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Making England Worth the Cost

Posted by on Nov 19, 2015 in Our Grand Tour of Europe | 3 comments

After soaking in the magic and mystery of Scotland, Mac and I continued south to England. I was nervous about this part of our trip. After all, the dollar is notoriously weak against the pound; I knew it was going to be really expensive. Also, as counterintuitive as it may seem, it’s actually harder to plan a memorable trip to a country that’s really similar to your own. You have to work twice as hard to seek out the exotic and the impressive. Luckily, with a lot of research and some great recommendations from friends, we landed on 10 experiences that made our time in England not only worth the time but also worth the expense. Here they are, in no particular order.

1. Hiking in the Lake District

The weather wasn’t gorgeous most days, but the slow drizzle added to the ambiance in the Lake District (northwestern England). We stayed in an inn that was frequented in the 1800s by none other than the famous British poet William Wordsworth. Of course, we had to download some of his poetry and read it aloud. And we channeled the olden days by hiking to classical music. In this hidden corner of the world, it seemed just right.

  
  

  

2. Checking out the British “street furniture”

There was nothing intellectual or deep about this favorite of ours; we just had a great time popping into the telephone booths we came across. Nowadays, some of the booths are being used as internet hotspots—it’s great to see them retrofitted instead of taken down.

  

3. Enjoying afternoon tea

Our first afternoon tea (below) was quite simple; it was just tea and a scone. By the time we made it to London, we had worked our way up to bonafide afternoon tea at Fortnum and Mason. It was a highlight of our whole trip—for hours, we ate little sandwiches and cakes and drank pot after pot of tea. It felt quite fancy and decadent.

 

4. Following in the footsteps of the Beatles

We knew we had to learn more about the greatest rock group in history and Liverpool was the perfect place to do it. From going on a Fab4 cab tour that visited all of the famous Beatles sites to hanging out in the Cavern Club where the Beatles used to regularly play, we got the dose of British rock that we were looking for.

  
  
  

5. Visiting Sherwood Forest

This one was a must-see for Mac. So we spent an afternoon exploring the forest, collecting acorns from the surprisingly large trees and finding out how Sherwood Forest is being protected from modern robbers (developers).

 
  
   

6. Discovering the mysteries of Stonehenge

If there’s one absolute must-do in England, it’s visiting Stonehenge. We were worried that the stone formation would in fact be small and disappointing (kind of like the Mona Lisa) but we were pleasantly surprised. Stonehenge was just as awe inspiring as the Discovery Channel promised it would be.

  
  

7. Being groundlings at Shakespeare’s Globe Theater

You don’t have to shell out a lot of money in London to have a great theater experience. For 5 pounds (about $7.50) you can be a groundling at Shakespeare’s original Globe Theater. That means you stand on the ground level, next to the stage (yep, you don’t have seats) and only feet from the actors. We loved the Shakespeare play we saw, Measure for Measure, and Mac even got hauled off by the actors and incorporated into the very beginning of the show. It’s not often that good entertainment is cheap, but in this case it is. 

  
  

8. Taking in the iconic London Tower Bridge

When it comes to beautiful bridges, the London Tower Bridge definitely holds its own. Our favorite place to admire it: on the lively canal in front of the Tower of London Museum. (It’s also a great place to people watch.)

  

9. Seeing the British WWII war rooms

I had to take Mac to my favorite museum in the whole world, the war rooms at the Imperial War Museum/Winston Churchill Museum. There, you can see the actual bunker where Churchill directed Britain’s WWII strategy. Most everything in the museum is original, from the cabinet room to Churchill’s bedroom (Little known facts: Churchill took a nap every afternoon and bathed twice a day.). With a little bit of imagination, you can feel like you’re in 1940s London.

  
 

10. Marveling at the elaborately dressed royal guards

I’d love to say we were above having a good laugh at the headpeices, but we weren’t. It was probably good that we found something to laugh at, because the huge crowds meant we really had to angle to see anything at all. Here’s our advice for seeing the changing of the guard at Buckingham Palace: arrive at least an hour and a half early.

