Live like locals in Provence, France

Enjoy touches of the past and of the present-day local lifestyle in the region

This “Rooms to Explore” feature focuses upon places throughout the country and the world where I have stayed that became part of the experience of visiting a destination. Accommodations that provide an immersion in the local history, culture and lifestyle in a very meaningful way – where the sightseeing and travel experience begin in the lodging itself. When I’m lucky enough to come across such places, I take pleasure in sharing my fortunate encounters with others.

At one time, the second floor of the building was used to store feed for animals. Touches of the past, and of the present-day local lifestyle in the region, adorn the walls. Outside, a grape arbor, festooned with vines, serves as a reminder of when other fruit was grown there.

As usual, during a recent visit to Provence, France with Untours, my wife and I never saw the inside of a hotel room. During previous trips with that company, we stayed on a working farm and in apartments at a winery and overlooking the canals of Venice.

These accommodations fit the Untours slogan, and goal, to “Live like the locals.” Doing so can provide an introduction to a destination that greatly enhances the enjoyment and education, both of which we believe travel should provide.

A home-away-from-home in Provence

The beautifully renovated, century-old house which served as our home-away-from-home in Provence once was located on a farm. Since then, the picturesque town of Pernes-Les-Fontaines has evolved around it.

Remnants of stone ramparts, similar to those found throughout the area, are among vestiges of the fortified Medieval town. Its name refers to 41 ornate public fountains that began furnishing water to its inhabitants in the 17th century, but that today are not operational in order to preserve that precious resource.

The grandparents of Estelle Alcaraz, our landlady who lives next door, owned the house and surrounding land when it was an operating farm. The stone walls which enclose the yard are typical of those that proliferate throughout Provence and have done so for centuries.

Pick grapes from your own arbor

A grape arbor, which shades an outdoor dining area, bears fruit that visitors may pick and enjoy. The owners harvest the olives that grow on two trees and have them milled into oil, which also is available for house guests. That’s a special treat because the local olive oil is among the best in the world, and shows up in numerous Provencial recipes.

The house interior is a treasure trove of implements and reminders of its history and that of Pernes-Les-Fontaines. The grape arbor and an antique farmer’s hat hung from the ceiling hark back to the time when the land produced crops.

Walls and furniture display figures of women in traditional dress. The dining room ceiling and some interior stone walls date back to the original house.

The traditional home is surrounded by a town that seems to be in a time travel warp

The town that now surrounds the old home also gets its due. Among scenes depicted in renderings that serve as decorations are one of the original outdoor fountains, a typical street scene, and an ancient bell tower that looks over the setting.

The result produces a time-travel experience into the past which is combined with the comforts of modern-day life.

For more information about Untours, call (888) 868-6871 or log onto

Victor Block

After gallivanting throughout the United States and to more than 75 other countries around the world, and writing about what he sees, does, and learns, Victor Block retains the travel bug. He firmly believes that travel is the best possible education, and claims he still has a lot to learn.  He loves to explore new destinations and cultures, and his stories about them have won a number of writing awards.

How to see Oberammergau's unique (and delayed) once-a-decade Passion Play

Plan now for the Oberammergau 2022 Passion Play (delayed from 2020)

Once every 10 years, the Passion Play, the story of the life of Jesus of Nazareth, is performed in Oberammergau, a small Alpine village. It is a performance unlike any other in the world. All of the actors and musicians must come from this village. Every actor is a citizen of the mountain town of Oberammergau, deep in the Bavarian Alps.

Normally, this unique play would have been performed in 2020. However, because of the pandemic, it will now happen two years later, in 2022. This once-a-decade event always requires early planning, but there are still tickets and tour packages available.

In 2022, from the 14th of May until the 2nd of October, the play will echo through the village. As they have for almost four centuries, Oberammergau's villagers will perform the Passion Play, giving themselves over to the performance of the life, death, and resurrection of Christ.

More than half of the town's population performs in some way in the Passion Play

[xyz-ihs snippet="Lead-Ad-2"]In the months leading up to this event, once clean-shaven policemen grow beards and bankers let their hair grow long. Tradition in this town holds that fake beards and wigs are strictly against the rules onstage. The "real" biblical look comes naturally. Villagers performing in the play aren’t allowed to cut their hair after Ash Wednesday a year before the show.

