Czech Republic. Italy. Spain. Portugal. Croatia. Slovenia. Hungary. Poland. Austria. Germany. Greece. Thailand. Australia. Tanzania. Zanzibar. Malawi. Zambia. Zimbabwe. France. Monaco. Colombia. Cambodia. Vietnam. Laos. Myanmar. Cuba. Mexico City. New Zealand. Banff. Japan. Netherlands. Scotland. England. The journey continues..

Monday, September 11, 2017

13 Years Later ...Lake Como!

Seven train rides later from Murren and we made it to the town of Varenna in Lake Como. The last time I was in Italy, it was October 2004 and I was on my first solo trip abroad. Lake Como was on my list but I thought it'd be too romantic of a place to go solo, so I skipped it but it was always on my list of places to come back to. Here we are ...13 years later! We arrived to a sunny and warm picturestic lake. What a world of difference in temperature compared to the Swiss Alps. We booked a newer built apartment that sits above the train station and overlooks the lake. In many ways, I prefer this vs the older rooms in the center of town. It's a bit too crowded for my taste. Lake Como is a place you come for total relaxation. There isn't much to do other than eat ice cream, meals, walk the town's and gardens and spend time with your company.

Since this is a lake of villages, we ventured over to Menaggio on the other side of Varenna and found a town that seems more lived in than Varenna. It has more traffic, hotels seem a bit bigger and the square is right in the water and that's about it for Menaggio. No pretty gardens. The next day was rainy so we ventured out for meals and then cozied up in our apartment. Steve has been deep into his James Bond movies since our visit to the Schilthorn. Our last full day here, the rain lightened up so we ventured to Bellagio, known as the glam gem of Lake Como, to see what that was all about. Bellagio has shops for days compared to its other villages on the lake. The streets are filled with more people and certainly more cars. While walking the shops, Steve asked if he can get a fishing boat. My questions are always 1) where are we putting it? 2) how are we getting it back home? Later in the afternoon, we went back for the fishing boat.

Lake Como is beautiful. I don't know that it's the most beautiful lake in the world as one poster claimed, but it is beautiful, serene and peaceful with some of the largest mansions you'll ever see. 13 years later, definitely worth it!

Thursday, September 7, 2017

In Awe of The Alps In Switzerland

One flight and a couple of expensive train rides later, we arrived in Switzerland from Mallorca. Zermatt was our stop and we arrived to cold and rain. Yours truly must have read the wrong weather report and had to go shopping for leggings! I knew Switzerland would be expensive but wow!! This will go down as the most expensive country I've traveled to. We got off the train station in Zermatt, wandered up the street and found our hotel. We had a sweet room with a deck that faced the Matterhorn except it would take two days before we were able to see it due to weather. On the one sunny day that we were there, we were able to do the Seenweg trail which is also known as the Matterhorn's five lakes trail and it was truly stunning! Cold but stunning! We were in Zermatt for three nights and felt that was a good amount of time there. It was time to move on to another part of the mountains- Oberland!

After five train changes and one gondola ride, we arrived in the town of Murren from Zermatt. Unlike Zermatt, where luxury commercialism (Hublot, Rolex, Patik Philippe) is in your face, Murran is a quiet small village. Although we did hear that in the prime of summer, this little village sitting on a cliff brings in 4K folks a day. Crazy to think! While folks go to Zermatt for the Matterhorn, folks come to Murren for the Schilthorn, the Eiger, Münch and the Jungfrau. On our second day here, the sun burst through the clouds so we decided it'd be a perfect day for the Schilthorn. $80 Swiss Francs takes you to the top of the Schilthorn from Murren and it was worth it! Views of the big three: Eiger, Münch and Jungfrau floating in the clouds with the cheesy James Bond theme in the background. We spent the next two days hiking the North Face Trail and the Mountain View Trail around these mountains with town visits to Gimmelwald and Lauterbrunnen.

The debate I've often read is, given one choice, would you choose Zermatt or Oberland?! Zermatt is busier, more commercialized, more hotels, more restaurants with tasty pizza such as Grampi's and Molino's. And, of course it has the Matterhorn which was my favorite hike in Switzerland. Oberland is smaller, hotels are more rustic, less traffic because cars aren't allowed in many of the towns above the valley. There are restaurants but only one deserves your money, time and calories and that's Le Grotte in Murren. Of course, you can choose to have broccoli beef for $28 Swiss Francs or pasta from the freezer for $25 Swiss Francs at neighboring restraurants. Oberland has countless hiking trails and view of Europe's highest mountain tops. So, I suppose it comes down to the atmosphere one wants! We were lucky enough to fit both in!

