The Perfect Stranger

Readers have observed I post more pictures of strangers I meet on trips than my family. It’s true. I love my perfect strangers, because that’s what they are: perfect. When one is on the shores of Scarborough asking for local insights from the owner of the pub, or sitting on the boardwalk of Bellagio, chatting with a Russian transplant about the best gelato for the cheapest price I get the happy, helpful, always-answer-with-a-smile person. Beyond the effervescent personality, it’s the attitude of: I’m living where I want, doing what I want, and here you are, interested in everything I have to say, hanging on every comment I have to share.

In other words, we are having a short, mutual and very strong love-fest. It’s fleeting, as by definition, all love-fests should be, ending before we delve into topics sure to end our affair: politics, race, religion, the standard three, but oh, so many more exist. (How many tourists are too many? Do certain demographics spend more or less? Should (and can) the world support any more children? Messy topics sure to destroy the honeymoon stage of a new acquaintance).

During this last trip, I met so many more people that I neglected to snap photos, mostly because I was so wrapped up in the conversation we kissed cheeks and parted…and like the forlorn lover, I was left waving, my lips agape….. “Wait! I need a phot—” then Rog would stop me and mutter. “Oh, for heaven’s sakes, let it go, already.”

The world represented

I have Svetlana from St. Petersburg, Russia, who was spending three months with her art gallery manager boyfriend. She will be remembered for her amazing skin, bright smile, and our mutual agreement on the all the purveyors of gelato, as in: who sold the most, and the best for the least. Hence, why we were both in line at one particular shop.

Then we have Neal, owner of the Candy Confectionary store on the corner (it’s such an establishment it doesn’t need a name other than Candy Confectionary) at what must be the best, prime real estate on the entire Boardwalk. While we chatted him up, his wife (she with the longest nails ever) and his daughter were in and around, stocking the shelves, deciding what to order on the next go-around at the marketplace, he gave us the history of York, (founded by the Romans in 71 AD), also known as the Chocolate City (true story, look it up) conveying we absolutely, positively, must visit.

In between, he must have discerned we were homeowners, because the conversation digressed into what he’d paid for his place, what he could sell if for and how much he’d lose moving to York due to the inflated prices. “But oh,” he groaned, “I would so love to move there!” He was, and is, a big, bear of a man I just wanted to hug—which I did!

At the base of Schloss Hohenswangau and Neuschwanstein sits a little town, and in it, we met, a Tony, a software engineer from China, employed by Dell, and based in New York. Talk about a roundabout way to end up in the Bavaria region of Germany.

He was joined by his wife and son, spoke better English than many of my friends, and we got to chatting because he didn’t know German (perhaps the one thing he didn’t know). We helped him out and over plates of schnitzel we discussed his love of all things American.

In Hungary, we walked around th block from our apartment and found Robert Maar (the store) and had no idea we were actually talking to THE Robert Maar. We felt so uncomfortable and were going to leave but then he told us what a “custom” garment in Hungary means (versus New York or Paris). What started with a simple, wonderful conversation about food ended up in a new wardrobe for Roger and two pieces for me. Only after we’d been in Budapest a week did we learn Robert is famous around Europe for his designer clothes that dress the celebrities in most of the countries. Blind luck on our part, and completely fantastic, more so because Robert was kind, gracious and ever so patient with us, the completely ignorant Americans. Love him.

Outside Verona, we happened by a three-story bed and breakfast of Locanda di Capitelli located at the base of Castle Suave, overlooking a valley of vineyards (can you already picture a scene in a book? I know I can). Once Rog was assured we were welcome no matter how casually we were dressed, the gracious hostess Julia sat us by the fireplace, and over the next two hours, go to know her, her mother and grandmother, all owners of the venue, a local winery and foodstuffs.

By the end of it, she was trying to convince Roger to invest in a new US-based restaurant that she could conveniently run. Her mother squished us with hugs and smothered us with kisses as grandma retired upstairs to bed (thus dodging the photo opp).

Outside Prague, at Czesky Krumlov (the town and castle) we dined with Tai, the chef of our favorite waterside restaurant, ordering not one, but two crepe deserts because we didn’t want to have a mortal stabbing fight with forks. What better compliment can be bestowed on food than that?

Perhaps the favorite meeting of strangers were a gaggle of girls preparing for wedding festivities on the shores of Lake Cuomo. We’d arrived early at the ferry line, and as Rog was flying his drone above and to the island of Bellagio 2 miles away, I watched as a dozen gals took turns taking pictures—invariably leaving one of them out. Porsche nudged me. “Mom, go take pictures. Help them out.” Me, she of the shameless and helpful, promptly stood and offered to snap group photos. Thirty minutes later, they have become the adopted, older, Indian sisters my girls have never had. They insisted on taking pictures of with my girls and me—thereby requiring Rog to come over and become lead photographer.

Different and Divine

Indian, Russian, English, Czech, Italian, German and Chinese…and so many more. I sorry I didn’t immortalize the helpful German man who saw we were stranded on the platform in Stuttgart, about to miss a train—may he get his angel wings for that alone, otherwise we would have been stuck for an entire day in the record-breaking heat with nowhere to go.

I regret not capturing the Philippino woman at the car rental location, who knew of one of my books (the Sue Kim authorized biography) and treated me like a Rockstar (a rare moment, and it took me going to Germany to get this—but then, now I can say me and David Hasselhoff have something in common. We are nobodies in the US, but HUGE in a foreign country).

And David (another, different David: this young man in his mid-twenties gave our family the best our of a castle during our 6-week trip. An engineering student, he doubled as a historian because of his vast knowledge of wars, rulers and cultures. So much so, that while I neglected to take a picture of him, we invited David to come over when he decides to visit the US. And guess what? Instead of going to New York, which had been his priority destination, David is coming to visit and stay with us in April.

We are thrilled, and this gets back to my Perfect Stranger theory. We have many family members who have not once come to visit, for one reason or another, and yet we have a perfect stranger flying in from Germany to stay with us. Our continued correspondence and the deepening of a relationship has been bereft of drama, issues or altercations—just fun, interest and a true appreciation. Doesn’t that say it all?

Yet even with all that, while the perfect stranger remains so, these unique, wonderful strangers aren’t present to dry the tears, listen and help resolve the issue, or show up when the car breaks down. For those life events, it does tend to be family, or good friends, those who show up when it’s inconvenient and give until they have nothing left. In that regard, I don’t need the perfect stranger, I need the perfect friend. And perhaps at some point, the intersection of stranger, friend and loved one may meet, becoming one in the same. Now that would be both strange and perfect.

Feature image

The town of Czesky Krumlov taken from the castle above

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It was fun imaging (my version) of the Emperor’s Palace in 14th century Nanjing. I took history and embellished it…just a bit:)

Insides Out

Tumors, faith and what’s meant to be

Three weeks ago today, I got cut hip to hip, and out popped two fibroid myomas (otherwise known as tumors), hence my online absence. With healing comes pain, and pills address the majority of the discomfort, but not this big stretch of skin now hanging between my hips. It’s a wonderfully hideous ledge of flesh with a bubble-like quality, as if air has blown through the tube ending at either hip.

It’s fun to describe someone else’s angst in fiction, but so infinitely better when I turn the letters on myself. As my agent has often said about my life, “You can’t write that. No one would believe it.”

I beg to differ. Lots of my less-than-finer moments have found their way into my fiction.

A dream foretelling the demise of a marriage, and subsequently losing everything? That became a plotline for In a Moment, recounting a few of the gorier, but amazing moments of my life in San Francisco. Learning to break someone’s neck as a 5th section black belt. Yep, that’s the first chapter and scene in Global Deadline. And who can forget the intruder/robber that took place in A Convenient Date? The home described was the one I actually lived in, and the intruder? Yes, he actually did hack into the security through the remote heating/cooling. Terrifying, and resulted in us getting a dog, but I lived through it. And Meant to Be? It’s a philosophy I live by, so it was a fitting title for the final book in a romance series. Yet life as a writer became downright prophetic when I ended up in a hospital in a foreign land. All I got wrong was the country: in Made for Me, it was Switzerland. This was in Verona, Italy.

But I digress. This is really about “The Ledge,” as I now refer to it. This lip of excess skin was caused by the removal of Gary and Arnold, so named because my 9-year-old explained, “two growing things need a name.” Sure enough, by the time of extraction, one was the size of a cantaloupe and the other a grapefruit. Like having a baby, that kind of stretching leaves its mark. Since I’m dealing with the after-effects of an abdominal surgery with complications, I’m sharing both pics and details with the world because I don’t possess a lot of shame, or embarrassment, two qualities my mother, she-of-all-that-is-proper, believe are important. Me? Not so much. I’m all about information, which is what you should have.

This was the day we left for the hospital- two tumors about the size of avacados, along with what turned out to be a nasty infection
Complications

First off, two surgeons spent nearly three hours detaching my bladder and other major organs from my uterus before they could perform the primary task of removing my uterus and tumors therein. Scar tissue and a rare form of endometriosis had wreaked havoc on my insides, which required the cervix to remain (the bladder wasn’t letting go, and no one’s happy with a punctured bladder).

The upside, as my surgeon said, “The sex will be a lot better with the cervix in.” Good news, assuming my body (and ledge) will at some point, allow this activity again. The downside is my body is trying to figure out who it’s going to be when it heals. Anything I eat or drink causes excruciating pain. Is this due to the trauma of separating the major organs, my uterus missing or what? No one knows, the opinions of the OBGYN, surgeon and my primary care doctors are in disagreement, and the vault of all wisdom (the Internet) is void of people with my experience. Here’s reality.

  1. Inflammation is a real by-product of an abdominal hysterectomy. I don’t care (nor should you) that the Dr.’s say the Ibuprofen will reduce the swelling. If the internals are traumatized, your bladder (and routes) seal up line a drum; nothing can release. I experienced this when my sutures started to rip (internally) from an overfull bladder. Sexy, I know. It wasn’t until I was about screaming in pain that the on-call nurse performed a scan, called the doctor, and together forcefully inserted a catheter (super fun!). Out drained nearly 1,300 ML of fluid. That’s a full bag and third of those IV drip bags of liquid. No wonder I was dying inside.
  2. Inflammation persists. I believed what I was told: “It will go down after a few days.” Nope. Not with me. It’s now day 21, and while I can relieve myself (more TMI, I know, but someone out there needs it), if I don’t take at least one prescription-grade Ibuprofen with codeine, it hurts.
  3. Migraines. These started about 2 years ago, and for a previously non-headache girl, I’d ignorantly subscribed to the notion that migraines were literally, nothing more than a bad headache. As Lindsey says, “We mock that which we don’t understand, and then we get to experience it ourselves.” Yep. That holds true. These eye-darkening, vomiting-producing, in-bed-for-two-days experiences finally led me to the doctor 12 months ago. All I can say is Sorry to all those I doubted and Thank Heaven for the Maxal generic, Rizatriptan made by Aurobindo Pharma USA. The reason I bring this up now is because a) spasms are triggering a migraine a day and b) not all Maxal generic- Rizatriptan brands are the same! With Aurobindo, it’s chewable, fast acting and powerful. Post surgery, I was prescribed Rizatriptan by Unichem Pharmaceutical and it can’t be chewed, hence is slower acting, and not as strong. E.g. I have to take 2 for every 1 made by Aurobindo. I told my pharmacist and he pointed me back to the original prescription. Yet another bit of learning all you migraine-fellow-sufferers must know!
  4. Spasms. Why didn’t anyone tell me. Imagine getting punched between your hips, then having the fingers dig and twist for about 90 seconds or more. That’s what I’ve been enduring about 6-8 times a day for two weeks. Right around the time my suture closed up, these spasms became pronounced. In hindsight, I’d gone off the major pain pills (around day 8) and day 10, had reduced the Ibuprofen to about 1 a day. Some amount of bowel transition is to be expected (e.g. constipation to diarrhea) as it’s figuring out what its own version of authentic self really is. Still. As my primary Dr. said yesterday, “This isn’t’ normal.”
But then, what is in my life?

When I was in the hospital in Verona, Italy, the physicians were quite sure I had cancer in several areas, and while curable, my life would be forever different. I’d have a poop bag attached to my hip, my life of activity and physical relations with my husband altered, and we weren’t sure our relationship would survive. (Imagine the stories I was considering. Real life, sure? But an interesting read? Not so much).

