Category Archives: Europe

Katakolon

Katakolon itself is just a little port town.  Nothing terribly special about it per se; numerous restaurants and shops line the main street where tourists can wander and stroll in search of gifts.  Olive wood in particular is quite popular there, and I might add very beautiful!

What puts Katakolon on the map as a port of call for cruise ships is that it is only about an hour drive to Ancient Olympia, the site of the first Olympic Games.  Olympia, as it is inscribed on the plaque out front “stood out historically as the most important Panhellenic religious, political and athletic centre of the ancient Greek world”.  It is rich in mythological tradition and was founded as the sanctuary of Zeus.  Structures include a gymnasium, greek baths, the Temple of Zeus, the crypt, the Temple of Hera and of course, the Lighting of the Olympic Flame.

While we had purchased tours for Ephesus and Santorini, we didn’t for Katakolon figuring it would be easy to just do our own tour.  In that regard we were quite right as the second we disembarked there were people lining the streets with signs for bus rides to Olympia.  We opted for one of the buses and headed out to Olympia.  Once there we immediately went to the ancient ruins.  My sister in particular wanted to see the ancient structure where they lit the flame for the Olympics.

Thankfully we had heard before leaving the ship that there was a possibility for rain so we brought a poncho and an umbrella (won during a round of Bingo on the ship- but more on that in the ‘cruise critique’ post).

We made our way to the ancient ruins which were just around the corner from the main street of the now town of Olympia, paid for tickets to get in the site and started to have a wander around.  By the time we were at the ticket office, it was gently raining.  No biggie.

By the time we were basically in the center of the ruins, it began to rain hard… Then about 5 minutes later (only about 20-30 minutes after we had entered) it started to pour down rain!!  And thunder, and lightning and more rain!!  For those who know me, you know at this point I’m in 7th heaven as I LOVE a good thunderstorm!!  However, it wasn’t just me involved.  My dad and sister were with me (my mom decided to skip the Olympia trip and stayed behind to shop in Katakolon) so I wanted to make sure they were being taken care of.  My dad was using the umbrella and my sister and I shared the poncho.  I kept snapping photos of various ruins under the poncho as we made our way around to ensure that we saw the site for the lighting of the Olympic torch!

Lighting of the Olympic Flame
Lighting of the Olympic Flame

At one point the rain was so heavy that we (and all the other tourists there) started to huddle under the trees for a bit more shelter… Not the best idea with lightning around, but hey, strength in numbers?? 🙂  The rain kept pouring but what made us all start to leave the site wasn’t the rain exactly, but that it was starting to flood!  The umbrella and poncho did little to really protect us as we were getting soaked from the feet up.  My sister and I, concerned for our dad, decided we’d better head back.  It took us probably 10 minutes to find a shelter where we could fit (most of the close ones were already taken up by tourists) and that wasn’t flooding out.  We only stayed under the shelter for a few minutes then decide to keep going back to town.  All three of us at a certain point just started walking through the water instead of trying to skirt around it, since we were already wet!

We finally got out and back to town, drenched and chilly, but generally in good spirits!  Since we kept walking to town instead of stopping longer for shelter, we were among the first people back to town, which gave us first dibs on chairs in a restaurant with lovely outdoor heaters!!!  We huddled around the heater, ordered some drink and food, and listened to the rain pour down all around us.

We thought it rather ironic that we had gone just the day before from a place that barely got rain (Santorini) to a place that was now pouring with rain, lol!!

One funny observation my sister made at the restaurant was from a picture in the menu.  It was advertising an Amstel natural brew Radler beer with the caption: “Natural Beer with non-alcoholic lemon”.  My sister then said “hey, look.  They have alcoholic lemons here!!” LOL!! 🙂

Alcoholic Lemons!
Alcoholic Lemons!

After enjoying our meal, the rain had basically stopped but as we only had about a half hour until the bus was going to pick us up again, we opted to hang around town.  Once on the way back the skies turned blue and remained that way until we boarded the ship again.  Go figure!  But there’s my reason to go back:)  AND we did at least get to snap off a photo and see the site of the lighting of the Olympic torch:).

Sunny Skies
Sunny Skies

On to Cruise Critique

Back to Europe

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Santorini

I have a song working in my head that once completed will be published about Santorini, but well, for now it’s plain text:)

What a beautifully unique place!  Santorini as we know it today is a Greek island in the Aegean Sea that was formed by a large volcanic eruption that destroyed the previous civilization living there.  Now, it is the largest island of a circular archipelago that has remnants of a volcanic caldera.  The island isn’t your typical flat land island.  It is a mountain jutting from the sea with what looks like snow on top.  Upon closer inspection the “snow” are the little towns sprinkled along the top of the mountain.

Because of it’s volcanic history (pun intended) the land of Santorini is rich and fertile and very diverse!  Black lava rock, red clay and white pumice stone are visible around just about every corner etched into the land.  Homes in fact used to be built out of cooled black lava rock, which made them somewhat invisible to travelers coming by sea.  A clever way to be invisible to your enemy in my opinion.  However, in the 1930’s  the government made it law that each structure had to be painted white because it keeps the homes cooler and saves on energy.

While the Island itself is not all THAT attractive, the towns are absolutely adorable!!!  The rest of the island is rugged, rocky and not terribly interesting.  However due to the fertile nature of the volcanic rock, a large variety of produce are grown there.  The most popular of course, is wine:)  Part of the tour we took included a winery tour where we were able to sample the various wines and even purchased several to take back with us.  Growing grapes on Santorini is a bit trickier than one would think however.  Due to the ferocious winds Santorini is plagued by quite often, vines are not able to grow upright as in a normal vineyard.  Instead, people train the vines to grow in circular nests or baskets on the ground so they aren’t damaged by the winds!