  
  

From funny headpieces to fancy tea, it turns out there’s a lot about England that’s exotic—and well worth the price of admission.

Top 5 Enchanting Things About Scotland

Posted by on Nov 14, 2015 in Our Grand Tour of Europe | 1 comment

After visiting Northern Ireland, Mac and I were eager to see more of the United Kingdom. Our original plan had been to go straight to England but at the last minute we took the advice of fellow travelers and bought plane tickets to Scotland. We’re really glad we did—from surreal scenery to fascinating folklore, there was so much magic in Scotland that we easily fell under the country’s spell. What made it even better was the fact that it caught us entirely by surprise. Here are the top 5 things that enchanted us about Scotland.

The hiking: From the far reaches of the Scottish Highlands to the outskirts of busy Edinburgh, there was no shortage of incredible wilderness to explore. It wasn’t simply the wilderness that captivated us, though. It was also the interplay of light and fog that turned even ordinary sights into mystical settings.

  
  

The symbology: Wherever we went, we were sure to find thistles (the national flower) and unicorns (historically from the crest of Scotland’s royal families). You have to admit, there’s something quite charming about a country that puts spiny flowers and make-believe animals on a pedestal.

  
  
  

The literature: One of the best things about Edinburgh was the  abundance of good stories and great writers. We spent some time retracing the steps of J. K. Rowling, who wrote Harry Potter at The Elephant House cafe and based everything in the book—from buildings to streets to character names—on actual places and people from Edinburgh. The bathroom at the cafe, which happens to be owned by her brother-in-law, has been turned into an unofficial fan club.

  
  
  

The food: We couldn’t resist trying everything from haggis (sheep organs mixed with onions, oatmeal and spices) to tatties (Scottish potatoes) to pigeon (yep, the bird). The verdict? Mac liked the haggis but I thought it was disgusting, everyone loves potatoes and pigeon isn’t bad at all.

  
  
  

The Loch Ness monster: One of our last—and most important—adventures in Scotland was conducting our own search for the Loch Ness monster. We didn’t find “Nessie,” but we did find a stunning, mostly untouched lake (loch means lake in Scottish) that made us want to camp, hike, swim and explore for much more time than we had available. That—and “Nessie”—will have to wait for another trip :-)

  
  

The Trouble With Northern Ireland

Posted by on Nov 5, 2015 in Our Grand Tour of Europe | 4 comments

After spending three weeks in the Republic of Ireland, Mac and I continued on to Northern Ireland. Because of its brutal recent past with the Troubles, a decades-long conflict between Catholics and Protestants, it’s a part of the world not many tourists have made it to. Indeed, the tourism industry in the country (Northern Ireland is part of the United Kingdom, not the Republic of Ireland) is less than ten years old. Both of us grew up with the Troubles—and their many bombings—dominating the nightly news. Once the smoke had cleared, we were eager to see Northern Ireland and learn what all of the violence had been about.

  

Despite its sordid history, Mac and I assumed that Northern Ireland was almost going to be an extension of the Republic of Ireland—the same friendly faces, the same corner pubs. We noticed our mistake almost as soon as we got off the bus in Belfast. It wasn’t just the people (less overtly friendly) and the buildings (no pubs) that seemed different; the whole vibe was un-Irish. Belfast seemed, in a word, sanitized. Lacking its own character or charm, the city felt like a place that wasn’t Irish, wasn’t English, but also hadn’t quite made up its mind about what it was. Little did we know that gut feeling reflected a lot in the country, from its politics to its economy.

  
Before launching into the complexity of Northern Ireland and the Troubles, we took some time to appreciate the natural beauty of the area. A day tour of the Giant’s Causeway introduced us to the country’s #1 tourist attraction: huge geometric rock formations that seem to grow out of the ground. The excursion also gave us a great look at the northern coast of the island, which was unexpectedly our favorite part of the day.

  

 

With sightseeing crossed off our list, we started to delve more deeply into the history of the Troubles. We were planning on taking a black cab tour, a three-hour drive and political lecture by a local, but we wanted to have a good base of knowledge to make the most of the experience. So we turned to YouTube and a few documentaries that gave us a better idea of what, exactly, defined the Troubles.

