Last night I went with family and friends to see the Christmas lights at the Atlanta Botanical Gardens in the first year of what I hope ends up being a new tradition for the city. The Atlanta Botanical Gardens is, in a normal day, a beautiful venue: well-designed, in a great location, and just very nice to explore. Its most unique feature (for this non-botanist) is the floating walkway that meanders through trees seemingly in mid-air.
In any case, here are some of my favorite shots showing the variety of the lights and, if you look closely, the nearby skyscrapers of Midtown Atlanta.
Click on photos to enlarge and step through and let me know which is your favorite!
Last summer, as you may have read (or hopefully will check out!), I did a hike in the Transylvanian Alps in Romania. Home base for the trek was the charming city of Braşov. I still have to write about that beautiful town but this picture really evokes the spirit of old town Braşov for me. After a nice summer night dinner, we strolled around town as many of the locals seemed to be doing. It was a fun atmosphere and I wish I had had more time there. I shall return!
Well, today is the day the apocalypse was to happen. I guess a few hours are still left so maybe I shouldn’t count my eggs just yet. BUT, if the end did happen, guess what? I can still blog from purgatory and you KNOW that would be an incredible travel story. Just hope it is not one of being stuck there forever, like when I was stuck in Europe because of the Icelandic volcano (which did turn out well) or someone else’s horrible travel story. Also, if the world did end, purgatory looks a lot like my house (and if the world did NOT end, I need to make some minor changes at home…).
So the end of anything usually calls for some reflection and be it the end of the world or the end of the year, I feel like reflecting on my very busy 2012…
A Texas tweetup in January
January saw me taking what felt like a bold step – to travel somewhere to meet people I met online. At first that has an almost dirty sound to it, doesn’t it? But I had been talking on Twitter with these three folks for many months and they were clearly people I would enjoy meeting in person and exploring with. So off to awesome Austin, Texas for the Texas tweetup! There I met in person @kirkcole, @L_e_a_h, and @LolaDiMarco. Unfortunately, a severe cold hit me on the day I traveled so I was not able to partake in all the activities but enjoyed a good day’s worth of laughing and eating in Austin!
Can you find the Austin tweetup fab 5 in the picture?
Normal in February – and other months
Traveling to DC for work permeates every month this year so my normal continued in February. Recovered from the Austin tweetup and post-Christmas parties in January, February was time to relax and be home (or in DC). Over the year, I got to check new things in DC that I had not explored yet in the last year. Doing the White House tour was a long-time bucket list item that I finally made happen. I continued exploring and enjoying many of the DC’s finest hotels like The Mayflower, the Sofitel Lafayette, and the Renaissance on 9th St. DC is a wonderful town if you get out and explore. Its many beautiful brownstones and local eateries are a joy to explore.
March Madness: Mile High Skiing
The traveling continued in March – this time a great ski trip with dear friends to Vail and Breckendridge, two places I had been dying to try for many years. The trip did not disappoint and neither did my skiing, not having skied since Valle Nevado, Chile in the Andes in 2010. Vail and Breck WILL be in a future ski trip for me, I can tell. The bowls of Vail where incredible: one bowl, then another one behind it, then another. It seemed to never end!
How thoughtful! Vail had a statue of me at the base of one of the slopes!
Amicci en Italia and diving into eastern Europe in April
April finally brought about the “long”-planned trip to Italy with two sets of great friends. Though mainly focused on Rome (a city I love re-visiting), a side trip to finally see Pompeii and the Amalfi Coast was built into the itinerary. It did not disappoint, especially our guide in Pompeii, one of the preeminent experts on Pompeii!.
But I took advantage of being on the other side of the pond to add another iconic destination I had never explored: Dubrovnik, Croatia. Its tiled roofs and architecture combined with the natural setting of its location made it a magical place for me. Of course, ever eager to see more, I decided to get further into eastern Europe while in Dubrovnik by doing day trips into Bosnia & Herzegovina (Mostar) and into the beautiful mountains and bays of Montenegro! These day trips were short, obviously, but they definitely opened the appetite to see more of these countries and this part of Europe.
One of the ridges that divides Kotor Bay into 2 bays in Montenegro
Re-charging, re-connecting, and exploring Chicago
May saw a second tweetup, this time in the Windy City since we were eager to connect with other travel bloggers we had been chatting with for awhile. The Windy City tweetup had a little bit of everything: from French goodness (courtesy of the Sofitel Water Tower), Charlie’s Angels, boat tour, fallen traffic lights (not our fault!), doughnuts, cold coffee, good food, drinks (repeat), and the mob. It was a very fun weekend indeed meeting @workmomtravels, @travelingted, @jettingaround, and @elatlboy in person.
