Reflections on the past few months

From Larry

New Years always brings resolutions and thoughts of the past year.  Mostly my posts have been dry and fact filled about places , so I thought I would write a bit from my heart as the year ends.

I would like to start with observations – not Seinfeldish , but my own strange brand.

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Really ?

This is probably not a road sign you will see in the States, but we saw several in Croatia.

Musings on Airbnb which we have used about 80 % of the time:

-when the listing shows a picture of a  clothes dryer the vast majority (95%) in Europe refer to solar-powered not gas/electric. (outside clothes lines usually off balconies of apartment buildings everywhere)

-washing machine cycles take about 3 hours – not very eco-friendly,

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Define free parking

-‘free parking’ usually means a space on the street if you can find one.  Our most recent host said ‘no one ever gets a parking ticket’ – just our luck but he agreed to pay it for us

Amenities that are not accurate and one of my favorites – Luffa towels that make a low budget hotel look like a 5 star.  Fabric softener just isn’t used often.

Lack of wildlife as we hike in the woods – I miss hearing small animals rustling the leaves. The flip side is the lack of roadkill.

Off-season traveling and the closure of some attractions . Flip side is shorter lines at the open ones we want to see and towns with walkable streets as opposed to crowded ones in the summer.

Language – trying to read instruction/directions on packages. They are printed in many languages, just not English.

Driving as a tourist can be a challenge with not understanding road signs and GPS .  Still have not figured out the difference between bear right and turn right.  I will endeavor to be more accepting of out-of-state drivers when I return

Gratitude

Sitting on a cliff-side terrace and seeing the endless view of the Mediterranean or Adriatic seas.

Being able to live a dream and have it better than I imagined.

Spending New Year’s Eve in a place I have never been to before and getting a 6 hour jump on EST.

Experiencing a different lifestyle and attitude and looking to do things differently when this adventure ends.

Having our son manage our affairs and allowing this to happen.

Not watching live TV and see the endless bickering of a Presidential election year.  We get the sound bites only when we go on the net to get news.

And finally and the most important,

Doing this adventure with my best friend, sharing the experiences and living 24/7 with amazing results.

Wishing everyone a healthy and happy New Year and try a new adventure you haven’t done before!

 

 

 

 

 

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Our Final Days in Europe–For Now!

From Sandra

We had a beautiful 10 days on the Normandy Coast of Northern France in the lovely coastal town of Courseulles sur Mer.  We were a 5 min walk to the beach and the Airbnb apartment overlooked the harbor.

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View from our balcony in Courseulles sur Mer

The Normandy  Beaches are best known as the site of the WWII landings which began the fall of Nazi Germany.  There are several well known beaches:  Gold Beach, Sword Beach, Omaha Beach and Juno Beach.  We visited most of them but the most moving was Omaha Beach where the Americans landed.  Nearby is also the American Cemetery where we had a great guided tour and it is a beautifully well-done tribute to our fallen soldiers.  Since my father was in WWII, miraculously survived the Bataan Death March and 4 years as a Japanese Prisoner of War, I was especially moved by these tributes.

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Memorial Statue to those brave soldiers who stormed the Normandy Beaches

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American Cemetery in Omaha Beach on the French Normandy Coast

You can spend many days exploring the beach front memorials and many museums honoring D-day.  These are mostly located in small coastal towns but also in Caen and Bayeaux – 2 interior towns just off the coast.

Our 10 days was beautiful with mostly good weather.  Of course, I also enjoyed my passion of shell collecting.  We found each town ,and their respective beaches, catered to a particular type of shell from lady slipper shells to scallop shells.  The beach of scallop shells was such an amazing site and totally a feast for the eyes with millions (no exaggeration) of scallop shell tops and bottoms washed along the beach.

tons of colorful scallop shells that defy description

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Of course, I collected too many and shipped them home                                                                     and hope to spend hours enjoying crafts

We left the coast and headed to Paris to spend our last 5 days.  Unfortunately, Paris was very cloudy and rainy during these days and actually the worst weather we experienced on our 4 trips to Paris during these 9 months.  Not a total washout but always cloudy and often drizzly.  We subsequently learned of the big flooding of the Seine which crested after we left.  The cloudy weather gave us an opportunity to explore some different Paris sites we had’t seen.  We went to our first movie theater and learned there are so many theaters which show movies in English.  We also explored the George Pompidou Center which luckily had a special Klee exhibit which we thoroughly enjoyed.

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Samples of some of the beautiful Klee artwork

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We purposefully made the departure plans to include spending my birthday in Paris on the day before we left.  We returned to a restaurant, La Coincidence, for my birthday dinner which we had been to before and is one of our favorites.

Amazingly, we were able to return with the same luggage (a shoulder bag and small carry-on suitcase) that we started with.  I admit we did ship a box back with our winter coats and some winter clothes so it did free up space.

Our trip back from Charles de Gaulle Airport to Charlotte was 8 1/2 hours of flying time –so long but uneventful.  Getting from Charlotte back to Asheville unfortunately took another 8 hours with our original flight canceled due to a mechanical problem and the second one taking over 45 min on the taxi-way in Charlotte before we even got to the runway to take off.  Thank goodness all flights were safe and we are glad to be back on US soil!

On my return, I was able to follow through with my plan to donate hair to Locks of Love.  It isn’t much but 8 inches to hopefully help someone else feel beautiful during their time of illness.  My new short hair feels weird but actually nice for the hot summer ahead.

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I don’t think even one day of this 9 months went by without my conscious gratitude for this opportunity of a lifetime and the many family and friends who helped to make this a reality – we can’t thank you enough!  So too, we experienced great ‘luck’ or Universal support for learning to ‘go with the flow’ and many other spiritual experiences, having really no catastrophes and experiencing overall good health and the stamina required to fully enjoy a trip of this nature.

I don’t know how we will react to being back home without the constant exploration of new people and cultures but I know that for a while I will certainly appreciate my family and friends – and my own bed!!

Thank you to all of you who read our blog and supported our efforts with loving feedback.  We will sign-off for now but hope to venture again and continue to share our explorations!

From Larry

Well said from Sandra on Normandy.  Chilling to look at some of the landing spots from the German positions and understand why the landing was so bloody.  Seems like every town has their own tank and anti-aircraft gun in the square.  The museum at Caen was the best and if you do just one, see this exhibit. The area is also known for ciders and Calvados, which I personally thought was an acquired taste.  Also, we had a daily fresh fish market where we stayed ( reminded me of Greece ).

