Iceland: July, August 2016

Iceland is amazing.  You should go.  If you have a flight to Europe, consider IcelandAir, and you’ll get a free stopover on your way to your destination.  Or, consider WowAir for a mid-week 3 day break: they have $189 fares to Iceland if you can travel at odd times.

We had two stopovers in Iceland: one on our way to Norway in early June, and one on our way home in August.  The first stopover, just two days/three nights, we stayed in Reykjavik.  We wandered around “downtown”and visited the harbor area.  Sights to see: the Saga museum, which has a multimedia show that tells you parts of Iceland’s Saga stories (one of the oldest books in existence which tells the stories of Iceland’s earliest settlers in the 9th, 10th, and 11th centuries.  Iceland’s most popular literature).  Also in that area: the beautiful Harpa Concert Hall, home to all kinds of musical events relating to Iceland.  The Whales of Iceland museum, and the harbor, featuring of course, all kinds of whale-watching tours, puffin spotting tours, and fishing tours.  We did a combo deal with the Whales of Iceland museum and a whale spotting tour, during which we spotted a tiny bit of a minke whale- a bit disappointing, so they offered everyone a second whale trip- during which we spotted a hump-backed whale.  More exciting, but still difficult to catch on camera.

Also in Reykjavik: the very tall and imposing concrete church, the Hallgrimskirkja.  They were featuring organ concerts throughout the day in July so it was nice to stop in there and have a listen and get out of the wind.  Reykjavik in the summer is warm in the sun  but cold in the shade and in the wind.  Bring a coat.  If you’re going up any elevation or out on the water, bring a hat, scarf, and maybe even gloves.  I can’t even imagine what it’s like during the rest of the year.  Also, bring an eye mask.  When we were there, just a week after midsummer solstice, the sun set at midnight and rose at 3 am.

On our second stopover, we were able to go on two tours that we had booked during our first stopover (if you go during the summer, you will want to book ahead of time.  They are very busy in the summer.  For an island of 330,000 people, they get 12 tourists per Icelander per year.  They are well geared for tourism, but still.  Hotels and tours fill up.  And things are expensive.  Start saving your pennies now if you plan to visit).

Our first tour was the Golden Circle, which pretty much everyone does.  It’s a circle of sights to see that are about two hours outside of town, and can be visited in a half day.  The stunning Gulfoss waterfall, a geysir, and Thingvillier National Park, where two tectonic plates meet up (North American and European).  Here you can see the rift between the two plates, and if you wish, you can dive or snorkel the Silfra fissure.

Our second day’s tour was the Southern Iceland tour, where we  drove along the south of Iceland and visited two other waterfalls, the village of Vik for lunch, a black beach, and the Solheimajokull glacier, which you can walk right up to (you can go on a glacier hike if you wish as well).  At the end of the day, we ate at a restaurant downtown that featured an Icelandic delicacies tasting menu, including whale, puffin, trout, plaice, perch, lamb, and a delicious skyr dessert.  And a shot of “brennivin”, a 38% schnapps that is also known as “Black Death”. Delicious.

All the sights were stunning, and Iceland as a whole is just beautiful- the kind of sweeping beauty that is hard to capture in a picture.  You just have to see it for yourself.  I’d love to see it in the wintertime, with all the snow (although there was some snow now, in August), and to see the Northern Lights.  We’ll have to start saving for a return trip.


Poland and Berlin: July 2016

We were enjoying the Baltics so much, that we decided to return there after our week with Mark and Nicole in Sweden and Denmark.  We flew from CPH to Kraków and upon arriving at the old town main square, we noticed huge crowds of people. Huge. Crowds of teens. It did not take long to figure out that World Youth Day, a huge Catholic celebration, was in progress.  Between two and three million pilgrims were expected, and the Pope.

Welcome to World Youth Day


So that pretty much put an end to any touristing plans we had. Everything was closed, or open only to the WYD kids, or insanely crowded.  So we mainly spent a day walking around the Old City, scoping out empty bars and nice restaurants, and we sat and watched the crowds.  We ate a delicious dinner of Polish and Georgian dishes at Gruzinskie Chaczapuri, and another one at Pod Wawelem Komoania Kuflowa.  We saw the imposing castle Wawelem (our hotel apartment was in fact right next to it), the beautiful church in the main square, and we went by Schindlers factory in the Jewish quarter. We found a small art museum that was open, full of antiquities including a Rembrandt. The city walking tours, the salt mines, and tours to Auschwitz were all unavailable.

