Saturday, June 11, 2011

Back to Reality

I have officially decided that my travels have come to an end...for now. Over the past 6 months on this amazing journey I have seen so many amazing places, had unforgettable experiences and made friends from all over the world.  I was once quiet, shy and afraid to fly but now I have taken off and have come back a whole new person – bolder, more confident, more independent.  Now I’m ready to take on the world here at home in Chicago!  I have truly loved sharing all my experiences with you!  <3

Saturday, May 7, 2011


I started my New Orleans trip by taking a ride on the St Charles Ave streetcar from The French Quarter, through The Garden District, into Uptown and beyond!  As we passed down the tree lined street that perfectly shaded the elegant houses behind them you couldn’t help but be reminded of Mardi Gras.  There were thousands of strands of beads still hanging in the trees, wrapped around power lines and dangling from the street signs.  Some people had even decorated their wrought iron fences by wrapping the beads around them in an intricate pattern, perfectly symmetrical on either side of the fence.

My visit to the Lower Ninth Ward which got hit the worst by Hurricane Katrina was eye opening.  Hearing the stories and being reminded of how many people died in this horrific event, in their attics while trying to escape to higher ground and in their homes where they thought they were safe only to have them washed away while they were still inside, was heartbreaking.  The houses that remained still have debris on their roofs left behind when the water finally retreated.  Some houses have large holes in the wall or the ceiling is completely imploded, clear that it had taken a vicious blow from a car, a truck, another house or a boat that had crashed into it.  There were eerie spray-painted markings on the houses, put there by the rescue workers indicating how many bodies were found inside. 
Few homes have been rebuilt because the insurance money never came through and these people literally have nothing left.  When the hurricane hit life stopped for weeks – there was no electricity, no air conditioning, no debit cards, no money, no communication systems, no way to find out if your relatives from across town were alive or dead.  Can you even imagine?  18,000 lives lost – 15,000 in the lower ninth ward alone.  On a much more positive note Brad Pitt’s Make It Right Foundation has made huge strides in turning these people’s lives around.  The only pre-requisite to receiving a new energy efficient, flood resistant home is that you lived in the lower ninth ward before Katrina hit.  These houses are really neat, complete with solar panels and water absorbent cement.
Speaking of Brad Pitt, I stopped by his and Angelina Jolie’s house in The French Quarter but they weren’t home.  Darn!  I also stopped by Sandra Bullock’s house in The Garden District but she wasn’t home either.  But she does live in a gorgeous neighborhood.  The Garden District has big, fancy, historic homes, lots of flowers and greenery, and wide streets with low hanging trees that meet in the middle.  Every street you turn down is just as nice, if not nicer, than the previous one!
The food.  Oh good Lord, the food!  Wonderful!  I never knew I liked southern cooking until now.  From the jambalaya to the beignets, and the creamy red beans and rice to the po’ boys, there’s some good eatin’ to be done down here in good ol’ Nawlins!  I bought some southern spices and such and am anxious to try to recreate these amazing dishes at home!
The French Quarter is something else.  While I ate on the balcony of a restaurant on Bourbon St a random jazz band marched beneath me playing, gathering participants along the way who danced and followed along with them.  The guitar player from the club across the street brought his electric guitar and microphone out into the streets to liven things up.  The Lucky Dog vending carts were out in full force on every corner.  The streets were blocked off as evening approached and people spilled out into the streets hoping from one bar to another.  The neon lights from the signs shown bright beckoning you in to see what was going on.  Music filled the streets and everyone, and I mean everyone, proudly carried a drink in their hands down the street.  The street cafes are always packed with people listening to the various jazz or blues bands playing either across the street or in the café themselves.  I loved the energy!
I took a leisurely cruise down the Mississippi River on the Creole Queen, a fancy paddlewheeled riverboat.  New Orleans is the only city that is split by the Mississippi.  In all other places throughout the country the river acts as a state or city border.  The cruise took me to the Chalmette Battlefield, which was super thrilling because you know me and battlefields.  I just can’t get enough!  (I really hope you noted the sarcasm!)  There are reminders of the hurricane everywhere, especially along the river where there are docks still standing…just barely.
 The people of New Orleans are fiercely loyal to their city and are proud of how they’ve rebounded after the disaster that affected nearly every resident’s life in 2005.  What a city!