Honestly, the whole thing initially confounded me. Here were two groups of people sharing the same island, both believing in the same Bible, God and Jesus—and yet they found enough religious differences between them to fight, often times to the death.

Of course, nothing is ever as simple as it seems. And when it comes down to it, religion isn’t always about religion. It’s also about culture, values, political divisions and how you see and treat people who believe differently than you, all key things that can lead to religious conflict that’s doesn’t have much to do with God at all. Many shades of gray appeared once we dove into the documentaries.

If you want to learn more, here are some resources we found especially interesting. One is a compilation of recommended films about the Troubles and the other is on the Shankill Butchers, a rogue sect of Ulster loyalist serial killers. There’s also a song about the Shankill Butchers that you can listen to here. For a quick background read on the Troubles, check out this article. Another good summary can be found on Wikipedia.

Armed with a better understanding of the Troubles, we embarked on our black cab tour. Our driver, Pat, was a Catholic who grew up in Belfast during the Troubles. In addition to driving us around and showing us pictures and newspaper articles from the time, he shared his own experiences from childhood.

  

Of course, his was one side of a very complicated story (which he absolutely admitted and was quite fair about) but it was also very compelling. At a certain point, people who have been denied basic rights—jobs, housing, the vote—in their own country because of their religion (in this case Catholics in Northern Ireland) will rise up. And that’s what happened with the Troubles.

Once we got Pat talking, he didn’t want to stop. We loved how passionate he was about his story. And we loved everything he took us to, especially a large collection of political murals (the Catholics and Protestants each have their own) that are still updated with relevant political messages every year. At some murals, family members were paying their respects to their dead loved ones.

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One of the bizarre things we saw firsthand on the tour is that Catholic and Protestant neighborhoods are still kept separate in Belfast. And not just in name or concept. There are actual walls and gates that descend at night and on weekends to physically separate them—some looked just like sections of the Berlin Wall.

  

The walls were littered with political graffiti and broken bottles that hadn’t quite made it over the massive dividers to the other side.

  

The Troubles officially ended in 1998, but all around us was evidence that they weren’t quite over, not all the way. Northern Ireland is still a country on the mend.

After seeing the bold murals, the grieving family members, the physical dividers between Catholics and Protestants, we had to wonder: When will this country and its people ever truly heal? Pat didn’t have an answer for us but he did share some hope for the future. The government is doing a better job these days of representing all of its citizens. Schools and camps are being integrated so that children get exposure to and build friendships with kids of other faiths. (In Pat’s day, schools were so segregated that he didn’t meet a Protestant until he was a working adult.) And the government hopes to take down the neighborhood dividers within the next seven years.

And us? We’re looking forward to returning someday, once Northern Ireland decides not just what it isn’t but what it is.

Ireland: The Can’t-Sees and the Must-Sees

Posted by on Oct 30, 2015 in Our Grand Tour of Europe | 6 comments

In the beginning of July, Mac and I traveled to Ireland. Our plan was to spend three weeks exploring the green country by foot, bike and rental car. Even though Ireland isn’t all that big, we wanted to experience its diversity, from urban Dublin to touristy Dingle to quiet Connemara.

We had several must-sees on our Ireland travel list but were also both hoping for something more—something unseen. For Mac, it was about connecting with his Irish roots. I was after a glimpse of the true Irish spirit.

But let’s not get ahead of ourselves. In the beginning, it was enough just to soak in the sights and sounds of Dublin. Bright colors made the buildings pop against a perfect and decidedly un-Irish cerulean blue sky. There were friendly pubs and street musicians on every corner. We couldn’t walk 10 feet without the sound of clinking glasses and rowdy ballads. Of course, it helped that we stayed in a bar, as we did for much of our time in Ireland (a lot of the bars rent out rooms), where at a moment’s notice we could have both. 

 

One of our favorite souvenirs from our travels has been a foreign music collection. With all of the live music around us in Dublin, it didn’t take long for us to start curating an awesome Irish playlist (Spoiler alert: we’ve included it for you at the end of the post).