We did run into the French gas refinery strike which caused a shortage of supply and long lines as well as limits of 20 euro worth of fuel – for those who remember it was a 1973 experience again.  We did manage to leave Paris just ahead of the Metro, train and air controller strikes.

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Here is a shot of the Seine well before the peak, but on the way to flooding. The tree is usually about 3 ft above the water and there are many more steps that are underwater.

Nice to be back to the familiar and right on red lights, but I so miss those round-abouts – LOL.  Look forward to seeing friends again and sharing a bit of our experiences.  The gratitude of being able to do this trip is a constant reminder of how fortunate we are.

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Winding Down

From Sandra

Sorry we haven’t written in many weeks.  It has been busy with lots of travel and a family visit.  Since leaving Poland, we have traveled to Scandinavia:  Copenhagen, Denmark, Stockholm, Sweden and Oslo, Norway.  We expected Scandinavia to be expensive and it didn’t disappoint.  The toll bridges from Denmark to Sweden were almost 100E!  What was disappointing was that these Countries were fairly vanilla and nothing much outstanding. The people, of course, were nice but no tall nordic blondes!

The city we liked the best was Oslo in Norway.  A beautiful city right on the water (fjords) with long pedestrian walkways and a nice mix of modern and old.  The most amazing was visiting the Vigeland Sculpture Park.  The park has hundreds of statues featuring the theme of human emotions  in bronze and marble sculptures all created by one man.  It is a fantastic Park and one not to be missed.  One of my favorite places in the entire trip.

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The Vigeland Sculpture Garden was an amazing place with all of the sculptures done by one man. A must see on any trip to Oslo!

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An amazing obelisk of sculpted bodies

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Beautiful fjords within Stockholm

We had really done so well planning this trip with a flexible itinerary that allowed us to be impulsive and see many off-the-beaten path sites.  When we decided to return to the States 3 months early (June instead of the end of August), we revised our itinerary and cut Norway short and we couldn’t get to the western coast to see the fjords.  Very disappointing because we hear they are beautiful but just couldn’t juggle the time.  We had been to Alaska and heard the glaciers and coast much the same but still wanted to see them.  Oh well,  maybe a reason to return.

We did have a great time visiting Amsterdam and the nearby Keukenhof Gardens.  One of my bucket list items was being in The Netherlands in the Spring  to see the tulips and it was truly gorgeous.  Keukenhof is in Lisse about 30 minutes from Amsterdam.  The acres of Gardens are only open 8 weeks a year just to host thousands of tulips of all kinds.  We did submit a story for the Summer issue of Plough to Pantry Magazine on the tulips and our visit which will come out in July.   We also saw mind-blowing windmills and drove by lots of tulip farms. Most of the old windmills are now used for primary homes – so very cool.

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Amazing hybrid tulips that don’t even look real but are!

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Windmill amidst a tulip farm

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Of course, we took the City Walking Tour which included the Red Light District and discussions of the many marijuana ‘coffee shops’.  The town is full of canals which makes it lovely to walk around but a bit dirty and crowded – and we weren’t even there in tourist season.  We loved visiting the Van Gough Museum and Anne Frank House/Museum.

From there it was a short stop in Luxembourg and on to 5 days in Paris with our guests.  Having lived there for the month of September when we started our trip, it was really fun to show off the city we have gotten to know so well.

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Luxembourg City on the River

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Ramparts in Luxembourg City

We enjoyed a stop in Reims and had several Champagne House tours and tastings.  I never liked champagne but realized it is only cheap champagne I don’t like!!  We discovered a great chocolatier who handmade the most amazing salted caramel chocolates which, of course, went well with champagne.

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An afternoon break enjoying Champagne and handmade chocolates and macaroons

Did a stop in Frankfurt and we found a city we actually disliked.  Naples in Italy and Frankfurt in Germany – really nasty cities which we wouldn’t recommend to anyone.

We are now back in France for 10 days in a lovely apartment right on the harbor and 5 minute walk from the Normandy coast.  Beautiful beaches, full of shells (my personal favorite), and a seafood market every day selling fresh fish from the mornings catch.  Hope to slow down and start getting our heads around returning to the States at the end of the month.

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many vendors pulling fresh fish from their nets to the tables for sale

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Paella loaded with seafood for 7E a plate is almost street food!

From Larry

It has been a packed last few weeks- many miles and some 6+ hour days in the car to cover the ground we needed to go from place to place, but worth the drive for the experience. As Sandra mentioned, Scandianiva was an area we had never been to before and one we may never return to.  Our first stop in Denmark was Copenhagen after an overnight in Delve Germany on a dairy farm.

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our farm stay and some of the 40 cows 

Copenhagen is known for several things – Tivoli Gardens, Hans Christian Anderson , the really over-rated small statue in the harbor, and the less well known Freetown Christiania Green Light District where the cops have a tolerant attitude towards hash and pot. Christiania is in the center of Amsterdam but has declared itself a separate ‘town’ within and has its own liberal views, especially on pot.

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The sign re-entering Amsterdam from Freetown Christiania -Enough said about the green light district

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okay here she is – Copenhagen’s famous Little Mermaid on a rock

Stockholm has the Nobel Museum, the home of Raoul Wallenberg , a nice waterfront and some cool parks with the cherry trees in bloom.  Nothing much special.

Oslo was our favorite with an Opera House roof you can walk on and a great waterfront, a Viking Museum, and a cool downtown with pedestrian areas.

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A restored Viking ship that was found in a marsh as a burial site

The Netherlands was an incredible blend of Windmills , tulips and a vibrant city center that is wide open with restaurants and ” adult entertainment. ”

Sorry to rush through these countries, but most of these countries were somewhat lumped together in our memories.

From Scandinavia we went back through Germany to Amsterdam and picked up our two guests for the next part of the trip.  One thing about Germany I will miss are the Autobahns – going 120 mph and being rapidly passed by Audi and Mercedes cars.  I did see a Corvette that must have been doing 150 mph as well as a bunch of 197-era American cars still on the road ( a reminder of our military presence in Germany ). Where we had the time, we took country roads and enjoyed the farmlands covered in bright yellow rapeseed  (used in making Canola oil).

