Amsterdam Houseboat: Living Like A Local

There are sixty miles of canals in Amsterdam; 165 waterways that thread their way through the city defining its geography, its history, and your social status if you were lucky enough to live on or near one in recent history. The city’s canal system, built by draining swamps and creating canals in concentric arcs, was a model of urban planning for its time, earning the Canal District a place on UNESCO’s World Heritage list in 2010.

Most visitors to Amsterdam are content to wander the canals by foot or bike, crossing over any number of the city’s 1500 bridges, snapping photos of picturesque flower boxes and historic, gabled Dutch buildings. Or, they take a canal tour on the hop-on hop-off boats and private tour boats that wind the canal network. But it’s also possible to live like an Amsterdammer by staying in a houseboat vacation rental where you have an up-close opportunity to watch the city’s watery highway system at work and play. And if traveling solo, your options for finding an affordable houseboat rental are even greater.

Read more of my article published in Solo Travel Network here.

Solothurn, Switzerland: Mountain Paradise

Solothurn is a lovely, walled, medieval river town located in the northwest corner of Switzerland. I was lucky enough to do a home exchange there for 10 days trading my house on the western shores of Puget Sound in Washington with a teacher and his family who lived in the foothills of the Jura Mountains. You can read my Solothurn review in the travel website Solo Traveler

India: Waiting For The Train With A Cow

IMG_1311 (1)

This is a train station in India. Yes, that’s a cow in the foreground snoozing among sleeping passengers. My fellow board members from The India Project (I’ve posted about my work with them here, here and here) have been in the country over the past few weeks checking up on the families we support. Has the drought subsided? Mostly, but in Khajuraho where many of the families live the crops were destroyed and they have no other means of support. How are they coping medically? There were a variety of heat related medical issues and without our medical support families would have gone untreated. Are all the children back attending school after the holiday break? Yes. And with luck our first student will graduate from high school this year.

We back here in the states have been making decisions as updates have been coming in – authorizing rent for a family who was evicted from their home, medical coverage for one new baby and another on the way and struggling with ideas to help the adults become self-sufficient wage earners in an economy that discriminates against their caste and has little work for anyone who is illiterate.

If you’re interested in finding out more about our project and donating to our work, the link is here.

The in-India team sent this photo of their transportation around the country. India’s train system is almost entirely government owned. It’s the third largest rail system in the world serving 7500 stations. On any given day 20 million people are traveling by train; most of them in the class called General Compartment. There’s no air conditioning in those cars. Wooden benches. And they pack passengers in forcing them to sit in aisles and luggage racks if the benches are full. I suspect the cow isn’t traveling anywhere; the train station was just a good place to people watch.

 

Sanibel/Captiva Beaches: Turtle Baby Nursery

image

I saw it on my morning Captiva Island beach walk. The two tracks formed a V shape from the water; evidence that a female loggerhead sea turtle had made her way to higher ground to lay her eggs (around 120 of them) during the night and returned to the sea before daylight.

image

In Florida from May 1st to October 31st it’s loggerhead turtle nesting time on 18 miles of Sanibel and Captiva Island Gulf beachfront. The islands’ optimum subtropical weather provides a perfect nursery. Beaches are regularly patrolled for signs of turtle nests and then marked off. Disturbing the nests results in a hefty fine.

image

After sixty days of incubation the hatchlings leave the nest making their way at night under a bright moon following the light to the water. Local ordinances encourage island residents to keep  exterior lighting dimmed and pointed away from the beach to not disturb the hatchlings’ sense of direction. If they survive to adulthood, a loggerhead has an average lifespan of 50 years.

La Alberca, Spain: Hemingway Never Ate Here

20160405_112548 (1)

I’d seen the sign before in Madrid proudly displayed on El Cuchi Restaurant just off the Plaza Mayor. Hemingway Never Ate Here. I’d seen the phrase in a London gallery as the title of a painting by Patrick Caulfield. Now I was standing in the middle of a medieval plaza of a small Spanish village tucked into the mountains of La Sierra de Francia and there it was again on a bar specializing in wine, ham and bull tail stew.  I figure if the Fates send me the same odd message three times, it’s a sign my peregrine compass is about to discover something special. And La Alberca, Spain is special.

About four hours northwest of Madrid by car and an hour east of the university town of Salamanca, the village of La Alberca  was officially founded as a community in the 1300’s. Though geographically isolated, La Alberca did not escape the history that shaped Spain. There are cave paintings in the surrounding mountains indicating the area was inhabited as early as the Neolithic era. There is evidence the multi-cultural village had influential Jewish, Arabic and Catholic roots. The name La Alberca comes from the Arabic words, berka and al which translated means “place of the water”.

