Prague, Paris and Home

It wasn’t a long drive from Krakow to Prague but the dreary weather continued and we were disappointed that even though we had to backtrack about a hundred miles, traveling the same road we had taken from Bratislava to Krakow, we still didn’t see much through the haze and gloom.  We continued to be amazed by how green the fields were.  drive from luxembourg to paris still green And we were thankful for good roads and once again we were pleased with our Airbnb.  The location was amazing.  We were on a main street less than a block from the tram that would be our transportation for the next week.  And between us and the tram was a tobacco shop where we could buy our daily tram tickets costing us less than two dollars each for limitless travel for 24 hours.  prague tram stopWe have found tobacco shops throughout Europe to be a convenient stop to purchase stamps and public transportation tickets.  They are also very good at answering basic questions about the area.  (Where is the nearest bank, post office, etc.)

At the top of our sightseeing list was Wenceslaus Square.  The square is named after Wenceslaus, the patron saint of Bohemia, best known for giving alms to the poor on the Feast of Stephen (as the Christmas carol tells us). It’s the main square of demonstrations. In 1968 this is where the protests took place after the Soviet Union invaded Czechoslovakia. Protests became violent and first Jan Palack, a university student, set himself on fire followed a month later by Jan Zajic.

It was here too, in 1969 that the Czechs celebrated their victory over the Russians in Prague’s Ice Hockey Championship Games. The celebrations were short-lived and soon put down by force. I can remember seeing pictures of the crowds during the protests of the Velvet Revolution in the late 1990’s just a week after the fall of the Berlin Wall. Memorials throughout the area serve as reminders of the cost Czechs have paid for their freedom.

We made a couple of visits to Old Town Prague.  The Astronomical Clock built in 1381 and installed in the tower in 1400 is complete with calendar, clock dial and the twelve apostles who parade hourly.  But honestly trying to tell the time is no easy feat!

The Astronomical Clock sits at the edge of Old Town Square where we saw some unique buskers.  It’s amazing how energetic these folks are for what must seem like an endless day.  We were also amazed by their entertaining antics that followed whenever anyone put coins in their containers. Buscar Prague BEST Across the square from the Astronomical Clock we found  a small art museum.  Each of their three floors was devoted to a different artist:  Dali, Warhol and Mucha.  I find Dali interesting but confusing.  His unusual work always reminds me of Alice in Wonderland. We have encountered Dali and Warhol museums on various stops in our travels.  Mucha is a famous Czech artist.

Another must see for us was the Charles Bridge,  named for King Charles IV who initiated its construction.  It was built in 1357  (known as the Prague Bridge until 1870) and was the only way to cross the Viltava River until 1841. It’s an interesting stone bridge that contains more than 30 statues of saints.  On the way to the Charles Bridge we jumped off the tram for a quick stop to see the Dancing House by Frank Gehry.  The museum is nicknamed Fred and Ginger! (Gehrey also designed the Biomuseo in Panama City as well as the Guggenheim Museum in Bilbao, Spain.)

We loved the Czech food.  Around the corner from our Airbnb we found the Andel restaurant, a wonderful authentic Czech restaurant.  We decided by the number of locals that it must be a pretty good place. We were not disappointed.  The menu had lots of traditional Bohemian dishes including: sausages, goulash, pork hocks and schnitzels.  authentic czech restaurantWhen we realized the three individuals sitting at the next table were Americans (They were discussing Big Ten sports.) we asked where they were from.  Turns out, they were in Prague to recruit international graduate students to their respective universities:  Indiana, Purdue and the University of Colorado.  How surprised we were to find out the Indiana recruiter was from Mt. Pleasant, Michigan, just 40 miles east of our address in Big Rapids.  Small world!

Markets are everywhere in Europe and Prague was no exception.  We enjoyed strolling through the Havelske Trziste (Havel Market).

The market is named for Vaclav Havel who was the last president of Czechoslovakia serving from 1989 – 1992 when it first broke away from the Soviet Union. Havel was also the first president of Czech Republic from 1992 – 2003.  He was a politically active playright whose work was banned because he had participated in the Prague Spring.

Everywhere we turned in Prague the architecture was particularly interesting.  The Powder Tower, so named because it held gun powder, was completed in 1475.  This was the starting point for the Royal Route, the route of the Coronation Parade.  Not far from there we came upon the House of the Black Madonna.  This was the first example of cubist architecture in Prague and was built with the specific goal of fitting into the existing neighbohood.  The designers had to get government permission before they were allowed to construct it.

After a week in Prague it was time to head back to Paris and turn in our rental car.  But there were a couple of places we wanted to see on the way.  Nurenberg, Germany, was our first stop.  The weather continued to be miserable.  In addition to the rain it was getting really cold.  We layered up in all we had:  tee shirt, sweater, jacket, scarf.  We decided to splurge and stay in a hotel right in the center of the old town so we could limit the amount of walking time to get to the sights!

But even with the inclement weather, both Bob and I fell in love in Nurenberg and wished we had more than a night there.  The views from the bridges were lovely and the market square was surrounded by new buildings and old.  There are interesting sculptures scattered across the area.  My favorite was the Ship of Fools which is based on a satire by Sebastian Brant.  He created St. Grobian, the patron saint of vulgar and coarse people.  This conception allowed him to use his voice to criticize the church.  sculpture nurenberg

We were looking for a place for lunch and the woman in the Tourist Information Center suggested the Bratwursthausle Werner http://die-nuernberger-bratwurst.de just around the corner.  We went in and found it was very crowded. Thinking there was no availability we were ready to leave when a waiter came to seat us at a table where four people were already seated.  I had read about “community tables” but never before experienced them.  Already seated was a young couple from the US who had been recently married.  The husband had just completed his tour of military service and his wife had quit her job and they were touring Europe for a month.  There were also two older men seated at our table. And while they spoke only a little English, their English was far superior to our German.  They were from Cologne and part of a tour group.  While their wives were out visiting the sights of the city these interesting guys had chosen to avoid the lousy weather and enjoy some refreshment in the tavern instead!

We learned from the American gentleman that there’s a legend that the small bratwursts, about the size of your pinky finger, were made to a specific size so that if folks returned to Nurenberg late at night and found that the city gates were already locked, citizens could pass these little sausages through the keyhole so that while the city was inaccessible at least they could get food!  Interesting, don’t you think?

From Nurenberg, we wanted to pass through Luxenbourg and decided Luxenbourg City, the capital of the Grand Duchy of Luxenbourg, was a good place to spend the night and do a bit of sightseeing.

While it’s a lovely city we found it extraordinarily expensive. It has the second highest cost of living in Europe. Because of this many who work there choose to live in France and commute.

From Luxenbourg City it was on to Paris.  We had arranged to return our lease on the way into the city not wanting to have a car in Paris. turning our lease in in paris Now that we were back to using public transportation we had to be far more careful about how we packed our things not wanting to have to lug around more than our individual suitcases and carry ons.

The woman who ran the Airbnb was extremely accomodating telling me to text her when we got in the taxi and she would meet us at the bar right in front of the apartment.  Manuela, our host, was both helpful and friendly. Her husband owned the bar in the same building as our Airbnb and he was just as outgoing as she.  We felt like we had known them for years. cary-and-good-friend-from-paris-and-the-woman-we-rented-from.jpgWe were pleased that our apartment was on the main floor very securely located behind two gates and located in a great gentrified neighborhood with close proximity to many of the sights we wanted to visit.

While we only had a week in Paris, there were a couple of places missed on our previous trip that were at the top of our list for this visit.  Cary was able to fly in and spend a long weekend with us and she, like us, had never been to Versailles.  Since both the Louvre and Versailles are known for their long lines I decided to order the tickets online.  (As it turned out because we were there in November it wasn’t necessary to prebook but I didn’t want to take any chances.)

We were a little taken aback by our Uber driver on the way out to the palace.  While he knew the roads well, he cut from the far right lane across several lanes of traffic to make a left turn. And when we got to the Arc de Triumph I just closed my eyes and hoped for the best.  As we came into Versailles the palace dominated the landscape. It’s difficult to comprehend that it was actually a residence.  We were able to walk directly into the castle and while there were still hundreds of people touring, we in no way felt overwhelmed by the crowds.

In one room we were amused to see the place where the King ate publicly.  It’s hard to imagine having a place to eat where people can come and watch!  Also there was a sign in the king’s bedroom that read: “Here the Royal Rising and Going to Sleep Ceremonies Took Place.” But my favorite part of the palace was the Hall of Mirrors.  Having seen it in movies and in books didn’t matter; it still took my breath away. Of course since it was November the gardens weren’t in bloom; I’d like to go back in the summer or fall and just tour the gardens.

On IMG_20171116_163651247the way back we really lucked out with a fabulous Uber driver.  When he saw me taking pictures, he immediately slowed down and even opened his moonroof so that I could better pictures along the Seine and particularly of the Eiffel Tower.  He obviously loved what he did and was very much a people person!

Because our Airbnb was so conveniently located we could walk to the Louvre. The Louvre is the largest art museum in the world. When Napolean was in power he had it renamed Musee Napolean. Of course he did! In 1793 it was first opened as a public museum.  We knew there was way too much for us to try to see in one visit so Cary had searched and  found several lists of “must sees” on the internet and from those we made our own list.

The building itself is just as impressive as the art on display.  It’s difficult to comprehend that we were actually viewing the Venus de Milo or The Coronation of Napolean.  But perhaps most surprising for me were the mobs around the Mona Lisa.  People pushed and shoved to get up front in order to take a selfie of themselves with the portrait.  It made absolutely no sense!

I don’t think I could ever spend enough time in Paris but it’s an expensive city so we have to carefully plan our time there.  On the morning we were to leave we found a scrumptuous Sunday breakfast buffet at the https://www.letoiledunord.fr/letoile#. This seemed a perfect way to end our Paris visit just before Cary flew back to Rome and we took the train to Amsterdam.  With the exception of what to do with our luggage, I find train travel exceptionally enjoyable.  It’s generally inexpensive, we see the countryside, and we meet interesting people. It did give us pause, however, that as we pulled out of the station a group of four men walked through the train with signs on their back indicating they were police.  Given that we were traveling at a high rate of speed we could only wonder what they might be looking for and what would happen if they found it!

We stayed at the Amsterdam airport Ibis just as we had on our first night in Europe a couple of months earlier.  We met two interesting older couples at dinner who were from Friesland, Netherlands and were familiar with Michigan, particularly Holland.  It seems whenever we travel we continue to make Michigan connections.

We were really lucky in that our flight home departed Amsterdam at noon and arrived back in the States seven hours later at 3 pm DC time.  We’re beginning to know the routine of coming through customs and reentering the country.  With new technology the process is becoming more and more efficient but I have to admit I really miss the customs agent’s greeting of “Welcome home!” After checking in to our Airbnb   we met up with Patrick for dinner and were able to stay awake until a reasonable bedtime allowing us to make an easier adjustment to the time difference. It was now time to relax and take a break before heading out to Tucson via Pittsburgh, southern Indiana and then following Route 66 west.  But in the meantime we had 10 days to catch up with our DC/Maryland family and enjoy Thanksgiving together.

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Krakow: A Favorite of Ours

We had originally planned to go to Bratislova and Budapest from Vienna but two weeks was just not enough time to do that.  In fact we’re finding that two weeks is just too fast a pace for us traveling full time.  We don’t like to do continuous sightseeing.  It’s exhausting and we fail to enjoy it as much as we do when we move at a slower pace.  So we opted to spend all of the two weeks in Vienna and then stop and spend the day in Bratislava, Slovakia and then go on to Krakow the next day and save Budapest and Hungary for a different trip.  Bratislava is only an hour from Vienna and because it was so foggy we decided to leave a bit later in the morning.  I had made reservations at the Ibis right outside the Old City and what a great choice that turned out to be.  We had paid extra for parking. When I checked in the clerk explained that the parking was around the corner and under the building and she said our room key would get us through both security gates.  When we pulled up to the first machine Bob had quite a reach so I jumped out of the car and popped the card in the machine and then walked ahead.  Spaces are small in Europe so when I looked back at the car I realized that Bob had to back up to make the turn and OH MY GOSH, the door was starting to come down.  I put my hand under the door and realized that wasn’t going to stop it and it was moving so quickly I didn’t think it was safe to duck under it..  So luckily for once in my life my brain worked and I quickly threw the door key under the door toward the car.  Bob then was able to get the key!  WHEW!  Crisis averted!

We spent the afternoon wandering through the streets of Old Bratislava.We especially enjoyed walking along the wall and the contrast between the medieval Bratislava on one side and the busy boulevard on the other.

They also have fun quirky statues scattered about as well as the ubiquitous souvenir stands.

Slovakia uses euros but once we crossed into the Czech Republic and Poland that changed.  Again, just like we had encountered in Switzerland, the Czech Republic requires a vignette, a sticker placed on the windshield,  to drive on the motorways.  So because we had to drive through the Czech Republic on the way to Krakow and then go on to Prague we decided we’d purchase a 30 day vignette.  I had read online that there would be a place just as we crossed into the Czech Republic and just as promised, there it was, a little kiosk with a guy about 25 or so.  He spoke a little English (and funny enough he had a tee shirt that said “US Cavalry).”  The vignette cost 40 euros and they didn’t take cards! (I don’t remember what it was in Czech krone because obviously never having been in the country we didn’t have any!)  The warning on the internet was clear.  Don’t try to drive even a few kilometers without a vignette.  Electronic surveillance is everywhere and fines are hefty!  (Ah, visions of Big Brother return!)  So I forked over the 40 euros keeping in mind that this is still considerably cheaper than throwing individual tolls in periodically as we do in France or in the US.

