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Travel With Marilyn

Remembering the Taj Mahal

Marilyn JonesTravel, in the younger sort, is a part of education; in the elder, a part of experience.
– Francis Bacon

Memory... is the diary that we all carry about with us.
– Oscar Wilde

As a travel writer and photographer, all too often I get home, edit my photos, write any print assignment articles, post the photos on social media, and write blog posts before heading to my next adventure, forgetting to look back once in a while. Recently though, I started taking time to look at photo files to relive the joy of discovering yet another amazing place.

One time, in Agra, India, I arrived late afternoon at the beautiful Oberoi Amarvilas Hotel. I knew that every room offered perfect sight of the Taj Mahal, and I was anxious for the view.

From my balcony, in the distance, framed by lush foliage, I could see the symbol of love that is one of the Seven Wonders of the World. That moment is forever etched in my memory.

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The next day, my friend Norma and I were transported to the gates by an electric vehicle. After passing through security, our guide began to tell us the love story behind the monument: The ivory-white marble mausoleum on the south bank of the Yamuna River was commissioned in 1632 for 827 million dollars (2015 equivalent) by the Mughal Emperor, Shah Jahan, to house his favorite wife, Mumtaz Mahal.

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Almost immediately, we saw the Tal Mahal gleaming in the morning sunlight. People jockeyed for position to get just the right photo of the iconic site before heading closer.

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We wandered through the gardens taking more photos before going inside with hundreds of Indian residents to view the final resting place of the emperor and his beloved wife. Hundreds of barefoot people crowded into the small, dark space to get a glimpse of the two caskets. When a guard blew a whistle, everyone shuffled out and a new group pushed its way in.

We admired the inlaid, semiprecious stones and took in the view of the river before walking back to the entrance for one last gaze at the iconic scene.

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It was truly a once-in-a-lifetime experience filled with perfect memories to reflect on.

Exploring Guatemala’s Pacaya Volcano National Park

Marilyn JonesWhen our tour group arrives, we are immediately surrounded by horses and their owners, each speaking rapid Spanish asking us if we want to ride to the top of the mountain overlooking Pacaya Volcano.

Our Bella Guatemala Travel guides, Jose Antonio Gonzalez and Emilio Faillace, have already arranged for our horses, so we politely make our way past the eager salesmen and their beautiful horses to the Pacaya Volcano National Park headquarters building. Here, we learn that Pacaya is one of the country’s 36 volcanoes, and one of three currently active. Pacaya is actually the most active volcano in Guatemala.

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The park was established to monitor and protect the 8,373-foot volcano that has been erupting continuously since 1965. Most eruptions are small, but a 2010 eruption caused the La Aurora National Airport to shut down, and villages near the volcano were evacuated.

Soon we are paired with horses, and their owners gently encourage them up the steep path. The horses use rocks and tree roots as steps as they pick their way up the slippery incline. We stop halfway up for a beautiful view of the valley before heading once again toward the top.

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Although we could ride the horses back down after taking in the scenic beauty from our vantage point at the top of the mountain, we decide to walk down; not the easiest feat as cinders roll underfoot. It turns out that our cautious decent is worth every step. We can see where the volcano’s lava has reached as we look out over acres of blacked earth.

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We trek past wildflowers miraculously growing up through the cinders, and a tiny makeshift shack where jewelry made from the cinders and ash are sold. The jewelry is made by Guatemalan artists in local communities to be sold in the park.

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The experience is dramatic; the views are beautiful. Our journey down is long and arduous, adding to the drama of our surroundings.

A Look at Guatemala’s Rich Maya History

Marilyn JonesFrom the top of a Maya pyramid, the view of the jungle and other pyramids was something I had imagined other adventure travelers witnessing, not me. But I was here with the help of encouraging guides and a man-made staircase alongside the ancient structure. It was from this vantage point that George Lucas filmed scenes for his first Star Wars movie in 1977.

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I sat for a long time taking in the magic of the moment. Magic is actually a perfect word for Guatemala, the Maya Culture and Tikal National Park located almost 200 miles north of Guatemala City. Visiting the ruins of the ancient city was one of many Maya discoveries I made with Bella Guatemala Travel, a California-based tour company specializing in Guatemala culture, history, and natural beauty.

The UNESCO World Heritage Site is one of the largest archaeological sites and urban centers of pre-Columbian Maya civilizations. Dating to 4th century BC, the city dominated much of the Maya region. Population estimates vary from 10,000 to as high as 90,000.

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The causes of the Maya empire's collapse remain a mystery; wars, famine, overpopulation, and resource depletion have all been blamed. Tikal, according to historians and archeologists, began to suffer from deforestation, erosion, and a decline in population. The site was completely abandoned by the end of the 10th century, and the rainforest claimed the ruins for nearly a thousand years.

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Exploring Tikal

From the parking area, we walked along a narrow dirt road cutting through the jungle. My Bella Guatemala Travel guides, Jose Antonio Gonzalez, an archeologist, and Emilio Faillace, a naturalist, helped everyone in the tour group understand the jungle and the Maya ruins all around us.

