Friday, October 17, 2014

Friday, October 10, 2014

Aqueduct of Silver Water in Évora

A stretch of the Silver Water Aqueduct.

Although there is grand evidence of ancient Roman civilization in the Portuguese city of Évora - seen in the ruins of the Temple Diana - the huge aqueduct there was not built by the Romans, it was constructed by King João III in 1531-1537 to bring water into the city.  The Aqueduct of Silver Water is a prominent sight throughout Évora, as it stretches for 6 miles and is 85 feet tall at its peak.  

The most interesting thing about the aqueduct however, is the southern section where it weaves through town.  Over the centuries, houses, shops, and cafés have nuzzled themselves into and under the arches of the aqueduct.  Look at this Évora home:

It is fascinating to walk through this part of town.

Homes built right into the arches of the aqueduct.

The Silver Water Aqueduct is considered one of the greatest 16th century architectural structures on the Iberian Peninsula.

Monday, October 6, 2014

What's Wrong With This Picture?

We spotted this in Berlin.  Laughed out loud.

Upon later research I discovered TJ Maxx calls itself TK Maxx in Europe to prevent confusion with TJ Hughes, a British department store.

Friday, October 3, 2014

The Berlin Wall

Berlin in 1987.

The last time I was in Berlin before this summer's trip was in 1987, before the wall came down.  I was very curious to see how much had changed and couldn't imagine being able to walk up to Checkpoint Charlie or under the Brandenburg Gate.  I hoped that there would still be a portion of the wall standing so my kids could experience what it was like.  There was:

Quite a long stretch actually, although the graffitied exterior has mostly been chiseled off by souvenir-takers.  Along this section of wall is an exhibit called Topography of Terror.  The outside exhibition was temporary, I believe, and was about the Warsaw Uprising of 1944.  We did not visit the indoor museum.

Topography of Terror outdoor exhibition.

Pieces of the wall are displayed throughout the central Berlin area.

A path of bricks with bronze markers trails through the city delineating where the wall used to be.

We spent hours in Museum Checkpoint Charlie where fascinating exhibits tell the history of the Berlin Wall and those affected by it.  My 15 year old son was amazed by the many objects, techniques, and tricks people used to escape East Berlin and spent more time reading displays, I think, than ever before in any museum.  The stories are phenomenal.

I found this section of the wall quite poignant:

Wednesday, October 1, 2014

Musée d'Orsay

Musée d'Orsay clock in the main hall.

Since we're not big museum-goers, the Musée d'Orsay - even though it's one of the most popular museums in Paris after the Louvre - was not on our list of sites to visit.  However, we had in our possession the very practical Paris Museum Pass, allowing us to skip long lines and get in free to many attractions, so when we walked by the Orsay and all of us needed to use the restroom, we stepped in for free.  The siren call of the gorgeous main hall interior lured us in for a peek, and before we knew it we'd spent several hours touring the collections.  The kids recognized a couple of the Renoirs and Van Goghs from art class, and my daughter loved the Degas sculpture of the 14 year old ballet dancer, because, at the time, my daughter was a 14 year old ballet dancer!

Degas's sculpture of the 14 year old ballet dancer.

The museum was originally a railway station, which is why the interior sort of looks like one.  Outside the museum is a square displaying six bronze sculptures in a row.

Saturday, September 27, 2014

Bacharach on the Rhine River

The Rhine River

After a few days of vacation on the Mosel River, why not head to the Rhine River?  The two scenic valleys are no more than a 30 minute drive from one another.  Even if you don't spend an overnight on the Rhine, take a drive, a train, or a KD day cruise from any town to any town between Koblenz and Mainz to see an endless parade of castle after medieval castle.  It's really exciting to be the first to spot one and shout out, "There's another one!"

We stayed a couple of days this summer in an absolutely gorgeous little town called Bacharach on the west side of the Rhine.  Most of my German relatives in Bavaria have never heard of Bacharach, yet it is often pictured in ads for Rhine cruises.

