A Day Out at Fontevraud Abbey (Wednesday Wanderings)

F Abbey in arch

When we went to France in August, we had one day to fill between our arrival at Charles de Gaulle airport and our stay in the Dordogne region (to read about our stay in the Dordogne, click here and here). I had just read a fascinating trilogy about Eleanor of Aquitaine, so we decided to spend our free day at The Royal Abbey of Fontevraud.

**Historical fiction is one of my favorite genres – reading about a place before visiting brings it to life for me. Anyone else out there feel the same? What are some of the best historical fiction books you’ve read recently?**

We only booked our flights about three weeks out, so didn’t have great transportation options. We ended up taking the RER B from the airport to the St Michel-Notre Dame stop in central Paris, then (after a brief visit to Notre Dame, which was nearly empty at 8 am on a Saturday morning) we rode Line 4 of the Paris Metro from St Michel to Gare Montparnasse, after which we took the TGV train from Gare Montparnasse to Poitiers. In Poitiers, we rented a car and drove to our Chateau B&B near the Abbey. It sounds harder than it actually was, but it was still a multi-step process that took a good chunk of our arrival day, so we were ready to relax when we got to our B&B!

**If we had booked farther ahead, we could have taken the TGV directly from the airport (Terminal 2) to Tours, which is much closer to the Abbey than Poitiers.  However, the TGV was sold out from CDG and I couldn’t find an available rental car in Tours; one of the pitfalls of booking last minute!**

chateau B&B 2JPG

We arrived at Château de la Roche Martel in the late afternoon, and were given a brief tour then shown to our room. The historic property was built in the early 1400’s and has an addition from the 1600’s. It’s a historically quirky place and the owners, a Viscount and Viscountess, are careful to share that it is not a luxury hotel (no A/C; does have private bathrooms) but rather a privately owned chateau where they are delighted to welcome guests. I spent a relaxing couple of hours enjoying the garden on a chaise with a good book, and found myself wishing we had booked more than one night. Next time!

view from chateau b&BThe view from the garden at Château de la Roche Martel

Our hostess offered to make us a dinner reservation nearby, and she recommended the Restaurant Le Montsorelli  on the terrace at the Hotel Le Bussy.

chateau montsoreau 3Our view during dinner at Le Montsorelli

Watching the sun set over the Loire River, next to the Chateau Montsoreau, while dining in the garden of the restaurant, was the perfect beginning to our French adventure!

loire sunsetSunset over the beautiful Loire River

 At breakfast the next morning (the food was AMAZING, wish I had taken a photo), my husband, son and I shared a fascinating discussion of US politics with our hostess, a retired couple from New Zealand and a young couple from Moscow (one of the best parts of staying at a B&B is the fellow guests that we meet).  After breakfast, we packed up and headed out to the Royal Abbey of Fontevraud.

fontevraude-abbey-2.jpg

Founded in the 1100’s and now the largest remaining monastic city of the Middle Ages in Europe, Fontevraud housed, in four separate priories, monks, nuns, women who retreated here after the deaths of their husbands (as did Eleanor of Aquitaine), and a hospital for lepers, all overseen by an Abbess.

Pretty flowers and gate F Abbey

Originally in an area of France belonging to the King of England, the English royals were great benefactors of the Abbey (hence the distinction The Royal Abbey of Fontevraud). Eleanor of Aquitaine, a complex and strong woman way ahead of her time, struggled with the constraints placed on her because of her sex. She was the heir to Aquitaine, but as women were thought unfit to rule by themselves, she was married off at age 13 to the future King Louis VII of France. After 15 years of marriage during which she only gave birth to two daughters, King Louis annulled their marriage and she then married King Henry II of England, who was eleven years her junior.  She had eight children with Henry, including King John and Richard the Lionheart. After Henry died, she spent the last 20 years of her life at the Abbey, and is buried there with Henry II and Richard the Lionheart, as well as King John’s second wife, Isabella of Angouleme.

Eleanor of AquitaneEleanor of Aquitaine and her second husband, King Henry II of England

After the French Revolution of 1789, the monastery was dissolved and the last Abbess was evicted in 1792. Napoleon turned it into a prison in 1804, in which capacity it served until 1963, when the French Government restored it, opening the Abbey to the public in 1975.

Cloisters 2 F Abbey

As we wandered the grounds and explored the buildings, it was easy to imagine the life of the nuns, going about their daily routines of work and prayer in silence. Did you know they went to EIGHT services a day?? The cloisters still exude peace and serenity, and the crowds were minimal, despite it being the height of tourist season. The Abbey hosts cultural performances, exhibits and events throughout the year, and also serves as a conference center with an onsite hotel, a restaurant and casual cafes.

Best Cloister Garden F Abbey

We finally had to drag ourselves away from this fascinating place…but will be back to explore more of the Loire Valley at some point!

 

A Day Out on the Glen Burney Trail (Wednesday Wanderings series)

Glen Burney Trail

Happy Wednesday! My husband and I spent today hiking in the North Carolina mountains with our dog.  I love having these midweek adventures with him; it will be one of the things I miss most when he goes back to work!

Perfect pose!My favorite hiking buddies!

We chose the Glen Burney Trail because it showcases several waterfalls and was only about a 90 minute drive from Winston Salem. An extra bonus is that the trailhead is located a block from Main St in downtown Blowing Rock, so it would be super easy to add in some shopping, strolling and eating to round out your day! We didn’t spend any time downtown today, but I’ve loved my meals at The Speckled Trout in the past. And if you really want to indulge, Westglow Resort and Spa is just a few miles outside of Blowing Rock; my husband gave me a day package there for Mother’s Day, and it’s incredible!

hiking 4

But today we just hiked and enjoyed the gorgeous sunny fall day. The trail is an out and back 3 mile route, which goes downhill on the way out and then heads straight back up. I was definitely glad I had my trekking poles with me. It wasn’t super strenuous by any means, but the poles take some of the pressure off my knees when going down steep steps. We had to scramble a little bit crossing the stream, as the bridge is washed out, but some kind soul laid a plank in exactly the right spot to help us out!

crossing bridgebridge 4

If you follow me on Instagram, you may have seen my recent post about being a “river through the forest” kind of girl, so today’s trail was just what I love – we meandered through the woods beside the stream and passed several beautiful waterfalls.

scooby 6

waterfall 5

Scooby enjoyed exploring as well and happily posed for multitudes of photos (be sure to check out the last photo – I caught him mid-shake and it’s hilarious!) So much fun to hike with this cutie!

