In the beginning…

I guess it’d be only fitting to document some of our Camino adventures here. I was looking back through the archives of this blog the other day, and noticed a post from 2012, mentioning how one day we’d like to make the pilgrimage.  Less than two years later, we’ve finished our long-dreamed of adventure, and after a month off the Camino, I hope I can offer some interesting and useful insights into the experience. 

St. Jean Pied de Port

We started our pilgrimage in the traditional location, just over the border into France in the town of St. Jean Pied de Port. Situated in the historic Basque country, St. Jean espouses traditional Basque architecture highlighted by the cleanliness and care found in French villas. 

Panorama of St. Jean

We stayed our first night in a hostel here, and since it was still a somewhat novel experience, I look back on it as one of the more cozy and caring establishments in which we over-nighted. 

8 to a room, Andrew took the top bunk :)

Some highlights from this hostel included a get-to-know you session before dinner led by the hospitalero (those who run the hostels on the Camino) team, a vegetarian meal with curry sauces and roasted vegetables abounding, a dorm room of only 8, and a generous breakfast provided. Along the Way, commodities like these would soon become scarce, and the distant memory of a clean, well-run albergue, would surface later, reminding me I should have been more grateful for the “amenities” at the time. 

Most guidebooks, and even those who have completed the journey, warn that the first day is by far the most challenging day of walking. This is based on the fact that you climb virtually straight up for the first 20 km of the day’s hike, and complete a steep descent for the last 4km down into the Spanish hamlet of Roncesvalles.  There is only one café along the way for a warm-up rest, and the weather can be brutal, even in June.  I’d argue that the first day, while it is a test of your physical endurance, is not the ultimate difficulty described by some.  I found the first day to be full of unexpected surprises, and that the excitement and adrenaline of starting a trip you’d planned and saved for for so long to far surpass the steep inclines and aching knees on the descent. Further along on the Way, putting one foot in front of the other became not only a physical trial, but a mental one as well. Fatigue and routine are much more demanding to overcome than a single ascent. 

Some thoughts that have stuck since this day, June 4, 2014: 

Stop at the 8km mark in Orisson for a coffee

The 2 euro café con leche stop was well worth the overpriced beverage, as it was our only real rest stop between 8:00 am and 4:30 pm. 

Before the rain began

I am shocked by how cold we were on June 4th. Lulled by the warmth of the beginning of summer vacation in the states, this is still technically Spring, and we shivered and shuffled our way through blasting wind, forty degree temperatures, razor like rain on our faces, and foot-deep mud-ravines. None of us was prepared for these types of conditions. 

Near the top of the ascent. Frozen, angry red knuckles from the wind.

The omelette sandwich prepared for our lunch by the hospitaleros was the grossest baguette and egg concoction I have ever eaten. Hungry, cold, hoping to warm up in the emergency shelter located on the Spanish side of the mountain, I am sure my body temperature dropped even further when I quit moving. The lunch was supposed to give me energy to continue, but it only made me feel worse! My jaws couldn’t chomp through the chewy, tough resemblance to bread, and my throat wanted to spew up the dryness of it. 

On the way down the “easy” path

Why did the sign tell us that the upcoming descent was the “easy” way down? 

Bone grating against knee bone. Lots of mud.

Have you seen the movie the Way? Where Emilio Esteves’s character dies crossing the Pyrenees the first day of his pilgrimage? I scorned this story-line, ensuring others that there is no way you could die on the Camino by getting lost or falling. I now understand perfectly well how this could take place. Fog, rain, little to no visibility, and fatigue could all lead to wandering off the trail and never finding it again. Take my word for it, it is definitely a plausible story line. 

Why did it take us so long to finish this stage? 8:00 am to 4:30 pm, really? 

My legs don’t hurt quite as badly as I thought they would. 

Historic monastery, our albergue for the night

I don’t have to sleep in a bunk bed tonight?  What a deal!

Third floor dorm room

Where is the advil? 