On the right side of the photo above you see the ruins of St. Werner's Chapel from 1289, and on the left you see the picturesque St. Peter's Church.  We got these terrific views of the town on an evening hike up to the Stahleck Castle above the vineyards.  The castle is now a youth hostel, Jugendherberge Burg Stahleck, and I would highly recommend the exciting experience of staying in such a historic structure.  (We did not, unfortunately, because it was booked months in advance of our arrival, so make your reservations as soon as possible.)  The hostel has rooms not only for backpackers but for families too, and it is clean and well-staffed.

Stahleck Castle on the Rhine, now a youth hostel.

The village of Bacharach is perfectly charming.  I just melt over the cuteness of half-timbered, fairytale houses with geranium-filled flower boxes, and Bacharach had me oohing and aahing all over the place. There are lots of narrow winding streets to meander, too.

Bacharach's ancient city wall still remains largely intact in some areas, as well as ten of its towers throughout the town.  We made a fun game out of finding each one.  In fact, we slept in one - at Hotel Kranenturm, another accommodation I highly recommend.

Bacharach's Market Tower

Hotel Kranenturm, with Castle Stahleck on the hill.

One of the highlights of our three week summer trip was riding bikes for miles along the Rhine.  The skies threatened rain the entire day, but thankfully never caught up to us.  We rented our bicycles from a friendly, animated, America-loving shopkeeper at Hotel Hillen on Langstrasse for 10€ per bike per hour.  Ask him where he's visited in America and he'll probably throw in an hour for free (after he's done talking your ear off.)

The river walk on the shores of Bacharach is park-like and lovely, with rows of historic buildings, just like in Cochem.

Tuesday, September 23, 2014

Cochem on the Mosel River

If you google "most charming villages in Germany" you will likely come upon a small town called Cochem on the Mosel River.  That's how I discovered it.  And since it is located relatively near Dusseldorf, where we arrived from the States, I made it our first overnight stop on our trip this summer.

What to see in Cochem?  Large castle?  Check.  Cute half-timbered houses?  Check.  Charming town square?  Check.  Romantic river-side strolling?  Check.  Plus steep wine vineyards all around and delicious Mosel wines to sample.

I can't believe we hiked up to the castle the same day we got off the plane after a 12 hour flight, but we did.  The walk is not strenuous and the views of the valley are lovely.  The guided tour of the castle is relatively brief and therefore inexpensive - we paid 14.50€ for a family ticket.

Construction of Cochem Castle is thought to have begun in the year 1000.
Views of the Mosel River valley from Cochem Castle.

The town square in Cochem is one of the prettiest I've ever seen.  This photo was taken from the second story window of the Rathaus (city hall):

Cochem town square.

Below the castle along the river is a colorful row of historic homes and buildings, making a stroll on either side of the river very scenic.  We walked several miles every evening on the beautifully landscaped paths and bridges.

Saturday, September 20, 2014

My Daughter's Personal Secretary

This last year was spent entirely on getting my daughter into college.  Certainly I take no credit for her acceptance to nine top-notch U.S. universities, for it was her 4.7 GPA, excellent ACT test scores, AP coursework, Girl Scout Gold Award, chamber orchestra viola playing, and ballet dancing talent that made that happen.  She did it all on her own.  But the indecent hours she spent on studying and activities in high school left zero time for scholarship applications, financial aid forms, letters of recommendation requests, résumé revisions, transcript and test score releases, merit award appeals, email correspondence, or tracking deadlines.  For that, today's high school seniors need a personal secretary.

It is no exaggeration when I estimate I spent about 10 or more hours a week from October through June as my daughter's executive assistant.  Truly, I am baffled by how colleges expect these kids to keep up the grades and intensive extracurriculars required for acceptance while simultaneously meeting all the universities's administrative preconditions for admission!  The Common App didn't really make things much easier, as many schools don't accept it, and even when they do there is still a unique essay to write for each application.

