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

Pashupatinath, temple, Kathmandu, Nepal, templo, Hinduismo, cremation, Asia, explore, travel, photo, architecture

Many structures piled on

Pashupatinath, temple, Kathmandu, Nepal, templo, Hinduismo, cremation, Asia, explore, travel, photo, architecture

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

Pashupatinath, temple, Kathmandu, Nepal, templo, Hinduismo, cremation, Asia, explore, travel, photo, architecture

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)

Pashupatinath, temple, Kathmandu, Nepal, templo, Hinduismo, cremation, Asia, explore, travel, photo, architecture

Detail on the outside walls of the main temple

Pashupatinath, temple, Kathmandu, Nepal, templo, Hinduismo, cremation, Asia, explore, travel, photo, architecture

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.

Pashupatinath, temple, Kathmandu, Nepal, templo, Hinduismo, cremation, Asia, explore, travel, photo, architecture

Cool building – like all the wood work

Pashupatinath, temple, Kathmandu, Nepal, templo, Hinduismo, cremation, Asia, explore, travel, photo, architecture

Love this type of detail

Pashupatinath, temple, Kathmandu, Nepal, templo, Hinduismo, cremation, Asia, explore, travel, photo, architecture

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

Pashupatinath, temple, Kathmandu, Nepal, templo, Hinduismo, cremation, Asia, explore, travel, photo, architecture

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…

Pashupatinath, temple, Kathmandu, Nepal, templo, Hinduismo, cremation, Asia, explore, travel, photo, architecture

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…
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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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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

Biarritz, France, Hotel, travel, photo, francia, euskadi

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

Biarritz, France, casino, Grand Plage, playa, beach,, travel, photo, francia, euskadi

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!!!

Biarritz, France, casino, Grand Plage, playa, beach,, travel, photo, francia, euskadi

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.


Pin to your travel board!

Eskilstuna, Södermanland County, Sweden, Sverige


 

 

San Sebastian, Spain: Of Charm and Food

As I mentioned in my earlier post, one of the goals of our trip to Spain was to visit the lands from which some of my Mom’s ancestors came to Cuba.  San Sebastian (or “Donostia” in the local language), in Spain’s Basque country, was perfectly situated to serve as our base to explore before heading out to Lourdes, France.  But San Sebastian itself was a destination!

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San Sebastian!

San Sebastian:  charm by the sea

I had always heard about the great cuisine coming out of San Sebastian so it became a key stop at the onset of our trip.  We would stay there two nights, with the day in between being our day to explore the towns and hamlets from which the ancestors came.  That gave us one full afternoon to explore the heart of San Sebastian – and two nights!

It seems it was peak vacation time in early September, which was a bit unexpected, so there were no good hotels close to the famous La Concha Beach or near the Old Town.  However, I was not disappointed with the hotel I found, not even a mile from the old town:  Hotel Astoria.  The hotel’s theme revolved around famous movie actors and directors and had a very modern design.  It was located on a quiet street and had both a full restaurant and a cafe in the lobby.  We did not try the restaurant but did enjoy the cafe for our breakfasts.

Luckily not only were we close to Old Town but it was not hard to find (underground) parking right by the Hotel Maria Cristina or across the river by the Kursaal Center.   Old Town (or Casco Viejo) is the second oldest neighborhood in the city and it is full of bars and eateries – clearly the teeming social center of this great city!

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The Kursaal Center (has underground public parking)

When we first visited Old Town, we headed first to the waterfront to check out the beautiful waters of the Mar Cantábrico, or Bay of Biscay after a quick snack and trying a “carajillo,” coffee with liquor (rum, brandy or anything of the sort!).

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Beautiful waters surround San Sebastian

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Must be some good fish in those waters!

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Carajillo

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La Concha Beach in the background

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Bikes a great way to move around

We saw some neat churches (San Vicente, which was closed, and the Basilica of Saint Mary of the Chorus, which charged for entrance so we skipped it).  Lots of neat structures and charming narrow streets all around.

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Narrow street in Old Town

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Entering Old Town from the river

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Buildings in Old Town

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Lots of character in this balcony

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Streets of Old Town

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At Plaza Constitucion

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Neat sights – walking “aimlessly” is the best way to explore!

