Isn’t It Good…

…Norwegian Wood. (Lennon-McCartney 1965)
We traveled from one of the poorest countries in Europe to one of the richest (Latvia to Norway), the latter of which home to a $13 Big Mac. Another interesting fact on Norway: if you reverse how far it stretches northward to the south – it would extend to Rome.

20130727-075809.jpgThe harbor of the Oslo fjord

The fjords? Well, at the very least they’re exhibit #1 in the case for The Creator. Our desire to visit the Scandinavian peninsula was piqued by photos we have seen of the majestic landscape. Norway’s rugged fjords were carved into deep valleys by glacial ice during the last Ice Age. These rivers of sea run the entire length of the Norway’s coast and are mostly in the western part. We spent a 16-hr day traveling by train, bus, and boat through the heart of the fjord region to take in the beautiful landscape.

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On the Flam Railway we took in the 20-kilometer long train ride where you can see rivers cutting through deep ravines, waterfalls cascading down the side of steep, snow-capped mountains and mountain farms. Truly beautiful to experience this unspoiled, lush terrain.

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Norway is also home to the Vikings (the Leif Ericson types), a park full of naked sculptures, and a few elk.

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20130730-110018.jpgVineland Park

We returned home on Monday evening July 29. Thanks for coming along!

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Riga Revisit

We took our relatively short flight from Krakow to Riga, Latvia on Tuesday. Gabriel was impressed with the prop plane we took on the first leg; his mother – not so much.

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Though not as picturesque as earlier destinations, our mission here was for Aubrey to see and experience the country of her birth. Although the orphanage where she spent her first 5 months is closed, a poignant moment was meeting again with Tamara, our Latvian guide and translator when Michelle and my sister Meg traveled to Riga nearly seventeen years ago. She delighted in seeing Aubrey, commented on what a beautiful young lady she had grown to be and shared with Aubrey her part in our adoption journey.

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We did take a train down to the closest beach and put our toes in the Baltic Sea. But with temperatures in the high 60s and cloudy skies, there was no swimming or sunbathing happening. Latvia according to one source has winter “11 months out of 12” and most locals who can afford to, vacation more southward.

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Riga is home to different architectural styles as witnessed by a visit to the old town. The area is dominated by no less than eight churches, including Riga Dome cathedral and St. Peter’s Church. We stayed at a quite regal hotel per Latvian standards, in a city still carries an overcast and somewhat indifferent demeanor from its communist past. We did a city tour with a rather pessimistic young Latvian student, who insisted everyone was moving out of the country (mostly to the Scandinavian peninsula) for better economic options. Still, we enjoyed a couple of fine restaurants and strolling through a quaint local park.

20130727-074720.jpgOld Town Riga with the (Stalin-commissioned) science academy, St. Peter’s Church, and a huge open market.

Interesting Latvian fact: this year marked the longest freedom era of time in its history (12 years, and counting). Vestiges of communism remain (such as electric-cabled buses) but as with other Eastern European nations capitalism and investment will hopefully bring a modicum of prosperity in the years to come.

Krakow

Krakow was the most pleasant surprise of the trip. Put in the itinerary primarily due to proximity of Auschwitz, the city is a vibrant university, cultural and tourist mecca. The weather was superb, and we enjoyed yet another ‘bike around town’ tour the afternoon of arrival. The hotel was 5-star, and the service and rooms the best we’ve had.
Poland has the unfortunate distinction from going from unspeakable Nazi extermination to oppressive Soviet domination. Before that, it was invaded and ransacked by the Mongols (twice) and then a part of the Austrian empire up until the end of WWI. Yet, the Poles are a gracious people, and very welcoming to tourists.
We enjoyed the history and the culture of the old town as we learned much about this delightful city via our bike tour.

20130724-213005.jpg(boys scowling on purpose)

20130723-212640.jpg Cloth Hall, St. Peter and Paul Church, and Wawel Castle.

20130723-212817.jpgSt. Mary’s Basilica.

Next on the agenda was a visit to Auschwitz by Michelle and Aubrey. As she includes the horrific Holocaust in her yearly geography curriculum, Michelle was particularly moved to see the places she had only studied. Aubrey’s words: emotionally draining. Yet, is important that these stories are never forgotten and that younger generations are educated in the atrocities that took place here just seventy years ago.

20130724-104500.jpgAuschwitz-Birkenau concentration camps; the largest in Poland from 1940-1945. More than 1.1 million people were killed here.

Brad and Gabriel did a tour of a nearby salt mine. Most interesting fact about salt: it was used for wages in Roman times, given its value. The word “salary” is thusly derived from the word “salt”. The mine kept Gabriel’s interest, probably due to the fact we were about 1000 ft below ground. Incredible excavation and even sculptures exist in the mine, attesting to the down time the miners had I suppose.

