Bellagio, Lake Como

As we hit the hills around Lake Como, the longer switch-backs now single-lane, curvy roads requiring a whole lot of skill to avoid either rock wall or another automobile. Now that we were officially out of the Alps, into Italy, I downloaded the photos of the Alps onto my computer and started fresh, as is my protocol, then started a new.

Shortly after crossing the border from Switzerland to Italy, this fixture on the horizon appears – and you know you’re in Italy!
Lake Como

The size and scope of the lake usually takes first-time visitors by surprise; Menaggio, Lugano and other inlet towns dotting the lake have their own unique vibe and attraction. We’ve gotten to know each more intimately during our travels, which changes if looking through the lens of having teen and pre-teen children in the group.

The waterfront road in Menaggio; wide, relaxed and the vibe easygoing.

Menaggio is the first town you will reach, its small waterfront area having a street or two of shops, as well as restaurants. One of the four ferries used for reaching Bellagio is in town, but be warned; the ferries only allow about eight cars, so you will be waiting an hour if you don’t get your place in line. My favorite aspect of Menaggio is taking the short walk (or drive) nearest the ferry because the waterside villas are massive, ornate and the grounds worth writing about. In my novel, A Convenient Date, Rick and Kaitlyn are in Switzerland for a business meeting, have a free day and he takes her to his childhood home in Lake Como. A few of these photos are the ones I used to inspire my descriptions. During that original trip, I neglected to take photos, but this time around, I did.

The villa directly across from the ferry in Menaggio

Lugano, further down the lake, is larger, the residents spread in the hills and has a denser downtown area, yet because of that, it loses a bit of the small town feel. On the upside, it has fabulous high-end shopping at half the price of Bellagio, so unless you want to say you specifically purchased your Hermes in Bellagio, do your pocketbook a favor and purchase it in Lugano.

If you are a first-timer, check out Rick Steve’s commentary on which city to visit first, and how to get there from your starting point.

Notice the slight difference in road width from Menaggio vs Bellagio? The above is a typical road in Bellagio, and what my daughter is doing was what all pedestrians must do–hug the wall so as not to get clipped by a car.
The scenic route around the lake or the ferry?

Once we decided to explore the lake and drive around the southern tip in order to reach Bellagio. That was a hair-splitting four and a half journey we’ve not made since. The ferry ride for 4 in a car was 28 Euro and took ten minutes, which we learned on the return ride after we’d spent the day on the peninsula (which is how Bellagio is typically called).

Lake Como from the sky as we took the ferry ride to Bellagio.

Today, we were second in line for the ferry, allowing Rog to send the drone up and over to our intended destination, and me and the girls to chat up a wedding party of girls. Sometimes, ferry’s with short rides don’t allow auto passengers to get out. This one does, and we took advantage of no-rule rule to walk around.

This is a view of Menaggio from the air. We shot it while waiting for the fery, which you can see is docked about mid-way in the photo. the villa I used as inspiration is right behind it.

Parking and walking off the ferry all happens in the same area, providing you with options. To the right, can walk down the quarter-mile, two lane white gravel path to sit under the blossoming white and pink trees nearest the water or on the grass, the shade provided by massive beech trees. City architects have made this picture perfect, as the center islands area bunches of colorful flowers and half-circle walkway extensions over and into the lake allow for the perfect pictures of either Menaggio in the background or the Bellagio center. This ends at the entry point of the expansive Giardini di Villa Melzi, and if you want to reach the other side (where our flat was located/the market square for locals), its faster and flat. Otherwise, you are walking on the road, up and around, taking your life in your hands.

Three views of the walk way going in to Bellagio–all taken from the perspective of the
Giardini di Villa Melzi
A large villa overlooking the town of Bellagio and the main square
Bellagio proper

Now that we’ve been a few times, Rog and I have a different perspective than the first time. Whereas we were overwhelmed with the quaint main center, steep paths leading through the narrow buildings, gelato and shops, we now realize something so obvious it’s a little embarrassing to admit. The “picture-taking-tourist-zone” consists of literally two roads, two steep paths and the waterfront path I just described. It’s basically a big U-turn you are going to walk. These are relatively crowded, everyone with a phone in hand, taking selfies, eating gelato and buying scarves.

The shops close at 7:30–this was taken about 8:30 p.m. The restaurants are still open, but gelato and all the other stores closed. It being July, the crowds were manageable. That won’t be the case in another month.

We watched (and then did it ourselves to revisit our first experience) tourists disembark from the ferry. Instead of turning right, you turn left of Via Lunga Lario Manzoni and begin your exploration of the inner Bellagio. If you are following a map, continue on Via Lunga Lario, and assuming you have the strength not to imbibe on pizza or gelato, take a right on Salita Serbolloni, and up you go until you reach Via Guiseppe Garibaldi. This is the only road paralleling Lunga Lario, and it’s a T. You can go right, but the shops end about fifty feet down. The only course is to turn left, enjoy the tiny wine, meat or cheese shops, pause and take a picture at the most crowded place on the peninsula (because looking down, the image offers both narrow street at the lake beyond). After that, you turn left down Salita Bento Conzi Di Cavour, the second steep steps and you are right back on Via Lunga.

Yet another villa on beautiful Lake Como.

From there, you head back on Piazza Giuseppe Manzini. This is the same road as Via Lunga; the reason for the name change is that shopping districts in Italy are have the name Piazza in the front as the designation to identify it’s about shopping. Awnings extend from the buildings which offers a welcome relief from the heat of the day. Tables are set closest to the street but still under the awnings, the pedestrians walking between the tables and heading into the shops. Yes, we’ve purchased leathers and watches in Bellagio, because some good deals and lovely items are to be had, but we know when to wait and when to purchase.

The narrow path in Bellagio less traveled. This is totally common outside the “U-turn” as I call it.
The real Bellagio

No, not really. Bellagio offers many more restaurants and shops, but the truth is that tourists are usually walking and don’t bother explore either.

With the two main hotels a hundred feet from the ferry, and waterfront restaurants, you can literally spend your entire time within about 5,000 square feet of the Hotel Excelsior’s front door and be completely satisfied with your trip to the famed Bellagio shops on Lake Como.

This building is adjacent from the marina above, one of the many hidden marinas not far from the glitzy Via Lunga, but taking a few side streets open up the gems of every day Bellagio.

Ever the contrarians, we went for the anti-Bellagio experience this time around. We rented a top floor flat in a Bellagio neighborhood full of locals about two hundred feet from the waterfront, about half a mile from Bellagio center. This required we walk through tunnels, up and over bridges, using the 700-year-old lanes so narrow I could touch the rock walls on either side when extending my arms.

Unless you want to pay 10 Euro to walk one-way through the Villa di
Giardini di Villa Melzi, you will be walking on the road to Bellagio. This is about 1/4 of a mile from the center.

Butcher shops in a space no bigger than bedroom at home provided hand-cut prosciutto for our breakfast, a kitchenette size restaurant in an alley filled served diners on metal chairs and a table the size of my lap, all that was needed for two plates and lots of wine glasses. Laundry hung two and three floors above us, out of sight until we looked up, hearing the squawk of birds. Three babies in a nest were being fed by their mom, which made us wonder about the cleanliness of the clothes hung out to dry. It doesn’t get much more real than that.

One of the many inlets we found simply by wandering our neighborhood in Bellagio. The water was brisk but swimmable–the wind invariably picking up around 3 p.m.
Marinas and waterfront bathing

One of the appealing aspects of renting a unit like we did was the community “square” right down our street. We’ve found so many squares in Italy are based either right of front of, or nearby, a large church. This held true in Bellagio. Our first night was punctuated with the sounds of a big party. We unloaded then went exploring.

The community church near our flat where the party went down!

Sure enough, in front of the church was a basketball-size square, with community tables set up and a massive buffet-style offering. A band played regional music on a temporary platform, the tanging white lights straight out of a movie set. As the adults drank wine and engaged in lively discussions, teens lounged against the thick, stone perimeter of the marina below. It wasn’t exactly ideal for our girls, but was fun to take in and experience.

This lovely beach is free (as all the hidden ones are free vs for pay elsewhere in Italy), and has an eatery steps away. Another area found by walking around.

A bit more walking (about two minutes) and we discovered a connected area of sloping gravel and pavement which had a t-shaped dock attached. The following day, we returned to find the area sparsely populated, even though it was about 95 outside. Our girls jumped the dock, then followed the locals by hurling themselves off the high rock walls in to the lake.

More steps! A short cut connecting the waterfront, local road to the (only slightly) wider road used by cars above.

Later in the day, we continued our waterfront journey, discovering multiple inlets where the water from the mountains met the lake. These were usually alongside villas hidden behind dense shrubs, but we saw enough of the bamboo trees and glistening blue water to appreciate the property.

Our favorite places

In Bellagio, we’ve had gelato from every shop in the main area, and yes, we do have our favorite. It’s under the Hotel Excelsior right on Via Lunga. While it’s .50 Euro more than anywhere else in the main area, the store also offers a broader selection and bigger serving sizes. Right across from this store is a marina equivalent, owned by the same company. The portions are smaller, same price and not as firm (as in, almost runny gelato). I know this is getting in the visitor weeds, but some people pay attention to, and care, about the little things.

Our favorite eatery…

Our favorite eater isn’t one of the waterfront restaurants. It’s on the first and most popular path the tourists take, including ourselves years ago. We love it for the homemade soups, massive meat and cheese plates, bean soup, and pastas. Despite our intention to branch out and not go here, no matter what we do and where we eat, this is our version of the pilgrimage to mecca. We can’t come to Italy and not go to this little hole-in-the-wall restaurant.

Another local hangout- I shot videos of the girls jumping off the end of the rock pier. They figured if the locals could do it, they could too.
Making friends

One of my favorite elements of traveling is meeting new people. This is Svetlana, who was in front of us at the gelato shop with her dog. She’s from St. Petersburg, Russia, staying in Bellagio for the summer with her boyfriend, an art dealer. She was adorable, and of course, had great skin which she covered under an enormous white hat.

My new friend Svetlana, a beautiful woman inside and out.
This other side of Lake Como

Leaving for Verona, we took the direct path, which in reality, means the single lane, lake-hugging road. And when I mean single lane, that’s not one lane both ways. It’s actually a single—one—lane. Cars going either direction share it as best they can at speeds one can only describe as uniquely Italian. Turn outs are rare, buses are common, and it was a torturous hour to reach the other side. Once there, however, the pace of traffic slowed, the buildings, while less pretty, more functional and crammed together along the waterfront, wasn’t a turn off. In fact, we thought this was the where “the real people,” of Italy lived and worked rather than on the well-known west side of Bellagio.

Important tip for parking

If you are going to drive a car and rent a place with parking, be sure to dig for details. While our flat had parking, what the owner didn’t identify is that the 800-yr. old, single lane road was barely wider than my arms spread apart (we checked this). The Fiats, Volkswagens and other mini cars could barely make it through, and at the end, the parking was in fact, plentiful. Probably is we are driving a touring wagon, and it’s as wide as a normal car. We ended up parking a quarter mile away at a park, but only after we dropped our luggage by the entry to this small lane, and hoofing it like college students on a weekend getaway down to our place. It was an unpleasant surprise, but in our lives, we’ve never encountered this before. Lesson learned; ask about the proximity of the parking to the unit, and width as well!

I just love this photo- the boat reminds me of a massive whales mouth that will absorb everything in its sight.
Feature photo: a view of Bellagio from the drone as we rode the ferry

Driving the Alps from Switzerland to Italy: Furka Pass & Gotthard Pass

Outrunning rainstorms, motorcyclists passing on a blind curve, uphill in the sleet and more craziness from the Alps

Leaving Thun behind us, we were no more than a mile or two outside the city, on the windy road alongside Lake Thun before we started seeing a handful, then groups, then dozens of street bikes zipping by us, coming from the mountains in the distances. We stopped at Lake Thun to take a few pictures, test the water and grab a bite to eat, but we were being chased by storm clouds. They were already brewing beyond Oey, and by now, we knew the routine. If we were lucky, we had two hours before we’d get dumped.

Two different views of Lake Thun as you head towards the Alp passes. Lakeside eating, swimming and skiing all set in the world’s perfect location.

Scenery admired, pictures taken and more bread, cheese and meats eaten, we got back on the road, heading towards the skyrocketing peaks of the Alps. Grass fields replaced apartments and homes, trees giving way to grey rocks which appeared soft from the road. The number of streams and waterfalls grew with the size of the mountains, and at first, I insisted we stop at every waterfall. After the fifth, I realized taking a photo of every water effect coming off the Alps was unsustainable, plus, it would probably be boring to you, the reader.

Never one to disparage a good water effect, but this was the seventh in about a five-mile stretch and I had to put an end to the madness that I knew would befall me when trying to pic “the perfect shot,” for the blog.
The glaciers and restaurants

By the time we reached the top of Furka, the mist had turned to rain, and anyone on two wheels instead of four were in trouble. Then came the hail. I was seriously disappointed because the glaciers were now half-cloaked in grey clouds and my camera was pelted as I took photos, but I wasn’t the only one.

The windy, narrow road of switchbacks, underpasses and overhangs has multiple turnouts for stopping and snapping, or as we found, resting. These hardy pedal-bikers who have the stamina to climb for hours paused, stretched then got right back on their bikes, ignoring rain and hail, soldering on. It was impressive to say the least.

Riding on two wheels instead of four is impressive in my book; hills and sleet are dangerous and not for the faint of heart.

For those wanting a warm drink, a half-dozen eateries dot the road, all with indoor and outdoor seating. Although the rain was coming down, it was still quite warm the entire time, all the way to Gotthard Pass, which would take another hour to reach.

Two different restaurants along the way to Furka Pass, but both enticing to the worn out and presumably weary riders. The bottom picture is a very bored looking woman in front of her chalet, which is located directly across from the restaurant in the upper right.
My favorite Swiss cows–so soft and fuzzy, lounging just a few miles below this dam.

As we reached the top of Furka, the rock formations changed yet again, then it was suddenly green as we began a descent to the high valley. Here, we took a thirty-minute break, darted inside the eatery, waiting for a break in the storm before heading down and out on a peninsula to take a family photo. The rain momentary stopped, we snapped in the high winds, Porsche started singing in front of the fields while I recorded her and then bam. The rain came thundering down and we were soaked by the time we completed the short run to the car.

Descending into the town of Wassen

Through the high valley we drove, enjoying the town of Wassen, it’s church in the center of town and the gelato. Although we wouldn’t reach the Italian border for another hour, Swiss-German had ceased to become the primary language, Italian was now dominant.

Very quiet at this time of year, save for a few hikers who were in the outer lying areas, presumably staying in the quaint hotels located in Wassen.
Gotthard ski resort

We’d expected beauty and grandeur, tunnels and turns, but not the development of the town of Gotthard, near the top of the pass but not quite. What used to be a few moderately sized buildings in what I’d describe as a punchbowl community, encircled by high peaks, is now a Whistler-style hotels, connected and imposing. While the two areas are being built around a courtyard, and not far from the gondola, it’s still disheartening to see the transformation of the area, but such is life and progress. The train goes right to the center of the development, and for the thousands of ski buffs making the pilgrimage, ourselves include, it’s nirvana for residents of two countries on either side; Lake Como or Thun, Bern and Lucerne.

White and craggly, the rock formations change with each pass.

Up and up again we drove, then suddenly, the sign for Gotthard Pass announced we’d arrived. Our car identified it was about 50 degrees but dropping below 30 with the wind and rain. I donned Roger’s coat, grabbed my iPhone and recorded a short video for Instagram.

Just before reaching the highest part of the pass, the glaciers appear then are gone just as quickly.
The absolute highest part of the pass where I jumped out of the car, shot the video and jumped back in.
Now going down and down…the clouds are still following but we outran them!

