Enter the jungle: the Spa at the Villa Del Palmar Cancun

An unforgettable experience at the one-of-a-kind Destination day spa

Within the heart of the Villa del Palmar resort in Cancun resides an untouched jungle of magic, Mayan and modern, soothing yet sophisticated, the Spa at the VDP is unlike any other spa I’ve experienced anywhere. In Kyoto Japan, the lines are clean, wood pristine, services and treatments quiet and inspiring. In the hills of Ireland, the experience is rough and real, deep and pressure-filled, but satisfying, like the food and the people. Every culture and experience is unique and unforgettable, but in 32 countries and multiple more resorts just in Mexico, the VDP Spa should be considered a destination of its own, even if you aren’t staying at the resort.

5 star & my top 10

When I love, I mean truly l.o.v.e. a place or experience, I’ll create a short vid. This is my own concoction from materials, and if it looks like a marketing piece, I guess it is, because the place is a destination not to be missed. More on the resort and surrounding areas in future pieces.
The jungle

Looking down from a top floor room (or any other balcony in the U-shaped resort) a jungle is visible below, but the activity within is shrouded in secrecy. If you weren’t told what lies beneath and within, you’d never know. Never before have I descended into a jungle, the sounds, sights and distractions of the surrounding buildings and boisterous activities evaporating within the silent darkness. I didn’t need to think Zen, it happened without me knowing it. I haven’t personally traveled to the Amazon jungle, but gained an immediate appreciation for the noise-proofing of the arm-length leaves from towering trees, or the short, thick pedals intertwined  among the indigenous wood treatment rooms. The check-in reception area is welcoming and gives a sense of privacy, even though it doesn’t have doors or windows. It is literally one with the jungle, as if the designer intended the visitor to begin the transition from the outside, real world to one where indigenous life began.

That pathway from the rest of the resort is just off a main trail. If you don’t look for it, you’ll miss the entrance entirely.
Let the pampering begin

It starts when you sit in the reception area. Well, actually just prior, because a personal attendant walks you to the chair, offers you several options for cleansing/refreshing drinks, places a towel on your head, essentially takes your cell phone (I hid mine, bad me) and lifts my feet to an ottoman. Whether this five-minute respite was to get me into my Zen zone or not, it worked. As much as I wanted to capture pictures and record every step of the experience, removing my device in a clandestine-type of way seemed to defeat the point of relaxation. But I wasn’t ready to disconnect—not yet.

Keep in mind that my photos were clandestine, taken from my cell phone. Any lack of clarity is due to my pics not the place. The reception area.

After two cleansing glasses (of different tastes and consistencies) I was led to the changing area. Replacing my (hotel provided) robe was another, softer version and upon exit, my assistant awaited, leading me to one of several secluded, garden and waterfront areas. It’s special in size and feel; only a few tartan recliners with plush cushions were positioned in front of three different soaking pools, each one different in temperature and design. Beyond these, and to either side is the wall of jungle, the cozy treatment buildings—which are more like luxury huts—were to be seen.

At this point, I was given a face mask of my choosing (lavender with some herb mix) then my assistant placed head and neck herb sacks in position, lifted my feet and proceeded to give each area a bliss-filled rubbing (see the foot sacks in photo above). I was extremely disturbed about five minutes into this when a woman with a thick, southern accent had no such compunction about talking on her cell phone, and it was impossible to tell the attendant to ask her to stop talking in front of her. I endured it, but mentioned this later. Her constant yapping killed my desire to be there a moment longer or use any of the soaking pools. It was a total kill-joy and hopefully the spa becomes militant about a no-cell phone rule.

Moving on

The good news is the moment I indicated I was ready to leave, we did. My attendant walked me through the jungle on the wooden lanes, the canopies above continuing to block out both the visual and noise of the surrounding hotel. Had I not known where I was, it would have been impossible to tell we had a thousand guests within a quarter mile radius. Each luxury cabanas offer unique services, and I was led to one at the end, the significance made clear. I’d asked for the most “traditional” holistic-Mayan treatment, and this particular cabana was designed for just that. I was introduced to Leticia, a small, warm-skinned woman who smiled broadly, offering that she is in fact, Mayan, and this is a special, sacred experience. I was prepared—or so I thought.

Cabanas (service/treatment rooms) line the walkway, marked by small signs and thatch huts.

We didn’t go in immediately. She asked me to stand still and close my eyes. Other Mayan rituals I’d been a part of require a smoke cleansing. In this case, Leticia softly brushed different parts of my body with specific sand/herb mixtures, chanting/repeating words I couldn’t understand but felt her emotions as she did so. Arms, legs, face, belly…I personally love the smell of indigenous smoke, having been born in Costa Rica and living in Honduras, so it felt familiar and comforting.