Why would a town and its descendants maintain this ritual for 385 years without fail? Why, in the face of modern secularism and the mobile family can this cluster of chalets set beneath soaring, snow-covered, jagged peaks, keep this commitment and allow the tradition to endure?

A friend and I attended the Passion Play in 2010. It was one of the most unforgettable events of my life. We flew into Munich and drove the hour-long drive to Oberammergau. We had a wonderful apartment in the middle of town and arrived during Spargel season (white asparagus season). Nearby is Linderhof Palace and Neuschweinstein, both built by King Ludwig. Garmisch, Germany, is nearby. A trip to see the Passion Play can be a complete vacation.

The Passion Play has developed from a pledge of the town after avoiding the worst of the plague

The play's remarkable story goes back to 1633, when the entire region surrounding Oberammergau was suffering from the "black death," abject poverty, and endless wars. The villagers made a solemn pledge to perform the Passion Play every ten years. Remarkably, the town was spared the worst of the pestilence and ravages of war. Ever since that salvation, their descendants have carried out that pledge.

Villagers are already rehearsing for the program. Those selected to play Jesus and Mary, Pontius Pilate, and the apostles, the priests, soldiers, and children are practicing their lines. The choir and the orchestra are beginning to memorize the memorable score, composed in the 19th century by Rochus Dedler — again, a resident of Oberammergau. The director, Christian Stückl, and his staff are all residents of Oberammergau.

Next year, the play starts in the afternoon and finishes as night falls, with a break for dinner. The timing of the play allows Christ to be crucified and die as night falls.

Packages to see the Passion Play

The best way to see the Passion Play is to purchase a package that includes at least a night in Oberammergau, with meals included. (The meals are important, since the play lasts all afternoon and evening. There is a break for dinner. Without a meal plan, the spectators would never get fed in time to return to the performance.)

The 2020/22 Passion Play premiere is on Saturday, May 14, 2022. From that point, the play takes place a total of 102 times, five days a week, with no performances on Mondays and Wednesdays. Each performance runs in the afternoon between 2:30 and 5 p.m. Dinner is then served at hotels and the final part of the play starts at 8 p.m. and ends at around 10:30 p.m.

The Passion Play website has details on tour operators who can arrange for tickets to performances, meals, and lodging. Expect to pay between $316 and $634 for a two-night package, with room and meals per person based on double occupancy. Also, when attending the play, all performed in German, make sure to purchase a libretto of the play. It will make all the difference to your enjoyment.

Note: Many of these tour operators include Passion Play tickets with other multi-day tours throughout Europe. Those who want to book a package can make reservations. Go here to make reservations for the purchase of individual tickets for between Euros 30 and Euros 180.

Warning — This notice is currently on the Passion Play website. Bottom line — Know what tour operator you plan to book through.

We have been alerted by consumers of offers for tickets for the Passion Play 2020 through Viagogo.

They offer tickets for the Passion Plays 2020 at prices many times higher than the regular ticket price. Viagogo states that performances are "sold out" or that "only a few tickets left." This information is not correct. Currently, there are still enough single tickets for the performances (except for the premiere day) on our website. Depending on the category, the prices range between EUR 30 and EUR 180.


Heidelberg — More than just a castle and pretty town

What makes these five sites so important for America's veterans

Five sites to visit to honor America's veterans

It's Veterans Day in the U.S. Today's the 103st anniversary of Germany signing the Armistice with the Allies, ending the “war to end all wars,” on the 11th hour of the 11th day of the 11th month of 1918.

Veterans Day gives each American the opportunity celebrate the service of all U.S. military veterans who served to ensure our nation’s safety and freedom.

As is my custom on both Veterans Day and Memorial Day, I'll make my way to Washington Square, Philadelphia, to the “Tomb of the Unknown Revolutionary War Soldier,” where an eternal flame burns in perpetual vigilance. On the memorial it says,

“Freedom is a light for which many men have died in darkness.”

I have five travel opportunities in the United States which are wonderful places to visit to learn about our veterans and celebrate their service to the nation.

Arlington National Cemetery and the Tomb of the Unknowns

The Arlington National Cemetery is the United States' most famous military cemetery. It was established during the American Civil War on the grounds of Arlington House, once the home of Confederate Army General Robert E. Lee. The cemetery is the final resting place of many of the nation's veterans, among them two Presidents and four Chief Justices of the Supreme Court, beside the remains of hundreds of thousands of men and women who served the nation in the U.S. armed forces.