Along with the hard winds, Santorini rarely gets any rain.  Water is a HUGE commodity and isn’t to be wasted at all.  The lack of rain is why their wines also have such a distinctive taste (the grapes are very concentrated due to lack of water).  The lack of rain has even inspired how the buildings are built.  One will notice 2 kinds of ceilings on buildings in Santorini: a flat roof and a circular or arched roof.  The flat ones are designed to collect rainwater that then gets funneled to an underground cistern, while the arched/circular roofs are the best design for buildings to withstand earthquakes… Yes, they have earthquakes too on top of the lack of rain and violent winds and there is still that volcanic caldron to think about… Sounds like a rough life to me, what with having to battle nature in so many different ways!

While wine, capers and olives are among the favorite products of Santorini, their favorite and most revered animal is the donkey.  They love their donkeys!!  Several statues of the honored donkey can be found in every town, and several times over.  They are working donkeys of course but are well taken care of and once they are of retirement age, they even have a proper retirement home for them to live out their lives.  Too cute, I love it!!  One of the ways to get back down from the town to sea was via a donkey ride:) I was absolutely on board to do that, however our tour guide made a mention that the donkey’s aren’t really a fan of it, so I decided to spare the donkey a trip down the rugged terrain (sigh).  Dogs are also very popular on the island and seem to run the place.  It reminded me of dogs in Costa Rica- how they do what they want during the day, but have a place and home to go to at night.

We wandered around Thera after our tour of Oia and the winery and stopped for some lunch at Arcobaleno.  The food was delicious and the view was unbeatable as it was overlooking the center of the archipelago where the volcano remnants remain.  I had a beer filtered with volcanic rock called Volcan while my parents and sister had wine.  And of course, since I was in Greece I had to have a teeny bottle to Ouzo to finish off the meal:)  From there we did some more shopping for gifts and such, had a pedicure at the Dr. Fish Spa where they use cleaner fish to nibble off all the dead skin, then had one more drink and a wee dessert (baklava anyone?) before taking the tram back to the loading area for the small boats to take us back to the ship.

Oh, one last interesting story about Santorini: the poor houses.  Wealth was signified not by the kind of house you had (large or small) but rather by how much land you owned.  So those who weren’t wealthy, instead of having homes on land lived in homes carved out of the rock along the top edge of Santorini.  Looking at the pictures of Oia and Thera, you can see how many of the homes are practically on top of each other and built right on the edge of the land.  These were the homes for poor people.  Today of course, these homes are worth millions of dollars… Go figure!

Oh, Greeks also love their churches.  If memory serves, people in the town were allowed to build their own churches and name them in honor of a Saint (each church was in honor of a different Saint).  While the churches weren’t used every day or week, when the day came around to honor whatever Saint was associated with their church, the church owner would give it a face life, clean it up and invite the town to the church to celebrate the Saint.  Lovely:)

Last, last thing… There are actually ruins that were discovered on Santorini from the previous civilization (the one wiped out by the volcano eruption) and it has been compared to Pompeii… We didn’t have time to look into that further but it’s certainly a reason to go back:)

On to Katakolon

Back to Europe

Ephesus

We had a full day at sea between Dubrovnik and Ephesus and it was spent full of a variety of activities (working out, pool time, Bingo!, etc.).  It was quite relaxing and the day seemed to zoom by.  When the night came around, my sister and I stayed up at the bar chatting and drinking the night away.  She woke the next day just fine… Me on the other hand, I was a wee bit hung over.  We had a scheduled tour to get to however so as we approached the port town of Kusadasi, it was time to buck up and sober up!

Our tour was to the Virgin Mary’s house (where after the crucifixion of Jesus she escaped and lived in hiding from persecution by the Romans) and to the ancient Greco-Roman ruins of Ephesus.  We met for our tour abroad the ship then were all escorted out onto the tour bus and off we went.  We were each given a little welcome package including a pin of the eye of Turkey for good luck, a bottle of water (I really needed that!!), a postcard and a little ceramic container with an impression of the Virgin Mary on the front and a cork top.

We were also issued little headsets so we could hear our tour guide throughout the tour as we wandered around.  I had seen other tours use these before and always thought them a great idea.  However, after actually having used them, I’m not so much a fan.  The reason being that the guide was many times speaking about things way ahead of where I physically was (I was lagging a bit with my crazy picture taking) so I would hear her explain something, but it wasn’t until 5-10 minutes later that I’d catch up to the area where the information was relevant.  Just goes to show that even with those little headsets you still have to keep up with the guide!

Leaving Kusadasi, we drove up the winding mountains of Turkey, past the large golden statue of Mary, watching the terrain turn from almost rugged, drier land to lush green forest land.  It somewhat reminded me of being in New Mexico, driving from Albuquerque to the mountains of Santa Fe in the summer time.  We arrived at Mt. Koressos, the site of Mary’s house.  The house was originally discovered because of visions that Blessed Anne Catherine Emmerich (a book was later published about her visions) had of the Virgin Mary and her home in hiding.  Searches ensued to find the home seen in the vision and was indeed found as described by Blessed Ann Catherine Emmerich.  Today the home is a shrine for both Catholics and Muslims who flock to see the very simple but functional home.