Sunday, May 1, 2011


One of the things I loved most about Nashville was that music was everywhere!  And not just country music either, there was bluegrass, rock and roll, pop, blues, opera and jazz coming out of the speakers on the streets, filtering out the doors of the dozens of live music bars, restaurants and hotels, coming from the many street musicians and from the droves of struggling musicians playing in the yard of my hostel.  The Second Fiddle, The State, BB King’s Blues Bar and Cadillac Ranch are just a few of the places featuring live music at all hours of the day. It’s not uncommon to see cars from California, Iowa, Florida and all over packed full of all one’s possessions as they packed up and came to Nashville to try to get discovered as the next big country star.
No visit to Nashville is complete without a visit to the Grand Ole Opry and the Country Music Hall of Fame.  I had no idea that the shows at the Grand Ole Opry are broadcast on radio, 650 AM, and have been for 85 years!  Every Friday and Saturday night and some Tuesdays you can tune in, or log in to's live stream, and eavesdrop on what is going on in this fabulous venue!  I took a backstage tour and walked the path that the greats have walked to their dressing rooms, waiting room and right out onto the stage.  My tour group stood at the microphone at center stage, on the famous circle of the stage from the original Grand Ole Opry at the Ryman Auditorium, and sang our little hearts out to an auditorium full of 4,400 empty seats.  We didn’t sound very good, and the song was “You Are My Sunshine” (not exactly a country classic), but it was a pretty awesome feeling to get a small glimpse into what it must feel like for the stars.  I’m kind of embarrassed to say that I had a tear in my eye while I stood there looking around, taking it all in and imagining what it would be like to be Carrie Underwood.  Could this be a sign that singing and performing is in my future?  In my dreams yes, but in reality no.  I can’t carry a tune to save my life!  That night I watched lots of country music legends (i.e. they were so old I had never heard of them) perform and John Michael Montgomery and Montgomery Gentry!

Next up was a trip to the Country Music Hall of Fame where I spent 3 hours and was being ushered out of the place before I knew it because it was closing time.  The building alone is really neat, which even all you non-country fans could appreciate.  It’s designed so that when seen from above it looks like a giant treble clef, the windows are designed to look like piano keys, the four discs of varying sizes on top of the building represent a CD, a 45 record, a 78 record and a LP, and the angle of one of the corners of the building is designed to be the exact angle on a fin of a 1950s Cadillac as a homage to Elvis Presley.  The building is filled with memorabilia and exhibits about country music throughout the years, on radio, on TV and LIVE.  I loved it!
Honky Tonk Row in downtown Nashville is Nashville’s Vegas Strip.  It’s filled with music venues, bars, cowboy-wear stores, restaurants, neon lights, huge signs and tons of fun!  It extends right out to the Cumberland River which famously overflowed its banks and caused so much destruction in the city just one year ago.  The city has rebounded and is working hard to repair the damage that remains, like Opry Mills Mall which is still closed with no expected re-opening date.  Next door to that the amazing Opryland Resort is up and running again and more glorious than ever.  It’s a 4.5 acre resort filled with indoor gardens and waterfalls, grand atria, a river complete with a boat, restaurants, and elegant balconies off the most expensive rooms overlooking it all.  It really was quite spectacular.  On my last day in Nashville I went on the Nash Trash Tour, a hilarious and bizarre musical comedy tour through Nashville’s top sites.  The Jugg Sisters are so entertaining and quick witted.  It was the perfect way to end my Nashville jaunt.

