Oscar's Neon Martini Glass on Fremont Street in old downtown Las Vegas

POTW: Oscar’s Neon Martini Glass-Las Vegas

Anyone who ever visited Las Vegas before about 1990 will forever associate that City of Glitter with neon. I hope this photo of Oscar’s Neon Martini Glass will take you back to that time when neon was the very symbol of Las Vegas—flashing, glittering, dancing neon, lighting up the fronts of buildings, illuminating the sky, and enticing passers-by to come on in. It’s fun in here. It’s exciting. Join us! And bring your money!

Oscar's Neon Martini Glass on Fremont Street in old downtown Las Vegas

Oscar’s Neon Martini Glass glows against a deep blue desert twilight sky, beckoning visitors to old downtown Las Vegas.

Neon Comes to Las Vegas

Though neon was first shown off to the world at the 1893 Chicago World’s Fair, it wasn’t until 1929 that the first-ever neon to greet visitors to Sin City appeared at the Oasis Café on Fremont Street. But then it took off, limited only by the over-the-top imagination of Las Vegas entrepreneurs. Oscar’s Neon Martini Glass, though not old, recalls that treasured Vegas “look” and atmosphere.

When I was a kid growing up in southern California, my mom loved Las Vegas. We always took a family road-trip vacation every summer—to Grand Canyon, Idaho, Vancouver, and/or points beyond, but it seemed like wherever we headed, north, south or east, Las Vegas was always “on the way” and was always where we spent our first night. I remember the excitement of seeing the city on the horizon, rising from the dust of the long road from Los Angeles, telling us we could soon get out of our Mercury station wagon “woody” and stretch our cramped legs.

From all those family trips in the ‘50s and early ‘60s, I remember most clearly the façade of the old Mint Hotel and Casino in downtown Las Vegas on Fremont Street. It featured a huge marquee-type “wave” all lit up in, of course, mint green neon. I can see it flashing across the top of the building in my mind’s eye to this day. But neon, with its need for very specialized gas-filled tubes, was expensive and hard to maintain. When viable alternatives began to appear, casino, hotel and other business owners pounced. Gradually the neon lights of Vegas were replaced by LED lights and giant LCD screens. The neon all but disappeared.

Neon Re-Born in Las Vegas

Fortunately, The Neon Museum, near downtown, has collected dozens of classic pieces of old Vegas neon. Most have not been restored (and probably won’t be) but can be visited in the area called The Boneyard, a sort of graveyard for these eclectic electric fossils piled up higgledy-piggledy. They will make your camera cry out and your shutter finger itch to capture them.

Some of the best neon has, in fact, been restored and remounted along a Neon Gallery on Fremont Street and Las Vegas Blvd. downtown. These can be seen at any time, but are best viewed at night, when the pure neon colors still glow rich against a deep blue desert sky. Look for a good collection on East Fremont, just past the end of the enormous LED ceiling screen of the Fremont Street Experience.

Oscar’s Neon Martini Glass shown here, though it is mounted on East Fremont along with many of the other renovated signs in the “gallery,” is not actually a restored vintage sign. It was created new a few years ago. It was named for the long-time mayor of Las Vegas, Oscar Goodman.

Some of the other neon signs you can see in the open-air gallery include the golden magical lamp from the old Aladdin Hotel and Casino, all a-sparkle in yellow, and a prancing horse and rider from the long-gone Hacienda Hotel. That one is mounted on a pole at the intersection of Fremont St. and Las Vegas Blvd.

A visit to downtown Las Vegas is always fun, fanciful and full of light. The massive overhead light show that flickers across the giant LCD screen “ceiling” of The Fremont Street Experience is something everyone should see once. Then wander a couple of blocks further and check out some of the beautiful new and restored neon, like this Neon Martini Glass, that brings a bit of old Vegas back to life.

And a Bit of Personal Nostalgia

Imogene Meyer seated at a slot machine in 1959.

Imogene Meyer, who loved to play the “slots,” playing at
The Mint in Las Vegas in 1959.

Just for an extra bit of fun and Vegas nostalgia, I’ve added a second photo. This is my mom, seated at one of her beloved slot machines, in 1959. It was likely taken at The Mint or the Golden Nugget. The casinos used to send “camera girls” around to take pictures of the players. I don’t recall if you had to pay for a copy of if they were given out as souvenirs to entice you to come back. In any case, I have quite a collection of my pretty mom with this same big smile on her face. You can pretty much track the years by her changing hairstyles!

I imagine more than a few of us mature Nomad Women remember back in the day when you actually had to put a coin in the slot and pull the handle of the “one-armed bandit.” My mom would end the evening with her fingers black from the nickels and dimes and her right arm sore! But with a huge grin on her face.

While you’re in the downtown area, be sure to make a stop at Luv-It Frozen Custard for a sweet frozen treat you won’t soon forget, especially if it is a hot day or evening. Open till 10 pm Sunday through Thursday, till 11 on Friday and Saturday.

For more information on the Neon Museum, including how and when you can visit The Boneyard, check The Neon Museum website.

Prague's upside-down horse hangs with King Wenceslaus riding his belly.

POTW: Prague’s Upside-Down Horse

An upside-down horse is likely not what you came to Prague expecting to see. But then Czech artist David Černý likes to do things differently. The horse and the beautiful Lucerna Passage it hangs in, should not be missed.

