Bacharach, Germany: Day 6 and 7

I find that often the hardest places to get to, offer the most rewards.  Bacharach certainly proved this to be true.  After catching a train from Amsterdam to Köln we hopped on a smaller regional train to take us to Bacharach.  It took us about 6 hours to reach a place that looked so close on the map.

Bacharach is a beautiful old town nestled between the Rhine River and the hills.  It is located in the Middle Rhine area which is a UNESCO World Heritage Site.

View from Burg Stahleck.

I had booked us into a room at the youth hostel which was located in a castle called Burg Stahleck.  We paid 110 euro for two nights and this included a breakfast.

The castle hosts groups of children and youth and offers them an opportunity to explore the area and a medieval castle.   The excitement and enthusiasm of the children was a bonus.  I thought about how excited I would have been, at that age, if I was able to spend a few days with a bunch of my friends at a castle.   (I was pretty excited at the age I am now!)  Our room was not fancy and the washroom was up the stairs and across the hall, but it had a great view and was quiet and peaceful.  The hostel sold nice wine which was served in a clay vessel that you paid for and kept.  I thought it was a nice souvenir.

Getting to the castle was part of the fun.  From the train we walked down the main street and turned up the hill at the side of St Peter Kirche.   The path to the castle zig zags up the mountain and offers beautiful views of the surroundings.

The path was probably as old as the castle and I imagined people walking up this path centuries before.  Right past the church, on the trail to the castle, are the haunting remains of Wernerkapelle, the Gothic remains left as a tribute to the awful excesses against the Jews.

This area is known for its many castles.  We took a short river cruise, for approximately 25 euro. We saw a lot of castles on the hills on either side of the river, beautiful vineyards and lovely old German towns.

The cruises can be as long or short as you like depending upon how much money you want to spend.  You can hop off the boat and explore a town then catch another boatgoing back.

Two days was not enough time to spend in this area and I was sad to be leaving it so soon.  I would return to this area again and try to give myself enough time to check out some of the many hiking trails in the area.

Amsterdam, Day 3 to 5

Amsterdam, Netherlands

We walked to the Brugge train station and boarded a train bound for Brussels then Amsterdam.

When I was gathering information on transportation and accommodations for the trip I was having a hard time finding a place in Amsterdam that fit within our budget (around $100.00 per night).  I ended up visiting a site called Better Bidding and bidding on a hotel in Amsterdam.  I wanted to be close to the train station so focused my bidding on that area.  We were able to get the Movenpick, which was a short walk from the train station, for $72.00 American per night.  It was a beautiful modern room with a great view, close to everything.  We found it cheaper to order breakfast from room service than to go to the buffet-and it was much more relaxing.

We purchased canal bus passes for 22 euro each and travelled around the city via the canals.

It was a great way to see the city.  We also visited the Van Gogh museum for 14 euro each.  A lot of our time was spent just walking around the downtown area.

In de Waag cafe looks like a fairy castle at night.  At one time Rembrandt had a workshop here.

I had never seen such large bicycle parking lots. This one, outside the Amsterdam train station is a few stories tall.  In Belgium and the Netherlands there were bicycle parking lots at the train stations.  What a sensible idea to cut down on the pollution and congestion caused by cars in downtown centres.

A visit to Amsterdam would not be complete without a stroll through the red light district.

Or checking out the coffee shops.  The ‘menu’ was interesting.  Laws prohibiting Amsterdam coffeehouses from selling marijuana to foreigners go into effect on January 1, 2013.  I wonder if this will have an effect on tourism.

Brugge, Sept 15 and 16, 2010

Brugge was the first stop in a 6 week tour of Europe.  We arrived by train after a flight from Halifax to Heathrow airport.  We took the underground from Heathrow to Kings Cross-St Pancras.   Then we travelled from St Pancras Station to France where we caught another train to Belguim and a small regional train to Brugge.  I had allowed for several hours to reach St Pancras thinking that customs and the travel from the airport would take a lot of time.  This extra time allowance was not necessary, but we weren’t able to change our tickets for earlier ones.

Our accommodations were already confirmed at Hotel t’Keizershof for 44 euro per night including breakfast.  It was a short hop from the train station…if you departed by the correct door. We soon figured out our mistake and make our way to the hotel.

