How Hard Is It to Climb Kilimanjaro?

A few years ago I climbed Mount Kilimanjaro, the roof of Africa.  I have written about how I prepared, what I took with me, and how each day was from day 1 to reaching Uhuru Peak (Kili’s summit) to coming down the mountain.  However, one of the key questions I get is how hard was it to climb Kilimanjaro?  I also get that in a different way when people look at me like I did an almost impossible feat.  I get that it is not something most people do hence why it is a feat of a kind but to me there are crazier and/or harder things (it is all relative, isn’t it??).  So I wanted to share a little of my perspective on how hard is Kili…

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The first time I saw Kili outside of the Honey Badger Lodge

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A photo shared in my earlier post about what I took with me

A bucket list item that never was: Kilimanjaro

I never planned or thought of climbing Kilimanjaro.  It had never occurred to me, I had barely heard or read of people who did, nor was I a big hiker to begin with (my first multi-day hike ever had been the year before and I had never stayed at a tent in my life!).  I had hiked four days in Transylvania (Romania) the year before with Trekking for Kids (TFK) and, at a fundraiser for them a few months later, folks started talking to me about joining them in a few months to climb Kilimanjaro with TFK.  I considered the whole idea preposterous.  While I exercise regularly, I was not running half marathons (had done it once a dozen years before) nor doing bootcamps a few days a week nor anything of the like.  Climbing Kilimanjaro was for the super athletes of the world and I was far from a fraction of that though I knew I was in slightly better shape than the average person.  But, a lot of cajoling, elbowing me, and a couple (or 4) glasses of wine later, I succumbed and said yes, beginning to feel excited that I would attempt something so ‘crazy’ and out of character.  The next morning as I woke up and remembered the prior night’s events, I was asking myself why I had agreed to doing something like (instead of saying I’d think about it).  Well, I am not one to disappoint so I decided I was going to give it a shot after all not thinking I had what it took, expecting it took a LOT of training time I did not have, at altitude I could not spend time on, and requiring plenty more hiking experience at altitude or not that I did not possess…

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Ready to start the climb!

Getting ready for climbing Kilimanjaro

A million questions started swirling in my head.  How do I best prepare?  What do I need to bring with me?  What do I need to wear to deal with the cold?  Can I do anything to improve my chances at the exertion?  Can I do anything to help me be ready for the high altitude?  What did I need to know in terms of my personal safety?  How much was it going to cost me when it was all said and done?

I was fortunate to have been going to Kili with an outfit like TFK.  They provided a good bit of info and gladly answered all my questions as I researched things and acquired the things I needed.  I won’t repeat here all the things I decided to do in terms of preparation or to pack in terms of clothing and other gear; I will provide links to those posts below.  But I will address here the “how hard” question…

How hard is it to climb Kilimanjaro

Of course, you do not decide to hike to the summit of 19,340 foot mountain on a whim.  OK, perhaps if you are a superstar athlete or have the right genes you can… but most of us don’t fit that category.  Actually, I take that back even being a superstar athlete does not guarantee you will make it to the top.  Physical conditioning is only part of what is needed to make it to Uhuru Peak, the summit.  The other part, well, it is simply how your body deals with the high altitude and lower oxygen levels (for which you can do a couple of things that help a tad).  Nevertheless, you have to have an OK fitness level as you will be exerting your body through a few hours a day of walking and gradual climbs, mixed with some steeper climbs at certain points.

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Leaving the Lava Tower looks harder than it was (Day 3)

Training at altitude would help but, from what I understand, the body’s adjustment to altitude dissipates within a few days/a week so that may not be logistically possible for everyone (to go from training in high altitude in another continent and head straight to climb Kili).  I did not do any high altitude / long climbs as part of my training due to many constraints but certainly they can only help so if you are able to do some of that in the weeks before, then your fitness level will be better.

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Heading to Barafu Camp from where we would launch to the summit (Day 5)

Part of my training as I share elsewhere was walking on a treadmill on a high incline with a backpack loaded with twice the weight I would carry on the mountain.  It was an odd sight at the gym for sure but it helped physically if not just mentally…  That and the fact that I am in general good shape through routine exercise were in my favor but I still struggled summit night (who doesn’t?) and after the Barranco Wall.

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Climbing along (not up) the Barranco Wall had its challenging spots (me in orange!) (Day 4)

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A little while after the Barranco Wall (OK, an hour or so), we got hit by a little rain

So while Kilimanjaro was far from easy (each day I would end completely drained and able to move but barely), I feel it is a reasonable, attainable goal for people with a fair degree of training/fitness.  And, with all that, it will still all depend on how the high altitude hits each particular individual – and that cannot be predicted.

What was the hardest part?

It is a hard question to answer.  We are all so different.  My answer may not be yours.  Things I can think of include:

  • the cold,
  • the longing for a nice glass o’ wine or a beer (OK, I threw that in for comic relief),
  • the badly needing to get up to pee in the middle of the night (if taking Diamox – or not),
  • the constant packing and unpacking,
  • the not showering,
  • the bathroom situation at camp and on the trail,
  • the rocks to climb requiring longer legs than I have,
  • the having a sick tent-mate and wondering for days if you will catch it,
  • etc.

(NOTE:  Note food is not on this list.  I ate great stuff thanks to our great porters & crew!)

But all these things are “overcomeable.”  For instance, while I used wipies every day to sort of clean up after a day of hiking, I had no such thing for the hair.  Yet not even ONCE did I think that it had been days since I had washed my hair last (those who know me will know how incredible THAT sounds).  That’s what makes going up Kili something special.  YES, it is hard in many ways.  YES, physically, no matter how well trained (with those rare exceptions).  But the hardest part is the mental part when you wonder if you really can make it all the way and whether you want to on one of those moments you are too tired to think straight.  The hardest part is in keeping going, in putting one foot in front of the other when you think you can step no more.  And you can.  And you will.  And you will be so amazed when it is all done that you did it.  That you had it in you.  I never knew I did.  But I did.

And this is the face of happiness at 19,340 ft above sea level, with my family close to me.

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At Uhuru Peak – the summit of Mt. Kilimanjaro!!

How to Go to the Serengeti

I have been fortunate many times in life.  With the Serengeti National Park in Tanzania, I have been fortunate twice.

Serengeti National Park twice!

Back in 2007, I went to Tanzania for the first time visiting projects my employer supported in Stone Town (Zanzibar) and the Mwanza region while also visiting our main office in Dar es Salaam, Tanzania’s largest city (but not its capital which is inland Dodoma).

During my stay in Mwanza, I had a day off and I thought “if I never get to return to Tanzania, what would I do with that day?”  Well, the answer was easy:  visit the nearby the Serengeti, approaching it from its western side.  Though a day is certainly not enough, when that’s all you have, you take advantage of the opportunity to sample a place so unique and so present in our imagination from movies and the like.

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The tiny Mwanza airport

Fast forward to late 2012 and I was convinced, sold, pressured, <fill in the word here> to climb Mount Kilimanjaro.  Never on my list of things to do, I was surprised I agreed to do it (wine had something to do with it but also the great people with whom I would go on this adventure).  Once on board, the opportunity arose to do a four day safari through the Lake Manyara National Park, the Ngorongoro Conservation Area and the Serengeti after the climb.  I knew I had barely scratched the surface on my brief visit in 2007.  In addition, I had not gotten to Ngorongoro in 2007 because it takes a day of its own and it was outside the Serengeti on the OPPOSITE side from where I was coming and going back to (Mwanza).

My visits were very different in duration, in how they were guided, and in how I got to and departed from the park.  These visits provided me a view of the possibilities for someone contemplating visiting the Serengeti with potentially different itineraries.

How to get to the Serengeti from Mwanza

Getting to the Serengeti:  One option on getting to the Serengeti is to enter it from its western side.  You would do this if you were coming, say, from Rwanda or were to get to Mwanza (Tanzania) on the shores of Lake Victoria.  On my first trip to Tanzania in 2007, this is how I visited the Serengeti, as I mentioned.  From Mwanza, it would take 3 hours or so to get to the Serengeti’s western entrance, the Ndabaka Gate.  Fair warning:  the road in was rather rough from this entrance.