Can I jump?Can I jump, Mom?

hiking 1

mid shake!

What are some of your favorite hikes in the Boone/Blowing Rock area? Let me know in the comments below!

 

Our running tour of Prague

winged lion prague 2The Winged Lion Memorial – a thank you from Great Britain honoring the 2,507 Czechoslovak airmen who served in the Royal Air Force during WWII.

Hello from the Czech Republic! I’m currently biking around South Bohemia with two girlfriends (follow my adventures on Instagram here) – if you haven’t been to the Czech Republic, add it to your list! It’s a beautiful country with warm, friendly people – we’ve had so many great experiences! We flew into Prague and spent a couple of days there before we started biking. I found this running tour of Prague, and it sounded like so much fun that we booked it for our second morning. Our guide, Marek, met us at our apartment at 7:30 am, and took us around the tourist areas of the city, pointing out landmarks and good places to eat.  We covered about 4.5 miles, but Marek let us set the pace, which as a beginning runner I greatly appreciated. It was a great way to get some exercise, especially after being cramped in a plane for the overnight flight just a day or so before, and as a bonus, we saw the tourist areas when they were blissfully uncrowded! Here are some of the things we saw…

babies with face

The Babies – these sculptures used to be “climbing” up the side of the TV tower in Prague, but now reside in a park on Kampa Island. We never did figure out why they have no faces…if you know, please enlighten me!

lennon wall prague

The John Lennon Wall – a spontaneous tribute to John Lennon when he was assassinated, this wall became an expression of hope for freedom during the Communist years. Every night, the government would paint over the graffiti, and every day, new graffiti would appear. We saw it with one other tourist at 8 AM; later that afternoon, we returned and there were close to 200 people at the wall.

wallenstein gardens 2

The Wallenstein Garden – built in 1623, this geometric, early Baroque garden used to be private, belonging to the adjacent palace.  Now, open to the public, the garden is a peaceful place with free-roaming peacocks, including some rare white peacocks.

white peacock pragueThe white peacocks of Wallenstein Garden

radio memorial prague

Memorial to Dr. Milada Horakova –  a Czech politician, she was convicted of fabricated charges of conspiracy and treason, then executed by the Communist Party in 1950. The memorial is in the form of a microphone like the one she stood in front of during her show trial, where she was given 30 seconds to speak in her defense. It honors her and all those who stood up against totalitarianism.

fruit market pragueA local market, founded in 1232!

And last but not least…

Charles Bridge prague

The Charles Bridge – the most famous bridge and an iconic sight of Prague, the bridge was practically empty when we ran across. Later that afternoon, it was full of caricaturists, souvenir stalls, street performers and tourists!

We loved our running tour of Prague – if you’re a runner, I highly recommend it! If you’ve done a running tour somewhere, let me know where and whether you enjoyed it!

**This post is not sponsored; we just had such a good time we wanted to spread the word!**

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Three Days in the Dordogne region of France, part 2

burnt out car oradourHello again! If you’re still reading, I’m glad I didn’t scare you away with my last post! But these things happen, right? We have these images in our head about how it will be the perfect vacation, and it’s never quite the same…real life happens instead.  This trip was very different from others I’ve taken, and I ended up LOVING the differences! Because I wasn’t feeling well for much of the trip, and our son wanted to sleep late most days, we ended up moving more slowly than I normally do in Europe.  But it was so relaxing, and I enjoyed it even more than past trips where I’ve put pressure on myself to see more sights.

This time, I still did lots of research ahead of time, but we had a very loose schedule. Each day, we’d meet up with our son for a late breakfast/early lunch, and while at the meal, we’d discuss options for the day and make a plan based on what we felt like seeing that day.

danijela-froki-391486-unsplash.jpgDaily plans always involved cappuccinos!

We only pre-booked two activities, and those were the prehistoric caves with the cave paintings. My husband and son went to the Lascaux International Centre for Cave Art on the day I was sick in bed. They said it was fantastic and the interpretive center was amazing, although the actual cave is closed to visitors, so you walk through a replica of the cave instead. I was sad to have missed that, but on our third day in the Dordogne, we went to Pech Merle, another cave with paintings and a small museum. I studied the paintings in both Lascaux and Pech Merle during an art history class, and I have to say it was incredible to stand in the actual cave itself and see the prehistoric cave paintings from over 20,000 years ago. I thought they’d be faded and hard to see, but they are still vibrant – this was easily one of my favorite experiences of the trip (and probably on my top five list of all my trips to Europe). Pech Merle is very strict about controlling the number of visitors per day, so I highly recommend booking ahead, especially during the summer high season. I booked about three weeks out so that we could get an English tour, as there were only two or three per day. In order to preserve the paintings, they are very strict about no photos in the cave, so I don’t have any of my own to share with you, but you can click here to see some of the paintings

Gouffre di Padirac 2 Part of the underground river at Gouffre de Padirac 

After our tour at Pech Merle, we drove to Gouffre de Padirac, an underground cavern with a river and a lake. We did not book ahead, but were able to walk right up to the ticket window and get tickets for the next time slot. It is super crowded, but the line moves very quickly, so don’t panic if you get there and it looks like there are thousands of people in front of you! They have two options to travel down – you can take a lift (elevator) or hike it down (and back up) hundreds of stairs! We chose to hike down the stairs, after which you walk through the cavern (with an audioguide) until you get to a lake. Then you get into a boat with a guide, and travel across the lake to continue the journey through the cavern. The whole experience is otherworldly – you’re 130 meters underground and walking along a river…it was completely touristy but super cool at the same time (and a great stair workout)!

