A Head Filled With Crazy Ideas-Peru

“It seems pretty,” she said when she had finished it, “ but its rather hard to understand!” (You see she didn’t like to confess, even to herself, that she couldn’t make it out at all.) “Somehow it seems to fill my head with ideas- only I don’t exactly know what they are!” 

Alice Through the Looking Glass

After Ecuador, I headed south to Peru where I had a few days alone in Lima before i started a three week tour. I find it is usually best to spend some significant time alone before embarking on 21 days with people. I spent these days wandering around town, eating street food, roaming the beach and going to the cinema. And laundry. There is always laundry. I stayed in Miraflores in Lima where I did manage to find excellent coffee and decent gelato. Miraflores has a beautiful beach front where you can walk along the cliff for 12K, the city on one side, the ocean on the other. I found myself returning to this spot regularly just to people watch, filling my head with all kinds of ideas about who they might be.


While my tour started in Lima, we spent only one evening there, most of which I spent hanging out in a bar with an Alice in Wonderland painting with two of my fellow travelers, knowing immediately that this was a great group of people. We flew early the next morning to Cusco, a city that was once the capital of the Incan Empire. This is a great city, filed with locals and tourists alike. After our arrival, we visited Saqsaywaman (pronounced sexy woman), an old Incan holy site and Cusco’s version of Christ the Redeemer. Then, we made the huge mistake of going yarn and blanket shopping. The very clever sales staff had us feel sheep and alpaca wool and then reeled us in with the big one- baby alpaca. Once you feel baby alpaca, no other wool will be good enough. We were hooked. I managed to escape with just a few skeins of yarn. I was one of the lucky ones!


Cusco was the stopping point to put some ideas about Incan civilization in our head before we headed to Machu Picchu. It also turned out to be a culinary adventure. A visit to Mercado San Pedro presented a massive warehouse of any type of food you might imagine and plenty you didn’t want to actually see. I loved it at this market and could have spent hours lost in the aisles. But it was time to move on….to the Gastronomia Cusquena Para Todos- or The Taste of Cusco as I have named it. Here, you could choose the guinea pig you wanted roasted- your choice being one stuffed with an onion or a pepper in his mouth. Instead, I opted for some local empanadas and a quick visit to the Sun Temple. This was rumored to be a highlight, although the allure was lost on me. It is an Incan Temple with a Christian Church built on top of it. It felt like a missed opportunity, they could have made it so much better than it was. I had tons of ideas for them!

After one day on our own in Cusco, we hopped on a bus to Ollantaytambo for more crazy Incan ideas as well as a new crafting addiction for me. If you know me well, or even a little, you will understand how giddy I was when we arrived at a Women’s Weaving Co-Op. And how I had to be physically dragged away when it was time to go (exaggeration alert). After meeting their alpacas, we learned how they clean and dye their wool and then spin it. Watching them spin peaked my interest and will be the first hobby I acquire when I return home. They then knit or weave this yarn and sell it to us. I was in heaven. Pure heaven. I did learn a few other random things- the women do not have gray hair for the rumored reason that they use a special aloe shampoo. Also, the altitude is too high for snakes and nearly everything they do is in support of Patchamama or Mother Nature.  I suddenly had the crazy idea that I might just live there forever.


Next stop- Pisac and a chance to see Incan ruins. The first thing I learned is that Inca is the name for the king and therefore the people are not Incans, making everything I have written in the blog so far completely incorrect. Rather than correct, I will let you learn from my mistake. I also learned that there are 2800 varieties of quinoa, most not edible. We did get to see the largest Inca burial ground where the bodies are buried in caves in the mountain in fetal position. Much like how Chicago got the nickname “Windy City” or how the name “Hoosier” came about, no one knows why but everyone claims to. After Pisac, we went to Ollantaytambo where, you guessed it, there are more Inca ruins. Only these are some of the few unfinished ones. I have a million ideas about how they built all of these buildings and terraces, but I am sticking with my aliens theory. They built these things to withstand earthquakes and tourists.


The next morning, a handful of us climbed up one of the mountains in Ollantaytambo and had one of my favorite travel moments- talking about random topics, big ideas, dreams and histories. Then, we boarded the train to Machu Picchu. Our guide forced us up at 3:30 AM to be one of the first on the mountain. Don’t tell him, but he was right. We arrived and were greeted with rain and mist. First thought- this sucks. Second thought- it adds a whole new level of mysticism to the site. And gives me an unruly head of curls. I didn’t know a whole lot about this place before I arrived and honestly expected a more spiritual place. Nope, it is an old Incan town, divided into three sections, agriculture, urban and religion. It was a primary trading post which is why it is so important and needed to be protected from the Spanish. It was a meritocracy so status was based on intelligence. I couldn’t help but get the idea that it might be something worth pursuing. There are 30,000 kilometers of trails and they used hydraulic engineering to provide drinkable water. It is also the entrance to the Amazon jungle. Most importantly and most dear to me, they invented french fries. Now these are some people I could dig. After repeated moments of having my mind blown with moon circumferences, Incan calendars and on and one, the sun came out and I hiked up for the tourist shot of Machu Picchu. Alas, it was time to move on.


Back to Cusco we went to do some laundry (there is always laundry to be done) and pick up our luggage. While we were there, we took an excursion to a Rainbow Mountain, one of the most beautiful places I have ever seen and one in which any photograph could not possible do justice. Rainbow mountains are unique to this area look like multicolored striped mountains. The striping is due to weathering and mineralogy. Tectonic activity has turned the mountain on its side, exposing the stripes. Crazy idea from Pachamama.  We drove a few hours through untouched lands and villages holding tight to tradition when we arrived at approximately 4700 meters above sea level. We then hiked the remaining 300 and looked around at rainbow mountains, grassy fields and the snowcapped Andes. And because it could get even better, it started to snow. Pelting snow. I was in my element- snowy mountains and I have always been close. I was quite content. Today was a good day. Time to leave Cusco and move south through Peru.


We arrived in Puno after a seven hour bus ride, the only highlight being a roadside stop to taste Kopi Luwak coffee, made from coati animal poop. They feed the coati the coffee beans and get them when they come out the other side. A fermentation type process happens in the digestion process. As I love coffee, it was a must to taste. I was not let down- it was close to the most delicious coffee I have ever tasted. It was Good Friday and Puno was ready to celebrate. They had a big parade where each of the churches carried Jesus through the streets followed by their parishioners and bands. It was fun to watch, but late in the night, I was ready for them to stop celebrating and go to bed!

A visit to Lake Titicaca was on the next day’s agenda and Pachamama cooperated. She took most of our clouds out of the sky and gave us blue skies to match the blue waters. It was so perfect, my camera had trouble focusing. This is a massive lake, the highest navigable one in the world. Despite its size, it houses only 7 kinds of fish but has the added bonus of giant frogs. We sailed to Tequile Island first. This Unesco site is home to 2000 people who make their own clothes and hold tight to tradition. We climbed halfway up the island and split into those who wanted to stroll and those who wanted to climb. Clearly, I chose climbing and was rewarded with an amazing 360 degree view of the lake and its islands. While my preference would have been to continue hiking around the island with the sheep and cows, I had to meet the strollers. The local people had put together a demonstration of their weaving, knitting and dancing. And of course, the opportunity to purchase their homemade goods. Most of our group loved the idea that the men do the knitting on the island. For me, however, that thought terrified me. To not be able to knit because I was a women was a horrible idea and I knew straight away I would not be staying. After dipping my feet in the rather chilly Lake Titicaca, we went to another island for a lunch made panchamanca style- cooked on rocks buried in the dirt. One last stop at a floating island, where about 5 families build their own island on the shallower part of the lake and cover it with reeds. The showed us their homes and lifestyle and then offered us the opportunity to purchase their handicrafts as well. This was now more shopping than I do in a month.


