Mandy and Jeff here, welcome to our website! Always at our best when on the road learning new cultures and seeking new views, we decided to give it a full time go. This is where we share what stops us in our tracks, big and small.
Thanks for tagging along!
An apt beginning to our Vietnam tour, Ho Chi Minh city represents the old French Colonial Vietnam and the center of the conflict that embroiled the United States in what would become a symbol of suffering for Vietnamese and Americans alike. Arriving on the heels on Cambodia, Vietnam was yet another representation of the ravages of the Cold War and the conflict between Communism and Capitalism. Principally different however, is the relative prosperity that Vietnam now enjoys – a case study in rebuilding and reunifying a nation. While our visit was very short in this great city, it would set the stage for the rest of our Vietnam trip.
Formerly known as Saigon, Ho Chi Minh City is the most populous city in Vietnam with a population of thirteen million. Located in southeast Vietnam, and surrounding the Saigon River, the metropolitan area covers about 800 square miles. From 1887-1902 and 1945-1954, the city was the capital of French Indochina. It would later become the capital of western supported South Vietnam from 1955 until 1975 when the city fell to North Vietnam’s Communist forces. It was promptly renamed Ho Chi Minh city after the Communist revolutionary leader of North Vietnam. The city remains the financial center of the country and is the headquarters of many national and international corporations. It is the most visited city with 6.3 million foreign visitors annually.
The 20th century was tumultuous politically for Ho Chi Minh City and Vietnam as a whole. After generations of French rule, World War II triggered a takeover by the Japanese and Axis controlled Vichy French. That control then reverted to the French with American support mainly to stop the spread of communism. However, by that point much of Northern Vietnam was effectively under the control of communist forces. By 1954, an international agreement partitioned Vietnam essentially in half along what was called the 17th parallel. The communist Viet Minh forces under Ho Chi Minh governed the northern half of the country and the American supported Saigon government continued to govern the south of the country and gained full independence from France. In time, the north would invade the south in order to unify the country under one communist regime. The resulting conflict became a proxy war between capitalist and communist forces in what we know today as the Vietnam War (the Vietnamese call it the American War). The atrocities of this war are vast, and all sides endured untellable suffering. The scar of the war is still fresh, but the country is full of new generations who grew up in a unified, conflict-free country. The prosperity and upward trajectory of the nation is hard to miss. Also, it is hard to miss is the kindness, openness and unending hospitality of everyone we came into contact with. The 21st century holds a great deal of promise for Vietnam and Ho Chi Minh city is a big part of that future.
Upon arrival at our hotel, we met up with our tour group. Some familiar faces remained from Cambodia, but most of our travel companions were fresh faces. The city hums along with a bustle and energy not all too different from any of the major cities in Southeast Asia. Principally different however is the old French colonial architecture that dots the cityscape and at times brings your mind to the west. The city while foreign, carries an indescribable familiarity.
Our plan was to spend a day touring the river delta and move on the next day to Hoi An, so our time was very limited. After a short drive out of town, we embarked on small river boats in the Mekong River. We cruised along the muddy river for close to an hour, passing smiling farmers and fisherman working on the water or in the fields, many sporting a quintessential conical bamboo hat. The countryside was lush with a heavy humidity in the air. We stopped at a coconut factory for a short tour and lunch. The facility harvests coconuts for coconut oil, candy, cookies, and rope from coconut fibers. We learned how many of the goods were made and I was challenged to take a shot of alcohol made with a local snake venom. I obliged. After the tour we sat down to an elaborate lunch which included a variety of local dishes and a few amazing whole fried fish which Mandy really enjoyed and I had to refuse (thanks allergies). We were then invited to try an assortment of local fruits including Pomelo, Mangosteen, Star Apples, Lychee, and Jackfruit – all delicious. Full and tired, we returned to the city. That night we had a simple dinner of pho noodles and went to bed early. We were heading to Hoi An early the next morning.
Our time spent in Ho Chi Minh city was short but gave me us a good feel for the city. I plan on returning someday to take a much deeper dive into the food, history, culture, and main attractions. While it’s a regret that more time wasn’t spent there, I am grateful for having spent some time experiencing the city. // Jeff
Our time in and around Phnom Penh was eye opening and heartbreaking. My eyes were opened to the depth of destruction and depravity that plagued the country in the not so distant past. I had hardly known anything about the civil war and genocide in Cambodia. It brought me shame to know how little its atrocities filtered into the American psyche. After all, it is just around the corner from Vietnam which looms deeply in the American zeitgeist. Don’t get me wrong, I enjoyed my time there and the heaviness was relieved often. The Cambodian people who were nothing but kind and light hearted. But under the warm hospitality and easy smiles lurked a deep sadness, the final tremors of a long but deep mourning.
Upon leaving Siem Reap, we drove a few hours to the famed floating villages that feed into Lake Tonle Sap – Cambodia’s largest lake. The village we visited was literally on top of the water - the houses were built on forty-foot stilts. Families sleep in the humble shelter over the water while ladders carry fishermen to their boats floating below, moored to the legs of the houses. Besides the minor amount of tourism, these village economies rely heavily on fishing, the primary occupation of men in the village. The people here are very poor and brief glimpses into homes revealed spartan conditions. We boarded small motorboats and traveled along the river where dozens of houses balanced on stilts and house boats contained schools, stores, and even churches. People get from place to place on motorboats and most of life takes place on the water. After the brief tour, we boarded our bus and drove a few hours towards Phnom Penh where we spent the night in a small village a few hours drive from the city. Through an exchange program, our group spent the afternoon and evening in a small farming village. We took in a quiet stroll amongst the nearby rice paddies and watched the sunset – then retreated to the village for a home cooked meal and bed. Our host shared a little bit of his life with us and it was then that I first began piecing together the history of the devastating civil war that ravaged Cambodia.
The Cambodian Civil War ran from 1970-1975 pitting the communist forces known as the Khmer Rouge against the Kingdom of Cambodia. The Khmer Rouge received direct military assistance from North Vietnam and the Vietcong while the Kingdom of Cambodia received direct support from the United States. The war was complicated due to the influences and actions of the allies of the two warring sides. North Vietnam maintained base areas and sanctuaries in eastern Cambodia in order to pursue its military effort in South Vietnam. In response, the United States initiated a coup which resulted in the installation of a pro-American government. The North Vietnamese subsequently moved forces deeper into Cambodia and provided a great deal of support to the communist Khmer forces in capturing almost a third of the country. After defeating government forces, the North Vietnamese turned control of the territory over to the Khmer regime. In 1975, after five years of savage fighting, the government was defeated and the Khmer regime took full control of the country. The war resulted in a refugee crisis which sent two million people – more than 25 percent of the population from the rural areas into the cities – especially Phnom Penh. Rural residents were afraid of the repeated aerial bombings committed in the countryside and thus sought refuge in the city, which was safer. Phnom Penh grew from about 600,000 in 1970 to 2mm over only five years. Over 300,000 people died as a result of the war. The end of the war brought the beginning of the Cambodian Genocide.
The genocide carried out by the Khmer Rouge regime ravaged Cambodia from 1975 to 1979. It is estimated that up to 2 million people were killed – almost a quarter of the population. The Khmer Rouge wanted to turn the country into a socialist agrarian republic. Pol Pot’s (the Khmer Rouge leader) vision was to start his utopia off with a “clean slate” and endeavored to exterminate anyone with a formal education or any person carrying a semblance of loyalty to the US supported Cambodian government. Anyone with connections to the former government or with foreign governments, as well as professionals and intellectuals were targeted. Pol Pot took it so far as to target people who could read because it revealed an educated background which was not aligned with the utopia he was trying to create. A great irony as Pol Pot himself was highly educated. The end to the genocide came as a result of the Vietnamese invasion and occupation of Cambodia ending ten years later in 1989. As of 2009, over 23,000 mass graves containing approximately 1.3 million execution victims have been discovered. The entire educated class was wiped out. An entire generation was lost – and precisely the kinds of people who would have been invaluable to rebuild a war- ravaged society. This is the backdrop that all Cambodians operate within.
Once in Phnom Penh we visited the infamous killing fields. The killing fields are several sites where collectively more than a million people were killed and buried by the Khmer Rouge regime and is considered a part of the state sponsored genocide that took place in Cambodia for five years. On these grounds people were chained in the unbearable heat unknowingly awaiting their executions. To not waste bullets, most victims were poisoned or killed with sharpened bamboo sticks and palm fronds. Infants and small children were killed by having their heads bashed against the trunks of trees then thrown into mass graves alongside parents. The rationale in killing children was in order to “stop them growing up and taking revenge for their parent’s deaths.” The killing fields as they stand today are a testament to those murdered there. The area that we saw was a serene clearing amongst the trees where you walk along wooden planked paths through the site. Various plaques describe the atrocities that took place. The calm of the scene stood in stark contrast to the horror of the past, and its horrors unfurled itself before me as the day progressed. I was noticing small bones or scraps of cloth poking up through the mud and I realized we were walking over mass graves. These graves were so rampant that even after massive efforts to recover and rebury bodies, one hundred percent recovery was not possible. I then realized why we were walking over the wooden planks – a chilling moment. I walked by a tree and thousands of wrist bands were tied to the tree and nearby handrails. I learned this was the tree where so many thousands of babies were gruesomely executed. The energy weighed heavily here, and the calm serenity was a final betrayal to the horrors committed. I was utterly heartbroken. I felt like I was punched in the gut as I tried processing all that had occurred on these grounds. Completely useless killings and a waste of precious life. An entire society was chewed up and spit on the ground like so much garbage. It was that moment I understood the sadness and loss that swirled just under the surface of the kind faces that greeted me everywhere. The loss was of an entire generation – a class of people and many more that were wiped off the face of the earth leaving many children orphaned and almost no family unscathed.
Once in Phnom Penh we visited the Tuol SLeng Genocide Museum which was a former high school later converted into a security prison by the Khmer Rouge. It is estimated that over 20,000 were imprisoned here over the five-year period it operated. The buildings were enclosed in electrified barbed wire, the classrooms converted into tiny prison and torture chambers, and all windows were covered with iron bars and barbed wire to prevent escapes and suicides. Most of the classrooms were divided into small prison cells with each classroom holding twenty prisoners in impossibly small individual rooms. The prison was estimated as holding up to 1,500 prisoners at any time. Prisoners were repeatedly tortured and coerced into naming family members and close associates who were in turn arrested, tortured, and killed. The living conditions at the prison were deplorable. Prisoners were slowly starved with mere spoonfuls of food daily. Tortures occurred unceasingly until a confession was made. Once a prisoner confessed to subversive activities, they were promptly executed. In 1979, the prison was uncovered by the invading Vietnamese army and promptly turned into a museum to memorialize the atrocities committed by the Khmer Rouge regime.
The rest of our time in Phnom Penh was spent exploring the city and enjoying a river cruise and final rooftop dinner. Although the city was impressive and full of life, I just couldn’t shake the sad recent history of its brutal genocide. The resilience of the Cambodian people was visible everywhere you looked in the society. What surprised me the most was how kind and gentle the people were in their interactions with us as well as with each other. I couldn’t fathom how much bitterness must have remained after the genocide ended. It is doubtful that any Cambodian wasn’t directly affected. But despite this nightmare, or perhaps because of it, forgiveness ultimately prevailed, and the healing process began. Imagine a society where every educated adult is executed. Sitting in the killing fields almost forty years later, I realized that I was visiting a country whose oldest college educated adult would likely not be older than forty. That fact drives home the strength of the Cambodian people. The country is on an upswing, Phnom Penh is a fast-growing metropolis full of bustle and grit. By no means is Cambodia perfect, it is still rife with challenges. But given the hand it has been dealt, I am blown away by how quickly the people have rebuilt a successful society atop the ashes of an unspeakable past. // Jeff
It was a good coincidence of timing that brought Mandy and I to Cambodia after Singapore. Singapore provides a look into a modern future while Cambodia to me is a window into the past. Our time spent in Siem Reap and the surrounding area brought us to breathtakingly ornate ancient temples, dusty streets full of life and lights and a modern-day circus that not only entertains, but provides to its community.
Siem Reap is in the Northwest of Cambodia and a popular resort town due to its proximity to Angkor Wat. The city is home to both colonial and Chinese architecture in the city center. It boasts a lively nightlife with restaurants, hotels, bars, and attractions packed into a neon dense tourist area near the center of town. Our first stop of the trip was at the famed Angkor Wat, the most popular tourist attraction in Cambodia.
Angkor Wat (meaning “Temple City”) is a temple complex and one of the largest religious monuments in the world comprising 402 acres. Originally constructed in the early 12th century as a Hindu monument to the god Vishnu by the Khmer empire, it gradually transformed into a Buddhist complex over the next century. The main temple is a national symbol of Cambodia and appears on its national flag. Our tour covered both the main temple and a few of the countless secondary temples that occupy the surrounding area. These stone temples feature abundant carvings and statues of Hindu figures and gods arranged ornately on almost every surface.
We woke up early to catch the sunrise over Angkor Wat and were able to see the rambling complex in the best light and solitude. The occasional Buddhist monk was visible wandering amongst the tourists or was seated in quiet contemplation. Religious energy was thick in the air. Centuries of battering by nature caused the decay of time to unevenly discolor the stone to various blacks, greys, greens, and splotches of white. This weathering served only to deepen the impression of the façade and leave you with a notion of the strength and permanence of the structures themselves – standing immovable against the unceasing tides of time. The complex felt older than time itself and left no wonder as to why it stands as the most iconic symbol of Cambodia.
The greater Angkor temple complex includes the Bayon Temple which we toured as well that day. Built in the late 12th or early 13th century, it was used as the state temple of the then Buddhist Khmer king. This richly decorated temple contains a myriad of gigantic smiling stone faces on the numerous towers jutting out from the upper terrace and cluster around its central peak. Grass, roots, and moss grow into the temple structure and give the impression of a long lost culture just recently discovered. The gigantic faces and stone carvings drew my imagination to Indiana Jones or a gameshow of my childhood - Legends of The Hidden Temple. The setting and huge stone faces inspire thoughts of the mysticism and religion of a long time passed.
The night before we were set to leave Siem Reap, we were encouraged to go to the local circus. A circus is not typically high on the list for me, but many people had good things to say about it so we decided to give it a try, especially after we heard it was more of an acrobatics show. As we learned on arrival, the circus is a huge contributor to the children of Siem Reap and the organization that runs it, provides schooling and resources to countless kids. The organization that runs the circus, Phare Performing Social Enterprise (PPSA), was founded in 1994 by nine young Cambodian men returning home from a refugee camp after the fall of the Khmer Rouge and civil war. They offered free drawing classes to children which over time grew into a K-12 school specializing in the arts. The school provides education in visual arts, theater, music, dance, and circus. As of 2018, the school sees 1,200 students daily and 500 attend the vocational arts training programs which are all offered free of charge. The most talented students of the school are selected for the circus which perform almost daily to crowds of over three hundred. They have toured and performed all over the world and garnered international media recognition. All revenue generated from the circus goes back into the school and in effect, the community of Siem Reap. It was an inspiring example of a community providing for itself and its people. It goes beyond a typical charity to provide entertainment and a self-sufficient feedback loop whereby those who benefit from the organization go on to be gainfully employed by it and contribute the profits of their labors back into the organization. This income provides for future generations and aims to be self-funded and growing. On top of all of it, it was a great show. Incredibly talented acrobatics and a great style that wove a story into the performance alongside live music. I highly recommend it to anyone who visits Siem Reap. // Jeff
Singapore is a case study on how a country, if properly administered, can make great strides in a short period of time. I was fascinated by the story of Singapore and was excited to gain a deeper understanding of the country. It is widely known for its transition from third world to first world in a single generation.
A very small country, Singapore is more accurately described as a city-state which sits at the tip of the Malay Peninsula. The territory was founded as a British colony in 1819, a trading post for the British East India Company. It was invaded and occupied by the Japanese in WWII, then later gained independence from the UK in 1963, initially forming a nation along with Malaysia. Singapore separated from Malaysia two years later for ideological differences.
While lacking in natural resources and an abundance of territory, the economy in Singapore became very powerful over a short period. Many people credit the country’s leader Lee Kuan Yew for the rapid rise in living standards and his emphasis on economic growth, support for entrepreneurship, and tight governmental controls. The Port of Singapore became one of the world’s busiest and is still the world’s second busiest container port. Today, Singapore is a global business and tourism hub and ranked as the world’s safest country and third largest financial center. The city is one of the most expensive to live in and has the third highest GDP per capita in the world. A small country with a population of just 5.6 million, 39% of the population is foreign nationals. It is a true melting pot of race, religion, and nationality with four official languages. Its multiracialism is an important part of the country’s identity and it is known to have the highest religious diversity on the globe.
We had five nights to explore the city and do our best to see as many of the sites as possible. Julie joined us for this leg of the trip after Bali which added exponentially to the fun. We rented a small AirBnB close to the financial center, an apartment in a residential tower which offered sweeping views of the city from its rooftop deck. You could see how the city quickly changed in density amongst different neighborhoods as well as the massive and incredibly busy port that served as an engine to Singapore.
What strikes me the most about Singapore is the mix of eras, cultures, architecture, and nationalities. These elements all form an indelible tapestry that is hard to reconcile unless you see it firsthand. Old British style architecture has been maintained yet painted over with vibrant colors and artistic murals, fitting in amongst the skyscrapers dominating the landscape. In one moment, you are walking next to bankers and could be on Wall Street, then down the road around the corner you are transported to the crowds, colors, smells and language of Chinatown. Down a bit further, you are strolling through a hipster neighborhood offering twenty-dollar craft cocktails in early 20th century British buildings. Turn down the street and you are amongst the bustle of Little India and its vibrant landscape of shop owners hawking their wares to the public – inventories spilling out into the street. Each neighborhood while incredibly distinctive and independent, carried with it the same sense of safety and acceptance I have scarcely felt to the same extent elsewhere. The city is impeccably clean and the people are exceedingly kind. The diversity is what I think gives the city its greatest source of strength.
We spent our time exploring the many different neighborhoods. The first full day in town was spent in the financial center and the Marina Bay Sands Hotel where we enjoyed a great lunch with views of the city. The hotel is perched high atop three connected skyscrapers and its iconic pool allows hotel guests unrivaled views from the water. We made visits to Chinatown and Little India where we enjoyed some amazing meals including the world’s cheapest Michelin Star restaurant. We drank in the many different styles of bars and sampled a variety of cuisine from all parts of the world. We capped off the trip with “selfie lattes” and a fancy steak dinner at a restaurant called “Cut” by Wolfgang Puck. It was over the top and completely worth it. More important than what we did was who we did it with. Having Julie with us to share the experience made it all the better and a source for countless laughs and a fresh perspective on the travel experience.
When thinking back on my time in Singapore I am reminded of my first day. We were walking in an old part of the city and I was admiring a mural that depicted an 18th century Chinese street scene. I was reflecting on how great it looked against the white wall of the late 19th century building it was painted on when my eyes were drawn upwards to the impressive high-rise dominated skyline of modern Singapore. This juxtaposition of the old and new, the east and west, is a microcosm of the country and a memory I will always keep with me. We need more places like Singapore. It will make for a safer, cleaner, and much more interesting world. // Jeff
To me, Ubud is an impeccable balance of tranquility and energy. This small city is tucked in the island’s countryside and the shops, hotels, and restaurants emanate from the center of town – home to the world famous Ubud Monkey Forest. Our plan was to spend about a week in Ubud relaxing and drinking in our favorite town on our favorite island, hopefully to build a reservoir of energy from which to draw from over the course of our long Asia tour.
We rented an AirBnb in the middle of town, walking distance to most of the city. Our place came complete with two bedrooms, garden, large pool, outdoor kitchen, and an expansive view over the tree line. While Ubud is a city, it is still incredibly green and tropical. We were removed from the main street so no city sounds reached us- just the sounds of nature and the chants from the Yoga studio around the corner. I stocked up on groceries so we could stay in for a few days to catch up on some reading, work, and reflection.
On the third day a huge surprise was sprung on me. Our close friend Julie had six months prior told us that she was thinking about coming with us to Bali, but after work had become too hectic, she had to cancel. Apparently, this was just a ruse. She was planning on coming the whole time and with Mandy as her accomplice, they thought it would be fun to surprise me. I was sitting in a hammock working on my laptop when Julie walked through the gate. I was so thoroughly surprised that for a minute I didn’t realize what was going on. The first words out of my mouth were “are you crazy?!”. Once the initial shock wore off, I was elated to have her with us for the next week and a half as we continued to Singapore.
The next few days were spent seeing more of the sights. We made a visit to the Monkey Forest and walked through charming city streets. We took a long drive to the north side of the island for a temple visit and a tour of a traditional Balinese village offering a glimpse of culture and life prior to the onset of Western influence. We just happened to visit on a day when the girls of the village were performing a dance ceremony, wearing colorful traditional clothing.
In the Hindu faith of the Balinese, daily offerings of thanks are made and placed in the street. Small items like candy, cookies, cigarettes, and flowers are put in a small baskets along with lit incense to give thanks for all a person has in life. When you walk through town, these offerings litter the streets and are swept away in the evenings. I think this daily affirmation and giving of thanks makes a deep impact on the psyche and outlook of the Balinese people. A constant thankfulness pervades your attitude and way of being over time and I have no doubt it has much the same impact on a culture. Bali is full of beautiful little lessons and customs, but I think this one is built deep into the bedrock of what it is to be Balinese. You can’t walk through the street without a reminder of a conscious action taken towards gratitude.
I was so glad we could share our experience of Bali with Julie – it’s such a special place and brings me a lot of happiness to see someone else experience it for the first time. Not much has changed since the first time I visited but I get the sense that it will change overtime as it grows in popularity. I only hope that its spirit and people remain the same. It’s the gentle warmth and hospitality that keeps bringing me back there – I can’t even put my finger on it specifically. It’s a feeling. You have to go to find out. // Jeff
When traveling I often am amazed by how much I’m impacted by a trip weeks after I have left. Back in my daily routine and in familiar surroundings, the aura of a travel destination has flowered and given rise to a feeling within me. The soul of a place needs time to marinate in my mind and the various colors, sights, sounds, food, language and memories swirl together creating a rich texture. Five years ago, Mandy and I ventured to Bali and the feel I got for the small island occupied a large and deep place in my psyche. I had never felt this so strongly in previous travels and could only explain it as a reflection of the kindness and gratitude driven culture of the Balinese people. In returning to Bali five years later, I was fulfilling a promise I had made to myself to come back and dig deeper. Now older, wiser, and more traveled, I was worried that Bali would lose its luster and that it was simply my reaction to being somewhere so deeply foreign to me for the first time. Within hours, my doubts were put to rest as I settled into the warm embrace of the island.
Bali was an incredibly fitting start to our Asia adventure. A place we knew and loved allowed for us to kick the jet lag while relaxing in familiar territory. Our friend and driver Ketut picked us up from the area and took us to the town of Canggu where we would be staying for a week. We stayed in a beautiful villa complete with separate living area, huge bedroom, and courtyard with our own pool. It was a great place to relax.
Canggu is a small town outside of Seminyak which has been growing in popularity in recent years. Tourists, western expats, and locals mix together in the community and although quiet, it has plenty of places to eat and spend time within a short walk. The week was spent perusing the resorts on the island including a stop at our old favorite – Potato Head beach club. We also had a memorable lunch at Mexicola in Seminyak with a colorful design and fantastic street tacos. It was great to be back in Bali, I felt immediately at home and excited for the big trip ahead of us. // Jeff
After a great tour of the South Island and some time in Wellington, we had only two nights to spend in Auckland before we headed home. Boasting a scenic skyline and modern architecture, this city of about 1.5 million residents has some of the most expensive real estate in the world. The city is the largest in the country and as such, wields great economic power and influence in the region.
We were eager to explore, so on our first day in town we took to the city on foot, perusing the many shops and restaurants in the downtown area near our Airbnb. We stopped for some amazing burgers and shakes and felt immediately at home. The people in the city were incredibly kind and welcoming to us, not a surprise since our interactions with New Zealanders up to that point had been nothing but positive.
Our second day in town was spent on a wine tour of nearby Waiheke Island. Just a short ferry ride from downtown Auckland, Waiheke is a small island about twelve miles by six. We boarded the ferry in the morning and were able to enjoy a spectacular view of the iconic Auckland skyline on our way there. Home to about 9,500 permanent residents, Waiheke Island has dozens of vineyards and countless picturesque views from hills dotting the landscape. It has recently garnered recognition as the 5th best destination in the world by Lonely Planet and the 4th best island in the world by Conde Nast. Many residents work in Auckland and commute by ferry into the city every day, returning to the quiet small-town atmosphere in the night – the best of both worlds. We toured a handful of vineyards and enjoyed lunch from cliffs overlooking the ocean. The vineyards overflowed with green grass, flowers, big trees and each felt more pristine than the last. It undoubtedly would be a serene lifestyle to live on this small island, just a short trip out of the big city.
We wrapped up our day with a ferry ride back into the big city. As the skyline came into view and grew bigger, I realized our trip to this region of the world was coming to an end. We met kind and welcoming people, explored diverse environments, ate great food, and enjoyed vibrant and eclectic cities. The world is big, but I have to say this small corner of it carries an outsized place in my heart. // Jeff
Flying through the dense clouds Mandy and I made our final descent into New Zealand. Looking out the window, the clouds gave way to thin fog and I made out dramatic mountain peaks laid bare from the perpetual presence of ice and snow which still sparsely dotted the ridgeline. As the view cleared, down the mountain slope the bare stone transitioned to intense green that was laid out before me over the whole of the landscape. The terrain below looked untouched, not of this world. A natural wonderland full of dramatic landscapes and untainted beauty, New Zealand from first sight lived up to its reputation.
We began our short New Zealand adventure in Queenstown and the surrounding areas and the country quickly turned on its charm. Queenstown is a small city of about fifteen thousand on the South Island and is a well-known skiing and lake resort reminding me of Vail or Aspen. A perfectly manicured downtown is lined with high end boutiques, restaurants, and the occasional outdoor adventure store. It is a well known gathering place for all things outdoors. Skiing, boating, whitewater rafting, bungy jumping, mountain biking, paragliding, sky diving and fishing are all popular attractions in Queenstown which sees a large variety of tourists annually. The city is nestled on the shores of Lake Wakatipu and couldn’t have been more picturesque if dreamed up by an artist. We stayed in an Airbnb up the hill just out of town which provided sweeping views of the lake and city below. The suburbs to the city line the hills with beautiful homes and big green trees occupy almost any available space. The city is a shining example of nature and a modern city existing together in harmony.
A day trip outside of town took us on a drive along the lake in search of a good hiking spot. On our drive we spotted fields of purple flowers dotting the otherwise green landscape. They seemed to sprout from nowhere, out of place amongst a never-ending hue of blue, green, and brown. Some subsequent research revealed the flowers to be Lupins. The popular legend surrounding the flower is that the wife of a local farmer during the early settlement days decided the drab center of the South Island needed some color. So, she secretly spread seeds in the area and the plants took to the land like wildfire. While incredibly beautiful plants, they are not native species and are technically considered weeds by New Zealand’s department of conservation. A happy accident, we made many stops along the side of the road to photograph these beautiful plants that help make the landscapes that much more surreal. After a few hours of exploring we found a good hiking destination which took me up a mountain to unrivaled views of the lake and valley below.
Another day took us on a trip to Milford Sound. This Fjord carves a path deep into the South Island and a boat trip takes you through the transition from the calm freshwater river that feeds into the rough Pacific Ocean. Along the way, our boat explored the numerous waterfalls that feed into the sound, and you could peer up the foggy mountain peaks high above. The views and natural landscapes were some of the most beautiful I have ever laid my eyes on. I feel like New Zealand is what the world was ten thousand years ago.
Carefully protected by its inhabitants, the natural world here is better kept than any other place I have been in my life. The islands are physically isolated from the rest of the world and no major predators are native to New Zealand. Due to this fact, any foreign species introduced here can have devastating effects on the ecological landscape. This reality has caused the New Zealand government to be incredibly respectful towards and protective of its land. In a way, the vulnerability of nature here is what engendered the deep respect the citizens of New Zealand hold for it. All nations should really take a page out of the book here. The efforts made to preserve nature in New Zealand have insured that future generations will see the same beauty. I am starting to realize that this conservation mindset has worked into the DNA of New Zealanders. Over the course of our travels, I have made so many observations regarding the slow degradation of our Earth. It is refreshing to see an example of a country that puts so much effort in preserving its pristine landscapes. It gives me a little bit of hope for the future, especially as more people prioritize a conservation mindset. // Jeff
When you go on a road trip, the trip itself becomes part of the story. Once again, we piled into a car and tore down the left side of the road. South this time to Sydney. Leaving our friends behind in Brisbane was bittersweet but the road trip ahead took us through some of the best of Australia. Charming towns and cities line the shore almost the entire way.
The drive is about eleven hours city to city, so we decided to stop for a night in Byron Bay to break up the trip. This small hippie town is right on the water and a summer retreat for many families from the big cities. Great surf, warm weather, and a bohemian vibe attract plenty of visitors. We stayed in a small five room bed and breakfast, an early 1900’s home converted into an inn. Our place was just a short walk into town, so we decided to stroll the main street and take in the sights. The carefree attitude of the people is infectious, and I was immediately slowed down in pace - comfortable with the surroundings. The town has countless restaurants, bars, clubs, and small bohemian boutiques. It was a perfect place to spend a day window shopping. We also found a taco shop that didn’t disappoint. I would love spending a summer here – a place to lose yourself for a month or two.
Once out of Byron Bay, Sydney was still about seven hours away, so we stopped in for a night at Port Macquarie – a small blue-collar city on the water. Not much to talk about in terms of attractions there, but it gave a glimpse into what a small middle-class town in Australia was like. Kind people and a seemingly safe town free from drama. As we got closer and closer to Sydney, you could feel the transition. The pace of the drivers quickened, the roads became more crowded, and the small locally owned businesses gave way to multinational chains. The suburbs then gave way to the big city and we had arrived in Sydney, our last stop in Australia.
Sydney represents the best of what a city has to offer. Diverse both culturally and geographically, Sydney has something for everyone. Beaches to rival Rio, a dense downtown full of skyscrapers, charming old neighborhoods, and impeccably clean streets – Sydney is like San Diego, New York, and Portland combined. So diverse in terms of neighborhoods it is difficult to describe. There were times that I felt like I was in a small town and others when the only reason I didn’t think I was in Manhattan was because of the kindness of passers-by and the unmistakable Aussie accent.