 
It was in Dublin that we began our love affair with Irish food—heavy pot pies, steaming meat and potatoes, and enough food at every meal to feed an army. Initially, we thought Irish breakfasts were the best. They’re so big—ham, bacon, eggs, potatoes, tomatoes, mushrooms, black pudding, white pudding, toast—that they keep you full all day. After a few days, though, we had to cry uncle. We simply couldn’t eat that much food for breakfast. Dinner? Well, that was another story.

 
We were definitely starting to put on weight. But our expanding waistlines might also have had something to do with all of the beer we were drinking.

 
We started our education in Guinness by touring the brewery in Dublin. We learned how to pour the perfect pint and looked at old Guinness ads. Mac felt right at home.
 
  
We loved the liveliness of Dublin but soon set off in search of a more traditional Irish way of life. It didn’t take but 20 minutes in our trusty rental car, an underpowered little white thing soon nicknamed “Sheep,” for sprawling city blocks to be replaced with rolling hills and farms. Everything was a different shade of green. Until evening, that is, when everything was given a golden dusting by the setting sun.

 

We couldn’t get enough of the fields and the colors, which was great because the roads were so narrow and rudimentary at times (and Mac was trying to drive a stick shift on the opposite side of the road) that it took us quite a while to get anywhere. He was fond of saying it was like driving by Braille. At the first sign of an oncoming car, Mac would move over until branches were slapping the driver’s side. That meant we were over as far as we could go, which wasn’t always enough. At one point, we were forced to the side of the road by a large truck and popped a tire.

 
Rental car escapades aside, we loved our drive through the rocky Irish southern and western coasts, with their massive boulders, technicolor sheep and charming ruins—oh, and their legit rainbows.

  
  
  
  
We broke up the driving by hiking near the Ring of Kerry and Cliffs of Moher and biking around the Dingle Peninsula. The scenery was perfect: rugged, inhospitable, beckoning. Contemplating the landscape was almost a spiritual experience; it was so easy to picture the ghosts of Druids and warlords past that surely haunt each imposing cliff, each mysterious pile of rubble.
  
  
  

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Of course, we had to make time for a few castle visits. We got to stay the night in Ballynahinch Castle—one of our favorite nights of the whole trip. We felt like we’d traveled back in time to the days of drawing rooms, horseback jaunts around the estate and falconry. The rain had kicked in by this point, so we spent a lot of our time drinking by the fire and watching the moisture streak the windows. It was magical.

  
  
This and our other favorite stops exposed us to the more traditional Irish life that we were searching for. One day, we explored a living history exhibit from an 18th-century Irish farm. The bucolic photo hides what happened next: the neighboring cow suddenly sprayed diarrhea all over the barn and almost hit several tourists. The farmer milking the cow got a real kick out of it. I think it was the highlight of his whole afternoon.

 
Another day, we visited a modern sheep farm and watched a demonstration of sheep dogs doing what they do best—rounding up sheep. The added bonus was watching a sheep actually get sheared. The animal may look dead in the picture but rest assured that it’s not. If you hold sheep firmly enough, they just go limp.

 
  

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Our stops on our round-Ireland road trip were exposing us to a lot of Irish people and culture, just like we’d hoped. And Mac, especially, was loving it. We were surrounded by people named Mackenzie (though here it’s usually a last name) and men in paddy caps—and Sundays were almost exclusively reserved for sitting in the bar all day. It was his heaven.

Through our interactions with the Irish, I got what I was looking for, that glimpse of the Irish spirit: the gift of gab, the ability to drink unlimited pints of Guinness, the encyclopedic knowledge of every Irish folk song ever written, and the eagerness to hunt down strangers and talk to them. But the funny thing was, I didn’t only see it in the Irish-born Irish; I also recognized it in Mac.

 
As someone who lives in Seattle and is quite familiar with the “Seattle freeze,” I wondered why the Irish were so nice to strangers. In the pub one night, someone explained. Many Irish left their island during the Potato Famine, bound for the United States and other countries. And lots of foreigners now come to Ireland searching for their roots. So in the Irish mindset, the stranger they meet might just be family. What a lovely way to think about things. It’s like one of my favorite quotes: “A stranger is a friend waiting to happen.”