20160405_113714

The village’s layout of narrow streets and some of the architecture indicate there was an influential Jewish population in its early development.  Over some of the doorways are engravings from the Spanish Inquisition. These were the homes of Jewish or Muslim residents who converted to Christianity during the Inquisition and proclaimed their new faith to avoid prosecution.

20160405_112738

At the end of the Middle Ages, the image of the Virgen de la Pena Francia was discovered nearby and a shrine was built. Today the southern route (the Ruta de la Plata or Silver Route) of the famous Catholic pilgrimage, the  Camino de Santiago , also known as the Way of St James passes by La Alberca to reach the shrine as evidenced by the clam shell route markers on the walls of some of the buildings.

The Catholic Church of the Assumption of Our Lady in one of the village plazas is not only an architectural and historical structure, but it’s the starting point for a nightly ritual unique to La Alberca of local women who walk through the streets at sunset ringing a bell reminding residents to pray for lost souls.

20160405_113833

In 1940 the village was designated a National Historic Landmark by the Spanish government. The designation carried strict building and remodeling restrictions to insure that La Alberca is architecturally frozen in time giving visitors the opportunity to meander authentic medieval streets and shop and eat in buildings looking just as they did in the Middle Ages.

20160405_112814

The National Historic Landmark restrictions have resulted in interesting juxtapositions of important modern day building functions such as this bar over the public library.

I never did solve the mystery of the Hemingway sign. When I asked the barkeeper about it, he shrugged his shoulders, smiled and gave me a sample of the area’s famous Iberian ham to taste.

It may be a village, but La Alberca caters to Spaniards and international visitors who want to do more than a day trip. Just outside of town within walking distance is the hotel and chalets of Abadia de los Templarios. The owner also owns the Hotel Dona Teresa inside the village and there are additional accommodations around the small main plaza.

 

 

 

Paris: Two Guidebooks; Two Times

I had never been until last year. I wanted to save it until I had the time to savor the city. I wasn’t sure if I would love it (sigh….all those charming Paris movie and novel scenes) or be hugely disappointed it wouldn’t live up to my decades of pent-up expectations. The first time I went in May (ahhh, Paris in the springtime) and ended up staying an extra week. I returned five months later (mmmm, Paris in the fall). Clearly I am enamored. Since all of my time in the City of Light was an independent exploration (no tour buses and guided walking tours for me) and most of it was solo, I was intent on experiencing it my way. On the other hand, I did need a bit of guidance to travel the lesser experienced sights of the city but wanted to avoid the Fodor/Frommer/Rick Steves/Rough Guide/Lonely Planet tourist paths. Ultimately I found two small guidebooks and used one for each trip.

100 Places Every Woman Should Go In France by Marcia DeSantis, a former Parisian expat, was chock full of suggestions for Paris. It was my springtime guide to the city. I began with her suggestion that I overcome my acrophobia: don’t just snap the iconic exterior photo, but climb the Eiffel Tower steps to the second floor cafe (670 stairs of beating heart and sweaty palms) to toast my accomplishment with an overly priced glass of champagne and gaze at Paris’ rooftops and towers.

It was also her recommendation that took me to the department store Galeries Lafayette, not to shop but to gaze in awe at it’s magnificent stained glass dome and to Sainte-Chappelle, a medieval Catholic chapel where I listened to a concert while the setting sun played off its stained glass windows.

I would have never spent Paris temps precieux at a movie theatre, but her description of La Pagode art house cinema (a reconstructed Japanese pagoda used originally as a ballroom complete with tearoom garden and more stained glass) inspired me. I saw Still Life, a thoughtful English movie but could have seen their weekly screening of Breakfast at Tiffanys. 

Paris Sketching

It was her enthusiastic description of Merci, a concept store opened in an old wallpaper factory that found me there sketching over a cappuccino on a rainy day resulting in one of my favorite Parisian photos.

Bocce Ball Paris

In Luxembourg Garden, I searched for the bocce ball courts (as per her suggestion) and spent the better part of an afternoon cheering for very serious Frenchmen, while trying to figure out the games’ rules.

20150514_164023

And I braved the terrifying prospect of getting a haircut in a hip Parisian salon with my minimal French – made all the more fun when the stylist eased my concerns with champagne.