IMG_1911The stairs at Gouffre de Padirac – but don’t worry, there’s a lift as well!

**Day three in the Dordogne – Skipped my planned morning bike ride because I’d only had one light meal in the previous 48 hours. By end of day could eat normally again…yippee! 10,991 steps for the day, most of them up and down the stairs at Gouffre de Padirac**

Thursday was a travel day…we were leaving the Dordogne and driving to Poitiers to turn in the rental car and take the train to Paris. I FINALLY got to ride my rental bike, but we wanted to stop at Oradour-Sur-Glane on the way to Poitiers, so I rode from 8-9 AM, then turned in the bike and away we went. Added to the list for my next visit – schedule a full day to rent a bike and ride the entire trail, stopping along the way for coffee and lunch!

bike path sarlatThe Sarlat Voie Verte bike path – so beautiful!

Oradour-Sur-Glane is midway between Sarlat and Poitiers, so it made a perfect stopping point to break up the drive. The town lies along the line which divided Occupied France from Vichy France during World War II –  a few days after the D-Day invasion in Normandy, Nazi officers gathered up all the people in town, shot the men in the streets, locked the women and children in the church then burned the entire town, including the church. In all, 642 people died that day (I think only 1 person escaped). As a memorial and a reminder of the atrocities committed by the Nazis, the town has been left as it was the day the Nazis burned it.

church bell oradourThe remains of the church bell…

A new town was rebuilt just next to the old, and there is now a museum as well as a portrait wall with photos of most of the people killed that day. They are still collecting photos and hope to eventually have a photo of every man, woman and child who perished.

portrait wall oradour.JPGThe portrait wall at Oradour-sur-Glane museum; white squares represent victims for whom they don’t have a photo yet…

We spent about 90 minutes here, but could have easily spent four or five hours if we didn’t have a deadline to return our rental car. You first enter the museum, where the exhibits talk about the rise of the Nazi party and the history of the invasion in France. Exhibits educate visitors about other massacres committed by the Nazi’s – did you know that the Nazi officers were never held accountable for any of the massacres that were committed? Then you walk through the portrait gallery into the town itself.

cafe oradourCafe tables and chairs in the ruins of a cafe

Silence is requested, but a hush naturally fell over the crowd as we entered the town. It was hauntingly eerie and sobering to see cafe tables overturned, sewing machines sitting on ledges in houses, and burned out cars parked in the streets. It’s not an uplifting day, but oh so important to remember and mourn.

Have you traveled to any WWII sites? Which ones have you seen? I’d love to hear about your experiences….and as always, thank you for reading!

Three days in the Dordogne region of France, part 1

beynac 2The riverside town of Beynac-et-Cazenac, with the church and chateau perched at the top of the town

Happy Monday all! We recently got home from ten days in France –  this trip marked a transition for me, as it was the first family vacation we’ve taken without our two oldest children, who now work and live in different cities. I think our youngest may have missed the company of his siblings after spending ten days alone with his parents….

Anyway, I’m planning to write a blog post about each segment of our trip, plus a post about driving in France. I also have a few other ideas swirling around in my head, so if you have any questions, let me know and I’ll do my best to answer them!

Early in our trip, we spent several days in the Dordogne region. The Dordogne refers to both a river and a department (county) in the southwest/south central part of France. It’s a beautiful, mostly rural region with small towns, villages, castles, canoeing and prehistoric caves, many with cave paintings from over 20,000 years ago. The river itself is amazingly lovely, with some of the cleanest water in France. The villages rise steeply along the river, and chateaus and castles are dotted along the hillsides.

dordogne river 2The beautiful Dordogne River

We spent four nights at Hotel La Hoirie, just south of Sarlat la Caneda (the main tourist hub, often just called Sarlat), which I chose for two reasons. First, it had air conditioned rooms, and at the time I booked our trip, the temperatures in the area had been in the mid-high 90’s for several weeks (self-knowledge is a wonderful thing…I knew that without A/C at those temps, I wouldn’t be able to sleep and would be a total grump, thus negating the idea of a fun vacation). Second, despite being on vacation, I still needed to train for my upcoming bike tour through the Czech Republic, and the hotel is only one kilometer away from the Sarlat Voie Verte bike path, a 29 km railway line which has been converted into a pedestrian and bicycle route. I arranged a four day bike rental from Liberty Cycle, with visions of getting up early’ish each of the four days and riding 20-30 miles each morning before heading out to sightsee for the afternoon and evening. The path passes through several towns, so my husband and I had even planned to ride together one morning and stop for breakfast along the way.

**You can feel that there’s a story coming, right? RIGHT???**

We arrived at the hotel in the early evening, after stopping to pick up my rental bike. At that point, my stomach was a little upset, but I attributed that to being carsick from the windy roads. The hotel is GORGEOUS – it’s an old thirteenth century hunting lodge, with several old stone buildings, beautiful gardens, a swimming pool, and a restaurant with a lovely outdoor terrace. We had dinner reservations at the hotel restaurant (really good food, if a smidge pricier than other places we ate), so after checking in and dropping our bags in our room, we walked out to the restaurant. Before we even got a chance to order, my stomach started feeling worse, so I left without eating and returned to my room and went to bed.

