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

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The Grande Plage (big beach) of Biarritz

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

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

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

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With my beautiful mom and sister!!

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My sister!!!

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

Eskilstuna: A Brief Stop in Industrial Sweden

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

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

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

Eskilstuna, Södermanland County, Sweden, Sverige

The main square of Eskilstuna

Eskilstuna, Södermanland County, Sweden, Sverige

Looking out onto the square

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

Eskilstuna, Södermanland County, Sweden, Sverige

The old building where Redfellas is located

Eskilstuna, Södermanland County, Sweden, Sverige

At Redfellas

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

Eskilstuna, Södermanland County, Sweden, Sverige

Looking towards Klosters Kyrka (Church)

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


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!

Old Town, Casco Viejo, San Sebastian, Donostia, Euskadi, Basque, Spain, España, travel, viaje, exploring, photo

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!

San Sebastian, Spain, España, food, foodie, travel, Basque, Euskadi, pais vasco

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!

Lech, Vorarlberg, ski, skiing, Austria, lift, slope, snow, blue sky

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).

Lech, Vorarlberg, ski, skiing, Austria, lift, slope, snow, blue sky

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!

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?

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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

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

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

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

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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

Amsterdam, night, Netherlands, Holanda, Holland, fotos, photos, travel, viaje, Samsung Galaxy S7

Train station

Amsterdam, night, Netherlands, Holanda, Holland, fotos, photos, travel, viaje, Samsung Galaxy S7

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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ilivetotravel, photo, champagne, business class, KLM

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

Marina Bay Sands, hotel, luxury, Singapore, Asia, travel, tourism, Samsung Galaxy S7, photo

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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Around Katarina Church in Stockholm

While I like seeing the main sights of any city I visit, I also enjoy walking around aimlessly and seeing what I discover.  Katarina Church (Katarina Kyrka) in Stockholm (Södermalm) was one of those discoveries.  Perhaps if I had done my research ahead of time, the church and its neighborhood would have ended on a ‘must-see’ list.  But it was a lot neater to run into this neighborhood by sheer luck and wanderlust!

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Church as seen from Gamla Stan

Katarina Church

The church grounds were pretty in the fall colors and in the gray weather I experienced pretty much the entire weekend I was in Stockholm.Katarina kyrka, Catherine church, Stockholm, Sweden, fall, color, Sodermalm, travel, tourism, photo, Samsung Galaxy, S7Katarina kyrka, Catherine church, Stockholm, Sweden, fall, color, Sodermalm, travel, tourism, photo, Samsung Galaxy, S7Katarina kyrka, Catherine church, Stockholm, Sweden, fall, color, Sodermalm, travel, tourism, photo, Samsung Galaxy, S7

Katarina kyrka, Catherine church, Stockholm, Sweden, fall, color, Sodermalm, travel, tourism, photo, Samsung Galaxy, S7

The church was undergoing renovations

Katarina kyrka, Catherine church, Stockholm, Sweden, fall, color, Sodermalm, travel, tourism, photo, Samsung Galaxy, S7Katarina kyrka, Catherine church, Stockholm, Sweden, fall, color, Sodermalm, travel, tourism, photo, Samsung Galaxy, S7

Cornelisparken – good views of Stockholm

I then walked off a side sidestreet on the opposite side of the square from where I had entered it, Mäster Mikaels gata, with quaint homes that ended with a park, Cornelisparken, that offered a great viewpoint that overlooked Gamla Stan and other parts of Stockholm.  I seemed to be on a roll discovering great spots with great views in Stockholm (another was from City Hall)!Mäster Mikaels gata, Stockholm, Sweden, fall, color, Sodermalm, travel, tourism, photo, Samsung Galaxy, S7 Katarina kyrka, Catherine church, Stockholm, Sweden, fall, color, Sodermalm, travel, tourism, photo, Samsung Galaxy, S7

Katarina kyrka, Catherine church, Stockholm, Sweden, fall, color, Sodermalm, travel, tourism, photo, Samsung Galaxy, S7, Gamla Stan, Cornelisparken

View towards Gamla Stan

This part of my longer walk was probably my favorite of the whole weekend and I think yielded some of my favorite photos from the trip!

 

Angkor Wat: Finally!

It is pretty daunting to write a post about Angkor Wat.  Not only how to do the place justice but there are probably a million write-ups out there about it.  All I can do is share (words and photos) how I saw it and perhaps it will help those who have not been there visualize it, and those who have been there remember their visit…

We were told by a few people to not miss sunrise at Angkor Wat.  Considering all the travels away from home at that point (ATL to Chicago, Chicago to Bali (via ATL!), and then Bali to Bangkok to Siem Reap), waking up at an absurd time in the morning did not seem as absurd as it would at any other point in my life.  So, arrangements were made for a 4:45 AM pick-up at the hotel to go to see our local star rise behind Angkor Wat…

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Yea, looking a little rough after the 4AM wake-up (thanks, Phil, for capturing this winner!) – but happy to be there!

First stop:  Get the darn ticket.  One can get a day pass or a multi-day pass.  I was sorta scratching my head as to why the people taking us had not gotten the tickets ahead of time.  I found out why soon enough:  they take your photo and print it on your permit to enter the temple ‘zone.’  Since we were packing it all in into one day, the pass cost us $20US.  Not bad really, especially considering the scale of the area ‘littered’ with temple complexes.  All that has got to be kept up, etc.