When I returned in the fall, I took with me City Secrets: Paris, the Essential Insiders’ Guide by Robert Kahn. This compact guidebook is filled with insider personal recommendations of 150 artists, writers, architects, historians and gourmet chefs who live in or regularly visit Paris.

20150517_160456_Richtone(HDR)

It was the keen eye of an artist contributor that made me take notice of the public art Metro stops and actually sit to listen to the street musicians.

 

I would never have found La Belle Hortense, a tiny wine bar/bookshop/tapas restaurant/literary and art gallery had it not been mentioned by both a food features writer and landscape architect in the guidebook.

As a travel sketcher, I appreciated the recommendation of a painter contributor to browse and augment my watercolor pencils at Magasin Sennelier, the historic artist supply store that invented oil pastels for Picasso.

20151019_190716_LLS20151019_183614_LLS

In a Paris guidebook seen through the keen eyes of artists there were a multitude of recommendations about looking in through shop windows and doorways and looking up at murals, lighting, ceiling motifs.

 

 

Vancouver, Canada: A German Christmas Market

Vancouver 5I was on the hunt for a pickle ornament. Also for an infusion of my own family’s holiday German heritage. Traveling to Germany wasn’t a possibility this year but I’d spent part of December with family there a few years ago and was enamored of the country’s December street markets known as Christkindlmarkts (literally translated as “Christ child market”). While Christmas markets can be found all over Europe, particularly in Germany, Austria, Italy and France, the traditions of the German Christkindlmarkt  go back to the Late Middle Ages in the German speaking parts of Europe. They were both a festive meeting place and an opportunity for townspeople to sell and buy homemade ornaments, cuckoo clocks, nutcrackers and toys with each town’s market having its own specialties.

Traditionally the markets were part of the Catholic Church’s Advent season which heralds in the Christmas birth of Christ. Today they have less of a religious connection (depending on where you are in Germany) offering locals and visitors an opportunity to mingle in an open air venue (usually a town square or plaza), listen and dance to music, eat (bratwurst, and a soft gingerbread called lebkuchen) and shop in preparation for Christmas. And because it’s cold in Germany in December, multiple stalls sell gluhwein, a hot mulled wine that comes with or without a shot of brandy in a colorful coffee mug that you can return or buy. The night time Christkindlemarkts are magical – all twinkling lights, the scent of gingerbread and the sounds of Christmas carols. If it happens to snow as it did while I was wandering the market, you’ll swear you’ve just stepped into a Hallmark card.

Vancouver Christmas 4Vancouver Christmas 3

Which brings me to that pickle ornament and my longing for a budget version of the German markets. I live in Washington State and for most anyone craving a bit of European Christmas, the default destination is usually Leavenworth. But I’d been there and since I also wanted to feel like I was traveling out of the country, I headed north by train to Vancouver, Canada for their German Christmas Market which opens on November 21st and closes on Christmas Eve.

Vancouver Christmas 2

Located outdoors on the Queen Elizabeth Plaza downtown, the Vancouver market has all the trimmings of its European counterparts. German themed food and craft stalls surrounded a large Christmas tree and festive wooden stage that held a full schedule of musical groups. There was bratwurst and lebkuchen and since it was cold in Vancouver, everyone was bundled up in northwest Gortex with hands wrapped around steaming cups of gluhwein (with and without rum). There in a display of German tree ornaments, I spotted pickles for sale.

Vancouver Christmas 1

The American legend of the pickle ornament is that families in Germany hang it as the last ornament on the tree after children have gone to bed on Christmas Eve. In the morning the first child to find the pickle receives an extra gift from St. Nicholas and the first adult to spot it gets a year of good luck. However, like the myth of Santa Claus, the German pickle tradition is the product of American marketing. No self-respecting family in Germany hangs a pickle on their tree. Traditionally in Germany it is St Nicholas (the patron saint of children, students, teachers, sailors and merchants) who brings the presents on his feast day of Nikolaustag on about December 6th. Traditionally family gifts are opened on Christmas Eve, not Christmas morning .

However, like many families who immigrated to the U.S., mine, over the generations, has succumbed to the Americanized public relations version of the holiday season. Likely the myth of the pickle was a way to sell the fruit and vegetable Christmas tree ornaments that were imported from Germany. Nonetheless, I bought one in the Vancouver German Christmas Market and hung it on my tree next to the Santa, Elf on the Shelf and Rudolph the Red Nosed Reindeer ornaments. My pilgrimage to find a pickle was really just an excuse to re-enact a Hallmark card scene in a German Christkindlmarkt in Canada.