On any trip to Prague, you’re certainly going to visit Wenceslaus Square. This is where things happen in Prague… revolutions, celebrations, demonstrations. And all this feverish activity is watched over by the country’s patron saint, Vaclav, who we in the West tend to know as Good King Wenceslaus. He was the Christian ruler of the country in the 10th century and was murdered by his ambitious brother Boleslav the Cruel.

There he sits at the top of the square, astride a majestic prancing horse, in front of the domed National Museum. The statue was begun by sculptor Josef Vaclav Myslbek in 1887 and finally put into place in 1912, a testament to Czech honor, patriotism, and all that good stuff.

But not so far away, near the other end of the square, is another King Vaclav and his horse… but with a twist of classic Czech irony.

Prague's upside-down horse hangs with King Wenceslaus riding his belly.

Do you think King Wenceslaus is oblivious to the fact that his steed is not only an upside-down horse
that’s sticking its tongue out but is also dead?

Inside the Lucerna Passage—an elegant and decorative Art Nouveau shopping and entertainment area built in 1920—you’ll find yourself confronting another horse that, while perhaps not of a different color is certainly of a different condition. He’s dead, you see, and hanging by his feet, his poor head lolling down and his tongue sticking out. But apparently King Vaclav still needed a mount, dead or alive, and so he mounted the upside down steed, riding astride the dead horse’s belly.

This upside-down horse, a perfect depiction of the Czech penchant for black humor, was created in 1999 by the post-modern Czech artist David Černý. The same David Černý who once painted a Russian tank that was gracing the square pink. And the same one who designed those odd babies you might have noticed crawling up the sides of the Czech TV tower.

The poor dead horse and his oblivious king seem yet more bizarre surrounded by the elaborate marble work and stained glass and general Art-Nouveau kitschy loveliness of the atrium where they hang. You can’t help but wonder how that fragile and lovely ceiling can support the weight of such a large piece. But although it looks like bronze, the horse and rider are actually sculpted of foam.

A Presidential Connection

The building was built by Vaclav Havel, grandfather of the famous poet/playwright/dissident of the same name who became the first president of the nation after the fall of Communism (which he helped bring about). Havels are still part owners of the property and in fact, one of the stories I heard about the Upside-Down Horse involves the family. Word is that an aunt of the presidential Vaclav was a firm Royalist and ordered the statue as a statement of persistence and faith. She decreed that the king should ride on an upended dead horse until the monarchy is restored to Czech. Probably an apocryphal tale but if not, our Vaclav here is likely to have a long dead ride.

Like most of Černý’s work, this bizarre, controversial but ultimately enjoyable piece of art is certainly a worthy addition to the Czech tradition of Theater of the Absurd.

Note: There’s a nice cafe on the upper level of the atrium, the Cafe Kino. Just go up the amber-rose colored marble steps across from our guy here. If you can get a seat by the window looking down into the atrium, you can get a nice angle for a photo. I had coffee with whipped cream and a pastry. A bit pricey for Prague, but not out of reach and a pleasant spot.

Butter Crunch Sundae at Luv-It Frozen Custard in Las Vegas

The Best Thing I Ate in Las Vegas – Frozen Custard!

Luv-It Frozen Custard

Frozen custard? I went to Las Vegas and the best thing I ate there was… frozen custard? Yes. The best. Come on. I’ll take you there, and you’ll see for yourself.

Luv-It Frozen Custard sign, Las Vegas

Luv-It Frozen Custard – the BEST thing
I ate in Las Vegas

Of course, when it comes to good food in Las Vegas, there’s no shortage of yummy. Gambling, booze and sex aren’t the town’s only sinful delights. And those of us who’ve reached a certain age know that sometimes great food has an even stronger siren call than Vegas’ other sinful specialties—although you’d never think that if you’d watched my mom, who was still a mean slots player in her 90s.

But of good food in Las Vegas there is an abundance, and I’ve sampled more than my share. When I was a professional Tour Director, many of my tours started or ended in Vegas, so I had many chances to check out the culinary scene.

I’ve tested the prime rib at Caesar’s Palace, enjoyed a meal at Gordon Ramsey’s “Steak.” I’ve tried (unsuccessfully) to finish off THIS mountain of chicken, and waffles at Hashhouse a Go Go and I easily polished off a plate of the best hummus I’ve ever eaten at Paymon’s Lebanese Restaurant on Maryland Avenue.

Chicken with waffles at Hashhouse a Go Go

Yes, that is a tree of fresh rosemary growing out of the top of the Chicken and Waffles at Hashhouse a Go Go in Las Vegas.

They were all good; some were great. But the jewel in the glitzy, over-tinseled crown of Las Vegas dining was mined at an innocuous little hut in a parking lot at the far north end of the Vegas Strip. There’s a reason that Luv-It Frozen Custard has been an institution for generations of Las Vegas families. And it’s certainly not the location. Or the service. It’s the custard. The rich, creamy, eggy, velvety, sweet, not-too-hard-not-too-soft frozen custard.