**You KNEW there was a story coming – if you are easily grossed out, you might want to skip the next paragraph!**

Around midnight, I woke suddenly with that horrible feeling that I was about to puke. My side of the bed was about five feet from the bathroom door…but nope, I didn’t make it. If you’ve ever seen The Exorcist, it was like that – vomit spewed forth all over the floor, the walls, myself, and the bathroom. My husband is my hero…rather than running over to sleep in our son’s room for the rest of the night, he gamely got up and helped me. I think we finally got back to bed around 4 am, after which I fell into a restless sleep.  Once we woke up, my hubby ran and picked up ginger ale, Sprite, crackers and Rice Krispies for me. I slept most of that day…finally dragging myself into the shower around 6 pm, then venturing out to the hotel garden for a brief respite in the fresh air before taking the dirty towels (securely tied up in the plastic laundry bag from the room) to the front desk and trying to say in French “Please throw these towels away and charge them to my room; I was very sick and used them to clean up vomit” (Thank goodness for Google Translate!)

**First day in the Dordogne – no bike ride, no food, 719 total steps for the day, but successfully covered hotel room in vomit, showered and sat in garden for ten minutes before getting rained on**

hotel la hoirieJPGThe one photo I took that day, while sitting in the hotel garden

The next morning, I was able to get up and gingerly participate in the day’s activities, although I again wasn’t able to do my planned bike ride. We drove along the river to the town of La Roque-Gageac (considered one of the most beautiful villages in France, for good reason), where we tried to get tickets for a boat tour along the river. The tours were sold out for most of the day, (the months of July and August are high season) so we jumped back in the car and continued on to Beynac-et-Cazenac.

beynac crepe myrtlesBeynac had the prettiest crepe myrtles!

We were able to get an afternoon boat tour in Beynac, then wandered up the village’s steep streets to the church and the chateau. Once we got back down to river level, we sat and watched the multitudes of canoes heading down the river. Canoeing is a very popular pastime on the Dordogne…if I had been feeling better, I would have loved to float down the river in a canoe, but the one hour boat ride was fun and interesting – the narration was in French, but the guide gave us quick highlights in English and also gave us a copy of the narration in English so we could follow along.

beynac canoersCanoeing along the river is a great way to enjoy the region!

After our boat tour, we drove to Chateau Castelnaud-de-Chapelle, which is a medieval chateau/fortress with a museum of weapons. It was a fascinating look at medieval warfare and I learned lots of details about the Hundred Years War. From the tower of the Chateau, you could see three other chateaus/fortresses – they really could all keep an eye on each other! These are the kinds of things that get the history nerd part of me excited, so I loved our visit here.

castelnaud

For dinner that night, we drove back to Beynac and ate at La Petite Tonnelle. The food was absolutely delicious, the staff was friendly, and we thoroughly enjoyed our dinner on the terrace.

**Second day in the Dordogne – no bike ride, stomach still queasy, ate one light meal, failed to get pics of restaurant, but sat on a boat and somehow managed to survive 12,350 total steps for the day without fainting**

Since I’ve reached 1200 words, I’ll stop here for now…stay tuned for the next installment in the adventure! As always, thanks so much for reading!

A Day Out in Baltimore

water-3199668Photo courtesy of Pixabay

I’m adding a new post to my Wednesday Wanderings series today. For Mother’s Day weekend back in May, I traveled to Baltimore to spend time with my sister, aunt and cousins. All of our mothers are gone, so we spent Friday and Saturday that weekend celebrating the fact that we had, and are, kick ass moms. We laughed, shopped, chatted, ate and just generally celebrated being together for the first time in over a year. On Sunday, I met up with my son and a family friend in downtown Baltimore for a day of exploring. It was such a fun day!

me and boysMe and the boys!

We started late morning at Miss Shirley’s Cafe at the Inner Harbor for brunch. They don’t take reservations, and of course everyone was eating out for Mother’s Day, so we were told it would be a 90-110 minute wait. No worries! We walked a block over to Barnes and Noble, where we spent a lovely hour and a half browsing (and buying) books. I’ve read that due to Amazon, brick and mortar bookstores like Barnes and Noble are in danger, so was happy to do my part to keep B&N alive 🙂 Once our wait was over, we headed back over to the cafe.

Miss Shirley’s focuses on southern food, and does it extremely well. Their menu is extensive, which makes it so very hard to choose. I debated between breakfast and lunch; cinnamon danish waffles were calling my name, but I decided to go with a cup of vegetable crab soup and the jumbo lump crab & corn grilled cheese sandwich. I figured I was in Maryland, so I should enjoy the chance to have crab while I could! I also tried a Shirley’s Crush – the Orange Crush is a Baltimore alcoholic specialty and Miss Shirley’s version was oh so yummy! The service was great and our food was delish; we longingly eyed the dessert menu before deciding that we were just too full to order anything else. If you’re in Baltimore, I highly recommend a stop here for breakfast, brunch or lunch (Miss Shirley’s is open 7am-3 pm). They have three locations, but the Inner Harbor location is handy for exploring the waterfront after you eat!

water-3279614Fells Point – Photo courtesy of Pixabay

Afterward, we drove down to Fells Point and walked around, poking into some of the shops and enjoying the waterfront views. Fells Point is an area along the harbor which was first settled in the 1760’s by William Fell, a Quaker, who built a store here. After the ship yard was established, the neighborhood expanded to include homes, stores, and bars. The Fells Point Ship Yard produced over 800 ships, including the Continental Navy’s first frigates and the speedy “Baltimore Clippers”  (Click here for more details). The area was home to seamen, sailmakers, merchants and sea captains. Now a residential area, there is an open air market along the waterfront that has been operating since 1786. It was also the setting for Annie’s house and the pier where she sits along the water in the movie “Sleepless in Seattle”, starring Meg Ryan and Tom Hanks.