I tell you, planning a summer trip to Europe was on the back burner all year.  I wasn't even sure I wanted to go. On the one hand, I treasured the idea of spending weeks of quality time with my kids, especially my daughter maybe for the last time, but on the other hand, what if she didn't have enough time to prepare to go off to college?  What if I didn't have enough time to emotionally prepare for her to go off to college?  In the end, we left the decision up to her, and she didn't hesitate to say yes, she wanted to go back to Germany.  I'm proud of my young Europhile.

Sunday, April 20, 2014

Easter Lamb Cake

It sort of looks like a lamb, doesn't it? A dear German friend of mine baked us this traditional Osterlamm, or Easter lamb cake, last year. Just about every German family has a different variation of the recipe for this Easter treat, usually handed down through the generations.

Wednesday, February 5, 2014

Westfries Museum in Hoorn, the Netherlands

Love the richly adorned façade of the Westfries Museum in Hoorn, the Netherlands.  The building itself is called the Statencollege and was built in 1632 right in the city's central square, de Roode Steen.

Friday, January 31, 2014

Unrest in the Albaicin

The old Arab quarter of the city of Granada in Spain is called the Albaicin (or Albayzin) and is a romantic hillside district with narrow winding streets and medieval Moorish structures.  The area is very steep and when we were there it seemed somewhat deserted - probably only because it was high noon on a very hot summer day.

We enjoyed roaming the quiet sector with its expansive views of the Alhambra, but then came upon something disconcerting - banners hung from balconies and posted leaflets clearly expressing unrest and discontent:

We found an explanation in English.

According to the SOS Albaicin website, the residents are protesting measures by the mayor that suppress public transportation to the area and redirect traffic circulation on the main thoroughfare. Their interest is in preserving the historic quarter.

Thursday, January 30, 2014

Frustration With Avios Points

I like to keep the blog posts positive, but I have, on occasion, ranted about things. Well, really only about booking airline tickets. So as my frustration with British Airlines rises, I feel compelled to share. WHAT THE *#!@%!!?? Are they living in the 21st century? Their website is ridiculous: recursive loops, frequent errors, and no capability to book open jaw flights with frequent flier miles. That means you have to call their customer service number to accomplish this and that is a frightening prospect given the many, many tweets, blogs, and online comments about how rude and unfriendly their sales agents are. Deciding to risk it, I called the number. Yesterday I was on hold for 53 minutes before deciding to hang up. But today, after a 48 minute hold, I reached a sales agent.

Surprise! He was quite friendly. Judging by his accent I had obviously reached the UK-based call center. But he was less than helpful as he transferred me to an Executive Club agent since I wanted to book with Avios points, and the EC agent said she had no idea why because she couldn't help me. So I was transferred back to a different sales agent and he happened to be cheerful and generous. He searched endlessly for a flight that would work for us, waived my phone booking service fees, and explained that British Airways's reputation for rude telephone agents arose after the Jacksonville, Florida, call center employees were told they were out of a job because the center was closing. (It is now closed.)

So did we book a flight on British Airways using our two free companion tickets and 240,000 Avios points? No.

Hubby and I were excited to sign up for the British Airways Chase Visa Signature Card when they offered a signup bonus of 100,000 airline miles, another bonus of 50,000 miles after spending $2,000 within 3 months, and a free companion ticket after spending $30,000 on the card within a calendar year. We fervently charged up the card the last two years in an effort to rack up enough airline miles (Avios points) to travel to Europe for free this summer, although I was aware of the extremely high taxes, fees, and fuel surcharges one still had to pay on British Airlines.

Did I say extremely high taxes, fees, and surcharges? I mean prohibitively high. Almost $3,000 for the four of us to fly to Germany on a complicated, circuitous route not in nor out of anywhere near our home airport. We chose to pass on that. Words from the wise (such as The Points Guy, BoardingArea, and Mommy Points) say that the best value in spending Avios points is to fly short domestic flights on British Air.

Not quite sure how we're going to get to Germany to visit the family this summer now.
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