The largest city in Australia and the financial capital of the country, Sydney is arguably the most important city in the country and the highlight of the trip for me. We stayed in a small Airbnb in the Redfern neighborhood. About a twenty-five-minute walk to the CBD, Redfern is an old eclectic neighborhood, most of its buildings constructed in the early 1900’s. Full of street art, coffee shops, and tall shady trees, this walkable neighborhood feels like the very definition of urban renewal. Repurposed buildings line the streets, and youthful upwardly mobile residents rush from one place to the next. It was a great neighborhood to feel connected to the lifeblood of the city center.
We spent our time in Sydney eating the delicious food, walking the Harbour Bridge, marveling at the Opera house, and people watching at Bondi & Manly Beach. We visited museums, took ferries, and wandered the neighborhoods. We window shopped, actually-shopped, and imagined how easy and fun a life here would be. Sydney is one of the best cities I have ever visited. It has everything a big city has to offer but somehow manages not to feel too big – probably because the citizens don’t lose the Australian style kindness I have grown so fond of.
New South Wales was the best saved for last. The small towns along the coast and the big city. A long road trip and the excitement of urban living. We enjoyed some of the best food, views, neighborhoods, and towns in Australia. I already miss it. // Jeff
Queensland represents a huge and diverse territory within Australia and our experience there was a great mix of both nature, the city life, and time with friends. Queensland comprises the territory in the northeast of Australia and was originally settled by Europeans in 1824 as a penal colony. Brisbane is the capital and largest city in the state with another draw being the Great Barrier Reef located closest to Cairnes.
Our trip started with a flight from Melbourne to Cairnes where we spent a few days prior to flying down to Brisbane. We stayed in a small resort about thirty minutes outside of town right along the water. Each room was a separate bungalow in the jungle. The hotel had a nice restaurant and impeccably maintained grounds as well as a small bar on the beach overlooking the ocean. It was the perfect mix of feeling immersed in the jungle but at the same time close to the essentials. We spotted lizards, parrots, wallabies and saw signs of wildlife everywhere. In the evenings we sat on the beach and over a bottle of wine and food, watched the sunset while the local bats made their evening commute across the sky. I have never seen bats this big in my life - bodies the size of small dogs with enormous wingspans. I could not believe how big they were - an immediate reminder that I was on a new continent. Wildlife in many ways has evolved differently in Australia and as such, the sizes, shapes, and forms that wildlife takes can seem out of this world.
On our second day in Cairnes we spent an amazing time out on the water snorkeling the area and exploring the Great Barrier Reef. The trip was well organized, and there was a good abundance of wildlife. I will say though that for me it didn’t live up to its reputation. As we have all been hearing the last few years, environmental stresses have caused a lot of the coral and wildlife to die. I would also say that the water was not as clear as I had seen in Fiji. Such a consistent theme of our travels has been the impact of humanity on the natural environment. Australia was no different and for a country that is as socially responsible as Australia, it was sad to see that even Australia could not avoid the negative impacts of pollution and global warming. The experience was fun but also left me a little bit affected. Our society is irreparably damaging the environment. While it remains to be seen if we are hurtling towards our doom, I can say without equivocation that our activities are impacting future generations that will not be able to enjoy the same kind of natural beauty currently available to us. I am sure to be part of the problem and can absolutely act in a way that reduces my carbon footprint, but at the end of the day there is a lingering sense of helplessness in all of it.
On our third day we boarded a plane to Brisbane. On a previous trip to Antarctica, we made friends with a Queenslander named Bernadette and Wendy, a New Yorker. It just so happened that during our trip to Australia, Wendy was in Brisbane, so Bern invited us to stay at her home along with Wendy for a few days. The two were waiting for us when we got off the plane and we drove straight to a sanctuary for the many animals unique to Australia. Mandy had a true bucket list moment that afternoon when she held a koala in her arms and fed a group of wallabies. I saw my first Tasmanian Devil in the flesh and got more out of the park than most kids.
The next few days were spent going on small excursions outside of town, hanging out at the house and with a few trips downtown. Bern was incredibly generous and kind in allowing us to stay with her. She lives in a beautiful home just minutes from downtown Brisbane. The house came complete with a pool, big backyard, and a white cockatoo named Oscar who did not hesitate to let you know he needed some attention. I especially enjoyed picking wine and champagne from Bern’s cellar for lunch and dinner. She has an affinity for champagne and I was honored to help her enjoy it.
Brisbane has a beautiful and modern downtown and feels like a small city even though it boasts all the attractions of a big one. It also has one of the best nighttime skylines I have ever seen with many of the skyscrapers dotting the night horizon with unique colored light schemes. Its many modern skyscrapers make downtown look like it has grown quite a bit in the last few years. I would have to admit that we didn’t spend as much time as we normally would be exploring because we were so caught up spending time with Wendy and Bern. It was a pleasant change of pace to hang around the house, cook big meals, and spend time with one another. When on the go and traveling, so much emphasis is put on doing things, seeing things, and checking sites off the list that the normal human interaction often gets left by the wayside. With Bern and Wendy there, we had more of a reason to stay in then go out. I often forget how social we are when we are on these long trips. But as soon as we are spending time with friends, we get so caught up in the moment that we often fail in seeing and doing everything we had planned for. I have no regrets because the spaces in-between are sometimes the cause for the best memories and most meaningful moments.
On our last day, Wendy, Mandy and I drove about 90 minutes out of town to a nature preserve where a hiking path was carved through dense forest, and small footbridges were constructed high up in the dense tree canopies. At this height, you could experience the wilderness from the perspective of the wildlife in the canopies. The preserve is famous for birds that are taught to land on your head and shoulders for photos in exchange for food. We did a poor job of listening to this description so when we first arrived, we confused their friendliness for hostility and thought the birds were attacking us. It must have been a hilarious scene to watch with the three of us screaming and scattering as we ran away from what we thought was a vicious coordinated attack. I will never forget hearing laughter ring out from guests sitting about fifty yards away watching the scene unfold from their hotel balcony.
Wendy used to work for Court TV and on our drive back, she told us about some of the cases she covered. We also heard stories regarding the characters she worked with over the course of her career as producer, reporter, and personal assistant. Wendy has an incredibly dry sense of humor and every day we spent with her was full of laughter. We finished our last night with a barbeque Bern held for the top employees of her company. Bern is an entrepreneur and over the course of her career has built a very successful business. Watching her interact with employees gave me an exposure to other sides of her life I had not seen before. It was impressive to hear what she had accomplished and to sense the respect for her that her employees carried.
Our time in Queensland was split between two completely different experiences. On one hand, the nature and the beauty it had to offer and on the other, a stunning city and quality time spent with friends. The diversity of our time here is very indicative of Queensland itself. Although you may be drawn there by the natural beauty, you stay longer because of the people. I really hope to return soon, there is so much more to see. // Jeff
The best initial foray into Australia was in visiting Victoria. Within the first few days, we got a taste for the e forests, drove on the wrong side of the road, saw some kangaroos, and visited one of the country’s largest cities. It was in Victoria where we got our first taste of the warm nature of Australians in both the big cities and the small towns. Australia possesses so many similarities to the US, it almost feels like home. But as soon as you are lulled into a false sense of familiarity, a crazy animal, custom, food, or accent will snap you back to the reality that you are in a much different place.
Our trip began when we landed in Sydney where we immediately rented a car and began driving south towards Melbourne. This is about a two-day drive and we thought it would be a good opportunity to learn driving on the other side of the road and for enjoying the natural scenery. When telling locals about our plan, we encountered puzzled looks and exclamations that many had never driven that stretch of highway in the past – they mostly flew. Did we make a huge mistake? The thought did cross our minds as we left the suburbs of Sydney and began our drive through the more remote forests along the highway. By the third hour on the road, the towns began to be fewer and further between as did the traffic. But every thirty miles or so we passed through a small quaint town and were reassured in our plan. The scenery was gorgeous and stretched out ahead of us, along the highway were seemingly endless eucalyptus forests and the occasional view of kangaroos grazing in a distant field.
Our first day took us about seven hours of road time and we ended our day in a tiny town about halfway to Melbourne called Gypsy Point. We settled in for the night at the Gypsy Point Lodge and enjoyed a meal cooked by the in-house chef and owner. The lodge was about seven rooms tucked deep into the wilderness and our host was a friendly Australian whose accent was so thick, you could scarcely make out what he was saying. Not at all like the Australian accents I had heard before, his country version was much more mumbled and the vocabulary even more indiscernible. We spent two nights in Gypsy Point and on our first full day we explored the area, went for a very short hike, then borrowed the lodge kayak for a ride along the Genoa River. It was a beautiful, crowd free day spent in nature. With a free day off at Gypsy Point, our batteries were recharged for the long drive to Melbourne the next day.
Melbourne is the second largest city in Australia with a population of just under five million. Originally founded by British free settlers in 1835, it was named Melbourne in honor of the British Prime Minister of the time. By the 1850’s it had turned into one of the world’s largest and wealthiest cities because of a large gold rush and still houses superb examples of Victorian architecture. Today it is referred to as Australia’s cultural capital and is a large trade hub for the Asia Pacific region as well as a major financial centre.
Our stay took us to St. Kilda, which is a small neighborhood on the coast in central Melbourne. It was a posh neighborhood of the elite during the Victorian era and as such, contains palatial historic homes and buildings. The area is now more of a bohemian neighborhood in a tug of war between gentrification and return to the red light district and rooming house feel of the 1960’s. Colorful and full of life, this neighborhood is home to countless bars, restaurants, shops, and cultural attractions. It was an ideal location to stay for a few nights and become acquainted with the rest of Melbourne.
On our first night we met up with our friend Lauren who lives in Melbourne for a great dinner and night on the town. We met her over the course of our travels in Ecuador and we promised to meet up when we were in Australia. I am so glad that we did – it was fun to catch up and learn more about life in the city. She is a social worker and taught us about the welfare system in Australia and the resources available to the disadvantaged. It was also in talking to her that we learned about the current dilemma that faces the native Aboriginal population and how striking those similarities are with the Native American population in the US. I was shocked to hear how strong the welfare system is and how many more opportunities are available to disadvantaged people in Australia vs the US. We spent the last full day in Melbourne walking the nearby neighborhoods and enjoying all the food the city had to offer. The Asian cuisine is particularly good all over Australia and we encountered a phenomenal ramen bar a close walk to where we were staying.
The bohemian vibe of the city can be felt in many of the adjacent neighborhoods to St. Kilda. The physical backdrop of buildings built in the 1800’s and early 1900’s create a great backdrop for well designed interiors, street art, and the colorful variety that can be seen on every corner. The word that comes to mind for me when thinking about Melbourne is color. It is seen in the buildings, in the streets, the food, and the people. It is a city that marches to the beat of its own drum and has a deep respect for its past. Victoria is as diverse as it is large. In just under six days we encountered such immense diversity it made the trip feel like two weeks. Road trip, nature walk, city tour, and cultural experience - Victoria had a lot to offer us. It is no surprise why so many people fondly call it home. // Jeff
It has been said that the spirit of the people in a region conforms to the landscape they live in. The weather, neighbors, resources, and terrain serve to influence a way of life and thus an attitude towards it. Fiji to me is the best example of this concept. The warm welcoming weather and crystal-clear waters of Fiji mirrors the warmth, sincere kindness, and hospitality exuded by its people. Fiji was the first stop on our journey to Australia and later New Zealand. It was a terrific opportunity to unwind, adjust to a new time zone, and ease into the trip ahead of us.
Fiji is an archipelago of over 330 islands in the South Pacific. This tropical country sits 1,100 miles northeast of New Zealand and has close ties to England as a former English Colony since 1874, only recently becoming independent in 1970. Europeans first visited Fiji in the 17th century and were drawn to the island by its natural resources and strategic location as a shipping stopover to and from Asia. The population of just under 900,000 is predominantly native but over one third of the population is Indian in origin. Indians were brought over in large numbers during the late 1800s to work as indentured laborers in the sugarcane fields. Many chose not to return home at the end of their work contracts due to the exorbitant cost and effort. The island is now one of the most developed economies in the South Pacific due to its abundance of forest, mineral, and fish resources as well as its robust tourism and sugar industries. While 110 of the islands hold permanent residents, a majority live on one of two major islands, Viti Levu and Vanua Levu.
Our arrival in Fiji was a bit rocky to begin with. Our bags missed the connection from California and did not arrive. Given that it was the beginning of a long trip and we were completely without any clothes or supplies, it was a stress. Compounded with the fact that the airline never confirmed the possession or whereabouts of our bags, our stress morphed into frustration. Through those first few days, the staff in our hotel were incredibly kind, helpful, caring, and thoughtful. We immediately felt like there was something special about the people in this country and this suspicion grew as the trip wore on. In dealing with or hearing of the ordeal with our luggage, staff who we barely interacted with, would stop us days later to ask how we were doing and if our luggage was recovered. There was truly no need for the interest or empathy, but it is part of the DNA here. Luckily, after three days and countless hours on the phone with customer service, our bags arrived and we were able to breathe a sigh of relief.
We spent a clear and warm day out on the water snorkeling and exploring some of the many islands and reefs of the country. Unbelievably clear water, an abundance of ocean life, and interesting people on the excursion made for an enjoyable day. The following day was spent on “Cloud 9” – a floating bar way out in the middle of the ocean. Cloud 9 floats about a thirty-minute speedboat ride from shore and had a fully stocked bar, pizza oven, and a second story platform to jump into the clear water below. On our ferry to Cloud 9, we met Tony and Paul, a couple from London on vacation in Fiji and Australia. They were incredibly funny, kind, and fun to hang out with so we decided to spend the day with them. Paul really enjoyed the diving platform so he had Mandy film him for a few headfirst twenty-foot dives. On what was supposed to be his last dive, Paul dislocated his shoulder on impact with the water. The pain caused him to pass out as soon as he got back on the bar but after a few minutes he was in more stable condition aside from a lot of pain. Mandy felt awful since she was encouraging the dives and filming it from below and even more so when we found out he would be needing surgery. But Paul was an incredibly good sport and took the injury in stride. I have never seen someone have as good of an attitude in the face of a tough situation as Paul and I think of it as an example of how attitude can make any dire situation a little better. In the coming weeks we found out that Paul and Tony were able to continue their travels in Australia and in fact had their trip extended. The universe really looked out for them in the end.
We spent our last full day hanging out and relaxing by the pool trying to adjust to the new time zone. Our hotel was perfect for lazy days and we enjoyed the rest of our time on the property. Whether interacting with staff at the hotel, on an excursion, or the people passing us by on the street, the people of Fiji have a warmth that you can sense almost immediately. They truly care about those they interact with and the hospitality I felt was unlike anywhere I have ever been. It felt like being treated like family. The Fijian people look into you as opposed to at you. This is surprising given how many tourists flock to the country annually and how jaded most locals would be from any other country in a comparable situation. I think it is a real testament to the kind hearts present in this country. Although far away, in my mind Fiji is incredibly easy to visit because the spirit of hospitality makes the journey a little easier. I plan on returning to this small country someday and hope that the kindness doesn’t dull – I doubt it will… // Jeff
An old city perched along steep hills, the neighborhoods are connected by bridges and trolleys, traversing centuries old intersections carrying passengers to views of the Atlantic and new world. Lisbon is one of the launching pads that discovered vast and foreign lands. It is also the center of a vibrant night life, a burgeoning food scene, and holds an abundance of charm. Our time in Lisbon was much too short, but it was a perfect way to cap off a once in a lifetime European tour.
It is a colorful city both in terms of building façade and people. The people are animated and friendly, and the buildings vary greatly in color, cleanliness, and state of repair. However grubby the city may be on the surface, under the initial layer of film lies ornate architecture, incredible scenery, and the feeling of substance and history at every turn. You can tell it is an important city whose citizens have impacted the world even though it may not be as polished and trimmed as its counterparts. In some ways the edginess of the city enamors you with it even more because its rough exterior exists in sharp contrast to its rich warmth – a reward for investigating deeper.
Lisbon is the capital and largest city of Portugal. Its population of three million sits on Portugal’s west coast fronting the Atlantic Ocean at the mouth of the river Tagus. It is a major economic center and one of the largest container ports in Europe. The birth of Lisbon predates the likes of London, Paris, and Rome and is known to be one of the oldest cities in the world. Since the 1100’s it has been the center of economic and political life in Portugal. Its more recent nickname “Little San Francisco” gives homage to its similarity of hills, bridges, architecture, and trolleys.
Our time with Jesse and Chelci was starting to wind down and when we arrived in Lisbon and it was their last night. We decided to cap off the trip with drinks and dinner. Our apartment was at the top of a very steep hill serviced by an iconic yellow trolley and was quite the tourist draw. By nightfall, the street in front of our apartment was packed with partygoers drinking and smoking. In Lisbon, it feels like anything goes. The nightlife occupies the bars, clubs, and the streets themselves in an unabashedly laissez-faire environment. There were police here and there and I was surprised how they pretty much kept their distance and let people do what they wanted. They seemed to be there in case of emergencies but weren’t trying to write people tickets or get in anyone’s business. It was a huge contrast in comparison to the US. By the end of the night we were exhausted and headed home, waking hours later to say our goodbyes early the next morning.
We spent our last full day in Portugal just outside of Lisbon in Sintra. Sintra is a Romanticist castle outside of town. Sitting atop a hill, it is a well known national monument in Portugal and constitutes one of the major expressions of the 19th Century Romanticism in the world. The castle was originally built in the Middle Ages as a monastery, but later redesigned in 1854 standing today a World Heritage Site. Until being turned over to the public as a museum in 1910, it served as a summer palace for the Portuguese royal family. King Ferdinand II commissioned the redesign and bought up the surrounding land. In the surrounding area he planted extensive and dense gardens that stand today and feel more like wilderness that a man’s creation. The sheer amount of what was planted actually created a microclimate,. The vast gardens stand as a reminder of how much change man can make to the surrounding environment.
Sintra is well known for its vibrant colors and varied examples of architecture. Medieval and Islamic elements mix with the likes of German castles you could find on the Rhine. This intentional mixture of eclectic styles is what Romanticism is known for. Mixing Neo-Gothic, Neo-Islamic, and Neo-Renaissance architecture into a new eclectic identity has the intended effect of a whimsical experience that carries your imagination to past great eras in history. I have never seen a castle built in this style and its position high on a hill made for great photos and exploration of the many halls and viewpoints.
Lisbon was a highlight and a city that seems to grow in importance as time passes. For me, the memory of a place can evolve over time as you process the experience, layers of sensations and impressions left behind. Lisbon is seared into my memory as a city to be explored slowly, intensely and not at a distance. It is not the major sites, or tourist attractions that make Lisbon interesting, it is the side streets, the neighborhood bars, and the locals that my mind wanders to when thinking back. The interplay of grunge and prominence are everywhere in Lisbon, it takes just the smallest bit of scratching below the surface to reveal its enduring greatness. // Jeff
Perched on hillsides overlooking the Douro River emptying into the Atlantic Ocean, Porto stands awash in grime and history. When thinking back on my time in Porto, the idea of beautiful decay comes to mind. The city came into its own during Portugal’s boom years and has remained largely unchanged since. After its climax, the city has begun to crumble and succumb to layers upon layers of messiness, street art, and new building facades. This urban erosion has created a new and unique beauty and identity to the city that I thoroughly loved. It is a feast for the eyes as Art Deco and Art Nouveau architecture are interwoven amongst the sunlit cobblestone streets, overgrown city gardens, ubiquitous palm trees, and multicolored patterned tiles clinging to every building.
Portugal at one time lorded over a vast maritime empire that stretched halfway around the world. Its size was greatly eclipsed by its power and wealth. Nowadays it is a small and beautiful country that has left an indelible mark on the rest of the world. Porto is the second largest city in the country with a population of 2.4 million. Located in Northwest Portugal on the coast, Porto was and remains an important port city. Its beauty in architecture is admired by many and the historic city center is protected as a UNESCO World Heritage site for its varied and numerous examples of 18th, 19th, and early 20th century architecture.
Chelci, Jesse, Mandy, and I spent three days in Porto and it became a welcome introduction to a city I deeply hope to explore further in the future. We stayed in a loft style Airbnb near the famed Clerigos Tower close to the city center, halfway up the hill paved with century old sidewalks. The walk into the city center down the hill from the apartment provided a sweeping view of Porto and revealed the diversity of color and style woven into the tapestry of the mid-rise buildings. Pinks, yellows, blues, greens, and any number of colors wrapped buildings topped with red clay tile roofs perched over the water. The city for me was a sensory overload – details were everywhere. So much was packed into every building - architectural pop outs, rich colors, graffiti, posters, or simply the shops inside the buildings. The streets were crowded as well as worn and dirty from centuries of use.
Our time spent in Porto consisted of walking the streets, climbing the many hills, and taking countless photos. We visited the bookstore which inspired the library at Hogwart’s from Harry Potter, walked through a few public gardens, and admired the cathedrals and train station. We finished our long first day in town with a dinner atop a hill with views of the city lights and a night on the town. The following day was Chelci’s birthday which we celebrated by taking a wine tour of the surrounding Douro Valley which is world famous for its Port dessert wines. While the tour was not quite what we expected, we still made the best of it, had a lot of laughs, and enjoyed the day.
I am so glad we got to share in the experience of Porto with Jesse & Chelci – it is a very special city because it owns a unique vibe and identity. The fact that we experienced Porto for the first time with each other made it all the better. Porto for me is a notable example of the beauty in decay. The grunge, layers, and worn-down nature of the city give it a unique identity and is a reminder that imperfection, asymmetry, and variation can contribute to beauty just as much as their counterparts can and often in a more evocative way. // Jeff
Towering stone cathedrals, building facades untouched in centuries, meandering cobblestone streets, Salamanca is a time capsule. The city is nestled amongst the rolling green countryside northwest of Madrid, a tribute to the power that the Catholic church held over Spain. In many ways, this window into its Catholicism dominated past reminds me how much the church shaped the world as we know it- its teachings and dogma sweeping across Europe and down through the Americas. Mandy, Jesse, Chelci, and I had three days to explore this famed city and enjoy as much as we could of what it had to offer.
Salamanca is a small city of about 228,000 residents. It is best known for the Universidad de Salamanca which dates to the 1100’s making it the oldest university in Spain and the fourth oldest University in the west. Today, the University is home to 30,000 students which along with tourism, is the primary economic driver in the city. The famed Old Cathedral and New Cathedral dominate the skyline, and almost every street is lined with one form or another of church, cathedral, convent, monastery, or hermitage. The city leaves signs of its Catholic heritage almost everywhere and is a testament to the dominant role once played by the church over Spain.
There is a youthful energy perceptible everywhere. Students are present in every shop, restaurant, street, and bar. You can tell this city welcomes students from all over the world and as I passed groups of young people my ear would pick up a variety of languages. It feels good to be around so much lively energy, and amidst the backdrop of such history-filled scenery, it reminds me of the continuity of life and culture. The passing of traditions and knowledge over the centuries causing the unceasing changes and advancement of society is ever more apparent when perceived next to living relics of the past. The world here has evolved around the unvarying cathedrals and old city.
Our time in Salamanca was well spent. We explored the cathedrals and learned about their history and development. We walked the streets looking for (and finding) the next great restaurant. We enjoyed cocktails on more than one occasion at The Doctor- our favorite cocktail bar. We window shopped near the Plaza Mayor. We explored a majority of the old city and got a taste for what life would be like there as a college student. The city is small enough to see quite a bit of in a few short days, and we hit its highlights with gusto. Lucky enough to see the city at the beginning of a weekend, we got a taste for the nightlife here and had a few late nights – it was a blast. Most importantly, we had plenty of time to catch up with our friends. They are an infinite source of good laughs, great conversation, and an infectiously positive energy. // Jeff
Madrid and Bilbao represent some of the best of what Spain offers in terms of culture, architecture, and history. It is also the backdrop to our reuniting with close friends. Madrid, the capital and largest city of Spain is at the center of Spanish power and history. One of Europe’s great cities, Madrid has countless attractions and historical landmarks. Given our very short time in Madrid, and previous trips there, we focused our time catching up with old friends.
After saying our goodbyes to John in Barcelona, we took a train to Madrid and stayed in an apartment near the Plaza Mayor - a great central location within the city. We settled in, then ventured out to neighboring Alcala de Henares where we met up with our friends Ana and Juanjo. Ana was Mandy's host sister when she lived in Spain ten years ago in a college study abroad program and Juanjo is Ana’s long-time boyfriend. I had met both before on a previous trip to Spain and they were always incredibly generous, kind, and fun. We met them at their new apartment for a quick tour of their renovation, then we headed off to Ana’s family home a few blocks away. We were greeted by Ana’s parents, younger brother and later by their friends Bea, Adri, and their newborn son. We enjoyed a great dinner there and caught up on each other’s lives. A big topic of discussion that night was Barcelona and the Catalonian independence movement. It was interesting to get their side of the debate in opposition to independence and it gave me a true understanding of the rivalry that exists between these two regions. We said our goodbyes, and Ana and Juanjo ventured back into Madrid with us to enjoy a night out on the town.
For those of you who don’t know, Spain is famed for its wild nightlife with clubs roaring well into the early morning. Most don’t even go to the bars until midnight and they don’t kick into high gear until two or three in the morning. We decided on a more “relaxed” night out so we walked a few blocks from our apartment to a bar district but were assured this was a more chill bar district than others. While likely tame by Spanish standards, the bar we chose ended up bursting at the seams with guests by 3am. It was a great time. We danced all night and screamed to each other in Spanish (mine broken) over the unbelievably loud music. I probably understood half of what was said to me and I would imagine our friends understood much less of what I said. We left at four in the morning as the bar showed no signs of slowing down. We were in bed by 5 am and crammed in a whopping two hours of sleep before our friends from Chelci and Jesse arrived at our doorstep, all the way from Phoenix.
Chelci and Jesse are our very close friends who were to spend the next two weeks with us venturing through Spain and Portugal. They had just completed a day and a half of travel by the time they arrived, so it was sort of fitting we were also running on almost no sleep and were a bit hungover. The six of us decided to explore Madrid for the few hours we had before our train to Bilbao. We walked the Plaza Mayor, explored an open-air market where we bought coffee and some breakfast and took in some of the sights. We then said our goodbyes to Ana & Juanjo to board our train to Bilbao.
Bilbao is the largest city in northern Spain with a population of around 350,000 and one million in the greater metropolitan area. It is located near France’s southwest border with Spain. Like Catalonia, this region has a distinct and independent minded culture and identity. The city is the de-facto capital of what is known as the Basque Country which possesses its own unique history and language known as Euskara. The language Euskara is linguistically separate from any other European language and completely isolated from any known language. Its origin is one of the great mysteries of Europe and it is theorized that it predates the arrival of the romance languages that now dominate the continent.
The Basque region encompasses both France and Spain and is quite close to Bordeaux. In fact, while in Bordeaux I noticed a few Basque cultural organizations in action attracting crowds of men dressed in traditional clothes with green berets speaking in an unknown language I now realize was Euskara. The Basque country in Spain governs somewhat autonomously from the rest of the country but has historically pushed for full independence. This independence movement was particularly nasty in the past with its most radical group ETA, carrying out terrorist attacks for years on the Spanish government with numerous bombings annually, ending finally in 2010.
Our first night in Bilbao was spent enjoying a quick dinner and drinks at a small gin bar. We came to find out that the region is well known for gin cocktails and the bartenders served up some of the best gin and tonics I have ever had. It was dead in town that evening since it was a Sunday, but we talked the bartenders into staying open a bit longer than normal for us. Due to the excitement of the trip ahead, we decided to celebrate with more than our fair share of cocktails. We finished our night excited for exploring the city and the Guggenheim Museum the following day.
Bilbao is now most known for the architectural masterpiece that is the Guggenheim Museum – one of the largest museums in Spain. This museum of modern and contemporary art was designed by famed architect Frank Gehry and put into service in 1997. It is widely considered the most important architectural work in the world completed since 1980. The expansive structure is perched along the Nervion River in the center of town. Its façade consists of curved titanium panels, steel, and glass combining to form an organic yet surreal structure. The interior is designed around a light filled atrium and while filled with important artistic works, is an exhibit unto itself that overshadows much of work that it houses.
We spent the better part of a day exploring the museum. It was almost therapeutic walking the various sections of the building and climbing up the levels of the museum to the top. The natural light created the impression of being outdoors and the exhibit space flowed exceptionally well from section to section. While very crowded, the space created a sense of serenity and lessened the impact of the crowds. You could really feel the amount of thought and attention that was put into the museum design and must be one of the most amazing buildings I have ever visited.
The rainy weather in town prevented as much exploring as we would have liked, but I came away from my time in Bilbao as well spent. It is not every day you see a modern architectural marvel, and I am exceptionally happy I had the opportunity to see it. In the span of three days we visited two very different yet important cities in Spain. It cemented in my mind the fractured nature of Spain. A mixture of distinct cultures, identities, and languages, it has united to form a nation. The more time I spend in Spain, the more deeply I realize how complex and sometimes opposed these identities and interests are. I personally have a lot more to learn about Spain, but my time in the country thus far has inspired in me a desire to come to a more complete understanding of the complicated Spanish identity. // Jeff
A city in its own league, Barcelona grasps an identity wholly separate from the rest of Spain and it has done so for generations. Our time spent in this city opened my eyes to the disjointed fabric of Spanish society which I had not fully comprehended in the past. The various geographic identities in Spain run deeper than cultural differences and give rise to both challenges and opportunities for the nation. The unique identity of Barcelona manifests itself across a spectrum of mediums – architecture, food, language, economics, and worldview, to name a few. It is this identity that has given rise to some of the greatest and most unique expressions of humanity Europe has to offer.
Barcelona holds a population of about 1.6mm within the city limits and a total of 4.7mm in the greater metropolitan area. As the second largest city in Spain, it wields a great deal of power and influence. The city was founded in the Middle Ages and is now known as one of the worlds leading tourist, economic, trade, and cultural centers. It is the 4th most economically powerful city in Europe with a GDP of 177 billion and is one of Europe’s busiest seaports- a source for massive international business and trade. Barcelona carries the highest employment rate in all of Spain, which has seen heavy economic hardships in the last decade. The rest of Spain has been suffering as Barcelona has begun to flourish which has stoked the rivalry and tensions between it and Madrid – Spain’s main sphere of political power and influence. In many ways it is the commerce capital of Spain while Madrid is the political capital, as New York is to Washington, D.C.. Principally different however, is the Catalonian identity which is wholly independent from that of the rest of the country.