On to the food in San Sebastian: pintxos

Back in Old Town, we meandered through narrow streets.  Kalea (Calle) 31 de Agosto had many eateries offering the famous “pintxos” (like tapas).  We tried pintxos here and there as we kept exploring this part of town which is full of character.  We made it to the other side from which we had a glimpse of La Concha Beach and the rest of the same-named bay.

A distinguished gent (my uncle!) waiting to order while a distinguished lady (my sister) awaits

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Pintxos

A phenomenal meal in San Sebastian can be heavenly

And, as we meandered through the old town, we ran into the restaurant we had made reservations for for the following evening.  As I researched San Sebastian, one of my areas of focus was food.  I wanted to find one of the restaurants that make San Sebastian’s cuisine so well regarded.  After looking at a few places, I settled on Bodegón Alejandro.  Coincidentally, my uncle had done research and had read an article on the newspaper that also mentioned Bodegón Alejandro.  So, that was the place and, luckily, making reservations was super easy:  their website allowed for making them online!

Part of Bodegón Alejandro’s menu

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Delicious croquetas were one of our starters

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Dessert – phenomenal chocolate soufflé

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Another dessert – torrija with ice cream

The charm of San Sebastian did not only reside in its waters or in the old town – it was a beautiful and livable town all around.  I would love to spend a few months residing there and enjoying this northern Basque city – and maybe with my wonderful travel companions!

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Sister, Mom, and Uncle!


If you are planning a trip to Spain, pin this to your travel board!

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Skiing and Après-Skiing in Lech, Austria

Ahh, summertime… perfect time to reminisce about, what else?  Winter!  Yes, the warm, humid days of the Atlanta summer make me long for winter…  (Well, I have to say that it is not like we are in the midst of a heat wave (we are under 90F still) but a little drama doesn’t hurt when writing the intro for this post, right?)

So, in this post, I want to share of my time this past February skiing in Lech, in the Vorarlberg region of Austria – its westernmost region.  I have skied in Utah, Colorado, the Chilean Andes but had not skied in the Alps – an item in my bucket list.  I needed that to change and the opportunity arose to ski in Austria with a college friend.  After some research and word-of-mouth feedback, Lech seemed a great spot to check out, on the high-end of skiing towns in western Austria.

Driving to Lech

Driving into Lech from tiny Liechtenstein (where we had stopped on the way from Munich – a slight detour), the scenery along the S16 highway was amazing – trees and slopes covered with fresh snow.  The drive was not too long (2-3 hrs perhaps?) and soon enough we left the highway to get to Lech via Stuben and Zürs.  We hit some cool through-mountain and mountain-side “tunnels” and, eventually, approached Lech, all covered in fresh snow at around the time where the early “quitters” were leaving the slopes.drive, driving, Austria, Lech, Vorarlberg, winter, snow, road

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Tunnel through the mountains

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The “tunnels” to keep roads passable – and protected

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Entering Lech

Lodging in Lech

It took us a bit to find our destination for the first night in Zug, just a couple of kilometers off the main part of Lech.  We had a slight incident whereby our original pension (Stierfall) had overbooked itself and they got us booked in the place next door but that was not all a bad thing as the second place was nicer anyway (Stäfeli, Hotel-Garni).

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View from the hotel

Staying in Zug seemed less than ideal since we could not just walk to Lech (well, we could but the road was narrow, no sidewalks, potentially icy, etc.).  However, either we could drive down/up OR take advantage of the great shuttle buses that operate taking people in and out of Lech to neighboring villages.  We had a shuttle stop just down the small hill from our hotel which was cool and made it all easier.

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Tiny church right by the shuttle stop in Zug

Due to being high season that week we went (“spring break” in Austria and some other European countries), we were unable to find accommodations for two nights in a row.  So we checked out of the hotel the next day and later that day checked in to our second hotel in Lech.  This time, we were very lucky with the switch-a-roo.  Yes, we had another incident with overbooked places.  But, this time, not only was the place better but it was in PRIME location, pretty much at the end of the slopes that deposit skiers right in the heart of Lech.  All we had to do, was cross the main street and we were at our hotel, the Hotel Tannbergerhof.  It was not only a phenomenal location but the second story suite we were assigned to looked right at the end of the slopes and the street below.  Wow.  How I wished I had stayed there a whole week!