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When the jungle opened up, Gonzalez and Faillace pointed out palaces, temples, and ball courts — some are covered with vegetation, and others have been restored. Still others are hidden by trees and would be impossible to identify without the help of our expert guides.

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The Temple of the Grand Jaguar (Temple I) and the Temple of the Masks (Temple II) are located on opposite sides of the Great Palace, a vast expanse ringed by terraces, palaces, and ball courts.

Temple I rises 165 feet above the jungle floor. There are nine tiers corresponding to the nine levels of the Maya underworld. Archeologists discovered the tomb of Ah Cacau inside. Festooned with jade ornaments, the skeleton was also surrounded by offerings of pottery, alabaster, and pearls.

Temple II is almost as tall as Temple I and just as impressive.

Other temples include Temple III or the Temple of the Jaguar Priest; Temple V, a mortuary pyramid of an unidentified ruler; and Temple VI, also known as the Temple of the Inscriptions.

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Temple IV, also known as the Temple of the Double Headed Serpent, is the temple I climbed for my spectacular view of the jungle. It is the tallest Tikal pyramid, standing 230 feet high. It was built in 740 AD by Jasaw Chan K’awil’s son, Yik’in Chan Kawil, to honor his father.

Well maintained paths and open space made it easy to stroll through what was once a thriving commercial, political, and military center. We for stayed several hours, taking in the intrigue and beauty of the setting.

The spirits of the men and women who once worked and raised their families in Tikal live on in the thousands of Maya descendants living in Guatemala. Guatemala is truly an oasis of beauty and culture, and a welcoming respite for any traveler.

Discovering Art and History at Göttweig Abbey

Marilyn JonesOn a cold windswept day, I visited Göttweig Abbey with fellow Viking River Cruises passengers as part of the Danube Christmas Market Cruise. Founded in Austria as a monastery and dedicated in 1072 AD, its presence atop a hill overlooking the river was a dramatic scene as the tour bus approached.

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We gathered with our guide, and he began his narrative as soon as we exited the bus. Named a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 2001, Göttweig became a famous seat of learning with strict monastic observances almost immediately. A school, library, and nunnery were established. The nunnery continued until 1557.

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As we walked our guide — a young man with excellent English and an enthusiastic way of communicating the abbey’s storied past — explained that today 42 monks live and work here as well as in nearby parishes. He told us that during the 15th and 16th centuries the abbey declined, and that in 1564 not a single monk was left. Michael Herrlich was appointed abbot and restored the monastery spiritually and financially; he rebuilt it after it had been almost entirely destroyed by fire in 1580. In 1718, the monastery again fell victim to fire and was rebuilt on an even grander scale.

The abbey is certainly a survivor.

The wind whipped around us as we stood in the center of a grand courtyard surrounded by buildings modestly yet beautifully decorated with carvings and other architectural accents as we learned more about the abbey’s history.

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We were invited into the abbey’s amazing chapel before being led into the Imperial Wing. Its center point is a grand fresco decorating the staircase that is considered a masterpiece of Baroque architecture in Austria. Executed by Paul Troger in 1739, it represents the Roman Empire.

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We climbed the staircase for a closer look at the fresco, as well as to tour four imperial apartments decorated with paintings by artists Martin Johann Schmidt and Andreas Altomonte.

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Our guide explained that during World War II, the Germans did not harm the abbey's interior but stole many of its valuable artworks. When the Russians stayed here, however, they destroyed much of the interior by using whatever they could find to build fires inside the buildings, causing great damage to the floors. Fortunately, many of the art pieces have been returned to the abbey, and the interior fully restored.

The abbey has a library of 130,000 books and manuscripts and a particularly important collection of religious engravings, besides valuable collections of coins, antiquities, musical manuscripts, and natural history, all of which survived World War II.

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Here our tour ended, and we were invited to enjoy the Christmas Market setup inside public rooms near the official gift shop. Local crafts and baked goods were for sale in the labyrinth of rooms. Friendly men and women chatted about their wares, making the experience even more festive.

The abbey, the guide, the Christmas market — it was another fantastic day with Viking River Cruises exploring the history and beauty of Austria.

This Jamaican Mansion is Hauntingly Beautiful

Marilyn JonesRose Hall in Montego Bay, Jamaica, first came to my attention when I was going through my ghost-hunting television show phase several years ago. Both Ghost Adventures and Ghost Hunters International reported on the thought-to-be-haunted house. When I was selecting shore excursions while sailing on the Carnival Breeze, I decided to pay a visit to the plantation myself.

Of course, I didn’t have electronic equipment to try to contact the dead. What I did have was a great tour guide who minced no words when she spoke of Annie Palmer, the “white witch” reported to be the main spirit tormenting the living.

The sand-colored, Jamaican, Georgian-style mansion was built by Annie’s husband, John Palmer, in the 1770s at a cost of 30,000 British pounds. It’s an impressive sight with its symmetrically arched doors and tall windows located high on a hillside overlooking the Caribbean Sea.

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Rose Hall was purchased in 1977 by Michele and John Rollins. The couple restored and refurbished the historic house and opened it as a museum featuring excellent guided tours to showcase Rose Hall's history and the beautiful, antique-filled house.