So my time in Peru came to an end, we had a bus to catch super early to take us to Bolivia. One of the group had the brilliant (at the time) idea of hitting the bars and disco after dinner, making that early wake up call ever more painful. I vowed to keep those crazy ideas out of my head for at least ten minutes and boarded the bus.

Next stop….Bolivia.

My Very Own Wonderland-Galapagos

So she sat on, with closed eyes, and half believed herself in Wonderland, though she knew she had but to open them again, and all would change to dull reality.

Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland

After Colombia, I continued my trek through South America and found myself in Quito, Ecuador for a quick stop before leaving for the Galapagos Islands.  I was on an organized tour which included my hotel and they had booked my in a rather decadent one- it had fancy shampoo and everything- so I spend a good deal of time relaxing.  And it was a good thing I did, because the next week would be exhausting!  We had a 4:00 AM departure so sleep was a luxury of the past but we were in Galapagos by 10:00 AM- essentially another world.  You land on Baltra Island, one of the flatter of the islands (I am told flat is a key factor in landing strips). It is an old island and very desert like.  After the dogs sniffed my bags, identifying the ginger candy I had, we were whisked off for the first adventure. Along the way, I learned a few things about Galapagos- 97% of the land is national park and humans can live and work on 3%.  If you ask me, 3% is too high! There are only two native colors of flowers, white and yellow as the local wasps were attracted to only those two colors. Every 300 feet you climb results in a temperature drop of 1 degree celsius. No new cars are allowed on the islands- swapping is the only option and a new car costs about $100,000 USD. There are 30K people on the islands and I am pretty sure I saw that many turtles as well.

We stayed in Puerto Areyo for the first day where we threw our luggage in the hotel and hit the hiking trails. And by hiking trails, I mean a paved walkway to the beach. The walk was a beautiful one through cacti with birds and lizards everywhere. We hiked to Tortuga Bay where we went “swimming” (body surfing as we were thrown about by massive waves with a huge undertow) and then kayaking. I am a big fan of kayaking, but this one was special. We made our way out to where the sea turtles were hanging around waiting for dark to come ashore. They were everywhere, poking their heads above water all around us. The shoreline offered us a pool of sharks.  Sure, because that is what I always see kayaking. I slept really well that night!


The next morning began at the Darwin Center where I was in heaven with the information overload. When you arrive in the Galapagos, you pay $100 USD. You can really see where this money is spent when you see the work they do. They work hard to ensure the survival of a species without introducing anything that might hurt another. For example, goats were brought over years ago for farming and they have done a great deal of damage. Goats became the most expensive animal eradication project. They also introduced Australian ladybugs to eliminate parasites after years of study to ensure there would not be any other impacts. Galapagos is a marvel in evolution and balance with nature. It is also proof that humans suck. We got to see Lonesome George at the Darwin Center. I confess I was somewhat oblivious to this tortoise’s legacy and need to research him some more. But now, he is a big stuffed turtle in a rather elaborate air conditioned room- a nice afterlife in the heat and humidity of these islands.  The afternoon’s adventure was a visit to a Giant Tortoise site- where they just hang out, posing for photos for tourists. Then, it was off to our boat for the overnight sail to the next island, Floreana, named after the Ecuadorian president who finally claimed Galapagos after years in which it was left independent.


I opened my eyes the next morning and was amazed at the beauty of yet another different looking island. We hopped on our zodiacs and went ashore to Cormorant Bay for a hike. Along the way, we passed flamingoes (super up close, which I hear is rare) and blue footed boobies doing their mating dance. Along the way, our guide shared more information than I could possibly remember, even though I kept say “wow” all morning. We hiked to a bay that had tons of sting rays and crabs, which kept us from swimming much deeper than our ankles! After the hike, it was snorkel time! We were the only group approved to snorkel Devil’s Crown that day and lucky doesn’t begin to describe it. It wasn’t the easiest snorkel I have ever done and I have to admit that at one point, I gave up fighting the current and hopped in the zodiac (I felt better when all but one of my fellow travelers was getting in the boat as well!) but the rest of the snorkel was amazing. We saw tortoises and starfish and sharks and rays and fish and Nemo and even an octopus. Unfortunately, the photos never really do it justice, but it didn’t stop me from taking 132.

After lunch and a siesta (which I spent downloading and editing my morning photos), it was snorkel time again- this time with sea turtles and penguins. We hung out on the coastline where the turtles had a hard time keeping their 2 meter distance from us and were not super helpful in posing for photos. I couldn’t help but remember how much I used to hate snorkeling. How wrong I was. Exhausted from the snorkeling, we then headed out to Post Office Bay. This is a traditional sailor to sailor post office, where you drop off your mail and pick up any mail going to a future stop of your own. I dropped off a few for my parents and nieces and picked up one each for Chicago, Oakland and Cape Town. Let’s see how long until my postcards arrive! Then, back to the island for dinner, drinks and sleep…and the journey to our next stop, Cerro Dragon.


Another early morning wake up call presented yet another new wonderland. We went ashore and hiked across a very volcanic island, complete with very cool lava tunnels and sea lions playing randomly on beaches. One even posed with George, my warthog travel companion. We watched giant rays jumping out of the water to remove parasites and dodged waves splashing onto the rocks (and by dodged, I mean I ran to them and got soaked). This island was so different than the others, showing us the clear impact of volcanic activity. After the walk, we got to snorkel again, this time in a relaxing, current and wave free zone. The fish in this island were amazing and a few sharks even posed for photos for us. I have never seen such beautiful fish and starfish. I could have stayed in this water for days.  But alas, we had to get to Chinese Hat, yet another different landscape. This one is covered in trees and plants and so many land iguanas, we were tripping over them. One more night on the boat took us to Black Turtle Cove.


If you have picked up on the theme, we awoke in yet another new land, filled with mangroves and mosquitos. As we had a 10:00 AM flight and required one more adventure, we boarded the zodiacs just after sunrise for a ride through the mangroves, where turtles and sharks swim about leisurely. At this point, we were a bit desensitized to seeing them so often, that the whole morning became more of a comedy show than an animal quest. After that, we headed to the airport for the trip back to Quito, craving pizza and beer. Sadly, though, it was election day in Ecuador and nearly everything was closed, including alcohol sales. Channeling our best “A Christmas Story” thoughts, we managed to find a Chinese restaurant open and they even agreed to sell beer. After nearly falling asleep at the table, the Galapagos adventure was over. I had one last day in Quito by myself, and back to the dull reality of urban life.


I left my fancy hotel and headed to the real Quito, the Old Town. It was busy and crowded and very cool. There were lots of squares, including the Independence Plaza where the executive power of Ecuador sits and where the previous night’s election celebrations had been held. It was still filled with banners and confetti, but most importantly, contained a gelato shop. Ecuador still has some work to do on gelato, but I was happy to compare. The Old Town isn’t the safest place, mostly due to pickpockets and outright bag thieves so the police are literally everywhere. I took this as a sign that I was better suited for being out alone during the day rather than night. I did manage a trip to the Basillica which sits high on a hill and allows you to climb even higher to the top, looking over nearly every building in Quito. It is the oldest Neo Gothic church in the New World, a title which amused me quite a bit.


And so ends my wonderland stay in Ecuador, primarily the Galapagos Islands. Off to Peru in search of a laundromat and another adventure rather than a dull reality.