Outside the home a church has been set up and today people come to pray and even hold regular masses.  The home itself has been visited by several popes and has been blessed by them during their visit.  Outside her home, three taps of spring water exist, Holy Water, for visitors to drink, bathe, or fill up their little ceramic containers:)  I filled mine up, and though we weren’t supposed to drink from the ceramic container, I took a sip figuring it could only help with the hangover:)  Further along the wall from the Holy water were hundreds upon hundreds of pieces of cloth, each with someone’s prayer or hope or dream written in scores of different languages and tied onto the wall.  It was quite powerful to visit this site.  It is also a beautiful setting and a feeling of calm and peace is very present there.  We weren’t allowed to take pictures inside her house, but my favorite bit on the inside was a very faint and almost unnoticeable chalk drawing on the wall, just before the exit that seemed to be the face of, what looked to me like Jesus.  I can’t be 100% sure that it was Him (that’s how faint it was) but it made me wonder the history behind that.  I loved the simplicity of it.

From Mary’s house we were escorted back on the bus and down the hill to the shopping area (Genuine Fake Watches!!) just outside the ruins of Ephesus.  Ephesus was an ancient Greek city that long ago was actually a port town!  It is the same Ephesus where Paul wrote his letter to the Ephesians (thanks mom).  It was founded in the 10th century BC but was devastated by an earthquake in 614 AD.  The earthquake strike along with the harbor slowly silting up by the Cayster River declined the cities importance as a commercial center and was eventually abandoned (Thanks Wikipedia!).

Today only about 25% of the city has been excavated and it is only in the past 100 years or so that excavations have been taking place!  It was amazing to hear about how modern the people of that time really were!  They had indoor plumbing, a library, a theater, a brothel (the foot and heart imprint could be found throughout the city leading the way there) a gymnasium, there was even evidence of surgeries having been conducted!  Pretty much anything you could want in a city was there and everything was so stylishly done in marble or brick!  At least in my mind, it’s hard to envision civilizations from thousands of years ago being so modern.  We like to think with our technology that we are so much more advanced than people were back then… After visiting these ruins, I’m really not so sure!

From the ruins we were taken to a very touristy spot where there was nothing but shops and food and a little play depicting the days of Cleopatra and Marc Anthony enjoying some gladiator action between soldiers (no lions involved;)).

Cleopatra & Marc Anthony
Cleopatra & Marc Anthony

We had some kebabs, drank some beer then it was back to Kusadasi for a demonstration on how the famous Turkish rugs are made.  The presentation was fascinating and the store owners very kindly provided us all with some refreshments during the showcase of the rugs.  According to the store owner, making Turkish rugs is a dying art.  Not many people know how to make them or are trained to make them any more.  In an attempt to get people trained again in the art, the government got involved and developed a program that allowed stay-at-home moms to learn the art.  They were then allowed to work from home on the rugs:)  Love it!!  I had no idea how intricate each rug could be!  One silk rug we were shown had a million knots per square meter!!  Absolutely incredible!!  My sister ended up buying a very lovely rug after some hard bargaining, then we were off on the streets again, wandering around checking out the Kusadasi for more gifts and things to buy, then back off to the ship.

On to Santorini

Back to Europe

Dubrovnik

What a beautiful place!  Nestled right along the coastline of the Adriatic Sea, Dubrovnik is uniquely located on a very narrow, yet long stretch of Croatia that borders with Bosnia.  They are so close, in fact, that the surrounding mountains are actually in Bosnia.  The Old City is quaint and kept in fashion of how it was hundreds of years ago, and today is the setting for where they film The Game of Thrones.  I’m honestly not entirely sure what that show is all about, but our local taxi driver was very pleased by this little bit of trivia:)

As we disembarked the ship we were all met by a line of taxis.  For 10 Euro they would take you to the Old City, for 50 Euro you would get an hour taxi tour of Dubrovnik… We were on vacation, why not??  Off we went with a very passionate and clearly patriotic older local from point to point around the city getting out to take pictures at the best locations.  Being in the taxi while he navigated the narrow roads was somewhat of a roller coaster ride for me, but he was obviously very used to the ways of the road there and navigated beautifully.  He took us up to the top point of Dubrovnik so we could get a panoramic view and he pointed out the Bosnia mountains.

The history of Dubrovnik, as explained to us by our taxi driver, was quite a tumultuous one.  While they preferred to simply set up a port town where ships could come and go to trade various goods, they were constantly being bombarded by one country or another who were interested in taking them over and involving them in war.  Dubrovnik has bounced back and forth between one power and another but are now free to trade and live as they please.  Hopefully they continue that trend and are able to stay out of the wars, unlike their neighbors…

After our tour, we were dropped off at the gates to the Old City and bid farewell.  We wandered in, stopped for some lunch, sampled some Rosé wine (which Dubrovnik is famous for and apparently is the birthplace of Zinfendel…) then headed down the main street and side streets to shop:)  I of course didn’t pick anything up, since I can only carry so much in my travel backpack, but my sister and mom had a blast!  My dad thankfully tolerated us going into almost every single store looking for things to buy, and would stop to befriend random street cats every so often just to get a little shopping break, lol!

After walking the Old City streets, it was definitely easy to see why this spot was chosen for The Game of Thrones as it is very medieval!  The streets are made of smooth stone, (I’m not 100% sure but they may have been marble) it’s entirely surrounded by original walls and even the old gates that guard the entrances to the city are well intact!  I couldn’t help think when seeing the numerous steep stairways leading from the main road of the Old City to the new area of town, just how great a workout it would be to just walk up and down side streets daily there, lol!!  Random, I know:)

After our walk through the Old Town we grabbed a taxi back to the ship, shopped for a few more last-minute items then headed back on board.  Side Note: I was obviously very trigger happy with my camera on this trip… LOL! 🙂

On to Ephesus

Back to Europe

Venice

Venezia!  I’ve been there a few times before and each time not only love the uniqueness of it, but something new seems to happen every time I go.  This time, it was the flooding of the streets!  While we were able to avoid most of the flooding into the streets, it was still rather wet all around and they even had the planks around on standby just in case.  The second night I spent there we were all woken up at 3:45 by the flood warning siren, joy!!  I adore San Marco’s Square, as well as the church in the square with the most unique multicolored marbled columns and warped mosaic floor!  I adore how a city built hundreds of years ago on water is still standing today!  I adore its romantic history rich with courtesans, beautiful gowns and Carnival!