Being tourists at The Bean
More fun with fellow travelers and good learnings
In June, TBEX, a travel bloggers conference, held its North America conference in Keystone, Colorado (very close to Breckenridge where I’d just been 3 months before; who knew I would be returning to the area so soon!). Besides the interesting learnings, the reception at the mountaintop on Friday night and the ensuing party at the pub at base (free!) really made the weekend a lot of fun and a good time to meet others who share the travel bug and re-connect with others. Among the great folks I met (too many to list all!): @BlBrtravel, @stayadventurous, @captainandclark, @lazytravelers, @budgettravelsac, and @travelrinserept.
A trek with a purpose in Romania and a true relic of the USSR
Romania had been a mysterious place that I had always dreamed of seeing. Not because I knew I would love it but it just called to me. A wonderful opportunity came my way to do a hike in the Transylvanian Alps with Trekking for Kids, a non-profit seeking to bring improved lives to orphaned/at-risk children around the world. We worked with the orphanage and just “were” with the kids before and after a hike through some beautiful landscapes around Brasov – we even saw castles other than Dracula’s! An experience I will never forget every which way, including it was my first multi-day hike ever!
Who knew there was a Sphinx atop the Transylvanian Alps (near Omu Peak)??
Since I was headed that way, I decided Romania (more precisely, the town of Iasi, Romania’s cultural capital) would be a great springboard to explore Moldova. So with my great guide, I explored churches, monasteries, towns (including the capital, Chisinau), and wineries in this little known former Soviet socialist republic still working to undo decades of horrible communist dictatorship. I am SO glad I made the time for this unpolished gem at the edge of eastern Europe!
The trip ended with a one-day, two-night in awesome Paris, my home away from home in Europe. Always love re-visiting my favorite areas and still finding new things to enjoy!
Time with Family in Tampa on my sister’s birthday in August
August also included a trip to Tampa where my family lives – always good to be with them, and enjoy good Cuban food and TLC! I had just been there in June (when I visited the impressively set-up Dali museum) but my Mom turned 70 while I was in Romania and my sister was hitting a milestone birthday of her own in August so I just HAD to go and celebrate with them!
Rest in September
In September, I took a break from travel. Well, non-business travel… But read on, the year of travel is not over!
Architecture and Wine: Tuscany or Bordeaux, you say? No, Virginia in October!
I finally succumbed to friends’ suggestion that I explore Virginia wine country with them. I had been wanting to do this for a long time but other travel got in the way. I took advantage of being in the DC area for work to go ahead and spend a weekend with them in wine country. And got out RIGHT BEFORE Sandy passed by! As you can read in my writings about this central part of Virginia, Monticello, Charlottesville and the countryside are filled with early colonial history and architecture as well as delicious wines. And there are close to 200 other wineries in the state to be found and explored! I was glad to have this opportunity to see more of my own country and other places will be in my sights in 2013 (like Michigan and Wisconsin thanks to friends from Chicago who write about these places!).
Cemetery where Thomas Jefferson is buried in Monticello on a fall day
OK, now I rest ‘xcept for Thanksgiving in November
So, my fun travels wrap up for the year save for visiting family again in Tampa where I discover yet another new place for good Cuban food! Someone STOP the madness!
I reflect back on the year and I am amazed at how much I have been able to see of places I have always wanted to see. And this is setting aside the twenty-something weeks of work travel to DC! The bucket list shrinks and yet I add new places I learn about. I consider THAT my most important key performance indicator – a never-ending travel bucket list!
Merry Christmas, happy holidays, and the best in 2013 for you and yours!
I wrote in an earlier post about this grand hotel of Washington, D.C.: The Mayflower, a Renaissance Marriott hotel. I just stayed there again and got to see it decorated for Christmas. I’d though I’d share this beautiful photo of its lobby area decorated for the holiday season.
Merry Christmas and Happy Hanukkah to all!
If things go well, I will trekking in Tanzania soon – hiking up Mt. Kilimanjaro, the tallest mountain in Africa. I am excited about the upcoming hike as I am doing it with Trekking for Kids, with whom I hiked in Romania in the summer of 2012. Our hike will help a local orphanage with capital improvements to the infrastructure and, therefore, improve the standard of living for the children who live there.
I do have certain anxiety about how well prepared I will be in terms of level of fitness and about how altitude may affect me. But for everything else, research and planning has helped me ensure I have everything else I need for the hike! Here are the seven items you will not see me without (should you see me!) while I hike “Kili”…
The things that will keep me warm
One of the most important things to know about Kilimanjaro is that you go through five (5) distinct climate zones as you pursue this mountain. This means you need to be prepared for the range of climate conditions across these 5 zones. Pack for cold and pack for warm. Of course, as the hike goes higher, I am told to expect VERY cold temperatures. The challenge with this, for me, will be getting out of the sleeping bags in the cold mornings!!