Make Your Memory Work Forwards-Colombia

‘I don’t understand you,’ said Alice “its dreadfully confusing.’
‘That’s the effect of living backwards,’ the Queen said kindly, ‘it always makes one a little giddy at first-‘
‘Living backwards!’Alice repeated in great astonishment.’ I never heard of such a thing.!’
‘-but there’s one great advantage in it, that one’s memory works both ways.’
‘I’m sure mine only works one way,’ Alice remarked, ‘I can’t remember a thing before they happen,’
“It’s a poor sort of memory that only works backwards,’ the Queen remarked.
Alice Through the Looking Glass
After a few days in the United States, primarily to switch to summer clothes and to grab my South American visas, I hopped a flight to Cartagena, Colombia’s fifth largest city.  I really didn’t know much about this country other than the memory of the guerrillas and drug trade…and Romancing the Stone. Therefore, I had no idea what to expect. Fortunately, my backward looking memory was not a reflection of Colombia today. Normally when I arrive in a new country, I go to my room and relax a bit.  Not here. The energy of this town makes you want to get outside and explore. Cartagena reminds me a lot of Mexican cruise ship towns before the cruise companies took them over and turned them into shopping malls. It is raw. On the street, you can buy absolutely anything you need, or didn’t know you need. As a result, every male tourist is wearing the exact same hat. My hotel was in the Old Town, which is filled with life. It is crowded and loud and oh so fun. They do make things a bit difficult for vegetarians but if you are good with queso, especially fried queso, you won’t starve. After walking a few miles around town and getting my daily quota of fried cheese pastries and salted mango with lime sauce from a street vendor, I found a gelato shop run by a lovely Irish lady. It officially settled my future relocation to this city. And my Spanish acquired from Sesame Street and Dora the Explorer was better than I realized. The subsequent heat I would feel, did alter my relocation plans. Fortunately, my memory works well enough to remember the melting sensation I felt.

My second day was set to be a beach day. I headed to Bocagrande, the view made famous by Miami Vice.  Here, I rented a chair and umbrella for $3.50 for an afternoon of people and water watching and reading. It all felt less decadant with the memory of the 4 miles I had walked to reach this beach. That night was the first night of my tour and soon found that I had yet another fantastic group of new friends on this adventure. We started off the tour with visits to the fortress, the monastery and the Old Town. Despite the heat, I did manage to learn a few things about Colombia. First, the government reports an 8-10% unemployment rate, but locals feel it is much higher (could explain all of the entrepreneurs on the streets). Second, much like the United States, the British could not defeat Cartagena and despite being outnumbered, Cartagena outlasted and bested the British attacks. Finally, 73% of Colombia is safe to travel (I have no idea how they have determined this number but it seemed to be quite exact). We capped off the day to a visit to the famous volcanic mud baths outside of Cartagena. Filled with visions of luxury, we were quite shocked to find what resembled a giant termite mound filled with mud so thick you were suspended upright in it. The laughter made it all worthwhile.

Our next day took us Minca, about four to five to six hours (Colombian time) from Cartagena. Along the way, I learned that it is 4 degrees from the equator and therefore has only a rainy and a dry season….nothing else. We saw both. Colombia is broken out economically into six strata, the lowest group earning about $230 USD per month. In Minka, we stayed at a fantastic, backpacker hostel complete with chickens and hammocks and a beautiful view of the sunset over the ocean. It was a 400+ step climb to the hotel and we all climbed with plans of heading back into town for dinner. Those plans quickly died as the memory of the climb was too fresh to inspire a second one the same day!
After climbing back down the stairs the following morning, we headed off to La Victoria coffee farm. This farm was atop a mountain, on a horrible winding road. It sucked. I am pretty sure I was the same color of green as the trees when we finally arrived and I promptly announced I was NOT doing that again. My love of coffee though, helped me forget the memory of the ride and the aroma lured me into the building. We had a volunteer tour guide (wait, you can volunteer on a coffee farm- sign me up!) who taught us tons. Colombian coffee beans are broken into three categories by a 120 year old machine based on how long they float in water. The beans that sink first are exported and become the delicious Colombian arabica beans we love and is about 55% of the harvest. Third quality stays in Colombia, which explains the horrid coffee we had been drinking, so bad that Colombians POUR sugar into it. It was so sad that most people never taste the amazing coffee they grow. After the coffee farm visit, we hiked to a waterfall, a very chilly yet oh so refreshing, waterfall and then learned how they make chocolate in Minka. This visit was most notable as they served us homemade hot chocolate spiced with cardamon.
We awoke the next day in Tagonga and had an incredibly slothful day at the beach. We hired a fisherman boat to take us to a somewhat remote beach (the road being too dangerous to walk). For 40,000 Colombian pesos ($14 USD), we had the boat ride, covered lounge chairs, lunch and a cocktail. Hmm. Maybe I should reconsider living here! I both started and finished a book on this beach. We did burn off some of the sloth that evening when we took on the local kid’s soccer team (and by “we”, I mean most of the group played while I ran around and took photos).
After laying on the beach all day, it was time to get active. We were headed to Tayrona National Parque. This area was very active during the drug trade era of the 70s, 80s and 90s, but had been taken back by the government. Four indigenous tribes live here, all suffering huge losses during the days of guerillas. The government had taken back the land and it was a protected beautiful park. We hiked five miles into the woods and along the shore to a beautiful beach where we collapsed into the water. Removing our pruned bodies from the water, we dressed for the five mile return hike. I would sleep well tonight.
Having had one inactive day and one active day, it was time to combine the two into hiking and river tubing. We took a bus outside of town, hopped on some motorbikes and rode to the mountain. After scaling what I am quite certain was a 90 degree hike up, we hopped on the tubes we had carried and floated for nearly two hours down the Palomino river. We also brought new meaning to sloth as, despite floating towards rocks and trees, we failed to assist in paddling.
The last stop in Colombia was spent in Santa Marta, the oldest city in Colombia and very susceptible to pirate attacks many, many years ago. After several of the group headed off to their next adventure, the remainders took a cab to a beach where we took a boat to another beach, Playa Blanca. The beauty of this beach was that the the mall came to you. If you sat long enough under your tent, anything you might need would appear in front of you.
Colombia is yet another country that exceeded my expectations. It certainly isn’t the Colombia you remember from decades ago. Don’t get me wrong, it still isn’t the safest of places so you have to make smart choices about where and when you move about. But if you do that, you will love this country. The people are lovely and learning the ropes of customer service. The landscape is one of the most beautiful you will see with everything from mountains and beaches to forests and cities.
Forget what you remember and go. Make your memory work forwards.
Off to Ecuador and Galapagos.

Where Shall I Be Tomorrow? Athens and Rome

“How puzzling all these changes are!  I’m never sure what I’m going to be from one minute to another.”

Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland

I arrived in Athens after a flight from Dubrovnik through Istanbul.  It was late at night but, as expected, Berlin was hopping and I was staying in a very active part of town.  I found my hotel, settled in and put together a plan.  I was expecting only one good day of weather so outdoor stuff was first on the list.  And bonus, it was free admission day to all of the outdoor ruins- thank you Melina Mercouri (a proponent of restoration of Greek ruins and access for Greek citizens).  It saved me a ton of money, but also meant that they would be packed!  I headed to the Acropolis first and it was a good thing I did.  By the time I left, it was filled with groups of school kids and groups of adults behaving like school kids.  Acropolis hill was cool- it is so odd to think how old it is and how advanced this architecture really was.  I think My favorite part of all of the ruins I visited is the wildflowers growing in and around them.  Mother Nature always takes back what is hers.


That same day, I also visited a bunch of other old stuff- all outside as the weather was fantastic.  I particularly loved the Temple of Hephaistos and the Stoa of Zeus Eleutherios, all sitting among tons of wildflowers.   Athens does a great job of signage around their ruins so my brain was filling quickly with lots of facts that it promptly forgot.  Thank goodness for Google!  After ruins, it was time for the flea market.  Smack dab in the middle of the flea market, surrounded by tons of junk, was a gelato shop.  Hmmm.  Gelato.  A seed was planted.