The Castle and Canals of Thun

“What a strange choice,” Rog remarked when I suggested we zip through Bern and Lucerne in order to spend more time in Thun. But when I showed him the pictures, he was in. Thun (pronounced tune) boasts a lake, canals, a castle in town, and another three on Lake Thune, Schloss Oberhofen, Schloss Spiez and Schloss Hunegg. Beyond that is another lake at the base of the Swiss Alps. What’s not to like? Thanks to our VRBO rental in the town of Oey, Thun was only a thirteen-minute drive.

What upgrades a standard street to a culinary mecca? Handmade chocolates, that’s what.

Lake Thun is large enough to boat, sale or swim, and the inlets have perfect glass water for slalom skiing. Homes, hotels and eateries, formal and casual dot the lake itself. It’s far smaller than Lake Coeur d’Alene in terms of length, but is wide and dramatically set in the basin of the alps.

Our first stop was downtown, where several parking structures are within two blocks of the canals and main shopping district. For a few hours is about 10 Euros, the walk through one main lane, across a canal, then another lane, another canal and then you are at the base of the Castle Thun. Be prepared to take multiple shots of both canals and streets, and the best picture of the castle (if not from a drone) is off the canal-road. Straight up and click.

One of three consecutive stairs. You can barely make out the steps due to wear over the 700 years. Slippery as all get out, even when dry.

Then you are off to the stairs the Castle Thun. You can take the uncovered set, or you have a choice of several covered with wood, reminding us all of a medieval movie yet to be made. Old, craggly stones and even older arches above us got us talking about the townsfolk required to make the pilgrimage up the up the stairs.

Entrances to castles dramatically vary, from grand and imposing, to efficient, short or long. Castle Thun’s entryway was in between, on the shorter side, solid but not overly grand.

Nearest the castle are several enormous mansions under reconstruction, the sweeping views and majestic courtyards nearly (or some more so) impressive than the castle itself.

Although the armory is closed off (e.g. non-existent any longer) a few pieces are placed in the small courtyard. Not pictured is a small café to the right of the cannon.

Castle Thun is rather small and unfortunately, a tad stark. My girls called it straight up boring, but that’s all about perspective. It’s been turned into a museum, so if you compare it to the three other in the region, yes, it’s not going to over coats of arms, silver-embroidered dresses or canopied beds of the other castles we’ve toured. The purpose of Thun Castle is to highlight the history of the town, and rotating exhibits. Even so, the walk up is worth the effort as the panoramic view of the Thun is lovely and the descent options of the covered and uncovered, narrow walkways are completely unique to this city.

The shot up from the main courtyard. Much of the castle has been turned into a museum, making the outside much more interesting than the inside–for kids, that is.
The Canals

What is pure European would cause heart attacks in the US. Multiple bridges, a quick moving river, men, women and kids jumping, diving and backflipping off the bridges, heads ducking under the lowest bridges, then popping back up, eventually trying to get to the side of the final swimming area or get smushed against the grate at the very end of the canal, where a very placid “lifeguard” is on duty. All in full view of espresso-sipping watchers eating paper-thin crust pizza, usually a cigarette in hand.

A sight never to be seen in the US–jumping off higher, medium and low-lying bridges, no age limits, no rules. Just fun.

When Rog and Porsche returned from a grocery run, returning with tails of kids and grandmas hurling themselves of bridges, we were skeptical. The water had to be too cold, too dirty and an anomaly. Let me assure you it was anything but. The city charges a fee which is given at the formal swimming/grate area, for I’m not sure what else to call it.

Canal-side sunbathing, dressing rooms (unisex and as you can see, open above the waist.

If you don’t want to end up at the very end, you can jump off further upstream, then swim to the side of the canal and pay no fee. However, the end of the line if you will has changing stalls, washrooms, a café, slide and upper deck on an island separating both canals. It’s just a bit nicer than getting out on the grass—but here, the Swiss don’t even want your feet to get dirty. If you desire to save the 7 Swiss Francs, concrete steps are on the side of the water so you don’t slip in mud. How civilized!

In between the two canals of Thun is this main street where pedestrians own the territory, shops are plentiful and goods are relatively reasonable (for Switzerland, that is).

One night, Rog and I left the girls with the farmer’s wife and children and had a dinner on the canal. It was low-key and romantic, the neon lights of the restaurants on the other side classy and demure, unlike the canals and lights in Amsterdam, if you want a comparison. Here, the tenor during the day even in the shopping district is relaxed and slow-paced, although fun and upbeat. Certain towns have a vibe, and Thun is one I’d describe is calm and happy. We just adored the two days we spent exploring the inner parts of the city, as well as the lake side area.

Both sides of the canals in Thun are equally beautiful, offering many eateries of all types.
What I liked best

Thun is easy going, from the driving to eating and recreation. We chose not to visit the several large swimming pool/areas because the lake was surprisingly warm and it didn’t take long to realize we could have spent two weeks in this one town and surrounding area of Interlaken and still wouldn’t have seen a tenth of what the area has to offer.

Tree lined, gravel walkways line the canals of Thun.
What I liked least

Knowing that when I return home, I’m going to feel a slight depression that nothing we have is as well taken care of, protected and preserved as it is here. The Swiss are so fastidious, whether it’s the backyard, the pavement of a tunnel, or the common parking space, the grounds, walls and surfaces glisten. No graffiti, not desecration of public space; its divine.

Recommendation

Book more than four days in the Interlaken area. We had five and wish we would have had ten. And this blog only covers the town itself, not the Alps!

Footnote

“Thoone? Toon? Thune? How do you even pronounce that?” Rog asked aloud. By the way, the name Thun is pronounced ‘tune,’ as in, singing a tune, we were informed by a local, making it clear we weren’t the first and won’t be the last visitors to woefully mangle the town’s name.

View from the top of the stairs, just below Castle Thun.
Feature Photo: downtown on the canals.

Five days on a Swiss Farm

We wanted, and got, the true Swiss experience

Not many people know that for my 50th birthday, I asked Rog to find us a place that was local (e.g. didn’t require a plane flight), unique (something we’d never done before in two decades of marriage) and not a lot of money.

“The impossible, in other words?” he asked. Pretty much.

When Rog came back to me a few weeks later, he was grinning like a Cheshire cat. “I don’t want to tell you, but I’m worried you’ll hate it, so as much as I want it to be a surprise, I have to tell you.”

Good thing I was sitting down, because he’d booked a newly-built farmhouse on an eco-farm on a hillside in Nelson, British Columbia (blog forthcoming). It’s owned and run by a Swiss family who’d emigrated ten years prior. The farmer had taken over a ramshackle, one-hundred-year-old home, remodeled it and proceeded to create three, descending ponds, create four garden plots, raise cows from which the wife made butter, cheeses and milk. The experience was so completely odd and wonderful, Rog felt that for this year’s trip, he’d do us one better.

“I found us a 500-year old farm house to live in!”

Wow. Didn’t see that coming.

The local market across from the rail line in the town of Oey, Switzlerand (the market was actually 100% alcohol, but then when one is stepping off the train after working in Bern or Thun, I expect a good stein is what people crave.
A day in the life

Located in the town of Oey, the Familia Herrman Farm is a working farm, which means they live on the output of eggs, veggies, milk, cheese, composts (jams) and other items they produce. The farm has been in the family generations, and is now run by the farmer, his wife Annagret and twelve-year-old daughter. A woman in her mid-twenties had a week off of work for summer break and answered an ad to help out during berry season. During our time, it was lingone berry season, so in addition to the daily routine of waking at 4:30 to be in the garden picking, pruning and cultivating, Annagret was also making jams.

Five hundred years old and looking sharp.

Of the three-story building, our temporary residence was on the top floor, about two-thousand square feet with three bedrooms, a living area, kitchen/dining room and single bathroom. One thing I need to remark about the Swiss, Germans and even Italians—one bathroom to three bedrooms is the norm. That said, the tubs are seriously long- my 5’ 10.5 frame can lounge out toe to head in each bath.

Like many Swiss homes, farm or not, a breezeway dissects the main residence with the outer building, which can contain anything–cars, shop, equipment etc.

Factoid: The Italian influence is felt across the country of Switzerland. Below the arches or above the doorway on the outside of homes is usually the inscription of the family, and its always Familia first, followed by the name of the family.

As we were going to bed at one or two in the morning, Familia Herrmann were up with the sunrise, working until about 11, when Annagret would make breakfast, usually of bacon and some divinely smelling concoction that made our mouths water. The rest of the afternoon was spent indoors, or in the pool to escape the sun. It’s been very warm during our day, the temperatures in the high eighties and one day the low nineties, which is uncommonly hot for this time of year—early July. Those temperatures are usually reserved for a week or two at the end of August.

Another element of Swiss architecture is the use of covered walkways, this one comprised of apple trees trimmed to grow in a linear fashion, up and over the path, to the tree.

My girls helped collect the food from the garden that fed the goats, gather the 80+ eggs from the two chicken coops, played with the dozen or so rabbits and lounged with the two cats. While none of these acts are individually extraordinary, what we wanted them (and us) to see is the day-to-day authentic living of a family, on a farm, in Switzerland. The twelve-year old worked as hard at her prescribed tasks as her mother and father; each contribution vital to the good of the family.

I took to walking morning and evening, doing a loop that was realllllly long and uphill if I went in one direction or short and downhill if I went the other. You know what my lazier self-wanted to do, but the pragmatist in me realized my pants have been getting tighter, so I went counterclockwise to fight the battle of the bulge.

After the daily showers, snails come out with army-like precision, huge and small. We were in awe this little guy went up a six foot apple tree, out the branch to dangle on the leaf, which, by the way, I nearly ran into face first.

One thing I did have to watch out for was the afternoon storms. About 2 p.m. every day, the dark clouds collected, quickly covering the mountains with a dark charcoal. The cracking sound preceded the thunderstorm then the heavens released its watery load. Pellets of rain, hard and furious, drench the entire area. Between the heat and high velocity rain storms, it’s no wonder this region is so blessed with the bounteous crops.

One of four gardens run by the Hermann familia.

Factoid: Horseflies come out at night, along with these uber-sized flying beetles. With the setting sun and cooler air, these wing born carnivores seeking human blood hover near the green fields, and if I walked within about five feet of the fence line, I’d get attacked. Thus, it was that my path was straight down the middle of the road.

Location, location

The quite-as-night rail line is a two-minute drive from the home, and ten-minute walk to Oey which itself has been a joy to explore. Two small grocery stores, a micro-bank, four local restaurants and two outdoor shops. Up the road out of town, we found two ski hills, one if for locals only, and I do mean, only. A small bus that goes up two times in the morning and the same down for the return is the only car that can get up the narrow road. It’s built on an individual’s private mountain.

A typical home in Oey, Switzerland, right off main street.

The other ski resort is would also be considered local, but this at least has five different, two-story chalets, two restaurants and a sports center. It’s running now, and the dozens of mountain bike paths occupied with avid outdoor enthusiasts.

Heading the other direction from town leads you across the lone bridge (and only ingress/egress) to Oey. Turning left heads you to Bern and Zurich, turning right to Thun, to Zermatt (prominently featured in my Danielle Grant romance series) through the Alps and in to Italy. In and around we have toured for five days and we want more!

What I loved

Everything I described. Our five-day, four-night stay on the farm was 574 Euro, which we thought was a screaming bargain. Goats, a pool, rabbits and farm fresh food? Any time.

The Bern region of Switzerland, lush and warm, bulging with agriculture and recreation, skiing, hiking and climbing, Alps style.
What I didn’t

The internet service has been terrible. What I thought was poor in Germany was space travel compared to the automobile which, like any car, was periodically out of service or struggling to even start up. But that’s what you get in the middle of the mountains; a small sacrifice.

Recommendation

Definitely a must-do if you want the authentic, Swiss family farm style experience. What a blast of a time.

The hills are alive…wait, that’s Austria. Regardless, this is what staying on a farm will make you want to do: break out in joyful song, hands in the air.
Feature photo: taken from the grassland in front of the Familia Hermann farm.

Lichtenstein Castle, Germany

Inspiring romance and images of warriors past

Four years ago, we were essentially lost on the backroads of Germany, which is what we refer to as “taking the scenic drive.” We had chocolate in hand and saw a few cars turning left up a long road and thought, ‘why not?’ It wasn’t until we drove into the parking lot and saw the castle on a piece of rock did we realize we’d stumbled on a castle.

This is taken from the armory, located across the bridge, opposite the castle
Getting there & parking

Lichtenstein Castle is on the way to (and about 20 min from) Burg Hohenzollern. If you drive too fast, you will miss the sign and right hand turn. Up a half a mile on paved road is upper and lower parking. The short walk up is on gravel, then arrival at the grounds. Tickets are cheap, 10 Euro for an adult, 7 for a child, and then you wait under the shade for your turn. The tours are limited to eight, which is about the max you can have in a lot of the rooms.

A little factoid is that during the war: the Allied forces had determined not to bomb many of the castles that we’ve seen during our travels, and I’m just so happy. This incredible feat of building the mini-but-super cool castle will be around for hundreds of years to come.

The walk to around one side of the castle
The tour

Sadly, no pics of the inside are allowed per usual, but official snaps can be seen on the website and available for purchase. My favorite room is the Knight’s Hall. It’s like a larger American dining room that would fit a twenty-person table. Along the upper moulding is actually a shelf with serious German steins, each with an insignia. Mounted heads of dead animals, boar being the primary one, are stuck on every available inch of wall space (that’s not why I like the room, it just comes with it). At the front is a pedestal, the kind you see at a conference facility, the wood ornately carved. We were told that from this, the hunters would hold a stein of beer and entertain the others with their stories of hunting greatness. I imagined fisherman doing the same: “It was the one that got away! It was thissssss big!”

On the left side of the podium is a secret door with a painted mural blending so well the tour guide had to open it up. This was the means for the Lord of the manner to escape the hunting room and go straight down to the den of sin, where his “ladies” waited for him as his wife was three stories up in her quarters.

This is a shot from the road down below, near the town (see further details in Tips)

The basic tour lasts 30 minutes and it’s of the first and second floors. The narrow, curving stairs weren’t all that hospitable, and that’s all we had time for. That said, the castle now offers a variety of tours, including the “Grand Tour” which we didn’t do because of the time constrictions. Next time around (if we are so lucky), I might be in for the 2-hour end-all-be-all tour. The list of tours with visuals is here.

Another view from the grounds
The grounds

Across and over the bridge is the gunnery, a round building displaying the cannons and other tools of war. It’s mostly closed off, but you can peek inside well enough to see how the soldiers shot their weapons on the invaders below.

The lower courtyard

For being so small and perched on a jutty of rock, the castle has a surprisingly gracious grounds to walk around. I can see the ladies of the joint enjoying the flowers under the shade of the trees.

What I love

The drawbridge over the infinite drop below, and the view of the castle from just outside the moat. It offers some of the most scenic portraits that even an amateur like me can pull off a good photo. I also love that pedestal and the visual of men lifting their steins, all hailing the boar that got away!

The armory is located on the corner overlooking the valley–and the only means up to the castle. This is one path
In a land where nary a guardrail exists, this has an actual fence, a strange site to behold.
What I don’t

Obnoxious tour companions. Ugh. We had another American who would not be quite, made loud noises throughout and constantly complained about not being able to take photos. About the time my mind started to go to a dark place, I just slotted her to the drawer of an annoying child, which fully enabled me to tune her out and go back to enjoying myself.

A peak inside the armory
Recommendation

Definitely do this if you have time. The tour is short, about 20 minutes, and well worth it. The grounds are lovely and small, so you can do the entire thing in less than an hour. No steep walks!

Every castle worth it’s weight needs a little dog door. Rog tried but didn’t fit

Tip: if you don’t have time to go to the castle, when you see the sign off for Schloss Lichtenstein, telling you to go left or straight, depending on your direction, instead, turn right, because the castle itself will be in your view. Doing this will eventually take you in to town, but half-way there, about five minutes going downhill, you can pull over, and from this vantage point, you can take the excellent shots from the road with your long lens. This way, you get the best (and only) shots without actually going on property, and missing out on your next destination.