Hotel t’Keizershof was very clean, in an older building.  Our room faced the street.  I was excited to hear people going past from the train station with their wheeled suitcases; it seemed to match the feeling of being on the road.  It was to become a soundtrack for the next 6 weeks and remained consistent in every country.  There was a sink in the room, but we had to go down the hall to use the bathroom or shower.  A sign in the room told you not to wash clothes in the sink, which was a disappointment to me as I had hoped to do this every night.  The breakfast was served in a bright room overlooking the street.  Our fellow travellers were from all over the world.

We were an easy walk to the historic centre of Brugge.    Brugge comes from the Old Norse, “Bryggja” which means landing stage.  In medieval times Brugge became a centre of commerce.  Its beautiful canals and prosperous merchants earned it the name Venice of the North.  Named a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 2000, the city’s well preserved medieval buildings, canals, cobbled streets and market squares draw tourists from all over the world.

Brugge Town Hall

Quiet and peaceful Beguinage.  This monastery housed nuns from the Beguine movement for many centuries.

Along one of the canals in Brugge.

Bell tower Brugge

I have never seen a violin quite like this one before.

Barlovento, Varadero, April 2012

My sister and I went for two weeks to Cuba this year.  We stayed at the Barlovento, a small resort on 1st Ave about 1 klm from city centre, near the entrance to Varadero Peninsula.

Barlovento was fine.  The rooms were clean, the beach beautiful and the evening entertainment was great.  The dance troupe was thrilling to watch.  It was a pretty chill place.  Our Cuban friends were able to join us under the shade of huge trees and we spent many days together enjoying the beach chatting with other beach goers and marveling at the lengths little boys will go to, trying to catch a lizard.

  One red flag day.  Waves were huge.

On the downside the resort ran out of wine occasionally, egad!  (we brought our own into the buffet with no problem).  The food wasn’t the best.  I found it worthwhile to wait in the line-up for eggs in the morning and pasta in the evening.  These were good but after two weeks nothing to look forward to.  We ate out at many of the restaurants around the resort.    Some of the restaurants we ate at included:  KiKi’s and La Sangria for pizza, LaiLai’s for Chinese food, La Casita (which is a treat to eat at and check out all the beautiful antiques including some of interest to Canadians) and Coral Restaurant on the beach by Aquazul.

La Casita, Varedaro  CubaPicture of Trudeau in La Casita, Varadero

La Casita had Pierrre Elliot Trudeau Liberal posters and a picture of Trudeau on the walls.

During one of our weeks there is was a school holiday.  It was a highlight of the trip to see all the young people enjoying themselves on the beach.  There was a kite surfing business set up on the beach just down from Barlovento and lots of young people were gathered there.

Many also spent time fishing in the canal across from the resort and jumping off the bridge which signals the entrance to Varadero.   They had lots of encouragement from their friends in the water and watching from the side of the road.  There were barracuda swimming in the water they were jumping into.

           

We took our cameras out to get some photos and met all sorts of friendly people, swimming, fishing or just out for a stroll.

Varadero has changed a lot in the past few years.  This year foreigners are able to stay in Casa Particulars in Varadero.  Casa Particulars are Cuba’s version of a Bed and Breakfast, and in past years they were not available for visitors to Varadero.  This is great news for people who want to visit the beautiful beaches but prefer not to stay at an all inclusive resort.

Casa Particular Cuba  These Casa Particulars are located on the street beside the Barlovento Hotel in Varadero.  

Particular cars are now licensed to take tourists.  This gives tourists an opportunity to hire an independent driver who has lovingly restored one of the beautiful old cars that Cuba is so famous for.

  This is Gonzalo Rojas’ particular car.  We hired him to take us to Matanzas and Boca to visit friends.  We walked across the bridge to an area where lots of particular cars were parked and discussed the price before we got into the car.

Small markets are popping up all over the place as well.  Free enterprise is becoming more and more a part of life in Varadero.  This is the biggest change and one that I am happy to see as it benefits the people of Cuba.