I wasn’t pleased that our drive through the Czech Republic would be duplicated when we left Krakow.  But given the dreary rainy day, we realized it would all be new to us next time.  When we arrived in Krakow we were thrilled with our apartment.

We’re within a stone’s throw from the Vistula River, in the old Jewish quarter. Conrad, our landlord lives next door.  He was out of town so he arranged to have a friend meet us.  She not only showed us through the apartment but walked us down to the parking meter to show us how to use it, and then enlisted the help of a parking inspector, acting as the translator as I speak no Polish and he spoke no English.  They tried to show me how it would take a card but those were touch credit cards and ours is not so we had to have cash. The guy we rented from turned out to be from Canada originally and a big hockey fan.  We asked about seeing a game while in Krakow but he discouraged us saying that Poland’s neighbors, the Czech Republic where we were headed next, really had much better hockey. So we put it on hold for the moment.

We had stopped at a rest area as we entered Poland and used what we thought was an ATM (i.e. cash machine in Europe).  TRAVLER ALERT:  Never use an ATM that is not connected to a bank.  I had read that but I had also forgotten the warning.  And I should have been leery when it wouldn’t accept our Fidelity card that we always use to withdraw money.  But it accepted a different card and then the message popped up on the screen (in English) “Will you accept the conversion rate?” And it gave me an amount.  Turns out it cost us about $30 more than it should have!  Ouch!  I have learned!  As I have mentioned before, we know it is always better to have the charges on the credit card in the local currency instead of having them converted to US dollars.  But we really had to be diligent because three times the charges were automatically converted to dollars.  I don’t think it was any one’s intent to charge us more but rather that probably most Americans ask locals to convert.  But obviously the local merchant isn’t going to give the best rate.  After using euros almost everywhere but Switzerland, zlotys took some getting used to. (1 zloty equals about 28 cents. So we would divide prices by 3 and and get a handle on what something cost!  (Imagine my favorite Polish beer, Tyskie Gronie. was the equivalent of 80 cents a can!)

IMG_20171023_151425514One of the first thing I discovered in Krakow is a great app, Jakdojade. It’s a public transport app that allows you to put in the destination and your location and it tells you (in English) how to use public transport to get there.  Our apartment was about a 5 minute walk to the tram.  And then to make it even better folks 70 and over could use the tram for free!  Would our American drivers licenses act as proof should we be asked? Absolutely, we were told. Wow!  What a deal!

One of our first destinations was Schindler’s Factory.  It was amazing!  (I’m glad we were there in October since I can’t even begin to imagine what the lines must be like in the summer!) There are posters, and quotes and pictures and Nazi symbols.  Each exhibit seemed more horrific than the last:  the pictures of the young children giving the Hitler salute or the hall with the Nazi flags and iconic logos on the floors or the quotes on the walls.

Perhaps the most moving part of the museum/memorial are the interviews with the people who actually worked there. It is really emotional to listen to the victims recall their experiences.  Both Bob and I were a bit disappointed in that much of the museum  turned out to be more of a general memorial to the Holocaust than Schindler.  We’ve been to the Holocaust Memorial Museum in DC and so we really were interested in the specifics of Schindler’s efforts and how he managed to pull it off.

On another day we walked to the Remul Cemetery.  Not far from our apartment, many of the grave stones of this cemetery were destroyed by the Nazis and used as pavement stones for their camps.  Some of the stones that have been retrieved were used to construct a wall surrounding the cemetery.

Again, a very moving experience especially when we read plagues outside the moment remembering family that had been murdered here.

 

Everywhere we turned in Krakow there were reminders of the atrocities from World War II.  The Ghetto Heroes Square consists of empty chairs remembering the thousands of Poles who were imprisoned in the Ghetto during the war. It stands in the middle of a very busy area and serves as a reminder to all who pass.chairs

We encountered much cooler weather than we had had up to this time and it rained IMG_20171023_122045277most of the time that we were in Krakow but it’s a lovely city even in the rain. Our wardrobes are very limited so we took to layers, wearing turtle necks under sweaters under our jackets. And with the purchase of an umbrella we were all set.  We took a tram downtown and walked through the old city and also strolled along the royal route  from the Florianska Gate, built in the 14th century and on to the Wawel Castle; it’s hard to imagine that for centuries this is where the kings of Poland lived! In the crypt of the castle are buried Ksoscisco, Chopin and “King” Jadfwiga!

The Main Square is very interesting. As we were sitting in an outside cafe enjoying a cup of mulled wine, next to a heater, suddenly we heard a trumpeter. Legend has it that in the 1200’s the city was being attacked by the Mongols and a trumpeter alerted the town with his horn, but he was shot before he had completed his alert.  At the top of each hour a bugler sounds the incomplete alert again from his post on St. Mary’s Church.

The church itself is interesting. St. Mary’s has an historic altar piece that is more than 13 meters high and 11 meters wide and dates from the 1400’s.  During World War II it was dismantled and sent to Berlin. And after the War it was retrieved in the basement of a building in Nurenberg and returned to Poland where it underwent a great deal of restoration and was returned to St. Mary’s in 1957.  Another piece, Da Vinci’s, Lady with the Ermine, which we saw on display at the National Museum in Krakow, was also retrieved.  From what I’ve read much of the artwork was stolen by individual Nazi’s not by the Nazi regime.   I also find it particularly sad that during World War II the beautiful square was renamed Hitler Square.

The Cloth Market (also known as Ryek Glowny) in the square of the old town was incredibly interesting. IMG_20171023_120541679 It dates back to the 1500’s when Krakow was the capital of Poland and one of the largest cities in Europe. IMG_20171023_115236964We could imagine the bartering as we walked among the covered shops. Krakow began to decline after the capital was moved to Warsaw but under Austrian rule in the 1870’s the city began to see architectural restoration. Throughout the city we found interesting streets, and buscars. We even encountered a march protesting the low pay for medical professionals.

On one of our last days in in Krakow we took a morning walk along the river.  There was a statue, Dzok Monument built in 2001 as a rembrance to a dog who for more than a year didn’t want to leave the site where he last saw his master who had died of a heart attack.  People brought the dog food and after the dog died, the monument was built to honor his loyalty.

Also, on the Main Square is the Church of St. Adelbert that was built in the 1100’s. St. Adelbert lived in the 900’s and was the patron saint of Bohemia, Poland and Hungary. As we walked past the tiny church on a cold rainy Monday, a guy asked if we were interested in attending a concert.  IMG_20171023_134457077Every day at 6:00 pm the Royal Quartet made up of talented Krakow musicians play a variety of classical favorites for an hour.  There are two programs: one for the even days and one for the odd.  After we got back to our apartment and looked over the programs we decided that one looked more appealing to us than the other and we planned to go later in the week. So on a wet Friday we jumped on the tram and headed to the concert.  The church is very small…probably seated no more than ninety and that was with extra folding chairs.  Everyone was bundled up and the close quarters helped to keep us warm. But the concert was amazing. The quartet played a vaiety of movie themes and short excerpts that were very recognizable. Wherever we’ve been in Europe we’ve found wonderful concerts for very reasonable prices.

We found the people like so many other places incredibly friendly and again we were surprised by how many locals spoke English. It was the norm that cars stop at crosswalks for pedestrians!  We took a tram one day to the local mall to pick up a few gifts.  Just as in the US, we tend to forget where we are whenever we visit a mall as they look pretty generic everywhere.  The food in Poland wonderful! Having grown up in a town that had a large Polish population I was thrilled to find pierogis on nearly every menu!  IMG_20171101_184904500Yummy! We ate out here more than usual because the cost was so reasonable!  A nice dinner for two including beer or wine cost approximately the equivalent of $25.00.  Some meals for the two of us were as low as $11.00 and I think the most we paid was when we splurged and went out for a special dinner after the concert. That night it cost us $40.  Tipping is far more prevalent than we found it on previous trips but it’s really only expected when service is outstanding and then 10 percent is considered a good tip.  Wait staff are salaried in Europe which seems far more civilized than the American way but we did find on several occasions wait staff was in no hurry.

Krakow really exceeded our expectations. We fell in love with everything Krakow: the sights, the people and hope one day to return!

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Waltzing through Vienna

Driving into Vienna following the Danube and listening to Strauss waltzes on Spotify is like being in a dream but I was snapped back to reality when Bob asked how to get to our Airbnb.  Erik, our host, had agreed to meet us early and let us into our apartment.  As usual it was just as we expected.  While the kitchen is compact, he has provided us with a toaster, microwave, boiler and coffee maker (although we generally have to unplug each appliance in order to plug in the one we want to use at the moment).  He showed us little things like how the quirky dishwasher works, provided us with the wifi password, explained to us where we can park (including when it’s free and when we have to pay), gave us a map of the area and provided us with a key.  I enjoy meeting our hosts as they give us little details about the area, and we can ask any questions we may have.  It’s sort of like having a friend in every locale.

Our Airbnb is located in an area near a university with a lot of students, and lots of restaurants.

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Our street and our apartment is about a half block up on the right.

We are amazed at the amount of English we hear spoken.  Many young people around us speak English with accents that seem to be neither British nor American.  It does make it exceedingly easy for us to communicate!  After quickly settling in, we headed down to the Zur Grunen Hutte (The Green Hut), an authentic Austrian restaurant that Erik had recommended.  It’s been around since 1917.  Bob opted for the goulash dumplings with sauerkrat and gravy.  I had the grilled chicken breast on spinach leaves with buttered rice!  And of course the local beer!  The dinner was yummy and we were particularly pleased to see so many locals!

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Messe Prater Station (about a block from our apartment)

While we usually take trams and busses in order to get a better feel for the city, the metro is a block from our apartment and far closer than the trams or busses and very easy to use! The trip to the center of the historical sights is only a few stops away and costs about $4.00  each for a senior round trip ticket (the machines have an English option) and we never have to wait more than a couple of minutes for a train.  We’re learning that many European public transportation systems run on the honor system but if the control agent comes through and asks for your ticket and you can’t produce one, fines are hefty!  We are taking no chances.  We are very pleased to have an efficient, clean system so close by!

In order to get the lay of the land we decided to first take a walking tour of the historical center. We found the maps to be extraordinarily confusing and must have really looked baffled when a local came up and in perfect English asked if he could help.  We finally got our bearings and set about to find Stephanplatz.

 

I find the mix of the new and old buildings in Vienna very interesting. We came upon Mozart’s Statue and the Vienna Opera House in new and busy parts of the city and just beyond we’d be wandering down narrow windy streets. While I understand that there is great religious significance to the Stephansdom, we have seen so many churches in Europe that they’re all beginning to look alike (We came upon three large churches and mistook all before we finally found Stephansdom.) We often pass on touring the inside (which is what we did in this case).

 

Perhaps the most moving site for me in all of Vienna is the Monument Against War and Facism. This monument was built on the spot where during WWII several hundred people were buried alive when their shelter was demolished.

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Monument Against War & Facism

At the top of my list of Things to Do in Vienna was attend a concert.  While walking along the old streets we came upon a guy selling tickets for a concert on Sunday night at the Palais Palffy just across the street from the Hofburg Palace.  We looked at the program and recognized much of what they were playing, and the tickets were reasonably priced so we decided to give it a go.  After we got home that evening, I checked it out on Trip Advisor and was really disappointed with the terrible reviews it received.  Described the hall as shabby and the seating as crowded chairs. Wow!  It seemed we had really blown this one but at least we hadn’t forked out a lot of money!  We definitely lowered our expectations.  How pleasantly surprised we were when the concert turned out to be fabulous!

 

No, it wasn’t in an elaborate hall, but the musicians were all top rate.  The first half of the show was Mozart with the chamber group all decked out in period costumes and the second half was Strauss for which the group changed to appropriate attire for that time period!  It was a small venue but we noticed that several tour groups came in and we figured they had paid significantly more for their tickets than we had.  Many of the concerts are for the tourists and perhaps we aren’t sophisticated music buffs but we certainly enjoyed the performance and are really glad we didn’t read the reviews before we bought the tickets!

We also took the metro out to the Schonbrunn Palace and Gardens, the summer home of the Habsburgs built in the 1740’s under the reign of Maria Theresa.  Empress Maria Theresa and her husband Francis I, Holy Roman Emperor, had sixteen children.  Their youngest was Marie Antoinette.  (We’re beginning to remember how all the European ruling families were intertwined! American students thank your lucky stars! I can’t imagine studying European history in school and trying to keep all these people straight!) Franz Joseph, Maria Theresa’s grandson and Austria’s longest reining emperor, was born at Schonbrunn Palace in 1830 and died there in 1916. (Franz Josef’s younger brother was Emperor Maximillian. And it was Arch Duke Ferninand, Franz Josef’s nephew, whose assassination precipitated World War I.  I told you this is all confusing! )

Anyway, I love formal palace gardens and these were amazingly beautiful particularly because we were there in October and the majority of flowers were still blooming.  Plus, the trees were beginning to turn.  What a combination.

