Valentine’s Day in the sky: find love on a plane

Are you headed into Monday solo? If that’s the case, it might make sense to book a quick flight for the most romantic day of the year! Don’t spend Valentine’s Day on your couch despising Cupid for neglecting you. According to the latest from travel search site Skyscanner, “flyrting” may be your key to happiness.

According to Skyscanner, almost half of all passengers have confessed to flirting in flight … and thus making the friendly skies a little friendlier. In a survey of more than a thousand travelers, the company found that a substantial 45 percent make their intentions known, with a third of them resulting in a “rendez-vous” after the plane has landed. Eight percent of flyrtatious encounters have led to relationships!
Skyscanner’s Karin Noble, once a cabin crew member, says, “More and more people are now traveling by air so it’s no surprise that flights have become a place to flirt. After all, you are sitting next to someone for an hour or more, and the fact that you’re both traveling to the same place means you already have something in common.”

Need a little help? Noble continues that there are “lubricating” effects to the in-flight service, adding that “the heightened effect that alcohol can have at altitude and the more relaxed ‘holiday mood’ that many travelers feel, and it tends to give people the courage to flirt with a fellow passenger or even take things further, especially on overseas routes such as flights to France or the UK.”

So, how many people get lucky in flight? A separate Skyscanner survey found that 20 percent of passengers have joined the mile-high club, half of them with strangers they met on a plane. Meanwhile, 95 percent copped to a desire for membership!

Skip the chick flicks this Valentine’s Day, and get yourself an aisle seat instead … you never know where it will lead.

[photo by moonlightbulb via Flickr]

Exploring ancient Rome in Mérida, Spain

It’s Christmas. What do you get an avid traveler who used to be an archaeologist?
For my wife the answer is obvious–a trip to a Roman city!

So here we are in Mérida, capital of the province of Extremadura in Spain, not far from the Portuguese border. In Roman times it was called Emerita Augusta and was capital of the province of Lusitania. This province took up most of the western Iberian peninsula, including most of what is now Portugal. The city was founded in 25 BC as a home for retired legionnaires on an important bridge linking the western part of the Iberian peninsula with the rest of the Empire. Putting a bunch of tough old veterans in such an important spot was no accident. The city boasts numerous well-preserved buildings and together they’re now a UNESCO World Heritage Site.

It’s a five-hour ride from Madrid on a comfortable train. Almudena and I brought along my five-year-old son Julián to give him a bit of classical education. (No cute kid photos, sorry. Too many freaks on the Internet)

Our first stop was Mérida’s greatest hits–an amphitheater for gladiator fights and one of the best preserved Roman theaters in the Roman world.

Both of these buildings were among the first to go up in the new city. Since the Romans were building a provincial capital from scratch, they wanted it to have all the amenities. The theater was a center for Roman social and cultural life and this one, when it was finished in 15 BC, was built on a grand scale with seats for 6,000 people. One interesting aspect of this theater is that it underwent a major improvement between the years 333 and 335 AD. This was after the Empire had converted to Christianity, and the early Christians denounced the theaters as immoral. The popular plays making fun of the church probably didn’t help their attitude. As I discussed in my post on the death of paganism, the conversion from paganism to Christianity was neither rapid nor straightforward. At this early stage it was still unthinkable to found a new city without a theater. The backdrop even has statues of pagan deities such as Serapis and Ceres. Although they’re from an earlier building stage than the Christian-era improvements, the fact that they weren’t removed is significant.

%Gallery-112089%Julián didn’t care about that, though. He was far more interested in the dark tunnels leading under the seats in a long, spooky semicircle around the theater. At first his fear of dark, unfamiliar places fought with his natural curiosity, but with Dad accompanying him he decided to chance it. It turned out there was no danger other than a rather large puddle we both stumbled into.

On stage he got a lesson in acoustics. The shape of the seats magnifies sounds. Voices carry further, and a snap of the fingers sounds like a pistol shot.

Next door was the amphitheater, where gladiators fought it out for the entertainment of the masses. Built in 8 BC, it seated 15,000, more than twice the amount as the theater. This was a city for veteran legionnaires, after all! Julián didn’t know what gladiators were so I explained it to him and soon throngs of ghostly Romans were cheering as Sean the Barbarian fought the Emperor Julián. He wanted to be a ninja and was disappointed to learn that there weren’t any in ancient Rome.

These two places are enough to make the trip worthwhile, but there are more than a dozen other ancient Roman buildings in Mérida as well. The best way to sum up the experience of walking through these remains was what I overheard some Italian tourists: “Bellissimo!
If the Italians are impressed, you know it’s good.