Temple Gardens, Moose Jaw, Saskatchewan

I was surprised to find out there was a mineral spa in Moose Jaw, Saskatchewan, a notably flat prairie province, so I had to go and check it out.  Temple Gardens is Canada’s largest therapeutic geo-thermal mineral spa drawing water from ancient sea beds. It was discovered in 1910 and thanks to a team effort from the people of Moose Jaw the spa is now a world class destination.

We didn’t have a reservation but were happy to find out there was a room available. We booked a room with evening meal and breakfast included for about 300.00 per night. The room was across the road from the spa and main building.

We were grateful for the bathrobes which were included with the room, so we could just stroll across the pedway in our bathing suits. If you go in the winter it is a good idea to bring flip flops. Winter boots are hard to put back on after you come out of the spa and look pretty silly when you are wearing a bathrobe. I wasn’t the only one who made the walk across in this funny outfit.

To get to the mineral pool you walk by the café and spa facilities. There are locker rooms for men and women with showers and washrooms as well as towels, lotion and hair dryers.

The mineral pool is kept at 37 degrees Celsius indoors and 38 degrees outside. The pool is huge and never felt crowded. People of all ages were relaxing in the waters or hanging out by the jets. My favourite place was outside. I love being in a spa and feeling the warm water swirling around me while the outside air is cold enough to freeze my eyelashes and hair. Everyone had white frost covered hair after a little while outside. In the evening with the glow of the lights it was beautiful.

We had a wonderful meal at the restaurant that evening and a great breakfast the next morning. I think the breakfast buffet is popular with locals on the weekends so it is best to arrive early if you are in a hurry. We were not. Temple Gardens has a late check out.

The Casino and Tunnels of Moose Jaw are also highly praised, but I couldn’t get out of the water long enough to check them out.

Photos property of Temple Gardens.

Cinque Terre

Vernazza, Cinque Terre

Cinque Terre is a UNESCO World Heritage site on the northwest coast of Italy.   It is named for 5 towns Monterosso al Mare, Vernazza, Corniglia, Manarola and Riomaggiore.  Cars are not allowed in the 5 towns, so visitors must arrive by rail, ferry (April to October) or by hiking trail.

We arrived in Cinque Terre from Nice, France.  There was a bit of switching of trains and much travel on the slower regional trains before we got to our destination.  Sometimes the best places are the most difficult to get to.

Along one of the trails

Cinque Terre is also a national park.  When you go there you should purchase a park pass.  Passes are available at different prices depending on how many days you plan to use them.  The pass gives you access to the hiking trails and allows you to travel on the trains between Levanto and La Spezia.  This is great because if you are not a great hiker you can take the train to one village and hike to the next or even take the trains from village to village.  Cornigila is the only village that is not directly accessible by train and you will have to wait for a bus, hike up a hill or walk the steps.  The park pass comes with a map of the park including the hiking trails with the distances and times for walking the trails.

Vernazza

We stayed in Vernazza.  Our reservation at Vernazza Rooms was not honoured and we had to scramble to find other accommodation.   We went to the cafe just down from the train station called The Blue Marlin, where they also serve a great breakfast.  The bartender suggested we check around the waterfront square for someone renting rooms.

The alleys of Vernazza

The father of Martina Callo, who also rents rooms, was sitting on a bench in the square, and although his daughter didn’t have any vacancies, he found us a room right on the square for one night.  We couldn’t believe our luck.  We had a beautiful room overlooking the harbour and square.  The next day he introduced us to a young woman who had a room available for the duration of our stay.  It was a bit more expensive and not on the square, but was a lovely room and we were happy we could stay.  Vernazza has tall buildings built along a narrow piece of land near the water.  The towns narrow alleys are fun to explore and lose yourself in.

The view from our room

It was early October and the water was still warm enough for swimming.  I was quite excited to be able to swim in the Mediterranean in Vernazza’s sheltered harbour.  We did a few of the hikes and took the train as well as the ferry and visited the 5 towns.

The festival in Monterosso

We were fortunate to arrive for a festival in Monterosso.  It is always fun to join in the festivities in a different country, even if you don’t quite know the reason behind them.

The Cinque Terre was an unforgettable place and well worth a visit.  The only problem was that lots of people felt that way.  During the day the towns could be fairly busy, but by evening most people had left for hotel rooms outside the park.  There was always something to do and three days was not enough time to spend here.

