues are part of Skopje 2014, a government-funded project that financed the construction of museums, government buildings and monuments to give the downtown a spiffy new look.  Skopje, leveled by a 1963 earthquake, had long been in desperate need of a makeover.

The odd mix of statues has attracted the most attention and made the city a bonanza for selfie-shooting tourists.

Skopje, a city of about a half-million people and the capital of North Macedonia, is an eclectic blend of Christian and Islamic cultures.

Vardar River

The Vardar River cuts through the heart of downtown Skopje

Formerly part of socialist Yugoslavia, Skopje became Tempe’s Sister City in 1971, a groundbreaking relationship that endures nearly a half-century later.  At the time, it was the first partnership between an American city and a counterpart in Eastern Europe’s socialist bloc.

As Yugoslavia was disintegrating, Macedonia gained its independence in 1991.  In February 2019, the country was renamed the Republic of North Macedonia to resolve a decades-old conflict with neighboring Greece, which had previously laid claim to the name Macedonia.

In terms of its name, at least, this landlocked nation on the Balkan Peninsula is the newest country in the world.  The resolution of its dispute with Greece is expected to pave the way for North Macedonia’s entry into the European Union and NATO in the coming years.

In the Balkans, where national, ethnic and religious rivalries simmer for centuries with occasional flareups, names matter.

That’s certainly the case with Skopje’s most famous – and controversial – statue, an eight-story-tall sculpture of Alexander the Great on his horse Bucephalus.  To avoid offending the Greeks, who claim Alexander as one of their own, the statue is officially named “Warrior on a Horse,” even though everyone here knows it’s really Alexander.  There’s even talk of taking it down to further ease tensions with the Greeks.

Alexander the Great statue

The statue of Alexander the Great rides high above downtown Skopje

On one bridge, the Bridge of Civilizations that leads pedestrians to the Archaeological Museum of Macedonia, I counted 31 statues of historical figures.

On the lighter side, there are whimsical statues of a shoeshine man, a beggar, a funky-looking fish and a bikini-clad swimmer about to dive into the Vardar River, under Skopje’s historic Stone Bridge.  Another swimmer just a few feet ahead of her – feet protruding above the water – has already made a splash.

Just five yards from the entrance to my apartment building overlooking the city’s main pedestrian street sits a large bronze statue of a bull.  It resembles the famous statue on Wall Street in New York.  But the artist has said there is no connection to America or the stock market; the bull symbolizes the strength and fertility of the Macedonian people.

The bronze bull was installed 10 years ago.  Somewhere along the line, someone chopped off the beast’s tail.  Nevertheless, the statue is a useful landmark for me to find my apartment building after dark, in case my senses are dulled by a bit too much Skopsko, the country’s most popular beer.

Skopje swimmer statue

One of Skopje’s many unique statues, in which a bikini-clad swimmer prepares to dive into the Vardar River

Skopje 2014 cost an estimated $700 million, a large chunk of change in one of Europe’s poorest countries.  Many Macedonians feel the money should have been spent on education, infrastructure and feeding the poor, instead of on monuments and statues.

“No, it was definitely not worth the money,” says Emilija S. Georgievska, an associate professor in the Department of English Language & Literature at Saints Cyril and Methodius University, the country’s largest university.  Georgievska spent a semester at Arizona State University in 2001 in an exchange program between the two universities.  “Most people do not even know who these historical figures were and what was their legacy.  Unfortunately, they cannot relate to them.”

Still, the statues offer an interesting glimpse into the art, religion, history and political divisions in this part of Eastern Europe, which is still struggling to find its economic footing in the post-Yugoslavia era.

About 50 yards from my apartment is a memorial to Skopje’s most famous native, Mother Teresa, a sainted Catholic nun who won the Nobel Peace Prize in 1979 for her humanitarian work.  The ethnic Albanian was born in Skopje in 1910.

Mother Teresa Museum

The Memorial House of Mother Teresa, a Skopje native and Catholic nun who was baptized at this site in 1910

At the site where she was baptized as an infant now sits the 10-year-old Memorial House of Mother Teresa, which includes a small museum and Catholic chapel.  The site attracts 80,000-100,000 visitors a year, including Pope Francis, who visited the site in May of 2019. There are only about 15,000 practicing Catholics in the country and it was the first time any Pope had visited North Macedonia.

Not surprisingly, there is a large statue of Mother Teresa – hands clasped in prayer – in front of the building to greet the tourists.

In Skopje, a leading attraction without a statue on the premises just wouldn’t seem proper.

                                                    © 2019 Dan Fellner