The sights of Krakow

The highlight of our stay in Kraków was discovering a website called “” which matches up travelers with a local host who makes a traditional dinner at their house. We joined ten other visitors at Marta’s house for the best dinner ever.  Everything was homemade and accompanied by stories about growing up in Poland. We started with some plums in vinegar, olives with rosemary, cucumber salad, smoked sheep’s cheese with onion seeds (czarnuska), and bread. Then, a young beetroot soup with quail egg and coconut milk.  Then we had mashed potatoes (kept warm in another room under a feather duvet: an old grandmither’s trick), with veal goulash (plenty of paprika).  We drank elderflower water with mint, red wine, homemade quince vodka, and had cake with jam and custard with raspberries for dessert.  It was such a fun evening and I’d really recommend “” or “”.

Dinner with Marta

But enough of Kraków, we had to get away from the crowds, so we got a train to Warsaw.  We splurged on a Radisson Blu hotel and upgraded to a business room
with a/c and their breakfast buffet, which went on for miles and included a Bloody Mary Bar.  Besides our morning meal, we had pierogies of every kind in Warsaw: with cabbage and  meat, meat and nuts, fruit and cream, spinach and garlic, mushroom and onion, potatoes and cheese, strawberries and creamSo good.  The Old Town, meticulously reconstructed after World War II, is full of delicious places to eat.  You could stay there a month and just dine.

Our food tour of Warsaw

We went on the Warsaw at War free walking tour, and learned all about the Warsaw Uprising and the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising- feats of courage in an impossible situation.  In fact, this week is the 72nd anniversary of the Warsaw Uprising and the city is staging a big event for on August 1.  We followed that tour up with a Communist Warsaw tour, which pointed out the few remaining relics of Communist times in Poland, such as a few art pieces, some architecture, some statues and mosaics, and an old Milk Bar.  All in all it was a very interesting look at Poland’s history and I’d like to find a good historical fiction or YA about the Poland, especially as I’ve just finished reading about the siege of Leningrad and am starting a YA book about the children who were sent out of London for safekeeping during World War II.


We took an evening train to Berlin- the old European style with a compartment for six (promoting repeated “Scusi! Scusi!” quotes from Eurotrip) and stayed near the Hauptbonhauf. To get oriented we took a walking tour from the Brandenberg Gates, through the memorial to the murdered Jews of Europe, to the site of Hitle
underground bunker (and site of his partial cremation). An odd feeling to be standing on that site, which is now a grassy strip in front of a high rise apartment.  We saw pieces of the Berlin Wall, the “Checkpoint Charlie” area (reconstructed), and the square where the Nazis had their book burnings.  Our guide was very knowledgable about past and present Germany.

Berlin Sites

In the following days, we visited inside the Reichstag- Germany’s Parliament building, which has a dome made of glass and is an excellent viewing platform to see the various sites of the city.  They include an audio guide that can sense where you are in the building and gives you commentary on what you’re seeing outside or about the building itself, which is state of the art and very green.  I really enjoyed it, even though we had to wait quite a while to get in.  We also visited the Topography of Terror museum at the site of the former Gestapo headquarters, an exhibit on successful and unsuccessful Wall escape attempts, and we visited the East Side Gallery, which is the longest stretch of the wall and is covered with murals.

The Reichstag

The Berlin Wall

For our final day in Berlin, we took a train out to Potsdam, the summer home for Frederick II of Prussia.  It feels like a different world from Berlin, with acres and acres of sculpted gardens, fountains, and three large palaces.  The weather was a slightly drizzly 70 degrees, and it was really nice to just meander through the UNESCO park and enjoy the landscape and the rococo and gothic style castles.


And now, done with Europe for the time being, we fly to Iceland for a three day stopover, then home!

dddd - 119

Sweden and Denmark: July 2016

A few months ago when I booked the flights for this trip, my best friend from college commented on how she had always wanted to go to Scandinavia.  “Come along!” I told her.  So she did!