 
For our last week in Ireland, we didn’t want the distraction of driving. We just wanted to soak in the lifestyle we’d learned to love, to have the chance to be locals instead of tourists. So we rented a house in a tiny village in Connemara and tried our darndest to be Irish. We watched Gaelic football semi-finals at the pub, ambled in the fields after a good rain and stayed cozy with round-the-clock peat fires. Mac even made me a temporary writing desk out of other furniture, so I could put down on paper just some of what had inspired me in Ireland—the food, the landscape, the people. I even started a new book project on the logistics of long-term travel

 

  
If I close my eyes, I can go there now. Especially if I start playing the Irish songs we fell in love with on our trip (below). Try it for yourself; the songs are easy to disappear into. Or better yet, go there. Just make sure you don’t miss the can’t-sees for the must-sees.

Our Awesome Irish Playlist:

  1. Whiskey in the Jar
  2. The Streets of New York
  3. Molly Malone (Version One)
  4. Molly Malone (Version Two)
  5. The Fields of Athenry
  6. Caledonia (Scottish)
  7. Wagon Wheel
  8. Wild Rover
  9. The Town I Loved So Well
  10. Summer in Dublin
  11. Country Roads
  12. Ordinary Man
  13. Isle of Hope, Isle of Tears
  14. Danny Boy
  15. Dirty Old Town
  16. The Rattlin’ Bog

Word to the wise: You can find all of these songs in a typical setlist in a traditional Irish pub (yep, even the ones we like to think of as American songs). Or you can just click on the links above and hear them via YouTube.

Where in the World?

Posted by on Oct 15, 2015 in Our Grand Tour of Europe | 7 comments

It’s a question we’ve been asked a lot lately–where in the world are you guys? There’s a short and a long answer. The short answer is that we’re in Cappadocia, Turkey. The long answer is that since we last posted on the blog we’ve spent time in Ireland, Northern Ireland, Scotland, England, Morocco and now Turkey.

Over the next couple of weeks, we’ll be sharing location-specific posts as usual. But here are some of our favorite photos to give you a taste of what we’ve been up to.

Drinking beer in Dublin (Ireland)

  

Learning about the Troubles in Belfast (Northern Ireland)

 

Falling in love with the Scottish Highlands (Scotland)

 
Visiting Beatles landmarks in Liverpool (England)

 
Riding camels in the Sahara Desert (Morocco)

 
Playing with monkeys in Marrakech (Morocco)

  
Dressing up in jalabas (Morocco)

 

Hot air ballooning in Cappadocia (Turkey)

 

Life Lessons From River Aria

Posted by on Sep 2, 2015 in Our Grand Tour of Europe | 4 comments

 

It’s not easy to live an incredible, fulfilling life. I’d say it’s downright hard. Especially when you’re young, there are so many life-altering decisions to make–who to marry, what career to invest in, whether or not to have kids–that making any choice at all can seem completely overwhelming.

If there’s one thing that can help, it’s the wisdom of people who have come before you. And once you start looking for it, you find that life advice is everywhere. It’s not always serious, as in the sign above from the Guinness Factory in Dublin (which is featured in one of the most famous Guinness commercials of all time). And it’s not always good. But if you keep an open ear (and an open mind), you may just find something that makes your own life and choices a little easier.

When Mac and I were on the River Aria in July, we sat down with the older people on our boat to hear their life advice–and what they wish someone had told them when they were young. We thought we’d pass on the wisdom. Whatever your age, we hope it gives you food for thought and makes your own life a little more incredible and fulfilling.

General:

  • Make every day a happy day.
  • Don’t care so much about what other people think. You’re not responsible for making other people happy.
  • Question everything. Even with things you were taught as a child, ask yourself: Do I believe this? Do I really think this?
  • Follow your heart, whatever you do. Even if there are complications with what you want to do, still go ahead with it.
  • Memories are the one thing that people can’t take away from you.
  • Don’t be too dependent on others to survive, whether it be for a job, money, etc.
  • You’re responsible for your own happiness.
  • Tia, tinka, tolla: Listen, think and then talk.
  • Each day is a gift. Not a given, not a right. Tackle each new day with excitement.
  • When your life passes in front of you, make sure it’s a good one.
  • Smile at a stranger every day–it’ll make both of you feel better.
  • Whatever stage of life you’re in, enjoy it.
  • Be yourself.