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Acres and acres of Rapeseed make a gorgeous countryside

We are now in Normandy and will be seeing many WWII sites and eating as much fresh seafood as we can.  Being connected to Asheville and the States via the web, we have been hesitant to reveal we are from NC.  We have had a number of comments about NC’s HB2 and why people want to regulate bathrooms.  I do not want to get political, but want to share the following picture I took this week as a reminder that Europeans are astounded about our State’s conservative actions.

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And this is only where there are separate facilities – most are unisex and are quite normal

Hope everyone is enjoying Spring.  Life is good!

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More Germany and Poland

From Larry

Our travels continued east through North Germany to Poland.  Our first stop after getting the new vehicle was Cologne with it’s magnificent Cathedral that survived the bombs only because the airplanes could use it as a ground marker.  I had an enormous sausage in a restaurant that is famous for it’s 3/4 meter (27″) sausage.  It was good, but I still long for something as flavorful as an Italian sausage with fennel and anise.

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From there we went to Berlin which is a more modern city and lots to see.  The history of the city after the war is pretty amazing – from Checkpoint Charlie to part of the Wall separating East and West to memorials of the war. We also saw where Hitler’s final bunker was and I was pleased that it was not marked – just an old Communist era sandy park stuck between apartment buildings.

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Gotta love this piece of the Berlin Wall. Nice lip lock Gorby.

After Berlin we went to Dresden – a beautiful city that was needlessly bombed toward the end of the war. There was no industries supporting the German war effort, so it remains one of those why questions.  To their credit, the city was re-built in the style pre war and one can see the old (blackish) construction mixed with the new (white).   The river area was one of the best of these 3 cities.

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Heavily re-bult Church of Our Lady in Dresden

Poland has been an insightful part that started in Munich with the rise of the Nazi Party and ended with the close of WWII.  Krakow is a lovely city with some old and some new.  A still standing Jewish Ghetto and an old town that was not totally destroyed.  We did a day trip to Auschwitz/Birkenau which really brought the last month or so to smack me with the reality of the inhumanity of our species.

Our guide was explaining some of the things the Germans did to get the Holocaust victims to be submissive – not only the random executions and vicious dogs, but subtle things as selling nonexistent land plots for “resettlement ” .  Like P.T. Barnum and W.C. Fields said, yes a sucker is born every day, but Goebbels and the rest of the Nazi’s carried this inhuman torture of the Jews and others to places I personally find impossible to imagine. Walking on the same path in Birkenau that over 1,000,000 walked to the 4 gas chambers there gave me chills and really pulled together all of the feelings that had been bubbling under the surface for weeks.

This leads me to Warsaw where in touring the Jewish Quarter, our Free Walking Tour guide brought us to the bunker at Mila 18 which is where the end of the Jewish Ghetto and the uprising occurred .  I remember reading the novel about this many years ago and feeling the desperation these people faced and how proud they must have felt to strike back at those who expected no resistance.  I used to think that the Jews and others did not resist enough and were complacent, but after seeing and hearing so much, I now realize that the deception, fear of reprisal of have your entire family executed for helping hide a Jew helped the Nazi’s pull off this genocide.  Thankfully the world only allows for much smaller genocides these days ( Bosnia , Africa etc ).

I hope the saddness I have been experiencing will recede after we go to Lithuania tomorrow – the country where my Mother’s family had lived since the 1600’s and most likely all perished in the war.  On a nice note, spring has arrived with temps above freezing and the trees all budding out.  Spring is renewal for all things.

From Sandra

As Larry said, Cologne is a small town with a magnificent cathedral.  We have seen many but it is amazing that these smallish towns have these very large UNESCO sites.

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Cologne Cathedral

With the recent bombings in Brussels, I was a little trepidatious about going to a big city such as Berlin but really wanted to see a city with so much history.  We have walked through so much ancient history that going to Berlin was a chance to visit something so meaningful and personal to my generation.  I was just a youngster when the Berlin Wall was erected and JFK made his stirring speech so this was relevant history to me and I was very excited to see it.  We were in Berlin over Easter weekend and the City was packed.  The City is a beautiful mix of old and new but the new buildings speak to the modern, thriving city Berlin has become.  So many Wall photos we have taken and Larry put up one iconic one above but here are a few more to share.

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Berlin wisely chose to keep many parts of the original Wall documenting the feelings of Berliners through amazing graffiti.  We made a special off-the-beaten track venture to East Berlin to visit the longest saved section of the Wall where artists have tried to capture the mood through some beautiful graffiti.  It was a very moving and special day.

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IMG_4100The Berlin Wall speaks to a city divided, families torn apart and another opportunity for human cruelty.  Learning the history of the families affected was really moving and characterized another sad time in history.  Berlin is chock full of historical sites in addition to the Wall:  Brandenburg Gate, Jewish Memorials and, of course, beautiful churches and large pedestrian walking plazas.  I was very impressed with Berlin and found  it a great city to visit.  We found no foundation to possible fears of unrest in Berlin and easily navigated the crowds and historic sites.  This Easter weekend (March 27) was European Daylight Savings time which was surprising that it is 2 weeks after US Daylight Savings time and I never knew that the clock-turning happens on different days in different parts of the world.

Dresden is an absolutely beautiful city.  The Old Town is breathtaking with so many historical buildings and Palaces located in one place.  Would totally recommend a stop here if you are touring Germany.

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In the photo above, you can see the porcelain bells by the clock.  Nearby town of Meissen is the home of porcelain (another lovely town we visited) and the bells in this photo were made in Meissen for this Palace.  Hearing the porcelain bells is like hearing fairies singing (or at least what I would imagine them to be).  A beautiful experience amidst a phenomenal setting!

From Germany, we were excited to explore more of Eastern Europe and on to Poland.  We have really enjoyed visiting Eastern European countries, an area of the world neither of us had been to.  In general, these countries are bustling with young people, food is very good and inexpensive and the locals are friendly and welcoming.  Krakow was a beautiful city (I know I say that a lot but I have run out of words to describe how beautiful European cities are).  We see sites everyday that are older than US and existed way before we were discovered and it never gets tiring.