Growing, growing…I’m looking five-ish weeks pregnant, just one week later

Yet the second aspect of this scenario, talking to our daughters about the possibility of death was easier to have. It went like this: “I’ve had a good run, you will move beyond this and eventually, your dad will remarry. I hope he finds a good one.” If that sounds callous, trust me, it was anything but. What you might not know is that after facing major health issues with my daughter, and dealing with her potential mortality from age six to nine, death and dying conversations weren’t new, or horrifying to us as a family. (Thus proving that one truly has no idea what is going on behind closed doors).

Just three weeks later, when we’d arrived home. Can you believe how the stomach had exploded? I’d purchased this maternity top in shop because nothing else I had fit. It became my uniform- and in most of my pictures I’m hiding, turning or somehow camouflaging my belly like a pregnant actress trying not to get immortalized on film.
This is one week before the surgery. Left is after drinking 1/2 cup of water, and the right is in the morning–no food/water. The distension turned out to be caused by a rare form of endometriosis.
Attitude is everything

Do you hate reading that line when you are going through hardships? My mother does, because, as a shrink, it’s all about validation with her. Do you feel angry? Yes!! That’s empathy and compassion, sure, but with me, I actually do believe that attitude is—well, everything.

You see, as I type, I’ve had to push my computer further away on my legs to get it away from The Ledge. It’s getting in the way of my palms, screwing up my writing groove. I could be annoyed, or I can contemplate The Ledge holding a sandwich, making for an easy grab. I don’t wonder if it’s going to go away, I just work around it.

Four hours of surgery later, hip to hip, and I was fortunate another vertical cut wasn’t required. The tumors grew so rapidly in that last month–who would have known?

That brings me to another of my life-themes. When my close family or friends talk to me about Present-day trials (spasms, always knowing the nearest, public bathroom on any street, popping migraine pills like candy), I’m the one saying life is great.

“I don’t have MS, cancer, diabetes, chronic back pain or a poop bag…” I always begin, before I end with “if the worst I have it is taking a pill a day and using the bathroom two times an hour, I’m good!”

At present, pants hurt and skirts show this lovely, thick ledge ringing my midsection like a muffin top gone south, three inches lower than it should be. It’s rigid, too. My arms have flabbed out as I had to stop lifting back in July. Yep, my life’s sexy right now, but it’s real life, and I’m sure that even the batwings may find themselves in a book—well, at least a sentence and most likely on a beloved grandma.

A sting and a prayer

Lest I forget, the day I returned home must be shared. After ten, painful minutes, I’d finally descended into the chair. I lean back, carefully lifting a cup of fresh watermelon juice Rog has made. Immediately I scream, shooting the liquid straight out, a scene perfect for a B-movie. A wasp was on the edge of the cup, and I’d never seen it. My tongue started to swell, I’m laughing and crying, the kids run to get me ice as Rog gives me a Benadryl. I’ve had plenty of bee stings without an issue, but this time, not so. Within minutes, my arms are covered in red bumps, my tongue is expanding and I start speaking like the guy in the original Mummy, when Emotep extracts both tongue and eyes.

“My tongue!” I yelp, barely making out the words. Rog and the girls are laughing and worried. Soon, both ears started to close in, and having had a burst eardrum, I knew the signs. My eyes were nearly shut and breathing was becoming short–the space for air narrowing. Rog calls the Dr at the ER, who asks how long it would take to get to in.

“Twenty-five minutes.”

“You’re not going to make it,” he told Roger, and when I heard this, agreed. My throat would be closed. The Bendadryl was doing not-a-thing, and so I did what any girl of faith would do.

“I’m going to pray,” I told Rog and the girls. “If God wants me healed, he’ll stop this and take care of me. And if it’s my time, then so be it. Rog,” I paused, barely able to see him, “My insurance is current and you’ll find love and get married again. Just find a good one.” It was a variant of my words a month prior, as though the message needed to be said once again to get through.

I fully recognize these photos are horribly hilarious–but it’s real life. Check out that tongue–as it was swelling, I had to have Rog catalogue it–wasps-be-gone.

With that, I said a prayer that ended with “Thy will be done.” To be safe, Rog inserted a straw down my throat.

Within moments, the tightening around the straw ceased and the red bumps on my arms started to burn, then itch, then stop all altogether. It was like going through an hours-long, three-stage healing process in minutes. Over the next hour, my ears unplugged, and my eyes, though still shut, stopped burning. My head, which had felt fuzzy, started to clear, enabling me to see and think. Usually, after Benadryl, I feel hit like a mack-truck, tired and grumpy. Contrast that with spry energy; enough to want to make dinner- despite my incision and inability to walk. Of course, I looked like the female version of the Stay-puff-marshmellow-man, but I was going to be fine–especially since Rog quarantined me to bed.

What my husband called mind-over-matter and Benadryl, I call an answer to prayer and faith.

Five days post surgery and two post wasp sting.

Now, three weeks later, I’ve thought about the events: pain, blindness, collapsing in Italy, making it through three weeks on serious pain drugs as we finished our trip, then the home coming, surgery, sting and recovery. Layers of blessings accompanied each new challenge, and the way things have turned out, I know it’s all meant to be-this time for my learning. If I can help someone by sharing this, then it’s been worth it.

At home. At peace.



The Ugly Sweater

When what you’ve asked for doesn’t arrive as expected

It used to be that the morning after Thanksgiving, families across the country would get dressed up and go downtown to look at the store decorations. In the windows along the streets, works of art, mechanical and sometimes with real people or animals, the displays would draw thousands inside the store. There, the consumer would be wowed with an even bigger surprise. The purpose was for the store owners to express their gratitude for the support for the previous eleven months. Feeling appreciate, the consumers made even more purchases, the act an expression and receipt of gratitude.

This reciprocity between retailer and consumer was so successful, that the Friday after Thanksgiving became known as black Friday, because retail stores operated for eleven months of the year at a loss, or being “in the red,” then on one day, the store finally made a profit, or went into the black.

Sadly, this tradition of showing thanks has lessened, gratitude replaced with expectation, the expression and receipt of gratitude gone.

Theologian Thomas S. Monson said that “feeling gratitude and not expressing it is like wrapping a present and not giving it.”

Ugly sweaters and gratitude

At times, it’s hard to feel gratitude if what we have sought through sincere prayer doesn’t match what the Lord has delivered. It’s like asking for a sweater you expect to be soft, beautiful and well-made. When the big day comes, the wrapping is wrinkled, the bow not tied properly, and within, is a sweater, yes, but it’s doesn’t fit, the material is coarse and doesn’t fit quiet right. It’s an ugly sweater.

Looking back on my life, I’ve had plenty of gifts I’ve hated, real or figurative, but it wasn’t until the last ten years or so that I started to look beyond the delivery method and my disappointment to focus on the positive aspects of what I’d received. Roger, my husband of nearly 21 years, has often coached me (scolded? demanded?) to be grateful for the gift, regardless of whether or not we like it. Easy in principle, harder in application.

In a recent example of this, I’ll refer to my family. Over the years, our strong personalities and life decisions were like a lake gone dry. Without the replenishment of understand, the land grew cracked, then scorched, many spots barren. My parents prayed for reconciliation, certainly without asking or expecting additional heartache for each child, but that’s what occurred. Within six months, challenging issues with a teenage or adult children arose of a severe nature. The package of the sweater was awful and the garment inside horrid.

But then the miracles occurred. Previously unresolvable issues with siblings and in-laws were set aside, pride and ego associate submerged as the parents came together and held a fast for these precious children. We were united in heartache and strengthened in faith, ultimately incredibly grateful for the hard circumstances that finally brought us together in the spirit of Christ. The Lord, in His wisdom, knew that these challenges brought us together when nothing else could.

We all learned that an ugly sweater can still keep you warm.

Over the years, I’ve found three principles are consistently associated with gratitude. The are trusting in the Lord, keeping perspective and practicing remembrance of our blessings.

Trust in the Lord

Dieter H Uchtorff said that: “True gratitude comes from acknowledging that we do not always understand the trials of life, but trusting that one day we will.”

Trust was required when not long after I was married, my husband decided he didn’t want children. He enjoyed the financial freedom we had, and didn’t want to be tethered to the home for any reason, including a pet. Years passed, and when I was thirty-two, I’d passed through periods of anger, hopeless, apathy, and then resignation. I loved him, and not having children wasn’t going to change that. One night, while I was praying, I recall turning it over to the Lord, asking him to fill the void I was feeling. I distinctly thought the words: “Thy will be done,” hoping to find contentment in my situation.

The nights were warm, and our home was without air conditioning. Rog was awake and working but I was tired and went to the basement where it was cooler, falling asleep quickly. I woke up to a figure at the end of my bed. Assuming it was Rog, I mumbled something, turned over and went back to sleep. Sometime later, I woke again, and this time, the person was very close, leaning over me, wearing all black. I sat straight up, tried to scream but was voiceless with fear. By the time I could yell, he was out the door. When the police sat with us, they said intruders hate lights and dogs. The very next day, we got a dog, my husband’s prior proclamation about no pets in the house long forgotten.

“Thou shalt thank the Lord thy God in all things,” is a phrase often repeated.

All things means just that: good things, difficult things—not just some things.

While I was unspeakably grateful for my safety (and to finally get a dog), it took me a while to see that this event was the first step in many the Lord had to orchestrate in our lives. The second step was more gradual in nature, but far more devastating. At the time, I owned a business with a dozen employees that had been thriving for a decade. For some inexplicable reason, our projects were drying up, some naturally concluding while new ones were stalled or cancelled. Having never been through an economic down cycle, I didn’t realize we were on the leading edge of the 07/08 recession. My stress level rose as one employee after another was recruited by clients who could offer more long-term stability. One day, Rog looked at me with a bit of pity.

“You are trying to put out the deck chairs on the Titanic,” he began. Seeing I wasn’t getting the reference, he continued. “You’re the religious one, not me,” he pointed out. “But I don’t think God wants you to be in business anymore.” Rog then joked something to the effect of: “We haven’t killed the dog, and have to be home with her anyway, so maybe you should go to the doctor to get checked out.”

Could it possibly be that through the ugly sweater of first, the intruder and then the business winding down were to result in what I’d been wanting for…praying for seven years would happen? No, the sweater wasn’t pretty, but it certainly was warm.

Keep perspective

A Christian philosopher said: “The Lord’s hand in our lives is often clearest in hindsight.”

Within the year of Rog telling me to “get checked out,” I was in high risk pregnancy. Yet I still tried to conduct business with a few remaining clients I could handle myself. One day, the doctor told me I was “A zebra in the Serengeti, being chased by lions.” He said I was pushing my body to the limits, even by working from home. He warned that if I did not stop all activity, save going to the restroom, I would lose the baby.

Now, for those of you who know me, I’m not really the type to sit still, let alone lay bone straight, in bed, for months. Yet, in hindsight, the Lord knew I needed to have a long period of time alone and without distraction as a transitionary period to prepare me for the life-altering situation of motherhood, and to be grateful for the gift of staying at home.

Dieter Uchtdorf  said that: “Being grateful in times of distress does not mean that we are pleased with our circumstances. It does mean that through the eyes of faith we look beyond our present-day challenges.”

The rule of Threes

This was highlighted when I was nine months pregnant, and was finally allowed to drive. It was a clear, blue and happy day in Seattle, which is a rare and wonderful occasion. Although the recession was in full-swing, I felt all the gratitude that eight years of praying to have a child and receiving an answer could bring. In other words, I was now wearing the warm sweater, but was I wearing it with pride? No, not yet. In fact, I was going to get another ugly top.

Cruising along that sunny day, I received a call on my cell phone, and the first words my husband said to me was that he was out of a job.

At that moment, I purposefully lifted my foot from the gas pedal. It was not possible. The company he founded was profitable, employed many employees and growing. The board however, decided they wanted an older, more experienced person to take it to the next phase in its life. Rog was devastated and I was worried sick.

In an April 2014 talk on gratitude, Uchtorff counseled us “To be thankful in our circumstances…not to keep score by counting the number of things to be grateful FOR.” He was talking about the overall spirit of gratitude.

