Yearly Archives: 2008

Four of the Most Useful Things in Our Backpacks

When heading to a foreign country, you know to bring the basics: your passport, a guidebook, maybe a phrasebook for the local language. But here are some other, less obvious items that have proved invaluable on our travels. And they won’t take up too much space in your luggage. Compact binoculars. We bought a pair… Read More

Our Approach to Travel

Around 2005, we decided we wanted to make some big changes in our lives. We were getting tired of living in a crowded, populous area (Washington, D.C.) that was only going to get more crowded; tired of trying to take care of a big house; tried of spending our days in cars and commuter trains… Read More

What Shoveling Manure Can Teach You About Management

What Shoveling Manure Can Teach You About Management

One of our jobs on the horse farm each morning is to take a wheelbarrow and a couple of pitchforks into one of the fields and clean up the manure deposited by the two horses who live there. Such cleaning is necessary (unless you have a very big field) because if horses should happen to… Read More

Horsing Around

Horsing Around

We spent much of September at L’Archerie horse farm in Secondigny, near Parthenay and Poitiers—our sixth and final HelpExchange of the year was in many ways the most interesting and challenging of all. Two weeks of isolation on a horse farm with two odd old coots (German Pamela and English Jim) for company and a… Read More

Accidental Tourists

Accidental Tourists

Early September: We had intended to go directly from Lyon to our next HelpExchange, at a horse farm near Poitiers. But then our hosts at the farm asked us to come a few days later. Suddenly, we had three unplanned days to fill. Where would we go? The fact that the Alps are just an… Read More

Wow, We’re Heading Home?!?

Wow, We’re Heading Home?!?

It’s hard to believe, but true—we’re on our way back to the U.S. tomorrow. We’ve had a wonderful time in Paris and the Loire Valley, but have been neglecting this web site terribly. We’ll go ahead and post the other pics and stories once we’re home. Our plan is to stay a few days with… Read More

Weaving Our Way Through Lyon

Weaving Our Way Through Lyon

After spending a few weeks in French villages and small towns, it was a bit of a shock to be in a big city again. Lyon and its suburbs are the second-largest urban area in France, with about 2 million people. That meant we were back in a land of traffic, skyscrapers, and hordes of… Read More

The Importance of Terroir

The Importance of Terroir

Wine lovers go on at length about the “terroir” of a wine, which roughly means how the soil in which the grapes are grown affects the flavor of the wine. As we’ve traveled in Europe, we’ve come to realize that the peculiar characteristics of a specific place are just as important for architecture and art… Read More

In the Footsteps of Pilgrims

In the Footsteps of Pilgrims

Sometimes when you travel, you have an unexpected magical day, the kind that remains vivid amid the blur of other memories. That happened to us in Vezelay, a picturesque hilltop village in the northern Burgundy region of France. For the past 1,000 years, people have made pilgrimages to Vezelay, whose basilica is thought to house… Read More

Wandering Through Wine Country

Wandering Through Wine Country

We spent our first two weeks in France traveling through the Burgundy region (by train, bus, and occasionally rental car) visiting small villages and mid-size towns. The scenery in this area is pretty but not dramatic. There are rolling green fields full of corn, sunflowers past their prime, or white cows with calves. Sometimes it… Read More

Dublin Days

Dublin Days

Three days isn’t enough time to fully explore any big city, and Dublin is no exception. But since it’s an expensive place, and we were eager to get to France, that’s how long we gave ourselves there. We skipped some of the main tourist spots, such as the Guinness brewery (because neither of us likes… Read More

Back to the Middle Ages

Back to the Middle Ages

On Aug. 26, we landed in France, the final stop on this year’s European tour. France is a big place (one of the largest countries in Europe) and we can’t possibly see it all, so we decided to focus on the country’s mid-section. We plan to spend a couple of weeks in the Burgundy area,… Read More

Struggling To Find Our Voice

Struggling To Find Our Voice

Lately, we’ve been feeling a bit like parents: when your first child is born, you’re so awestruck that you take thousands of photographs the first year, then fewer in each succeeding year. By the time the second or third child arrives, it barely gets a mention in the photo albums. These days, we can’t seem… Read More

