Backpack Benji

My Blog (posts are chronological from bottom to top)

Jerusalem.

Jerusalem! The ancient Biblical city full of incredible history.  A most holy site for Christians, Jews and Muslims.  Our first stop was at a vantage point along the Jericho Road with an excellent view of the entire city including the iconic Dome of the Rock – the Islamic shrine with its entire roof covered in pure gold which was built centuries ago.  We checked out some nearby stony, centuries old caverns, before making our way toward the walled city.


Along the way, we stopped at the Mount of Olives, a small mountain ridge which offers a unique view to the great wall surrounding the Holy City. Here there are over 150,000 graves along with many olive trees still growing.  Experts have carbon tested these trees and certified them to be the oldest olive trees in the world.  I went into the Chapel of the Ascension where a very solemn and sacred service was in progress.  The church was built upon the spot where Jesus ascended into heaven and where prophecy says he shall return and the mountain shall be split in two and the dead will be resurrected.  I walked down toward the Kidron Valley and to the Garden of Gethsemane, and then prepared to enter Old Jerusalem.


I entered Jerusalem via the Dung Gate, a gate inside the wall which was named after the location referred to in the Book of Nehemiah. Adjacent to the Dung Gate is the Temple Mount, which according to Torah law, is unable to be visited due to its holiness.  I next visited the Western Wall.  This ancient limestone wall was built by Herod the Great with the original foundations laid by the Biblical King Solomon, and is the holiest place in Jerusalem where Jews are permitted to pray.  Some Christians call this the Wailing Wall because they say the Jews go here to weep over the destruction of the ancient Temples – a term that many Jews actually find offensive.  Since the wall is part of the original Temple Mount and closest to where the Holy of Holies was located in ancient Israel, and since it is taught that after the destruction of the Temples, God removed his presence from his sanctuary and placed it on the wall, this is single place on earth believed to be where one can be closest to God.  Ancient Jewish Law states that praying here is as if you have prayed at the Throne of Glory because here is, in essence, the Gate of Heaven which is always open to hear prayer.  Doctrine further outlines that praying in the direction of Jerusalem, and specifically here – at this Gate of Mercy is beneficial in that the prayers from this ancient Israeli site ascend straight into Heaven.  I washed my hands and covered my head out of respect, and went to the wall to pray.  There is a practice of slipping written prayers into the crevices of the Wall, and I had mine ready.  My time at the Western Wall was a special moment of worship and I backed away as I left, in a sign of respect and reverence.


We next ventured out the Western Wall tunnels and along the Via Dolorosa, the way of grief, sorrow, and suffering, where Jesus bore his cross on the way toward his crucifixion. Jerusalem is quartered into four sections: The Muslim, Jewish, Christian, and Armenian quarters.  Along the Via Dolorosa, we passed from the Muslim Quarter into the Christian Quarter – encountering many shops, cafes and hallways.  The road is made of stone and slanted upwards as we walked past the area where Pontius Pilate convicted Jesus to death.  I placed my hand in the spot where Jesus was said to have fallen against the weight of the cross, and fell against a wall for support, as I made my way toward the Church of the Holy Sepulcher.  The Church contains what are essentially the two holiest sites in Christianity including where Jesus was circumcised and presented (purified) to the church, where he drove the money changers out, where he was crucified and endured His Passion on the Rock of Agony (the church is built over the rock of Calvary or Golgotha) and where he resurrected (the tomb encompasses the tomb of Joseph of Arimathea where Jesus was buried).


We made our exit from the walled city out of the Jaffa Gate (also called David’s Gate) named after the Port of Jaffa from which the prophet Jonah launched his journey. Just outside the gate is the Tower of David, a distinctive citadel built during the 2nd century.  While there, I enjoyed some fresh pomegranate juice from a local vendor.  Jerusalem was incredible and a must visit pilgrimage for Jews, Christians, and Muslims alike.


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The Gaza Strip, The Dead Sea, and Tel-Aviv.

Our ship next docked in precarious Ashdod, site of suicide bombings and a giant military cargo port, connected to the south by the rocket-battered Gaza strip.  Ashdod was an important Canaanite and Philistine city and mentioned in the Bible when the apostle Phillip preached there after baptizing the Ethiopian.  My friend and I decided to make our way down to the Dead Sea for the day, to soak in the healing mud and to experience the fabled waters.

Our trip was down, down, down and for the first time ever, my ears popped just like they would if I had been flying in a plane, but from the downward elevation as we ventured to the lowest point on earth.  The Dead Sea is one of the worlds saltiest bodies of water, and a natural health spa that supports no marine life. Face down swimming and splashing is strictly prohibited as severe damage to the eyes could result.  As I crept into the water, I found myself bobbing up and not able to stand – anyone who cannot swim would have no problem in the Dead Sea, since floating freely comes natural, and it is near impossible to go under.

I covered my body in the mineral rich mud and soaked for hours in the water and sun.  After our time there, we showered and changed and hung out at the lowest bar/restaurant in the world and enjoyed the late-year, warm, Middle Eastern weather.


After returning to our ship at dark, we ventured back out and decided to catch a local bus down to Tel-Aviv.  We walked the city and made our way to a rooftop bar called SuraMare where we hung out and enjoyed incredible views of the Tel-Aviv skyline.  On our journey, no one spoke nor was anything written in English.  We had to catch taxis and encountered many people carrying rifles strapped to their backs in the increasingly sketchy city at night.  It was a bit intense and we arrived back very very late but the excitement was worth the adventure.

 

Crete.

Chania, Crete, Greece rests on the site of Kydonia, one of the most important cities of the ancient world and conquered many times over by Romans, Byzantines, Venetians and Turks. Our ship docked at dawn and I made my way to a secluded vantage point to enjoy the still waters and clean air as I watched the sunrise over Souda Bay.  After breakfast I headed into town, following the ancient Byzantine wall of Chania which used to circle the entire city.


I ventured into old town where I wound through narrow lanes, and a charmingly exotic landscape. The view was a crisscross of Ottoman architecture and Venetian mansions.  A historic Venetian lighthouse watched over the harbor where Arab pirates once ruled, and I was amazed at the clarity of the inviting waters.  After perusing the quaint shops, inviting café’s, and colorful neighborhoods, I ducked into a covered but open sided café called Akti Tompazi – which I later learned is one of the best restaurants in the Old Venetian Harbor. I enjoyed spicy feta cheese with crunchy bread, warm dolma (stuffed grape leaves), and Imam Baildi (stuffed eggplant).


For the best olive oils, crystal clear waters, inviting people, and incredible food, come visit Crete!

Exploring lava fields, in Sicily.

Our ship next stopped in Catania, Sicily.  Our first decision was to hire a taxi to drive us from zero elevation to three-thousand feet and the top of Mount Etna.  We drove passed lemon groves and alongside beautiful cliffs of black basaltic rock to arrive at the peak of the highest active volcano in Europe.  It was somewhat of an eerie feeling to walk along the rims of the craters, exploring the lava fields and witness the stunning wilderness landscape highlighted by streams of solidified lava.  Each rock seemed to tell a story of the age-old volcanic activity and we were left with a unique and unforgettable experience of smoke holes and the spectacular majesty of a great force of nature.


After touring Mount Etna, we asked to be dropped off in the town center and hung out for a bit at Fontana dell Amenano and Piazza del Duomo where the Cathedral di Sant’Agata stands tall, having been rebuilt by the Normans, after being destroyed by an earthquake in 1693. We perused Mercato stoico (the rowdy local fish market), and made our way to Palazzo degli Elefanti where Fontana Elefanti (the elephant fountain) was erected in 1736 and remains the symbol of the city.  We ended up at the ancient Ursino Castle before finding our way back to the ship.


I only spent one day, but Sicily seems cool enough to revisit again, when I can check out the beaches.

Revisiting Sorrento, and Napoli

After a day in Capri, we continued our stay in laid-back Sorrento.  We explored the charming city, which is always so warm and inviting. Some of the best wines in the world can be found here for remarkably cheap prices and the olives come straight from the trees and will be the best you’ve ever tasted – never canned or preserved.  The entire city is built on cliffs so views from the city edge are spectacular.  There are lots of scooters puttering around and everyone can’t help but be at ease.  Coffee bars and outdoor seating spots are around every corner, as are the smells of fresh seafood and Italian fare. Sorrento is filled with lemon groves and the locals make all sorts of lemon products including soaps, candies, and the most famous export: Limoncello, a very popular lemon liqueur.


 

While in Sorrento, we enjoyed some great Italian food…


After our days in Sorrento, we took a hydrofoil up the coastline and into the port of Naples, where after a bit of trouble, we found our hotel.  We ventured to L’ Antica Pizzeria da Michele, made famous by Julia Roberts in the movie Eat, Pray, Love and known as the birthplace of pizza.  The wait is always long (30-60 minutes) and the offerings are few, but it is arguably the best pizza in the world.  We traipsed around old Napoli and watched the sun set from the roof top patio on our hotel.


My sister left the next morning for the States, and I headed back to Rome where I boarded the Celebrity Constellation for a twelve day cruise.  The first stop was right back into the port of Naples.  I made a friend onboard and had fun showing her Naples, and we backtracked the boat trip I had made mere days earlier down to Sorrento.  This was officially my fifth time to Naples and my fourth time to Sorrento.  In Sorrento, I have a “go to” spot and this time was no different.  I cozied in to an outdoor chair at my favorite place to sit and watch the world go by…The Fuano Bar. I hooked up to Wi-Fi and pointed my friend in the direction of the shopping district while I sat for hours, soaking up the sun, food, and warm Italian culture.  We met back up and cruised along the coast, into the port of Naples where after over a month on the road and living out of my backpack, I was happy to be relaxing in the same room for the next several days.


 

The Isle of Capri.

 

        Through the bay on the southern edge of Naples there lies an “Island of Dreams”.

From Firenze (Florence), we made our way down to the seaside town of Sorrento. From there, we chartered a small boat from Marina di Puolo to take us across the Gulf of Naples into the Tyrrhenian Sea and around the Isle of Capri.  We sailed past the Heart Grotto, a sea cave that seems to have a heart carved into its walls by nature and time.  We then sailed past the Punta Carena Lighthouse, an active lighthouse that operates from dusk to dawn.  Next up was the shallow waters of the White Grotto, yet another of the magnificent scenic caves along Capri’s rocky coast.  We then anchored our boat and went for a swim before having an onboard snack.


A faraglioni is an oceanic rock edifice that has been eroded by waves over time to create a stacked rock formation.  Just off of the Capri coast are three named faraglioni: Stella, Mezzo, and Scopolo.  We sailed out to these iconic formations and rode through the stone archway at the base of Mezzo before checking out the Blue Grotto.


Capri is an idyllic resort island overlooking the Sorrento Peninsula. After a morning on and in the water, we docked in Marina Grande.  We then made our way up the funicular to La Piazzetta, the heart of the islands shopping and nightlife area. Capri is one of the loveliest towns in all of Italy.  We spent several hours on the island, exploring all we could, before returning to out boat and sailing around the rest of the island and to Anacapri on the other side of the island.  We then made our way back to the mainland as we watched the sun set over the sea.


It was a beautiful day on the Italian Coast and I highly recommend a tour of Capri from either Naples or Sorrento when you are in Southern Italy.  Truly, an “Island of Dreams.”

Feeling frantic in Firenze!

From Cinque Terre we took a train to Pisa where we enjoyed a leisurely Italian lunch in the shadow of the famous leaning tower.  We walked from the station to the city, taking breaks for souvenir shopping before heading to the tower where we got a kick out of everyone taking their pictures holding up the wall before taking some of our own.  We then enjoyed the spectacular weather as we dined on authentic Italian fare at the base of the iconic tower. I had an awesome pizza in Pisa!


We left Pisa and hopped another train to Firenze.  On the way from the train station to our hotel, we realized that my sister had lost her phone.  Distraught, we made our plan to quickly check into our hotel and retrace our steps.