 

There were fountains and a maze and fake Roman ruins. (Nope, I didn’t get that either!) And we learn the most interesting things along the way in our travels.  For instance, a focus of the formal gardens is the Gloriette.  We learned that a gloriette is a garden building that is often elevated over its surroundings and generally has open sides.  Never heard of it before. But this one was spectacular! As we walked from the metro to the palace we were reading all the posters, looking at what the venders had to offer and generally taking in the sights. There was a large portrait of a man. I nearly jumped when as I looked closely at it, he winked! I so love buscars! Then there was the anachronistic woman who stood in her period costume using her cell phone!

 

On the way back from Schonbrunn while we were already on the green line we decided to get off and see the Ringstrasse, a wide tree-lined boulevard that circles much of the inner city of Vienna.  The  idea was the brain child of Emperor Franz Josef who decided to tear down the military fortifications in the middle 1800’s and replace them with historical monuments.  I had read reviews that there were cheaper ways to see it but we opted for the special Ringstrasse tourist tram because we wanted to know what we were seeing.  And after walking around Schonbrunn for more than two hours a seated half hour tour sounded wonderful! On our way back to the apartment we stopped at McDonalds.

 

Our sandwiches actually looked like they do in advertisements and I could order a beer with it.  Then we realized the people two booths down from us had their large dog with them and people nonchalantly just walked over him.  We Americans could learn a lot from the Europeans!

Years ago I had taken our kids to see the Lipizzaner when they came to Ferris State University in Big Rapids, Michigan. We called them the Lipizzans but Lipizzans or Lipizzaner they are amazing horses!  I wanted to see them in their Austrian home at the Spanish Riding School attached to the Hofburg Palace.

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Hofburg Palace (Entrance to the Spanish Riding School under big archway)

These fantastic horses date back to the 1500’s when they were first imported from Spain.  I think it’s interesting to note that during World War II they ended up in Bohemia.  And the Amerians were afraid that they might fall into the hands of the Russians so in 1945 Amerian forces  moved them back to Austria.

 

We had seats to watch the Saturday performance.  The movements are known, according to Wikipedia, as “airs above the ground” and are often appropriately referred to as a ballet. It was unbelievable!  The horses “danced” to classical music on a surface that looks like turf that has been groomed with a zamboni with chandeliers suspended over the field!  What a sight!  Just as we were leaving the building we realized that the groomers were moving many of the horses from their stables to the school for their practices which gave us an opportunity to see them up close!

We have had the opportunity to meet many wonderful people in our travels and this was especially true in Vienna. Cary had recently attended a wedding in Turkey of a good friend. There she met a wonderful couple and their daughter who live in Vienna.  Cary arranged for us to meet them while we were here.   Omer, the husband, texted me that they’d pick us up at a metro stop and I sent him pictures of us so they’d know who they were looking for. Shortly after we arrived at the metro stop, Omer and his family pulled up in his taxi.  From the moment we met, we felt like we had always known them: Omer, his lovely wife Pakizeh and their daughter, Rana, who speaks fluent English and is an amazing accomplished young lady!   When we first met, they asked if we’d prefer traditional Austrian food for lunch or would we like to try a Turkish restaurant.  Here we were with new friends who had lived most of their lives in Vienna but they were Turks by birth, so we opted for Turkish food. Omer said he knew the perfect place! We all piled back in his cab and when we walked into the restaurant and were greeted in Turkish we knew we had made a great decision. We know absolutely nothing about Turkish cuisine so Omer and Pakizeh explained (often translated by Rana) various dishes particularly those that are the most popular in Turkey.  Talk about yummy!  The food was amazing!  After we completed our meal, Omer asked if we had been to Kahlenberg .  Of course, we hadn’t, so he set about taking us to this most beautiful location in the Vienna Woods. (And in my mind I began humming Strauss’, Tales from the Vienna Woods, a recital piece from half a century ago!) From Mt. Kahlenberg,  high above the city,  we could see all of Vienna beneath us.  IMG_20171016_150456462.jpgIt was a hazy day and Omer and Pakizeh explained on a clearer day we would see all the way to Bratislavah, Slovakia.  Still it was an impressive view.  On the way down from the point, we stopped to have a glass of wine in a local wine garden.

 

During the harvest this time of year, sturm (called Sturm in Austria, and Federweisser in Bavaria and Fiederwaissen in Luxenburg and Junger Wein in Germany) is available and the best we can surmise it is a sort of grape juice.  And because Omer was driving he opted for the sturm.   What a fabulous afternoon we had had with our new friends!  They said they’d love to visit the United States and we would so like the opportunity to show them at least part of our country!

When they dropped us off at the metro we realized we were close to the Nachsmarkt, which was also on my list of places to visit. We spent a couple hours wandering through the stalls.  Like most European markets the Nachsmarkt has many stands selling the same things.  A few things that set this market apart: different sweets and nuts as well as middle eastern treats we were not familiar with, an entire line of sit down restaurants and throughout the market vendors calling out in English. We have also visited neighborhood markets near our apartment and find many interesting things:  fruits that are new to us, lots of local beers, and even a marijuana grow shop!

 

Two weeks in Vienna.  Like all our other stays, the time passes at lightening speed and it’s time to move on.  We say goodbye to Vienna, we’ll spend a day in Bratislova and then head to Krakow, Poland!  What an unbelievable two weeks it’s been!

 

Leaving Switzerland, a blink of Leichtenstein and on to Austria…

We left Lucerne and started toward Innsbruck, Austria, where we were to spend the night. We drove for a bit before stopping for breakfast.  We found a wonderful stop right on the autobahn, Freshmarket!IMG_20170927_105936142  It had an amazing choice of options:  croissants and coffee, a huge variety of fruits and vegetables, sweets and ice cream, amazing choices of main dishes.  And as we sat enjoying our selections we were once again surprised to see a dog curled up at his owner’s feet.  It would be so much easier to travel with a dog in Europe than in the US!

We had planned to arrive early enough in Innsbruck to do some sightseeing and then also have a couple of hours there in the morning before driving on to our stay just outside Salzburg.IMG_0180 Because of the Alps the motorway is a mass of tunnels.  (I think we counted 41 on just this single day of driving.) We left Switzerland and crossed into tiny Leichtenstein.  While there was a small building that at one time must have been the border crossing it was vacant this morning.IMG_0219 (2) I think it took us no more than fifteen minutes to cross the country.  I read where in 2011 Snoop Dogg tried to rent the country.  It’s unclear whether it ever went through but at one time it was advertised that it was possible to rent out the entire country for $70,000 a night complete with customized street signs. Novel idea!

The countryside throughout the day was stunning! We understood before we set out in the morning that a major tunnel just outside Innsbruck was closed for construction and we’d have to go over the pass.  As it turned out it was one of the most spectacular views of the day and because this had been the major route before the tunnel was built, it was well-marked and well-maintained.  I think it might be the only time in all of our travels we’ve ever encountered a traffic jam on a mountain pass.

Innsbruck is a beautiful city that sits on the Inn River (a tributary of the Danube). And we never tire of walking the streets of the old cities in Europe. Early evening is a particularly lovely time to walk among the old buildings. The Goldenes Dachl (Golden Roof) was definitely a high point. The roof was completed in 1500 and designed to mark the wedding of Emperor Maximillian I. The emperor and his wife would often appear on the balcony to celebrate festivals and tournaments. An interesting fact is that in 1536 Jakob Hutter, preacher of the Baptists, was burned alive in the yard in front of the the building.

On to Salzburg…we had rented an Airbnb just outside Salzburg near Frielassing, Germany.IMG_20170930_185202648  We later read that Frielassing was an imporant Allied target near the end of World War II.  Although it had no real strategic importance it was the area where Hitler, Goering, Bormann and others had vacation homes and where they would gather to do strategic planning.

We visited the new museum, Dokumentation Obersalzberg which gives  the history of National Socialism. This area has been a tourist mecca since the 1800’s and Hitler had a summer home here since the 1920’s.

He later converted it into an “off limits” area forcing all the local inhabitants out. The region was occupied by American forces after May 1945 and was used for recreation by the US Army. The area was returned to the Bavarians in 1996 (even though they technically owned it since the end of the war).  We were able to rent an English audio guide that explained the many posters, photos and documents.  We found the museum interesting; the views from the museum stunning, but it’s also very depressing.  And we found far too many comparisons to our present situation in the US: the blatant racism, fear of people who are different from us and the willingness of thousands to follow a leader without ever questioning his ideas or motives.

Freilassing has a wonderful huge supermarket.  Two escalators facilitate customers use of the two floors.  IMG_20170928_133814371They have a huge selection of just about anything we could want from fresh vegetables and fruits to frozen food, to entrees we could heat in the oven.  My daughter had introduced me to Google Translate which is a handy free app that allows you to translate on the fly.  This had been a great help in our previous travels.  But I recently learned that you can also take a picture with Google Translate and it translates signs or any other text instantaneously!  I found this particularly useful at the grocery store when I could take a picture of a package and immediately know what the product was.  It was really helpful in deciphering subleties…like diced tomatoes from tomato paste, etc.  I also really like the app when dealing with home appliances.  For instance, when I want to do the laundry.  You may recall that two years ago we got our wash locked in a washing machine in Prien, Germany, because we couldn’t understand the signs on the machine.  With the app all I had to do was aim my phone at the machine and it translated: short wash (big difference between 1 hr 55 min and 40 minutes!), prewash, machine lock, etc.  Really helpful!

We generally don’t drive in big cities because of the chaos and also the expense of parking. From where we stayed it took us about 10 minutes to drive to the train station and then another 10 minutes by train into Salzburg.  Because Freilassing is a small town, the ticket machine at the train station was only in German. Before I could translate with my phone a young man came by and quickly showed us how to get the tickets we needed. The cost was about nine dollars for round trip for two of us (second class).  You can’t beat that!  And trains run about every 20 minutes.

We wanted to see the traditional tourist sights.  The old city is a pretty city with the Hohensalzburg Castle looming over it. IMG_20170930_145123682It is a small area that was easy to traverse by foot.  The castle was used as a prison in the 20th century first holding Italian soldiers during World War I and then Nazi activists before the Anschluss with Germany (or annexation of Austria by Germany). Salzburg is Mozart’s home; that’s what I most wanted to see.  So we walked to his birthplace and then also to his residence. We decided we’d wait and attend a concert when we get to Vienna! (We did notice a street sign near Mozart’s birthplace that read, “Urban Decay.”  We had to wonder about the history of that sign!)

The Mirabell Palace has a lovely garden that we enjoyed!   We’ve been particularly lucky this fall to have generally warm, sunny weather which is perfect for our sightseeing.

I was a bit disappointed with Salzburg; it seemed more “touristy” than most places we’ve been.  And I think I generally enjoyed the sidetrips more than Salzburg itself.

One particular day trip we enjoyed was driving to Mondsee.   It’s a pretty resort city in the Alps. This is the location of the church where the famous wedding in the Sound of Music was filmed! The village is located right on the water and while on most summer weekends it is mobbed with tourists, we found it beautiful, quiet and relaxing on a Monday in early October!

The ladies we rented from had a meditation room and were definitely into energy healing. The pastoral location seemed perfect for that!  IMG_20170929_110303508They told us a lot about Salzburg and the area’s salt history and suggested we go to Bad Reichenhall just a short distance from where we were. The salt works from this area date from the 1840’s. For hundreds of years the “white gold was mined here.” I was surprised to learn that salt comes in different colors and that it’s often white because the other colors are bleached out of it. IMG_0043The colors come from natural elements incorporated into the salt crystals.

Two years ago when we were in Bavaria I wasn’t thrilled with German food.  I found it heavy, even their salads. But I have a different opinion this time and maybe because I’ve found my favorite foods among the offerings.  We found three absolutely wonderful restaurants.  These are restaurants that are local favorites. They had great selections, wonderful staff that would help us translate to English and all were very busy locations.  One of them was a hotel restaurant (Gasthof Moosleitner), right on the edge of Frielassing.  There I had boiled beef with parsley potatoes and creamed spinach and applesauce with horseradish!  Spinach and horseradish are two of my favorite foods!  But whoever decided to add horseradish to applesauce was pure genius!  Wow!  Amazing.  We went to another, more of a tavern, and they brewed their own beer which was available throughout the area (Braustuberl Schonram). Lots and lots of locals. And wow!  I was amazed when my boiled beef, creamed spinach and applesauce with horseradish was on the menu! Yep, I got it again! And finally there was another restaurant, we found on Yelp, a local restaurant in Frielassing (Gasthaus Zollhausl). There I had the most amazing spareribs!  Bob is becoming a gourmond when it comes to his favorite: schnitzel!  He knows that the REAL schnizel is veal but he’s had pork, chicken and his favorite?  Maybe that’s what he’s eating at the moment!  And of course, German and Austrian beer are wonderful! (We hear the best is Czech beer. We’ll let you know what we think when we get to Prague!)

Soon it was time to move on to Vienna but I had a friend who said we should visit Melk with its  Benedictine abbey that dates back to the eleventh century. As we meandered through the town we came upon a memorial that honored the 4801 people (Czechs, Poles, Hungarians, Yugoslavs, French and Italians) who were brought to death in the KZ-Nebelagenmelk in 1944-1945.

