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.

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.

Bellagio, Lake Como

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

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

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

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

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

The villa directly across from the ferry in Menaggio

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Yet another villa on beautiful Lake Como.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Our favorite places

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

Our favorite eatery…

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

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

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

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

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

Important tip for parking

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Descending into the town of Wassen

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

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

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

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

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

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

An American in Prague

Falling in love begins with Old Town

So many pieces on Old Town seem to fall in to the “come, take a snap and leave experience,” which doesn’t enlighten the potential tourist. Old Town and the Square is so much more than the famed Astronomical Clock(although it does lend itself to glamour shots). Old Town Square itself, with the extensions to St. Charles’ bridge, and on the way to Prague Castle deserves an least a few hours of wandering time.

Believe it or not, this is just “around the corner” from Old Town. These forties-era buildings are beautiful outside and may are restored apartments used by tourists and residents alike. Just off this street marks “Old Town,” proper, and in the other direction, is the Praha (Prague) Museum and Wenceslas Square.

But really, half the charm of the entire Old Town area is just that—the area. One can spend two hours or more going up one side of the Vltava River and down the other, which should be done. The museums and structures on either side are breathtaking, I’ve written about renting paddle boats and noshing on oversized hotdogs at any of the stands. The entire area made such an impression (as did the Warhol’s in the museum at the time we visited), it gets a mention the second book of my Danielle Grant series, where the lead character is recovering from the death of a loved one and journeys to this lovely town.

The Square

Those are the outer streets leading in to “the Square,” as it’s referred to. If you want to be right in the center, then book a night just to have the sunrise-to-sunset experience. The Square has boutique hotels, outdoor restaurants and museums lining the square-shaped center courtyard. Street performers work from dawn to midnight and come in all forms and shapes. Some were really excellent, but be wary of your wallet as you remove a few bucks to pay, or it will get swiped without your knowing.

Left: a close up of the Astronomical Clock, Left: in Old Town Square, outdoor café, the Clock is in the background.

St. Charles Bridge Museum is often overlooked, and I didn’t take a single picture of the insides because that’s how good it was. I wanted to read, learn and enjoy, not spend the entire time taking photos. If you like structures, buildings and mechanics, you will love this. My kids, who are Lego freaks, adored this museum, a whole lot more than paintings or the iconic images of Warhol.

Upper left: along the main street, Upper right: one block off Old Town, Bottom: beside the Vltava River, the St. Charles Bridge and Prague Castle in the background, my look of “My feet are so tired can we stop yet?”

In and around the Old Town Square are all sorts of diversions. Yes, you can have the dry skin eating off your feet by small swimming animals (the girls had this done before but it’s always fun to hear them squeal), and yes, you must go to the Captain Candy, which I mention in the article on finding the best shopping experiences. Yes, this is a franchise, but limited to certain countries in Europe, so compare it to Rocky Mountain Chocolate, where you can only get it in certain States. If candy isn’t your thing (I took pictures, and only had a bite or two) because I chose to save my calories for…gelato!

The best trinket

If you want a single item to take home to put on your shelf, spend $50-100 on a laser cut block of glass with your picture inside. It sounds cheesy, but we get more comments on it than any other item in our home. At the time, we went for cheesy to thinking it was unique, and are glad we evolved. As an aside, we have a family rule: one family item (aka trinket) per trip). Not per country, per trip. We thought—huh, maybe this is it. After learning what this is all about, we stood in front of the laser (individually then as a family) and chose what form factors we wanted; a block, a keychain, a smaller weight. They are sturdy things and you’ll want to transport the in a box, but well worth it.


This 3×4 block wasn’t enough. We got a keychain (with the girls only) that lights up, a 2×2 square w/me and the girls. Rog? He was only in this one—the hologram-like changes depending on the direction of the light.

If you want a single item to take home to put on your shelf, spend $50-100 on a laser cut block of glass with your picture inside. It sounds cheesy, but we get more comments on it than any other item in our home. At the time, we went for cheesy to thinking it was unique, and are glad we evolved. As an aside, we have a family rule: one family item (aka trinket) per trip). Not per country, per trip. We thought—huh, maybe this is it. After learning what this is all about, we stood in front of the laser (individually then as a family) and chose what form factors we wanted; a block, a keychain, a smaller weight. They are sturdy things and you’ll want to transport the in a box, but well worth it.