Practice remembrance

In an October 2007 talk, Henry B. Eyring said the key to gratitude is remembrance and specifically, the hand of God in our lives. He related a time in his life when he was discouraged. An associate counseled him to write a recall and write few lines for those things he was grateful for—every day. Eyring said he  specifically asked himself: “Have I seen the hand of God reaching out to touch us or our children or our family today?”

If we do this, “Gratitude will grow in your heart as it did in mine,” Erying promised.

In that moment of driving on the freeway, knowing neither of us had a source of income, telling myself to breath, I remembered the hard experiences that had brought us to that point, for what I counted must have been the fiftieth time.

The break-in of my home had led to a dog. My company had effectively shut down, but I became pregnant. Bad had been followed by good; what had occurred was orchestrated in the Lords way and in his timing. I had to purposefully set aside temporary fear, the journey, have gratitude for all we had and importantly, continue the faith. As Eyring has promised, remembrance of the blessings truly grew the gratitude grew in my heart.

Within a few months, Rog started a new business, allowing our family to grow and prosper. He also had a newfound empathy and compassion for others; that very hard trial evolved him from a good man to a great one.

Still waiting for the pretty sweater, and I got what…another ugly one that doesn’t fit!

If you’ve been following my summer journeys, you know I landed in the ER in Verona, Italy, tumors were discovered, an infection controlled and lots of pain was to be endured. Upon my return, I’ve spent the days seeing different specialists; the tumors have grown, I have a different (and yuckier) issue, the hysterectomy and tumors removed but the “yuckier” issue will be with me perhaps permanently for-the-rest-of-my-life. Really?? At times like this, denial is a good thing, but it’s temporary. As my 13-year-old daughter pointed out: “We were praying for change. Don’t you think this is the Lord’s way of answering our prayers?”

“Yes,” I replied, “I do.”

That’s where the faith and trust comes in to play. These two items create the cement of faith that dries, and I rely upon it every day as I put one foot in front of the other, trusting in the Lords plan . It’s what I lie upon when the tears come because I must decline being active with my family due to pain. Downtimes come, I acknowledge the emotions, take a break, then get right back up and get going. Time, health and money are not entitlements; they are a privilege. That too, is another mantra.

I am grateful for my challenges and wouldn’t take them back, because each one has led me and my family to a better place. And in truth, if the only way I can better understand the gospel of Jesus Christ and become more like Him is to get knocked around mentally, physically or financially, then this will likely continue.

My newsletter comes out once a month (when life is normal) and you can sign up at the main page on my website, and comment on my Facebook page at sarahgerdes_author on Instagram.

Feature image: the Italian Alps, which seems appropriate when talkin about the cliffs of life; you are either staring up, scaling them or falling off.

August Reading Promos live!

Two beach going books: romance and dystopian, both ebooks free

Nothing’s better than arriving home to a sparkling pool, green grass and clean sheets. On the downside, one chicken died (out of 20), another turned cannibal (we caught her eating three eggs just after they’d been laid) , one bee hive (out of four) is infested with mites.

Welcome to my crazy, sexy, author life. In the midst of burying said dead hen, laying mite strips and figuring out if Hannibella-the-hen can be reformed, I realized today kicks off two end-of-summer promotions! Both are free, and each include books from several dozen authors as well as enter-to-win gift cards.

Your next boyfriend romance

Ratings are mild to adult (mybookcave rating system is much like the movie rating….swearing, sex, etc), and it’s listed on the page. The enter to win is on the right side, so don’t miss that. My title, A Convenient Date, is listed in this promotion. In case you missed it, this title follows a woman who’s husband died of a heart attack and she’s finally getting her life together when she’s hit with a lawsuit. Her husband has been living a secret life, which threatens to bring her company down–not to mention leaving her destitute. In the middle of it all, she meets a handsome transplant from San Francisco (the book is set in Seattle). They are both single, uninterested in dating but need companions for business events. That is the start of their Convenient Dates.

The backstory to this should surprise no one. I was single For-ev-er in San Francisco. I daydreamed about a hot, intelligent and purely platonic man who I could partner up with in order to avoid sitting by horribly boring people at the multiple events one must attend while in the corporate world. This daydream including the man being dark haired (although quite honestly, I wouldn’t have been very picky), wealthy and unattached. I mean, I was dreaming, right? Why not throw it all in the mix? Of course, nothing is perfect, and so Rick Santos has an unruly son from a previous marriage…which adds a challenging twist.

Post apocalyptic Dystopian

The second free group promo includes my latest book Incarnation. I always go with the reviews and the back of book copy. This is the latest review up on Amazon. Make sure to enter to win the $25.

The genesis of this story was all the plastic surgery going around–and this was years ago. Not that I haven’t succumbed to my share of botox (which I then had to stop because my husband told me I was looking like a freak and he was going to divorce me–as subtle as always)…I then thought about a future world where the occupants would look back and say… “Can you believe, there was a time when people changed their faces on purpose?” Lots of research later, this is the book, and I must say, I love it. Fast, unique in the take on DNA and realistic. It’s also clean, and the underlying romance is one I wish I’d had. Enjoy and write a review. Me and other readers will thank you.

Aquaworld Hungary: a unique waterpark you’ll want to go year round

When Rog told me we weren’t going to make it to Poland after all, due to changes in our schedule, the girls and I were seriously disappointed, so he wanted to cheer us up by offering Aquaworld. After three days walking all over Budapest, and having previously visited Legoland, Tripsdrill, and multiple water-oriented destinations in the last four weeks, my first reaction to Aquaworld was nope. Not interested, especially when my visual was me chasing the kids all over the park when relaxing was more on my agenda.

“Come in,” he encouraged. “It will be fun, and if you want, I’ll run around with the girls and you can relax.” Huh. Didn’t sound so bad after all.

Multiple pools indoor and out, for adults only and families. Lots of grass, umbrellas and bars so no one goes without.
Close and convenient

Aquaworld has several locations around Hungary, one just ten minutes outside Budapest central. Since we couldn’t extend our stay at the apartment downtown, Rog took advantage of the package for a stay in a suite, plus four passes to the waterpark, buffet breakfast included (not continental, but full breakfast) for 235 Euro, we were in.

Massive and amazing

Straight and a few rights took us to Aquaworld, the passes are magnetized wristbands that resemble a round Applewatch. It grants access to the areas- which include the full children’s playground and child care (you must register separately but no additional fee) the waterslides, multiple indoor and outdoor pools–in fact, Aquaworld planned for all seasons, because the designers replicated every feature indoor as available outdoor, including the jungle-like high walkways.

Dome covered indoor area guarantees you don’t get sunburned in the summer and stay toasty in the winter

Indoor waterball (we call them garble balls) are in the wave pool, the Aztec designed theme an interesting yet fun choice. Separate adult-only areas exist both indoor and out, and the full-service Spa, hair salon and gym are located one floor above, with a stairway connecting to the lower area for easy access. Towels, robes and slippers are provided for the whole family. To top it off, the bar opens promptly at 8 a.m., so for those early risers who just want to get going, the bar makes smoothies and sells pastries as well as adult concoctions.

Fantastic Buffet

My pictures don’t do the food service justice. I missed taking the shot of the bread bar, where baskets or stacked chest high, to encourage families to load up and take as many as required! Where does that happen in the US? Another full bar was all for pastries, yet another for eggs, another for meats–about twenty different kinds. Hungarians love their pork, and I’m pretty sure an unwritten rule exists about how many must be offered to be considered legit.

Regardless, I couldn’t eat anything except liquid on this particular day, so I can only say the hot chocolate was thick and divine.

What I liked best and least

This was one easy. I liked it all. Nothing to “not like.” I even found a superior bathing suit at the gift shop–designer quality, fabric and style for 40 Euro. What more could I have asked for?

Feature photo: from within the Dome

A walk through Budapest to Parliament

Starting from our apartment, it’s five minutes to the main square. Instead of giving you the blow by blow, this is my blog through pics.

Historical buildings surround a block-wide park with Ferris wheel- a bit hot during the middle of the day because they are enclosed, but fun and a great way to see the center of town.
Past the Cathedral, the Four Seasons, Sofitel and right in front of the Intercontinental where Rog first stayed 20 yrs ago. He reunited with his best friend–this is right on the waterfront, the railroad right in front of all the waterboards below.
Two views of the bridge- to the left is looking back into the city and the right is up at the Parliament building.
The bridge is a five minute walk max, a center turnabout and then the tram which one can take you straight up to the Parliament. We walked (of course) but the switch back is easy–another 10 minutes. The steps to the main landing (UR), and a quick turn around to look at the bridge.
The prominent statue in front of Parliament, a big part of which is not a gallery open to the public. Behind the building (which is open but deserted) shows a different face–one that’s deteriorated, not painted, but where the government workers have offices. The view to the city this time of day is glorious.
Beautiful from every angle–no wonder we saw three different wedding couples taking pictures on the grounds.
While most visitors stay up top in the newer part of the Hungarian Parliament building, we explored the back, original parts which were far more interesting, and offer views to the hills and “other” side of the city. The herb gardens had thyme pushes my height, along with lavender and rosemary spread to the size of cars.
This is the back part of Parliament. It’s not closed off, nor do they hide the wires strung outside, haven’t cleaned/washed the walls in decades, lawns aren’t cared for, plants are overgrown, but it’s majestic, authentic and interesting. In fact, a stone deck stretches around the entire backside, and you can walk it!
An original tower and entrance that’s not even visible from the town, river or current front entrance.
From the Parliament building is this stone castle, the next rise over (about 1 mile between the two hilltops)
One of several panoramic views from the top of Parliament in Budapest, Hungary
Feature photo: of the city taken from Parliament.

Apartment living in Budapest, Hungary

Well, Rog spoiled me on this one. Yeah, I liked the villa in Verona, as much as I hated the cramped, awful place in Bellagio, but one was country living, the other was city, which were polar opposites, good and bad. With the apartment he found in Hungary, I have the best of both: space and convenience! Not an easy balance to strike when you are also wanting a reasonable deal.

View from our corner apartment down to the restaurant-filled lane below
Let’s talk numbers

Four days, three nights in this three-bedroom, two bath top floor in Budapest, one block for atelier shopping and seven minutes tops (about four blocks) from the central square in Old Town was roughly five hundred Euros. What a steal. Parking wasn’t included, and that was another 60 Euro, so all in, less than 600. Holy cow. Love Budapest! We had one of the best brunch restaurants twenty feet from our doorstep, on the corner of a pedestrian-only lane, which also has two eateries for gluten and vegetarian diners, but also a pub with billiards. Around the corner is Robert Maar boutique, and we met him, had clothes custom made for Rog, and I even picked up two handmade designs by Robert as well.

I’m going to cover the downtown, riverboats, parliament and other subjects separately, since this focus of this blog is to 1) demystify Budapest as a scary, big down for those of you who have shied away from going to the country and 2) show you what can be had for really affordable prices.

View to the pedestrian-only lane (UL), the sitting room (two couches on either side not pictured) (UR) the dining room.
Three bedrooms, one came with girls, too pooped to get out of bed
The building and atrium

Like all structures downtown, zero space exists between buildings. Just two down from us was another undergoing complete reconstruction, the new apartments Euro-modern, not old town. Aside from that is a graffiti-lace building that has yet to undergo a transformation. The units are designated by simple numbers (10-12) per block, so you just locate the number and you are set. Each has electronic pads for entry, then the 12’ high doors open wide. Marble floors, a lift (or elevator as we call it in the States) or the flight up. Being on the sixth floor, what do you think we did once our bags were inside? Walk, of course. Rog just doesn’t feel good about our massive caloric intake unless we get in our stairs.

It’s a beautiful hike though. A wide, 40×40 (at least) bottom floor, open garden is in the middle, and every floor landing has baskets with fresh flowers around the perimeter. The glass elevator is lovely, and we used it when hauling our bags, or when I was simply too pooped to party up those stairs.

Street view in the other direction. See the dome beyond? That’s the magistrate building in Old Town, where the carousel, main Piazza and grand Cathedral are located.
Gates, bars and three locks

Quite a few of the front doors are elegantly designed, and lack a single piece of metal for security purposes. Ours, however, is double doors, the first entry point all metal (in white, matching the door). This was one lock. Then to the door itself, which had two. Nothing is getting past this fortress. Once inside the top-floor, corner unit, we understood why. It’s straight out of the pre-soviet era, when structures were tall and grand. Actually, perhaps they are still that way—we wouldn’t know, but to our new-to-Budapest-eye, it was better than the pictures on Expedia (I think this was on both VRBO and Expedia, but we got a better deal on the Expedia).

