Author Archives: Holly and David

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.

Jet Age Elegance at the TWA Hotel

While absentmindedly munching on Lotus Biscoff cookies and contorting our legs between backpacks and underseat space, we must not be the first travelers to dream of a more refined flight experience.  Imagine three course meals, doting flight attendants and ample seats with legroom to spare! These dreams happily came to life when a long layover at JFK Airport allowed us to visit the newly opened TWA Hotel.

The Eero Saarinen designed TWA Flight Center opened in 1962.  After TWA’s sale to American Airlines in 2001, the terminal sat vacant for several years.  Luckily, visionaries proposed a hotel which began construction in 2016 and opened in May 2019.

At JFK, we took the AirTrain to Terminal Five.  When we stepped off of the train, there were red arrows for the TWA Hotel on the floor and we easily followed them out of the building, across the street and down to the hotel.
  
The futuristic exterior and the contours of the lobby beckoned us to explore.  On the first floor we discovered the reception area and a small museum with Jet Age displays.  There’s also the stylish Sunken Lounge with its chili-pepper red carpet and booths as well as the original split-flap departure board.  Here it’s easy to imagine that you’re having a cocktail and chatting with Frank Sinatra or Audrey Hepburn during your layover.

A hallway exhibit a short walk past the lounge displays colorful posters by David Klein.  His illustrations beautifully showcased TWA’s destinations around the world.

Climbing the luxuriously curved staircases, the second floor led us to several restaurants but we weren’t quite ready to eat yet.  Instead, we decided to play awhile at the photo booth and whimsical Twister room. Closeby, a curated walk through TWA uniforms over the years amused us with its mid-century fashion and interesting tidbits about flight attendant job perks and requirements in those days.

Walking through one of the red-carpeted tubes, we discovered a small area that recreates  Saarinen’s studio with his drafting table and plans for the building’s design. For some reason, there is also a recreated living room.  It was fun to see the furniture, lamps and games. We especially liked the original Barbie house and furniture made of cardboard…not plastic!

After exploring inside, we ventured out to the tarmac  to board the restored Lockheed Constellation named Connie.  Inside its chicly designed interior is a groovy bar that serves vintage-inspired cocktails.  This is light-years beyond Lotus Biscoff cookies and bottled water! Now that we’ve had a taste of refined air travel, we can dream of a day where we’re back in the Jet Age!

Take a virtual tour to the TWA hotel with CBS Sunday Morning!

A Quickie to Sultry Chicago

A visa meeting at Chicago’s Spanish consulate provided us with the perfect excuse for a quick trip to the Windy City, which could have been better described as sultry and sticky during the hours we were there.  We reserved an AirBnB in Chinatown since we’d never explored that area of the city. A stroll down the heart of the neighborhood on South Wentworth Avenue left us searching for a quiet place to sit with a latte and chai tea. We found the perfect respite at TBaar. Although it’s a chain, the atmosphere was relaxing and it was fun to watch the servers roll out ice cream to make interesting Sundaes. Later, we arrived just in time to get a seat without reservations at Qing Xiang Yuan Dumplings. While waiting for our order of dumplings we were enthralled to watch their video that showed the origins of everything from their porcelain dinnerware to the light fixtures as well as how they locally sourced their ingredients. The dumplings didn’t disappoint!


After dinner, the cooler early evening temps made it the right time to visit Millenium Park. An outdoor movie was playing for a huge audience spread out on blankets and lawn chairs while enjoying picnics with family and friends. Some were even watching the movie! Next, we joined the crowd at Crown Fountain to watch kids from toddlers to teens drench themselves in the water…always watchful for when the large streams of water would pour from the digital faces towering above.

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The following morning, after being amazed at the continually moving line for coffee at Starbucks (and an almost non-moving line at the consulate!), we took a people-watching jaunt along the Riverwalk.  On the lookout for a museum we hadn’t yet visited, we settled on the National Museum of Mexican Art. Although its smaller size with only three galleries could be seen as a negative, it was actually relaxing to not feel rushed.  It’s the perfect size to enjoy art without committing to a whole day at a museum.  (And, it’s free!)