Mother Nature threw me a bone the next day and pushed the rain until later that evening.  So I decided to take advantage and spend more time outside.   I made my way over near the Acropolis again and climbed the Hill of the Muses, which provided a beautiful view of Athens (which is HUGE), the Greek Islands and more ruins.  I was able to hike all around, past the Observatory and back down.  It was pretty warm and I knew I needed gelato to cool off.  Hmm.  Gelato.  I found a different shop and headed to Syntagma Square to people watch and shop.  But I kept hearing the voice in my head yelling, “You want gelato? Rome is RIGHT OVER THERE!.  GO!”  After all of my travels, Rome is still my favorite city.  So, I headed back to the hotel, booked a flight and hotel room for the next day.  Two bonus days in Rome!  Think of the gelato!  Sorry Athens, but I saw your ruins and Rome was so close.


The Athens airport is a carbon neutral airport which I loved. I also liked that they have an archeological museum inside- good since my sudden departure cost me my trip to the Athens one.

And so to Rome I went.  As I flew, chatting with the people around me and those waiting for their luggage, I realized the difference between the different areas of Europe.  I hadn’t been able to strike up conversations with random people for several weeks but since I got to Croatia, Greece and Italy, I hadn’t stopped talking!  I made my way to the hotel and literally threw my suitcase into storage and ran out the door. I only had two days and I had to get the most out of it.  The Trevi Fountain was being refurbished last time I visited so I wanted to swing by and see how this beautiful Baroque fountain turned out. Plus, I needed to throw in some coins to ensure I would return to Rome.   Then, it was off to my favorite gelato shop near the Pantheon- dark chocolate and orange- and people watching in Piazza Navona.  A quick hike to Vatican City and it was time for dinner.  And let’s be honest, it was only time for dinner because I was anxious for Second Gelato.  I tried a new gelato shop near my hotel and went with the recommendations of a guy who works there.  The cherry nut crunch was delightful.


I have been to Rome several times already so I was going to skip all the touristy stuff.  But….I really wanted to go to Palatine Hill.  I have always visited Rome with other people so my timeline hasn’t been my own.  This trip was different. It was my agenda.  So, yep, I was going to do tourist stuff.  You see, the ticket to Palatine Hill is the same ticket as the Coliseum and the Forum.  And, it would be foolish to purchase a ticket and not see all three.  I am so glad I did.  The Coliseum has a new exhibit which was super interesting, and I had tons of time to walk through the Forum and see stuff I had missed in previous visits.  After a few hours, it was time for gelato. I grabbed some and window shopped Via Condotti and made my way back to Trevi Fountain to throw my coin over my shoulder and partake in a glass of wine.  Dinner and Second Gelato rounded out my day and it was time to pack to head back to the States for a few days.


So, back in the United States for a few days.  Until Colombia…..

Life Is A Fairy Tale- Hungary and Croatia

“It’s rather curious, you know, this sort of life.  I do wonder what can have happened to me!  When I used to read fairy-tales, I fancied that kind of thing never happened, and now her I am in the middle of one!  There ought to be a book written about me, that there ought!  

Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland
Leaving Vienna behind, I boarded a bus for Budapest, knowing very little about the city and what adventure awaited me.  I arrived late afternoon, so headed out to explore Sunday night life.  FYI- there isn’t much to Sunday night life.  Most places were closed so I walked around, found grocery store and a lovely little vegan restaurant and called it a night.  The Academy Awards were on in a few hours and I needed to be awake by 3:30 AM to watch them.  It was certainly a different experience watching them in Hungary.  They played without commercials and during the breaks, they showed clips from nominated films…..in Hungarian.
My first day was a long, long, long walk around the city.  I headed up to St. Stephen’s Cathedral to orient myself and then planned my three prong attack.  First prong- down the avenue to Heroe’s Square which passes the Opera, their Times Square (couldn’t tell where that was) and their Broadway (also couldn’t tell its location).  A walk back on the side streets introduced me to the beautiful old Hungarian mansions.  These are enormous homes that looked so amazing on the outside that I wanted to grab one and restore it to its original glory.  Prong two took me towards Parliament, one of the most gorgeous buildings I have ever seen.  And I don’t say that lightly.  I also passed the very sanitized Holocaust Memorial built by the city which had a beautiful Living Memorial in front of it, filled with actual items such as suitcases, shoes and photographs from the victims.  This isn’t sponsored by the city but is a very real reminder of the people and not just the event.  Final prong was back towards my hotel through the Jewish Quarter and the second largest synagogue in the world.  In the back, they have a silver tree that has the name of a victim carved in each of its leaves.
The next day in Budapest was over the river Danube on the Pest side.  Budapest used to be three cities that merged into one.  There was a big hill calling to me to climb and I wasn’t going to let it down.  Of course, I took the steep side of Gellert Hill up and the meandering side down.  At the top, in addition to amazing views of the city, I found the Liberty Statue and the Citadel.  One of the things I love so much about Budapest is how they handled life after the Soviets.  They gathered up all of the statues left behind when the Soviets left and stuck them in a part, in the middle of nowhere.  Well done.  I then spent an hour walking around the park trying to find a small park within it.  Disgusted, I gave up and headed over to Fisherman’s Bastion for some more breathtaking views of the city.  I had one last stop to make- their Central Market.  This market had more paprika that I have ever seen in one place!  Oddly enough, I finished the night with some of the best pizza I have had in a long time and went back to pack.  I had a bus to catch and a new country to see.
After Budapest, I took a bus to Zagreb, Croatia for a night, a city which provided me an absolute nothing in terms of adventure.  A quick night’s sleep and it was time for a drive down the coast of Croatia.  And by drive, I mean ride in a small bus enjoying the scenery of what is possibly the most beautiful country I have seen.  We did get to stop in Bosnia and Herzegovina for a few hours so I got a bonus country visit along the way.  I arrived in Dubrovnik later in the evening and was dropped at the entrance of the Old Town, or King’s Landing from Game of Thrones.  It was so surreal to be here.   My well planned direct route to my apartment hit a snag when I discovered that Robin Hood was being filmed at the end of my street and my route became much longer- a great workout up the steep stairs when you are carrying your luggage on your back!  If I thought Croatia itself was spectacular, Dubrovnik elevated it even higher.  The water was an amazing clear blue or green depending upon the time of day and the sky was as clear as I have ever seen.  After a quick dinner, I went back to my apartment to make a plan.
I headed out the next with a clear purpose…… which was quickly sidelined when the fairy tale began.  I happened upon some of the crew in a quiet nook of the city and they let me hang with them for some time while they filmed (provided I didn’t take photos).  I was fascinated.  I had heard that filming a movie is a hurry up and wait process with lots of down time, but I had no idea.  I was torn, I wanted to see Dubrovnik, but I also wanted to watch the filming.  Dubrovnik won (or did it?) and I say my goodbyes.  I made it all the way to the Ancient City Walls before I met the Drone Crew.  Of course, I had to watch with them for a bit.  I can’t wait to see those segments in the film.  In four hours, I had progressed about 200 yards, so again, I said goodbye and moved on…..another 200 yards.  Here, I ran into the Splinter Crew filming stunt scenes along the wall.  Another hour went by and I said goodbye.  One of my new friends pointed to another section of the wall and said, “we will be there around 2:00.”  Ugh.  Finally, I made my way around the wall, with the beautiful Aegean Sea on one side and the red tiled rooftops of the Old Town on the other.  It really was like walking through King’s Landing.  But, 2:00 was approaching and I had a job to do.  I arrived not long after they did and made my way to the highest point where they had set up the cable for the camera.  After about an hour or so, a crew member pointed out that the wall had long since closed and tourists were supposed to be off the wall.  Clearly he didn’t understand my role.  Wait, nope he did.  He then said, “but you are welcome to stay as long as you want.”  The shot wasn’t going well, so I called it quits around 6:00.
The next day in Dubrovnik was going to be different.  Today, I was committed to my plan.  I woke early and headed to the outside of the wall, along the Aegean.  Along the way, the rigging crew from the night before saw me and yelled to me about that day’s location, another attempt at our shot the night before.  Not to be strayed, I stuck to my plan….for a few hours at least.  I did manage to make my way along the outside of the wall and enjoy some peace. Dubrovnik is a lot like Venice, filled with Day Trippers.  It gets crazy during the day, but is quite lovely at night.  And this day was Saturday and was a noticeable difference from Thursday and Friday.  I needed that place to hide from the hordes of tour groups!  Making my way back, I ran into another film friend who called me over to chat.  I really think these people were so desperate to talk to anyone that wasn’t on the crew that they settled for me!   After another hour or so, I decided it was time to go back and pack.  I had places to go.
Croatia is one of the most beautiful places I have ever seen, although some of my new local friends assured me that if you headed inland, it became a very different country.  I stuck with the fairy tale.  And at risk of offending all of the other countries I have visited, Croatians are the nicest people I have encountered.  They are so friendly and welcoming.  It is definitely on my list of top places I have visited.  Even though a good portion of it was spent living in Nottingham with Robin Hood and Little John.
But, it was time for a new country, my last in Europe for the time.  Athens, Greece, here I come!