Staying near the Serengeti:  Since you really want to be at the park as early in the morning as possible, I stayed as close to the park’s entrance as possible.  They reserved a lake-shore bungalow at the Speke Bay Lodge (15 km from the park and 125 km from Mwanza) on Speke Bay (part of Lake Victoria) so I could get going really early – optimal time for seeing the wildlife at the park.

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My bungalow at the Skepe Bay Lodge – outside

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My bungalow at the Skepe Bay Lodge – inside

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The shores of Speke Bay

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The shores of Speke Bay

Exploring the Serengeti:  I hired a driver from my organization to drive me in and out of the park who was more than happy to make extra money.  For the cost of his hourly wages multiplied by the hours spent taking me there/back plus a rather generous tip, I got to sample the Serengeti.  While he was savvy enough to not get lost, handle the very rough roads), and show me a good bit, he certainly was not a regular safari driver who has more of knowledge and instinct for finding the action.   Once in the park, he took me to the impressive Seronera Lodge so I could have lunch.  After concluding the day, I went all the way back to Mwanza which made for a long day since I had crammed into one day.  Needless to say, I recommend more than one day in the park and staying in the park which, while more expensive, would allow for maximizing the early hours of light to make sure you see all one hopes to see when doing a safari in the Serengeti…

Some images from that trip (film, not digital camera!)

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Some of the wildlife…

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Some more of the wildlife…

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Love this zebra picture!

How to get to the Serengeti from Arusha / Kilimanjaro

Getting to the Serengeti:  The most common way to visit the Serengeti is to approach it from Arusha.  Arusha is proximate to the Kilimanjaro International Airport (JRO) served by airlines like KLM (awesome way to go from North America with one stop in Amsterdam’s Schiphol).  More or less, it takes about four hours to get from Arusha to the Ngorongoro Conservation Area.  The visit to the Ngorongoro can take a whole day so I would not recommend going back and forth from Arusha.

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On the road in the Ngorongoro Crater

Staying near the Serengeti:  We stayed at hotel outside the Ngorongoro called Highview Hotel in Karatu (the vistas from the hotel reminded me of the hills of Tuscany!) which made it perfect because, the day after visiting the Ngorongoro, we launched from there into the Serengeti.  We then spent two full days in the Serengeti staying in the park at a nice tented camp (we had a bathroom in the large tent as well as two separate beds!) that allowed us to get a very early start the second day.

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My tented camp “tent” – nice!

Exploring the Serengeti:  On this safari, we did go on a guided safari which definitely yielded a great experience.  We were a group of 12 or so; we split into two vehicles and one left before the crack of dawn and the other sometime after dawn).  I stuck with the group that slept a little more 🙂  We were taking a gamble… would we miss the best wildlife action (a lion kill – which really meant a lioness or two hunting down some wildebeest) because we slept until the late hour of 6AM?  Well, thankfully, we did not sacrifice the opportunity to see how the hunt takes place (and the kill which was not the most interesting part for sure).  The vehicles we rode in sat a small group and the top would open, as most of the vehicles you see during safari, so you could stand look out without the glass of the windows obstructing a clear view out.

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Second visit, an.other zebra shot..

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Hippos enjoying the water

We named ourselves the type B group (vs. the other group, which we lovingly labeled the type A group).  We had brought lunch boxes prepared by our camp but the type B group drove past the Seronera Lodge (yes, the one I had had lunch at six years before!) and we asked the driver to stop there.  Once inside, we decided lunch boxes were for the type As and we proceeded to go to the restaurant for the lunch buffet… yes, no shame here – we enjoyed the ‘luxury.’  Anyway, that may not be how everyone wants to do the Serengeti but it felt SO good to sit down, eat a real meal, sip on a glass of wine or a beer and look out the window at the Serengeti…

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Pool at the Seronera Lodge – with a great view of the plains

In this visit, we witnesses an almost lion kill in the Ngorongoro (we saw the lion patiently monitoring things with a three lionesses not far probably doing the hard work).  And then we saw the full lioness kill of some wildebeests in the Serengeti itself.  An incredible experience especially when witnessing the patience and finesse of the lioness, and also the cleverness of the wildebeests (OK, all but one’s…).

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Patiently waiting for the menu to walk by…

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This is not going to end up well for someone…

Africa never ceases to amaze me.  The vistas, the wildlife and the people – the stuff we see on TV and that is so foreign to our daily experience (at least for those of us urbanites).  I leave you with these two images of the sunsets I experienced in the Serengeti…

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Amazing sunset on its way while we safari

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Amazing sunset from the restaurant at our tented camp


Pin these images to your travel board!

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Pashupatinath Temple: A Unique Experience in Kathmandu

Visiting a new place can make us feel out of sorts.  That could be due to a number of reasons:  the climate is different, the people behave in ways different than ours, the food is different, etc.  That can be especially true when visiting a place with a different religion than the one(s) we know.  That was true when I visited Kathmandu, Nepal, which, itself, did not feel strange; it felt very comfortable there!  But I visited one place in Kathmandu that was I ill-prepared for;  I felt a lot of ambivalence about the place once I got there.  And it was not the conceptual part of the site that threw me for a loop, it was more the sensory perceptions once at the place… but, before all that…

Pashupatinath Temple

Before flying to Lukla to hike the Everest Base Camp trail, our agenda had us visiting the Pashupatinath Temple, on the banks of the Bagmati River in the east side of Kathmandu.  It was a group activity for us trekkers so I went along, eager to see more of the city and explore more of the cultural and religious aspects of Nepal.  Before getting there, we understood it was a Hindi religious site where, among other things, ritual cremations took place.  Before I get to that, a little more about the centuries-old temple…

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A bit up from cremation area is a bridge to cross into the main complex

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Many structures piled on

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Along the river bank after the bridge

Lord Pashupatinath is the national deity of Nepal and the temple is one of the most important ones in the Hindu faith.  When I speak about the temple, I actually refer to the overall complex of temples (big and small) and other religious sites around the main temple, which only people of the Hindu faith can actually enter. The complex is a UNESCO World Heritage Site which designates it as a place of unique importance and meaning to the world at large.  It holds many religious festivals throughout the year – it must be quite a sight!  Pashupatinath, temple, Kathmandu, Nepal, templo, Hinduismo, cremation, Asia, explore, travel, photo, architecture

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Lattice work

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Close-up of the woodwork

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While non-Hindus cannot enter the main temple, we got close to it and got to peek through the gate.  Pashupatinath, temple, Kathmandu, Nepal, templo, Hinduismo, cremation, Asia, explore, travel, photo, architecture

The main temple is built in a pagoda style and has a gilded roof.  The area around the entrance was decorated with beautiful artwork that I am sure has a lot more meaning than I understand (it shows deities but I can’t really explain… if you, reader, know, leave a comment to educate us!).  I was left wondering if it felt more solemn once inside…

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Entrance to the main temple

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Close-up of the area above the entrance (Shiva)

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Close-up of the side of the entrance (Ganesha)

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Detail on the outside walls of the main temple

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Peeking in through the main temple gate (golden rear end of Nandi, Shiva’s bull)

The structures around the complex were not homogeneous.  The materials and colors seemed diverse, perhaps because of being built up over many centuries?  The buildings and the architectural details caught my eye (and my lens) and it was a lot to take in – it was a feast for the eyes.  I didn’t know where to focus since it was all new to me.

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Cool building – like all the wood work

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Love this type of detail

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Friends conversing

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But the thoughts about my first visuals upon entering the complex lingered with me throughout the visit despite the great things I was looking at…

Cremations at Pashupatinath

When we arrived we had entered through a gate that brought us directly face-to-face with the cremation area by the river….