Come On, Let’s Go Try Some

Although we’ll find Luv-It Frozen Custard just one building off Las Vegas Blvd, this is NOT “The Strip,” at least not the glitzy part. Nor is it far enough north to be called downtown. It’s that in-between no-man’s land called “The Naked City”—not the most scenic or savory part of town, to be sure. But that hasn’t seemed to hurt its business in the 40+ years it’s been dishing up the good stuff here. We’ll very likely have to wait in line for our frozen treats. The mayor or some performer from the Strip might be waiting next to us.

Luv-it Frozen Custard Building

Located in a parking lot next to a strip club, Luv-It Frozen Custard is not quite what you expect… but it’s worth it!

Located at 505 East Oakey, Luv-It Frozen Custard is one light past the Stratosphere Hotel. If carless, we can hop on the double-decker bus known as The Deuce, get off at the Stratosphere, and walk.

You’re likely going to be surprised, maybe even disappointed, by this nondescript little blue-and-white shack dumped on a parking lot next to a strip club. Just pretend you’re back in the ‘50s, because it looks like something off an old calendar.

We can’t even go inside; there’s only a walk-up window, not even a bench or a table. Most people eat in their cars or lean against the building in the shade of the wide awning while listening to the squeals of panic and delight wafting down from the wild carnival rides waaayyyy up there on top of the Strat nearby.

List of available flavors at Luv-It Frozen Custard in Las Vegas

Only 4–sometimes 5–flavors are available each day… because they are made fresh every morning.

Don’t let the lack of amenities stop you. Don’t even let the homeless folks who tend to hang around the parking lot pan-handling for change stop you. It’s not about them. It’s all about the custard.

It’s been about the custard since 1973 when “Grandma” arrived from Wisconsin, where frozen custard is traditional, and brought a load of dairy machinery with her. Today, her great-grandchildren are dishing up the scoops at Luv-It, in the same location, still made fresh every morning, with dozens of hand-cracked eggs and other real ingredients, using Grandma’s original recipes.

And it’s good. This frozen custard is very, very good. Luv-It regularly makes the “Best in Vegas” lists of local newspapers, websites and going-out guides. As one Yelp reviewer said, “It was howl-at-the-moon kind of good. It was ‘holy hell, all ice cream will taste watery from this day forward’ kind of good.” Another reviewer said, “Am I considering living down the road so I can stop here three times a day? I would be lying if I said no.”

Luv-it special sundae-with frozen strawberries and toasted pecans

The Luv-It Special – Vanilla frozen custard with frozen strawberries, salted pecans and a cherry.

If you’ve never had frozen custard, it’s like more-solid soft-serve ice cream but with egg yolks added. It needs less churning than ice cream, so it’s denser, with fewer air pockets where ice can crystallize. That also makes it smoother. You can taste the egginess, but it’s not, well, flanny. It’s just flat good.

Don’t be misled by the long list of delectable sounding flavors listed on the board. They won’t have most of them. In fact, they’ll only have a couple. Since the custard is made fresh daily, they can’t handle a Baskin-Robbins trick. They make vanilla and chocolate daily then add two other flavors. It’s the luck of the draw. You can check their website, where they list each day’s special flavors weeks in advance. If you discover they’re serving up maple custard, cash in your chips NOW and get moving. It’s better than the best poker hand.

I’ve also tried the peanut butter, the pineapple (with chunks of fruit) and the lemon. Once I mixed orange custard with vanilla, swirled it all around in the cup and felt like I was a kid again licking a creamsicle from the ice cream man on a hot summer day.

Butter Crunch Sundae at Luv-It Frozen Custard in Las Vegas

Butter Crunch Sundae – Butterscotch topping and crushed candy that tastes like Butterfingers. Yum!

My personal favorite? The Butter Crunch Sundae. Thick butterscotch (the real deal) topped with crunch, which tastes like you took the inside of a Butterfinger candy bar and crushed it fine with a rolling pin. But maybe you’d prefer the Cherry Yum Yum, with black cherries and chocolate cookie crumble. Or chocolate malt. Or sprinkles. Or hot apples and walnuts. Or….

Are you getting the picture here? You’re going to find something to love. Believe me on this point.

Luv-It Frozen Custard is open every day from 1-10 pm, and till 11 pm on Friday and Saturday. Important note: It’s a CASH ONLY business and they don’t take bills over $20. There’s an ATM machine in the gas station next door, but the fees are killer. Bring money. For flavors of the day and any other questions, you can visit the Luv-It Frozen Custard website.

Photo of the Week:
The Colegio de Sales in San Miguel de Allende, Mexico

For this week’s Photo of the Week, I decided to post the picture that got the most likes on my new Instagram feed.

Taken in San Miguel de Allende, it is a picture I shot a couple of years ago, but the view hasn’t changed a bit. It could have been taken yesterday. Or a hundred years ago if they’d had really good color film back then. It shows the roof line of the Colegio de San Francisco de Sales, located on the Plaza Cívica, next to the church of Nuestra Señora de la Salud. The building and the pleasant plaza in front of it are about three minutes’ walk from the Jardín, San Miguel’s main square.

Roofline of the Colegio de Sales, San Miguel de Allende, Mexico

Since we Nomad Women tend to have a few years on us and therefore understand the importance of history, we often like to know a bit about the past of what we’re seeing. We like to know the stories behind the buildings. So….