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View of the end of the slopes from my hotel window (notice the end is a mogul run)

Another option that I would recommend considering is staying in Oberlech, a series of hotels/inns in the midst of the slopes above the town of Lech (hence the area’s name).  It sure makes it easy to ski when you do not have to deal with shuttle buses and the like (not that I had to from my second hotel intown!).  Plus, easy to go for a quick re-charge nap and keep skiing later in the afternoon!  Oberlech offers plenty of places for refreshments in the middle of the skiing day which was very much to my liking!

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Oberlech area

Eating in Lech

Now, one thing we did not realize is that most people have their dinner at the hotel they stay at and those restaurants have just the tables needed for their guests. It felt like most or all restaurants we found were part of a hotel. If you don’t make reservations ahead of time for any possible open table, you find yourself (like we did) unable to just walk in to a restaurant and get a table. We lucked out eventually as one of the restaurants we walked into had just had a table cancel so we were able to eat a real meal.  At least, hunting for a restaurant allowed us to enjoy exploring the town at night – it was a winter wonderland indeed.

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Lech at night

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In the heart of the town by the Lech River

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The meal was worth trekking around town!

For the second night, we made reservations ahead of time. The hotel staff at Tannbergerhof had recommended a couple of places in Oberlech so we followed their advice. It was an adventure… We took the gondola up to the area and then walked trails (sometimes covered in ice at that time of night) roaming around a little lost until we finally found our place. We did a poor job of either listening to OR following the directions several people gave us and, apparently, got very close to the place without realizing it. It was dark and much colder than I expected (we were in higher altitude than in Lech and I was not prepared for that) and I was hungry! Anyway, we found the place eventually to my great relief. The meal, as anywhere else, was simply delicious.  The cool thing is that the staff was not just seasonal workers coming into the area. These were local folks, working the local restaurant near the farms that their family had owned for generations – pretty cool.

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This warmed me up after the cold hike to the restaurant!

During the day, having lunch was easy as people are out skiing and there are plenty of tables available.  We chose to have lunch in one of the hotels in Oberlech where I enjoyed a phenomenal schnitzel with a glass of wine.  The sun was bright and it was a good break from the skiing.

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Mmm!!!

And now, skiing Lech!

During that lunch, we met a couple from Munich who has an apartment in a nearby village and they come all the time since it is so close.  They explained how Lech and neighboring villages connect through ski runs/paths and the occasional lift/gondola (to eliminate the need for loading up in a shuttle).  They shared how they spend the whole day traversing the area from place to place skiing without ever walking or taking a shuttle.  Sounds phenomenal to me – wish I had had much more time there to do just that!

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Up towards the first run of the trip!

I had not skied in a few years but found my skiing legs, as usual, pretty quickly.  Blue runs quickly stopped being intimidating.  We went up high for our first run and ended up going slightly off track downhill on a slope between two runs, crossing a long pile of snow.  Don’t know how we got confused and got off the run but it was fun (after I was done with it).

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The side slope that I accidentally skied through – apparently not the only one to do so

It was not to be the only ‘confusion’… At the end of the slopes in Lech, one can take a sharp right turn down a normal run to end up across from my hotel OR one goes straight down a mogul course which is a shorter distance (see earlier photo taken from my hotel room). I had no idea it was a mogul run (blessed ignorance…) and went through it. At first I thought it was just a couple of bumps until I realized where I was. I decided to just go for it as if I knew how to tackle moguls (which, of course, I know because I have watched winter olympics on and off – and I have stayed in Holiday Inns).  I have to say, that I did actually quite well navigating the moguls.  Perhaps some unknown instinct within me?  I am glad I did it – it was fun!

The slopes were usually quite broad and the skiers not typically as rude or aggressive as they can be back home…  OK, some went REALLY fast but you could tell they knew what they were doing and not endangering others.  I will say, though, that most people there seemed to be seasoned skiers vs. the casual once-a-year or once-every-few-years skiers we have at home *myself included* which made me feel safer in my underskilled skier status.  They would know how to navigate around me should I stagger or fall and were not doing non-sensical things.  I had one epic fall and a minor one.  Nothing untoward happened to limbs or bones, thankfully – all good fun!