I asked to see where the pedicure services were done, and got a peek into this treatment cabana. It was as private and cozy as the others.
Phase 1

At this point, I took a few final photos and put the phone away for good. It was spiritually and emotional at odds with the intent of the spa. It was also required, because we proceeded inside where I laid down and Leticia proceeded the first phase of the treatment. She ran her fingers over my body, feeling the bones and tissues as a good specialists will do, seeking to understand injuries or issues I might have.

The traditional smoke and herbs awaiting for me outside the “Fire” room

At this point, she touched my belly, and it hurt, but not overly so. Leticia mumbled something, but I said it was fine, and she continued (I’m a woman after, and women-things happen. That was all). After this was the scrubbing and cleansing treatment not unlike those in other countries; this difference was this version was local, Mayan soaps and sands, the textures and smells unique to this spa alone. As an aside, I was given a disposable pair of panties and wrap around bra, both easily discarded during the washing stage.

Just one angle of the large interior of the Fire room. Incense was already burning when I arrived, the bed warm and my anticipation high.

The scrub-down was a complete massage in itself, the abrasive texture perfect. Each section was subsequently wrapped so I was kept warm as Leticia transitioned to the next area. When it was complete, she conducted yet another body-pressing exercise, and then a period of quiet silence ensued. It felt like the products were seeping into my skin, my pours and my muscles. I actually thought the massage was going to end there, but no, there was more!

Phase 2

At this point, we were about forty minutes in, and I was on the verge of stressing out because I didn’t want it to end. Leticia didn’t give me time to go worry as she led me to the cabana’s shower where I rinsed off, then resumed my position on the table. If I thought I was on my way to heaven before, when Leticia resumed touching my body, I was sure I’d arrived in Paradise.

The private relaxation area for my cabana, perfect for individuals or couples.

The herbs and oils, lotions and smoke were a blur, because I didn’t want to keep asking her questions. Muscle from bone, my body gave way under her skilled fingertips, the thirty minutes of expertise divine. Only when she turned me over did I experience pain, and that again between my pelvic area.

“Something is not right,” she said, her accent thick, but tone concerned enough I cracked open an eye. I’m a woman, I thought, nothing is ever really right. “This is swollen. It should not be here.” Now, as much as I admire and think highly of trained experts, I’ve always been a healthy woman, no uncommon issues plaguing my life, so as politely as I could, I thanked her, but dismissed her concern. I wanted to get back to the massage.

“You are tied up,” she said in somewhat broken English. “Knots and stress,” she said. I almost started laughing.

“Oh, no,” I said, “I’m not stressed out. I just exercise a lot.” Well, then I had to bite my inner lip on the comment. Recently I’d gained weight around my waist and hadn’t thought much of it. More writing, less working out, a tummy roll will happen, but I certainly wasn’t concerned.

Yet Laticia wasn’t letting this go. She pressed again and I squirmed, asking her not to touch it further. “This is not good,” she reiterated, lips downturned.

After that, I promptly forgot about the incident, falling right back into the bliss of the moment, enjoying the final sacred aspects of the treatment, the smoke and candles, her chanting and then my final moments of silence. The attendant appeared like a ghost when I was ready to leave, escorting me back to the changing cabana. The checkout still kept the Zen feeling alive, the area dark and quiet until I reached nearly the top of the ramp, where the wood meets concrete, and I was reminded that yes, I was in a resort, but a special one at that.

It’s easy to forget that five minutes away is the beach, where you relax in front of the beach that’s made the Gold Coast famous.
The after effects

Another piece details what occurred three months later. I was in Europe for a six+ week vacation with my husband and two daughters, my stomach feeling progressively tighter, or sort of upset. Going back to my prior comment with Leticia, I just thought “I’m a woman, this too shall pass.” My husband noticed I was eating less, but I attributed this to my monthly cycle. Three weeks in, I was barely eating a thing, and we’d made it through Switzerland and Germany, spending a week in Lake Como as well. As we left for Verona, the pain became crippling, and by the time we arrived in our villa I was seeing spots. As my husband frantically called the doctors, I went fully blind. To keep it short, I ended up being diagnosed with massive tumors, along with a rabid infection. The tumors had been inside me in April, but were much smaller—so much so I didn’t even realize they existed. In Italy, they were the size of an egg and avocado respectively. Six weeks later, when they were removed in the US, one was the size of a cantaloupe, the other a grapefruit. At the spa, I’d simply looked overweight around the middle. At then end, I looked seven months pregnant!

No more of that now, as you can read it elsewhere. The message is this: if you are under the care of an observant, skilled, trained professional, and he or she indicates something is not quite right, don’t be dismissive as I was. The surgery was invasive, the removal producing massive trauma, and while I wasn’t going to have children again, I now no longer have that option, and several vital organs were so damaged due to the severity of my condition, my health will never be the same. Let my experience be a lesson to you, while at the same time, acknowledging the power insightful people could (should?) have on your life.