We got checked in and made our way back to the train station asking at the ticket window if they had found it. There was no lost and found at the huge station and the phone was not there.  We then ducked in to a local tourist info office where we were informed that items could be reported lost after twenty-four hours to the police but that as it was an iPhone, they assured us it was forever gone.

My sister asked by chance if they could make the international phone call to attempt to ring her device. They were kind enough to do so, and someone picked up and began speaking in Italian!  We handed the phone to the locals who informed us that a security officer at the Duomo had the phone and would wait there to meet us!  We began running through the streets of Florence with onlookers staring at us strangely as we made our mad dash through the streets in full stride while wearing street clothes.  We found the guard who spoke zero English and were reunited with the phone!  The phone was recovered several blocks from anywhere we had been and it was truly an incredible feat to have recovered the coveted device.  We celebrated with dinner at the base of the spectacular Duomo.


The next day, we hung out at Signoria Piazza where we marveled at the art, and then made our way to the Ponte Vecchio bridge, a medieval stone arch bridge crossing the Arno river.  We then wound up at the San Lorenzo marketplace. This “mercato centrale” is a two-level indoor food market with fishmongers, delicatessens, and butchers selling an impressive array of prosciuttos including wild boar, venison and goose as well as homemade candies, chutneys, sauces, vinegars, mustards and oils.  I chose to eat some suppli (fried rice balls with mozzarella and slow cooked ragu inside).  We next went to the Porcellino market in the center of town; known now for its leather goods, this was once a gold and silk market for wealthy Renaissance era shoppers.


For great food and shopping in the heart of Tuscany, visit Firenze.

Cinque Terre.

From Rome we moved north to visit Cinque Terre, the five small villages on the coast of the Italian Riviera in the Liguria region of Italy. I had arranged for us to stay via AirBNB in one of the colorful painted houses in the small village of Riomaggiore.  Our flat overlooked the town and its small harbor.  We made our way via train and climbed the crazy stairs and passageways to find the door that led to our two story house in the midst of the painted village.  From the distance the houses are a colorful stack of art where the inhabitants call home. To find any given house, you must make your way up and down steep stairs and through a web of mysterious forking lanes lined by high walls to find the only door (always on the back side) of the house.


Each one of the five villages in Cinque Terre is along the coast.  We stayed in the southernmost town of Riomaggiore where we shopped the local markets for our home cooked meals which we enjoyed on the patio as music drifted up from restaurants below and the sun faded into the sea. One day we climbed aboard the Cinque Terre express train and rode to the most northern town of Monterrosso al Mare.  After exploring the quaint village, we began some rather extreme hiking as we trailed our way back down.  The hike was challenging but worth the effort as we saw incomparable views of the towns from the precarious trails.  We explored each unique village as we walked about, window shopped, ate lunch, had a drink, and sampled local delicacies.


If you ever get the chance, please visit the five picturesque villages of Cinque Terre.

Rome.

After I saw my brother off, I took an overnight train from Munich to Rome, where my sister flew in the following day. I met her at the airport and helped her experience her own Roman Holiday.  Our first stops were to The Coliseum and the Roman Forum.


Getting lost on the streets of Rome is one of travels great adventures. With incredible architecture, savory food, and ancient art around every corner and down every twisted cobbled street, getting lost while meandering through the ancient capital is always a new and amazing experience.  We ascended the old stone staircase of the Spanish Steps and took a break to marvel at the ancient buildings as we soaked up the culture.


After getting lost in the grand Roman atmosphere, culture, smells, sounds, and food; we ended up at the Vatican where we visited St. Peters Basilica (the largest church in the world), and marveled at the enormous courtyard where we sat and enjoyed a leisurely meal.


 

Rome…where you will fall in love with the architectural mix, the beauty, the food, the sky, and the immense cultural richness.

Heidelberg, Munich, and Bavaria.

We next went to Heidelberg to see the story-book town and to climb up and  explore the Heidelberg castle. We found the easiest way to obtain access to the castle was to use the incline railway.  Once there, another ticket granted us access to a second rail which took us to the top of Königstuhl mountain where hiking trails awaited.  While on the castle grounds, we tried some local Glühwein (hot spiced wine). The castle is a medieval architectural masterpiece.  Inside is the Big Wine Barrel of Heidelberg Castle, built in 1751 and once was filled with 58,000 gallons of wine – the largest wooden barrel ever to be filled with wine on the planet.  The castle itself dates back to 1214 and stands as an epic reminder of the Renaissance era. After exploring the castle, we continued upward and hiked through the German forest on Mount Königstuhl.


From Heidelberg we ventured southward to Munich and Bavaria where we visited the famous Hofbrähous, Marienplatz, and the Nymphenburg Palace and ate some wonderful spätzle, the famous soft egg noodles found in this region.


 


After Munich, we continued south to Fussen and toured the Neuschwanstein castle.We visited the Alpsee lake, in the Ostallgäu district which is nestled a bit behind and between the Neuschwanstein and Hohenschwangau castles.  We hiked to Queen Mary’s Bridge for incredible views of the castle and surrounding beauty.


During our time in Bavaria we enjoyed some great local food including Haxe – a giant crispy pork knuckle, spinach and potato balls, and delicious cheese spätzle with crunchy brown onions baked on top – kind of like awesome mac and cheese for adults.


Nuremburg & Cologne, Germany.

I met up with my brother and we headed over to Frankfurt where I introduced him to the city that invented sausage. We walked over the Main River and I snapped this photo of the “locks of love” where lovers seal their relationship by placing a lock on the iconic bridge.  This scene is replicated on bridges around the world.

Locks of Love.

Locks of Love.

Nuremburg is an ideal German city with many half-timbered buildings, cobbled streets, lots of typical German fare, and idyllic waterways. The Imperial Castle Nuremburg, one of the most important castles of the Middle Ages, overlooks the welcoming and mostly tranquil city.  We walked the streets as locals shopped and made our way up to the lurid Ehekarussll Fountain, which paints a grim representation of the course of a sad marriage from dating to death. We hung out in Piazza dei Signori where locals were shopping at the weekend market, enjoyed the views of the historical buildings that seemed to float on the water, and stopped for breaks at Restaurant Burgwachter, just at the base of Imperial Castle Nuremburg and also the small Hausbrauerei Altstadhof, where we sat overlooking the Albrecht Dürer-platz.


The permanent exhibition of the Nuremburg trials is located here and worth a visit if time permits. We toured the Nazi parade grounds and the Nazi party rally grounds museum, which informs visitors of the background, progression and aftermath of the Nazi rally party grounds and of the Nuremburg trials and the world famous courtroom 600.


We then travelled down to Cologne to attend a concert.  While in Cologne we walked the city, taking in sights including a random “green house” and the incredible spires of the amazing Cologne Cathedral.


If you enjoy exploring history and wish to experience real German cities, find your way to Nuremburg or Cologne.

In Bruges.

I went back to the states where I had to settle my dear mothers’ estate and ended up moving my remaining belongings to the oceanfront at Virginia Beach, Virginia. Eventually, the travel bug bit me again so I headed back to Europe after promising to show my brother around Germany and my sister around Italy.  I flew out of BWI via Iceland and got the chance to fly for nearly three full hours in the Northern Lights (the Aurora borealis). After spending some time back in Frankfurt, Germany, I decided to go visit the most intact medieval city in all of Europe…Bruges, Belgium.  My journey to Bruges was somewhat eventful due to a bomb threat at the train station and the stabbing of multiple police officers in Brussels that caused major delays throughout Belgium. I chose to stay in hotel Jan Brito, just off the Market Square. The hotel was picturesque with exposed wooden beams, friendly staff, vitamin C and aromatherapy infused steam showers and excellent breakfast offerings.  During my first night in Bruges, I took a short walk and was awe-struck at the beauty of Bruges in the crisp fall air..


As I walked the streets the next day, I couldn’t help but notice the seemingly endless bounty of inviting café’s. Eateries of every kind beckoned anyone with the slightest hunger or whim into warm surroundings and tastes to tempt any craving.


Bruges is a friendly, easily walkable, picturesque and romantic city; filled with inviting people and many unique eateries.


Moscow.

Because of my military background, it took over two months and three attempts to secure my visa to make an unaccompanied trip to Russia, the largest nation on our planet. I flew into Moscow, where there are four airports to serve the population of over twelve million residents.  I took the express train from the airport to the cities’ central metro station and worked to figure out the mass transit system in order to find my hotel.  There are over two hundred metro stations in Moscow and each is uniquely outfitted and decorated, some with grandiose chandeliers and classical music playing loudly. The Moscow metro is one of the best and most efficient in the world and virtually always on time.  I could not read the signs, so worked to count the number of stops to know where to exit the train.  Moscow is certainly not a tourist-friendly city and there were very little instructions, conversations, or signage in English.  I stayed at the Moscow Marriott Grand Hotel where there were warnings stating that if you had dark skin or were of Arab descent that you should not leave the hotel at night.


My friend Natalya who works as a finance officer in the hotel industry was able to grant me access to the rooftop lounge of the trendy Ritz Carlton where the views of the Kremlin and the city below were unbeatable. We looked down at the wide streets, ruled by motorcycles racing along with their mufflers booming echoes between the Stalin sized buildings.


We went to Tretyakov Gallery where the mysteries of the Russian soul come to life.  The gallery was founded in 1856 and is hands down the world’s number one museum of Russian art.  From mysterious 12th century icons to many politically charged canvasses – the collection is a rich and revealing insight into the history and attitudes of the long-suffering yet inspired Russian people.  That evening we had dinner at a fabulous Georgian restaurant called Hachu and ate delicious khachapuri cheese bread made Adjarian Batumi-style served with a raw egg on top that cook-melted with the butter into the giant puff pastry in which it was served.  We also had marinated Georgian vegetables, and a cast iron skillet filled with delicious dolma (lamb-stuffed vine leaves served with matsoni yoghurt) and finished with some house-made baklava for dessert.


I took a cruise along the Moscow River and took in the unparalleled views of the sites on both banks from the rivers vantage point. I visited the Gum Shopping Center, the biggest and most over-the-top mall in Moscow, full of ultra high end stores inside of splendid architecture.  I strolled through Gorky Park and then took a taxi out to the Exhibition of Achievements of the National Economy Park, an elaborate complex of massive buildings and statues where everyone was very dressed up and traditional Russian music was broadcast throughout, reminiscent of the passing era of Soviet glorification.


I was surprised to see a small tourist street with a handful of iconic western fast-food spots.


On the morning of my scheduled departure I thought my flight was at 1:20 PM and was taking my time at breakfast and in my room. I had planned to take the train to the airport and double-checked my flight schedule. It was then that I noticed my flight was not at 1:20 PM but at 10:15 AM! It was 8:30 and the airport was an hour away.  I threw my belongings in my backpack and raced to the front desk and asked if they had a car to get me to the airport.  They graciously and promptly offered me a black Mercedes sedan with a driver who spoke zero English.  He drove me to the airport and seemed to go five miles under the limit the entire time; every car was passing us and I was sitting in the seat next to him with my stomach churning for him to speed along.  At airport customs there was more delay due to confusion at passport control since I did not have an entry stamp into Russia on my Russian visa.  This was because I flew into Russia direct from Belarus which is still part of the Russian Federation.  The agent was confused and had to call a supervisor to come show her the explanation – I don’t think many people enter Russia for the first time via Belarus so it was a somewhat unique situation.  I just made my flight to Budapest and then made my way to my home away from home – Frankfurt, Germany.

After some time in Frankfurt, I woke up early one morning and decided it was time to get back to the states. I knew there was a flight leaving that morning from Ramstein so I jumped on the train to Landstuhl via Mannheim. I arrived in Landstuhl at 8:42 and grabbed a cab, telling the driver that I needed to be at the airbase terminal by 9:00.  The cabbie raced and there was much traffic due to the morning work commute onto the huge base.  I walked in and stood in a short line.  I was the last person called to come forward and be marked “present” for the outbound flight at 8:58.  There were a few people behind me that were flatly told they did not make the cutoff and would not be able to make the flight.   One really must have the constitution for travel.  While this trip had its tight connections and felt frantic at times, I have learned to go with the flow and know that I can always find an alternative.

