Wheeeee!!!

We were in Klet, Czech Republic, and we were preparing to go to the top of Klet Mountain. We arrived just in time; according to the schedule on the wall, the next ride to the top was leaving any second! We grabbed our water and a few Czech coronas and ran, arriving at the entrance out of breath and feeling every second of our 50-plus years. We paid our fee, opened the door and TA-DAAAA! the next CHAIR was approaching on what appeared to be a communist era chair lift.

When you are expecting a sort of gondola lift and you get a rickety chair lift, either surprise or FEAR is the overarching emotion. We had a bit of both but probably more of the latter, at least at first. We locked eyes and laughed out loud. In for a penny, in for a pound, we stepped into the staging area and prepared for the ride of our lives.

We followed the gestural instructions of the nice gentleman and stepped into the box painted on the floor. We watched over our shoulders as the chairs approached. One by one, my friend and I let the worker shove us into the chairs, which swooped us into the sky. I heard my friend laughing as I spent the first three minutes of the journey trying to figure out how to lock the bar in place so I wouldn’t fall out. When I realized that the pressure of my feet on the foot rest pulled the bar in toward my waist, I practically stood up on it.

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My friend laughing as she settled herself in for the ride.

When we finally got settled in and started looking around, there were absolutely no regrets. Crazy view of the countryside.

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The view from the top was spectacular. It was kind of cold, especially for July, and while it was not so chilly that we couldn’t enjoy it, I admit I wished many times, clutching my arms against my torso, that I’d grabbed my jacket. But at the top, we found some interesting surprises.

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And on the way back down, a bit less terrified now, I was able to relax a bit.

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We were hanging above the ground by tens of meters. 

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A guy with a dog. Who can resist a guy with a dog?

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Oh, my goodness! How old is this kid? Riding ALONE? WTH???? And she wasn’t the only little kid on her own. Apparently Czech kids are smarter than American kids.

 

Beautiful woods line both sides of the chairlift as you journey up and then down again.

If you get the chance, DO IT. Take a jacket, and a few really deep breaths. And DO IT.

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Cesky Krumlov

This past summer, I had the crazy wonderful experience of traveling to some crazy wonderful places, among them a tiny village in the Czech Republic: Cesky Krumlov.

Cesky Krumlov has the reputation for being delightfully beautiful. And indeed it is.

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We flew into Prague, rented a car and drove down, several hours, mostly on two-lane road. My pal and I stayed in a hotel called The Old Inn. Full of character and right on the town square, it sounded perfect, and it really was! Except for the church bells. That rang. Every hour. All night. No air conditioning, so windows open. Lack of air conditioning is standard in small towns such as this, and in fact it isn’t really necessary. On the other hand, it does mean that it isn’t all that quiet. (Did I mention the church bells?) The fact is, the town is quite small, so being right on the square wasn’t essential. But we slept, and it was only one night. And I’d probably stay there again because it was so perfect in every other way.

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The Vltava River runs through the town. 

The Vltava River invites paddlers from all over Europe, and in spite of the fact that I was traveling with an experienced paddler and one of the founding members of the Carolina Paddlers…well, we didn’t. Too bad. Hopefully there will be a next time.

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This is one of the many places I want to return to. In addition to paddling the Vltava, I’d have liked to visit the castle, go inside the church with whose bells we are now quite familiar, eat in a few of the local restaurants, and see some of the other sights.  With only one day, we just didn’t have enough time. We just had so much to see this past summer!

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On our way back to Prague, we did stop and see some of the region via an exciting and unexpected chairlift in Klet. I’ll tell you about that in a few days. Here’s a preview:

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Happy travelin’!

 

 

 

 

 

 

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Christmas Markets

One of the great things about living in Europe is…CHRISTMAS MARKETS! This past year, I visited Cologne and Monschau in Germany, as well as Lille, in France, Maastricht in the Netherlands, and Ghent, here in Belgium. The different countries’ markets display distinct personalities, from their foods to their decorations.

Cologne (Koln) has a lot of different markets all over the city. They are all different. If you only go to one city’s market(s), choose Cologne!

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Cologne: Near the train station

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Cologne: The Angels’ Market (my favorite)

The food…you would expect bratwurst and other sausages, and of course, they were plentiful. But as a vegetarian, I am more interested in other things. Like potatoes. I really like potatoes. Maybe I should call myself a tatertarian…anyway, I digress. Back to the markets! Potato pancakes, potato spirals… Yum. There are also pretzels, smoked salmon, and flammekueche, and of course, gluwein.

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Potato pancakes, potato spirals, smoked salmon, and gluwein!