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A short walk from the museum, 5 Rabanitos Restaurante & Taquería provided a delicious lunch of guacamole, tortas, and tacos al pastor in a colorful and friendly setting.

Happy to have had a excuse to visit this fab city again!

Feeling Alive While Celebrating the Dead in Mexico City

We’ve celebrated El Día de los Muertos in recent years by building ofrendas (tables filled with flowers, food, and photos of loved ones who have passed on), walking in candlelit parades and eating pan de muerto (the traditional, slightly-sweet bread baked for this holiday.)  Our local celebration has grown with each passing year and is one of our favorite nights each November because it brings together individuals excited to share old traditions or learn new ones.

This year we wanted to celebrate El Día de los Muertos in Mexico.  Lucky for us, one of our best friends is from Mexico City and invited us to visit with her and her family who live there. Traveling with someone from the area is always our favorite way to travel so we were excited to plan a long weekend with her.  We were not disappointed!

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Pan de muerto welcomed us upon arrival at our friends´ house.

Mexico City’s traffic and expansiveness define how you explore and experience this city. The double decker highways, rotundas with cars going in opposite directions, and lack of clearly defined lanes all call for a driver that knows the area. We traveled by car all three days of our trip without incident except an exhilarating midnight tour through Tepito, one of the world’s most dangerous neighborhoods.

We arrived in the early morning on November 1st. The warm, sunny day beckoned us to visit the Dolores Olmedo Museum with our friend and her childhood neighbor.  We quickly learned to always be prepared for sporadic rain showers and cooler temperatures as the day goes on. The exhibit, El Mundo de los Muertos, celebrated the passage from life to death in the ancient cultures of Egypt, China, Scandinavia and Mexico. Created from paper and wax, all of the scenes were colorful, detailed, and a bit amusing.  A visit to the museum allowed us to view the world’s most important collection of Diego Rivera paintings.

After a jaunt in the car, we arrived at Zócalo or the  Plaza de la Constitución to see the center of the festivities surrounded by El Palacio Nacional and La Catedral Metropolitana de la Ciudad de México (made famous in the helicopter scene from the James Bond film Spectre.) First, we stopped at La Casa de los Azulejos for a quick break to eat molletes (a traditional dish of bread, beans, cheese, and pico de gallo) and to begin absorbing the elegant atmosphere of this historic city.

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The celebrations in the city center were filled with ofrendas, street food, music and people dressed as skeletons (calaveras and Catrinas.) The theme for the city’s ofrenda paid homage to South American, Jewish, Spanish and Asian migrants by depicting their travels on the 9 Paths to Mictlán, the Aztec´s underworld.  The Megaofrenda installed by UNAM remembered those who died at the 1968 Olympics fifty years ago.

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During a short downpour we escaped inside of the majestic cathedral.

The next morning, November 2nd, we set out on another excursion to the city center where we walked through markets beside the Palacio de Bellas Artes before visiting the San Fernando Pantheon and the Church of San Hipólito. A quick taxi ride took us back to the Plaza de la Constitución which was comfortably filled with visitors being ritually cleaned with herbs while dancers from diverse regions of the country performed in their traditional dress with fantastic feather headpieces.  We witnessed and enjoyed this blending of cultures between the catholic cathedral on one side and the ruins of El Templo Mayor on the other. This ancient temple was the center of the Aztec world and only excavated in the last forty years.  While walking around the ruins we could see the individual levels built by each successive ruler. In the Museo del Templo Mayor were incredible statues and carvings from the original temple.

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We indulged in a long lunch while the rain fell outside of the balcony at La Casa de Las Sirenas.

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Our day continued at the Museo Nacional de las Culturas which houses exhibits from China, Persia, ancient Greece and, luckily, more ofrendas and an excellent exhibit of Catrinas.

