Me and Martin Luther

featured image
I recently returned from a quick tour of LutherCountry  to visit the places in Germany where Martin Luther lived and worked. Though I’ve been to Germany a half a dozen times, all of my previous trips were to the west (Rhine River valley) or to the south (Bavaria). Here in the Lutherlands, primarily located in the former East Germany, things were a little different. Mostly in that Soviet brutalist architecture…but certainly in the culture as well.

Luther statue number, I lost count
Luther statue number… 4? Or maybe 7? I lost count.

But no matter their particular inclination toward speediness of service, there is no denying the German people’s general appreciation for Mr. Luther. In case you haven’t heard (which would be quite unlikely if you live anywhere near LutherCountry), 2017 marks the 500th Anniversary of the beginning of the Reformation, when Martin Luther nailed his 95 Theses to the door of the Castle Church in Wittenberg. The actions of Luther and the other Reformers certainly changed the church, but they also had a tremendous impact on the German language, music, art, architecture, politics and social life. Today, it seems like every town has a statue of Martin Luther (which, by the way, are great for selfies!)

selfie with Martin in Lutherstadt Wittenberg
Case in point: selfie with Martin in Lutherstadt Wittenberg

The Germans have been preparing for this important year for some time now — nearly a decade, in fact. Playmobil even released a Martin Luther figurine last year to commemorate the upcoming anniversary, and the first run of 34,000 sold out in less than 72 hours.

Me and giant Playmobil Martin
Selfie with giant Playmobil Martin

All of this Anniversary hoopla seems to have encouraged the local tourist boards to get creative as they link their communities with the Great Reformer. There is a long list of cities with official connection to Luther, and many more with lesser claims. For example, even Nuremburg made the cut on our Luther tour. While the sausages of Nuremburg alone are worth the visit, the closest connection I could determine is that their printing houses encouraged the spread of Luther’s ideas, while his Protestant thought influenced their sacred architecture. A stretch, I think, but the sausages were great!

On tour with fellow Luther enthusiasts in Nuremburg
On tour with fellow Luther enthusiasts in Nuremburg.

So if you’re interested in being a part of the historic celebration in Germany next year– let me know, as I’ll be leading a group.  (And if you’re one of the few that doesn’t have a “Little Luther” Playmobil in your house – well, I can hook you up.)

 


Dan Hermen is the Director of Sales for Witte Travel & Tours. This blog post is the first part of a series that will focus on Martin Luther and the Reformation Anniversary.


Follow Witte Travel & Tours on Facebook, or subscribe to our email newsletter for current tour offerings.

Why Should You Visit Cuba?

title: why visit cuba

What makes Cuba so special?

It’s been a couple of weeks now since my last trip to Cuba, and I’m sure I could make another 20 visits and I still won’t really understand the place. I know I’m not the first person to say that.

So why go? What makes it so different from another Caribbean island? Here’s where I’m at:

The History.

You don’t need to be a gearhead old-time car fanatic to take pause over the rainbow of “almendrones” in Havana. In the same way you don’t need to be a historian or architect to appreciate what’s all around you.

Parque Central
Parque Central, Havana

Havana is a big city, and it’s history is equally big. The 3 C’s are all on display:

In times of Colonialism, it was a thriving port and full of Spanish gold and pirates. The forts and cannons are everywhere to prove it.

When Capitalism took hold, Cuba was superlative – the mobsters brought their excesses in night clubs and hotels, and American money built great homes and estates. That’s all still there showing witness, crumbly as it is.

Grand Theatre of Havana
Outside the Grand Theatre of Havana

And, of course, Communism is the Cuba we all think of – and this is the one that I found so interesting – not just in revolutionary relics and soviet-style buildings, but in conversations with Cubans. They are just as eager to learn about life in the States as they are to tell you about theirs.

Playing baseball with local kids at Finca Vigía
Playing baseball with local kids at Finca Vigía

The People.

Yes, lovely people can be found everywhere. But it just felt like a good conversation, even briefly on the street, was enough on its own, and not just a pretext for some other less virtuous motive. Maybe it’s because Cubans are supposed to be miserable, repressed and held back, that they seem to us so friendly and engaged. Maybe it’s just the island life and the rum.

beaches and mojitos

Yes, they would like– and should have– Freedom. But it doesn’t mean they don’t appreciate their strong education or healthcare. It’s so complex. Maybe Starbucks doesn’t equal happiness.

The Music.

Ours was a music tour – a children’s choir from California. But even without that special focus, it still would have been a music tour. There is good, no, great music everywhere on that island. From the professional entertainers in restaurants to the street musicians in the plazas, the sounds of Cuba are what sticks with you longest, I think.

Cuban musicians outside a restaurant

Getting to know our Cuban hosts after concert with the Cuban National Children’s Choir
Getting to know our Cuban hosts after concert with the Cuban National Children’s Choir

You should check it out.


Ready to see Cuba for yourself? There are still a few spots left on our “Many Faces of Cuba” tour, with two departures to choose from: 

The Many Faces of Cuba — November 1-9, 2016

The Many Faces of Cuba — November 8-16, 2016

Travel to Cuba: Who? Why? How?

Cuba blog postEverything you need to know about Americans’ new opportunities to travel to Cuba.  And if you don’t see it here – please ask in the comments and I’ll be sure to respond. As the United States reopens its embassy in Havana, here’s what you need to know about traveling to Cuba. Much has changed already since the publication of new regulations for travel to Cuba on Jan. 16, which loosened some restrictions on travel for Americans, though travelers still cannot just hop on a plane and go.