Two different views of the resort: The pier on the left is where a.m. yoga is held (glorious and free), the right is the many shades of blue. More photos of the resort itself in other articles.
The details

My massage is called the HEALING RITUAL / TULUM , and you already know Leticia was my therapist. Others came highly recommended as well, but she was the only person working at my requested evening appointment (about 5:30 p.m.).

The cabana is called the FUEGO / FIRE / K´AAK´

Cost: $295 USD. Group discounts are available, and 15% off service specials of $50 dollars are more. For special events, two days advance reservations are recommended as the spa will often create unique give-aways.

What to bring: your best zen-like attitude

A view from one of the upper rooms over the near-invisible spa below. Beyond is a cooler pool with bridge, a dedicated children’s pool and play area. To the left is a secluded, adults-only pool area, and in the center, and to either side, a main, multi-aspect general pool. That’s where the swim-up bars, games and aquatics are held. Beach front cabanas and infinity pools both in private (members-only) and public areas stretch the entire length of the resort.
Recommendation

This is the kind of spa experience I’d recommend to individuals, couples, special occasions (showers, birthdays or other celebrations). Consider it a destination and one-of-a-kind experience on its own and make the effort, even if you are staying at another hotel along the Gold coast in Cancun.  I can guarantee you that none other than I’ve experience or heard of even comes close.

Authors note

As a professional novelist and experienced traveler, I write about places I’ve experienced because I choose to do so, not for hire or payment. My content, visual and written, are independently produced and copyrighted. For info on my books or articles visit sarahgerdes.com, or my author page on amazon.com.

Coba, Mexico & the relationship pyramid

My theme for the first week of January is the relationship pyramid, because really, isn’t it the perfect metaphor for a long-term relationship? It’s hard. It makes you sweat. Starting out, you’re on even ground, optimistic and know with certainty the view from the top is going to be beautiful. A little bit into the journey, your lungs burn, eyes dry out, muscles seize up, and quite honestly, those around you are jostling and cranky; the external influences on your perfect couple-dom diminishing the moment. Yet you think—anything that’s worth it is hard. It’s the mantra preached by every therapist and parent around. You keep going…up and up, and finally, you arrive.

There you are, relationship nirvana is the top of the pyramid. The view is…glorious. For about one minute. The heat is overwhelming, the water bottle has run dry, the noise from others is really loud and you look down, because like love, what goes up inevitably…you know. Goes down.

Coba intro

Life imitating pyramid

Little did I know this creative visual would spring to life on a trip to the Coba Pyramid in the Tulum Ruin region of Cancun. Located about two hours drive south of Central, Coba is one of the few remaining pyramids which are open to climbers. Chitzen Itza and all the others were placed off limits several back, and once there, it’s easy to see why. Beyond the steep incline, the rock is worn down from thousands of visitors. It’s steep. It’s slippery, and even after a great picture taking experience, the journey down is far more treacherous than the climb up ever thought of being.

To give a bit of detail, the road to Coba has long, desolate stretches, yet dotted with a few interesting bits–the trees and local towns unique, even if not inspiring enough for a closer look.

Past Tulum and into the area of Coba is the parking lot, which is close to the entrance, but the pyramid is a couple miles into the jungle. Its dry and arid, unlike Chitzen Itza which is hot and moist. One can cheat and rent a bike (and actually peddle) or rent a taxi, wherein you can sit while someone else peddles. The third option is you walk…all the way in.

Door number three is what Rog chose, because as you well know from our travels, the motto is: why take the easy route when we can get exercise? Now before you slay me with comments about being lazy, you need the context (if you have forgotten). I have walked, climbed, hiked and sometimes been on my knees around Gods-green-and-lovely-Earth with this man. And for once, just once, I wanted the easy way. We’d arrived late (3) which meant we had an hour to walk in, climb and get out. There was no way. I begged for the 4 bucks US—this still required us to do our own peddling, not be “full-lazy” as Rog described.

Of course, we were walking as we argued, moving further inland and away from the actual rental zone, all a part of Rog’s evil plan to get us there and make it a moot argument. A third of a mile in, I just went silent, knowing I’d lost the argument. This made Rog go quiet.

We kept walking. Nice trees. Cool ant formations and birds all around us. Trails and paths aside from the main soft-dirt road provided a few options and variety. Yet none of this mattered, by the time, we were half-way in, Rog gave me the silent treatment right back, found a rock and sat down. He refused to budge, and I looked at the time. He wanted to turn around (as I mentioned in the video) and I was having none of that. I told him he could sit and spin if he wanted, but I was taking the girls and going on without him.