This is the first in a new series: Exploring Extremadura, Spain’s historic southwest

Coming up next: More Roman heritage from Mérida!

UNESCO studies Pompeii troubles

A UNESCO team has arrived at Pompeii to investigate the recent collapses of ancient walls and buildings, All Headline News reports.

Two Roman walls collapsed earlier this week, and in November the House of Gladiators fell down. Authorities blame heavy rains but there’s a growing controversy over the lack of maintenance at the site.

The Roman city was buried in ash during an eruption of Mt. Vesuvius in 79 AD. The ash kept the city remarkably preserved, making it one of the world’s top archaeological treasures.

The team will study the site and give suggestions as to how to preserve it, but the investigators have made clear that it is Italy’s responsibility to do the work. The Italian government has created a task force of archaeologists, craftsmen, and architects to shore up the walls and buildings. Considering that the last conservation project at Pompeii is under investigation for mob connections, it remains to be seen how effective this new task force will be.

[Photo courtesy user Alago via Wikimedia Commons]

Fall travel: Eat, drink, ride through Texas Hill Country

The calendar says summer is over, but the heat index tells another story. Either way, fall is fast approaching and your fall travel plans are the light at the end of the tunnel from the chaos that ensues during back-to-school season. Pack away your bathing suit and flip flops, break out your fleece and scarves and head to Texas, where the fall foliage is prime for leaf-peeping.

There’s no better time to escape into the Texas Hill Country than the autumn, when the green foliage that extends for miles begins to turn orange and red then slowly coat the ground with natural wonder. Consider the following:

Where to go: Fredericksburg already takes you to another time with its simple beauty and freedom from concrete and urban smog, but only when combined with historic cottages full of antiques and Western symbols does it reach its peak. This award-winning bed and breakfast sits on 35-acres of undisturbed rolling countryside. Rates range from $125 to $195 per cottage per night, but there are deals to be had during the week if you can escape for a couple weekdays. Most recently, it’s been declared one of the top 10 bed-and-breakfasts in the United States by Travel and Leisure Magazine, one of 10 great country escapes byFamily Fun and earned passing nods from Country Home, Country Inn and Country Living magazines

Where to stay: Settlers Crossing
104 Settlers Crossing
Fredericksburg, TX 78624

Where to go: If you want to hole up away from civilization, including hospitality staff, these two newly renovated 1940-style guest cottages allow you to do just that. For just $95/night for a couple, you can enjoy the great outdoors near the river with kayaking, canoeing and wildlife watching all on the menu or you can enjoy the sweet simplicity of times gone by without giving up 21st century essentials such as WiFi, DVD and a satellite television.

Bird’s Nest on the Guadalupe
233 & 237 Guadalupe Street
Kerrville, TX 78028
Where to go: You really ought to do a dude ranch before you die, and Rancho Cortez offers the ultimate Western experience. Even over a weekend, owner Larry Cortez and resident cowboy, Rusty, will have you rounding up cattle, racing around rodeo barrels, driving wagons, roping calves, camping out under the stars and eating authentic yet reasonably healthy ranch cuisine. A room for two runs about $310/night but includes all three meals, two hours of horseback riding and all other ranch activities. When making your reservation, be sure to tell them it’s a romantic getaway– they’ll always throw in a little something extra to boost the mood.

Where to stay: Rancho Cortez
872 Hay Hollar Road
Bandera, TX 78003

Where to go: Where better than a town called comfort to kick back and relax with your honey? Off Interstate 10 and state highway 187 on the far outskirts of San Antonio, Comfort offers up that famous southern hospitality and many intimate time traveling experiences at its various Bed and Breakfasts, cottages and manors from the 19th century. The most unforgettable is Haven River Inn, which at rates of $75 to $125 is both affordable and exclusive. There’s much to do around the stunning grounds, but the pool and porch will bring you back toward the Main House in between adventures.

Where to stay: Haven River Inn
105 Highway 473
Comfort, TX 78013

Where to go: If you’re not impressed by down home tranquility and would rather hit the greens for a few rounds of golf or if you’d rather swim in a man-made lazy river than float the Frio, the Hyatt Hill Country is the place for you. The room service menu will please any palate at any hour of the day, and the hotel is able to offer amenities that the local joints cannot. The best time here is during the week, but an adults-only pool lets you isolate yourself from children all the time if you so desire. The price per night varies from $200 to $600 depending on what room style you select, but by the time you pay for food, this is not a trip for the light spender.