Madrid, España

I can’t believe we’ve been home from Spain for a month tomorrow, or that we’ve already almost finished our first week back to school!  Summer is gone. (Although both Andrew and I would like to point out our school calendars have completely missed actual summer, which doesn’t end, according to the seasons, until September 21st.) 

Catedral de Santiago Andrew and I with our “Compostellas”

This was one of those summers that makes you feel like you’ve lived up to your goal of living life to the fullest.  We spent a month and a half in Spain, mostly walking the Camino de Santiago, but we also, gloriously, spent a week in Madrid. 

Andrew with Don Quixote y Sancho Panza

La Plaza de España

I’ve encountered Madrid before, but never in ideal circumstances.  I know, how could it be that, while in the capital of Spain, across the ocean, in my most favorite country, that I’d failed to see Madrid for all it has to offer, from top-notch art museums, to beautiful green spaces, and efficient public transportation? Well, during my maiden journey to Madrid, I landed alone, for the first time in a Spanish speaking country, and met the rest of the group from the USA that would be studying abroad together in Granada, Spain.  It was a confusing meet and greet type-time, clouded by jet-lag, and punctuated by a visit to Madrid’s rowdiest discoteca with a group of over-ambitious sorority girls. I did not enjoy myself.

Puerta del Sol

The second time I tromped around Madrid it was after eight weeks spent in Germany with a love-sick boyfriend. I was ready for a real, hot shower, meals at home on a kitchen table, some good foundation, and no pressure. To be clear, Andrew led this Madrid expedition, and he exhausted every resource he had in the city, introducing me to a myriad of sweet, kind folks. Unfortunately, Madrid in August is a furnace, and sleep is out of the question, especially when air conditioning isn’t a typical amenity in homes. After allowing a bactrum acne pill to disintegrate my esophagus, and after dealing with red, itchy eyes caused by wearing the same contacts for so long, I couldn’t take this trip anymore. (Admittedly my issues were entirely self-inflicted, but stress will do these kinds of things to a person.) So, despite an effort worthy of the boyfriend of the year award, I left Madrid without much desire to return anytime soon. 

El palacio de cristal, Buen Retiro

While we lived in Spain, amazingly, we only spent a couple of hours in Madrid, mainly at the FedEx outpost in the airport complex to mail our outrageously heavy suitcases back to the US. Priorities.

Maybe it was the lack of expectation, or the fact that I’d spent each day for a month before that walking insanely long distances, but after my most recent adventure, Madrid now tops the list of cities where I’d one day love to reside. Andrew and I spent hours wandering the streets of the old town, walking the Paseo del Prado, and enjoying El Parque del Buen Retiro.  We had a successful night of tapas in La Latina, and even tried out one of the city’s only craft beer haunts. 

I was also impressed with our planning, as we found places to visit that Andrew had never seen before.  He is basically a Madrid expert, so it a challenge for us to find new sights that we could experience together. 

We shopped on Gran Vía, a first time experience for Andrew, and an anytime please experience for me. 

The Sorolla Museum, the former home of the successful Spanish impressionist Joaquín Sorolla, is not only a beautiful home, and a picture of what a working artist’s studio looks like, but it is also impressive architecturally and decoratively. 

Paddle boats on the pond at El Buen Retiro come highly recommended. 

And the Plaza Mayor induces a stand and stare moment for just about anyone. 

El templo de Debod offers a free, fun spot to explore, and enjoy the views of Casa del Campo, as well as el Palacio Real. 

I couldn’t ever pass up a free visit to The Reina Sofia or El Prado, Madrid’s premier art museums, and the Reina Sofia is worth the time it takes to gain entrance just to ride up and down the outward facing glass elevators to see Atocha, Madrid’s main train station, from above.

Finally, while Madrid isn’t a city bursting with beautiful, awe-inspiring Cathedrals, it is fun, if you speak Spanish, to visit San Francisco El Grande and chat with the two guides who lead the tours.