Memorable Moments in Ireland

Memorable Moments in Ireland

In case postings about the expensiveness of Ireland and Melissa’s bad Thursday give the wrong impression, we’ve had a lot of great experiences during our month in the Emerald Isle. We’ve also had some smelly or scary or silly moments that have given us a better feel for life in rural Ireland. Here are a… Read More

Travel Isn’t All Fun and Games

Travel Isn’t All Fun and Games

If you travel long enough, you’re bound to have an occasional truly miserable day that just leaves you wishing you were home. We’ve had a few of them along the way, but last Thursday ranks near the top for Melissa. In order: –While sleeping peacefully in our cottage at the hostel where we’re working, I’m… Read More

Unexpected Ireland

Unexpected Ireland

Ireland is a place that I (Chris) have wanted to visit for a long time. I was raised on Irish folk music, and some of my ancestors came from Ireland long ago. It was a country that I thought might “call” to me, as Scotland calls to a good friend of mine. Melissa and I… Read More

Quirks of Slovenia

Quirks of Slovenia

Every country has its practices or sights that seem especially unusual to an outsider. Here are some of the ones we noticed in Slovenia: People smoke like chimneys here–more than Italians, certainly, and maybe more than Spaniards. Strangest of all, even many outdoorsy people smoke. It’s not unusual to get to the end of a… Read More

A Strange Day in Ljubljana

A Strange Day in Ljubljana

Slovenia’s capital and largest city seems to have a little bit of everything. We learned that first-hand on a very sunny and hot Saturday in late June. We began the day by strolling around the central market that spreads around Ljubljana’s cathedral, drooling over the fruits and vegetables, flowers, fresh meat, honey, bread, and other… Read More

Highlights of Slovenia

Highlights of Slovenia

Here are some of our favorite spots in this beautiful and interesting country: Skocjan Caves–So awesome they get their own posting[link]. But don’t confuse these with Postonja Cave, which you’ll see posters for all over Slovenia. Postonja is highly commerical and touristy, with an electric train running through the cave and musical performances and live… Read More

The Day We Got To Be Birds

The Day We Got To Be Birds

Mount Vogel, Slovenia, July 9, 2008 “The only thing you have to do is run. When I tell you, you must run as fast as you can–at least 15 or 20 kilometers per hour–and not stop until we are in the air.” I rise on my toes in preparation, like a sprinter. The voice behind… Read More

Wonders Underground

Wonders Underground

We saw the most amazing thing today (June 18): Skocjan Caves in southwestern Slovenia. I apologize in advance because there’s no way I can describe how breathtaking this cavern is, and we weren’t allowed to take photographs inside. Suffice it to say that reaching the cave required a 90-minute bus ride (each way), followed by… Read More

Why Slovenia?

Why Slovenia?

Slovenia—a small country in central Europe that until 1991 was the northwestern-most province of Yugoslavia—bills itself as the sunny side of the Alps. That must be true, because the rain that had been dogging us for a month in northern Italy disappeared a few days after we crossed the border. Of course, at that point… Read More

Thoughts Halfway Through Year One

Melissa and I have decided to go back to the United States in late October for a friend’s wedding, after which we’re going to look after her house in northern Virginia and her cats while she’s on her honeymoon. That October deadline means that we’re halfway through our European travels this year. This seems like… Read More

The Dolomites: Switzerland with Pasta

The Dolomites: Switzerland with Pasta

I don’t know what it’s doing where you are, but here in northern Italy, it’s been raining for a month. Not nonstop, Biblical-type rain, but dull gray skies and drizle or showers the majority of every day. It has rained on us in Como, Florence, Cortona, Arezzo, Siena, Vicenze, Trento, two different valleys in the… Read More

A Hidden Gem

A Hidden Gem

Every travel writer longs to “discover” some wonderful place off the beaten path to introduce to the folks back home. Travel-guide guru Rick Steves has made a career of it. (Unfortunately, he has so many disciples now that any place he discovers quickly becomes overrun by Americans.) My entry for the best place you’ve never… Read More

Soggy Florence

Soggy Florence

To our eyes, the great tourist city of Florence isn’t beautiful or charming like Venice, or awe-inspiring like Rome. But it has a truly singular cathedral, some imposing buildings that take you straight back to the late Middle Ages, and a lot of fabulous art. We saw all of that during our four days in… Read More