Sunday, April 17, 2011

Amsterdam and Copenhagen

What’s the first things you think of when you hear about Amsterdam?  Drugs and sex?  I think that’s what about 95% of people think.  There is so much more to this amazing city than that!  There are beautiful canals, cheese, clogs, tulips, windmills and gorgeous countryside.
I spent the better part of a day riding a bike through the Holland (I’ve decided to refer to The Netherlands as Holland, even though Holland only comprises a small part of The Netherlands, because I prefer the name) countryside!  I first went with a tour company and then rented a bike and returned on my own.  The gorgeous weather, warm temps and cool breeze combined with the amazing locale was enough to make it a pretty perfect day!  Navigating through the city on the way out of town was much more difficult than it looked after watching the locals breeze through on their bikes.  Other tourists walked unknowingly in the designated bike paths and sometimes darted out in front of you to get away from another biker, cars came out of nowhere and since there are about 25 bikers crossing an intersection at any one time the chance of getting through an intersection unscathed is pretty thin.  But once I made it through that and into the countryside where I could feel the wind through my hair and the warm sun on my skin, I was sittin’ pretty. 
I’ve been sick as of late (thanks Contiki!) and have subsequently lost my sense of smell, which miraculously came back to me just as I rode past an odiferous cow pasture, and then it was gone again.  I saw the gorgeous tulips that Holland is known for, old windmills that look like they were put up yesterday.  I stopped at a cheese and clog farm where we were taken in and shown the ins and outs of the farm.  Next time you’re at the supermarket look at the label on your cheese; if it’s rounded or square it was made in a factory but if it’s rounded with four points in the corners it was made on a farm.  I had heard in the past that clogs are actually very comfortable, but I never bought it because how could sticking your foot in a block of wood be comfortable?  I saw how they were carved from one piece of wood, hung to dry, painted depending on their purpose, shipped to be sold and I got the chance to try a pair on and I could tell that once they were worn in and conformed to your foot they would be really comfortable.  Don’t knock it until you try it I guess.  After hours riding through the countryside and the city I ended up in Vondel Park, an “English Park” that was designed with the beautiful parks in England in mind.  <3
For the historical part of my trip I visited the Anne Frank House and was reminded of what an amazing little girl Anne Frank was.  Her home, while in hiding in Amsterdam, was so simple yet holds so much historical value.  I was so intrigued I wished there was more.  What a sad story captured so perfectly by a little girl who never knew that her diary would allow as much insight to the world as it has.
I don’t exactly know how to segue from Anne Frank to drugs and prostitution so I’m just gonna launch right in!  Contrary to popular belief, marijuana is not actually legal here.  It is in fact illegal but the offense has been de-criminalized as the police chose to look the other way.  The coffee shops (which is code for “We sell marijuana!”) that currently exist are the only ones who hold licenses to sell marijuana and no more will be issued.  These coffee shops cannot be bought or sold, passed down to family members or have ownership transferred in any way to ensure that they eventually will die out.  But there were a lot of rich hippies that bought the coffee shops so they’ll still be around for awhile. 
I went on a tour that took us through the Red Light District and I was shocked by how sad and miserable the girls in the windows looked.  Almost all of them looked depressed and were probably longing for a different life.  And many of them looked bored, spending more time yawning, texting or putting on makeup than trying to lure men to their windows.  There is an elementary school in the neighborhood and the kids, at least the younger ones, see the women in their windows in bikinis and think that they’re waiting for the bus to come along to take them to the beach.  Haha!  What innocence!  J  While we were walking through, a mother paraded her 4 young boys through the alleyway and one of the prostitutes looked horrified as the little boys oogled at her and she hung her head in shame.
Hopping across the border now into my first Scandanavian country I visited Copenhagen, Denmark!  My first impression of Copenhagen was that it seemed to feel more European to me than other places I had been.  But I discovered soon enough that it was not more European than other cities, there were just fewer tourists taking away from the true ambiance of the city.  Months ago when I was searching through travel photos online for a suitable background for this very blog, I came across a beautiful picture of Nyhavn that I fell in love with.  Alas I decided against using that picture though because I wasn’t planning on going there so it wouldn’t feel right using it on my blog.  But lo and behold I ended up in Copenhagen, and more specifically Nyhavn at the exact spot the photo was taken.  If things are meant to be they will be!
I visited the most unique and quirky town, Christiana, which is a completely free town that declared its independence in 1971 and governs itself.  The approximately 900 residents live in the town where the streets are made of dirt or gravel, there are no sidewalks and no street signs, there are old, dilapidated but brightly colored buildings all over.  Every few blocks there is a fire in a large, black barreled trash bin and there is artwork on buildings everywhere.  Pictures are strictly forbidden as indicated by the giant spray painted camera inside a red circle with a line through it on many of the buildings but I was able to take a couple of pictures at the entrance which give a modest preview into the eccentric town.  Go read about it on Wikipedia or visit it yourself, it’s quite the place!

Monday, April 11, 2011

England, Scotland and Ireland - Oh my!

I didn’t realize how much I missed being in an English speaking country until I arrived in England and could understand everything everyone said!  I wanted to talk to everyone just because I could!!  This portion of my trip is being done as a group tour with Contiki.  We are traveling through England, Scotland and Ireland over 16 days.  Our first stop was London where I saw most of London in one day – the Tower Bridge, the Tower of London, the London Eye, Big Ben, Westminster Abbey, Buckingham Palace, Hyde Park and Kennsington Gardens.  The parks were absolutely gorgeous.  I wish we had more of these back home! 