Mandy, John, and I arrived in Barcelona for ten days of rest and relaxation after quite a bit of moving around. It was great to stay in one place for a while and get a better feel for where we were. We stayed in an Airbnb very close to Gaudi’s Parc Guell - in an old and crumbling apartment occupied by many elderly people who tirelessly climbed home from the surrounding hilly streets. John, as an architect, took particular interest in Gaudi and some of the prominent architects of the city. We toured Gaudi’s masterpieces including Parc Guell, the Sagrada Familia, and some of his apartments in the city as well as other major architectural masterpieces such as Montaner’s Palau de la Musica Catalana. The architecture in this city is comparable to no other and the avant-garde style of Gaudi makes a quick impression on its audience. Gaudi’s use of organic shapes and off the wall details, creates the impression of structures from an alien world while at the same time creating a sense of harmony with the natural world. The Palau de la Musica Catalana, designed by Montaner, reveals that Gaudi was one of a school of architects with a similar style and mindset. This style was reflective of the boom the area felt in the late 18th century and represents the hopefulness and progressive attitudes of the industrial revolution. It was fascinating for me to observe John interact with the architectural spaces and I learned a lot from what he noticed and reacted to.
We spent our nights eating at Mala Hierba, a nearby restaurant which served up an amazing and everchanging menu or strolling Las Ramblas – Barcelona’s main tourist district which holds an almost never-ending array of restaurants and shops. We also happened to cross paths with some old friends from college, Reilly and Daniel, for an amazing dinner.
At the end of each day, we retired to our apartment and at 10pm sharp, the entire city would erupt with the sounds of locals leaning out their windows and furiously banging pots and pans with spoons. This would last about ten minutes or so as a sign of solidarity with the then climaxing Catalonian independence movement. Catalonia can be described as an autonomous area of northeast Spain with France and Andorra bordering it to the north, the Mediterranean Sea to the east and Aragon and Valencia to the south and west. Most of the regions power and money is centered in Barcelona. The regions official language is Catalonian, holding elements of Spanish and French. The area has a lot of cultural and historical influences from France but is fiercely independent. The region has maintained an independent identity from Spain and has had a trajectory independent from the rest of the country. This independence streak was credited for a major economic and architectural renaissance in the late 19th and early 20th centuries as well as the boom that is occurring in the area today. This independence streak most recently came to a head in late 2017 with a referendum revealing majority support for full separation from Spain. This referendum was met with fierce Spanish resistance and the media covered tense and raucous protests in the streets of Barcelona. Our experience of this tense time was limited to the nightly pot panging and abundance of Catalonian flags and “Si” posters in apartment windows. We did not see the protests, but we did feel the intensity in the air. The independence movement was ultimately squelched, but the period of tension was a window into a longstanding conflict.
My impression of Barcelona is impossible to separate from the Catalonian independence movement. This unique identity with dashes of France and Spain have created amazing architectural masterpieces, a separate language, and a culture that combines an appreciation for the good things in life with an industriousness reflective of the mercantile history that brought the city to prominence. It is both beach town and metropolis, culinary district and nightlife mecca, living museum and evolving city. This separate identity has taken great aspects of Spain and leveraged them in a unique way, drawing people from all over to admire its beauty and revel in its uniqueness. It is its independent attitude that has led to great works of art and innovation for generations. I feel its position of being both Spanish and Catalonian will continue to play to its advantage in years to come. As our world evolves, Barcelona will evolve in lockstep. Its independence streak encourages original thought and risk taking beyond the slower paced traditional mindset that exists elsewhere in the country. // Jeff
Its reputation precedes it like almost no other great city in the world. Paris captures the imagination and rightly so. It is the embodiment of life's simple pleasures. The city of love, food, wine, art, and culture. Excellence is rare and worth seeking out in any part of the world – even Paris of course. However, what strikes me the most about Paris is that even the ordinary things- the bread in the local café, the wine at the corner bistro, or the architecture and beauty of the buildings off a main road are excellent too. It is this excellence of a ubiquitous nature that makes Paris so special for me. Perhaps we can all take a lesson from Paris by raising our standards - of being excellent in small and everyday ways. Perhaps the result will be rewarding and we can occupy a special place in the minds of many – just like Paris does.
The city is large and bustling with strict building codes limiting styles and building heights to conform to the look Paris has had for hundreds of years. While still maintaining a homage to the past, it is the home to countless iconic buildings and symbols both historic and contemporary. The Eiffel Tower, Louvre, Sacre-Coeur, Notre Dame, Arc de Triomphe, Pompideaux – it has flawlessly managed to still progress forward while at the same time reflecting its past. Much of Europe has been in one way or another physically affected by the second World War but while the Germans were destroying Catherine’s Place in St. Petersburg, they still held respect for the many historic buildings and sacred areas of Paris. With its historic nature intact and the fact that preservation and zoning laws ran tightly, it is a major city that has been largely left unchanged for hundreds of years. Then and now, people from all over the world hold a profound respect for Paris.
While the historic city center holds 2.2mm, the greater Paris metro area is home to over 12mm. This equates to almost 20% of the population of France and makes it one of the most important economic hubs in Europe. With its vast collection of museums, a large fashion district, and ever growing culinary scene, it is considered the cultural capital of Europe, maybe even all of the western world. While a bustling big city, it also reflects a slower pace than one would expect. People enjoy life a little more here, take more time for themselves, their friends, and their family. People savor their food longer here, walk a little slower, and pay attention to the details.
Our days in Paris were spent doing what you should do when you go to Paris. Eating well, shopping, touring museums, drinking wine, and walking a lot to take in beautiful views. Some of these views were picture-worthy like the Eiffel Tower lighting up after sunset, while others will paint a great memory in my mind, like walking along the Seine river on a clear and warm day. It was such a wonderful time having John with us to translate a bit and to share the experience. We had a great Airbnb in the Champs-Élysées, in the heart of it all which made it an ideal jumping off point. It was also great watching John enjoy the architecture both modern and classic here – particularly the Pompideaux. To say that Paris stole my heart would not be accurate- it has had it for quite a long time and seeing it anew after ten years made it even more special to me. // Jeff
A city built for slow meaningful reflection and enjoyment, Bordeaux immediately caught hold of my heart and held on tight. A good balance between a bustling city and a small town, the size provides a degree of serenity while still offering plenty to do, see, and eat. Moreover, the people of the city were generally kind and patient – open to providing helpful information and deal with out of towners who did not quite know their way around. The handful of days we spent in Bordeaux filled our hearts and stomachs and I can honestly say, I added a new favorite place in the world to my short-list.
Bordeaux proper has a population of about 250,000 residents with the greater metropolitan area comprising about 1.2 million. It is best known for its wine and is the world’s wine industry capital. Wine has been produced in the area since the 8th century and the historic district of the city is on the UNESCO World Heritage List for its notable examples of 18th century architecture. The city has the highest number of preserved historical buildings out of any city in France. The Bordeaux area is now home to over 287,000 acres of vineyards and over 10,000 wine producers who make over 960 million bottles per year. It is reputed to produce some of the best wine in the world and is particularly famous for its Bordeaux style red blends. The regions top wines carry some of the priciest bottles in the world. Despite this exclusive sounding background, the city is home to a large university and thus has a university town feel while the wine culture there gives it a punch of understated elegance. This comes out particularly in the food scene.
Mandy and I had said our goodbyes to Erin in Italy and were looking forward to Mandy's dad, John joining us in France and part of Spain. We flew to Bordeaux and through a scheduling mix up, lost the reservation on our rental car. What a blessing that ended up being as the roads in the city were very tight and parking was almost nonexistent. Bordeaux is incredibly walkable, and the city was filled with a vast array of restaurants and shops which made for easy exploration. After checking into our Airbnb and enjoying an excellent first meal topped off with a bottle of wine, John arrived. We decided to celebrate his arrival at a classic French restaurant. The place must have been there for eighty years. The décor felt like out of the 1940’s and the servers seemed like they had been working there for decades. We had a fantastic meal and John had a great dish of bone marrow – one if his favorites. We made sure to get a bottle of wine and in this city, we couldn’t have gone wrong with any choice.
The next day we woke up for a wine tour of St. Emilion, a famous town just outside of Bordeaux known not only for its wine but its lengthy history and notable architecture. This history of St. Emilion goes back to prehistoric times and is yet another World Heritage Site. The Romans planted vineyards there as early as the 2nd century. The town was named after a monk named Emilion who settled into a hermitage carved directly into stone around the 8th century. This hermitage was later expanded into the famous monolithic church that it is today and is one of the largest in Europe. It is also the origin of the name Hermitage which is one of the most famous and valuable wine labels in the world. Our wine tour took us to a few wine shops in the area and a great tasting of some of the wines of St. Emilion – it was truly excellent wine. The wine culture of this town was everywhere, and every street held at least two or three wine shops ran by the vineyards just outside of town. We walked the city, ate a great lunch, drank too much wine and spent the last hour exploring the city and climbing a cathedral tower which revealed far-reaching views of the ancient city below and the vineyard lined countryside. We took the train back to town and the walk to the station revealed vineyard after vineyard in one of the most picturesque scenes imaginable. The vineyard lined roads housed large estates that I imagine have been passed down for several generations.
The rest of our time in Bordeaux was spent shopping, eating well and walking the small but packed city center. The pace of life in Bordeaux promotes balance and is a must see if you are looking for a slower paced, yet food centric city in France. The food is as good as Paris, but the wine is cheaper, the people are nicer, the pace is slower, and its quiet. It’s a city you could easily disappear into for a few months without even realizing it. Maybe that’s something I will do someday. // Jeff
This less explored corner of Europe basks in the sun facing the Adriatic inside the heel of Italy’s boot. Puglia pulls your eyes to the horizon where you can see the rolling hills and desert-like expanses of the region. Puglia is a region filled with small and historic towns and a breathtaking countryside boasting endless rows of olive trees, grape vines, and the famed conical stone huts known in the area as Trulli. Erin, Mandy and I spent a few relaxing and beautiful days in this region taking in the scenery and breathing the warm and dry air that reminded us so much of home.
Upon landing we rented a car and drove about an hour to our AirBnb. The landscape immediately drew me in and I felt at home right away. The highway eventually gave way to dirt roads as we drew closer to our destination and the dirt roads narrowed so much that our car barely missed scraping the waist high, stacked stone walls constructed around the time of American Independence. The area was very rural - each property sitting on a huge piece of land. So much so that at any given moment you could only see a home or two on the horizon, the rest of the space taken by vineyards and olive trees.
Having flown in from Milan, I was incredibly struck by how different Puglia was from Northern Italy. It was clear that resources and wealth here were sparse in comparison to the affluence of Milan and Northern Italy in general. The cars driving around were older and more weathered, the homes much more modest and the occasional shop we passed along the way needed a coat of paint or new signage. This shabby aesthetic added to the charm of the region, mixing with the warmth of the people, salt in the air, and ever-present sun in the sky, to create a feeling of serenity that cannot be replicated - only pursued. The richness in wealth that was lacking was more than made up for in the depth of this area’s spirit. We arrived at our place and were met by a very kind older woman who didn’t speak a word of English. Through smiles, gestures, and Spanish spoken with an Italian accent, we were able to get the lay of the land and settled into our space.
We stayed in a small-scale example of a Trullo – the conical stone huts that characterize the region. I had never seen a structure like this before in my life and knew there had to be a story behind the oddly shaped buildings. It turns out that Trulli were constructed as rudimentary field shelters and eventually as permanent dwellings by small business owners or agricultural laborers. It is thought that due to high property taxes, the people of the region built these dry-stone wall buildings, so they could be dismantled quickly when tax inspectors were in the area. To think that such beautiful structures and now a UNESCO World Heritage Site are the result of tax avoidance is comical to me. Our very own Trullo had two bedrooms, a kitchen, and a dining room. There was also a staircase leading to a roof terrace with plenty of room to sit and enjoy the sunsets.
Upon arriving we were starving and drove to the nearest town to eat a late lunch. It was late afternoon at this point and the entire town was shut down with almost no shops opened anywhere. We luckily found a coffee shop and were quickly disappointed to hear they weren’t serving any food. A man overheard us discussing how disappointed and hungry we were, and he was quick to introduce himself and offer a hand. His name was Giuseppe and he was kind enough to let us follow him while he drove across town to a restaurant that he thought would be open. Upon discovering that it was closed until dinner as well, he jumped back in his car and led us to a nearby market where we were able to buy groceries for a meal at home. That was our first taste of Puglia hospitality and our first notion that we were in an area that had not been inundated with tourists for generations like much of the rest of Italy.
We returned home and set to cooking. We made spaghetti with both pesto and tomato sauce, bruschetta, and plenty of extra bread, cheese, and prosciutto. We headed up to the roof and enjoyed our meals alongside a few bottles of wine. We got there just in time because as soon as we started eating the sun began to set. There are moments in life that you look back on and for me great memories persist as brief snapshots in time. Looking out at the sun beginning to set on the horizon, wine in hand, belly full of pasta, good friends for company – that is the tableau that occupies my mind when I think back to Puglia.
Having Erin with us was such a blessing. She is so positive, and full of good vibes that it rubs off on you. Mandy and I had been travelling alone for awhile prior to Italy and we had settled into a familiar rhythm. Erin brought a new energy that was contagious and her excitement for the experiences we were enjoying really brought our trip into perspective. The three of us laughed a ton, ate even more, and made the best of any situation. She was a travel buddy we hope joins us again at another stop along our journey.
The rest of our time in Puglia was spent exploring the neighboring towns, enjoying some local restaurants – including one built into a cave on the side of a cliff overlooking the Adriatic, and hanging out in our Airbnb. We really put most of our efforts into unwinding and enjoying the simple things. We took a few walks, made friends with the neighborhood cats, cooked at home, and listened to music. Puglia is a place that seemed to promote a slower pace of life. One that requires you to enjoy the simple things more, take time for the people you are with, watch the world go by. It is in those moments when you typically find clarity, have an epiphany, and resolve to refocus your energies towards the more important things. I will look back very fondly on my time in Puglia. Warm sun, ocean views, and the Trulli dotting the landscape – Puglia grabs you by the heart and leads you deep into a corner of the Italian culture that is not widely known but profoundly moving. // Jeff
An elegant city, Milan bustles with well dressed people rushing in a fast-paced lifestyle amidst the backdrop of old Renaissance history. It has the physical characteristics of a major Italian city, yet possesses a sophistication in style more akin to the Swiss or French, and an industriousness more aligned with Germany. Italy in my experience up to this point has closer cultural ties to the Mediterranean, but Milan and Northern Italy feel distinctly more like mainland Europe.
Milan is the second largest city in Italy at a population of 1.3 million and a metro area of 5.2 million making it the 4th largest metro in the European union. It has the third largest economy among European cities and has been named the fashion and design capital of the world. This reputation was born from the success of local fashion houses in the 1980’s including Versace, Armani, and Dolce & Gabbana. The beauty and history of the city attracts over 8 million visitors every year and its museums hold some of the most important art collections of the world. With Erin tagging along, we felt reinvigorated with a desire to see the major historical sights, museums, and cultural attractions. We spent our time in Milan well with visits to museums, Davinci’s former residence, and Milan’s greatest landmark - the Duomo.
We started our first full day in Milan by enjoying a beautiful breakfast on a terrace overlooking the Duomo, which allowed a relaxing view of the landmark and the bustling square below. While I enjoyed my breakfast, I eyed a man enjoying his morning coffee and writing in a journal. Ferragamo loafers, colorful socks, designer jeans, seersucker suit, and bespoke glasses – this middle-aged man had more style and thought wrapped up in his one outfit than I did in my whole wardrobe. I knew quickly I was going to stick out like a sore thumb here. We wrapped up breakfast and headed into the main square for the Duomo.
The Duomo or Milan Cathedral took almost six centuries to build and is the largest church in Italy and the third largest in the world. Construction was started in 1386 with the last details finished at the turn of the 20th century. Napoleon Bonaparte was crowned the king of Italy at the Duomo in 1805 and a statue of Napoleon was placed at the top of one of the spires.
We decided to pay for tickets to explore the rooftop. I was told it is the most impressive portion of the church and not to be missed. We climbed countless steps up to the top, and a few stops along the way allowed for a peak inside the church. The substantial number of statues and intricacy of the stone work astounded me. Almost everywhere you look there is a life-sized stone sculpture and every surface is gilded with skilled stonework. The level of detail throughout this vast towering complex is overwhelming. After a climb up more stairs, we finally arrived at the top level of the Duomo. From this very high vantage point, you can see all of Milan and the surrounding area.
Without fail, seeing churches of this scale, complexity, and décor always remind me of the vast impact the Catholic church had on European history, power, and development. Without the church we would have been devoid of many of our most amazing landmarks and advances in art, architecture, and design. Italians used the church to show themselves and the world how much they as a society were capable of, and it leaves a powerful lasting impression.
The rest of our time in Milan was spent eating amazing food, exploring the streets, and taking in some of the Renaissance art. We enjoyed a small tour of Leonardo DaVinci’s former private residence which even held a small vineyard with grapes genetically descended from the same vines that DaVinci had planted himself. What amazes me about history is how big the characters become in our mind yet, how similar they are to us. While the house was large, it wasn’t palatial, and I couldn’t help but think of DaVinci walking the same halls as I am now, standing in the same garden. How much he impacted the world with surroundings no different than mine.
After almost a week of Italian food every night, we decided on a light dinner our last evening. We ended up at an amazing sushi restaurant owned by an Italian chef who had lived and studied sushi making in Japan for some time. When I informed the chef of my allergies to most fish and all gluten, he rushed back into the kitchen. Minutes later, he came out with a tailored meal of my own of four different vegetarian rolls. The rolls were so good, I quickly forgot they lacked any meat. The rice in the rolls were soaked in beet juice which added a punch of color and flavor. I was blown away by how good the food was. Mandy and Erin enjoyed traditional sushi and it was some of the best we have ever had. The point was proven once again that Italians know food, and the one non-Italian meal we had was still incredible.
Milan was the last of the major Italian cities I had yet to see. I came away from my time in Milan feeling like I had found the last piece of the puzzle necessary to understand the dynamics of Italian identity. The feel of Milan though hard to pinpoint, is both richly Italian and distinctly European. Italy itself is incredibly diverse as it has many different neighbors and climates which influence life there. Given Milan’s proximity to mainland Europe and countries like Switzerland and France, the fashion, architecture, demeanor, and pace of the city makes Milan the most European representation of Italy. Italy for me more than any place shows the transition from the Middle East, to the Mediterranean, and on to mainland Europe. No other country even comes close to expressing those three distinct regions at the same time while a constant Italian culture is woven through the fabric of Italian society holding it firmly together. // Jeff
Prior to visiting Lake Como, I imagined it would be a beautiful yet glitzy enclave for the wealthy and powerful. A place for the elites to gather for lake recreation and relaxation. And in the evenings, a place for fine dining and entertaining in villas overlooking the water. While the beauty of Lake Como is striking, what really impacted me was how approachable and quaint it was. The unassuming nature of the town intertwines with the grandeur of the lake and elegance of the hillside estates to create a unique identity that is both approachable, and irreplaceable. I think what makes Lake Como such a famous destination is that it gives a piece of itself to everyone who visits. It is not reserved for a certain type of person or class of person; it just opens its doors and makes you feel welcome. We saw people from all walks of life in Lake Como. From the corner table in an exclusive restaurant, to camping in the park playing drums and guitar - all people seemed happy and at home there.
Lake Como is a lake in Northern Italy not far from the Swiss border. The lake sits in the bottom of a bowl with steep hills surrounding it on all sides. A tight winding road surrounds the lake up on the hillside and private drives line the road leading to large villas with panoramic views. The surrounding area is incredibly green and small villages can be found at stops along the road that follows the lake. The main town is small but busy and vibrant. The town has been around for a long time and its history is apparent when walking its cobblestone streets, exploring its main church, or admiring the centuries old estates on the lake.
Our friend Erin joined us for our Italy leg which included Lake Como, Milan, Puglia, and Genoa. We picked her up from the airport after leaving Lucerne and drove to Lake Como full of excitement for the coming few weeks of travel. It was invigorating to be with a friend as excited and happy to be in Italy and it really got us in a great frame of mind. We stayed in a bed and breakfast just outside of town hosted by an incredibly gracious and kind older couple who owned a beautiful estate that they now rent several rooms out of. The property appeared to have been built in the late 1800s, had gorgeous views of the town below, a sparkling pool, and huge rooms.
Our few days we had were spent walking the town, driving the winding roads around the lake, eating incredible meals, and enjoying as much gelato as possible. Italy for me is so much about the food and my fondest memories of the lake were some of the meals we had. We enjoyed dinner at Il Gato Nero which is George Clooneys favorite restaurant in town – a place he frequents often. It was out of town and had one of the best night-time views of the lake shimmering under a full moon with the lights of the town dotting the skyline. Another evening, we stumbled across a Michelin star restaurant and got a table right away. I was almost as astounded by that fact than the steak I had - perfectly cooked and served over a still flaming mesquite log alongside potatoes that defied any flavor and texture I have ever had before.
On our last day we took a drive out of town around the lake and about thirty minutes down the road, we pulled over for lunch in a modest and empty restaurant. I wasn’t expecting much but the patio had unrivaled views and the food was once again amazing. We had yet to eat one bad meal by the time we left Lake Como.
I was sad to leave Lake Como for Milan because I knew the small town charm was to give way to the big city rush. The slow pace of the town and the beauty of the lake was contagious and I wanted to enjoy it longer. I had been given my piece of Lake Como and I will take it with me from now on. Grandeur and humility coexist here – a rare attribute I will not forget, and an example we can all follow in ourselves. // Jeff
A city of impossible beauty, Lucerne is nestled in the alps and sits on the shore of Lake Lucerne. People come from all over the world to take in the charm of this small city and to feel the magic here. The city is compact and bustling but incredibly clean and carries a boutique vibe. Most city attractions are within a short walk and the city proper carries a population of a bit over eighty-one thousand. During our only full day in Lucerne, we were drawn to walk around the city and along the lake.
Lake Lucerne stretches well beyond the city limits and along the lake, mansions line the shore far into the distance. After an amazing lunch, we decided to walk out of town to take a closer look at these unbelievable homes. It only took a few minutes to realize that we were walking in a rich man’s playground. It was clear that most of these homes were vacant and were used as vacation homes for a small fraction of the year. The people we passed on the walking path seemed to occupy a different world with their impossibly well-groomed pets and designer clothes. As each minute passed and our distance from the city center grew, the view of the lake and town became even more stunning. From a distance you could see the entire city nestled on the lake, boats cruising in the water, and the mansions dotting the shoreline. The Swiss Alps towering overhead made the area feel secluded, quiet, and small. I only wish we could have seen this beautiful city amidst the backdrop of the snow-capped mountains. We spent a few hours walking around the lake and stopped at a little crepe stand on our way back to town.
The crepes were some of the best I have ever had, and it really got me thinking about the cultural blend that is Switzerland. A crepe is a quintessentially French dessert, yet Lucerne had crepes to rival any in Paris. Lucerne is in an area of the country where German is spoken the most, but other areas speak predominantly Italian or French. Switzerland exists as a cultural mix of three very different and distinct countries. In many ways, Switzerland has taken the best of each culture to create its own Swiss identity. This identity has done very well for Switzerland and it has remained for a very long time one of the wealthiest countries in Europe.
It has also not been invaded or embroiled in a major war in a very long time. Some of this has to do with the geography of Switzerland with its mountainous, hard to conquer terrain. However, by leaning on its strong cultural bonds and similarities with Italy, France, and Germany, Switzerland has managed to stay neutral amidst the two most destructive wars in our history. This neutral stance has benefitted the country greatly and it never endured devastating financial, social, or economic blows like many of its neighbors in the 20th century. By result, it remains a very wealthy country to this day, full of well educated citizens and has a heavy influence on global economics.
On our way out of Switzerland to Italy we drove through the alps and the terrain was like none I have ever seen. The mountains seem to leap directly into the sky and houses dot the foothills at impossibly steep angles. The highways are impeccably maintained and even though it was raining, the roads were designed for cars to safely travel at high speeds. It was immediately apparent when we arrived in the Italian speaking region of Switzerland as the signs changed to only Italian and the cleanliness and organization declined a bit from the highly organized German region. It is truly unique for such a small country to possess such diverse cultures and at the same time boast gorgeous geography. I hope to explore Switzerland more extensively in the future. The country has a lot to offer and I am eager to get a better sense of what it means to be Swiss. // Jeff
A small city nestled on the banks of a meandering river in the shadow of rolling green hills. The medieval city of Heidelberg captures your heart through its cobblestone streets, the charming promenades that line the city center, and the castle standing watch over town. The city of Heidelberg was founded in the 12th century, and is home to about 150,000 residents, one quarter of which attend the famed University of Heidelberg. Outside of being a university town, the city is a popular destination for tourists seeking a classic example of 18th century Germany.
Our brief time was spent walking the famed Marketplatz - lined with cafes and boutiques, crossing the statue marked bridges along the Nektar river, and exploring the Heidelberg Castle. The Heidelberg Castle is the city’s biggest landmark - a partially rebuilt red sandstone castle destroyed in the 17th and 18th centuries. Located about 260 feet up the hillside from town, the castle offers sweeping views of the town and valley below, and supplies the picturesque backdrop of Heidelberg that occupies my mind. The castle was first built in 1214 with construction continuing until 1650. It has since been partially rebuilt and now provides a wonderful public space. On our climb up countless steps up the hill to the castle, we noticed massive estates perched on the hillside approaches. These gorgeous and ornate old homes gave a sense of the wealth still present in Heidelberg today. From these hillside estates you could see all the way across town, to the other side of the river where other massive homes line the adjacent hillside looking back up at the castle. Prominence and wealth have been visible in Heidelberg for centuries and remain an integral part of the city tapestry. While walking through the city center, you are struck with the youthfulness of the population and how much the university impacts day to day life here. But alongside this University culture, wealth is very much present as well. Every building in town is impeccably appointed, every street perfectly maintained, and the stores in the city center are occupied by some of the top retail brands in the world.
Heidelberg the city is a living testament to the quiet wealth of Germany today. Heidelberg the castle is a structure that stands as a reminder of the riches and power that have persisted in this area for centuries. They both serve to bring you back to another time while also impressing upon you the current success of the German culture. // Jeff
As the capital of Germany, Berlin represents the best of the German people and is a testament to the ability of a community to recover from times of hardship. As the capital of Germany and a large population center of about six million, Berlin is the main hub of culture, politics, media, science, and education with a close second being Munich. Berlin first came to be in the 13th century and grew in importance because it was at the crossing of two important trade routes. The city has a high quality of living and since the 2000’s has seen an emergence of a cosmopolitan entrepreneurial scene. This has resulted in it being a strong tech hub in Europe. As prominent as it is now, it carried even more weight in the past and in the 1920’s was the third largest municipality in the world.
By the end of WWII however, Berlin was in dire straits. During the battle of Berlin, over 125,000 civilians were killed and much of the city was destroyed by aerial bombing or shelling. The city was divided into a few sections between the Allies and remained divided along the Berlin wall until 1990 when the city was reunified. Today the city boasts beautiful skyscrapers and modern architecture and to this day is a bustling city with a rapid growth trajectory. I could scarcely spot a section of skyline that didn’t show a crane putting up another large building. The economy seemed to be booming. The city is very green and walkable with one third of the area comprised of forests, parks, gardens, rivers, canals, and lakes. The Spree river runs through the center of town developing an impressive skyline along its banks.
On our first day we decided to start the day by walking to the Berlin Wall and exploring the East Side Gallery. It was a gloomy day and we experienced some light rain, but it didn’t stop Berliners from going about their day and enjoying the weekend. On our walk to the Berlin Wall we crossed the Spree river and I noticed a large graffiti mural that read, “refugees welcome”. I couldn’t help but think of how much change occurred in this city over a few generations which seventy years ago endeavored to commit one of the worst crimes of depravity ever known to man. Fast forward to present day and they are welcoming refugees into the country with open arms. Granted, there are many exceptions to this open arms attitude, but I took it away as a lesson in how much change can happen in such a short period of time. This hit home for me especially in light of the prevailing attitudes of many in the US today.
Once we arrived at the Berlin Wall I was greeted by mural after mural painted in every style and color imaginable. The East Side Gallery wall is a living museum that houses 105 paintings painted by artists from all over the world. It is an international memorial for freedom and drives home the unifying character we all hold as human beings. Many languages, nationalities, and styles were represented but the overall message was the same. The message that we are all interconnected and by erecting walls and waging war, we are doing irreparable damage to the fabric of our society. Towards the end of the wall walk, we came across an outdoor concert in a park just getting underway. We enjoyed cappuccinos and listened to the first few songs before we were on our way. The wall itself was impressive - high and thick, and to me was a symbol of a different era. Back then it was easy to identify the adversaries in the geopolitical realm. Nowadays, that simplicity has given way to a much more complex and nuanced reality wrought with rogue states, terrorism, and rising regional powers. But the wall, just like the Soviet Union, fell; as will our status quo. Let’s just hope that things change for the better and not the worse. It has been shown that building walls and dividing humanity is not a winning strategy, but we as people have short memories.
We spent our last day in Berlin exploring some of the up and coming neighborhoods in town known for their hip restaurants and café’s as well as a brief visit to a museum of modern art. We ended the trip with an amazing dinner at an Asian fusion restaurant. It had a line out the door, but we were quickly seated at a table and served an amazing meal. The city seemed to truly embrace every culture and the people of Berlin appeared to be at the front edge of fashion and design. I felt like the city provided an open opportunity for expression and creativity which is why there seemed to be so much design and style innovation going on.