Participated in 2 free walking tours:  the Old Town and the Jewish Quarter.  In preparation for the Jewish Quarter which contained Schindler’s Factory which is now a museum, we watched the Schindler’s List movie.  Between Germany and Poland, we have been immersed into WWII and the Nazi Movement history so it has been an emotional several weeks.  The Schindler Factory/Museum is very well done and highlights the risks taken by a very few to assist the Jews during the War.  Krakow has many museums and memorials to share their part in WWII.

Krakow also has a very interesting history in that the new city is built over the old city.  We visited ‘Underground Krakow’ which was a fascinating travel back in time to see how the city had been rebuilt on top of its former self.  Again, a city with so many large pedestrian plazas and, of course, the home of Pope John Paul II.

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Wall art in Krakow

Continuing our exploration into Nazi history, we spent a day in Auschwitz/Birkenau.  It was a gut-wrenching emotional day.  On entering Auschwitz, you could almost feel the sadness of the souls which were subjected to such extreme cruelty.  It was sobering to walk the very paths these poor souls (and probably some members of our family members) walked and see the conditions under which they existed.  We took a 3  1/2 hour guided tour and were only one of many tours throughout the day.

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Entrance to Auschwitz

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In some way it is gratifying that so many will take this tour and hope it will insure that this event is never being forgotten and never repeated.  We can only wonder how different the world may have been if these millions had survived.

Warsaw is a very bipolar city:  beautiful glass and steel skyscrapers and plain concrete Communist buildings.  It was almost entirely destroyed during WWII and so it’s rebuilding started with the Communist occupation which followed the War.  Communist buildings are square, grey concrete blocks with small windows and no embellishments.  They are ‘functional’ but make for a very plain and unattractive city for the most part.  There are very few ‘original’ buildings in the Old Town but some rebuilding did try to replicate previous structures but not enough to rescue the town architecturally.  That said, it is still a very nice town.  Today we visited the giant  Lazienki Park  for a day off from touring sites.  A beautiful Park where the European red squirrels will eat right out of your hand.  The red squirrels had been very elusive until today and they are just the sweetest little things.

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Additionally, the Park is home to some peacocks which will let you get very close and are use to people.  Knowing their mean nature, we didn’t try to feed them!

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Traveling has its downside with rarely seeing a familiar face.  We have been fortunate to meet up twice with folks we met during one City Walking Tours and seeing them again in our next city.  We have met Matt, from Australia, in Krakow, Warsaw and he will also be in Vilnius, Lithuania, our next city.  We have made plans for dinner and so fun to be able to say ‘see you again soon’!

Traveling has been such a personally expanding endeavor.  We have become writers, we have lived with very little and actually enjoy it and have met wonderful people and hopefully new friends.  I highly recommend it!!

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Germany Continued – 7 Months

From Larry

Funny how things seem different years later.  The Black Forest, in my memory bank, was more mountainous and less populated.  I can understand the population increase, but how did it get so flat and agriculture based? LOL  Actually, when we took a day trip to Freiburg on the Black Forest RR (a great deal as all trains and buses are free to tourists with a pass from their lodging host) we did go through some mountains and saw the snow we expected.

Strasbourg is a lovely city just across the Rhine from Germany.  The Cathedral of Notre Dame is breathtaking in its size and workmanship.  If you have seen the Glockenspiel in Munich, pass on the 1pm clock show here.

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Notre Dame Strasbourg

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Inside Notre Dame

We went to Triberg and saw the fantastic waterfalls and the  ‘home of 1000 cuckoo clocks’. We took a tour of the castle and Old Bridge as well as taking a long hike above the river in Heidelberg.

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Lower Triberg Falls

 

One thing I have longed for in the food area has been flavorful sausages – so many are variations of what would be an American hot dog.  I keep trying, but have not reached Nirvana .  The one below in Cologne was at least interesting – 30″ long.

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A picture is worth a thousand words

We also went to Metz and Nancy France .  Metz to get rid of the snow tires and Nancy because it is a lovely city.

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One of the beautiful fountains in Nancy’s main Square

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We worked our was back to Paris on the 22nd as the lease on the Citroen was up and we picked up our 2nd new car of this trip.  We went for more this time – a Peugeot 308 with the upgraded options.  Leather wrapped seats, a cup holder (only one for the driver in Europe) and the best electronics I have seen – front and rear cameras and a speed control that automatically slows the car down when you get too close to the one in front.  If this was sold in the States, I would buy it.  As we headed back into Germany and the Autobahns, I just had to see how it handled and it did not disappoint – rock solid at over 100 mph (165 kph) and quiet.  What a difference from the previous car, our Citroen, when 140 kph shook the car.

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Hot stuff

As you will read later in Sandra’s post, we have made some changes for our safety and are not pushing our luck.  More on that later.

From Sandra

We returned to Southern Germany where Larry and I went almost 32 years ago on our honeymoon and purchased a ‘real’ Black Forest Cuckoo Clock which we recently had repaired.  Seems a good investment as they have definitely increased in value plus they are just so pretty.  We home-based in both Heidelberg and Freiburg both near the Black Forest and did several day trips.  From Heidelberg we drove to Stuttgart to visit a couple of sites.  First was the Mercedes Museum which was about 6 floors in an ultra-modern building of sleek stainless steel, funky lighting and lots and lots of old and new Mercedes vehicles.  Surprisingly, it was a really nice morning spent learning of Mercedes (actually from the Daimler Company and the name of the first customer’s  daughter) that merged with Benz and the name of the car was kept.  Also interesting to learn of the participation of both Daimler and Benz factories  in using ‘forced labor’ from the concentration camps and the restorations they made and admitting that it was a dark stain on their history.

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After that it was on to the Schwein  Museum for all things piggy.  It turned out to be a huge disappointment!  It was several rooms of pig-related items that someone could have gone to a thrift store to collect and display.  Oh well,  all museums aren’t winners but a nice day trip anyway.

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actually one of my favorite paintings in the Schwerin Museum

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Of course, the proverbial ‘if pigs could fly”

Another day trip was to Rottweil since our son has a wonderful Rottweiler dog and we promised to go.  It was actually a very nice small town with an interesting old town center and churches, of course, and nicely paid homage to the breed.

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The official statue in the town square with its nose gleaming from visitors rubbing it for good luck

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Many other statues dotted the town and this one decked out for winter

Our next side trip was to Strasbourg, France which was just a 30 minute trip over the German border.  This turned out to be another one of our favorite towns.  Just beautiful with a human-scale downtown, lots of canals running through the town and a big University population.  If we were to live in France, it would be tough for me to choose between Strasbourg and Paris – which is saying a lot since I love Paris but Strasbourg is in a great location close to Germany, Switzerland, Italy and more.