The Tomb of the Unknowns, a monument dedicated to American service members who have died without their remains being identified, is located there. The Tomb Guards, a special platoon of the 3rd U.S. Infantry Regiment, guard the Tomb 24/7. There is a moving “Changing of the Guard” ceremony conducted numerous times each day.

USS Arizona Memorial

“Yesterday, December 7, 1941, a date which will live in infamy…,” President Franklin D. Roosevelt’s speech began. The USS Arizona serves as the final resting place for many of the battleship’s 1177 crew members who lost their lives on that day at Pearl Harbor, Honolulu, Hawaii.

Looking down at the Arizona from the Memorial floating above, oil can still be seen rising from its wreckage to the surface of the water. Some swear you can still smell the battle in that oil as you survey the harbor, where two battleships were lost, six others severely damaged, and more than 3200 men and women were killed or wounded.

READ ALSO: Veterans Day: A day to remember veterans who fought to keep us free

Tuskegee Airmen National Historic Site

During World War II, the US Army Air Corps was racially segregated. African Americans were subject to Jim Crow laws. The Tuskegee Airmen, the first African-American military aviators in the United States armed forces, despite their patriotism and desire to fight for their country, were subjected to racial discrimination both outside and inside the Army.

Basic pilot training took place at Moton Field, which looks much the same today as it did in 1942, when it was completed. It was built with private funds provided by the Rosenwald Fund. During World War II, the Tuskegee Airmen, the Red Tails, as they were called by the other pilots because of the red painted tails on their planes, were among the most decorated fliers in the Army Air Corps.

Valley Forge National Historical Park

No battle was fought at Valley Forge, but the Continental Army encampment there was none the less instrumental in the eventual American victory over the British. Valley Forge, just 25 miles from the nation's first capital, Philadelphia, was the site of the 1777-78 winter encampment of the Continental Army, led by General George Washington. The sacrifice and perseverance of the men while training and drilling despite serious outbreaks of disease and food shortages through a Philadelphia area winter of freezing temperatures, snow and ice, brought honor to themselves during the birth of the U.S.

If you visit Valley Forge, especially on one of the cold, damp, overcast days of winter in the Philadelphia region, it’s easy to imagine the harsh conditions of the winter of 1777–78; the wind and snow swept fields, and men camped in cold, dank, log huts with barely a hint of daylight.

Gettysburg National Military Park

It's been more than 150 years since the U.S. Civil War's Battle of Gettysburg. The battle was a major turning point of the Civil War. The Union victory at Gettysburg ended General Robert E. Lee’s second and most ambitious invasion of the North in 1863. The battle was the war’s bloodiest, with more than 46,000 casualties, including almost 8,000 killed.

The eerily named Cemetery Ridge, Pickett’s Charge, and Little Round Top, were all added to America’s lexicon during the Battle of Gettysburg. Four months after the battle was ended, President Abraham Lincoln dedicated the Soldiers’ National Cemetery with his historic Gettysburg Address.

ALSO ON TRAVELERS UNITED: Travel in a new dimension

When you walk the sprawling fields of Gettysburg (located approximately 140 miles west of Philadelphia) you can to begin to understand how the three bloodiest days of the Civil War unfolded.

At each historic location, you can learn about some of the most important events in American history, while honoring the veterans who fought for us throughout the life of the nation, permitting us to live in the freedom we enjoy today.

(Images: Top to bottom -- Hawaii - Pearl Harbor- Arizona Memorial Copyright © 2015 NSL Photography. All Rights Reserved.; Tomb of the Unknown Soldier, Army photo by Elizabeth Fraser; Moton Field Copyright © 2019 NSL Photography. All Rights Reserved.; Gettysburg by Howard)

The magic of US tourist trails from sea to shining sea

US tourist trails all have a focus

US tourist trails have something for everyone. Some people are traipsing through lovely landscapes as others explore history from the days of Native Americans to the present. Avid birders use binoculars to spot colorful feathered friends in flight while canoers and kayakers dip paddles into the water. At the end of the day, many of these visitors to Panama City, Florida, belly up to an oyster bar to enjoy freshly shucked bivalves that have been prepared in a variety of ways.

These seemingly disparate activities and attractions have one thing in common: They’re all taking place along designated US tourist trails that focus upon a single thing to do, see or eat.