Why Walk in a Straight Line? Prague and Vienna

The Queen cried ‘Faster! Faster! and dragged her along, ‘Are we nearly there?’ Alice managed to pant out at last.
‘Nearly there!’ the Queen repeated, ‘Why we passed it ten minutes ago! Faster!
Alice Through the Looking Glass
Some places you fall in love with straight away.  Prague is one of the cities for me.  And based on Facebook comments, I am just about one of the last people in the world to visit this city.  Of every place I visited, more people commented they had been there as well and loved it than anywhere else.  Good thing I put this one on my list!  I flew here from Oslo, landed, took the train to my hotel and headed out to get groceries.  Just to get groceries.  I then proceeded to look like a dog in a part full of squirrels as every corner had something that caught my eye and led me down that street, including mulled wine available on the street for the equivalent of $1.00.  After over two hours, I said “Shoot- groceries.  Are we there yet?”  We passed it two hours ago!
The next day continued much as the first had.  I put together a list of places I wanted to see.  Ten minutes into the walk, I had so far strayed from the plan that I ditched it altogether and just walked. It wasn’t efficient, but it was much more fun.  Many times, I was close to something I wanted to see, but distractions forced me to pass it and return to it later.  First distraction was Hamley’s.  I love Hamley’s and this one is fantastic.  I passed on the carousel, but I did go down the snake slide that nearly dropped me in Iron Man’s arms.  One of the benefits of random walking is the surprises you find.  The first was the head of Franz Kafka.  Not literally his head, but a massive silver statue of his head that spins.  Crazy, but likely appropriate.  The second benefit occurred while I was hanging out in the Old Town Square, waiting for the Astrological Clock to toll.  Roger Federer and Tomas Berdych walked up, in town to help promote the new Czech Tennis Tournament.  Random.  I had to turn down their offer for dinner as I had a list. Wait, nope.  I had tossed the list.  I had detours and random streets to explore.


The next day in Prague was Day Trip day. I made my way to the Main Train Station, which wasn’t the first train station I found, and bought a ticket to Kutna Hora, a small town about an hour ride from Prague.  Kutna Hora is an old silver mining town and not quite as beautiful as Prague.  This turned out to be a good thing as I had a lot of ground to cover.  Here, I found the Bone Church, also called Sedlec Ossuary by those that favor a more formal naming convention. This slightly disturbing church contains the bones of 40,000 people arranged as decoration by a monk who was blind in one eye.  These decorations included chandeliers and coats of arms.   Down the street was Assumption of Our Lady Cathedral, a pretty church in which I was the sole visitor.  Just as I left, the sky opened and Mother Nature decided it was a good day to wash cars and clean streets.  And I had 2.5 miles to walk.  And the wind was strong. Nevertheless, I persevered and was rewarded with a turn of the corner to see St. Barbara’s Church, a truly breathtaking church on the top of a hill overlooking the town.  It was very Gaudi on the outside, but not at all on the inside.  I took my photos between waves of tour groups (okay, three groups) and headed back to the train to Prague.


The last day in Prague was reserved for the hike up the hill to Prague Castle.  I crossed the famed Charles Bridge (meh- mostly a tourist trap) and climbed and climbed.  Most of the climbing was due to the fact that I kept getting distracted and turning down random streets  (squirrel!) passing my prearranged iPhone route.  When I finally made it to the top, I saw…..Starbucks.  Really?  Starbucks?  Around the corner I came across the Palace just in time for the Changing of the Guard.  This was quite possibly the most boring thing I have ever seen.  I say that I sit on a bus through miles and miles of farms.  The line for the palace and church was so long that I decided to pass it.  I was far more entertained with my randomness.  I did manage to find the Lenin Wall and the Lock Bridge which were visually appealing.  But enough is enough.  I had an Opera to see that night and it was my favorite, La Boheme.  And I knew my 15 minute walk back would take at least two hours!

Knowing I would one day return, I said farewell to Prague and boarded a bus to Vienna.


I only had two days in Vienna so I needed a plan.  And we all saw how well that worked in Prague.  Needless to say, it was even less effective in Vienna.  These towns that don’t have straight streets are my nemesis!  I just can’t stick to a path.  Squirrel.  In two days, I walked  over 22 miles, many of which were backtracking as I kept passing my intended destination.

I headed out to the Old Town/Historic Center first.  I knew I had arrived when I saw the hordes of tourists and men dressed in traditional garb selling concert tickets.  I popped first into St. Stephen’s Cathedral.  The church is pretty, although their statues all look like they are wearing warming blankets and they have an interesting business model. You could walk down one side without a fee.  But, you had no less than seven opportunities to pay money to see additional items, such as the catacombs or “the Treasure!”  You could also drop 1 Euro into the audio guide station and listen to information about the church.  I swung by Hofburg Imperial Palace, which was a bit confusing.  It appears to be the home of some museums and the horse stables but also a hotel and maybe people live there too?   Just behind it, though, was a bunch of museums around some parks.  I seriously considered pitching a tent and living in these parks for a few weeks so I could visit all of the museums.  Since I could only choose one, I chose the Art Museum.  But do I walk straight ahead to the museum?  Nope.  I turn right and spend 60 minutes making my way to the building a few hundred yards away.  I stopped first at City Hall which was hosting a super cool Winter Fest. There were five ice skating rinks, some of which were connected by mazes.  There were also food stands and gluhwein (the price now increased to $4.00).  As I entered the park, “Rockin’ All Over the World” by Status Quo was playing over the loudspeaker.  I felt that was a shout out just to me!  (Trivia- this was the first song played at LiveAid)

I finally made it to the Kunsthistoriches Museum, probably the most beautiful interior I have ever seen in a museum. They had a nice collection of Titian and Caravaggio but not much of my Impressionist Art.  Next stop was the Naschmarkt, and outdoor market that is just big enough to be entertaining and just small enough that you don’t get annoyed at the merchants yelling to you until the very end.  From here, I was headed to the Opera House, two hundred yards away and a good 60 minute walk as I was distracted by a church and a bunch of musicians playing accordions while wearing horse heads.  Enough for the day.  I crawled down my not so direct route back to my apartment.