We found a hotel there right in the city center, complete with parking and breakfast for $65.  The parking, however, was located through a gate, in the back of the hotel.  I had suggested to Bob that if he were to turn around it might be easier to drive out in the morning. Just as we are manuevering; Bob behind the wheel, me outside directing, a man from the hotel, I think perhaps the owner? came out to assist. Obviously, we didn’t look like we knew what we were doing.  He spoke no English but every five seonds or so, he would holler, “Stoppen!” We finally gave up and just parked faced forward! The next morning after we checked out we were pleased he was no where in sight!  We began our manuevering just as we had in the afternoon previous when, “Oh no!” He reappeared! This time we just ignored his calls, continued our process and waved a friendly goodbye as we pulled out the gate!

We had a short drive to Vienna, but we knew we wanted to drive the Wachau Valley following the Danube into the city.  Googlemaps makes traveling much easier when you want the most efficient directions to a location but it’s not quite as easy if you want to take the scenic road.  Again and again it wanted to guide us back to the motorway.  We finally decided just to try the old fashioned way and use a paper map!  The drive through the rolling vineyards and encountering castles along the way was like a trip back in time.  We encountered river boat cruises along the way, and roadside fruit and vegetable stands.  Definitely a slower way that allows the traveler to savor life along the way.

Switzerland, Leichtenstein and Austria are most amazing places and really the first landlocked countries we’ve visited.  We look forward to our next two weeks in Vienna!

 

 

 

 

 

 

Back to Europe!

Our main destination this fall was Rome!  Cary had invited us to watch her defend her doctoral thesis in the middle of September. After doing a lot of checking on flight prices, we decided to fly into Amsterdam and on to Pisa the next day. I try not to schedule flights on two different airlines on the same day because there’s the chance the flights won’t connect as planned. When leaving Dulles the pilot told us we were going to have to wait half an hour or so before take off as Amsterdam was getting tired of this United flight coming in early. We were pleasantly surprised that even with this wait we arrived at Schiphol nearly an hour before our scheduled time! Gotta love shortened trips across the Atlantic! And we definitely knew we had arrived in Holland when we saw the bulb shop right inside the airport.  IMG_20170911_092157257

We had a wonderful hotel room in Pisa, very reasonably priced ($69 +$14 taxes), included breakfast, and provided us with a view of the leaning tower. When arriving in a new city without a car we indulge ourselves by using a taxi to our hotel or Airbnb.  We’re often tired after travel and it’s one less thing to worry about. The taxi from the airport in Pisa to the Hotel Villa Kinzica was 12 euros.  The desk clerk at our hotel was astounded. He said it usually cost him 18 euros when he took a taxi from the airport to work!

We didn’t realize that the tower, which began leaning during its construction, took over two hundred years to build beginning in the 1100s and not finished until 1399. We spent the day wandering around the old town square and toured through the baptistry where Galileo was baptized in 1565 as well as the famous cathedral where he conducted many of his experiments!  We can never quite get our minds wrapped around the fact that we are looking at buildings centuries old.  Imagine! Constructed in the twelfth century! The surprising thing in Europe is not just how old the edifices are but that they are still being used!

From Pisa we took the train to Rome where Cary met us.  Her apartment is centrally located with lots of restaurants and shops in the area. She is within walking distance of her office at the Farm and Agriculture Organization (FAO, part of the United Nations). The only drawback is the 110 steps up to the fourth floor (remember in Europe you first climb a flight to get to the first floor)!  But once there it’s a lovely comfortable place.  We ordered Chinese on the first night we were there and we were amazed that delivery folks don’t think anything about the climb!  As we explored her neighborhood we found it hard to get used to ancient ruins popping up among the busy streets and modern buildings! On the tram ride back to her house from the university, we passed the Colosseum.

We have been blessed with amazing kids and spouses (and significant others). And watching Cary defend her doctoral thesis was amazing! The European process is different from the American procedure which was interesting in and of itself. And after the stress of the defense, it was wonderful to have the opportunity to get to chat with the members of her committee.  In the evening we celebrated even more over dinner with her friends and colleagues.

We had decided when we left Rome we’d take a couple of days traveling to Lyon, France where we’d pick up our leased Peugeot. You may remember from previous blogs that we’ve leased before.  Peugeot has reasonable leases for extended periods. Iinsurance is automatically included and there are no extra charges for dropping the car off in a different city from where we pick it up (as long as they are both in France). This works well for us. We can get the car in Lyon, and two months later return it in Paris.

The morning after Cary’s celebration we took a train from Rome to Turin. Again we had lovely sunny weather and it was great to stroll among Turin’s beautiful piazzas. IMG_20170917_115612581We only had a day in Turin and we had been told about the Egyptian Museum that is supposed to be the best outside of Egypt and the only one outside of Cairo that is totally dedicated to Egyptian art and culture.  Bob says he’d never seen so many mummies in his life.  We found it interesting how the burial rituals slowly changed over time. For instance, at first all the individual’s possessions were placed with him to take to the afterlife. Then over time that was changed to representations of the food. We also learned that a cubit is the distance between the tip of one’s middle finger and the elbow! Interesting tidbit!

We also found the church where the Shroud of Turin is supposedly displayed but what we found was that there are pictures of it but the shroud itself is buried in a metal vault beneath so you kinda gotta take their word that it’s there!

From Turin we took the train to Lyon, France, a trip of about four hours. Sometimes there are places for baggage on trains and other times there is not.  On the train to Lyon we were presented with a new problem, understanding the stops.  We’d not had a problem up to this time but now we were unsure where to get off.  Bob asked the women next to us and through limited English they told him they were getting off at the same stop.  Unfortunately they too were confused, but luckily we figured out because the majority of the passengers were getting off we would too! Our stops in hotels are usually for one or two nights when we want to see things on the way to our next destination. I am careful to make these reservations within walking distances to the local sites. Sometimes I do this because parking in cities anywhere is difficult and expensive and sometimes I do this because we don’t have a car. Lyon is a lovely city with a beautiful castle towering over it.  We also saw interesting murals painted on the exterior walls of buildings.

Whenever we pick up a car it takes us a few minutes to figure it all out. I often wonder why simple things like windshield wipers can’t be in standard places on all cars, but this car has an extremely deluxe dash showing us every detail of the car we could possibly want or need. The trouble is finding what we want when we want it.  When we first turned the car on, the gas gauge was displayed, but shortly after it disappeared and it took us nearly 50 miles to get it back.  It’s very scary to not know how much gas we have!

After a short distance, we entered Switzerland. I read we would need a visa to drive the motorways in Switzerland and sure enough right at the border was a guard who stopped us. They sold us a permit for the equivalent of about forty dollars.  We quite like the idea as the pass is good for nearly every toll in the country, and it sure beats stopping every few miles and putting in our debit card the way we do in France!

All of a sudden the snowcapped mountains came into view. I am such a tourist!  I spent the next hour saying “Oh wow!”  or “Oh, my goodness!”  or “Look at that!” and snapping picture after picture along the way.  It’s a good thing our GPS is accurate because I’m afraid I wasn’t much help as a navigator!

In Switzerland we also encountered a new currency, the Swiss Franc (CHF). Because it’s almost on par with the American dollar, it is easier to calculate costs than using the euro that currently is about $1.18.  But we changed as little cash as possible knowing that we’d only be in the country for a week and once we left we’d have no use for the cash.

Not knowing Switzerland at all we really lucked out.  I wanted to find a place to stay near Lake Lucerne and I found an apartment on Airbnb in the village of Brunnen right on the lake. Evidently in the summer this is a big resort area. This is the town where Winston Churchill spent his honeymoon.  The clerk in the tourist information office told us he had met both Hillary and George HW Bush here.  The view from our apartment was like something out of National Geographic. IMG_20170921_100836417 Brunnen is also the home of the Swiss Army Knife. They have a museum dedicated to it which in reality is just another gift shop.

On one of our walks in the village, we stopped at the ticket office to inquire about taking the boat into Lucerne. The woman was incredibly helpful explaining that we could buy a ticket for the boat in (It takes two and a half hours) and the train back (It takes less than an hour). And then if we changed our mind we could get on the boat and pay the difference. IMG_20170924_160505802 She also gave us a map of Lucerne so we could plan out our trip in advance. Europeans are so much more accomodating regarding dogs!  The ticket office had a sign reminding passengers that their dog would need a ticket as well.

We tend to travel by train (and boat) in second class.  The difference between second class and first in this case seemed to be main floor for second class with first class being upstairs. Both had areas where folks could sit outside. But given it was in the low 50’s with a bit of a breeze off the water, we chose to sit inside and watch the spectacular landscapes while sipping on our cappuccinos! Often as we travel Bob and I wonder aloud if folks get used to the scenery. As the boat crisscrossed the lake, I noticed a man standing on the balcony of his apartment brushing his teeth!  Ah, I guess you don’t get used to the view!

First on our list to see in Lucerne was Lowendenkmal (the Lion Monument).  This monument is perhaps my very favorite outside of Washington DC.  It is a huge lion carved in stone and honors the Swiss guards who were killed in 1792 during the French Revolution when revolutionaries stormed the Tuileries Palace in Paris.  The monument was the idea of a Swiss guard who was on leave in Switzerland at the time of the attack. The dying lion has a spear in his side with a shield that displays the fleur-di-lis and another shield with the coat of arms of Switzerland.  Mark Twain described the monument:

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The Lion lies in his lair in the perpendicular face of a low cliff — for he is carved from the living rock of the cliff. His size is colossal, his attitude is noble. His head is bowed, the broken spear is sticking in his shoulder, his protecting paw rests upon the lilies of France. Vines hang down the cliff and wave in the wind, and a clear stream trickles from above and empties into a pond at the base, and in the smooth surface of the pond the lion is mirrored, among the water-lilies.

Around about are green trees and grass. The place is a sheltered, reposeful woodland nook, remote from noise and stir and confusion — and all this is fitting, for lions do die in such places, and not on granite pedestals in public squares fenced with fancy iron railings. The Lion of Lucerne would be impressive anywhere, but nowhere so impressive as where he is. (Mark Twain, A Tramp Abroad, 1880)

The old town is a much smaller area than it first appears on the map.  From the Lion we walked to the Kapellbrucke (chapel bridge) and Wasserman (water tower).  The bridge is the oldest covered bridge in Europe and crosses the Reuss River.  The paintings inside the bridge date back to the 1700’s.  The Wasserman in the past was used as a prison.  The bridge was built in the middle 1300’s.

There is also the Spreuer Bridge. This bridge was completed in 1408 and this is the only place where chaf (spreur) could be dumped in the river. Between the two bridges is the Nodelwehr Dam or Needle Dam.  This dam was installed in 1859 and still regulates the water level of Lake Lucerne manually by insertion or removal of the dam’s timbers (or needles).

When it was time to head back to Brunnen, we thought we’d try the train. It would be a different route than we had seen previously. The woman who had been so helpful told us she thought the train would leave from track 11 but we should check.  Yep, she was right.  And it was only a 10 minute wait for our train to arrive.  We find it interesting in Europe that on several occasions we’ve not been asked to show our train tickets.  I’m quite certain, however, if we didn’t have one we’d definitely be asked for it!

After a week in Switzerland we were now ready to move on to Salzburg.  Two years ago we were really close to Salzburg when we went to Octoberfest. But because of the immigration crisis at the time we were advised by locals in Germany not to try to cross into Austria because of the enormous queues both for cars and at train stations.  The fact that we are not from the EU and instead have US passports only further complicated the issue.  So now that things are a bit calmer at the borders we’ve decided we want to see Austria, particularly Salzburg and Vienna!

So we said goodbye to beautiful Switzerland and are ready to move on Austria.

 

 

Cradle of French America

Summer has been a busy time.  We left Boston in June and headed for Quebec City. Leaving Boston we decided to stop in Gloucester, a one time fishing and whaling port.  It’s hard to imagine what it must have been like when men would head out to sea without modern day navigation and meteorological resources. Placed near the sea, the Gloucester Fisherman’s Memorial reads, “They that go down to the sea in ships.  1623 – 1923” In a semi-circle in front of the memorial are plaques with the names of those who set off but never returned.

IMG_20170608_132304698 (1)We were struck by the number of men who have the same last name making us wonder were they brothers or fathers and sons? Further down the boulevard is a statue of a mother with two small children. Standing at the water’s edge and taking this all in on a beautiful spring day was a very moving experience.

From Gloucester we headed up through Maine and its beautiful scenery. We continued to keep our eyes peeled for moose but the closest we got was a huge statue.

 

 

The drive into Quebec itself was spectacular with the road following the St. Lawrence River.   Our Airbnb was located right in the center of the old city with a gate that opened to a small walkway that led to a lovely apartment, old and quaint but updated with modern appliances and furniture, great wifi and even cable television with some English speaking channels. Our host was a lovely French Canadian who lucky for us, spoke English.

We had come, quite accidentally, at a time with lots of holidays:  St. Jean the Baptiste Day, Canada Day and Quebec Day. IMG_0001 There were bands, parades and locals handing out Quebec and Canadian flags. The Hotel Frontenac is a Quebec icon.  I have a picture my dad took of my mother, my sister and me in front of the hotel back in 1954.

With the changes from the last half century it is difficult to determine exactly where the picture was taken. IMG_20170611_144922244_BURST000_COVER_TOPBecause of the holidays during our stay this time, The Hotel Frontanac was decked out each evening in red and white lights. There was a small Salvador Dali exhibit at the hotel that we found very interesting. They were having a lottery for one of his paintings and I was convinced I was going to win but having not received a phone call I guess I didn’t.

 

We wandered down the Old Town’s narrow streets that are loaded with pretty sidewalk cafes and artists selling their paintings. From our apartment we could hear the constant clomp clomp clomp of the horse and buggy tours.

