Thursday, April 26, 2018

In Argentina, you gotta tango

One of the best ways to get a feel for local life when traveling is by sampling popular passions.  In Buenos Aires, Argentina, that means learning to tango.  That’s why I ended up in a tango class, trying to contort my gringo body into Carmen-style sultriness.

The passion inherent in the tango has inspired an entire culture in this romantic South American city—a culture with all the charms of Europe but without the high price tags.  Buenos Aires is a bargain for travelers, whether the city is a port on a cruise or your primary destination.

Our first night in Buenos Aires my husband Larry and I put on our dancing shoes for an evening tour that included group lessons on basic tango steps followed by a professional performance and traditional steak and wine dinner. Classes are offered at local tango clubs or private dance studios, but the idea of a reward—dinner and a show—was too appealing to pass up. 

We arrived at Complejo Tango for our introduction to this famous form of art and entertainment. Listening to the music’s beat, we mimicked our instructor’s slinky walking steps and quick kicks.  We learned to shuffle our feet to the music, moving our bodies somewhere between graceful and gawky, but nowhere near the agile, athletic moves we later saw in a professional performance.  Twirls, spins, and dips (best left to the experts) are performed with only the lower body moving, a challenge from the start. 
Learning tango steps

We never got past the so-called Tourist Tango—strolling to the music--but that’s all we expected from our introductory class.  Still, we learned that tango is an intricate, precise partner dance, and the need for connectivity explains the saying “It takes two to tango.”

Birth of a national dance

As one of the richest countries in the world during the early 1900s, Argentina attracted immigrants from many nations and became a melting pot of cultures. Music united people from different heritages, and tango reflected a blending of rhythms brought from Africa and Europe.

Rooted in tenements populated by transplants, the tango was originally performed by men and was once considered scandalous.  Shunned by polite society in Buenos Aires, the dance was transported to Europe when wealthy parents sent children across the ocean to become educated and cultured.  Tango was the first couple dance seen in Europe and became quite popular, creating a craze of new fashions and social events in cities like London and Paris.

Eventually the passionate and flamboyant style of tango was welcomed back to Argentina. From the mid-1930s on, practically everyone in Buenos Aires danced the tango—and it’s still embraced by various socio-economic groups. Over time, it has evolved into the glamorous choreographed dances presented today by women in slit sequined skirts and men in tight pants and fedoras. 

Shows are available nightly in hotels, clubs, and ballrooms.  Most feature dances that highlight the history of tango through movement. Live music accompanies svelte dancers clad in glittering costumes and floaty feathers as they twist and turn their nimble bodies, quickly changing directions in moves that we could only dream of emulating. 

A dance for everyone

Although graceful and glamorous dancing entertains visitors, tango isn’t just for show. It’s a popular dance with portenos (local residents), who twirl around in milongas (dance halls) in a social version as different from the professional performance as ballet is from the Texas two-step.

More than 70 milongas located all over the city are available every week for locals and visitors to sample. Unwritten rules dictate that men and women sit separately, and a nod of the head is an invitation to dance. Improvisation, close embrace, and small steps characterize the best tango dancers.  The elegance of finely danced tango is a joy to watch, even from amateurs.

Tourists can step out on the floor of milongas—if they’re brave or skillful enough (you gotta have those lessons) and willing to stay up late.  Local dances don’t really get swinging until 11 p.m. and last until wee hours of morning.

If that’s too late for you, there are dancing opportunities in afternoon milongas.  Where you go for social tango depends on factors such as your age, dance style, formality desired, and time of day or night.  My preference?  People watching while sipping a refreshing drink.

Making the most of your visit

Steaks are especially delicious.
Buenos Aires is often called the Paris of South America because it has the cosmopolitan look and feel of Europe.  Food and drink are especially good and reasonably priced. You’ll want to sample the uncommonly flavorful Argentinean beef and wines for which this region is famous --red Malbecs and white Torrontes.  Buenos Aires is a very walkable city, with plenty of historic sites and modern shopping opportunities.  If you’re adventurous, rent bicycles to extend your explorations.