We couldn’t resist revisiting the city’s ofrendas with a new friend and his incredible homemade skeleton mask. Afterwards, we shared lively conversation, pozole, traditional quesadillas and, of course, chocolate con churros in the vibrant Casa Churro Centro CD de Mexico. A stroll around the city led us to the lovely restaurant Azul Histórico, and shopping. While buying clay masks for our house, we inadvertently learned a new phrase from Patricia, who sells Mexican artwork at Talento Mexicano Bazar.  When she said, “¿Me estás dando el avión?” which means “You are not paying attention to me,” Holly heard it as “You are taking this on the plane?”  We then shared a huge laugh, the kind you can only enjoy when you let yourself step into the vulnerability of being out of your comfort zone.

We ended the evening with our friend’s extended family for their celebration at home. We loved all of the colorful decorations, their ofrenda and, most of all, their hospitality.

Our final day, November 3rd, started with brunch at Saks Restaurant in the  San Angel neighborhood. The exceptional wait staff, breeze from the balcony, stained glass, tequila bar, vertical garden,and excellent conversation made this a meal to remember. When we stepped outside, the Saturday bazaar was in full swing and we shopped in stalls, distinctive stores, and indoor markets all the while people-watching and exploring the cobblestone streets.

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A short drive and a miracle with parallel parking took us to a neighborhood closeby. Here, we made a quick visit to the San Angel Inn and then a tour of Diego Rivera’s studio and the house where he lived with Frida Kahlo. Built in the 1920s, the complex must have made an architectural impact on the city with its modern, concrete design. The story of the two artists and their lives here was fascinating. Afterwards, a few steps away at “Cafe Ó,” we couldn’t stop eating the goat cheese with black olive appetizer and sipping their refreshing cucumber limeade.

We passed the rest of the evening in the enormous Jardín Centenario in the historic Coyoacán neighborhood. The atmosphere here was incredible with performances on stage, walking serenades, children’s lighted balloons, creative ofrendas, and families enjoying it all together. Inside of the San Juan Bautista Church we watched a quinceañera celebration with the honoree in a layered toile pink dress. With sprinkles giving a hint of the rain to come, we ended our celebration and drove home.

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Traveling always makes one live in the moment more than the daily rituals allow. There are new people, new traditions, new food, new vistas…new everything!  This trip with its blend of pageantry and remembrance was one that especially made us thankful for those past and present who left their presence with us and helped to create who we are today. We await more travels that will define us with family visits and time with friends new and old as we incorporate the people we meet and their ways of living from around the world into our life. This is what makes living really living!

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Primeval Iceland

When planning a trip to Iceland, you don’t have to balance options.  No need to make dining reservations, study museum hours, or finagle time for shopping.  If you’re going to Iceland, you should go solely to experience one-on-one its raw, primeval nature.  And, you will not be disappointed!

Our magnificent encounter happened in July thanks to a five day layover with Icelandair.  (Not only was our trek to Spain, our final destination, less expensive, but we also received the bonus of extending our vacation in Iceland for “free”.)

As we only had five days to explore, we limited our route to the southern region of the island. This gave us a reasonable amount of driving each day and the perfect excuse to return soon to this volcanic paradise.

Let’s Talk About the Challenges

For starters, be clear about the type of terrain that you’re going to be driving.  Our route did not require a 4-wheel drive.  This worked out for us this time, although we missed some spectacular scenery that we could have visited off of the main road.  There are five types of roads in Iceland that you should be familiar with.  Many roads have terrain and river crossings that are not for the weak-kneed.  Also, be aware that it is highly advised to get all insurance coverages offered such as those for gravel and ash.  When renting vehicles, we usually go bare-bones on coverages but we made sure to get full coverage on this trip.  Upon returning our car, the rental agent inspected it top to bottom, much more thoroughly than anywhere else that we’ve ever rented.