This trip was unique for me however as it really wasn’t as much for me as it was for my family… Specifically my mom and dad:)  You see, each hit a major birthday milestone this year (70 & 75) so my two brothers, sister and I all chipped in to do something a little extra special for them.  My mom was the one who actually found the trip: a 7 night cruise aboard the Royal Caribbean “Splendour of the Seas” leaving from Venice, Italy with port calls to Dubrovnik, Croatia; Ephesus, Turkey; Santorini, Greece and Katakolon, Greece.  My mom obviously knew all of this information, however my dad was only told that the family had chipped in for a birthday cruise for only him and I to go on.  He had no idea that my sister and mom would be joining too…

For almost 3 months prior to leaving for the cruise my mom, sister and I exchanged probably about a hundred emails going over details and how we were going to spring the surprise on my dad.  There was a ton of confusion at first because the website for Royal Caribbean is absolutely bonkers!!  You would think that they would get it together and create a site that actually works!!  But no… It seemed that just about every day for almost a straight month something was wrong with our reservation because of that idiotic site.  But thanks to some nice customer service operators, things smoothed out well.

So the plan was for my dad and I to go to Treviso (where he has a cousin) and stay with them for a couple nights.  Then he and I would go to Venice where we would stay overnight the night before having to board the cruise.  My mom and sister were to arrive in Venice mid-afternoon) from the States the day before the cruise as well.  Then they were going to meet us “randomly” at a restaurant (one we would pick in advance so I could be sure that my dad and I would be there) and the surprise would be revealed:)

That’s how it was supposed to go… Now how it REALLY went is as follows:  My dad and I did go to Treviso to see family and were dropped off in Venice mid-afternoon.  Now, the WiFi in the family’s place wasn’t quite all there all the time… At some point in the morning before leaving for Venice I just happened to refresh my email and suddenly several emails showed up saying “flight was delayed”; “stuck in Heathrow”; “missed flight due to idiotic security people at Heathrow”; “trying to leave from Gatwick”; “hope to take the 4pm flight out”…

At this point I’m a bit panicked… I’m the only one who knows they are coming, so I can’t say anything to my dad about them being off track… They are supposed to be a surprise… But now I’m a bit worried because I can’t contact them…  I checked the airport site but had no luck with any information there…

We got to Venice where my first move was to get my tablet hooked to the WiFi so I could search for any updates… Nothing, nil, zilch… I still have to play it cool however so I spend the rest of the afternoon acting as if all is well (when really I’m a bit worried on what to do in case they didn’t show, lol!) strolling around beautiful Venice with my dad.  We walked quite a bit and opted to take a canal taxi back to the hotel.

Once there, we started to get ready to go out for dinner.  I shot off a quick email to my sister and mom, hoping they would get it, about where we were planning to go.  At this point I still hadn’t heard whether they had even made it on the 4pm flight to Venice!  Before heading out for dinner, I even filled in the hotel receptionist on what was going on in case my sister and mom stopped by there!

So off to dinner we went…  It was about 8pm at this point, and though Italian meals tend to take a bit of time, I was purposefully trying to drag this dinner out as long as possible.  9pm rolled around… “sure I’ll have another beer”… 9:30 came about… “Dessert?  Why not?”… almost 10pm was upon us…

At this point I was already out of reasons to stay any longer AND I was starting to wonder if they had made that 4pm flight after all??  For, if they had, then certainly they would have been in Venice and would have been able to make it to the restaurant by now!  I thought that I better not drag dinner out any more, but rather I’d better get to my email to see what’s going on…

Just as I went to walk out the door with my dad behind me, my sister came walking in the door!!  We saw each other, our eyes widened and we immediately did an about-face, her out the door, and me toward my dad so I could try to shield him from seeing her, lol!! Unfortunately he just happened to see her face as she was coming in and the gig was up!!  She came back in (on her own as my mom was hiding around the corner as a second surprise) to greet my dad and all the details started to come out as to why she was there.  Then my sister said “you wouldn’t believe the day WE’VE had getting here”… We??? my dad asked… Who’s we???  Lol!!  Ooopppss!!  So out the door we went and my mom came out of hiding, lol!!

So while it wasn’t exactly how we had planned the surprise, it was still a great surprise for my dad nonetheless:)  My dad said after the surprise that he had been feeling tired from dinner, but was now very wide awake, lol!  I’m just glad my sister and mom made it!!

In any event, the next day we all boarded the ship and waved goodbye to Venice as we headed out to sea.

By the way, I do have to make a mention about Hotel Canal in Venice… It’s located just across the street from the train station and both times I stayed there it was a very pleasant experience!  The staff were beyond accommodating, the location was unbeatable in my book, the rooms were very spacious (both times we ended up with a room that faced directly on the Canal) and while it could probably use a tiny facelift, I really enjoyed its old style Venetian charms:)

On to Dubrovnik

Back to Europe

Scots in Italy??

The reason I had been traveling through Europe so fast was so I could make it back to Italy by mid-October… I got news while in Berlin that Anna (my neighbor in Costa Rica who I visited in Glasgow) and her friend, and now my new friend Morna were coming to town for the week!!  Yay!! But, that meant to push the gas on the pedal for my other travels.  Hence, after visiting the Neuschwanstein Castle I booked it via train through the Alps back to Florence to prepare for their visit:)

Preparing for their visit is really just code for stocking up with lots of wine, lol!!  I believe during their visit, my dad got 20 liters of wine and between the two of them, they probably went through 12-13 liters… LOL!  But hey, I can’t blame them, they were in Italy for crying out loud!  If you aren’t going to enjoy yourself while here, why bother at all?