Photos from free sources and by Larry and Beverly Burmeier



Saturday, April 21, 2018

Which airports do you love (or hate)?

Is there an airport you love? Or hate? What airports do you try to book flights to whenever possible—or avoid at all costs?
Playing the waiting game in airport terminal
We know that airports are typically busy. (Lounge access, if you have it, makes hanging out in an airport tolerable) Most travelers just want to get on a plane and get out of the airport, so the easiest thing to do is just use whatever airport is closest to our destination and then deal with any inconveniences.

Most passengers just want to get on their way.
But some airports do try to please travelers. Skytrax has surveyed millions of flyers to determine the best and worst airports in the world—and also rankings in the United States. Ratings are based on check-in, arrivals, transfers, shopping, security, immigration, and departures. Of course, not all of these criteria are important to everyone or every trip.
For 2018, Singapore Changi Airport has received honors as the best airport in the world. If you haven’t been there, perhaps a trip to Asia including this airport, which could be a destination itself,  should be planned.

Ease of collecting luggage is one criteria for airports.
Other notable airports include Incheon International (Seoul), Tokyo International (Haneda), Hong Kong International Airport, Doha Hamad international Airport, Munich Airport, and Chubu Centrair Nagoya. Did you notice that many of these are Asian airports? And that none of them are in the U.S.
Atlanta Hartsfield-Jackson is very busy, but it still
scored better than most U.S. airports.
It’s true--no U.S. airports made the top 10. The highest ranking is Denver, which is number 29 on the list. Others in the top 100 include Cincinnati/Northern Kentucky (34), Houston George Bush (48), Hartsfield-Jackson in Atlanta (50), San Francisco (51) Dallas/Ft. Worth (56), Seattle-Tacoma (62), Los Angeles (72), and Minneapolis-St. Paul (79).

I’ve traveled through all of those airports except one, but rarely do more there than what the facility is built for—check in and board an airplane—so I can’t say one stands out in my memory over another. Since Hartsfield-Jackson Airport in Atlanta (one I use frequently) is the world’s busiest airport, ranking #50 deserves kudos.
Local restaurants have a presence in the Austin airport.
Personally, I love Austin-Bergstrom International Airport (my home airport) because of its clearly local flavor. You won’t find chain restaurants or stores, only local favorites in this airport. You can get great barbeque and Mexican food from the original eateries in Austin. Music, including live music on weekends and holidays, entertains as you walk through the corridors. Since it’s a medium-sized airport, it’s easy to navigate and reasonably quick to enter or exit.

Amy's ice creams are an Austin tradition.
What are your favorite airports? Which airports do you actively try to avoid?
Photos by Beverly Burmeier and free sources.

Monday, April 16, 2018

Norwegian Airline's new service from Austin and Chicago

If you live in Chicago or Austin, you now have a reasonable way to get to Europe without spending a fortune. Forget about air fares in the thousands and think in terms of hundreds (dollars, that is).
New guy in town

Named the World's Best Low-Cost Long-Haul Airline and Value Airline of the Year 2018, Norwegian recently launched two new routes from Chicago and Austin to London. These flights began March 25 and March 27 respectively. Norwegian is the first low-cost airline to offer transatlantic service from both cities.
“When we initially announced our new Chicago service back in July 2017, we did so with four weekly flights. However, due to high demand, we increased our offering to daily service. In Austin, we're only the second airline to offer year-round transatlantic service, and our goal is to increase frequency in the near future. Both of these cities have great growth opportunities,” said Thomas Ramdahl, Norwegian's Chief Commercial Officer.

Low prices
One-way economy fares from Austin and Chicago start as low as $194.90 and $159.50, respectively, and include all taxes. The lowest one-way fares in Norwegian's Premium Cabin to London from Austin and Chicago start at $689.90 and $579.90, respectively, including taxes. Premium service includes dedicated check-in, additional luggage allowance, fast track security, lounge access where available, priority boarding, wide recliner seats, all meals and drinks.