Another transportation challenge is buying gas.  You’d think that it would be pretty straight forward.  It’s not.  The first obstacle is finding an outpost large enough to have a gas station. Then, you often have to buy a prepaid card such as this one from N1.  For more information about the gas station culture of Iceland, read this post with insights such as “For many people in Iceland, the big night out on the town is dinner at the N1 gas station.”

Iceland is expensive.  Incredibly so!  A fellow tourist that we talked to paid $23 for a breakfast bagel with an egg on top.  To combat food expense, we took pasta packets and canned tuna with us.  These were easy to prepare in a house/apartment kitchen and quite delicious after a long day of adventures!!  Luckily some friends recommended to us the supermarket, Bonus.  Here, we were able to stock up on some essentials for fairly reasonable prices.  (Although even here, a ¾ pound of salmon cost $60.)  To reduce housing costs, book early and be willing to share bathrooms with other guests.  Close to the airport, we stayed at the Base Hotel,  a former NATO base used by the US Navy and US Air Force until 2006. While the room was super small, it was exceptionally clean and the staff very friendly and accommodating.

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Iceland has one main road that goes around the country.  Highway 1 is a fairly straight, easy-to-drive two-lane highway.  Most certainly it is more challenging to drive during the dark, icy winter months.  Although this is the main road, we often found ourselves alone in desolate areas even during the busy summer tourist season.  It was thrilling to have the vistas all to ourselves but it’s also something to consider when planning your trip, especially if you will be traveling alone.  For more information on driving the Ring Road, see this article by Rick Steves, one of our favorite guidebook authors.

The Rewards are So Worth It

Around every bend, there are rewards of panoramic views, towering waterfalls, and otherworldly terrain.  In this region, we were often driving between the immense glaciers of Vatnajökull National Park on one side of the road and artic blue ocean on the other.  Throw in a sod covered church, hay bales, and a glacier lagoon boat tour and you can see why we were totally captivated with this country.

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Blue Lagoon

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Reynisfjara, black sand beach, close to Vik

Seljalandfoss waterfall and David standing in front of Skógafoss waterfall

Oddi and Hofskirkja churches

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Jökulsárlón Ice Lagoon

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Icelandic horses at the Arabaer Farm, our AirBnB in Selfoss.

How Do You Get There?

People frequently ask us about how we make our international travel arrangements. Several have even encouraged us to write posts about travel logistics. We loved that idea! So, here is our first “How To” post with some of our thoughts on getting to your destination of choice.

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Suleymaniye Mosque, Istanbul, Turkey

Plan Early – We are fairly disciplined about starting travel planning early. We save thousands of dollars a year by booking flights and train tickets months before their departure. Besides, it’s always fun to be thinking about what the summer holds on cold December days! Luckily, as teachers we almost always know a year in advance our summer vacation dates in addition to fall breaks, spring breaks, and long weekends. (Although snow days are always an unknown factor that can extend our school two or more weeks!) Knowing our schedule and searching for tickets at least six months before the departure date allows us to lock in good rates early.

Search for Other OptionsKayak or SkyScanner should be websites that you visit on a daily basis when planning a trip. You can also set up alerts with them so that you are notified when prices drop for the flights you are watching. While we all tend to search the larger carriers such as Delta, United, and American, these websites can help you find better deals with other carriers. For us, Air Canada has recently provided the best flights to not only Canada but also to Hong Kong and Spain.

Be Flexible – Having several weeks off in the summer also lets us be more flexible with not only our dates of travel but also our airport cities since we have more time to drive to alternative airports. This flexibility also makes our travel more affordable. For example, flying to Madrid from Lexington (LEX), Louisville (SDF) or Cincinnati (CVG) can cost around $1200 in June but flights out of Chicago are often half of that.