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Our first sighting of the temple was the ‘ghats’ where the bodies are cremated

There were monkeys all over the place.  Not sure if they like being by the water, if they are all over, or what…

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One of the many…

In any case, the area where the cremations take place can hold several cremations at the same time on either side of the river.  The body of the departed is placed on a “platform” (or ‘ghat’) that juts out into the river a little and there the funerary pyre is set.  The side of the river close to the entrance we took is simpler whereas the opposite river bank offers more shade for the relatives and friends of the recently departed.  Behind that area there are several structures at a higher level.  We were told that if the families have come from a long way, they may stay there.  Once the ritual cremation is done, the embers are allowed to die down and the ashes (and anything else that remains) are thrown into the river with the hope it reaches the Ganges River, one of the most sacred rivers of the Hindu faith.  Relatives of the departed step into the river as part of the cremation ritual, hence the steps that form the river banks at the temple.

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Finishing cleaning up the area

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Preparing for a cremation

Experiencing the world through travel is not always easy

I knew that this was a religious practice as I had witnessed, via TV, the funerals of people like Indira Gandhi and others who were cremated in similar fashion (open-air as part of a religious ritual).  So as I entered the complex, I felt “aware.”

And then the smells generated by the cremations hit me.  To say I was unprepared for that is a massive understatement.  I had not stopped to think ahead of time about how it would feel to be physically present (not just in front of a TV or computer screen) at an open-air cremation.

We were quite far from the river’s edge when the smell reached us.  What made it uncomfortable was that it reminded me of the smell at a cookout back home but I knew this was an important religious ritual we were seeing from a distance.  It was disconcerting, feeling guilty about making that comparison mentally, about thinking that I was in person seeing something that I would never expect to see back home as an eyewitness.  As I stood there, I hesitated on taking any picture of the scene but decided to do it as it would be from a good bit of a distance away and I felt I was doing so with a respectful intent.

Looking at those photos today, all the feelings come rushing back:  my awkwardness with the moment, the sensory memories…  But, traveling is about expanding one’s understanding of the world, about learning of others’ perspectives and beliefs, and about being OK with not always being comfortable with what one comes across.  I struggle with saying I am glad I had that experience – I am not sure I can say I am “glad.”  And I will have to be OK with that.  But I am glad to have learned more about the meaning of what I witnessed to the faithful for whom this is supremely important…

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Not sure what this prayer man is called but photo highlights what this place is about

 

How to Pack to Hike to Everest Base Camp

My hike in Nepal a couple of years ago along the route to Everest Base Camp (EBC) was a great experience.  Hiking in Nepal is unlike my experience climbing Mount Kilimanjaro or trekking in Patagonia‘s Torres del Paine.  In Kilimanjaro and on the ‘W’ circuit in Patagonia, one is walking along areas where humans do not live:  they are parks.  But to get to Everest Base Camp, one walks along hamlets and a rare town that either pre-date the route’s popularity due to hikers or that arose due to the demand.  Either way, the result is the same:  one gets to experience Nepalese hospitality and customs in a way that enhances the experience; it is not simply a hiking experience, a physical challenge.

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Taking a tea break during a sunny day at a teahouse

Trekking to Base Camp or just a view of Everest

In my hike, I did not have the time off work (yes, I have a regular job with the usual constraints on vacation time!) to be able to get to Everest Base Camp and return.  That was OK with me.  In the trek I joined with Trekking for Kids, there was an option to only go past the Tengboche Monastery to Deboche and then turn back around.  (Note: if you are interested, Trekking for Kids is planning to return there in late 2018 with both the full trek to EBC or the shorter one like I did called “Everest View”, see here more more details on that trek.)

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Deboche – not a big place at all!

While it would have been cool to see EBC, I was not crushed; I was just glad to be able to see Mt. Everest in person (and discover the more proximate and impressive Ama Dablam!) and experience the trekking route.

Considerations driving the packing list

Preparing for hiking along the route to Everest Base Camp was not vastly different than some of my other hikes…

The route to EBC continually goes up in altitude as one goes along (no surprise there!).  The trek itself, if you start in Lukla (the one with the crazy airport), starts at around 2,800 m (9,300 ft).  EBC itself sits at near 5,400 m (17,600 ft).  So that right there will make it cold, like with Kilimanjaro (particularly at night).  Add to that the fact that heating at the teahouses where one stays at is ‘limited’ to be generous (one exception: we stayed at a proper hotel in Namche Bazaar):  the rooms are not heated and the common space where one eats meals and hangs out before heading to bed only usually have a tiny stove in the center.  So, cold weather gear and clothing was key (again, no surprise there).

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The stove in the teahouse’s main room is a popular spot…

As with Kilimanjaro, you have to mind the amount of stuff you bring along as there will be limitations on what can be carried by the support staff.  So being smart about light items, re-usable items, and the concept of “just enough” vs. “just in case.”

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My “packing list” in a visual format 🙂

It is worth noting that some teahouses have a tiny counter that may sell some basics but I would not make my plans with that as the approach to packing – it could be hit or miss. Namche Bazaar, along the way, will have plenty of the basics available (including some medications) as a backup to anything forgotten.

Clothing and Footwear

  • Upper Body and Legs:  The main point to the clothing to be taken is to stay warm and be comfortable first and foremost.  Layers are key to both.  Base layers for the torso and legs, with an added layer for extra warmth, and an outer layer for the coldest of times are the basic framework for the clothing plan.  Wind/Rain top and bottom layers are also important though rain itself was not the biggest of factors when I went; I’d recommend the top having a hood.  Using wool as the material of choice is highly recommended:  it provides excellent warmth while wicking moisture away (keeping you from smelling and helping with the re-use of clothing items…).
  • Feet:  The boots you will need should be, as expected, able to trudge through mud, ice, snow and the like – and be very comfortable.  Liners and woolen socks complete the “outfit” for you feet.  Nothing here is different than for most hiking scenarios in cold weather / high places.  You could also bring a pair of solid walking shows (vs. boots) so you can take a break from the boots.  The initial part of the trail does not necessarily require boots so you could do this if you have space.  Also, you will need some shoes to wear at the teahouse every night so these walking shoes could serve that purpose perhaps.
  • Hands:  Again, nothing terribly surprising here but because of the great and sustained cold temperatures, a hardy pair of gloves is a must.  You may also want to bring lighter gloves as it is not always freezing cold (lower altitudes or inside the teahouse at night).
  • Head:  A skull cap, balaclave or ski hat are a must – keeping the head warm is very important, as we all know.  You may also want to wear something at the teahouses (or even when sleeping as it is cold in those rooms!).


Gear and other practical items

  • Sleeping bag:  While you will sleep on beds in the teahouses, they are not necessarily clean and the cold may be too much for the provided linen.  So a sleeping bag rated for very cold weather is important to bring.  I just brought the one I used in Kili which was 0 degrees Fahrenheit rated.  Very much needed!
  • Night light:  When headed to the bathroom in the middle of the night, this may facilitate a lot of things… like seeing in your room, seeing in the toilet, etc.  Don’t forget batteries!
  • Pillow:  A small pillow would be helpful though teahouses tended to offer pillow.  I had my neck pillow for the air travel but I still used the teahouse-provided ones – covering them, of course…
teahouse, packing list, Nepal, Everest, base camp, Himalayas, trekking, hiking, teahouse, nature, adventure, outdoors, travel, Asia

Typical sleeping quarters in a teahouse

  • Trekking poles:  Parts of the trek are steep so trekking poles are most helpful providing lift, stepdown, and balance support.  Mine have shock absorbers to help when going down – most helpful for me to protect my imperfect knees!