And it doesn’t hurt that Cologne is simply beautiful on its own.

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Cologne’s spectacular cathedral

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Cologne’s riverfront is RAVISHING!

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Lots of pretty places in this old and interesting city

Don’t be fooled, though. There are other stunning cities with pretty markets. For a taste of a few, click here.  (You can click on individual photos to see what city they were taken in. All were taken in 2015.)

Merry Christmas! Start planning next year’s Christmas market trips!

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Late Autumn in Southern Belgium

When asked what season is their favorite, many people, if not most people, say Autumn, or as we uncouth Americans call it, Fall. I suppose the reasons are the colors and the relief from the heat of summer. As for me, Spring and Summer beat Fall every time. Especially here in Belgium, where Autumn reminds me that everything is dying or going dormant, and we are about to have several months of long, dark nights. That wet, Winter weather is approaching relentlessly. That the Solstice is merely the sigh before sleep fully comes. That Summer sunshine is only a wished-for dream.

But if I want to be positive, and I do, I have to admit that Fall is picturesque and photogenic. Even late Fall, when most of the leaves have succumbed to the rain and wind. Here is southern Belgium, there are many opportunities for pretty pictures.

Notre Dame Church, Chièvres, Hainaut
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In the woods, region Hainaut.
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Beleoil Castle
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Just barely on Beleoil Castle’s grounds, there was a lot of pretty stuff to see.
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That church in the background has a pretty spectacular tree in front of it, on the opposite side from where I shot this photo.

See?
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There’s even beauty in the hard work Fall brings.
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Brussels: gotta love the capital of Europe. Can you believe this old tower, oddly standing in the middle of modern, city buildings?
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One of the few remaining medieval streets. Brussels dates to the 11th century.
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Whoever lives here has transformed a tiny, urban greenspace into an inviting garden sanctuary.  2012-01-01 00.00.00-512

And the Bruxellois who lives behind this window has gone all out!
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And there’s always someone overseeing everything. 2012-01-01 00.00.00-538

He’s up as high as he can get because there’s so much to see. 2012-01-01 00.00.00-540

As impressed as I am, though, with the scenery and nice weather, in all honesty, I’m already looking forward to Spring. La Rochelle
I’ll try to enjoy the Autumn and Winter moments. I promise.

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Vienna

Ah, Vienna, you enticing city! You pour me the world’s most delicious coffee, and then give me excellent drinking water right from the tap! You surround me with meaty Germanic food straight out of my adolescent years growing up in Germany and yet in you I find the most available and creative vegetarian cuisine of any city I’ve visited in Europe! You provide for me a superior public transportation system in a country that is 18th in the world in cars per capita, and in you I am surrounded by the history of the world’s most moving music as well as your ugly and shameful history with regard to the Jews.

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I think I may be in love. With a city.

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My friend and I spent only a few short days there this summer, but oh, how the city and surrounding countryside captured my heart. Maybe because we laughed so much throughout the visit. For example, the guide for our walking tour explained the difference between Austrian-German and German-, er, German by using the word for “coffee” to illustrate. On the one hand, Germans growl the word “KAFFEE!” On the other hand Austrians sort of sigh “Kaffee” because, hey, coffee is a GOOD thing; there’s no need to be cross about it. (I suppose you had to be there.) But you didn’t have to be there to realize that because the city’s name in German is Wien, it makes the people that live there… wait for it… WIENERS! We shared several laughs on that one, and the language teacher in me can’t help but wonder if the Wieners themselves chuckle about it, too. We very nearly slept with Mozart on the crisp summer night my friend and I visited the Zentralfriedhof (Central Cemetery) where he and others of his illustrious ilk are memorialized, if not buried. Yes, I know that requires an explanation but suffice it to say that we came perilously close to being locked inside at closing time! Visualize two middle-aged (even if we don’t look it!) ladies sprinting in bare feet toward the gate as the keeper was closing it for the night. You’ll have to read my friend Joni Carter’s soon-to-be-published short story chronicling the tale, and it’s a good one, if I do say.

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But perhaps my favorite Vienna story ends with the two of us walking miles and miles and miles (okay, so I exaggerate; it was only miles and miles) so that we would not waste a ticket that we very nearly didn’t get.

Jo and I wanted to see the Schonbrunn Palace Garden, a beautiful palace and botanical garden and UNESCO World Heritage site. We were primarily interested in the gardens rather than the palace. When you’ve seen one palace, you’ve seen, if not “them all,” at least enough of them. But we wanted to see the Privy Garden and the Maze, and it seemed like we would like to see the Gloriette, too. We were limited on time so we had to be smart about our visit. We headed toward the famed site on the aforementioned superior public transit system. The bus let us off just in front of the entrance.