Use Stopovers – In the past few years, airlines have begun offering free extended layovers or stopovers for several days. These allow you to have a layover in another country either on your way to your destination or on your return. Often large airports like Chicago O’Hare have these more readily available with international carriers such as Icelandair, TAP or Turkish Airlines which offer stopovers in Reykjavik, Lisbon or Istanbul. In addition to the stopover, the fare to the final destination is often at a much lower fare than the largest american airlines. In this way, we’ve flown to Europe more affordably AND also stopped essentially “free” to visit Istanbul and southern Iceland. (A new paellanpie.com post coming soon about this adventure!) These stopovers are becoming more popular as they are a win-win for the travelers as well as for the countries where the stopover happens. It offers the traveler lower cost and an opportunity to visit an additional destination while the country gets a visitor that otherwise would only spend a few hours at the airport. Even in some smaller airports like Cincinnati (closer to us than Chicago!) you can find stopovers with WOW Airlines to Iceland and Air Canada to Toronto. You can read about airlines that offer stopovers in this link.

Remember the Parking – We’ve found that hotels like Lowes in Chicago offer much cheaper extended parking options than even the off-site parking near airports.

Hope this gives you some ideas for your future travel planning. Leave us any comments or questions that you have!

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Jökulsárlón Iceberg Lagoon, Þjóðvegur, Iceland

Landmarks (and a Few Surprises!) in London

You can repeatedly vacation in London and follow a new itinerary each time. For our seven days there, we chose to visit some of London’s landmarks and by sheer luck encountered some unforgettable surprises along the way. With its fusion of peoples, foods, music, art styles and languages, London reveals the positive nature of multiculturalism.
We flew into London on a two-hour EasyJet flight from Valencia. Our vacation home host, Driton, met us and helped us get oriented. We stayed one block past Essex Road close to the Islington and Highbury Underground station. A nearby supermarket supplied us with food for breakfast at the apartment and a packed lunch so we could have an impromptu picnic each day.
Free entrance into the National Gallery provided an afternoon of viewing a world-renowned collection of art including sunflowers by van Gogh, bathers by Monet, and cousins Jesus and John by da Vinci.

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Trafalgar Square

A walk through Camden Town’s many small, cobblestone streets led us to vintage shopping, Amy Winehouse and a walk along the canal. The Polish food @highlander.game brought back great memories of our trip to Krakow last year with their pierogies and half-metre sausages.


A short walk from Camden Town led us to an unobstructed city view at Primrose Hill.

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Primrose Hill

For Harry Potter fans, a visit to Warner Bros. Studio Tour London – The Making of Harry Potter seems mandatory. Even for those of us who don’t know all the rules of Quidditch, it’s an inspiring excursion. While it sounds like it might be an amusement park, it’s actually the studio sets and props used for filming the movies. You can’t help but be impressed by the level of detail used to create everything from hundreds of handmade bottle labels in Snape’s potions classroom to the realistic Diagon Alley streetscape. It’s also interesting to learn their tricks for using computer generated imagery to bring the fantasy of Hogwarts and wizards alive. Because these tickets sell out quickly, we bought ours online several months ahead of our visit.

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One could probably admire and read the exhibits in the British Museum for months. It’s unbelievable the trove of historical items that they’ve collected. Based upon the crowds, the ancient Egypt exhibit wins the “most popular” title. However, you can easily view other antiquities without crowds around you. It was incredible to reflect upon objects like the Rosetta Stone, an Easter Island statue and Parthenon sculptures that record the history of humankind.


Needing a break from history and museums, we spent one night out in Covent Garden. Although we previously attended a Mamma Mia! production, the second time at the Novello Theatre was just as fun and danceable. We bought the tickets online in early March for our mid-July visit.

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The pace for our day on the South Bank was a bit slower. We began with a morning walk through the Borough Market to watch the vendors prepare for the day. Next, we passed by the Globe Theatre and visited the Tate Modern following an enjoyable one-hour tour. The view from the 10th floor was spectacular not only because of the downtown London vista but also because you could get a peek into the impeccably furnished flats of the high-rises next door. We followed a quick look into the Imperial War Museum by spending a few lazy hours in The Kennington Coffee Shop. Here, while sipping lattes, iced coffees and iced teas, we chatted with several regulars about politics (Trump and Brexit), life in London, past travels and future plans.