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    Very steep heading to Namche Bazaar

  • Water:  Treating water is very important and the Steripen is the most practical way (in my opinion) as within a couple of minutes you have water that is safe to drink and tastes normal.  Batteries are the big thing here – bring plenty as you will use this device a lot and others may ask to borrow it; add to that that batteries deplete faster with the cold and high zones you will be traveling through.  Of course, you will need a bottle with a wide neck to be able to properly use the Steripen.  I also will add that I used a Camelbak bag inside my backpack as it was easier and better to sip water through the attached hose than to drink gulps out of a bottle that had to be taken out…


  • Wipies/Tissues:  These are multi-purpose… Clean up after a day’s hike if the shower facilities are not available/too busy/too-dirty.  Also, you could use these if there is not toilet paper available (or dry…) around.  Or other general cleaning purposes!  [I will say as a parenthetical observation that I’d rather use the portable toilet tents used in Kilimanjaro than some of the indoor toilets these teahouses had… the portable toilets were cleaned daily and did not smell as bad and the area under them was just earth, not a dirty indoor floor…]
  • Towel:  A small quick dry towel is important as teahouses do not offer towels.  Quick dry is very important as they will not dry quickly enough overnight, especially with the air so cold.  Along with that, bring your own soap and shampoo…


  • Medications and first aid:  The items here are more specific to each individual’s circumstances but perhaps something to help sleep, something for altitude (like Diamox), something for an unexpected bout of digestive issues (CIPRO; a couple of folks got very ill in our group), something for pains/aches (like knee pain… Ibuprofen was my choice), something to help with treating blisters, etc.  Talk to your doctor about anything specific to your needs.  Also, the Center for Disease Controls in the United States offers travel advice specific to each country and regions within – your doctor should know about it or be able to look it up upon your request.  The route to EBC is unlikely to have too many of the typical tropical diseases (yellow fever, malaria, etc.) due to the climate but you do enter Nepal at a much lower altitude.
  • Personal items:  The usual suspects toothbrush, toothpaste, sunblock, lip balm, deodorant, floss, hand sanitizer, etc.  Whatever you normally need (and your roommate would appreciate you using!).
  • And, of course, duct tape!  Prevents blisters from developing too much, fixes broken things, and who knows what other needs!  I roll mine either on a pencil or on the trekking pole to save space.

I leave you with my view of Mt. Everest!  Pin it to your board!

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Picturesque under a great blue sky!


If you are interested in getting a copy of my Microsoft Excel packing list, leave me a comment below and I will email you the list I used “as is” (no bells and whistles!).  Your needs may be different and I am not saying my list is exactly what YOU need but it may give you a starting point!  

 

In-and-Out: Munich, Bavaria’s Capital

Munich (or, München, in German) is a great city on many levels.  Its location, the Bavarian cuisine, the amazing architecture, and the many things to see and do make it a perfect place to explore over a few days.  However, my chances to spend time there seem contained to a day or so.  My first time was in 1994 as I went from Frankfurt to Austria; the family I was traveling with had a relative there so we stopped somewhere on the outskirts of the city to have lunch and visit – a very short visit.  Then in 1999, I went to Munich for a business trip that lasted just a few hours – not even an overnight and nowhere the near the city center.  Eventually, in 2011, I finally got see the city center and stay overnight on a stopover as I returned home from a trip to Croatia.  That time, I got to walk around Marienplatz at night and have dinner at a great local restaurant nearby but that was to be all.

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Place I had dinner at in 2011

Landing in Munich again!

Fast forward to 2017 and another visit to Munich appears on my radar but – yet again – it is not going to be a long one:  another overnight but, this time, with the chance to see the city center in the daytime!

On the final approach on the flight over from Amsterdam, it was neat to see the beautiful Bavarian countryside…
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Munich, Munchen, landing, final approach, flight, Germany, Bayern, Bavaria, travel, food, explore

Upon landing, it was time to get the rental vehicle and drop the stuff at the hotel before venturing into the heart of the city (the hotel was close to the airport).  The drive into town was easy – GPS and Google Maps took care of that.  It was neat to finally see the city in the daytime!

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Approaching the city center

Marientplatz – the place to be

We approached Marienplatz by crossing through a former’s farmer market, the Victuals Market (Viktualienmarkt), now selling fruits, meats, and ready-to-eat food across a hundred or so stalls/kiosks/cafés.  Though it was February, the place was teeming with people – very lively place.

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The Victuals Market

Munich, Munchen, Germany, Bayern, Bavaria, travel, food, explore

The Victuals Market

We entered Marienplatz after passing by Heiliggeistkirche (Church of the Holy Ghost) by the side where the Spielzeugmuseum (toy museum) is located.

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The Church of the Holy Ghost

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Interior of the church

That places you seeing the Rathaus, or City Hall, from the side and at a little distance – it is so impressive to see!!

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The Rathaus upon entering MarienplatzMunich, Munchen, Germany, Bayern, Bavaria, travel, food, explore, Spielzeugmuseum

The Spielzeugmuseum – a toy museum – at one end of Marienplatz

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The Rathaus (not rat house!), the key building in Marienplatz

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Closeup of the Rathaus’ façade

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Detail of a Rathaus’ entrance

Munich from atop the Rathaus

Whenever I have the chance, I go up!  Climbing or riding up but I go up!  At the Rathaus, you can ride up to the top to get great views of the city all around and to take a look down at Marienplatz itself.  I highly recommend checking it out!

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Looking down at Marienplatz from atop the Rathaus

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Looking down at Marienplatz from atop the Rathaus

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Looking at the very top of the Rathaus from the viewing platform

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View of the city from atop the Rathaus

From above, I want to explore all the corners of this great city:  walk its streets, check out bars and restaurants, see its museums, visit its churches, etc.  Maybe the fourth time will be the charm and I will get to spend a few days doing just that!  Auf wiedersehen, München!


Pin any of the photos above or this one to your travel board!

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How to Visit Montserrat, Spain for Spectacular Site and Views

Montserrat, Spain is host to a Benedictine abbey (Santa Maria de Montserrat) that sits grandly at around 4,000 ft of altitude.  Its name literally translates to “serrated mountain” – which is appropriate as it is a jagged-topped mountain that rises up the Catalonian landscape.  It is an amazing site for several reasons.  For the faithful, it is home to the Virgin of Montserrat (the “black virgin”).  For the hiker, it is a neat place to trek up – and not a hard hike.  And for the traveler, it is a great destination offering great views, great architecture, cultural perspective, and a thrill just to get up to it!

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View upon exiting the railway station

 

Some History on Montserrat (but not too much!)

The monastery atop Montserrat has been around since the 10th century – it is still a functioning monastery.  It is absolutely mind boggling to me to think it has been there over a thousand years!  (I even read that it has been an important religious site since Roman times before Christ.). St. Ignatius of Loyola came to this site to pray/contemplate and, eventually, went on to found the Jesuit order in the Catholic Church.  Most recently the monastery suffered closure during the Spanish Civil War in the 1930s and the killing of 22 of its monks (lots of religious were killed by the Communist side of the Civil War).  The basilica itself is not that old and has suffered through wars and fires.  The basilica has a museum with art work that includes the likes of Picasso, Dali, and El Greco.  The statue of the black virgin that sits above and behind the main altar of the basilica is supposedly from Holy Land origins in the early days of Christianity though others believe it was carved many centuries later (Middle Ages).

Getting to Montserrat

Montserrat is easily accessible whether you have a car or you take a train from Barcelona.

If you are driving, you are basically headed to Monistrol de Montserrat.  We came from Andorra via Lleida and it was easy to find though at the very end, exactly how to get to our destination took a little more guesswork…  If you are coming from Barcelona, well, it is just about 45 minutes away.

Once there, your options for parking are parking up at the monastery (parking is limited and it is not free), or parking by one of the two railway stations.  Where you park is really based on how you want to go up.  As I mentioned, you can drive up.  You can also hike up if you are so inclined; I did not hike up but hear the trail round trip is about 20km and the trail is relatively easy and fairly ‘stepped.’

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At Monistrol-Vila railway station’s parking area – notice the mural showing the ascent and the mountaintop!