To the pyramid

We arrived at the base, being warned by security we had limited time. They clearly underestimated the Gerdes girls. Up we went, scurrying like the termites we probably resembled. It didn’t take ten minutes, mostly because it wasn’t busy at all. Word to the possible visitor: if you go during rush hour, 10 a.m.- 2 p.m. it’s so busy you don’t even have the option to hold on to the thick rope in the center, which makes the climb rather dangerous. Definitely come right at opening or at the end of the day so you can have room to climb, the ability to hold the room if required, and lastly, take pictures at the top without the risk of being pushed off. (Note: no bathroom, water or anything else and the platform area is quite small).

Instead of enjoying the moment, we look around and see what’s missing. Rog. Dad. Husband. Partner in all things good and bad. It was like winning the argument and losing the relationship, how one can feel victorious after the heat of battle but getting so badly burned you should have thrown the white flag.

At the moment, we realized it was worth nothing, because the three of us wouldn’t ever be able to talk about the “remember when we climbed Coba?” since Rog wasn’t a part of the memory. The heat. The steps. The rude visitors. We all agreed we had but one choice—race down as fast as safely possible, run/jog back to where he was an convince him to come with us.

Relationship–round two (que Rocky theme)

My IG handle is laughterwithasideofchocolate because laughing gets one so much further in most circumstances that yelling. So that’s what the girls and I decided to use as a relationship strategy. To laugh about the fact he was still sitting on the rock; laugh about not having water and climbing the x9!* pyramid not once, but twice, laughing about how funny it would be to laugh about this around Christmas time as we create our annual card. Everyone was laughing, except Rog.

For five minutes. When he realized he could sit and regret the decision to dig in his heels, or appreciate the fact that we could in fact, make it without the assistance of a bike or rider, he stood. But he started walking the wrong way. We stood there and—laughed. We were going back to the pyramid, and by gosh, he was going to come with us.

Now isn’t that just typical of a marriage or serious relationship? The moment you think you’re back on an even playing field—the fun isn’t quite over yet. You go along for a bit (which is hard because your still annoyed), then it hits. Up the pyramid you go. Forgiveness is hard. Admitting you’re wrong is equally hard. In fact, it’s quite possible you may say: weren’t we already here once before?

So it was with Coba. But strangely, it was sweeter the second time around. The pyramid only had a handful of people, the sun was going down, and the view was amazing. Most of all, we were a family, having gone through the fits and starts which are so typical of daily life. The smiles were genuine, the forgiveness real, and the memories all that we predicted. We laugh about the rock, recall how we thought we were going to die of heat stroke, how slippery and rather dangerous the slick rocks had become over time.

The top of the pyramid has a small (but closed off) building

But like working through all relationship issues, we were glad we lived through the burn, pushed as hard as we could and endured. And if you choose to go to Coba, you too will be glad you did. Heck, you might even want to do it twice, just for the fun of it.

We made it–as a family, the way it’s supposed to be.

Tips:

  • Arrive early or go late
  • Bring a water bottle with a spray if possible. Water is sold at the entrance and at one other station midway.
  • Double check on the latest time to start your walk/climb so you don’t arrive overly late

Nylons and Nails

A Christmas wish and a father’s advice

On that fateful day when I called Dad, I was sobbing. Seeking marriage advice, I expected empathy with a bit of Don Corleon protectionism that would border my fragile emotional state. It sort of went like this:

“…and I do all the work around the house, the meals…all the school activities…and now this?” I exclaim with exasperation. “Dad, it’s totally ridiculous and I just don’t see why on top of everything else, I have to do it.”

A moment of silence follows which almost makes my heart burst with love. Dad’s experiencing my pain, sharing in my suffering. I can almost feel his beefy arms around me, holding me tight.

“Baby doll,” Dad began rather paternally. “He just asked you to wear nylons. Is it so hard?”

My dad actually resembles “the Don”…imagine him thinking what he’s going to tell me

BOOM! My brain just about exploded like the zit on the back of a football player in an Alabama afternoon. With curse words not fit for print, I channeled my unmet expectations into tears of frustration.

“But Dad—”

“No but’s,” he interrupted rather rudely. “What’s an extra sixty seconds in your already busy life? If that’s all he’s asking before you go into the bedroom, then what’s the problem?”

Breath deep, I counseled myself, hearing perhaps a little of his own forty-years of requests to my mother in his voice (no, I didn’t go there and ask). Time to do some self-reflection.

Was the extra sixty seconds that big of deal, or was I just annoyed that I wasn’t enough without requested nylons. Both questions I kept to myself of course, fearing my father’s answer.

“We done then?” Dad finished, ever the efficient businessman, even with his daughter on the edge.

“I guess, thanks.”

Christmas wish 2019…the year of the Nails

Here we are, about ten years later, and lest you forget, I’m an author, just wrapping up my 20th novel. I also play the piano. Do you know what that means? I have short fingernails, not the bitten-to-the-quick type sported by professional violinists, but rather the unkempt type which signifies to the world that anything past my knuckles serve no other purpose than to hold my rings in check.