Feature photo: drone shot taken by Rog as I took the manual shots

Burg Hohenzollern, also known as Hohenzollern Castle

Imposing, inspiring and a favorite

Our itinerary had us going south to Switzerland today, and we got a late start, but nothing was going to stop us from seeing Hohenzollern. Looking at the time (1 p.m.), we’d have two hours to arrive, grab a tour and then drive four hours south to the authentic farm we are renting (yes, you heard that right). More on that tomorrow, but for now, let’s focus on this incredible castle, which by the way, is still home to the last in the line, Prince George Freidrich of Prussia, his wife and four children often live in his “apartment” on one of the floors (or two) of this super-sized castle.

As I manned the physical camera, Rog handled the drone, and we tag-teamed to get incredible shots of this incredible castle. You can see a bit of the 3 sections, which started in the 11th century. Presently, Prince Frederick and his relatively new wife Sophie live in an entire floor (or more) of the castle. We missed the during our visit. Dang.
Getting there

Our map took us about 30 km from Stuttgart, and then by the backroads, so the last sixty minutes or so were dipping up and down, this way and that through the back fields of Germany. Like the Rhein part of Germany, this area doesn’t require irrigation, which is the primary reason both areas were always in some sort of war. He who had the food lived, and ironically, lots of people died in order for the few to live.

Passing through several towns on our way to Hohenzollern Castle–does one get more local this this?? (the navigation on the car shows the windy, back roads.

Off the road, it’s literally one right for a few miles and another right to the only castle entrance. Lots of lower area parking was available and 100% empty. At the very base of the castle is the smallest lot and ticket agent. We literally had front row parking, probably due to the fact everyone else was at Neuschwanstein in Fussen, but the reality of kids still being in school until the end of July didn’t hurt.

The final buildings before the last few miles which are nothing but agricultural fields. This was my stop-the-car shot, about a mile down from Hohenzollern with the long lens.
Tickets and walk

A family of four gets a discount and entrance fee, plus parking for 24 Euros. With the 45-minute tour, it’s only another four Euros! What a deal. More wonderful than the low cost—lower than Lichtenstein Castle, which we visited earlier in the day, the tour was limited to 12 people. Unfortunately, one thing was about the same—the gnarly walk up. In fact, Neuschwanstein was a longer journey up, but less fiercely steep. Hohenzollern is a shorter walk because it’s l about a 25-30% grade on the steps going right up. Several thousand wood, stone and brick steps are going to set you back 30 minutes, but we were late, so we practically ran up. My chest screamed and my legs ached, but we did it in 10.

I don’t recommend it.

Two types of paths–the first is the more gradual, then it’s stairmaster time

Of course, if we’d gone at a leisurely pace, it would have been 20, and all sorts of folks were making the trek. That said, if you want to take the car, it’s available. No horse drawn carriages though. This place is clean and simple.

A look up from as you walk the final 100 feet before you start yet another climb on the carriage road into the castle proper
The entrance and tour

Consistent with the other castles in Germany, the grounds are accessible and free to tour. Only the parking fee must be paid (if you don’t find free parking). The outside of the castles is like Hohenschwangau, because it’s expansive and lovely. Hohenzollern Castle truly goes 360 around the structure once you are on the grounds, which is pretty incredible. Unlike Neuschwanstein, which has valleys on one side and mountains on the other, Hohenzollern is all around valleys. It is literally on top of the world.

Two of the four drawbridges as you walk up, and the last one under a tower
The entrance and tour

The tours begin inside the castle, so you walk all the way through the carriage entrance, which is long and wide. Round and round you go, up and up on what was once the long, carriage drive over four different drawbridges, each one another means to prevent invading armies. Through the last entryway is the primary courtyard. It’s grand and great for photos. On the right is one of several stone stairways, one designated as the entrance.

The main outdoor courtyard–the chapel entrance to front left, the entry to the ancestral room to the right, where the two signs are placed. It looks like the predecessor for the two-story columns favored in the 80s homes built in the US.

The door is locked at all times, so be forceful when you knock, because that baby is solid wood, and enormous. Our tour guide answered, a kindly, German-speaking elderly man who showed us where to pick out felt slippers. One does not remove shoes in this castle; the oversized, McDonald’s-like slippers go right on.

Imagine your first invitation to the castle, and up you go to the double doors leading directly into the Ancestral Room. You crane your head up and around to the hand-painted genealogical chart spanning hundreds of years to the present day prince.

From there, the tour begins. Since we could only make the German-speaking tour, we were given free guidebooks with our tour in English. This wasn’t really necessary, however. Most of the rooms had displays with English subtitles. Only the smaller, inner chambers lacked this feature. Still, if you’re a history buff, grab the brochure, because it’s free and that way you don’t miss out.

What you see

Since this castle is so massive, the tour, while forty-five minutes, still only gives you a fraction of the space, but what you see is inspiring. The first room on the tour—and focal point for visitors past and present is the Ancestral Room, which is a two-story high room showing the dynasty on the walls, starting at the very top with the coat of arms for the family represented. The hand-painted ancestral chart shows the genealogy well enough for any quilter or family history expert to eye it with envy.

The castle was built in three phases–but it’s referred to as “three castles” because each one was completed on its own, not left unfinished. You can tell the evolution by the brick and structure.

From there, we were led to the count’s hall is for socializing, and we mistakenly thought it was a massive English-style dining hall, but no. Modern day designers surely copied the window seating which lines the entire room, along with tables set on either side, the inlaid marble flooring imported from Italy, and copied from the Karlstejn Castle in Prague (that’s where you can hold the eagle, owls and falcons, which I did and have the pictures. It was awesome). Since we visited that destination on our last visit, it was fun to notice the similarity. Massive iron chandeliers hang from above, ornate stain glass inlay is on every window, each offering glorious views to the valley below.

Then in to several inner chambers, a few of the Queens rooms as well as the Kings quarters. Hallways line the outside of the single floor, each and every single room covered with original, oil portraits of the home’s occupants. I inquired about the gold on the wallpaper with images of vines and flowers, and was told that yes, the room’s walls are hand painted gold leaf. In fact, all items in this castle are original, save for the curtains, which were replaced in the 2003 timeframe. You could tell where parts of the walls themselves had to be updated, because they were cracking. This is most likely due to the stone and concrete underneath sweating during the seasons, but it was insignificant, barely catching the eye.

Just outside the chapel is this heart shaped metal with vines. Apparently, the castle is home to couples getting married. Below left is a large, outdoor eating area, which held large parties for those past and present
Always interesting: the small bedrooms

As with all the other castles, the actual bedrooms themselves are teeny, about 15×10 max, even for the King and Queen. The beds themselves are twins, and shorter than an American size. We hypothesize the rulers were too busy to hang out in the micro room. They had bigger and better things to be do.

This castle offers a 360 view, the terraces extremely wide, the ledges thigh-height. If you fall, it’s a long drop.
The artifacts

In the final room of the tour within the castle is stocked with replicas of the crown and jeweled sniffing boxes, swords, flatwear and original clothing. Regarding the jewels, the guidebook identifies them as replicas, so it was unclear to me why it’s been put behind a three-inch piece of bulletproof glass, inset within a four-inch concrete frame, along with the three-inch steel door to shut when the visitors leave. Me being me, I inquired.

“Yes, these are replicas, but we are pretending they are real by virtue of the anti-theft elements just to make you think you’re in a museum.” Huh.

The tour guide confirmed what was in the guidebook: the real items are in the Berlin Palace, but the snifter boxes were stolen in a spectacular burglary in 1953.

The finale was a visit to the chapel was next, and it was as equally grand as the rest of the castle.

But wait, there’s more

Of all the floors and massive square footage (100+ thousand), we saw probably 3,000 square feet.

“What’s going on with all the rest?” I asked. I was told the present prince and his family occupy and entire floor (or more) of the three-part castle. I’d give that probably 20,000 square feet, give or take. It has its own private garden, two entrances and who knows how many square feet for staff and the like. Still, that leaves about 80,000 left unaccounted for. Still seeking a better answer, I asked the nice ladies at the information desk, they demurred; the sides of their lips turned down, eyelids lowered and a single nod of their head was all I got. It basically said: Didn’t your mother teach you any manners? So disappointed I even have to give you ‘the look.’

I’ll definitely use the look somewhere down the line in a book. It was a classic ‘older-woman-scolding another female who lacks couth.’

The formal entry into the large dining/outdoor reception area that is presently an outdoor café. This is where all the garden parties and outdoor social activity took place.

Tip: drones are allowed, and this is another difference from the US or Mexico. In those areas, historical sites are mostly a no-fly zone, and most drone systems link in to the FAA by law, identifying the air space. This means Mt. Rushmore and so many other places are no-fly zones.

Compare that to Europe: the UK, Germany, and elsewhere. A little notice pops ups, that is basically a disclaimer of damage. The operator of the drone agrees that if the drone he/she is operating damages anything, then they are liable. The airspace controller for that location has the code for the drone operator so it would be tracked and validated.

Also, the elevation rules are totally different. One can get within 400 or 700 feet of the destination depending. This means better shots all around.

Key-hole shots around the entire perimeter, starting with the carriage road.
What I loved

Everything. I even liked the walk up in hindsight. All I need to do is visit a castle a day and my body will be bathing suit ready in no time.

What I didn’t

Not seeing more of the castle.

Recommendation

Absolutely yes. It’s kid friendly, although we didn’t see any, other than our own. It’s also practically vacant, and we can’t understand why, but were happy to benefit from the absence of others.

Feature photo: taken from a drone flown by my husband, Rog, about a mile away from the castle

Tripsdrill: an authentically cool German theme park

Learning while having the time of your life

Little did I know that its Porsche would usurp me as the family social director at the ripe, young age of 13. It was she who has found multiple theme parks that never even registered on either my, or Roger’s radar. The obscure castles and German-centric amusement recreation areas have been hidden in plain sight, arrived to find we are only non-German speaking folk about.

Getting there

Located just outside the city of Stuttgart, right smack in the middle of wine country, with a chateau perched on the nearest hill is Tripsdrill. I didn’t know much about it other than Porsche said we “must, must go there,” so we drove the 2 hours from our place in Kammeltal. Parking is free, plentiful and given it was a Monday, practically empty.

Another mostly empty theme park–this is the entry point, and the “streets” leading in to the rest of the park. Every attention to detail was made in creating this park; not a flower or piece of (real) laundry was out of place.
Two parks in one

For the grand price of about 40 Euros for a family of four, we had unlimited rides in the amusement park, and access to the wilderness park, which is about a 1km drive away, although you can walk. The wilderness park has animals of all types, with an eye towards those that can be held, touched, petted and played with. The lone exception to this is bear exhibit, even the German’s have a line. But the deer, falcons, goats and every other relatively tame, non-carnivore is available.

Two giant treehouses hold up one of those dropping/fluctuating rides that make your stomach go into your throat, then down into your bowels and back again. We passed on that, choosing to pet and scratch the goats that were directly across. The bottom picture would make Andretti proud; it’s a mini-race course.

One thing about the German mentality is the responsibility-based approach. Ergo, there’s nary an attendant or monitor at any station. If your kid gets stomped by a deer or a finger bitten off by a goat, your bad as a parent. At every entry point, one, waist-high swinging door is followed by another. It’s your responsibility to ensure the animal doesn’t escape from the first, or second. And following Darwin’s theory, if you allow a four-legged creature to outsmart you or your child, you get to go chase it.

The upper left is the misting I mentioned, while the right is the agriculture area where the ride is conducted in wine barrels. The bottom is one of three water rides–note the edge on the right–look mom–no rails, or guards to prevent one from falling in.

Moving on to the amusement park, this same attitude prevails. As an example, two water log rides exist, one for kids under 13 (although adults can ride on it as well) and another for adults (although kids above a certain height can also ride). Right next to the water are paths of stone, where anyone and everyone is allowed to sit and dangle their feet. In Germany, and most European countries, it’s all about self-responsibility. If you or your offspring fall into the water and hurt themselves, you pick them up, dust them off go on with your day. Companies are protected from the consumer (prevented from lawsuits), and as such, can offer amazing experiences where one isn’t inhibited. Ergo, parents aren’t on their phones, but watchful and playing with their kids, which is a beautiful experience all around.

An education environment celebrating German engineering achievements

Tripsdrill is not just any theme park, where the rides are the end-all-be-all. This is about the full experience of educating the visitor as they wait in line, grab a snack or drink a glass of wine. Wine making is dominant in this area, so an area consisting of its own, originally-styled wine-making barn sits next to four different smaller buildings, each one with original pressing (or whatever it’s called) equipment. Sorry, I don’t drink or know much about wine, or speak German, but know lots of people who do would appreciate this, along with the free drinks served.

These are just a few shots from the inside of the castle which houses the sleigh roller coaster ride, hence, the entirety of the displays are life size items relating to sleigh making.

A few other examples include the sleigh roller coaster. This is located in a castle, wherein the signs posted show waits of 2 hours at the entry. We arrived on a Monday, so we walked right up and on to the rides, but the Germans, anticipating rush hour, take advantage of every step to educate you on the sleigh making. Within the building are lifestyles, custom mannequins demonstrating all things sleigh, starting with the stables) grooming and doctoring the horses—which actually include the horse, all the tools and items for medicate attention, and even a side stall where a person sleeps near his horses. The next area within the wait line is a huge movie screen, showing a black and white film of the old days of sleigh making. The walkway is one story up, looking down below on a recreated outdoor scene of a winter wonderland. This continues right up until you enter the ride.

Each ride has its own focus, from the kids spinning ride, where the cup is actually a bread bowl, and all the surrounding items focus on bread, to the swing ride that’s a three-story high mushroom, and the wait line is all about agriculture. The entry to the wooden rollercoaster, (the smoothest, and best one we’ve ever ridden, I shall add), is all about mill working. It’s like the anthology of using and applying lumber, the first tools and wheels, to then more sophisticated equipment and applications—cutting, slicing, and manufacturing. All I could think about was my father, who would have cared less about the ride, but hung out for hours oohing and aahing about the machinery.

Notice the wooden roller coaster in the back left? In between that and this monster-of-all wooden forts is the lumber section, where riders waiting in line get to see the history of millworking.

Me and Rog were right there with him, and had a moment of silence in his absence.

I’ve just got to mention a third water ride, which is the rafting. In the US, you have to wait your turn, the attendant directs a group one a time to get in, and that’s that. Well, here, since there’s no attendant, and the round floats come up the metal ramp without assistance, those in line are left to their own to walk on the wet, moving ramp of metal, get in (no straps mom!) which fit 12, three to each section, and sit down before it goes off the ramp, plunging in to the water below. Guess what? No age limit on the kids either, but nary a problem or mishap.

If you’re going to be launched out on a water log, do it from a castle, I say.
A note on rides all around Germany

Pretty much it’s void of lockers. Everyone works on the honor system, which means that the backpack or purse you are carrying is placed on the shelves by the ride. You set it down prior to getting in, go on the ride, then pick it up. A few years back we were leery of this, but shouldn’t have been. Stealing doesn’t happen here. So it was that I’ve been removing my pack with all my camera gear, wallet and sundries, placing it on the shelves or ground, and pick it right up after the ride is done.

A few of the displays regarding sewing–from the most basic, through to the looms, including all the machines and irons. These women worked hard and were talented!
Other niceties

Each and every ride and planter box has been treated with care. It’s as though a master gardener (or 12) have been cultivating this park for years, and this is the glorification of their work. I took over 110 shots of this park, more than all the castles and destinations combined, but know you might suffer from overkill. Yet I’m giving them credit through the mention, because it’s deserved.

This attraction/ride was all about the history and art of breadmaking, hence, they are in a bunt cake!