The weather

This coming summer, it’s supposed to be a 50-year heat wave, but how can that be much different from a few years back when it was 101? The evenings were cool enough to require a light jacket for all of us (Rog wore a sweater). During the day we were dying and carried our water bottles that included a spray everywhere. These can be had for about $7 US at Walmart or Target so definitely pick one up before you go, because we didn’t find any over there (or in hotter locations like Mexico either). They are our travel accessory.

The safety

I’ve written about the downsides of Prague, specifically the cabs, but now you know that the base rate is 40 cz plus another 28 cz cap per kilometer, you are good to go. Yes, keep your wallet in your front pocket, or elsewhere that’s safe, but I always have my side camera case/purse/backpack everywhere. We’ve ventured over main areas day and night, and only once got ourselves in a pickle by taking the wrong train, ending up in the middle of who-remembers-where, got off (second mistake) and had to wait for a really long time for one to take us back to town. Maybe it’s because we don’t drink, are a family or generally people take pity on us for an easier mark, but we’ve never had an issue and don’t expect to next time around.

The next visit

In our upcoming trip, Prague is near the front of the journey, and it’s only 3 days this time around, versus 7. We plan on going back to the Prague Castle, Cesky Krumlov and the town and more gerbil balls on the water as well as the supersized hotdogs. I’m presently checking out the exhibits to see if that’s going to make it on the agenda.

If you are going to be overseas, or live there and follow me, keep an eye out for the official Travel with Me 2019 launch. I’ll be posting my general itinerary for author-reader meet ups!

Perfectly Prague

For solo-travelers, couples in a blissful state of romance or families looking for affordable fun, Prague is truly perfect

Do you like castles and paddling in your own boat on the river? What about cheap food and luxury clothes for 10% of regular cost? Are you a fan of the Triple XXX movie with Vin Diesel? What about seeing the remains of Lucy, the 4M yr old artifact, or an Andy Warhol painting in person? I answered yes to all of the above after I’d been there, but I’ll be the first to admit that when we book Prague as one of our home bases for a month-long trip, I picked it mostly out of convenience. Throw stones if you will, but my glass house is now bullet proof, because we keep going back, and in a mere six weeks, will be there once again.

This is the first of a multi-part series on the city and the surrounding areas, because it’s perfect for solo-travelers, couples in a blissful state of romance or families looking for affordable good times.

Book your stay and get ready to walk

Prague is one of the most popular destinations in Europe; and for good reason. Old town is walking distance to some of the most famed sites in the country; The Prague Castle, the Astronomical Clock, the old town main square and museums. The town attracts the visitors by the thousands because compared to so many other countries because it’s so unique and blissfully inexpensive. In a single day, you can hit the major hot spots in town, take your selfie and go. Here’s what you can do:

Park in Old Town, (or take the metro), and walk to St. Charles Bridge. The best times or morning or early afternoon, because during the summer, when the sun goes down, it’s a wall-to-wall visitor’s and pretty tough to take a picture. That said, in June, the crowds are quite sparse, so if you have the chance, go between now and mid-July and it’s not so bad.

This is a backward view when you are on the famed St. Charles Bridge. Old Town is in the distance, the tightly stacked buildings narrowing the crowds walking to the bridge.

Walk up one side of the river (river name) cross anyone of the many bridges and walk down the other side. Doing so gives you lots of pictures of both sides of the waterfront.

Paddle boats afford great photo opps that are impossible unless you have a long lense

Stop and rent a paddle boat on the Vltava River. This sounds cheesy, but it’s great fun. You paddle and pause to take a photo of the waterfront or colorful buildings, then stop at any of the sidewalk eateries for a long sausage and drink. Do you need to reserve in advance? Absolutely NOT. The site I referenced shows a great picture of the main rental area on Zofin Island, right across from the National Theatre. You can’t miss it. During our time, we rented a boat three times, and two out of the three, we just walked up, chose the type of boat we wanted and hopped right in. The single instance we needed to wait, it was sunset on a very hot day, and stood for 30 minutes until a boat became available. The time is limited (you can choose 30 min, an hour or more), but it’s long enough to go all the way up and one side of the river and down the other. FYI- barriers prevent you from going too far in either way.

If you’re going to be eccentric, let your choice of paddle boats say it all for you.

Don’t be shy—jump in the gerbil balls, releasing your inner child. I wasn’t going to get into a rubber ball, floating on the river while it was tethered to the side until after I saw my own kids. I didn’t notice or care about the heat wave of 100+ temperatures because I was racing along the bottom, trying to bump into my kids!

