Wednesday, January 30, 2013

Cork It

I guess I never thought about where cork comes from before, have you?  Well, the short answer is Portugal.  Portugal produces about 50% of the cork harvested annually worldwide and the rest comes from Spain and northwest Africa.  Cork is bark stripped from the Cork Oak tree which grows in lush dense forests that are home to many endangered species.  The trees live about 200 years, begin yielding cork after about 25 years, and can only be stripped every nine years.  Yes, cork is a beautiful, natural, biodegradable, recyclable, environmentally friendly, sustainable, low-carbon-footprint thing.

60% of all cork is used as - you guessed it - wine stoppers.  But on our visit to Portugal last summer we were amazed by all the cool things that can be made out of cork.  Handbags, wallets, and visors are extremely popular tourist souvenirs, and I actually looked at some very fine quality, durable handbags that weren't cheap.

I bought myself a cork bracelet and my daughter bought a cork postcard.

Many little Portuguese shops have displays and pictures of how cork is harvested, offering a little educational side note to an otherwise simple shopping stroll.

Monday, January 28, 2013

Alhambra Part 1: Generalife Gardens

The Alhambra in Granada.

The Alhambra complex of palaces, fort, and gardens in Granada, Spain, is one of Europe's finest and most famous Berber Islamic sites, with architecture dating back to the 10th century and a beautiful serenity that has endured over the centuries for us to enjoy today.  It was an overwhelming joy to visit there last summer.

The Alhambra is a walled village within the city of Granada, with two hotels and shops and vehicle traffic, atop a 1,530,000 square foot acre hill.  You could spend your entire Granada visit there without ever venturing into the metropolis below.  The compound grounds are beautiful to explore, and you should, but if you want to enter the Palace Nazare or Generalife Gardens, it takes a little bit of advance planning.

Generalife Gardens in the distance.
It is imperative to purchase tickets to the Palace Nazare and Generalife Gardens months in advance if you're going during high season, and to know the exact date and time you wish to visit.  We bought our tickets on-line three months in advance.  The clearest instructions for how to do this are on TripAdvisor here, and my advice is to follow these directions to the letter.

One must choose the morning session visit or the afternoon session visit and we chose the morning (8:00 a.m. to 2:00 p.m.)  Our exact time for entering the Palace Nazare was 12:00, which meant we had a 30 minute window from noon to 12:30 to be at the front entrance.  It is critical to know that it is a 20 - 30 minute walk from the Generalife Gardens to the Nazare entrance so as not to miss your 30 minute admission window.

I was pleased with our planning and I would recommend it:  at 8:00 a.m. we entered the Generalife Gardens and felt like we had plenty of time to leisurely explore this magnificent oasis.  At about 10:00, we began walking down to the lower Alhambra to the Palace Nazare.  By then it was about 10:30, and we were confident that was enough time to enter and tour the Alcazaba fort and still make it to the Nazare entrance by noon.  (The Palace of Charles V does not require any admission ticket at all, so it can be toured anytime.)

Alright then, let me begin, if I can do it justice, to describe the Generalife Gardens, one of the oldest surviving Moorish gardens, designed as early as 1319.  The gardens are a sanctuary of flowering plants, light, architecture, and the sounds and play of water.

The Court of Acequia, or Court of the Water Channel, is one of the most popular and striking courtyards in the garden, with a long pool, arched fountains, colonnades, and elegant pavilions at both ends.

Off the Court of Acequia is Sultana's Garden, a legendary lover's garden.  The deep, rectangular pool in the center supplies the water for all the fountains in the Generalife and the Alhambra.

You can see part of the trunk of the 700 year old cypress tree to the left in this photo. 

The cypress hedged lower gardens with beautiful paved mosaic paths center around two intersecting linear pools with arched jets of water shooting through the air.  It is a very calm and tranquil place.

The upper gardens are exquisite as well and are where you'll find the famous water steps, where streams flow down the handrails of staircases.

The water steps have streams running down the handrails.

Most spectacular are the views of the Alhambra and Granada from the Generalife Gardens.

Important things to know about visiting Generalife Gardens:

•  A ticket to the gardens can be purchased separately (7€) or combined with admission to the other parts of the Alhambra (13€ for adults, 8€ for children 12 - 15, free for children under 12.)

•  Admission can be purchased for a morning shift or an afternoon shift.

•  It takes 20 to 30 minutes to walk from Generalife to the fort and the Palace Nazare, so plan your time wisely in order not to miss your designated entrance time into the Palace.

Read Alhambra Part 2:  Palace Nazare here.
Read Alhambra Part 3:  Palace of Charles V here.
Read Alhambra Part 4:  Alcazaba Fort here.

Friday, January 25, 2013

Photo Friday: The Color Purple

Purple is my daughter's favorite color, so she was thrilled when she spotted this duplex in Delft, the Netherlands.

This is my Photo Friday link-up post to

Sunday, January 20, 2013

The Los Angeles Travel & Adventure Show

Look whom I saw in person last weekend!  As a travel blogger, does that mean I have arrived?  Well, maybe if he took me to lunch or something, but I was just one of hundreds of guests who heard Rick Steves speak last weekend at the LA Travel Show.

Jennifer Miner, co-creator of The Vacation Gals travel blog, was kind enough to provide me with a ticket to the show and I met her there.  She, Brett Snyder (a.k.a. The Cranky Flier), and Kim LaChance Shandrow, a Los Angeles-based tech and parenting journalist, hosted a focus group discussion on travel apps:  Best Travel Apps to Help You Plan Your Next Trip.  I particularly liked Postcard on the Run, an app that will send real postcards, with your vacation photo on it, by snail mail from your phone to anywhere in the world.  LaChance Shandrow recommended her favorite travel apps when traveling with children, one of them Ameba, a TV show and movie streaming service especially designed for children.