Of course, using layers is how I will handle the variations in temperatures that I will go through during the hike. Let me share my three most important items to stay warm:
#1 - My outermost layer is a hardshell exterior (see below for picture) to provide me protection from the wind and from water. The Arcteryx piece I chose is of top quality and its design is perfect for the conditions of the hike, especially its versatility as it can serve in warmer and colder temperatures as a barrier to water. It uses Gore-Tex and delivers a very lightweight piece – important as I will want to go as light as possible! Some features that I liked about this model were the under-arm zippers in case extra ventilation is needed, and the hoodie. Mine is orange, for the record.
#2 – For the second layer from the outside, I needed to choose something to keep me warm and, again, be light enough (begin to see a pattern?!). I chose an REI Revelcloud jacket which can also serve as a barrier to water for times when I may not want to wear the outer layer. At higher altitude, I will use both. It can help withstand winds of up to 50 mph! This particular jacket uses Primaloft, a synthetic material that emulates down but is not bulky and able to be compacted into the little bag it comes with. Also, its design eliminates shoulder seams which will help with range of motion, especially good since I will likely be wearing multiple layers and too many seams can become an annoyance. (I cannot find the item any more in the REI website; likely a new model is being rolled out – I bought mine at a great discount sale! Below I share a link to what seems to be a similar item for this layer.) I have to admit that I have been wearing this jacket when the weather has gotten cold as the material is very soft and it just feels good.
After trying several layers on, it became clear the outer ones described above should be a size larger than I would normally wear if not putting on several layers. At colder times, I will be wearing two under layers: a smart wool one and then perhaps a thinner one next to my skin (helping withdraw moisture from my skin). I will likely not wear as many layers on my legs as I do on my torso. Hiking pants with a thin layer (like long johns) under them should suffice. Says he…
#3 – After discussing clothing, let me share how everyone stays warm at night. <Sleeping bag enters the stage left of center> Instead of buying a sub-zero-rated sleeping bag that I may not use too often, I chose to go for one rated for zero degree (that I may get to re-use in other hikes that do not go as high and cold) and get a liner with something akin to thermonuclear for its rating. (Do some reading on the ratings ahead of time so you know how to read the sleeping bag specs.) I also wanted to make sure I used something that would pack relatively light.
The shape of the sleeping bag matters a good bit – something that had not occurred to me prior to researching the matter. But it makes perfect sense that at very cold settings, you want to maximize heat retention. Models whose width tapers down as it moves from head to feet are the best – they are called “mummy”-shaped as that is what they look like. The less air inside, the less cold inside when you get it in that will need your body heat to warm up. Therefore, more heat stays with you. (That thermodynamics course in college is paying off – finally!) This sleeping bag’s 2-way zippers will also make the job of closing and opening it up easier – nice feature!
My knee’s best friends – hiking poles!
#4 - I have learned that hiking poles are my knees’ BFFs. They help with stability but, more importantly, they have a mission of protecting my knees from too much wear-and-tear, especially while descending. I decided to take advantage of a sale to get a great pair that have anti-shock features. I am sure people will have different opinions but hikers that I know well (and trust) said they would be worth the extra expense. The weight of the poles is also something to consider so an aluminum shaft was perfect.
After deciding on the anti-shock and the weight, the next consideration was the grip or handle. This is a matter of personal preference. I chose a round cork top (that unscrews to also serve as a camera mount!) with a long foam cover under the top for the different grip I will want. The locking mechanism can matter – some are easier to lock. The ones I got use twist-lock for ease of adjusting since I will be wearing gloves a good bit. Oh, and I bought rubber tips to use. I share both the one I ended up getting and another I considered. The one I got from REI. What sold me on the REI one was the handle.
Big priority – stay hydrated!
#5 - Hydration will be key to my well-being during this hike (pretty much true of any hike). Carrying a bottle and dealing with pulling it out when I want to drink is a little bit of a nuisance. This will especially be true on this hike when I may be wearing gloves a lot. A camelbak is perfect as it allows easy access to water at any point without having to stop or slow down. Additionally, I have learned that I drink water on a more frequent basis by sipping because it is easy with a camelbak tube versus gulping water more spaced out whenever I decide to pull a water bottle out. Sipping has another added benefit: because I don’t take in water in bigger gulps, I need fewer nature stops – who’s with me??
My camelbak bag is inserted into my backpack (designed for this). I may be buy something to protect the tube coming out of the backpack to prevent it from freezing when it is very cold. Of course, making sure I have safe-to-drink water is a big priority. Steripen or something similar will be crucial so consider it item #5.5!