I also took in the changing of the guards at Buckingham Palace, enjoyed the peaceful Princess Diana Memorial Fountain in Hyde Park, and got a healthy dose of the hoopla over Prince William and Cate Middleton’s upcoming nuptials.  We headed out of the city just in time to avoid the riots that broke out in the center of town.  We continued on to Bath where we saw the Roman Baths, and Stonehenge where we saw a bunch of big rocks in a circle.  Just kidding, it was much more than that, in meaning, not necessarily in what was physically there. 

We continued on to Liverpool, the home of The Beatles!  Everything in that town is Beatle themed from A Hard Day’s Night Café to the Sergeant Pepper Bistro.  We played Beatles hits on the bus and were taken to all the best spots for Beatles nostalgia!
We continued onto York, England which houses the largest cathedral in Northern Europe and is the most haunted city in all of Europe.  We took a nighttime ghost walk with Clive who scared the bageezus out of us!  When he took us to a dark, cold alley and told us the story of Mad Alice who sometimes appears, screaming, in the window overlooking the alley one guy in our group summed up what we were all thinking – “Why did you bring us here?!?!”  When I got home I tried to write down some of the ghost stories, all of which have factual evidence (further proven by the top spot on the Guinness Book of World Records’ most haunted city), but I scared myself all over again so I abandoned the writing quickly!!
One of our last stops in England was Bowness, the home of Beatrix Potter and Lake Windermere, a perfectly calm lake that reflected like a mirror.  I visited the Peter Rabbit Shop and the Beatrix Potter Shop.  The town was best viewed from a cruise on Lake Windermere which took us through the most pretty parts of the area. 
Scotland was by far my favorite of the three countries of this trip.  It was such a perfect mix of history, gorgeous landscapes, cute towns, majestic castles and bagpipes!  We had a full on Scottish evening at Murrayfields in Edinburgh complete with haggis and a bagpiper!  One of my favorite sounds in the world is bagpipes playing.  It reminds me of the days at Monmouth when a bagpiper would walk through the halls early in the morning.  I had to give myself a shot of reality when I almost bought a red, white and black plaid kilt, because really, when would I ever wear a kilt in normal life?!
In Edinburgh, one of my favorite cities, I visited the Palace of Holyroodhouse which is the Queen’s residence when she is in Scotland, and is open to the public when she’s not there.  The rumor was that she was in Edinburgh the evening that we arrived but alas there were no Queen sightings.  The Palace was beautiful and very old.  I also visited Edinburgh Castle, perched high above the city.  Edinburgh is really old and is filled with cute curvy cobblestone streets.  I could have stayed there for days!

The Isle of Skye in northwest Scotland may very well be one of the most beautiful places on the planet.  As we drove along, a shallow creek followed along with the road, meandering through the landscape.  The water looked so crisp and clean and was a deep shade of blue topped with small white caps as the water cascaded over the rapids.  I wanted to get off the coach and go sit on the banks of the creek.  The banks gave way to flat land covered in brown grasses dotted with green shrubbery.  The river emptied into a lake set against a beautiful backdrop of mountains which are gray in color.  There were tall skinny pine trees neatly in rows off in the distance on the mountainside.  Soon the land changed to tons and tons of little hills, still covered with brown grasses still dotted with green shrubbery.  The land has so clearly never been touched that it’s unbelievable.  Nothing has been excavated, nothing has been designed, nothing has been landscaped or planted.  So pretty!  This is one of my favorite things about Scotland - how vastly the landscape changes and it’s all so beautiful.
You can’t call a visit to Scotland complete without a visit to Loch Ness to search for the Loch Ness Monster!  It was foggy and rainy and somewhat eerie the morning that we took our cruise of the lake.  We floated past ruins of a castle, beautiful countryside, and an osprey nest where one of the crew said that is brand new within the last few days signaling that the birds have returned from Africa.  When he said Africa my initial reaction was that it was so far away and I was wondering why on earth the birds would go such an odd direction but then I remembered I was in another part of the world where the south is simply Africa.  Sadly there were no signs of Nessie – maybe next time!
We visited the Eilean Donan Castle which was just off the road on an island separated from the mainland by nothing more than a very narrow river.  There was a long stone bridge walkway that went right out to the mysteriously beautiful stone castle.  We also visited the Sterling Castle that sat majestically on the top of a hill overlooking the town of Sterling.  This castle was my absolute favorite!  I love how we see pictures of all these castles that look like they’re far off in the middle of the country, hard to reach.  But in reality many of these gorgeous castles and their amazing backdrops are in towns, on the outskirts of the country and just off the side of the road.  Amazing!