Nicole and her husband Mark arrived the day before us, so I figured they could take the day to get over their jet lag.  arrived around noon and got settled in to our “boatel”, the Rygersfjord, and then met Nicole and Mark on Djurgarden at the Vasa ship museum.  We toured the museum together and then took the ferry to Gamla Stan to walk for a bit.  We had dinner in the old quarter at a fantastic restaurant called Magnus Ladulas, where we were able to try some delicious reindeer meat, and a fantastic dinner of Swedish meatballs, mashed potatoes, pickled cucumbers, and lingonberries.  Mmmm so good and way better than Ikea’s. Afterwards we had a glass of wine on the top of our boat, watching the sunset at 10:30.

Stockholm: our boat, Vasa ship, sunset

The next morning we met Mark and Nicole at their hotel for a fabulous breakfast, and then we went on a walking tour of Gamla Stan, visiting such sites as the smallest statue (10 cm), the narrowest alley (90 cm), and learning all about the history and culture of Stockholm.  We visited the National Library, went by the Nobel Museum, and Storkyrkan, the cathedral.  Another great dinner at the same restaurant (it was really good!), followed by ice cream on Belgian waffles, and then back to our boat for some more sundowners.

Gamla Stan

On our last day in Stockholm, we all visited the Nordiska Museum and the Historical Museum.  Both were really good.  We had an early dinner in Ostermalm at Zink Grill.  Before we all left the next day, I had time to go in search of a few key scenes from Stieg Larsson’s Millennium Trilogy in our district of Sodermalm.



Stockholm: our boat, Vasa ship, sunset

Nicole and Mark took a flight, while Chris and I took a high speed train, to Copenhagen.  Upon arriving at 7:30, we met at their very swanky hotel (the Hotel Alexandra) for drinks, and then wound up at at a Croatian restaurant called Dubrovnik’s for dinner.  No complaints about the food!


On Sunday we took a rather lengthy, almost three hour walking tour that showed us the main bits of Copenhagen.  Palaces, museums, statues, squares, Tivoli, etc.  Afterwards we found the Little Mermaid statue of our own, entered the Marble Church, and climbed the Round Tower and looked at a solar flare using the telescope in the 400 year old observatory.  Chris and I ate an early dinner in Nyhavn, and walked home via Christiana.

Walking Tour: Marble Church, Tivoli, beer and hot dogs, Observatory at Round Tower

Today, our last full day, we met Nicole and Mark for a huge breakfast at their hotel, and then while Mark visited bookstores in town, Nicole and Chris and I took the train to Elsinore, home of the Krongborg castle and the setting for Shakespeare’s Hamlet.  Being the 400th anniversary of Shakespeare this year, they were doing scenes from the play in various rooms around the castle. Afterward, Chris and I visited the Royal Danish Library, which had an excellent exhibition of their most treasured items, including a 7th c manuscript, original Hans Christian Andersen writings, drawings by Matisse, Karen Blixen’s Out of Africa, and many more. It was a wonderful exhibit and I’m glad we got the chance to stop in. We all had dinner at Halifax, and enjoyed one more stroll around the city looking for ice cream.

Book nerd goodness: Danish literature treasures, original Hans Christian Andersen drawing, and Kronberg, home to Hamlet

The museum was closed today and we have to leave at 11 tomorrow morning, so hopefully we can check that out on our last day of our trip, when we return to Copenhagen for our flight to Iceland and then home.  In the meantime, we are off to Krakow to finish up our Baltic leg of the trip!



The Baltics: Finland, Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania: July 2016

From Norway, we took a quick flight to Helsinki, “the daughter of the Baltic”. We stayed three nights at the Hotel Arthur, near the Central Train Station (designed, by the way, in the 1910 by the father of the architect who designed the St Louis Arch, JFK terminal, and Dulles Terminal). We spent a couple of days exploring the city.  We took the tram line #2, which makes a figure 8 around the city (and has a free audio guide online!) out to our furthest sight, and zig-zagged our way back to the Central area. We saw the Flying Finn statue at the ’52 Olympics arena, the monument to composer Jean Sibelias, and the Rock Church, cut from a single huge granite boulder.  Closer in town, we visited the two cathedrals (the 1832 Neoclassical Lutheran church with a statue of Alexander II in front and the  1862 Uspenski Orthodox with 13 golden onion domes), both of which are lovely inside and out. Market Square, Senate Square, Market Hall, all really nice architecture as well as beautiful in the warm sunny weather. Helsinkians definitely savour the summer months- flowers abloom, grasses are green, bikes are out, and every park has a busker with a guitar strumming a tune. 