As you can see from the pictures, inlaid wood floors, chandeliers which we learned were custom made for this apartment – I should have taken a close up—lilies in different colors accent the lighting in each room save the living room, a nice detail. Care is taken for the floor-to-ceiling drapes, the silk pattern in the living heavy and rich, whereas those in the large kitchen is yellows with a floral print. Yeah, I know this is a lot of info, but it’s worth noting. When you’re on the road for a while, or if it’s your one trip a year, you want the experience to be memorable. Would you rather pay four grand a night at the Four Seasons, or go for two weeks on that same amount of money and have this type of authentic, Hungarian experience? The good news is you have the option and know it’s attainable if you want it.

Best brunch we had–three days out of the four!
What I liked best

The convenience, cost, elegance, safety and vibe of the area. Oh! I can’t forget Café Brunch Budapest. It has several locations, one just below our apartment on the corner. We literally came back from Austria one day (about an hour drive) to get more blueberry muffins for Porsche, they were that good. (we got six).

The café (UL), how fried eggs are made in Hungary (meat added) and the mother-of-muffins which we crossed country lines to get.
What I liked least

This building has a few rentals like ours, but most units are privately owned. Our internet was the worst we’ve had in a month of travel—so bad I couldn’t load a single thing—not a picture or a document at all. We learned from the management that the owner is paying 300 Euro a month for service: Rog told him he was getting raked. Television reception was also horrid, which was too bad since the flat screens were monstrous and deserved to be used. But both were ok; I took a break from doing anything productive, and the lack of tv ensured we got out early and went to bed when we got home.

Feature photo: the Danube taken from the bridge

Listening to the Spirit

Preparing and receiving spiritual guidance

Some people go to the mountains or lakes to receive heavenly help. Others kneel in prayer, go on long-term juice fasts, while others do nothing at all, believing nothing exists but our own world, and even if God lives, us humans are too insignificant to warrant a thought.

In his talk on The Windows of Light and Truth, Joseph B. Wirthlin said that: “We must become skilled in using the spiritual windows to receive personal revelation for ourselves and our families.” Sometimes, family members and caring leaders provide guidance, yet this can be colored with personal motivations, self-interest or misunderstanding of the situation details.

Personal revelation is not an entitlement, and it is not passive. It is an active state of mind and demands faith. Each phase of the process requires something of us: 1) a desire to ask, 2) a willingness and open heart to listen, and 3) the obedience and courage to obey.

The scriptures of many faiths indicate that manifestations of the Spirit come to the mind in a variety of ways. They come in impressions and promptings, dreams, visions, visitations, by way of counsel from leaders and as what has been described as enlightenment and pure intelligence.

Consider the concept of enlightenment

Steve Jobs is a great example of this: he considered a problem, and credited bursts of enlightenment as the source of his ideas. That led to great innovations which have impacted the world over. Contrast that temporal example with that of the Prophet Joseph Smith, who often talked about pure intelligence flowing within, giving him sudden strokes of ideas.

When I was fourteen, my father asked me to accompany him on a ward visit. I wrote and rewrote my talk, the tension and worry increasing for the two weeks prior. The night before, I was crying with frustration that all my preparation had yielded only fractured thoughts. I said a fervent prayer, asking the Lord for help. Within moments of closing the prayer, my mind cleared, and I wrote an entirely new and different talk in a single session. The next day, following the talk, my father remarked he knew he’d been inspired to ask me. I honestly don’t recall what I said, because those weren’t my words. That experience cemented my testimony of personal revelation, the role of the Lord and the concept of enlightenment of the spirit.

Bruce R. McConkie said that we have the responsibility to seek solutions first for our own problems. It will always involve effort on our part. Elder McConkie expressed it this way: “We are to solve our own problems and then to counsel with the Lord in prayer and receive a spiritual confirmation that our decisions are correct.”

Receiving an answer from the Lord requires a few key elements:

  1. Obedience. President John Taylor said it is the first rule in heaven, and Elder Wirthlin said “nothing closes the door of personal revelation faster than disobedience.”
  2. Receptiveness of mind and submissiveness to the will of the Lord is also required for personal revelation, because as it states In D & C 63:64, the Lord requests “the heart and a willing mind.”

In my 20’s, I was a divorced, single mother, working in the technology industry. My life was just getting settled and financially stable. The company I worked for had sold and I fulfilled a lifelong dream of starting a magazine.  Yet I was feeling unsettled and didn’t know why. I kept asking the Lord to give me direction to ease the discomfort I felt.  Months went by until one night, I made a conscious decision to change my prayer. I added the words…’According to thy will’, and that I’d do whatever was asked. The following morning at 8:15 a.m., I received a call from a recruiter offering me a position at a start-up firm in Silicon Valley. I knew immediately that the call was direction from the Lord. I’d asked, he’d answered, and now I had to Act.

  • Conform to God’s will. Alma exhorted us to “be humble and submissive at all times.” 

Pioneer Brigham Young said that most people fail during the final 10% of the journey. In other words, they inquire of the Lord, receive the answer, but can’t do what the Lord has asked. In my case, The Lord answered my prayer by asking me to sell my home, close down my new business, leave my support system and move—all in two weeks. In his wisdom, he let me reach a mental, emotional and spiritual state where I could both hear the answer but act on it.

  • Stand in Holy Places: This is critical in times of need. Are we in a place at all times to be hear the quiet whisperings of the Lord?  Men in particular have a solemn responsibility to stand in Holy Places in order to call upon the powers of the priesthood when needed.

Fast forward seven years. I’d met and married the man who has now been my husband or 20 years. He joined and left the gospel within the first twenty-four months of our marriage. I knew he was the reason I’d been moved to San Francisco, but at I was at the point of giving up on the marriage.  I simply could not understand why the Lord would bless me with success but give me such absolute personal heartache. Again, for months, I received no direction or solace, despite fervent prayers. I was at my end.

One weekend, I attended a conference of financial executives. As I sat listening to the keynote speaker, I read his background. Below his list of accomplishments, and a Harvard MBA, was an undergraduate degree from BYU. I had the immediate impression to seek him out for a blessing. Now, imagine going up to someone, giving an introduction and asking for a special prayer on my behalf, but that’s exactly what I did. Waiting for a few minutes after the session was over, I touched his arm, and asked if he was a priesthood holder in good standing. He was surprised, but said yes. It took a few minutes to find a room, and he asked me few basic questions, then gave me a blessing with specific direction and details of my life known only by the Lord, It gave me the strength to see me through the following tumultuous years of my life, which included cancer and being told I’d never have children. But all the while, I knew that I was where I needed to be, with the man who needed to be by my side, and it was directly from the Lord. That knowledge sustained me through very rough times. Men, please honor the gift of the priesthood. You never know when you will be called upon to be the answer to someone else’s prayer.

  • Pray with faith, humility, sincerity and intensity.

Years later, I was able to conceive and keep my oldest daughter. One afternoon, at about six-months, I lifted her out of the crib and as I walked down the stairs, noticed she wasn’t sleeping but motionless and not breathing. By the time I reached the bottom, I was near hysteria. I thought through my options. As I lived outside the city limits, an ambulance wouldn’t arrive in time. My doctor couldn’t help over the phone and I had no idea what to do. As I cried, begged and pleaded with the Lord for guidance, a visual and specific words came to my mind. “Turn her on her side and hit her back, hard.” I laid her on the kitchen counter in the exact manner I had visualized, and hit her back with strength, all the while crying and praying. It took many seconds, but she started breathing again.

Richard G. Scott said that personal revelation, or answers to prayers, comes with different forms.

When He answers yes, it is to give us confidence.

When He answers no, it is to prevent error.

When he withholds an answer, it is to have us grow through faith in Him, obedience to His commandments, and a willingness to act on truth.

I’ll share one last example on this point. After living in the Bay Area, we moved to Seattle. After a dozen years, Roger and I started to feel as though we should move. It was the same unsettled feeling that I’d had nearly two decades prior. We began looking for homes in and around the area, then extended this to five states. We made offers that were turned down for no reason, or homes failed inspection. After four years, we gave up, reconciled to feeling unsettled. We put all our energy and time into making our property our dream environment. No sooner had we completed the last bathroom, that I was sitting on a rock by the pond, admiring all that we had created, and I had this distinct feeling come over me that I would soon be leaving. I’ll admit, I cried for an hour. Why was it, I wondered, that the Lord didn’t tell us before we spent the time, effort and money to make it our dream home?

A thought came to me. “And he dwelt in a tent.” If the Lord asked Prophet Lehi, and those called before him, to give it all up all he had and live in a tent, then who am I to refuse the direction of the Lord, especially after we’d been asking for years?

While I don’t know all the reasons why CDA was chosen, I know the Lord will reveal it in time, and I must be patient.

As you can see, personal revelation has been at pivotal at key points of my life, guiding, directing and supporting my journey, and these are just a few. The Lord’s direction and love is available for all of us, at any time.

It is my testimony that direct answers to prayers and personal revelation is the key to us enduring our challenges, providing us direction, and helping us focus our talents and energies in the way our Heavenly Father wants for the benefit of ourselves and our loved ones around us.

I hope sharing this with you, my readers, has turned you closer to feeling, hearing and acting upon the promptings of the Spirit that is within you.

Christ and Devin Castle, Slovakia: a historical significance like no other

When doing a search for old ruins and castles, Slovakia came up as the number one spot. By number one, I mean oldest. Devin Castle, on the corner of Slovakia within the township of Devin. The castle is widely considered to have predated any other structures still standing. Overlooking the might Danube on a jutting piece of rock, Devin Castle is also thought to have been visited by Christ during his ministry, but some ruins have been traced back to the 5th century BC, 400 year before the celts arrived. We visited it several years ago, and wanted to take another look, as well as eat at the same restaurant at the base of the entrance.

Slovakia itself is a shocker to the system if you’ve been used to seeing the colorful, modern (or old) buildings of the surrounding countries. Cold war-era high-rise apartment buildings are stacking together, side by side and austere. Some are fainted bright colors, but most are grey and lifeless. It’s not until you see the women pushing strollers or the road bikers peddling along the sidewalk does the city of Bratislava warm up. One left off the A4 and one is right in town, another left, following the signs to Devin and the scenery changes once again. Suddenly, the road is waterside, the trees arch over the street and it becomes positively suburban, homes hidden behind gates or dense bushes on both sides of the two-lane road continue until the small town of Devin is reached.

Cold war era buildings are dominant in the skyline upon entering Slovakia. This changes immediately when leaving the city center.
Parking, country fair and food

The parking/entrance for Devin Castle can be reached two ways from the main street and Google maps provides both. If you miss the first left, going a half a mile through town gives you another opportunity to turn left, but the visual of the castle above you nearly enough for self-guidance. This year, a county fair occupied the open grass fields. Pony rides, farm animals, games that I can’t describe in local terms occupied an area half a football field in length and width. It was a warm day, so many were in bathing suits, taking advantage of the inlets of the Danube River just feet away.

The transition from city to suburb is immediate and profound. About ten minutes of this lovely drive and you are in Devin, Slovakia.
Devin is your classic, quaint small town.

The entrance fee is consistent as most of the other castles, about 30 Euro for a family of four. The walk up is easy and takes about twenty minutes, but may be longer due to the goats on the hillside who know how to play the visitors for food. Entertainers dressed in period clothing sword fight, sing and play instruments alongside a few store fronts, also in period. Word to the wise: bring cash because credit cards aren’t accepted.

Not much further is the protected area where Christ was thought to have taught. After 2,000 years, it’s not much more than the stone foundation where a building once stood, but this is preserved by a new building that’s been built around it so visitors can enter and take their time in the area. A fence bordering the area provides one more measure against future degradation.

A short walk from the parking lot and you arrive at the ticket & main gate entrance.