My time in Berlin gave me a new perspective about how societies can come together and change. Berlin is a city that was destroyed by the ravages of war, then stunted for generations through forced separation and control by outside countries. It was also the symbol of Nazi Germany and all the hateful and evil beliefs that came with it. Fast forward a few generations, and you can clearly see a thriving city, an open and accepting people, and signs of progress almost everywhere you look. Perhaps it was the pendulum swinging in the wrong direction so fiercely that motivated this current trajectory. I am excited to see the strides Berlin takes over the course of my lifetime, I plan on returning someday. // Jeff
I had always heard great reports about Munich as a fun city to visit so I was very excited to spend a few days there. I was not disappointed and was struck with how modern, diverse, and walkable it was. It is the third largest city in Germany with about 6 million living in the greater metro area. It is considered the capital of Bavaria and sits just a few hours from the Austrian border. The city is a major center of art, business, technology, and education. It felt young and vibrant in comparison to other major European cities we have visited, and it was apparent how much of an impact the university system had on its culture. It is considered to have the highest standard of living in Germany and in the top five globally. Widely considered the most culturally diverse city in Germany, people from all over the world live in Munich because of its economic and cultural draw.
Munich by comparison to the rest of the country is highly Catholic and was at the center of the Catholic reformation movement. This revolutionary attitude later translated into it being one of the first strongholds of the Nazi party very early on. As early as 1923, Nazi governmental factions in Munich moved to take over the German government. After the Nazi’s took power the city was dubbed “the capital of the movement”. Munich was heavily bombed during the war, resulting in the destruction of about half of the city and almost all of the historic center. Today, the city displays and eclectic mix of historic and modern architecture.
Within the first few hours, it was immediately apparent how walkable the city was. A lot of Munich is bisected by rivers and streams with accompanying walking paths and nearby parks. The center of the city was home to its citizens enjoying the fresh air and summer sun while walking to daily destinations. We even spotted people lying on banks of the river in bathing suits soaking up the sun. It was funny to watch as the weather seemed more appropriate for a sweater than a speedo, but I guess everything is relative. Given the size and population of Munich, I was surprised not to see the crazy traffic jams and congestion of other European cities. The density was on the lower side with mostly three to four story buildings of all architectural styles lining the streets.
We walked some of the neighborhoods until we got to the main square where we climbed the tallest cathedral in the city which provided sweeping 360-degree views. We later headed to Munich’s famed Hofbrauhaus for a beer and pretzel. The Hofbrauhaus is arguably the most famous beer hall in the world. In the German culture, the beer hall was the center of the city social scene both for daily visits and large celebrations. Every year during Oktoberfest the Hofbrauhaus holds one of the largest beer gardens in the city. The beer hall is huge in scale and one of the largest bars I have ever set foot in. The beer hall scale is eclipsed by the gargantuan beers and pretzels. The beer mug is so huge it is difficult to lift when full and the pretzel’s served were larger than my head. The Hofbrauhaus was originally built in 1589 by a local Duke, and opened to the public in 1828. All the rooms except the beer hall itself were destroyed by Allied bombs during WWII. It is one of the largest tourist attractions in the city but also a draw for locals who have special arrangements to store their personal mugs in the hall.
The second day in the city was mostly spent walking the neighborhoods and exploring the Museum of Modern Art. The museum was a large building with a spiral walkway that led you into the exhibits and up the floors, creating an architectural art piece of its own. Mandy was particularly struck with the art installation of giant Matryoshka dolls as many were larger than her and it made for a particularly good photo op. We ended our tour of the museum with a very in-depth exhibit on chairs which was of particular interest to Mandy. We finished the day exploring the other amazing sculptures and art installations throughout.
I was sad to leave Munich for Berlin as it had so much more to offer us that we could not fully experience. Its history and infamous past clashes with its diverse present much like the old buildings huddled beside the modern apartments on every block. Its destruction brought rise not only to a new city but new ideas and attitudes about the world and how to live within it. This revised outlook led to a rebirth that can be felt in the bustle and diversity of the city. Out of the ruins emerged a great economic, political, and cultural engine in Germany. // Jeff
Austria for us marked a distinct turn back to Western Europe. The transition was almost imperceptible. Something about the pace of living and the style subtly reminded me of life in the States. The head-down-move-forward attitude of the people and lukewarm civility reminded me a little bit of home. The German speaking Austria is much smaller and more mountainous than Germany, but shares much of its culture while still maintaining its own identity. We split our time between Vienna and Salzburg with a daytrip to Hallstatt.
At a population of just over eight million, a large part of its identity is wrapped up in its Alpine landscapes and capital city, Vienna. The country reached its greatest prominence in the 17th and 18th centuries as an independent power. In the mid 1800’s the country combined with Hungary to form Austria-Hungary. This new country became a major player in Europe and over the years gravitated culturally and politically towards the Prussian Empire (now Germany). This alliance likely built on a common language and culture was solidified in the First World War with their joining sides with the German Empire. By the end of the war, the Habsburg Dynasty (Austria-Hungary) had collapsed and the next few decades saw Austria attempt a unity with Germany. This attempt at unification was prohibited by the treaty of Versailles and the allied powers. At the onset of the Second World War, Germany annexed Austria and they fought together under the Nazi flag until the end of the war. It was separated from Germany by the Allied powers and in 1955 declared itself an independent and permanently neutral republic. Austria is considered one of the wealthiest countries in the world on a per capita basis and maintains a very high standard of living.
Vienna is a living symbol of the intellectual and artistic achievements of central Europe. Former homes of Mozart, Beethoven, and Sigmund Freud, Vienna exudes the stately elegance of a former empire. It seemed like the city had an identity unto itself spanning a history longer than the nation it occupied. It is immediately apparent when Vienna rose to its greatest prominence and I think is the best example of what European cities must have looked like in the 1700’s. This era of Europe was dominated by great monarchies, yet the major powers had advanced enough to put forward a modern city that shared power and prestige well beyond the monarch.
Vienna currently has just under three million residents - a third of the country’s population. It solidly occupies the role of the cultural, economic, and political capital of Austria. I was struck with the homogeneity of the Baroque style in the city center. While a very beautiful city - the colors, streetscapes, and variety of architecture in the city center felt very muted to me. It felt almost too clean and orderly to capture the imagination. For me, Vienna lacked the artsy grunge and character of so many places I have visited. That being said, the scale of the architecture was impressive, and I have no doubt that at its height Vienna was a formidable representation of the Austrian empire.
We spent our day in the city exploring the major sites and walking the city center where imposing statues and monuments lined the streets. The scale and craftsmanship were impressive to take in and it inspired us to visit the museum of art in the Belvedere Palaces. We saw a large art collection there which included Gustav Klimt’s “The Kiss” known all around the world. The palace offered expansive views of the city. Flanked by huge gardens on either side, the Belvedere Palaces are massive in scale, striking given its central city location. The palaces themselves are a UNESCO World Heritage Site and considered some of the most stunning examples of Baroque architecture in existence. While not nearly enough time to fully appreciate Vienna, we had an enjoyable day eating, drinking, and taking in the sites.
The following day we made our way to Salzburg, a beautiful Alpine city and the fourth largest in Austria. This city is also internationally renowned for its Baroque architecture and is nestled in a scenic valley bisected by the Salsach River. This small city of about 150,000 has been a UNESCO World Heritage Site since 1997 and holds a large university student population. Salzburg is also known as the setting for the filming of The Sound of Music.
Salzburg has a quaint charm and calm energy. It embodies the vision I have always had of a small German city during Christmas. Unmistakable Bavarian style, and small shops and restaurants line the streets with the snow-capped Alps towering into the sky. Although it was the middle of the summer, the town looked built for the winter and it was easy to imagine how beautiful the city might look in the snow.
Our Airbnb was built in the 15th century and is likely the oldest building I have ever slept in. The thought that this building was erected before North America was even discovered by Europe was striking. As an American, it is hard to fully grasp how far back European history goes and how truly young the United States is. Buildings in Phoenix are constructed and knocked down in under 100 years and this building has stood the test of six hundred years. Even more striking was the fact that the building was not unique in Salzburg and looked as old as any other on the street. It is likely that the same buildings on that street have all stood in pretty much the same arrangement for hundreds of years. It made me wonder how many people walked the stairs of the building over the years. How many life stories, tragedies, and triumphs have occurred here. How many walls have been moved, and floors replaced to guard against the erosion of time. Though an inanimate object, a building of that age has an organic quality to it. We spent our day in the city walking the streets and strolling along the river banks and across the bridges. I couldn’t help but think about how little the cityscape has changed over the centuries and that the view from my apartment window has been shared by so many from so many eras. Amid this unchanging view over the centuries, we have seen the passing of empires, forms of government, modes of transportation, and technologies. It really speaks to how special Salzburg is – frozen in time.
Our second day in town we woke up early and boarded a long bus ride to the village of Halstatt. Halstatt is a small village of just under a thousand. This quaint village is famous for its picturesque beauty. Tourists from all over the world come here every day to see this town which can trace back its origins thousands of years. Evidence of human settlements have been discovered here dating back to prehistoric times and it is said to contain some of the earliest archaeological evidence of the Celts. Halstatt is truly one of the most beautiful places I have ever laid my eyes on. It sits at the base of towering tree covered mountains along a small shimmering lake. Cottages run down the steep hills and along the lake, a large cathedral punctuates the small shoreline. Swans swim just off the shore and on a still day, you can make out reflections of the village in the water. A small waterfall cascades from the top of the town down a small river that feeds into the lake below. In the old town, Austrian style cottages are lined with vines and flowers sit on every window sill. It feels like time has stood still here for two hundred years. We spent a few hours walking the town and taking photos and finished our stay with a long lunch. The time on the road was about six hours and I would have traveled twice as long knowing now how beautiful the village is.
Austria brings to my mind visual beauty and a long history. This beauty can be found in the natural landscapes of the Alps and Austrian countryside, and by the Baroque architecture in the cities and towns. It’s a small country with a lot to offer and a classic example of how a small country can be influenced and shaped by its neighbors over the years. Shifting from an independent state to a smaller part of a larger nation and back again, Austria has combined German influence with its own unique identity. The landscapes of Halstatt, river views in Salzburg, and Baroque palaces in Vienna will always fondly occupy my memory. // Jeff
One of the greatest gifts in life is the discovery of the unknown. The journey into the unknown is central to the traveling experience and in the case of Llubljana, it was one of the best surprises of our European adventure. Often overlooked, Slovenia is a small country to the east of Italy. A hidden treasure that is being polished off by the progress of the last decade forged in central and eastern Europe.
Slovenia is a country with many neighbors. Italy, Austria, Hungary, and Croatia hug its borders and it was once the wealthiest region of Yugoslavia. It is a small country of about 2 million and declared independence in 1991. From that point it went through the process of denationalizing and privatizing its economy. Its geographic location and history as a former Soviet Bloc nation and now a NATO ally shows its unique blend of both eastern and western Europe. Slovenia’s capital Ljubljana is a smaller city of just under 300,000. It is well known for its large university population of over 60,000 and the thriving energy of a college town. Unique to the city is its large center prohibited to cars. As a result, the numerous plazas swarm with people on foot and bicycles. An abundance of stores, boutiques, bars, and restaurants line the busy streets and rivers criss-cross the town connected by bridges filled with public art.
Immediately upon arriving in the city I was struck with how livable and vibrant it was. At all hours, the restaurants were filled with people eating, drinking, and listening to live music. The restaurant tables spill out into the street and onto the banks of the rivers. There was a certain vitality and buzz in the city that I couldn’t get enough of. The fact that almost one in four are university students probably contributes largely to the easygoing and approachable energy of the city. It probably also played a part in how diverse the food options were. Restaurants of all genres and calibers were available and rivaled big European capital cities. Outside of the big cities, food choice can be limited to the local cuisine, so the variety was a welcome change. Everyone in town was incredibly friendly and eager to give advice and make small talk. The streets were lined with cobblestones and buildings that looked to be hundreds of years old. Towering over the city and visible from almost anywhere in town is the Llubljana Castle built in the 12th century. The castle displays an immense city flag which is a Dragon on top of a tower in a white and green backdrop. The Dragon is a symbol of Ljubljana and can be seen in statues, artwork, and references throughout town. We spent our time walking the streets, enjoying the restaurants, exploring the castle, and shopping at the various boutiques. It was a very easy and relaxing city to spend time in.
Our second full day in town was spent touring the surrounding countryside. Since Slovenia is a very small country, you can cover quite a bit of ground in a day. Our first stop was at a castle built into a cave in the side of a cliff. It was home to a wealthy family in the area for many generations and looks like it was literally carved into the rock. The castle was practically impenetrable at the time and survived countless sieges. It had a back exit though an elaborate cave system, so the lord of the castle could easily resupply in times of siege. In many cases during months long sieges, the lord would have fresh meat and fruit sent out to the attacking force to taunt them. This caused many rumors of the magical powers of the lord because of his ability to create food out of seemingly thin air. The lord was very cruel to his subjects which lead to the eventual capture of the castle. The room that housed the toilet had weak walls and one night while on the pot, a traitor tipped off the invading party by leaving a lit candle in an open window, and they subsequently launched a huge stone at that precise spot, crushing him to death – not the best way to go.
After a short lunch we spent some time at Lake Bled. This lake was once home to the prime minister of Yugoslavia’s summer house and it was reported to be his favorite place to visit. The sparkling lake is surrounded by mountains and almost in the exact center of the lake is a small island that houses a large church. The local people in the area are the only ones allowed to operate boats on the lake, and thus have a monopoly on the ferries. Multiple generations of local men spend their entire adult lives rowing the large ferries back and forth across the water.
The last stop of the day was one of the coolest things I have ever seen in my life – Postojna Cave. This vast cave system is 24 kilometers long and 377 feet deep. Thousands of stalactites and stalagmites line the caves forming over millions of years. It felt like being transported to another planet. We boarded an open-air train and rode into the center of the cave. The air quickly cooled as the train raced below ground and our heads careened by just under the limestone. The cave opened into a huge room the size of a cathedral. The formations though organic in shape, looked like nothing I had ever seen before. It was hard for your mind not to drift off into imagining what other worlds in the universe look like and what discovering a new place would be like to experience. The older I get, the fewer things in life that surprise me and it was a great experience to see something totally new and different. I think the feeling of awe I got, taps into what makes human beings want to explore discover. We spent the next few hours being guided through the caves learning about how they were formed and how long many of the aspects of the cave took to develop. The cave system is home to what they referred to as baby dragons (technically called Olms). This incredibly rare salamander is completely aquatic and blind due to the perpetual darkness they live in. They have a highly adapted sense of smell and hearing to survive and lack any skin pigmentation whatsoever. These amazing animals can live up to 100 years and can go up to ten years without food. I had never heard of these creatures before and was fascinated by them.
Ljubljana is often overlooked because of its size and location but it can’t be missed. I am glad we decided to put it on our list because it reinvigorated my love for travel. It was a completely new place I had no preconceived notions about and I am better off having seen it. It provides a good window into what central Europe has to offer. I am confident that the appeal of Central Europe will grow both in Slovenia and beyond its borders. After spending so much time in the shadow of the Soviet Union, it has in the most recent generation began to take on its own identity. This new-found identity is one that others will easily come to love and appreciate. I feel like I have just scratched the surface of this area and intend to explore it more deeply. I also expect that it will appeal to visitors more and more in each coming year. // Jeff
By the time we arrived in Split, Croatia had already captured our hearts. We had heard from numerous friends that Split was equally as charming as Dubrovnik and had a lot to offer. Split is situated along the Adriatic and is Croatia’s second largest city with about 350,000 people in the greater urban area. The city was founded by the Greeks as a colony in the 3rd century BC and is home to Diocletian’s Palace, built for the Roman emperor in 305 AD. The city like the rest of Croatia, has been passed around between various neighbors and empires over the years but has maintained a unique identity as one of the main cultural centers of Croatia. Its city center is preserved as a UNESCO World Heritage Site and it has effectively maintained the look and feel of a medieval European city.
We stayed in a tiny but well-located AirBnb close to the water, where all the action is. In our first full day in town we participated in a tour of the outlying Dalmatian Islands and Hvar. The tour was in a small group of about ten people on a speed boat. We cruised around amongst the many small islands that dot the coast and made a few stops at some of the larger islands for lunch and to walk around. The islands we visited had small quaint towns that dated back to medieval times. I am normally used to small islands in the Caribbean or the Pacific which are sparsely populated with a very basic infrastructure. These small islands held incredibly built up stone towns and when walking through the streets you wouldn’t guess you were isolated way off the coast of Croatia – it was a first for me.
Along the way we encountered dozens of yachts sailing in between Greece, Italy, and Croatia. We came to find out it was just after "Yacht Week" when thousands of people pile into yachts and sail between various islands and coastal towns partying along the way. It looks like a blast and struck some inspiration in Mandy and me for a future trip with friends.
The last stop on our day trip was Hvar. This is one of the largest and most populated islands in the area with impressive hotels, shops, and restaurants. The marina held countless yachts of all sizes and a walk to the highest point of Hvar revealed a stunning view of the island and the Adriatic below.
The next day we took an excursion to Plitvice Lakes National Park. About a two-and-a-half-hour drive outside of Split, the national park consists of a series of lakes and waterfalls that have been preserved by the state since 1949. It is the oldest and largest national park in Croatia. In my entire life I have never seen clearer water and more fish. I was completely shocked by how clean and beautiful the park was and it gave me a window into what nature would have been like before humanity came along. The park has strict rules and wooden walkways throughout so that minimal disturbance is caused to the surrounding wildlife. I was astounded by the beauty of the park and the cascading waterfalls in the various small lakes and was so tempted to jump in the clean, clear, and refreshing water.
The park is very popular and sees about a million visitors per year. We were visiting in peak season, so the walkways were overflowing with visitors which made it difficult to walk at times. Despite the huge crowds, it was still worth seeing. The pristine condition of the wilderness and water will always stick with me and serve as a basis of reference when thinking about how much damage our society has done to nature.
After a long drive back to Split, we were dropped off in the main plaza on the water. It was a Saturday evening and the city was bursting with activity. Every restaurant and bar was filled to the brim and scores of people were strolling along the water. The sun was just starting to go down and you couldn’t help but think of all the Saturday nights the city streets have enjoyed over hundreds of years. While fashion, tastes, and architecture have changed over time, our intrinsic desire to eat, drink, and socialize with friends and family in a beautiful place will always exist. Traveling for me is not just learning about the past and the present but also about considering what endures over time. Consistency and not variety is what gives a real insight into human nature. // Jeff
Cobblestone streets, an immense walled city overlooking the Adriatic, castles on seaside cliffs, Dubrovnik is a living replica of the medieval imagination. Almost immediately upon arriving you are acutely aware of the preserved state of the city. Exploring the narrow streets and alleyways that crisscross the town felt like an adventure. This city of stone sits right on the water and long narrow stairways lead you up the hillside and provide amazing views of the town and sea below.
Dubrovnik has a population of about 50,000 and is one of the top tourist destinations in the Mediterranean. It earned a UNESCO World Heritage designation for its castles and the excellent condition of its medieval buildings. Historians suggest that the city was settled as early as the 7th century. A storied history full of conflict and conquest, Dubrovnik has been controlled by the Romans, Greeks, Napoleon, Ottoman Empire, Habsburg Dynasty, and Croatia at one time or another. It was also for a brief time a Nazi puppet state in World War II under the direct control of Italy.
We arrived in August and tourist season was in full swing. You could scarcely walk a few feet before bumping into someone and the city square was packed with visitors from all over the world. School was set to start again in a few weeks and many visitors were getting their last vacation in before the new school year. Most instances I would have found it really bothersome to share such a small amount of space with so many people, but the city was a feast for the eyes and it was worth braving the crowds.
We spent our few days in the city wandering the streets and walking the immense city walls. Dubrovnik has a vast wall that runs almost two kilometers around the old city. The walls are between thirteen and twenty feet thick on the land facing expanse and thinner on the side facing the sea. The walls feature a system of turrets and towers designed to protect the vulnerable city from attack. Given its position on the Adriatic Sea, it is an easy journey for many regional rivals and is a big reason behind its repeated conquests. The walls of the city have been a filming location for the fictional city of Kings Landing in Game of Thrones. In fact, one night when Mandy and I had to do a load of laundry at the local laundromat, we noticed the walls were covered completely with small post it notes of previous visitors. We eyed a post it note from the crew of game of Thrones thanking the laundromat for their support and use of the facility during the filming of the show.
On our second day in the city we walked the entire wall loop which provided unrivaled views of the city and ocean. You can walk along the top of the walls safely as the high parapet walls were intended for the soldiers and archers of the time to repel an enemy attack. We finished our second day with a short visit to a temporary Dali Exhibit featured in the old city.
On our final day we enjoyed an excellent lunch alongside the marina which provided splendid views of the ocean and the many boats entering and exiting the city. As we were wrapping up our meal we noticed quite a bit of commotion in the marina. A few boats almost overflowing with people were making their way into the marina beating drums, blasting foghorns, and releasing large swaths of orange smoke along the water. It could have looked like a raiding party if it was a few hundred years ago. Our curiosity got the best of us and we discovered the commotion to be a series of Water Polo matches between the local club teams of the area. After asking around a bit we were informed that water polo is the Croatian national sport and that the national team had recently won the world championship. For a country as small as Croatia, that is an impressive feat. Given how coastal the entire country is, it does makes a lot of sense. I am a huge water polo fan and played a little bit when I was younger, so we decided to watch the matches. They setup the game in the ocean inside the marina with ropes and it was the first time I had ever seen water polo played in ocean water. We watched two full matches - an older men’s match, and a semi-pro match. The level of play at the semi-pro match was the best water polo I have ever seen played live. There was quite a crowd that developed, roaring at every foul and shot on goal. My eardrums took quite a bit of a beating as we sat next to a particularly raucous fan who unceasingly banged the trash can right next to us. It was a close and exciting match but ultimately the team who roared in with its orange smoke came out on top. By the time the match had ended the sun was setting and we were off to Split the next day.
Dubrovnik is a city for the imagination, and a city that lived up to its reputation. Its history is one of conflict and struggle with outside invaders. While the wall is impressive and imposing, it did not seem to succeed in keeping foreigners out. Whether they came as invaders from the Adriatic in ancient times, or as a group of tourists today, it is just too good of a city to pass up. // Jeff
Greece occupies a place in modern culture as one of the two birthplaces of organized society – the cradle of western civilization. The Greeks invented countless concepts; democracy, philosophy, political science and geometry, all which shaped the modern world as we know it. Positioned at a crossroads between Africa, Asia, and Europe, it was uniquely able to leverage its geography to create the empire it is known for today. While a testament to greatness, it is also a reminder of the fleeting nature of national superiority. The country today while rich in natural beauty and a warm culture, feels more akin to a developing country than to a member of the European Union. Economic calamity in recent years has severely impacted the average Greek citizen and serves as a stark reminder of what could happen to a country with a government that spends and saves irresponsibly.
Greece was the half-way point on our trip and we planned on using this leg of the journey to rest and recover. Warm sun, blue ocean, and great food seemed like the perfect combination to recharge our batteries. What better place to do so then on Santorini, a small island that sits about 120 miles south of the Greek mainland. It is essentially what remained after an enormous volcanic eruption created a vast geological caldera. The island is the site of one of the largest volcanic eruptions in modern history which occurred around 3,600 years ago. This eruption is said to have indirectly caused the collapse of the then thriving Minoan civilization, and is thought by many as the origin to the legend of Atlantis.
Set on sheer cliffs overlooking the impossibly blue ocean and whitewashed buildings sporting the occasional blue dome, Santorini is affixed in countless postcards and travel websites. It serves as a symbol of the Greek islands and it is one of the most visited tourist attractions in the country. Today, the island is a thriving tourism destination and the fifteen thousand inhabitants mostly work in the hospitality industry supporting the countless visitors from all over the world. Despite the overwhelming presence of tourists, the fulltime residents of Santorini are incredibly warm and welcoming. I never felt like I was a bother or an annoyance which is unusual for a destination that draws as many tourists as it does.
The hotels and homes line the cliffs of the island all the way down to the water. When you look up a photo of Santorini online there are one or two that pop up repeatedly. I was suspicious of this and thought perhaps there were a few great vantage points but doubted that the sweeping ocean views could be as gorgeous or numerous as advertised. I was dead wrong. The hotels and homes are designed with the views in mind and any restaurant you visit provides an unbelievable view that rivals any other. It was no wonder that the island was as popular as it was. In the mid-day and early evening, cruise ships would disembark and the town would be inundated with tourists to such an extent that you could barely move through the streets. However, I never felt overcrowded as the restaurants and bars were always easily accessible and allowed you a relaxing view and some relief from the crowds. The combination of Greek hospitality, ocean air, sun, and an Aperol Spritz made you feel like all was right in the world. The cliffs and scenery served to magnify the ocean’s ability to promote calm and tranquility and allow for deeper contemplation.
Our plan was to enjoy the scenery, take a few boat excursions and relax by the pool for the week. We were both in dire need of some rest and recovery after being on the move for so long. As it would turn out though, our plans had to change. Mandy became ill after the first few days and was barely able to leave our hotel for any length of time. I could take some walks and do a bit of exploring, but generally stayed close to our hotel. Despite this setback, the island still made a great impression on me. I plan on returning and exploring more of the Greek islands.
Prior to heading to Croatia, we spent a day in Athens and it made an entirely different impression on me than my week on the island. Upon leaving the main drag in Santorini and working our way back to the airport, I was surprised to see the lack of infrastructure on the other parts of the island. We arrived on the island at night and weren’t able to take in our surroundings. Much like the villages drop off sheer cliffs into the ocean, the repair and cleanliness of the island drops off a cliff once you are outside of the tourist areas. Not only was the rest of the island in disrepair, the airport itself was woefully inadequate and not at all prepared to handle as many visitors as it was transporting. We arrived shortly thereafter in Athens and most of the neighborhoods reminded me more of suburban Buenos Aires than a typical European city. Many of the buildings had been in dire need of repair for decades and the streets were littered and dirty. Every other building was graffitied over and every tenth building sat abandoned. The warmth of the people of Santorini was quickly replaced by a much terser and less welcoming local population. Athens was hit the hardest by the economic depression Greece suffered over the last few years and it was visible at every turn.
The one day we had in the city was spent visiting the Acropolis, the Parthenon, and the nearby museum. To its credit, the museum was one of the best I have ever visited and did a very good job of explaining the ruins and contextualizing the various monuments in Athens. What the Greeks constructed so long ago was impressive and fascinating. To learn of such an advanced society was even more fascinating to me amidst the backdrop of a country that was clearly in the midst of some dire circumstances. I know that Greece is on the mend now and improving every year, but my impression of it was much different than the rest of the cities in Europe I visited.
Greece is and always has been a country at the crossroads of different regions, cultures, and circumstances. It remains so today but in a way serves as a reminder of how things can go wrong. I think Europe’s current prosperity can be taken for granted and Greece is a sobering reminder that progress does not arc in one consistent direction. Progress can be erased, and culture can erode. That is a lesson we as Americans can internalize as we plan our strategic initiatives and legislate our future. // Jeff
The three days Mandy and I spent in Budapest gave us an interesting exposure to a country and city pulled in many different directions over its history by various cultures. Budapest has been formed and influenced by Middle Eastern, Jewish, Austrian, Russian, and local cultures. It has been a crossroads for hundreds of years and is a testament to the achievements of many different empires. In many ways, these various cultures have stood on the shoulders of the great city of Budapest to advance their own stature in the world, not the other way around.
Hungary is now a medium sized member of the European Union at a population of 10 million but it is well regarded for its high standard of living and economic stature. It was at one point, part of the Habsburg Dynasty but later fell under Ottoman rule for over 150 years. It eventually combined with Austria to form the Austro-Hungarian empire which was a preeminent power in the beginning of the 20th century only to be broken up after WWI. Hungary was an axis power in World War II and Budapest was largely destroyed by British and American bombing during the war. It was eventually taken over by the Soviet Union and was a closely controlled communist republic under the Soviets until 1991.
Budapest remains the capital of Hungary and its largest city at a population of 3.3mm. It is one of the largest cities in the EU and one of its preeminent economic centers. The impressive Danube River bisects Budapest into two sides, Buda and Pest which at one point were neighboring and rival cities who chose to combine into the city we know today. Budapest has been around since the time of Christ, and nowadays the central area of the city is preserved as a UNESCO World Heritage Site for its well-preserved architecture. It is widely considered one of the most beautiful cities in Europe.
We spent our time in Budapest walking its streets and visiting its main architectural attractions. Our first day was spent getting to know the center of the city and touring the synagogue. The main synagogue in Budapest is the second largest in the world and is a reminder of the considerable influence the Jewish population made on the city leading up to WWII. The city held one of the largest and most powerful Jewish communities in Europe and was largely wiped out due to the atrocities committed by the Nazis and Hungarian Nazi sympathizers during the Holocaust. The synagogue and many Jewish restaurants stand as reminders of its past. On our second and last full day in town, we walked across the iconic chain bridge which was the first to connect the cities of Buda and Pest. While much of the city was destroyed by British and American bombing in WWII, the impressive lion statues sitting at the end of the bridge were unharmed and stand as icons of the city. We made our way up the cable car to the Buda castle which offered sweeping views of the city and Danube river below. We later walked down to the Hungarian Parliament and cooled off in some of the mist systems cleverly installed in the area in front of the impressive buildings.
The city possesses an edge and grunginess that is made elegant by the late 19th and early 20th century architecture dominating the scene. Gargoyles and intricately carved statues populate most façades and a myriad of buildings are covered by graffiti and street art that betray another era in time. These two themes combine to create a feeling of modern beauty that embraces the themes of today with the preeminence of the past. The Middle Eastern influences are also unmistakable and the constant reminder of Eastern Europe, and the Jewish culture provide an example at every turn of the city’s diverse and tumultuous history. Budapest presents a canvas that has been painted by many different eras and cultures over an immense history. The resulting work of art created by these influences is a prerequisite to understanding the true nature of the European identity. // Jeff
The time Mandy and I spent in Poland gave us another perspective to the horror and destruction of war, as well as a view of a country currently undergoing an economic upswing and modernization process. What I knew less of before the trip was how held back many central European countries were by the Cold War and association with the Soviet Bloc. This association has in many ways restricted growth for an entire generation, and has created a period of economic modernization within our current technological and social environment. This contrasts with western Europe, and it provides central and eastern Europe with a unique identity that blends old world Europe and modern society. In many ways, it leaves out the social, design, and infrastructural developments of the 1950’s through 1980’s but incorporates more modern developments within a pre-World War II cityscape. With this reality in mind, the dichotomy between the older and younger generations is a much starker contrast than that of their western European counterparts. These two generations have grown up with opposing world views and now occupy the same physical space. On the other hand, in western Europe, while changes in viewpoints have developed over the generations, the complete shift in paradigm never occurred. Recognizing the shift from communist to capitalist systems is key to understanding the current reality of these societies today.