Love:

  • Pick your fights. Because you can’t win all the fights. Pick the ones that mean the most to you.
  • Never go to bed angry. If you do, emotions will just intensify by morning. The next fight you’re in, you’ll be right back to the old fight.
  • Marriage is not 50/50. It’s 80/20. Both of you won’t give evenly every time. And you’ll usually feel like you’re the one giving 80%.
  • Get out of your marriage if it’s not the right one for you. Don’t waste time when you know it isn’t right. Just move on.
  • You can’t always think of marriage. You’re not a failure if you’re not married. It’s okay not to get married.
  • Travel the world before you get married.
  • Before you get married, really ask yourself: Do I want to have children with this person? Do I want this person to be the mother/father of my children? Think long and hard, because if you do have children together, you will always be connected.
  • Do things separately from your partner so you’re not always joined at the hip. It brings more enrichment to your relationship.
  • Be the best friend you can be, the best companion.

Family:

  • At the end of the day, it’s all about family. Strengthen your family ties.
  • Listen to everything your mother says.
  • You’re lucky if you have good parents. Appreciate them.
  • You may have conflict with a sibling, but at the end of the day they’re still your brother or sister. Protect that relationship.
  • Don’t let your kids develop conflict between themselves. Encourage that relationship.
  • Family comes before your job. Family comes before everything.
  • As a parent, don’t be your kids’ friend. You can be a parent and a friend at the same time after a certain point. But when they’re growing up, kids need discipline from a parent.
  • It’s okay not to have kids.

Health:

  • Health is really important. Take care of yourself, your attitude, body, mind. Bad health will either shorten your life or make you wish it were shorter.

Challenges:

  • Always remember, tomorrow might just be better.
  • Life will throw you curves. It throws everyone curves–some more than others.
  • Have hope. You may think this is how things will always be, but it’s not true. Things can always get better.
  • In spite of your problems, always keep going.
  • Negativity breeds negativity.
  • If you get turned around, you’re not lost. It’s just a new experience.

Learning:

  • Learn something new every day.
  • Read the newspaper–a good one–every day. Don’t watch tv–these days it’s always one-sided.
  • Life is about new experiences. And you have the most opportunities for new experiences when you’re young.
  • You can’t just take one class and expect to be cultured. You can’t get it all in one shot; you accumulate culture over a lifetime.
  • College is all about the friends and connections you make. It’s not as much about book learning.
  • Don’t be too shy to ask good questions.
  • Ignore your comfort zone. You’re going to learn so much more by doing that.
  • Always ask yourself: What’s the worst thing that could happen? Chances are, it won’t be that bad.

Religion:

  • Respect dogma but question it when it makes sense.
  • The best religion is to be tolerant of everyone, respectful of everyone.

Jobs:

  • Don’t be complacent. If it’s not for you, switch.
  • Even in a corporate environment, strive to have a positive attitude all the time. Instead of being cynical about bosses, budgets, etc., look on the bright side of everything. And try to be flexible, even when things don’t go your way.
  • Even if you get laid off or fired, don’t burn your bridges. You never know when you’ll run into your old colleagues again–and you might need their help.
  • Work on liking your coworkers. Create an environment where everyone cares about each other.
  • Find something you like, find someone to pay you to do it–and you’ll never work a day in your life.
  • Retire to something rather than from something.

Mac’s Plants, Bugs and Critters

Posted by on Aug 31, 2015 in Our Grand Tour of Europe | 3 comments

As you may have guessed, this is a Mackenzie article. Today’s blog post is all about nature. We’ve met some interesting creatures throughout our journey. I have been fortunate enough to grab some nice close-up snaps of these unique discoveries. If you like creepy crawlies of all kinds, feel free to plow on ahead.

 

Bugs: Seeing so many colorful insects has really been fun for me this trip. It has also added hours to our hiking time as I stop to try and get the perfect pic.