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Larry detailed other day trips but we really enjoyed ourselves in Southern Germany.

We did return to Paris (makes me so happy!) to return the car.  Because we needed parking, we ended up staying about 20 min outside of Paris (by train) in Chantary-Malabry.  Nearby was an amazing Parc Sceaux which was an unbelievably large Parc with a palace, of course, acres of manicured gardens and 2 beautiful canals that ran the length of the park with several statued fountains and cascading falls.  This was such a gift that we spent hours walking.  The gardens are so well used by locals walking dogs and so many joggers of all ages.  Europeans definitely do more walking on a regular basis.  We did go into Paris for the day and it was nice to have a real sense of location and community after living there for a month in September.

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Parc de Sceaux

I am definitely getting homesick especially for my Mom.  She is 92yo and although I Skype with her regularly when my son visits with her, I am painfully aware of her age and health and want to return soon to be able to spend more time with her.  I love traveling and plan to do much more but probably in smaller 1-3 month chunks versus the 9 months we will spend on this trip.  No regrets and a great experience and so proud of what we have been able to accomplish with relative ease but family and friends are important too.  With the terrorist attacks, more painfully aware of how life can change in minutes and so shorter time away from family and friends may be a better balance.

ITINERARY UPDATE

Just 2 days ago, Brussels sustained 2 bombing attacks in the airport and a metro station.  That same day our itinerary took from Paris through Belgium to Cologne, Germany.  We saw escalated Police presence at the borders and struggled with the randomness of the attacks.  During our time in Europe, we have been nearby where the attacks occurred  but thank goodness never in those towns at the time of the bombings.  This has had us rethink staying too long in Europe and chancing the good luck we have had.  Our children are coming over to spend a week or two with us the beginning of May and they felt adamant about not canceling their trip.  We did, however, cancel the days visiting Brussels and switched to Luxembourg just to keep a distance from Brussels in turmoil.  We have also decided to return another month early and will be back the beginning of June instead of July.  This means our “Year in Europe” is now down to 9 months but we feel we have had a wonderful time and still over 2 months to go.  We can always come back for 2-3 months and certainly plan to do so but feel it might be best to return home now and hopefully Europe will achieve some kind of peace so that the residents can again enjoy a safe and happy life without fear of random acts of terrorism.

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Breaking New Ground

From Sandra

We had a lovely 24 hours on our Car Ferry from Greece to Venice, Italy.  The car ferry is no cruise ship but a very basic smallish ship which carries lots of semi-trailers and cars and then has 2 floors of cabins and a main lounge area with a bar and restaurant serving a buffet for breakfast, lunch and dinner.  With a propensity to get very motion sick, I was a little trepidatious  about these 24 hours but I took about 3 Bonine (motion sick pills) over the 24 hours, slept a lot and felt fine and the trip saved us about 4  days of driving back over countries we had already traveled and hotels, meals, etc.  Well worth it and a fun, different experience.  We have had lots of different transportation opportunities:  cars (2), trains, car ferry (2), funiculars (cable cars), metros (subways), buses and more!

We hadn’t planned to go back to Venice as we had already been there a few years ago but since the ship docked there, we did spend a couple of days.  Not much had changed but our stay was not as impressive as our first visit and prices were high and for February, there were a lot of people.  The town is still very beautiful and unique with over 400 bridges creating the unique network of canals which which connect the many islands that make up the area of Venice.

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Vaporetto boats in the canals are used like buses to get around Venice.

Our drive from Venice to Salzburg, Austria was stunning.  We had our mud+snow tires and the Italian Alps transitioning to the Dolomites (Austrian Alps) were beautiful snow covered huge peaks of this rugged mountain range.  It was neat to see the transition to small Bavarian villages, ski towns and lots of snow with clear roads over very high mountain passes often times closed for snow but luckily not this year.  We have been so fortunate that Europe has had a warmer winter this year allowing us to travel throughout the northern Countries without a problem for the most part.  Salzburg is the ‘Home of the Sound of Music” where it was filmed which gives you some idea of the amazing terrain surrounding Salzburg.  While the ‘home of Mozart’, it was just a nice town to visit and pretty unremarkable except for a castle on the hill overlooking the town.

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Stunning snow-covered Dolomite Mountain Range in Austria.

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Salzburg Castle

Our drive from Salzburg to Munich, Germany (Bavaria as locals make it clear it is not really Germany which it is but they identify as Bavarians) was made on a snowy day – our first but just flurries and flat land.  Munich was a really nice city.  We had a great 3-hour  Walking Tour in the snow but a great intro to the depth of history in this city – Birthplace of the Nazi Movement.  Hitler was actually Austrian but changed his citizenship to Germany as he rose to power.  We learned a lot about the Nazi Movement and visited Dachau Concentration Camp which Larry will share about further.  The main plaza, Marienplatz, has the famous Glockenspiel clock that does a show everyday at 11am and 1pm.  Of course, Munich is the home of beer (Octoberfest!) and below is a photo of one of the prettiest and oldest beer halls in Munich.

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Hoffbraus House Beer Hall

From Munich we headed to Eastern Europe to Budapest, Hungary. We had never been to Eastern Europe and so this is breaking new ground for both of us.  Budapest is a wonderful city with Buda and Pest on opposite sides of the Danube River.  Another Walking Tour (cold and rainy) was wonderful for an overview of how the 2 cities became one and the different flavor of each.  It is an easily walkable city and we had a great Airbnb right in the heart of Pest.  The city is young and vibrant with restaurants and bars everywhere.  There is a new wave of ‘ruin bars’ which are bars operating in literally buildings that were considered ruins but the young entrepreneurs have fortified the buildings for safety and furnished them with thrift store finds so they are eclectic and funky.  There are now 14 in Budapest and all the rage.

IMG_3666         Decor of the oldest and most famous ‘ruin’ bar in Budapest called Simpla

IMG_3677Buda and Pest separated by the Danube River

We drove back to Austria via Bratislava, Slovakia and had lunch so we can now add another country visited.  I had heard so much about Vienna and was really excited to visit.  I have to say it has been disappointing.  We visited the Schoenbrunn Castle and gardens but while nice not spectacular.  The Old Town is a mixed architectural style with some very pretty older buildings but overall the town is very commercial and an unpleasant mix of old and new that don’t really fit well together.  Of course, getting the opportunity to visit Vienna is extraordinary and I am grateful for the time but do like some countries and towns more than others.