I met them in Pisa and we stayed the first night and the next day doing all the tourist stuff, i.e. getting a picture taken holding up the tower.  Morna didn’t want to get in on that action, but we got her later when we were in the top  cupola of the Duomo in Florence cupping another dome of Florence… I Should now mention that all the pictures in this post were taken by Anna and her camera.  Gotta give credit where credit is due:)

In any event, our time after Pisa was spent hanging out at my dad’s place eating delicious home cooked Italian food; getting tipsy on wine and beer and chatting about good times both past and present; taking hikes in the National Forrest to Vallombrosa and Secchieta; going into Florence about 3 separate times trying each time to get into the Duomo but failing until our last try (which we then ended up walking to the very top for a panoramic view);

Going to see Michelangelo’s David, of course!  (the picture below is of my favorite part of David… (no, not THAT part;)))

My favorite part of David
My favorite part of David

Making a wish at the porcellino;

Wishing on the Porcellino
Wishing on the Porcellino

And staying after dark in Florence to watch night life a bit.

Night Artists
Night Artists

Probably the most humorous time for me was the hikes… The first day we went, not more than 3 minutes after we left the house it started to pour down rain.  Did we turn back?  Naw, it was just a bit of rain and we were SURE it would stop soon.  Thankfully I had brought an umbrella and poncho “just in case” since it was a bit cloudy, and while I caved and took out the umbrella for shelter after about 10 minutes of walking in the rain, Morna and Anna were still braving it with the light jacket/sweater they brought for the walk.  About 20 minutes later they were drenched!!  They took the poncho, which was large enough to share and onward we went.  Along the way we spotted several deer!!  And that was probably only because the deer figured “no human in their right mind would hike in this downpour!”  They were wrong, lol!!

We eventually made it to Vallombrosa all cold and quite wet.  Thankfully there was a teeny bar on the side of the road:)  We had cappuccino’s, a sandwich, some wine, beer, some more wine and beer… Then shots to warm up a bit more (we were still chilly) then another shot or two until it was starting to get too late and dark to walk back down, so we called my dad to pick us up, lol!!

The second day of hiking was much less wet, but still cold and windy!  We did make it all the way to the top to Secchieta (where we had planned to go the first day) and once again at the end of the trail, what was there to meet us??  You guessed it, a bar!  We brought our own lunch that day so we just purchased some cappuccino’s, two wines and a beer:)  We behaved that day knowing we had to walk down but not entirely… You see, along with sandwiches for lunch, we also packed about a liter and a half of wine to sip along the way:)  We did behave on drinking it however because we barely cracked into it until we were heading down:)  Ah, good times!

More Florence pictures- notice the very artistic pictures on the Ponte Vecchio done by Anna:)

The three of us posing as stereotypical Italians (Mamma Mia!)

Acting Italian
Acting Italian

On to Venice

Back to Europe

Neuschwanstein Castle

Poor “Mad” King Ludwig II… Misunderstood; not properly trained to reign; valued peace over war; declared “mad” by his family; sent away to an asylum and therefore victim to political espionage.  The story I heard of him growing up was that he lived in a beautiful fairy tale castle.  Over the years he went mad and kept building room upon room in his castle for unexplained reasons until one day he passed away.  Though he did commission the construction of the famous Neuschwanstein Castle, it turned out the story I had heard of him wasn’t quite right…

Known as the Fairy Tale Castle (it has inspired the Sleeping Beauty castle in Disneyland) the Neuschwanstein Castle (neu= new; schwan= swan; stein= stone) has become world famous.  September 5, 1869 was the beginning of construction on the castle and though constructions lasted 17 years, it is unfinished today according to the original plans.  It is built atop a hill above the Hohenschwangau village in place of the ruins of the Vorderhohenschwangau Castle, nestled among breathtaking natural beauty.

I rode a bike to the Hohenschwangau village where I then purchased a ticket for the castle tour and headed to an area offering horse carriage rides to the Castle.  It is the fairy tale castle, after all, so why not indulge in a little fairy tale of my own??  🙂

The castle itself is breathtaking, in my view as well.  Room after room was so lavishly decorated, ornate and detailed.  From the chapel to the wood sculptures above his 4-poster bed, the swan room, the Hall of the Singers and even the kitchen, this castle was VERY impressive!  Sadly we were not allowed to take any pictures of the interior, but then again it’s probably a blessing because I would have taken and posted a trillion of them!!

Perhaps my absolute favorite room of all however was the cave room… Yes, he had a room (which was more of a short hallway that lead from the swan room to a longer hall that passed the servants area) that he turned into an honest to goodness cave!!  It was complete with cave formations such as stalagmites/stalactites, had that slight damp feel to it as caves do and even had a little area that led onto a balcony complete with a little round table and chairs!  I could have stayed in that tiny room/hall all day just marveling at how in the world he accomplished that!  Mind you, this room is located on the second or third floor, so it’s not like it was carved on ground level.  I was awestruck!  I really wish that the tour of the castle allowed more time in each room, but alas, with so many people coming to see it it’s just not possible for them to allow longer than a 30 minute tour.

I did pick up a little book in the gift shop called “King Ludwig II: His Life- His End” before making my way to the bridge across from the castle for some pictures and for an unplanned hike up the Tegelberg hill, just on the other side of the bridge and across from the Castle.