At the Tower of London, the Crown Jewels took center stage; however, equally intriguing was learning about the prisoners detained there, its one-time impressive collection of royal beasts ranging from lions to polar bears, and the 2014 art installation, Blood Swept Lands and Seas of Red, to commemorate England’s fallen soldiers from WWI.
We ended our week with a walk through the more affluent South Kensington district where we popped in to see the food selection at Harrods. We visited the magnificent Natural History Museum only for a brief time just because we had lost stamina for museums. (Something for the next visit!) At the Lebanese cafe, Noura, we relaxed a bit and tried a new drink. Jallab is a wonderful concoction of grape molasses, dates and rose water topped with pine nuts that tastes as great as it looks!


What were those vacation surprises we mentioned?
On our first day in London, we encountered a rather large surprise. We walked early in the morning to Buckingham Palace to watch the changing of the guard, completely unaware that it was the day for the Royal Air Force 100th anniversary celebration. Not only were we able to see military parades and the flyover of 100 planes, but we also saw the entire Royal Family watching along with us from their palace balcony.


We did make it another day to watch the changing of the guard. We waited an hour at St. James Palace with just a small crowd. After watching the ceremony there, we walked up the mall to Buckingham Palace alongside the guard as they played music. As we got closer to the palace, it was more crowded and difficult to see, but we felt like we were able to see more up close this way than if we had watched only from Buckingham.

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The changing of the guard at St. James Palace

The British Library’s Treasures collection preserves awe-inspiring history. We entered a very unpretentious room to find displayed the original Magna Carta, the Gutenberg Bible, Handel’s handwritten Messiah, a notebook of Da Vinci’s ideas and sketches, and so much more. It’s a small, quiet space where the crowds are manageable. So happy we hit the history jackpot with this discovery!
Dining surprises included Beijing Dumpling where there is a line out the door for a reason and Sutton & Sons where traditional fish and chips are served in an interestingly diverse neighborhood. The creamy, vegan, bourbon and toffee milkshake at @cookiesandscreambakery is reason enough to return to London soon!

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Meandering the Adriatic

Having visions of visiting Venice, the question remained, “Where else do we go?” An excursion through the Adriatic which connects northern Italy with the Balkan countries of Slovenia and Croatia seemed like the ideal destination.

After a flight to Milan/Bergamo and an hour’s drive east, we spent our first night in Verona. Is it stereotypical that our first Italian meal was pizza? Even so, it was a delightful initiation at Pizzeria Ristorante Olimpia. @pizzeriaristoranteolimpiaverona

Verona provided a smooth transition into vacation mode. During the day we easily visited the historic town center with the balcony of Juliet and the Roman amphitheater (3rd largest in Italy).

A couple of Spritz and some quiet moments away from Verona’s crowds at the ZEN Lounge Cafe. @zenloungecafe

An hour and a half’s drive later and we arrived in Venice.  Luckily, our rental house offered us private parking in a garage on Tronchetto Island.  Now, unencumbered by a car, we prepared to explore the canals.

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Suitcases in tow on the vaporetto ride from Tronchetto to Giardini stop

Venice is one of those places where you can have an extraordinary experience or one overwhelmed by crowds and commercialism. To avoid the latter, the best suggestion is to plan your active times for early morning and after 4pm. At these times, the cruise ship inundation can be avoided and the city is actually as peaceful and romantic as it should be. This is particularly true for gondola rides. We saw bumper to bumper gondolas during the day. But, when we took ours just before 7pm, and the change to the higher nighttime rates, there was not another gondola in sight. This truly made the ride mesmerizing and memorable.

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Early morning walks let you appreciate how this city functions. It’s all about moving things in and out.

We chose to stay a bit of a walk out of the city center. Via Garibaldi in the Castello District is an island of tranquility and authenticity. So glad that we centered our homebase in this area!