Another nice touch are the arched entrances that double as misters, not enough to ruin the makeup or hair, but cool you down. Not a bench exists for resting that isn’t situated under shade and my favorite part (although unused by us?) The metal chaise lounge chairs where adults could take a breather as their kids play in the park. We need these in America!!!

Seriously civilized living; the parents kick back, read, snooze or watch their kids across the flower beds in the large lawn.

The food was tremendously great, pizza, schnitzel and bratwurst, all tasting farm fresh, as well as the baguettes probably baked that morning. Germans know how to eat, is all I’m saying.

Final note

I’ve touched on the honor system, but today’s experience takes the cake. We spent nearly six hours at the park (when we anticipated about three) and couldn’t find our care. Now, there’s only about 4, double parking lanes that were full, and from a distance, I thought I saw our car, but the trunk was open, so we walked on. Reaching the grass parking area, we turned back, double-checking our eyes. Indeed, the trunk was open, because the groceries we’d purchased that day, from water bottles, fruits and veggies. Furthermore, my long lens was in the glove compartment, which was unlocked, and my metal water bottle and sunglasses were also in the car.

We realized that Rog’s remote must have gotten accidentally punched as we walked away, and four six hours, the trunk was open, and car unlocked. Not a single item was out of place or missing.

One word. Wow.

Final tip to a new traveler

I lied, another note. When it’s lunchtime, everything just down. The grocery stores. The banks. The gardening shop. Trust me, we’ve tried all three things between the hours of 12-1 over the last five days and can vouge that it hasn’t mattered what town, it’s all done for, which actually, is a great thing. Everyone takes the break at the same time, for a full hour.

What I loved

All of it. Period. The end.

What I didn’t….

That the three water rides closed at 4:30, while the park itself closes at 7. The wilderness park doesn’t allow entrants after 6 p.m. to allow an hour for late starters.

Recommendation

An absolute must if you have kids, or love German history and manufacturing. Rog and I agreed that if we lived here, we would have seasons passes. I’m not sure I’d ever get tired of Tripsdill.

Feature image: the roller coaster in the foreground of the chateau. only in Germany


Hohenschwangau, or Castle of the Swans

The original castle of Fussen

Hohenschwangau, or Castle of the Swans, as the tour guide explained, is based in a simple fact that we’d never before heard: swans, as in a pair, male and female, dominate a single lake. Around this area of Fussen, many lakes exist, and for each lake, no matter the size, it has only a single pair, as they are very territorial. The entire valley is called “Valley of the Swans” for this reason. The knights wore embroidered patches on their arms as their insignia, and the rulers of Bavaria who inhabited this castle, have swans everywhere, from the solid silver chandelier hanging in the king’s private chambers, to the solid silver swans located on major artifacts and pieces. It’s all about the swans.

The overview

Hohenschwangau, pronounced, Hohen-shwong-gow, (say that a few times, because I did, until the tour guide stopped grimacing at my inabilities), is in the opposite direction of its sister castle, Nueschwanstein. Skipping over hundreds of years of details (sorry, I only have so much time), King Maximillian and his wife Marie of Prussia raised their two sons here. Prince Ludwig, who never married, decided to outdo this castle and built Nueschwanstein. We saw the room where he installed his telescope to watch the construction of the massive castle, which is much more imposing on the outside by far, but lacks the intricate details on the inside. He was single, he had nothing better to do than fight with his mom (tour guides off-the-cuff remarks, not mine), so why not build a castle 300,000 people from around the world would one day come see?

As you can see, the front entrance is far more familial and less imposing that the castle built by Maximillian’s son, Ludwig. The outdoor courtyard in the upper right, the view from the what’s essentially the deck to Nueschwanstein
Getting there

Since I already detailed the roads, parking and walk to Nueschwanstein, I’ll skip that part and go right to the castle. Just below the castle itself is another lot available for parking, and the lake which is not actually open to swimmers, but as the tour guide said, people come (not hundreds, but dozens) and use the shoreline. No one will get fined or arrested, but it does worry the locals and tourists, because they are increasingly trying to lure the swans in and feed them. This year, the mating pair only had a single duckling, and a tourist from China was caught trying to kick it to take a selfie. Pictures were taken and she was escorted off premises. Word to the not-so-wise: don’t kick the swans.

The “back entrance” for servants, as their building is adjacent to this (not pictured)

If you are walking up from the ticket office, or down from Nueschwanstein, it’s only another 10 minutes up another pathway, this one much narrower but still paved. It’s shaded as well, and not a big deal. The first building you see is the chapel, which from the outside looks more like a hothouse. Then up to the main house, which consists of two buildings, one for the servants, storage, carriages and the like, and the other is the primary residence.

This castle is what I’d describe as a “family castle” where it was actually used like a home–or rather a nice, summer retreat. And since you don’t want to leave for church, just have your own on site.
The tour

For $28 Euro, two adults and two children receive audio-guided tours. You have an actual tour guide, which controls the flow of 20 people through the 35-minute session, ensuring you stay together, don’t take any pictures or items, although that would be hard, since everything is behind glass barriers. The rooms are cool, since each room has windows that have been left open; and the views are awe-inspiring. Built on the top of the mountain, the castle has 360-degree views of lake, mountains and valley. The Queen Marie (formerly of Prussia) had an entire floor to herself, including music, writing, waiting and bedrooms, each looking out to different parts of the territory. Just above her on the top floor is the King’s quarters. In his room, he had two secret doors with painted murals, one for the bathroom and the other for his stairs leading down to his wife’s bedroom. Love those sneaky doors.

The shield on the left was a wedding gift made of solid silver, each of the small square pieces represents the coat of arms of a wealthy family who contributed to its creation. Behind it is an ax and a sword (yes, you could touch it). To the right was a gift to Maximillian for his 80th birthday. The corners are bronze, the blue is lapiz and what you can’t see are detailed monograms made of diamonds.

The other area open for the tour is the main entryway, the reception and dining areas, as well as the what would be considered the main entertaining areas on either side of the dining hall. The unique factor of this castle is much that every wall has original, mural paintings on every wall, capturing and depicting the history of the people, the rulers and the culture significance of the area. Gold leaf is everything, it too is authentic and original. The Bavarian guides are people are rightly proud of the respect shown this castle, and its significance. We appreciated the piano made of walnut given to the Queen when she was fifteen by her parents (in her music room) and the contrast of the one made and used by the King upstairs in his bedroom (hers was nicer/more refined).

Swans everywhere! This time in the garden overlooking the lake beyond.
The town of Fussen

Below both castles is the town of Fussen, which offers a ton of hotels, but not in the traditional, American style. Most are rather hidden, are unassuming and all unique to this culture. You won’t find a single, big-name, brand hotel in the area, which is a good thing. In fact, the hotels are considered historical sites, and signs posted along the roadways show a “hotel tour” so tourists can go visit each and every one. After finished our visits, we were game, and thought, why not? After four, we stopped, but only because we were starving and needed to eat and drive the @2 hrs back home. The ones we saw were lovely (and no, I didn’t take pics. I only have so much time/blog space).

The town is lovely, quaint and also offers Fusseen Castle, but this is a completely different style. My camera battery died (shame on me) so I only got a couple of pics.
A singular pic before my camera croaked, but it the rest of it was much more majestic, although in no way comparable to either of the other two castles- this is much more basic, at least from the outside.
What I liked

The situation of the castle, the views from every window, its ornate and detailed characteristics, and the outdoors, which are incomparably nicer than Nueschwanstein. You can tell this was more of a family castle, because it has gardens, fountains, sitting areas and touches completely lacking at the grand Nueschwanstein. That’s what I’d call a man’s castle. In fact, this castle was simply deserted by comparison.

Fussen had a festival the weekend we went, which really meant more food for us!
Another day, another million calories consumed. What you don’t see is the actual “garden” in the back, past the people on the upper left. As with most beer gardens, it’s a tree-covered area where people drink beer. Rog is always incensed that sparkling water is $6 Euros a bottle, whereas a beer is about a single Euro. Porsche asked politely if he would rather she took up drinking to save him money. Snap.
What I disliked

Nothing. It was all good! The path up, the tour (size, length, tenor and information) were great. Of course, we all want to see more—which would have included the downstairs of the castle, and the other building, but life is life. Castle operations are a business, and with the volume of people and tours, I’ll have to reach another level in this life to get the private, see-it-all view.

Recommendation

Absolutely do this tour if you are a history buff. Like Nueschwanstein, walking the grounds is free of charge, but the inside is not to be missed.

Nueschwanstien : Also known as Cinderella’s Castle

After 38 years, I finally made it

Today’s castle-going journey is being split in to two separate blogs because I have too many photos, and suspect WordPress will collapse on me, which happens when I push it, which means Castle Nueschwanstien in one and Hohenschwangau (Hohen is Castle) in another.

A clear shot from the paved road up, where you can walk, or have a horse-drawn carriage (like Cinderella, actually, but without the slippers).
Thanks mom

The shout-out to my 79 mom is important because it was she who gifted me a calendar of castles when I was twelve. On the cover was Schloss (Castle) Nueschwanstien, which seared itself in my mind as the end-all-be-all of castles, and places to visit. For years, I promised myself that when I “arrived”, I’d go. Little did I know it would take me decades to arrive! In truth, it wasn’t that I couldn’t have gone before. It was just a tad out of the way when I’d go to Berlin, Hamburg or Hannover for business and later, with Rog and the girls, heading to southern Germany never made the top five on our list. Today, we realized that we were a lot closer than we realized, which made our visit that much more…how shall I say, impactful (embarrassing would be another word). We shouldn’t have waited.

Fun fact: this castle is conventionally known as “The Cinderella Castle,” because Walt Disney famously said he modeled the castle the animated movie on Nueschwanstien.

Cinderella lives, just like Elvis
Getting there

We were north about 90 minutes, the drive was fast, per usual, the traffic nil, despite us learning it was the weekend of a fair in the nearest town of Fussen. As a side note, we later learned the family history of the three castles I mentioned, and it was sort of “I’m going to out-do-you” mentality, regardless of the fact the parties were related. That made it all the more interesting.

An incredibly beautiful journey to the region, the town just outside Fussen and a pic of the mountains as we head to our destination.

The closest major town is Munich, but it’s not too far from Lichtenstein and Switzerland. On the Autobahn, time is always cut in half, so that’s something to keep in mind.

Arrival and parking was a breeze. Straight off the freeway about five minutes, in town, parking nearest the castle is to the right, with a sign identifying it was full, so we turned left, took a ticket and parked, front row. Tip: make sure you have 7 Euro in coins with you because they don’t take credit cards for parking and this can’t be purchased on line (we didn’t know this).

Tickets and prices

A short walk of five minutes to the one and only ticket counter, and another $28 Euro for two adults, as kids are free (at least 13 and under). Because we arrived at 2, our choices were limited for tours; either the Nueschwanstien or the Hohenschwangau Castle, but we couldn’t do both. We asked the ticket agent for his insight, and he balked. My husband, ever the man, leaned in, and asked, “if it were you, and it was your money, what would you do?” At this, the agent glanced around and told us the skinny.

“Take the Hohenschwangau,” he answered in a low voice. “The Nueschwanstien tour has 60 people for a 20-minute tour, and it’s so crowded you will hate it. The Hohenschwangau is limited to 20 people and a 35-minute tour, and it’s much better preserved.”

That was it. The translators are available in multiple languages, the most important being Mandarin from the number of visitors predominantly from China.

The view from the lot is top right and below, while the upper left is the building adjacent from the ticket office (which wasn’t nearly as pretty).
The journey up

Our time was in fact, very limited, because we were told the walk up to the world-famous castle of my dreams, Nueschwanstien, would take 30 minutes, unless we were going to take the horse-drawn carriage. None of that for us. Then we’d take some pictures around the external premises and inside courtyards, because it is open and free to the public. Only the tours charge a fee. We’d then have to go down, and walk back up the other hillside to Hohenschwangau.

Fortunately, the only sun on the way up is right at the base of the hill, the rest of the rather steep road is paved and in the shade. One shortcut on dirt stairs is available, and we watched an American couple and friend hand carry their stroller (with two kids) up the stairs—hundreds of feet. We were impressed.

By foot or carriage, the scenery is stunning

Sitting on the top step was a man drinking his bottle. He was in good spirits, inviting us to sit by him, but we thanked him and continued; stopping was not an option. I was going to reach that darn calendar destination!

Halfway up is a rest station, consisting of two restaurants and an ice cream station. Sweating profusely, we continued up, reaching the top in another 10 minutes. Once at the castle, you can turn left or right. Left will take you up and around an side of the castle that’s being restored; the west-facing side towards the valley and lake beyond. Then you read the massive entry doors, walk in (again, all of this is free). You can take pictures in the courtyard, or continue up another set of stairs which takes you to the “real” main square. This area reminds me of Robin Hood, where the King walks out on the deck to great the crowds, but without the king.

The first thing you see from the base of the castle.

Back down the stairs you go, and those taking the tour look to the electronic sign identifying the next group. Through the turnstiles you go. The rest of us walk down, then back around the other side of the castle. It does have an overhanging, metal grate with invisible decking for pictures to the east, overlooking the rushing river below. It was freaky and awesome at the same time, and I thought I was going to get crushed by the onslaught of foreigners with selfie sticks, all battling for the corner spot. And I thought us Americans were bad!

The main castle entrance
The “bottom” entry courtyard, which requires one to walk left, and up the stone stairway to the courtyard
The main courtyard on one side….
And turning around is this opposite facing…all the views are to the valley
What I liked most

The castle is all I imagined it to be and more. In both this castle and Hohenschwangau, the artifacts are original, not replicas. If you’ve not been to lots of castles (we’ve visited 15 or so thus far), it might surprise you to learn that most everything inside is a replica, because the value is high, as is the risk of damage or theft. It’s just fun seeing all the gifts from other royalty and such, knowing they are the real deal.

Coming down from the castle…
And least….

Nothing that can be changed. It was disappointing to hear from the staff that it’s overcrowded, the tours so big and fast—but even this I have to defend a bit. We learned more from the staff that tourists had taken too many liberties with the original items—from silverware to lamps, coats of arms, porcelain etc., and event destroying items on the wall. For that reason, about 90% of Nueschwanstien is closed off. What a bummer, but it proves the sad saying true: the actions of the few destroy it for the many. GRRR

Recommendation

Absolutely. It’s a feat of mankind for a person to have a vision for a castle perched on a hillside as well as  the fortitude and engineers to design and construct the structure.

Feature picture: taking on site!

Legoland Germany

With or without kids, make the time & effort

When our attorney said he’d used his one vacation in four years to hit Legoland in California, we were skeptical. Yes, we loved Legos as a kid, but nothing like our second daughter, who sits for ours bringing to life imaginary worlds and peoples. Still, we were unsure until Rog informed me the first rental he’d chosen in Germany is 6 minutes away from Legoland Deutschland. It’s also close to Stuttgart and Frankfurt, so the average tourist to Germany doesn’t really have an excuse not to go!

Today, we arrived at noon, fearing the worst of crowds. As you can see, it was basically empty. The car lot wasn’t even half full, only one of the seven, entry booths were open, and once inside, the lines were about ten minutes long—if there was a line. Message to you: if you are ever going to travel to Europe, go in June or July, as we have done the last few times. August is high season, not early July.

Have you ever seen a happier sign?? From the exit, you see these 2-story high legos jutting from the hill. I want one on my hill as an ode to my childhood.
Fluency

As we walked around, we heard at least a dozen languages. All the signs and communication are in German and English, but the staff goes back in forth in about six (we periodically asked the staff). While my basic German is improving, my accent is laughable—and yes, they laugh at/with me.