Second and last day in Vienna began with a long, long walk to Schoenbrunn Palace.  I was going to take the train, but I woke early and figured a 4 mile walk to start the day was a good idea.  Nope. It wasn’t.  This palace was the summer home of the Hopsburg family.  The staff ran around 1500 people.  It was interesting to walk the rooms, knowing Marie Antionette was once there.  It was also the site of the Kennedy/Kruschev Meeting.  While the palace was lovely, it was the grounds I really dug.  After the Palace, I headed to Prater Park.  I knew this park had a ferris wheel but that was the extent of my knowledge.  What a surprise to find a full amusement park. Walking down the Midway, which I will admit was not a straight walk as I kept diverting to side streets when distracted, I looked up and saw their Swings- that rose 385 feet into the air.  I literally stopped and said “shut up”out loud.  And then I paid for a ticket.  It was absolutely terrifying.  I loved it.  The wind was strong to begin with and when you put a body in a swing and spin them around a pole, you get some movement.  And you are higher than most of the buildings in Vienna. Would I do it again?  Maybe.  Maybe not.  Ok. Absolutely.  The day was turning dark so I started back to the hotel. Along the way, I found a movie theater showing an Oscar Nominated Film and detoured, ending my time in Vienna and Prague just as it had began.


Off to Budapest I go.

Always Back to the Same Place- Sweden and Norway

‘I’m not going in again yet I know I should have to get through the Looking-glass again- back into the old room- and there’d be an end to all of my adventures.!’

Alice Through the Looking Glass

I find that in some cities, I keep ending back in the same place.  Sometimes it is intentional, yet other times, I head out in an opposite direction, yet inexplicably end up back in the same place.  That was true in both Sweden and Norway.

My first few days in Sweden were spent with my dear friends Roland and Michelle.  I met Roland in Antarctica and his wife, Michelle, in Munich at Oktoberfest.  It was a fantastic respite from solitary travel and spending time with them and their amazing friends in Malmo was lovely.  If you are going to Sweden, don’t skip Malmo- it is just across the water from Copenhagen and a lovely and extremely welcoming city to all people.  I was able to engage in intelligent conversation about the world (usually people just talk to me about #45) and participate in fika, a delightful tradition of sitting and enjoying coffee with friends.

After my mini break, I hopped on the train to Stockholm.  I stayed in the Old Town area of Gamla Stan and was super excited about my accommodations.  I had booked a room on a yacht.  It sounds super fancy, but honestly, it was one of the cheaper places to stay in Stockholm.  This yacht was once owned by Barbara Hutton, an heiress married to Cary Grant and owner of the Woolworth Department Store chain.  I played the role of Jack, as my cabin was on the lowest deck with all of the other bargain seekers.  My favorite part of each day was heading up to the dining room to have breakfast with the other guests.  It felt just as it should.  I did a quick walk to orient myself that evening and found the beautiful park on Djurgården and a grocery store for my peanut butter and fruit.


The weather in Stockholm was crisp and clear, my favorite kind of weather, so I was able to get in a good twenty five walking miles while I was there.  I started out the day walking around Gamla Stan.  Here I found the tiniest statue, called Little Boy Who Looks at the Moon.  People leave him candy and coins and, in the winter, provide him with hats and scarves.  That was super cute.  I also found the narrowest street, 35 inches (90 cm) wide, and was appropriated underwhelmed.  I giggled as I realized Stockholm was the exact opposite of Dubai.  Rather than the biggest, first, tallest, etc, the pride themselves on the littlest.  A bit Alice if you ask me- drink me, eat me!

Having no set agenda, I started wondering about town.  I ended up back on the island of Djurgården.  There are a bunch of museums on this island, like the Nordic Museum and the Abba Museum.  I chose the Vasa Museum for no particular reason and with no knowledge of its content.  Turns out it was a museum dedicated to a shipwreck.  The Vasa was badly designed and sunk 1300 meters from her departure point.  She was found and brought from the ocean floor 333 years later.  I had no idea a museum about a sunken ship could be so cool.  I learned that sailors had to bring their own spoons and food to last them until the ship hit international waters.  This was part of the really good, free audio guide that included a guy burping when discussing the food section.


The next day in Stockholm took me, you guessed it, back to the island of Djurgården, a walk I now title “The Walk of A Million Strollers.”  The highlight of this walk was a set of benches. One read “EU” and the other “No EU.”  Why can’t we all get along!  I was headed to the outdoor museum of Skansen, again having no idea what to expect.  After a somewhat difficult challenge of finding the entrance (I went right when I should have stayed straight and ending up walking the whole of the park before I found the way in!) I discovered it was the Swedish version of Greenfield Village in Dearborn, Michigan.  It was a bunch of buildings brought from all over Sweden to show life throughout the ages.  There were farms, schoolhouses, churches and more.  And being winter in Sweden, it was somewhat desolate.  My favorite part of Skansen was the zoo (no surprise there).  They had lynx which I don’t see often. I spent a good 45 minutes hanging out with them.  They also had otters who entertained me for another 45 minutes with their sport of ice wrestling.  I had arrived near opening, figuring I would stay for a bit and then move on to the aquarium and other museums.  Nope, I closed down Skansen and ended my day there.


And so my time in Sweden came to a close.  I had my last breakfast on my fancy yacht and headed to the train station for my trip to Oslo.  I sure was going to miss going back to my island, Djurgården.  I might have been better off to pitch a tent and camp there- or sneak into one of the windmills!

My first day in Oslo was supposed to be a day off but it was free admission day at the National Gallery and I really wanted to see Edvard Munch’s painting, “Scream.”  I tried to really absorb it, but my eyes kept going to the painting at my left.  Turns out I much prefer his “White Night.”.  This museum is quite interesting.  It was broken into eras where they had a few of the very famous artists, such as Manet, Renoir or Picasso, to represent the style.  Then, they had a room of Norwegian artists’s paintings from the same era and style.  What I determined was, Norwegians, with the notable exception of Munch, made really good explorers.

After the museum, I started walking and ended up at the Oslo Opera House, a very unique and I believe, beautiful building on the waterfront.  Here, I found the best deal in Oslo, a $25 ticket to Carmen.  I grabbed the ticket and headed home to change.  Fortunately, Scandinavians are pretty relaxed people so my denim dress and leggings worked just fine.  I headed BACK to the Opera House and settled in for a very interesting interpretation and R rated version of Carmen.  It was set in modern times and each act opened with a drunk bullfighter yelling about something or other.  The notable exception was the third act which opened with a naked man doing interpretive dance.  That would not happen in America, at least not without 837 warnings to parents!


Day Two in Oslo started in Vigelandsparken, an outdoor sculpture museum.  It was an absolutely gorgeous day so I couldn’t wait to get outside.  The artist’s style wasn’t for me but a park is always a good thing.  My highlight was the children’s school on the edge of the park.  It was recess and the kids were sledding on the hills around their school.  I was so jealous and contemplated possibilities for my joining them.  In the end, I decided it best I not insert myself.

After the park, I visited Aker Brygge and Akershus Castle.  The Brygge turned out to be a shopping mall but the Castle was kind of cool.  I found that Oslo loves to drop sculptures all over the city and the Castle had some very cool ones throughout the fortress grounds.  I kept walking from there, wanting to see the cruise ship that was parked in port.  And what do you know, I ended up back at the Opera House.  The building is built with a slant so that you may climb to the roof.  It was snow covered and many of us were doing slip sliding dances but it was fun to climb.  I found the view OF the Opera House is far better than the view FROM the Opera House.  Oslo isn’t know for its architecture and it was clear from here.  Perhaps that is why they have so many sculptures around- they choose that format for beauty.  After descending the building, I walked around to the back where you can look into the sewing shop and prop department.  I looked like a kid in a candy store, staring at all of the sewing machines and fabric.  I am also pretty certain the seamstresses did not appreciated my face pressed against the window, drooling.