I’m plotting my return to Madrid already, armed with a list of places to go and restaurants to try, inspired by our most recent trip.  I’d have to say that Madrid isn’t one of those places that tries to romance you immediately.  Hidden under the tarnish of a confusing daily time-table, and lack of any real monuments, like an Acropolis, or an Eiffel Tower, is a warm glow, a city that offers up world-class art, a humble park where all are welcome, and the glitz and glamour of a Royal Palace and 18th century avenues. Patience, and the willingness to operate in line with a Spanish lifestyle is all it takes to discover the allure of Madrid. Andrew’s kayak alert is accordingly set for fares from TYS to MAD-Barajas, and with any luck, we’ll be headed back soon. 

Guanajuato

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The second half of our second adventure to Mexico was spent in Guanajuato, Mexico.  A brilliantly colored university town set in a valley, it was a quaint spot to relax, but really didn’t charm us as much as our first stop in Querétaro.

A couple of highlights:  The view from our B&B’s balcony.

View from balcony

Dinner at Las Mercedes.  A restaurant reviving Grandma’s traditional dishes with local, fresh produce.  We especially liked the flourless corn cake with strawberry ice cream for dessert.

The white building in the middle is the university

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Exploring a still operating mine that opened in the 1500’s.  As Andrew pointed out, the California Gold Rush happened in the late 1800’s, so they’ve been finding gold, silver, and copper south of the border for a long time.  We’ve got the Spaniards greedy egos to thank for that.

We're in the mine

Wandering around in the huerta of a former hacienda.

Garden of hacienda

Getting soaked to the gills by a late night thunderstorm.  Water cascaded down the steps up to our hotel like a waterfall.  I walked through water so deep it covered my feet!

Cathedral

Beverage Guide to Mexico

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Thinking about travelling to México meant worrying about drinking the water. It’s fun to joke about Montezuma’s revenge when the water spurting out of your tap at home is 100% safe to drink, but once you’re on the other side of the border, ingesting a piece of lettuce washed in unfiltered H2O or opening your mouth in the shower is suddenly terrifying.  Before arriving in México, I assumed that most Mexicans would drink the tap water like we do here, their stomachs and systems being accustomed to the weird bacteria that would give my plumbing a rude awakening.  Instead, almost everyone imbibes only filtered water bought in giant, thick, plastic jugs. I expected for beer to be considered water and to have to steer clear of coffee, but the culinary scene is a lot more varied than the Tex-Mex we normally chow down and so are your options of what to wash down your spicy poblano sauce with.

Street scene in Querétaro

For breakfast, and breakfast is a sit down affair, with typical Mexican portion sizes (read: generous!), you could try out a café de la olla.  Translated roughly to pot coffee, I thought I was ordering a normal drip coffee, a lá Waffle House, but I was served a cinnamon spiced-sweet caramel liquid in a rustic potted mug.  Charming, but not the strong, bitter brew I hoped for.  It’s worth finding out what café de la olla is, but probably not worth a repeat experience.

Another recommendation for breakfast time is a fresh fruit juice.  Most common is orange juice, but sometimes you might be surprised with a twist, like carrot-orange.

18th century aqueduct

At lunch, I’d recommend you find a restaurant where it seems those on a working lunch break are headed and follow them to their local fonda.  Again, my expectation was for folks to have lunch between 11 and 1:30, but really, the locals don’t sit down for their midday meal until 3 pm (though starving tourists don’t stand out too much if they can make it until 2 pm).  Along with your four course lunch, you should order the agua fresca of the day.  (Filtered) Water mixed with seasonal fresh fruit juice is served in a carafe for the table to share. Our first trip we made the rookie mistake of ordering a cerveza with lunch and then we longingly spied those in the know quenching their thirst the true Mexican way.  A couple flavors we tested were hibiscus flower (agua de jamaica), grapefruit (toronja), lemon (limonada), lime (lima), pineapple (piña) and orange (naranjada).  Grapefruit agua fresca stood out as the clear favorite, followed by the pineapple variety.  The drink can be cloyingly sweet depending on the house recipe, but we did ask once for it to be less sweet, which was no problem, as the proprietor informed us it was made to order.