Golden Oldies in Ravenna

Golden Oldies in Ravenna

We spend a lot of our time in Italy looking at churches. The older ones tend to have good art and architecture, and they’re usually free to enter. But seeing so many, we get excited when we encounter something out of the ordinary. Take the eastern city of Ravenna, for instance, which we visited from May… Read More

Over the Tuscan Trampoline

Over the Tuscan Trampoline

Cortona is a typical small Tuscan hill town of picturesque antiquity. Melissa visited briefly years ago, and since then, it got on the tourist map by being the setting for the book and movie “Under the Tuscan Sun.” The hills behind Cortona are green and rolling and look a bit like the Shenandoahs or the Berkshires… Read More

The Floating City

The Floating City

The second leg of our intensive sightseeing trip with Melissa’s mother (May 3-9) took us to Venice, which Melissa had visited before but was new to the rest of us. As in Rome, we rented an apartment in a central, residential part of the city and did our best to live like locals for a… Read More

Popes, Popes Everywhere

Popes, Popes Everywhere

Before they were banished to the Vatican in the early 20th century, popes were the political as well as religious leaders of Rome. As a result, the city is chock full of past pontiffs. Every church of any stature has at least one buried there. We got to the point where we started rating churches… Read More

Where All Roads Lead

Where All Roads Lead

On April 26, Melissa’s mom came to join us for her much anticipated Italian vacation–a week each in Rome and Venice. We were so happy to see her (especially since she brought us some new clothes)! She loved Italy as much as we thought she would. The three of us packed a lot of sightseeing action… Read More

Down on the Farm

Down on the Farm

Our two previous stints of HelpExchange (doing part-time work in exchange for room and board) involved fairly easy domestic tasks such as cleaning, cooking, painting/varnishing, and washing lots of dishes. Our most recent HelpX post, in the town of Lanuvio about 20 km south of Rome, finally got us out into the fields. Well, not… Read More

Naples

Naples

Love it or hate it—and we’re closer to hate than love—Naples is undeniably a fascinating city. It’s dirty, noisy, chaotic, humid, and crumbling. It also has some grand Baroque buildings, good museums, great pizza, and a glorious view over its bay to Mount Vesuvius. History feels very real here. Not least because Pompeii and Herculaneum… Read More

In the Shadow of Mount Vesuvius

In the Shadow of Mount Vesuvius

One of the great sensations of travel is the amazed shock of recognition that you get when you first lay eyes on something you’ve only seen in pictures, or on something very old and famous. That happens almost daily in Italy—it’s so chock full of old, famous stuff. A recent example occurred when we were… Read More

Ancient Greece in Italy

Ancient Greece in Italy

Centuries before the Romans took over, Italy’s southern coast was home to many Greek colonies. The remains of one of those colonies, Paestum, include three beautiful, nearly intact Doric temples that we were eager to see. The remains of Paestum sit in wide, flat, quiet countryside in the middle of nowhere. The walls of the… Read More

Lying Low on the Amalfi Coast

Lying Low on the Amalfi Coast

The first stop on our foray into southern Italy was the dramatically beautiful Amalfi Coast. If the south is a world apart from the rest of Italy, this coast is a world apart from the south. In the middle ages, the independent Duchy of Amalfi was a major maritime power, trading throughout the Mediterranean. Only… Read More

An Art Marathon in Umbria

An Art Marathon in Umbria

From northern Tuscany, we took the train into the next province south, Umbria, where we had a host for three days. Those days were an orgy of art, as we visited the hill towns of Assisi, Spello, and Perugia. Old towns look different in Umbria than in Tuscany. Churches have plain facades, not ranks of… Read More

Valley and Hill Towns in the Northern Tuscan Mountains

Valley and Hill Towns in the Northern Tuscan Mountains

Most visitors to Tuscany focus on Florence and some famous (and crowded) towns in the central rolling hills, such as Siena. We decided to leave Florence until later in our trip, in hopes of arranging a host there. Instead, because we love quiet, out-of-the-way places, we opted to explore the mountainous northwestern corner of Tuscany.… Read More

