Author Archives: Holly and David

Frank Lloyd Wright’s Graycliff in New York

As Frank Lloyd Wright aficionados, we’re always looking for his creations along our travel routes.  On a recent trip to Pittsburgh and the Finger Lakes, we added a stop 25 minutes south of Buffalo.  Graycliff in Derby did not disappoint. 

Wright designed this summer retreat for the same family as the Martin House in Buffalo.  Situated on a large bluff overlooking Lake Erie, the “cottage” incorporates stone sourced on the property.  Previously, a stair tower connected the clifftop to the beach below.

According to our tour guide, the garden and landscape plantings are as originally designed by the architect, including a vegetable and flower garden located at the entrance of the property. The tennis court may seem like someone’s awkward addition years later.  In fact, it was requested by the family as part of the original plan.

When approaching from the front entrance, you can see through the large windows lining the structure to the lake beyond. A desire to show his interpretation of the lake water running through the house resulted in the large pool of water in the front.

The interior welcomes with a mostly open floor plan.  A large hearth separates the living area from the dining area.  Stone materials continue to have a prominent role inside.  These include several that Wright selected to showcase their encased fossils.

All of FLW’s houses display quirks.  This one includes a window that seems to be built in the chimney.

An adjoining structure was originally designed for the chauffeur but was later transformed for family members’ living quarters.

We were impressed by the work and dedication of the Graycliff Conservancy.  A labor of love preserved this masterpiece.  Sadly, a look over the fence shows what can happen without vigilance.  A similar cottage was leveled and replaced with aesthetically bland condos.

Want to know more about FLW or see more of his designs?  Look here:

 @apielage on Instagram – ongoing project to photograph all remaining FLW structures.

https://www.thoughtco.com/frank-lloyd-wright-interiors-inside-architecture-177552 – terrific article about the interior themes used by FLW

https://flwright.org/ – information about Oak Park and Chicago FLW designs, including his studio.

Asheville, Weaverville and Black Mountain (Western North Carolina)

Asheville is a city for enjoying the outdoors, Appalachian culture and eating!  Its new-age vibe melds well with its mountain past.  A Spring visit provides flowering dogwoods and vibrant green leaves along with smaller crowds than other seasons.

Asheville is home to at least 20 breweries.  (Check here for a list.)  It looks like there is always a party at the New Belgium Brewery.  Patios and greenspace for picnics provide a great place to chill.  Each day there are food trucks cooking up delectables like bao buns, kimchi or gourmet grilled cheese.  

The arts and crafts continue to thrive in Asheville.  The best place for meandering through streets of galleries is the River Arts District. Hundreds of artists are located in its collection of restored buildings along the French Broad River.

While gallery hopping, we found one of the best pizzas we’ve ever eaten at Fresh Wood Fired Pizza.  The Chevre with sun-dried tomatoes, roasted red pepper, local goat cheese, mozzarella and fresh basil on a red sauce was expertly cooked in their wood fired oven.  This pizza on their colorful patio made for a delightful lunch!

The Southern Highland Folk Art Center provides traditional craftsmen a beautiful space to showcase their works.  Everything is for sale although it’s also a great place for browsing.  Handmade treasures include colorful quilts, intricate pottery and whimsical furniture.

It’s not a trip to Asheville without some outdoor adventure.  Near Black Mountain (“The Little Town That Rocks”), Catawba Falls Trail rewards with its magnificent cascading waterfalls.  The hike is fairly easy with a wide trail that usually follows alongside the water.  As this is a very popular hike, it’s important to go before 10 a.m. to avoid the crowds.  The last 100 feet are more challenging with some rock scrambling.  To see the entire cascade, the best vantage point is from large rocks in the middle of the water below the falls.

The vendor stalls at WNC Farmers Market showcase fresh produce, canned goods and local crafts.  As part of the farmer’s market, The Moose Cafe offers farm-to-table southern classics for breakfast, lunch and dinner.  

On our travels, we often seek out areas designed by Frederick Law Olmsted. He envisioned The North Carolina Arboretum as part of his plan for the Biltmore Estate. While walking through, you can appreciate the insights that went into the design.  Unfortunately, we missed the unique Bonsai tree exhibit by a few weeks.  They were still inside “hibernating” for the winter.  

Read Fine Gardening’s Field Trip to the North Carolina Arboretum for specifics on what to do when visiting the gardens and hiking/biking trails.