Poland is one of the largest and most impactful countries of central Europe. It holds a large population of over thirty-eight million and an area of over 120k square miles. Over its history it has been invaded and conquered by many of its neighbors. Given its central location in Europe, it was a frequent target for invasion and in WWII it was invaded by both Germany and Russia. A few years later, Germany took over the country completely and proceeded to kill off a large portion of its citizenry as well as almost its entire Jewish population. It was one of the largest casualties of the war as over 6 million of its people were killed. It became a satellite state of the USSR after the war and didn’t gain full independence until 1989. Today, Poland is a regional and emerging world power. It has the eighth largest economy in the European Union, and its economy is growing quickly. It has lifted its standard of living and educational system while at the same time remaining open to immigration. Many immigrate to Poland from elsewhere in Central Europe in search of work. Poland has recently seen a large influx of Ukranian citizens seeking economic opportunity and an escape from the tumult now plaguing their home country. In addition to being a member of the European Union, Poland is a member of NATO. Poland acts as a large counterweight to Russian power in the region and Russia has strong opposition to Poland's involvement with the US and NATO.
Our time in Poland was spent in Warsaw, Krakow, and a daytrip to Auschwitz. Warsaw is Poland’s capital city and largest by population at 3.1mm in the greater metropolitan area. We spent two nights and stayed in the old city and Jewish quarter of town. The city itself was severely damaged in WWII and was considered prior to the war to be one of the most beautiful cities in Europe. The area we stayed in was well preserved but much of the city displayed a modern feel and was completely rebuilt after the war. During the war, to control the Jewish population prior to deciding on programmatic extermination, the Jews of Warsaw were forced to live in two small neighborhoods known as Ghettos. We stayed where one of the ghettos once was and it was sobering to think of the plight the Jews of the city must have gone through. They were given incredibly deficient rations of food and were made to live in extremely harsh and cramped conditions. After a large uprising by the Jews in the ghetto in 1943, most of the population was shipped off to the death camps in Auschwitz. So much strife and suffering occupied this city that it’s difficult to comprehend. It is dubbed a Phoenix city due to the cultural and economic rebirth it has experienced in response to the devastation of the war. We spent our time in Warsaw walking the old town, seeing many of the monuments and learning more about its history. It rained for most of our stay, so it kept us indoors and in museums. We spent half the day in the Museum of Modern Art and caught a workshop on hypnosis. We and about fifteen other people sat on bean bag chairs in a large room while we were taken through a hypnosis session. I had never done anything along those lines in the past and it felt more like meditation – I am still skeptical it worked but it kept us out of the rain for an extra hour.
We arrived the next day in Krakow as the sun was starting to set. We made our way to the central plaza to grab a bite for dinner and came upon huge crowds of young tourists in the expansive central square. The city felt much more alive than Warsaw and as we discovered, is a destination for bachelor parties, particularly British ones. You could make out their accents within the din of the crowd and blare of the music. The central square was lined with lively bars, clubs and restaurants and we watched the sunset as the swallows swooped in and out of the central tower in the square. I had no prior knowledge of Krakow and it made quite the first impression.
The next morning, we got up early and boarded a shuttle to Auschwitz. Auschwitz lies a few hours’ drive from Krakow and was a death and work camp constructed and operated by the Germans in WWII. This camp facilitated the death of around 1mm European Jews and over 150,000 Poles in just a few short years. This camp was turned into a museum of the Holocaust to document and commemorate the savage murder and genocide that took place there. Prisoners were either immediately sent to gas chambers or starved to death in work camps on a daily ration of a slice of bread and scoop of soup broth from rotten vegetables. Most of the prisoners in the camp only lasted a few months. The facility is staggeringly vast with a few different sections spread throughout the area and was expanded multiple times over the course of the war. Trains would transport Jews from all over Europe in cattle cars in a journey that could last several days. The passengers were loaded in these cattle cars well over their capacity with no toilet, water, or food for multiple days. There was not enough air and ventilation so in many cases people would die of suffocation on the journey to the camp. Immediately upon arriving, men and women would be separated and a doctor would spend a few seconds looking at each prisoner and would decide who was fit for work. This judgement sent the weak, sick, old, and young immediately to the gas chambers. They were told they were taking showers and ordered to strip naked and hang their clothes on numbered hooks and to remember the number so they could retrieve their clothes after the shower. The people were then led downstairs into the gas chambers and once inside, the doors were closed and the chemical agent Cyclon B was dropped through the ceiling slowly poisoning everyone inside. It would take about twenty minutes for the people to die a slow and painful death. The dead were then taken out of the chamber and loaded into cremation ovens and the process was started all over again. Several thousand could be killed in just an hour, and the level of killing done here was unprecedented in human history. Those that were chosen for the work camp suffered immeasurable starvation and suffering. Forced into hard manual labor on less than 500 calories a day, the prisoners were slowly starved to death. The barracks were poorly built and people were crammed together in deplorable conditions. Prisoners were only allowed to use the bathroom once per day and disease ran rampant. They were so sick that they would soil themselves in their bunks drenching those underneath them and spreading disease. These barracks were hot in the summer and cold in the winter and in walking them, you could immediately get a sense of the level of suffering endured by those held here. The level of cruelty I learned of was not only disturbing, but depraved and will always stick with me.
We visited the first phase of the camp and walked through many of the barracks turned into specific monuments. Our tour group was led through each barrack and in the first, there was an entire room full of eye glasses. Thousands upon thousands of these glasses were piled in the room which were confiscated from the Jews upon disembarking the trains. The next room contained cups and dishes and cutlery as far as the eye could see. I was led into another barrack and was stopped in my tracks – shoes. Thousands of shoes piled to the ceiling, obviously from another time but in every style color and size imaginable. All the shoes were incredibly dirty - evidence of a harrowing journey to the camp. In the next room was hair. The Germans shaved the heads of their prisoners and used their hair to make rugs, ropes and clothes for the war effort. When the Soviets found the camp, they found the stockpiled hair. I was almost driven to tears while looking out over this large room piled ten feet high with hair all mixed together. Assorted colors, lengths styles all piled together like animal hair. It was incredibly disturbing. I find it disgusting that people claim the Holocaust is a hoax. What I saw at Auschwitz was the most blatant evidence of evil incarnate I have ever seen. I have never held a simultaneous desire to forget and remember.
I walked away from this experience angrier and more confused than when I had walked into it. So many questions swirled through my mind as the snapshots of suffering unceasingly sprang into my head. Most central was the question I think we all have: how were the Nazis capable of committing such horrible atrocities to their fellow man? I don’t understand how a large group of people could have been persuaded to commit such acts and I think a lot of effort should go into gathering a more complete understanding of this to prevent it from happening in such a big way again. I scarcely think a person could be brought to carry our such brutality to animals, much less other people. Most striking was the selection of the elderly and the children to be immediately killed – the most guarded and respected of human beings being cast to the fire like useless rubbish. I think if everyone could see this monument to evil, our world would be a lot less tolerant of bigoted ideologies.
The beginning and end of our time in Poland created starkly different feelings within me. Upon arriving I was struck with the energy and optimism of the country as well as some reflections on how its past has shaped its present. In leaving, I was shocked by the horrors of WWII and the Holocaust and felt pessimistic about humanity in general. While difficult to reconcile these two feelings, I have realized what makes Poland so unique. A land that has seen both the best and worst of what we are all capable of reflects humanity itself. Despite what it has experienced in the past, Poland is on the rise. I hope we can all take this lesson of recovery and rebirth to heart. // Jeff
Mandy and I spent a few days in Tallinn, Estonia and were struck by its relaxed pace, friendly people, and impressive history. This small country of around 1.3mm people sits on the Baltic Sea and is neighbor to Latvia, Finland, Sweden and Russia. Over its history, it has been overtaken by Russia, Denmark, Sweden, and Germany and represents a mix of these cultures. In more recent times, it became independent after WWI then was subsequently invaded by the Soviet Union in WWII, then recaptured by Germany. After WWII it became a Soviet Bloc nation closely aligned with the USSR. It is currently a very westernized European country and part of the European Union and NATO. These memberships, particularly NATO, greatly bother the Russian Federation - and to this day, it is not outside the realm of possibility that it is invaded by Russia as it acts as a counterbalance to Russia in the Baltic region.
Tallinn represents a very large portion of the country at a population of around 445,000. The city is positioned on the north coast of Estonia in the Gulf of Finland just 50 miles south of Helsinki and a few hours from St. Petersburg. In the crossroads of Scandinavia and Russia, a blend of cultures and world views is apparent at every turn and through every interaction. It is dubbed the Silicon Valley of Europe and is home to many internet startups including Skype. Its old town is one of the best preserved medieval cities in the world and is a UNESCO world heritage site.
Tallinn is exceptionally green and approachable to the average tourist. The city is the perfect size and we could easily walk from our apartment to the old town and many great restaurants and bars. We stayed right next to an adaptive reuse project that converted an old factory into a complex for various boutiques and eateries. We spent our time in the city wandering the old town and marveling at how well preserved it was. I found out about a great Tex-Mex restaurant and decided to go for a taste of home – it did not disappoint and we enjoyed queso and some great tacos.
At this point in the trip I was in dire need of a haircut and spotted a grungy looking barber shop next to our apartment. The second we walked in I knew it was going to be a roll of the dice. The barber shop was cluttered, dirty and run by three barbers with no shortage of leather, tattoos, piercings, or ironic facial hair. Amidst the din of the rock music blaring in the shop, we sat down and waited a few minutes for someone available to give me a cut. The couch we occupied was overstuffed black leather that we probably should have put some newspapers down on before we sat. The magazine Mandy picked up to pass the time looked innocuous at first but ended up being hardcore pornography. A gigantic shaved headed man with a full beard motioned me to his chair and I tried to tell him that I wanted a simple cut, short on the sides and a bit longer on top. The risky combination of a language barrier and questionable taste didn't end well for me. He practically shaved my head as high as the top of my ears and by the time I realized what was going wrong it was too late. What I came away with, and of course praised and thanked him for, was the worst haircut of my life. That’s the risky thing about haircuts when traveling, you never know what you are going to come away with and this time I lost big.
At the end of our short visit to Tallinn, we walked the very high medieval walls that provided cover to the residents of town in all those years past. It was a great vantage point for the city and its architectural evolution. Gazing out over the rooftops of town you could see the medieval architecture transition to modern styles and the cathedrals transition to billboards. The view is a living representation of the modern European cultural evolution. In many ways Estonia is a representation of the evolution of our global society as a whole – an amalgamation of cultures, ideas, and achievements working together construct a new identity. // Jeff
Bristling with energy and urgency, Moscow is undoubtedly the center of the Russian world. There is an indiscernible intensity felt in walking the busy streets of this city of thirteen million. I was surprised by how young its population was and it left me unequivocally impressed with the Russian civilization and convinced me that it is a power not going anywhere anytime soon. We only had two days to spend in this large city so our time here was incredibly short. We undoubtedly plan on returning to this impressive place as we were only able to hit the highlights.
We stayed close to the center of town in a hostel situated a floor above a brothel which drew some quizzical looks from our taxi driver upon arriving that evening. On our first full day in, we decided to see the major sites. After a quick bite, we walked a short distance to the impressive Red Square where we saw the iconic St. Basil’s Cathedral. This whimsical looking church is likely the most iconic symbol of Russian society and possibly one of the most iconic buildings in the modern world. This cathedral was built by Ivan the Terrible in the mid 1500’s and is shaped as the flame of a bonfire rising to the sky. It was revolutionary from an architectural perspective as there was no architecture of a similar nature whatsoever at that time or before in history. This colorful UNESCO World Heritage Site resembles a candy land castle and takes your imagination to another world.
We then decided to explore the Kremlin, as its reputation precedes it for being the center of government and power in Russia. The Kremlin is a fortified complex that includes five palaces, four cathedrals and the prominent enclosing Kremlin walls with large towers. The complex also contains the Grand Kremlin palace. This complex serves as the official residence of the President of the Russian Federation. The term Kremlin means fortress inside a city and was originally built in the late 1400’s and was improved and expanded over the years. The word Kremlin is used in very much the same way as Americans use the word “White House” to refer to the national executive branch of government. The facility is vast and impressive. The complex sits atop Moscow and offers an unparalleled view of the surrounding city. While walking the grounds I was struck as to how much influence the Middle East had on Russian history and architecture. One can see crescent moons in the spires above the cathedrals, and onion shaped domes of the churches resemble mosques. The Russian history not only intersects with Europe but also with the Middle East to its south. The Kremlin in its sheer size and scale serves to impress and leave you in awe. In many ways that is what Moscow does. While walking through the city near the Kremlin you can see down the Moskva river and the myriad of gargantuan buildings and monuments line the streetscape almost as far as the eye can see. We spent the rest of our time in Moscow walking the city and exploring the neighborhoods of the city center. We probably only saw a tenth of the major sites but it left us with a strong and lasting impression.
Growing up American, Moscow is in many ways the embodiment of the antihero. In focusing on the threat of the Russian Federation which Moscow leads, we lose sight of the achievements, culture, and attributes of this great city that deserves far more recognition than Americans give it. The restaurants are varied, multicultural and high quality. The people are kind, respectful and friendly. The architecture and streetscapes possess a great deal of appeal – counter to the impression you get of the never ending nondescript Soviet Style buildings that occupy the suburbs – not the reality in the city center. There is a concrete prosperous and upwardly mobile feeling in the air. A city on the rise housing a population that is living a high quality of life. Perhaps my fondness for Moscow stems from the stark contrast between expectations and reality, but my gut tells me it is due more in part to its objective greatness. I plan on learning a lot more about Moscow in the years to come. // Jeff
St. Petersburg served as Russia’s capital from the 1700’s until 1918. This maritime city of five million inhabitants is still widely known as Russia’s cultural capital. St. Petersburg was founded by Tzar Peter the Great in 1703 and the city plan reflects the Tzar’s desire to imitate the great cities of western Europe. A particular focus was given to imitating the French culture as it was most in vogue at that time and the city’s placement was selected due to its strategic location with access to the Baltic Sea. Russia at that time desired a closer connection to the rest of Europe via the sea, and the founding of St. Petersburg allowed for Russia to pursue a greater role in European affairs due to its ability to project naval power more directly. Tzar Peter was obsessed with all things European and as a result, the power centers in Russia shared his interest. At a certain point, French became a popular spoken language amongst the nobles in St. Petersburg.
Our time in St. Petersburg introduced me to the notion of the “Europe envy” that Russia carries, which was further driven home by our experience in Moscow. By all accounts, the city was founded on the Russian desire to be more European. This desire to project Russian greatness to European visitors morphs into an extravagance visible throughout the city and great monuments in the country. This grandeur is apparent in the gold encrusted hallways, ornate fixtures, and grand architecture that populate any public space and visible site. This way of matching and "outdoing" European style and culture is in my opinion what characterizes the modern Russian aesthetic. The time of the Tzars reflected this national desire in full swing and the Russian revolution and resulting communist era, showed a stark and direct reaction against it. This is seen in the architecture and style of the communist era. Post-communist Russia has swung the pendulum back in the other direction towards the western world and the conspicuous consumption present in the Russian society today is in full view.
We spent our four days in St. Petersburg touring many of the sites and could get a great sense of the culture and history of the city during that time. We started our grand tour of St. Petersburg at Peter and Paul Cathedral and fortress. This site was established when the city was founded in an attempt to protect it from a Naval attack. The fort contains incredibly thick brick walls and multiple battlements on either side of the Neva River. The protected artillery positions on each side of the river act as a crossfire and would have quickly obliterated any unwelcome ships attempting to enter the city through the river. At the time, Russia was at war with Sweden and feared a counterattack against the city. From that time onward, the fort served as the main base for the military in St. Petersburg as well as a prison for high ranking political figures. Over the years the prison housed famous characters including Leon Trostky, Fyodor Dostoevsky, and Josip Tito. The cathedral, positioned within the fortress is the first and oldest landmark of the city. It is visible throughout most of the city center by its tall and skinny gold spire and is well known as a symbol of St. Petersburg. It is the highest Russian Orthodox church in the world and serves as the final resting place for almost all the Russian emperors and empresses from Peter the Great until Nicholas II. This includes Catherine The Great, one of Russia’s more prominent figures who ruled Russia for 34 years. The grounds and church itself are very impressive, with gold leafed walls and no shortage of décor. This site is at once the city’s oldest place of worship, fortress, and prison. All these uses operating within the same compound is a bit ironic. Perhaps a window into the Russian psyche.
We spent over half the day at the State Hermitage Museum and it left me feeling overwhelmed and wanting to spend more time there. It was one of the most amazing places I have ever been and serves as one of Russia’s finest examples of its culture and history. The sheer scale of the facility is daunting and it is no wonder it serves as one of the most visited sites in the city. It is considered by some, the largest and oldest museum in the world- housing three million individual items. This UNESCO world heritage site was founded in 1764 by Catherine The Great to house her own large art collection. It now houses the largest collection of paintings in the world, and its six buildings include the Winter Palace - the old residence of Russian emperors. Its more notable collections include Rembrandt and Van Dyke. As much as the collection was impressive, I was most struck by the décor of the museum itself. Grand staircases, plush draperies, and impossibly ornate furnishings met you at every turn. In touring the Hermitage, I got an immediate sense that one of the aims of the facility was to leave its visitors in awe. Its very existence belied the Russian desire to impress upon Europe how sophisticated and advanced they truly were.
We finished our day at the Church of the Savior on Spilled Blood. Another iconic example of Russian architecture and its onion shaped domes, the church was built on the exact site where emperor Alexander II was fatally wounded. In memory of this event, the church was erected between 1883 and 1907 and while in many ways Baroque, it harkens back to Medieval Russian Architecture and Romantic Nationalism. It intentionally resembles Moscow’s St. Basils Cathedral and serves as a quintessentially Russian icon in the center of a more European looking city. The cathedral served for phenomenal photos and is a large tourist draw.
On our second day, we piled into the car and drove to the St. Petersburg suburb of Pushkin. On the way, we stopped at a monument to the siege of Leningrad. During the communist era, the city was renamed Leningrad and in World War II was completely surrounded by the German Army and cutoff from the outside world for almost two and a half years. The siege caused the greatest destruction and largest loss of life ever known to a modern city. Over 1.5 million soldiers and civilians died and the people were only rationed 125 grams of bread per day – half of which was sawdust and other inedible mixtures. Amidst this starvation, winter temperatures got as low as 22 below zero and in many cases, people resorted to cannibalism. Half the citizens and soldiers of Leningrad died in those years. The amount of suffering the people of this city endured is astounding and beyond understanding.
After a bit of a sobering Leningrad memorial, we arrived in Pushkin where we visited the Catherine Palace. In its prime, Catherine Palace would have eclipsed the Hermitage as we know it today. The palace was the summer residence of the Russian Tzars and is a shining example of Russian architecture and opulence. Unfortunately, the contents and décor of the palace was all but destroyed by the Nazis in World War II and while the main halls have been restored with a high degree of historical accuracy, the many sections and wings of the palace are still in disrepair. Efforts to restore the palace to its former grandeur are still underway today. Upon arriving, you are struck by the grounds. Lush green gardens and grand open spaces, the palace was Catherine The Great’s masterpiece. She spent a lot of time and effort redesigning the palace to house guests from all over the world and served as her favorite residence. The restored golden gilded ballrooms, and infinite detail serve as a window back in time to the late 1700’s and the height of Russian imperial dominance. We spent several hours touring the palace and the grounds as well as viewing an exhibit on the Nazi destruction of the property. It was angering for me even to this day to see images of this amazing example of Russian culture laid waste by German invaders who stripped the property bare and used it as a warehouse for the remaining years until reclamation. I could only imagine the lingering resentment felt against Germany by the Russian people.
Our final day in St. Petersburg was spent walking the city and enjoying some of the local cuisine as well as taking an airfoil boat ride to Peterhof Palace. Yet another impressive property, this palace is actually a series of palaces and gardens and is widely thought of as a Russian Versailles. Also a UNESCO world heritage site, this sprawling property is adorned with sixty-four fountains with gold-leaf statues at the main palace entrance. At the top of the bluff sits the main palace and the view down the middle of the property is inspiring. Impeccably maintained gardens and parks below are punctuated by smaller residences and a canal running through the middle of the property. It was a warm sunny day and a perfect time to enjoy the palace grounds. We stopped for some ice cream and strolled around trying to make some distance from the extensive crowds gathered around the palace entrance. As a last major tourist destination of St. Petersburg, it did not disappoint.
St. Petersburg offered us unforgettable examples of the best and worst humanity has to offer. Intolerable suffering and unimaginable wealth swirl together in this opulent and scenic city. Walking the streets, its short and powerful history are perceptible on every corner. On our last night, we stumbled across a local band playing folk songs in the street. We stood for some time enjoying the scene and watched the small crowd of locals gather around that Friday evening. My proficiency in Russian is nonexistent, but when the band played a song with a chorus of “Leningrad O Leningrad” the crowd roared awake and sang along as the song crescendoed to a festive end. That moment drove home in me the immense love of and pride in the city its citizens possess – I will never forget it. St. Petersburg’s history of suffering and grandeur are forever grafted to the heart of its people, and no matter what name it carries – its essence remains unchanged. // Jeff
Helsinki is the capital and largest city in Finland. The city carries a population of just under 700,000 and a greater metropolitan population of just under 1.3 million. It sits 50 miles north of Tallinn, Estonia, 250 miles to the east of Stockholm, and 240 miles west of Saint Petersburg. Its identity is very much held in relation to these three cities.
We flew into Helsinki amidst a bout of rain and the forecast was not looking too sunny for our time there. We had been blessed with pleasant weather thus far in the trip and we knew being rained-in was going to happen sooner or later. During our cab ride into town I could immediately perceive a transition from the rest of Scandinavia. The architecture, and written language felt distinctly Eastern European – almost Russian. It was the first time in our trip our destination felt anything different than a traditional western European culture. Finland has historically been in a tug of war between Russia and Sweden over the last five hundred years and maintains an identity distinctly torn between east and west.
We were fortunate with no major downpours our first day in town and had the opportunity to explore. We first stopped off at the impressive Helsinki Cathedral. It is an Evangelical Lutheran Cathedral built in the early 1800’s. Upon entering the cathedral, you get the immediate sense that it is not a Catholic church and lacks much of the ornate posture of similarly sized Catholic churches we have seen in our travels. We hadn’t eaten yet and entered an indoor market that had been adapted from an old shipyard industrial building where you could visit any number of bars, restaurants, or retailers. We decided on pho and Vietnamese iced coffee – it hit the spot. We then decided to make our way to the nearby design museum. I had heard that Helsinki was a big design mecca but had not truly grasped the impact of Finland on the design world. We finished the day off by wandering the streets eating local berries we bought at the street corner and scarfing down some incredibly tasty hamburgers downstairs from our apartment. Our visit to Helsinki marked the end of our Scandinavian adventure and the beginning of our Eastern European adventure. // Jeff
We spent two nights in Stockholm and I think one day was all it took to fall in love with the city. We arrived in town later in the evening and checked in with our Airbnb host. She was incredibly warm from the get-go and as it turns out was a former bikini model working in Rio de Janiero for a few years. Her living room was filled with racks of vintage swimwear and bikinis from the eighties she was selling online with the help of her daughters. Her apartment was beautifully designed and in a great part of town.
The next day we woke up, enjoyed some breakfast and left the apartment with a plan to explore as much city as we could, since our time was limited. We walked a mile and a half to our first destination and got a great feel for the area. Stockholm is yet another city on the water and you can see a large crossection of the sea breaking up many of the neighborhoods. It was filled with assorted styles of architecture, friendly people, and an energy belonging to a city of importance and in its full stride. Many areas are well preserved from ages past and cobblestone streets give a reminder of another era.
We arrived at Skansen which is a stunning open-air museum that displayed many examples from all over Sweden of how people in the past used to live. Many different styles of homes where exhibited from different time periods and regions. We continued our day by touring an adjacent park that was formerly used by the king of Sweden as his hunting grounds. It was immense and I was astonished as to how much greenspace we had already encountered so close to the city center. It was a warm and sunny day and the clear view across the water made for some great photos.
After some hours of exploring, we took a ferry from one section of town to the other which is where I concluded that Stockholm is best seen from the water. All myriad of boats were there - cruise liner, rowboat and everything in between. Dozens of small sailboats drifted past and it led me to wonder how many of these people were sailing to other nearby cities for the weekend. Our Airbnb host was leaving for the weekend for her country home which was on a small island which is when I learned many of the Swedes have a second home where they sail or drive to in the summer time to get a change of surrounding. The lifestyle in Sweden struck me as very similar to Copenhagen – in tune with a balanced lifestyle of work and leisure.
We finished off our night with a dinner of Swedish meatballs, mashed potatoes, lingonberries and pickles. These were not your IKEA meatballs- in contrast to our low expectations, it turned out to be one of the best meals we have had so far on the trip. We ended our visit feeling a pang of regret. We wished we could have spent more time in the city. There was a lot more to Stockholm than what we could see but I know that I plan on getting to know it more deeply on another visit. // Jeff
Norway is a country of extremes - a modern urban capital with a breathtaking rural countryside, extreme darkness in the winter and a sun that never seems to dip below the horizon in the summer. This environment has created a culture of adaptation. This culture of adaptation extends not only to nature, but to culture, technology and the global society we now live in. We spent about one week in this beautiful country split between its capital city Oslo and the small country town Molde.
Norway's history is closely linked to Sweden and the rest of Scandinavia. While a smaller population of just over five million, it occupies a large geographical area relative to its size but remains sparsely populated due to its high northern latitudes. Its natural resources remain a large driver behind their economy and their economic system is very similar to that of Denmark.
Upon arriving in Oslo, I was immediately struck by its contrast to Copenhagen. The city is much more modern and while still possessing many older buildings, the immediate draw to the eyes is the modern architecture. Many of the skyscrapers stark against a gray sky even in the summer days, carry your thoughts to icy and barren winters.
We checked into our AirBnb for the next few days and it was stunning. Impeccably designed with white floors, furniture, linens, and cabinets, it was like walking into an art gallery. Given my propensity to spill food and drink by even looking at it from across the room, I needed to be on my best behavior to avoid catastrophe. Our apartment was ideally located in the center of town and our first morning we were a two-minute walk to an American style diner. I am a huge breakfast person and it had been some time since I had a proper American one. It was our lucky day and I inhaled over easy eggs, hash browns, bacon, and gluten free bread with butter and jam. I polished it off with a few glasses of fresh squeezed orange juice and about a whole pot of coffee. Scandinavia had plenty of gluten free options and I took full advantage of it – returning the next day to the same diner for a club sandwich, something I haven’t had in a long time.
We left the diner with the goal to walk off our big breakfast and thus planned about a ten-mile long trek throug the city taking in some of the attractions. We first walked to the Edvard Munch Museum but were disappointed to hear that his famous “Scream” was relocated this summer to the National Museum. We later made our way to the Opera house which sits perched in the harbor and downtown. It is truly an architectural marvel and I was again reminded of how the modern Norwegian architecture seemed to harken back to Oslo’s harsh and frosty winters. We walked around the city and explored some of its more posh and popular neighborhoods. Given how north we were, the sun didn’t set until late in the evening past 11pm, it felt like we were on stolen time and we used every second of daylight on that first day in Oslo.
During our city walk, it was made apparent to us that the city was in recent decades populated by large immigrant populations from the Middle East and Africa. We passed through an entire neighborhood almost completely inhabited by Middle Easterners. It was comforting to see evidence of how open and welcoming the Norwegian society was. Our second day in Oslo was spent inside. The city was pounded by rain and so we decided to stay in and enjoy the apartment as opposed to getting soaked in the cold.
We woke up early the next day and flew up to Molde, a small city on the west coast of Norway. We rented a car at the airport, had a nice dinner at the hotel and had difficulty sleeping as the sun refused to go down until at least 2 in the morning (we were even further north than Oslo). I woke up the next morning, had a great workout in the hotel gym, enjoyed breakfast and loaded up the car for our adventure that day. We were to trek across the “Atlantic Road” which was purported to be one of the most scenic two-hour drives in the world. It lived up to the hype. We started our drive winding through the green farms and forests of the area. Fields full of livestock, and panoramic views of the dramatic mountains and cold blue Atlantic ocean laid all around us. It was like driving through another world. I spent my time looking at the farmhouses trying to imagine what it would be like to live in this place, tucked away from the rest of the world with the beauty of my country all around me. We took the road over the water and after a quick study of the GPS, I realized that we were basically driving over the ocean and the rest of the trip we wouldn’t even be on land technically. We were defying the rules of nature, elevated above the sea, on a highway seeming to lead nowhere, the occasional island or jut of peninsula providing some psychological relief but to the left and to the right, ocean all around us. We came to the steepest and most hyperbolic bridge I have ever laid my eyes on. To counteract the high tides and bad weather, a large section of bridge led cars well up and over and around the water in a wide arc that I only thought I would see on a rollercoaster. We stopped to snap pictures of a section of road I knew I would never see an equal to again.
Further down the road we drove down into the Atlantic Tunnel. What I thought was tunneling us through a mountain or rough terrain was actually transporting us well underground and across the ocean. I knew something was amiss when I started feeling my ears pop with the definite change in altitude. I later learned we were deep underground and completely under the ocean. I was thankful that I learned this on the other side of the tunnel.
We stopped in a small fishing town for lunch and enjoyed looking across the marina and the ships of all sizes dropping off cargo and people in a never-ending stream of maritime activity. Norway is a country built on the water and even in modern times you can sense how large a role the ocean plays in the livelihood and identity of the people. We returned to Molde and visited the local museum famous for its exhibit on old Norwegian housing. A clearing in the woods past the modern reception building was home to a small community of homes that had its origins in pre-modern Norway. Old cottages that had passed the test of time and provided a clear window into what life used to be like. The roofs were caked with mud and grass and plants grew from the roofs in very real green patches of life. This method provided excellent insulation and kept its inhabitants cool in the summer and most importantly warm in the winter. It would take a truly resilient population to survive the winters there, let alone thrive. I could only imagine how tough the Vikings were and how covetously they looked at France and the British Isles. It is no wonder they struck fear into the hearts of their adversaries because only a people incredibly strong and resilient could survive and prosper in this environment. We ended our long day again in a struggle to sleep. It was difficult to adjust to the never ending days here – I never want to know the what a never ending night in winter would be like here.