I had decided I desperately needed a day off, so my last day in Oslo was that day.  Except, I woke up to find my phone not charging.  So, off I went in search of an electronics store.  And I found one…..by the Opera House.  Despite my best intentions, I had ended up back there again.

Off to Prague I go…..

How Am I to Get In?

‘How am I got get in?’ asked Alice again, in a louder tone.

‘ARE you to get in at all?’ said the Footman. “That’s the first question, you know.’

It was, no doubt: only Alice did not like to be told so. ‘It’s really dreadful,’ she muttered to herself, ‘the way all the creatures argue.  It’s enough to drive one crazy!’

Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland

After enjoying the boutique countries of Switzerland and Liechtenstein, I was ready for something a bit more my style.  So Berlin, of course.  I had been to Germany before so it wasn’t a new country, but it was my first time to Berlin.  I took a seven hour train ride from Zurich and thoroughly enjoyed it…..for the first hour.  After the, four children and their two mothers entered my compartment and nothing was to be the same.  It soon looked like a demolition zone and the volume was insane.  I could dedicate an entire blog to this journey, but I believe it was covered quite completely on Facebook!  The one tip the moms did share with me was to take public transportation.  And thank goodness they did.  Berlin is massive!  But cheap.  At least compared to Zurich!  Despite its size, there are very few cars.  The whole of the city must use public transportation.

All over Berlin are reminders of the Wall and the need for the world to remain open.  Sections have been left in various locations and many are accompanied by signs that describe how it was built, in many phases, because it turns out humans will always find a way through a wall.  They had to fortify the wall many times over as it was never quite enough.  The signs describe how families were torn apart, opportunities were lost and humanity rallied against.


My first day in Berlin crossed a lot of the “must see” places off my list.  I went first to the Brandenburg gate.  The gate is located next to the U.S. Embassy, so I approached with a bit of trepidation, expecting protests.  I found only silent protests, candles and signs left behind, I assume.   Americans know this gate as the site of “Mr Gorbachev- tear down this wall.” Former East Germans know it as way to see past, but not enter, the land over the wall, a world beyond the Iron Curtain.  It now stands as a symbol of Berlin’s unity.  Second stop was the Reichstag building,  just down the street, a long walk through the Tiergarten to the Victory Column, a pause for some delightful gluhwein and then Checkpoint Charlie, probably the most touristy of all of the places I visited.  After all of this walking, I popped into the movie theater where ticket prices are similar to the US, but the combo snack of popcorn and beer is much cheaper than the popcorn and soda option.  Of course, I indulged.

In Berlin, there always seemed to be entertainment on the subway.  Performers would pop on the train, play for 30 seconds, ask for money and move on.  While there were quite talented, I only pay for 60 seconds of entertainment or more so I kept my Euros!


The second day, I went out to Museum Island- an island that houses the Berlin Cathedral, one of the most striking buildings I have ever seen, as well as five different museums, all beautifully designed as well.  I had not done my research so I discovered, upon arrival, that the Art Museum is closed on whatever day it was that I was there (I long ago, lost the ability to retain the day of the week- could have been Tuesday, could have been Saturday) so I had some bonus free time.  So, I took the U-bahn (or S-bahn) out to the East Side Gallery.  This is an over 1K stretch of the East German side of the Berlin Wall with murals painted after the unification of Berlin.  Many have been restored by the original artist, but still reflect the feelings of the world at this time.

After the visit to the Gallery, I went to the Topography of Terror Museum as it was cold outside and the museum was free.  I got more than my money’s worth.  Berlin impresses me beyond belief at the accountability taken for the atrocities of World War II.  All over the city are placards detailing what happened on the site of the new buildings and the role that individuals and groups played.  Their commitment to honor the memory of the victims is so impressive and I have enormous respect for Berliners.

Unfortunately, my time here was limited, so off to Copenhagen I went.  img_9096

I had a long list of things to see in Copenhagen and I was determined to walk the entire city.  Mother Nature decided to indulge me as she proceeded to provide snow for my two days in here.  I was quite giddy as I was missing the blizzard currently visiting the US.

I bundled up and headed out to Tivoli Gardens…where I was presented with a wall.  Apparently the Danish do not frequent Tivoli during the winter so it was closed until April.  I did manage to talk a few construction workers into letting me inside enough to see what I was missing so I consider it seen.  Stupid wall.  Instead I walked through the Rosenberg Castle Gardens and saw the Hans Christian Andersen statue and a lot of snow.  Slippery snow.  Snow that provided me one of my most brilliant falls ever.  Both feet in the air in the style of the Three Stooges.  Sadly, no one was around to either photograph it or share in my hysterics at how great it was.


My father has had a statue of the Little Mermaid in his den as long as I can remember so I was very excited to find her.  One of the beauties of traveling in winter is the lack of other tourists (not to mention the lower prices!).  This can also be a downfall as I nearly walked right past her as I was the only person there.  I expected to see a pile of tourists climbing and photographing.  Nope, just me, her and sideways snow.   I have heard she is overrated, but I found the statue quite beautiful and peaceful.

It was nearly noon, so I went to Amalienborg Palace for the Changing of the Guard.  Again, it was just me and a handful of tourists.  I can only imagine how crowded this must be in the summer.  Today, there were more guards then there were tourists.  And the guards were blocking my entrance!

Every year, I try to see as many Oscar Nominated Films as possible.  While this year is more challenging than years past, I still try.  I headed to the theater to get out of the cold.   Here, I learned the McDonald’s drive thru is called McDrive.  And yes, I will be using that going forward.


I awoke to more snow on my second day in Copenhagen, or as I like to call it, “The Quest for Better Mittens” day.  I had been using gloves but they were beginning to show their excessive use so I headed over to Nyhavn to do some shopping.  Nyhavn is the image you often get when you see Copenhagen, the houses and sailboats along the canal.  I was particularly grateful to see it in winter and even more grateful, because I found mittens.  And they were on clearance.  And they give tourists an additional 10% off the price.  I am quite certain I found the cheapest items in Denmark.  I spent the rest of day wandering about town, looking a bit humorous as I turned anywhere that distracted me, often walking in circles as I wanted to see it all.

I really admire the Danish dedication to bike riding.  Despite the two days of snow, the slush everywhere on the street and the cold wind, they kept riding.  This journey has really taught me that I need less to live happily.  However, I will be acquiring a new bicycle when I return home as this adventure has ignited my cycling passion.


I went to bed that night, anxious for a vacation from traveling. I was off to Malmo, Sweden to spend three days with friends met in Antarctica.  And I knew that I would be let in.

See you in Stockholm….with my new mittens.

Boutique Countries

Alice tried to fancy to herself what such an extraordinary ways of living would be like, but it puzzled her too much, so the went on.

Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland 

Short post alert!  Normally I try to combine countries to limit how many times I post, but I suspect Switzerland and Liechtenstein will be so different from Germany and Denmark that I decided to simplify. I have officially decided to call these two countries “Boutique Countries” as I continually felt like I should not touch anything and that I probably should have brushed my hair.

I arrived in Zurich late and in a deep fog so the best I could do was find a grocery store and my airbnb.  I awoke the next day and sat out to explore.  Zurich is quite beautiful and very clean.  Like sterile clean.  Not only was there no garbage, there were no homeless or beggars on the street.  It felt a bit like walking through a movie set.  It was almost as if they designed one massive movie set and called it a city.  And every shop was a boutique.  Sadly, I did not have half a million Swiss francs to buy a new watch.  I can’t possibly fathom that kind of wealth.  Needless to say, I cooked all of my food at the house!