Back to poor “mad” King Ludwig II…  to start I should mention that I got my information on him from the book as well as the tour guide and formed my own opinions about him based on both sources.  In my opinion, King Ludwig II was smart and sensible, not able to be manipulated by others, unique and way ahead of his time.  He wasn’t properly groomed to be the King of Bavaria and though the book didn’t specifically say, it’s my impression that his sexuality was questionable.  For example he broke off his only engagement to his cousin, Princess Sophie Charlotte of Bavaria and his only close friend was Richard Wagner, the famous composer.  Ludwig even had a room built in the castle specifically for him- the only room for guests in the entire castle.  Wagner, interestingly was a bit of a revolutionist and unpopular among politicians in Germany in general.

While the above may have been enough to make him an unpopular King at the time, what put the nail in the coffin for King Ludwig in my opinion was that he preferred peace over war.  This combined with the rest made those with other political motives in Bavaria (i.e. his family) unhappy and something had to be done to get him out of the way so they could pursue their wars in their quest for power.

It was true that the King had several castle constructions occurring at the same time and that he was in great debt because of them (no bank would loan him money at one point) and this was the angle that allowed his family to have him declared insane.  They convinced a doctor, who had never seen, spoken to nor treated the King to declare him insane based on him constructing several castles at once and bringing on debt.  Once the declaration of his insanity was made, the man hunt was on to capture the King and put him in an institution.

He was eventually caught at his Neuschwanstein Castle, betrayed by those he trusted most, and was sent to an asylum.  The doctor who had declared him insane (without having previously met him) oversaw his treatment at the asylum.  One day the two men went for a walk on the grounds of the asylum.  The doctor waved away the staff, who usually would accompany in case of an attempted escape, and walked with the King to Starnberger Lake.  When they didn’t return to the hospital when expected, a search party was dispatched and the bodies of the doctor and King Ludwig II were found drowned in the Lake.  The King, it was noted was a good swimmer, and what actually happened in that Lake that led to his death, well no one will ever know.  What we do know however is once King Ludwig II was declared dead, the family stopped construction on the Neuschwanstein Castle and immediately opened it as a tourist attraction to “pay off it’s debts”… Sounds rather fishy to me.

I do have to write one last little note here… On the tour a gentlemen from the States (I should have gotten his name so I could give him proper credit) made a very interesting and rather smart comparison between King Ludwig II and Michael Jackson.  It went as such:

KL.II- King of Bavaria
MJ- King of Pop
KL.II- built the fairy tale Neuschwanstein Castle
MJ- built the fairy tale home “Neverland”
KL.II & MJ- sexuality questionable
KL.II- unpopular controversial political opinions
MJ- controversial in music and life
KL.II- declared insane by his family
MJ- made insane by his family and all but abandoned by them
KL.II & MJ- died under suspicious circumstances in the presence of a doctor
KL.II & MJ- both families monetarily benefited as a result of their death

Gotta admit, it is an odd but very interesting connection!!

On to Scots in Italy??

Back to Europe

Füssen

Getting to Füssen was seriously a bit of a battle and a lesson in patience!  It is a teeny town located in the South of Germany very near the Austrian border.  I was able to book a train ticket from Heidelberg to Pfronten-Weissbach, and from there a bus to Füssen via my favorite travel site (rome2rio.com).  In total, there were 4 connections with about 5 minutes between each connection… Perhaps I should have looked into longer connection breaks between each stop, but thinking that Germans are known for their precision and timeliness, I figured 5 minutes would be no problem at all!

I was wrong.  The train from Heidelberg left on time, but when I got to Stuttgart there was a delay of 15 minutes.  Which in turn threw off my connection in Ulm… And my connection in Kempten, which made me miss the bus in Pfronten-Weissbach… Instead of arriving for the bus at 3:15 I had arrived a bit after 6.  I must say that the train from Kempten to Pfronten-Weissbach was the cutest thing I’d seen!  It only had 2 little caboose (cabooses??) and was like a commuter train for the little town in the area.  Just adorable!

The cute train to Pfronten-Weissbach dropped me and a few others off at a little bench on the side of the road.  Great, now what??  Thankfully, as mentioned a few other people had also gotten off at the stop so I was able to ask where the bus stop was.  I was shown by a very nice lady and I made my way to wait.  It was just around the corner and according to the sign I had missed the last bus by 5 minutes or so and the next one wouldn’t be coming around for another hour!  Hmmmm…. what to do….

As miracles would have it, there was a bar just across the street:)  I wasn’t about to stand out in the cold for an hour, no sir!  Plus, I had had just about enough of the “hurry up and wait” game that I had been playing all day since leaving Heidelberg!  It was time for a little unwinding with a beer.  I went across the street and walked in to find a teeny bar with the bartender and an obvious local who kept trying to speak with me, yet I kept having to shrug my shoulders and shake my head to signal that I didn’t have a clue what he was saying!

About a half hour later two more locals came in, one of which spoke a bit of English:)  I had explained I was waiting for the bus which then erupted the bar into a conversation on whether the bus would show up at all!  According to the locals, because we were in such a teeny town, buses ran whenever they felt the need to and not necessarily when they were scheduled to… Joy!!  All I could think at this point was that I really didn’t care!  I had a couple of beers in me and thought, well worst case I would find somewhere to stay for the night, then make my way to Füssen the next day.

I made it back to bus station a few minutes before it was due to arrive, and thankfully about 10 minutes after it was due, it did show:)  I was in Füssen about 20 minutes later and to Suzanne’s B&B, which was located around the corner from the train station, about 10 minutes after that.