I had long been fascinated by Norway, a large country with a storied history. I ended my week there with a new-found appreciation for its culture. I think that its societies ability to adapt as it has for millennia will serve very well for it in the future. // Jeff
We landed in Copenhagen very late into the evening. We were delayed after an already late flight and while driving into a dark and empty city, we had no idea what to expect. Our taxi driver had trouble finding our apartment and as we wandered down one empty street to the next, we encountered people approachable and eager to help us find our destination. With some guidance from random passers by, we eventually found where we would be staying and settled in for the night. We were eager to see what the city had to offer us during the day since even in the late hours of the evening, the people seemed open and friendly.
We woke up in the late morning and met our Airbnb host, he was incredibly kind and gracious. You could immediately sense that he wanted to help us enjoy our brief time in the city without any motives aside from generosity and empathy. With a few suggestions of city highlights we left the apartment excited for the day that would follow.
Denmark is a very small country with a population just under 6 million. It maintains its own cultural identity but has very close ties to its Nordic neighbors Sweden and Norway. It is known for its liberal social and economic policies, widely known as the welfare state concept of government. This philosophy is one in which the state plays a key role in the protection and promotion of the social and economic wellbeing of its citizens. In Denmark not only is healthcare fully paid for by the government, but world class education is also funded by the government from kindergarten all the way through to the university level. Living wages are enforced as well, and all gainfully employed Danes have enough money from their salary to live a comfortable life complete with plenty of state mandated holidays, maternity leave, and a robust social security system for retirees. This system can be described as a middle of the road between socialism and capitalism and the tax rate paid here is one of the highest in the world. Not to get too deeply involved with a commentary on political ideology, this system looked to serve the people of Denmark incredibly well. Throughout our trip, we saw little to no obvious poverty, the people seemed incredibly happy and enjoyed a work/life balance. We were in Copenhagen in the middle of the week and the cafes and bars were packed in the daytime and it seemed like half of the city was out strolling the town with family and loved ones. It was in stark contrast to the impression you would get in an average American city during the week – the population absorbed with their work or the daily travails of their lives, only looking to the weekend to provide temporary solace to the unrelenting daily grind.
Copenhagen is the capital and largest city in Denmark and has a population of just under 800,000 people and a general metropolitan area of 1.3 million. It is a city on the water. Waterways criss-cross the city and boats of all shapes and sizes glide through town. It is a pleasant shock to see people on the water in their boats right in the middle of town – an unnatural site for Arizonans. Originally founded as a Viking fishing village in the 10th century, Copenhagen rose to great prominence in the 17th century only to suffer a major fire that all but destroyed the city. The Copenhagen that we know today is an artful expression of 19th century architecture and the streets are lined with row after row of colorful low-rise apartments and shops.
I was immediately taken aback with how many bikes I saw on the road. On every street, people of all ages whizzed by, pedaling on in a never-ending array of style, color and vintage- outnumbering the cars on the road. This was a city of bikes. Every street had specific bicycle lanes and traffic lights – you had to keep a watchful eye where you were walking so as not to get hit by a cyclist going by. I was utterly jealous of the freedom this unceasing stream of bikers had in their daily lives. Always outside and enjoying the city, they kept their connection to their surroundings close at hand in a way that a car could never claim to. The people looked to be very fit and active while still not shy to have a drink or two at one of the many eateries along our walking path. To see an entire city built around the reality and culture of biking from place to place really showed me a lifestyle we could all hope for.
We spent our time walking the colorful streets, crossing the many bridges, and viewing the islands that make up the city as we struggled to make sense of this completely foreign and almost utopian society. I will mention though that it was incredibly expensive – probably the most expensive city I have ever been in my life, the high wages of the average worker is offset by high priced goods and services. Although the citizens of Denmark receive a fair wage and benefit from other cost offsetting social structures like free healthcare, education, and low cost housing – a visitor just doesn’t receive the same benefits to outweigh the costs. The food was incredibly good and the city had a charm we did not get nearly enough of. On the third day, we boarded a bus and set out for Aarhus.
Aarhus is Denmark’s second largest city at just under 350,000 in population. It sits at the geographical center of Denmark and is a much more laid back and quaint city than Copenhagen. We were greeted by our Airbnb host who again was deeply kind and generous with her time and advice for our days there. We visited the Aros art museum and had quite the experience walking through their interactive art installation. Sitting atop the museum at least seven stories high, was a multicolored glass paned circular hallway. One end was connected to the other in a continuous wheel and as you walked through in a never ending loop, every color of the rainbow transitioned before your eyes. One color giving way to the other, you immediately sensed how color affects perception and how important differing perspectives are in shaping one’s reality. Offering an amazing vantage point of the city, the art installation was unique and unforgettable.
Later on in our first full day in Aarhus we met up with our Airbnb host for a few drinks at a local tavern. We learned more about her life and we shared a few good laughs and stories. She was incredibly well traveled and had extensively traveled in the US. She was off that weekend to spend time in a country home with her boyfriend and some friends and gave us some more insight into the political and social system of the country. We later enjoyed a great dinner at a nearby French restaurant and reflected on how easy life would be in Aarhus. A manageable sized city full of friendly people, beautiful architecture, and good food, it was a city worth coming back to for further exploration. Unfortunately, we had a flight to catch to Oslo and our time in Aarhus was short but sweet.
Denmark left a lasting impression on Mandy and I. Possibly due to its population and small geographical area, it is a living example of how a social democracy can work to benefit its people. The Danes seem incredibly healthy and happy and the demeanor of the people and the society as a whole is one we can all strive for. In thinking about the country, I can’t help thinking about the residents of Copenhagen biking as their primary mode of transportation. I think it is a statement unto the society itself. A bike gets you where you need to go efficiently but without sacrificing the enjoyment of the ride and the connection to the world around you- the open air. You don’t rush to where you need to go like a car, but you also get where you need to be faster than walking. It requires some physical effort but isn’t overly demanding like running – a healthy body and mind is needed to ride a bike much like the average citizen has in Denmark. The balance needed to stay upright and moving forward on a bike is much like the balance we all need in our lives. A harmony between work and fun, health and hedonism, family and friends, personal achievement and community stewardship, Denmark has shown me the importance of balance in achieving satisfaction in life. // Jeff
Dublin is the capital city of Ireland and sits at a city population of 1.1mm with 1.9mm inhabiting the greater metropolitan area. The city boasts impressive architecture – especially in the many catholic churches, a diverse and international population, and draws tourists from all over the world. It is interesting to see how different the city is than London and how different the people are. With such an intertwined history, and so many shared values, one would expect the cities to be more closely aligned but the contrast is pronounced. The city is a true Irish expression of culture and possesses a unique, traditional yet gritty and bohemian feel.
I immediately sensed the prosperity buzzing in the city when driving into town. Innumerable cranes visible on the skyline and countless buildings neglected for generations are undergoing extensive renovations – a sign of the momentum sweeping up the city. Ireland has recently grown as a popular banking center and country of incorporation outside of the United States due to its favorable tax treatment. As a result, many of the largest multinational corporations technically call Dublin home. Additionally, the Brexit vote has moved many financial services firms out of London and into Ireland in order to maintain a close connection with the EU system. These recent developments have led to drastic improvements in the city.
That being said, there is still a very real element of poverty visible in the city and an obvious drug and alcohol epidemic. Amongst the new boutiques and high-end restaurants, you can observe many homeless and visibly intoxicated men and women living on the streets. This reality accurately describes the story of globalization – the prosperity filtering to the top and benefitting the middle but dimmer prospects for the bottom.
We spent a few days in Dublin wandering the streets and getting a feel for the people and the culture. We enjoyed a tour of the Guinness and Jameson factories as well as a quick walk through Trinity University – Irelands oldest university. We spent our first night out in one of the bars close to our apartment and got a few of our own requests in with the DJ. The second night we went out in what is known as the Temple Bar district which is widely considered the cultural and nightlife quarter of town. Going out on a Saturday night in the main nightlife quarter of a country so dedicated to the art of drinking was an experience I was not quite prepared for. When we ventured to the Temple Bar Pub- one of the most famous Pubs of the quarter, I was reminded of Bourbon Street in New Orleans or some of my days at ASU. We ultimately retreated to the patio and enjoyed watching the veritable United Nations of drunk people walk by. When we left around 1am it seemed like things were just starting to get underway. I have no doubt that Temple Bar roared through the night into the early hours of the morning.
In all honesty, I had an easier time getting my point across in South America speaking Spanish than in Ireland speaking English. Our accents are so far off that a lot gets lost in the mix. While Scotland had given me a good exposure to this, it was even more pronounced for me in Ireland. I was not expecting this at all and found it very interesting how wide a communication divide can exist within the same language.
After an adventurous week on the emerald Isle, we said our goodbyes to Rianna and Danielle and prepared to embark on the next phase of our trip. Ireland is a country to watch in the next few decades. It has a checkered past but I think it will see some prosperous days in the years to come. // Jeff
Still riding a high from the wedding in Wick, we arrived in Ireland for a new and exciting adventure. We landed in Dublin late at night and met up with our friends Danielle and Rianna who would be joining us for our weeks long adventure. We boarded an early train to Galway the following morning where we would spend a night.
Galway is in western Ireland and the 4th largest metropolitan area in the country. Founded in the 12th century, this city is known as the cultural heart of Ireland and for its vibrant lifestyle and numerous festivals. The core of the city is lined with bars, restaurants, hotels, shops and more bars. The streets were filled to the brim with people during our visit and the energy grew as the hours wore on. You could almost feel the collective sobriety of the city deteriorate by 5pm. I had always thought the reputation for the Irish as heavy drinkers was only a misplaced stereotype- well, I was mistaken. From 11am on, every single bar I attended or even peered into was filled with people. Undoubtedly there were many tourists in the mix, but I saw just as many locals in the bars. On top of that, I have never seen more bars in a town than here. So not only were there more bars than anywhere I had seen in a city, but they were all humming. I was astounded. We spent the day bar hopping and wandering the town. It was incredibly charming, with cobblestone lined streets, a river running through the heart of it, and plenty of historic architecture. The lighthearted atmosphere was a fun way to take in our first full day in Ireland.
The next day we rented a car, and after a few hours of car troubles we made our drive through the Irish countryside to Kinsale. It was quite the adjustment to drive on the left side of the road and Rianna was brave enough to be our driver for the entirety of the trip. The countryside lived up to its reputation. Rolling emerald hills as far as the eye could see dotted with small villages along the way with the occasional coastal view out the passenger window. Seeing Ireland must be done in a car because much of the charm is in the small towns as you pass through. We made a pit stop at the Cliffs of Moher which is one of the most visited sites in Ireland with over 1 million visitors annually. The dramatic cliffs rise over the ocean and stand as a symbol of Ireland as well as a sanctuary to more species of birds than anywhere else in the country. After snapping a few pictures, we piled back into the car and drove off on the left side of the road towards Kinsale.
In a combination of car troubles and the detour to Moher, we didn’t get into Kinsale until about 9:45pm. Little did we know, this delay would put into motion a very stressful and strange turn of events.... We had no idea that the hotel we had booked for the next two nights was improperly marketed and actually a bed and breakfast with a live-in owner and a strict 4-7pm check in policy. She was not pleased to see us arrive at 9:45pm and after she berated us for waking her up she showed us to our rooms after we made our apologies. After setting our things down and receiving a rundown of our accommodations, our host began her tirade against us again and started getting very combative and aggressive. It was all starting to feel like the beginning of a bad horror movie so we hightailed it out of there. By the time we were out on the street it was 10:30pm, raining, and the entire town of Kinsale was booked for the night. After a flurry of calls and another hour down the road, we finally settled into a hotel in Cork by midnight. It was a bizarre experience but we weren’t going to let a bump in the road ruin our journey, so we planned on enjoying Cork.
As it turns out, Cork was a beautiful city and the next day we explored the Blarney Castle where we all took turns kissing the Blarney stone and toured the poison garden- filled with a myriad of poisonous and deadly plants. It is said that if you kiss the Blarney stone you will receive the gift of eloquence. Winston Churchill once kissed the stone and many say it gave him the eloquence most essential to England during the dark days of World War II. His inspiring speeches rallied the country around the cause for winning the war when it seemed all but lost. Had we stayed in Kinsale, we would not have been able to tour the Blarney Castle and learn about its legend which is a very substantial part of Irish culture. That for me is the beauty of travel in that things rarely go as planned, but if you keep an open mind you may come away with experiences that far surpass your best laid out plans.
We ended our tour of the Irish countryside with a long drive back to Dublin. I was anxious to see what the famous city had to offer but was sad to return to the quick pace of an urban environment. // Jeff
A stone castle on the precipice of sheer cliffs overlooking a harsh cold ocean. The relentlessly pounding winds roll across the emerald green fields as the birds above need not flap their wings- simply redirect the winds to their advantage much like the castle redirects the landscape to its own. Situated in the northern reaches of Scotland, Wick is a small city whose Ackergill Castle has always occupied my mind’s eye for what Scotland would look like. It is only on arriving and seeing it for the first time did imagination and reality intersect for me. I couldn’t dream up a better backdrop for the wedding of our friends Brandon and Rachel.
Mandy has known Rachel since they were little kids and I honestly look at Rachel as family to Mandy. I had the distinct pleasure of staying with Rachel and Brandon for a few days when I was visiting in Phoenix. I had no doubts up to that point that it was to be a successful marriage, but watching them interact with each other just days before their wedding when knee deep in planning and stress really drove home how perfect they were for each other. Being around them has a calming effect and I was so eager to watch them take this next big step in their relationship. The longer I have known them the fonder I become of them individually and as a couple – I can’t wait to see where life takes them.
The venue for the wedding, Ackergill Castle was built in the early 16th century and was owned by one of the powerful clans of northern Scotland. The most famous story of Ackergill is about a young woman Helen Gunn, who was abducted by the castle owner at the time John Keith for her beauty. She fled in the castle and flung herself from the highest tower to her death to escape her abductors advances. Supposedly her ghost is still seen. This abduction and suicide is said to have kicked off a feud between the Gunn family and the Keiths leading to the Battle of the Champions which ended in a massacre of the Gunns by the Keiths just to the east of the village. The Keiths castle was subsequently destroyed and you can still see the castle foundations if you stroll just a few miles down the coastline. To stay in a place with so much history just added to our wedding experience and sharing it with our friends made it all the more distinct.
We spent the weekend at the castle along with the rest of the wedding party. I love weddings where everyone stays together on the same property because the amount of time you get to spend with not only the bride and groom, but the other guests leads to a closeness not possible in a typical wedding format. The weekend was filled with festive activities. Cocktail hours, tea time, the rehearsal dinner, karaoke, archery, target practice, the Caber toss, and an outing into town – it was a constant party. I felt like I was at an adult camp with all my best friends - I wish I could do it all over again. Brandon and Rachel had a beautiful outdoor ceremony where the clouds literally parted and the sun shined down on the event – a rare occurrence that weekend. The reception went late into the night with plenty of dancing and no shortage of drinking. The scene was so perfect I had to take a few breaks from the action and walk out to the cliffs edge, gaze over the water and reflect on how lucky I was to be there for such a beautiful event. As the party died down and the staff took their leave, they made us a bonfire and supplied us with plenty of booze and smores – enough to last into the morning. I will never forget that scene. The bonfire burning with friends gathered around, music playing and the ocean as a backdrop. The grey sky never turned black and the sun’s presence was felt just over the horizon until it began to rise again in the morning. I went to bed late that night knowing I had gained some memories I would always hold onto.
Beauty is a funny thing in that it comes in so many forms. I found Ackergill Castle all the more beautiful for its powerful and at times harsh environment. Incomparable to a serene tropical beach, or to a sunny mountain pass, the beauty here was more complex in that the conflict between an unforgiving environment and a stunning landscape served to accentuate the wonder of adaptation and of nature’s ability to sprout beauty in all places. To focus too much on the beauty of bright colors and sunshine misses an opportunity to appreciate the full spectrum of natural beauty and human existence. A grey sky over a dark blue ocean and a sun that refuses to fully drop below the horizon belies a different human experience – one of endurance. The inherent light in endurance is like the summer sun that never quite sets in the northern reaches and what we all wish for in a marriage. // Jeff
Scotland captured my imagination through its long-standing history, unique culture and widely recognized but narrowly understood traditions. The culture runs deep here and during our time, I think we barely scratched the surface of what it means to be Scottish. I sensed a great deal more pride here than in England which I think reflects the value of tradition and duty instilled in the people. I was immediately struck by how kind the people were and I got the sense that to be Scottish is to be polite, friendly, and just a little bit more grounded.
The first few nights were spent in Edinburgh, both the literal and cultural capital of Scotland. It is the second largest city in Scotland behind Glasgow but has been recognized as the capital since the 15th century. It holds a population of just over a half a million and is just second to London in the UK as a finance hub and as a tourist draw with over a million overseas visitors a year.
We were incredibly fortunate to stay in a beautiful Airbnb in the center of town. The apartment building was built in the early 1900’s and was impeccably designed. The owner of the apartment was incredibly gracious and bought us bread, eggs, butter and jam which allowed us to cook up a few meals. There is something very satisfying about eating in. I think it provides the little feeling of home that we are missing in our lives.
The skyline of Edinburgh is an absolute wonder with architecture of the buildings and cathedrals evoking the 17th and 18th centuries. A large portion of the city sits in this veritable historic treasure trove and it is a real struggle to appreciate any one building as you are almost overwhelmed by the collective charm. We took a fascinating nighttime tour some of the haunted locations in the city of Edinburgh. The most memorable site we visited is known as the South Bridge Vaults and was originally built underneath the city to house taverns and space for cobblers and other tradesmen in the late 18th century. It ended up later being used as storage space for illicit material and a refuge for transporting robbed corpses for use as medical cadavers at the nearby University of Edinburgh. These underground vaults were ultimately shut down, filled in, and forgotten for over 150 years. Discovered in 1985, the vaults are now home to a myriad of spirits who exhibit consistent characteristics and behaviors. There are frequent sightings here and it is widely believed to be one of the most active areas for paranormal activity in the world. I am happy to say that we did not in fact see or sense anything ourselves because in most cases these spirits are believed to have unhappy endings and thus carry a darker energy. As I am sure you can tell, there are many legends and dark stories of Edinburgh’s tumultuous past, it is a city that captures my vision of old Europe in a way that is both whimsical and macabre. To evoke both reactions in one person says a lot about how special of a place Edinburgh is. We plan on coming back soon.
Our group spent a full day exploring the Scottish Highlands meeting the Harry Coo (Scotland's famous cows), touring the Glengoyne distillery and visiting a nearby castle. We then spent a night in Inverness further to the north. While the countryside was gorgeous and we learned a lot – we were so caught up enjoying the time with our friends that we didn’t learn or reflect as much as we normally would have. I felt like I was on a field trip and although I was interested in what we were learning, I was just as interested in spending time with my friends and having a good laugh. Given the fact that so much of our European trip was going to be done solo, we both wanted to soak up as much time with everyone as we could knowing that we wouldn’t be seeing any friends or family for about two months straight.
Every new place we visited from London, to Edinburgh, to Inverness, more and more wedding guests were arriving and joining the group. You could feel the energy and excitement building for the wedding. We were ready to get to Wick to start the festivities and wrap up our Scotland experience. I will always look back fondly on Scotland, not just for what I learned and saw, but for who I spent the time with. // Jeff
After four months in South America, I had grown accustomed to life on the road as well as the process of traveling in less advanced countries. As I touched down in London, I had no idea what to expect and walked through immigration at Heathrow airport with an open mind. Within the first day in London, I fell in love. The bustle of the city, the style and décor of the homes in Kensington – the neighborhood we called home for a week, and the history immersed throughout the town caught me off guard. I was immediately aware of the fact that my brief time in London would just be the tip of the iceberg and that I had to return to fully enjoy and understand this remarkable city. This was my first time in the UK and I gave insufficient weight to how much the culture of England shaped the United States. You could feel it in the advertising, architecture, pace of life, and general demeanor of the people in the city among innumerable other things.
London itself and particularly the neighborhood we stayed in is a finance hub in Europe and the amount of money walking around town quickly jaded me. By the time I left I convinced myself that Bentleys must be significantly cheaper here, simply an average luxury sedan, as that could be the only explanation for the sheer volume of them on the street. The uniformity of color and architecture in the Kensington neighborhood was particularly charming to me. White houses with black trim and greenery throughout, the timeless style lends no clue to the era in time you are inhabiting – it is only betrayed by the power lines, satellite dishes, and passersby pouring over a message on their iPhone.
Our first few days in England were spent walking the town and enjoying the city parks. I had not realized how devoted the English were to their public parks and was incredibly impressed by the vast stretches of Hyde Park and in a more modest way, the numerous green spaces that popped up every few blocks. I was expecting London to in many ways be like Manhattan- the embodiment of urban density with the rush of humanity sweeping you up like a current. While a metropolis, the density was much less intense and the green of the city served to soften its edges immensely.
We spent a good amount of time window shopping at Harrods as well. The American culture was pretty evident here in exploring this ultra luxury department store where you could buy almost any good, accessory, food, or clothing item under the sun. It was like the fanciest mall in the world stacked into a high rise and it seemed like the sections were endless. I immensely enjoyed the food court which served everything from cornish game hen and steak, to sushi and caviar. I will forever think of Harrods when I think of London.
After the first two nights, friends started to roll into town. Mandy’s best friend Rachel and her fiancée Brandon were getting married the next week in Wick, Scotland. Many guests attending the wedding decided to spend time in England and Scotland prior to the festivities. We had just left Phoenix and it was so much more special to be able to explore a new place with close friends, especially at the beginning of our European leg. A lot of a travel experience is seeing a place through the eyes of those around you and being able to do so with people you are close to enhances the time spent immeasurably. This is especially true on the front end of a long trip because it sets the tone for the rest of the trip. I can assuredly say that the tone set was one with a lot of fun, laughs, drinks, and inside jokes. Life isn’t what you do but who you send time with and I couldn’t have picked a better group of people to fill that role.
We saw a few of the sights including the London Eye, and Buckingham Palace as well as the Victoria and Albert Museum. The level of history surrounding this city and Britain is so vast and complex that it would take volumes to properly explain and contextualize the current position of the city and nation. In some ways, to understand London and England, is to know most of modern history spanning from the Roman Empire through today. Suffice it to say, being among that much history inspired my interest in better understanding pre-1900’s Europe which I have a lot to learn about.
We spent our last few days in London going on different day trips outside of town. Our first excursion was to iconic Stonehenge. Located a few hours’ drive outside of London, Stonehenge consists of standing stones, each around thirteen feet high, six feet wide, and weighing approximately 25 tons. They are arranged in a circle and were made as is widely believed for religious purposes. Most astounding is the movement of these gigantic stones with the earliest portions of the monument dating back as many as 5,000 years ago. It is still a mystery as to how these stones were transported, but as seen on Easter Island, an organized culture and religion can do some astounding things. What is striking to me, is the fact that people have been organized and living in a civilized way here for that long of a period of time. So many different factions have risen and fell in such a small area over an immensely long period of time. What is equally interesting is how many distinct groups and identities remain in England, even to this day. Despite the countless conquerors from abroad and local groups dominating one another, distinct cultures still exist here today and understanding those different groups helps you fully understand the richness of the national identity.
We spent another full day out in the English countryside exploring Bath and the Cotswolds. Thanks to the breed of sheep known as the Cotswold Lion, this area of England became incredibly prosperous during the Middle Ages. The name Cotswold is attributed to the meaning "sheep enclosure in rolling hillsides", incorporating the term “wold” meaning hills.
During the middle ages, wool was inordinately expensive throughout Europe and as a result large sums of money flowed into the area over a short period of time. The wealth in the Cotswolds was largely invested in the Churches as the wealthy Wool Farmers and merchants wanted to curry favor with God. To this day, many large stone churches dot the area and are known as “wool churches.” Later on, the price of wool plummeted and a once prosperous area had its primary source of income taken away. As a result, no further investment was made to the area in many generations and as a result, the area possesses the old world charm that we see it for today. In present times, many wealthy Londoners have acquired country homes in this area and it has resulted in a revitalization to the area and a restoration of many estates that had fallen into disrepair.
The Cotswold’s were designated as an Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty (AONB) which provides for the preservation of the area and draws national distinction to the region. Many of the “Period” films we all know and love of Victorian England were in fact filmed in this area as well. The region inspires the imagination and takes your mind back to another era in England’s history.
We finished our outside London excursions with a visit to the city of Bath. A UNESCO World Heritage site, Bath houses a temple built by the Roman Empire and the natural hot springs flow into and through the temple. This archaeological site was lost for hundreds of years and rediscovered in the 16th century. The English nobility at the time claimed that the water from the natural springs had curative properties and the city quickly grew in prominence as a spa town amongst the wealthy and powerful. The noblemen would drink up to eight glasses of the sulphur flavored water in an attempt to cure any myriad of ailments. The city was once called home and written about by Jane Austen and is now a major city and center for tourism seeing almost four million visitors annually. We had the opportunity to walk the city for a few hours and tour the ancient Roman temple.
England for me helped contextualize my own culture and identity as an American. I saw many parallels to American beliefs, ideals, and value systems. While this should be obvious to most, I think there is a difference between understanding something in principle and feeling a parallel for yourself. The history of the United States is short relative to the history of modern society and my first few weeks in Europe provided me with a longer view of where my own culture and world view originated. In my past travels, I have marveled at the differences I have learned about language, culture, history in other societies but in this case, my greatest lessons come from reflecting on palpable similarities. // Jeff
“A city that once was” is how I think you can best describe Montevideo. The greatness of the city’s past is apparent as you walk the streets of the city center – old signs and advertisements from the 60’s and even older are still present on the storefronts. Middies Art Deco buildings line the avenues and it takes little imagination to visualize the hustle and bustle of 1920’s Montevideo. That however is where the past and present diverge. While charming and safe, you look around the streets and they seem just a little less kempt and the pace a little slower than Buenos Aires and Santiago - but in a very subtle way. It felt almost gloomy to me – holding onto a shining past without as much optimism for the future. It felt very Argentinian and the Italian influence was everywhere. My curiosity grew in trying to understand what made the city give me such a different perception than I had imagined. I had not done a lot of research up to this point and what I subsequently learned was very interesting and in some ways validated my initial impression.
The origin of Uruguay as a nation is inexorably linked to both Brazil and Argentina. In 1811, the region of Uruguay along with the rest of Argentina won independence from the Spanish empire. As Argentina was trying to form a constitution and assemble a foundation for how the nation was to be governed, those of the region closer to Uruguay were proponents of federalism whereby a large degree of political and economic autonomy was given to each region. However, the rest of Argentina - particularly the power located in Buenos Aires, objected and moved towards a system of unitary centralism. This system was designed to focus the power in the capital and for the country to be run in a much more national sense. In reaction, Uruguay and bordering regions took the city of Montevideo by force and created their own autonomous government. Most of those areas ultimately reverted to Argentina but the seeds of Uruguay’s national identity were sown in the 1815 takeover. A year later, a force of Portuguese troops from neighboring Brazil invaded the country and took over Montevideo by 1817. The Brazilian empire held it peaceably until 1825. Another war of independence from Brazil took place from 1825-1830 until a British brokered treaty gave birth to the country of Uruguay as the independent state we know it as today. It is no wonder how similar it felt to Argentina from a cultural standpoint as it has its roots in both Argentina’s birth and its shared rivalry and distrust of Brazil.
I did some additional research into the current state of Montevideo and discovered that in many ways it is a city in decay. Montevideo is experiencing a population crisis with rapidly aging citizenry. Not only are families having fewer children, but the most talented of the young adults will emigrate to the US, or neighboring Argentina or Brazil in search of better opportunities. This brain drain has served to negatively impact the economy as well as lower tax revenues. The country is very liberal and has a very strong social security program. The declining revenue base has created a large amount of strain in the government’s ability to finance the pensions of the aging population and in many ways the country never recovered from the major recession it suffered along with Argentina in the early 2000’s. Uruguay is not seeing much if any population growth, and the population of Montevideo at 1.3mm has stayed pretty much the same since the 1960’s.
Walking the streets, you could notice the lack of energy in the people and the slow pace of life. Don’t get me wrong here as this post seems negative. The city is beautiful and the people were warm, but it felt like an unpolished version of itself. You can see the rebirth and vibrancy in many of the other big cities within Latin America and the buzz in the air just wasn’t the same. More than anything it was interesting to learn that my uneducated perception of the city on first impression was validated by a closer look at its history and current state of affairs.
Ironically, in staying with the theme of a city that once was, Mandy and I rented an Airbnb in the Palacio Salvo which is one of Montevideo’s icons. Completed in 1928 and standing 100m high, this building for a few decades was the tallest building in South America. We were lucky to occupy one of the four domes on the 19th floor. Sitting one floor below the top of this building, our vantage point provided close to 360 degree views of the city below. The rooms were impeccably furnished and it felt like being in a design magazine. The two days we spent in Montevideo were spent enjoying the views from our apartment and exploring the city. The food was delicious wherever we went and possessed the same steak- heavy, Italian-influenced cuisine of Buenos Aires.
I left Montevideo with a deep yet unique appreciation for it. In its withered buildings and grimy streets, there was a certain beauty to be discerned. While far from its peak, it still had a lot to offer. Something in me knows that there is a bright future in store for Montevideo. There is such a rich and pugnacious birth story of Uruguay. As a country that fought and won its independence from three separate nations to become what it is today – I can’t help but think it has a lot of fight in it left. // Jeff
A city like no other I have ever experienced - Rio de Janeiro is one of extremes. Dramatic beauty intermingled with stark poverty, warm hospitality punctuated with the very real danger of criminality, Rio is in a battle with its own identity much like a Gemini, struggling for one ego to come through over the other. But like the Gemini, the extremes and the conflict of the identity comprise its distinctive and charming embodiment. To water it down would be like watering down a wine, in that its bold characteristics serve well to effectuate its subtle notes and to change its form would betray its complexity.