Oh, and someone suggested a hot water bottle that you fill in with hot water before zipping up the sleeping bag to help keep you warm AND to have non-freezing cold water when you wake up to drink! Now, does that go in this section or on the first section about keeping warm??
Finally, show me the way…
#6 - No, my final item is not my boots but that’s not because they are not important. Please be sure to find comfortable boots, that are water resistant, and then be very sure to break them in through practice hikes!! Blisters are your worst enemy. Back to #6… my headlight. The ascent to Kili’s summit starts around midnight so this will be an essential item to go up. Why does it start at this weird hour? Because you want to be up there to see the first morning light!! However, this headlamp will also be important so I can see at nighttime before I head to “bed” and in case I wake up in the middle of the night and need to relieve myself, something I hope I don’t have to do often!
OK, one more thing (I did say 7 in the title…)
#7 - Duct tape. Duct tape can serve MANY purposes. If anything breaks, you can likely fix it. But also, should you start developing blisters, apply some small strips of duct tape to protect the spot and prevent a full-blown blister. They are THE last thing a hiker needs!
Well, a few more things…
I hope this has been a helpful list. There are many other things to consider as you prep for a hike like this and I would be remiss if I don’t list some here just to be sure: a backpack that feels comfortable (and that has both waist and chest front straps), sunblock, chapstick, snacks, wipies (!), underwear that takes moisture away from your skin, sunglasses, warm hat, gloves, ear plugs (because you never know who may be sleeping next to you!), a hot water bottle (will feel nice inside that sleeping bag!), and finally: a camera for all the great shots you will want to take!
Bottom line: do your research and be prepared – it will make the experience much more memorable! Stay tuned for my updates from my hike of Kilimanjaro!
When I got to Sydney, Australia to visit friends and finally explore that land down under, one of the first thing my friends told me was I HAD TO do the bridge climb. The Sydney Harbor Bridge climb. I was immediately mesmerized at the thought. Normally, I try to go up any structure that allows me birds eye view of a city. The Eiffel Tower in Paris, the Christ Redeemer in Rio, the medieval towers in la rossa Bologna, St. Paul‘s in London, Sacre Coeur also in Paris, the Peachtree Westin in my hometown, … you get the point. Nothing like being high up and looking down at man’s urban creation. I had crossed the bridge on foot and snapped a photo I really liked looking at the Sydney Opera House (and you are already high from the bridge level) but a higher vantage point… THAT would be awesome.
So the Sydney Bridge climb was right up my alley. Of course, I had to be OK parting with a good amount of dough, well north of US $100 (truth be told, around $200…). But WHEN would I return to Sydney to do this? I am not scared of heights when I feel secure and being on a walkway was good enough for me (vs. walking out on some diving board-like piece of something hanging of a needle or other such skyscraper structure).
A friend of mine who is also a travel blogger (Erin, from The World Wanderer) was telling me she wanted to do the climb. I encouraged her to do it and she encouraged me to write about my experience (it was on the long to-write-about list). The bridge climb is a fairly recent offering having been started in the mid 1990s or so. They claim over 3 million participants so far – become one, like Erin will some day, and help them get to 4 million!
So I made my way to the place where they brief you on the entire process and suit you up on this very not glamorous attire. The important thing, though, is that you part ways with ANYTHING that could POSSIBLY fall off you during the climb. It is not only that you would lose the whatever-it-is. It is that there are likely cars right under you that could be hit by anything falling off! If it is not covered completely by the suit – it comes off. Your sunglasses, mercifully, are given a contraption so you can keep them and they won’t fall off – whew. They go through some instructions and -voilà- off you go!
Notice all the gear on the model
Once you are ready to go, the first step is to hook yourself up to the “cord”. This cord thing runs the ENTIRE route you will walk and you will be hooked to that cord the ENTIRE time you are out there either UNDER the bridge or climbing up. Yes, that is why you should not fear doing the hike. You are tethered to the bridge. The only way you are falling to your death is if the bridge falls into the harbor hundreds of feet below. And then it does not matter if you are climbing the bridge, on a bus crossing the bridge, or a pedestrian on the sidewalk on the bridge. So no fear!
Notice how I am strapped to the bridge
Once you start climbing, yes, the effort could be significant for some. I exercise frequently so the physical effort was not extraordinary. But I think you don’t have to be in great shape to go up. Just don’t have serious heart issues or other serious illnesses. Oh, and don’t be intoxicated. They check and won’t let you go up!