Everyone needs a picture with a life-size adopted Lego family, and have you ever seen a happier bathroom? In fact, everything is joyful and triumphant in Legoland, including the music pumped out around the park.
Size and rides

Two, moderately adult roller coaster rides exist, and I use that phrase because the thrill is intense but short, the rides about 1 minute after the initial journey, in one case, through a Lego castle—which I took a video and it’s on my Instagram feed. The waterlog ride is fun, and cameras are everywhere, so beware or you’ll get scolded like Rog did, when he took out his Wi phone, and immediately, a woman’s voice came over a loudspeaker in the middle of the river and told him to put it away (in German). The other locals on the log ride with us laughed, and he got the message. He put it away.

One great design of this park is that the designers constructed massive shaded areas for long lines. In the case of the rollercoaster, the lines snake through a mini lego castle, which really isn’t that mini!

The park isn’t massive, is well shaded and laid out, the three gift shops mixed between sections—think Safari, Aquarium, Egypt, China etc. I’d say the predominant rides and attractions are for age 6 and under, which makes sense, but that didn’t preclude the adults from loving or going on the rides where they’d fit (leg length is an issue). On the log ride, I needed to switch with Rog, even though he was boiling and it was his turn to sit in the front with a child, because his legs were too long and didn’t fit.

The line for the second rollercoaster was non-existent. Every ride has an real-time visual of the wait based upon where you are in line so you can make a decision if you want to continue waiting or bail. Love a choice! The bottom lego castle is where we go tomorrow!
Food etc.

Great fair all over the park, and actually rather inexpensive. The dollar is strong right now against the Euro, and everywhere we go, the quantities are overly large (e.g. we can’t finish a single plate), so I’ve taken to not ordering more than an app or salad, and taking bites from everyone else.

My favorite replica. Enormous, intricate and tens of thousands of lego pieces comprise this football stadium.
Cost

For our family of two adults and two kids (in Europe, they have a middle-range, teen cost), it was $185 with parking fees of $6. Both were less than had we shown up at the park, because we purchased on line that morning. A veritable bargain compared to Disneyland, but then again, the size is fractional.

What I liked

My favorite part/area was the cities built by Legos. It was a lot like mini-Europe in Brussels, but because these mini-city replicas were constructed of Legos, it was much more impressive to me. To this I’d add the life-size giraffes and elephants—can you even calculate the cost of that? Both girls liked the dragon roller coaster where she screamed the entire time as I laughed. Oh! The gift shops were insane—they have soooo many more projects than are available even on-line it was silly. Rog’s fav? A Bugatti race car with a working engine for about $300. You should have seen the men drooling over this endcap shelf.

What I disliked

Nothing! It was all good, and the lack of crowds divine.

Definite, absolute recommendation to go with kids.

Feature photo: taken at the entrance

Dinner and a dog attack

One of the iconic lines from Bill and Ted’s Excellent Adventure is: “Strange things are afoot at the Circle-K,” said in the driest of tones by an observantly sarcastic Bill (Keanu Reeves).

So it was that our day ended with the dog attack as we were having schnitzel, and because it’s on my mind, I’m writing about it first. (Blog on Legoland, which was this same day, will be up next).

Under the protective shade is the other half of the outdoor dining space of the Gasthaus Adler in the Holzheim area of upper Bavaria

We’d tried to go the night before, but it was closed due to the food fair in nearby Gunzburg. Tonight, we were on a mission, being hot, hungry and tired from Legoland Germany. The Gasthaus Adler Sudtiroler Speckstube, is a two-story, hundred-year-old building with an outdoor seating area located under three enormous trees, and a second vine-covered area. On the other side of a gazebo is a wooden playground area for kids, and on the other side is a pasture where the dairy comes in fresh, turned into cheeses and other livestock turns into the food that we were served. It’s about as farm-to-table fresh as one could get.

Traditional schnitzel with potatoes and mushroom cream sauce

We were effectively using our Google translate when the manager of 20 years took pity on us, and with a smile, spoke enough English we could order. Of course, all we wanted was schnitzel, but when she started to provide options, I was in. That mean asparagus soup, a meat platter of sausage, prosciutto plus a few other things I can’t recall but devoured. I’ll skip over the rest, and jump right to the part where we were eating, and a lab-looking like dog, who had been lazily sleeping under his parents’ feet (man, woman and 7 yr. old boy the whole time), jumped up and attacked a grandma who was making her way under the gazebo.

The gazebo where this all went down, and you can spot the dog lounging under his mom’s feet.

With my mouth full of pickle, I about choked as the dog lunched, bit her arm, paws on her stomach, knocked her right over on her hip as she screamed, and kept after her before Rog, the owner or anyone else could stop it! The owner was closest and first, dragging the dog off, while the woman, whom I guessed about 80, was seizuring on the ground. The entire area, which was full of diners, simply watched. No gasps, no shaking of head, just a slight downturn of noise. The woman’s daughter came quickly, the dog’s owner smacked the animal’s head and sat town. In the meantime, the diners started eating, the chatting picked up and the injured woman was led out of the area.

Farm fresh prosciutto, cheese and sausage with an equally divine, thin-crust pizza

We pondered the incident, more intrigued by the non-chalance we observed. If this had happened in the States, well, the cops would have been called, someone arrested or a do-gooder might have just shot the animal. Not here. These folks have clearly seen it all, and been through enough to not worry about a dog. Shortly thereafter, the medics came, along with the doctor and the woman was taken away. Not before, however, the mother of the dog returned from where ever she was (presumably the bathroom) and promptly freaked out. She tracked down the injured woman, the daughter and was profuse in her response-which we couldn’t understand a word, by the way.

My 13-year old expressing her unhappiness at being asked to not drink her apple juice for a pico-second. The carriage house (cook house) behind her. ah. motherhood.

When we’d eaten our meal and completed the bill, we asked the manager if the woman was alright. She expressed all would be well, but that the dog was protecting the young boy, who was on the other side of the gazebo.

“Without it’s protector—the mom,” explained the manager, “the dog was only doing it’s duty as a protector of the child.” Those within hearing distance seemed to agree, and we thought about that after we left. It wasn’t the dog’s fault, in other words, it was being a dog. It wasn’t the injured woman’s fault either, she just happened to get between protector and child.

“In twenty-years,” she continued, “I’ve never witnessed such a thing.” Well, neither had we. All in a day in a foreign country.

Feature image: the back of the restaurant.

Two (Overlooked) Castles in Upper Bavaria: Burg Berghuasen and Saffig

Both come with small townships, local people and not a word of English

Ok. Maybe a word. Hello. that’s what we got and we were thankful for it. The rest of the time, we used Google Translate and smiled a lot.

Day two/37 amounted to three hundred miles , two castles, a butcher-bakery, finding our rental and trying to make an honest Bavarian food fair. Disappointment faded with the people, service and incredible cuisine however, and we ended the day at midnight, while I stayed up until 3 a.m. converting photos and writing blogs. ha.

No speed limits: everyone loves the Autobahn

Shooting down the Autobahn, where no speed limit exists, is the real reason we came to Europe, or so I teased him. He experienced nirvana for about 300 miles and I didn’t blink an eye. 100 mph are normal, and we were getting passed at 110. I won’t tell you how fast he got that Audi A6 touring mobile going as I want my mother alive and happy, not angry or dead.

Zipping through the mountains, we see this incredible (put perfectly normal) feat of German engineering–this unbelievable bridge connecting two mountains, and why? Because why go twenty miles around when that can be shortened to about 2, that’s why. No stopping allowed, so I did my best between trees going way-to-fast.

German roads are ‘da-bomb’ as my daughter said, and we made good time from Aachen through the countryside to our first stop at Burg Berghausen Castle in Keppen in upper Bavaria. This is a manor that didn’t even show up on Wikipedia or any other searches pre-trip, but our car (and Audi A6 touring sedan) showed it on our dashboard, we were going right by anyway, so thought, why not?

Each experience we created this day is special. The soaring tree which made us stop and say: God created this. The second was me thinking: I may need to write a book about a person inheriting a castle, and the last shot, with the girls, was taking as we hypothesized what the evening was going to be like for the couple getting married this evening, and the reception to be held on the deck behind us. What a night it will be for that couple.

It’s more of a manor than castle, but rightly got the designation because it has a bridge with a moat and lake at the backside. Across from the main building are large stables, servants quarters and substantial armory at the front entrance. It’s privately held, open only for special events, but walking the lawns and parks around is open and free. Muskrats the size of a small dog ate feet away from us, and a whole family of four (parents and little ones) waddled right on up expecting to be fed, as did the single, large swan in the lake and loads of ducks. The visit was short but impactful, with Rog and the girls identifying the muskrats and hundred-foot beech trees being their favorite parts.

The horse stables, side of the castle and another angle of the front
The world’s largest, tame muskrat, swan and servants quarters
Local eats in Keppen

Despite the luxurious foods offered at the rest stops, we wanted real German delicacies. Not two minutes in to town we found it at the town’s one and only butchery/bakery. Potato salad, the likes only found in my mother’s kitchen went hand in hand with marzipan and almond pastries, as well as sausage and cold cuts. It was sweet and salty, just the way I like it—so much that I took a pic of the mother-of-all bread making stoves and cajoled the owner to take a selfie. Her first ever. She was so embarrassed, she was fussing over her hair and giggling like a schoolgirl the entire time.

Today, Rog had his vehicular nirvana while mine was culinary. The marzipan pastry as long as Rog’s hand and the little town of Keppen. This was 5 pm-ish. Rush hour.

A note on Keppen: every person here has been incredibly kind and polite, but speak functional English (hello) at best.  We have not met a single person (in two days) who speaks conversational English, although we have two more days so things may change. I’ll keep you posted!

About ten minutes later, we were in Saffig, going up a dirt road to visit the local castle, which is only named Saffig Castle, another one that showed up on our Audio roadmap but not on Google or any listing anywhere! This castle is seriously old (13th century) and is undergoing complete restoration. Personally, I like the old, original stone, and we weren’t allowed to take any photos. Side note: we get that a lot, but usually ignore it, because it’s a ploy to get us to purchase stock photography. Yet sometimes, I ask for permission and get the wink and nod, thus allaying my guilt. That’s what happened with Castle Burg, but not here. I actually received a scowl instead of the nod, so I dutifully put away my camera, but did manage a single shot through the trees as we left the area.

My off-premises shot through the trees. See what I’m talking about on the restoration above? It looks fake and call me a traditionalist, but I like the original.
Our Bavarian rental

This time around, we wanted the fully country experience, which included cows, farmland, locals and meeting more German folks. We loved and appreciated going to towns where English wasn’t spoken at all, because it forced us to speak the language (or at least use Google Translate). Our desire came true with a home in Kammeltal, (pronounced like Camel-tall). From VRBO, we found the home, and are presently perched on the top floor of a two-story home, with three bedrooms, two baths, two balcony’s and modern kitchen, with views to overlooking the small town on one side, and farmland on the other. The backyard is grass, a trampoline and hothouse garden, all for our use. Check in time was 9, and we arrived at 8:40. It’s light here until 10:30, just like Coeur d’Alene. Our German hostess/owner and her family live below us, but we’ve only had a single sighting, which I expect will continue. The house, street and neighborhood are local, mostly older folks who ride their bikes the few blocks in to town—which is a completely different look, feel and style from Ashford, and that’s what we love. One day and veritable world away from what we experienced the day prior.

A few shots of our authentic Bavarian home
Baby room, front and back yard
What I love

People walk their dogs through farmland, which means strips of gravel separating wheat and corn fields, instead of paved paths alongside freeways or streets.

What I don’t

Only four restaurants exist that only has its name listed, without any other details. But the 4 km drive in one direction gives us one town, a 6 km drive in another direction gave us Gunzburg, and that’s where we went for dinner.

Gunzburg

Even before we knew that all four restaurants closed Friday night at 8 p.m. in Kammeltall, we were intending on hitting the food festival. Sadly, we missed that too! Yet the (slightly larger) town of Gunzburg has a much bigger Old-town/downtown (because a new/modern area doesn’t exist as of today). Fun fact: Gunzurg was founded in 70 b.c., although it does look slightly more updated. It features its own main square, where we found Greek, German and lots of outdoor pubs but after 9, only serve appetizers and drinks. Fortunately, one superb Italian restaurant is open until 11, and we were seated by the owner, referred to as “Uncle.” Love that. Pure Italian through and through, but has lived in Germany for 30 years. I’ll let the pictures do the talking, but suffice it to say we want to go back to Guntia again before we leave, eventho we will be in Italy for 5 days in another week.

Our dining experience in Gunburg was tops, the freshly made mozzarella caprese my favorite
Daughter number 1 passing out on #2’s lap, who then enjoys sparkling water at the white table clothe experience of Guntia
Feature photo: Burg Berghausen Castle

Ashford, Kent

From Manchester, through Eton and Windsor Castle, eating with the locals and preparing for the Channel Train

We’d traveled down from Manchester, choosing Ashford as the destination to spend the night, taking the channel train the following morning at 6:55 am. Sometimes, the best laid plans go awry, and we’d not been in Britain 24 hours when we learned that first hand, but I’ll get to that in a moment.

Why Ashford? It was logical, pure and simple.  We chose Manchester as the airport instead of Heathrow as a forcing function to see a bit of the countryside going down the country (think Leeds Castle, Windsor Castle in Slough) and the farmland. Because it has the EuroStar channel train, we planned to wake up, have breakfast at the B & B, drop off the car and walk to the terminal. On the return, it’s our intention to drive up the coast, wandering along the rocky shores, connecting with an author friend I met on Instagram and have now virtually known for four years.

Reality of driving from Manchester to Ashford

We had no clue about the traffic from Manchester all the way down to London. Like the States, Britain chooses to use the summer months for road construction. Instead of an easy four hours, it was more like a stop and go six, slowing the pace of travel to 50 km per hour. It was torture for both rog and myself, but cameras are everywhere, so we kept alongside the locals to be safe.

So, we had pa-lenty of time to enjoy the cows, sheep and other livestock dotting the lush, green countryside, my girls claiming they’ve never smelled such a strong odor in their lives. Personally, I didn’t mind. Nothing like being thrown back to memory of being on the Alberta farm where my father grew up, in the youthful days of summer, when we thought digging in cow-pies was fun and had no issue jumping in to the slow-moving, leach-ridden, cow-trodden river that ran around the base of dad’s farmland.

Along with way, we stopped half a dozen times, each time marveling at the rest-stops which are more akin to a nice park and a bit of San Diego shopping mall experience rolled into one. I made and posted a short video on Instagram with visuals, but think hardwood floors, curving leather and modern couches, individual and group gathering areas under skylights have been designed in the center of the building, with the shops on the outer rim.

As time grew short, we were in jeopardy of missing our check in time, making us take a rain check on Leeds Castle, but did do a swing by in Eton and the Slough area, which conjured images of my last visit. I spent a few days in the area, and in my free time, went for what I thought would be an easy run to Windsor Castle and back. I became woefully lost, ending up back at home in the near dark, but the next time, was determined to do better. Once again, I got myself lost. The saving grace was it ensured I saw (and re-saw) the old town, castle and backroad streets, searing the map in my mind, which helped us out.

The charm of Ashford, all off High Street (and within two blocks of the B & B)

Back on the road, we hustled to Ashford, making it by eight p.m. Rog had selected a bed and breakfast two blocks from old town. The older neighborhood is quaint and traditional, red brick stand-alone homes with attached. While Rog took care of some business, me and girls grabbed the camera and wandered about the neighborhood. During an hour’s walk, we encountered two cats and a one man, standing on his front doorstep smoking.

First time Bed & Breakfast: Hayesbank B & B

The Haysebank Bed & Breakfast is on the corner the tree lined street heading in to town, the red brick, three story building with attached cottage offering 11 bedrooms. Gabriel, the proprietor, is German, a lovely man who helped Rog guide his car in the small, parking area behind the restored home. The rooms are quaint but tidy, the mattresses perfect and like most European rooms, lack sheets. Just a bottom sheet and a comforter. First-timers to Europe are usually quite distressed by this detail, but I don’t even think of it anymore. (Rog tells me to include these finer points in my blogs in the hopes they increase the actual usefulness of the piece. What are husbands for if not continual improvement?)