Suzanne's B&B
Suzanne’s B&B

Suzanne’s B&B is a lovely place.  It is run by Suzanne (originally from Chicago if memory serves) and her husband.  Part of the home is their private residence and the rest has been turned into a B&B.  Suzanne had a bit of a no-nonsense edge to her but was very accommodating both with information about the area and recommending ways to get to my next destination.  I paid more than I was hoping to, but being last-minute I lucked out that I was able to find anything at all.  The room was comfortable with a private bathroom and breakfast was included, so really I’ve no complaints:)  And best of all, it was only a bike ride away from the Neuschwanstein Castle:)

I ended up spending 3 days and 4 nights in Füssen filling my days with hikes, a visit to the Neuschwanstein Castle, enjoying some Oktoberfest celebrations in the evenings and a day just relaxing/continuing to recover from the crud I’d caught.  I will say the nature surrounding Füssen is just beautiful!!  Especially with the colors changing on the trees and the color of the water in the lakes and rivers, it was just amazing!

On to Neuschwanstein

Back to Europe

 

 

Heidelberg

At this point in my trip, I unfortunately caught the European crud:(  Since traveling from Salzburg, everyone around me seemed to be hacking and coughing and sneezing and sniffling and well, it finally caught up with me.  I wasn’t feeling well at all, but had to power through anyway.  The afternoon I got into Heidelberg I first checked into my hostel (Steffi’s Hostel located just a few minutes walk from the train station) then immediately went back to the train station to check out a store I had spotted that seemed to be a mini-mart.  I stocked up on throat lozenges, teas, vitamin C, apple cider vinegar and tissues to care finally get myself taken care of a bit.  I had dinner at the Chinese restaurant located conveniently downstairs and had soup with tons of sriracha in it, just to help sweat out those germs;)

Heidelberg is a huge University town.  Just about everyone I came across and chatted with was somehow involved in the University, whether studying or working.  It’s a lovely little place with a great young energy and I’m just bummed that I felt like such crap the entire time I was there, but I’m thankful that I was able to get better while there.  In my mind it will always be that quaint little town where I got to rest a bit:)

The next day I still felt like run-over dog but thought “I’m here, I better do something!!”.  So I went for a walk to see the Heidelberg castle:)  I even ended up taking a tour of the castle once there, but honestly don’t remember much of it since my brain was mush from not feeling well:(

One bit that I do recall from the tour however was of the story of Perkeo.  Perkeo was a short, red-headed Italian who  didn’t speak German, yet lived at the castle as the keeper of the wine!  Seriously, this barrel of wine in the basement of the castle is absolutely HUGE!!  According to Wikipedia it can hold over 57,000 gallons of wine!!  Anyway, as the keeper of the wine (and being Italian of course) Perkeo was quite fond of wine and drank quite a bit of it.  Because he didn’t speak German and the Germans didn’t speak any Italian, when he was offered wine he would simply say “Perche No?”, which means “why not?” In Italian.  Perche no… perkeo… see the similarity??  He was the keeper for some time and as the humorous yet untrue story goes, one time someone went to play a trick on him.  They offered him some wine (to which he said “perche no?”) but instead gave him a glass of water.  Perkeo took a sip and fell dead in that moment;)  Too funny!

Another cute story revolved around the King and his wife.  King Frederick V was quite the romantic!  In the archway that leads to the entrance of the castle there are lovely etchings of nature and animals sculpted into it.  It is said that each animal is a symbol of love to his wife.  Once it was constructed he simply told her to search the gardens of the arc to find little mementos of his love for her…  Awww!!

Lovers Arc
Lovers Arc

After the castle tour I wandered the gardens, which after having been to Versailles definitely seemed to lack;)  At this point my body and mind were getting severely tired from being ill and just couldn’t do much more.  I headed back through town to the hostel and passed out.

The next day I was feeling quite a bit better and decided to head to the zoo!  I took the bus there and arrived just as it was opening.  I spent the day wandering back and forth from animal enclosure to animal enclosure just taking in all the critters.  It isn’t a huge zoo by any means, but they do have a decent variety of animals and because it was so small, it made it easy to get around to each of the feeding shows .  The sea lion feeding was like many of the sea lion feedings in other zoos where they tell you about the critters and have them do a variety of tricks for the fish.  This one was a bit unique for me however as the feeding was all in German, so I hadn’t a clue about what was being said.  It was still quite entertaining however:)

Some things I noticed about this zoo that was different from others I had been to was first the amount of babies they had.  Baby sea lions, baby camels, baby porcupines, baby monkeys, babies everywhere!  Second, even though they were a small zoo there were staff members everywhere all throughout the day working in one way or another; cleaning, preparing food, moving the babies from the nurseries to the adult pens for some acclimation time, etc.  Generally I never notice zoo staff around, but at this one they were very present, which I found nice!  Finally, of all the zoos I’ve been to, never before had I seen a feeding for the tigers and lions…

Oh my goodness… I can’t describe how amazing it was to see the tigers literally going from “look at that beautiful/cute tiger” to “never in a million years would I ever want to tangle with one of them!!!”.  The wild and the instincts came out in a flash the second the food arrived.  Claws scraped the enclosure bars trying to get a quicker grip on the meat about to be fed to them.  It was just amazing to see such a wild nature so close!

The lions were much more relaxed about the feeding.  It was a group of lionesses and it was easy to see which was the Alpha female.  She got her meat first (quite patiently compared to the tigers) and headed to her eating spot as the others then practically lined up to get theirs.  The order and calm in their enclosure versus the “fear for your life” energy from the tigers enclosure was incredible!  I would go back just to view the feeding again.

After the zoo I headed to the hostel once again and spent the evening plotting how to get to and where to stay in Füssen, Germany.  The “Fairy Tale” castle of “Mad” King Ludwig II, located in South Germany in a little town called Hohenschwangau was a must see on my list.  Thankfully all my plots to get there worked out and after several relaxing days of actually taking care of myself in Heidelberg I was ready to set out once again.