Après-ski and “during”-ski in Lech

But the best part of this are the stops to refresh oneself.  The first morning, we happened upon a small watering hole up high where a waitress had to help me with a stubborn jacket zipper that would not open (or would it??…).  There I discovered that a beverage of choice is seltzer water with white wine.  I took one of those as I figured the lower alcohol content was better since we were just starting the skiing.

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My first stop!

Later on, in Oberlech, we ran into a few places that were hopping with the lucky souls who get to ski there.  One had pumping music and great views so we plopped ourselves down at the bar for a beverage.

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View of Lech from Oberlech (my 2nd hotel in the middle of it all)

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Incredible setting for a beverage in Oberlech!

When we finished skiing, we ended up at the bar area in front of our hotel, right by the street.  A happening spot, it was right under our suite’s windows.  Being that it is right at the exit of the slopes across the street, the spot was teeming  with folks who had wrapped up their day.  An Aperol spritz was in order as was people-watching.  Ahh… I love skiing and I love doing it somewhere where there is a scene to take in!  Hope to return someday!!

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My Aperol beverage

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Pin this image to your travel board!!

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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?).

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I am heeere!

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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?

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Castle perched right above Vaduz

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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

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Houses near the caste location

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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!

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Passport stamp

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Pedestrian shopping street at the feet of the castle

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Around Vaduz, Liechtenstein

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Church and Vaduz City Hall (on the right)

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Around Vaduz

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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…

Photos of the Week – Sights of Amsterdam

Amsterdam is such a unique city.  It is like Venice meets… meets… I am not sure what!  It is a charm typical of old cities, of cities by the water, of cities with architecture seen nowhere else, and of cities with a one-of-a-kind type of energy (and I don’t mean that in terms of the red light district!).

I first went to Amsterdam in 1999 when I had business there (most of my time in The Netherlands, though, was actually in The Hague, or Den Haag).  I had not returned to Amsterdam since then (except connecting through its wonderful airport) until earlier this year when I overnighted there on my way back home after skiing in Austria.

I took advantage of the limited time to walk out and about at night, and then do a quick morning walk before heading to the airport.  Though a short visit, it took me back to 1999 and it made me re-discover why I like the city so much.  I wish I had had time to visit the museums I have never gotten to explore (back in 1999, I wasn’t touristing – had no time for that!), and be a little more aimless in the walking around.  But, hopefully, I will have another chance!  In the meantime, here are some photos from my short visit!

 Night photos of Amsterdam

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Notice the not-straight door and windows on the right!

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Right outside of the train station

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Train station

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Royal Palace

Day Photos of Amsterdam

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By the train station – a bunch of bikes!

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Red doorways – cool

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OK, not a photo of Amsterdam but of me leaving it in style!

Uppsala – Worth the Drive from Stockholm

A long weekend in Stockholm sounded like fun.  And off I went last October with a college friend, John.  While Stockholm was the focus, I have always wanted to see something of ‘rural’ Sweden:  lakes, charming homes, and lots of green.  At least, that is how I envisioned it.  So, once in Sweden, I was eager to get on the road at least for a day of driving around.  As I looked at the map, Uppsala caught my eye:  I knew it was a university town AND it was approximately 1.5 hrs away from Stockholm so not a stretch for a day trip.

The streets of Uppsala

After veering west and exploring, the day ended in Uppsala.  It was getting dark but we got to walk around the pedestrian friendly town center where we saw the university grounds, the cathedral, and the shopping district.  Being fall made the streets by the main cathedral and university a lot more charming with all the fallen leaves.  It was beautiful.

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Around the commercial area

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Charming architecture

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Around the university

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Canal lined by yellowing trees

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Beautiful cobblestone street covered in leaves

Uppsala’s Cathedral

Erik the Holy -or Saint Erik-, patron saint of Sweden, is buried at the cathedral, the site where he was killed a long time ago (12th century if you want to know!).  The cathedral itself was finished in the 15th century and it claims to be the largest church building in the Nordic countries.