The Colegio de Sales was built in the early 18th century by the priests of the order of San Felipe Neri, who also built the church next door. This area of San Miguel de Allende was the heart of the town almost 200 years ago. The main market was here, the main churches were all here, and the college topped it off. This was the principal crossroads for business, religion, leisure and commerce in this important and wealthy colonial city.

The Colegio de San Francisco de Sales catered to the criollos, sons of the rich Spaniards, as well as to deserving poor students. The price of enrollment was on a sliding scale and cost between 12 and 300 pesos a year–at a time when a common laborer earned about one peso a day. The courses of study included Theology, Rhetoric, Grammar and Philosophy.

San Miguel’s namesake, Ignacio Allende, studied here, as did another Hero of Independence, Juan Aldama. I like to imagine them running across the central patio on the way to a Latin class, maybe cutting up a bit and earning a frown from one of the priest-tutors. Or perhaps racing out to the nearby market for a pan dulce between classes. Did they have any idea that not so many years later they would change the entire course of Mexican history? And that they would pay for that change with their very lives?

Today, the building is little changed from their time. In fact, it once again serves as a center of education. Today it houses a branch campus of the University of León.

Gray Skies & Ferris Wheel-Dam Square in Amsterdam

Dam Square in Amsterdam is Beautiful No Matter the Weather

This was taken on an overcast day in October, when this huge ferris wheel was set up in front of the Royal Palace on Dam Square in the heart of Amsterdam. There were a few other midway-style rides in the square, but none had this dramatic look.

The rain started a few minutes after I took the picture and I had to run for cover. I never did find out what the reason for the fair was. But hey, who needs a reason to celebrate a day in October in Amsterdam?

Gray skies and ferris wheel in front of the Royal Palace in Dam Square in Amsterdam

Dam Square in Amsterdam is always beautiful.

Big Shawl Cover-up-travel accessories

My Travel Shawl: The Best of All Possible
Travel Accessories

Big shawl as travel accessories

Me and my favorite of all travel accessories–my Big Shawl

How a Simple Bit of Fabric Became My Favorite Travel Companion

Wondering about travel accessories for experienced, mature women who travel? OK, you want fashion? You want usefulness? You want cultural respect? Well, listen up, ladies. I’ve got you covered on all fronts.

I think most of us here are old enough to remember that AmEx commercial with the tag line “Don’t leave home without it.” I can still see the face of Karl Malden sternly telling me to put that plastic in my handbag. I don’t have an American Express card, but I do have one of those go-to, always-ready travel accessories I NEVER leave home without. I don’t even think of heading out the door, carry-on at the ready, without a soft, over-sized shawl to accompany me on my trip, no matter the season or where I am going. It’s the most versatile travel accessory I own and the one thing I use almost every day on any trip, anywhere. It keeps me warm on chilly and changeable days; it’s a pillow or a blanket on trains and planes and buses. It’s a beach and pool cover-up, a towel, a cultural emergency solver and a fashion statement.

Recently, I even had a nice-looking young man stop me on the street in Paris to ask me where I bought my shawl because it was so beautiful. How’s that for making a statement? (And for making you feel young and sexy again!)

Why a Big Travel Shawl is Perfect for Older Women Travelers

Of all the varied and fashionable international travel accessories, I think such a shawl is the most useful for women travelers of any age. But for our age group, it is even more valuable. I don’t know about you, but I am a lot less likely than my younger travel sisters to want to walk around Paris in a hoodie on a breezy day attempting to keep warm or throw a gauzy, see-through cotton voile thing over a bikini at the beach to protect me from the sun. And as much as I love the idea of a sarong, my figure no longer gets so excited about them. I want to look good and hopefully fit in with the locals, at least a little. My travel accessory shawl does all that and more.

Your own big travel shawl might be a fine, expensive pashmina or one your mom knitted for you. It might be Neiman-Marcus expensive or street-stall cheap. But trust me, you need one.

Big Shawl Cover-up-travel accessories

A big shawl is great for covering up in a culturally sensitive area.

The big shawl I used as an all-purpose travel accessory on my most recent trip in Europe was made in India, though I bought it in one of my favorite shops in San Miguel de Allende, Mexico (Chaski’s on Calle Juarez, if you want to know). It is made of viscous, a soft synthetic that feels like fine wool, is warm and drapes beautifully. It cost me about $16US.

The versatility of this garment/wrap/thing is astounding. I even used it one day to carry vegetables home from a street market in Amsterdam when the cheap plastic bag I was carrying broke. If I had a baby, I would no doubt use my shawl to carry the little creature slung on my back, like Mexican women do in their “rebozos.”

How This Came to be My Favorite of All Travel Accessories

I first discovered “the trick of the shawl” as the most perfect of all travel accessories more than 40 years ago. In college, I taught myself to knit. One of the results was an enormous shawl made with two strands of thick, nubby yarn—turquoise and black, as I recall—and knitted on giant wooden needles. It was both lacy and warm, but so bulky I almost didn’t take it. At the last minute, I grabbed it to keep me warm on the plane, thinking I wouldn’t miss it terribly much if I had to abandon it along the way.

I would soon change my mind about that.

That pile of black-and-blue knit became my closest companion in that first trip across Europe. It covered my head in a church in Barcelona. It was an acceptable blanket the night I had to sleep in a park in Paris because friends and I had arrived on Bastille Day and there was literally “no room in the inn.” It was a cover-up on the beach at Zandvoort in Holland, a pillow on a train to Edinburgh, and a dressy wrap for dinner with a very proper English butler friend at Claridge’s in London.