Fells point

One of my favorite activities when traveling is to find hidden, quirky places and things to see.  I dug around on Atlas Obscura and found quite a few in the Fells Point area, so the boys indulged me. “It’s Mother’s Day; we’ll go anywhere you’d like” were their exact words; what great people they are! We found the Fell Family Cemetery, tucked between two townhouses at 1609 Shakespeare St; the “Vote Against Prohibition” ghost sign painted on the side of a building at the corner of Shakespeare and South Broadway; and the Shot Tower, where lead shot was made by dropping molten lead from a platform at the top, forming perfect spheres as it fell into a vat of cold water at the bottom. Built in 1828, the 234 foot high shot tower was the tallest building in the United States until the Washington Monument was completed after the Civil War (for more details, click here)

**Fun fact: Back in the 1910’s-1940’s, companies would pay building owners for the use of their walls, and hired roving street artists, called “wall dogs”, to paint advertising signs on the walls. Now they are fading so have become known as “ghost signs” – there is actually a book titled Ghost Signs: Brick Wall Signs in America**

Fell Family Cemetery

Fell family cemetery 2The Fell Family Cemetery, 1609 Shakespeare St.

IMG_9878 2“Vote Against Prohibition” Ghost sign

shot towerThe Baltimore Shot Tower

That morning, my husband sent me a text, saying, “Tomorrow is our bulk trash pickup; is it okay if I put our living room out?” Yes, indeed, he put the entire living room into the bulk trash…the rug, sofa, two chairs and ottoman included! After our much-loved sectional succumbed to the effects of boy and dog jumping on it, we had cobbled together an old sofa from my dad and a couple of garage sale/discount store finds as a temporary measure while we hunted for new stuff.  Our “temporary” solution lasted four years; my husband decided that putting it all out in the trash would force us to finally get our behinds in motion and buy a new couch. So the boys and I even did a little couch shopping at Su Casa Furniture, a fun and inviting furniture store.

**Three months later, we still don’t have living room furniture, but we have bought a new rug – baby steps!**

old couch with dogThe “temporary” couch – dog approved, but not terribly pretty!

fort-2498672Fort McHenry – take the water taxi out and enjoy the history!  Photo courtesy of Pixabay

The Inner Harbor at Baltimore is a great destination – there are shops, restaurants, free music performances, a huge Barnes and Noble for book lovers, the Baltimore Aquarium, the Maryland Science Center, Fells Point, etc.  A water taxi takes you to various points around the harbor and out to Fort McHenry, bombed by the British during the War of 1812. It was during this battle that Francis Scott Key wrote our Star Spangled Banner; he watched the bombardment from a ship in the harbor. Camden Yards (Baltimore Orioles baseball) and M&T Bank Stadium (Baltimore Ravens football) are very close to the Inner Harbor as well. History, entertainment, good food, sports and shopping; all in all, a fun city in which to enjoy a weekend!

baseball-3363346Camden Yards – home of the Baltimore Orioles.  Photo courtesy of Pixabay

As always, thanks so very much for reading and let me know if there are any places you’d like me to explore and write about!

Serendipitous Detours – Old Sheldon Church Ruins, SC

Sheldon Church Ruins better

Today’s post is the first in a new series – Serendipitous Detours. Have you ever noticed that sometimes the BEST things in life are the unexpected twists and turns? On my first bike tour in 2016, we hit a detour along the path, and it ended up being one of my favorite biking days. We rode extra miles that day, but experienced quiet country roads, lovely little villages and even found a WWI/WWII cemetery that looked like it was just a place where a battle took place and the dead were buried right there.

Sheldon Church gate good one

While on a road trip, I love to find quirky, cool places to stop. My family has come to expect this from me (as they get older, they appreciate this talent of mine more); they either tolerate or enjoy my finds depending on the day and the place. Register Cliff, in the southeast corner of Wyoming, is one of my all-time favorite road trip finds. Originally a stop on the Oregon Trail, thousands of travelers stopped to camp and carve their names into the cliff as a remembrance. In one spot, you can see where three generations of one family passed through; the Unthanks engraved their names in 1850, 1869, and 1931. If you ever drive through Wyoming, I highly recommend a stop; it’s not far off the route from Rocky Mountain National Park to Mount Rushmore.

Sheldon Church Side view good

Last weekend, moseying home along I-95 from a week in Florida, I made another such serendipitous find; the Old Sheldon Church Ruins. Believed to be the first building in America built to resemble a Greek temple, and originally named Prince William’s Parish Church, it was built in the 1750’s, and burned by both the British during the Revolutionary War and the Union Army during the US Civil War. All that remains today are Greek Revival columns, walls & scattered graves amongst noble live oaks dripping with Spanish moss. As Lt. Governor William Bull paid for much of the church, locals gave it the nickname “Sheldon Church” after the Bull family’s ancestral home in England.

Sheldon church graves with spanish moss

Today it is owned by St Helena’s Parish Church, and members of the church can get married in the ruins (think Ross and Emily’s wedding from Friends). It’s open from dawn to dusk for visitors. These evocative ruins are just ten-fifteen minutes off I-95 from exit 35 or 33 in Yemassee, SC (depending on whether you’re coming from the north or south). Three picnic tables are tucked off to the side, and in a cooler, less buggy season, the ruins would make an amazing lunch stop, although there are no restroom facilities. I wandered about for 20 minutes or so, but then the bugs drove me back to my car (if you plan to stop in the muggy summer months, bring bug spray). Even so, I quite enjoyed reading the gravestones scattered about and taking photos from every angle. Sharing the spot with only two other families, it was blessedly peaceful and atmospheric. If you are ever passing by (it’s not far from Beaufort), make the time to explore!

Sheldon church baby grave

I’d love to hear about your roadside discoveries! Leave a comment below and let me know about your favorite places!

Lessons learned from my first (and tenth) trip to Europe, part 3

IMG_7692Sydney Opera House at sunrise

Hello and happy Friday! I hope all my USA readers had a Happy Fourth of July. This is the third and final installment in my “Lessons I’ve Learned from Traveling” series – I’d love to hear if you’ve enjoyed my stories! If you missed the first two installments, read them here and here!