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St. Stephens Basilica in Vienna with its beautiful mosaic tiled roof

Continuing our Eastern European Tour, we are now in Prague, Czech Republic.  It is a big city but the Old Town is beautiful.  It fortunately didn’t receive much bombing during WW I & II and so the original old buildings stand and are just amazing.  Again, big pedestrian walkways, nice people and good food.  Good exchange rate and we had a nice time.  We actually ran into a person who was in our Budapest walking tour and happened to be in Prague and in our Walking Tour there too.  Strange to run into a ‘friendly face’ while traveling but she said she went to Vienna and left early to come to Prague because she didn’t like Vienna either.

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St. Vitus Basilica in Prague- stunning from the 14-15th centuries.

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One of 14 bridges which cross Prague

Prague has many beautiful churches, the Astronomical Clock and unique buskers just to name a few interesting sites to see.  We took a 1/2-day trip to Kutna Hora to see the Unesco Bone Church.  This is a very old church that was decorated with human bones.  There are more than 40,000 bones in this church and we learned this wasn’t an unusual practice but a bit macabre.

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This was supposed to be a respectful way to honor the dead!

Need to be in Paris on the 22nd to turn in our current car (can only keep them for 6 months at a time) and pick up a new one for the remainder of our trip.  We are getting a little bigger car since the kids will be visiting.  In between now and then, we will be touring Germany more in-depth which should be fun.  Going back to southern Germany where we will revisit The Black Forest which is where we went on our honeymoon (30+ years ago) and purchased a ‘real’ cuckoo clock.  Should be fun!

UPDATE:  I did get the name of the lovely flowering tree I posted in the last blog from my daughter, who is a great researcher.  It is called an Angel Trumpet Tree and there is also a similar Trumpet Vine, both of which can be bought online.  They are beautiful and I think I will order some for my home garden when I return.

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Angel Trumpet Tree in Greece

From Larry

I agree with Sandra about Venice being different from 4 years ago when we were here last . We had this great memory of a seafood salad we ate, found the same place, and it was not as we remembered.  Oh well, the Rialto fish market was still spectacular and we both got a Murano glass memento.

Our next stop was Salzburg, Austria and our ” Bavarian ” tour.  Nice city, nice fortress but not necessarily on our top 10 list. We did start to experience winter with snow covered roofs and flurries to see as we walked around.  Interestingly, the US is getting a worse winter than this part of Europe which normally has several feet of snow on the ground and temps below freezing.  On the drive from Italy to Austria, we did go through some mountain passes where the roads were clear and the ground covered with several feet of snow (and happy skiers).

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On the drive to Munich there were flurries but nothing that caused concern with driving.  We have noticed that the truck drivers are extremely professional and polite – wish that was true in the States. They pull right so cars can pass and do not ride the left lane unless they can pass another truck quickly .  Munich during WWll was destroyed by over 75%.  To its credit, the city was rebuilt in the architectural style as pre-war.  I am going into a different tangent for the rest of my part of this post as we have been in an area of Nazi roots and rule and it has sort of hit me with the realization that this was not only history, but history in my lifetime.  Hitler got his start in Munich and the City has acknowledged its part in this history.  They have a wonderful museum called the Documentation Center which was built on the site of the ” Brown Building ” – the main building used by the Party at its inception.  The museum is four floors and covers from the end of WWl to the end of of WWll including the area’s long history of supporting the Nazi movement.  Add to that a series called ‘Hitler and the Nazi’s’ on Netflix that we watched and our visit to Dachau Concentration Camp and it has been a sobering several weeks.  Seeing places in Munich in person that were in the Netflix series and the video clips in the museum was eye opening – Beer Halls that were the Nazi favorites, paths where people did the Nazi salute or be arrested by the Gestapo etc.

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Main gate at Dachau – Nazi Humor for camps. Ironic that this is not the original – it was stolen several years ago

What is interesting is that the average German bought into Hitler’s hate- like what he was saying about why Germany was in economic free fall, why the German’s were superior etc . According to the video interviews most people thought he was a fool and would never be a problem – they did not count on his ability to influence and intimidate through violence and terror.  We watch current American political news and can’t help but draw some parallels to what happened in Germany and Europe.  I will end it before I get into politics.

Budapest is a lovely city that made us feel really comfortable with its vibe and history.  Unknowingly, our Airbnb was in the old Jewish Ghetto/Quarter which is the ‘happening’ part of Pest.  So many restaurants and bars in the area that served great food and drinks for reasonable prices compared to Italy, Austria and Munich.  Budapest also has rebuilt in the old style before the bombing, but has been hampered by being under Communist rule since the end of the war.  The food and pastries were wonderful as was the exchange rate.

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Budapest Opera House – one statue of many that have interesting female forms

Like Sandra, I was not impressed with Vienna as there are too many new tall buildings in areas where 16th century four-story  buildings would be more architecturally pleasing.  The statues there were well done – I especially liked the lion below.  Sadly, the best food we had was in an Asian Fusion restaurant with an incredible teppanyaki grill with 4 different kinds of squid, fresh scallops in the shell and loads of other goodies.

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St. Augustine Church in Vienna

Thankfully Prague has been more of what we seem to find enjoyable in the Eastern European cities with great buildings in the Old Town and a vibe that seems to resonate with us.  The local dishes have been better than what we found in Austria, so no more oriental dishes for us.  We haven’t seen Buskers for quite awhile and Prague had around 5 in the main square with this being the most interesting and mind boggling. Couldn’t figure this one out.

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We need these guys in Asheville

We now head to the Black Forest area of Southern Germany – home of great smoked meats and cookoo clocks as we wind our way back to Paris and a new Peugeot.  By that time the Citroen will have passed 22,000km in 6 months – a testament to our many travels.

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Sadly leaving Greece

From Larry

What a difference from small towns a big city (Athens) in which 50% of the entire population of Greece lives – 5 million people. Our AirBnB apartment was well located and a 25 minute walk to most of the ruins. On our way into the city, we changed tires on our lease car from summer to M+S (mud and snow) as we figured Karpenisi might have snow and several countries we are heading to require them from mid-November to mid-April (we also have tire chains which are required in the Alps ). We now have no back seat – just 4 tires occupying space until we swap out the car at the end of March. Thankfully we were able to find used snow tires with great tread and will maybe get back some of the expense when we take these off.