That shawl became my best friend, a physical and emotional comfort on long train rides and lonely nights, my own personal “security blankie.” You can’t say that about many everyday travel accessories.

From that first trip in 1970 until today, I have never traveled without some version of the trusty Big Shawl. And I doubt I ever will.

Keep in mind that women have been wrapping up, keeping warm, covering skin, hiding, and staying sacred in over-sized shawls for a long time, almost since time began. In virtually every period, every culture and every situation, the big shawl has been found useful for all sorts of reason.

vintage fashion plates show shawls in every period

In every period, every class, of culture, women have used big shawls to make a statement, among other things.

What to Look for in the Perfect Over-sized Shawl as a Travel Accessory

There are a few special requirements to make your over-sized travel shawl as useful and versatile as possible:

• Does not wrinkle easily. It’s going to be balled up and crushed and stuffed. A lot.
• Does not snag easily. I learned this with that first loose-knit one. You are going to put it through hell and back, and it needs to keep looking good.
• Made from a fiber that will hold in heat. You’ll use it as a blanket, a cover-up on cloudy days or even as a muffler when it’s downright cold.
• Large enough to cover most of your body when you are seated on a plane or train, as a blanket.
• A color or print you love, that makes you feel pretty, can dress up a simple outfit but also does not show dirt too badly.
• A fabric that drapes nicely so it makes an attractive shoulder throw or head scarf when you need to cover up for cultural reasons—or for rain!
• Does not take two days to dry! (I learned this hard lesson with that blue-and-black knit beauty, too.)
• Is not so expensive that you’ll be devastated if you lose it. Just remember the fun you’ll have haggling in a street market or souk for a new one.

So now, grab your big, comfortable, soft, pretty, multi-function travel shawl, ladies. Put it on the top of your suitcase, more easily reachable than all your other travel accessories put together. And sally forth! You are now ready for anything.

Many thanks to my friend Jim Knoch for taking the pictures of me in my travel shawl!

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The sign at the entrance to Terezin Prison Camp, near Prague, "Arbeit Macht Frei,"--Work Will Make You Free

Visiting the Terezín Concentration Camp and Ghetto, Near Prague

I didn’t know what to expect when I decided to visit the Terezín Ghetto and Concentration Camp, near Prague in the Czech Republic. But whatever it was, it wasn’t what happened to me there.

Feeling the Sun

When I step off the tour van in the parking area to visit the Terezín/Theresienstadt concentration camp/ghetto and prison, the sun is shining brilliantly and the sky is a piercing blue. I hadn’t paid much attention to the weather when we left Prague an hour ago. But now I notice that the sun is making everything vivid, alive, almost sparkling.

Walking from the parking area to Terezín’s “Small Fortress,” I stroll beneath a row of trees in full leaf—although every now and then a butter-yellow leaf drifts towards my feet, signaling the onset of autumn. If I were wearing one-sided blinders, I could imagine I was walking in a peaceful park on a sunny day, for then I could not see the rows and rows of stone tablets beyond the trees to my right—thousands of them—set into the lush grass to mark the resting places of so many who died earlier than they should have. Most of the plaques have names; some do not. A few are marked only by a number, just a few digits to sum up an entire life.

The 5-digit number tattooed on a woman's arm, a survivor of Auschwitz and the Nazi Holocaust.

This is what they did at Auschwitz. This is how they turned people into numbers. This is what I saw tattooed on the arm of a survivor
on a hot summer day in Amsterdam in 1971.

Seeing the number on one gravestone takes me back to a day in 1971, the first time I lived abroad. I was standing in line at the post office in Amsterdam, fanning myself with the letter I was waiting to mail. It was summer, and hot. Everyone was in short sleeves. Uncomfortable and impatient, I counted how many people were before me. And glancing down, I saw the arm of the woman standing directly in front of me. It was a freckled arm, I remember, dusted with soft light hairs. And among the freckles there, on the outside of her left arm, were the blue-black marks of a tattoo. Five digits. Etched into the freckled skin of her arm. She had been at Auschwitz, the only concentration camp where the Nazis, with their so-German efficiency, marked their victims in this way, the better to maintain their meticulous records of life and death.

I do not know what to expect here, in Terezín, which the Germans called Theresienstadt. I have never been to a Nazi concentration camp. I suppose I hope to see in reality what before had been only old and cracked black-and-white photos of Auschwitz, Dachau, and Treblinka, of gaunt prisoners in striped uniforms clinging to wire fencing. I did not expect to see grass and flowers and a yellow leaf floating down under a bright blue sky.

The Small Fortress Prison at Terezín

The walls of the star-shaped Small Fortress at Terezín are built of rusty red brick topped with grassy mounds. It was not built as a concentration camp. It was used as a political prison for more than 150 years before the Nazis came. But they knew how to make what they considered very good use of it.

We cross a bridge over a moat, dry now, filled with grass, and enter through an arched entryway. Soon after, we walk through a second portal, the entrance to the prison itself. This one is adorned with that favorite bit of Nazi camp irony… the ubiquitous Arbeit Macht Frei painted over the portal, the motto that greeted those who entered so many of the camps. “Work Will Make You Free.”

