Small European Countries – One Left to Go!

I admit it, I am not ashamed to share it.  It is frivolous and perhaps not terribly inspiring.  Hopefully, not embarrassing.  Or so I tell myself…  (Is there a support group, perhaps?)  Here it is…  I do want to finish the little ones in Europe; the little countries, I mean.  I don’t mean “finish them” as in “destroy them” or have them absorbed by a big neighbor (ahem, Germany…).  I mean just to see them all.  Monaco.  San Marino.  Malta.  Andorra.  Luxembourg (OK, not as small, don’t want to hurt its feelings).  Vatican City.  Liechtenstein.

Before February this year, I had two of those left.  And now there is one…  Before I reveal the one left behind (you must be DYING to know), in February I visited tiny Liechtenstein.  It is as hard to get to it as it is to spell it as it has no major airport.  That means, no direct flight from JFK or Hartsfield.  For me, it was a flight into Munich, Germany and a 3 hr (or so) drive (an easy one, at that).

Liechtenstein is known for… OK, not much.  But perhaps more than anything is because they print beautiful postage stamps.  Oh, oh, has someone told them about “email”?  “Texting”?  “Whatsapp”?  Hmm… rough times ahead?  Perhaps not.  I am sure lots of money is put away there by foreigners and perhaps there are some other reputable industries…

But I surely digress.  (Do I?  Maybe someone can comment and share the wonderful economic engine in the heart of Europe called Liechtenstein.)  Anyway…

We drove in from Germany, trampling into Austria for a little bit before entering Switzerland for an even “littler” bit until we realized we had to pay like $30-40 to get a highway permit to drive in Switzerland (RIP-OFF!).  We quickly turned around and drove the two miles back to the Austrian border and (thanks to a smartphone and GPS) found a free route through Austria to Vaduz, the capital of Liechtenstein for the cost of a handful of extra miles of driving.  So, THERE, Switzerland.  The oddities of socialist Europe’s highways…

We entered Luxembourg, er, Liechtenstein (who can keep them straight??) after passing through customs (run by Switzerland, actually… another oddity) and made our way to the tiny capital driving through even tinier towns (not really sure if they count as towns or just urban sprawl from Vaduz?).

Liechtenstein, travel, Vaduz, explore, Samsung Galaxy S7, foto, viaje

I am heeere!

Liechtenstein, travel, Vaduz, explore, Samsung Galaxy S7, foto, viaje

Liechtenstein, travel, Vaduz, explore, Samsung Galaxy S7, foto, viaje

Customs into Switzerland

Not too rural really but not densely populated either.  As we got into Vaduz, we saw the castle atop the hill overlooking the town.  The high perch location of that castle may help explain why Liechtenstein has survived as its own entity.  Or not, but I didn’t really read up on it…  I just needed to check it off, you know?

Liechtenstein, travel, Vaduz, explore, Samsung Galaxy S7, foto, viaje

Castle perched right above Vaduz

Liechtenstein, travel, Vaduz, explore, Samsung Galaxy S7, foto, viaje

View of the castle from afar

Anyway, the castle’s vantage point was impressive.  We found a road up and there were some nice neighborhoods on the way up – great spot to live with a view of Liechtenstein and Switzerland in the distance (I think Switzerland charges if you even look at their highways; mercifully for Liechtensteiners, I believe there are no highways in sight from the hill where the castle is.)Liechtenstein, travel, Vaduz, explore, Samsung Galaxy S7, foto, viaje, palace, castle

Liechtenstein, travel, Vaduz, explore, Samsung Galaxy S7, foto, viaje

Houses near the caste location

Liechtenstein, travel, Vaduz, explore, Samsung Galaxy S7, foto, viaje, palace, castle

Approaching the castle

We stopped intown and walked around the pedestrian commercial street (got our passport stamped at the tourist office) and ended up at a local restaurant.  Unfortunately, it was past regular lunch hours so we had to settle for a limited menu.  But I had a bowl of goulash that was delicious so I was not complaining!  After that, we said our fond goodbyes to Liechtenstein (auf wiedersehen!) and made our way back to Austria for our next and most phenomenal stop of the trip:  the Alpine ski town of Lech!

Liechtenstein, travel, Vaduz, explore, Samsung Galaxy S7, foto, viaje

Passport stamp

Liechtenstein, travel, Vaduz, explore, Samsung Galaxy S7, foto, viaje

Pedestrian shopping street at the feet of the castle

Liechtenstein, travel, Vaduz, explore, Samsung Galaxy S7, foto, viaje

Around Vaduz, Liechtenstein

Liechtenstein, travel, Vaduz, explore, Samsung Galaxy S7, foto, viaje

Church and Vaduz City Hall (on the right)

Liechtenstein, travel, Vaduz, explore, Samsung Galaxy S7, foto, viaje

Around Vaduz


P.S. – Oh, and which is the lil one I have left to visit?  ANDORRA!  Mental note:  I need to check in with my Spanish friends Mariano and Isabel so I can tag along their next New Year’s ski trip from Madrid to Andorra…

On the Camino de Santiago I Went – Another Pilgrim

The Camino de Santiago, or the Way of St. James, is an ancient pilgrimage indeed with a timeline of over 1,000 years.  Pilgrims from all over Europe would come from far and near to visit the place where St. James (or Santiago) is buried:  under the Cathedral of Santiago de Compostela in northwestern Spain (Galicia, to be more precise).