L to R: Haysebank B & B, which is on the corner of this street (upper right) and bottom is the neighborhood. Lovely, quaint, quiet, safe, and just two blocks from town.

For dinner, we walked about two blocks west, across a street and under a portico we emerged to see Old Town, instantly transported to the 17th century. The girls remarked the buildings looked original, and most certainly the streets and narrow passages were intact and unchanged from the forefather’s layout.

(As I’m typing this piece as we ride the Eurostar through France, on the way to Brussels, thinking I should be looking outside—so I stop, and we are going by so stinking fast, I wouldn’t be able to take a picture if I wanted to. Oh well!)

The question of food

We searched for “authentic English” food, and you know what? Other than pubs, which aren’t the places to take our girls, instead, we found were Arab, Indian, Chinese and Mediterranean cuisine. It was a culinary melting pot, exactly what Britain has become and is. After twenty minutes of wandering, we gave up, going back to the Mediterranean, which was mix of Greek with a splash of middle eastern.

This is High Street, in Old Town, Ashford, Kent. About half-way down is The Fountain Kabob.

We were expecting Switzerland prices and serving sizes, but it was more like the outrageous portions of the Cheesecake Factory for under thirty dollars. I couldn’t eat half my meal, nor could the girls, and even Rog was hard pressed to finish his lamb and pita. The three gentleman at the Fountain Kabob on High Street, a hole in the wall eatery on the main old town street (and only establishment with a neon sign) were lovely.

Happy and full, we wandered up and down High Street, then branching off on either direction, ending up at St. Mary’s Church. It was closed to visitors but the grounds were open, and we did a full circle of the 17th century house of worship. The grounds are small but well-kept, the wrought iron fencing original.

St. Mary’s Church: straight out of a Pride & Prejudice novel
A neighborhood rap party

In bed by around ten thirty (well, they were, I was up until midnight), the breeze picked up, which was an answer to prayers, because it became very muggy around seven. The downside was someone, somewhere, in one of the local homes or flats, started blasting the UK version of Wiz Khalifa, LOUD. Now, I’m good with some wanna-be Wiz, but not at 1 a.m. on a school night. Ears ringing, windows rattling, the punctuated swear words like a rock hitting the wall, increasing in strength that it finally woke up Rog and Porsche, who can usually sleep through the zombie apocalypse. He mumbles for a bit, after at 2 a.m. rises and gives me warning: It’s coming.

Standing at the window, he shouts: “Are you kidding me? Can you turn it down please? We are trying to sleep!” Imagine Rog, yelling at the top of his lungs, waking the entire neighborhood as he seeks to quiet the music. Porsche jolts up right in bed, I hold my breath, wondering if we are going to have a incident far larger than the music itself, but the music turns shuts off immediately. The street goes dead silent. At that point, Porsche starts to mutter that on the scale of extreme, “Dad is a twelve,” she says. I start giggling, because I thought Rog sounded like a madman. The people upstairs, who’d been creaking around all night, also cease all movement. In fact, it seemed as though even the air was afraid to move because Rog might go postal.

Porsche continued wisecracking, which kept me laughing and we were up another hour. Hence, last night, I actually fell asleep at 3 a.m. and was up a bit before five.

Ashford Train station and final tips

The drop off area for rental cars at the Ashford Eurostar station is under construction, requiring a seriously out of the way drop off. Avis’ directions were worthless, and we spent over an hour going back and forth on a do-loop before it became clear we were going to miss the train through France to Belgium then on to Germany. That was $700 Euro I was not about to throw down the toilet.

“We are leaving the car in the lot,” I mandated, dropping the keys to security at the terminal and calling Avis. I hypothesized the price we may pay was far less than screwing up our entire itinerary. The great news is this: the attendant outside the Avis station (which was closed) willingly took the car keys, then the Eurostar manager (an equally pleasant gal) accepted our tickets, learned of our plight and sent a note to management, and in five minutes we were going through French customs just in time to be led to platform 4 for boarding. The girls thought it downright Harry Potter, the only difference being the bullet-like train speeding forth minutes after we made it to the platform.

The march from the international train to the massive, city-like structure within Aachen, Germany. Marble walls, clean floors, quiet and sooth running, like most German things.

Another tip (while I’m thinking about it). We saved the money for the Ashford to Brussels leg of the trip, purchasing economy. It’s open seating (not assigned) and we lucked out with the girls getting two seats together. Me and Rog are spread out, but his mate is working and mine is sleeping, most of the occupants (as I surreptitiously glance around) are professionals heading to the city, and a few mid-twenties men clearly way too spry for this time of the morning. Quiet and comfortable, even economy is a great experience, no food or wi-fi, but plug-ins galore. The next leg is business class, assigned seating with tables and I’m hoping for a few photo opps.

Am I working at all??

For five of the nine-hour flight from Seattle to Manchester, I wrote the framework for two new books. I felt like a prisoner released on parole, because three months ago, Rog mandated I not start outlining or work on a new book, but focus on the family and travel blogs. Needless to say, the dam burst forth, but I’m telling you what. Like an explosion of water, what erupted from my mind was messy! After being out of it for that long, it felt as though my desire was cruising along in fifth but my car was struggling between first and second. It may turn out what I wrote ends up in the garbage, and that’s ok. At least I was able to get back to it, and it felt good.

Feature Image: off High Street in Ashford, an original building now housing an Indian food restaurant. A completely modern day representation of old and new worlds unified.

The Divinity of the Duomo Cathedral

The must-do of Milan

What would take us away from sunny Lake Como south to Milan? The Duomo Cathedral truly one of the most magnificent churches ever built. The construction required thousands of skilling craftsman, each specialized in their own trade, passing along their expertise and tribal knowledge through generations of time. After hundreds of years and plenty of archbishops, the Duomo stands as a testament to the ingenuity and sheer determination.

A view from the main worship area within the cathedral
The journey & parking

Milan, (or Milano, as the locals and country signs call it) is a city of approximately four million. The drive from Como took approximately four hours. Having never had our own car in Milan before, we were initially hesitant, then had a moment of clarity. We drive all over the place, from Los Angeles to New York, Berlin to Boston, which are far larger. Milan proved to be a piece of cake. Straight in we went, found street parking for a few bucks, and even got a caprese appetizer on a side street before walking a few blocks to the cathedral.

We arrived to find a part of the cathedral under reconstruction, and a whole lot of military personnel protecting the national landmark. Neither bother nor obstructed us whatsoever. The main square was less than half-full, the day overcast and cool. In other words, a perfect day to visit.

Every entrance is guarded (as you can see behind me) and parking on some of the closets streets is only for service or military vehicles
The fees and expectations

If you want to take your own photos, an extra charge of $5 is required, but completely worth it. The columns, stained glass windows, and 15,800 pipe organ make it worth the money. Because it was a slow day, the inside wasn’t crowded in the slightest, which was a good thing; the mausoleums holding the deceased archbishops were worth snapping a photo, which we did multiple times.

Street parking all around–this was a Thursday afternoon

The tourist information identifies which archbishop was responsible for a particular section of the Duomo, which shows the link between general manager, if you will, and what was created. Imagine the vision of these guys, who knew their contribution was vital, but they’d never see the completed work in their lifetime—or for several lifetimes to come. Talk about commitment. Most of us can’t see a few years in front our faces, let alone decades or centuries.

My number one recommendation is don’t go when service is in session!

My mother plays the organ, so I’m a bit familiar with the instrument. The long, metal rods scaling up from the balconies make it the largest organ in Italy, and in the top 15 instruments in the world.

Beyond the cathedral

If churches, architecture or history isn’t your thing, don’t despair. The Duomo Square has shopping area known as the Piazza Del Duomo. Think the Mercedes Benz clothing/jewelry store and the like, along with multiple outdoor eateries. If your traveling partner is at the Domo, you can easily spend an hour wandering through the shops or taking in a hot, chocolate mousse drink as I did (which was more like pudding, actually).

The entire visit will run you no more than two-four hours, depending on your tastes. That leaves a lot of time to explore other parts of the city.

Just one of many, many entrance doors
What I liked best

All if it, the area, the cathedral, shopping, eateries, you name it. I even got the military guards to smile and take a picture with me, and they accommodated!

What I liked least

Nothing. Nada. It was as perfect as the day could get.

Feature image: The Domo, taken from the main square

The best of Bellagio

Lake Como, Italy is more than a single body of water

“Are we going back to Bellagio?” is how Rog remembers asking the question. My recollection is slightly different. I thought it was more akin to “We are going back to Bellagio,” the statement said with a bit of force.

The town holds a singular point of divinity for Rog, which would similar to a devout Christian would think of the Garden of Eden being placed in your back yard. In other words, heaven on Earth. Nope, this isn’t the hotel in Las Vegas, Nevada mind you, but the slim peninsula situated on Lake Como.

The beauty of the Italian Alps–this was just a random stop at a persons home, and I couldn’t resist (they were polite and pleased I adored their home/view)
It’s all about the food

The similarity centers on food, the apple in one instance, but meats, cheese, and yes, a few apples on this one. You see, by the time we arrived in Bellagio, we were starved. We roamed the streets, getting in a few sites before stopping at a restaurant situated half-way up a narrow allow, but wide enough o allow a two-person table. We took the waiters recommendation, ordering what we thought would be an appetizer-size plate. It turned out to similar in size to a large pizza, the wooden plate laden with an assortment of cold cuts, cheeses and fruits, fresh bread, crackers and all types of jams.

This was culinary nirvana for Rog: massive quantities of the authentic fair. So it is that we are taking the girls back this summer, his hope to find this exact eatery once again and replay the experience that made such an imprint. Shopping? Yeah, we did that, purchasing items for relatives at seriously discounted prices given the currency exchange. The ferry ride? Check. Walking the waterfront? Yep. Traipsing up and down the narrow streets, indulging in the local gelato? You betcha. But nothing…nothing ranks up there in Rog’s mind like that platter of food. Me? I was along for the ride, literally. I loved it all.

Narrow streets (this was actually one of the wider ones), no lane markers, the motorcylists racing between cars already packed like sardines in a can. This is where I got the idea to have one of my lead characters in the Danielle Grant series die while on his motorcycle. It’s real!
The journey, and I’m going to throw in Menaggio and a bit of the Lake itself

This day trip to Bellagio started out as a one-day itinerary once we arrived in Lake Como. To the uninitiated, the locals, and Italians spell the lake Como, pronouncing it “oh,” as in Lake “Coh-moe”, slightly different that Americans, who tend to spell it “Cue—oh-moe”, and spell it with a ‘u’. It doesn’t really matter, because the either way, it’s big, diverse and takes a while to drive around.

From Zurich, we went over the Swiss Alps, using the road favored by touring bikers (motorcyclists) and the sports cars who thrive on the twisty-turvy road. Along the way, you encounter the Contra Dam, cows and a dramatic change of scenery (which I partially cover in my blog on those topics).

What we didn’t expect to see was such a dramatic change once we reached the top of the mountains, seeing the planted Italian flag. The differences were stark. The roads, just as twisty, were not as well maintained, so we had to be careful of the potholes and general condition, yet we were so captivated with the views and architecture of the hillside homes it didn’t matter. Mountain lakes like Lake Lugano were dark grey, the clouds giving the glossy covers a matte finished look. The roughly three-hour drive from Zurich ended when we hit the first down on Lake Cuomo, Menaggio.

The top of the mountain has a mother Mary statue for safe passage of travelers. I was safe but I was cold!
A plethora of towns

Unlike my adopted home town of Lake Coeur d’Alene, Idaho, which is 22 miles long, and retains the name wherever you are actually located, Como has townships dotting the shoreline. In the States, certain areas are named (Loffs Bay, Mica Flats, etc.) but those are informal neighborhoods. On Como, each township is just that: its own town, with a center, police force etc. We stayed in Menaggio at the north end, choosing a place right close to the tunnel for ease of access to what we’d call a freeway, but is more like a narrow, two-lane road. We also desired a pool, (thinking it was going to be hotter than it was), parking (hard to come by) walking distance to the center of town and most of all, the ferry.

Menaggio offered all of that, but then we learned, so do many other little areas. This summer we decided to be closer to Bellagio and are staying on the opposite side of the lake in Verena, the ferry ride to Bellagio about five minutes, versus the fifteen from Menaggio.

The official marker in to Italy was anti-climactic. I wanted officers and a stamp (as I wrote in one of my novels) and I got crickets.
Hillside rentals

The relatively low prices of rentals on the lake are what astounds most folks (Americans) we speak with. I believe it’s because the impression is one of such exclusivity for the lake itself as the vacation spot for celebrities and the wealthy. The reality is the hills are full of vineyards cared for by the full-timers, and the price of top floor penthouse is less than $2,000 US for ten days, the private elevator, parking, three-bedroom, three-bathroom flat with five decks a bargain.

Top deck view, the tunnel to the North in the background. It was quiet however, barely a sound. The hill behind our flat were vineyards.
Back to Bellagio

The first time we visited Bellagio, we decided to drive, and it was a journey of about five hours all the way down and around the southern tip of the lake, then up to the peninsula. Nope, we had no idea it was going to take this long, but with only a single, extremely narrow road to navigate and a ton of stop lights, we made it as quickly as possible. Needless to say, we took the ferry on the return trip, and the journey was shortened by about 5 hours (it was only a fifteen-minute ride across the lake!)

The ferry schedule is every thirty minutes all day, docking portside to the center of town

Bellagio has two faces, really. The center of town, which is flat and lakeside. This is where quite a few of the major shopping takes place (think Hermes and the like). Yet dozens (hundreds?) of smaller boutiques with Italian goods dot the steep alleys that extend from the center up the hills. The majority are perhaps the size of my living room, crowded with silks of all types, jewelry, shoes or purses—the kind of things favored by women from out of town (me!). You’d think I would go crazy, but actually, I didn’t. I stopped after purchasing a few leather bracelets, because I’d seen quite a few of the same items in Lugano (another township) at a lower price—roughly 30%. I held my money and went back to Lugano to purchase a purse and a few other things, still enjoying the experience of Bellagio without feeling like an irresponsible shopper. To give you an example, a purse I’d seen in the US was $700. In Bellagio, that same purse was $500, which is quite a discount. In Lugano, it was $300. No that’s called savings.

Steep, narrow walkways–this was one of the less traveled–others can be wall-to-wall people

The other face of Bellagio is just outside the center, within walking distance, and it’s what I’d call the local areas. Lovely, mostly empty beaches, gardens and what I’d call sitting areas—secluded spots with benches for sitting and watching the ducks on the water. We could only rationalize that those who come to this lake want to “be seen” at the hotspots either on a boat or on a packed beach, rather than enjoy the quiet and romance that’s actually available and free! So it was that we went exploring and, in an hour, counted four different waterside areas, all in the area of Bellagio, all as free of people as the next one. On several occasions, these public areas were right next to high-end hotels. Glancing through the trees separating hotel from the public area, we saw the pool area packed with sunbathers, the chairs right next to one another. It’s all a matter of preference, we surmised. If you want to come to the lake, sit poolside and be pampered, then you have plenty of options.

Lakeside pools offer slips for boats but also much warmer water than the glacier-fed lake
The waterfront

By now, you are probably sick of reading my commentary on “the waterfront” of whatever lake we’ve visited. Sorry, it’s going to continue. Upon reflection of my seeming obsession with waterfronts, perhaps it’s because they are all so different—country to country and town to town. Such care and attention is given to the trees, pathways and facilities, more than often I feel like I’m in some version of Cinderella’s castle and the ferry godmother is going to pop out and grant me a wish.

The lovely (and basically empty) pathway leading to the center of Bellagio

And on that note, don’t be afraid to drive that rental car to Lake Como or pick one up when you arrive. Parking is plentiful in the Lake and surrounding areas. Not all rental homes have parking, but many do, as well as the hotels.