The sign  at the entrance to Terezín Prison Camp, near Prague, "Arbeit Macht Frei,"--Work Will Make You Free

The Nazi’s favorite ironical device–the ubiquitous sign at the entrance to most of their concentration camps.
“Arbeit Macht Frei,” or “Work Will Make You Free.” It didn’t.

A well-informed guide shows us around the camp and tells us what we are looking at. I see rooms lined with three-tiered wooden bunks. I see tiny isolation cells just big enough for a cot. I am shown the showers where prisoners and their clothes were de-loused. I see dead-bolts on doors and barbed wire atop walls.

What I do not see are gas chambers, for Terezín was not an extermination camp, like Auschwitz-Birkenau. The Small Fortress was used by the Germans as the Prague Gestapo prison. It held political prisoners, trouble-makers, Czech resistance fighters. Jews from the town who were caught stealing paper to make art or write music on were sent here. But no, there are no gas chambers.

Which is not to say people did not die here. Thousands did, from poor conditions and from murder. I am led to the execution grounds. There on the ground, beside the grass and shaded from the sun, are three cement forms, looking exactly like crosses, where marksmen laid with their rifles aimed at a grass knoll a few meters away. Here prisoners could be shot and the hill behind them would conveniently absorb the bullets.

The wooden gallows at Terezín Prison Camp, with their rickety steps and rough wood platform, look like something a child would build.

The gallows on the killing grounds of the Nazi Prison Camp at Terezín, near Prague, looks amost like a toy,
an oversized version of a child’s game of “Hangman” come to horrible life.

At one corner of the area stands a gallows, almost insignificant looking, a feeble wooden framework with two steps leading up from the platform, crude and easiy pulled away. It seems far too small to be so lethal. It looks like something built in the back yard by children to play a particularly sick game.

Off to one side of the execution grounds is another grass-covered hill. Here, some 600 bodies were found in a mass grave after the war.

But no, there are no gas chambers. No spot where the local equivalent of Dr. Mengele stood and casually divided fresh arrivals, pointing these to the left and those to the right, these to slavery and hard labor and starvation and those to a more immediate death. Terezín, you see, was not a “death camp.”

And I am shocked to realize that I am disappointed.

Disappointed that it was not more cruel? More inhuman? Disappointed that I will not be able to see face-to-face how barbaric we as a race can be to each other? Sorry that I will not get the entire effect of the brutality of war thrown in my face?

Feeling Numb

I disgust myself with this observation, with its overtone of pining for the sensational. But disgust is the strongest emotion I allow myself to feel. Mostly, I feel numb. I look at the cells and the bunks, the meager toilets and the barbed wire, and even the feeble little gallows; and I feel numb. I concentrate on the settings of my camera. I look up at the blue sky. I frame a shot just so and wonder if I should print it in black and white for better effect. I have detached myself completely from what is in front of me, unable to let the horror all the way in.

A desolate wall topped with broken barbed wire marks the edge of the Terezín Concentration Camp/Prison.

Decaying barbed wire tops the wall at Terezin Concentration Camp/prison, n ear Prague. a desolate reminder of what happened here

As we leave the Small Fortress, I watch my feet step across the square stones of the path. I pick up a mahogany-colored chestnut fallen from one of the trees, full and lush overhead with their deep-green leaves. I polish the nut on my pants leg and drop it into my pocket, not knowing why. (Later, when I return safe and whole to my own comfortable home in central Mexico, I will decide to place it carefully on the table altar in my meditation niche, beside a Buddha figure, a Mayan carving and a Virgin of Guadalupe.)

The Terezín Ghetto

We leave the prison and move on to the town itself, the fortified village of Terezín. Once again, the Nazis had a new use in mind for the old village, realizing that the high walls and sturdy gates designed to keep people out also made it perfect for locking people in.

Built to hold some 5000 residents, at its height during the war the ghetto at Terezín enclosed more than 58,000 Jews behind its fortified walls. In the over-crowded conditions, here they died—some 34,000 of them—of malnutrition, disease and stress. But most of those who were sent here, thousands of Czech Jews but also those from Austria, Hungary, Germany, the Netherlands, stayed here only until they were chosen for the next transport east…usually to Auschwitz-Birkenau. Almost 90,000 of them left here, packed into the cattle cars of the transport trains. 15,000 of them were children. 90% of them never returned.

Train tracks lead away from the Terezín Ghetto and Concentration camp, heading east, toward Auschwitz-Birkenau.

The trains that left Terezín Ghetto and Concentration Camp were generally headed to Auschwitz-Birkenau.
Of the almost 90,000 people shipped east from here, 90% never returned.

The town was doubly useful to the Nazis—as a “holding camp” for Jews on their way to be used up or disposed of elsewhere, and as a “picture-book” resettlement area that could be used to show the world how well the Jews were being treated. For a while, it even worked.

When the International Red Cross insisted on sending a delegation to the ghetto, they were shown a nice façade—cleaned up, dressed up, whitewashed and filled with luscious baked goods in the bakery, children’s soccer games and temporarily well-dressed and forcibly smiling Jews. They were treated to a brilliant concert of Verdi’s “Requiem” performed by some of the hundreds of professional Jewish musicians sent to Terezín. And after they left, they gave the ghetto a clean bill of health. While the people behind the walls starved.