Pisa: More than a Tower

Pisa: More than a Tower

The big grassy area around the leaning tower and other Pisan monuments is choked with tourists—even on a Monday in March, so it’s hard to conceive how crowded it must be on a summer weekend. Luckily, most of the tourists mill around the tower and the line of souvenir shops. They don’t bother going into… Read More

Lucca

Lucca

We hit the ground running in Italy. Two hours after landing at Pisa airport, we were exploring our first Italian town, Lucca, which was recommended by a former colleague of Melissa’s. Lucca is a walled city that grew rich in the late Middle Ages on the silk trade. From the map in our guidebook, Chris… Read More

First Impressions of Italy

First Impressions of Italy

(written at the end of our first day in Italy) Lush and green. Rivers and canals. Higher mountains than C expected. Lucca wasn’t a hill town. Landscape had a pleasing familiarity. Lucca looked like how C expected old European towns to look. Earth-toned buildings. A surprising amount of helpfulness for tourist info/bus info people and… Read More

On to Italy

On to Italy

After spending 10 weeks in southern Spain, we felt like we had a good sense of the place, and we were eager to visit our next country, Italy. It was still cold in northern Spain (there was snow near Barcelona at Easter). So we decided to put off visiting other parts of Spain—Madrid, Barcelona, the… Read More

Flamingos in the Wild West

Flamingos in the Wild West

Our final stop in southern Spain, the town of El Rocio, turned out to be one of the strangest places we’ve ever seen. It’s sized to hold tens of thousands of people, but it has only about 600 residents. The streets are wide (think four-lane-highway wide) but made of sand. Lining them are low white… Read More

Linguistic Amusements

Linguistic Amusements

One of the most enjoyable parts of learning a language is always finding out the odd-to-foreign-ears idiomatic expressions. A few amusing idioms and words: (Spanish – literal translation – English equivalent) no necesita abuela – he doesn’t need a grandmother – someone who brags a lot salir de Guatamala y entrar en Guatapeor – leaving Guatamala… Read More

A Telling Moment in Vejer

Some things are not really talked about publicly in southern Spain: Official plaques, tourist pamphlets, and the like make no mention of the Civil War, Franco’s long dictatorship, or the Spanish Inquisition. But of course such things live in the memory of townspeople. By the main plaza of Vejer de la Frontera, there is a… Read More

Hiding Out for Easter

Hiding Out for Easter

During Semana Santa, Spanish hotels tend to be booked up far in advance and cost a fortune (especially in the big cities). So we were grateful that, a month or two ago, we found a Couch Surfing host for this period. She lives in Vejer de la Frontera, a white hilltop town near the coast… Read More

Quirks of Southern Spain

Quirks of Southern Spain

Little things we’ve noted with interest during our travels in Andalucia: –Traditional meal (and restaurant) hours: breakfast between 10:30 and noon, lunch sometime after 2 p.m. (often as late as 4), and dinner at 10 p.m. or later. As a result, you can show up in a nearly empty restaurant at 9:45 and be asked… Read More

Easter Week in Southern Spain

Easter Week in Southern Spain

Semana Santa (Holy Week) is an amazing time to be in Andalucia. In every city and small town, there are nightly processions in the streets. Brass bands play doleful march tunes in minor keys. Large ornate floats (pasos), decorated with flowers and candles and sometimes silver canopies, bear statues of Jesus and the Virgin Mary.… Read More

Foodie Heaven

Foodie Heaven

Our second Help Exchange was a great experience. We spent 10 days at Finca Buen Vino, a farm and B&B near the town of Aracena, about 75km northwest of Seville. It’s run by Sam and Jeannie Chesterton, who moved from Scotland to Spain about 25 years ago to raise a family (three young-adult children who… Read More

Seville–Sites We Visited

Seville–Sites We Visited

Cathedral and Giralda—Seville’s 15th to 18th century cathedral is one of the three biggest in the world (along with St. Peter’s in Rome and St. Paul’s in London). The interior doesn’t feel so huge, because the space is broken up by altars (which are in the middle rather than at the end, as in Northern… Read More