Exiting this structure, it’s another five-minute walk to the main castle. Unlike the majority of castles we’ve been to in our travels, the road up has nary a tree to provide relief from the heat. The great news is also unlike other castles, this one offers free, cold water at the top thanks to a fountain and beautiful (also free) bathrooms! What a relief, figuratively and literally. From the center courtyard (and well, which is impressive itself because somehow they dug down hundreds of feet, through rock), you can go left (west) to one of the ramparts and look across the river and valley beyond. To the right of the courtyard is the larger structure, though much of it is off limits. Just last year, a new metal walkway was added, allowing for an unobstructed view, which previously was availably only from the other tower. The distance between the two is less than a five-minute walk.

Building on the highest peak, the tallest rock never fails to get an appreciative picture.
Time for food

Notice how all my castle write-ups include food at the end? While we have a meal in the morning, castle exploration is hard work, especially since it nearly always involves some sort of climb, further walking, then the descent. Is it any wonder we eat like bears coming out of hibernation at the end of it all?

Readers will often make quirky faces when remarking on my choice of photos, until I call them out with question: you mean, why don’t I always post glamour shots of places? It’s because I personally am so sick of seeing “the perfect shot.” I want to know what a place looks like when I drive up, or am walking, or looking down. And I have no interest in brushing my hair, standing the right way or whatever. When it comes to food, I whip out my iPhone (usually), not my Nikon, snap and eat. I’m a focused girl; I want my meal warm. It helps when it’s pretty, but I’m not going to spend a moment worrying about it.

The reward for visiting Devin Castle is (name here) located riverside to the Danube. You can’t see the river through the dense trees, but it’s there because you just saw it, and the water can be heard. We’ve had the pork knee (sounds gross, but it’s a pound of goodness) Slavic burgers, goulash, their version of cheese sticks and several types of soups. The portions are monstrous and the prices are McDonalds. A $100 meal in the US comes out to roughly fifty dollars, including drinks.

Double boar meat hamburger with cucumbers (Rog and Porsche raved), my Slovakian goulash and previous picture–chicken wings, Slovakian style.

Drones are allowed, and Rog flew his from the parking lot. I forgot to note that he was able to fly his drone in all the castles we’ve visited (hence the shots), because they aren’t regulated in most of these areas. How wonderful!

If you’re going to make the trip, be sure to stop here. You may be tempted to try the hotel across the street, but this is “more local,” if you will.
What I love about Devin Castle

It’s the only castle I know of that mentions Jesus in the historical records. For a person who’s never been to Israel, it may be as close as I get to being in the same vicinity as Jesus. The view is unreal, and the food at the bottom of the castle shouldn’t be missed.

Parking lot, restaurant and Devin Castle, in that order. See, wasn’t that helpful?
What I don’t

Nothing really. It’s so modest, there’s nothing to give tours over—so natural beauty and ruins are there to be enjoyed.

Want to spend the night, go hiking, biking or rent a boat on the Danube? This hotel is the one and only at the base of the castle.
Recommendation

If you are within 100 miles of Bratislava (which means lots of places stretching from Hungary to Austria), put it on the must-visit list.

When I’m really happy, I look slightly possessed. Sorry about that, but not sorry about being really happy. Note: if you see the upper right castle-that’s the part mostly closed due to instability. It’s the left hand side that’s one of two areas open to tour.
Feature photo: taken on site. If you want to see the areal view shot from the drone, go to my Instagram account at sarahgerdes_author. It provides a much better view of the castle grounds and surrounding area.

Eat your way through the charming town of Cesky Krumlov

If you only skim my blogs or books, you will understand two things about my approach to food: use real butter and if you’re going to take in a lot of calories, make each one count. The town of Cesky Krumlov (and overall, the CZ culture) abides by both of these rules. As we’ve returned time and again to Cesky, we eagerly await the next new place we’re going to find culinary nirvana. This trip didn’t disappoint.

A waterwheel, a bridge and the literal sound of music
Krumlovsky Mlyn
The same bridge, across from the waterwheel. Streams flow to and through the town, each one a picture-perfect snap opportunity. The Krumlovsky is just the right, opposite side (not pictured).

We heard the music first, drawn across the famed waterwheel bridge. The first image was a ten-foot diameter wood, wheel lighting fixture. Just below him and to the right was the source of the music, a silver haired man with a crooked back played piano, to his left, a medieval oven with its clay vent stretching to the ceiling roasted several times of meat (entire pig included) and we took a seat at an open bench. The Hungarian waiter, who we learned speaks six languages, including English amazing well, helped us out, but it was somewhat unnecessary. The menu offered both Hungarian and English; common enough in the town overall.

Big, warm and cozy. Riverside dining with views directly to the castle also available (not pictured), although I took a few snaps from the castle, looking down to the restaurant.
The Krumlovsky restaurant is mid-photo, dark roof. The bridge is to the left, just past the pinkish building.
Hungarian goulash (UR), the house special of pork meats, sauerkraut and potatoes (LL) and the dessert of potato pancakes with lingonberry syrup (LR). The steak tartar was incredible but we ate it too fast to take pictures!
Proud chef, happy customer
Shopping

Stuffed beyond comfort, we agreed to walk for a while. As we made our way through the narrow streets, (only the main road allows for cars) Rog and I agreed the majority of shops in and around the most castle zones are geared towards tourists, e.g. shop owners think we will be affected by some euphoric haze of stupidity, willing to spend twice as much for the privilege of saying: I got this at X castle.

The largest street in Cesky Krumlov. The rest are carriage-wide lanes.

Thankfully, the town of Cesky does not swallow this pill of delusion, in fact, one is hard pressed to find the souvenir shops with the standard postcards, keychains and country pins. The town has kept the retail stores authentic, consistent with our last visit four years ago. One example is a shortbread retailer, who uses a 600-year-old recipe to produce cookies so intricate that could be framed and placed on a wall, not eaten. We didn’t feel morally right about spending eating a five-dollar work of art, but did indulge in a 1 dollar (all equivalent currency, for they use the CZ krona). It was divine.

Shortbread and liquors- one I tried, the other I didn’t; both proudly displayed by their creators in boutique retail shops.

Next to this is a honey and wine provider, with a wall full varieties to be tasted for a krona each (about .25 cents). It’s so much fun to wander along cobblestone streets when the people who sell the product make the product. No, this isn’t true 100% of the time, but it’s dominant. You aren’t going to find big retail chains here, although several boutique stores did offer Fendi, Prada and a few other name brands. I stepped in to one, just to check it out. A pair of slip on athletic shoes I happened to be wearing (Michael Kors) were $140 in the states. Here, at this shop, they were the $260. Clearly, they didn’t get the memo about not jacking up the price.

But that was anomaly, and I don’t come overseas to purchase items we can get back home. The whole point is to think and be different.

She looks awfully happy for a mannequin.
The street performer and the kiss

If you are in Prague at the Astronomical Square, a dozen different street performers fill the air with their acts. Here, there was one amongst the dozens of narrow streets. An older man spun his metal lever, drawing in kids and a few adults interested in playing the centuries-old device. I’m always up for a new experience and went for it. The man was so cute, reminding me an elf with a squish, wizened face of happiness. My laughing made him giggle (thought in the picture he looked unsure). I gave him a kiss at the end, the girls shocked by seeing me landing a plant on another man. The next ten minutes as we walked down the lane was trying to explain why kissing the mushy face of a seventy-year-old and did not qualify as cheating on my husband. My nine-year-old pointed out that the man blushed at my kiss and smiled. “Doesn’t that count.” Oh, to be so wonderfully naïve. It wasn’t until we rounded the corner, walking along the rivers edge did the girls tire of the subject of mom kissing a complete stranger.

He’s definitely uncertain about the American girl, but I warmed him up nicely with a friendly smooch.

Cesky Krumlov Castle

Following on my piece on the Gardens of Cesky Krumlov, now it’s time to continue the tour of the castle itself, but before I pick up where I left off, I’m going to back track to provide several views of the lead-up to the main entrance.

From any direction, you must cross the waterway at some point to reach the castle. This bridge is right in from off the parking area and where we walked. The grand, multi-storied bridges.
Two hillsides? No problem. Let’s just keep creating rooms and hallways.


To the right is the actors areas attached to the theatre, and the left is the staff (seamstress etc)

If you are at the gardens, head to the upper most level (the maze). To the north, you can view the fields beyond, to the south is the main castle area.

The royal lands are still being farmed- this is to the north, just outside the gardens.

That’s the way we went, coming to the castle theatre. The ticket office is a remodeled building, attached to an extended, low-ceiling structure that’s the performer quarters. A lane for pedestrians’ splits that building and another on the left for the staff, wardrobe and such. From here, a visitor has multiple options to tour the inside or explore the open (free) areas on every side of the castle.

One of the side entrances leading to the castle, not the main gate.
One of the back entrances leading to the castle.
A castle-shaking entrance

Batman must have had a bigger impact on me than I’d care to admit because I’m always so completely fascinated with castle entrances. It’s not just the size and ‘grandness’ of the entry if you will, nor is it the number of barriers put in place. It’s also the length and ceilings. Just as one driveway can be printed stone and fifty feet, another can be a mile in length, tree-line with water and lighting effects. Some, such as Hohenschwangau, were both straight then circular roads, leading up and up to the main castle.

The actual carriage house where the horses were prepared and stabled.

In the castle of Cesky Krumlov, the road taken by the former rulers is long, steep, imposing with four different barriers, entirely covered with curved stone ceilings, barred windows providing views to the valley below. On the right (the inner wall) are periodic cell-like rooms with bars. Were these for prisoners begging to get out? What about goods necessary for the road maintenance during the winter, but what was the point of the bars? These questions didn’t get answered on our first visit and weren’t satisfied this time around either.

In case you get lost–and that’s a not hard to do in this expansive set of buildings.

What we remarked on then and now is the sound of the tunnel. We were talking low as we made the walk up, but we could have been shouting for all it echoed. Imagine a team of eight or twelve horses racing through, clanging on the stone, whip cracking. The entire castle might be rumbling from within, and surely the townsfolk below would be alerted the rulers had made it home for the night.

One of the disembarking areas for the carriages–this is the lesser of two areas, but has been updated for outdoor festivals.

With the occupants out of the carriage, the horses were led to one of two horse carriage houses, the first one being the grandest. Life-size replicas of the horses and carriages are within the house, which accomplished the task of allowing us to visualize the magnificence of the experience of those ruling the castle and town.

Even the peepholes have incredible views.
Authentic artists in the castle square

Not all castles have a gift shop for selling products, but if they do, it’s usually overpriced trinkets. Not so here. Eight stalls set up in medieval, square coverings showcase artisans, no two the same. With the exception of two, each were demonstrating their craft as they made products. A weaver worked at his loom, creating a shawl. A jeweler set stones in sterling silver, a woman crushed lavender for her satchels and a glass blower delicately created small objects.

The most impressive was a two-person team of iron work. Pumping a pedal with one foot, a man kept his small fire going as he insert metal, melted it to the right temperature before removing it. His work wasn’t just knives, as we’d seen in the past, but objects useful and not. When we arrived at the area, he was making a cup. The second time, a detailed iron rose, the kind you’d place in a vase. His partner worked behind the counter, adding additional touches to the works, such as leather, beading or an embellishment appropriate for the item.

The artisan and his craft.

You can probably tell we got sucked in by the skill of it all, purchasing a sterling silver ring with woven details, a lavender pouch for traveling and a few other unique items as a memory of Cesky Krumlov.

Cesky is interesting, because they offer mini-tour/sections are available for independent payment and viewing. You want to go inside the carriage house? Sure, it’s a little fee. This is another wine cellar, charged a’la cart. Don’t hit your head on the way down.
Two times a charm

Because we arrived in the late evening our first night, we had the chance to explore without crowds. Day two, our visit was about 90 minutes, giving us the rest of the afternoon to wander the town, which was our hope. That’s up next, because skimming the town really does it a disservice.

My favorite part of Cesky Krumlov Castle

The waterway around the castle, the entry and incredible view of the town from most any point. A close second is the town and culinary extravaganza that is the town of Cesky Krumlov.

The castle is long, it connects around the entire curvature of the river below. Photo taken from yet another ledge.
My least favorite part

That the renovation and remodeling required has gone a little cheesy. It’s one thing to resurface a crumbling wall, and most of the time, care is taken to at least try and make the application of paint appear more than five minutes old. The paint here doesn’t really match tone or color, but it’s looks almost cartoonish in more than a few places. We tried our best to overlook it, or at least not take pictures with the faux application in the background.