Countless trails around the country are available to people with a particular interest. From food to fashions, covered bridges to Kentucky bourbon, they offer something-for-everyone variety. No matter how esoteric someone’s passion, there may be a walking driving, biking, paddling, or another trail somewhere that focuses on it.

The world’s an oyster in Panama City and Orange Beach along the Gulf of Mexico

Consider Panama City, a community of about 37,000 residents perched along Florida’s northwestern coast. For a smallish municipality, that town provides a surprising choice of routes that both locals and visitors may explore.

The Oyster Trail alone has enough appeal to bring some travelers to town. A dozen restaurants, ranging from a 10-stool oyster bar to a casual grill to a fine-dining establishment, serve the fresh-from-the-sea food raw, baked, fried, and prepared in other ways. Whether visiting Panama City for the bivalves or birds, hiking or history, you might find a trail with an appeal.

Restaurants along a different oyster trail, which runs through Gulf Shores and Orange Beach, Alabama, bring their own personal touch to their recipes. In addition to traditional preparations, some serve them barbequed, fire-roasted, Alfredo style, and in ceviche.

Mouth-watering Cajun cuisine to natural foods in the Shenandoah Valley

Celebrated Louisiana’s rich gastronomic culture along the Cajun Bayou Food Trail. The restaurant trail serves local favorites like gumbo, jambalaya, and pecan pralines. Some family-run eateries follow recipes that have been passed down for generations.

A variety of different kinds greets visitors to the Fields of Gold Farm Trail in Virginia’s Shenandoah Valley. People may stroll through a farmers’ market or pick their own fruit at an orchard. They may also tour a working spread, and enjoy a locally grown meal at a garden-to-table restaurant.

Fruit is fine no matter how it’s served — Pacific Coast to the Atlantic along US tourist trails

[xyz-ihs snippet="Lead-Ad-2"]Fresh-picked apples, pears, grapes, and cherries are sold at more than two dozen stands located along the colorfully named Hood River County Fruit Loop in Oregon. The 35-mile trail passes forests, farmlands, and orchards. Vendors also offer flowers, pies, jam, and local artisan gifts.

Berries are used in different ways on a route that leads through Surry County, North Carolina. For instance, the colorfully named Surry Sonker Trail connects a bakery, general store, winery, and other places which serve that dessert.

It’s believed that the sweet treat was created in the early 1800s by homemakers seeking to stretch the use of fruit or use it before it rotted. Recipes include fruit sweetened with sugar, molasses, and other ingredients blended into the unshaped dough so, like snowflakes, no two are exactly alike.

Whet your whistle along the Coca-Cola or Bourbon Trails

Where there’s food there often are beverages. Travelers visit the birthplace of the Kentucky Bourbon Trail. Travelers who take this US tourist trail may visit a distillery that traces its ancestry back to the 18th century. At another distillery, a tasting takes place while standing in the largest bourbon barrel in the world.

Those who like the word “soft” before their drink may prefer to set their sights on the Coca-Cola Trail. Places related to that world-famous beverage are described in a book of the same name. The book can serve as a guide to museums, historic bottling plants, and other destinations around the country.

The Coca-Cola story began in Vicksburg, Mississippi, where the secret concoction was first bottled in 1894. Other stops can include the Dawson & Stevens Diner in Grayling, Michigan, which doubles as a Coca-Cola museum, and a former bottling plant in Los Angeles that was built in the shape of an ocean liner.

Trails attract visitors in Maine, Ohio, and Oregon

Not surprisingly, state tourism offices promote the concept of the trail as a way to attract visitors. For example, Maine has a series of driving trails. A tour leads to 34 outdoor sculptures strung out along 273 miles of its coastline. The Thoreau-Wabanaki Trail includes canoe routes that the author followed during trips to that state in the mid-1800s. And, a Freedom Trail in Portland leads to sites associated with the Underground Railroad and the anti-slavery movement of that time.

Not to be outdone, Ohio tourist trails make their way through the countryside. They focus on interests as diverse as shopping and steam trains, Italian food, and ice cream.

Given the love of nature by many residents of Oregon, it's not surprising that trails abound. Within Oregon's borders are paths for hiking and biking, seeing wildlife and wildflowers, and dozens of other routes. The most famous section stretches through the state. The Oregon Trail traces a path along the historic wagon route that began in Missouri. The trail hosted an estimated 400,000 settlers, farmers, miners, ranchers, and others who followed in their quest for a new life.