Enjoying a beautiful sunset in a spectacular setting is always a perfect way to end a day.  Thanks to a friend’s suggestion, we savored the view from the aptly named Sunset Terrace at the Grove Park Inn.  Walking around the inn was a treat as well.  It’s large stone fireplaces and open great rooms remind you of the amazing National Park lodges of the west.

From this short visit, a few of our favorite local eats: 

Asheville

Bonfire Barbeque – Recommended by an Asheville based friend.  (He tried the Ghost Pepper sauce.  We stayed with the traditional mustard sauce!)  Everything is delicious and the service incredibly hospitable.

The French Broad Chocolate Lounge – Handcrafted ice cream and cold, thick sipping chocolate made our day… but there’s also bonbons, cookies, brownies, cakes, mousse and brulee!

The Hop Ice Cream Cafe – Even on chilly nights, there can still be quite a line waiting for ice cream.  The cafe offers almost as many vegan selections as traditional ice creams.  Can’t help but love their slogan “Happiness through ice cream.”

Weaverville – (Cute small town with a walkable Main Street.) 

Well Bred Bakery – This bakery looks to have won lots of accolades.  We started our Asheville adventure here with a decadent combo – the Petite Eclair and the Lemon Poppyseed Cake.

Twisted Laurel – While there is a downtown location, the Main Street location in Weaverville provides a relaxing, lowkey ambiance. Their varied menu makes it hard to choose.  No regrets with the Greek Platter!

Black Mountain

Black Mountain Doughnut Factory – Made with all natural ingredients, these doughnuts are incredibly light.  Our favorite flavors…Smoked Maple and Orange Twist.

**Extras**

Things we’ve discovered that make us smarter or happier…or both!

Maybe we are interested in the Olmsted landscapes because our area in Lexington is so influenced by him.  A historical marker  gives a good synopsis:

In 1904, descendants of Henry Clay hired famed landscape architects, Frederick Law Olmsted Jr. and John Charles Olmsted, to design the Ashland Park neighborhood on the 600-acre estate. Constructed over a 15-year period, development was completed around 1930. The brothers designed U.S. Capitol & White House grounds, and the Chicago World’s Fair 1893.

This landscape design firm from Brookline, Mass. helped design the park system in Louisville and the grounds of the Kentucky State Capitol in Frankfort. In Lexington, they consulted on the master plan for the University of Kentucky, Ashland Park & Transylvania Park neighborhoods and Woodland Park.

Read more at Architectural Digest’s 9 Great Frederick Law Olmstead Designs That Aren’t Central Park.

The French Broad River is an ancient river (the 3rd oldest in America and 5th in the world), which winds through Asheville as it runs north to Tennessee.   https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/List_of_rivers_by_age

Sometimes you just have to laugh….when the women’s bathroom is out of order and everyone now uses the men’s room….

The Golden Isles – Jekyll Island, St. Simons Island, Brunswick, Darien

Warming spring weather provided the perfect opportunity to head south and explore the Golden Isles of Georgia.  Pink, orange and white azalea blossoms signaled the beginning of a great retreat!

Harris Neck National Wildlife Refuge, part of the Colonial Coast Birding Trail, contains several ponds and other wetland areas to welcome migrating birds. The loud, bellowing sounds of male alligators echoed around the ponds to ensure that everyone knew that this is their territory.  Several visitors toted professional cameras and snapped photos of wood storks and other wading birds.  (Unfortunately, we missed the chance to go to the nearby Old School Diner.)

The streets of the vanished settlement in Ft. Frederica National Monument (St. Simons Island) are now grassy boulevards lined with large oaks.  Signs tell the history of the remaining building foundations.  A small part of the original fort remains near the water where it defended against invasion by the Spanish from St. Augustine.  Next to the park is Christ Church, an Episcopal church established in 1736.  You can walk through the cemetery that was blooming with azaleas when we visited.  Hopefully, the church will soon be open again for visitors to take a peek inside. 

The main commercial area of SSI can be congested.  We did easily find a public parking space close to the beach.  Watching fishermen waiting patiently for a bite on their line and walking by the lighthouse helped us to forget about the crowds.  