Magnificent Minsk.

Being in Lithuania and heading to Russia, I couldn’t resist the opportunity to visit the country of Belarus. I flew into Minsk, where the airport is a 45 minute drive from the huge metropolis of the capital city.  After going through customs, where a huge sign informed me that I was entering “The Territory of Checkpoint!” I found the driver I had reserved.  Since there is no train or mass transportation at the airport, pre-arrangements had to be made.  My driver was excited to have me with him and he recommended a detour to show me some of the impressive military displays as we drove along the expansive highways.


Entering Minsk was awe inspiring due to the enormity of everything. The massive Stalin-inspired buildings were truly impressive as were the wide avenues and sleek structural designs.   After arriving at my hotel I decided to go for a trek; but first I would need some Belarusian Rubles (BYY).  The BYY is a closed currency meaning you must wait until you enter the country before you can “buy” some.  Before heading out for my trek, I decided to exchange $20 USD for some BYY.  For my $20, I was given a stack of 384,200 BYY.


I walked along Nezavisimosti Avenue to Independence Square and saw the monuments honoring Kireva and Karla Marx. I witnessed the overbearing Stalinist buildings and walked the bridge over the Svoslach River to the tiny old town dubbed “Trinity Suburb” and toward the twin towers built in the classic Soviet style and once the gate to the city.  I made a new friend, Liubov, a native of Minsk, who graciously showed me all around the city and even took me into the lovely countryside to visit the amazing blue waters of the Zaslawskaye Reservoir at the Robinson Country Club and Resort.  It was a truly beautiful and grand experience.


If you are ever in the neighborhood, please visit awesome Minsk!

Lithuania.

I next flew into the small airport at Vilnius, Lithuania to see the old town that UNESCO has deemed a World Heritage Site and where it said that human activity was recorded as far back as 11,000 years ago by former occupiers, masters, and tyrants, but that now is highly tolerant. The area is famous for its production of amber and the Lithuanians seem to love it. I walked around town, hiked out into the countryside, and saw the town hall where George Bush spoke informing the world that the US would always stand by Lithuania.  The Vilnius Cathedral stands confidently in the city center.  It began as a pagan sanctuary dedicated to the god of thunder, fertility, and morality.  Lithuania was the last European state to hold out against the brutal Catholic Crusades.


My meals in Lithuania seemed primal, strange, and not easily forgotten. Vilnius is ground zero for rye bread and it seems to have an almost spiritual importance.  I really enjoyed some of the legendary saltibarsciai a bizarre looking chilled pink soup made of beetroot, sour milk (kefir) with freshly boiled eggs, lashings of dills and tiny potatoes.  Trust me, one taste and you will be blown away.

Lithuanians don’t seem too big on poultry, but served lots of wonderful sausage and pork, (and fish, being a Baltic nation). They seem to be masters of different ways to cook potatoes.  I happily devoured a legendary zeppelin, their most famous potato dish, a huge stuffed potato dumpling served with sour cream and garnished with cubed fried bacon.


Go to Lithuania for traditional cuisine, amber shopping, and friendly open people.

Revisiting England, Germany, and Poland.

After a trip to the US to see relatives and friends, I had the opportunity to go to England with a group of friends. We hung out in the small town of Burbage, in the English midlands, making our headquarters at Marstons and The Cross Keys, two local pubs.  We had specifically come to England to watch a football (soccer) game.  The match was between the Leicester City Foxes and the Stoke City Potters.  Leicester went on to win the game, and also overcame near impossible 5,000 to 1 odds to win the Premier League Championship.  We were privileged to be a part of this fabled season that is said to be one of the greatest feats in all of European soccer.  In England, there is no eating or drinking allowed in the stadium seats – all items must be consumed before going back to watch the match.  The main snack food is Pukka Pies – a meat-stuffed pastry pie that will warm your body up on a chilly day. Gambling is allowed and seemingly encouraged with bookies available in the stadium prior to the game, and during half-time.


I next went back to Germany as I began to make my way toward Russia. While there, I was invited to an InterNations networking function and did a bit of hobnobbing with fellow expats in Frankfurt.  At my hotel, I had an excellent view of the city just out my window.


I next travelled to Berlin and explored some of the areas I had missed on my previous visits, including the Brandenburg Gate, and portions of the Berlin Wall. In the wake of WWII, Berlin was torn in two, between communist east and capitalist west.  The wall separated Berlin for nearly 30 years.  I stood in the very place where the wall fell on Bornholmer Strasse in 1989.


After Berlin, I continued westward to Warsaw. While on the train, I had to order my favorite Polish dish – pierogis z woody (dumplings stuffed with meat!)  Once in Warsaw, I stayed near the top floor of my hotel and could see for miles as Warsaw lit up below me.  I made it to Zapiecek one evening, a Polish Pierogarnie where they have hand-made their own dumplings since 1913.  I enjoyed some delicious pierogis, pan fried to perfection and served with sour cream on hot pans alongside of meats served on cast iron sizzlers.  I also ran into some fellow Leicester City fans and we enjoyed watching another victory together.  Another night, I went to The View.  The View sits atop the Spectrum Tower and is a world-class venture, with an open air deck on the 33rd floor.  The venue is sleek and stylish, and offers striking views of the cityscape.


The Hague, and Keukenhof.

I flew back to Germany and met some friends who convinced me to go to the small town of Lisse to visit the Keukenhof, a park of about 7 million flowers covering nearly 80 acres!  On the hike to my hotel, I ran into a University of Virginia graduate…in the Hague!


I arrived by train from Germany to The Hague, where we stayed for a few days exploring the famed city of international justice and home to the International Criminal Court and the International Court of Justice. The city is sleek and trendy, yet filled with traditional canals, bicycles, and traditions of Southern Holland.  During my wanderings I strolled by the International Peace Palace, and the home of Dutch Royalty.


From The Hague I went to Lisse, and upon arriving at the Keukenhof flower show, I discovered acres of bulb fields, breathtaking colorful surroundings, and let my senses smell, see, and listen to the most excellent flower show.  The park was filled with tulips, lilies, orchids, daffodils, hyacinths and more. The entire show buzzed with color and fragrance and I found it both enchanting and inspiring.


If you enjoy flowers, especially tulips; come to Holland in the Spring and attend the world famous Keukenhof.

Pisa and Monaco.

I said goodbye to my friends and began to move back north to fly home. But I couldn’t resist stopping in Pisa, the important historical town in Tuscany, along the coast that leads to Florence, and home to the famous Piazza dei Miracoli with its leaning tower, cemetery, and cathedral.

Pisa makes it simple for travelers like me: they offer a convenient luggage check service at their train station for anyone wishing to store luggage. I traded my backpack for a paper ticket and began my walk through the city toward the monumental complex, passing through the old town center with its 12th century squares and alleyways and crossing over the Arno River, along which was an important communication route and naval base during medieval times.


With one more country in my sights, I collected my backpack and trained down to Monaco to see the famous Monte Carlo before heading back north to catch a plane toward home. I made it back to Ramstien where my hotel room looked down directly onto the tarmac.  I flew a chartered flight back into BWI and ended my first European adventure realizing that life is a journey….and not a destination!


In just over 100 days I had been to twenty-seven countries, taken seven flights, seven cruises, two ferries and logged over 20,000 miles. Life is about the chances we get and the choices we make.  Take advantage of your chances, make the right choices, and live the life you want.

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The charm of Southern Italy.

From Edinburgh I flew via Amsterdam to Rome where I spent the night before taking a train  to meet six Polish women I had met a couple months earlier, to enjoy a seven-day adventure in Southern Italy. We met in Napoli where we spent a couple days touring the local area, eating pizza and drinking vino.  One day we decided to brave a hike up Mount Vesuvius – the mountain that blew its top in 79 A.D. and covered Pompeii in thirty feet of ash. Mount Vesuvius is located in the city of Ercolano which was founded in the seventh century BC.  Once there, we climbed into the clouds to peer into the only active volcano in all of continental Europe.


The next day, we took the train to tour Pompeii, once a thriving empire destroyed by the volcano of Mt. Vesuvius. Pompeii is one of the worlds most amazing archeological wonders and one of the most famous excavation sites on the planet. The city is surrounded by temples and porticoes; raised pavements, and stepping stones. We saw the artifcats, archtitecture, and frescoes all preserved in time inside the walls of the ancient Roman city. At the end of the day, we lingered in the old city, enjoying the warm light of the setting sun on the early fall afternoon day; and after darkness fell, we found a local trattoria where we dined on fresh seafood and pasta.


Leaving Napoli, we began our journey along the coast, exploring the small villages and wandering the narrow streets of the towns that adorn the Italian coastline including Positano, Amalfi, Ravello, Prariano, Minori, and Saint’Agata. Each unique town was full of quaint village homes and small beaches dotted with brightly colored fishing boats. The entire Amalfi coast is filled with charming atmosphere, great climate, and wonderful cuisine.


We then made our way to Sorrento where the lemons are huge and the sun is warm.


We had booked a house on the Amalfi coast. After tossing our luggage in, we shopped for provisions, including fresh sliced prosciutto, hand made Buffalo cheese, and local wines.  We spent our days sightseeing while our mornings and evenings were spent cooking, laughing, and relaxing at the simple home overlooking incredible views of the sun and sea.


One day we discovered the Gardens of Villa Cimbrone in Ravello where we enjoyed a walk through nature and history. The six-acre park is an enormous estate of luxurious vegetation.  The ancient gardens filled with courtyards, leaves, and Greek statues, evoked a medieval atmosphere and at the end of our day we were all very hungry.  Most restaurants in Italy do not open until 7 or later.  We were able to coax the proprietor of a small rustic trattoria in Ravello to allow us entry.  She told us to forget the menu as she would instead prepare a unique meal.  Tomato, basil, mozzarella, crunchy country bread, wine from wooden casks, fresh Italian veggies, hand-made raviolis and manicotti filled with sausage and cheeses, and even a made-in-house dessert.  It was the best meal of my entire trip!


My visit to the Amalfi Coast was filled with antique villas, monasteries, magnificent hills planted with olive trees and vineyards, breathtaking views under old cypress trees, and simple villages where the air is clean and time has stopped. Come see the beauty of Southern Italy!!

The Scottish Highlands.

After returning to Belfast from the Isle of Man, I flew to Edinburgh; a Scottish border city on the North Sea. I stayed near the heart of Midlothian and close St Giles Cathedral.  The city has a sharp contrast between its medieval Old Town and the Georgian splendor of New Town, which makes for a stunning experience.  I wandered up the Royal Mile to Edinburgh castle and watched the locals eat seemingly anything that had been baked into a pie.

I rode down to Glasgow, and then spent the day in the highlands breathing in the pure, fresh mountain air.  We rode past medieval buildings, splendid mansions, picturesque villages, abbeys, impressive castles, and country houses. We went to Loch (lake) Lomand, though the Trossachs National Park and passed over the Grampian Mountains.  Before stopping in Perth for dinner, I took a boat ride in Loch Ness where we searched for Nessie.

Trying to describe the landscape is nigh on impossible, so here are a few pictures form scenic Scotland.


Here is a map of this part of my journey…

Belfast & The Isle Of Man

After my stay in Dublin, I made my way northward out of Ireland and back into the UK to Belfast in Northern Ireland. I checked out St George Market, the largest local craft, art and food market in the UK and walked through the Gaeltacht Quarter.  I took in some live traditional Irish music and folk dancing and enjoyed real Irish stew.  Aside from its troubled past, Belfast is home to the oldest licensed distillery in the world (Bushmills whiskey), and has a “Titanic Quarter” where the original Titanic was built and launched. I stayed at the incredible FitzWilliam hotel, which was on the cover of Conde Naste in 2010 and is located right in the city center. The hotel had thought of everything for any traveler and aside from robes, slippers and a well-stocked mini-bar, the room was equipped with a disposal camera and umbrella for my use.  While in the lounge with copper-clad lighting, I took a glimpse at their “bible” of drinks which included more than 700 spirits and liquors. After a fry up for breakfast which included sausages, bacon, beans, and soda & potato breads, I caught one of the iconic, and comfortable black taxis and made my way to the Belfast airport for the short flight to the Isle of Man.


