Admittedly, it has once again been YEARS since I’ve update this blog… And I still have so many experiences to get through until I’m caught back up, all thanks to the shelter-in-place mandate due to COVID-19. May as well take advantage of my down time! Forgive me for not being as thorough in these next series of posts. Its not to say I didn’t absolutely adore my time in Japan, as it’s an amazing Country, but since it has been so long since having been there, with so much happening in between, I’ve forgotten so many details. I stayed in Osaka 3 or 4 days, and while it wasn’t my favorite part of Japan, it certainly still has it’s undeniable beauty! Enjoy!
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;)))
Making a wish at the porcellino;
And staying after dark in Florence to watch night life a bit.
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!)
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!!
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.
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.
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:)
I spent only a few days exploring Salzburg with my dad just as Oktoberfest 2014 was beginning. So needless to say there was a TON of beer drinking, lots of men in lederhos’n, ladies in trachtenblus’n and dirndl, joyful music sung in German urging you to keep drinking, lots and lots of pretzels, gingerbread heart-shaped cookies and bratwurst!! Between the castle tour, the German food (though we were in Austria!!) and watching nuns knit a scarf for a statue, it was a great time!!
Salzburg is perhaps most famous for being the birthplace of Mozart and where the real Von Trapp family lived! In fact, the musical/film inspired by their life (The Sound of Music) was even filmed in parts of Salzburg:)
So instead of rambling on as I normally do, I will simply let the pictures tell the story:)
The drive there: passing lovely villages along the road through the pre-Alps:)
Around town: My personal favorite in this set is of the Bishop statue with a scarf around his neck!! And watching another bit getting sewn on:)
Probably one of THE prettiest cemeteries I’ve EVER seen!!! It seriously was very impressive and well kept!!
Views from the Castle
Images from inside the castle walls:) I adore the doggie water bowl!!! 🙂
Inverness… Made most famous by Loch Ness where Nessie, the fabled (or real?!?!?) monster of the Loch lives!! I actually really liked Inverness! It was not too large a place, but also not too small. As Goldilocks would say, it was just right:)
I got there on bus and of course started my day there by wandering around hostel after hostel trying to find somewhere to sleep for the night. The hostel by the bus station was full, which was fine by me cause I got an odd feeling from the staff there when I arrived to inquire about availability. So I wandered as always aimlessly toward what turned out to be the main shopping street and in general main street of Inverness: High Street. Well, ok, maybe it isn’t the official main street, but it was pretty central to all things touristy (the castle, museums, tourist info center, and lots of shopping). And perhaps another little thing to mention: High Street was closed off to traffic and was only available for foot traffic, which I quite enjoyed!! Anyway, I found Highlander Hostel after a few other failed attempts just off High Street. I booked a room for the night since it was the first place that I’d come across that had room… I was getting worried again that no space would be available elsewhere and I had better jump on this one! I went to my room to settle in and was not at all impressed with the accommodations. It just had the feeling of uncleanliness!! Though there was a bathroom in the room itself, it was being shared by 9 others (10 including me) and just the sight of hair everywhere… Ick!! I know that you get what you pay for and many times staying in hostels is an absolute gamble, but some places are MUCH more clean feeling and more welcoming than others…
Not really feeling that location (but being stuck there for the first night) and knowing that I wanted to stay in Inverness at least a few night (since I had to get to Loch Ness to see Nessie!!) I set out immediately to find a room for the next night at another hostel. A little down the road from the Castle and just along the river I came across the Inverness Student Hostel. From the second I walked in I knew this place would be great!! And indeed it was!! The vibe was just warm and welcoming, the place felt clean and safe, the staff were friendly and sane (at the other hostel the guy who checked me in, though there was a “no smoking inside” policy later lit one up in the check-in/common area just because no one was around… yeah… great example to set!).
The Inverness Student Hostel was all booked up for the night I arrived (I had half a mind to demand a refund from the other place and just stay there instead) but had a space available for the next two nights. Perfect!! That’s all I needed!! I paid a little extra to be in a room with only 5 others, but it was worth it!! I payed for my nights in advance to stay there the next few nights and on my way out noticed that they had affiliate hostels in Oban (pronounced by locals as “Oh-BIN” where I was planning to go next anyway). Liking the feel of the place that much- I went ahead and booked in advance (what was wrong with me?!?! ;)) a room at the Oban hostel (called simply Oban Backpackers) for a few nights as well!! I must admit that though the whole “find something when you get there” is fun and adventurous, also knowing that I had a place to stay for sure at the next location was quite comforting… Especially since the past few towns I had been in seemed to be short on places to stay!!
After securing my spot at the Inverness Student Hostel and the Oban Backpackers, I headed out to explore Inverness a bit more. Since I was going to stay there for two full days, I figured a trip to the tourist info center would be wise. There I found an all day tour (literally 12 hours long) for the Isle of Skye hosted by WOW Scotland! tours. I won’t go into great detail here about the booking as I will save it for the Isle of Skye post I’m doing next, but needless to say I did book the tour. The tour would not be until that Friday (2 days from my arrival date) however so I had a day in between to simply chill and explore Inverness at leisure.
At this point it was dinner time, so I wandered around for somewhere to eat. On the opposite side of High Street there was an Italian Tapas restaurant. And even though I was going to be in Italy soon, I really wasn’t hugely hungry so the idea of tapas really appealed to me. Plus, I had heard that many of the immigrants to Scotland were from Italy, so I was pretty confident the food would be authentic and not disappointing!