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Plants: Taking such a significant amount of time to travel has certainly allowed us the time to stop and smell the roses. While I’m sure you’ve seen many of our landscape shots, here are some of the flora posing for their close ups.

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Assorted Critters: Two Legs, Four Legs, Wings, Shells, Slime and Slither. Here are the locals who make Cassandra scream and me reach for the camera.

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Thanks for joining. And don’t forget to appreciate all creation–whether at home or overseas.

Austria, Germany and the Netherlands by Riverboat

Posted by on Aug 20, 2015 in Our Grand Tour of Europe | 0 comments

What do you get when you put one young couple on a riverboat with 150 older Americans cruising for two weeks on the Danube, Main and Rhine rivers from Austria to the Netherlands? A really good time.

  
Mac and I were lucky enough to be on the River Aria in July. Originally the idea had been Mac’s, but somewhere along the way I became the one in charge of booking the cruise. Grand Circle Cruise Line told us on the phone that we would be the youngest couple on board by far, but we didn’t mind. We had a sneaking suspicion that we’d still make friends really easily—and we did.

  
Our first night on board, we met these two lovely couples; they became some of our favorite people on the ship.

  
After being by ourselves for just over three months now, we were really excited to have lots of other people to talk to. So starting our first day on the boat, we went crazy meeting new people, dining with new people and being introduced to even more new people. And over the course of 14 days on board, we developed all kinds of friendships.

It helped that we were the very silly young people. We bought traditional Bavarian outfits and wore them out, taught the macarena at the on-board dance and even participated in one of the crew’s nightly birthday serenades, wearing wild hats and everything.

   
While meals were some of our favorite times on board, because they were long and leisurely and full of interesting conversation, another highlight of our time on the riverboat was sitting on the sundeck and watching the world—and castles—go by.

   
  

  

Sometimes we went under low bridges and we’d all have to duck. The captain even had to lower the wheelhouse–only his head would poke out from the top.

  We didn’t always have what they called “scenic sailing” (sometimes the boat moved at night while we were sleeping and would be docked during the day) but nearly every day we arrived in a new town. Our longest stretch of towns to visit was in Germany. We both loved the Bavarian towns. There was no shortage of things to see, from cathedrals to town halls to half-timbered houses.

  
  
  
 
  

   
 
 
There was plenty to taste, too. I don’t even know how many different kinds of sausage we tried while in Germany, but it was a lot.

  
I kept my eyes out for interesting signs.

  
  
  
  
Mac checked out the architecture . . . and dreamed of having his own huge wine barrel.

  
  
Eventually our cruise dropped us off in Amsterdam and it was time to say goodbye to riverboat life, ports of call and all of our new friends. I’ll be honest; I shed a few tears at having to say goodbye to such wonderful folks. When you’re traveling and isolated from your friends and family, you learn to appreciate the shooting stars of people you meet on the road—and the river. It doesn’t matter whether they’re in your life for five days or five hours. People, even more than places, are the true joy of travel.

Living the Simple Life in Switzerland

Posted by on Aug 14, 2015 in Our Grand Tour of Europe, Uncategorized | 3 comments

People like to ask us all the time what our favorite experience of the trip has been so far. It’s a really tough question. Every experience has been so different that it’s hard to compare them. And we each seem to gravitate towards our own favorite moments. That said, it’s hard to top hiking in the Swiss Alps. And I think I’m ready to go on record by saying that it’s been my favorite experience thus far.

  
  

The scenery of Switzerland was beautiful. And over the course of 10 days of hiking, from Engelberg to Griesalp, we saw a lot of it. There were towering mountains, rushing rivers and so many wildflowers that I nearly wore out my camera trying to capture them all.

  

 
   
  
  
And let’s not forget the cows. What goats are to Turkey, cows are to the Swiss Alps. They’re curious creatures. And we hiked through a lot of private cow pastures (the trail winds through them; farmers just trust that you’ll open and close their gates responsibly). So there were times when we were completely surrounded by cows. At first, it was kind of scary, especially when they started following us. But we soon got used to their company.