facade of cathedral in San Miguel de Allende

In stark contrast to Spain, México really doesn’t have an all day bar culture. Students might go out in the evening with friends, but a social life that revolves around a glass of wine and a bite to eat at the local watering hole just doesn’t exist.  The culture still seems family oriented and centered around being with each other- great-grandma to granddaughter, walking, sitting, eating, but not drinking (publicly, anyway) much. Beer does have its place though, mostly at dinner time, and there are two distinct ways to have a cold one.

chelada is a dark beer served over a couple of tablespoons of pure lime juice in a salt-rimmed, chilled mug.

michelada isn’t for everyone.  Spicy tomato salsa and lime juice cover the bottom of your red-pepper and salt rimmed mug, over which a dark beer is then poured. Neither a chelada or a michelada taste much like beer, which is a shame as Mexico can brew a decent lager.

Another drink on your list to try should be pulque, made from the fermented sap of the agave plant.  It has a milky, pulpy consistency, low alcohol content (5%~) and is normally mixed with a fruit juice to make it palatable.  I tried it once and that’s enough.

ancient monastery, now regional Museum of Querétaro

Regional Museum

And of course, tequila, made from the agave plants grown only in the region of Jalisco, and mezcal, the same liquor, but made with agave plants grown outside the region of Jalisco.  Many times these are served as an aperitif or digestive with sal de maguey (salt from the maguey worm-sounds gross, tastes good), red pepper and oranges.   Hope you have as much fun figuring out what to try next as we did!

El cerro de las Campanas- Maximilian was shot here.

Hello From Querétaro

Travel Tips: Germany

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While Germany has many similarities to the United States like a free highway system, a hearty appetite and our sense of personal space, there are a few pointers to keep in mind to make your holiday in Deutschland a smooth one.

1.  To toast in German, you can either say “Zum Voll” or “Prost!” But, whatever you do, make sure to look each of your table mates directly in the eye as you are clinking glasses.  It is considered bad luck to toast and not make eye contact with your neighbor at the table.

Heidelberg

2.  Never, ever walk in the bike lanes.  They are numerous and heavily trafficked in most German cities and serve one purpose: for bikers to zoom around the city.  An oblivious tourist in the bike lane could quickly turn into a flattened tourist.

3.  Greet shop owners, clerks, the checkout lady at the grocery and even the other guests in the hotel you are staying at.  It is common to say hello to them with a simple “Guten Tag” or even “Grüss Gott” in Bayern.  Not acknowledging the presence of others in certain situations, like the ones mentioned above, is seen as standoffish and rude.  Expressing this courtesy will definitely win you the respect of the store clerk and in my experience they are more likely to help should you have a question.  On the other hand, it is totally unnecessary to wave at all the other joggers on the trail or to nod at the driver stopping when crossing the street as a pedestrian.

Ladenberg

4.  If you do decide to rent a car and hit the Autobahn while in Germany, make sure to stay out of the left lane unless you intend to quickly pass the motorist in front of you.  Pristine road conditions and expensive, luxury cars lead to the ability to drive extremely fast safely, as long as those zipping down the highway don’t run into you putting along, driving in the left lane like many incompetent drivers do here.

5.  Most Germans know quite a bit about politics, so if you decide to engage this topic, make sure you are well-informed, too.  If not, you run the risk of looking pretty foolish.

Heidelberg

6.  Getting outdoors in the fresh air, whether to jog, bike, hike or just eat a picnic is a quick way to warm the hearts of older locals.  Breathing the “frische luft” is considered important, especially in the warmer summer months.

Platz Freiburg

7.  If you need a quick refreshing drink after exercising, one of the favorites in summer time is a “Radler.” Literally the drink for bike riders, a Radler is a half and half mix of sparkling lemonade and Hefeweizen or whatever beer the establishment has on tap.

Amanda, Andrew and Stephanie in Freiburg

 

Anything you’d add to the list of must-knows before travelling to Germany?