Camino, Santiago, St. James, The Way, pilgrimage, Europe, routes, travel, trekking, journey

A map in O Cebreiro showing the many routes pilgrims took from all over Europe to get to NW Spain

In modern days, though, not all who “do” the Camino are necessarily doing it for spiritual reasons but I would find hard to believe that most don’t get something spiritual out of the sacrifice and effort doing the Camino requires.

The Camino is a joy not only for the experience of trekking these ancient “ways”.  I have to admit that the social and culinary were also part of my Camino.

croqueta, food, Spain, Camino, foodporn, foodie, delicious, travel, photo

One of my favorites from my childhood re-encountered in the Camino: croquetas!

I will aim to share about the experience in a couple of different ways in this and upcoming posts:

  • The first way will be to simply share what everyday was like using photographs and other thoughts – whether you ever plan to or want to do it.
  • The second will be by sharing what I did to prepare and do the Camino, in case you are yourself hoping to, or actually planning to, do the Camino.

Why I went

I first learned more about the Camino when I met a co-worker back in 2003 who had just done the Camino from St. Jean Pied de Port – so about 30 days’ worth of trekking (close to 800km or 500 miles).  It all sounded hard and just too much time.  Over the years, as we became good friends, I enjoyed hearing stories about what the Camino was like and the friendships he struck along the way.  It made me curious about the Camino though I never thought I would want to “walk” for 30 days.

Years later, as I got more into trekking/hiking, I started thinking that I -some day- would want to do it (or part of it, to be more precise).  Watching the movie “The Way” helped inspire me but not tons more.  The coup de grace was when an organization I do treks with, Trekking for Kids, announced they would do a trek to do the Camino in the summer of 2014.  That sealed the deal.  Combining both my desire to do the Camino with the mission of Trekking for Kids (to improve the lives of orphaned and at-risk children around the world) was the perfect reason to go.

Trekking for Kids, trek, Bayti Centre, voluntourism, Essaouira, Morocco, travel, photo

The group of trekkers and the children and staff of the Bayti Centre in Essaouira

How we did the Camino de Santiago

The Trekking for Kids trek mixed a few days at a center for at-risk children in Essaouira, Morocco, called Bayti Centre, followed by seven days on the Camino (read more about our time at the Bayti Centre here).  Because the overall trek had to be kept to less than two weeks, the starting point of the Camino had to be picked such that we could do the minimum required distance (100km for those walking; 200km for those cycling) to be able to get the “compostela” (or the certificate issued in Santiago de Compostela that validates that you did the Camino) yet stay within the desired overall trip duration.  In addition, it had to allow for the travel day or two between Morocco and the start of the hike.

The preferred route was the traditional Camino Francés which is sort of parallel to the northern coast of Spain but further inland.  It is likely the most popular route of all though I wonder how the other routes are (and secretly hope I can check out some day!).

This meant we would need to start the hike at the last possible point we could and still meet the minimum walking requirements:  the town of Sarria, which meant we would do more than the 100km minimum (at least, 110km).  There were, however, a couple of important towns right before Sarria that were worth seeing (O Cebreiro and Samos), yet we did not have time to hike through them (would have required one or two more hiking days) – so the itinerary included driving through these towns before being dropped off on the trailhead from which our hike would start.

Our Camino route

Our hiking itinerary was as follows (click on the Day to read the post for that day!):

  • Day 1:  Begin at Sarria.  After a very short (“warm-up”) hike, we would overnight at Barbadelo.
  • Day 2:  From Barbadelo to Portomarín
  • Day 3:  From Portomarín to Palas del Rei
  • Day 4:  From Palas del Rei to Boente
  • Day 5:  From Boente to Salceda
  • Day 6:  From Salceda to Lavacolla
  • Day 7:  From Lavacolla to Santiago.

The map that follows highlights in a blue oval the town of Sarria, our starting point (immediately to the right, you will see Samos; further to the right, you will notice O Cebreiro).  The purple line that connects the blue oval to Santiago de Compostela to the west (left, on the map) is the route of our itinerary.Galicia, Camino, Santiago, Compostela, camino frances, Frenc route, Sarria, map, pilgrimage

On to Day 1!