We are shown briefly around the town. From the outside, it looks not so different from any other small Czech town, with its 18th-century façades and neatly cobble-stoned courtyards. But behind the walls, I do see more barracks full of multi-tiered wooden bunks and tiny wood-burning stoves. A wall is covered with the names of the dead. Photographs, documents, and the yellow stars embroidered with “Jude” that were sewn to clothing are on display. They are in showcases, behind glass, a barrier that not only protects them from me but also me from them. I find it all… “interesting.”

Feeling Sick

We go into the museum. And it is here, finally, the numbness lifts. The change is sudden and violent, a sucker-punch to the gut, and I feel as though I am about to throw up.

Why here? The crematorium did not do it, that ugly room where the bodies of the thousands of dead were burned, their ashes stored in urns only later to be dumped into the river when the Nazis saw the end was near and tried to cover up the scope of the deaths. No, for all its ugliness, the crematorium did not make me feel sick. The rows of bunks, the barbed wire, the execution grounds could not lift the veil of numbness and make me nauseous.

No, it is the drawings—hundreds of drawings made with colored pencils, crayons, charcoal. Drawings made by the children, who were protected as far as possible, both physically and psychically, by the Jewish elders in the town, given better food and access to sports and music and art lessons. It is the drawings of home, of nature, of happier times and future hopes. That is what makes me feel sick, because I, unlike the children, know what their future held.

Here is a drawing of a house covered in red hearts to show the love inside, there a charcoal sketch of a beloved black dog, a crayon picture of a carrousel, another of a rainbow, flowers, butterflies. Below each drawing is a note: Name of child artist, date of birth, date and place of death. Most were between 10 and 14 years old.

Children's art at Terezín Ghetto, Czech RepublicChildren's Art at Terezín Ghetto, Czech Republic
Names of some of the children from Terezín who died at Auschwitz

I try to hold my camera steady, to concentrate on framing a picture, exposing it correctly, eliminating glare from the glass in front of it. But my hands are shaking and I realize I can’t breathe. I need to leave. I need to leave now. I am afraid I will be sick here on this nice clean marble tile floor.

I walk out of the museum and cross the street to the park. I notice again that it is a beautiful day. I can smell the flowers and hear the soft breeze rustling the leaves of the chestnut trees.

I sit on the cool soft grass, close my eyes and turn my face up to the sun.

Terezín ghetto and concentration camp lies 40 miles west of Prague. Several companies offer day tours from Prague. Tours run around $50-60 and last about 5 hours. I took my tour from Prague to Terezín/Theresienstadt Concentration Camp and Ghetto with Viator.

Pin for Later: A visit to the Terezín Ghetto and Concentration camp near Prague, Czech Republic

Dreamy girl conchero dancer in San Miguel de Allende, Mexico

The 5 Best Times to Visit San Miguel de Allende, Mexico

Fireworks, San Miguel de Allende, MexicoLet’s say this right off—there is no bad time to visit San Miguel de Allende, the UNESCO World Heritage Site in the celebrated colonial heart of Mexico. Its gracious and hospitable people, colonial architecture and cobblestoned streets and its sense of warm embrace operate at all hours and in all seasons.

But there are times when the oft-mentioned “magic” of San Miguel grows exponentially, turning itself into a cauldron of love potion that has captured uncounted visitors. “Stay,” it whispers. “You don’t really want to go home, do you? Stay and live in this magical circle of color and sunlight and celebration forever.”

So what are the very best times to visit and perhaps succumb to San Miguel’s magic? When are the days of passion and pomp, of fiestas and fireworks, of days over-spilling with bright people and warm welcomes and fascinating things to see and do? Grab your calendar and let’s look at what I think are the five best times to visit San Miguel de Allende.

Dia de la Conquista

The first Friday in March is when the conchero dancers arrive. Named for the anklets that rattle as they stomp, jump, turn, step, lunge, and stomp some more, they dance hour after hour, in a religious ritual that is a mix of indigenous and Catholic beliefs.

The groups of dancers begin arriving early in the morning and dance into the evening, their movements a homage to “Christ of the Conquest,” symbol of the acceptance of Christ by Mexico’s indigenous people. Beyond this Catholic veneer, pre-Christian traditions take over. The dancer’s costumes offer an over-the-top modern version of Aztec fashion. Huge headdresses are topped with 6-foot pheasant feathers, some dyed to a neon glow; loin cloths and dresses are covered with Aztec symbols appliqued in blazing metallic lamé. And the sound! Try to hear this in your head—deep drumming pounded out on huge oil drums; notes strummed on armadillo-shell mandolins; the mournful note of a blown conch shell. Mix in the pungency of copal incense wafting around, add in the movements of the crowd trying to capture the spectacle on memory cards, and you get some idea of why you need to be in San Miguel de Allende on Dia de la Conquista.

Dreamy girl conchero dancer in San Miguel de Allende, Mexico


Semana Santa – The Pageantry, Passion and Solemnity of Holy Week

If the Conquista dancers have Aztec roots, Semana Santa in San Miguel de Allende is all Catholic, all religious, all the time. It is the best possible mirror held up to the deep spirituality and passion of the Mexican people.
It starts the Friday before Holy Week, with Day of the Altars to honor the Virgin of Sorrows.