1. So we can go to Cuba now?

Yes. But that’s not what’s new.  Americans have always been legally allowed to travel to Cuba as long as that travel was done for a number of allowable reasons, like humanitarian aid, research or visiting family. What’s new in 2015 is that you no longer have to jump through endless hoops to try to secure the “specific license” in order to obtain permission to travel.  The new “loosened restrictions” means that you still have the same laws to follow, but as long as you know that your travel qualifies, then you just go ahead and travel.  That’s what’s known as a “general license”.  You are required to keep records of your travel transactions for five years.

2. So I can pack my speedo and go on vacation?

No. There are 12 categories of allowable travel, and tourism is not one of them.  Beach vacations are not allowed.  The most common category being promoted is educational activities known as “people-to-people”, which consist of a full-time program of scheduled tours and activities designed to provide participants an opportunity to interact and engage with the people of Cuba.  You’ll stay with a group the entire time – no optional activities. classic cars in cuba

3. How do I get there?

Flights to Cuba from the U.S. are run by charter operations that have been doing this for many years.  Most flights depart from Miami, but new options have already been started from cities like New York and Tampa.  Regular commercial flights already exist via other countries, like Canada and Mexico, so that may be an option for your tour.  It might even be cheaper and faster.

Major carriers like American, Delta and United all are giving indications that they will add more charter flight options and could be offering regular commercial flights soon (2016?).

4. What about cruise ships?

Cuba is the biggest island in the Caribbean and cruise itineraries are easier to adjust than airline routes, so yes, cruises are soon to be a big deal for Americans to Cuba.  Trips still need to qualify under one of the 12 licensed categories (think P2P), but the cruise lines are all over this new opportunity.  Carnival, Pearl Seas and other cruise lines will all be sailing in 2016.

There are also several ferry companies soon to offer service, and private yacht companies that have already started sailing.

5. I hear hotel space is an issue?

That’s true.  Not enough high-end hotels and the possibility of a LOT more visitors is going to be interesting to watch.  The first thing we do when starting to plan a tour to Cuba is secure the hotel space.  So plan early.

cuba street

For the right group, casas particulares make for an interesting option – staying in Cuban homes as a guest of the family.  This certainly nails the people-to-people component and gives you a much better chance at enjoying some awesome Cuban cuisine than you might get at a state-run restaurant!  Casas particulares can be found in any of the popular tourist towns and give the locals a chance to make a little extra income.

6. Can I use credit cards?

Yes, it’s now allowed.  No, it might be awhile before the banks get operational, plus most places where you might want to swipe will probably not have the equipment required, so plan on cash.  You’ll have to exchange to local currency when you get there.  The exchange rate is 1:1 with the US$, but it costs 13% in the transaction. It’s fixed, so exchange anywhere you come across – airport, exchange bureau, bank… just be sure to spend it all because there’s no changing it back.

7. What can I buy there and bring back?

Souvenirs.  Up to $400 worth of goods, including $100 worth of cigars.  Which is like 2 if you buy the good ones.

8. So where do I sign up?

Witte is going to offer several “open” tours in 2016 and beyond.  Stay tuned for that.  We are always able to put together a custom tour if you have a group of at least 10 people ready to go.  And one of our travel consultants would love to sit with you to discuss all the options there are to travel with operators such as Globus or Apple Vacations.

We’re having informational meetings here in Grand Rapids on September 23 and 24 – please plan to attend! Or call 1 800 GO WITTE to find out more.

What other questions do you have about travel to Cuba? Be sure to ask them in the comments, or let us know on Facebook!

vinales-valley

Yellowstone – Breath, Bison & Babies

Yellowstone National Park
So we did it. Took the family on that great American road trip to Yellowstone. We had lots of great stops along the way, and got our money’s worth from our National Parks Annual Pass. (Turns out that great 4th-graders-and-family deal only applies during the school year!)

If you’re headed to Yellowstone and want some advice…buy a guide book.  Seriously.  Lots of good advice in there.  You’ll use it.  A lot.  Or you’ll drive past a lot of really cool stuff you never knew was there.

So I thought I’d share 3 surprises I encountered, even as guide-book prepared as I thought I was:

1. Breath.  As in, why can’t I catch mine?  It took me a few days of ego-battering before I realized that when I came down through that gorgeous mountain pass to enter through the Northeast Entrance, I never really made it all the way back down the other side….Old Faithful sits at 7,367 feet – just about the same as Machu Picchu!

2. Bison.  While we’re talking heights – who knew that bison were such alpine forest dwellers!  Sure – there they were by the hundreds in the valleys and plains.  But what are they doing in the woods? That wasn’t in Dances with Wolves.

2

3. Babies.  So all this wildlife that Yellowstone promises?  It’s there.  And apparently when it’s not busy migrating or preparing for winter, it’s busy making babies.  With all we saw during our week-long early July visit, we could hardly name an animal we saw that did not include miniature, fuzzy, just want to pick it up and cuddle it, versions of the species.  Bison, bears, elk, pronghorn, deer, turkeys, heck squirrels and baby duckies – they’re all cute!

Yellowstone National Park
If you have never been to our first National Park — make your plans now.

If you have, what surprised you? Tell us about it in the comments, or let us know on Facebook!