“Please, for Christmas this year, I just want one thing,” Rog says about a month ago.

“Really?” I ask, delighted. The man buys what he needs, which at this point in life, isn’t much. I’m forever getting one more Atlanta Blackhawks hockey cap or gloves, and those slippers hockey players use going to and from the rink are so awful I just hand him a gift card.

“Yes. For Christmas, I would like you to get nails, in red please.”

EEEEEEEEEEEEEEeeeee I mentally scream, first thinking about the trip downtown, the time it will take and most of all, how it’s going to kill my typing speed just as I’m at the tail end of writing my present novel. I can’t take the peel off the apple, get food unstuck from my tooth or button my pants very well. These are critical items, all which make me annoyed in a pico-second, but what I give him is the perfect therapist-like response.

“That would really make you happy, wouldn’t it?” I ask. He nods and I’m feeling victorious, having both validated his request without actually giving him an answer.

In the thirty days since, did I make a date at the salon? Not at all, and I had no intention to do so, right up until yesterday, when I was rooting through my nylon drawer. I’ve thrown half of them away, because I simply don’t wear them while riding a motorcycle, on the ATV or skiing. My social engagements are few and far between, which leaves Sundays and “date nights.”


“He nods and I’m feeling victorious, having both validated his request without actually giving him an answer.”

Nonetheless, as I’m considering my reality, Rog’s request haunts me, and not just because it will take an hour and $45. It’s because I’m the one who has often coached Rog on the relationship bonus points to be had when the partners’ simple requests are met. Take for example making the bed. It’s small, but is important to me because it just leaves the house put together. Annoying to Rog? Sure, but once I made the request and guess what? He makes the bed, no matter how rushed. For. Ten. Years.

Then I think back to dear old Dad. There’s a reason he’s been married nearly 60 years, and it’s because he’s always doing the little things for Mom. And when he rhetorically asked me: “Is it so hard?” he wasn’t talking just about uncomfortable leg wrappings. It was about the bigger picture of life. The little things aren’t so hard…they are just…time consuming, annoying, uncomfortable, perhaps cost money or all of the above.

My father: have I you learned nothing I’ve taught you?

I briefly thought of calling Dad about the nails just to get a response. He’d probably coo and talk about getting a scalp massage or having his back tickled, which is precisely what Rog adores, but never gets because my author-stubs (aka fingertips) never reach through his thick head of hair. Alternatively, maybe just once, he’d like my fingers not to resemble my father’s stubby cow milking hands and something more glamorous and appealing.

At 6:50 p.m. last night, ten minutes before the salon closes, I get an appointment for my nails. “A full set in red,” I add, knowing that statistics show if one says a commitment out loud, it has a higher chance of being fulfilled.

Thus it was that this morning, Christmas Eve, I watch as Jenny uses glue and acrylic to form the base of what she ultimately covers with blood red gel. Just because I’m a rebel, I add silver to my fourth nails. Since I’m going all in, I might as well attempt to be trendy.

Jump to the present, approximately 2 p.m. We have been invited to attend Christmas Eve dinner with friends and as I type this—well, I can’t type. My fingernails are slipping, causing about every other word to be deleted then retyped, yet I keep going back to Dads sage words of wisdom.

“Nylons and nails,” I think to myself. “Was it so hard?” Finger slippage and sausage casings are not big things. I just want to exercise my free will. Putting my needs/wants/desires are ultimately just excuses for not thinking of someone else’s desires are important, like making the bed.

So, to answer the question, no, neither were hard. It’s in hindsight, I’m feeling selfishly Grinch-like for not doing such simple things that give my partner-in-life such joy. Today, Christmas came early for Rog, and as the saying goes, the joy of gift giving isn’t limited to a single day, it’s year-round.

I tried to skimp on the request, doing my home-grown version of red. As the saying goes, putting lipstick on a pig didn’t really help things and had to turn it over to a professional.

The value of used

No one espouses the value of used more than my husband Rog, who was heavily influenced by his grandfather, a depression-era kid who served in World War II. The man never experienced a broken item he couldn’t fix, or a new item he couldn’t get used.

“Why spend when you can save?” he drilled into Roger’s head. The man did his job well. This is a question Rog started asking me once we were married. It was annoying and produced a dozen years of arguing, but the truth can’t be denied: used items are functional, sometimes looking perfectly new and one doesn’t pay the premium.

The Shame Game

In the world of women, most, if not all I know take pride in using the word new. It’s means: I can afford it and I’m happy to say I paid full price. Men are the opposite. They will typically volunteer: I picked it up used, with an associated caveat (low miles, barely used). They mean: I’m smart, got a good deal, and therefore saved a ton of money (which means I’m really smart).