The churches of Helsinki

Our second night we went to dinner at Aino, one of those delightful European restaurants that serve tiny bite sized courses that are excruciatingly expensive but also quite delicious. We tried a sampler platter of Finnish vendace fish and pork pasty, ice cellar salmon with cucumber-fennel salad, creamy chanterelle soup, overnight cooked lamb neck, toast skagen, Finnish Brie cheese. For the main course, reindeer fillet with dill-butter mashed potatoes and lingonberries. Delicious, to say the least. We loved Helsinki and our only regret was not having time to get out into nature, within the islands near the city or in the lakes and rural areas further north where the Finns have their summer homes. 

The food of Helsinki

It’s only a two hour ferry ride aboard a huge cruise ship to Tallinn, Estonia, so we headed south.  We stayed at a hostel there, largely chosen because it is housed in an old 19th century building and it has a sauna and cold pool (and at just 40 euro per night for a private room ensuite, a break from the Scandinavia prices.  Also, a much needed laundry machine).  We spent the two days in Tallinn exploring the Old Town, the best preserved medieval city in Europe. Formerly ruled by Denmark, Germany, Sweden, Russia, the Nazis and then the Soviets, Estonia is now enjoying it’s 24 year independence (major exports: Skype and supermodels). The old city is full of 14th century churches, cobblestone alleyways, cafes, museums, and stone towers. Our two hour walking tour was so full of information, in fact, that we decided to use the same company to take their sightseeing bus trip from Tallinn to Riga the following day. 

Tallinn Old Town

In Tallinn we found a Georgian restaurant, and had several dishes: eggplant, spicy cheese, khinkali dumplings, and lamb pie. And beer of course! It was so good we had to take a nap afterwards. But we returned to the Old Town in the evening and walked around in the setting sun (10 pm). Considering Estonia is the “least religious country in Europe”, they certainly have 
a lot of churches. The next day, seven of us took the bus tour. The tour guide really gave us a good overview of Estonian history and culture of the last 100 years. What major changes from the fall of the Soviet Union to now! Estonia is really looking to the future, with e-voting and e-residency (sometimes referred to as E-Estonia) while still retaining their cultural pride and their 45% forested area. On the bus tour we stopped at the ruins of a castle built in 1245 at Viljandi, sandstone cliffs at Helme, and ate lunch at a pub in a village on the border between Estonia and Latvia. 



Crossing to the Latvian side, we went blueberry and lingonberry picking in a forest, toured the medieval old town of Cesis, and climbed the Soviet bobsled track in Sigulda. Arriving in the walled Old City in Riga, we were pleased to find our hotel (a renovated 16th century convent) had upgraded us to a junior suite, with a king sized bed. Nice! The first day we took a walking tour of the Old Town, and had a traditional meal of black beans with bacon, with a glass of kefir (because, as the waiter explained, the kefir buttermilk helps the beans not “do bad things in your stomach”), and black sausage with barley. And beer. Then, of course, a nap. By the time we woke up, we had time to walk around watching the sunset at 10 pm, and then we did a moonlit kayaking trip around the city of Riga on the river and the city canal.  A unique way to see the city’s bridges, which are all lit up at night. 


Riga was founded in 1201 as a base for the Germanic northern crusades, and later fell under the power of the Swedes and then the Russians. The old city is fairly well preserved,  but they are more well known for their large number of art nouveau buildings. Once surrounded by three moats for safety, the town finally turned the moats into a canal surrounded by parks in the mid-19th century and expanded beyond th old city. In the next two decades, when other European cities were adding a handful of art nouveau buildings, Riga built more than 700, hundreds of which still exist today. On Saturday we took a restored tram from 1901 to the suburban outskirts, where pre-war elites had beautiful summer homes, now being restored. Saturdays in July must be prime time for weddings in Latvia, because we saw no less than ten wedding parties out posing for pictures. 

Old Town Riga

A quick four hours on a luxury bus found us in Vilnius, Lithuania on Sunday.  Lithuania was once the largest country in Europe, stretching from the Baltic to the Black Sea.  Later part of the Lithuanian-Polish Commonwealth, it later became part of Russia, and then was forcibly incorporated into the Soviet Union.  Finally Lithuania gained its independence in 1990, the first of the soviet republics to do so.  

A few fun things about  Lithuania: 

*They had one king (1253).  The later rulers were called Grand Dukes. 