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The cathedral of Saint Erik

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Cathedral at night

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Saint Erik’s tomb

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We happened upon a recital rehearsal when we visited

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Drink, please!

We were a tad surprised that a university town did not have an obvious ‘bar scene.’  Perhaps tainted by the U.S. college town experience?  Probably.  But we were wondering where to go hang out and grab a bite to eat; a place with personality.

And an online app suggested what turned out to be the perfect spot:  the Churchill Arms gastropub.  We sat at the small bar where I ended up teaching the young bartender how to make a Manhattan.  Then the loungey chairs (just two of them) by the bar freed up and we decided to grab them instead of going to one of the regular tables in one of the wood-paneled eating rooms.  There, we could see everyone coming in and out.  I enjoyed some mussels (moules marinieres) in a white wine sauce – mmm!!

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Nice collection

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The bar

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My moules marinieres and French fries!

Once again, going off the beaten path proved rewarding.  If you ever go to Stockholm, hop over to quiet but charming Uppsala.  It was beautiful in the fall, I can only imagine how it would be in the summer and spring.  After dinner, we headed out back to Stockholm to wrap up a day of semi-aimless driving around and seeing what we came upon.  Another post will share more of what else we saw that day!

One Spectacular Pool in Singapore

As someone who likes to read about travel and far-away places, I come across many places around this planet which I hope to see someday (and some perhaps that are not as interesting to me…).  Sometimes I think I will never get to see places that catch my eye because my imagination fails me:  I fail to picture the how and why of me getting to those places.

One such place for me was an iconic hotel structure in Singapore:  the Marina Bay Sands.  You may have seen this hotel in a magazine or a travel show on TV.  You know, the one with three tall towers holding up what looks like a surfboard.Marina Bay Sands, hotel, luxury, Singapore, Asia, travel, tourism, Samsung Galaxy S7, photoWhile Singapore seems an interesting place, it is certainly too far from my home to go on a whim just because this hotel caught my eye.  But, as things sometimes unfold, what seems a random window of opportunity opened up for me to go to Singapore.  If you have been following my recent writings, going with a friend to a wedding in Bali took me to -what to me is- a far corner of the world.  The happy couple actually lives in Singapore so the chance to see the Marina Bay Sands Hotel came up.Marina Bay Sands, hotel, luxury, Singapore, Asia, travel, tourism, Samsung Galaxy S7, photoBut just seeing it was not enough – I had to stay there:  I wanted to enjoy the 57th floor infinity pool!  And so I did.  Sadly, my visit to Singapore was only over two nights and one day (Bangkok and Angkor Wat were also on the itinerary) so I only got to relax poolside one long afternoon.  But it was WAY cool and well worth it.

We arrived at the hotel at night and we learned the pool was already closed but that certainly was not going to keep me from going up there to see the view!  The gentleman had just closed the pool area but was kind enough to let us walk in.  Check out the amazing night view!Marina Bay Sands, hotel, luxury, Singapore, Asia, travel, tourism, Samsung Galaxy S7, photo Marina Bay Sands, hotel, luxury, Singapore, Asia, travel, tourism, Samsung Galaxy S7, photo

The next day, when we got to the pool in the early afternoon, the skies were incredibly dark.  I expected the storm to come our way and the pool summarily closed.  So with no time to waste, I urged my friend Phil to jump in quickly so I could snap his photo and then we would swap places and at least we each would have “the” picture of the city behind the edge of the infinity pool.

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Dark skies! (Me on the right… )

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My quick jump in the pool

Marina Bay Sands, hotel, luxury, Singapore, Asia, travel, tourism, Samsung Galaxy S7, photoGod smiled upon us.  Not only did lightning NOT strike while we were in the pool for the prize-winning photos, but the storms stayed away and we got to enjoy a whole afternoon poolside, even if under a cloud cover.  Lunch and drinks were part of the picture as was people watching – and some pretend-jumps off the pool into infinity.

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Great seating all around

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Chill time!

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Great place to teach a kid to swim!

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One of the many “great” jump-off photos (because no one else thought to take one before)

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He was never seen again after this jump-off…

I have to say that those few hours may have been short and the day may not have been picture perfect but I would not trade a minute of enjoying that pool and those views!