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Photo of the Week – Mainz, Germany

After taking a boat cruise down the Rhine to return to Frankfurt from Dusseldorf, we got off the boat at Mainz from where we would take a train into Frankfurt.  We had no idea that Mainz was going to be so charming and beautiful.  So we took a little longer strolling around (with our luggage!) until we finally made it to the Bahnhof.  Here is a snapshot of the beautiful square we hit along the way with colorful architecture.  This is a town I plan to return to and explore more in depth!  Auf wiedersehen, Mainz!

Mainz, Germany, square, plaza, architecture, platz, Canon EOS Rebel, photo, travel

Square in Mainz

My First Landing in Europe – Spain via Amsterdam

Back in early 1992, a couple of friends and I had the flash thought that we needed to go to the Olympics in Barcelona that summer.  Why not, right?  As we started reading about Spain we decided we needed to check out a few places besides Barcelona which was bound to be zoo-like during the Games.  I, having studied high school in a Latin country, knew a lot more than my peers about the historical cities and buildings in Spain (El Alhambra in Granada; la Mezquita de Córdoba; and the importance of Sevilla in the discovery and colonization of the New World by Spain).  I recall one afternoon setting out a large map of Spain on the floor of one of my friend’s apartment and with a book of Spain at hand, set out to plan an itinerary of sorts.  Our third friend wasn’t there but he would be fine with whatever we decided.

Planning the trip

OK, that was the extent of our planning.  Those days being pre-Internet, expensive international long distance and 3 of us very busy guys, we did not further planning than our route and the car rental (if memory serves me right on that last bit).  No hotels, no tickets to events, nothing.  We got our tickets but I was to fly a day earlier and from JFK given where I was at the time.  The two of them would fly in together the next day on a direct flight from Atlanta (I was connecting through Amsterdam for a cheaper flight – important back then as I think I ended up paying on the cheaper flight about $900!).

Crossing the Pond

This was my first time in Europe but not my first time abroad.  I had already been to Panama, Mexico, Chile, and Argentina.  Leaving out of JFK was then, as it still is today, an experience.  What a zoo.  Right after our KLM 747 pulled away from the gate, a TWA plane taking off had to abort the takeoff and crashed (no one died mericfully;  A sort of benefit from this event is that I now can remember the day I flew to Spain for the first time! (July 30th, 1992).

Anyway, on with the story…  This event resulted in planes not taking off for a few hrs but JFK airport being JFK, people and flights kept piling on so we were not taken back to the gate.  Instead, we sat on the tarmac for about 4 hrs.  The crew decided to go ahead and serve dinner during the period.  The plane was hot and this Norwegian woman around me kept talking non-stop.  I was not a happy camper…  Mercifully, after the dinner service, the plane’s doors were open and staffed by flight attendants (so no one would jump off, I suppose).  This helped make the plane a tad less warm and likely prevented someone from slapping the Norwegian silly.

Of course, this meant I would miss my connection to Madrid in Amsterdam.  I didn’t miss it by much and that probably irritated me more.  But I have to say the travel gods were smiling upon me.  Can you imagine if my first landing in Europe with a missed connection had been in CDG??  That would have been a dreadful experience and I am glad I was at beautiful and efficient Schiphol!

In Madrid – Olé

KLM properly took care of putting me on another flight to my destination so I boarded an Iberia flight a couple of hours later to get to Madrid.  Of course I was jetlagged but the excitement of being in Europe carried me through.  I don’t recall at this point how much I may have slept on the trans-Atlantic flight (I am not a big plane sleeper) but I remember dozing off on the way to Madrid.  I had done some research on how to get to town and had ended up booking a hostal for my first night in Madrid (we were to leave Madrid the next day after my friends landed).

An easy bus ride from the airport to Plaza Colón dropped me, off for little money, a few blocks from my hostal.  I don’t know if it was technically a hostal but it was like a massive apartment (or several) that an older couple ran (Hostal Principado, near the Thyssen Museum).  The room was small but clean and efficient.  However, it got loud outside late at night and I learned my first lesson on bringing along earplugs!

I used the rest of the day to walk around and explore.  Thanks to trip notes I took at the time, I remember that I walked around the Parque del Retiro then headed to the Puerta del Sol and ended up having tapas at the Cervecería Alemana, back then recommended by my guide book.

Parque del Retiro

The next day, I took the same bus back to pick up my friends at the airport.  These not being the days of international ATM’ing, we headed to the American Express office to exchange currency prior to heading to the Chamartín train station to book our train tickets for the overnight ride to Barcelona.  One of my friends didn’t speak anything but English and the other, son of Colombian parents raised in the U.S., understood some but couldn’t speak Spanish much which meant I did a lot of the talking – which was fine by me!  By the way, we did all this carrying our bags with us (shoulder bag for me)!