The guide will make stops along the way but she/he is explaining things along the way. The headphones you get are AWESOME. They don’t go in your ear but over the rear of your cheek close to your ear – the sound vibrations emitted by the thing get to your eardrum and you hear perfectly fine – how cool is that?! Our guide was phenomenal – great explanations, great humor (I am sure the same jokes he and his peers say every tour but nevertheless funny), and great Aussie attitude and friendliness.
As you hike the bridge, they will be taking photographs. Remember the bit about not being able to bring a camera? (You leave your stuff in a locker.) Well, they know you want a picture or two. And they know we will buy them so they won’t be cheap. But since you already dished out a couple hundred buckaroos, what’s another limb, right? The photos will be great – admire mine but do not laugh at the suit cause you will be wearing one too!
One of the worst smiles I’ve given in a photo but, overall, I can’t complain! And it’s windy up there if you can’t tell!
If I ever return to Sydney, I am likely to splurge again – but this time to do the night climb which I hear is also phenomenal (and cheaper!). Hopefully, I’ve had enough time by then to save up for the cost of another climb. But one thing I know, it will be WELL worth it!
I give this a completely certain thumbs up even if it feels gimmicky. Gimmicks like this, though, have to be gone for (here is where English teachers cringe). They pay you back with an incredible view of this great city by the water! Did I convince you to do it??
When friends and I decided to go to China for 10 days, it was a totally clean sheet of paper in terms of what we wanted to do. Beijing? Xi’an? Shanghai? Inner Mongolia? Lots of choices and not enough time (is there ever?). We knew we would be in Hong Kong pre- and post- China visit as we were going to visit a common friend. So we looked at the map and tried to figure out what would be reasonable given the amount of time and distances to cover…
The Terracotta Soldiers
At some point we decided Xi’an, with its famous terracotta soldiers HAD to be in the itinerary. I mean, we can see the soldiers “on tour” as they are shown in museums around the world at different times – but nothing better than going to the actual site since we were already going to be in China. Shanghai and Beijing are big cities, always there for a potential business trip (should I be with the right company!). And a big city is, after all, a big city… (more true of Shanghai than Beijing, I am sure). But Xi’an? Unlikely work will take me there (unless I pursue an Indiana Jones career…).
So, off we went. Of course, driving out to see the place where the soldiers were unearthed was pretty cool. You could visualize how it was found by a farmer. While the site itself had grown a large structure to protect to digs (the real dig: where they have been and will be continued to be unearthed some day), there was still enough undeveloped land (this was a few years ago!).
As you may know, the soldiers, when first unearthed, are colored but the color quickly disintegrates (or whatever the technical term is!) so they have stopped digging them up until technology has evolved enough to be able to preserve the coat of colors. You may also know that each soldier is different. I don’t mean in pose or attire but their actual faces. How impressive is that? We saw some being repaired as some broke as they were buried.
What I Really Liked about Xi’an?
While the soldiers are the headline, Xi’an is like many other places in the world: there are other awesome sights and experiences to be had besides the “headliner”. The city walls are massive and impressive. A walk around them is a must to appreciate the town. Just look at the width of the top of the wall! China does walls well.
But Xi’an is more than the soldiers and the city walls. I encourage you to explore the city, more than we got to do with our limited time. It felt VERY different than monstrous and dysfunctional Beijing. Xi’an came across as a city I would WANT TO live in!
Our last day ended with us losing our car to take us to the airport after visiting a temple site and we had to scramble to find a car to take us to the airport. It was not easy where we were and we were tugging my friends’ 3-yr old in her stroller – which proved to be why someone finally took pity on us to help us find a car to get to the airport! A story I will never forget!
On the day we finished the four days of hiking in the Transylvanian Alps, on our way back to Braşov we took a slight detour to visit two very beautiful castles in the Sinaia area of Romania: the Peleş Castle and its sidekick, the Pelişor Castle. While these two castles are not as old or as “famous” as Bran Castle (of Dracula notoriety), they are beautiful and quite evocative of a time and life past. So this post is for “other”, lesser-known castles in surprising Romania!
Brief History of the Peleş and Pelişor Castles
Peleş Castle began being built around 1873-5. It was ordered built by King Charles I of Romania. It became an official summer royal residence around 1883 and it remained so until after World War II when it was confiscated by the communist government. In 2007 it was returned to the ex-royal family though not its contents. The family rents it back to the government to serve as a museum though I have also read that the family sold it back to the government (this could be more recent news). (By the way these are the same ex-royals who still parade themselves at weddings and funerals of other European royal families still using royal titles – I think some folks need to get a grip… But I digress.) A lot of the objects in the castle originated from Austria or Germany. Its main tower reminded me a little bit of the tower of Palace of Culture, in Iaşi.