Ireland had the cards stacked against it after the way Scotland blew my mind and had to do something pretty spectacular to move into second place (Australia has been, and always will be, number one!).  It fought a hardened battle and came very close but did not manage to surpass Scotland. 
My favorite part of Northern Ireland was Londonderry, or Derry, depending on who you’re talking to.  We went on a walking tour with Ronan, the most charismatic, passionate, engaging, sweet person you’ll ever meet, through the walls separating the old city from the new city.  He took us through the history of this interesting town and impartially presented the strife between the Republicans and Unionists, or Catholics and Protestants that was so deadly about 40 years ago.  There were vicious riots and fights and Londonderry was referred to by a few soldiers as the Afghanistan of the 70s.  The town was completely divided because of religion rather than the social, economic or political issues that usually are to blame.  There are murals depicting the trials and tribulations that occurred as a constant reminder of what was, and what could be again without tolerance and acceptance.  One giant mural showed a 14 year old girl who was killed in the riots and Ronan’s comment about this was so simple yet so profound and will stick with me until the day I die.  He said that it doesn’t matter whether the girl was Catholic or Protestant, she was someone’s daughter and we are all united in grief.

On a lighter note, yet not all sunshine and puppy dogs, the experience of crossing over to the Aran Islands via the Irish Sea was probably one of the most trying periods of 40 minutes of my life.  The sea was really rough causing the ferry to crash into huge waves, dropping back down into the sea probably about 10 feet from the crest of the wave, then rocking side to side.  This continued for the entire time and to add insult to injury instead of just thinking I was going to die out in the middle of the Irish Sea I also nearly got sick as well.  But the payoff was that the Aran Islands were pretty amazing, although if you were to ask me that day I was a huge Debbie Downer and hated everything about the day.  We rented bicycles and explored the island that way, riding along the deserted street along coast through the fog and mist which just enhanced the simplistic beauty of the island.  The land was filled with rugged green, rolling hills separated into pastures by low stone walls.  Homes speckled the countryside and I found myself imagining what life would be like so far away from modern conveniences.  The pinnacle of the Aran Islands trip occurred at the top of a hill where I laid down on my stomach on a cliff that dropped straight down into the sea.  Add to that some strong wind and slippery rocks and you’ve get a truly exhilarating, terrifying and awesome experience – a real WOW moment!   
Some other highlights were Giant’s Causeway, an incredible natural phenomenon caused by some type of volcanic eruption that pulled hexagonal columns of varying heights from beneath the earth.  I found a barbershop bearing my last name, visited the iconic Cliffs of Moher which were gorgeous and spectacular, explored Blarney and climbed up to kiss the Blarney Stone supposedly giving me eloquence, the gift of gab and overall good luck.
I had the most amazing whirlwind of a good time on this leg of my trip due in part to the really wonderful people I met, the tour manager of the century, Mark, the most gorgeous Aussie coach driver I’ve ever laid eyes on, GT, (I knew my love of Australia would extend beyond the country itself!), and the songs of the day “It’s a Beautiful Day” and “Galway Girl” which we requested at every pub we visited!  J

Saturday, March 26, 2011


Ah, Paris!  How do I love thee?  Let me count the ways!  One, two three, four…there are too many to name!  In my three days in Paris I did and saw many of the typical “touristy” sites but I also took the time to explore the many neighborhoods/districts, or arrondisements, of Paris by foot and by bike.  I strolled along the Seine taking in the sights of the Arc de Triomphe, the Eiffel Tower, the Louvre, Notre Dame and more.  What a beautiful city!  I took a walking tour through the right bank of Paris, visiting some of the wealthiest parts of the city.  I dined at an outdoor café, people-watched and spoke more French than I knew I could!  My absolute favorite part of Paris was everyday around 5pm when the streets were filled with people on their way home from work, and nearly everyone you saw had a loaf of freshly baked French bread in their hands having just picked it up at the bakery. 