What I liked best

Each township has its own vibe, culture, eateries and destinations to see. It’s no wonder people come for a month and spend days roaming the 146-kilometer areas. If you are bored and want to visit the celebrities, I found this guide just for you, which also gives you some options as to how to best get to the lake.

Up the hillside are villas and wineries
What I liked least

The driving! Whoa, never in our lives have we encountered the insanity of the one-way, narrow, basically lawless driving along the lakeshore, particularly between and within the smallest of the townships. Because we have gone at the beginning of the summer (June and to mid-July), instead of the high season, which is August, we didn’t even experience the worst of it, but what we did encounter was enough. Oh well, it’s part of the experience.

Feature image: taken from the deck of the flat


St. Moritz, crossing the Swiss Alps, Italy, oligarchs and cows

When the destinations create the scene

Today we spent the afternoon with an executive from a research firm and his voice over actress wife. As we toured the neighborhood, the conversation eventually went to the subject of travel, and if my journeys inspire my novels, or was it the other way around? Did I get an idea of a destination and then go there for the final research?

That led me thinking and discussing Switzerland, which is off schedule for my blogs, but I’m pausing to cover a few areas I realized I’d completely skipped over. The Swiss Alps, the “James Bond” Dam, handcrafted homes perched on the hillsides, defying the natural laws of gravity, the homes of the Russian oligarchs in St. Moritz, along with the painfully expensive whole hazelnut chocolate bars and handmade clothes in town, and last but not least, the cows. Yes, the cows, but I’ll get back to that.

Each and every one of those items found a mention in my books. For this piece, I’m mixing it up. Rather than give you the standard play-by-play route we took during this particular trip that served up the creative buffet, I’ll break it down in to the scenes I wrote. A fun change for me and perhaps more interesting for you.

Zurich

In a previous blog on the penthouse we rented, I mentioned the tree-lined streets along Lake Zurich, my fictitious, but not totally fictitious wealth management building. I witnessed a father in an overcoat, exiting a U-shaped building eerily similar to the Walldorf-Astoria in New York. He had a young boy and girl on either side, equally well-dressed.

The drive out of Zurich leads along the river, then up to the mountains, but this road was chock full of road bikers–and by that, I mean BMW touring bikes. Lots of them.

I thought to myself: he looks like a serious billionaire, and those are his fortunate offspring. It was the place a man like Lars Egle, one of the lead characters would live, and that’s where Danielle inadvertently runs in to Lars in the lobby near the end of Made for Me. The scene was exactly as I imagined, and it all came about watching that split-second interaction of the father and children. (I thought taking a pic was tacky, but more importantly, I couldn’t get my camera out fast enough and missed the pic).

On the way up and it’s getting colder–but I refused to put on a coat until the very top
The cows

Leaving the city, driving alongside the river to the Alps was another scene, this time with Andre, Danielle’s first love in Zurich (also in Made for Me). Escaping their struggle in their lives, they ride his motorcycle out of town, going up the beautiful, windy hills, seeing the cows. The inspiration for this was the very ride we took on our way to Milan, with a stop through to St. Moritz. We ogled at the green river to our left which looked more like a flowing glacier than river. The cows were so large and the fur seemingly so soft, we stopped the car, got out, and approached. They had the massive, old-school cowbells that I didn’t actually think existed outside the movies. The fence was a flimsy little thing, which wouldn’t deter a thief whatsoever, and the cow was completely unconcerned when I rubbed its head. Now, this may come across as odd, but I’ve touched a lot of cow hide-it had been rough, not smooth. This breed of Swiss cow was more like cashmere. I was so taken with the entirety I mentioned in the book, along with a grove where Andre and Danielle have a romantic interlude.

Yeah. The cows inspired that—and I really love that scene.

Look at that fur. You can see from the photo it looks like the hair on a child!
Not just in postcards or promotional videos. This is the real deal–the actual road. I snapped this as I turned around in the car to get “the view down the hill.”

This road had a scene between Kaitlyn and Rick, where he pulls over and asks they set aside their “convenient date” status to be something that’s special to this place and time in their lives.

The James Bond Dam

In actuality, this is called the Contra Dam, as well as the Verzasca or Locarno Dam, was made famous worldwide in Goldeneye when (as stunt man, standing in for) Pierce Brosnan bungee jumps over the edge, straight down, fires the gun, locks it, then penetrates the soviet stronghold. I’m telling you what: never in all my life have I seen a dam like this, and I’d thought the Hoover Dam outside Las Vegas was impressive. Not even close. Perhaps my long lens would have captured the magnificence a bit better, but my shorty had to do. The Dam gets a mention in several books, not just one.

Contra Dam–the best shot from the road looking up
St. Moritz

Now this town had its inspiration in my dad, who often spoke of going to St. Moritz (pronounced San, not Saint) when he was a young man, then later as he traveled for business. He’d speak of the town, the food and above all, the ability to get custom clothes and shoes made. It would be decades until I got to experience the town myself, and my that time, it had been so built up in my mind I wasn’t sure if it was going to meet expectations. Well, it exceeded all I’d imagined. The streets were/are still narrow yet uncrowded. The small shops with exquisitely made, half-million dollar watches next to an ounce of hazelnut chocolate for $15 francs and cashmere clothes that made me drool. I wrote about all these items in A Convenient Date, where the lead characters, Kaitlyn Reid and Rick Santos visit the small town for a conference.

Everything is appropriately expensive in this lovely little town, from watches to chocolate. I purchased the chocolate:-
The gondola ride and the Russian Oligarch

Now this was fun and totally unexpected. In June, the snow is gone, but St. Moritz is still rather chilly. Rog and I had been discussing (aka arguing) about where to stop and eat, but it was sort-of between seasons (ski/winter and summer/tourist), which meant most of the places weren’t open. Undecided, we went to the gondola and took a ride. In we went, over the town and up mountain, getting the birds-eye view of the spectacular homes resembling fortresses on the mountain. At that moment, I visualized a scene with Lars and Danielle (back to Made for Me), riding the gondola, her asking him about the home, and him telling her it was the resident of a client, a Russian oligarch.

After the gondola ride, we were able to take the car and go directly up the roads. No gates, no security guards. I guess St. Moritz is so secure and area so safe, no one bothers with such piddly things.
By this time, I donned my coat (still in St. Moritz), but Rog is sporting shorts and a t-shirt like it’s warm.
The crossing in to Italy

You can imagine my depression when we slowed down at the border between Switzerland and Italy, thinking the Italian guards were at least going to check our passports. They barely looked up before waving us through. I was ready, passport in hand, when Roger looked at me some undiluted pity. “That’s the whole point of the Eurozone.” Duh. I moped, putting it away, feeling stupid, but still disappointed. I channeled this scene in to A Convenient Date, when Rick takes Kaitlyn for a drive to his childhood home on Lake Como. On the way, she remarks on the slate-topped homes of Italy, which were so very different from those in Switzerland.

Slate, slate, slate….the change in materials once in Italy was dramatic and powerful
Feature image: the hills of the Alps, outside St. Moritz


Mayan Ruins: Coba, Tulum and Chitzen Itza

Which ruin to visit and why

Tulum, Coba and Chitzen Itza are three different spots with famous ruins of the Mayan Culture. Having been to all three, I’m using this blog to point out the differences between the areas, with a specific focus on ease of the journey, what you can expect to see, and if the experience will be worth your time, particularly if you have a family. Because you have the jungle (Chitzen Itza) and the beach (Tulum) with Coba right in the middle, you have variety!

The highlights

Chitzen Itza is approximately three hours outside Cancun, a mostly straight drive which allows you to speed right along. The best time to go is either before the buses head out of town (roughly nine-am) or in the early afternoon, which guarantees you’ll miss the crowds. It’s uber hot and muggy in the jungle of Chitzen Itza, with zero breeze. The area is expansive with incredible structures and lots of history, but after an hour, my girls were ready to go. The colosseum-size area where gladiators fought to the death (and if you remained alive but lost, you were beheaded anyway), weren’t enough to keep their attention. Most importantly, four years ago, the government closed off the pyramids; no longer is one allowed to climb the famous structures. The first year, we’d scheduled the trip to see Rio Secreto and climb the pyramids, but only got one out of the two done. Still, the history and area is a must-see if you are in the Cancun area.

Taken at three different locations around the city: the upper left is in the marketplace, the columns are a part of the 1,000 that were created, and the bottom visual represent enemies that were killed by the Mayans.
Since the government restricted climbing the pyramids, this is the next best thing. A view showing the incredibly steep climb.
Coba

Coba is the last pyramid in the Yucatan visitors can climb. It’s about two hours outside Cancun, offers great parking, and perhaps because it’s much smaller in terms of actual area covered, it’s about a 10th as crowded. We arrived late in the day, around 2 p.m., not realizing the entrance closed at 4 p.m. We paid the modest amount (about $7 US) and walked he 1.5 miles through the forest to the pyramid. Note that I call it a forest vs a jungle of Chitzen Itza. That’s because the jungle is hot, moist and dense, whereas in the area of Coba, the trees are sparse, the wood and type totally different and the air less humid. I pretty much suffered from heat stroke in Chitzen Itza, because I hadn’t eaten what I should have, nor did I drink as much water. At Coba, it was like being in Idaho, dry and arid. If you don’t want to walk, you can either rent a bike, or be transported (by bike) to the pyramid. The climb is a @400 steps up, and the view can’t be beat. It’s incredibly steep, with a rope to aid climbers—but the climb up isn’t that hard. It’s the way down that’s spooky. Be prepared—some of the steps are worn and slippery.

The drive to Coba was our favorite of the three. Long stretches of pavement with interesting sites along the way.
Yep, it’s as steep as it looks. You can tell the difference in building styles and structure from Chitzen Itza.
Tulum

Situated on the gold coast, the ruins of Tulum appear on about every photographer or traveler’s web site, so we were uber excited to go. Well….I just want to say this: the buildings are short and modest if you compare it to Chitzen Itza. That’s not to say the history isn’t fascinating, which it is, or that the architecture isn’t worthwhile! But for children 9 and 13, after seeing CI and Coba, Tulum was a total and complete let down (for them). As an adult, I found the historical tour fascinating, marveling at the engineering prowess of the Mayan’s, their ability to identify time, the setting and rising sun, building their structures to capture the exact time and place of both for specific rituals. All this was lost on our girls. However, the private beach which is open to the public did get their attention, so note to the visitors. You can swim in the area, but the park doesn’t offer showers or changing facilities, so if you go in the water, you’ll be sticky on the way back.

About the only picture I salvaged from Tulum!
Out of the three, what do I recommend to you, the person who may have only one day to travel?

Well, I must say you have to do all three, but the order is fully dependent on your personal preference. If you want to climb the only pyramid in North America which is available (outside Belize, which was seven hours away from Cancun, and that was just too far), then you MUST to Coba. Here’s the good news: it will take you less than four hours to drive, climb and leave, and there’s really nothing else for you to see down there. With that in mind, you can hit Tulum on the way back, and then you have hit both in one shot!

If Chitzen Itza is on your bucket list, then by all means, go the other direction. Sadly, my entire folder of shots got wiped out due to my lack of backup skills, so I can only offer a few I’d sent to my Instagram account.

From the edge of the top, looking down. Definitely think twice if you are afraid of heights. We observed grown men having serious issues going down.
Safety and security

We’ve found that most of the tourists we run into are afraid to drive a car or get on a bus to most of these locations. I’ll admit my personal utility for hopping a bus is low—it extends the drive time immensely! But if you have a rental car, which we always get, we’ve never felt unsafe driving in and around Cancun. Local patrols are everywhere in the city, and once outside the limits, it’s mostly farmland, cattle, cenotes and little towns.

Feature image: taken with the wide angle iPhone from the top of Coba

The underground world of Rio Secreto

Named National Geographic’s top 10 places to visit in the world

When we saw Rio Secreto on the National Geographic channel, we were skiing in Idaho, surrounded by snow. The show said Rio Secreto was one of the top 10 places to visit in the world (this was four years ago) and it was the reason why we decided to visit the Yucatan Peninsula in the first place.

Hundreds of cenotes exist in the Yucatan Peninsula, more than one could visit in a lifetime. A cenote is a waterway that’s either partially or wholly covered by rock. The cenotes are fresh water, some stretching hundreds of miles, making their way other waterways and to the ocean. About ten years ago, a farm watched a stretch of his land give way, revealing a secret river underground. Explorers converged, confirming that the area now called Rio Secreto, (secret river), the first and only known cenote that is 100% underground.

As you descend, you will see a few of the openings around the cenotes, so the guide will provide lots of warnings

Since the area is Mayan ancestral land, the government made a deal with the farmers (because the area is so big, multiple farmers are involved); the Mayans continue to own the land but will lease it to the government. After lots of exploration, the area was ultimately opened to the public. I’ve got some great news for you, along with bad. The good news is that it’s an incredible experience to be in the dark for hours, seeing animals, feeling the soft sand and water, and taking beautiful shots. The bad news is that in the last four years, it’s become so commercialized, it feels more like ants underground, stuck in a tunnel with other tour groups coming and going.

Reservations

If you use the concierge at your hotel, you are going to pay a premium of about 30%. That doesn’t necessarily include transportation, so watch out for hidden fees. You can go to the on-line booking center and save the money.

Getting there

Pictures are worth more than my thoughts, so I’ll start with the basics. You arrive at the main entrance, about an hour south of Cancun proper. By cab, rental car or bus, it’s a straight shot, only a single right turn off the freeway. In the last three years, the price has increased from $65 to $95, pretty steep. The first time we thought it a bargain, the second time, not so much.  This last visit we were grumpy about it, but still went, because 7 routes are available, and we’d only seen two. A bus will run you about $40 depending on your starting point.

No, not worms, but water hanging at the end of the crystalized rock formed over millions of years
The process

You arrive and wait for those in your group. The area is shaded, and one of the new additions (this year) is a small deli, just in case you are hungry. That said, once you are in your wetsuit (required), you can’t use the bathroom for 2 hours, so relieve yourself first, or you will be in a world of hurt.

Photographers tip: use the flashlight, put it under the water and then you have this effect

You are assigned a tour guide and photographer who gives you an idea of what is to come. First, everyone loads up in a bus which holds about 7-10 people, and what follows is a 15-20 minute drive on white, dirt roads to the actual cenote center. Once out, you are show the locker area, where you put on your bathing suit, or whatever you are going to wear under the wetsuit. Women and men have separate changing areas, but no inside showers. You are given water socks, and they require you wear shoes a size too small, because they don’t want you to slip. The rocks and underground trails are rather slick. That said, I made the mistake of listening to them once year, and suffered in misery for two hours. The next two times, I refused to wear smaller water socks, and just used my normal size.

Next, the group (of between 10-15) is led to an outdoor showering area, which means you stand under an outdoor shower, pull the wooden handle, and get sprayed with seriously cold water. One by one, you walk to the next station, which is the wetsuit area. (do you how hard it is to put on a wetsuit when wet? Nearly impossible. So, if you are uncomfortable pulling up a wetsuit over a sticky, wet body, you will need to get over it.

After this, you select a lifejacket that goes over your wetsuit. Imagine yourself with the water socks, wetsuit and now lifejacket, but wait, there’s more. You also don a hard hat with a light, and it has three modes; red, high and low. The tour guide will identify when to use what, and requires you listen and do what’s requested, or the tour group can’t move on.

Just before the tour starts, the guide pauses, the photographer stops and takes a picture of the group, who by now, are all sweating, even in the shade. (I took a moment to pet the pitbull lounging under a tree).

On the way to the cenote are all sorts of bizarre plants

Photo taken, we are counseled to pick a walking stick, which we later learned was useful in determining the depth of the water, and if a rock existed (or not). On my third trip, I slipped, fell forward and cut my knee. Darn thing left a scar, because I’m always resting on it and kept ripping it open. Guess I should have used that walking stick!