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From an ornate parlor and dining room to gracious bedrooms, the tour examines not only the life of Annie Palmer, but also that of wealthy plantation owners during the 18th century. Throughout the tour, information about Annie and the legends of how she murdered her three husbands and relished in watching her slaves brutally punished are woven with facts about the house and its furnishings.

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The tour ends in the lower floor, now a restaurant and bar, where guests are offered a drink — with or without run — before being let to Annie’s grave site, which ends the tour.

Whether you believe the legends of Annie Palmer or that her spirit sometimes makes itself known, a visit to Rose Hall is a must-see for anyone wondering about life on the island 300 years ago. To me, time travel is always fun and educational.

Medieval Holiday Magic

Marilyn JonesThere’s more to a Viking River Cruise's Christmas Market Cruise along the Danube River than shopping. Before each visit to the famous European markets, passengers take bus or walking tours of grand cities in Germany, Austria, and Hungary.

While visiting Regensburg, Germany — the oldest city on the Danube — we walked along the waterfront from the Viking Longship Njord to the city’s famous stone bridge that spans the river. Built between 1135 and 1146, the bridge with its 16 arches is a masterpiece of medieval engineering; it was one of the highlights of our tour through the city center, a UNESCO World Heritage Site.

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Our guide, a young woman with an encyclopedic knowledge of the city, told us that the first settlements in Regensburg date to the Stone Age. The Romans later built a fort here in the 1st century. Remains of the fortress can still be seen.

After walking on the bridge and taking lots of photos, we made our way into the city and its labyrinth of streets and passageways. Festive decorations were strung from side to side, making a beautiful tunnel even in the morning light.

There are more than 1,000 historic buildings in the city, including several towers built during the Middle Ages by wealthy merchants as homes and storage for their wares. There are also past shops with windows decorated with ornaments, holly, and garland.

Our guide also explained that, because Regensburg escaped major damage during World War II, it is one of Europe’s best-preserved medieval cities. One building featured a massive mural of David and Goliath dating back to the 16th century.

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Our walking tour ended at St. Peter’s Cathedral — Bavaria’s best example of Gothic architecture. Founded in 1275 and completed in 1634, it features an amazingly beautiful exterior. The ornate towers were finished in 1869.

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Nearby, a pedestrian square had been transformed into a holiday wonderland. Stands selling everything from mulled wine, sausages, and Christmas cookies to ornaments, clothing, and toys were decorated with lights and greenery framing red and white striped awnings. Children dressed in heavy coats and snowsuits rode a carousel as older children darted from stand to stand, making their own holiday purchases.   

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On our tour we passed The Regensburg Sausage Kitchen, located near the stone bridge. Originally built as the construction headquarters of the stone bridge, it was turned into a restaurant in 1146. There is an outdoor takeaway counter and an indoor restaurant. Too cold to eat outside, my friend and I warmed up in the lovely restaurant decorated in beautiful red ribbons, poinsettias, and candlelight. We ordered the famous sausages and sauerkraut and enjoyed an hour of conversation and good food.

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A brief walk later, and we were back to our ship and into the cozy surrounding of our home away from home on this tour of Europe and the magic of the holiday season.

Celebrate the Holidays, Galveston-Style

Marilyn JonesIt was a balmy, 75 degrees F in Galveston, Texas, but once I donned the bright blue parka and entered ICE LAND: Ice Sculptures, A Caribbean Christmas! at Moody Gardens, the thermometer plunged to a brisk nine degrees. In addition to the sudden chill, I was also surrounded by an underwater fantasy of “The North Pole meets the Caribbean” created by master ice carvers from Harbin, China.

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Two million pounds of ice were used to create this imaginative display of fish, turtles, dolphins, eagle rays, and coral reefs.

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The labyrinth of ice sculptures towered above me in bright colors and creative designs. I passed a lighthouse, fishing vessel, and scuba diver, moving toward an ice submarine and schools of fish. Back “above water” was a beach with Adirondack chairs and a surfing Santa that I saw before nearing Shiver’s Ice Bar. Just outside the main display area, guests were also invited to the ice slide for more fun in this chillin’ version of the Caribbean.

But ICE LAND is only the beginning of the holiday fun at Moody Gardens. When the sun set on Galveston, a magical world of Christmas lights enveloped other attractions, including an outdoor ice rink. Moody Gardens Festival of Lights is one of the largest holiday celebrations in the region, with more than one million lights, a hundred animated light displays, and live entertainment.

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I strolled along the mile-long maze of colored lights taking on the personas of toy soldiers, skating teddy bears, and a train station. Giant Christmas trees lined the walkway.

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In addition to all the holiday happenings are Moody Gardens’ year-round attractions, including Aquarium Pyramid, Rainforest Pyramid, Discovery Museum and Colonel Paddlewheel Boat.

What a great time of year to visit this Galveston landmark and enjoy the additional offerings of the season!


Ice Land, Festival of Lights, and other holiday attractions are open through January 8. All other attractions are open year-round.