The IOM is a tiny country of less than 100,000 citizens with a strong Celtic and Viking heritage.  The IOM is also the home of the Bee Gees and the world famous TT motorcycle races.  I knew I was in a small place when mine was one of only three bags on the airport luggage carousel.  I made my way to the capital borough of Douglas and noted the rugged coastline, short stone walls dotting the countryside, and medieval castles standing together with modern structures.  I hung out in the IOM for a few days, got a great haircut and started my Halloween there before flying back to Belfast.


Here is a map of this part of my journey, for a full size view, click on the expand icon in the lower right hand corner.

 

 

Wexford & Dublin, Ireland.

From the coast of Wales I was able to catch a ferry across the Bristol and St George’s Channels to the coastal village of Rosslare Harbour in Ireland. Upon arriving at the small industrial port, I inquired about nearby lodging and was told there was nothing around.  I began to get a bit nervous and was told that I should be able to find lodging in Wexford, about 30 miles north.  It was already dark.  I realized there was no train service here and asked about transportation.  I was told the last bus to Wexford was due to leave at 8:30 from a nearby parking lot.  I looked at my watch…it was 8:26. I ran toward where I thought the bus should be and in an empty parking lot I saw a bus running and about to leave.  I ran to the drivers window and simply said “Wexford?”  The driver nodded and on I jumped. I had made the bus by one minute.


Thirty minutes later I was dropped off at a tiny station in Wexford, Ireland. Wexford is a compact little town with a range of unique boutique-style shops, cafes, bars and bistros and its history dates back to the 1100’s, being ordered fortified by King Henry in 1172.  I made my way up Lower John Street and ambled in to Jim McGees Guesthouse Accommodation close to Saint Patrick’s Church.  I dropped my backpack and bellied up to the traditional Irish bar and inquired about lodging.  I was happy to know that one of the fourteen guest rooms was available for the night, but was unhappy to learn that it had four beds so I would have to pay for a large room.  Sitting on the bar stool, I asked the manager if I could get a discount or something since I was travelling alone and I didn’t need four beds.  He shook his head no.  I then informed him that I had been in Ireland for a mere one hour thus far in my life!  He smiled and said “you pay for the room and you’re first pint of Guinness is on me”.  Upon hearing this news, some locals sitting nearby moved closer toward me and instructed that they had to buy me the next Guiness.  Over the next few hours, I learned about the local area which dates back to the Vikings and has strong Norman connections.  I was introduced to Tayto’s – the national snack of Ireland, and made some new friends, before navigating the stairs and finding my room for the night.

The next day, I boarded a train bound for Dublin and rode for miles past the beautiful Irish countryside. I started on this train ride near the very bottom of Ireland, so there were few people on board, but as we advanced towered Dublin, more people began to fill the seats.  Eventually three older ladies sat where I was sitting at a four seat table on the train.  They introduced themselves and stated that we would be having a picnic with homemade goodies and tea during our journey.  They brought out plastic tea cups, snacks and candies and shared it all with me, their table mate and picnic partner.


Upon arriving in Dublin, I found my way to Temple Bar, the trendy area in central Dublin just next to the River Liffey. I walked the streets of Dublin, past Christ Church Cathedral which was founded in 1036 and also viewed St Catherine Church which was founded in 1769.  I made my way to Irelands #1 Visitor Attraction: the Guinness Storehouse, and took a tour of the amazing facility.


Ireland is by far the most American country I have been to, even more so than England. With rolling hills and everything easy to understand and navigate, consider visiting friendly Ireland.

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Wales.

From London I drove with my friend to stay with his brother in the lively city of Cardiff, Wales. Driving on the left side of the road felt so different after a lifetime of driving on the right side.  As we rode around the city and the adjacent countryside, we witnessed the simple beauty and some of the ancient history of Wales. There are so many historic buildings, walls, and castles, that many are now repurposed to realign with modern needs, while maintaining the architectural value of their heritage.


One day, we drove out to St Donat’s Castle, a tired medieval castle complete with inner and outer courts, gardens, a moat, entrance arches, and of course a large tower keep. The castle and grounds were void of any tourists or employees so we had the entire fortress to ourselves as we roamed the grounds and breathed in the history.


From the castle grounds, we ventured down to the coast of the Bristol Channel and began hiking along the striking coastline. We soon found ourselves in the midst of dramatic landscape as we moved along an ancient trail which wandered through light forests, thick brush, lovely green hills and fields of livestock, and the spectacular coastal cliffs with waves crashing onto the jagged rocks far below.  We snacked on wild berries which we plucked along the trail as we marveled at the delightful views.


I ended my stay in Wales with a lazy tour of Llantwit Major, a small coastal town, where we discovered a laid back cluster of friendly centuries-old pubs dating back to the 11th century.


On my last morning in Wales, I asked my friends to drop me at the train station and told them I was going to work my way to Ireland since I was so close. As we waited for the train to arrive, we ordered an English fry-up, something I had come to appreciate during my time in the UK.  A fry-up is a piping-hot experience that promises to set you right no matter what situation you may have gotten yourself into.  The breakfast tradition typically consists of fried bread, eggs, tomato, beans, meat, and sometimes black pudding, or mushrooms accompanied by ketchup or the more traditional HP sauce. A very hearty breakfast indeed.

English fry-up.

My English fry-up.

With a belly full of happiness, I bid my friends a final “cheers”, and set off to the coastal community of Swansea in search of a boat that would take me to Ireland. If you make to Wales, find your way to St Donats Castle and the Glamorgan coast and countryside…truly a place worth exploring.

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The Chunnel to London.

I travelled from Amsterdam back down to Brussels and booked a journey on the high-speed Chunnel Train to London. The Chunnel is one of the world’s most marvelous inventions, connecting the European mainland with the UK beneath the English Channel.  I was behind schedule and unaware there would be a customs checkpoint on the Belgian side of the Chunnel.  I had to wrestle off my backpack and quickly work to find my passport while standing in line.  When it was my turn to approach the border guard, I was asked why I was coming to the UK and how long I would be staying.  I replied that I was coming as a tourist but was not certain when I would leave because I had no return agenda….WRONG ANSWER!!  I was told to step out of the line and an officer came to interview me as the train behind us was warming up and countdown seemed to be commencing.  I pleaded my case and my passport was eventually stamped with a handwritten note and a warning to be gone in two weeks!  I thanked them kindly and scooted onto the waiting Eurostar, happy to have been allowed to go to the UK.  I had a first class ticket on the train and each train has different amenities for first-class passengers.  During this train ride, I was served an unexpected treat and happily enjoyed a three-course meal and sparkling wine for dinner!  In London, I had booked yet another AirBNB flat and chose to stay near Hyde Park in Knightsbridge, just two blocks from Harrods department store. The flat was upscale and an enjoyable way to submerse myself into the London culture by staying in a neighborhood versus a hotel.


I took in some of the touristy sights, and took a cruise along the Thames, enjoying the rich architecture and grand traditional buildings of London.  I marveled at the iconic London Bridge, the Shard, the London Eye and the Tower of London – home to the crown jewels and the most important medieval fortress in Britain.  Of course I had to tour Oxford, Piccadilly Circus, Notting Hill, Downing Street, Paddington, Westminster Abby and the Big Ben all while taking breaks for English tea and fish and chips.  London seemed to be ever-changing with something new happening every day.


A friend was in the area and invited me to attend a Broadway style musical in the buzzing theater district, and also to some home cooking, London style. Additionally, an old classmate flew to come stay with me for a few days and we went to an NFL game in Wembley Stadium to watch the Buffalo Bills defeat the Jacksonville Jaguars as the Ohio State University marching band entertained the crowd of over 80,000.


My week in London was iconic and after months of travel, it was wonderful to see the familiar faces of old friends.

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Amsterdam.

From Paris I decided to go soak up some Dutch culture so I ventured northward to experience Amsterdam. Aside from the famous red lights and hash houses, Amsterdam is a truly cosmopolitan city filled with canals and bicycles, and surrounded by lovely countryside farms and fishing villages.  I stayed in the Grand Amrath Hotel which allowed for easy access to the entire city.

While the 800,000 residents of Amsterdam were busy peddling the 600,000 bicycles that are ubiquitous throughout the city, I chose to wander the streets and explored several of the many neighborhoods by foot including Chinatown, and Dam Square at the City Centre where I bought some new clothes at the high-end Walhalla shopping center. I got pleasantly lost in the Jordaan District, which is full of specialty shops, galleries, and brown pubs (local watering holes with cozy wooden interiors that make you feel like you’re in a neighborhood living room).  Twice, while I was tucked away inside of little local dives, I was pleasantly surprised when spontaneous singing broke out!  The locals were really enjoying their camaraderie and although I could not understand their traditional sounding melodies, the hearty sing-along was a fun spectacle to witness. I skipped the Van Gough museum, but took time to tour the Anne Frank House (from the 17th-19th centuries, Amsterdam was known as the “Jerusalem of the West”), the massive Heineken brewery, and hung out for a while in Leidseplein, an outdoor entertainment area filled with rides and concessions.  I also came across yet another protest rally of some sort with a moderate police presence.  It was all a bit confusing and I am still not sure what they were marching about.


I took a trip up to Zaanstad, where at one time, there were over 30,000 windmills. These fabulous windmills were built with a giant corkscrew inside and made to suck up water in order to make the land farmable.  I toured the ”De Zoeker” working oil mill and watched as they were using the mill with a huge imported stone to crush and make linseed seed oil out of flax seeds.  The owner stated that the windmill had been operated by his family for generations and that they had received their milling permit in 1672!


I then made my way along the “cheese route” through Edam to the major cheese hub factory in Volendam where famous Dutch cheeses are created and aged. This town, filled with meandering little streets, produced the original “cheese heads” who were so-named because of the large baskets of cheese they would carry on their heads as they walked through the marshes.


I next took a fun boat ride to North Holland where the people live in quaint cottages that are hundreds of years old and which can only be found by burrowing deep into a maze of narrow alleyways. This was also home to Dutch chocolate country, giant sheep, and houses with pyramid-shaped thatched roofs.  I puttered around the sleepy fishing village of Volendam where I met a fellow traveler, an Egyptian detective, who was on a solo vacation.  We made our way to Marken, and visited a local traditional clog maker at a small wooden shoe factory, where shoes are made from willow or poplar and come in all sizes and colors.  We had lunch at Café De Visscher, one of the many local, quality fish restaurants, where I had an incredible smoked eel sandwich before checking out the lively and busy harbor.


Amsterdam! Welkom en Veel Plezier!      (Welcome and have fun).

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Paris – City of Lights and Love.

From Gouvy, Belgium, I made a pit-stop in Brussels and then trekked down to Paris to experience the famed city of lights and love for myself. I entered the city via the train at Gare du Nord, Paris’ North Station which handles nearly 200 million passengers a year, the busiest train station in the world outside of Japan.  The massive station has been seen in several movies including The Bourne Identity, The Bourne Ultimatum, and Ocean’s Twelve.  I had rented an apartment and figured out that I would need to take a local train to get to the neighborhood where it was located.  I stood in line to purchase a ticket for Métro de Paris, the world’s largest subway system.  As I stood in line, a man in a blazer approached and asked what I was in line for.  I told him I was in line for a metro ticket and he stated that I was in the que for bus tickets only; he showed me an official looking badge and said that I should come with him to the office to purchase a rail pass.  I left the line and began following him when a French Policeman came over and asked to see his credentials.  The man quickly became agitated and then I demanded that he show me and the police officer the badge he had shown me. He began cursing at the policeman and me, and walked briskly away.  The officer informed me that he was using a scam to attempt to sell me expired tickets or to pick my pockets with his gang who were waiting around the corner.  I thanked the officer, and got back in the line, grateful that I had not been duped.