Pelişor Castle, which sits a short walk away from Peleş, was also ordered built by Charles I but for his heir (and nephew), Ferdinand, to live in. It was built around the turn of the 20th century from 1899-1903. Since then, it shares the same history as Peleş.
Indoors and Outdoors at Peleş Castle
I was about to say (er, write) that my favorite part of this castle was the courtyard and the front yard. Then I remembered the chandeliers I saw and some of the incredible rooms (especially the “oriental” room – how cool!). The castle is worth the detour and worth paying the photo fee to take pictures.
Note the painting of men holding flags but also how the white spaces look like the profile of two faces looking at each other!
The ever-present St. George slaying the cursed dragon! (Photo courtesy of J. Stanmore)
(Photo courtesy of J. Stanmore)
My favorite: the oriental room! (Photo courtesy of J. Stanmore)
The majestic dining room (Photo courtesy of J. Stanmore)
Indoors and Outdoors at Pelişor Castle
While Peleş felt more “grown-up”, Pelişor felt more like a regular home. Not only because it was smaller, more manageable than Peleş but also because it had rooms for little kids on exhibit – it truly felt like a family’s home. You could be forgiven for thinking that at any moment, kids were about to run in.
(Photo courtesy of J. Stanmore)
Child’s desk (Photo courtesy of J. Stanmore)
Detail of a door at the castle (Photo courtesy of J. Stanmore)
So while Bran Castle is much better known (or, perhaps, the only known) castle in Romania to folks far from that country, it is a shame if a visitor to Romania makes it to Bran to see its castle and does not take the short detour to see these two gems of castles nestled in the lands around Sinaia. It is well worth the effort!
Tiled roofs seldom tell such a vivid story as they do in Dubrovnik, Croatia. Stories of war. Stories of reconstruction. The war of the early 1990s destroyed most of the tiled roofs of this jewel of the Adriatic. Not enigmatic like Venice but inviting, though both are definitely charming in distinct ways.
I wrote earlier about the charms of this Adriatic town loaded with history from older times and recent times. Its emblematic roofs catch your eye from up high as you approach the town from the airport.
It is quite a view even if this photo is not the best as it was taken from a moving bus. Walking along the old walls that surround the town is one of the best things to do to see the town from a very unique angle that most cities do not offer. From there, the tiled roofs caught my eye in a different way. This post will share some of those roofs, the new and old (most are new, repairs from the most recent war) as I keep pondering the stories the town could tell us… Enjoy them!
Street art may include graffiti but in my mind I had equated the two. It was while I visited Barrio Bellavista in Santiago, Chile that I started to perceive graffiti as only one kind of “street art” (saw some incredible examples in Sao Paulo, Brazil).
I am not an art expert nor trying to be one but as I saw some of the beautiful wall art (or murals), I started to expand my thinking – and appreciation – for street art as a whole. Granted, the ones below are not likely just done by an anonymous stealth artist but they still show how great street art can be!
As I saw pictures of very interesting – and at times scary – pictures of murals in Vienna, I thought I ought to share my favorite murals from Barrio Bellavista. Enjoy!
(Note: All but the last are outside Pablo Neruda‘s home in Barrio Bellavista “La Chascona“.)
Santiago has a lot to offer but Barrio Bellavista should definitely be on the itinerary!
In another post, I shared my discovery and enjoyment of Virginia wine country – in that post I mentioned how Virginia is for wine lovers. Now it is time to focus on the awesome history that I discovered on that weekend in the Virginia Piedmont – why I think Virginia is for history lovers too!
University of Virginia
The weekend trip was anchored around Charlottesvile, VA, home of the University of Virginia, a fine higher education institution (one of the best public universities in the U.S.) with sometimes a great basketball team. The university was founded in 1819 by Thomas Jefferson, 3rd POTUS and a learned man in his time for sure. The university is the only U.S. university to be a UNESCO World Heritage Site. That makes it a must-see for its historic and architectural value.
The university campus is very close to downtown Charlottesville and sports many buildings with columns. Many buildings with many columns. Jefferson liked columns. And octagons. UVA’s builders over the centuries may have over-emphasized the importance of columns just a tad too much…
Jefferson, columns, and a couple in front of the university’s iconic Rotunda building
In any case, it is a very nice campus. My favorite part though was the quadrangle or courtyard by the iconic main building on campus – the area known as The Lawn, headed by the Rotunda, inspired and built to half the scale of the Pantheon in Rome, Italy. The buildings around The Lawn have tons of columns… One of the students told us how students apply to get to live in one of the rooms in the courtyard (a privilege) and how professors are also honored when selected to live in a space there. Of course, the professors’ digs are WAY nicer than the students’ but who cares, right?