The philosophical divide between the sexes is Grand Canyon in size. I can’t recall a time when I heard a woman say with pride: yeah! I got it used. Not a purse, jacket, jewelry or car. It’s just not done. I was recently at a dinner party where one woman noticed another driving a different car.

“Is it new?” she asked with a tinge of envy. “I’ve always wanted one.” The car in question was an Audi A7 which retails new for about 70K.

The respondent half-grimaced, half-smiled and answered, “It’s new to me.” (If you’ve never heard this phrase, you are saying, ‘no, it’s not new, but it is new to me.’)

“Oh,” the woman responded, as though she wanted to retract her original statement.

“Yeah, it’s a couple of years old,” explained the owner of the car, the luster of the new purchase fading. “My husband found it for me.”

In our modern-day world of putting the word shaming before or after anything, we might just call this Used-Shaming. It may not be intentional, but it happens ever so subtly. Having been there myself, I throw the drowning woman a lifeline.

 “That’s awesome!” I said enthusiastically. “What year is it?”

She looks at me, uncertain. I can see she wants to lie but can’t. “2017” she answers.

“Great!” I continue, nodding. “You have the same body style and your husband probably saved, what, 15-20 grand?” She agrees with a bit more enthusiasm. “And he probably got the extended warranty, right?” Another nod, her light that had dimmed growing brighter. “Just think, you can take that 15K and go to Europe for a few weeks, or Bali! How awesome is that? Good for you!”

At this point, the woman is absolutely beaming, the implied criticism of the used car turned to a positive. How did I know to do that? Easy. I’ve had my own discomfort during the transition of only buying new items to purchasing used wherever I can, the notion of saving to spend elsewhere—or simply to save—a hard (and long) learned lesson which I want to share with others. My message is this: stand up, say it out loud and with pride, not shame. In other words, own it like a man. They are proud when they save money. Why should we as women any different?

Growing up poor

Humility and shame are sisters who share the same bed, but depending on what side you roll off of is what you’ll feel. One reason I argued with Rog so much is because of how I was raised. My father always insisted on new versus old. It wasn’t necessarily a warranty or quality thing. It was a point of pride that he could purchase the new version. He’d worked hard, and by darn, he deserved it and was going to spend it however he wanted.

For context, he grew upon a farm in Canada where the combine was worth far more than the modest farmhouse. He’d started milking cows as soon as he could grip and carry buckets, the 4 a.m. routing of waking continuing to this very day at 83. Dad’s entire aim in life was to save enough to get off the farm and into a better life. When he did so, he took great pride in the ability to purchase a new car, shoes or whatever he desired.

This was passed along to us, the kids. Not once do I recall my father purchasing a used item until I left for home (or after). Cars, clothes, goods—it didn’t matter. In hindsight, the undercurrent value set was that used wasn’t good enough, and this is what I carried with me. As a consequence, I was never taught to even think about purchasing at consignment or entering a used car lot. It simply never occurred to me.

Enter the man

So it was that when Rog and I hooked up, our philosophies didn’t match. Black and white, oil and water were silly comparisons. How about match and kerosene? Nuclear explosions and black rain? While Rog contended that my pride and ego overruled common sense, I argued that I’d worked hard and had the money, so why not?

The first decade of our marriage was combustible; any purchase over fifty bucks would light the flame then BOOM! Was it ever a wonder we waited until year seven to consider having children? We could barely justify the good times because the bad were so rocky. We both won and lost a few arguments, and after a while, we settled into a livable pattern. Home appliances were always purchased new, but machinery and some other items, used.

One sticking point was always cars. I’d always purchased new cars for the warranty (and I like new cars, I’ll admit), and he’d purchase used trucks. A perfect compromise. A decade later, we did an assessment, not unlike what we’d conduct at business. My cars would invariably break down after the warranty ended, requiring we continually flip the cars right before the warranty expired, incurring new costs. Compare this to Rog’s used trucks which ran almost flawlessly forever, warranty or not. At the end of a decade, we looked at the bottom line: what we’d wasted (me) vs what we could have saved or used elsewhere (Rog).

It was ugly.

I grumped. Pouted. Gnashed my teeth like Gollum but nothing changed the reality that he’d been raised one way, me another and I was either going to grow up in our relationship or I was going to grow out of it.

As I seriously ruminated about how I could still get my way, I had a visual of my future state. How was I going to justify the divorce to my family? It would go something like this: “Sorry, I just wasn’t willing to save money where it made sense. Yeah, I liked him too. Oh well.”

 Yeah. You could see who’s side they’d take on that one.

So, since my sister always says: “Give examples,” here are just a few of the recent ones because this blog has already become an epistle.