Turns out there isn’t much to do in Zurich so I spent the whole day walking.  I visited the Old Town (shopping), Lake Zurich (shopping) and the train station (you guessed it, shopping).  Fortunately, the city is beautiful so it was a lovely 11 mile walk.


The next day was a trip to Liechtenstein to cross another micro country off of my list.  I hopped on a tourist bus and headed east.  First stop was a cute little town called Rapperswil.  Well what do you know…another boutique town.  Granted, it was cute so I didn’t mind walking about for a bit.  Here I found the McDonald’s menu where a small value meal started at $12 USD!


After a few hours, we arrived in Liechtenstein.  This is the fourth smallest country in Europe and the sixth smallest in the world.  There are 37,000 residents.  The head of state is a Prince who lives in a castle that overlooks the capital of Vaduz.  It has one of the highest GDPs in the world.  We stopped here for an afternoon of……shopping.  Seriously, if I ever see another Rolex or Hublot store, I might go mad!


And so ended the Boutique Country portion of my trip.  Off to Berlin for a few days where I hope to find a reasonably priced cup of coffee.

Lisbon, Barcelona and a splash of Andorra and France

Alice had got so much into the way of expecting nothing but out-of-the way things to happen, that it seemed quite dull and stupid for life to go on in the common way.

Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland

From Brussels, I flew to Portugal, a mystery country for me.  I don’t know a whole lot about Portugal and my time in Lisbon didn’t help.  When I arrive in  a new place, the first thing I do is walk around to get a feel for the city.  Lisbon left me feeling very confused.  I didn’t get it. I couldn’t figure this city’s vibe.  I am sure it was quite amusing to see me walk through the city, looking completely bewildered.  I was used to feeling so very different.  They appeared to be a mishmash of lots of other places, rather than their own city.  They have their versions of a Golden Gate Bridge, a St. Marks Square, a Burj al Arab, a Christ the Redeemer and on and on.  I don’t know whose came first, but seeing them added to my confusion.  So I decided the next day, I would do something I rarely do- I took a tourist bus, just to get a better feel for the layout and the history.  And help end my confusion.

Here is what I learned.  I do like traditional Portuguese Fado (music), bulls are not killed in the bullfights (one of the few places where this is true), Fado means destiny and is really just traditional sounding emo and literally everything in the city is refurbished or being refurbished.  You cannot tell old from new.  I think this is partially due to the earthquake and subsequent flooding in 1755 but partially because the city is always modernizing, making it look different than other European cities. I did get to see how spread out the city is and many of the monuments.  I was still confused but I suspect that wasn’t the buses fault.


The next day, I did a road trip to Sintra, a cute tourist town about 40 minutes from Lisbon.  I always feel better when I spend some time closer to trees than concrete.  On the train, I got to see how massive Lisbon is and every inch of it is tagged.  First stop in Sintra was the Quinta da Regaleira. This was the insane summer residence of the Carvalho Montiero family built in the neo-manueline style.  Yep, I had never heard of that style either.  Turns out it is a Portuguese style that basically means exuberant.  It was one of the cooler places I have seen.  It was a combination of gardens and buildings all built to symbolize the meeting of heaven and earth.  It incorporated the mythology of  Olympus, Virgil, Dante, Milton and Camoes.  As well as the Templars.


The second stop was the Palace of Monserrat.  This was 33 hectares of garden with species from all around the world.  They changed soils and water levels in different parts of the garden to allow for these plants.  It was extravagant.  The mansion was a traditional upstairs/downstairs so I got to play Downton Abby for a bit.


My last day in Lisbon was wet.  This city doesn’t mess around when it rains.  It pours. I decided to head out to see the monks and get one of their delicious custard tarts- made from a 100 year old secret recipe.  It was delicious.  Everything else about the morning was horrendous.  Lisbon was already on thin ice with me and today didn’t help.  What should have been a 30 minute each direction single tram ride became a four and one half hour, seven forms of transportation plus a two mile walk.  Our first tram got stuck because a delivery driver parked on the tracks and went for a coffee.  Apparently bus drivers only work for five minutes because three of them just stopped, told us to get off and walk two blocks to catch another one.  And time can be bent in Lisbon transportation.  One of my trams said it was one minute away.  Then, poof, it was 25 minutes away.  It stayed that way for 15 minutes.  Once it started moving, it went from 9 to 2 minutes in about 30 seconds. All of this time, Lisbon has been hiding the secret of time travel.  I had enough of Lisbon.  I headed to the cinema….. where there was no sound at the beginning of the movie.  Everyone sat there.  I guess they have just accepted that confusion exists in this city.

Off to Barcelona.


I arrived in Barcelona and immediately fell in love with it.  It was so lovely to have gone from utter confusion and distaste to perfect happiness.  As is my style, I hit the pavement.  Everywhere you go in Barcelona, there is something to see.  Just outside of my hotel was the Arc de Triomf.  There was a protest happening at the time.  They were speaking in Catalan so I couldn’t understand what they were protesting but I loved that these peaceful protests were happening in a park, surrounded by cyclists, and bubbles and families.  Barcelona is so easy to get around- I walked and walked and walked.  Part of the walking was due to the fact that I ended up in the Gothic Quarter’s winding streets and kept going deeper into the Rabbit Hole!  I love Spanish architecture and I nearly ran into many walls and people because I was staring up so often.


The next day was Gaudi Day One- religious buildings.  Of course, I went to the Sagrada Familia.  Guess what?  It was under construction!!  They plan is to have it finished in 2026. I will be back!  This too, was designed to represent the meeting of heaven and earth and is impossible to describe.  The outside is carved stone and marble and glass and each of the four sides will have a theme.  The nativity scene was the first completed, done to inspire donations from the local people.  The 18 towers, once complete, will rise to a height of just below the height of the hills- because Gaudi believed that man’s work should never be greater than God’s work.  The basilica itself was inspired by the Montserrat mountains, which means serrated mountains and when you see them, you can see why.  Once inside, I realized that I much prefer Gaudi’s interiors to his exteriors.  I could write pages on the beauty of the inside.  Google it.  Or better yet, go.  It must be seen.  After that, I went to the Basilica of Santa Maria del Mar, another Gaudi church and not bad itself.


Ever since I learned about Andorra, I vowed I would go.  Today was the day.  I boarded a bus that took us first to an adorable medieval town of 2000 called Baga.  Then, we were off to France, the town of Ax les Thermes- were I dipped my feet in the heeling waters and instantly noticed they were ten years younger.   It was a ski town which made me long for my skis and boots.  Little did I know that Andorra itself is basically a ski town.

We drove into the Pyrenees Mountains and arrived in Andorra.  Andorra is one of five European micro countries and is ruled by either Spain or France- alternating each year.  It is 181 square miles, about 150 of those are ski resorts (maybe exaggerated) with 84,000 people.  I really, really wanted to go skiing now.  They are often forgot, as they were after WWI.  They had declared war on Germany, although they did not fight.  After the war ended, everyone forgot about Andorra and they did not sign the peace treaty.  When WWII started, Andorra tried to declare war on Germany, but could not, as they had been at war the entire span of time between World Wars.  We stopped in Andorra la Vella, the capital, which is a lot like a cruise ship town.  Andorra is duty free and a tax haven so liquor stores and perfume shops abound.   img_9021

All in all, I really loved Spain.  The best part was that I never saw a Madame Toussouds Wax Museum, so it is either disguised really well, or I missed that part of town.  I will return to Barcelona and to see more of Spain.  Portugal…probably not.


Off to Switzerland to see what Zurich has to offer.