*Once pagan nature lovers, Lithuanians were converted to Christianity around 1250. Villagers were given a new name and a new shirt when they converted.  Priests would come to villages and perform mass baptisms, naming all the men John and all the women Maria. Villagers would get baptized more than once to receive several new shirts.  Now, Lithuania has a celebration every summer solstice for all the men named John. 

*The previous mayor of Lithuania is quite popular on YouTube because of this video

*Literati street is full of plaques commemorating authors with a Lithuanian link- even just mentioning Lithuania in their book or visiting here for a few days. Number 28 is Thomas Harris, author of Silence of the Lambs- Dr. lectern was born in Lithuania. 

*A district of the capital city, Uzipius, has declared itself a republic, elected a President, and written a constitution.  Their parliament meets in a bar once a month (“Barliament”). 

*Trakai, an island castle in a lake about 30 km outside of Vilnius, is the only island castle in Eastern Europe. 

*In 1989, citizens of the three Baltic nations organized a 75 km human chain of 2 million people, stretching from Vilnius to Riga to Tallinn to protest Soviet rule. Lithuania gained independence a year later. 

Old Vilnius

Castle at Trakai

And now, we will fly up to Sweden to spend a week with Nicole and Mark in Stockholm and Copenhagen. Check back soon! 


Norway: July 2016

We had a stopover in Iceland on our way to Norway, but we will stop there again on our way home in August so I’ll wait till then to recap it. 

We arrived in Oslo at 9 pm, but with the sun not setting until 11 and our bodies two hours behind, it still felt like early evening to us. We saw the Domkirke on our way to our hotel, a beautiful church built in 1664.  We checked in to our HTL Grensen, which turned out to be in an excellent area for sightseeing- just one block from Parliament, Cuty Hall, two blocks from the ferries, museums, and the palace. What a great travel agent we have!*

The next morning Chris’s two sons, 18 and 21, joined us for the week. We spent the first day on what probably felt like a forced march to them, visiting many of the free things to do in Oslo. We started at the beautiful Opera House, with its gleaming white sandstone and ramps that go from the water up to the roof. Inside they had a display of costumes from different productions that have been staged there. From there we meandered through the Radhus (City Hall), the Nobel Peace museum, the ferries to different islands, the quay promenade, and the Akershus Fortress. A quick stop at the National Library, and then a stroll through the Vigelund Sculpture Garden- the largest sculpture park created with just one person’s work. Finally a walk through the Royal Palace grounds, and then time for a rest. The kids were jet lagged and out for the count, but Chris and I went out to dinner at 8 and then discovered the Parliament building and a lovely park and sat and people-watched. 

The beautiful city of Oslo

On Tuesday we all agreed we wanted to see Munch’s The Scream at the National Gallery, so we started there. It was quite a nice museum, arranged chronologically,  which gave you a nice sense of how some movements influenced others. A nice representation of all the greats, from Matisse to Cezanne, to Manet, Monet, and Munch. After, we took the ferry to see the open air Norwegian Customs museum (the highlight of which is the 12th c stave church), the Viking Ship Museum, and the boys went to the polar ship Fram museum and the Kon Tiki museum, while I relaxed outside in the park. We all had dinner, and then the kids decided to try out the metro to go see the Olympic ski jump.  

Museum Day in Oslo

The next day, after an amazing breakfast at HTL, we boarded a train bound for Stavanger. What a beautiful countryside! Pine forests, farm houses, fishing villages, islands, and lots of water. Western Norway is gorgeous. The train was quite nice, with free tea and coffee, wifi, outlets, and a tv room for small ones. Arriving at Stavenger, we walked around the lake to find our Comfort Hotel, and then set off for the Norwegian Oil Museum. It had a lot of interactive displays so it wasn’t as bad as I thought it might be. Afterwards we made the kids try some new Indian dishes for dinner. 

To Stavanger

Thursday was our hiking day. After another HUGE and awesome breakfast, we took a ferry and a bus to the base of Preikestolen, or Pulpit Rock. For two hours we hiked to the top, stopping to take in the views. And the view from the top? Wow.  Seriously, wow. No guard rails. No signs. Just you, your own common sense, and the power of Mother Nature. We spent an hour at the top and two more heading down, then back to town for us. Mexican food for dinner, and then this girl hit the sack while Chris and his oldest somehow had the energy to go visit Sverdifjell, the place where in 872, Norway was unified under one crown.