To top them all

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On Saturday morning, after Andrew whips up golden squares of tangy french toast and the kitchen is set back to clean, we’ll drink a third cup of coffee and laze peacefully as the sun streams into our east facing windows.  Sometimes we sit at the table and chat about our day, what we’ll do, whether we have obligations or if we’re free to nap and catch up on our Netflix queue.  Other times, Andrew lugs his laptop over to the couch while I stay and read at the table.  I’ve noticed how acutely his behavior changes when he props up on the blue hand-me-down sofa. His feet quit moving and his fingers aren’t tapping rapidly over the keyboard.  He holds his coffee up to his face, feels the steam rise up over his forehead and stares intently at the screen.  His eyes glint or he’ll chuckle in disbelief, and I know there is only one thing he could be doing. Reading wiki travel forums, he’s thinking about the lowest price he’s seen on a flight to Montevideo recently, or about what certain phrases in Spanish are inappropriate to say in Mexico.  He’s left Knoxville, vacated our square patch of space on the 7th floor, and flown to south to Sao Paolo or east across the Atlantic to Pamplona.

The Rhein

As much as Andrew loves the rush of boarding a plane to step out into the chaos of another country, figuring out exactly where to stay and researching the history of our latest destination is just as exhilarating for him. He joyously scours forums for the cheapest flight he can find to a location he considers worth our time and pushes the buy button faster than I can decide whether I’ll wear that $35 pair of shoes at TJMAXX enough to justify the purchase. Once our destination is set, the real challenge begins:  choosing the perfect accommodation.  With regular folks’ uncensored opinions about their experiences on major booking sites, not only do you have a good idea of what to expect when you get there, choosing a hotel is also entertaining.  Other travelers readily share whether the receptionist is a pig or the most helpful lass on Main Street, whether the double bed that was advertised is the size of a twin bed and lumpier than cottage cheese, and most importantly, if the breakfast consisted of day old pastries from a package and reheated coffee or if the hard cooked eggs came to the table warm and with hand-whipped butter for your toast.

Rhein picturesque town

Three requirements sit at the top of Andrew’s list when choosing a hotel: it must have a buen relación calidad precio, (a useful Spanish phrase that tells of the price to quality ratio) be spotless (ok, my requirement-which is probably the first to suffer as we’ve definitely found that stray hair tucked between the sheets or stuck to the side of the bathtub) and have a hearty breakfast included.  Scouting out the place that meets all three criteria requires patience, vigilance and intuition that only a real deal hunting traveler has.  When all the factors align to allow us to check into the perfect accommodation on our budget travelling wallet, Andrew is pleasantly pleased with his effort and I’m happy to travel alongside another day.

Rhein area/Germany

Nowhere is it easier to find a bed and breakfast or small, family run hotel that meets all our criteria than in Germany.  After all, German culture prizes cleanliness and efficiency, but also knows how to elaborate simple quality ingredients into a gourmet brunch.  It would be a shame for you to not follow Andrew’s booking criteria when travelling in Germany.  A small, sparse room, with comfortable bedding (practically every hotel in Germany makes the bed with a duvet cover for each guest and no sheets-it’s almost exotic) and a shining, well-equipped bathroom shouldn’t cost more than 70 euros, and then less if you decide to be a rural tourist.  Your stay must include breakfast, as this is an ideal time to, hopefully, speak a little with the owners of the establishment and to observe other German tourists shamelessly feast for longer than you thought possible at the breakfast table.

Gorgeous Fachwerk

The breakfast itself is what is truly impressive though.  Platters of cold cuts chilling over trays of ice and thin slices of mild cheese to start, along with wedges of tomato and rounds of cucumbers, fresh baked brötchen from the local Bäckerei, made with nutrient rich whole wheat flour and flecked with seeds, smeared with rich, creamy butter.  Ramekins of homemade jams made with fruit picked from the backyard are a staple of the buffet and a hard-boiled egg, flawless white with the yolk bold yellow, still warm inside mean a genuine Deutsches frühstuck. For the second round helping, a dish of whole milk plain yogurt, crunchy granola and berries the color of sparkling rubies.  Equally as good as the food is the coffee, from a french press or a drip-pot, but brewed with beans that were ground that very morning and served in your own carafe to keep at your table. Andrew’s french toast is mighty tasty and a German breakfast tops them all.