Walking through the gate, we paused to get the lay of the land. To our left was a building that seemed to be the starting point for tours and such.  We passed through the entry door and spied a large sign reading “TICKETS” in huge letters and we headed toward it, picking up literature along the way. We took our places at the end of the longish line and perused the brochures as we waited.

“Hey, look at this,” I said, pointing to the price list I was holding. “We can see the privy garden for only three euro fifty!” We looked further and saw that the other parts of the gardens we wanted to see were a good deal, too.

“But why do they only list the “Gold” and “Imperial” tickets on the sign?” Jo asked me looking over my shoulder to the information printed on the sign below the giant “TICKETS”.

I tossed a glance at the sign before turning back to the literature. “I don’t know, but we don’t want to spend 30 euros or more, so we should just buy the tickets for the parts we want to see, right?”

“Well, yeah,” she agreed, looking back at the literature. We chatted about the different areas of the gardens. I should say, she chatted because Jo is the one who does all the preparatory work for our vacations. I just sort of tag along and get her to tell me what we’re going to visit. Works really well, I think. Not sure she’d agree, but for me, yeah, it does.

After waiting in line for about twenty minutes, we arrived at the counter in front of a slender and angular gentleman with dark hair and glasses. He looked like he’d been sitting in that chair for many, many hours. He didn’t seem happy as he shuffled receipts and such.

Guten tag,” I said, in my limited German. “We’d like to buy two tickets for the privy garden, the maze, and the gloriette, please, oh! bitte!” I smiled broadly, because I always say that if it’s up to me, I want everyone to think Americans are the nicest people in the world.

He stopped what he was doing. His fatigued but piercing eyes darted up from the papers, and as they bored into us, his mouth turned decidedly downward. He slapped the papers in his hand down on the counter. “TICKETZ!” he snapped. Jo and I jumped in unison. “TICKETZ! You vant to buy ticketz from ME?!?”

When our startled hearts slowed down enough for us to think, we both looked up, above his head at the ginormous sign. “TICKETS.” I looked back at Jo, who had as bewildered an expression on her face as I must have had, and we turned, still in unison, to look at the TICKET salesman. “Well,” I began, mustering a slight smile, “um, yes, we were hoping to buy tickets here. Um, at the, um, ticket counter.” The last two words came out almost as a whisper.

“Ticketz!” he repeated. “You don’t buy ticketz HERE.” He pronounced it “HEE-ah,” the German way.

“What?” Jo asked, by now befuddled.

“But, the sign…” I began.

He blew air from his mouth with a “pfoosh” sound and shook his head, muttering about people wanting to buy tickets from him, and he finally looked at us both and in his Colonel Klink voice, growled, “You buy DOZE ticketz at ze entrance to DOZE exhbitz.” He shook his head.

“So,” I ventured, “we can’t buy our tickets here?”

Another “pfoosh.” And then, “Ja, ja, ja, you vill buy de ticketz hee-ah.” More head-shaking.

He grumbled incoherently as our tickets were printing, and then suddenly he paused. “You vant ze Gloriette, too?” he barked.

My friend and I jumped again  and nodded our heads. “Yes, please,” I said. We looked at each other again, and then back at him as he pulled the tickets from the printer. We paid for the tickets and I said, “Dankeschon,” and tried to smile at him, which he did NOT try to return. He was still shaking his head and muttering as we shuffled away, a little unsettled. As we stepped from the “ticket office” into the sunshine, the absurdity of it hit us and we burst out laughing. “TICKETZ!” we both cried, giggling. “You vant to buy TICKETZ from ME???” Jo said, in her best German accent. I was wiping my eyes by then.

We spent the entire visit alternating between being awestruck by the beauty of the place and one or the other of us suddenly yelping, “TICKETZ!?!” followed by both of us chortling with glee. Well. The entire visit until we headed up the seemingly endless hill toward the Gloriette. This is the “miles and miles and miles” part.

We were both tired and a little sore after walking all over Prague in the days prior, and in the previous couple of days, all over Vienna, but Jo was especially  done in because her feet were blistered very nearly raw. But after the “TICKETZ!” experience, we were determined to make it to the top. So we did, alternately moaning in pain and giggling, remembering our grumpy Austrian ticket salesman. We even made it up the couple of flights of stairs to take in the view from the top of the top!

The view was worth it, and so was the coffee we rewarded ourselves with before trekking back down.

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See you again, soon, Vienna. And often.