Now if you don’t want to drive up or walk up, then you have two options:  the cable car (or “Aeri”) or the inclined railway (“Cremallera“).  They both are easy ways to go up but you need to decide before you get there as each is taken from a different point around the area.  Both the cable car and railway have frequent departures which vary depending on the season you visit – schedules are posted online and at the stations.

If you take the train in from Barcelona, you will arrive at the lower station, Monistrol de Montserratu, where you can take the railway.  If you drive, you can opt to drive a little further up and park at the railway station Monistrol-Vila; there was open parking for buses and a parking deck for the rest of us.  We opted to start at Monistrol-Vila as there was ample free parking, and the station was clean and new.  If you do use this station, remember that on the way down, you get off at the first stop of the railway!

Montserrat, Montserrate, Spain, Cataluña, Catalan, catholic, Cremallera, mountain, travel

At the railway station

We opted for the railway as we had heard that it allows more time to absorb the scenic views (the cable car only takes 5 mins whereas the railway takes between 15-20 mins) and it is pretty amazing to climb the slopes of the mountain via the train.  The train is very comfortable and the views were indeed great.  The cost was around 10 euros for the round trip.   Note that there are packages you can get for entrance to the museum, audio guides, etc.

Montserrat, Montserrate, Spain, Cataluña, Catalan, catholic, Cremallera, mountain, travel, view, vista

Looking down towards Monistrol de Montserrat from the Cremallera

Montserrat, Montserrate, Spain, Cataluña, Catalan, catholic, Cremallera, mountain, travel

Heading up the Cremallera, a small green train can be seen on its way down

Montserrat, Montserrate, Spain, Cataluña, Catalan, catholic, Cremallera, mountain, travel

My Mom not realizing the down train was about to pass us!

Montserrat, Montserrate, Spain, Cataluña, Catalan, catholic, Cremallera, mountain, travel

The Cremallera railway station atop Montserrat to the right

It is worth noting that one can go even higher up the mountain via a second funicular (Funicular de Sant Joan) located behind the railway station atop Montserrat!  It does not take long but, again, we were pressed for time so I had to skip that, regretfully.

Montserrat, Montserrate, Spain, Cataluña, Catalan, catholic, Cremallera, mountain, travel

A second funicular can take you to the highest point in Montserrat

My research showed there were a couple of places to stay on the mountain but I did not look into it.  I do imagine it is a spectacular place to stay and watch the sun set and rise…

Visiting the basilica and the Virgin of Montserrat

Once you get up, everything atop Montserrat is in close proximity.  There is some slope to walk up towards the basilica and monastery complex but it is a nice short walk.   When you leave the railway station, you can go straight up some steps into the walkway up, or you can make a left and avoid the steps and walk up an incline; this last approach passes a little market shop and a small cafe in case you need to eat or drink something.

Montserrat, Montserrate, Spain, Cataluña, Catalan, catholic, monastery, mountain, travel

Walking up towards the monastery and basilica (there are restrooms in this alley)

Along the way up, you will pass the museum and one of the places of lodging.  And then you enter the area they call the “atrium.”  It is a large plaza with some arches that afford views down towards the railway station and way beyond.  At that point, the basilica/monastery complex is in front of you but to see the facade of the basilica, you need to enter through some arches into a small inner courtyard.

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At the so-called “atrium” – a plaza with great views

Montserrat, Montserrate, Spain, Cataluña, Catalan, catholic, mountain, travel

Turning around with the basilica/monastery behind me

When we entered that courtyard, we saw a bride and groom who were about to get married.  Thankfully, the event did not close the visit to see the Virgin of Montserrat (also called the black virgin due to the color of the paint applied to it over centuries).

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The entranceway towards the basilica facade

Montserrat, Montserrate, Spain, Cataluña, catholic, basilica, facade, mountain, travel

Inner courtyard of the Montserrat basilica

Montserrat, Montserrate, Spain, Cataluña, catholic, basilica, facade, mountain, travel

Detail of the basilica’s facade

The interior of the basilica felt heavy and dark to me but not so much to be drab.  If there were no tourists, I would definitely feel like I could calm my soul and pray in peace.

Montserrat, Montserrate, Spain, Cataluña, catholic, basilica, facade, travel

Heavy Gothic feel to the interior of the basilica

Montserrat, Montserrate, Spain, Cataluña, catholic, basilica, facade, travel

A rather darkish yet gold-heavy interior

The statue of the virgin sits in a narrow passageway above the high altar.  You can see it from anywhere in the church (you can see someone in a blue jacket above the altar in some of my pictures; how convenient for my photo-taking!) but to visit it face-to-face, you stand in line in the inner courtyard off to the right and you proceed along the side chapels of the basilica, up several stairs and, eventually a very narrow staircase  to individually get to see, touch and pray to the Virgin.  Photos are not allowed once by the statue (there is a guard) but I took a photo at the bottom of the steps so you can visualize the space at least.

Montserrat, Montserrate, Spain, Cataluña, catholic, basilica, facade, mountain, travel

The statue of the Virgin with a faithful wearing a blue jacket

Montserrat, Montserrate, Spain, Cataluña, catholic, basilica, facade, travel

Left: Initial staircase up. Right: the final steps and the statue at the top

As throughout the rest of the trip around Spain and France, I felt blessed to be able to come to this important Catholic site following our visit to Lourdes atop an amazing mountain in Spain with my wonderful mother and sister!!  Thanks for coming with me!

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With my Mom and sister


Pin this to your travel board!

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20 Images of La Sagrada Familia in Barcelona

La Sagrada Familia, the grandiose basilica (mostly) designed by Antoni Gaudi, has become the symbol of Barcelona, and that’s not a stretch by any means:  both have been growing and evolving over the decades.  And, for La Sagrada Familia, at least, that journey will end in the next decade (target: 2026) as it is expected to be finished by the end.  Gaudi’s masterpiece needs no introduction, though perhaps some background info could not hurt.  There is no justice I can do both to its story and to how it looks and feels in person.  So this post is meant to deliver, as well as photos can, eye-candy on this masterpiece of architecture, construction, and faith…

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West side of the basilica (Passion façade side)

Backdrop on La Sagrada Familia

Gaudi was brought in to complete the design of the basilica early on in the project (a year into the project).  He continued working on it until his death in 1926 (hence targeting 2026 as the year for its completion) but, at the time he died, the basilica was only a fifth to a quarter done.  Initially, there had been opposition to it but certainly it has become iconic, almost legendary.  Its construction has been slow because it was funded through donations, and the Spanish Civil War also disrupted the effort in the 1930s.  To me, it is a marvel of imagination and creativity.  It would not surprise me to hear someone say it is ‘too much.’  But despite its eclectic designs/features, it feels elegant, not overwhelming.  If it were not for the tourists meandering and talking, it could be -more importantly- a place for contemplation or quiet prayer.  I sure hope there are/will be times when it will be closed to tours/visits though I do not know how they really could control people going in to pray versus to admire (read, gawk) the building and snap photos endlessly… like I did!!  #confession

The basilica’s design

Gaudi’s designs were lost in a fire though some of the designs were re-constructable from other artifacts available that captured what Gaudi was planning.  However, that does not mean that what we see today is exactly Gaudi’s vision:  other architects over the decades have left their imprint on the design as the work progresses and new techniques/technologies have become available.  It is hard to imagine, for example, that Gaudi could have laid out the lighting design given how much illumination know-how and technology have changed since the first quarter of the 20th century…  I am no architect, no designer, no artist but below is my layman’s recollection of the plan of the basilica and some opinions…

The spires (towers) of La Sagrada Familia

The general concept of the design includes an array of spires or towers:  a high tower representing Jesus Christ and four secondary towers representing each of the evangelists (John, Mark, Matthew and Luke) and another for the Virgin Mary.  The remaining spires will represent the twelve apostles.

Barcelona, La Sagrada Familia, basilica, iglesia, church, Catholic, spire, Spain, Catalunya, Espana

Two of the 18 spires of the basilica – Hosanna Excelsis

The three façades of La Sagrada Familia

The basilica has or will have three large façades:  the Nativity, the Passion, and the Glory.  This latter one is to be the most grandiose of the three and is currently under construction.  Its completion will require the demolition of the building block that faces it across the street as it will have a large staircase leading up to it but, no worries, people knew these were the plans since early on, probably before current residents were born!