At the Lorelai, Rhein River

After indulging in sticky sweet jams and warm buttered rolls, it’s out into the new adventure awaiting us outside the hotel.  And, while our hotel booking requirements may seem stringent, they do help keep us well-rested and well-caffeinated, two essentials of a vacation that bring happy, HD color memories.

Around the Mosel

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Last Spring in Germany was quite damp and we found ourselves donning our rain gear and braving the dreariness often.  After Trier, Andrew drove our rental through downpours and thick cotton candy fog over to the quietly meandering Mosel River in Rheinland Pfalz.  A hot spot for German outdoor enthusiasts, this area bustled with signs of a busy summer to come.  Most of the Germans opted for the more scenic and heart healthy way to see the area: by pedaling along the banks of the river on their trusty bikes.  I personally think they were trying to earn their schnitzel and beer, so maybe next time we’ll grab our Fahrräder and hit the trail as well.

Our lodging was in the guest house of a local winery, which turned out to be a good choice for the area.  The hills along either side of the river’s banks are laden with rows of grape vines, ripe for picking in the fall, that are labored to make some of the world’s finest Riesling.

Burg Eltz

Burg Eltz

The first stop we made in the area should definitely be on your list, if ever you visit the Mosel.  We toured the Burg Eltz, the one of only medieval castles on the Mosel to never have been destroyed.  Interestingly enough, the same families still privately own the castle.  If you play your cards right, you could still marry the son or daughter of a German earl!

view of town and grape vines from ridge trail

trail view

the sun came out!

Cochem

In between the rain showers, we hiked along the ridge of one of the hills along the banks of Mosel and checked out a few of the picturesque towns that dot the river’s banks.  We also ate delicious schnitzel and made sure to indulge in Kaffeestunde at least once or twice:  a generous slice of cake made with seasonal fruit and a steaming cup of coffee around 2 or 3 in the afternoon.

our schnitzel stop

Making Friends in Trier

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After we had lunch near a stream in the incredible gorge that divides Luxembourg City, we stumbled upon a behemoth medieval castle in a neighboring town. Of course it was locked up tight, surely holding a sleeping beauty inside, but even from the exterior it seemed like it was straight out of a scene in Robin Hood. We admired the castle and then set off to cross the border into Germany, land of sausages, beer, Riesling and Angela Merkel (Is she still the Bundeskanzlerin?). Beside getting to brush up on my German, (Noch einmal, bitte?) I love the food, the beer, the sport, and even the organization that comes with lodging on German territory.

Castle in Vianden

Andrew, feeling good about finding the castle in Vianden

We spent the first night in Trier, a seat of ancient Roman civilization. While I dwelt momentarily on the feat of domination the Romans had accomplished back in, oh, 16 BC or so, I think I was more excited about the luxury B&B we chose to stay in. I’m positive it is the most we have ever personally paid for a night in a hotel and I remember the exact price, too – 92 euros a night. We only stayed one night. Besides a gourmet breakfast and brand-new modern installations, there was a fairy lit garden behind the building where I may have tried a Hefeweizen (or two).  Mostly I remember our interactions with the proprietors, though, as they probably thought we were a little bit nutty.