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Pretty Places, Interesting People

Belgium is full of surprises, and a couple of weeks ago that was brought home to me on a sunshine-y early Autumn day. From a chateau in the morning to a private home in the afternoon, the day was full and fun, the very best kind, spent with a creative and interesting friend.

First stop was the recently renovated Chateau Viviers and her gardens, located near Mons. 22066550076_cc06440dde_z

The family who bought the property and renovated it now lives in the chateau, so it was not open to the public. But we did get to walk right in front of it and all around the grounds.

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Une belle journée

Une belle journée


The caretaker’s house is a spectacular dwelling on its own. Most homes in Belgium are brick on the outside, and of course, this was no exception. The bordering landscape is pasture, woods and the park-like grounds of the chateau.

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There is a small and striking chapel on the grounds, and they have mass, I think every week. I particularly loved the blue, star-covered ceiling.

Une belle journée

Une belle journée

After the chateau, we went back to my friend’s house, grabbed bikes and rode to a house belonging to a family of artists. Everyone here is related either by blood or marriage, and everyone is creative as h-e-double-toothpicks!

The dad (and grandad) is a metal and glass artist.

The youngest member of the family is even learning from her grandfather the art that her dad practices: craft beermaking.

The family’s matriarch creates magical flower arrangements.
  

The daughters and daughter in law are also artists. One daughter makes artisan chocolate, not large quantities at all. Another works in beautiful stained glass, designing and creating pretty pieces. 
The wife of the beer-making son makes, from scratch, glass beads.  She explained and demonstrated the process for us, and graciously let me film her. You can see the video here.

Surprise, surprise, a sunny day in Belgium, filled with creative Belgian people and interesting Belgian places. And best of all, I spent it with a friend.

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Flight, Part One: Above and Below the Clouds

Everyone in Belgium — EVERYONE — complains about the weather. It is often grey and it rains quite a lot. Grey isn’t a pretty color for one’s surroundings, you know? Nevertheless, there are positives. First, it isn’t too hot in the summer. Ahem, usually. Recent days excepted. And second, the cloud cover makes for a generally mild winter, with highs and lows in temperature that are not too many degrees apart. Next, all that rain makes for a lot of green, all year long, and it gives us gorgeous and plentiful flowers in the spring. And finally, when viewed from above, those clouds, so grey and often formless from below, make for a beautiful and alien scene. So after nearly 50 years of flying, I decided to take some photos of the exotic cloud-scape as well as some of the more familiar Belgian landscape below. These were taken on approach to Brussels International Airport, Summer 2015. Comments in the captions. Enjoy. 

From really high, you can see the blue of space above.

From really high, you can see the brilliant midnight blue of outer space above.

You could be in a spaceship on your way out of the atmosphere of earth.

You could be in a spaceship on your way out of the atmosphere of earth.

And if you catch a little of the sun above, you can really feel as if you're in a different world.

And if you catch a little of the sun above, coupled with that golden horizon, you can really feel as if you’re in a different world.

Can you see the sea below? But it isn't, you know. It's just the sky below you!

Can you see the sea below? But of course, it isn’t; by this time, we were well over land.  That blue is just the sky below.

Sometimes it just seems like an alien landscape.

Sometimes it just seems like a extraterrestrial sort of landscape.

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Or a tidal wave approaching on churning seas.

Once you pass through the turbulence and emerge into the atmosphere below the clouds, the world is suddenly familiar and foreign at the same time. What is known of the world meshes with what is seen, and the world appears before you, but in a form you barely recognize. From above, the grey days take on a beauty unforeseen.

Once below the clouds, you can see how important agriculture is to Belgium.

Once below the clouds, you can see how important agriculture is to Belgium.

Bear in mind by now we are pretty near to the airport and the farmland is expansive.

Bear in mind by now we are pretty near to the airport and the farmland is expansive.

 

There's a lot of forested area in the country as well. Makes me feel at home.

There’s a lot of forested area in the country as well. Helps this North Carolina girl feel at home.

A patchwork quilt is so cliché, but it IS apropos.

A patchwork quilt is so cliché, but it IS apropos.

And it wouldn't be Belgium without a castle. Belgium has many castles, most of them still in the hands of old, noble families.

And it wouldn’t be Belgium without a castle. Belgium has many castles, most of them still in the hands of old, noble families. See the airport tower in the upper right?

Belgium's landscape is a muddle of fields, estates, towns. What's not to love ? Well, other than the grey.

Belgium’s landscape is a muddle of fields, estates, towns, and the ancient and the modern. It is beautiful, in its way.

Belgium’s grey days, seen from above, are exotic and beautiful. From below the clouds, you have to find your own reasons to see its appeal. I have found mine. In spite of the grey.

 

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