Make jet lag work in your favor – When we traveled to Australia, our body clocks were all messed up.  We took advantage of being wide awake at 5 am and scheduled an early morning backstage tour of Sydney Opera House. My daughter, who is a stage manager, loved getting a peek at the backstage workings and hearing the stories of things gone wrong during shows. It was a great chance to experience something I normally might miss. On a normal day, I never see the sunrise; but seeing sunrise at Sydney Harbour was spectacular! If you know you’ll be awake earlier than usual the first day or two of your trip, make full use of those mornings to enjoy sightseeing with fewer crowds or to schedule a special tour that you wouldn’t otherwise consider.

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Shoes must be comfortable – If you’ve ever gotten horrible blisters on the first day of a trip where you are walking 10-15K steps a day (or more), you’ll understand this one! When forced to choose, prioritize comfort over style – sometimes you can find the holy grail and get shoes that are comfy AND cute, but sometimes you have to settle for shoes that are cute ENOUGH in order to get comfort, which is key. I have learned through trial and error to always pack blister bandaids, moleskin (pack scissors or precut pieces sized for heels and toes) and a pair of flip flops. 

Try to learn a few basic phrases in the language – Anywhere I’ve traveled, people have appreciated my efforts to say “Hello” “Please”, “Thank You”, “Where is the toilet”, “May I have” and “Where is” in their language. Even when I butcher it, I laugh and smile and try my best and generally get smiles and help in return.

**When traveling by bike, I also learn “Please help, my bike is broken”!**

IMG_2340Our hotel room in Austria

Beds may not be what you expect – In some countries, you will get a bottom sheet and a duvet, with no top sheet on the bed. I’ve found this particularly in the Germanic speaking countries. You will also sometimes get two twin beds pushed together for a double, with a space between the two mattresses which can make it hard to cuddle if traveling with a significant other.

Yes, we have no bananas – Many hotels with a breakfast buffet in Europe have stopped serving bananas. I’ve been told this is because Americans take them for later in the day. In Europe, hoteliers generally expect that you will take what you need for that specific meal, not stash extra food for snacks.

IMG_7961Making memories!

Pictures of you and your travel companions will provide better memories than pretty pictures of landmarks and scenery – so make sure you get pics of yourself and your loved ones!

Currency – the best place to get currency is the ATM at a bank. I used to always get cash at the airport ATM’s, but lately the airport ATM’s seem to be connected to the currency exchange booths (which are horrible places to get money) so I’ve started bringing a small amount of the local currency from home. I generally bring enough to get me from the airport to my hotel, plus the price of one meal in case I want to check in and eat before finding a bank. Another tidbit – when given the choice between paying in dollars or the local currency at a store, choose local currency for a better exchange rate.

IMG_1636One of my favorite restaurants in New York City

If you find a place you like, make a note of the address/location so you can go back – This lesson was reinforced  for me on our last trip, when we spent several hours wandering around Venice looking for a restaurant that we thought was “right around the corner” from our hotel! Try to grab a business card or jot down the address when you find a place you like, to make it easier to find if you decide to go back.

Always carry your hotel name and address with you – So you can show it to a cab driver or use the street name to ask for directions if you get turned around in a new city.

IMG_8416First time in first class!

Don’t fly 17 hours straight in coach if you can help it – three years ago, we flew from Dallas to Sydney (17 hours nonstop) in coach, and I will NEVER do that again – it was absolutely miserable! We broke the flight up on the way back into 8 and 9 hour flights with an overnight break in between…so much better!

IMG_2161Windows that open are a wonderful thing!

A/C is not as prevalent in Europe as it is in the USA – If you are traveling in the summer, and air conditioning is important to you, make sure you confirm that the hotel you are booking has air conditioning. Also, in winter, many hotels and restaurants will have the heat blazing. In your hotel room, you will sometimes have a radiator which is adjustable – on our last bike trip, my friend spent an entire night hot and uncomfortable, only to find in the morning that her radiator had been on full blast all night long!

IMG_2412Who says you can’t spend an afternoon reading at an outdoor cafe?

You don’t HAVE to spend every waking minute sightseeing – it’s perfectly valid to sit at an outdoor cafe and read for an entire afternoon. I’m just saying – it’s YOUR vacation, so do what makes YOU happy!

Keeping a trip journal is so worth it – even if you just make short notes about best/worst thing each day, where you ate, etc. I used to try to write several pages each night, but found that impossible to maintain; so now, I jot down best, worst, good restaurants, best quotes, funniest mistake, etc. Super quick notes but they are so fun to look back on and even short notes jog my memory!

Be wary of over scheduling – Try not to jam pack your itinerary. Traveling between attractions will take longer than you  think, and you may not have as much energy as you anticipate. If you’ve been moving a mile a minute and just can’t stomach one more museum, change your plans and sit at a cafe for an hour instead. Allow time for bathroom breaks, coffee stops, and spontaneity. I like to travel slower than some…I break my schedule into morning, afternoon and evening segments, with only ONE planned activity per segment. I do, however, jot down lots of notes about nearby sightseeing options in case we have extra time.

 

Rental cars are usually manual – When renting a car, you must request an automatic if you want one and it will often cost extra. And not all manuals are created equal; I once got stuck in a rental car lot in Pisa because the manual I was driving had a funky trick for getting into reverse! Don’t be afraid to ask for help from the rental car attendant. When driving, it’s also nice to know the city names along your route, as road signs in Europe often point toward towns rather than route numbers.

IMG_2216 (1)This detour sign led to a great day – and gave my blog its name!

Above all, roll with the punches and be flexible – You WILL experience frustrations, hiccups, and giggles. My husband and I stayed in a hotel in Heidelberg where the light over our bed fell down on us, so we slept with our feet at the head of the bed and our heads at the foot of the bed. We’ve gotten parking tickets because we didn’t understand the payment system and the signs. We‘ve made five circles through a roundabout because we couldn’t figure out which exit we needed to take. I told a policeman at the Eiffel Tower “I have a little stink” when I was trying to say “I speak a tiny bit of French”. But if you think of it all as a grand adventure and bend to accommodate these unexpected hiccups, you’ll end up with great travel stories and meet amazing people along the way.