The hallway with the students’ rooms at The Lawn
Professors’ quarters at The Lawn
Around The Lawn – love the rocking chairs
As nice as the University of Virginia is, it pales next to the majesty of the homestead Thomas Jefferson built for himself: Monticello. Jefferson decided to build this homestead on a hill he knew from his childhood. The hilltop was flattened and over a period of many decades, and Jefferson built his home there. Assignments like Ambassador to France and the Presidency did not stop the progress on Monticello. Jefferson eventually died there, in the beauty of this estate.
We drove over from Charlottesville (Monticello is right on the outskirts of town) early on a Saturday AM to beat any crowds and make the most of our day in the area. We made it just in time for the 9:30AM house tour. A shuttle bus took us up the hill from the visitor center and the tour promptly started. (By the way, the visitor center has a museum and a short movie that should be checked out.)
The tour takes you through the main level of the house. The upper levels (2 more) are not accessible to the public and the basement is open to tour on your own, as are the rest of the grounds.
A visitor exploring one of the basement rooms
The house is set up pretty much as it had been during Jefferson’s time even if not all the objects are original. Jefferson died bankrupt and the family’s possessions were sold along the way to raise funds. Jefferson did get to live in that house until his death at an old age with his daughter and her family (Jefferson had widowed a long time before). Seeing his studio with the items of interest to him, his bed between the study and his bedroom, and the other living spaces was very special. It was incredible how this man of the 18th century was so clever in the design of everything in this house. My favorite was the wine “elevator” that would get bottles up from the wine cellar to the dining room. I can imagine how impressed his guests were whenever he pulled that trick!
Jefferson was smart about the layout of every room in the house and under the house. The basement and the side structures were cleverly used to keep out of sight the activities the family did not wish to see from inside the house. But also to take advantage of the coolness of being below ground: like for the kitchen or wine making!
So the home is a special place indeed but the grounds are equally so. Unfortunately, some of the structures that used to be around the grounds are no longer there to fully serve as witness to how life was back then in an estate, including how slaves and other workers lived. But, with the grounds completely open, the views are incredible. Especially on this fall day.
A short walk downhill, you can see from the outside the plot where the family and its descendants tend to be buried. It gives an incredible feeling to stand there and think about our nation’s very short modern history and yet how ancient Jefferson’s times feel.
Monticello is a testament to a great man of his times even if all that he was may not fit our times. Jefferson made the most of what was available in his times and his legacy lives on at Monticello, at the University of Virginia, and in the good ole US of A via that marvel of a document, the Declaration of Independence.
RIP, Tommy Boy!
Is that the ghost of Jefferson??
Len Stanmore has climbed the highest peak in every continent (the “7 Summits”), skied to both the North Pole AND the South Pole, and run across 3 of the 4 major deserts of the world: the driest (Atacama), the windiest (Gobi), and the hottest (Sahara). Impressed? From November 22 to December 3, 2012, Len will race across the last major desert: the coldest (Antarctica) with Racing the Planet’s 4 Deserts series. With this race, Len will be the only (yes, THE only) person to have ever accomplished all these remarkable feats – a true ultimate global explorer (with all due respect to explorers of other eras)!!
I had the good fortune of meeting Len last September as he supports a non-profit organization close to my heart, Trekking for Kids (TFK) with whom I trekked in Romania earlier this year. Len has supported TFK before and is now using his Antarctica race as a fundraiser to help TFK improve the lives of orphaned and at-risk children around the world. Check out more about Len’s support of TFK via his Trekking for Kids page and support him!
Why I am sharing Len’s story?
Len’s story has inspired me to go somewhere I have never sought to go before: the summit of Kilimanjaro.
Believe it or not, I was NEVER hoping to or interested in climbing “Kili“. But Len’s story of how he got going with this incredible journey inspired me to aim for this summit. See, Len decided at 49 years old he had to do something to improve his health. He chose a goal that would push him and he chose Kili. I thought to myself: gosh, I am younger than he was and in good physical condition – so why am I NOT trying to climb Kili??? That, and talking to Len and a couple of other veteran Kili hikers sealed the deal for me. So in February 2013, I will be headed to Tanzania for the climb of my life!
Len graciously made some time to talk to me as his training and prep wind down and the big day gets near and I wanted to share that with you…
Now to the interview… Everyone, meet Len Stanmore
–> Len, the set of races/climbs that you will complete in November with your run across Antarctica sounds like beyond the reach of mere mortals: Was this part of a grand goal you set for yourself after your first climb or how did it come to happen?