20130724-203556.jpgGabriel listening attentively, with Pope John Paul II, The Last Supper (both sculpted from salt)

We do grow a bit weary…from the transit, the truffles, each other (!). Two stops to go.

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Heading East

Our first foray behind the former Iron Curtain was made via bus from Nuremberg to Prague. Michelle and Brad had been to this jewel of Central Europe once before, yet a return was in order. It was a natural stopover, as we make our way east to Krakow and then northward to Riga.
Aubrey remarked how the city reminded her of Paris as we entered, given the similarities of the rivers that bisect the cities (Moldau and Seine) and the Middle Ages architecture.

20130721-195518.jpgPrague Castle overlooking the Moldau

Western influences have made their mark on Prague since the fall of communism 24 years ago, which is good to see. Our first meal was at TGIF, which was welcome after several days of brats.

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The requisite city tour highlighted areas of Prague’s colorful past. Did you know..during the Roman years, this city was behind only Rome and Constantinople (modern day Istanbul) in size and importance?

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20130721-231322.jpgSt. Vitus Cathedral
20130722-072309.jpgI’m beginning to think she likes guys in uniforms (at Prague Castle)

20130721-233151.jpgThe streets were awash with folks and street performers

20130722-223118.jpgWencelas Square

20130722-222239.jpgCharles Bridge

Finally, with only a hair of trepidation we were dropped off at 10pm at the train station, and boarded the sleeper car to Krakow. And I’ve got Arlo Guthrie on the iPod. Sensational.

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Return to Nuremberg

A mix of emotions greeted us as we disembarked the train in Nuremberg. Even more so when we went on a ‘hometown’ tour of nearby Zirndorf, where Brad and Michelle had their first duty station as newlyweds way long ago. The town has certainly grown in 2 decades, but thanks to Audi navigation we were able to find our way around. The U.S. Army has completely pulled out of the Nuremberg area, and most of Europe in general; a consequence of ‘winning’ the Cold War. The Army post and the hospital here have been demolished to make room for German housing communities. This guard tower was all that was left at Pinder Barracks, where 23 years ago Brad first ventured through as a new captain.

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Next, we drove out to the community where we lived, and it was nostalgic to look upon the tiny hamlet and our street. We knocked on our neighbor’s door (the only one we really knew and could speak English), and lo and behold she answered the door. She was beside herself with surprise, and told us later that if she hadn’t espied Aubrey out there with us she probably wouldn’t have opened the door! We enjoyed about 45 minutes with her, reminiscing about our time there and Liam (a 3 week-old infant before we left). She had given us colic tips with him, of which us green parents were most appreciative. Gabriel enjoyed the goldfish and her terrier, and we bade our farewells.

20130719-084237.jpgFrau Hoffman/House/pizzeria and our former community Bronnamberg (top)

On Wednesday, Michelle kept her promise to Gabriel and they had a fun day at the PlayMobil Park in Zirndorf. I spared Aubrey and dropped her off at a women’s clothing store, and ran the laundry (building up reserve, I was). Everyone was satisfied!

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Munich and a Mad King

A quick 2 hour airplane hop from Barcelona led to a nostalgic return to Bavaria. We passed by the Olympic Village and the BMW tower that Brad and Michelle visited twenty years ago.

We started our evening at a local “biergarten”, and it brought back great memories as we enjoyed sweinschnitzel, brats, and Brad consumed a 0.5l beer rather quickly. Gabriel enjoyed the playground at the garten and had no problem conversing with the German children there.

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We took in a few sites close to the hotel, including the Marienplatz which is renowned for the Rathaus-glockenspiel atop the church where figures revolve as the clock chimes on the hour at 11, 2 and 5.

20130715-211031.jpgMarienplatz

The next day (Monday), we embarked on a day-long castles tour commissioned by the Bavarian King Ludwig II. The Bavarian landscape is beautiful as many quaint villages are nestled amongst the majestic Alps.

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Linderhof is the smaller castle where Ludwig spent most of his time. He was reclusive, probably suffered from paranoia, and died mysteriously at the age of 40 in 1886. “The Mad King” never married (irony there – doesn’t marriage cause madness?). He was heavily influenced by French kings and architecture, especially King Louis XIV. Linderhof is very ornate and decorative and with beautiful gardens similar to Versailles.

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20130717-101727.jpgAubrey and swans, a favorite of the king

Next stop: Oberammergau. This town is famous for the skilled wood workers and the Passion Play that is performed every decade, a live depiction of the crucifixion and resurrection of our Lord. It was begun in 1645 as a way to thank God for sparing their village of the Bubonic Plague that devastated this region during this time. Talk about salvation appreciation! Only the locals are cast, and great lengths are take for authenticity, to include the part of Mary being portrayed as an unmarried woman, without children.