Up to this point on the trip we had been getting by pretty well with our Spanish. We were improving quickly and by this time we were confident in knowing what was going on around us. Brazil turned all that upside down. I have zero background in or prior exposure to Portuguese so it was a bit intimidating at first. However, as you may or may not know, Mandy is extremely proficient in language and so we could cobble together English, Spanish, and Portuguese to get by. By way of background, Rio de Janeiro was founded by the Portuguese in 1565 and was the most important city of Colonial Portugal until Brazil moved for its independence in 1822. At one time, it was the capital of the Portuguese monarchy worldwide and its prominence and Portuguese identity remain even until today. It is now Brazil’s second largest city and the fourth largest in South America.
We had been on the road a while and we thought it best for our psyche and our budget to stay put for two weeks. Given our time constraints, it was too daunting to attempt a full Brazilian tour and thought Rio would give us a flavor for the rest of Brazil which we hope to fully explore in the future. We rented a cozy apartment in the Lapa neighborhood – the notorious nightlife district of Rio. Our 8th floor one bedroom apartment sat perched atop several bars and offered a safe and effective vantage point of the debauchery taking place below. I am no stranger to a good night out but was astounded to find the party that started around 7pm not let up until 9:30am the following day. These marathon party nights – undoubtedly fueled by more than just alcohol, roared below us. You could hear the transition of the crowd go from sober levity to manic inebriation and then devolve into aggressive irrationality.
We spent a lot of time in the apartment catching up on work as well as organizing for our trip back home to AZ. We made a point to see at least one attraction per day and as a result got a very full exposure to the highlights of the city. Our apartment was next to a grocery store and gym so we cooked a lot of meals for ourselves and worked out a lot which was a pleasant change of pace. After three months on the road a routine felt amazing. I must say that every person we encountered was overwhelmingly warm, welcoming, and proud of their city. I have never felt more welcome than by the residents of Rio and it is irrefutable that overall, they were the nicest people we encountered on our trip. The warmth we felt I think is a true reflection of the Brazilian culture and the live-in-the-moment attitude was palatable.
The beauty of Rio is best understood through a reflection on its dramatic landscape. The steep mountains of Sugarloaf and Corcovado occupy the middle of the dense metropolis that seemingly falls into the ocean. All the while, Christ the Redeemer is visible at almost all times watching the city grow and evolve over the years as it stands unvarying - measuring the change against its consistent presence. It’s beautiful and never-ending beaches in Ipanema & Copacabana are countered inland with slums at the edge of balcony-wrapped skyscrapers. The view of Rio is chaotic and diverse much like the natural space it occupies. I have never in my life looked at a city vista and struggled to identify whether I was more drawn to the architecture or the geography which seem to be locked in this never-ending struggle for dominance. I think we can all relate to this struggle in that our society labors between preserving natural beauty and embracing our god given gifts of creating beautiful spaces through art, architecture, urban planning, and design. The secret is shown in Rio – a marriage of man and nature. // Jeff
The diversity of Colombia was really driven home over our few days spent in Cartagena. The weather, vibe, streetscapes, and people were completely different from our other stops along the way and everything about the city brought my imagination to another time in history. The city was a major and critical Spanish port founded in 1553 and is located on the northern coast of Colombia in the Caribbean. The Afro-Caribbean influence is everywhere and in stark contrast to the rest of our South American adventure.
Cartagena’s strategic location between the Magdalena and Sinu rivers caused it to be the main port between Spain and the entirety of its overseas empire and was literally the heart that pumped goods and people throughout the continent and back to mainland Spain. Most of the Peruvian silver was exported here and was also the main location for the importation of African slaves. Of all the great cities in the Spanish empire in South America, Cartagena was the center of political, religious and economic activity in the colonization’s initial stages. Its role as a major exporter of silver made it a prominent target for pirates who were bankrolled and supported by other European rivals such as France, England, and Holland. In its early years, many of these raids were successful and a lot of wealth was lost. To counter this threat, the city was walled in from the sea and defensive towers and embattlements were installed. While not the original plan, construction on the city fortifications were completed over the course of over two hundred years.
In 1984, Cartagena’s colonial walled city and fortress was designated a UNESCO world heritage site. Within the walled city, the buildings are well preserved and almost every building has maintained the architectural style of the historic Spanish colonies. The city has a population of just under one million and is the fifth largest in Colombia. Tourism is a major driver of economic activity and it has grown in popularity for visitors from North America and Europe. This was the first place I had seen in South America with a palatable American presence and influence. There were many American tourists we encountered along the way of course, but Americans in the rest of South America were greatly outnumbered by Europeans and Australians. It is likely the closer proximity to the US and beach atmosphere that is a such a draw for American tourists to enjoy sun, sand, and a twist of old world history.
The gorgeous ocean views, Spanish Colonial feel, and charm of the walled in city are a feast for the eyes and a photographer’s dream. The rich varied colors and winding cobblestone streets encourage wandering, and the next block around the bend keeps you exploring further and further. The humidity is pretty daunting though, and every so often our exploration was punctuated with a stop in to a restaurant or hotel for a much-needed cooling off.
During our brief time in the city we walked the streets and tried more than our fair share of the food, but one outing was especially memorable. Along the ocean, the Spanish had constructed large battlements which now stand as expansive stone platforms providing sweeping views of both the walled inner city and the ocean. On this platform sit a few restaurants in the open air. We enjoyed a few drinks on the large patio at Cafe del Mar as music played all around us and the sun set over the water. Large Colombian flags flew in the breeze amidst the backdrop of upbeat music and an orange sky. Those few moments are forever emblazoned in my memory - occupying the space my mind holds for Colombia: a crisp breeze on a warm day and a cool drink in hand, my breath taken by the sky and my imagination swept up in an old world. // Jeff
Surprisingly enough, Medellín has thus far been our favorite city in South America. Its reputation precedes it as the former home of Pablo Escobar and was once recognized as the most violent and dangerous city in the world. The fact that it has come so far in such a brief period is a living example of the ability of communities to turn things around. Within the context of our society today rife with problems like climate change, population explosion, and social injustice, we can take solace in knowing that through a concerted effort - drastic change is possible.
Medellín is the second largest city in Colombia with a population of about four million. Beginning in the late 90’s, the city began a rapid economic and social recovery through broad economic stimulus, a liberalized development policy, and large infrastructure projects that linked the many communities of the town together including the long forgotten lower class districts. The city is now a world-renowned case study in effective economic development. It was recently recognized by the Urban Land Institute as the most innovative city in the world due to its rapid improvement and is tied for the best place to live in South America with Santiago de Chile.
Within minutes of landing in the airport we knew we were somewhere very special. The streets were impeccably clean, the buildings were well designed and well-built and the air felt crisp and fresh. Our cab driver told us that Medellín is nicknamed the City of Eternal Spring due to its year-round temperate climate. It felt like I was in a cleaner, greener version of Los Angeles and as we drove from the outskirts of town to downtown, the neighborhoods kept getting nicer and nicer. We had truly found a diamond in the rough and new retail and multifamily developments was visible on every major street – this city was booming.
We spent our first full day in Medellín on a fascinating Pablo Escobar city tour. We learned more about the man and the terror he inflicted on the country as the head of the Medellín Cartel in the 1980’s. We started the tour outside of his eight-story apartment building in the nicest area of town. This massive structure housed his entire family as well as a small hidden prison in the basement. His level of depravity was so pronounced that he would switch from playing with his young daughter in the penthouse to torturing and killing prisoners in the basement within the same hour. It is little surprise he acquired his reputation as a ruthless butcher. We continued the tour with a drive up to the prison he had built for himself. In the early 90’s he had essentially declared war on the Colombian government and his numerous killings and bombings brought the country to its knees. As a compromise to keep the peace, the Colombian government allowed him to stay in a prison that he guarded and built himself. This “prison” was complete with a soccer field, helipad, and special “pleasure room” equipped with a rotating circular bed where he would rendezvous with his many prostitutes. The Colombian national soccer team, celebrities, and beauty queens made special trips to see him at the prison and there was virtually a revolving door of business associates and politicians who visited the property. As the story has it, the prison was designed to look like a fortress so Escobar could tell his young daughter he wasn’t staying in prison but enjoying the safe harbor of his castle. It is now used by the government as a retirement home and the plants and grass have overgrown much of the property. The use of this symbol of terror and criminal dominance of the government as a facility to help those in need carries with it an interesting meaning to me. It is a living reminder of the level of control Escobar had over the government but at the same time is a metaphor for what the city has done in response to this dark time in its history – a stronger and more beautiful rebirth. We later visited Pablo’s grave, the rooftop where he was killed, and finished our tour in the neighborhood now called Barrio Pablo Escobar. During his time in power he was generous with the poor people of the country and constructed hundreds of homes in this low income community. He drew the admiration of the community through his generous act and the residents named their neighborhood after him as a symbol of appreciation. The neighborhood carries his name to this day.
That night we enjoyed dinner and drinks late into the night in the main bar and club district in town - Parque Lleras. This neighborhood was impeccably clean and consisted of what seemed like hundreds of different bars, restaurants, boutiques, clubs, and galleries. It was as if someone took Old Town Scottsdale, doubled it in size, and stacked it on top of itself. I honestly think it rivals 6th Street in Austin, TX.
Two days was scarcely enough for the City of Eternal Spring. The unbelievable weather, tasty food, friendly people, and stylish spaces left us wanting much more. This city that rose from the ashes invites us all to think bigger about what we can do to improve society if we work together towards a common goal. // Jeff
The two days we spent in Salento were a welcome retreat from the city hustle and bustle. It’s there where we reconnected with rural South America in its finest representation – amidst the colorful colonial buildings of yesterday hidden in the cloud forest. Salento is a sleepy town just west of Bogotá and is home to many American expats and Colombians searching for a slower pace of life. We landed at the airport and were greeted by our hostel host who spoke perfect English with no accent. After a few months in South America, hearing that level of English quickly gets your attention. We ultimately found out that he was a Colombian who grew up in New Jersey and quit his corporate job right out of college, travelled the world for a few years and fell in love with Salento by accident. It was in Salento that he decided to settle down and he had just finished building a hotel after a two-year construction project. To meet people by chance who have such a passion for life and living it by their own standards is what traveling is all about. This guy – maybe three years older than me had already squeezed so much experience and adventure out of life. For me, the people we have met on the road punctuated our trip in such an amazing way. The active role he played in his life and the way he had cultivated it according to his own nuanced idea of a good life was really inspiring to me.
We checked into the Coffee Tree Boutique Hostel, perched on a hill and sat on our balconies amidst a fierce rainstorm. We sat there for about an hour doing nothing – just enjoying the view of the rich green valley below. It was astounding as to how quickly we were overtaken by the slow-paced life of the town.
Our hotel was a five-minute walk to downtown and we were in love at first sight. The buildings of the downtown were painted every color imaginable and the friendly nature of the residents was immediately felt. We window shopped for a bit then stopped in for dinner at a recommended restaurant, Bernabe. After polishing off one of the best steaks I have had thus far on the trip, we enjoyed freshly brewed coffee from a plantation just outside of town – truly some of the most delicious coffee I have ever had. Milk and sugar wasn’t even on my radar screen (which is very out of character for me) as it would have adulterated the coffee somehow. I have never experienced coffee in that way and it made me realize just how lucky the people of this town were.
The next day was spent wandering the small town and enjoying drinks in a bar that overlooked the valley and cloud forest below while catching up on some overdue work. Our dinner the first night was so good we decided to go back to the same place and it didn’t disappoint. While we may have missed out on some of the activities of Salento like exploring the coffee plantations or hiking through the nearby forests with insanely tall palm trees, we got a deep sense for the small-town charm that can be offered in Colombia. The town is a very special place that I hope to return to. I also got a strong dose of inspiration from our hostel host – it’s reinvigorating to meet people that inspire you. // Jeff
Bogota is a living example of what it means to live in a vibrant city that successfully drives together a sense of community. While our time there was very short, I came away with a keen sense for the city and what makes it unique. At a population just under seven million, it is the largest city in Colombia and the capital of the country.
Our flight landed early in the morning and we decided to take a cab from the airport to a coffee shop in town. We needed to kill time for a few hours because we couldn’t check into our Airbnb until midday. As soon as we were in the city we saw people on bikes literally everywhere. Every corner, every street, every place you looked, there were people on bikes. When we asked our taxi driver what was going on he told us that every other major street and highway was completely closed off and open for people to bike freely. I figured it was maybe a national holiday but was quickly corrected. Every Sunday they hold what is called “Ciclovia,” where they shut down half the city for cyclists. It was a great first impression to take into the beginning of our visit. Once we were dropped off, we killed a few hours at a coffee shop and it is there where we first experienced what I am going to call “Colombia disorientation.” Sitting under the towering trees, sipping my coffee and looking at the people and bikers passing by, I for a minute forgot I was in Colombia and could have sworn I was in a trendy neighborhood in Portland. The mature trees, calm weather, and American music took my mind to the Northwest. It was only when I heard the chatter of the patrons in fast paced Spanish that I remembered where I was.
By lunch time we could check into our Airbnb and we took a short drive to the house. We were warmly welcomed by our host and shown around the house which was an impeccably remodeled 1940’s mansion. The owner had taken a ton of time and energy to refurbish the house in a manner that still respected the style of the original construction. It was energizing to meet someone as passionate as the owner was about his house and to hear his energy in describing the efforts he went through to complete the remodel.
We really took advantage of our second day and spent quite a bit of time exploring. We were a short walk from downtown and decided to visit the famed Botero Museum. As soon as we got into the thick of downtown we came across another major street completely blocked off and available only to pedestrian traffic. I was astounded to see this major street- probably seven lanes wide used by the people of the city strolling with friends or heading to a nearby café or restaurant. I asked around and again was informed this street is periodically closed off and open only to pedestrian and bicycle traffic. The city was bustling and definitely felt like the center for commerce in the country. After about a half hour walk through the busy downtown, we turned up a hill and headed into a more Spanish colonial section of town, arriving at the Botero Museum shortly thereafter. For those of you unaware, Fernando Botero is a famous Colombian artist and widely considered one the most famous artists in all Latin America. Botero’s trademark in a manner of speaking is to paint or sculpt his subjects in a proportionately exaggerated or fat manner. The whimsical and consistent nature of Botero’s style makes his work very enjoyable and memorable to view. While I have seen some Botero paintings in the past, the museum carries an extensive collection and experiencing them all together in that way gives you the feeling that you are transported into an alternate universe that never skimps on dessert or an extra few pinches of salt (doesn’t sound too bad to me). He has repainted many famous works like the Mona Lisa in his own style which is also very enjoyable to see and recognize while wandering the halls of the large museum.
Bogota over many other cities made me feel a sense community immediately. The efforts of the city to bring the people together on such a consistent basis has the effect of turning the metropolis into a much smaller town over time. One could feel the sense of community exuding from the people of the city and the pride they took in speaking about it. People should take a page out of Bogota’s playbook – it would make for more common ground, more relationships, and a stronger drive towards civic duty. // Jeff
The few days we spent in Quito were days to be remembered but left us wanting more. It is a city worth exploring thoroughly and while we stayed there for three nights, one of the days was spent on a long day trip well outside of town. Quito is the capital of Ecuador and sits at just over 9,000 feet. It is the second most populous city in the country behind Guayaquil at a population of just over 2.5 million. The historic center of Quito is home to the largest and best preserved historic center of the Americas. It truly feels like you are transported back in time to the colonial days when walking the streets. The full influence of the Spanish at the height of their empire can be felt here in its most unadulterated form.
Our group spent a day doing some light walking in the city and visiting the equator line. The central of Quito sits about sixteen miles south of the equator so a trip there was a very quick and easy drive for our group. We also had an opportunity to shop in the Otavolo market outside of town. It was incredibly vast and you could buy any number of artisan goods, rugs, textiles, paintings, and clothes. A neighboring town was also very well known for high quality leather goods so Mandy decided to buy a handmade leather backpack. On the way back to our hotel the group stopped to try some roasted guinea pig (Tito & Olive – we promise we didn’t try any). As it was the end of a very long run of traveling days in a row we decided to take it easy on our last day. We were fortunate to stay our final night in Quito in a small hotel that was a converted 1920’s era mansion. The older couple who ran the hotel were incredibly accommodating and even drove us to the airport when our prearranged ride bailed on us. On the ride, they told us about their lives and process of starting the small hotel – how much of a challenge it had been and how much more they enjoyed it rather than working in the corporate world. Their generosity and openness really drove home the culture of the people in Ecuador - incredibly kind, open, and frank. I can’t wait to come back to this country and dive deeper into its culture, people, and history. // Jeff
Baños is a smaller city in Ecuador of around 17,000 inhabitants nestled under the Tungurahua Volcano. The volcano is still very active and it remains highly monitored by geologists and eruptions have in years past necessitated the evacuation of the city. The city is one of the more popular tourist attractions in Ecuador and it has a very active downtown full of bars, restauraunts and boutiques. It is well known for its natural beauty and dramatic landscapes with over sixty waterfalls in the area and numerous hot springs.
Our first day in Baños was spent touring the many waterfall dotted vistas – amazing camera fodder. We also viewed one of the largest waterfalls from a suspension bridge about mid way up the falls. The bridge was pretty intimidating but sturdy so the heart didn’t get racing too fast for comfort. We ended the day taking turns swinging on a terrifying and gigantic swing that basically catapults you over a cliff. The men who operate the swing push you so high that it seems like you are going to go flying off the cliff but after watching thirty people go ahead of me injury free- I mustered the courage to give it a go. It was a lot of fun and made for some great photos – you really looked like you were flying through the air above into the heavens.
Given the fact that we were on the road so long, we used the second day for some much needed R&R at a nearby resort and spa. Mandy had a massage and spa day and I caught up on some overdue reading. The resort was positioned at the top of a high hill where you could see the entire town below. I couldn’t have thought of a better way to spend the day. We ended the night with a fun dinner with the other folks on the trip and had more than a handful of a drinks at a bar. We met a few of the locals and they invited us and a few of our Intrepid friends to an after hours bar setup in the apartment/tattoo parlor of one of the locals. It was probably not the best idea but it ended up being a good time. I met a few other travelers passing through town and chatted with the locals about life in Baños. Our experience in Baños was a great reflection on the people of Ecuador. Incredibly relaxed, open, and kind – its beauty was more pronounced the day we left because of the people that call it home. // Jeff
Exhausted from twelve straight days of tours we finally arrived in Ecuador. The eight days in Ecuador we spent were memorable not only for the things we saw and learned but for the people we met and the relationships we forged in such a brief period of time. Travel is one of those things that catches you by surprise because you are seeing new things and out of your comfort zone on such a consistent basis. What it has also done I have discovered, is take things out of your life that you take for granted. One of these for us is the enjoyment derived from spending time with family and friends. At this point on the journey we really missed that aspect of life and there is no amount of FaceTime, phone calls or social media that can make up for it.
For our Ecuador trip, we used a tourism company called Intrepid Travel. They organize trips throughout the world in smaller groups which took a lot of the planning and guesswork out of this leg of the trip - our original purpose for booking. As I am sure you can imagine, planning a multiple month trip across a continent is daunting and Intrepid provided us with a welcome relief for having to plan every day of our journey. What we weren’t anticipating however, were the amazing people we met in the group and how much enjoyment we got out of meeting a new group of people and experiencing our trip together with them. Our group of twelve consisted of people from Ireland, Australia, Canada, the US, and Austria. Our ages, backgrounds, and interests varied widely but the experience from the trip made a lot of us very close.
Our first full day of the trip consisted of a long bus ride from Quito to a small town where we boarded a shuttle to an even smaller town. From there we boarded a motor boat and rode across the river into the Amazon Rainforest for about twenty minutes until we slipped onto the shore of the indigenous village of Shiripuno Community. The women of this community had banded together to construct lodging for tourists and an itinerary designed to teach visitors about the jungle and the many native customs they have practiced for countless generations. We were guided along a tour that taught us how they plant and harvest bananas, yucca root, and cacao using only a machete. We harvested and planted items ourselves along the way and headed back to the village where we were taught how to make chocolate from the cacao we had just picked off a tree. We seeded the fruit, roasted the seeds (I was appointed Master Roaster), peeled them and grinded what remained. After adding sugar, cream, and a touch of cinnamon, we had made our very own chocolate. I know it might sound a bit funny to some, but for a couple of city people, this was a fascinating and fun experience. We finished off the night with a short show of indigenous customs, a brief language lesson and dinner using ingredients of some of the food we harvested earlier that day.
The second the sun went down the jungle exploded with noise. What had to have been thousands of insects and other wildlife went to work in creating a cacophony both terrifying and soothing after a while. I slept well under my mosquito net and the blanket of not so white noise but Mandy didn’t fare quite so well.
The next morning, we ate breakfast and boarded a boat to go deeper into the jungle down a river that feeds to the Amazon. We labored through a very muddy and sweaty two-hour hike through the jungle where we learned about many of the plants and animals we saw along the way and of their various medicinal qualities and practical uses. Once back in the boat, we found a beach to stop at for lunch and tubed down the river for about a half mile or so. Floating down the river was incredibly rejuvenating and helped recover my spirits after a pretty grueling hike. I only later found out about the river snakes that also like to float down the river and were probably enjoying the journey along with us. I guess ignorance is bliss.
We ended our long day learning more words in Quechua- the native language spoken in the village. Interestingly enough, the Quechua spoken in Shiripuno is much different that the Quechua from Peru and while there was a bit of overlap between many of the words, they were almost completely different languages. I don’t know if it was our acclimating or a grueling day, but the second night of sleep in Shiripuno was restful and deep.
The next morning, we thanked our hosts and boarded a bus for Baños. I am amazed and in some ways scared about how little I know of the natural world. I would say that 80% of the skills and knowledge of the people in Shiripuno were completely foreign to me. Many of these skills were in basic farming and wilderness survival. Our society has created so much insulation from the natural world that some of us are completely removed from it. I think this is one of the biggest issues we face in preserving the environment. We are so far removed from what we are working to save that there is no relatability or connection there. In our efforts to conquer nature we separate ourselves from it and that stark separation in itself, is the architecture of our downfall. // Jeff
The highlight of most trips to Peru – our tours of the Sacred Valley and Machu Picchu had finally arrived. People come from all over the world to view these sites as they are the shining examples of the Incan empire. We spent a day traveling through the Sacred Valley taking in some of the amazing green vistas and by midday had arrived at an old Jesuit monastery that had been converted to a hotel. Our tour guide told us about his being haunted in a room at the hotel twenty years ago and we snuck into some of the rooms which undoubtedly held a mystic energy.
We spent the rest of the afternoon with a tour of Ollaytaytambo – a famous town and archaeological site. The ancient streets of the town still have a working canal system built by the Incans that carries fresh water throughout the city. The temple next to the town was built and inhabited by an Incan King and served as the major stronghold and resistance point of the Incans against the Spanish conquistadors. Impressive farming terraces and temples are built into the hillside directly adjacent to the town and it is quite a hike to get to the top. During our tour, we found out some of the advanced scientific practices of the Incans included successful brain surgeries and tooth implants. It is impressive to know that they were able to successfully perform operations that invasive in the 1500’s - undoubtedly more advanced than the medical practices of their Spanish conquerors at the time.
After our tour of the city we boarded a train from Ollaytaytambo to Aguas Calientes – the jumping off point for Machu Picchu. Aguas Calientes exists solely to service the people who want to visit Machu Picchu and the town is so remote that there really aren’t any cars. The only vehicles are the various trains shuttling people to and from town, delivery trucks and shuttle buses ferrying tourists to Machu Picchu. I was struck with how this town came out of nowhere – a collection of gift shops, hotels, bars and restaurants. An economy and sizable urban collective solely devoted to tourism. We checked into our hotel at around 11pm and after a brief meeting with our guide we concluded that catching the 5am bus up to Machu Pichu would be the best way to avoid the crowds... I wanted to cry because we had been running on not much sleep the last few nights and I wasn’t looking forward to another four-hour night sleep, but I knew it would be worth it.
The next morning, we woke up at four, grabbed breakfast, brought an extra banana and roll to our guide and we were on our way up the big hill to Machu Picchu. I honestly didn’t think we were going to make it there alive judging by the high speeds and narrow roads as well as a few close calls passing by buses careening down the mountain.
By way of background, Machu Picchu is a 15th century citadel constructed by the Incan emperor at the time to be utilized as a country estate. It was abandoned about 100 years later as a result of the Spanish conquista and remained unknown to the western world until it was rediscovered by American explorer Hiram Bingam in 1911. He cleared the property of the plants overgrowing it and began a restoration. It is now possible to view a large portion of the community as it was built over a half millennia ago. In 1983, it was declared a UNESCO world heritage site and is recognized as one of the seven new wonders of the world.
There is a certain feeling in the air at Machu Picchu – a kind of mystic energy that draws you up hundreds of stairs to the first lookout point. The morning we made it to the lookout point where 99% of the “postcard” photos for Machu Picchu are, it was an incredibly overcast day. The clouds intermingled between the peaks and over the village obstructing a good photo of the view. While not a feast for the lens of a camera, it was a feast for the eyes. In some ways, the mist-obscured views of the mountain and village below added to the mystic energy of the space and forced your mind back to the time of the Incans. Given our very early arrival, there were not many people around and we walked the grounds on a guided tour learning the function and meaning behind the varied structures inhabiting the site. However, since great photos were elusive due to the weather, we spent a few hours in the park café waiting for the clouds to clear enough for good pictures of the site.
Machu Picchu is undoubtedly one of the largest, if not the largest attraction to tourists in South America. As a result, the number of visitors regardless of the season is staggering. When we reentered the park to grab some photos as the fog had cleared, we were floored by the throngs of tourists exploring the site. The once quiet and mystic fog scene was transformed into a sea of humanity elbowing for their postcard photos. We made countless attempts to get a few unobstructed shots of the site and finally succeeded after what felt like a few hours.
While floored by the beauty and complexity of this ancient community, we were very happy to have explored numerous Incan sites in the weeks leading up to our visit because it gave us a lot of background that enhanced our experience as well as allowed us to see past the massive crowds. The irony of beautiful places in the world is that by virtue of their beauty, all the world comes to see them, which in some ways detracts from the beauty that brought the world to them in the first place. As people, our draw to beautiful places can serve to lessen those destinations in themselves. But what is beauty if not to share it with the world? It is a tough balance that needs to be struck and there is no way to do it in a manner that can please everyone, but it is an interesting problem – especially in a growing world. I feel incredibly blessed to have seen one of the new wonders of the world, and it is no mystery why it is considered as such. Its scale, advanced design, and dramatic mountain backdrop weaves a tapestry that can’t be duplicated. // Jeff
Cusco takes a position amongst the clouds as the capital of the mysterious Incan empire. We had learned a lot about the Incans up to this point, but it was in Cusco where the power and sophistication of this conquered empire was driven home for me. This city of just under a half million residents sits at above 11,000 feet and was declared a UNESCO world heritage site in the early 1980’s. While it has certainly adjusted to its myriad western guests who visit the city each year - luxury hotels and restaurants abound, it still carries with it significant Spanish colonial charm. Cobblestone lined streets, steep hills, and a main square and cathedral rivaling South America’s largest cities, you are immediately possessed by its unique energy. The buzz in the air emanating from both locals and guests reflects the respect and appreciation held for the town and the anticipation of viewing the shining examples of Incan civilization.
During our visit, we enjoyed some of the amazing restaurants and toured sights both Spanish Colonial and Incan. One of the most amazing ruins we toured was just outside of town at Saksaywaman. Built around the 1100’s, this citadel is characterized by massive boulders that measure twenty feet plus in height and width that were carved and somehow fit together without mortar. The fitting between stones is so tight and precise it can hold water. These gigantic boulders formed the protective walls of the citadel and as a rival invader, would have been practically impenetrable. In many ways the site seemed much more secure than the castles of Europe and it is apparent that the location of the citadel was strategically chosen. What is most striking is the fact that to this day no one truly knows how they could cut the stones so perfectly as not to need mortar. Even with modern technology, the cuts could not be duplicated with the same accuracy and at the same scale. Many surmise that these stone cuts were accomplished with a technology forever lost – even well before the arrival of the Spanish. Even more striking is the fact that some walls built on top of the massive stone cut structures are made with much smaller stones and mortar and look vastly more rudimentary than their ancient predecessors. This indicates that whoever constructed the massive stone structures left well before the Incans that occupied the land during the Spanish conquista. Theories abound include aliens, a different culture completely wiped out, or a human migration away from the area, perhaps even off the planet. Regardless of what happened there- it indicates an immensely advanced technology and ability that leaves even modern day visitors awestruck.
The Spanish and Catholic culture is alive and well in Cusco – with a twist. We happened to be in Cusco on Semana Santa – the week preceding Easter. On the Monday following Palm Sunday we were enjoying lunch overlooking the main square and we witnessed an Easter procession we could scarcely forget. It seemed as if everyone in town crowded the square and many of the clubs and organizations got ready for a parade in their respective uniforms. For about fifteen minutes, we heard strange sounds and smelled the faint tinge of incense. Suddenly, the doors of the main cathedral in town swung open and out marches about twenty men holding up a gigantic Christ on the cross covered in red fabric, a red rose crown, and adorned in red flowers. We came to learn this was the procession of the Señor de los Temblores which is known as the Patron Saint of Cusco. Temblor is Spanish for earthquake and the procession is meant to keep earthquakes at bay for the year and to protect the city against them. What really struck me was the adoption of Catholic religion into the narrower lore of the region. While the holiday was Catholic and the leaders of the procession were clergymen, the songs, patron saint, incense and general vibe of the procession had a unique indigenous feel. As the crucifix marched on, the various townspeople followed it through the city. This mixture of indigenous culture and catholic tradition reminded me of the richness of travel and why I am doing it in the first place. It is the unexpected nuance of what you thought you knew well mixing with a world you are just learning for the first time, manifesting itself into something that gives your perception of the world a new meaning. // Jeff
Arequipa is Peru’s second largest city and was founded well before the arrival of the Spanish in the 1500’s. It is uniquely characterized by buildings in the city center made entirely of white volcanic stone called "sillar" as well as impressive catholic churches and basilicas. We had the opportunity to visit the Santa Catalina convent which was founded in the late 1500’s. The convent was a self-sustained walled in city within a city. There was little to no interaction between the nuns within and the outside community and their daily activities were a mystery to the people of the time. I scarcely walked through a door without nearly banging my head and it served as a reminder of how much smaller people were five hundred years ago. To see such an intensely catholic institution so far from its origins constructed so long ago really drives home how powerful religion is, and how effective it was in aiding the Spanish conquest.