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Spectacular view of the city

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Look at all those ships!

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View of old Singapore

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View towards the financial district

What to know about the hotel

  • The hotel is conveniently located across casinos and a luxurious shopping mall, if you are interested in those things.
  • A neat pedestrian bridge can be accessed from the shopping center to get to town.  It offers great views back towards the hotel.
  • Only hotel guests can enter the pool area; they control access which makes sense as space is limited.
  • There are a few different seating areas poolside.  I enjoyed the pool chairs right at the edge of the pool but you can be further removed from the water action (yea, we got splashed a couple of times by kids playing in the pool but no big deal).
  • There is a kids’ pool.
  • There are restaurants and bars up at the top of the hotel and those are accessible to non-guests.  It is enjoyable up there!
  • You can choose city-viewing rooms or sea-viewing rooms (where you can see all the ships going through the straits or going to port).
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One happy puppy!

I paid for every penny of my stay (no discount or freebie or anything else from the hotel) – I just wanted to share this amazing place!

 

Ta Prohm, Cambodia: Trees Take over a Temple

Before my trip to Cambodia, I knew about Angkor Wat (of course!).  But, I did not know about Ta Prohm.  I had seen pictures of it but did not know that it was a specific temple close to Angkor Wat and, much less, its name or extent of the wonders it contains.  I did hear about it more concretely from someone who had been to Siem Reap before right before I got there so it got on the “itinerary” of the temples to visit while in Siem Reap.  It is hard to say that it is my favorite over Angkor Wat or Bayon.  In fact, it is hard to pick any of those over the others; each has something that feels unique enough to lift it in my “estimation.”

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Amazing place

Ta Prohm’s claim to fame, if you will, is how trees have taken over the ruins of this former temple complex from the 12th/13th century.  We are able to see this because the temple has been left in the same condition it was found (for the most part; some work has been done to stabilize structures, make it safe for visiting, and enabling access).  This uniqueness earned it a spot in UNESCO’s World Heritage Sites and rightly so!

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Entrance

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Chatting with our guide

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The most famous trees growing through the structures are Tetrameles nudiflora, which is like a mouthful for a non-botanical person like me (so I had to look it up!).  They create surreal images – and surely, if the trees were cut, many of the structures would collapse!  These trees grow super tall and the roots look like the buttresses of pre-Renaissance European cathedrals and can be quite gigantic as one of my pictures shows.  Banyan trees can also be found.  These trees grow their roots downward from where the see landed (not directly on the ground but, say, on a tree or building) and they end up enveloping the “host” tree or structure, eventually seemingly strangling the host.Ta Prohm, Siem Reap, Angkor Wat, Cambodia, Cambodge, travel, explore, adventure, travel, photo, Samsung Galaxy, S7 Ta Prohm, Siem Reap, Angkor Wat, Cambodia, Cambodge, travel, explore, adventure, travel, photo, Samsung Galaxy, S7 Ta Prohm, Siem Reap, Angkor Wat, Cambodia, Cambodge, travel, explore, adventure, travel, photo, Samsung Galaxy, S7 Ta Prohm, Siem Reap, Angkor Wat, Cambodia, Cambodge, travel, explore, adventure, travel, photo, Samsung Galaxy, S7 Ta Prohm, Siem Reap, Angkor Wat, Cambodia, Cambodge, travel, explore, adventure, travel, photo, Samsung Galaxy, S7Ta Prohm, Siem Reap, Angkor Wat, Cambodia, Cambodge, travel, explore, adventure, travel, photo, Samsung Galaxy, S7, banyan Ta Prohm, Siem Reap, Angkor Wat, Cambodia, Cambodge, travel, explore, adventure, travel, photo, Samsung Galaxy, S7, banyan

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Yea, these trees are HUGE!

What to Know

  • It will be hot and humid as the day progresses so starting with sunrise is ideal though it makes for a short sleep night…
  • Visiting Angkor Wat, Angkor Thom, Ta Phrom, and a couple of other smaller sites, starting at sunrise, took us until noon/1 PM at our speed of walking, stopping to take photos, etc.  That is quite a long day already considering hotel pick-up (for us anyway) was at 4:45 AM.
  • Bring water, snack and sunblock!

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