On the middle-bridge overlooking the town of Cesky Krumlov below.
Recommendation

Even though we are now up to three times to this castle, I know we’ll come again…and again. Perhaps not for the inside tour, but outside absolutely, and the town—always and forever. More on that next.

One of many garden areas for the court modified with atriums, benches and cafes (not pictured).
Feature photo: taken on site

The Gardens of Cesky Krumlov Castle

This spectacular town and castle warrant a few different pieces, starting with the gardens.

“What is Cesky Krumlov and why is it special?” I’d asked a man at the Karlstein Castle during our last visit. He asked if we’d been, I replied no, and he fervently told us that any plans we had for the Republic needed to be altered so we could take it in. He was so passionate, we followed his advice, but only had a few hours to see the castle and town before needing to leave for our next destination. For four years, we looked forward to the time we could return. That day came today.

The first level of the three-level gardens. Wide, pebble lanes with plenty of shaded areas.
Evening arrival

Fortunately for us, we’d arrived around six p.m., the tour buses were already gone, the grounds largely unoccupied. From our bed and breakfast, the walk was less than ten minutes, the air cool and a little sprinkle of rain, but not enough to justify coats.

Taking a right off the street and walking one hundred feet brought us to the moat, bridge and inspiring view of the multi-story (and multi-level walkway) that defines Cesky. Remembering our last visit, we chose a different path up (and my now long-suffering feet feeling the effects of castle steps). While it didn’t lessen the grade of the climb, our entrance was in the castle gardens area, not the courtyard.

Each level has openings to the main castle areas for easy in and out.
Size and simplicity

One word: wow. This is not the Palace in Brussels, where hundreds of thousand of flowers in perfect order exist. It’s quite the opposite. Cesky Gardens have multiple levels, several larger than football fields but modest in flowers, using color for accents. The focus is on perfectly trimmed hedges and plenty of walk room on several levels. The first is open in the center, with massive trees shading the perimeter. Grand stone steps lead to second level, this one with more flowers, as though the designer was saying: we were starting small, working our way up.

Level two has a bit more color and detail, although the length is the same, the width is much deeper.
View from the top/third level down to the second, giving you an idea of both size and also detailing of the flowers.

After this level is yet a third, and it’s twice as long is it is wide. Standing at the edge gives views of both gardens below, then turn around and it’s a maze! A one-person, wood platform exists for an observer to gave over the maze-hedge, presumably to locate the poor souls lost within.

As I went to load the photo of the maze, I couldn’t find one! I must have completely spaced it, and feel awful.

North and south are entrances, one to the fields beyond, the other to the main castle area. Next up, Cesky Castle proper.

Pension Fialka: the best B & B Nearest Cesky Krumlov Castle

When we were last in Cesky Krumlov, we had an amazing stay in a teeny, tiny room with a queen and twin beds near the castle. The host/owner was awesome, breakfast great and nearby river a bonus. The few downside of that particular pension, (as B & B’s are called in Europe), were lack of air conditioning, the requirement to drive to the castle and find parking. Even so, we wanted to stay there but it was full, so Rog ended up booking us at Pension Fialka.

It’s all about the location

I’m not sure it’s possible to have a better location than Pension Fialka. On a corner, Pension Fialka has full views of the Cesky Krumlov Castle from the view from the bedroom window. The street is busy during the day but dead quiet at night. Yet because Pension Fialka is set back from the road, we didn’t hear the white noise of the cars at all. Out the front gate, across the cross-walk and ten minutes later of walking in the shaded lane and you take a right and there you are.

The town of Cesky Krumlov, a ten minute walk from Pension Fialka, image taking from a bridge at the castle.
Rooms

The B & B offers three units, one of which is made for families as it’s conjoined by a separate door. Two twin beds in one room with its own door, and our room which includes the bathroom. The downside is lack of a second bathroom or tub, but these are minor inconveniences. The beds were firm, pillows flat (and awful, sorry to say), but down-filled comforters compensated. A small sitting area by a flower-filled window basket and knitted throw were lovely touches.

More images are on line, but this shows the bedroom we stayed in. The girls stayed in the adjoining room with twin beds.
Outdoors

We’ve never stayed at a B & B with the diverse areas offered by Pension Fialka. The perimeter is gated, eliminating our fears of privacy and safety. A small swing and slide set is complimented by a more adult pastime of playing hockey. A net, pucks, sticks, slider board for practicing foot movements in your socks drew my husband’s attention to moment we arrived.

For kids and adults alike

A few steps away is a rock path where the owners of (name) created a graduated rockery overlooking the road and to the castle. At the very top of the path is a sitting area with an ever better view, privacy ensured by the curtain of trees.

Rockery with sitting areas below and above. What’s not pictured is the covered outdoor eating area with kitchen and traditional pizza oven. A nice touch.
A note on pricing

Four years ago, our three day, two-night cost for lodging was 350 Euro. For that, we had a single room with two bunks and a queen, a light breakfast included. This time around, Pension Fialka was 132 Euro, without a breakfast, but two bedrooms and the other amenities described. For what we paid and received, we were more than pleased.

What I liked most

Gracious rooms, gated home and parking, private terraces, small play area with hockey goal, rockery and covered outdoor eating, and the short walk to the castle. I’d stay here again in a heartbeat.

Private, gated parking, and the short walk to the castle. Safe and quiet road.
What I liked least

It would have been nice to have breakfast, but the home doesn’t accommodate food, nor does it offer a refrigerator.

Feature photo: taken from the opposing side of the street

Fishing & river rafting in the Czech Republic

Outdoor activities isn’t always on the minds of tourists who are dead-set on castle hopping, but when we see an adventure that just can’t be passed up, the Gerdes family slows down, pulls over, accesses the Internet and change on the fly. That’s what happened when we were making the journey from Salzburg, Austria to the Czech Republic, destination the town of Cesky Krumlov and the castle therein.

One of my goals through in travel blogging is to give you the visual of being in the car with me (as frightening as that may sound). I’m starting off with a little flavor of the change in scenery as you head out of Salzburg. Modern blends with colorful, styles and vibe just miles from Salzburg.
Yet another modest castle in a town thirty minutes outside Salzburg–it didn’t even make the castle list on our GPS. We walked around but had to get on our way.
Three turns down from the castle is a waterway and our first sign of river rafting.
Taking the backroads: tee-pees, eats and reservations

As you’ve read in previous blogs, we tend to go off the A4 when we can afford the time. This was one such occasion, and because the road was curvy and empty, we took our time, Roger slowing or stopping upon request (don’t I wish he’d do that back in Idaho? Hm…) As we crossed from Austria into the Republic, the landscape changed pretty dramatically, and I could have easily been in Oregon, because the trees were densely lush and meandering rivers were rarely out of sight.

Who says Europeans don’t camp? They have this down.

We stopped at one riverside location to grab a bite to each and learned the popularity of river rafting is so high, booking a month in advance is required. Come the middle of July, school is out, family holidays have begun and slots are full. Cancellations rarely occur, so be it rain or shine, people are going to be on those boats, but we weren’t going to be one of them.

Meal eaten, back in the car we went, now admiring the fly fishing and river rafting from the only perspective we’d get, at least on this trip. We’ve mentally added the two activities to our future-state to-do list.

We’d never seen this type of deer-which is hard to see on the upper left. The antlers are flat at the top, like Dumbo’s ears. I tried to get another picture but they ran within an enclosed area. Then I realized they were fenced, the farmer having a pond and several sets newborns nearby.

Then we came to it–the fly fishing streams. Rog pulled over, got out and stared longingly at the scene before him. Two men, wading the stream together, communing with the fish in the most wonderful of ways. All he could do was sigh as I took pictures. Once in the car, we spent at least forty minutes pulling up the best streams in the area (many), local fly shops (many more) and how painful it would be to carry his entire fishing gear on a European trip. Maybe next time, just like the river rafting.

How the locals do it in the Czech Republic
Feature photo: taken about 90 minutes outside Salzburg, in the Czech Republic

Hohensalzburg Castle: An unfulfilling checklist castle

What more can be said about Hohensalzburg than is already out there? Not much, in my opinion, other than the brutal review I’m going to provide you of the inside tour, which has been dramatically reduced to five rooms out of hundreds available. It’s not often I want to be Nicole Kidman or someone famous enough to get me access to floors and buildings off limits (not likely to happen in this lifetime), so all I can do is essentially grumble about paying the 30 Euro for our family, getting squished at the top of the tower with bodies, all jostling for the perfect selfie, then down again. On the bright side, we parked and took the ‘locals’ way,’ which made for new views and a quiet experience we enjoyed going up and down, which somewhat countered the lame experience in the middle.

Join me on this, our second and what is likely to be our last trip to Hohensalzburg.

Parking, right downtown in the locals’ area, the backside of the castle. The path is behind homes that lead to the castle-the occupants more than happy to chit chat as they water their beautiful gardens.
The road up and grounds

Neither have changed for four years ago. You can ride the tram up, saving yourself approximately 3,000 steps up, or you can take the leisurely route, which is longer, but in the shade and completely deserted. We encountered 4 other walks besides ourselves, two couples, both of whom stopped to grab a bite to eat on the bench and smooch.

Where the homes stop, this open grassland with bike/walking paths begin. A large home in the distance (UL), the start of the path to the castle (UR) and the four-corners path connecting multiple blocks.

Both tram and step walk are at the base of the castle; the steps are what we did on our first visit. This time, we parked on what I’d call the backside of the castle. It’s on the southwestern side, street parking for 4.50 Euro. The streets are quaint, full of locals, the paths to the castle occupied with families going through the parks. One right at an almost hidden sign lets you know this is it—the way up.

The trail up is paved and well lit, benches spread along the way. Since it’s not the main entrance, it’s quiet, offering plenty of stopping points to take photos. Nearly at the top, a view one can’t see from the front appears, which is an armory.

Seriously love the homes at the base of the castle (UL), the final walking rise to the castle (UR) and the tram in castle neither steps or path are your style.
The entrance and free areas

We beat the throng of visitors, arriving at 10:30 a.m. As we looked down the hill, bus after bus was dropping of streams of people who went single file to the steps. We were glad to already be at the top. The main courtyard and restaurants haven’t changed, and I will say my preference is the eatery on the second-floor landing which overlooks the valley.

Even though we’d seen the inner and outer courtyards, we walked in and around again, stopping to purchase our tickets for the tour. As we waited, we were bummed out to see the plethora of dogs that were on leash, but defecated all around the courtyard. While some castles have allowed dogs in the main courtyard area, few give dogs the general run of the place. This one does—and good for the owners, (we are massive dog lovers and love them). But seriously, responsible dog owners pick up the pooh, but not here. We were dismayed to be walking behind several who just dropped and walked—my phrase for the owner wasn’t going to bother and pick it up. What has happened in the last few years?

One tall set of blocks (UL), the first of many gated entries (UR) and my favorite–four different defensive entries, each another barrier to an invading force. What you can’t see is that each gate is an 18 inch thick rock–the doors have been removed.
The unguided tour

Our bad experience started at just after the ticketing desk. We paid, stood in line to receive the translation device, only to be told we’d have to wait for those in English, which wasn’t a big deal, but they had a hundred just sitting there. Worse, the man set “Get going,” as we waited for one to be cleaned and provided to us.

The last stretch to the inner courtyard (UL), a view from above (UR) and the main courtyard, unchanged from our last visit.

We just stared at him. Go where, exactly? One foot to the left so others receiving the French version?

Translators in hand, we went to the first room, the most interesting. It was a room with replicas of the cardinals who oversaw construction of Hohenzollern, accompanied by miniature models of the castle at various points in time. After that, we visited what would have been the salt room, for preserving foods. Then a long corridor, and a peek into the Organ room, housing the “Bull organ. The clergy ruler would have the organ play 3 notes alerting the townsfolks it was time to rise and get to work, and again in the evening, when it was bedtime. Talk about ruling the day.

It was interesting seeing the models representing each stage of completion over the hundreds of years–this is a great example of old meeting new(er).

The downside of this of this piece of history was the cramped 3-foot space where everyone fought to take pictures and keeping their ground while the throng behind us were pushing forward, trying to keep up with the auditory tour guide.