One of my favorite things that I did while in Paris was the picnic that I had in the Jardin de Luxemborg.  I took a seat just in front of the railing overlooking the giant pond/fountain.  The park was filled with tourists taking in the sights, Parisians on their lunch break, students on field trips and kids running toy ships across the pond.  It was so warm sitting in the sun that I had to take off my layers and was still baking in the heat!  So lovely!
I, of course, visited the Eiffel Tower and the Louvre.  I’m glad I visited the Eiffel Tower when I did because the day after I was there a bomb threat was called in and a suspicious package was found at the base of the Tower, it was evacuated and shut down for two hours.  I would not have wanted to have been the first one back up the Tower!  But when I went everything was fine, the day was gorgeous and you could see for miles!  I opted for the walk-up option rather than taking the elevator and I walked up to the 1st platform and eventually to the 2nd platform, which is probably about half way up the Tower.  I was perfectly happy there and did not see the need to go all the way to the top.  The views were amazing and kept getting better as I rounded each corner.  My favorite view was looking out over the Seine that ran as far as the eye could see.  The sun was glistening off the water and the buildings were reflecting into the river.  Gorgeous! As I walked away from the park I couldn’t help but keep turning around, each time surprised by the sheer size and magnitude of this amazing structure that was hovering over the city.   At the Louvre I saw the essentials, the Venus de Milo and the Monna Lisa, and reached my art museum threshold shortly thereafter and left.  The sheer size of the Louvre is incredible.  There are 450,000 pieces of art displayed in 30 miles of halls.  If you were to spend 1 minute on each piece of art you would spend something like 1 year of your life, no eating or sleeping, at the Louvre.  Amazing!  The buildings just go on and on and on, which is in and of itself pretty neat.

I went to the funniest, and only, show in Paris in English.  It was a one-man show called How to Become Parisian in One Hour.  The show started late, of course – Parisian time!  He made fun of Americans and Parisians while taking us through 8 ways to act Parisian instead of American.  So funny!
The most romantic thing I saw in Paris was a fence on the bridge crossing the river which has become known as the Love Lock bridge.  The mesh fence is filled with padlocks, some decorated and some not, that are inscribed with two lovers names who have sealed their love and thrown the key into the Seine.    
The biggest shock to me was being met at the train station, and at the Eiffel Tower, and at the Louvre, and many other places by militia in camouflage and berets carrying machine guns with their fingers dangerously close to the trigger.  That’s a little different than my usual day-to-day!

Tuesday, March 22, 2011

Munich, Salzburg and Zurich

There’s a big difference between VACATIONING and TRAVELING.  My dad pointed this out as I told him I had a bit of a bout with boredom going from amazing fun and adventure on the beach and in the rainforest to visiting another city.  Not that I’m not having a great time and loving every minute because I am, and really, who am I to talk??  I had a beer and a large pretzel in Germany, an apple streudel and a bratwurst in Austria and fondue in Switzerland.  I soaked up as much as I could of these places in my limited time there.

I had been to Munich, Germany, Salzburg, Austria and Zurich, Switzerland before, but I was 10 years old and don’t remember much.  I think Munich was my favorite of the three as there was so much to see and do.  I watched the Glockenspiel’s performance at 11am - the giant clock tower’s clock starts chiming and playing a little tune as painted characters dance around to commemorate the celebration that the plague was over in 1517 and then the painted characters have a jousting match.  The chiming was tuned out however by the Italian soccer fans that filled Marienplatz, drunkenly chanting about their team.