The Métropolitain as the métro is known in Paris is insane.  There are endless tunnels and underground passages and it is possible to get lost inside of any of the over 300 stations in and around the city.  I made my way to Rue Saint-Merri, a trendy street in the 4th arrondissement (there are 20 “administrative districts” in Paris).  The area was extremely multi-cultural and I could watch the large population of Orthodox Jews who lived there in the cities’ oldest neighborhood, rubbing shoulders with the gay crowd, who had also established a large presence there.

My flat was just above an Italian restaurant, had a washer and dryer (an electric dryer is a rarity in Europe), and a small private garden terrace. It was a perfect oasis when needing to escape the madness of the city streets, or to enjoy a home-cooked meal, and I love to cook!  Filled with trendy boutiques, lively markets, and gourmet food shops, the neighborhood came alive at night.


The Cathedral of Notre-Dame was a short walk from our flat, so one day we took a tour of the medieval Catholic cathedral, lit candles in silent remembrance of our lost loved ones, and listened to the ten massive bells (each weighing tons) while marveling at the Gothic French architecture.


Paris is the kind of place where anything and everything can happen. At dusk one evening, we took a boat ride for an up close view of the action as the night started to come alive.  My first glimpse of the Eiffel Tower was during this open-air cruise down the River Seine.


Montmarte is a huge hill (440 feet or 130 meters) upon which sits Basilica of the Sacre Coer as well as many funky studios and galleries. This neighborhood is where famous artists including Salvador Dali, Claude Monet, Pablo Picasso, Camille Pissarro, and Vincent Van Gough all hung out.  We followed the distant hum of what sounded like humans having fun and followed our senses to a huge food and wine festival spilling over into several streets!  We tasted numerous delicacies and enjoyed Parisian street food at its finest.  As night began to fall, we wound our way downward through the Pigalle district, passing by the Moulin Rouge and Paris’s intense club district before catching a taxi and being swept back to our flat on Rue Saint-Merri.


Over the course of a few days, we walked along the Triumphal Way, passing the Arc de Triomphe du Carrousel, the Arch of Triumph which sits in the middle of a massive roundabout in the center of Charles de Gaulle Place, and made our way along Champs-Elysées to the Grande Arch in the city of La Défense. We enjoyed taking breaks at some of the over 350 fountains that can be found throughout Paris.  The fountains were originally designed to provide drinking water for residents and are now a destination for weary walkers interested in relaxing and watching the world go by.  We also chanced upon a large demonstration with a large police presence and people chanting.  This was not the first time I have been in the midst of some sort of hullaballoo, and as before, I had no idea what the protest was about.  La Défense is a massive business district filled with skyscrapers, concrete, glass, and steel. Aside from the thousands of business people, residents, and students, we were two of the over 8,000,000 tourists that visit the enormous city complex each year.  Here are some pictures of my wanderings…


Of course no trip to Paris would be complete without visiting the Louvre or the Eiffel Tower. Atop the massive tower, is a champagne bar and of course, the view for miles.  During the visits to these icons in the city of love, we chanced upon not less than three wedding pictures in progress.


In additional to all the sights and culture, is the unique French food.  For the best escargot, crème brulee, steak and frites, crepes, and onion soup you simply must come to Paris.


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Rescued!…by an enchanting cafe’ in Belgium.

From Liechtenstein, I went back to Zurich, Switzerland and decided to head northward to the country of Luxembourg. The next days train ride was again filled with spectacular beauty as I travelled through the Swiss Alps, along forest-lined shores and drank in mile after mile of immeasurable beauty.

My train stopped in Basel, Switzerland where I had to catch a connecting train for the rest of the journey. Basel is a small city on the Rhine River and is situated right where Switzerland, France, and Germany intersect.  If you are taking trains to Germany or Switzerland from Basel, simply stay on the platforms toward the right side of the station.  If you are taking a train to France, then you conveniently walk through the doors and into the country of France, where you can then make your French connection.

And behind door #1...France!

And behind door #1…France!

After a few hundred more miles spent zooming past chiseled landscapes and incomparable scenery, I arrived in Luxembourg in the late afternoon with no plan and no reservations. I stepped out and witnessed the ancient towering edifices hanging just at the edge of steep cliffs and marveled at the medieval designs and construction.  I began my search for lodging and quickly realized that some sort of international conference or European symposium was happening and there were almost no rooms to be found.  The two vacancies I found were each over €500 for just one night.  I decided to leave Luxembourg and continue heading northward.  I clambered aboard another train and exited at Gouvy, Belgium, just across Luxembourg’s northernmost border.

As the locomotive left the station, I realized that I was in a very small town. It was misting so I had to break out my raincoat and the protective cover for my backpack.  As I swung out the doors of the tiny train station, the nearly empty street laid out before me like a void; similar to the one at the pit of my stomach as I found myself in a place where I knew no one, darkness was gathering, and nothing was like back home.  I saw what appeared to be a bed and breakfast and headed up Rue de la Gare, through the mist as the street lights came on, and walked toward L‘Epicure, a small Belgian café, where a sign for lodging hung above the simple eatery.  The lights were all off and a woman was just leaving, and had turned around to lock the old wooden front door behind her.  I called out to her and quickened my step as I approached and inquired about a room.  She looked at me with a confused stare and spoke in what sounded like French with a strong Dutch accent.  We did not understand each other at all.  I folded my hands as if in prayer, placed them on my cheek and tilted my head, and then pointed at myself, sign language for “I need a place to sleep!”  The widening of her eyes indicated that she understood and she quickly unlocked the door and I followed her inside.  We walked across old wooden floors and up the stairs where there were a few rooms with fluffy spindle beds, handmade comforters, and antique furniture.  She handed me a skeleton key and bid me goodnight as I thought about my day: two new countries, amazing scenery, and the freedom and simple beauty of travel that is inexplicable.  There was no television or wifi to distract me and I was the sole occupant of this antique Belgian guesthouse.  I closed my eyes and dropped into the cozy bed like an anchor into the sea.

The next morning I heard French radio drifting through the air from down below as I remade the bed and got ready to go. I creaked down the timeworn stairs and was amazed at the sight that greeted me.  I had been sleeping above a tiny bakery café where three women had been busy baking a huge assortment of delicacies.  Business folks along with blue-collar workers were lined up to get their daily goodies to go, as locals were quietly seated for what appeared to be their morning constitutional – a cup of Belgian coffee and a slice of strudel baked before dawn and served piping hot.  Besides the strudel, there were raisin croques, various tourtes, many breads, fresh baguettes, and lots of fromage (fine French cheeses).  The ladies of the café greeted me with a cheery “Bonjour” and beckoned me to come behind the café where they had prepared a table just for me.  I tucked into my breakfast which consisted of coffee, fresh breads, yogurt, juice, meats and cheese, along with homemade jams and jellies – bon appetit!  I was starting yet another excellent day, with no idea of who I would meet or what I would find along today’s path.  After I had my fill, I tossed on my backpack, settled up with the owner, and was off again to explore our world.


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Lunch in Liechtenstein…

From Zurich I went over to the tiny country of Liechtenstein. The drive was filled with breathtaking nature including the amazing Swiss Alps.  Founded in 1342 as the Country of Vaduz, this tiny state became Liechtenstein in 1719 and is located where Germany, Austria, and Switzerland converge.  Upon entering the country, you can check to see if the flag is raised on the Vaduz Castle, if so then you know that the prince is in town.  Once there, I walked through a large garden filled with ancient varieties of scented French and English roses and explored the old castle which overlooks the entire small country.  I found a rustic eatery in the winter wonderland and had the daily special: roasted venison with cranberries, house-made herb spaetzli accompanied by fresh seasonal vegetables.


Lunch in Lichtenstein – a meal to remember!

 

Heidiland…yes it’s real!

Do you remember the movie Heidi? Long ago there was a movie about a young orphan played by Shirley Temple named Heidi who was sent to live with her grandfather in the mountains of Switzerland. Way out in the Swiss countryside lies a fascinating region once you cross over the Ricken Pass, drive past the hills of goats, sheep and cows, along half-timbered houses, past Lake Zurich and Lake Walen to the foothills of the majestic Churfirsten mountain range in the Swiss Alps…there you will find a small area that the locals call “Heidiland”.  The movie was filmed at this location.  I made the trek though the Appenzell countryside, deep into the mountains where I heard the cow bells, tasted some incredible fondue cheese, fed the goats, and hiked up the steep hills to the grounds of the little house where the movie Heidi was filmed.  It was all quite charming.  Here are a few photos…


 

Zurich: Sleek & Expensive.

I left Italy and travelled northward arriving in Zurich, Switzerland; a largely intact medieval town adjacent to Lake Zurich and surrounded by the snow-capped Swiss Alps. When I arrived at the central station, I noticed the sleek feel to the huge station whose large openings to the outside allowed for the fresh mountain air to swill about.  The combination of the outside chill and inside buzz made for a unique atmosphere given the smells and sounds of the many restaurants, bars, and shops in the huge facility.  The station is at the epicenter of the city and I walked the short distance past the tram stations and supermarket and then across the river Rhine to the trendy Zahringerstrasse – a pedestrian only street lined with café’s, hotels, bars, and retail shops.  It was very close to Bohnhofstrasse, which is one of the most expensive and exclusive shopping avenues in the world.  I strolled along the Rhine and took some pictures of the beautiful scenery.


While in Zurich, I passed along picturesque Lake Zurich and then toured Saint Peters Church, upon which is the largest clock face in all of Europe. I then toured the Fraumunster Church.  I went inside to see the beautiful windows made of Chagall semi-precious stone where the murals on the stained glass are made in a way that can only be seen from the inside.  The gothic abbey dated back to the 9th century – 893 to be exact.  Around the base of the building new natural gas lines were being installed a few years ago and the workers had discovered human bones!  The bones turned out to be Roman soldiers dating back to the Middle Ages and now the entire area is an archeological dig site.


Zurich has a presence of several notable companies including Google Earth, IBM, and 3M. The city is home to Lindt Chocolate, makers of Swiss Army knives, precision clocks and watches. Go see Zurich  – an expensive, sleek, and beautiful Swiss city.

Bologna: A Foodies’ Paradise.

I was hanging out in Florence when we decided to take go check out Bologna, a gorgeous medieval town filled with Renaissance structures and so much food! We rented a tour-van with a fellow-adventurer from Malaysia and headed straight north through the heart of Tuscany.  Once there, the streets were flooded with people enjoying the sun, wine, culture, and food.  We walked through Piazza Maggiore, the main square which includes the centuries-old San Petronio Basilica and other ancient structures.  Birds, children, and street performers filled the expansive open space making for a festive atmosphere and a relaxing historical walk.  Here are some pictures of the charming city…


After exploring the vast piazza, we ventured into the narrow cobblestone streets where incredible amounts of food beckoned from every angle! There were innumerable café’s, bistros, markets, and delis.  From large sprawling family-style ristorantes to cubby-hole sized tasting nooks.  As can commonly be found throughout Italy and much of Spain, the snacks are free as long as you order a drink, and sometimes with every new glass, comes a new plate of something to try, it may be the freshest olives you’ve ever had, or it could be a mini-sandwich.  Here are my pics of a sampling of the food we saw, and some of the food we ate…


Here is a map of this leg of my journey…

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San Marino: A State Within A State.

San Marino is a county inside of a country. This tiny miscrostate is surrounded entirely by Italy and is one of the worlds oldest countries. The capital city of San Marino sits high atop Monte Titano and you can climb to the pinnacle of the entire country. We had lunch near the summit among the clouds and climbed along the medieval wall of the city and along its narrow cobblestone streets. The “three towers” which can be seen for miles away, have sat atop the fortress city since the 11th century. Deals on leather and gold seemed really good in the tiny town. If you want to check another county off your list and are close to Florence, take the trip to see charming San Marino.  Here are some pics from my trip…


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Florence: Italian City of Art.