We explored some of Madrid that day to keep everyone awake and since we had no accommodations in Madrid as I had checked out of the hostal.  (Thinking back, why didn’t I ask them if I could leave my bags and my friends’ bags during that day???)  We went to the Palacio Real, Madrid’s awesome Plaza Mayor, and walked to the Gran Vía (a main avenue in Madrid; a great bakery in Puerto Rico which sourced many a birthday cake in our family!).  We walked back to the Paseo del Prado (the road where the Prado museum is located) and we decided to just head to the train station from there.

We got lucky that we got a 6-bed compartment (two bunks of 3 beds) just for the 3 of us so we could spread out.  Not having been in a real train before, much less overnight, I didn’t sleep soundly but well enough for the purpose.

Our Olympic adventure in Barcelona, subject of my next entry, was about to start!

A Somber Day in Auschwitz – Birkenau

Coming to Krakow is not a complete visit if one does not make the short trip to nearby Auschwitz and its counterpart, Birkenau, where more people died than in Auschwitz itself.    Clearly this entry will be more somber than my usual.

To get to Auschwitz, we took a mini bus from the bus station. We left at 830AM and got there around 10 AM. The day was gray and with a drizzle – apparently to set us up for the difficult visit ahead. Once there we decided to take a guided tour for a little over $10 which seems expensive but entrance to Auschwitz is free so we figured it would be worth it. (Otherwise, they have books/guides you can purchase and self-guide yourself.)

Guard tower in Auschwitz concentration camp in Poland, near Krakow

The group consisted of 6 of us and the guide. We passed under the well known “Arbeit Macht Frei” (work makes you free) sign at the entrance to the camps. An eerie feeling.

The buildings we visited in Auschwitz had been Polish army barracks before WW II. Many of these in Auschwitz I have been converted to museums. For example, a building will explain the origins of those who came to these camps. Another building depicts prisoner life. Another depicts the belongings gathered and what happened to them. Because these were army barracks before, the buildings are quite solid. If you think of an old building from around 1900 or 1910 at a U.S. university, you would know how these are designed and built.

Building in Auschwitz concentration camp in Poland, near Krakow


Some things were hard to see in the exhibits:

  • people’s belonging like hairbrushes, eyeglasses, suitcases (which had names and addresses on them); a strange feeling came over, thinking that someone used to, for example, brush their hair with that pink one laying on top of the pile or that one over there
  • women’s hair; their hair was shaved and sent to Germany as fibers or material for coats, blankets; some bags not yet shipped when the camp was liberated are on display
  • crutches and artificial wooden limbs
  • children’s clothing or artifacts were the hardest for me to see and process…

Though I understood we were basically in a very large cemetery or holy ground, walking between the barracks was surreal as I felt I was in a movie set. That may sound odd but given movies I have seen (Schindler’s List, Life is Beautiful, etc., whether actually filmed here or not) they were my only reference so far about concentration camps. But, of course, this was the real deal. In the gloomy weather we had, maybe my mind was shifting to “movie set” to protect me…

I tried picturing the guards and prisoners walking around and it wasn’t hard to envision the scene. Also quite hard to take was going into one of the gas chambers. It was an earlier one, too small for the mass scale the Nazis needed. It was used mainly for Soviet prisoners of war and Polish intelligentsia and activists imprisoned at the beginning for being dangerous. We also saw where St. Maximilian Kolbe died. He traded his life to save a man who had a family. For some reason, the Nazis allowed the switch. How many other acts of nobility may not have been caught for posterity…

We then went to Birkenau which the Nazis destroyed towards the end of the war and where the majority of Jews were exterminated in this set of camps. The main entrance building was shown in Schindler’s List.  The camp was built especially for large numbers. About 90,000 lived there at a time but hundreds of thousands died there. Living conditions were horrible and one can visualize them from reconstructed living quarters.

Entrance to Auschwitz concentration camp in Poland, near Krakow

The gas chambers there were of mass scale as were the crematoriums. You can see their ruins (they were not reconstructed) and you can see the field were ashes were then buried. It was a massive camp.

Gas chamber ruins in Birkenau concentration camp in Poland, near Krakow

Gas chamber ruins

One of the more poignant spaces in Birkenau was the train platform where people were separated into those going straight to their death vs. those who had some value to the camp as workers. One can only imagine first how those people would feel after a multi-day train trip packed in a wagon and then to get separated quickly from your loved ones. Very painful to imagine.

Train platform in Auschwitz-Birkenau concentration camp in Poland

So a very difficult place to visit but one that helps make sure we do not ever forget the cruelty that mankind is capable of when it loses its humanity.  Check out a short slideshow of my pix at .

May all those souls who died there rest in peace.  Their lives stolen and the survivors’ lives shattered and battered as this lamp bears witness…  Never again.

Train track lamp in Auschwitz concentration camp in Poland

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