Arequipa is known as a Spanish island in an indigenous sea and its European influence is seen on every street. Our subsequent travels drove home to me just how indigenous the surrounding area is and gave us a unique exposure to that side of the Peruvian culture. // Jeff
A confluence of indigenous tribes and modern day countries, Lake Titicaca is a living reflection of the diversity present in this part of South America. Mandy and I spent a few days in the area and came away with a newfound respect for the people of the lake and the history surrounding it.
Titicaca as we were told is Quechua for “Gray Puma” and it is the highest navigable lake in the world at 12,500 feet. It shares a border with both Bolivia and Peru, and has two distinct and separate Quechua and Aymara native cultures that trace back their lineage to the lake well before the arrival of the Incans. The lake is spotted with sixty artificial islands occupied by the Uros people. These islands are built by cutting reeds in the area and piling the cut reeds on the living reed roots until it is high enough to build structures on. The reed roots are continuously growing and over 1200 people live on these floating islands. The communities at the time were so far offshore, that the Spaniards never discovered these people ad their culture and way of life stays highly intact to this day. Our guide for the few days we spent on the lake grew up on one of these islands and we were fascinated to hear that many neighbor disputes were resolved by simply pulling anchor and floating away. After an informative day spent learning some of the native Aymara language, exploring a nearby natural island and buying some locally handwoven rugs, we settled in for the night in the town of Luquina Chico.
That night and the following day was one of my favorite aspects of our trip to Peru and was one of the more eye opening experiences of our trip in South America. We spent our time with a local family and stayed with them in their home. The husband and wife owned a farm overlooking the lake and had seven kids ranging in age from two to nineteen. In our first few hours we got to know the two younger girls aged six and eight and played with the twin two-year-old brother and sister. The children normally spend most of their time playing with the animals and helping on the farm and our presence was a novelty they were all immediately drawn to. Mandy showed the girls her Snapchat and camera and it was a blast watching them play with the photo filters. We spent the evening speaking to the parents learning more about their way of life and were treated to a home cooked meal.
It’s funny how we as people tend to project our own ideas about what is the right way to live and those ideas color our perceptions and interactions with the world. However, this “right way” is just a cultural construct at times completely oblivious to the possibility of other ways of life not only being acceptable, but also on equal existential footing. Openness to other ways of life I think is at times seen through a lens of superiority in that another way of life may be accepted and respected but inherently perceived as inferior. By American standards the family was quite poor with only two bedrooms between seven people (the two oldest kids lived in the nearby city of Puno), a very simple mostly plant based diet, and generally few possessions to call their own. I at first felt sorry for the family and racked my brain for ways in which I could help. Yet by the end of my stay, I began to realize how much I was letting my own cultural bias frame my thinking. The family seemed incredibly happy and spent a lot of time together every day. They also had their basic needs met – a home, hot running water, electricity, plenty of food, and access to education. It was me who could have learned a lot about their slower paced way of life – one rich in close personal relationships in a small community of friends and family. // Jeff
We spent a day and night in the Colca Valley learning more about the area. The valley is located in southern Peru and is about 100 miles Northwest of Arequipa. It is gorgeous countryside and the canyon is twice as deep as the Grand Canyon. Since before the Incan empire, the tribes people in the region constructed stepped terraced farms in the mountains. The land was incredibly remote and there were no passable roads into the area until the 1940’s. As result, there is very little Spanish influence in the area and the native language and culture is still very much intact. We enjoyed a stay in a beautiful inn which was nestled in the Colca Valley with a smoking volcano viewable in the distance. We ended a long day of touring laying in hammocks overlooking the sun setting over rolling green hills and stepped terraces.
So much culture and history was lost upon the arrival of the Spanish. This region gave us a glimpse into what life might have been like devoid of European influence. I think up to this point in the trip I have focused a lot of my thoughts towards understanding the European influence in South America because it is so front and center in Argentina and Chile. Yet after spending time in Bolivia and Peru, it is becoming apparent to me how much influence the indigenous cultures had. They had such an abundance of power, wealth, and technological prowess, it is apparent to this day. While the Spaniards endeavored to cover remnants of those dominant cultures that preceded them in South America, the cultural survival of this part of the continent has revealed to me the power of the indigenous cultures. I feel regret that many important secrets have been lost that we as a society could have benefitted from. // Jeff
Lima frankly took me by surprise. The unbelievably delicious cuisine, colorful cityscapes and bloody history were all unique impressions I came away with. Lima has almost doubled in size over the last fifteen years as people from the countryside have flooded into the city in search of better jobs and opportunities. The chaotic traffic and congested streets are a constant reminder of the growing pains the city is currently experiencing. Peru as a nation started a slow march of healing and improvement after the year 2000 when a long era of terrorism was quelled. From 1980 to 2000, a communist revolutionary group known as “The Shining Path” raged guerilla warfare engaging in mass killings and bombings throughout the country. The struggle between the government and The Shining Path claimed over 70,000 lives and it is purported to have held Peru back in its economic development by almost fifty years.
Since Lima is a sprawling city of over 10 million, we limited our short trip to the financial district Miraflores and cultural bohemian district known as Barranco. These areas arose as new centers of business and contemporary culture in the last fifteen years as the previous downtown and cultural centers were abandoned as they were prime targets for the bombings and killings of The Shining Path. I have never seen a city shift its social and financial centers in such a short period - it is astounding to me. In Barranco, previously abandoned late 19th century estates are artfully restored into galleries, restaurants and hotels. These homes were built by European expats who immigrated to the country in droves in the late 1800’s. However, after Peru lost to Chile in the Pacific War, many of these homes were abandoned in 1883. These houses fell into disrepair and obsolescence until the fear caused by the terrorism of The Shining Path movement in other more prominent areas of town shifted Barranco into an upscale neighborhood once again. Coming from a city as young as Phoenix, it is a novel concept for me, a prominent neighborhood that falls and is forgotten, only to be restored to a new prominent identity 130 years later.
Our first day was spent exploring Barranco, enjoying some of the amazing restaurants, viewing art in the streets, and touring an exhibit of the Peruvian contemporary photographer Mario Testino. Our last day was spent on a bike tour – learning more about the history and landmarks of the surrounding area. Our time spent was much too short but we came away with so much. It is without a doubt that we need to plan our return soon. Lima is so much more than a beachside city, it is a confluence of European and Incan culture and a tug of rope between progress and the scars of past conflicts. // Jeff
The two days we spent in La Paz were a unique and important addition to our understanding of Bolivia. La Paz is the capital of Bolivia with a metro area hovering around 2.3 million. It is also known as the highest capital city in the world at altitude of just under 12,000 feet. I was happy to learn about this fact because I was starting to get worried about my level of physical fitness after being winded going up a few flights of stairs.
The skyline is quite the sight to take in as the city is built into the mountains in a sort of bowl where downtown is in the center at the bottom, and the outskirts of town look down into the city center from above on all sides. I have never seen a city like that before nor have I seen driving as aggressive and dangerous. Pedestrians disregard oncoming cars, and signals seemed completely ignored as things devolved into a game of survival of the fittest. This combined with the incredibly steep hills drove the necessity to have your head on a swivel.
The city was not originally built to hold as many people as there are today and countless private buses drive along the street with signs of their planned destinations posted in the windshield and passenger windows. Passengers jump in an out quickly while the vehicles are still moving with no defined stops along the way. They function as buses but a large majority of the vehicles were large vans of varying age, color, and repair.
We spent the day walking the downtown area of the city in search of the Witches Market. A few streets were lined with these spooky little stores where women in traditional garb sold all kinds of herbs, remedies, and spells for every ailment under the sun. Also, available for purchase were prepackaged herbs you could buy in a box that promise wealth, fertility, virility, or relief from tension, or bipolar disorder to name a few - with colorful illustrations on the box that could be out of a 1950’s magazine. There were also dried stillborn llama fetuses hanging by the walls in the dozens. Apparently in the local tradition, buying and burying a miscarried llama fetus under the foundation of a new home will bring you health, protection, happiness and good luck. While it was all incredibly interesting to see, I was slightly relieved when it was time to leave.
We capped off our visit with an amazing dinner at Ali Pacha. The restaurant had great reviews and we decided to give it a try. What we didn’t know was that it serves an all vegan menu with multiple course food and wine pairings. For a pair of carnivores, it was the mark of an amazing restaurant that we enjoyed our meal as much as we did. This city in the clouds didn’t disappoint and we would highly recommend it to those who want to see a unique version of city living. // Jeff
We spent four days traveling via 4x4 from San Pedro de Atacama to La Paz, Bolivia. I would venture to say the areas of southwest Bolivia that we explored had to be the most remote I have ventured into. We were greeted at the border by the smiling faces of our guide Willy and driver Chino. Bolivia is a country full of head scratchers, which we immediately learned at the border crossing. Back in Phoenix, the process and time it took for me to prepare and process our Bolivian Visa applications was mind melting. Everything told, it cost me many hours, a yellow fever vaccination and a few hundred dollars. The application also informed me there was no other possible way for it to be done. At the border, Willy handed us two small forms and said, “just fill these out, give me $50 each and I will run back there and get you visas”. He laughed when I told him that was unnecessary and of the great efforts I went through to get them beforehand, to which he claimed would have taken us about fifteen minutes that day.
With hard fought visas in hand, we headed out along the bumpy dirt roads to our first stop, the Laguna Colorada. This lake sitting at an elevation of 14,000 feet is bright pink – colored by the millions of pink microorganisms that inhabit the salty waters. The lake is spotted with thousands of flamingos who eat these organisms, thus giving them their pink color. This incredibly salty lake contains islands of borax mixed with ice, and was our first introduction to the otherworldly nature of the region, created by the altitude and volcanic activity. Llamas fed on grass at the edge of the lake and the wind raced across the landscape at breakneck speed as we attempted to take photos that accurately captured the drama of our views there.
A few hours later we arrived at volcanic hot springs and spent an hour soaking in the waters and listening to the blaring pop music of the young Israelis sitting next to us. At 14,000 ft + altitude, it quickly became apparent we couldn’t spend too much time in the hot water and decided to venture on to the nearby geysers. They weren’t the geysers in the way we think of them in Yellowstone, but they were impressive nonetheless. Steam and sulphur smoke constantly spewed forth and made for some funny photos.
The last stop on our long first day was the Dali Desert. The landscape is so stunning and surreal there that its resemblance to many of Dali’s paintings is striking. As Dali is my favorite artist, it made for an exciting surprise.
We ended the day in a remote village where we stayed in a small inn. The conditions were spacious but rural. There was no electricity other than what was powered by the generator our 4x4 brought with it which could only run for two hours, 7pm - 9pm. Needless to say, it was early to bed for us that evening.
The next few days were spent driving through the desert and touring some of the sites in the area including quinoa fields, mountain ranges with large cacti and some of the other small pueblos along the way. I was very struck by the level of poverty I saw during that time. Up to this point we had traveled in Argentina and Chile, both wealthier countries with a high degree of European influence. Bolivia was the first time we saw people who looked like they came from purely indigenous origins. The lack of access to any ocean as well as fewer resources and industry has impacted the development of the country fiercely. It feels quite a bit like being thrust back in time to when South America was a continent populated by its varied indigenous societies. Many of the different indigenous groups remain to this day in Bolivia and carry with them a unique culture, geography, and style. To me the country felt more like a union of indigenous societies than a post-colonial nation surrendered by the Spanish to their genealogical descendants rebelling against a crown half the world away.
We made a quick stop at a museum built by Evo Morales – Bolivia’s political leader commemorating himself, his childhood, as well as the history of Bolivia. While many in his country see him as a champion for the poor and indigenous, the cult of personality he has created is especially obvious in touring the museum. This is shocking to see from an American viewpoint especially considering the politically irreverent world we live in today. Seeing the level of love and seemingly unconditional support Evo receives seems almost reminiscent of videos I have seen of North Korea’s dictator. Evo is celebrated as the country’s first Indigenous leader. He rose from the child of subsistence farmers to the leader of the country in 2005 after riots and unrest removed Bolivia’s right winged pro-American leader in 2003. The political environment is unabashedly socialist in nature and his policies have been oriented towards wealth redistribution and the lifting of his indigenous population out of poverty.
After some long days on the road, we arrived at the destination we had been looking forward to the most – the Salar de Uyuni. The salt flats are the largest in the world measuring over 4,000 square miles. The flats were formed of formations between prehistoric lakes and the salt is a few meters deep. It is one of the flattest places on earth and after a rain, the lake exhibits what is known as a “mirror effect.” For miles in every direction it is truly as if the flats are the largest mirror on earth. To put the scale of this wonder of the world in perspective, astronaut Neil Armstrong saw a reflection of the flats from space that looked to him like sunlight reflecting off of a mirror and visited the flats when he returned to earth to see what it was up close.
Our first experience of the flats was during sunset while the mirror effect was in full swing. It is hard to accurately describe what I saw in a way that properly conveys the depth of the beauty that evening. I think as a human being I am used to the random patterns woven into the organic beauty of nature but what I saw was so linear and symmetrical it felt more celestial to me. While the pictures are breathtaking, I think anyone who can, should see this for themselves. There is so much beauty in this world but this was one of the most unique displays of natural beauty I have seen in my life. Layer on top the colors of the sunset bursting into the water covering the flats and reflecting the clouds above, it was like peering into an alternate universe.
We spent that night in a hotel made completely of salt after a dinner of alpaca meat and woke up early the next day to drive across the flats. The dry flats were just as fascinating as when covered in water and is over sixty miles from one end to the other. We drove around the flats for a few hours taking photos and running around (literally). The consistency of the plane makes for great photos and optical illusions of scale.
The four days we spent traversing the area taught me a great deal, changed the way I thought about nature, introduced me to some great people in Willy and Chino, and drove home the fact that there is so much more in world I must see. // Jeff
Located in the north of Chile on the Bolivian border, San Pedro de Atacama and its surrounding region is something out of this world. A high dry desert, its high volcanic mountains dominate the horizon while its barren landscape is punctuated by the occasional shrub or rock outcropping. We stopped over on the way to Bolivia and this town of about 5,000 is full of tourists taking day trips to the surrounding areas. Most of the buildings in this town are made of brick and adobe and the streets are dusty but full of lively energy. The energy was particularly evident on the night we arrived because there was a big soccer match of Chile vs. Argentina, a rivalry that goes back a few centuries. There was a certain bohemian charm in San Pedro and no shortage of western style cafes and restaurants.
The morning after we arrived, we woke up early to take a tour of the Piedras Rojas. We spent most of the day driving the surrounding landscapes and a few lagoons displaying the most unbelievable colors of red and blue I have never before seen in nature. We later toured the salt flats in the area which have built up over thousands of years. It is such a dry and harsh environment that NASA comes to the area to practice searching for life on Mars. Despite the high altitude, and almost complete lack of moisture, microorganisms thrive in the environment particularly in some of the accumulations of incredibly salty water called brine.
The tour gave us our first introduction to the coca leaf. Unlike the highly illegal and controversial derivative of the plant, the coca leaf has woven itself into the high-altitude culture of the region and is a staple of the locals far exceeding the presence that coffee makes in our own lives. Due to the high altitude of about 10,000 feet, our guide gave us coca leaves to combat altitude sickness and we learned about coca’s additional power to alleviate stomach ailments and help with alertness (no surprise there).
We ended our very long day with a stargazing class just outside of town. The region is world renowned for viewing the stars as it is high in altitude, very far from any urban areas, and so dry that clouds rarely block the view of the sky. We were shown the major constellations visible which were upside down versions of what we learned growing up since we were well south of the equator. Later we took a closer look at Jupiter and other close-by stars and star clusters through telescopes. We finished the class with a group photo. The need for a special lens and very long exposure time was well above the pay grade of our camera.
I have lived my entire life in a big city and have rarely viewed a sky full of stars. What I saw on that night was unlike anything I have ever experienced before and I sincerely doubt I will be able to see a brighter night sky again. Thousands of stars were visible to the naked eye and the details of the constellations were painstakingly obvious. The milky way looked like a large cloud mingling amidst the stars as the occasional shooting star streaked across the sky. The ancient Greeks named the constellations after aspects of their theology and staring up at the sky in all its unbridled brilliance, I couldn’t help but feel connected to the desire to relate such visual significance to a higher being. // Jeff
During our stay in Santiago, we took a day trip to Valparaíso. This coastal town is about seventy miles west of Santiago and was at one time the largest and most important city in South America. Valparaíso to me is a place reborn. It is characterized by 19th century prominence. Almost every building in sight was built in the late 19th century and was obviously owned by the very rich and powerful commerce barons of the time. What is more striking however, is that these once impressive structures look like they have been abandoned for a few generations and are now only recently coming back to life.
The city was once the largest, and most important port hub for ships making the trek from the Pacific to the Atlantic and many Europeans particularly British, Germans, and Italians, moved to the city in search of riches in the booming shipping industry. However, upon the construction of the Panama Canal in 1915, the city suffered a major economic collapse as there was no longer business for its port. The city subsequently endured a European exodus and many of the wealthier business people returned to their home countries.
In recent decades, this city has drawn the attention of the art world and has seen a major resurgance. Many of the 19th century buildings have seen their insides refurbished and their outsides adorned with colorful and varied street art. Now almost every corner and every surface of the city displays colorful and creative graffiti and mixed media art displays. Artists venture here from all over the world to paint, and the city is a veritable canvas. Valparaíso has recently been named a UNESCO world heritage site for its confluence of 19th century architecture and thriving current urban art scene. It is a veritable feast for the eyes, only further highlighted by its foggy skies, steep hills, and cobbled alleys. Affectionately known as Little San Francisco, this city is one of the most important areas of Chile even to this date.
We spent the day walking the streets, viewing the art, and trying to act like we weren’t winded. Valparaíso truly drew us in and was a living example of rebirth and preservation. // Jeff
After a few weeks of somewhat spartan accommodations, the five days we spent in Santiago was a welcome reprieve. Santiago sits in the center of Chile and is not only its largest city (a little over 5 million), but it comprises almost a third of the population of the country. Undoubtedly, a large portion of Chilean identity, culture, and influence spirits from this metropolis. It is a city with a vast skyscraper lined vista, surrounded by very high mountains - most notably the Andes. The lack of rain overall, causes major pollution in the Valley, but despite this drawback, it captured our imaginations. We will without a doubt be back soon, as we felt like we merely scratched the surface of what this great place has to offer. Intensely cosmopolitan, one can find amazing food from any corner of the world, a mature art scene, and a very international feel.
We spent our time there at a modern 21th floor Airbnb loft in a high rise with floor to ceiling windows. It was just the taste of home we needed as it felt very similar to our place in Phoenix. One of the amazing advantages of Santiago, is that you are only about an hour from wine country and an hour and twenty minutes from the ocean. On our first full day, we took advantage of the city’s geography to enjoy a wine tour just outside the city in Casablanca. We visited two wineries and learned about the wine culture of the region. We finished the tour off with a lunch on the terrace of ViñaMar winery with stunning views of the surrounding vineyards. When back in Santiago, we spent our time walking its varied neighborhoods and enjoying some of the many wine focused restaurants with dozens of wine flights to choose from.
Leaving for our next leg of the trip was hard for us. There was something about the city that is hard to describe. I don’t know if it was the food, streetscapes, architecture, people, or style, but it left us wanting more. // Jeff
A five-hour flight from Santiago, Chile and about 2,100 miles away is Easter Island. It is considered one of the most remote inhabited islands in the world with the nearest inhabited island 1,289 miles away. The island itself measures only fifteen miles long by seven miles wide – a needle hidden in the haystack of the Pacific. The Polynesian people settled on Eastern island around the 8th century and created a thriving and successful society. Currently, the island only supports about 7,500 inhabitants – 4,500 Rapa Nui natives and 3,000 Chileans and non-natives. At its height in the 1600’s, the island was inhabited by between 15,000-20,000 but due to the overconsumption of natural resources and resulting wars, the population dropped to just 2,000-3,000 by the time Europeans arrived in 1722.
Easter Island is famous for its 887 monumental statues called Moai, created by the early Rapa Nui people. Moai were created to pay homage to recently passed monarchs and acted as a means to display the power of the king to rival tribes. It appears that quite the arms race transpired. These statues are immense - measuring well over twenty feet high with the largest weighing in at 82 tons and towering at 32.5 feet in height. While the stone to carve the Moai reside in one location, the statues are scattered all over the island and the great mystery of how these statues were moved to their final resting sites persist to this day. Theories surround the Moai transportation methods, from rolling them along tree trunks to alien interference, levitation, and many others.
We spent two days exploring the island and the national park where a majority of the Moai exist. It was humbling to witness this engineering feat in such an isolated culture. But what struck me the most was the fact that the island used to be almost completely covered in forty-foot-high or taller palm trees. When walking the island and the national park, there was scarcely a tree in site. The rolling grassy plains were a stark reminder or maybe even a prophetic warning to our own society. The reality of overpopulation, overuse of resources, and the downfall resulting from human pride is evident here to this day. I hope we can all learn a lesson from this tiny island far away from home – there is a limit to the nature that we plunder and there are consequences to exceeding those limits. // Jeff
We spent an unforgettable five days in Torres del Paine National Park. The park is situated in Southern Chile, Patagonia and is one of the largest national parks in the country. Our original plan was to hike the famous “W” trek over the course of our five days in the park, but you know what they say about plans... Inclement weather caused a few cancellations and abbreviated what was supposed to be a very ambitious hiking agenda.
We were blessed to have booked our tour through Armadillo Expeditions (by way of LocalAventura) run by Nili and Felipe. They were both our age and recently married and we clicked very quickly as friends due to their passion for travel and shared lust for life. Felipe served as our hiking guide and we were both immediately struck by how knowledgeable, helpful, and hilarious he was.
Bad weather led to a trail closure on the first day, which I think was a blessing in disguise. Our changed plans led to a much shorter hike where we spotted and stalked a puma. I say stalked, but there is no way that someone with my size and dexterity could have remained unnoticed and the puma quickly disappeared into the wilderness. Nonetheless we saw what is an incredibly rare animal which we would not have had plans not changed. We spent the night and all subsequent evenings in “Refugios” which are essentially public cabins with six to a room in bunk beds. I would have to say this is the first-time Mandy and I felt as though we were “roughing it” which makes me laugh since our setup was miles ahead of the outdoor camping we avoided.
Day Two was our most difficult hiking day (about 12 miles) but was cut short at its most difficult point due to the heavy rains – probably another blessing in disguise. Due to the delays, Felipe went above and beyond to rearrange our planned excursion and ensure we still had a great experience. He was also handy in curbing my reckless eating habits by enforcing a strict celiac diet which I dually appreciated and scorned. The next two days were spent hiking to glaciers and lakes as well as spotting wildlife along the way.
What I will really remember the most though is laughing and learning more about Felipe and his life growing up in the area and working in the park the last 14 years. When we finished the trek, and returned to Puerto Natales – a nearby city, Felipe and Nili took us out to dinner on their dime and we had another great night of laughs. We had been on the road almost six weeks by this point and despite our countless adventures, it is palatable how much we miss the people we love – Felipe and Nili were the shot in the arm we needed. All told we hiked about 30 miles and gained an appreciation for the outdoors and some new friends. // Jeff
Located at the base of the Andes Mountains in west-central Argentina, Mendoza captured a special place in our hearts. It is best known for being the main wine region of Argentina and the city’s mature Acacia lined streets give it a unique identity that add to its charm. The air and the attitude reminded us a lot of Phoenix and that familiarity only grew over the three days we spent there. An accurate description of the area is difficult, but it felt like a unique combination of wine retreat and beach town, a place where you can enjoy a five-star meal in shorts and a T-shirt.
Mandy organized three separate days of wine tours that really helped us understand the wine of the region and the outlying areas. Our first day was spent exploring the more modern wineries of the Uco Valley. We ended our day at the Bodega Diamandes which is where I saw one of the most beautiful intersections of modern architecture and nature working together, in my life. The next day we toured a large ranch on horseback with our gracious host Luz who has had family ownership ties to the property going back three generations. We ended the day enjoying a traditional Argentine Asado, and of course more than my fair share of wine. Our last day was spent on wineries in the Maipu and Lujan region where we saw some of the more traditional vineyards of the area.
There is nothing in the world like polishing off a bottle of wine on a vineyard with the vines in the distance and the snowcapped Andes on the horizon. Not even a few days had passed before I wanted to go back. // Jeff
We spent a few days in the town of Calafate on the southern border of Lago Argentino, an immense glacial lake. This area of Patagonia is also home to Los Glaciares National Park. A town of about 20,000 or so, the city grew from tourism geared towards hikers in the area and visitors to the national park.
We had a great time strolling through the central district of town and doing some window shopping and exploring. The lake adjacent to this city holds a shade of blue I have never seen before - of an almost milky light neon hue. The sediment in melted glacial ice gives it its color and it is out of another world, particularly when flying in for a landing.
The next day we were able to explore the Perito Moreno Glacier. This is one of the only non-receding glaciers in the world, meaning that it is neither growing nor shrinking in size. The wind whips moisture over the Andes mountains and it freezes on the peaks and day after day sends the glacier marching steadily forward into the lake. The glacier moves outwards and crumbles into the water. When viewing the glacier up close, you are aware of a constant rumble as pieces of ice both small and immense break off the glacier and fall into the lake. It almost feels like it is alive.
For me it was a wonder of the world, a glacier many kilometers in length moving forward like a conveyor belt in a long but slow cycle of creation, progression, and destruction. I thought it was an unexpected reminder of our impossibly small place in the universe. // Jeff
We stopped off for a day and a half in the sleepy mountain town of Bariloche. Situated on the eastern slopes of the Andes in southwest Argentina near the Chilean Border and next to lake Nahuel Huapi, the city is uncannily similar to a Swiss or German Alpine town. Upon further investigation, I found out that the town rose to prominence in the early 1900’s as a German settlement and those roots can be found in the architecture as well as all the German restaurants that line the streets.
The city became known after WWII for being a refuge to fleeing Nazi’s and conspiracy theories have even pointed to Bariloche as a hiding spot for Adolf Hitler. The city is now a popular ski and outdoors destination for hiking and camping.
At this point in the trip, Mandy and I felt pretty run down and took the time to explore the city and rest up a bit. We were amazed with how beautiful the public square was overlooking the lake and had our fill of the ice cream, chocolates, and schnitzel. // Jeff
Either twenty hours in a tight overnight bus makes everything look bigger, or the falls at Iguazú was one of the largest physical wonders of nature I have ever seen. My bet is on the latter. Mandy and I had the pleasure to visit the Argentinian side of the Iguazú Falls which is known as the largest waterfall system in the world. We spent the day exploring the park, taking in the amazing views and enjoyed a bumpy boat ride under the falls. We also spent a lot of time avoiding the Coati - aggressive members of the racoon family who roamed the park in bands looking for patrons who weren’t guarding their food properly. A short trip but a sweet one nonetheless. // Jeff
We took a ten-day cruise down to Antarctica and I can honestly say it was like nothing I have experienced in my lifetime. I can only hope that at some other point in life I can appreciate the immensity and grandeur of nature in such an unadulterated form. From Ushuaia it takes two days to arrive and two to return. The ocean crossing called Drake's Passage is at the confluence of the Southern, Atlantic, and Pacific Oceans. At times these seas can be some of the roughest known to man but on our trek, we seemed to enjoy extraordinary luck. The sea crossing marked just the beginning of our good fortune. While at the Antarctic Peninsula, we encountered an unusual amount of wildlife including dolphins, minke whales, humpback whales, lots of seals and of course penguins!
Life on the boat consisted of great food, a dedicated ship staff, and the company of some great friends we met along the way. Life off the boat consisted of two excursions per day where we cruised around in small zodiacs looking for wildlife and interesting landmarks, or making landfall to explore the terrain and spend some time with penguins. There even was enough time and peer pressure for a "polar plunge" where we jumped into the icy waters of the Southern Ocean.
What I will never forget and can scarcely convey is the scale of the landscape. The sheer size of the vistas, glaciers, and wildlife was unbelievable. While a harsh and unforgiving landscape for life, it was lush for the eye and the spirit. Even the average mountains dwarfed anything from home and the icebergs made our large ship look like a pool toy. It felt closer to being on the moon than of this earth. I will never forget our experiences there whether it was the time spent with our new-found friends on the boat, the astonishing landscapes, or the friendly and intimate visit from a curious humpback whale. I have gained a new appreciation of nature and all the wonder it can provide. // Jeff
We popped down to Ushuaia for one night prior to embarking on our Antarctica trip. Cheekily referred to as "the end of the world," Ushuaia is in fact the southernmost city on the globe. It is also one of the major port cities for ships heading down to the great white continent. It was bustling with activity during our stay with people from all over the world preparing for or returning from an adventure down south. A port town to be remembered for its breathtaking views of the mountains behind it and the ocean on its doorstep, it is physically and symbolically a place caught between worlds. // Jeff
I couldn't have dreamed up a better place to start our big adventure. Established in the 16th century by Spaniards but rising to prominence about 150 years ago, Buenos Aires carries the unique feel of both old-world Europe and the modern age. You are immediately stricken with how European the city is while it still maintains a unique identity. I have never seen a melting pot like this outside of the US. Besides its Spanish roots, millions of Europeans mostly of Italian, German, Norwegian and Polish descent immigrated to the city between 1887-1915 nearly tripling the population. Due to its developmental peaks and valleys over the centuries, the variation of architectural styles is vast even on the same street like geological strata personified into the buildings. Layers over layers of history and style I think is the best way to describe the look of the city.
But BA for for me was all about the food. The steak lives up to its reputation and don't even get me started on the wine. I was mostly struck by the quality of the Italian cuisine - especially the pizza which managed to carve it its own Argentinian nuance.
It is less a city and more a collection of small neighborhoods, each with a unique feel. Our days were spent exploring the barrios and finding the next great place to eat. // Jeff
Nestled in Mexico's Central Highlands is San Miguel de Allende. A once thriving colonial-era city it has experienced a resurgence in the past few decades that blends an old world charm with new world art, culture, and cuisine. About two years ago, Mandy spent a few days in the city for work and was immediately hooked. When I proposed, and wedding planning was underway, Mandy couldn't shake the thought of a San Miguel wedding. After a short weekend trip, I was under it's spell too. Reminiscent of the Phoenix sunsets to which she and I call home and an ode to my Mexican heritage, it was a perfect fit. // Jeff
Photography by Katie Hoss