Seville — The Basics

What we did: Spent four days and nights (March 4-7, 2008) exploring the southern half of downtown Seville and getting a dose of culture unavailable in small towns. As usual, we focused on history, architecture, and art. But this city being what it is, we also spent more time than usual strolling through public gardens… Read More

Surprising Seville

Surprising Seville

We didn’t expect to like Seville–being tired of the noise and dust and crowds of cities–and we very nearly skipped it. That would have been a great mistake. Seville (pronounced Seh-vee-ya), the urban heart of Andalucia, is wonderful. The impressions you get on a balmy March day are of an open, airy, bright city, with pastel-colored… Read More

Grazalema — The Basics

Grazalema — The Basics

We spent four days in this pueblo blanco (white village) on the edge of the Sierra de Grazalema nature reserve, 25 km west of Ronda in Cadiz province. We explored the town, took it easy, read and wrote a little, took some photos, and washed our dirty jeans (thank goodness for a third-floor room with… Read More

Perched in the Mountains

Perched in the Mountains

Grazalema is a magical little town. It’s big enough that you can wander the streets for a few days and still find new spots to explore each time. But it’s small enough to feel quiet and genuine when the bus trippers and car visitors leave for the day. There are three hotels, which range from… Read More

Ronda — The Basics

We spent four days living in the old quarter (La Cuidad) and exploring old and new Ronda. On our last day, Chris hiked a little; Melissa, whose ankle was still recovering, spent a pleasant afternoon sketching by the edge of the gorge. Where we stayed: Baraka Bed and Breakfast on Calle Ruedo Dona Elvira, next… Read More

Arriving in Ronda

Arriving in Ronda

You mustn’t think that our traveling life consists entirely of touring old churches and interesting museums, then sitting in a sunny plaza with a mountain view and eating good food while a guitarist plays softly in the background. But our first day in Ronda did. Ronda is the most famous of the pueblos blancos (white… Read More

A Weekend Oasis

A Weekend Oasis

Our first HelpExchange was a mixed bag, but immediately afterward we had our first experience with Couch Surfing, which was fabulous. Couch Surfing is an online network whose members host each other in their homes while traveling. It can be a great way to meet local people and (of course) to stretch your travel money… Read More

A Week of Quiet Home Life in Orgiva

A Week of Quiet Home Life in Orgiva

Our first HelpExchange, spending a week in February with an older English couple who’ve been in Spain for many years. In exchange for room and board, we’re helping with the cooking and cleaning, working a bit in the garden, forging a few Spanish documents on the PC (the bureaucracy here is amazing), and varnishing/painting a… Read More

Limping Back to the Alpujarras

Limping Back to the Alpujarras

Southeast of Granada lies the Sierra Nevada mountain range, the highest in Spain, providing the city with a (nearly) year-round snowy backdrop. The high peaks are best left to skiers at this time of year, but the steep, arid, terraced valleys along the southern flank–known as las Alpujarras–are a tourist/hiker destination at any time of… Read More

Cooling Our Heels (Well, Ankle) in Cordoba

Cooling Our Heels (Well, Ankle) in Cordoba

Cordoba is an ancient city: one of the capitals of Roman Spain and later the center of the first Moorish caliphate in Andalucia (starting in the 900s). Our time in Cordoba started interestingly enough, as we happened to arrive in town on the one of the final days of their Carnival festivities. (These happen all… Read More

A New Sound

A New Sound

Never before have I lived someplace where I could doze in the midafternoon on a sunny terrace, lulled by the cooing of doves, when across the torpor cuts the sound of a muezzin calling in the distance: Aaaaaaaalla-hu-akbar, Aaaaaaaalla-hu-akbar. I’ve read about that sound for half my life but never heard it before. Magical.–Chris Read More

Some of Our Other Favorite Spots in Granada

Some of Our Other Favorite Spots in Granada

    Upper Albaycin: This district (a long-ago Roman settlement) was the first area of Granada settled by the Moors, starting around 1030. It sits on a hill opposite the Alhambra and predates it by several hundred years. The cobbled streets and alleys are narrow (some barely one meter across) and wind up, down, and… Read More