From Venice, I moved south, passing through the Tuscan hills and weaving through characteristic villages – little gems that have remained the same for centuries. I eventually arrived in Florence, the heart of Tuscany.  In Italy there are no trains or signs to “Florence”, only to “Firenze” – the proper Italian name for the city, which is full of amazing art!  Aside from museums and other obvious art venues displaying works by Donatello, Michelangelo, and others; art is everywhere in Florence: from the beauty at the Piazza Del Duomo where a cathedral built between 1059-1128 stands, to the streets where art spilled out onto outer walls, doorways, and even the street itself as artisans crafted images of figures that would be washed away with the next days’ rain.  The vintage Fiat’s, and cool Vespa scooters added to the Italian scenes and I enjoyed a few tasty Tuscan meals in Uffizi square.


I also snapped some photos in sepia mode:


I spent some time with new friends learning to make authentic gelato from the best raw products, and also took a class from a famous local Pizzaiolo where we learned the step-by-step secrets to making the best pizza I have ever eaten…and trust me, when you make your own pizza coached by a true Italian chef with fine ingredients in a professional kitchen in Florence, Italy, it will be the best pizza you will ever eat!


I spent some time at Ponte Vecchio, an arched bridge over the Amo River full of gold shops and art galleries.  It was a scenic ending to an art-filled day.


 

Venice, Italy.

In my train cabin from Salzburg to Venice was a well-to-do Muslim family, and an older couple from Australia. We talked briefly and followed each other as we had to switch trains in Villach, Austria for the second leg of the trip.  Our train was grossly delayed and we had to wait for hours at the medium-size station.  Our train finally arrived along with another train at the same time on the same platform.  Everything was written in German or Italian so it was difficult to know which train to board.  We all boarded and discovered at the last minute that we were on the wrong train!  We jumped off just in time to see our long-awaited train to Venice pulling away.  Luckily we were able to find a bus service to complete our journey.  The Muslim family and I had first-class tickets on the lower-level of the bus which had very comfy seating and a coffee bar in the back.

While in Venice, I stayed in the Boscolo Luxury Hotel Bellini – a former 18th century Patricia Palace in the Cannaregio district – with ancient marbles, authentic Murano glass chandeliers and numerous antiques. The hotel overlooked the Grand Canal and was close to St Marks square – the heart of the city. The hotel offered a nightly buffet of heavy hors d’oeuvres and oh yeah…free wine. The area was rich in shops and restaurants and I spent my time getting lost in alleyways and hidden canals.


Here is a map of this trip – to see full size – click on the expand icon in the far low-right corner:

Scenic Salzburg.

With the borders closed to the South, from Budapest I went North to Salzburg, Austria. On the way I passed through some of Austria’s wind farms.


In Salzburg, I checked in to Hotel Turnerwirt and ate a few times at the nearby Restaurant Rangie where I enjoyed some excellent authentic Austrian/Italian cooking. Surrounded by snowcapped mountains, Salzburg is the home of Mozart, glockenspiels, marionettes, and some of the cleanest water on earth.

 


Towering majestically above the city rooftops of Old Town Salzburg is the Festung Hohensalzburg, a giant old medieval fortress with over 900 years of architectural history and mystique. The views were inspiring and memorable.  I could sense the history as I explored the impressive landmark.


I rode thru the Rositten Valley away from the city and hiked my way to the summit of Mount Untersberg after taking a cable-car ride to the mountain station. Although clouds moved in from the East, there was an unlimited vista.  The ice capped Hohen Tauern Mountains loomed in the distance and the beautiful Salzburg Lake District, made famous by the opening minutes of the Sound of Music film, sprawled out below.  It was a beautiful scenic hike.


I left Salzburg and passed through the high alpine country witnessing more of Austria’s breathtaking beauty.


Here is a map of this part of my journey:

To better view this map, click on the “expand” icon in the far lower right corner and the map will open full size in a new window.

Migrant Mayhem.

When I was in Hamburg during my stopover before moving east to Poland I had my first encounter with the world-renowned migrants. I had just been to the Hamburg Central Station a few weeks earlier and had not noticed anything odd.  This time there were hordes of migrant refugees hovered in many places.  Volunteers had set up makeshift first-aid and food stations with cardboard signs.  Aid workers passed out blankets and clothing.

People were setting up camp in and around the huge train station. On the way to my hotel I got turned around so walked to a Hilton hotel to ask for directions.  At the counter the receptionists all had buttons on – I asked what the buttons said and was told they said “Germany welcomes the families of all refugees”.  I doubt that any of the refugees saw the buttons worn by the Hilton staff members in the posh hotel.

The pictures below were a few I was able to take. There was security and volunteers disallowing any photography so my images had to be taken somewhat secretly.


After my trip to Poland and Budapest, I tried to go to Sarajevo but was told “Croatia closed – no trains!” It was a bit unsettling to be stuck in a country with no certain way out.  It was obvious that masses of people had been there as could be seen from the debris, security, and hand-written signage informing people to not enter certain areas.  Instead of travelling south, I was able to get a train in the opposite direction to Austria.

As I entered Austria (initially the first country to close their borders due to the migrant crisis), I noticed the remarkable difference in response tactics. There were dozens of soldiers and policeman, no one without a ticket was allowed in the train station and huge areas were cordoned off with fences or barricades.  Every person (including me) was photographed by police with a camera attached to a gigantic lens mounted on a pole.  I was unable to take any pictures of the rounded up migrants who were made to sit in a sectioned-off area in the middle of the station.  The migrants were eventually marched on to buses and driven off.  Here are a few photos I snuck…


During my travels I have seen immigration officers conduct passport checks on trains. As I entered the country of Monaco, many officers swarmed the train.  They pointed to anyone who looked like they might be a refugee and asked for passports.  I started to reach for mine, and they shook their heads no and quickly moved to others around me.  I witnessed three migrants pulled from the train and placed into disposable flexi-cuffs and made to sit on the ground as the train moved away from the station.  The captives would be dealt with and the officials would no doubt repeat their tactics once the next train rolled in.

Taking a Bath in Budapest.

From the Czech Republic I made my way to Budapest, Hungary after a brief stop in Bratislava, Slovakia.  During my visit to Budapest, I was told of the fascinating spas throughout the city and was informed that the region was a mecca for health enthusiasts seeking healing waters and spa services. I was highly recommended to check out a spa.

I was easily sold on the idea so booked my appointment at the Szechenyi Bath House, not knowing quite what to expect.  I was amazed at the bigness of it all!  It started with getting my cashless payment system in the form of a unique water-proof proxy-watch.  I then received towels and a locker to store my things in the men’s wing of the enormous facility.  There was an entire floor devoted to massage, so I booked an hour long service, but first was off to explore the health benefits of the mineral-rich thermal waters.  I discovered a labyrinth of pools, and bathing areas of varying temperatures.  There were buildings filled with aromatic saunas and steam rooms, and pools and tubs filled with bathers; and I ran into a couple from Canada with whom I had shared a meal on a train a few days earlier.

I initially thought that perhaps I would be swilling in a bacteria-infested pool which seemed gross; but once I entered, I realized that the longer I remained in the water, the better I felt.  I noticed employees everywhere, cleaning diligently and ensuring a very sanitary facility.  People appeared to stay for hours and I was there for most of an entire day since they also had a buffet and other dining options.

As I was packing up to leave, I found workers setting up a dance floor and DJ booth and realized that at night, one of the main outdoor pools turned into a huge “Spa-rty” with all the revelers splounging and splashing to the rhythms.  Budapest bath houses….now you know!


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Czech out Prague…..

I consoled my map and decided next to journey to the Czech Republic.  I arrived in Prague and checked into Hotel Chopin in Old Town.  I settled in and had begun to explore the city when I met a local girl.  When she realized I had just arrived and had been travelling all over, she was excited to act as my tour guide.  She took me to Wenceslas Square in the heart of New Town, and through Old Town over the river Vltava.  I walked through the mysterious Jewish Ghetto and to the Lesser Quarter.  We went to the Prague castle after strolling through Petrin Park, (near where “Jason Bourne” woke up in The Bourne Identity) and climbed to the top of the Petrin tower for an amazing view of the beautiful city.

We took the old castle stairs, the same stairs that Tom Cruise rode down in the motorcycle scene from Mission Impossible and arrived in the Old Town square just in time to watch the astronomical clock strike.

Prague is filled with hidden treasures below the streets.  There are undergrounds from the 12th century with corridors and rooms up to two floors below the ground where a thousand years ago Knights Templar gathered, medieval alchemy was practiced, and secret societies conspired.

At nights end, we visited the Charles Bridge and allowed the spectacular waterfront panorama to reveal its splendor.  Prague is a beautiful city bursting with old history and new energy.


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Krakow and Auschwitz.

From Warsaw I travelled to Southern Poland and checked into a historical hotel in Old Town Krakow near the well-preserved medieval core of the ancient city. This city is a true gem with a beautiful open market piazza (Glowny square).  Once a Renaissance-era trading outpost, the town is home to St. Mary’s Basilica, a Gothic church from the 14th century.  I strolled through the city, which is still surrounded by a portion of its medieval wall, and took in the sights, friendly people, food, and culture.


I next travelled to Auschwitz to spend a somber day at the Auschwitz and Birkenau museums. Established in 1940 by WWII Nazis, Auschwitz was an enormous labor camp and death factory. There were two main camps: the administrative center, and the extermination camp.  During the Holocaust an estimated 1.1 to 1.6 million people were exterminated.

Auschwitz, the main camp for Jewish prisoners during Hitler’s reign was the site of the most notorious mass murder in the history of humanity. The visit provided a mirror into the human soul and served as a tool for self-reflection as I imagined what the Jewish people endured at this horrific symbol of terror, genocide, and the Holocaust.

The visit was terrifying yet moving.  Here are my pictures…


Here is a map of this trip….

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Misadventures in Mazovia.

From Berlin, I made the decision to venture westward – to Poland.

I have a couple rules for where I stay: they must be easily accessible by walking or using public transportation from my arrival point, and they must have wi-fi since I have no cellular service.  I tell you this so you will better appreciate my misadventure in Mazovia.

Mazovia is the region encompassing the heart of Poland. The apartment that I booked in Warsaw required me to pick up the key prior to 6 PM.  I reserved a seat on the train that left Berlin at 9:50 AM to arrive in Warsaw at 3:07 PM.  For some reason, I woke up very early in Berlin so took my time getting ready and walked the half-mile or so to the Central Station.  I had breakfast, lounged around, and did some window shopping in the huge mall-like station full of stores.  I glanced up at a departures monitor to see what track my train would be leaving from.  I noticed that there was no indication of any train to Warsaw and no notice of any trains leaving at 9:50 AM.  My pulse quickened as I rushed to find the nearest ticket window to ask for help.  I was told the train for Poland was leaving at 9:50 AM but from a different train station!  I was now in panic mode as I raced to get to the correct train station which was miles away.  I was told I needed to take a local metro train in order to get to the correct long-distance rail station, from where my train was leaving at 9:50 with or without me.  I ran to the local metro-rail center and asked a worker how to get to this train station – he barked at me in German, obviously having no idea what I needed.  I consulted a huge metro map posted on the wall and figured out how to get to the correct train station and then discovered that I needed a metro ticket.  I saw people in line to buy tickets but I did not have time to stand in line and a metro train had just pulled up and was ready to go.  I quickly jumped onto the metro with no ticket and crossed my fingers, feeling lie a thief as the train sped away.  When the metro arrived at the train station I ran to the track for the train bound for Warsaw – I had made it just in time!  The train started rolling right away and we were off to Poland.  After only about 20 minutes into the 4.5 hour journey, we came to a halt.  An announcement was made in Polish so I did not understand why we were stopped.  After 30 minutes of just sitting there, I got up and ascertained from a female Polish train officer that “the machine broke”.  Translation: we would sit and wait a couple of hours to get a new engine car.  We sat for two hours, and then started moving again toward Warsaw.  I was sharing a four-seat cabin with a couple from Malaysia and a fellow bachelor from Dubai.  The two of us decided to have lunch and the Polish chef cooked me some tasty perogies – the small, pan fried, meat-filled dumplings, which are famous throughout Poland. My lunch-mate ordered soup but upon arrival discovered it contained sausage, and being a Muslim, he was unable to eat it so offered the bowl to me, it was a very filling lunch while my poor table-mate had almost nothing.