I listened to two key speakers, Patricia Schultz, author of 1,000 Places to See Before You Die, and Rick Steves, both of them so inspiring and richly traveled.  Rick Steves captivated his audience for two complete hours with hardly a break and I have to say I agree wholeheartedly with his European travel philosophies.  "Travel like a temporary local," he insists.  My favorite tip was that for the best food in any European city, look for the restaurant with a hand-written menu in only one language.  He's passionate about how to "be" in Europe, not just "go" there.

Rick Steves raved about Istanbul, naming it one of the four great cities in Europe (Paris, London, Rome, and Istanbul) and the Turkish Culture and Tourism Office had a very large exhibition booth promoting tourism at the show.  (Hmmm . . . possible future destination?)

Turkey had a large presence at the LA Travel Show.

I think if you're planning a trip for the first time, or are looking to comparison shop for different tour operators and such, going to a travel show is a useful and fun way to interact with destination experts.

Friday, January 18, 2013

Photo Friday: Vintage Alpine Picnic

Austrian Alps
Circa:  1966

My mom in the cute pegged pants, my uncle, and my brother, age 4, are in the foreground of this picture of an impromptu picnic somewhere in the Austrian Alps.  I'm the blond 3 year old in her underpants.  We've all aged since then, but I bet the Alpine view there hasn't changed a bit.

This is my Photo Friday link-up post to

Wednesday, January 16, 2013

Riva del Garda

While staying in the nearby village of Torbole years ago and taking a short drive through Riva, I quickly realized we were hanging out in the wrong town.  Riva del Garda is elegant and ritzy and gorgeous.  On the southern edge of the Italian Alps, near to the Dolomites, and nestled on the shores of Lake Garda in Italy, this harbor town has everything.

It's elegant and ritzy, but besides your lodging and dining, you don't have to spend much money in Riva because just strolling the winding streets of old town and walking alongside the lakefront is enough enjoyment to last for at least a couple's days' stay.

The municipality really takes care to beautify the town with flowers and trees and benches to enjoy the views and serenity.

Families with kids will enjoy the beaches and parks as well as the annual Fairy-Tale Nights festival every August, celebrated with music, dance, theater, and a fireworks display.  Other activities are windsurfing, hiking and biking in the surrounding mountains, or taking a pleasure cruise on the lake.

Many pleasure cruises are available on Lake Garda.

Ferries across Lake Garda to neighboring towns are frequent and affordable.  A terrific day trip from Riva is to the town of Malcesine.  Malcesine's majestic 13th century Castello Scaligero with its medieval tower is a prominent landmark on the lake.

From Malcesine, you can ride a cable car with rotating cabins up to the top of Monte Baldo, a 7,276 foot summit with astounding views of Lake Garda.

Explore Lake Garda by ferryboat, catamaran, or hydrofoil!

Sunday, January 13, 2013

TschentenAlp in the Bernese Alps

Last year when I was searching for a potential gondola or cable car to ride up to a Swiss mountaintop, I needn't have looked much farther than our own backyard from where we were staying in Adelboden.  It doesn't offer views of the Jungfrau or Matterhorn or any other famous Alpine peak, but the ride to TschentenAlp was incredibly beautiful and very affordable (especially when compared to the ride up to Jungfrau, the "top of Europe," which costs 125 CHF - more than $125 - per person!)

Just a short walk up this village road
will get you to the TschentenAlp gondola.

The price of the TschentenAlp gondola is only 10 CHF per person under 16, and 17 CHF for adults.

Ticket booth for TschentenAlp.

Upon disembarking the gondola at the top, you can put your skis on immediately and ski to your first run (lift ticket prices are in another post), or you can rent sleds to take down the 1.3 mile toboggan run - it has a 975 foot descent.  Return quickly by chairlift and then try the 1.2 mile intermediate level toboggan run.  There's also night sledding by floodlight every Saturday.

The Tschentenalp sledding run.
Photo courtesy of

Prices for sledding are:

Morning pass (9am - 12:30) 24 CHF for adults, 17 CHF for kids;
Afternoon pass (12pm - 4:30pm) 24 CHF for adults, 17 CHF for kids;
All day pass (9am - 4:30pm) 30 CHF for adults, 22 CHF for kids;
Night sledding 24 CHF for adults, 17 CHF for kids (or if you have a valid ski or sledding pass for that day, night sledding is only 10 CHF for adults and 5 CHF for kids);
25% off for groups of 10 or more and families of 3 or more!

Sled rental prices are:

All day:
30 CHF for an Airboard with helmet
15 CHF for a toboggan
The Skibock was invented
in Adelboden.
10 CHF for a Skibock

Half day:
18 CHF for an Airboard with helmet
10 CHF for a toboggan
5 CHF for a Skibock

Do you know what a Skibock is?  I had never seen one before, but it sure looked like fun to me.  It's a seat, with shock absorbers, mounted on a single ski.  I thought maybe I had never seen one because we don't live in a snowy climate, but I'm not sure many people have heard of these - they were actually invented in Adelboden!

If this is all too much activity for you and you'd rather just relax and drink in the majestic glory of the surrounding mountains on TschentenAlp, several choices are available.  There is a bar in a glass igloo a few steps from the gondola station:

Very cool igloo bar.

There is also the newly renovated Berghaus Tschenten Restaurant with a terrific panoramic terrace.  The restaurant offers daily specials, Argentinean barbeque, and a quality Swiss wine list.  Every Saturday night there's raclette and fondue.  A large children's playroom and an outdoor slide ensure fun for the whole family.  Berghaus Tschenten also offers overnight accommodations.

Cable cars to TschentenAlp in Adelboden, Switzerland.
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