Quebec City has a real European feel to it.  And while French is the official language we found, just as we have with our visits abroad, that most people, speak at least some English and are happy to do so.  I generally tried a few (very few) French phrases and always tried to remember to thank the locals for speaking to me in English. As one young waiter pointed out there isn’t a big call for French unless one is in France or Quebec.

Hockey is Canada’s sport and Bob and I are big hockey fans. The finals of the Stanley Cup were playing during our first week in Quebec, with my favorite team, The Pittsburgh Penguins facing the Nashville Predators.  We had watched playoff games all spring but this was game 6 of the finals with the Pens up 3 games to 2.

So Bob and I trekked off to a nearby bar for supper and the game.  It was great fun to listen as the bar crowd cheered and sighed for goals and near goals. And I’ll never forget being able watch my team win in a country where just about everyone loves hockey.

We spent one day on the Ile d’Orleans located in the St. Lawrence river, a short drive from Quebec City. We visited Montmorency Falls on previous visits but still found the view of it from the islands lovely.

And the strawberries!  Wow!  Just as good as we remembered. The small French villages are reminiscent of a time long passed.  I particularly love the laundry hanging on the lines.

We also stopped at the Basilica of Sainte Anne de Beaupre, a spectacularly beautiful church. Each year nearly half a million people make pilgrimages to the church which was originally built in the 1600s. It was initially built as a place of worship for early settlers.

And supposedly the man who was hired to build it was cured of his rheumatism while laying initial stones in the foundation. This made it a place where people began to visit in the hope of being cured of their illnesses. The church has been enlarged several times since then. And upon entering the church you see two columns filled with crutches and braces of those who were healed.  The current basilica was constructed in the 1920’s.

We decided to take a side trip and spend a few days driving around the Gaspe Peninsula. The peninsula, known as “The cradle of French America” sticks out far into the Atlantic Ocean. It was here that Jacques Cartier first claimed the land, “New France,” in 1534.  On the four hundredth anniversary of this date a 32 foot granite cross was constructed in the town of Gaspe.  For centuries the area was an important fishing center, especially for cod. (When Jacques Cartier came to the area he found thousands of Basque fishermen already there. They had been fishing there for more than a century previous but kept the place as a well-guarded secret.)

There is much less English spoken in the Gaspe villages.  Bob needed a beard trim so when we came upon a barbershop as we were wandering down the main street of a quaint village it seemed like the time was right.  The woman barber spoke very little English and we speak no French so once again we were using a lot of hand gestures and smiling and laughing. It did strike us odd having just returned a few weeks earlier from Cuba that on the wall over the barber’s chair was a picture of Che Gueverra, the ubiquitous Cuban hero!

We had read that the Redford Gardens (Also known as Les Jardins de Metis) was a lovely spot so we spent a couple of hours wandering through the English garden of the estate and enjoying the variety of flowers. Elsie Redford had originally built a fishing camp on the site that she converted into a garden in the 1920’s. She was a rugged early settler who during her recovery following surgery followed her doctor’s suggestion that she take up gardening.

This lovely garden is the result. Because of its location near the St. Lawrence River which tempers the climate, plants grow here that are unable to grow elsewhere in Canada. I was struck once again, just like I was in Boston at the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum, the role that gardens played in the estates of the very wealthy back in the day and how lucky we are that many have been maintained and are now open to the public.

I have some random memories of the Gaspe from when I visited with my family back in 1950’s.  In particular I remember following a dirt road that connected fishing villages. I still have a small carved boat that my parents purchased for me at a roadside stand. Boy, has that changed. The drive, now a totally paved road while still beautiful, has become far more touristy. But the natural beauty is still there. This time we spent a night in a hotel that looked out on Perce Rock, a huge monolith with a natural archway that protrudes from the Atlantic Ocean not far from the road.  I remember my sister, a teenager in 1954, commenting, “We drove all this way just to see a rock!”

The Gaspe also has its share of unusual sites: Given the proximity to the sea, the Gaspe is a huge source of wind power and we, of course, had to drive through Le Nordais Windmill Park where there are more than130 windmills. The park claims to be one of the largest in North America.  While the huge vertical windmill is no longer in use, the village of Cap Chat started giving tours of it in 1987 and continue to do so.  The windmill is considered by the locals to be a static sculpture. Near the town of Sainte-Flavie we came upon a sculpture garden by Maurice Gagnon.  There the artist has created a gathering of people on the beach standing out into the water. We found the display very odd, but extremely interesting.   And of course, I made Bob stop in Rimouski, one of the biggest towns along the peninsula so I could visit the L’Oceanic Ice Colisee, where Sydney Crosby played junior hockey.

Coming upon a covered bridge or passing a home with a thatched roof or seeing a phone booth on the side of the street made us often feel like we were traveling in a previous time.

But perhaps among the most unique were the sculptures of the fish and the man with the moose antlers.

But our favorite part was the spectacular views that seemed to be around every bend. And to top it off we had wonderful sunny weather to enjoy the jaw-dropping scenery for the entire four days (which we understand from locals is very unusual).

After a fabulous month of being surrounded by everything French we were headed back to spend a couple of weeks with our son Kris, and his family in Big Rapids.  IMG_20170709_184753526But we couldn’t pass up the opportunity to stop in Fairport, New York to celebrate the ninetieth birthday of our  daughter-in-law, Sadie’s grandmother. We don’t know many people who get to celebrate that special day!  And it was great fun!

We hadn’t been “home” in Big Rapids since last November.  And Kris and his wife, Andria, went out of their way to make our visit special.  We played euchre, and as they are both great chefs of course we ate amazing meals. We learned a new yard game, Kubb, went on a boat ride with good friends, Ken and Ginny.  Andria even made arrangements for us to visit her sister’s family in Manistee so we could spend time on the Lake Michigan beach, which we consider among the nicest in the world. We also got to celebrate our oldest grandchild’s sixteenth birthday.  It was a wonderful two weeks that passed by far too quickly.

We’re now getting ready to head to Rome to watch Cary defend her dissertation and then on new cities and new adventures! What lucky people we are!

 

 

 

 

 

 

The Cradle of American History

After leaving Cuba we returned to the east coast to check in with our DC area kids and pick up our car before moving on.  This meant returning to our regular trivia game, watching playoff hockey (Go Pens!) as well as catching up with our youngest grandkids which included: soccer, karaoke and an early birthday celebration.

We also had tickets to see a play at Ford’s Theatre. “Ragtime” is a musical that follows three turn-of-the-century families.  The music is great and it was hard to believe we were watching it in such an historic building.

After a week of relaxing in DC we were ready to take off for Boston. Sort of moving from one part of early American history to another! We decided to drive some of the backroads to enjoy and learn more about the smaller towns in the Pennsylvania Dutch Country.  We stopped in Lititz for lunch at a fabulous deli. We had remembered the town (although not the deli) from a visit here with the kids back in the early 1980s. We toured The Lititz  Pretzel Factory then and learned about the history of pretzles dating back to the 1600’s. From Lititz Bob and I decided we wanted to visit Crossings, PA. This is the place where Washington and his troops crossed the Deleware on Christmas 1776.

We then went on to spend the night in Valley Forge and toured the encampment the following day. I’m always astounded at what the Patriots had to endure to gain our independence.  More than 2500 men died at Valley Forge from starvation, the cold and disease. It’s overwhelming to imagine.

And to think how far away from home many of them were and how concerned they must have been for their families, wondering if they’d ever see them again. I think we take our republic for granted not realizing how fragile it really is. But I digress…  We had intended to spend an hour or so there and three  and a half hours later decided we’d better get on our way if we wanted to make much progress toward our destination.

I reserved a place in Hull, Massachusetts, located on a peninsula just south of Boston. The location is great. We are a block from the ocean one direction and three blocks the other.  We have a great front porch where we can sit and enjoy our morning coffee on those few days when it is warm enough. We are also just a 10 minute drive from the commuter rail that has us at South Station in downtown Boston in half an hour. South Station is an amazing place.  As well as the commuter rail, many Amtrak trains arrive and depart for DC and parts beyond.  You can also access the T (subway) here making it a hub for travelers whatever their destinations!

The Airbnb house we’re renting is a duplex and the young man we’re renting from lives right next door. It makes it very convenient to ask questions. I love that it’s a two story with three bedrooms upstairs..feels very much like home!  And as an added bonus we can park right out front!  Boston traffic is unbelievable and parking horrific so we make good use of the commuter rail.  The fact that we qualify for a half price senior citizen ticket makes the trip reasonable as well as convenient.  Hull was founded in the 1600s by Puritans. Nearby our house is Fort Revere with spectacular views of Hull and Boston. It dates from the Revolution when it was used to protect Boston Harbor.

We briefly visited Boston years ago but as I’ve said in previous entries when we have a month to visit a place we feel more like residents and less like tourists.  It’s nice not to have to jam everything we want to do into a couple of days.

We were thrilled that my good friend Rita, from Pittsburgh, could visit us.  It seemed easiest to pick her up at the airport instead of relying on public transportation so that we could stop and visit the JFK Library on our return.IMG_20170519_112410833[1]  When Bob and I had been in Boston 1980 we had located the then new JFK library on our Rand McNally map and when we couldn’t find it stopped to ask a local. We were told, “Oh that’s where they were going to build it. They decided instead to put it out near the water.”  What a perfect location. Seeing JFK’s sailboat leaning on the shore took my breath away! I think this is one of the few museums I’ve ever visited where I could connect to and recall the stories about nearly every exhibit!

History is everywhere you turn in Boston.  We stopped to visit John Adams’ home and the national park service guide gave us a private tour of the home. It’s hard to envision the area as farmland much less Abigail managing the farm, as well as her family, while fighting is going on all around her and John is miles away! We also stopped at his library and later family home!

Most amazingly we met Keith, a young man in his 30’s I would guess, on the commuter rail on our first trip into Boston and he shared with us some sights he felt we’d enjoy.  He mentioned the Museum of Fine Arts (MFA) and went on to describe some of the particular artists that were among his favorites.  There was a special Matisse Exhibit currently on display so we had put the MFA at the top of our list. Also there was a lovely Chihuly glass piece in the lobby.

Keith also gave us some practical tips about how to get around and other areas to see. We were stunned when after we left the train he tracked us down in South Station to give us his business card telling us not to hesitate to contact him if he could be of any assistance! We continue to meet the most gracious people!

Cambridge is a lovely city.  We walked through the Harvard Campus, downtown,  Lesley College and down Brattle Street past Longfellow’s Home. IMG_20170520_163711277 I had no idea that this was George Washington’s heaquarters from 1775-1776. Longfellows’ father-in-law bought the home in 1843 as a wedding gift. It’s the house where Longfellow lived until he died. We also learned that The Harvard Museum of National History houses The Ware Collection of Blaschka Glass. We decided this was something we had to see! These models of plants are made entirely of glass. There are more than 4000 models of more than 800 species of flowers.

They were made between 1887 and 1936 and were created because a Harvard professsor wanted lifelike models for teaching botany. Prior to this time there were only papier mache or wax models available.

One of my very favorite parts of Boston is The Freedom Trail. This trail is embedded in the sidewalk making it incredibly easy to follow and it’s like walking through a textbook of early American history.IMG_20170604_132647870[1] On this trail are marked the sites of the Boston Massacre, Paul Revere’s home, the Granary Cemetery (where Samuel Adams, Crispus Attacks,  as well as Ben Franklin’s parents are buried). The Corner Bookstore was originally the home of Anne Hutchinson (who was kicked out of Massachusetts for heresy) and was later a meeting place for authors including: Longfellow, Hawthorne and Emerson.  Perhaps because it has a commercial history that spans a couple of centuries I shouldn’t be upset that it is now the home of a commercial entity of the 2000’s. (Chipotle) But it really does bother me!

We paid to enter the Old State House which was particularly interesting because there were several informative narrations we could download on our phones that explained the history of the building! A realitively new addition to the Freedom Trail is The New England Holocaust Memorial built in 1995. IMG_20170520_120251170[1]This moving memorial consists of six towers which represent the six camps and six is also significant for the six years that the camps were in existence.  On a lighter note, also along the Freedom Trail, in front of the Old City Hall is a donkey.  For over 100 years Boston politics was dominated by Democratic mayors  In 2004 this donkey was dubbed “The Democratic Donkey.”  Next to the donkey are footprints with the inscription, “Stand in Opposition.”

We had seen the exhibit for Robert McCloskey’s book, Make Way for Ducklings at the Museum of Fine Arts. img_20170604_1249521891.jpg I  remembered the book from when I was a child about Mr and Mrs. Mallard who find the perfect place to raise their family in Boston Public Gardens.  So I definitely wanted to see the sculpture.  Because we had missed it on our first trip, we made a second trek to the gardens to see it.

And while I loved the Museum of Fine Arts perhaps my favorite museum in all of Boston  is the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum.   It’s an eclectic collection of art, sculpture, textiles and antiques and housed in beautiful rooms that were designed to resemble a Venetian palace of the 1400’s.  It’s unlike any museum I’ve visited anywhere!