I was right about my instincts- the food was very good!! I had a tapas gnocchi dish with a glass of prosecco. Now mind you, when I would go out for lunch or dinner I would only bring a certain amount of cash with me. This was mainly so I wouldn’t go nuts on drinking too much, because lord knows if I had brought my card I could have just had my dinner and a drink, then another, then another… To my surprise, this is exactly what had ended up happening anyway!!
I was simply sitting at a table for one, enjoying my gnocchi and glass of prosecco when I noticed 3 guys sitting at the bar. Just something about them made me think that they, or at least one of them owned the place. Just the way they looked around and looked at things and moved around every now and again. They had the aura of being invested. I basically finished my meal and sat enjoying my prosecco. One of the three guys came and stood by my table looking out to the street, then asked if I had enjoyed my meal. I replied that I did and to satisfy my curiosity on whether I was right about whether he was an owner, I asked if he was. And indeed, he replied yes. One question led to another and he ended up sitting down with me (a true Italian! Always inviting and entertaining) and asked if I wanted another prosecco. Though I said no, I eventually said yes and was brought another glass. I won’t drone on with every detail but basically what ended up happening was I was introduced to his cousins (the other 2 at the bar) and a nephew and after a BOTTLE of prosecco and a shot of limoncello I was invited to stay for the after party (apparently it was the owners birthday) to which I stayed for a piece of cake and WATER to sober up a bit, lol!! I was also invited to the after, after party at someone’s house but declined vehemently and made my way back to the hostel at some point shorty after. It was a great and unexpected time!! Italians certainly know how to make people feel welcome!! It was also quite entertaining because the owner was Italian but spoke English in a Scottish accent. His cousins only spoke Italian. I spoke English and some Spanish and even less of Italian, but could understand all 3… The bartender was from Guatemala and spoke English and Spanish, so conversations between everyone was just about the most interesting and entertaining thing!! Between one language and another and trying to say one thing then having to interrupt someone during their conversation so they could translate something for you, it was just a mad house of languages!! Lots of fun though!! 🙂
In any event, after stumbling home I went to sleep then left the next morning for the Inverness Student Hostel. The next day wasn’t the best of weather so I mainly just did indoor things like a Natural History museum and caught up on emailing, etc. I was supposed to go back that evening for dinner with one of the cousins, but felt not very social (dang hangovers!!) that day sadly. Plus, I had an early tour the next day and wanted to be 100% for it!! I kinda felt bad about not showing for dinner, but such is life! You can’t please everyone. But I am very grateful nonetheless for their hospitality and the great time that was had the night before:)
The second guided tour I took in Edinburgh was for the Real Mary King’s Close. The tour office was located on the street level just off the Royal Mile, not far from the Castle. But the tour itself went through homes, found not terribly long ago, beneath the current streets and homes….
Of course way back then the homes we walked through were at ground level. But as people started to build more, instead of scraping old places and starting new, they simply lopped off the roofs of the old homes, built a new “ground floor” and simply built new homes or buildings on top of the old ones. But this practice of building homes was forgotten about until some workers of the City came along and rediscovered all the homes (now underground) and turned them into a tourist attraction!
The tour was quite fun but for those who have any claustrophobic tendencies, they may want to skip it… The way down was a bit tight, but once in the rooms I didn’t think it was too bad. But then again, E said she really didn’t enjoy the tour because she felt claustrophobic. So be warned people!!
Anyway, our guide from start to finish played the part of a young man who lived way back when and sadly died at 23 from some horrid plague. He told great stories of how the people lived (Gardy Loo!!) and the various plagues that afflited that age. He was humerous and witty and played his role well! We went through spaces that looked like a single room but were told it was a whole house for several families!! Other areas were for animals and others still for the rich. Each room was recreated to reflect the kind of people that would have lived in each room… But perhaps the most interesting of all the rooms… That of a little girl ghost…
When the spaces along Mary King’s Close were rediscovered, several measures were taken to make sure the spaces would be safe for tourists to travel through. During projects of reinforcement, some workers would describe strange things or sightings of a little girl quite often in one area of the rooms… So one day, a psychic was invited to go through the rooms. She didn’t pick anything up of note… Had no strange feelings or pulls of any sort… She couldn’t find a single odd feeling anywhere… At this point she was in the room most known for sightings but still, nothing.
She was getting ready to leave when all of a sudden she turned around and saw a little girl in the corner of the room. Now, mind you, at this point of the story we are all in the room itself and the “corner” where the girl was spotted standing was RIGHT BESIDE ME!!! Yea, I got a little chill for sure when he pointed only a few inches from me!! Anyway- the little girl was crying so the psychic asked her what was wrong. The little girl said that she was sad because her parents had died and that she was also sad because she could not find her favorite toy to keep her company and comfort her! The psychic was so moved by this that she left the rooms, went shopping for a doll, returned to the room where the young girl was crying and left the doll in there. From then on, none of the workers ever reported any further sightings or disturbances.
Even now, people from all over having heard of and knowing of this story in advance bring the little girl gifts and toys to play with! In the room today there is a stack of hundreds and hundreds of little toys and trinkets! So many are brought in fact that the staff has to sometimes clear toys out to make room for others!! The original is still there though:)
Needless to say, I would recommend this tour for sure! Though it was a little on the pricey side for the one hour, it’s definitely worth the fun!! Oh and sorry for the lack of pictures here… I can’t recall if they weren’t allowed at all, or if I was just too engrossed in the tour to care to take picts…