Put the pride aside and zip yourself into a gerbil ball. It’s hilariously terrifying.

Walk up to the Prague Castle. It’s going to take about 20-25 minutes from the opposite side of the river, but it’s not difficult; flat, then the rise at the end as you walk up the incline. To our slight disgust, the first thing you see at the top is a portable Starbuck’s, which we thought was the tragic commercialization of a castle, but alas. What can you do? There’s a McDonald’s in plain view of the Duomo Cathedral in Milan, so we just ignored it and moved on.

A view from the Prague Castle

During two visits, filmmakers were making major motion pictures (no, Vin wasn’t in site) but the handsome polize were. They laughed at the blond American asking in terrible Czech if they’d mind posing, but were more than happy to do so.

Cajoling the security squad from the movie to take a snap

After you tour the outside and surrounding areas, you’ll probably be in it about 5-6 hours. Now’s the time to let the sun go down, pick a spot within the main square of Old Town and eat a casual meal The reason? Because the best pictures of the clock are taken during the evening. Of course, you’re not the only person who knows this, so be prepared for a lots of people. Tours are interesting, and we did one, but I don’t think it’s required. Just standing in the square, watching the performers and planning where you’re going to eat your next meal.

When you take a cab, these are the images you miss…looking over the edge of a bridge to the water as you walk up (or down) to Prague Castle.

Alternatively, if you’re not tired, and ready to do a bit more walking, then head in the opposite direction, away from the Castle. Across the bridge, through the shopping areas of Old Town, and up the long boulevard that leads to what is known as Wenceslas Square. Believe it or not, we found parking spots right on the main street-so it’s possible! Treat it just like Los Angeles parking and you’ll be completely fine!

Best parks for Trailering

Today the topic was to be Bruges, Belgium, but I can’t do it. I have camping on my mind, and specifically, trailering. In America, “trailering” has been converted into a verb, and now is the time to book before all the good spots are gone. This is a short compilation of our top stops we go to time and again, and you need to book now because they are worth it. PS- if the spots below are booked on your dates, make sure you check around midnight because cancellations take effect when the clock turns over. We have skated in several days before thx to cancellations. In no particular order, our favorites are:

Cape Disappointment State Park, (south of Oceanside, Longview, Seaside) Washington

The reason it’s so named is because of all the shipwrecks that occurred off the coast. This unique location offers Yurts that can be rented (rounded, tent like structures but are permanent), beachside slots for all sizes of RV’s and the inner “suburbs” for more trailers which are walking distance to the coast. Like most state parks, it offers showers among the amenities, and lots and lots of biking trails. We go annually for clamming—a task so easy even our then-four-year-old could do it. Beware, the top temperature is high sixties unless you go in August, and the clamming isn’t so great at that time, but the weather is better. Less rain, more sun.

This is the site to make reservations for ALL Washington State public parks.

This is rush hour at Cape Disappointment. Strangely, some of the warmest days are in June
RimRock Lake Resort, Naches, Washington

Located on the opposite side of Washington (locally known as the Eastern side of Washington), this lake is large, rather remote while at the same time easily accessible. We have been going nine years in a row now, booking our spot at the RimRock Lake Resort a full year in advance. At this particular resort, the property has a pinnacle setting, wherein it’s located on two jutties. One has a 280-degree view of the lake, wherein trailers can be positioned all around the point. The resort also features a peninsula that only allows for a handful of trailers. You walk out of your trailer, and can jump off the rocks into the clear, cold lake below. We have rented three spots, one at the very end, and either one beside us for friends (or just for the privacy). The Resort has a small shop and tackle, and a restaurant but the hours are limited. We just usually drive down to Yakama, which is about 45 min east of the lake. Trails with soft dirt circumference the resort, leading down to a swimming area that’s naturally protected from the rest of the lake. The dock is a short swim, and thankfully, the bottom of the lake in this area is both rock and hard sand, not soft and gooey, which is a plus. The facilities include an indoor showering area which is known for the incredible water pressure and length of hot water (most showers are on a timer and go cold after a few minutes to force one out. Lastly, the Resort also has its own boat launch, and requirement for lakeside!

My friends served as models for these shots:) I chose both of these because they show how close the trailer is parked to the edge of the peninsula at RimRock Lake Resort. Walk out a few feet and jump off into the cold water. It’s glorious.