**As my dad always used to say when things went wrong…”we’re making memories!” Here’s wishing you incredible memories!**

 

Lessons learned from my first (and tenth) trip to Europe, part 2

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Thanks to everyone who liked and commented on Part 1 of this post! It was great to hear your thoughts…I’d love to hear what you think of this next group of life lessons!

For those of you who may have missed part 1, I’m posting lessons I’ve learned from my travels, whether my first trip to Europe or my tenth. I’ve made lots of mistakes over the years…I’m sharing them here so you can avoid them!

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There are times when the best decision is to throw money at the problem and make it go away – you will invariably run into problems that can be easily solved with a reasonable amount of money.  In my last post I mentioned that my husband and I spent 24 hours in Germany not speaking to each other; we got into a HUGE fight over the 5 euro charge for the funicular at Heidelberg Castle. I was exhausted and did NOT want to hike up the 315 steps to reach the castle; my husband said there was NO way he was paying when we were perfectly capable of taking the stairs. Guess what happened? We hiked the stairs, and I was so exhausted and mad by the time we got to the top that I didn’t speak to him again until we were at the airport the next day! On the flight home, we realized I should have paid the 5 euros and met him at the top, but in that moment, we were SO tired that our brains were not working correctly. Our fight also illustrates that “reasonable” means different things to different people. When I went on my bike trip across Austria with friends two years ago, we discussed this issue ahead of time. And after two days of biking in second-day stinky biking clothes because we hadn’t found a laundromat after six days of searching, we decided it was worth the 75 euros our hotel charged us to do an overnight load of laundry. Was it a lot of money? Yes.  Would we rather have found a laundromat and done it ourselves? Yes, of course, but we split the cost three ways and felt SO MUCH BETTER with clean bike clothes! With no laundromat available, it was our best option at that moment. We made the decision and moved on with no regrets.

**for more topics to discuss before traveling with friends, read this post**

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Don’t be afraid to split up – My husband and I don’t spend 24/7 together at home, but when we first traveled, we stayed together ALL. THE. TIME. Over the years, we have gradually come to the realization that because we have different interests (plus I need alone time to rest and recharge), there are times when it just makes sense to split up for an afternoon.  Florence Nightingale was my childhood hero, so when we went to London, I was super excited to see the Florence Nightingale Museum. My husband had zero interest, but wanted to spend more time at the Imperial War Museum than I did, so I went to the Florence Nightingale museum alone and met up with him a few hours later for a quick look at the highlights of the Imperial War Museum. 

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When walking alone, listen to your gut – You know that gut feeling that something is not right? Maybe the hairs stand up on the back of your neck, or you get a weird feeling in the pit of your stomach? LISTEN TO THAT FEELING!!! On my way to the Florence Nightingale Museum, I walked through a slightly sketchy area of London. I was on an empty street when two men came up and started walking behind me. The hairs on the back of my neck stood up, and I got a VERY strong feeling of danger. Luckily, there was a convenience store on that block, so I dashed in and stayed there for several minutes. I told the clerk about the men and that they gave me the creeps; he helped me check to make sure they had gone before I continued on my way (looking back, I should have called a taxi to get the rest of the way to the museum, but luckily, I had no further issues). That’s probably the most scared I’ve ever been when traveling. Sometimes we (women, especially) discount that feeling, thinking we are just being silly, but I’m a firm believer in listening to your gut!

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It’s amazing how much you can communicate with smiles, nods and pointing – My aunt mentioned this one, and she was so right! My favorite travel stories are of people we’ve encountered along the way, like the man who came up to my husband in Salzburg and commented on the fact that my husband was wearing shorts and a winter coat in December. We understood nothing he said except “lederhosen” and “BRRR”, but when he wrapped his arms around himself and faked a shiver, it was obvious that he thought my husband was a little nuts for wearing shorts! In Berchtesgaden, we stayed at a Bed and Breakfast run by a husband and wife who spoke almost no English. Despite this, we were able to understand the directions he gave us to the Berchtesgaden Salt Mine, through gestures and pointing left and right. A smile and a nod, along with a quick game of charades, can get you a long way!

Most people are basically helpful (except for the ones who are trying to scam you) and how to tell them apart – Over and over again on our travels, my faith in the goodness of people has been reaffirmed. When our rental car broke down in the Lake District of England, our  Bed and Breakfast host drove us a half hour to the train station. When my friends’ luggage got lost as they were about to start a 100 mile hike along the West Highland Way, their Bed and Breakfast host took the hiking boots off his feet and gave them to Jeff to use until Jeff’s gear arrived. We have experienced countless examples of kindness, but have also been the victims of a few scams. How do you tell them apart? Scammers will usually approach you in a busy tourist spot (train station, ATM, crowded plaza, etc) asking you to sign a petition or hand your money to them as they ‘help” you. A favorite scam at a train/metro station is to offer to buy the tickets for you at the ticket machine. The scammer wants you to give them your money and they will buy you the one week pass, for example. When in reality, they buy you the one-ride ticket and have just made a profit.  **Someone who is truly trying to help, however, will usually just point to the right buttons on the ticket machine and let you do it yourself.**

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We learned the hard way to be particularly wary when the currency is unfamiliar to us, and to NEVER let a stranger give you change at the ATM. In the Czech Republic, where the currency is the koruna, a man came up to us at the ATM and offered to make change (the ATM’s there spit out 1000 koruna bills). He gave us two 500 unit bills, which turned out to be Hungarian currency and worth WAY less than the 1000 korunas we gave him. But the money was very decorated and unfamiliar to us, and we were busy trying to get to the airport to go home, so we didn’t realize the switch until later.  We also learned not to sign any “petitions” in touristy areas. We did ONCE and congrats, you’ve just given your email, name and address to scammers who will then send you “phishing” emails and steal your credit card number!