Barcelona, La Sagrada Familia, basilica, iglesia, church, Catholic, spire, Spain, Catalunya, Espana, Glory façade

Looking to the main façade under construction: Glory

The Nativity façade was the first one built and it was completed in Gaudi’s time so it is most connected to his vision.  The façade struck me as very connected with nature, with animals and floral type of arrangements noticeable; the scene is both peaceful and elaborate.  Of course, the Holy Family is at the center of it.

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Detail of the Nativity façade showing the Holy Family

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Detail of the Nativity façade, stepping back a little. Angels can be seen around the Holy Family

Barcelona, La Sagrada Familia, basilica, iglesia, church, Catholic, spire, Spain, Catalunya, Espana, Nativity façade

Upper portion of the Nativity façade

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Another angle of the Nativity façade

The Passion façade definitely conveys sadness and angst, as the Passion of Christ would instill:  the figures are angular and emoting their feelings on stone in a sparsely decorated space – brilliant and moving, and a clear contrast to the Nativity façade.

Barcelona, La Sagrada Familia, basilica, iglesia, church, Catholic, spire, Spain, Catalunya, Espana, Passion façade

The Passion façade

Barcelona, La Sagrada Familia, basilica, iglesia, church, Catholic, spire, Spain, Catalunya, Espana, Passion façade

Detail of the upper part of the Passion façade – the words “Nazarean Rex” can be seen

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Detail of the Passion façade – deep sorrow on that stone face!

Barcelona, La Sagrada Familia, basilica, iglesia, church, Catholic, spire, Spain, Catalunya, Espana, Passion façade

Detail of the Passion façade – Jesus tied as he was lashed

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Detail of the Passion façade – carrying the cross on the right, and the shroud on the left

Barcelona, La Sagrada Familia, basilica, iglesia, church, Catholic, spire, Spain, Catalunya, Espana, Passion façade ,

Detail of the Passion façade

The basilica’s grand interior – behold!

The inside of the basilica cleverly plays on light.  On the west side of the interior, with red and associated colors created by the stained glass on the side of the Passion façade.  On the opposite side across the aisle, are the greens and blues that feel cooler and happier:  the side of the Nativity façade.  The columns seem to fly up to hold the roof of the sanctuary and feel like trees holding up a canopy.  And, it takes effort to notice but the shape of the columns evolves as the column rises:  a square base may morph to a circular cross-section after passing through an octagon shape, for example.  To me, the highest ceiling is a visual contrast with its modern feel versus the traditional walls at the end of the apses/naves with their big stained glass windows and other more traditional motifs.

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Nativity side with its greens and blues

Barcelona, La Sagrada Familia, basilica, iglesia, church, Catholic, spire, Spain, Catalunya, Espana, column

Columns remembering the evangelists Luke and Mark, 2 of the 4 main columns

Barcelona, La Sagrada Familia, basilica, iglesia, church, Catholic, spire, Spain, Catalunya, Espana, column

Strong as a tree trunk!

Looking up reveals an impressively designed, symmetric and yet not overwhelming ceiling…

Barcelona, La Sagrada Familia, basilica, iglesia, church, Catholic, spire, Spain, Catalunya, Espana, column

Looking up at the ceiling – amazing! Notice the contrast to the wall on the right

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Detail of the main ceiling

Finally, the altar is simple in the extreme – a sharp contrast to the ceiling and side walls of the basilica.  The space feels cavernous by the height of the ceiling, the long tree-like columns and the emptiness in the altar area.  But that cavernous feeling is counter-balanced with the colors and light that is cleverly used in opposition (or, at least, I assume the opposition was planned for…) around the outer walls.

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The main altar – extreme simplicity is a sharp contrast to the rest of it all!

 

Nanoblock Sagrada Familia – I enjoyed putting one of these together!
sagrada familia, nanoblock

How to visit La Sagrada Familia

There are several ways to visit and several things to see in La Sagrada Familia.  From a basic unguided entry ticket at 15 euros (as of this writing), to an audio-guided visit for 22 euros, to going all the way to the top for 29 euros, there is a price point and scope of visit for everyone.  Sadly, going up was not available the day I visited so I was deprived of the experience of going up and taking in the views from above.  However, we did do a pre-purchased guided tour through a local tour agency located across the square from the basilica which secured us an entry time, a guide (in Spanish in our case since it was easier for my Mom), and avoiding any lines to enter the basilica.  The tour included visiting the basement of the basilica which has several exhibits.  One of the most interesting items is the exhibit which shows hanging chains which upside-down show the structure of the basilica as it elliptical or curvy inner structures are well modeled by gravity.  I may not be explaining this well but it is a clever tool for the architect.  In any case, the basement also shows photos of the basilica being built over the decades – all fascinating stuff.  Dedicate time to this visit and soak it all in!

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Looking up at the Passion façade


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In Search of Andraka in Spain’s Beautiful Basque Country

One of the reasons for my recent trip to Spain, as I shared in an earlier post, was to see the ancestral lands of my Mom’s family in the Basque region of Spain (Euskal Herria in Basque).  My Mom’s last name (Andraca, in Spanish) is the name of a home that existed a long time ago where the family originated near Bilbao, Spain in the province called Bizkaia (or Vizcaya or Biscay).  We wanted to see the place but it was only one of many places we had in our roughly-sketched family tree (which also included the neighboring province of Guipuzkoa).  So, since we were not going to just one place, we decided to take a full day and just drive around these two provinces and take in the landscape of Spain’s Basque country…

All the towns in our Basque country…

Our family tree shows a lot of ancestors coming from the provinces of Bizkaia and Guipuzkoa, two of the Basque region’s provinces.  Many of their last names are the names of villages or towns spread about these provinces.  And, when not, we know which towns they came from.  Places like Bergara, Gorliz, Lekeitio, Ondarroa, Azpeitia, Azkoitia, and others feature prominently in our family history.  We definitely would not be able to hit each and everyone one of these due to time limitations and would only stop at a few even if we passed by them.  But it is not like we would have discovered unknown cousins (first, second or even fourth) – our ancestor who came from Spain to Cuba got to Cuba in 1800 so too far in the past for any real connection with living descendants of his own ancestors…

Zarautz – Beach town

We left San Sebastian, our base for a couple of days, and headed west following more or less the coast.  We had no set plans of where we would stop along the way.  One of the first places we passed caught our eye and we decided to see if we could find parking and get out and walk around some.  This place was Zarautz, a beach town of about 20,000 15km (9 mi) west of San Sebastian, that felt like a very livable place, not just a beach town for visitors.  (The town connects to San Sebastian and Bilbao by train so even if one is not driving there, one can get there on public transport.)

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The beach

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West end of the beach

The beach was long (I read it is about 2.8 km long; the longest in that coastline) and we could certainly see how it would be an appealing tourist destination.  The beach was not packed and it may be that it was likely already the end of the season (but finding street parking was impossible still!).  We sat in the plaza above the underground parking deck and looked out at the beach and ocean.  My Mom, uncle and I decided to walk down to get our feet wet by the waters of the Bay of Biscay as maybe our ancestors did somewhere up or down that coast many centuries ago…

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Mom and uncle walking to the water!

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16th century Palacio de Narros from the beach

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Conveniently located to wash one’s feet after stepping on the beach

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My sis and uncle enjoying the view

More Basque coastline

We both reluctantly and eagerly got back in the car.  Zarautz was worth staying but we had a key objective for the day ahead…  We drove from Zarautz past Getaria (another great-looking coastal town) and, somewhere around Zumaia, turned inland on the road.  It was disappointing to leave the beautiful coast because, as you can see, it was beautiful.

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Yet another great beach west of Zarautz by Getaria

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Nice curvy road bordering hills that face the water

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Basque coastline beauty!