Norwegian now offers nonstop flights to London from 11 U.S. cities. Flights from both Austin and Chicago also connect well with Norwegian's flights to Denmark, Finland, Norway, Spain and Sweden. Norwegian operates one of the world's youngest fleets, and flights from Austin and Chicago will be operated by brand-new Boeing 787-9 Dreamliner aircraft.
All flights are now available for sale at Additionally, the website's low fare calendar displays the lowest available fares to all of Norwegian's destinations. Passengers on all of Norwegian's routes are eligible to join Norwegian Reward, the airline's loyalty program and can earn CashPoints every time they fly, stay at a hotel or rent a car.

Additional 2018 European launches from the U.S. include: Denver to Paris (April 9); Oakland/San Francisco to Paris (April 10), Boston to Paris (May 2); New York/JFK to Amsterdam (May 7); Los Angeles to Milan (June 17); Los Angeles to Madrid (July 15); and New York/JFK to Madrid (July 18).
About Norwegian

Norwegian is the world's sixth largest low-cost airline and carried around 33 million passengers in 2017. The airline offers 40 nonstop routes from the U.S. to London, Paris, Scandinavia and the Caribbean. 
Norwegian was named the Most Fuel-Efficient Airline on Transatlantic Routes by the International Council on Clean Transportation (ICCT), and it has been voted 'Europe's best low-cost carrier' by passengers for five consecutive years at SkyTrax World Airline Awards. Find out more at

Monday, April 9, 2018

Cathedrals tell history of St. Petersburg

After taking the high-speed train to Moscow for a long day of touring there, we returned to St. Petersburg, Russia. For the next day’s tour we visited three cathedrals which gave us a rich introduction to the city’s culture, architecture, and history.
Spilled Blood

The Church of Spilled Blood is one of the most beautiful in St. Petersburg.
Church of Spilled Blood is actually the Church of Resurrection of Our Savior. The blood referred to is Alexander’s—he was assassinated at that spot in 1881. The cathedral was built as a monument to freedom, since he abolished slavery and allowed people to practice Christianity undisturbed. Modeled after a cathedral in Moscow, it is a filled with color. The exterior features nine onion-dome cupolas covered in gold, enamel, and some of the most incredible mosaics anywhere.
Gilded walls and beautiful mosaics decorate the cathedral.
During the oppression of Stalin’s rule, many churches were torn down. Scheduled for demolition in 1941, Stalin claimed the Cathedral of Spilled Blood was too colorful and its fancy domes stood out from the dull, drab style common in St. Petersburg at the time. Instead treasures were put there for safekeeping in World War II, and it was protected from any aircraft damage.

Thank goodness this gorgeous
building and its domes were not
destroyed as planned.
Khruschev decided to restore it as a beautiful museum rather than a church in 1957. Restoration to its previous glorious state took 24 years. Today Sunday services are held there amid tiers of Russian icons that tell stories of Bible characters. While this is a positive return to the religion represented by the church, Russian Orthodox churches do not have pews, so people are obligated to stand throughout the hours-long services.
St. Issac’s

St. Issac Square in the center of the city is dominated by magnificent St. Isaac Cathedral, built between 1818 and 1858. The cathedral is named after a monk of Dalmatian descent whose Saint’s Day is the same as Peter the Great’s birthday (May 20). Its gorgeous conical gold dome makes the cathedral the fourth highest in the world.
St. Isaac's Cathedral is decorated
with 14 colored marbles and 43
types of semiprecious stones.
Peter married Catherine I at this cathedral. Originally made of wood, Catherine wanted it rebuilt in granite and marble, but her son Paul took the marble and used it for another palace. So the cathedral  is built in a classical style of brick—not as impressive as Catherine had intended.