When we first arrived, the receptionist personally showed us our room and after she was sure we were happy with the room, left us alone with the key. And then she promptly vacated the hotel premises. Which would have been as well, but we needed to get the rest of our travel gear out of the car and back up to our room on the 4th floor. Everything was going fine until we climbed back up the stairs, tried to unlock our door and figured out we couldn’t get it open. About the same time we realized we were locked out of our plush room and shining Badezimmer, Andrew decided all the sudden he had to go to the bathroom. Emergency status. Red-faced and nervous. Can’t get in the room, no communal bathroom near the reception. I dialed the number for the owner and prayed for the cheerful “Guten Abend!” I’d been greeted with earlier in the day. Thankfully, she picked up and was ready to help. Her particular helpfulness reminded me how efficient and succinct German ways are. As I told her how we were unable to open the door to our room, she calmly began going through a detailed list of the different things that might have been wrong. “Do you have the key?” “Um, duh.” “Does it have a heart with the number 7 on it and is it brown?” “Yes. The exact one the lady gave me 15 minutes ago.” “Are you standing in front of the door with the number 7 on it?” “Hello? I made sure to check that before I called you. I will not be scorned for pure idiocy in Germany.” “Were you able to unlock the door?” “Yes.” (All the time she is patiently, methodically ticking off her list, I am thinking, this better get the door open soon, because Andrew can’t hold on much longer. He has also run down four flights of stairs to double check he didn’t miss the public bathroom and is back upstairs, pleading me to figure this mess out with fear entering his eyes.) And finally, she gets to the root of our issue, “Well, you know, its funny, I’m not sure how you say this in English, (Oh, spit it out!) but it, uh, is a fire safety feature. Have you tried pulling the door toward you just a little when you turn the knob?” “If I’d have thought of that, I’d already have done it, lady!” In the nick of time the door pops open, keeping our momentary “fire” at bay and I marvel at the logical thought process of the German woman and muse that in Spain, a crusty woman with a deep smoker’s voice would have barked at me, as though I must have a tic-tac for a brain, “Pull the dumb door toward you, hija!”

The Porta Nigra

The view from the Porta Nigra onto the Street

Cathedral in Trier

Palace of Trier

We toured the city of Trier, saw the Porta Nigra, the ancient Roman gate, and lounged in our incredible room. Also, Karl Marx’s home is in Trier, and we saw it, but I won’t be able to prove that to you with a picture. As we went to check out the next day, I was feeling quite bolstered by my interactions in German as of yet, and was ready to try out a compliment on the receptionist, a sure fire way to get someone to tell you how wonderfully you speak their language. So I opened my mouth to say how wonderful our experience at the hotel had been (Alles war sehr toll) and instead I said “Everything was really expensive.” (Alles war sehr teuer). The quizzical look that crossed her face made my own cheeks burn and we hightailed on to our next destination.

Wishing we were there!

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Last year, around this same time in June, Andrew and I were finishing up a two and a half week long road trip style vacation through Belgium, Luxembourg, Germany and France. It seems unbelievable, now, that we had time for such a trip, but the reality is, when you are already in Europe, getting somewhere else by plane within Europe isn’t that time consuming or expensive. We packed up the rest of our belongings in Laredo at the end of May, waved goodbye to the beach and our incredible balcony, and took the bus to the Santander airport to begin the final leg of our European adventure. Once at the airport, we quickly realized our suitcase weighed 25 kilograms, 10 too many for the 15 kg bag we’d already paid to check. Unfortunately, paying 20 euros a kilo for the extra weight was entirely out of the question, so we spent the better part of two hours throwing away what I can now recognize as fairly ratty clothing. Clothes we’d lived in non-stop for 9 months. It was traumatic then and I know I felt clammy and hideous, climbing onto the Ryanair flight wearing two pairs of pants and three pairs of socks, but I’ve also shelled out the two hundred euros to schlep my stuff onto an airplane and I can say that being uncomfortable for an hour or so is much better that kissing goodbye to cold hard cash.

We landed in Brussels and spent the next few days in Belgium and Luxembourg. I don’t know if it was the excitement of starting a new trip or just the plain splendor of these two countries, but the first few days of the trip were some of the best! We drank Belgian craft beer at a pub called the Dead Rat in Namur, Belgium, visited the Strawberry museum in Wépion, a small town on the Meuse River and then stained our fingers red with strawberries sold from a stand on the roadside for a euro a pint. The tiny, delicate berries grown in Northern Europe are so different than the pumped up, grown-in-Florida-sand-berries we sometimes eat here.