A phenomenal Basque lunch

We kept driving and after a failed attempt to reach Lekeitio (there was some festival that weekend with all roads leading to it blocked of – very disappointing as it was high on our list), we went inland.  And hunger was hitting… During a routine bathroom stop at a local bar in the town of Ereño (between Lekeitio and Bermeo but inland), my Mom came and told us the place had a restaurant and it had customers (my cardinal rule is to never go into an empty restaurant in an unknown town…).  The place was cozy, on the ground level of a 2- or 3-story building (can’t recall).  It was Restaurante Jatetxea Atxoste.

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The place we had lunch at in Ereño

It was SUPERB.  The thing I liked the most is the one I did not take a picture of:  the fresh cod sauteed with spinach.  It would be the single most delicious dish I had in the entire trip!  But captured for posterity were the red beans and the rice pudding which were excellent.

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Rice pudding dessert

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The red beans – I could just have ate them all!

I always prefer the small mom-and-pop places where, though service may not be stellar, the food typically is.  Great find, Mom!!

Driving through history:  Guernica

After lunch, on our way to Andraka, we made it a point to drive through the town of Guernica which suffered a massive air attack during Spain’s Civil War in 1937 by Nazi Germany, a bombing that lasted about 2 hours.  Picasso captured the pain and horror of that moment in history in a famous painting named after the town.  There is a mural in the town center matching the painting.  We did not plan to get out of the car but I did snap a quick side photo of the mural…

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The mural

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Guernica by Pablo Picasso

The main event:  Andraka

Andraka is not a town by my definition; not even a village, just some homes laying around (a few under construction) and a restaurant right by the road.  But it has the typical European signs announcing the ‘town’ and letting you know when are leaving the ‘town.’  If there was an original home from over 200 years ago that could have been our ancestros’, we did not see it; and that really didn’t matter that much to us.  After a quick walk around an old, abandoned house and snapping a couple of pix by signs that said “Andraka,” we got back in the car and continued on our drive, satisfied we had gotten to that area of Bizkaia where the last name Andraca originated for our family…

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How the area of Andraka looks

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The old home taken over by vegetation

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My uncle

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Mom, sister and yours truly

A truly unique and fun experience to have shared with loved ones!


Drive the amazing Basque coast!  Pin this to your travel board!

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Biarritz: The Pearl of France’s Basque Country

There are places that are semi-legendary in your mind.  And when you visit them, they live up to that vision.  And sometimes they don’t.  Biarritz, France is not a place I knew a lot about but I did have an impression that it was for the rich and famous.  Its location, in the southwestern corner of France abutting Spain (just 22 miles from the border!) facing the Bay of Biscay, seems ideal with warmer climate and perhaps not the throngs of partying tourists that the Mediterranean coasts can attract.  It sits in the Basque region of France and is home to 20-30-odd thousand residents.

So, as we went from San Sebastian, Spain to Lourdes, France this past September, we decided to stop along the way.  It was not a long drive but we wanted an easygoing day.  As I looked at the map, I realized there were several neat towns along the coast and inland (like Bayonne).  As I talked to my Mom, she shared how she, when she was a girl, would read a novel with her best friend that took place partly in Biarritz and how they always daydreamed about Biarritz.  That settled it for me:  Biarritz would be our stop!

Our visit was short.  A walk around the shopping district after a meandering drive into town. Biarritz, France, Hotel, travel, photo, francia, euskadi Biarritz, France, Hotel, travel, photo, francia, euskadi Biarritz, France, Hotel, travel, photo, francia, euskadi Biarritz, France, Hotel, travel, photo, francia, euskadi Biarritz, France, Hotel, travel, photo, francia, euskadi Biarritz, France, Hotel, travel, photo, francia, euskadi Biarritz, France, Hotel, travel, photo, francia, euskadi Biarritz, France, Hotel, travel, photo, francia, euskadi

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Saint-Eugenie Church

 

Biarritz’ place on the coast certainly offers beautiful vistas and spots to take in the views – or get on a boat and see the city from the water (which I wish we could have done!).Biarritz, France, Hotel, travel, photo, francia, euskadi Biarritz, France, Hotel, travel, photo, francia, euskadi Biarritz, France, Hotel, travel, photo, francia, euskadi

And then, we just picked a place on the beach (the ‘Grande Plage’ – or great beach) to have lunch -not because it had the look of a great establishment, but simply because of the view out and the fact that we would sit in open air enjoying the great weather that day.

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We ate at a cafe off to the right

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The Grande Plage (big beach) of Biarritz

Biarritz most distinctive or massively impressive structure is the Hotel du Palais (of which, unfortunately, I took the picture split by a lighting pole…) built in the mid-1800s by the wife of Napoleon III.

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Hotel du Palais – and the pole in the middle of the photo

So, I can’t share much about Biarritz, its history or all the ins-and-outs of what to do and see.  But, if like my Mom, you have wondered what Biarritz looks like, I hope this post checks that off your list!

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With my beautiful mom and sister!!

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My sister!!!

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The teenager in the Biarritz of her dreams! It was about my mom that day!!

Eskilstuna: A Brief Stop in Industrial Sweden

A year ago, I went to Sweden and got to explore a few different places.  Part of the visit was drive into the countryside (starting and ending in Stockholm while circling Lake Mälaren) with the only planned stop on the way back was Uppsala, a charming college town not far from Stockholm.  But around lunchtime as we drove west of Stockholm on the E-20 highway, we decided to jump off the highway and find a place to eat in what seemed a large town in the area:  Eskilstuna.

I will be the first to admit that I had never heard of this town.  Not surprisingly for a non-Swede, I suppose.  It has over 65,000 inhabitants (so larger by 2.5 times than Andorra’s capital which I recently visited!).  The history of the town takes it back when an English monk named Eskil made the existing tiny town his home.  It felt a very industrial town but it was not dirty.  We passed a Volvo plant of some sort in getting there.

Its main square was pretty and very spacious but, at the time, I did not see any “café” life.

Eskilstuna, Södermanland County, Sweden, Sverige

The main square of Eskilstuna

Eskilstuna, Södermanland County, Sweden, Sverige

Looking out onto the square

However, we did find a great pizza shop (Redfellas)  on the main square after exploring first the pedestrian shopping street in the heart of the town.  Not a quaint or charming street, just a regular shopping street.  I could see Redfellas being very lively at night given its spaciousness and decor; sadly, I was not staying intown overnight.

Eskilstuna, Södermanland County, Sweden, Sverige

The old building where Redfellas is located

Eskilstuna, Södermanland County, Sweden, Sverige

At Redfellas

The town’s church, Klosters Kyrka, dating from the 1920s, certainly looked a little different than the ones I am used to and that made it interesting but we skipped checking it out as we were wanting to keep moving on our day trip.

Eskilstuna, Södermanland County, Sweden, Sverige

Looking towards Klosters Kyrka (Church)

Eskilstuna may not be a tourist destination but it was an opportunity to see beyond the well-trodden places in Sweden and peek at a “non-descript” (pardon me, Eskilstunians!) town.


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Eskilstuna, Södermanland County, Sweden, Sverige


 

 

Making a Pilgrimage to Lourdes, France

Lourdes, France – a major Catholic pilgrimage destination – is a one-of-a-kind kind of place.  For me, that is for two good reasons:

  1. It is the site where the Virgin Mary appeared to young Bernadette, a country girl with no education but a lot of faith.
  2. My mother and sister are both named after that site, where the “Virgin of Lourdes” appeared to Bernadette.

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    The lower and upper basilicas from the Information Center

I suspect both my mom and sister have always wondered if they would ever go to that town in the foothills of the French Pyrenees.  Wouldn’t you want to go to the town where your name came from or is related to?  In their case, maybe more than just for the curiosity of being namesakes with the town but also on account of what happened there in the mid 19th century.