Pulpit Rock

On Friday we went up to Bergen, on a bus and two ferries, which was a nice little fjord tour as well as our transport north. Upon arriving in the small town that was once the seat of the Hanseatic League, we found our P-Hotel, dropped our bags, and rode up the funicular to see the city from the top of Mt Floyen. Up there we walked around, found a lovely lake and forest, and enjoyed some nature. Back down at sea level, we walked around the Unesco heritage site called Bryggen (the old shops and buildings that have been there for  centuries) and wandered through the fortress of King Hakon and the Rosenkrantz tower. 


Yesterday, our last day, we visited the Edvard Grieg Troldhaugen (Troll Hill) estate. Chris is a Grieg and is distantly related, and in fact his dad had given us a family ring stamped with initials and dated 1872 to show the museum staff. At the museum the staff showed us a family tree, last updated in 1941, that had Chris’s father and aunt on it! The estate is quite pretty, consisting of a small museum, the composer’s house and a small hut by the lake he would use for work, the gravesite of Edvard Grieg and his wife Nina, and a concert hall that looks out upon the lake. They have daily concerts there in the summer. After, we had enough time for giant kebabs for lunch and a quick trip to the Leprosy museum (they were closing in 15 minutes), before we put the kids on a bus to the airport, for their flight to Oslo and then home.  The pub near us had a live band playing and later a fun soccer crowd, so we sat outside and listened to the band play while we sipped hot chocolate. 

Today we are resting! We’ve been going going going for ten days and we need today to reconcile receipts, read a book, write a blog, and plan the next leg of our trip: Finland and Estinia.  We leave on a flight this afternoon for Helsinki.  Stay tuned! 

*me,, and trip advisor 


What constitutes a country visit?

I recently read an article in the Washington Post travel section about one couple’s trip around the world to “five countries, one island city-state and a former British colony administered by China” (click here for article).  It got me thinking about not only what counts as a “country”, but also what constitutes a “visit” to that country.  The couple in the article had stopovers ranging from 24 hours to 3 days on their RTW trip.  They determined that they would visit a landmark, eat a local dish and snap up a souvenir.  I don’t put a premium on souvenirs, but I would definitely agree that to visit a country means you have left the airport (or the car if you’re driving), you’ve eaten a local dish, visited a landmark, and in most cases spent the night.  Also, I think you should only count a country that you actually remember visiting- i.e., if your parents took you there when you were four years old and you have no memory of it you should probably keep it on your “to visit” list.

bora bora

Is Bora Bora a country??

So I looked back at my list of countries.  Previously I had considered that I had visited 88 countries.  But I spotted some problem areas.  One set of countries were visited when I was ten years old, and I have a terrible memory, so I only remember two things about that trip: the train that we traveled on was so long it seemed like it stretched from Moscow to Leningrad and was freezing (so I’m counting Russia, although actually it was the USSR then), and visiting Dracula’s castle.  I know that is in Romania, so I was definitely in Romania- my 10 year old self even bought a souvenir, a wooden painting of Dracula, which still hangs on the walls of my mom’s living room (I think; I haven’t looked for it in a while).  But other than that one castle, I have no memory and no remembrances of even the capital city, Bucharest…. so I am hereby taking Romania off my “visited” list, as well as Czechoslovakia, Poland and Hungary, apparently also visited on that trip but not remembered by this traveler.


Romania is worth a second trip

Another problem spot: El Salvador.  I have passed through this airport four times in the past four years, spending close to 24 hours there.  But I have not been able to actually leave the airport, and I will assume El Salvador has something more cultural than Monsenor Oscar Arnulfo Romero Airport to see.  The same with Austria and Switzerland- in Switzerland I never left the airport, and although we did get a speeding ticket in Austria, it was only because we took the wrong exit trying to get from Germany to Lichtenstein.  We didn’t see any cultural landmarks, spend the night, or eat a meal there.  So off the list they go as well.


Liechtenstein counts!

Other areas present not just issues of how long you stayed there or what you did, but who it actually belongs to.  Unfortunately Martinique and Guadeloupe islands are both departments of France, so they don’t count- but Domenica does.  It’s an independent country and I stayed there for several days.  So it’s on the list.  Sadly, Turks and Caicos is not, as it is a British Overseas Territory.


Martinique doesn’t count but Domenica does!