If RimRock isn’t available, a number of small, lake side resorts exist, some with cabins and other with the option for trailers, but I can’t recommend one in particular, as we’ve always stayed at RimRock Resort.

Lincoln Rock State Park, Wenatchee, Washington

If lakes or the ocean isn’t your thing, try a river. Our local favorite is the Columbia River, staying at the State Park. It’s always hot (think 90-100 degrees July-September), the river very cold and the park itself is laid out really well. For the premier spots, try for “the bluff.” This is limited to trailers and the massive diesel pushers. If you score a sport on the ride of the plateau the spots offer unobstructed views of the dam, river and valley below. You can take your dog for walks down the short hill, to the other areas of the park, which are segregated into tent-only areas, RV trailer areas and the like. For non-trailering folks, the loudest areas area always the tent-only locations. The reason should be obvious—they aren’t inside being boisterous, it’s right out there! The park has a boat launch and shore line where you can ride your jet ski up and park beachside.  

When your pitbull thinks she’s a lapdog, but conveniently keeps you warm as the campfire gets going.

If this Park is sold out, Wenatchee Confluence State Park is our second favorite. The downside is that the layout, which makes it seem far more crowded, and it’s not as easily accessible. This also has a marina and a rocky beach area but easy enough for jetskiiers to ride up to the short.

While many lakes have banned stand-ups, most of the State Parks have not, nor have the rivers. Hurray!
Mt. Rushmore KOA at Palmer Gulch Resort in South Dakota

This is the mother-of-all trailering parks, and the reason is fascinating—it’s the second oldest KOA in the country, and it’s located on the spot of a former golf course that went bust. From the glorious entrance and center (which is well-managed by through-lanes when you arrive), to the portioned areas.

As my husband says, “This is a camping Disneyland.” From the miniature golf course, outdoor theatre, three pools (at last count) horses back riding, rental bikes and an all-you-can-eat pancake breakfast every morning for $4.00. One can even rent a guest house, which were a part of the golf course and were included in the sale. Some of the bigger homes are 5-6 bedrooms overlooking the entire valley. Quite lovely!

It’s right around the corner from Mt. Rushmore, no more than 15 minutes. We went mid-June, when the reservations were open (and we booked about this time, early May), and were pleasantly surprised to find the lines at Mt. Rushmore were non-existent. We went on a Friday morning, found front-row underground parking and had a great two hours. More on Mt. Rushmore in another blog, but for a visitor wanting the premier location to stay, this is it.

Medicine Lake, California

This region is prominently featured in Chambers: The Spirit Warrior, which is book two in the series. As I mention in the back of the book, it’s because I grew up spending every summer here as a child with my family. The lake is a long-dormant volcano, and the places visited by the characters are real: Glass Mountain, the undergound catacomb tunnels, which can be explored for miles, as well as Captain Jack National Monument.

Dozens of other wonderful destinations exist within the State Parks, to say nothing of private resorts, but time is short and I had to pick my favorites.

Tip: for booking on-line, each state has its own state park website. This is the one for the State of Washington. The reservations for booking is here.

Book away, and we might see you there!

Feature image: this was taken at Cape Disappointment. The ecology is so amazing- from the coastal waters to this almost rainforest-like area. the Yurts are located within these spooky woods–beautiful and sheltered from the blowing wind.

Be brave & explore: rent that car

Don’t let your fear of signs, getting lost or wrecking stop your adventurous self

“What? You rented a car? You must be crazy.”

My parents just about had a heart attack when I said we’d driven from Puerto Vallarta to Guadalajara, over the hills and through the desert to see the zoo, fearing we were going to be kidnapped along with our daughters. I related that we’d arrived at the zoo and ate the churros we still claim are the best in the world. We also got lost in the suburbs on the way back, found a canyon that’s larger than the Grand Canyon right off housing community and met wonderful townsfolk in an artsy enclave. That’s been our experience around the world; adventure and the unknown, merging together to give our trips meaning. It’s also made me a car advocate for seeing the most in the least amount of time.

without a car, we would have missed all these sites….
Face the fear

For the first ten of our twenty years of marriage, we took cabs out of fear and the convenience factor. We truly thought those who rented cars were, in fact, crazy. What changed our mind was our increasing desire to go places cabs wouldn’t. We were pushed over the edge when kids arrived.