Drinking a Waterloo

Drinking a Waterloo

Andrew at the Tote Ratte View of the waterfront in NamurDinantWe also stopped in a town called Dinant, while impressive in this picture, wasn’t much to get excited about.  After spending only a day in Belgium (ONE DAY! Not enough!) we spent our second night of the trip in a small town in Luxembourg, which we used as our home base to explore the miniature, but very worthy country of Luxembourg. We found it to be a nice mix of Germany and France. Similar industriousness to the Germans, but a more laid back attitude thanks to the French influence. Andrew had already seen Luxembourg City, but as it was my first time in the Grand Duchy of Luxembourg, we had to make a stop there. In Luxembourg CityLuxembourg Citythe happy coupleIMG_7475If only we were there again this year!

I could live in Coyoacán permanently…

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View from the top of Torre Latina

Another of our highlights during our first few days in Mexico City was soaring to the top of the Torre Latinoamerica.  Once the tallest building in Mexico City, it is now owned by Carlos Slim, Mexican national and the wealthiest man in the world since 2010, according to Forbes.  Evidently, he has bought up acres of property in the historic center of Mexico City and initiated projects to have some of the major arteries pedestrianized.  The view from the top of the Torre was impressive.  Through the hazy late afternoon light, we could make out the business district, bordered by the most affluent neighborhood and beyond, miles of concrete block, half-built dwellings stretched almost to infinity.

Palacio de Bellas Artes

From above

More disappointing was the Palacio de Bellas Artes.  Expecting grand murals by the most ubiquitous names in Mexican art, we found those, but they were ruined by the layout of the interior. Giant paintings were chopped up by the pillars of the building and the viewer couldn’t get far enough away from each work to see more than a jumble of bright colors assaulting his visual perception. Also, the separate galleries dedicated to various artists were in the middle of receiving a coat of paint during our visit and wouldn’t be open again until the middle of April.  When we asked about them, the guest relations representative promptly invited us back to Mexico in another month and said they’d be waiting on us! Sounds like hospitality to me!

Monumento a la Revolución

A visit to the establishment that houses houses arguably Diego Rivera’s most famous and informative work made up for the earlier underwhelming experience.  Sueño de una tarde dominical en la Alameda Central rests inside a bare room within a building that, although it only features one piece of artwork, calls itself a veritable museum.   It depicts Mexican history through the interpretation of Diego, of course featuring him at the center, gazing at his wife and lover, Frida Kahlo. No pictures from inside since the proprietors charged extra for that luxury. The painting is worth a google, though.

a view of the alameda central from above

Restaurante en Coyoacán

Los coyotes:  what coyoacán is named after

Continuing our pilgrimage to visit the sites dedicated to modern Mexican art, we took a 45-minute metro trek out to Coyoacán, the birth place of Frida Kahlo. Frida is a legend in Mexican art and her story is as heartbreaking as it is fascinating.  As a little girl she contracted polio, which left one leg longer than the other.  Then, as an 18-year old, probably ready to venture out on her own and find out what life had in store for her, she was involved in a dramatic street car accident.  She was impaled by one of the poles on the vehicle and suffered immense pain caused by the trauma for the rest of her life.  Her personal life is no less interesting.  Wife and lover of fellow Mexican revolutionary artist, Diego Rivera, her spirit continued to endure challenges as they lived out a volatile relationship that involved unfaithfulness, divorce and later remarriage.  If one solace could be found in her life, she resided on a cool tree lined street in a budding bohemian neighborhood and her home of blue stucco was inviting and bright.  Her open, airy home was a mansion, even by today’s standards. The easel she used, a gift from Nelson Rockefeller, faced onto an open courtyard where water fountains bubbled cheerily and the sun warmed the stones.  Frida and Diego did agree politically: both left-wing communist supporters, they even provided a place for Leon Trotsky to live when he was exiled from Russia.

from inside the blue house... sorry no pictures from the inside (that cost extra!)

Seeing where Frida did the majority of her work and visiting the barrio that was the backdrop to her life definitely tops the list of my Mexican experiences.  Like my mom said, this trip was as much vacation as it was continuing education for us.  The only unit I clearly remember from high school Spanish 4 was the chapter on art. As deeply disturbing as some of the images that Frida shared with the world on canvas are, I’ve never felt repulsed by her, only felt a sadness for the damage and pain she suffered.  Getting to see her home and some of her original work was worth the trip.

la casa azul from the outside

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