No trip to Munich is complete without a visit to the famous Hofbrauhaus!  An interesting tidbit about those traditional German leather pants with the flap in the front - that derived from the olden days when men would be drinking at the Hobrauhaus, where they didn’t have a bathroom, and when they needed to relieve themselves they would do it right there while still sitting at the table.  At the end of the evening they would hose down the place with water washing away the day’s urine and beer.  Imagine the stench!  Yeech!  I visited the Vikrualienmarket which is filled with booths of people selling food, crafts, flowers and more.  They have a seating area outside of one of the booths that is filled with people sitting shoulder to shoulder with a liter of beer in front of each one of them.
I wandered over to the English Gardens which is a huge park, similar in size to Central Park in NYC, complete with a river running all the way through.  There were people everywhere enjoying the 60 degree sunny day, playing Frisbee, riding a bike, reading a book, or just laying out soaking up the sun and ALL of them were drinking beer.  This really is a beer city!  There’s even a part of the river where a natural wave is created and there are surfers, yes surfers in the middle of Germany, hanging ten. 
I visited the Dachau Concentration Camp in Germany, not because it’s a fun tourist activity, but because I felt I had to.  The tour I took was chilling, leaving me sickened and depressed as I learned of the torture and psychological warfare that was inflicted on thousands of innocent people.   
 Salzburg was beautiful!  It was cool and rainy the entire time I was there but it was still beautiful.  I can only imagine what it would look like with the sun shining down on it!  I climbed up to the Hohensalzburg Fortress which is the highest point of the city.  This fortress, built in the Middle Ages, is now a complex of 55 connected buildings which are old and mysterious looking.  There are 3 museums, a short film about its history, various rooms that appear as they did in the Middle Ages, and various gift shops included in it.  When I went out on one of the verandas overlooking a part of town I hadn’t seen yet, I couldn’t help buy say out loud, “Wow!”  The scene was breathtaking with a combination of beautiful buildings, pastel colors, open grassy areas, old homes, mountains partially covered by low hanging clouds.  It was so pretty!  I wondered what the story is of this one farm house that is set on a plot of land with two long criss-crossing sidewalks.  It has a fence of trees around it and has one car parked out front.  Looks perfect to me!  The next day I went on The Sound of Music tour for which all external scenes were shot here in 1964.  Throughout the 4 hour tour we visited the terrace where the Von Trapp children met the new baroness; where the baroness tried to play ball with the children; where the children were confronted by the captain after coming back from “picking berries”; where the captain and Maria dance and fall in love; and the boat scene where Maria and all the children fall out of the boat.  We saw the gazebo where Liesel and Rolf sang “16 Going on 17” and where Maria and the captains first kiss was.  We went to Mirabell Gardens where Maria and children sang “Do Re Mi”, the pathway where Maria sang “I Have Confidence” and the mountains where Maria sang “The Hills Are Alive” and where the family escaped to Switzerland (which doesn’t really lead to Switzerland, by the way).  All the while we sang along to The Sound of Music soundtrack.  It may have been a little corny but it was fun!  In the afternoon I took a tour back into the Germany to explore the Bavarian mountains and a giant salt mine. 
My last stop was in Zurich, which sits just north of Lake Zurich, a stunning lake with water so clean you could drink it.  I found a nicely landscaped path that ran along much of the edge of the lake where I took a long, leisurely stroll as the sun set.  The Old Town is filled with historic churches with large clock towers, cobblestone streets and cozy little shops.  They have an extensive cable car tram system which is the only type of transportation allowed on some streets.  The river Limmat runs through town, splitting it into The Right Bank (Old Town) and The Left Bank, and ending up in Lake Zurich.  The quays along the river are some of the most beautiful anywhere! 
I love Europe’s train system that took me from Munich to Salzburg to Zurich and will take me to all my other destinations in Europe.  My trip from Salzburg to Zurich was especially nice as the 2nd class seat I sat in was as nice as a 1st class airplane seat.  Towards the end of the trip an announcement came on in German it went on for about 3 minutes, and expecting an equivalent announcement in English I was surprised when the conductor simply said in English, “Ladies and Gentlemen, Zurich is next.”  The tour I took at the salt mines in Salzburg was given in German but had a recorded English audio guide.  There were a number of times when the Germans would laugh and laugh at something that was said and I waited and waited and waited to hear the same joke in my headset but it never came.  I guess it pays to learn the language!

Wednesday, March 16, 2011

Me Encanta Costa Rica!

If I knew I’d love Costa Rica so much I’d have gone there a long time ago.  I discovered that I’m a bit of a passive thrill seeker.  No bungee jumping or skydiving, but I did partake in a number of other equally exciting activities!  I decided that I wasn’t going to let fear of the unknown get the best of me and let my fear of heights or pure adrenaline pumping activities keep me down.  Adventure, here I come!
The first day we hiked down, down, down and down some more to the base of a beautiful waterfall.  I went swimming in the water around the base of the waterfall, unable to actually swim under it because the force of the waterfall pushed you back.  The water was pretty cold, but the experience was worth it.  After the dip in the water we climbed up, up, up and up some more to the parking lot.  I didn’t know it at this point yet, but we’d be doing hiking of this magnitude about once a day.  Man, I was worn out already!