The Alhambra

The Alhambra

The Alhambra: everything you’ve ever heard or seen about this 12th- to 14th-century complex of fortresses and palaces is true. The views from the walls and the interior of the Nazrid Palaces are stunningly beautiful. The detail of the wall carvings (Koranic inscriptions and geometric patterns), the tile mosaics, and the plaster and wooden ceilings… Read More

Budget Travel Tips for Spain

There’s no question that Europe is expensive, especially for Americans (the exchange rate stinks). But here are a few tips that, so far, have helped us stick to our budget—80 euros per day for the two of us—in southern Spain: -What the Spanish call a “hostal” isn’t a youth hostel in the traditional sense of… Read More

Granada–The Basics

Granada–The Basics

We studied Spanish for two weeks at the not-quite-beginner level at a fabulous school: Escuela Carmen de las Cuevas. Most of this time we just went about our daily lives: studying, managing groceries and laundry, exploring the upper Albaycin neighborhood where we lived. Then we hung around for another week seeing all the big tourist… Read More

Impressions of Granada

Impressions of Granada

Granada–one of the centers of Muslim-ruled Spain from 711 to 1492–is an amazingly beautiful city. But you wouldn’t know it at first (at least not in the winter, when we visited). It’s easy for American eyes to get hung up on the ever-present graffiti, the dog poop littering the cobbled streets (no scooping here), and… Read More

Edinburgh – Day 4

Edinburgh – Day 4

Last day in Edinburgh—, Chris did errands, while Melissa and the groomsmen went off to the National Museum of Scotland (which Chris had visited before). The museum was very, very interesting but also completely overwhelming. I would have liked to spread it over a week, rather than an afternoon. As it was, we skimmed the… Read More

Wedding Day!

Thick, low, fast-moving clouds and stiff winds confronted us on the wedding day, January 13. The groom and groomsmen got all spiffed up at our place. On seeing the boutonnieres, which consisted of ivy leaves, thistle, and heather, the groom (Jan) remarked, “I hadn’t expected them to look quite so much like a salad.” The… Read More

Edinburgh — Day 2

Edinburgh — Day 2

Eek, Edinburgh is cold in the winter! Highs were between 2 and 6 Celsius when we were there, with lows below zero as we walked around in the evening. It’s hard to wear enough layers for this weather, given our limited traveling wardrobes. Plus, it’s that damp cold that sinks into your bones. One of… Read More

First, Scotland

First, Scotland

Our vagabonding trip started in Edinburgh (not, perhaps, one’s first choice of destination in January) because some dear friends from Washington, DC, were getting married in the 11th-century St. Margaret’s Chapel in Edinburgh Castle. A long flight from Washington to Copenhagen on SAS, hours in the airport there, then a fairly quick hop on BMI… Read More

We Really Did It!

We Really Did It!

After years of planning, months of selling our house and possessions, weeks of moving the rest into storage, and days to trying to fit what remained in our backpacks, our vagabonding adventures have finally begun. We’’re off to Europe for the year! First stop, Scotland for our friends’ wedding; then on to southern Spain to… Read More

Malaga — Sites We Visited

Malaga — Sites We Visited

Cathedral: The interior of Malaga’s cathedral is a wonderful soaring space, full of gilding and carved wood. The many side chapels offer a mini course in the history of religious art, featuring altarpieces from the 15th to 20th centuries. It’s cool and quiet and awe inspiring. What is most striking about the exterior is that… Read More

Malaga — The Basics

Malaga — The Basics

We spent three days in the city’s centro historico in January 2008 getting introduced to the ways of Andalucia (sights, smells, food, language, history). Where we stayed: Hostal Derby on Calle San Juan de Dios (next to the McDonalds on the north side of Plaza de la Marina). A large room with a double bed… Read More

Impressions of Malaga

Impressions of Malaga

From Edinburgh, we flew to Malaga (MAH-lah-gah), on the southern coast of Spain, in search of warmer weather. What a contrast in a few hours! Like Edinburgh’s Royal Mile, the old part of Malaga has narrow stone streets and tall old residential buildings with bars and restaurants on the ground floors. There’s a great stone… Read More

The Big Plan

After years of working in offices (as editors of magazines, newspapers, and government reports), we decided to do something different with our lives. We want to see more of the world than we can fit into three or four weeks of vacation each year. We want to travel slowly enough to get a genuine feel… Read More