One of our favorite experiences on this trip was biking around Jekyll Island.  We rented two bikes from Beachside Bike Rentals ($24 for 4 hours.)  This was plenty of time for a 12 mile loop that was mostly flat and entirely on a bike path.  Most of the time, oak and pine trees separated the bike path from the road traffic.  When stopping at sights, we did not even have to lock up the bikes.  As the rental guy said, “We don’t have any problems with that here.”

At Driftwood Beach we took a short walk among bleached out, massive pieces of driftwood.  Most are entire trees.  If you like taking photographs, this beach is comparable to no other.  At one end of the beach, the entrance has a couple of ponds where you can take a quiet break and watch the birds.

The Jekyll Island Club, where the Morgans, Vanderbilts and Rockefellers gathered, still welcomes vacationers.  The bike path weaves around the club and in and out between their cottages (i.e. mansions) and gardens.  

A turtle hospital is not often on the vacation itinerary.  At the Georgia Sea Turtle Center, the staff cares for turtles hit by cars or boats, attacked by other animals or suffering hypothermia.  Several “patients” come from zoos and other nature centers throughout the country.  We watched them care for two turtles and also a baby owl that had fallen out of its nest.  An amazing stop to see the efforts taken to help these animals return to their natural homes.

For a quiet picnic, St. Andrews Beach provides shaded picnic tables and a nearby beach (but not for swimming.)  This is also where you can find a trail commemorating the 1858 landing of The Wanderer, the penultimate slave ship to the United States.  

Brunswick provides the best daily shopping in the area.  Publix offers a larger selection of groceries than the other options.  A Target and Walmart are also available.  The town is laid out with a grid of public squares similar to those in Savannah although on a smaller scale.  (Read here for more info on the efforts to revitalize them.)  On Newcastle Street,  Richland Rum distills the only single estate, single barrel rum in the U.S.  It grows and harvests  its own sugarcane closeby.  After a short tour, take a few sips and decide which expression of rum you like best!  (We went for the unaged Virgen Coastal Rum to share with our patio guests.)

With a quick stop at Fort King George State Historic Park, you can see the interesting design of the oldest remaining English fort on the Georgia coast.

You can learn about rice growing, dairy production and malaria at the Hofwyl-Broadfield Plantation.  The opportunity to walk through paths lined with so many huge, moss-draped oaks is by itself worth the admission. Some of these trees are at least 500 years old!  This plantation story tells more of the struggles encountered by owners and slaves than many other similar sites.  

Where to stay?

The small waterfront town of Darien provides a quiet, small place to truly feel like you’re away from it all while still being a short drive to all of the Golden Isles.  We stayed at the AirBnb Fern Dock River Cottage which was one of the most relaxing rental properties we have stayed at.  Many nights, we cooked dinner on the balcony’s grill while enjoying the sunset over the river and the Altamaha Waterfowl Management Area.  A few steps behind the cottage is a dock with a hammock.  There are also fishing poles and tackle boxes for those who like to fish as well as a launching dock if you bring your own kayak.  Hosts Serena and Dwight greeted us and made sure that we had everything that we needed. Serena is an artist too!  Her artwork is displayed in the cottage.  We now have one of her dancing lady paintings in our home.  Art from travel brings joy each day! 

A Few Darien Food Notes:  

Smith & Son’s Seafood offers a small retail shop with fresh shrimp and seafood to prepare at home.  

Skipper’s Fish Camp is a local seafood favorite. The hushpuppies and coleslaw are delicious too!

Spartina Grill opened in 2020.  It has a Happy Hour each day from 4-6 and not only a large outdoor deck but also a large screened porch with heaters.  You can’t go wrong with a Shrimp PoBoy, Red Fish Tacos and excellent service.

Zio Carlo Cafe prepares  incredible hot lattes and cold Chai teas.  The homemade Pecan Biscotti is a must try!

For delicious made-on-site chocolate, caramel and toffee in coastal shapes (think turtle, seahorses and shells) stop by the Sugar Marsh Cottage.

Some of the places we visited are part of the Parks on the Air program that David enjoys.  He activates them communicating with radio operators around the world.  (It’s like a scavenger hunt for parks with awards for completing different challenges!)  Map below shows his 553 contacts from this trip.

Three Bridges Trail in Carter Caves State Park (KY)

We took advantage of 40 degrees and blue skies to hike in Carter Caves State Park.  This park is an hour northeast of Natural Bridge State Park and the Red River Gorge area.  (See our previous post about these areas here.) It shares many of the outstanding rock features of these other parks.  However, while the other parks are more well known and have more visitors, Carter Caves allowed us to have the trail almost to ourselves.