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A bottle of wine, cheese and dessert on your balcony can be dinner – Some nights, we’re exhausted after a long day of sightseeing. Other times, we’re traveling with a pretty strict budget and choose to spend it on activities rather than food. For whatever reason, we are perfectly happy picking up a bottle of wine, some cheese and bread, and a small dessert at the local market and having a picnic dinner on our hotel bed or balcony. You can find really fresh ready-to-go meals in the local supermarkets and save tons of money on food – we also love exploring the outdoor produce markets for fresh fruit.

I still have a long list (it’s amazing how many things I thought of once my mind got going), so part three will be coming soon! In the meantime, I’d love to hear from you! Drop me a line in the comments section below and let me know which of these resonate with you! And as always, thanks so very much for reading….

Lessons learned from my first (and tenth) trip to Europe, part 1

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My daughter and her boyfriend went to Barcelona this week, and were surprised to find that their AirBnB rental had no air-conditioning. Even though they live in Miami and are used to the heat, they still had a hard time sleeping at night without the comfort of A/C or even a fan. That got me started thinking about surprises I’ve encountered and lessons I’ve learned while traveling. On my first trip to Europe, for example, I was flabbergasted to find that our bed and breakfast in England’s Lake District did not supply washcloths! When we asked for one, we were told that in Europe a washcloth is considered a personal item. Who knew?? I certainly hadn’t seen that information in any of the dozen guidebooks I had combed through before our trip. For me, discovering the differences between cultures and countries is part of the fun of traveling. Some of the lessons I’ve learned, however, have been about myself and what I need to make a trip enjoyable. And while I’m certainly getting better at it, I still learn something new on every trip! So without further ado, here is a random list of lessons I’ve learned during my years of travel; which has become such a long list that I’m going to split it into multiple parts. Check back over the next couple of weeks for the rest of the list…

An adapter and a voltage converter are NOT the same thing – A plug adapter only makes it possible to plug your electronic device into the wall socket; a voltage converter adapts the current from 110 (which the USA uses) to 220 (which Europe uses). Luckily, most phones, tablets and laptops are dual voltage these days, so if you’re only bringing these types of electronic items, chances are you won’t need to bring a voltage converter. If you are traveling with a single voltage electronic item, you will need BOTH a voltage converter and an adapter.

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Don’t bother bringing a single voltage blow dryer or curling wand/straightener – I read this advice online, but didn’t heed it, and learned firsthand how accurate it was when I fried my curling iron in London, even with a voltage converter. **how many of you are out there raising your hands right now in “fry the hair appliances” sisterhood?**  I have since invested in a dual voltage curling wand, one of my best travel-related purchases. I never bring a blow dryer from home, however, as most hotels supply them these days.  When I stay at a place without a blow dryer, I let my hair air dry and then just use the curling wand to fix any funky spots. I know many women just let their hair do whatever it wants while traveling, but my hair has just enough wave to get all frizzy and funky without a little help, and I do like to look pretty in my travel photos!

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Logistics are stressful – This, I think, is one of the major reasons people sign up for guided tours. Navigating your way around a country when you don’t speak the language is harder than I anticipated. I once spent a day on my own in Germany where ALL of my plans went awry due to the difficulties of figuring out logistics in a foreign language.  That day deserves its very own blog post, which is coming soon, but remember to allot extra time and patience when trying to figure out train schedules, subways, airports, ticket machines,etc. I never schedule any fixed activities on a day when I’m transitioning from one location to another anymore, as I’ve missed a few due to transportation delays. When all else fails, it is worth every minute you stand in line to get help from a real person!

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Do whatever it takes to get enough sleep – I am constantly reading statements like “you can sleep when you get home – you’re in Europe so make the most of every moment”.  I learned the hard way that this rule does NOT apply to me! If I don’t get the sleep I need, neither I nor my companions will enjoy the trip; just ask my husband! We once spent our last 24 hours in Germany not speaking to each other because we were so exhausted we had hit the wall and got in a huge fight over 5 euros. I cannot rise at dawn and spend an entire day sightseeing; I need to get a solid eight hours of sleep to be pleasant company and enjoy myself. I may see fewer sights each day, but I thoroughly enjoy the ones I do see. If you know you can’t function well without sleep, do whatever it takes to get the sleep you need, whether that means taking a 20 minute power nap on a metal folding chair in Westminster Abbey or going to an air-conditioned movie midday so you can rest (and nap, if you’re like me)! A well-rested you will enjoy the trip way more than an exhausted, cranky you!

Don’t pre-book too many activities – On my first trip to Europe, I had our entire itinerary planned out ahead of time. I laugh now when I look back, because we actually only saw about half what I had planned. Again, logistics came into play; it took longer to get from place to place on the tube than I had anticipated, and we were tired from navigating the city and being on our feet all day, so often didn’t have the energy for the night time activities on my schedule. On our last night in London, I had booked tickets to see The Gypsy Kings in concert at Hampstead Heath. The tube in London was not air conditioned, and we were tired and hot when we arrived back at our hotel after a full day of sightseeing. With only a 30 minute window to freshen up and change before getting back on the (non-airconditioned) tube for the 90 minute journey out to Hampstead Heath, we ended up staying in and having a picnic dinner on our bed, losing the money we spent on the tickets. Now, I choose carefully when pre-booking activities.  Some attractions, like the Vatican Museum or the Anne Frank House, are absolutely worth booking online ahead of time, as they have super long lines all the time. But I try not to book a night activity unless we’ve got a light day of sightseeing and can plan some rest time during the day

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This is just the beginning…I’ve got enough material for at least two more posts! How about you? What lessons have you learned through travel?  Do you have great stories from a time when something went wrong?? Leave a note in the comments section and I’ll include your tips in my next post!