Semana Santa Procession in San Miguel de Allende, MexicoEvery fountain in town is decorated, enormous and elaborate altars appear in public places. But the most telling and charming altars are built in private homes, their doors and windows open to the street so passers-by can enjoy their beauty and piety.

Religious processions go on all week, peaking on Good Friday when a statue of Christ is put on trial in the courtyard of the Parroquia, then paraded around the Jardin only to come face to face with a statue of his mother. Amid a silence so deep you can feel it on your skin, the statue of Christ actually bows three times to Mary. The collective gasp of the crowd can suck the breath right out of you. The Good Friday sunset procession is the biggest, the longest and the most solemn. Silent but for the dirge of drums, it winds through the streets in black and purple and lamplight. Even the huge crowds are now silent. It is profoundly moving.

See more on Semana Santa in San Miguel de Allende at experiencesanmiguel.com

Las Fiestas Patrias

September is pure secular fiesta time, beginning with Mexico’s Independence Day. At 11 pm on September 15th, El Grito is called out by the mayor from the balcony of the Allende House at the same moment it’s happening in Mexico City, Guadalajara, Puerto Vallarta and every town and city in the country. “Viva Mexico” rings across the square as the crowd repeats the joyous cry of independence, waving flags and sporting red-white-and-green flags painted on their faces.

Following the ceremony, one of the best fireworks shows of the year takes over the skies above the church, including giant castillo towers that send showers of sparks raining down onto the paving stones, where crazy young men dance among them.

The Voladores de Papantla performing in San Miguel de Allende, MexicoThe festive spirit continues for the next couple of weeks, capped by a giant party in honor of San Miguel himself, on or about September 29th. The alborada celebration starts at 3 am (don’t ask me why) with music, dancing in the streets and, this being Mexico, a lot more fireworks. A tall pole is also erected in the Jardin, where the famous “Voladores de Papantla” also perform their death-defying ritual. While one man stands on a tiny platform atop the pole and plays a flute, four others do the “flying.” With ropes tied to their ankles, they fall backward from the top of the pole. As the ropes unwind, they spin slowly around the pole, getting lower and lower, closer to the ground, with each cycle. It is a wondrous sight to see.

Dia de los Muertos

Publid Day of the Dead altar in San Miguel de Allende, MexicoDay of the Dead is a big deal in San Miguel de Allende. Beginning on Halloween night, you’ll see throngs of people with faces made up to look like skulls—pretty skulls, horrible skulls, lacy skulls, skulls adorned with flowers and whorls and flourishes and sunken eye sockets. Altars appear all over town, honoring those who have passed, decorated with sugar skulls and pan de muerto, dried fruit and marigolds and photos of the deceased. Favorite brands of beer, cigarettes or food will be added to tempt the dead to return for one night.

On November 1, the crowds move to the cemetery. The graves have been white-washed and decorated with flowers, and the people spend the whole night there by the graves of their loved ones, eating, chatting, drinking, laughing and making music through the night. You are welcome to come along.

In front of the Parroquia, giant altars and elaborate displays are set up, great for strolling past and snapping photos.

Navidad – Christmas in San Miguel de Allende

Christmas tree in the Jardin, San Miguel de Allende, MexicoChristmas activities in San Miguel begin with a colorful Christmas market set up in the Plaza Cívica. On or about December 16th, the town Christmas tree is lighted in the Jardín. That night also begins Las Posadas, the traditional processions that take place every night for nine nights in different neighborhoods. They represent the futile search by Mary and Joseph for a place to spend the night. The final posada on Christmas Eve begins at the Monjas church and ends at the Parroquia.

Christmas Eve Mass is a very big deal in San Miguel, as it is throughout Mexico. Christmas day itself is quiet, a day for family. But because San Miguel is a tourist town, you won’t have trouble finding a great Christmas dinner at one of the varied restaurants in town.

Magical San Miguel

To repeat, there is no bad time to visit San Miguel de Allende. But my suggestion is to visit sooner rather than later. While San Miguel is holding its own well against most developers, especially in the UNESCO-protected centro, there are clear signs of gentrification going on. Shops that used to line the Jardin can no longer afford the rent. The same is now happening farther out. On the Ancha de San Antonio, once lined with hardward stores, car mechanics, and tiny family eateries, you’ll now find organic markets, artisan cheese shops, and trendy restaurants in what has effectivally become a “restaurant row.” I have mixed feelings about this. Read this about Penang, Malaysia, to get an idea why.

The bottom line is still the same. Come to San Miguel de Allende. It is still magical. And if you can schedule a trip around one of these events, you’ll get the most and the best of San Miguel all wrapped up in a festive bow.

But be warned, San Miguel de Allende is contagious. Once exposed to its magic, you may never recover.

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Pinnable image--Day of the Dead, one of the best times to visit San Miguel de Allende, MexicoPinnable image: The Parroquia, a symbol of San Miguel de Allende, Mexico

While you are in San Miguel de Allende, you may want to explore a bit farther afield. Guanajuato City, the state capital, is just an hour away. It is another UNESCO World Heritage Site and well worth making the short trip. Colorful, hilly, culturally rich, with the young vibe of a university town, Guanajuato might just steal your heart. Learn more about the best things to do in Guanajuato City in this post by our friends at the LiveDreamDiscover blog.