Although Mammoth Cave National Park in southern Kentucky is home to the longest cave system known in the world, Carter County has the highest concentration of caves in Kentucky.  We decided to skip the subterranean features this time and enjoy a sunny, crisp hike.  We chose the easy/moderate 3.5 mile Three Bridges Trail.  Although this trail doesn’t take you far from the center of the park, you walk through three natural bridges.  This trail also takes you to the rappelling and rock climbing area which is available by permit.  

We parked in the Welcome Center where we picked up a map.  The trailhead was across the main road and up a few stairs.  We decided to walk the loop trail counterclockwise in order to save the largest bridge for last.  Red trail markers painted on trees helped us to easily navigate and stay on the trail which was usually leaf covered.  

Kentucky’s limestone outcroppings, forests and lakes make for a pretty fabulous place to ride out a pandemic.  Happy trails!

Celebrating the New Year in Valencia, Spain

Spending the last few days of 2019 in Valencia, Spain included just the right mix of museum hopping, serious eating, coffee stops and meandering the decorated plazas and narrow streets of the Old Town. The history of Valencia is a fusion of cultures.  Founded by the Romans in 138 BC, it was invaded by German and Iranian tribes before a Muslim conquest and a later Christian Reconquest in the 13th century.

We started the explorations with some artsy fun at the Valencian Institute of Modern Art (IVAM)  before enjoying an outdoor lunch at the nearby Convent Carmen.  This 400 year old convent, San José and Santa Teresa, is now a cultural space with films, performances and workshops.  Restaurants in its gastronomic market serve from cargo containers while patrons dine at tables throughout the large open courtyard.

To take in views of the neighborhoods, we climbed the two remaining medieval gate towers (Torres de Serranos and Torres de Quart) which were part of the defensive wall around the city.  For more on the history of the gates, read this.

A stop for a cáfe con leche at Almalibre Acai House found this inspirational quote:

Move away from known places. Explore, dream, discover. Experiment like it was the first time. Your destiny is not a place, it is a way of life. –Almalibre–

As always, some of the best vacation experiences evolved from unplanned encounters.  We luckily happened upon the Corpus Museum of Valencia – The House of Rocks. The museum houses the large figures and other religious objects used in the annual Corpus Christi procession.  (See photos from this amazing event here!)

The Valencia Cathedral and its bell tower (“el miguelete”) links two of the city’s large plazas – Plaza de la Reina and Plaza del Virgen.  

From the outside, La Almoina Archaeological Museum doesn’t reveal it’s underground secrets.  Below the calm water of the outdoor fountain is an excavation of early Valencia.  You can see the two main streets from Roman times, 2nd century baths, the courtyard of the old Muslim city and various excavated artifacts.

Visiting during the holidays allowed us to partake in some of the celebrations.  As in many Spanish cities, several places displayed traditional nativity scenes.  The Spanish word for these displays is belén which literally translates to Bethlehem.  Here is one we admired in the City Hall.

The  Church of Santa Catalina provided a simpler backdrop to enjoy its nativity scene as well as other beautiful art. 

We always try to visit food markets wherever we are.  These markets give insights into the daily lives of locals and we always see interesting and different culinary delights.  The Central Market housed in a 1914 Art Nouveau building is one of the larger markets in Europe. It had its own towering nativity scene. For more on this market and others in Valencia read here.

Valencia is the birthplace of paella.  Our local friends did not hesitate to recommend the Alqueria del Pou for our long awaited paella lunch.  You could tell from the dining families and comfortably elegant decor that this is an establishment that is part of the fabric of the community.   After already indulging in paella and dessert, the waitress then gifted us a plate of traditional bizcocho (cake) with mistela, a sweet dessert liquor.

The City of Arts and Sciences  lives up to its beauty seen in photographs.  The futuristic white buildings seem perfectly suited for this city by the beach.  While here, you can explore the Museu de les Ciències or the Oceanogràfic which has Europe’s largest aquarium.  We decided on a more leisurely choice, the Hemisfèric, to watch a 3D IMAX movie about energy.

Even in December, a trip to Valencia wouldn’t be complete without a trip to the beach.  A short bus ride to Malvarrosa allowed us to breathe the Mediterranean air while taking a short, sandy stroll.