Almost ready

Depending on the which cenote is chosen for the tour, the walk is between fifteen and twenty minutes. You are in the effort about forty-fifty minutes by now. You have one more stop to make before you descend into the darkness, and that’s the blessing by a shaman priest. This is non-negotiable. As you stand in a semi-circle, the priest moves his smoking device up and down across all the individuals as the man speaks in his native tongue.

The shaman isn’t pictured in this photo, but his stand of ash, which gets on you, is to the right

Now we have another walk to the cenote, and all the while, the group is getting to know one another and the tour guide is dispensing information. Year one, we were spoiled; we had a graduate student of geology from the University of Mexico, who was a vault of information. Hanging bee hives, the trees, stones…you name it. Then we reach the actual entrance and down you go.

Underground ease

Each entrance and exit is different, some with a handrail or two, but most without. It’s pitch black as you are then led beside and in to the waterways, tunnels and lakes. The first time, our girls were six and 10, but they are hardy, adventurous and tough. Two hours in and out of warm water, even with a wetsuit, can be tough for anyone. At the end, my youngest was a little chilled, but fine. I’d definitely say any younger than that wouldn’t be advised.

Everyone at their finest

The time spent underground is nearly fifty minutes—but that reminds me of another rule. No watches or jewelry are allowed, which is mandated to preserve any toxins from getting into the ecosystem. Wedding rings and that’s it. No picture taking/cameras are allowed either, unless you have special permission, which I was granted once, then never asked for again (and I probably got this because I’m an author). Honestly, it’s a lot easier to have their group take the photographs and just enjoy the experience.

Taken just before the lights went out
Cleaning up, eating and returning

Once the tour has finished, we walk back, strip off the jacket, suit and shoes, take a shower, then drive back to the center area. Lunch is included, which is a buffet, open all day long. It’s actually quite nice, and one of the few benefits of the expansion, because it’s cool and well appointed. After that, you pay for the CD of the photography. That’s going to run you another $120. Is it worth it? Yep. Unless you’ve had the photography access, the only way you can get the images is to pay for it.

What I liked most

Seeing the underground world that has existed for millions of years, and the resulting photos. My absolute favorite part of the tour was at the end, when our guide took us out to the middle of the lake, asked us to hold hands, and turn off the lights. At that point, we were quiet for about five minutes in the complete, pitch black. Never, in my life, had I been in total and utter blackness, let alone in the water. It took about a minute for the group to get quiet, but after that, it was complete peace. wow.

My apologies for not recalling the names of these formations–but it looks like an upside down beehive doesn’t it?
What I liked least  

The crowds and commercialization have destroyed this place in my opinion. The first two times, they’d limited the tours to one at a time, per cenote. Now, we had four, count them four, different tours going at the same time as ours, so you didn’t get the feeling you were alone, exploring a new universe. It was more like the devil’s version of purgatory. It’s the classic example of destroying something that was perfectly wonderful and unique. Also, the last time, the experience we were hoping to have again (the five minutes of complete quiet in the black), was reduced to about a minute. So. Grumpy. (Management, are you listening??)

Would I go, and can I recommend it to you?

Yes, with the caveat that if you’ve gone before, it’s changed, and for the worse. BUT, if you’ve never gone, I do think it will be quite an experience for you, and your children unlike any other, even with the additional tour groups.

Nope, not eggs, but more great formations created only deep underground

Oh! If you don’t know how to swim, please, please, identify this right up front. On our first adventure, we had three individuals from India, two of whom couldn’t swim, and didn’t say so. The identified themselves as engineers, so they were smart, but didn’t want to be refused entry. The challenge with this is that when it comes time to the lake, you can’t touch the bottom, and must swim. For those who don’t swim, as we found out, it’s an issue. Imagine being an hour deep into the underground, and two people can’t swim. My girls were great, however, and offered to hold their hands and guide them along. The two adults were floating on their backs, and we swam them across. It all worked out, but it was a word to the wise—be honest. They can handle it.

Feature image: taken from the inside of the cenote

Isla Mujeres: the island that has it all

By boat or golf cart, come and spend the day

Isla Mujeres is well-known and visited by the thousands of tourists a year, but it took us three before we decided to go. The primary reason was the split commentary from others we know and trust. “It’s just a tourist trap,” said a couple with teenage children, while the over thirty and single crowd gave it glowing reviews. Yet another demographic, the 60 and over, raved about the exclusivity and near-private beaches available to those fortunate enough to own vacation homes. Still, we weren’t convinced. It took a private excursion on a catamaran, seeing the island from the water to convince us Isla Mujeres was more than bars or private homes.

The first unique experience on Isla Mujeres was going to the tip of Centro on our golf cart. A storm on the horizon was no where to be seen on the other end of the island
First, the catamaran

Before jumping to the island, I’m going to touch on boating. Generally, we avoid boating in Mexico unless it’s fishing because the tour operators oversell, overstuff and overcrowd the boats with bodies. It’s misery. It’s also unsafe, and frustrating. Imagine spending money to go snorkeling off short (because that’s what most offer), only to arrive with to find five other boats, with all the occupants scrambling to get in as fast as possible. Most tours give riders 5-10 minutes in the water, then usher them out and on to the next venture.

Six of us guests had the catamaran to ourselves. It was superbly wonderful. And in case you are wondering, we paid full pop for this tour. It wasn’t sponsored or anything of the kind–which makes it all the better. The average tourist (us) can have the celebrity experience without paying the premium (e.g owning the boat).

We were lucky enough to sit by the owner of Caribbean Dreams at sushi one night at the Villa Del Palmar. We learned he spent a million on his French-made catamaran, and has a limit of 12 people on his boat (compare this to 30-50 for the others). We decided to spend the money and we spent nearly five hours (versus 2) snorkeling, then seeing Isla Mujeres. The experience truly spoiled us forever on the notion of a catamaran. The cost is higher, and justifiably so. From the food, quality of the boat, staff, length of ride and locations, it’s worth the extra $75.

Just compare and contrast the picture on the left; the standard bargain catamaran cruise, and our experience with girls on lush pillows and private snorkeling. Only one serves all-you-can eat and drink (ours). Which one would you take?
Now the Island

The owner/captain took us around the island, pointing out various sites on the island that’s only 5 miles long and 2,000 feet wide. We were able to see the primary beaches, so crowded the beach wasn’t super visible—but this was balanced with private beaches in front of hotels, which were less so.  On the far side of the island, where the shoreline was rocky, visitors zip-lined from high treetops, kayaked in peace in the nooks for paddle boarding. At that point, we realized a lot more existed to this island than what was depicted in the brochures.

We stopped just off the shore for an hour or more, swimming, snorkeling and lounging in the clear, warm water. This gave us the best of the island without having to battle the crowds. The only annoyance were the other chartered boats that came up with booming stereos, killing the vibe. Don’t get me wrong; great music and drunken people have a time and a place, but it wasn’t our groove with kids. Our captain lifted anchor and we moved elsewhere.

A marina with seaside eating is right next to a corridor for yachts and larger boats. The bottom photo is a peninsula home rumored to be formerly (or presently) owned by Rickie Martin. That’s the kind of funny things you get on tours by the locals.
Getting their and around: the ferry and golf carts

Ferry services to Isla Mujeres are available from every port in Cancun. Staying at the Villa Del Palmar, we were fortunate, because the state of Jalisco invested $15M in a state of the art super shuttle ferry here. We walked the 500 meters from the hotel to the marina, paid the $5 per person and had a perfect ride over. The double decker ferry has a kids play area, food service, televisions and air conditioning, pretty much all that’s required.

Big, beautiful and inexpensive from the Isla Blanca ferry terminal

Once on the island, all passengers without cars must hail a cab or walk the 15 minutes in to centro, which is the local name for the city center. Along the way are a myriad of golf cart providers. We mistakenly thought the price would decrease if we walked clear to the end of town, through main street. While this was wrong, (they are all about $60 for an hour), we took a left on a side road, and paid $45 for a new golf cart and were on our way.

The first part of the walk….
The second part, which lasts about a mile–“centro”- or the center of the city
The island itself

Drones are not allowed, which we were bummed to learn as Roger tried to get his airborne. The island has a single airstrip, but it includes military planes, and therefore, the island is considered a no-fly zone. Save yourself the weight and leave the drone at home.

Local art was everywhere–colorful and eye catching. We do all we can to expose our girls to local culture and attitudes, appreciating the differences, talking history and present day.

Zipping up, down and around the main area of the island will take a solid ten minutes, then you head out. The city planners have made the island easy to navigate, because you can essentially ring the land by driving on a single road and it’s a loop. It doesn’t matter which way you head out of town, you are going to end up back in the same place. On your journey, you will encounter itty-bitty communities, lots of stray dogs and open-door homes, replaced with dirt ballparks, small churches and larger homes. This eventually gives way to stretches of beautiful and deserted sandy beaches, private driveways and at the furthest tip of the island, a restaurant and shops. This is the dead end-turnaround.

The end of the line–the turnaround with a few restaurants and shops. One of the colorful private homes dotting the shore.

Unless you are driving slowly, you will miss the roadside activities offered, such as the ziplining. We did the first time out, but caught more of them on the return trip. We also slowed to enjoy the cemetery, where I wandered and took pictures, while Rog and the girls bartered for conch shells.

The Isla Mujeres Cemetery….beautiful and unique
The deals

On that note, I can relate the conch shells are legal to transport back to the States. I can also tell you that they are $36 dollars on main street in Isla Mujeres, and $45 or more in Cancun, and we know, because for three years, our girls have been begging for the shell. The roadside stand where Rog and the girls stopped? Five dollars. Yep, count it out. That beautiful, perfect shell now sits on our stands of collectables at home. Our oldest daughter purchased a rough, pearl necklace for seven dollars which was forty-nine in town. Score!

The spa on the beach….

Spa is misleading, but this is what the brochures and tourist companies would have you believe. The only “spas,” per se are the ones attached to the hotels, and I’ve not been, so can’t comment. What I can relate is the experience of two couples we know who did afternoon trips which included getting a massage on a beach. According to one woman, a flight attendant for Lufthansa (who we met on the catamaran trip btw), she thought the 90-minuate beach massage at $50 US was a steal, because that same massage would have been $100-$200 on the mainland. She said she’d go again just for that.

Isla Mujeres offers different eco-climates. Dark storm clouds at one end, centro was right in middle while the sun shone on the least populated end.

We saw a ton of places to eat that looked good, but didn’t stop once, other than to purchase freshly cut fruit, which we did several times. It was so hot, even with the periodic rain shower, we weren’t hungry. Sorry!

What I liked most

The accessibility, freedom to roam, empty beaches and ability to stop roadside and pick up great deals. The Catamaran ride is a must, but that’s outside the island itself.

Stopping at any point on the road is perfectly acceptable. It’s also perfectly lovely
What I liked least

About the island, nothing really. It was lovely, and a fun day trip, which in reality, is more like four or five hours, unless you stop to take advantage of the recreational activities.

Ziplining across the ocean is different from the view over a jungle. In the Cancun area, you can do both
Feature image: taken from the desk of the catamaran

Cliff Dwelling People: The Anasazi

A visit to the Pueblo ruins in Colorado

As a child, our ancient history lessons include what was then called the Anasazi Ruins, located in the southern-most part of Colorado. These ancient cliff dwellings, located on a high plateau, some thousand feet above the valley were impossibly glamorous to my then-seven and eight-year-old self. It wasn’t until this last year that I was able to actually see them in person.

This blog wasn’t supposed to come until the fall, when the heat of the area where the ruins are located has ebbed. Then I realized that we went in early July, and while it was hot, it was certainly endurable. Heck, if people can see the Grand Canyon in the middle of August, tourists can make it to the ruins!

One of 600 cliff dwellings, as seen from the opposite ridge of the Mesa Verde National Park
The backstory

Historians hypothesize the ancient pueblo people, as they are now called, searched for safe areas where water could be collected through the seasons, and used to supply their needs. Scouts are presumed to have found these cliffs, and heaven-only-knows why and who the first settlers scaled up and down the cliffs, then proceeded to car mini-cities from the rock, under the protective stone overhangs. More than 600 cliff dwellings dot the inner linings of the walls. The inhabitants were able to grow and harvest plants, which augmented a presumably meat-based diet.

Drive your car, stop and walk to the edge. Be careful, the park doesn’t believe in stopping selfie photogs from falling off the cliff.

For nearly 700 years, the cliffs were inhabited, and then archeologists believe they were abandoned due to prolonged drought. This made it impossible to grow plants and sustain life of any kind.

See those blackish/brownish stains on the top ridge? Those are water stains. The Anasazi identified where the water fell, captured it, made mud, then bricks, creating entire communities.
Getting there

It’s an easy route from almost any direction. Most non-US residents are familiar with the ski-resort town of Telluride, Colorado, or its sister city, Ouray, heralded for being “the little Switzerland of the US,” because of its ice climbing in the winter and off-road vehicle terrain in the summer.

Beyond glorious drive to and from Ouray/Telluride down to Cortez

If you are starting from Ouray, tack on another 30 minutes. But from Telluride, it’s less than a two-hour drive through beautiful mountain roads. Keep your camera handy, because you are going to see mountains that look painted with copper and gorgeous rivers.

When arriving at the Mesa Verde National Park, you will see the first of several famous peaks. Up and up you have climbed to reach this point, and you absolutely must stop at any number of the scenic spots.

Up, up you drive to get to the high plateau these incredible people found and homesteaded

Believe it or not, the picture-perfect shots are not to be had from the eye-level view. It’s from above, on the opposite ridge, looking down into the specific site. One doesn’t require binoculars to get a great shot, or even a long lens (I had neither). A regular camera will do. The ‘opposite view’ allows one to capture the full majesty of the dwelling.

The tours

We took one tour, and the rest we saw by car. We had no idea what to expect with a tour, and were mildly disappointed, so I want to pass a long a few things that aren’t conveyed at the ticket office or on the brochure. The tour of a dwelling, depending on which one you choose, take quite a while to get down to the dwelling, (it’s really hot, evening in early July) and then once you reach the bottom, are strictly limited to the path. The photos I thought I was going to take were completely impossible. Clearly, one has to be a professional photographer, with a magazine or have gained a special authorization to set in, or around inside the dwelling areas. I get it, we don’t want to disturb/erode the areas, and I’m cool with that. It’s just impossible to get more than a few (dark) shots of the dwellings when on foot.

Compare that to the drive and view from the ridge. The roads are alongside the cliffs, and multiple stopping/parking areas are available so one can get out, walk the short distance (some are right at the edge, others require less than five minute walk) then look down/across to the dwelling on the other side. This was far and away a better vantage point than the street level, per se.

An example of what a tour group must climb up/down to get to a cliffside dwelling
Don’t miss the center

Most of the time, I am seriously disappointed with park centers, but all four of us agreed the Mesa Verde center ranks in the top five. Perhaps it was the volume of items, or the presentation of original artifacts (and recreations of others) but we enjoyed it immensely. When a center captivates an 8-year old who doesn’t want to leave, but continue reading the small print, you know it’s good.

A restaurant, not located at the center, but in a different area, is open, but we didn’t stop, so I can’t comment on that. Just know you won’t starve if you neglected to bring food or water on the journey.

Entering and existing the Park, you will see famous rock structures like the above
What I liked most

Realizing the life-long dream of seeing the dwellings, walking the area where people lived and shaking my head in wonder at the incredible skill and fortitude of our ancient people.

What I liked least

The lack of public bathrooms and the heat!

This is one of my favorite national parks in the United States thus far, ranking way above Mt. Rushmore in my mind. Both feature carved rock, but whereas one is monuments of presidents’ past, these cliffside dwellings were, and are, a testament to the skills, determination and capabilities of the indigenous people. It’s truly awe inspiring.

Feature Image: taken from the ridge of the canyon