To continue the adventure, we next visited Trieste, one of Italy’s eastern-most cities. Here, we enjoyed the combined Italian and Greek hospitalities of two charming restaurateurs.    While deciding which terrace to choose, these owners invited us to enjoy both restaurants, Taverna Sapori Greci @tavernasaporigreci and Sorsi & Morsi, simultaneously.

A quick jaunt south took us to Slovenia’s only coastal area and a charming village surrounded by blue Adriatic Sea. Piran is about being in the moment to enjoy its vibrant colors, ocean breeze, and slow pace.  (To get into the zen-zone, use a garage just outside of the village and the free bus to the plaza!!)

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After this busy day of exploration, our first Croatian home welcomed us with fresh made raspberry bread.  Our stay at Holiday Home Ivana (found through Airbnb.com) was unfortunately shortened by impending rain, but we loved being surrounded by all of the homey details provided by Ivana at her spacious, clean and cute vacation house.  Next time we hope to enjoy the hot tub and fabulous vistas!

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With rain a day away, we drove the next morning to arrive in time for a quick lunch and nap before heading to the Plitvice Lakes National Park.  The beauty and awe inspired by this park cannot be captured in pictures.  It is an odyssey to walk up the boardwalks to be met at each level with a new set of stunning green-blue lakes and cascading waterfalls.  As in Venice, we found that going later in the day (around 3pm) allowed us to avoid the crowds. So, while not alone, we were also not crowded or uncomfortable.

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The next morning, a drive north led us to the city of Zagreb where they’ve achieved a pleasurable balance of old world with the new. (Pleasurable, at least, after the hour-plus wait to pay toll.)  Here, we spent two days and nights surrounded by the historic city center but were taken by surprise at various turns with encounters such as WWII bomb shelters turned into artsy tunnels, the enormous central food market, the intensity of the Museum of Broken Relationships, and the bluesy-retro concert, nighttime city view and convivial ambiance that we enjoyed at StrossMartre.  As David kept saying… “This is such a COOL place!”

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A two-hour drive west took us to the Slovenian capital, Ljubljana, which we passed to drive another 45 minutes to visit Lake Bled for the day.  Although cloudy and threatening rain, the water remained a striking blue color.  The trip in a traditional boat to the island was enjoyable and felt like a “must-do” although there was not a lot to see once there.  Overall, the area felt very touristy with minimal parking. We’re not sure what people find to do there for several days as it’s not a place of relaxation.  For us at least, it’s a site to visit once to soak in its beauty but not a place to linger.

The trip back from Bled to Ljubljana brought us one of our most enjoyable experiences of the trip.  Having faith in the GPS, we ventured into the unknown and found a small rural restaurant. In fact, we unknowingly discovered a Gostilna Slovenija, a small Slovenian inn recognized for its traditional cuisine. (If interested in these inns, see also http://www.gostilnaslovenija.si/ ) Gostilna Mlin has a 4 foot local river channel between the inn and terrace.  After ordering the trout recommended by our likeable waitress, we watched with enthusiasm when a man strolled 10 feet to catch our dinner with a net.

We arrived in Ljubljana in time for our host, Stane, to walk us to his 15th century home a few steps away from the Town Hall before heading out for a late afternoon walk of the city.  Ljubljana takes many measures to preserve the historical integrity of its buildings and streets and its city center is pedestrian only.  In 2016, Ljubljana was recognized as the European Green Capital.  All of this combined with outdoor lights, music wafting down streets and friendly locals creates a magical medieval haven.  Some highlights for us besides the pure pleasure of strolling the cobblestone streets lined with cafes included the beautiful interior of the Sts. Cyril and Methodius Church and a delicious menu-of-the-day lunch at Druga Violina which supports special needs adults by providing employment.

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Fortunately, when planning this trip, we had the foresight to build in a couple of days of downtime at the end.  With our longest day of driving (5 hours), we returned west to Lake Iseo in Italy. All we really needed here were a market to buy fish, pasta and Prosecco and a few lounge chairs.  Residence Ca’laRipa built in 1791 and warmly hosted by Andrea provided the perfect spot for relaxing with its spacious rooms and patio overlooking the lake.  We did venture one day to see the small town of Lovere.  But, most of the time we were happily relaxing on our patio with the mystical lake views, trying to remember all of the delightful experiences of the past days.