We ended the holidays ringing in the New Year with the locals.  With fireworks and music we welcomed 2020, not realizing that it was going to be one of our least favorite years ever!  In retrospect, we are grateful that we shared that night in a crowd of happy revelers.

If you want to be transported to this sunny city on the sea, follow our friends @lovevalencia for beautiful photos each day.

There is nothing like planning a trip where you can reconnect with old friends over a homemade dinner in their home.  (Marcos, Ali and Nico…seeing your smiles and hearing your laughs were the true highlights of the trip!)

Giant Trolls and Shakers

We are continuing to explore more cultural fusion in some of our favorite Kentucky places.

While walking through the knobs and meadows thirty miles south of Louisville, we’re greeted by trolls from Danish lore.  Artist Thomas Dambo from Denmark created the troll family of Mama Loumari, Little Nis and Little Elina using recycled and repurposed materials.  The three giants in Bernheim Arboretum and Research Forest are part of an installation with currently more than forty trolls around the world.  (There is even a troll map to see the locations.) 

To learn more about Dambo’s project and to see photos of his other trolls, read this National Geographic article.

While hiking to find the wooden giants, we also encountered an edible garden, honey bee and bird houses, lakes and an exhibit about Kentucky women suffragists. 

About an hour and 15 minutes east from Bernheim is Shaker Village of Pleasant Hill. The Shakers were 19th century America’s largest communal society.  Originating in England in 1747, the group sailed for the United States in 1774 and  established various communities such as this one, founded in 1808.  When visiting, you can feel yourself welcomed into the Shakers’ peaceful life that was based upon sustainability and simplicity.

The cool October evening included watching the full moon rise around a crackling fire pit. Chris Sullivan, one of our favorite local musicians, not only played guitar and sang but also shared his personal connection to each song. 

Our outdoor dinner could not have been more comforting…a Kentucky hot brown that was authentic with oven roasted turkey breast,  applewood bacon, slow roasted tomatoes and a smoked gouda mornay sauce yet also spiced up with the use of jalepeño bread.

We stayed in the East Family Dwelling which welcomed us with a delightfully comfortable bed, Keurig coffee and first floor living areas that we had to ourselves for relaxing and reading.

And…other fun and curious sights caught our attention.

Although there is only one active Shaker community that remains in Maine (with two elderly members), their belief in freedom from prejudice, pursuit of simplicity and pride in craftsmanship can continue to be a guide for all of us.

Red River Gorge – Natural Bridge (KY)

As the pandemic continues, we are still appreciating the beauty of the world.  We are just enjoying it closer to home.  Today we traveled east to the Natural BridgeRed River Gorge area, a world-famous climbing destination with sandstone arches and towering cliffs.  This park in the small town of Slade is home to its own unique cultural mix… Appalachian roots meets climbing hip.

Our first stop was the Daniel Boone Coffee Shop.  We were here a few years ago when it was a typical small-town grocery-coffee-souvenir shop.  Today, it’s been transformed into a can’t miss cafe serving regional coffee from Kentucky Mountain Coffee Company and others. Beside coffee, you can enjoy homemade baked goods, vegan wraps and seasonal cocktails.  We ordered a grilled cheese with a local beer cheese, a BLT, and a latte.   Everything was freshly prepared and delicious! The service was fast and provided by servers who appeared to be climbers earning their keep in order to climb during off-hours.

Grateful for wild spaces that provide retreat from the busyness of our daily lives.  Places where we can breathe deeply and be restored.  Places where we can notice the dampness, the reflections and the smells surrounding us.  Places that transport us to simpler times.

Rainy Days in Charleston, SC

(For full disclosure, this trip was made pre-COVID in 2019.  We are currently at home, dreaming and planning for future travel after the pandemic becomes history. Now is the perfect time to remember past adventures.  We are so grateful for the places we have experienced!)

Are the charms of Charleston´s people, history, and cuisine lost when summer rains set in?  Do showers and storms mean that a trip becomes a wash-out?  We found the answer to be “no way” during a short, three-day visit.

With seemingly never ending rain, indoor dining was a must during this trip.  The Five Loaves Cafe had a local, homegrown feel.  A unique, culinary message handwritten on each tabletop greeted us while the relaxed ambiance and friendly staff invited us to stay a while.

The creamy, shrimp gnocchi and  steamed mussels immediately transported us to coastal dining with fresh seafood.  