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My pass to enter Angkor Wat; skillfully photo bombed by my friend Phil

After getting our ticket, our  guide took us to the main vantage point from which one can ooh-and-aah one’s way through sunrise.  There were clouds in the distance so we did not see a beautiful orange-yellow disk rise from the horizon.  But seeing the temple with the sky around it changing colors from dark blues, to mid-blues, to purples, to orange-ish, etc. was pretty neat.

Angkor Wat, temple, Siem Reap, Cambodia, Cambodge, Camboya, travel, explore, viajes, Asia, photo, sunrise, sky, Samsung Galaxy

Sunrise

I decided to take a fast-pace video over a 15-minute stretch to see what that would look like.  No, it did not result in a magical show but it still was worth the effort to hold the smartphone as still as possible in my hands for that long.  Since I was half asleep anyway, I barely noticed the 15 minutes had elapsed.  (The 15 minutes are compressed into a one minute video below. Let me know if you think it was worth my 15 minutes!)

After snapping a couple of pix of each other, my friend and I moved on from that spot to get to the causeway that would lead us to the main temple we all know as Angkor Wat.  It still was not full light so the pictures were either brilliant or so-so, depending on how demanding a viewer of photos you may be – I will let you reach your own conclusions 🙂  We were also advised to not go back to the hotel after sunrise, as many do to nap and have breakfast, but -instead- to have the hotel pack us a breakfast and just eat it on-site so we could then explore the complex before it got crowded later in the  morning (it was also a good idea since it only gets hotter as the day goes by so the earlier the visit, the less suffering!).

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About to enter the causeway

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STILL looking rough but with a great backdrop! (thanks again, Phil!)

On the way to the main temple, I especially liked ‘the library’ ruins on the left-hand side of the causeway – mainly because it gave me a good way to frame the main temple!  (Always looking -not always successfully- for a good photo spot!)

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Here the library…

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… and what I did with the library! I kinda like this shot!

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Getting closer to the main temple – this is a great photo spot

We entered the main temple area from a side entrance by climbing some stairs and our guide explained some of the carvings as we headed to the inner courtyard.  From there we walked along the side of the central ‘structure’ (I struggle with what to call the different parts of the complex), and observed a couple of places where the stuff under the exterior stone was exposed.

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Amazing carvings – could spend hours there!

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Our entry point into Angkor Wat

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A look at what’s under the outer stones… more stones! (though different looking)

After turning the corner, we saw the staircase that would lead us up to the top terrace of the main temple.  The staircase to be used was not the original steps; rather, a staircase was built on top so that our visitor feet would not destroy the ancient stonework – and probably to keep us safe too.  It was a very steep climb but going up was not as scary as going down.  I am not scared of a steep climb or descent, but I also do not want to suffer a bad fall!

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After getting up

Once we got upstairs, it was REALLY cool.  From up there you see above the tree tops and can easily see how the jungle took over complexes like Angkor War once abandoned.

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View down to the upper terrace and the jungle beyond

There were four inner courtyards atop the temple and it was neat walking the outer hallway looking out in every direction in the compass while then turning inward and seeing the various temples or altars with Buddhas.  I do not recall how much time we spent up there but I enjoyed admiring it all.

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One of the inner courtyards

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Looking upwards from the terrace level

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First, a standing Buddha…

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… and then sitting Buddhas…

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… and finally, a reclining Buddha!

Angkor Wat, temple, Siem Reap, Cambodia, Cambodge, Camboya, travel, explore, viajes, Asia, photo, Buddha, Samsung Galaxy

Father and son (I assume) in prayer – nice to see it is an active faith site

So, Angkor Wat delivered on my expectation on seeing something quite unique in my experience and, clearly, from the experience of many as it is a UNESCO World Heritage Site (not one of the token ones, mind you, but a real one!).  Seeing the father and son praying made it even better as it is not just an archaeology site, but a site of living faith – very cool to see.

Angkor Wat, temple, Siem Reap, Cambodia, Cambodge, Camboya, travel, explore, viajes, Asia, photo,  Samsung Galaxy

I am dumb as doorknob when it comes to selfies – I could not get out of the way of the tower much as I was being instructed to do!

Angkor Wat had been on my ‘hope-to-see-someday’ list and definitely the top spot for me to see in Southeast Asia.  I am grateful for the opportunity to see it in person and explore it – photo bomb on my credential or not 🙂  Now I need to decide what will go in its former spot in my ‘hope-to-see-someday’ list…  nice problem to have!

Stockholm’s City Hall – Great Vantage Point

Before my recent trip to Southeast Asia, I took advantage of a cheap airfare to spend a long weekend in Stockholm. I had been there a while back on a day stop from a cruise with my family. It was summer time and it allowed us to get a flavor of this city by walking around Old Town, visiting the Vasa Museum, and enjoying a nice lunch. Of course, Stockholm was charming and I hoped for a return visit someday. And that materialized when a college friend found the special fare and asked if I’d be game for a slightly mad short trip there. Having not used vacation time in the year, I thought “why the heck not!”

The plan for the trip was to just go with the flow. I had already seen key sights so that was good with me. Serendipity can yield interesting experiences!

One place I discovered on this trip was Stockholm’s City Hall. My hotel was maybe 2.5 kms / 30 mins’ walk away and we were making our way from our hotel in Kungsholmen towards Old Town. We ran into the the City Hall and wondered what it was. It faces the water with great views of Gamla Stan (Old Town) and Sodermalm across the water – excellent photo opp spot!

Here are some of the images of the building and the views from its unique spot in the city.  If you find yourself in Stockholm, go the extra distance outside of Gamla Stan to get to this spot!  (Click on the images to enlarge.)

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