On to Füssen

Back to Europe 

Versailles

The meeting point for the Versailles tour was again at Place St. Michel early the next morning.  Train tickets were included in the price and part of what I really appreciated is that we would all go as a group to Versailles for the tour of the gardens, but we didn’t have to return to Paris as a group.  We were each given our own return ticket for the train, shown where to go and told bon voyage once the tour was over:)

The train was about 40 minutes but honestly it felt much shorter than that!  Along the way I chatted with an older woman from Thailand (I’m going there in less than a week now!!) picking her brain on various bits of information about the Country.  Once we arrived we zoomed past the lines for the castle tour and headed straight to the gardens.  I should note that I only purchased a ticket for a garden tour so never went into the castle.  I did contemplate it but after only watching the lines to get in get longer and longer, there was no way!  Something to go back there for:)

Note to travelers:  If you do plan to visit the castle of the Sun King Louis XIV in Versailles, I would suggest that you get there FIRST in line!!!  I’m not kidding- the lines to get in were at least a couple miles long and they didn’t get any shorter throughout the day!  Also, there are TWO SEPARATE lines… One line is to purchase tickets, the other is to get in line for the tour.  If you get into the wrong line (i.e. the tour line) without a ticket, they will refuse you and send you into the other VERY long line to purchase a ticket.  You’ve been warned!  All this information was provided kindly as a warning to us from our garden tour guide, so I’m passing it along:)

Another brief “warning”… Bring your walking shoes and something to nibble on/drink!!  The gardens are HUGE and while there are some benches here and there to sit on, they are generally always full with other tourists taking a break.  There is the option to rent golf carts (go figure) if needed for those who aren’t that into walking however. Last “warning”: the fountains do NOT run all the time.  They run for a few hours in the morning, then for a few hours in the afternoon.  AND (if memory serves) they only run on Sundays and Mondays… You will have to double check that for sure, but the point is that check before you go whether you will be going during a day/time that the fountains will be running!  It’s just so much nicer when they are active:)  Also on the days that the fountains run they have a grand finale at 5:30 where the largest fountain starts up.  All the others in the garden shut down during this finale.  Also, portions of the garden are closed on some days…  In other words- don’t just show up to this location if on your own.  Do your research first to ensure the best experience:)

Thankfully the guide for this tour was awesome!  She had personality, character and obviously knew her stuff as she was full of great information and history- both new and old on the Gardens!

Louis the XIV was quite the character… He fancied himself a God and named himself the “Sun King”.  He began his reine at the tender age of 5 and reigned for 72 years, which is the longest in European History for a major country and he is often depicted showing off his legs in paintings as he was quite fond of them.  He was a vain man but also very clever.  For example the Hall of Mirrors was constructed to be used as an intimidation trick against those who opposed him.  At that time it was extreemly difficult to get A mirror, let alone an entire hall of them so not many people had ever seen their reflection before.  Side note: the mirrors were first developed and made in Venice:)  If people were invited to see the King, they first had to pass the hall of mirrors.  You could imagine, having never seen your reflection and stepping into a hall full of them that whatever you might have been wanting to say to the King would quickly escape your mind!

There are 50 fountains in the gardens that expand over 1900 acres!!  Each was constructed with the Sun King in mind as there are mythological Gods and symbols throughout.  The Sun King wanted the fountains to run each and every day, all day regardless of whether he was on the grounds or not!  As you might imagine there just wasn’t a large enough source of water to do so all the time, so workers began shutting off the fountains when Louis XIV wasn’t present.  He found out about this however and wasn’t pleased.  As a solution he simply said to funnel water from nearby rivers.  This wasn’t popular among the people as they needed the river water for their vineyards to make wine!  They acquiesced however but it still wasn’t enough water to keep the fountains going non-stop!  So the King simply said to take the water from the River Seine!  Thankfully for the people he passed away before constructions began to funnel water from the Seine to feed his fountains, lol!

This fountain was probably one of my favorites.  It was of the God of the Underworld, Hades.  They play sounds of thunder as you walk around the arches surrounding the fountain to represent the wrath of Hades that in turn creates an earthquake.  The sculpture of him trying desperatly to escape the Underworld with water shooting out of his mouth is just too cool!!

If there was something King Louis XIV wanted, nothing stood in his way to get it.  One of the fountains in the gardens today (mirror fountain) is a tiny version of the fountain outside the Bellagio Hotel in Vegas.  It’s nowhere near as grand or great as that one, just a small simpler one but as our guide said: had such technology existed at the time and had King Louis XIV known about the Bellagio fountain, he would have bought Belgium and turned it into one giant fountain, lol!!  That’s just the kind of King he was.

Mirror Fountain
Mirror Fountain

Quick fun things also told to us by the guide: not long ago the gardens of Versailles were rented out for 4 consecutive days for a whopping $26 million dollars for the wedding for the daughter of a technology (if memory serves) tycoon in India!!  Kim Kardashian and Kanye West apparently could only afford a 45 minute reception, lol!  The history of the “French bath”: it is noted that the King himself in his 77 years of life only showered 38 times… He and others of his time simply perfumed themselves to death to cover their otherwise rank odor.  Hence people who over-perfume themselves today are said to have taken a French bath:)  Yes, that is REAL GOLD on the front gates of the Palace.  Just sayin…

The stories and history spoken to us by our guide was absolutely endless and honestly this was a tour I feel I could have (and should have) taken twice just to be able to soak in all the information properly.  From the history of King Louis XIV, the gardens, the fountains, what each garden bit and fountain represented and even a bit on poor Marie Antoinette, our guide was full of information!!  Though honestly I was expecting the gardens to be more floral in nature as opposed to bushes and trees, it was an awesome experience and place to be!   And one day to revisit of course:)

On to Heidelberg

Back to Europe