La Fortuna is famous for the Arenal Volcano which is still active but not dangerous (at least not right now).  The volcano sits majestically above the town, one side of which is lush and green and the other side of which is rocky and ashy from the nearly daily eruptions.  Years ago its eruptions were much more predictable occurring everyday like clockwork. 
We took a hike through the rainforest with a fabulous guide who knew, I think, everything there was to know about the rainforest.  Costa Rica has made their main industry ecotourism and 25% of the rainforest is protected.  Years ago they turned a lot of the land into farmland until the government implemented its ecotourism laws.  The farmland was left alone and because the climate is so tropical within 25 years a whole new rainforest appeared on its own.  They call this a new growth or second growth rainforest.  There are so many seeds transported by animals and the environment is so fruitful that it reproduces on its own.  There is also a daily competition for survival among the plants in the rainforest.  Only 5% of the natural light reaches the rainforest floor so plants actually grow on top of another one to try to get that precious sun in a survival of the fittest.  Who knew that plants, plants, were capable of behaving in this way!
In the evening we went to the Baldi Hot Springs, an amazing place that has pools ranging from 93 to 152 degrees.  I have never in my life felt so blissfully peaceful as I did when I was laying in the reclining chair as the warm water washed over me as it tumbled down from a waterfall.  I stood under a waterfall enjoying nature’s massage.  They had some amazing water slides I couldn’t get enough of.  I felt like a kid running to the top of the water slide again and again as soon as I hit the bottom!
The first of the adventure activities was canyoneering, which is probably one of the coolest things I have ever done!  I essentially rappelled down waterfalls hanging from nothing but a rope.  This was combined with bouts of hiking through creeks, tight spaces, and wet, rocky areas in between.  At one point we had to jump into a cold pool of water, completely submerging ourselves, which explains the look on my face in the picture below. 
The goal of the guides was to make sure that everyone got wet, so any opportunity for them to have us go under water or through waterfalls they made sure we did it.  And if we didn’t get wet on our own they were not above filling their helmets or gloves with water and dumping it on you!  The longest of the waterfalls I rappelled down was 220 feet, which was essentially a free fall.  It’s a terrifying moment when the guides hook you up and tell you to lean back and there’s nothing but a rope supporting you.  I love the picture below because it’s the moment where I was literally putting my life in the guide’s hands as I leaned back over nothing but air and he held the other end of the rope in place.

The second adventure activity of the day was white water rafting!  I can’t think of many things more exciting than this!  My favorite moment was when we went over an especially big rapid and I went airborne, held in only by my feet which were tightly tucked into the foot holds.   
There are so many activities that you can’t stop at just one and it becomes like an addiction wanting to do everything!   There were five of us who did the maximum number of activities available in one day, bouncing around from cloud forest walk to ziplining to ATVing to nighttime jungle hike!  In the morning we took a guided tour in Santa Elena Nature Preserve, which was gorgeous.  Next up was ziplining, which was amazing!  After experiencing canyoneering I was no longer scared to do ziplining, or at least I believed that until I was up on the platform being hooked up to  the line.  But as soon as I was set free on that first line I was hooked!  There were 13 lines in total, varying in length, height and speed but all took me soaring over the trees with the wind blowing in my hair!  What a rush!  There was a guide on the platform that you were flying into that was supposed to tell you to brake, but they never did so you ended up braking at the last second on your own only because you’re about 5 feet away from crashing into a tree at 45 mph.  This can be pretty scary as you can see from the picture below.  The last line was my favorite - it was ¾ of a mile long, was so fast, and I didn’t think it was ever going to end.  
Next up was ATVing which took some getting used to.  I was certain I was going to fall over from side to side and quickly learned that it was important NOT to stick your leg out to the side to steady yourself if you thought you were going to fall.  I got the hang of it pretty soon and was soon zooming up and down the gravel roads, through the hills and the forest.  
The night hike through the forest was not quite as thrilling but was accentuated by the sighting of a kingjou (looks like a cross between a squirrel and a monkey) directly above our heads followed immediately by screams of, “It’s pooping!” and everyone running for cover. 
We crossed a river one day that was filled with crocodiles!!  I was in heaven!  In case you haven’t been able to tell from my previous entries I LOVE crocodiles.  I don’t really know why because they should be feared, but you know, different strokes for different folks.  There were probably about 30 and were everywhere you looked!  We continued on to Manuel Antonio where we went to the most gorgeous beach I think I have ever been to.  The jungle went right up onto the beach, monkeys swung around from tree to tree, the water was calm and warm and amazing!
My last adventure activity was surfing!!   When you’re practicing on the beach surfing seems so easy, but in reality it’s really hard, especially if you’re tall because you have to keep your center of gravity so low.  I prefer to do things my own way sometimes and got up all the way on my left leg and up only on my knee on my right.  My guide laughed and said I developed a new way of surfing!  I actually got all the way up once!  I also got smacked in the head a time or two with my surfboard and got tumbled around under water as the waves grew with high tide.  What a blast!!