Where to stay: Hyatt Regency Hill Country Resort

9800 Hyatt Resort Drive
San Antonio, TX 78251

Where to go: The Texas Hill Country Wine Trail now ranks second only to Napa Valley as an American wine destination, so you don’t need to stray far from home to have an extraordinary winery tour and experience. There’s usually at least a few tastings, festivals and tours going on any given weekend, but check the calendar before you go to hit an event that especially appeals to you. The 25 wineries are scattered all around the Hill Country, but they’re most dense around Fredericksburg, Dripping Springs and towns northwest of Austin.

Where to stay: Texas Hill Country Wine Trail

11003 Ranch Road 2222 C
Austin, TX 78730

Where to go: If you’re not staying at Settlers’ Crossing for your tour de vino, consider Mt. Gainor Inn in Dripping Springs, which is centrally located between three of the rural wineries. Surrounded by wooded area, this bed-and-breakfast does not take the breakfast part lightly, serving gourmet home-cooked meals not just in the morning but at dinnertime also, often outside under a canopy in the crisp central Texas air. There’s even a flower garden in the courtyard, making for some romantic moments in passing and a serene, idyllic atmosphere all around. If that’s not enough to get your engine going, they also offer in-room massages, chocolate-dipped strawberries and custom getaway packages. The four unique rooms range in price from $130 to $170 a night.

Where to say: Mt Gainor Inn
2390 Prochnow Road
Dripping Springs, TX 78620

Where to go: Perhaps my favorite aspect of this quaint rural retreat are the Market Days put on nearby on the first Saturday of the month, March through December, where you can find lovely antiques and all sorts of country crafts, but even you miss that, the little town of Wimberley has lots to offer. Hit the Cypress Falls Swimming Hole for a dip you thought you’d only seen in movies or cut your own lavender at Rough Creek Lavender Fields. Stay at the nearby Cypress Creek Cottages for reasonable rates with fun food package options and doggy day care for $20/dog.

Where to stay: Cypress Creek Cottages
104 Scudder Lane
Wimberley, TX 78676

Melanie Kiser is a contributor

On the steps of Rome, on the edge of romance

“How come you don’t write postcards like your friends?”

I sat near the foot of Scalla di Spangna, or Spanish Steps, catching my breath after having climbed up and down the 138 steps to the Trinita dei Monti at the top. Around me a gaggle of college women on a school-sponsored trip dutifully poised cards on their knees and scribbled away, presumably to the parents who paid for this trip to Rome, or perhaps to boyfriends stuck back in the States with jobs as camp counselors or delivery boys in their fathers’ firms.

I had arrived in Rome that morning. Having come from Sweden, I was still stunned by the German, Swiss, and Northern Italian landscapes. At twenty-four, I’d barely been out of the Midwest, where the land is flat and vast. In the past few days, seeing my first mountains — Alps no less — I couldn’t get over the fact that humans had the audacity to cut into those monsters to lay train tracks, and that I could be bulleted through the bellies of those beasts.

I was stunned too by Rome. Fountains and ruins, trattorias and cafes, gods piercing the sky next to merchants hawking wares. Alone, I wasn’t quite a part of it, but I wasn’t apart from it either, not like the young women around me, who didn’t bother to look up from their writing much, who didn’t seem to notice the sunlight baking the medieval-looking buildings, who barely noticed a six-team horse-drawn carriage ambling by us.

“I’m not with them,” I said to the man who’d spoken to me, making sure my horror at his association of me with these tourists was clear in my tone. I wasn’t a tourist but a traveler, I wanted my tone to convey. Not merely a traveler either, but a solitary traveler, gaining worldliness at every turn. Hadn’t I just seen Alps?

“No?” he said, raising his dark eyebrows just enough so I could see he was impressed with me. The feeling was more mutual than I wanted to admit. He and a few other men had parked their motorcycles in the street at the bottom of the steps and leaned on the machines, watching the crowds. With hair dark as coffee, fitted black jeans (despite the heat), and a leather jacket, he was nothing like the Harley bikers I was used to at home although they wore jeans and leather jackets too. He was undeniably European.

“You don’t know them?” he gestured to the girls who had by now finished writing and whose chaperones were shepherding them toward a bus.

I shook my head and may well have rolled my eyes.

“So you let me take you for a ride. Show you the real Rome.” He gestured again at the girls. “Rome they don’t get to see.”

