Note: This article is adapted from an article I published in National Geographic Traveler in 1996. It was in turn adapted from an earlier and longer piece in the now-defunct L.A. Reader. Of course, many, many writers have tackled the subject of Route 66, and I cannot claim that my own take is any better (or worse.) But it is my take, and I hope it brings readers some pleasures. …


Note: This is article adapted from a piece I published in Islands magazine in March 1996. I expect it to be part of a book I am currently working on, entitled “Islands and Other Places: The Journeys of an American in Exile.”

Sometimes it takes a while to find what’s right under your nose. I had lived in Paris for six years before I discovered the island in the Seine where Impressionism was born.

I had seen reproductions of the four shimmering canvases that Claude Monet and Pierre-August Renoir painted at La Grenouillere in 1869. But I had never thought…


This story is adapted from a piece I published in the International Herald Tribune and the Washington Post in 1990.

VIENNA — The Baroque house at Schreyvogelgasse 8, just off Vienna’s Ringstrasse, is in much better repair that it was in the late 1940s. A new door has been fitted into the entry, and the building’s once peeling facade is now painted a bright yellow. …


Groucho Marx once said that he would never join a club that would have him as a member. I’ve never been much of a joiner myself. But when, several years ago, the Great Cassoulet Brotherhood insisted on inducting me into its ranks, how could I refuse?

The brotherhood is headquartered in the southern French town of Castelnaudary, where cassoulet — that hearty French country ragout of white beans, crispy duck or goose, pork and sausages — was supposedly invented during the Middle Ages. Cassoulet gets its name from the cassole, the earthenware dish the stew is baked in for several…


This article is adapted from a piece that originally appeared in the August 23, 1991 edition of the International Herald Tribune.

Portree, Scotland — It is unfortunate that Samuel Johnson and James Boswell didn’t have better weather during their 1773 visit to the isle of Skye. Had it not rained for much of the month they were there, Johnson, the celebrated English essayist and lexicographer, might have sketched a more alluring picture of this magnificent landscape in “A Journey to the Western Islands of Scotland.” As it was, he barely mentioned his surroundings. …


Home The year a socialist almost became governor of California. Upton Sinclair’s campaign changed the political face of the state

The following is adapted from a piece I wrote for the July 15, 1984 issue of the Los Angeles Daily News Magazine, to commemorate the 50th anniversary of Sinclair’s run for California governor. It could happen again! Please also see the dedication at the end of the story, to a wonderful editor who has now passed on.

THE Great Depression had hit hard in California. By the early 1930s, 700,000 people were out of work in the state, almost half…


TEREZIN — It is a custom for visitors wandering the thicket of tombstones in Prague’s Old Jewish Cemetery to place small rocks on top of the markers, a practice said to date from when the Jews lived in the desert and there were no flowers to be had.

Sometimes people tuck folded pieces of paper between the rocks, perhaps directed at whatever unseen spirit they think resides there. I picked one up at random. It read: “Peace of mind, peace of heart, for me, for everyone.”

Of the 12,000 tombstones in the cemetery, the first was placed in 1439 and…


Home Afghanistan vet Ricky Nelson found solace in archaeology from his injuries and his PTSD. But his dreams were dashed and he felt forced to give them up. Now he is gone. Here is his story.

Last August 30, Ricky Nelson, an Afghanistan veteran who had tried to find comfort from PTSD and war injuries through his dream of becoming an archaeologist, passed away in Aurora, Colorado. He was 29 years old. Out of respect for his family, I will not discuss the cause of death, other than to say that it was almost certainly avoidable. By all accounts, Ricky…


One morning in the 1870s, the Irish writer George Moore went for a walk in the Luxembourg Gardens of Paris. “I threw myself on a bench,” he wrote in his memoirs, “and began to wonder if there was anything better in the world worth doing than to sit in an alley of clipped limes smoking, thinking of Paris and of myself.”

Nearly 150 years later, visitors to this peaceful oasis adjacent to the kinetic streets of the Latin Quarter must ask themselves a similar question. Even those who could do without the smoke would agree that the gardens’ one-hundred-plus species…


In winter the fog settles over Venice, seeping into every crevice and circling the colonnades with chilly fingers. The tourists have fled, leaving the waterborne city stuporous and hung over, like the morning after a grand party. Through the harsh, oblique light you see Venice for what it really is: A lost, half-deserted empire, left to trade on its glories.

As you wander among Venice’s crumbling pink palaces, linger in its empty squares, and bridge its murky green canals, you are at the same time drawn and repulsed. On the Grand Canal, the palace of the Ca’ d’Oro looks gray…

Michael Balter

Michael Balter is a writer, journalist, and journalist prof based near New York City

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