We also drove out to Cape Cod. Because we were located south of Boston and didn’t have to drive through the city it made a much easier trip out to the Cape. And although there were lots of people, because we were visiting in late May we didn’t have to contend with the summer mobs.  Provincetown has lots of cute little shops and I found a place to get my haircut.  Another day we drove Falmouth which is about an hour south of Boston but not out on the Cape.  We were particularly interested in this area because of the work at Woods Hole that environmentalist Rachel Carson had done in the 1960s. Ms Carson wrote Silent Spring in 1962 about the harmful effects of pesticides.IMG_20170601_134802574 She was awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom by President Carter and because she was a family friend of Bob’s aunts (having grown up in the same small western Pennsylvania town) we particularly wanted to visit her statue in Falmouth.  We fell in love with the area finding it even more beautiful than the Cape itself.

Our temperatures in Boston were cool.  The locals tell us that it has been exceedingly cool this year.  We also had quite a bit of rain, but it rarely rained all day and we found we could generally dodge between the showers. We like to read near the beach and we can do that in jackets just as long as the wind doesn’t gust too much.  Another favorite in Boston for us is the chowder.  We’ve tried it nearly everywhere we’ve gone and the cool weather only makes it taste that much better.  We will definitely miss this special taste of New England when we leave!  It seems too like we are following the flowers this spring. Starting on our drive up to DC from Florida in late February all the way to Boston in May, we find the rhododendrons gorgeous, one just exceeding the previous in its beauty. Rhododendrons have always been among my favorite bloom, but I have never witnessed any as large as we have seen this year.  Some stand almost as high as houses!

The night before we were to leave Boston we found a small wonderful Italian restaurant not far from our house. We chatted with the owner (also waitress and cook) who wanted to know more about our lifestyle.  As we were talking about all the things we love about Boston she commented, “Wow, you sound like locals!” I guess that’s what we love best…getting to really know a city, how to maneuver it, what makes it interesting, what’s its history, talking with the locals.  In this case we definitely want to know more about this cradle of American history. Guess we’ll have to put Boston/Hull on our list of places to return to!

 

 

 

 

 

 

CUBA: A Whole New Experience

Because there are not a lot of flights to Havana we had to leave Washington DC on the 7:35 am flight—another ungodly departure time and our flight was out of Baltimore Washington International meaning it was about an hour drive from our Airbnb in Columbia Heights. At 4:15 am our Uber picked us up for the uneventful drive to the airport. Boy, were we surprised when we got there and saw the mob of people at the Delta counter. We were more than 2 hours early for our flight and the line seemed endless.

Airports teach me patience! The trip to Atlanta is not a long one and we were impressed with the efficiency of Delta to guide us to the right gate where we were met by folks who helped us complete our visa forms. Upon arrival in Havana, however, we ran into the same problem we had before. Our driver, whom we had arranged for through our Airbnb was no where to be found. We exchanged money at the airport (as American credit cards are generally not accepted in Cuba) and when a gentleman came up and asked if we needed a taxi we took him up on his offer. He walked us across the parking lot to his 1953 Plymouth.  IMG_20170411_153731016_BURST000_COVER_TOPHe spoke no English but we had written the address of our Airbnb on a piece of paper knowing there is no internet at the Havana airport and in a short time we had arrived at our destination. (The best we can surmise is that our original driver went to the wrong terminal.)

Our Airbnb is lovely. It’s upstairs in the Vedado neighborhood, one of three major areas of Havana. Vedado, the Spanish word for forbidden, is where the mobsters and big shots from the 1920’s lived!

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Our apartment was at the top of the stairs to the right. Lidea and her assistant, Tonya, are standing at the top of the steps.

Our apartment has a large sitting room area with a kitchen and two bedrooms each with its own bath.  It has lovely terrazzo floors, a flatscreen TV, a gas stove. Each Cuban is allowed to own only one property so our apartment is separated from the owner’s by folding doors. But the very best part of our abode is the porch with chairs and swing. We’ve found Latinos, in Costa Rica, Panama and now Cuba really make good use of their outdoor spaces!

The woman we rent from is lovely and to have her right next door makes asking questions very convenient. She speaks more English than I speak Spanish and together we communicate pretty well.  She has an assistant who speaks no English but again with hand signals and my limited Spanish we do okay.

The old cars are everywhere. We are a block off a main street with a constant flow of taxis…both old classics as well as newer ones.

The old cars are so ubiquitous that we began to think every man in Havana must be a mechanic. (We did have a few female cab drivers while in Cuba but we met no women who drove classic cars. ) The interiors of the cars are interesting as well…with different sources of music.IMG_20170428_170947368_TOP

The outside may be a 55 Chevy, or a 53 Buick but the inside is a conglomeration of whatever parts can be found. In addition, some have flash drives that are rigged into the dash. One even had a screen that showed the video with the music. Some have air conditioning.  Some are plush. One we rode in had metal floor boards. But all the owners are very proud of their possessions! One can only imagine what they would sell for in the US.

Cuba is very safe. Whenever we are home, the door to our apartment is open, not just unlocked, but actually open throughout the day until we go to bed. We walk places after dark without hesitation.  People are very friendly.   We aren’t far from a large hotel, La Melia Cohiba, part of a Spanish chain. IMG_20170423_122945342 Shortly after we arrived, we wandered in and asked the concierge, Osiris, about suggestions for a couple of side trips we wanted to make.  Take about a wealth of knowledge!  We weren’t thrilled with the idea of a bus trip so we were delighted when Osiris suggested a private driver. She called him and for $150 a day he would be ours 24/7! He would take us wherever we wanted to go. Our son, Patrick, was coming to spend a week with us, so we decided to schedule two trips while he was in Cuba. Actually hiring a private driver was cheaper than it would have been for the three of us to take a bus trip! Osiris also arranged a three hour tour in a classic convertible for us and gave us numerous suggestions for other entertainment!

Cuba uses two currencies:  the convertible peso (CUC) and the Cuban peso, moneda nacional (MN).  It’s not difficult to maneuver. There are about 23 Cuban pesos to the CUC though it varies from place to place and item to item.  As a tourist all we really had to know were CUCs. The only tricky parts are: 1) estimating how much money you’ll need for the time you’re visiting since once we arrived we wouldn’t be able to access any money from the States and 2) converting to CUCs only the money we would spend. Cuba charges the US tourist an extra 10% on the exchange. They don’t do that on Euros or Pounds Sterling so if you can bring either of those currencies, you’re money ahead! Also when we left we didn’t want to have money left over because they will charge that same 10% again to change back into dollars.

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Codecas change monies to Cucs

There are various codecas (places that just change money) throughout the country and we found hotels will change money for us as well. The exchange rate at the time of this writing has been .87 including the 10% so the CUC costs $1.13. One really good thing is that the exchange rate is the same throughout the country; it doesn’t vary from hotel, to bank, to codeca.

Cuba is a very poor country economically and we were told that the average Cuban earns about $35 a month. We’re confused how that’s calculated because it would seem that the tips (from foreigners) that taxi drivers and wait staff receive would skew that number. But maybe that’s just in Havana. In any event, the average Cuban has little disposable income.

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This receipt shows the amount first in CUCS; then in dollars, Euros, and finally in the currency of the locals. Divide that total 378.25 by 23 and you understand that our breakfast would be out of reach for most locals!

Because American credit cards are not generally accepted Americans have to do everything in cash. We had booked our Airbnb online with our credit card so we were just bringing money for food, entertainment, and souvenirs.  We have not found Cuba to be an expensive country except for their taxis and those fares are always negotiable. We’ve found taxis, at least in Havana, to be about the same as Ubers in DC. Gas is about $5 a gallon, and I’m certain the old cars do not get very good mileage. In addition taxis are primarily used by tourists allowing the drivers to charge more. There are also shared taxis, old cars that stop and pick up people along the street and then along the way to their destination others pile in. The charges for these are about 50 cents, and I believe they’re mostly used by locals. We always try to keep some money in a separate place for the taxi or the incidentals so we aren’t bringing out large bills for every exchange. And generally when we go out, we take no more than a hundred dollars each with us, keeping most of our money back in our apartment along with our passports. We carry copies with us as foreigners are supposed to have identification on them at all times. The hotel clerk suggested small bills and we’ve found it’s also helpful to have some small coins for street performers, bathroom attendants, etc.

While we really enjoy Cuba there are a few drawbacks. The air, in Havana in particular, is really polluted. The old cars, as well as trucks and busses, belch out dark noxious smoke.  Also, tap water is not drinkable. So you have to rely on bottled water and in the heat, we consume a lot. We found most grocery stores have lots of empty shelves and I think being a creative cook here is really a gift.   It would be difficult to plan your meals and then go to the store and purchase the items. In any case, you would have to stop at numerous stores. For instance, the grocery store nearest our apartment never had water. We never saw cheese or milk in any store. Paper products also seem to be in short supply. We only found toilet paper for sale on one occasion. (I carried a roll in my day pack when we traveled because so many bathrooms, including museums, often do not have any.) And fresh vegetables are in short supply. Sunday must be a delivery day as we saw on two different occasions lots more items available on Sunday than any other day. But the lines are long and because there are no scanners and cashiers have to enter all items in by hand, they’re very slow!

It’s not uncommon when going to a restaurant for staff to tell you a particular entre isn’t available, or a juice (even if you had it the previous day) or ice! But restaurant staff are exceedingly pleasant and most speak some English! We encountered numerous street venders walking through the neighborhood calling out the offerings: bananas, onions, garlic and tamales,  among them. The first time the ice cream man came down the street we smiled at the recorded music coming from his cart:  Clementine, No Place Like Home and Happy Birthday.  Most restaurants and some shops are air conditioned and if we avoided the middle of the day, the heat wasn’t repressive. And evenings were very comfortable. (Everyone one, including animals has their unique way of keeping cool!)

While our Airbnb had free wifi, the wifi is available only for limited hours during the day, and never when I needed it. We did buy Cuban data cards on Amazon before we left the country (for $25 for 100 mb).  These worked fine on our phones but 100 mb goes really fast.  In most hotels you can buy a wifi card for 4.5 cucs for an hour. While we originally thought it would be nice to be disconnected, there were times when it was terribly inconvenient especially at the airport.

Havana seems to have more museums than any city we’ve visited. The one we particularly wanted to see was The Museo de la Revolucion.  It’s housed in the former presidential palace. The Salon de los Espejos (Room of Mirrors) was designed by Tiffany’s and modeled after Versailles.

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Hall o f Mirrors

It’s a very beautiful building.  Starting on the top floor this museum tells the story of the revolution from its beginning to today. We were relieved that the text was almost totally in Spanish with few English captions so we didn’t have to read everything. It’s obviously the Cuban perspective on the revolution. And like the rest of Cuba, there’s no shortage of propaganda.  It also includes caricatures of several American presidents (along side Batista) that we found amusing.IMG_20170501_153432 After touring the building, there is a second structure behind the museum where the Granma is displayed in a glass case.  The Granma is the yacht that carried Castro and 81 other revolutionaries from Tuxpan, Mexico to Cuba in 1956.

Everywhere we look there are banners of the organization of the revolution also known as July 26. Throughout the country we’ve seen signs and posters celebrating this the 59th anniversary.

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CDR House that was just down the block from our Airbnb.

Every neighborhood has a CDR House. These houses are staffed with volunteers who help ensure that people are being compliant. And while we have seen few pictures of Fidel anywhere in the country, everywhere we turn we are confronted with another statue, poster, billboard or picture of Che.  It appears that Jose Marti is the real hero for the Cuban people. He was a poet journalist and philosopher and led the Cuban people in the Second War of Independence in the 1890’s prior to the Spanish American War. He was Fidel Castro’s hero.

One of the first trips we asked Osiris to arrange for us was a visit to a tobacco plantation.  She contacted Lazuro for us and on Monday morning he picked us up in his 2002 (very new by Cuba standards) air conditioned Toyota and off we went. It was about a 3 hour drive to the southwestern part of Cuba where the best tobacco in Cuba, some say in the world, is grown.  When we arrived there, we were impressed by how non-commercial the tour was.  Lazuro knew the owners and there probably were another 50 – 100 tourists milling around the plantation. We first went to the drying shed. One of the plantation tour guides explained (in English and Spanish) the quality of the leaves, growing conditions and then passed around tobacco for us to smell the difference before and after it had been processed.  From there we climbed to a shed on stilts where we could view the plantation and here a different plantation tour guide demonstrated the rolling of a cigar. He offered each of a free cigar. We could also buy cigars from him: either in packs of 14 (45 cucs) or 20 (60 cucs).  (Cuban cigars don’t get their product branding until they leave the country. And in the US each of these would sell for $20 – $30.) All product is owned by the government; they take 90% the individual owners get 10%. But we were told tobacco growers do well.

After the tour Lazuro took us to Ecologica, a restaurant well hidden in the valley.  Everyone there appeared to either be a local or be accompanied by one. The food was unbelievable. Lazuro explained the there was no menu. They served tables. First they brought yucca chips and plantain chips, next they brought the most amazing vegetable soup which was served with a platter of additional chunks of sweet potato we could add to our soup. We commented that we would have been happy with that alone for lunch. But that was soon followed salad which was tomatoes, cucumbers, radishes, lettuce and cabbage.

That was followed by black beans and rice and platters of pork, fish, chicken and beef. This dinner made Thanksgiving look like a light meal. Finally we were offered coffee and dessert which was flan. A coconut milk drink was also served and accompanied by a bottle of rum that was placed on the table to be added to the drink as diners desired.  All the food was served family style and all courses were eaten in the soup bowl. (The total bill for our four was 40 cucs!) After dinner we viewed and wandered briefly through the farm on the way back to the car. They raise all their own food and the owners are very proud of their accomplishment! (It’s only been since 2010 that private restaurants could exist in Cuba.)