I struggled with how to count Tibet, Taiwan, Hong Kong, and Macau on our long trip last year.  Technically speaking, China claims them all.  However, I decided to count them as separate places due to the trouble it takes to get to each, how long we spent there, and the unique culture that each present.  Chris is a Traveler’s Century Club purist, and follows their list of countries and territories, which includes them all as China.  I don’t. It’s my list so I can do what I want!


Finally, there’s microstates. They are tiny places and don’t always have a lot to offer.  We spent 24 hours in Andorra- spent a night, ate a few meals, and saw a movie.  We count it.  I spent a whole day in Vatican City but did not spend the night- counted.  I think I took a train that went through Monaco- but as I can’t really remember for sure, and I didn’t get off and do anything there, I’m not counting it. It’s only 2 square kilometers, but they must have something to eat and something to do there, so it’s staying on my “to visit” list.

Europe 2005-Juliana 279

Vatican City is small…. but we did see the Pope.

All this is to say that I have revised my “Countries Visited” list.  I previously thought I was at 88, but have downgraded to 81 now.  This summer we’re visiting Scandinavia so hopefully that will bring me back up to 85.  And then I need to start planning something to Poland, Romania, Hungary and, bonus: I’ll get TWO new ones if I go to both Slovakia AND Czech Republic!


Peru: March, 2016

"Something hidden.  Go and find it. Go and look behind the Ranges --
 Something lost behind the Ranges. Lost and wating for you. Go!"
The Explorer, by Rudyard Kipling

I decided on Machu Picchu for Spring Break this year! Super excited to head to Peru, I was understandably worried when I arrived in Lima in the wee hours of Monday morning and learned that all fights to Cusco had been canceled the day before due to a plane malfunction on the runway there.  Luckily, after a few tense hours, the runway was cleared and I arrived in Cusco before noon.

From Cusco I took a shared taxi up to Ollentaytambo (13 soles/$4) and got checked in to my very quaint hotel, the Sumac Chaska (50 soles/$15 per night). Ollenta is about 60 km from Cusco, and in the 15th century was a royal estate of Emperor Pachacuti (whose name meant “Cataclysm”), and later the stronghold of Manco Inca Yupanqui- the only site where the Incas did in fact defeat the Spanish in battle. Next to the city is an area of terraced farming that the Incas used to create microclimates in which to raise different crops. The city of Ollenta itself is still based upon the original Inca layout and includes cobblestone streets and walled alleys, with beautiful hostels and restaurants hidden behind them.


Terraced fields of Ollentaytambo


Hitchhiker? Inca? Not sure.


Getting ready for Dia del Agua Festival



(Un)fortunately Ollenta is a bit rustic, and the internet was not working throughout the entire Urabamba valley, which caused problems trying to get a train ticket to Aguas Calientes (the town at the base of Machu Picchu).  In addition, the number of people who had had flights cancelled the day before, who were all trying to move their train tickets and Machu Picchu tickets to a date later in the week, combined with the fact that it was Semana Santa (Easter Week), which all Peruvians had off- made the train station a madhouse.  After visiting the station three times, and still resulting in no train ticket, I decided to go the alternate route: a four hour bus ride, and a 9 mile hike. For those wishing to go, a train ticket from Ollenta to Aguas is between $68-90, or the bus costs 40 soles ($13).

The bus ride was beautiful but scary, with high speeds and winding mountain roads, and soon enough the bus dropped us off at the Hydroelectric station, and we were told to walk along the train tracks until we saw the town.  Pretty simple directions, so I put on my ipod and listened to a podcast (Serial- wow, so riveting!) as I walked along.  Almost three hours later, I saw the tiny tourist town of Aguas Calientes (it did not exist at all in 1911 when Hiram Bingham “discovered” Machu Picchu but had begun to spring up by his last visit in 1916).  A lot has changed in 100 years- old Hiram would be shocked if he could visit now.  I found my hotel (Rio Dorado, and paid extra for a room with hot water- 114 soles, or $35). I walked around town, found some dinner (alpaca!), and went to bed early, eager to wake up early and get to Machu Picchu.

IMG_7271 (1)

That was a scary bridge


Follow the Tracks for 9 miles….