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The Good Life in Costa Rica

Looking for natural hot springs, refreshing rivers, and jungle wildlife, we arrived in San Jose after a several hours extra layover in Texas due to volcanic ash in the air around San José.  The ash was all carefully cleaned from the rental cars, our friend at the rental company smiled as he recounted the mornings’ work.

Driving in Costa Rica is not for the faint-hearted.  Not because of multi-laned, speeding mayhem but due to the narrow, winding roads where lanes come and go without warning and there always seems to be walkers of all ages unconcerned by the traffic passing within inches of them.  Our introduction to driving was with Friday night traffic as we made our way to Quesada for a couple of nights at the Termales del Bosque.  We awoke the next morning to breakfast on the patio before heading to the hot springs via a trail through the forest.  To our surprise, besides us, the visitors that day were only a handful of local families and couples. Less than 24 hours into our trip, and we’d already settled into the “good life.”

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Continuing our circular drive, we went northwest to La Fortuna.  We stayed at Arenal Oasis Eco Lodge & Wildlife Refuge, a paradise owned by the family of David’s friend.  The cabins provide a jungle retreat from the daily rain showers and the perfect place to hear the chorus of animal calls each afternoon.  On our walk to breakfast, we passed by a neverending line of leaf-cutter ants carrying their leaves to some unseen destination. 

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And the best part doesn’t happen until nighttime!  On their property, you can take a small group guided night walk to see frogs, snakes, iguanas, and centipedes. (Our guide, Gustavo, was the perfect blend of expertise and charm!)

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Mistico Arenal Hanging Bridges Park

As teachers, we always like to visit schools on our adventures.  When we stopped by Escuela Nuevo Arenal, we spoke with the principal about the school and its importance to the community.  He even showed us the forested area behind the school where students are labeling all of the different types of plants.

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Afterward, a walk around the sleepy town then a delicious tostada in a “soda” where David took on the local kids in a game of fuzzball.

On our way to our most northern stop at Rio Celeste, Parque Nacional Volcán Tenorio, we debated whether to detour to Nicaragua.  (We decided to wait for another trip…..a Nicaragua blog for the future!)  Rio Celeste is one of those natural phenomena that seems like a dream even while you’re seeing it.  The sky-blue water is so mesmerizing that a folktale says that this is where God washed his brushes after painting the sky. The trek even during the dry season was fairly muddy and steep at times, but it was definitely worth the effort.  When we first reached the enchanted destination, there was a 4-inch fluorescent blue butterfly dancing above the water. Breathtaking!

A video we took on the hike to “teñideros” (the place where the water color changes).

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Typical “casado” lunch with rice and beans after the hike at Posada La Amistad.

Luckily, we had the perfect place to rest at the Sueño Celeste Bed and Breakfast.  The owners have created a relaxing retreat where you can feel the blend of their Belgian organization and hospitality with the “Pura Vida” lifestyle.  The individual lodges hold beautiful beds draped in mosquito nets and terrific open showers. There is a small pool and hot tub for relaxing after a tiring day and a homemade breakfast to start each day while watching the birds or asking the owners for recommendations about sightseeing options.

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A quick detour off of our driving circle took us to Jacó and Manuel Antonio National Park.  Because the number of people and the general feel of a tourist trap, this was our least favorite part of the trip although Holly did get to see her first sloth in the wild!

While this destination was not as rewarding as the others in Costa Rica, the accommodations were exquisite!  We had the boutique hotel, Forest Hills Suites, all to ourselves with the exception of one couple….and they were leaving for a night out when we arrived!

Costa Rica surely calls to all of those wanting to slow their pace and live in the moment.  After having a taste of the flora and fauna, you wonder about all of the natural treasures that you haven’t yet discovered there.  Then, you realize, you have the perfect excuse for a return visit!