The snowblower. Needing one not long after we moved here, Rog gets on line, vomits at the four hundred price tag, but at my insistence, buys it new “because of the warranty,” I tell him. Sound advice, I contend. Just after the warranty goes out, it breaks. We go to fix it, learning that to do so will cost nearly as much as the original. He’s livid.

“Now we do it my way,” Rog states. Given the amount of snow we receive, Rog decides to upgrade to the 3K version. He calls the dealer then heads straight for Craigslist, finding one for less than half retail. He drives to an “old man’s home” an hour away. It’s shiny. It’s red. It’s hardly been used. He tests it in the snow, pays the man and comes home with it. We’ve had it for three years, and it’s worked perfectly.

The home gym. When we downsized, the area for gym equipment was half of the previous room. Rog did his research, finding the only set that would work in our home is a Bio Force, which is $2800 new. (As an aside, why do all home products seem to have a price point of about 3 grand? Do the product marketers have data supporting the notion that home owners think 5K is too high, but 2K is too low, thus equating to cheap quality and no value? Or they just say: let’s split the difference and call it good. But I digress).

Once again, Rog goes for Craigslist. Finds one in Montana owned by an older couple who apparently used it a few times then called it quits. Four hours and $1,200 later, it’s downstairs. Is it as robust and useful as the last gym set we had? Nope, but it’s a third the size and 1/5 the price of the last one as well, so a great deal.

The UTV. Back to the snow. After three years of slogging it out on the push behind snow blower, Rog had upgraded to an ATV with a plow (also purchased used, about half the price/perfect condition, and yes, off Craigslist). As he toiled away on the ATV at 5 a.m. or at midnight in his goggles and snow gear, I alternated between pride and guilt, thinking he should at least be warm.

Enter the UTV with a “deck.” This is snow parlance for a big cab, upon which one can put “trax” on, stay warm and also manage a 60-inch snow blower in the front. New, the UTV (utility terrain vehicle) is $15K. For a visual, think a 4-door wherein the windows are modifiable (can be removed/come with soft sides, the doors and roof as well (e.g. also be removed). I consider it an upgraded 70’s like dune buggy but a lot more useful. (see the video clip…going alongside used car!)

Anyway, he finds one…where else? Craigslist. Once again, an older man had used it for a year or two, placed it on-line but no takers. Rog showed up, purchased it for $8 grand, and once he washed it, found it didn’t have a single scratch. He’s convinced it didn’t sell because the man hadn’t bothered to wash it. The deck (the 60” blade) he did have to purchase new with the warranty, and I’m glad because it broke on the third use due to a manufacture issue. We’ve had the replacement for two years and it’s run perfectly.

Oh, and just so we’re clear, it’s not just “useful” items we purchase used. My road bike was picked up at the dealer because the notion of paying sticker for a two-wheel vehicle I’m going to use only during the summer made me want to vomit! I have no guilt (or shame) about riding around on an 8-year old bike, and don’t really care when someone gives me that snide look when I tell them the year. I know their remark and how it’s said reveals their outlook on life, which is fine. It’s just one I no longer share.

The truck. My daughter threw down the negatory on inheriting my car when she turns 15 (welcome to Idaho. The driving age is 15), and so we figured we’d find a used Subaru which can handle the snow. Then we went to my parents for Thanksgiving, and Rog noticed the parked truck in the driveway. It hadn’t moved since we’d arrived. Rog inquires, and Dad tells him it hasn’t been licensed or insured for six months. They don’t have a need. Rog casts me an eye, I subtly nod, and he brings it up to my daughter.

“That would be awesome!” she says. It’s used, unassuming and useful, all three items which fit the needs of where we live (American cars are definitely preferred over foreign). It also requires a new hood as the current one has rusted areas, new tires and inside carpet. Rog will likely add a few items to the outside to make it a bit more durable for this area (what self-respecting truck doesn’t have a tow-hitch, I ask you?), but even with the additions, it’s a fraction of a new truck or even a used Subaru.

What we have sold

Baby room set. As our (my) thinking evolved, so did our ability to share with others. I’d insisted on a brand-new baby room set. It was gorgeous, well-made and spendy. After daughter number two outgrew the crib, we put the crib, credenza/desk and bookshelf on Craigslist. A wonderful young couple came to the house, overjoyed with tears and gratitude they would get the entire set for a quarter of the cost. It was their first child and money was tight. On a funny note, we’d loaded the furniture in their truck only to learn they’d been locked out. Their little dog had gotten crazy in the front cab, pushing its paws on the lock. They were out of money. They couldn’t get in their car and the pregnant wife was near a meltdown. It was traumatically funny in one of those this-only-happens-to-us moments. We paid for a locksmith to come and help them out, money they surely could not have spent.  

The sink/stand. When we upgraded a bathroom, we had a perfectly good trendy, beautiful and expensive single unit. Where’d we list it? You guessed it, Craigslist. It cost us $2K, and we listed it for $200. It was gone in an hour (as was the bedroom set mentioned above).