That's it for Switzerland!

Friday, September 1, 2017

Is It Mallorca or Majorca?

Depends on who you ask, I suppose! I funded this flight for my second trip to Europe with my United miles and it was quite a journey. SFO-->ORD-->ZUR-->PMI. During my journey over, I was convinced that I would take the $25 euro cab ride to my hotel for ease and convenience but then I got off my last flight and thought, I can figure this bus thing out! Hopped on the #1 Aeroport bus into town for $5 euros, got off at Place Espanza, got my bird's eye view map out, located some buildings around my hotel, followed two directional signs and viola, Hotel Convent Missio! Steve would be joining me the next day after having attended his brain conference in the south of France.

Mallorca is a much larger island than I thought it'd be but thanks to their awesome bus system, you can just about get anywhere on the island. I spent my first day on the #3 bus to a beach club strip called Illetas. The waters were warm but it was way to crowded for my liking, so I cut my beach day short, headed back into Palma and explored it more. Palma is a town where you don't necessarily need a map to guide you. All the lanes and roads eventually intersect again. Palma is busy, humid, tapas and ice cream shops galore but the main stand out is their Cathedral. Wow, that stained glass in there with the high ceilings and ancient architecture is stunning. The Gaudi architecture you see
around town isn't bad either. Just have to remember to look up to catch it!

With Mallorca's awesome bus system, we took day trips to Soller, Valldemosa and Alcudia. The town of Soller isn't much but it has a busy port full of shops and restaurants that's worth taking a wander in. The highlight of Soller is the one hour train ride from Palma and then the tram that takes you to the port. Beyond that, time is best spent having a lunch by the water and then a drink back in Soller town while people watching in the square by their cathedral.

Valldemosa, which I deemed the gem of Mallorca. A 30 minute bus ride takes you there from Palma. You come upon a charming old town surrounded by nature and hills. It's stone buildings and houses are decorated with little potted plants all around the entry ways.

And then there's, Alcudia. The last day trip we did from Palma. It's a longer bus ride at an hour from Palma. It's an old town surrounded by a wall or fort with charming pedestrian only narrow lanes. You can roam these lanes ....for what seems like awhile and not be bored because each time.. you discover something different. We took a taxi from Alcudia to a nearby beach called S'illot. You may get there by taxi but no guarantees that you'd make it back! You can call for one at the beach restaurant but taxis aren't efficiently run in a Alcudia and you can be waiting for days. It took us a few tries but we were able to hitch a ride back from after enjoying some sun and warm waters of S'illot!

That's it for Mallorca, next up, Switzerland!

Sunday, July 16, 2017

It's Castles and Beaches In England!