The apparition happened multiple times and the local clergy had initially been skeptical but, over time, became convinced of the validity of what Bernadette shared.  I will leave to other sources to explain the whole story but the Virgin Mary appeared to Bernadette on a grotto near the river.  Out of these events, water sprung from the site and waters of Lourdes are, to believers, holy waters.  People from all over the world come seeking healing or just a spiritual encounter.  Many drink the waters from the spring, bottle some to take home, or even immerse themselves in special pools set up near the grotto (we did all three).

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The grotto

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Fountains where bottles can be filled

When we first arrived in Lourdes from San Sebastian via Biarritz and Bayonne, I was expecting the narrow streets, crowded and me driving this larger vehicle through it all.  I knew I was near the hotel, the Grand Hotel Gallia & Londres, which I had picked due to its proximity to the Sanctuary of Lourdes to make all the walking to and fro easier for everyone, when all of a sudden I saw a parking sign for it, not where the GPS was indicating I needed to go.  Miraculously (pardon the pun), I caught a passing glimpse of the sign before I would have hit the heart of the crowded part of town!

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The back of our hotel

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Right outside of the Sanctuary – tourist shop chaos

The hotel was in the old style of a grand hotel.  It was nice enough but, unfortunately, the A/C was not working on our floor.  Hard to tell with French hotels whether they are just being stingy or whether it was true.  Certainly, at night the air cooled enough to be comfortable in the room but the noise from the street did not subside until the very wee hours of the morning – not the faithful partying, I am sure.  So that made the hotel not perfect.  But other than that, it did the job nicely enough.

We had dinner before heading in the early evening to the Sanctuary, the site with the grotto and several churches/basilicas, almost across the street from the hotel.  We knew there would be a torchlight procession at 9PM where the Holy Rosary is recited but we did not quite know the ‘mechanics’ of it.  So we sat on a bench to wait and what we missed was that we were supposed to walk towards the grotto and join the procession line.  But we witnessed the procession which brought a statue of the Virgin to the front steps of the Rosary Basilica (the lower one; the upper one that one sees more evidently is the Basilica of the Immaculate Conception, or the Upper Basilica).  In the meantime, we did walk to the grotto for our first visit to the spot where the apparition took place.  The line was very short and it was always moving so it did not take long before we got to visit and say our prayers and intentions…

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The front of the lower basilica during the torchlight procession

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Grotto at night

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Statue of the Virgin carried during the torchlight procession

The next day, we had found out at the information center (located by one of the entrances to the complex) that there would be a Spanish Mass at 11 AM down the Esplanade at St. Joseph’s Chapel.  After attending that Mass we went into the underground Basilica of St. Pius X, a massive modern space completed in 1958 (it can hold 25,000 folk!).  I am not sure it is the type of church I feel most spiritual in but I suppose there is a need for it in this site?

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Information Center

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The Basilica of St. Pius X

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The lower and upper basilicas from across the Esplanade

We finished our exploring by visiting the Rosary Basilica and the Upper Basilica.  After that we went to the baths (or piscines) where one can immerse him- or herself in the holy spring waters.  One waits in an outdoor area (with plenty of seats!) and then eventually one gets called in to a vestibule awaiting the assignment of to one of the pools, where one will undress and be wrapped as preparation to walking into the pool.  The water was absolutely frigid so the miracle may be that I was able to walk out of the pool and that my legs regained normal body temperature!  All joking aside, it was a very moving experience and we are grateful to the kind and helpful volunteers who give of themselves to help pilgrims…

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Detail of the facade of the lower basilica

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The inside of the lower basilica

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Looking towards the Esplanade from the Upper Basilica

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Entrance to the baths or piscines

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Amazing to see all the people helping the sick, or malade, move around

Witnessing so many people wearing their faith ‘on their sleeve’ was powerful.  Our trip was actually not just due to curiosity, or even strictly to see a place where an important event in our faith took place.  Our trip was a real pilgrimage of thanksgiving and prayer for continued health in my family after a year-and-a-half of dealing with cancer…  The grotto and the holy waters of Lourdes carry a very special meaning for us, even more now that we have been so fortunate to visit this place…

 


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Andorra: The Last of the Tiny Ones

I wrote earlier this year about my visit to tiny Liechtenstein, second to last of the small European countries left for me to step foot on.  Nestled between Switzerland and Austria, it is protected by mountains which helps explain perhaps why it survived as an entity over the centuries.  Well, 2017 was the year to close the book of the small European countries for me:  I got to visit Andorra in September!

Andorra is a strange political entity – technically, a principality.  And oddly, without a royal family…  As Liechtenstein, it is nestled in mountains between two other countries.  In Andorra’s case, Spain and France.  It is an old place – first chartered over 1,000 years ago and the current version of it (i.e., the principality) created in 1278.  Back then, there were two co-princes:  a count from Spain and a count from France.  Well, the French side of things changed over time to just be the President of France whereas the Spanish side evolved to be the Bishop of Urgell, a Spanish town not far from the border with Andorra.  [An interesting factoid:  Andorra declared war against Imperial Germany in World War I but, somehow, it was left off the peace treaty ending that war so it remained at a state of war until 1958 (well past even World War II!) – awkward…]

In any case, we drove into Andorra on our way from Lourdes, France to Barcelona, Spain.  The approach through the Pyrenees from the French side was a beautiful, long ride through small rural towns and mountains.  We entered Andorra without a good spot to stop and get a picture with a “Welcome to Andorra” sign (or the equivalent…) – unlike Liechtenstein where I got to take that obligatory, cheesy pic.

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Typical French tiny (and pretty lifeless) town near the border with Andorra

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Pretty cool tunneling

In any case, the roads were really good and we noticed that while on mountains, one could see long, gradual slopes on some of the mountains around us.  I learned later there are a lot of lakes and trails in the 181 square miles that make up this country making it a great place to hike and enjoy the outdoors.  Or ski in the winter; ski tourism being a key income earner for the tiny country.

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Beautiful mountain landscapes

We approached Andorra’s capital, Andorra la Vella after passing a couple of smaller towns.  (Andorra la Vella has about 24,000 inhabitants to give you a sense of scale).  It felt very modern and it sits right by a river valley between mountains.  Great spot!

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In Andorra, near Andorra la Vella

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You kind of see where the capital lays in this photo (OK, almost…)

We stayed close to the oldest part of Andorra la Vella, at the Andorra Center Hotel.  I figured at least we could walk easily to the old buildings while being close to the main shopping streets and good restaurants (that I found in TripAdvisor).  We were very close to St. Stephen’s Church (finished in the 12th century) and to Casa de la Vall (a home from the 1580s that is now home to the General Council of Andorra). We meandered the older small side streets (not a large area) and then also walked the shopping streets in the area.  Except…

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My Mom, sister and I posing near St. Stephen’s church

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Water fountain

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Casa de la Vall

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Federal government offices next to Casa de la Vall

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Mom and uncle posing for me by Casa de la Vall

Except…  We noticed the streets were largely lifeless, empty.  Everything was closed.  We assumed it was siesta time and, hence, why everything was closed.  We learned when we got back to the hotel that it was Andorra’s national day and EVERYTHING was closed.  I mean, even the hotel’s little store!  Those restaurants which I had researched ahead of time were all closed.  These folks take their national day seriously but, yet, there were no festivities to be witnessed, no people just hanging outdoors either – very odd…

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Curious bridge (empty road)

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Around Andorra la Vella’s commercial district (empty)

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“Skyscraper” (empty?)

So, after walking around the old part of town, we ended up back at the hotel’s buffet restaurant since there were no other options.  We were going to leave the next morning early to head to Montserrat, Spain and then Barcelona so we had no time to spare in this tiny country.  While I was glad to check off Andorra from my list and now have a good visual of what it looks like (topographically and architecturally), I am bummed at the sheer bad luck (what are the odds??!!) and the lack of anything going on on a national holiday (at least seeing some local celebrations would have been cool).

Perhaps I need to return in winter to enjoy skiing with a bunch of visiting skiers?

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