Granite intended for ancient cathedral
was used for another palace. 
Still, it is filled with hundreds of impressive 19th century works of art. White marble with gilding and mosaic icons decorate the cathedral. There’s a glimmering sculpture of Christ of Glory, and many pieces where the stones were laid out so smoothly that mosaics appear as paintings. 

Corinthian columns of Kazan Cathedral were inspired by St. Peter's Cathedral in Rome.
Named for a city in Russia in the 16th century, Kazan Cathedral is known for its elegant dome, marble mosaic floor, and 56 granite monolithic columns inspired by St. Peter’s Cathedral in Rome. Its unique bronze sculptures and doors were compared by Michelangelo to Heaven’s doors.
Another view of the cathedral
Kazan Cathedral was built as a monument of joy after the victory over Napoleon in 1812 and became a pantheon of Russian glory.

Its iconic feature is a famous, ornate, “miracle-making” representation of Our Lady of Kazan. People still line up to make requests of Our Lady of Kazan. I don’t doubt that many miracles have happened because of these supplications.

Photos by Larry and Beverly Burmeier


Tuesday, April 3, 2018

Highlights from Russia's gilded age in St. Petersburg

Architecture, history, and heritage have given St.Petersburg, Russia the title of “Grand City of the Czars.” Lavish residences, opulent palaces filled with beautifully intricate tile work, magnificent inlaid wood flooring, gilded walls, and glorious paintings give today’s visitors a look at the extravagant lives of the Russian rulers that eventually led to the revolution.
Catherine's Palace in St. Petersburg, Russia
The best way I know to share these reminders of the glittering days of Russian imperialism is through pictures. Wrapped within the walls of several cathedrals are historic stories of czars, religion, and wars. Topped by traditional onion-style domes, these buildings have been an integral part of Russian life and culture from ancient to modern times.

Gilded room and exquisite tile work inside Catherine's Palace
Considered the most European of Russian cities, a real downside is that there are fewer than 60 days of sun a year. True to form, rain was a constant companion during our eight-hour tour. Our guide said they can tell who the tourists are because they smile--they haven’t succumbed to the dreariness that often plagues natives of the city.
One of many canals in St. Petersburg
Although we spent two full days exploring St. Petersburg, situated on the banks of Neva River, it’s a city that can be overwhelming. It is the largest seaport in the country, a maritime center built on a series of islands spread over a wide area. A network of 60 canals and rivers criss-cross the city, which is spanned by 400 bridges. Its large squares, parks, and boulevards seem to be best consumed in small bites.

Rain is a constant companion when visiting St. Petersburg, Russia

Intricate designs in blue tiles
As we explored classical St. Petersburg our first stop was at Catherine’s Palace, summer home of the imperials. Catherine the First was actually named Martha. She lived in Latvia and worked as a servant in the home of a priest. When the Russians invaded, she was taken as a military prize and worked as a laundress in a nobleman’s home. She became a mistress of the Czar, who eventually married her in 1711 because he could recognize her children as his own. After Peter’s death in 1725, she ran the country for two more years.
Formal garden in front of Catherine's Palace, St. Petersburg
The palace and gardens were a gift to her. Because of this “rags to riches” story she is called the Russian Cinderella.
Cavalier's Dining Room in Catherine's Palace was spectacular.
Next we visited the fabulous Peter and PaulCathedral, which was completed in 1733 as part of the fortress built by Peter the Great to protect the area from attack by the Swedes. Gilded walls and murals are simply breathtaking. Many Czars and members of the royal family are buried in that cathedral.
The gilded age is also represented in Peter and Paul Cathedral in St. Petersburg.

Ceilings are also gorgeous in
Peter and Paul Cathedral.
My first impression was that Russia still seems somehow undiscovered and not well understood despite the fact many cruise ships dock at St. Petersburg and there are plentiful tours throughout the country. With dissolution of the Soviet Union in December, 1991, visitors have been allowed to explore this large and diverse country. I’m glad we had the opportunity to go to St. Petersburg and Moscow—and I expect many changes to take place in coming years.
Photos by Larry and Beverly Burmeier