All good sense told me to say no.But of course I said yes because in addition to being European, he seemed genuinely intrigued by me. I did have at least enough sense to hesitate first. Despite my assertion that I wasn’t one of those tour-bus girls, I also wasn’t as free a spirit as I made out. Of course, I had heard all of the warnings about the sexual aggressiveness of Italian men toward foreign women, but I was still wildly flattered. I felt noticed. Also, I believed then, and still do, that the travel of one’s youth defines one, perhaps for years, perhaps for life, and I’d thrust myself into the world to figure out just what this definition of myself might be. This meant taking chances.

“Yeah, okay,” I said.

I can’t rightly say I remember the man’s name today, but I’ve called him Pietro in my mind for years because his friends joked that he was a good man to be with, a rock, like St. Peter. His friends were right too. Pietro did just what he said he would do. He whirled me around Rome, taking me to little cafes, introducing me espresso, to his friends, to shops and streets that years later made me feel I’d been to a completely different city than those who described the Rome of tour books.

At dinner that first night, he took me to a tiny restaurant near the Piazza Navona. To my discomfort, he didn’t order for me, but he patiently explained everything on the menu and insisted I order for myself in Italian. It was strange to hear my voice trying to make those elastic sounds that were far too beautiful for someone with an accent from the South Side of Milwaukee to make.

Yet it was good to hear myself speak, however haltingly. I’d barely said a word for days, grunting and pointing to get what I wanted like Helen Keller before she’d met Anne Sullivan. Over pasta with a tart clam sauce, even my English felt slightly charred, but Pietro listened to my descriptions of my family, my love of Lake Michigan, and my impressions of Italy with such intensity that I was convinced he actually thought I was something more than a mere youthful cliche sitting next to him. I allowed myself to wonder if he might be right.

Pietro advised me to abandon all but the best sights and instead to spend my time looking at the people. This was the way to learn a place.

Pietro laughed easily and often, and by the time the gelato was served, I found myself settling in and feeling less like a stranger. He seemed to know everything there was to know about Rome, contemporary Rome with its nightclubs and shopping. He advised me to abandon all but the best sights and instead to spend my time here looking at the people. This was the way to learn a place.

After dinner he drove me to the cheap pensione I’d rented that morning before heading to the Spanish Steps.

“You are something else,” he said as I climbed off of his bike.

I wasn’t sure what that something else was, but I liked the possibility that his words implied.

The next day, at Pietro’s suggestion, I gave up my bed in the pensione and stayed with him in his sun-slatted flat. More money for the rest of my trip, I reasoned, knowing saving money had very little to do with it. With Pietro I had entered the intimacy of this place. I was deep in.

During the days, Pietro came and went, talking little of where he’d been, what work he did, and I didn’t ask too much. I looked forward to languid dinners and frenzied dancing and all that came after the dancing when we were along in his flat. During the days on my own, I went to a few sights, deeply impressed by all things Bernini, but mostly I walked, doing what Pietro had suggested, looking and looking at so many people that after awhile I no longer compared them to myself or people I knew at home as I’d been doing since I left there. My vision was becoming fluent. I felt it as one sometimes feels muscles take on the memory of movement.

After a week, though, my InterRail pass began burning a hole in my pocket. Athens and Nice and Paris waited for me, and I only had three weeks left before my pass expired.

At dinner that evening, when I told Pietro I was leaving, he looked disappointed but by no means crushed. “You could stay,” he said. “I could find you a job. Learn some Italian to take back with you. Language is better than postcards, better than souvenirs.”

It was tempting. I’d gotten comfortable here, and traveling alone scared me more than I liked to admit. Moving around in places where I didn’t speak the language scared me too, and I was learning a little Italian. If I stayed, I would learn more. I’d made it here, I reasoned. I’d found Pietro. Maybe that was enough venturing for a while.

If the travel of one’s youth defines one, this decision would mean a lot. I twirled my pasta on my fork as he had shown me, but I was too nervous to take a bite. I looked at another fountain in another piazza behind another restaurant and thought that I’d never seen anything like that fountain at home. What else was out there that I’d never seen?

“No,” I said, the taste of basil and salt still on my tongue. Pietro was an adventure at first, but I had to admit that now he was safe. “Thank you. Maybe I’ll be back.”

“Maybe,” he shrugged.

Karen Lee Boren is the author of Girls in Peril, a coming-of-age story about adolescent girls in small-town Wisconsin. Her nonfiction has appeared in the anthology Rite of Passage: Tales of Backpacking ‘Round Europe. Read her blog on Red Room.

[Photos: Flickr | Kellinasf; Mciccone640; MikeScrivener]