The oven. When we moved to our current home, we replaced the all-in-one cooktop/oven. It was a commercial Electrolux, retail for about $3K (the previous homeowner is an architect from Switzerland and he’d had it imported). We sold it for $350 and it was picked up the same day it was listed.

Additionally, we have listed jet skis, a boat and other equipment—sports and household—on craigslist and always sold an item within a day. The tip and rule is this: if the item is competitively priced and in good condition, it will get multiple offers and sell within a day or two. If it’s priced too high (or is just plain odd) it won’t sell.

The transition for me wasn’t easy or fun, but it was financially sound. Once I removed my personal pride/ego and perspective from the equation, the process turned transaction. It’s a thing, I want said thing at the best price. Instead of thinking: I want it new, I began thinking of all the things I can do with the money I saved, like going on a trip. B.R. (Before Roger) I just did both. Roger was never and still isn’t a “do-both” type of guy. He’s always been: it’s one or the other. His familial DNA included creating priorities and making choices. Never once did the “having-it-all” phrase enter his vocabulary.

A country in on the financial edge

According multiple sources, 41% of adults in the US have less than $500 in savings. That means living paycheck to paycheck. Another statistic I hear constantly on Bloomberg is that the average household purchase for less than $5,000 is put on a credit card. Consumer debt is not 7% above where it was in 2007, just before the crash. All that means a balance sheet which encourages us all to spend less and save more wherever we can.

Not everyone lives or spends like the Kardashians with Bentley’s and twenty-foot trees that take four helpers to put up. And in fact, if you could, would you really do that? Wouldn’t it be more fun to put up your own tree and create memories with your family and not have to worry about getting car-jacked as you drive down the street, and heaven forbid, get a ding while grocery shopping? (Oh wait, you may not buy your own groceries if you have that kind of coin).

I have long since stopped caring what others thing of what I spend and how I spend it. The biggest example of this was moving. We consciously made the decision to downsize when we didn’t have to. We sold our old home for one price and paid cash for one half the size in a state with very low taxes, with the cost of school tuition less than half, and of course the most important factor for me, the price of chocolate dropped from $4.83 to $2.75. Now that’s good living.

The tables have turned Rog as well. Now I’m the one showing him how I waited until five days before Christmas to get a great deal, and just last night, I tell him I decided to wait another two weeks to get my hair done between coloring because that’s another $1,200 in the bank on an annualized basis. I’m rightly proud, expecting him to applaud my thought process and maturity.

“No, it’s not,” he retorted, staring hard at me. “I know what you’re thinking.”

 “You’re right,” I smirked, knowing I’d been caught. “That’s another week in Europe.”

For all my intentions and efforts, I too have a trade-off equation I apply to nearly every decision involving money. This-for-that. Sometimes it’s savings. Sometimes is spending. But at least I’m thinking of it consciously, and with intent, which is not something I was taught, but had to learn over. And over. And over. Now I’m a believer in financial frugality that Dave Ramsey followers seem to have; a zeal that encourages me to stand up be one of the few who proudly state used is good, savings are better and travel is the best. I guess I still have a little room to grow.

The Perfect Stranger

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

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

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

The world represented

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Different and Divine

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

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

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

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

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

Feature image

The town of Czesky Krumlov taken from the castle above

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

Insides Out

Tumors, faith and what’s meant to be

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

A sting and a prayer

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

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

“Twenty-five minutes.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

Five days post surgery and two post wasp sting.

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

At home. At peace.



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

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

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

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

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

Massive and amazing

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

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

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

Fantastic Buffet

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

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

What I liked best and least

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

Feature photo: from within the Dome

A walk through Budapest to Parliament

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

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

Apartment living in Budapest, Hungary

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Feature photo: the Danube taken from the bridge

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Eat your way through the charming town of Cesky Krumlov

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Cesky Krumlov Castle

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The artisan and his craft.

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

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

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

My favorite part of Cesky Krumlov Castle

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Gardens of Cesky Krumlov Castle

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

It’s all about the location

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

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

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

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

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

For kids and adults alike

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

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

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

What I liked most

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

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

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

Feature photo: taken from the opposing side of the street

Fishing & river rafting in the Czech Republic

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Hohensalzburg Castle: An unfulfilling checklist castle

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

What I didn’t

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

Recommendation

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

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

Hotel Turnerwirt in Salzburg, Austria

A boutique hotel at an excellent location & price

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

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

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

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

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

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

The dining room where morning breakfast is served.

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

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

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

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

What I liked least

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

Feature photo: from the Hotel Turnerwirt website

Tyrolean Alps, Innsbruck and Swarovski Headquarters

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Tyrolean Alps

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

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

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

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

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

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

The many faces of Venice

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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