On the way back to Havana we stopped at the Parque Nacional in Vinales.  Here The Mural de la Prehistoria is painted on the rock walls. The mural represents evolution and was placed here because of all the fossils found in the area. It was designed in 1961 and took four years to complete.IMG_20170424_150119

Besides cigars, rum is Cuba’s other big export! So it seemed appropriate that we should visit the Museo de Ron located in old town. While the tour is only about half an hour long it’s very interesting.

The guide took us through the historical building describing the history and process as we went. One of the most interesting parts was the model train of the sugar cane plantation. (It was built by a Pennsylvanian who won an international competition for it.) Of course at the end we got to sip the product! But again 90% of profit goes to the government and the plantation owners only get 10%!

We had read that Trinidad is a very interesting city south of Havana so we decided to take a two day jaunt there and on the way stop in Santa Clara which is located right in the middle of the island.  We particularly wanted to visit the Ernesto Che Guevara monument, mausoleum and museum. After Marti Che is Cuba’s second hero! Santa Clara is important because it’s the site where in December 1958 Che and other revolutionaries blew up a Cuban armored train and just a few days later Batista fled the country.

This appears to be when Dictator Fulgencio Batista began to take the revolutionaries seriously. It’s difficult to describe how omnipresent Che is in Cuba, even half a century after his death. Everywhere we turned there were  busts, billboards, signs on buildings, tote bags, tee shirts, hats, all with his iconic picture on them.  In 1987, on the 20th anniversary of Che’s murder in Bolivia, the statue in the plaza in Santa Clara was dedicated to his life. There’s an eternal flame in the mausoleum that was lit by Fidel in 1997. Most of the exhibits were labeled only in Spanish but when I got out my phone to translate I was immediately accosted by a guard who yelled at me: “No, no, no!” I quickly put my phone away, afraid that I could have it confiscated.  We also wanted to see the statue of Che and Nino. This turned out to be a challenge. Our driver must have stopped a half dozen times to ask for directions. Finally, we spotted it. Because it is much smaller than the massive statue we had seen on the other side of town, we had missed it. This one shows Che with a baby in his arms symbolizing the next generation.  His belt buckle also displays likenesses of the 28 men who were with him when he was killed in Bolivia.

Before moving on, Lazuro asked a local for a place for lunch.  Bob and Patrick said it was the best beans and rice they had ever had. Lunch for four, including beverages, entre and the rice and beans came to less than $12.IMG_20170426_132943891

The drive on to Trinidad was another three hours and the roads in Cuba are a challenge.  Lazuro weaved in and out to avoid the largest pot holes and to protect his car. Along the road are occasional check points. And while we were never stopped, the police can wave over any car they wish and search it as well as the occupants’ papers.

After winding through the Escambray Mountains, we first stopped at the Manaca Iznaga. This is an estate dating from the 1700s and was owned by one of the area’s richest men who made his money in slave trading. There is a huge observation tower that was used to watch the slaves. We viewed the enormous sugar press that was powered by the slaves and while the heat and humidity were really stifling just to sightsee, it was hard to imagine what it must have been like for the slaves. We could only wonder how many lives were lost.

Another half hour and we arrived at our destination! Trinidad is a colonial city of about 52,000 located not far from the southern coast of Cuba and declared a UNESCO site in 1988. It’s like something out of a novel.  Cobblestone streets, horse carts and automobiles mix like a mismatch of time periods. Although there were lots of tourists, the city still feels very authentic. We wandered through the streets visiting the Municipal Museum and also the Museum of Architecture.  The Plaza Mayor, is the center square of the town. Warm and tired we found a table and sipped drinks as we listened to Cuban music.

Lazuro had called in advance and arranged for a room for us to stay at a local hostel. From the city he wound our way on cobblestones and dirt streets. How he knew where to turn we still aren’t sure but finally he arrived at the door of Chachi’s Hostal (Calle A#14 el Carretera La Boca y Calle 2da, (Rpto La Purisima), Trinidad  Phone: (+53) 53 419520) What a find!  The owners are lovely people!  Our room had a double bed and single bed. There was an air conditioner. A television. We had a private bath with shower. Because we thought we were pretty far from restaurants we had decided to eat at the hostel. Bob and Patrick went down without me as I was pretty tired. IMG_20170427_085528896When they returned after dinner I asked what they had eaten.  Lobster and barracuda they responded. I thought they were kidding.  But no, that’s what they ate!  IMG_20170426_201246491Chachi’s friend had caught the barracuda, and lobster is caught off the coast of Cuba as well. (So much for my theory that lobster comes from the cold waters of the North Atlantic!) And breakfast was just as amazing the next day with ham and egg omelets, toast, fresh fruit and juice and coffee. And even though the hosts spoke no English, and Lazuro’s English was limited as was our Spanish, we all managed to communicate.  When we went to check out our bill which included: our room, Lazuro’s room, 3 dinners, and 4 breakfasts totalled 75 cucs! I highly recommend this hostel.

After wandering a bit through the city we checked out Playa Ancon, a pretty Caribbean beach.  We settled ourselves under a thatched umbrella and enjoyed the view for an hour or so.

Then we headed back to Havana via Cien Fuegos.  Cien Fuegos is perhaps the loveliest town we saw.  The Lonely Planet refers to it as the Paris of Cuba, if Cuba has a Paris.  The main street is lined with building after building fronted with columns. I read (also in The Lonely Planet) that some Canadians offer a two week Spanish immersion program in Cien Fuegos.  Academia Cienfuegos offers 30 hours of language classes with 25 hours of cultural activities.  This really sounds like a fabulous course.  Anyone out there want to join me in taking it?

We hired (once again with Osiris’ help) a driver for a three hour tour of Havana. We decided on late afternoon when the heat wouldn’t be as intense. Ramses, our guide, was a young man, a recent economics graduate from the University of Havana. His car was a red 1955 chevy convertible. IMG_20170425_155526391 He first took us to see the embassys, and then Gandhi Park with a statue of Gandhi surrounded by beautiful banyan trees.  The American Embassy is near the sea with the Anti-Imperialist Park in front of it and with large poles which were installed to block the view of the Embassy.

We walked through a lovely neighborhood, Fusterlandia, started twenty years ago that is filled with ceramic art work.

(We’ve generally been impressed with the emphasis on art in Cuba. The limited television stations show a lot of classical music. And PBS type shows.) The artist, Jose Fuster, started the artwork in his home and now it permeates the entire neighborhood. From a variety of mosaic tiles, he has created pictures of the granma, of Che.

We visited the Plaza Revolucion. This is where Castro made most of his speeches.  There is a huge memorial to Jose Marti that is about 340 feet and is the tallest building in Havana. The Building of the Interior has the likeness of Che on it and the Cienfuegos is memorialized on the Ministry of Informatics and Communications.  When we were there Cubans were practicing for the big May Day celebration.

We also walked through the Hotel Nacional, a classic hotel that made me feel like I was back in the 1920’s.  There are tables al fresco with gorgeous views of the straits of Florida. (Our son is pretty sure he caught a glimpse of Benecio del Toro walking out of the hotel.) And finally we drove along the Malecon, an 8 kilometer stretch of road along the sea.

We find that Ernest Hemingway is almost as omnipresent in our travels as Che is in Cuba.  When we were in the Florida Keys, there are several “Ernest Hemingway was here” sorts of places.

In Pamplona Spain there is a statue to him outside the bull ring. And in Havana there are several bars that claim to have been his hangout. (We decided not to visit his home here because you can’t enter the building only look through the windows.)  As we were walking one day, a guy passed Bob and remarked, “Hemingway!” (Hmmm….that happened in Rome as well!)

It’s hard to say if Cuba met my expectations because I had no idea what to expect. But it’s been a fabulous three weeks.  My favorite part of Cuba has been the people. They are exceedingly friendly!  Patrick was wearing a Chicago Cubs cap and getting out of a taxi the hotel doorman commented, “Chicago Cubs World Champions!” When Patrick’s flight was over 3 hours late arriving and our taxi driver couldn’t wait with us any longer at the airport because he had another appointment, he apologized and refused to take a tip. The neighbors where we live are all very friendly. People on the street initiate conversation always interested in sharing their connections to the United States.

One afternoon the woman we rented from said she and her assistant would like to make us lunch.  No charge; it was just something they wanted to do.  The next day we were treated to several of Cuba’s national dishes: salad, chicken, black beans, rice, and wonderful local coffee!  Really delicious.

Because Patrick’s departing flight, three days earlier, was delayed several hours we decided to get to the airport really early but were pleasantly surprised by how easily we got checked into our flight.IMG_20170502_122306820 The clerk asked if we had enjoyed our stay and when we responded positively, he said, “Tell your friends.”  After moving through security, I was waiting for Bob to put his belt back on and it was a bit unsettling to have a guard come up to me and ask to see my passport and boarding pass. Then she asked to see Bob’s and then replied, “Ok, no problems.” Whew! I wasn’t ready for that.

The idea of the CDR houses expecting volunteers to tattle on their neighbors, the inability  of citizens to travel beyond Cuba, the constant monitoring of activities, the lack of access to the internet, as well as the constant propaganda becomes stiffling over time and makes me realize how very lucky I am to have been born an American. Hopefully, with increased access to the internet and the rest of the world, things will continue to become more open for the Cubans.  In the meantime I am really glad we were able to travel to this very interesting place and meet such wonderful people!

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Panama: An Engineering Marvel

We always try to get to our “new” location during daylight hours. We prefer to arrive when we aren’t exhausted and for us we’re more comfortable getting our bearings before sunset. But this isn’t always possible and while we weren’t thrilled with arriving in Panama City at 9:36 pm with the obstacles of customs and immigration ahead of us, we had arranged with the woman who ran our Airbnb, Sarah, to have a driver, Matt, meet us.  Coming through customs was surprisingly easy, and as walked through the gate to the main terminal we saw lots of people lined up with signs in their hand, but no where did we see Matt. We went back again, still no Matt.  Thankful for my cell phone I tried Matt’s number, no answer; I tried Sarah, no answer.  I tried Matt again. This time he answered. Oh, he told us, he was tied up in traffic (At 9:30 on a Wed night this seemed unlikely, but who knows?) and he had sent Hilary instead. (Frustrated, I wondered why he hadn’t bothered to send me a text indicating the change! But again it was late and I was tired!)  We went back and sure enough we found Hilary with a piece of paper with “Jane” written in light pencil.  Hilary, a young lady who appeared to be in her early 20s, spoke little English, but was very friendly and walked us to her car and then headed into the city, about 45 minutes away to find our apartment.  One problem was she really didn’t know where the apartment was. She asked us a few questions, the answers to which we had no clue and she chatted with someone on her phone. Finally we arrived at a skyscraper in downtown Panama, talked with a doorman, and then Hilary asked if I had keys to the apartment…which I didn’t, but I thought Sarah had said they would be left at the door. And alas! They were.  Hilary and the doorman escorted us up the elevator to the seventeenth floor and we were FINALLY (a few minutes after midnight) exactly where we were supposed to be. It was about this time that it occurred to me how much trust we have in process as we travel.  I had met someone online, who had been reviewed and verified by Airbnb, and I had talked on the phone with someone they had connected me with and then we had just crawled in the car with a complete stranger trusting that she would get us where we needed to be!  And the amazing thing?  It worked just the way it should!

The view from our apartment was spectacular:  during the day, at sunset, in the evening. It was even a fascinating place to watch heavy rain showers and we were lucky there were few of those and they usually found us inside.

We found we couldn’t tire of it. Several nights we even enjoyed fireworks displays across the harbor! We had never stayed in a high rise before and a couple of times when we had power outages we did wonder about elevator access but that never turned out to be an issue as the outages never lasted more than a few hours. Looking at the building from a distance we found that we could easily locate our specific apartment because it was the one that had bouganvilla blooming from the balcony.

This Airbnb was the first one I missed the mark on.  On paper it looked perfect.  The apartment was comfortable, the view great, but the location truly didn’t work for us.  We were located on a small triangle of land near Avenida Balboa–one article I read estimated more than 75,000 vehicles travel it in a day, and I think they were all next to our apartment. Our spit of land was bordered on both sides by lanes and lanes of traffic and as is typical with many larger Central American and Asian cities with little urban planning there were no pedestrian crossings. And the resulting noise was not to be believed. While we enjoy city life, here it wasn’t the cacophony of people and the neighborhood; the noise came from cars, trucks and most often, and annoying, motorcycles! We watched with wonder as locals strolled right out among the cars, busses and trucks, often indicating by a slight tilt of the hand that the cars should stop so they could cross.  On the corner by the busiest of crossings stood a huge sign that warned walkers to cross with care!

Uber once again come to our rescue. In Panama you can order an Uber or an Uber English. And while they are extremely reasonable (I don’t think we ever paid more than $7 for any ride) we found it unnecessary to use an Uber English.  I know a little bit of Spanish and when I would initiate conversation with the driver (who was most often Panamanian or Venezuelan) they were pleased to communicate! Unfortunately, while I can usually figure out how to ask a question in Spanish, I’m often perplexed by the response I get. But with a lot of questioning looks, smiles and laughter we usually got it figured out. The biggest problem with Uber is that the drivers rely on electronic maps while the city taxi drivers know the city! So many times my phone would say 5 minutes to pick up and then change to 10 or 15 or sometimes they would even cancel!  Our building had a Papa John’s around the corner and that became our location point since everyone seemed to know where “Papa John’s in Paitilla” was!