20130715-215109.jpgOberammergau

Neuschwanstein castle or new castle, was built on a ridge high above the Pollat Gorge with magnificent mountains as a background. The castle was built and furnished in medieval style. Ludwig was upset that his kingdom was now ruled by Prussia, so the castle was his “alternative world” where he could imagine he was an absolute king of the Middle Ages. Construction of the castle originally called Wartburg, began in 1869 was never completed. Today this castle is one of the most famous anywhere and serves as the model for Disney.

20130715-215510.jpgNeuschwanstein

We took the horses up the hill – Gabriel of course co-piloting:

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On to Nuremberg Tuesday.

Barca!

Take the Magnificent Mile, add in midtown Manhattan, and stir in a little Santa Monica….and you get Barcelona. Viva! The city is pulsating; pretty people walking at all hours of the evening, a restaurant/cafe tucked in every well-illuminated alley, and awash in fountains and 13th century architecture.

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Barcelona came into modernity so to speak with the Olympics in 1992, particularly the beach area which was up till then a port and all of its associated industrial structure. The beaches here had even more women in ‘dreadlocks’, but no medusa in the water this time.

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We did a low-key city bike tour on Saturday, through some side streets leading to most of the city sights.

20130714-204545.jpgGabriel in front of Christopher Columbus statue

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The citizens here are proud of their Catalan heritage, and often display their flags alongside those of Spain. It’s easy to see why many Germans and other Europeans come here for holiday; it is truly cosmopolitan in every sense.

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From here, we move on to another city modernized a bit by the Olympics (of 1972): Munich. We are ecstatic to be returning to Bavaria after 20 years.

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Bull Run

Watching atop a balcony early Thursday morning, we were witnesses to the spectacle that is ‘The Running of the Bulls’. No, Brad did not participate due to not wanting to be trampled (by drunken festival-goers as opposed to the bulls who just want to get to the bullfighting stadium). If only they knew what awaits them there – they’d turn back. Anyway, it was over in a matter of seconds (bulls cover the 847 meters faster than you’d think), but the San Fermin party persisted well into the morning. This event recurs daily from 6-14 July annually. There were no serious injuries, to man or bull, on the morning we were there. We did hear from a young Bostonian on the train to Barcelona with us that his friend didn’t fare as well: he fell and was run over by a bull, yet only encountered a few scrapes to his back as a result. But he caught it all on his headcam!

20130713-182042.jpgPre-run from our rented balcony

20130713-183336.jpgHere comes the runners

20130713-183555.jpgand the toros!

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Sun’n in San Sebastián

“Well I never been to Spain…but I kinda like the music. Say the ladies are insane there, and they sure know how to use it.” 3 Dog Night, circa 1971

We checked out the beach in San Sebastián. Gabriel in his Garden-of-Eden innocence did not inquire once as to why some of the ladies were not wearing their tops. So in the photo below (no, that is not Michelle’s bum), a lovely local (to the left) is chatting with Brad and Gabriel, pointed out a few “medusa” floating in the water. Brad began a dialogue of how we Americans refer to them as jellyfish (all the while he was focused on her dreadlocks).20130712-002654.jpg
It was fun to people watch(though I’ve never known Brad to take such interest in doing so), enjoy a beachside burger, and stroll along the beach.

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After a day in the sun, we ventured to downtown San Sebastian, which was abuzz in the evening with lots of open air cafes and folks wandering through the various shops and alleyways. We took in the local flavors with dishes of paella, tapas, and sampled the sangria.

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Next stop: Pamplona! Or as a young Brit we met who had just returned from the festival the day before described it: “chaos.”

Last Train to Bordeaux (and no one met us at the station)

Train due for Bordeaux in 5 mins +
Another train bound for Paris came to the same track 2 mins prior +
Announcement only in French =
WRONG TRAIN BOARDED!

Result: 5-hr delay (and 107€ additional) to Bordeaux – yet made it we did:

20130708-003006.jpgSt. Andre Cathedral

20130708-233300.jpgThe Grand Theater

Making the most of the 21 hours we had in Bordeaux, a stopover in route to Spain, we did a city tour. Supposedly, the layout and street architecture was used as a model when Baron Haussman was commissioned to “modernize” Paris in the 19th century.

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Couldn’t fit in a wine tour with the kids in tow, but were able to sample it at lunch.

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Gabriel found the water plaza:

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And Aubrey – a new hat:

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Finally, we almost boarded the wrong train AGAIN for Spain. Who knew that one train comes into the station, but separates in the middle and then each go their own way? And try to figure that out while the crowd is clamoring aboard each one? With kids? In less than 5 minutes? And more luggage than anybody else? Am sure it was announced but the only word I picked up was ‘merci’.
Apropos.
Bring on the beach. And the bulls.