We arrived in Warsaw at 5:10 PM. I was in another country, with a new language and foreign everything.  I was able to find the rental office on the 9th floor of an office building and as I entered, the only employee left working past 5 on a Friday, informed me that she had been trying to call me since she was about to go home.  She stated that the apartment I rented had some “technical issues” and they would set me up in another place.  I had little choice but to agree and she walked with me to negotiate a taxi which she paid for.  The cab ride was a long one.  I arrived at a huge complex of gated apartments with no English speakers to be found (including the cabbie) and no shops or restaurants or public transportation in site.  The driver helped point me in the right direction and I eventually made it in to my apartment.  The apartment seemed okay, however there was no wi-fi and then I found that the shower and commode were not working!   I found a security guard and tried to get help but he spoke no English.  I took some pictures to show him the problem but there was little he could do.  It was getting late so I decided to camp out and wait until morning.

I was awakened at 11:40PM by a knock on the door. There was a man at the door with a bottle of wine, apologizing and saying he had heard of my issues.  He was from the rental agency and was offering to take me to a hotel if I wanted.  I agreed and quickly packed my things.  We took another cab ride and I checked into the hotel just after midnight.  The next day, the owner of the agency, who was very apologetic, picked me up and took me to his private condo in the heart of the city.  It was a very unique penthouse in the middle of an upscale office complex. The next evening when I came home, there was a bag on the door – inside was a personalized t-shirt they had made as another expression of their apology for the problems during my first night in Poland. I decided that all was well that ended well!


During my stay in Warsaw, I met a beautiful attorney and asked if I could buy her dinner.  She spoke multiple languages and we shared a similar sense of humor, and passion for travel.  We had dinner together at a Polish restaurant where she helped me order a traditional pork knuckle. She then led me on an amazing tour of Praga, Warszawa; describing the spirit of old Warsaw and telling me about the history of the Jews here, as we ducked around the crooks and corners of old town Warsaw – where the filming of The Pianist took place.  The town was filled with wooden houses, atmospheric pubs, historic buildings, and artisan studios. When the weekend arrived, we drove to hear the “Chopin in the Park” concert, where a pianist recited works from Chopin’s oeuvre amidst the rose-edged gardens of Royal Lazienki Park.  We walked past the Belvidere, the stately palace depicted on the Belvedere and Chopin vodka labels. In the park, we fed wild red squirrels and spotted some peacocks strutting their stuff.


Before leaving, I hung out in the executive lounge at the Warsaw Marriott for some free coffee and chocolate. 


Here is a map of this trip…

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A Cruise to Denmark and my first trip to Berlin.

From Norway, I took an overnight cruise on Fjordline from Bergen to the port of Hershals at the very top of Denmark.   After boarding the beautiful ship, I went to my cabin and found that it was dirty and unmade after the departure of the previous guests. I notified the friendly ladies at the reception center, and they stated my room would be ready in half an hour and offered me an espresso or cappuccino and a double chocolate muffin for my inconvenience. Yay dirty room! Here are some pictures from the cruise…


Upon arrival in Denmark I took a bus to the small train station. The little station was merely a platform with a ticket kiosk at the absolute end of the rail line. Two cyclists who spoke no English and me, were the only ones there. A group of about eight Asian tourists arrived on the next bus and joined us on the platform. They asked me what to do and how to get a ticket. I helped them as best I could and we all climbed aboard the train once it showed up about an hour later. I rode thru the entire country of Denmark and into Germany. Just a few days later, Denmark closed their borders going into Germany due to the migrant crisis so I was fortunate to have left when I did.

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The Berlin Wall came down in 1990 a few years after Reagans “tear down this wall” speech. During my brief time in Berlin, I found my way to the legendary Checkpoint Charlie border crossing; the geographical focal point where East and West divided. This had been the spot of numerous demonstrations, escape attempts, American and Russian tank face-offs, and even death. After finding out I was from the US, I was referred to by the guys posing as guards as “Indiana”. I checked out a piece of the original wall and chatted up the crossing guards.


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Grocery Shopping Abroad….

You can travel to foreign countries and figure things out. Sure everything is different, but you can discover the similarities that allow you to get by. For example, I browsed a grocery store in Norway where everything was different…but the same. You need to clarify some things – for example, I really like milk so I always motion that I am going to drink the milk I am buying to make sure it’s not creamer (because I have made the mistake before). While it might be difficult for someone following certain dietary restrictions, the average person can get by pretty well. And why doesn’t the US have all those cool Heinz condiments? As for the spreadable caviar – you either love it or hate it. Here are some pictures from a Scandinavian grocery store….


So there you have it.  Now come see the world and don’t sweat the small stuff!  🙂

This is Fjord Country!

I took an excursion from Bergen and sailed north past some of the thousands of islands on the Norwegian coastline. By high-speed super-boat, we entered the Sognefjord fjord and sped for five hours to its very end. The fjords look like the Blue Ridge Mountains in Virginia except they cut straight into the water creating dramatic contrasting scenery. Houses and farms hug the mountainsides perilously and waterfalls are everywhere. To add more contrast, there was snow on the mountain peaks and the water we sailed was silver-blue. We witnessed incredible beauty as we passed small Norwegian sea clubs, mountain farms, picturesque houses with grass growing on the roofs, and dozens of little towns…..


After coming to the end of Norways largest fjord and the third longest fjord in the world, I climbed aboard the Flam railway. The old Flam rail is an exciting stretch of track and the world’s steepest normal-gauge railway line. Only a panoramic window separated me from the mighty landscape of more fjords, waterfalls, and plateaus – now seen from above. We passed many waterfalls and spectacular views as we traversed the backside of the fjord mountains. The train ride took just one hour, yet coursed through 20 tunnels, most of which were excavated by hand many years ago. There were so many picturesque villages it was as if the entire region was one giant post card. The train stopped at the only point where there are two tracks – in order to allow an approaching train to pass. The varied landscape was spectacular, on what is no doubt one of the world’s most beautiful train rides.


Bergen, Norway.

On my way to the west coast of Norway from Oslo, I passed thru the snow-covered mountains of Myrdal. There, people were gearing up on some of the hundreds of mountain bikes which were at the ready to tour the Rallar Road cycle track which winds its way down from the high mountain region thru alpine areas, past natural habitats of arctic foxes and wild reindeer, to the valley towns far below. My train rode thru it all….


Upon arriving, I soaked up the small town atmosphere of Bergen, which is nestled at the base of seven mountains and is the gateway to the fjords, Scandinavia’s biggest attraction. The small city has a very unique charm with lots of flowers, cobbled streets, wooden houses, and delicacies of the sea which are on sale daily at the Hanseatic fish market wharf. In keeping with my knack for adventurous eating, I enjoyed some fresh fjord prawns and ate a whale meat sandwich. I rode the city on a bike I borrowed from the hotel and pottered around the harbor front, passing sleek boats, seafood stands, and iconic wooden houses.


Foot note: I skipped the world’s only leprosy museum. Maybe next time. Plus it cost an arm and a leg to get in.

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Oslo.

I went from Stockholm to Gothenburg, Sweden and stayed for three days with some new friends I met on my travels before heading up to Oslo, Norway.  Oslo is a very modern metropolitan city with a unique feel. I stayed just one block off Karl Johans Gate, the main shopping district area, which was a great place to wander. The entire “street” is for walking only– no cars allowed. Lined with many familiar international retailers like Benetton and H&M, and lots of unique Norwegian stores and smaller shops, the area is filled with eateries, and street performers doing their thing. Here there is plenty to keep one occupied for hours and get a good vibe of the city. I was disappointed that the world’s only mini-bottle museum was closed during my visit (only open on the weekends), but was able to snap a few photos from outside.


    I took a long walk through the city and made my way to the Royal Palace.


After an interesting tour of the museum and 80-acre Gustav Vigeland sculpture park which took him over twenty years to design, I hung out near the uber-chic waterfront area (think inner-harbor Baltimore with a Euro-hip twist); and checked out the Castle/Fortress Akershus, an old fort from the 13th century that sits on an excellent vantage point of Oslo.


The Waterfront Area…..


The Old Fort….


This Trips Map:

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Fear Factor Lunch in Latvia!

Back across the Baltic I sailed…this time to Riga, Latvia where I took in the sights of the centuries-old town. Different steeples, different peoples, but one notices that most all the European cities generally have an old town and also a bustling city center. Riga, however was a bit quiet with not too many obvious tourists.

I went to a very old brewery for lunch and I was one of only a few patrons there. They brought me some unique bread with oil for dipping and a wonderful bowl of sauerkraut soup. Delish! For the main course I had the chef’s special….a unique, lightly coated white meat with a cream sauce – served with pickled onions, rye bread with toppings, and fresh salad greens. Not bad at all. I finished my plate, went to pay my bill, and asked if they had a business card because I like to collect cards from memorable restaurants from which I eat. The owner beckoned me inside and wanted to show me his medium-scale brewery operation. He also had to know if I enjoyed the meal and his chef’s special of the day: sliced bull testicles!

I was experiencing the joys of adventure travel…combined with adventurous eating.


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Dining in Estonia…with apologies to Rudolph.

I sailed across the Gulf of Finland for a brief excursion to the small country of Estonia, adjacent to the top left corner of Russia. I had no map of the place so I blindly wandered the twisting cobbled streets in the centuries-old city of Tallinn. I walked past medieval markets, artists workshops, iron street lamps, and gothic spires before I entered the old town center. I spent some lazy hours at Troika, a traditional Russian restaurant located in the heart of the historic square, which was founded in the 1300’s. As I watched the passersby, I enjoyed smoked beaver and a sensational reindeer (the local “beef”) stuffed noodle soup. I then walked to a chocolatarie café, past Fat Margaret’s Tower (once used to protect the walled city from sea attacks) and to St. Olav’s Church, which was once the tallest building in the world. Here are my pictures from Tallinn, Estonia…


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The Sights and People in Helsinki.

I took an overnight cruise ship from Stockholm, Sweden to Helsinki, Finland; a country that has over one million saunas! I took a sauna on the cruise, and another in my hotel.  On my second day in Helsinki, I walked just over seven miles as I took in the sights all around the beautiful city.

In  Helsinki you’re never far from water and some of the tap water is piped straight from nature. I took some short cuts and went off the beaten path along a river. I visited Temppeliaukion, a church built into a rock where practice for a concert was in session – the acoustics were amazing. I walked to Sibelius park to check out the famous pipe sculpture that you can play with.  I also went up the tower built for the 1952 Olympics and got a birds eye view of the city.  Scroll through the pictures below to get a peak of Helsinki and then see the additional posts below….


I strolled down to the food market one day. Besides a lot of fish, they had some tasty handmade organic and small-batch cow and goat cheeses that cannot be bought abroad.  Tasty!


Helsinki seemed to be a very laid back city. The people seemed to stretch the limits of fashion and style with no one much caring or looking twice. Here’s a look at some of the people I captured on camera…


 

A True Archipelago.

As my ship sailed eastward toward Finland, we navigated through hundreds of the over 20,000 islands just off the coast of Stockholm, Sweden. Many were all natural, however most were inhabited. The early fall weather with its warm sun and cool breeze added to the extraordinary beauty of the day. We cruised for hours past castles, sea-towns, forests, small fishing villages, marinas, and the large outlying water-side communities of greater Stockholm. It was a beautiful start to a relaxing cruise. These pictures are a small sampling of the views from my ship.