Back to Athens – did I say ruins earlier ?  These were some of the best preserved treasures we have seen so far.

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Acropolis

 

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Parthenon

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Old Temple of Athena

These were just the ones on the top of the hill, in the main city were many more that kept us going for a couple of days. We left Athens on a Thursday to head to Delphi and once again our timing was spot on.  Friday Athens was shut down by protests that lasted until Sunday.  Strange to be eating in a restaurant in Kalambaka watching live reports on the protests.  The streets were shut down and occupied by huge John Deere-type tractors and maybe thousands of protesters.  This was the second weekend in a row that Athens was shut down and we were so blessed to be in and out between them.

After Athens we did a quick one-day stop in Delphi.  The Oracle of Delphi, for a quick history lesson, was where the female priestesses were located and they supposedly predicted future events after getting delirious ( mushrooms ? Cannabis ?).  It was a great museum, but after Athens the ruins were just ruins ( yes we are getting a bit jaded ).

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Delphi’s best ruin

We were scheduled to stay 2 nights here, but we opted for an extra day in Meteora which turned out to be another great decision ( see Sandra’s comments below).

Sandra will also share about Karpenisi but my feelings on this place gives me a greater appreciation for how people can be so warm, friendly and sharing.  I am happy that there is such a connection between where I live and this lovely little mountain town.

From Sandra

Sadly we are coming to the close of our time in Greece (7 weeks).  We have just fallen in love with the friendly, strong, opinionated and warm people of Greece.  Visiting Athens – a very large city, we have learned that we find more comfort in smaller towns.  That said, Athens does have an amazing amount of ruins from the 4-5th Century BC so worth the stop.  Delphi was a quick stop and on to Kambaka/Meteora.  This is an area 4 hours north of Athens in the mountains of central Greece.  Meteora is an exceptional place topographically and very spiritual as well.  Hundreds of years ago, sandstone pillars mysteriously jutted up from the valley floor only in this area of Greece and it became a location for over 30 monastery/convents.  Today only 6 remain active (4 monasteries and 2 convents).  Amazingly, they were built on the very top of these sandstone pillars where their intentional isolation provided safety from the myriad of Byzantine, Turkish and World Wars that followed.  Today the six are all operational with some only having a single  priest/nun in the entire building and at the most 10 occupants for the largest structures.

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Holy Trinity – over 200 stairs to reach

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Two of the Monasteries perched on cliffs

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Beautiful sandstone towers

Our second day there was cloudy but what a gift in the scenery of the clouds swirling below the monasteries and into the valleys.  The rocks, the clouds – just an amazing spiritual experience.

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Hard to believe it is real

Because they are on rock pillars, the monasteries are very difficult to visit.  Most require climbing hundreds (over 200+) stairs along with steep ramps to get to them but it is so worth it.  One of them was used for the James Bond film “For Your Eyes Only”.    We are so glad that we included Meteora on our itinerary and was well worth the stop.

After Meteora, we travelled to our last Greek town, Karpenisi, which happens to be another Asheville Sister City.  It is way up in the mountains of central Greece and because there was a lot of rain the previous few days, the small mountain road was littered with rocks.  As Larry said “The road to Karpenisi is paved with fallen rocks”.  We had to stop several times for me to get out of the car to move the rocks off the road so it was clear enough to drive around them and continue our journey.

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the mountains in Greece seem shale-like and break off in pieces all the time falling on the road making them often impassable.

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Hard to tell but these are good size rocks!

Asheville has a large Greek population and many of these families have roots in Karpenisi.  We are doing another article for the Asheville Citizen Times on this second Sister City (first was Saumur, France).  Some of Larry’s friends from the Greek restaurant business in Asheville assisted us with setting up an interview with the Mayor.  We got lost trying to find Town Hall and the Police kindly gave us a police escort to the building!  Lovely interview and then the Mayor assigned one of his staff for the afternoon to take us around to several sites:  2004 Olympic training village, honey producer, meat processing plant, WWII museum and then bought us expressos and talked more about the area.  We shared gifts with the Mayor we brought from the Asheville Chamber and some restaurant              t-shirts, etc.  Again, a lovely town with lovely people.

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Karpenisi nestled in the mountains

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view from our apartment of the mountains surrounding Karpenisi much like our Blue Ridge

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Mayor Nikolaus Souliotis

In 1991, Karpenisi was named a UNESCO Research Area as it is considered “a top area of the world for environmental cleanliness and the cleanest area in Europe”.  It represents  the ‘basis for research measurement as it is considered to have a zero pollution rate”.  It calls itself ‘an authentic place to live’ and it is just a beautiful town nestled in giant         fir-tree forests.

The topography of Karpenisi is much like Asheville with forests, rivers and mountains.  The area is known for skiing in the winter and hiking and rock climbing in the summer.  They also have mountain bike routes, rafting and canoeing.  An unusual Asheville similarity is that they also have trout farming and honey production.  Lovely downtown area where the town has cobblestoned the roads, reduced traffic to one lane and widened and bricked the sidewalks.  Inviting pedestrian walkway – something Asheville would benefit from.

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Beautiful mosaic downtown plaza with cobblestone and brick pedestrian walkways

The climate is also similar, however, this year they had no snow and are traditionally a BIG ski center.  We traveled up to the ski area on Mt. Velouchi (6550 ft where Mt. Mitchell is 6684 feet) but the facility was completely closed.  It has actually been in the 70s since we have been here and hard to believe it should be quite snowy with an active ski area.  This continues to economically hurt an already depressed local economy.

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Inactive ski lifts on Mt. Velouchi

We returned to the trout farm after our tour and purchased 2 fresh trout for dinner raised in the cool, clear mountain springs throughout Karpenisi .  We also had fresh sausage for dinner the night after we toured the meat processing plant.  Can’t get any more fresh or local than this.

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Trout Farm designation

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Freshly-made smoked sausage

Their mountains are a bit higher then ours and not so softly rounded but you can easily see why Greek families moving to the US chose Asheville as their destination.  We have truly made friends in Greece and especially Karpenisi.  We have invited several folks to come visit and we hope they do so and we can show them our fair city.