At last, Aguas Calientes


You can walk from Aguas Calientes straight up a mountain to Machu Picchu (free) or you can take a switchback bus route, starting from 5:30 am ($12).  I chose the bus.  25 minutes later, I was at the gates of Machu Picchu, which open at 6 am.  Upon entering, you have the choice to go up or down.  Having been advised to go up first, I did, and was rewarded with the early morning view of all of Machu Picchu, another royal estate of Pachacuti,  below me.  Very few tourists were there that early in the morning, it was foggy and misty, and it was just gorgeous.  Until the sun rose fully at 8 am, it was quite cool, easy to get around, and as Ben and Jo would say,  not too many “bloody tourists messing up  my photos!”. After 8 am it began to warm up and by ten am it was hot.  I decided not to hire a guide, as I had just finished an excellent book on the subject of the Incas, Hiram Bingham, and Machu Picchu (Turn Right at Machu Picchu, by Mark Adams), and I felt I pretty much had the gist.


Deah at Machu Picchu


An alpaca, hopefully not the one I had for dinner that night


Machu Picchu


Three Windows Temple


I didn’t want to leave but eventually it got pretty hot and I was running out of water, so I decided to head back down to Aguas Calientes.  I spent another night there, and then luckily scored a train ticket to Hydroelectrica ($25), thus sparing myself the three hour walk.  After the bus ride back to Ollenta, I was happy to grab some dinner, a Happy Hour two for one Pisco Sour special, and go to bed.

After a shared taxi ride back to Cusco (15 soles/$4), I found my hotel just off the Plaza des Armas in the centro historico (the very peaceful Triunfo Hotel, across the street from Cusco Cathedral, built from 1559-1654). Being Good Friday, there were lovely services in all of the churches nearby (8 churches, by my count) and at dusk, a procession of the “Santo Sepulcro”, involving a statue of Jesus in a glass coffin, a crown of thorns, and a statue of the mourning Virgin Mary. Close to this part of the city is Sacsayhuaman (pronounced “sexy woman”), the fort built by Tupac Inca and later used as a defense by Manco Inca against the Spanish (okay, technically, the fortress was built by a preceding culture, and the Inca simply fortified it and enlarged it). The huge stones (the largest weighs between 130-200 tons) used to create Sacsayhuaman are immense, and nowhere else in the Americas is there stonework that is more precise (all without the use of mortar or the wheel).


Plaza des Armas


Cusco Cathedral


Good Friday Processional


Inca Stonework


Also in Cusco I visited the Inka Museum (15 soles), and learned more about the history of the area, both before, during, and after the Inca Empire.


Pre-Inca vase


One of Bingham’s original photos






A short Inca history lesson: Pachacuti  Yupanqui (his name meant “Cataclysm”) was the ruler of the Incas from 1438-1471, and he built the royal estates of Coricancha, Machu Picchu, Pisac, and Ollentaytambo. When an Inca ruler died, one son received his estates, while his other son received his title, and had to build new estates.  Pachacuti’s son Tupac Inca (“Inca” meant “noble”)  ruled next, from 1471-1493, and built the estates of Chinchero and Choquequirao.  Tupac’s son Huayna Capac  (“Capac” meant “ruler”) ruled from 1493-1527, and built Quespiwanka and Tombebamba. When he died the Inca empire stretched from Ecuador to Bolivia, and when the Spanish encountered the Inca near Quito in 1531, the Inca empire was still fractured from a civil war between  Huayna Capac’s sons Atahualpa and Huascar (who lost). The conquistador Pizarro invited Atahualpa to a ceremonial dinner, and when Atahualpa attended with only 5,000 unarmed men, Pizarro took the initiative to slaughter them all in under an hour (no losses to the Spanish).  Pizarro kept Atahualpa alive, and was promised a treasure of a room of gold, and two of silver.  Incas scoured the empire and stripped their temples of the precious metals, but after delivery, Pizarro killed Atahualpa anyway (1532). His younger brother, Tupac Hualpa, was a puppet ruler for the Spanish, and later their younger brother Manco Inca Yupanqui staged a last rebellion against the Spanish, engaging them in geurilla warfare and evading them for 36 years.  Manco Inca Yupanqui’s sister/wife was brutally murdered by the Spanish in the main Cusco square when he rebelled against the Spanish.  Manco Inca is generally regarded as the last true Inca ruler (1536-1572), although as several members of the Inca royal family did inter-marry with the Spanish nobility, the Inca line did live on for many years after the Spanish conquest.

After a day of walking around the historic district, and sitting on the restaurant balconies along Plaza des Armas watching the processions, it was time for bed, and my three flights that would get me back home the next day.