A few drizzly, damp walks rewarded us with up close views of this city’s masterpiece homes.  Although they can be imposing, they remain friendly and welcoming with their balconies and gardens.  Each one displays its own personality and hints at the stories that have played out within its walls.

We escaped a deluge of rain one day during the inside tour of the spectacular Nathaniel Russell House.  The staircase is amazing!  Their website can say it better than we can…”The home’s graceful, free-flying, three-story staircase is an architectural marvel with each cantilevered step supporting the one above and below it.”

Who in their right mind orders beets on a pizza?  Turns out, if you take the beet plunge at Dal’s Pizza you’ll be rewarded.  Their Beetnik with mozzarella and goat cheese, bacon, golden beets and rosemary removed all childhood fears of beets!

With a break in the rain, we drove to nearby Tybee Island for lunch at The Crab Shack.  This dock-side patio, including cool mist from the overhanging trees, provides the perfect spot to enjoy a low country boil of shrimp, crab, corn, potatoes and sausage. 

Magnolia Plantation opened its gardens to visitors in 1870, making it the oldest public garden in the US.   The designers created a magical space by fully incorporating the swamp into the gardens and successfully resisting any attempt to tame the natural setting.  This was a place we didn’t mind to return to for a repeat visit.

We weren’t able to eat at Basil, but we loved the sign at night!

Beijing in Spring

We were fortunate enough last Spring to visit one of the world’s oldest cities, Beijing.  Now, we’re fortunate to have some time at home to write and share it with you. We visited Beijing last April as flowering trees provided fragrance and color to an already enchanting place.  Our flight over departed on a Saturday and we returned the following Saturday. We found this to be the perfect amount of time to experience the history, art, food and, of course, the people in the world’s most populous capital city.

We knew we weren’t in Kansas anymore (figuratively speaking) when we navigated the narrow, pedestrian, street-signless alleys of the hutongs to find our hotel! Kelly´s Courtyard Hotel was highly recommended by friends and we loved it!  Our host, Dean, spoke great English and assisted us with everything that we needed.  Each morning we started our day with a breakfast in their cozy, enclosed courtyard.

Although travel weary, we wanted to explore at least a little that first night.  We only had to walk down a few alleys to find a small, neighborhood park. It was a welcoming first experience to see the neighbors meeting for weekly dance and karaoke sessions.

The following days we easily walked and used the metro to explore all corners of central Beijing.  An early morning walk through Beihai Park led us to a large garden surrounding an urban lake. Here, we watched older Chinese move together in tai chi as well as others dancing in traditional clothing.  

Beijing’s Drum Tower, built in 1272 during the reign of Kublai Khan, houses 24 drums which were used for music and to announce the time.  This continued to be the official timekeeping method until 1924 when the Qing Dynasty ended with Puyi, The Last Emperor (see footnote below!)

We were surrounded by school children on a field trip at The Temple of Heaven.  Each student wore a light-blue uniform and assembling a wooden model of the temple.  Emperors visited this temple each year to offer prayers for a good harvest.

Tiananmen Square, famous for the 1989 student protests, seemed quiet for its expansiveness and its importance.  A few families were ordering food from a food truck parked in the plaza. On one side of the square stands the Mausoleum of Mao Zedong.

The Forbidden City is one of those places that takes you back to another world.  One palace falls behind you to open up yet another and then another. Side courtyards beckon.  You get butterflies in your stomach thinking about the events that have happened here and how those events changed the world.

Our first encounter with The Egg was at night after a long day of exploring.  What an amazing view to end the day! The titanium and glass structure houses the National Centre for the Performing Arts.  We were lucky enough to have an inside tour another day, entering via an underwater passageway that opens up into the cavernous lobby.  The experience inside is as wondrous as from the outside.

A metro to the outskirts of Beijing took us to The Summer Palace.  Architecturally reminiscent of the Forbidden City, it was (and is) a quiet retreat from the city.  A large artificial lake anchors the buildings, some of which were like a backlot “Main Street” where the royals pretended with their courtiers to be normal citizens shopping in markets.

We wanted to avoid the heavy tourism of the closest segment of The Great Wall. So, along with others in our hotel, we hired a driver to take us for an all-day excursion to Jinshanling.  Here, a gondola took us up to the wall. It’s a bit tricky to walk with uneven rocks and steep stairs, but it’s definitely an experience of a lifetime to take in the views and ponder the history of this country and its people.