Other pages of history are turned during drives to see “quilt blocks” that adorn the sides of dozens of barns in Oregon’s Tualatin Valley. Some designs on those eight-by-eight-foot wooden slabs resemble traditional quilt patterns. Others display crops or animals or relate to the farm family’s history.

From seafood to sweets, berries to beverages, it’s likely that somewhere in the country there may be one or more driving, walking or other trails focused upon an interest of yours.

Food trails secrets across America that will make you smile
Quilt Barn Trail: A Quaint and Colorful Tour Through Oregon History

Victor Block

After gallivanting throughout the United States and to more than 75 other countries around the world, and writing about what he sees, does, and learns, Victor Block retains the travel bug. He firmly believes that travel is the best possible education, and claims he still has a lot to learn.  He loves to explore new destinations and cultures, and his stories about them have won a number of writing awards.

Marathon Key's Marvelous Aquarium Encounters

Aquarium Encounters, Marathon, FL: An Interactive Interplay with Sea Creatures

Donned out in snorkel equipment and wet suit – getting in and out of which was admittedly the most challenging aspect of the whole experience -- I entered the 200,000-gallon coral reef tank filled with large and small residents -- over 50 species of fish, sharks and eels -- into whose life I was about to intrude at the Aquarium Encounters complex in Marathon, Florida.

I've been snorkeling before -- but never in the past did the fish swarm to me rather than my having to swim out to them. But then again I don’t usually carry a supply of squiggly little sardines with me when I go, while at the same time making meaningful eye contact. Well, meaningful to me anyway.

So there I was co-mingling with tarpon, common snook, French grunts, permit fish, horse-eyed jack, and assorted friends. The Cownose rays were especially playful. At every turn, I was greeted by another underwater inhabitant: puffers, porcupine and butterflyfish, snappers, groupers – not that I really had any idea as to their individual identities at the time.


I wasn’t really surprised to find the infamous sharks behind a Plexiglas shield and fed through small holes in the glass. Still, the shark didn’t look any less menacing for being behind the protective covering. I carefully followed the instructions on when to feed them directly and when to take better care of my fingers. There's not always a second chance to do that with a shark...

Instructor Dan intones: “I’ll open the window and see how fast you guys can swim…”  “Cool,” says my ever-eager 10-year-old snorkel companion. Fortunately, his shark-challenged swimming capabilities remained untested.

Ah so many fish, so little time -- I fed as many as I could in the 35-minute feeding frenzy and came away with a new respect for the difference between just snorkeling -- and actually swimming with the fishes...


Once back on land, touring the grounds was almost as spectacular. Walking around the complex, I felt like I had entered a magical forest of tropical plants, mangroves, palm trees surrounding multiple pools of a wide variety of fish from grouper to stingrays to angel and parrotfish to turtles and sharks and spiny lobsters. The extensive educational signage everywhere would satisfy the most eco-curious of visitors.

There were almost as many signs as varieties of fish   Photo by Victor Block

Throw food in one lagoon and Rainbow Parrot Fish appear from nowhere and brighten up the water immediately and immeasurably. A surprising thrill!

Carousing with stingrays in their private pool, I felt covered most of the time by a soft lightweight blanket caressing my body -- only this blanket wanted to be fed fish which it ate with its underbelly.  And we all know lions travel in “prides” and fish in “schools,” but did you know a group of stingrays is a “fever” and a bunch of sharks is a “shiver”? I clearly was surrounded by a fever of stingrays.

There are multiple touch tanks and feeding options. At Big Shark Bay, the sharks – relatives, I assume, to those in the coral reef tank -- react to a sound and light show that brings them to an area to be fed and petted. But if they don’t choose to respond no one is going to force them. They’re big – and well – also they’re sharks.

The African-spurred tortoises are the third largest species of tortoise in the world and it’s difficult to distinguish them from the huge boulders sharing their exhibit. And then there are the incredibly bizarre-looking, colorful, very distinctly shaped lion fish who, by a freak of nature, are terribly destructive to the environment but ironically considered a dining delicacy.

Whether just traversing the grounds or actively participating in an underwater adventure, Marathon’s Aquarium Encounters is a thoroughly interactive experience that leaves you ever more appreciative of the many denizens of the deep. For more information, visit

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