I've been traveling since 2004 and while I've been to the London Heathrow Airport many times, I've never actually set foot in its cities or towns. I've always thought my first experience of England would be London but instead, it's turned out to be the villages of the North. We (Steve, his brother and myself) set out on an early drive out to a town called Alnwick where Steve's parents grew up and now live. It's what you'd imagine a small English village would be with its small houses, quaint roads, peaceful stretches of sandy beaches with the clouds as a backdrop. I spent a total of 3 days here in the North of England and absolutely fell in love with this area. His parents busied us with visits to a handful of historic castles, beach walks with the dogs and stops for tea and cake. I love a good tea in a cute shop!
There are hundreds of historic castles here in England. Some are ruins and some are still serve as homes to the royal. We personally visited Almwick Castle, Bamburgh Castle, Dunstanburgh Castle and Warkworth Castle while driving by a few others. Of the bunch I saw, Bamburgh is the most epic standing massively on a small sea front hilltop with records of its existence dating back to the year 547. When you see something built from the year 547, it makes everything else I see back at home seem insignificant. I used to marvel at the "est 1907" plaques. I may scoff at them now! Maybe. The most charming castle of this bunch for me would be, Dunstanburgh and that's because of the sheep fields you passby leading up to the castle. Dunstanburgh dates back to 1313 and it's shown in ruins but you're able to climb the steps to see field after field of this North England beauty.
This part of England is so quaint and quiet that it's hard to believe the reality we currently live in with the situations of a Trump presidency in the US and Brexit looming for Britain. The common thoughts from some locals around here seems to be that the US will be able to recover from a Trump presidency as this will blow over in a few years and the damage he has done is fixable with the next administration. So, while the short term effects seem drastic, the long term effect may be nominal. However, I have the Supreme Courts appointments on my mind! With Brexit, the thought is that while there aren't any short term effects, the long term effects could be quite detrimental particularly to the younger generations. I wouldn't disagree.
Another observation I had here was that their pharmacy drugs are significantly cheaper! My allergies came alive when Steve and I were on our way to Arthur's Seat in Edinburgh. I was able to buy some rather effective allergy meds at half the cost of what I'd get in the US. For example, a 24 pack of Zyrtec D would cost $29. A 30 pack of Prinsitine cost £9 pounds or $13 and it was on abut one get one half off so I essentially purchased a 30 pack for $9. The cost of our healthcare in the US has weighed heavily on my mind ever since I had my preventive annual check up and saw the bill for lab work. Outrageous! Needless to say, I've loaded up for the next three allergy seasons!
 This Europe trip of mine wasn't quite planned. It came up rather last minute as Steve had a conference to attend in Edinburgh and I tagged along to meet his family. His family have been so kind and gracious, I will miss them and look forward to our next visit. The funniest was when Steve's dad asked me,"does Steve still pile the sink full of dishes?" And when I replied, "um, no." His mother added, "Yi put a stop to that, she's very tidy." I'll miss our mornings waking up to views of sheep and open skies. Until next time, England! And with that, it's countries #32, #33 and #34 going on the backpack!

Thursday, July 13, 2017

Scotland... A City Of Closes

After a few days of discovery in Amsterdam, I flew to Edinburgh to meet up with Steve now that his conference is over. We were hosted by his older brother, who greeted us at the train station in a Golden State Warriors T shirt not knowing the relativity of it, in a small seaside town, about 30 minutes outside of the city called Kinghorn. 

Edinburgh is small and not nearly as colorful as the city I had just spent a few days in but it packs a punch in history! It's charm is in its centuries old monuments, the castle on the hill, the way they refer to an alley way as a "close" and how even their "new town" looks much like an "old town." And, of course the bagpipes! We spent our days roaming around the main downtown area marveling at this aged architecture wondering how many tales and stories must these lanes and closes have. One of my favorites was a tall clock tower with the label, "toll booth." I suppose they used to be the entry to town having payed some form of currency. One of the most popular attractions in Edinburgh is a hilltop called Arthur's Seat which gives you 360 degree views of the city, however when in a city, my photog eye prefers to see the details of the forest! If you're in the New Town area, an eatery named The Pantry serves a tasty turmeric latte..must try!

 While Edinburgh is lively with the Queen's Mile packed with live acts and history, I'd be missing out on the sights of inviting Scottish villages had Steve's brother not live a short train ride away. Every train journey into and out of the city gives sight to their Forth Bridge, one that resembles exactly the Bay Bridge of back home, as well as, the Gypsy Carnival grounds in Burntisland. Burntisland is a neighboring seaside village to Kinghorn with a beautiful and large open seaside green space. Apparently, every year and for many months during the summer, this green space is occupied by this random carnival that just shows up. According to land laws, the field is public so no laws are broken although if I was an owner of a seaside home in this town, I'd have other thoughts! 
Warm and dry months or even days and weeks don't come often in Scotland. I was fortunate enough to have brought the sunshine from Amsterdam with me! Next stop: my first experience of England!

Monday, July 10, 2017

Haarlem, You're A Gem!

Day 2.5, I wanted to escape the crowds and found myself with many options. Do I rent a bike and ride out to Ouderkerk as suggested by a local bike renter? Do I ride a bike out to the beach? Maybe to Haarlem? Maybe out to Zaanse Schans, a village of windmills? I ended up taking the bus out to windmill village and then hopped the train to Haarlem. I arrived early enough to Zaanse Schans to avoid the large group tour buses which is at its best. The shops in the village aren't open yet at this hour (before 9am) but you get the morning peace to yourself and see the farm animals at its glory feeding in the fields. Windmills in a field, it's so Tour de France like! After an hour or so in this windmill village, I hopped the train to Haarlem and instantly fell in love!