But even with the great Uber service we often felt like we were hostages in our apartment since we couldn’t just go out and walk. (I did point out in my review of the Airbnb that this feeling could very much be just Bob’s and my perspectives. I’m sure many young people or those who grew up in similar environments wouldn’t have any issue!)

One of our first places to visit was Casco Viejo which was established in the late 1600’s by the Spanish colonialists.  It was declared a World Heritage Site by UNESCO in 1997. This is an area of Panama that is in the process of being restored. We often forgot that Panama is a national capital and like most capital cities there are lots of monuments. New buildings are mixed in among the ruins.

Lovely plazas are dedicated to historic leaders: Balboa, Bolivar, leaders of Central American countries. We visited the church with the gold altar which legend has it was painted black by its priests in the seventeenth century to protect it from pirates. IMG_0042 But everywhere we travel among my favorite monuments are those dedicated to the Ministry of Education which usually feature a child and a book. IMG_0016 (At the time of this writing I am hopeful we’ll never have a statue in the US of Betsy Devos, but I digress…)

Panama City is on the Pacific side of the country and we loved how we could watch from our bedroom as ships in the distance lined up to enter the canal. Its construction was first attempted by a Frenchman, de Lesseps, who had previously designed the Suez Canal.  As we walked through Casco Viejo following a pretty promenade along the water we saw a lot of French influence and the breeze off the water was a welcome accompaniment. IMG_0024There’s a lot of French history here including a French Embassy. While there is the old city and also the ancient city it’s really the canal that is the reason for Panama City’s existence. We met a family visiting from Germany and asked that they take our picture at what we thought was a particularly pretty point along the walkway! How surprised we were when our son, Patrick, shared with us a picture taken of him and a friend in the same exact location seven years ago. (The causeway in the background of our photo hadn’t been constructed when his picture was taken!)

 

One morning we took an Uber to the Miraflores Locks, the first locks boats encounter as they enter from the Pacific heading to the Caribbean. We had seen online that it was important to view the locks in the morning to see the boats heading east (or really north) toward the Caribbean because by 11 am the stream of ships would shift from east to west and there would be few coming through for several hours. We found this explanation confusing as the canal is open 24/7 but didn’t question and we arrived just in time to see the boat in the locks that a couple hours earlier we had viewed from our bedroom window lined up waiting to enter.

Patrick, sent us a link to  https://www.vesselfinder.com that made the viewing even more fascinating.  This site is live and gives specific locations of ships as they enter the canal describing their tonnage and cargo and also their ports of origin as well as their destinations.

For my birthday Bob and I visited the Biomuseo (designed by Frank Gehry) and located on the Amador Causeway. This road was built with the debris excavated from the canal’s construction and is today a very beautiful location with restaurants, marinas, hotels and a popular location for Sunday strolls.  Until control of the Canal was turned over to Panama this causeway was off limits to the local people. It’s easy to understand the frustration the Panamanians felt during the second half of the twentieth century given how much control Americans had over their lives (and economy)!  The construction of the museum is still in progress but it’s very interesting with lots of hands on exhibits.

Afterwards we visited Mi Ranchito http://www.restaurantemiranchito.com/en/home.html which became one of our favorite restaurants. It is also located on the causeway, is partially inside and partially outside with thatched roofs covering tables.

 

We particularly enjoyed the view of the skyline, the soft breeze off the water AND the great food!.  I had the shrimp creole which was yummy.  The restaurant is also a favorite with locals; its menu is diverse with lots of Panamanian choices and prices are reasonable. We returned several times during the month.

We made a trip via ferry to the Isle of Taboga, often referred to as the Island of Flowers.  It’s another favorite with locals as there are few nice beaches in Panama. Even with the crazy traffic, we found life to be pretty laid back in Panama.  And the ferry schedule to Taboga was no exception. The ferry landing was a modest affair, a tent behind a parking lot near the water. IMG_0022 (2)When checking in we were told there was an issue on the ferry and that when it was resolved they’d call us to board. People didn’t complain; perhaps they were used to it, and about 40 minutes later we were on our way. Our reservations were for the 9:30 trip but because we had way over estimated our travel time, we were boarding the 8:30 ferry departing at 9:15.  Funny how things work out!  It cost $20 for a round trip ticket and the majority of passengers seemed to be locals off for a day at the beach. (Although there is a sizeable expat community in Panama, we found that the majority of tourists tend to travel with organized tours.) Taboga is a lovely island. I’ll let the pictures speak for themselves.

The island has a lot of history including one of the oldest churches in the western hemisphere dating to the 1500s.  But the heat was so intense that after a short stroll up the hill to visit the church, and a stop for breakfast in a small hole in the wall (where we were waited on by an expat about our age from Wisconsin), we headed to the beach to enjoy the view under a sun umbrella. On the way we passed a mobile Uber stand.IMG_0047 (2)  Ever the ubiquitous Uber!  How strange, we thought! Taboga has no cars or trucks except for service vehicles.  The stand was closed so we couldn’t ask! (Then again the fact they were closed might answer the question!)  We found it interesting as we waited for our return ferry that residents returning to Taboga came loaded down with bags and boxes of groceries. Obviously they have to do their shopping on the mainland.  Then as we got underway for our twenty minute ride back we realized the boat was turning in a circle and returning to the dock.  What was happening?  Ah, we learned a woman, perhaps a regular? had missed the ferry and we were returning to pick her up!  Now just imagine that in the US or Europe!

At the top of our must do list was a trip through the canal! After researching the various options we finally decided on a partial tour. We would leave Panama City on a bus and head to Gamboa, about 40 minutes away, where we would board a boat in the locks at Gatun Lake. While both oceans are at sea level, the major problem with the construction is the height between the two. Gatun Lake is significantly higher so we would travel through three locks, each lowering us until finally, after approximately four hours, we would be at sea level again when we entered the Pacific Ocean. Our boat accommodated 300 people and because there were only about 100 in our party we had plenty of room to move about. Sailboats in front of us were tethered together. (And all ships that pass through the canal must have a canal guide.)

There were other small tour ships, huge cargo ships. As I watched the smooth water of the canal, I realized the stick I had been following wasn’t a stick at all but a crocodile.  I had read that the flooding was often so bad during construction that the men had to sleep in the trees. I don’t know what obstacle would have been the greatest: the climate, the snakes and crocodiles, the disease or the work itself. It truly is an engineering feat! As we entered the Pacific we were able to get a glimpse of the new lock, the one just opened in 2016 to accommodate larger ships. (It was also interesting to see a US Coast Guard ship sitting at its entrance!) At the end of the tour passing under the Bridge of the Americas, I felt like I was inside David McCullough’s book, Pathway Between the Seas.

We later toured the Museo del Canal Interoceanico de Panama.  Here in addition to reading about the history of the construction of the canal, starting with the French, we watched videos and read newspaper accounts of the Americans turning over control to Panama. I think it’s interesting to note that there was some doubt that the Panamanians would be able to manage the canal effectively. In reality they’ve done an amazing job far exceeding expectations! (Ever the jingoistic Americans!) We also read with fascination the United States Senate voting rolls from March 1978 that showed the individual votes cast by each senator including among others Biden, Byah, McGovern.

There were unusual exhibits as well:  posters from the campaign for national sovereignty and a caricature portrait of world leaders from World War II.

Finally before leaving we decided to take a vacation of sorts. (Yes, even in our travels we sometimes want a break from what we’re doing.) And so we made a reservation for two nights at the Country Inn and Suites right on the canal.  It had a wonderful pool where we could swim and watch the ships on the canal at the same time. Talk about up close and personal!  We virtually sat mesmorized watching ship after ship until it became so dark we couldn’t see any more!

At dinner, we met a couple of expats from Canada and when we first began chatting the wife told us that she thought what we were doing was great, that they had made the mistake of selling their place in Canada and buying in Panama. It’s difficult to know how to respond to such a confession! That’s a pretty costly mistake that may be difficult, if not impossible, to correct. She spoke with a certain melancholy tone of her annual trips back to Canada. The conversation did a lot to reinforce that I’ve not yet found a place where I’m willing to settle permanently.

When I was booking our Airbnb’s and plane tickets for Panama and Cuba I had thought we’d travel from one to the other, but as I looked at prices of plane tickets, it was much more expensive to fly to Havana from Panama than it was to fly back to DC and then on to Havana from there. Perhaps it was because it involved one way tickets; I’m not sure. I only know that on a Wednesday morning at the ungodly hour of 4:45 Jose, our charming taxi driver, met us at our door and took us to the airport!  But at least our last jaunt out of downtown Panama left us with a picture of traffic that was a bit less chaotic!

From Florida, to DC, to Panama

Hard to get tired of this view: Sunrise from our apartment on Amelia Island

Wow!  It’s almost spring!  We’ve found, as we’ve heard other retirees say, that it’s difficult to remember what day of the week it is.  In Michigan I often felt like winter lasted forever, but now that we can escape the cold and the snow, we sometimes even forget what season it is. We are continuously reviewing and revising our upcoming travel plans.  We spent January and part of February back on Amelia Island because we enjoyed it so much last year. We even went back to the same complex but when we found the one we rented last year had gone up considerably in price, we kept on looking and lo and behold the condo literally next door was $900 dollars cheaper. All the things we loved about last year’s condo but at a price we could afford!

We found a few new places to visit. One we particularly enjoyed was Jekyll Island.  It has a lot of history.  In the early 1500’s Spain claimed a colony there and later in the mid 1500’s the French came.  Many battles ensued with the Spanish eventually winning out. Then in the mid-1600’s the English expanded their colonies from Jamestown south and allied themselves with the Cherokee, Creeks, and Yuchi tribes and eventually won out over the Spanish.

Horton’s home made from Tabby

When James Ogelthorpe established Georgia as a colony in 1722 he named the area for his friend, James Jekyll, who had contributed 600 pounds toward the establishment of Georgia as a colony.  Ogelthorpe assigned William Horton in the 1730s to set up a military base to protect the fort on nearby St. Simons.  That home still exists. Our first reaction when seeing the house was how did he get the cement? But then we read that it was built from tabby…a combination of lime, crushed shells and water that creates a sort of cement like composition.  Horton’s plantation raised barley and indigo and provided the nearby fort with beef and corn. The labor was provided by slaves. Spanish attacks continued and by the end of the 1740’s Horton was dead. The plantation was continued by an owner who had escaped the French Revolution and who also imported slaves onto the island. But by the time of the American Civil War the plantation was pretty much deserted.  Really interesting place.

March and April we’re going to be in Panama and Cuba. So we decided in mid-February to head back to DC, and to return to favorite haunts including our Thursday Trivia game at Zeba’s. One of the things I love best about DC is the passion with which people voice their beliefs. Weeks after the Women’s March these signs say it all:


 People often ask why when we return to DC we go to the same area instead of exploring new places. It’s kind of a no-brainer for us.  Because we don’t own a house, it’s fun to return to something familiar.  It’s comfortable to know the neighborhood, have favorite restaurants and grocery stores.  It’s close to one of our son’s and has easy access to another son’s family (so we can spend time with some of our grandkids!) in nearby Maryland.  Anyone who knows DC knows that one can spend hours in traffic just trying to make it across town. Our son in Maryland only lives about 14 miles from Columbia Heights and on a good day we can make that in half an hour.  From other parts of DC and south it could easily take us three times that amount of time. As a result, Columbia Heights has sort of become, at least for now, our home away from home.

We were really fortunate that for the last days of February when we were there the weather was amazing!  It was generally in the 70s with the sun shining!  There was a lot of concern that the cherry blossoms were going to bloom way early!

We were thrilled when our son, Stephen, asked if we’d be interested in going to the Hirshhorn Museum for the opening day of Yayoi Kusama’s exhibit, “Infinity Mirrors.” While we didn’t know anything about her work, we quickly researched it online and found this exhibit reflects the body of her work over the last six plus decades. It also may very well be her last trip to the United States.  We jumped on the bus Thursday morning, and within half an hour we were at the Hirshhorn. The tickets were timed and the display was an unbelievable sensory experience.  We feel so lucky to have had the opportunity to see this wonderful exhibit! Check it out: http://hirshhorn.si.edu/kusama/the-exhibition/

One of the things I like best about seeing my grandkids often is being part of their everyday experiences, like walking them to and home from school. So on Wednesday morning after walking them to school, Bob and I called an Uber and headed to National Airport to head for Panama.  The spring-like weather had created the right conditions for some really heavy thunderstorms so we were delayed taking off. And our two and a half hour layover virtually disappeared in Atlanta. So when we landed, we really had to hustle to make the flight to Panama City, but we did it!  And we were extra lucky in that we had no one sitting in the middle seat so instead of being packed like sardines we were able to stretch out a bit!

We were waiting for take-off when the guy sitting in the row in front of us called over the flight attendant and pointed out to her that his luggage was still sitting on the cart that he could see from the window. The flight attendant immediately called it to the attention of someone who could solve that problem and it was quickly put on the plane.  Several of us were really impressed that he could recognize his bag while seated in the middle seat of the plane.  “That” he remarked, “is why I have a pink suitcase!”  It occurred to me then that all travelers have their little secrets for making travel easier! Little did I know that upon arrival in Panama City, Bob and I would be facing an obstacle of our own! Just when you think everything’s in order…