In October 2011, Vernazza was hit by a devastating flood.  It was heartbreaking to see the damage that was caused to this beautiful town.  Efforts to help restore Vernazza are being supported by http://www.savevernazza.com.

 

Getting Lost

Siena, Italy

This started as a post about doing your research before you travel and veered off course in a wonderful way.

I love the research part of travelling.  I suppose years of working as a theatre tour coordinator taught me to be an organized traveller.  Don’t get me wrong.  I leave everything open when I arrive at a place.  I just like make sure I have my accommodation booked and know how to get to the room so I can dump my knapsack and explore.

I think I spent as much time researching places to visit, where to stay and how to get there as we spent on the trip.  It was worth every minute.  My husband was always a little dubious when I would hop off a train in a new city and start looking for the next bus or subway, or even more unnerving for him, start walking to our accommodations.  We usually ended up right where we were supposed to be-or pretty close.

The red carpet was for the New Pop Festival, in Baden Baden, it was a bit helpful for finding your way around.

The times I didn’t have our route figured out so well were also ok, because  we were able to meet the people who lived in a new place.  It always amazed me that no matter where you went, you could always find someone who was willing to help you find your way.

In Siena, Italy we had gotten on the correct bus at the train station to take us into the city, but didn’t know when to get off the bus.  I asked a younger woman, who I figured would speak English, where we should get off the bus to get to Via della Sapienza.  While she was pondering an answer an older woman and man jumped into the conversation.  By the time our stop came, lots of helpful people were telling us to “go, go now”, or something like that in Italian. The man who had made suggestions earlier met us at our stop, we must have looked incredibly confused on the bus, because he had gotten off one stop earlier.  He very kindly walked us part way to where we needed to go.  We were still in trouble.  The old city is full of narrow alleys and streets.  After conversations with shop owners and a police officer we found our accommodation, Albergo Bernini.  It was worth getting lost for.

Civita di Bagnoregio-pretty hard to get lost here

We also ran into a large crowd of very helpful people in Naples who helped us figure out which train to catch to Sorrento.  A wonderful young couple on the express bus from the airport to the port of Athens (Piraeus), used their blackberry to find directions to our hotel and even talked to the bus driver to make sure he was aware of our stop.  These encounters with people are what make travel worth while.  There is natural beauty and wonderful examples of art, architecture and engineering all over the world.  But, when you travel and are blessed by the kindness of strangers it reaffirms your faith in humanity, and the memories of these encounters become more remarkable than the sights you have seen.

A Visit to La Arboleda

Entrance La Arboleda

In 2011 we made a trip to Varadero, Cuba as a large family group.  There were 11 of us, 10 travelling from Nova Scotia and one from Alberta.  Our Cuban brother-in-law had arranged for his family to visit from Las Tunas at the same time.

As usual, our friend Pavel wanted to invite everyone to his house for a meal.  But his house was too small for our large group.  Instead he arranged transportation and we all joined him and his family at a park on the Canimar River outside Matanzas city.

Our transport couldn’t go under the bridge for the train so we all walked to the park from there.  It was a sunny day which made for a nice walk through the countryside.

We passed a campismo, a campground with cabins instead of tents, and soon arrived at the entrance.

We paid 1 CUC to enter and 5 CUC for a meal plus one beverage.

El Campismo

Time to eat

The tables were set up along the river under shade trees.  There were paddle boats for rent, horse back rides and even a bull ride.  One group went with Pavel in the paddle boat and explored an abandoned village nearby.  A few of us went swimming in the river; it had a muddy bottom which didn’t feel nice underfoot.  I prefer salt water for swimming, but our Cuban friends like swimming in ‘sweet’ water like the river.

Dominos

I brought out the dominos, and since there was so many of us we decided to teach the Cubans a new game called Mexican Train.  I don’t think they were much impressed, but with typical Cuban good humour they played anyway.

The meal was great.  Everyone had the choice of grilled pork or chicken, rice and black beans, and salad.  The salad dressing was in an old rum bottle that was stuffed with onions and peppers covered with oil and vinegar.  It was delicious.

We waved from the shore at the tourists in the boats going by, while we enjoyed a day at the park.