The first room of the tour, with rulers and to scale replicas of the castle at different points in time.

After that, we walked down a long corridor and into the torture chamber. That was more bark than bite, because our virtual tour guide said the room wasn’t actually used for torture, but to display the weapons to put fear in to the prisoners, who were actually held in a room below (not for display).

The pseudo torture chamber– the stones have been resurfaced and painted (poorly) but at least the grate to the left and below my daughter appears authentic.

A few pictures and off we were led to the highest point of the castle. Three flights of narrow stairs for the crowds going up and down, and then you arrive. A square area of stone, providing 360-degree views and in the center, a wooden platform (now reinforced with stone and metal). This can’t be larger than a 15×15 space, if that, including the stairs. Shoving, pushing, self-driven crazies. No time to really enjoy the spectacular prospect of Salzburg below.

Was it worth getting scrunched at the top of the platform? The juries out. I like Roger’s drone videos better.

I was so annoyed, me and the girls looked around, took it in, then got out of the madness. Rog fought his way up to the top, took a pic of us below and called it a day, vowing to get better shots with his drone, which is now up on my Instagram account.

A view on the back that never gets seen if you enter from the front.
Whew. It’s over. Time to eat

After that hour of our life, we were hungry and stopped at the Stocker which we’d seen while parking. The meal we ate made up for the latent grumpiness we experienced at the castle. Over amazing cold shrimp and cucumber salad, pork roast and schnitzel, we analyzed what went wrong.

Unregulated tours for starters, trying to pump as many people through as fast as possible was the culprit. Unlike Hohenschwangau, where the tour guide walked us our group of 10 through each room in the entire castle, and even the larger Hohenzollern Castle, which is infinitely larger, even there, the personal tour guide took our group of 12 through multiple rooms. Each tour was detailed, fulfilling, personal and guess what? The exact same price! Even the more visited Neuschwanstein Castle has a tour guide, granted, with 60 people, but at least that one is longer, detailed and fulfilling.

We get it. Castle tourism is a business, and Salzburg is a convenient destination outside Vienna. Mozart’s house is a draw, and many day trip visitors are trying to get both Mozart and Hohensalzburg in at the same time. But to those of us who desire a deeper experience, it’s pretty clear that only fame or a whole lot more money than we possess is going to fulfill that dream, at least with Hohenzollern.

The best part of the visit was the food afterward- or am I being too harsh? Okay, maybe a little, but the food at Stocker is really to die for.
What I liked

The grounds are lovely, and the back path to the castle calm and easy. I also must call out one new room we found which was free and unique–it’s the puppet room. These are life size recreation of puppets that kept the rulers happy. These are shown in a cave-like area within the castle.

The marionette area was pretty cool in it’s own batcave area.

The town below—be sure to go on the locals side—offers incredible food and shops.

What I didn’t

See the paragraphs above. Too many people. Touristy and unfulfilling.

Recommendation

Even with our disappointment, I’d suggest you go at least once to see the grounds and explore the area. If you are early in the season and have twenty minutes to spare, sure, do the tour. You’ve made it all that way. The best thing to do is set your expectations accordingly. Otherwise, save your money for a castle where you can have an incredibly rewarding experience that you’ll remember the rest of your life, and for all the right reasons.

Feature photo: taken from the perch atop the Hohensalzburg, and not with a selfie stick!

Hotel Turnerwirt in Salzburg, Austria

A boutique hotel at an excellent location & price

To this point, we’ve stayed at four apartments, a hotel, a villa and two bed and breakfasts. We have a few more countries and accommodations to go, but I’m receiving quite a few DM’s on places we’ve rented, the logic and pricing. At the end of the journey, I’m planning on a roundup of lodging, but in the rush of our trip, can only write full reviews on places as they deserve it. In this case, I’m writing about a boutique hotel we’ve been staying at in Salzburg, The Hotel Turnerwirt.

The lobby shot, old Austrian charm with modern convenience.
Why a “boutique” hotel”

As a matter of policy, we don’t stay in large hotels on overseas trips. The local flavor is what we want, and this is better found with apartments, homes or B & Bs, but we’ve not had good luck with what is called a boutique. We think that’s a euphemism for odd; like the place can’t determine if it’s really a B & B, which means a more homey feel, but doesn’t live up to the services or amenities offered by a large facility. Since “somewhere-in-the-middle” has never really worked for me, we’ve avoided boutiques altoghter.

Enter Hotel Turnerwirt. We fell into this hotel because in Salzburg, rental units of any kind were impossible to come by, even before adding our criteria of parking, air conditioning and helpful things like a washer/dryer. For our timeframe, nothing was to be had, so we had a choice of larger or boutique hotels, and we chose the latter. We also desired a hotel within driving distance to Hohensalzburg, which this is–about five minutes. It’s along the bus line route as well, which comes frequently.

A helpful map of historical Salzburg, Austria in the hotel foyer.
Hotel Turnerwirt

This is a boutique because it’s a traditionally built set of structures operating in the Austrian style of service, which means food service on the bottom floor, a game room for children, reading room for adults, a garden area outdoors and another building for spa treatments. Inside the main structure are wide staircases but narrow hallways, one-room “apartments” versus rooms, which define a family living experience. Situated on a corner facing the mountains, streams on either side require guests to cross one bridge to park, and another bridge to reach the hotel. It’s rather romantic.

The dining room where morning breakfast is served.

The breakfast (not included) serves a traditional Austrian breakfast of cold-cuts, cheeses, breads, musli (granola) and poached eggs.

The convenience to excellent restaurants translates to a 5-10 minute walk in any direction, our favorite being Pizzeria gausthaus Schwaben, down the road and across the bridge. Hip, elegant and underpriced as far as we were concerned. Excellent atmosphere, just know the smoking shop right next door can draft more strongly as the evening wears on.

As usual, we were the early family diners. Nearly every table had a ‘reserved’ card when we arrived, and by the time we left, it was packed.
Schnitzel pre mushroom sauce (UL), fettucini carbonara (UR) and us girls
What I liked most about Hotel Turnerwirt

The location, local flavor and uber-helpful staff. Can’t ask for a better combination of those three elements.

What I liked least

The noise in the morning was pretty brutal. I’m not used to thin(er) walls and full families making a racket. Parking was also a bit tricky when we showed up after 7, but we improvised along the walls and made it work. Compared to most B & Bs, or even hotels, the $20Euro per person for the continental breakfast was a bit on the steep side, so we passed after the first morning.

Feature photo: from the Hotel Turnerwirt website

Tyrolean Alps, Innsbruck and Swarovski Headquarters

Sometimes, taking the scenic route reveals the most interesting of destinations. As we traveled from Italy to Austria, we’d inadvertently requested the shortest route in distance, not in terms of time to our final destination of Salzburg. We didn’t realize that meant up and over the hills of Innsbruck, the largest city in the Tyrol province of Austria, and the countries fifth largest. We’d already rounded a curve coming down the mountain and there it was, looming in the distance. Despite the rain, we jumped out to get the best view of the Bergisel Ski Jump Tower.  The futuristic tower has hosted two Olympics and many international ski jump competitions.

Summer is road construction time, and that includes multiple bridges. This is right outside Innsbruck.

We missed our window to go up in the tower and have a meal, worried that we’d miss our check in time in Salzburg, so on we went, having no idea the A4 would have saved us about an hour of driving. It was good luck, however, because while our road paralleled the major highway, we saw all sorts of global manufacturing headquarters and outlets we’d never have seen from the road.

Because the Tyrolean Alps sit high, even when descending town into the valley where Innsbrook is located, you get an idea of the massive size of the Bergisel ski jump. This photo was taken just off the road.

From pharmaceutical companies to high-end ski wear such as Bogner (oh! But it was closed!!), our favorite was the Swarovski corporate headquarters. We missed several of the attractions by minutes, but were able to see the grounds, the carousels, the expansive play areas for children, and of course, the shopping. One has to appreciate the marketing approach the Swarovski team has taken: lure them in with free or very inexpensive attractions and entertainment, making it a destination for an entire day or weekend. Kids clubs, summer camps and a hotel are also on the corporate campus (have you ever seen this type of thing at an Amazon campus? I think not).

My favorite image is of a massive crystal on the main entrance, glowing at night. It’s a literal beacon from the side road.

At the base of the Alps in Austria, off a non-descript road that parallels the A4. Who knew? Now you do!

Continuing on are dozens of bike manufacturers and other sporting retail brands we’d no idea were located within driving distance of Innsbruck and a few hours from Salzburg. If I spent much time in the area, I might have definite spending issues, so it was just as well the drive-through was short and it was past closing time for many of the facilities.

The Tyrolean Alps

Part of the fun on this stretch of the journey was going up and over the Tyrolean Alps and the associated small towns. Just on the other side of Innsbruck is Igls, overlooking the city and valley. Just five km outside the city edge, it has a handful of restaurants, a few massive homes, two grocery stores and a church, all within walking distance of several small hotels. We tried to get in for dinner but alas, it was a Friday and all the eateries were booked until closing. Next time!

It’s not always easy to capture the majesty of looming rock formations, but as a visitor, it’s hard not to take yet another snap when the rock faces, type and coloring change within a few miles of one another.

Our biggest mistake of the drive between countries was misjudging the closing of restaurants because each country is so different, we’ve had to remember or learn for the first time. Whereas Italians eat all day and late into the night, the Austrians shut down by 6 p.m. for grocery stores and eight-thirty for restaurants, unless the establishment is a bar or takes restaurants. Back in Hungary, it was late again but Germany and Switzerland were on the early side.

Right outside Igls is Patsch, and it was here we saw our one and only Polizei (police) car in Austria. A mini-mini van stuffed with six officers in uniform, who we later passed by as they ate outside a deli.

That meant we…yes! Stopped again at a McDonald’s café, where the girls have continued their love affair with ham and cheese fries, croissants and hamburgers made with organic meats. I tell myself we didn’t really come to Europe to eat at McDonald’s, but I’m not being fasicious when I claim their food here is an improvement on most restaurant food in the U.S. It’s all about the requirements for fresh and organic, two elements demanded by the Europeans.

The one and only church we saw in Igls, where members of the congregation were streaming out in the misty-rain after a session.
Feature image: a picture of the Swarovski jewel in front of the corporate headquarters.

The many faces of Venice

Our adventure to Venice was planned with the intent of determining how much more existed to this famed city other than the Grand Canal and island hopping to Murano. Because of my stint in the Verona Hospital and recovery time, our schedule was cut radically short, so we knew going in this was going to be fast and furious. We needed focus. We needed energy and we needed good walking shoes!

One view from the top of the first canal as you leave either parking, train or cab drop off
Arrival and parking

If you arrive between 11 and 3, you are unlikely to get parking in the main drop off area, so be safe, park, and walk the quarter mile over the bridge into Venice. If you arrive late afternoon, then you’ll likely get parking right in the center, which is what we did. Two structures exist: one for short term (2 hours) and the other for long term. A single lane road is the only way to access both, but it’s short, about one feet in length. It’s a bit of a bottleneck, but an attendant stands to guide traffic, and if you want the two-hour, zip right and you are in. Payment is made when you leave, at the counter located at the entrance, so take your ticket and go on your way.

Nary a gondola or waterway taxi to be seen, and this is about two canals away from the drop off point.

When you arrive in Venice, either by car, train or boat, it may take a moment to notice the absence of bikes, a common site around Europe, not just Italy. In Venice, two-wheeled vehicles aren’t allowed, nor cars, which must be parked in one of several structures either outside the primary bridge to the island. Once off the long bridge to Venice, you will see a multi-story building, and parking spaces are identified by a space counter. We head others complaining about the lack of transportation on Venice, evidently expecting bike or scooter rentals and/or cabs, so I thought to write a note about this for the uninitiated.

This is actually the best shot of “the first” canal bridge in the upper right–you can see it leads several directions, and then down on lanes on either side of the canal proper.
Train

The train service is crazy good, although we didn’t need to take it. Multiple trains coming and going drop and pick up throughout the day, directly to this main area, where people in streams unload. One aspect that’s nice (and little known) is the cruise ships are on the other side of Venice, unloading at the docks. This means those arrive by car or train enjoy a much less crowded experience and more leisurely pace than the hoards of cruise lines passengers. The downside (isn’t there always a downside) is those of us in this area must walk a greater distance to reach the Grand Canal, if that’s the ultimate destination.