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Cruising the Baltic.

I was spending time in Stockholm when I pulled out my map to define where in the world I was.  I noted that Finland was just across the Baltic Sea and set my sights on trying to find a way there.  From the east coast of Sweden I found two cruise lines (Viking and Tallink) that would take me on a voyage across the Baltic Sea.  I bought a ticket and took my first cruise to Helsinki, Finland.  After some days in Helsinki, I took another cruise from Helsinki to Tallinn, Estonia. I then took two cruises to reverse the entire route, spent more time in Stockholm; and then sailed back across the sea to Riga, Latvia.

The cruises were an affordable luxury since the cost of passage was only slightly more than a decent hotel room and the price included my own cabin. The facilities, food choices, and entertainment options were on par with any cruises I have been on from the United States. Many passengers seemed to be onboard merely for the tax-free shopping. They had small hand-trucks which they loaded up with chocolates and perfume, but mostly with alcohol.

During my trips (six total), I soaked in hot tubs, sweated in saunas, tried my luck at a casino, and caught some great zzz’s. I twice had a fantastic champagne-included breakfast consisting of an impossible variance of European delicacies to sample, all while cruising past hours of beautiful views. Consider adding a cruise across the Baltic Sea to your bucket list.


 

Busy Stockholm.

Stockholm is the capital of Sweden and is spread across 14 islands. While there, I stayed at my third AirBNB place – this one a few metro stops from the Central Station and near plenty of things to do. I toured the Stockholm Cathedral, which was built in the mid 1200’s, and I lit a candle in memory of my wife and parents. I went to the Alfred Nobel Museum and spent a day ambling through the stone streets of Gamla Stan (old town). The modern sections of Stockholm appeared to have been built in intricate well-planned layers with sprawling undergrounds filled with shopping centers, metro terminals and eateries. At times it seemed little was happening, and I’d go down a flight or two, and there would be hundreds of people rushing about. Before my time in Stockholm ended, I donned a parka and headed to the Ice Bar, a unique place, where the walls, bar, seats, and even the glasses were made of Swedish ice.


In a Train and a Boat at the same time.

I went by train from Copenhagen, Denmark, to Stockholm, Sweden. Midway through the journey, an announcement came that everyone needed to disembark the train. I was not the only one looking around confused. As it turned out, the route we were travelling crossed the Jutland Peninsula, which separates the North Sea and the Baltic Sea. They were putting the train on a ship! After the entire train slowly entered the ship, we all got out, and there, next to the now parked train, were cars and campers and trucks. Everyone went up, where there shops, eateries, and plenty of decks. It was a pleasant surprise and a beautiful day to catch the Scandinavian sun, sea, and wind, on a boat…during the middle of a train ride.


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Kissed by the Fishes…in Copenhagen…

I got kissed by a fish, stranded, and lost in Copenhagen. In the end it may not seem as dramatic as it was, but here is my Copenhagen story:

Think about if you were going to have me come to where you live without using a GPS or having a cell phone.  Maybe you’d tell me to drive up the road past the Home Depot and turn left at the 7-11 and so on. If I didn’t speak the language the first thing I would do after getting your directions would be to search for “What is a Home Depot”, and then figure out the best means to get there on foot, by taxi, or bus. Then I’d have to figure out which bus to take or how to communicate to the driver where I needed to go. I’d also have to figure out how much to pay, and oh yeah, they don’t take my currency, so I need to get some local money first, and there’s yet another challenge: everything is in another language.  Many restrooms (toilets, water closets, “WC”s, pissoirs) cost money to enter (about 50 cents) so the need for having local money can sometimes be urgent!  The place where I chose to stay in Copenhagen was with an AirBNB host who simply told me via email to come to “Ingerslevsgade 154, København V., 1705, Denmark”. I asked for directions by email again, and again she replied again with just the address. Great…

I decided to walk to the address (about 1.5 miles) and made it to the massive building. There was no way to get inside and there were about 20 buzzer buttons with names but none with the name of my host. I started to get a bit restive and began punching buttons. A foreign voice answered one of my attempts. I tried to communicate but had no luck, yet surprisingly the buzzer sounded and the door unlocked. One flight up, a man was standing outside his door. We both looked confused and I showed him my directions with the address – he pointed to the apartment just next to his indicating that this was the flat I was looking for, we knocked on the door, but no one was home. I pointed to the phone number, which looked more like a locker combination to me because of how numbers are dialed in Denmark, and he was kind enough to call.  The number looked something like this: 01-233-44-18-532-2. After the Danish country-western sounding ringtone stopped, the call went to voicemail and the man shrugged, indicating he could be of no more assistance to me. I was stuck. I hung out near the front of the building for a while and then began to walk in search of a way to email my host since email was the only way I had to communicate with her.  Either that or I would have to find another place somehow. It was beginning to get dark.

I decided to start walking and eventually I came to a small pub.  I went inside and pleaded to use their wi-fi.  I emailed my host again and began searching for other places where I could possibly stay.  In time, my host emailed back and was most apologetic. I walked back to the apartment and ceded that all was well that had ended well.  The room that I stayed in during my days in Copenhagen was a simple room overlooking a courtyard. In addition to a bed and desk, there was a shower in the room!  I had never seen this before, but later realized it would not be the first time I would stay in a place like this…

My room with a shower in it.

My room with a shower in it.

There are more bikes than people in Copenhagen (about 560,000), and over 50% of citizens commute to work using a bike. So while in Copenhagen, I rented a bike and found it to be the most economical, quickest, healthiest, and fun way to see the charming city. one day while out biking around town, I got stuck in a rain storm. I ducked into the FISH KISS spa and decided to have a foot treatment.  They gave me a locker for my things, and then I sat in a massage chair and placed my feet into a large fish tank full of little fishes.  The small toothless carp removed all the dead skin from my feet.  It felt good, but was pretty gross too!  After the rain storm, I kept riding and ended up getting lost several times during my trek.  Here are some pictures of my views in Copenhagen…


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Hello Hamburg…

I next went to Hamburg for a few days, a city in northern Germany of 1.8 million people which is one of the largest sea ports in the world. I stayed using AirBNB – a service that allows people to rent out all or part of their homes. My host was Mona, a Jewish girl from Russia. Her flat was a 15 minute bus ride away from the city center and in a busy area and near a large university.

My AirBNB room in Hamburg.

My AirBNB room in Hamburg.

This is a picture of my cozy room in Mona’s home in Hamburg.

Mona loaned me her bicycle which I rode all over the city.  I also took a bus tour of the entire city, went to the Fish Market, the gigantic party district of St. Pauli, and rode over dozens of canals. Here are my Hamburg pictures…

 

 


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If you like Hot Dogs…Thank this place…

Do You Like Hot Dogs (with or without kraut)? Then you must thank Frankfurt, Germany!

After a couple days in the small town of Sindelfingen – near Stuttgart, I ventured northward to Frankfurt – a beautiful city, which introduced sausage links to the world. I walked some blisters onto my feet, went to the top of the highest building in the city, and took a cruise down the River Main. Here are some of the sights….


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The Onion Festival, with No Onions.

We drove next to the town of Esslingen to attend the annual Onion Festival. We took a tour of the town including the local Lutheran Church (traditionally when a ruler chose his religion, all citizens had to convert or move – and now the entire town is still mostly Lutheran). The church recently celebrated their twelve-hundredth anniversary. I sat in a pew from the middle ages and was captivated by the craftsmanship of the original stained glass panels made by French artists. The Onion Fest was not about onions, but instead paid tribute to an ancient tale where, according to legend, a market woman drove the devil out of the city by giving him an onion instead of an apple when he asked for something to eat. The main town Marktplatz was filled with food, local sekt (German sparkling wine), and music. It was exciting to experience yet another beautiful ancient German town.


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I Wonder What Time the Park Closes…

From Blempfligen, our foursome rented a large Mercedes SUV and got on the autobahn, driving at speeds of up to 120mph, we raced by colorful fields of cabbage, sunflowers, corn, and hops. Our destination: Rothenburg, an entirely walled city founded in 1274. We also had with us two full sized Labrador Retrievers. Dogs are allowed most everywhere in Germany and considered part of family. We click-clacked through the old cobblestone streets of the large working city and found our way to Zur Holl (“Hell”: given the name due to no sunlight ever shining down this particular long narrow street in the shadows of the ancient wall); Hell is a medieval tavern serving authentic German fare. Two of us ducked inside and found there was a wait to be seated; we did our best to communicate to the owner that we were four people and also had with us TWO DOGS. He nodded in understanding. After a few minutes a waiter came out with two large glasses of blackish beer and said: “Your TWO DARKS”. It took a bit to sort out the misunderstanding and we eventually got seated, including the two dogs.

After dinner, we strolled the streets and came to a large wine festival at the city center. Musicians ambled through the crowd, over 70 regional wines were being offered, and small stands were set up selling tempting delicacies. It was a magical scene and as we walked away, I had to remind myself that it was all real and not made up for tourists with an entrance fee and a punched ticket. This is the type of place Disney modeled itself after, and while they did a great job, it cannot compare to a real Magical Kingdom.


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I Bought a Blender and Saw Naked People.

I spent two days in Ramstein getting adjusted to the six-hour time difference, purchasing some missing items and getting a haircut. A good friend who was finishing up a work assignment in Germany reached out via FaceBook and invited me to where she was staying with hosts. Having no plans to be anywhere, I made my way by train to the small village of Bempflingen and was given my own spacious room from which I could see goats on a hill behind the house; I was provided a wonderful home-cooked dinner and an extremely thoughtful welcome basket. Yodel-ay-hee-ho!!

 

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My welcome basket.

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Just around the corner from the house.

 

 

 

 

 

 

The next evening the gentleman who was supposed to cook was not feeling well, so I volunteered (I love to cook!). I cooked steak for tacos out on the grill and made my signature cowboy beans with corn in a cast iron skillet. I was cooking a Mexican dinner on a grill…in Germany! “Do you know how to make margaritas?” I was asked. “Sure – no hay problema, fraulein”. Guess what happens when you plug a 110 volt appliance into a 220 volt socket….BOOM! Translation: we had no margaritas and I bought a new blender as a parting gift to my gracious host.

The next day I was riding in the car running an errand with a friend of my friend. As we are driving along I look down a grassy patch where a river ran alongside a grove of trees creating a natural park-like setting. And there – lounging about, were about 30 naked people! Like all the way in the buff. “Ummm – what did we just pass!??” “Oh – that’s the local nudist hang-out”. Like no big deal, on the side of the road. Ok. Welcome to Germany.

 

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The small town of Blempflingen.

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Getting Ready and Blasting Off.

After the passing of my wife and mother, I sold most of my possessions, stored the rest, and stuffed a backpack.  I got my immunizations and documents in order.  I arranged for mail, bills and emergencies back home and travelled to see some friends and relatives mostly on the East Coast from NYC to Florida. I was in the military for so long that they now let me fly for free whenever they have room, so I headed out to try to get a seat.

I first drove to the Norfolk, VA air base to try to catch a flight that was leaving for Southern Spain.  The flight that night left at 8PM but I was not able to get on board as they only allowed 52 people and there were 110 competing for seats.  The next day, I tried for a flight bound for Sicily, but this time they only allowed 11 people on board and I was not one.  The next day, I tried again to go to Spain, but the flight had explosives and sensitive equipment onboard so they decided not to take any passengers.

I then drove to a different air base in Dover, Delaware and tried to catch another flight to Southern Spain.  The flight was moved to the next day at 8PM (Sunday).  On Sunday, the load master of the flight determined that only 31 people could go because 1 of the 2 lavatories on the plane was not working.  Another flight was announced to leave at midnight with 73 available seats.  I decided to hang out another couple hours to try to get a seat.  The flight was bound for Ramstein, Germany.  Luck was with me as I was the 73rd and final name called!  I was finally heading out.  I climbed aboard the giant C-5 cargo plane, put in my earplugs, and fell asleep.


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