Getting lost, unfamiliar road signs and parking are the top of all the concerns voiced about car rentals. Road signs can be learned easily enough (thanks Google), and taking a wrong turn is a part of the fun. In fact, this has resulted in seeing some of the most amazing destinations we’d never have located on our own. And parking? Bah. In Milan, a city that we’d been told was impossible for American’s to navigate, we used Google Maps and had no problem finding the Duomo and getting a spot two blocks from the Duomo Cathedral (that part we found on our own).

What’s the worst that can happen?

Tickets and fraud. When you don’t read German, tickets will happen. We’ve received more than a couple at castles or destinations because we didn’t properly understand the signs for permits (and didn’t bother ask). Had we used Google translate (or heaven forbid, asked someone who speaks better English than we do), we could have saved the ten bucks. Regarding fraud, our singular bad experience came about when a front desk worker at the rental office in Frankfurt decided to steal our credit card. The silly boy started making purchases about the time we drove off the lot, but was apprehended a few days later.. In 20 years however, that was the lone instance of pain, and it was rectified with a few days.

A few learnings

In Mexico, the rental policies are nuts, because you are expected to pay all sorts of premiums at the counter (even with Hertz, Avis and the others). Further, they require the credit card to be charged authorized for insurance, and security, which can increase a standard $400 for a two weeks to $3,500. No kidding. If you don’t have this kind of room on your credit card, you will be in a bind. Otherwise, here’s how the money breaks down. Tip: most credit cards cover car accidents, so we never purchase insurance. Check with your credit card company.

Yucatan Peninsula/Cancun Area

Cab from any one of the Gold Coast hotels, Isla Blanco or Punta Sam to town: $30 one way (US), round trip, $60.00. If you are going further south, tothe famous Playa del Carmen, tack on another $40 ($20/each way). For a single night in to town, it’s easily $100. Compare that to renting a car, which you can drive to Tulum (2.5 hours south), Chitzen Itza (3 hours west) or anywhere else, and you have already come out ahead.

Cabo San Lucas

This is one place where we found a car is NOT necessary, but this is because our lifestyle during our visits is….lounge lizard. We aren’t going to golf courses, visiting the dunes, or eating anywhere we can’t walk to. So the car we rented (once) stayed in the hotel except for the trip to and from the airport. A total waste.

Puerto Vallarta, Suyulita, Ixtapa, Zihuatanejo

We always get a car now, but in the early days, (pre-kids) didn’t bother when in PV, because the cab ride was 5-7 minutes to downtown. Once we started staying further from the center, we got a car. For the other three, yes, cars, always.

Europe

Of course, nothing compares to a train ride through the Alps (the journey isn’t even possible by car), and you still need to take a water taxi in Venice or a boat tour on the Danube to see the buildings from a different viewpoint, but these are not every day occurrences. Yet that leaves several dozen countries to explore with four tires. With open borders, the only thing you need to worry about is a full tank of gas, although a map is helpful.

A few tips for renting a car in Europe

The pick-up location makes all the difference in the world. The same car picking up in Calais France (for 5 weeks) is $3,400, whereas that car is $2,400 in Frankfurt, Germany, but $1,200 in Aachen, German. Guess where we are picking up our car? And it’s not a Volkswagon. It’s a four-door 5-series BMW touring model.

I’ll give you another example. One year, we picked up a Volkswagon Golf in Zurich, Switzerland for two weeks. Price tag? $1,100. The next year, we went for an Audio Quatto, but go it out of Frankfurt, Germany for 4 weeks. Total price with tax? $1,098. Are you seeing a trend here? Automobiles, for the most part, originate out of Germany. If you rent in another country, you are going to pay a LOT more. While we have used Hertz and others in the past, we find amazing deals with Sixt luxury car rental.

Last example. This year, we decided to see a bit of England, and are landing in Manchester, getting a car, driving over the channel. We are dropping the car off in France and taking the train up to Aachen. Even with the cost to rent a car for two days ($120), then the four-hour train ride ($600), we are still saving over nearly $1,500. Is a bit inconvenient? Only if you think the train ride through France  and the Black Forest of Germany is ugly.

The summary here is to not be fearful of renting a car. The benefits dramatically outweigh the risks or issues you may encounter, so on your next trip, be brave and start exploring. Your future self will thank you!

The truly happy smile of a girl with a car who is seeing a lot, including the handsome security staff at the Duomo Cathedral in Milan

*Products and services mentioned are not sponsored by the respective entities. This is an independent editorial review based upon real experiences paid for by the author.