Haarlem is a gem. While everything in Amsterdam is in your face, in Haarlem, you have to seek the details of the charm. It has quaint streets, a vibrant but low key town square and my favorite were the floral adorned quaint residential streets. The square packs your typical bit hits: museum, a couple of churches and a formal hall of sorts. This town's St Bavo church houses a beautiful massive organ that a young Mozart played on in 1766. The age of history in Europe still baffled my mind. While the town square is low key inviting, the residential
streets own the charm of this town. Nearly each door had a bike in front of it. Folks of all ages live here but it's the older women congregating on their bikes in front of door steps speaking with such succinct enthusiasm that made me smile. They would end every sentence with a "looo".... helloooo... good day-ooo. This little town packed a character that I consumed fully. 

What I enjoy most about Europe is the ease of train and bus travel! All in all, my time in the Netherlands did not disappoint and I remembered how much I love travel in Europe. The Dutch are kind and always so gracious when I ask for directions. Yes, even the sort of creepy gentleman that stopped me in the streets insisting on helping me get to where I wanted to go because I had a map in my mind and went on to insist that I was must be "rich" because I live in San Francisco. Is that the reputation we have?! Everyone in general have been extremely helpful and so nice! They want to get you to your destination as much as you want to get there. Every time I've asked a train info person which platform I should go to for a certain destination just to make sure, they always look me in the eye and succinctly say "It leaves in X minutes." A thought I had most often while strolling through Haarlem is if I could live as efficiently as these locals. Their residences here are quaint and small but efficient. Nothing is oversized here, unlike home where it seems that the bigger it is, the better it must be. I don't follow that norm much... perhaps I was European in my past life!

Amsterdam...It Wasn't Love At First Sight.

Far from it, actually. Amsterdam has always been on my list but it was on the "fit it in" list as I never thought Amsterdam itself warranted a flight across the country and pond. At last, I had the opportunity to fit it in on this leg. I arrived in Amsterdam in the early afternoon and spent it walking myself lost in circles which is normal for me for my first day in a city. Everywhere I walked, there were massive crowds of people. I thought to myself, "I've never been to Europe in the summer, this must be what it's like." I was not very impressed with day 0.5 in Amsterdam. 

The next day, I got an early start and took myself on one of Rick Steve's self walking tours and once that was over, I went on a walking escapade through Amsterdam's canal belts. It was here that I found Amsterdam's appeal. The city center is crazy busy and quite chaotic but once I got out to the side streets and neighborhoods, I was in awe and the inspired photog in me came through. The west end and the Jordaan area of this city is beautiful with its calmer quaint streets lining the less boat filled canals. The shops cross between familiar and interestingly different. It's in this quaintness that I was able to take in the architecture of this city. One thing I did notice about the houses here is that, every top floor window has a little captain's hook. I thought it was historically decorative at first but only to find that it's actually functional in use: that's how people transport large items up to the top floor. Go figure. One of the more powerful experiences was passing by the Anne Frank house. I didn't go in for the tour as you had to get reservations months in advance to wait in line or you can wait in the line for hours after 3pm for the same day option. It was enough for me to know that the significance of this building exists and that it's here. Around the corner of the Anne Frank house is the statue of Anne Frank. Just take a moment, stand in from it, the statue portrayal of this little girl is pretty powerful. One other area that I especially enjoyed was known as Begijnhof. It's a quiet courtyard of a housing community lived by nuns who hadn't taking the vow to lead monastic lives. The history in Europe never ceases to amaze me. It took a few hours walking the streets in the morning before I was comfortable finding my way without referencing a map. I had referenced it so much previously that it was picturesquely ingrained in my mind. 

For a small city, Amsterdam packs in a lot of landmarks, it was easy for me to navigate which street directionally I wanted to head towards based on which landmark I was near.  It was also on Day 2 that my photog eye found it's inspiration here! I'll leave you with these observations of Amsterdam: it probably has the most diverse cuisine offering I've ever seen in one town! Every local here cycles, that's how they get around yet not one wears a helmet, not even the babies. Everyone here seems to follows the traffic laws and rules to a science where drivers and cyclists can coexist without incident! Of course it helps that, infrastructurely, they seem to have been able to incorporate bike lanes that can take you from one end of the country to the other!