Less than 5 minutes from the cab and train drop off is this one and only gondola offering in this area. At 6 at night, it’s walk right up and in.
Walking the blocks

If you want to start off with a gondola ride, it’s less than five minutes from either the parking or train station right down to the only gondola. It has two slots, but when people are waiting, gondolas seemed to magically appear, leading us to believe a radio operator is ever ready to call in reinforcements. If a water tour is more to your liking, you will have to search elsewhere, for while many go by, the pickup/dropoff points aren’t in this zone.

To the right is right where you walk after parking/taxi or train drop off. Across the water are tables filled with evening diners. Not all streets have cafes next to the water–only some, and why the reasoning is a mystery.

With our feet as our guide, we started from the parking station to the first intersection of two canal bridges and a canal pathway. Our first stop was gelato, a must-have on a journey. One block down, another canal, turned left (because we could) and continued forth, zigging and zagging down every alley and main street, up and over a multitude of canal bridges. Going back to the no-bikes rule, even if they were allowed, bikes wouldn’t be much use: the bridges are steps, not smooth surfaces like Chioggia. Food services and goods deliveries are all done by ferry, mostly in the middle of the night and early morning when the tourists have long gone.

One block in, and on the right is a regular lane with more cafes. What you don’t see (or hear) was a man singing Italian tunes and playing a guitar rather romantically.
Another eatery partially hidden behind a iron gate, but open to the public.
Gyms and graffiti

Where do you walk down a canal, under the red brick archways into an open-door gym? Venice, obviously. And any respectable gym must have hip hop music blasting in order to use the weights and cardio machines located five feet from the front desk. It didn’t hurt the visual that the setting sun made the entire street and canal an orange red. In fact, it blended right in with the coloring within the gym itself.

Ok, really? Have you ever seen a blog on Venice post a picture of a gym? Neither had I, so this is it, and a rather glamorous looking one at that, don’t you think? And yes, about a half dozen folks were working out.

Around another corner and through an incredibly narrow street, the avenue opened into a triangular shape and a soccer ball came hurling towards my legs. A boy darted in front of me, kicked the back to his friend, the impromptu soccer game between four youth between ten and twelve seemed strange until I looked up and around. The buildings were decidedly familial, bars and crusted paint falling off and mail-slips. It was a neighborhood, like any other, except on a world-famous island in Italy.

And this! It shocked me more than the gym, because people want to look good, but the city fathers can’t take the time to remove graffiti, and worse, people desecrate the area? I’m all for artistic murals, but this doesn’t qualify.

As we continued the journey, a single avenue changed the entire experience: backstreet soccer game, graffiti-covered metal grates then a beautiful canal with upscale restaurants, then and open square full of hipsters and chill out music and back again. All this still a half a mile away from the Grand Canal main drag, and nary a non-Italian in view (except us). Because we arrived at about 6 p.m., our day spent in Chioggia to the south, the freedom of movement allowed us to cover a lot more ground had it been wall-to-wall tourists.

Think of this as the Venice outskirts, still good real estate with boats outfront but perhaps without the murals on the ceilings.
Just like every other big city

Where one lane is merchants, another is residences, some grand, but most not. Short, narrow doors are not images of Venice blasted around the world. If you’d not been to Venice before, it would be natural to believe every home is a three-story villa with hand-painted mosaics on the ceiling with gold leaf encrusted chandeliers. We watched a woman holding a bag full of groceries pull out her key, open and enter an unassuming door, her attire professional attire resembling a bank teller or shop keeper.

Like any city, different canals showcase a different style of property, probably reflective of the value.

Where in the world was the grocery store? I wondered, becoming completely distracted by the visual of how many canals she had to cross with that single bag. Second to that was imaging the size of the biceps on the average Venician residents. Yes, that’s the kind of thing an author thinks about, or at least, what this author thinks about.

The canal neighborhood where the kids were playing soccer.
Another home where we saw professionals entering and exiting.

This leads to touch on the subject of shopping. Whereas Chioggia had Italian brands with a smattering of name brands, Venice is the opposite: the majority of mercantile are well-known by the average consumer. Of the little overlap I saw, Venice easily had a 40% premium over Chioggia.

Just one street over is shopping and wide lanes, hotels and eateries.
The take away

If you have the time to take in the famous and not-so-famous areas of Venice, definitely do it, otherwise, it’s like thinking all of New York is Broadway, when in fact you have Central Park, Brooklyn and Park Avenue, each one providing a completing different perspective of a grand city. Whereas Chioggia was all Italians, (we didn’t hear another language spoken) Venice was the exact opposite. The streets were packed full of diverse ethnicities and languages with helpful tour guides translating, many also wearing translating devices around their necks.

I’d like to see those well-fed Merchants of Venice squish themselves down this lane.

Unless you are coming in from a boat, the ideal day trip is the morning for Chioggia and afternoon for Venice, thereby missing the worst of the crowds. You’ll be able to compare and contrast your impressions of the most famous seaside town in Italy, and perhaps the least, all in the same paragraph.

Not the Grand Canal, but a regular office buildings where staff park their boats on the water. It gives new meaning to the phrase underground parking.
Feature photo: a typical side canal in Venice.

Chioggia: the “local’s” Venice you shouldn’t miss

When the architect and owner of the villa you have rented in Verona says you must visit Chioggia instead of Venice, you listen. First in disbelief (we’d never heard of it), then skepticism (until his architect wife chimes in, agreeing), and finally with an open mind and consideration.

“It’s only forty minutes south of Venice,” Stefano explained, “you must go.” As if sensing our reticence, he and his wife peppered us with the reasons. “It’s older than Venice,” he started. “And it’s a fishing village with real, working people.” Stefano added that Chioggia has the longest beach in Italy, better food and is far cheaper.

“It has the oldest clock in the world,” added his wife. “You will have a much better time in Chioggia. Trust us.”

The oldest clock in world, and in a town we’d never heard of? That sealed the deal.

Off to Chioggia

From Verona, Chioggia is about an hour and forty-five minutes. Long, flat marshes on either side of the low-lying bridge extend until it hit landmass. Coming off the ramp, the first images were…unexpected. Faded paint blended with clothes hanging on windowsills, the boats in the canals long past their prime, fish netting along the sides of the marina.

The main road off the freeway starts to resemble Venice a teeny bit more, only by virtue of the color of buildings, but the style, age and use dramatically differ.

Two rights and we were crossing the first canal bridge. While we’d heard all Stefano and his wife had said regarding an older Venice, we were still expecting….an older Venice.

One of the first views of Chioggia off the freeway. Unexpected, to be sure.

Chioggia is in no way an “older Venice,” if looks meant anything. The buildings aren’t newly painted and bright, but worn with age. Instead of canal boats with a black and white stripe-shirted rower, it’s ocean vessels worthy of a sea storm. The clothes don’t hang just from the window, but lines over the alleyways as well. If you’ve been to Venice, most of what visitors see is bright, perfectly painted and ready for the tourist. It’s only when you get off-off the main drags that you see graffiti (absent in Chioggia) but the homes are still a cosmetic upgrade from Chioggia.

Yes, Chioggia has canals, but it is a regular city as well as you can see.

Then we began to see the other side. Parking was free and plentiful right in the heart of town, exactly twenty feet from the oldest clock in the world. (Venice requires one to park, then walk). Across from the clock, stretching to the water and a mile in the other direction is what Italians call a Piazza- a shopping district. Like Bellagio, outdoor tables, under extended awnings lined the length of the Piazza. The shops are directly behind, the sidewalk totally covered in shade to allow a leisurely shopping experience. Bikes are welcome (not so in Bellagio) and the canals bridges are angled (not with steps, as with Venice) which allows for bikes.

Does this resemble a gondola from Venice to you? It’s so Seattle, I loved it.

The differences in the two towns were becoming apparent.

The world’s oldest clock and two girls from Coeur d’Alene, Idaho.

Clock admired, photos taken and education gained as we learned a replica of the internal mechanisms are in the museum in Verona, but the clock itself is going like a champ.

Not the Grand Canal of Venice, but the intimate, working canal of Chioggia
Time to explore

As we walked, we waited for the beautiful canals full of tourist-filled boats to appear. Nope. Not a one. The canals of Chioggia are not what I’d describe as pretty. They are a bit murky and green. It’s the ocean, seaweed exists and this is a living system, not contrived into a fantasy environment. Bikers rode up and over the canals, fishermen trolled their boats out to sea, and as the sun set, the villagers living in the town began to come out of the homes.

Buildings are further apart, some canals have been modified and the styles are old and new, just like any modern city.

Watching the activity was like going on a first date with a short individual dressed in their parent’s hand-me-downs who was late for the date, only to notice the smooth skin of the face, bright, blue eyes and happy, embracing laugh.

Another working waterway heading to the ocean.

Along a side street, my girls spotted what turned out to be a couture children’s clothing shop at Target prices. We spent about 150 Euros on clothes that would have cost two grand in the States, if we’d been able to find them at all. More shopping followed until we joined a growing number of seniors taking places under the awnings. The crowd was a wonderfully mixed bag of what Dominic Dunn would have called “mature women” in full makeup and big, black and gaudy glasses sitting beside others who embraced their natural, wrinkly selves. They talked as much with their hands as mouths as their husbands in press shirts smoked, making way for continual additions to the group.

A young man, about 14, coming in from a ride, giving it all he can. Not something you’d see in “that other city with the canals.”

It’s not always easy to take photos of strangers, and sometimes, I prefer to sit back and observe, which I did, requiring to you visualize the experience. Yet as I removed my camera to take images of the food, I sensed a weirdness and looked up. Sure enough, a woman, leaning out her window was observing us. It had become a common sight across Italy; an open window with a look-e-loo taking in the scene. Of that, I did take a photo.

The Italian pastime — looking out the window to the piazza below.
A meal worth driving 90 minutes
The Sugar Cafe

Caught that morning, Rog ate a half dozen whole mini octopus, heads still on. It was mixed in his seafood salad, a sight my father would have crawled over shards of glass to sample. The girls had pasta dishes and Rog also ordered a fish carpaccio, which he’d never had before. Different from sushi, the white fish (we never did learn the name), Rog announced the platter size portion to be heaven on earth and consumed the entire thing himself.

Fresh and delightful– caprese (UL), fish tartare (UR) and seafood salad.

Dessert followed on a side-street, everyone having double helpings of gelato in different flavors. By this, our fourth day in Italy, the girls had a fair idea of approximately size and cost. Imagine their delight when the portions were about half again as large, and roughly a third the price of Verona, Soave or San Briccio.

What had evolved from an unexpectedly good first date was now an engagement-level passion with the town of Chioggia.

At the Sugar Café–note all the older folks closest to the storefronts–little groups of 3-5, all gathering, community style for their evening dinnertime social.
The famed beaches

Famous to who? We wondered as we drove the mile from our eatery towards the coastline. As you can see from the pictures, famous to the rest of the world of Italians, not to visitors such as ourselves. From one end to the other, thousands of umbrellas await the flock of crowds expected to descend in the next week as school gets out, then absolute mayhem in August. As we drove along the beachfront, we wondered about parking. While the streets were empty of cars at this time of year, and the inside/beach area parking also practically vacant, it wasn’t hard to image the brutality of high season. For grins, we checked out the parking fees, recalling how the last parking fee we’d paid in downtown Seattle was $12 US for an hour, this had to be comparative, or so we thought. Two hours here on the beach, roadside and 100 feet away is 4.50 Euro. No wonder the Italians in Verona love this town.

The beaches of Chioggia. I had no idea it was Miami, Italian-style. Although, I haven’t seen hundreds of cabanas, umbrellas pools like this in Florida.

We’d fallen in love with Chioggia, and didn’t even know it. As a family, we agreed to go back the following day, conduct more serious shopping and eating, which ultimately, didn’t happen. We all overslept, because we darted up to Venice to catch the setting sun and wander for a few hours. You can compare the two cities by reading the blog on the experience.

Recommendation

Definitely take the few hours to enjoy this essentially unheard of, overlooked and /or ignored town. It will open your eyes to a different side of the Italian world, one truly authentic and in its own way, inspiring and charming.

Feature photo: the canals of Chioggia