We are leaving Greece and heading back to mainland Europe via a car ferry and will be sailing for a full 24 hours docking in Venice, Italy.  We will truly miss Greece as it has been a spiritual, emotional and very personal part of our trip.

Identification Help

We came upon this most amazing tree in full bloom in early-February in the Peloponnesse area of coastal southern Greece.  It was so beautiful and wonder if anyone knows the name of this exotic tree specimen?  Thanks for the help.

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know this tree??

 

 

 

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On the road again

From Sandra

Well we are at our last day in Kiveri, Greece in the Peloponnese region.  Below is a photo of our apartment for the last month.  Below the apartment is a lovely little cove with a cave where we go to stroll and shell.

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This is our apartment in Kiveri and below the lower area are steps leading down to the sea below and our lovely little cove!

This vacation from our vacation has been a delight.  We were in such a great location to see so many sites on day trips:  Olympia, Mystras, Sparta, Monenvasia,  Epidarvoros, Corinth/Acrocorinth, Nafplio/Palamides and we even took a ferry to the Greek Island of Spetses –  all delightful and more than we can detail here.

One of our most memorable trips was to the ancient city of Mystras.  We again climbed tons of steps as everything is always on a hill – of course, the most defendable sites for a castle.

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One of the many ancient Greek Orthodox churches still standing in Mystras

The area between Mystras and Sparta is an olive growing and processing area.  We love to learn and have become olive lovers!  Hard to know which are better between Spanish or Greek olives but I have to say that I am still partial to the Spanish olive – processed without much vinegar, larger and more mild.  Nonetheless, we never miss an opportunity to learn and explore.  Visiting 2 olive processing plants was a blast.  The first one was a bit older with older equipment but the owner gave us a tour.  They are actually one room processing plants with lots of big equipment.  The owner gave us a large bottle of just processed oil as a parting gift.  The second processing plant was much more modern with new equipment.  We arrived when the plant was processing so we got to see the olives being processed and pure olive oil coming out from the spout — just amazing.

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The olives are washed and macerated for about an hour to separate the oil from the meat and stones (pits)

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Fresh olive oil coming from the olives being processed above — pure liquid gold!

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The oil is then poured into tins for consumers or clients.

Everybody has olive trees (and orange trees for that matter) in their own yards.  The processing plant will take individual clients olives and just process your oil for you and you know it is just from your personal olive trees.  Most households plant at least 6 olive trees so they can get enough of their own oil to use throughout the year until next season (Nov-Feb).

Indulge me for one more time to speak of the sad and hungry dogs of Greece.

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My favorite male hound puppy in Mylio.

This has been my favorite puppy to feed.  Sadly, you can see the hip bones and shoulder blades of a starving dog.  He has been so sweet and appreciative .  We finally did see a mom and her 5 puppies the other day wandering around Mylio and was also able to feed them too.  They were all adorable and I would have taken them all home — Larry is really glad I can’t.  I am now labeled the Dog Feeder of Mylios/Kiveri.  I hate to leave them and it is with great sadness.

Another sign of the economic times is the 2 strikes we have experienced which have shut down the roads in Mylio – a main thoroughfare in this area – to the north to Argos/Corinthos/Athens and south to Tripoli/Sparta.  The roads are blocked for hours by very BIG tractors that the local farmers drive into town and block the streets.  This is all done with Police assistance and support.  The people of Greece are so angry about their economic situation and strikes and blockades are not unusual and last 3-4 hours!

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Tractors blocking the streets Mylios.

It has really been great having the opportunity to stay put for the month in Greece and we have gotten to really know the area, culture and its people.  We will miss the sea and coastal living but have so enjoyed our long coastal walks along the sea and shelling we do almost daily.  I am shipping pounds of shells back (I know crazy)so I can do crafts but mostly enjoy the memories of our european coastal experiences.

We are ready to get back on the road again back to more intensive sight seeing now that January (hopefully the main cold month) comes to a close and will head to Athens, Delphi, Meteora and Karpenisi before taking a car ferry from Greece to Venice, Italy where we continue our mainland touring.

Can’t resist sharing one more sunrise with you –  enjoy!!

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From Larry

We have had more Greek salads in a month than 20 years of eating at Apollo Flame . LOL  What I will miss perhaps the most is fresh orange juice every morning – non-processed and just off the tree is incredible.  We buy them for  a euro a kilo (2.2 pounds) of fresh oranges at the produce stands right outside the groves and there is a juicer at the apartment.  A screwdriver has now become Sandra’s favorite cocktail.

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One of thousands of orange groves

As the Italians are known for Sambuca, the Greeks are known for Ouzo.  We visited an Ouzo distillery named Karonis in Nafpilio that is on the 5th generation of making an incrediably smooth spirit.  We got an education on the process and the way the locals drink it – with a splash of water at meals or on ice in warmer months.  Similiar process as we saw in France with the Absinthe and Triple Sec although Greek law only allows 90 Ltr lots to be made at any one time.  The owner (Yannis) and his wife (Metexia) were wonderful to give us a private tour and spend over an hour with us.

For our last lunch by the water, we went to a fish-only restaurant near the docks today and decided to try Red Mullet . The fish is a very popular Greek dish was lightly fried instead of our usual grilled.  It was mild and just delicious as you can see by the collection of heads, tails and bones.

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Red Mullet caught within hours of being our lunch.

I think we waited too long to snap a picture.  The fish here is not what we get in the  States, no snapper or grouper.  We did pass on the “bait fish ” (what the owner called some smaller white-flesh fish), but the table next to ours ordered some and ate the entire fish as we would eat a french fry – heads and all!

As Sandra said, our month of relaxation has come to a close and again we hit the road for 3-4 night stays.  The south of Greece has been lovely but we are looking forward to resuming our journey.

Note:  Itinerary Change

We have decided to cut our year’s travels 2 months short and will return to the US the beginning of July.  We had planned to return the car at the end of June since we were going to explore the UK, Scotland and Ireland and didn’t feel comfortable driving on the wrong side of the road.  However, there are family issues to consider and we can do a separate trip back at a later time to cover these countries.  Our children will be coming in  April to visit us for 10-15 days and we can’t wait to see them.  We are really comfortable cutting the trip short and look forward to seeing family and friends a bit earlier.

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