My first and only goal at the time was Kilimanjaro. It was while doing Kilimanjaro that I first heard the term “7 Summits”. I decided during that hike that the Vinson Massif, the tallest peak in Antarctica, would be next – for no good reason! I guess it not being that tall at around 16,000 ft made it seem quite attainable. Of course, I did not stop to think about how cold it would be! From then on, I would just hear of the other types of expeditions and then pursue them.
–> Did you ever feel that one of the goals was be too big of a challenge to accomplish?
I had not done much research on the 7 Summits so I was not sure early on if I would get to summit Everest. I will say that the scariest of all was McKinley. The climate is quite harsh (not that Everest’s isn’t!). In fact, I first attempted to summit McKinley but it was too stormy and I decided not to pursue it that time. Then I did Everest. Eventually I returned to McKinley and reached the summit. The other thing about McKinley is that you don’t have porters. You take ALL your stuff UP the mountain breaking into sweat for real: carrying a bag weighing about 60 lbs and pulling a sled with another 70-80 lbs (at this point, the interviewer was feeling out of breath and breaking into a sweat just thinking about it!).
–> You have said that Kilimanjaro was your favorite hike. Why is it?
Kilimanjaro is the only one of the places I have tackled that I would go back to. I love Africa. And I love that climbing Kilimanjaro allows you to experience so many ecosystems. It, along with Everest, are the better known mountains of the seven and Kili is quite doable (though training is still required!).
–> Len, I heard you say you were scared of heights…
I still am! Going up a ladder to about 20 feet is about it for me!
–> How did you work through that fear to climb the 7 Summits? How did you avoid thinking about it?
What makes you think I DIDN’T think about it?! My stomach tightens up in those situations… Usually it’s the downhill that’s the worse. I just force myself to focus and keep moving.
After completing the Gobi Desert race in 2011
–> Of all these expeditions which one was your least favorite? If you had to do all these again but were allowed to exclude one, which one would it be?
Oh wow. Let me recap all in my mind… (pauses for a moment) I think it would be Aconcagua. At the time it was the highest altitude I had attempted so I felt the lack of oxygen. It was really hot in the valley you crossed to get there. Plus, it was not very scenic, not breathtaking like the others.
–> Of the day-to-day things on your expeditions, what are the worst things you wish you did not have to deal with?
Oh, the worst part is when you are at altitude or in a very cold place and you wake up and have to get out of your warm sleeping bag! Then rush to find your things and pack up quickly in very little time. There is a lot of pressure in the morning. When you start for a summit, many times you leave at night. It’s a dash, trying to do everything with the headlamp, and then you realize most people are ready and you are not. It’s nerve-wracking!
–> And what do you look forward to in the day-to-day of these expeditions (beyond finishing!)?
Besides the camaraderie of the group hiking together, the best part of the every day is simple. You have left camp and started the day’s hike, past the hustle of getting ready. Thirty minutes to an hour after the start of the day’s hike, your body calms down, your heart rate goes down, and you start appreciating where you are and you soak it all in.
–> You have selected Trekking for Kids and its mission to benefit from your accomplishments – what led you to select this organization?
I was hiking Cotopaxi in Ecuador and my guide, Luis Benitez, asked me if I wanted to go with him to an orphanage he had to make a stop at. I accompanied him and saw the situation where the girls in the orphanage at a certain age have to leave. I thought to myself: if these girls do not get an education or skills, what will happen to them? And even before that day comes, at the orphanage it felt it was almost a matter of day-to-day survival. I have been skeptical of organizations that ask for money for orphanages for a long time. But it is different with TFK. The money goes to specific projects that the orphanage identifies and that TFK vets (with receipts being submitted, etc.). It blew me away the work TFK does with the orphanages – it’s amazing. I know that the funds I give to and raise on behalf of TFK is going to benefit the kids, not a middleman or an organization.
–> What would you hope people who learn about your story get from it?
Simple. My hope would be that they would identify their own quest or challenge, and that they go for it whatever it is!
–> Finally, and the most important question: You, your wife Liz, myself, and others will be hiking Kilimanjaro next February with TFK. I just did my first big hike in the Transylvanian Alps in Romania last July. On a scale of 1 to 10, how concerned are you that I will beat you to the summit?
(laughs) VERY concerned! Are you kidding me??!! In all seriousness, we will get to the summit at the same exact time as one group!
What now? And a more important reason why I share his story with you
Now? I am now eagerly following Len’s preparations for Antarctica and will follow him during the race via TFK’s Facebook page where daily updates will be posted. It will be exciting to hear about his race! Best of luck, Len, in this last leg of a great series – and I will see you and Liz in Tanzania in February!!
I find Len’s story to be an amazing one and I hope that sharing it with you may inspire you to your own epic journey (be it of this kind or any other!) as it has inspired me to push myself physically and mentally to do Kili!