  
  
  
But it wasn’t just the scenery and the cows that made the Swiss Alps so unforgettable. It was going–you could say walking–back in time, to a simpler way of life. Many of the places we stayed were working farms with tiny guest rooms (mattress rooms, really) added on–and no electricity. So most days for us looked like this: wake up, eat a big breakfast, hike all day, have a victory beer at the highest point, get to a farm, take a bird bath and rinse out our clothes in the trough, eat a big dinner by candelight, go to bed. Repeat. It was an unlikely heaven.

  
  
  
  
  
  
But heaven it was. I loved having so little to think about that my mind could wander freely; I looked forward to evenings of talking over candlelight instead of checking email on my iPad.

Although each day followed the same rhythm while we were hiking, there were always charming surprises along the trail. One day we hiked past a self-service farm stand and a little boy in shiny lederhosen.

  
  
Another day we came upon a folk musician carrying an alpenhorn. He stopped to give us an impromptu concert and even let us try the instrument for ourselves.

  
One night we got really lucky and had a whole alpine hut–and a knock-out view–to ourselves. Everything at this hut seemed magical, especially the sunset that poured in our painted windows.
  
  
Other highlights: finding a fresh milk machine on the trail, taking time for a Sound of Music moment (or several) and being swallowed by a field of wildflowers.

  
  
  
All too soon, our hiking came to an end. But our time in Switzerland wasn’t quite over. We spent a few days in Zermatt checking out the Matterhorn, then wound our way cross country once again, this time via the Glacier Express panoramic train.

  
  
  
  
  
  
I’ll tell you one thing. The cure for a busy life–and a busy mind–may just be hiking in Switzerland. In my next life, this is where I want to be.

  
  

Off the Beaten Path in Croatia

Posted by on Aug 12, 2015 in Our Grand Tour of Europe | 2 comments

On the first of July, we made our way from Turkey to Croatia. We’ve been excited about every country we’ve been to, but Mac was especially looking forward to exploring off the beaten path in this small nation that used to be part of Yugoslavia. Although many Americans aren’t familiar with Croatia, it’s known around Europe for being a hidden gem of outstanding natural beauty and affordability. We were in.

But before we explored the national park, we first road-tripped to Split (in the southwest of Croatia), where Mac’s cousin happened to be staying before participating in Yacht Week Croatia

  
  
It’s always nice to see people from home when you’re abroad, and we had a great time hanging out with Brandon and his friends. Mac wore his captain’s hat for the occasion. (Sidenote: Because of the captain’s hat, which we bought in Venice, most people we’ve met on our travels think Mac actually is a boat captain.)

  
After a night of partying, it was time for hiking and exploring Plitvice Lakes National Park. We drove to a tiny village within the park itself to find lodging, then spent two days hiking the hills and lakes of the area.

It was magical, like something out of a Disney movie. It was so impressive that it looked man-made but this UNESCO World Heritage site is au naturel–and one of the oldest national parks in Southeast Europe. The main attraction is a series of 16 emerald and azure lakes that cascade into each other via hundreds of waterfalls.

  
   

  

  
We rented a rowboat one afternoon and leisurely made our way around one of the largest lakes.

  
Mac was manly and did all of the rowing while I relaxed in the back of the boat. It was a bit like the Little Mermaid …

  
… until a watersnake tried to get into our boat. Then it was chaos.

  
One of my favorite parts of Plitvice was hiking around the lakes. The trails were marvelous, weaving in and out of caves, snaking along the water, shadowing waterfalls and making people feel like they were part of the exotic landscape. Whoever built these trails did an incredible job.

  
  
  
While our days in Plitvice were filled with exploring, our evenings were almost as good. We found a little pension that served homemade food cooked over a fire and made it our go-to spot. The food was local and authentic. One night we were served the Croatian version of fish and chips. (We’re getting used to eating all of the fish these days, not just fillets.)

  
  
On our way home from the pension one night, Mac saw his first firefly! We named him Fred and took him home with us. But don’t worry. Once we got home, we set him free again.

  
From the natural beauty to the cooking to the wildlife (fireflies galore!), Croatia was a score. We can’t wait to come back.