A musical performance in the courtyard of the Beijing Confucius Temple was enlightening in its artistic commemoration of Confucius.

The prior year, we observed the holiday of Qīngmíng (Tomb Sweeping Day) in Hong Kong.  It was interesting to observe the day again but this time in China.  It’s a day of remembrance for ancestors similar to our Memorial Day. One tradition is to burn fake paper money and you can see huge bags of the colorful paper money for sale at the stores.  Although we were told that it is forbidden to burn the money in the streets or parks now, we observed some older residents still lighting theirs on fire in the alleys of our hutong.

For a thoroughly modern artistic experience, we visited the 798 Art District.  Similar to other art districts we’ve enjoyed, it’s housed in an old industrial complex. This destination attracts a younger crowd with its art galleries, murals, installations and coffee shops.

Amazingly incredible!  That’s the only way to describe Beijing’s cuisine.  From the street food (like scorpions on a stick) of Old Beijing Custom Street, to the terrific everywhere Kung Pao chicken, potstickers and noodle bowls… to the unforgetable Peking Duck experience, it was all so delicious!

With our current COVID19 quarantine situation, we are more content than ever that we’ve taken advantage of every opportunity to travel.  While at home, we are reliving amazing moments in places like Beijing and dreaming of the adventures that await us. Hope you’re planning your own explorations as well.  Comment to let us know your recommendations for our post-quarantine travel! 

Footnotes

For an at-home travel fix, we recommend that you watch The Last Emperor.  Even if you’ve seen it before, it’s still a great movie to transport you to another place.  It was actually filmed in The Forbidden City.

Did we feel safe in China?  Yes! The people are friendly and helpful and there are cameras literally everywhere!  In the neighborhoods there are local police at intersections and lots of security in the metro and airports.  Even though it’s a large city, driving is still somewhat of a free-for-all. So, that is definitely best left up to the locals and watch carefully before crossing any larger streets!

Christmas Lights and Tapas in Valladolid, Spain

There’s something special about Christmas lights when traveling.  It makes the discovery of far away places even more magical.  

While the medieval city of Valladolid is always captivating, when decorated for Christmas it becomes even more enchanting.

In north-central Spain just one hour north of Madrid by train, Valladolid is an unknown gem.  In 1469, the Catholic Monarchs, Isabel I of Castile and Ferdinand II of Aragon married here.  Later, it became the capital of the Kingdom of Castile and ultimately the capital of united Spain.

The Plaza Mayor was the first great plaza in Spain and the model for others in Madrid and Salamanca among others.

During the holidays, the plaza becomes a winter market for gifts and treats like churros with warm chocolate for dipping and roasted castañas (chestnuts.)

Stretching across the city’s cobblestoned streets, illuminated decorations create a festive ambiance radiating outward from the plaza.

Plaza Mayor and Calle Santiago, Valladolid (Spain) December 2019

Each year, various belenes (Nativity Scenes) are on display throughout the city as a way to share the craftsmanship and history of these cultural traditions. 

Many families visit the same belenes each year as part of their family’s holiday celebrations.

This belen, Belén Monumental, is on display in the Sala de Exposiciones de Las Francesas. Interestingly, its theme this year is based on the movie, Avatar.

As you wander through the illuminated streets, tapas await around every corner. 

Fodor’s describes this Spanish region as:

 …the “Tapas Capital of The World,” thanks in part to the success of the National and International Tapas Competition, which takes place in Valladolid during the first week of November every year. It’s a place that takes its food just as seriously as its wines…

In our opinion, La Tasquita at Calle Caridad 2, serves the city’s best calamari. Order it along with una clara (Spanish lager draft beer like Mahou mixed with carbonated water) and you won’t be disappointed!

More of our favorites to try are Los Zagales, Vinotinto, and La Taberna del Herrero.

While you’re in Valladolid for the holidays, we also recommend that you visit Manuel Iborra for their high quality turron.  Almond and Yema Tostada flavors are our favorites.  With their compact size, these make unique gifts to take back home as well!

For lighthearted insight into what exactly is turron and what are the most common flavors, we enjoyed reading this post: https://mrdach.com/what-is-turron-seriously-spain-i-need-to-know

To view more photos of the belenes (nativity scenes) visit this page.